The 49 Books/Movies/Music entries below appear with the most recent entries first. To see them displayed in the order they were written, please click here.

 February 13, 2010
Books That Stick to Your Ribs

There was this little meme that ran around Facebook a while ago that challenged people to: "Quick! Name 15 books that have stuck with you!"

I resisted for a long while, but then finally decided to go ahead and play the game. Below is what I posted on Facebook, and it generated quite a fascinating discussion on my Facebook page. That said, I post it here for your perusal. Notice how I decided to use this meme to launch into a discussion about more than just 15 books. Hey, it's my Facebook page... I'll post to it however I see fit!

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Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. List 15 books you've read that will always stick with you. They should be the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. If you decide to play, tag me back, because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends choose. (To do this, go to your Notes tab on your Profile page, paste rules in a new Note, cast your 15 picks, and tag people in the Note, upper right-hand side.)

I could just as easily make this a list of fifteen authors....

In no particular order (I even filled in the numbers out of order, just to be truly random):

1. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
2. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
3. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams
4. 1984 by George Orwell
5. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
6. 2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (plus lots of others by him)
7. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (plus, almost everything else by RAH)
8. Animal Farm by George Orwell
9. The James Bond series by Ian Fleming
10. The Federalist Papers by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay
11. What the Anti-Federalists Were For by Herbert Storing
12. The Bonds of Womanhood: "Women's Sphere" in New England by Nancy Cott
13. The Boomer Bible by R. F. Laird
14. The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron
15. The Stand by Stephen King
15.5. The Dead Zone by Stephen King (plus, almost everything else SK has written)
16. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
17. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
18. Selected Writings of Abraham Lincoln (And Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, etc., etc.)
19. The Dilbert series by Scott Adams
20. The Far Side series by Gary Larson
21. The Calvin and Hobbes series by Bill Watterson
22. The Pearls Before Swine series by Stephan Pastis

Annotations:

I re-read Catch-22 every few years or so, and it's brilliant every time. Brilliantly funny, razor sharp commentary. Just brilliant.

1984, as I found out later when I read Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (for a Russian history class) and Anthem by Ayn Rand (recommended by a friend), is a complete rip-off of those two earlier works, but its message still resonates more profoundly than both of those works put together. Odd, but true.

With the exception of 1984, I've re-read 1-9 several times over, and re-read parts of 10-15 and 18-22 several times over.

I included Atlas Shrugged not only because it belongs on the list, but also because I know it'll cheese off some of my friends. I disagree with much of what Ms. Rand had to say, but she nonetheless spoke more truth than many people would like to admit.

Brave New World belongs on this list, too. Only read that one once, however. (Same with Atlas Shrugged.)

The Boomer Bible is one of the most scathingly funny books I've ever read, written in biblical verse. It is a satire on history, politics, religion, psychology, human nature, and in particular, so-called Western Civ.

Why "The Bonds of Womanhood" by Nancy Cott? I was a history major as an undergrad, and this was the first history book I'd read that made me realize just how much of our current social structure in the US is owed directly to the way the Puritans set up shop in New England. Why are most teachers in U.S. secondary schools women? Etc. Fascinating. I could have included many, many history texts regarding WWI and WWII, but this one was the first that really hooked me into history as a field of study.

While most kids have read at least parts of the Federalist Papers, it might surprise you to learn that there were many, many brilliant minds at the time who argued *against* adopting the US Constitution. "What the Anti-Federalists Were For" explains their positions, and it's a must read for anyone interested in US politics. (As I clearly am.)

Ah, hell. Add "Take Back Your Government" by Robert A. Heinlein, his best non-fiction work.

The James Bond books, upon a recent re-reading, are so truly awful it's bizarre. But I loved them. Loved them for years and years. Ate them up like candy.


Extra Credit:

I originally included these because I read them in book form, but since they are plays, I suppose they're not supposed to count. So, as extra credit, I include:

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (plus, while we're at it, the Crucible)
Macbeth by Shakespeare (plus, while we're at it, Othello)
Inherit the Wind by the guy who wrote Inherit the Wind
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tag. You're it.

Posted by at 08:38 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (4)
 October 04, 2009
The Ending of Battlestar Galactica [SPOILERS!!!]

I very much enjoyed the writing of the "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica series that ended it's run earlier this year on the Sci Fi channel. The series was dark, sure, but it was a classic epic journey that displayed more nuance and moral ambiguity than most similar narratives. The writers set up a great many fascinating character and story arcs, and pinned the promise of fascinating revelations on the series finale.

Then, they blew it.

This essay contains spoilers regarding the most recent incarnation of Battlestar Galactica on television. If you think you might one day want to watch the series, do so with the knowledge that I think you'll be similarly disappointed when you reach the ending, but don't read the specifics of why, because I'm about to spoil the ending for you.

The problem with the ending is that it does not satisfactorily resolve a substantial number of the major plot points. At first, it seems to. There's a big battle at "The Colony", Galactica jumps (with Starbuck at the helm) to a solar system that can support human life, and the rest of the fleet meets up with Galactica at its final stop. The fact that it's *our* solar system provides the symmetry we've been expecting all along (the pilot episode tells us they are on a mission to find Earth, so they delivered on *that* promise, at least).

Then, the writers undo any of the good that they had managed to perform up to that point by unraveling the entire story by trotting out the machinery of the Gods. Deus Ex Machina. God did it.

Given the political and religious themes that the series had explored all along, I was primed for the possibility that the answers to some of the plot points would indicate the machinations of a higher power. That's fine. But this went over the top. Everything was all about God's Plan. This breaks all the rules of good storytelling, because once you bring in the Deus Ex Machina, you take out any real drama on behalf of the characters.

Everything is arbitrary.

Starbuck's ship blows up, Starbuck returns, and spends a year screaming, "What am I? What does that make me?" And for a year, we went along. It's a mystery! How will the writers satisfy *this* interesting twist? And at the very end, we learn: Starbuck is merely a plot contrivance. She was a contrived part of God's Plot, nothing more. When it was inconvenient to have her die, she came back. Once her character satisfied the needs of the plot (at least, the plot regarding Earth), she was unnecessary, and >poof!< she disappears.

This was the biggest crime of the writers of the show: they gave great, great set up, and then cheated us of the payoff. For example: the show set up right from the beginning that Apollo and Starbuck were going to get together. All of the traditional clues and foreshadows were there. Then they hooked up with (and married) other characters. And as the series wound down, those characters were killed off (or maimed off, in Anders' case) just in time for the ending we were promised.

And then, was the ending delivered? Did they get together? No. Because the Deus Ex Machina was done with that Plot by the time we reached the resolution.

There was the mystery of who/what Starbuck was. Great set-up. No payoff.

The rise and fall of Gaeta promised, for a very long time, a "redemption" as it were. No.

Right from the beginning, we were given the clues and foreshadowing that promised a profound retribution for Baltar's (and "Caprica Six's") role in the destruction of civilization. Instead, they were among the few characters that made it out alive at the other end, not only relatively unscathed, but even portrayed as some kind of heroes of the resistance.

THEY WERE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DEATHS OF BILLIONS OF PEOPLE ON TWELVE PLANETS, AND THEY LIVE OUT THE REST OF THEIR DAYS IN PEACE, WITH GOD'S AND MAN'S APPARENT BLESSING.

With all of the pill-popping that Adama was doing during the fourth season, there was a suggestion that we might see a twist on the old "a dying leader shall bring them to the promised land, but shall not enter" prophecy. Instead... nothing is mentioned of it again.

And with all of the fascinating, interwoven relationships among the many different groups and sub-groups, we are told at the end that everyone simply agreed to walk away from it all and head off in onesies and twosies to mingle with the natives. Not only is this completely unbelievable and unfathomable, it betrays the investment the writers (and viewers) made in these complex and interesting relationships. "That's all, folks. Nothing more to see here. From now on, everyone wanders off and doesn't know each other any more."

What happened to the promise of Baltar's followers? Where did they go? Great set-up, no payoff.

Okay, so that's my biggest problem. By pulling out the Deus Ex Machina, all of the wonderful set-up and promises are dropped with no payoff. The only two threads that get any real resolution are: the fleet finds Earth, and Hera's importance is fulfilled.

Here's the other major, major problem I had with the finale. After all this excellent science fiction-y set-up, the main voice of reason at the end (Apollo) sums up the moral of the story as being that SCIENCE IS THE PROBLEM. Science and technology caused this mess, and humanity would be better off if we just ditched it all and went back to living off the land like, well, cavemen:

"If there's one thing that we should've learned, it's that, you know, our brains have always out raced our hearts. Our science charges ahead. Our souls lag behind." -- Lee "Apollo" Adama
So, instead of of us trying to be better people, to improve our proverbial souls, we put the blame on science. That bad, bad science.

Here is where the writers betrayed me. Betrayed us all. It's bad enough that they failed to fulfill the many promises they made, but then they took it a step further and said that when people do bad things, it's not because human nature has flaws, it's because SCIENCE IS BAD.

People don't kill people. Guns kill people.

It's a message that is inherently wrong, and I must deny this idea to the last. Science is a method of better understanding the world in which we live, through testing, experimentation, and reasoning. Science is a tool that can produce other tools (technology). What we do with those tools is where we make choices. But whatever tools we have at our disposal, we will always be faced with those same choices, and the only way to improve how we make those choices is to improve how we deal with our own nature, both for good and for ill.

To use a Biblical story, Cain did not have (or need) a gun (or sword or bazooka or bomb or num-chucks or martial arts training or taser or Cylon Centurion) to kill Abel. Going all the way back to that story (and further back to the legends of Gilgamesh, if you'd like), science and technology are not the problem. Good problem solving skills, or the lack thereof, are the heart of the matter.

If you want to have an element of God in your story, that's fine. I've read a lot of very satisfying fiction where spiritual elements of one sort or another play a part. The problem here is that the payoff didn't match the set-up. We were given a mystery that was never solved, a love story that was never resolved, a redemption that was never fulfilled, a retribution that was never extracted, and the very genre we were led to believe we were watching (science fiction) was abandoned for another genre (pig-headed, woo-woo, New Age foolishness).

I was talking this over with a friend of mine, who asked if the ending was bad enough to ruin the rest of the series for me. I'm not quite sure, yet. It's happened before... Anne Rice's The Tale of the Body Thief was so bad, for example, that it completely ruined everything about the three previous books in her "Vampire Chronicles", which I can never read again.

But I remain curious about the new series from the same people, Caprica, and I know I want to see the upcoming Battlestar Galactica movie, The Plan. I think that it is, in fact, possible for me to forget the finale happened and watch The Plan. But it's going to have to fulfill any promises it makes. I don't know if Caprica will have that luxury, since the writers have already shown that they are not above giving a great series-wide set-up and then just... ignoring it.

The lesson I take away from BSG is this: no matter how great your writing is, no matter how great the set-up, you have to deliver the goods in the ending, or you will have pissed off your audience and may have a very hard time getting them back for your next work.

Posted by at 12:21 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Writing | Comments (0)
 December 05, 2008
Roger Ebert, Expelled, and Missing the Point

I've been meaning for a couple of years now to post a little ditty here about one of my favorite authors, Roger Ebert. He is one of the most important 'men of letters' writing in America today.

You may remember him as one of the thumbs up/thumbs down reviewers from TV's movie-review programs "Siskel & Ebert" or "Ebert & Roeper". But he's been a newspaper man for a few decades in Chicago, and his work has been online for the last several years. I visit his site regularly (rogerebert.com) and catch up as much as I can from the archives in addition to the new stuff that's posted. Mr. Ebert and I often disagree in matters of taste as well as politics, but I enjoy reading his work immensely.

Ebert has a phrase that he likes to employ when discussing a movie that has a particular bent; he'll remind us that "a movie is not about what it is about; it is about how it is about it." This is a profound thought, and it bears consideration. For the sake of argument, think about the movies "The Godfather" and "Analyze This". Among other things, both are ostensibly about how hard it is to be a crime family. But how they go about showing that is what makes them the (very different) movies they are.

This is all by way of saying that similarly, Ebert's movie reviews are not about the movies he's reviewing; they are about how they are about them. This is what makes his writing so much fun. His reviews and essays are multi-layered.

Take, for example, his review of "The Aristocrats," a movie featuring a large number of different comedians telling the same joke. Ebert starts his review by commenting on the nature of different kinds of humor (the quick and the slow build-up), then takes a series of quick snips at pieces of the movie. His review then ends with a killer punch-line, that reveals that the whole review was a slow build-up all along. Brilliant!

(As a former producer of a comedy radio show, I was put on guard when he states early in his review of "The Aristocrats" words to the effect that, "I know something about humor." Echoes of "Good Morning Vietnam" rang through my head. But when I got to his punch line, he had me convinced.)

Alas, my post today is not really about why I enjoy Ebert's writing so much. But take my word for it; you should go read him.

Mr. Ebert spent a couple of years recuperating from surgery complications that nearly ended his life. He still is unable to eat or speak (so yes, his television days appear to be behind him at present and may well stay that way, and yes, he is much thinner than the guy you might remember seeing on TV), but he is back at work, writing as if there were no tomorrow. During his medical ordeal, a movie called "Expelled" came out that, in Michael Moore-ish fashion, creatively mixed fact and fiction to claim that Intelligent Design proponents were being unfairly treated by Big Science.

As Ebert resumed writing, he was frequently pestered to write a review of this pseudo-documentary. He recently posted his response, not within his formal movie reviews on the Chicago Sun-Times sponsored site, but on his personal blog here.

In my opinion, the blog entry stumbles out of the gate, but once he picks up steam, he hits it out of the park. (How many metaphors can I mix in one sentence? My record so far is tied at three.) You should read it. Go ahead. I'll wait.

As you'll notice, he allows comments to be posted. What inspired me to write tonight was a series of comments that appeared below this particular entry. Keep in mind, his essay was about the movie Expelled and, in particular, the intellectual dishonesty that Ben Stein and the movie's producers employed in claiming that Intelligent Design was anything other than a cover for religious dogma. That was the whole point of Ebert's essay.

He often notes the use of the "excluded middle;" the failure of the movie's producers to entertain the notion that some people can be religious and still believe that evolution works the way scientists describe. What I found fascinating was how several commenters (commentors?) completely missed the point of Ebert's essay and went straight to the same "excluded middle" assumptions by begging the question, "What is the meaning of life if we're all just the result of a bunch of chemical interactions?"

Understanding biological evolution has nothing to do with resolving philosophical or, for that matter, religious conundrums. Ebert's review did not take a position on religion (although, if I recall correctly, he has stated elsewhere in his writing that he believes we are more than just a bundle of chemical reactions). Religion wasn't the point. Intellectual dishonesty in a movie that claimed to be a documentary was the point.

But I feel compelled to address the little philosophical conundrum that those commenters posed, because I hate, hate, hate crimes against logic. The commenters in question assume that subscribing to the concept of biological evolution necessarily means believing that we are nothing more than a bundle of chemical impulses. Therefore, they further deduce from this faulty assumption, people who agree with evolution have no ends worthy of pursuing; "no heart to love / no evil to rise up above," etc. If we accept the theory of evolution as demonstrated, then our lives hold no value and we hold no faith but greed.

These responses completely missed the point of Ebert's take on the movie, they completely miss the point of scientific inquiry, and they insultingly miss the point of logic. They also assume that atheists (as if everyone who understands evolution must therefore be an atheist) don't feel emotions, engage in morality, or hold values. Which begs a question that's interesting to ponder:

If this is all there is -- if we get one shot at life, and there's nothing left of our consciousness once our brain stops working -- then isn't this life that much more precious than if we instead assumed that life is never ending? Isn't the atheist who dies for a cause more noble than the believer who expects that there will be rewards in the Great Beyond? Isn't triumphing over evil all the more urgent if we know that there are no second chances to get it right? And likewise, aren't we less likely to strap a bomb to our chest or commandeer an airplane on a murder/suicide mission if we are assured that what waits for us "on the other side" is not our own personal paradise, but instead... nothing?

It seems to me that life is precious, no matter which side of the philosophical or theological fences you find yourself standing.

Posted by at 01:23 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Essays | Comments (2)
 February 20, 2008
Another Goofy Documentary

In an act of supreme irony, there's a recently released fakeumentary out there trying to make the case that "Big Science" is waging a war on poor, defenseless Christianity. From the trailers, it's hard for me to tell if Ben Stein is satirizing Michael Moore's abuse of the documentary format and disregard for truth, if Stein is cynically trying to emulate Moore (who, himself, seems rather cynical), or if he truly believes the premise that the scientific community is waging a holy war against religion. So to speak.

Is it newsworthy if an academic institution resists hiring or retaining a biologist who wants to teach that evolution doesn't exist? If so, perhaps there's a documentary to be made on these other scintillating topics:

  • the conspiracy of economists against people who doubt the theory of supply and demand
  • the crusade of physicists against those who deny the theory of gravity
  • Big Medicine's unrelenting smear campaign against deniers of the germ theory of disease

I almost included in that list the conspiracy of Saturday Night Live writers against anything that might be funny, but that would have violated the comedic "Rule of Three."

Persecution complexes tend to manifest themselves in the weak and the cruel. Hitler, and the Nazis in general, had a persecution complex when it came to the Jews. The Clintons coined the term "vast right-wing conspiracy" long before we started meeting on a regular basis. Richard Nixon, for that matter, allowed his own persecution complex to destroy his presidency and his legacy.

The great paradox of the persecution complex is that it betrays a weakness in character, but not in actual power. This is where I find the notion of "Big Science" persecuting the Christians to be particularly unseemly. Christianity holds more sway politically, culturally, economically, and socially in the very fabric of American life than any other force. For decades (well, centuries, actually), it has insisted on regulating what and how we teach our citizenry, from the birds and the bees to the moon and the stars and everything in between.

Now here comes a Defender of the Faith, in the form of a self-styled intellectual, to declare that when scientists would prefer that science be taught in the science classrooms, Christianity is under attack. Kind of like the way Germany was under attack when France wanted France to be run by, well, the French.

Is Christianity so weak in character that it needs this kind of defender?

[Then again, are liberals so weak that they need Michael Moore as a defender? Hmmm.]

Posted by at 04:29 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (0)
 July 21, 2007
Will Power

I won a bet a few months ago. The bet was with a fellow named Allen, and the wager was a copy of the final Harry Potter book. Because I won, Allen was to buy me a copy of the book on the day it was released.

Since then, I proposed that our community throw a "Harry Potter Party", which I may have mentioned in a previous post. The events committee in our neighborhood said it sounded like a great idea, and so they began the work of organizing it. One task fell to me, however, and that was to attempt to secure some copies of the book to give away as prizes. Although there is a small amount of money in our event committee's budget that could be used in that direction, it's always better to try to get donations, when possible, so that the money can be there for the next event.

Our neighborhood supermarket was very generous (Thank you, QFC!) in donating three copies of the book toward the event, and I picked them up about ten minutes ago, so that I'll have them in hand when I go to help set up for the party in the morning.

So here I am with three brand new copies of the book... a book that I am eager, eager, eager to begin reading. But these copies are for the party, and Allen won't be bringing me my copy until sometime tomorrow -- likely, after the party. But I want to read a copy now!

I thought about leaving them in my car, but it's raining tonight (unusual here, for this time of year; summer is the "dry season") and I don't want the humidity to warp the pages. So, here they are. Sitting on the kitchen counter. Calling to me. "Allan... Allan! Just one little chapter. What could be the harm? Nobody will ever know!"

That, ladies and germs, is how I came to be a hundred pounds overweight. "I'll just have one bite of that Ben & Jerry's. No one will ever notice." How does one bite become a hundred pounds? The same way one little chapter becomes staying up until the time my alarm goes off, the book half-read, and me having to buy another copy to hide my crime.

Nope. Better to just go to bed. I'll get my own copy tomorrow. No borrowing any sneaked peeks tonight.

Nor, for that matter, any ice cream.

Will power. It's not just for breakfast anymore.

Posted by at 02:07 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Journey of a Thousand Pounds , Tidbits | Comments (0)
 April 28, 2007
Somewhere in the Lake House

WARNING: THIS ENTRY CONTAINS "SPOILERS" REGARDING THE MOVIES "SOMEWHERE IN TIME" AND "THE LAKE HOUSE". And "Sliding Doors". And "Romeo & Juliet". And a few others. If you have any interest in seeing these movies but haven't done so, then you are advised to rent and see them now and return immediately to read my timely comments.

Heh, heh. I said "timely."

I've been thinking a great deal about fiction and the defense of the status quo, lately. To wit: most (but not all) commercially successful popular fiction, be it in print or film, ultimately embraces accepted social norms. This is important to me right now, because of the novel that is brewing in my head and threatening to spill onto the electronic page before too long.

Stephen King wrote an excellent essay in his non-fiction book, Danse Macabre, in which he points out that the horror genre is particularly conservative (that's "conservative" as in: defending tradition and demonizing -- literally, in this case -- any departure from the status quo). His point is very well made, and I highly recommend you seek out his comments. In short: the horror genre is all about doling out punishments for breaking the rules.

Most other genres are about doling out rewards for following the rules, which is what makes horror the flip-side of the mainstream coin: it's a focus on the negative, but it's still supporting the status quo.

Consider navel-gazer movies like "The Family Man" or "Me, Myself, I", where the protagonist gets a chance to compare "what if?" lives of having pursued career versus having pursued love and family. In all such movies, the protagonist ultimately realizes that even though their life in which they pursued the career was fabulously successful -- bringing them fame and money and a fantastic quality of life -- still, it's better to have the life of mired suburbian mediocrity with the noble-yet-imperfect mate and the infants who pee on you and all the similar joys of middle-class conformity because, hey, it's more emotionally fulfilling than driving fancy cars and eating at the best restaurants and wearing tailored clothes.

In short, these movies are pandering to their Western Civ, middle-class audience. "Hey, you there! In the middle-class! You made the right choice! Don't you feel affirmed?"

Occasionally, you'll see an excellent and commercially successful story that doesn't pander. The movie "Sliding Doors" has a similar "what if?" opportunity to see a life go in two different directions at a decision point, and the ending of the story is quite satisfying while, at the same time, it doesn't hand the audience a pat judgement on how love always triumphs and all that rot. Actually, it had quite a different premise: that, when all is said and done, we will be who we will be... that single decision points do not a life make.

Since there is such a thing as excellent, commercially successful fiction that also manages to not pander to the audience and endorse the status quo, I need to come to terms with how that works. I want the novel that I'm working on to be such a story; to challenge certain societal norms and still be compelling and satisfying.

I was hoping to find such a story in the movie, "The Lake House." This is a recent flick that falls into the "time-travel romance" sub-genre. The previews implied that it might have a subversive take on the status quo.

Of course, in the romance genre, the rules are: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back. If the story is a comedy, the successful conclusion of the formula is kisses and happiness ever after. If the story is a tragedy, then the last piece of the formula (boy wins girl back) is thwarted, and everyone dies as punishment. See "Romeo & Juliet".

Both the comedic and the tragic variation are satisfactory endorsements of the status quo, since successful completion of the formula means life and goodness, and failure to live up to the terms of the formula means death and sadness. If only Juliet dies and Romeo goes on to live a happy life of debauchery, then the status quo is not supported, and the audience gets mighty cheesed.

When a story is successful even though it doesn't pander, it is because the story still resonates with Truth. To bring up "Sliding Doors" again as an example, it is satisfying because it acknowledges that the consequences of our choices are more complicated -- and more interesting -- than simply "good" and "bad". The movie endorses hope, even while it denies the "happily ever after" myth.

Which brings me to "The Lake House", which I had picked up for a few bucks at the local DVD store's sidewalk sale. I was hoping to see some interesting choices in the storytelling, because the premise is kinda neat. Boy doesn't meet girl, because boy and girl are living in two different time zones. As in: two years apart. They correspond via a magic mailbox, fall in love, and get really, really frustrated with their timing woes. Surely, this must resonate with middle America. Isn't the middle-class all about frustration?

[As a side note, I'd like to recommend that the designers of the back cover of the DVD case be arrested and sent to a Turkish prison. The blurbs on the back cover keep saying, "Can the two ever meet?" while half of the photos show the two main actors together in the same scenes. I mean, what the intercourse is up with that? It's like putting on the back of "The Empire Strikes Back" the question, "Is Darth Vader really Luke Skywalker's father?" with a picture of Vader holding up a baby photo of little Luke nestled serenely in young Darth Vader's arms.]

The problem with the Lake House is not simply that it violates all concepts of time-travel causality. This wasn't supposed to be a science fiction flick, strictly speaking. Rather, its fatal flaw is that it tries so hard to pander to the audience ("Love rulz! Woo-hoo!") that it violates its own sense of Truth. It tries to give us the Happily Ever After ending, even after it very clearly set up the tragic death ending. The movie held open the possibility, right up until the final scene, that there could be an interesting, sophisticated Truth that would allow one character to live on while the other one dies. Instead, we get this pandering message: because he "waited", everybody lives happily ever after, after all.

Oh, by the way, that was the spoiler I warned you about.

Pander, pander, pander.

When I was a young'un, there was a movie called "Somewhere In Time" that also had the ill-fated time-travel romance kink going on. It starred Superman and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and the story was, as in "The Lake House," cleverly laid out right up until the last scene. "Somewhere in Time", however, managed to pull off an emotionally satisfying resolution without pandering *too* much. It managed to have both its tragic cake and happily eat it, too, by allowing the boy to die *and* get the girl. Oh sure, it was a sappy reunited-in-death kind of thing, but dude... the guy's death was *so* satisfying that it made the whole thing work. I don't think it would have worked as well if it had only the tragedy, nor only the happily-ever-after. What it did was offer us a third alternative: rather than "love is good" versus "losing love is bad", we got "love can make you lose your mind as well as your appetite. And then you die." Now *there's* a Truth that resonates.

Now that I think about it, "Sliding Doors" also managed to have both the tragic ending and the (nominally) hopeful ending all rolled up together. And the guy died in "Ghost", too, and that was popular. And same for "Titanic". Hmmm.

But not "The Lake House." It sets up for both possibilities, but then instead of choosing a third alternative, or even the more plausible tragic ending, it short circuits itself and makes a break for the happy ending. It doesn't work.

As an extrovert, I'm inclined to throw my ideas out there and see what shape they take. While my original intention of writing this little missive was to rail against the maddening ending of "The Lake House" -- I mean, really, all that wasted set-up! -- I realize now that this is really about the novel I'm constructing. How do I make it commercially viable and still not pander?

The answer is simple. It's not enough that I'm going to kill two of my main characters. I'm also going to have to add a romantic element. And pathos. [sigh.] Writing is such hard work.

Posted by at 01:01 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Writing | Comments (4)
 February 25, 2007
The Harry Potter Party is On

I've decided to do it. I'm throwing a Harry Potter party this summer to celebrate the release of the final book in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. What cultural event could be more worth celebrating than children and grown-ups reading the same, excellent books?

I told a friend of mine this decision today, and he said, "So, what does one do at a Harry Potter party?"

Simple! It's just like a Super Bowl Party -- dress up in costumes commemorating your favorite team/player/character, eat munchies, engage in bravado and verbal sparring about what led up to this event -- only bookier.

Actually, I'm coordinating with our homeowners' assocation's Events Committee to commandeer the community center, where we'll also have children's activities (like coloring, games, and snacks), costume contests (where top prizes will be copies of the newly released book 7), a book club chat, perhaps a brief open mic thingy like I've hosted in the past, and then a showing of the first Harry Potter movie.

Who knew children's lit could be so much fun? Yee-ha!

Posted by at 11:42 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (1)
 February 11, 2007
A Worthy Event

Last Sunday, the United States (and possibly parts of California) took a day to celebrate the end of the professional football season by settling in to watch the football game humbly known as the Super Bowl. As a nation, we came together by taking a day off from mundane concerns such as shopping (except to buy potato chips), working (except for pizza delivery guys -- those poor bastards), and generally keeping the economic engine of this great country turning and, instead, walled ourselves up in our homes or at Super Bowl parties, drank massive quantities, and watched the game and/or commercials.

It's a pop culture thing that contributes to a shared identity. We are Americans. Our footballs are oblong, and we don't riot (too much) after the game.

Likewise, later this year some among us will put on our pop culture party hats to at least acknowledge that professional baseball also has championship games. Etc., etc.

But pop culture celebrations can and do extend beyond professional sports (or college sports, for that matter) and Thanksgiving Day parades; we are drawn together by the stories that capture our shared imagination. Look at how we in the Western world lined up around the block to see each new Star Wars flick.

I am thrilled that one of the biggest pop culture events of 2007 is going to be the release of a book. A novel, no less! The announced publication of a big ol' slab of text is already causing a palpable buzz in the English-speaking world, as well as Britain, and I couldn't be happier.

On July 21st, 2007, a substantial number of people will buy (or receive their pre-ordered copies) of the seventh and presumably final book in the Harry Potter series. Instead of being united by the spectacle of men in tights and shoulder pads, the English-speaking world (and Britain) will join together to see how events play out in a popular work of fiction.

As part of my own preparation for this event, I've been re-reading the series that's been published so far, and I have to say that it just gets better upon further consideration. I've commented on a few themes and elements of the series in my pop culture section of this site, and it's amazing to discover how much deeper and richer the themes become when one considers the series as a whole.

So here's to you, J.K. Rowling. Your stories have transcended their spot on the children's lit bookshelves and become such a global phenomenon that the opening of your next book will be bigger than the opening of a Star Wars movie, bigger than a World Series or a World Cup or a Super Bowl. I'm excited to read the book, but I'm even more excited to see how many other people are excited.

This calls for a celebration. Anyone up for a Harry Potter party on the evening of July 20th?

Posted by at 01:06 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (1)
 November 15, 2006
This year's ten-second movie review

You a writer, or an avid reader of fiction? You dig story? You dig movies?

Stranger That Fiction is a writer's movie, and a pretty good one, at that. If you writes much, or reads much, I think you'll dig it.

Don't ask why. Don't ask what it's about. Just check it out, and get back to me later.

Posted by at 09:58 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Writing | Comments (0)
 July 25, 2006
This week in Pop Culture

Every so often I like to mention my current pop culture pleasures. My work life having been so hectic of late, I don’t have much time to read these days, or see movies, or watch television (except late at night, after the kids are in bed, if, indeed, they ever go to bed), but there’s still an occasional opportunity to listen to music on the drive to and from the office. So, here’s a quick check of my pop culture pulse.

What I’m listening to:

A friend of mine recommended that I check out a group called The Ditty Bops. They have some videos posted on their website, and he recommended that I start with Wishful Thinking. After watching/listening to that one and the video shorts from their appearances on Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson, I decided to pick up their two CDs from a certain online retailer. Yowza. Great stuff. Both albums are produced by Mitchell Froom, who has also produced great albums by Suzanne Vega and Sheryl Crow and Soul Coughing, among others. The Ditty Bops have a great sound; an eclectic mix of ragtime and alt folk that works really well. Check them out.

The other album that’s been in heavy rotation in my car’s multi-disc player is Regina Spektor’s Begin to Hope. I saw her featured recently on Conan O’Brien, and her performance blew me away. Just her and her piano. This is a very experimental album and, like the Ditty Bops or Suzy V at her best, each of her songs is unique in tone, feel, and instrumentation. She’s an alt folkie with a piano instead of a guitar (and an ever-so-slight Russian accent). Highly recommended.

What I’m reading:

That great, big collection of Calvin & Hobbes that Santa gave me. Easy to read in short sessions, which is all I’ve been managing lately. I finished Stephen King’s Dark Tower cycle a few months ago, and haven’t read much fiction since then, whilst I’ve been digesting that seven-volume tome. My research for my next novel has brought me James Randi’s Flim Flam, and my father recently gave me Jamie Whyte’s Crimes Against Logic, both of which have been quite enjoyable reads.

When waiting for code to compile or otherwise finding a spare moment at my computer with a few minutes on my hands, I’ve been enjoying reading just about everything on Roger Ebert’s website. I’m going through a bit of withdrawal as there’s little new content there while Mr. Ebert recuperates from surgery. Ebert likes to assert that movies are not about what they are about, but rather they are about how they are about what they are about. Likewise, Ebert’s essays are not about the movies they are about, but rather, they are about how they are about the movies they are about. Ebert’s a sharp mind with a sharp pen; one of the more enjoyable essayists at work in the mainstream today.

What I’m watching:

No movies, nor any primetime TV. Paulette and I have been going through my Definitive Twilight Zone collection (this is the collection of all of Rod Serling’s original series, although I suppose I’ll eventually get to the revival versions of the Twilight Zone. Maybe.). We’re currently nearing the end of Season Three. I’m particularly enjoying the “extras” – interviews with Serling, or lectures that he gave at Ithaca College, that are included as part of the DVD package. Serling is a writer’s writer who believed that it is possible to produce quality work even for such a mainstream medium as television. It would appear that today’s attitudes against “popular art” is not particularly original.

I do manage to catch late night talk shows from time to time. My favorite line from a few months ago came from Conan O’Brien, when he had “Governor Schwarzenegger” as an interviewee via remote (actually, an actor’s mouth was superimposed on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s televised photo). In reference to the then upcoming release of “Jingle All the Way”, the Governor’s doppelganger said: “Give a man a Jingle, he’ll Jingle for the day. But teach a man to Jingle, he’ll Jingle All the Way!”

I still love that line, even after all these many months.

What I’m writing:

Just finished a dark fantasy (that's what they call horror these days, don't you know) short story that I’ll be submitting to an anthology soon; it's first short story I’ve finished in a long time. A few nights ago, Paulette took care of the kids so that I could have some writing time to myself. Wasn’t that nice of her? I used the time to finish a story that I’d been working on for months. When I got to the ending, I surprised myself with how the story resolved… and I liked it! Let’s hope the editor does, too.

Also, I've been given a request for a rewrite from an editor who liked a piece I submitted, so I'll be working on that this week.

Oh, and right this moment, I’m writing my blog entry. How “meta” is that?

Posted by at 02:09 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (0)
 July 07, 2006
Steal the air

Insomnia combined with a desire to turn off my brain rather than work from home tonight led me to watch an old movie on the VCR (yes, I’m kickin’ it old school) after everyone else went to bed. Pump Up the Volume is the story of a high school malcontent whose pirate radio show becomes the focal point in the clash between a (school) administration that knows What’s Good For You and the kids who just wanna get along.

The movie is a sentimental favorite of mine, despite its many flaws. It came out when I was still young enough to remember high school (and, as my previous post about high school attests, those memories were not of the fond sort); the main character was a cynical loner/outsider who was eloquent in some arenas and had troubles communicating in others (traits with which I identified); the medium of choice for the main character was radio (I was a jockey/news horse at WVBR-FM at the time); the movie’s school administration worked at odds with its mandate, although teachers were generally sympathetic (a la Bennett H.S.); and Samantha Mathis (female lead in the movie) reminded me pleasantly of someone I knew and liked. The fact that she took off her shirt in one scene didn’t hurt, either.

But yes, there were a few flaws. No need to catalog them here; they mostly concern the plot, the script, the editing, some odd directorial choices, etc.

At the end of the movie, there’s a climactic scene where the hero radio pirate is cornered by the FCC and the cops and all them mean nasty suits. Up until this point in the movie, Christian Slater played his role like Christopher Reeve played Superman(tm): as two roles inhabiting one character. There was mild mannered Mark Hunter and his superhero radio jockey alter ego, Hard Harry. In the final scene, Hard Harry is unmasked in public and, as he is being carted away by the Feds, he beseeches his audience to “Steal the air”; to set up their own radio shows on their own pirate radio stations and say whatever it is they have to say.

Even at the time the movie first came out, this didn’t strike me as a particularly stirring call to action. If everyone is spending their time broadcasting, to a very limited range, any old dumb thing that’s on their mind, then who ends up listening?

But tonight as I watch, I can’t help but think that Hard Harry’s dream has been realized. The medium is different: instead of a radio field crowded with pirate stations, we have the Internet. But Harry’s utopian vision of a world where anyone can broadcast whatever is on their mind to whoever might be out there to listen, well… we have that now. It’s called the blogosphere.

So where’s my revolution, man? Huh? Huh? HARRRRRRY!!! TALK HARRRRRD!


Posted by at 02:23 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (0)
 June 05, 2006
Family Movie Outing 2006

A couple of summers ago or so, we decided to give drive-in movies a try, because we figured that would allow us to see a flick with Alexander and not worry about bugging other movie-goers. The experiment was more of a success than not, and I'm sure we will try it again.

The double-feature we saw on that occasion was Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean. However, they showed Pirates *before* Nemo, which seemed odd to me. Wouldn't you start off with the movie that's geared for the tots, since they are likely to fall asleep before the second movie starts? (Which, by the way, is exactly what happened in our case).

At that particular time, I thought that Pirates was rather entertaining, and Nemo was okay. We later picked up the DVD of Finding Nemo, and upon repeated viewings I've come to the conclusion that it is effing brilliant. We missed a lot of the nuances (and even some of the bigger points) at the drive-in. Get all romantic if you like for drive-in picture shows, but there's a lot to be said for watching a clear picture and listening to state-of-the-art speakers -- two things that the drive-ins sadly do not offer.

In the intervening months/years, Paulette has taken the opportunity to bring Alex and Nolan to the occasional movie theater showing that is intended for toddler outings. Movies like the recent Curious George. These showings tend to happen on weekdays, so I tend to be at work when they occur.

But this past weekend, we found ourselves treated to free passes to catch the local premiere of the latest Pixar flick: Cars.

As with last year's excellent Pixar offering, The Incredibles, the new movie seemed more appropriate for kids just a wee bit older than Alex. And yet, Alex stayed riveted in his seat. (Er... so to speak.) I say that it seemed more appropriate for an older age simply because it contains a lot of concepts that strike me as just a little bit more complex than a three-year-old is likely to digest. Finding Nemo works on a number of levels, but the basic premise of little kid gets separated from over-protective father resonates with the very young.

The basic premise of Cars involves a rude rookie racecar getting sidetracked as it tries to participate in (and win) The Big Race. Easy to digest, but maybe just a wee bit advanced for three-going-on-four-year-olds.

Still, Alex watched the whole thing and seemed to enjoy it. I enjoyed it immensely. In addition to simply excellent animation, there were a number of subtle and not-so-subtle visual puns, musical gags, and timeless and timely pop-culture references. The story has many layers and subtexts (as do all of the Pixar offerings), and their handling of thematic elements is very well done. The story flows well, and even though the basic story elements are entirely predictable, the film makers often went with "the third alternative" in ways that I found very enjoyable.

For example: given that this is a movie ostensibly for kids, and given the basic premise, you figure that the little car overcomes the roadblocks (har, har) thrown in its path, becomes a better pers-- no, becomes a better car, makes its way to The Big Race, and wins, right?

Right?

I like the message of the movie. I'll be getting this on DVD when it comes out. It's the kind of movie I expect that I'll be able to still appreciate even after several viewings (as mandated by the kids). More to the point, it has some themes that I'd like for my kids to consider. Harry Potter may, thematically, present a more accurate take on life as we know it (for example: in Harry's world, as in ours, the ends often justify the means, regardless of what we might prefer to be the case), but there's still something to be said for pointing out that there are competing values that we use to define our own success.

Heady stuff? Not really. Check it out. This particular movie gets approval both from child and parent.

PS: Paulette didn't get to see much of it, because Nolan wasn't willing to sit still. Those back molars coming in are still bothering him, and Paulette volunteered to calm him down. Wasn't that nice of her to let me sit with Alex for a bit and enjoy a movie together?

Posted by at 01:04 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (3)
 April 02, 2006
The Non-Cover Up

Following on the heels of my recent "Cover Up" game, allow me to suggest some more fun with pop songs.

What are your favorite songs that *sound like* the were remakes of other songs? One of the more famous examples of this phenomenon is George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord", which is not a cover of "He's So Fine" by the Chiffons, but it sounded close enough for the judges to award damages (or so I recall, erroneously or not).

As some of you know, I was so struck by Natalie Imbruglia's "Wishing I Was There" and its similarity to George Michael's "Freedom" that I took out my trusty old Apple PowerBook and sampled the two together into one coherent song. Ah, the good old days... when I had free time.

Some of my favorite covers-that-aren't include:

EMF's "Unbelievable" and the Spice Girl's "Wanna Be"
Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" and Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London"
Gwen Steffani's "Crash" and Salt N Pepa's "Push It"
From their latest album, Weezer's "Hold Me" and Tracy Bonham's "Sharks Don't Sleep"
Green Day, "Warning" and the Kink's "Picture Book"

What about you? What songs do you like that remind you of other songs (which, perhaps, you also like)?

Posted by at 01:08 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (3)
 March 22, 2006
The Great Cover-Up

Here's a fun game. A friend of mine recently posed the question:

What cover songs are better than the originals?

Of course this is one of those open-ended, matter-of-personal-taste kind of questions that simply begs for controversy because we all have different criteria for what constitutes "better" -- or even "cover songs".

For the sake of argument, I'll define a cover song as any performance after the original "hit" performance of a given song, and the newer recording is recognizably a rendition of the earlier piece. Ergo, this could include an artist covering his or her own earlier tunes (as Dolly Parton, Neil Sadaka, and others have done with notable success). Remixes and live versions by the original artist don't count. And by "better", let's say that if you came across a radio station playing the older version and the next radio station up the dial was playing the newer version, you'd leave your tuner set to the newer version.

My friend thought that a list of cover songs that were better than the originals would be very short. I begged to differ, and looked through my iTunes and found in the "A" artists alone:

  • Aerosmith covered "Big 10 inch" and "Remember (Walking in the Sand)", both of which were better than the originals. Their cover of "Come Together" was also arguably at least as enjoyable to listen to as the Beatles' original (blasphemous though it may be to suggest).
  • Aimee Mann's version of "One" is far more enjoyable than Harry Nilsson's.
  • Alanis Morrisette's recent cover of "Crazy" has more punch than Seal's version.
  • Art of Noise and Tom Jones did a butt-kickin' version of Prince's "Kiss", and they also teamed up with Duane Eddy to out-hip the original cut of "The Peter Gunn Theme" from a few decades prior

Let's play! What covers do *you* like?

A few personal favorites that leap to mind for me (without checking my iTunes list):

  • Two Nice Girls, "Speed Racer"
  • Van Halen, "Happy Trials"
  • Frente!, "Flintstone's Theme (Open Up Your Heart)"
  • Art of Noise, "Peter Gunn Theme" & "Kiss"
  • Faster Pussycat, "You're So Vain"

And, for the halibut, I'll also cast my vote for the absolute worst cover EVER:

  • Madonna, "American Pie"

Discuss.

Posted by at 01:26 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (7)
 March 12, 2006
How it *should* have ended

Oh, sure, I comment quite frequently on books, movies, and music. But while I comment on things that are and things that could be, this one site shows how things should have been. Check out their archives regarding how Star Wars should have ended. Neat stuff.

I should also point out that their proposed ending for Lord of the Rings is remarkably similar to what Peter Schoaff discussed in a comment he'd posted here some time ago.

Thanks to Matt Kall for pointing this site out to me.

Posted by at 02:43 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (1)
 March 06, 2006
Give George Lucas a Hand

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen the Star Wars movies, and think that someday you might, be aware that there are some minor spoilers below.]

It has occurred to me that it might be fun to write a satiric piece on the Star Wars saga as a non-Christian religious parable. I've read a number of satiric reviews of well known books and movies that reframe them in terms of hard-line Christian parables (google, for example, Gilligan's Island and the Seven Deadly Sins, wherein each of the cast members represents one of the deadly sins -- except for the Skipper, who represents two, thereby freeing up Gilligan to step into the role of Lucifer, who will eternally torment the others...), and I had thought it might be funny to do the same with Star Wars, only I'd reframe it as a parable from a different major religion.

Of course, satirizing certain religions in any form results in international bedlam and fatwahs and other unpleasantries. Witness Salman Rushdie and the recent Danish Debacle. I'm all for freedom of speech, but do I really want to risk my life or well-being just to make a humorous observation? Perhaps some other day, but not today.

The idea for this satire-that-I'm-not-writing came to me when I realized that Lucas has a thing about chopping off people's hands, and his saga features a religious order that insisted on trumping the political order of society. Many have argued (effectively) that this could describe any of the world's major religions (and there are *many* overtly and uniquely Christian references throughout the scripts, what with Immaculately conceived Anakin going around spouting New Testament quotes hither and yon), but with the hand-chopping-off-kink that Lucas kept returning to, I thought it might be fun to explore a non-Christian angle.

Are you not familiar with the hand-chopping-off motif in Star Wars? Here's a handy guide.

In Episode I, nobody's hands get chopped off that I recall. But...

Episode II, Attack of the Clones:

  • Obi-Wan, in a bar, cuts off the assassin's right arm with his light-sabre (just as in the original Star Wars).
  • Mace Windu, during the climactic battle scene in the arena on Geonosis, cuts off Jango Fett's right hand as a prelude to decapitating him.
  • Count Dooku cuts off Anakin's right arm in their duel at the end of the movie.

Episode III, Revenge of the Sith (The last one filmed)

  • Anakin cuts off *both* of Count Dooku's hands with his light-sabre before decapitating him (the first and only Star Wars movie where the left hand goes as well as the right).
  • Obi-Wan chops off one of General Greivous's left hands. Then one of his right hands....
  • Anakin chops off Mace Windu's right hand.
  • Obi-Wan cuts off Anakin's remaining arm (the left) and both legs, just to be complete about it.

Episode IV, A New Hope (The original Star Wars)

  • Obi-Wan, in a bar, cuts off the thug's right arm with his light-sabre (just as he does in Attack of the Clones).

Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back

  • Luke Skywalker cuts off the ice monster's right arm with his light-sabre.
  • Darth Vader cuts off Luke Skywalker's right hand with his light-sabre.

Episode VI, The Return of the Jedi

  • Luke Skywalker cuts off Darth Vader's right arm with his light-sabre (only to discover that Darth Vader's right arm was already entirely mechanical, as we know, since it was cut off already in Attack of the Clones back when Darth Vader was still Anakin Skywalker).

In my next pop culture critique, I'll examine the endorsement of fascism found in Toy Story and Toy Story 2.

Posted by at 02:54 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (0)
 August 03, 2005
Pop Culture Snapshot

I'm working insane hours... which is too bad, because I'm not getting enough done for my employer to be worth the effort. This happens to me every few months it seems... a few weeks of terrible productivity despite long hours, then I find traction... and work even more hours, but at least I'm productive.

But when I'm not working or whinging about work, I'm driving to work or I'm avoiding work. While driving or avoiding, I partake in pop culture:

  • What I'm listening to now: Green Day's album American Idiot is the most inspired album I've heard in years. It has lived in the CD player in my van non-stop for months, now.

  • What I'm reading now: I just finished book three (The Waste Lands) in Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series. Before I resume the series (I had refused to read any of the Dark Tower books until King had finished writing them), though, I'm now diving into Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. A very compelling read. J. K. Rowling just gets better and better as a writer, and the story is a grabber.

  • What I'm watching on TV: Ha! Faithful readers know that my wife and I told the cable company and the satellite companies to go and unbroadcastable themselves about five years ago. So our TV watching has depended upon DVDs, rentals, and anything we could pick up with rabbit ears.

    Happily, we recently moved from a valley to a ridge, so now instead of getting NBC and occasionally ABC, we can watch *all* of the broadcast networks. So, sometimes I get home by ten-thirty in the evening, which affords me the chance to watch the syndicated reruns of "That 70's Show" -- a program I never watched when it was on. Or popular. Or whatever. Is it still on? Is it still popular? Well, whatever. I like the show. Not because I'm nostalgic for the '70's (I'm not), but because the show is very cleverly written and the performances are enjoyable. A relaxed approach to comedy; nothing forced. Well, not much, anyway. So that's what I'm watching. Re-runs of "That 70's Show".

  • What I'm eating: jambalaya. Mmmmm.

  • What I'm wearing: Carhart t-shirt. Blue jeans. Hawaiian shirt. Natch.

  • What I'm drinking: Dr Pepper.

  • What I'm writing: a horror short story about a dead bird.

So, go pick up American Idiot and listen to it while reading your copy of the latest Harry Potter. Then watch some "That 70's Show" while eating jambalaya and drinking Dr Pepper, all decked out in your hawaiian shirt. But don't write a horror story about a dead bird because I'm going to finish mine and send it out before you do, and then you'll just look like a copy cat.

Posted by at 12:21 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (2)
 July 17, 2005
Jack Has No Soul

Theres a relatively new radio format making the rounds in the good ol US of A called Jack. This format has recently been adopted by a radio station where I live.

My strange and varied career has included three years working as an on-air personality at a small commercial radio station in upstate New York. For two and a half years, I worked primarily in the news department (although I also got involved in the music programming side of things, as the whim of the music director allowed), and then switched over to become a morning dj. So I am not an entirely disinterested party when it comes to radio (or journalism or pop music, for that matter).

Because I worked for so long at a rock-n-roll station, I was favored with a barrage of free albums and CDs. When I left radio, my appetite for new music remained, so I switched from getting free music to paying for it. A lot of it.

In recent years, my computer manufacturer of choice came out with a product called iTunes, and I finally decided to join the digital music age. I digitized my entire CD collection into one central disk drive, and now I can play anything in my collection with the click of a mouse. According to iTunes, I could play my entire play list for over 46 days and never repeat a track. (Of course, since several of my CDs are greatest hits and similar compilations, Id hear the same *songs* more than once, but not exactly the same tracks.)

That kind of music library would be unmanageable, but iTunes includes a rating feature that allows me to assign a 1 to 5-star rating to any given track. When I digitized my CDs, I simply gave a 5-star rating to whatever track or tracks cause me to pick up the album. This allows me to set up a play list that randomly plays only my top-rated tunes. (8 days of music with, in theory, no repeats.) This makes for a very cool jukebox: all of my favorites, and only my favorites, spanning the breadth of my musical interests.

Now, along comes Jack.

The current range of music formats in the US highlights specific music genres and sub-genres. Any given station will tend to feature only R&B or classic rock (rock hits of the late 60s through mid 70s) or oldies (rock hits of the fifties through mid sixties) or young country or hip hop or top hits of the eighties or whatever. The Jack format does not recognize genre barriers. Jack could play the Clash followed by Suzanne Vega followed by Cake followed by Celine Dion. Depeche Mode followed by the Eagles. It wouldnt surprise me to hear the Statler Brothers followed by Eminem on Jack. Its a fascinatingly eclectic mix of the best (and the near-best) of most of the major music genres, going back to the mid-Sixties (albeit emphasizing more recent music).

In short, the music is right to my tastes. Not as edgy, certainly, but neither is my five-star mix on my iTunes. Its all proven commodities. One doesnt go to Jack to hear the latest. For that, I need to go elsewhere.

But Jack is different from other formats in another way: there are no djs. None. No personalities at all. Just a random selection of clips from a voice-over guy saying things like, Playing the music we want or Well play anything, except your requests.

Good music jockeys in a good format do more than simply announce the title of the song you just heard. They also have a little bit of influence over the order in which the music gets played. The degree of influence a dj can hold over the music mix depends upon how tightly formatted the station is, but most locally-owned stations still allow for at least *some* sway. The jock can rearrange the songs on his play list to highlight interesting connections lyrical or musical. This is what gives a radio show its flavor. Its more than a random mix of music: it has a subtle theme.

Jacks voice-overs claim that they play what they want. But to my trained ear, there exists no hint that any person holds any sway over what songs are being played. There are no clever segues between tunes, no thematic links to tie one song with the next except as you would expect to occasionally pop up in a random shuffle, like my iTunes occasionally manages. So I dont think they play what they want; I think they choose some songs and let a computer pick them at random.

I like my iTunes shuffle, dont get me wrong. But it is, when all is said and done, a mechanical mix. Some songs simply dont go well together, even though the songs are individually great. My iTunes is a fun back-up plan when I dont have a specific CD in mind to listen to at the office. But as much as I try to cleverly set the parameters of my iTunes jukebox, the mix itself has no cleverness to it at all. Just like Jack. Jack has no soul. Great music spanning a wide variety of genres, yes. But personality? Voice? Character? No.

People respond to character. They respond to voice. I know several people who say that they dont miss the patter of the djs. That may well be. But I am firmly convinced that people can sense the difference between a mechanical mix and a thoughtful presentation. The mind will grow to miss any kind of human connection with the music being played. This is what makes Jack less than the sum of its parts.

I believe that Jacks approach to having an eclectic music base is a sound one. Now if a station were to adopt that kind of music format and combine it with a smart radio personality, *that* could be amazing.

Posted by at 03:44 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (4)
 July 12, 2005
Perfectly Flawed

Now, I was going to post here about the many fun and freaky and serendipitous events that took place on the night I went to see Star Wars: Episode III -- The Revenge of the SITH, but I've just been way too busy. Suffice it to say:

I saw it at the midnight showing on opening night. It rained. Hard. I got soaked. By magic, I got a perfect seat. Then I had to give it up to someone who claimed to be handicapped and who showed up at the last minute -- which means I then had to take a very crappy seat in the very front row. Met some cool people who sat with me. We swapped stories of raising kids, we shared popcorn and coke, and we had a hell of a good time watching a hell of an entertainment.

In the weeks that have since past, I have not had a chance to see it again at the theater (although I still hope to). However, many friends of mine have, and it has come up on several occasions as a topic of conversation.

The biggest point that *everyone* has to make is what is wrong with the movie. Friends' favorite flaws include the unbelievability of ...

Oops. I should have mentioned that there might be spoilers hereabouts. If you haven't seen the movie, and if you want to see the movie, and if you don't want to see any spoilers about what is in the movie, by all means -- do not let me spoil it for you.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

Friends' favorite flaws include the unbelievable evaporation of Padme, the unbelievable love story between Padme and Anakin, the weak reasons behind Anakin's motivation, the "Noooooooooooooooo" scene, numerous continuity errors (like when Obi-Wan refers to Palpatine as the Emperor even before Palpatine has proclaimed himself as such) and so on. My friends love to debate whether the Emporer ever actually lied to Anakin (and will then pick on the movie from either interpretation). And so on, and so on.

I am willing to concede some of these points while disagreeing with others, but it's fun -- extremely fun -- to play the "Well, if *I* wrote the three Star Wars prequels, I would have..." game.

Everyone I know who has seen the movie has some way in which they would have or could have written it *so* much better. Everyone I know who has seen it has some favorite flaw to flaunt. And most of the things I hear them suggest would most certainly be an improvement. But.

But.

Mr. Lucas must really be on to something to write the movie(s) that EVERYONE wants to have written.

So, here's to you, Mr. Lucas. You have written the most Perfectly Flawed movie series ever. It is so perfectly flawed, we'll watch it again and again and critique and analyze and rip apart and revel in it for years to come.

As you have done, I hope some day to write a story that everyone else wishes they had written. What better mark of success can a writer hope for?

(Well, that *and* a big, big bag of money.)

Posted by at 05:55 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (0)
 January 25, 2005
Million Dollar Movie

Somehow this past weekend, I managed to escape the usual routines and requirements at home and get out to see a movie at a movie theater. On the basis of Roger Ebert's excellently written review, I decided that I should see Million Dollar Baby before someone spoiled the story for me. In his review, Ebert doesn't tell you too much, but gives very compelling reasons as to why you should go see it.

As the movie opens up, you can tell where it's going -- which formula it is following, which notes it has to hit -- and it's done brilliantly. The actors are pitch perfect: Clint Eastwood as the cranky old trainer who is guarding a heart of gold, Hilary Swank as the wanna-be contender who has all of the odds stacked against her but an undeniable will to beat the odds, and Morgan Freeman as the wise intermediary who nudges both characters to see what they otherwise could not. Had the movie played out as expected, it would no doubt have stood as one of the best of its breed.

But then, well, it turns out that this movie does not follow the formula at all. Much like Eastwood's movie Unforgiven, it transcends its genre. Million Dollar Baby tells a very human story that goes beyond its apparent setting as "a boxing movie".

I don't know if I agree with Ebert that this is a "great" film. It is certainly not flawless -- unlike, say, The Godfather, which is arguably perfect. I have a couple of minor quibbles with a couple of scenes that didn't ring quite true to me. But if this movie isn't one of the all-time greats, it is nonetheless damn good.

There is a danger of going in to see a movie like this with one's hopes set too high. When I went in, I had no idea what to expect. Ebert didn't really warn me of what to expect -- much to his credit -- but rather, he simply said that this was the best film of 2004. Going in, that seemed to set the bar pretty high. But then, as much as I love Mr. Ebert's writing, we don't always agree on what works and what doesn't. So I went in expecting that the movie would be worthwhile, even if it wouldn't make *my* list of the year's best.

(Of course, I haven't seen that many new movies this year.)

My first reaction when the movie was over was that, well, hmm, maybe it *was* the best film of the year. And the more I've thought about it, the more convinced I have become that, yeah, this definitely was the best I've seen, and probably better than the ones I haven't seen. Here we are a few days later, and I still can't stop thinking about it.

Was it perfect? Certainly not. Was it great? Ask me again in a year, after I've had time to digest it. Was it worth seeing? Oh, yes. Definitely.

Don't read any more reviews. Just go see this movie, and tell me what you think.

Posted by at 01:43 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (1)
 October 03, 2004
Lucas Changes Star Wars... Again!

Perhaps one of the biggest thorns in the sides of science fiction movie fans is the fact that George Lucas has modified his "Star Wars" movies each time they were re-released. Each of the several re-releases to theaters, including one revision that was so obvious it was actually called the "Special Edition", featured a number of nips and tucks here and there.

With each release to video (and now, DVD), all previous versions became commercially unavailable. Thus, if you have a videotape of the movies from when they first aired on HBO, for example, you have a very different movie from the subsequent video releases... and a collector's item at that.

Now Lucas has finally released the movies on DVD, and he has further modified each of the movies beyond the 1997 "Special Edition" treatment. As could be expected, a number of fans are taking issue with the tinkering. Check out the reviews on Amazon.com, for example. A number of fans wish he had simply released the original versions and let it go at that.

The changes range from correcting minor continuity errors (Han Solo's vest disappeared and reappeared in a few scenes in Empire Strikes Back, for example, and now that's been fixed), to improving the special effects (the battle scene at the Death Star in the first movie doesn't look like models anymore), to adding new scenes (the gratuitous Jabba the Hut scene in the first movie), to outright story revisionism (having Greedo shoot first in the cantina scene of the first movie). Much of the revisionism is being done to correct continuity errors with the Episode I and II movies, which were filmed *after* the first three, but what the heck. So, for example, Boba Fett's voice is limply re-looped by the actor who plays Jango Fett from the Attack of the Clones movie, while the original emperor in Empire Strikes Back is replaced with the actor who played him in Return of the Jedi (and Episodes I and II).

The reviews on Amazon are interesting because, while the major bone of contention is whether Lucas should have released the "original" versions as opposed to retooled versions, there is also a minority contingent whining that some scenes that were deleted from the original release (and that were later re-added for a few of the commercial releases) are deleted still (or again, or whatever) from the new release.

While the fanboys bicker about whether this or that change should have been made in the DVD version, I'm surprised nobody has complained about these other changes:

* In the first movie, when Luke and Han take Chewbacca on the elevator to the detention level, you can now here Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass' version of "A Taste of Honey" in the background.

* The infamous "pair of sneakers" space ships that appeared in Return of the Jedi have been switched from Nike to New Balance.

* One of the pilots in the Death Star battle scene in Return of the Jedi is clearly recognizable as "fat Elvis", while a "skinny Elvis" is seen getting into an X-Wing fighter in the first movie.

* A photo of Jar-Jar Binks can be seen on one of the milk cartons in the kitchen scene in the first movie.

* We learn in Return of the Jedi that the Emperor is actually Vader's father, which means that he is also Luke's grandfather.

* In the Sarlaac pit in Return of the Jedi, you can see an Ewok impaled on one of the lower rows of teeth.

* When Darth Vader and his two wing ships engage the X-wing fighters during the Death Star battle scenes in the first movie, you can hear the boom-boom-boom of a sub-woofer as they fly by.

* Darth Vader's voice has been over dubbed by Bill O'Reilly. I'm guessing that this is because the voice of CNN isn't quite as menacing as the voice of Fox News Network.

Were there any other changes that I missed?

Posted by at 06:33 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Humor | Comments (0)
 September 19, 2004
Movie and Book Spoilers

WARNING! MOVIE SPOILERS BELOW!

You know what a spoiler is, right? That's when somebody spoils the surprise by telling you what it is rather than letting you find out for yourself. When someone is kind enough to tell you in the heading of a message (like this one) that the message contains spoilers, that means that if you haven't seen or read the movies or books being discussed, you might end up finding out about a "surprise" in the story that might lessen (or ruin) the experience for you if you should end up watching/reading the story for yourself at a later date.

For example, in the movie Presumed Innocent, the wife did it. Now that I've told you that, if you go see the movie, you'll realize that you already know the big surprise, and that might diminish your enjoyment of the film.

A year or two ago, I was in a very foul mood, and I decided to post a "Listmania" list on Amazon.com that listed spoilers for a bunch of movies. I was feeling mean, and I wanted to share the pain.

Ironically, after I'd spent a few hours creating this masterpiece of a list, when I went to save it, the connection was broken and my machine crashed. I lost the entire list. Man, was that annoying. I didn't bother recreating the list at the time, I was so pissed off. But, now that I'm in a bad mood again (but not yet pissed off), I've recreated the list to the best of my ability, and you can find it here.

While creating this list, I noticed that as I moved from the simple and obvious cases (like Gosford Park -- the maid did it), there are a lot of fun patterns in movies that supposedly contain surprises.

For example, the big surprise of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan was that Spock was sacrificed in order to save the ship. But then, in the next movie, the even bigger surprise was that the ship was sacrificed to save Spock. (Of course, since then, the folks at Star Trek Incorporated have blown up the ship every chance they get, which kind of reduces the shock value.)

Audiences were stunned to learn in Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader was really Luke's father. The following movie, Return of the Jedi, featured the revelation that Darth Vader was also Princess Leia's father, and that Luke and Leia were twins. Yowza! But then, in Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace (what a long and ugly title), we learn that in his youth, Darth Vader built C3PO. Yup, Darth Vader is C3PO's father, too. Holy cow! My guess is that in the next movie, we'll learn that Darth Vader is also Chewbacca's father.

Speaking of twist endings regarding parentage, you should check out Robert A. Heinlein's short story "All You Zombies...", in which we learn at the very end that the main character is his own father. And mother. How's THAT for a surprise you didn't see coming!? Well, okay, even though I spoiled the ending, you still might get a chuckle out of reading the story to see how it all happened.

I love it when a movie's very title gives away the ending. Like, "Kill Bill". Guess what happens at the end?

And then there's movies that open up by telling you the ending, but the ending still (potentially) surprises you. Like in "American Beauty". The narrator tells you right at the beginning that he's dead, and here's what happened leading up to his death. Then, you get to the end of the movie, and BLAM! He's dead. Pretty cool.

The movie "Schindler's List" is all the more devastating *because* you know the ending.

Then again, any James Bond movie you choose is *relaxing* because you know the ending.

So is it better, going in, to know the ending or to not know the ending of a given story?

This is the premise of a story I've been developing: what if you knew the ending of your own personal story? Would that make your remaining days richer? Or would it take the fun out of life? Or, would it make absolutely no difference to you at all?

If you had a chance to find out how your life was going to play out, would you do it?

Posted by at 08:11 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (3)
 August 26, 2004
There Are No Good Movies Based Upon Books

Hanging out as I do among writers and avid readers, I often hear folks bemoaning that movies based upon books are never as good as the books upon which they are based.

Sounds quite obviously true, doesnt it? I mean, how many good movies do you recall seeing that were based upon good books?

I can only think of a few.

  • The Godfather and The Godfather Part II -- both based upon the classic novel by Mario Puzo, which I have read and thoroughly enjoyed.
  • Gone With the Wind -- I havent read the book, and I hated the movie, but it was an excellent movie, regardless. It just happened to be a celebration of racism and sexism and the obnoxious hatefest known as the Old South that I find reprehensible. Still, a fine, fine flick for what it is.
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Schindlers List -- based upon a non-fiction book, but a book, nonetheless.
  • Psycho
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest
  • The Lord of the Rings -- all three movies/books.
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • Apocalypse Now -- based upon Conrad's Heart of Darkness
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Doctor Zhivago -- well, its considered a classic, anyway. The movie *and* the book.
  • A Clockwork Orange -- another excellent movie I hated which really captures the essence of the book upon which it is based, and which I also hated.
  • Jaws
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs -- and all those other Disney classics, like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, etc., etc., etc.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • M*A*S*H -- I read the book, and I found the movie more enjoyable than the book by a wide margin.
  • Catch-22 -- both movie and book were excellent.
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • The Manchurian Candidate -- I havent seen the remake; Im referring to the first movie version.
  • Forrest Gump
  • Wuthering Heights -- not my cup of tea, but a classic, nonetheless
  • Frankenstein
  • Goodfellas
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • The Shining
  • The Green Mile
  • Stand By Me
  • Blade Runner
  • The Princess Bride
  • All the Presidents Men
  • The Exorcist
  • The Right Stuff

These are just a few of the movies listed on the AFIs list of Americas 100 Greatest Movies and from the Internet Movie Databases Top 250 best movies of all time. But yeah, you say, Well, er, but those are all classics.

Indeed.

Here are a few others that leap into mind:

  • The first several James Bond movies -- Ive read the books, and the movies are every bit as good. Later movies were not so much based upon the later books as they were based upon the evolving characters and situations, but still. The best of these was From Russia With Love, even though many people enjoy Goldfinger even more.
  • The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy
  • Jurassic Park -- I enjoyed the movie more than the book, but your mileage may vary. Both had their share of cheese, but damn fine entertainment, nonetheless.
  • All of Michael Crichtons other books/movies -- ditto
  • Half of the movies based upon Stephen King stories are quite decent (the ones in the list above are, imho, excellent)
  • Starship Troopers -- Sure, it made a completely different point from Robert A. Heinleins novel, but it was still fun.
  • Total Recall
  • Minority Report

But other than that, there arent any good movies based upon good books. Unless Im missing a few. What do *you* think?

Posted by at 02:10 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (5)
 December 17, 2003
Quick review: Return of the King

I've been suffering from insomnia again, so I put it to good use for a change last night and walked across the street to the movie theater after Alexander was put to bed and Paulette was doing some work for a client. The theater was sold out of tickets for the midnight showing of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, just as I had expected.

However, there was a guy at the window who was asking the cashier if there was any way they (the theater) could resell a ticket that the guy had bought but now couldn't use. What good luck! I told him I'd be happy to take it, so the guy told the cashier nevermind, I bought the ticket, and caught the first showing of this long-anticipated movie.

(I guess I told you all that so that you wouldn't think I'm a total geek, like the guy who had "stood in line" since 9am that morning so he could get the best seats. Sheesh.)

So, here's my preliminary review of the movie:

THIS MOVIE HAD MORE CRYING IN IT THAN FRIED GREEN TOMATOES!

THIS MOVIE HAD MORE TALKING IN IT THAN THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY!

THIS MOVIE IS SUCH A CHICK FLICK, THAT EVEN WHEN THERE'S ACTION, AND THE DRAGON'S HEAD IS CUT OFF, IT'S BY A CHICK!

I'll post a more detailed review later. If I feel like it. As this is a chick flick, I reserve the right to change my mind about it.

--Allan

PS: I say 'dragon' because I don't remember the name of those particular creatures. The pseudonymguls, or something.

PPS: I've never actually seen "Fried Green Tomatoes". But so what? You get my point.

PPPS: Oh, and I've heard it said that the Ditches of Madison County is a romance for males. I have only three words in reply: Sam and Frodo.

Posted by at 10:29 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (3)
 November 26, 2003
Parry Hotter Book Four (Spoilers)

For the writing workshop I took a couple months ago, I was assigned to read the first book in the Harry Potter series. I read it. I liked it. Nothing great, but it was pretty good. Good enough for me to decide that I'd go ahead and read the others in the series when I had a chance.

Eventually, I got the chance, and I read book two. It was quite good. So I read book three. It was *wonderful*. So now I'm reading book four.

Book four is kinda funny in that, after I was 240 pages into it, the main conflict was just finally set into motion.

Don't get me wrong: the first 240 pages had a lot going on, and the writing was very smooth, and each scene and situation pulled me seamlessly to the next. But I was beginning to wonder when we were going to get to the meat of the matter, when it finally got set up in the mid 200's.

No biggie. I enjoyed the reading experience. But once the meat of the matter was introduced, the story began to absolutely sing. The author's storytelling just gets better and better.

My favorite aspect, both as a reader and as a writer who wants to improve his craft is the way the author handles plot reversals. I have mentioned elsewhere on this website (here, in fact) Connie Willis's lecture on plot devices from when I was at Clarion West, but I'll recap my interpretation of what she said on the subject:

In a "reversal", the plot or action suddenly veers off in another direction from what was expected. The reversal can be good *or* bad. It doesn't always have to be bad. A really good reversal changes the goals/questions for the characters involved.

In Harry Potter Book Four, the reversals frequently change the goals for the characters, and they are very, very well done. I'm impressed, also, with the way the author raises the stakes each time.

But that said, the author also introduced an interesting plot problem (for me) in the form of a universal get out of jail free card.

I'm about to comment on a few specific plot points in the novel. If you don't want to read about them (ie, if you haven't read the novel and don't want to spoil it for when you finally get around to reading), then don't read the rest of today's entry.

SPOILERS and a rant:

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Posted by at 04:56 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (4)
 June 14, 2003
Identity

Another installment in my gingiva graft saga! A movie review! Existential angst! Haircuts! All this, and more, in one essay! The mind reels!

In case you haven't been following the my gum surgery story, or in case you'd like a refresher course on where we are, here is a brief summation of what has gone before:

  • Around Christmas time, a recession in my gum line (lower jaw) split open, leaving two flaps of gum material just sorta hanging out at the base of one of my lower teeth. Icky.
  • Saw a periodontist, who recommended a gingiva graft: take gum material from roof of mouth, insert into exposed area, and sew it all up.
  • Had the procedure, but some of the gum material escaped, so I...
  • Had a second procedure, in which the remaining transplanted gum material was more securely fastened. Alas, this didn't quite heal right, so I...
  • Had a third procedure, in which other gum material (from upper side) was transplanted to the base of the previously exposed tooth, to act as a barrier to further decrepitude.

That third procedure was due to happen about a month ago, as I mentioned in a previous essay. Sure enough, I went in and the procedure itself went as perfectly as it can go -- just like the other two had -- but there was something very unsettling that I happened to notice as they were showing me the work after it was done.

[By the way, my stories about my gum surgery might be considered a little graphic by my readers who are a little squeamish... you have been warned.]

There was nothing wrong with the work they did. What was unsettling was that my mouth didn't look like my mouth anymore. Specifically, it was my lower lip. Most folks have some vertical tissue that connects their lower lip to their lower gums. I'm sure this has a name, but I haven't a clue as to what it is. Some people have two strands of tissue, others have one. It's funny, the things you notice after you've had gum surgery.

Anyway, I had one strand of tissue that rose up in the middle of my lip, rather high, connecting to my lower gums. Because there was a lot of tension on my lower gums (they were very tight), the periodontist kept cutting back that connective tissue, lowering it with each procedure. By the end of this third procedure, the connective tissue was so low as to be not even visible to a casual inspection of my lower mouth.

So here I am, looking into a mirror at my lower mouth, and the gum work is picture perfect. A fine looking set of gums on these ol' choppers. But it's not my mouth! That one little change -- the apparently missing connective tissue -- completely messed with my concept of what I should expect when I look into a mirror at my mouth.

This was not the first time this spring I'd looked into the mirror and seen someone else.

A couple months earlier, I'd gone in to have my hair cut. This was the second time I'd seen this particular stylist, and so we had to talk about kids and all that obligatory introductory stuff that you have to talk about when you and your hair stylist are getting to know each other. She was washing my hair (prelude to a cut) when I told her that I had a son at home, and she asked what color his hair was.

"Blond," I said. "Like mine."

"What do you mean, 'Like yours?'"

"What do you mean, 'What do I mean?'"

"You're not blond."

Well, my hair was wet, so certainly it must have been darker than when it's dry, but when I sat down in the chair for my haircut, I noticed that, well... my hair was brown. She cut my hair, and it continued to dry. It stayed brown. I got home, and looked in the mirror. Nice haircut. Brown hair.

Ahhhhhhhhh!

Now, the area where I live happens to enjoy rather short days during the fall and winter (and early spring). Shorter days than anywhere else in the US, except for Alaska. Plus, the area where I live tends to be overcast for much of the winter, which is the rainy season. (Winter forecast: drizzle, 45 degrees. Every day. Summer forecast: partly sunny, 75 degrees. Every day.) Like many blonds, my hair tends to get lighter with exposure to sunlight; darker without.

Okay, okay, but this was ridiculous. My blonditude was in doubt, which meant my entire self-concept was in doubt. Who am I? Hair color isn't just about hair color. It's about identity. You identify people by their appearance, and that includes hair. How long their hair is, how it is styled, whether it's curly or straight... and what color it is. I began to understand why there is such a big money industry surrounding hair-loss products for men and hair styling products in general. When we look in the mirror, we want to see ourselves looking back. That, or we want to see a *better* ourselves looking back. This is why some people dye their hair, because doing so changes their identity to something they'd prefer. This is why they fight baldness, because they want to retain the identity they've grown accustomed to.

When my hair-line receded at the temples ("widows peaks" is the term for this kind of AWOL hair, but I don't know why), it didn't bother me all that much because it had happened gradually, and it was minor. I still had hair and, hey, I was still a blond.

I have an uncle who is a cop. One week, while his wife was out of town, he and his fellow cops did what cops whose wives are out of town are wont to do: they got drunk, and they shaved their heads. My uncle used to have (thinning) red hair. Very Irish. When he shaved his head, he looked, well, like a cop. A tough cop.

Then his wife came home. For the sake of this story, let us say that she was not amused. He let his hair grow back. It grew back brown. No kidding.

(For the record, let me state that I have considered the "shaving your head to change your image" idea, but it wouldn't work for me. There is a photo of me after a skiing session where I'd worked up a sweat, and my hair was all matted down so as to make me look bald. I looked like Uncle Fester, of the Addams Family. Not the image I'd want to adopt. [shudder])

So. Throughout the months of March and April, I felt my identity slipping away. I wasn't a blond anymore. Who was this stranger looking back at me in the mirror? I don't know. Somebody with brown hair. Maybe, like my uncle, the change was permanent. For my birthday, Paulette got me a card in which she had written, "You'll always be blond to me." I'm not sure if I was supposed to find that reassuring.

I've gained a few pounds over the years. Let me rephrase that. Every year since college, I've gained a few pounds. I graduated 13 years ago. A few pounds every year means... oh, brother.

And now, the inside of my mouth is completely different from what I'd become accustomed to over the last twenty years or so. Who the hell is this fat, brown-haired guy with the unfamiliar gums?

If you've read about my first two gum surgery experiences, you know that it's important to take some time off and relax just after you've had the procedure. For me, this means staying away from home, since Paulette and I work from home, and the kid is an added distraction (and he *is* work). So after my third procedure, I went to see a movie and sipped on a big gulp of Sprite. Tried to forget about my mouth for a little while. What movie did I go see?

Identity.

In the movie, ten people are stranded at a hotel during a rainstorm. The roads are out, the phones are out, and one by one, people start dying. At the same time, a convicted killer is being considered for clemency by the men who put him away. The movie aspires to be Hitchcockian, and it comes close. The acting is superb, and the direction is well done. There are some very nice touches, especially surrounding how the two stories relate to each other (for example, the weather in one story line is always the same as the other story line, which is a very nice detail). Both stories are self-contained and interrelated at the same time. This is part of what makes the movie work, but it is also part of why the movie didn't quite realize its aspirations for me. I'll explain why below, so that you can skip that part if you don't want to see spoilers about the movie.

The key to the movie, to nobody's surprise, is the title. The movie isn't just about the identity of the killer, it's about the killer's Identity writ large. It's about *each* character's identity. Anyone who has seen the Twilight Zone as many times as I have will figure out the mystery before the movie reveals it, but that doesn't detract from the mystery as it unfolds.

As distractions from physical discomfort go, this film was a fine way to spend the first couple hours of recuperation from my most recent gum surgery. But spending a couple of hours in the Twilight Zone of someone else's imagination did nothing to rescue me from my own private Twilight Zone.

It's a big ol' world, and there are a lot of nasty things going on. Just a couple days ago, NBC News showed me, during the dinner hour, a man in Louisiana getting shot fifteen times by police. The guy f'ing *died* right in front of me while Tom Brokow blathered on about the investigation. In the grand scheme of things, changes in hair color or how my lip is attached to my gums is hardly Earth-shattering. I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where I can afford the luxury of a minor identity crisis.

Which is all by way of saying, the shock of seeing a different mouth in the mirror has worn off. It's still weird, but not shocking. I'm more sensitive than ever to my hair color (strange, but true), but as the days have been getting longer (longer than anywhere else in the US, outside of Alaska) and I've been taking Alexander on daily strolls through the neighborhood, I see encouraging signs that my blondness is returning. Whew.

Trivial concerns? Absolutely. But that doesn't make them any less real. I'm surprised that I would even react this way to things as minor as these cosmetic changes. But as I mentioned earlier, an entire industry is doing booming business because of these very concerns. Even you, dear reader, have been concerned about your appearance once or twice in your life. Before this little episode, though, I hadn't been so overtly aware of how much I have invested in my appearance, sloppy though it has always been. That investment includes a piece of my very identity.

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Posted by at 12:07 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Essays , Gingiva Graft | Comments (3)
 March 14, 2003
Observations on Haunted Houses

In connection with one of my new writing projects, I have decided to dissect the structure of a couple of Stephen King novels. The project I'm working on is not horror, but my goal is to approach the structure of this new novel differently from the way I pursued the novel-formerly-known-as-The-Do-Over.

In the course of re-reading The Shining, I decided to rent the television mini-series version that King scripted a few years ago. While watching it, I was struck by how similar it was to Rose Red, that nasty mini-series (also scripted by King) in which I was a backgrounder.

Similarities:
* Well, they're haunted houses. Duh.
* The ghostly inhabitants desire the psychic powers of a young (alive) prodigy who is a guest there.
* The ghostly inhabitants pursue the young prodigy by attempting to get one of the other living occupants to go crazy and kill same.
* The living inhabitants all know that staying there is a bad idea, but are convinced by the crazy one that they should stay.
* When Glenn Miller is played, Very Bad Things happen.

There were many, many other similarities. But there were some key differences, too. For example, the third act in the Shining miniseries was actually well made and surprisingly scary. The horror arose from the brutality committed by a person, not the building or its ghostly inhabitants. It was scary because the director finally stopped showing parlor tricks (oooh, the chandelier moved, spooooky) and started showing real terror (Wendy finds that Jack is no longer locked in the pantry). The Shining also worked because, in the end, you can see that Jack is struggling to try to redeem himself. Rose Red had no such personal stakes. It's brutality was based in nothing real. It was all parlor tricks, from beginning to end.

For what it's worth, I still prefer the Stanley Kubrick version of The Shining to King's own interpretation of his novel, but let's leave that for another day. Suffice it to say that as bad as the first two acts were, the third installment of the mini-series was profoundly good.

After having viewed this remake of King's story, I chatted with Paulette about Rose Red and The Shining. She pointed out that one was a hotel, and the other a house. "But," I noted, "Rose Red was a very big house."

"Of course," she said. "Nobody's going to be scared by a haunted cottage."

This led us to talk about the diminishing returns on haunted log cabins. And haunted outhouses. ("Well, that one might keep you on the edge of your seat, I suppose.")

Hmmm. Maybe there's a short story in that. Couldn't sustain a novel, of course, because there's only one act in an outhouse. Well, two. But I digress.

In summary: horror may be most effective when the personal stakes are high. Horror can also result from really, really bad puns.

Posted by at 12:52 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Writing | Comments (3)
 December 14, 2002
Diet Another Day

On the morning of Friday the 13th, I had the pleasure of undergoing some rather urgent oral surgery. I'll spare you the gruesome the details, other than to say it was a "gum graft" to transplant some of the gum material from my upper palette to the front of my lower jaw where my gums had sustained a nasty injury.

Now, I say I had "the pleasure" of having this surgery done because, quite frankly, I'm glad I had the opportunity to have it done. Dental surgery is much less unpleasant these days than it was when I was younger, and I consider myself fortunate to have this sudden problem addressed with such a quick and relatively painless procedure. Perhaps its the echoes of Thanksgiving Day still rolling around in my head, but I'm not taking such things for granted.

While the procedure itself was relatively painless, the recovery is a bit uncomfortable. Talking is uncomfortable (and if you know me, you know what a drag that must be), and eating is even more so. The periodontist prescribed sleep, milk shakes to wash down the pain medication, and restful activity for a day or two while I get over the worst of it. "Watch a movie at home," she said. "Definitely don't go to work if you can at all avoid it."

Well, I work from home. And as it so happens, I had a major deadline for one of my projects on Friday. While I found it necessary to avoid talking on the phone on Friday (as a part of my job), other work still had to be attended to. So, other than the prescribed milkshake and meds, plus a soft dinner (pasta in creme sauce), I didn't really follow doctor's orders. I worked long hours, got to bed by around 1 in the morning, and then got up at 5 in the morning in order to prepare for an annual meeting that I very much wanted to be a part of.

There is a short list of what I am advised to eat while I'm recovering, and three of the eight listed items are ice cream. I'm not kidding. Here's the menu:

1) Broth and soup
2) Baby foods (no thank you!)
3) Milk Shakes (ice cream number one)
4) Custards (ice cream number two)
5) Eggs
6) Ice Cream (ahem)
7) Chopped or ground meats (how finely chopped?)
8) Puddings

I was also told that overcooked pasta might work out well, but that I should also eat sauces or soups lukewarm for the first couple days, as warmer foods would expand the blood vessels, which could lead to bleeding, yadda, yadda, yadda.

The doctor says I must eat. "Maintaining an adequate diet after surgery is essential," says my little instruction booklet they gave me. After a couple of days, I'll start reintroducing real food. In the meantime, though, ice cream can get a little boring after a while.

After my meeting this morning (which lasted until two in the afternoon, or so), I finally had a chance to rest. I was to meet Paulette and Alexander at the home of friends, but I wasn't up to it. I napped. I ate lukewarm soup. And then, finally, I followed the other advice of my periodontist and went to see a movie.

The cool thing about getting lost in a film is that it's possible to forget one's physical ailments. In this case, I even managed to stop constantly feeling for the stitches in my mouth with my tongue.

The movie I went to see was Die Another Day.

It had possibly the darkest montage at the beginning of any James Bond film. In fact, it was thematically about as dark as any Bond film has ever managed. There were some cool stunts, and the absolute best fight sequences were the fencing scenes throughout the movie. One of the babes in the film ("Mirand Frost") was perfectly cast, and the other ("Jinx") was a decent choice, as well. The plot was the most outlandish we've seen since Brosnon took over the series, and many of the special effects were downright awful. Bond's escape from the glacier looked more fake than footage from a video game would have. But the fight scenes were fun, as I mentioned, and there were unusually nice touches with the permanent cast (Q, Moneypenny, M).

How's this for outrageous: North Korea has enough money to develop a super weapon that nobody in the West suspects. A weapon that works flawlessly the first time. Oh, and the bad North Koreans drive cars that are as well equipped as Bond's. It's hard enough to imagine that Britain still has any sort of real espionage capabilities as it is, let alone trying to imagine North Korea as a military superpower.

Having had a nap, some food, and a distracting movie, I'm feeling much better. It was just what the doctor ordered.

Posted by at 09:56 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Gingiva Graft , Tidbits | Comments (0)
 November 30, 2002
Harry Chamber and the Potter of Secrets

(Some mild spoilers below.)

I don't get to go out to see movies as often these days as I'd like, but I did somehow manage to get out to see "Harry and the Chamber Pot of Secrets" a couple of days ago.

I've never read the books, but I'm beginning to feel like I should. Soon. The story is decent enough: the standard good versus evil tale with lots of fairy tale imagery (step-parents are bad, natural parents are good) and appropriate PC morality (prejudice is bad, tolerance is good, etc.). The evil wizard Valdemort (sp?) is a suitably racist, fascist thug who seeks to destroy the fabric of the world order (in this case, the school where the story is set). The hero, Parry Hotter, must break all of the rules and risk the lives of his friends in order to keep things right.

As is true in most fairy tales, as well as in the world in which we live, Potter's results are rewarded and the illicit means of his success are disregarded. That the ends justify the means is generally understood both to parents and children alike, even though we'd like to pretend otherwise. But it did surprise me a little just how boldly this theme was played in the movie.

"Harry Potter, you have broken countless school rules and jeopardized the lives of your friends," says the headmaster, "but since we agree with your results, we shall overlook your transgressions." Okay, I'm paraphrasing. But not by much.

Sometimes fairy tales reflect reality more closely than people give them credit for doing. Change the school from a "wizards' academy" to an NCAA athletic program, and you'll be hard pressed to see any difference at all between the fairy tale and reality.

What did disturb me, however, was an image that seemed to not be noticed by other friends of mine who'd seen the movie. In order for Harry to defeat the villain, he must DESTROY A BOOK! With the exception of this scene in the movie, Valdemort is very clearly an analogy to Hitler... even down to the idea that he is of "mixed blood" while he defends the idea that only pure-bloods should be allowed to live. And yet, it is Harry who literally destroys a book in order to silence Valdemort. The evil Valdemort even notes something along the lines of, "See how much trouble a book can be, especially when in the hands of certain girls?" Ack! Not only are some books *evil,* but particularly in the hands of *girls!* It is after Valdemort makes this pronouncement that Harry desecrates (any relation to Socrates?) the book, and we learn that Valdemort was right: the book was dangerous.

Yes, some books are dangerous -- some *ideas* are dangerous -- and the debate over whether some books should be banned (whether Mein Kampf or the Harry Potter books themselves) remains alive and well. I am not among those who favor book banning. Given Hitler's own penchant for book burning, I found this particular imagery in the movie disturbing.

Some have suggested that the imagery is there to make a point about the calls for banning the Harry Potter books. If so -- and this is entirely plausible -- I'm sure the connections won't be lost on many of today's young viewers. Nonetheless, I tend to favor heros who find other ways to destroy villains.

To give the movie credit, though, it is exactly this kind of solution that is both morally ambiguous and, as with the ends justifying the means, a reasonably accurate reflection of the real world, even if it is a disturbing one. As such, this second installment in the Harry Potter movie franchise is about as strong a tale as one is likely to find, for children or for adults.

Posted by at 09:49 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (3)
 November 17, 2002
The State of the American Sitcom

Many people I know spend a great deal of time lamenting the deterioration of our society. The news has shifted from reporting to opining and entertaining. Politicians are sleazier and sleazier. Crime is up. Education is down. And our popular culture is dumbing America noticeably.

As one who was trained as an historian, I often find it necessary to point out that these things come and go in cycles. That the so called "news" today may be bad, but the same kind of scandal-centric infotainment was all the rage back when Hearst's papers inspired the term "yellow journalism." That Clinton was hardly the first President to be accused of inappropriate liaisons while residing in the White House... nor the first to be re-elected with that reputation. That crime is always going up... and down... and up... and down. That Johnny, by and large, can read. That our pop culture is just as varied in its quality today as it ever has been... but that the good selections from the past have survived in our memories while the inane selections have been conveniently forgotten.

I stand by these observations. By and large, the world is a better place today than it was ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, a thousand years ago. A hundred years ago, the average life span in America was what, forty-eight years old? It's now in the seventies. Sure, AIDS is bad and cancer worse, but so were polio and TB and smallpox back in the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents. The world political situation is a bit edgy these days (is that a gross understatement?), but do you remember the cold war and fears of nuclear armageddon a not-too-distant decade-and-a-half ago? Not so long ago, we were taught to "duck and cover" because we lived in a world gone mad. The world may not be sane right now, but my point is that not all things are always getting worse. We simply don't always acknowledge to ourselves where things have gotten better or are getting better.

Still, every once in a while, I find something to remind me that in some respects, we are in a "trough" for various quality cycles. Take television writing, and sitcoms in particular. Sure, there have always been bad shows and good shows, relatively speaking. But the writing for the past ten years has been arguably awful, and there's little sign of improvement (for now).

I want to take a moment here to talk about the Dick Van Dyke Show.

What is the best written sitcom today? I'm going to go with "Frasier." Formulaic, certainly, just like any sitcom must be. But, there's a lot of cleverness that manages to come through even within the constraints of the formula. Do you think there's better writing in a sitcom today? Please comment below, as I'd love to know.

During a recent trip along the West Coast, my family and I were staying at a hotel and we chanced to watch some television one night. We don't have a television feed at home (long story), and haven't had one for about three years. There is something very liberating about not having television at home. Something isolating, as well. So, for the first time in a while, we surfed through what cable had to offer, and found the Dick Van Dyke Show on Nick at Night.

The episode involved a golf outing where Rob (Dick Van Dyke) encountered a fellow who used to date Rob's wife Mary (Mary Tyler Moore) back in college. Unbeknownst to Rob, the fellow is now a priest. The priest doesn't realize that the Mary he talks about is the Mary who is married to Rob. As the episode unfolds, Rob confronts Mary about the priest (neither one knows that he's a priest, remember), Mary invites the priest over for dinner, Rob invites his female officemate to dinner as a blind date for the priest, and much hilarity ensues.

This is sitcom plot number five. There are only seven, I'm told. This plot is the comedy of insufficient information and incorrect assumptions.

I was expecting the withheld information (the priest's identity, Mary's identity, et al) to be kept from the participants for the duration of the episode, which is a common ploy these days. But instead, the characters figured out the errors of their respective ways pretty quickly, which was both MUCH more believable and MUCH more funny. Everyone copped to their various mistakes, and moved forward while still providing a great deal of laughs at a ridiculous-but-plausible situation. The writing was positively brilliant.

The episode then threw me for another loop in the epilogue, when Mary brings out an old shoebox of letters and poems that the priest had written her back in college. She reads Rob a sonnet. Here I was expecting the sonnet to be particularly bad or humorous. Instead, it was... beautiful. Touching. A completely non-funny, totally romantic love poem. And Mary makes a very interesting observation about the sonnet that is also not funny, but appropriate. The result? A sitcom episode that was both hilarious and deep. It was moving as well as entertaining.

And this was a typical episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show. This wasn't a "Very Special Episode, in which Rob Discovers He Has the Disease of the Week." While Frasier (or the sitcom of your choice) may have writing that is above average for today's television drivel, the characters are all caricatures. They react neither the way we would react, ourselves, nor the way we would hope we would react. As a result, they don't engage us. Without engagement, there is no tension. Without tension, the humor is forced.

(Why do I hear the voice of Yoda in the back of my head just now, saying "pain leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering, suffering leads to pain, pain leads to codependency," etc., etc.?)

I do not subscribe to the philosophy that everything is getting worse all the time. Nor will I go so far as to say that television writing is on a one-way slide into oblivion. Except when it comes to Saturday Night Live. Nonetheless, I think television humor has become substantially less sophisticated in recent years. "Edgy" or "cynical" is not the same as sophisticated.

One thing about being in the trough, though... things will get better. Someday soon, this may even be said of the Great American Sitcom.

Posted by at 11:40 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Essays , Humor | Comments (3)
 November 11, 2002
Never Be the Same

Wayback (not "way back," but "wayback") when I was in college, a good friend and I enjoyed watching a television show called The Wonder Years, which focused on the coming-of-age of a fellow named Kevin and his friends and family during the 1960's. The story was told like one big flashback, narrated by actor Daniel Stern as the adult Kevin, even though we only saw the young Kevin (played by Fred Savage) on screen.

My friend pointed out on some rainy Tuesday many years after we'd started watching this show that every single episode seemed to involve the narrator saying something along the lines of, "I knew then that things would never be the same."

Kevin kissed his girlfriend Winnie for the first time, and he "knew then that things would never be the same." Winnie's brother was killed in Vietnam, and Kevin "knew then that things would never be the same." Kevin played hookey from Coach Cutlip's gym class, and he "knew then that things would never...."

Well, you get the picture.

It was sort of a funny formula, the kind that drinking games are made of. "Next time Kevin says he knew then that things would never be the same, everyone drinks a shot." Whatever. Despite this predictability, the show was fun to watch. Even as I type this, I realize that there may even be a little bit of "Wonder Years" that was lurking in the back of my mind as I began exploring the good and the bad of 1980's Buffalo in my recently completed novel.

But that's not why I bring this all up.

It seems that most days with Alexander are producing in me the same kind of "and I knew then that things would never be the same" response that seemed to fill up the ficitional Kevin's life. Ferinstance, Alexander (three and a half months old at this point) completely rolled over from lying on his back to resting on his tummy all by himself yesterday. More than once. After rolling over, he started trying to crawl. He moved around a bit, but didn't quite manage to get anywhere. But you could see he was figuring things out.

Once he rolled over the second time, I knew then that things... you know.

Allow me to point out that we don't currently have a television feed in our house. We rent movies, borrow DVDs, etc., to pickle our brains as necessary, but we don't have cable or satelite or anything like that. And yes, this is a little odd, given that my current project (near completion!) is a pilot for a television series being written on spec. It's also a little odd, given my role as some sort of pop culture consumer type guy. I'm catching up on my pop culture reading though. :-)

Anyway, this all means that Alexander hasn't been spending much time plopped down in front of the television. In fact, he hasn't been spending *any* time in front of the TV.

Until recently.

Now I must point also out here that there's this little device called a "pacifier" which is a pretty magical gizmo. You place the little rubbery thingy in his mouth when he's crying, and he stops crying. If he doesn't seem tired and you want him to sleep, you give him this wonderful invention, and he goes to sleep. I knew from the first time we gave him a pacifier and he took it that, well, things would never be the same.

Recently I was watching a video course (this is like an audio course, only it's... oh, you know) from the Teaching Company about detective fiction. I no longer get my pop culture the old fashioned way; now I watch videotaped college lectures about pop culture. (Actually, I'm learning more about the form of the detective novel because I think I can learn from these kind of thrillers as I put together my next novel.) As I was watching this very dry presentation by a rather high-pitched professor, I noticed that the previously-antsy Alexander had moved around on the floor where he was babbling so that he could see the screen. He was fascinated. Completely drawn in. The television was acting as uberpacifier. He watched until I was done with my lecture.

We are not using the television as a baby-sitter for Alexander, and we have no intentions of doing so. But now that I've seen the immense power of the television on our child, I can't unlearn that knowledge. Things will never be quite the same.

...I gotta say, though, that the television makes the pacifier look much less of a controversial choice than it once had seemed. :-)

Posted by at 12:23 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Essays , The Boys | Comments (1)
 June 18, 2002
The Bourne Identity

Just saw The Bourne Identity this past weekend. In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert says, "It's too bad this movie isn't about anything."

I disagree. It's *great* that this movie isn't about anything. It's a James Bond movie that works on its own merits. It doesn't have any great message... it's just an action picture. And a fine, fine action picture it is, too. The actors are well cast, the characters work well as far as they go.

Good flick. Much, much better and more fun than Spider-Man, which also wasn't about anything. :-)

Posted by at 11:49 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (1)
 May 28, 2002
Attack of the Clones

So, yes, I went out and saw Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. It is much better than The Phantom Menace was. In fact, it was much better than Return of the Jedi, in my not so humble opinion. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and it even included some innovations for movie space battles.

It still had some really stupid moments, but to tell you about them would be to reveal some spoilers. And as you know, I haven't been inclined to publicize spoilers since lo those many years ago when the outgoing message on my answering machine (remember answering machines?) told callers: "Have you seen 'Presumed Innocent?' The wife did it. Leave a message."

As we discovered by watching the movie with folks who had seen the previous installment several times and folks who had not, Attack of the Clones makes more sense if you are already familiar with the settings established in The Phantom Menace.

The writer in me was also amused to note just how much easier it is to continue adding details to the same canvas over and over again than it is to create a new universe every time you set out to create. ("World-building" or "Universe-building" is a writer's term for creating a backdrop against which the story is set, independently of whether you are working on a literal sci-fi "world" or "universe.") This is the combined advantage and disadvantage of developing a "franchise" in your writing. You can have fun adding layers to the world-building you've already done, but you are also trapped with a landscape that contains flaws that cannot easily be painted over.

Sorry for mixing the metaphors there. My point is that Jar-Jar Binks is still annoying, even if he does become an ironically tragic figure rather than a pathetic comic hero. And, while it's easy to maintain a "holier than thou" attitude toward the retreading of the Star Wars universe, the fact of the matter is that I'd be all too willing to sell out if the masses offered me the kind of money that brings George Lucas back to the trough.

Formula? Sure. But fun formula in an ever richer context.

Posted by at 12:16 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (0)
 May 22, 2002
Hearts in Atlantis -- the Shadow of the King

I just returned from a business trip to Dallas. Before heading out, I had finally met my goal of sending out the first three chapters of my first novel to an agent. So, naturally, as I read on the plane, I was acutely aware of all the things I had not done as wonderfully as the author of the book I was reading.

The book in question was Hearts in Atlantis, and the author was Stephen King, and let us be clear on one point from the outset: I know he's had more practice than I have at this whole fiction writing thang. The premise of the five stories that comprise Hearts ("Low Men in Yellow Coats," "Hearts in Atlantis," "Blind Willie," "Why We're in Vietnam," and "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling") is quite different from any of the story lines that run through the novel I just completed. There are, however, some similar themes (about how life passes by, about how good intentions don't always map to good behavior, et al) and there is a strong streak of nostalgia that runs through both books.

In my case, the nostalgia centers upon Buffalo during the early 1980's. Now, don't confuse nostalgia for romanticizing... evoking that town at that time means capturing the details of both the racism and the philanthropy, the pollution as well as the purity. My goal was to bring the reader to a specific moment in time at a specific location in place, so as to let the events of the story unfold against an understandable background. To paraphrase Dickens's excellent observation, they were the best of times and the worst of times because they were, in short, times much like these.

My novel may or may not be, in part, "about" the dawning of the age of Generation X; I guess that depends upon how you read it. While that wasn't one of my main points, however, Stephen King clearly set out to bring us through the coming of age of his generation, The Baby Boomers.

He did a fantastic job of grounding the reader in that time (particularly 1960 and 1966) and in that place (small town Connecticut, a college in Maine, Tam Boi in Vietnam, the streets of New York). The details, dropped with just the right frequency and just the right specificity, made the setting all the more real. It's not just what songs are playing on the radio or what movies are playing at The Empire Theater... it's the way the webbing on Bobby Garfield's Alvin Dark-model baseball glove was starting to come loose, the way Bobby's mother kept pronouncing Ted Brautigan's name as "Mr. Brattigan" in order to show her very New England disapproval of the man.

The two best stories in Mr. King's book are the first two. "Low Men" clocks in at 323 pages -- a novel in and of itself -- and captures the summer of 1960 as seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old. And yet, King manages this without the story becoming a juvenile. I *loved* that. This is a very adult story about a kid. It was while reading this that I was most painfully aware of my concerns about the novel I've just sent off. My story, too, centers primarily in the world of twelve-year-olds, but I can only hope that it is seen as an adult story and not a young adult story.

King accomplishes this feat with apparent effortlessness. It all comes through.

His second story, "Hearts," is only slightly shorter than "Low Men," and it takes place on a college campus in 1966. The peace sign is only just beginning to make the rounds, and a young "Goldwater Republican" is beginning to contemplate Johnson's war in Vietnam. Against this backdrop, a group of college freshmen jeopardize their college scholarships (and, in turn, their place in college, which means they risk being drafted) on the altar of a long-standing card game in the lounge of their dormitory. Hence the title, "Hearts in Atlantis."

As an avid card player (including Hearts) who has been known to get caught up in a game or two, I was completely drawn into this story's excellent feel for how one can know what to do, know what the risk is of not doing it, and yet continue to not do it, anyway. The story also hints at the consequences of events that played out in the first story.

The third story centers upon a Vietnam War veteran who has picked a most interesting form of penance... not for whatever he may have done in Vietnam, but for what he did in 1960 as a high school student in that small town in Connecticut. This was refreshing, because while being a Vet is integral to Blind Willie's character, it is not the ultimate source of his personal hell. Thus is a very tired cliche avoided. And here, too, I can only hope to make a left turn when approaching cliche-ville the way Mr. King has, although only time will tell. (Har, har, har.)

The final two stories have an element of cuteness to them, but they don't ring true. Here, too, I can learn from Mr. King, albeit by way of counter-example. In "Why We're in Vietnam," King has a couple of Vets at the funeral of one of their buddies was philosophical while remembering nasty events in which they took part during the war. Welcome to cliche-ville. I was particularly disturbed to hear the one Vet bemoan to the other something along the lines of, "What happened to us? Our generation could have changed the world, we had it in our hands, but we sold out...." These are not the thoughts of a former soldier who did his time in Vietnam, but rather the thoughts of one of the flower children who had thought he/she knew better. I have known former flower children to talk in these terms (and I therefore assume that King may have been among them), but I have never heard former soldiers or former non-participants (either in the war or in the protests) say as much. Perhaps I haven't been privy to such conversations, but now I'm curious.

The final story ties together a few loose threads and tells us something about how the grown-ups owe their lives, for good or ill, to the children they once were. But it is otherwise inconsequential and not, in and of itself, a complete story.

I learned a lot from reading Hearts -- about writing, about one take on the sixties and the Baby Boomers, about the insidiousness of addiction, etc. -- and enjoyed it immensely, even with the hollow parts toward the end. It may well be some of King's best writing. And like all good writing, it also begs a lot of questions and issues a number of challenges... both for me as a writer, and for me as a child of my own generation.

Hey, any of you Baby Boomers out there: Do you feel like your generation could have changed the world and blew it's chance, instead? Did the Vietnam War define the way you look at the world and your role in it, or was it something that played out in the background? I'd love to hear from you.

Posted by at 03:27 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Novel-in-Progress , Writing | Comments (2)
 April 12, 2002
Sharing a Stage with Connie Willis

Connie Willis is the author of numerous award-winning books, novellas, and short stories. She has won more Hugo and Nebula awards for writing than any other author. And she's going to be speaking at the Write Out Loud! kick-off event in Redmond, WA on Saturday, April 20th. That's just a week away.

Why am I bothering to mention this on my website?

Well, a few reasons. First of all, I've seen Connie at a reading once before last summer, and she was amazing. Very funny, very entertaining. Anyone who has a chance to catch this performance on the 20th should make a point of being there.

The other reason for mentioning it is that Connie was one of my instructors at Clarion West last summer. She taught during the infamous "Week 4", notorious for being the week that breaks so many Clarionites in two unless there's a good instructor to hold it all together. :-)

The other other reason I menion this is that I am emceeing the event. This is certainly the highest profile public speaking gig I've had since I was the marching band announcer for a Buffalo Bills game in 1990. (Of course, that's going to be tough to top.)

Now, admittedly, I'm one of the organizers of this event (the other, other, other reason I mention it), so I guess there isn't that much mystery about how I became the emcee this time. (Whereas, I *wasn't* one of the organizers of the Buffalo Bills.) Still, I'm excited by the prospect. Connie is just a joy to listen to, and Nisi Shawl, the guest interviewer, is also excellent at making a Q & A session come alive.

If you're anywhere in the greater Seattle area and are interested in attending, you can visit www.rasp.cc to purchase tickets, or you can get the tickets at the door. Show starts at 7pm, so you may want to get there a little early if you plan to buy tickets at the door.

There will be a reception and book signing after the talk. Hope to see you there!

Posted by at 05:41 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Tidbits | Comments (0)
 April 10, 2002
Sorry. More on Austin Powers 3.

So, according to an online entertainment "news" article about Austin Powers 3, it looks like they may end up using the original title "Austin Powers in Goldmember."

More to the point, they listed some of the titles that the movie studio had been considering as a replacement, and many of the items I'd put on my list of stupid alternates were also on their stupid list. Go figure.

Note: I'd also considered "Live and Let Shag," but decided it was too obvious. :-)

Posted by at 05:17 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (0)
 April 09, 2002
Sequel Mania!

This year is most certainly the year of the sequel when it comes to movies. I can't think of a single year in movie history when we have seen so much attention being devoted to sequels and series. Should we also count remakes in the mix? I can understand why there are so many, however. They're proven commodities. I, for one, hope to catch a lot of the sequels coming out this year.

So far, the sequels and series have been your standard fare, best represented by Blade 2. (I haven't seen either the original or the sequel.) But coming soon to a theater near you are some pretty big players (well, and then there's Spy Kids...):

* Star Wars II (the fifth movie in the series)
* Charlie's Angels 2 (the second movie in the series)
* Men in Black 2
* Stuart Little 2
* Austin Powers 3 (I wonder if they've come up with a title for this one yet)
* Spy Kids 2 (Why in the world are they doing a sequel of this one?)
* James Bond 20: Die Another Day
* Harry Potter 2: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
* Lord of the Rings 2: The Two Towers
* Star Trek X: Nemesis

The sequel to The Matrix (called "The Matrix Reloaded") was originally planned to be released this year, but has been delayed.

Has there *ever* been a year of sequels/series like this?

Between sequel-itis in the publishing industry and the movie industry, New York and Hollywood are making it tough for original stories to get out there.

...and I'm making the problem worse every time I go see these sequels. Ouch.

Posted by at 03:47 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (0)
 April 06, 2002
James Bond Titles

The title of the upcoming James Bond movie is stupid beyond belief. I'd like to suggest some alternative James Bond titles:

* Die Noon

* The Dying Game

* Rose Dead

* The Hunt for Dead October

* The Thin Dead Line

* Die Honey, I'm Home

* Fast Times at Ridgemont Die

Of course, you heard that the producers of the James Bond franchise sued to stop the producers of the Austin Powers franchise from using the title "Austin Powers in Goldmember" for the movie that's coming out later this year because... well, just because, I guess. Too similar to the other James Bond titles, or too nasty, or something. The MPAA heard the appeal, and then ruled that the "Goldmember" title was "inadmissable"... not on the grounds of being to similar to previous James Bond titles, but because it's just plain naughty. Never mind the James Bond movie "Octopussy".

Octopussy! Helloooo!!!!

Well, in keeping with the theme, here's a brief list of other Austin Powers titles I'd like to see:

* License to Shag

* You Only Shag Twice

* Thunderball Buster

* On Her Majesty's Secret Cervix

* Squid Naughty Bits

Clearly, I'm overtired. Time for bed.

Posted by at 10:08 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Humor | Comments (0)
 February 26, 2002
Rehabilitation

Back in the old days, when I was a "Sovietologist," I learned an interesting use of the word "rehabilitate." When spoken in terms of communist political history, the word was used to describe the reintroduction of a political figure who had previously been made into an "unperson."

It worked like this: if the Communist Party decided that Tovarshch Gorky was a bad guy, then he disappeared, all reference to him disappeared, and you didn't read anything about him in the papers ever again. His image would be airbrushed out of photos of pivotal events. George Orwell called this kind of persona-non-grata an "unperson."

But, later on, it might happen that the powers that be would decide that maybe Tovarshch Gorky was actually an okay guy. Maybe he wasn't counterrevolutionary after all. And suddenly, his image would be no longer airbrushed out of crucial photos. It was okay to talk about him again in the papers. Just as if a light switch had been flipped, he re-appeared.

This reappearance was known as "rehabilitation."

It is the term that has been running through my head ever since George Harrison died. All of a sudden, radio stations have decided that it's okay to play the Beatles again. I hadn't even noticed that the Beatles disappeared from most radio stations until they reappeared.

Quite frankly, I'm happy to know that it's okay to play the Beatles again. I'm glad they're okay to listen to.

But I've also noticed an interesting and disturbing trend in the movies to rehabilitate music in a very bizarre way. I finally had an opportunity to watch Stephen King's Rose Red in its entirety a couple of weeks ago. Never mind how bad it was -- that's a topic for another discussion. I found it fascinating how Glen Miller tunes were used as the harbinger of doom. As soon as you heard Glen Miller, you knew someone was about to die.

This is becoming a new trope in horror movies. (Another vocabulary lesson: genre writers use the term "trope" to refer to a common paradigm or plot device found within their genre.) Bring back some music that has no horrific associations and then play it every time something horrific is about to happen. Pretty soon, the audience picks up on it, and the rehabilitated song develops a new association for the viewers.

Stephen King may have started this trope with his novel Christine, wherein classic '50's rock 'n' roll streamed out of the car radio of a haunted (possessed?) Plymouth Fury as it mowed down the high-schoolers that got in its way. I don't think music was a key element of horror novels until the big SK began this trick.

But now everybody's doing it. The movie Final Destination from a couple years ago (which, by the way, is about to have a sequel -- be afraid) would play John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" every time Death was about to pay a visit. The way the music was worked in was one of the few clever things about this otherwise non-clever flick.

I, for one, wish they'd cut it out. Stop rehabilitating good music like that! If you're going to bring back good music, bring it back goodly! You can even give it the "Ghost" treatment if you must (The movie Ghost revived a popular fifties tune called "Unchained Melody"), but stop equating good music with bad things.

So, there.

Posted by at 03:14 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Tidbits | Comments (1)
 November 05, 2001
A novel you shouldn't refuse

I recently finished reading Mario Puzo's The Godfather. My father had recommended that I read the book, during a conversation earlier this year in which we talked about the relative merits of the movies by Francis Ford Coppola. I particularly enjoyed the novel; the writing in general is decent, but the story itself is stunningly well constructed.

Along the way, Puzo gets into the motivations of the various characters without being either sentimental or critical. He lets you see the way the characters see the world without having to point out to the reader with big, bold letters where lay the irony and where to note self-delusion.

There were several passages that rang with a note of such truth that I had noted them down on my bookmark. This is a practice I've gotten into over the past few years; when the author says something interesting, I note it on the bookmark. As a result, many of the books in my library have bookmarks that are covered with notes. Any book that I finish without writing on the bookmark is a book that I consider to have been 'slight'. Not necessarily a waste of time, but not one to ever return to.

(I use old business cards as bookmarks, btw. B-cards of mine from past employment situations. Waste not, want not, eh?)

One of the scenes that grabbed me in particular is when Michael Corleone, who had always flown the straight and narrow up to this point, volunteers to "hit" the men who attempted to murder his father. All throughout the book, everyone talked about how hits were (ideally) a matter of business; they were nothing personal. Michael finally disagreed:

"Tom, don't let anybody kid you. It's all personal, every bit of business. Every piece of shit every man has to eat every day of his life is personal. They call it business. OK. But it's personal as hell. You know where I learned that from? The Don. My old man. The Godfather. If a bolt of lightning hit a friend of his the old man would take it personal. He took my going into the Marines personal. That's what makes him great. The Great Don. He takes everything personal. Like God. He knows every feather that falls from the tail of a sparrow or however the hell it goes. Right? And you know something? Accidents don't happen to people who take accidents as a personal insult. So I came late, OK, but I'm coming all the way. Damn right, I take that broken jaw personal; damn right, I take Sollozzo trying to kill my father personal."

While I think there are some juicy bits in there about what is "personal" and what is "business", I also like Tom's rebuke:

"I'll tell you one thing you didn't learn from [your father]: talking the way you're talking now. There are things that have to be done and you do them and you never talk about them. You don't try to justify them. They can't be justified. You just do them. Then you forget it."

I don't have the words to express just how strong a chord this all struck in me, having seen from the inside exactly how certain large corporations work, and how their employees handle the situations that spring up in that environment. But it amazes me, the contortions through which people put themselves, all in an effort to justify what they do or do not do, and the extent to which they do (or, more often, do not) separate the business from the personal.

Sometimes for good, but mostly for ill.

By the way, I recommend this book if you haven't already read it.

Posted by at 01:27 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music
 October 25, 2001
We interrupt this broadcast...

So, this week and a couple of weeks ago, I was party to the live television broadcast of a local station's afternoon chatfest called "Northwest Afternoon". I attended as a member of the "live studio audience" so as to pay off a favor. They run our PSA's (that's a "public service announcement", and they're pretty much required to run a number of these every day as a community service) in exchange for us putting some butts in seats for their daily afternoon talk show.

It was fun to watch people who are good at their jobs do what they do well. It was also fun to see first-hand exactly how plastic and phoney everything is in the world of television. Examples:

* applause is not only handled through the use of applause signs (well, okay, a twenty-two year old blonde chick who raises her hands when she wants us to clap), but said pre-arranged applause is also augmented by canned applause.

* the star of the show is returning from getting a face-lift. She was very funny and witty about it, but the reality remains that she got a facelift... almost certainly because either she is that vain or the industry let her know that they'd can her butt if she didn't do the deed.

* the stars enthusiastically read the teleprompters as if they're making up the words right off the top of their heads.

There were other things, but you get the gist. Nothing here that surprises you, I'm sure... it was simply the totality of it all that I found amazing.

That said, these were also very fun and engaging people. They seem to like their jobs, and they were very good at getting the audience involved (for live Q&A of the guests, etc.).

On today's show, the guests were co-authors of some lame book about love and romance. Blah, blah, blah. But, one of the members of the audience said something that I found very interesting.

She told the story about how, before she got married, she surveyed everyone she knew about marriage... what makes it work, or why it fails. She said that of those who had stayed in long lasting relationships, every single one of them said that the single most important thing to making their relationships work was *compromise*.

When she asked people who had been divorced what the single most important thing missing was, they said it was *communication*. The woman said that pretty much every divorced person she asked attributed the break-up to "a lack of communication". Whereas, those who stayed together credited "the art of compromise."

I found that interesting.

As it so happens, the others in the audience also found that interesting. So, naturally, the hosts sidestepped her point and went on to talk about other things. :-)

--me

(I'll resume on the feminism and science fiction track tomorrow. No, really!)

Posted by at 03:10 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Tidbits
 August 24, 2001
Rockstar!

A funny thing happened last night. Paulette and I went to see the recently-released remake of *Planet of the Apes*. That wasn't the funny thing, but the funny thing happened there. This is not to say that voluntarily spending a couple hours of your life watching a movie that has so much potential to be so bad isn't, in and of itself, kind of funny. I mean, let's be honest: Mark Wahlberg is no Charlton Heston, and it'll be hard to top the Rod Serling twist of the original. (I'm probably misspelling the actors' names, too... sorry about that.) Although, when all was said and done, Helena Bohnam Carter did a mighty fine Roddy McDowell. But, where was I?

Oh, right. A funny thing.

So, before the movie, they showed roughly six commercials (including a bizarre music video of Brittney Spears singing the praises of Pepsi, with comic relief provided by Bob Dole. Since we don't have a television feed, we miss a lot of the latest trends in commercials. But, this Brittney Spears thing was just plain weird. And besides, there's no Coke to be had in the movie theater. It's Pepsi or some other Pepsi-owned product. That's your choices. Why are they advertising Pepsi? You have no choice!) and then six or seven previews.

Six or seven previews! I loved it. It's like watching all the good parts of six or seven movies without having to pay for the privilege of seeing the bad parts, too. I dig previews.

Among the previews were: a movie called *The One*, which looks like *The Matrix, Part Two* starring Jet Li who must fight, well, himself; a movie with Bruce Willis as a bank robber who just can seem to help letting a neurotic whiner join his bank-robbing gang; and a movie in which Mark Wahlberg plays a lead singer of a cover band who is invited to join the very band that his band was covering.

As soon as I saw that preview, I perked up. "Metal Gods!" I told Paulette. Turns out the movie is now entitled "Rockstar."

"Metal Gods" was the working title of the 80's-era movie that filmed in Seattle last summer. I worked on it as a backgrounder... it is entirely possible that there will be a scene or two in the movie in which you will see a fat old man in the background wearing a raincoat and a beret, walking in the rain. That's me. If I had a credit in the movie (which I won't), it would be: "Fat old guy in a beret and a raincoat walking in the rain."

I'm excited. The movie looks big. It looks cheesy. Pride of ownership swelled up within me as I watched the preview. Mmmmm. Big and cheesy.

...Although, come to think of it, I didn't even own the silly beret I wore. Oh, well; so much for pride of ownership.

Now that I've seen how expensive and labor intensive it is to put together a few minutes of film, though, I'm excited that I'll now get to see the finished product. Fun!

Posted by at 11:35 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music
 April 24, 2001
Pop Culture Update

Have rented a few movies because I've been going through withdrawal and I've been in need of a science fiction fix. Here's what we have for today:

Dune (The SciFi Channel version): Much better than the 1980's version. Of course, that's like saying it's better than having your fingernails pulled out with a rusty pair of channel-lock pliers. The special effects were okay, the acting was okay, and the story/script worked very well against the Frank Herbert novel. I learn from this rendition that villians should not speak in rhyming verse when nobody else does. They don't come off as terribly threatening. That said, this is not high art. It's the videobooks version of the novel. If you want an epic, go for Star Wars instead.

Red Planet (the Val Kilmer version): Whew! Stinko! This one made Mission to Mars look good... and, that actually *is* saying something. Whereas Mission to Mars was a collection of wonderful scenes that added up to a whole that was less than the sum of its parts, Red Planet is a collection of completely unremarkable scenes that also add up to a whole less than the sum of its parts. Too bad.

Bounce: Not science fiction, but I've been intrigued by the premise. When Chicago's O'Hare airport is snowed in and the last flight of the night is about to take-off before they shut it all down, one fellow gives away his ticket on that flight to another fellow who is trying desparately to get home. Then, the plane goes down, leaving our good samaritan (as well as several other people) with a whole lot of guilt over who lived and who died. One year later, the survivor meets up with the widow of the man to whom he had given his ticket. A most excellent premise. In execution, the movie was... okay. The script is simplistic in handling the concept of corporate guilt, and the alcoholism of the surviving fellow is just a little bit pat. But, the acting is good, and the ending works. This movie turned out to be a decent, light-hearted romance... but, I still like the premise a lot.

You Are Here: This movie was very, very, very bad. It was awful. I stopped after getting 15 minutes into it. I like independent films, but not films that are independent of plot, acting, decent sound editing, or story.

So there. I was going to tell you about my wacky life these days; the fact that things are mellowing out at work, that I'm finally back to making progress on the novel after a few dry weeks, and so on. Maybe later. I've got some novel writing to do now. Later, potater.

Posted by at 02:15 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (0)
 April 19, 2001
Memento Spoilers and My Employer

Hmmm. Had an epiphany about my employer today regarding the direction things are heading within my department. It's a three part epiphany, which I will summarize forthwith:

1) My group is stratifying along functional lines rather than business sector lines. At first blush, this is obviously less efficient for each product line when it comes to attending to their specific business needs, but it has the potential of being *more* efficient from a company-wide perspective. Why? Because, if all Web Devs or Program Managers or Catalog Specialists are interchangeable, then you can shrink or grow headcount as needed.

So far, this is hardly interesting. Having a re-org in order to accommodate layoffs or massive expansion is to be expected. However, I'm coming to see -- with each new 'process' and 'workflow' -- that we are adopting the McDonald's model of reproducibility. (Sorry for all of the potential spelling errors in here, by the way. It's late, and I won't be running this through a spell checker tonight.)

Once you have functional uniformity, and each functional unit interacts within a clearly established framework, then you invite the opportunity to franchise off sets and subsets of your operations. As goes Amazon, so goes the Borders.com/Amazon.com deal, and so goes Amazon.co.uk, and so on. Work will not get done terribly quickly on a store by store basis and store-specific innovation will become practically unheard of, but company-wide initiatives and innovations will be more easily and effectively propagated.

Thus, big-picture-wise, this should be a good thing.

2) That said, the current employees come to the realization that they are, nonetheless, "training their replacements". This was the big outcry from the latest round of layoffs at my employer: the Customer Service team was sent out to build a new team working on the other coast of the country, only to return to Seattle and be handed pink slips. This was a rather surprising reward for being so loyal to their company.

Alas, alack, from an objective position, one can recognize that this is simply a business decision that will necessarily have growing pains. C'est la vie, and don't let the door hit you on the way out. Truly, there's no need to take it personally... the company owes the employee wages in return for the laborers efforts, and no more. Loyalty -- by the company toward the employee or visa versa -- is neither required, rewarded, nor appropriate.

So, knowing this, I and my fellow employees can choose to accept the reality for what it is and stay until our run is through, or we can mosey along now while the moseying is good.

But.

3) Then there's the movie "Memento". In this movie, the story begins with the last scene and then works it's way backwards. The story is told from the point of view of what writers lovingly refer to as "the Unreliable Narrator." This Unreliable Narrator suffers from a kind of brain damage that won't allow him to make new memories ever since he took a rather nasty blow to the head. The only way for him to follow a line of continuity toward his stated purpose (which, as revealed in the very first scene, is to kill the man who raped and murdered his wife) is to leave himself notes, polaroid pictures, and other clues/reminders about what he has discovered and what he needs to do next.

From a story-telling standpoint, the technique is terribly fun to watch. But, from a story standpoint, you quickly learn an inherent problem: he who has no immediate history is apt to magnify the foibles of his immediate past.

My employer has this kind of condition. My employer, like the Unreliable Narrator of Memento, apparently is unable to make new memories. And so, it keeps covering the same ground, not realizing that it has tried certain approaches before that have led it astray from its stated goals.

Centralization along functional lines may aid in replication (the franchise formula), but it will never aid in increased efficiency among business units. Amazon.com's stated goal is *profitability*, and it's stated intention is to do this with the existing business (and not by selling itself off as a franchise). To attain profitability, the company must enable its most profitable (and/or best-margin) stores to immediately react to changes in the marketplace. Thus, a decentralized model is the most likely candidate. Layoffs, which are easier in a centralized world, are not a ticket to profitability. Ever.

My employer has vacillated back and forth between the centralized and decentralized model several times. Is the problem one of ever-changing goals? I'm not so sure. More likely, I think it's a case of having no short-term memory. It conducts experiments and then forgets the results.

This is too bad, because if this is, indeed, the case, then we are looking at an Unreliable Narrator which will ultimately lead itself, inadvertantly, far away from its desperately sought-after goals. It's always a shame to see any person or organization with so much potential end up totally burning itself (himself/herself) up. It's even more of a shame to be a party to the situation. I'm a passenger in a car that is running a red light, and I don't know how to affect the driver or the vehicle and thereby avert the imminent wreck.

Posted by at 04:11 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Essays , Tidbits II | Comments (0)
 April 16, 2001
Catching up

Sorry for the long silence. It's been a busy couple weeks. So, without further adoodoo, here's the news from Lake Woebegon:

* My employer has just had another reorg. "What?" I hear you ask. "Did't they just have layoffs a couple months ago?" Yes. And, now, they're reorging us again. I'm bummed, because my position has been changed from a manager of a team to a manager of projects... I have the same responsibilities, but I no longer officially have any resources. Grrrr.

* No definitive word yet from Clarion West. This is the six-week summer intensive writing program that I very much wish to attend this year. 'Tis better to wait in silence than be rejected outright, I reckon, but not so good as to have already been accepted. I'll know more in a week or so.

* No word yet from Odyssey, either (this is also a six-week intensive writing program), but their deadline was April 15th, and they probably won't send out invitations/declinations until the last week of April.

* Saw the movie "Memento" this weekend. I recommend it. A very interesting story-telling style: it begins with the end of the story and works backwards, using a highly unreliable narrator to relate the events. Most excellent.

* Saw the movie "Traffic" this weekend, as well. Michael Douglas won't take a movie unless he gets to give a speech at the end. That said, this is a pretty good movie, anyway. Not great; but, pretty good.

* I have written very little for The Do Over in the past few weeks. Just yer plain ol' dry spell.

* Started reading Stephen King's Dreamcatcher recently. As much as I tend to like his books, the writing in this one is pretty bad. The story is compelling, but the writing is awful. Now, the question is: have I simply become more critical, or is this book truly not up to the standards of some of his earlier works? Or, both? Neither? Hmmmmm.

* Oh, and remember "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"? It's happening at work. I swear, some of the folks here are now completely different people. It's very scary. They have this vacant look in their eyes when they say (regarding the reorg or whatever other brain-dead project is going on), "I really think this is the right thing for us to be doing." Verbatim, I've heard this repeated by no fewer than four people. Vacant stare, "I really think this is the right thinig for us to be doing." I'm scared.

If you visit the offices of my employer, don't drink the Kool-Aid.

Posted by at 07:54 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Novel-in-Progress , Tidbits II | Comments (0)
 February 27, 2001
Question Reality: America's Identity Crisis?

When Everett and I were at grad school together, we often tossed about the idea of working on a paper comparing the parallel evolution of American Science Fiction movies and the prevailing political attitudes of the day.

The argument was pretty obvious, but we hadn't seen anybody address it in the academic press, and we thought it might be fun. Here's the obvious:

Fear of nuclear bomb testing was obvious in such cheesy grade-B movies as They!, Godzilla, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman!, and so on.

Worried about communist perversion of the American ideal? There were scores of invasion flicks that highlighted that theme, but the best by far had to be Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

For fear of nuclear war, look no further than the parable in The Day the Earth Stood Still or the more literal Fail Safe and Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

We began to feel a little bit more optimistic at the power of our ingenuity in 2001: A Space Odessey, as well as the Star Wars and Star Trek sagas that came a decade later.

Concurrently in the 70's and 80's, the popular sci-fi movies presented growing concerns about technology getting us in over our heads in Alien, Logan's Run, and Mad Max -- and, later, Terminator and its many rip-offs.

My thesis stopped there; this was, after all, 1991 at the time I contemplated writing this scholarly work.

I've been reminded of this little idea, though, as I've been preparing to host a get together of some friends to watch a movie. This group gets together on a monthly basis with the members taking turns hosting. The host can assign homework that pertains to the movie that the host intends to show.

I decided, for various reasons (mostly pertaining to the fact that certain members of the group are big into conspiracy theories), to show The Parallax View. I assigned as homework for the members of the group to watch either The Conversation or Three Days of the Condor.

These three movies came out in 1974 and 1975, and each are about conspiracies and the use of very plausible, very real technology in carrying out those conspiracies. Having now seen all three quite recently, I have to confess that I don't think Parallax holds up as well as I remembered. It feels a little dated, and the conspiracy is simply too far fetched... but, then, that's quite possibly the point. Alas, all three films have their flaws. In the end, though, I think Conversation holds up the best. Francis Ford Coppola is expert at making every scene count.

The fact that all three films came out at the same time is no coincidence. The assassinations of JFK, King, and RFK had started to take their toll on the American psyche, and the revelations of Watergate fueled a national mood of distrust -- both of the government and of technology.

This distrust was echoed again and again in the mid-70's, in mainstream films like All the President's Men as well as in the science fiction of the day. Aside from Logan's Run and others, there was the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This one is particularly telling. In the original, 1956 version, the G-men save the day at the very last minute. In the 1978 version, the government has already been co-opted. Authority can not be trusted. In the end, no one can save us.

Getting back to my three conspiracy movies of 1974 and '75: it's been fun for the past week to watch these movies and pick apart their similarities and their differences. But, in the interrim, I happened to catch up on a movie I've been meaning to see for some time: The 13th Floor.

Interestingly, this movie came out at around the same time as three other movies with the exact same theme. If The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, and The Parallax View are all representative of a culture that is increasingly paranoid about conspiracies, what should one make of the period of 1998 and 1999 producing four movies that focus on the idea that our reality is merely a construct by some outside power?

I maintain that The Truman Show, The Matrix, eXistenZ (written and directed by the same man who brought us the 1978 version of Body Snatchers), and The 13th Floor are representative of a new undercurrent in American political thought. As a nation, we are in the midst of an incredible identity crisis, completely uncertain about what is real -- what is true. In Truman and Matrix, the message seems to be that we are at least partly culpable for our part in confusing reality with make-believe... willingly participating in, if not actively encouraging, the deception.

Do these movies resonate with the public because they ultimately forgive the pop culture for its lack of moral conviction? I'm inclined to think not. Rather, I'm inclined to believe that these movies have tapped into a growing ennui that must, eventually, lead to an awakening. We laugh at the conceit of The Truman Show even though we know the joke is on us. But as the nation contemplates, in its own politicorganic way, the nature of reality, I have a sneaking suspicion that the wake-up call is not too far behind.

Posted by at 03:59 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Essays , Tidbits III
 January 22, 2001
What I'm listening to now

Lounge Against the Machine by Richard Cheese -- Well known contemporary "alternative rock" hits as sung by a lounge singer. Extremely funny, but much too short.

Down Here by Tracy Bonham -- This album rocks. This woman is the real deal; not a pretender like Meredith Brooks trying to cash in on the Alanis Morissette fad. Great music; great production.

Maroon by Barenaked Ladies -- A fun pop album, and a return to form for this band. Strong reminder of their first album, Gordon.

Gilles Apap and the Transylvanian Mountain Boys -- I'd been looking for this one for a few years after hearing it on an NPR station in Boston. Finally found it through CDNow. No, Amazon doesn't list it. This is the most passionate classical music I've heard in an extremely long time. Gilles is a stunningly good violin player. The selections on this disk are European Gypsy songs rendered with heat and fun. Amazing.

Righteous Love by Joan Osborne -- Good, but not great. Joan is in danger of becoming Bonnie Raitt.

No Mermaid by Sinead Lohan -- in the same category as Sarah McLaughlin, with a similar emphasis on celtic rhythms. This album is a better debut than Sarah's was. It'll be interesting to see how she fares in the future.

No Angel by Dido -- also in the same category as Sarah McLaughlin, and stronger still than Sinead Lohan's album. This one is captivating. It's been in rotation in my multi-disk player for almost a year. Highly recommended.

The Best of Suzanne Vega -- Features a couple of new tracks, including 'Rosemary', which is the reason I bought it. I'm not a fan of greatest hits albums, as a general rule. But, I'm glad I now have the song Rosemary. :)

Jill Sobule -- Recommended to me by a friend a couple of years ago, I finally tracked this one down. Fun folk which plays against your expectations.

...and a few other "known quantities", like the new Don Henley, Talking Heads' 'Stop Making Sense', Counting Crows, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Hmmm. Now that I look at it, this is a pretty sedate rotation for me. Usually, my multi-disk player has a few more bizarro selections than this. Maybe it's time to throw Propellerheads back into the mix....

Posted by at 02:24 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music
 January 18, 2001
What I'm reading now

I read several books at a time. I'm just silly that way.

Designing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen -- One of the best books on usability I've had a chance to read. Like many usability gurus, Mr. Nielsen can get bogged down by dogma from time to time, but his approach is nonetheless fascinating. This is a must read for anybody working with the web, as well as anybody interested in usability design in general.

To The Best of My Ability edited by James M. McPherson -- a wonderful Christmas gift. This is a survey history of the Presidency of the United States, up through the Clinton administration. Because each of the historians happens to be a specialist for his/her respective President, each tends to be a bit more enthusiastic/supportive of his/her subject and a little less critical than I would have expected or wanted. The result is a series of essays that tend to lob more softballs at their subjects than I prefer. Where's the hard-edged evaluation of the foibles as well as of the successes? Despite the fact that the essays are, well, Statist (and, for that matter, Presidentist) in their approach, it's nonetheless an excellent primer for getting acquainted with each of the men who have held the office. Makes me interested in pursuing more critical study before too long...

The Well of Sacrifice by Chris Eboch -- a "young adult" novel written by a friend of mine. I'm not familiar with the genre, but the story is interesting and the Mayan culture is obviously well researched and vividly presented. I'm enjoying it. Hey, Anita! Check this book out and tell me what you think! It's got death and disease and war and nose piercings and human sacrifice and all that wonderful stuff. :)

The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes -- a collection of short stories, the likes of which we used to be forced to read in grade school. Kinda like the way we used to be forced to listen to dull classical music and to go to stuffy old art museums. Alas, now that I am older, I have more of an appreciation for "Litracha". Why didn't anyone ever tell us that some of this stuff is actually *good*? The first few stories were sorta okay, but I arrived at the story entitled "Home", and now I am completely hooked. Very compelling. Daunting. Sad. Angry. Wow.

Assorted Foxtrot by Bill Amend -- because too much Litracha and history and science and stuff can hurt your brain. Alas, alack, this is a good collection so far, but the formula is getting a little stale. Hey, Bill! Try to freshen this strip up, okay?

Posted by at 02:24 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music
 November 24, 2000
Unbreakable

Saw the movie "Unbreakable" today. Loved it. I highly recommend it.

Go see it and drop me a line, and let's chat about it. I'd love to tell you more now, but I don't want to give you any preconceived notions before you go in.

:)

PS: Have you seen Presumed Innocent yet? The wife did it.

Posted by at 11:36 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music

Copyright (c)1998 - 2010 by Allan Rousselle. All rights reserved, all wrongs reversed, all reservations righted, all right, already.
Click here to send me mail.

The author. January, 2010.
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