Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Crawlspace #1: XXXombies

"Our first arc, the four-issue, XXXombies, is a concept cooked up with special guest collaborator, Tony Moore, the original artist of The Walking Dead. It was actually born during a late night phone chat as Tony and I were discussing the state of the comics industry. I'm sure you won't be too surprised to learn the idea of zombies and porn starts started off as a joke. Then we started rolling around some ideas about how to make something like that work and within ten minutes we'd fallen in love with it." - Rick Remender, "The Crawl Space," Crawl Space #1, (Image Comics, Issue Date: October 2007).

That's right, it's come to this: zombies versus porn stars. Written by Rick Remender, with art by Kieron Dwyer, story by Remender, Tony Moore, and Dwyer, colors by Lee Loughridge, lettering by Rus Wooton and with a cover by Dwyer and Moore, Crawlspace #1 begs the question: is it possible for something of the exploitation genre simply to go too far in its efforts?

As this is but the first issue of a four part series, readers see only the initial outbreak of the zombification of California and the first reaction of the pornographer protagonists (who, having locked themselves in a large home for several days to shoot a number of films, are quite unaware of the apocalypse which has befallen their fair city/state/nation.). The central characters include: a sleazy/crazy porn director desperate to complete a number of films in order to meet the demands of some type of sinister criminal overlord, a young actor and actress (both of whom are new to the business and naive and not unlike a more sordid version of Martin Freeman and Joanna Page's characters in Love Actually), the father of said actress desperate to liberate her from the perils of pornography, an arrogant and obnoxious porn veteran who believes himself to be God's gift to everything, and a henchman of the aforementioned overlord dispatched to ensure that his employer's investment is protected and well served. With this lot, it is not difficult to predict which of these characters will be ultimately devoured by the advancing horde of walking corpses. Whatever narrative you have concocted in your head based upon these character descriptions is, alas, probably accurate.

Zombie comics (a form of deathsploitation, perhaps) have flooded the market in recent years, and each creative teams attempts to put its own spin on the premise. Unfortunately, in the wake of the genre's popularity, the creative spin has become a mere gimmick, giving rise to slight variations on a theme that should have been left unvaried. (In the 1990s, at the multiplexes, cinemagoers suffered through movie that began as pitches like "Die Hard on a Plane," "Die Hard on a Boat," and "Die Hard on a Bus," and now, comic readers confront "Zombies Doing This," "Zombies Doing That," and of course, "Zombies Doing The Other.").

The consequence is that zombie genre has devolved into a lengthy game of schlocky one-upsmanship. Creator A attempts to shock and awe with his zany idea, sending Creator B on a quest to find something more shocking and awing, and so on, ad infinitum, ad naseum. This leads to such things as Zombie King #0, in which a zombie copulates with a cow, and now Crawlspace #1, in which a porn star films a scene with a zombie who she mistakes for a colleague merely strung out on drugs. That's entertainment?

Shocking is not necessarily a synonym for bold. As a series, The Walking Dead is compelling because it explores not just the ravages of the zombie apocalypse but also the emotional toll on the men, women, and children who were (un)fortunate enough to survive its arrival. That series' protagonists are not stock characters or props waiting to be slain. They fear their new world, they long for the past, they fight, they flee, they suffer. Unfortunately, this existential human element is lacking from most of today's zombie comics, which typically eschew character development to show girls in tight t-shirts and jeans running from the dead and the violence and death that will ultimately ensue from such a chase.

This is not to say that zombie comics can't be fun and silly. But can there be no meaning in the exploitation genre? Is all gimmick and premise with no additional substance? If not, then the genre was already pornography, even without the presence of pornographers. Sigh.

Happy Halloween.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Little Children (2006)

2006's Little Children attempts to shock - shock! - its viewers by exposing something sinister lurking beneath the facade of American suburban life. It is a tale of suburban existential boredom tempered by a community's struggle with the repatriation of a recently released sex offender. The film, starring Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, and the wonderfully creepy Jackie Earle Haley, was directed by Todd Field and based upon the novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta. But, alas, we've seen it all before, multiple times.

The narrative introduces the following characters: the bored housewife who is neglectful of her parental duties (Winslet), the husband (Wilson) who is more interested in an adult website than his wife (Connelly) and immediate family, the recently released sex offender attempting to repatriate himself into the community (Haley), and the overeager "retired" police officer who left the force after shooting a young teenager who did not, as it turned out, have a weapon (Noah Emmerich). Can you guess how long it takes for the bored housewife to link up with the bored husband? Can you guess how long it takes for the retired police officer to turn vigilante on the sex offender? The supporting cast, meanwhile, is condemned to a series of stock roles, mostly those of conformist suburban wives and husbands. (One suburban stereotype of a book club member argues with Winslet's character about Madame Bovary; she calls that book's protagonist a "slut" while Winslet defends her as some type of feminist seeking escape from the prison of her existence. Well, of course, Winslet's character is more enlightened, right?).

Winslet, of course, performs well, as she always does. (Interestingly, this is only the fourth time she has played an American, the other occasions being in The Life of David Gale, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and All the King's Men). Casting her alongside Wilson, though, begs the question: how much better would the film have been if she had been opposite a more talented leading man? A.O. Scott of The New York Times described Wilson as having an "appealing blankness." As an actor, Wilson's dilemma in this role is to fashion a disillusionment from a life that many viewers might envy: beautiful wife, nice home, nice family, comfort, material possessions. Yet, his character manages to squander his existential fortune by taking his wife for granted and thrice - thrice! - failing the bar exam. What has driven him into his rut is not meaningfully explored, which is a disservice to the character, the actor, and the viewer. Is it just that the duties and obligations of a responsible parent and adult are too oppressive for such a dilettante? Is he just lazy? (He would rather watch local skateboarders do tricks or play football with his middle-aged neighbors than study for the bar exam and secure his family's future.). Does anyone even care what the answers are?

Perrotta, with a little help from Field, adapted his novel into the screenplay. Rather irksome was their decision to employ the services of a snide narrator for the film. This device breaks not just the aesthetic distance but also a cardinal rule of screenwriting: show, don't tell. Field has also somehow cast both Winslet and Connelly as wives who are under-appreciated and taken for granted. But we see far more of Winslet than we do of Connelly, both in screen time as well as, er, other respects. As an actress, Connelly is criminally underutilized.

Objectionable most of all, though, is the tired indictment of suburbia. How wearisome is this often revisited theme in Hollywood films; yet the entertainment industry sees fit to tell us, as if we didn't know, that things are not as they seem in our neighborhoods and communities. This pronouncement finds its way into so many screenplays and films that its proponents obviously derive some perverse glee in heaping their scorn and disdain onto suburban America. It's a good thing thing the screenwriters managed to escape to Los Angeles, lest they be forever condemned to the lives of the viewers who pay for the tickets to see their film.

Certainly, there is a menace in the presence of a sex offender in the community, but really, at the film's core, is the disenfranchisement of Winslet's and Wilson's characters, who presumably longed for something meaningful (or, perhaps just an excuse to justify their lackadaisical attitudes toward their responsibilities) well before the miscreant's return to their fair city.

Scott disagrees with me:

[T]he movie, which [Todd] Field and [Tom] Perrotta wrote together, does not, in the manner of other, more facile examinations of suburban dysfunction (like "American Beauty") assume that it or its audience is better than its characters.

At least he finds some fault with American Beauty (which, incidentally, was directed by Sam Mendes, now Winslet's husband in addition to being a hack). Films like Little Children and American Beauty and Far from Heaven lecture us about the perils of conformity and showcase the plight of those dissatisfied with the fruits of the pursuit of dreams we are inculcated to pursue at early ages. This statement - that conformity is undesirable and leads to alienation or isolation or loneliness - is not new or bold. It is certainly not something that would be bold or unexpected for Hollywood screenwriters to shout from their rooftops. Nevertheless, films like this receive accolades because the types of people who write, make, and review movies are generally themselves the types that flee their suburban neighborhoods to pursue their careers in big cities far from any pressure they felt to follow a certain path.

Interestingly, both Wilson and Haley have scored roles in the upcoming film adaptation of the epic comic book, Watchmen, destined to disappoint anyone familiar with the source material. Were the prospect of a Watchmen film helmed by Zack Snyder, the director of 300, not so distressing, it might be appropriate to say that Haley is an inspired choice for Rorschach.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Johnny Cash in Austin, TX (December 8, 1994)

Depicted above is a ticket stub for the Johnny Cash concert held on Thursday, December 8, 1994, at the Frank Erwin Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Texas musicians Don Walser and Jimmie Dale Gilmore opened for Cash that night. Note the purchase price: $19.50.

Cash is now a hero to Generation X (or whatever we're now calling that generation). In April of 1994, Cash had released American Recordings, his first collaboration with Rick Rubin, who would serve as Cash's producer until his 2005 death. Under Rubin's stewardship, Cash would reinvent himself for the final time and later cover, among other songs, Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" (two years later), U2's "One," (three years later), and, of course, Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" (eight years later). But it was not just the novelty covers that cemented Cash's reputation as an icon and hero to a generation of college students born two decades after he first achieved fame. (Let me be clear: Cash's version of "Hurt" is so stark and believable that it is far beyond a mere novelty.). Rather, it was the dark honesty conveyed by Cash's coarse voice and years of hard living accompanied by an ominous sounding acoustic guitar. On March 17, 1994, Cash served as the keynote speaker at South by Southwest and played Emo's, an alternative rock club on Austin's noted Sixth Street, that night. (See here - and scroll down to the "Walking the Line" story - for a neat anecdote about the 1994 Emo's show.).

Pictured above is Cash during his keynote speech to South by Southwest on March 17, 1994.

On December 8, 1994, Cash returned to Austin as part of the American Recordings tour for the aforementioned show at the Erwin Center. Music critic John T. Davis reviewed the show for the Austin American Statesman. In so doing, he cooed:

Anyone who ever questioned the potency of one man and one guitar need only have been at the Erwin Center on Thursday night to lay all doubts to rest.

There onstage sat a 63-year-old great-grandfather, clad entirely in black and holding an ebony acoustic guitar ("It's time for the black guitar!" he said as he traded in his blond Martin and pulled up a stool to take the stage alone). The only illumination in the house was one white spotlight, trained squarely on him; there was no place to hide.

He was singing something about a beast that raged inside him, a wild thing constrained only by the frailest bonds of love and compassion. And he sang a song about shooting his sweetheart; he felt pretty bad about it. And there was a song about a horse. And the house was rapt. Attentive, engrossed, and above all, silent. Thousands of people, all focused on that one man and that one guitar. If you're Johnny Cash, you can conjure up intimacy amidst absolute strangers.1
But that review could have described any show by Cash at numerous points in his career. It wasn't until later in his review that Davis attempted to recount this show's specifics:
Over the course of his 31-song set at the Erwin Center, he sang his first hit, 1955's Get Rhythm, contemporary songs by Nick Lowe and Leonard Cohen, and evergreens such as Peace in the Valley and Orange Blossom Special. And he made it all of a piece, so that his set flowed seamlessly across the decades in a way that appealed to grunge fans and graybeards alike.

The Tennessee Three, Cash's accompanists since the Rockies were knee-high, proved themselves a surprisingly supple ensemble, considering how many times their fingers have caressed these licks. They brought a sassy, cantering edge to Big River, I Still Miss Someone and Folsom Prison Blues.

And June Carter Cash infused the show with her own thoroughbred elan and dash, in a miniset that found her crooning and growling in counterpoint to her spouse on Tim Hardin's If I Were a Carpenter, Bob Dylan's It Ain't Me Babe, and the couple's own hit, Jackson.

But it was that time alone in the spotlight that lingers in the memory. Johnny Cash has always wanted to be taken on his own terms, as both a man and an artist. On Thursday night, he got his chance, and it made for a splendid evening.2
It was a good show. In fact, I have created below an annotated set list including the banter and stage dialogue of Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash (conveniently transcribed from a bootleg of the concert and including some interesting career anecdotes and history).

1. Folsom Prison Blues
2. Get Rhythm
3. Sunday Morning Coming Down
4. Ghost Riders in the Sky
JOHNNY CASH: Thank you very much. I'm so glad to be back to Austin. You've already seen a - you've already seen a great show before I came on. Don Walser and Jimmie Dale Gilmore; they're wonderful. They're wonderful. I got a new album out this year that I got some requests to do songs for it. And, uh, first I'd like to do one of my favorites, theirs only me and the guitar on this album. I wanted to call the album Scary. Painfully Honest. Some of the songs I wrote, some were written for me, and some I always wanted to record, some of the old ones, like this one that I've known since I was a little boy, called "Cowboy's Prayer."
5. A Cowboy's Prayer/Oh, Bury Me Not
6. Big River
CASH: Thank you, thank you very much. [Audience yells requests.]. Hey. Right. All right. Yes. All right. I'm gonna do 'em for you. Sure am. I'm gonna try and do 'em all for you. [Applause.]. Wow. We started in 1955, there weren't any drums on country music records, well maybe, and I liked the snare drum. W.S. Holland played drums with Carl Perkins when I met him in 1955. I liked the sound of his snare drum but they wouldn't let me take the drums in the studio so, uh, let me see that. So I did my own little snare drum sound. I don't know where I got this, I may have stolen it, I may have dreamed it up myself, I'm not sure. Been a lifetime ago. That's uh, on the drums W.S. Holland has been with me now 35 years. Yeah, he's -- he's the right one. But we're gonna do this song without him. On the upright bass is Mr. Dave Roe and Bob Wooten on lead guitar. Here's us in 1955.
7. I Walk the Line
CASH: Here's a song I wrote in '59.
8. I Still Miss Someone
9. Man in Black
CASH: Thank you. Here's a patriotic song.
10. Remember the Alamo.
11. Orange Blossom Special
CASH: Thank you. Well, it's time for the black guitar. I'm want to thank - thank you - I want to thank Willie Nelson for letting me come to Austin. (Cheers.). Old Willie. Love Willie Nelson. Willie and Waylon and Kris and I just did a new album - a Highwaymen album - new Highwaymen album that will be out March the 9th. And we all did a solo on the album as well as doing eight songs together. And I'd like to sing one that's my contribution. My son John Carter and I wrote this, and it's called "Death and Hell," subtitled "Pigs Can See The Wind."
12. Death and Hell
CASH: Willie said how can you prove pigs can see the wind and I said you can't but you can't prove they can't.
13. Delia’s Gone
14. Bird On a Wire (Written by Leonard Cohen)
CASH: [Coughs.] Well, I wanted to call the album also - well the theme of it, really, is sin and redemption. And there's two dogs on the cover and one of them is black with a white stripe and one of them is white with a black stripe. Neither one of them is quite all the way kinda like me I guess. Got redemption coming; redemption is coming. Uh, but right now.
15. The Beast in Me
16. Tennessee Stud
CASH: Thank you. Among the writers who contributed to this album were, was, uh, was a fellow named Tom Waits.
17. Down There By the Train
CASH: Here's my song, my Vietnam song. They had an expression that when a situation looked hopeless, couldn't walk through it, no way to get through it, but you had to go through it, the only attitude to take was drive on, don't mean nothing.
18. Drive On
CASH: Thank you. Thank you . Thank you very much. Got a special guest for just - right after this song.
19. Ring of Fire
CASH: Yes, alright. I love you! Thank you. I love you people. I love you people! Here's my favorite entertainer, here's June Carter Cash.
20. Jackson (with June Carter Cash)
JUNE CARTER CASH: Thank you very much.
21. If I Were a Carpenter (with June Carter Cash)
JUNE CARTER CASH: Okay, okay, thank you very much. I - I enjoy doing those two songs with John, uh, they're the easiest ones to sing because they're the only two that I ever won a Grammy for. And I still enjoy doing those with him, and the first song I ever recorded with him was written for us by a friend of ours, and this was way back a long time ago, Bob Dylan wrote this song, we first recorded it and we'll just do it again for you. Maybe you'll remember the song whether you remember us singing it or not.
22. It Ain't Me Babe (with June Carter Cash)
JUNE CARTER CASH: Okay, thank you. I'm not too sure how well we know this one, but we love this song.

CASH: Oh, I love it. Billy Joe Shaver song, new Highwaymen, for the new Highwaymen album.

JUNE CARTER CASH: Well, just press on.

CASH: I'm going to live forever.
23. Live Forever (with June Carter Cash)
Thank you. Thank you very much. It's an exciting time for me to be back in Austin, Texas. I - I started many, many years ago from the old Texas border stations when I was a tiny little girl. My mother was Mother Maybelle Carter, and my uncle A.P. and Aunt Sara Carter -- that was the old original Carter Family. And I sung for many, many years with my sisters and Mother Maybelle on the Grand Ole Opry. And then I've been a part of Johnny Cash's life and been doing what he's been doing, for the past, almost, well, and I've been working with him for about thirty two or three years. But, it's like, we've been married almost 27 years now. So, I'm gonna stay with him if he doesn't really mess up. But sometimes I feel real good singing in family situation because I have sung with my family for so long. And, uh, I love to sing the songs of the Carter Family. They had some 350 to 400 old classic songs. And I'm still singing today most of the time as a -- with John on our shows that we do and I'm just glad to be hear tonight. But I'm lucky, too, because one of our daughters that is my youngest daughter, uh, that, uh, has been singing as a part of the Carter Family now has her own recording contract. And she's going to be recording for a new label that's out by the House of Blues. they also own these Hard Rock Cafes. So, they're going into the recording business. But she's sings a mighty kind of a blues song, and she's here tonight and I'm going to ask her to sing my favorite of the old Carter Family songs with me

CASH: Hey, Rosie!

JUNE CARTER CASH: This is Rosie Carter, ladies and gentlemen! She's right here, Rose, if you will! Okay! I want to ask you to sing this song with us if you know it. It's that kind of a song. Mother Maybelle would be glad if you remembered it. Rosie, will you give me a hand? You too, John.
24. Will the Circle Be Unbroken (with June Carter Cash and Rosie Carter)
25. The Next Time I’m in Town
26. Guess Things Happen That Way
27. Ballad of Ira Hayes
28. Home of the Blues
29. Long Black Veil
30. A Boy Named Sue
31. Peace in the Valley
32. Instrumental Outro

(You can find the set list and other information about this gig here, here, and here.).

Commentary: Cash played a surprising number of tunes from American Recordings that night (although he chose not to play Loudon Wainright's "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" or Glenn Danzig's "Thirteen"). Cash and his wife appeared to enjoy themselves. June Carter Cash couldn't seem to contain her giggles as she sang her way through "If Were A Carpenter."

The soon to be released Highwaymen album to which Cash referred during the show was The Road Goes On Forever, the last that group would release:

Cash himself would give his last full concert in Flint, Michigan, in October of 1997. He and his wife passed away in 2003. Rosie, June Carter's daughter (a/k/a Rosie Nix Adams) who toured with Cash, would die of carbon monoxide poisoning in an apparent accident involving lanterns on a bus in October of 2003 (just a month after Cash's death and five months after her mother's death). Rosie Carter is not to be confused, though, with Roseanne Cash, Cash's daughter with Vivian Liberto and a musician in her own right.

Recently, I re-watched Walk The Line, the 2005 biopic of Johnny Cash featuring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as his love interest and future wife, June Carter. Phoenix at times seemed to eerily channel Cash, but at others, merely engage in an awkward impression. Witherspoon, as Carter, was a joy to watch and made it easy to overcome any dislike for actresses known for their prickly personalities and sugary sweet vapid film roles.

Troubling, though, was the film's attempt to justify Cash's affair with June and his accompanying neglect of his then-wife Liberto (played in the film by Ginnifer Goodwin, now of HBO's "Big Love"). Modern viewers know that Cash ends up with June Carter, so the director apparently found it acceptable to portray Liberto as a hysterical stereotype - collateral damage of the truer love of Cash and June Carter. A film with more depth would have probed Liberto's anguish and rejection in more detail rather than giving Goodwin a few token scenes to act the jilted spouse.

Unfortunately, director James Mangold offered nothing unusual with the film. The script, written by Gil Dennis and Mangold, offered the traditional musician biopic formula with the tired ups and downs found on any episode of VH1's "Behind the Music." Certainly, a film depicting the life of someone bold and innovative should be equally bold and innovative. Alas, there was nothing as daring in the film as there was in Cash's own creative work.

Comparisons to the previous year's equally formulaic Ray Charles biopic, Ray, were inevitable. Both films featured musicians who initially subscribe to musical conventions but find that by remaining true to their own instincts and talents, find that they are trailblazers. Both films feature protagonists who were traumatized in their youths by the deaths of their brothers. Both films depict artists who turn to womanizing and drugs to cope with the perils and rigors of the road and success. Both films illustrate that a rigid adherence to formula in biopic film-making does not adequately depict those who made a name for themselves refusing to rigidly adhere to formula. We've seen it all before, and although such tales might and could be compelling when reduced to a two hour cinematic experience, the directors of Walk the Line and Ray chose to present viewers with a typical portrayal of the tortured genius musician.

Cash deserved more; as did Charles. What to do? These directors, as well as those who plan to helm pictures purporting to depict the lives of famous musicians (or artists of any kind, really) should adopt the following guidelines and restraints to avoid the perils of movie cliches:

1. Limit yourself to a two to five year period in the subject's life.

The viewer is bringing with him or her a working knowledge of the subject's life; we don't need to explore every nook and cranny of a career that spans decade. Rather, it would be far more intriguing to see a shorter dramatic episode in the subject's life rather than spread the narrative to thin by exploring too long a period of time. For example, would it not have been more interesting to see a week in the life of Johnny Cash than a two decade period? How about the weak that June Carter takes care of him as he fights the symptoms of withdrawal? How about the week where he finally wears down June's emotional defenses and the two succumb to desire for the first time in that hotel room? Having the narrative cover more than a few years forces the film-maker to cut corners and skimp on true drama.

2. Resist the temptation to depict the traumatic childhood of the subject.

Forcing the adult actor portray the subject's attempts to cope with his childhood is far more dramatic and, for that matter, serves narrative economy by cutting scenes with child actors, who usually offer rather weak portrayals of childhood trauma, anyway.

3. Do not feel compelled restage every famous or iconic moment in the subject's life.

Just because there exists an image from a moment of the subject's life that lived in the public imagination before your biopic, that is not a reason to reenact it. In fact, that is a reason not to reenact it. Your recreation of that moment everyone knows and recognizes will inevitably pale in comparison to the original. That's not drama; it's karaoke.

But no biopic can really do justice to a performer. I myself was fortunate enough to see Cash in concert on one other occasion, almost exactly a year later at a private party in Houston, Texas on December 10, 1995. He was scheduled to play in Austin (again at the Erwin Center) on December 4, 1996 (and I had already purchased my tickets) but he canceled because of an illness, specifically, the flu.3 Plans to reschedule the show the following spring during South by Southwest 1997 did not materialize. I do not believe he played in Austin again.

Above: Johnny Cash, performing "Delia's Gone," live in 1994 at Manhattan Center.

Above: Johnny Cash's video for "Rusty Cage," from his 1996 album, Unchained.

Above: Johnny Cash's video for "Hurt," from his 2002 album, American IV: The Man Comes Around. It is fascinating that Trent Reznor essentially conceded that the song is no longer his and that Cash became its new author.

Above: Johny Cash performs "I Walk The Line" from 1959 (at least according to this YouTube entry's description).

1. John T. Davis, "One man, one guitar is enough," Austin American Statesman, December 10, 1994.
2. Ibid.
3. Michael Corcoran and Chris Riemenschneider, "Street Soundz," Austin American Statesman, December 12, 1996.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Week That Was (10/21 - 10/26)

Nanostalgia? "Whether we've been doing the same things for ten years, or whether we occasionally manage to pull it together and catch a glimpse of good days, I don't know. The days in Austin have been good again. We talked over that while we were eating at Chuy's this evening with Jason. It's been a strange 15 months or so. Lots of good days and bad, as I guess it goes, life is evening itself out. 24 months ago, going to Chuy's for an early dinner was something we would have talked about wishing we could do." - The League, "Return of Robb," The League of Melbotis, 10/21/07. Truly, then, as they say, the past is prologue. To find one's self in a familiar setting, a former home, once again, after the passage of years, is a relief at the end of a long journey. The challenge: to balance the savoring and revisiting of old memories with the creation of new ones. I myself tend to err on the side of the former. Oh, well.

No Friday Night Lights Here: "Sport as an activity of the masses is not just a modern phenomenon, it’s a phenomenon of modernism. The idea that exercise can produce a new kind of man, can act as a balance to our everyday activities, can change who we are, that’s all very modernist. It is driven by the idea that it is possible to reinvent man, it is possible because of the rediscovery of the body after it had been hostage to Christianity for centuries. Unsurprisingly, all the ideology-driven movements of the 20th century promoted exercise and used sport as a recruitment tool. The Olympics, reinvented at the dawn of modernity, are only the most prominent example." - Madamechauchat, "Sports," Atoms to Zeppelins, (10/23/07). Something tells me Madame Chauchat won't be watching NBC's "Friday Night Lights" tonight or the Texas/Nebraska game tomorrow (although, certainly, Texas's offense could benefit from a bit of modernism, now couldn't it?).

Special Recognition: Many, many thanks to domain management czar Digital Boy of Ramblings of a 21st Century Digital Boy for securing both and for usage by yours truly. Those two addresses now redirect to, and have been engrafted upon, this site's blogspot address, so update your bookmarks accordingly (assuming, fo course, that you bookmarked this site to begin with).

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

Popular fiction about the end of the world can be epic (Stephen King's The Stand and Robert R. McCammon's better Swan Song) or awful (King's Cell). Thus, a reader should always raise an eyebrow upon learning that a popular novelist has taken on the Armageddon genre, as that is usually a cue for very bad genre fiction. Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a post apocalyptic novel, succeeds in a way that places it in a class of its own. McCarthy, author of All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men, did not prepare us for the marvel that is this very grim book.

At only 241 pages, the book is -not- one of those epic, 1,000 page tomes in which a miscellaneous group of "good" people link up and combat a miscellaneous group of "bad" people who have linked up after America has collapsed. (An aside: Really, when did the definition of "epic" evolve in literature to mean a book of more than 850 pages and in film to mean a work with a running time of three hours or more? Scope is irrelevant.). What impressed me about The Road was its intensely dark and gritty nature. As the novel begins, a number of years have passed since some cataclysmic event, which is never directed explained but is obviously a nuclear holocaust. A nameless man and his young son (who has no memory of the world as existed before its fiery end) are making their way southward through the United States and attempting to avoid any trouble they might encounter along the way. They worry about shelter and starvation and do all that they can to avoid murderous road agents. They see only decay and death and the results of same. Their fate is to live and exist day by day in this world.

McCarthy is not writing about good versus evil or action adventure. He chronicles the struggle of a man and his son to survive in a world which cannot by its very nature survive. The man, obviously, has some difficulty reconciling this new world with the old. One particular passage , in which he fleetingly recalls his long gone wife, resonates with readers:

Rich dreams now which he was loathe the wake from. Things no longer known in the world. The cold drove him forth to mend the fire. Memory of her crossing the lawn toward the house in the early morning in a thin rose gown that clung to her breasts. He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.

See p. 111 (emphasis added).

There's a joy in revisiting a place like that which you have not seen (or sometimes even thought of) in a decade. But, if you do so often enough, you do indeed commit violence to your memories. The past is, after all, a place which should be only occasionally conjured up in one's mind. But, sometimes, we cannot resist the temptation to revisit it even when we should not. When nostalgia forces us to do so again and again, we begin to remember our subsequent visits, and not the original, which imbued the locale with meaning in the first place. That is why, at least for now, I have no immediate plans to reread this book which I so enjoyed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Off Duty IV

The perils of making my living kept me from authoring a substantive post today, but I expect to return to regularly scheduled programming in time for tomorrow's installment of Chronological Snobbery (which will not, actually, have anything to do with Superman, weeping or otherwise). Thanks for your patience.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

John Doe

Not too long ago, the Sci-Fi Channel aired reruns of the short-lived series John Doe, starring Prison Break's Dominic Purcell as amnesiac who remembers nothing - nothing - about his personal life but seems to know every bit of recorded academic knowledge. The ultimate example of "book smarts," he knows all there is to know about geography, history, botany, forensics, et cetera, but nothing about his own life before he awoke one morning on an island off the coast of Washington State. Here's how Wikipedia described the gist of the program, which originally aired during the 2002-2003 season:
A mysterious man wakes up on an island off the coast of Seattle, Washington, naked, with absolutely no memory of who he is or how he got there. However, apart from the details of his own past, "John Doe", as he comes to call himself, seems to have access to the sum total of all human knowledge: he knows how many dimples are on the surface of a golfball , the population of Uruguay, and other such obscure (and not-so-obscure) facts. He also has expert knowledge on everything from the stock market to computer science. Over the course of the series John attempts to find clues about his past by using his unusual ability while also helping people in need. In the process it becomes clear that an international conspiracy known as the Phoenix Organization is watching John's every move.
Big mistake. I only made it through three episodes. In a show where the main character knows all human knowledge save for that about his own identity, how many challenges can you really place in front of that character before it becomes quite tiresome? The answer: two airings (plus a third out of pity).

Rather than adopt seriality as its mechanism for storytelling, the program devolved into a silly, episodic approach, with each airing featuring Doe assisting the police solve a new crime each week. Thus, it was a weak procedural with a sci-fi twist, not an unpopular approach these days with shows like Moonlight or even Journeyman on the air. Vexing is the fact that the writers of the program appear to know nothing about criminal procedure. (I suppose it's a hassle when the character you have created and must write literally knows far, far more than you, the writer.). I mean, really, if you are going to invest your time and energy and money into writing and producing a television show in which police officers play a substantial role, shouldn't you make at least some feeble attempt to learn what police officers do and do not do? Wouldn't it be in your narrative interest to do some modicum of research? Apparently not.

Further, the characters, save for Doe, spend most of their time attempting to sound clever or postmodern and meaningful in that way that only people created by television writers do.

The question you may be asking yourself is, what did I expect from a canceled show being rerun on the Sci-Fi Channel, of all networks? Good question. I have found some level of faith in the network since it began airing the excellent, excellent Battlestar Galactica (a fine narrative drama which may suffer some, in the eyes of mainstream television viewers, because it is called Battlestar Galactica.). Plus, in the spot that Sci-Fi has been airing Joe Doe, it had originally aired reruns of Firefly, the canceled Joss Whedon sci-fi/western, which while sometimes whimsical and routinely overpraised by Whedon's many online sycophants, was quite good. (Whedon and his entourage are also writers whose characters talk in that overly clever, self referential way in which no one truly does in real life, but the pay-off for repeat viewing of his television programs is so great that it is worth it.). So, with that context, I figured, why not give John Doe a try?

William Forsythe, who plays "Digger," the friendly sage of a barkeep, is usually a good performer (although perhaps I should have been leery of a program with a character calling himself "Digger"). Sprague Grayden, the actress who plays the flighty sidekick to Doe, actually gave some very interesting performances in Over There, the short-lived Iraq drama in which she played the wife of a wounded soldier. (She would later be written out of the post-apocalyptic network program Jericho.). Plus, as aforementioned, Purcell is on the once but no longer interesting Prison Break. But, alas, the writing, and the cast's apparent unwillingness to transcend the material put in front of them, doomed this series five years ago.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Cultural Legacy of Ratt

Pictured above are the autographs of four members of the heavy metal group Ratt, obtained at an afternoon in-store appearance and signing at Sound Waves record store at Westhemier and Montrose in Houston, Texas, on December 20, 1990. That night, the group would play The Backstage, although fifteen year old me did not attend that show.

In 1990, Ratt was comprised of bassist Juan Croucier, guitarist Warren DeMartini, lead singer Stephen Pearcy, guitarist Robbin Crosby, and drummer Bobby Blotzer. (You can attempt to decipher the signatures above to determine which one of the five members was not present for the signing.). On the radio at that time was "Lovin' You's A Dirty Job," their Desmond Child penned single from their then-new album, Detonator (released just four months before).

Seventeen years ago, on August 29, 1990, Steven C. Salaris, a Usenet poster, reviewed Detonator in the alt.rock-n-roll.metal newsgroup:
I just picked up the new Ratt album, "Detonator". I am just about done with my first listen to the disc and I think it is really good. The album seems to me to be a lot tighter production than their last two sloppy excuses for albums. This is got a pleasing punch and uplifting sound to it. It is a "fun" album. Stephen Pearcy's voice sounds good and the guitar work is reminiscent of "Invasion of Your Privacy". It has some commercial overtones in it, I think Ratt is going for the big double platinum commercial success. Their is a song on the disc called 'Givin' Yourself Away' which is destined to become a radio/Dial Empty-V hit. The song is a Faster Pussycat/L.A. Guns style ballad. Yawn. Anyways, I like it and that is all that matters to me. I hope all of you out in net land who buy it like it too.
(See also here for a similar September 27, 1990 Usenet review by Ted Batey of Carnegie Mellon University. By the way, in his mini-review Salaris predicted accurately; "Givin' Yourself Away' would be released as a single in 1991.).

As for me, in December of 1990, I knew enough about the band to go to the in-store signing at the record store. (I certainly knew their 1980s hit, "Round and Round."). Apparently, that December, Ratt had just embarked upon a 12-city club tour to prepare for an arena tour in 1991. Wrote the Houston Chronicle's music critic, Marty Racine, on the day of the band's December 20 Houston show:
L.A. arena rockers Ratt are returning to the cellar whence they came - back to the clubs, that is, on a special 12-city "Detonator "tour that stops at the Backstage tonight. Yeah, but what we want to know is, will Denise Wells be in attendance? Wells is the one charged with (and later cleared) of breaking city statutes by using the men's room at the Summit during a George Strait concert. In a highly publicized stunt right out of a Hollywood think tank, Ratt lead singer Stephen Pearcy sent Wells a lifetime backstage pass...1
(No word on whether Wells attended the show.). That year may have been difficult for Ratt., who had postponed their planned arena tour to 1991 due to a number of problems. Conceding that intra-band strife, a failure to find a suitable opening act, and the general unpopularity of arena tours for hard rock bands at that time caused the larger tour's delay, Pearcy would spin the smaller gigs as series of "warm--up shows for hard-core fans."2

(Pictured above is the tablature of "Lovin' You's A Dirty Job," which appeared in the December 1990 issue of Guitar magazine, signed by the band at the aforementioned December 20, 1990 in-store appearance in Houston.).

Heavy metal, or hard rock, had but a year left in its reign of the charts. By December of 1990, such bands faced less than a year before the release of Nirvana's Nevermind and the coming disregard of what would later be called with nostalgia and slight derision, "hair bands." But no one in 1990 could know with certainty that the end was near. The critics would tell us later that the coming of Nirvana and grunge was "important," just as the rise of punk rock in New York City in the late 1970s was similarly of import. Cobain and Vedder and Cornell and the rest would flush away the remnants of heavy metal, which would only resurface again on nostalgia programs on VH1 (which no self respecting fan of hard rock or modern music watched in 1990). The progenitors of glam metal were left to history as a silly fad or at most as relics of an era of excess, and most music listeners (and critics) seemed to agree.

In 2002, Crosby died. In a December 29, 2002 review of celebrity deaths published in the New York Times Magazine, commentator/hipster Chuck Klostermann wrote that Crosby's death was actually more culturally significant than that of Dee Dee Ramone, bassist for the seminal/influential/hip punk band, the Ramones. In so doing, Klosterman argued:
The Ramones never made a platinum record over the course of their entire career. Bands like the Ramones don't make platinum records; that's what bands like Ratt do. And Ratt was quite adroit at that task, doing it four times in the 1980's. The band's first album, ''Out of the Cellar,'' sold more than a million copies in four months. Which is why the deaths of Dee Dee Ramone and Robbin Crosby created such a mathematical paradox: the demise of Ramone completely overshadowed the demise of Crosby, even though Crosby co-wrote a song (''Round and Round'') that has probably been played on FM radio and MTV more often than every track in the Ramones' entire catalog. And what's weirder is that no one seems to think this imbalance is remotely strange.

What the parallel deaths of Ramone and Crosby prove is that it really doesn't matter what you do artistically, nor does it matter how many people like what you create; what matters is who likes what you do artistically and what liking that art is supposed to say about who you are. Ratt was profoundly uncool (read: populist) and the Ramones were profoundly significant (read: interesting to rock critics). Consequently, it has become totally acceptable to say that the Ramones' ''I Wanna Be Sedated'' changed your life; in fact, saying that would define you as part of a generation that became disenfranchised with the soullessness of suburbia, only to rediscover salvation through the integrity of simplicity. However, it is laughable to admit (without irony) that Ratt's ''I Want a Woman'' was your favorite song in 1989; that would mean you were stupid, and that your teenage experience meant nothing, and that you probably had a tragic haircut.

The reason Crosby's June 6 death was mostly ignored is that his band seemed corporate and fake and pedestrian; the reason Ramone's June 5 death will be remembered is that his band was seen as representative of a counterculture that lacked a voice. But the contradiction is that countercultures get endless media attention: the only American perspectives thought to have any meaningful impact are those that come from the fringes. The voice of the counterculture is, in fact, inexplicably deafening. Meanwhile, mainstream culture (i.e., the millions and millions of people who bought Ratt albums merely because that music happened to be the soundtrack for their lives) is usually portrayed as an army of mindless automatons who provide that counterculture with something to rail against. The things that matter to normal people are not supposed to matter to smart people.

Now, I know what you're thinking; you're thinking I'm overlooking the obvious, which is that the Ramones made ''good music'' and Ratt made ''bad music,'' and that's the real explanation as to why we care about Dee Dee's passing while disregarding Robbin's. And that rebuttal makes sense, I suppose, if you're the kind of person who honestly believes the concept of ''good taste'' is anything more than a subjective device used to create gaps in the intellectual class structure. I would argue that Crosby's death was actually a more significant metaphor than Ramone's, because Crosby was the first major hair-metal artist from the Reagan years to die from AIDS. The genre spent a decade consciously glamorizing (and aggressively experiencing) faceless sex and copious drug use. It will be interesting to see whether the hesher casualties now start piling up. Meanwhile, I don't know if Ramone's death was a metaphor for anything; he's just a good guy who died on his couch from shooting junk. But as long as you have the right friends, your funeral will always matter a whole lot more.
(Emphasis added; see also here for some blog commentary on Klosterman's piece). Klosterman offers a simple but inescapably accurate premise. Ratt, and popular bands like them, fall victim to the professional appreciaters (as Nick Hornby calls them), or rather, those who make their living fancying themselves superior to those who enjoy music that is, quite simply, popular. You know them,; you remember them. These were the students walking down the hallway in their "Meat is Murder" t-shirts looking disdainfully at you in your "Use Your Illusion" gear. Both the Smiths and Guns N' Roses have their merits, of course, but there are those who use their taste in popular culture to put themselves on a pedestal above those who do not appreciate that which we do. They are now all critics, either for mainstream publications or of the armchair variety with their blogs and podcasts. Their unifying trait is that their taste in music is almost certainly better than, and more important than, yours. If something becomes overly popular, or worse, if it is enjoyed by the kind of people that they find culturally offensive, then the music cannot be of import or significance (even if it is a metaphor for a larger trend).

There lingers, it seems, a nostalgia for Ratt on the Internets. Indeed, I'm not even the first to ruminate upon a 1990 Ratt in-store signing. See here for one writer's memory of a December 18, 1990 in-store at Spec's in Tampa (with photographs, no less, of an event only two days before the one I attended in Houston.). Says another blogger in a more recent entry: "Warren DiMartini was one of the few guitarists in the glam metal era that was actually talented." I'm not familiar enough with the Ratt ouevre to agree or disagree, but I can reserve judgment.

UPDATE (11/12/07): In a recent email, Salaris, now a parish priest in Missouri, reflects upon his 17 year old review of Detonator and his time as a heavy metal fan during that era:
Some of you may remember a time when MTV actually aired videos! It was mostly through MTV and metal-oriented magazines like "Hit Parader" (remember that one?) that introduced me to bands like Ratt. "Round and Round" was the first Ratt song I ever heard. At that time, late 1980's to early 1990's, metal bands like Ratt, Poison, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Stryper, etc. were hitting it big. Besides simply enjoying that type of music along with other styles like progressive rock, I also really liked the girls that were also into Ratt-type music. For me, metal = BABES!! Not the preppy/yuppie types that predominated the college campuses beack then, but the big-hair, leather-n-lace, short skirts and high heels types! In college and grad school, my friends and I would go to concerts and clubs to enjoy the music, the "scenery," and meet girls. To be quite honest, my friends and I were NEVER into the decadent lifestyle of the bands that we enjoyed so much. Yeah, we drank and had fun, but we never did drugs, and we never got into trouble with the law. I was too much of a nerd and my parents brought me up to be smarter than that. Music was an outlet for me, particularly when I was in graduate school working on a Ph.D. in mammalian physiology (I wrote that 1990 review of Detonator one afternoon from the desk in my lab while my experiments were running). We would emulate those rockers not by living like they did but by growing our hair long and trying to dress like them. I even took vocal lessons for a short while. It was part of who I was and for me it was a way to "rebel" against parents and the "establishment." In grad school I met Sheryl, a pre-med/electrical engineering major who turned out to also be a metal-babe. Sheryl and I quickly became more than friends. Weekends consisted of dressing up and going out to clubs and parties. Again, because of our studies and career goals, we never got into anything "decadent." As Sheryl would comment, "I don't need to shut down half of my brain to have fun!" I couldn't agree more. Sheryl and I have been married for 14 years and we have an daughter who is just about to turn 5-years-old. As I got older, bands like Ratt and Motley Crue had less and less appeal to me. I matured and they did not. I still think of myself as a "metal head" but the metal bands that have stayed with me are Iron Maiden, Dio, Judas Priest, and similar bands that I consider "thinking person's metal."

1. Racine, Marty. "Moon Man slides into his `Night'/New Orleans guitarist busy with blues blend," Houston Chronicle, December 20, 1990.
2. DeVault, Russ. "Night Beat: Ratt's Monday Date A Warm-Up for a Monster Tour Next Year," Atlanta Journal and Constitution, December 14, 1990.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Week That Was (10/14 - 10/19)

HOMERIC? Behold, an epic poem by Horus Kemwer on last week's news that former Vice President and Oscar winner Al Gore had won the Nobel Peace Prize:
And he raised conflict and strife across 7 continents and 7 seas,
And he called upon the Third World to suffer for the sins of the First,
And he aggrandized himself at the expense of accuracy,
And he demonstrated the most profound hypocrisy,
. . . himself committing the sins for which he faulted others,
And he cried "Wolf!" - and then he cried again,
And Hollywood finally heard him, and its cretinous denizens,
Uneducated, Ignorant, and Gullible, but endowed by fame with Supernatural Power,
Called upon their Dark Gods, and themselves followed his hypocritical path,
Themselves they flew in private jets to lecture their betters on the sin of Emissions,
And there was confusion and delusion and panic across the land,
And each man was weighed heavy by his guilt,
But only the Rich were exonerated, paying for the privilege to pollute with free conscience,
And class differences grew as a new mark of status arose,
And He, in his majesty, was rewarded for spreading ignorance and fear,
And crowned as all great conmen eventually are crowned:
The Prince of Peace.
- horus kemwer, "the ' peace prize'," Against the Modern World, 10/14/07.

FUTURE MUSIC: "Unlike the average college student or high school student, I firmly believe in continuing to pay for music despite the proliferation of locations where you can get pirated music. It boils down less to a healthy respect for the law and RIAA than a faint hope that musicians will actually get some cut from their label." - The League, "In Rainbows - What do you think?," The League of Melbotis, 10/18/07. We are, I believe, well past the dichotomy of legal versus illegal music. iTunes has been in business for a number of years and its record successes (no pun intended) illustrate that consumers will purchase music legally when it is offered in an easy and convenient way. What the lingering debate over these issues reveals, however, is that the record industry and its sycophants will go out of their way to defend what is wholly and fully an outdated business model. Rather than leap into the era of digital music and boldly experiment with new marketing techniques, the record industry, and its thugs at the RIAA, continue to employ last century thinking to justify their way of life. What Radiohead, and its experiment with In Rainbows, prove is that an artist, particularly a successful one, no longer needs a record label or its distribution and publicity arms. This realization is frightful to executives who have made themselves and their employers fortunes over the years by deducting such expenses and taking percentages from album sales from artists. Certainly, if a record label provides publicity and resources to an artist, particularly a struggling new artist who does not otherwise have them, it should be reimbursed for its troubles. However, the model has become so ingrained that record companies must sell many millions of copies of popular soulless drek in order to sustain its operations and support of less popular, but far more creative, acts. It's a vicious cycle, and at the end of the day, the company cares not whether the albums it sells are of any redeeming social merit so long as they sell. I question not the capitalist component of that arrangement but the quality of music released thereunder. Hopefully, with In Rainbows and the inevitable copycats, we will begin to see artists take their careers into their own hands and rely less on the traditional model of music distribution which has prevailed for the past six decades. It may be naive to believe that in the face of such trends the record companies will rely less on suing its fans and more on providing them with good product at reasonable prices, but time will tell.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Stephen King's Cell

Newsflash: Last year's Stephen King novel, Cell, is not very good.

Prior to reading his attempt at zombie fiction, it had been quite some time since I had purchased a new King book. (In fact, it was Christmas of 1989 when I received and read The Dark Half.). I should have stopped reading his mighty tomes in the 1980s, but I could not resist the temptation of purchasing a King book about a zombie apocalypse. What can I say?

Sadly, the book offers merely the typical zombie motifs (stereotypes?) and adds little to the genre. King tries to add a twist by calling them "phone-crazies" (an awkward name the creatures earned because their transformation into the undead or living dead or walking dead was prompted by an electromagnetic pulse sent out by cellular telephone). If you have seen any zombie films (whether they be the old school George Romero films or more modern quick paced ones like 28 Days Later or the Dawn of the Dead remake, you have little reason to turn to King's latest offering of pop horror. You get the same flurry of action and confusion following the immediate aftermath of the post apocalyptic event, the same grouping together of dazed survivors (who, throughout the course of the narrative, prove to be more flinty than they seemed, or who perish due to their failure to prove more flinty), the same initial inability to cope with the sudden transformation of the world, and of course, the germination of an idea or scheme to thwart the zombies (at least temporarily). As zombies have become trendy in comics and film, the formula remains the same (with only Danny Boyle of 28 Days Later and the Shaun of the Dead guys truly adding something along the way). King really adds nothing to the equation (which is not surprising as he was last innovative during the Reagan years).

What struck me while reading the book, though, was not the plot's deficiencies or lack of originality. It was the realization that King is not a very good writer. That may not be news to you, dear readers (and I can't say that I am surprised, either) but for those of us who really haven't read his work since the dawn of the first Bush presidency, it is of note. Perhaps I am a more mature reader than I was in the winter of 1989 (I hope). Perhaps King was better in the late 1970s and early 1980s (when he was young, new to the publishing industry, and still hungry for mega-success rather than routinely churning out books en masse). The same thing happens to aging rock stars, why not aging writers? Or maybe, and perhaps most likely, he was never anything more than a guilty pleasure and I didn't notice during my youth in the 1980s.

The dialogue in the book, which is obviously important to any narrative, is stilted and awkward. Crafting good dialogue is very, very tricky. King's dialogue is just odd. People don't speak as he presents them , and it is obvious. Some authors write dialogue the way they themselves speak, or the way they think they do, or worst of all, the way they themselves write (and not speak). King's attempt at clever dialogue is even more stilted.

If you've made it this far into the review, you may be wondering, why bother to make the statement that King is not a good writer? Isn't that akin to a multiparagraph entry on the sky being blue, grass being green, or Kevin Smith being overrated? Perhaps. But really, what I find disturbing is that it is evidence of a trend. Nostalgia, aided and abetted by the onslaught of media and consumerism, resurrects many, many things which were popular when we were young. Without fail, those things that are brought back into our lives inevitably disappoint. Whether they be television shows, movies, or whatever, the things we enjoyed during our youth turn out to be embarrassments when we revisit them decades later.

Oh, well. That's what I get for buying pop fiction, right?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

28 Weeks Later

Arriving on DVD last week was "28 Weeks Later," the sequel to 2002's inventive "28 Days Later," the fearless and inventive Danny Boyle directed digital video zombie thriller set in a London overrun by humans infected with the rage virus. With a different director, and slightly altered stylistic approach, the sequel initially caused me worry, although it delivered in a way that few modern horror films do. But is that really saying all that much?

Perhaps my only complaint is the film's use of the "familiar zombie" motif. Don't bother Googling that phrase as I just made it up to describe a zombie film's use of a recurring zombie to heighten tension, drama, and fright. In "28 Weeks Later," this part is played by Robert Carlyle, who begins the film as a cowardly husband who leaves his wife to die in a cottage on the outskirts of London in the aftermath of the initial viral outbreak. The film then flashes forward several months, and Carlyle is reunited with his two children, who were safely away at boarding school during the events depicted in the first film. Their reunion takes place at a U.S. Army run facility through which citizens are being repatriated back into England. Ultimately, after a number of plot developments I'll excise for my purposes here, Carlyle is infected and begins another outbreak of the virus. The thing is, Carlyle keeps reappearing and pursuing his children as they attempt to escape the facility and the U.S. Army's zealous attempt to exterminate all those who are infected as well as those who simply might be. Again and again, Carlyle resurfaces until a final encounter in an abandoned subway station, where he has somehow tracked his children and their remaining protector, though it is far from the original facility. How did he find them? Coincidence? Happenstance?

I think not.

The problem with this device is that it elevates the zombie character into a identifiable villain. Zombies, by their very nature, are anonymous members of an advancing horde of corpses. If we individualize them, they lose that which makes them the most frightful. Certainly, there is some drama and horror to be had in watching a character become infected and briefly chase his former friends and family. But allowing that to continue throughout and over the course of the film dilutes the concept and strays too close to the slasher-film genre where an all too familiar enemy keeps coming and coming and coming until the narrative's end.

Other zombie films have made attempts to individualize the zombie. In George Romero's rather dull 1985 film "Day of the Dead," we see the theme carried out to its extreme as a captured zombie regains some of his personality and relearns his human response system. Building upon that, in Romero's far more recent "Land of the Dead," a single zombie essentially becomes the ringleader of a throng bent on attacking a fortified city. Romero seems fascinated with the natural evolution of the zombie, from its origin as an anonymous corpse to its elevation to some type of primitive sentient being. I think, therefore I eat brains?

Of course, I'm a zombie movie heretic for preferring the fast moving zombies to the slow dull plodding ones of Romero's films. I'm really only a fan of Romero's original 1968 "Night of the Living Dead," which is the grandfather of the genre and as suspenseful as can be. Its first sequel, "Dawn of the Dead," was intriguing in parts but way too lengthy and slow moving for my tastes (and by today's standard's the anti-consumerist message couldn't be more heavy handed). And yes, I know that technically, "28 Days Later" and its sequel are not technically zombie movies as the films are about a virus with infects the living, not the dead.

Oh, well.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Los 4 Fantasticos (The Fantastic Four)

After the Monday I had yesterday, don't expect voluminous commentary on popular culture in today's bite-sized post. Accordingly, behold, and be content with, this early 1980s Spanish language Fantastic Four comic book cover, Los Four Fantasticos! (As always, click the image to enlarge it.). In fact, it is from this very issue that I found the Spanish language advertisements for Fraggle Rock and Dungeons & Dragons (not to mention the earlier posted image of Ben Grim a/k/a The Thing saying his catchphrase in Spanish).

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Brief History of the Dead

Since I read two years ago, I have been recommending to all interested parties A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. Here's the premise: There is an afterlife - a purgatory of sorts in which people arrive immediately following their demise. They remain there, in an ever growing city, so long as some living person remembers them. (It appears that this must be a personal memory, i.e. the person who remembers them must have physically encountered them rather than knowing them from television or media.). Once the last living person who remembers that deceased person himself passes away, the original person vanishes from the city-purgatory (presumably, though not necessarily, venturing on to heaven or hell). There are very interesting observations on memory, wistful nostalgia, acquaintanceship, and death in Brockmeier's novel. Here's the catch: On Earth, there comes a great plague, which thins the population to a tiny sliver. Since so many people die at once, a corresponding many vanish from the purgatory-city (since many of the people who remember them have themselves died). To boot, people who wind up in the purgatory city remain there for a very short period of time (as opposed to a number of decades) because those recently deceased people cannot now rely on living people to remember them for very long. As the living population slims, the few people who remain in the purgatory-city begin to wonder why they remain and exactly what, if anything, they have in common.

Writes one blogger: "I just can not stop thinking about who would be in my city." Indeed.

According to the book's mythos, if you remember a friend, an acquaintance, or even a random passer-by, that person will remain in the city for as long as you live, even if that person does not remember you. Your seventh grade crush, the creepy guy lurking outside your office building ten years ago, or the girl at the end of the bar you couldn't muster up the nerve to talk to and never save again, all of them are in your city. (No word on celebrities, though.). Presumably, even if your memory has mostly faded, they will be there. An interesting concept, and as the book ends, the reader desires it to continue, which is a rare thing these days."

Brockmeier is a young (or relatively young) Arkansan, although he's not written too many novels. I bought another book of his recently, but I've still yet to read it. "A Brief History of the Dead" was based on one of Brockmeier's short stories, which was originally published in The New Yorker in 2003. (You can read the original short story here.).