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In which I am cited as yet another bad example

The Journal Courier is a central Illinois newspaper that thinks college classes about popular culture are all about attracting students.  A prime example of this “trendy” move? You guessed it:

A few years ago, universities realized they had to show they were more than just stuffy places with ivory towers and doctors with bow-ties. College-age society was changing and institutions of higher learning had to adapt.

Without that epiphany, we would never have classes like “The Textual Appeal of Tupac Shakur” (Washington University), “Zombies in Popular Media” (Columbia of Chicago) or “Street Fighting Mathematics” (MIT). (don’t bother reading the article)

They could at least get our college’s name right.

Jailbird Kookaburra is watching you

kookaburra

Jailbird Kookaburra is watching you.

In which I explain why horror fans are visible

Sometimes, when you do an interview with a reporter, you discover afterward that they mangled what you said or pushed and pulled the conversation to get the one quote they wanted.  Fine, I understand how it’s done.  But in this article by Spencer Hall at the award-winning Columbia Chronicle, my comments reflect quite accurately the conversation we had.  How refreshing to see a reporter work the research into the piece rather than twisting it to fit the hole that needed filling.

Here’s what he wrote about our conversation within his larger article about a horror film poster exhibit:

…Though horror films and television shows like “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story” are becoming part of mainstream popular culture, the horror genre tends to stray from the usual devices seen in popular media, according to Brendan Riley, an associate professor in the English Department who teaches the Zombies in Popular Media J-term course.

Riley said horror films differ from other films in that they try to evoke a stronger reaction out of the audience than more mainstream films.

“When you encounter other kinds of storytelling media, often you’re being engaged intellectually or emotionally, but very rarely are you being engaged on a visceral or instinctual level,” Riley said. “Most horror movies have at least some sort of engagement with the uncanny, or the fear of the unknown.”

Horror film enthusiasts, unlike casual television or movie fans, are more visible in terms of fanaticism because horror movie fans have to go out of their way to connect with each other over the genre, according to Riley.

“They don’t have conventions for people who like Monday night sitcoms,” Riley said. “It’s easy to find other people who like [sitcoms]. For people who enjoy strange Japanese horror movies, it’s harder to find those people. Part of the reason that those fan groups are more visible is that they need to be more visible in order to find other people who like the same things they like.”…

(Read the rest at the Columbia Chronicle)

J. Edgar and the Imaginarium

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus J. Edgar

J. Edgar is a complex biopic that shows the multifaceted life led by the egotistical and patriotic J. Edgar Hoover.  The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus tells a fairy tale of an immortal man in a struggle with the devil, a kind-of Dr. Faustus story for the 21st century, but with Heath Ledger.  A few thoughts:

  • Both films follow complex men who’ve done good things and bad, selfish things and stupid ones.  The people around them pay for their actions, and the secrets they keep hurt people.  But where Dr. Parnassus seems to have made his bed for no reason other than his own ego, J. Edgar believes himself driven by patriotism.
  • It’s the people around them who suffer for their egos.  Dr. Parnassus seems unaware or unable to help his cast of goofy players, his daughter, or the strange man with a mysterious past they find hanging under a bridge.  J. Edgar builds up a cadre of allies who love him and respect him, even if his ego leads him down a path of madness later in his life.
  • Both films also use flashback effectively to set the stage for the present, though J. Edgar works in flashback far more than does Dr. Parnassus.
  • But both our protagonists wrestle with demons as well.  Hoover, famously, was haunted by his own homosexual proclivities — something he believed to be a personal failing.  Imagine what a different life he’d have led if he were born today.  Or perhaps he still would have been an egomaniacal control freak, he just would have been able to live openly with his lover.  By contrast, Dr. Parnassus wrestles with the literal devil, a foppish tempter (played brilliantly by Tom Waits) who enjoys the bets they make so much that when he’s on the verge of winning one, he offers a new bet.
  • Both films also feature strong, compelling performances from young actors already known for greatness.  Ledger’s intensity fits Dr. Parnassus well, with both a gleam of glee and of deception in his eye. For his part, DiCaprio plays Hoover brilliantly, capturing both sides of the figure and bringing empathy to the man even as we see him doing awful things.

A nod goes also to Ledger’s co-stars in Imaginarium.  After Ledger’s death, Gilliam re-wrote the remaining script to give the character a mercurial shifting face during his sequences in the fantasy world behind the stage.  The shifts to his other faces (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrel, and Jude Law) in the Imaginarium is so seemless, I nearly wrote about his acting work in those scenes, before remembering that these other men had done those scenes.  Gilliam reported that the post-production sound designer thought the original script had been written with the face-changes in place.  Anyhow, given Ledger’s history, it is a good, if obscure, film for him to ‘go out on.’

Beware the honeyed words of Tom Waits

Beware the honeyed words of Tom Waits

Both movies are what they appear to be and, in that regard, likely do exactly what their audiences expect they will do.  To see The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, one likely knows Gilliam’s work and is willing to dive headlong into his flights of fancy (though I’d say this movie feels more like 1990s-era Jean Paul Jeunet than most of Gilliam’s earlier work). To watch J. Edgar is to dive into classic biopic territory, with the modern nuance of complicated people highlighting the ups and downs of Hoover’s life.

Tweets from 2014-09-28 to 2014-10-04

All You Need is Kill

All You Need is KillAll You Need Is Kill
by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, 桜坂洋, Alexander O. Smith (Translator)

Keiji Kiriya is having a bad day.  He’s being sent into battle a green, green, greenhorn rookie driving a dangerous body rig (called a ‘jacket’) against a monstrous horde of alien creatures that look like bloated dead frogs the size of whiskey casks.  And then he has to do it again. And again.  All You Need Is Kill‘s elevator pitch is pretty simple — Groundhog Day during an alien war.  A few thoughts:

  • This book’s title is awfully close to perfect, as far as I’m concerned.
  • While a light read (not quite 200 pages), the novel doesn’t feel insignificant.  I wish more American authors could understand that a good premise can be resolved with tight writing rather than bloated storylines.

If this story seems familiar at all, it’s because it was the source material for the terribly named but actually quite good Tom Cruise / Emily Blunt film from this summer, Edge of Tomorrow.  Below are a few thoughts on the adaptation of the book to the film:

  • Tom Cruise’s character is set up as an entitled asshole who grows over the course of the novel, while Keiji is just a regular grunt who finds himself in this position.  I think this was a reasonable choice for the film.
  • The end of the novel is better than the one in the film.  The end of the film wraps up the entire story, with an epic moment, and some weird retroactive continuity (retcon) that allows them to get out of the trouble they get themselves into.  The book refuses this easy out (but uses a different bit of narrative surprise that’s frustrating and a little confusing).
  • The biggest difference is in the way the two looping men deal with the battles.  In Edge of Tomorrow, the main character learns every moment of the battle like a videogame — jump here, turn right, fire, dive left, stand up, forward ten paces, etc.  While it makes sense to a degree, it also assumes a strong river of time, one not easily disrupted by butterfly wings.  By contrast, Keiji spends each loop training vigorously and then goes through the battle actively fighting, rather than trying to memorize where each strike will land.  This feels more organic to me, and just makes more sense.  I understand why they went differently for the film, but I dislike it.

Regarding the “Conscious Time Loop” device, this film does it as well as any.  I think it’s much closer in spirit to Groundhog Day than to something like Ken Grimwood’s ReplayThat said, I think Keiji’s arc of depression or frustration with the day is awfully short — most people wouldn’t so easily find peace with their interminable situation. I wonder if part of that reaction comes from the novel’s origins in Japan.  That feels very stereotypical to write, so I suspect that’s a blundering American’s instinct, more than any kind of real cultural truth.

Overall, well worth reading — even if you saw the movie already.  If not, you should read the book and then rent the movie.  It’s great.

Thursday Throwback: Affordances and children watching tv

 Originally posted on 27 Nov 2011.

Reaching for the Remote

Avery recently learned to use the remote.  She’s been building up to it for a while now, able to turn off the television by pushing the red button at the top.  Finn knows to point the remote at the television too.  It’s appalling and cute at the same time.

But just recently, Jenny was busy and Avery was watching Merry Madagascar on the TiVO, so when she wanted Jenny to pause it so she could go to the bathroom, Jenny just said “Push the yellow button and it will stop.”  When Avery got back from the bathroom, all hell broke loose, remote-usingly speaking.  Avery moved from pause-unpause to fast-forwarding, rewinding, pushing the “eight second back” button, and so on.  She started picking and choosing from Merry Madagascar, watching the segment where the four animals open their presents over and over, rewinding to the part where the little girl falls down the stairs, fast forwarding to something else.  I was working on the kitchen ceiling at the time, so I listened to the distinctive bleep-bloop of the TiVO and pondered new media.

[Read the rest...]

Railroad Crossing – 3 Tracks

Railroad Crossing 3 Tracks

New Orleans, October 2011

September Music Roundup: Primus, J. Mascis, and More!

It’s been a long time since I posted a music roundup.  The idea of this post is to write a bit about the music I listened to this month.  Sometime halfway through the month or so, I’ll do a catch-up post from a previous month.

“So Long Honeybee, Goodbye,” by Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three

Albums

Primus, Pork Soda
I recently shuffled my way into Sailing the Seas of Cheese, the only Primus album I had on CD (though I had several on tape), and it got me missing the bass-heavy weirdo band.  So I downloaded Pork Soda this month and enjoyed it immensely.  Of course, because I knew the album already, old favorites like “My Name is Mud” and “Pork Soda” were great.  But I found myself most intrigued by “Bob,” a seemingly goofy song that, as soon as you listen to the lyrics, is downright tragic.  Also intriguing is the ethereal and odd “Wounded Knee,” which has no lyrics but also feels surprisingly cheery given its title.

J. Mascis, Tied to a Star
The Dinosaur Jr lead singer has long been a favorite of mine, especially his solo albums.  I like his acoustic music a lot, if nothing else it’s because I think his singing voice (with its strong touch of vocal fry).  While all the songs hold up to his usual quality, I particularly like “Every Morning,” “Wide Awake,” and “Trailing Off.”

Compilation, Now Hear This! – The Independent Music Awards 11th Annual Winners
It’s always hard to write about compilations, because the song styles are so diverse as to make any statement about the album itself pretty useless.  That said, I liked this album alright.  Highlights are:

  • Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, “So Long Honeybee, Goodbye” – jazzy swing song
  • Scott H. Biram, “Just Another River” – bluesy song with some audio fuzz.  Good stuff.
  • Charlie Hope, “One That I Love” – jaunty, cheery pop song
  • Amanda Richards, “Undead In My Bed” – a country song by a woman who loves her zombie man
  • Jon Bauer, “Chasing After Me” – cute alt-rock song about finding love
  • Amy Correia, “Powder Blue Trans Am” – soul song with good blues lines in the guitar
  • Company of Thieves, “Look Both Ways” – hoppy pop band similar in sound to Rodeo Ruby Love

Songs

Welcome to Night Vale (three songs from early in the series) – The WtNV folks do a great job of picking Weather music that has audible similarities to music styles.  This month, I pulled three songs to listen to – “Last Song” by Jason Webley, a Tom Waits-style tale; “This Too Shall Pass” by Danny Schmidt, a driving tale that reminds me a bit of Leonard Cohen; “Jerusalem” by Dan Bern, an early Bob Dylan parody that’s pretty good in its own right.

Garfunkel and Oates (four songs from Music Songs) – My favorite is “I Would Never,” which seems like a good riposte to the obnoxious meme of the “Friend-zone.”

Pete Seeger (four songs from American Favorite Ballads) – You Are My Sunshine is almost perfect in his light banjo version.

Spike Jones (four songs from (Not) Your Standard Spike Jones Collection – Nothing really stands out in this sequence, except maybe “Horsey, Keep Your Tail Up,” which is weird but not as memorable as many other songs from SJ.  On the upside, nothing notably racist or sexist in this batch of songs.

The Wayfarers (nine songs from Music from Around the World – Australia) – Nothing much stands out from this set of songs, though “Santa Never Made It Into Darwin” is a fucking depressing song about a town destroyed by a big storm on Christmas Eve.

Modern Jazz Stylings of Blue Canue Records – four songs that are about what you’d expect.  Makes me thing of my friend John Chapman, who played jazz bass in Florida, and whom I went out to hear play once or twice.

Buke and Gass, “Seam Esteem,” a leak from the new album of weird and wonderful music. Great stuff.

Covering old ground – Zero Theorem and The Incredible Hulk

Incredible Hulk Zero Theorem

Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem tells the tale of an idiosyncratic office drone working a data analysis job in the cyberpunk, blade-runner future of the city we first met in Brazil. (Not technically, but aesthetically.)  Not satisfied with the normal things that drive the other drones in his world, Qohen spends his time waiting for a phone call that will change his life.  The Incredible Hulk follows the continuing adventures of Bruce Banner, the title monster, as he tries to solve the problem of his errant Id and avoid being captured or killed by the U.S. Army.

While both films were enjoyable, they both also felt rehashed, like movies I’d seen before gussied up with new sparkly bits.  A few bits about this repetition before I discuss the two films together:

Zero Theorem feels very much like a spiritual re-make or reconception of Brazil.  Here are some overlaps:

  • Qohen and Sam (the protagonist from Brazil) both excel at their jobs but have no ambition to ‘rise’ in the ranks.
  • They have competent but skeezy supervisors (David Thewlis; Ian Holm).
  • Both men are menaced by sinister forces of bureaucracy (Management’s clone thugs; Heating and Cooling repair)
  • They have dreamy thoughts of lovely women in their lives, and seem to see this as an escape from the drudgery they’re confined to. (Bainsley, Jill)
  • Both films exaggerate the aesthetic of their era — 1985’s Brazil overflowed with papers and files.  It felt like a hell spawned from the cubicle farms of the 1980s workplaces.  Zero Theorem‘s aesthetic is to the Internet as Brazil’s was to the office.

In a similar way, The Incredible Hulk feels like a revisiting of Hulk, despite the fact that it’s actually framed as a sequel.  Rather than detail all the similarities, I’ll just say that it feels like a sequel in the way bad horror movie sequels are just a revised version of the first film.  While The Incredible Hulk ups the ante by including a big bad for Hulk to fight, it doesn’t do much more. (Though it does explain what Banner meant in The Avengers when he talked about busting up a big section of New York.  Having seen the film, though, he’s over-doing it a bit by taking all the blame there.)

Zero Theorem

The iPhone20Q will come with a pointy hat attachment. (Zero Theorem)

A few thoughts about the two films together:

  • Both our protagonists are hiding among cultures they don’t belong to.  Banner, of course, is hiding out of necessity and will eventually return to his own culture.  Qohen is the opposite, alienated from the people and culture around him, he seeks refuge in online spaces.
  • Both men aren’t sure what to do with the technology they’re developing.  It seems that if Qohen solves the problem he’s working on, everything will be for nought.  Similarly, if Banner solves the problem of the hulk monster, the government may use it to make more super soldiers.
  • The ancillary scientists in the film have the annoying stereotype of the scientist so into his studies that he abandons reason and ethics.  The assistant, “Bob,” in Zero Theorem shows this kind of mania, as does Tim Blake Nelson’s scientist character in The Incredible Hulk.

The Incredible Hulk is an enjoyable B-movie sequel, a good flick to watch on a Sunday afternoon while you do a crossword puzzle or something.  Zero Theorem is an enjoyable art-house movie, a good film to watch on a Friday evening while you enjoy a fine wine (or, in my case, small-brewery soda).

Tweets from 2014-09-21 to 2014-09-27

In search of a regular feature…

p1030303.jpg
Kevin really hates whatever kind of computer this is. (CC by Leondardr)

Saturdays are a tough day, blogging-wise.  If I’ve gotten up early, it’s to get some shit done so I can avoid work guilt bothering me when I take time to play the Cones of Dunshire with my kids.  So I don’t want to spend a lot of time on blog posts.  Since a big part of it is coming up with what to write, I wanted to add a new feature to Saturday posts.  A couple ideas:

  • Songecdote – a brief discussion of a song and a memory associated with it.  I’m blatantly stealing this from Dan C.
  • Game report – a brief discussion of gaming insights from the week.  (Danger here – I don’t know if I can generate enough to make this interesting every week.)
  • Featured video – A video I like from Youtube or something.  (Danger here – I already do this on Twitter, and the twitter feed gets posted on Sundays)
  • Two minute video rant – (Danger here – I’ll get sunk into editing the fucker and spend way too much time on it.
  • Move the Wednesday photo to Saturday – (Danger here, I’d have to come up with something else for Wednesdays then)
  • Random bullets – five things about the week I’ve not yet mentioned.  (Danger, this falls deep into the rabbit hole of “audience of one” territory.

What say you, dear reader?  Other ideas for my weekend post?

Comics Roundup: Stray Toasters, Howard Chaykin, Billy the Kid, and a few others

Some comics I’ve read recently:

Stray Toasters Avengers 1959 Billy the Kid's Old Timey Oddities

  • Avengers 1959 – Howard Chaykin’s pre-Avengers avengers tale is a Marvel-centered take on Operation Paperclip (in which the Allies recruited Nazi scientists to help win the cold war).  Nick Fury is enjoyable,and the mix of superheroes works well.  Amusing.
  • Stray Toasters – Absolutely bonkers comic about, well, kidnapping and unrequited love and insanity and brains in creepy robot bodies and murder and murderous cyborg children grafted onto toasters.  Also, a lot of non-representational art.  If that description intrigues you, this might be your kind of comic.
  • Billy the Kid’s Old Timey Oddities, Vol 1 – After Billy the Kid fakes his own death, he falls in with a pack of traveling carnival folk and joins them in a fight against Victor Frankenstein and his Alpine-Village-of-Dr.-Moreau. Creepy and awesome at the same time.

Century West Pacific Rim Spaceman

  • Century West – Another Howard Chaykin join, this time in the bent of American Century, which reveled in freedom-loving rogues giving the what-for to stuck-up establishment types.  In Century West, that same plot revolves around a town where these rogues are the law, and representatives of the corrupt East find they have no purchase.  Of course, the moment is fleeting and soon the corruption overtakes this last bastion of the old west too.
  • Pacific Rim: Tales From Year Zero – This adventure tale, segmented into easily-digested chunks, reveals elements of the Jaeger program as it grew in response to the Kaiju infestation throughout the world.  Good comics following the exciting monster fights, and actually explains a bit more coherently why Jaegers are the best way to fight Kaiju.
  • Spaceman - Azzarello and Risso’s excellent partnership continues in this bizarre gentle-giant team up.  Part sci-fi thriller, part media critique, Spaceman follows the accidental match-up of a genetically engineered neanderthal-like man with a little girl kidnapped from an Angelina Jolie/ Brad Pitt family.  Orson, the spaceman, is chased by both his haunting past and the gold-diggers hunting the little girl.  A solid noir tale, though Risso still can’t resist drawing ladies in obscenely buxom style.

Archbishop John Nienstedt should be ashamed of himself.

Archbishop John Nienstedt asked Jaime Moore, the longtime music director for St. Victoria parish in Victoria, MN, to resign after Moore married his longtime same-sex partner.  Nienstedt should be ashamed of himself.

We’ve long understood that the Bible is a hot mess of contradictions.  Aside from confusions introduced by its translation into other languages, there are clear contradictions between the new and old testament, or in which things we’ve decided are or are not still important to God. (See The Year of Living Biblically for a good discussion of this.)

But over time, as the secular, enlightenment understanding of humanity has evolved, we’ve come to see that the ancient view of “sin” was grounded in the specifics of the time those books were written, and that in order to properly understand why something is or isn’t wrong, we need to continually re-asses and explore that issue.  For a good example of how we’ve come to reinterpret, from a modern perspective, old “sins,” consider slavery.  (The Iron Chariots wiki is a good place to start.)  Miscegenation (the ‘mixing’ of the ‘races’) is another example, something whose position was first defended, then refuted by the religious faith people had.  See The Oatmeal for a scathing and hilarious comic rendering of this idea.

Which brings us to the modern moment.  Gay rights in the U.S. have reached a tipping point where, as John Oliver suggested, it’s not about which state will legalize gay marriage next, but rather which will be the last to do so.  And so even the Catholic church has begun to wake from its slumber, like Smaug hearing Bilbo stumbling around in the gold pile. Last spring, Pope Francis said:

“Rather than quickly condemn them, let’s just ask the questions as to why that has appealed to certain people.” and “We shouldn’t marginalise people for this. They must be integrated into society.”  (The Telegraph)

This seems to me the moment for leaders of the Catholic church to join the rest of us in the 21st century (hell, the last two decades of the 20th century).  They ought to take a deep look at the past issues of human rights (particularly race relations and slavery in the U.S.) and ask themselves how this issue is different.  Even if they still understand homosexual acts to be sinful (but gleefully eat lobster), the supposedly inclusive message of Jesus and the recent comments by the Pope would suggest that this is the opportunity for the church to respond not with shaming or shunning (or marginalizing), but with love.

Instead, Archbishop Nienstedt chose not to stand with right, but to stand with tradition only.  For shame, sir.

Full disclosure — I was raised Catholic but am now Unitarian Universalist. My mother attends St. Victoria parish and our family been lucky enough to count Mr. Moore among our friends for more than a decade.

Chicago in the springtime

Chicago Fog in the Springtime

Behold, the hoary fog of Chicago in the springtime.