Tuesday, October 31, 2006

John Clare’s Mouse’s Nest (Commonplace Book)

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And proged it as I passed and went away
And when I looked I fancied something stirred
And turned agen and hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat
With all her young ones hanging at her teats
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood
When the mouse hurried from the crawling brood
The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay
The water oer the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Planetary: A rant about story failures

In Planetary 26 we finally see Dowling, for the first time other than in a flashback, after a six year buildup. We have been teased with his weird power, some kind of mind worms ("Everyone who has ever met Dowling probably is Dowling."). We don't get to see his power at all. He scans Elijah for anything dangerous, finds nothing, and hands over all his secrets. (?!) Why he does not scan the Drummer is beyond me. * Then Elijah announces the Drummer handed him a special device that means that no information will work in this area save one kind. That was an awfully powerful magic chip Dowling forgot to scan for. Then Elijah takes a door out and the ground rumbles and the shiftship from issue 4 appears and Dowling and Kim Suskind just fall to their deaths. After six years they die off screen. We get to see their bodies later. In the first few pages of the same issue Elijah just announces that Greene and Leather are dead. All four of the Planetary's main villains die off screen.

In the last quarter of Planetary Ellis established a new theme -- Elijah realizes the Four are just not that big a deal. In the big drug trip issue Elijah learns he must have a bigger purpose than hounding these four people. So on one level the end of the Four in Planetary 26 makes sense -- if they are no big deal their deaths should be no big deal. But I think the narrative demanded a better end for the story's big bad guys, and I don't think theme is a good enough reason to go to the zoo. Planetary 26 is just lazy writing.

It's not the first time: Remember when Wonder Woman was stabbed through the spine in JLA/Planetary and then at the end she was suddenly fine, saved the day, and then the book ended? You know how she survived? I don't either and Ellis does not leave so much as a clue. John Stone had an evil magic red hand in Planetary 25. Do you know what it could do to people? -- I don't either because we never saw it in action. ** You cannot just tell the audience something is scary. You have to show them. You cannot build expectations for the arrival of Greene, then have him "arrive" in broad daylight, suddenly, a threat to no character I have spent time with, and then unceremoniously blast him into space. For that scene to work something needs to be at stake. If I am to take Greene seriously as a threat, I must see him be a threat to a character I care about. Once again, I cannot be told that he is bad news -- I need you to show me that he is bad news. Anything less is lazy writing. That is basic storytelling, and Ellis should know better and I am ticked off about it.

You can tell me I am wrong, but you better back it up with reasons or you are getting yelled at.

[* Added November 1, 2006: People are right to yell at me and tell me there is an explicit reason why Dowling does not scan the Drummer -- in the issue he says he can't because of the Drummer's powers. I should rant more accurately, but I think the point stands: if Dowling can't deal with the Drummer at all he should be smart enough not to come, or have some kind of plan, knowing that the Drummer could be concealing just about anything. My problem is not really about the Drummer it is about Dowling being phenomenally stupid when he is supposed to be the series Big Bad (as they say on Buffy). I apologize for my inaccurate and sloppy hyperbole. ]

** [Added Novemer 1, 2006: Yes, I know the claw is from another comic book like everything in the Planetary is. My point is that before issue 15 Ellis would reinvent these things and now he is just reusing them, relying on old comics to do his work for him in a way that, prior to 15, he did not.]

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Honda: The Power of Dreams (Impossible Dream)

I saw the full-length version of Honda’s Power of Dreams (Impossible Dream) ad in front of a movie recently, and I was knocked out by it. You can watch it here, on youtube. I know everyone has already praised it already, but I don't mind being late to the party.

It is perfectly simple: a man lip-synchs to Dean Martin’s version of the song “Impossible Dream” (from Man of La Mancha) while riding, in a series, increasingly complex vehicles. In a nicely specific detail, he is not an everyman, but rather a concrete guy with a vaguely 70s look, and he may be a kind of daredevil stunt man. His progress, combined with the song, is a clear but not pedantic way of indicating Honda’s desire to make better and better products. More than an image, it is a plot: the vehicles are increasingly dangerous as well as complex, and the commercial plays with having him crash and burn before we realize that he is saved (by Honda’s ingenuity). What I find most striking about the commercial is the way it revitalizes the song, which has become such a clichĂ© I don’t think I have ever really heard it before. (In the same way, it is very difficult to “hear” Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech; we have heard it so many times that, unless we work hard, it registers as no more than “hey, that’s that famous ‘to be or not to be’ speech"). The song builds in intensity as the plot of the commercial progresses, and, in part because we see him singing, we pay attention to the lyrics, we hear them freshly and feel the progression of the song in a direct way. To revitalize something great that has become dusty: Ellis’s version of the Fantastic Four in Planetary, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman, and a Honda ad. Go figure.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Comics Out 25 October 2006

Four things this week:

1

Last week had a lot of stuff I was looking forward to: Grant Morrison and Jim Lee's Wildcats #1, Morrison and Gene Ha's Authority #1, and my new favorite book, Cassanova, #5. But this week, two of the most important comic book series come to a kind of end: Morrison and J.H. William III's Seven Soldiers #1 ends one of the best and uniquely ambitious comic book projects ever; and after SIX years Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's Planetary, with the exception of an epilogue, closes.

Planetary was the book that pretty much inspired How to Read Superhero Comics and Why. Before issue 15 it seemed like it was going to be as important as Watchmen. Alas, it was only a great idea for a book, and not a great book, as its slow publishing schedule meant that it continued on after it was really relevant; it was riffing quite heavily on the X-Files and the X-Files ended badly and now feels like something from an age gone by, something very 90s. Remember that there are more issues of Seven Soldiers than there are of Planetary, even though Planetary is six years old and Seven Soldiers began less than two years ago. And Seven Soldiers is better. Ellis and Cassaday clearly lost patience for Planetary -- much of the issues after 15 seemed like a sloppy race to the finish line. (Ellis: "Perhaps Elijah's purpose can be that he saves things! Wait ... I better stop the plot three issues before the climax to show how he saved the Drummer to establish that." Cassaday: "I can reuse a panel of Stone's finger nail gadget from issue 11 in issue 25 if I reverse the image and change the colors!").

2

Bad news at Newsarama: Morrison's Wildstorm books last week were lackluster, I thought, though the Authority was at least ... interesting (a hybrid of a superhero book and Sphere). Since they both merely establish the status quo they could get great when the status quo changes (as each book claims it will). Unfortunately the status quo on Wildcats won't change for quite some time as issue two won't come out for 5 MONTHS. It has been cancelled and will be re-solicited in January, to be out in March. Whedon's Astonishing X-Men has only been pushed back to November 8.

3

Also (sort of comics related) November's Wired magazine published 33 short stories of only six words each. Neal Stephenson, who usually writes novels upward of 2500 pages came up with
Tick tock tick tock tick tick.
That's ok, I guess. You will not be surprised who managed to write a great one. Here is Joss Whedon's entry:
Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.
Hilarious. It's the comma that makes it art.

(Liam forwarded this from a friend who blogged about it).

4

In other news Mitch has a new article up at Silver Bullet Comics. It's called X-traordinary People: Mary Tyler Moore and the Mutants Explore Pop Psychology, and it looks like fun.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Gerard Manley Hopkins's Spring and Fall (Commonplace Book)

Hopkins, I cannot help but point out, was a fellow Balliol man. In point of fact in his life he never used his middle name. The fact that we know him by the three names today seems to be because of later editors, for some reason. Here is the poem, which has fantastic rhythms:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With you fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Ethics as Aesthetics: Aaron Sorkin

Last Sorkin post for a while, until I am ready to write about why Studio 60 is not working.

Plato distrusted the arts, because he was concerned that its beautiful illusions would interfere with day-to-day morality. People would be under the illusion that they had access to truth, when they had only fictions. Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night, the first four seasons of West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) is Plato best enemy. On the surface, Sorkin’s characters -- almost all of them, even the bad guys -- appear to be the apotheosis of ethical models in art: loving, strong, smart, deeply principled. Just to name a single example, an entire episode of Sports Night is given over to one of the main characters struggling to choose a charity to donate money to. Sorkin is a genius, one of the greatest living writers in any medium (I would put him alongside Grant Morrison and John Ashbery, and I plan to at some point). But he uses ethics, not as a model, but as an aesthetic device, the way a painter might select a particularly picturesque tree. The only complaints I have heard against Sorkin -- at least until Studio 60 -- boil down to the same objection: he is not realistic. But complaining that Sorkin is not realistic is like complaining that ice cream has no nutritional value, it misses the point. Sorkin is the only genuine – which is to say persuasive – inheritor of the films of Frank Capra, especially Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra is a filmmaker who is such a part of Americana that it can be hard to see how watching his films can be anything other than a study of the nostalgias, especially as Its a Wonderful Life hits with such regularity at Christmas. But they are great films, and Sorkin keeps them alive. Ethics as Aesthetics, beautiful, moving, unrealistic objects. Screw content. Sorkin is pure style over substance. I don't care that much what writers have to say -- as someone once noted Milton could have put all his thoughts on God into four or five pages -- I care how they say it. And Sorkin is a master.

On Studio 60 the parts are there, but they are just not persuasive in the same way. But that is for later.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Studio 60 and Allusion 2

The pilot of Studio 60 also alludes to real life in order to ingratiate us to one of the main actors -- when we are introduced to Matthew Perry his character is high on pain killers from his recent back surgery, an allusion to actor Matthew Perry's long time and public addiction to pain killers. Sorkin alludes to the actor's troubled past in order to transmute his bad reputation into comedy. Matthew Perry is instantly likeable for this reason; we feel he has admitted something to us, and so we feel closer to him (as we would to a friend who had confided in us). This tactic is not new for Sorkin -- the pilot of West Wing involved Rob Lowe's character getting dangerously close to a sex scandal, something the actor was very familiar with.

My fourth, and for now final, allusion in Studio 60 is in the fourth episode, which involves everyone realizing that, in the show within the show, they just aired someone else's jokes as their own; they scramble to revise the West Coast feed by inserting live material into the copy of the show that aired live on the East Coast. In the end it turns out that the "stolen" material was itself stolen -- stolen from a writer who wrote it under contract for Studio 60. It turns out there was no plagiarism, because the network owned the original material. They were "stealing" from themselves. What is funny about this is that Sorkin has an almost shameless ability to reuse his own material. The most dramatic example is the West Wing episode "Someone's Going to Emergency, Someone's Going to Jail" in which Rob Lowe, having discovered his parents are divorcing because his father has been having an affair with a woman for more that twenty years, gets crazy over a work related thing that, unconsciously, is a metaphor for his current situation. The exact same plot is the subject of the Sports Night episode "The Sword of Orion". Dozens and dozens of situations, lines of dialogue, kinds of jokes appear in all three shows (and in Sorkin's A Few Good Men); here is a whole list of them. The point is that just as Sorkin alludes to Perry and Lowe's personal history in the shows, he alludes to his own history as well, in order to charm viewers with self-knowledge.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Comics Out 18 October 2006

A good week for comics: Douglas Rushkoff and Liam Sharp's Testament 11, Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba's Casanova 5, and a double bill of Grant Morrison's Wildstorm relaunch with Wildcats 1 (art by Jim Lee) and The Authority 1 (art by Gene Ha). I will hold of reviewing these until next week, though I may say something in the comments section.

Strong potential stuff this week, but gear up: a week from today Planetary, with the exception of an epilogue, ends (we will see the defeat of the Four, I imagine) and Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers ends with an extra large issue drawn by superstar J.H. Williams III.

In comics news this week Marvel and DC's January solicits are up at Newsarama.com.

Plus -- and I know it is not exactly comics news, but Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodreguiz are making a movie -- the trailer is up and it looks absurd, amazing. It's called Grindhouse. I would link to youtube, but it keeps getting put up and taken down so you will have to hunt for it yourselves. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Robert Creeley's The Rain (Commonplace Book)

All night the sound had
come back again,
and again falls
this quiet, persistent rain.

What am I to myself
that must be remembered,
insisted upon
so often? Is it

that never the ease,
even the hardness,
of rain falling
will have for me

something other than this,
something not so insistent--
am I to be locked in this
final uneasiness.

Love, if you love me,
lie next to me.
Be for me, like rain,
the getting out

of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
Be wet
with a decent happiness.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Studio 60 and Allusion 1

I wanted to walk through a few allusions in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, to show on how many levels Aaron Sorkin’s writing works. You don’t need to have noticed any of this to love the show; much of it works on a subliminal level anyway.

This post is, I think, a good example of the intellectual back-patting that Ping33 and Salon.com have complained about. While I still think Studio 60 is one of the best shows on television, I will admit that some of the old Sorkin magic is missing. Until I am ready to articulate exactly what has gone wrong, however, I want to concentrate on what I do like, even if it is exactly what others hate; the show has problems, but I don't think the smart stuff I am going to discuss in this post and at least two others is among them.

Sorkin alludes to his two other television shows in the teaser to the pilot of Studio 60. Long before Desperate Housewives and Transamerica Felicity Huffman was one of the main stars of Sorkin’s Sports Night, like Studio 60, a television show about putting on a television show. She is here to remind viewers of the continuity between Sports Night and Studio 60. When Judd Hirsch interrupts the fictional Studio 60’s live broadcast, he interrupts a sketch about George Bush in the Oval Office; Tommy Schlamme – Sorkin’s main director on both Sports Night and the West Wing – alludes to their second earlier show as he copies his famous camera push through the Oval Office Window – though here he breaks into a sketch comedy recreation of the Oval Office of George Bush rather than President Bartlett’s Oval Office. The set of the West Wing was the most expensive set ever built for a television pilot; here we see it for what it always was – a set.

At the end of the second episode of Studio 60 Steven Webber says to Amanda Peete “You’ve got spunk, kid,” and she replies, and he says it with her, “I hate spunk.” It works even if you don’t know where it is coming from, but it works better if you know that the line is from the pilot of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Like Amanda Peete’s character Mary, on the show, is a single woman trying to make a career behind the scenes of a television show. And of course, the line quoted in the show is delivered by Ed Asner, who had a cameo in the pilot of Studio 60, and appears in episode five.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Essays on Firefly and House

BenBella is putting out two more Smart Pop books, one on Firefly/Serenity (a sequel to their Finding Serenity, edited by Jane Espenson) and one on House; I have been asked to contribute to each (I already have an essay in the Veronica Mars book due out soon). For House I will write on Hugh Laurie's career as it leads up to the character of Doctor Gregory House, and for Firefly, on the complex and interesting story structure of the episode "Out of Gas." I will keep everyone updated on these projects.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

On Blogging (for Reconstruction.ws)

A few years ago I edited an issue of the online journal Reconstruction (the issue in which my essay on the X-Men and Gnosticism appeared). This week they have an issue on the theories and practice of blogging. They asked a host of people to blog about blogging so that that the journal can link to each one, creating a kind of hypertext collection of thoughts on the subject. This is my entry.

I like comics and movies and TV and poetry and music. Because I have all kinds of advanced training in English literature, when I read a book or watch a movie, I notice stuff. My superhero book attempted to collect all the things I noticed about comics into a single book-length argument. But truth be told, the thesis of the book came very late; it was not until I was nearly done that I realized that the connecting thread could be the argument about how the new comics I wanted to talk about constituted the successor to the industry’s Golden and Silver ages. It is the little observations about each comic book, rather than the big argument, that I think is the real value of the study. And when I read books it is the moment to moment observations that stay with me, rather than the big argument or story.

Blogging allows each little observation worthy of a bigger argument to be published, and available, before the book they belong in has been written, or even imagined.

Everyone needs to have a large discussion about the future of the University and the internet. If primary texts can be available on the web, for free, and academic essays and even books can be available in the form of blogs, for free, and if lectures by any professor can be recorded with a cell phone and thrown up on youtube, for free, then a very large part of an Oxbridge or Ivy League education can be had for free, at home, right now, by anyone with a decent computer connection.

The consequences of this fact – for established professors, and for future students and teachers – have not been thought through. But every time an academic pushes the “publish” button on blogger (or what have you) we get a little bit closer to the answer, good or bad. I, for one, cannot stop pushing that button.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Comics Out 11 October 2006

Nothing for me this week, though you are welcome to try and change my mind. And as always you can recommend, review and discuss the week in comics.

Our own Mitch has a review of the DVD X-Men: The Last Stand at silverbulletcomics.com. I am sure his review of the extras is accurate, but you all know that I found the film vile. (If you want to read the review go to the archives link in the right column, read the post for May 26th, and follow the link to the Oxford student newspaper).

Newsarama has a preview of the first few pages of Grant Morrison and Jim Lee's Wildcats; I avoided them myself, since I would rather read the issue all in one go, but there they are. Also at Newsarama (in the More News column on the right, under October 6) -- the truly surreal press release for the Guiding Light / Avengers crossover. Soap Operas are one of my main guilty pleasures, so this one has my attention. I cannot believe that Jimmy James (from Newsradio) has not yet jumped out and yelled "April Fools!" Any minute now. I am sure about this. Right?

I also thought, since I launched the debate last week, I would drop quick impression reviews of House of M, Civil War, and Infinite Crisis.

House of M was a pretty bog-standard "big" comic book story raised ever so slightly by the fact that Bendis is capable of more realistic dialogue that most comic book writers; the story had huge ramifications, which did not seem at all necessary to me, either in terms of the core story or in terms of the Marvel Universe. Plus Bendis seemed to think he was writing, at least partly, a mystery story (who made Wanda change the world?) with a twist ending. That whole aspect seemed to me very unimportant, but then, suddenly, at the end, it was the big issue. That's not good writing. Nor is the little girl who can magically "deprogram" everyone.

Civil War (the first four issues) is, as Starrlett and Mitch said, fun just in that World Series sense; I haven't been following the season, but it is nice to see all these guys on a big stage. Yeah it's silly and I could complain, but it has some nice scenes (Sue's letter, Thor showing up) and the art is quite good (the uniforms in particular are very physical, and damaged, which is a nice touch). I could do without the pretentious "A Marvel Event in Seven Parts", however; that bothered me most of all. It's like Morrison's Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. Terrible. Have more fun.

I was shocked to discover I actually liked Infinite Crisis. It is a total mess, cracking under the weight of a 12 (or 15) issue story smashed into 7 issues, a huge cast, and like 7 lead in mini-series. But it embraced a lot of the crazy, only occasionally dipping into unforgivable ridiculousness (that image of Alexander Luthor with the two huge balls), and I give extra points for exuberance and audacity. Not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but a pulpy page turner, I thought.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

From Donald Barthelme's Snow White (Commonplace Book)

Then we went out to wash the buildings. Clean buildings fill your eyes with sunlight, and your heart with the idea that man is perfectible. Also they are good places to look at girls from, those high, swaying wooden platforms: you get a rare view, gazing at the tops of their red and gold and plum-colored heads. Viewed from above they are like targets, the plum-colored head the center of the target, the wavy navy skirt the bold circumference. The white or black legs flopping out in front are like someone waving his arms over the top of the target and calling, "You missed the center by not allowing sufficiently for the wind!" We are very much tempted to shoot our arrows into them, those targets. You know what that means. But we also pay attention to the buildings, gray and noble in their false architecture and cladding. There are Tiparillos in our faces and heavy jangling belts around our waists, and water in our buckets and squeegees on our poles. And we have our beer bottles up there too, and drink beer for a second breakfast, even though that is against the law, but we are so high up, no one can be sure. It's too bad Hogo de Bergerac isn't here with us, because maybe the experience would be good for him, would make him less loathsome. But he would probably just seize the occasion to perform some new loathsome act. He would probably just throw beer cans down into the street, to make irritating lumps under the feet of those girls who, right this minute, are trying to find the right typewriter, in the correct building.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Lost and "Make Your Own Kind Of Music"

Brad tells me that in LA, once something hits DVD, all bets are off, spoiler-wise, and everyone can speak freely about the secret twist ending or whatever. (I think discussions of comics, after the first week, should never need spoiler space, since comics are read only by die-hards, but that is a subject for another day). With the second season of Lost on DVD, I am going to talk about its first episode. If you have not seen it, and you are sure you are going to, stop reading now. You also might want to go download the song from somewhere, if you have not heard it.

The teaser -- the pre-credits sequence -- for the first episode of the second season of Lost is, outside of The West Wing, the most riveting television I have ever seen. One of the things that makes the sequence great it is that it revolves around the Mama Cass song "Make Your Own Kind of Music." In the the first season finale, our heroes blow open the island's mysterious hatch. The second season opens with a guy whose face we don't see in a white shirt and shorts leaping out of bed to answer some kind of alarm. He types at an old fashioned computer. Then he puts a record on -- Mama Cass's "Make Your Own Kind of Music" -- and we see his morning montage -- food in a blender, wash the single bowl in a nice sink, sit-ups on a piece of equipment, jogging on a treadmill, then off to a room full of weapons to inject something into his arm with one of those futuristic injection guns. As he goes to inject himself a dull explosion from far away rattles the place, causing dust to fall from the ceiling and knocking the needle off of the record just as the song hit the second chorus. The figure, tense, makes preparations, and a tracking shot reveals that this is no kind of flashback -- this is what is in the hatch.

Pop songs are about building tension through the verses and then exploding into the big satisfying chorus everyone is waiting for. Lost, of course, has built a lot of tension about what is in the hatch and is about to reveal the answer. Much like many ABBA songs, however, "Make Your Own Kind of Music" seems in a rush to get to the big chorus. The first verse seems to have barely begun when she bursts into "MAAAAKE YOUR OWN KIND OF MUSIC! SIIIIING YOUR OWN SPECIAL SONG!" It is a typical product of feel good 70s pop. The song is maniacally optimistic. Its nearly hysterical assertions are the opposite of Hamlet's oft quoted "thou dos't protest too much." The song asserts too much, as it were, especially as it breaks its own rhythm on "even if nobody else sings along". The fact that it has this double edged sense today -- the way it almost seems ironic now -- is why it is such a good choice for Lost.

As we get into the larger story about the hatch, we learn about the Dharma corporation. The fact that they selected such a song to put in the hatch speaks directly to the kind of "can-do" science that seems to drive them. In the case of our lone figure Desmond, the song -- an anthem about being an individual even when there is pressure to conform -- has a double meaning. On the one hand his individuality has been replaced by the will of the Dharma corporation; he mindlessly follows their orders. On the other hand he has been on his own in the hatch for a long time and so the "make your own way" theme is personal and direct and a reason to get up in the morning; the second verse begins, "You're gonna be lonely. The loneliest kind of lonely. It may be rough going. Just to do your own thing is the hardest thing to do" before it again hits the big chorus.

One of the big accomplishments of the scene is that we don't feel the influence of Tarantino, but we should -- an upbeat seventies song is being used out of context in a weird and pulpy story. The best example of this is in Kill Bill, when Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman fight in the snow to Santa Esmeralda's nearly eleven minute "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." Unlike "Make Your Own Kind of Music" "Don't Let me Be Misunderstood" builds a lot of tension, refusing to get to the big explosion for quite some time. But just as in Lost's "Make Your Own Music," Kill Bill's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" is violently interrupted when it hits its big moment; just as we are getting into listening to it, it suddenly stops to bring home on-screen violence. But I will save that song, and that scene, for another discussion. For now, "Make Your Own Kind of Music" stands out as one of Lost's best thought through details.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Brad Winderbaum's Satacracy 88: Episode Three

The third episode of Satacracy 88 is up at itsallinyourhands.com, and in it we begin to get a much larger sense of the world in which Angela (Diahnna Nicole Baxter) lives. If you have not seen it or voted, see it, vote, then come back here for the commentary.

The episode begins with one of Soderbergh's best devices: a visual on which the sound from the next scene intrudes. As Angela runs, bloody from committing murder, we hear Martin's gurgles before we cut to him. The death of Martin, Angela's boyfriend we hardly knew, is violent, stylish (that perfect drop of blood), surprisingly technically proficient (Nikki Koumas, in charge of special effects and make-up, is, after all, on a shoestring budget), and not entirely without humor. The alarm clock goes off only moments after Angela has stabbed him in the neck, and he ironically dies to an upbeat song by Khalil Anthony (one that finds it proper relevance as it joins the image of Angela running). To make matters worse, his cell phone is also going off with a call from "S. Carter." As we will learn in the course of the episode Sandy Carter has every reason to think Martin is dying at just that moment; the bastard is calling just to be mean.

Michael Jaynes controls the episode, both on the narrative level (he is clearly the top dog) and as an actor. A subtle riff on Gary Oldman's car-dealer-as-super villain character in The Fifth Element, Sandy Carter immediately gives the impression of a old-school shit-kicking southerner who has risen the ranks; he has gotten rid of a lot of the accent, and now wears a suit, but he still sports that Colonel Sanders goatee and at heart he is still the jackass old-boy Confederate flag waving bouncer he was in his youth. Here the race theme I spoke of last time reasserts itself without going to far, but remember that Susan (Cassie Pappas), the epitome of the beautiful white blonde, calls Angela "sister" when they meet in this episode.

The details are again lovely. Brad focuses in on Angela's painted toes more than once (it is the opening shot), recalling Tarantino's fascination with the feet of his leading female assassin in Kill Bill. (Cassie Pappas carefully doing her nails in the background emphasizes this by reversal: we are supposed to notice a woman doing her nails -- it is THE sign of indifference -- but toenail polish usually goes unremarked). "The Left Hand of Ariel Zim", an inspired title, has the same pulpy feel of Kill Bill's "The Lonely Grave of Paula Schultz."

The giant chip the workers take out of the neck of Martin, like the electric disappearing knife, is quite nice -- the only reason it is so big is that Brad, like J.J. Abrams on Lost, wants his sci-fi to be the sci-fi of the 1970s; it is only a matter of time before we get those fun old computers with the reels of tape. Brad uses blurs to great effect in this episode, to communicate disorientation, and he gets a great shot of Angela at the end, held by the throat and doing something to the electric lights as Carter glowers above her in top-notch B-villain form.

And my favorite bit: when Susan goes for the knife that disappears, she bites her pinkie fingernail. It is a gesture that is halfway between the frustration of a little girl and that "I wasn't doing that I was doing this the whole time" act (like people who suddenly decide they are going to not try and make the light at the crosswalk and attempt to make their return to the sidewalk look like something other than indecision).

In a month, the story continues.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Comics Out 4 October 2006

The Infinite Crisis hardcover is out this week, and, having missed the whole thing because the hype was making me crazy, I finally decided to check it out. Brad also talked me into reading Civil War, so I picked up issues 2, 3, and 4 (I originally got 1 and decided to skip the rest). Noticing a pattern, I also grabbed the House of M trade -- I will now catch up on all the comics I missed while I was avoiding "big events" and following my reliable favorite writers and artists. What can I say? -- I was busy reading Seven Soldiers, All Star Superman, the Ultimates, and Astonishing X-Men.

The big event comics all seemed bad to me; ultimately I decided as a comic book fan I could not ignore them. Weigh in: do you feel like you have to buy these things? Don't you feel like your money could be buying something better? Or, as people who care about this industry, is getting all the big events the responsible, informed thing to do? Discuss; also recommend and comment on what you are reading. I will let you know how my reading goes when I finish.

Also out this week is the third installment of Brad Winderbaum's Satacracy 88 at itsallinyourhands.com (link in the bar on the right). For the new kids Satacracy 88 is a series of free four minute live action chose your own adventure movies about a female assassin. Go see it and vote, then return here tomorrow for the commentary. You are going to like what you see.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Harold Bloom on Freud and Love (Commonplace Book)

The child sucking at his mother's breast becomes [in Freud] the paradigm for all sexual pleasure in later life, and Freud asserts that to begin with, sexual activity props itself upon the vital function of nourishment by the mother's milk. Thumb-sucking and the sensual smacking of the lips then gives Freud the three characteristics of infantile sexual manifestation. These are: (1) Propping, at the origin, upon a vital somatic function; (2) auto-eroticism, or the lack of a sexual object; (3) domination of sexual aim by an erotogenic zone; here, the lips. It is at this point in his discussion that Freud makes one of his uncanniest leaps, relying on his extraordinary trope of propping. While the propping of the sexual drive upon the vial order still continues, the sexual drive finds its first object outside the infant's body in the mother's breast, and the milk ensuing from it. Suddenly Freud surmises that just at the time the infant is capable of forming a total idea of the mother, quite abruptly the infant loses the initial object of the mother's breast, and tragically is thrown back on auto-eroticism. Consequently, the sexual drive has no proper object again until after the latency period has transpired, and adolescence begins. Hence that dark and infinitely suggestive Freudian sentence: "The finding of an object is in fact a re-finding of it."

Thus human sexuality, alas, on this account has not had, from its very origins, any real object. The only real object was milk, which belongs to the vital order. Hence the sorrows and the authentic anguish of all human erotic quest, hopelessly seeking to rediscover an object, which was never the true object anyway.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Dexter

Dexter is Showtime's new TV series about a cop who is also a serial killer. After years of movies and television shows playing though the theme of the link between the cop and the killer, this kind of a show is somewhat inevitable, and its high concept a little exhausting. If you don't like plots about serial killers Dexter will get on your nerves, as it is such a desperate attempt to keep a tired genre alive; if you do like serial killer plots -- or if, like me, you don't care that much one way or the other -- its hard not to admit that, in spite of the transparent premise, the first episode of Dexter is a pretty good piece of craftsmanship: the acting, the structure, the tone, the characters and their conflicts are surprisingly well thought out and engaging. Though nowhere near the brilliance of Joss Whedon, it has this in common with his shows -- a dumb idea executed well enough to rise above the dumbness (Whedon soars above the dumbness).

Dexter, played by Michael C. Hall (from Six Feet Under), is a CSI style blood spatter forensic expert by day. By night he hunts the rapists and child molesters that escape the system by getting off on technicalities or what not. What separates him from the more violent superhero vigilantes is the imagery and tone of his killings; Dexter conceives of himself as a serial killer. His foster father, Harry, was a cop; when Dexter began showing signs of having been born a serial killer at a young age Harry helped him channel his darkness in the service of something good, killing monsters. Now his city, Miami, has a new genius serial killer in town, one that is clearly challenging Dexter both as cop (catch him) and fellow killer (Dexter is amazed at this new guy's skills).

What really saves the show is the tone, which, while dark, is pulpy, fun, and a little bit silly at times (not unlike CSI). Dexter has a dumb, insecure but very cute sister on the force trying to make it as a homicide cop, even though no one will take her seriously; he does his best to help her by giving her access to his insights about the new killer. Like Patrick Bateman, from American Psycho, Dexter is completely empty inside and has to mimic, as best he can, normal social and emotional interactions. Rather than play up the horror of this isolation, Dexter uses it to earn our sympathy for this character who cannot understand simple things like sex, but kind of wants to. His girlfriend, Julie Benz from Buffy, never has sex with him because of past trauma in her life; when she tries, he tries with her, but is clearly relieved when they are interrupted. It's kind of sweet actually. I can only hope it holds its own for a while until the penultimate episode's inevitable reveal that the new serial killer in town is Dexter's biological father.

Dexter premiered Sunday night, but the first episode will be replayed many times; if you don't have Showtime it will play during the free Showtime preview later this week (October 6 - 13).