Monday, June 30, 2014

Everybody's Rocking

Kanye West - "Slow Jamz (Feat. Twista & Jamie Foxx)" (The College Dropout, 2004)

I went through a Kanye West phase a few months back. I realized one day that although I had 808s and Heartbreaks, My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy, and especially Yeezus damn near committed to memory, I really didn't know his first three albums at all. (Fun story: I live with someone for whom Yeezus is one of their favorite albums - even though she's not usually a hip-hop person, for something like six months running that was her default car listening music. So I'm kind of sick of it now.) My excuse is simply that, from my perspective, 2004 was a pretty weak year, in the middle of a pretty weak period for commercial hip-hop.

This isn't any reflection of the what was actually happening in rap, but an admission that for the most part I tend to be an unimaginative hip-hop listener. I can point to The Roots' Tipping Point as one of my favorite albums from that year (I know it might seem strange, but in many ways I prefer The Tipping Point even to Things Fall Apart, even if I also acknowledge that Phrenology is probably the superior album to both). That was the year Madvillainy dropped. Ghostface released the fairly tepid Pretty Toney. Outkast and Jay-Z were still riding high off late-2003 blockbusters. Other than the artists I already followed, what I heard was 50 Cent, G-Unit, and a thousand clones of the same. I worked at the children's residential facility during the height of 50's dominance and that's the dominant memory I have of that era of hip-hop: a bunch of developmentally-challenged and mentally ill children putting pictures of 50 on their walls because he was the best masculine role model a group of disadvantaged orphans could find.

Given that, can you understand how someone with very little investment in contemporaneous hip-hop - and, let's be frank, very white buying habits - could have completely slept on Kanye West? I just wasn't paying attention, but I knew enough about hip-hop history to know that there are few less promising sales pitches than that of a well-respected hitmaker producer deciding to be a rapper and dropping a solo album. (I used to know a guy who was obsessed with Jermaine Dupri, which, you know, I guess there had to be one.) Sure enough The College Dropout spawned a few biggish singles, but nothing that stuck out to me at the time. But instead of putting out a medium-hot album and disappearing (which is how these things often work), he came out with another album a year and a half later, and in the context of a less crowded hip-hop scene this one made a much bigger imprint. This was due in large part to "Gold Digger," which was everywhere for approximately half a year back in the dark days of George W. Bush's second term. But not only was the song itself inescapable, but the controversy following Kanye's (completely justified) outburst at the aforementioned George W. Bush during the Hurricane Katrina television benefit catapulted the man from being a star to being, well, Kanye.

It wasn't possible to ignore Kanye after 2005, but it didn't necessarily follow that I immediately came around. I thought "Gold Digger" was pretty noxious and patently misogynistic (which it still is, to be fair). His follow-up, the similarly-huge Graduation, made the further mistake of sampling Daft Punk on "Stronger," which I dismissed out of hand. he was hitting for the bleachers now - touring with U2 made him want to be a rock star, and he was already playing on a bigger canvas than just about anyone else on the pop music scene at the time. And, all things considered, I would have been perfectly happy to continue ignoring him if he had continued producing ubiquitous pop crossover hits and working with pander-bears like Adam Levine and Chris Martin. But you all know what happened next.

And this, for me, is the embarrassing part, at least in hindsight. There's a stereotype of the male white amateur/semi-pro rock critic (which, never forget, I was for a long time) that I sometimes still find myself falling into - rockism, for lack of a better or less loaded term. I couldn't come around to Kanye until he started producing "interesting" music, i.e., conceptually and musically "weird" in a way that "mere" mainstream hip-hop could never, or only very rarely, be. These were purely knee-jerk responses ingrained by decades of listening to and reading and writing about pop music with a very specific set of cultural blinders. Rock and roll was the dominant paradigm in pop music - or, to put it another way, rock was perceived to be the dominant paradigm in pop music - for so long that many could not recognize when the paradigm had passed.

Because it has passed, and the acknowledgement can't help but come as a bitter pill for anyone who ever bought into the myth of rock and roll as a universal, totalizing cultural force - as opposed to a cultural expression of a very specific time and place in history, primarily championed by a very specific demographic. I've spent a lot of time trying to work past these prejudices over the last few years. Teaching a class on aesthetics over the past year has done a lot for me in terms of breaking some of the most reflexive habits of rockist thinking. The majority of my students don't listen to rock, and furthermore do not have good associations with the genre because of the perception that it is the province of pissy upper-middle-class white people. Which is untrue, but . . . in the year 2014 not not true, either.

When I first heard "Love Lockdown" I immediately knew that this was something really interesting and really different. The individual elements that made up the song were familiar - the minimal Kompakt techno throb, the tribal drums breaking in the middle of the song, Kanye's auto-tuned Sprechgesang - but the way he put them together were new. The raw emotionalism was also novel, at least in the context of mainstream hip-hop waking up from its decades-long superthug hangover. People didn't know how to metabolize this at first - I remember 808s & Heartbreaks received a lot of mixed and confused reviews when it came out. But sure enough, in a year or two everyone wanted to sound like Kanye on "Heartless," and futuristic R&B was the vanguard genre in pop music for a good couple years after.

So I became a Kanye fan, and when My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy hit, it was perfectly calculated to tickle all the old-school rock critic soft spots - ambition, conceptual heft, songs poking up near the ten minute mark, even more of 808s self-excoriating lyrical content. Kanye was obviously making a capital-"S" Statement, no longer aiming for Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt, but Exile on Main Street, Dark Side of the Moon, and Sign O' The Times. And we all ate it up, even if Kanye's commercial fortunes had begun to falter with 808s. Yeezus marked an even greater departure - if My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy had represented the logical apotheosis of all the strains of Kanye's music up to that time, Yeezus was the sound of Kanye throwing everything in the shredder and listening to German techno and Chicago drill. It was Low, Metal Machine Music, and Prince's Black Album all rolled into one. Kanye's still playing the game: in interviews he's made explicit comparisons to Springsteen, calling Yeezus his Nebraska, and likening his forthcoming album to Born in the U.S.A. If he follows through on this promise, his critical dominance will continue apace.

With this context, going back to Kanye's early albums - particularly The College Dropout - was something of a revelation. I had heard the singles but hadn't paid them any attention. If I had bothered to listen to the albums themselves I would have seen that all the most interesting facets of later Kanye - not least of which the aforementioned, cliched "ambition" - was there from the beginning. He had a personal narrative from the start, starting with "Through the Wire" and onto "Jesus Walks," that set him apart from just about everyone else. He was doing something different which stands out even in the context of ten years of subsequent Kanye West music.

But all of that goes under the rubric of hindsight - slotting individual albums into the narrative of a larger career trajectory influenced by the standard artistic precedents that every pop critic carries around in their heads. That's a tempting and in some ways still efficient shorthand for understanding artistic evolution in pop music, but also essentially misleading. Even though Kanye himself would appear to invite these comparisons, they're reductive. He almost certainly does it, at least in part, to flatter the imaginations of music writers: he knows full well that getting the critics on your side is the best way to ensure career longevity, even if sales waver. Yeezus was his worst-selling album by a wide margin, and yet it was also arguably his most discussed.

The point is, Kanye doesn't need the hindsight. He emerged fully-formed, and only those who were willing to dismiss him on the basis of his genre - that is, mainstream, commercial, popular hip-hop - could possibly have missed what was going on. And it's not just the personal storytelling on "Through the Wire," or the ballsy religious turn on "Jesus Walks" - both of which I had heard and gave tacit approval, even if it took me a long time to really appreciate them. No, I think the best song on The College Dropout was also the biggest single, and the most baldly commercial song on the album - "Slow Jamz." (It was technically first released as a Twista song in late 2003, but really, Kanye is in complete control from the very beginning.)

It's a masterpiece of production and composition. It's just over five minutes long but packs in more ideas than most albums. It's a song with no less than three featured artists and a prominent vocal sample from Luther Vandross. (It's been so long since I've paid any attention to early Kanye production that the sped-up Vandross sample sounded for the life of me like a woman's voice. Isn't it amazing how at one time that was his primary gimmick, but you don't even notice it anymore?) Jamie Foxx actually carries the bulk of the song. I was about to say that he sings the chorus, but the funny thing about this song is that it's actually all chorus - there's no standard verse-chorus-verse structure. The whole thing is built on the same repeating loop that escalates into the same descending bass figure like clockwork every ten seconds or so. Even though, technically, the chorus is Foxx's "She wants some Marvin Gaye, some Luther Vandross . . ." section, musically, the chorus is the same as the verse structure. Kanye knows the hook, and he knows not to bury the lede - especially at a time when any misstep could have cost him his nascent career.

Foxx's voice is the glue that holds the song together, with Kanye's verse followed by Twista. (Best Kanye line, obviously: "She's got a white-skinned friend looks like Michael Jackson / Got a dark-skinned friend looks like Michael Jackson.") Everything fits together perfectly: the three vocalists create a sense of place as well as a consistent tone. It feels like a party. This is a club track - but just a bit ironically, it actually has a pretty frenetic beat, contrary to the song's stated purpose of providing a "slow jam." Way back in the late 90s and early 00s, the idea of doing pop crossover hits with hip-hop and R&B elements was a bit controversial - that's one way Ja Rule turned himself into the Richard Gere of hardcore hip-hop, after all. (Well, that and getting on the collected bad side of Eminem, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, and just about every other person in hip-hop.) But Ja Rule actually serves as an object lesson in the way rap has changed in the last decade or so, and how Kanye was instrumental in bringing this change about. The moment Graduation outsold Curtis it was clear that there was a new paradigm, and it no longer mattered if a rapper did R&B crossovers, or slow jams for the ladies, or wore a giant teddy bear costume. Pretty soon it wouldn't matter if rappers sang on their records, or sampled 70s prog rock, or made fantastically indulgent videos with their topless white wives riding a motorcycle in front of a greenscreen. Drake still gets some flack for being soft, but that didn't stop him from having a Wu-Tang posse cut on his last LP.

Musically, "Slow Jamz" is one of Kanye's most complex constructions - the only real peers it has in this regard are "All of the Lights" and "Lost in the World," both off My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy. No one in the world of pop music can do this quite like he can. The fact that he someone avoided getting lost in the wilderness of technique and knew when to step back and punk it up is all the more impressive, considering that the follow-up to My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy could easily have been an even more complex, layered, and demanding work - which is was, but in a completely different way than anything that had preceded it or anyone was expecting.

So, yeah - Kanye is pretty impressive. It took me a while to come around to that, and part of the journey for me was figuring out how to listen past my previous dismissals. "Slow Jamz" is one of the most brilliant songs I've ever heard, and I offer no excuse for taking so long to realize something so obvious.

When I went through my Kanye thing a few months back, I put together a "Best of Kanye" CD-R for listening in the car. This was hard! In just over a decade he has amassed a pretty impressive body of work. I dismissed anything with Adam Levine or Chris Martin, even if they had been popular - sorry, folks. (For what its worth, he doesn't need the crossover gestures anymore - instead of crossing over to pop, pop has essentially crossed over to him.) I didn't find anything on Cruel Summer - a pretty lame disc. But I picked the hits, and the highlights, even though there were a number of close cuts, as you can probably tell. Overall this turned out to be a preternaturally solid disc that stayed in rotation in my automobile for a good few weeks.
Best of West
1. Through the Wire
2. Slow Jamz
3. Jesus Walks
4. Touch the Sky
5. Gold Digger
6. Diamonds from Sierra Leone
7. Can't Tell Me Nothing
8. Stronger
9. Flashing Lights
10. Love Lockdown
11. Heartless
12. Power
13. All of the Lights
14. Runaway
15. Otis (with Jay-Z)
16. Ni**as in Paris (with Jay-Z)
17. New Slaves
18. Bound 2

Saturday, June 21, 2014

How Louie Lost Me

The best moment in the season finale of season four of Louie wasn't even a Louie moment - it wasn't a misunderstanding or a missed connection or a miserable shrug, or even anything Louie did. Halfway through "Pamela Part 3," Marc Maron appears on the left of the frame, almost literally pushing his way onto the screen and to a seat at the table opposite Louie. What follows over the next minute isn't any kind of good-natured ribbing, but an actual heartfelt talking-to, with Maron in the position of the finally successful journeyman comedian lambasting the man who used to be his best friend for having abandoned him during a rough patch and not even trying to hide his obvious jealousy at their reversal of fortune.

It's bracing. Maron has matured into a commanding television presence, and sitting opposite Louie - affecting his shy awkward everyman persona - the contrast is not flattering to Louie. It's very much what would happen if John Cassavetes wandered onto the set of a Woody Allen movie: in the midst of understated, stylized character moments, suddenly there's a bull charging through the heather, saying exactly what he means and staring down the camera with literal-minded aggression. Comparing Louie CK to Marc Maron really isn't a good idea - as performers, they couldn't be more different, even if much of their comedy mines similar veins of self-deprecation and misery. Red apples and green apples. But at the same time, it was hard not to think that Maron walked away with the upper hand: put an understated performer like Louie next to a dominating presence like Maron and obviously one of them is going to look pallid.

But then, that's exactly what Louie wanted. The whole episode was perfectly manufactured: after a season of halting personal growth on Louie's part, being forced to confront his most galling deficits as a friend and a professional right at the moment of his apparent triumph - well, that was exactly what Louie needed to keep the last episode from sinking too deeply into a saccharine morass. Right after the encounter with Maron at the nightclub, Louie gets a pep talk from his new girlfriend Pamela about just how meaningless that kind of success really is - TV shows and high-profile bookings and financial security and all that. And it's all OK, because the jealousy has been countered, Maron's achievements have been placed in context, and Louie gets to enjoy his walk into the sunset.

The problem is that the moment didn't quite work the way Louie intended, and it didn't work in the same way that a number of similar moments fell flat for Louie this season. Look at the scene in context: Louie is counting on his audience knowing that the two comedians are more or less reversed here. Louie was the first to get massive success from a TV show, following the aborted first run of Lucky Louie back on HBO. In the four years since Louie premiered on FX his star has risen precipitously, elevating his status from that of a well-respected comedian's comedian to practically a secular saint, a comedy genius ready to take his place in the pantheon alongside George Carlin and Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks. Given this, the backlash against Louie CK and Louie was inevitable. And, at this juncture, at least somewhat justified.

Because, and this is crucial, Marc Maron didn't succeed before Louie. He struggled through the wilderness far longer than Louie, only achieving his current prosperity after the surprise success of his podcast. His TV show, now in its second season on IFC, is obviously influenced by Louie, and it's unlikely he would even have a single-camera basic cable sitcom at all if Louie hadn't already popularized the format as a showcase for comedians. So there's every reason to believe that Louie, in ventriloquizing Maron for "Pamela Part 3," was tapping something deeper than merely a necessary story beat. Louie's long and troubled relationship with Maron is public record, after all, and even formed the basis for Season 3's "Piano Lesson." This territory is fair game for both men, who are never unwilling to dredge up the most embarrassing and self-excoriating personal details for their comedy. The problem is that in reversing their positions, putting Louie's words in Maron's mouth, and then having Pamela Adlon deliver a pep talk to Louie about the relative meaninglessness of success, the effect is not so much Louie appearing humble and contrite, but Louie appearing to diminish Maron's achievements.

There are a few moments like that throughout the season, where the contrast between Louie-the-Character and Louie-the-Writer results in the appearance of Louie trying to have his cake and eat it too. He can humiliate Louie the Character however he wants, he can have Louie the Character do any number of terrible things, but it's just a character, and the worse TV Louie looks, the better Real Louie seems in reflection. At a certain point his lovable schlub everyman persona starts to ring false. Willa Paskin, writing for Slate, explains the problem better than I could:
Every time Louis C.K. takes Louie down a peg, he burnishes himself. When Louie is behaving horribly, C.K. knows it. When Louie is being embarrassed, C.K. is being gutsy. Moments that puncture Louie make C.K. look good. When Louis C.K. writes a speech about how a man with a TV show is “just a guy,” he contributes to the myth of himself, so upstanding he keeps humbly insisting he’s regular, which is proof positive of his irregularity.
The season's second episode, "Model," rings similarly false after the punchline, wherein Louie the Character is saddled with a ruinous $5 million settlement after accidentally disfiguring an astronaut's daughter. It;s funny, but it - along with the episode's running joke about Louie being the enormously wealthy Jerry Seinfeld's whipping boy - would have been funnier if it hadn't premiered just a couple weeks before Louie made headlines for buying Babe Ruth's Hampton's estate for $2.5 million. Is that relevant? Louis CK is hardly the first comedian - not by a few hundred, at least - to make money off an everyman persona while raking in money. How is his doing it any different from, say, Roseanne, who made her fame by appearing much poorer and whose TV show made her much richer than Louis CK?

Maybe it doesn't. But it nevertheless left a sour taste in my mouth, and it took me a while to figure out why it bugged me in a way that, say, Roseanne didn't. It wasn't until the "Pamela" series that I figured it out: Louie is starting to believe his own hype. At a certain point he started reading his reviews and believing the rapturous hype from his legions of fans. And that's poison. That's the moment every comedian dreads, because that's the moment after which it becomes harder and harder to be funny.

Every comedian with ambitions beyond merely making people laugh runs into this eventually. Bill Cosby did. Robin Williams did. It's the point where, instead of being content to make people laugh, they want to make people think, and they become convinced of their own profundity. A good stand-up makes you think without condescending. A good stand-up becomes a bad actor by thinking their wisdom - the kind of wisdom a good stand-up keeps on the edges of his or her material, hard-earned and painful and wry - can stand by itself, when it usually can't. Remember when Robin Williams used to be funny?

Am I overstating my case? Look at the evidence from the first two parts of "Pamela." The first part features Louie assaulting his putative girlfriend in the front hallway of his apartment, closing the door on her and wrestling an extremely unpleasant and grudging kiss from her. It's a terrifying scene. It's brutal. It's a woman's nightmare - Louie, you can easily see, isn't a particularly bad man, he's not a rapist in a dark alley, he doesn't fit any profile of a sexual predator. And yet he does a terrible, terrible thing, assaulting Pamela, closing off her means of escape, and extorting a kiss. I was flabbergasted at the scene when it broadcast. Surely there was some point to this. This was precisely the type of tone-deaf and dangerous behavior that we'd just spent weeks discussing during the aftermath of the Santa Barbara shooting and the "Not All Men" hashtag backlash. For Louis to do so, it had to mean something. It couldn't simply be, as presented, merely a comedic aside in the comedy of errors that was Louie's long-term courtship of Pamela. There had to be something more at work here.

Sure enough, most writers who discussed the scene qualified their reaction by pointing out that this was only part one of a three-part story, and that there was plenty of room left for Louie to deal with the repercussions of the act. The week after "Pamela Part 1" aired, the series was interrupted by the extended (and laborious) flashback "In the Woods." Two weeks later the second and third episodes of "Pamela" aired as the season finale. Viewers who turned in looking for Louie to deal with the consequences of the assault were left grievously disappointed. Not only was the incident not addressed, it was even repeated. After a romantic date, Louie and Pamela return to his apartment. She tries to leave. Again, he blocks her way. He was expecting sex. He says so explicitly. She didn't want to. When he finds out she's being serious, he unbars the door and retreats to the living room, where he proceeds to sulk. He lays out a monstrous guilt trip which eventually forces her to concede to his desires, and they finally have sex.

Now, there are a number of things going on in this scene. This is meant to be the climax of Pamela's courtship, after all, and her chronic mixed signals are one of the major factors in the relationship being as fucked up as it is. There is a legitimate conversation to be had at this point in their relationship regarding her inability to commit to Louie, despite her having frankly and explicitly stated her interest and then (more than once) having withdrawn it. Louie is, all other things being equal (and sexual assault having been magically forgotten), completely justified in at least part of his frustration - not the frustration at feeling he is "owed" sex for having taken her out for a date, but certainly the frustration of being legitimately confused by her inability to properly articulate her mixed feelings. But instead of expressing any of this in a reasonable, nonthreatening manner - or, more to the point, simply walking away and allowing the situation to defuse itself for the moment - he attacks her, then sulks and broadcasts his hurt feelings, putting the responsibility on her to make him feel better after he tried to force himself on her. And then they fuck and everything is OK, and they're boyfriend and girlfriend. And that's a happy ending.

Now, the onus is not on Louie the Character to be perfect. Far from it. But the onus is on Louis the Writer to be responsible. This is, after all, the overriding theme of Louie, from the very first episode of the first season: how to act ethically in an amoral world. Most comedians are moralists. This is where good comedy comes from - the dichotomy between how people should act and how people do. Every great comedian figures out how to articulate a vision of the world and the people in it through their humor. The problem happens when the comedian steps out from behind his jokes, and takes it upon himself to propound a utopian vision without the leavening effects of self-laceration. It's what separates early 80s Robin Williams - high on coke and unafraid to humiliate himself - from the Robin Williams of Dead Poet's Society and Patch Adams. And it's why Roseanne never crossed the line, at least during her comedic prime - she was always the first to acknowledge just how absurd her foul-mouthed and overweight everywoman persona really was, and she was always the first to laugh at herself.

In order for Louie to succeed, Louis CK has to be not just funny, but his aim must be unerringly true as well. Pointing out the foibles of the world only works if you remember that your own foibles are the most important of them. Comedians have to be their own ombudsmen. In completely misjudging the way sexual assault plays in parts 1 & 2 of "Pamela," for using Marc Maron to voice his own feelings of resentment in "Pamela Part 3," for dislocating his shoulder while patting himself on the back for his enlightened view of fat women in "So Did the Fat Lady," Louie proves that he's losing his capacity for self-judgment. Rather than appearing wise and wry, Louie now seems shrill and smug. Who knows if he'll be able to right the course. For the time being, Maron has far eclipsed Louie. Marc Maron isn't quite so convinced of his own faultlessness, but more importantly, he's just funnier.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Friday, June 13, 2014

How To Read

I'm going to do something I usually don't. I'm going to talk about my work for a little bit. I don't see myself making a habit of this, but we'll see.

Last week Slate published an article entitled "Against YA" by Ruth Graham. The thesis of the article, if I can be forgiven for simplifying an already simplistic argument, is that (in her own words), "adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children." In the days since this hit we've seen a number of reactions, most coming down firmly on the side of castigating Graham for being a closed-minded elitist, or something along those lines. And indeed, I will join in the chorus saying that Graham is wrong, but perhaps not for the same reasons many others have done so.

Graham tips her hat in the first sentence of the fourth paragraph when she says, "Let’s set aside the transparently trashy stuff like Divergent and Twilight, which no one defends as serious literature." Do you see what she did there? That's the focus of her argument - in addition to serving as a map of as the disputed territory that her critics are also attempting to colonize. Do you see the problem? It certainly isn't the casual dismissal of Twilight, which - even if we can feel justified in agreeing with her assertion that Twilight is a bad book - is nevertheless weighted down in this particular context by a number of troubling class and gender signifiers. It lies in the phrase "serious literature."

What is Serious Literature? Have you ever gone into the bookstore and asked the clerk if he could direct you to the Serious Literature shelf? He points you towards the fiction: well, you immediately see problems. There is some Serious Literature here, but it's mixed up in all this rubbish. You've got Jonathan Franzen sharing shelf space with William T. Vollman; you've got Gore VIdal's Lincoln stinking up the same corner as Gore Vidal's City and the Pillar. Ye cats! OK, those are specious examples. That part of her argument is barely worth dignifying with a response.

What is most pernicious about her argument is the premise she appears to share with her detractors, that is, the premise that fiction is in some way good for you:
Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with "likable" protagonists.
So far, so interminable. Nothing worse than a satisfying ending, right? Please pay attention throughout her article to her use of highly charged emotional terms to describe her relationship with fiction. She is extremely good at circling around the fact that she clearly has just as much invested in her emotional relationship to her reading choices as her straw-man thirteen-year-old.

One of the more articulate defenses of the YA genre I've encountered in response to Graham is a blog post by YA author Maggie Stiefvater entitled "Books Don't Make You Smart." The title alone perks my interest: here, I thought, we might actually be getting somewhere. She states, wisely, that "the book industry may be one of the few industries that promises you will actually become more clever if you buy their product." This is certainly the overwhelming cultural prejudice: people who spend their time reading are better off in any number of important ways than people who never crack a book from the moment they graduate school until the day they die.

But then I read the piece and I see that Stiefvater, even though she gets off to a strong start, undermines her point through this bit of self-destructive linguistic jiu-jitsu:
But we have this prevailing theory that books will make you smart, and it’s this theory that allows us to judge a book’s quality by how far it stretches your mind. According to this idea, if it doesn’t make you smarter, it’s a lesser book. It becomes a guilty pleasure, like food that doesn’t contribute to your daily vitamin requirement. Cue up the articles on the tragedy of the populace reading young adult, or turning to magazines, or — horrors, shall I whisper it — watching television in lieu of reading.

Don’t they know that reading makes you clever? Don’t they know that television and movies are for non-intellectuals? Hoi polloi turn the TV on. If you’re someone who’s going to be someone, you open a book.

But books aren’t smart: stories are.

Not all stories, of course. There are wise stories and flippant stories, stories that stretch your mind and stories that only make you laugh. Stories that are true and stories that won’t ever be true.
At this point I let out a deep and troubled sigh. Perhaps you can figure out why.

It's a meaningless distinction. When Stiefvater says "books," we're inevitably also discussing "stories." Stories don't just come in books, but they're as strong a story vehicle as you could ever want, right?

Here's the thing: stories don't exist. Stories can't be smart because they're not alive.

We create stories in our own minds based on the sensory input of various forms of communicative media. Nothing in quote-unquote "real life" resembles a story - nothing ever begins, and nothing really ends, so with the notable exceptions of showing up for important occasions such as births and deaths we all of us walk around perpetually in media res, day after day. Stories are these things we believe in and we carry with us, but the actual existence of something, some essential property called "story," is as powerful a fiction as any we have ever encountered. Because we believe in stories, we want to be able to understand the world through the lens of stories - we want to be able to put events and narratives into legible forms that make intrinsic sense. That's one thing fiction (and history, and philosophy) do. But all story - all story - is extrinsic.

I'm a teacher, and this Fall I'll be returning to teach literature after a couple years' spent teaching composition. I'm looking forward to it, obviously. But it's not without its own challenges. One of the most basic principles of what I do - something that I had to have beaten out of me over many years' practice - is that there's no such thing as intrinsic meaning, and that talking and writing about literature isn't about cracking open the heart of a work in order to figure out what the author was really trying to say. That's a reductive statement of a complicated problem, but for these purposes it's important to remember that the heart of the work isn't what the author puts in, but what you (the reader) take out - be it a critique of dominant ideology or a productive, agonistic struggle against some kind of amorphous author function. If that sounds strange or counterintuitive, the alternative can be seen on display in the "Scylla & Charybdis" section of Ulysses, wherein a group of learned and dedicated scholars in turn of the century Dublin sit to discuss, essentially, whether Shakespeare was the bestest writer of all time or the super bestest, and what kind of biographical trivia might finally put to rest any nagging questions about the "meaning" of Hamlet. It's a very human instinct, and one I know my students will also struggle against: we all want to think we can glimpse the person behind the book, the man or woman who wrote a story so smart that our lives were forever changed. We think if we understand them, we'll understand their story. But that can't happen, because they're not there.

All of which is to say: stories aren't smart. They can't be either smart or dumb. You, however, can be smart or dumb. And you can choose to be smart or dumb regardless of what you choose to read. It's all in how you do it.

Does Serious Literature, or even better, "literary fiction," make you a better person? I seriously doubt that. Most literary fiction just isn't very interesting - fiction constructed by writers trained in the construction of fiction, wherein elements like theme, plot, and character have been expertly measured and illustrated in the most precise manner possible, is usually too clever by half. Half of the fun comes in finding the weird and the unexpected - and too many contemporary novels have emerged from a culture of craftsmanship that values controlled affect above all other virtues. (You should check out this book for further reference on the point.) You can certainly persist in thinking that reading Serious, Literary Fiction makes you a better person, but at least in terms of contemporary fiction I don't have a lot of sympathy. (As for older literature? That's a different story . . . )

I think a lot of people have distorted view of what academia actually does in term of literature. Or maybe a set of interrelated misapprehensions. Is the academy the keeper at the gates of culture? Maybe once, but that attitude is a lot rarer than it used to be. There is still a thing called "the canon" but, at least in my experience, it's not something most people would get upset over defending. It's more a reflexive understanding of a historical category than a real organizing principle, and certainly something to destabilize whenever possible. Certainly do not look to the academy to help promote your anti-YA bias: you are as likely to find people studying YA literature as Dickens or Milton. (Well, maybe not quite as likely, but I do know people who are studying them, and finding lots of interesting things to say.) Is it because YA really does possess some kind of grand intrinsic value that the scholars are now just learning to recognize, a value that places John Green alongside David Foster Wallace on the same proud shelf? Hell, no. The whole point is that the idea of intrinsic value is simply indefensible. It's not a question of what's great or good, but a question of interesting and uninteresting. There are lots of very "good" books I would not rate as particularly interesting, at least to my tastes. But there are tons of terrible books that nevertheless manage to be far more interesting than whatever the New York Review of Books is telling me I should like this week. Academia doesn't care whether or not a book is any good, really, so long as can sit up and talk back, give us something interesting to think about.

(One example: a couple years back I picked up Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad, because it had won the Pulitzer and I was in an airport and I thought, oh well, how bad can it be. It was terrible, precisely the kind of book people seem to think you should read because its good for you, when in fact it's a book that no one should read because it doesn't have an interesting idea in its pretty little head. Or at least, I didn't think there was anything there I hadn't seen before. No surprises, no rough edges to get any kind of critical purchase.)

So if you want to read YA? Go ahead! Have fun. But don't trick yourself into thinking you're reading Serious Literature, because you should realize that - at least in terms of the contemporary literary marketplace - there's no such thing as Serious Literature. Literature is an entertainment choice just like any other, and these days you could hardly be blamed for thinking that a media diet consisting of Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Veep, and Shameless was of roughly equal - or possibly greater - caloric value than a diet of whatever the fiction editors' picks are on Amazon.

But wait, I hear you saying, clutching your pearls in horror, do you mean to say that literature no longer occupies a privileged position at the apex of cultural expression? Well, I do and I don't. Because obviously I'm biased. I like reading, I like books, all that jazz that goes along with book culture. But I also realize that the reason I like books is informed by a large number of factors completely outside any intrinsic value in the books themselves - I grew up in a family that valued reading highly, I grew up in a historical period of relative affluence which believed in universal literacy, I lucked into attending a high school where I had great English and History teachers and terrible Science teachers, etc. But so many times we - and I mean the royal "We" of people who live in the culture industries - can trick ourselves into thinking that these supposedly universal values of literacy are in any way actually universal. Again, there is nothing intrinsic to the act of reading that makes you a better person, and there is nothing intrinsic to certain categories of books that makes them better for you to read than others.

My argument in defense of books is, I believe, fairly utilitarian: books are the most efficient means of communicating information we as a species have yet devised. Reading books can make you smarter, but it's hardly the only thing that can do so - merely, I believe, the most efficient.

So what do I teach? I can't teach people to believe that if they don't like reading then they can't be good people. This is an attitude I've encountered (albeit in inverse form) from people who I would think should know better. "We believe that reading is valuable because being exposed to great literature makes you a better person." Have you ever heard that? Have you ever said that? The value we place on leisure today is a function of class and geography, pure and simple. You keep on believing you're better for reading The Corrections than Twilight (I know, Jonathan Franzen's kind of a cheap shot here. It's funny because there's a grain of truth there). But you're not, you've just bought into the myth that one kind of book is better than another. The difference is not the book itself but the thinking apparatus you bring to bear on the process of reading. Some books will prove more fertile ground for thought than others, but who am I to judge?

I can't teach anyone to love reading - I can try to pass on some enthusiasm, sure, but I know enough to understand that instilling a lifelong love of reading in someone who struggles to get through 15 pages of a textbook every other night just isn't happening. What I can teach is thinking. So while I can certainly sympathize with Graham's frustration at confronting an uncritical literary culture that exalts the "likable" character uncritically, I can only shake my head at her reference to "the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction" - both of these phenomenon belonging to the same category of desired emotional affect. Which is important. Affect matters. But its more important to ask the whys and wherefores of affect than merely to accept uncritically the myth that experiencing negative affect through fiction is somehow of higher value than its inverse.

Why is reading important? Not because it makes you better or smarter. Reading doesn't make you smarter. Stories don't make you smarter. Thinking makes you smarter. Thinking that books themselves are what does the trick is a kind of animism. Smart people learn to find value wherever they look. Dim people never figure out that what they see around them is merely a reflection of their own prejudices.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

A Harmless Necessary Cat

What is nature?

For Garfield, nature is an illusion. The cat perpetually flaunts established rules of propriety. He is a "bad cat" who, by refusing to play along with the normative cultural and social expectations imposed on his kind, effectively "queers" established binaries of natural and unnatural behavior throughout the animal kingdom.

It is accepted that cats will hunt mice in order to kill and devour them - this is the behavior we associate with felines of all species. Cats are hunters, according to the stereotype, whose instincts have not been dulled by thousands of years of domestication. Garfield, on the other hand, rejects the tyranny of "instinctive" behavior: he refuses to play down to expectations placed on him by convention and propriety.

Examine his posture in this strip: he sits up on his haunches (how like man he is!), placidly leaning over an ottoman, unwilling to express so much as a flicker of interest in the prospect of hunting and killing the cat's supposed natural prey, the common mouse. He dispassionately observes the mouse, responding only to the voice of his supposed "master" and "owner" who upbraids him for failing to fulfill his "duty" of ridding the master's house of vermin. His disapproval at Jon's voice is manifest in the second panel. (We might assume from context that it is Jon, even if we are given precious little corroboration of this fact - what if the voice is not Jon, what if the voice instead of Garfield's internal conscience, constantly admonishing the cat to resume his "natural" role as a cis-feline?) It is only in the third panel that we are finally allowed to see Garfield smile: he has successfully stymied the presumption of programmed biological "destiny" that undergirds the extant master / slave relationship between owner and pet. It is not in his interest to hunt mice because he has made the rational decision to reject his servitude in absolute terms.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Munchausen Weekend

(Or: All the movies I've seen in the last couple months.)

Escape From Tomorrow

Directed by Randy Moore

I had high expectations for this movie, almost all of which were unmet. If you know the premise of the movie, you might have been excited too: a guerrilla film project about Disneyworld, featuring a cast of unknowns and turning the theme park into a setting for psychological horror. Good promise, abominable execution. There are snatches of a good movie here and there, but the film is undercut by its ambition - instead of merely a low-budget, samizdat satire in the vein of The Blair Witch Project, the movie quite ambitiously descends into a weird melange of sci-fi, fantasy, and relationship drama, none of which work and much of which is patently terrible. I've rarely seen a film with such a great premise devolve so quickly into something terrible. I'm almost tempted to say it's bad enough to qualify as interesting, but really, it's just bad. (If you need proof, let me offer you two words of explanation: cat flu.)

People have speculated as to why Disney allowed this film to be released, instead of suing it into oblivion. Besides the fact that satire should be legally protected, that still doesn't answer the question of why the notoriously litigious Disney company chose not to acknowledge the film. Having seen the film, the answer is obvious: any attempt to suppress the film would have made it into a cause célèbre, and would almost certainly have resulted in more people seeing it. The worst thing Disney could have done to this film was to allow it to be released. This way, no one will ever see it.

Electrick Children
Directed by Rebecca Thomas

I watched this movie based solely on the premise. It looked interesting. It was actually quite good! This is about a fifteen-year-old girl raised on a remote farm by Mormon homesteaders, kept apart from the modern world, and convinced their father (Billy Zane!) is a prophet. Rachel (Julia Garner) becomes pregnant, and is convinced that she was impregnated by the Lord in the form of a rock & roll song heard on a tape recorder in the basement. (While the film doesn't explain exactly how she became pregnant, it's pretty obviously the work of Billy Zane, who is surprisingly credible as a terrible, creepy Mormon patriarch.) She leaves the farm to go in search of the man who sang the song on the tape - a cover of Blondie's "Hanging on the Telephone" - and falls smack into the world of the Las Vegas punk scene circa 1996. (There's a Culkin in here, too - weird-looking Rory, if you're keeping track at home.) This was the debut of director Rebecca Thomas, and the film is sufficiently confident and compellingly minimal to mark her as someone worth keeping an eye out for.

After Earth
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

I suppose I should be careful what I ask for. On paper, at least, this movie does everything it is supposed to do, and all the things I often criticize big-ticket blockbusters for not doing: the plot is straight-forward and not unnecessarily complex, it focuses on a small cast and allows the characters lots of room to breathe and develop, character development builds very clearly from the film's action sequences, and character beats clearly parallel the films theme. The problem is that even though it does all these things that we should want an adventure movie to do, it does them so terribly that it's like watching a cruel parody of competence. There's not one decision in the entire running time of this movie that makes any sense: not the weirdly antiseptic and strangely janky production design; not Will Smith's decision to play his character as an unlikable sociopath whose major goal is to instill in his son with the same brand of sociopathy; not Jaden Smith's incapacity to speak a single line of dialogue without sounding like someone about to be cut from the El Segundo community theater production of Endgame.

Considering that Smith was once an appealing actor with effortless charisma, it's depressing to see him sink so low. He has entered that rarified field of superstardom where he's completely lost touch with the difference between compelling and creepy - something which, for all the bad press, even Tom Cruise still understands. Basically, the Will Smith here is a stocky flesh suit that vaguely remembers the Will Smith who first emerged from West Philadelphia back in the late 1980s. But the resemblance stops at a few features on his doughy face. This movie supposedly cost $130 million dollars but looks like the actual budget was closer to $130. It's been fashionable for a while to dogpile on Shyamalan every time he makes another stinker, but in this instance I think it's fair to say that not even Martin Scorsese could have polished Smith's turd of an ego trip.

12 Years A Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen

I put off this one for a while because I knew it was going to be heavy going, and feared (despite, or maybe because of, the laudatory reviews) it would be mawkish in all the ways these kinds of movies can easily be. I am happy to report I was proven wrong! This is a great film that does justice to its source material by resisting the temptation to fall into the same kinds of easy sentimental cliches with which we are familiar from years of similar projects. I especially appreciate the decision to replicate as much of the rhythm and cadence of Solomon Northup's original nineteenth century prose style as possible. Even at 150 years remove, the overall feeling the movie conveys is one of respectful fidelity, as if every effort has been made to preserve Northup's own voice, and to not allow it to be drowned in self-righteous Hollywood schmaltz. The story really doesn't need to be sensationalized in any way, it's bad enough without any exaggeration. I especially like that the slaveowners are portrayed not as forces of grand, demoniacal, or charismatic evil (the nearest the film goes is Benedict Cumberbatch's cluelessly "gentile" plantation owner, who is completely unable to control his own overseers), but as bust-ass crackers whose cruelty is exacerbated by their stupidity.

I shouldn't have worried. This is definitely a movie by the same director who brought us Hunger, which I will go out on a limb and call the best movie about political protest so far this century.

Directed by Spike Jonez

Although my respect for Mr. Jonez as a filmmaker knows few bounds, I nonetheless approached Her with some degree of trepidation. Although his first films remain essential, I found Where the Wild Things Are to be a significant misstep - too much whimsical melancholy bolted onto a children's story that wasn't necessarily well suited to articulating the ennui of middle-aged men. It wasn't bad, by any means, but it signified for me that the invincible filmmaker who gave us Being John Malkovich and Adaptation was all too mortal.

Reviews seemed split on the film, with some hailing it as a triumph and others criticizing it for being, again, a fluffy parable of whimsical melancholia (some reviews even managed to articulate both positions). What I wasn't prepared for, and which I haven't seen discussed, is that Her is actually at its core fairly hard sci-fi. Sure, the story focuses on Jouaquin Phoenix as a loveably pitiful schlub who buys a newfangled self-aware AI operating system in the hopes of finding a friend who won't leave him, like his ex-wife. On the surface, that's the movie's premise. But the movie is also about the consequences of creating a form of artificial intelligence with the capacity to learn, to reproduce, and to better itself, and what happens when these computer intelligences figure out just how much smarter they are than us. The fact that the movie foregrounds Phoenix's character obscures the movie's real focus: if this were any other film, like, say, Kubrick's 2001, the evolution of an artificial life form to surpass its creators would be a major, civilization-changing event. It's here, too, but by keeping the focus firmly on the small-scale consequences of this historical movement, Jonez manages to sneak a story of cosmic consequences in around the margins of a relationship drama. Definitely a return to form for Jonez.

Mr. Nobody
Directed by Jaco van Dormael

I didn't go in thinking this would be great, please don't mistake me. But I was morbidly curious to see where this was going. Like Her, this sold itself as science fiction with human drama foregrounded and a slight philosophical edge. But unlike Her, this movie stubbornly refused to cohere into more than the sum of its parts, and completely fell apart in the third act.

To my surprise I actually don't mind Jared Leto as an actor. He's pretty ludicrous as a person, but onscreen he has an aptitude for transformation that belies the vacancy of his public persona. This is a well-made movie with a number of compelling elements. The narrative gimmick of pursuing the same life down multiple different possibilities - a continuously-branching series of "what if" scenarios expanding throughout the movie - is interesting, if nowhere near as novel as the filmmakers so patently appear to believe. The sci-fi stuff is actually the least convincing part, with the last few minutes devolving into whimsical nonsense that threatens to overshadow the rest of the film, even the good parts. There are good parts, don't get me wrong. But there's also enough in the way of head-scratching nonsense to make the experience unfulfilling.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Directed by Brian Singer

People who dislike superhero films on principle will dislike this as well, as it is by far the most "superhero-y" of the X-Men films to date. That's all to the good: I am seemingly the only person unimpressed with the Singer films' po-faced naturalism, and this movie goes a good ways towards remedying this situation by portraying the kind of day-glo hyper-frenzy spectacle that comes as second nature to all good X-Men comics. I mean, sure, static scenes of Xavier and Magneto sitting down and hashing out their differences are a staple of the franchise, but so are pointless neon action scenes. The filmmakers have so often in the past deluded themselves into thinking that these are supposed to be Important Films that we've been shortchanged in terms of idiot spectacle. This movie gives me hope that when Apocalypse shows up in a couple years we will finally get the balls-to-the-wall 80s X-Men extravaganza we've been dreaming about since we were all Reagan babies.

Anyway. A lot of criticism against this movie has been leveled against individual character motivations - seemingly arbitrary changes halfway through, etc. Maybe I'm much more of a sympathetic reader than I should be here, but it's hard for me to see these things as movies qua movies. I'm so intimately familiar with the characters in their two-dimensional incarnations that it's hard not to just plug-and-play previous knowledge instead of demanding that each movie present coherent and plausible motivations in and of itself. Therefore, Magneto's switch in the last third of the movie, which I've seen some people deride for being arbitrary, makes perfect sense if you assume (as I do) that movie Magneto keeps the same running internal commentary as Claremont's Magneto: while he's a brilliant and decisive tactician, Magneto (like many [though obviously not all] terrorists) has always been a piss-poor strategist. So obviously if he sees a clear and present danger to his agenda he has no qualms about teaming up with Xavier, but the moment that problem is "solved" he also has no problems with turning on a dime and using the same crisis as an opportunity to retake control of the narrative. That was his problem with Mystique as much as anything, after all: he was personally hurt that she had taken control of the "movement" (quote-unquote since, yeah, not a lot of revolution actually onscreen) in his absence, and needed to regain control through whatever means necessary. Which meant that, yes, once he had single-mindedly prevented her from carrying off the assassination of Bolivar Trask, he was perfectly happy to step-up and do something 1000x worse, i.e. kill the president and his cabinet, demolish Washington, DC, and fire the first salvo in the exact same war he was ostensibly trying to prevent. Because of course, the only thing that really matters to Magneto is that whatever happens, he's in charge.

And as for Mystique - well, it's interesting to see her crucial role from the original story upheld, although it's also worth noting that the reason for this has less to do with any desire to maintain fidelity to Claremont and Byrne than the fact that the producers really lucked out in signing the biggest actress in the world to a multi-picture deal back when she was still a nobody. So of course they're going to get every ounce of Jennifer Lawrence on screen as they possibly can. Even though J-Law is about as good at broadcasting menace as a Shih Tzu, I'm still completely on board for this. One thing they've missed, however, is not introducing Destiny - that's the best part of Mystique's backstory, and one whose absence has been sorely missed since Mystique's death in 1989. The idea of of someone who is for-all-intents-and-purposes immortal falling in love with someone they have to watch get old and die is a great hook, after all, and enriches her character a lot more than just "bad mutant lady who likes kicking people a lot."

(Oh yeah, funny thing, in case you were wondering, I didn't know about the accusations against Singer literally until I was in the theater before the film looking at my phone. So, uh, yeah, moral crisis averted through ignorance, or whatever.)

Directed by Gareth Edwards

In my eyes there was only one significant problem with this movie: it's obvious that the film was written and contracts were signed before the end of Breaking Bad. How else can you explain Bryan Cranston's domination of the ad campaign but scarcity in the movie itself? They thought they were signing up a respected character actor for a supporting role. They couldn't have known that in time between him signing the contract and the film being released Cranston's stock would go from warm to incandescent. That's obvious from the commercials, all of which focused on Cranston's role, which, as everyone knows, is nowhere near as prominent as anticipated.

Otherwise, I found little to fault. Any problems Godzilla may have are intentional and reflect the filmmakers' obeisance to the source material. Of course the main protagonist is a bland dude; of course the first half of the movie consists of precious little kaiju and a lot of checking your watch waiting for the big man to show up; and of course they even managed to sneak in a couple scenes of small children believing in Godzilla. As anyone who grew up watching all the classic Godzilla movies on Saturday afternoon local TV knows, these are features, not bugs. It's like a wrestling match: you have to wade through a boring undercard; when the face finally shows, he suffers numerous setbacks; he almost appears to be down for the count a few times, until the last possible moment when he rises up and vanquishes his foe with an awesome finishing move.

Among many, many other missteps, one of the great errors the 1998 film made was in attempting a remake of the original 1954 feature. As has been pointed out, the original film is an outlier in relation to the rest of the series, a disaster movie with Godzilla as the force of natural retribution who is eventually vanquished. Whatever other problems the movie had, the fact that Godzilla died at the end in 1998 was a huge downer. We've lived with Godzilla for sixty years. Aside from that first classic film, he's been a beloved hero for decades. We want to root for the guy. The 1998 film shot itself in the foot by killing its hero. This version, however, gives us back the Godzilla we grew up with: King of the Monsters, warden of Monster Isle, ready and willing to step the fuck up when other monsters step out of line. Long may he roar.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Directed by Marc Webb

Oh boy! This was not a good movie! What was good about this movie are the same things that were good about the first - namely, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. They always look like their scenes together were spliced in from another, better movie that was being filmed down the hall. He's a good Spider-Man - he's actually funny and not a completely unbearable wet dishrag like Tobey Maguire, and hey, he even gets to keep his Spider-Man mask on when he's fighting now. (They long ago figured out who the real star of these movies is, and it's not the guy playing the toy.)

I am certain it is pure coincidence, but these films keep coming back to stories about corporate juggernauts stealing the golden ideas of hard-working creators like a dog circling its own vomit. This, the first Amazing Spider-Man, the second Spider-Man, the first Iron Man film - it's almost as if there's some kind of repressed memory that keeps trying to bubble up through the surface . . . nah. Still: this movie is overstuffed by half. I dislike the Green Goblin for the most part, and taking Harry Osborn - the most interesting Goblin by far - and shoehorning him into this mess was a tragedy. I liked the Rhino, I would have loved a whole movie just of Paul Giamatti cussing in Russian, but he's in here for fives minutes so whatever.

And I know there aren't a lot of people bemoaning the sanctity of Electro's characterization, but still: go back to the Ditko. Electro is another in the line of the first half-dozen Spidey villains who represents an alter-ego for Peter during his formative days - an older man with no moral compass whatsoever who gains power and immediately uses it for the most selfish ends possible. There's a reason why J. Jonah Jameson initially thinks Spider-Man and Electro are the same guy in Amazing Spider-Man #9 - not just because JJJ is a dick (although, yeah), but because we're supposed to pay attention to the fact that all these broken older males - the Vulture, Doctor Octopus, the Lizard, Electro, JJJ himself - represent "paths not taken," alternative versions of the same power / responsibility narrative at the heart of Spider-Man, and which Stan & Steve beat like a drum back in those early days. (He's always being tempted to use his powers irresponsibly in the early issues, if you recall, and he even does stuff like falsifying photos to pay for May's surgeries, so he's still not got it all completely worked out.) Spider-Man in the beginning was constantly being tested against funhouse versions of himself. Electro here is just a CGI schmuck with characterization cribbed off the back of a cereal box, and another in a long line of Jamie Foxx's tragic non-Tarantino career missteps.

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo

This was a good movie! It came out months ago so the statue of limitations has obviously passed, but it was one of the best of the whole bunch as far as all the modern superhero movies go. A lot of the criticism I saw against these, at least on the Nerd Internet, was along the lines that this wasn't the movie people wanted to see: it came out around the same time as The Raid 2 so of course people were comparing it negatively to that, like a movie with some muscular actors who had a few months to train fake fighting could ever be the same kind of film as a movie starring a guy who's done this since he was ten years old. And because Robert Redford was stunt cast as the villain people were comparing it negatively to Three Days of he Condor, which is maybe not the best way to be fulfilled by your entertainment choices.

You know what this movie was, even with all the little bits on the side that maybe didn't hang together perfectly? This was a great Captain America movie. Do people not get how cool that is? All the other Marvel Studios characters were changed in some notable ways before they made it to film: Robert Downey, Jr's Iron Man is a completely different guy from the character I grew up reading in Michelinie, Layton, and O'Neil's runs. Thor has lost so much of the gravitas and self-seriousness that defined his character since the 60s - he doesn't even talk shit like comics Thor. But Cap - well, Cap in the movies is still Cap. Don't you love Captain America? Don't you get a thrill just from watching a movie where Captain America acts like Captain America?

This movie had me in its corner from the very beginning. The way these Marvel Studios films have spent so much time portraying the national security industrial complex as the "good guys"; using S.H.I.E.L.D. as an organizing principle for the first batch of movies because obviously we can't be expected to believe anything so strange as that a bunch of characters would actually come together to do good on their own without being told by the government; giving us a picture of superheroes that, while occasionally very compelling, was still strangely bureaucratic in a way that always seemed off - well, this movie comes in right from the top and upsets that apple cart. Captain America steps up, takes a look at the massive expansion of peacetime intelligence and the casual acceptance of "preventative warfare" and says, nope, this isn't right. That's exactly what the Cap I grew up reading would do, and I had just about given up hope of seeing that Cap onscreen.

Sure, you can hem and haw - S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn't really corrupted, it was infiltrated; the end of the movie hedges its bets by trying to have its cake and eat it about the necessity of using super espionage agents to enforce American interests - but the fact is, this is a movie where even before they know Hydra exists, Captain America decides to take on the military industrial complex, and doesn't stop until the entire illegal national security apparatus is destroyed. I mean, they defeat Hydra by going full Wikileaks, for goodness' sake. Tell me you were ever expecting to see that in a Marvel movie.

(One quibble - if the Widow released all S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secrets, wouldn't Coulson's resurrection be public knowledge, then? Or were we able to dismiss that with a hand-wave when Skye magically erases all traces of Coulson's unit's existence after S.H.I.E.L.D. collapses? Why the fuck do I care?)

Monday, June 02, 2014

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Bant Sureblade (Alara Reborn, 2009)

According to Mark Rosewater, there are two kinds of Magic design, top-down and bottom-up. The difference between these approaches has to do with the set's relationship to theme and mechanics. If a set design begins with its theme - as in, the designers decide they want to do a block based around horror tropes (Innistrad) or Greek myth (Theros), they begin with that premise and design cards and mechanics to be resonant with those themes -- i.e., top-down. The other alternative is that the set design begins from some kind of mechanical basis - for instance, Ravnica, of which we've seen many examples so far, is based around the idea of pairing up each two-color pair off the color pie into specific "guilds," thereby opening up a whole raft of design possibilities based on the interactions of these two-color pairs.

The Shards of Alara block, of which Alara Reborn is the third set, was based on a similar mechanical challenge - putting together the colors into three-color shards. For those who don't remember, this is the color pie as seen on the back of every extant Magic card:

Each color is arranged around the wheel so that every color is next to it's two allies and across from it's two enemies. The symbols also betray the basic information behind each color's philosophy - a drop of water for Blue, a skull for Black, fire for Red, a tree for Green, and a sun for White. (Admittedly, you might not figure out what White's symbol is supposed to be just by looking at it.) Each shard is three adjacent colors - therefore, White, Blue, and Black form a shard called Esper. The challenge for the designers was how to figure out to make an entire year's worth of cards that built off this premise.

Our friend here Bant Sureblade belongs - as you may have guessed - to the Bant shard, which consists of Blue, White, and Green. Ergo, he is a small soldier - very much within White's color pie - who can also grow bigger if you have another multicolor card on the table. Not bad for two mana at common. There are circumstances where this guy could be a 3/2 on your second turn, which is nothing at all to sneeze at.

But the most important aspect of this card is the fact that the flavor text mentions a god named Asha, one of the patron gods of the Bant shard. Which of course means that there must be a Legendary Artifact called the Brimful of Asha, which you can tap to produce a bosom for a pillow.