Archive for July, 2008

I decided this year that I’d take some time to delve into David Bowie’s discography. It occurred to me that I only really know a couple of songs off each album, and y’know. It’s David Bowie. The time should be taken.

But I did so with trepidation, because while as an adult I can recognize Bowie as one of the greatest rock songwriters of the 20th century, the child in me is still terrified of him, since he introduced me to real existential horror at an early age.

Put simply, David Bowie’s the guy who introduced me to the concept of Hell.

As long as I live, the song-combo of “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes” will be a one-two gut punch of music that sort of crushes me every time I hear them around each other.

While I can admire the artistry of it, “Space Oddity” is easily my least favorite Bowie song. Yes, there’s an oppressive melancholy to the song that’s tough to work through, but it goes deeper than that. When I was little, I had a strange nervous response to the sense of people floating away, particularly if it was accompanied by any kind of “Noooooooo” receding echo effect. The image of Major Tom, disappearing helplessly into oblivion, was absolutely petrifying to me as a child.

(So much so that, years later, when I heard a story of astronauts keeping cyanide pills in their helmets in the event of a hopeless situation, I breathed a heavy, satisfying, oxygen-rich sigh of relief.)

I think I was about 12 or so before I heard “Ashes to Ashes.” And while by that point I had come to grips with my fear of becoming sans gravity, David Bowie managed to creep me out all over again with a video that was psychedelic, unnervingly literal, and also sort of crappy in that BBC-production-value way. I couldn’t really understand much of the first verse, but the chorus cleared it up for me:

“Ashes to ash and funk to funky/we know Major Tom’s a junkie.”

“Now wait just a damn minute,” I responded. “Just how much shit are you willing to put this man through?!”

I didn’t know anything about Bowie using Major Tom as a lens through which to examine his own ambivalent feelings toward his 70’s excesses. All I heard was, that poor sad bastard who’d been allowed to hurtle into the unknown forever had finally been recovered – and he was found broken.

As I got further into (my very literal interpretation of) the song, I realized with horror the possibility that Tom wasn’t stoned to the gills with whatever drugs were left in the capsule to make his exile more comfortable – the people at ground control just assumed this, since he’s rambling on about the groovy-awesome new alien species he’s found.

So what’s a worse fate for Major Tom?
1) His dream of exploring the unknown has become a living nightmare of being trapped in a tiny can, feeding a mind-twisting addiction to keep from going utterly mad; or
2) Through a million-to-one fluke, he actually has managed to discover alien life, and they’re amazing, but the people he’s supposed to work for – who have already abandoned him to a fate worse than death – find it easier to write him off again, rationalizing that his brain is simply crippled by drugs.

I thought the end of “Space Oddity” was pretty bleak, but “Ashes to Ashes” showed me depths of despair I hadn’t even contemplated.

All this before I was even 13 years old.

The funniest thing (in the sense that any of this is ha-ha hilarious) is that I recall first hearing “Space Oddity” on the way to church. We always listened to the classic rock radio station on the way to Lower Providence Presbyterian. Strangely enough, Major Tom’s doomed journey was a bigger influence on my concept of mortality than the religious teachings I was being driven to.

Since I was raised Presbyterian, I didn’t get the kind of shock-and-awe God or the threats of Hell that Catholics were subjected to. It took David Fricking Bowie to make me fear the afterlife.

Because unlike Catholicism, Bowie’s vision of Hell wasn’t fire and brimstone. It was the feeling of being completely abandoned by all the things you knew, replaced by something strange, lonely, and unlikely to end any time soon. Which, even as a child, I recognized to be a far more realistic vision of damnation.

For most people my age, their first Bowie experience was his Goblin King role in Labyrinth. I wish I’d been so lucky.

On a more positive note, this may also be the reason I think “Heroes” is one of the most romantic songs ever written.

It’s true, he is.

I’m not calling him a homophobe, because I don’t think his problem stems from a repressed, latent homosexuality. I think he’s an asshole, because he’s got a vision of what is socially acceptable that is deeply-rooted in a religion whose mendacity is historically evident, and wants to enforce it on the rest of the world.

He’s an asshole because he’s conflating the government idea of “marriage” with the religious idea of “marriage,” EVEN THOUGH HE KNOWS THAT THEY ARE DIFFERENT, and is using this confusion in order to make the weaker argument the stronger.

He’s an asshole for saying that the courts are “forcing” gay marriage on the people of California, even though he knows damn well that that’s not what they’re doing. The courts are doing their job: marriage is ill-defined, legally, and there is no legal reason why homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to marry. If the people of California want to change that, they need to change their constitution. Sorry; that’s what you get for not being specific.

But no one is being forced to gay marry. Your church isn’t going to be forced to perform homosexual marriages, your church isn’t going to be required to recognize homosexual marriages. The homos aren’t going to get into heaven; don’t worry, Mormons–marriages before the state don’t count in the eyes of God. No one his being forced to accept anything; the rights of property, inheritance, and health insurance for other couples are none of your fucking business in the first place.

He’s an asshole for positing a slippery-slope argument where he knows that none exists; gays crusading for equal rights is not the same thing as gays eventually receiving superior rights, it’s not the same thing as oppressing the shitheads that think it’s their business who is fucking whom.

He’s an asshole for advocating more intrusion by the state into the personal lives of its citizens, by demanding that the state have even more legal jurisdictions when it comes to marriage.

Finally, he’s an asshole for writing a book meant to teach kids about compassion, and then pulling some stupid shit like this.

Orson Scott Card, you are fucking banned. If I see you, I am going to deck you. You put a little picture up of yourself next to your article, so don’t think I won’t recognize you.

P: Did you know they made a “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2”?
J: I’m not sure I get the idea behind that. They’re like, friends forever, because of a pair of pants?
P: No, they share the pants.
J: There’s no way America Ferrera’s fitting into the same pants as Blake Lively.
P: That’s why they’re magic pants – they fit all four of them.
J: That’s…why would she even try them on?
P: They force her to.
J: That sounds like a terrible friendship.
P: Magic pants! And they split up over the summer, and send the pants to each other, because it gives them each, like, an extraordinary experience or whatever.
J: And then they give up the pants?
P: Right. So their friends can have their own magic experience.
J: Wouldn’t they be worried about their luck reversing when the pants come off?
P: I don’t think they worry about that, no.
J: I dunno, you send me some magic pants and good things happen, there’s no way I’m giving them up. If anything, I think those pants would inspire paranoia and suspicion between four people trying to share them.
P: Well…
J: I’m picturing a very different movie. Like, “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” but with girls and pants instead.
P: You’re not really the audience for this.
J: Is there some kind of male equivalent? “Brotherhood of the Well-Worn Cargo Shorts”?
P: Just eat your sandwich.

(Addendum: I will be working on a spec script for “Brotherhood of the Well-Worn Cargo Shorts” very soon. Hollywood, call me!)

-jkh

My dad likes to say that childhood drags because a minute is such a large fraction of the time that’s passed by for a little kid. I disagree. I think childhood drags because it is boring.

When I was ten, I ached for my life to magically plot itself out like a movie. I wanted action, adventure, for nobody to die, and for every boy I knew to fall in love with me.

Instead, I got church.

In the four years I spent at St. Lucy’s, I sat through roughly three hundred masses. One-hundred-and-ninety-two were Saturday evening masses, where my mom sang and played the guitar.

One hundred and ninety two nights, I sat and stood and kneeled in the very first pew beside my brother and sister. One hundred and ninety-two nights, my butt fell asleep. One hundred and ninety two nights, the priest told the same jokes in his homily. Still, the grownups laughed. I said the Nicene Creed. I said the Our Father. I sang, “Aaaaah-men.” But I wondered what would happen if I stood up and screamed, “FUCK!” instead.

Mass was too predictable. The only thing that changed was the crucifix that hung over the altar. For most of the year, we looked up to the concentration camp Jesus, a crooked and writhing bag of bones. After Easter Sunday, this Jesus was replaced with Burger King Jesus, who wore a gold crown and dress. Both freaked me out. I didn’t trust guys with beards. Also, the hymns were always referring to Jesus like he was food, something we were drinking and eating for holiness. That, combined with the bloody bearded sight of him, left a bad taste in my mouth.

I liked the church itself, the dark rafters, the stained glass, the stony walls. I liked our statue of Mary; she looked like she’d give a good hug. I liked the mystery of the Tabernacle, the little red box and candle that never went out, signaling God was there. I liked the sound of bodies shushing into pews and knocking down the kneelers. I liked getting there early, sitting in the cavernous heft of a quiet church. I liked watching the altar boys hurry around the altar, lighting candles and setting up for the Eucharist. Especially when that altar boy was Chris Nabisco.

Once Mass started, rather than pay attention, during those one hundred and ninety two Saturday nights, I liked to go away.

In my daydreams, I saw the walls of St. Lucy’s church explode in a blast of fire. Depending on the year, it was either the Russians or the Saudis. They wanted to attack America, so of course, their prime target was a Catholic Church in Kimberton, Pennsylvania. And the only person who could save us? Me.

I imagined myself single-handedly directing angry men, screaming women, and crying children to the exits. Old Mrs. Castleberry faints; I hand her to the lectern Mr. Berger, who carries her out. My family? Matthew’s got ‘em covered. Meanwhile, fiery beams tumble down all around us. Soon, Chris Nabisco and I are the only ones left in the church. The roof collapses. Thinking this was it, we say I love you. Then I get an idea. I take the rope from his vestments and knot it into a lasso. I toss the lasso up to a single beam, and Chris and I climb up onto the roof. A helicopter swoops down and picks us up. Safe inside, we make out.

One night of those one hundred and ninety-seven, Chris Nabisco talked to me.

It was in the sacristy—the half-kitchen, half-locker room where we went to meet Mom after Mass. Everyone was changing and packing up to go home. Mom put away her guitar. Mrs. Castleberry put on her coat. Father Hayward and the altar boys defrocked.

As the thin white robe came over Chris Nabisco’s head, I tried not to watch his undershirt ride up and flash the soft curve of his lower back. But he turned to me, blond locks tousled as if from sleep.

“Study for the Social Studies test on Monday?” he asked.

“Only a little,” I admitted.

“It’s going to be hard,” he said.

“I know!”

My voice echoed annoyingly in my head. I told myself: So I’m talking to Chris Nabisco. No big deal. It’s just something I do. But it was too late. The shy mask had already shuttled down over my mouth, and I couldn’t come up with anything more to say.

It was Advent season. Outside the black air hung with the syrupy chill of Christmas. Mom unlocked our Ford Taurus. Matthew and Moira scrambled in. I lifted the guitar and music bag into the trunk.

Across the parking lot, Chris Nabisco opened the back door of his father’s BMW convertible with one hand, and waved bye to me with the other. I waved and smiled back. He got in and was whipped away. Alone in the dark, I wondered: How do I make this dream a reality?

I got an idea a few weeks later, one night while the family was watching “My Blue Heaven.”

In the movie, Italian gangster Steve Martin makes over nerdy FBI agent Rick Moranis. There’s a scene where they dress up in satin-y Italian suits, spike their hair, take their “broads” to a club and dance the merengue. As they dance, Steve Martin says: “Sometimes to change on the inside, a person needs to change on the outside first.”

When I was ten years old, everything meant something. This simple line in a movie struck me as a sign. It was a message from God. If I changed the way I dressed, the way I acted, then I could slowly change me.

Think, Annie, I told myself. What makes ugly girls popular?

The answer came back quickly. Sports.

So I had to dress like a girl good at sports. Maybe if I worked at it, I could even become good at sports.

All this time my mind reeled with ideas, I lay sprawled across the family room floor beside my brother, eating ice cream from coffee mugs and gaping up at the TV.

Suddenly, I heaved a great dreamy sigh and mused out loud: “Steve Martin is a genius.”

It felt so good to have a plan.

In his 4-star review of The Dark Knight, Roger Ebert writes:
“Now Iron Man and even more so The Dark Knight move the genre into deeper waters. They realize, as some comic-book readers instinctively do, that these stories touch on deep fears, traumas, fantasies and hopes.” (Italics/bold mine.)

Roger Ebert is apparently under the impression that comics readers are too stupid to realize that there are stories being told with all them pretty pictures.

This isn’t the first left-handed compliment Ebert’s offered to comics fans. But he’s like 70, he’s just endured a pretty major heath scare, and also he’s pretty much an expert in his chosen field. So fine, I’ll cut him some slack.

Then I go and read this, in Entertainment Weekly’s preview of the Watchmen movie:
“Until recently, the director belonged to a school of thought that believed this dense, dark jewel — the fanboy’s Catcher in the Rye, the rite-of-passage text for any serious geek — couldn’t and maybe shouldn’t be made into a movie.”

Which implies that the Catcher in the Rye for fanboys isn’t, well, Catcher in the Rye. Once again, the subtext to this sentence is “This is the most brilliant thing you’ve ever read – if you don’t read actual books.”

It hit me that articles about comic-related stuff seem to have finally grown out of the “Bang! Zap! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” headlines which had been fairly typical. This is appreciated.

Now, articles like to toss in a subtle message for the non-comic book reader that most comic book readers are not terribly smart adults. This is less appreciated.

The two above examples are fine displays of my first pet peeve – the subtly snide reference that dismisses an entire medium. “Comics – sorry, ‘graphic novels’ – are appreciated among the fanboys,” or some snickering equivalent. Which leads me to pet peeve number 2: they use the term “fanboy” without really grasping its actual definition.

“Fanboys” are the socially awkward obsessives most comic book readers dismiss. But they’re not the majority of readers. They’re the ones the rest of us worry about.

Saying “fanboys” are the ones who object to Watchmen getting made automatically tells non-comics readers that their reservations are just the nitpickings of weirdoes.

I’m reading Watchmen again for the first time since I was a teenager (when, by the way, I liked Catcher in the Rye a hell of a lot more). And I’m here to tell you, the reason you shouldn’t make Watchmen isn’t because of “fanboy” gripes like “They’ll mess up the costumes!” or “They won’t stick in the ‘Black Freighter’ material!”

It’s because Watchmen is specifically structured to take advantage of the comic page format. The 9-panel grids, the slow, seamless flashbacks and side commentary, all of these are pretty essential to telling the story properly. And they were specifically developed to be used in a comic book.

Even more problematic is the plot itself, It’s a deconstruction of superhero tropes, traditions, and minutiae. The vast majority of a movie audience doesn’t have the necessary genre background to really understand the major thematic points put forth.

These are the reasons a Watchmen adaptation is a truly tough sell. I’m sure the costumes will look fine.

See, Roger? I came up with that all by myself, too.

++++
And because I want to get in on the sweet sweet Dark Knight action, I’ll link to my review of the film, with added nerdy (not fanboyish!) bits at the end.
- JKH

Recently (haha: today, about two hours ago) I read this little piece, about the SciFi Channel turning itself into a global lifestyle brand.

You may have heard of the SciFi Channel. They periodically make moves with themes like “Snakes!” or “Two Snakes!” They also show professional wrestling, and are responsible for the cinematic masterpiece Mansquito, which is about a man with the powers of a mosquito (or! A mosquito with the powers of a man).

SciFi is attempting to increase its world dominance, by expanding its influence past Giant Animals Attack movies and into every aspect of our lives. Here’s a good quote:

“SCI FI Ventures is a major initiative that demonstrates our commitment to building businesses and driving maximum value around the unique relationship we have with our audience,” said Mr. Howe in making the announcement. “The SCI FI brand’s deep connection with its consumers – comprised chiefly of trend-setting innovators – proves that SCI FI has the power and the imagination to reach beyond the television screen to become a total global lifestyle brand.”

Ta-daa.

I appreciate being called a trend-setting innovator, I really do, but, honestly David Howe…have you ever seen anyone that watches SciFi?

The thing of it is is this: let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I am a trend-setting innovator. What does that mean? That means that I think of cool things to do, and those things are so cool and innovative that people who know me decide to do them too. This makes me a) awesome and b) at the forefront of a vast network of less-awesome people.

So, what do you want to do with your global lifestyle brand? Do you want to take the awesome ideas that I come up with, and make them available in the world marketplace (a debatably positive use for globalization)? Or, do you want to convince me to buy your stupid ideas, so that I will spread them out through my network of less awesome people?

Are YOU a trend-setting innovator, David Howe? Are your ideas worth propagating? Or are you a fucking parasite, who is trying to use pre-existing networks of people that trust each other in order to sell your fucking Mansquito t-shirts? I don’t know if you know this, David Howe, but networks like that only work if the people in them trust the people who are higher up to not make them look retarded. The first time you pass out your god-damn Return to Raptor Island Lorenzo Lamas lunchboxes and some poor suckers start buying them is the time that, not only does your merchandise enjoy a brief spike of popularity preceding a catastrophic fall into obscurity, but you also DESTROY THE NETWORKS that you’re trying to use.

It’s what happens when you talk, but don’t listen, David Howe. You don’t end up with good ideas; instead, you find yourself saddled with armfuls of bad ideas (and, because you’re a moron, you don’t know they’re bad ideas) that you then attempt to choke the world with. This is what happens also, whoever is in charge of making someone the president of SciFi, when you put a man in charge who only knows how to manage brands.

To make money with a brand, you must CREATE VALUE FOR THE BRAND. That doesn’t mean spreading it around–that’s how you create AWARENESS of the brand. To create value, you must make something good, or interesting, or worthwhile first.

An analogy: herpes can be spread very easily from person to person. Despite the global popularity of herpes, and an extremely successful campaign of herpes awareness, its billions of carriers remain less than enthusiastic about it.

Anyway, I am hereby exerting my power as a trendsetting innovator and making the following declaration:

Global lifestyle brands are NO LONGER IN.

Do you hear that, world? From now on, the cool thing to do is to be discriminating about everything that you buy, to make sure it is unique and authentic. Purchasing any consumer good that has someone’s brand on it, FROM HENCEFORTH, YEA, AND FOREVER, shall make you lame.

SO SPEAKS BRAAK!

Now that The Dark Knight made eighty gazillion dollars at the box office, serious questions about a third movie are turning into Very Serious Questions about a third movie.

One of the most important ones is: who does Batman fight? How do you top the Joker?

Well, let me be the first to say this: you can’t. There is no topping the Joker. The Joker is the antithesis to Batman, is a super-villain bordering on uber-villain that cannot and should not be repeated. There is nothing like the Joker.

However. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be a third movie. There are still important and interesting issues, here. And there’s still a possibility for more brutal realizations of formerly idiotic comic-book characters.

So, let me make this suggestion, and let me elaborate my plan: The Riddler.

Okay, okay. The Riddler was a retarded character in basically every respect. He was actually kind of an anti-villain in the Old Days, whose largest contribution to the Evil Plan was giving Batman secret clues about how to stop it (on the Adam West TV Show, he actually WROTE THE CLUES IN THE SKY WITH GIANT MISSILES). The cartoons managed to rehabilitate him a little bit, making him, basically, a bank robber with a superiority complex, who kept needing to prove that he was smarter than Batman. That was okay, but it was kind of slapping a band-aid on a broken leg–they managed to make the character “not stupid,” but didn’t really solve the problem of “there’s not really a reason for this character.”

So, what does a third Batman movie contain? Go with me for a second: in the wake of the Joker’s reign of terror, Gotham has basically lost its shit. There are lunatics all over the place, dressing up like cats or crocodiles or characters from Alice in Wonderland, because the whole place is fucking nutso. Harley Quinn shows up, because the Joker is locked up in the basement of Arkham and they keep sending him therapists (this bears additional consideration; possibly a second post).

Into this comes the Riddler. The Riddler is a sociopathic systems engineer. He’s basically a criminal economist, and he moves into Gotham City to re-organize crime (generally: by killing people). He attempts to turn Gotham City into the worldwide hub for heroin smuggling, arms dealing, and kiddie-porn. His contribution is extremely clever, complex and brilliant plans that hide the organized criminal activity from the Batman.

And the thing about it is, it kind of works. Between Batman chasing after the nutjobs, the police chasing after Batman, and the Riddler building a functioning city out of Gotham, the place doesn’t actually collapse into anarchy.

This is the serious question that Batman faces, as action and tension builds to a head: the people of Gotham City would actually prefer a world that is corrupt and criminal but predictable to a world where Harley Quinn throws sarin nerve gas into orphanages. Batman is forced to confront the fact that the Riddler is trying to return Gotham to its status quo, and that’s kind of what everybody wants–a world in which Batman had never been.

There’s maybe a confrontation where the Riddler points this out: that no sane business invests in Gotham City anymore; the only enterprise in Gotham is criminal enterprise, and the Riddler is the only thing standing between the city and its absolute collapse into utter anarchy. This is what will give you the next step of Big Ideas to address: Why is it, exactly, that Batman is a force for good? How does beating up crazy fuckers actually solve anything?

In my imagination, the Riddler has a psychological condition called hypergraphia, which causes him, when stressed out, to feel the need to cover things with text. He writes in cryptograms and elliptically refers to things that he’s doing, basically because he can’t help it. His compulsive clue-leaving isn’t his “theme” so much as it is an essential weakness–without it, his plans would be too complex and obscure for Batman to glom on to. He’s a sociopath somewhere between R’as al-Ghul and the Joker–he doesn’t kill people out of some precise, obsessive approach to justice, and he doesn’t just do it because he thinks it’s funny. He kills because people are in his way, or because he gets angry and loses his temper, or to make examples of people.

And, that’s about it. He can wear a (dark) green suit, and should probably be played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.