30 June 2011

"Victory at Sea" Multi-Disk Collectors Set

Victory at Sea
Produced by Henry Salomon
Original Music Score by Richard Rodgers
Narrated by Leonard Graves
Edited by Isaac Kleinerman
Directed by M. Clay Adams
Written by Henry Salomon with Richard Hanser
DVD Release Date: 14 March 2006
List Price: $9.98

This Emmy-winning documentary culled from over 13,000 hours of wartime footage filmed by all participating countries and armies remains in high esteem almost sixty years after its debut on 26 October 1952.  I bought the 3-disc DVD set for $5.00 several years back and only just got around to watching it this month for the second annual DVD Talk Historical Appreciation Challenge.  I have somewhat mixed feelings about this series, to be honest.

Richard Rodgers's score is unmistakably beautiful, but I found it often incongruous with the footage.  Perhaps if this was a dramatization I wouldn't have been so uncomfortable, but knowing that real men were being shot and killed on camera made Rodgers's score seem insensitive and vulgar at times.  Likewise, Leonard Graves's narration often ventures into nearly vaudevillian theatrics, made even worse by some of the lines written for him by series producer Henry Salomon or Richard Hanser.  From "The Road to Mandalay" (Volume 24), for instance, Graves actually says of the carnage:
"And the vultures?  They never had it so good."
Mind you, he says this after you've just witnessed armed combatants shooting at one another, and as you hear those words you're seeing surviving soldiers survey the carnage.  It's just one of many WTF? moments to be found throughout this series.  Those who think that video games represent some kind of unprecedented glorification of violence need to spend some time watching Victory at Sea.

Those caveats aside, my chief problem with Victory at Sea concerns its structure.  Salomon was wise to build a thematic series.  You learn everything the series has to say about each sub-topic within its episode, so you don't need to try to remember what was said in Volume 3 about the Philippines when watching Volume 14.  There is a sort of broad continuity to the series; Volume 1 ("Design for War") establishes the state of the world leading up to the entry of the United States into World War II.  I was impressed that they did not introduce the attack on Pearl Harbor until the second episode, "The Pacific Boils Over" (particularly fascinating as it draws heavily on footage of the Japanese).  As my former history teachers and professors can attest, I'm lousy with dates, and I found myself confused trying to place each episode in context within the entire series.  For some episodes, the focus was so specific that this wasn't challenging, but some others span several years.

Also, I was disappointed at the minimal use of maps.  Hearing Graves tell me where a given battle took place isn't nearly as helpful to me as having a visual sense of where it was.  I'm tempted to give them a pass on this, being made for an audience that 1) likely remembered where these places were because they had been there during the war and 2) wasn't accustomed to being inundated with graphics on their TV screen like we are today.  Still, they used some maps and I feel that whatever logic led to those instances should have been good enough to use maps for more of the series.

I won't lie: Victory at Sea can be laborious to get through at times.  Some episodes don't have the same focus or energy as others.  There are times when the music and narration seem perfect, and others when you're reminded that aesthetics have certainly changed over the last 59 years.  And then you see things on the screen that are nothing short of astounding.

There is spectacular footage of a naval battle, guns firing so brightly they create a strobe effect.  It's chilling to watch Japanese pilots prepare to attack Pearl Harbor, and just as chilling to watch kamikaze pilots prepare for their one-way flights to death in Volume 27, "Suicide for Glory."  Conversely, there's some heartwarming, perfectly candid footage of soldiers lounging with paperback books or pitching horseshoes.  And there's some awe-inspiring imagery of weather, such as in "The Magnetic North" and "Target Suribachi."  It can be mind boggling just to imagine the fortitude of whomever stood nearby and filmed these sights.

Ultimately, it's the footage that is the real draw here.  Even without any context, music or narration, a lot of this is amazing to watch.  My advice is to recognize it as an anthology, rather than a singular narrative spread out across 26 episodes, check your 2011 sensibilities about taste and decorum and then...just watch.  If you learn dates and a sense of geography, terrific, but don't fret if you don't absorb that information.  Victory at Sea does not focus on a personal level; you'll hear very few names (and most of those are Nimitz, Rommel and MacArthur).  There is a distance between viewer and content because of this.  Absent also is any discussion of African-American soldiers.  No one would have expected a 1952 TV documentary to highlight the segregation of fighting forces, but it is disappointing that even the illustrious Tuskegee Airmen go unmentioned.  Victory at Sea is a survey of combat, rather than a document of the combatants.

28 June 2011

IFC, Fright Night Film Festival and Me

It's no surprise I enjoy discussing movies.  Take a look at the list of labels on this blog and you'll see "Movie" is far and away the largest word in the cloud.  In a bit of exciting news for me, if you hop on over to the Independent Film Channel website (IFC.com), you'll find an editorial about "Why Michael Bay should be taken seriously," penned by yours truly.  IFC is now the second website to publish my writing, and I have to say it's rather flattering.  I have been invited to submit more in the future should I so desire, meaning I now have three outlets for discussing film.  I just have to come up with something to say!

In other news, the Fright Night Film Festival returns next month here in Louisville.  It has expanded tremendously since I attended four years ago.  This year's lineup includes John Carpenter, Henry Winkler, Paul Le Mat, Cindy Clark, Margot Kidder, Fred Olen Ray, Jeremy Bulloch, Daniel Logan, Tiffany Shepis, Michael Biehn, Tony Moore and a slew of others.  As in years past, there will be a tie-in showing at the Georgetown Twin Drive-In attended by some of the celebrities.  This year will be two episodes of Happy Days, plus American Graffiti.  I have also read that Halloween will be shown, but that hasn't been named in all the promotional release information so maybe not.  Naturally, I began to count up how many autographs I'd like to score and what they'll cost.  The Fright Night webpage doesn't offer that information so I began tracking down the official web presence of the individual celebrities who interested me.

At one point I had considered buying an American Graffiti poster to get signed by Le Mat and Clark.  I was unable to find signing information at Le Mat's webpage so I sent an e-mail inquiry.  The reply came shortly thereafter to inform me that his signing fee "varies" from $10 to $20; more for posters.  I can understand how the fee might vary from show to show based on expected turnout, the compensation from the promoters, etc.  However, I specifically asked about the cost of an autograph at Fright Night.  I'm not saying Paul Le Mat or his people make this up as they go, but as a fan budgeting for a convention ahead of time I have no use for "variable" as I make my plans.  And what's this about charging more to sign a poster?  Whatever the reason, Le Mat is off my To Get list and I just can't make myself want to buy an entire American Graffiti poster just for Cindy Clark to sign.  I'm hopeful she'll have an 8 x 10 and a static signing fee.
Cop: "Do you know how fast you were going?" Le Mat: "It varies."
Fred Olen Ray, however, does not charge a signing fee according to the reply I received.  I may very well take my Scalps DVD.  Otherwise, I have no idea what I'll take to get signed.  I need to rummage through my comic books and see if I have anything with art by Tony Moore.  I think I might.  I'm also considering trying to track down a Night Shift poster to get Henry Winkler to sign.  I love that movie.

The other highlight for me personally will be that Albert Pyun will not only be in attendance, but he will be screening his director's cut of Captain America.  If you haven't seen that movie, imagine a TV movie made with YouTube production values and you have an idea how awful it is.  It's so bad I had to rent it about half a dozen times back in the day.  It's stunning to think, after Batman had just been a big money maker, that Marvel would license out Cap for something so low budget as this movie.  Even more curious is the fact they managed to get Ronny Cox.  I can only speculate that his children were taken as hostages.  In any event, I have a soft spot for the movie and I'm stoked about seeing a cut that includes even more awfulness.
You should see the Red Skull.  Seriously, go Google it right now.

27 June 2011

"Silverado" 2-Disc Gift Set DVD

Silverado
Starring: Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Rosanna Arquette, John Cleese, Kevin Costner, Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover, Jeff Goldblum, Linda Hunt
Written by Lawrence Kasdan & Mark Kasdan
Produced & Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
DVD Release Date: 5 April 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
List Price: $19.95
Cinescopes Personality Type: Loyal Warrior
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I came to Silverado in an unusual fashion.  Someone had brought into my family's consignment shop the soundtrack album on cassette and it piqued my curiosity so I bought it.  Within minutes, I had fallen in love with Bruce Broughton's score.  I enjoyed it so much I just had to see the accompanying film.  When Lawrence Kasdan released Silverado in 1985, I subsequently learned, he rescued the Western from oblivion.  It is not rooted in Western history so much as Western cinematic history, which is perfectly fine.

Four protagonists: brothers Emmett (Glenn) and Jake (Costner), Paden (Kline) and Mal (Glover) cross one another's paths throughout the film until eventually they are brought together as a foursome to confront corruption in Silverado.  Along the way, they are confronted with intimidation, jail time, theft, brutal assault and the murder of loved ones.  What would a Western be without courageous protagonists standing up to the bad guys?  Kasdan wants his protagonists to be heroic, and they are.  Cynical viewers accustomed to anti-heroes and gritty environments will be disappointed; Silverado bears more resemblance to Gene and Roy than to Deadwood.  It's a love letter to the Westerns of yesteryear, and it is just as fun to watch in 2011 as its inspirations were to see in their heydays.

The cast is solid, particularly a scenery-chewing Costner in one of his earliest film roles, and Jeff Goldblum as a roving gambler who dresses like A Pimp Named Slickback.  Danny Glover brings a muted dignity to the role of Mal, and has the best line in the entire film.  Covering the bad guys with his Henry rifle, he threatens, "I don't want to kill you, and you don't want to be dead."  This is the kind of stuff you pay to see in a movie like Silverado, and it delivers the goods.  The only real complaint is that Rosanna Arquette's role as Hannah was mostly left on the cutting room floor, which butchered the love triangle story between her, Paden and Emmett.  Not only do you wonder why she seems to come and go without much fanfare, but she inexplicably shifts her affections from Emmett to Paden.
Disc One presents the film in Superbit and Along the "Silverado" Trail": A Western Historians' Commentary featuring Frank Thompson, Paul Hutton and Steve Aaron.  If you can endure their seemingly endless self-promotions, this is one of the most entertaining and engaging commentary tracks I've heard yet.  These guys not only know their stuff and take it seriously, but they enjoy it.  Their discussion is as much about the Western period as how Hollywood has interpreted and depicted it, and they have a terrific sense of humor about glaring inaccuracies and storytelling absurdities.  This is the real gem of this release.

Disc Two includes two featurettes: A Return to Silverado with Kevin Costner is self-explanatory, as is The Making of Silverado.  The former is fairly interesting as Costner has, of course, made several Westerns as both actor and as director since Silverado so his reflections are colored by not just hindsight but experience.  I continue to find Costner one of the most articulate and passionate film-makers of our era and it's a delight to hear him recall what lessons he learned from the making of this film so early in his career.  The Making of Silverado is pretty much a paint-by-numbers piece that runs 37 minutes, compiling 1998 interviews with the Kasdan brothers and composer Broughton with vintage interviews, film clips and a few outtakes.  After hearing the speculation on the commentary track and seeing the outtakes in this featurette, I was particularly disappointed that no deleted scenes appear on this release.

The DVD package lists A History of Western Shootouts as a third bonus feature and while it is "narrated by John Cleese" as indicated, it's nothing more than an extended promotional ad for ten different Western DVDs from Sony.  The original Silverado trailer is presented by itself (in full frame), as well as another promo ad for classic Westerns on DVD from Sony.  Only the remarks from Costner and the outtakes rescue Disc Two from being a complete disappointment.

The gift set is in an oversized box inside a slipcover.  The front of the box is designed like the swinging doors of a saloon; open them and you'll find a deck of cards.  I haven't opened mine, so I can't comment any further about them.  Inside the back of the box (accessible from the sides) is where the DVD can be found, along with a booklet containing an essay, "Silverado and the American Western," by commentary participant and Western film historian Frank Thompson.  Thompson thoughtfully and passionately places Silverado in the historical context of the genre and makes the argument that the Western is a far more malleable canvas for storytelling than is often recognized.  It's a great read, populated with numerous photo stills from Silverado.  Western enthusiasts should enjoy reading Thompson's thesis.

26 June 2011

We Have Outgrown Ourselves

In a BBC News article penned by Justin Webb, an argument is made that the U.S. debt--while admittedly larger than the debts of European countries--is more of a political than financial nature.  David Frum argues that we spend entirely too much on health care and need to raise taxes, but that the latter cannot happen because of how reliant our politicians are upon campaign donations.  He's right, of course, but the problem isn't in getting agreement to these ideas, but in what they actually mean.

What we really have in the United States is not so much a political problem, as Mr. Flum postulates, but a legal problem.  Here's the difference between the U.S. and European countries: size.  Not just geographical or population sizes, but in scale of operations.  Think for the moment of roadways.  If you live in Spain, you may not even care how the roads are in France.  But if you want to drive from Madrid to Bordeaux, you'll want to know that there is an easy to follow, properly maintained route to follow.  As a Kentuckian, I don't even have to care about how the roads in Ohio are; I know that the federally operated Interstate will be direct and (mostly) well-maintained.  We no longer live and die within 20 miles of where we were born.
Unlike European countries, we maintain one system from sea to shining sea.
I readily concede that the U.S. Constitution clearly specifies that all powers not specifically relegated to the federal government are reserved by the states.  But we must also keep in mind that the Constitution was written during an era when each state had its own distinct identity.  The U.S. of the time of the Constitution was more like the Greek states than the U.S. you and I know today.  They existed in a state of isolation, especially relative to the rest of the world.  When your national economy is primarily agricultural and you have minimal relations with foreign powers, it's easy to say, "Kentucky will take care of itself."  Then came the Industrial Revolution.

We forget, but Eli Whitney's cotton gin was one of the most important causes of the Civil War.  That invention increased the potential for production and gave rise to a dramatically expansive economy.  Northern factories boomed in the 1800s, driven by the massive output of cotton from the South.  The idea that we're still all little autonomous states only tangentially involved with one another is a fantasy.
Eli Whitney's cotton gin reinvigorated the "peculiar
instituation" that had been on the verge of dying out.
Consider education.  We have several thousand students in my home county who must be educated.  That requires buildings, teachers, administrative staff, cafeteria workers, custodial staff, bus drivers, buses, desks, chalkboards and all kinds of other things.  Yet when the school board presents the bill to the county, the county has to ask the residents to approve higher taxes in order to pay the bill.  Naturally, this vote always comes in, "No."  The kids still need to be taught, whether we want to pay for it or not.  Contrary to popular belief, the world of education is not one glamorous scam where teachers are little more than babysitters living high on the hog for minimal work.  And if you think that schools don't need to spent a lot of money to produce highly educated and skilled graduates, go find me a private school that operates with a public school budget.  Good luck with that.  We all know that a good education is expensive.  We know that a good education is desirable. We just won't pay for it.

When the county whose children need to be educated won't pay the bill, the county asks the state for funding.  The state obliges to a point, dipping into its coffers, but of course with lots of counties full of residents refusing to pay higher taxes, those coffers don't last long.  The state, then, asks for federal money for education, which the federal government provides.  Find me a state that doesn't take federal money to compensate for its own insufficiently funded needs, and I'll show you a state that's entitled to say, "Leave me alone."

Companies that operate on a national or international scale have a very good idea how to play the game.  Factories are built in states that are lax about pollution.  Corporate headquarters are established in states with low corporate tax rates.  Board members maintain a "primary" residence in states with the lowest personal tax rates.  Meanwhile, their products are sold across the globe, the money flows from all places to those at the top, and they in turn go as they please to spend it.  Great for the profits of those at the top, of course, but is it reasonable to protect a haphazard legal system that allows and even encourages this kind of cherry-picking?

In short, we have outgrown the model of state/federal relations that the founders had in mind in 1787.  We have to live in the now, and the truth is that regional nostalgia aside, there is little meaningful value to continuing to differentiate each state in the Union.

James Madison is dead.
It's okay not to worry about him.
We must also remember that the founders established a transient government, so even if they were alive today, their thoughts and feelings would be no more valid than anyone else's who isn't actively in office.  James Madison wouldn't be able to produce some kind of "director's cut" of the Constitution.  They wrote it into the structure of our government that the offices endure--not the officeholders.  In essence, they directed us not to allow them to loom over our decision making.

Conservatives keep screaming about an intrusive federal government prying into their lives.  You know what?  I don't want the Kentucky State Police in charge of protecting me from terrorists.  I want the F.B.I. and C.I.A. on that job.  Our legal and economic system needs to be revised, and the first step is admitting that we are no longer the United States of 1787.  We have outgrown that model.

23 June 2011

"True Grit" (2010) Blu-ray Disc

True Grit
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hattie Steinfeld
Based on the Novel by Charles Portis
Written for the Screen & Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Blu-ray Disc Release: 7 June 2011
List Price: $39.99
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I reviewed the film in December when I saw it during its theatrical release, so I'll refrain from repeating myself.  I will say that this second viewing of the film felt different to me.  I was still mindful of Roger Deakins's Academy Award-nominated cinematography (terrific lighting and capturing of the gorgeous landscapes throughout), but reduced from the theater screen to my TV I found my attention focused much more on the characters and dialog.  I initially derided Tom Chaney as little more than a MacGuffin, rather than a villain, and this second viewing has made me reconsider that position.  Even though the cowardice of the character is made explicitly clear in the opening narration, I suppose I was simply conditioned to think of the outlaw being hunted as a villain. Chaney is, instead, a narcissistic opportunist driven by paranoia.  Brolin's performance is actually stronger than I realized six months ago.

As for the Blu-ray Disc release, the picture and sound are, as one might expect, terrific.  Maybe a technophile more discerning than I am can find fault with the presentation, but I was entirely satisfied.  The Coen Brothers dislike commentary tracks, so they didn't record one.  I had hoped this meant they were at least part of the handful of bonus featurettes, but alas this is also not the case.  Most of the features are the kind of fluff piece one might find in an electronic press kit (EPK), the kind of promo materials circulated within the industry to drum up interest in a film.

"Mattie's True Grit" focuses on Hailee Steinfeld, who shares the story of her audition and reaction to getting the role.  We see a clip from her screen test, which is interesting but too brief.

"From Bustles to Buckskin - Dressing for the 1880s" spotlights the costume design of Mary Zophres, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her work.  Standard "I did our research, enjoy period pieces and all their challenges" fare.

"Colts, Winchesters & Remingtons: The Guns of a Post-Civil War Western" is a self-evident title.  Gun aficionados will nod their heads and maybe talk to the screen, and then complain this piece is too brief and superficial.  The rest of us will simply nod our heads as though we know the difference between 130 year old rifles.

"Re-Creating Fort Smith" lets us get a glimpse into the research and work of production designer Jess Gonchor.  I hadn't consciously processed it while watching the film, but it's remarked in this piece that there was a concerted effort to make sure that this wasn't another standard Western with swinging door saloons, but rather reflected the more cosmopolitan aesthetic taking hold in the post-war 1880s.  It does make a difference.

"The Cast" is a collection of interview clips of Bridges, Damon, Brolin, Steinfeld and Barry Pepper saying nice things about one another.

"Charles Portis - The Greatest Writer You've Never Heard Of..." is the gem of this release.  Portis has refused to give interviews or promote his own works, and only dedicated readers are likely familiar with his story as a result.  This feature is part biography, part literary appreciation, all told through insights shared by various writers, editors, former colleagues and friends of Portis's and Dwight Yoakam.  Yeah, that's right.  Dwight Yoakam, who really ought to have been cast somewhere in this film.  As you may have gleaned from this blog, I have an unabashed adoration of writers in general, so a 30 minute piece in which a writer is discussed and fawned over by other writers was an elixir.

"The Cinematography of True Grit" - Roger Deakins (who was robbed at the Academy Awards, I say!) shares some insights into his approach to filming True Grit.  It's a very cursory look at his work, and I'm certain that it will not satisfy anyone who might be interested enough in the subject to watch this in the first place.

Theatrical Trailer - I loved the use of Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down" in the trailer, which I thought gave an immediate, recognizable feel and tone to the film.  I had forgotten just how many images and moments from the final act of the film were shown in the trailer, including some stuff from the final 5-10 minutes.  So if you're coming to this Blu-ray release blind, you might want to hold off on the trailer until you've seen the feature.

A DVD is also included, and a Digital Copy can be downloaded from the DVD for use on your iPod or other portable video device.

I loved the film, and while I was underwhelmed by most of the bonus content, I enjoyed the feature on Charles Portis quite a lot.  The list price is crazy, but fortunately True Grit can be found brand new for less than half that right now.

20 June 2011

Drinkin' and Dreamin'

There are two people who have caught my attention today.  The first is Ryan Dunn, star of Jackass.  The second is Beth Dobson, who has Crohn's disease.  [Law & Order voice] "These are their stories."

Ryan Dunn had a good ol' time at a Philadelphia bar last night, reportedly having "at least three beers and three shots" in about four hours.  Reports vary; one witness claims they were Miller Lites and "girly" shots; another declared Dunn was "wasted" when he left.  How much he consumed and the extent to which it affected him is currently unclear, but it's hard to give the benefit of the doubt to an individual who has literally built a career out of defying consequences.  Regardless, Dunn crashed his Porsche 911, killing himself and a passenger.

Reaction has fallen into two camps.  One dismisses this as little more than an inevitability for someone with Dunn's reckless proclivities; the other has tried to elevate him to daredevil martyrdom.  I reject both reactions.  This was not a reality TV stunt gone wrong.  There was nothing for Dunn to prove by getting behind the wheel under the influence of alcohol, this was not part of his job.  This was tempting fate, certainly, but this was a far cry from when Roy was mauled by that tiger.
Daredevil martyr?  Hardly.
More significantly, there is nothing heroic or inspiring about Dunn or anyone else driving drunk.  I was nine years old when the worst drunk driving collision in the country occurred about 20 minutes from where I live.  Larry Mahoney was drunk on the night of 14 May 1988 when he drove in the wrong direction on I-71 in Carrollton, Kentucky and crashed into a bus full of 66 passengers--mostly youth--embarking on a visit to Kings Island amusement park in Cincinnati.

It wasn't the crash itself that claimed the lives of 27 people.  Dragging metal on the highway generated sparks that ignited the punctured gas tank.  The seat covers quickly caught fire.  It's estimated that the heat inside the bus at one point was as high as 2000 degrees.  The front of the bus was not accessible, forcing everyone to rush for the rear exit.  Before emergency responders were even on the scene, the fire became an eruption that prevented anyone from getting to the remaining 27 people on board.  Of the survivors, ten were physically disfigured from burns.  One lost a leg to amputation.  The emotional scar of our entire region remains and I dare not speculate how those present have coped with the event after all these years.  Trauma and survivor guilt are said to be rampant with those who made it out of the bus.

Ryan Dunn did not hit a bus full of youths.  But he easily might have, and we are remiss to praise him for "only" killing himself and a passenger who was willing to get into the car with him and let him drive.  Dunn had the choice to drink--a choice for which I am not vilifying him--and drive.  Fans may see this as part of the devil-may-care attitude that endeared him to them, but I wonder if once upon a time Larry Mahoney wasn't the life of the party, doing stupid things to entertain others.  Dunn's loved ones have my condolences, but for his fans to declare his death a "tragedy" speaks volumes to me about how poorly they understand the word.

Beth Dobson and fiance Ian Townsend
Which brings me to Beth Dobson.

Dobson, like yours truly, has Crohn's disease.  Unlike me, hers has become so aggressive that her mouth is said to be the only part of her digestive tract not affected at present.  It will kill her, unless a life-threatening course of treatment succeeds.  She is scheduled to have a heart line surgically implanted and then undergo 11 days of chemotherapy.  Then, Dobson will be treated in one of two stem cell transplant trials with no guarantee of success.  Theoretically, once the chemo wipes out her immune system, her body will be more accepting of new digestive cells grown from her own which will essentially "overwrite" her existing cells.  It's still a very new form of treatment not tested on many patients.  That's all challenging enough, but what if I told you that Dobson is a mere 20 years of age and that the initial surgery is scheduled for two days after her wedding?
I don’t see myself as brave because it’s just my life and people go through a lot worse. You just have to get on with it. I have been ill all my life.
It’s getting boring – and annoying. This is my last roll of the dice.
I try to be mindful of Dobson's philosophy.  I know there are plenty of Crohnies out there who have had worse experiences than me by far, and that's not even accounting for all the things in life that are worse than Crohn's.  My heart broke when I read her story.  It always seems worse when these things happen to someone young.  She's 20.  She couldn't have even been in that bar with Ryan Dunn last night, and here she is facing a literal life-and-death situation knowing the odds are against her and that even success will be painful and uncertain.

Want to talk about real courage and real tragedy?  It's not Dunn.  It's Dobson.

19 June 2011

"Green Lantern" Movie Review

Green Lantern
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Angela Basset, Tim Robbins, Temuera Morrison, Jay O. Sanders, Jon Tenney, Taika Waititi, Geoffrey Rush, Michael Clarke Duncan
Screen Story by Greg Berlanti & Michael Green & Marc Guggenheim
Screenplay by Greg Berlanti & Michael Green & Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg
Directed by Martin Campbell
Theatrical Release Date: 17 June 2011
Date of Screening: 18 June 2011
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No joke: I've been waiting for a Green Lantern movie almost 20 years now.  I've cringed at some of the reported previous attempts to make this film happen, and for much of the last month I've become increasingly defensive as the reaction to the film's marketing campaign has been a resounding, "Yawn."  I was determined to see it, regardless of how it looked in trailers, and so yesterday afternoon my wife and I met up with a friend and we saw it.

If I were to distill the film to a shorthand phrase, it might be: "Top Gun meets Men in Black meets Ghostbusters."  Half of the film concentrates on Hal Jordan (Reynolds), brash test pilot who needs a cathartic experience to make him realize the importance of being a team player.  The other half concentrates on Hal Jordan, rookie member of the Green Lantern Corps--an intergalactic peacekeeping organization that contends with the kinds of threats that one might expect of an intergalactic peacekeeping organization.  In this film we are introduced to what is the greatest of these threats to come down the pike in some time, a being called Parallax who thrives on fear.  (Think: Gozer.)


The story is fairly straightforward, with some laughs along the way.  Hal's arc is standard "chosen adventurer" fare, but the thing about Hal has always been he has a very simple origin story: Green Lantern Abin Sur (Morrison) crash lands on Earth, and before he dies he sends his power ring to find a successor and it chooses Hal.  That's pretty much it.  Otherwise, Hal's biggest concern is largely his relationship with Carol Ferris (Lively), whom he has known since childhood and is poised to succeed her father at the head of Ferris Air (for whom Hal works).  Also going back to their early days is Hector Hammond (Sarsgaard), a nerdy scientist with an inferiority complex who becomes corrupted by Parallax, just as Louis was corrupted by Gozer.

As a Lantern reader and fan, I can of course nitpick quite a lot of the film but on the whole I thought they did a fairly decent job of putting familiar characters and concepts on the screen while still making it accessible to new viewers.  You may not know Kilowog from Tomar Re, but you should be able to follow this film.  Aside from the rather perfunctory story, I really only have two complaints.  Firstly, I was underwhelmed by the appearance of Parallax and I thought Hector Hammond came off as a guy who should be interviewed on the local news about witnessing a twister.  The idea of Parallax worked for me, but not the execution.

Secondly, despite what the advertising campaign may have led you to believe, there's not a lot of Hal interacting with the rest of the Green Lantern Corps.  He arrives on Oa, is introduced to the Corps and leader Sinestro (Strong), then goes back home.  It's rather underwhelming (though I confess I got a buzz from watching Sinestro address the Corps), and later interactions between Hal and the others are few and small.  Viewers who saw the trailers emphasizing footage of the Corps and expecting to see their favorite obscure Lantern in action will be vastly disappointed.

The film is really about introducing audiences to Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps, and in this it largely succeeds.  Ultimately, it wasn't as good as I'd hoped, but better than I'd feared.  I can choose to dwell on its shortcomings, or I can accept it and enjoy it for what I think it did well, and at a point in my life where I favor the latter approach.  That said, I do hope that the next film is willing to take its time and allow its story to unfold more organically than the formulaic approach employed here.

18 June 2011

"Storms of Life" by Randy Travis

Storms of Life
Randy Travis
Produced by Kyle Lehning
"On the Other Hand" and "Reasons I Cheat" produced by Kyle Lehning and Keith Stegall
Release Date: 6 June 1986

Randy Travis's 1986 debut album, Storms of Life, may just be perfect.  This isn't going to be a standard review.  Rather, I'm going to share how Storms of Life became one of the most important albums I ever heard and a major part of my formative life.  (Shorthand: "gonna get personal.")

I was familiar with the singles, and then my mom bought the cassette of the album.  Maybe it shouldn't have, but it spoke to me very specifically and very personally.  In 1986, I was seven years old (I wouldn't turn eight until December) and just a couple of years removed from my parents's divorce.  The dissolution of their marriage was ugly, and Storms of Life really helped me understand it.  I'll walk you through it, cut by cut.

"On the Other Hand" (Paul Overstreet/Don Schlitz)

This song is sung from the perspective of a married man to a woman who clearly wishes to be his mistress.  The first person narrator describes the chemistry with this woman as a reawakening, and that actually made sense to me.  I thought it was reasonable that two people who had been together long enough could just kind of lose their excitement--even if I didn't understand what that excitement was all about.  This song, maybe because it was one of the first songs I studied about the topic of cheating, maybe because it's the first song on this album, framed the entire subject of what happened with my parents for me.  Of course, the guy in this song chooses his wife over his "passion" and that's not how it played out in my world.  Still, it gave me an insight into my dad's side of things.

"The Storms of Life" (Troy Seals/Max D. Barnes)

A guy down on life for reasons never really explained, driving around in his truck lamenting how poorly he handles things when they go bad ("Always gettin' high/when I get low").  My dad has owned and driven a truck my entire life, so it was pretty easy to picture him at some point during all the ruckus driving around wondering how it ever got to that point.  Whether he ever did, I have no idea.  I always assumed this was the same narrator from "On the Other Hand," only we'd jumped ahead some to after his wife found out about his near-infidelity.  It took me quite a while to make peace with this song, actually.  For the longest time, I resented it as some kind of emissary trying to make me sympathize with my dad.  Eventually I overcame that and took ownership of the song myself.  It's one of my favorite songs of all time, and I love the specific descriptions throughout.  I think of this song instantly whenever I pass "an Old Mail Pouch sign fading on a barn."  Terrific writing.

"My Heart Cracked (But It Did Not Break)" (Phil Thomas/Ronny Scaife/Don Singleton)

"You're spreadin' lies/all over town" opens this song.  It's about a guy trying to be defiant about just how crushed he was by a break-up.  The uptempo sound belies the desperation of the lyrics, and it was really this song that taught me a sad song can sound joyful.  To be honest, I identified with this song as being about me more than either of my parents.  I downplayed how much it all bothered me, in part because I didn't want to have to admit that it had that kind of power over me (though I doubt I would have put it in those words at the time).

"Diggin' Up Bones" (Paul Overstreet/Al Gore)

I love this song if for no other reason than teaching me the word, "exhuming."  In this song, our narrator is left alone in his home, his wife having left him.  He's sitting in their bedroom, going through the things she's left behind: pictures, her ring, a negligee.  Very vivid descriptions walk us through this moment in this guy's life, confronted by the tangible evidence that she's gone.  Like "The Storms of Life," I can't say whether my dad ever had this moment but I always hoped he did.  And I hoped it sucked as much as it does for this guy.

"No Place Like Home" (Paul Overstreet)

This is probably the one song more than all the others that hit home for me.  This time, our first-person narrator is packing up his things to leave and stops to plead with his wife to try one last time to make it work.  I don't know that my parents had this conversation; if they did, I know it didn't work out as it does in this song.  Later, when I learned about the concept of alternate realties, this song was the first point of divergence to cross my mind.  Somewhere, I think, is a reality where my parents did have the experience of this song.  I'd be very curious to see how that reality's me turned out.

"1982" (James H. Blackmon/Carl J. Vipperman)

In this song, our first-person narrator laments about how "there was a time when she was mine/back in 1982," realizing that "she is what I should have held on to."  The funny thing about this is that my parents's marriage really began to go sour in 1982.  I'll never forget one night after my dad had left, he called my mom and tried to have a "No Place Like Home" conversation, saying he would break it off with his girlfriend and start fresh if she would take him back, that he realized he'd made a mistake.  I was in the kitchen.  Why my mom didn't have me leave the room, I don't know.  Maybe she was too caught up in the moment to even know I was there.  What I do remember is that she told him, "No."  Another adult was there; likely my grandmother, but perhaps a neighbor or a friend of my mom's.  Maybe more than one of those choices.  I listened as she recounted the conversation to whomever was there.  Part of me hears "1982" and feels spite; another part of me feels pride.

"Send My Body" (Randy Travis)

This one is about a guy convicted of an unnamed crime ("wrongdoing" is all the song tells us) and he accepts this, only wishing that they send his body back home and have him buried underneath his mama's apple tree.  My brother loved this song because in the course of singing along with the line, "my mama was a damn hard workin' woman," he got to cuss.  By 1986, our mom was very much a damn hard workin' woman, "and she tried to raise us kids without a pa."  Our dad may have had biweekly visitation, but he was no more involved with our raising than any babysitter we ever had.

"Messin' with My Mind" (Joe Allen/Charlie Williams)

Here we have a playboy admitting he's actually fallen for a girl.  This one I kind of claimed for myself, projecting into my future that I wouldn't just get seriously involved at the drop of a hat.  I never became the player that this guy claims to be, but I did stick to the part about rarely being available/vulnerable.  I only even dated a handful of girls before my wife, and none of them were ever particularly serious.

"Reasons I Cheat" (Randy Travis)

Going all the way back to "On the Other Hand," "Reasons I Cheat" tries to explain to me what the source of my family's drama really was.  Every reason he gives in this song is a commonly cited impetus in conversations with people, but I never felt like any of them were the real reason.  The very tense of the title suggests that this guy is a serial cheater, as though cheating is more of an ongoing hobby than anything.  And yet, there's something about the way Randy Travis sings this one that tempered my anger.  This song taught me that even if my questions were ever addressed, I would never have the answers I seek.  Ultimately, my family was much better off with my parents divorced than we would have been had they "toughed it out."  So while I wish we'd all been spared the Year of Hell, I eventually made my peace with the fact that what happened apparently needed to happen.

"There'll Always Be a Honky Tonk Somewhere" (Johnny MacRae/Steve Clark)

Something lighthearted to end the album, this is about how even in the future when there's "farming out in space," honky tonks will be around, populated by the same kinds of people who keep them in business today.  I had no idea what a honky tonk really was, beyond the description from songs and what I'd seen in some country music videos, but in this song I learned that it's basically a bar where people go to either have a good time or to just be around other people during not-so-good times.  By 1986, I'd seen some Cheers, so in my mind a honky tonk was Cheers with cowboy hats.  I liked that idea.  Still do.

So that's the story of how Storms of Life helped me make sense of my parents's divorce.  It was particularly of value to me since the songs are all sung from the male perspective and my dad never shared his side of things with me beyond the standard, "I had to get out, couldn't live with her anymore" line.  Randy Travis made it sound miserable, and that's what I wanted to believe he was during all that.  And yet, Randy also made it sound reasonable; almost sympathetic in a way.  Almost.  The album wasn't meant for seven year old boys of divorce, and maybe that's what made it perfect.  None of the adults in my life tried to engage me in a mature way about that time, and I thank Randy Travis, producers Kyle Lehning and Keith Stegall, and all the songwriters for revealing that world to me.  I was still angry and hurt by it, but at least I had a better understanding of what had actually taken place, and why, and that knowledge really did help me process it all after three years of keeping my questions to myself.

17 June 2011

"Army of Darkness: Ash Saves Obama"

Trade paperback.
Army of Darkness: Ash Saves Obama
Elliot Serrano - Writer
Ariel Padilla - Art
Rael Sidharta - Colors
Bill Tortolini - Letters
Todd Nauck - Cover A (75%)
Lucio Parrillo - Cover B (25%)
Originally published: September - November 2009
Cover Price: $3.50/issue

So The Great Escape held one of its sidewalk sales last week, offering 30% off all comics.  I went in with a wish list and couldn't find most of it, but I did come across all four issues of this novelty mini-series and I just had to have them.  The concept alone beckoned to me, which of course was the whole point.
Issue #1 Cover A: Todd Nauck, Cover B: Lucio Parrillo
The premise is simple enough.  President Barack Obama makes a scheduled appearance at the annual Motor City Comic Convention during a visit to Detroit.  Unbeknownst to him, the Army of Darkness has surreptitiously begun distributing comic book versions of the Necronomicon just as capable of spreading destruction as the actual book.  Naturally, Ash Williams is on hand for the chaos--albeit reluctantly.  His S-Mart coworker has called out, forcing him to be the one delivering food to the convention.  And, of course, one of the comic book Necronomicons falls into the hands of the president.  Ash has to survive the Evil Dead and track down and destroy all the comics, and save President Obama.  All in a day's work, really, when you're the chosen one.
Issue #2 Cover A: Todd Nauck, Cover B: Lucio Parrillo
Basing Ash Saves Obama at a comic book convention was a stroke of genius, as it really does represent the most sensible convergence of the realm of the Evil Dead/Army of Darkness with reality.  President Obama is known for being a comic book fan and collector, even referred to here as the "Fanboy in Chief."  It's impossible to imagine a sitting president visiting a comic book convention--security would be impossible with all the cosplayers and prop weapons being sold--but it's not actually that much of a stretch to imagine this president in that environment.
Issue #3 Cover A: Todd Nauck, Cover B: Lucio Parrillo
Writer Elliot Serrano brings a terrific sense of humor to the story, very much aware of how ridiculous the whole thing is and even satirizing within the story absurdity of Obama's popularity in pop culture.  We see an array of Obama-centric comics and toys on display at the convention, some of which actually do exist (there's no shortage of Obama Bobbleheads).  Yet, Serrano stops short of satirizing the president himself in his lampooning of pop culture's reaction to him.  Instead, Obama here is a polite family man who assigns an underling to make sure the comics he's been given are age appropriate for his daughters.  He's not particularly dynamic at any point.  The Fox News crowd will decry Ash Saves Obama as liberal brainwashing propaganda, but I suspect most reasonable readers--even those who don't think favorably of Mr. Obama--will see it more as a silly Evil Dead/Army of Darkness novelty story, which is really all it aspires to be.
Issue #4 Cover A: Todd Nauck, Cover B: Lucio Parrillo
Ariel Padilla's art is perfectly suited for the tone of this little romp.  The atmosphere of the comic convention is pitch perfect and the action panels are dynamic.  What I appreciate most is that his art is clean and not overwhelmingly full of details--a common complaint I have with many contemporary comics.  The likeness of Bruce Campbell is more suggestive than perfect, but he's certainly recognizable.  Padilla's Obama is pretty much spot-on, though I think he gave the president a more pronounced jawline than he really has.  The covers are nice; I actually prefer Todd Nauck's work to that of Lucio Parrillo.  I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say that these covers are pretty misleading.  Come to think of it, so is the title!

There is a collected edition, available to those who can't find or aren't interested in finding the original four issues.

"Danger Girl: The Dangerous Collection" Vol. 3

Danger Girl: The Dangerous Collection Vol. 3
J. Scott Campbell - Plot/Pencils
Andy Hartnell - Plot/Script
Alex Garner - Inks - Special Thanks to Scott Williamson
Justin Ponsor - Colors
Comicraft's Dave Lanphear & Wes Abbott - Lettering
John Layman - Assistant Editor
Scott Dunbier - Editor
Ed Roeder - Design
Published November, 1999
Cover Price: $5.95

Collecting Danger Girl #4 and #5, The Dangerous Collection Vol. 3 sees the team pitted against Hammer agents, with whom they are competing to find three artifacts, one of which we learned in Vol. 2 was in the possession of fantasy card game creator Eddy Owen.  Imagine if you tuned in to start watching Raiders of the Lost Ark during the first scene with Indy in Marion's bar and you have an idea how Vol. 3 begins.

Most of Vol. 3 is action, though we do learn some important things and we get to meet the Mysterious Secret Agent Zero, a ninja commando of dubious affiliation.  There's clearly a past between Zero and Danger Girl head Deuce, teasing at an interesting back story I'd like to see explored later--which, of course, was the whole point.  The pace runs at a brisk clip, the dialog is alternately perfunctory and cheeky and the art is pretty much perfect for the tone of Danger Girl.

What irks me is that this is the final Dangerous Collection.  There were two additional single issues to the initial Danger Girl series!  There is Danger Girl: The Ultimate Edition, which collects all seven issues, or I can find issues #6 & 7 individually, but the fact that there was no fourth Dangerous Collection is genuinely disappointing.  I really do look forward to finishing this series, as it has been a lot of fun so far.  Fans of glamour spy stories and adventure tales should have little problem getting into Danger Girl.

16 June 2011

Wanted: Post-Industrial Economy

A few years ago I conversed with a conservative friend of mine whose chief interest in life is business.  We hit on the topic of all the manufacturing jobs that have gone overseas and eventually he dismissed it by saying, "Let them do those jobs; we've got bigger fish to fry."  I asked him what those fish were, and he couldn't answer me.

For most people, the principle objective of any crisis is to reestablish the previous status quo as quickly and as closely as possible.  Sometimes that's reasonable, but largely I believe we make the mistake of believing we can go back to the past.  Looking forward, we must accept that our post-WWII economic model is gone and it's never coming back.

Just because it keeps its Home Office in
Bentonville doesn't make it one of us.
We can no longer regard ourselves as an alpha dog competitor in a global market.  Our largest corporations may have originated in America, their leaders may have their mansions and summer homes here, but their operations are everywhere.  We must cease to view these global corporations as American.  Walmart is as American as Superman.  We accept him as such because we keep thinking of him as Clark Kent, but we are remiss to think of a being that powerful who operates around the world as one of ours just because he keeps an apartment in Metropolis.  We no longer see American laborers making goods for American businesses to sell to Americans.  Rather, we're now seeing Asian laborers making goods for global businesses to sell to Americans.  We're now merely consumers in the formula, unless we're fortunate enough to be part of the ownership class.

The jobs that once drove the American economy are gone and they're gone for good.  For years we've used the term, "post-industrial" to describe our economic period but no one has really defined what that means.  We've been told we live in the "information age," and that ours is now an economy of service rather than creation.  The problem is that there is very little monetary value assigned to information or service.  We flock to websites today not to be informed by a knowledgeable expert, but to have a forum for espousing our own views and engage others, whether to have like-minded people stroke our egos, or to enjoy debating others.

Consider the professional film critic, once responsible for shaming and praising movies, is now little more than an elitist in the era of the Internet where anyone with the time and interest can become a critic.  Before the Internet, we shared our thoughts with our friends, neighbors and coworkers but only the professional critic's words were put in print or given the credibility of being shared on TV.  Now, even I have a blog full of reviews, read by a few people from around the world.

Would I equate myself with Roger Ebert?  Of course not; he's hated more movies than I've ever seen.  He knows the ins and outs of cinema in a way I'm unlikely to ever master any given subject.  And yet, for all intents and purposes, I have just as much access to distributing my thoughts as he does now; the only difference is that he has a widely recognized and respected reputation and I, to date, do not.

Anyone who believed they would become the next Ebert is sadly mistaken; when he and his ilk leave us, we'll not see again that kind of professional film critic.  Going forward, we can expect film reviews to be posted by movie enthusiasts on popular websites.  You'll go to the Flickchart blog, not particularly knowing or caring who reviewed the movie; being published on Flickchart is sufficient to legitimize the review for you.  Film aficionados will take the time to learn the names of their favorite (or least favorite) reviewers, but Flickchart will be the equivalent in brand recognition to Ebert for the next generation.

[Full disclosure: I have had several blog posts published on the Flickchart blog.  I have received no compensation for any of them, and I contributed those pieces knowing there would be none.]

Look at your TV commercials.  We're selling movies, video games, cars, fast food, cell phones, medications and lawsuits when medications shouldn't have been approved but were.  If you can't act or program, and don't have the money or aptitude for medical or law school, guess what?  That leaves you flipping burgers or selling cell phones.  That's it.  That's our entire economy in 2011.  If we're not going to be making goods anymore, and the information economy rewards organizations rather than individual contributors, then what are the jobs of the 21st Century?  What are those bigger fish we're supposed to be frying?  I still don't know.
Two of the six career paths left in America represented here.

15 June 2011

Save Your Responsibility

I'm watching last night's episode of The Colbert Report and there's a segment about an effort on Sesame Street to promote responsible saving habits with children.  We see Elmo wanting to buy a "stupendous" flashing ball of some kind that costs $4 more than the $1 he has.  Elmo learns about saving his money to get what he wants.  It's a simple, obvious lesson that most of us were taught in our youth.  There are many who believe that our current economic woes were caused by a failure to implement that same sense of discipline as adults.  To some degree that's true, but largely that is entirely too reductive and overlooks some key points.

As a child, your only expenses are things you want.  If I'm 10 years old and I get $5 a week in allowance for doing specific household chores, then each week I have $5 to blow or to save to blow on something bigger later.  I don't have to make that $5 pay for my meals for the week.  My mom isn't charging me rent (because I'm 10).  My $5 allowance isn't being stretched to pay for electricity, water, gas, phone service, cable or Internet.  Those things just exist in my world.  If I get sick, mom gets me over-the-counter medicine or takes me to a doctor.  I'm not worried about how much money I'm going to lose by missing a day of school; I just spend the day in bed and my only concern is how quickly I can get back to not throwing up.

Ergo, the concept of saving money is an act of responsibility needs to be understood more clearly by both child and adult.  The child must be made to see that he is only able to spend his allowance on things he wants because someone else has taken care to pay for all the other things that make his life possible.  And the adult must realize that it's entirely possible the only lesson being taught to the child is that money is spent on things we want; that things we need are just kind of taken care of in the background.

Will a five year old understand mortgages?  No, but he will understand that we have to pay for our home just as we have to pay for our Lego X-Wing.  So maybe what you do when you introduce the concept of allowance is double the figure you intend to actually give him, and then account for where the other half went.

"You get $10 in allowance.  $2 goes toward this month's rent, $1 for water and electricity, $1 to pay for your food this week and $1 to pay for the gas we spent going to school and practice.  That leaves you with $5."
Lego X-Wing = Status.  Also, about as expensive as a mortgage.
For a younger child, of course, you may not break it down so specifically, but you convey the idea that you were going to get more money except it had to be spent on things you had to have.  Maybe even give the child the whole $10, and then make him give you $5 back.  That sounds a bit absurd and petty, but we need to remember that children connect with the abstract through the practical.  He will understand where money has come and gone better if it physically goes into and out of his hand.

That's enough of my unsolicited parenting advice for now, though.  Back to the grown-ups who caused the 2008 economic collapse.  The problem with the "live within your means" admonishment is that our entire economy of the last several decades has been built on enticing consumers not to do this.  See, if we only bought what we really needed, we would never have produced the majority of the crap that has cluttered our stores, our homes and our landfills.  If we only bought what we could afford with the money we currently hold, most people would be in their late 30s before they ever saved enough money to have much more in their lives than the absolute essentials--and that's provided they stayed healthy and didn't have any major setbacks along the way. Without loans, most Americans would never have access to college.  See, as a child you're not having to spend any of your allowance to pay to go to school--and the idea of having to pay to go to school would probably blow your mind.

My generation and the one coming up behind us are often accused of having skewed priorities, believing ourselves "entitled" to own an X-Box.  I don't deny that we could benefit from taking a second look at our priorities, but that's true of everyone.  Did my mom really need to buy a swimming pool 16 years ago that wasn't even opened in most of the last decade because it turned out to be too much hassle?  No, but it was her tax refund and she didn't have to listen to anyone else about what to do with it.

Moreover, let's go with the X-Box.  If my generation doesn't make buying an X-Box a priority, then the companies that make the X-Box (Microsoft) and its accessories and games (like Activision and EA Games) make a whole lot less money.  In fact, without my generation there probably isn't even a video game industry right now--certainly not the lucrative business it is today.  Just as "The Greatest Generation" found nickels and dimes to go see movies during the Great Depression, my generation has weathered the last decade by playing Halo and Guitar Hero.  So before you go bad-mouthing the buyers, remember they're the ones who have made possible the fortunes of those who now laud themselves for being "successful."  So don't stand there all high and mighty about how you've been successful by being responsible.  You've become rich by preying on the irresponsibility that you now want to demonize.
A parking lot full of Ferraris.  Photo by Dan Smith, from Wikipedia Commons.
Lastly, as much as I know it's wrong to want to keep up with the Joneses, we all know why we still try to do it.  In a capitalist economic system, ownership is how we measure our status and status informs our sense of self.  You may be tempted to say that's nothing more than nonsense, that it's some kind of cop-out to avoid responsibility.  That's easy to say when you're happy with your status.  In every hierarchical society--and nearly every society in humanity's past has been one--status has been the objective.  Whether this was defined by land ownership, number of crops planted and harvested or how many animal skins you collected in the trapping season, there were clear winners and losers within the society and everyone has always wanted to be a winner.  Wisdom tells us that being content is more valuable than being happy and there is truth to that, but we need to quit acting as if somehow we're above an innate element of human nature just because we know how silly it all is.

Like it or not, every advertising campaign is built on one simple idea: exploiting our insecurities as individuals.  At some point we all fall prey to the taunt of snobbery.  We feel embarrassed to wear clothes from Target around coworkers dressed from the mall.  We hope no one sees our '96 Taurus near the parking lot of Ferraris.  We consider it a night out if we stop at Taco Bell on the way home from a movie, and then feel lame when our friends regale us with how fabulous the newly opened Lithuanian restaurant was, complete with grilled borscht and "amazing" wine list.  These things themselves are not important to us, but they do speak to status and in a capitalist society we buy our status.

Is it a weakness?  Perhaps, but I think it's most accurately described as an inherent element of the human psyche.  You think Swims Like a Goat didn't lie in his tee pee at night wondering if he would ever have as many feathers in his headdress as Chief Smokes a Lot, or if he would ever catch the eye of Dances with Poles?  Every person in every society has always had these insecurities.  We just make a ton more money exploiting them today.  A hundred years from now, our descendants will laugh at our iPods the way we wonder how anyone ever thought eagle feathers were anything exciting.

She looks bored.  You don't have enough feathers!
"Lovers (Indian Love Song" by Eanger Irving Course, 1905
There was a time when an American could go to work and be well paid for his time on the job.  He could put food on his family's table all by himself; if his wife wanted to work it was more because it fulfilled her than because they would starve if she didn't.  He could work his way up through the company because his hard work was recognized and rewarded, and he retired with a gold watch and a pension.  He didn't need credit.  None of this is still true today and it is disingenuous for business owners and investors whose fortunes are made peddling status symbols and undermining their own employees to now chastise Americans for buying their products and for not being better paid.  We keep hearing that the American worker demands to be paid too much money to do a job, and the truth is the reverse: we're not paid enough, certainly not in this society.

14 June 2011

Investors Are a Superstitious, Cowardly Lot

It always surprises people who know of my fondness for history (I did earn my degree in the field) when I tell them that we place entirely too much value on the past.  It's one thing to study what has gone before, to learn from it and to find inspiration.  It's quite another to try to recreate the past, and this mistake is even more egregious when we try to cling to the past rather than embrace the present and look to the future.

We wax nostalgic about the past, cherry picking what to remember and celebrate--and it becomes even more compounded when our understanding of an era is inherited from someone else.  Sure the 1980s were fun; Saturday morning cartoons rocked, we had much cooler toys than previous generations and the things DC Comics published in 1986 (The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Crisis on Infinite Earths) still stand tall. But wait a minute.  The 80s were also an era where we all expected the Soviets to launch a nuclear holocaust and AIDS emerged and was allowed to spread unchecked because ignorant bigots characterized it as a reckoning from God against deviants.  We're already seeing revisions to the narrative of the 1980s.  Right-wingers hold up the Reagan 80s as a golden age and for their wealthy masters I'm sure it was.  What about the millions of Americans unceremoniously discharged from health care clinics and hospitals, thrown to the streets because "it's not government's job" to care for people?  Funny, but no one talks about that.

We've heard since 2008 that investors are too uncertain to put their money into the economy.  They're timid and scared, we're told, and they're burdened by regulation.  They've got billions in off-shore accounts and if we would just agree to not tax that money at all, they'll consider spending some of it here.  Oh, and they're doing the best they can to keep down the price of oil, but they can only do this as long as we continue to throw $4 billion in federal subsidies their way.  Otherwise, who knows?  Things might get 'spensive.

It's a nice little thing you got goin' here, America...
During last night's GOP debate, Newt Gingrich insisted that NASA was in the way of space exploration and should give way to the private sector.  Now, let's take a moment to remember how we even got NASA.  It was originally a program of the United States Air Force conceived by a government that viewed supremacy in space as vital to our national security.  We had to have a presence beyond the clouds, lest we forfeit it to our rivals.  We can debate today whether that was a small-minded view of space, whether it was hubris or paranoia, but what we cannot debate is that NASA was created to protect our national interests.  Gingrich would seem to be implying that NASA was some kind of tyrannical agency imposed on us by a meddling government at the expense of entrepreneurial enterprises.  It is only now that we're at relative peace with other nations and do not fear terrorists launching space shuttles that we can afford to view space exploration as an avenue for commercial exploitation.

Yet, when Republicans listen to Gingrich discuss NASA, all they hear is, "Government agency preventing economic growth...bureaucrats...meddling...regulations..." and that's all they need to hear to know to applaud.  Really?  Government regulations are a bad thing when it comes to space exploration?  Just what part of building a vehicle capable of going into orbit or beyond seems like it shouldn't be under scrutiny?  The acquisition and storage of a ton of rocket fuel alone seems like something we should want heavily regulated.  I don't want some guy to hit a big Powerball payout and decide he's going to try to build a rocket in his backyard.  You know why?  Because it can go very, very bad.  So, yes, Mr. Speaker, I do believe that regulations about space exploration should be stringent.
Do you really feel better if Joe Sixpack can build his own rocket?

Let's consider the argument that regulation is an oppressive burden for the moment. This, I think, is an even worse argument for capitalists to make but no one ever calls them out on it. There is no reason that a private sector organization should not be able to adhere to regulation, at least no organization led by the almighty entrepreneurial vision that we're told is being stifled. Remember, if you will, that DuPont testified before Congress in 1987 after a decade's worth of scientific study that there was no reason for any kind of regulation against chlorofluorocarbons. A true entrepreneur would innovate an alternative, and that's what has happened. The Montreal Protocol is recognized as one of the most successful international environmental efforts of all time by everyone who doesn't have an irrational obsession with rejecting anything involving the words "international" and/or "environmental." Regulations are only stifling if you're lazy and resistant to adaptation.
There was a time when American entrepreneurs and investors pushed one another to get ahead of the curve, to take chances.  Today, the message has been on of unified resistance to any kind of check against their own self-destructive ways.  In a recent TV interview, former General Electric Chairman and CEO Jack Welch told Piers Morgan that despite his prodigious experience running a successful business, he couldn't make any sense of Wall Street when he tried to get involved there.  There is a culture among investors that no longer considers a bonus an actual bonus; for them it's an expected lump of cash they take for granted, and nothing else matters to them except guaranteeing that it's large.  Welch recounted a conversation in which an investor's sole reaction to news about a company was, "This won't affect my bonus, though, right?" [paraphrased]  What kind of vision or leadership is that?
The guy who revived G.E. couldn't make sense of Wall Street.
That tells you all you need to know about how crazy it is.
I am the first person in my family to go through college (my dad took some courses through the G.I. Bill, but never completed a degree).  No one will ever openly admit it, but education isn't particularly valued in my family.  My grandfather rose to a well-paying position with Louisville Gas & Electric with nothing more than a high school degree.  He's a no-nonsense guy, but one with a quick wit who can think on his feet.  In his generation, those traits were respected and given the chance to flourish.  His kids grew up believing that if they put in the time and effort, someone would recognize them in the same way and give them the same kind of opportunity for promotion and success.

Unfortunately, times change.  I'm comparable in innate talents to my grandfather (though, between you and me, I have a better sense of humor).  Without my college degree, I'm nothing more to an employer than just another menial laborer with a penchant for $5 words.  With my degree, all I am is a potential replacement for someone on the verge of another promotion.  I would be cheaper because I'm less experienced, so if I was to get a job today it would be at the expense of someone else whose only offense may be that he or she has put in years with the company.  Unlike my grandfather, they're not being recognized and rewarded for their loyalty and hard work.  They're being replaced by someone cheaper, because that's what protects the bonus of the guys at the top.

I'm reminded of a scene in Tombstone, near the final act where Jason Priestley sees another victim of the cowboys and it pushes him to a breaking point.  While the rest of the outlaws make ready to ride into their final battle, he declares, "I'm sorry, but we got to have some law!" and rides away.  The narrative of our economic collapse really comes down to one thing: a lack of responsibility.  The purpose of regulation is to compensate for the bad judgment of individuals.  It is clear to anyone paying attention that Wall Street exercised poor judgment because irresponsibility meant a big payday at the time.  Few, if any, appear to have bothered to consider anything beyond, "I'm richer today than yesterday!" on their way to the Rainbow Room.  Regulation exists to be the grown-up in the room to say, "This is not a good choice you want to make."

13 June 2011

Welcome to the Twitterverse

Ever since I posted my thoughts on the nature of Twitter, I've been meaning to compose an actual introductory guide to the Twitterverse for newbies.  It's a little late, but here goes.

If you're familiar with Facebook (and, really, who isn't?), think of Twitter as your wall if only status updates of 140 characters or less was all you saw.  This is not to say that you can't still reply to someone else, or post photos and videos; you can do all of those things on Twitter, but it's much cleaner looking.  For those of you old enough to remember telephone party lines, think of Twitter as a text-based version of that, where anyone from around the world with a Twitter account can join in the conversation.

Following
The smartest thing you can do when joining Twitter is begin by finding and following people you already know.  Once you begin following someone, you'll begin seeing their tweets as well as tweets from other people that have been re-tweeted by the person you're following.  These are tweets that your friend wanted to share.  Think of it like "recommending" something on Facebook.  You, too, can re-tweet someone else's post and share with your followers.

Speaking of followers, Twitter is not like Facebook or MySpace in that no one needs permission to follow you.  If this bothers you for some reason, you can set your account to private.  Even if one of your followers re-tweets you, it will only be visible to anyone else who is following you.  You can block someone, but this only prevents their tweets from appearing in your timeline; yours will still be visible to them.  Twitter believes in unrequited love.

Mentioning
If you want to ensure that a specific person sees your tweet, you'll want to "mention" them, which means you include their screen name, preceded with the @ symbol.  If you only want a specific follower to notice your tweet, begin with their @screenname.  For instance, if you want to report to Anderson Cooper that you've just found a space pod with a baby in it, you would tweet:
@andersoncooper Driving in Smallville and found a space pod with a baby in it!
Now, this tweet will not appear in anyone else's timeline but it will be visible on your Twitter page.  You can send a Direct Message if you want privacy, but this only works if the recipient is also following you.  But let's say that you're following Anderson Cooper and you're also following the President, and Anderson Cooper tweets:
@BarackObama We have a report of an alien baby found in Smallville.
If you're following both Anderson Cooper and the President, you'll see this tweet.  Otherwise, you won't.

Let's say you want all your followers to see your tweet, but you still want to name someone.  You might tweet:
I hope @andersoncooper comes to Smallville to report on this baby that has fallen from space!
Hashtags
One common thing you'll encounter on Twitter are hashtags.  These are words or phrases all strung together as one word, preceded by the # symbol.  This automatically makes the hashtag a clickable link that will display all recent tweets with the same hashtag.  This is useful if there's a popular topic being discussed and you want to draw attention to your comments.  For instance, you might tweet:
Waiting to be interviewed by @andersoncooper about the #spacebaby
#spacebaby would be your hashtag, and you would be able to immediately click on that phrase, which will display the most recent tweets that also contain #spacebaby.  It may be that yours is the only one, or it may be that there will be thousands of other tweets about the #spacebaby.  Regular tweeters, you'll discover, often use hashtags as shorthand punch lines.  Let's say Anderson Cooper doesn't believe you've found a baby from space.  He might tweet:
Going to Smallville to cover the #spacebaby. #cantbelieveiwenttojournalismschoolforthis
See how #spacebaby makes this tweet show up for anyone looking at tweets about the topic, but he turned "can't believe I went to journalism school for this" into a hashtag.  It's very unlikely anyone else has used this hashtag, but it punctuates the tone of his tweet.

Who to Follow
The easiest thing to do is begin by following people you know.  If they re-tweet something from someone they're following but you're not, you can follow the third party.  It's sort of like a pyramid scheme, really.  Celebrities are a mixed bag.  Firstly, you've got to be cautious about fake celebrity accounts.  There are verified celebrity accounts, and these will have a blue icon with a check mark next to the screen name of the celebrity.  @andersoncoooper and @BarackObama are both verified.  Just because a celebrity account does not have the verified check mark icon doesn't mean it's not legit, though.

Even if they are legit, however, you may find yourself disappointed.  Some celebrities maintain a Twitter account as nothing more than a self-promotion tool, often operated by other people on their behalf.  Barack Obama rarely tweets, and when he does it's almost always the equivalent of a White House press statement.  You're not going to find the President tweeting, "On my way to Metropolis to speak at STAR Labs.  Long flight!"  He doesn't do that kind of tweeting.  Anderson Cooper, though, tweets for himself and often replies to tweets that mention him.  In fact, he has incorporated Twitter into his TV show, AC360, reading tweets on-air to further involve his viewers with his broadcast.

Some people tweet endlessly, it seems, and you'll have to decide whether it's worth it to have two out of every three tweets in your timeline come from one person.  I've had to un-follow several tweeters for this very reason.  I am currently following 162 accounts, but several of these are friends who rarely tweet.  In all honesty, there are probably only about 130 "active" accounts and many of those are fairly redundant since I follow several news feeds.  I probably don't really need to follow NPR News, Huffington Post and CNN Breaking News (in addition to specific journalists like Anderson Cooper), but I like the individual personalities and I don't like relying on one specific news content provider.  My point is that I have a manageable list for me.  You may be overwhelmed by that many tweeters, or you may find yourself bored waiting for someone to say something new.

Hopefully this helps you make sense of the Twitterverse, and in case an infant from the planet Krypton should ever fall from the sky near you, now you'll know how to report it to the world.