Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Recovering from Pneumonia

So how was your week?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Review of the First Fifty-Five Pages of 'House of Leaves'

I can imagine, having been around in 1999 when 'The Blair Witch Project' became such a sensation in the public consciousness for several months, exactly how the genesis of the novel 'House of Leaves' came about. Remember that one obnoxious wannabe stoner who saw it before you did and dragged you to it talking the whole time about how bad it would mess with your head, and how scary it was, and how cool it was, and how it was totally based on a true story and the actors were all really dead, and how all this bit was totally symbolic because Plato talked about how there was this cave, right, with shadows on the wall, and there were shadows on the wall in this bit and that made it so deep, and how he was going to totally get laid later that night after he scored some pot with these guys he knew who were in the Jamaican Mafia, which is totally a thing and you just don't know about it because you're not cool like him, because he's really cool and deep and does drugs and everything, man, and...

I can only assume that author Mark Z. Danielewski had a similar experience, and wanted to replicate it exactly in novel form. The innermost nested narrative, the story of a family whose house slowly begins to get bigger on the inside than on the outside, is effective and creepy, and made me want to read more. But I cannot imagine--I literally cannot imagine a situation in which someone came up with that central concept and said, "Hey! You know what would improve this? If it was narrated by a rambling half-baked pseudo-philosophical pompous windbag who frequently interrupted it with long pointless digressions on linguistics that aren't nearly as intelligent or interesting as he/I think they are, which are in turn repeatedly interrupted by a narcissistic douchebag who spouts off alternating lines of BS about how scary you're going to find the rest of the novel and about how much trim he gets!"

That's the central problem of the book, and it's an insurmountable one--there literally is no amount of time I can spend reading the authorial voices of "Zampano" or "Johnny Truant" that is too short. These are two people I wouldn't want to spend five minutes in an elevator with, and Danielewski seems to be under the impression that there's no digression too trivial to break away from the Navidson narrative in order to spend several pages with these two gentlemen as they explain the various mytho-poetic and symbolic meanings of the word "echo", or talk about their endless attempts to pick up women and the boring lies they told to get laid. It doesn't just halt momentum, it actively guts any interest I have as a reader in continuing. Knowing that there was another goddamn Johnny Truant sequence coming down the pike in a few pages made me want to put the book down and play video games. Or read io9 articles. Or spend a good few minutes watching paint dry. Anything, really, so long as it didn't involve reading the text in that Courier font.

Was the editor drunk? Did they leave the room? Did they edit the novel blindfolded as some sort of challenge? Or did they just finally, after repeated warnings to the author about how they were taking a really interesting horror novel and turning it into an obscure cult novel that was only going to appeal to pseudo-intellectual stoners, give up and let the author publish it as it was? This is a question that will keep me up at night far longer than any of the supposed terrors that the narrator warns me about.

It's a shame, because I'd really like to read an expurgated version that focuses exclusively on the Navidson record. Or give it to someone willing to adapt it ruthlessly, like William Goldman did to his own novel of 'The Princess Bride', and turn it into a film. (Which apparently Danielewski has refused to allow on multiple occasions. I'm giving him a lot of flack here for turning out a novel that I can't imagine ever ever ever wanting to read because it's awful, but I will admit to admiring him for sticking to his guns and refusing to alter his artistic vision. It's just the artistic vision itself that I can't stand.)

Basically, what I'm saying is that this book now joins a highly exclusive club. I will be turning forty this year, and I'm a voracious reader (I read maybe a book a week? Sometimes two or three?) Let's say that equates to roughly 2000 books I've read over my lifetime. I can think of exactly two off the top of my head that I didn't think were worth finishing. 'House of Leaves' is one of those two.

Monday, January 05, 2015

The Important Thing About 'The Librarians'

If you're going to watch TNT's new series 'The Librarians'--and let me make it clear at this point that I am doing exactly that, every week, and that I consider it to be "appointment television" in a way that about three other shows on the air right now are and I'll freely admit that I let two of the others pile up for weeks on the DVR in much the same way that this sentence clause is piling up in this paragraph--then there's something you should understand first. Because if you don't, you're going to hate it.

Namely, the show is crushingly unsubtle. Deliberately, hilariously, thuddingly unsubtle. Not a thing about this show is subtle. I feel reasonably safe in saying that it's by design and not by accident, but this is a show that works in big, bright, obvious strokes like a live-action cartoon. It's ludicrously straightforward about everything it does, and if you don't see that as part of its charm, seriously. Stop watching. Now. Because I don't see it changing.

How unsubtle is it? The Christmas episode is all about Matt Frewer's recurring villain Dulaque (whose true identity has been given a few crushingly unsubtle hints here and there) and his plans to kill Santa Claus. This is the level of subtext we're operating on, people. They're establishing who the villain of the season is by giving him a story where he attempts to kidnap and murder Kris Kringle. (Jolly old Saint Nick, by the way, was played by Bruce Campbell. I never knew how much my life had been missing a scene between Matt Frewer as a Bondian supervillain threatening the life of Bruce Campbell's Santa Claus until I got it.)

Does this make the series bad? Hell. No. As I say, it's being done for a deliberate purpose--they have a lot of silly action-adventure ground they want to cover in any given episode, and dancing around with the setup takes up valuable time that they can use doing the fun stuff later. Why bother with subtle, understated character arcs when you can get that stuff out of the way in one early scene where everyone talks about their ideal Christmas? It's not like dwelling on it is going to make it any better, and this way you get to the stuff everyone wants sooner (like Bruce Campbell delivering the immortal line, "Someone jacked Santa's ride!")

This week's episode is another perfect example. It's about fairy tales coming to life and turning a small town into a rolling disaster-broth of big bad wolves, trolls, and wicked stepmothers who accidentally fall into their own ovens. Does this need subtlety? Like a fish needs a bicycle.

Ultimately, I think that Ezekiel Jones sums up the series perfectly. There has been a scene in just about every episode where someone tells him that he needs to change, he can't just be a happy-go-lucky dimwit who coasts on his luck and thieving skills to replace intelligence, empathy and strength of character. And every episode, it turns out that nope, he's just going to keep being a live-action cartoon and it'll all work out awesome for him because he's just that awesome. That's the series in a nutshell--be awesome enough and you can just glide right past all your flaws. Hey, it's worked so far.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Stupid Things You Realize About Yourself

I just realized that for years, I've gotten Right Said Fred (the band that sings 'I'm Too Sexy') with Drop Dead Fred (the Rik Mayall movie). Only one way, mind you--I never heard anyone talk about Drop Dead Fred and think that they were about to inform me that they were too sexy for various items of apparel. But whenever there is a discussion of Right Said Fred (which may possibly happen someday, and no this doesn't count) I immediately think of a movie that I've never actually seen because frankly it looked pretty dreadful.

I wish I could tell you that this had some deeper meaning, but sadly I'd be lying.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fantastic Four: Noir

I was recently thinking about all of the changes made to the Fantastic Four for the upcoming movie (and I'll probably be blogging about that soon, here or elsewhere). In specific, I was thinking about all the previous "reconceptualizations" of the FF we've seen over the years, from the Manga FF to the Elizabethan FF to the Zombie FF to...and I sort of mentally trailed off there, half-remembering that there'd been a 'Marvel Noir' line but unsure whether they'd actually done 'Fantastic Four Noir'.

So I went back and checked. And when I found out they didn't, well...

It's the 1950s. Sue Storm is a private investigator in Los Angeles barely keeping the rent paid and the bill collectors happy. Her kid brother Johnny sometimes helps her out with a case, usually when it involves driving too fast or thinking with his fists. But out of the blue one day, an old friend of hers named Ben Grimm turns up looking to cash in a favor.

They met during the war--Ben was a rock-solid pilot who flew infiltration missions for the OSS, and Sue was his cargo. She was an expert in stealth and infiltration, nicknamed "The Invisible Girl" for her ability to get in and out of secure facilities. The two of them had a romance, but it ended badly. Now he's here to ask her to spy on the United States government.

Ben, as it turns out, has gone on to bigger and better things; he's now a test pilot for the government's experimental space program. His old college buddy, Reed Richards, is designing the actual rocket with the help of a defector from Communist Eastern Europe, an egghead named Victor von Doom that also went to college with Reed and Ben. But Ben thinks that someone is trying to sabotage the rocket tests. He wants Sue to find the culprit before the first big space shot, three days away.

Sue and Johnny head out to the small town near the testing grounds, frequented by scientists and pilots alike due to its possession of the only bar within a hundred miles. There are a wide variety of scientists there, a boatload of eccentrics with nicknames like "The Mad Thinker" and "The Wizard", but all of them respect Reed "Mister Fantastic" Richards and Doctor Victor von Doom (who has made it icily clear that he considers nicknames obsequious and small-minded). Sue blends in with the eggheads, while Johnny gets to know the fighter jocks.

That night, someone tries to kill them both. The mystery assailant sets their hotel on fire; Johnny only survives because he has a fire-retardant suit he uses for drag racing, and he bursts through the flaming door to rescue Sue. The two of them realize someone must be on to them. The next morning, they quiz Ben to see if he confided his plans to anyone...and sure enough, he mentioned them to his good friend Reed.

Sue questions Reed, but the interrogation quickly turns into flirtation as the two discover a mutual attraction. She's quickly convinced that Reed's no Commie...this space-ship is the culmination of his life's work. He'd never sabotage it. But she also learns that he mentioned Ben's fears to his own colleague and good friend, Victor.

At this point, Sue is convinced that Victor isn't the defector he claims to be, but a spy. She tails him as he comes back to the testing grounds, late at night, and sneaks on board the experimental rocket ship. Just as she watches him making furtive modifications to the engine, she's hit from behind by an unknown assailant...

Sue recovers consciousness, tied up in the cargo hold of the ship. She sees the person who knocked her out--a Soviet spy she worked with during the war, back when the Russians were our allies. Ivan Kragoff, nicknamed "The Red Ghost", an infiltration expert every bit her equal. She realizes that Kragoff must be behind the sabotage attempts. Kragoff admits it, but isn't particularly worried about being caught...the launch is in less than ten minutes, and she won't tell anyone after the ship crashes and takes the cream of the crop of the American rocket program with it. As it turns out, Reed and Victor both have stowed away on the rocket out of a determination to see the results of their labors first-hand.

Just then, he's tackled from behind by Johnny. The two men struggle, accidentally knocking the cargo bay door shut in their fight. Johnny finally gets the upper hand and KOs the Ghost, but it's too late. The rocket is already lifting off. As it turns out, everyone's riding this rocket together.

As the rocket goes up, Johnny unties Sue. She figures out how to get through from the cargo bay to the crew section, slipping through areas of the ship that are already dangerously underpressurized. She makes it to the cockpit and tells Ben to abort the launch. Victor and Reed both insist they go on, but Reed pales when Sue informs him of the sabotage. The two scientists immediately pull on spacesuits and go out to make a risky attempt to repair the damage.

Ben struggles to control the ship--he knows he has to keep it as steady as a rock to prevent the two men from falling off. Reed and Victor quickly get into an argument about how to repair the damage, and Victor is forced to admit that he's made secret modifications to the engine of his own design, arrogantly convinced that he knew better than Reed about how to best make the rocket work. Just as he's about to tell Reed what needs to be done, the ship shakes, and Victor is thrown off.

Nonetheless, Reed manages to repair the engine, having to reach as far as he can to reset both ignition boosters manually. (GET IT?) The ship makes a safe landing, the Red Ghost is apprehended, and Sue offers to buy Reed a drink. Ben winds up going out drinking and bar-brawling with Johnny instead.

And somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, a half-burned, half-shattered figure floats. He is determined not to die, not so long as Reed Richards and Ben Grimm live. If they'd only listened to him instead of wasting time with petty arguments. If they'd only followed his lead in repairing the engines. If they'd only held the ship steady like they were supposed to. But they failed him. Everyone failed him. And Victor von Doom will make them all pay...

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Bit of Race Catch-Up

We're now quite a way into the current season of the Amazing Race (Season 25, for those keeping track) and I have to say, this is one of my favorite seasons since I first started watching the Race. Amazingly enough, there are at least four teams I'm actively rooting for, out of the six remaining, and even the two teams I wouldn't mind overmuch seeing off (married dentists Misti and Jim, and dating wrestlers Brooke and Robbie) are entirely tolerable. Jim's only bad habit is his desire to let everyone know how awesome he is at the Race...oh yes and his wife who is definitely a person who exists in his immediate vicinity...but he's not a jerk to Misti, which puts him head and shoulders over the usual fillers of the "hypercompetitive Alpha-male jackass" slot in the program. And Brooke and Robbie, the fillers of the "nice but waaaaaay too intense" slot, at least are managing to be cheerful and funny for the most part, even if it's clear that Brooke's coping mechanism is to blither and moan about how impossible whatever the current challenge is.

And Adam and Bethany are adorable--he's so obviously besotted with her, and she is knocking it out of the park with each challenge. I don't want to say, "She's doing amazingly for someone with only one arm," because that would imply that she's not just doing amazingly well in general, but her success is all the more impressive when you remember that she is doing everything all the other competitors are doing just as well as they are, one-handed. I know she's incredibly evangelical in real life, but as long as she doesn't use it as an excuse for intolerance or bigotry (and based on what we've seen of her interactions with Tim and TeJay, it doesn't seem that she is) I'm happy to see them go as far as they can.

Tim and TeJay are an adorable couple, by the way; it takes a lot of courage to come out to your family, and to do it on national television is even more impressive. They do bicker a little, which is something I generally don't have much patience for, but it's pretty clear by now that it's just their mode of communication and they're very much in love. They could definitely win this and I'd be happy.

The cyclists, Kym and Alli, started off a bit too hyper for me but quickly grew in my affections. They're having a lot of fun, they're kind to each other and to the other Racers (apart from a little bit of drawing on dusty windshields) and they're competent and no-nonsense. That's exactly the kind of team I root for. No drama, just race hard and enjoy the experience.

And although I suspect they're not going to be in the final three, my favorite team is unquestionably Amy and Maya. They're both so freaking adorable that I want to invite them over for tabletop gaming just to watch them smile, they're both smart and competent (but with a recurring navigation problem that I think is going to bite them in the butt), and they're both smart and patient and low-drama to boot! The challenge where Maya made goat butter using her knowledge of food chemistry was just a stand-up-and-cheer moment, and I'm Team Wonka for as long as they're on the show. (And I'll root for them to come back in an All-Stars season, too.)

So yes, this is so far as close to a perfect season of the Race as I think I'm ever going to get. And even though I think we're heading towards an unfortunate Finish Line full of perfect teeth, I'm still digging the heck out of the current season. That's pretty good for twenty-five and counting.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

This May Only Amuse Me

I just had a male GamerGater accuse me of "mansplaining" to him for saying that I didn't think that "GamerGate" could be salvaged as a movement.

He said it was "the most discriminatory remark I've heard in the past 24 hours".

Surprisingly, he is not being greeted with sympathy and comfort for his bruised feelings.