Friday, January 27, 2017

Twin Peeks

Two Reviews:

The Dark Side by Anthony O’Neill

There is something about science fiction which lends itself to blending with detective fiction. Many of the big name scifi authors have offered up cocktails of the two. Even I have tried mixing them once or twice (see my short story site at Richard’s Mirror). Anthony O’Neill does a particularly good job of it in his 2016 novel The Dark Side.

Narcissist magnate Fletcher Brass has taken advantage of the muddled jurisdictional status of the Moon to create his own fiefdom on the far side out of direct line of sight communication with earth. In his city of Purgatory, the lunar vice capital, criminals fleeing earth authorities are welcome, but they had better understand that Brass is the law. Brass has elucidated his governing principles in a popular book of psychopathic maxims called the Brass Code.
Never bang your head against the wall. Bang someone else’s.
Shake hands in public. Decapitate in private.
What’s the point of walking in another man’s shoes? Unless his shoes are better than yours?
Find Oz. Be the Wizard.
If you can’t cover your tracks, cover those who see them.

A succession crisis is in progress as the book opens. Fletcher Brass plans to join a Martian expedition that will keep him away from the Moon for years. Will he leave governance of Purgatory to his equally ambitious daughter QT Brass, with whom he has philosophical differences, or to someone else?

Even Purgatory needs a police force, and newly hired detective Damien Justus, formerly of Las Vegas, is brought in to investigate murders that might have political implications. As an outsider he presumably is not corrupted (yet) and his perspective is fresh. The question immediately arises of whether the murders are related to the succession issue. Was his own hire (apparently by QT) part of the maneuverings? How reliable is the rest of the police force? And what is the connection of the murders to a homicidal android robot that wasn’t present in Purgatory at the time of them?

It’s unlikely that any detective novel at this late date can be entirely original even if set on the Moon, but this one is well crafted. The physical setting is nicely detailed and nowhere are physical laws suspended. O’Neil successfully delivers a gritty noir in low gravity.

Thumbs up.

**** ****

The Monster (2016)

Though, as in childhood, I still enjoy the occasional monster movie for its own sake, this is not why The Monster made an appearance on my home screen a few days ago. The reason was the appealing Yale-educated actress Zoe Kazan (Elia Kazan’s granddaughter) who brings something worth watching to every part she plays. She most often is found in indie flicks such as the dark comedy The Pretty One, Joss Whedon’s paranormal romance In Your Eyes, and the award-winning Ruby Sparks for which she wrote the script. Her characters are always vulnerable but never helpless. The Monster is her cheesiest film choice to date. That is not by itself a reproach: cheese has a place on the menu.

We are reminded early in The Monster that most of the monsters we face in life are not literal, but nonetheless real. There are more reminders in flashbacks throughout the movie. Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is a troubled, alcoholic, addicted, divorced young mother of tween Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). In the opening scene Lizzy cleans up booze bottles from the night before while her mother is sleeping it off; Kathy’s latest loser boyfriend already has left. Kathy does care about her daughter, but she is just not up to the job of being a mother and she knows it. In consequence, Lizzy in many ways has grown up too fast while compensating for this by holding much too tightly onto a handful of childish behaviors. Soon, however, Kathy and Lizzy will face the kind of monster with actual claws and fangs. It seems cryptozoologists have missed the existence of one very large and nasty creature of the deep woods – unsurprisingly, since any who encountered it in its natural habitat wouldn’t have survived to tell the tale.

Kathy takes Lizzy on a long drive to visit Lizzy’s father. Kathy suspects Lizzy will not ever want to return to her. They are detoured onto a back road through a forested area where the car is disabled by a collision with a wolf. You know what happens next. Not a single monster movie trope is forgotten from the jump scares to the false rescue. But that’s okay. The tropes are handled competently, so they work well enough. It’s an old-fashioned plot with a newfangled backstory. Can Lizzy survive her monsters – and not just the one in the woods? Can Kathy? We hope so, but aren’t sure until the end.

Thumbs modestly up.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Diversions: Page, Screen, and Speaker

Brief Reviews:

Consider the Lobster (2005) by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) has been on my “to read” list since the critical success of Infinite Jest, his 1996 dystopic novel of well over a 1000 pages including 388 endnotes. His reputation is “not easy but worth the effort.” A mere two decades later, I finally decided to get my feet wet with Consider the Lobster, a collection of essays from a few years each side of the millennium formerly published in Harpers, Rolling Stone, Atlantic Monthly, and elsewhere.

In prose that is enjoyably erudite and idiosyncratic (there are odd abbreviations and parentheses, as well as footnotes that take up most of a page), the essay topics are as varied as the Adult Video News Awards, the literary sins of John Updike, the humor of Kafka, 9/11 viewed from Bloomington, and, yes, lobsters. The high point is the essay on American Usage and the role of politics in Standard Written English. The political role is most painfully obvious in contortions over gender pronouns, but it extends throughout the language even to the use of adverbs. English, of course, has no equivalent of L'Académie française which can resolve such issues by fiat. Instead we have multiple factions of academics squabbling with each other, so that any usage is likely to offend a majority of them for multifarious reasons. A large contingent claims that there is no standard at all other than ever-changing common use. Yet they somehow try to write usage textbooks anyway. However, the prescriptive SNOOT (Syntax Nudnik Of Our Time) survives: “somebody who knows what dysphemism means, and doesn't mind letting you know it.” While acknowledging the ways in which the SNOOT is socially objectionable, Wallace proclaims and acclaims his/her/possessive-singular-pronoun-of-choice value: some standards are needed to keep the language coherent.

Maybe I’m now up for an Infinite Jest. A solid Thumbs Up.

**** ****

Siren (2016)

The Hangover meets Species: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that is exactly how the script for this movie was pitched. It didn’t have more than a modest fraction of the budget of either. Nonetheless, it isn’t as bad as you might think. It isn’t as good (or even so-bad-it’s-good) as you might hope either.

The inspiration for the movie was a segment of V/H/S by the same filmmakers in which boorish guys try to pick up girls for amateur porn only to discover that the woman they bring back to their motel room isn’t human. The same actress (Hannah Fierman) reprises her character in Siren. The creature she plays is not a siren of the classic type that sang to Odysseus. This one has (when she chooses to display them) wings and a tail. She also has sharp teeth and an appetite for flesh, but she does sing.

It’s Jonah’s bachelor party. Jonah’s two best friends and his bad boy older brother take him to a strip club that proves to be as lame and unappealing as most such places are. A mesmeric patron, however, tips them off to a very special club inside an isolated mansion. Jonah and his companions, influenced by drugs and alcohol, allow themselves to be persuaded. The special club, run by an occult practitioner named Nyx, is many things but it is not lame. Jonah specifically declines sex when Nyx offers him a special experience, but accepts a viewing through glass of Lily (the siren) who sings to him to hallucinogenic effect. Jonah realizes she is locked in her chamber. Assuming she is the victim of sex trafficking, he lets her out and removes from her leg a shackle that has some power over her. This proves to be a bad move. Much running and screaming and dying ensue – also some kinky sex. None of the sex or violence is terribly graphic.

I have to give this one bifurcated thumbs. By no stretch is this, in a general way, a good movie. It does not rise above its genre even a smidgeon and so gets a general Thumbs Down. However, anyone who rents/buys this flick should know basically what s/he is getting and presumably likes this type of movie. Judged purely within its genre (rather like, say, Decoys) it hits the required notes serviceably enough to get a very mild Thumbs Up.

**** ****

Halestorm – ReAniMate 3.0 (2017)

Halestorm, featuring Lzzy Hale’s formidable vocals (brother Arejay Hale on drums), has been delivering hard rock with reliable competence since 2009. Though best known for original music (often with aggressive angry lyrics), in between studio albums the band has released cover albums to tide over their fans. The third of them, ReAniMate 3.0, was released last week.

Other than Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” which synchs with Lzzy’s usual style seamlessly, the choices were not foreseeable. That’s a good thing. They are from Whitesnake, Sophie B Hawkins, Twenty One Pilots, Soundgarden, and Metallica. While the covers are true enough to the originals to be unmistakable even to someone not paying much attention, Halestorm nonetheless puts its own stamp on each.

The result is good solid rock and roll. Further, the album serves its purpose of giving fans something to hear while the next studio album is generated. Thumbs Up.

Halestorm – Fell on Black Days (Soundgarden cover)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Over and Over

I’ve met people who hate seeing a movie or TV show twice. “What’s the point?” they ask. “I know what is going to happen.” They are in the distinct minority however. For most of us, knowing what is going to happen is one of the elements we find so comforting. In an uncertain world, it’s nice not to stress about an outcome, even a bad one. The devil you know, and all that: in the case of some horror films that might be literal. Kids especially like the familiar as parents well know when their DVD player starts spinning Annie for the 103rd time.

Back in the Paleoelectronic days of my youth there were no consumer video players. Videotape machines did exist, but they were large costly devices used by broadcasters. They were so expensive that for the first decade of commercial broadcasting in the US, most TV shows were broadcast live to spare the expense of taping ahead of time. Yet, there were still opportunities then to rewatch favorite movies at home. Independent TV stations, such as WOR in New York, commonly played the same movie every day for a week. If it was something boy-friendly such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Forbidden Planet, or King Kong, you can be sure I watched it (if possible) every one of those days. To this day I can speak the dialogue along with the characters in all those movies.

Our patience for such repetition fades as we age. I don’t think I could force myself to watch the same film every day for a week nowadays without the promise of a big cash prize for doing so, but there are still movies I like to revisit – not every day but from time to time – be they classics like The Philadelphia Story and Gilda or recent guilty pleasures such as Scott Pilgrim vs, the World. That’s what DVD shelves (and Netflix) are for.

Why do we enjoy the repetition beyond the simple comfort of knowing who or what is scratching on the other side of that door? Part of it – at least as adults – is nostalgia. A particular film connects us to our past in some way. Maybe it reminds us of the time in our lives when we first saw it or maybe (especially in recent flicks) some theme in the film evokes something from our past. The same can be said of favorite songs. That’s why on average 54 minutes out of every hour we listen to music are dedicated to familiar songs. However, playing an oldie on the stereo is just a 3 minute commitment instead of a 2 or 3 hour one, which is why we do it more readily.

According to Cristel Antonia Russell and Sidney Levy (rf. The Temporal and Focal Dynamics of Volitional Reconsumption: A Phenomenological Investigation of Repeated Hedonic Experiences – with an intimidating title like that they must be onto something), in addition to nostalgia and the joy of the familiar some movies have therapeutic effects. We find something in them that helps us work through something in our own lives.

Then again maybe we just like the movie. We can’t always give reasons for our affections – and not just (alas) for movies. Now that I think of it, it has been too long since I last watched The Owl and the Pussycat (1970) for every single one of the reasons (and nonreasons) above. Time to crack open the DVD case and do it again.

The Beach Boys - Do It Again

Friday, January 6, 2017


For the most part I have been lucky with my health. True, I’ve written on blackboards with chalk that is tougher than my tooth enamel, but, dental issues aside, I’ve fared pretty well, so far dodging bullets (the metaphorical kind) big and small. I’ve no troublesome allergies and rarely catch colds or the flu even when repeatedly exposed. “Rarely” is not the same as “never,” however, and after multiple exposures in close quarters to sniffling fellow humans in the past week, I have caught my first (and hopefully last) cold of 2017.

Colds are described in some the earliest writings that exist, so it is a safe bet that the common cold predates civilization. After all, it’s hard to imagine a better way to spread a cold virus among one’s clan than by huddling together in a cold dank cave in Paleolithic times. Cold viruses mutate so rapidly that permanent immunity to them is impossible to evolve, which is one reason they are still with us. We have no idea how prehistoric people dealt with colds, but, since colds typically last only 10 to 14 days, almost any “remedy” would seem to work, which is a prime opportunity for a shaman to claim credit by interposing with magic.

The earliest cold remedy on record is from ancient Egypt in the Ebers papyrus (c.1550 BCE); it prescribes the milk of a mother of a boy. The remedy also requires an accompanying incantation: “May you flow out, catarrh, son of catarrh, who breaks the bones, who destroys the skull, who hacks in the marrow, who causes the seven openings in the head to ache.” I haven’t tried it, not least because asking for the ingredient seems something of an untoward imposition. However, I suspect it would work in about 10 to 14 days. More recently (1744) John Wesley recommended opium and olive oil. I doubt this mixture would speed recovery but I can see how the sufferer might cease to care. So too with William Buchan’s boozy advice from the same era: “Go to bed, hang your hat on the foot of the bed and continue to drink until you can see two hats.” – Dr Bucan’s Domestic Medicine (1772).

Modern remedies have no greater success. Despite claims made for zinc, Vitamin C, and chicken soup, it is not clear that any of them really help (though they don’t hurt). At most (and this is disputed) they might cut a day or two off the experience. By staying warm and hydrated, however, we can avoid making things worse. Fortunately, in the absence of a secondary infection most of us can expect to recover on schedule without a doctor’s intervention – an intervention that won’t help with the cold itself.

I had a cold. The doctor came
            And five assistants too.
They laid ten icy hands on me,
            And now I’ve got the flu.
                                                – Martial c.90 CE (Lionel Casson translation)

Humble Pie – I Don't Need No Doctor

Monday, January 2, 2017

“where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”

The other day I was chatting with a friend of mine who commented on some article he had read on vice dens of the 1930s-1950s. He remarked that popular perceptions of the era as culturally conservative are out-of-whack since people then plainly engaged in precisely the same shenanigans they do today. This is true – and not. There is always vice. Yet there is a difference across time and cultures including in what things to designate as vice. Actually, “across time” is “across cultures.”  LP Hartley: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

The difference lies in the centerline of the bell curve. In any era there are folks on one tail of the curve who are more dissolute than the norm and there are folks on the opposite tail who are more reserved than the norm. So, you can find a wild child and a puritan in any time and place, but the central bulge of the curve, where most folks reside, really does shift one way or the other over time. The 1970s really were wilder than the 80s (I remember both decades well), which in turn were both more liberal and more conservative than today, depending on the particular vice in question.

Whatever one thinks of the events of 2016, one vice which almost everyone agrees was much in evidence was incivility – in particular a demonization of anyone with opposing views. We tend to see the flaw primarily in those on the opposite side of any issue from ourselves, but we all see it at least there. Yet, to demonize others, we have to be pretty sure of ourselves as being on the side of the angels. For this reason, I can’t help wondering if such demonization somehow related to the so-called “narcissism epidemic,” which is also widely acknowledged as a feature of our time: see The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. We (and our compadres) are extraordinary, are we not? Counterintuitively, a search of the term “low self-esteem epidemic” turns up as many hits as “narcissism epidemic.” Perhaps this is not so strange. The effort to maintain an image of oneself as extraordinary is bound to run aground on the shoals of reality with some frequency, so perhaps the two are natural partners. If you want to test your own narcissistic tendencies by the way, a test for them can be found at A score over 20 (out of 40) indicates a need to bake some humble pie.

Of course, maybe we are extraordinary people and you’re not. The odds are against it though. Maybe this is one bell curve on which one should flee the bulge for the cautious tail. I feel a New Year’s resolution coming on: I’ll try more often to cultivate the notion that I could be wrong – including about everything in this particular blog.

Garbage – Not Your Kind of People