Saturday, September 13, 2014

The REAL Challenge Lies In Reading This

A few days ago a friend on Facebook tagged me with the “12 Book Challenge,” asking me to list the twelve books that have had the most impact on my life.
It was something of a daunting task, as it’s difficult to pinpoint any specific book that had an impact on me; books and reading in general are what have had the most impact on me, so how do I narrow the focus?
So I had to give it some thought, and this is what I came up with, ultimately:

  1. Watchmen - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (which could actually count as 12 on its own, since it consists of 12 individual comics)
  2. Lord of Light - Roger Zelazny
  3. Sandman #19 "A Midsummer Night's Dream" - Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess
  4. Maus - Art Spiegelman
  5. Jack of Shadows - Roger Zelazny (Mostly because it was the first book that ever really pissed me off)
  6. Candide – Voltaire
  7. Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke
  8. Miracle Monday - Elliot S! Maggin
  9. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension! - Earl Mac Rauch
  10. Understanding Comics - Scott McCloud
  11. Supergods - Grant Morrison
  12. The Illuminatus! Trilogy - Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (technically three books, but I read them as one volume)

As you can see, there are lot of comics and comics-related items in there, which should hardly surprise anyone who knows me.  And it may seem like something of a shallow list, as there’s little in the way of weighty tomes on philosophy, religion, or politics in there.  “No Das Kapital,” or “The Wealth of Nations,” or “The Republic.”
*Shrug*  It’s not as though I haven’t read books of that ilk, but I have difficulty seeing any direct impact they’ve had on me or my way of thinking.   Which isn’t to say they haven’t, but I think much of the impact is more indirect, influencing me more through my actual experience in life in the world around me that has been impacted by the ideas contained therein. 
Basically, I don’t feel any sort of deep, personal connection with them the way I do with the books that made the list, and I see no ties between the books themselves and the person that I am in the way that I do with the books that did make the cut.
Of course, the follow-up question to the list is, “How have they impacted you?”  Let’s find out, shall we?

Watchmen
As someone who loves comics, it would be almost inconceivable for this to not be on the list.  I could spend countless hours writing at length about the impact that it’s had on me.  And then I could spend a whole lifetime writing about the impact that it’s had on comics and the comic book industry.
If your only exposure to Watchmen is the movie, this might be a bit of a head-scratcher for you.  At a high level, the story doesn’t seem that remarkable.  A costumed hero is murdered.  Another costumed hero investigates the murder, slowly uncovering a vast conspiracy and drawing other costumed heroes out of retirement, resulting in the final confrontation with the mastermind behind it all.
If you were to superficially examine the aspects that are most often touted as to why this is such a revolutionary work in the comic book medium, and the super-hero genre specifically, from your 2014 perspective, you probably wouldn’t be that impressed.  But in 1986, I can assure you, the manner in which the story was told was something of a revelation, bringing a level of gritty realism to the colorful costumed characters contained in the story, delving into the psychological issues that might drive someone to put on a silly costume and go out and beat up criminals at night, and what sort of off-duty behaviors they might engage in, that had rarely been seen.  For as much as the “Marvel Age” of comics added a certain depth to the previously shallow characterization found in comics – further expanded on in the “Bronze Age” of comics – little else had even come close to diving that far into the depths.
But there’s more to the story than just the story.  If you asked me, “What is it about?” I could provide the high-level summary above, but, as Moore himself put it, what it’s really about is its own structure.
It’s a multi-faceted, multi-layered work that tells a story, serves as a deconstruction of a genre and its tropes, and a powerful demonstration of the unique capabilities of the medium in which the story is told.  It does things that only comic books can do, and at the same time, without being distracting, draws attention to the fact that it’s doing things that only comic books can do.
That is a major reason why, despite being remarkably faithful to the source material, the movie was a failure.  It was an attempt at translating something that could not be translated.  (There was a way in which this could have been done; telling the same story but doing so in a way that is designed as a showcase to demonstrate the things that only film can do.  Though there were signs of attempts at doing just that, Snyder, alas, was not up to the task.  It would be interesting to see a version of the film made by someone else, someone who understands the language of film in a manner analogous to the way Moore understands the language of comics.)
And then there’s just the level of detail, the extent to which every individual element is the result of a very deliberate choice, from the typos in the supplemental materials that accompany each chapter, to the placement of graffiti in background scenes.
If you’re interested in learning more about that, there are plenty of resources available to you, or, you know, you could just read the thing yourself.
All of the above did, of course, have an impact on me, and my understanding of the art of storytelling and the sheer power of story and structure.  But what about the story itself, the more basic elements of plot and character?  Were there elements of the story itself that shaped my way of thinking, not so much as a consumer and sometimes producer of art, but as a person?
Oh.  Oh, yes.
There are far too many things I could point to, and I’ve gone on for too long already, so I will point to one particular passage.  I don’t know that you need to understand the full context of the quote – the nature of the man speaking, or the situation he found himself in – to understand why I found and continue to find the words so compelling:

Looked at the sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there.  The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone.
Live our lives, lacking anything better to do.  Devise reason later.
Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves; go into oblivion.
There is nothing else.
Existence is random.  Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long.
No meaning save what we choose to impose.
This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces.  It is not God who kills the children.  Not Fate that butchers them or Destiny that feeds them to the dogs.
It’s us.
Only us.

…okay, that’s bleak and horrifying, I know, and seemingly nihilistic.  But only if you choose to view it in those terms.  When I read this, at the age of fifteen, I took a different view.
We have a choice.  We don’t live our lives according to the whims or plans of mercurial and capricious gods, we don’t have to follow a preordained path.  We can choose.  We can create our own design, find our own reasons to live.
There are people I know who would say that they can’t imagine what their lives would be like without their faith.  I can’t imagine what my life would be like with faith.
Yes, it’s scary, and often dark, and bleak, but it’s also liberating.  If it’s only us, then we can choose to live differently.  If there is nothing else, we have to choose to live differently.  We have to create our own pattern.
Unfortunately, all-too often, we continue to choose to kill the children, and butcher them, and feed them to the dogs.
But we don’t have to, and there’s no one who can tell us that we do.
So…yeah.  That’s the impact this had on me.

Lord of Light
If there’s anything that’s been published by Roger Zelazny, I’ve most likely read it.  There may be a handful of short stories here and there that I haven’t read, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying.
If there’s any one person who’s had the most impact on my own authorial voice (on those occasions in which I actually write), it’s Zelazny.
As a bit of trivia, the fake movie that was central to the whole plot to rescue American citizens trapped in Iran during the hostage crisis, as chronicled in the movie Argo, was an adaptation of Lord of Light.
In any case, by sheer volume alone, Zelazny has had a profound impact on my life, and given that this is my favorite of his many works, that’s enough to earn it a place on this list.
Naturally, though, there’s more to it than that.
I read this for the first time at around roughly the same time that I first read Watchmen, and there were some complementary ideas contained that have stuck with me through the years.
Part of it is about the power of ideas, and of story, and part of it is about rejecting the paths supposedly laid out for us by gods and making our own choices.
But one of the main things I took away from it – and it wasn’t so much that this served as the inspiration but more as a kind of encouragement – is a sense of irreverence, and an appreciation of the power of laughter.
It may not have been an intentional message, but a big takeaway from this book was the idea of not taking anything too seriously, even if it’s something that means a lot to you, and being willing – and sometimes required – to laugh about anything.  I don’t really have a lot of sacred cows in my life, but to the extent that I do, it’s likely that there will come a point when I will just throw up my hands and laugh about whatever situation is causing me distress in recognition of the ridiculousness of the very notion of sacredness.
Sometimes it’s a bitter, mirthless laugh, and sometimes it takes a long, long time and a lot of misery to get to that point, but it’s a laugh nonetheless.
Honestly, can you imagine anything more liberating than laughing right in God’s face?  Can you ever truly be damned if you can laugh at damnation?
…yeah, probably, but still, it’s worth a shot.
In any case, this book has, for my money, the greatest opening lines ever written:

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god.  He preferred to drop the Maha- and the –atman, however, and called himself Sam.  He never claimed to be a god.  But then, he never claimed not to be a god.  Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit.  Silence, though, could.

Sandman #19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
More on the recurring theme of the power of story.  There’s a single exchange that makes this award-winning story, one of the many brilliant stories that occurred in the course of 75 issues of the series – that makes this one stand out:

Auberon:  We thank you, Shaper.  But this diversion, although pleasant, is not true.  Things never happened thus.
Dream:  Oh, but it IS true.  Things need not have happened to be true.  Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.

As with most things, this is a truth that can lead to either good or ill (or often a mix of both).  It’s an idea related to what Stephen Colbert dubbed “truthiness,” and a lack of appreciation for this truth drives a lot of the tension within, as an example, the White Evangelical culture in America,* with its obsession with the “inerrant” nature of the Bible, and the theological house of cards that such an insistence on events having “occurred thus” – it’s any of it isn’t true, that means that none of it is true – that results from it.
Alternatively, there are those who embrace this truth without ever realizing it, clinging to their own “facts” that align with the “truth” they have constructed for themselves (or had constructed for them), ignorant of the ways that the narrative lens through which the view the world obscures their view of life rather than bringing it into focus, or, indeed, of the fact that they are viewing life through a lens at all.
Metaphors, parables, allegories, and fictions of all stripes can contain their own kernels of truth, which means that we don’t have to rely on “mere facts” to know what is true, but by that same token, “mere facts” matter, and shadow-truths alone are insufficient.
Also, this story is one of the many in which we can see, in retrospect, the many ways in which Dream sows the seeds of his own ultimate destruction.

Maus
It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning comic book featuring cartoon animals relating the experiences of the author’s father before, during, and after the Holocaust.
It’s also the story of the effect those experiences had on the relationship between father and son, and how the author, despite living in another country entirely, grew up in the shadow of Auschwitz.
It is, frankly, a phenomenal work, regardless of the medium.
The particular impact on me was the raw intimacy of the warts-and-all storytelling, how deeply personal and human the story is, despite, or more properly, because of the anthropomorphized animals serving as stand-ins for the real people involved.
As a storyteller, and as a person, I struggle with my own inclination to keep things to myself, to never reveal too much, to ignore or gloss over the ugly parts.  Seeing Spiegelman completely shatter any barriers between his innermost self and his readers was something of a revelation for me, and I was struck by the fact that he found a conceit – the “funny animals” – that could serve as the instrument to shatter those barriers.

Jack of Shadows
More Zelazny, which is unsurprising, I suppose.  Not much to say on this one, it’s just that it was the first time a book ever made me mad.  I read the last line, hurled the book across the room in frustration, and swore to never read anything by Zelazny again.
(That lasted about six months.)

Candide
I am, you will not be shocked to learn, not an optimist.
While I am, in many senses of the word, something of a romantic, and I have been known to be hopeful, I have no expectation of everything working out for the best.  I’m also cynical and bitter, at times, but I think that’s better than just assuming that everything will work out for the best.
Not if everything is left to its own devices, at any rate, or if we’re willing to just let the status quo stand, and give ourselves over to a kind of passive optimism.
This is not the best of all possible worlds, and just saying that it is will not make it so.
Working at it and tending the garden that is the world, however, just might make things a little better.  It’s certainly going to do a lot more than just thinking that everything will work out for the best.
So…yeah.  It wasn’t a new idea to me – it’s an idea that complements my takeaway from Watchmen – but, you know, it doesn’t hurt to have a renowned philosopher express some of the ideas kicking around in your head.
There is an extent to which giving yourself over to unbridled optimism is fundamentally dishonest.  To quote another philosopher (of sorts), “Yeah, maybe sometimes I do feel like shit.  I ain’t happy about it, but I’d rather feel like shit than be full of shit.”
We also have to recognize that, gods or no gods, we don’t have full control over the lives we live, and our circumstances can change – for better or worse – in an instant.  What we can control is how we react to those changes and what we do about them, and merely being positive or optimistic, is not, in and of itself, a sufficient response.

Childhood’s End
Not a lot to say, just some more ideas on the power of story, and of archetypes in particular.

Miracle Monday
This one is an oddity, and I tossed around other options before settling on this.
In 1978, to coincide with the Superman movie, a novel called “Superman:  Last Son of Krypton” was published.  Despite featuring Christopher Reeve on the cover – and some grainy, black and white stills from the movie inside – it had nothing to do with the movie.  In fact, it was specifically set within the continuity of the comics of the time.
Along came Superman II, and with it came a sequel to the novel, which, again, had no real connection to the movie beyond some character names and movie photos.
I chose this book because if there’s any one fictional character who has had the most impact on me, it’s Superman.
When most of the rest of the comic book industry proved to have learned exactly the wrong lessons from Watchmen, Alan Moore launched a mini-series called 1963, a loving – but irreverent – homage to the “Marvel Age,” and in talking about it in interviews he mentioned that, probably more than anything else, the greatest influence on his sense of morality as a child was Superman.  He presented a simple – but workable and expandable – moral code: 

  1. Don’t kill anyone
  2. Try to help people

(That first point is part of one of the many reasons I have…complicated feelings about last year’s Man of Steel)
Despite his fame, longevity, and ubiquity, not everyone holds Superman in the same esteem that I do.
He’s boring.  He’s a boy scout.  He’s too powerful.  Blah blah blah blah fucking blah.
Superman means a lot to me and this particular book is one of the many reasons that he does.
In particular, the impactful moment comes when, after suffering a defeat, Superman withdraws from Metropolis and heads to his Fortress, where he just sits and, as the author puts it, listens to the “symphony of life,” all the little sounds of the world that are open to his super-senses joined together into a single, unified song.  It gives him the boost he needs, and leads to his inevitable victory.
It’s a beautiful moment, and it so perfectly encapsulates everything I love about Superman.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension!
The novelization of a cult classic movie written by the movie’s screenwriter.
I was obsessed with this movie the year it came out, and reading the novelization was part of that obsession.
Drawing from the same pulp fiction tradition that gave birth to comics, it’s a brilliantly over-the-top take on the crazy ideas that have populated the pages of funny books throughout the decades.
As much as I love the movie, I love the novelization more, as it’s free to explore the insane mythos of the titular Scientist/Adventurer/Neurosurgeon/Rock Star without the constraints of effects budgets or run-times.
What was the impact it had on me?  It was just pure, unadulterated fun.  Sure, it helped solidify my love for ridiculously outré fare, but that already existed anyway.
Seriously.  It’s just fun.

Understanding Comics
I don’t know what to say, other than that it’s always interesting – to me – to have someone else articulate ideas that you’ve had but haven’t been able to express, and to explicitly explain things that you have tacitly, almost intuitively, known to be true.
I suppose it also ties back to the power of story, and specifically the power of comics as a medium for conveying powerful ideas through story.

Supergods
Hey, guess what?  More power of story and ideas!
From the opening paragraph:

Four miles across a placid stretch of water from where I live in Scotland is RNAD Coulport, home of the UK’s Trident-missile-armed nuclear submarine force.  Here, I’ve been told, enough firepower is stored in underground bunkers to annihilate the human population of our planet fifty times over.  One day, when Earth is ambushed in Hyperspace by fifty Evil Duplicate Earths, this megadestructive capability may, ironically save us all – but until then, it seems extravagant, somehow emblematic of the accelerated, digital hypersimulation we’ve all come to inhabit.

And yes, “accelerated, digital hypersimulation” is itself emblematic of Morrison’s writing…
In any case, the memoir of a comics icon is an entertaining read, and in the paragraphs that follow this opening he expresses something that gets to the heart of why I love Superman (and, again, the power of stories and ideas), as he discusses some of his specific fears as a child of the Cold War and the looming specter of the Bomb, and a discovery he made while reading comics:

The superheroes laughed at the Atom Bomb.  Superman could walk on the surface of the sun and barely register a tan.  The Hulk’s adventures were only just beginning in those fragile hours after a Gamma Bomb test went wrong in the face of his alter ego, Bruce Banner.  In the shadow of cosmic destroyers like Anti-Matter Man or Galactus, the all-powerful Bomb seemed provincial in scale.  I’d found my way into a separate universe tucked inside our own, a place where dramas spanning decades and galaxies were played out across the second dimension of newsprint pages.  Here men, women, and noble monsters dressed in flags and struck from shadows to make the world a better place.  My own world felt better already.  I was beginning to understand something that gave me power over my fears.
Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an idea.
Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.

So…yeah.
There is also the exploration of his own creative processes – in which he manages to make ideas that I would normally find nonsensical palatable to me – which are rather illuminating.  Admittedly, I’m not going to travel the world doing all manner of exotic drugs, but there are some general concepts that I can apply to my own creative endeavors.

The Illuminatus! Trilogy
This is something I read later in life, and it’s something that didn’t exactly introduce ideas so much as crystalize ideas that I already had.
I don’t believe in Conspiracy Theories.  Are there conspiracies?  Sure, they happen all the time.  But are there major, capital C Conspiracies lurking in the shadows, underlying the façade that we think is the real world?  Yeah, probably not.
And nothing helps to make that as clear as a work that posits that all Conspiracies – even the ones that contradict each other – are true.  (Morrison, mentioned above, trod similar literary ground in his work The Invisibles.)
Why don’t I believe in Conspiracy Theories?  Really, it boils down to my understanding of human nature, best summed up in a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin:

Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

Beyond that, Conspiracy Theories provide an inadequate explanation for why the world is the way it is.  Frankly, there’s no need for a Conspiracy developed in some smoke-filled room by alien reptiles and Jewish bankers.  Simple collusion, cronyism, and overlapping self-interest manage to explain things quite nicely.
Ultimately, to tie everything here up quite nicely, Conspiracy Theories are an example of the power of story and ideas, and of seeking to impose a pattern where none exists, and the need we seem to have to abdicate our own responsibility for the state of the world we live in, to embrace shadow-truths, and draw comfort from the fact that someone else, anyone else, even if that someone is some wicked monster lurking in the shadows, is in charge.
Because if no one is running the place, then it’s up to us to do so, and that’s just something we’re not prepared to do.
I’ll close this out with the words of Alan Moore.


*For much, much more on this particular subject, see Slacktivist.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Ten %@!#ing Years!

Click to embiggen.

...and it wouldn't be a Threshold Birthday Extravaganza without also wishing a very happy birthday to the always lovely and always talented Carla Gugino!

The Unofficial Patron Saint of Threshold standing at the threshold.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Fourteen (NSFW) #ThrowupThursday

There's a tradition in the social media sphere known as "Throwback Thursday," in which some artifact of the past is posted with all of the requisite hashtaggery.
Given that this particular #tbt falls on a very particular day, I thought I'd share the - NSFW - picture that can be seen after the jump.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

I Know That Fear, Bro

In my previous post, I mentioned that Dwight McCarthy – who has been portrayed in film by both Clive Owen and now Josh Brolin – is my favorite character from Frank Miller’s Sin City.
I’m sure most people would rank Marv as their favorite, and I can’t say that I blame them; Marv is cool.
Dwight, like Marv, is a violent maniac, but there is a bit more to him than that, or at least, Dwight himself hopes that there’s more to him than that, and he tries – and pretty much always fails – to be something more than that.
Marv, on the other hand, knows exactly what he is, and doesn’t try to pretend to be anything else.  He’s made a certain amount of peace with himself, and that’s part of what makes him cool, in a Popeye “I am what I am” sort of way.  Plus he’s just a badass.
Of course, Dwight is also a badass, which is par for the course in Basin City, but he’s a different kind of badass than Marv.  He’d have to be; after all, he’s not a seven-foot tall mass of unstoppable muscle.
To put it in terms of a different genre, Marv is a barbarian marauder, while Dwight is something more akin to a White Knight or paladin.
At least, that’s how Dwight views himself.  To the extent that Dwight is just as crazy as Marv, he’s crazy in a very different way.  In one of Dwight’s stories he’s captured by a couple of thugs who confiscate his twin Magnums, and one the thugs says something along the lines of, “This guy thinks he’s Lamont Cranston.”    (For those who don’t know, “Lamont Cranston” was the secret identity of pulp and radio hero The Shadow.)
The thing is, he was right.  Dwight does think he’s Lamont Cranston.
Not quite literally, of course, but that’s a pretty apt description of how Dwight thinks of himself.
Much has been said – much of it negative – about the slavish devotion to the source material that was on display in the first Sin City movie.  However, there were a couple of minor tweaks that were made that helped put the character of Dwight into even more stark relief than the bold black and white artwork of the comics.
In the adaptation of “The Hard Goodbye,” which is a Marv story, we first meet Dwight when Marv walks into Kadie’s Club Pecos.  Marv’s actions are accompanied by his voiceover right from the start, but as soon as he enters Kadie’s, the camera shifts over to Dwight and Dwight actually steals Marv’s voiceover.
Granted, in voiceover mode, Dwight is talking about Marv, but the manner in which he steals focus tells you just as much about Dwight as it tells you about Marv, if not more.
That particular monologue about Marv is lifted from another story – in which it’s just part of Dwight’s overall narration.
The other change also involves a voiceover.  All of the Sin City stories rely heavily on the protagonist’s voiceover narration – which was  function of Miller using captions in the comics rather than thought balloons, which was part of the overall application of the crime noir approach to storytelling – but there’s a scene in Dwight’s story “The Big Fat Kill” – a scene directed by Quentin Tarantino – in which we find that rather than using a voiceover that clues us in on Dwight’s innermost thoughts, Dwight is actually narrating his actions, to no one, out loud.
Coupled with the fact that he’s having an imaginary conversation with a dead man, that little detail speaks volumes about his mental state.
So what is it about Dwight that makes him stand out for me?  I find that I can relate to him in a way that I can’t with most of the other Sin City characters.  Like Dwight, I’ll never be a seven-foot tall mass of unstoppable muscle, and like Dwight, I have a particular view of myself that, at times, is at odds with reality.  Even if I don’t necessarily think of myself as being Lamont Cranston, or a White Knight, there are times when I’d at least like to do so.
And certainly I’m at least as self-centered – I would be just as inclined to steal someone’s voiceover.  I’m not as violent or homicidal, of course, and I don’t go to anywhere near the extremes that Dwight does, but there are times when I would question my mental stability, and I am more than a little inclined towards obsessive behavior.
But there’s a bit more to it than that.  In “That Yellow Bastard,” Dwight appears in the background in at Kadie’s, sitting at a table, whining about a woman (Ava from “A Dame to Kill For”), and trying to drown himself in a bottle.
*Cough*
The Dwight we see in “Dame,” which takes place after the events in “Bastard,” despite the publication order, Dwight is a very different person from the one we see whining about the sorry state of affairs his life is in, a state of affairs which is largely the result of his own actions.
*Cough*
In any case, this Dwight lives something of a monkish existence, having given up the sauce, quit smoking, and mostly spending quiet evenings at home when he isn’t working.
Admittedly, Dwight, who does work as some sort of PI, has a job that is a bit more exciting than mine, but when I first read the comics, my life was very much like Dwight’s – it still is, with the exception being that I started smoking again – and it was like that for very similar reasons.
This self-imposed monastic existence as all about control, about never again becoming what he had once been, and at the heart of it was a fear of any loss of control, because the slightest amount of wavering, the tiniest loss of control, any microfracture in the façade of self-control would let the monster out.
There’s a scene in which Dwight is driving home, refusing to give in to the demands his Mustang seems to be placing on him to let it cut loose and show him what it can do.

I think about all the ways I’ve screwed up and what I’d give for one clear chance to wipe the slate clean.  To dig my way out of the numb grey hell I’ve made of my life. 
Just to cut loose.  Just to feel the fire.  One more time. 
I’d give anything.
He hits the accelerator, then immediately slams on the brakes, and jumps out of the car.
No! 
No.  Damn it.  No.  Never.  Never. 
Never lose control.  Not for one second.  Never. 
Never let the monster out.
I know that desire to give up control, and I know that fear.  I lived with it for a long time, and it was probably at its strongest at the time I first met Dwight.
That fear has largely left me now, but it will never go away completely, and even though the “monster” I’ve kept contained is quite different – I’m not resisting violent, homicidal tendencies, after all – there is a need to keep it where it is.
So…yeah.  Dwight.  He’s a twisted, funhouse mirror kind of reflection, but I do see him as a reflection, and that’s why he stands out for me.
I should also point out, however, that while I like Dwight because I find him relatable, he is decidedly not a good person, and I wouldn’t want to emulate his behavior.  Beyond being a murderer and generally a homicidal maniac, he has a propensity for smacking women around.  Part of that, of course, is just Miller’s problematic misogyny, and there’s usually some narrative “justification” – sometimes it’s just a matter of being “justified” because Dwight said he’d do it and he meant it – but we don’t always get the exact details from Dwight as to what kind of "monster” he was keeping at bay.  However, I do think we get a glimpse from Ava.  While she’s a terrible person, and not in any way shape or form a reliable source of information, and she’s using her wiles to manipulate someone, when she’s laying it on thick and playing the damsel in distress, I don’t think she’s lying when she tells a cop that Dwight was abusive when they were together, particularly given that we see that Dwight has no qualms about hitting women.  That, of course, is metatextual analysis, and I don’t think Miller’s intent was for Dwight to have been abusive, but that’s where the signs point.  (I also suspect that Miller might argue that Dwight wasn’t abusive because Ava deserved it, which, ick.)
So, despite my fondness for the character, I do see problematic elements, but that’s hardly surprising given the author and the setting.
For my part, I don’t gloss over those elements, or ignore them, but, on balance, I still find reasons to like Dwight as a character, even though I don’t necessarily like him as a person.  After all, in the revival of Battlestar Galactica, my favorite character was Gaius Baltar, and he was pretty much the worst person ever.  He was, however, a fully-realized character with depth and understandable – if horribly twisted – motivations, hopes, dreams, and fears.  (Plus he had that whole “character you love to hate” thing going for him.)

Anyway, BSG, and the nerdiness of it, provides a good segue to this slightly less serious bit.
I mentioned that there were only three other people in the audience at the movie the other day.
To be more specific, they were three neckbeards.
As I said in a text exchange with the (former) Boss Lady, “Audience consisted of me and three neckbeards.  So in other words, four dorks.  Me and *sigh* my people.”
Because speaking of trying to maintain control to prevent yourself from being what you truly are, more than I struggle with my more Dwight-like tendencies, I also have to contend with keeping some of the worst aspects of being a geek from coming to the fore. 
Granted, a good 90% of that is just bathing regularly, but even so, I don’t always manage to achieve the level of control that Dwight did in containing his inner monster. 
During the movie version of the Dwight scene mentioned above, I found myself thinking, “Never let the neckbeard out.”
For fuck’s sake, one of them was even wearing a fedora.  *Shudders*

Friday, August 22, 2014

What A Difference 9 Years Make

In 2005, I eagerly anticipated* the release of the movie based on Frank Miller's Sin City.
If you were reading this blog back then, you no doubt saw my many posts on the subject.  When it was released in theaters, I actually took the day off just so that I could be there for the day's first showing.  I was by no means the only one - the theater ended up being pretty-well packed for a Friday morning in April.
When the movie ended, I was tempted to buy another ticket and taken in a second showing.
Somewhat later, when the bare-bones, no frills DVD hit the market, I picked it up.  Some months later, when the considerably more deluxe version was released, I bought that, too.
Years later I replaced that DVD with the Blu-ray edition.
Cut to nine years later and the release of the sequel.
...
We're in "summer hours" at work, which means being able to leave a bit earlier on Fridays.  I decided, almost reluctantly, that if I was going to see the sequel I might as well do it on the way home from work, which would be during something of a lull at the theater.
I was already preemptively disappointed in the movie due to the casting.  Of all of the Sin City "yarns" in the original comics, "A Dame to Kill For," which is the central story in the sequel as well as the movie's title, is my favorite.**
The protagonist of that story is Dwight McCarthy, who is also my favorite character in the Sin City "yarns."  In the first movie, the role of Dwight was ably portrayed by Clive Owen.  In the sequel, the role was filled by Josh Brolin.  I like Josh Brolin, and he was fine as Dwight, but - and I have no idea why Owen didn't return - he just didn't click for me the way Owen did.  I'll have more on Dwight - and Brolin/Owen - in a bit, but the real issue I had with casting in this particular story is that of the titular "Dame."
Though I'm puzzled by this fact, I know that I'm definitely in the minority when it comes to not being a fan - to put it as mildly and politely as possible - of actress Eva Green.  I find her...off-putting.
Certainly, when I imagine Ava Lord (the "Dame" in question), the manipulative seductress, the woman of such impossible beauty that men would kill - and die - for her, Eva Green is not the person who springs to mind.
And yet, there she was, as Ava.
She was - as in accordance with the source material - naked for pretty much 80% of the time that she was on screen, and honestly, for most of that I was thinking, "Just put some damn clothes on."
That casting - along with the ridiculous gap in time between movies - had dampened my enthusiasm for the sequel considerably, and the fact that I just didn't want to be looking at her and hearing Ava's words coming out of her mouth soured the whole experience for me, and made it impossible for me to overlook the many other flaws in the movie that I might have otherwise been able to forgive.
Further, the movie wasn't merely an adaptation of the comics this time around, as Miller wrote some new material specifically for the movie.  Said new material wasn't good, and having Jessica Alba attempt to carry that material only made matters worse.
As with the first movie, Alba portrayed that character who doesn't exist anywhere other than in movies:  the stripper who doesn't strip and yet still manages to keep her job.
I can certainly understand an actress not wanting to do nude scenes.  Even if it's sometimes disappointing, it's a perfectly reasonable choice to make, and I respect that.
That said, if you don't want to do nude scenes, maybe consider not portraying a stripper.  (And if you're making a movie, maybe consider not casting someone who doesn't do nude scenes as a stripper.  It doesn't exactly seem like rocket science to me.)
That she remained fully-clothed the whole time she was on stage - which is decidedly not the case in the source material - caused a disconnect with what was being seen with what was being said.  At one point, Dwight (in a voiceover) makes a comment about how Nancy (Alba) is showing off everything she has.
Later, in her own voiceover, Nancy talks about "giving them what they want."  Except, no, she's not giving them that, because what they want is to see her naked.  Because she's a stripper.  As I've said many times, there's a word for strippers who don't strip, and that word is "fired."
In any case, as a continuity-minded nerd, the new story was especially disappointing because it featured a character who could not possibly be involved in the events taking place, as the timeline just would not work.
Speaking of nerds, to contrast to how things were in that relatively full theater back in 2005, the audience today consisted of myself and three other people.
So...yeah.  I don't foresee this movie making enough money to justify a sequel, particularly if we wouldn't see that sequel until 2023.
Which is something of a shame, given that one of the complaints many critics have about this movie is that the high-contrast black and white with splashes of color look of the movie that was so groundbreaking in 2005 is old hat now, and looks rather tired and dated.  The markedly different, more colorful style that Miller utilized in "To Hell and Back," the last Sin City comic he did, would be just as groundbreaking, if brought to life on film, as the original movie proved to be, and could very well kick off a new trend that soon gets overdone.
As for the Dwight/Brolin/Owen thing, to get a bit spoilery, there was an opportunity to really mess with the audience that Miller and Rodriguez completely squandered.
Chronologically, "Dame" takes place before "The Big Fat Kill," the yarn featuring Dwight that was adapted in the first movie.
As the result of the events of "Dame," Dwight undergoes major plastic surgery - something that was alluded to a couple of times in "Kill" - resulting in him looking like a completely different person.  Again, I don't know why Owen didn't reprise the role, but it would have been awesome if we went from seeing Brolin all bandaged up after his surgery, to seeing Owen return to the role once the bandages are removed.  Hell, if they could have done it and kept the fact that Owen had returned to play the post-op Dwight a secret, it might have been the movie's saving grace for me, at least.
But no; instead they merely added some weird prosthetic effects to Brolin's face and gave him a different hairdo, and then had - in another disconnect between what was said and what was seen - someone make a comment about the remarkable transformation.
So...yeah.  I was disappointed, as I was certain I would be.  I just didn't realize how disappointed I would be.
Which isn't to say it didn't have its moments - it's always fun to watch Miho (played by Jamie Chung this time around) beheading people, and Mickey Rourke was great as Marv once again.  It was also kind of fun to see Jaime King*** reprise her roles as twin sisters Goldie and Wendy, especially with her appearing on-screen in both roles at the same time.
And, of course, Rosario Dawson.****
Because Rosario Dawson.
But overall...well, nine years is a long time to wait, and even if it had been better than it was, I don't think it could have ever been worth it.
To paraphrase Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, I went into Sin City:  A Dame to Kill For with my eyes open, but my enthusiasm for the franchise didn't come out at all.

In closing, here's CinemaSins taking a look at everything wrong with the first movie.




*I will admit that there was a great extent to which this was a choice I made.  At the time, I felt like I really needed something to look forward to in life.  Given that I enjoyed the comics, and the movie looked to be the most faithful comic book adaptation ever, it seemed like a good choice.

**I recognize the...flaws of Miller's work, and much of what he's done recently has eroded the good will he built up with his earlier groundbreaking work in comics.  You can tell me that Sin City is horribly sexist and misogynistic, and problematic in at least another dozen ways, and I will agree with you.  But though I recognize this, I still love the comics - and the first movie - unapologetically.

***After working with him in the first movie, and again when he directed The Spirit, Jaime King was a pretty vocal defender of Miller in response to complaints about his misogyny.  That doesn't prove anything, obviously  - I think it's clear that yes, Miller is positively drowning in misogyny, but I always found that interesting.

****While the sequel gained points for retaining Rosario Dawson (and once again dressing her up in dominatrix gear), to borrow from the CinemaSins guys, I called out some sins for the movie, as they might, because, "Rosario Dawson isn't my girlfriend in this scene."  Of course, to be fair, I call out Rosario Dawson not being my girlfriend as one of the sins of life itself.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Unrealized Potential

The other night Scott and I went to see the movie “Lucy.”
We did so, despite the fact that we object to the central premise of the movie, because it was from Luc Besson and featured Scarlett Johansson, and we thought that would make for an interesting combination.  Kind of like if you blended the action from “Taken” with the physics-bending visuals of “The Matrix,” but with Scarlett Johansson instead of Liam Neeson or Keanu Reeves.
Besides, the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have firmly established that I greatly enjoy watching Scarlett Johansson kicking people’s asses.
Unfortunately, while there were some great scenes of batshit insane action, the movie proved disappointing.
As a friend on Facebook put it:

It's hard to think you could screw up "what if Scarlet Johansson became Dr. Manhattan?" but they managed it.

Yes.  Yes, they did.  And I don’t say that just because the movie didn’t feature Scarlett Johansson sharing Dr. Manhattan’s fashion sense, though that certainly would have helped.
(It couldn’t have hurt, anyway.)
But no, the issue was that central premise that Scott and I decided to grit our teeth and ignore.  The movie made that an impossible feat, however, as that premise was woven into virtually every scene.
That premise being that we humans only use 10% of our brain, that we all have lurking within us a vast, untapped potential.  After all, look at all we’ve accomplished with a mere 10%.  Just imagine what we could do, what sort of superhuman abilities we would have, if we could unleash even a few more percentage points of our potential?  What would happen if we used 100%?
That’s the question that the movie seeks to answer when Johansson, as the titular Lucy, is exposed to a drug that unlocks that potential.
The problem, however, is that the “10%” thing is just a myth, one that has been so thoroughly debunked that it’s almost inconceivable that anyone would still think that it’s a viable plot device.
Further, even if you don’t have much of an understanding of how the brain works, just stopping to think about it for a few minutes will lead you to conclude that it’s bullshit.
Let’s do that thinking right now, shall we?  All it takes is answering a simple question:  If you truly believe that humans only use 10% of their brain, would you mind if I shot you in the 90% you aren’t using?
Sure, a 10% chance of being permanently injured or even killed might not seem like great odds, but the fact remains that you probably aren’t willing to part with 90% of your brain.
In reality, we do use 100% of our brains, we just don’t use that much all the time.  We couldn’t; different areas of the brain perform different functions, some of which are in direct conflict with each other.
How could using your brain’s total capacity actually be a good thing anyway?  Think about how well your computer works when its CPU usage spikes up to 100%.  If you were using 100% of your brain, to continue with the computer metaphor, it would be even worse than that, because you would not only be using 100% of your processing power, you’d be using up 100% of your available storage and all of your RAM at the same time.  That doesn’t sound like a computer that’s performing better than a “normal” computer.
Of course, I don’t think that’s really the idea that the 10% believers are getting at anyway.  What they really seem to think is that there is either some greater efficiency that can be achieved within the brain, or that there is some as-yet unknown mechanism in the brain that can be accessed to unleash superhuman abilities.
However, there are still some underlying problems with that idea.  We may not have a complete understanding of the brain and how it works, but do know enough to know that there is no hidden mechanism.  And while there could be some improvements to efficiency, they’re not going to lead to being able to read minds or control gravity.  Mostly they’ll just improve your memory or your ability to maintain focus.  Which, you know, great.  I’m all for it.
But the idea that the brain is capable of so much more, that it has hidden godlike powers is just silly.
Let’s consider it from two perspectives.
If you’re a creationist of any stripe, this would indicate that whatever god or gods created humans completely overengineered the brain when making humans, then installed some sort of governor in it to throttle it back by 90%.  What for?  I mean, I could see building in some redundancy or whatever, but that approach just seems both bizarre and cruel.  And it’s also silly; the brain, as it’s used in its current state, is already capable of pretty amazing things.  Why not just build it as is, particularly if you’re not going to allow any of the other features to be turned on?  Of course, maybe I’d understand the designer’s thinking better if I used more of my brain’s potential.  Too bad the designer made sure that it’s impossible.
In evolutionary terms, this would indicate that at some point in its evolution, the brain overshot the mark, developed all of these amazing capabilities, and then turned off its access to them.  This does not align with any sort of evolutionary theory.
And sure, you can point to various people who have amazing mental abilities – though not quite so amazing as what Lucy displays – such as the guy who can draw a detailed picture of an entire city after flying over it in a helicopter once, or point to some of the experiments that have been done with stimulating different portions of the brain, or things like synesthesia.
But those abilities usually come at the cost of other abilities and functions of the brain.  They don’t really indicate that someone is using any more – or less – of his or her brain’s potential, just that the existing potential is being used differently.
Let’s get back to the movie itself for a moment.  At one point in her march towards 100% Lucy states that she no longer feels pain or fear.  That, to me, indicates that she’s actually using less of her brain’s potential.
Why, you may wonder, does this bother me so much?  After all, I’m perfectly capable of suspending my disbelief.  I regularly consume – and enjoy – stories about men, women, aliens, robots, and gods who can fly, control the weather, and perform all manner of impossible feats.  Why couldn’t I just let this particular trope slide, the way I do things like, “He was born on another planet and our yellow sun supercharges his cells,” or “He has a magic hammer,” or, to go back to the mention of Dr. Manhattan, “He was disintegrated in a nuclear reactor and then put himself back together, developing godlike abilities in the process,” or hell, even the “metagene” from the DCU or the “X gene” from Marvel?
I suppose it’s a combination of things.  For one, it’s just really overused.  It ranks up there with “all of humanity’s technological achievements are based on reverse-engineered alien technology.”  For another, it bleeds over into real-life in a way that some of those other things don’t.  I’m unlikely to meet someone who actually believes that someone being bitten by a radioactive spider will do anything other than lead to radiation poisoning, but there are plenty of people who honestly believe the 10% thing.
(The alien technology thing bothers me for similar reasons, though a real-world belief in that is somewhat less common, but the main reason it bothers me is because it’s insulting.  I’m not always humanity’s biggest fan, but I know better than to think that we’re incapable of coming up with brilliant ideas on our own.  People often suck, but they’re also pretty amazing.  Which is why I get so irritated when they suck.  But I digress.)
But that’s why it irritates me in general.  In the specific case of this movie, it was because of how thoroughly invested they were in this bogus idea.  If the 10% thing had just been a quick handwave explanation for her having these powers, I would have been able to just roll my eyes, and then go with it.  But they didn’t stop there.  At various points, we were informed of what percentage Lucy was at, and there were extended scenes featuring Morgan Freeman, as some sort of brain “expert,” giving a lecture about the 10% myth as though it were some sort of credible scientific theory.
While Freeman’s character does, when questioned, admit that it has no scientific basis – which, leads you to wonder why he’s being allowed to lecture on this in front of scientists and science students without being booed off the stage, and instead being greeted with rapt attention and fawning praise – he rattles off ideas about what powers a person might have upon achieving certain percentage points.  Which, of course, aligns exactly with the powers that Lucy develops.  Still, just using some weasel words about it being his hypothesis isn’t good enough, given that he has nothing on which to base this hypothesis.  As I said to Scott during one of the lecture scenes, “And if I reach 30% of the way up my ass, I can pull out this speculation about what kind of powers people would have if they used more of their brain's potential.”
Honestly, the lecture scenes – which would have been even more interminable if they weren’t intercut with action sequences in which Lucy displays the abilities Morgan Freeman pulls out of his ass – reminded me of something you might see in an anti-evolution Chick tract, minus the Bible-believing freshman who stands up and demolishes the misguided scientist’s theories.  Which is to say that it was a lecture that had only a superficial resemblance to reality and involved someone spotting off nonsense to a room full of credulous idiots.  It’s like setting up a strawman and then forgetting to knock him down.
With that said, there were elements of the movie that I enjoyed, with some really cool action sequences, and Johansson doing a great job of portraying the shift in Lucy’s personality as she continued developing her potential.
Honestly, unlike the human brain, the movie had a lot more potential that it could have tapped into.  Dropping the lecture scenes would have helped, though much of that was included for the purposes of including some sort of pseudo-intellectual ramblings about the meaning of life and the nature of humanity, which I’m sure seemed deep and meaningful to some people – particularly given that they were imbued with the gravitas that comes from being spoken by Morgan Freeman – but ultimately they had no substance.
And just coming up with a different explanation – anything* – for how Lucy developed her abilities would have made it the kind of movie that would let you say, “It was good for what it was.”  But you can’t really say that about it, because its attempt to be more than what it was proved to be an insurmountable obstacle.
Also, they really should have gone the Dr. Manhattan route when it came to Johansson’s wardrobe.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Scott and I did a double feature that night, and “Lucy” ended up being the second movie of the night, following our viewing of “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Pretty much any movie was going to suffer in comparison to that one, so my perception of the quality of “Lucy” was probably a bit skewed.
”Guardians,” unlike “Lucy,” is definitely a movie that is “good for what it is,” with “awesomely entertaining” being what it is.
It’s already making all of the money, and it deserves to, but if “all of the money” does not yet include yours, you need to make some changes in your life.  Use more than 10% of your brain and go see it.

*For example, they could have used a variant of the alien technology trope that I dislike and said that the drug was made from alien DNA, and it wouldn’t have bothered me if they had just stuck with that as the launching point to kick off a bunch of mind-bending action and didn’t dwell on it overmuch.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Late To The (Costume) Party

Almost two weeks ago - an eternity in Internet Time - DC unveiled the new design for Batgirl's costume (and a new creative team for the Batgirl series).
It broke the Internet in half, as fans declared their love for it and flooded the Intertubes with their own artwork featuring the new design.
Personally, I think it's fine.  I'm not as in love with it as others are.
In any case, while I'm a bit late to the party, I thought I'd throw in my own contribution, with an observation about how fandom reacted several years back when a certain Amazon Princess had her new look revealed.

Yes, the Internet went "batty" over the new look.  (I'm sorry.)