Friday, December 28, 2012

Stupid Movie Title

     I'm preemptively declaring the worst movie title of 2013: The Haunting in Connecticut 2: The Ghosts of Georgia.  Apparently, this is the sequel to the 2002 TV movie, A Haunting in Connecticut (despite the two films having no direct connection).  As the title of the "sequel" suggests, it takes place in Georgia, not Connecticut.  Yes, it's using the same logic as Reno 911! Miami, but without any awareness of how contradictory the title is.

Book Review: Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis

            Lunar Park is, to use an overplayed term, deceptively complex.  At once an autobiography, a ghost story, and therapy, Ellis tells the story of an edgy writer named Bret Easton Ellis who was catapulted to fame at a young age with the publication of Less Than Zero, only to come crashing back to Earth in middle age.   Bret (the character; I’ll refer to the author as Ellis) gets married to the movie star mother of his 11 year old illegitimate child and a six year daughter and moves to the suburbs to try to escape his past.  But his past comes back to haunt him, quite literally.   

            Ellis maintains the sleek writing style of his previous novels, but the tone is very different.  In his first three novels (Less than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho (I have not read Glamorama, and so will not comment on it)), the lifestyles of the privileged youth are depicted as shallow and ultimately meaningless.  While certainly depressing, the characters are in no hurry to leave that lifestyle behind, leaving the reader with the sense of the directionlessness and ennui the protagonists experience.  But Bret finds meaning and stability.  This book is about his (Ellis and Bret’s) coming to terms with maturity and responsibility and acceptance of the past.

            A particularly emotional theme running through the book is Bret’s unresolved issues with his father, and how those issues manifest themselves in his relationship with his son.  If Less Than Zero gave us a glimpse into Ellis’s world, Lunar Park gives us a glimpse into his psyche.  Over the course of the book, we see Bret grow emotionally in a way that we don’t see with any of his earlier protagonists. 

            As far as the horror goes, it was not as solid as the other genres wound into the book.  While genuinely scary at points, the horror scenes were on many occasions too bizarre to be taken seriously.  Likewise, Ellis draws out the process of reaching conclusions the reader makes pretty quickly, which throws the pacing off. 

            Overall, I’d recommend Lunar Park, especially to Ellis fans.  Lunar Park draws from previous works, both explicitly and subtly (at one point, Bret has a meeting at one Dorseah Diner) and offers a peek at the man behind the book.

     Favorite Quote: When you give up life for fiction you become a character.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Trolls and Censorship

            Anyone who spends time on the internet is familiar with trolls.  They pop up again and again, and anytime one gets taken down two more show up in its place, like a hydra with a third grade reading level and no social skills.  We have collectively accepted their incessant pestering as an inevitable part of internet culture.  But Cracked columnist John Cheese made a very good point in his article Four Easy Solutions to Problems We All Complain About: Most sites have a way to report trolls.

            Unsurprisingly, many of the comments were shouts against censorship on the internet.  There’s a difference between censoring the internet and reporting people for violating the rules of a site.  For example, I think the KKK is an odious, evil organization, but I respect its right to have a website.  I respect the right of its members to have their disgusting blogs to spew their vitriol.  But when they do that on someone else’s site, they have to follow other rules.  How about an analogy: A klan member holds a barbecue for some of his buddies, at which they shout racial slurs and generally act like complete assholes.  I don’t agree with it, but by all means that’s within their rights.  If that same klan member were to go to a crowded shopping mall and shout the same awful things, he’d get kicked out of the mall.  Replace the barbecue with the KKK's website and the mall with Youtube; it's the same premise.

            When people talk about the internet, they act like it’s one homogenous glob instead of a vast system of overlapping communities, each with its own rules.  There’s a difference between saying that members of a community should enforce the rules of that community and supporting censorship.  In regards to racism, censorship would be saying that no one could post anything racist anywhere on the internet.  John Cheese is talking about individual communities making sure users follow the community’s rules.  Censorship would be demanding that the KKK get off the internet altogether, what I’m talking about is getting people who follow their philosophy to stop spamming other sites.  They can have their barbecue, but once they start ranting in the shopping mall, they get kicked out.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Trailer Trash: Dark Skies

            Horror is hard.  You want to scare the audience, and you don’t want to go the torture porn/slasher route.  Judging by the trailer, “Dark Skies”goes for the haunted house/possession subgenre.  But don’t expect  “Dark Skies” to be the next  Shining or Exorcist.  I saw the following trailer in theaters yesterday:

            You know your horror movie is broken when the audience laughs at the previews as much as they did at the screening I attended.  What starts out as a standard (if a bit cliché) horror movie set up quickly takes a turn for the comic when Mrs. Barret (played by Felicity star Keri Russel) finds her husband (played by 1992 daytime emmy winner Josh Hamilton) standing unresponsive in the family’s backyard at night.   She approaches as J. K. Simmons’s voice-over warns them about strange behavior and loss of control.  She places her hand on her husband’s shoulder, turns to face him and sees…

            It only gets sillier from there, as moments later we see Keri Russel banging her head against a glass window with complete disinterest.

     On the bright side, it will probably be funnier than A Haunted House.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why Darth Vader Is Really the Hero

Darth Vader is the archetypal villain; even his theme song is enough to denote evil.  After all, he kills his own men and destroys innocent planets for fun.  Yet, I believe that he’s the hero of the Star Wars series.  (I’m only counting the films.  I don’t care what the extended universe says happened on Stavromula Beta or whatever, we don’t mention that here.)

Seriously, screw this.

Let’s look at the facts.  Anakin Skywalker was prophesied to restore balance to the force, but turned to the dark side and had all the Jedi except for Obi-Wan and Yoda killed.  Both of whom exiled themselves to desolate lands.  When you first meet Obi-Wan and Yoda (in the original trilogy) they seem like wizened hermits devoted to spiritualism.  It’s easy to forget that the Jedi used to have a skyscraper and an army of clones.

They take a vow of poverty, like the pope.

The Jedi were extremely powerful and, for a group that’s supposed to be operating for the sake of the light side of the force, did extremely well financially.  With their new army, is it that hard to believe that they’d convince themselves that it was okay to do bad things for good reasons and vice-versa?   Imagine if the Empire were run by a council of Jedi, instead of two Sith lords.
While most people point to Vader saving Luke as proof of his inherent goodness, that was the worst thing he could have done.  The force has the power to corrupt even the best of men, and if Vader, Palpatine, and Skywalker had died on the Death Star II, everyone who knew how to use the force would be dead.  Anakin Skywalker was supposed to bring balance to the force by killing everyone that could use it for their own means.  The same human weakness that made this drastic action necessary is what prevented him from letting his son die.
So don’t forget, Vader eliminated the Sith, and prevented Jedi control of the universe.
Truly, he was the hero the galaxy deserved.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Box: Uncanny Stories by Richard Matheson (book review)

            The Box: Uncanny Stories (originally titled Button, Button: Uncanny Stories) was released in 2008 and contains stories published between 1950 and 1970.  The name was changed to capitalize off the (then upcoming) film adaptation of the previously titular story, Button, Button. 

See The Box on Goodreads

            Button, Button is a good place to start when discussing Matheson’s short stories.  Most of his stories have a compelling “what if?” scenario behind them and end with a sort of poetic justice twist.  While reading this collection, I immediately made comparisons to The Twilight Zone.  A quick bit of research on Matheson turned up that he was a writer for The Twilight Zone.   Another comparison I’d like to mention is how some of his stories are reminiscent of the old radio program Suspense.  The stories Dying Room Only, No Such Thing as a Vampire, and Clothes Make the Man are very suited for a radio adaptation. 

            What follows is a brief (spoiler free) review of each of the twelve stories in the collection.

            Button, Button (originally published in 1970): A stranger offers a married couple $50,000 if they press a button.  However, pressing the button will kill someone they don’t know.  The real effect of this story is in the ending, which you can find for yourself.

            Girl of My Dreams (originally published in 1963): The story follows a woman who dreams future tragedies and her exploitative boyfriend.  Together, they sell the information the woman receives in her dreams to those that would be affected.  Like Button, Button, there is a definite Twilight Zone poetic justice air to this story.

            Dying Room Only (originally published in 1953):  A married couple stops at a diner in the middle of the desert, and the husband disappears.  This is more of a mystery/suspense story than a sci-fi/horror story.

            A Flourish of Strumpets (originally published in 1956): What if prostitution became a door-to-door business?  That’s the premise of this story, which leans toward the humorous.

            No Such Thing as a Vampire (originally published in 1959): A Romanian doctor’s wife starts to succumb to symptoms of vampiric assault.  The story’s prose is very melodramatic, the first sentence describing the how doctor’s wife “awoke one morning to a sense of utmost torpor.”

            Pattern for Survival (originally published in 1955): A very short story about the dreams of a writer.

            Mute (originally published in 1962): At nearly 50 pages, this is the longest story in the collection.  It follows the story of a child named Paal, who is adopted by the town’s sheriff and his wife after the boy’s parents die in a fire.  Paal cannot speak, but has some telepathic ability.

            The Creeping Terror (originally published in 1959):  Despite having the most cliché title of any story in the collection it is the most original.  It’s written as a college paper (with brief interludes of third person omniscient narration) about a historical event known as the L.A. Movement.  Not only is Los Angeles alive, but it’s spreading.  This is a humorous story, which pokes a bit of fun at Los Angeles (as an Angelino, I’m all for this).

            Shock Wave (originally published in 1963): A church organist is convinced that the organ has gained sentience.

            Clothes Make the Man (originally published in 1950): There is a man who cannot think without a hat, walk without shoes, use his hands without gloves, etc.

            The Jazz Machine (originally published in 1962):  This is the only story where the prose is worth mentioning.  Written in non-rhyming verse, The Jazz Machine is the first person narrative of a jazz musician who is approached by a man who claims that he has a machine that can translate jazz into the sentiments it is meant to express.  While I’m not a fan of beat poetry, this story is very well written.

            ‘Tis the Season to be Jelly (originally published in 1963): A slice-of-life story about mutants living in a (presumably) post-apocalyptic world.  This is probably the strangest story of the lot.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Time Machine to the Future

            There are some forces that can never coexist peacefully, that, when they meet, must play a zero sum game for power in which one will always be dominant.  The McFlys and the Tannens are such forces, drawn together again and again throughout history only so one can exert control over the other.  The Tannens were always more powerful and would have stayed so if a McFly hadn’t befriended Doc Brown who was able to retroactively aid the McFly clan.  Not only that, he went to the future to make sure that the McFlys had the upper hand in all future generations.

            Travelling across time and space in his flying train, Doc Brown aided the future generations of McFlys against the Tannens as their numbers grew.  Eventually, most of the world’s population was either a Tannen or McFly descendant, and those who weren’t had to pick sides.  There’s no way to tell how many times the final battle was fought, Doc Brown effectively rewriting any time stream in which the McFlys lost.  But eventually the brutish Tannens were vanquished and forced underground while the spritely McFlys and their allies enjoyed life on the surface during a technological golden age.  Satisfied that all was well with the world, Doc Brown flew off into the sunset.   

            Time passed, hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection changed the two societies so that those on the surface and those beneath barely resembled the men they once were let alone each other.  Eventually another time traveler arrived, in the year 802,701 A.D.   This time traveler had never heard of the McFlys and the Tannens or their war for supremacy; the traveler only saw the distant echoes of what they once were.  So he came up with his own names to describe the descendants: Eloi and Morlocks.

Friday, September 21, 2012

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

            There are a lot of strong arguments to be made against bible stories that people insist are literally true, and it's gotten a bit boring.  The believers come up with all kinds of pseudo-scientific ways to validate impossible stories, and the arguments to contradict them are predictable.  So I thought I'd come up with a new one for the story of Noah's ark, specifically how there shouldn't be any dolphins (or whales, great white sharks, etc.) if the story were true.  Let's establish a couple points first. 

1) According to the bible, the ark was 300 cubits (about 450 feet) long (Gen 6:15).  We can safely assume that Noah didn't fit two 98 foot whales on the ark, and there's no mention of any onboard aquarium.

2) God says: I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made (Gen 7:4 New International Version).  In the King James Version it's: every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the Earth.

Now, I'm no stranger to semantic rationalization.  Keen observers will focus on the use of the phrase "face of the earth," and argue that it doesn't include aquatic creatures.  This leads me to point three.

3) And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under heaven, were covered.  Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. 

So all the mountains on earth were covered.  So what? you may ask.  Well, let's do some basic geometry, finding the volume of a sphere.  (Yes, I know the Earth is not perfectly spherical, but for the point I'm going to make, this will have to do.) 

The radius I'm using (in case you want to check my math) is 20,925,524.9 feet.  To find the volume we use the formula 4/3 * pi * r^3, or four-thirds times pi time radius cubed.  The number I got was 38,381,124,220,494,286,091,421.9.  So what? you're asking, more irritably this time.  I'll tell you.  We're going to calculate the volume of water from the flood.  Go back to point three.  We're going to add the height of the highest mountain (Everest at 29,029 feet) plus 15 cubits to the radius of the Earth and find the volume.  We can then subtract one from the other to find the change in volume.  The more scientific among you will note that this does not take into account the volume of naturally existing land formations, but this is negligible in relation to the scope we're dealing with.  So, if you've done the math you should have found a difference of 160,078,848,019,995,137,560.4 cubic feet.  That's 1,087,507,504 cubic miles.  The volume of the oceans currently is approximately 321,000,000 cubic miles.  So to answer the question you're probably dying to know, (i.e. what about the gosh darn fish) the simple fact is that saltwater fish can't survive in brackish water.  Even if we accept that half of the water from the flood was saltwater from "the fountainsf of the great deep" (Gen 7:11), the water would still be so diluted that any living thing that needed salt water to survive would die. 

            "But," I imagine someone saying, "if most of the water were salt water from the fountains of the great deep, then the water wouldn't be diluted enough to kill all the saltwater fish."  That's true.  It would only kill all the freshwater fish.  But, overall, it's not really about the fish.

            It's about the plants.   

            As in, Noah didn't take any with him.

            As in, they need sunlight, carbon dioxide, and fresh water.

            As in, enough sunlight for photosynthesis can't penetrate more than about 200 feet into water.

            As in, 2,400 feet of water pressure is enough to crush a modern submarine, let alone a tree.

            As in, most plants can't survive in brackish or salt water.

            As in, all the land plants would have died by the time the floods receded.

            So if you want to believe your stories, go right ahead.  But don't try to pass them off as scientific fact. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Best of All Worlds

            There was a strange old man at the campus coffee shop nearly every day, sitting on a long-legged chair next to the window, sipping his drink and watching the students pass by.  He seemed simultaneously gleeful and crestfallen, an air of resigned happiness about him, as if he were trying to force himself to see the bright side in everything and failing.  Some people avoided him; they thought he was a creep or senile or both.  A few tried to befriend him, they’d sit at his little circular table, cup of coffee steaming in their hands.  They’d talk to him, but he’d just sit there, smile politely, with that same weary joy with which he viewed everything.  This led people to guess that he was a refugee (of some massacre or genocide or other unavoidable disaster) who couldn’t speak English.  To most of us he was a fixture, as much a part of the scenery as the tables and chairs. 

            To the best of my knowledge, I am the only person he ever spoke to.  Probably because I happened to be there at the time, but maybe not.  I would like to think that there was some reason besides proximity that caused him to open up to me, but excluding my own vanity I’m drawing a blank.

            I was sitting at the table next to his, we were back to back.  Him sipping his coffee, me trying to memorize a set of equations for Statistics.  Near the door, two freshmen were having a very loud discussion.
            “I saw a poll online,” one of them, a boy with greasy black hair, said, “That asked ‘If you had a time machine, would you kill Hitler?’  And a majority said ‘No.’ Isn’t that awful?”

            The other one, a girl with shoulder-length red hair, nodded emphatically as they walked out. 
            After they left, the old man started whispering.  He was so quiet I almost didn’t realize he had spoken at all.  I caught the tail end of his statement, something about truth and labels.  I twisted around in my chair to face him.

            “Excuse me?” I said.

            The man didn’t turn but spoke a little louder.  His voice was raspy and reminded me of rust.  I cannot say with any degree of certainty if what he said was true, but I know he believed it.  I think I do, too.
            He said:  “‘The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.  So I elect for neither label.’”  He sighed, took a sip of his coffee.  “A satirist wrote that, James Cabell.  He fell out of popularity in the 1930’s.  A critic at the time said that this was because ‘Cabell and Hitler did not inhabit the same universe.’  Perhaps.  Perhaps that would be different, too.  Cabell might have continued to be successful, and paved the way for a golden age of irony.”  He made a series of shallow rasping noises.  It took me a few moments to realize that he was chuckling.  “Would you do it?  If you suddenly found yourself in the past, would you kill Hitler?”

            I thought about it for a moment.  Before I could answer, he continued.

            “The fact that no time traveler has done so is, to many, proof that time travel will always remain impossible.  For how could any society capable of retroactively preventing such a dark patch in mankind’s history possibly choose not to do so?  Why, they ask, would they allow a fool who spent his time dabbling in the occult, who would send his forces on foot into Russia, a man who did many truly evil things, but nonetheless a man who did a poor job of leading an empire, why would they let him live?”  His voice got scratchy and wavered.  He took a sip of his coffee. When he spoke again, I realized he had no accent. 

            “What if I told you,” he said, still not facing me, maybe not even talking to me, “that time travel is real.  That in the future, we’re able to trace the entire history of mankind, from the cradle of life to the grave.  That we can change things, anything we want. That the universe can withstand paradoxes and logical fallacies, because the universe isn’t logical.”   He turned towards me, his face not much more than a foot away.  “What if I told you that, of every possible sequence of events, of every reality, this one, with its war and hatred and famine, this world is the best possible outcome?  What if I told you that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, and that I know that’s true?”

            I think that one of my greatest regrets will be that I said nothing then.  He stared at me for a long moment, looking for something.  Gratitude?  Condemnation?  Apology?  Whatever it was, I couldn’t give it to him, so he left.

            He wasn’t there the next day, or any day after that.  I tried to find someone who knew his name.  The cashier said he always paid cash, so she never got his name off a credit card.  No one knew anything.  A lot of them asked me what I knew, because word had gotten around that I was the last, and only, person he spoke to. 

            I don’t know if I believe him.  But about a week after he disappeared, the cashier showed me a bronze coin the old man had put it in the tip jar.  On the back was a picture of Hearst Castle.  On the front, below the number 2867, was a portrait of Mussolini.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Silly Hippie...

I managed to get an entire three weeks into the semester before it happened.  The professor asked the class for their opinions on the quality of a poem and, as if on cue, the girl sitting one seat to the front and left of me declared, “It’s impossible to really judge the quality of poetry.”  I’ll be generous and assume she thought this comment was beneficial to the class discussion, and not merely an attempt to announce her status as an ‘enlightened’ artist (or whatever they call themselves).  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there is no consistent, purely objective way to qualify poetry, and it would be difficult to look at John Keats and T. S. Eliot and say that one has better poetry than the other.  But is there any truth in saying that judging the quality is impossible?  Since derisive laughter doesn’t translate well to the written medium, allow me to explain why that statement is just silly.

Let’s start with the assumption that it is impossible to judge the quality of poetry.  If any two poems were to be compared, it would then necessarily be impossible to state that one is better than the other, because that would be a matter of judging quality.  Therefore, either all poetry is of equal quality or close enough to equal that the difference is impossible to judge.  If this is true, then the first man to walk into a bathroom and scrawl “Here I sit/broken-hearted/Tried to shit/but only farted” is as great a poet as any that ever lived.   But don’t take my word for it.  Try it yourselves.  First let’s look at a sonnet by Claude McKay, an African American writer of the Harlem Renaissance, writing about the fight that his people will have to endure to receive basic human dignity:

If We Must Die
    If we must die, let it not be like hogs
    Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
    While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
    Making their mock at our accursed lot.
    If we must die, O let us nobly die,
    So that our precious blood may not be shed
    In vain; then even the monsters we defy
    Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
    O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
    Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
    And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
    What though before us lies the open grave?
    Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
    Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

    Let’s compare this to Ogden Nash’s, Celery:

    Celery, raw
    Develops the jaw,
    But celery, stewed,
    Is more quietly chewed.

    I don't think I am wrong to believe that McKay's poem is better than Nash's.  While I agree that there is always uncertainty when evaluating the quality of subjective art forms, that does not mean that there is no difference in quality at all.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Literary Conspiracy

            I take my job as an amateur internet writer very seriously, which means I’ll take any interview that will score me a lot of hits.  Even, as was the case yesterday, if most of those hits are self-inflicted kicks to the skull.  I was loitering in the halls of an upscale hotel near LAX, minding my own business, when I noticed a line of people in suits carrying notepads and tape recorders was forming outside one of the suites.  With nothing better to do, I got in line. 

            I was the last person in line, and after about forty-five  minutes I found out that this was a press junket for Stephenie Meyer, talking about life after Twilight.  If my years on the internet hadn’t taught me how to control my gag reflex, this article would have had a very different ending.  I sat down in a plush leather armchair across from Meyer, the spacious suite suspiciously lacking any bodyguards, personal assistants, or anyone else for that matter.  Something seemed off.

            “So,” I said, after an awkward silence, “What’s next for an author of your stature?”

            “I’d like to do some high-concept avant-garde work.”

            “I see.”  I made a mental note to make sure ‘stature’ means what I think it does.  I was about to say something else, but then I noticed that Meyer’s head was twitching violently back and forth.  “Are you okay?” 

            A few things tipped me off that she was not okay.  The first is that she started repeating the same word over and over again.  The second is that that word was ‘Error.’  By the time sparks started flying out of her ears, I was pretty sure something was amiss.  When the sparks had stopped for long enough that I was confident she wouldn’t catch fire or explode or spawn Meyer-nano-bots, I opened the suitcase sitting next to her seat.  (It’s perfectly legal to look through someone’s stuff if you’re there when they died; it says so in the sixth amendment.)   What I found was evidence of a conspiracy so complex and far-reaching that it is almost too stupid to believe. 

            The suitcase contained all the information on ‘Literary Contingency Plan Theta.’  Which, the cover sheet informed me, was designed to ‘inspire book sales in the otherwise illiterate in a manner that will anger the more literary among the populace, prompting them to buy quality books.’  It appeared that a number of authors all wrote their own version of Twilight, and those versions were then compiled and distilled into a garbled mess, i.e., a bestseller.  I was able to retrieve brief excerpts of the various versions of the story before the Meyer-bot self-destructed.  This conspiracy goes back longer than I would have dared to imagine, and could completely rewrite literary history.  The authors mentioned hereafter will, undoubtedly, deny any involvement.

Cormac McCarthy:

            See the girl.  She sat in the back of an old car.  Thunderheads galloped through the sky above, below the fog-muted greens of the treetops rattled in the cold seawind from the west, carrying the salt laden air inland. An alien world unlike the interminable expanse of orange and gold that was Arizona.  The girl stirs.  When will we get there?  she asks.  There is a man driving, he does not turn to her when he speaks.  Another hour, or so.

            That long?

            It’s the weather.

            The hill crests before them, at the peak they can see the town under siege from the rain that has sprung up out of nowhere.

Michael Cricthon:

            “So the enzyme in your saliva is responsible,” Bella asked.

            “Exactly,” Dr. Cullen explained.  “Once in the bloodstream, the enzyme enters the DNA of the individual cells, much in the same fashion of the naturally occurring thyroid hormone, tri-iodothyronine.  The enzyme rewrites the DNA to, first of all, produce more of the enzyme.  Then it prevents the shortening of telomeres, which halts the aging process.  However, it inhibits erythropoiesis, the production or erythrocytes, better known as red blood cells.”

            “But what about your super strength?”

            “If we look at the muscle fibers we –

Thomas Pynchon:

            He held her, pressed up against an eldernly oak.  She turned her head, could see an eroded etching in the bark, made out that it said ‘Ron + Jenny Always.’  They had put that there in 1952.  Ronald Hopefalls was a sailor aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Mishap, which had anchored safely in Seattle after six months off the coast of Thailand.  Ronald had bartered for a ride south from Seattle, he traded a sterling silver pendant that he had stolen from a drunk in Bangkok.  The pendant appeared to be a meaningless series of criss-crossing metal mesh, but when a light shone through it, it cast shadows depicting various methods of fellatio depending on the angle and intensity of the light.

Bret Easton Ellis:

            I am wearing an Abercrombie and Fitch black polyester-blend tee-shirt, Hot Topic tattered denim blue jeans and black and gray Converse sneakers with white laces.   I’m trying to get to English class when I see Mike coming towards me.  I don’t want to deal with him.

            “You look really nice today,” he says.

            Please go away.


            He shuffles his feet like a moron and I know what he’s going to ask.  It’s embarrassing to watch.

            “Do you want to go to prom with me?”

            I’d rather slit open my abdomen and eat whatever comes out.

            “I’m not going.”

            He looks broken and walks away.  I should suggest a girl for him to take out, just so I won’t have to deal with how pitiful he looks.  Half the guys here have asked me out, like they think that just because I’m the new girl, I’ll drop my panties for the first nice guy that comes along.  Why not?  There’s nothing else to do in this shitstain of a town.

Ernest Hemingway:

            They thought the man had been torn apart by wild dogs.  The carcass was ragged with teethmarks.  I listened to my father relate the investigation.  They found a second body.  Now they think a man did this.  He is going to search the woods for the killer.  He told me he loves me and left.  I poured myself a drink.

Geoffrey Chaucer:

And eek sporte hadde he,

But condiciouns ther neede be.

The shoures soote  loved hem alle,

For thanne koulde folks playen balle.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Book Review: House of Leaves

            Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is proof that there are still unexplored avenues in horror and experimental literature.  Danielewski takes the old mantra of “show, don’t tell” to its extreme, sculpting the layout of the pages to show the characters’ mental states and even, occasionally, their physical location.  Alternating between agoraphobic (a single paragraph at the bottom of a page) and labyrinthine (footnotes running through the text in multiple directions), House of Leaves is an exercise in form as an integral part of story-telling. 

            It was no coincidence that I used the term labyrinthine in the previous paragraph.  Both the story and the form it takes are like a labyrinth (an analogy the author (but not the narrator) of the novel within the novel also makes); getting lost in the branching corridors of the lives of Will Navidson, Zampanó, and Johnny Truant is easy, but you will be greatly rewarded if you can find the right path. 

            If you have not read House of Leaves, you’re probably wondering what the heck I’m talking about with novels within novels and sideways footnotes.  There are three main stories in House of Leaves.  That of Johnny Truant, who found a manuscript among the belongings of the deceased blind man known only as Zampanó, the story within the novel itself, and the story of Zampanó.  The bulk of House of Leaves is comprised of Zampanó’s novel, The Navidson Record, which is written to look like a non-fiction exegesis on a fictional documentary of the same name.  It follows the story of an acclaimed photojournalist, Will Navidson, his children, and their mother, as they move into a house in Virginia and try to settle down (Navidson was never around, always documenting wars or disasters).  Navidson got grant money to make a documentary about putting down roots and becoming close as a family.  Things take a turn for the strange as they discover that the house is slightly larger on the inside than on the outside.  Then things become downright spooky as rooms start appearing including mile-long hallways and below-freezing chambers. 

In some editions, the dust-jacket is smaller than the book.

            Because The Navidson Record has taken the form of a scholarly pursuit, footnotes abound.  While not a typical manner of comedic relief (although House of Leaves is anything but typical), the criticism of film (and perhaps literary) criticism is clever, albeit a bit repetitive.  Consider the idea that scholars wrote hundreds, or even thousands, of books and articles were about the physics, symbolism, and nature of the House on Ash Tree Lane, but were either unable or unwilling to go to the house itself.  (If it seems like I’m reaching, Karen, the love of Will Navidson’s life, gets opinions on a clip from the documentary from a number of real-life authors, filmmakers, architects, critics, etc., including Derrida, the father of deconstructionism.  While all the people asked provide different answers, only Derrida is portrayed as spouting incomprehensible nonsense.)

            Among the footnotes Johnny Truant will occasionally interrupt, his life having descended, slowly, gradually, into madness.  His history and his present are mirrored and affected by The Navidson Record and those acquainted with the enigmatic Zampanó. 

            Zampanó doesn’t have his own story, so much as he informs the other stories.  We learn about him through his acquaintances, through the information Johnny digs up, and through what he puts in his novel, or more importantly, what he tries to leaves out.   Sections of crossed out material (including the previously mentioned labyrinth analogy) that Johnny included in his transcription of the novel tell us about its author.  In this way, the book examines the relationship between the author and his work. 

            The way all the storylines interact with each other can be confusing, but creates something greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s not an easy read, but House of Leaves is worth the effort.

Monday, August 27, 2012

College Field Guide: Intellectualis Pseudiforas

It’s nearly September, and that means millions of people across the nation are heading off to college, many for the first time.  There they will meet many new and exciting types of people, some of which they will, in retrospect, with they hadn’t.  I hope to adequately define a specific species of student, Intellectualis Pseudiforas, better known as the Common Pseudo-Intellectual. 

            The Pseudo-Intellectual has been observed to inhabit every college campus in the country, with high concentrations present in nearby coffee shops and book stores.  The Pseudo-Intellectual often travels alone or in small packs, occasionally gathering into large groups.  They have been known to share territory with Floralis Neohipnia (The New-Age Hippy) and Genes Excrucia (The Tortured Artist).  Some vital symbiotic relationship between these groups and others has been hypothesized, but never proven.
Famous example of Intellectualis Faux (Fake Genius)

            Unlike other members of its genus, the Pseudo-Intellectual is difficult to identify by sight, and can appear similar to species ranging from Genius Perezoso (Slacker ‘Genius’) to Phillus Xeno (‘Wannabe’ Foreigner).  The most accurate way to determine if you’ve encountered a Pseudo-Intellectual is by listening.  The Pseudo-Intellectual will often start sentences with “Did you know…” and “X said” (X being any famous author, philosopher, or historical figure), or some variation thereof. 

            The remainder of the Pseudo-Intellectual’s vocal range is almost exclusively comprised of paraphrased recitations of what a professor said earlier in the day.  As an interesting side note: the Pseudo-Intellectual and its relative Intellectualis Verdad (The True Intellectual) can best be differentiated by their calls. (The True Intellectual’s speech is often an extrapolation of recently learned information, or a connection between two previously unconnected ideas.)

            While mostly harmless, the Pseudo-Intellectual is an annoying creature and, if given attention, a persistent one.  When (there is no ‘if’) forced to interact with a Pseudo-Intellectual, the best course of action is to make yourself seem as uninterested as possible.  Once the Pseudo-Intellectual has concluded that you are not an easy source of attention, it will leave in search of another source of validation.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Breif Book Review: Dune

Frank Herbert’s Dune can be read two ways.  The first is as a story:

            With a few twists, the story behind Dune is an old one.  A noble family travels to another fief, only to fall victim to treachery resulting in the death of the father and forced exile of the son; the son must get his revenge and reclaim the throne.  Make the fief a planet named Arrakis, and add in prophecy, mystic abilities, and futuristic tech, and you’ve got the story of Paul Atreides.

The second (and I believe better) way to read this novel is as a portrait:

            Like I said, the story throughout Dune is an old one, one that will not surprise the reader too much.  But the point isn’t the plot, it’s the planet.  What Herbert attempts and (I believe) succeeds in doing, is giving us enough of an understanding of an entire world and population to be able to extrapolate and comprehend their present, past, and future.  He covers topics ranging from ecology, to theology, to military strategy, to Xenobiology.  The scope (and, I presume, intent) of this novel gives the readers more than just a window into another world: It gives them a guided tour.

            In creating a world, some things get more attention than others.  The simplicity of the characters is my biggest complaint (followed closely by the hundreds of times I had to skim through the glossary).  But the people are not the point.  They, like their culture and environs, exist to bring Arrakis to life.  Perhaps there’s something to be learned from the amount of work and detail put into bringing to life a nearly lifeless planet.

            At almost 800 pages (not including the appendices which cover ecology, history of noble families, the intent of a sacred order, and a glossary), Dune may require a bit of work.  Picking up on the lexicon of Arrakis may take some time at first, but is rewarding as you go along.  Dune also asks the reader to accept the mysticism as well as the superscience.  I am, admittedly, not a big fan of the fantasy genre, with many exceptions.  So take it with a grain of salt when I say that the mystic abilities are somewhat confusing in their limitations and uses.

            But at its heart, Dune isn’t any more about magic than it is about any one aspect of the Arrakeen society.  This novel is a portrait of an entire planet.  And it paints that portrait spectacularly.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

So You Think You Know American History?

            Did you know that George Washington wasn’t the first person to hold the office of President of the United States of America?  It’s true.  You see, Washington was elected under the Constitution, which wasn’t ratified until 1789.  Between 1781 and 1789, the government operated under the Articles of Confederation, under which a president was appointed for a single one-year term.  There were seven presidents appointed this way, the first of which was a man named John Hanson.  Not only was none of this mentioned in my American History class, but the textbook (which focused on American history from colonial times through the Civil War) never even mentioned the name John Hanson.  Not once in the entire textbook. 

            In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, there was a horticulturist named John Chapman.  He was an early conservationist, vegetarian, and Swedenborgian missionary.  Also a businessman, he planted nurseries on what was then the frontier, which, due to complexities in claim-staking law, was a big help to homesteaders.  If you were to picture John Chapman, all you’d see is an oddly dressed man dropping apple seeds into the dirt behind him as he walked.  That’s all anyone cares to remember about him.

            Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, created the Republican Elephant.  He did not, as many believe, create the Democratic Donkey, although his use of it did make it popular.  The modern image of Santa Claus was also created by Nast, despite what you’ve heard about Coca-Cola advertising campaigns.  Although, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created as part of an advertising campaign for Montgomery Ward. 

            When everyone sings “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch, they are only singing the chorus.  There are two more verses.  The tune to the Star Spangled Banner is that of  “The Anacreontic Song,” a popular drinking song developed by the Anacreon Club, a gentlemen’s club devoted to music.  The Star Spangled Banner has five verses, and includes the lines:

                        Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
                        No refuge could save the hireling and slave
                        From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave

            What you don’t know is often far more interesting than what you think you do.  There’s a reason people say ‘The truth is stranger than fiction.’

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Day at the Ad Agency

            “Yes, Mr. Holstrom.  Yes, I realize that this is unacceptable.  I’m going to rectify the situation right- Rectify.  It means to make right.  Yes, I’m sure it doesn’t mean that.  Yes, I’ll get right on it.  All right, thanks.”

            I hang up the phone, and rub my temples.  This is the third time Johnson’s fucked me over.  I open the drawer in my desk by my right knee, pull out a bottle of scotch and a glass.  I hate firing people.  I pour, drink.  Johnson’s office is down the hall, about ten yards from mine.  His office is only about eight by ten, but then again, he’s only worked here for six months.  It took me three years to get a decent sized office. 

            When I enter the room, Johnson is sitting with his feet on his desk, leaning back in his swivel chair, holding a paperback at arm’s length over his face.  I clear my throat.  Johnson looks at me without moving his head.

            “Hey,” he says, “What’s up?”

            “We need to talk,” I say, pulling from my pocket the folded up flyer Mr. Hostrom faxed to me.  “It’s serious.”

            Johnson swings his legs off the desk, and sits up straight, tossing the book behind him.  It hits the wall and some pages fall out.  I lay the flyer flat on the desk in front of him.  “Can you tell me what this is?” I say.

            Johnson looks it over, then says, “It’s the promotional flyer I designed for Mattress Mart’s sale.”

            “And do you see why Mr. Holstrom might be upset with it?”

            Johnson strokes his chin for a moment.  “No.”

            “Well, I see several.  Let’s start with the big bright red letters across the top.”

            “What about them.”

            I can’t tell if Johnson is messing with me, so I give him the benefit of the doubt.  “You don’t see it?”


            “Mattress-Side Sale.  In big red, inexplicably dripping letters, it says Mattress-Side Sale.”

            Johnson shrugs as if he has no idea what I mean.

            “Mattress-side.  Matricide.”

            He shrugs.  “Coincidence.”

            “Coincidence!  How could it be coincidence!  What the fuck does Mattress-side even mean.”

            “It means ‘the act of murdering one’s own mother.’”

            “I know that!”

            “Then why’d you ask?”

            I take a few deep breaths.  “I mean, why did you name the sale the Mattress-Side Sale.”

            “Because we have the best mattresses this side of the Mississippi.” He says.  “I promise, any homophones are coincidental.”

            “See, I have a hard time believing that.”  I point to the image beneath the title, “Could you explain this?”

            Johnson looks it over.  “I think the meaning is quite clear.”

            “So do I, which is precisely the problem.”

            The image is a line drawing of a large number of young men and middle aged women in a mattress store, all of them brandishing weapons of some kind.  Beneath that is the line: Everyone and their mother is going Psycho for our low, low prices.

            “Do you seriously expect me to believe that this has nothing to do with matricide?”

            “It has everything to do with mattress-side.  That’s the name of the sale.”

            The son of a bitch is grinning now.  “Enough,” I say.

            He shrugs.  “Fine,” he says.  “The pun is intentional.  I thought he’d like it.”

            “Why would he possibly like it?”

            “You’ve seen the commercials, always talking about prices so low that he’s got to be insane and all that.  What says crazy better than matricide?”

            I look him over carefully, trying to determine whether he’s still pulling my leg.  “Not that kind of crazy.  He’s quirky uncle crazy, not dress up like a clown and rip out your sternum crazy.”

            Johnson shrugs. “My mistake,” he says.  “I’ll do better next time.”

            I brace myself, take a deep breath.  “There won’t be a next time.  You’re fired.”

            He looks at me, actually serious for the first time so far.  “What!  Because I made one mistake!”

            “This is hardly the first mistake.”

            “Name one other.  I dare you!”

            “That Chef Spyro’s Gyro shop.  You remember that one?”

            Johnson crosses his arms over his chest.  “What about it?”

            “‘Chef Spyro will fill your mouth with his hot meat.’  And the picture was a close-up of Spyro winking.”

            Johnson snorts in derision. “So it happened one other time.  Big deal.”

            “And Bragler’s Pharmacy.  The ad just said, ‘Drugs.  Lots and lots of drugs.’”

            “It got people’s attention.”

            “It got the police department’s attention.”

            “Police are people.”

            “That’s not the point!”

            I take several deep breaths.  “The point is, you’re fired.  That’s it.”

            I stand up and start to leave, but Johnson runs around the desk and grabs my shoulder.  “Let me show you what I’ve got,” he says, clearly desperate.  “If you don’t like it, I’ll go.”

            “Fine,” I say. 

            An easel with a giant pad of sketch paper is leaned against the wall.  Johnson spreads its legs, and prepares to flip over the page.  “It’s for Rico’s Italian diner.”  He flips over the page.

            There’s are two meatballs next to each other, and a cannoli dangling below them.  The tagline says, “You’ll love our big meaty balls.”

            Johnson is smiling self-consciously.  I look at the ad again, then back to Johnson.  I turn around and start walking.  “You’re fired.” I call out over my shoulder. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Poolboy

            Times have been tough lately.  Fresh out of college, no jobs for a philosophy major in this economy.  So when my cousin Fred in Orange County offered me a job at the pool cleaning service he works for, I couldn’t say no.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t know the first thing about taking care of a pool, but if Fred can do it, it shouldn’t be too difficult.  I learned quickly enough (memorizing heater specs is nothing compared to Sartre) and was soon on my first assignment.  Fred had warned me that the customers were freaky, but I had no idea what I was in for. 

            My first job was at one o’clock, and, in typical Southern California fashion, the sun was scorching.  The house was a simple two-story family home in the middle of suburbia, green lawn, nice car, clean pool, almost the archetype of the typical suburban home.  I pulled the white pickup truck alongside the curb, grabbed the chemicals and skimmer from the bed, and went around the side of the house to the backyard.  The pool was, I roughly estimated, forty by fifteen feet, with a maximum depth of between nine and twelve feet.  It was surrounded by a gate, which is highly recommended to prevent tragic accidents.  My skimmer was already in the pool when I realized that the client (one Mrs. Benson, according to the billing information), was sunbathing on a lounge chair, on the concrete about ten feet from the pool.  She was wearing a red bikini, sunglasses and wide-brimmed hat, a bottle of suntan lotion on the ground next to the chair.  She noticed me looking at her, raised her head and smiled, waved.  I waved back. 

            She called out, “I hope you don’t mind if I watch.” 

            “Not at all,” I called back.  It’s good to see a homeowner take an active interest in their pool’s maintenance.  The surface of the water was spotted with clusters of leaves, which are best to remove before adding chemicals.  I realized soon on that watching the skimmer glide across the water was relaxing, almost hypnotic even.  I walked around the pool, the little blue net filling with soaked foliage, until I got to the filter, which I realized was directly in front of Mrs. Benson.  It was also broken, and I leant down to check it.  This got Mrs. Benson’s attention, as she propped herself up on an elbow to get a better look.  This filled me with a sense of anticipation; if I couldn’t fix the filter, with a pool-owner as astute as Mrs. Benson, I could be in for a hard time back at the office. 

            Mrs. Benson got up from the lounge chair and walked over to me, putting a hand on my shoulder.  “What seems to be the problem,” she said, kindly.

            “It looks like the filter’s broken,” I said, “It’s probably blocked at the pump, Mrs. Benson.” 

            “Please,” she said, “Call me Anne, and it hasn’t been Mrs. for months,” she smiled.

            I smiled back.  “I’ll be sure to change the billing info to ‘Miss’,” I said, looking around for the pump.  It was near the side of the house opposite from the side I entered from, so I walked over there, followed, to my surprise, by Anne.  I was sweating pretty badly by this point, and was tempted when Anne suggested I take my shirt off.  Unfortunately, I burn very easily, and the sun tan lotion by the lounge chair has a disastrously low SPF. 

            “Sooo…” Anne said as I squatted down next to the pump, “this problem with the pump.  Does it look hard?”

            “Too soon to tell,” I said, “I’m going to need to open her up and have a look inside.” 

            “Do you have a special tool for that?” she said. 

            “Sure do,” I said, reaching into one of the pockets on my khaki shorts. 

            “Can I touch it?” she asked, “Your tool I mean?”

            I stood up, and turned around.  She was rubbing her hands along the sides of her torso. “Sure,” I said, “hold out your hand.”  She placed her hand palm up about waist height, which struck me as odd as I handed her my wrench.  She looked at it, even though she was wearing sunglasses, I could tell she was squinting her eyes in confusion.  “It’s a Foreman 3/8 inch standard wrench,” I said.  She looked at me like I was an idiot, then it hit me.  “Oh!” I said, feeling like a complete fool.  I took the wrench back and started fumbling around with my shorts.  It took me a moment, but I found it and got it out. 

            The filter uses metric nuts, and there I was like an idiot with a 3/8 inch wrench.  I showed her the adjustable wrench.  “Sorry,” I said, her face still shocked by my rookie mistake, “I’m new at this.”  Fixing the pump was a piece of cake, but Anne still seemed put off by my mistake with the wrench. 

            “Sorry again,” I said.  “I’m a bit nervous, but I swear, I’m all business.”

            She seemed to respond well to my reassurances, and her face lit up with a smile. “This is your first time?” she said, stepping a little closer to me. 

            “Yeah,” I said, “There’s a big difference between practicing alone and actually doing it with someone else there.  You know, theory versus practice and all that.” 

            Anne nodded emphatically, “I know just what you mean.”  She leaned over and whispered into my ear, her breath hot and moist, “How about some practice, then?”

            I nodded.  My bucket with the chemical containers was sitting unattended and unused on the other side of the pool, and here I was chatting.  Time to put my training into practice.  Anne seemed flustered when I had finished adding in the chemicals and said my goodbyes.  In hindsight, her behavior throughout the entire ordeal had been odd.  I guess Fred was right about the customers being freaky.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Great Gatsby in 3D... Wait, what?

Unlike a lot of people I know, I have no problem when a book I like is adapted into a movie.  I don’t always think that it’s a great idea, but I like the cases where it works as a stand-alone piece of art.  That said, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to me that The Great Gatsby is being made into a major film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire.  In fact, I first heard about when I saw the trailer (I was watching MIB 3; don’t judge me), and was surprised to discover that it was being released in 3d.  This begs the question: Why?

I am not inherently opposed to the use of 3d, in fact, there are movies that undoubtedly benefited from its use, whether creating an entire world (Avatar) or going for shits and giggles (Harold & Kumar 3), and I’m actually looking forward to seeing the new Spiderman movie in 3d, because the depth would add something when the character is swinging around the tops of skyscrapers.  But what is added to the overall cinematic experience by making The Great Gatsby 3d?  It seems to make as much sense as a 3d version of Glengary Glen Ross, because it is a character based story.  I’m not given any more insight into any of the characters because of the 3d, in fact, 3d is still enough of a novelty that it would be distracting, instead of immersing me in the movie. 

But I could bitch all day about this, and nothing would happen.  Here’s what I recommend.  If you see the movie, see the 2d version.  Tell your friends to do the same.  If the 3d version isn’t as profitable, Hollywood might just get the message.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Dark Truth About "Back To The Future"

Analyses of the dark implications of Back to the Future have been done to death.  But this is the internet, and if I see a dead horse, then I’m sure as hell going to beat it.  But I want to do something more.  Most of the aforementioned analyses only refer to the first movie, but I’m going to look at the trilogy as a whole.  If we pick up immediately after Doc Brown flies off in his time-travelling train, we find the epilogue is quite…unfortunate. 

But a word about the train first.  If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the movie, you probably remember that a train smashed the Delorean, then Doc Brown showed up on a flying, time-travelling train, with his wife and kids in tow.  You might have forgotten that right after the Delorean is destroyed, Marty says, “Well, Doc.  It’s destroyed.  Just like you wanted.”  The dangers of time travel and messing with the past was a constant theme in the trilogy, and Doc Brown realized the havoc his creation could cause if it ended up in the wrong hands.  So when he comes back in a new time machine, the best case scenario is that he is a huge hypocrite. 

But let’s put that aside.  Doc Brown flies off into the sunset, and Marty goes back home.  Until he is taken away be the government.  You remember the terrorists from the first movie?  Yeah, that storyline never really got wrapped up.  In fact, their van crashes into a film development booth, which probably wouldn’t kill them.  So the police get there and arrest the terrorists.  In exchange for leniency (this was pre-9/11) they give up the name of the guy who got stole the nuclear material: Dr. Emmet Brown.  They also mention that there was a kid with him.  It wouldn’t be hard to connect Marty with Doc Brown, as even the high school principal is aware of the friendship. 

So Marty is brought in for questioning.  And he can’t adequately answer any questions about his own past, because he didn’t grow up in this timeline.  He grew up in a world where his family was timid and unsuccessful.  The events and people that populated that life occurred differently in his current reality.  If he tried to answer their questions, he’d come across as delusional.  Even if he told them about the time machine, they wouldn’t believe him.  Except…

The only reason no one knew about the Delorean is because it was kept quiet.  Between 1885, 1955, 1985, and 2015, only one person found out about it that they didn’t want to.  Because a car, even a flying one, could be easy to hide.  But a train?  It’s impossible that no one would notice a flying train.  Which, might I add, was built only with parts that existed in the late 19th century. 

So Marty would become a valuable asset to a government that now has to worry about a madman hurtling through time and space with his family in a flying locomotive.  Because Marty is the only person who has any experience with time travel at all (and is guilty of aiding and abetting Doc Brown), he would be held indefinitely and used to help capture his friend.