23 March 2014

I Hate Being Unwise

I don't subscribe to the idea that bad things happen to us so that we can later use that experience to help others. That line of thinking combines martyrdom and a sort of glorification of misery, and it troubles me. However, I do believe that when bad things happen, when we can later apply that experience in a constructive way somehow, that we should try to do that. Lemons into lemonade and whatnot, you know.

Right now, a few of my dearest friends are facing some difficult times. Moreover, they're going through some things with which I have experience. Maddeningly, though, I haven't been able to find the right things to say or do to help these people I care about.

I define wisdom as being the product of knowledge, compassion, and humility. All three elements must be present. One must have an understanding of the facts, concern for how they affect people, and to be able to not make things about themselves. (Yes, I realize me complaining that I don't know how to use my knowledge technically makes my friends' situations about me, but only in the context that I'm trying to get to the wisdom I want to be able to offer them.)

Why can't I find the wisdom to help my friends?

I feel like I have all the pieces I need, but I can't figure out how to put them together and I don't understand why that is. I'm certain it isn't because I don't have enough compassion. That leaves knowledge and humility. Have I failed to really understand my own experiences? Am I blind to my own ego on these matters? What am I missing?

In case you happen to be one of my friends going through something right now, just know that I do care and I'm here for you (except on Monday nights from 9-10, when I watch Dallas). I know that's generic and not very helpful, but I promise that the moment I have something more specific, I'll offer it.

22 March 2014

Sixteen Years of AFI's "100 Years...100 Movies"

If you paid much attention to movies at all in 1998, one of the biggest things that year was that the American Film Institute (AFI) debuted their "100 Years...100 Movies" list. I was just a few years into paying attention to movies at that point. I was working at Cracker Barrel by then, though, and the thing about waiting tables is, you work weekends. That meant I fell out of step with movies. I was lousy about thinking about movies any time of the week other than Friday. It wasn't snobbery on my part. I just sort of forgot that you could go to a theater the other days of the week.

Anyway, AFI's inaugural "100 Years...100 Movies" list caught my attention the same as it caught most everyone else's. I had started to pay attention to what was coming out, but I had paid little heed to anything that had already come and gone. It was a big deal at the time, in large part because it was brilliantly marketed. Today, they'd just throw it up on the web, but there was more pomp and circumstance in those analog(-ish) days. The ranked list itself was presented in a live TV event that aired the night of 16 June 1998. Speculation and anticipation were paid off by the special, but that was far from the end of it.

Newsweek published a special tie-in issue dedicated exclusively to the list, broken into chapters organized by genre. The magazine featured editorials by such luminaries as Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Sidney Poitier, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg (whose Saving Private Ryan opened in theaters just eight days after the special aired, and went on to win that year's Best Picture award). I still have a copy of that issue. TNT aired a ten-part documentary series dedicated to exploring the films and their rich history. I didn't get to watch any of it, airing on work nights, but I heard it was well done.

Do you remember this? Good, 'cause we're gonna talk about it.
All the major studios got in on the action, making sure that all their titles that made the list were in print again and on shelves with a conspicuous sticker identifying the movie as one of the elite 100. This coincided with the dawn of DVD, it should be noted. What better way to imbue the release of catalog titles with enough prestige to drive demand for their DVD debuts?

This was perfect. I love lists. I learned to write by making lists, actually. My mom would sit me down with the back of a He-Man action figure package and have me write a list of which figures I didn't have that I wanted. I had to put them in order of which one I wanted the most on down to the one that I wanted more or less just because it existed. Lists are just part of how I process the world. And the AFI list? That was the scavenger hunt list that finally set me on a direction of becoming a bona fide cinephile.

One of the AFI partners was Target, which gave away free copies in-store of a 44-page brochure, AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies: The Essential Movie Guide. Today, of course, you can just download directly from AFI the list of all 400 nominated movies. Maybe you could do that in 1998. I don't know. In any event, The Essential Movie Guide does include quite a few of the nominees that failed to make it onto the ranked 100.

What interested me a little while ago when I stumbled upon my copy of it, though, is that its front page invites you to list your top ten picks, and to write down AFI's once revealed. Now, here you can see my Top 10 Movies ("no particular order") from when I was 19 years old:

Now, I was certainly not trying to guess along with the AFI panelists. After all, I knew precious little about film history at that point, and what's more, I knew I knew precious little about it. So don't think that I was under any mistaken impression that The Transformers: The Movie was, in fact, one of the ten greatest movies of all time. This was, instead, a snapshot of my personal taste at the time. Comparing it with my Flickchart is actually rather surprising.

Three of the movies I named in 1998 as my Top 10 are in my Flickchart Top 10 today: Lawrence of Arabia (#4), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (#6), and Glory (#9). Two more are in my Top 20: The Transformers: The Movie (#13), and Tombstone (#14). That's half of my 19 year-old self's Top 10, still satisfying me today. The Sting presently sits at a highly respectable #28 on my Flickchart.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service, criticisms of George Lazenby's on-screen woodenness and off-screen immaturity aside, is still one of the most satisfying Bond movies - and that's a franchise I still love dearly. In 1998, my second favorite Bond movie would have been From Russia with Love - which is presently #15 on my Flickchart. OHMSS has slipped to #61 on my Flickchart, but I think it's interesting that those two would have been neck-and-neck for me in '98 (and, really, they're right there together for me today, even if that isn't as clearly evident on my Flickchart), and that if I'd just written down From Russia with Love, that would have been the sixth of the ten to be in my current day Top 20.

The Empire Strikes Back is still the best Star Wars movie, but I've lost some of my enthusiasm for that franchise in recent years. It's currently at #64, though it's worth noting that the last time I recall watching it was a decade ago when the original trilogy was first released on DVD. I intend to revisit that series soon (my friend's son is old enough to want to watch them and my friend has invited me to be part of that, so they've been waiting on me, actually).

Braveheart is lower, at #69 (which, of course, makes my 19 year-old self giggle). That leaves just Face/Off, which stands presently at #380. Now, to be #380 out of 1629 features and shorts, the overwhelming majority of which I hadn't even heard of, much less seen, at that time? That ain't half-bad, as they say. By the numbers:
3/10 Still in My 2014 Top 10
5/10 Still in My 2014 Top 20
9/10 Still in My 2014 Top 100
What about the reverse, though? Since I didn't write down anything else in the rest of the booklet (just some underlining and check marks indicating movies I'd seen), I have to reconstruct this one on my own.

My Flickchart Top 10, Current as of 22 March 2014
  1. Batman
  2. The Wizard of Oz
  3. Schindler's List
  4. Lawrence of Arabia
  5. Casablanca
  6. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  7. Amelie
  8. E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial
  9. Glory
  10. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Amelie, of course, still hadn't been made in 1998. Casablanca had, but I hadn't seen it, and wouldn't get around to it for another decade. Schindler's List, I had seen. I don't know why it didn't stand out to me as much at that point in my life, because it unquestionably made an instant impact on me.

The Wizard of Oz and E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, I really just think I thought I had "outgrown" them at that age. The Wizard of Oz isn't even a movie. It's an institution. E.T. was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I was 3. I can still remember the impression that the theater setting had on me. I didn't really understand the movie, though I did understand that we were all supposed to be quiet and watching it. I was more interested in the idea that there was a place where people went to all sit together quietly to watch a movie. That still fascinates me, if I'm being honest.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a movie that even today kind of makes me self-conscious when I find myself ranking it so highly. The Sting, for instance, by all rights ought to be ranked above it on any list. (Even a ranked list of Star Trek movies; it features Ray Walston, and there's no reason that J.J. Singleton couldn't have become Boothby.) I freely concede that Star Trek VI benefits from external factors, such as being the movie responsible for me discovering Star Trek. It was my first Trek movie in a theater, my first new Trek movie. I re-watched it as recently as January and found it still thrills me and makes me wistful. Should I have had it in my 1998 Top 10? Should I really have it in my 2014 Top 10? I can't answer either of those questions. I just know that I've come to accept it's an important movie to me, and I love it dearly.

That, Dear Reader, leaves us wondering how it came to be that at age 19, I omitted my present day #1 movie of all-time, Batman. I've written about the effect that movie has had on me in a few different posts. If I could pick just one to direct you to it'd be this one about how it literally saved my life in 2011. All I can say is that this was in the wake of Batman & Robin, and I think I was down on Batman in general when I wrote that list. There's no doubt that Batman should have made my 1998 Top 10 in place of Face/Off.

Another thing I find curious is that of my 1998 Top 10, I had only seen three of them in a theater: The Empire Strikes BackFace/Off, and The Transformers: The Movie. Clearly, Face/Off benefited from that theatrical screening, though it's surprising that I didn't instead favor something like Twister, which was a more memorable viewing.

Since then, I've seen another four of that group on the big screen (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sting, and Tombstone). I still haven't seen BraveheartGlory, or On Her Majesty's Secret Service in their natural environment. Conversely, I have now seen eight of my 2014 Top 10 in a theater; the lone holdouts being Amelie, and the list-overlapping Glory.

In some ways, I'm actually kind of impressed at the inclusion of so many personal favorites on my 1998 Top 10 list. Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, is a nearly obligatory "Top 10" movie, but the God's honest truth is, I love that movie. Love it, love it, love it. I can replay whole sequences in my head. Sometimes someone will say or do something that will queue up a specific scene. Sometimes, though, I'm just daydreaming. Lately, I've been going back to the scene of Lawrence singing "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo". I adore the innocence and playfulness in that moment, when he discovers he can use the echoing effect to sing in harmony with himself.

I think I'm concerned that my taste hasn't evolved more dramatically over the last sixteen years. Paradoxically, I'm comforted that I've continued to find such satisfaction in so many movies over such a span of time. I mean, when you think about it, I was 3 when I saw E.T., so we can effectively date my movie awareness to that screening. If we throw out those first three, pre-E.T. years, then the remaining part of my life can be divided evenly into E.T. to AFI, and AFI to today.

I may find something new in all this upon further reflection, but for right now? I'm going to congratulate myself on having had such good taste in movies.

P.S. Since I know you're curious, here you go:

Movies in The Essential Movie Guide That Didn't Make it to AFI's "100 Years...100 Movies" List

Adam's Rib
All That Jazz
All the President's Men
The Awful Truth
Ben-Hur (1926)
The Big Chill
The Big Sleep
The Birds
Blade Runner
Blazing Saddles
Breakfast at Tiffany's
The Conversation
Cool Hand Luke
Dog Day Afternoon
Driving Miss Daisy
East of Eden
The English Patient
The Exorcist
Field of Dreams
Five Easy Pieces
42nd Street
The General
Gentleman's Agreement
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Gunga Din
Hannah and Her Sisters
His Girl Friday
How Green Was My Valley
The Hustler
In the Heat of the Night
The Kid
The Killing Fields
The Last Picture Show
The Lion King
Lost Horizon
The Lost Weekend
The Magnificent Ambersons
A Man for All Seasons
Mary Poppins
Mean Streets
Meet Me in St. Louis
Miracle on 34th Street
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
My Darling Clementine
A Night at the Opera
The Night of the Hunter
On Golden Pond
Ordinary People
Out of Africa
The Ox-Bow Incident
Paths of Glory
The Producers
The Public Enemy
The Quiet Man
Rain Man
Red River
The Right Stuff
Rosemary's Baby
Saturday Night Fever
The Shawshank Redemption
Stalag 17
A Star Is Born (1937)
A Star Is Born (1954)
The Sting
Strangers on a Train
Sullivan's Travels
Taxi Driver
The Ten Commandments
Terms of Endearment
Thelma & Louise
The Thin Man
To Have and Have Not
Top Hat
Touch of Evil
Toy Story
12 Angry Men
The Untouchables
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

18 March 2014

Subservient Gods

Being a longtime comic book/superhero fan, I've of course heard countless times over the years about how superheroes are the modern equivalent of the mythological gods of old. Michael Uslan, executive producer of all the Batman movies of the last quarter century, taught an entire course on the subject of Comic Book Folklore, exploring the thematic ties between biblical parables and the caped figures of the funny books. Superman-as-Moses was the microcosm example he put forth to sell the University of Indiana on the course.

I'll confess: Despite having majored in history and planning to teach it, I never had any interest whatsoever in the gods of Antiquity. Zeus/Jupiter, whatever. I never really connected with Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel ("Shazam!") in part because of this antipathy, if I'm being honest. Maybe it goes back to the commandment of not having any other gods - not, of course, that I'm an especially good or pious Christian, but some of those things are still part of me to some degree or another.

Anyway, what has come to fascinate me lately the more I've thought about it is that unlike their predecessors, our contemporary mythological figures service mankind. Superman could conquer the world; instead, he seeks to assimilate into our world as one of us. It's that way with all of these characters (the heroic ones, anyway; obviously, the supervillains are all about conquest and domination). There's something empowering about that idea, that these characters our writers, artists, and editors have endowed with powers vastly superior to anything occurring in nature, should be so subservient to us. Not just to our elite rulers, but even to the weakest and meekest of us.

My single favorite Batman comic book story that I've ever read is "The Nobody" (Batman: Shadow of the Bat #13), by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle. In it, Batman has an altercation one night. He winds up being unmasked in an alley, unwittingly in the sight of a dying homeless man. The man sees his chance to rise above his circumstances and goes to sell the secret identity of Batman. He's betrayed and mortally wounded, but he survives long enough to realize he needs to make amends and tells Bruce what he's done.
"This city's steeped in evil -- rotten through and through!
"It's built on graft -- corruption -- greed. It'll never change, you must know that.
"So tell me, Batman -- why do you do what you do?
"Why do you do it, Batman?"
"I do it for the weak, and the scared, and the oppressed. I do it for the victims -- the innocent -- the abused.
"I do it to try to end the suffering...
"And I do it for the nobodies."

That's a far cry from the likes of the powerful beings who demanded homage and fealty from mortals centuries ago. It is this element above all else that I believe explains the wide appeal of superheroes today. We have always been fascinated with the idea of being more than we are; being able to fly, to move mountains with our bare hands, to be invincible. These things have driven the imagination since time immemorial. That imagination led the Wright brothers to Kitty Hawk, and sent Neil Armstrong to the moon.

But it is our sense of responsibility and compassion as a society that has made these characters our servants, rather than our paternalistic rulers. As much as we want to know that we can be more than we are today, we also want to know that with that "great power" will "come great responsibility."

Did I just argue that Stan Lee is a greater philosopher than Homer?

Yes. I think I did.

13 March 2014

Wizard World Louisville

Wizard World is finally doing a show here in Louisville. And guess what? (Chicken butt.) I'm going to moderate a panel there! I've had the idea for awhile now, but hadn't pitched it to any other convention. This time, though, I went for it and lo and behold, they liked it!

"That's great, but what's the concept?"

It's pretty simple, actually. Knowing that comic book fans like debating things, and knowing that movies have been mining comics for the last decade or so with increasing success, I thought it would be fun to use Flickchart to generate a series of head-to-head matches of movies based on comics to debate. It should wind up being something of a kangaroo court, I guess. Here's the official blurb (which I wrote):
In this unique panel, we will pit your favorite comic-based movies against one another using randomly generated head-to-head matches from the website Flickchart. What do we really love in a comic-based movie? When has Hollywood surpassed our hopes? Are they good comic-book movies, or are they good movies? Audience vote will decide the winner of each match, from which a ranked list will be created. (ROOM 210)
"Uh, but what about your, y'know, unpredictable health?"

Good question, and one that's been on my mind since before I even thought about pitching this idea. What makes Wizard World Louisville the perfect show for me to do this is that some of my friends live really close to the convention center. I won't say how close, for various reasons, but let's just say that I have little concern about winding up trapped in a bathroom downtown. If it comes down to it, I can hole up at their place the whole day, dash over to the convention center, do the panel, and go back to their place until I'm well enough to go back home.

Mornings are my roughest time of day, and luckily for me, my panel wound up being scheduled near the end of the day, at 5:30. That will help. Plus, the panel is only 45 minutes. That will keep us from getting very far with the discussions, of course, and I'm hopeful that my guts will cooperate and I'll feel great that day, but if not, I'd rather only have to get through 45 minutes than an hour. (Fifteen otherwise short minutes pass very differently during a flare.) And post-convention traffic isn't a concern for me, either, since I'm not going to try to compete with everyone to clear out at the end of the day. I can lay low as long as I need to until I feel confident getting out of Dodge.

If the panel had been scheduled earlier in the day, my plan was just to spend the night with him the night before, thereby getting the drive from my home to that area out of the way when it would be easier for me. You just don't even know how important the proximity of his place to the convention center is to reassuring me that, one way or another, I'll be able to tough it out and do this.

"Well, sure, but what about your anxiety issues that have spiraled out of hand the last year or so?"

Knowing I have some place nearby to retreat to if I need it alleviates a lot of anxiety. The hustle and bustle of the convention itself is still a concern, though. Strangely, I've always felt comfortable speaking in public so I'm more likely to be overwhelmed just being there than I am in leading a panel discussion. Plus, I can take an anti-anxiety pill without having to worry about driving home after the panel.

"You can get me in, right?"

Pfft. I wish! I'm afraid I can't help with your admission. I can't even get you a discount. Hell, I'm only even able to attend at all because I'll be singing for my supper with this panel.

So, if you've ever wanted to see me speak in public, this is your big chance. Come on out! It should be fun. Plus, it'll be at the end of the day, so you can scope out the rest of the show without having to stop what you're doing to come to my panel. I was looking at the rest of the programming and several of the other panels sound interesting, too. As long as my health doesn't interfere, there's a real good chance you'll find me attending "Batman at 75" earlier that afternoon.

My panel, "Movie Match-Up", is scheduled for Saturday, 29 March at 5:30 in Room 210 at the Kentucky International Convention Center. Among the celebrity guests that will be on-hand is actor Matt Smith (of Doctor Who fame). He's speaking at 6:15, and even though he'll be in a different room, I'm forever going to claim that I "opened" for him. Plus, my panel is the last one scheduled for Room 210, so I'm also going to claim that I was the headliner for that room.

For ticketing and other information, visit Wizard World Louisville.