Monday, May 11, 2015

Dear Zachary

Today's posting is going to be short for two reasons.

One, because I've been off-schedule in terms of writing on this blog for a while, and, as I've mentioned numerous times before, starting to write again after taking a break is always a joyless experience. I just have to act like it's a band-aid and rip it off. See that? Did you see that shitty, cliched metaphor I just wrote? That's what happens when you don't write for a few months.

At the start of the semester, I was worried that I wouldn't have time to write with my new schedule, but I think I may be ok. It's going to change from being "every day / every other day" to "Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays" though.

The second reason why I won't be writing too much today is that I wanted to just talk momentarily about the documentary Dear Zachary. Even though I saw this film several weeks ago, I still think about how touching it was on occasion.


Dear Zachary is a documentary about a lot of things. After the death of his best friend, a filmmaker decides to travel the country interviewing the places important to his dead friend and the people whom he loved. As can be expected from a documentary with this kind of subject matter, it is a touching movie, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I teared up while watching it. I teared up a lot, actually. I teared up so much, in fact, that the water from my eyes was so copious it fell onto my face in the form of droplets. I cried, is what I'm trying to say.

The thing that I enjoyed most about this film though, and the reason why the word "documentary" doesn't feel like an apt description, is because it follows the story of how the film itself got made. Of course, the whole thing had to be shot, and then go into post-production and editing before it got released, but the content of the film is following along with events as they unfolded in real time for the filmmaker and all the people involved. As the film is being made, things happen, and the direction that the film takes keeps changing.

And the story that ends up being told is an extremely...dramatic one. It's the type of thing that I wouldn't be surprised to see written out as a screenplay. But, to the best of my knowledge (and much to my dismay) the events in the film are real.

The movie's great. There's not a single thing I would change about it, and due to it's nature, I don't want to mention anything that happens in it aside from the first five minutes, so...there you go.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Finally Starting to Figure Out Birdman

Last time I wrote about Birdman here, I admitted that I was a bit confused by what message the movie wanted to send. I think I'm starting to get it, and the key to getting it is figuring out which characters to pay attention to, and which to avoid.

Just a heads up, this whole thing is a massive spoiler for everything.

Alright so the end of the movie sees Riggan shoot himself onstage at the end of his play. He ends up surviving though, with his nose blown off. When he comes to in the hospital, he has a great review by the New York Times, tons of followers on Twitter and Facebook, and the attention of the media once more. He finally earns the respect of his daughter, and his best friend is elated at what surely will be a financial windfall coming their way soon. As a final stroke, he takes flight out the window and his daughter can see it now, and she smiles up at him. When I describe it like this, it sounds like everything worked out in the end, right?

Again, the key here is deciding which character to pay attention to and which characters to avoid. Just because the movie makes something appear like a good thing doesn't actually mean it is, and just because a character is happy about something, doesn't mean we should be too. So, let's break this ending down:

First of all, the shooting. Everything leading up to this point led me to believe that he was motivated by depression and a desire to kill himself, not that he was intentionally trying to wound himself for the sake of the play. Unless I'm the only one that didn't notice it, there wasn't any indication that this was premeditated for the sake of the play being a success. I would also argue that he must have shot himself, like, in the head, and not trying to graze his nose or anything, since he falls down silent at the end of the play. If this is the case, then his success following his attempted suicide doesn't really count. By that, I mean Riggan himself doesn't succeed here, he actually fails by falling victim to suicidal thoughts, and fails again by not being able to follow through with them. He just accidentally becomes famous afterwards.

Then there's the review. Have you ever received a compliment from someone you thought was vile? It feels more like an insult than an insult. The theatre critic is, at best, a shallow person. At first, she derides Riggan just because he was a Hollywood actor, and declares that she will give a poor review no matter what the play is, just because she hates him. This is flagrantly unprofessional, to say the least. Perhaps most damning of all is her admiration for Edward Norton's character, who is an attention-seeking, narcissistic, lying asshole. Her good review in the newspaper is actually something to be embarrassed about.

The movie makes the case against the adoration of the media and the attention of millions. Throughout the entire film, we're told that the masses are quite dumb, enjoying dumb people things like explosions, superheroes and reality TV. (And, arguably, killing "real art" by drawing talented people away from genuinely-made projects.) Here again, when the masses start liking Riggan again, the movie has already made it clear that it is a mark of shame.

Was I the only one that noticed that Riggan's daughter is a terrible person? The movie flirts with the notion that we should feel bad for her, and that maybe she's just a confused kid. The problem with this is that she's not a kid; she's a full-grown woman. She's a drug addict, and a liar. Remember all those terrible things she said to her father, and afterwards later admitted that he really never did anything bad to her? She sleeps with Edward Norton's character, who again, may I remind you, is a crazy asshole.  Her approval at the end is also not something to be happy about.

What about Riggan himself? Throughout the entire film, he's hounded by the Birdman character speaking directly to him, urging him to sell out and become famous, while at the same time stroking Riggan's ego with delusions of grandeur. This guy definitely shouldn't be listened to, and is promptly ignored at the end of the film while he's on the toilet. It seems like the Birdman persona is dead, but maybe not. By shooting himself in the face, failing at suicide, and becoming famous, Riggan needs a new nose, which of course strongly resembles a bird beak. I suppose you could read this as a cute little callback to Riggan's prior role. "Oh, he looks like a bird now. How cute." Instead, I choose to see this as Riggan full on becoming Birdman. Birdman is no longer a persona he has, or a mask he wears; Birdman is his face. He is Birdman.

Well, christ, Kevin. Are there any decent characters in this entire damn movie? Just one: The ex-wife. She is grounded throughout the entire film, never once displaying or even mentioned any of the crazy properties that the actors or the daughters portray. When she kisses Riggan, it is completely different from the way the crazy actress kisses Riggan in the beginning, declaring her pregnancy, slapping him, and then sucking his face. Despite being married to Riggan, she is far, far removed from the world of phonies and nutjobs that he inhabits. She seems to be kind, caring, and supportive of Riggan. She is the voice of reason, and it is her voice protesting at the end of the film. She is understandably worried about Riggan's mental and physical state, and shocked that his best friend is discussing fame and fortune while he still lies in his hospital bed. While all the other idiot characters are cheering Riggan's return, she, being the wisest of them all, knows that Riggan has only descended further into the muck of show business.


Here, I think we can start making assumptions about what the movie is "about". I still believe that it's all over the place with messages it wants to send, but at least one is clear: the entertainment industry is a bunch of shit. Get out and spend some time with your wife.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

I Saw Whiplash and The Wind Rises in the Same Weekend

Comparing these two movies is like walking towards a funhouse mirror. From far away, putting them together makes absolutely no sense. The Wind Rises is a Japanese animated film based somewhat loosely on a notable Japanese aeronautical engineer working primarily in the years leading up to World War II. Whiplash is about a college student majoring in drums under the tutelage of a particularly stern and, to be quite honest, fucking terrifying, professor. Not only is their content completely different, but the tone and styles of each movie are drastically different. I mean, one was made by the guy who made this film, for christ's sake: 
 
And the other is about a professor losing his shit and throwing a chair at a college student. Take a look at both of these films;
Exhibit A

Exhibit B

And you can see, these two films could clearly not be further apart.

But to stick with my admittedly weak metaphor, if you walk a bit closer to that funhouse mirror, the image of your own face becomes clearer. These are actually about the same themes.

The Wind Rises follows the story of Jiro, who grows up wanting to build airplanes. He works hard, he travels the world, and spoiler alert for people who don't know what Japan is: he is very successful at designing airplanes. Whiplash tells the story of Andrew, who bloodies his own hand practicing the drums and then dunks his hand in ice water so that he can keep on practicing. As mentioned, he also has a hellish professor constantly picking on him, and the burden of this combined with his own drive to be, in his own words, "one of the greats" nearly breaks him. I would argue that the endings to both of these movies are ambiguous as to whether the protagonists are heroes or villains, and whether or not "win" at the end, but I want you to see both of them, so I won't say any more about that.

There's a lot of...not distractions, but let's say "flair" accompanying the main themes of both these movies, so it's easy to think that they have nothing in common. As previously mentioned, the style is completely different, but we should never mistake form for function, so let's ignore that. If you asked most movie-going audiences what Whiplash is "about", they would probably say something about a cruel professor, but that would be wrong. A lot of people who saw The Wind Rises might focus on the love story between Jiro and Nahoko, and they might be forgiven for this, since an image of them together is the poster for the movie.

But both of these assumptions are wrong. Both of these movies are about men so driven by their passion that they forego everything else. Andrew is already focused on becoming one of the greatest drummers alive before he even meets his crazy professor, and nobody is forcing him to bleed all over his own drums just to practice. Jiro practically has a fetish for airplanes. He dreams about them all the time, and is never seen doing anything other than designing or thinking about them, except for the occasional moments with Nahoko. Looking a bit more deeply at each of these films reveals that they're really about following one's passions.

[Imma throw a spoiler tag up at this point, because again, if you haven't seen both these films than I encourage you to do so instead of reading my shitty blog.]

Going back to my awful metaphor however, an even deeper look into the funhouse mirror distorts the connection between these two films even further. In The Wind Rises, Jiro is portrayed as being something of a genius. There are a few scenes where he's working, and a few scenes where he's tired, and maybe one scene where he's studying, but for the most part, he just sits down in front of a drawing board and ejaculates brilliance. Andrew on the other hand, is slowing murdering himself with his obsession over the drums. I hate to keep harping on the bloody hands thing, but have you guys ever held a stick for so long your palms bled? I haven't, but I assume it must take a long fucking time. Andrew is brilliant just like Jiro is brilliant, but Andrew has to work himself insane just to be the best drummer, not in the world, not in the country, not even in the state, but in his college. These characters are both equally driven, but the hurdles they have to jump over are set at completely different heights.

Nahoko is nearly the perfect kind of wife. Despite being sick with TB, she still completely understands that Jiro has to work late, and can't spend any time with her, even though she's about to fucking die. She even leaves him to let him continue on his work, so that her corpse won't inconvenience him in any way. The movie plays this off as a success however. Nahoko seems happy with this arrangement, and encourages him even after her death. Andrew also has a love interest, for like, one whole date. His obsession with the drums takes the more, I would argue, realistic path for a relationship to go under these circumstances, which is that he predicts he will never have enough time for the girl because of his music practice and decides to break up with her. We don't see her or another romantic interest for Andrew for the rest of the film.

And here's where the huge difference in the statements these two films are making begins to become clear. Jiro wants to build planes because they are beautiful, and for no other reason. The Japanese military and government don't care how pretty they are, just whether they can kill people. Of course, these planes go on to kill many people, both inside and outside of them, and most of them end up destroyed by the end of the war. C'est la vie, says Jiro. At least the planes were beautiful. His genius is a thing that is misused and misunderstood by the people around him, but the film ensures us that this is ok: the beauty of the planes transcends murder.

Andrew's ending stands in complete contrast to this. His beauty actually is understood by the people around him, and used exactly how it is intended. However, since we got to see "how the sausages were made" so to speak, we see how much his quest for this beauty has destroyed him and his personal life. While he is performing the drum solo of a lifetime, his father looks on backstage, horrified at the monster his child has become. Meanwhile, the crazy professor gleefully cheers him on, knowing that Andrew is now set upon the path of greatness. I've heard this ending described as ambiguous, and I have to say, that is a gross misunderstanding of the film. The ending is both triumphant and tragic. The talent that Andrew has learned has come at a price, and a steep one at that, but he is, like Jiro's planes, transcendent.

How you feel about passion and sacrifice will largely determine which of these two films you prefer. Do you believe that your own work is a gift you can give to the world, whether or not the world is ready to understand it? Will things work out as long as you believe they will? Or is your gift a terrible burden that must be fed with your own blood? Is your life worse less than your passion? I hope you see both these films and think about it.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The War Genre

Originally, I wanted to just write about a recent war movie I saw, and I loved, Paths of Glory. Paths of Glory is a film set during World War I about a failed operation to take "Ant Hill" away from the enemy (Germans, in this case). The plan fails, and the higher-ups in the army decided to deflect blame onto the "cowardly" soldiers whose lack of bravery and fervor caused the failure. They end up executing three soldiers for treason -- one who was injured before the battle began and spent the fight unconscious, one whose name was drawn from a hat, and one who knew about an officer's prior mistake that cost a soldier his life. The film was directed by Stanley Kubrick, but it was directed by the Stanley Kubrick that sometimes pretends to direct films like a completely different person. It invokes Dr. Strangelove more than The Shining.

If the film is really "about" anything, I would say it's about the disconnect between the officers and the soldiers, the callousness that this disconnect creates, and the absurdity of military-style, hierarchical thinking. The generals sit in lavish parlors and discuss how the executions of their fellow soldiers will surely raise the spirits of the infantry. It is a film without a happy ending, not even a hopeful one, that paints war in an ugly, pointless light.

And that's basically the end of my review. The film does a great job of proving the thesis it creates towards the beginning: War is dumb. I was really surprised to see, however, that Paths of Glory makes its way onto the IMDb Highest Rated War Movies List, coming in at number seven.

Don't get me wrong, I loved this film. I loved it. It may even squeak past Dr. Strangelove as being a better film. The film absolutely deserves to be on any to movie list. I was just surprised to see it described as a "War" film.

One of the things that really interests me as a movie is thinking about genres. My long-standing position is that genres are better defined as the intended sensation that a film wants to give, rather than the types of characters and settings that appear in it. An animated film that is meant to terrify its audience is completely different from one meant to make them cry, and yet Watership Down and Grave of the Fireflies are considered to be in the same genre. An animated film that wants people to laugh is a completely different animal from something made as a vehicle for music, and yet Monsters Inc. and The Wall, are also supposed to be in the same genre. It's a mess.

If you would have asked me what traditionally belongs in the war movie genre, I would have told you that it probably included a lot of scenes of fighting, people dying, people yelling into a radio, a lot of dramatic music...you know what I mean, a lot like Saving Private Ryan, which appears as #2 on the list. I wouldn't say that it involved a lot of romance and talking in a bar, like in Casablanca, which is #1 on the war list.

Now, I will argue that Casablanca is a better movie than Saving Private Ryan, but are they both "War movies"? Are they both about war?

On the on hand, Saving Private Ryan largely shows the realities of war, and I would argue, largely free of judgement or praise in either direction. A recent film that I saw last year, Fury, does much of the same, choosing to show a more realistic side of things, rather than heap praise or condemnation. (Personally, I think showing the realistic side of warfare inevitably leads towards being anti-war, but maybe that's just me.) If anything Casablanca is pro-war, arguing that the allies should be fighting the Germans, and more subtlely, arguing that the US should join in (which it was not at the time of its production). Dr. Stangelove and The Great Dictator are decisively anti-war, Charlie Chaplin even going so far as to poke holes in the fourth wall, peek through and talk directly to Hitler himself. Half of the films just mentioned don't even show any fighting.

It's hard to summarize the IMDb list into a single "emotion" that all of these films are striving far, and much harder to try and gather their collective visions into a single ideology (pro- or anti-war). Moreover, they don't even seem to carry the same themes about fighting and warfare, as some are about civilian children or saloon owners. However, I would argue that the lists works on account of war itself being a thing that is too complex to distill down to a single pro- or anti- stance. Sure, you can largely be in favor of one or the other, and argue for humane treatment, but in the end, war is a brutal necessity. It is sometimes necessary for the greater good of preventing further suffering, and sometimes it brings nothing but misery for those who must live through it. It is often absurd and pointless, and (perhaps because of this) sometimes we find deeper meaning in it. The movies on the IMDb list reflect not only each auteur's individual thoughts on war, but also a collective sense of the various things that war is.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Birdman

I DON'T GET IT.



I should say right off the bat that I really do appreciate films that attempt to make statement greater than what their stories are about. Birdman is a film trying to make a statement about...something, and no matter what, I'm glad it at least gave it a shot.

On the flip side of that, I hate anything in any work of art that doesn't add anything to the sum of its parts. I hate scenes that have nothing to do with the plot, characters that could be cut without losing anything, lines that don't have any necessity to them...all of that. A good movie is a tight movie. I especially hate it when directors or writers add shit specifically to be obtuse or weird. Look at this reindeer tap dancing. Isn't that shit raaaaandom?

Birdman comes in at the intersection of these two feelings I have. On the one hand, I get the feeling that the movie is about the nature of art versus the nature of entertainment. On the other hand, whatever point it wishes to make about art, the Theater, modern-day popularity, and entertainment were all totally lost on me.

That's not to say that the movie is not understandable, but just maybe it was not understandable to me. I...generally feel that I'm...somewhat qualified to talk about movies, but this is a pretty complex story here, working on several different layers. The plot, as general as I can make it, is about a washed-up actor who is adapting a short story to the stage. So, the first layer to this movie is the short story itself, which vaguely mirrors certain characteristics about the plot and the characters in the film. (If you want to get technical, I would add that there's actually two layers here -- the short story and the adaption of the short story for the stage. This requires the audience member to have read the original story at some point in time though to draw connections and -- more importantly -- see the differences between the stage performance and the story itself, BUT to keep things simple, we'll say it's just one layer.) The second layer are the actors in the play, two of which are very popular and thus have public personas as well as private lines. Finally, the actual, real-life actors and director of the film also add to the narrative. The main character is a washed-up actor known mainly for playing a superhero, struggling to work alongside an intense, rude method-actor while writing, directing and starring in his play. This movie stars an actor who is most well-known for playing Batman, an actor known for being hard to work with, and was written, directed and produced by the same person. I try hard to separate a creator's work from his or her personality or private history, but in this case, it seems that the choices made in terms of casting and aspects of the script could not have been an accident. There is even a point in the film where the main character comments that the last time he played the character of Birdman was 1992...which just so happens to be last time Michael Keaton was in a Batman movie.

I definitely enjoy all these layers and double entendres in the film, but it makes it astoundingly hard to dissect, while at the same time begging the audience to do so. The man character, Riggan, wants to make a grand gesture of art in the form of this play. Of course, being our protagonist, you're inclined to root along with him, to see the play succeed. As the film goes on, however, it begins to become apparent that Riggan is not in it for the "art" of the thing, but just to stroke his own ego, and convince himself that he's an actor. AS THE FILM GOES ON HOWEVER, you see just how much of himself he's been putting into this work. It is slowly bankrupting him and eating away at his sanity. The movie wants you to draw some sort of conclusion about whether Riggan can succeed and if he even should succeed, but it bounces around so much that I'm still not sure if I was supposed to hope the play failed and he went back to the family he neglected, or if I wanted the play to be a huge success so Riggan could be popular again.

Then, there's the issue of what "Real Art" is supposed to be. A good 90% of the film is spent deriding popular media, like superhero movies, and the vapidness therein. It's not an undeserved piece of criticism. However, this little theater, with its stage adaption of a famous short story, which is supposed to be "Real Art" is filled with just as many phonies. It has a character acting out of his own ego, a character lying to the media to boost his celebrity, a character faking (?) a pregnancy, and a stage critic who, sight unseen, announces that she will write a bad review of the play, simply because Riggan used to do Hollywood movies. It's a very depressing, and highly, highly cynical view of pretty much all art.

And then, Twitter enters the mix. At the start of the film, Riggan is actively avoiding any kind of media presence -- he has no twitter, facebook, myspace or anything. His drugged-out daughter calls him stupid for being this way, but because she's not seen as being the voice of reason, we're at first led to believe that this is the right way to behave. Without giving away the exact end of the film, I would argue that this position is ambiguously reversed.

At this exact moment

All that being said, as a viewer and a guy who sometimes writes about movies online, I should find my own conclusions in the debates this movie starts. Here goes:

Whether something is popular or not is not bad or good so much as it is irrelevant. What matter is how real the experience of it is. Art is typically made for money, by ego-driven attention whores. There is also no art more "legitimate" than the rest. However, art can transcend the creator. That is to say, a good piece of art should be better than the person making it. In this particular film, Riggan is also a pretty crappy guy, making this play for crappy reasons, surrounded by people of greater or equal amounts of crappiness relative to his own. However, he ends up creating a real piece of art, and that's the victory. His own life is insignificant in the face of it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Contributing Factors to the Start of the Syrian Civil War

One of the many reasons that the conflict in Syria was unable to be resolved quickly was due to the complexities in the country when it started. Of course, the increased presence of sectarian groups (like ISIS) broadened and extended the war a great deal, and the political dealings of the US and Russia prevented any international (and arguably, national) force from putting a stop to the violence, but these factors won’t be discussed here. Instead, only the determining factors of the start of the war will be discussed. While the world may be far more focused on ISIS or chemical weapons, if the initial grievances that led to war breaking out in the first place are not adequately addressed, there can be little chance for a lasting peace in the region.

First of all, ISIS had nothing at all to do with war breaking out in Syria. While it is true that as soon as war broke out in Syria, the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was quick to establish a presence in the country, there is no reason to think that they contributed to violence breaking out initially (History of ISIS/ISIL). Again, the strong presence of ISIS in Syria, especially in and around the “capital” of its operations, Al-Raqqa, makes the situation far more complicated, but has nothing to do with the war itself, and must be considered a separate issue.

At first glance, it appears that there was no “tipping point” for conflict in Syria to begin. The stated claim for starting a civil war from the rebels was freedom from the brutal dictatorship being conducted by Bashar Al-Assad and his father Hafez Al-Assad before him. However, the regime of Hafez Al-Assad, which lasted for thirty years, had equal cause to begin a rebellion. Hafez rose to power in Syria in the mid and late 60’s by eliminating his rivals until he was alone at the top (Leverett). From 1970 onward, Hafez conducted a brutal regime, hindering democracy and disregarding human rights in general. The country was put under a one-party system in favor of Hafez’s own religious sect, the Alawites, and at the expense of the largest sect, Sunni Arabs (Lawson). This means that Hafez, and then his son Bashar, were leaders of the military, political and religious sectors (Carpenter) If fighting the dictatorship of the Assad family were the true cause of the war, it would have started much earlier than it did, instead of waiting over four decades to get started.

The Syrian uprising also started around the same time as similar uprising in Arab nations, uprisings that generally finished rather quickly or with the help of NATO forces. When considering whether one should start a civil war, it certainly doesn’t hurt to see that people in similar situations are having great success and with the help of powerful allies. While this probably had some influence on whether war would begin in Syria, I’m sure that it couldn’t have been a huge factor. I mean, did you think about rising up against your government just because they did in Tunisia?

In his book, The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier suggests that the most important determining factor in whether a civil war will break out in a country is whether a war can break out in a country. Imagine a house, and inside that house is a safe with an amount of money in it. What sort of conditions need to be established before that safe will be stolen? Of course, the security of the house is the first factor. If the house has tight security or armed guards, then the chances of that safe being stolen are pretty low. If instead the only security obstacle is a little old lady and a rusty screen door, then the chances of the safe being stolen are considerably raised. The abilities of the thief are also important, as a certain class of burglar might be dissuaded by the presence of solid lock on the door, but a world-class thief wouldn’t be bothered by that too long. The amount of money in the safe also determines the chances of people trying to steal it. If the safe has five dollars, it’s probably not worth getting arrested or shot over, but if there’s a billion dollars there, you might be able to tolerate getting shot a few times. How much money the thief has is also important. If the amount of money capable of being stolen is, let’s say $100,000, regular schmucks like you and I might consider that a lot of money, but Bill Gates wouldn’t even rub his dick on that pitiful amount. On the flip side, if the safe contained $10, most people wouldn’t bother robbing it, but someone living on the street with less to worry about in terms of getting arrested and getting a felony record, may try to steal it.

What I’m getting it is that Syria in 2011 was a house with a big ole’ safe full of crude oil in it, and outside was an entire army of hungry, broke thieves.

Hafez certainly kept his own sect, the Alawites, well taken care of, but the majority of the population, Arab Sunnis were suffering due to a drought that damaged the agricultural sector, in addition to the damage the entire country was receiving due to lack of oil flowing into the country after the Iraq War and UN sanctions (Ajami, Lawson, US State Dept.). The Sunni Arabs that would start the uprising also represented 50% of the country’s military (Carpenter). So, these people are poor, hungry and broke, and if they start a war, they know that 50% of the country’s military will immediately switch sides based on the group loyalty fostered by Hafez’s creation of a preferred sect.

If, somehow, ISIS as an organization and an idea were to vanish from this earth tomorrow, the underlying problems that caused such instability in Syria would still remain. Since this is the case, if we are to even consider fighting ISIS, we must first fight the poverty and intergroup hatred that provided a space for it to rise.

Works Cited
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria: The History of ISIS/ISIL. Etd. By Charles Rivers Editors
Leverett, Flynt L. Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, 2005.
US State Department, and CIA. Country Notes: Syria. 2012.
Lawson, Fred H. Global Security Watch-Syria. 2013.
Carpenter, Ted G. "Tangled Web: the Syrian Civil War and Its Implications." Mediterranean Quarterly. 24 January, 2013. Print.
Collier, Paul. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Ce Done About It. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Ajami, Fouad. The Syrian Rebellion. Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 2012.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Big Hero 6

This movie is not about superheroes and robots. It is about how everyone is always talking about you behind your back.

[This review is chock-a-block with spoilers, by the way, and since you might not have seen it, and it's fairly recent, I want to warn that I'm basically going to tell you the entire plot in this review.]

I want to be clear about a few things before I get into the details of this movie. First up, I love it. I fucking love it. There are few movies that, in my opinion, can live in the space between sentimentality and playfulness, but Big Hero 6 finds that sweet spot and builds a house there. It builds its little house, gets married, settles down, raises kids in that little space and when they're off at college, their friends are all like, "yo dawg, where's your hometown?" and the kids will respond with pride "the space between sentimentality and playfulness."

The key to it, I think, is how the story places the characters on the back leg from the very beginning, but their response to it is always optimistic. In a different movie, after the characters undergo some sort of hardship, they have the freedom to behave all emo-y.


The characters in Big Hero 6 though have zero moments of respite and happiness throughout the entire film, yet at no point does anybody seem all that sad. It's the type of thing that seems like it would be caused by extremely poor writing, but instead it gives the impression that these characters are positive enough to overcome their troubles (after a time) while still remaining relatable. The movie opens with mention that our protagonist -- Hiro -- lost his parents when he was a baby, and then he loses his older brother, and then he loses his motivation, and then he loses his best friend. It's fucking sad shit, and yet the tone of the film is...well, take a look at some promotional material:

Hurray! We're orphans!
Again, just to be clear, it's not the characters don't have hardships and don't express that pain, it's that they don't dwell on it. The main trauma, more urgent and more present throughout the film, is the loss of Hiro's older brother. After watching the movie several times already, I can tell you that the older's brother name isn't mentioned in more than 3 scenes after he dies, but his presence is constantly felt, and that keeps the wound fresh, rather than the protagonist constantly rehashing a "I miss my big bro, frowny face emoticon" mantra.

The robot, Baymax, was built by the older brother, and the older brother is the one that brought all the characters together. It is his actions that set the events of the movie in motion, and so you're not allowed to ever forget about him, even if he is not directly spoken of. What is present for the audience must be more so for the characters, and so you know that even though Hiro is going "Golly gee, we're going to be superheroes" you know that in his head, he's finishing that sentence with "because my brother is dead and I'm alone".

The movie is entirely about pain and loss, and how to deal with that. Events in the film lead the characters to form a superhero team, but they do it as a way to cope with the loss of their friend/brother, and as a way to help Hiro cope. The secret in the movie is that Hiro is in a deep, deep depression, and everybody knows it. We only ever see the events of the film through Hiro's perspective (which is one of the best ways to make any movie) and so there was probably a scene where the older brother's friends got together and talked about how they're going to do their best to help Hiro. They walk up to him and go "Heyyyy buddyyyy how's it going?" and when he wants to play with robots they go "Yeah guyyyy whatever you want" and when he wants to fight crime, they go "Ok big guy, you're the boss". It's all a big, kind-intentioned ruse that ends up saving the city they live in.

This is a beautiful way to do a plot and establish characters, which in and of itself is worthy of praise, but on top of that, this is just a well-done, fun-ass movie. Not only that, but it's a well-done, fun-ass comic book movie. *Record scratch*. Say what? This movie was based on a Marvel comic? Fuck yes it was, idiot, and they adapted it in the best possible way. They took a few broad details, and instead of trying to perfectly copy it onto the medium of film, focused on creating their own world and own style for the characters to occupy.

The voice work here needs a kind word as well. Scott Adsit, widely known as the world's most loveable loser, does the voice for Baymax and it's awfully fucking good considering he has to talk like a robot and still express emotions and provide humor. I liked how one character pronounces Hiro's name Japanese-style, while not being Japanese herself, and the Japanese characters pronounce his name American-style. That's a tiny detail that tells you a lot about the strict, rule-based personality of the character and the world these characters inhabit. Kewl shit.

In all, I can't even think of anything bad about this film. Pretty close to being perfect.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Dear Salvador - A Sex Secret

Dear Salvador,

I'm going to share with you a secret about sex that took me thirty years to learn. You're still young, and you'll probably forget it after drinking a can of Mountain Dew and playing your X-Boxes all night long, or you'll remember it, but have no idea how to actually apply it, but I'm going to tell you the secret anyway. It comes with a great deal many asterisks and provisos, but the gist of it is as follows:

The biggest determining factor whether anybody will sleep with anybody is whether or not they feel comfortable in doing so, and whether or not they trust that person.

Again, this is a large generalization, so it needs to be said that this does not apply to everyone. In fact, I think a better secret to sex might even be that everybody has sex for different reasons, and often several of those reasons are working together. I also don't want you to think that trust and comfort are the only factors in play here. Attraction definitely matters, as well as the infinite number of factors that happen in any social situation that have to be looked at individually. But, by and large, in my experience, trust and comfort are the two biggest factors.

Since you and I will never truly be able to understand all women everywhere and at all times, let's try some mind experiments that consider what you or I would do in a given situation. Imagine you have before you the absolute sexiest woman alive, whatever that means to you, whatever it is that you would find yourself most sexually attracted to. Now, this woman (or whatever) is willing to have sex you, but it will not be pleasant. She will not be kind. She will make fun of the size of your penis, talk about how disgusting your body is, and yawn during the act of coitus. She will also videotape the whole thing and upload it onto the internet after you're done (which she will inform was far too short a time). Would you still go through with it, with this woman (or whatever) that is 100% sexy to you? No, of course not. Even if the sex itself is fine, the accouterments will be just awful, and worst of all, the video of this attractive woman (or whatever) laughing at the size of your tiny baby dick, poking your fat rolls, and expressing her boredom at your mediocre lovemaking abilities would be a fucking nightmare.

Let's try switching the scenario up a bit. Now, this mind experiment comes with a caveat. I don't believe that you can have good sex with someone that you have 0% attraction to. At least some bit of attraction is necessarily to facilitate human sexual relations. Maybe you think this caveat is wacky-bo-backy, but I think it's pretty reasonable.

Alright, so let's say you have before you a woman who is at minimal levels of attractiveness necessary for sexual relations, someone who is just absolutely at the far end of the "doable" spectrum. Again, this person is willing to have sex with you, and she's going to be amazing. She will compliment your enormous wiener and finally acknowledge its true beauty. She will note how pretty you look when naked, which is very. Very fucking pretty. She will act like your lovemaking is outstanding, which it is, and when it's over, nobody will have to know it ever happened. Would you enjoy this experience? Would you go through with it? Would you rather have the sexy woman who will treat you like garbage or the ugly one who will treat you like a god? Again, I don't know what you're thinking (ever), but I would choose the nicer person every fucking time.

Remembering that women are people just like you and me, imagine what she must be thinking. Are you going to treat her well? Will you be kind? Is there going to be a .mp4 file of her showing up on the internet shot in night vision? Are you going to tell everyone that you slept together and, intentionally or not, ruin her reputation? Moreover, because men are typically bigger than women, she has to worry about whether or not you will hurt her or take advantage of her. This is serious shit, man, and most importantly, she doesn't have a good way of knowing any of this until after the fact.

And yet, people all over the world are taking their chances and having sex all the time. (Everyone. Everyone except you. Loser.) Sometimes this turns out to be a shitty idea. Someone tries to convey an image about themselves to another person, and that image sometimes gets intentionally or unintentionally distorted. A girl sleeps with a guy, and he treats her badly the next day. Or, a girl sleeps with a guy and the next day a video shows up on the internet. Sadly, this type of thing happens a lot.

The problem comes in when you consider the fact that to have someone get close enough to you to sleep with you, you have to convince them that you are trustworthy. Consider that for a second. It's the reason why some people wait until their third date before having sex, or wait until marriage -- it takes time, sometimes a lot of it, to build up that trust. This is also why breakups hurt, but not in the sameway that outright rejections do. If I walk up to a girl in a bar, and drop a "안녕하세요, 아가씨~ 제 집 안에서 같이 있으면 어때요?" and she responds with a "역겹네" that feels bad. I deserved it, but it still feels bad. In a relationship though, you are placing your trust in another person to see all of your awful, awful flaws. If breakups were about having one person just not be attracted to you, they wouldn't hurt so much. I mean, people are unattractive to other people all the damn time, you especially. It doesn't bother me that every woman on the street doesn't want to sleep with, but it does bother me that the one person I trust doesn't.

If there are any reoccurring themes in these notes of advice I've been writing you, I think one would be: Women are people too and that if you want somebody to think that you are a certain way, you have to actually be that certain way. If you want people to think that you are smart, you should read a lot. If you want people to think that you're kind, you should try smiling and doing nice things. If you want people to think that you can bake chocolate chip cookies with your dick, you should buy an oven and some purell. And if you want women to sleep with you, you want them to think you're trustworthy, and to do that, you need to actually be trustworthy. Shit's not that hard, man.

Your Useless Mentor,
Kevin

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Thor and Feminism

I can't remember what it was exactly, it may have been the Simpsons, but I remember a gag going something like this: There's a new football team being formed at school, and to shake up the system Lisa Simpson (or whoever) decides to shock the world by joining the team. "I bet you weren't expecting...A GIRL!" she declares, stepping onto the field in a football uniform. The coach shrugs. "We already have three girls on the team," he says. This is what reading the new Thor is like.

The series, written by Jason Aaron, is trying to be overtly feminist, but it just comes off as being awful. Credit where credit is due, though. There are a few good things about Thor that I like. When the series was first announced, as far as I know, the only thing that was stated was that the name of the book was Thor and it had a female character. I was assuming that it was going to be Thor turning into a woman, which is not impossible considering the book's magic-based plotlines and in light of the fact that Loki got de-aged to a teenager quite a while ago and is still stuck that way. Not the case, much to my delight. Thor himself is no longer worthy to lift his hammer, and an unknown, penis-less newcomer is taking his place, calling herself Thor, just to be confusing, I guess. This means that Thor is sulky, bearded, scraggly, never wearing a shirt, and carrying around an axe. It is the second-best kind of Thor, next to the jovial, hard-drinking, glass-smashing, bar-fighting Thor.

Woman Thor, however, is pretty much an empty husk of a character. Her only characteristic being that she is a woman, and the only way that people react to her is that she is a woman. In issue #5, Woman Thor (henceforth known as WT) gets into a fight with The Absorbing Man and Titania, wherein Absorbing Man comments, "Damn feminists are ruining everything," and Titania straight-up surrenders just because Thor is a woman now and she just has so much respect for that.



I openly identify as a feminist, but this made me cringe. It's hard to even get started on all the awfulness going on here.



First of all, this is suffering from the Lisa Simpson (or whoever) gag I mentioned earlier. Thor walked out onto the football field and expected everyone to gasp and say, "It's a g-g-g-g-g-g-GIRL!" It's 2015 for christ's sake. We have had female superheroes for decades now, and do you know what we call them? Superheroes. Seriously, nobody cares if your superhero has a vagina anymore. Well, ok, there are people on the internet that think this is awful, but that's because they hate it on principle alone, or they're unfamiliar with rudimentary Thor history, where he was turned into a frog and replaced by a horse. You're going to have people who hate that Thor is a woman, but don't mind if he's a frog, and it's ok to just fucking ignore those people. That's what the rest of us do.

Secondly, if you want to make a point or if you want to have your character, you shouldn't have to make it so blatantly obvious. There are tons of popular female superheroes that don't need to talk about being female all the time. They are focused on protecting Jersey City, or teaching mutants, or fighting space aliens, and by doing all those things become feminist icons. Put it another way, you need to "show, don't tell" that your character is a feminist. To be fair, it's a bit hard for me to understand, being a man, how some women feel about having a character like this. I stand by my criticism that it is "feminism done wrong", but I tend to resonate more with characters who personify certain characteristics instead of announcing that they announcing certain characteristics.

Thirdly, there is an actual way to make your character represent a certain viewpoint without awkwardly bringing it into a fight scene like Jason Aaron did, and that is to have it be your character's actual motivation. Imagine for a second if instead of WT fighting crime to make the world a better place (like every other superhero) and having everyone be stunned like what you got boobs, if instead the only reason she became a superhero was to change perceptions of femininity? The only reason that she is out there fighting crime is because she wants people to see her as a symbol; that's the only thing she cares about. It would be interesting, for sure, and would avoid a lot of awkward dialogue where Absorbing Man just can't believe he's fighting a woman, even though he's done it literally hundreds of times before.

In the end, I'm more disappointed than anything else. There's a lot of room for female superheroes in the comic book universe, and I would have loved to have seen a new one done correctly. remember what I said about hard-drinking Thor being the best Thor? What if Woman Thor was that Thor instead of Lisa-Playing-Football Thor? What if instead of blank void of a character that happens to have books, we got an overweight, jovial, Thor, who defied any notion of acting "ladylike" and went around beating the fuck out of criminals because it was fun. Kinda like Pam from Archer. You can hate it if you want to (and that's cool, it took me five seconds to think of it) but this would not only be a unique character that I don't think we've seen in the Marvel universe, but it would also expand the roles that women can have. She wouldn't have to be a "symbol" of feminism; she could just be an alcoholic, badass crimefighter.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Book of Life

This movie could have been something fresh and unique in an environment that is increasingly dominated by sub-par animated movies for kids, but instead seems to exemplify the problems these movies tend to have.


I tend not to be ashamed of my love of animated movies. Not always, but in general, an animated movie doesn't take itself too seriously, and I'm more likely to be engaged with a film like that then a drama, or Oscar-bait style of movie, which, not always, but in general, tries too damn hard to make me feel feelings. I also think that a lot of what we consider "movies for kids" are really just "movies for anybody". There wasn't an age that I turned when suddenly I stopped liking good stories and engaging characters and instead just wanted to see...whatever it is adults are supposed to like (boobs and taxes?)

Unfortunately, The Book of Life is pretty decisively a movie for kids. There was a lot of things that I was looking forward to seeing in this film, and the things that I was expecting did not disappoint. First, I knew that it was being produced by Del Toro, and if you've read my blog for, like, more than two days, you know that I have a gigantic crush on him as a director. He is the Gabriel Garcia Marquez of movies in that he mixes the familial and personal with the historical and political, while at the same time indulging in fantasy that can genuinely be said to be unique. The Book of Life is, in a lot of ways, in the same vein as Del Toro's movies, in that it is unabashedly pro-Mexico ("the center of the universe" as it proclaimed in the movie, showing Mexico covering the entire planet and wearing a handlebar mustache) and very much flirting with unique styles and playfully macabre elements.

I should mention that the character design is outstanding. Absolutely outstanding. Not only is each character intricately designed in a style reminiscent of traditional Mexican garb, but each character is made to look like a wooden doll. Well, actually, the human characters in the story are wooden dolls, while the gods and the human characters in the frame story are designed to look like actual people. I wasn't sure if the dolls were made to resemble something in Mexican culture that I'm not aware of (I vaguely recall learning about the Day of the Dead in elementary and how people celebrating would make skeleton puppets. I wonder if the characters were intentionally designed to look like that, but I might be stretching.) The "wooden doll" look of the characters also serves to emphasize the "legend" aspect of the tale being told. In other words, what you're seeing on the screen is not a real person, nor is it a real event; it is an invented fabrication of a myth being told. Considering that the design team took great care in delineating between which characters look like puppets and which do not, this signifies to me that it was a conscious decision, and so I hope that there was a reason behind it.

Another cool thing that I admired was the style of music used. I'm not up on my pop music, but I believe they took modern songs and covered them in a more traditionally Mexican (a lot of acoustic guitar, I guess) style. I would actually say that the placement of music in the film broke any kind of momentum that the story has going for it, and I can't say that I particularly liked any of the songs, but I really do admire the filmmakers for making a decision as creative as this.

It sucks to see a movie that had so much going for it aesthetically and stylistically fail so hard in the scripting and dialogue. Somewhere, someone decided that movie just couldn't be a movie if we didn't have every single character making cliched jokes all the time. You have about two characters in the entire film discussing things earnestly and dozens more who exist only to jump in to make an exclamation or say something objectively dumb. I want to be clear here, my complaint is not that there are a few jokes that fall flat, or a few jokes that are aimed at amusing a younger audience, it is that the movie is seemingly nothing but the "fall down and go ouchie" type of humor coupled with very lazily written "jokes". I couldn't think of any examples off the type of my head, but IMDb provided me with one "I'm allergic to dying! Especially in the face!" Somebody got paid to write that, wrote it, saw it in their little MS word document, and decided that it was the best thing that could be written at that time.

In the end, I can't recommend this film, but it's painful to do so. There are a few great things here, and I hope they fire the writer and keep the same crew together to make a different movie.

1) Well made? - Pretty standard quality for an animated film these days
2) Contributed?  - I honestly think that the "puppet style" mixed with traditional Mexican motifs was a unique thing, as well as the "Mexicanized" cover songs
3) Good time? - I could not wait for this movie to just be over already
4) Watch again? - Definitely not
5) Worth it?  - Probably not. You heard the idea about the Mexican cover songs, and you can see stills of the character design online. That should be enough.
6) Who should watch this? - Maybe people with kids? I imagine children might like this film, but I'm an elementary school teacher so I have no idea what children like.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Cable, Battleword and the Beauty of Simplicity

My least favorite character in all of comicdom is Cable, by far. You might even say that I hate Cable.

Fuck you, the 90s.

Cable's character can be summed up by a huge wad of guns and a complicated time travel story. His personality is just generic badass and his design looks like a six-year-old with a crayon drawing a gun, like a big gun, like a super big gun you guys. He is embarrassing to me, as a comic fan, and personally I feel like he is everything wrong with comics.

I was so happy when he had Hope to take care of, because it gave him a reason to exist and then a reason to die, which I also enjoyed for its own sake. At best, Cable is a relic of an earlier time, both in the comic book industry and the age of its readers. There was a point where we all would have been impressed with a guy with a robot arm and a super big gun, but as a grown-up, man, fuck this infantile garbage.

Of course, the worst part about Cable is the overly complicated time travel plot and seemingly inability to die. Cable can go back and forth between now and the future, except when he can't, but he can do it to come back to life, or can't, and he has a robot virus that kills him, or doesn't, because magic? I don't fucking understand any of this.

Needless to say, I was pretty pleased when he died, and not just because I hate that character either. Nightcrawler's death in Second Coming was a dumb idea. It attempted to make a crossover event super serious by killing off a character more or less at random. He died protecting Hope, but we as readers only had a vague idea about why Hope was an important person, let alone why he was important to Nightcrawler.

Hope was, supposedly, the savoir of the mutant race since she was the first mutant to be born in a long time. She was sent to the future to be raised by Cable for reasons, and then came back was on the run from sentinels, also for reasons. (Second Coming, get it?) To this day, the entire thing behind Hope makes very little sense to me, since the X-Men always used the "evolution" thing to explain their mutations. If that's still true, then Hope really wasn't magic or special; she's just another mutation. And it's not like she could do anything special, like create more mutants or bring back mutant powers or anything. Yet despite all this, because the writers at Marvel wanted to create importance where none previously existed (similar to legendary hack writer Joss Whedon) they killed off Nightcrawler.

(They brought him back a few years later. If you read my post from yesterday, you can probably guess how I feel about this. And, not to twist the knife any more than I need to, but in addition to killing off characters to make fake narrative importance, Joss Whedon is also guilty of bringing characters back from the dead in the same way.)

Anyway, Nightcrawler's death didn't make any sense, but Cable's did. He also ended up dying to protect Hope, but here, it's not because he's been told that she's the savoir of mutantkind, but because he was essentially her father. Cable was a relic from an earlier time, a character that simply cannot be taken seriously in the modern era, and he died in perhaps the best way possible.

Of course, after that, we learn that he didn't really die or something, and then more mutant powers started popping up from teenagers and adults, so there really wasn't a point to bringing Hope to the future and raising her there, and then Hope doesn't matter anymore and nobody wants to kill her, and Cable comes back to the present to do stuff for no reason and raaaaaaaaaaah what the serious fuck

See, it's shit like this that ruins the superhero genre for fans and newcomers alike. Take a look at the Eisner awards for the past five years, and you'll notice a preponderance of creators winning awards for completely new works or works that are at least separate from the main universe. Look, I get it, you're writing for Marvel and you want to make your mark on that history. You want your story to be big and grand and world-shattering because you're working in a company that's been making superhero comics for over 50 years now and it's hard to stand out in that crowd. I understand. But if every single story is this time-traveling, end-of-the-world bullshit than by contributing to that pool you're just drowning in your own mediocrity. And really, Cable is the victim here. He is just a compound of several different "huge" storylines that got piled onto one character until nothing made sense anymore. And I didn't even get into his fucking clone, nephew, alternate reality version or who-the-fuck-knows what else running around now.

Enter: Secret Wars. For a while now, Marvel has been "getting its ducks in a row" in regards to time travel and alternate realities, with so many stories and crossovers I can't even remember them all. There's the ongoing Spider-Verse, Battle of the Atom, the Incursions, the storyline from Uncanny Avengers, the one with Ultron...just a whole bunch of stories all revolving around the timeline and walls between alternate universes breaking. Again, this "huge" stories are boring and overdone, and crossovers are painful on my wallet.

My second complaint is that I think "X Meets Y" or "X Fights Y" stories are really dumb. I don't think that just putting two characters that don't normally appear together on the same page necessarily makes a good or interesting story. I also don't care when two characters fight each other that don't normally fight. It seems that Secret Wars is going to bring in tons of different characters from alternate realities and have them duke it out. Who cares? What matters most is if there is a good story attached to that fight.

I will say this though, there will occasionally be a character in an alternate reality that I wish I could see more of. AoA Sabretooth is much more interesting than 616 Sabretooth. Miles Morales is one of my favorite Spider-Men. If we're lucky, characters like these get brought into the main universe (like Rachel Summers), and maybe we'll get to see a few of these characters play a larger role in the main Marvel universe.

Or should I say, the only Marvel universe. I think the goal here with Secret Wars is to simply the narratives, bring all the characters together, and get rid of time-travel/alternate reality garbage. So, while the Secret Wars themselves will be overblown, contrived, boring and childish, I have high hopes that what comes after will be a much more simplified narrative, one that focuses on characters and story rather than complicated plotlines and hopefully there will be no Cable.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Invincible - Part One

It's not a big secret that I'm a huge fan of Robert Kirkman, whom you may know from his work on the extremely popular and exceptionally good The Walking Dead. Although The Walking Dead is Kirkman's most popular work, by far, I contend that his best work is in his superhero comic, Invincible.



I've talked before about how different comic book writers handle the problem of "death" and tension in their books. See, if the name of your book is Batman, then whenever Batman gets into a fight with a villian, you are not worried at all that he's going to be killed. There is zero tension in a fight between Batman and a villain, because even if you're not sure how it's going to end, you know the hero won't meet his or her end at that point. So, to create tension, different writers have crafted different strategies.

Dan Slott, for example, tends to focus on peripheral damage and death for Spider-Man. You know that Spider-Man isn't going to die in a fight, but one of his allies might (and have). You also know that Spider-Man is probably going to win any fight that he's win, but there may be a cost associated with that win. He might lose credibility or standing in his business or personal life. Just recently, he was able to win a year-long fight with Octavius, but lost Mary Jane's affections and friendship in the process, and that is where the tension is born.

Rick Remender takes a different approach, where death is treated as being a very temporary and obvious state of being, but how the characters get to that death and the consequences afterwards are what matters. Remender has no problem killing off major characters all the time, and once even the entire Earth. Death is treated so frivolously that I barely bat an eyelash when Rogue gets burned alive or whatever. However, what makes it interesting and full of tension is seeing how the characters get to that point. When Rogue died, she had just made the decision to try and kill The Scarlet Witch. The physical results of that action (her death) may be temporary, but the psychological affects on both the characters and their relationship is permanent. It's hard to forget that your teammate wanted to sneak up behind you and snap your neck. Remender has so many examples of this in his stories, but I'll give you just one more: When Wolverine was forced to kill his son Daken. Again, Daken gets resurrected not even a year later, but the affect that it has on Wolverine, forced to drown his own son, was permanent.

Robert Kirkman takes a third approach, which, if you've read any of his books or seen The Walking Dead TV show, involves a lot of people dying when you least expect it. Characters, even main ones, will be killed off, permanently, with little to no warning and often at times when it makes no sense narrative-wise. I don't want to get too deep into The Walking Dead, because I'm not sure how far along the TV show is, but characters that you think are crucial to the story, characters that make you think, "Oh, this story is about this character" will get killed. Characters will be mid-conversation about how they're getting ready to advance the plot, and then they get shot. Characters that have been around forever and seem like a mainstay will get killed off somewhat randomly. It's more Game of Thrones than Game of Thrones is. It keeps the reader's attention at all times and creates an atmosphere of constant tension.

But Kirkman, like Remender, is not satisfied to simply tell a story about people. Both writers set out to start a conversation about certain topics, and neither are trying to force a specific viewpoint. I'll use Remender as an example because I'm just a bit of paperwork away from legally marrying Uncanny X-Force. The issue at stake is whether preemptive murder is justifiable in the face of greater evil, and boy oh boy does Remender dance across the line of pros and cons. It starts with a soldier being mind-controlled about to set off a nuke, who gets killed by the X-Men. Then, the young child reincarnation of Apocalypse gets killed. Both these deaths are condemned by the characters, before it gets revealed that one of the team members re-reincarnates Apocalypse with the goal of raising him as a hero and not, ya know, Apocalypse. This is widely regarded as a reckless and dumb move by the people who previously thought it was awful to kill the child. Then they travel to a future where all punishment is carried out preemptively, so that sucks. Then we have to kill preemptively to save the universe. Then we have to kill our friend preemptively. It goes back and forth and presents so many different angles on the same premise, without ever declaring -- through the characters or the author -- which side is correct. At one point do you draw the line between justifiable murder and unnecessary punishment?

Kirkman does a similar thing with his own stories, but ties it in with his ideas about comic book death. Remember that Remender treats death frivolously, and so he can afford to jump back and forth across a topic, to examine all sides of it. If the child Apocalypse gets killed, we can talk about how bad that is, until he gets resurrected, and we can talk about how bad that is. Kirkman, on the other hand, is forced to get stuck on one side of an issue, because all the relevant characters get killed off. Tomorrow we'll look at what this means to his story-telling technique.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dear Salvador - Tricking Rich People

You may have noticed that I'm sending you a lot of letters about how to interact with women lately. That's because you're right at this moment in your life when interacting with and meeting people becomes much more difficult (after graduating college). There's also a subset of men that are going to be pandering to you, trying to convince you that they know the easy tricks to get a woman into bed with you, that interactions between men and women are adversarial, or that you're some sort of modern-day hunter, out to bag the biggest game. That's all bullshit, and I hope that you hear at least one voice contrary to those notions.

To being with, let's conduct a little mind experiment. Imagine that you need to walk into a country club one year from now with the intent to convince everyone there that you are also rich. You need to think of the most effective and most convincing way to do so, so what do you do to prepare? How do you demonstrate to these people that you're rich? We'll come back to this later.

Dating is beneficial to you, even if you don't have sex. Again, a lot of guys are going to try and tell you the opposite, that if you take a girl out on a date and it somehow doesn't end up in sex, that you failed as a man, somehow. Not only is this not true, this is a terrible way to date, and will mess your head up. If you imagine a date as only a method from getting from point A to point B, you're not only going to be the type of guy who gets upset and whiny when he doesn't get laid, but the type of person willing to say and do whatever it takes to get a women into bed.

Instead, remember that dating itself is a valuable experience. Not only are you getting the chance to sit and talk and get to know someone, but it helps you practice at being a better person yourself. Take a look at yourself right now. Or better yet, take a look at me:



I am unshaven, and barely showered. My hair is about a week too late for a haircut. I'm wearing a sweater that's too big and pants that are too small with a hole in them. But, if you are were going on a date right now, would we look the way we do? No way. I would shave for one, get a haircut beforehand, wear clothes that fit and probably wouldn't wear such a bored, apathetic look on my face (which was totally unintentional by the way. That's just how I look most days.) Not only in appearance, but demeanor as well. I would be much nicer, more prone to smile, more willing to ask questions. In short, I would be a better person than I am right now.

The more that you date, and the more than you practice being this person that is slightly better than you are, the more you become that person. If I was clean-shaven and smiling every day, I would just be a clean-shaven and kind person.

But then, attraction is based off more than just looking, smelling and acting nice. I am, for example, much more attracted to a woman that has a successful career than I am to a homeless woman. Attraction is also based around value. If you're a very nice, very handsome guy that lives with his parents, you're probably not going to attract anybody with any real value, or, at best, someone extremely vapid.

Ok, so back to the country club. Did you figure out how to convince everyone that you're rich? You may have thought about buying the nicest clothes, or researching stocks, or finding out ways to outright lie. The best and most convincing way to demonstrate your value here is to actually be rich. If you're actually rich, you can most easily convince people that you are rich. Right? I mean, this shit's not rocket science. And if you lie about it, you're more likely to get caught in that lie.

This seems like a relatively simple concept to me, but, again, some guys are going to try and convince you otherwise when it comes to dating and interactions with women. They will tell you that if you want to impress a woman, you should straight-up lie about your accomplishments, or make up a story, or show off some simple trick that a monkey could do. I knew a guy who used to do this when talking with women. He didn't want to admit that he was a teacher (like me) because I guess this wasn't cool enough for him. And so he would flat-out lie to women when they asked him what he did for a living, telling them that he was a "social researcher" or some bullshit. When they asked questions about that, he would just deflect and change the subject. After that, he would try a magic trick. I shit you not, a magic trick. Like Barney Stinson.

Putting aside how sad it is to have to lie to someone just on the offchance that they might have sex with you (It didn't, as far as a I could tell), why not just become a researcher? If you want to be that researcher, then just go do it. Barney Stinson was genuinely interested in magic tricks and loved doing it just for the sake of it. Instead of lying about having that value, you will actually be that valuable. And, as a cherry on top, you'll be more seen as more attractive for having that value. Seems like a win-win, right?

In short, instead of lying to people are trying to make up a value for yourself, you should go out and create value for yourself. You will be more attractive in the eyes of the women you meet if you are the type of person that taught himself a skill, or created a business, or paints landscapes in his free time, instead of the guy that lies about things he wishes he could do.

Your Useless Mentor,
Kevin

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Wolf of Wall Street

I finally got the chance to see The Wolf of Wall Street and I'm surprised more people don't bring up Hemingway whenever they talk about it.

There's a lot of things to be said about Wolf, but what stuck out most to me during the week since I first saw it, was that I wasn't entirely sure what Scorsese wanted the audience to feel. I hesitate to bring this up, because I don't want to sound like some right-wing radio host claiming that liberal Hollywood has an agenda, or that someone is trying to brainwash us, or that all directors have an axe to grind or whatever...but there's a bit of truth to all of that. Movies send messages, some of them intentional and others a bit more subconsciously, but they all have a message. Even the dumbest of the dumb action movie can sway your thinking towards positively associating manliness with "goodness". Another good example is the horror or slasher genre, where the chaste, pure, clear-headed teenager typically survives to the end, while her sex and drug obsessed friends get hacked to bits. The director may not have set out to declare, "Let's make virginity a cool thing," but you end up leaving the theater identifying with the protagonist and their character traits.

Where Hemingway comes in is both in his writing style and his direct advice in how to craft a story. His style, as anyone who took a high school Lit class, was short, direct, to-the-point and laid out nothing but the barest of facts, much like a newspaper article would read. Not only was the goal to be as descriptive as possible in the least number of words, but also to be as objective as possible. This allowed the reader to make of the character and situations presented in the story however they so wished. Further, in a series of "letters" written to a hypothetical young, aspiring author (or authors) named "Mice" and donning the nom de plume "YC" (short for "Your Correspondent"), Hemingway instructed future writers to write in exactly this way. It's been years since I read it, so forgive the faulty paraphrasing, but Hemingway emphasized that as a man, a human being, you need to have an opinion on the situation presented before you, but as a writer, you need to present it as clearly and unbiased as possible. The example I think he gives is a fistfight, where he is actually on the same side as one person, but presents the facts as they were, without tipping his hand for which person is his friend.

Of course, while Hemingway became well-known for his objective style of writing, you can never prevent tipping your hand, especially when you're the one creating the story, and that story must come from the perspective of only one person. Enter The Wolf of Wall Street, a recreation of the autobiography of the real-life Jordan Belfort, who spent his career getting ridiculously rich through shady, extra-legal methods.

The movie is told entirely through Jordan's point of view, and every scene that does not directly feature Jordan is him explaining what is going on in it through use of a voiceover. Not to get too literary on everyone, but it calls Jordan's reliability into question as a narrator. For example, we are presented with a scene where his Swiss banker is seen in a very fancy-looking apartment, being teased by somebody else's extremely sexy wife. She emerges from the bathroom, completely naked and presenting herself to the camera, then struts over to the bed where the banker lies, presumably post-coital and also naked, before jumping on the bed and taunting him to make love to her once again. He complies and pulls her down under the covers and the scene ends. Now, the movie states this as being matter-of-fact. We have no reason to doubt the veracity of Jordan's account of any tale (save for one scene) so this, for all intents and purposes, was real.

But was it really "real"? Imagine your friend is the banker and he's retelling the events in that apartment to you. "Yeah man, I was in this apartment, this like, super great apartment, and I was banging this chick, right. She was like 30 years younger than me. And we get done and she goes to the bathroom or whatever, and when she comes back out, her tits are all, like, whoa. And she's like, c'mon do me again, and I'm like whatev girl. I gotta work in the morning, but she just wants it like, so hard, bro, so I just had to give it to her."

Now, I'm obviously embellishing a bit with the tone of voice your "friend" is using, but my point still stands: If anybody told you this story and expected you to believe it, you would call bullshit on them immediately or at least demand some evidence.

Throughout the film, Jordan recounts all of his adventures and they seem to never have any downsides. The message seems to be "Go ahead and cheat and lie to people; the consequences will be awesome". Especially in our present economy, this seems like a very awkward statement to make. (Maybe in the 80s this would have flown, but post-recession America? C'mon.) The whole thing starts to make more sense when you consider that it's all based on the narrator Jordan Belfort, whose character was based on the autobiographical-version of Jordan Belfort, which eventually comes back down into being a real person. By my count, there are at least 2 degrees of separation from this film and the truth (film to autobiography and autobiography to reality). So, while Scorsese is showing us all these really fun parties, and all the babes, and the money, and the mansions, and the cars, he never attempts to pass it off as "the truth". He maintains Jordan's voiceover narration, and includes him in every scene aside from the one's he narrates. (These scenes, by the way, have 4 degrees of separation between him and the truth: real friend to real Jordan, real Jordan to autobiography, autobiography to autobiographical Jordan, narrator Jordan to us.)

So while the movie may be presenting this cheating and lying as being totally fucking awesome and having no downsides whatsoever, the fact that we see it through the lens of Jordan Belfort -- a drug addict and notorious liar -- we can begin to piece together Scorsese's true message: Greed is bad.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Dear Salvador - The Campground Rule

Dear Salvador,

There's a certain type of guy -- let's call him an "asshole" -- who places way too much emphasis on sex, often to the determinant of other people.

Now, we're living in the fucking 21st century, so I'm not here to tell you that sex is bad, immoral or dirty or any of that nonsense. However, just like with everything else, you have to be responsible about it, both for the sake of having a better quality sex life and for the sake of not being a total asshole. With this in mind, I'd like to introduce you to something that I hope you keep in mind when socializing with women, and that is the Campground Rule.

But first, I want to talk about that asshole for a second. That asshole will do anything for the sake of getting laid. He is not afraid to lie, and he is certainly not afraid to cheat, just to put his genitals inside someone else's genitals. Not only is his self-worth intricately connected with the number of women that he's slept with, but the fact that he places such a high emphasis on sex means that he has no other talents or skills. To him, women are a high score that directly relates to how valuable he views himself as a person.

In some other letters I'll send to you later, I want to talk about that asshole some more, and why he is a terrible boy scout.

When I say "boy scout", I mean a literal boy scout, like camping in the woods and making bows and arrows out of leafs and shit. More importantly, the boy scouts all have a code of conduct that they are expected to follow on the expectation that it will help mold them into decent human beings. Again, there's nothing wrong with having sex however and with whomever you want, but you just have to be responsible about that. With this mind, we're going to use the boy scout code of conduct as a guide to being a responsible, sex-having mature adult heterosexual male, starting with the Campground Rule.

The Campground Rule is something that I think you've probably heard at some point in your life. It's a pretty easy rule and reads as follows: Leave the campground cleaner than you found it. If you're going camping, and forget to clean up before you leave, you are not only breaking the campground rule, but you're a complete dick to every person after you that wants to camp there. The key component to this rule is that the campground does not belong to you, and that you have an affect on this public good.

But how does this apply to women? Well, think of it this way: In all social interactions, make sure you leave a person better off than when you found them. Every time you break this rule, and somebody is worse off for knowing you, you become an asshole. I could, for example, walk outside right now and steal someone's wallet, and that person would be worse off for encountering me and I would be an asshole (also a felon.) 

This is a good rule in general, and I'd like to think that's so obvious it doesn't even need to be said. However, the assholes of the world who are vying for your attention just as I am, will try to convince you to break this rule for the sake of getting laid.

For some reason, these people think that sex is the end-all, be-all of their existence. If they can take advantage of someone when they're drunk, then they consider that a success. These are the people that intentionally try to get girlfriends to cheat on their boyfriends. At the extreme end of the spectrum, they are the date rapists. These are also the guys that lie about things they've done to generate false admiration among women. All of this is shitty behavior, and yet at some point in your life, someone is going to come along and tell you that this is completely normal behavior for someone interacting with women or trying to have sex. It's not.

First of all, sex is not that great. I mean, don't get me wrong, sex is great, but it's not your entire fucking reason for being. It is not a thing that you sacrifice your integrity for. It should be viewed as a thing done while living life, not the thing worth living life for. People who hold this high opinion of having sex with lots of partners are...sad, really. To imagine sex as something that defines who you are as a person is about as pathetic as defining how important you are based on number of Ray-Ban sunglasses you have, or the number of cars you own. Sex is just sex, man. People do it all the time and it's not that big of a deal.

Secondly, don't forget that putting sex above your integrity turns you into the type of person that ruins a campground. If your camping experience is so important to you that you leave the campground in a worse position than when you found it, then you're an asshole. Let's say I have a friend who has a boyfriend, and through a series of circumstances, it becomes possible for me to have sex with her. Would her life would be better off if she slept with me? Would I be leaving this social interaction "cleaner" than when I found it, or am I making a mess? The asshole would not only take this opportunity, but he would create it. If you haven't met this type of guy yet, bless you, but trust me, they exist. The asshole is the type of person who doesn't care if anybody is in a relationship, or if having sex with him will put them in a worse position. The asshole will cajole someone into doing something they may regret later, and may help manufacture that situation by encouraging someone to drink. They do not care about the state that the campground is in after they leave.

I know guys like this who see people as stepping stones to enrich their own coolness. They see women as points in a video game, and the person with the highest score wins. Last time I hung out with one of these guys, he was bragging about how much sex he was having, while at the same time complaining that none of his friends wanted to see him and that everyone was ignoring him. Poor guy couldn't put two and two together that maybe treating people like his own personal campground made him an insufferable asshole that nobody wanted to be around. In short, man, don't worry about sex so much. You'll be much better off if you focus on more important things than gentital-to-genital contact.

Your Useless Mentor,
Kevin