Sunday, December 7, 2014

How much is too much?

Birdman, the film, raises some interesting questions, which is one of the highest aspirations for any work of art, in my opinion. One of those questions, however, is whether the film is best appreciated for its significant technical merits (acting, direction, cinematography) or for its unusual and nicely layered story. The former are almost beyond reproach, although one can question the necessity for a couple of the visual allegories, like the fiery atmospheric reentry that both opens and closes the film. But questioning that usage is something that becomes central to the other questions both within the film and about it. Fair warning: There are a couple major spoilers below, so keep that in mind if you haven't seen the film yet.

A few years ago on the board we coined an abbreviation for movies, people, events, whatever that were clearly trying to say or do something and making it so obvious that the original meaning of whatever they/it were trying to express was lost. We called it TTH, for Trying Too Hard. People proffered all kinds of examples and mine was: "Most Woody Allen films, post-Annie Hall." The implication was that Allen had been Trying Too Hard to be 'Woody Allen' with most of his films, even when neither the screenplay nor the story lived up to what was the level of his acknowledged classics. I think there's room to question whether that's the case for Birdman because the film is so clearly trying to deliver a message and using the story as a vehicle for that message, as opposed to simply telling the story and letting that message be absorbed by the audience. In that sense, is Birdman trying too hard? At what point does delivering your message become condescension to your audience? Or are some people simply attuned (or hyper-sensitive) to that method while the majority aren't?

There are a couple of obvious tropes (washed up/typecast actor trying to come back by doing something different; actor having ruined the rest of his life in pursuit of something not quite defined) in the story that are made more interesting by their real-life parallels to Keaton's own career. Once he accepted the Batman films under Tim Burton, he never really managed anything else of real note in the following decades and he had been a pretty marketable talent at that point who had done the standard family films (Mr. Mom) but had also taken on other roles (Beetlejuice) that no one really expected that he could handle and had done well with them. In the film, Riggan Thompson is in similar circumstances and we're frequently given insight into his supposed genuine superpowers as allegory for what he's truly capable of and a continuing nod to the spectre of what is constantly hanging over him (or behind him) wherever he goes.

This parallel to the real world (the struggle to define that being a constant theme in Ed Norton's character, Mike Shiner) is highlighted a few more times when Thompson and his best friend/lawyer, Jake (the excellent Zach Galifinakis) argue over whom should be starring opposite Riggan when their initial choice fails. They mention Jeremy Renner, Oscar nominee, except that he's an Avenger. Riggan rolls his eyes at the TV that shows Robert Downey, Jr. in full Iron Man glory. The point is made that these are capable actors of considerable critical acclaim who are now doing exactly what Riggan did earlier in his life but whom are still receiving accolades, whereas Riggan is not. Given that Marvel Studios has something of a chokehold on Hollywood, the fact that lines are being drawn within Hollywood between films like Birdman and The Avengers makes the lines drawn in this film between "movies/celebrity" and "theater/actors" that much more stark.

But that stark line is also a possible example of hitting your audience over the head with the message, such that you're not telling a story and letting them absorb the message that it carries, but are instead delivering a message, regardless of what happens to the story. So, you're in the writers' room and you're hashing out your screenplay. At what point do you decide that you know the audience is going to "get it"? Do they need to be hit over the head with the message that Riggan is capable of these amazing things and even the hard-bitten theater critic will be won over? The coda, which was the hospital scene post-shooting, was trying to convey that the dream was still alive and that, finally, someone else was beginning to share it with Riggan. Did it need to be that hopeful or would the entire film up to that point have been sufficient, even if the film ended in the hospital with the news that Riggan was dead and not simply wearing the real, medical world version of the mask that has both marked and dogged his career for 20 years? Was that hopeful moment a "Hollywood ending" that gave (presumably) the majority of the public what they would want, ensuring that they went away enjoying the film and that they "got it"? Or could you have avoided the formulaic approach for which movies are often so derided and gone full Death of a Salesman and not been entirely sure that, firstly, the film would succeed and, secondly, people would walk away with the understanding that the goal had still been achieved and the dream was still there?

Most creative people want to expose their work to the widest possible audience. This is the appreciation factor that drives many to do what they do. Some, like Mike, are simply driven. They'll labor away in relative obscurity, convinced that their effort is pure because they're not making the compromises on behalf of the audience (whether needed or not.) But most want as many people as possible to experience their art. This is why a band like Rage Against the Machine was willing to work with a division of the corporate behemoth, Sony. They wanted people to hear their music and absorb the message that it carried. Same thing here, both within the story and without, I think. Riggan initially wanted to be in front of as large an audience as possible (and the money didn't hurt, either.) So he became, in the words of movie critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a "celebrity" instead of an actor. The story tells us that he still had talent. It had just been swamped by the demands of the public for more explosions. By the same token, the writers of Birdman had to take into consideration that same audience. Do they stick to the seemingly tragic progression that ends with their central figure giving everything (i.e. his life) for his art or do they avoid that path and leave the audience with something closer to what they're likely expecting and which the majority will doubtlessly appreciate more? Do you entice your audience or do you condescend to them? Is it condescending to them in trying to make sure that they "get it"?

I confess to being a little disappointed in the coda in that respect. I thought the message of the film was plain and had been well delivered up to that point and the fact that Riggan could have died on-stage, while it may be something of a trope unto itself (i.e. break a leg; give everything), would have been a decent resolution to what was a farce about creation, acting, film, and life. The fact that he lived doesn't make it any less an excellent farce, but I felt it detracted slightly from what remains a great film. Riggan's daughter, Sam (Emma Stone in an uneven but still solid performance) could have realized what he had become even if she was standing over his corpse. They wouldn't have been able to continue with the essential mystery of his powers (Was it him flying or was it just a cab ride?) and that may have been another consideration in the final product. The fact that Sam talked more than once about things like Twitter and Youtube being "real power" and which Riggan eventually fully engaged, even unwittingly, with his unexpected tour through Times Square, wouldn't have been necessarily diminished by her later awareness of just what his real powers were. That said, this ending was probably the easier method of conveying that for writers, actors, and audience.

On the technical side, I thought director Alejandro González Iñárritu did a fantastic job in showing what is essentially a play on film. The "one long shot" technique was especially well done in some of the scene transitions that would have been a cut in most films but instead were presented to the audience as an opportunity for them to realize that time had passed without it being explicitly mentioned, as often happens on stage. The first appearance of Mike was a sterling example of this. Clearly, he wasn't just hanging around when Riggan had told Lesley (the always excellent Naomi Watts) to get him, but as the camera follows Riggan from backstage to THE stage, Mike appears. They kept that up through about 2/3 of the film and I was disappointed when they did finally succumb to regular time transitions by having us look up at the buildings as the sky changed colors so that it was obvious that things were moving ahead. It's a tough technique to sustain and they did a good job of it up to that point. Likewise, keeping Riggan's powers just on the edge of believability and maintaining almost constant close-ups for what was a very personal story was the right approach.

Keaton was excellent, even if he remains Michael Keaton, with his trademark hesitation and double-takes in almost every role. Norton, sticking to the "art imitating life" theme, gave us a character who resembles what Hollywood rumor has been about him for many years (difficult to work with, more intensely committed than those around him.) Despite that, he didn't steal scenes from Keaton or Watts or Stone. The cast seems to have found the right touch with each other and that always improves the final outcome. There were a couple weak spots on initial reaction and both of them had to do with the romantic attachments in the film. When Lesley is ranting about Mike to Laura (Andrea Riseborough) until Laura finally kisses her, my first thought was: "Wait. Titillation here?" But then I came to realize that they were perpetuating the trial of the actor theme in that Lesley, like all actors and most humans, just wanted to be loved ("Why do I have no self-respect?" "Oh, honey. You're an actor."), something of which Mike was largely incapable. Of course, in wanting to be loved, you want to be in front of bigger and bigger audiences. Thus, Birdman, losing touch with your art in the name of being loved or mistaking love for admiration, etc. Laura just ended up giving her what they both wanted. By the same token, I was a little put off by Sam and Mike's similar interaction, in that Sam also wanted the love that was absent from her father and Mike was trying to figure out how to love when off the stage, but it felt a little too convenient for the story at that point. By the same token, having done a few plays (way back in the day...), I can confirm that you do develop more intense interactions and relationships over a short period of time, as in most creative ventures (and politics), and the fact that people end up falling together off-stage isn't unbelievable in any sense. At those particular moments, it just felt like the timing was off, perhaps because the overall story was so personally focused around Riggan and he wasn't finding that love that was being offered. One of the most detestable aspects of modern filmmaking is the concept of a "love interest". Neither of these situations was that, but I initially reacted as if they were.

I guess the question at that point is one of truth: Which are real emotions and which aren't (which is a constant acting struggle in the first place)? Did I have that reaction because some of the acting taking place was borderline melodramatic? I don't think it was a fault of the performers or the director, but I wonder if, in their zeal to show a play on film, they were caught in the essential conflict of the two media. The stage requires emoting. You need to blow up those emotions into something that will reach the back of the room because the audience will often not be able to read the expressions on your face and need to feel what you're feeling unless you just want to be shouting all the time. That doesn't translate as well on film because the camera can be right there, with your expressive face filling all 22x52 feet of the screen in front of us. You don't need to emote as much, but you can get caught up in doing so, especially if half of your film is showing you attempting to perform on stage, where it's needed. It's a tricky balance and I think most of the people involved (veterans all) pulled it off.

But that brings us back to our original question: How much is too much? When are you Trying Too Hard to deliver your message? In the end, I think you could nitpick the film about that essential quandary and you could complain that wrapping things up in a (relatively) neat bow detracts from what the film was trying to say (i.e. it's too Hollywood.) My overriding cynicism has me thinking in that fashion, but the film was simply too good and too smart to consider it cripplingly flawed, in my opinion. Be as disdainful as you like about tropes (and I will if you won't) but I think the basic premise of the film as farce precludes a lot of the second-guessing about how much more tragic and serious it could have been. In its earnestness, I think it earns a pass on the TTH estimation, mostly because it dared to tackle a number of very basic questions and arrived at a number of very good answers, most of which the audience has to be left to itself to decide, which is the best ending to any creative work.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

If all you have is the past, then everything is shiny

Bentley Library
That's a picture of the University of Michigan football team in 1901. That was the first year of Fielding Yost's lengthy tenure at Michigan. They finished 11-0, outscoring their opponents 550-0, inaugurating the title "Point-a-minute" that Yost's teams would carry for the next four seasons. They were recognized as national champions by a number of different committees or foundations that took the role of doing that kind of thing both then and in later years. That's all wonderful and glorious, but it's also 113 years ago when the game was very different.

Bentley Library
That's a picture of the University of Michigan football team in 1964. They went 9-1 that season, losing only to Purdue, 21-20, and they won the Big 10 title and beat Oregon State in the Rose Bowl, 34-7. They didn't win a national title, but they were the best team of a very fallow period for Michigan football and the best one under Bump Elliott, whom everyone agreed was a very nice guy. That, too, is wonderful and glorious, but it's also 50 years ago when the game was very different.

Bentley Library
That's a picture of the University of Michigan football team in 1997. They went 12-0 that season, winning the Big 10 title, the Rose Bowl, and the national title according to everyone but the USA Today Coaches' Poll, who awarded it to Nebraska. That team also had the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson, who won the award as the only primarily defensive player in its history. All of that is wonderful and glorious, but it's also 17 years ago when the game was, yes, very different.

Michigan has a wonderful history in the game of football but, in today's Tautology Lesson, that is exactly what it is: history. It has relevance to the modern game only in that people continue to pine for it as an example of how they think things should be if the world were "right", but wishing the world were what you'd like it to be is why they call it "dreaming" and this here's reality.

Sporting News
Brady Hoke, by all accounts, is a very nice guy and clearly loves the program. Brady Hoke is also stuck in the past and all the wonder and glory that comes with it. He was hired with a career sub-.500 record; hardly the record you would expect for a program the adherents of which like to stress is the all-time winningest (based on total wins at the moment, since we surrendered the percentage basis to Notre Dame when we lost to Kansas State in last year's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.) Hoke revels in the history of Michigan, even after appalling losses like last night's 26-10 drubbing by Utah at Michigan Stadium. Watch yesterday's post-game press conference. He mentions telling the team that the 1998 team lost to ND and Syracuse and still rebounded to tie for the conference title (Wisconsin, however, went to the Rose Bowl on tiebreakers and Michigan ended up in the Citrus Bowl.) He also mentions Woody Hankins made a great play in the 1996 OSU game. 16 years ago. 18 years ago. It's all in the past. That's where the glory was. None of it has anything to do with the modern game.

The modern game is one where the spread punt formation actually limits the opponent's ability to gain yardage on punt returns. It's a modern approach and the vast majority of college teams use it because it allows them to send more gunners down the field and contain the return guy. Hoke, OTOH, uses the old pro-style formation, which doesn't. That seems to be a rather galling tactical flaw in the first place but it's compounded by Hoke's preferred offensive approach, which is ball-control, power running... and field position. If you're giving the other team an additional 10-15 yards per return, you're surrendering field position.

Rampaging across Twitter from Utah fans
Of course, if you only have 10 men on the field for the punt that Utah returned for a touchdown yesterday, then you have more problems than formation issues...

In that press conference, Hoke talks about how "all our goals are still out there." Those "goals" he's talking about are the conference title and the Rose Bowl. I don't think I need to remind anyone about how wretched the B1G is as a conference at this point and how unlikely that conference title will matter to anyone, mostly because it hasn't mattered to anyone in a very long time. Everyone has talked national title for the past 25 years, if not longer. The last Michigan team that is heralded as genuinely great is that 1997 group above, because they won a national title. The next most recent team mentioned is the 2006 team, which played in a #1 vs #2 matchup with Ohio State that had implications for the national title. The conference title was a complete afterthought, even to former Hoke superior, Lloyd Carr, who thought that his team deserved a shot at the title game even after the narrow loss to OSU. The conference title hasn't mattered to anyone in a long time but it matters to people living in the past when college football was more regional. Those are the glory days: the Ten-Year War between Bo and Woody for the title to the most prestigious conference in the land and the secondary hope of catching the pollsters' eye and maybe getting the not-as-important, voted-upon national title. That latter thing is now the only thing. We even have a playoff to decide it, which the B1G champion will not have access to and Michigan can't even dream of.

It's not wrong to dream. It's not wrong to have goals. It is wrong to not have a plan to deal with the modern game and find a way to actually achieve those goals, instead of just stating them as platitudes. Hoke's ideal image of Michigan football is planted firmly somewhere in the 70s which, like the punting scheme, is oddly contradictory, given that Michigan was mostly an option team (i.e. running quarterback) in the 70s and the current offense is predicated on doing anything but that. Despite having a mobile QB, there were no designed quarterback runs yesterday. Despite Utah loading the box with 8 men and daring Michigan to run, Michigan rarely tried to stretch the field. Again, this is borderline solipsism, where attempting to impose one's belief on a reality that won't cooperate seems to be the only way for this coach to function. Certainly he needs more time than most in order to carry through on his beliefs, since Michigan is the second-slowest offense in the nation. In both losses this season, even while down by double digits, Michigan still took 35 seconds to run almost every play. There is no urgency there because the past is always with us and will always be glorious, no matter what happens now. But the facts say that Michigan hasn't even been in the red zone in two games against real competition. The facts say that Michigan is among the leaders in the nation in turnovers and tackles for loss, just like last year. Facts get in the way of dreams and belief. If you squint really hard, you can imagine there were 100,000 fans in the stadium yesterday, too.
I was talking with Brian Cook of MGOBLOG yesterday and we were mulling over Hoke's almost-inevitable replacement at the end of this year. He suggested Scott Frost, the offensive coordinator for Pac-12 powerhouse, Oregon. As some of you may know, Oregon's offense frequently keeps it in the conversation as a candidate for a national title (i.e. relevant to the modern game.) As some of you may remember, Scott Frost was the quarterback for that aforementioned Nebraska team who campaigned long and loud to get Nebraska a share of that national title. When I brought his name up on the board today, there was one immediate visceral response rejecting the idea because of college football "tribalism" and the actions of not just Frost but his apparently voluble mother, who wrote to Michigan magazines after the Nebraska win in the 2005 Alamo Bowl.

But that stuff is in the past, just like the glory, and it deserves as much credence as that glory does right now. The attachment to "tribalism", notably the "Michigan Man" misnomer, is an enormous part of why Michigan is in the trouble that it is. I loved Bo, too. But Bo is dead and most of his direct descendants in the coaching world have long since left it. Michigan doesn't need a link to the past. It needs one to the future. I don't know if Frost is the right coach. I just know that Hoke isn't and neither is anyone who thinks like him at this point. If all we rely upon to move forward is what we had before, we're not Michigan any longer. We're Minnesota, last relevant to the college game in 1960 and that was 54 years ago, when the game was very different.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What it meant

One of my earliest memories is of reading a comic. We were at one of those highly-regulated and organized suburban vacation spots called Camp Dearborn. It's actually owned by the city of Dearborn, MI but is 35 miles away in Milford, MI. I have no idea why. They had canvas-roofed cabins that you could rent, a small lake, a swimming pool, a golf course, hayrides, and the whole nine yards. Very Midwest; very "get away for a weekend"-type thing, and that's exactly what I remember us doing. I was four years old and I was sitting in one of the cabins reading an issue of Man-Thing, Marvel's answer to DC's Swamp Thing (in fact, the same writer had worked on both as many of them drifted back and forth between the Big Two in those years) and another example of Marvel's return to horror comics after its neutering of the Comics Code a couple years earlier. We had been sharing a couple of the cabins with another family we knew and I was in the "boys' cabin" and had a small pile of comics with me. My vague memory says that most of them were mine, but I knew that one of the older boys had a few with him, as well. They had decided to leave before us at that point or were perhaps just running home for a while (the camp at the time was only about an hour from our home) and he burst into the cabin, grabbed a bunch of the comics, including the one in my hand, and ran out. I don't remember which issue it was and I don't remember being particularly outraged that I'd been interrupted and perhaps even had something stolen from me. I just remember that the images of that comic stayed with me and turned into an almost lifelong obsession.

I met someone recently and dropped a Stan Lee reference. We'd been texting about being enchanted and it turned into an exchange of synonyms: beguiled, befuddled, bamboozled, bemused. She mentioned that she liked the alliteration and I said I couldn't help it. I'd read too many Stan Lee comics as a kid. Lee frequently titled his columns "Bullpen Bulletins" or "Stan's Soapbox" or was fond of referring to the readers in ways like "the fightin', ferocious, fantabulous fans of fun!!" Any quick look at many of his early characters (J. Jonah Jameson, Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Peter Parker) demonstrates that this was a regular habit of his. My new friend mentioned that she wasn't really a fan (fightin' or otherwise) but she was fascinated(!) by people that were and what they got out of comics or why they enjoyed them. That, of course, got me to thinkin'...

Alliteration fer reals. No one has ever really determined why he has to wear pants, either.

I think most kids are into superheroes to one degree or another. One only has to look at Marvel's film success over the past decade to see some of that. I don't remember what my particular attachment became early on and what led me to collect over 30,000 of them in the intervening years. I do remember that I was far more interested in the stories themselves than the accompanying artwork. I wanted to know why Cyclone had kidnapped J. Jonah Jameson in Amazing Spider-Man #143 and why Mary Jane Watson seemed to be having a really hard time in her relationship with Peter Parker (my own parents were getting divorced around this same time.) Furthermore, I really wanted to know why Mary Jane ended that issue by uttering the phrase "Far freakin' out." which was the same exclamation that Green Arrow used at the end of an issue of Justice League of America! (Drifting writers again.) That's not to say that I wasn't interested in the accompanying art. I remember picking up my first copy of magazines like Heavy Metal (the American version of the French Métal Hurlant) or Marvel's own Epic Illustrated and being engrossed in the painting of artists like Mœbius, Richard Corben, and Jim Starlin. Both Marvel and DC would also later venture into more daring artistic approaches with people like Dave McKean and I would remain a fan of the moody approach of Matt Wagner and many, many others. But it was really always the stories that hooked me and what had led people to create them...

Beta Ray Bill, FTW!

... which is kind of funny in one respect because I'm a ferocious critic of story and when you look back at many of the comics that I loved at the time they were produced, like the above issue of Thor, produced by Walt Simonson who has long been considered the best writer/artist to ever helm the book, the pace and dialogue are awful. There are long stretches of clunky exposition or explanations of what's going on in the establishment shot (which can be a regular cityscape) or re-statements of who Thor is and why he is. Editor-in-chief of the time, Jim Shooter, always said that you have to have a continuing story to retain regular readers but that every issue is always someone's first read, so the story couldn't be so dense that they wouldn't be able to get into it. That philosophy is blatantly obvious in reading those old series and makes them kind of painful to get through. That approach was standard in TV for much of its history, as well, and it's only comparatively recently that it has changed such that trying to drop into the middle of things like Breaking Bad would have been difficult for new viewers and it's by far the better experience to watch from the beginning. The way to tell good stories is to let characters grow and develop, especially if they're character-driven stories like almost all superhero comics. You can't have that growth or development if you have to keep explaining what's going on to the new readers. Thankfully, the emergence of limited series in the 80s enabled many writers to escape that Minosian circuit and other series developed with that principle firmly in mind, such as Sandman.

Not a Sandman cover, but one of my favorite McKean images

But the mention of Sandman is important here because it led to the most significant shift in comics since the Code destroyed EC. While the book has always been written by Neil Gaiman and he had a definite path in mind for it, since it was in the DC Universe he had to play along with the superheroes in his backyard for the first year of its publication, although he tried hard to skirt them as much as possible. Once Karen Berger finally convinced DC to let her take books like Sandman and Swamp Thing into their own imprint, Vertigo, they were finally free from the thing that has held back comics in many ways for the past half-century: superheroes.

Don't get me wrong: I love superheroes. I grew up with them. I've read tens of thousands of stories about them. The nostalgic pull is strong whenever someone brings up stuff like Iron Man under David Michelinie or Amazing Spider-Man under Roger Stern in the 80s. I think the Wild Cards series of anthologies, edited and contributed to by George R. R. Martin, are brilliant. But, as with any genre, there are limits to what can be done with them. Despite my history, I haven't read a superhero comic with any regularity since the early 90s. I can't. The stuff bores me to tears because in many ways it's still following the Jim Shooter model. My friend, Curtis, who is the owner of the local shop in Ann Arbor, Vault of Midnight, tried to sell me on a new version of Iron Fist a few years ago and I devoured the first six-issue collection which was about the character coming to grips with his past and the spirituality surrounding the strange city of K'un Lun and what it meant for him to hold the power that he acquired. I was like: "Yeah. This is the shit!" It was thoughtful, but retained enough touches to Chinese mythology and 60s-era kung fu films to have just a bit of camp to lighten it at the right points. Plus, having practiced martial arts for many years, I was on the same page with the concept of trying to express oneself physically and conform to the art as laid down by those before you. I was totally geeked. And then I picked up issue #7... and it was Villain-of-the-month again. Bzzzt! Thank you for playing! Lovely parting gifts, etc.

Gothic #1 by me and Kevin Leen, cover by Guy Davis

When we started the studio in the early 90s, it was with the same idea that so many other comics companies have begun: do it differently and better than the big guys. Almost by default, that meant no superheroes. If you wanted superheroes, you knew where to go. Dark Horse didn't do them (except for one brief excursion around that time that I actually kind of enjoyed) because they wanted to avoid competing directly with Marvel and DC and they frequently stated that they thought the concept was more than played out. Image started around that time with the very brash and public announcement that they were going to do things differently from the Big Two. What they produced at the time was utterly similar and essentially the same stuff that all of them had been doing for Marvel with different names. Alan Moore and Frank Miller had shown what superheroes could be taken to in the mid-80s and that limit had pretty much been set. Trying to keep going after that wasn't interesting to me nor was it to many readers who really wanted to read good stories. Fifth Panel Comics produced creator-owned material, though, so amongst our early producers were people that did their hero-of-the-moment stuff but they soon gave up and left. The small core that remained continued with the idea that the medium could only really be advanced with good stories that had little to do with bright costumes and stopping bank robbers or alien invasions.

I read very few comics these days and the closest I come to superheroes is Kurt Busiek's Astro City, which is essentially Busiek using the world he'd created as a kid to convey stories about the human condition. The facade is "superhero" but the stories are very human. Otherwise, ironically, I actually read a lot of Image output as they decided somewhere along the way that most of their stuff was played out, as well. Most of the original creators had moved on and they've attracted a stable of artists and writers that produce good stuff from many different genres, like Greg Rucka's Lazarus. But I still have a deep attachment to the medium as I tend to think of stories in a cinematic fashion (comics being far closer to film than prose.) When I pitched the idea of Coding Time to Ghostwoods, I did so with the idea of a film called The Machinist firmly in mind and I wrote it in that fashion. I could see the panel transitions in my head. I still have a ton of stories for Fifth Panel that never saw the light of day (or the black of night) and I'd still like to see them published somewhere. My friend, Margot, suggested to me a few years back that I try to convert them to prose. It's something I considered a few times but always abandoned because, again, of the chasm between the two media. There are tricks that you can perform with comics that are very difficult, if not impossible, with prose. When you can let the artwork tell one half of the story and can tell a conjoined but disparate story at the same time via captions, that's a technique that's not feasible in prose and that wouldn't be easy to do in film, either. But comics can make it happen because your reader proceeds at his pace, not the film's which gives more time for reflection and understanding. If you have eye-catching art to go with it, so much the better.

So, yeah. That (and so many, many more details) is what I get from comics/what they mean to me/why they still hang over me even though my connection to them is fairly tenuous these days. My creative outlook is shaped by them and always will be. I analyze plot and story of films through the glass of comics in many ways (noting that Snowpiercer worked well as a comic but not very well as a film, for example.) I think it's a powerful medium that doesn't get a lot of the respect that it deserves because it's tied to the shadow of the cape and cowl, despite the billions earned by Marvel's increasingly Bay-like films, which are still regularly trivialized as "summer blockbusters" from an artistic standpoint and deservedly so in most cases. But there are still gems to find. I'd like to think that one or two of them are still in my head.

Friday, August 22, 2014

It's always someone else's fault

I'm going to do a horrible thing to my fellow Michigan fans. I'm going to bring up The Horror. Not because the Rematch That Only an Idiot Would Schedule is a week away, but because of this article on The Dave Brandon, Creating the Future™ was kind enough to offer another litany of excuses about the expected sparse attendance at next week's soiree and, per usual, blame everyone and everything but the most obvious factors (i.e. those connected most closely to him.)

"The biggest shift was in the student section. There was a big decline in level of interest, and we've seen historically there's a lot of correlation between success the previous year, strength of schedule and level of excitement. And television does such a great job covering games that younger people are more comfortable getting content in digital fashion on a screen."

Yeah! Those damned kids these days! No responsibility. No tradition. No willingness to get kicked in the face and come back for more! I mean, really, Dave. It couldn't be because you've treated them like ATMs and are charging them the highest student ticket prices in the conference (the nation?) for a declining product and an awful home schedule, could it? No!

"But it's a one-year transitional situation. I don't like it any more than anyone does. It was not my idea to play at Michigan State two years in a row."
No, it wasn't. But it sure as shit was your idea to schedule Appalachian Fucking State. I mean, it probably seemed like a lark to you, didn't it, Dave? You'd roll in here, pick your genius successor to RR and, coming off the undoubted conference title and Rose Bowl win three years later, we'd exorcise the demons of debacles past.


No one really wanted to revisit that debacle except App. St. fans and MSU fans who still count that as their greatest sporting memory from their years at State. I can go out on a limb here and speculate that almost no Michigan fans wanted to be seeing the greatest upset in the history of the game every day on BTN for the next week. (I know that ESPN likes to claim that the Stanford upset over USC (JBC!) was somehow bigger because it was on their network and the spread was bigger, but there's only one team in college football history that has gone from a top 5 ranking in the polls to out of them in a single week and, uh, that's Michigan. Because they lost. To Appalachian State.)

"Combine that with what he expects will be a great year with young talent and you'll see a bigger response from the student section next year. At that point, he said, they want to make sure those tickets are available to them.

That, of course, puts pressure on Brady Hoke and this year's team to win at a high level."

Uh-huh. You see, I was at that game in 2007. I picked up a couple tickets for free because, well, there were a lot of them available, just like this year. No one wanted to see a game against App. St. then, when Michigan was coming off an 11-2 season with one of the most dominant defenses of recent memory (albeit with a season-ending duo of losses to both OSU (again) and USC in the Rose Bowl (again.)) Michigan was ranked in the top 5 with seniors aplenty, but there were gaps throughout the crowd from the opening kick to the miserable ending. So, as long as you're insisting that people's TVs are what's keeping them from attending games and not the ridiculous prices ($65 face for App. St. this week), you're likely to keep being mystified and blaming everyone else 3 or 4 years down the road, too.

"I've been able to get to a couple practices, and I can tell you the pace and the tone and tenor are different than what I've seen in the past. Everybody is extremely focused, understand this is a real important season we have ahead. There's a lot of disappointment people remember from last year, and we want to fix it. The best way is to achieve great things. I'm excited about the season and can't wait to get it started."

I've been to a practice, too, and I can say that it looked pretty much like every other practice I've seen over the past 40 years. Everybody spouts the same bullshit in between seasons that didn't end "successfully". They're always going to be "more aggressive", "more focused", and "more intense". The problem here is that they're also "more expensive" and the first game is against an opponent that most Michigan fans would like to forget about and which the rest of the football world simply deems forgettable. And no one scheduled them but you.

"I don't go into any season with any coach laying out standards by pulling a record out of the air. Too many things can happen over the course of the season in any one sport that create variables. We can't predict the future. My expectation is like anybody else's. We're going to play like Michigan plays football. We have a lot of great talent coming back on defense, a fun and exciting defense to watch, and it will be really interesting to see the work Doug Nussmeier is doing with the quarterback and offense, how we can clean up some things that led to last year's disappointment … we just want to see continuous improvement."

Funny, because what you're saying is indicative of why people aren't buying tickets this year. So, you don't have a guideline for Coach Dante's ("He's not even supposed to be here today!") success, but it sure is important to be more successful because, otherwise, people will gladly stay home and watch... their... TVs? Hey, if the team really is bad and/or the opponent really is unappealing, what makes you think that people are going to bother to watch the game on TV? "Continuous improvement"? Yeah, that's be great. Is that just within this season with the awful schedule or is that a brand-new philosophy that you coined right there in front of Balas, because looking back at the last three seasons under your hire, I see 11-2, 8-5, 7-6. Something doesn't seem right about those numbers...

"I like the recruiting pipelines, the quality of student athlete Brady and staff bring in to program. I like all the things I hear from players about growing, and believe the program is going in the right direction despite the second half disappointment. That' spilled milk. What we're focusing on is the future."

Dave Brandon, Creating the Future™.

Oh, and don't forget that part of the scheduling problem is that stadia might be used for other events.

Anybody getting married? Head to the App. St. game and be reminded 7 or 8 times where you can hold it...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My sympathy equates to zero

A short article appeared in the Newspaper of Record today about the changes coming in the college athletics (mostly football) landscape as a result of both the O'Bannon ruling and the NCAA's change that gives the top 5 conferences (mostly football) more leeway to decide how they want to conduct business. As with many Times articles, the reaction to anything new or different is viewed through a prism of general distaste and trepidation for anything that might disturb The Way Things Have Been. The paper doesn't have the nickname "The Gray Lady" for nothing.

My reaction to the article is simple: Yeah, life is rough makin' millions, isn't it?

You want to pay your coach $1.4 million and another 3/4 of a million in bonuses? Pay your players for the money they generate that enables you to do that. You want an athletic center that costs $6.7 million? Pay the players that are spending more time there than they would at a full-time job, in addition to their schoolwork. You want to play with the big kids while a reporter says that your "relative isolation in California's vast Central Valley" gives you a big fanbase? Pay the players that attract that fanbase.

It's just like major companies bitching about raising the minimum wage. You say it's not worth it to do business in the area anymore? Fine. Seeya. I'm quite certain that a smaller, local business will gladly step into the shoes you left and do quite well for itself because you didn't feel like your employees were worth a living wage. The examples of that are prevalent.

If all of this is an extended whine about how you won't be able to attract the best players because of the costs involved, I'm afraid you'll have to remind me of the last time Fresno St. attracted the best players. Oh, right. That would be never. Also, there's only so much room on the rosters of Stanford, USC, and UCLA, so anyone that wants to play big-time ball that doesn't make those rosters will probably still come to Fresno St., providing that you're willing to do those things that the Times is currently bitching about on your behalf: like stipends so they can travel home or their families can travel to see them play, or health insurance post-college for injuries they incur while making you that money, or access to people who can represent their best economic interests, etc. You know, all of that stuff that means treating them like any other person in any normal economy who's trying to extract value from their talents and skills.

The galling thing is that people like (now former) FSU athletic director, Thomas Boeh, even refer to what they do as an "industry" and then somehow gloss over the fact that the workforce of that "industry" is about one step above indentured servitude (they get room and board and a degree that's worth less and less every day and are denied mobility and any access to the real value of their abilities, from their employer or anyone else.) But if you bring this topic up to most NCAA or university officials, they'll insist that it's about "education". So, which is it?

So, no, I have no sympathy for FSU's desire to keep up with the USCs and UCLAs of the world. The only reason that Fresno St. is even in the conversation is because of the millions that institutions like ESPN have been willing to throw at the school to show its students risking their bodies on the field for money that they won't see a cardinal red nickel of. Until now. It's a brave, new world out there, filled with rights and moneymaking opportunities that other workers claimed a long time ago. Feel free to start crying me a river anytime, Mr. Boeh. It may be the only way you can build a new aquatic center if you still want to pay your football coach more than most Americans will earn in 30 years...

Friday, August 1, 2014

Lost in the cosmos

So I saw Guardians of the Galaxy last night and was fairly underwhelmed by it. Critics are raving (92% on RT), Charlie Jane has suggested that it’s spiritually redeeming on i09, and everyone that I went with (a group of 8 other people) basically loved it. I feel like I’m missing something essential here but I’m not quite sure what it is.

The movie is intended to be a comedy, even with the darker overtones of the backstory in the Marvel Cinematic Universe™. The main character, Starlord, is pursuing an orb (MacGuffin) that also happens to be one of the Infinity Gems in the long lead-in to the Thanos saga (we’ve seen two of the others in the form of the Tesseract (typically known in the comics as the Cosmic Cube, which was wasn’t an Infinity gem) from Thor and The Avengers and the Aether from Thor: The Dark World.) In the course of his efforts, a small group of criminals, misfits, and outsiders ends up banding together to essentially save the galaxy; hence, the ‘Guardians’ title, which ends up being more appropriate in this context than the original team could ever aspire to.

The original team was created in 1969 by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan and was part of the surge in sci-fi topics surrounding the success of the Moon landings and the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a pretty straightforward story of Earthlings and Earth-colonials banding together against an evil reptilian race known as the Badoon. They appeared off and on over the decades until the early 90s, when Jim Valentino helmed a regular series for 62 issues. The membership has changed over the years to more closely resemble the group from the film but, last I knew, when I flipped through a couple issues at Vault of Midnight a few years ago, Dan Abnett was still playing them pretty straight. Yes, even with the talking raccoon wielding the big gun.

This film doesn’t do that. It’s clearly meant to be sort of slapstick, especially when one notices that the best and funniest lines come from Rocket (the raccoon), voiced by Bradley Cooper, who is constantly disgusted or bemused by the “stupid humans” all around him. In fact, the best part about the film was the dialogue, as the story was completely linear and loaded down with the usual tropes of intro-crisis-resolution in clearly delineated acts, the love interest, the heroes winning through with not a scratch on them, etc. Combine that with the fact that the characters were pretty shallow and the acting ranged from bad to adequate and it’s really hard for me to recommend the film to anyone. From my perspective, it’s the poorest offering by Marvel Studios in the modern (post-2000) era, largely because it’s a couple explosions away from being a Michael Bay film that most critics would rightly savage. It’s a lot of flashing lights with a few characters that I’m familiar with, which makes it something I’m fine with sitting through rather than walking out of, but that's about the best thing I can say.

And, yet, everyone else loves it.

Now, you could assume based on how well you know me, that I’m just not a fan of the absurd or chaotic and this kind of action comedy simply doesn’t play to me… and you couldn’t be more wrong. Before we went to the theater, several of us were sitting in a local restaurant, drinking and cackling hysterically about old Venture Bros. episodes. That show, along with AquaTeen Hunger Force and Archer, are some of the greatest cartoons ever made and they’re all in the same vein as Guardians. The one essential difference may be somewhat subtle: Venture Bros. is designed to be a parody of well-worn sci-fi/adventure tropes, specifically Jonny Quest. Archer is similarly a spoof of Bond/Bourne stories and ATHF is just a trip into the strange, but still loaded down with cultural cues from the geek world (like the Mooninites.)

The difference, of course, is that I go into those cartoons expecting the absurd. I’m entertained when things go awry for the characters in the weirdest possible manner. I didn’t go into Guardians with that mindset and, even though it was apparent by the trailers that this was going to be more of a frolic than a fight, I still wasn’t sold. The easy contrast is with The Avengers from 2012, which had all the makings of a “serious” superhero drama, and the story of which was equally shallow in relative terms. But I loved that film both because it was non-stop action and because it was done so well. They highlighted the “heroes meet for the first time and beat the crap out of each other” trope and you could tell it was being presented as a trope because people expected it. In other words, the audience was kind of in on the joke. Do people really expect the paint-by-numbers plot of Guardians? Are they disappointed when it doesn’t happen? If Gamora had never come close to kissing Peter Quill, would there have been howls of outrage that there was no “love interest” in the film, even though that demeaning role for women should have been completely annulled by the fact that the screenplay was clearly written to present Gamora as vastly more dangerous and capable than the lead male, Starlord?(Putting aside the notion that women should be presented as more than just "interests" of the male leads to begin with...)

Granted, sometimes you play to the capabilities of your actors. Comparing Guardians to Avengers once again, it’s obvious that there’s far more ability in a cast of Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Helmsworth, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner, among others. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Lee Pace, and the voice of Bradley Cooper just can’t quite keep up when it comes to watching people do interesting things on a screen. That stuff matters to me when I’m watching a film and one can argue that the personal talent and gravitas of someone like Downey keeps the one page plot of Avengers moving along, whereas Pratt doesn’t quite have the cachet to do the same thing for Guardians. Strong actors can work with weaker material and make it into something worthwhile. Not-so-strong actors often can't.

But, again, here I am attempting to make my case in technical terms when everyone else seems to “get it”, without question. I’m pretty far removed from the superhero days, as I haven’t regularly read anything of that sort other than Astro City (which is only barely a “superhero” comic) since the early 90s. Part of why I gave up on most of it was because they weren’t showing me anything new. When I could read a story in 1993 that instantly recalled something I’d read in 1978 because it was essentially the same plot, I start getting bored or I feel like I’ve passed the point where that stuff will ever be interesting and they’re just pandering to the new, younger audience which clearly doesn’t include me. By the same token, I’m still willing to watch most of what Marvel produces on the screen because it’s kind of dredging up that excitement and hope for exactly what I’m seeing from 20 and 30 years ago. I always wanted to see Iron Man on film and the first one was a great film; not just a great superhero film, but a great film, period. The ones that followed were not so much, but I’m still willing to see most of those classic characters in the theater because of what I’d read as a kid and an adult. I didn’t read about Rocket Raccoon 20 years ago (even though he first appeared in the 70s.) Is that the disconnect? I have a hard time believing that just being more familiar with the characters would have convinced me that the plot wasn’t complete boilerplate and Zoe Saldana could act her way out of a paper bag (even though I enjoyed her performance as Uhura in the first Star Trek reboot; again, it's possible that it was just the shallowness of the characters that was the main impediment.)

I guess there is something to be said for simply kicking back and "enjoying the ride" and I'm fine with doing that if the story intrigues me at all, but this one simply didn't. So, what am I missing? What is it that the vast majority of both public and critics seem to see in this movie that I simply don't get? This is far from the first time this has happened (see: Forrest Gump and Titanic), but it's the first I can recall where I was as baffled (I know precisely why I think those latter two sucked, but that's another post.)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Brief thoughts about language

I’ve run across several little points of interest regarding language in recent weeks, much of which was based around the World Cup as the confluence of many different cultures and peoples. As most of those who know me will be glad to irritably point out, I’m a bit of a grammar marm (“unique” is an ultimate; you can no more be “kind of unique” than you can be “kind of pregnant”) and mildly concerned about the degradation of the English language (the one I know best) and communication, in general. It’s one of the supreme ironies (genuine) of life that the world’s greatest communication tool, the InterWebs, is also the thing that is most reducing the ability of the species to communicate, whether by the reduction of text to something approximating alpha-numeric Streetspeak or the echo chamber created by only frequenting information sources that agree with your worldview. But the occasional pitfalls in communication only really become prominent when trying to bridge the actual gap of language, as we saw in this year’s tournament.

Hulk fall!
 The Croatian team had basically outplayed the hosting Brazilians in the first match of the event until the referee made an atrociously bad call in the box and awarded a penalty kick to Brazil. The Croats immediately surrounded the Japanese official, protesting the call, to which he responded with a couple mumbles and hand signals. Why? Well, because FIFA, in all its brilliance, had somehow assigned a mono-lingual official to the opening display of the biggest sporting event in the world. He knew only Japanese, which none of the Croatian players knew. However, that wasn’t what upset them. What really got to them was that he didn’t know English because almost all of them were at least roughly fluent in that (as are many other officials in FIFA’s ranks…) English, as many world travelers are aware these days, has become the lingua franca of the age. Here’s where we try to wrap our minds around the idea of English being the target of an Italian term for “Frankish language”, a pidgin communication used around the eastern Mediterranean by the dominant Italian and Ottoman merchants in the 16th century. Strangely enough, actual French (the descendants of the Franks) became the lingua franca of the 18th and 19th centuries before English began to dominate in the last 100 years because of the spread of American culture and hegemony.

Smażyć się w piekle?
That moment reminded me of the Euro championships two years before in Poland and Ukraine, where anti-Russian demonstrators would often appear outside the venues for the soccer matches with various banners like the “Anti-Putin League” written, obviously, in English since it was the surest way of communicating among Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, and the thousands of international visitors. What makes this reality odd to many of us is the concept of the Ugly American; that famously abrasive traveler who appears oblivious to local custom or communication except to believe that by speaking Tourist (loudly and slowly via Twoflower of Discworld fame), they’ll be able to communicate anything to anyone: “CAN… YOU… TELL… ME… WHERE… THE… LOOV-REH… IS?!” These days, he’d probably be right.

Of course, the spread of English has largely been conveyed not only by American economic dominance but also by American entertainment, including sports… making it even stranger that it would be the dominant vehicular language of the largest tournament of a sport that continues to have little traction in the US, relative to other major sports, and which many Americans actively reject as “un-American” (no accounting for taste or intelligence there.) But forms of American slang are also spreading.

If only this was the most obvious example.
Textspeak, adopted organically as a matter of convenience, continues to leak over into other electronic communications, such that many businesses are expressly forbidding it in any kind of official communication attempt (like, say, a job application.) But it’s interesting to note that the lingo common to much of that new style was adopted much earlier by such things as the TL;DR exercise or simple typos.

An example of the former case is online forum communications, where anything past a hundred words is automatically dismissed by much of the Ritalin-prescribed populace as simply too much information to be absorbed. Thus, Too Long; Didn’t Read prefixing a one or two sentence condensation of the post that, of course, removes any and all nuance and context. The latter case centers on frequent typos. Perhaps the best known is that of “pwned.” The term first arose on the forum for Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft game and was an expression for completely dominating one’s opponent (originally “owned”.) There’s fairly widespread dispute as to whether the first use of the term was a typo or was the mistaken approximation to the intended term by the game’s vast Korean audience. I trend toward believing the former but the latter would add a certain texture to the story that speaks even more about the language difficulties and transformations alluded to above.

In ur base, killin ur d00dz...
Most outside the gaming world have only a cursory experience with terms like “pwned”. In other words, they know that kids and geeks use it, which is similar to many other expressions and shorthands that often separate generations and which become outdated with the accession of a new cultural overlay. With the increased prevalence of technology and the tendency of people of all ages to use things like textspeak, one wonders if we’re looking at a transformation of the vehicular language from English to a pidgin form of English even among English speakers.

Incidentally, the presence of the lingua franca wasn’t the only language issue that cropped up during the World Cup. The famously welcoming hosts, who speak Portuguese unlike every other nation on their continent, were reportedly pretty testy about hearing Spanish spoken around the venues; that being the language of two of the most significant challengers to their presumed victory. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, for NPR, was castigated by listeners for not only speaking Portuguese with a Spanish accent but also supposedly speaking Spanish with an Argentinian accent (she claims otherwise), since Argentina was the most threatening of those potential challengers. The strange interplay among cultures wasn’t solely the province of the fans, either, as otherwise brilliant commentator, Ian Darke, attempted to make a point about fans in the stadium during the US-Portugal match perhaps favoring the latter because of a shared culture and language… neglecting to remember that Brazil was a Portuguese colony which fought a fairly ferocious war of independence to remove that status. That said, the US did the same and you’ll find a lot of casual fans favoring the English national team and the Premier League because them people look like us and talk like us…

Now I begin to wonder how we could increase the spread of Braille with accents. If you’re reading in Boston, do you replace all of the Rs with Ahs?