Wednesday, August 31, 2016

On the Cheap

I often give obscure low-budget movies a chance. To be sure, most are the garbage one expects, but amid the detritus is an occasional overlooked treasure – or at least a kitschy knickknack. A few examples: Dirty Girl, Laggies, Afternoon Delight, The Pretty One, Adult World, and Cheap Thrills. OK, maybe none is truly Oscar-worthy, but each has something to say in an engrossing way. I’d watch or recommend any one of them over the big budget Suicide Squad any day.

So, to cap several nights last week, I tried out five more with mixed results.

The Specials (2000)
“The Specials” are a league of superheroes who aren’t even in the top five leagues. Their superpowers are second-rate. Don’t expect to see much of them even so – fx costs money. The Specials’ greatest claim to fame is once having defended a national monument against a pterodactyl attack when the “real” superheroes were busy elsewhere. Their leader the Strobe (Thomas Haden Church) takes himself way too seriously, and his wife Ms. Indestructible (who doesn’t entirely live up to her title) is cheating on him with team member the Weevil (Rob Lowe). There is much high-schoolish infighting among the team-members. Their biggest concern seems to be an action figure deal with Kosgro Toys.

There is enough humor and satire to make this not entirely unwatchable, but, if you want a movie about would-be superheroes, go with the admittedly larger budget Kick-Ass: 100 times better.

Thumbs down.

**** ****

Lollilove (2004)
This mockumentary send-up of self-serving celebrity altruism is way more effective than its $2000 budget (you read that right) deserves. An utterly clueless wealthy Hollywood couple Jenna Fischer and James Gunn (as themselves) decide to “help” the homeless by giving them lollipops wrapped in papers with James’ artwork and inspirational sayings. Though clearly their money would be better spent on direct cash handouts or on the support of a legitimate charity, neither of those options would be as narcissistically satisfying.

There are some funny moments and the movie does outpunch its budget, but I still can’t recommend it honestly as worth the time it takes to watch.

Thumbs down.

**** ****

Automata (2014)
The robots are coming! The robots are coming! They’re going to replace us by killing us, loving us to death, or just outlasting us. We’ve been told that for generations starting with R.U.R. (1920). Kubrick/Spielberg did it as well as anyone in AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001).  I’ve written a short story of my own with the same prediction (see Circuits Circus). Despite the presence of Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith, this variation gives us nothing very new or interesting.

In a bleak future, increased solar activity has made most of the world uninhabitable for humans. The surviving humans are restricted to a handful of protected urban settlements. They depend on their robots, but have enjoined them from improving themselves; the humans recognize the existential danger posed by self-evolving robots. Naturally, this rule gets broken, but – hey – the robots are our children. Children commonly bury their parents.

I’ve seen worse, but once again I hesitate to recommend it. Go with Melanie Griffith's campy robot movie Cherry 2000 (1987) instead.

Thumbs down.

**** ****

Ask Me Anything (2014)
Based on the novel by Allison Burnett, Ask Me Anything at first seems like a simple mild exploitation flick with teen Katie Kampenfelt (Britt Robertson) enjoying affairs with (mostly) older men and writing about them in an anonymous blog. But it is more than that. This is a coming-of-age tale for a confused time.

Katie decides to take a year off between high school and college, which does not sit well with her parents. She makes questionable judgments in her private life, and acquires a big following on her blog about it. During the year she does manage to grow up a little and face some personal demons. The ending is nonetheless disturbing in a cinematically good way.

Not bad. Thumbs up.

**** ****

Give ‘em Hell Malone (2009)
This is the movie I was hoping to find. It is very very graphically violent – especially in the opening two minutes – but if you can deal with that and also are a film noir fan you’re in for a treat. It is the PI movie Hollywood would have made in 1946 had there been no Motion Picture Production Code in force at the time.

Noir aficionados will be pointing out the references. “Hey, that’s a nod to Out of the Past! That’s from Murder My Sweet!” There’s a two-timing gorgeous dame beautifully played by Elsa Pataky, a too smart for his own good villain, a bigger than life henchman, and Malone (Thomas Jane), a hard-to-kill urban mercenary who loves his mother and drives a ’52 Buick that I want… really want.

There is nothing deep about the film, but it is solidly entertaining. Thumbs up.

The Kinks – Low Budget

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Whiskey a Gone Gone

Yesterday I replenished my (modest) liquor cabinet. After a few recent get-togethers at my place, the whiskey selections had become meager. Had I not noticed while putting bottles away I might not have noticed until guests arrived for the next one. This wasn’t always the case. In my 20s I sampled the stuff extensively. That worked out about as well as Dr. Jekyll’s experiments with his potions. I didn’t actually turn into a monster: just a jackass. I’m trying to think of a funny story to illustrate, but all the stories that come to mind are just sad.

Still, those aren’t the reason I drifted toward more temperate habits. The mornings after were the cause of that. Quantities of alcohol that leave others unfazed the next day are debilitating to me. I’m told one can build up a tolerance. Perhaps so, but I don’t wish to endure enough nausea to test the theory.

I take after my mom in this regard. Her response to alcohol was…well, not a good thing. My dad’s side of the family was a more hard-drinking bunch. True, I never saw my father drink more than two drinks (Seagram’s 7 usually) in a single evening – ever. But I’m pretty sure that was in deference to my mother. My grandfather definitely enjoyed his whiskey, which did nothing to impede his success in business. He ended each night with a shot and started each morning with one, which he poured the night before and kept on the end table next to the bed. The night he died a full shot glass was waiting for him there.

Whiskey has a legitimate place in the world, at least for those with a stronger constitution for it than I have. We all know the havoc it can wreak, but I’ve seen it work wonders, too. Whiskey certainly fueled the productivity of many of my favorite authors. As historian W.J. Rorabaugh noted in The Alcoholic Republic, it was central to the life and economy of the early US republic. George Washington brewed whiskey on his estate and issued daily whiskey rations to troops in the Continental Army, Adams (who started each day with a tankard of hard cider) also enjoyed sipping whiskey, Jefferson threw cocktail parties at the White House, and First Lady Dolly Madison met with temperance advocate Edward Delavan but mixed herself a toddy while doing it. Dolly’s response was typical of responses to later efforts to restrict alcohol. We all know how well the Prohibition experiment worked in the 20th century – except for Canadian brewers who made fortunes from it.

It took surprisingly long for whiskey to be invented – whiskey being brewed from grains rather than from fruits, molasses, vegetables, or what-have-you. It gets its brown coloring from the wooden casks in which it ages. The word derives from Gaelic “uisge.” (Spelling note: it is “whiskey” in the US and Ireland, but “whisky” almost everywhere else; Whisky a Go-Go deliberately opted for the unconventional spelling.) Beer and wine predate written records, but max out at around 13% alcohol; at that point the alcohol kills the yeast and fermentation stops. To increase the alcohol content you need distillation. Yet, even though the ancients distilled fresh water from salt water and also distilled perfumes, they apparently never thought to try the technique on alcoholic beverages. Perhaps they didn’t want to waste any by experimenting with them. Medieval alchemists, with their weird mixture of science and the occult, finally did try it and came up with brandy while trying to find the true spirit of wine (hence “spirits”); they then distilled other hard liquors. Most spirits are between 40% and 50% alcohol (80 to 100 proof), though some are much higher. The first records of regular commercial production of whiskey, though, don’t turn up until the 15th century. Thereafter it caught on rapidly.

In the post-Prohibition 20th century USA, white liquor – notably vodka – displaced much of the whiskey market. Vodka still outsells all types of whiskey combined (32% vs. 24% of all spirits sold) in this country, but in the past decade American whiskey – Tennessee whiskey and Bourbon especially – has been taking back market share; sales are up 7% just this year. Scotch, Canadian, and Irish whiskies are holding their own. Whiskey has reacquired a cachet in artsy circles, which bodes well for future sales, too.

I won’t be accounting for many of those sales. My restock should last through the rest of 2016. I long ago learned not to try to imitate the classic American icon: the cowboy who swaggers into the saloon and growls “Whiskey!” at the bartender. I’m the Sugarfoot who orders sarsaparilla. That’s OK. I’ll feel good in the morning. I remember what it’s like not to.

Dorothy – Whiskey Fever

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Alright, I admit it. I added one more mini-review to the four I originally intended to post just so I could use the word as I’ve wanted to do since freshman year of high school when I first encountered it.  Comments follow on three movies on DVD and two books on paper (both delivery systems being obsolescent technologies) I’ve encountered in the past week.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
There is a type of raunchy broad comedy that doesn’t really appeal to me. I don’t mean to get on a high horse about it, for I profess no high standards. I object neither to graphic sex nor low humor in movies, and often enjoy the presence of either. There is just a peculiar blend of the two that leaves me waiting patiently for a scene to end while (when viewed in a theater) much of the audience around me guffaws loudly: for example, the scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall in which couples in neighboring hotel rooms try to outdo each other in noisy sex in order to make the other jealous. The gag goes on wearyingly long, but apparently not for the target audience. Many of these movies not only please audiences but get good critical reviews such as Superbad, Knocked Up, and the remake of Neighbors. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not in the least offended by movies of this type; they simply don’t make me laugh. I even like a few (e.g. Clerks), but always because there is something else going on in them, too.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is one of the better movies of this type. It mysteriously bombed at the box-office, which has the advantage that it might be new to a present day viewer. Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) is a TV sitcom star with almost too perfect good looks. She dumps her boyfriend Peter (Jason Segel). Peter does the music for the TV show, which makes the break harder for him. The devastated Peter tries to get over Sarah with nights of mindless sex with women he picks up in bars. This doesn’t help, so he takes a vacation in Hawaii to clear his head. In a standard movie-comedy coincidence, Sarah books into the same hotel with her new boyfriend, pop singer Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). The hotel clerk Rachel (Mila Kunis) feels sorry for Peter, which squares off the comic quadrangle.

There are some genuinely funny moments in this movie. Although Peter is not nearly as sympathetic a character as he is intended to be, we can relate to his melancholy anyway. Most of us have learned the hard way just how disorienting ending a truly heartfelt relationship can be.

A grudging Thumbs Up: not my kind of movie, but by the standards of its genre it’s pretty good.

**** ****

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Alternate universes have been a staple of science fiction for 80 years. They’ve been central to a multitude of books, movies and TV shows (e.g. Sliders and Fringe). For this reason it’s a little irksome that in Crouch’s 2016 novel Dark Matter, the protagonist physicist Jason Desson doesn’t figure out he isn’t in his own world until page 126. It has been obvious to the reader since the first few pages that another version of himself has swapped places with him. But if we overlook this initial pigheadedness by a character who should know better, Crouch provides us with an enjoyable, fast-paced, and well-written adventure story.

The protagonist Jason had youthful promise at the cutting edge of physics, but settled into a professorship in order to provide securely for his wife and son. This prevented him from putting in the necessary time to achieve anything professionally remarkable. His wife Daniela similarly has limited her career as an artist. Naturally both wonder what would have happened had they made other choices, but they are happy. One of Jason’s counterparts in a parallel Chicago isn’t happy even though his career (and the single life) did lead him to scientific breakthroughs including interdimensional travel. He does something about it by taking over the life of our Jason whom he envies. After our Jason finally realizes what is going on, he escapes the alternate world where he was exiled with the help of a woman named Amanda who was a colleague of Jason 2. Together they try to find their way to the world of Jason 1 using the tech invented by his other self. During their search they visit various versions of Chicago including postapocalyptic ones. Jason develops an idea as to how to choose the door to the right world out of the infinite number of them.

Entertaining. Thumbs Up.

**** ****

High-Rise (2015)
I am a big fan of English author J.G. Ballard (1930-2009). He was primarily a science fiction author if one uses the term “science fiction” expansively. His early work, though off-beat, was unmistakably scifi, but in the 1970s his emphasis shifted. He came to believe that increasing numbers of people – especially in first world economies – already existed in a futuristic scifi world. They lived in artificial technological environments in which interactions were mediated by electronics and machines.

Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents said that civilization was maintained by repressing natural human impulses to destructive behavior emanating from the death instinct; this suppression of nature causes people unhappiness, but it is a price worth paying so as not to live amid savagery and violence. Ballard similarly believed that our artificial worlds are deeply at variance with our animalistic instincts and natures, but he was less optimistic than Freud about our ability to contain the destructive ones. This was the theme of his novel High-Rise, published in 1975. It was set in a modern high-rise structure that included homes, stores, offices, and recreational facilities so that a person in principle could live, work, and play entirely within the building. The result was so at variance with human nature that it instigated a breakdown of civilization. The residents’ ids ran wild. It was much like Lord of the Flies, but with adults and triggered by an opposite circumstance.

Ben Wheatley’s screen adaptation of High-Rise is set in the 1970s and captures much of the feel of the building and its occupants as described in the novel. There is one big difference. Ballard is not blind to class, and it does play a role in the way people break down into tribes and then feed on each other in the book. But class is not central to his point; his focus is on much more fundamental human drives and instincts. The movie High-Rise, by contrast, is entirely about class as the lower floors revolt against the higher ones; the movie is capped by an ironic overvoice of a speech by Margaret Thatcher on the virtues of capitalism. It’s fine that Wheatley made a movie about class struggle, but I think it’s important to note that his vision is not the same as Ballard’s. It is something much simpler.

Upshot: Nicely rendered visually, and fans of the book will enjoy seeing the characters brought to life. For me, however, that’s not enough to make up for the deeper changes to the story. A reluctant Thumbs Down.

**** ****

The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese
The first rate author/journalist Gay Talese is still best known for his 1981 best seller Thy Neighbor’s Wife which chronicled the sexual revolution of the 70s just as reaction against the decade’s excesses was setting in. I was impressed with the book at the time. I’ve liked many of his articles in The New Yorker and elsewhere since then. The Voyeur’s Motel is different. After putting it down you might feel the need to wash your hands.

Back in 1980 Gay Talese was contacted by Gerald Foos who owned a 21-room motel in Colorado. He had cut false ventilation vents into the ceilings of six of the rooms. With the cooperation and collaboration of his wife he used them to spy on occupants of the rooms from the attic. He kept detailed records of what he saw and convinced himself he was chronicling something important about human behavior. Gay Talese was unwilling to publish anything based on anonymous sources, and Foos – for obvious legal reasons – was unwilling to go public, so nothing came of their meeting. Foos continued to send Talese updates and pages from his chronicles over the years however. In 2015 with statutes of limitations providing protection, Foos was willing to identify himself publicly, so Talese wrote The Voyeur’s Motel with extensive excerpts from Foos’ notes.

Frankly, none of Foos' observations are very interesting. I think we all have a pretty good idea of what goes on in motel rooms. It is Foos himself that arouses one’s curiosity. He is in almost every way an ordinary person of the sort one meets everyday. Without consciousness of irony he decries dishonesty and loss of privacy from surveillance cameras. Nothing about him screams out pervert. Yet there he was in the ceiling. It makes one wonder about the other ordinary people around us.

Voyeurism to some extent is normal. It is the basis of reality TV shows. If you have a loud fight, you have to expect the neighbors will listen. Yet these are cases of voluntarily accepting exposure, if only by being loud enough for the neighbors to hear. Spying on someone who has a reasonable expectation of privacy is another matter – it quickly transitions to something venal. Just reading this book is enough to cause one to question one’s own propriety by doing it.

Upshot: Well and crisply written as one expects a Talese book to be. Ultimately, though, the subject matter isn’t enough to carry it. Thumbs Down.

**** ****

Much Ado about Nothing (2012)
Performing Shakespeare in a non-traditional setting is not a new idea. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Just last year I caught an off-Broadway version of Macbeth set in a 1920s Chicago speakeasy; the weird sisters were chorus girls and Lady MacBeth was in drag. Against all expectations it worked. Joss Whedon’s 2012 Much Ado about Nothing works far better than that.

There is little Joss Whedon does on screen that I don’t like. Whether it’s a shoestring Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV episode or the $250,000,000 budget Avengers: Age of Ultron, he brings a deft touch and a dry sense of humor to the material. Some of his most interesting work can be found in his small side projects, such as the unabashedly sentimental paranormal romance In Your Eyes (2014) with Zoe Kazan.  Much Ado about Nothing was shot in 12 days in B&W with handheld cameras at an upscale home in southern California – perhaps just as a way of winding down from the big budget Avengers (2012).

The contrast of the fully modern setting with the original script helps to highlight how the world and the relations of the sexes have changed and also how they haven’t. Besides, it is fun to hear the lines delivered by cast members of Whedon’s TV shows Firefly and Dollhouse.

Much Ado about Nothing is a comedy full of romances, betrayals, intrigues, and incompetent lawmen. This is the most pleasant version of it I’ve yet seen.

Thumbs Up.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Asking Alice

Despite the legalization of marijuana at the state level in state after state, the sale, transport, and use of the substance remains a federal crime. Those in favor of legalization (I’m one) were disappointed but unsurprised last week when the DEA retained for marijuana a Schedule I classification, a status reserved for the most dangerous drugs without accepted medical value and with a “high potential for abuse.” Heroin, Ecstasy, and LSD are a few other Schedule I drugs.

There was a time when Congress passed laws about one thing and another, but for the past several decades the legislative body instead lazily has passed broad and vague statutes that give Administrative bodies including the DEA the authority to issue regulations arbitrarily that have the force of law.  Under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, the DEA can classify pretty much anything under Schedules I through V. Schedule V includes substances with low-level abuse potential such as prescription cough syrup. No further action by Congress is required to put something on the list, much less a Constitutional Amendment as was once considered necessary to ban alcohol at the federal level – a failed experiment that apparently taught no broader lesson.

I should point out (or maybe I shouldn’t, but I will) that I’m not an aficionado of the herb and never have been. Despite the plot of my short fiction Brown Acid set largely in the 60s and 70s at my short story site, I’ve never been a fan of any other Schedule I or II substance either – or Schedule III, IV, and V for that matter. I do have a liquor cabinet, but since my 20s I’ve made modest use even of that. So I’m not defending a personal recreation. I’m defending personal choice partly out of principle (the principle that voluntary actions that don’t defraud or initiate force against another person are no one else’s business) and partly because of the damage such prohibitions has done to people in my life.

I won’t rehash (no pun intended) the arguments about how prohibition enriches gangsters and fosters crime. They’ve been repeated for half a century. Nor will I make a long list of perverse effects of the laws such as the growing popularity of heroin among seniors that has been much in the news lately: it is cheaper, more powerful, and more easily available than prescription synthetic opiate painkillers. I’m not likely to change anyone’s mind here with old arguments or new. Well-meaning people can have different views on these matters. But I do wish to make the historical note that the USA once did without any restrictions at all without falling into chaos. The very first federal anti-drug act – disguised as a tax act because an outright ban was thought unconstitutional – was the Harrison Act of 1914. Sale and possession of cocaine and opiates became effectively illegal. Prior to the Harrison Act they could be bought openly. Laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) was a popular, cheap, and very effective over-the-counter painkiller. They caused no more problems (intoxicants always cause some problems) before 1914 than after. During the half century prior to 1915 the US economy with the usual ups and downs grew a remarkable 6% annually in real terms, showing they didn’t get in the way of prosperity.

Opium is a particularly interesting example with a fuzzy legal status. It is a Schedule II drug – meaning it is considered less dangerous than marijuana by the DEA despite being physically addicting – yet you can buy dried poppies (Papaver somniferum) in flower shops and buy poppy seeds in groceries. Poppy seeds are supposed to be sterilized but in fact some of them will germinate if spread on the ground, as will the ones from the dried bulbs.  Opium is technically the sap from the poppy bulb, though active ingredients are in the bulbs and leaves, too; they also are present in very tiny amounts in the seeds which is why poppy seed cake can make a person test positive for opiate use. Growing poppies ornamentally is widely done (albeit not necessarily legal) but if you plant a garden of them expect a visit from the DEA. Poppies in the 19th century were farmed all over the United States, as they had been elsewhere since the days of the Sumerians. Many of the plants spread out from the farms and consequently can be found today growing wild from New Hampshire to California. Contrary to myth, they don’t need special conditions. They prefer cool climates, but will grow almost anywhere government agents don’t burn them. Smugglers don’t bother with opium because it is bulky and low-value; they turn it into heroin instead which is compact, high-value, and vastly more dangerous. Heroin is a semisynthetic developed by Bayer in the 1890s by the acetylation of morphine.

Opium is nowhere near as harsh as its derivatives morphine and codeine. It is common to list some famous opium smokers, so I’ll do the same: they include Marcus Aurelius, Ben Franklin, Edgar Alan Poe, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sir Walter Scott, Thomas De Quincey, and (famously) Lewis Carroll. Their minds remained first-rate, and any health problems they faced (Poe in particular) are clearly related to alcohol rather than opium. It’s hard not to wonder if those gray-haired seniors currently prowling streets for drug dealers wouldn’t be better off loading their hookahs with hops from a backyard poppy garden.

The hookah-smoking caterpillar tells Alice about magic mushrooms

Friday, August 12, 2016

Paper Trail

My Canon printer just ran out of paper. I’ll have to stop by Staples and pick up another ream. It won’t be the last.

In the first flush of widespread personal computing in the 1980s the coming “paperless society” was an oft-repeated prediction. By the mid-90s this already was a joke. Although electronic record storage and online businesses were growing explosively, the need (or at least the desire) for paper back-up copies persisted. Paper production and use expanded, and not by a small amount. In addition to business and government documents, home printers and fax machines spewed out tons of printed matter.

In 2016, however, it seems we finally are three or four years beyond peak paper, at least in the developed economies. The paperless society still is nowhere in sight, but one with less paper has arrived. The largest fall-off in sales is in newsprint as newspapers continue to move online. Book publishing, too, is diminishing. This is not just because of electronic publishing, though that is a big factor; book sales in total (paper and ebooks combined) are down. While paper sales are off, however, they aren’t off by much. Some parts of the market are expanding: notably packaging. As people increasingly buy online for home delivery, cardboard box production is soaring. Nonetheless, there is an overall slow drift downward in paper sales.

Paper by definition consists of small cellulose fibers distributed randomly – as opposed to cloth in which fibers are neither small nor random. The fibers are broken up into tiny fragments and mixed with water which is then sifted through a screen on which the paper forms. We tend to think of paper as made from trees, and nowadays it mostly is, but this was uncommon until the late 19th century when new industrial processes made it cheap. The removal of lignin from wood pulp was the problem; it could be (and was) done even in the earliest days of papermaking, but it was troublesome. Rags and hemp were the most common source of cellulose for paper before 1850. To this day very high quality paper is cotton rag. Accordingly, newspapers from 200 years ago are generally in much better shape than ones from 50 years ago because the latter used less durable wood pulp paper. 

Traditionally, the credit for inventing paper goes to Cai Lun, an official in the Han court who announced his discovery to the emperor in 105 CE. We now know this isn’t quite true; archaeologists have found paper in China dated much earlier than 105. However, it is likely Cai Lun had something to do with promoting and expanding its use. After all, Edison didn’t invent the light bulb; he just made one that was commercially viable. Who invented petroleum refining? Not Rockefeller, but we remember his name. Who invented the automobile? Not Henry Ford by a long shot. Bill Gates didn’t invent DOS. You get the idea. Popularizers rather than inventors get the notoriety, and perhaps that is as it should be. Paper production didn’t begin in the West until more than 1000 years later when the demands of printing finally overwhelmed the supply of traditional vellum and papyrus.

Until the 1970s, the acid method of wood pulp paper production was dominant; it also was smelly and highly polluting. Alkaline methods currently in use are not. Paper companies such as Weyerhaeuser farm trees on their own tracts, replanting as they cut. Using or even burning paper, like other wood products, from farmed trees does not release net carbon since the replanted trees soak it back up again. Paper is biodegradable. In short, compared to the alternatives, paper with or without recycling isn’t so bad.

This removes some of the objections to a 1960s fad that paper manufacturers might hope to revive to brighten up fading sales: paper clothing. Dresses that cost only a few cents each to make were sold in stores in the 60s for $1 each. (Vintage examples now sell for hundreds to collectors.) They were intended for a single use – maybe two if the wearer managed to keep clean. They could not survive washing. There were paper men’s fashions, too, but they didn’t sell very well. Concerns about the “disposable society” doomed the fad with a negative press, and by 1970 they were history. But in truth, given current technology, it is not at all clear that reusing cloth by washing it is any more energy-efficient or resource-preserving than replacing a paper outfit with a new one.

There are limitations to paper wearables due to sturdiness issues, of course, as there were 50 years ago. The go-go boots, for example, will have to stay vinyl.

Frank might be overdoing the paper thing

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Suicide Isn’t Painless

No company or franchise has a perfect track record, but with movie adaptations of comics Marvel places more often than not. By contrast, DC since the turn of the millennium has struggled to find a winning horse despite its extensive stable of comic book characters. The big exception is Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, particularly The Dark Knight featuring Heath Ledger’s brilliant incarnation of the Joker as a nihilist anarchist philosopher-crook. Otherwise the night for DC indeed has been dark. Oh, DC actually made money from its bad movies, and one might think that is enough. But execs at both DC and Warner Brothers studios worry (with justice) that without better critic and viewer reviews the money train will stop, especially since most revenue these days is aftermarket (streaming and DVD).

Suicide Squad, now in theaters, was supposed to turn things around. It won’t. Reviews have been devastating. I’m certain this film will make money too, as the premise is an appealing one: a sort of Dirty Dozen with comic book villains. In Suicide Squad the villains are recruited to take on a superhuman adversary. All of us have a dark side as Freud noted academically in Civilization and Its Discontents and as R.L. Stevenson noted more colorfully in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Letting a viewer identify with a villain working (however opportunistically) in a good cause taps into both sides.

It surely is fatuous to complain when comic book characters are drawn cartoonishly. Yet, it is worth noting, and in this film they are.  There are only two partially redeeming characters out of a large cast: the amoral get-the-job-done Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). There is not much to say about Amanda other than that she is a very scary boss. Harley Quinn is the one character with a diagnosable mental condition. (Harley calls Deadshot [Will Smith] a standard sociopath at one point, but he isn't.) Symptoms listed in the diagnostic manual DSM-V for “histrionic personality” include 1) flirtatiousness, 2) suggestibility, 3) attention-seeking, 4) superficial speech, 5) provocative clothes, 6) overly dramatic self-representation, 7) incorrect assessment of intimacy. That’s Harley. Her completely inappropriate love affair with the Joker evokes Bonnie and Clyde.

Harley Quinn made her first appearance in the animated Batman TV series (1992) but was later fleshed out in DC comics. She was Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist at Arkham Mental Hospital where the Joker was imprisoned. Thanks to her own mental issues and a variety of Stockholm Syndrome she became infatuated with the Joker, helping him to escape and becoming his girlfriend/sidekick Harley Quinn. There have been some neo-Victorian complaints about the sexualization of the character, yet those complaints miss the degree to which Harley owns her sexuality as a tool – in the comics she is bisexual with a side thing for Poison Ivy. Her love for the Joker, as terrible as he is, is very much her chosen statement of identity.

I think many of us have been there. OK, maybe not with literal supervillains but certainly with inappropriate lovers.

Unfortunately this is not a movie about Harley – or Amanda. It is about the Suicide Squad and their recruiters. For the movie as a whole, despite the big budget mayhem, there is not enough there there,

Thumbs down.

Clip Suicide Squad

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Short Stuff

Upon us are the humid summer days when the rains come at dusk. The cloudbursts seldom last more than an hour or two – sometimes only minutes. The drumming of raindrops on the roof is too pleasant to drown out with squawking from the TV and radio. There is little more satisfying at such a time than sitting on couch and reading a book. Lengthy tomes are not suitable. The rain will end soon and there are other uses for a clear summer night. Long works can await on the bedstand for later. Ideally a book for the dusk can be read during a single downpour – two at most. Below are three.

**** **** 

How to Talk to Girls at Parties (62 pages) by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman writes scifi in the broadest sense of the term, sometimes strictly as prose and sometimes as graphic novels. His novel American Gods is currently being adapted for TV. How to Talk to Girls at Parties is not a textbook for shy boys, as the title suggests, but a comic book adaptation of one of Neil’s short stories.

In the 1970s the underage teen boys Enn and Vic go looking for a party in London. Enn lives in Vic’s shadow. Vic is handsome, personable, and a star with the ladies while Enn is introverted and at a loss for words with girls. They find a party and it is full of beautiful young women. It turns out not to be the particular one for which they were looking. Whether it is the Wrong party with a capital “W” or Right with a capital “R”, however, is a matter of perspective, for the women are not who, or even what, they seem to be.  The tale is a marvelous metaphor for the mystery of women to clueless young men – especially those (I can relate to this) from a boys-only prep school. If the boys flee will they save themselves or miss an irreplaceable opportunity to hear the full siren song?

Good stuff, soon to be a movie starring Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman.

**** **** 

African Diary (49 pages) by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson writes acidly humorous books on almost every imaginable subject but is most famous for his travelogues. By far the shortest of these is African Diary. The reason for brevity is not the subject matter but Bryson’s reason for writing the book and meeting the deadline for it: “I don’t know if you are fully aware of it, but in acquiring this slender volume you didn’t actually buy a book. You made a generous donation to a worthy cause [CARE] and got a free book in return, which isn’t quite the same thing.”

Bryson writes of his trip to Kenya at the invitation of CARE. Nairobi, he tells us, is like Omaha: “yet another modern city with traffic lights and big buildings and hoardings advertising Samsung televisions and the like.” Africa asserts itself, however, at the city limits where the slums that don’t officially exist begin. He tells us of trains through the countryside, small aircraft and bush pilots, urban and rural culture, the remnants of colonialism, and the refugee camp where CARE helps but not too much. Why not too much? If life for refugees is better than life for the locals the perverse effect is to encourage everyone to become a refugee – not a good thing long-term. It also makes the local residents hostile.

As in all Bryson’s books, the prose is colorful, the descriptions descriptive, and the humor biting. Not the tourist’s Kenya, but worth the trip.

**** **** 

The Mystery of Irma Vep (73 pages) by Charles Ludlam

The 1980s were a wonderfully inventive time for off-Broadway productions in New York including the likes of Little Shop of Horrors, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (not quite what it sounds like), Psycho Beach Party, and The Mystery of Irma Vep. I saw the Ridiculous Theatrical Company production of The Mystery of Irma Vep in 1984 in the company of a young woman named Jeri. Things didn’t work out with Jeri, but they did with the play, which I saw a second time before it closed. “Irma Vep,” some might note, is an anagram of “vampire.”

Spoofs of horror stories with vampires, mummies, ghosts, and werewolves are almost as old as the horror genre itself (viz. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), but this is definitely one of the better ones. It doesn’t miss a trick, right down to the supposedly deceased first wife imprisoned in a secret basement cell. Moreover, the entire play is done by two quick-change actors playing all the parts. (A condition of performing the play is that the two actors be of the same sex, though it doesn’t matter which.) This leads to a deliberately awkward moment when Lady Enid, speaking to Jane, demands to see a third character.

“JANE: Nicodemus can’t come, Lady Enid. For obvious reasons.”

Not all plays transfer well to the page, but when I saw The Mystery of Irma Vep offered on Amazon in book form, I ordered it. The play transfers fine, though I still recommend seeing it first if that is possible.

The question raised even by good-natured silliness as this is what the ongoing appeal of mummies, vampires, and werewolves might be. An answer is offered in the text.

“LORD EDGAR: Irma could never accept the idea of death and decay. She always was seeking consolation in the study of spiritualism and reincarnation.”

Better life as a vampire than none at all is the point. I see that point but I don’t think I could deal with the dietary restrictions. I don’t even like blood pudding. I’ll stick to living on, if at all, in memory.

Stevie Lange – Remember