Thursday, May 31, 2007

Movie Club: Terminator 2

Conversation welcome in the comments. (I know there's at least one other participant: my comments will be coming tomorrow night, probably).

Note: The idea behind "Movie Club" is that we watch a movie and then talk about it. If you haven't seen the movie in a while, feel free to join the discussion, but let us know how long it's been since you've seen it.

Buy Popeye

I saw that the first volume of the new Popeye collection from Fantagraphics is going for $5.99 on Amazon. That's a little depressing: maybe it's just my ignorance of the book business, but that kind of discount doesn't look like a sign that the collection is selling well. This really is too bad: E.C. Segar's Thimble Theatre is on the All-Time list of Great American Arts & Culture Stuff.

If you're at all interested in American humor, comic strips, and cartooning, but you haven't read the original Popeye strips, you owe it to yourself to check this book out: you can't go wrong with that price!

Whoops - I'm not allowed to write about the Popeye comic strips without pointing out that the Popeye made famous in those cartoons is really a pretty superficial version of the Popeye in Segar's Thimble Theatre. Popeye is one of those fictional characters, like Dick Tracy or Conan, who loom (fairly) large in the Popular Culture Consciousness, even though most people are only familiar with their watered-down/simplified/cleaned-up/etc. versions.

And on a personal preference note: I've never really been able to get into Krazy Kat. Sure, I recognize and bow down before Herriman's masterful cartooning, but I'm still fairly cool towards it. But whenever I hear/read praise of Krazy Kat, Thimble Theatre is the comic strip that I picture: a vital, beautiful, idiosyncratic work of Homegrown American Genius.

Update: Whoops again - Fantagraphics has not been having any trouble selling their Popeye books. This was just an Amazon sale. Great news! But the sale is now over. Hope you didn't snooze on this one! (Thanks to Comics Comics readers for clueing me in!)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Transcending the Genre

In this post defending 28 Weeks Later, Sean brings up his dislike of the concept of "Transcending the Genre".

This is kind of a pet peeve of mine, too, not just because it is kind of condescending, but because it's such a fuzzy idea (even though I've used it myself on occasion). If you say that a movie "transcends its genre" you are probably trying to get across one or more of the following ideas (some of which contradict each other):

  1. Most movies in the blogger biopic genre are bad, but The Forager Movie is pretty great. This might be the most common way folks use "TTG". From my POV, this brings us really close to Sturgeon's Law.

    Note: If "TTG" just means "a good movie that happens to be part of a recognizable genre", we're straying into genre-condescension territory: after all, I don't think we'd say of Philip Roth's American Pastoral that it's a male-mid-life-crisis novel that transcends its genre, even though (a) most male-mid-life-crisis novels aren't all that great (IMO, of course) and (b) American Pastoral is pretty great (again, IMO). So this mainly gets applied to books and movies in ghetto genres like sci-fi and the western. My take is that a great movie that is also a great sci-fi movie (for instance) is not a case of "transcending the genre", but rather showing-off the genre or maybe even fulfilling the genre.

  2. Most movies in the blogger biopic genre will appeal mainly (only?) to the die-hard fan, but The Forager Movie will appeal to a general audience. Ok - I have a lot of sympathy for this kind of thinking. For instance, as a fan of super-hero comics I know there are super-hero books that I would recommend to "just about anybody" and those that I would only recommend to other fans. So, in a sense, "TTG" is correct: some movies/books/etc. transcend a lot of the wonky, specific appeal of their genres.

    Note: As a wonk and a fan I know that sometimes I'm not going to be as interested in books/movies/etc. that are aimed at a general audience. Like, with horror movies: I want to be scared! I want my buttons pushed! It's not as important that the story be well-constructed or that the actors are all giving accessible performances or that it is "about something". To clarify: as a rule, I'm in favor of genre books/movies/etc. that do try to reach a wider audience. When it comes to some of my favorite genres, they just aren't necessarily as interesting to me. But this works both ways: there's a fair amount of contempo poetry that is really only accessible to contempo poetry wonks. I'm not one, so I'm more apt to read contempo poetry that is aimed at a general audience. Hmmm... wait a second: once again, we're getting close to genre condescension territory. After all, lit-critics are probably more likely to talk about a sci-fi novel "transcending the genre" and a book of general interest poetry being "watered down for the masses". (Heh - well, obviously, I'm biased.)

  3. While The Forager Movie is recognizably a blogger biopic, it gets rid of that genre's more odious conventions and trappings. This is like #2, but with more of a judgmental edge. Sometimes I suspect when people talk about horror movies that "transcend the genre" they mean that they don't feature lots of T&A and gore. I don't think when people use "TTG" they ever mean just this, but it seems to be a sentiment that gets mixed in there (remember the fuzziness).

    (Personally, I'm somewhat split on this: there are some trappings and conventions that don't bug me, even though I know they're silly/offensive/etc. - colorful costumes in super-hero comics, for instance. Other times, though, they do annoy me - convoluted cross-overs in super-hero comics, for instance. This also raises the question of pandering: some time a movie/book/etc. will feature a genre element simply to pander to the hardcore fan. I tend to prefer stuff that doesn't blatantly pander, but , in terms of "TTG", this gets back to #1 and Sturgeon's Law.)

  4. Usually, blogger biopics are done in by the conventions of that genre, but The Forager Movie avoids those traps. Actually, this really is how I feel about most musician biopics: the conventions of the genre are just seem so stupid to me that even when they're well done, I can't work up that much enthusiasm. This is another variation on #2. The important point here, though, is that the phrasing is more specific than just saying that "The Forager Movie transcends its genre."

  5. The Forager Movie only looks like it is a blogger biopic, but, actually, it eschews (almost?) all of the conventions of that genre. Really the snob version of #2, but, again, this is more specific than the standard "TTG". Personally, I think this line of argument

Hey - I think of a genre as a kind of ongoing conversation people the people creating movies/books/etc. and the audience for those movies/books/etc.* This means that any given genre is going to be a (slowly?) moving target (a genre is dynamic, not a Platonic Form) and that individual books/movies/etc. are going to be a part of that conversation. So maybe it's better to talk about how movies/books/etc. can expand their genre or exemplify their genre at its best or open up their genre to the uninitiated than to talk about how they "transcend the genre", which kind of means leaving the conversation behind.

*For better or worse, marketing folks (used in the broadest sense of the term), also shape the conversation, but we'll ignore that for now.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Holiday Weekend with the Family

Over the weekend my fiance and I watched the first two Godfather movies and then, pinch-hitting for part three, Goodfellas. She had never seen these movies all the way through and I was interested in looking at them again in light of the current Sopranos season and some of the things I've written about it.

After watching Goodfellas again, I'd alter and/or expand on my comments.

Goodfellas doesn't encourage us to identify with Henry Hill. Ray Liota's voice-over doesn't really help us get inside his character's head: it's more of a device Scorsese uses to expose Hill's hypocrisy and skewed vision of the world. There's a real feeling of moral outrage underneath the movie's slick surface. And while Goodfellas, to a certain extent, revels in the standard "power trip" aspect of the gangster movie*, both the screenplay and the set design emphasize that there's something small time about all these supposedly "big time" guys. There's nothing like Vito Corleone's sense of personal honor and his dedication to his family that allows the wiseguys in Goodfellas to transcend their thuggishness.

The Sopranos does want us to see things from Tony's POV, but, while he's drawn with more complexity and nuance than any of the characters in Goodfellas, he (a) is still pretty much a thug and (b) lacks that extra dimension that makes his story really tragic. Of course, the people who make the show seem to be aware of this: he's the mob boss of New Jersey after all, the castle he's built for himself is pretty tacky, and he doesn't really have many desires beyond the material comforts of modern American life**.

Unrelated to all of that, I was kind of surprised by how old-fashioned The Godfather felt. Now, if you're reading this blog, you probably know that I mean that as a compliment, but, to clarify: The Godfather really is a "well-made", classical Hollywood movie, with a style that's more like one of the best of William Wyler's than other "Hollywood New Wave" flicks.

*A part of the appeal of gangster movies has always been that we get off on watching people behaving badly - flouting law and common decency because they can. It's always been kind of a tightrope walk: being able to do whatever you want, to take whatever you want, to not have to take shit from anybody, and to solve problems through viscerally satisfying acts of violence are all really part of the appeal of the criminal lifestyle, so, of course, it makes sense for filmmakers to acknowledge this (at the very least), even if it means that a big part of the appeal of the movie will be the way audience members can vicariously groove on the outlaw lifestyle.

**Well, that's not entirely true. The entire series is, in a way, about his spiritual crisis, so he obviously has some desire to resolve that, but he's completely unwilling to own up to the probable causes of that crisis honestly.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Insulting Your Customers

So, I'm listening to this gaming podcast where they're interviewing a guy who puts together a magazine for people who play D&D. Now the guy is basically doing his business spiel - buy the magazine for x, y, and z reasons - so I don't want to be too harsh, but my jaw dropped when he said (something like): "People who play the game really don't have many ideas, so it's good for them to have a magazine like ours to get good ideas from."

That's actually kind of a bad thing to say from a salesmanship perspective, IMO. I mean, "Our customers are kind of dull, so they need our product" just doesn't seem all that flattering.

This is especially weird since most of people who are drawn to RPGs probably really enjoy that they can be a good outlet for the creative impulse.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A quiet week...

I've been working on longer posts this week, so I haven't been able to keep to my schedule of daily updates.

I should have more stuff for next week, though, including the the start of the Movie Club I suggested back here. In case you want to play along at home, the first movie will be Terminator 2.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

More Fun Comics

So, I received a request for more entries in my "25 Comics I Like Best" series of posts, which stalled out after counting down to number 19. The major problem with continuing that project in the same format is that I wrote up the list so long ago that I've changed my mind about a lot of the books that were on it. For instance, right now, I'd probably put Peter Bagge's Buddy Bradley stories somewhere in my Top 5 not at number 24.

The other big problem is that when I moved into my current apartment last year, I had to store almost all of my comic book collection in my parents' basement (hey - I never said I was immune to cliched behavior). For the most part, the only comics I currently have around are ones that I haven't read yet. I don't really like writing about a comic book without having it around to reference: it's about the only way I can write about the artwork without going all fuzzy.

However, I do still have some of my favorites with me and so, while I don't think I'm ever actually going to complete the countdown I started way back when, there will be more, unranked posts about the comics I like the best coming up over the next few weeks.

Wargaming Roots, Part I

Counter-factual history can be fun, but it can also be seductively misleading, especially when it comes to counter-factual history of arts and culture stuff. For instance, in her book Babel and Babylon, heavy-duty film scholar Miriam Hansen ponders what it might have been like if D.W. Griffith's Intolerance had been a hit with a general audience. Her argument goes that had there been a more positive response to the movie, Hollywood would have followed up with more movies that that used challenging and experimental narrative techniques, and, therefore, the "classical" Hollywood narrative cinema would never have established itself as what audiences expect from narrative cinema in general.

What's seductive in this argument is the idea of a mainstream, popular film culture that was as varied and experimental as, say, the movies of the French New Wave.

What's misleading is that it's exactly those challenging and experimental techniques that the popular audience rejected when it rejected Intolerance.

That is, the dominance of classical Hollywood narrative cinema isn't simply an accident of history: it emerges as the standard of what the popular audience expects from movies because it delivered what the popular audience wanted from movies.

(There's a more subtle argument possible here: that "the system" trained audiences to prefer classical Hollywood movies. I think there's definitely some merit to this idea: culture industry producers try to shape an audience for a product as well as shape a product for an audience. Still, it's important to keep in mind the preferences and desires of the actual people who make up the popular audience do play a part.)

What I really want to talk about, though, is the history of role-playing games.

I was listening to an interview with Jonathan Walton on the Voice of the Revolution podcast and he brought up the idea of role-playing and story games* that were designed as if this kind of game had not evolved out of wargaming. As an example, Jonathan brought up Moyra Turkington's idea for a game designed as if RPGs had emerged as an activity pursued by Victorian women writing letters to each other. That is, if there was a tradition of "letter writing games", where (I assume) women would collaborate on an improvised Clarissa-like novel by writing letters to each other "in character".

So, this kind of as if thinking is a pretty cool design tool, but I think it's also been responsible for some "seductively misleading" conclusions when applied to talking about RPGs and story-games more generally.

How exactly?

Well, it's like this: you start with a mash-up of what SCA-type guys were doing and what wargaming guys were doing and you get something that looks like the original Dungeons & Dragons game. Individual groups develop different playstyles, some of which place an emphasis on using the rules to structure collaborative storytelling. Over the years, new games emerge that attempt to support this playstyle more directly, but (and here's one of the Big Issues with RPGs) most of these new games still have vestigial evidence of their wargame ancestry. So, even though a lot of these games are saying that they are designed to support storytelling, they are still full of rules, procedures, assumptions from wargames that aren't merely extraneous but actively get in the way of attempts to use these games to create stories.

(Hey - this is all stuff I've cribbed from Ron Edwards's great essays, but if you've gotten to this point in the post, you probably already knew that!)

In the past 10 years or so, though, we've seen more games that are designed, top-to-bottom, to create story: games that have thrown out lots of the leftover rules and have broken free from their wargaming roots**. We now have games rules that explicitly, directly, and solely support the activity of creating a story through play. It's only natural for the people making, playing, and thinking about these games to say: "Hey, what if we never had to break free of those wargaming roots to begin with?" Which leads to the idea that because the activities of playing a game to create a story and playing a game to show off skillz (a la an analog version of World of Warcraft are so different from each other that it is "nothing more" than a historical accident that they were ever tied together.

Now, this line of thinking is seductive for a couple of reasons:
  1. As I've already suggested, it's a useful way to approach designing a story-making game.

  2. It allows the folks who are primarily interested in playing story-making games to differentiate that activity from the other kinds of activities that get lumped under the heading of "playing RPGs". I.e., "What we're doing is different from what those guys are doing and its just one of those coincidences that these two different activities were ever intertwined."

Now, I think this is a useful and necessary distinction to make for practical reasons. That is, I want to make sure I'm engaging in an activity where everyone is on the same page and, historically (both in terms of my personal history and the history of the hobby), this has been a big problem.


When you're looking at the history of RPGs and story-games, I think it's probably a mistake to dismiss their evolution from wargames as an "accident of history". That is: there are actual reasons that story-games as we know them did evolve from wargames and not some other kind of activity, like, say, telling campfire stories.

From a logistical perspective, the proto-story-gamers were able to piggyback on wargaming's already-in-place social network. The APAs and gaming conventions allowed the necessary communication and cross-pollination to allow story-gaming to develop into more than just a local phenomenon. Beyond that, though, it's important to look at the values of the people making up that particular social network. But that's going to have to wait for my next post.

*I tend to think of most of the games I play as "story games" and not "role-playing games", but RPG, while not as accurate a term, is probably more generally understandable. I'm going to use both terms here and while I'm not going to use them interchangeably, if you're not an RPG-wonk, feel free to read them as if they were interchangeable.

**Vampire: The Masquerade is a the go-to example of a game that professes to be about making stories, but is burdened with all these rules and assumptions from wargaming (i.e, the initiative system, incentive to build characters for combat effectiveness, etc.) Prime Time Adventures is a good example of a game stripped of any remnants of "wargameyness": the rules focus on character issues, the story arc, and scene-framing.

Monday, May 21, 2007


I'm in the middle of a long post on RPGs and story-games, which will (hopefully) be ready for tomorrow night.

Until then, here's some filler:

  • I liked the most recent episode of The Sopranos.

  • I saw Ricky Gervais do his stand-up act at the Theater in Madison Square Garden: maybe it's just the accent, but I though his routine was a bit like Eddie Izzard's, except more offensive and (a lot) more low brow. In other words, exactly my kind of show. I was laughing pretty much non-stop.

  • So, I was doing all this prep-work for a Sorcerer game I want to run and was pretty psyched about what I had come up with. Then I re-read the book and realized that "what I had come up with" was more or less a sketchier version of the default setting from Chapter 7.

  • Random phrases from gaming podcasts*: "His power really came from his political acumen and string-pulling - not his telekinesis." "And then to prove my resolve, I had to keep hitting a guy in a wheelchair in the face, again and again."

  • So, I watched the end of the NASCAR All-Star race Saturday night, and it really seemed like the announcers were pulling for Jimmie Johnson to pass Kevin Harvick. I mean, I was, too, but I'm a Jimmie Johnson fan and no one pays me to provide analysis/commentary/etc. They all seemed disappointed once they realized that Kevin wasn't going to let anyone get by him.

*Quotes not 100% word-for-word, but the original gist remains.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Big Picture?

Here's a moviegoing story that I've been thinking about recently:

A couple of years ago, I went with some friends to see Blow Out at the Museum of the Moving Image here in Astoria. I think the Museum was showing it as part of a big De Palma retrospective.

We took out seats and I recognized the guy sitting in front of us as Museum of the Moving Image regular. I have to say, appearance-wise and behavior-wise, he completely fit the stereotype of the "Comics Geek" - a little overweight, near-sighted, awkward in conversations, etc. I had chatted with him a couple of times, although our conversations usually went along the lines of him complaining about the Museum's programming choices - like, why they refused to do a Peter Hyams retrospective - and me nodding in agreement, not wanting to get too deeply into that kind of debate.

Anyway, I said "hi" to him and the movie started up and my friends and I watched it (we were all fans and none of us were seeing it for the first time) and, as usual, were devastated by it. So, we're sitting there, still reeling from the emotional impact of the final scene, and this guy turns to me and says: "You know, when he [John Travolta] goes into the train station, he leaves the door to his Jeep open. But when he comes back, it's closed."

I was just like, "Um, thanks for pointing that out."

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Movies x3

I saw three movies last weekend. I started writing full-on "Movie Chat" posts about each of them, but I stalled out. However, I did want to pass on some quick observations, so, here goes:

The New World: Geez, do I feel like a dope for not trying harder to see this when it was playing in the theaters. This was by far my favorite Terrence Malick movie and this may be the first time that I've felt that his style and sensibility was 100% perfect for the subject matter. I was looking over the Netflix member reviews of the movie and I was surprised to see people comment that it was kind of slow (charitably) or even boring, because there's stuff happening all the time - each scene - heck, each shot - is full of plot/character/thematic details.

Running Scared: I know why I started watching this one - I liked Wayne Kramer's previous movie and I generally like Paul Walker (no one "plays" dumb like he does) - but I really don't know why I kept watching it. There are a couple of action set pieces that are interesting from a action junkie's POV (a gun battle in a hotel room that is shot and cut to emphasize the confusion of a bunch of guys trying to kill each other in a very cramped space; a gun battle on a hockey rink that makes great use of the ice - a little like the fight-on-oil sequence in The Transporter), but I found it far too serious, far too dark, and far too exploitative to be enjoyable. Probably the most awful thing I've seen recently.

The Break-Up: I loved parts of it: sometimes it was like a contemporary version of Blume in Love in the way it never blunted the characters' bad behavior but remained sympathetic to them. Other parts of it, though, were straight out of the standard rom-com playbook: I'm thinking mainly of the John Michael Higgins and Judy Davis roles, but also the way John Favreau's character gets to be the movie's (unlikely) font of wisdom for the "crucial" scene that makes explicit what the movie had wisely kept implicit until that point.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Since I started blogging again on February 1st of this year, I had managed to post at least one item every weekday (even if it was just something like this) until yesterday, when I got home very late and wasn't in the mood to do anything but relax.

Anyway, I'm having fun with this incarnation of the blog, even if I haven't been able to write the big, meaty posts that I sorta/kinda prefer. My blog is more superficial, now, not so much in the pejorative sense, but in that I generally just write a few comments on whatever happens to be bubbling up to the surface on that particular day. My editing has gotten a lot more half-assed, but I guess I'm not as concerned as I probably should be: I'd rather try to keep to a post-a-day, even if that means a couple of typos and mangled sentences.

More Moore

One more comment on Sean's Alan Moore posts, which is actually tangential to Sean's point but speaks to the quote from the more interview that Bruce Baugh quotes in the e-mail that Sean quoted:

I think it's interesting to look at which parts of Watchmen influenced the super-hero comics that followed it and which part didn't. We can see its grim 'n' grittiness (Identity Crisis), its meticulous "coded" structure (Arkham Asylum, Seven Soldiers), its taking-apart of the super-hero comic book (Animal Man, Seaguy), and its super-heroes in the "real world" perspective (two very different takes: Astro City and Supreme Power). What we don't see much of, though, are super-hero comics that have been influenced by Dave Gibbons's contributions to Watchmen. I've said this before, but I think what Gibbons does is show us super-heroes - who, archetypically, are (most?) famous for being able to defy gravity - who are bound by the laws of gravity. That's my cute way of saying: the super-heroes in Watchmen (with one exception) look like normal people and have realistic non-idealized bodies. They're flabby and sagging and scared and wrinkled. They don't strike poses: they just kind of stand around like normal people.

This aspect of Watchmen has, to my knowledge, never shown up in a super-hero comic since them, except when occasionally played as a joke (i.e. Blue Beetle gaining too much weight in the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire-era Justice League books).

This is Watchmen's central visual idea and I think it tends to get the short shrift in discussions about the book because it is visual and it tends to be more fun and rewarding for us word-crazy intellectual-types to decode/interpret symbolism than to write about what is actually right there on the page, staring us in the face.

Hey (and this isn't tangential to Sean's comments): while I definitely agree with his point about Moore's "Important Statements", it's Moore's collaborators who really put those books over for me. I wish more people would talk about the art of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell (Eddie Campbell shouldn't be the only person doing detailed analysis of these pages).

I've brought this up before and received dismissive comments along the lines of "the artists are just doing what Moore tells them to do" or "they're just following his detailed scripts", but I'm completely willing to accept that and it doesn't change what I'm trying to get across: that even though Moore's scripts are "coded" and (to a certain extent) closed-off, the art opens them back up by grounding the symbolism and clockwork structure within specifically-observed and realized worlds.

The Flying Seaguy

Another post from Sean that I'll file under "I Wish I Had Said It Like That".

It made me think of my recent negative experience reading G.K. Chesterton's The Flying Inn. Now, I really like Chesterton's essays and I really like his Father Brown mysteries, but his full-on, philosophical/allegorical fiction, like The Flying Inn and The Man Who Was Thursday, doesn't really provide what I'm looking for from, well, fiction. That is: when I want to read a philosophical essay, I'll read a philosophical essay. I don't particularly want to read an essay that has been transmogrified into a story that I then need to decode back into an essay.

And thinking about Alan Moore and my problem with The Flying Inn reminded me of my problem with Grant Morrison's Seaguy and, to a lesser extent, Seven Soldiers. In his capsule on Inside Man, Michael Sicinski writes that he doesn't "want to seem like yet another dumbass critic implicitly trumpeting the amazing power of genre to rein in idiosyncratic directors", and I feel the same kind of self-consciousness saying that, for me, Morrison's more straightforward comics - Doom Patrol, Animal Man, We 3, The New X-Men, JLA, parts of The Invisibles, and, to a lesser extent, The Filth - work better for me than Seaguy does. They do, though, and I think it's because they provide story first and all of the big themes and ideas seem to grow organically out of it, rather than starting with the big themes and ideas and coming up with a story that enacts them in code.

And, while I'm on a roll, I sort of have the same issue with some of Chuck Palahniuk's books: I get the sense with books like Survivor and Lullaby that he's just paying lip service to the storytelling aspects of these novels and his characters are really there to act as mouthpieces for his rants.

Monday, May 14, 2007 is a great site and, I think, a necessary one, so it's unfortunate that they're having trouble raising funds. Take a look and if it's the kind of writing, reporting, and advocacy that you think is valuable, please think about giving them a few bucks to keep their operations running. It would be a shame to lose this resource now, when we're entering into an election cycle where all the candidates show such a fondness for overseas intervention that you'd think that the last four years haven't happened.

Ron on Sci-Fi, Sean on Sci-Fi

A while ago, I had a back-and-forth with Joshua A.C. Newman - the author of the very interesting and fun story-game Shock: - regarding the definition of science fiction. Now, on this Forge thread dealing with some actual play of Shock:, Ron Edwards offers his own definition:

All right, I must now deliver a brief polemic: science fiction is a distinct form of fiction. It is always concerned with today, or rather, the date at which a particular story was created. It is snapshot fiction, using exaggerated elements and codes ("future," "alternate dimension," "aliens") to generate some viewpoint regarding today (the date it's created) [emp mine -JH]. Whether the author's motivations concerned any such thing, or whether the themes involved are critical and nuanced vs. simple and brightly-colored, are totally not part of the definition.

Now, I like the first part of what I've bolded a lot. In fact, I like it better than anything I've come up with, in that it includes things like like Star Wars (exaggerated elements and codes = "aliens", "robots", "psychic powers", "Intergalactic rebellion", viewpoints regarding today = ) and The Matrix (exaggerated elements = "virtual reality", "transcendent AI", "robot-human war"), which other definitions seem designed to exclude.

That second part - "to generate some viewpoint regarding today" - is a bit trickier, especially if, as Ron goes on to state, we don't have to take the author's motivations into consideration.

Here's why it's tricky: how can any piece of fiction - science or otherwise - not generate a viewpoint on the time and place in which it was written? I'd guess that a writer who didn't want their fiction to generate this kind of viewpoint, would have to consciously try very hard not to do so.

(For instance, Gore Vidal's Lincoln generates a viewpoint about post-Vietnam America, even though the events in the book all take place in the 1860s. I'm also reminded of Pauline Kael's argument that Bonnie and Clyde is "about Vietnam".)

Still, even though this might be redundant, it's probably a good idea to point out that sci-fi isn't really about, say, predicting the future.

Now, Ron writes that it doesn't matter "whether the themes involved are critical and nuanced vs. simple and brightly-colored", but he then goes on to argue that

[t]he commercial and subcultural labels that go by the name "science fiction," on the other hand, are artifacts and of no special interest whatever except as artifacts (causes include bookstore categorization, investor jargon, and product placement). Suffice to say that of material published under/within that label during the last 10 years, I would be surprised if even 5% were admissible as science fiction by the above definition...

But this doesn't seem to follow, at least if Ron is serious about it not mattering "whether the themes involved are critical and nuanced vs. simple and brightly-colored".

There's more:

Anyway, to someone whose thinking inclines in the above direction, Joshua A. C. Newman is bucking for hero status. He is the only person with the guts to tackle this issue in RPG terms. All other science fiction role-playing games have been written in the sense of the commercial and subcultural trappings rather than the core concept. Shock is a first, a de novo, an innovation. But more than merely an innovation, it's not only what I wanted, but what I needed. In this day and age, I am not going to get science fiction consistently anywhere else. The person typing this post is Shock's target audience.

(Ooh, I can't stop ranting. All that polemic up there? I must spew more! ... [this] speaks incredibly badly of the design community since RPGs first appeared; it speaks of our collective intellectual spinelessness, our fascination with trappings and bogus pastiche, our complete loss of political awareness, and our willingness to buy things because they remind us of something good ... which, also, reflects most of my thinking regarding science fiction as a written and film medium since I entered my teens in the late 1970s, and for which I'd like to snarl, at the whole SF fandom culture, "thanks a lot, you fucking imbeciles," and oh yeah, pausing to kick Harlan Ellison a good one in the ass on the way. Talk about co-option. Graaaarrrhhh!) [italics in original - JH]

So I have a couple of thoughts about this:

I'm tempted to say that when he talks about generating a viewpoint on today, he really means "generating a certain kind of viewpoint on today" and I'd further guess that that certain kind of viewpoint is a critical one, and, perhaps more importantly, a political one.

But that doesn't really make sense to me, either: maybe I'm just reading lots of different science fiction than Ron is. I mean, looking over the Hugo nominees and winners from the last ten years, I see Joe Haldeman, Vernor Vinge, Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod, John Scalzi, Iain M. Banks, Dan Simmons, David Brin, Michael Swanwick, Bruce Sterling, and Kim Stanley Robinson, among others. This stuff doesn't seem "intellectually spineless" and most it strikes me as being pretty politically aware. And these guys are some of the biggest names in science fiction right now. Hell - we can add in blockbuster authors like Orson Scott Card and Michael Crichton and we're still well within the bounds of Ron's original definition. (And don't forget The Matrix, either, which, after all, is all about political awareness and is one of the biggest pop culture sci-fi hits of the last twenty years).

Maybe I'm spending too much time on this, but I think the progression here is both strange and interesting: Ron starts with a very sensible definition of science-fiction and ends up with a rant that boils down to "sci-fi was better when I was a kid and it's all those other sci-fi fans who are responsible for it turning to shit".

Now, I have no problem with Ron (or anyone else) thinking that things have gone to shit (I'm enough of a "Tory pessimist" to sympathize with these sentiments a lot of the time and I'm also in favor of kicking Harlan Ellison in the ass). But I think that he shouldn't have tried to tie his personal preferences and disappointments into his attempt to define sci-fi, mainly because his "polemic" muddies what is otherwise a very useful and clear definition.

Plus, placing the blame on "the whole SF fandom culture" ignores the idea that there's more in common between the kind of "good sci-fi" of Ron's youth and the degenerate "faux sci-fi" of the last ten years. This is related to what I said in my earlier post, but I think there's a non-trivial connection between the appeal of Star Wars and the appeal of Asimov's Foundation stories. If sci-fi has been corrupted by pandering to its fan base, that's only because sci-fi has always attracted the kind of fan base that was there for the "pandering". That is, the rocketships and robots and inter-galactic societies were a huge draw to the kids who first got into Asimov's Foundation stories. The trappings themselves - the "exaggerated elements and codes" - were always at least a big a deal as what the authors did with them - "generate a viewpoint regarding today".

Meanwhile, Sean posts about the "current" trend of dystopian sci-fi. I think Sean's major points are right on. (I agree with him that "a belief in the imminent apocalypse--best exemplified by religious millenarianists, although as the excellent Children of Men... would indicate, that lot by no means has a monopoly on the doctrine--is 100% pure vanity, a reflection of the deep-seated conviction that one is part of the Most Special Generation EVAR.")

My take is that dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction has always been around (from The Time Machine to Panic in Year Zero! to Blade Runner), so what we're really noticing now is the absence of any other kind of sci-fi, at least when it comes to sci-fi that reaches the mainstream of pop culture. It will be interesting to see what happens when/if the more optimistic kind of sci-fi of "the new space opera" and Singularity fiction reaches a big popular audience.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Favorite Fictions

My brother sent me a list of his ten favorite novels, so I sent him mine. Based on that list, I came up with this...

Favorite Fiction Stuff

  1. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
  2. The Makioka Sisters by Junchiro Tanizaki
  3. The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth
  4. Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler
  5. From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Whistle by James Jones
  6. Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
  7. The Parker Novels by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)
  8. The Shining by Stephen King
  9. Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
  10. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  11. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
  12. The Bridesmaid & Death Notes by Ruth Rendell
  13. Farmer in the Sky (and all the other "juveniles") by Robert A. Heinlein
  14. The Tales of Jacob by Thomas Mann
  15. The Maigret Novels by George Simenon
I'll probably go back and provide some commentary for this list at a later date. Right now, I'll note that it looks like I'm not a huge fan of short stories: in this case, looks aren't deceiving, although I should also point out that I'm not really a huge fan of long novels, either.

These are all books that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to (just about) anyone.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Favorite Movie-related Quote of the Day

Michael "The Academic Hack" Sicinski on Catch and Release:

Oh, and one thought: is there some rule that every men-in-the-kitchen sequence in a Hollywood film has to conclude with someone turning on the blender with the lid off? Do people ever actually do this? Is this some sort of rom-com money shot, giving women some sort of gooey, splooshy satisfaction, the pancake batter of male incompetence cumming all over the fellas' faces and dripping down the side? (Shall we christen it the "blender-facial"? Let's.)

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Laughing at them...

Commenting on , which deals with Mike White's characterization of Judd Apatow's recent work as "comedy of the bullies, rather than the bullied", Reihan writes:

"You can't dismiss Mike White, a major comedy innovator, as a humorless prig."

I dunno:

I think it's possibly to be really funny in terms of your creative output and still be kind of a humorless prig when it comes to talking about comedy - especially other people's comedy. Isn't this kind of the case when, say, Bill Cosby - who is, without question, more of a comedy innovator than White - chides comedians for going blue?

Sopranos and X-Men-ification


Ross Douthat quotes Alan Speinwall on The Sopranos...

Since this final season began, I've been warning everyone that Chase and company may not be going for an earth-shattering conclusion, but more of a life-goes-on finish. But the writers have spent so much time over the last five episodes hinting that some apocalypse is coming - whether it's Phil making war with New Jersey, Tony taking out Chris or vice versa, the FBI completing their RICO case, Muhammed and Ahmed up to no good - that if none of that comes to pass, every bit of anger from the fans is going to be justified.

There comes a point when the storytelling stops being daring and unconventional and starts being sloppy and cruel.

...and then adds his own comments:

Obviously, part of the genius of The Sopranos lies in how it confounds expectations (though if I read one more piece that references the missing Russian from the "Pine Barrens" episode as an example of this tendency, I swear ...). Over the years, Chase and company have taken Chekhov's dictum about the gun on the wall in the first act that needs to be fired by the third and said, well, maybe it does and maybe it doesn't, and it's more dramatic if the audience doesn't know which it is. But as Sepinwall suggests, if the final season of your show has about a dozen guns on the wall, all of them obviously cocked and loaded, you more or less have to pull the trigger. If you don't, you'll have sacrificed the very sense of realism that The Sopranos has labored so hard to build... [Y]ou'll leave the audience with the suspicion that you never had any idea what you were doing to begin with.

I've already talked a little bit about why I think the messiness of The Sopranos is a good thing. While I'm not a huge fan of entertainers intentionally pissing off their audience, there's definitely a place for TV shows/novels/movies/etc. that say to their audience: "Thanks for coming with us to this point. Now, we're going to go over there." In other words, it's fine for The Sopranos to ask more of its audience than it has in the past: part of the "asking more" might be that it isn't going to offer the kind of satisfying resolution we get at the end of, say, a season of 24. I'd even say that over the long term, a continuing series needs to be willing to leave part of its audience behind. For instance, my guess is that a lot of what has happened this season on The Sopranos has alienated some of the fans of the show who were drawn to the goombah hi-jinx that were featured more centrally in the earlier seasons.

Dealing with Alan's comments: it's "cruel" when you have a show that promises a certain kind of resolution (say, solving a mystery), but keeps moving the goalpost and/or pulling the rug out from under its audience (like, say, Lost or, alas, Twin Peaks). I don't think it's "cruel" when a show bucks convention by not tying up plot threads, especially when the show has never really bothered to tie up plot threads and where a lot of the best moments of the show have been of a "whimper-not-a-bang" variety (like when Tony finally makes the decision not to conspire with Johnny Sac: it's a momentous negative - the important thing is that nothing comes of it).


I'd also like to comment on the idea that keeps coming up in this discussion that writers need to have an ending in mind when they start a series. That is, serial TV is best when the writers are always writing towards a goal. I'm not saying this is a bad way to work, but I think that it is certainly not the only good way and, in fact, it doesn't necessarily play to one of the major strengths of the serial format - i.e. that writers/producers/etc. can react and respond to ideas/themes/characters/etc. that grow organically out of the creative process.

The problem is that this kind of serial improvisation doesn't fit well with the mentality that all plot threads need to be tied-up neatly. As with most everything having to do with contemporary pop culture, we can get a good picture of this dilemma by looking at X-Men comics.

During the first half of his original run on X-Men, Chris Claremont introduced and developed almost all of the major X-characters and created most of the classic story-lines, including the "Dark Phoenix Saga" and "Days of Future Past". These stories were sprawling, messy, super-hero-as-space-opera pop epics.

Now, these stories - partly because they were churned out on a monthly basis under less than ideal creative conditions - tended to have their fair share of loose ends. Eventually, instead of creating more stories with more loose ends, Claremont and the X-Men writers who followed him decided that they could spend their time just tying-up loose ends.*

The problem with that has been that it trained a generation of super-hero comic book fans to pay way too much attention to loose ends and to place way too much value on whether or not they eventually were tied-up. (Compare this to the wild and woolly days of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko comics). These pop geeks can an inordinate amount of satisfaction over the little details at the expense of being able to get a sense of and enjoy the big picture. This POV has really done a number on super-hero comics, but, even worse, thanks to the triumph of the geeks, it's become a big part of American pop culture in general.

(The X-Men-ification of pop culture might best be experienced by looking through the Wikipedia pages on Lost: the entry for the character John Locke is longer than the entry for the real John Locke.)

So here's the thing: when you're dealing with serial narratives that aren't fully mapped out from beginning-to-end, like The Sopranos, try not to approach them like die hard comic wonks approach contempo X-Men comics.

*Comics wonkery aside: I've singled out Claremont because talking about X-Men suits my purposes, but Roy Thomas probably deserves a mention as the guy who really started this trend.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Communism at the movies...

Even so, there are a few more films depicting the crimes of communism than Mr. Boaz allows. If they are less well known, that may be because they have smaller audiences, perhaps because the Cold War ended with a whimper rather than a bunker. All of this may in turn explain why there are fewer movies made about the evils of communism: the stories are very dramatic and powerful, but the collapse of communism came about in large part because the system simply broke down and the many peoples who laboured under that yoke finally threw off the yoke themselves [bold mine - JH]. Sad to say, but great stories about foreigners successfully struggling against their repressive governments are not the source of big box-office results. What kind of anticommunist movies sell over here? Rambo. Now you can probably see why there aren’t more of them being made.
--Daniel Larison commenting on this piece from David Boaz

Hmmm... For some reason, this makes me think of Ron Edwards's Spione (which I am anxiously awaiting).

On and On...

I more or less agree with Ross Douthat's general point in this post on why, in a lot of cases, with good TV shows, shorter runs are better than longer ones.

My slight disagreement has to do with The Sopranos: while I think it could have used some trimming, a lot of what makes it a great show (as I have suggested) is also what makes it a bit of a mess. Serial TV shows (or comic books) are different from movies in this respect: they sometimes work best when they have room to grow, to make wrong turns, to build what were originally minor ideas/incidents/characters into major elements of the show. That is, there's the opportunity for a kind of narrative improvisation that happens on the writing/production level.

(Matthew Yglesias responds to Ross's point with the comment that shows require "planning". I more or less disagree with this, or, at least, I think that having an overall structure that is (at least partially) open is one of the strengths TV serials have over films and novels)*.

So, I'd adjust what Ross is saying, just slightly: rather than have hard constraints on shows ("David Chase should have told his story in four seasons"), I'd like to promote the idea that shows don't have to go on forever. So, if you're a fan of, say, Firefly/Serenity (like I am), don't whine that you aren't getting any more episodes/movies: be glad that what we have is pretty darn good.

Also, Ross asks "would My So-Called Life be remembered as fondly as it is if we'd had to watch Angela Davis and Jordan Catalano get together, break up, get back together, break up - and then, worst of all, go off to the same college?" - which is exactly the problem with Veronica Mars right now.

*There's a difference between (a) coming up with a story that will take 30 hours to tell and then breaking it up into forty 44-minute pieces story line and (b) coming up with 6 hours worth of story and then figuring out the next 6 hours based on things like which elements resonated most with the writers, producers, actors, audience etc. Both approaches can result in "good TV", but approach (b) is something that TV serials can do really well.

Monday, May 7, 2007


What I'm Watching: More or less the same as before.

Veronica Mars came back from a break with a particularly bad episode about how discrimination is, like, wrong. It isn't so much that I disagree, but when a show does this kind of thing - see also the recent Battlestar Galactica ep with Bruce Davison which was also about how discrimination is wrong - I have to wonder why they even bother. I mean, do the people who make Veronica Mars and Battlestar really think that their audience wants a little civics lesson? Especially simple, cut-and-dried civics lessons like these? The problem with them is that they make it all so easy that it becomes boring: the characters get to do the noble thing and "doing the noble thing" doesn't really cost them anything. There's no drama because their choices turn out to be either (a) really easy and/or (b) free of consequences. Man, how I hate these "very special episodes".

More problems with Veronica: Scene-by-scene, the show has handled the relationship stuff pretty well, but the problem is that the writers have had pretty lame ideas when it comes to the bigger picture. Veronica Mars should not be The O.C., where characters are constantly jumping in-and-out of relationships every other episode. We already had Logan and Veronica breaking-up and getting back together and breaking-up and getting back together again, so, this season they should have tried to show us Veronica and Logan trying to work through their issues - to dramatize a relationship in progress rather than a relationship always on the verge of collapsing or reforming.

Now, about The Sopranos: I've read a bunch of internet critics complaining that Tony's gambling problem came out of nowhere next week and that Chase et al. should have (a) used something else to dramatize Tony losing his grip or (b) spent more time setting-up the gambling stuff. I don't know: I like to nitpick as much as the next blogger, but I think this criticism is off-base. I mean, would you really like The Sopranos better if it were a "well-constructed" show, carefully setting up all of its threads, developing and resolving them on cue, like, say, E.R.? Not a slam at E.R., a show I like quite a bit, but, even when it resolves things in an unexpected manner, it pretty clearly lays out all the conflicts and issues for you. The last three seasons of The Sopranos have been a lot messier. And almost all of the episodes from Season Six have featured some "out of nowhere" element that a more cautious show would have spent some time introducing. Part of why these elements work, for me at least, is that Chase et al. have already laid the groundwork. I mean, I completely buy that Tony would like to gamble, that he'd respond to stress by gambling more, and that his marriage would be vulnerable to the resulting financial strain.

I like that the show makes these big, bold choices, even though it means that sometimes you just have to go along with it.

My personal Sopranos problem recently has been that I don't think Tony Siricco and Stevie Van Zandt are good enough actors to do what the scripts have asked them to do. Sylvio's play for Tony's position from the beginning of this season fell flat for me because it required Van Zandt to do more than just mug, likewise the recent episode that Tony spends gauging Paulie's reliability. Siricco and Van Zandt are both pretty funny and they're good personalities to have around - they add to the show's color - but they don't bring enough to the table as actors to justify the (relative) importance of their characters. I've always though it was a big mistake that Chase et al. had Sylvio kill Adriana because Van Zandt can't really do anything else with it - i.e., can't turn it into something that comes up - or noticeably doesn't come up - in Sylvio's scenes with Christopher.

Finally, the difference between Heroes when it started - stumbling, badly-paced, erratically-acted, but with some good ideas - and Heroes now - written, directed, and acted with assuredness and a sense of style - is (in the debased context of contemporary pop culture) staggering, mainly because most of the time shows go in the opposite direction.

What I'm Reading: It was a bit of a chore to finish The Flying Inn, which didn't quite work for me, although I'm sympathetic to Chesterton's basic philosophy and what he was trying to do with the book.

I'm still reading A Fire Upon the Deep, which, I have to admit, I like a little less than I did 100 or so pages ago. The main problem I have is that there's really no reason for it to be such a long book. Yes, it's full of ideas, but Vinge spends too much time on narratively redundant details that, I guess, are necessary from a world building POV.

I also (finally) read Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy. I always see sci-fi fans recommending Have Spacesuit Will Travel when it comes to RAH's juveniles. I think that book is pretty enjoyable, but Citizen of the Galazy, IMO, would be a better choice: it has a more expansive scope, the world building is more interesting, there isn't too much of the "gee whiz rocketships" vibe, and it strikes me as being more in the mainline of the sci-fi that has come afterwards (esp. "New Space Opera" stuff).

And I'm rereading the Russell Kirk edited Portable Conservative Reader. I've just gotten through the opening section of Edmund Burke excerpts and am tempted to start posting some quotes that are particularly relevant to me and to the themes of this blog.

What I'm Listening To: Lots of classic rock, as I'm sure you could have guessed. Still looking for more podcasts.

What I'm Playing: Some Carcassonne with my fiance and a friend of ours this past weekend, plus more NASCAR 06. Still jonesing for RPGing and getting to the point where I'm actually going to have to, you know, do something about it. I was listening to a Durham 3 podcast today at the gym and that reignited my desire to play Sorcerer.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Movie Chat: Day for Night

Day for Night

So, one of the things that bugs me even though I do it myself is referring to a movie as a "minor movie" - like, "Oh, Snakes Eyes is really minor De Palma".

I bring this up for two reasons: (1) I deal with film production in my day job and even a small film is a big undertaking, and the folks involved in making it have to spend lots of time, money, effort, passion, etc. to get it made. I know, I know: people are using "minor" in the artistic/historical sense, but still, it's a little condescending. (2) If I wasn't so bugged by the term, I'd probably say that Day for Night was "minor Truffaut".

Of course, what I'd really mean is that if you're only going to see one or two Truffaut movies in your life, you can safely skip it. And, when it comes to movies-about-movies, Day for Night is pretty modest: it doesn't wrestle with Big Themes like 8 1/2, Close-Up, or The Stunt Man and it doesn't make a Big Argument about movie culture like The Player, Barton Fink, or Sunset Boulevard. But that's probably why I liked it so much: it gives a pretty good idea of the kind of work that goes into making a movie and, if it never really gels into a Big Statement, well, so what? It gets a lot of the little details right. I especially like the way it focuses on all the different people and personalities involved.

Also, I like that Truffaut - one of the originators of the auteur theory - shows that the director's decisions and actions are almost always primarily based on of nuts-and-bolts logistical concerns. Concerns of artistic significance are (an important) second. You get the sense that a big part of his talent as a director is his willingness to roll with the punches and his ability to improvise when the original plans go out the window.

It's not an especially deep movie, but I think I'm much more fond of it than the admittedly more impressive 8 1/2.

Also: I've seen Jacqueline Bisset in movies before (like Bullitt), but for some reason this is the first time she really registered with me. I have to say: I'm definitely a fan.

(Also also: La nuit americaine is, I think, a better name than Day for Night.)

Thursday, May 3, 2007

I Heart "Free Bird"

Maybe Sean T. Collins thinks he can get away with his comments that "'Free Bird' sucks" by calling "Stairway to Heaven" the "greatest rock song ever" - well, not on this blog, baby.

"Free Bird" is one of the greatest American rock songs and probably the greatest "Southern Rock" song.


To start with, it's the contrast between the opening slide guitar licks - reaching for transcendence - and the driving, down-to-earth boogie of the guitar battle at the end. For me, that's part of the contradiction at the heart of great rock music: the search for something greater tied up with a recognition of the limits of what is actually possible. (My half-assed, overly-generalized theory, drawn from all the Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh books I read while in college: The great rock songs usually resolve in favor of the "search for something greater", while the great soul songs usually end up making a reconciliation with those limits).

"Free Bird"'s lyric is, I think, the weakest part of the song, but, as with lots of other rock lyrics, it gains resonance through its context. Looking at it from a cynical POV, the singer is trying to cop out of making a commitment with his lover: he's rationalizing bad behavior and (a) doesn't have the courage to stick it out or (more probably) (b) gives the same line to all the women he sleeps with. I don't think this cynical take is wrong - see "What's Your Name" - but I think it's only one aspect of what's going on. What gives it more of an emotional impact (for me, at least) is the contrast between the singer's rootlessness and the down-home boogie traditions of Skynyrd's music - the whole transcendence/limitation thing again.

One of the things that arts & culture buffs/critics don't talk about too much are the various "lifestyle" reasons people are drawn to careers as musicians/writers/actors/etc.. Or, rather, they'll make a joke about it - talking about joining a band to get girls, say - but they won't delve more deeply into the issue. Musicians will make jokes about it, too - again, see "What's Your Name" - but they don't really seem to like to talk about it either. (I'm thinking of the moment during one of the interview scenes in The Last Waltz where his band mates start to talk about some of the perks of going out on the road and Levon Helm says something like "I thought we weren't going to bring that stuff up." Which, of course, makes it kind of joke, too.) There's a tendency to treat creative artists as prophets - that is, to take what they're saying as a kind of revealed truth and ignore the personal, idiosyncratic, and potentially self-serving reasons they might be saying it.

"Self-serving" brings us back to the cynical reading of the "Free Bird" lyric, but the singer's excuse - he can't stay with her because he's a drifting bohemian and can't be tied down - is balanced with what sounds to me like a real sense of regret and, in terms of the question he asks in the opening line, real fear that the answer might be "No." It's a song lamenting the rooted life that you leave behind when you head out on the road, even while it celebrates the freedom that the road brings.

(Looking at the song in its album context, which, admittedly is not the way most people experience it, "Free Bird" takes on even greater resonance as a follow up to "Simple Man".)

Well, 600 words on "Free Bird" is enough for now, but the short version is that I think it's a really beautiful song and one of the few of those really long classic rock standards that deserve their length - it's America's "Layla".

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

"Free Bird"

I read through a number of movie reviews of The Devil's Rejects while I was working on yesterday's post, and it struck me that a lot of them went out of their way to take a swipe at Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird". I know the song has become kind of a punchline, but do pop culture buffs really not like it? My guess is that the negative reaction to "Free Bird" - like the one to "Stairway to Heaven" and "Hotel California" - has less to do with the song itself and more to do with what it represents: white guy classic rock that has worn out its welcome.

Maybe it's just because I'm young enough to have missed their FM dominance (or maybe it's just because my taste in rock is fairly mainstream), but I've always liked these three songs, even though their status as near-jokes makes it hard to talk about them seriously. "Free Bird" is, I think, the best of them, and, I'd argue, it's just about as good as rock gets. I find it achingly beautiful and moving: a song about rootlessness from a band whose music has always emphasized their roots (although maybe this take on it just shows I've been listening too much to the Drive-by Truckers and reading too much Daniel Larison).

Inside Films

Maybe it's a little unfair, but I had the same problem with For Your Consideration that Theo Panayides did: "none of the film clips feel like they belong to a film one might see today" - the film-within-a-film looks completely bogus. Not surprisingly, this was also my problem with Christopher Guest's The Big Picture. Anyway, I was reminded of this while watching The Sopranos from a few weeks back: the scenes from Cleaver - Christopher's "Saw meets The Godfather" exploitation flick - did manage to approximate the look and feel of a cheapie horror movie.

So, here's the topic for discussion: what are the best and worst films-within-films? Or (more appropriately for this blog) the ones you like the most and the ones you like the least?

Off the top of my head, my favorite might be Habeus Corpus from The Player, because I think it's a pitch perfect parody of the glossy, Presumed Innocent-style message thriller. It isn't realistic - that is, it's a little too knowing - but the exaggeration fits right into the overall mood of the movie.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Thoughts on The Devil's Rejects inspired by Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes

Watching the The Hills Have Eyes has helped my clarify some of my thinking on The Devil's Rejects - I'm sure all of my readers have been anxiously waiting for this to happen!

I had a hard time talking about The Devil's Rejects because while I thought it was impressive for what it was, I also thought that "what it was" was pretty repulsive. Looking at it through the lens of The Hills Have Eyes helped.

In The Hills Have Eyes, the nice, normal, American family is attacked and brutalized by a group of outlaw, mutant cannibals. What's interesting from a po-mo 21st Century perspective is that the American family isn't mocked. Craven doesn't idealize them, either, but the movie is definitely on their side. They are the victims of a monstrous assault and even though they are, in a way, "trespassing" on the mutants territory (though it's more like they stumbled onto their hunting ground), the movie's source of terror is their realization that they are outside the protection of civilization, that they are dealing with true outlaws, and that their only hope is to respond in kind.

Note: as the final shot of the movie makes clear, this is not, like, perhaps, Straw Dogs or Dirty Harry, a movie about how, when all is said and done, a man has to be a man and get his hands dirty because the law has its limits. Rather, the close up of Martin Speer's face in a murderous rage suggests that vengeance/feuding outside of the law leads to a downward spiral into sub-humanism for everyone involved (see also the ending of The Descent).

Now, The Devil's Rejects is like The Hills Have Eyes, except told from the POV of the mutants and, to a certain extent, idealizing their outlaw ethos. Zombie doesn't aestheticize their violent actions, like Peckinpah does in The Wild Bunch: he keeps everything completely unpleasant. At the same time, despite the horrible things they do, they're obviously the movie's heroes: we're meant to root for them to escape the forces of law and order, who are presented as bigger monsters than the outlaws. They're also presented as hypocrites, which, by the movie's values is a lot worse than being a monster.

As a filmmaker, Zombie's major asset is that he's willing to go all the way - he doesn't flinch. This may be a good sensibility for a horror movie director, but, as I've said before, I don't think its enough. Rejects is more assured in terms of tone than House of 100 Corpses, but it seems to achieve that assurance by narrowing its range. It's a more coherent movie than its predecessor, a more completely realized "vision", but, in many ways, it has even less to offer to this horror fan. There's no order here - nothing to measure any fall against, nothing to terrorize.

The Devil's Rejects is one of those movies that is trying so hard to be outrageous - it's so obviously pushing buttons - that I can't help but feel that actually getting outraged about it is kind of pointless. It isn't trying to hide its nihilism, for example, or pass itself off as something it isn't.

Though there's a certain purity to what Rob Zombie does in the movie that I (perhaps against my better judgment) can't help but admire, I still think there's something fundamentally wrong with a movie that is such a fully-realized valentine to violent, nihilistic outlaws. Not necessarily "wrong" in the "I don't think it should ever have been made"-way, but definitely "wrong" in the "I can't in good conscience recommend that anyone actually ever see the movie and I'd even be willing to engage in endless debate with its supporters on the internet"-way.

For what it's worth, I'm interested in seeing what Zombie will do with his Halloween remake.

Jeff Gordon

Of course Dale Earnhardt fans were going to jeer at Jeff Gordon when he surpassed their hero's place on NASCAR's all-time win list. Did anyone who has actually been to a race recently really expect different behavior?

Not that it isn't understandable:

Jeff Gordon vs. The Intimidator was a genuine rivalry: two of the sport's greatest drivers battling week-after-week for the win, year-after-year for the championship. But after his death, Dale Sr.'s fans have shifted allegiance to his son, who, while by no means a bad driver, hasn't done anything to suggest he's anywhere near Gordon's class. The amount of fan support for Dale Jr. leads to a kind of weird imbalance: he's more popular than any other driver, even the (at least) half-dozen or so who are better than him. So, instead of getting to cheer his wins, his many fans are left watching Hendrick drivers dominate Sunday-after-Sunday and Gordon surpass his late rival's record. Take this resentment and frustration, add in a day's worth of Budweiser, and voila: booing, littering, and generally throwing a tantrum.

I have to admit: when I first got into NASCAR, I didn't want to like Jeff Gordon. He seemed too clean-cut, plus he won all the time, and it's always more fun to root for the underdog. But the more I watched him race, the more respect I had for him because, well, he won all the time. Gordon is just too good a driver, too strong a competitor to dismiss. Plus, while it may be exciting to root for the underdog, it is also exciting to watch someone who is the best at what he does do his thing.

My Jeff Gordon theory is that he'll eventually be seen as the last of the old school drivers - his big rivalries were with Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, and Dale Sr. - and the first of the new generation of drivers - he's not from the South, has a corporate-friendly image, has had great success while still very young.