Friday, July 29, 2011

Nostalgia vs the Transformers (pt 1)

I love the Transformers. I always have. Well, I have since they first came out in 1984. Just the concept of them. I started collecting the toys, right away. Maybe it was just good timing. Star Wars toys were on the way out since the original trilogy was over, and there were Transformers to take their place. Transformers were also responsible for me delving back into the world of comic books, but that's a story for another time. It's not that I loved the comic book series or that I loved the cartoon or even that I loved the toys, I loved  the idea of them. They were just so... cool.

During high school, I had a babysitting job every day after school. It was good money. And, although I was forced to sit through He-Man, I got to watch the Transformers cartoon with the younger of the brothers pretty much of every day. That was great until they made that horrible animated movie in '86 where they jumped forward in time and killed off virtually all of the existing characters. The cartoon series, after the movie, picked up where the movie left off. I hated that movie. It sort of killed everything about the Transformers. I think, really, it was the jump into the future that did it, although killing off all the characters everyone was familiar with couldn't have helped. Well before the end of high school, I had lost interest in the Transformers as a distinct franchise.

Jump forward a bunch of years and my middle child fell in love with Transformers, also. They were his absolute favoritest thing in the whole world for years. Until he discovered Legos. I mean really discovered Legos when they launched the Bionicles. At any rate, I fell in love with the Transformers all over again, albeit vicariously, through my younger boy. It was just so fun to watch him enjoying  them so much.

The boys and I were very excited when Transformers was launched as a movie franchise. In fact, this year, Transformers: Dark of the Moon was the only movie my younger son said he absolutely could not miss. He was willing to sacrifice getting to see anything else in order to see Transformers 3. Well, except, maybe, Cars 2, but he already knew we planned to see that as a family, so he didn't have to choose between the two. Not that he didn't get to see other things, but, if it had come down to it, since we can't take the family to see every movie we'd like to see, that was his pick on what he needed to see this summer.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Even kids experience it. I remember this one episode of Leave It To Beaver in which a friend of his who had long ago moved away was returning for a visit. There was much anticipation. They planned to do all the things they had so loved doing when they had been younger. He finally arrived, and they went out and did all of those things. At the end of the day, though, they were left sitting on a curb or something in complete disappointment. None of those things had been fun anymore. But the thought of them... the remembrance of them had filled both boys with such wistfulness and enthusiasm.

I think it's nostalgia that's at the heart of the success of the Transformers movies. Especially considering how much they've been slammed by movie critics. The thing with the Transformers is that there isn't just one iteration. Every few years, the entire scope and story gets changed. Within that, though, excluding the aforementioned animated movie in '86, there are two characters that are always at the heart of the show: Optimus Prime and Megatron.  The conflict between these two characters is the driving force behind every Transformers story arc. Sure, there are a few other characters that have been around a while and are frequently included (Bumblebee, Starscream, Iron Hide), but it always revolves around Optimus and Megatron.

With Transformers, Bay evoked just the correct amount of nostalgia while still delivering a new story. It kept those of us that had had some phase of loving Transformers when we were younger realize that we'd grown out of them. Kept us from sitting down on the curb being disappointed. I think this is the reason so many of the other nostalgia type movies have failed; they tried, specifically, to reproduce the original. We all sat down and said, "Wow, that wasn't as good as I remember it being." But Bay didn't do that. He took the core and gave us something new, and all we could say was "Wow!" After Transformers came out back in 2007, my brother actually called me to tell me it was the best movie he'd ever seen. This surprised me because 1. my brother had never really been into the Transformers when we were kids and 2. he said it was the best movie he'd ever seen. I mean, I really enjoyed Transformers; it was probably in my top 5 for 2007 (maybe top 3), but hardly the best movie ever... anyway. The point is is that for my brother, and, I'm guessing, a lot of other people that just had a passing acquaintance with Transformers at some point in their childhood, the movie brought back everything that was important to them: giant robots that could change into vehicles fighting with each other and, specifically, the conflict between Megatron and Optimus Prime. It delivered that "Wow!" moment of it being just like what they remembered as a kid while, actually, being totally different. Making a movie that can do that is pretty genius. [I'm just waiting to see how my brother reacts to The Smurfs, because he loved the Smurfs. Don't tell him I said that.]

Despite the fact that people said they didn't like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as much and critics bashed it as the worst movie ever, it must have done its job as well. It outperformed the initial movie both domestically and internationally, so people went to see it no matter what was said about the movie. Maybe it was Devastator. Dark of the Moon, although it hasn't passed the domestic gross (yet) of Revenge of the Fallen, is already the highest grossing of the three films. As a prelude to part 2 of this piece, which will be my review of Dark of the Moon, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the 3D was amazing.

On the topic of nostalgia, I think this is where there is a failing, if there is a failing, with the Star Wars prequels. People wanted their sense of nostalgia invoked when The Phantom Menace came out. However, Lucas wasn't going for that. The prequels weren't about delivering movies that would take us back to that same experience of watching Star Wars as when we were kids. And that was good with me. Star Wars never fell into the realm of the nostalgic for me, so I was ready for the new story when it came. Most people, I think, just wanted that feeling of seeing Star Wars they had when they were 10. What they ended up with was sitting on the curb with the Beaver saying, "That wasn't what I remembered." Of course, with the prequels, it wasn't supposed to be. I think if people could just come to grips with that, they would be able to get over their issues with the movie. Maybe even Jar Jar. Like I said, "Nostalgia is a funny thing."

As an added bonus, here are some shots of some of my favorite Transformers from when I was a kid:



Shockwave (my favorite cover from the comics series)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Look for your friends, but do not trust to hope..." Also, George Lucas Says "Howdy"

This week was the presentation of The Two Towers at Skywalker Ranch. Attendance was down from last week. I'm just going to go off of the assumption that that's because The Fellowship of the Ring is the best of the three movies. It also has the most significant addition of the extended cuts, so the other two don't necessarily have to be viewed that way, although I never choose to watch any of them in their theatrical release. I'm surprised at the number of people showing up that have never seen the extended cuts of these movies or, in some cases, the movies themselves. I guess there has to be a first time, though.

In many ways, I have the most difficulty with The Two Towers as a movie. There are things that are so good. Like the ents. They're perfect. The assault on Isengard is incredible. Faramir and his actor, David Wenham, are great. The return of Gandalf is excellent. And Gollum... well, I'm not sure they actually could have done a better job with Gollum. And, yet... and, yet... almost everything related to the Battle at Helm's Deep causes me to grit my teeth.

Let me put it like this:
You know that part where Legolas surfs down the stairs on the shield as he fires arrow after arrow at the orcs? I'm okay with that. Yes, I am. That bit of foolishness is fun, and, although completely wacky, it comes off as just believable enough. At least, it does for someone who would have actually tried doing that when he was 10 if he had had a shield and a long flight of stairs like that. I can get behind that.

However, the bit at the beginning of the battle when the orcs are charging and Aragorn is telling all the archers to hold their fire? I can't deal with that. It makes me cringe. It is so ridiculous. I get it. Jackson wants the suspense. But it just doesn't work for me.

Let me back up a bit.
There was a video introduction by Jackson. In it he talked about how he'd always wanted to film a big battle scene ever since he was a kid. The Battle at Helm's Deep was his first chance to do that. I suppose, at this point, you can go one of two ways: 1. You can film it like you always imagined it as a child. 2. You can research it and make it as true to life as possible. Jackson went with option 1. There is nothing strategically or tactically sound about this battle. Instead of modeling the battle after the Battle of Agincourt, which would have made emminent sense, he makes it "don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes." With bows and arrows. That not firing thing came from the time period where you had to hand load your gun before each shot, so you had to make your one shot count when the enemy was charging, because you wouldn't get another. When Jackson does it with the arrows, it makes me want to throw things at the screen.

Then there's the whole thing about how no one has ever breached the walls of Helm's Deep, yet the doors are like plywood. The orcs barely hit it with their battering ram, hand-held battering ram, and they just crash open. An impregnable fortress, and the doors just fall apart? Maybe they had dry rot since the last time they'd been there?

Oh, and there's a side door. Yeah, a side door that the orcs don't bother with, and Aragorn and Gimli can conveniently slip out of. What? Seriously?

And don't even get me started on the orc torch bearer with the one and only special torch that can light the bombs under the walls. There are torches everywhere. EVERYWHERE. But we suddenly need this one, special torch to light the bombs? And Legolas suddenly loses his ability to kill any orc he shoots with just one arrow?

The only good thing about the battle is when Gandalf shows up with Eomer. That part is actually perfect. The sun rising behind the charge and Gandalf shining like the point of a spear is an incredible sight. But that's it. The only good moment of the battle.

And there are so few orcs left when they flee into the forest of Fangorn that there's hardly a point. Wait a minute. The men of Rohan were just being slaughtered and, suddenly, there are just a smattering of orcs left to flee into the trees?

With the ranting about Helm's Deep, I may sound like I don't like the movie. That's not true. I do. It's still a great movie, and The Lord of the Rings is probably the best film adaptation ever made. It's just that Fellowship is the best of the three, and I have to try and not think about Helm's Deep.

Oh, and Jackson also revealed that the argument Gollum has with himself while Frodo is sleeping was entirely the responsibility of Fran Walsh. She wrote that scene and directed it, because they didn't have time to do it otherwise. He says he has envy.

But, now, on to the big news:
As I've stated, these are being shown at Skywalker Ranch. The Ranch is, of course, owned by George Lucas. I've been to number of Lucasfilm events at this point, but Lucas hasn't been at any of them. There were rumors that he was going to make an appearance (along with Spielberg and Ford) at the big premiere party they did for Crystal Skull (which I attended), actually, that they had plans to do so, but that didn't happen. They ended up somewhere else. My friend that I go to these things with has, of course, been in meetings with George in attendance, but that's George on a stage giving a presentation with a huge screen behind him so everyone can see him better. It's somewhat akin to watching a special video presentation before a movie by someone like Peter Jackson. Which is to say, it doesn't count.

We got there later for Towers than we arrived for Fellowship last week. We were sort of rushing to get to the theater, although I didn't realize that we were rushing, because that's how we rush, evidently, without looking like it. Or even knowing it. But the theater was still locked. Whoever was supposed to show up to open it all up hadn't arrived, yet. More curious was the fact that, although we were at least 20 minutes later than the week before when the theater was already open and about 1/3 full of people, there was no one else there waiting to get in. There were some people up in the cafeteria area eating, but that didn't mean they were going to the movie. They were, more likely, staff taking a break from whatever sound stage they were working in.

We went back up to hang out in the entry area of the tech building, which houses the theater, until something happened. I could see my friend questioning himself about whether we were there at the correct  time or whatever, but the guard had said "enjoy the film" when he let us in  the gate and, since I was driving, and he didn't recognize me, gave us directions to the tech building (which I already knew, since, as I said, I'd been there before). The building has an... interesting layout. And I haven't even seen the whole thing. But the front portion, at least, has an unconventional design.

Rather than try to explain what the building looks like, I'm just going to tell you what happened:
Walking toward us from a hallway that goes off into the building to the right (and over the theater, because you go down to get to the theater) was George Lucas. It was just a glimpse through an adjoining hallway. There are sound rooms all down that hall, and he passed through the opening through which we saw him fairly quickly. I turned to my friend who said, "Well, he does live here," which is not exactly true, but close enough to count. A moment later, he appeared in the cafeteria area which is a big open area in the center-ish of the building. Now, my friend and I are standing near the front doors. Just off to the right as you come through from the outside, because that's the direction to the theater. My buddy starts trying to act like George is not walking through the same space as us, ducking his head and trying to look like he's deep in conversation with me. I acted as close I could to how I would act if anyone had walked into the room, which is to stay, I looked at him. Just like I would have looked at anyone.

George looked back. And made eye contact. And I did that guy thing, and I nodded to him. And he said, "Howdy." He continued on his way out the front doors and down  the walk. I think he drove off shortly after, but I'm not completely sure that was him in the car that went by a moment later.
I think my friend almost died. My whole response was, "It's a good thing I'm a restrained kind of person." That was when I found out that part of the interview process for working at Lucasfilms, in any of its divisions, are a bunch of questions about what you would do if you ever found yourself in the same room with George. I would have passed. People who own up to the fact that they would wig out and accost him, in whatever manner, do not get hired. So, you know, if you are that kind of person and you ever do have the opportunity to work for Lucas, you should now know how to respond to those questions.

Somehow, during the movie, although I didn't see my friend do it, he told people about what had happened. After the movie, without me saying anything, there were questions from people that my friend works with who have never been that close to George, much less have him speak to them. Including my friend. My kids... well, my kids said bad things about me when I told them what happened. Okay, well, my daughter didn't, but she doesn't quite get that, yet. It's not quite that important to her. She was just kind of oh wow neat while my sons were busy telling me what a jerk I am. Of course, my oldest is mad already that I'm getting to go see these movies down there. I'd take them if I could...

So... there you go. My tendency for saying "howdy" has been justified by knowing that George also greets people that way. And, yes, he was wearing a plaid shirt. Probably flannel.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Legacy of Tron

Greetings, Programs...

It doesn't always take great writing to make a great film. Of course, I'm sure there are many out there that would argue that Tron is not a great film. I don't feel like debating the definition of greatness, at the moment, though, so I'm just going to say that based upon it's cultural impact and cult status, it's a great film. After all, how many movies get an actual sequel after almost 30 years. Not a re-boot. Not a re-make. An honest to goodness sequel. It's almost a singular achievement (it may be a singular achievement, for all I know).

Tron is the movie that opened the door to computer generated special effects. In fact, John Lasseter has said that without Tron there would have been no Toy Story as it was Tron that opened his eyes to the potential of computer animation. Despite that, Tron contains far less computer generated material than most people might suspect, but what was there was completely new, much of which was never used again due to the costs involved. Interestingly enough, Tron was not even nominated for a special effects Oscar possibly because of the use of computers, which was considered "cheating" by many in the Academy, at the time.

The story of Tron is fairly straightforward and ironically appropriate for Disney. The conflict revolves around a corporation (Encom) taking advantage of the little guy (Kevin Flynn) by stealing his work and the little guy trying to prove the work is actually his. Even at 12, when the movie came out, I knew that the story was just the vehicle to get Flynn into the "digital" world of the computer so they could show off their stuff. Still, it's a solid plot even if it's not original. We still seem to be having issues with that aspect of corporate greed in America, so I can't say it's not a story that needs to be told anymore. They may have done better to have centered Tron: Legacy on that same type of story since it opens with those same overtones, but Disney isn't brave enough to do that story again, or, perhaps, realizes it's a message that strikes at the heart of their business model, so they abandon it as soon as the younger Flynn enters The Grid.

There is, however, one bit of story genius that I was struck with at the time, and it has always stayed with me. This one thing made the movie for me, made it great in my mind, as it completely fascinated me at 12. I thought it was SO cool, and, yet, most people miss it entirely (along with the significance of it within the confines of the story), and some have even argued that it didn't happen that way at all. The key to the weight of the story of Tron is getting Flynn into the digital world himself. Flynn is our connection, the eyes that allow us to see this digital world as real. But they have to get him inside the computer. Utilizing another emerging technology (lasers), they have him zapped by a laser that is being developed as a quantum teleportation device. Early in the movie, we get to witness this laser being tested on an orange. The process only takes a few seconds. Zap target with laser. Digitize target. Reintegrate target. The implication, then, is that Flynn's sojourn in the digital world happens within this span of a few seconds.  [They support this idea in the sequel by quantifying the time discrepancy, although I'm not remembering the ratio, right off the top of my head.] It was a fabulous notion.

Still, it took time for Tron to really grow on me. And repeated exposure to the video games. There was, of course, the Tron arcade game, which made more money than the movie. We owned it for our Atari. Although I liked the game, it was never one of my favorites. However, Discs of Tron... that one, I loved. It was more than just a joystick game. None of my friends liked it because it was "too hard," and, indeed, it was one of the most complex games around. For years. But I loved it. Except for one thing, it wasn't just a quarter to play it. I don't remember what the actual cost was, but I remember being constantly put off by the fact that it cost so much. However, when I was in college, they put a Discs of Tron in the student center (at the one quarter/play cost) during my freshman year, and I ruled that game. Literally. Not only did I have the high score, but no one could beat me at head-to-head play, either. I was extremely sad when they removed the game at the beginning of my sophomore year. For that game alone, Tron holds a special place of nostalgia in my heart.

And, then, there's Jeff Bridges. Between Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill, Bridges had a lot of competition back when I was 12, but I noticed him, which is saying a lot. I noticed him more with Starman in 1984, but it was Tucker: The Man and His Dream that really convinced me of how great an actor he is. I spent my 20s telling people that he was the most underrated actor in Hollywood, and I wasn't wrong. It's great that he's now getting the recognition that he's deserved for so long. The fact that he has been so instrumental in the return of Tron says a lot both for whom he is and the film. The legacy of Tron.

My boys were immediately excited when they heard there was going to be a sequel (to the original), and the initial trailers for it sent them both into a frenzy of excitement over it. It's hard to fault them for that. The trailers were nearly as visually stunning as the movie. And it was. Visually stunning. The film is worth seeing just as a visual masterpiece, and it was... well, it was spectacular in 3D. It's true that the plot is a bit more contrived and, therefore, weaker than the plot for the original, but, again, the story is really only there as a vehicle to display the digital landscape they've created. I will say, though, that it's only upon reflection that the holes in the story become apparent. Bridges' talent is enough to make everything believable, and Garrett Hedlund, who plays Flynn's son, is more than adequate in supporting him. Truthfully, the film is dazzling enough just on its own that it's hard to contemplate any weaknesses while watching it. At least on  the big screen.

A new Tron trilogy is supposedly in the works. At any rate, there should be a Disney television series next year and, at least, one movie sequel. Assuming that Bridges is now out of the equation (although I don't know that I believe that he's gone for good), I hope they actually write a really compelling story. It would be a shame for this to become another fiasco like The Matrix. It could. There is some promise, though, in that Disney is planning ahead on this instead of just having the "oh, this made buckets of money,  let's make another" reaction. I have to say that I'm very curious to see where Tron takes us next. I only wish it could take us there on our very own light cycles.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

"All shall love me and despair!" -- The Fellowship Revisited

I got to go out to Skywalker Ranch the other night to watch the newly digitally re-mastered extended cut  of Fellowship of the Ring. This is (sort of) in honor of the Blu-Ray release of the movies. It is, at least, because of the Blu-Ray release. Lord of the Rings was actually long enough ago, at this point, that the movie was filmed on, um, actual film. Being digitally re-mastered is part of the whole Blu-Ray process. Evidently, only a very small pool of people will get to see a theatrical release of the digital version, so I was very glad to get to be a part of that. Of course, The Two Towers and The Return of the King will follow over the next two weeks.

It's actually quite thrilling to see them on the big screen again. And Fellowship is my favorite of the three. In fact, and I know we're in the midst of gushing over Harry Potter at the moment, it may be the best film adaptation of a book ever (sorry, the adaptations of Mr. Potter were, on the whole, merely adequate). The same can't be said for the other two installments, but Fellowship is as close as I've seen with any movie for capturing the essence of the book it came from. [If we include comic books into the mix, I'd have to say that Spider-Man comes pretty darn close, too.]

See, the problem is they're so long. Okay, well, that's not the main problem; the main problem is that we've already seen them. Even though we own the extended cuts, it's hard to just sit down and watch them from beginning to ending without taking breaks. It's like that with, basically, any movie we've already seen, but it's worse with the LotR films. Because they're so long! They need to be long (I like that they're long), but, when you have three kids, no, wait, when you have my daughter, it's fairly impossible to do anything for even half that time without interruption. Last time we put Fellowship in, I think it took us about six hours to watch the whole thing. Six hours! It's really hard to stay immersed in the fantasy when you have to continually feed the human-sized hummingbird that keeps zipping in for food.

But at the theater... at the theater, you are forced to stay immersed. And, of course, my daughter wasn't there, so that made things a lot easier, too. And it was so good to flow back into Tolkien's world. I love the Shire in Fellowship. I don't know that there's anything Jackson could have done to make it more like the world I imagined from the book. And the fact that the stone trolls are there... And I could never believe they didn't include the gift giving scene in the theatrical version, so I love that part in the extended cut. Of course, the real triumph of the films is the casting. Those aren't actors; they are those characters. There is no Ian McKellen, only Gandalf.

I only have one issue with the film version of Fellowship: the Balrog. I can understand why they chose to use a large demon-like creature, and it is very impressive within the confines of the movie. However, the description in the book suggests more a creature of impression rather than substance. A creature of shadow and darkness and fire. And, yes, the Balrog in the movie is exactly that, but, still... Oh, and I'm always unhappy that Glamdring doesn't behave appropriately. Sting glows, yet Glamdring does not. For me, that's a huge oversight.

Seeing the movie, again, reminded me just how long it's been since my last reading of LotR. It's definitely time to do that again. As I've said before, I don't often re-read, but Tolkien is one of those exceptions to that, and it is time. The issue is that, now, I just want to toss aside the books I'm currently reading and pick up Fellowship. I won't do that, but I want to. It may be time for another reading of The Hobbit to my kids, too.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"Danger, Will Robinson!" pt. 5: Starting in the Middle

Okay, it's time for a little bit of controversy!
Maybe, a lot bit.

My educational experience was not typical. Of course, at the time, I didn't realize how not typical it was since it was all public education. I went through this thing called the Gateway Program for Gifted and Talented children (starting in elementary school). To complicate matters, I also went to a (public) high school for smart kids (middle school, too). As my brother used to say, not only did I go to Nerd school, but I was one of the top nerds at Nerd school since the Gateway program had specially accelerated classes in a school that was already accelerated. I only bring all of this up because I was exposed to some things in school that, evidently, are not generally taught.

Like plot structure.

As early as 5th grade, I was learning the details of plot structure in my English classes. As far as I can tell, this is not something that's generally taught in the regular public school system (anywhere). I asked my about-to-be-a-sophomore about this the other day, and he told me they learned that stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. From what I've gathered, I'm almost surprised they went into that much detail, since it seems to be a topic that isn't really discussed before college level. And not much in college. I have a BA in English, and I covered more on the aspects of writing before I got to college than I ever did while I was there.

For just a moment, before we get into the heart of all of this, take a little ride with me. It's a roller coaster ride, so get yourself ready.

Since you're all my VIP guests, we're going to skip the line. This time. This is the stuff you should leave out of your plot. Although there can be some entertaining stuff during the wait in line, you spend most of the time saying, "this line is sooo long," "this is so boring," and "how much longer is the wait?" You don't want the riders on your roller coaster saying these kinds of things about your work. Let me put this another way, this is stuff that's not essential to the story.

So we're getting on the roller coaster having skipped the line. Getting our seats, getting strapped in, and waiting for everyone else to get strapped in. This is the exposition of our ride. Here's the thing, many people consider this part boring, too, but this is the time we establish the essentials of our plot. Characters. Setting. Conflict. This is the basis for our ride. It prepares us for the journey and keeps the riders safe. You don't, after all, want any one to fall out. Remember, we may be required to sit for a few moments while the operator checks everything and gets the coaster going, but this time is important. This is when you start anticipating the ride. What will it be like? Will it be scary? Will the person in front of me puke? This is stuff that is essential to your story.

Eventually, the coaster begins to move, and we enter the rising action. During this phase of our journey, our anticipation builds. Sometimes, there are unexpected turns. Sometimes, there are sudden dips, and we race down for a moment, but we know we haven't reached the "big one," yet, because we can still see that high hill rising above us. Sometimes, we're plunged into darkness by entering a tunnel, and we don't have any idea what's going on around us (for those of you that like to keep your readers in the dark). Still, through all of this, we continue to go up and up.

The ride's been fun, but, finally, we are on that last ascent. The rest of the track fades away beneath us. We grip tight to the hand bar, or, possibly, raise our hands, depending upon how brave (or foolhardy) we are. We begin to hear the screams of the people at the front, and we clamp our jaws in final anticipation as we arrive at the climax. Our stomachs lurch as the coaster drops beneath us, dragging us into a rushing descent of falling action.

The coaster glides through it's final approach, our denouement (or resolution), slowing us down until we reach the point of departure and get off. We begin to talk about how great the ride was or, possibly, how lame it was. "Did you see that second turn coming? I totally did!" "I was completely caught off guard by that dip into the tunnel." "That last turn before the last hill was so cool!" Things like that. Hopefully, no one is saying "the whole thing sucked."

Where, in all of this, is the problem? The controversy?

We have a culture, here in the States, of instant gratification. Maybe that attitude is everywhere, at this point; I don't know (I don't live everywhere). We don't want to wait for anything. Why should we? Like Veruca Salt, we want it NOW! All of us. All the time. This is destroying the way books are written. Yes, I'm saying it. It's destroying the way books are written. The one thing I see most repeated blog after blog is this "rule" of writing. I see it on agent blogs everywhere. Constantly. Most unfortunately, I see unpublished writers pummeling each other over the head with this all the time. The holy mantra of the writing community: Start in the middle of the action.

I'm here to tell you, right now, that rule is wrong. That rule says that we should not only get to skip the line to the roller coaster but that we should also get to skip the exposition and much if not all of the rising action. We should be dropped suddenly into our seats just moments before the we get to that last climb. It's wrong. But we have a whole generation of writers who are listening to this bad advice.

In my last Danger post (read it here), I talked about the whole "flash forward" thing that's been happening in TV shows (and, to a lesser extent, movies). This is a direct response to the whole "start in the middle of the action" thing. It doesn't breed better TV shows. It's completely about catching the viewers interest so they'll sit and watch. In short, it's about the money. That's what the whole "rule" is about. Money. Publishers know that when people are flipping through books trying to decide what to buy, they often glance at the first few pages. They're trying to hook the reader into buying regardless of the quality of the story. It's a short term view of writing, and it's bad.

Don't get me wrong, it sounds so logical. When I first started doing my blogging thing and started seeing this idea thrown around, I was initially taken in, too. I mean, sure, yeah, start in the middle of the action. Leave out the boring stuff. It sounds so reasonable. Just give readers the stuff they want to read. At this point, though, that comes across to me as "give the readers junk food." Seriously, if we let kids eat what they want to eat, how many of them would ever eat veggies? And based on the growing numbers of childhood obesity cases, how many parents are really doing the work of making sure their kids are eating right?

I hear what you're saying. But reading is good! Shouldn't we promote reading at all costs? Even if it means starting in the middle of the action? At least, they're reading, right? Sure, yeah, that's true. To an extent. However, I'm going to point at two of the most beloved series of all time: The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. Neither of these series resorts to "starting in the middle of the action." They both have a very significant exposition stage which moves smoothly into rising action. I would say it's that quality that causes us to love those books so much. Sure, we enjoy other books. Books that jump right into it. But we go back again and again to Potter and the Pevensies.

The problem in all of this is that we, as unpublished writers, tend to listen to agents. Agents listen to publishers. The publishers, at least the big ones, only listen to money. Especially right now while the publishing world is in such chaos. They want books that will grab the readers right there on the first page and make them want to buy it just like those TV shows that start at the end and then flash "48 hours earlier" on the screen. I hate it. All of it. This manipulation of writers and readers for the monetary gain of the publisher. It doesn't promote good reading, and it certainly doesn't promote good writing. In fact, it forces the writer to sacrifice the integrity of his/her story for the gain of the publisher.

Here's what brought this all home for me and opened my eyes to the extent of this problem:

We have required reading in our family. Before you say anything, that's a topic for another time. It's like getting kids to eat their vegetables. At first, you have to make them do it. At this point, we're still working on my daughter, but that's beside the point. Although, my boys love to read, they are pretty satisfied to just read what they like. However, I think it's good for them to try new things. A few months ago, I came across my old copy of Treasure Island. It's a great book. I loved that book when I was a kid, and it's a classic, so I thought it would be a good book for my younger boy (middle child) to try out (because the oldest is reading The Lord of the Rings (his choice, not a parent suggestion)). We struggled with that book for weeks. Seriously, it took him, like, two weeks to get to the second chapter. I just couldn't understand it.

I did what I could. I encouraged him to keep working on it while he was reading other stuff. I told him how much I had enjoyed the book as a kid. I also explained to him that he needed to give the book a chance. Just because a book doesn't grab you on  the first page, or, even, in the first chapter, doesn't mean it's a bad book. We also had several long talks about trying new things, which is a conversation we have to have frequently (several times a week) in dealing with food, and expanding horizons.

It took him a while, but, by chapter four, I found him picking up Treasure Island without any prompting. When he finished it, he actually  thanked me for making him read it after grudgingly acknowledging that he'd really enjoyed it. (He hates admitting to liking something that he has sworn is gross. You should see him trying to figure out how to ask for more of some food that he's spent the previous half hour declaring that he hates.) That was the moment, the moment when he said, "Thanks for making me read that, Dad," that I realized what a wrong thing we are doing in climbing on the bandwagon with all the "start in  the middle of the action" supporters.

Treasure Island is not a book that would find publication today. At least, not in  the form that it's currently in. I imagine publishers today would want to skip right to boarding the ship or, possibly, even to the point where Jim is in the apple barrel.  We would never meet the Captain, the spectral figure of old blind Pew (who forms the basis for more characters in modern fiction than I can count), or witness the horrifying delivery of the Black Spot. Well, maybe in flashback, but that just wouldn't deliver the same impact. Kidnapped, also by Robert Louis Stevenson, is more action packed than Treasure Island, and I remember loving it. Loving it way more than Island. However, I can't remember anything else about Kidnapped, just that I loved it. The images from Treasure Island have stayed with me my whole life so carefully crafted are they. Being his first novel, the fact that Treasure Island would be considered unpublishable would have likely killed his entire career. Can you imagine if he had never made it to the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

The horrifying fact is that if we applied this idea of starting in the middle of the action to most of the books we consider classics, we would mangle them and diminish them. Harry Potter would likely lose chapters; my guess would be a beginning not before he is boarding the train to Hogwarts. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe wouldn't start before all the children journeyed into Narnia together to immediately discover Tumnus' wrecked cave. And The Hobbit? Probably where he's racing to join the dwarves at the Green Dragon. Certainly not before that. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea.

There's nothing wrong, specifically, with starting a book in the middle of the action if that's how you, the author, want to do it. The problem is with the insistence that that is the way to do it. The insistence that that is how you write a better book. It's not how you write a better book. It may be how you sell more books (in the short run), but it's not how you get better books from authors. Good books have complete plots, and that includes an exposition.

The greatest danger, though, is that this style of writing, starting mid-action and making the reader sort of catch up as s/he goes, is teaching the current generation of young readers to live on the equivalent of literary fast food. It's quick. It's easy. There's no work required. There's no work, because there's no substance. Nothing to actually digest. It dissolves just like cotton candy. That's probably why I disliked the first Percy Jackson so much (the only one I've read). The book just has no substance. The movie had more substance to it than the book, which is an oddity, but it's probably why I enjoyed the movie. I kept expecting more from the book, but it never delivered.

Personally, I want my work to have substance. Cotton candy is great once a year at the fair, but I don't want to try and live off of it. I feel like we're allowing our kids to do so when we cave to the demands of agents and publishers to stick to just the portions of the story that move the plot forward. Keep to the action. Seriously? That would mean no Fred and George Weasley, who are my favorite characters from Harry Potter. They rarely move the plot forward, but they are a whole lot of fun. No Beorn. No Tom Bombadil. Again, I could go on.

Let's look back at our roller coaster for just a moment. The power of discernment, as the author, comes in knowing when we leave the line and board the roller coaster. Yes, you do want to cut out the sections that are just waiting in line, but you do want to keep the parts that are the beginning of the ride. Even if the ride starts slow. As the author, you get to choose that. Yes, this bit is slow moving, but it's essential to what's going to happen later. Even if it's only essential in  that it ties us to the characters, gives us a connection to them. There's nothing worse than a reader not having an emotional investment in your character(s), than just not caring what happens to them. That's what allows a reader to set your book down and say, "You know what? I just don't care." When you don't give the reader a chance to bond with your characters through a strong exposition, this is what you risk. At that point, your hope is to zip the reader through quickly enough that they never realize they didn't care what happened.

This is what it comes down to for me:
Francis Bacon said, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."

I want to write books that need to be chewed and digested. That beg to be chewed and digested. Heck, I'd settle for writing books that just need to be swallowed. Publishers don't care about any of that. They just need books that will be tasted. Quick and easy. And forgotten. They want readers to keep tasting book after book. That's how they make their money. If that's all you want as a writer, though, agents (and publishers) give good advice, and you should certainly go that route. Being tasted is just not what I aspire to.

Or, maybe, I'm just contrary.
That's always a possibility.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The End...?

Well, I was going to have a real post for today, but that didn't happen. I thought my head was going to explode, yesterday, with all the interruptions. Seriously. It was one of those days. Mostly my daughter. She's good at them. "When can we..." "Why can't we..." "Can we go..." "Why can't we go..."
My brain shut down. My frustration bled into the post I was working on, and, when I finally looked back over it, I realized it was much more harsh than I wanted it to be. Like I was beating people over the heads. Not really what I was looking for, so I have to re-draft that one. It's an important one (to me), so I figure I need to get it right.

Then, I realized that I probably shouldn't post it today, anyway. I mean, everyone's going to be sleeping all day because they stayed out all night watching Harry Potter, right? Except me. I didn't do that. And I know this is blasphemous to many of you, but I'm not really feeling all that eager to go see it. Not that I don't want to see it. I do. My wife and are planning to make a date of it, but I've been less and less excited about the movies as they've gone along. They probably should have split all of them into two movies, especially Goblet of Fire, the weakest of the movies. Maybe I'm just upset that the movies don't feature enough of the twins.

I'm thinking I may like the feeling of being more relaxed on Fridays. Of not writing a "real" post. Just kind of talking. I don't know. I seem to be getting into a pattern with it, though. I guess we'll see what happens. Just as a teaser: hopefully, the post for Monday will be the next segment of my "Danger, Will Robinson" series. It's a big one. Big topic, that is. And, of course, my opinion (which is the correct opinion :) goes against the main stream.

I've kind of been having issues with the blog, lately, too. I need a new look. I hate the generic background I have. I also don't want to spend the time trying to figure out how to design something different. I did try. Blogger kept telling me that the file was to big, which doesn't make any sense to me, since I can post that file as an image in a post. I'd have to take time out of writing to figure all of that out, which I don't want to do. Of course, that's impossible, at the moment, anyway, since the majority of my novel writing is happening at the pool while my kids have their swimming lessons. In a notebook. A paper one. And the writing is with a pen. Can't really figure out any computer stuff with that kind of notebook.

Also, my blog traffic is way down this month. That really concerns me. And concerns me in a way that I don't know what to do about it. My traffic spiked pretty high in June (almost doubled from May) for reasons I'm not quite clear on. However, it looks like July is going to be lower than April. Part of it's my fault. I'm not out looking at new blogs, at the moment. Not looking for new blogs means not commenting on new blogs, which means people don't come over and look at my blog. But I'm kind of at the limit on the number of blogs I can follow without devoting writing time to blog following. I knew this was going to end up being a problem, and I haven't figured out what to do about it. Comments are down, too. There are a few people that always comment, and you people are great. :) You're some of my favorite people. And not just favorite blog people, favorite people people. I feel bad that I want more comments when I have such great people I can depend on, but, well, I do want more comments. Failing of being a human, I suppose. The constant desire for more. Of course, I know I have to have more followers to get more comments, but, then, I'm back to the not enough time to put into that.
Oh, well, I'm sure I'll figure all of that out at some point.

Speaking of writing with pen and paper, I was looking forward to getting started on the transcribing of my progress on Brother's Keeper to the computer next week. Looking forward to it with dread. But it needs to happen. I need to know my word count and things like that. However, I hate the whole transcribing process. I make more typing mistakes when I'm doing that than when I'm composing at the keyboard. And I can't read my handwriting. Yes, I know that's bad. But, hey, it's why I prefer to work at the computer. However, my kids opted for another two weeks of swimming lessons, so that's going to have to wait. I'm both relieved and annoyed. Relieved that I don't have to start that process on Monday. Annoyed that the amount I'll have to transcribe will be even greater by the time I start doing it.

Speaking of writing with pen and paper, again, it's interesting. The process is different for me than working at the computer. It's harder to look back over stuff, to catch up with where I am, so I tend to be much more about just getting to it (the writing) as opposed to figuring out what I was doing and all that. Also, I have a much smaller writing window, so I can't spend a lot of time looking back. If I do that, I won't have any time left to add new material. I'm not sure, yet, how this will affect the end product, but I'm interested to find out. It has meant a lot more notes about stuff to add in, because I can't just go back and insert things on the paper, so I just make a note that I need to write something in when I get around to typing it up.

I feel like I'm making good progress with the book, but it's just a feeling, because I don't have a word count. Yes, I'm itching for my word count! Is that bad?

At this point, I'm sure you're wondering about the title of this post. The end of what? Here's a list:
The end of the week.
The end of Harry Potter (at least, for the moment).
The end of swimming lessons. Except not.
Not the end of StrangePegs.
Not the end of the world, although they say Carmageddon is coming.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Super 8 or What's Behind My Back?

My wife screamed. I mean, she really screamed. I don't remember one time in over a dozen years when she's actually screamed during a movie. Generally speaking, she just likes to cut the circulation off in whichever of my limbs is closest to her during any suspenseful or scary parts. This time, she screamed. Loud. And ended up half in my lap. From a movie seat, so that was kind of impressive. She made me jump. I don't even remember what it was that caused the reaction, at this point, but she followed it up with 3 or 4 lesser screams throughout Super 8. And she squeezed my left arm off. Yes, it fell onto the floor, and I had to have it reattached. It was pretty gross, though. I mean, have you ever really looked at the... goo... on a movie theater floor? Let me just tell you right now, you don't want your arm laying around in it. Fortunately, because we went to a late showing several weeks post release, the theater wasn't very crowded, so there weren't many witnesses to take care of.

My first reaction to Super 8 was very positive. There's a good story there. An actual story about real people. So here's the warning: there will be spoilers. I want to actually talk about this movie and J. J. Abrams, and I don't want to try to do it while dodging around trying not to give anything away about the movie. Also, despite anything negative I may say about Super 8, let me just reiterate that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching the film. It's easily one of the best stories in a movie I've seen this year. Not the best, but, probably, top 5.

I have very ambivalent feelings about Mr. Abrams. The more removed I am from the experience of sitting in the theater watching Super 8, the more my ambivalence towards Abrams extends over to the movie. See, Abrams has this problem: he likes to hide things behind his back to generate suspense. You remember doing that when you were a kid, right? Or, at least, having it done to you? When you're a kid, it's kind of fun. Trying to "convince" someone to show you what he's hiding. It's fun because you know he really does want to show you, so, once you've played the game long enough, he'll give you a peek. Teenagers change this to the "I've got a secret" game, but it's really the same thing.

There are two problems with this: 1. the thing is often anti-climactic 2. sometimes, we already know. Oh, actually, there's one other problem: it only works once. It's sort of a cheap trick in story telling because of that, when the suspense is being generated by just holding the secret behind your back. There's no reason to go back and experience it again, because you already know the secret. As opposed to a movie like The Sixth Sense (and I hate using this, because I don't have much respect for what Shyamalan has become. However, you can't deny that this one film was brilliant. Possibly the most brilliant of its genre) where the secret is really in front of you the whole time, you just don't know it because you haven't figured it out. You can watch it over and over again marveling at how you should have figured it out but just didn't.

That was the biggest issue I had with Super 8; I had flashbacks of Cloverfield, which is a movie I just didn't enjoy. I appreciate what Abrams was trying to do (it was a great idea), but the execution was... well, it was just weak. A movie without a plot with the author holding a monster behind his back that he flashes to us for a brief moment at the end and leaves us saying, "That's it? That was all? Two hours of this just for that?" He applies this same gimmick to Super 8, and, although he gives us a better view of the critter at the end of the movie, I still felt like I'd been kind of cheated. It was sort of like finding out that all he'd had behind his back the whole time was a frog. There was nothing startling about the alien. It was an alien. Big deal.

Abrams' genius lies in his ideas. He comes up with great concepts. Like Cloverfield. He doesn't have the best execution, though. He lets the idea run away with him instead of harnessing the idea. His Star Trek is a great example of this. He has this problem. He needs to re-boot the Star Trek franchise, but he doesn't want to just do the same thing over again. How could he shake things up? Destroy Vulcan. Go off on a whole new timeline. It was a great idea. But red matter? Seriously? That's the best he could come up with? And some guy sitting around in a space ship for decades just waiting? Yeah, it sounds malevolent and all, but, come on, decades? There's bound to be a point where the boredom sets in. Don't get me wrong, I loved his Star Trek. It's the best Star Trek out there, but, in the end, it's still just Star Trek with things like red matter that make my eyes roll.

He seems to have a follow through issue, too. Like a cat in a field of butterflies. Alias comes to mind. Another great idea. The first season was exceptional. Hooked me and my wife. We watched the whole series based on that first season. Well, the second season was pretty good, too. Somewhere in the third season, though, he got a new idea, Lost, and left Alias to pursue that instead. And Alias was full of the "what am I hiding behind my back?" plots. Every season. Oh, and everyone was an enemy spy that they would just suddenly reveal "by the way, I have a secret." I haven't watched Lost, but it has sounded like it was much the same. Great concept. It must have been considering how many people flocked to it, but he left it somewhere in there to go do Fringe, which I couldn't watch. I tried. But it was just too Abrams. Oh, and there was Star Trek in there, too, so, really, all you people out there upset about how Lost ended, you can't exactly blame Abrams, because he wasn't there. Other people were responsible for whatever bad stuff happened at the end of the series. Oh, wait. Abrams wasn't there. I guess you can blame him. But, you know, he probably didn't have any idea about how to end it, either, so it probably wouldn't have mattered if he had been there.

Super 8 evokes all of these Abrams issues for me. I can see them all in there. However, 8 has one saving grace: the story is just E.T. With a twist. It's the "what if the government had found the alien first?" version. But it's still a story about a boy that has lost a parent and is trying to cope with his loss. By meeting an alien. If only that was an option available to all boys that have lost a parent. Spielberg gave Abrams an assist on the story, so it's not surprising that that's what we're getting. Just with a lot of explosions and guns and eating humans (because that's really the freakiest moment in the movie, the alien casually munching on a human limb like it's eating a chicken leg). It's a strong story, and I could probably watch Super 8 again for the story, although the suspense surrounding the alien won't be there. My wife said she'd watch it again just to see the train crash again. It is spectacular.

Abrams does an excellent job with the setting. It evokes that sense of nostalgia in people my age and older. Those memories of what it was like to be a kid at that time. It's probably the strongest thing about the movie. It's perfect. Kids riding bikes. Models hanging from ceilings. Star Wars posters and comic books. All those things that are gone from mainstream life today. No cell phones. No computers. Cameras that actually use film that has to be developed. In that respect, I'm not sure how the movie plays to younger audiences. I haven't seen anything from that demographic about it, and we didn't take our kids to see it. I'm pretty sure all the explosions would make up for any lack of connection with the world of the movie, though.

There's even a message. Most movies, these days, don't have messages. Or themes. Nothing beyond the good vs evil. Which is fine, but it can go deeper than that. Abrams doesn't want anyone to miss his message, so he states it plainly for the audience. I'm impressed by this. Not in that he did it, but that people have still missed it. I know they have. I've read more reviews about this movie than any movie in a long time, and they all missed it. I would have thought that stating it the way Abrams did was a bit heavy handed, but, evidently, you have to put it right out there for people to even have a hope of them getting it, and, still, people will miss it. It's like communication with teenagers. Maybe that's where he messed up; he didn't state the message at least three times. Having spent many years of my life working with teenagers, I have experience with the "at least three times" thing. Most of them will get it after three times, although some still miss out and have to come back and ask "what did you say?"

At any rate, it's a good message. So good, in fact, that I'm going to quote it. The whole movie, the whole story, leads up to this one line. From the very first frame, he begins setting up the story, with a true  plot arc, to lead up to the one line of the movie that will sum everything up. However, I don't think it will spoil anything to know it ahead of time, because this particular aspect of the movie is about the journey. The journey of a father and a son trying to figure out how to connect with each other after the loss of the wife and mother. It's a touching journey and more grounded in reality than E. T., since the relationship in E.T. is the relationship with the alien. Who, then, leaves. Like Eliot's father left. This time, though, the boy is left with his father and the knowledge, "Bad things happen. Bad things happen, but you can still live."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Pixar's Ironic Messenger

Pixar's newest release is slick. And when I say slick, I mean it's SLICK. In the same way that Lightning McQueen is speed, Cars 2 is slick. Shiny. Mint. The animation is... there are no actual words for what the animation is. Especially the animation on the racing locations. I sat there thinking, "I want to go there." Especially when they were racing in Italy, and, actually, I have no real desire to go to Italy, but those scenes... I would have just stepped into them if I could have.

Cars 2 embraces everything kids loved about Cars and focuses in on it and makes it Bigger. Better. Faster and more intense (to quote a famous director (well, he's not famous for being a director, but that's the phrase he's known for when directing (points for anyone that knows whom))). Throw in Michael Caine as Finn McMissle, the James Bond of the movie, and you have  the perfect mix for the perfect spy spoof. And it is. If you can imagine a James Bond movie where he's accompanied by Johnny English (a Rowan Atkinson creation, if that gives you any idea). Actually, just see Cars 2, and you won't have to imagine it. Caine is suave and sophisticated while Larry the Cable Guy is, well, Mater.

In comparison to other Pixar movies, this one has been getting bad reviews. Which puts it on just about even footing with other movies. As a total aside, I find it extremely curious that the first movie that Pixar has released that attacks a particular group, in this case Big Oil, is the first of their movies to get any kind of negative reaction. In general, their movies have been about the human condition, and this one is, too, but Cars 2, specifically, makes the statement that Big Oil is bad. WALL-E has a similar theme, an environmental theme, but they don't target any particular group with that movie; they play it safe by equating their environmental message with said human condition -- humans need to "shape up" but not any specific ones. But, hey, I agree with them, Big Oil is bad. They are one of the big evils in the world, and, if Pixar wants to call them to the carpet, I'm good with that. I mean, when a Saudi prince starts talking about how they need to drive oils prices down so they can keep the US dependent on the Middle East for oil, you know something's wrong.

I'm not trying to say there's any kind of conspiracy against Cars 2 or Pixar by Big Oil, but I do find the negativity surrounding the movie to be, well, like I said, curious.

Moving past the oil thing, probably, the biggest "flaw" of the movie is its failure to meet audience expectations. Cars is about Lightning McQueen. He is the star of the movie. The trailers leading up to Cars 2 support our assumption and expectation that Lightning will, again, be the star of Cars 2. Pixar fails to prepare us for the reality, and the blame for that lies squarely with them. Or with Disney. With whoever prepared the trailers, but I'd find it hard to believe that Pixar didn't have some control over that. The truth is, though, is that Lightning is not the hero of the sequel. That distinction falls on Mater (If you doubt it, check to see who got top billing for the movie. Hint: it wasn't Owen Wilson). I think it's quite possible that adult audiences just couldn't come to grips with the comic relief from the first movie taking over in the spotlight in the second. Kids, though... well, kids love Mater, and I'm pretty sure it hasn't been an issue for them.

That's a failing I often see in reviews of movies for kids, the tendency to belittle them for no reason other than that they're for kids. Pixar, of course, has spoiled the wider audience by making their movies equally appealing to adults, so when they release a movie that is geared (no pun intended) more toward kids, adults get a little upset over it.

If Cars 2 does a have a failing, I'd say it's one of story telling. The big plot is the spy story with the message about big oil, but they needed something else to give it that emotional impact they're known for, so they tried to weave in a story about friendship and how we need to accept our friends for whom they are. Lightning is embarrassed of Mater. In fact, it is the early conflict over this that sends Mater off on his adventure. However, because the movie is focused on Mater, we never get the opportunity to make an emotional connection with Lightning over the issue, so there's no tug on our heart when we get to the pay off for that in the movie. Just an intellectual acknowledgment that, yes, we shouldn't try to make our friends be someone they're not. It's the failure of these two story lines to support each other that leaves the audience feeling that there could have been something more. Sort of like making one peanut butter sandwich and one jelly sandwich and leaving it to the audience to figure out what to do with them.

Having said that, I do feel the need to point out that this movie is still vastly superior to the average Hollywood offering. If this is the worst Pixar has to offer, and I'm not saying it is, because I actually enjoyed it a lot more than WALL-E, no one has any reason at all to complain. And it's worth saying: Big Oil is bad.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Reflections on a Week

We sat around at the fairgrounds waiting for the fireworks to start. We got there a little too early this year, so it was a long wait. However, between rounds of Uno and other card games, it gave me plenty of time to observe people.

The people were divided into two main groups: families (like us) and young people. Mostly, the families are uninteresting. I mean, they're busy corralling their kids just like we are. Or not corralling them, as was the case for most of them. I spend a fair amount of time trying to prevent my children from running amok, so there's not much interest for me in watching other people's children do so. Still, it was mildly amusing when the 4ish year old boy a few plots over grabbed a miniature lightsaber with both hands and attached it to his crotch and proceeded to act like he was peeing with it. Not that that in and of itself was amusing, but his mother started laughing uncontrollably and pointing the behavior out to everyone (strangers) around her. Of course, the positive feedback from his mother spurred him on to spin and dance around while holding the lightsaber in place. (I'm just not thinking the same behavior from a little girl would have been tolerated, much less encouraged.) This lasted until he spun himself so out of control that he could no longer stand.

When I say the other group was made of young people, that's not entirely accurate. I should say that the other category of people was made up of roving bands of young girls. Like packs of wild dogs roaming the streets in some post-apocalyptic world. Generally, 5 or 6 of them. Never fewer than 3. Hunting. Aged anywhere from 12 to 25. Mostly in short shorts and low cut shirts with artificial assistance to display their... assets. (Well, except for the 1 girl in a thin, white tank top with nothing beneath it except herself. There was nothing artificial there.) Roaming the crowd looking for stray boys. The problem being that there were no stray boys. And this is the part I find interesting. These kinds of events always attract groups of girls. Girls out to snag guys. But the guys don't show up for them.

Not that there were no guys. But the guys that were there were very obviously already attached. Like the guy behind us. He was there with his girl and 4 of her friends. I know this, because they had me take a group picture of them. The guy sat in his spot all night except for one foraging trip to the concession stands. Accompanied trip. Because it would be too dangerous for his girl to let him go off alone with so many predators around. No groups of guys wandering around looking for like-sized groups of girls, though. None.

Somewhere in there something is wrong. It's certainly not like the malls back in the 80s. Yes, there were the same packs of girls, but there were also guys. Mostly huddled in the gloom of the arcade hypnotized by flashing lights and the sounds of Donkey Kong. Or the food court. Of course, if you were in the book store, like me, you were safe. Completely safe. Better than hiding under a rock.

My daughter eats a lot. When I say a lot, I mean constantly. Like a hummingbird. We think she has a black hole in her stomach. I spend hours everyday trying to keep her in food. Which is in direct opposition to her desire to play. There was a watermelon eating contest for kids at the fairgrounds. I'm not exactly sure how they were defining kids, though. My daughter desperately wanted a snow cone. A $5 snow cone. Which I refused to buy. $5 for a cup of ice? What the heck is that about? The prize for the watermelon eating contest was a free snow cone, and the entry fee for the contest was only $1. So we let her enter. At this point, I'd like to point out that my daughter is 8. She was the youngest kid to enter at the time she was doing it. All girls and except for one other, all over 12. Did I mention the fact that it was all girls? One of those roving packs of girls, one other girl (with her father), and my daughter. She was upset because of all the big girls in the contest and feared she couldn't win. At the last moment, they split it into two groups: all the over 12s and all the under 12s. That just left one girl against my daughter, so it was a pretty easy win for her. However, she came in second out of the whole group. Pretty amazing. And she got her snow cone.

They have this thing here on Wednesday nights during  the summer called, in all originality, Wednesday Night Market. It's what it sounds like. Local businesses and farmers set up stalls and sell stuff in the streets of down town. We bought some great peaches. My kids got to hold some snakes and a newt at a booth being run by the local herpetological society. My daughter, who is pretty fearless, adamantly refused to touch the snakes. Until her brother did. He's a cautious lad. Perhaps overly cautious. His first reaction was also no. Which is what I expected from him (but not from his sister). After looking at all the snakes in boxes, though, and watching all the other people hold them (and wear them), he finally piped up, "I want to hold one." As soon as he had it in his hands, his sister had to do it, too. No, she's not competitive.

Although the crowd at the market is a bit more eclectic than the crowd for the fireworks (which I'm going to blame on the farmers' market section), there were still those densely knotted groups of girls wandering through the crowds looking for the non-existent guys. Again, any guys there were definitely already owned.

There was also a trip to the Academy of Sciences museum in San Francisco. We just renewed our family plan with them, so there should be, at least, a few more trips there within the next year. The albino alligator was doing well after a recent algae cleaning. My daughter was completely engrossed in trying to count the number of moray eels. And she made a friend in the rain forest:
Of course, then, my younger son also wanted to hold a butterfly, so he spent the rest of his time walking around with his finger out (Although my daughter hadn't been trying. It just landed on her). And trying to watch the frogs mate, which he also missed seeing. It was a fun day other than my daughter trying to constantly rush us on to the next thing before anyone else was finished with the thing we were on. That's just how she is.

That's most of the week. There will be reviews coming as soon as I can write them about Cars 2 and Super 8. I just want to point out (because I find it very (very) curious) that Pixar slams big oil in this movie, and it's the first of the Pixar movies to get bad reviews. Or less good reviews. Non-stellar reviews. But I'll talk more about that later.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Middleman and the History of Television

Okay, so I'm not really going to give you the history of television. I mean, how boring, right? Actually, I'm not sure if that would be boring or not seeing as how I know absolutely nothing about the history of that most predominant of items in homes. Did you know that on average there are more television sets per household than there are people? How scary is that? And that doesn't include computers which can serve a similar function. It's no wonder, though, that what we watch, how much we watch, has such a huge influence on the way we write. But that's another story.

TV wasn't a huge thing for me when I was kid. Except on Saturday mornings. I wouldn't do anything without my Saturday morning cartoons.The rest of the time, I was more interested in playing. And by playing, I mean playing outside. TV was only for when there was absolutely nothing else to do. The problem was that, as I got older, the times when there was nothing to do became more and more frequent. By the time I was in middle school, I ruled the television set from the time I got home until the news came on at 10. That was my cue to shuffle off to bed and read for a couple or few hours.

All of that changed my freshman year of high school. There's a story that goes with that (I have stories that go with pretty darn near everything), but, near the end of my freshman year, I discovered there was life outside of TV, and I gave it up. Not that I made any kind of declaration, "I'm giving up TV!" or anything like that, but I just lost interest in it, and I've never gone back. Which is not to say that I never watched TV again, but it's never dictated my schedule to me again. There was a period during college when my best friend and I were addicted to Stand Up Stand UP, Whose Line Is It Anyway? and a couple of other shows like that on the newly formed The Comedy Channel (yes, it wasn't Comedy Central, yet, in those days) which was difficult because neither of us had a TV, at the time, so we snatched viewings at my parents' house (a couple of times a week when we were there) or wherever we could.

You have to remember, this was before DVDs and the wide proliferation of TV shows available for purchase. If you wanted to watch something, you pretty much had to be there at the designated time slot on  the designated day. Or, you know, know how to program a VCR for which you had to take advanced courses in college to be able to do. Fortunately, at the time, I invested in those courses. Which are totally useless today. At any rate, it took an extra effort for any show to catch my eye in the first place, and it had to be pretty spectacular for me to bother myself with recording it. Like I said, I no longer bent to the whims of television schedules.

I bet you're wondering what kind of shows I would go out of my way to record, aren't you? I bet you're thinking that if I would go to such lengths as to program the VCR to record them that they must have been pretty spectacular. Are you getting your pad of paper and a pen to make notes about the incredibly sophisticated and deep viewing I'm about to lay out before you? Are you ready for it? The list isn't very long. In fact, there are only three shows that ever demanded such loyalty from me. Are you ready? They're Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (which I misplaced my dedication to after the second season), The Flash, and Animaniacs. Yes, I'm serious. Best cartoon ever. EVER!

The Flash was the first series that I loved that just didn't make it however much it deserved to. But a higher profile show keep using up all its blue screen time and forced delay after delay upon it so that it couldn't maintain its viewers because new episodes came out only about once every three weeks. However, Mark Hamill's two episodes as the Trickster are incredible, and it's unfortunate that the show couldn't sustain an audience.

Eventually, I moved out to CA and got married. At this point, my wife and I actually did make a premeditated decision that we weren't going to have TV in our house. It's one of those things that, if it's available, it's hard to control. It starts with just one show. I had avoided watching TV up to that point by never being home (or shut up in my room painting), but you can't really run a marriage that way, so we chose no TV.

For a long time, that really meant no TV. At all. The television set was, basically, a miniature movie screen in our house, because that's all it was ever used for. Later, there was the DVD player, and, later still, Buffy. And that's how we watch television. We hear that something is really good, so we decide we'll try it out. That's extremely easy to do these days with Netflix

My wife and I don't have enough shows to keep us viewing all year long (or even most of the year long), so, between DVD releases of the shows we follow, we try out new things. One of the disappointing things we've learned is that we tend toward shows that, for whatever reason, didn't make it. Like The Flash. And Deadwood (which may be my wife's favorite show ever). Firefly. The one we just discovered, and we knew it had been cancelled before we watched any of it, is The Middleman.

I don't have a good way of describing The Middleman in any concise sort of way. Yeah, I hear you thinking. Why would I bother with concise? When am I ever concise? Maybe, one of these days, I'll explore the genius of Kevin Smith, and, then, you will understand. Or, probably, not. Yes, I've always been this way.

The Middleman is about this super hero guy called the Middleman and his Middleman in training, who happens to be female. They work for an organization they refer to as O2STK (Organization Too Secret To Know), and that's just the tip of the awesome that is this show. The fact that the villains are continually saying, "My plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity," as they monologue about their convoluted schemes to take over the world (or destroy it) is frosting goodness.

It's a tongue-in-cheek look at pop culture that pokes fun at it while simultaneously celebrating it. The far too few episodes tend to revolve around a specific theme and are full of references to the pop culture landmarks that inspired them. However, don't mistake my praise for the show as being any kind of suggestion that you should rush out and watch it. In all likelihood, you shouldn't. By the second episode, I was fully aware of why Middleman got cancelled.

It's not that it's too intelligent for the average viewer, although it is. Despite it's campy appearance (yes, it does wear camp clothes, dressing itself up to resemble the Batman series of the 60s with such things as the Middlemobile), it is, in many ways, too sophisticated for the average viewer. If you can't catch the subtleties, you'll just think it's silly. To make matters worse, if you're not pretty well grounded in your pop culture lore, the vast majority of the jokes will go right over your head. There's nothing worse than a joke you don't get in a show meant to be funny. And, if it's meant to be funny, and you're only getting every 3rd or 4th joke, you tend to, well, think it's not funny. It's like being the person in the room staring at Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a glazed expression while everyone else laughs uncontrollably.

So... it's not a show I can actually recommend, but I liked it so much, I needed to write about it. The sad part is that it did have some really interesting sub-plots developing, and we'll never know what was to come of them. The only real reason I could suggest watching it is if you really wanted to know how off center I am. Either you'd get the show, and say "oh, wow, this is great," in which case you would be revealed to be off center, too, or you'd make the yuck face and think (or, maybe, even say out loud), "He likes this? What's wrong with him?"

Of course, Middleman did get a fairly good critical reaction. Like Arrested Development. But, when everything comes down to how much money it can generate, the bits on either end of the bell curve (the great and the horrible) become indistinguishable to the profit gurus. Which is just too bad, because everything becomes the same old bland mass market crap. Whit rice, white bread, and white TV. Read anything you want into that statement. I'm sure you won't be wrong.