Monday, February 25, 2008

Cooler Than Cobain, Really

A few of my friends have told me that they find the news pretty depressing, which is something that I can't really argue with, but after today, I at least have one small piece of evidence to the contrary with this news story from The Seattle Times.

Admit it. You Kinda Missed Him.

Ralph Nader is running for president.

The first thing I thought was, "Wait, he can't do that. It's too late." But then I remembered, oh yeah, it's only February.

Also, I feel bad for all the liberal and close-minded college students who won't be able to decide to vote for Ralph Nader or Ron Paul.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

In the Newsweek

In every issue of Newsweek, they count down the most popular articles on their website. They really should stop doing this, because not only does it show how dumb their articles are, but how dumb we are for reading this garbage. Example:

#10 - John McCain reaching out to the conservative base: Ok, this one isn't that bad.
#9 - The King of NASCAR, Rick Hendrick: Alright, articles on NASCAR don't really hold much flame when you consider the democratic turmoil faced in countries like Afghanistan, East Timor, Pakistan, Kenya and Kosovo, but it's only #9, so I'll let it slide.
#6 - Barack Obama's caucus record. Wow, the election of the president of the United States is literally the most important democratic act in the world (not a joke), I can only wonder what kind of hard-hitting news stories made the top five.
#3 - This is a direct quote from the magazine: "Looking for sexual aids or just sex toys? You don't have to shop online anymore."
#2 - Five painful places to get a tattoo. Again, another direct quote: "some spots are more painful than others." No kidding?
And, the number one story in the world of Newsweek readers last week...
#1 - "Hail to the Beasts". A photo gallery of presidential pets. Are you kidding me!? Thanks for giving me another reason to be ashamed of my country, Newsweek. Next time a picture of a kitten takes precedence over the assassination attempt of a world leader, keep it to yourself, ok?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Lady in the Village

A short while ago, my buddy Nicole asked me if Lady in the Water was any good, because, I don't know, she asks me dumb questions all the time. After meditating on the issue in my fortress of solitude (the bathroom), I now think I have a reasonable excuse for why I liked Lady in the Water, and a well-crafted but thinly veiled apology for why I like The Village.

Let me start by saying that what we call "twists" are really a distorted reality. We watch an entire movie thinking that Ed Norton is one way and Brad Pitt is another, but they're not, we only perceive them to be. They were, in fact, only one way throughout the entire movie, but the way we interpreted it led us to believe a certain way.

M. Night (whose last name I can't spell offhand, so you're going to have to deal with me just calling him "M. Night") has something of a reputation regarding twists, and I don't think that it's entirely accurate way of looking at him as a director anymore. Ok, yes, a majority of his movies have a "shocking ending" but I don't think that was his goal. What I think his mind has been focusing on is the issue of "fiction"/reality.

Setting aside The Sixth Sense for a moment, consider Unbreakable. In it, a "regular joe" discovers that he has superpowers, pretty much straight from a comic book. In fact, comic books are a running motif throughout the movie, as his mentor owns a comic book store and is postulating the existence of superheros and supervillians in the real world. We can sum up this plot as fiction overlapping reality.

If you take a look at Signs, there is a more interesting dichotomy going on. The viewpoint of the entire movie is that of a (I assume) Pennsylvanian family experiencing events told on a global level. Since there's no "experts", hardly any "authority", and even barely any people to talk to, their information comes through only two sources -- the book on aliens and the TV news. Both of these sources are readily accepted by the children and quickly denied by the (agnostic?) father. One of the main motifs throughout the movie is the issue of faith vs. evidence, and in the end it asks what kind of information you choose the believe, if at all. One of the things that made this powerful (I think) is because there are many cases where we choose to disbelieve the "conspiracy theorist" and put our complete faith in the news. In fact, it's not even an issue in most people's mind.

I don't want to say that Lady in the Water is writer porn, but that's what it feels like sometimes. Throughout his career, M. Night has been building up to this one idea -- the power of storytelling. Through storytelling, your entire perception of reality can be changed. Not only does the entire thing read like a children's book (or even, as I would argue, a myth), but even argues that art and literature are still the most powerful forces in our world.

In Lady, what is essentially a muse (named "Story") is charged with entering the real world to inspire a young writer living in an apartment building. We eventually learn that this writer's work will end up changing the world, for the better, and someday in the future, he will even be killed for writing it (I'm not ashamed to admit that I teared up a little bit at this part.) We also learn that Story is not just your everyday muse, but is destined to become, I don't know, like the Jesus of the muses. Her ascension to the throne will usher in a new era of inspiration all throughout mankind, and it will be a new golden age and blah bloo blee bla. What the movie basically amounts to is that the power of art is life-changing, and even world-changing in some situations, and that not only does the line between fiction and reality blurred in this movie, but one directly effects the entire world.

I don't think I stand alone when I say that The Sixth Sense is the most entertaining movie of them all, but not the smartest, at least, not in terms of the fiction/reality motif we got going on. Bruce Willis thinks he's people. He's not. That's about the extent of it. Oh, well I guess you could say that the people that walk around in the movie have no idea that they're surrounded by ghosts, and some people have no idea who's a ghost and who's not, so everyone's sense of reality is pretty eff-ed up in this one. But that's about it.

After Signs, M. Night's reputation begins to take some damage with The Village. There are parts of this movie that seem thrown together, I will admit. Entertainment-wise, the second half of the movie ruins the first part, which was amazing. Critique-wise, I think the whole damn thing is brilliant and I'm going to make a poor attempt to explain why. I'm also not even going to make an attempt to speak in riddles, so consider this your spoiler warning.

To summarize the whole damn thing, people living within a small, isolated 18th century community are in constant fear of monsters that reside in the surrounding woods. There's a shaky truce, but the monsters dislike certain things like people actually going into the woods and the color red. The humans dislike certain things like being eaten.

A member of the younger generation regarded as the bravest among them thinks a lot about the surrounding territory and wishes to travel to the next town, but all the members of the older generation advise against it. When it becomes necessary to venture into the next town for medicine, the older generation sends the young blind girl out into the woods, but not before revealing the "truth". The monsters are completely made up.

The older generation has been using the monsters to generate fear amongst their offspring to keep them away from the dangerous outside world, which, we later discover, is not colonial America, but is instead present day. Each founding member of the village had a horrible event happen to them in the outside world, and they decide that they only way to stay safe is to shut themselves off in the woods and use fear to protect their children.

After showing the blind girl the costume they wear to scare the villagers, one of the founding members gives a line that I unfortunately cannot remember ver batim, but will do my best to paraphrase -- the monsters they have been creating and pretending to be were based on legends about the surrounding area. This line could arguably be inserted into the movie just to keep the audience captivated (because it's hard to be afraid of monsters that aren't real), but I tend to believe that it's the core of the thing.

Does any of this sound familiar to you yet? Because it should. It's our government. Yeah, I know literary types have the tendency to see things where they don't exist and draw ridiculous conclusions, but this isn't one of them.

Let's look back: The authority in a territory wishes to protect its citizens by creating a false fear due to its collective bad experiences with the outside world. They have even instituted a "color coded" fear revolving around red things to be something that is feared. They even admit that there might have been a fear in the past, and they themselves are scared that it might still exist. All of this is done for the sake of protecting the citizens of "the other" -- the outside world. The fact that the protagonist is blind member of the younger generation should also not escape your notice. I'm sorry, but if that isn't a post-9/11 America, I don't know what is.

And, what this amounts to in the end, following our "fiction vs. reality" motif, is that the most dangerous fiction in the world today is purported by the ones in power. If we should cast cautious doubt towards news and books, and optimistic idealism towards our childhood fantasies, surely our government and the authority over us are to be the least trusted of all.

Were Lady in the Water and The Village the most entertaining movies M. Night has made? I don't think so, and people might disagree with me, but I doubt it. As I sit here and type this hastily composed article, there are few living directors who are on-par with M. Night in terms of horror, and I think audiences are always looking for him to write another Sixth Sense or Signs, but that's not what he's interested in anymore. So when The Happening comes out this summer, my need for entertainment and horror will be taking a backseat to listening to philosophy, and that my friends, is what the movies should be all bout.

You Were Expecting a Daffodil Maybe?

Anytime a terrorist attack occurs anywhere in the world, the same few lines are always repeated, which usually includes what country it took place in, how many people are dead, and occasionally, what they were doing at the time. Afterwards, you always get something to this effect:

"The Taleban have not claimed responsibility for the blast, but it bears all their hallmarks, says the BBC's Jon Brain in the Afghan capital."

Could someone please tell me what exactly this "hallmark" is that sets the Taliban apart from everyone else? Is it an explosion?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Why I Love Horror Movies

I love horror movies and some people just don't get that. These people think that horror movies are stupid and not scary. Normally, I think that these people are stupid and not scary, but for the first time, I'm going to try and verbalize my love of the horror genre, and I'm going to try to verbalize it into words.

First off, there is a term floating around in the English department of your local community college that goes a little somethin' a like this: suspension of disbelief. It is, in its most base terms, what happens when you ignore the fantasic, like you're reading a book about space aliens invading Earth, watching a movie where people act like Drew Berrymore is attractive, or playing a video game where you're a hero of the guitar. In terms of horror movies, this is the point where you forget that little drowned boys do not attack campers and aliens can't pop out of someone's chest.

The suspension of disbelief is an integral part of enjoying any form of entertainment at any time, but for some reason, people have a hard time getting past this in horror movies. So let me say this: I watch horror movies with the aim of being scared. Crazy, I know. If you were to sit-in on a romance movie, and prior to the opening credits decided that you don't believe Eva Mendez could ever love a no-good, rotten liar like Will Smith, well then, Hitch ain't the movie for you. That also makes an intelligent person, by that's neither here nor there.

For some reason, people tend to do this in horror movies on purpose. Don't deny it. We all have. Hell, even I do it, depending on whether or not I'm seeing the movie by myself, with my friends, or with females (ranked in ascending order of likelihood.) So I guess the first rule for enjoying your typical horror movie is shut the fuck up and watch it. Prior to watching a horror movie, I set myself up to be scared, I plan for it to happen, and I suggest you do the same. This might sound like a lot of hard work, but you do it for every other genre you watch, I assure you. When you sit down to a comedy, you don't want to cry, you want to laugh. When you sit down to a drama, you want to cry and then laugh. When you sit down to Blue Collar Comedy Rides Again, you want to ignore all human decency in the world and enjoy a good old-fashioned poop joke like a five-year-old.

The next thing that fascinates me about the horror genre is the psychology of fear itself, specifically the idiosyncratic nature of it.

Let me explain. Assuming that a movie from a genre like drama is flawless in its execution, we should all feel the same thing, correct? If we all enjoy the movie Free Willy equally, we should all feel happy when the stupid whale jumps over 2 feet of rocks. If there's an animal lover in the audience, they might feel just a bit happier than the rest of us, but they won't achieve a new zenith of happiness. It will still be the same emotion as the rest of us, but just slightly stronger. Not so in horror.

No matter how much I want to, and no matter how hard I try, a killer in a mask with a knife or a chainsaw or the ball-washer from golf courses will not scare me. I'm sorry, but it just ain't happening. A monster, on the other hand, or a creepy Japanese girl, those are scary. (I think probably because deep down I'm a pessimist, and if you tell me there's a killer in the woods, the only thing I can think about is how much it would suck if that killer were also a vampire.) And that's just who I am. My friend Alex isn't frightened by the ghost of an 11-year-old Asian, but he is scared of disturbing family scenes (ala Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hamiltons). My friend Kyle needs a mop nearby if he watches The Exorcist, because he will most likely piss himself, and I could go on and on.

Comedy works in the same way, but I think that's the end of it. Again, assuming that it's a good movie, we should all enjoy, say, a romance movie the same way. But some jokes are lost are some people, and this just can't be helped.

The fact is, we're all scared of something and the trick is discovering what that is, because what we're scared of says a lot about us as people. My experience with psychology is limited, but I like to take a guess sometimes. For instance, Cloverfield was probably less about giant monsters and more about 9/11, and there's much to be said about fear of vampires (cannibalism and the perversion of motherhood come to mind.) Whereas most movies aim to be all things to all people, horror movies aim to be one thing to some people.

And finally, I believe that horror movies are the closest thing to art in film today. I will vehemently fight for this stance. If you watch a movie like Free Willy, you have to realize that there are a multitude of scenes that can be shot and performed in several different ways, and as long as it's nothing too crazy, the end result is still the same, for the most part.

I say "for the most part" because the way a film is shot does affect the way we feel about it, but the fact is, most directors and cinematographers choose safer routes most of the time. If anyone recalls the scene in Pulp Fiction where Marcellus Wallace is talking to Butch in the bar, this is an example of a unique piece of camera work. Despite the fact that they're having a conversation (albeit one-sided) the focus remains on Butch and occasionally the back of Wallace's head. I'm sure you've seen many, many conversations between two people occur in movies, but this one stands out for the originality of the cinematography.

Now, in a good horror movie, the way it's shot makes a huge difference, not a little difference, a huge difference. I just got done watching Psycho, so I'll use that as an example. The very famous shower scene begins with an elevated shot of the woman in the shower and a view of the door to the bathroom opening through the shower curtain. If the shot was that of the outside of a shower curtain, watching the door open, it would have been entirely different (a better view of the killer, for instance, and a lack of connection with the woman in the shower) or maybe the camera is behind the killer (who are you rooting for now?) or maybe you can't see past the shower curtain to view the hand holding the knife, but can see the new light source from an open door. I could do this for days, but my point is this: There is an infinite number of ways to shoot any given scene and only a finite number to achieve the desired effect. In a horror movie, that finite number is much, much smaller, because creating an atmosphere of fear is much harder than anything else.

I suppose what I'm getting at is this: There are multitudinous factors at play when determining if a movie is good or not, and this is true of all movies. I think that all these factors skate on very thin ice in horror movies, which is why a good horror movie is a much better find. Think back to that scene in Pulp Fiction where the two characters are having a conversation. Is it a well-shot scene? Hell yes. Would the movie be any different if it were shot any differently? Not by much. And that's an example of a good scene. Think of how many mediocre scenes you've watched which had an even smaller effect on the movie as a whole.

Now, contrast this with one of the opening scenes in An American Werewolf in London. Our lead characters are stumbling through a dark moor, and think that something is following them. The camera would seem to indicate that they are all alone, as all you see is the two guys and darkness. At the end of the scene, a werewolf emerges, quite literally out of nowhere, and the resulting camera work is nothing but chaos. If you changed that scene in even a small way, it would be completely different. There is a big difference between thinking that a monster is after you and knowing that there is. There is a small difference between looking at one man during a conversation and looking at both of them.

This is turning into one of those situations where I think I've written too much and nobody has taken the time to make it to the end of this article. There can be entire volumes written on the subjects that I've touched upon here, especially the psychology of fear, but I think I'll abruptly end this article here. I will leave you with one final thought though: How does the whale know that the ocean is on the other side of the rocks, huh? He can't see over the wall, so for all he knows, there's just more rocks or maybe even a desert. I'd imagine whales don't like the desert too much. Or is he just jumping because the boy lifted his arm up and told him to? And if that's the case, well then this is a stupid whale and it's probably going to get captured again by someone with a raised hand and a net. I'm just saying, that's a lot of good food that's gone to waste by freeing it.

Terrible Ideas From Around the World

Bad Idea #1 - I predict a surge in the amount of children with influenza in the coming months.

Bad Idea #2 - I didn't even know people still did this.

Bad Idea #3 - This whole thing is stupid, but god, what a great place to find a one-night stand.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

In Ze News

1) The position of Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan is apparently up for grabs now. List of jobs I'd rather have than this one: Professional Hostage, any post in Bush's PR team for the next 11 months, Canadian, the hooker that services Danny Bonaduce, and World Champion of Poop-Eating. The only job that's worse than this one is Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan.

2) Everywhere. In. The. World. Sucks.

3) Four Paintings were stolen in Zurich. I know that the article says that they wore ski masks and just held the staff up at gunpoint, but there's no way I'll be doing anything but thinking about ninjas for the next two weeks.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Movies I Want to See

George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (Feb 15th)
There are exactly three things that I've been waiting for my entire life. The first is a very good, cinematic movie that realistically tells a story through the use of a believable person using a handheld camera. I'm asking for a lot there, but I have faith. The second is a very good zombie movie. I'm not nearly as acquainted with Mr. Romero as I should be, so I think the fact that this expectation has not been realized yet is more my fault than anyone else's. And the third? True love. I'm hoping this movie meets all three expectations.

The Signal (Feb 22nd)
I don't...I don't think this is going to be good, but I still want to see it, for the sole reason that it's an independent film utilizing three autuers to tell three different stories. At first I thought this was going to be an amazing horror movie, but then I heard that the middle segment is a comedy, and that pretty much blew it for me. Don't get me wrong; I love a little comedy in my horror (Re: Shaun of the Dead, Army of Darkness) but I would just prefer it if it didn't dissect a scary movie and ruin the thing as a whole (Re: The Twilight Zone Movie).

Witless Protection (Feb 22nd)
Hahaha, just kidding! I still have all my chromosomes and no extra ones, so I won't be seeing this.

Frontière(s) (May 9th)
I guess you can say that I have a long standing history with this movie already. See, it's one of 8 in the Horrorfest series of 2007, an event that my friend Alex and I tend to obsess over. Needlessly and pathetically. Prior to the premiers of these movies, we would have bet straight cash that The Deaths of Ian Stone was going to be awesome beyond all reason and that Frontière(s) was going to be a Hostel knock-off. Well Alex saw Deaths and reported back to me that my $9 would better be spent by paying someone to punch me in the face. Then, much to our astonishment, Frontière(s) started netting some pretty damn good reviews. To paraphrase: "It's like Jesus came back to Earth to make French horror movies." Alright France, you win again. I will watch your movie.

Third Mother (June 6th)
I am actually quite surprised this is debuting in theaters here in the States. This is the final movie in a series of horror thrillers directed by Dario Argento, a series that no one has heard of by a director that no one knows from a country that Americans couldn't point to on a map.

The Happening (June 13th)
With my extremely limited knowledge on how the Judeo-Christian does business, one thing that I do know is that Eve was created from Adam's rib. I think that if a single rib could produce X chromosomes, then surely if I offer up a finger or one of those stupid little bones in my inner ear, then some deity somewhere can make this movie good.
Actually, I am cautious about this movie, but not worried. I am one of four or five people worldwide that liked both The Village and Lady in the Water. I think the key to enjoying M. Night these days is to accept that fact that horror may have been where he grew up, but he resides in a little place called Fantasy Town these days. His last two movies dealt with the issue of fiction vs. reality and I enjoyed that...once I realized it.
That being said, The Happening does not look scary, but instead, chilling. From what I can surmise from the trailer, people mysteriously begin to off themselves for no apparent reason, which is neat. There is one scene in particular where a man is standing on the street, watching half a dozen people jump out of the building above him. Creepy.
It should also be noted that I heard a rumor that this will be a rated R movie, making it Night's first venture into big kid land.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (July 11th)
I love Guillermo del Toro. I hated the first Hellboy. The hurricane of emotions I'm feeling is too intense to accurately put into words, but if I were to try, it would be something like: Cautious glee sprinkled with erecticipation and a dash of fearitude

The Nightmare Before Christmas (Oct 24th)
Dear high-schoolers, We get it. You're dark and you're cute just like Jack Skellington or you're dark, cute and tormented like Sally. Thanks to your almost religious degree of devotion to this movie and spending your not-so-hard-earned dollars on its merchandise, Disney has decided to rerelease it in theaters in 3D, which I am very excited to see. I guess I should thank you, but I won't, because I hate talking to you.

[Rec] (TBA 2008)
Alright, take everything that I just said about zombies, handheld cameras and true love concerning Diary of the Dead, and just copy it over here. Except add on the words "indie" and "Spanish".

The Wolfman (Feb 2009)
Benicio del Toro is a werewolf! Benicio del Toro is a werewolf! Benicio del Toro is a werewolf!

Honorable Mentions:
The Band's Visit (Like, next week)
Automaton Transfusion (March 4th)
Funny Games (March 14th)
À l'intérieur (April 15th)
The Mummy 3 (August 1st)

Sunshine

You haven't heard of the movie Sunshine. That's alright. I just barely heard about it and if it weren't for the fact that someone else downloaded and gave it to me, I might not have seen it, for several reasons I'll get into in a second.

Sunshine is a sci-fi movie from a horror movie director, about a crew of 8 traveling to our dying sun to put a big effin' bomb in the middle of it to...reignite it? (I guess. Whatever.) Without said big effin' bomb, the Earth will freeze and die and blah bloo blee blah.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me go ahead and say that I went into this movie with, jesus, at least half a dozen preconceptions. First, the fact that it is directed by Danny Boyle of the 28 Days Later series fame, and while I can't say that I loved the first movie as much as everyone (and, admittedly, have yet to see the second,) I can recognize a decent piece of cinema when I see it. I was also aware that this wasn't shot on the biggest budget, and I imagine that is a huge limitation when shooting a sci-fi movie about a giant space ship and the sun (which is also kinda big.) Casting doesn't particularly effect me nearly as much as consideration of directors and writers, but I was aware that two of the main actors worked with Boyle in the 28 series, and I think having worked with an actor before helps utilize their talents more effectively. Also, Michelle Yeoh is in this movie! I did not know that, but it is awesome regardless.

Let me also say that I pretty much hate sci-fi movies, and very few of them have any worth in my horror-centric world. Mainly because, in the words of Joe Kelly, there is "too much fiction. Not enough science." And it basically boils down to me obsessing over small, nitpicky details about the science in the movie. Not because I think that everything should be factual 100% of the time in movies, but because real science is often ten times more interesting than anything we could make up. That being said, can we please dispense with the notion that people freeze when they're in space?

Ok. Whew. Having said all that, let me state that on a pass/fail system, this movie is definitely on the pass side, with its main strength lying in its characters and the tension creating by having the fate of the entire world on your shoulders.

Despite the fact that there are 8 people on board this ship, you obtain a very real sense of who each of them are, and because they've been in space with each other for the past 7 years, their completely rational human personality traits explode into full-blown obsessions and occasionally
an outburst or two. In fact, one of the opening scenes features two of the characters fighting over what basically equates to vblogging.

One of my favorite scenes in the entire movie is the second one, where one of the crew members is viewing the sun through a protective window and orders the computer to weaken the protective barrier by something like half a percent to let the light in. The result is that light fills the room and the camera gets a bit wonky and you get the impression that the light is a physically palpable thing, an idea that continues throughout the film. During everything, the light becomes a very real presence and has to be considered before doing anything, since it's like a combination laser/explosion. I hate to get all English major on everyone, but it accentuates the idea that as living beings, we're very intimately connected to the sun. And, being something of an astronomy afficionado, I really appreciated that the opening scene revolved around reverence for the sun. Also, here's a fun fact: Firefox's spellchecker acknowledges the word "wonky" as being correct, but not the word "spellchecker". Weird.

Anyway, the same crew member that enters into the observation room and fills it with light goes on to describe the event to the rest of the crew as a spiritual experience, and throughout the remainder of the movie, every time he's not doing something crewy, he's in that observation room watching the sun. Something weird starts happening with his face that made me go, "Is he shedding?" and you realize that he's literally burning his own skin off with this obsession, but they never mention it in the movie. I loved that, and I'm glad that the same scheme is repeated with a majority of the characters.

If you watch the trailer, they let you know that an extra someone is on the ship and starts sabotaging the whole "save the Earth" deal, and if you watch only the first ten minutes of the movie, it becomes pretty obvious that it's the captain of the previous, unsuccessful ship that mysteriously vanishes. I did not ruin the movie for you. Not even the littlest of bits.

Besides the fact that the captain of the previous ship, who is a crispy religious-fanatic, doesn't really even come into play until the final twenty minutes of the film, and even then you don't really care about him. He's not scary, and every time he's on screen, the camera gets hazy and instead of being creepy it's just damn annoying. Also, speaking as an atheist that actually is afraid that religious fanatics will blow up the sun, I can say that the whole "god thing" sounded pretty forced. Ummm, let's see, we need a reason for this guy to go crazy. How about Jesus? Good enough for me! All in all, I would have loved for his character to be cut out entirely and the ending reworked to allow for more of the crew members going out of their minds. And actually, if that would have happened, I would have loved this movie with the boner of a thousand suns (what?)

What you end up with a movie not about the end of life on Earth as we know it, or religious commentary, or even a movie about astronauts going to the sun. What you get is a movie about people dealing with large amounts of pressure and each other, and trying to function knowing damn well that their measly little lives aren't that important in lieu of larger issues. It's a movie about people, and I dig that, even though the last twenty minutes blew it for me and people don't freeze in space.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Song Story

"Paperthin Hymn"


The wind, violent and slow, whipped around my face, tearing strands of hair away from their position. I would have to fix that before I went back into the parlor. It was required of me to look presentable to say, “I’m glad you could make it,” and “Thank you so much,” I guess. I concentrated on keeping the cigarette in my mouth from being blown out or away. The sun was bright and it was far too nice a day for a funeral.

Most of the attendants gathered in several large groups here and there, presumably because they were all in the same congregation, but I didn’t know or recognize any of them. They talk in hushed tones with one another, and from the eavesdropping I allowed myself to do, none of their conversations were about my grandmother. This is my first funeral in five years and I wonder if these floral- and pastel-covered older women have already become bored with burying the other members of their church.

There’s a man sitting on the bench next to me, smoking as well. I always had to hide my habit from my grandmother and to be smoking now, outside, for the world to see, well, it feels sacrilege somehow. The funeral doesn’t bother me so much, but the people sure as hell do. There’s only so much “polite” I can muster before I need a break. Every breath I take is swept downwind and so is the breath of the man sitting next to me and pretty soon I can smell the dirty air drifting towards me.

Exiting from the passenger door of a 15-year-old Buick, an overly tall woman wearing a long, black floral dress with a face punctuated by obnoxiously large glasses approaches the front door of the parlor, where I’m standing. She’s wearing brown sandals that are inappropriate for the situation, especially since her toenails are yellow and ill cared-for, but I know that she only owns two pairs of shoes, so I forgive her. The man she’s with is short, much shorter than she, and in khakis and a green sweater. His soft features and awkward walk display a complete lack of confidence. I glance over at my friend on the bench to see if he sees it too. He’s dragging on his cigarette and watching them walk, so I imagine that he does. The couple stops a few feet from me.

“Noel,” says the woman.

“Hey ma,” I say. We don’t hug.

“You know Nan would hate to see you smoking,” she says.

I look down at my shoes to avoid her statement. I’m wearing the $600 black laces by Tod’s because I thought they would be formal without being flashy. I take a drag.

I look back up at the man she’s with. “Arthur,” I say, out of required politeness, “How are you?”

He puts a hand on my arm and all I can do is stare at it. “I’m good. I’m good,” he says to me, stressing the O’s in a pitiful sort of way, “How are you Noel? Are you holding up ok?”

“I’m fine,” I say.

He wrinkles the corners of his mouth like I just said the saddest thing he’s ever heard and he puts both arms around me and he hugs me. I’m uncomfortable.

“She’s in a better place now,” he finally says. I take the hand with the cigarette in it and pat him on the back. I think about all the saliva that just ended up on his green sweater.

When he lets go, he’s clutching me by the arm again and looking at me.

“We’ll be inside, ok?” he says, like I might be needing them for something. He lets go of my arm and holds the door open for my mother.

When she walks past, my mother stops for a second and asks me, “Is your father here?”

“Haven’t seen him,” I reply and take another drag, hoping that’ll be the end of the conversation. Thankfully, it is, and I’m left alone with the man on the bench, who is now watching me. I spend a few moments breathing and feeling the wind.

“Interesting woman,” he says, directed at me but with the tone of observation that implies apathy of response.

“Yep,” I say.

“You the grandson?” he says.

I glance over at him. “Yes,” I reply.

He nods at me and then looks over the parking lot, surveying. “She was an interestin’ woman, too. You two were close weren’tcha?”

I look out at the cars and the asphalt and the white paint, trying to see what he was looking at. “I lived with her for a few years when I was a teenager.”

We don’t say anything for a while. When he finished his cigarette, he stands up and walks to the doors.

“Be seein’ you,” he says.

“Yep,” I reply, throwing my cigarette on the ground and stamping it out.

I stood there for a few minutes, feeling the wind on one cheek and my now-disheveled hair against my forehead. The parking lot was full of unfamiliar minivans and the occasional Caddy. When I finally turn back and go inside, I still couldn’t believe how beautiful the day was.

I walk past the bathroom and decide to leave my hair how it was. What did I care if I had messed up hair in front of the old ladies? The line of people extending from the casket was outside the parlor now, spilling into the hallway. My mother’s at the front of the line, shaking hands and looking sincere, with Arthur by her side for some reason, not doing much of anything. I cut through the line and stand next to my mother, avoiding Arthur’s sympathetic eyesight.

I ignore the line of funeral attendants my mother was speaking to and face the casket. It was the first time I really looked at her since the whole thing began, and I didn’t much care for it.

“Yes, that’s true,” my mother says behind me, her voice the only one in the room without reverence for the quiet, “she is in a much better place, and we’re grateful for that...we’re so happy you could make it, her church family was very important to her...No, I wasn’t there at the end, but I know that she went peacefully...Yes, she was an incredible woman wasn’t she?”

The congregation would stand alongside me and look at my grandmother for a few moments, before I made them uncomfortable by ignoring them and they joined a circle of people somewhere. Some of them whispered things to me while they were standing there and I just nodded, regardless of what they said. I’ll admit that the practice of viewing the dead has never and will never make sense to me, but it felt appropriate that I should be standing here, facing her, as opposed to outside smoking and staring at parked cars.

I had bought her a new dress for today, a $400 white Kay Unger, something she would never wear, but the hues accented the pearl necklace that she wore almost every day I had known her, and the subtle tones of her skin that I gratefully inherited. There was too much makeup on her, and her face was disappointedly overshadowed by superfluous splashes of purple and red. Thankfully, her hair was in a much better condition, tightly woven into the bun she wore on Sundays and on special occasions. Her face was wider than I had remembered and I considered whether or not this was the decaying process in effect, or if I just didn’t remember her face as well. The expression on her face was discomfort, either in spite of or because of the stitches I knew were inside her mouth. My grandmother had a tender shade of blue in her irises that I, unfortunately, did not inherit, being left with the sharp lines of brown and green from my father’s side. Her eyelids were, of course, closed over the delicate blending of blue into azure into yellow, and I found myself wondering if there was anything about this figure I recognized, anything that was familiar to me. I picked up her hand in mine, but immediately set it back down.

Dear god Grandma, when did your hands get so thin, and why didn’t I notice until now?

Friday, February 8, 2008

So I've Been Reading Sagan Lately...

Alright, so let's say you're African, and you're living with the possession of your family's business -- a small, but old, printing company. Now when I say small, I mean small. Your family's printing company is so small that all it is in one printer. And when I say old, I mean old. This printer has been in the family ever since, well, ever since there was a family. Let's say about 74 generations for the sake of quantification.

So. Here you are, with your great^72 -grandpappy's printer. Your operation is pretty simple: Every second of every day, your printer prints off one thing and one thing only -- a single sheet of paper containing these words:

The rain in rain falls mainly on the rain

Despite this unwhimsical and altogether unwieldy piece of poetry, you can sell each one of these sheets for one penny, which is just enough to cover the cost of the ink and the paper and put maybe a tenth of a cent in your pocket. Needless to say, you are not exactly getting ahead in the business world.

Now, because this printer has been printing for every second of every day for 74 generations, and every member of this family works from ages 15-55 (forty years) it's done...well, a shitload of printing (about 93,346,560,000 sheets!) And because it prints every second of every day for 74 generations and will continue to do so in the future, it will occasionally make a mistake. About, oh, I don't know, maybe once a day, a smudge will appear on the sheet (which turns out to be an awful lot of mistakes -- over a million of them.) You try to sell them, but your customer's buying habits dictate that they will have nothing to do with your silly little smudges. The smudged sheets make you no pennies and eventually get thrown away.

Then, one day, your printer makes its typical goof and the page ends up looking like this:

The rain in rain falls mainly on the rain.

Whoa. Stop the presses.

Turns out, your printing error has randomly inserted a period into your poetry (I bet you didn't even see it, did you?) And blow me down, people in Africa will actually pay just a little bit more for this new sheet with its shiny new punctuation. So now, instead of making one penny for every sheet sold, you're now making a whooping two pennies for each sheet. Not too shabby for just a dot.

With this newfound profit, you can now afford a second printer. After 74 generations of using only one printer in your business, you now have a second one. This means several things: First and foremost, your cost in producing sheets has doubled. Next, it also means your profits have doubled. And finally, the numbers of errors your printers produce have also doubled.

And this is what life is like for you for a few years, and business is just fine and dandy until one day, when an earthquake happens, and this earthquake is huge. So huge, in fact, that it's downright Cambrian (he said, winking into the camera) and it lasts all day.

Now, because your printers are delicate pieces of machinery, and this earthquake lasted a full 24 hours, your two printers have collectively produced about 172,800 errors. Most of them suck:

The rain in rain falls mainly on the a;odifnapw

Some of these errors though, like your dot of legend, are actually kinda good and include:

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.

The blue rain in rain falls mainly on the rain.

The rain in rain falls mainly on the PLAIN.


So, because you're running a business, you decide to try and sell some of these errors. And, because your customers are of a discerning nature, some prefer a certain kind of error over others, and others prefer a completely different kind of error, and yet some of your errors make zero money at all. The whole thing is good news for you, because some of these errors make you some spinach and you can afford a third printer.

But now the question has come into play of what to print. You decide that because you have three printers and three pretty decent lines, each printer will only print one kind of line. This is about the time you decide to retire and pass the business onto your son (or "daughter" as the more inferior version is often called.) This is where the family biz takes off and things start to get really crazy, so I hope I didn't lose you thus far.

The customers begin to grow very fickle with the sheets you print for them. The "Spain" version of the sheets are extremely popular these days, and those get you about five cents. "Blue" gets one penny, and "PLAIN" is actually losing money by selling for half a penny each. All three printers continue to make errors that make no money. On the whole though, you're slowly making a profit.

Let's skip ahead a few generations. After about 13 generations, your operation is much bigger, with about 100 printers, each one printing off a different line, every second of every day and again, and creating errors along. Some of them read like poetry, some of them sound like a fortune cookie, and some still are simple sentences. Over the course of these 13 generations, one printer managed the word "blind" somehow, and then the word "boys" and eventually one error after a long, long, long line of errors produces this winner:

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers' School set the boys free.

Not too shabby, if I do say so myself (9 out of 10 Irishmen would agree with me). This one line, through nothing but sheer luck (whether it be bad or good) and simply staggering number of errors is immensely popular with your customers. To an outsider, this line is no better than some of the other lines out there, like:

"The marvellous thing is that it's painless," he said. "That's how you know when it starts."

But whatever. The customers like what they like and it's doubtless than the "North Richmond Street" line sells really well. It sells so well, in fact, that you decide to export it. You buy printers in a few places across the world, all of them producing one page per second, one error a day. And the same process begins to occur in those places, but the customers in different places have different tastes. Eventually, after only 73 days, you have different customers purchasing different versions of this popular but same sentence. For instance "South Richmond Street" sells extremely well in Japan, but extremely poorly in Sweden. "North Richmond Avenue" is immensely popular in Brazil, but they use it for toilet paper in India. Needless to say, "South Richmond Street" is sold in Japan, and "North Richmond Avenue" is sold in Brazil.

The sentence itself is in no way superior to the sentences being sold alongside it, nor is it superior or inferior to the sentences sold before it. In fact, stylistically speaking, those shorter sentences about rain falling are just as good. The only difference is that the customer of differing areas will prefer one particular sentence over another.

Every once in a while, a member of this printing family will sit back and go, "Wow, I guess we were really lucky to create a sentence like North Richmond Street." But they're not really lucky. Several generations ago, this particular chain of errors is preferred by the customer, even though it's very, very far removed from the original sentence, making it actually quite faulty. And that's all it is, really, the results of many, many generations of stupid errors that fickle customers liked. In fact, considering the amount of time it took to make this one stupid sentence, the printer family should really be pretty embarrassed.

Actually, some of the customers argue that partly because the sentence isn't very long and not extremely complicated, and mainly because it's so popular, somebody must have wrote it and all its innumerable variants, and all the other sentences and sentences that aren't even around anymore. They would estimate that in happened somewhere within the current owner's lifetime (about two days ago) and didn't take too long (about a half of a second). They also think that the North Richmond Street sentence is vastly superior to all other sentences, just because it's popular. So superior, in fact, that it if you buy it, you can live forever. Some even go so far as to suggest that only one particular type of sentence is good, while the others are worthless (specifically, the one that has the letters A, C, I, H, N, R, S, and T capitalized.)

Some of the customers wonder where the original sentence came from and consider the possibility of an author jotting it down 92 generations ago. Some of the customers see the truly astounding degree of beauty in this all at once unique and mundane sentence and everything it's accomplished and everything it's become in just 73 days, and can easily comprehend a few words about rain happening in 74 generations (about 2,960 years).

Monday, February 4, 2008

Angel Island Act I

I don't know when it happened, but somewhere along the lines, people began using time machines to have sex with me in the past.

Well, no, ok, that's not entirely accurate. Rape would be a more suitable word. "People began using time machines to have rape with me in the past."

I say this because in recent years, the trend in the media industry is to take things from my generation's non-drinking/non-sexing years and then totally violate them in ways that only Satan and Japanese fetish websites could conceive. You're going to do what to Bumblebee now? Jesus Crispity-Crunchity Christ! Don't you Japanese have any shame? (Answer: No.)

In recent memory, it started with a little movie called X-Men. That is where it began, with a friendly, yet philosophical romp into the lives of gorgeous twentysomethings with mutant powers. This was a piece of my, and my generation's, collective childhood though, and before the movie came out, all I could do was gently mutter "Careful...careful..." But the end, I was pleasantly surprised, and for that, Mr. Singer, my firstborn child is yours (I think he's ten now).

That particular venture into nostalgia ended with the beautifully orchestrated diarrhea mountain that was X3: The Last Stand. Sitting here writing this at this exact moment, I can think of so many digressions and flat-out evil deeds that movie performed on my 7-year-old self that it would just be too painful to delve into. However, I will say two things. One, the movie was bad. Two, WHERE THE FUCK IS NIGHTCRAWLER? DID HE TELEPORT OFF THE FACE OF THE GODDAMN EARTH!? FUCK YOU BRETT RATNER YOU NO-TALENT, CHILDHOOD-DESTROYING, FRAT-BOY-LOOKING MOTHERFUCKER!

Same thing happened with Spider-Man, although, admittedly, I haven't seen the third movie yet. Why? Because I'm scared. When people started saying it was bad, I felt cautious apprehension, then as time went on, that turned in a confident refusal to view it. These days, it's nothing but a full-blown phobia and I now pay a bearded fellow to let me sit on a couch and discuss childhood memories, back when Spider-Man was cool.

Even things that are directly marketed to kids will still grab my attention and tug at my heartstrings a little bit. The reemergence of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for instance, is something that the lonely and bitter 7-year-old inside of me cannot completely ignore, even if it hinders the possibility of the lonely and bitter 22-year-old on the outside from getting laid. I don't care if it's unattractive; I insist on wearing my Raphael mask out to the bars.

Which brings me to the true purpose of this post: Stop ruining Sonic, assholes.

Let's bring it back for a second. The year is 199X (that's what they did in video games back then so you had no idea what year it really was), Reagan is no longer in power, but his disgusting conservative disease has covered the nation, a disease that will not cease to be until the year 201X, and within the hearts and minds of youngsters, a fierce debate was being fought over the issue of Sega vs. Nintendo.

On the frontlines of this battle were two contenders: an ultra-fast blue hedgehog with an attitude and a fat Italian stereotype. They both had their advantages and disadvantages. Sonic could move so fast that he could break the sound barrier and burst through robots, making them explode. Mario could crawl through pipes, something that even real hedgehogs can do. To power-up, Sonic could collect Chaos Emeralds that allowed him to go all super-saiyan and whoop the ass of everything in his path. Mario ate mushrooms and got bigger, which you think would be counterproductive, since he was already pretty fat. In the mind of a grade-schooler, there was no contest.

Then, after Sonic had lapsed into the obscurity that all of our most beloved childhood memories go, Sega started ruining the whole goddamn thing. First and foremost were the inclusion of a ridiculous number of very generic stock characters, parading around like they're proud of their retardation. Tails was awesome because he provided a foil to Sonic's sassy attitude, and because playing with him was slightly different (TAIL HELICOPTER, MOTHERFUCKER). Then Knuckles came along, and it was cool, because nobody had any clue what an echidna was. He was also the badass of the group and you go, "Wait, wasn't Sonic the badass of this two-man group? Oh well, whatev." Then things began to spin wildly out of control. Apparently every goddamn animal in this make-believe world can run super fast, and now you've got birds bats, rabbits, more hedgehogs, metal hedgehogs, nondescript creatures of questionable origins, and they're all terrible. I can count at least five different characters that have that identical Sonic "tude" and you can't help but wonder what the fucking point of adding another character with the same powers as everyone else was.

And when did Dr. Robotnik become Eggman? That is not your name and you know it, Dr. R.

But it's not too late Sega, you can fix Sonic. That's right, you can bring him back from the dead with a few simple quick fixes I have devised for you.

1) Animal Genocide: Ok, here's how this works. Take all those shitty characters you just made and wipe them out. Oh, you need an explanation on how this happens? Here's your explanation, children are only two steps above a dolphins in intelligence levels and three steps behind chimps in logical thinking. They won't even notice that your stupid green bird is gone.

2) Sonic Wears Clothes Now: I mean, everyone is this world is naked and that has caused a lot of weird things to appear on the internet. Trust me on this one. Put some pants on that guy and stat.

3) Have Him Play a Sport: This has been working for Mario for years, where the best games that Nintendo has produced with its mascot character have been simple sports games. They made golf fun, for christ's sake. The least you can do is put Sonic in a rugby game or have him bowl or something.

4) Actually, you know what: Just stop making Sonic games. My childhood is ruined and never again will I enjoy breaking TVs with ten rings inside, or tail-helicoptering over an entire stage for the hell of it. Thanks a lot, Sega. I hope your profits fall even more than they usually do.