30 June 2012

June, 2012 Errata

Rather than develop any of these into their own posts, here are several subjects in concentrated form that may or may not be explored further in future posts.

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

The central tenet of Star Trek is one that celebrates diversity. Just this week, I've read some eye-opening blog posts by a musical-loving introvert and a British trans woman and I've chatted frequently through Google with a jaded feminist with a spiffy blog of her own. Every time I run afoul someone bemoaning "political correctness," I think of all the people represented by the microcosm of these three women and I realize that the complaining party's real problem is a lack of relationships with anyone outside their own homogeneous pool of people. I realized the effect these three (and several others) have had on me when I saw Billy Elliot: The Musical Wednesday night and I caught myself nitpicking its biases. It wasn't because some social bogeyman forced me think such things; it's because I've come to respect, like and care about people who aren't like me. They've taught me wonderful things about themselves, people like them...and they've also taught me some things about myself along the way.

Mash-ups Bore Me

Various YouTube fan edits and mashups keep circulating the web and I know I can't stop that and frankly, I don't even want to stop it. It's just that I can't really get into 99% of them, no matter how clever or well synchronized they are with the new music or trailer voice-over or whatever. When it comes time to discuss, I always come across as the unimaginative stick in the mud.

Anti-Obamacare Hostility

Here's the thing about the way this years-long issue has played out. The anti-Obamacare crowd has become so hateful that those of us who do support it can't even celebrate it publicly. We're so bullied by accusations of being lazy, selfish thieves who should have done something differently in our lives that isn't anyone else's responsibility to fix and we should just die and decrease the surplus population and how dare we even ask for sympathy because that's immoral of us that we just want to keep our heads down and not say a word. That's the real battle of health care reform: the bullies are winning, even if the Supreme Court unexpectedly handed down a favorable ruling on its legality.

I understand the importance to President Obama's reelection chances that his supporters be vocal, and I understand the importance to protecting this key piece of legislation of reelecting him. But after being hospitalized last year for severe depression partially brought on by the bullying persecution of the Tea Party, I just don't have it in me to make myself a target over this anymore. Mr. President, I appreciate that you've staked your political career and legacy on legislation designed to benefit millions of Americans like me and you can count on my vote come November. I hope you'll understand, though, if I keep kinda quiet about it right now. Of course, if you could give me some "red meat" by calling out that bullying and confronting it for what it is, that could make it more palatable for me to join you on the battlefield.

The Tea Party Threatening to Move to Canada if Obamacare Isn't Repealed

Sometimes, things are just so perfect they don't even need commentary.

Facebook Just Wants to Beat Children

It seems every other day, someone is circulating a diatribe on Facebook about how special their generation was, because their parents beat their asses and that's what's wrong with today's out-of-control kids, etc. I waded into one such debate, but I've let dozens of others pass without a comment because, like Obamacare, I just don't have it in me to fight these battles on a daily basis. The Reader's Digest version of my philosophy on out-of-control children is: "Kids are not out of control because no one spanks them. Kids are out of control because no one is investing the time to help that child develop properly. Spanking is irrelevant."

I was spanked just a few times in my life, almost none that occurred after I was old enough to form memories and the truth is I still believe the last one was an entirely uncalled for lashing out from my dad who just needed to reassert his dominance over me; not that I had committed some heinous infraction of the social contract. It wasn't that my parents were permissive; quite the contrary. It's that my mom took the time to discuss situations with me, even when they weren't at hand, so that I had no excuse for not seeing the right and wrong ways of handling them should they arise. Spanking without guidance becomes merely a tax for a child to pay, and guidance doesn't need the reinforcement of physical contact or even the threat of it.

Again, I also refer you to the memoirs of Gluckel of Hamelin, who wrote in her diary of the late 1600s and early 1700s about how terrible her children and their generation were. Every generation is branded the worst to ever walk the Earth, unlike any that have gone before it, etc. It comes from dishonest nostalgia. Take a look at a post I wrote in 2010 about today's youth ("Narcissistic Volunteers") and one I wrote just a couple weeks ago ("Birthright, Entitlement and Yard Sales") for more on my perspective on youth.


Lastly, one of my friends turned me onto Tawkify last night. She learned of it from a review on Gizmodo. It's an online dating service, but it's done the old-fashioned way: You hand yourself over to their human matchmakers. They're running a Klout-based promo right now, and my 54 score entitled me to three free matches (if I'd hit 60, I would have qualified for their 6 months, "red carpet" package). I naturally agonized over the registration process. I always fear that if I don't disclose all my baggage up front, then I'm just setting myself up for accusations of defrauding anyone who might actually go out with me when it comes to light. Yet, I also know that if I'm forthright about all of it up front, no one would ever bother with me. It's very frustrating for someone like me to do these things, and no matter how many times my friends tell me that no one is ever fully honest in their profiles and how I'm making it unnecessarily harder on myself, etc., I can't shake the feeling that I'm somehow concealing an unpleasant truth by not saying, "Okay, look...I have dubious health, no money, etc."

Anyway, I did manage to complete the registration process so we'll see what (if anything) comes of it. They never asked me about my income or marital status. I can only assume that my being poor and still legally married aren't supposed to disqualify me. At least it's something different from languishing on my own. Now, the Tawkify matchmakers have the burden of setting me up thrice. The Gizmodo article was pretty interesting and if you're curious at all, Dear Reader, I encourage you to take a look and give it a chance.

28 June 2012

"Dallas" (2012) Episode #4

"The Last Hurrah" (Episode 104)

Alas, this is only a partial episode review because I missed both the 9:00 airing and the first ~18 minutes of the 11:00 encore airing on account of seeing Billy Elliot: The Musical. As such, I can only say that I really enjoyed the subplot of Bobby and Christopher with the tragic cow birth. I knew that the delivery would come to represent something else, but I didn't anticipate its actually sweet symbolic value at the end when Bobby reiterated his love for his son and made clear (again) that Christopher being adopted is not at all an issue for him. That's the side of Bobby that I've always admired.

Not only does Dallas need him to help offset J.R., but I think TV in general needs more Bobby Ewings. I readily concede, Dallas would lose its appeal if it was Bobby-centric; the show thrives on the machinations and double-crosses in which he rarely wittingly partakes. But there's something really healthy about him being present throughout all of it, reminding both the other characters and us the audience that people like J.R. and John Ross should not have an unchecked go of things, and that there are values and ideals that don't require being ruthless. Too many shows are afraid to have a Bobby Ewing, because they worry it takes away from their edginess somehow. I couldn't disagree more. Bobby's presence is what has always allowed us to feel comfortable with Dallas.

As for J.R., it was quite a lot of fun to watch him play everyone to set in motion his claiming Southfork for himself. Watching him throw John Ross under the bus was the payoff that makes last episode more palatable in retrospect. It never felt right, J.R. going from having a straight razor to his son's throat to immediately pleading with him for forgiveness, etc. This, however, feels a lot more like J.R. and now I feel validated for saying last week's behavior felt off-kilter.

This is twice, by the way, that we've seen Ray and Lucy and both times they've appeared together at a Southfork function. What's their deal? I'd like to see them in different contexts. If nothing else, I'd like to see Bobby and Ray trade stories over a beer, or for Anne and Lucy to develop a closeness. Just something that lets us know these characters are actually allowed on the ranch outside of formal events, y'know?

"Billy Elliot: The Musical"

Billy Elliot: The Musical
Janet Dickinson, Rich Hebert, Patti Perkins, Cullen R. Titmas
Introducing Ty Forhan, Kylend Hetherington, Zach Manske
Choreography by Peter Darling
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall
Music by Elton John
Date of Performance: 27 June 2012
Whitney Hall - Kentucky Center for the Arts

Did I actually attend a musical? Yarp. A friend of mine had a pair of tickets she couldn't use and she offered them free of charge on Facebook to keep them from going to waste. That led to me going with a woman I'd never met who, as it turns out, is also the sister of another of my friends (they're not very close, hence my inability to make the connection myself). None of this really matters, of course, but I wanted to make clear that my attendance at all was a combination of generosity, specific timing and my own predilection for pursuing impulse decisions that seem like they could prove to be a lark.

I knew absolutely nothing about Billy Elliot: The Musical until we arrived at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. I didn't even know there had already been a movie version. The premise is simple enough: it's 1984 and Lady Thatcher is hellbent on busting the coal union, exerting tremendous pressure on the small mining towns across the United Kingdom. In one such community is an 11 year old boy, Billy Elliot, whose unique aptitude for ballet is entirely inconsistent with the conservative nature of his environment.

Ty Forhan performed as Billy in the performance we saw, and I was very impressed by him. His manner of speaking was quite unique in that it did not feel like typical youth stage speaking, a point made explicitly clear whenever the actor playing Michael appeared onstage (it was either Cameron Clifford or Jacob Zelonky; I missed it if it was mentioned). Forhan's inflections and volume were not at all the kind of stage voice to which I am accustomed. In one scene, he shares with his ballet mentor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Janet Dickinson), a letter from his deceased mother. He half-sings the letter to her, and his voice became appropriately shaky. I confess, I grimaced a bit and even felt on the verge of becoming teary-eyed when his voice cracked. Maybe that was just puberty, but it was moving all the same.

One element of musicals that has never worked for me is spontaneous dancing. In Billy Elliot, I found it worked very well. Much of the dancing is either a moment of in-story dancing (i.e., the ballet class practice where the character is meant to be performing) or the song and dance numbers were used as a stylistic shorthand for the subplot of the miners' strike, including several escalating altercations with the police.

I am, of course, familiar with the perspective of dance being an expression of emotion not easily articulated in any other way. I've accepted it as a valid philosophy but never been particularly impressed by it...until this. Forhan's dances felt organic to me, rather than the artificial routines to which I am accustomed. Each movement felt like part of a natural progression to his emotional manifestation. His arms reached, and I felt his hopefulness; he fell prostrate to the floor and I knew how discouraged he was. I have never actually felt as though I was following along with someone's emotions through their dance before this. Kudos to choreographer Peter Darling - and to Ty Forhan!

I did, however, have very mixed feelings about the story itself. There's a very clear conflict between the arts and the working class miners, who are disinclined toward that kind of abstract stuff. We're clearly meant to sympathize with the miners as victims of Lady Thatcher's regime, but they're also the antagonists of Billy's personal arc. Billy's talent eventually helps break through some of their prejudices toward the ballet and arts in general, but I could easily see a lot of working class people being rightly offended at being portrayed as ignorant bigots. I don't doubt the verisimilitude of the story, growing up as I did in a small town likewise disinclined toward anything of fancy. Still, the message is very clearly so pro-arts that I'm unclear what lesson the arts world was supposed to learn from this, except reinforcement of the belief they're more enlightened than working class people.

More troubling was the matter of the heteronormative/cisgender/cissexual content including pervasive jokes about dance being for "poofs." I confess: I have always had very little patience for over-the-top, "fabulous" queens. The theatricality grates on my nerves, and Michael is such a character. He enthusiastically wears feminine clothing, even leading to an entire dance number that bizarrely culminates with backup dancers performing as anthropomorphic dresses. Michael's enthusiasms are played for laughs throughout the musical and it seemed unclear to me whether it was meant as an in-joke for the LGBTQ-friendly musical viewing demographic or if it was simply insensitive toward the transsexual community. Whether because that made my spider-sense tingle or because of the aforementioned issue I had with the actor's line delivery, I found little of the humor involving the character actually amusing.

I will say, however, that next to the letter reading sequence, my favorite moment in the whole thing involves Michael. It's Christmastime and the boys are about to part ways after a community-wide party, when Michael places Billy's hands on his chest. When asked why he did that, Michael suggests that he's trying to warm Billy's hands before he goes. Then he leans in and kisses his friend on the cheek. There was a tenderness to it that I found genuinely touching. I was actually sad for Michael when Billy recoiled, falling back on the heteronormative/cissexual/cisgender theme of insisting that just because he's into ballet doesn't mean he's gay. At the end of the story, when Billy leaves town, he does make a point to kiss Michael on the cheek when they exchange goodbyes. That made me smile.

Ultimately, then, I would say that I was extremely impressed by the execution, but troubled by the story itself. When it's just about Billy, it shines; when it gets into the various subplots, it gets rather murky.

25 June 2012

What's so "Brave" About Deception?

I reviewed the latest Pixar feature film, Brave, for Flickchart and you can read the basis of my perspective on the film there.

In discussing Brave, I recently responded to someone who didn’t understand why so many viewers were disappointed. I made note that Pixar was dishonest about what the film was; their trailers suggested a sweeping medieval epic and not a story about inadvertently turning one’s mother into a bear. Someone scoffed at that being my problem, asking me “Are we really at the point where we need everything spoiled for us in the trailer?”

Here is the original teaser trailer.

Trailer #1

We get a quick glimpse of a cauldron and we see the triplets as bears, but the film suggested by this trailer is of an independent young woman who faces down a bear in the course of becoming a legend in her father's kingdom.

It is unprecedented for me to advocate spoilers of any kind, but here’s the problem: The transformation of Elinor into a bear is the big reveal but it is not the payoff of the film. In fact, it’s only a big reveal because it was obfuscated by the advertising campaign. It occurs at the end of Act I, and anything in Act I should be fair game for a trailer. That’s the early part of the story in which characters are introduced to audience and to one another, and the objectives are established. The objective of Brave was to use Elinor’s involuntary transformation as an opportunity to grow her relationship with her daughter. There is no reason that could not have been made clear to us before we set foot inside the theater, except for one thing.

Once we know that it’s really about Elinor’s transformation into a bear, we already know what the rest of the movie is going to be and there are no surprises left. The moment we see Merida visit the witch, we know that the rest of the film will not resemble the film suggested by the trailer. At that point in the film, even young children could anticipate what will happen: “The mom will be made into a bear and the dad won’t know it and he’ll try to her hurt her because she’s a bear and Merida will have to turn her mom back and in the end they’ll all know that family is what really matters. The end.”

The ultimate problem is that Brave has no surprises to offer; ergo, there was nothing to avoid spoiling except what the film actually is. That’s not protecting the art of the story; that’s deceptive propping up of a movie in which Pixar clearly lacked confidence to attract an audience, and with good reason, because it’s quite unlikely we would have even been interested. Pixar’s reticence to divulge this information from Act I speaks volumes about how weak Acts II and III really are, and that’s why so many viewers have been disappointed.

Of course, I’ve also encountered one guy whose problem was “all the bullshit liberal and feminist themes.” When someone considers a young woman daring to think for herself and resisting arranged marriages some kind of leftist agenda, I know better than to take the bait. Even though Pixar dropped the ball with a predictable and thin story, at least they didn’t make a film that appeased that guy. That’s something.

23 June 2012

Review: Tao Te Ching

Tao Te Ching
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found the basic themes of Tao Te Ching familiar from various other writers and characters in stories. Some "chapters" resonated strongly with me, particularly in light of my ongoing war with depression. Some, however, felt like little more than selfishness masquerading as the profound, justifying inaction. Lao-tzu's solution to not wanting to feel pain is to not invest oneself emotionally. Sure, that's effective, but it's a coward's way of ducking the human experience because it might at times be unpleasant. I write this as a guy whose wife left him last Fall because he couldn't manage his depression so I don't feel trite at all when I say that I firmly believe the risk of being hurt is a price worth paying to explore its counterpart, love. I suspect Lao-tzu would have made a terrible physician, advising patients to amputate anything that bothered them.

My chief complaint, though, is with Stephen Mitchell, whose free translations often took me out of the book entirely. In one chapter, he writes of how fear drives a society to have "factories" stockpile "warheads." Yeah, I'm pretty sure that originated with the guy writing during the Reagan Eighties and not the philosopher from centuries prior. Mitchell confesses in his foreword and in the notes to taking such liberties throughout the book and I found myself feeling cheated, unsure whether I was reading Lao-tzu or Mitchell. This edition really ought to have been titled One Guy's Personal Interpretation of "Tao Te Ching".

At some point, I will seek out a different translation and see if I find that any more rewarding. It's definitely frustrating that my first exposure to this honored text should be such a bastardized version, because my first impression is now compromised and ruined.

View all my reviews

22 June 2012

Travis vs. Facebook and Leviticus

The following is making the rounds on Facebook lately as a chain status update:

June is National Gay Pride month. Put this as your status if you know or love someone gay. I hope people will soon understand that being gay is not a disease or a choice! People who are gay are not looking for a cure or special rights, but acceptance and equal rights. Many won't copy and paste this. Will you make it your status for one hour? Promote love and acceptance. Stop the hate.

A Crohnie pal of mine posted it. The very first two comments are from someone I don't know. I'll spare you the unpleasantness, but they were of the "God Hates Fags" variety. I posted the following:

The Jesus in *my* Bible once stood up to an entire mob intent on killing a prostitute in the name of righteousness. That Jesus spoke very clearly that it is not our place to use scripture as a weapon against one another. But, you know, maybe it's not in every version of the Bible.

Now, the funny thing is that as of this writing, that post has been Liked thrice...including by the Bible-thumping homophobe. I don't think I wrote what she thought I wrote, to be honest. I think instead, he saw the first few words and assumed since I wasn't arguing whether the Bible was an appropriate source for passing judgment on others, that I was automatically in his camp. See, that's the funny thing to me as a pro-LTGBQ Christian; I don't see any inherent conflict. I don't think I have to refute or be squeamish about my faith in the matter. Above all else, Christ taught a message of peace. There is nothing peaceful about homophobia.

Anyway, this individual then commented that, "I understand both sides of this but this needs to be left in where sex is done IN THE BEDROOM.. Gay or Straight..." To that, I replied:

One can confine sexual acts to just the bedroom (though that's dreadfully unimaginative), but one cannot place such restrictions on one's sexual nature. It's an innate part of each person, regardless of orientation. I can't leave my heterosexuality in the bedroom; it goes out into the rest of the house and even into public with me. It would be impossible for me to hide it, and it would be wrong of anyone else to expect me to. If that's true for me, then it's true for anyone else.

Now comes my favorite part yet of the entire exchange: his retort.

Give it up Travis... Have you ever heard of an opinion?? I expressed mine and didnt ask for yours!!!!!

That's right, folks. His unsolicited bigotry is an "opinion" he's allowed to express, but somehow I am not to challenge that with, y'know, my own counterpoint. Again, we encounter this wrongheaded idea that somehow we can hide behind the "It's my opinion and opinions can't be wrong" shield because in third grade when our English teachers tried to explain the difference between fact and opinion, 99% of our classmates only heard what they wanted to hear.

Just to clarify: When you think that there's something "wrong" about our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, that is an "opinion." When you insist your "opinion" be applied to the lives of others, you're no longer expressing individual feeling or thought. You're trying to dictate the lives of others and you do not have license to do that.

This also brings me to a side point, where someone else in the discussion pressed about where in the Bible it even states anything about homosexuality. Another poster cited a few pieces of Leviticus. I replied to both the original homophobe and his Leviticus-quoting ally in one post:

Wait, wait, wait...So you get to have an opinion no one else asked for, but I can't have one that you didn't ask for? 'Fraid not.

Oh, and Leviticus says a whole lot of things. It's fine if you want to invoke it, but I assume you:

Make sure to offer your sacrifices to the Lord as described (19:5-8)
Don't wear clothing made of two woven materials (19:19)
"Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard" (19:27)

Furthermore, if we're to live by the letter of the law per Leviticus, there's the pesky matter of what to do about children:

"Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. Because they have cursed their father or mother, their blood will be on their own head." (20:9)

Make sure you pay close attention to that calendar, too: "If a man has sexual relations with a woman during her monthly period, he has exposed the source of her flow, and she has also uncovered it. Both of them are to be cut off from their people." (20:18)

And just in case you think it's okay to cherry pick, there's Leviticus 20:22 which says:

"Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out."

In any event, I'm not Jewish and Leviticus was part of the Old Covenant. I assume Christians are aware that they are not bound to it at all, for that was the entire point of Christ representing the New Covenant. Or do we again only pick out specific parts of Scripture that align with whatever wedge we wish to drive between others?

I do not claim to be a theologian, but I am adamant that the Jesus who defied he who was without sin to cast the first stone valued compassion and love for one another and did not promote judgmental crusades against one another couched in cherry-picked lines of Scripture. He was very clear on the matter of how we were to treat one another, and making second class citizens of people was incompatible with His philosophy.

Sometimes, my even more liberal-than-me friends become frustrated that I'm not an atheist. I wholly reject the vast majority of what I have encountered in my life that has been said or done under the guise of faith. My faith, however, is a deeply personal and private matter for me. I know in my heart that divisiveness is not what He intended to come from His teachings and legacy.

Moreover, as noted in my last Facebook comment: Christ represented the New Covenant, superseding the Old Covenant (of which Leviticus was part) anyway. I'm not about to tell anyone how to live their lives, but I do ask that they at least learn how to read and handle concepts like chronology if they're to defer to a book about such serious matters. I mean, come on. Kids reading comic books know the importance of continuity. They know, for instance, why it doesn't matter that Superman and Lois Lane were married in the post-Crisis continuity because that marriage never existed in the New 52 timeline. They can be curious about that earlier story line, sure, but they also accept that it's invalidated by the current continuity. If children can manage to keep things like that straight, there's really no excuse for alleged grownups to fail so badly at it when it comes to matters as serious as one's faith, interactions with others and, ostensibly, with one's own salvation.

Leviticus Guy came back after my last response with a torrent of nasty slams:

actually u fag lovin bitches bastards and cunts the new testament was written to amend the old testament and in the new testament it still states that its wrong...sorry to burst ur bubbles lmao

‎1 corinthians 6: 9-11 this is new testament u illiterate fucks

and if any of u could read i NEVER claimed to be a christian

Charming, no? One of my friends who has also participated in this "discussion" asked him, "if u r not a christian then y do u care what the bible sez?" Her parody of his spelling went entirely over his head, but not mine. I confess: I laughed when I read that. His reply to her:

bc the above douche bag started talking about it so i figured id educate him a little bit

That's right, folks. You have it on the highest authority that I am an illiterate douche bag. I'll update my resume and order new cards from Vistaprint that will reflect this. I really debated how to reply, or whether to reply at all. I would gladly continue to debate the merits of Biblical interpretation on the matter, but I have a strong aversion to having to respond to such insults. It's beneath my standards of decorum and I firmly believe there was no call for such language at this time in the discussion.

One of my friends noted that there's no way to win with such people, which is true. What's worse, though, is that there's no way for such people to lose. They're so convinced that they're the only people in the world who understand things properly that either they keep it going ad infinitum or you tire and walk away - cementing their sense of "victory." Reasonable people don't wish to keep any kind of conflict going for so long. Eventually, though, I did feel compelled to address the points he raised though not the insults.

On the matter of whether you claimed to be a Christian - you did not make such a claim. It is not, however, a matter of literacy that such a conclusion was reached. It was an assumption erroneously based on your enthusiastic invocation of scripture.

I would counter that I likewise never claimed that the New Testament does not classify homosexuality as a sin. I did, however, claim that the New Covenant supersedes the Old Covenant, which does nullify the validity of the Scripture you initially cited. The relationship between the two covenants has been debated for centuries and by much wiser people than you or I. You will understand if I do not defer to your interpretation of it.

Regarding Christ, I refer you to Matthew 6 in which He makes very clear how He feels about people who pay mere lip service to piety. The spirit of Christianity is far greater than adherence to its rules and regulations, and the spirit of Christianity is compassion and forgiveness. That is contrary to using Scripture to justify anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policy.

You're absolutely right that I love "fags." So does Jesus. Get over it.

As of this update, he has not commented further. I feel I've taken this as far as I'm going to take it. There is nothing further to be gained. I have spelled out my argument and defended it. I have no illusions that I am going to lead this guy to an epiphany of any kind. In fact, I haven't even shared all of this here in the hopes of changing anyone's mind (though that would indeed be quite a feather in my debating cap!). Rather, I share this in hopes that our LGBTQ brothers and sisters might take some solace in knowing that they do have allies who do not allow the bigotry they face to go unchallenged. I wish I could do more, I really do. I know this one Facebook spat isn't some kind of major forum or arena that will sway public opinion more firmly into acceptance. It's the battle that came to me, though, and I've fought it to the best of my ability and I can only hope that you, Dear Reader, go to bed at night knowing you're not alone.

(Unless, Dear Reader, you side with Leviticus Guy, in which case you're just Reader and I hope you go to bed at night knowing you're not going to go unchallenged so long as I draw breath.)

20 June 2012

"Dallas" (2012) Episode 3

"The Price You Pay" (Episode 103)

The teaser segment (that part that plays before the main titles/opening credits) features J.R. and John Ross in barber's chairs being shaved. J.R. excuses the barbers and, with straight razor held to John Ross's throat, tells him he knows about his son's intent to double-cross him on the Southfork purchase deal. I was like, "WOAH!" and whatnot, as the kids say. Then we're off to the main title sequence and as much as I love Jerrold Immel's iconic theme (even this abridged arrangement), I was thrilled that there wasn't a commercial break before the episode proper.

Except no sooner does the story resume than J.R. has already rescinded his threat and is now apologizing to John Ross for being an absentee father and is pleading to let him make it up by teaching him everything he knows now? There were shades of Palpatine and Anakin, but it was still anticlimactic.

On with the rest of the episode, though, which was dominated by Bobby's post-surgery cancer management and the matter of Christopher and Elena's working relationship becoming more of a priority to him than his marriage to Rebecca...who in turn is struggling between her genuine devotion to her new husband and her two-year long scheme planned with her brother. Into the mix is also the return of Cliff Barnes, hoping to become the new owner of Southfork and wishing to invest in Christopher's alternate energy plan (and possibly sewing seeds of dissent among the Ewings in the process).

I have to say, I was not a fan of this episode. To begin, I find the course of Bobby's cancer treatment disingenuous. There's no way he already had a tumor cut out of his guts. I know enough people who've had to have their guts cut on, even minor procedures, who didn't bounce back the way Bobby apparently did. I'm not saying this should have been drawn out into "A Very Special Episode of Dallas" or anything so melodramatic but this should have been his moving-slow/on-the-mend episode. Take advantage of the week between episodes. I'd have bought it a week from now that he was mostly fine again, but not this week.

As for the Christopher/Elena/Rebecca plot, I found that also wore thin. Elena doesn't seem to have much in the way of motivation right now. It's as though since Christopher told her he didn't send her the email (that she never even confronted him about), she's become some kind of subservient Girl Friday trying to make his project work. In the first two episodes, I really came to like her and I could see myself caring about her. This weakly written Elena, however, did not evoke nearly the same interest or sympathy from me.

Moreover, I've got an issue with Christopher's project itself. I know it's supposed to function merely as a way of establishing the character's journey, etc., but I have a problem when fiction presents solutions to real life problems that real life has yet to solve. This has bugged me in the past with some Bond movies, and it bugs me again here. Out of all the scientists out there right now working away at alternative energy, are we really to just accept that Christopher Ewing has almost by himself worked out the solution in the course of a few all-nighters? Think about this for a minute. Christopher Ewing is like what a Kardashian might be if she had an interest in green energy. He was raised with a silver spoon and I'm sure he's worked hard at what he does, but do we really accept the idea that he's the one person to have this magical breakthrough? I just can't go there.

It was admittedly fun to see the return of Ken Kercheval as Cliff Barnes, though. I'm not a big fan of his attire, though. Cliff was always a step behind J.R., sure, but he wasn't such a dweeb that I envisioned him dressing like an elderly version of Larry from Three's Company. There's comedic potential in a Grumpy Old Oil Men subplot involving him, but I fear that's incongruous with the erstwhile tone of the series. The barbs exchanged between J.R. and Cliff didn't feel right to me. Nor did Cliff's taunt of Christopher that he'll 
"never be one of them [the Ewings]." Cliff was never the master of subtlety, but that was entirely too ham-fisted even for him.

The most concerning thing about tonight's episode is that when it was over, I didn't have the same urgent desire for next Wednesday that I had at the end of last week's premiere. Some of that is attributable, I'm sure, to the fact that now we're into the season instead of buzzing about its debut. Mostly, though, I think it's because this episode just felt like it existed to connect some dots and keep things moving onto subsequent developments. I never really felt like this episode existed as its own story, though, and because of that I was never able to really invest myself in it.

I did note that this episode was written not by series developer Cynthia Cidre, but by producer Bruce Rasmussen. I'm certain he didn't just create the entire episode from scratch by himself; most of the broader themes would have been laid out as part of the season plan ahead of time so I can't fault him for something like Christopher's energy epiphany. But the rest of my complaints fall squarely on his perfunctory story. Things happen because the next scene needed them to happen, rather than because the previous scene made them happen. It's only the third episode and I'm trying to keep some perspective, but I do hope the rest of this season bears a stronger resemblance to the first two episodes than to the third.

19 June 2012

"The Absence" by Melody Gardot

The Absence
Melody Gardot
Date of Release: 29 May 2012 (CD, MP3), 5 June 2012 (Vinyl), 3 July 2012 (CD+DVD Deluxe Edition)

Okay, I was admittedly very stoked about Intrada's complete Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, but of all-new 2012 music releases that I know of this is without question the one that excited me most. I've been a fan of Melody Gardot's music for a few years now. She's one of the few artists I enjoy so much that I have made a point to buy every bonus track and miscellaneous recording I can acquire - a task made particularly frustrating since several such recordings have yet to be released commercially in the United States. On 2 March, the following teaser video was released for The Absence.

Gardot has been viscerally sensuous with her music to date, but the content of that teaser was sexuality of a different nature than what we had seen or heard from her. It alarmed some fans, who expressed fears that she had sold out in an effort to catch a wider audience. I wasn't concerned. True, she still isn't a household name in America but she's cultivated a pretty stolid international fan base. I just don't read her as being so desperate for our validation that she would stroll nude on the beach on the hopes that an audience she doesn't seem to need might take closer notice of her.

The music of The Absence confirms my suspicions. There's simply no way that an artist reduced to pandering to American audiences for record sales creates an album in tribute to a months-long trek through Portugal and Brazil. Gardot set out to explore the shared musical heritage of those two parts of the world, divided by the Atlantic. Had she consulted me, I would have suggested she instead title this album Tordesillas. Portugal was ceded Brazil by a treaty signed there in 1494 and it is because of that arrangement that there exists today the threads of music and culture that so appealed to Gardot. She may have rejected my suggestion, however, on the basis that the Pope's line of demarcation served to divide people whereas she seeks to find their commonality.

The Absence is partly a travelogue, though not in a conventional sense. One must be attuned to the distinctions of local flavors in order to tell which part of the world influenced a given recording. There are no obvious odes to specific cafes or hotels or anything of that ilk. The album opener, "Mira," works partly as an introduction to (or even as thesis of) the album and the music video is a perfect microcosm of the entire project.

Fan reviews have been mixed. Some have been disappointed by the change in her aesthetic from the smoky jazz of her previous work, finding this album too "light" for their taste. It's true, these arrangements are dramatically different in tone and tempo. Yet in some ways I feel this is the most intimate of her three albums to date. There's a sense that this is a soundtrack to her personal journeys, physical and philosophical. All I ask of any artist is authenticity. Gardot is as authentic here as she was on Worrisome Heart or My One and Only Thrill and if there's a point to be made that The Absence is incongruous with those two works then I'm not sure I understand what the value of that point is.

Those so inclined can research the impetus of each song (starting with the aforementioned commentary track), but such homework isn't necessary to appreciate what she has crafted with this album. It's a celebration of the universality of music.

Which Edition?

There are presently five editions available in the United States:

"Iemanja" on CD

The final track on the album proper runs 18 minutes on CD...because it has 11 minutes of dead space and then 3 minutes of assorted noises. No one seems to like this. The MP3 album sold by Amazon originally was the same lengthy track, marked as including a "hidden" track but after enough complaints were lodged, they replaced it with just the song itself. This is perhaps the most glaring deficiency of the CD edition.

Bonus songs

"Mira" (Hamilton & Yamandu Acoustic Version)
"Iemanja" (Hamilton & Yamandu Acoustic Version)
"La vie en rose"

You can get all three songs on the physical deluxe edition; unfortunately, they're on the DVD! I will never understand putting audio bonus tracks on a DVD. If you want them as audio files, you'll want to go to iTunes. "La vie en rose" is on both the standard and deluxe editions, but it's an album-only track on either meaning you can't just buy that one song. The two Hamilton & Yamandu Acoustic Versions are only available on the iTunes Deluxe Edition, but they can be purchased individually.

Video content

The only content not found in the iTunes Deluxe Edition is a 4:00 "Making of 'La vie en rose'" video featurette. Given the other described differences, I'm willing to make that sacrifice.

Track-by-track commentary by Melody Gardot - This one is kind of weird. iTunes includes a 24:57 audio commentary. Amazon says the DVD concludes with an EPK (electronic press kit) that runs 21:00. Theoretically, a completist might appreciate having both the iTunes audio commentary and the EPK film though it's unlikely there's a significant difference in content. The MelodyGardotOfficial channel on VEVO features a 7:25 EPK, which you can stream here:

Also available is a look behind the scenes of the "Mira" music video:

15 June 2012

Depression: J.R. Ewing Edition

When we first see J.R. Ewing in the new Dallas, he's in a nearly catatonic state attributed to depression. He doesn't speak or even have a demonstrable reaction at all to anything said to him until later when John Ross tells him about finding oil on Southfork. That's enough to rouse him back into action. What I want to do in this post is take a look at the depiction of depression in the case of J.R. and what insights you, Dear Reader, might glean from the crafty oil baron.

We must go back to the original series to get a sense of J.R.'s history with depression. This is a guy whose whole life was dedicated to measuring up to is idealization of his father, Jock. Jock reinforced J.R.'s ambitions every step of the way, but it's difficult to say to what extent there may have been actual love between them. I refer to Robert Morgan, writing in Boone: A Biography (which I reviewed here):
"There is no more important milestone in a man's life than the death of his father. The death of the father may bring its own cloud of grief or regret, a sense of unfinished business, of questions that will forever go unanswered. A son feels alone in a particular way when his father dies. Suddenly he is on his own, and there may be a new sense of freedom, that whatever has to be done is up to him now. The rest of life opens before the son, and there is no one he has to answer to but himself and the future. And the future is all too short, though it is a sweeping vista of obligation. The death of a father is a time for reaching out, for stretching, moving ahead." - pp. 81-82
If we look back on Dallas, we see a growing schism between J.R. and everyone else in his life after Jock's death. He even comes to be at odds with the kindly Miss Ellie, trying even her patience and willingness to forgive at times. His quest for dominance as an oil man became his obsession, his only means of defining himself in a context where he could receive external validation and where he knew he was competitive enough to win it.

I've noted it previously, but it bears repeating. Depression doesn't burden you with all the things that are miserable in your life. It doesn't need to; you're already aware those things suck. No, depression is far more insidious than that. It takes the good things in your life and twists them in your mind so that they become bitter. This, I believe, is why J.R. fought with Sue Ellen (then later, Callie - not that anyone ever remembers their marriage) and everyone else who wanted to be around him. What J.R.'s depression thrived on most was the unshakable devotion of his brother, Bobby. Their rivalry has always been understood as having originated with Bobby not sharing J.R.'s ambitions but that's not it. Depression knows that J.R. will always have the acceptance and love of Bobby, no matter how much he does wrong, and depression doesn't want J.R. to take any comfort in that.

A healthy person would be grateful to have the kind of loyalty from their sibling Bobby offers J.R. A depressed person, however, becomes resentful. They feel inadequate and undeserving of that love. The depressed person will withdraw from it, trying to make it harder to be reached and shown that affection. The depressed person will become defensive, actively seeking to discourage that love and, at times, the depressed person will even try to hurt the other person in an attempt to make it stop.

Eventually, the other person has to decide whether to give up trying to reach their depressed love one. If they do, then it validates depression's insistence that the love could not have been trusted. If they don't, then it comes down to whether the depression can be reined in and properly managed. If so, then a healthy relationship can be resumed. Otherwise, it can become as destructive for the healthy loved one as it is for the depressed person. Most people don't have it in them to outlast that kind of emotional attrition.

When we think of J.R. Ewing, one of the first things that comes to mind is the time when all of America wanted to know "Who Shot J.R.?" Often forgotten, however, is the series' finale. J.R. had alienated everyone in his life from business partners to family. Alone at Southfork, he's approached by a man in his mirror offering him a sort of It's a Wonderful Life-style look at how differently the lives of others would have been without J.R. ever existing. Here's the final three minutes of the original series. Watch how J.R. is fixated not even on oil, but on being alone.

<iframe width="420" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/-0GmvctvEb0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

For years, we were left to speculate whether J.R. had committed suicide. It would certainly have been in keeping with his battle with depression. After all, it's one thing to feel left out; it's another to actually be shown that everyone you love has actually had a worse life because you even existed. That's a tremendous amount of negative reinforcement, and it's more than enough to put someone over the top. In the TV movie, Dallas: J.R. Returns, we're told what happened when Bobby reached the top of the stairs. Note if you will the emphasis J.R. places on presenting himself as mentally stable again while still clinging to defining himself as Jock's heir.

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As we look to the current series, we see J.R. reemerge from his catatonic state of withdrawal at the promise of getting back into the oil game. It's not that J.R. was "bored" being out of the game, or that all he needed was something constructive to do or anything so trite. It's that this one arena is where his strengths have historically been allowed to shine, where he could find the external validation he needed to help offset his sense of inadequacy. I experienced that myself at Our Lady of Peace, when I rediscovered my own talent for speaking to, and for, other people and being helpful - useful - in that way.

J.R.'s application of his talents can actually be attributed to his depression, if we accept last year's findings by Clarkson University Psychology Professor Andreas K. Wilke. The study "suggests that people suffering with major depression may be more successful at persisting in and completing complex assignments that involve analytical thinking." The depressed mind is, by nature, sensitive to all matter of minutiae. If harnessed and directed to a purpose, it can be quite formidable. It's difficult to do, however, because depression is not interested in solving problems or contributing to society. Depression cares about isolating the patient and urging him or her to withdraw from anything positive.

Lastly, I don't think it's a coincidence that both J.R. Ewing and Tony Soprano - by far, the greatest characters of their ilk - both suffer from depression. Depression affects people of all walks of life, from poor people like me to One Percenters like J.R. Depression found easier prey in me, aided this most recent time by the duplicity of my own Crohn's infested body. For characters like J.R. and Tony, though, depression is more of a double-edge sword. It is their impetus, what drives them to conquer the world in a fruitless attempt to gain the approval they cannot give themselves. It is also what prevents them from ever being satisfied or happy, to the point they cannot truly enjoy any of their victories.

"What does he have to be depressed about?"

That's a commonly posed question, and to that I restate what I wrote in my original post, "On Depression" last year:

Depression is an internal problem, and it doesn't give a damn about your circumstances.
When you're depressed, there is no right job to have, no right lover to share a bed with, no right car to drive, no right home to live in, no right clothes to wear.  Whatever it is that it's in your life, it's insufficient to make a difference in how you feel about yourself or your life.  People who are happy assume that you just need to make some kind of exterior change, and happiness will follow.  It doesn't work that way.  You can change jobs, seek a new lover, trade in your car, move and change your entire wardrobe and still be just as depressed as you were before you altered a thing.  Plenty of rich people have talked about depression; money didn't help, and we're talking about people with the kind of money to change everything else about their lives on a whim.

I didn't write this post to further anyone's understanding of J.R. Ewing's psychological makeup. That's a matter for the writers of Dallas. Rather, I hope that by exploring what we have seen on screen of J.R. that perhaps this helps you, Dear Reader, get a different look at some of the ways that depression can affect people. TV commercials for anti-depressants would have you believe that everyone with depression sequesters themselves onto a couch in a dimly lit room and holds onto their legs. Not so. Sometimes, depressed people can not only continue to seemingly function but even "succeed" in life. This does not invalidate their innate sense of inadequacy, because depression will accept no accomplishments. What J.R. has seen - even if he hasn't allowed himself to understand it - is that, time and again, no victory ever fulfilled him. There was never enough money or prestige to allow him the kind of peace that Bobby has, because Bobby isn't depressed.

14 June 2012

Birthright, Entitlement and Yard Sales

This past Saturday morning, I went to some yard sales with my grandmother. When we arrived at one particular house, there was a family with three little girls looking over a small assortment of Barbies. They all, of course, pleaded to get their own but their mother declined. I wasn't actively keeping up with the conversation, but I did hear her say something about how the girls only had $X and for each of them to get a Barbie would wipe out that amount. Once they left, the sellers began to grouse about the mother.

They perceived the issue to be that by spurning their used Barbies, the mother had thumbed her nose at all used items in general as not being good enough. There were complaints about how "people today" insist on having only the finest of things, on demand, etc. You know the complaints. They're recycled daily on TV, where you work and probably at your own dinner table. Just recently, they masqueraded as profound words in a commencement speech at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts given by David McCullough, Jr.

In fact, they're much older complaints than we generally consider or admit. I've cited it before in this blog, but I again invoke the memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln. She began writing a diary at the age of 40 in 1690, in which she complained frequently about the ingratitude of her children and the lack of work ethic and sense of responsibility of their generation.

Watching Dallas last night, I was struck by something. J.R. Ewing was always motivated by his sense of how to provide security and prosperity for his family, but his son John Ross has couched his ambitions in the name of claiming his birthright. Clearly, John Ross is a selfish snot who needs to be taken down a peg or two, but I've gotten to wondering: Just why have we as a society become so hostile toward the concept of birthright?

"Nobody owes you anything!" It seems the people who shout this the most passionately are the ones who have kept very close score over the years of when they were denied something by others. "Entitlement" has become one of the ugliest words in American politics.

What, then, was the point of doing well in a capitalist society? What was the point of all that collective accumulation of wealth, land and material items if not to provide for the security and prosperity of one's family? Who would participate in the rat race if not for the promise of having something to show for it at the end?

That brings us to the nature of birthright. When one grows up in a world where previous generations have contributed to building an inheritance, what's wrong with someone actually claiming it? Wasn't that the point? Should "people today" have to start from complete scratch, unaided by previous generations? Put another way: Would you want your children to have to do without reaping the fruits of your own labor? Why would you work so hard at all, if not for their benefit?

Perhaps the issue is not that "people today" have a distasteful sense of "entitlement," but rather that too many of us don't want to admit that birthright claims have inflated along with everything else. That is to say, it's not the sense of "entitlement" that's the issue, or even how it's expressed (though, certainly, many people - of all ages - could stand to take a course on manners). Rather, it's that all of a sudden, that birthright dwarfs what previous generations even aspired to achieve or accumulate.

Sure, "people today" consider the lives of their grandparents' generation quaint and primitive. Our entire way of life is built on that very message. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, our economy is built on the concept of disposability, from razor heads to cars. We complain about the work ethic of "people today," but what we don't talk about are all those hard-working forbears who were let go just before they got their gold watches, denied the pensions they had counted on and thought they had worked for decades to ensure. "Sorry, but we're outsourcing this plant. It's strictly a business decision, you see." Shareholders cared more about themselves than loyalty to the employees whose lives they could affect. Yet, when "people today" assert that they will not pledge decades of their lives to the whims of shareholders the way previous generations did, somehow that's an affront to those previous generations?

One laughs at an actor scoffing, "Oh, what, being a contract player isn't good enough for you?" or an athlete being dressed down by a golden age player for filing free agency. Somehow, though, we can applaud those kinds of workers (that's what they are, you see) for standing up for themselves and getting theirs, but we resent anyone of our own ilk who dares to follow their example.

Perhaps the real problem is that "people today" haven't been as hungry as previous generations think they ought to be. We as a society like to see people working for things, "earning" what they get. We exempt from those demands anyone who was born into the lap of luxury because, "Good for them." Why? Because those people have a greater birthright than our own. Ergo, they're the fortunate ones. Oddly, though, it seems when we realize our own people have a greater birthright than our own, we become indignant.

My Facebook timeline has often been inundated with chain statuses boasting about people from Generation Whatever didn't have XBoxes, iPods or DVD players in cars, but they did have respect for their elders, safe communities and solid values. There are infinite variations on this, but that example list should be recognizable enough. Should this generation be punished for the existence of technology? Should no one under the age of 18 be allowed to play video games or have an iPod because no previous generation of kids or teens had them? That's absurd. Also, I'd like to point out that if Generation Whichever grew up in a safe community, that was the doing of Generation Whichever's parents. Generation Whichever have become the predators and threats to today's communities so they really should shut the hell up about that one.

Anyway, after the family with the three little girls left the yard sale I had to refrain from defending the mother because it wasn't worth it to me to become ensnared in such a debate at the time. Here, though, I would like to point out that the mother had taken the girls to yard sales. I don't see how that possibly supports the charge that she was somehow too "uppity" about used Barbies. Moreover, she had the girls on a strict budget. That seems to be completely in defiance of the sense that the mother's generation didn't "know the value of a dollar." Quite the contrary, it showed that even when it would only have cost a couple dollars to indulge her daughters' wishes to have Barbies, she wanted to make them hold out through the day to ensure they got their money's worth.

I for one am unimpressed by the resentful elderly sellers and their ilk, but I am very encouraged to think of the kind of women those three little girls will grow up to be.

"Dallas" (2012) Episodes 1 & 2

"The Changing of the Guard" (Episode 100) and "Hedging Your Bets" (Episode 101)

What follows is an overview of my chief reactions and observations, without much polish or organization. I envision this being a sort of ongoing sub-series here, and they'll be written as close to the immediate end of each episode as I can manage. (Tonight's was delayed because I had to go buy cat food and take care of some incidental errands.) I am also going to assume you've seen the episodes so there will be spoilers. Speaking of which...

Dallas may be the ultimate water cooler show of all time, which is weird because the original series aired on Friday nights. This is not a show for casual viewers. I almost began to construct an actual flow chart just to explain to my grandmother what she missed by not tuning into the first episode on time. This will be one of those shows where fans are passionate and probably will not shut the hell up about on Thursday mornings...or all day long Wednesday in anticipation of that night's episode.
Cynthia Cidre (Series Developer & Writer) and Patrick Duffy. Photo from TNT.
Kudos to series developer and writer of both episodes, Cynthia Cidre. She did a terrific job making clear that this is a direct continuation of the original series, while not creating self-homage. That's a surprisingly difficult task in mainstream entertainment. The best microcosm I can offer was the prominence of the swimming pool at Southfork during Christopher and Rebecca's wedding. I actually commented on Facebook, "Someone is going into that pool. It's a requirement of formal events at Southfork." It would have been a nice comedic throwback moment, but Cidre didn't give it to us. At first I almost felt cheated, but then I felt really good about it. She knows what she's inherited inside and out and it shows; she's thrown in all kinds of back story in casual expository dialog throughout the first two episodes...but this is something new. It is not a tribute to the original series. It's a continuation, and frankly the fewer "obvious" bits we get, the better I think this new show will be.

I've said for years and it bears repeating: For my money, Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing is the apex of television. I found myself feeling genuinely exited to see him emerge from his state of whatever-the-hell and reassert himself. I laughed at least twice, just at realizing the sly old fox is still playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers.

J.R.'s motivations are different now (at least early on) than they were on the original series. He used to justify everything he did as a means of providing security for the Ewing family. This J.R. is more blatantly selfish, though perhaps that's what happens when your parents are gone and you've become estranged from everyone else. Still, I can't help but feel that he's still got his eye on the same old prize: consolidated power of Ewing Oil and patriarchy of the Ewing family at Southfork. The ranch means something different to him than it does to the rest of the Ewings, but I don't believe for a moment that his sole interest is in acquiring the oil.

I love that Sue Ellen has become a powerful woman in Texas politics. New fans may be unaware, but J.R. met her when she was a beauty pageant contestant and their dysfunctional marriage led her to self-destructive behavior including alcoholism and a nearly fatal car collision. I like the idea that, once sufficiently removed from the poison of J.R., she was able to get her act together. Moreover, I like that she's not going to just be a token "generation one" figurehead here. She has legitimate power now.

John Ross is perhaps the laziest schemer ever. Seriously, Christopher's methane project caused an earthquake. It was clearly reported by various news media. Does he not go online? Hell, "earthquake" trended on Twitter during tonight's encore airing because of a minor 'quake near Yorba Linda, California. The idea that Christopher could somehow keep something like that under wraps, like some kind of disappointing lab result, is ludicrous.

Side note: Who doesn't maximize their browser? Or password protect their computer? How has Ann lasted five years in that family, with her computer apparently just open to whomever wishes to sit down and begin using it?
Jordana Brewster as Elena Ramos. Photo by TNT.
Of the new characters, my early favorite is easily Elena Ramos. She's a very sympathetic character, having already become a casualty of Ewing narcissism. I suspect she'll give as good as she gets, but right now I just feel really bad for her. That said, I also call shenanigans on the story of her and Christopher breaking up just before their wedding day because of an email. Elena is clearly an ambitious woman, and she didn't get where she is today by being deferential. I have a hard time picturing her refraining from instantly calling Christopher to demand an explanation and to give him an earful. Or for her own mother to remain in the Ewings' employ after that?! Either she doesn't share with her own mother her reason for not showing up at the altar or her mother - whom we know liked her relationship with Christopher - was not sufficiently offended as to find another job? Remember, this is a Hispanic mother. Her daughter allegedly being told she's not good enough for her boss's son should have led to her trying to poison the entire Ewing family.

Also, I am now in love with both Jordana Brewster and Julie Gonzalo. Brewster's profile at the official Dallas website states that she's married, but if that should change and you run into her, I'd appreciate if you'd put in a kind word on my behalf. Gonzalo's profile informs me she played the daughter, Blair, in Christmas with the Kranks (something of a guilty pleasure of mine among Christmas movies) and makes no mention of her relationship status. So, again...if you know her and you hear her mention she's in the market for a poor guy in dubious health with four cats and nothing else to offer, point her in my direction.

Lastly, I come to John Ross. I have to wonder, with Christopher off in Europe, just how his relationship with Bobby had been like prior to where we pick up. They were basically the only two living at Southfork from what I could glean. I'm unclear whether their thinly veiled resentments of one another had been simmering all along or if this was all out of the blue, brought on by John Ross's duplicitous oil strike. At times I felt he was antagonistic just for the sake of being so; a provocateur, lacking the nuance of his father. I think that's the point, though. He's so prone to hotheadedness that he can't play chess like J.R. does. He's the kind of guy who, instead, will turn over the checker board and yell that he's not playing anymore.

Oh, and man...when he dissed Miss Ellie, I really wanted to see Bobby just bitch slap that punk. New viewers shouldn't have any problem understanding why it was so upsetting to Bobby that his nephew just badmouthed his own grandmother, but this touches on the aforementioned balance struck so solidly by Cidre. For those of us who actually knew Miss Ellie (played mostly by Barbara Bel Geddes, but also by Donna Reed for a season), the affront was personal. It was also a betrayal; I can literally recall Miss Ellie sitting outside at Southfork while John Ross played. She loved that boy dearly, even standing up to J.R. to do right by him at one point. Maybe he was too young to remember it, but dammit, I do!

Upon reflection, I feel like this is my TV equivalent of DC Comics's New 52 relaunch. I've been away for quite some time, but my enthusiasm and interest have never been extinguished. I finished watching tonight's episodes with full-on excitement and anticipation for the next episode, much as I get all excited when I finish reading each month's Batgirl. I've withdrawn from most TV content over the last 15 years or so, only following a handful of shows very closely. It's kind of nice to actually be excited about a weekly series again. I'm glad it's Dallas.

13 June 2012

Review: The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye

The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye
Created, Written and Lettered by Robert Kirkman
Penciller, Inker and Gray Tones by Tony Moore
Additional Gray Tones by Cliff Rathburn
Cover Price: $9.99
144 pages
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What follows is my review as posted on Goodreads.

I checked this out along with A Fistful of Dollars on DVD, Bruce Springsteen's The Promise and Stephen Mitchell's English translation of Lao-tzu's Tao te Ching. I've already noted a common theme of self-reliance, but also an emphasis on deconstructing society and espousing the values of brotherhood and community that mean so much more than status symbols. I have seen the 2-hour pilot episode of The Walking Dead TV series (which I watched as it aired the first night) but oddly enough I haven't seen a single minute of footage since. I came into Days Gone Bye with a working knowledge of the set-up but quickly found myself in wholly unfamiliar territory.

By the time Rick arrives in Atlanta, I already had a tremendous admiration for the ability of Frank Darabont to develop a 2-hour TV episode out of a single issue. Where Robert Kirkman's comic treats the opening as mere establishment, Darabont's teleplay creates a whole world unto itself. That pilot episode could have been a standalone feature film, with Kirkman's comic providing the skeletal structure but surprisingly little of the actual substance. I also found myself significantly more interested in the story because now we were into stuff I hadn't seen on screen at all.

I should have felt some relief that Rick was able to reunite so relatively easily with Lori and Carl, but instead I saw only more trouble. It didn't take much guesswork to piece together Lori and Shane's dirty little secret. Seriously, the one guy who was supposed to watch his back just happens to be the guy "escorting" his wife and son through Zombieland? Yeah, that's on the level. Plus, the guy's name is Shane. I have yet to encounter a single Shane I consider an upstanding, respectable person. I'm not prone to prejudice or anything, but Shanes are all jerks. There, I said it.

There is something almost silly about Rick's upbeat nature. He awakens from a month-long coma into this nightmarish world, gets whacked in the head by a kid with a shovel and two pages later he's cheerfully handing over police department firearms and a car? I'm not saying he was wrong to do it, mind you, but just that his enthusiasm smacks of a sort of naivete unbecoming of a man with his training. It's almost like he's the night security guard sneaking his buddies onto the premises to get drunk and do donuts on the company lawn or something.

Of course, creator/writer Kirkman makes explicitly clear in his foreword that The Walking Dead is ultimately about Rick's evolution. It's easy to see why he would begin to change and harden just through these first six issues and perhaps it's best that we first meet him at a time in his life when he's driven by a can-do, Three Musketeers-type optimism.

Side note: I'm sure Kirkman did his homework and all, but as a Kentuckian I'm a bit fuzzy on the nature of Rick's branch of the law. For a town as small as is suggested, it would seem likelier that he would have worked for either a county sheriff's department or perhaps an outpost of the Kentucky State Police. Surprisingly few towns in Kentucky have a local police department, though there's no reason he couldn't have been in the employ of one such agency.

I've heard several readers remark how much they favor reading The Walking Dead collected editions versus the monthly issues. I have a strong sense why that it is having now read this first arc. I've encountered the same dynamic with DC Comics's current Batwoman book. Most monthly titles are given collected editions at regular intervals, but in cases like these it feels instead like a graphic novel is first serialized before finally being presented as the singular body of work it was intended to be all along. Kirkman's storytelling is patient, willing to plant seeds in one issue but not check to see what has come from them for another two issues. A monthly reader may find himself or herself annoyed by this, but the "trade waiters" (those who wait for the collected edition trade paperbacks) are able to digest in one setting an entire portion of content that include satisfactory payoffs, etc.

One other thing I liked was that there are several individual pages throughout that read like vignettes in the middle of the overall story. It was very reminiscent of the structure Daniel Clowes used in his original graphic novel, Wilson (which I read and reviewed yesterday). Kirkman uses the convention wisely, allowing us to catch our breath and chuckle before throwing ourselves back into the melee. I really hope this is an ongoing part of the series.

There are some very clever bits and some genuinely captivating character moments throughout Days Gone Bye and it seems a strong opening for the series. I look forward to the next volume.

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12 June 2012

Review: Wilson

Wilson by Daniel Clowes

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Having so thoroughly fallen in love with Ghost World, I was eager to read more of Clowes's work. I returned Road to Perdition to the library this afternoon and found this on floor display of graphic novels. I snagged a few other items, but I actually took time to just read this one on the spot. (Side note: The big chairs in front of the fireplace are very cozy and it is my intention to occupy one of them on a regular basis this winter!)

The titular Wilson is a crusty Baby Boomer, confident in his arrogant disdain for the world around him while deluding himself into believing that he's the good guy. We empathize with him throughout, from the death of his father to the conflicts with his ex-wife Patti and the rocky relationship he has with his estranged daughter, Claire. Yet before we ever fully accept Wilson as he sees himself, Clowes pulls back the veneer of sympathy and gives us the Wilson who can't be bothered to be as patient with the world as he expects it to be with him.

Though published as an original graphic novel, the structure is more a collection of single page cartoons as one might find in a collected edition of a comic strip (that's what web comics were in the days of newspapers, kids). It's actually a rather effect structure, allowing Clowes to explore a single moment in depth, then bypass indeterminate amounts of time between pages/strips. We know that the early part of the story takes place in 2008, because there's an absolutely perfect page early in which Wilson and a cab driver discuss The Dark Knight. Later, though, Wilson spends six years in prison, glossed over in a few pages. Ostensibly, then, much of the second half of Wilson takes place in what is still our future!

I enjoyed the broad themes, of the guy who makes some good points but is so full of himself that he fails to see how much a hypocrite he is. We all know people like that (though, surely, we're not such people ourselves). Clowes's dry sense of humor alternates deftly with a modicum of poignancy, such as the aforementioned passing of his father or contemplating parenthood from either perspective. The structure is a major plus here, allowing storyteller and reader alike to go where the story wishes to go.

Why the low rating, then?

It comes down to that prison sentence. Page 53 ends with Wilson reacting to Patti off-panel, quite angry. Page 54 begins his prison sentence. No explanation is provided. Later, Shelley even asks why he was in prison but he never answers her. At one point, it comes out that Patti and Claire "ratted him out to the feds" and testified against him, but for what?

I'm willing to indulge Clowes that perhaps it doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of Wilson's narrative why he was sent to prison except that it then invites one to examine the role of prison in the story. I'm very unclear just what purpose it really serves the story for Wilson to be incarcerated for six years, aside from creating an easy excuse why the rest of the world kept going without him long enough that some other things could occur in a vacuum of sorts.

The cover price is something like $23.00, I think. I felt a bit cheated having read it for free at the library. I would recommend reading this graphic novel, but I couldn't advise buying it without having first read it to ensure it resonates enough with you that it belongs in your library.

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"Road To Perdition" by Max Allan Collins

Road To Perdition
Written by Max Allan Collins
Art by Richard Piers Rayner
Lettering by Bob Lappan
Editor: Andrew Helfer
Date of Publication: 1 July 2002 (movie tie-in edition)
Cover Price: $14.00
304 pages
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What follows is my review, as posted on Goodreads.

Like many, I was first introduced to the film adaptation before reading Max Allan Collins's original graphic novel. A friend of mine was keen on the movie and brought the DVD over one night to watch. I liked it, but I wasn't as in love with it as he was. To this day, I've not gotten around to buying my own copy. For that matter, I've not seen it since! While returning The Middleman to the library, I discovered they now had the graphic novel available. It had been on my To Read list for quite some time anyway and I'm currently heavily into a comic book phase again so I checked it out and read it late last night/early this morning in bed.

Collins explains in his "shamelessly autobiographical introduction" where the genesis of Road to Perdition fit into his career just as he had lost his decades-long stint writing the Dick Tracy comic strip for the Trib and simultaneously, Bantam dropped his Nathan Heller novels. I got the sense that Perdition was one of those works that an artist makes when he's free to do something that speaks to himself.

What really caught my attention was that the key figure at DC Comics's Paradox Press imprint was Andrew Helfer. Casual readers likely gloss over such things as the names of editors, but I came to be familiar with "Andy" during his tenure as Archie Goodwin's assistant editor on Legends of the Dark Knight (which remains my favorite Batman comic to date). I had a sense of Max Allan Collins's storytelling, but knowing that Helfer had overseen it ensured that I was in for a high quality tale, indeed!

Collins also makes note that Richard Piers Rayner took quite a while to create the art for Road to Perdition and that investment of time clearly was worth it. Just recently, Ron Marz has made a point on Twitter of how overlooked comic book artists have become, and how readers seem to take comic book artists for granted to the point of not giving them their due. I think a big part of it has to do with computerized coloring. Especially in the era of Pixar and CGI animation, there's a sense I think that when we see art so polished, it feels artificial. I was very conscious of this as I turned one mesmerizing page after another of Rayner's art here.

Part of what makes the art here so striking is that it's black and white. I'm not looking at a digitally perfected palate, creating very smooth imagery. This is rawer than that. Rayner's attention to detail from costumes to sets and props (to use film terms) has a lot to do with it. Yet when I pull back from each panel and take in a page as a whole, I'm very conscious that a person drew this. It's the work of a human being with pencil and ink. It feels organic, and because of this it is far more impressive than it would have been had it been colored. I can imagine a sort of gray tone coloring scheme that might have suited this story, but it could never have been colored on a computer without entirely diminishing Rayner's work.

His faces are captivating, each expression clearly conveying the inner thoughts and feelings of each character while avoiding the pratfalls of being "cartoonish." Page 67, when Conner Looney kills Annie O'Sullivan, is absolutely heartbreaking. We never even see her face on that page; she's turned away from us, unsuspectingly welcoming her killer. We see the cold joy on Conner's face, his gun raised, and our heart sinks. The third and final panel shifts to a closeup up the clueless young Peter O'Sullivan reacting to the gunshots. Our sunken heart breaks.

This is one of those instances where the art can make or break a story. It's difficult enough to strike the balance between drama and overt manipulation in any medium, but perhaps hardest in the comic book/graphic novel format. If Rayner's facial expressions aren't played straight enough, then we're cynically taken out of the moment. That image of Peter's innocent face - eyes wide, mouth open - is genuinely haunting.

I found myself reading Road to Perdition at a curious time in my life. I have, of course, only just recently returned to Chicago with my friend in April for the C2E2 convention. I caught myself trying to work out some of the panels showing the city, reckoning where it was and from which perspective, etc. For instance, the famed Lexington Hotel figures prominently into the story. That used to be on Michigan & 22nd. Google Maps tells me it was 1.3 miles directly north of the Hilton Hotel, where my friend and I stayed in April. We had walked right past the site of the Lexington.

It was demolished in 1996, two years before my first visit to Chicago with my friends, but four years after my first time in Chicago on an overnight school field trip. I distinctly recall the bus driver pointing out the Lexington and commenting on it having been where Al Capone had set up shop back in the day. Enough Chicago architecture has endured the intervening decades that I had a visceral "Hey! I was just in that area!" reaction to much of Rayner's art.

Moreover, though, I read Road to Perdition just a few days away from Father's Day. I have never had a good relationship with my own dad and that's made this annual "holiday" suck for me. Much more importantly, though, I have been fixated of late on the twins my wife and I lost in a miscarriage. They would have been six years old this month. I couldn't help but to empathize with Michael O'Sullivan in a very personal way. He and I lost our families in very different ways, but I connected with him anyway. Part of me envied him, having someone to actually take revenge on; who was I going to stalk? God?

Part of me, though, envied him still having his son Michael (curiously, never called, "Michael, Jr."). I know I was supposed to fear for the life of his son and I was supposed to empathize with that poor boy for witnessing such atrocities and more often than not, that's how I would have reacted had I read this at nearly any other time in my life. This particular reading, though, caught me when it did and so I connected with The Angel instead.

In these ways, then, Road to Perdition resonated with me in very specific, personal ways. There was a pervasive sense that while I didn't live where O'Sullivan lived, I knew the area; not merely the geography of Chicago but a sense of his anguish. I would never suggest my experience is comparable to anyone else's or anything so egocentric or crass. But I do have a clearer kinship with that kind of pain than I had before the miscarriage and I've recently come to see the extent to which it has haunted and dominated me these last five-plus years.

Post script: I did identify very specifically with the boy during his driving lessons. The very first time I operated a car, it was to pull my mom's Dodge Diplomat into the driveway. I tried to just coast up the driveway, but the hill was too steep. I "misunderestimated" how much pressure was needed to apply to the accelerator and we zoomed up the driveway, me barely keeping it straight at all and nearly crashing the car with my mom and brother into our own home. My mom yelled out for Jesus, the dog in the backyard watched on in horror from the other side of the chain link fence and as soon as I stopped the car, my brother ran out of it laughing hysterically. I relived that entire experience while reading pages 167-169.

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