Saturday, May 31, 2008

POLITICS VIDEOGAMES- Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

As you’ve probably heard, an intelligence contractor for the US gov. released pictures they found on a “password protected” (you know, like your home wi-fi network) internet site which were supposedly Al-Qaeda photoshops of plans for a nucular (George Bush) attack on Wershington (John McCain). They turned out to be pictures from a Bethesda Softworks website for Fallout 3- Homunculus Homeland Security: Keystone Kops Edition. The contractor, SITE Intel Group, is based in Bethesda, Maryland as is the eponymously named Bethesda Softworks.

It’s a good thing that Al-Qaeda is a bunch of middle eastern rednecks (you know, hateful, ignorant, inbred, opinionated, bigoted, losers who have to resort to mandates from omnipotent imaginary friends to bolster their self image in the face of the fact that they seem to be on the bottom half of the bell curve- rednecks) because otherwise we’d be in a heap of trouble when you consider that the people supposedly defending us are so…clueless. The Katrina syllogism is in full effect. The major premise is that Katrina was like a terrorist attack with several days of warning. The minor premise is that the government should be able to protect us from terrorist attack. The conclusion is that we’re fucked.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

COMICS- The Rocketeer is Dead

Dave Stevens has died.

It was over a month ago, but since my connection with comic books is tenuous at best these days I only found out about it today. I was finishing BATMAN UNAUTHORIZED edited by Denny O’Neil (yes- THAT Denny O’Neil!) and part of the SMART POP series which I have just discovered, when a suggestion for a link caused me to do a Google search on Stevens’ name. Imagine how shocked I was to find that what Google was most interested in was his recent death.

Dave Stevens? If you don’t know, how can I tell you? Disney made a movie from his greatest and, perhaps only, creation in 1991. He was a gifted artist and comic book creator who transformed the comic zeitgeist in the early 1980s, riding the wake of the (relative) financial success of the first wave of independent comic creators into a chance to devote himself to a love of 1950s pop culture. He single handedly brought Bettie Page back from obscurity (truthfully, he introduced Bettie Page to the biggest audience she would ever have) and was no doubt the reason a movie was made about her a few years ago. (With an uncanny performance by Gretchen Mol.) He influenced a generation of comic book artists and remained a shining light in graphic illustration long after he gave up sequential narrative to do spot illustrations and covers.

Stevens’ artistic style hearkened back to a different era. In a time when comic books had been transformed by the independently published work of artists such as Wendy Pini and Dave Sim and when the work of Frank Miller and John Byrne was beginning to make the established publishers look for new talent, Rocketeer burst on the scene almost fully realized. Here were none of the inventive panel layouts of Miller’s Daredevil or the Kirby inked by Adams influence of John Byrne’s X-Men. Stevens drew his inspiration, not from the silver age but from the best of the classic golden age artists- Alex Raymond, Wally Wood, Frank Frazetta. His drawings were somehow both more cartoony and more realistic than mainstream comics yet without resorting to the illustrative shortcuts that were so common among the independent artists of the time. His panel layouts were simple yet dramatic. His inking showed a mastery of line weight that was all but forgotten in mainstream comics. His art style completely eschewed the overwrought cross-hatching and moody shadows that had blighted the industry in the wake of Adams and Miller. Instead of the strum and drang of the last twenty years of the medium trying for mainstream acceptance, his draftsmanship and story sense was more like a breath of cool air from a vintage Frigidaire.

So great was his influence that it broke though one college students current obsession with DaVinci and Rembrant to once again imprint upon him the comic book aesthetic that has interested him in art long before his first day at school. Evidenced by a very Stevens influenced portrait of a fellow classmate in an elective art class.

Stevens died of leukemia last month at the age of 52. Like Dave Cockrum and Wally Wood, he was taken so much earlier than we expect for people live in our society. Perhaps there is some universal law of conservation of talent that causes gifted artists and creators to meet their end too soon (Mozart and Poe would also give one pause to think). More likely it is just the law of averages. But there was nothing average about Dave Stevens. His work in the medium was brief but influential.

He will be missed.

Monday, May 19, 2008

MOVIES COMICS- Spider-Man by James Cameron

Not a lot of heavy commentary on this one because I wanted to share it with you ASAP. It is truly one of the coolest things I’ve ever bumped into on the web.

About a year ago Escape Pod featured one of my most favorite stories they’ve done. Episode 105 Impossible Dreams is a rather simple and uninspired alternate universe story where a fellow periodically finds himself in a video rental store from a parallel universe. The thing that makes the story so delightful is that in this video store there is almost every movie you wish you could see but that doesn’t exist. Mention is made of Tim Burton’s Death of Superman with Nick Cage in the title roll, I, Robot with screenplay by Harlan Ellison, an entire Welles filmography including a director’s cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, and many others, all of which are available in this otherworldly rental store.

I kind of feel like I just stepped through the door of that shop myself.

In 1992, fresh from the success of the second Terminator, James Cameron was all set to start production on a Spider-Man movie. Due to a lot of Hollywood and Comicworld bickering over rights and other stuff, the project was shelved and Cameron instead did TRUE LIES. But he did get as far on the Spider-Man project as writing a script treatment that had a few deviations from comic book cannon. The treatment has been available on the web for years (along with other great scripts that were never made- such as William Gibson’s treatment of Alien 3- of which the only thing that survived into the actual movie was the idea of a character with a bar code tattoo) but lacked for images. Artist Daniele Tomasi has fixed that. His web site features a copy of Cameron’s work which he has illustrated in a very realistic style (which makes one wonder if he’s a Neal Adams/Continuity alumni). It isn’t the same as seeing the movie, but it’s pretty damn good. And the artwork is nothing short of fantastic. Why is this guy not working in comics?

I don’t remember if IMPOSSIBLE DREAMS references this particular movie that never was. But here it is as close as you’re ever going to see. I think the Spider-Man movie that we finally got is one of the top three comic book movies ever made. I was initially worried about Sam Rami (visions of the more outlandish scenes in Darkman or Spidy with a chainsaw instead of a hand) but, just as with worries about Michael Keaton as Batman, he made perhaps the best film of his career. And since we won't see Avitar for another year and a half here is what might have been. In an alternate universe, perhaps?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

PERSONAL- My Best Friend

I have a best friend. He’s not a usual type of person but I guess that’s only understandable since I’m not either. His father was a professional man who was killed in a robbery attempt when he was 10 years old. The event changed his life in ways that even he is probably unable to understand. His childhood world was visited with perhaps the most feared event at that stage in someone’s life. The death of a parent. There is a period from about 6 years old to about 11, that the death of a parent is a particularly traumatic event in the life of a person. Walt Disney made a movie about it. It was called BAMBI and, when it was first released, parents took their children to see if their children would cry when Bambi’s mother is killed. My friend had this tragedy visited on him. But as Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”.

(I use the old comcs icon since it was based on him)

He is perhaps the most moral person I’ve ever known. I have never known him to lie. The idea of him stealing is unthinkable to me. I’ve never known him to be malicious to anyone. That isn’t the same as saying that I’ve never known him to kick some ass. He kicks a lot of ass, a lot, actually.

He lives in this great house but rarely has visitors. And even those rare guests seldom know about the downstairs area. It’s the real heart of his living space- far more representative of his true psyche than the above ground areas. Those few invited into the above ground space- the public area as little as the word public means- admire his taste, avariciously desire his wealth, but come away thinking they have discovered something about him when they only have seen what he wants them to see.

He has had a few close relationships with women, and dates quite a bit, but he disdains any close attachments. He’s too much of a loner. He’s too much of an iconoclast. Women are drawn to him but find him incomprehensible. The more they actually get to know him the more he unnerves them.

His parents are dead but he does have a sister though. Like most people, I don’t think she really understands him. He’s a little too smart, too disciplined, too aloof, and too sure of himself for most people to really “get” him. Not to say that he isn’t gregarious, he’s hard not to like but almost impossible to really get to know. His public face is very charming but he keeps a tight hold on who he really is.

He’s the best best friend a person could ever want. I have no doubt that if I were in trouble he would be right there for me. In fact, he’s proved it time and again. There was a time just a few short months ago when I thought I was going to die and asked him to take over for me. It went against his own personal dictates but he was willing to do it anyway. I’m sure we would see more of each other but we live in different cities and the busyness of our lives prevents us from socializing very often. Still, there is seldom a week in which we don’t talk at length. He is truly the one person on the planet that I go to for council when I am faced with a dilemma. I cannot express how much I trust him.

Part of this trust is because, just as I may know him better than any other person, he knows me better than anyone else. I have no secrets from him. He knows both the best and worst of me. My history is similar to his but different. I too have known the loss of a parent. But while he had someone to take care of him, I was a mystery to both the parents I grew up with. I was also different, though I was different from the start. Not through any real effort on my part. I was born different. I grew up being bigger, stronger, smarter than any of the other children around me, or even than most of the adults. At an early age I became enamored of space and spaceflight, which led me to a lifelong affair with science. But because so many things came so easy to me I never developed the discipline that my friend has. OTOH, I’m not nearly as guarded as he is. I too have a hyperactive moral compass but I think mine is more a product of my genetic heritage. As long as I’ve been self aware I had strong convictions about right and wrong. Part of why I admire his honesty so much is that I have no choice but to be honest to a fault. It isn’t that I’m morally superior, it’s just that I don’t lie worth a damn. I can’t lie well, so I don’t. He could, but doesn’t. I have a strong streak of the messianic in me. He is more rooted in the mundane day-to-day activities of the people around him. I sometimes put people off because I am alien to them. He puts people at ease so as to attain his goals. I find that often I don’t understand what other people do. He seems to have a far better understanding of what motivates others.

I too have a secret place where I go when I want to be left alone. But most of the time I’m on public display. My regular job causes me to interact with people on a more regular and intimate level. In some ways this allows me to have a different knowledge of what people really are. But it is the clinical viewpoint of someone who is always an outsider. I help them. I save their lives frequently (that doesn’t seem to be something that motivates my friend). They see me as everything from a servant to a savior. Him they see differently. It’s a strange dichotomy. A friendship borne on similarities as well as differences. In spite of his pragmatism, I find that he shies away from ultimate sanctions. I am more practical in this way. There are some things that I find so reprehensible that they should be countered with ultimate force. I try to use this force sparingly, but knowing that it’s there, ready whenever I need it, I am not averse to leveling the ultimate sanction. I consider it a necessary evil and to be used only for ultimate evil but there are individuals who are so dangerous that they require it. My friend thinks that use of ultimate force is unthinkable. I once talked to him just prior to leveling it. He talked me out of it in that instance and, as I have come to expect, he was proved right that time.

I wish everyone had a best friend like the one I have. A couple of times I’ve thought that my romantic interest could be a best friend. They were, but there is a gap of understanding that is doubled by being of a different gender. There are, of course, far greater advantages to having a member of the opposite sex as a “best friend”. I put the term in quotes because have come to learn that there is a definite difference in the term when applied to relationships involving sex that those which don’t. Not that I’m not equipped to have profitable sexual relations with either sex. It’s more that I’m only sexually attracted to one particular sexual situation. I’ve been devoted to my romances. But none of them, even that one that is more special than any other could ever be, is like the bond I have with him.

Diana might understand. Maybe. But I could never ask her. She always thought he was a rival and not something different. Anyway…

I’m just not good at this. I’m trying to explain something profound in simple terms. My business is explaining things. I write for a living. But I am a writer that can’t put their most innermost feelings down on paper. Every other writer either bares his soul of the souls of others. I am an objective observer of the souls of everyone around me, but I can’t tell them what I see because I know they can’t understand my perspective. A purely alien perspective. Alien but not unique. Your species has known the truth, many humans have told you before I landed on this world. But you don’t listen. You didn’t listen to them and I have no reason to think you will listen to me.

That’s why I need him. He lets me know the truth about the best and worst of your species. Because he is both and all. The most in control and the most I’ve ever met completely without control. The master of the minute while being the slave of the life. He has to be the way he is. It was a decision he made a long time ago, so long ago that the point where he was still able to affect it, was still able to be different, is long past him. Still, it’s hard to fault a man for deciding to be the best and all when he was a child and then doing it. In spite of everything that he’s dealt with since then. All the sorrow. All the pain.

Pain he would, of course, never admit.

Just like I don’t admit my pain. A lot of being bulletproof is not to let them know that even if they don’t kill you, they may be hurting you. One thing life teaches everyone is that you either stick out your chest out and take it, or you cover your head and run away because it hurts. At least I learned that lesson. He learned it too. One of his call signs on the net (of which he has many, do you think someone so alone would not gravitate to an anonymous medium?) it that it’s better to let go of your pains as quickly as possible because dwelling on them isn’t helpful. He’s right. Lamenting over lost parents is a dead end as much as lamenting over a lost world.

Shame that everyone is a product of their losses as much as their victories. Maybe that’s the gift I give him. He can’t afford to admit his failures and I’ve learned that you have to do that. You have to admit that people die and there's nothing you can do about it. But you have to greet the dawn every day, not the fall of night. I have known the night, far more than his brief experience with it.

He thinks he is alone. But, except for him, I am the one that is truly alone.

Friday, May 16, 2008

COMICS and VIDEOGAMES- news that gives you the blues

(Video games artwork coming!)

A couple of miscellaneous news items that were interesting:

Microsoft has denied rumors that they are planning for a Blu-ray drive upgrade to the XBOX 360. While I normally consider anything that MS says to be of probable equal veracity to anything the current presidential administration says, this time I believe them. Not only would it be a useless upgrade for gaming (any new game dependant on the extra storage would be unplayable in the old systems and there is no reason to use BR if you don’t need the extra space because it’s more expensive). It would be a useless upgrade for watching movies (The whole idea behind the HD-DVD add on was to push the format and hurt Sony. They never sold enough to make it worth their while even with the sweetheart deal they got from the OEM. A deal they would definitely not get from Sony.) And it would be a tacit admission from MS that they lost and Sony’s tech was better. And if the other two weren’t deal killers, that one right there is. I hope I don’t live to see the day that MS has to admit that even 800 pound gorillas don’t always get their way. (I’ve already seen GM and IBM have to do it and it isn’t pretty.)

Time-Warner\Warner Bros.\DC Comics (Does Time-Warner have a parent company?) has reminded us why corporate citizenship is an idea that could only be supported by a braying jackass or a prostitute. Seems they are shutting down an original art auction on ebay because it included some images or their property. The fact that the auction was intended to benefit children with cancer didn’t seem to matter. But why would it? Corporations are soulless constructs that have no compassion and no loyalty except to their stockholders. The only way they resemble citizens is that they have an instinct for self preservation which is often overridden by greed and stupidity. They are usually right wing, but I don’t think it’s for the reasons you would suppose. You might think it’s because they want small government and minimum interference. After all, that makes sense. But I think the real reason they are right wing is because all right wingers have a single defining characteristic that sets them apart. They are blind to irony! The irony in this case is that DC doesn’t actually own the copyright to Superman. The legal hocus-pocus is too long to go into here, but read the article. Seems when Disney decided to change the term of copyright to the-life-of-Mickey-Mouse-plus-one-year they were a butterfly (an 800 pound butterfly, if you will) that flapped its wings and created a tornado for other intellectual property holders. (Frankly, I prefer the analogy Phillip Jose Farmer used for this chaos theory meme in RIDERS OF THE PURPLE WAGE- If a bear farts at the north pole does it cause a big wind in Chicago?) I’m not in favor of dynasties, and truthfully I have to say that Paul Levitz at DC has been a mench about kicking some chickenfeed back toward creators (after Neal Adams led the fight to get the creators of Superman a paltry pension in the last years of their lives) but it’s good to see a little power revert to some folks that actually knew (and share genes with) one of the two guys that invented a character that has given me so much joy throughout my life. How much better is that than having some 29 year old douchbag buy his Maserati with profits from Superman when he’s never come closer to creating something than making excrement.

MOVIES- Cloverfield

It’s hard to pack any excitement into the horror genre nowadays. In the wake of 9/11, the war(s) in the middle east, 70 years lived with the specter of nuclear annihilation, urban crime, and even the fact that most commuters pass a horrific car wreck on their way to work once a month, horror permiates our daily lives. Horror ranges from the calm tones of a doctor giving you your biopsy results to the tallest buildings in New York collapsing. Fuck a vampire, yesterday I passed a woman crushed to sausage on the way to work. Please let me meet a vampire, I’ll take the hickey of death over a doctor with the hidious “look of sorrow” plastered on his professional face any day.

I’ve seen a few terrible horror movies lately. THIRTY DAYS OF NIGHT was boring. ALIEN VS. PREDATOR II was tedious. Ghosts are assurance of an afterlife, not something to be feared. The Mummy is scary unless you can escape a monster who needs the services of a good physical therapist. Werewolves are feared only by mailmen. And Frankenstein is looking more like a cryogenic utopian vision than something you’d be afraid of. What is there left to scare you that isn’t too real or anachronistic?

CLOVERFIELD is high-concept and high conceit. I finally saw it yesterday. The hype had put me off so I wanted to wait until there was a little distance between the movie and the marketing. A few weeks later (June 8) would have allowed me to see it on Blu-ray but I’m not sure it would have made much of a difference on any level other than seeing what the Prosumer cameras were really capable of. As it is, the DVD is just fine for viewing this movie (and that may be the last time you hear me say that).

The high-concept is, of course, what if you made a Godzilla movie from the point of view of the little people running around trying not to get stepped on. The high conceit is to tell the whole movie as if it was a found artwork. In this case a videotape confiscated by the government after a natural disaster, shot by someone who just happened to be filming when the excrement hit the air conditioning. The result is a non-interactive videogame. A first person perspective that persists during the whole narritive. A movie made expressly with the YouTube vibe. The result is a truly involving film that allows the viewer no distance from the horror. It’s the 21st century equivalent of the epistolary style that Bram Stoker used in Dracula.

The filmmakers are highly aware of this. There's a scene when the head of the Statue of Liberty tumbles to the ground and immediately the crowd gathers with cell phones aloft to take pictures. It's a bit of self-referential comedy. (BTW, according to IMDB the head is twice the size of what the actual Statue's noggin would be because initial viewings found audiences unable to accept the size the head really was.)

Critics have found numerous nits to pick with the film. They say the perspective is dizzying if not nauseating (which reminds me of DOOM motion sickness syndrome). I can’t imagine this being a complaint of the current generation. To me it sounds more like an audience complaint that might have been leveled at D. W. Griffith for not shooting a film like a stage play. Jump cuts and time compression were revolutionary 80 years ago. At first they confused audiences. Nowadays they are part of the lexicon of film. I don’t think first person POV is going to revolutionize film, but I don’t think audiences are unable to deal with it.

Much has been made of the idea that the characters are not fully realized. I feel this is motivated more by critics who need to be critical than an actual flaw in the film. It’s a slice of life because of the very nature of the storytelling. The idea of using shots from a previous recording on the same tape is nothing short of inspired. At almost random moments in the film the viewer is given snippets of the back story. The idea that the main narrative is recorded over a tape that was made earlier is a way to juxtapose normal life into a story where nothing is normal. A single 90 minute videotape is the only window to these people’s lives. Still they seem like real people. They aren’t fully realized because anyone you might get to know from a single home video can’t be. The characters are sometimes banal, sometimes superficial, but filled with veracity. Just like most of the people you know in real life. And that’s the whole idea. I felt like I knew these characters. Though I was only able to see the tip of the iceberg I got the sense of the large unseen weight that was below the surface.

Some critics have said that the film is frustrating because you often can’t see what you want to see. Again, have you never watched a home video? That’s a common frustration. Shooting in real time is an exercise in trying to capture the essence of what is going on. And in this case, it adds to the ambience. The most remarkable thing about this movie is that it never deviates from its central idea. The horror comes from the audience being a character in the movie.

The last critique is that the introductory scenes at the party last too long. Again, I think it’s a mistake that only a film student could make. The viewer has to be lulled into a sense of normalcy and the time has to be taken to establish the banality of the characters. The party scenes do just that.

So, CLOVERFIELD is a success on a number of levels. It has real people in an unreal situation that anyone could imagine themselves being in. The special effects are invisible (a nod to the Phil Tippet Studio, and if you don’t know who Phil Tippet is then you haven’t seen a Star Wars movie). The characters aren’t the normal film heroes, just regular people. And the result is that everything the filmmakers were going for- a horror movie that makes the viewer a participant.

J.J.Abrams has gotten all the credit for this film. With his stint on ALIAS and LOST, and his upcoming revamp of the Star Trek franchise, he’s the Hollywood wunderkind. But he didn’t write or direct this film. He’s a producer, a position on movies that is usually not the kind of hands-on position it is in television. Here he seems both the creative force and the enabler of his creative people. In this case he deserves a lot of the credit but lets not forget director Matt Reves and writer David Goddard. Even the cast, who aren’t asked to do much more than run around and look scared, step up and add reality.

CLOVERFIELD is a short movie and doesn’t overstay its welcome. See it, and turn the lights in the room down low. And get ready to be taken away.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

MOVIES- Ferro Americans

Well, Iron Man has gone to a fast lead in the Summer Superhero Sweepstakes. Due largely to inspired casting and a snappy script. (And it being the only one out of the gate so far helps too.) Robert Downey Jr. pretty much plays his standard character, but it works. His Tony Stark is cynical, funny, and obviously has something going on upstairs. Downey adds layers to what was a rather two-dimensional character even for comic books. Gweneth Paltrow is spunky and competent as Pepper Pots (they even kept the trademark Stan Lee alliterative name). The only sour note is Jeff Bridges rather lackluster performance. Not that he was bad, he just didn’t bring anything new to a rather cliched role.

The script was full of holes but saved itself with a number of pleasing one liners. Most of the origin remained intact and the changes were better for the story than the “Tony builds an artificial heart that looks like an iron lung and decides to go ahead and turn it into a robot suit”. And it’s just as well, Iron Man has been upgraded more than any other Marvel superhero already. He started out as a guy in a flexible metal suit with repulsor rays and has grown into full exoskeletal glory. A good start to a possible franchise for Marvel. And I say keep Farveau at the helm. He isn’t a strong action director but that actually worked in the movie’s favor. And every time Iron Man is on screen somebody at ILM is doing the directing anyway.

(Also, the Stan Lee cameo is even better than his turn as Willie Lumpkin, and pay attention to the music being played at the awards benefit- its a recurring theme and hauntingly familiar.)

The trailers before the movie reminded me that summertime means superheroes nowadays. The biggest reaction was for The Dark Knight trailer, but Hellboy and Speed Racer (apparently a new two hour screening test for epilepsy) also got love from the crowd. My money’s on the Bat because Nolan got so much right the last time. But I’m looking forward to several hours at the local Cineplex this summer in spite of the fact that the picture, seats, and concessions are better in my home theater; and that I can buy any of these movies on Blu-Ray by Christmas for less than the cost of a couple of tickets and some popcorn.

(And for grown-ups that still think summertime is for frivolous entertainment but get chaffing from rubber suits, David Mamet's REDBELT looks promising. So I think I'll also find out if Mamet can turn Tim Allen into Bruce Willis some day before I go to lunch, go to lunch, just

POLITICS- How Do You Kill A Zombie?

Does anybody know how you actually kill a Zombie. There are several definitive references for vampires (holly stake through the heart, chop off the head, etc), and authorities seem to agree that a pesky werewolf can be put down with a silver bullet (explains the Lone Ranger), but I’m not sure about Zombies. Shotgun blasts to the head at close range seem to work in the movies. And I seem to remember that removing the head with a spade is recommended. Or is it just to inflict enough physical damage that they can’t continue any more?

The reason I’m asking is that my Democratic friends keep calling, wanting to know.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

PERSONAL- Christmas in May- Hairy Fish Nuts

Several years ago, when the web was smaller and the world was still a little larger, I found a humor site dedicated to exposing the hypocrisy in religion in all its forms. It’s written by a self-educated Canadian high school dropout who now runs his own design company specializing in web design and is an aspiring stand-up comic. But for years he has taken it upon himself to rail against the religious, political, and societal forces that eschew reason for rhetoric, discussion for dogma, and the need to stare into the sun for the kind of blind faith that is, well, blinding. It has been said that he was born with his brain backwards and his genitals upside-down. Some say that he is the latest incarnation of the wandering Jew. But all know him as Salvage, proprietor of

The title is, of course, a reference to the Bloom County comic strip by Berkeley Breathed. The story goes that Opus, the character that would eventually become the centerpiece of the strip, was originally intended to be temporary. In one of his final few appearances he meets a woman asking for money for “prayer temples for Hare Krishnas”. Opus is completely unable/unwilling to understand what she is talking about. “Pear pimples for Hairy Fishnuts?” he asks. (Breathed would later say that the response to this strip was so overwhelming that he decided to keep Opus.) Likewise Salvage seems completely unable/unwilling to understand what draws people to ideologies based on things other than logic and reason.

Friday, May 9, 2008

PERSONAL- Christmas in May- iwatchstuff

Today’s gift is a funny web site that keeps me abreast (you’ll get the joke later) of the latest in film. Not the kind of film where there are subtitles or where low budget independents do things that draw attention to parts of a film that perhaps should best be felt and not seen. This site glories in the mainstream with a geek twist. Comic movies, Action-adventure, comedy, drama, the movies that will be playing some weekend in the near or distant future at your local multiplex. But it’s not the kind of fan site that gushes over every Hollywood schlockfest. They are irreverent and often bitingly cynical about much of what comes out of Tinseltown. They are a clearing house of the kind of COMING SOON stuff that happens all over the web with their own share of exclusives. And they are so up to date that you have to visit the site every day if you want to see everything, since often their hottest scoops are taken down only hours after being posted because the studios have found them out. If you want to see the newest trailers, posters, info, and behind the scenes pics don’t waste your time with Aint’ It Cool News (they sold their soul for inside access years ago and Harry Knowles can’t tell shit from shinola on a movie screen), don’t go to Empire (they are in England and get everything late anyway), don’t go to IMDB (an excellent research site but their info on new movies is all advertising). Go to IWATCHSTUFF.COM. That’s where the good stuff with untarnished commentary winds up. has several sister sites and they are worth a look too, but they all cross pollinate so you’ll see the best of all of them with a single stop. In addition to movie news you’ll get a smattering of celebrity news, photos of beautiful women caught by paparazzi (mostly while they enjoy themselves on the beach for some reason), and the occasional tech snippet.

IWATCHSTUFF.COM because you do.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

TECHNOLOGY- EA is Watching You

Well, it looks like Electronic Arts has just taken the first step in what might be the biggest incitement to pirate computer games since the invention of the floppy disk. PC versions of Mass Effect and Spore are going to require a computer connection. Not so you can play online, they are single player games. No, they’re going to need a net enabled computer so they can CALL HOME EVERY TEN DAYS to re-authenticate their DRM! If this catches on I can see a future where every piece of software, movie, CD, toaster, hell, anything, will have to be online to work. Vista’s Big Brotheresque tendencies may spread like electronic kudzu to everything you own. I don’t know about you, but I’m not crazy about companies knowing more about my gaming and viewing proclivities than I do.

Oh, I know. Advocates of totalitarianism in the guise of piracy protection will say that EA isn’t going to keep tabs on individual gamers. And that’s probably true, if you believe that businesses would never do any thing unethical just because they can.

Hell, my DVR already keeps tabs on my viewing, my government monitors my phone calls and emails, my cell phone company knows who I call, and for all I know somebody is actually reading this blog. I thought is was illegal to install a hack on someone’s computer so you could monitor them. I can’t open my television to fix something without the possibility of violating some reverse engineering law but EA can hack my computer because I want to play a game they make? Guess that law is only for citizens.

PERSONAL- Christmas in May- Death's My Destination

So yesterday my gift to you was the best movie ever made- Citizen Kane. Today the second of my beloved media that had a pinnacle that lasted for decades was Science Fiction. For years the best SF novel ever written was also a creation from a relative newcomer. He didn’t write that many books but the mark he made on the genre was immense. Early in his career he wrote comic books. In fact he wrote the Green Lantern oath. And it looks like this may be his most lasting accomplishment, in spite of penning the novel considered for so many years to be the best SF novel ever written. You all know it. “In brightest day, in blackest night; no evil shall escape my sight. Let those who follow evil’s light beware my power- GREEN LANTERN’S LIGHT!”

He was also editor for Holiday magazine for many years. He was also offered the editor position for a magazine named “Status” and tells the story that the publisher told him that if you don’t say “state-us” you’ll never have “stat-us”.

But the two novels he wrote that cemented his status as a science fiction great were written 50 years ago. The first was a detective novel set in a world where telepathy was a quantifiable talent. A businessman kills his main rival and simultaneously falls in love his that rival’s daughter. How does he conceal his crime and woo the object of his heart’s desire at the same time while being pursued by a telepathic detective on the case? The novel was full of graphic representations of telepathic conversations, an ingenious way of establishing a psychic shield out of the art of advertising, and a way to kill someone with a firearm that leaves no forensic evidence that could be traced back to the gun used in the murder. These are just a few of the devices and situations that this complex novel includes. . A complex murder mystery using science fiction devices yet completely plausible to the layman. A single novel that would make the author’s name so associated with the idea of telepathy that over 40 years later Babylon 5 would name their most infamous Psi-Cop after him- Alfred Bester. Such was the intelligence of the author

But that isn’t the novel we are going to discuss today. That isn’t the best SF novel ever written, as numerous polls have named it. That novel was based on the accounts of Japanese soldiers stranded on Pacific Islands long after WWII. Soldiers who didn’t know the war was over and continued to fight.

THE STARS MY DESTINATION starts with a major change in human society. What if personal teleportation was possible as a simple act of will? No transporter ala STAR TREK required. What if some scientific researcher (in this case with the apt name of Jaunt) was to teleport in front of witnesses who were trained to observe scientific phenomena? What if the Outer Satellites were at war with the Inner Planets? What if there were specific limits on how far and under what conditions a person could teleport (Jaunt, the eponymous obvious)? What if a common man was placed into uncommon circumstances and had to unlock the inner greatness that was inside him to survive?

What if that common man found himself the sole survivor of an attack in space and survived in a single pressurized locker the size of a coffin for over six months? What if he saw his rescue only to have that hope snatched away. What if he somehow managed to save himself? What if after doing that he found himself in numerous circumstances that took him (1) to a degenerate sect that considered the scientific method to be a religion, (2) to being a terrorist against no government but instead against the most powerful economic interest in the world as he knew it, (3) to being a prisoner in the Geoffre Martel, the most elaborate prison in the solar system, one designed to keep prisoners in a world where most people could think themselves somewhere else, (4) to being a fugitive with a tiger tattoo on his face, (5) to being at the mercy of a sadistic doctor who keeps a zoo of the most hideous genetic anomalies in the known universe, (6) to being the richest man in the solar system, (7) to being a commando with his nervous system enhanced with the most advanced implants available for any amount of money, (8) to chasing the most advanced weapon ever designed by human beings, (9) to finding out that, in fact, he was the most advanced weapon that humans had ever created, (10) to winding up as the next step in human evolution who negates the war and changes the balance of power as much as the ability to teleport changed transportation.

I hope I’m not giving too much away but the novel is so chock full of unique ideas and exciting situations that its hard to begin to explain it. The first paragraphs pay homage to A Tale of Two Cities, the middle third is evocative of The Man in the Iron Mask, the ending is set in a Star Chamber where all is turned on its figurative head. The novel is pure excitement from start to finish, with rich ideas and excellent writing. Perhaps it isn’t the best SF novel ever written but it would have to rival Foundation, Dune, Neuromancer, Childhood’s End, or any other book for the title.

Why had this novel never been made into a movie? It is the ultimate science fiction adventure. It is full of strange ideas and locations. In many ways it could be the Citizen Kane of SF movies (the two stories are strangely evocative of each other with their tales of obsessed men).

Nah, better to leave it just the book. That way we wouldn’t get some Hollywood lobotomy scar to turn it into a cop drama with car chases like they did with I, Robot.

MOVIES- Alien vs. Predator Requiem

What did the Alien movies do to David Giler and Walter Hill to cause them to crap on them this way? Besides making them rich? Predator was always just a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger to fight something as big and ugly as he is. Your typical low-brow high-concept monster movie. But the Alien movies were something more. There were enough ideas to make the initial outing more than a simple horror movie in space- spaceship refineries, labor disputes, hypersleep, the Space Jockey, androids, the Company. You got the feeling that there was a whole society behind the incidents on the Nostromo. Excellent acting and superb direction added to the film, making it an instant classic. And what can you say about H.R. Giger’s alien designs?

Aliens, the sequel, expanded the premise to include a jump 50 years further into the future, terraforming, Colonial Marines, hundreds of aliens rather than just one, and another excellent cast and young director with real talent and something to prove. Gone were most of the contrivances of the horror genre, replaced by something more akin to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. The movie was called a roller coaster ride by many critics, and for good reason.

Alien 3 (Alien cubed in the actual title, an unintended pun) was when the wheels started coming off the wagon. Insider stories say that Sigourney Weaver was sold on the premise with the idea of “Ripley- bald!” and one wonders if that was the most thought that went into it. Another first time director and fine cast, but this time without the stellar results. “Aliens in prison” might have been another attempt to fuse the series with an older movie staple (women in prison films?) or was perhaps a return to the franchise’s roots by trying for a haunted house with aliens motif. Whatever the initial idea, the movie made several serious mistakes. It summarily disposed of Newt and Hicks, characters that the audience had bonded with, without even giving them a noble death. It tried to go for a less-is-more philosophy when it came to the alien, which didn’t work after the battle scenes of the second film. It tried to build suspense but only accomplished being painfully slow. And, worst of all, it wasn’t scary. The most frightening scenes in the movie involved close-ups of needles being sunk into flesh. For that kind of fright you can just hang out at the local clinic to watch the preschoolers getting their inoculations. (In fact, the heart-rending screams that accompany such an activity might actually make it better for the horror connoisseur.) There were good ideas. That the alien bonded on a genetic level with whatever host the face hugger found was one. Another one was the death of Ripley. But for the most part the inspiration was too scant.

Alien 4 was an odd duck that tried to meld both the Space Truckers idea of the first movie and the Colonial Marines of the second. It jumps 200 more years into the future and adds a few ideas of its own- cloning, more intelligent aliens, and the further evolution of the alien creature itself. Again the cast is not the problem, and in this case neither is the script or direction. But it seems like it was just too much of a good thing. Alien fatigue had set in. And what fans really wanted was for the Aliens to reach earth. It had been hinted at in an early teaser trailer for Alien 3, but the idea had been abandoned during pre-production. The readers of the Aliens comic book had seen both the aliens on earth and a real expansion of the ideas in the first and second film- a grown up Newt, Hicks dealing with PTSD and the toll of severe acid burns, who the space jockey was and why he was hauling a shipload of aliens across the universe before he crashed. None of these themes were dealt with. Instead the audience was given what amounted to just another Alien episode.

Then came Alien vs. Predator. Having missed the boat on doing what comics had done with the franchise this time the producers decided to outright steal an idea from the comics. Unfortunately, once again this was where the ideas stopped. The aliens finally reach earth but we learn that they did it thousands of years ago. So did the predators, who built a giant pyramid under the ice at the south pole. We see the founder of Weyland-Yutani, who happens to look just like the android of the second film. We take a group of disparate adventurers into the pyramid and mass carnage ensues. But again there is no real science fiction to be found. The series has degenerated to being an old fashioned monster movie. As a result Alien vs. Predator more closely resembles Frankenstein Meets Dracula than the first two movies.

So now we finally come to AVP Requiem. Now all pretense of science fiction has been abandoned. It is set in the present, the Predator ship crashes into the Rocky Mountains, it has aliens on board. That’s a complete plot synopsis, by the way. Characters are established. Some of them live, others don’t. Nobody is given anything even remotely interesting to do. Nothing is added to the cannon. The most interesting shot in the move it right at the beginning and is stolen from a McFarline toys action figure. And at the end you realize that among the casualties were two hours from your own life. Funny thing is, that isn’t the most annoying thing about the movie. The most annoying thing is that you can’t see what the hell is happening anyway. The movie is DARK. And not in a metaphorical sense. It’s just plain not lit! The whole thing seems to have been shot with only the headlights of a car for lighting. Did the cinematographer stare at the sun too long when he was a child? Are the film makers so ashamed at the lack of an interesting script that they didn’t want to show you what was (or wasn’t) happening? You can’t see the alien, the predator, anything. There’s one scene in a diner and it even it looks like it’s lit by candles. And then halfway through the movie the predator blows up the local power station and it gets even darker. At this point you’re making fun of the thing anyway so it doesn’t matter. I saw the movie on Blu-ray and even that didn’t help. I imagine on regular DVD its close to indecipherable for much of the time.

But watch the special features on the disk. The “making of” featurettes are a great piece of unintentional comedy. It’s like watching a modern Ed Wood talk about his latest masterpiece. Early on John Ortiz says “Holy shit! I’m in an alien movie” and several folks in the room shouted “A SHITTY ONE” in unison. Less than a minute later another actor says that the movie is “kind of a metaphor for… what if something awful happened in your home town?” “Like they made you watch this movie!” Honestly, this stuff writes itself. The production vignettes go on like that for almost an hour. Everybody talks like they have made a cinematic masterpiece and everybody is apparently unaware that the movie stinks. There are also TWO commentary tracks! One has the sibling directorial team, Cliff Claven Strause and his brother Henchman 23 Strause, and the other has some other accomplices to the murder of the Alien series. I didn’t listen to the commentaries since I had enough pompous self-congratulation to last me for awhile. Perhaps that was a mistake. Maybe they describe what’s happening on screen that you can’t see BECAUSE EVERYTHING IS TOO FUCKING DARK!

So, goodbye Alien franchise. Lets hope they don’t resurrect you again until Ridley Scott or James Cameron decide to come back. Hell, even Fincher has redeemed himself since his time at the helm (though he’s a little too uneven to be classed with the other two alumni). Or maybe they could get Chris Cunningham to direct. Give the guy a shot, he couldn’t do any worse.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

POLITICS- “I didn’t get into this race because I thought I could avoid this kind of politics..

But I got into this race because I thought I could end it.”

That’s a quote from Barack Obama’s speech last night. This is the essence of his platform. It’s why he doesn’t have to be specific about what he plans to do (though he has). Because the platform he’s running on is more basic than a passel of promises. Promises that won’t be kept in any case. He running on the single promise that he’s not going to do “business as usual”. The kind of business the government has dealt in for so long. The business of lying to the people and acting as if it was an oligarchy, a plutocracy, an imperialist state, a fascist state. He touches those who know what America really stands for. For liberty, for idealism, for individualism that isn’t rooted in cynicism and the idea that only the rich are smart or worthwhile, for stupidity, for our being sold politics the same way we are sold soap, for being married to a political party the same way we are married to a sports team, for betting on the electorate being too dumb to see through the bullshit.

Obama may be peddling bullshit too, but if he is it’s a better brand of bullshit than we’re used to. It’s the prevarication of an obviously smart man who brings the oratory to a level seldom seen in the last 50 years. If, indeed, it is prevarication. But to my mind that isn’t even the main question. The main question is not about the honesty of the candidates (which is always in doubt) but the soul of the American people. I see this election as being more about my faith in American politics as a whole than it is about any particular candidate. Do we really want to have a discussion about the major issues that we face or are we willing to still have the political arena be the same as the sports arena. You can’t have a reasonable discussion of the relative merits of sports teams with many sports fans because they are dogmatic and rigid. They are on the side of their team and, good or bad, win or lose, they have a sort of loyalty that blinds them to reality. We’ve seen what that kind of rigidity allows our leaders to do in the last eight years. In a democracy the people have to be able to discuss, debate, decent, and decry the choices the government makes on their behalf. A democracy (or a republic, for those who think the difference is germane) is dependant on people discussing the choices they have in front of them and deciding the best course for them to take as a people. In a democracy it is simply the job of government to carry out the wishes of the people. Do the people follow their representatives as if they were a kind of nobility, or do the people determine the course the government should take as their servants.

Are we a sovereign people, with a government whose mandate is to carry out our wishes, or are we subjects of our government who have only the job of supporting our leaders? Obama may not truly believe in the former, but both other candidates are obviously supporters of the latter option. Given the option of being a free man who is the tiniest unit of an American government that is representative of the wishes of those tiny units, I take that option over being a subject in the American hegemony any time. It’s the same choice that the founding fathers had to make. To be subject to royalty, or to believe in the common wisdom of the common people and to let every person alone to find their own path to happiness.

I find all the “patriots” who think it is best to support the government in their folly to be laughable. I’ve engaged dozens, perhaps hundreds of them online to see what kind of intellectual foundation they have for their opinions. I have sadly found little to make me challenge my own opinion among them. They tend to be dogmatic, unreasonable, bigoted, anti-intellectual, ignorant, and, in short, living examples of everything the liberals portray them to be. It’s a cause for great sadness for me. I long for a political discussion that involves equally adult, informed, thoughtful discussion of policy. But what I find, all too often, is parroting of mindless arguments on both sides. The trouble with democracy is what Garrison Keillor (accurately) says about humanity, “Half the people you meet are below average”.

PERSONAL- Christmas in May- The Best Movie Ever

There is seldom a consensus when it comes to the best. The concept itself is so ultimate and yet so abstract as to defy itself as a label for any single work. What is the best? How does one decide, among a multitude of variables, which example is so superlative as to transcend all others? The ultimate, the pinnacle, the absolute epitome of all works of a type. Strangely until a few years ago there was a consensus of the best in two different mediums which I hold dear. And not nearly as strangely just a few years ago the consensus changed. Change is the normal state of the best. Each high point is a new standard for everyone to shoot for. Eventually it is only natural that “the best” is to be bettered. That is the very nature of the human animal- always to strive to beat the best. Look at sports records. They are made, only to inevitably be broken. But some records stand for so long that even after they are broken, they are such examples of enduring excellence that they can be appreciated. And when that elusive status of “best” is applied to a work of art it is even more remarkable that a consensus can be reached and even more astounding when that consensus lasts for decades.

Today’s gift, and tomorrow’s, are two of those works of art that somehow came to be known as the best in their respective areas, and kept that designation for years in spite of continuing advances in technique, changes in society and public taste, and even the artistic aims of the creators working in those media. Such an achievement can be a mark of true quality or it can be a monument to anachronism. Luckily for the aficionado, both of these works are very much the former.

In the 1960s a strange thing happened. Suddenly one poll after another that asked movie critics their opinion on the best movie ever made started coming up with a single answer. This trend would last for over a dozen years and the only thing more surprising than this sudden universal acclaim would be the movie on which the acclaim was being heaped. This movie wasn’t a great artistic or commercial success when it was first released. It didn’t receive an Academy Award for best picture, or best director, or best man in a leading role. It did win for Best Original Screenplay, a pyrrhic victory at best since the real innovation of the movie was the way it was filmed not the script itself. It was a movie that almost wasn’t released. It was made by a first time director who was a mere 24 years old when he started it. It was so controversial before it was released that it was almost never seen in a theater. And for years after than original release it was to disappear into obscurity. Yet it was so unusual, so innovative, so revolutionary, and so far ahead of its time in so many ways that even twenty years after it was released and then almost forgotten it was able to stir the imaginations of so many film critics that it would win poll after poll, beating such affirmed classics as Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, Snow White, Psycho, The Seventh Seal, and, well, every other movie ever made!

Citizen Kane was Orson Welles first move and arguably his magnum opus. It was an unauthorized and unwanted fictionalized biography of William Randolph Hurst, one of the most wealthy and powerful men in America. Hurst was the owner of a network of newspapers and radio stations- the Rupert Murdock of his day- and he was outraged at treatment Welles had given him in the guise of Charles Foster Kane, a fictional doppelganger who shared so many of Hurst’s foibles that it was impossible for anyone familiar with Hurst to mistake Welles’ subject for anyone else. The satire of Hurst was both subtle and gross. From the castle built by Kane, called Xanadu, which opens the movie and introduces the character (a not-so-subtle allusion to Hurst’s San Simeon), to the central conceit of the movie, the meaning of Kane’s dying word- Rosebud (widely reported to be Hurst’s nickname for his mistress’ genitals). Hurst tried to buy the movie before it was presented in theaters and, failing that, put pressure on the studios and theaters to bury the movie both before and after it had been exhibited. No advertising for the movie was allowed on any of the Hurst owned media. As a result, Citizen Kane disappeared from the public consciousness for years after it was made.

In the late 1960s the movie enjoyed a resurgence among the film literati. The controversy involving William Randolph Hurst was lost to the age of yellow journalism to which he belonged. But the artistry and vision of the movie remained. Welles had shown what a director could be. Citizen Kane was the work of a genius auteur in an era where the studio system was still the paradigm. It remains a rousing, funny film that continues to look as much like a modern period piece as a 67 year old film. It pioneered a combination of techniques that today we consider standard- juxtaposition of different time periods, sweeping camera moves that zoom through landscapes and settle on close-ups, use of media other than movies as framing and expositional devices, extreme close-ups and worm’s-eye views to evoke feeling, cynicism and the anti-hero as protagonist, revolutionary makeup, deep focus, special effects that don’t draw attention to themselves but serve the story. The list goes on and on. Welles was an accomplished amature magician and the movie is full of cinematic magic tricks. Environments that, at first, appear small reveal themselves to be huge sets. Montages compress years into minutes and single scenes. The movie is virtually a textbook for modern film making. And it was made in 1941!!!

If you haven’t seen it, you should. If you haven’t seen it in a while, you should see it again. A true masterpiece. A two word answer for anyone who thinks film is not an art form. Many movies are a waste of the two hours of your life that they take to view. This movie is worth multiple repeted viewings because, like any work of art, it is complexly satisfying.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

PERSONAL- Christmas in May- Illusions

May 4, 2008

My gift today is a book. There will be many books this month. Yesterday I gave you a blueprint for human interaction. Today I give you a fictional account of a spiritual nature that will send your heart flying and explain why I think that there is more to this world than ever dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.

Richard Bach wrote a short novel in the early 1970s that became a best-seller, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was a book about the spiritual life of relatively stupid birds and involved the quest for speed, independent thought, being apart from the crowd, being the best you could be, and sharing what you learned with others. I read it when I was eleven years old and it informed what I would do with my life because it spoke to the desires I had already made for my life. But that’s not the book I’m going to tell you about.

Bach’s next book was more literal, more accessible, and much funnier. I didn’t find it until I was a couple of years older (that being the pre-internet age when finding a book by a favorite author was an act of providence rather than a few seconds of searching the web). Like What Do You Say After You Say Hello, this would be a book that would inform my adolescence and that I would think about for the rest of my life. Its name was ILLUSIONS- THE ADVENTURES OF A RELUCTANT MESSIAH and it told the story of one summer that Richard spent jumping from open field to open field through the midwest, selling 10 minute rides in his open cockpit biplane to the locals in each town. Along the way he meets Donald Shimoda, the first other pilot he’s ever seen doing the same thing. It seems they have a lot more in common than unusual “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” essays. Both are seekers after ultimate spiritual truth, though Donald seems to have found it and decided that he’d rather sell rides in a biplane than bother with it.

Over the course of the summer, Richard and Don will share adventures, discuss a book that Donald gives Richard called The Messiah’s Handbook- Reminders for an Advanced Soul, work on their airplanes, and eat bad panbread by the campfire. By the coming of Autumn each will go their own way, having learned something from the other. And at the end of this short book I too had learned something. Today, the things Bach had to say seem quaint and obvious, but to a thirteen year old boy who couldn’t quite admit that religion and spirituality were different things yet, it was very helpful. And it’s remains a beautiful read despite its aged new age philosophy.

Bach would go on to write more semi-autobiographical fiction. His next book would deal with his courtship with Leslie Parrish, the luscious cutie from ‘60s film and television best known for playing Daisy May in Lil’ Abner and making William Ware Theiss famous by her almost supernatural support of his work on the original Star Trek episode Who Mourns for Adonias. I lost touch with him when he divorced Ms. Parrish and turned back to his only true love, flying. But I thank him for helping a young boy realize that the search for a personal philosophy didn’t have to involve dogma and ritual.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

PERSONAL- Christmas in May- What do you say after you say hello?

May 3, 2008

Continuing our 30 days of Christmas in spring, today I’m going to offer you a gift of self-awareness. You will probably have to invest a little money in this one, but, as the feller said, nothing ventured-nothing gained.

I’ve always considered myself an explorer of the human condition. As Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” This was my mantra long before I knew that someone who had lived more than a couple thousand years before me had also figured it out. By the time I started high school I had also figured out that most people, myself included, made bad choices for no apparent reason. This puzzled me. Why would people do things that were obviously to their detriment? Why did I do things that on further examination seemed stupid?

Somehow I came on a book by a psychiatrist named Eric Berne. I had read a lot of psychology books by thr time I found this one and like many people I considered a lot of what they had to say silly. Some of it might apply to some people and some it might apply to me but unlike other sciences they didn’t seem to offer a framework for understanding the basis for human interactions. Berne’s book, WHAT DO YOU SAY AFTER YOU SAY HELLO?, did just that. Thomas Harris had written one of the first self-help books in the 1960s from a part of Berne’s work called I’M OK, YOU’RE OK and later John Bradshaw would build a self-help dynasty on just the child ego state paradigm which he called the “inner child” but the only real influence these men had was to belittle the precepts in Berne’s book as “pop” psychology. Instead of these abbreviated versions of the theory, Berne’s magnum opus presents a realistic and workable theory of human behavior was laid out from cradle to grave and in the years since I’ve read it I’ve seen it verified again and again. I don’t think it explains everything for everyone but it is a fascinating viewpoint on human behavior.

I also risk belittling Berne’s theory by condensing it, but I wish to give you enough of a taste to whet your appetite. Simply put, the book posits a trio of mainsprings of human action- transactional analysis, script analysis, and games.

Transactional analysis is the study of human interaction. Berne supposes a trio of ego states: the child, the adult, and the parent. These are roughly analogous to Freud’s id, superego, and ego but go much deeper in explaining the voices everyone hears in their heads.

The Child is the spontaneous, intimate, fun-loving part of a person. It is free of inhibitions but somewhat naïve. It has the domain of creativity and open love. It is engaging and free. It can also be petulant and afraid. It fears a lack of control in it’s life and can act out accordingly.

The Adult is the rational mind. It is the inner computer that, like Freud’s Superego, mediates between the other two ego states. It acquires data and rationally makes decisions. But it is not always in control.

The Parent is the programmed mind. It’s the part of you that tells you to wash your hands before you eat, or wear a seatbelt, or to always be on time. It is what humans have in place of instincts. Early instruction that your parents gave you to get you through life, good or bad, resides here.

Transactions are either complimentary or crossed. An example of a complementary transaction might be lovers in their Child ego states exploring each others bodies, or a group of people playing a game together where each is open to their own feelings and mindless of the score. OTOH, a crossed transaction might be when one person is in their Adult ego state and another is in their Child or Parent ego state. An example of both of these kinds of transactions would be a typical exchange between two people on the subject of dinner:

“When will dinner be ready?”
“In about 10 minutes.”
Both people are in their adult ego state. One is asking for information and the other is supplying data.

“When will dinner be ready?”
“Leave me alone, don’t you see that I’m going as fast as I can?”
Here the first person is simply asking for data (adult) while the second is responding from their child ego state to the first person’s parent ego state. This results in a crossed transaction and both people are frustrated.

The second part of Berne’s theory is called Script Analysis. It deals with the life plan that people make for themselves while still very young. This is often based on a combination of what they see the grown ups around them do (most especially their parents) and the stories they are familiar with while they are making these determinations. This explains a lot of what the bible calls the sins of the fathers being perpetuated on the heads of the children. Berne refers to children as Martians. They are strangers in a strange land trying to make sense of it. As a result, they tend to interpret what they see and hear literally.

An example might be:
Daddy drinks. The young child interprets this as drinking is good since daddy is good. He asks his daddy for a drink of what he’s having. Daddy says, “You’re too young to drink.” Daddy thinks he has told his child not to drink. What he has actually told his child is that he should drink when he gets older. And the child follows this instruction. We wonder why the children of alcoholics are so prone to be alcoholics. We say that it’s a genetic pre-disposition. But that doesn’t explain why a child that grew up in the living hell that constitutes being a child in a alcoholic home would ever take the first drink. Berne gives us a framework to explain that.

Life Scripts easily fall into the plots of familiar fairy tales and myths. (Perhaps that’s why we continue to tell them.) Cinderella finds love in spite of a horrible home life. Little Red Riding Hood is consistently fooled by men pretending to be something they are not, even though the signs are all there. Humpty Dumpty has an event in his life that allows him to give up. Sisyphus takes on impossible tasks. Scripts can result in winners or losers and are difficult to give up even when they are discovered. As the son of a woman who had four long term relationships in her life, all with alcoholics, this made a lot of sense to me.

The third part of this framework for human behavior is game analysis. Games are, simply put, a substitute for real intimacy. (The theory also goes into “pastimes” but to deal with them, just as to do justice to the other two parts of the triad, I’d be taking on a load that would expand this article to the length of the book). These games aren’t the games you might be familiar with but they are interactions that everyone will find familiar on some level. A psychological game has a number of indispensable parts- a come on, a response, and a switch. Games fall into easily categorical types and are numerous. If you have someone in your life that frustrates you, chances are they are addicted to one or more games.

Popular games include:

IGYN, YSOB- I’ve got you now you son of a bitch. Where a person expects the worst of you and always finds it.

NOKTIS- Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen- Where the point isn’t the trouble but the fact that nobody knows. Compelling the person to constantly regale anyone who will listen with their latest catastrophe.

Yes, But- This one goes like this: “Little Bobby is acting out at school.” “Have you tried Ritalin?” "Yes, but he’s allergic.” “Have you tried a time out?” “Yes, but he never stays in his room so it doesn’t work.” “Have you tried taking him to a therapist?” “Yes, but its too expensive.” And so on.

Berne gives a framework for finding what you are doing that is sabotaging your life, your interactions, and your ability to be intimate with another person. There are many more subtleties to his theory. What he calls the tee-shirts people wear (a popular one might say “I’m proud I’m an alcoholic” on the front and “remember, it’s a disease” on the back) is one such insight. The whole “I’m OK, You’re OK” subject of Harris’ book is another. (Bullies have an intrinsic “I’m OK, You’re not OK” mindset, as do criminals. Co-dependants have an “I’m not OK, You’re OK” worldview.)

I’ve read a lot of psychology both before and since. I’ve been trained in psychology, sociology, and psychiatric illness in college. But I’ve never found anyone who could explain why people do what they do as completely and dependably as Eric Berne. Read his book if you want to really know why people do what they do and tell me if you don’t find insight in it, because I’ll be anxious to hear.

(The links supplied to are strictly for convenience and are not sponsored. Berne's books should be available to you from the library as well)

Friday, May 2, 2008

MOVIES- 30 Days of Night

30 Days Of Night is a disgusting gorefest of a movie that isn’t really that bad as far as the genre goes but that’s only because the genre doesn’t seem to go much farther than one can spurt blood out of an artery. The movie is based on a graphic novel that started life as a film treatment and eventually ate its own tail like the worm Oroboros. The movie, directed by David Slade and starring Josh Hartnet and Melissa George (recently featured in HBO’s In Treatment), has an interesting premise- that vampires would migrate north to take advantage of the long nights during the winter near the arctic circle. Beyond that, there really doesn’t seem to be much thought that went into it. Unless you consider artfully splattered tomato juice stains on snow to be interesting.

As the movie starts we find ourselves in Barrow, Alaska. But not the real town, just what looks like a redressed western set with lots of cornstarch scattered around. It is filled with various character actor stereotypes and movie cliché subplots and is approaching the annual month of darkness mentioned in the title. There’s the estranged married couple (played by the leads) who have been drawn inexplicably by fate back to one another. There’s the local color iconoclast (Danny Huston), the teenager dealing with his parents marital problems (Mark Rendall, who makes one consider that the cause of his parent’s marital discord might be rooted in the fact that mom apparently got pregnant with him when she was eight years old), the kindly grandmother who grows pot, numerous other bit players who do nothing to differentiate themselves other than to look slightly different from the other people so you can tell them apart, and the mysterous stranger who is the harbinger of doom. Ben Foster plays the last role in another portrayal that marks him as the Crispin Glover of this generation. (Foster seems to turn up everywhere nowadays. He’s in X-Men- The Last Stand as Warren Worthington a.k.a the Angel. He’s the latent homosexual/homicidal nutbar in 3:10 to Yuma. He’s the Jewish older brother who can kick serious ass in Alpha Dog. Every role different, every role tinged with a kind of madness that makes him impossible to take your eyes off of when he’s on screen.) Of course, none of these people can leave because no airplanes can fly in or out of Barrow under cover of night. As we all know, airplanes can't land in the dark. And thats only the first time in this movie you'll be asked to be stupid.

Horror movies are like science fiction movies. They fall into two distinct categories. Those that have something interesting to say and use the affectations of the genre to make a point, and those that use the affectations of the genre and have nothing to say. Other than the central conceit of the title, this movie has nothing to say. The vampires are simply predatory animals, made ridiculous by their resemblance to a certain paint huffing moron who is infamous on the web. (In fact, if you put “paint huffing moron” into Google’s image search this is the first image that comes up.) The attempts at fright devolve into the purely disgusting (seeing a little (vampire, so it’s OK) girl have her head cut off with an ax, seeing a woman surrounded by a group of vampires cut to shreds (a gang rape analogy), seeing numerous people being fed on) and the “things jumping out of the dark with loud noises” motif. In fact, the soundtrack is indicative of the overall (lack of) quality of the whole production. I don’t remember a musical theme, all I remember is the speeded up sounds of airplanes taking off and landing, and what sounds like oil barrels being hammered with shovels. In addition to being atonal and irritating, the soundtrack is about 10 times louder than the dialog. It seems obvious that another cliché of bad horror movies is being used here, when unable to provide real chills, resort to the kind of sound that frightens babies.

The Blu-Ray disk only shows the ugliness of the film better. I guess I’d recommend it because the scaryest thing about the movie are the pores in the actors faces. Still, it shows the kind of film grain that HD usually eschews. On wonders what kind of low budget stock this gorefest… crapfest…shitfest was shot on. If you think that horror movies are all about being startled and having an interesting backdrop to see the same old same old, please see this movie. If you think that horror movies are a metaphorical playground for the exploration of what the human animal finds truly frightening then read the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe or rent a couple of episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

PERSONAL- Christmas in May

In honor of the coming of spring and in the spirit of renaissance I’m going to have Christmas in May this month. Every day I’m going to give you a little gift of something I find dear in this world. All will be either accessible on the net or through the net. Some will cost a little money but they were wrong when they said that money can’t buy happiness. (It can, but only for about 20 minutes. Then whatever you’ve bought is just another possession and becomes, at best, a part of the environment or, at worst, kipple. This explains the Christmas Afternoon Refractory Period, the letdown you feel after the presents are opened.)

Yesterday my gift was Jonathan Coulton and his wonderful song FIRST OF MAY. Today I give you another treat that is free on the Internet.

I got turned on to ESCAPE POD quite by accident several months ago while doing a search on iTunes for science fiction content. I expected to find a few dozen (hundred, thousand, million) podcasts about science fiction or a few (dozens, hundred, thousand, million) authors self-publishing. I didn’t expect to find a science fiction magazine with the kind of editorial standards you would expect from Astounding or Asimov’s.

ESCAPE POD is the brainchild of Steve Eley, a science fiction author himself who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Every week it publishes a short science fiction story, usually read by a group of regulars, with introduction and closing comments by Eley himself. Eley is also pseudo-famous for a post to alt.atheism many years ago about invisible pink unicorns:

"Invisible Pink Unicorns are beings of great spiritual power. We know this because they are capable of being invisible and pink at the same time. Like all religions, the Faith of the Invisible Pink Unicorns is based upon both logic and faith. We have faith that they are pink; we logically know that they are invisible because we can't see them."

I’ve been reading SF for just about as long as I’ve been reading anything and I have to say that the genre is like a pile of garbage with diamonds in it. The last bastion of pulp fiction publishing, monthly SF magazines have published piles of mediocre stories over the years. The last monthly I subscribed to was Science Fiction Age over a dozen years ago. It was a magazine sized text publication with pictures and I was lucky if one story per issue caught my fancy. Eley has managed to cull truly interesting stories from the slush pile for the most part and, after hearing over 130 of the 156 stories as of today, I have to say that the clunkers are so far between that I don’t even feel that my time is wasted on them. In addition to his regular fare, he presents most of the HUGO nominees for BEST SHORT STORY every year- a service I have waited a lifetime for. He also has the distinction of making truly interesting comments for the introductions (his metaphor for Windows Vista is astounding, as are his comments on online gaming and the joys and fears of being a new parent). To add to all of that, the stories are read wonderfully. I have long been an aficionado of the spoken word and was always astounded that so many books on tape (or CD or .mp3) are read so badly. Somehow Steve had surrounded himself with a number of readers who are actually able to read aloud without it sounding like they are reading.

Check out ESCAPE POD, and its sister podcasts PSEUDOPOD (horror) and PODCASTLE (fantasy). And send some money to EscapeArtists. They pay their authors and publish under the Creative Commons license so you can share what you’ve found freely as long as you don’t charge money for it or alter it in any way.

MOVIES- The Dark Nut

This is making the rounds online from the folks at College Humor. It is a bit uncanny. So much so that you have to wonder whether its an homage to the original Tim Burton trailer.

See more funny videos at CollegeHumor

Gonna be a good summer for comic book movies at least. Iron Man releases tomorrow and will stand or fall on Robert Downey Jr's performance. But if there was an inspired piece of casting, then Downey as Tony Stark is it. In further casting of actors with real chops to play comic book characters, Edward Norton is in the Hulk. I have higher hopes for Iron Man, partly because we've seen it done so many times before. (Starting in the 70's on TV!)

But the really anticipated comic movie and real actor casting has got to be Christian Bale's reprise of Batman. Despite a few misteps, Batman Begins has to be in the top three comic movies of all time. I'm anxious to see what Christopher Nolan has in store.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

PERSONAL- the First of May

Well it’s May first and we all know what that means!

If you haven’t turned on to Jonathan Coulton yet, shame on you. His songs are funny, musically literate, catchy, and beat the hell out of the overproduced plastic crap they play on pop radio nowadays. Jon is a real troubadour. Lot’s of folks try to make a living out of their artistic endeavors over the Internet, but Coulton has actually made it work. He gushed when I told him he was the Paul Simon of our generation but I stand by it. A singer-songwriter, who combines folk with numerous other styles, writes lyrics that are thoughtful, evocative, funny, and touch the heart. And he’s a geek extraordinare! Actually has a song about fractals that includes Mandelbrot’s equation! Other topics include zombies, writing code for a living, the romantic lives of mad scientists, the romantic lives of Octopi, the secret lives of NPR personalities, the life of George Plimpton, the trials and tribulations of Tom Cruse, and perhaps my favorite, Flickr, which is impossible to categorize except to say that it’s about everything.

There really isn’t a song he’s made that I can say I dislike. But try his recommendations page and then go ahead and send the man your money. You won’t be sorry.

MEDICINE- Drug Advertising

There is actually an antacid on the market called "Ass Effects".