Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Sounds of Home

Open your eyes/ Leave it all behind.
            -Van Halen, Light Up The Sky

For the past week, Ive been obsessed with Van Halen II. As its name suggests, it is the band Van Halens second album, released in 1979, when I was five years old. I own it on cassette, but it is buried in a storage room at my condo, which is currently undergoing repairs. I am on the other side of the city staying at my sisters house where she lives with her husband and two boys.

In any case, I cant get seem to get Van Halen II out of my head. The *ting* of  the bell of Alex Van Halens ride cymbal before the guitar solo on  Outta Love Again. David Lee Roth joyously celebrating the charms of Beautiful Girls.  The falsetto,baby on Dance The Night Away.

My brain jumps from one song to another over the course of the day polishing them over and over in my head. Regardless of the song though, the conclusion is the same: Van Halen II, I have decided, is the most perfect collection of music ever recorded. I want to marry this album. I want to buy a house with Van Halen II and bear its children. I want us to travel and grow old together. I want to lie in a hospital bed bathed in the golden light of the setting sun with a cracked cassette copy of Van Halen II holding my hand from a bedside chair.

Oh, and in other news, Ive also decided to move to the mountains to become a monk.

Not that THAT has anything to do with anything. I only mention it because my Van Halen II love affair began the morning after I let the visiting prior of our group know my intentions.

It wasnt a graceful moment. Reverend Master was leaving for Vancouver early the next morning, so I was on a deadline. Except that because he was leaving the next morning people from our group were hustling and bustling about saying goodbyes and asking him last minute questions and wrapping up final travel arrangements for him.

I lingered for a while, and when no perfect moment arrived, I settled for the one I had. I ended up half muttering to him in the hallway outside the upstairs kitchen, I think I want to be a monk.

Im not sure why, but after I said it, I felt afraid. I was overcome by a embarrassment, like I had admitted to wanting that was above my station. I felt like a child putting on his doctor fathers white coat and stethoscope and asking if he could come to work and perform open heart surgery.

Im not sure how I expected the monk to respond. I thought he would say something like are you sure? or Give me a call and well talk about it or even hmmm.

Instead, he did something I did not expect. He hugged me. Then he said Okay a bunch of times, not so much like he was approving a request but like he was a trying to calm a skittish horse.

He told me to hold my desire to become a monk lightly, and then we all tromped out the door. The last thing he told me was to get in touch.

Another monk, several weeks later, told me a similar story about his own experience expressing his monastic intentions. Like me, he blurted it out and didnt know what to say next or how the master would react. He described a similar sense of shock at hearing himself say the words, like he had just opened up a box and presented the world a gift so offer it . The next day, he told me, he and the Reverend Master went for ice cream.

I did not go out for ice cream. Instead returned to the guest bedroom in my sisters basement. There I  lay awake listening to a frantic little man inside my head throwing open filing cabinets, scrutinizing fine print, and scattering documents around the inside of my skull, looking for a reasons why I had made a bad decision.

 He found nothing. I dont know how big or small a gift to the world my becoming a monk is, but I know its something an offering Im willing to make completely and wholeheartedly. My brain is anxious, but my heart is at peace, and nothing can change that.

Sometime later in the night, I wake up to the sound of my youngest nephew crying.

There is something about the sound of a baby crying in the night. My heart wants to lever itself out of my ribcage, climb to the ceiling via grappling hook, and shimmy like an action movie star through the heating vents separating the basement guestroom from my nephews room upstairs. It wants to find its way into his crib and burrow in next to him, heating him with its warmth while beating a comforting rhythm. All is well. Im here. All is well. Im here.

When I come upstairs in the morning, my nephew is sitting in his high chair triumphantly waving his spoon. He is sporting a beard of yogurt and there is cereal in the wispy halo of his hair. His delight when he sees me lights the room like a tiny sun. We made it! We both survived the night! Terrible Dark Lonely Scary Tine is over!

When breakfast ends, I check my email to see if there has been any progress on my condo, which is currently serving as the rope in a three way tug-of-war between contractor, condo board, and insurance board that has slowed my condo repairs. I play Dinosaur Hotel with my four year old oldest nephew in a box that once contained a washing machine. Half an hour later, the boys are packed up and gone with their family and Im by myself in the house thinking of impermanence.

Im not thinking of impermanence because I want to be a monk. Im thinking of it because children--with every whiplash mood change, spilled plastic cup, or unexpected interruption--are a living reminder that impermanence is all there is.

My sisters house is not like my condo  and not just because her bathroom ceiling is water-free and not in need of replacement. My condo is mostly bare and no one but me ever goes there. My sisters house is filled to the brim with things and also with life.

Now, with everyone gone, well, the house remains a mess, but with the kids gone, its a strangely still mess. Dinosaur Hotel, its cardboard walls marred with slashes of crayon stands crookedly in a patch of sunlight. Toys are scattered across the living room like stones in a Zen rock garden. Even the used tissue on the table assumes the quiet dignity of a fulfilled purpose. Its chaos, and everything is in its place.

Im filling the sink to do the dishes when a fragment of song breaks loose from some forgotten place in my memory and bobs to the surface of my mind: Im a spark on the horizon.

It takes me a few moments to identify the song: DOA from Van Halens Van Halen II. A crack in the cement dam in my unconscious.

The dam bursts and the rest of the album pours through.

*  *  *

It doesnt last forever. It goes on for nearly a week, butwell, impermanence, remember?

But Van Halen II isnt alone. No sooner has it faded than another music or movie obsession arises to take its place. Sometimes it lasts for moments. Other times each piece holds me in its grip for hours or days.

Gretchen Goes To Nebraska by Kings X. Kendrick LamarGood Kid Maad City. I spend an entire afternoon deciding Im going to watch The Big Lebowski every day until its branded into my brain. That way, when Im at the monastery, I can secretly watch the movie in my head whenever I need an escape.

My obsession right now is the Dixie Chicks album Home. My brother-in-law was playing it while I was sitting at the table with the four year old helping him cut paper and when Travellin Soldier on, I grew suddenly misty eyed.

Forget all that other music. Home is the most perfect album ever recorded.

Im still thinking that ten songs later. Im sitting in the chair by the front window. The baby is standing in the middle of the living room in his green one-piece fuzzy pyjamas with his hands in the hair while he turns in circles to make himself dizzy.

I dont need to go to the monastery. I dont want to go back to my condo. I dont want anything but to watch this boy turn in circles forever while Godspeed (Sweet Dreams) plays in the background.

Sorry, Van Halen. I was wrong.  It was the Dixie Chicks all along.

This is all I want. This is all I needto sit in this chair and listen to the sounds of home.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Exposure Therapy

I dont remember what got me into Buddhism exactly.

Maybe it was the taekwon-do, which I had recently taken up because I thought one of my co-workers at the Pizza Hut I was working at the time were going to get into a fight.

In any case, there were a few things I remember from my first foray into Buddhism: One was a book I had picked up on the way home from Pizza Hut, still in my uniform as I passed through the mall bookstore. It was a book of quotes called The Little Book of Zen.

The second was a TV show called Northern Exposure.

I dont recall Northern Exposure ever explicitly referencing Buddhism. But it was the first show I ever saw where the conflicts were mostly internal. Other shows were about murders and car chases. Or conflicts between characters., but compared to the alien murderer and conspiracies of the X-Files, Nothern Exposure had low stakes: Maggies fear of bugs. Chris lack of inspiration.  Eds vocation. Even the romance between Joel and Maggie seemed less about the romance and more a for exploring the Jewish doctor and the pilots psychologies.

I was hooked. It was a show that seemed calming and energizing all at once. I couldnt find a word to describe it other thanquiet. It was the same feeling I felt in the mornings, crossing the footbridge to the mall parking lot at six thirty in the morning on my way to the Pizza Hut, feeling the vibrations of my own footsteps on the path. Below me, the Sturgeon river, clogged with stray shopping carts. Beyond me, the sky, streaked with clouds and the colors of sunrise.

I loved those clouds. I loved that sky. Different every single morning. But always beautiful.

There was conflict in Northern Exposure, but there was no yelling or door slamming. No passionate break-ups and make-ups. Even the characters who didnt got along, still got along--they lived in the same town and had to interact with each other, so they did. Adam, the most unlikable character was invited to parties.

There was a sense of acceptance

 Even the character Maurice Wiinnefield--a guy who was basically everything about the Tea Party before the Tea Party existed had a certain decency and dignity. Similarly, the neurotic Jewish New York Doctor was neurotic and out of place without ever being a buffoon or an over-the-top cartoon character.

A number of spiritual traditions have the theory that we are not who we are. The things that we think of as making up our identity--our physical forms, our jobs, our social roles, our personalities--are insubstantial and unimportant, waves on the surface of a deeper ocean.  We are part of something greater and all of us are connected to that something, and thus, to each other.

We can be bloody-red as a sunset, grim as grey clouds, or bright, blue and endless. We are differentdifferent from each other and different from day to day. But for all our differences, we are all the same sky. We cradle the earth and everything on it from horizon to horizon, from the trees to the malls to the teenage bass player in the Pizza Hut uniform crossing a footbridge over the Sturgeon River over twenty-years ago.

Listen. You can hear his footfalls in every word in this post.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Huns & Rodents

The guitar riff is the brick that built the house of 80s heavy metal.

Metallicas layered Bay-area thrash. Poisons simplistic trash. Joe Satrianis flash and Guns N Roses Slash. AC/DCs unforgettable You Shook Me and Babylon ADs forgotten Bang Goes The Bells. All shaped by the same musical DNA: a rhythmic, repeated guitar phrase.

Listen to the German band Scorpions for examples: Rock You Like A Hurricane and No One Like You are probably the best known, but there are more: Big City Nights.” “Im Leaving You.” “The Zoo.” “Blackout. No One Like You. Bad Boys Running Wild(Not to be confused with Bad Boy by Haywire, Bad Boys by Great White, Bad Boys by Whitesnake, or Bad Boys by Wham) and No One Like You with the way they have the rhythm guitar start and the lead come bursting in over top. The Zoo.  Blackout.” “Im Leaving You.

Or consider Ratt, In terms of consistency, Ratt were the best of their generation. Most 80s LA bands were lucky to even release five albums, let alone five good ones. From Out of the Cellar to Detonator,  Ratt had the best five album run of any of the Sunset Strip metal bands (with the possible exception of Motley Crue depending on how big a fan you are of Theatre of Pain).

And every song beginning with  Out of the Cellars Wanted Man and ending with Top Secret from Detonator  is built around one or two guitar riffs.

Grunge killed 80s metal. But it didnt kill the riff. Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots used them.  Kurt Cobain might have disdained metal, but the riff was as close to Nirvana as it was to Heavens Edge.  The opening of Smells Like Teen Spirit--grunges signature song--is unmistakeable, and that opening--all guitar followed by the drums crashing entrance, is all riff, baby.

Guitar-based music doesnt have the same prominence today and hasnt for awhile. Thats why I like Nickelback.

Many people dont. There was even a time when not only did people hate Nickelback, they also didnt like people who liked them. My liking Nickelback is the reason one woman refused to sleep with me.

I get it. I felt the same way about Creed. And before that, Milli Vanilli.

I like Nickelback because they use the riff. You can hear examples in Animals,” “Something In Your Mouth, and that Pants-Around-Your-Feet song.

They continue to riff, and for that, I salute them. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Jurassic Shark

Jurassic World the movie has a lot in common with its own primary antagonist. Like the Indominus Rex, it’s one movie with the DNA of other movies stitched in: I could have sworn they used elements of the Marine ambush (including the use of helmet cams and life support readings sent to a control room) from Aliens at least twice, the Predator camouflage gimmick, bits of Jaws and Jaws 3D, the Birds, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Oh yeah, and there were one or two nods to Jurassic Park.

Truthfully though, I don't see a close relation between Jurassic World and Jurassic Park.

Instead, Jurassic World most closely resembles Deep Blue Sea.

Ridiculous, you say. Deep Blue Sea featured genetically-modified super-sharks. Jurassic World's antagonist was a genetically modified super-dinosaur.

See? Totally different.

There are still a lot of similarities. There's the  animal wrangler/hard-headed boss lady dynamic between the male and female leads. The rich guy dies in a fashion dies in underwhelming fashion while trying to be inspiring and heroic. Even the composition of some of the actual shots in Jurassic World (mostly involving the mosasaurus but also one where the female lead steps vulnerably into the Tyrannosaurus paddock) seemed to call back to Renny Harlin’s schlock non-classic.

Perhaps most importantly, both Deep Blue Sea and Jurassic World submitted entries to the Most Incompetent Helicopter Crew Hall Of Fame. 

Deep Blue Sea is different from Jurassic World in one respect--Deep Blue Sea knows exactly what it is. Im not so sure the same can be said for Jurassic Shark.

Watching Jurassic World left me thinking a line in the movie Joyride where Steve Zahns character, while looking for pornography on a motel television,  asks Paul Walker: Are you in the mood for a story or more of a collection of scenes?

Jurassic Worlds dinosaur pornography mostly falls into the collection of scenes category. There are the disconnected bits cribbed from other movies. Characters are inconsistent. The story has a beginning, middle, and end, I suppose, but for the most part feels like something my four year old nephew would tell: This happens and then This and then This, with each moment having only the flimsiest connection to the next.

It isnt just the story and character that is inconsistent. The ideas behind the movie are inconsistent, which makes for interesting watching. Because the movie isnt mindless--it DOES put forth some ideas. The trouble is, it cant seem to decide what those ideas are.

Consider the treatment of gender.

Some critics accuseed Jurassic World of misogyny. The most violent death is reserved for a woman. The kids in the movie prefer the male lead to the female lead, and on one level it seems to be criticizing her choice to be more committed to her work than to family and mawwiage.

At the same time,  the film subverts as many gender tropes as it reinforces

While fleeing from the Indominus, in a moment of benevolent sexism we’ve seen in countless movies, Chris Pratt as Owen reaches back to take Bryce Dallas-Howard's hand…and she blows right by him, high heels and all.

In terms of beats of physical action, it's Bryce Dallas Howard's character Claire that is the most effective--she saves Pratt from a a dinosaur's air attack (My four-year old nephew‘s note--pternadon isn‘t a dinosaur. It‘s a flying reptile). She drives the van in the only car chase in the movie and does a hell of a job, escaping the dinosaurs and saving the children (immediately followed by the inexplicable moment where the kids express that they want to stay with Pratt). She is the one who comes up with and executes the plan that frees the Tyrannosaurus.

By way of contrast, Pratt is pretty much treated like the token female love interest in shows from less enlightened times. His crowning physical moment is hiding under a truck. We're told he’s a badass navy SEAL and he gets some token moments such as  taking down a couple pterodactyl redshirts, but at the end of the day, he’s cowering in a pipe with the kids waiting to be rescued.

The scene where he kisses Claire is a similar reversal. Some said it was an unearned moment where the male grabbed the heroine and planted one on her in a moment of sexist, unearned, tone-deaf entitlement. Yet from my end, I  thought Pratt kissed her because she'd just saved his life from the dinos----sort of a gender-swapped "my hero moment." The scene works both ways. It simultaneously subverts and reinforces.

Let’s also not forget that what he lacks in action beats, Pratt gets in emotional beats, a role typically played by women. He’s the pretty, plucky animal trainer who is the only who can get through to the raptors with the power of his FEELINGS.

He’s Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. He’s Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds.

(Which doesn’t, by the way, mean I’m comparing the raptors the kids from the bad side of the tracks or accusing Hollywood executives of being unable to tell the difference between inner-city youth and dinosaurs. Clearly they can: One is a cunning, hyper aggressive, pack-hunting super-predator and the other is less scary covered with feathers. I’m just saying according to Hollywood, the only thing a genetically engineered Mesozoic theropod problem needs to thrive is also the only thing poverty-stricken minority teens in areas blighted with crumbling infrastructure and rampant economic equality are lacking--an empathetic white woman to care and believe and get to know them as people and whatnot.)

In Jurassic World, Chris Pratt is that empathetic white woman. His kindness, and goodness even leads to the tragic end of one of the raptors in a sequence that calls back to Muldoon’s death in the original Jurassic Park. The dinosaur hesitates when it sees him and is consequently outflanked and killed by a soldier with a rocket launcher.

Chris Pratt is Raptor Muldoon‘s “clever girl.” Twas beauty killed the beast.

The movie sends mixed messages on other themes. It uses the park as a metaphor for blockbuster sequels, and then sends contradictory messages about the value of them. Its multiple references to the original Jurassic Park seem to alternately deify and devalue it.

The movie’s final battle is a case in point. The new Indominus creature is beaten and the T-Rex from the original Jurassic Park and one of the raptors stand tall, as if to say that nothing compares to the original. Except that the T-rex and raptor actually LOST the fight. The Indominus was foiled by the intervention of the Mosasaurus, a dinosaur introduced in this movie.

Symbolically it feels like the movie first says that the Original will fight the Sequel (T-Rex and Raptor challenge the Indominus) but they cannot hope to defeat it (Indominus wins the fight) until the sequel eventually defeats itself (Mosasarus eats Indominus) and returns to the pool from whence it came, leaving on the originals (the final shot of the T-rex).

Actually, you know what? Written out like that, it kind of works as a thematic statement, albeit a complicated one. Unfortunately, if a movie’s theme has to be worked through and written out after the fact to be understandable, it‘s not really a theme. It‘s one thing to allow a viewer to connect the dots; but you need to give them enough dots to connect.

Finally, the movie seems to want to make a statement about the martial mind through the character of Hoskins. He is framed as a bad character wanting to do bad things by militarizing the dinosaurs  When he proposes using the velociraptors to hunt the Indominus, the other characters are incredulous and appalled.

And with good reason. Hoskins' plan is ludicrous. I have the solution to our escaped dangerous animal public safety problem. We’ll release other dangerous wild animals to hunt the first one. The polar bear is loose! Quickly, unleash the jackals! Lives are at stake!

 A woman I dated worked at a zoo. There were a number of protocols in place for dealing with, say, an escaped tiger, and exactly zero of them involved throwing open the wolf cages and strapping cameras to their heads.

If you were looking to make a critical or satirical statement about our tendency to think we can resolve a conflict by escalating it, Hoskins and his plan would be a great way to do it.

To me it seemed like that’s what Jurassic World was doing. Except for a few niggling points.

A) None of the primary protagonists offers a reasonable alternative. Or an effective alternative. Or ANY alternative for that matter.

B) Our heroes eventually go along with Hoskins’ plan. Willingly. They just sort of roll over. Which makes them, well…not the heroes.

C) Hoskins’ plan eventually works. Not without a few hiccups along the way, granted, but still…Hoskins was right and the protagonists were wrong. We thought Hoskins was the bad guy. This whole time Hoskins was Sheriff Brody and Claire and Owen were city council. In fact, not only does Hoskins plan works, it works when…

D) Claire doubles-down on Hoskins original plan. The problem wasn’t that releasing deadly, uncontrollable dinosaurs to hunt other deadly, uncontrollable, dinosaurs is a bad idea. The problem is the deadly and uncontrollable dinosaurs he released weren’t big ENOUGH.

A villain needs to be more than a jerk. He needs to provide some form of opposition to the heroes--physically, morally, or philosophically. But other than lip service, the heroes have no opposition to Hoskins. The security team deployment and the helicopter sortie are Hoskins’ plan--find it and kick it’s ass--without dinosaurs. Claire’s plan is Hoskins’ plan with different dinosaurs. There is no difference in approach; there is only a difference in degree.

So what are we left with?

Part of me wants to say that the conflicting messages in Jurassic World are deliberate. After all, the movie doesn’t seem to be saying nothing or sending unintentional or unintended messages. The messages seem deliberate--they just seem contradictory.

I enjoyed Jurassic World so I’d like to believe its incoherence is the point. In some ways, it has a certain resonance with what I see in my own life. It’s possible for me to be both progressive and sexist, sometimes in the course of a single interaction. I find meaning in the events of my life and sometimes those meanings completely  contradict each other. I judge people more for being unlikable assholes and less on whether they actually oppose me in any meaningful way.

Also, like Jurassic Park, in my life, the characters in my life are inconsistent and the protagonist never accomplishes as much through his own efforts as he’d like.

Also, the pacing is horrible.

There’s more: Sometimes kids like the adult that seems the coolest and talks the biggest game instead of the one that is competent and actually has their best interest at heart. Sometimes when the new thing clashes with the old, instead of a clear winner, everything comes out muddled and confused. Sometimes, in a dinosaur movie, for no reason at all, you get scooped up and dropped into a tank and suffer an ignominious, pointless extended death sequence torn between the jaws and claws of two creatures, neither of which is technically a dinosaur. Now that’s rain on your wedding day.

Maybe Jurassic World’s thesis, it’s thematic eye in the hurricane of self-contradictions is in Wu’s speech. He’s describing the Indominus Rex, but he’s also describing the movie….and maybe describing how the more short-sighted of us go through life, grasping at what we want in the moment without thought towards a bigger picture, focusing on pieces without considering the whole. You wanted this, so I gave you this. You wanted that, so I gave you that. You criticized, complained, demanded more…so long as you didn’t have to do any of the work yourself. You ordered fundamentally incompatible things stitched together without sparing the slightest thought as to how these things came about or what the result of trying to stitch them together would be. You wanted the cool parts without the downside. Reality never entered into your plans. And then you come crying to me when all I did was give you exactly what said you wanted.

Much of Jurassic World comes to us directly from other movies. Maybe it’s only fitting that its thematic statement does as well.

Remember, you asked for this.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Made Of Stories

I am made of stories.

Most of them are my own stories, in the form of memories, ideas about the world and how it should be navigated, or my beliefs about who I am.

Im not going to talk about those right now.

But I am also built from other peoples stories or at least the way those stories shape me and my perceptions.

Im talking about comic books. Im talking about video games. Im talking about movies and sports columns and television shows.

Im dont mean this symbolically. I have the Decepticon logo from Transformers tattooed on the inside of my right forearm. I am wearing a fake concert t-shirt featuring the Max Rebo Band from Return of the Jedi. These stories are a literal, physical part of the self I present to the world.

A t-shirt and a tattoo. Something I can put on and take off and something thats a part of me. Shirts and skins.

My stories are like that too.

Lets talk about shirts first.

*  *  *

Ive never known a world without the original Star Wars trilogy.

It was so much a part of my life growing up, I have no idea if its I actually like it. I know the characters, the lines, but I dont have an OPINION on it per se. That would be like having an opinion on gravity or weather.

Then again, whether Star Wars is good or not or how much I like it is beside the point.

To me, Star Wars is a community story, which is to say the story itself isnt as important as its role as a marker of my cultural identity.

The interesting thing about stories in this role is not only is liking them or not beside the point, but also that stories dont even need to be seen or experienced to engage with them on this level.

For example, a few weeks ago, an episode of the TV show Game of Thrones, one that ends with one of the shows major characters being sexually assaulted, is dominating the internet conversation.
The conversation is about the use of rape as a plot device.

I feel like I have to have a public opinion on this Game of Thrones episode even though I havent actually seen it (*), and I also feel this opinion says something about the kind of person I am.

In other words, we arent talking about the stories. We are using them as jumping off point to publicly identify where we stand on social issues, our cultural identity, or our belief systems.

Its a way of saying who you are and which tribe you belong to. The stories themselves are beside the point. My opinion tells other people what kind of person I am.

Star Wars shirts are like that. Over the last few years, I have watched much MUCH more UFC than I have Star Wars. But I would never wear a UFC t-shirt. Its not because Im ashamed of watching UFC, but because mixed martial arts does not feel like part of my public identity. Its not the first thing I want people to know about me.

I dont wear Star Wars t-shirts because I feel a connection with Han Solo. I wear it so other people know I know Star Wars and we can quote Han Solo line at one another.

But Star Wars is not a part of me. Like the shirt, its something I can take off.

Not every story is like that.

*  *  *

Theres another way I engage with stories. Its more primal, more direct, and harder to explain because as soon as I try to put it into words, I feel as though Ive put something between me and my experience.

No explanation is required. It hits you or it doesnt.

In some ways, music is a great example of this. I can write about Queensryche or Vinnie Vincent Invasion all I like. None of those words will ever be able to make you feel what I feel when I listen to them. I can write about how these songs mattered to me, but can never make you feel what I felt when they first touched my life.

Sometimes the personal becomes part of our identity. Skid Row was a big part of my life during the late eighties early nineties. It was personal to me. Nownot so much.  So I consider myself a Skid Row fan even though years pass without me listening to their music and when I do my only connection with the music is sentimental--hey, I remember that song. And these lyrics coming up are ones I used to really like (**).

Sometimes the community prevents me from wanting to make a personal connection with the material. I remember the hype around The Phantom Menace when it came out. I distinctly recall walking into a department store and seeing row and row of Phantom Menace projects--coloring books, action figures, puzzles, posters as far as the eye could see.

And I thought, Nope. I dont need to see this movie.

I still havent.

Sometimes, the fact that there is no community or cultural narrative built up around a show leaves me more space to engage with the material. I can quietly watch it and process it in my own way and not feel any need to Have an Opinion on it.

The Americans is great for this. The show is well-acted, well-written, and non-judgemental, and far from the public consciousness. It shows me the choices the characters make, the consequences of those choices, and how they feel about it all, but it rarely asks me to feel any particular way about it or invite me to draw any conclusions about What it All Means.

In some ways The Americans goes beyond shirts OR skins. Its neither a part of my community, nor a part of my identity, and thus it manages to transcend both. I relate to it on its terms instead of trying to fit it into my own.

I might be made of stories, but there are other stories out their besides my own.

Its a joy to be able to see them.

(*) Oddly, in some cases not seeing the source material HELPS. For example, I learned a lot from the Game of Thrones debate. I got a clearer picture about what the people who objected to the scene found objectionable and understood better what the scenes defenders were defending.  And I found it significantly easier to see to what others were saying about the show when I wasnt blinded by my own opinions on the scene.

(**) Who am I kidding? I still enjoy Skid Rows lyrics, especially the ones off the Slave to the Grind album. Check them out--theyre more evocative than you might think.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Fury Road

Mad Max Fury Road has been praised on a number of levels. Much of the conversation has been centered around its use practical special effects and its treatment of gender. Those are worthy elements, but I want to talk about other things.

First of all, theres the movies unique rhythm. Many action movies--even well-made ones like Guardians of the Galaxy or Captain America: The Winter Soldier suffer from a samey-ness, not because the characters or stories are anything alike, but because the movies themselves are structured similarly. There are no wasted moments . Everything important is there and everything unimportant is left out. But rhythmically, this strength can become a weakness. Because they are paced similarly It means the movies FEEL the same on a physical level even if the stories themselves are very different.

Fury Road is different.

Fury Road opens with a flurry of character introduction, plot, and world-building that would take up the first third- to one-half of most movies. Max is chased, captured, escapes, and is recaptured again with such whiplash speed, I wondered what was the point of having him escape at all.

After this initial whirlwind tour, the movie hits us with a car chase through the desert that stttreeettttches on and on. Furiosa escapes the Citadel is a single-beat of action on par with Nick Fury is attacked in Winter Soldier or the prison break scene in Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet where these beats last only moments in the latter to movies, in Fury Road, Furiosas escape provide the spine of the film.  In Fury Road the character moments dont  happen around the action scenes, they happen inside of them.

Later it does the opposite, taking a sequence that other movies would build into a set piece--the night fight with the Bullet Farmer--and has the majority of the sequence happen completely off screen.


And then theres the climax. Theoretically, this should be the moment where things get bigger and better, where we build to the ultimate moment--is just a repetition of what weve seen beforea car chase through the same desert they just passed through back the way they came.

Structurally and literally, the movie is going backwards.

On paper, pacing-wise, this story is an abomination.

On screen, it works beautifully because the rhythms are so different from what were used to seeing, we cant predict where the next beat will land and thus we remain totally engaged.

Great stuff.

Secondly, I like how quietly examined the different ways we use religious ritual in our lives. Immmortan Joe, the War Boys, the Vulvalini, and the Wives all used ritual movements or gesture. In other words, those rituals werent just things they believed with their minds or said with their lips, it was something they enacted with their bodies.

I think many times, when it comes to religion, we want to equate it with the mind, with what we believe. Something that we can support or disprove with reasons and rationality.

But religion and religious rituals operate on a level more primal level. Sometimes they control us, sometimes they inspire us, sometimes they are part of our community--helping us celebrate or as a way of telling insiders from outsidersand sometimes they bring us comfort even if we dont completely understand, remember, or believe in them.

A third  thing, I liked about the movie was its approach to death. The film might make a statement about gender and politics, but the violence is apolitical--hero and villain alike are stabbed, shot, or thrown under wheels.

And while certainly some deaths are bigger, sadder, or more satisfying than others because of our connection with the characters, no life is treated as inherently more important or valuable than another. Its  a rare thing in action movies

In Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, Groots death is treated as heroic and tragic and valorous; the death of the dozen or so faceless goons he skewered several minutes earlier is treated as a fuck yeah/comedy moment.

Yes, Nux sacrifices himself to save his friends in Fury Road just as Groot does in Guardians of the Galaxy, the deaths feel different. Nuxs death is about Nux--in a sense it is a victory for him as a good death is something he has been working towards the whole movie. Whereas Groots death doesnt seem to be about Groot or even about death. It seems to be about getting an emotional reaction from the audience.

Fury Road treats death with respect, neither glamorizing nor trivializing it. In Fury Road, death is simply death. What matters is our attitudes towards it or our reactions in the fact of it.

The last thing that struck me about Mad Max Fury Road is the thing that struck me the hardest, even though its also the thing about which I have the least to say.

Its the moment where the villainous henchman shouts with a mixture of pride and grief: I had a little baby brother! And he was perfect! Perfect In Every Way!

Its not because of what the line reveals about Rictus Erectus character. Its not because of how the scene speaks to the objectification of mothers as breeders and children as success objects or the role of body perfection and gender and their relationship to power in Immortan Joes--and by extension our own--society. Its not because Rictus was played by Nathan Jones and I like seeing ex-pro wrestlers--even obscure and unsuccessful ones--in movies.

Its because I once had a little brother too.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Transformers: The Budiansky Years (Part 3)

I find it hard to believe youre as cold and heartless as your race thinks we Autobots are.
-Skids to Donny Finkleberg, Transformers #22

I used to resent Optimus Prime.

He was too perfect. Mighty warrior. Wise philosopher. Skilled diplomat. All-around goody-two shoes.

How could anyone live up to that? And if they could, how could that kind of person even be interesting?

I was a cynical kid.

Modern Transformers comics play up the war between the Autobots and Decepticons. They also go deeper into the politics of the war--the influences that shaped it, the characters that ignited it, the way it came to be.

What they dont do, at least not to the same extent as Budiansky did, is emphasize the practical difference between the two sides.

Autobots believe in preserving and defending life. Decepticons believe in conquering it.

Autobots will even stop in mid-battle to protect human and other lives. Avoiding human casualties proves to be the undoing of Skids in #19 (Command Performances!"). In issue #16 ("Plight of the Bumblebee!"), Bumblebee even prioritized helping humans over saving fellow Autobot Jetfire--a sharp contrast to modern Transfomers comics where Bumblebee describes the risks to three humans who are exploring the Decepticon base below as acceptable losses (Transformers: Infiltration, #4).

In Issue #24 ("Afterdeath!") of the 80s comic book, while conducting a battle in a video game world, Optimus Prime would rather be destroyed than put even virtual lives at risk. Its a decision that seemed idealistic, stupid, and nonsensical at the time, especially since his suicidal adherence to his own code of conduct endangers REAL lives since he was essentially taking himself out of the picture and thus giving the Decepticons an enormous advantage.

Meanwhile, in the 2014 movie  Transformers: Age of Extinction movie, Optimus Prime intends to kill the humans that are hunting Transformers.

You've come a long way, baby.

Part of the change--at least in the comics-- is that the audience for Transformers comics has aged. But I also think our attitude towards civilian casualties has changed in the decades since the Transformers first came on the scene. We view them as a regrettable, but necessary part of modern war, assuming we even think of them at all.

I am so used to the current worldview that I didnt even notice how my attitude changed until I reread the 80s comics and realized how often Budianskys Autobots were putting the protection of life ahead of strategic advantage.

It wasa sobering realization.

Optimus Primes credo is Freedom is the Right of All Sentient Beings”…an odd amalgam of Reagan-era American jingoism (The right to be free) and the Buddhist bodhisattva vows (To liberate all sentient beings).

Red, white (okay, silver), and blue coloring aside, I like to think of Optimus as having at least one giant steel foot the latter camp. Compassion is often described as one of his core traits, which is central to Mahayana Buddhism. Enlightened beings are also credited with discernment and wisdom, which Optimus possessed in abundance (Letting himself getting blown up over a videogame notwithstanding). They are also sometimes describe as having extraordinary powers although our Autobodhisattva would be the first endowed with the ability to remake his body into the form of an eighteen-wheeler.

And of course, there is the core of the Bodhisattva vows, to remain on Earth, forsaking Nirvana for oneself until all beings are liberated from the suffering brought about by the Three Poisons.  Optimus Prime also chooses to take up the mantle of Earths suffering, fighting to defend the planet.

If were going to go all-in on Transformers and Buddhist iconography, we can even make a case for each of Budianskys first three Decepticon leaders embodying one of the Three Poisons--Greed (power-hungry Megatron), Ignorance (Shockwave and his cold indifference), and Fear (the miserly Ratbat).

Move over Pali canon, theres some new sutras in town. One of them is about a car wash that hypnotizes people.

Its all happening, baby.

There are things to criticize about Bob Budianskys Transfomers comics. Some of them were childish (Sky Lynx taking kids to a space carnival). Some of the premises were cheesy (The mind-controlling car wash, although lets face it, Stephen King would make hay with something like that.). And the less said about Brick Springstern’ the better.

But his focus on characters personal stories, the way human and robot change each other, and a dedication to the natural conflict between those fighting to preserve life and those indifferent to them makes for much richer reading than one might first guess.

They might not be what we think Transformers should be about. But the storytelling is solid. And once you realize what youre looking at, theyre far from boring.

(*) There was a monk who got turned into a fox though. So its not like there isnt SOME precedent.