Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"Watch Your Tongue, Boy, If You Like This Job!": Young Punks, Old Men, and the Living Dead

It's no surprise to me, that the protagonists of Return of the Living Dead are young punks and old men.

The zombie genre has experienced a renaissance over the last few years. Who ever thought the walking dead would be the new vampires? I think a lot of it isn't the zombies themselves that fascinates us, but the fall of civilization. We're so worried about how dependent we are on our technology, we wonder how we would cope if it failed.

Civilization doesn't fall in Return of the Living Dead. The action is confined to a few blocks of Louisville, Kentucky. Nearly all of what we see happens in a graveyard, a funeral home, and a medical supply warehouse. Vehicles work fine. There is nothing wrong with the telephones. Emergency responders--police, paramedics, and the military are in plentiful supply. They're a phone call away, and they show up promptly when called.

What kind of zombie movie is this?

It’s a damn interesting one. It reverses one of the conventions of the genre in a way that isn‘t often repeated. Most zombie movies make the collapse of society part of the problem. The zombies are often a secondary problem to the loss of social order.  There are no police to keep order or paramedics to take care of us or military to fight back the scourge. Telephones don’t work; vehicles run out of gas; bullets are in short supply.

In Return of the Living Dead, society becomes part of the problem--every attempt by the existing social structures to re-establish order makes the problem worse . The police and paramedics are not only incapable of handling things, they end up being used as bait to lure in more victims. The military's 'surgical' attempt to solve the problem not only kills the patient, it spreads the contagion far and wide. 

The failure of technology is similarly subverted in Return of the Living Dead. The humans in most zombie movies are plagued with gasoline and ammunition shortages, insufficient medical supplies, and inadequate communications. In Return of the Living Dead, technology works exactly as intended. Unfortunately, it ends up working in the zombies favour. Not only does every phone call the protagonists make lead to more victims for the living dead, the zombies themselves--many of whom are capable of speech--use police and ambulance radios to lure in more emergency responders.

The zombies in Return of the Living Dead are much more human than we‘re used to seeing. They run. They talk. They use technology. They have individual self-awareness. Like us, they move away from pain, in this case, the pain of being dead.

Oddly enough, they even look to kill humans the way humans typically kill zombies. Most movies kill zombies by attacking the head. The Return of the Living Dead zombies cannot be killed this way. They do, however, have an unquenchable hunger for human brains which means they frequently attack people by going after their heads.

In other words, they kill us the way we usually kill them.

An impartial observer could be forgiven for asking: so what’s the difference between the humans and the Return of the Living Dead zombies?

Maybe there isn’t one. And maybe that’s why the movie has the protagonists it does: teenage punk rockers and middle-aged to old men. Neither demographic buys into the existing social order. Punks like Suicide refuse to conform to or be indoctrinated into the status quo. Middle-aged men like Frank have seen themselves betrayed by the status quo (“typical army fuckup,“ Frank grouses), and older folks like Ernie--whose choice in music and World War II era pistol hint at what he may have lived through--have seen enough status quos come and go that they don't buy into the bullshit.

Monster movies work best when the humans are isolated. Typically, it's a physical isolations like the the cabin in Dog Soliders (or Evil Dead, Cabin in the Woods, and countless others), Anatarctic research station in The Thing, or even a spaceship or deserted planet (Alien and Aliens, or Pitch Black).

There's another way to isolate a monster's victims, and that's socially. The young gang members in Attack the Block are not cut off from civilization physically--the movie happens in the middle of the city--but their social status makes them outcasts. Sweater-clad dream-slasher notwithstanding, the heart of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series is the unbridgeable gap between parents and their children, the way neither can ever truly see into the other's world.

In Return of the Living Dead, the protagonists are united by their skepticism of authority. The military could have been involved much earlier had it not been for Franks mistrust of them and refusal to phone the number on the side of the gas cannisters. In the end it is Burt, the man closest to a societal authority figure, the type of person who trusts in the protection of the social order that makes the call.

The results aresub-optimal.

Watching Return of the Living Dead reminds me of how much we need our skeptics. They are not separate from society; rather, they are an essential part of it.

We need our young men in studded black denim who arent afraid to point out the hypocrisy of the adult world. We need our quirky girls who read much and see even more.  We need our old men who spout inappropriate truths at wedding receptions.

Or as Robert Charles Wilson puts it in his short story The Perseids:

We're social animals, basically, but the group is more versatile if you have maybe a couple of hyperthymic types for cheerleaders, some dysthymics to sit home and mumble, and the one guy--you--who edges away from the crowd, who sits up when everyone else is asleep, who basically keeps the watches of the night.  The one who sees the lions coming.  Good night vision and lousy social skills.  Every tribe should have one.
I dont remember a thing about the short story, but Ive never forgotten that quote.

Praise be to those who keep the watches of the night. The stand-up comics and the pro wrestlers, the burlesque dancers and the heavy metal musicians, the young punks and old monks.  Circus acrobats, mixed martial artists, and mountain climbers. Political activists and Anonymous computer hackers.

They keep us adaptable, spearhead change, and force us to question what our culture tells us is important. They see the zombies coming, yes, but more importantly, they recognize where they come from.

They recognize that all too often, the zombies are us.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Being Like Mike

Im about to write about two athletes whose names you would never expect to see in the same breath. Theyre two different races doing two different jobs in two different eras. One is a household name; the other is not even that well-known within his own specialty--only a fraction of fans would recognize his name.

Lets start with the one almost everybody knows. Lets start with Michael Jordan.

Michael Fucking Jordan. Mr. Be Like Mike.

I never wanted to Be Like Mike. Truthfully, I never much liked Mike. I resented Mike.

He was the man who killed my dreams of seeing John Stockton with an NBA ring.


Jordan and his Bulls were always front runners, and Ive never been a guy who cared much for the favorites. Thats why Stockton was my favorite basketball player. He was short, relatively unathletic, and visually unimpressive. Yet by working hard, playing smart, and making the people around him better carved a place for himself in the game that might never be matched.

But lets be honest. He was no Michael Jordan.

Nobody was.

I dont think its possible to describe just how dominant Michael Jordan was at his peak both on the court and in the public imagination. Im not even going to try. But you know those articles making a case for why LeBron James (and before him, Kobe Bryant) should be considered all time greats and that you should appreciate them, goddamn it?

Nobody wrote those kinds of articles about Michael Jordan.

Why? Because nobody needed to.

Nigel McGuiness on the other hand

There was a time--a period of six months to a year, maybe--when Nigel McGuiness was arguably putting on some of the best professional wrestling matches around. Notice I used the words arguably and some in that last sentence. Nigel was never the Michael Jordan of pro wrestling. He was, however, very very good. Two of his notable opponents included Bryan Danielson and Kurt Angle, both former WWE champions who are also in the arguably among the greatest category. None of his matches happened on wrestlings largest stage, the WWE, so he never  entered the public consciousness.

Nigel McGuiness and Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan and Nigel McGuiness. Two names that would never be put together except for two articles that came out on the same week. This one on McGuiness and this one on Jordan.

Theyre good, I promise. Ill wait while you read them.


See what I mean? Of course you do. Except for you, you fucker, who couldnt be bothered to click on the link.

Jordan and McGuiness lived different lives, and yet both of them are in the same place, retired and struggling beneath the weight of their pasts. Jordan lives in the shadows of the things he achieved; McGuiness under the shadow of the things he didn

Your career doesnt have to be over to struggle with these issues. In his book, Countdown to Lockdown, another pro wrestler, Mick Foley, grapples with the same problem. Once one of the most popular wrestlers in the world who was renowned for taking death defying risks, a broken down Foley finds himself trying to put together a match for a smaller company, a match which will be forgotten about in less than a week, assuming anyone sees it at all. Foley is trying to find satisfaction doing a job--one that a) doesnt matter that much and b) that he is not physically capable of doing to his former standards.

Of course, you dont necessarily have to get worse as you get older. Some get better at their job, only do discover the world has moved on. Bands like Warrant, Winger, and W.A.S.P., for example, put out some of their best music long after people stopped listening to bands like Warrant, Winger, and W.A.S.P.

In fairness, these bands didnt get a lot of respect outside their fanbases when they WERE doing well. Winger in particular got a lot of hate based on their look which is too bad because musically, they were a lot better than people gave them credit for. Ive seen many a bar band shipwrecked on the rocks of Seventeen”’s post-solo breakdown, the singer looking around for his cue as he slipped below the waves.

The point is, whether youre ready or not, whether youve accomplished what you want to or not, things come to an end. Youll shoot your final jump shot or sell your last body slam. Youll run your last marathon. Youll fuck your last supermodel.

Weve mostly been talking sports and music here, but its true of everything. No matter what you do, one day, you wont be able to do it anymore. There will be a last time for everything. The last time you do your job. The last time you see your parents. Your last child learning to walk, talk, and--eventually--graduate and move out.

When those things are gone, what do you have left? Where will you find your meaning when you are no longer needed or able to fill those roles that once defined you? What do you about the questions in your mind--the if onlys and what would have happened if I knew what I know now?  What do we do about the realization that it isnt just the things in our life that will end? Seeing these things come and go brings us to the realization that it isnt just our accomplishments that will eventually cease. One day we will kiss our last loved one; well breathe our last breath; our heart will deliver its final beat.

These arent rhetorical questions. Id really like to know the answer. Because at thirty-nine years of age, Im finding myself facing similar questions.

King Osric in Conan the Barbarian had an answer. Speaking to a younger, brawnier Austrian-accented barbarain he said: "There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father's love for his child. "

I dont have a daughter. But I do know something about love.

I may never reach the heights I hoped for as a writer or stand-up comic, but I love writing comedy now more than I ever have.

Heres a better example: Right now, Im learning the choreography for NSYNCs Its Gonna Be Me off Youtube videos. If you asked me why, I couldnt tell you. Its a great song with fun choreography, but its not the greatest single achievement of the late 90s/early 200s boy band craze--that particular honor, goes to the Backstreet Boys music video The Call, which sums up centuries of Buddhist doctrine on karma and rebirth in less than four minutes while simultaneously providing an awesome visual mash-up combining Fatal Attraction, The Matrix, the pharmacy scene in Natural Born Killers, The Shining ,The Game, and The Blair Witch Project.

Theres nothing special about Its Gonna Be Me. Theres also nothing special about me learning the choreography. Im not even learning it very completely or very welljust puttering around with bits and pieces here and there, skipping the parts I think look either too stupid, too hard, or I just cant figure out.

Theres no reason to do it other than the love of doing it. And as for the parts I cant dowell, I do them as best I can. Or I dont do them. And I love that too. So if you ever see me dancing publicly--and you might--dont expect to see the worlds greatest dancer. But if youre looking to find someone who loves what he does..?

Guess what? Its gonna be me.

But the truth is, it doesnt matter what works for me. Or Mike. Or Nigel. Or Mick Foley, Kip Winger, Lance Bass or anybody else. Its realization enough to know that all of us find ourselves facing these questions in some form or another. We often face them by ourselves, but we never face them alone because those questions in our heart echo in the hearts of others from the biggest superstar to the ordinariest of ordinarypersons.

We dont have to do anything to Be Like Mike.

We already are like Mike.

And Mike, the record-setting, six time NBA champion who twice cockblocked John Stockton out of a championship ring with a little help from those goddamned officials who gave him EVERY SINGLE FUCKING CALLultimately, hes just like us.