Friday, December 9, 2011

Captain America: A Review







Some time beginning in the late 70's a change began in the genre of Super Hero/Comic Book movies.  I think in particular about the first "Superman" released in 1978.  Then I follow a trajectory that brings us to 1997 and"Men In Black".  Within this time frame superheroes stopped declaiming their lines like politicians on steroids.  They abandoned the cornball sentiments that are still heard (unfortunately) in the world of politics.  Before this sea-change a film might end with the hero giving the obligatory pretty girl an obligatory super kiss.  When the kiss is done, he looks into the sky, eyes narrowed with noble determination, and says the ogligatory closing line:"Now the world is finally safe from Tyranny."
            By the time "Men In Black" came along, the hero's lines had changed, the entire tone of movies had changed, so that Will Smith could say something like, "I hate gettin' goo on my suit when I blast those mothas!"
            The deeper truth that lies behind this change is that pop culture has entered a new psychological era, the Age of Irony.  Insofar as mass entertainment is concerned, irony is now a more common dramatic currency than is heroism.  We, the audience, see ourselves more realistically.  We are saturated in irony because we know that we are doomed.  We are doomed individually: we are all going to die.  We are possibly doomed as a civilization, because of the way we have fucked things up.
            We know, or can imagine, many dooms that were hidden before the Discovery Channel founded its empire of info-tainment.  We imagine doom by comet impact.  We imagine the coming doom wrought by global warming.  We imagine doom by the explosion of the super volcano simmering under Yellowstone National Park.  We imagine doom by weapons of mass destruction, or malignant microbes.  We are a people of a thousand imagined dooms.  
           I have devised a personal motto:  March Cheerfully To Your Doom.  Is there any choice?  Or shall we simply proceed to the Age of Despair and forget about having any fun at all?
            I was curious to see how the producers of "Captain America" would adapt to our modern ironic sensibilities.  The themes of "Captain America" hearken back to that most heroic and patriotic era, World War Two.  How could they twist this red- white-and-blue superhero into an ironic commentary that would appeal to today's audiences?
            The producers used a simple device, and it worked.  They made the film's action a flashback.  Contemporary explorers in some remote shifting glacier discover a strange artifact sticking out of the ice.  As soldiers rappel down into this artifact, it becomes obvious that it is a highly advanced aircraft.  There is a pilot's seat looking out a giant windshield.  We don't see what, if anything, is in that pilot's seat. Scraping away a shallow layer of ice, one of the soldiers discovers a round device.  Is it a shield?  It looks like a shield.  And, by god, it is emblazoned with the white star surrounded by red and blue circles: the icon of the U.S. Armed Forces during World War Two.
            This flashback device enables us to look as through the wrong end of a telescope, witnessing the Age of Heroism through the sensibility of the Age of Irony.
Captain America, played without hyperbole by Chris Evans, goes about his business
without any bodice-busting fuss.  He's likeable, modest and utterly committed.
            A top secret agency, the Strategic Scientific Reserve, is working with a brilliant scientist, a fellow who escaped from the Nazis.  He has invented a biological technology that can turn ordinary men into Super Soldiers with super reflexes and super physiques.  The scientist's name is Dr. Erskine, but we may as well call him Dr. Epstein.  We all know he's a Jew, which releases him from the taint of Germanic Fascism.  Meanwhile, the Germans have an advanced Black Ops club, run by  a rogue genius named Johann Schmidt.  Herr Schmidt is at the helm of his own organization called Hydra.  This Hydra thing is to Nazism as a Great White Shark is to a goldfish. 
            Now we throw in a pretty girl.  She is an intelligence agent who liaises with the aforementioned Strategic Scientific Reserve.  She's everywhere.  She's part of the inner circle, though she doesn't seem to do anything besides be head cheerleader.  Heck, she's the only cheerleader. She believes in Dr. Epstein.  She accepts his choice of the first human  subject to undergo the transformation into Super Soldier.  This person is Steve Rogers, a weak, skinny but indomitably plucky 4F washout. The boy weighs maybe eighty pounds in a wet T-shirt and can't lift a moth without dislocating his shoulder.  He has tried to enlist forty times under forty different names in forty towns, but he's got asthma, heart murmur, flat feet, bed wetting, 20/80 vision.  He's under weight, under height, has Recalcitrant Plebny, Feline Leukemia, and every other disqualifier for military duty.
            But he is plucky!  Dr. Epstein recognizes this Pluck as the true ingredient of a Super Soldier.  Sure enough, when Steve gets put in the machine and pumped full of the esoteric hormones, he emerges as a plucky hunk of buff manhood like whooo hooo!  Now his head looks as if it actually belongs on his body, which was a disturbing artifact of his previous digitally de-buffed body.
            Agent Peggy Carter loved him before, but now she loves him just as much
and will love him even if the hormones turn him into a gay guy with a huge body and a tiny pin head.
            Here we go, folks!  The elements are in place.  We are now ready for many chases, explosions, gun fights, grappling and swinging from the bars of industrial catwalks, plus a few romantic interludes that are always interrupted before The Kiss can happen.  The Kiss finally happens as Steve Rogers pluckily volunteers to go on a suicide mission that leads to the surprise denouement of the film. 
            I liked the film, (meaning I watched all of it) but the ending left me saying "HUH?"
            I give the film three muskrats.  One of those muskrats is for the moment when villainous Herr Schmidt tears his own face off to reveal a red-orange skull with a Michael Jackson nose.
           

            





Monday, November 28, 2011

The Singles Party From Hell





            When I hit middle age I found that it was time to re-calibrate my mating radar.  The things that I wanted in a woman were becoming less  relevant.  A twenty five year old man falls in love with his girls’ boobs.  A fifty year old man, if he’s not an idiot, will fall in love with his partner’s character.  If he’s expecting to revel in exciting boobs his whole life, he’ll look like the old fart that married Anna Nicole Smith.  That arrangement did not end happily.
            I continued to behave as if I was twenty five. This strategy wasn't working.  It led me into  ridiculous situations where I felt as if I was closer to twelve  than what I was, a supposedly mature man.  I needed to overhaul my pheromones.  My romantic fantasies needed a serious tune-up.
            Let me say this right now: looks don’t mean a thing.  Love doesn’t care what someone looks like.  Love is a matter of soul, the long run, a lifetime.  Love finds us, we don’t’ find love.  When I met the woman who would become my partner, it was as if love was waiting for both of us.  Love had acted as a match maker, moving us around like pawns until we were together and committed.
            I had spent years doing some of the craziest things imaginable, with one purpose: to meet my life’s partner.  Everywhere I went, to clubs, parties, salons, bird watching expeditions, I went with only one motive: to meet someone!  I went to events that didn’t interest me.  I went to boring seminars, poetry readings by bad poets, turgid discussion groups.  I spent time with people I didn’t like.   I even joined Mensa.  Wow.  (Mensa members, please do not take offense.  I’ll trade you mockeries.  I’m a hippie.  Mock me!  You have my permission.)
            All this frenzied woman-chasing came to a head when I attended a monthly singles party hosted by the local newspaper. 
            I had never attended a singles party.  When I entered the restaurant and looked over the crowd, I realized that I was at a gathering of predators. There was a subliminal noise of growling and hissing, of lips smacking and barely audible wolf whistles. The good looking people became like human bumper cars.  There wasn’t enough room for the girls to squeeze into the space around The Handsome Rich Guy.  It was a maniacal jostle, carried out on the dance floor to the D.J.’s disco beat.
            The scrum around Hot Chick was even more ridiculous.
            There are always a few major players of each gender at a party.  Ms. Hot was exuding a monstrous fug of pheromones that drew men like some protozoan homing beacon.  I could feel the other women hating her with arachnid intensity.  She monopolized..no, she hypnotized.. the men with her jiggling act, the bouncing of her visible parts.
            I began a conversation with an attractive woman. A few moments later a man emerged from a nearby restroom.  He looked me up and down disdainfully and said, “I’m already here.” 
            I checked with the lady.  Our conversation had been fun. I thought she was enjoying my company.
            “Do you want me to leave?” I asked. 
            “He was already here,” she said meekly.  The man, who had thin wispy hair, glasses, and looked like an insurance salesman, puffed up his chest and moved in close to me, getting inside my personal space in an aggressive way.  I could have crushed him with one hand.
            “I’m HERE, get it!?”
            I walked away.  I’m not the crushing type, although I admit there would have been a certain satisfaction in lifting this twerp and throwing him across the room.
            As the evening progressed, distinctive sub-groups began forming.  There were the “alternatives”, that is people who dressed like hippies, punks or eccentrics.  I felt that I was an “alternative”.  I have a tendency to wear loose, comfortable clothes.  I just put on whatever is handy.  I spent some time talking to a woman who dressed entirely in black, like a French intellectual from the fifties.  She wore a turtle neck sweater, a black beret and thick-rimmed black glasses.  Her name was Harry.  Or Hari.  Or Hairy.  I don't know...the music was loud.
            The “office workers” seemed to dress like cubicles even when away from them.  The“Bad People”, tattooed and pierced, grimaced disdainfully and often strolled to the parking lot to imbibe drugs.
            There was a legion of dark curly- haired men with shirts open to the waist, wearing gold chains and Rolex watches.  They danced that eternal dance, The Crotch-and-Swivel.  Their heads rotated, eyes searching, arms groping in the crowd.  Women jumped backwards and collided with other dancers as these hands found private places.  The expression “meat market”, cliché as it is, kept whirling through my mind.  This was it; the erotic butcher’s selection of choice cuts, laid out on a platter, a dance floor, as Abba tunes alternated with Stevie Wonder.  Good god, I was dressed in athletic pants and a t-shirt.  I was overmatched.  I was completely out of my depth. 
            The final assault on my sensibilities occurred when I saw, there on the dance floor, my therapist. 
            My therapist.  
            Ten years of weekly sessions, a whole cataclysm of my soul in a decade of the most intensive work, and I see my therapist at a party so comic and ridiculous that I sensed a foreshadowing of the end of my therapy.  If she’s HERE, why am I paying her to advise me on how to live my life?
            I left before ten and never went to another singles party. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What Isn't Love?


No one has ever read this poem.  There was a period in which I was obsessed with a woman.  It was a terrible, destructive, painful experience.
The woman enjoyed her power over me and used it to pull me in, push me out, toy with me.  She wasn't such a bad person.  She was simply in thrall to her own problems and the two of us constructed an awful parody of "love".  During that period I wrote several poems exploring rage, obsession and the difference between healthy love and obsessive love.  I chose to post this poem because I think such experiences are not uncommon.  Many of us have been through the agony of obsessive, jealous, manipulative and enslaving attachment.

What Isn't Love?

Staring into space at work,
while over and over you rehearse
something you must say to wound your lover.
Or having to replay
again and again throughout the day
some way that your lover wounded you.
Listening to the sound
of cars homeward bound;
to extend the range of audibility
farther and farther down the street,
parsing motor noise as you wait:
car too big, car too small,
how long will he or she be gone?
Wincing when your lover smiles
through a party's unheard talk
with a too-attractive stranger;
it feels so much like danger.
To miss someone is sweet,
but helplessness is bitter,
and love does not taste bitter,
rejection is the acrid morsel on the tongue.
Trying too hard to be good;
trying too hard to be bad;
trying too hard not to feel;
feeling too hard to try,
and wanting to cry
when you beg for love
as if it were a drug,
then moan in shocked surprise
when you don't feel high.
Yet you grow more passionate
with each betrayal.
What isn't love?
Heat without light;
lust without compassion;
compassion without passion.
No word exists for what isn't love
but it's always been around
in promises that are broken
in the language being spoken
by those who cannot hear
its splintered sound.



Saturday, November 26, 2011

Wholes: A Poem



There is no part of you
that is not a whole.
There is no hole in you
that is not part of you,
whole and alive.
There is no whole without holes,
no healing without wounds
no making without
unmaking
that which is a whole,
to begin again,
be born, again, whole.
What crying is this,
in the hole, in the hurt,
yearning to be whole?
Leave yourself alone,
quiet, make everything work
for you, everything,
the base and the noble,
the useless and the crucial,
whole is what is, resting in the center
of the hole.





























Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Writing a Villain Energizes Your Story



Nothing infuses energy into a story like a powerful and grotesque villain.  If you ardently hate a villain in a book you're reading or a story you're viewing then you're hooked!  You've invested emotion in the battle between good and evil, you're waiting for justice to be served.
            These wicked characters must get under your skin.  They have to arouse a visceral sense of repulsion and fear, the way spiders and snakes evoke primitive terror, the way decaying fecal ooze repels the senses.  Villains are difficult to write because we instinctively recoil from the dark sides of life and the more grotesque aspects of our selves.   That dark side, that shadow, is the only place from which a truly compelling villain can emerge.  We can't  tear off evil like a number at the grocery meat counter.
            "Number Twenty Two!"
            "Here I am.  Let's see.  What have you got that's horrible and scary?"
            A good example of a well written villain came in the film CYRUS.  The cast consisted of John C. Reilly, Marissa Tomei, Katherine Keener and Jonah Hill.
Jonah Hill as Cyrus
            The emotional engine of the story comes from the dark portrayal of Cyrus by Jonah Hill.  Cyrus is twenty two years old.   He  lives with his mother, played by Marissa Tomei.  Their relationship is what the shrinks call "enmeshed".  Mother/child/husband/wife/lover and beloved, all have become confused.  Cyrus wants to be with his mother forever.  She's his best friend, his only friend and he expands his presence to fill her life nearly to the exclusion of other men.
            Nearly.
            John C. Reilly, playing a decent shlub  named John, meets Molly (Tomei) at a party.  In the usual sequence of events, John starts dating Molly and soon enough  comes to her house, where he meets Cyrus.
            Like many evil characters, Cyrus is a charmer.  He exudes a disarming "honesty", he's well schooled in modern therapy-talk.
            Let us pause and consider this concept, Evil.  What is it?
            I've parsed my own definition of evil to a simple formula: Evil is the inflicting of pain to avoid pain. This inflicting is often done in the name of Good, i.e. Hitler was saving Germany and the Aryan race from humiliation and contamination.  I exclude those beings who enjoy causing pain because it's their nature.  Such creatures exist but not for the purpose of this essay. 
            Cyrus is going to destroy the relationship between John and Molly.  He's a smart, tubby man-child who can easily read John's psychological roadmap.  This gives him power.  He also gets power from his mother's uncritical support of his efforts.
             Evil characters have malice and they have power.  Many of them are concealed behind a facade of charm or apparently benign goodwill.
            Evil people are trying to wriggle out from under a burden of pain by forcing others to experience pain.  What is the pain that Cyrus wishes to avoid?  He doesn't seem to have any friends.  He isn't engaged with a community of his peers.  He creates techno music on a bank of keyboards and electronics.  The music quickly devolves into sterile monotony.   Cyrus is a twenty two year old loser,  a lonely fat kid.  That's pain enough.  If we follow the formula that evil is pain inflicted on others to mute the suffering of the self, we find Cyrus' motivation.  He will obstruct any of Molly's efforts to be happy.  If she's happy, she will elude his possession.  She might become attached to another man.
            John quickly understands the game that is being played.  It's impossible to carry this information to Molly.  She won't believe him.  Cyrus is too clever.  Cyrus quietly stands behind Molly in a hallway as she talks with John about their burgeoning relationship.  Cyrus faces John while showing cardboard signs over the back of his mother's head.  Cyrus has printed phrases of malice and contempt.  "You don't have a chance."  "I'll get you."   "You're out of your league."
            This is the moment in the film where I truly grew to hate Cyrus and to fear for John.  This is where the bad guy engaged my emotional investment in the film's outcome.  Cyrus' mask slips and he shows a chilling blankness, as if John is simply beneath consideration.  John may be a shlub but he's a decent shlub and he steps up, steps up to the dragon, willing to fight for Molly.  That's the narrative counterpoint to hating the villain.  It offers an opportunity for the hero to draw upon courage he doesn't know he has.  Hate the villain, love the hero. It all sounds so simple, doesn't it?
            Unless we're writing comic books or cartoons, it's not so simple.  Each of us is a composite personality.  Our inner child is really a little car filled with squabbling midgets.  The steering wheel passes from hand to hand, the brakes are fought over, the car veers crazily.
            A villain takes advantage of the muddle of human nature by having a clear point of focus.  A fixation, an obsession, a purpose.  This purpose empowers the villain at the expense of ordinary people.  Bad guys know who they are and why they act.  In many narratives the hero struggles with doubt and obscurity of motivation.  His struggle isn't just with the villain;  it's with his own confusion.  When he sees clearly, when he knows what he wants, he obtains the weapons he needs.
            All through this essay I've been thinking of two characters: Adolph Hitler and South Park cartoon nasty Eric Cartman.  Hitler annihilated millions; Cartman is a fictional character in a television show.  Yet they have attributes in common.
            My emotions regarding Hitler are an historical abstraction.  He's become a universal symbol of evil.  Cartman, on the other hand, keeps my guts in an uproar.   I HATE the fucker, I loathe him!  It's a very personal engagement.
            The lessons of Cartman are numerous.  All of his actions are manipulations.  He is completely without sincerity.  He's a bigot.   There is no minority group who escapes his ire. When he's told that white people have become a minority group, he simply doesn't hear the message.  This may be Cartman's greatest signifier: his inability to hear anything with which he disagrees.  Intellectual and moral deafness is a widespread symptom of evil.  Cartman, and villains in general, like to blame other people for their own emotional discomfort.  This profound moral choice, to blame others,  is a basic step into the world of evil.  When writing a villainous character, it's useful to give him someone to blame. Give him a scapegoat.     
            A villain can't be frightful without power.  It may be supernatural power, political power, military power, physical power, but a villain cannot elicit fear, revulsion and anger without significant power.  It's the abuse of power that sparks the reader's anger.  Most of us see power as a privilege that entails responsibility.
We get angry when power is used for gratification of the ego and the appetites.
            Cartman's power comes from several sources.  He's clever, inventive, without moral scruple and completely selfish.  His mother gives him everything he wants because it's easier that way.  Cartman is a fatherless boy.  His mother always takes the lazy way out; she gives in to her son's demands.  If I take South Park as a microcosm, a model for the larger society in which we live, Cartman's mother represents economic power.  She makes him rich in comparison to the other kids.  He has all the latest toys, the best video games and a total lack of supervision.
            To further amplify Cartman's power he has a follower: Butters.  This sweet but witless innocent will go along with any outrageous scheme Cartman dreams up. Cartman generates momentum.  While Stan, Kyle or Kenny may have qualms about Cartman's ideas, Butters is always there to support him.  The plan, the idea, the scheme always seems to run away with itself before it can be thought through.  Its consequences are never anticipated.  The only brakes on Cartman's destructive power are the other boys' common sense and lack of malice.  In the end, Cartman always brings himself to destruction, but he will never admit defeat.  In some people this is an admirable trait.  In Cartman, it's merely irritating.
            In Hitler it cost millions of lives.  If Cartman were a real adult person he would be a frightful monster.  Think what Hitler and Cartman have in common.  Scapegoats.  Blame.  Moral and intellectual deafness.  Unwillingness to take responsibility for errors in judgment.  A will that generates great momentum,  and attracts followers who are willing to obey without question.
            In the episode called "Breast Cancer Show Ever" Cartman takes a schoolyard beating by a mere girl, by Wendy Testaburger.  She played the righteous avenger when Cartman mocked breast cancer and persisted in telling hurtful jokes on the subject of breasts.  When she established the time for the duel, when Cartman realized that Wendy was serious, he tried to buy her off.  She would have none of it.  In spite of the fact that Cartman was pounded to a bloody mess, he twisted events in his mind so that he won the fight, that he was still "Cool", or "Kewl" in the eyes of his compatriots.  Kyle and Stan told Cartman "You suck, you've always sucked.  We hate you."  Cartman can't hear these declarations.  He is still Kewl.
            This amazing deafness made me want to jump through the screen and pound the fat twerp to a pulp.  My emotions were completely engaged.  When a writer can raise the emotional stakes to such a pitch, that writer has succeeded in creating a compelling villain.
            I have used a silly villain in a silly cartoon show to highlight the power of a villain to propel a good story.  Ignore Cartman at your own risk.  He's a first class little asshole.
            People ignored and dismissed Hitler as a buffoon.  We know what happened to those people.  Monstrous villains  have arisen throughout history.  We are writers;  we deal in fiction.  The  most frightening villains in fiction draw resonance from history's tyrants.  Lazy writers may imitate these tyrants in their narratives.  Good writers draw villains out through themselves, knowing that each of us is capable of monstrosity.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

We Don't Know We're Insane




            We're just like the fish; we don't know what water is.  But the element in which we swim, the element that is impossible for us to recognize, is stress. 
             We have become denizens of a culture that is actually a Torture Machine.  It drives us insane by presenting demands so complex as to be impossible to  achieve.  Every day, it issues thousands of orders.  Turn your left blinker.  Pay your insurance premium.  Pick up your kids' school uniforms.  Don't forget the doctor's appointment.  Where'd you put the McFarland file?  Where are the paper clips?  Why is this milk sour?  Now I have to return it to the store.  Screw it; not worth my time, flush it down the sink.  Are the dogs' vaccinations up to date?  Do I have the receipts for my tax audit?
            Why am I always left with the feeling that I've forgotten to do a homework assignment?  Who is this screaming at me, right next to my ear so that it hurts?  Our government is letting people steal on a massive scale.  My bank account is auto- siphoned each month, it's gone and I've got nothing left to spend.
            I think I'm going crazy.  I don't have any sexual desire at all.  The last time I felt truly alive was....when?  Have I ever felt truly alive?  I truly don't think so. There's nothing to look forward to.  My old age will merely be a time when insurance machines squeeze the remaining dollars from my estate, leaving my kids with nothing.  Zero.  The globe is warming up.  It's true.  The waters are creeping on shore, slowly.  
            OUR SOCIETY IS A TORTURE MACHINE, so complex that it takes a genius to maneuver its daily routine.  It tortures by its relentless pressure.  We don't need Stalin or Hitler.  We have modern life in Amerika.  See that guy with the cardboard sign sitting at the parking lot exit?  "Will work for food."  He isn't a pathetic loser.  He's you or me or someone we know who just cracked under the pressure and opted to sit in the TIME OUT box in front of everyone.  He couldn't take the complexity any more.  Now he's doing better. He has a shoe box where his money piles up.  He's doing better than I am!  Could I take sitting in the TIME OUT box in front of everyone?  I don't think so.  I'm not tough enough.
            Life has always been complex, but not like this...Hunting, gathering, fighting off raiders, that was easy stuff compared to this.  The modern Torture Machine can't be dodged.  Your assignment is late!  Punishment will be swift and merciless!  Your interest will rise, your credit will sink.
            The injustice of it!  I'm choking on injustice.  I can't breathe!  Give me a cigarette.  Where are all these voices coming from?  Let me turn off the radio.The off switch doesn't work.  The voices are coming from my pocket.  It's my Z-Phone.  Its off switch doesn't work either.  The argument continues, shouting everywhere, lies compound in blatant and shameless huckstering.  Everything is a trick.  Even the tricks we know to be tricks conceal more subtle tricks. They say those Occupy Wall Street types are going to burn Manhattan.  Quick, we'd better launch a pre-emptive strike, mow them down before they find out where we've stashed the money.
            The fish don't recognize the sea.  The people don't recognize the element that dominates our lives.  I will coin a term for it: Phobagonovia.  Phobe-ago-NOVE-ee-yah.  It causes us to curl up inside our homes with the giant TV playing football games and scripted "reality" shows where people are abused by their in-laws.  Phobagonovia.  We are afraid of new experiences.  The Torture Machine has implanted this condition in our nervous systems.  We are afraid of relating to one another openly, of crying in front of strangers, of expressing feelings easily, of hugging or kissing spontaneously, lest we be inappropriate, our strait jacket is "Appropriate", we haven't a clue how to dance in a circle while deeply in love with members of a clan, to sing ancient songs, to sit around a fire feeling wonderful under the stars.  I don't mean we need to go backwards.  We need to invent new kinds of communities.  We are dying of Phobagonovia.  Our neck ties are cutting off our breath.  Our high heels are warping our skeletons. The future is over.  Rush Limbaugh will be reborn as a talking pig that can only sputter nonsense. The people of his remote village will laugh at him holding their sides with mirth.  They will postpone the time to eat him because he's a tourist attraction.  People come from distant villages to see him.  They stare in disbelief, listen to his pompous mutterings. They throw him pieces of rubbish.  His time will come, at last.
            When the chief takes the first bite, he will spit it out.
            "We laughed too long," he will say.  "This fat talking pig tastes like shit."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Film Review: HESHER




            The film HESHER is billed as a comedy.  There it is, right on the DVD box,
"Hilarious", says Eric Vespe of AINT IT COOL NEWS.
            While there are many moments that Hesher's behavior is funny by way of its sheer incongruity, this is a very sad film.  It's about a family grieving for the mother, who died two months ago in a traffic accident.  The bereaved father, son and grandma live in a cluttered house whose air is so thick with pain that it's enough to knock you flat just walking through the door.
            Hesher is a thirty-ish slacker who seems to have radar for helpless people.  He finds them and uses them to support his slacker lifestyle.  He lives in houses under construction or in empty vacationer's houses or sometimes in his black-primered van.  His magnetism derives from the fact that he is utterly without etiquette, morals, or concern for what anyone else thinks.  He commits a continuous string of crimes, walking through their concussions as if he is a distant spectator, unaware of the pain he creates in the people who get too near his blast zone.  We keep wanting him to be a hero, but he's not.  He's a selfish asshole without any deep personal connections.  He doesn't deserve any, and that seems to be fine with Hesher.
            TJ, the twelve year old son, rides his bike in pursuit of the family's fatal accident-car.  He follows it to the garage where he asks to buy it back.  He's obsessed with the death car, an ordinary red sedan with clear indications of the lethal T-bone that took his mother's life.  The whole family was in the car when it was hit.  Everyone else was okay.  TJ's mother took the full impact.
            The car is TJ's only connection to his mother's memory.  It's morbid, weird, but that's how it plays.  TJ wants the car so badly that he steals his father's credit card and offers the buying price but it's too late.  The car has gone to the wrecker's, where it is being reduced to a small cube of scrap metal. 
            The garage owner throws him out.  It happens that the garage owner has a sixteen year old son who is TJ's nightmare bully, a spike-haired pimply monster who owns a yellow convertible sports car.
            Hesher meets TJ when the latter throws a rock through the window of a partially constructed house, which is located in a partially constructed subdivision.  The rock throwing draws the cops.  Hesher beats a hasty retreat, tossing a smoke bomb (or something that looks like a hand grenade) out the window and jumping into his black van.  He follows TJ home, strips down to his undies, puts his clothes in the wash, helps himself to food and sets up a room in the garage.  TJ's dad is too passive from taking pills to object.  Grandma takes it as yet another bizarre page in life's crazy book.  Grandma has prescription marijuana cigarettes for an unspecified illness.  This is lovely for Hesher, who initiates granny into the virtues of the bong.
            Grandma is the only person with some sap left in the leaves and stems of her life.  She's beyond being shocked by human behavior.  She takes Hesher as she finds him, and a bond arises between the old lady and the punk who looks like Jesus and has a tattoo on his back of a large hand giving the world The Finger.
            This film belongs, lock stock and barrel, to the character of TJ, played by Devin Brochu.  His rage and sadness are so visceral, so real that I can't help but wonder how a boy his age comes by such experience.  There are a lot of great young actors and I often ask the same question but I've never seen a child actor carry such a sense of the world's unfairness.  Brochu's performance is amazing, worth an Oscar with a side order of Golden Globe.  He projects his rage, his devastation, he builds a wall between himself and his father, between himself and the world, yet there is still a chink of vulnerability.  That chink is plastered over with a sign written in plain English: NO ONE GETS NEAR ME!
            Grandma tries her best.  She's always inviting him on walks.  "Teej, it's such a beautiful day, why don't you come with me on my walk through the park?"
            "I'm busy, grandma, I've got school grandma, I've got homework grandma."  TJ 's not letting any fresh air reach him.  He's basting his grievance in the furnace of his rage and it's scary. 
            Hesher isn't his buddy.  Hesher fails TJ on every count.  When Big Bully is pushing TJ's face into the urinal cake in the school bathroom, Hesher happens along, takes a look at the situation and walks back out the door.
            "Why didn't you help me?", TJ later demands.  Hesher takes a can of gasoline in one hand, pinions TJ's wrists in the other and drags him to Big Bully's house.  The spotless yellow sports car gets a douse of gasoline.
            TJ's angry but TJ isn't stupid or insane.  He begs Hesher to stop.  Hesher doesn't stop.  The convertible goes up in flames and the next day the police are putting TJ and his dad through the wringer.  Being a minor, TJ is set free.  His father asks, "did you burn that car, T.J?"
            "No," says TJ  "Well, sort of..." he equivocates, then decides to stay with "No."  How can he explain what happened?
            One day Hesher goes to granny's room and finds her dead on the floor.
            It's a moment when TJ and his dad must either break irrevocably or find a new path.  It's the moment when Hesher becomes the hero we've always wanted him to be.  He shows up at the funeral holding a giant can of beer.  I can't reveal subsequent events without being a spoiler.  Let's just say that at last granny gets her walk with TJ, dad, and her pal Hesher.
            This is a good film.  Directed by Spencer Susser, written and directed by Susser and David Michod, it's odd, sometimes funny, poignant and never quite what we expect.  The conventional line would have been to cast Hesher as the subtle Zen Master with method to his madness, leading his grieving new friends to healing acceptance.  That's not gonna happen.  Hesher is not Mister Miyagi.  Hesher is more like the broken watch that tells the correct time twice a day.  Fortunately, he gets it right after granny's death, when it's needed the most.
            Four muskrats for this film, with Rainn Wilson as Mr. Forney, Piper Laurie as Grandma, Natalie Portman with glasses and split ends as a grocery clerk who befriends TJ.  Of course there's Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing a fine imitation of Hesher. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review of X-MEN FIRST CLASS


Examined by Aliens while sleeping in jeep

           What is the message of this movie?  It's simple: don't be ashamed to be yourself!  If your body is covered by hundreds of zebra stripes that come to life and attack people who have ticked you off,  well...that's okay.  Or, for instance, you could have eyeballs that pop out of your head on stalks that get infinitely long and have the tensile strength of titanium and follow your commands with the dexterity of a classical pianist, well....that's okay too.  Don't be ashamed! There are others who are...well...different.  And they're looking for you. 
            We all know the world is full of mutants.  Look around, anywhere, any time.  Mutants.  Your next door neighbor is probably a mutant.  You might even be a mutant and not know it.  You might do mutant things in your sleep, like eat the contents of an entire bakery and not gain weight.  It's possible, isn't it?
            X-MEN FIRST CLASS extends the Marvel Comics empire with a prequel, a look at the adolescent X-People and the ways they first defined themselves as mutant heroes and villains.  A selection of the classic characters make their youthful appearances.  Magneto is here,  as are Raven,  Havok, Beast and a youthful pre-wheelchair Charles Xavier.
            There's a philosophical divide established in this film, as to who is hero and who is villain.  One side regards the human race per se as just so much evolutionary garbage.  Greedy, destructive, lacking impulse control, addicted to wearing dark suits and driving big dark cars, humans are so much dross to be sloughed off in the wash of new mutations. This new breed will make a glorious  civilization in the future.
            On the other hand, the human race is a flawed but soulful species that redeems its mayhem with beautiful and noble acts.  It's capable of creating sublime art and architecture and there is a fundamental Goodness at the core of the species Homo Sapiens.  Humans simply need guidance.  Soon enough they will be ready to take their place in the galactic civilization that will arise in the coming eons.
            Frankly, I find it a toss-up.  If I were a young mutant with the ability to make my circulatory system emit radiations that can heal all the diseases of mankind, I'm not sure which group of mutants I'd join.  I suppose I'd go with Dr. Xavier because he's sweet and has such plump lips and is obviously a man of integrity.  I don't like Sebastian Shaw because he's into concealing his thoughts from mutant telepaths, and besides, he was a Nazi and barely escaped the destruction of The Third Reich with his britches on fire.  He's a visionary, yes, but when Kevin Bacon wants to play villain, he can be really scary.  My wife has always been terrified of Kevin Bacon.  He scared her even when he played sympathetic parts.
            I've never been into Marvel Comics.  I was born to an earlier generation that read Superman, Wonder Woman and Archie comics.  I guess that makes me a D.C comics guy.  Whoa, I hope that doesn't mean I'm a Republican.
            As a movie, X-Men First Class is pretty ordinary fare.  All I ever ask of a film is that it be entertaining, that I'll want to watch it to the end and not bail out in the first ten minutes.  X-Men First Class meets that standard.  Is it up to the Rotten Tomatoes rating of 87%?  I don't think so.  I'd give it two and a half muskrats.  87%?  I think my run of Marvel Comics-based movies has hit a wall.  I've gotten bored with the concept.  I'll wait for Robert Downey or Christian Bale to re-appear as Iron Bat or whatever that thing is that climbs walls and changes shape every couple of seconds.  The half muskrat is for James McAvoy, who is the weirdest looking leading man in the film industry today.  Okay, maybe Owen Wilson tops the weird looks department, but I have a lot more respect for the acting abilities of Mr. McAvoy.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Movie Review: THOR, directed by Kenneth Branagh

The Orion Nebula in mostly infrared



Thor:  A Review


            We have become a people inured to the stupendous.  The term "awesome" has become the ultimate superlative.  What's beyond "awesome"? Mega-awesome?  Hyper-awesome?  Has it become Gi-normous?  Our imaginations have been fertilized by The Hubble Telescope.  We think it terms of billions of light years.  Our movie special effects are so good that we expect, we DEMAND, a higher level of stimulation.  So, the Romans watched people eaten by lions.  Fech!  Big deal.  We've watched movies of the most gruesome realism.  In the so-called real world we've watched colossal tsunamis ravage continents, storms of staggering power, melting ice caps, species going extinct before our eyes.
            What haven't we seen by now?
            Here's a movie about Marvel Comic character slash ancient Norse god The Mighty Thor.
It's directed by Kenneth Branagh.  What an odd match-up.  Branagh's name is synonymous with Class.  He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at 23, then founded his own Shakespeare troupe.  His film version of HENRY THE FIFTH made Shakespeare accessible and exciting.  Getting Branagh involved in any project is to raise the bar, to nudge expectations upward.  The formula has held so far: Branagh = not trash.
            A lot of things did not happen in the movie THOR.  There was no thespian rug-chewing.  The villain did not twirl his moustaches.  The special effects were beautiful, not merely stunning.  The fight scenes did not go on and on.  The love story was light and believable.
            Given the budget and the subject matter, a lesser director would have cast Vin Diesel as Thor and had him throw his hammer through the Pentagon, from whence it would have drilled its way through the earth and come up in the Chinese version of the Pentagon and then split into a hundred hammer-clones that would wreck all the military command centers on the planet before whooshing back into Thor's outstretched fingers.  Haha!
            In Branagh's self-assured hand we get hunky Chris Hemsworth as Thor.
Hemsworth looks like a sweet surfer dude.  He plays his character without hyperbole.  The story arc is the classic "arrogant prince gets humbled before attaining his full legacy as a wise king."
            The real star of the film is its beauty.  Cast and crew have deferred to the setting, the cosmos, and they have used the latest telescope imagery to render a universe that is awe inspiring with its clouds of black dust back-lit by radiant nebulae. 
            This is no masterpiece of a film.  It's possible that half my pleasure was simple relief, that the cliché chorus didn't come out ringing its bells and insulting  my intelligence.
            Three muskrats.  I'd give it three and a half but it's a comic book film,
people, albeit an awesome comic book film. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Review of the film HANNA


Hanna: A Review


            I should make a rule.  If a movie blurb has the acronym CIA in it, I should pass.  I got suckered by the idea of a wild child being raised in the back woods of Finland.  I wanted to see Finland.  That's why I rented the movie HANNA.  Everything else was loaded with the usual signals. CIA, CIA, CperiodIperiodAperiod.
            The CIA has become a  cinematic boogeyman, a narrative trope for deception, rogue agents who are awesome martial artists, plots within plots within plots, old paper files that should have been burned at the end of the Cold War, EVIL, pure old fashioned EVIL.  This is our main national security agency, the one that sets the paradigm.  It's interesting how much we depend on it and hate it.  No one imbues the DIA, the NSC, the FBI or dozens of other acronymic agencies with such an aura of sinister misdirection.  No other agency is synonymous with THE BIG LIE.
            Here is the movie, HANNA, directed by Jon Wright, and starring Saoirse Ronan as the waif-like uber-warrior, martial artist supreme.  My first problem was simply working out the pronunciation of the girl's name.  Turns out it's pronounced Seer-sha.  Hoooray!  I think the Irish are just having a laugh at our expense, cleaving with ethnic loyalty to the old Gaelic names.  I can imagine it, the Christening of a girl child, and the parents confer in ponderous whispers.  "Let's call her Riaoirdhagnha-hna."  Couldn't just call her Riordan, could ya?
            I'm having a bit of fun, certainly not slinging ethnic slurs.  The Irish are entitled to defiance.  As are the Blacks, the Jews, the Arabs, the Ethiopian Coptics, the Mormons, The Kurds and everyone else.  No one needs opt out of defiance.  It's the national creed of all nations.  Oh say can you seeeeee?
            Let me see if I can compress the plot of this movie into a logical sequence.
A while ago, in the mid-nineties, the CIA funded a program to mess with genetic sequencing via in-vitro fertilization.  The idea was to see if they could produce a SUPER SOLDIER, a warrior with superior reflexes, intelligence, better vision, better hearing, greater strength and so forth. 
            If we want to trace the origins of this cliche, we may go back to sci fi maven Isaac Asimov writing in the fifties and then fast forward twenty years to Bionic Man. 
            This program (the one in the movie) produced maybe twenty children and then the bottom dropped out of it.  The film gives us a five second vignette of fast cuts of news and magazine items.  Apparently a certain number of children met untimely deaths, around the same time and locale.  Guess the CIA didn't want freaky little chromosome carriers running around the world.
            There's a flashback scene of Cate Blanchett stepping out from behind a snow-bound road sign and firing six or eight or ten shots from her nine millimeter Beretta at an oncoming car.  The vehicle contains a man, a woman, and a toddler.  This brilliant, foolproof assassination plan doesn't work.  My goodness!  The toddler's mother is dying in the snow and curses Blanchett's character, agent Marrisa Wiegler, with her final words: "You'll never take her."  Or was it, "You'll never find her?" Whatever.  Male person/daddy and super-toddler have vanished into the eerie north woods.
            There must be another rule, a Hollywood rule, that if you have a movie that's just middling in quality and if you can land Cate Blanchett in the cast it will add enough class to the project to push it uphill a notch into cinematic respectability.
            I must admit that Blanchett played her high level agent like the perfect Wicked Witch.  "Come here, child, I won't hurt you," she says with a voice like dry ice.  We know her character's nuts by the way she brushes her teeth.  She attacks her gums until she can spit blood.  It's interesting that Blanchett distances herself in the movie's credits.  It's hard to discover that she is actually IN the movie.  In spite of  near-dominant screen time, she's a somewhat hidden "And Cate Blanchett" way back in the cast credits.
            Okay okay okay.  The movie was entertaining.  It was as saturated with cliche as a Denny's waffle is with maple syrup.  Two thirds of the film time was taken up with chases.  Watch out for chases.  Rule Number twenty three: long chases are evidence of the director's lack of imagination. 
            At the end of the movie the chasing goes on in an abandoned theme park with headless dinosaurs and roller coaster tunnels.  The final scene has Blanchett emerging from the mouth of the Big Bad Wolf.
            I never quite figured out why Blanchett was chasing Hanna through the park and then suddenly Hanna was chasing Blanchett through the park.  It didn't make sense.  Did Marissa Wiegler (that's another thing, was she a German with a Southern accent?  Or a Southern with a German accent?.  Sheeesh.)  Each had hurt the other.  Hanna had created a functioning crossbow while running full tilt through the abandoned theme park.  Blanchett had shot Hanna somewhere near the abdomen but apparently her super genes included quick healing.  There was some symbolic dwelling on Wiegler's shoes in an earlier scene.  Apparently these shoes are the witch's undoing, because she slips, ooops, just at the climactic moment of confrontation, and goes head first down some bobsled track thingy.  Then the ironic comments get to be uttered.  "I just missed your heart", says Hanna, in a reference to the first scene in the film when she's hunting a caribou buck and mercifully gives him the coup de grace.  She told the magnificent animal, with appropriately aboriginal predator/prey bonding, "I just missed your heart."
            I guess I won't be spoiling anything to say that the movie ends with a bang.
            I rate it three muskrats.  Coulda been better.  Fairly entertaining. Coulda been a lot worse.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My Momma Told Me There'd Be Days Like This

Early morning view from inside our RV

Talk about a day that goes wrong.  Let me 'splain, Lucy.  We live in an RV, in a campground.  One of the campground rules is that once a year we have to uproot ourselves and move to another site.  I must make it very clear that site choice is a fine art, and it takes a veteran to choose a site that isn't next door to hip-hoppin' meth-lab freaks who d'zizz all night long.  And that's just on the left side.  On the right side I might have a seventy five year old evangelical lady who wears the same two mu-mus and loves to proselytize her religion and hand out copies of her church magazine, Apocalypse How. 
            No no.  A  good site is a gift.  And we had a good site.  The change shouldn't have been too bad.  We were moving next door.  We have an arrangement whereby we keep swapping with our neighbor, back and forth, etc.  The neighbor isn't bad. She's as loony as the rest of us, but she's quiet.
            Unfortunately, she knows nothing of RV maintenance.  Her gigantic fifth wheel has been decaying before our eyes, and this time, when MOVING TIME arrived, she couldn't move.  Things didn't function.  Her slides wouldn't go in and out.  Hence, she was stuck.  Hence we were stuck.
            Let's cut to the chase.  Eight or nine hours later I had to drive our 38 foot motor coach around the  circular road that services the RV park.  I clipped a planter full of flowers and caved in one of my bay doors.  In certain places, the amount of space through which to drive a big RV can be pretty tight.  I had to go around again, because the neighbor STILL wasn't ready.  On the second go-around, someone had parked a car where it hadn't been before.  I had inches to clear on each side.  I'm watching mirrors and sticking my head out the window and the manager is somewhere behind me screaming "turn right, no turn left, no back up!"
            I clipped the manager's RV.  I should say I clipped ONE of the manager's RVs because he buys and sells them after refurbishing.  My clip made a ding about six inches long next to his headlight.  You wouldn't see it if you weren't looking for it.
I can't show you pics because now I'm in the midst of an insurance claim.
            It's been that kind of day.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Link to my novel-in-progress, THE SHADOW STORM

This is the link to my work in progress, a multi-book series called THE SHADOW STORM, an epic adventure novel that takes place on an alternate world that looks a lot like the Balkans in the year 1900.http://bit.ly/ngDcCz

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Death Of Beauty





How can beauty be killed?
Melt the ice caps;
Beauties that we've known and loved
will die.
Polar bears will swim to exhaustion,
their cubs will starve.
A beautiful creature is dying,
but is beauty dead?
Poach ivory from elephants until
there are no more elephants.
A great and profound beauty is dying.
I feel its death throes in my body, but still
I doubt that beauty is dead.
There is no end of beauty.  Perhaps
when a small piece of beauty is murdered,
it diminishes those of us who live in this time,
for we are accomplice to the crime.
I don't see myself as a beauty killer.
I see myself as a beauty maker.
But I can't stop the tides that are rising,
the beaches that are drowning,
the skies that are fading.
We killed beauty for comfort.  I did.
You did.  I bought into the con
until I saw the contempt in the con.
When I saw the con, I stomped on it like a poisoned artifact.
Beauty killer!  Murderer!  Earth hater!
Is beauty dead?  It can't be.
The desolate tide flats where bones show in the mud,
where mangled soldiers lie, where steel and gunpowder
show their leavings.  That's what I see, but that isn't all
there is to see.  Beauty still lives.  Beauty is immortal.
We  may kill ourselves with the lies
we have lived.  We may go the way of the whale and the polar bear.
swimming until we're exhausted.
Beauty may be wounded, convalescing, emaciated, ravaged,
but with or without us
beauty will return.



Wednesday, August 3, 2011

All The Words Are Broken




All the words are broken.
I have these few words because I was near the bottom of heaven
when the languages fell in shards.
I nearly died, impaled
in their despairing crash.
All the words are broken, all the languages are dead.
I've sat like a child with a giant puzzle, assembling the bits
that remain.  Splinters chill my hands, blood from cut fingers
drips into the earth.
I have shackled each word recovered from the fragments
and dragged them to this page.  The work
is long: months, years, rounding up
a letter here, a syllable there,
building a fortress for their protection.
The Torah is but a vowel, the Bible a blurt,
The Koran is mixed with sand, unreadable.
Why, why are the words broken?
There was nothing strong enough to hold them,
to keep them from trying to speak the outrage.
They failed.  There are no words left to make it felt,
the outrage.  They exploded, trying to reveal the disguises of evil.  They vaporized
from the frustration that has tried down the ages
to cry against malice and injustice.
I have my work, long work ahead of me. 
My successor, and their successors, will work
to rebuild the words, to make new words, until language
is strong enough to speak with power
against the evil that bestrides the world.