HARDBARNED! The Blog

Before HARDBARNED! became a book in 2016, it was a blog I began in 2008. It still is, from time to time, and you have found its home. Scroll through it all here, or browse selected posts at Medium. In case you were wondering…none of this blog content appears in the book, which is its own separate thing and mostly about working for a living. The blog is usually about pop culture-type stuff. Cheers.

Side Effects En Route To The Wonder At The World's End

So it was Depressing Double Feature Night at my place recently, where we have been temporarily inundated with a surplus of movies, first because I took advantage of a promotion for one free month of an extra Netflix disc over the holidays, and again because I had trouble with two copies of The Wolverine, so they sent me even more movies from my queue, which only seems to have grown from its usual 350 or so titles, despite my best efforts to view films and knock it down to a more manageable number.

We've been churning through them as one tends to do in times of record-setting frigid temperatures at the tail end of this random Polar Vortex, Down South.

'Tis the season for hot chocolate, flannel sheets and extra movies, depressing movies like Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects and Terrence Malick's To The Wonder, but fun movies too, like Edgar Wright's The World's End. I've also been rationing my final installments of the audio version of Joe Hill's great horror novel, NOS4A2, which I've been listening to on my ear-buds in the kitchen while cooking dinner of late.

I read and enjoyed his last novel, Horns, but this one is unputdownable, or unnotlistenable, or something along those lines, and it feels like a seasonal thing, too. I mean, it's the right time of year for a story about a monster from an icy world full of murderous child-monsters called Christmasland, isn't it?

I'm also nearing the end of J.W. Rinzler's exhaustive making-of tome, The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind The Original Film, because I'm still a Star Wars dork and cannot resist this coffee-table monster of a book despite its faint, microscopic eight-point font that gives me a neck ache every time I read it. Book tangent over.

Steven Soderbergh has always been a versatile filmmaker, able to shift between big-budget commercial fare and micro-financed art films with an easy confidence. My favorites of his include The Limey, Traffic, Haywire, Che and Solaris, and more recently, Contagion and Behind the Candelabra. His Oceans trilogy is good, popcorn fun, but I was somewhat disappointed by The Good German and The Informant!, and at least one more of his films was bloody awful to the core (Full Frontal).

He's also exec-produced a lot of good stuff that other folks directed, often for George Clooney, like Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Michael Clayton and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, not to mention Insomnia and Far From Heaven. Speaking to the Associated Press, he said that

"American movie audiences now just don't seem to be very interested in any kind of ambiguity or any kind of real complexity of character or narrative--I'm talking in large numbers, there are always some, but enough to make hits out of movies that have those qualities. I think those qualities are now being seen on television and that people who want to see stories that have those kinds of qualities are watching television." 

I agree that post-Sopranos TV is better than ever, but I hope the rumors of his retirement from the big screen are just passing thoughts between projects.

I'm always interested in what Soderbergh is up to because it's usually a safe bet that it's going to be something smart, interesting and creatively shot, with excellent actors. And I for one enjoy complex characters, narratives and ambiguity, whenever I can find them, and I know I'm not alone. Whether all those things come together in the right way every time or not, Soderbergh has earned his spot on my watch list.

In his recent film Side Effects, Rooney Mara, solid in David Fincher's Hollywood version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and more recently in Ain't Them Bodies Saints, again plays a troubled young woman, this time addicted to various medications for reasons that remain unclear for most of the film. She seeks help from an ambitious psychiatrist played by Jude Law, who may have extended his finances a bit too far and gets in over his head.

Soderbergh's tendency to helm the camera in lieu of a director of photography (he sometimes makes up an alias in the credits for the DOP) serves him well here, as the movie feels claustrophobic, a reflective melange of glass, concrete and steel that constricts its characters, each facing a steadily building pressure within the confines of prisons, mental hospitals, high rise condos or executive offices. Avoiding spoilers, I will say only that Side Effects reminded me, in a good way, of one of Edward Norton's early and memorable roles in Primal Fear (1996).

Next up that same night, we watched Terrence Malick's To The Wonder, yet another of Malick's beautiful tone poems, virtually bereft of plot or character development but chock full of gorgeous nature-based cinematography, loving gazes shot at the magic hour, sunbeams pulsing through the tops of green trees and plenty of wispy, translucent curtains. What is it with Malick and the drapes? This guy loves window dressing like Scorsese loves a hot, wet New York street.

Spoiler alert: To The Wonder records the downfall of two doomed relationships for no apparent reason. What is up with Ben Affleck's character? Who knows? Does he even have a name? We only get to see the back of his neck and his shoulder most of the time, and he never says anything anyway. Why is he so unhappy? Is it so bad having two beautiful women fall in love with you? He has a nice home, a decent job, and just can't seem to make it work. Poor guy.

Full disclosure: though I enjoyed his first two movies from the 70s, my favorite of his films by far is Malick's 1998 adaptation of James Jones' 1962 novel about his experiences at Guadalcanal during WWII, The Thin Red Line, a triumphant return to filmmaking after a 20-year hiatus. I've been dutifully watching his every film since then, all three of them, but neither The New World nor The Tree of Life nor To The Wonder moved me quite like The Thin Red Line. It's not that they aren't interesting films with Malick's typically transcendent visuals. It's not that they didn't feature excellent actors at the tops of their games.

I suspect that perhaps he has moved steadily away from an interest in character and instead pursues a feeling created by much more broad brush strokes. The script, if there even is one, is discarded as a mere general idea, and images lead the way. An American director is making foreign art films via the Hollywood system, and he is Terrence Malick. There can be only one. Of course I will watch everything he does, plot or no plot.

On a lighter note, for quite some time, I had looked forward to the third installment of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's unofficial comic genre trilogy, which began with Shaun of the Dead (zombies), continued with Hot Fuzz (buddy cops), and concluded with The World's End (pints and killer robot aliens). I knew from the trailer that five old friends and their epic 20-year anniversary pub crawl would be interrupted by an alien robopocalypse.

I knew from the history of this filmmaking team that there would be plenty of great bit players, droll humor and one-liners. What I didn't expect was...well...Rosamund Pike. She was a nice addition, along with all the other familiar faces from The Hobbit, Harry Brown, The Bourne Ultimatum, Sherlock Holmes, etc. Despite a lack of surprises, The World's End was a lot of fun. I'd like the dream team of Pegg, Wright (and of course the great Nick Frost) to continue to make comedic action genre films of every kind. How about a western?

The Place Beyond The Wolverine

Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (2010) is to divorce what Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000) is to drug abuse: not an easy film to watch, but a painfully moving work of fiction grounded in profound truths, a movie you are happier to have seen than you may be inclined to revisit again.

A genuine depiction of a doomed relationship's arc, Blue Valentine follows the first tentative sparks of attraction to the blissful heights of joy, through the agonizing decline and the ultimate heartbreaking implosion of a partnership. Cianfrance noted in this interview that as a young man of 21 years, he had sought to process his parents' divorce through his work, and the real emotion his screenplay is built on remains evident.

The movie spent nearly 13 years in gestation with something like 56 script revisions, considerable input and improvisational work from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams and a cinema verite, documentary-style camera that allows viewers to achieve fly-on-the-wall status and watch things unravel as if they are present in the room. Cianfrance's spare, unflashy movie hinges almost entirely on the magnetic chemistry and intense performances of its two stars. Though the romance genre rarely tops my must-see list, I was impressed with Blue Valentine.

Thus, I was eagerly anticipating Cianfrance's next film, The Place Beyond The Pines (2012). The trailer revealed an excellent cast in what appeared to be a gritty indie crime drama pairing Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper as two ambitious young men on opposing sides of the law, both with infant sons, money issues and problems with authority.

As an admirer of Michael Mann's cops and robbers classic Heat (1995) and awareness of Cianfrance's knack for well-developed characters, I was excited by what appeared evident by the trailer: a great rivalry played out in epic fashion between two strong leads with an effective balance of dramatic interplay, action set pieces and the compelling passions, similarities and differences that compel the two men into conflict.

But the trailer lied. Gosling is the lead for the first third of the movie, and Cooper takes over for the second, and then a couple kids become the focus of the film in a series of transitional protagonists that is at first jarring yet eventually becomes predictable and a little after-school specialish. Kudos to Cianfrance for shaking up expectations, but my hopes of Gosling and Cooper building a rivalry were squashed, as they share the screen for all of two seconds, maybe less. Not allowing these two talents to interact more leaves this viewer feeling somewhat burgled.

All actors were strong, particularly those in smaller parts, like Ben Mendelsohn as Robin, a kindly mechanic with a crooked idea for making some quick cash; Eva Mendes as a mother reaping the trouble sewn by her child's father, and Dane DeHaan as yet another troubled teen, but perhaps Cianfrance had too many ingredients for something brilliant that just couldn't be squeezed into what seemed like a brief 140 minutes.

Maybe, like World War Z, it was miniseries-worthy material that was pretty good when compressed into feature film length, but if given the time to stretch, could have been great. The Place Beyond The Pines felt shortchanged, condensed and restricted by its running time, but it remains worthy of a look.

So did the latest outing of that angry dude with sideburns and steel claws. Let's see...in the trailer...doesn't he fight a bad guy on a train? Does anyone not fight bad guys on top of speeding trains anymore? You really have to hand it to the charming, multi-talented, singing, dancing, acting man, Hugh Jackman. He called up The Rock (yes, Dwayne Johnson this time) for advice on bulking up to mantacular, Huge JackedMan size and thus commenced eating 6,000 calories a day of chicken, steak and brown rice, achieving his own exacting standard for what the Wolverine should look like.

According to IMDB, Jackman's sixth appearance as the ripped, scowling, usually invulnerable, adamantium-beskeletoned hero (James Mangold's The Wolverine, a 2013 sequel to 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, AKA X3) is the Wolvie outing in which Jackman says he finally had enough time to get into the kind of shape he felt would best showcase everybody's favorite hairy, cigar-chomping mutant. Maybe I have a problem. I liked X3. My buddy Andrew, who loves Wolverine more than anyone, thinks I'm a fool for that. Sorry Drew. I was entertained.

It's not like I don't have high standards for movies, but maybe it's just that I lower them too much for superhero fare. I am not looking for much other than a decent story, some decent acting, some grounding in the comics and some decent action. Is that so wrong? Should I have higher standards for superhero movies?

It's not like there are that many standouts. I have delved into this before, but I it seems appropriate to mention my favorite superhero movies here again. Don't worry. My list is short: Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and Chris Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012) are my favorites. Of course they aren't perfect, but they're my gold standard for superhero movies.

Aside from those four, most others feel like the usual popcorn entertainment. The first Iron Man (2008) is also a favorite of mine, but as much as I have loved comics over my lifetime (and I love The Wolverine's source material, Frank Miller and Chris Claremont's 1982 series on the character), I just don't expect dizzying heights of greatness from movies about comic book heroes. I look forward to them as much as anyone else, but this way I'm disappointed less.

I almost always give these (superhero) films three of the five possible stars on the Netflix scale, as I'm pretty much guaranteed to "like" them, which doesn't mean I "really like" or "love" them (4 and 5 star criteria). I guess this is a bad time to mention that I also enjoyed the first solo Wolverine flick, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), which so many people got all bent out of shape about.

So what if I don't remember anything except that this movie was about Wolverine; he was a lumberjack; and he didn't get along with his brother Sabretooth, who was played by Liev Schreiber (who is always good)? What else is there to know? It was entertaining enough. A solid three stars. Sorry again, Drew. I know you expect more from your superhero flicks and wanted more from this one too.

So I was bummed when I heard that Darren Aronofsky, one of my favorite directors, had resigned from directing The Wolverine after considerable time in development. I thought he might bring a welcome bit of darker weirdness into Marvel's PG-13 land of MPAA appeasement and perhaps even drag Logan into deep, R-rated territory where he belongs.

And speaking of Aronofsky, Jackman and the rare romance film that sinks its claws into me, I loved The Fountain (2006), an overlooked gem of Aronofsky's, if you ask me. Mr. Jackman and Rachel Weisz, the director's ex-wife, both shine in this sci-fi-tinged modern/historical drama about the tree of life and multiple versions of doomed lovers across time and space. And so Aronofsky's weirdness was not destined to rub off on our latest installment of the slicey, dicey adventures of Adamantium Man.

That's okay. They got the guy who directed Cop Land (1997) to do it, and Mr. Mangold did a fine job. It was better than the origins tale, even though it got a little Looney Tunes toward the end, and I wasn't quite sure if Logan's new girlfriend was quite half his age or even old enough to have a boyfriend yet. Ah well. Jackman has the chops to make us believe in a compelling character, whatever is thrown at him, or whomever he throws off whatever balcony. I look forward to the Wolverine's seventh adventure, wherever his claws should lead him. Here's to ya, bub. Let's see what Aronofsky does with Noah...

Joe Satriani, Gay Marriage and The Rock

When I was but a wee lad, I went flying in a blue dream and never quite made it back. Before my voice changed, I was introduced to the music of Joe Satriani, (AKA Satch), the custom Ibanez-slinging instrumental guitar hero who taught the other custom Ibanez-wielding wankster, Frank Zappa acolyte and David Lee Roth/Whitesnake alumnus, Steve Vai.

Satch also taught Metallica's lead shredder, Kirk Hammett, Primus's guitarist Larry LaLonde and Testament's Alex Scholnick, as well many other prominent and lessor-known fretboard freaks. He has unleashed a steady stream of (mostly) instrumental, solo-artist guitar rock since maxing out his credit cards to record Not of This Earth (1986), an album featuring one of my favorite tracks, Driving at Night."

Over the last few years, Joe has also moonlighted in the "supergroup" known as Chickenfoot, handling guitar duties among friends Chad Smith, Michael Anthony and Sammy Hagar. As I kid, of course I wished I could play like Joe, but as Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel put it on a Satch VHS tape I once owned, "you can't be jealous of something you can't fathom."

Nigel was right. Unquestionably a master of his instrument, Joe has always seemed like a gentleman who stayed true to his art while rock music rolled through one trend after another, and although he sued them, I doubt even Coldplay would ever have accused Satch of being a "savage twit."

After Not of This Earth, I collected every Satch album through The Extremist (1992), and I haven't kept up with the majority of the last quarter-century-plus of music he has released, but Joe's late-80s to early 90s back catalog remains a guilt-free pleasure that I have been revisiting more often of late. I don't believe in guilty pleasures anyway. Sure, some of Satch's music is considered by many to be pretty damn cheesy, and I get that. If you've never heard Joe before, give him a chance. Embrace the cheese.

Instrumental solo guitar showmanship, though it has sold its share of records, has never been front and center in the musical mainstream. It's certainly not "cool" for a lot of people who consider themselves "serious" rock fans and frown on solo artists who excel at their instruments and are happy to demonstrate it.

These folks only listen to bands with "messages" that speak to them for one reason or another. While I'm a fan of plenty of "serious bands" and also enjoy dark, thoughtful lyrics paired with spare, minimal musical arrangements too, I still dig me some Satch.

I once had a very restrictive set of rules confining my music listening. As a teenager, certain bands were cool. Other bands were not acceptable. For that brief, excessively judgmental time, I only succeeded in limiting my own potential enjoyment of a wider variety of musical genres.

However, like a lot of teenage phases, including the stupid haircut that involved shaving the sides of my head and letting the rest of my thick, wavy hair grow long and hang over one eye; or wearing necklaces with miniature, bejeweled, pewter sword pendants and plaid pajama pants tucked into combat boots, I grew out of it and learned to embrace variety.

Who cares if you enjoy songs by Minor Threat, Enya, Metallica, Tina Turner, John Denver, Operation Ivy, Slayer, John Coltrane, Kathleen Edwards, Fishbone, Doomriders, Old 97s, Florence and The Machine, Queensryche, Fugazi, Marvin Gaye, Rancid, P-funk, Iron Maiden, John McCutcheon, Joan Jett, Shania Twain, Joe Satriani, Neurosis, Crooked Fingers and Billy Joel? I do too.

Put them all on one playlist if you like. Collect a ton of music and hit shuffle. You might hear something you haven't heard in years, and variety is a good thing. Don't get stuck in a rut of what's cool and what's not. Try something new. Well, old, I guess.

Or you could get crazy and check out something on the radio. I tried that and failed today, riding in someone else's car and hearing only Maroon 5 and Korn, but don't let my failure to hear something awesome deter you! Don't fear what you're not familiar with. You might discover something great and even learn from it. Nobody is keeping track of what is cool or uncool about your personal selection of tunes, and if they are, tell them to get bent. Your music collection is your own. Be bold!

And another thing. Just because you like a song or two doesn't mean you have to worship an artist's whole freaking discography. In the late 90s, when music became downloadable, at the first whispering death knell of the compact disc, purists decried the demise of the album; of course they had done this before at the onset of the cassette and again when CDs had first arrived on the scene.

Rock music, they pleaded, was designed to be experienced as an album, not as a song here, a song there, a radio hit here, a movie soundtrack tune there. The purists argued that The Rock (not Dwayne Johnson) was being ruined by easy access to "singles," or the ease of buying single tracks from albums on iTunes or elsewhere...instead of being forced to buy the whole set of 10 or 12 songs, light candles, put the player on repeat, pour a glass of vino tinto and snuggle under a blanket to memorize the lyrics.

Though the single predated it, the vinyl LP ushered in an era of the album's dominance. The large-format art, the full track listing, the lyrics, the photos, the liner notes. The whole experience. The boomer generation, raised on vinyl LPs, led the charge against the bastardization of the album format and pointed the finger at iTunes and its competitors who had enabled a music consumer to pick and choose individual tracks for purchase.

The purists were offended, I think. "Real fans" would only be interested in an entire album, and people who only listened to the radio, only cared about hits and didn't do the serious music fan homework of digging deep and getting to know an album like an old friend were somehow cheapening everyone else's engagement with music.

But these purists seemed to miss the fact that singles had been around for a long time, since the original prevalence of 45s, and hasn't music been there for us all to enjoy in our own ways from the beginning anyway? We just have a greater variety of means for which to do so today. Who is making the rules for this stuff anyway?

Listen to what you want to listen to in whatever format or frequency our outfit you prefer. I won't feel threatened or as though my preferences have been rendered illegitimate by your insistence on listening to your favorite Korn singles and B-sides on your Granddad's record player, between selected Gordon Lightfoot selections of AM gold. Have fun and more power to you. I prefer Gordon to Korn, but you didn't ask my opinion, did you?

For a time, I was guilty of this narrow, juvenile musical mindset, but aren't we all like this for a while in junior high? Looking back, my cool/not cool music concerns of decades past seems silly and reminds me of arguments I have heard against gay marriage. Maybe this is a stretch, dear reader, but bear with me. It's just a blog post, so I can take this all over the map, right? Just check out this post's title, right?

Consider a straight man arguing that a gay couple's right to marry somehow impacts his own marriage in a negative way, that it somehow makes his own marriage less legitimate. He may describe a gay person's right to marry as a "threat" to his own.

Yes, elected officials in America have actually made this argument in public. I have never understood this position, perhaps because it has no basis in logic whatsoever. How could someone else's marriage threaten yours? What does someone else's lifestyle choice have to do with yours? How could anyone else's choices have anything to do with yours, from marriage to music and from your choice of living room furniture to what kind of Chinese food you prefer?

Sorry, I may be losing some of you here with this tangent, but my point is that who cares if someone wants to buy only hit radio singles via iTunes? How does that choice impede your enjoyment of full-length albums on the couch as you read liner notes and sip that red wine? Why is everyone so worried about how other people live their lives?

Okay, let's circle back around again, fans of the absurd blogging randomness that is HARDBARNED. Thanks for hanging in there, all three of you. So yeah, Joe Satriani. He's been on my mind lately because he actually came to town. I finally got to see him play guitar, live. A buddy and I went to the show and grabbed a couple beers at a snooty bar on the way, barely convincing the server to acknowledge our existence before we got up and left.

We made it to the auditorium and secured a couple more beers, only to face gay jokes in line from married couples significantly older than us because hey, people apparently bring their wives to Joe Satriani shows, not their buddies; people still make lame gay jokes, and let's face it: there was no way in hell that either of us was going to convince our wives to go see Joe Satriani with us.

My buddy is 40 and I'm not far behind, but we were by far the youngest people at the show. Anyway, we had a blast. Steve Morse opened and honestly bored me with his shred. The guy can play, but it just seemed more like wank than rock to me. No offense, Steve. You have mad skills. But Joe owned the show. An entire section of the balcony was empty, and my friend and I were able to leave our cramped seats between older married couples tapping their toes and seize the best seats in the house to pump our fists in the air and bang our heads with adolescent abandon.

The rock was on, and at full blast. We grinned from ear to ear and approached the stage toward the end of the show until we were pushed back by big dudes in STAFF shirts. They actually were polite but firm. Joe's music soared upon a lithe, melodic, emotional wave of sunny tunes, reminding me of teenage summers spent with boomboxes outdoors, John Cusack kicking the shit out of the heavy bag in Say Anything and the reason I still dig me some Satch today.

Sure, nostalgia is a part of it, but I like most of his new record, Unstoppable Momentum, quite a bit. Satch is one of a very few musical artists I enjoy whose music actually sounds happy and really makes me feel happy. For some reason, a lot of music I like is sad, dark, depressing, lonely, angry or generally misanthropic. For me, maybe listening to a little Joe Satriani once in a while is soothing, like letting a warm light into a room that often stays pretty satchurated with darkness. Ha. Lame joke.

Please forgive me, and go embrace a little slice of Satch cheese. It'll do you good.

My Beard is Better Than a Sandwich

Last weekend I was enjoying a cold, delightful, batch-limited Yazoo 10-Year Anniversary White India Pale Ale with my lovely wife and two friends when I overheard an unavoidable conversation at the next table.

A group of young men and women were rising from their seats and moving toward the door while engaged in an animated discussion on the joy of sandwiches. Any sandwiches. It didn't seem to matter where these sandwiches were found or what their components may have been been. It didn't sound as though the group was debating favorites or listing the merits of particulars.

It was as though they were enthralled by the general concept of the sandwich itself, and, arriving at the unspoken, collective agreement that they should depart immediately in pursuit of said sandwiches--any sandwiches--they stood and headed in our direction.

Moved to respond due to their enthusiasm, proximity and my own agreement with their rather rudimentary yet undeniable conclusion, as they passed by I offered, "I like sandwiches!" With a friendly smile, a young lady in the group then seized my shoulder and shouted in my face, "your BEARD is better than a sandwich!"

What could I say but thank you? I've had quite a few comments on my beard, like the guy on the hiking trail the next day who said "that is one solid beard, man" as we passed on the ridge, or "awesome beard, dude, I mean really" uttered by a passing student on the street, or whatever that one person said--whoever got me started on the whole Ben Kenobi Halloween costume idea three years ago--when he or she noticed my beard and noted my apparent Obi-Wan potential.

Not everyone loves a big gnarly beard, though I've never been stopped on the street for beard-based insults. Anti-beard folks usually just look away quickly and avoid eye (or beard) contact. No one has referred to my beard as "luxuriant" thus far, as the Pirate Captain's beard is so often described in Gideon Defoe's brilliant book The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists. That's okay.

This assertion of beard over sandwich is my favorite interjection from a random stranger (on the topic of my beard) yet, and it will be difficult to improve upon. And still, I remain unworthy off all this beard praise, in a bearderific city among so many beardtastic, competitive beards cultivated well beyond my mere amateur mane.

I have been approached by more than one member of the Metropolitan Pogonotrophy Society, a beard and mustache club full of friendly dudes with opulent facial hair who compete with other friendly dudes with opulent facial hair for Best Beard trophies and accolades. One fellow approached me at a beer festival, handed me the society's card and disappeared without a word. While I am indeed flattered by these hirsute gentlemen and honored by their kindly appeals, I have never been much of a club-joining dude.

Also, I must reiterate that my beard is by no means worthy of the epic hair that encases the faces of this award-winning society of the bearded. Though my beard has expanded its girth and steadily accumulated more Gandalfian gray, I've had it for most of the last several years, and I'm seeing a lot more beards around of late. We must be in the midst of some sort of woolly beardaissance. What once flourished on the well-coiffed chins of eras long past now appears to be roaring back with a curly vengeance. There is even a world championship.

Some folks refer to bearded young men as hipsters. But what is a hipster, really? According to Boston-based writer Luke O'Neil, it's okay to be a hipster. I have never self-identified as a hipster, and I don't feel very hip, but looking at O'Neil's criteria, I find myself doing a double-take.

Am I really "culturally reviled?" I hope not; however, in addition to my beard, I have tattoos, a decades-long interest in underground rock music and a 20-year-old Volvo. I drink local craft beers poured from 64-ounce growlers (no glass or aluminum to trash or recycle), and though my jeans are not tight, I do tend to wear hoodies and old sneakers pretty often. Do these tendencies make me a hipster?

All of this depends on who is writing the definitions. For example, I only do exactly one of the 28 things on Charlotte Green's list of supposed "signs you're a hipster," which O'Neil links to in his article. That would be her number three. Yes, I judge people for bad driving. Guilty. You got me there. But the other things on her list? Nope, Charlotte. That's not me.

I guess a hipster is only a hipster in the eye of the person who scrunches up his or her face and yells/thinks/mumbles/shrieks/snarls "hipster!" while pointing and jumping on one foot. Well, I like what I like. And in solidarity with O'Neil, I feel no need to apologize. Call me what you will. Hipster or not, my beard is better than a sandwich. And shaving still sucks.

Nine Inch Nails and "The Greatest Rock Show Ever"

A good friend of mine works live sound gigs for various artists--mostly country and sometimes rock acts--but he's rarely lucky enough to work for artists whose music he would purchase and enjoy on his own. He's definitely not a big country fan and is more of a rock and roll dude. He's not much into Nine Inch Nails (NIN), either, but he saw them perform recently and told me it was the best rock show he had ever seen.

Wait a minute. Nine Inch Nails? The one-man electro-industrial band with a revolving door of hired hands? The angry young man (now 40-something) with his synthesizer, his drum machine, his metal riffs, his atmospheric noise, his whiny teen-angst diary lyrics and his suicidal tendencies that were big in the 90s? Yep. That guy.

Despite Tipper Gore's best efforts, I bought Trent Reznor's first two NIN records about a quarter-century ago in actual record stores, still enjoy revisiting them once in a great while and have admired his more recent film scores, but I stopped listening to NIN a long time ago. Like many of us, Reznor is no longer quite so young and in general seems a lot less angry. We have that in common too. Now he could be called the well-adjusted middle-aged husband and father who is still quite creative but considerably less suicidal...NIN guy. Still, this was one hell of a compliment.

Best. Rock. Show. Ever? High praise indeed. Deserving of investigation, I thought. A few days after his declaration, my buddy sent me this article about the intricate light and video production on the new NIN tour and how it's "a decade ahead of its time," citing the column as evidence in his still adamant proclamation on this apparent pinnacle of rock shows. I remained intrigued and typed Nine Inch Nails into my iTunes window for the first time in years, finding the same two records I'd once owned on actual compact discs. It's been fun to get re-acquainted with them.

I picked up Pretty Hate Machine in 1989 and Broken in 1992 but never had another NIN record. Between those two records (and the ages of 13 and 16), I discovered punk rock, and not long after Broken came out, I was too interested in whatever Fugazi and Jawbreaker and other indie bands were doing to bother much with NIN, my favorite grunge and metal bands or anything else that was spinning on commercial radio.

Still, there was a brief period in those intervening years when I was involved in local theatre, had parts in a couple of plays and hung out with other teenage actor-wannabes. Through these kids I discovered bands like Depeche Mode and NIN, and for a while they held my attention. Reznor's music sounded innovative and unique when I first heard it.

Sure, bands like Skinny Puppy, Ministry and the Butthole Surfers were already around, blazing industrial and electronic noise-rock trails, but they were barely on my radar in 1989, and plenty of other underground bands I'd never heard of were creatively melding electronic and industrial music with elements of rock and metal to create heavy, dark new music that sounded dangerous, even threatening, but NIN pushed the genre into the mainstream before I turned my back on the radio. 

Years later I drove another friend--a talented musician and audio engineer--to the airport early one morning because he was headed to New Orleans to intern with Mr. Reznor. I don't think the internship lasted very long, but I never heard much about what it was like or why it didn't work out. Both my friend and Reznor had a reputation for being difficult to work with, but a lot of artists are unfairly tagged with that label. It's easy to pass on a rumor without knowing someone or having any personal interaction. Both are still doing pretty well in the music business. 

After reading (in the article linked to above) about NIN's new live show, with it's multiple translucent video screens, complex, choreographed lighting system, custom software and hardware to run it all on and innovations on all sorts of technological levels, I have a couple different reactions. At first, it sounds like a very entertaining show, and I respect Reznor for wanting his audience to get their money's worth. I should have checked it out. I trust my friend's opinion too, and it makes me wish I'd gone with him, but it hadn't really occurred to me to go see NIN in a hockey arena.

There are very few bands that get me fired up enough to watch them on a jumbotron from the opposite end of a stadium after buying crazy-expensive tickets and Budweisers that cost as much as a twelve-pack, but it sounds like NIN should have made the short list, even though I'd been mostly oblivious to their output for 21 years. But...I've always preferred a more intimate connection with a band. I like to stand up near a stage and feel like some actual interaction is happening.

Of course that's impossible with bands as huge as Iron Maiden or NIN because too many people want to see them, and little club shows never happen. Thus, my point--whining about smaller venues, audience participation, a real connection and communication between the people on and off stage--is mostly irrelevant here. After all, Maiden manages some pretty good audience interaction on some of the world's biggest stages, but they are exceptional.

Enough about Maiden. Historically I have always preferred smaller-scale, even minimalist rock shows. What does a rock show need? Is anything really necessary besides musicians, instruments and sound equipment? The best shows I can remember had little else: just extreme focus between well-practiced bandmates that manage to elevate previously recorded material to great heights, solely with unspoken communication, dynamic intensity and a desire to put the song before all other considerations.

The best live rock act I have ever seen was Fugazi. I only saw them twice, but they made an incredible impression. Maybe someday we'll all be lucky enough to see them reunite. I don't think a band needs a fancy light show, a bunch of video walls and jumbotrons, pyrotechnics, 3D landscaped backgrounds or giant laser-eyed monsters, but I guess there's a time and a place for each of those things. It's all part of how a band chooses to express itself.

As much as I tend to prefer the simplicity of a band on stage without distractions, there are always exceptions. Maybe I'll catch NIN on their next pass through town and see what the Greatest Rock Show of All Time is like. Sounds hard to live up to, doesn't it?

Remember the wee 3" CD that came with the deluxe edition of Broken? It was tough to find a player that could spin that one, but Broken sounded heavy as hell, darker than Pretty Hate Machine, and it still does. I'm not sure why I lost interest after that record. Maybe it was partially due to my silly teenage policy of rejecting almost any popular radio music after discovering underground rock.

Maybe I was less into electronic instruments and more focused on guitars and real drum kits. Maybe I was distancing myself from the obsessed theatre kids I had once hung out with and the goth kids who looked like vampires with panty hose for sleeves. Probably it was some combination of all those factors, but all of a sudden I'm curious about Mr. Reznor's discography between 1992 and 2013 and will likely give those 21 years of music a bit of a listen after wrapping up this post and checking out this. I doubt I'll be converted into a super-fan, but I may well have missed something pretty good, somewhere in there.

Killer Whales? Only in Captivity.

At 74 years of age, Rick O'Barry, who in the 1960s helped capture and train several wild dolphins (five of whom portrayed Flipper in the popular TV show starring the friendly dolphin) remains a highly motivated activist. After several years of working with captive dolphins, he experienced a change of heart and has been on a mission to protect them from humans ever since.

Kathy, a favorite dolphin of O'Barry's who had most often "acted" as Flipper, failed to surface for air one day and died in his arms. Convinced that the intelligent, compassionate creature he had grown to love and respect had intentionally killed herself, O'Barry redirected his life toward helping dolphins and ending their wild capture, containment and exploitation. In 1970, he started the Dolphin Project, an effort to educate the public about captive marine mammals and their collective plight. I only wish I had learned about it sooner.

I saw the Oscar-winning film The Cove (2009), a documentary about the routine capture and slaughter of wild dolphins in Taiji, Japan, as soon as it was available. It hardly seems like four years ago because the images are impossible to shake.

Already a leading dolphin advocate after decades championing the cause, O'Barry was featured in the film, which set the eyes of the world on the horrifying practice of forcibly corralling wild dolphins into a cove where they are separated from their families (or pods) and stabbed and bludgeoned to death--their toxic, mercury-laden flesh sold in markets and to school systems--survivors sold into slavery to live out their lives in captivity doing clown tricks for tourists around the globe in places like SeaWorld.

Over the last few years, I read several of Tim Zimmerman's fascinating investigative articles for Outside magazine on captive orcas and the related deaths of several trainers and I, like many others, was angry. Of course it is a horrible tragedy when a trainer or anyone else is killed by an animal, but more of this is sure to come. It seems only logical to assume that an intelligent, sociable, wild animal, kidnapped from his close-knit family in the open sea and forced daily to perform for handouts in a tiny pool would at some point show signs of psychosis and begin to lash out at his captors.

I shared Zimmerman's articles with friends and family and donated to O'Barry's Save Japan Dolphins, but my armchair activism stopped there. Gabriela Cowperthwaite read Zimmerman's articles and had a similar reaction, but she decided to stand up and actually do something about it. She made a film. I watched it last night.

Blackfish centers on the plight of one orca known as Tilikum, from his capture in the wild, his training at SeaWorld, his involvement in the deaths of several people, to his continuing use as a stud to father many generations of orcas. As a former SeaWorld trainer points out in the film, the first rule of animal breeding is not to breed animals deemed dangerous to humans, as their aggressive behaviors could be expected to transfer to younger generations. This doesn't seem to bother SeaWorld.

Remarkably, as both O'Barry and an orca researcher in Blackfish point out, not once--not ever--has an orca been documented as having attacked a human being in the wild. Only in theme parks has an orca ever truly earned its other name--Killer Whale. 

Though Cowperthwaite made many attempts to convince SeaWorld to participate in her film and offer their side of the story, they declined and then condemned the film publicly, sending a detailed takedown to 50 film critics on the eve of its release. Cowperthwaite and her producers responded in a point-by-point rebuttal viewable at Indiewire here.

A petition was headed for the White House, urging the president to outlaw the capture of wild orcas in American waters, which, according to O'Barry's Earth Island Institute, has not occurred in U.S. waters for 20 years, but it did not garner enough signatures.

Wild capture should never be allowed to happen again, but a petition is only a start. Whaling continues in some otherwise advanced cultures, despite international agreements. Surely, as one former trainer points out in Blackfish, in 50 years we will look back on these interactions with intelligent marine mammals as both barbaric and stupid. We'll learn and teach about these magnificent creatures without enslaving and exploiting them. 

I went to SeaWorld once with my Dad. I was a kid. I didn't fully realize the implications then, but I remember feeling sorry for the huge whales stuck in the small pools. Even so, it seemed pretty cool at the time; I was swept into the excitement and the drama of the choreographed show. Maybe I didn't know any better. Maybe I should have studied harder before listening to the story I was sold at SeaWorld: that orcas and dolphins lived longer, happier lives in captivity doing tricks for handouts, separated from their families and forced into a life of servitude with animals who were strangers to them. Bullshit.

In wild pods, near companions with whom they share close relationships, sophisticated communication and nuanced emotional expressiveness, orcas live vastly different lives from those trapped in pools for show. Of course orcas have no natural predators in the wild and live more than twice, even three times as long as they do in captivity, traveling great distances in social, multi-generational family groups, singing complex songs as they travel far and wide together.

SeaWorld was once a highlight of my youthful travels, but I won't be back. I remain fascinated by everything and anything that lives in the sea, particularly sharks and large marine mammals like whales and dolphins, but I will not support SeaWorld or any other "park" that contains highly sociable, intelligent, far-roaming wild animals in comparatively tiny pools, forcing them to do tricks to entertain ticket-buyers and would-be purchasers of T-shirts and stuffed animals. I suppose we'll continue this exploitation until people stop buying tickets and conclude that marine mammals deserve not just our applause but also our respect.

Camping and the Cold November River

As I have written here (fondly) and here (tangentially), for most of two decades I've looked forward to an annual camping trip with four high school buddies. This year, our 16th trip, was no exception. I love these guys and rarely see any of them more than once a year, as we live in different cities or states and have our own busy lives to attend to, but despite everyone's growing list of responsibilities, our tradition remains valued and intact. When I mention the trip and its longevity, people often tell me how they wish they had some kind of regular gathering with old friends like this. I'd recommend it.

Gradually, we've been leaving later in the season every year, which offers several advantages. Maybe older, grumpier, better-insulated men are less sensitive to cold weather? Maybe it's too cold to swim, but it's also too cold for mosquitoes, yellow jackets and hornets. I've seen a few copperhead snakes out there, but never in the colder months. I saw a black bear near our spot once, but only once in 16 years, and he was running away. It's too cold to worry about ice or ice transport, a labor-intensive detriment to this revered annual trip. I think our transition from summer to fall tradition is almost complete.

Our regular camp spot, a wide clearing between the river and the trail, is surrounded by a thick canopy of tall trees that offers some protection from sun or rain in the summer or a lovely panoramic view in the fall. Enhanced by the bare trees, wide-angle views up and down the lazy path the water carves just below the site are no longer obscured by the now vivid leaves that carpet the forest floor.

At this time of year, one can gaze along entire lengths of the newly exposed, steep, vast ridges towering above either side of the camp. Having grown accustomed to late summer visits when things were still green and not yet in decay, I was struck by the beauty of the space--the extended views, the fall colors, differing bird sounds and scents--as if it were all new to me. Plenty of firewood is always available to collect from every direction, and an exercise opportunity is provided by gathering, chopping and sorting it before we surround the pit for the nightly flames cultivated for light, heat, cooking and camaraderie.

Paddling miles down a river and camping wherever we happen to call it a day instead of staying in one spot, sans boats, is another sort of trip I enjoy but not one that I often embark upon with this group. We have done so only once in these 16 years. Though we often seem intrigued by the idea of mixing up our tradition with new adventures, ultimately we have decided (in 15 of 16 cases) to reconvene at our old favorite spot and relax in our fond, familiar forest. I guess when it comes down to deciding if we're going to branch out and try something new, the old spot's appeal is hard to deny. 

If the November air is cold, the water will always be colder, so I didn't mind avoiding the boats this time. October, the latest month of the year in which I've set forth on a river trip, is also the only month in which I've ever capsized a canoe. A buddy was fishing from the front of our boat, lost some expensive tackle and with it, for a time, his sense of humor. Luckily it returned because he's a pretty funny guy. 

While I love canoe camping, I love our old traditional campsite too. It's always a comforting place to return to. This year's highlights included two meals cooked over fire: spicy chipotle pepper steak fajitas and spicy chorizo sausages with Mexican rice, all sizzling irresistibly over the open flames. I know I had at least one serving of vegetables all weekend when I drank that wee can of V8, but let's face it; nobody is making salads out there. What could be better than a weekend around the fire with good food, great friends, magnificent nature and a few cold beers that require no ice? Not much if you ask me.

Asian Breakfast, an Exploding Wok and My Meez

Usually on weekends, when I have a little extra time on my hands and a welcome interest in leftovers to revisit throughout the coming week, I do not go to Denny's for the Grand Slam Breakfast. I like throwing stuff in a wok or pot, albeit somewhat haphazardly, to see what happens. This is the sign of a lazy, no-talent hack. A hungry hack with a wok who occasionally comes up with edible piles of tasty stuff. Not a saute, line or even a prep cook. Certainly not a culinary artist and obviously not a chef.

But I enjoy cooking, and sometimes the results surprise me. As a fan of strong, hoppy, bitter beers and the spicy, savory foods that pair well with them, I tend to regularly traverse a few well-worn flavor paths, often employing excessive amounts of garlic, hot chilis, Thai and Indian spices, oil and onion, which I always dice finely and reduce into my sauce/flavor bases because I never enjoy big bites of onion. Some people do. Some people like Bud Light, too.

Occasionally I attempt new meal improvisations sans recipes, some that prove to be great successes, many that fail to impress, and a few that embody the very nature of kitchen failure itself. This pattern and success rate is analogous to my year of homebrewing beer as well, but that's a topic for another post. I thought it might be fun to revisit a few kitchen experiments, both triumphs and failures alike.

I devised a barley-vegetable-turkey sausage-bean soup the other day, and it won a soup-making contest at the office. My chili at least placed in last year's chili contest, but I learned how to make that from a buddy years ago, added a few flourishes of my own and never make it exactly the same way twice. I never claimed to be a chef or even a cook. I tend to learn something that works in the kitchen and gradually tweak it over a few years, experimenting with a little of this and a little of that but usually staying well within my comfort zone.

A real chef is trained, prepared, disciplined, knowledgeable, talented and innovative. His mise-en-place is always in place and impeccable. Though I may share a chef's appreciation for the mise en place and often maintain my own mise when cooking at home, I cannot claim much solidarity with the true kitchen professional, one who inevitably has the right tools and knows the history, science and methodology as well as he or she knows the knife scars on his or her hands. Anthony Bourdain describes the mise concept perfectly in his classic memoir Kitchen Confidential:

"Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not fuck with a line cook’s ‘meez’—meaning his setup, his carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, backups, and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system…The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for backup."

I have worked several restaurant kitchen stints in my time, mostly doing prep work or manning the fry station (if I wasn't washing dishes, bussing tables or serving). Early on, I too learned the importance of the meez, though the term didn't come along with my introduction to the concept. I was simply expected to keep my station neat and tidy, with plenty of whatever I needed, prepped and ready to go, clean, fresh and within reach, along with the requisite moist towel, typically hung from the apron strings around my waist.

I'm clearly an amateur, but I like my mise. Though I no longer face the pressures of a commercial kitchen, my mise approach remains intact. I like the prep work and enjoy having whatever I need, perfectly chopped, sliced, diced, melted or ground, to toss into the wok or various pots and pans at a moment's notice. I love stir fry but realize that despite the mise and ingredients, I'm doing it wrong from the get-go. I mean, who uses a non-stick wok?

Guilty. It's been a great wok, and I've gotten a lot of use out of it (thanks Mom!), but I know it's not what a real purist of the Asian kitchen arts would use, and the more serious I get about actually learning what the hell I should be doing in the kitchen, instead of just throwing things at the wok to see what will stick (not much thanks to Calphalon), the more I realize I probably need to invest in some equipment upgrades, after I get around to actually reading a couple of Asian-style cookbooks.

Read cookbooks, I say? Who reads cookbooks? For me it's never too tempting to reach for a cookbook when I hit the shelf for my next read, but an old friend who happens to be a great cook once told me that if you're not ready to read cookbooks cover-to-cover, trying to absorb their essence like a great novel, you're not ready to learn how to really cook. Most people just use them to look up recipes, do their best to improvise without them or simply avoid the whole messy enterprise of cooking.

Very few people I know ascribe to the cookbook-as-novel, literary consideration of the genre. I'm usually the improviser, rarely taking the time to even consult a recipe but realizing that if I aspire to advance my kitchen skills--and I do--I need to hit the books. And maybe get a new wok. Have you ever seen someone on a travel show (or in real life) cooking in a restaurant or on the street in Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Thailand, India or Laos with a non-stick wok? Me neither. They're always huge, steel and sizzling with fire.

Real Asian stir fry demands very high temperatures and a fast touch. One needs to create textures by actually searing ingredients, which is difficult, but not entirely impossible, with non-stick cookware, an invention that seems rather American--a cooking receptacle with a built-in insurance policy--a way to not totally fuck up the food that you most likely don't have any business trying to make in the first place, no matter how hard you try to burn the living shit out of it. Because you--yeah, you, the one with the non-stick wok--are most likely a lazy, no-talent hack, like me. From one hack to another, you, sir, with the non-stick wok, are no chef.

Don't do what I did a few years ago when my non-stick wok was new. I was experimenting again, but that's how we learn sometimes, right? I'd had the wok for a little while, and it had worked well, as far as I could tell, but the searing textures I mentioned just weren't happening. I knew I was doing something wrong. I hadn't even begun to suspect the wok at this point. I figured it was most likely my own lack of skill.

I picked up a book called The Cuisines of Asia, by someone named Jennifer Brennan, who didn't sound very Asian but seemed to know what she was writing about. I had some lean beef I had cut into long, thin strips after tenderizing them and applying a dry rub of seasonings. I had read what Brennan wrote about the importance of stir-frying with intense heat in order to achieve the requisite searing of the meats and veggies I would be including. Brennan emphasized, along with the heat, the quick rotation involved in the cooking action, the desire to maintain almost constant motion of the food against the interior of the wok, pausing only momentarily to achieve the perfect sear.

Reading Brennan, I knew I was onto something. I knew I lacked the elusive sear, and maybe the lack of high heat was the culprit. I started my usual flavor base with oil, garlic and onion, but this time, because I was using red meat, I added worchestershire and soy sauces to the mix. I cranked the heat until my bubbling brown base was basically boiling and approached the stove with my steak strips. In one smooth motion, I slid the cutlets from my board into the cauldron, and SPLOSH! The whole thing literally exploded from the stove top.

Amateur night in my kitchen had achieved its towering apotheosis of idiocy. Have you ever flicked drops of water from your fingers onto the surface of hot oil in a pan? It sizzles and pops. Multiply this reaction by a factor of 500 or so, and you will get an idea of the unintentionally improvised explosive device I had created from what was intended to be dinner. We spent the next few days sponging up, and in some cases painting over, the widely scattered, oily brown splashes of sauce on the kitchen walls, floors, cabinets and ceiling, as well as the bathroom door (adjacent to the stove) and bathroom wall, floor and ceiling. My apron was a mess, but I avoided the scalding oil in my face, somehow. Smooth move, kitchen hack.

I gave up on the high-heat Brennan style of stir fry with my wok and now play to its strengths, trying to brown and nearly sear things with medium-high instead of high heat and with more time instead of attempting any more flash-frying. Once and a while, when throwing things at my wok, I hit on something worth replicating.

Though bacon and eggs are neither what one often thinks of when imagining stir-fry ingredients nor regular residents of our refrigerator, something made me decide to grab some when last we hit the supermarket. Was it a craving? A hankering? Had a pork and dairy poltergeist seized upon my impressionable Sunday afternoon mind, already in an admittedly ill-advised and compromised state--shopping while hungry? Or in the immortal words of TIME-Life's Mysteries of The Unknown, was it something MUCH MORE THAN THAT? I was out of control, shopping off the list, grabbing things that looked good, meat, dairy, processed, whatever.

It all looked good, but it didn't make me feel any better. Who wants to be stuck shopping in a crowded place full of other depressed people dreading Monday morning, surrounded by shelves full of food you can't eat until you get home? Like the guy in The Clash song "Lost In The Supermarket," I could no longer shop happily. I had to have some bacon and eggs. I had to get home and make some Asian Breakfast. Right after I grab those two frozen pizzas and some cans of chili stuff because it is officially chili season, is it not?

So yeah, Asian Breakfast, the true Breakfast of Champions. People, I will attest that Wheaties in a bowl with milk is no Breakfast of Champions. It's more like something you sprinkle on top of a real breakfast, isn't it? Cereal is the breakfast of those who have been bludgeoned into submission by their jobs and no longer care about breakfast, especially at 6:30 in the morning. I know because I eat it all week. The weekend demands a better breakfast, does it not? You have the time. Make it count. Why Asian? Well, it's Asian-style cooking, I suppose. It's basically a stir-fry. A stir fry breakfast? What is wrong with you, dude, you may be asking yourself.

Well, consider it briefly. If you're like me, you aren't that hungry most weekday mornings. You stumble out of bed earlier than you'd prefer and either force yourself to eat something because you know you need calories, or you get by on something less than a meal, like coffee and a bagel. I never developed a taste for coffee, and though I like bagels, they aren't refrigerator regulars around here. I get tired of cereal sometimes, and it feels like a real treat to have something hearty and flavorful for a late-morning weekend breakfast.

So how do I do I this? Here's how: Cook a cup of rice. I prefer long grain Basmati. Scramble four eggs and set them aside. Prepare eight slices of crispy bacon and chop them up. Cook a cup or two of peas or green beans and carrots. Concoct a flavor base of olive or peanut oil with a diced onion, several diced garlic cloves and some spicy Thai peppers. Fry the rice in the flavor base with generous additions of soy sauce. Add the veggies, eggs and bacon. Add a bit of salt and pepper and whatever seasonings sound good to you. Stir to fry, but be careful not to let it explode in your face. Enjoy. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Asian Breakfast.

Try it. You'll like it.

The Counselor Sinks Faster Than Gravity

This weekend I visited an old friend, a film junkie like me who is always eager to share his stack of restaurant gift cards and free passes to the movies. Thanks pal! Without planning it, we ended up at the theater twice in two days, which is highly unusual, as I only go out to see films a few times a year anymore. Two other friends had insisted that Gravity must be seen on the big screen, and of course I wanted to see Cormac McCarthy's first screenplay, The Counselor, brought to life by Ridley Scott and his talented cast, despite Adrian McKinty's script takedown (spoilers ahead). 

For most of my life and until a few years ago, I had always loved going to the movies, seeing art-house films, indie festival fare, blockbuster popcorn, genre flicks, foreign cinema, classics, documentaries and even shorts, but, like what happened to David Edelstein (one of my favorite critics) recently, the people who always end up sitting near me have driven me from the theater. You know how it is. 

You show up and the theater is deserted. Nobody wants to see the movie you've had your eye on for weeks, or so it seems. Your movie, perhaps a critically acclaimed box-office flop, is barely hanging onto the bottom of the Fandango listings and might show once or twice a day at some inconvenient time like 2:45. You pick a primo seat and claim it as your own, relaxing comfortably near the center of the row, near the back in the revamped, reclining stadium seats with retractable armrests. You note the comfortable chair but resist the temptation to let the back of your head touch the cloth headrest. You can't believe your luck. Everyone else is seeing that much more popular animated movie about talking owls and their quest to save the flying baby elephants, or whatever.

But...you can hear the soundtrack from this film, playing in the next theater over with the far-more dominant audio system booming through the wall. It must be funny too because people are shrieking over there. Soon enough the curtains part and you're greeted by an unknown toothpaste salesman doing his best Ryan Seacrest who wants to tell you about the newest episodes of yet another teenage vampire television drama, as well as the social networking capabilities of the computer screen installed in the newest model of Ford Fiesta. You suffer through this insulting advertising loop while being reminded every few minutes of what you've just been hammered over the head with. 

Don't forget not to text and drive! Candy. The Ford Fiesta can transcribe your text messages as you dictate them while you focus on the road. It will simultaneously bring you showtimes from see-a-movie-dot-com, send your text messages and post status updates for all your friends. OMG! Coke sounds great when you pour it in THX surround, doesn't it? Will hunky wolf Skylar and sexy vamp Brianna overcome their cross-species romance/heartache? Tune in next week on this TV channel. Don't forget nachos. Did we mention those nachos in the lobby? Buy them. And the car. Check out this new dance-pop-hip-rock-electro-spin single from some pop princess diva with lots of deep thoughts, while you wait, but we'll be back in 30 seconds with more crap to shovel into your brain at 300 decibels. Have a Coke. Did you catch all that? We'll repeat it in 25 seconds. Popcorn. Vampires. Coke. Ford. Coke. Coke. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh.

This doesn't always happen. Before you even get to the green screen and actual movie trailers, sometimes you get grainy local commercials for dentists, hair salons and auto-body shops instead of (or in addition to) Mr. Toothpaste and his merry-go-round of commercial bullshit. Remember the good old days when movies didn't have commercials? Just a few trailers and then you were off to movie-land. Now it's a half-hour of this garbage followed by another half-hour of trailers. It probably won't be long before we'll suffer through an intermission filled with commercials every five minutes throughout the movie. You make it through all of this and people start filling up your perfectly empty little theater, just as the credits start to roll. They creep up the aisle and sit nearby. Then their glowing cell phones come out. It's all downhill from there. 

I like to be transported by a film, and it's hard for that to happen when people are chattering, telephoning, texting and twittering. So, more often than not, my theater seat is the couch, next to my lovely wife, in our wee apartment with a not-so-wee TV set. We make our popcorn on the stove and pause for pee breaks or to talk about what's happening onscreen. We have our own beverages of choice and a control of our own climate. And we spend a lot less.

That said, on occasion, usually at odd times selected to avoid the crowds and provided I don't have a David Edelstein-style experience, I love seeing a highly-anticipated movie on the giant screen. The Counselor was a mixed bag. I wanted to like it a lot more than I did. I loved Cormack McCarthy's books No Country For Old Men and The Road and thought both movies were also great. His Blood Meridian is a brutal, relentless masterpiece that will indeed be difficult to adapt. The chase scene culminating in a home-made batch of gunpowder remains indelibly burned into my brain, but Blood Meridian has the same problem that McCarthy's first story written directly for the screen, The Counselor, has.

There is no central character to become attached to, to empathize with, to endure alongside and suffer through with because he or she is a protagonist who is not all good or all bad or even finely nuanced necessarily but absolutely human and simply well-rendered, with heart enough to be worthy of a reader or viewer's emotional investment. What makes this person tick is not spelled out in excessive detail and yet this protagonist--Llewelyn in No Country, the nameless Man in The Road--is drawn with flourishes of humanity such that one cannot help but cheer him along and identify with his struggle.

The Counselor, boasting a bevy of swaggering A-listers at the top of their games, just never connects. It's all procedural, and Ridley Scott deserves plenty of credit for plowing artfully through all those requisite, well-tread procedures that Soderbergh covered thoroughly in Traffic--the drug selling, drug buying, drug shipping, drug dealing, drug warring, drug mess cleaning and all the drug fallout. The movie looks as great as everyone in it, but the procedure train never lingered long enough for me to get attached to any of the players or to truly care much about their inevitable implosions.

There are some great lines of McCarthy dialog, delivered mostly by great character actors in supporting roles--the diamond expert, the cartel lawyer, the chop-shop foreman--Rosie Perez, Bruno Ganz, Fernando Cayo and John Leguizamo steal brief scenes from the big stars. As the esteemed Mr. McKinty pointed out, some of The Counselor's weakest lines, like "you don't know someone until you know what they want" or "the truth has no temperature" are reserved for its biggest stars. Michael Fassbender's performance, as usual, was admirable and intense, but everyone else seems like a gossamer caricature, strutting lithely through scenes as though they are as many costume fittings. Everyone looks great and sounds great but says little and means less.

Despite her comedic talents, I did not buy Carmen Diaz as a humorless, comically overdrawn femme-fatale. Though the reliably excellent Javier Bardem has a couple of interesting moments, he is given precious little more to do than is his lovely wife, Penelope Cruz, who barely flirts with the movie from the periphery. Brad Pitt's advice-dispensing Westray, after being presented as a tempered, wizened, wary old veteran of the game makes such an obvious, catastrophic mistake while on the run for his life that I was left wondering if someone else had taken over for McCarthy and written the end of the movie for him.

Though Mr. Pitt survived the zombie hordes in WWZ, his slick cowboy was no match whatsoever for Carmen Diaz's evil cheetah lady. I avoid the torture-porn genre, but Pitt's death is one of the most horrific and memorable scenes of recent cinematic memory, and The Counselor is one of its most crushing downers, even if you don't care much about the characters.

Though we found ourselves firmly on the same page with The Counselor, my learned movie-addict friend and I disagreed almost completely over Gravity. We often gripe about the excessive use of computer graphic (CG) imagery in film, but perhaps my tolerance exceeds his. Of course, just about everything in Gravity other than Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and Ed Harris' disembodied voice is comprised of CG, so I might have expected my old friend to be upset. However, I suspect that our differing reactions came down to our ability to suspend our disbelief.

Maybe all the physics don't add up. Maybe there were too many battles with space junk. Maybe the Russians would've been kind enough to ask if we had any astronauts in orbit before launching a fucking missile to destroy a satellite and thus creating an orbital storm of space shrapnel, but none of that really mattered when I was watching the movie. I found Bullock so compelling and the simulated weightlessness that Mr. Cuaron had ingeniously created so thoroughly convincing that I was right there with Dr. Ryan from the beginning. Holding my breath with her, holding out hope, voting for optimism and for life and all the precious things in it that we all hold so dear. Wait a second. I'm not eating cheeseballs, I swear. And I'm only on my first Yazoo 10th Anniversary White IPA of the evening. 

Maybe I have made a change in the last several years. I have moved a little bit toward optimism and a little bit away from pessimism. It's not a seismic paradigm shift; I'm still the same old realist. I just watch a little less of the heaviest drama and let a little more humor in. I'm still drawn to the dark and the heavy, but I make more of an effort to watch comedy and probably see fewer documentaries. Laughter is good medicine, but so is optimism. As negative as I can get, life is better with a regular dose of both. I love exploration in the face of extreme danger, true-life adventures and survival stories, and I had no problem suspending my disbelief.

Maybe there were too many CG-things floating about in the space-station cabins, as my friend pointed out, and maybe survival was improbable and unrealistic, but I cared about Dr. Ryan and wanted her to live. I admired the simplicity of the story, something akin to man versus nature (a favorite literary trope of mine) only this time it was woman versus the unforgiving vacuum of outer space, and there was no filler, just a difficult mission, a severe environment and an epic, personal challenge for a someone that seemed real and worthy of my emotional investment.

And at least at this showing, nobody was texting.

The Office Is Closed

So I realize I'm a little late to the wake for one of America's all-time-favorite television shows, but as many of you know, I cannot participate in the usual water-cooler conversations as they occur. I choose to wait for the TV shows I enjoy to show up on Netflix discs and gradually get through them, sans commercials and at my own pace, between movie viewings, reading, my weekly gaming night, and however else I fill my evenings.

I know the series finale aired on NBC in May, but I just finished the final season of The Office last night. I'm saving the gag reel and other behind-the-scenes extras for later, but my lovely wife and I are finished with nine seasons of a show we will definitely miss. We don't watch many TV shows, and precious few of them are guaranteed to make us laugh out loud like The Office always has. I'm sure all of you are well ahead of me and have already moved on to watch some other show that's really funny that I haven't even started, but just in case any of you are taking longer than I did to complete the series, here be spoilers, Office fans!

Ratings took a dive when Steve Carell left after seven seasons. Though the writing stumbled a bit in his absence, and despite the general consensus of the critics, I still found the show funny and engaging, even without its most compelling character, the bumbling but endearing Michael Scott. Perhaps the show's legacy would be more powerful if it had ended with Michael's departure, but I enjoyed season eight's new dynamic, which gave other comic talents time to shine.

Soon after Carell's departure, Rainn Wilson was more than ready to seize the spotlight as perhaps my most favorite sitcom character ever, the black-belted, trans-am-driving, security obsessed paper salesman/beet farmer/building owner and eventual branch manager--Dwight Schrute. Ed Helms had already established Andy Bernard as a another worthy, reality-challenged member of the regular ensemble. I've always liked James Spader, so the introduction of his despicable Robert California was at least interesting, even if his addition (and that of the corporate lackey Gabe) seemed incongruous with the rest of the cast, taking things to a darker, creepier place.

Season nine provided extra screen time for characters like Erin, Darryl, Angela and Oscar, and while I can understand why viewers bailed on the show when the focus shifted, I'm glad I stuck around. I was invested in all the characters and wanted to know how things would end up, but more importantly, I was still laughing. I'm not sure why Andy Bernard became meaner and stupider in this final season, but his American Idol-skewering adventure was good for laughs, as was his stint acting in safety videos.

The Ryan/Kelli reunion was appropriate and satisfying, and the buildup between Dwight and Angela unfolded brilliantly. What felt a little half-baked and awkward was the return of Michael Scott, little more than a cameo consisting of a "that's what she said" joke and a funny line about kids "growing up and marrying each other." Michael, and perhaps Steve, seemed distant and uncomfortable. It would have been much more satisfying to have seen more of Michael in the series finale, but maybe this was due to Carell's availability. We'll take what we can get, though.

Everyone knows that Jim and Pam are the emotional core of the series, and my one significant criticism falls on season nine's Jim/Pam storyline, which was based on a career conflict that I just never bought. The two characters were simply too smart and too committed to each other to have considered severing their bond or sacrificing such a great opportunity and surely would have simply moved to Philadelphia when Jim landed his new gig.

Pam never explained why she wanted to stay in Scranton, and the reasons for moving were obvious. The "possible breakup" drama just seemed contrived. By the end of the season, it almost seemed that Jenna Fischer slipped a little of herself into her character (Pam) in the last episode, when she apologized to the camera during one of her last "confessional" bits, owning up to her character's tendency to take too long to make important decisions and the irrationality of denying Jim his dream job for...her paper sales job in Scranton?

It almost felt like the writers were apologizing for trying to sell us on the unlikely drama between the poster couple of the show, a storyline that they perhaps knew all along was unrealistic. That said, I still enjoyed myself all the way to the end and tolerated the requisite emotional moments without even considering a vomit bag. In fact, I can't wait to watch the deleted scenes and all those extras.

The Office managed to do justice to the excellent UK original, creating a parallel cast across the pond with obvious links to its predecessor, yet the US version soon carved its own path, long outlasting the UK version's brief two-season run, building unique, well-developed characters through long arcs that were believable, often heartfelt, regularly wacky and nearly always entertaining.

Though some seasons proved funnier than others, The Office could be simultaneously absurd and ridiculous, touching and hilarious, combining an occasional dark or nasty streak with a strong emotional undercurrent, each tone complementing the other, a balancing act that allowed for realistic critique of soul-sucking office work and its accompanying boredom, dissatisfaction and disillusionment with an underlying optimism that the UK original never had the time or perhaps the intention to cultivate. Concluding the entire series with Dwight and Angela's wedding was a masterstroke. That's what she said.

McDonald's, McDeath, and Yes I Want Fries With That

Mmmm...fries

I've done my share of bagging on McDonald's. It's the punching bag of the fast-food industry, isn't it? It's fun to punch, right? It's old news that this stuff is bad for you, but that won't stop many of us from condemning the clown's house of burgers with one side of our mouths while cramming the other side with his delicious fries.

I harbor no delusions when it comes to the world's largest purveyor of scientifically formulated, meticulously marketed, franchised frankenfood, and thus I usually refer to McDonald's as McDeath. Eat enough of what McDeath is selling and your waistline will expand as surely as your lifespan will contract. Yes, there are plenty of rational reasons to rage against the company's practices and avoid everything on the menu, but I will freely admit that once and a while it really hits the spot. It's made to be tasty and satisfying. Salt, sugar, syrup, corn and fat, when combined with the right chemical flavorings, textures and mouthfeel will definitely do the trick, and chances are, there's a McDeath open near you, right now.

Food chemists are working nonstop in scientific research labs, worldwide, to ensure maximum taste satisfaction for the masses, and McDeath sits at the vanguard. Due to its overwhelming ubiquity, when first you think of fast food, McDeath and its golden arches will appear in your brain, a distinctive crimson and gold flag--looming, beckoning, an affordable port in your personal hunger storm, a siren's sexy song singing sweetly of milkshakes, apple pies and salted carbs. Why not just drive though? You may not admit it in polite company, but you know you want those fries.

Considering whether to drive through is one thing, but if and when you read much of anything about fast food, you will likely be reading about McDeath. In something like 120 countries with around 1.7 million employees working a McJob, serving about 68 million customers EVERY DAY via 34,000 restaurants or so, McDeath is by far the fattest fast-food elephant in the room.

If you read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of The All-American Meal (2001), you'll learn much about McDeath's poverty wage supporting, union-busting, unpaid overtime requiring, worker exploiting shenanigans and quite a lot of other scary facts about the actual food-like substances that are created in McDeath's labs and chemically combobulated to be irresistible. Pink slime with a side of bone paste, anyone? Mechanically separated chicken parts and sugar water, anyone? Tasty! You'll learn of McDeath's even scarier livestock farms and (scariest!) livestock processing plants, though they have improved some since Schlosser's reporting with the help of people like Temple Grandin.

Schlosser wasn't alone, of course. Morgan Spurlock put the twin arches in the crosshairs with his film Super Size Me (2004), by living on a steady McDeath diet for three meals a day, 30 days in a row, measuring his impending doom with a series of regular doctor appointments between Hamburglar visits. McDeath has been on the defensive ever since, quietly extracting the term "super size" from its menu options in the wake of Spurlock's film and desperately trying to manage the fallout by offering "healthier" options ever since, like carrots or apple slices in Happy Meals, sandwich "wraps," melon slices or fancier salads. In some locations, they're even replacing Happy Meal toys with books.

They're still trying to get even healthier, though this really is a losing battle, isn't it? Nobody goes to McDeath to eat salads with a side of melon slices, do they? That's like ordering a grilled cheese sandwich at a Chinese restaurant. Why? If you want something healthy, why would you go to a fast-food joint in the first place? You wouldn't. If you really like salads and know anything about them, you'd know that McDeath's salads suck, and you'd go somewhere else.

If you read this recent report on fast-food television advertising from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a respected nonprofit health improvement organization, you will learn of McDeath's ongoing and determined target-marketing of children, despite Ronald's public signing of an industry-wide pledge not to do so. Burger King was the first runner-up, but the gap between the two was considerable (70 percent versus 29 percent of the total offending ads). Wendy's, Krystal, White Castle, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Chick-fill-A, Arby's, Hardee's, Popeye's, Bojangle's and KFC didn't even make the list. Clearly, McDeath's child-selling technique is unparalleled in the industry.

So McDeath is still targeting children with their ads after promising not to, convincing another generation of kids to grow up loving the garbage-passing-for-food that they sell, when a lot of kids live in urban areas where fresh produce is about as common as flying monkeys, and more and more young people are stricken with obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and hypertension every year, setting them on a spiraling path toward heart disease, stroke and early death.

More than a third of American adults are already obese, but it's not all McDeath's fault, is it? They're just one part of the problem, right? They just sell a hell of a lot of this stuff to a hell of a lot of people. But why can't they just admit that what they sell is garbage and advise people to eat it less often? Wouldn't that help? They'd still sell plenty of fries. I'd still buy them occasionally on road trips.

Maybe McDeath should consider the truth-in-marketing path of the Heart Attack Grill, a restaurant featuring the "quadruple bypass burger," where patrons weighing over 350 pounds eat for free, where guests are given a hospital gown/bib before eating, where two restaurant spokespersons have actually died on the premises from heart attacks, where employees and customers alike are literally dropping like flies, where they advertise that "the food is bad for you, it will kill you...and you should stay away from it..[other chains] are in nutritional denial." Call it a gimmick, which of course it is, but I think this truth in advertising approach is refreshing. McDeath and the other big chains should follow suit and just tell it like it is. Some chronic abusers of McFood might even listen if McDeath just came right out with it:

Look folks, we sell crap, and you really should not eat it. Just go ahead and avoid regular consumption of this stuff unless you want to get fat, sick, ugly and die young...But once in a great while, stop by, because it tastes really good and maybe you're on a road trip or your judgment is temporarily impaired. It's damn convenient, and fast...usually...but nobody should eat this garbage on a regular basis. Trust us.

This approach is not one that McDeath has ever been comfortable with. They get all squirmy about the simple reality that fast food is junk food, but why not just admit it and quit "trying to trick kids" as one bold nine-year old girl put it, serving the smack-down to the McDeath suits at their annual shareholder meeting earlier this year? Why not engage in a real dialog with employees like Nancy Salgado, a McDeath veteran and single mom living in Chicago who still makes $8 and change per hour after a decade with the company and can barely afford to feed her kids? When she stood up at a ballroom meeting to ask why her pay was still so pathetic, she was ignored and taken away.

McDeath USA President Jeff Stratton responded by saying only "I've been there 40 years." Gee, that helped, Jeff. Maybe you could invite Ms. Salgado to one of your fancy offices to chat, or at least acknowledge the existence of the Fight For 15, a Chicago-based movement currently underway to provide fast food workers with a living wage and the opportunity to unionize without fear of retaliation. Ask Nancy to tell you about how and why taxpayers pay $7 Billion a year to support struggling fast food workers who can't afford to live without public assistance programs. Tell her how you're going to help make this right with the help of your company's annual revenues, which, if one believes Wikipedia, are just south of $30 Billion. You know it can be done, Jeff. The golden arches should be leading by example, treating their employees better than anyone else and motivating other chains to make positive changes.

Unfortunately, the gates of the golden arches just don't open wide for criticism. Their marketing and PR machines pummel and deflect these little shots of truth like Luke Skywalker dodging blaster shots with a lightsaber. McDeath might even sue you if you trash-talk them in the UK. If you watch the documentary McLibel (2005), you'll have a few more reasons to jump on the McDeath hatewagon.

Yet there are still reasons to love McDeath, aren't there? Plenty of us obviously do. Well, let's see...there are those fries. They're pretty damn good, right? Some people don't just love McDeath. They adore it. They create their own food challenges based on the menu and their desire to eat all of it or at least far too much of it. Kids in Korea and Japan have made international news of late for loving those fries so much that they were thrown out of the restaurant. A Wisconsin man loves McDeath so much that he got an early start on his bucket list by making what he dubbed a McEverything sandwich, which consisted of every sandwich on the lunch and breakfast menus. It took him a week or so to eat it, but he was quite pleased. A woman in Florida gave birth at McDeath and decided to nickname her child Ronald. Maybe she was just kidding.

So, in the immortal words of the double rainbow guy, what does it mean? Collectively, are we eating more or less McDeath than ever before? The New York Times wrote that McDeath "came back bigger than ever" last year, but just last week the Wall Street Journal claimed that we are losing our taste for McDeath. So which is it?

McDeath is a blue-chip, SMP-500 company, so perhaps its fortunes will always fluctuate with the market, but I think it is destined to remain an ingrained presence in the lives of its 68 million daily customers around the world and in the lives of however many million of the rest of us who stop by occasionally for those delicious fries and perhaps feel a twinge of guilt. We'll keep stopping by once and a while, but those who make a living at McDeath deserve a living wage and the right to organize, just like the rest of us. Are you listening, Jeff?

I know the question you're just dying to ask: What if Satan and Hitler opened a McDonald's in Hell? Luckily, Wired has your answer, with photos!

And why do we keep eating McDeath despite all this knowledge? Jim Gaffigan pretty much nails it right here.

Anti-Social Media and The Untechnologist

You could call me a grumpy old man. A sometime untechnologist. A late-if-ever adopter. An unrepentant but selective Luddite. An occasional technoprimitivist. A "Rebel Against The Future," or my favorite, the Real Slime.

grumpy.jpg

Yes, you could call me all of those things, but you wouldn't have it quite right. I'm all for new technology, but sometimes it just takes me a while to decide whether I actually need it. I usually let other folks work the kinks out of the newest must-have technological advancement for at least a few years. The iPod had been available for nine years before I got one. I still get entire catalogs full of unnecessary electronic gadgets in the mail. I like reading about new tech, and I was an early adopter, once--of HD-DVD. What is HD-DVD, you ask? Exactly. See photo of the soon-useless brick I bought, above. Early adoption clearly has its risks. Beta-Max, anyone?

But whether you're adopting something "early" or not is all about your personal perspective. I have friends that still haven't jumped on the blu-ray train, and it's been out for eight years. At least one pal o' mine still uses a flip phone, and another friend doesn't even own a cell phone of any kind. I put a lot of thought into the latest video game console generation [before finally making a decision about that (and smart phones) a year after writing this post].

Despite my issues with smartypants phones, tablet computers, social networks and new game consoles embedded with nano-tech-sized NSA agents and heart-monitoring cameras designed to spy on my entire living room, I'm in favor of new technology and excited by what it can offer the human race. Everything from movable type to 3D printing, from out-houses and fresh-water wells to indoor plumbing and Dyson Airblade hand dryers, from color TV to HDTV and Beta-Max to Blu-Ray, from the electric light to the solar panel, from Orville and Wilbur to Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, I'm all for innovation and connection, communication and creative expression, for safer, faster, more environmentally conscious transportation and a lot more space exploration.

But I don't do Facebook. Or Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, MySpace or Pinterest. And I really don't mind not fitting in. At least a billion humans like to know what a billion other humans are doing, all the time, by monitoring each other compulsively via computers and smartphones via social networks. While I don't care to be socially networked or to know what everyone else is doing all the time, I understand the impulse.

fakebook.jpg

Is it strange to broadcast your thoughts and ideas with a blog and yet harbor an extreme aversion to social media? Maybe so, but I like to have control over my own tiny corner of the internet. I haven't fully developed the answer to the question of why a blog is okay for me but the social networks are not; I'm still processing that myself, but I like having a place that you can choose to visit (or not) without signing in, signing up, being monitored, sold-to, analyzed or otherwise exploited by mega-corporations.

You may have noticed that this blog is a way for me to work things out that have been spinning around my head, or at least a means to write something and collect my thoughts. Too many people gathered in one place tends to freak me out a little, and maybe that feeling equates to too many people gathered in a digital realm, too. There could be consequences, though. What if I lose a job and have to apply for a new one without my own Facebook page, now that employers are demanding employee's Facebook passwords? What will I do, other than attempt to argue that I'm cut out out for the position with an old fashioned resume, a toothy grin and my winning personality? Apparently my lack of social media presence and profiles will only arouse suspicion.

But why? Does preferring to avoid these online "clubs" automatically make me the Unabomber? I guess I could mention this blog on a job application. But on the blog I share opinions. Would that be a good idea? Do employers want employees to have opinions? What kind of Brave New World are we moving toward where everyone knows everything about everyone else?

Social networks are here to stay; it's just how the world works now, I suppose. It makes plenty of sense to want to reach the most people possible if you're A: attempting a democratic revolution to depose a despotic dictator, B: selling something cool like bearded barbarian helmets or C: setting up a pillow fight in Washington Square Park. Thus far I have managed to opt out of the social networks, but how long will I be able to hold out against the tide? If all goes as planned, I'll finally have a book for sale before long. Finally, right? But how will I choose to sell it? Am I crazy to try to do so without social networking? With nothing but a wee blog that averages a few hundred page views a week? Probably so.

As an undergraduate in the late 90s, before Facebook and MySpace, long before I had seen a text message and well before I even owned a cell phone, I remember calling around via dorm-room land-lines to find out who was doing what for the weekend, who might be up for getting hot wings and beers or what bands were playing on a Wednesday night. One local house where several buddies lived was even affectionately known as Check Point, and if one didn't know what was going on, one could usually call Check Point via ye olde land line and find out, or just ride over on a bike, skate over on a board, or just walk over.

Email was an option, but it seemed like most of us used a telephone to network socially, or we would just meet up on campus and hang out in person, entire groups of young people, making eye contact (!), without tiny screens in our hands or pockets or embedded in our eyeglasses! We watched movies in theaters without texting! Shame on you, Madonna. Our conversations were not seamlessly integrated with devices designed to record and repurpose them into sound bites. We looked up directions on maps made of paper. And we liked it!

A late adopter, I didn't own a cell phone until 2002, when I had returned from a stint working construction and scrubbing fishing boats in Alaska between punk rock tours and wasn't sure what to do next. I was crashing in a small, windowless utility room in a house a couple friends had rented in a rural field somewhere in Middle Tennessee, after an epic Halibut fry in their driveway after the four plane flights home.

Half the room I slept in was taken up by my homeless band equipment, as the band had unexpectedly fallen apart while I was in Alaska, and I had nowhere to put the amps and speaker cabinets and no idea what to do next. Accustomed to living out of a Dodge conversion van on tour, I was happy to have a warm, relatively clean floor on which to spread my sleeping bag, despite the 24/7 darkness, the cramped space, one roommate's disturbing obsession with Asian torture films (constantly running in the living room) and the lack of connection with the outside world.

My roommates had already made the switch to cell phones and thus the house had no land line. By day, I looked for jobs in the paper and drove my wobbly tin-can of an '89 Sentra to the library to do more job hunting online and print employment applications, usually heading back out to the house at dusk after dropping by the post office. I changed the oil and the alternator in the driveway after the car limped home one night on a steadily-diminishing battery.

Most mornings, if I could tell it was morning--my room was always pitch black--my roommates' cute little kittens would wake me up, mewling at my door and making me sneeze. I would drive a few miles to the nearest phone booth with a plastic bag full of change and call the places I had applied to for work, announcing my intention to "reiterate my interest in the position." After a few weeks of this, I surrendered to the march of technology and became a cell-phone owner.

Once, many years ago, I signed up for Facebook. Reluctantly. Briefly. Friends talked me into trying it. I knew it wasn't for me, but I signed up anyway, maybe just to prove my point. I took the page down less than 24 hours later. A few years before Facebook came along, I didn't do MySpace either. For some reason, this frustrated some friends of mine (people I knew and hung out with in real life). Everyone was doing the social networking dance, and public messages were flying to and fro. At first in a gentle, teasing way, these friends bemoaned the fact that I didn't have a MySpace page and thus didn't know what was going on.

I'd have to be called on a phone, emailed or (gasp) visited in person in order to glean whatever vital information was being considered by our cyber collective of real-world friends, MySpace "friends" and friends of either or both, groups loosely organized in ever expanding concentric circles spinning into degrees of Kevin Baconesque connections of often meaningless relation, a Venn diagram of a cyberspace-based, notional commonality that I just didn't grasp the importance of or need for.

Yes, everyone owned computers and knew someone who knew someone and signed up for MySpace and was thus connected "socially." Eventually, a few of my real world buddies set up a MySpace account in my name but behind my back, designing the page to make fun of me, making me look like an idiot who made stupid comments and insulted people I actually knew. Maybe in their minds it was still just teasing. They thought it was funny. Some friends, huh? This was my apparent punishment for shunning the new media status quo. Social media was a new thing, changing the world quickly, and my friends were experimenting with it.

I didn't see it as malicious as much as them having a bit of fun at my expense. I let it be known that I was angry, got an apology or two and let it go. So years later, when just about everyone I knew in real life had signed up for Facebook, I dipped my toe into the surface of the new normal, the social networking tsunami, only to withdraw it promptly, pretty much exactly as I knew I would. I can look back with a laugh now at my friends' MySpace trickery, but I was one of the lucky ones, not one of the poor people (often women, but not always) who are terrorized by anonymous human scum who prey on people, and not just via social networks, by doing things like this.

Still, I would be foolish not to recognize the power of social networks to create positive change in the world, uniting victims of natural disasters with those who want to help with food, shelter and medical care, organizing veterans and volunteers and first responders, bringing together people who want to increase the quality of childhood education in America, save dolphins, fight hunger and diseases and get the White House to release its recipe for Honey Brown Ale.

Social networks can really bring people together, allowing like-minded individuals who want to advance causes the chance to connect with others who mean to do good, which is great, but they also enable armchair activists with a means to exercise their index fingers by stamping a thumbs-up icon onto something they like in order to, uh, show everyone that they like it.

Though I'm only half-way through it, I've enjoyed reading George Takei's digital book Oh My! There Goes The Internet, a casual, comical conversation with readers that catalogs Commander Sulu's journey from social media newbie to his current status as Titan of Tweets, with many millions of followers. I'm reading my first digital book here, people, and I don't even have a tablet computer or e-reader! I'm so cutting edge that I downloaded the free e-book reader software from Adobe. Takei is really funny, has an off-the cuff, blog-like writing style, and, according to his book, he mediated and snuffed out the online battle between Star Wars and Star Trek fans over which fiction is better. People really have time to argue over this?

The feud was stoked by Carrie Fischer and responded in kind by William Shatner, but Takei, a veteran of both series (I learned in his book that he had lent his voice to a Star Wars cartoon) was able to clear the air and tone down the increasing vehemence by appealing to both camps to unite with him against the abomination that is all things Twilight. A perfect solution that both camps could agree on.

What's not to love about a mediator like that? Takei has also been particularly vocal and effective when calling out (and taking on) bigotry in hilarious ways, using both Facebook and Twitter. If a 76-year-old guy can master social networking and use it for a good cause that is also very entertaining, then maybe he's onto something, and I'm completely wrong about social networks. Of course, I haven't finished Takei's book yet, and the friend who recommended it is also partially responsible for ye olde fictitious MySpace page of decades past, so I should probably be very suspicious of his ulterior motives...

I know I'm not the only one creeped out by the continual intrusion of certain kinds of technology into the nooks and crannies of our daily lives and don't feel like I really need another gateway (like a smartphone, a Facebook account or a Twitter handle) to make it easier for the data miners to know exactly where I am and what I'm doing at any given moment. Dave Eggers seems to share my fears of an Orwellian, Huxleyesque future. I read the excerpt from his new novel The Circle, which sounds a definite alarm, offering one possible, (probable?) dystopian outcome of our public shift toward ever-increasing amounts of big data gleaned from increasingly public, digital behaviors.

Eggers seems to envision a complete loss of the individual to the collective hive-mind, a Borg-like assimilation of everyone as anyone and anyone as no one, where we are all infinitely connected/isolated and no longer have the time nor the inclination for free thinking, free expression or the right to simply exist without public scrutiny in any way. I hear the voice of the millennial in my ear, saying "get over it, everything is public, there is no private anymore," but I don't want to listen to that.

I wonder what futurist, transhumanist, artificial intelligentsiest Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (a book still sitting untouched on my nightstand) would have to say about Eggers' vision? [I finally finished and reviewed it here] I read somewhere that Eggers isn't doing any press for his new book, but perhaps some creative agent can persuade these two very interesting authors to face off with Charlie Rose, Jon Stewart or Zach Galifianakis mediating. I'd tune in for sure. Just don't try to talk me into signing up for Pandora or Spotify.

So call me an Untechnologist if you will. When I tell you about something cool via ye olde blog, tell me how it was "so last month." See if I care. At least for the time being, I will remain anti-social when it comes to social media, and I'm sticking with my dumb phone, too. If I want to get in touch, I can email, telephone or text message.

Sometimes I even write letters! To send in envelopes! With stamps! And I like it!

Tennis Nostalgia Via Memoir

I’ve been reading about tennis a lot lately. Dad put a racket in my hand pretty early, and I wish I could say I were still playing tennis often, as that would probably make me feel better about myself and act as a slight counterbalance to my problem with sitting and dying, but at least I'm reading about my favorite sport, right?

I go through periodic bursts of heightened tennis motivation punctuated by months of nearly forgetting that the sport even exists, but this is what happens when one has multiple interests and isn't much of an athlete, I suppose. My last DIY tennis league ended a few months ago, and other than a couple guys who dropped out, I finished dead last, but that's okay. At least I played all my matches and actually enjoyed losing them. We all put in $20, so I lost that too, but this time I didn't have an epic battle with the USTA or pay them $35 to do nothing for me.

These days, I have a couple friends that play very well, and I've beaten them both a few times, but not in a long while. I can usually count on losing a close match to one friend and being completely taken to school by the other, and that's fine with me. It's not that I like to lose, but I'm there to get exercise, challenge myself and enjoy the sport. That's why I can enjoy losing matches. Winning is still the goal, but the other reasons are why I'm on the court. I'd rather have two friends that challenge me than play two guys that can't keep the ball inside the fences.

My life without tennis wins is still good, for a former high-school player who once had some potential, now pushing 40 and pushing ever harder on the bottom of his steadfast office chair. I played a single set a few nights ago and thought for a while that I could win it, but I ended up losing it 5-7. We probably would have played another set or even two, if the court had lights, but public tennis courts rarely seem to be a municipal funding priority, evidenced by the rampant cracks, deteriorating nets and absent lights at my closest local courts.

I don't know why I've been so incapable of winning for so long, but I have a few theories (excuses). Yes, my mind wanders on the court. Often my thoughts will drift to a movie I just watched or a book I'm reading or what sounds good for dinner. I love being out there and hitting balls, getting exercise and breaking a sweat, but I just don't have the fire in the gut for competition. I've never really had it, and maybe that's just it.

I've never been much of a sports guy. I rarely watch sports on TV or in person, and that includes tennis. I love playing tennis or frisbee or ping-pong, foosball or basketball or even touch football or whatever, but on these rare occasions, my opponents are non-athlete friends who are just enjoying the exercise and the company. I enjoy competing and try to win but don't really care if I lose, so maybe that's why I do so often. I don't know. The other theory is fitness. Obviously there's the sitting thing, so the fitness is in decline no matter how much I exercise, but it's not as though my regular opponents don't face the same sedentary, fitness-depleting office-work quagmire. 

But enough about office drones. Speaking of people who don’t sit in a chair all day and are thus much more fit and svelte than the rest of us, tennis professionals have a pretty cool job. Reading about my old heroes has been a lot of fun. When I was little, dad and I watched the Grand Slam tournaments (Australian, French, Wimbledon, US Open) every year on TV, and sometimes we'd drive to Cincinnati to see some live tennis at the ATP, a lessor-known event that most of the top pros still played. I took lessons and went to tennis camp as a kid, and I had been interested in the game since dad first put a racquet in my hand at age three, so there are plenty of fond memories.

Sometimes I wish I had stuck with the sport and taken it more seriously, but there's the mind-wandering thing again: I had other interests. I didn't want to drop everything else that was fun in my life in order to focus on one thing. I felt that if I did, I might not enjoy it nearly as much, or even worse, I could even grow to hate what I had once loved. I made my competitive high-school team early but dropped out for...wait for it...heavy metal. Yes, my first foray into playing in a band was a craptastic metal group, and I had to choose between tennis and rock and roll. Tennis lost, but let's rewind to the good old days of watching tennis with my dad on his tiny black and white TV set, with the salted-in-the-shell peanuts and the cold drinks.

During my favorite era of tennis, basically the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, the sport changed a great deal, and I followed it much more closely than I do now. For a long time, in my mind, it was all about the big three: Borg, Connors and McEnroe. It was a more interesting time for the sport. Players used wooden racquets and finesse instead of graphite blends and overwhelming power. Points lasted longer. The ball moved much more slowly; balletic professionals seemed to dance all over the court with a light touch instead of relentlessly hammering each other into submission from well behind the baselines like they do today. Federer's style of play is the great exception to the approach of the new breed, but few would argue that his era isn't fading fast.

Strategies varied; the serve and volley game still existed. Most pros didn't have personal trainers, nutritionists and bodyguards. Some didn't even have a coach. They didn't consider changing their names to match their own brand of chocolates. There was real drama. Professionals were finally allowed to play in the big slams. Davis Cup matches were hotspots of international drama.

Million-dollar exhibitions were played all over the globe between slams. Rival tennis associations battled for notoriety and control of the pro tours. Martina Navratilova defected publicly from Czechoslovakia, and she did it at the US Open. Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of The Sexes. Arthur Ashe became the first and only black man to win Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open, going on to coach John McEnroe and others as US Davis Cup Captain. Jimmy Connors made huge bets on his own matches, cracked jokes out loud throughout them and brought his manic, fist-pumping bravado to an elitist sport that badly needed to loosen up. 

McEnroe and Illie Nastase screamed obscenities at linesmen and women, umpires, opponents and spectators, drawing fines, penalties and new tennis fans in equal measure. Stone-faced, silent Bjorn "Ice" Borg, with his signature long hair and headband, won five Wimbledon championships in a row and walked off Centre Court after losing his sixth title to McEnroe in 1981, inexplicably quitting tennis for several years while at the peak of his talent. Boris "Boom Boom" Becker steamrolled Wimbledon at 17 on tree-trunk legs and served like a panzer tank. Ivan Lendl arrived in the early 80s and, once he had overcome his tendency to lose big matches, changed the game again with his superior fitness and baseline power, training on rollerskates, becoming a nemesis for McEnroe and Connors and dominating the tour for years. 

Andre Agassi arrived soon after with his colorful wardrobe and massive mullet, launching his on-the-rise cannon-fired forehand service returns like his drill-sergeant father had taught him with what Andre called "The Dragon," a towering, souped-up torture monster of a ball machine that blasted thousands of speeding tennis balls at seven-year-old Andre's feet for merciless hours, days and years, forging a future superstar who says he didn't really mean it when Canon paid him to sell their "rebel" camera and say in an ad that "image is everything." I'll just go ahead and admit that in junior high, I had a colorful pair of Agassi's Nikes. Fortunately I did not attempt to emulate his mullet, but there would be plenty of time for other bad teenage haircuts.

BORG.jpg

When it was released in 2010, my lovely wife gave me Agassi's memoir, Open. With the exception of a very thin book I had owned as a kid--more of a pamphlet really--which I don't think is even in print anymore (Bjorn Borg's Borg By Borg), Agassi's was the first tennis memoir I can recall reading, and compared to those I have read since, it was superior. This is due in no small part to the writer J.R. Moehringer's contribution. Not long before I received Agassi's book, I had read Moehringer's great 2006 memoir, The Tender Bar. Agassi had liked The Tender Bar as much as I had, so he hired Moehringer to help him tell his story, and that decision paid off.

AGASSI.jpg

The result is a thoughtfully crafted look back through Agassi's tough childhood as a tennis trainee, forcefully conscripted into his father (Mike) Agassi's harsh tennis pro preparatory school. Andre says nobody ever asked him if he'd like to play tennis, and as a result he hated it for decades. He blames his French Open loss in 1990 on fretting over his toupee more than the match itself (really) and relates his brief struggle with crystal meth and depression, but those weren't the reasons I read the book.

In junior high, I was pretty serious about tennis, and when Agassi came along, I thought his long hair, earrings, crazy-day-glow clothes and shoes and denim shorts were cool simply because they were different and challenged the status quo. My dad just thought he was "bizarre." I admired his game though, too. I wanted to hit as hard as he did and return serve as well, so I tried to emulate aspects of his game. Open was a fascinating read, but Andre left unanswered the one question I still had when I finished reading: what is his relationship with his father like now, after all these years? I couldn't believe he had left that huge question...well...yeah...open.

CONNORS.jpg

Dad got me Jimmy Connors' new 2013 memoir, The Outsider, not long after it was released, and I ate it up. Connors, before Agassi came along, was my favorite player and remains my all-time favorite. Some credit Jimbo with breaking down stodgy old barriers to what was often perceived as a snooty, white collar sport, particularly at Wimbledon, by bringing in some old-fashioned blue-collar enthusiasm for the game and replacing a few erudite, champagne-sipping, tennis-white wearing, umbrella twirling wealthy socialites with screaming, cursing, beer-quaffing, pizza chomping, fist-pumping fans that would be just as comfortable at a football or hockey game.

Jimmy had his fair share of bouts with linespeople, umpires, tournament referees, officials, opponents and even fans, but he also had a sense of humor and the heart of an entertainer. Whether you agreed with his behavior or not, if you loved tennis, you had to watch the guy. Legendary for his ability to turn a match around when down a couple sets, Connors was magnetic on the court, particularly during his stunning blast into the semifinals of the 1991 US Open at the unbelievable age of 39.

HighStrung.jpg

After reading Jimmy's book, I had to go back and read High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis's Fiercest Rivalry (2012), by Stephen Tignor, for a bit more perspective on those golden years that Agassi had barely touched on and Connors had chronicled with some detail. Without a definitive memoir by Borg, I wanted to know more about the big guys in the late 70s and early 80s that I had so much enjoyed watching on TV as a kid, including more about what they really thought of each other.

Tignor's book seems a bit inappropriately titled, as it doesn't really focus on the rivalry between Borg and McEnroe, but it is a helpful review of the era and the players who, for me, were the most interesting guys to watch at that time, but not just Connors, McEnroe and Borg. There were other greats to watch too, including Geruliatis, Nastase and Tiriac, along with later 80s and 90s champs like Noah, Lendl, Edberg and Wilander, among many others.

MAC.jpg

After reading Tignor, I felt like I'd heard everyone else talk about McEnroe without getting his own input on those days, so next I read his 2002 memoir, You Cannot Be Serious. Big Mac was a force to be reckoned with on the courts, and he definitely earned his "Superbrat" moniker. Mac The Mouth would reliably throw a fit during matches and became a legend of bad behavior.

For me, it seemed that despite his many victories and indisputable record as one of the greatest champions ever, his behavior always overshadowed his playing. You could definitely argue that there was little difference between Connors' antics or McEnroe's; both are players that fans loved to hate, hated to love, or just enjoyed watching for the chaos that inevitably ensued, but looking back, it seemed to me that Connors had more fun out there, while Mac just seemed obligated to bitch and moan and whine, but a fan's tastes are finicky. One thing that can't be argued over is the impact that each of these guys had on the sport.

I will likely read McEnroe's new memoir when it comes out next year. Say what you will about Superbrat, but I think he has become the best tennis commentator on television and possibly ever. I still love the sport, but for my money, the homogenized pro tennis of today just doesn't have the personality, diversity or gravitas it once boasted. I still watch a match now and then. Thanks to Jimmy, who started the league for the 35 and older set back in the 90s, we can sometimes even catch our older heroes facing off against each other again on the worldwide Champions Tour.

Post-script: Several months after writing this post, I had the privilege of seeing McEnroe, Connors, Lendl and Cash play live in Nashville.

Prepping For The Walking Dead and WWZ

I’m addicted to The Walking Dead. Or am I? I still haven't decided whether to break my self-imposed "all content comes from Netflix discs, no matter how long I have to wait" rule (again) and stream the new episodes the day after they come out via Amazon, like I did with the second half of season three. I did this because my lovely wife and I simply had to see what happened next in this soapiest of operas of the undead and the near-dead, but also because I had an Amazon gift certificate, so the expense factor for streaming high-def episodes at $3 a pop was lessened considerably. I guess I have a couple weeks to decide how addicted I really am, as season four begins on Sunday, October 13.

I suppose a zombie fiction addiction is preferable to quite a few other addictions I could be saddled with. Following The Walking Dead comic book and its eponymous television series doesn’t require copious amounts of money, result in ruinous relationships or shirked responsibilities, cause my body grievous harm or require illegal transactions with nefarious characters in dark and potentially dangerous locales. It doesn't make me fat, stink up the room or require injections to enjoy. Well, I guess if I watched or read enough of it from a sedentary position instead of from a treadmill, it might make me fat.

Uh-oh. I don't have a treadmill. I guess if I did, I'd be in a lot better shape for the real-life zombie apocalypse. Hmmm. Do you think the Doomsday Preppers watch their show from a treadmill instead of from a couch? I haven't seen the show, but it seems like they should, if they're as serious about prepping as they seem to be.

The Walking Dead is not the greatest show ever, but it is the most popular. I think there are two primary reasons for this: Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard's compelling, perpetual cliff-hanger-generating source material and an American obsession with post-apocalyptic survival scenarios. However, obsession is probably the wrong word for me. My interest in the comic and the TV show does not begin to approach the universe of those fans who are so obsessed with The Walking Dead and other apocalyptic scenarios that they are literally preparing for what they are thoroughly convinced is the actual, (coming soon!) end of civilization.

While I love reading gritty, harrowing, epic adventure and post-disaster survival against-all-odds tales of both fiction and non-fiction and enjoy movies on those same subjects, I'm not a paranoid obsessive prepping for the impending "Barackalypse." I have not secured and stockpiled an elaborately outfitted bunker with canned goods, weapons, water, medicine, body armor and freeze-dried meals-ready-to-eat (MREs). I have not reorganized my entire life around my survival plan. I'll admit that if TSHTF, I will wish that I had. 

Okay, I so do keep a few MREs handy for camping trips, but I haven't designed elaborate defensible fortifications and escape routes or initiated plans for self-sustaining aquaculture and sniper towers around my castle walls, but maybe I should. You never know. I don't have any castle walls either, but again, maybe I should. Take it from the Boy Scouts' classic motto: Don't Be Gay, but Be Prepared. It's something like that, right? Even the CDC released a zombie-apocalypse survival guide.

There's nothing wrong with being ready for trouble when trouble arrives, but many of us remain unconvinced that the End Times are upon us, can't afford all this expensive prepping stuff anyway and kind of want to just focus on the present and not worry so much about the apocalypse. Life is tough enough without prepping for armageddon, right?

The zombies will most likely eat we, the unbunkered masses, first. But maybe that's okay. Who really wants to live in a never-ending horror movie wherein your friends are torn apart before your very eyes, nothing works (including lights, toilets, showers and phones) and you're perpetually fleeing in terror before being eaten alive yourself, or--perhaps worse--you are forced like our man Rick Grimes and his crew of survivors to face down the human monsters that rise from the ashes of society--monsters that are inevitably, exponentially more despicable, unpredictable and deadly than the zombies--who do their worst to use and abuse you and those you hold dear?

Don't get me wrong, if it happened, whatever "it" was, I would fight to survive, protect my loved ones and go down swinging until my last breath, but for now, let's have popcorn and a movie instead of AR-15 practice and a moat-digging party. On second thought, maybe I should at least pack that bugout bag. There's a fine line here. I really like some aspects of prepping. I admire the ideals of self-sufficiency, homesteading, working your own plot of land, being "off the grid" to whatever extent possible, using solar power, gardening organically, perhaps even with aquaponics, and escaping the chaos of the caustic urban milieu and the masses of people, pollution and noise.

All those things sound really good. So does being ready for emergencies. You can't really fault someone for being prepared when you're not. So as I write about preppers, there's a little poking fun, but there is also a degree of reverence and respect. It's kind of like heavy metal: Metal is fun, and metal is funny. Metal is absurd and fun to make fun of. But metal can also be incredibly awesome. Simultaneously brilliant, awe-inducing and hilarious. Epic and ridiculous. Transcendent and absurd. Badass and jackass. I think prepping exists in a similar realm, in a comfortable dichotomy between practical and obsessive.

But why are so many of us fascinated by these tales of The End? Plenty has been written about the popularity of zombies and apocalyptic fiction, attributing their surge to well-founded, real-world fears of everything from financial insolvency, economic collapse, crop failures, famine, natural disasters, disease pandemics, chemical attacks, nuclear armageddon, terrorist attacks and perpetual warfare to slightly more kooky "threats" like electro-magnetic pulses, solar flares, a rise of the machines, gamma-rays, gray goo and nefarious government plots to make health insurance affordable or to confiscate everyone's guns.

Take your pick of which of these sounds plausible and you may have your reason to get busy on that bunker. I think it's pretty simple, really. We fear what we cannot control, and we do whatever we can to thwart those fears. I'm not saying that being a prepper or building a bunker is crazy. Maybe it's the smartest subculture around and everyone else is an idiot. Maybe we'll find out how right they really are. But maybe we won't. Everyone has these fears, but some of us simply choose to worry less about them than others or choose not to worry at all about the doom that is whatever you think it's going to be. Some see a coming zombie nightmare scenario that Max Brooks (son of Mel) called World War Z.

I think the fun of reading or watching survival stories is basically about putting ourselves in the shoes of the characters and asking ourselves "what would I do?" There's a base thrill in experiencing this stuff vicariously, but that's nothing new. When every day--almost every moment--proves to be a life or death situation, everything is elevated: the drama, the relationships, the stakes, our ability to overlook boring side-plots in between zombie battles; everything is on the line at every turn, and every decision is crucial. Placing characters into a scenario like this inevitably creates suspense, and it's often exhausting, except when it's not, like when characters argue about silly crap or make terrible choices that are painfully obvious to the reader or viewer.

So I watched Brad Pitt's "adaptation" of World War Z. It was decent, if you like zombie movies. I didn't think it was "garbage," as one friend claimed, but I agreed with another who said that it "wasn't the best zombie movie ever, but it was entertaining." I had read Brooks' excellent novel on which the film was very loosely based, and I knew going in that the film's approach would differ quite a bit from the book. I couldn't help thinking that WWZ would have been a perfect candidate for adaptation into an HBO mini-series like Band of Brothers or The Pacific. Both were amazing.

Since WWZ is set all over the world in a succession of well-developed vignettes focused on different characters, settings and situations, the high-budget, unrated mini-series format would have been a perfect choice, but instead, those in charge of the film focused on one character and crammed what they could into a single feature. As a result, there is little time for character or plot development between massive, CGI-fueled action set pieces, and the re-shot ending seems tacked on and inconclusive. The folks at Screen Junkies totally nailed this "honest trailer."

That said, in a post-9/11 Hollywood era glutted with airline disaster scenes, the movie featured the best one I have seen since the opener from The Dark Knight Rises. Well, the crash in Flight was pretty good too, but fast zombies ratchet up the terror quotient considerably in already-terrifying airline disaster scenes because let's face it: faster zombies are scarier zombies. Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later proved this, and Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of The Dead re-confirmed it. Why fast zombies are still relatively rare in zombie fiction remains a mystery. Despite the less than five-star response, it appears Mr. Pitt is not through adapting Mr. Brooks' zombie omnibus. There is already talk of a trilogy, despite WWZ's modest box office haul, and officer Rick Grimes and company will return to the smaller screen soon, along with a Walking Dead spinoff show set in the same universe with different characters, so I guess the zombie craze still has legs. And teeth. Pack your bugout bag.

No Paradise In West Memphis

Arkansas. May of 1993. Outside a trailer park, near a truck stop. In a wooded creek-bed between two interstates. In poverty-stricken West Memphis, the remains of three eight-year-old boys (Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers) were found by police. They had been missing for about a month. Their bodies had been beaten, mutilated and hog-tied with shoelaces. Despite a lack of physical evidence, the trials of teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. resulted in three convictions: a death sentence for Echols and life in prison for Baldwin and Misskelley.

Bizarre allegations of Satanism stemming from the teens' propensity for long hair and black clothing, their interest in the occult, horror novels and heavy metal music (all apparently uncommon and suspicious tastes in the early 90s in this small county in Arkansas) seemed to be enough to condemn the three teenagers. These men, now in their late 30s, are known collectively as The West Memphis Three (WM3).

Maybe I'm a little late to reach my conclusions, but after viewing each of the four documentaries about the WM3 in sequence recently--Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills (1996); Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000); Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011); and West of Memphis (2012), it’s difficult to argue against the innocence of these three men who spent 18 years in prison for terrible crimes I am convinced they did not commit. But then again, how much can one really know about a complex criminal investigation by merely watching four documentaries? Regardless of what you know about the case or what you think you might know about the WM3, I would recommend all four films highly. The story is absolutely riveting and difficult to shake, as you can see here.

After hearing about the story and the arrests of the three local teenagers accused of the crimes, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky traveled to West Memphis in 1993 to make a documentary for HBO films, setting out to learn more about the alleged teenage murderers, assuming that the local papers and police were right—that the killers had been collared. Berlinger and Sinofsky wondered what could drive three young men to commit such terrible crimes and decided to make a film about it.

What they discovered soon convinced them that the accused young men were innocent and that they had a very different story on their hands. They ended up befriending the WM3 and felt a responsibility to stick with the case until all three young men were exonerated. Berlinger and Sinofsky made three films about the case in the following two decades. A fourth film about the WM3 (this one by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson and Damien Echols) was released recently on DVD, so I decided it would be a good time to review all four documentaries in sequence.

In a 1998 college course on documentary film, I saw the first movie, and I felt some kinship with the young men who were about my age. I was 22 during that class, but the WM3 were teens in the first film. When I was a teenager, I also had a stupid haircut that hung down in my eyes, listened to Metallica and Slayer, wore black T-shirts and combat boots and was mad at the world. I too read Stephen King novels and acted like a smart ass. I cut that hair 20 years ago, and I'm not quite as angry as I used to be, but I guess I haven't really changed all that much. I know what it feels like to be a teenage outsider in a small town that doesn't seem to have much for you, but it's a lot easier to feel different as an adult than it is when you're 16, 17 or even 18 or 19, when the stakes of everything in life seem so much higher. For the WM3, they actually were. Spoilers ahead.

Aside from the testimony of two drug-addicted criminals who claimed they had either heard Baldwin admit to the murders or seen Echols conduct a Satanic ritual with animal sacrifices; (both witnesses have since recanted, publicly admitting that they had lied while abusing drugs and under police coercion, hoping to receive a lighter sentence for their crimes), the prosecution’s case rested primarily on the last few minutes of what appeared to be a coerced confession from a 12-hour police interrogation of Mr. Misskelley, who had logged an IQ score of 72.

This testimony was enough to convict Misskelley at his trial, but he refused to testify against Baldwin and Echols during theirs. According to assertions made by individuals involved in the trials and interviewed in the most recent of the four films, Misskelley's testimony was illegally (and clandestinely) introduced to jurors in the Baldwin/Echols trial that followed Misskelley's, resulting in their convictions.

This, however, is but one of a staggering avalanche of unconscionable errors and missteps attributable to the Arkansas police department and officers of state government, including the prosecution's "expert" on Satanism whose mail-order PhD did not require him to take a single class; an assistant forensic pathologist who (in a bewildering conflict of interest) worked directly for the police department and thus was incentivized to convict but whose observations regarding the victims' wounds were deemed absolutely inaccurate and misleading by a team of experts including even the assistant pathologist's mentor, whose book he had held aloft at trial; a judge who was in charge of evaluating the request for appeals on his own rulings; a 12-hour police interrogation of which only the last few minutes were recorded, and much more. Far too many officials given the public's trust appear in the films as inept and much too eager to convict, congratulate and forget.

Obviously what happened to the three eight-year-olds was horrifying and awful. When I saw the first movie in 1998, I felt for the families, and despite my empathy for the kids accused of killing kids without any real evidence presented to support their convictions, I remember being skeptical. I was a critical thinker anyway, but when viewing this film I was hyper-aware of bias, as I was being taught to look carefully at the agenda of every film in the class and analyze it immediately in writing. Despite the uproar over the WM3's innocence and my gut feeling that they were not the real killers, I wasn't entirely convinced. Damien looked a little too pleased with himself on camera, and Jason had no answer whatsoever when asked what he might say to the parents of the dead children. It seemed obvious that if innocent he would say that he was sorry that their kids were murdered but that he had nothing to do with their deaths. Jessie may have had an IQ of 72, but he had actually confessed on tape. These things troubled me.

I caught the second film when it came out in 2000 and remembered feeling fairly convinced that the completely over-the-top, larger than life Mark Byers, adoptive step-father of Christopher Byers, could have been the murderer, as the movie insinuated, but maybe I was just being manipulated by a grieving parent a little too eager to mug for the camera, or a film a little too eager to catch a killer (made by filmmakers who had befriended the defendants).

The controversy over the possible bite marks on the bodies appeared to again back the innocence of the WM3. I felt stronger at this point that the WM3 were innocent, but I remained cautious, aware that all I really had to go on for formulating my opinion were two documentaries made by advocates. What had they left out? How could I be sure that they weren't biased? I couldn't. Film is a manipulative medium by nature, whether it is presented as fiction or not. I wanted to know more, but life got in the way. I lost track of the case after Berlinger and Sinofsky's second film, but I renewed my interest after learning of the troubling, bittersweet legal resolution in 2011 that followed new DNA testing, and I knew that a newer film, West of Memphis, was coming to DVD. I had to watch all four films. I waited impatiently for the last of the four documentaries to become available on disc, which finally happened last month.

Pam Hicks, mother of one of the murder victims, Steve Branch, has publicly stated that she thinks the WM3 are innocent. She has sued the city and police department for access to evidence that she has never been allowed to see. Mark Byers agrees and has apologized to the WM3 for his past belief in their guilt. He called Arkansas' legal maneuvering, which seems designed to save the state the embarrassment of a new trial and overturned convictions, "bullshit." In an excellent interview, Berlinger and Sinofsky would not postulate on who the real killers might be, despite insinuations in their third film (Purgatory) that another of the boys step-fathers, Hicks' ex-husband Terry Hobbs, could be involved, suspicions that are reiterated with gusto in Berg's film West of Memphis.

Though there are plenty of compelling arguments for looking at Hobbs further, many of which are cited in West of Memphis, he has never been officially considered a suspect or investigated by the police, and it is important to remember that circumstantial evidence is what convicted the WM3 in the first place. Some observers have cried foul about the last two films' portrayal of Hobbs, citing the newer film's "dangerous hypocrisy."

Depending on what you read, some sources claim that a hair in the shoestrings used to bind the murdered boys matched Hobbs' DNA; other sources claim that the hair matched a significant percentage of the entire population. West of Memphis asserts a perfect DNA match between DNA found at the crime scene and Hobbs' DNA, which was obtained by a private investigator, without Hobbs' consent, but what does that prove, exactly? Not a lot.

I am neither homicide detective nor investigative journalist, but it is damn hard to watch these four films without concluding that these young men are innocent. However, even though there is not and has never been any physical evidence linking the WM3 to the crime scene...even though none of the DNA test results from 2011 matched any of the WM3...even though the State of Arkansas has admitted that it could not convict the WM3 if it granted a retrial and considered all of the evidence...even though Steve Branch's mother and Christopher Byers' stepfather both believe they are innocent...even though there are several officially unexplored leads pointing to other suspects...some people still think the WM3 are guilty, including Michael Moore's parents and Steve Branch's biological father.

Some websites still proclaim their guilt, while others revel in their freedom and have seemingly changed focus from "Free the WM3" to "Exonerate the WM3," though this site, the original website built by supporters of the WM3, has remained curiously inactive following their release in 2011. It's great to know that three innocent men are finally free, despite the stain of a guilty conviction that still stands. The sad part is that there doesn't seem to be any ongoing investigation or effort to find the real killer(s), despite a new lawsuit and new suspects.

There is always more to read and learn. I have not read Arkansas journalist Mara Leveritt's bestselling book about the WM3 saga, Devil's Knot (2002), which has been adapted into a new feature film, currently in the festival circuit, starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Yes, it's an incredibly powerful story, but do we really need a feature film for entertainment? I doubt it will be shedding any light on the case.

In another sad twist to their ongoing saga, Baldwin and Echols are no longer speaking to each other as a result of Baldwin's participation in this new film. I found Baldwin's letter about the conflict with Echols to be particularly moving. Leveritt's upcoming Devil's Knot sequel, Justice Knot, will apparently delve deeper into the Alford Plea that set the WM3 free but saddled them with a conviction which remains on their permanent records.

Echols' book Life After Death (2012), also a bestseller, combines parts of his previously self-published memoir and continuing observations on his life as a free man. He continues to write, tour in support of his book and participate in musical collaborations. He wrote the lyrics to a recent Pearl Jam song. Baldwin is starting law school at 36, intending to help others also wrongly convicted, and Misskelley is learning to be a mechanic like his father.

The WM3 received an outpouring of worldwide support, primarily from viewers of Berlinger and Sinofsky’s films who were sickened by the apparent miscarriage of justice. These contributors included thousands of people but also celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines, who recorded benefit albums and created touring shows to benefit the WM3's legal defense fund. The WM3 had worldwide publicity from critically acclaimed, award-winning films sympathetic to their cause, and high-profile support from movie and rock stars. They attracted enough money to hire world-class investigators and attorneys and probably spent many millions on their defense.

How many other innocent people rot in prison without access to all of these advantages? How many innocent minorities have documentary films made about their innocence? How many of these innocent convicts are poor, with no hope of attaining proper counsel? There are two tragedies here. There is the tragedy of the unsolved murders of three children--their suffering and the suffering of their families--and there is the tragedy of the lives destroyed by a legal system hell-bent on obtaining convictions and saving face for elected judges and politicians, a system that appears to reward swift convictions over determining the truth or prioritizing justice. As Echols has said more than once, "this happens all the time."

In the most litigious country on the planet, with by far the greatest percentage of its population incarcerated, with a deregulated, skyrocketing number of privatized, for-profit prison systems on bed-filling quota, how many innocent people are put to death every year? How many more are left to rot in a cell for decades? We know we need prison reform. We know innocent people are paying the ultimate price far too often.

At least we have The Innocence Project, which has saved the lives of many of those wrongfully convicted. I hope the State of Arkansas finds the courage to exonerate the WM3, offer them financial restitution for time served and reopen the investigation with a new vigor until those responsible for the three murders are finally brought to justice. The families of the children who died deserve that much, and so do the WM3.

Flag versus Flag, Henry and Two Queens

At 52 years of age, Henry Rollins is not playing music anymore. Big deal. He doesn’t need to. He’s still listening to it and writing about it, and his spoken performances, cultural critiques, op-eds and travel stories are what I’ve always thought were the most interesting parts of his creative output. His short-lived IFC show wasn’t bad, and it’s fun to see or hear him in a film or cartoon once in a while, but Rollins shines brightest when he is alone on a stage, speaking about his personal, international experiences traveling and interacting with the world (or writing about them).

I have admired his work for more than 20 years and enjoyed a front-row seat at one of his relentless, three-hour-plus speaking shows last fall, a staccato performance that veered from funny to heavy to poignant to depressing and back to funny again several times, during which he took no breaks and not even a single sip of water, but I never caught a live performance of the seminal hardcore punk band that brought him to the world’s attention, the mighty Black Flag. Well, I was ten years old when they broke up.

At that point I was more interested in Star Wars and Top Gun. Punk rock was not yet on my radar, and neither was metal. I mostly listened to the radio at that time and had three tapes for my Walkman: Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Michael Jackson. When the Rollins-fronted iteration of Black Flag was crush-kill-destroying its way through hundreds of dive bars and concert halls across the US and Europe (and sometimes even a short drive from my house) in the early and mid-80s, I didn’t have a clue.

When Black Flag picked Rollins (then a 20-year-old ice-cream shop manager known as Henry Garfield) from suburban Washington, DC obscurity, they had already been through a few singers. The band saw an undeniable intensity in the young man who jumped at the chance to sing one of his favorite songs, "Clocked In," with them at a New York show, just in time to drive back to DC and "clock in" at the ice cream shop the next morning. While I like some Black Flag songs and others from Rollins' post-Black Flag group (Rollins Band), I have always been more interested in bands featuring Henry’s old DC buddy and ice cream shop co-worker, Ian MacKaye (some Minor Threat, some Embrace and a lot of Fugazi). Ian even called me back once, on his own dime, via landline long distance, when I was interviewing him for a school paper in the late 90s, but I bet Henry would have done the same.

Black Flag’s legend remains fascinating, particularly their late-70s/early-80s era, which culminated in Rollins’ tenure as lead singer from 1981 until the band’s breakup in 1986. During these years, they rocked like hell, no matter what, often under the worst of circumstances, enduring member defections, departures and firings, crushing poverty, police profiling and brutality, unscrupulous promoters and show-runners, ridicule or indifference from the hyper-critical “punk” press, sickness, injuries, extreme temperatures and routine physical violence, often being attacked by their own audiences.

Even so, Rollins established his singular, defiant voice as a solo performer early on, initiating his spoken-word performances between Black Flag gigs, establishing himself as a skilled storyteller, social critic and speaker with memorable, inspiring jackhammer blasts of uncompromising originality and brutal honesty that have resonated with me far more than any of his bands ever did.

By 1991, I had discovered punk rock, and Fugazi was my new favorite. Though I had heard Black Flag before, I didn’t really become a Henry Rollins fan until 1995, when, in my freshman dorm, I first listened to cassettes of the audio version of Rollins’ tour diary from his five years as the voice of Black Flag, titled Get In The Van (1994). Rollins had started his own publishing company and released his book on his own. It won a Grammy award, which just sounds completely absurd and weird—the Grammies care about underground punk rock? Punk rock doesn’t give a shit about the Grammies; Metallica lost a heavy metal Grammy to Jethro Tull...remember that?—but it happened, due in no small part to Rollins’ appeal as a vocal artist performing his own intense written material…well...intensely.

I was already captivated by the creative and musical possibilities demonstrated by Mackaye (who had started his own record label, managed his own band with his band mates, booked his own tours and retained creative control of the entirety his artistic output), and Henry’s gripping self-published tour journal added to my admiration of Mackaye’s old buddy. Henry and Ian became role models for me, carving their own do-it-yourself (DIY) paths through the world, making art and music on their own terms, leaving a blueprint for creative people who wanted to make life whatever they wanted it to be, manage to be a force for good, reject corruption and authority, and yes, make a positive impact. Despite the chaos and the struggle, I wanted to be a part of their uncompromising, punk-rock world.

Eventually I had my own more mellow, less violent and nowhere near as widespread adventures on the road in the DIY punk rock touring van, with my nobody’s-ever-heard-of band, kill devil hills, though we did manage, over about three and a half years, to play about 180 shows in 37 states before calling it quits in 2002.

Last year I picked up a copy of the expanded 2004 re-release of Get In The Van, which includes more tour diary entries, photos of the band and shows and an extensive collection of Ray Pettibon’s iconic Black Flag artwork, which was used for posters, album covers and t-shirts, but I didn’t start reading it until a few weeks ago. A few months before revisiting Get In The Van on paper, I finally got around to reading Michael Azzerad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (2001), something I’d been meaning to read for years, which has a great chapter on Black Flag, as well as chapters on several other influential independent and punk bands.

Then I re-read the new expanded edition of former Punk Planet publisher Dan Sinker’s fantastic collection of interviews, We Owe You Nothing, Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews (2007), which features an unprecedented interview with several key members of Black Flag, and Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkin's great book Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital (2001), a chronicle of the early DC punk scene. Rereading these chapters and the entirety of Get In The Van over the last few weeks has been fun, as has catching up with some of Henry’s recent LA Weekly columns on topics like gay marriage, stop and frisk, or German metalheads.

It’s been interesting to note how Rollins has tempered his isolation, masochism and general misanthropy with optimism about his belief in the inherent good of most of humanity. The 22-year-old Rollins would not understand this sentiment, but the 52-year-old Rollins has a much wider world view. He travels extensively and writes about it, as he did with Black Flag, but now he goes alone with a backpack and a camera, walking the streets of the world, talking to people and taking pictures and then reflecting on his travels through writing.

He’s still angry as hell, but that's a good thing. As a gift from my lovely wife, last month I received Rollins' vivid 2010 photo-essay book, Occupants, wherein he rages, from differing perspectives, against invaders, exploiters and opportunists of many flags, reflecting on history and warfare, poverty and suffering. There aren’t many laughs, but as he mentioned a week ago on his website, offering his opinion on the potential for US involvement in the Syrian conflict, “I do hope that you fully understand that while I take these issues with a great deal of seriousness, I do not take myself with much seriousness. I am like anyone else, entitled to an opinion. Thank you.”

Black Flag has reunited a few times over the years, in various iterations, but never with Henry Rollins; however, in 2002, Rollins revisited his old stomping ground, organizing the album Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three, which involved performances of Black Flag songs by the Rollins Band, with guest vocalists from all over the map, including Cedric Bixler, Hank III, Ice T, Lemmy, Mike Patton, Iggy Pop, Exene Cervenka and Ryan Adams (Ryan Adams?), along with members of Slayer, Rancid and Clutch, a few previous Black Flag members and Rollins himself. Founding guitarist Greg Ginn was not involved and, based on the few interviews I have read, does not appear to be a fan of Mr. Rollins. Of Get In The Van, he has said, "I don't have to read it to know that it's inaccurate."

There are two bands using the Flag name and logo today; though only one is going by Black Flag, another goes by FLAG. Each version of the band is touring, playing very old music and laying claim to the name and the fame, the legacy of perhaps the most important harbingers of the first wave of hardcore punk rock music. Each band is fighting the other in court right now for the right to fly the flag, perform the songs and essentially be the one and only Black Flag.

You’d think that after 30+ years, figuring out who deserved the name would be simple, but you might not know that as many as sixteen members have come and gone in the intervening years of relentless touring or complete inactivity. Many recognize the years Rollins spent as the voice of the band as the definitive era of Black Flag momentum and vitality, but even those years included consistent turnover among every member other than Greg Ginn and his then young recruit, Rollins, whom he is now suing, along with Keith Morris (a pre-Rollins singer), who is fronting one version of the band. What a mess.

Speaking of once-admired bands dissolving into multi-member rancor and branding disputes, Queensryche, stalwart purveyor of Maiden-esque American metal (at least initially) since 1982, the original Seattle hair band, has pulled a similar dividing act. After a backstage scuffle and subsequent mutiny last year by the remaining original guitarist, bassist and drummer, founding singer Geoff Tate was booted from his own band.

The three remaining original members, along with a guitarist who had been in the band for about three years, hired a new lead singer, fired Tate, promptly recorded a new record and hit the road, still calling themselves Queensryche. Then Tate replaced the whole band and did the same, also touring and recording with his new band, also calling it Queensryche. While I have not purchased a Queensryche record since Empire (1990), I still enjoy a rare spin of that record or of Operation Mindcrime (1988). There are a few early gems on albums before Mindcrime, too. Queensryche's first video, for Queen of the Ryche, is so bad that...well, just watch it because it rules.

Apparently the courts will decide later this year or early next year about all four bands, crowning the true versions of both Black Flag and Queensryche. There can be only one. Of each.

Deth and The Maiden (and The National)

trooper.jpg

For a few triumphant hours last Thursday night, I was 14 years old again. Megadeth and Iron Maiden had come to town, and I was there with my lovely wife, one section over from a contingent of my college buddies, assembled from across five states for Iron Maiden’s first visit to Nashville in 21 years. I remember leaving East Tennessee for a 15,000 mile road trip in the summer of 1991, clicking on the radio in Dad’s Volvo and hearing an ad for the upcoming Atlanta date for that summer’s Clash of the Titans tour, which featured Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax and Alice In Chains.

I was bummed out about missing the show, but of course my trip with Dad was the priority. The following year I would see Alice In Chains—an old favorite but an odd addition to the titans of metal tour, if you asked me—when they opened for Ozzy, but somehow I missed Maiden in Nashville that year. I never made it to an Anthrax show. Eventually I’d manage to see Slayer and other senior members of the metal hall of legend, including Queensryche, Metallica, Judas Priest and even Black Sabbath, but until last week, I’d never seen Megadeth or the mighty Iron Maiden—the living legends that most directly inspired my comic metal band of the mid-2000s, Keymaster.

Metal can get a bad rap sometimes; I have friends who like indie and underground music but never learned to appreciate a single subset of metal, not even the canonized big guys. I can understand that, I guess. To appreciate metal, it helps to have a sense of humor, though surely there are humorless metalheads and excessively serious metal musicians, but they're no fun. It's better if you don't take it too seriously, and there’s plenty of crap to sift through, but that is probably true of any genre of music. With metal, there’s often way too much cheese, not enough cheese, or not enough intelligible vocals. And speaking of rap, I like my metal without any. Yes, Rage Against The Machine is a great band, but the rap-rock genre they created spawned a multi-decade onslaught of utter garbage.

I don’t listen to a lot of current metal these days, though I do love Mastodon and Baroness, but I tend to reach for the aforementioned old-school classics if I’m in a metal kind of mood. That said, I dig it on the rare occasion when punk and metal influences merge for a smooth weld between the two genres, or when they subtly influence each other in interesting ways, as local heroes the mighty Asschapel (RIP) or Converge offshoot Doomriders have both accomplished effectively. You could say that they're both metal bands, but we'd be arguing seman tics. I think aspects of punk rock inform them both.

I also prefer a more intimate venue (usually the opposite of a hockey arena), and generally I listen to more punk, indie, classic and occasionally even folk-influenced rock, but my metal roots remain eternally fused to the core of my being like so much adamantium to Wolverine's skeleton--impossible to remove--and there was no way in hell that I was missing a chance to see Iron Fucking Maiden. These guys are pushing sixty now; band geezer and maniac drummer Nicko McBrain is already 61. Maiden may not have another 21 years.

maiden.jpg

Walking into the arena was sensory overload. I’m 37, but I felt like a youngster in that crowd. Cigarette and marijuana smoke mingled with the aroma of spilled $10 draft domestic swill and what smelled like Cinnabon. Cinnabon? I learned later that the smell was actually cinnamon sprinkled on bags of hot nuts. Perfect. A grizzled older guy with a lot more tattoos than me walked by in a sleeveless denim jacket with an old Maiden T-shirt sewn on the back, long biker’s braids and do-rag, leather fingerless gloves and a cup of beer in each hand. I stopped him and asked “Are those beers really ten bucks?” He turned and said “Nice beard. Yeah, but it’s better not to think about that, dude. It’s Maiden. Just get some! You have really pretty eyes.”

I just said “thanks man” and got into the beer line. I wandered around the dozens of merch stands offering every Iron Maiden t-shirt, hoodie and hockey jersey design ever imagined, along with those same images and more on posters and banners of every size and even what looked like sheets and wall-hangings. I didn’t even look at the prices.

It’s weird to squeeze yourself into a narrow chair between oversized fans on the opposite side of an arena from the stage in a 20,000-seat venue to watch a rock band from a seated position from which you can barely move...or maybe it’s not, and I'm the weirdo. I’m just used to being a lot closer to a band, standing up and moving around in a club fit for a few hundred or less, feeling like I can actually interact with a performer, which is the kind of place where the bands I usually want to see tend to play. It’s also weird for a rock show to start at 7:30, but this one did.

megadeth.jpg

Megadeth was into their third song by the time we made it to our seats. Even though I haven’t purchased one of their records since the excellent Countdown To Extinction (1992), I recognized most of the songs on Thursday’s set list, which included songs from my favorite album, Rust In Peace (1990) as well as songs from Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? (1986). There were a couple tunes I didn’t recognize, but that’s understandable, as I was surprised to discover that there have been nine albums (not counting live albums and compilations) since I stopped keeping up with Mustaine and his revolving door of band mates. I had to look that up.

For the first half of the set, I couldn’t make out anything but drums, vocals and guitar solos. The riffs and bass were mired somewhere in the mud of the sound system. Mr. Mustaine seemed to have lost a bit of the vocal pep he once had, as most of his performance amounted to low-range grunts with a touch of tonality instead of the higher, whinier singing on his albums of old. To add to the aural chaos, large video screens directly behind each band member flashed pulsating, strobe-like images throughout the set, blasting flames, blood, religious symbols and the requisite photos of warfare and world leaders in a visual cacophony that made focusing on the musicians difficult. Though Megadeth mostly just stood there and occasionally walked from one side of the stage to the other, the musicianship was solid. Soon the sound improved, and despite these issues, Megadeth still rocked pretty damn hard.

As far as I could tell from the between-song commentary I could actually discern though the sound system, Dave Mustaine hadn't been hanging out with Ted Nugent lately and didn't spout any of the truly crazy shit that he is known for on Thursday night, but there were a few gems worth noting. He dipped his toe into current events with a brief argument against attacking Syria and against war in general, which is all well and good, but then he said something that made no sense at all: "War's not good for metal."

Say whaaaat?? How many of the best metal songs of all time (by just about any metal band you can possibly think of) are about war? Most of them, I think. Hell, how many of Megadeth's best songs are about war? Nearly all of them?? Maybe Dave should just try not to talk at his shows. At the end, well after the synchronized, theatrical, hand-holding stage bow with his band, long after they had all left the stage, having completed his third applause-seeking Christ-pose, Mustaine addressed the audience, saying: "You were great. And we were AMAZING!" Bag o’ hot nuts, indeed.

I will likely be revisiting at least two of my old favorite Megadeth albums in the near future, thanks to this nostalgic experience. After all, according to one anonymous Nashville Scene reviewer, the last band I actually played a show with sounded "like Dave Mustaine got tricked into playing in a Victory Records band with a lot of feelings." I felt honored to have been so thoroughly dismissed by Nashville's hipster elite. I really do love that description, though I don't entirely agree with it. You be the judge.

Anyway, Iron Maiden, its members collectively averaging roughly a decade older than the members of Megadeth, blew their young charges off the stage. But who can open for Maiden, anyway, right? Tripling the depth of Megadeth's one-dimensional stage, Maiden’s elaborate set looked like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, featuring three tiers of snowy peaks and valleys on which a still limber Bruce Dickinson was constantly running, leaping, spinning, kicking, swirling and gesturing like the mad sorcerer that he most certainly remains. Is there another rock frontman that can move like this? Nope, not Jagger. Is there another frontman who is also a pro-level fencer and happens to pilot Ed-Force One, a commercial jet that flies the band and crew from show to show? I think not.

Dickinson hit all the notes* all night, soaring majestically through a parade of hits, mostly drawing on classic 80s albums like Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988), The Number of The Beast (1982), Piece of Mind (1983), Killers (1981), Somewhere in Time (1986) and Powerslave (1984). Bruce wasn’t the only one running around. The rest of Maiden crisscrossed the stage repeatedly and got their exercise. My wife was most impressed by the “adorable” Janick Gers, who, in his sparkling black tights and white sneakers, skipped and danced around with youthful glee.

As I mentioned, there are precious few bands with the power to draw me into an arena, but if ever a band was made for spectacle, that band is Iron Maiden. Behind the ice fortress, gigantic images from various album covers rotated, usually featuring the band’s menacing mascot Eddy and his glowing red eyes. At least a couple versions of Eddy emerged into three dimensions, one pressing through the stage background to tower over the set, the other a 15-foot giant stomping across the stage around the band members. Between his perpetual twirls and pogo hopping, Gers and Dickinson darted between Eddy’s legs.

No detail was spared, as pyrotechnic gear spewed fire along the length of stages right and left; even fireworks exploded over the set. Perhaps the most elaborate light show I’ve ever seen only added to the show, coating the arena with bands of color and adding depth and shadows to the stage at appropriate intervals, but the music was flawless. The melodies soared, the bass and drums marched in galloping lockstep, and magic happened. Somehow the spectacle only enhanced the experience and never overshadowed the band itself. Iron Maiden is just that good. Even if you’re not a metalhead, Maiden could be your gateway to the other side. Check their tour dates, grab a bag o’ hot nuts and see them live. You’ll be glad you did.

*Okay, so Bruce sat out some of the highest parts of Aces High, but I'll cut him some slack. It was near the end of the night, and the vocals on that one launch into the stratosphere.

national.jpg

It was a weekend of rock for us. After the Maiden show, we caught The National at the Ryman, and the contrast between theatrical metal in the hockey arena and sad shoegazer indie (now mainstream) rock in country music's most hallowed hall could not have been more pronounced, but we had a blast at both shows. The Ryman sounds incredible from virtually any angle. You squeeze into an ancient wooden pew and just have to hope that you aren't sitting behind a roof-supporting pillar or people who choose to stand up all night. Openers Frightened Rabbit were very good, though I didn't realize there was to be an opening act and thought the singer had said they were called "Freight and Cabin." His deep Scottish brogue over the PA threw me a bit. My lovely wife wondered why he seemed to be pointing out "the gays," but the singer of the all-male band was actually lamenting the fact that whenever audience members whistled at them, the whistles always came from "the guys." Again, it was the accent that threw her. We laughed. I couldn't believe how many times these guys changed instruments. It seems like that would get old on tour.

I guess video screens are an expected part of large rock shows these days. Even at the Ryman, The National's stage-to-ceiling, stage right-to-left backdrop was a house-sized video screen that began with live, verite-style backstage prep footage and continued with colorful, artsy abstract visuals with superimposed live impressions of the band, along with weather effects and some sections that looked like old Atari games. The sold-out crowd was stoked and knew all the hits. We were on the balcony and watched a guy on the front row pogo up and down with a hand in the air for the entire show. Sometimes Matt Berninger would even bend over and scream his vocals in this bouncing pogo-guy's hyper-enthusiastic face.

Sitting = Dying

office.jpg

Excluding a short walk to and from lunch, I spend 40 hours a week glued to an office chair in my centrally heated (and aired) cubicle of three walls. Sheathed in smooth plastics, coarse carpets and other synthetic materials in a muted palette of gray, brown and black, I sit and stare at two screens, typing and developing carpal tunnel syndrome. As the years pass, my body losing its war on gravity and slowly spreading toward the floor, one possible future flashes before my eyes. I see myself devolving into an involuntary emulation of his blubberiness, Jabba The Hutt. Recoiling in terror? Me too. But it's simple. We must move it or add to it.

Over the edges of my three cubicle walls, I have a lovely view of the foam, paneled ceiling. The removable square panels are painted white; if I look straight up, I can see the tiny holes in them. As my mind wanders from the TPS reports at hand, I think of a dart board because, well, dart boards are more fun than TPS reports, right? Yeah...it would be fun to play darts. Sometimes I think of Bruce Willis sneaking around up there to take down some terrorists. In the future, I bet I would look more like Bruce and less like Jabba if I crawled around in the ceiling all day, searching for terrorists instead of typing TPS reports.

However, I have good shoes and don't have to walk around on broken glass. Also, most days, nobody is shooting at me. Some panels are inhabited by sprinklers designed to save us, or perhaps to save the cubicles, in a fire emergency. Other panels contain long fluorescent bulbs. The intense, bright, glowing tubes emit a low, buzzing tone and keep the light levels at a consistent, manufactured, predictable level all day, but occasionally they will flicker and buzz. This drove one co-worker to scream obscenities and throw a phone book at the ceiling. Eventually she was fired.

My three-quarter cube is one of eight in the rat's maze. Thankfully, my superiors did not require my department to endure the humiliation of gathering in a small room and reading aloud from the self-help/worker-motivating abomination Who Moved My Cheese?, as one manager required of me more than a decade ago. Here, there is no cheese, but somebody was audibly munching Doritos on Thursday, which caused a minor uproar. At least she chewed with her mouth closed. One co-worker goes after the whole bag of popcorn with jaws agape, which sounds a little gross from across the room.

Sometimes it feels like being stuck in an aisle at Toys-R-Us but with a desk and TPS reports instead of toys. Hey, it sure is bright in here! Too bad there's nothing to play with besides the computer! We could use some squirt guns or some of those USB-powered rocket launchers that shoot Nerf darts into other cubicles. Those would be fun. Or some arcade games and a ping pong table with cold beers, bean bag chairs and climbing walls, like in some hip technology start-up in Denver or somewhere.

Maybe I should get some Transformers or G.I. Joes for my desk. That's an idea. Because the three walls rise several feet over the height of my desk, I can’t tell what the weather looks like unless I get up and walk over to a window near my manager’s desk at one end of the large room, but luckily the background image at gmail indicates dawn, day or dusk, and of course I have clocks on my computer screens and on my telephones, so why bother to get up? Just kidding. I get up and stretch and walk fairly often, but I'm still losing this fight.

Behind me there is a plain brown wall with a fire alarm, an electrical outlet, a light switch and a door to the main lobby. All day long, people walk behind me, talking to their phones, themselves and each other, plunging back and forth through the perpetually beeping security doors at the open end of my cube, slamming the heavy magnets that hold the glass door to the frame open instead of waiting the half-second it takes the door to open automatically after receiving the signal from the plastic badges we all must carry because yes, we need those stinking badges.

BOOM! The door behind me swings open and someone shuffles by. Occasionally, the strobe lights and ear-piercing siren of the fire alarm will force us all out of the building, so that counts as a little exercise, I guess. Too bad exercise doesn't even matter when you sit as much as we--the cubicular Americans--do. I walk probably 20 or 30 minutes a day during my work week, but it’s not enough, and this inactivity is getting to me.

How did this happen? When I was driving a truck every day and wrestling storage barns in the dirt, I often longed for a climate-controlled office environment like this one. Now that I’ve been in it for three and a half years, I find myself longing for more physical activity during the day. Greener grass syndrome, I guess. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not longing for lost barn-hauling work, nostalgic for the days of struggles with concrete and wooden blocks, on my back underneath a barn in chicken and dog shit, puncturing my scalp on protruding nails and smashing my thumbs with a hammer. No thanks. Three years of that was enough.

I guess I’m just wondering how to shape the ideal work environment. It is no revelatory scoop that most of us could use more exercise than we get, but it is the simple inaction of sitting at our desks—what a great many of us are required to do as a part of our daily working lives—that is hastening our deaths. As if looking in the mirror wasn’t enough for most of us to realize the consequences of our immobile lifestyles, a never-ending stream of journalism is emerging, sounding the alarm, screaming ever urgently that we need to get the hell up and freaking move—we, the anchored American office drones who (on many or most weekdays) sit in the car, then sit at our desks, then sit at the dinner table, then sit on our couches, and then go to bed.

In 2010, the New York Times claimed that “your chair is your enemy.” Men’s Health asked: “Is your office chair killing you? In 2011, the Times then wondered: “Is sitting a lethal activity?” Apparently the answer to these questions is an emphatic yes. Even the Wall Street Journal weighed in, citing Silicon Valley’s embrace of standing desks. These days, the voices are becoming increasingly frantic. They include CBS News: “sitting too much may double your risk of dying;” US News and World Report: “those who sat for 11 hours or more…had a 40 percent greater risk of early death compared to those who sat for under four hours;" and the BBC: “a lack of exercise is now causing as many deaths as smoking across the world.” Had enough? There's more.

TIME magazine, quoting a 2012 study, said that “sitting for more than three hours a day can cut two years off a person’s life expectancy,” and here’s the good part: this true “even if he or she exercises regularly.” The Atlantic actually begged readers to get a “stand up desk” and summarized the issue with a succinct: “He who sits the most dies the soonest.” Heart Disease! Cancer! Diabetes! High Blood Pressure! Stroke! Hypertension! Early death!

It gets even worse. Last month’s Outside magazine included those same five damning words: “even if you exercise regularly, sitting at your desk all day will kill you. Literally.” So basically we have two choices: we can either figure out a way to get moving while at work, or we can die the horrible, wheezing deaths of the office-drone obese. I don’t see a lot of alternatives.

I didn’t even consider this issue during the years I drove a truck around mostly rural communities, delivering and repossessing storage barns. I’d spend several hours on the road, but I’d also be in and out of the truck and physically active, crawling around underneath barns, loading concrete blocks on and off the truck, chain-sawing wooden blocks, cranking lift jacks and shoveling stuff. I didn’t think about it when I worked at the retail sporting goods store, as I was often on the move, walking around the sales floor and climbing up and down the stacks of shoes in the back.

Finally landing a job with the word “writer” in the title after five years of post-graduate effort, I was psyched to have the office chair and the three walls of my cube. I’m still very glad to have this gig, the best job I've had thus far, but who wants to slowly devolve into Jabba? I'd rather take my chances against the Rancor monster. The thing is, finding a way to move consistently during the day really does work. A friend of mine who spent an inordinate amount of time playing video games decided to pick up a used treadmill on Craigslist (for free) and adjusted quickly to gaming while walking. He lost 20 pounds.

So why aren’t we moving? I don’t want to blame this on anyone but myself, as nobody is forcing me to be an office drone, but I have to fault my employer at least a little. I've been after them for years, trying to convince the powers that be that we need to move our rapidly expanding asses. Those in charge encourage us to take walks, sponsor a weight-loss contest and even hand out prizes like pedometers, and that is good, but it's just not good enough.

We need to move throughout the day. I'm talking standing desks, walking desks or even riding desks. Why not? We'd all become happier, healthier, more productive and fit, and we'd lower our overall health insurance expenses, thus pleasing our employers. We'd all feel better and have glowing articles written about us. What employer doesn't want good press? If only I could get them to listen. 

The best way to stay alive—not only alive but the happy, healthy, invigorated kind of alive—is to keep moving. Susan Orlean spent years investigating this subject, trying out all kinds of expensive office chairs, those weird kneeling chairs, the big yoga balls some folks sit on and other options before settling on a treadmill desk and writing her article for the New Yorker last May.

If you know what's good for you, you'll find a way to move your ass. If you work in a cube and your boss won't spring for an alternative/active desk arrangement, and you can still figure out how to beat back the inner Jabba, then you're definitely my kind of scum, both fearless and inventive. Happy Labor Day.

Searching For Signs of Serious Sci-Fi: ELYSIUM Review (Part 2 of 2)

After posting my own simple praise, I started reading Elysium reviews, particularly those by two of my favorite writers, here and here. Of course, one is a film critic and the other (a novelist) is pretty hard to please when it comes to Hollywood fare, but I'm starting to feel like I'm the only one who really liked this movie.

Yes, Neill Blomkamp's District 9 was better than his Elysium, but I thought Elysium was quite entertaining too, and what's wrong with being entertained? Look, I absolutely loved District 9, but even so, it hit us all over the head with a pretty obvious truth--that racism is a cancer and that without pulling together for the good of the planet and ourselves, we're all basically fucked. It’s the same message that a lot of great sci-fi has pushed for decades, an old trope of Star Trek and beyond. District 9 wasn't very deep, but it was brilliantly executed.

Yes, there was even less room for nuance or character development in Elysium, and it felt even more didactic in its socio-humanist messages about healthcare and immigration, but the performances (mostly) were convincing, the worlds, technologies and landscapes Blomkamp created were stunning…and I guess I’m guilty of enjoying a good apocalyptic battle involving badass mech suits and robots, just like all those 13-year-old boys my friend McKinty derides so thoroughly in his review.

I was able to more easily overlook the tired “save the innocent child with cancer” and “evil secretary of defense” tropes. There just aren’t enough original stories making it into science fiction film, so we are left to decide, among the endless legion of rehashed, reconstituted and recombined plots, which of these have been dressed up most convincingly to move us, if not solely to entertain us.

Maybe I tend to set my expectations for sci-fi movies lower than Edelstein and McKinty? I don't know. I know I’ll be seeing Pacific Rim at some point, but I share McKinty’s concern that it might be a colossal disappointment for a fan of Guillermo Del Toro’s previous rich, unique movies like Pan’s Labyrinth. It might be fun, but I’m not expecting a lot from the Giant Lizard versus Giant Robot premise. Then again, there will be mech suits, of a sort, and it might be supreme entertainment in a very vapid, empty way. Sometimes there is a place for this sort of movie. I’m not trying to write a dissertation on everything I watch, and sometimes it’s fun to just watch cool stuff happen on screen without thinking too much. There will be plenty of time to think when I'm reading.

My sci-fi bar was set high, long ago, with Blade Runner, Brazil, The Empire Strikes Back, Alien, Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I almost never expect directors in this popular, blockbuster genre to truly hit anything out of the park anymore. It has become so very rare to see sci-fi that successfully manages to merge top-level visuals, narrative, acting and emotional/intellectual impact simultaneously.

As much as I wanted to love Sir Ridley’s triumphant return to sci-fi after two home runs in a row (Alien and Blade Runner) so many decades before, Prometheus was a bit of a disappointment and maybe contributed to an already steady lowering of expectations for sci-fi movies on my part, a decline that began in 1999 with a colossally disappointing Star Wars prequel.

Sure, Prometheus looks fantastic, starts with a bang and even manages to top the untoppable chest-burster scene. I definitely enjoyed the ride, but the writing just doesn’t hold together by the third act, when (mostly avoiding spoilers here) brilliant scientists just don’t act like scientists at all when discovering potentially dangerous new species, and highly trained military leaders use terrible judgment regarding officers under their command and don’t even understand which way to run when gigantic heavy things roll right toward them in a straight line. Still, I’m psyched to see what Ridley and company might come up with for a sequel, as the two most interesting characters remain poised for one.

That said, I’m a little terrified about Scott’s upcoming plan to revisit the Blade Runner universe and its potential crossover with the Alien/Prometheus universe, as Blade Runner has long been my favorite movie (thesis topic, poster in my living room, tattoos) and I tend to think he should just leave well enough alone. However, I will apply the same healthy dose of cynicism coated by a razor-thin veneer of fleeting optimism, the very same dose of which I already mentioned I would apply to the potential for Star Wars VII and for…whatever Ben Affleck will be doing in that cape and cowl…

(tangent alert)...I have to admit I was pretty stoked on the idea of an older Batman this time around, but even though The Dark Knight Returns clearly has a part in this story, we’re not going to have a Batman who is quite old enough. I thought Josh Brolin would have been great, and I even held out hope for a return visit from a still snarky, crazy-eyed, gray but fit Michael Keaton, which would have been mind-blowingly awesome, but so it goes. I was surprised by this decision, but I’m not crushed. There’s no way Zack Snyder will allow Bats and Supes to descend to the level of the Joel Schumacher era Batman movies of which we shall not speak. I’m confident in that, though I have yet to see Snyder's Man of Steel.

As an apt tweet I read in an article about the Batfleck uproar over the weekend indicated, it’s not like they cast Woody Allen, right? We can give Ben a break, right? What actor hasn’t been in a few crappy movies? Just look at what drivel Robert DeNiro keeps churning out. Even the great Bobby D needs to pay the bills, right? An actor acts; not all of them sit around waiting to accept only projects featuring the most perfect scripts and critically acclaimed directors.

As Samuel L. Jackson once said, “you take what you can get, to keep your engine tuned. An artist doesn’t burn out with age because he works too much. Working hones his craft.” Yeah, so he did Snakes On A Plane. Along with his craft, working has also honed his crap, but I agree with him. Sometimes it’s probably fun to be in a crappy movie like Snakes On A Plane or something with J-Lo that shall remain nameless. Mr. Affleck has contributed much to the crap cannon, most of which isn’t worth bringing up here, but I say give the guy a pass. Say what you will; I liked Good Will Hunting and The Town a lot, and in both roles Affleck plays a blue collar dude from South Boston, maybe because that’s who he actually is.

I liked Argo, but Ben didn’t have much to do in there as far as acting goes. As far as Bats goes, he's already got the height and the chin, and the physique shouldn’t be much trouble for him. Maybe Gotham could look a little more Boston and a little less New York this time around? It could work. You need to play to your Batman’s strengths, Mr. Snyder. Nothing wrong with that, right? How you like them apples? (Sorry—irresistible Batfleck tangent there).

Of course, there are always smart, relatively low-budget, fantastic sci-fi surprises every few years, seemingly out of nowhere, like Moon, Primer and yes, District 9. I remain optimistic about Neill Blomkamp’s ability to progress as a director and to improve as he goes along, carefully navigating the originality-squashing big studio system that only wants to bank on surefire hits based on what has gone before. Maybe he’ll still be on the short list if Microsoft and some film studio (or studios) ever make a Halo film happen.

But hey, I liked Avatar, too. It's not among my favorite Cameron films, and I enjoyed it more like I might enjoy a theme-park ride than a movie, but the problem with theme park rides is that you have to actually go to theme parks to enjoy them, and I rarely go to the theatre anymore, though I made exceptions for Avatar, Prometheus and Elysium. Avatar has become quite the punching bag. You should watch the review in that last link. It's damn funny and pretty right on. I think I liked Avatar a bit better than the Red Letter guy did, but yeah, it deserves the critique.

I guess I just don't hold all movies to the same standard; I often keep expectations low, particularly in sci-fi and superhero land. When it comes to sci-fi, I'm usually up for giving B or occasionally even C-level movies a chance because I like to look at cool stuff and be entertained, but beyond those exceptions, for me it is all about good writing, no matter the genre, and it’s a fantastic surprise when a sci-fi movie can match phenomenal storytelling with great visuals. It just doesn’t happen enough, but I’m always ready to give a sci-fi flick a chance, even if I know it’s not going to bring the A game.

While we're at it, I'd give D9 an A and Elysium a B. It's great when someone brings the A game, but it’s far too rare. Many critically acclaimed, commercially successful directors want to take a shot at ambitious, serious sci-fi, at least at once in their careers. I had high hopes for Danny Boyle's Sunshine, and to me, it started well but quickly descended into the "slasher in space" genre, like many others before it (e.g. Event Horizon). Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity looks interesting, and maybe Christopher Nolan will impress us all, even Adrian McKinty (fat chance), with Interstellar, but commenting on movies is all subjective opinion anyway, isn’t it?

Read part one of my Elysium review here.

Werner Herzog And Cows In The Field

I noticed that a retrospective of several of Werner Herzog's early films is screening at the Lincoln Center Film Society this week in New York. I wish I could go. It's been years since I watched my favorite Herzog film, his masterpiece, Fitzcarraldo (1982), or Les Blank's Burden of Dreams (also 1982) an excellent documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo.

However, I just finished Herzog's book Conquest of the Useless: Reflections From the Making of Fitzcarraldo, which I would attempt to describe had Janet Maslin not already nailed it with one word: "hypnotic."

Fitzcarraldo is the story of an early 20th century would-be rubber baron and his obsessive quest to build an opera house deep within the Amazon jungle, which leads him to drag a 320-ton steamship over a mountain with the help of scores of indigenous people and a system of pulleys and levers, a feat filmed sans special effects. Herzog's single-minded drive to complete the film and to actually accomplish what his character will stop at nothing to achieve results in a unique film that defies genre and creates a bleak, ominous world of its own. Its images resonate decades later, and reading Conquest, I'm brought right back into the midst of the intense madness and the imaginative beauty of the whole gorgeous train wreck from which I still cannot manage to look away.

The film stars Herzog's muse and nemesis, Klaus Kinski, whom Herzog called his "best fiend," and a "wild beast" responsible for "every gray hair on my head." Of his relationship with Kinski, which spanned several fantastic films and several times as many apocalyptic arguments and confrontations, Herzog said "I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had a mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other's murder." 

Native Peruvian Indians cast as extras in the film indeed offer enthusiastically to simply murder Kinski during one of his regular screaming, maniacal rants, but Herzog manages to resist the temptation. Kinski, seemingly always on the brink of utter madness, appears in Conquest as an abusive, intolerant, wife-beating, insane egomaniac capable of fleeting moments of compassion and understanding, yet Herzog is perhaps kinder to Klaus than Kinski's own children, who have accused him of sexual abuse and other horrors. Thus, unless he had cast himself (which he considers at one point in the book) it is unlikely that Herzog could have cast an actor more suited to play a man driven to madness by obsession with such a seemingly impossible task. 

Though Jason Robards was cast in the title role before the first attempt to shoot Fitzcarraldo fell apart and started all over again, perhaps Herzog knew all along that there was only one man alive who could play the titular hero. I suspect he wanted to avoid dealing with Kinski yet again after casting him as a man in a similar frame of mind in Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and enduring the trials of their volatile working relationship, but it is difficult to imagine someone else as Fitz.

I have precious few heroes, but Werner Herzog is one of them. A fearless cultural critic and deeply empathic observer of the human condition who always seeks truth, Herzog is inspiring. Is it possible not to love a guy who said that "our grandchildren will blame us for not having tossed hand-grenades into TV stations because of commercials?" Of course he's not really advocating for violence, but he's absolutely right about commercials. When interviewing murderers on death row, he said "your crime is abominable and monstrous, but I will treat you as a human being." 

Herzog's documentaries pulse with his distinctive cadence in elegant verbal poetry, his German-accented English like an evil counterpoint to David Attenborough's exuberant optimism. Herzog could be Attenborough's dark nemesis, calmly resigned to catalog our collective doom. Herzog grew up in a remote Bavarian village outside Munich, and as a boy, after refusing to sing a song in front of his classmates as directed, he eschewed all music until the age of 18. He now says he would give ten years of his life to be able to play an instrument. He saw no films and didn't even use a telephone until his late teens. He worked the night shift as a welder to afford to finance his early films, which he shot with a camera he had "liberated" from a nearby university.

He once pulled Joaquin Phoenix from his flipped, burning car after an accident in the Hollywood hills, calling 911 and disappearing afterward into the night. He may be the only director to have made films on every continent. In the seventies, he was bumped at the last minute from a flight that crashed and then made a film about the lone survivor. He said "if I had to climb into hell and wrestle the devil himself for one of my films, I would do it."

Herzog's rather unorthodox approach to a (hypothetical) film school is noteworthy: 

"At my utopian film academy I would have students do athletic things with real physical contact, like boxing, something that would teach them to be unafraid. I would have a loft with a lot of space where in one corner there would be a boxing ring. Students would train every evening from eight to ten with a boxing instructor: sparring, somersaulting (backwards and forwards), juggling, magic, card tricks. Whether or not you would be a filmmaker by the end I do not know, but at least you would come out as an athlete...actually, for some time now I have given some thought to opening a film school. But if I did start one up you would only be allowed to fill out an application form after you have walked alone on foot, let's say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of about five thousand kilometers. While walking, write. Write about your experiences and give me your notebooks. I would be able to tell who had really walked the distance and who had not. While you are walking you would learn much more about filmmaking and what it truly involves that you ever would sitting in a classroom. During your voyage you will learn more about what your future holds than in five years at film school."

He's obviously a Faustian guy, a fan of Goethe, one who clearly values a life of experience over just about everything. How else can an artist know the world and comment truthfully on it than by engaging with it fully, allowing the world and the environment to drive the experience and to make its impact on the creator? There will be no storyboards for Herzog because the process unfolds as he is making the film. Apparently not a fan of the French New Wave, he has called Jean-Luc Godard's films "intellectual counterfeit money compared to a good Kung Fu film;" yet Francois Truffant called Herzog "the most important film director alive."

Herzog is the kind of artist that can make just about anything fascinating simply by deeming it worthy of his attention. This sounds like hyperbole, but I assure you it is authentic praise. Though even Herzog is not immune to satire, of course. He has a sense of humor and even ate his shoe after losing a bet with a young colleague, Errol Morris, after encouraging Morris to complete his first film. Morris went on to make several great films including The Thin Blue Line (1988) and The Fog of War (2003).

Herzog's uncompromising creative vision has permeated each of his films. They all seek what he has called an ecstatic truth; each is a journey compelling viewers to enlist, never really knowing where they will be led. There are still many among Herzog's oeuvre of which I have yet to experience, but I like having unseen movies to look forward to, so I have resisted the temptation to binge on his cannon, sweeping through it as I might with a series of lessor genre movies.

My favorites include, of course, Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Grizzly Man (2005), but also Little Dieter Needs To Fly (1997), Encounters at the End of the World (2007), My Best Fiend (1999) and Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). 

Herzog's characters often hover on the edge of sanity, and nature becomes an adversary despite its beauty. As beer is to Homer Simpson, nature is, to Herzog's protagonists: both the source of and solution to life's challenges. The duality of this relationship between man and nature has proven to be fertile ground for his work. Though he has won scores of awards, he has said that he is "not out to win prizes--that's for dogs and horses." I agree; it's nice to be recognized for a job well done, but competition for awards among artists has always seemed counter-intuitive.

Conquest of the Useless resonated with me long after I had set the book aside, and I found myself struck, in the most unlikely of places, by images from Herzog's vivid journal entries from the Peruvian jungle in the early eighties. Standing on a tennis court, visualizing his cabin on stilts on the banks of the Amazon jungle, I was unable to shake the image of his staring contests with various otherworldly snakes, birds, insects and reptiles, his anthropomorphic interactions with poultry, pigs, fire ants, cobras and tarantulas; though I was serving, I had to ask my opponent if he remembered the score. My mind wanders on the tennis court. Sometimes it's about food; other times it's about movies. 

Sitting in my dull, gray cubicle, imagining the pulsing cacophony thousands of jungle animals would create as Herzog lay in this cabin at night, only a year older then than I am today, I ponder his task of mobilizing hundreds of native inhabitants to drag a steamship over a mountain from one section of river to the next and the unrelenting tidal wave of related human, animal, environmental, political, financial and personal challenges he endured. I would temporarily forget where I was and daydream as though I had such monumental tasks and challenges of a creative nature to ponder instead of the droll healthcare reports laid out in front of me demanding my attention and slowly draining me of my youth. As I wander back and forth from work to apartment in the congested urban landscape in which I live, I remember his comment that "civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness." No, I don't paint my fingernails black and only rarely listen to the Cure. Still, the best art--for me, the truest art--is often very dark.

Certain powerful, unrelated passages, too, some of them almost evoking Kerouac in their rambling streams of consciousness, would not leave me alone after I closed the book, and I did not want them to, so I marked them in my copy of Conquest, rereading them. They include these excerpts which I will post below, hoping to enlist a few readers with interest in Herzog's work:

"Trees falling all the rest of the day. When these giants fall, the sound is the exciting part. The mightiest tree of all sighed, then screamed, then farted, then crashed with incredible force into the forest. Long afterward large limbs continued to snap until they finally fell silent. A bat colony fluttered off in confusion, along with swarms of wasps, birds, a cloud of small flying insects. Tiny, thin caterpillars flee, humping their midsection, then throwing their front section ahead, rushing along in a caterpillar gallop."
 
"A man was hacking away at the yucca plants with his machete. My frying pan is all rusty. On the wall hang things that seem to stare at me in bewilderment, wondering whether I still belong to them. In the afternoon I fell asleep in the hammock on my porch, my limbs heavy. Several times I tried to get up, until the setting sun reached me under the palm roof, and burned me in the face, as if filled with hatred. At that point I withdrew into my four bamboo walls and tried to take in the situation. I ate a few cookies that I found in a tin. Unmoved, the birds in the forest were exchanging information. A twig cracked, but no one was coming. It is a hot, sultry afternoon, drained of meaning."
"I laid out test strips in the sand along the bank, with honey, urine, laundry detergent, beer, and soap, to see what attracts butter-flies most effectively. They often alight in extraordinary numbers, attracted by something, and I would like to place Fitz in the middle of a swarm like that."
 
"Large green lizards are rustling in the leaves. Fish leap out of the water as if they actually belonged to the clouds in the sky. It is only through writing that I become myself. At the other end of the camp someone is hammering a board, and the sound comes back in a hollow echo from the forest. The forest does not accept these sounds. Last night there were thousands of winged creatures hovering around the lamps, raging in wild swarms like spherical catastrophes around the light bulbs. One could eat only with the light switched off. In the morning, by the boat landing, where a more powerful lamp has been installed, there were piles of wings on the ground, like a snowdrift. Everywhere spiders have spun their webs under the roof, near the electric light, and with such a surfeit of prey they cannot attend to every captured gift; they have taut bellies, as plump as cherries."

Herzog continues to buck the status quo and defy anyone's attempt to corral his artistic vision. If you haven't seen any Herzog movies, you should get busy, but don't just take my word for it. Roger Ebert agreed with me and said that Herzog "never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting," and that "even his failures are spectacular." If you fancy yourself a "serious" student of film and look down your nose at Ebert (I think you're wrong because he's an excellent writer), remember that Herzog himself said that "film should be looked at straight on; it is not the art of scholars but of illiterates...academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion."

Herzog's recent short film about the dangers of texting while driving is burning up the YouTube charts and should save lives. I hope he continues to make his uncompromising films (and writing about them) for many decades to come. This is a quote-heavy post, but I cannot resist concluding with a final comment from Werner Herzog himself, a fitting close to the best argument I can make for anyone who reads this blog to seek out this living legend's body of work:

"It is not only my dreams, my belief is that all these dreams are yours as well. The only distinction between me and you is that I can articulate them. And that is what poetry or painting or literature or film making is all about...it's as simple as that. I make films because I have not learned anything else and I know I can do it to a certain degree. And it is my duty because this might be the inner chronicle of what we are. We have to articulate ourselves, otherwise we would be cows in the field."