30 October 2014

True Believers: how Marvel/Disney just 'faced DC/Warners. Again.

So I was chatting with a friend Tuesday night and this came up:

“Is it me,” she wrote, “or is there a lot more glee over Phase 3 than DC’s announcement?”

“Not just you,” I replied. And then I referenced this:


For those of you who live under rocks yet somehow have wifi connections for those rocks, some context: two weeks ago, DC/Warner announced a slate of movies based on their mutually owned superhero properties in a shareholder meeting:

2015: Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
2016: Suicide Squad
2017: Wonder Woman, Justice League
 2018: The Flash, Aquaman
2019: Shazam, Justice league sequel
2020: Cyborg, Green Lantern


 The slate made the news and the response was . . . positive but muted. “Oh, hey, pretty cool. Hope they can pull that off.”

 On Tuesday, Marvel did this:



And the response was: “HOLY SHIT YES AAAAGGGHHHHHH”--after which many towels were needed.

Not even kidding here. Twitter (which I was on at the time) practically exploded under my feet. The geek/comic/film press exploded with speculation on casting, and with pictures of Chadwick Boseman on stage with Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. There was even a hilarious Civil War fakeout. There was a teaser for Infinity War. With Thanos. Wearing the Gauntlet.

 As someone said yesterday on io9: There are no more mics, they have all been dropped. And yeah, it made the DC/Warner announcement look pretty anemic by comparison. There are a lot of reasons for this, some obvious, some less so. Here’s a few:

The Marvel characters are cinematic in a way the majority of DC characters don’t seem to be. You wouldn’t think this is so, but it is. Within a few years of launching its modern line, Marvel started doing some seriously epic, seriously cinematic stuff: Galactus. The Inhumans. The Kree-Skrull stuff. Kang the Conqueror. The Savage Land. Thanos. Whereas the most epic stuff DC was doing for a while was when Starro would show up and the JLA would have to fight it off, or if you got a good juicy multi-parter in Legion of Super-Heroes feature. Now, this is not to say that the DC heroes can’t be cinematic; Nolan proved that with his Bat trilogy, though he fell into the diminishing returns arena with the third film (a fault of the script, not the character). Burton’s Batman movies were decent movies, though maybe not very good Batman stories. Donner’s Superman was a conditional success--a story of a god come down to earth who then essentially stops a shady land deal while altering history because his girlfriend was needlessly fridged by Mario Puzo and a small cadre of screenwriters (and if you think I’m being uncharitable towards the Donner film, ask me what I think about Dick Lester's Superman II sometime). The Green Lantern movie should have been a cinematic home run, but the effects were crap, and the script sucked syphilitic hyena balls. Man of Steel had some great moments and a decent amount of gravitas, but it was also saddled with what I like to call Zack Snyder’s Asymptomatic Superman.



Which, while debatably cool to watch, is not the Superman I grew up with. And maybe that’s part of the problem: character development.

Marvel has developed its characters smartly, and stayed largely true to them in the movies--something DC has not always done, as per Asymptomatic Superman in Snyder’s film. Of course, DC hasn’t always been great about that anyway. It jettisoned or reinvented most of its Golden Age roster during the 1950s in an attempt to boost sales. Even before then, DC developed its heroes more or less by throwing shit at the wall to see what would stick. One of the best elements of the Superman mythos, Kryptonite, actually came from the radio series, for instance (to be fair, it was based on a Siegel/Shuster comic script that had been languishing, but still). It didn’t exist in the comics until DC retconned it in. Batman used to shoot people, for fuck’s sake, until someone intimated to Bob Kane that maaayyyybe a man who lost his parents in a back alley shooting maaayyyybe shouldn’t be waving a pistol around. And this comes full circle into Burton’s films, which has someone named Batman blowing criminals up with the rocket launcher in his car. DC/Warner’s problem is that they are trying to take idealized, idealistic Golden/Silver age characters and "update" them for modern audiences and it's just shit. They’ve proven over and over that they simply don’t get the characters, or worse, that they only see them as a means to an end, that end being money. Thus we have the characters being bashed and battered into shapes they should never take in the name of “grim and mature storytelling” aimed at “modern sensibilities.”*

Meanwhile, Marvel has made a few superficial changes to its characters--Thor’s Asgard, for instance--but the core of those characters remain the same. They didn’t fuck with the basic models like DC seems to want to do. And you’ll notice Marvel is making money hand over fist. DC has Zack Snyder’s problematic-if-profitable vision of heroism, and a modicum of goodwill left over from Nolan’s Bat-films that they are rapidly using up on stunt casting and kitchen sink sequels.



And while I’m on that subject . . . One thing Marvel really has going for it is what I call an integrity of continuity, an interconnectedness that the DC characters lack. By this I mean a couple of things, each related to the other. First is actual continuity, that is the ongoing events of a comic having a consequential and/or lingering effect further down the line in that character’s adventures. As an example, the events in the Star Trek episode “Space Seed” had long-lasting effects further down the line for the Enterprise crew fifteen years later. Closer to the subject at hand, events in one Marvel book tend to have a ripple effect, cascading outward until more than one book, and more than one character is affected (for instance, any good Galactus story). Secondary to this and dependent on it is the idea that the Marvel Universe is a shared one. Meaning characters can (and do) know of and know each other and can (and do) appear in each other’s books. This leads to integrity of continiuity, and as a result of it the Marvel Universe hangs together remarkably well, with a few stinkers like the Spider-Clone saga (OH GOD JUST DON’T ASK ALL RIGHT) being the exception that proves the rule.

DC has nowhere near that level of continuity-integrity. The golden age stories frequently had nothing to do with each other, and often outright contradicted each other, especially when it came to defining the limits of Superman’s powers--more of that throwing shit against the wall to see what would stick. And in the main the DC heroes never guested in each other’s books. (The early intercompany team book, Justice Society of America, actually had a rule that heroes would leave the team after getting their own eponymous title). Aside from the occasional guest shot, World’s Finest (which took 71 issues before it started to feature Batman/Robin and Superman in stories together as well as on the cover), and eventually Justice League of America, the DC characters had little to no interaction with one another. Until Marvel’s success in the 60s and 70s forced their hand and started them on that road as well.

The reason this is important is that this continuity-integrity has allowed Marvel to put its phases together out of pre-existing parts. Marvel can put these characters together and make them work because they already know intimately what makes them work together. Whatever relatively minor change have been wrought on the heroes in the MCU, the things that make them work together are the same. Because of this, and because Marvel has been extremely canny in landing top notch writers, directors and actors for its films, they were able to get the framework in place for Phase 1 relatively painlessly. The helped them ease into Phase 2 as well, not without missteps, but finishing out in incredibly self-confident and assured fashion.



Which leads me, naturally, to this:

Marvel movies are a shitload of fun to watch. They are brimming with confidence, everyone seems like they’re having a hell of a good time, and are putting some pretty superior entertainment up on the screen, where that confidence and sense of fun is evident in every frame. For all the collateral damage and angsting and epic storylines, there is also a sense of humor and, more importantly, a sense of wonder. Compare this with Man of Steel or the Nolan Bat-films, which are so dour they should be running a farm in Vermont somewhere. I loved The Dark Knight, but when I went to see it in the theater I felt like I was being bludgeoned with AAAARRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHH. When I saw The Avengers? I wanted to jump out of my seat at the end and fuckin' dance. That’s huge.

Finally, Marvel has a MASSIVE head start on planning. They have been at this for years now. The first Iron Man movie came out in 2008, the year my son was born. My son is now in the first grade. I’ve gone through at least eight pairs of shoes and two couches in that time (to be fair, one of them was a really shitty couch). Meanwhile, Marvel has been carefully building their universe from movie to movie, working in setups for later plots in sequel movies, and in more than one case setting up entire other movies. Now, with Phase 3 on the horizon, Marvel is in the catbird seat. Meanwhile, DC is having to come up with what feels like excuses to get their heroes on the same screen together, and is straining credibility in so doing. I honestly believe DC had no intention whatsoever of doing a JLA movie until Man of Steel hit it big, at which point they grabbed David Goyer and started throwing heroes at the shit wall. And now Marvel is encroaching on the TV territory that has been DC’s for years, and spreading into the VOD market, where DC has no presence whatsoever. It’s pretty clear Marvel has been for at least the last two or three years regularly catching the “Distinguished Competition” (as Stan Lee used to call them) with their pants down.

Note the differences: the number of sequels in Marvel’s slate versus the complete lack thereof in DC’s. (To be fair, DC’s slate is largely about establishing its shared universe--but even so, Marvel made sure that they planned for multiple movies with their characters to keep them at the front of the moviegoing psyche between Avengers flicks.) Note that the movie Flash is going to be a different actor than the one currently portraying him on TV, which doesn’t really make sense and further exacerbates the lack of integral continuity in DC’s stuff. Note Jason Momoa’s generic, ambiguous no-land nationality Aquaman versus Boseman playing the fucking King of an African country. Note the fact that Marvel already has logo designs for their titles. Finally: note that Marvel has release dates all picked out for these movies. Now I know this is the movie business and release dates change, but still: Marvel has been pretty reliable about putting their movies out when they say they will. So to come out and say “Yeah, we’re doing this on May Blank, and this on November Blink,” is a huge indication that Marvel is a lot farther along on its planning than anyone thought. Whereas DC is a lot more vague: we have years, but not dates, heroes but not titles.

And interestingly: no Batman. Which says something about their confidence in Ben Affleck.



So yeah, Marvel just completely ‘faced DC on the movie slate front. Whether Marvel can now pull this off is the question. However given that they have done at least yeoman’s service on their movies so far--and gone above and beyond the call on several of them--I am pretty confident that they will follow through. DC? Who knows. They’re a dark horse at this point. I’d like to think they can make something of this slate of theirs . . . but given their extremely uneven track record so far, I highly doubt they will.




*...A note on this, and on Zack Snyder, and on the damage Alan Moore inadvertently did to DC heroes. Zack Snyder’s cachet rises largely from his adaptations of 300 and Watchmen. I still haven’t seen 300 (I have no desire at this point in my life to be exposed to more of Frank MIller’s post-Dark Knight psychosis), but I have seen Watchmen and I can tell you that for every thing Snyder did right, or at least competently, he screwed up two more. Like so many creators in the post-Watchmen era (including Frank MIller), he included all the gritty, bone-crunching violence--but none of the deep-seated psychological motivations behind it that Moore so carefully laid in. Similarly his take on Superman has none of the Golden Age optimism that defined the character. Snyder learned the words but he still couldn’t sing the tune, and the result in both cases is the prototypical sound and fury, signifying nothing. I don’t blame Alan Moore for this per se, but it’s easy to see the toxic effect his works have had by being so badly misinterpreted by other creators with little of his talent and none of his ability.

23 September 2014

I was lookin' back to see if you were lookin' back at me to see me lookin' back at you


So yesterday was the first time I’ve posted here since May--and just for shits ’n’ giggles I had a look at my blog stats this morning. According to Blogger I’ve had about 110 page views in the last day--not bad, considering. What interested me more, however, was the fact that I had 1,118 views last month . . . and I didn’t post anything last month.

Either Blogger is fudging my clickthroughs or there are a lot of really easily amused people out there.

I do get a fairly regular flow here, though. My most clicked on posts currently are (not unexpectedly given the time of year) my Banned Books Week posts, which seem to get me a lot of traffic from students doing papers, especially the entry about Maus, which always seems to get a lot of activity.

Overall my most-viewed posts are, aside from my Banned Books Week post on Maus, more recent posts, as you can see from my sidebar on the right. My open apology to Seanan McGuire has been #2 for a while now, and deservedly so because that should be seen more.

But the post of mine that has gotten the most clicks is the one about David Gerrold and the War Against the Chtorr’s vaporware status. Interestingly it’s about #5 on the Google search page for the series, so that may have an effect. Also, for whatever reason, it’s the one post of mine that has the most comments. I’ve left the comments open on it for all this time for that very reason--every time I think it’s dead, someone else will drop a remark in the comments. Just happened again last week. (Another interesting thing to note is that while a portion of the commenters think Gerrold is just being lazy, and other dislike Gerrold because of his politics, only one or two of them disagreed with me--and even they did so by refusing to address my points but instead by brickbatting me directly, which is always a good time. The general consensus seems to be: Yeah, Gerrold needs to shit or get off the pot with these damned books. And a lot of us would just rather he got off the pot at this point.

That digression aside, I’m going to make an effort to be here more regularly, as the novel work is slow enough that I can manage to divert some energy here without losing momentum. Anythign to keep me writing, and to keep me visible. Who knows, I may even have some more flash fic here in the future if the mood strikes me. We’ll see.

Anyway, thanks for reading, and thanks for nosing around even when I’m not here. It’s appreciated.

22 September 2014

Driving alone to a movie show: 15 films

My friend Diana Baxter did one of those “list 15 movies that stay with you, and why” things on Facebook the other week. There’s been that cyclical thing going around, you know how it is, where all these viral listicles launch themselves into your social media and breed like half-rabid rabbits (but which half?), and you wind up doing at least one because you’d feel like you got left out of all the fun if you didn’t, and besides your thoughts are important and MUST BE HEARD even if nobody listens (and hey, if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, do you hear the sound of one Ewok with the clap, uh, clapping?).

I was going to do the book list and then realized I could NEVER confine myself to just ten. Then the fifteen films list came along courtesy of Diana and I thought hey, I could make something out of that. I could make a hat, or a broach, or*SLAPS SELF IN FACE*--sorry. Too much coffee.

Anyway, I decided to make a blog post out of it. So: in the spirit of Diana’s list, 15 movies that are always with me:

  1. Singin’ In the Rain--The king, the champion, the ne plus ultra of the American musical. Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds (with some memorable support from the hilarious Jean Hagen) swing this one hard, and knock it out of the damned park. Of special note: O’Connor’s bravura performance in “Make ‘Em Laugh,” O’Connor and Kelly’s dazzling footwork in “Moses Supposes,” Kelly virtually FLOATING in the air during the “Broadway Melody” segment (see YouTube link below)--and of course the title song, which is everything pure and good and wonderful in the world, distilled into five minutes or so of joyous dancing. Also, Cyd Charisse’s freakin’ legs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YWBOfsXsDA

  2. Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut--Where to start with this move. What a feast for the eyes, from start to finish. The indelible images are what stick with me here: The unicorn dream. The ravishing flying car sequence. Zhora’s death. The first visit to Bryant’s house. Priss in makeup, followed by her horrifying demise. Sean Young, framed in smoke and shadow. And oh my god, Rutger Hauer. And at the last: “It's too bad she won't live! But then again, who does?”

  3. Ran--Of all the Kurosawa movies I have seen (and that’s almost all of them), this one is a standout among standouts. Kurosawa’s version of King Lear, filtered through a medieval Japanese lens, spins an epic tale that spirals down and down into tragedy after tragedy. And the last shot will stay with you a long, long time. 

  4. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey--No, I’m not kidding. As much fun and as funny as the first movie was, this criminally underrated sequel tops it in numerous ways. There is constant proto-metahumor, the hilarious/delirious multiple-negative-heinous and air guitar running gags, the show-stealing performance by Bill Sadler as the sadsack Grim Reaper. . . and that’s just for starters. Throw in a great cameo by Faith No More’s Jim Martin (“What a shithead!”), an awesome cameo by Primus, a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Taj Mahal, an unexpected and note-perfect parody of Bergman (daring, considering this is basically a sci-fi teen comedy), and an absolute refusal to take itself seriously at any step along the way, and you have a real winner. Yeah, it bogs down in plot devices at the end--but even then it manages to redeem itself with a delightful and-then-this-happened credits sequence. This is a movie with serious brass downstairs, that starts off fairly tame and then veers farther and farther into the most delightful weirdness imaginable. And I’m sorry to be spending so much time on this, but this is one of my all time favorite films, ever. So thppfffffttt.

  5. Paper Moon--Ryan O’Neal was never going to be the greatest actor in the world. But he was a damn sight better than people give him credit for being, especially when he was serving as a foil for someone. In this case he was an ideal foil for his daughter in Peter Bogdanovich’s winning Depression-era comedy-drama. By turns charming, harrowing, scary, and heartbreaking, this movie deserves to be seen more often. 
     
  6. The Maltese Falcon--It was the first movie John Huston ever directed, and the first movie Sidney Greenstreet ever acted in. It put Humphrey Bogart’s career on a new trajectory. It featured long tracking shots and low-angle shots that had rarely been used in cinema before. It featured what is probably the best Macguffin ever to be used in film. It even had Walter Huston in an unbilled cameo. This is one of those perfect films I can watch over and over again: for the performances, for the direction, for the set design, for the costumes, for Mary Astor, for Peter Lorre, for Greenstreet, for Bogie, for God’s sake watch this damn movie.

  7. Apocalypse Now--I could have gone for one of the two Godfather movies (SHUT UP THERE ARE ONLY TWO, TWO DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME), or The Conversation, or even Finian’s Rainbow (no, seriously check out the credits) but the Coppola film that stays with me, the one I return to more than any other, is this one: his big, sprawling, hallucinatory transference of Josef Conrad to the jungles of Cambodia. From start to finish this film, as episodic as it is, as big and sloppy as it is, as pretentious as it can be (and that is very), is greater than the sum of its parts, filled end to end with incredible scenes and sumptuous images, and utterly unforgettable.

  8. Wall-E--I could have picked several Pixar movies to go here--Brave, The Incredibles, any of the Toy Story movies (but probably the third one if I had to pick one), Up just on the basis of the first fifteen minutes alone--but this is the one that has a permanent place in my heart. Not because of the environmental message, or the anti-conglomerate message, or because of its sly (and not so sly) criticism of human foibles. The reason Wall-E holds that spot is because it is one of the best damn love stories I have ever seen. In fact the movie is all about love--about reaching out from loneliness, self-imposed and otherwise, to touch someone or something, and to in return have it touch you back, and by the act creating something so unshakably deep and living and true as to last beyond the eons. That Pixar couched this in the story of a slightly addled robot garbageman who goes to space and brings humanity back to an abandoned Earth makes it all the more remarkable an achievement. One of the best movies of the last ten years.

  9. The Last Unicorn--Another kind of love story, this one a love letter to the stories we grew up with. Rankin Bass’s superior adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s novel (from a screenplay by the man himself) is one of those movies you sit down to watch expecting a trifle--and finish having enjoyed a three course meal instead. The film is not perfect--Schmendrick’s secondary plot is cut, some of the subtext and some of Beagle’s proto-meta-awareness throughline is lost, and the duet between Jeff Bridges and Mia Farrow is maybe one step above cringeworthy. But these are minor things, and in some ways Beagle’s script flenses the book down even further to its truest essence: a fairy tale about fairy tale people who know they’re in a fairy tale, and what they do with it. Memorable for many reasons, most of all because of Molly Grue’s confrontation with the Unicorn--a strong scene in the book that, in the hands of the animators and Molly’s voice actor, becomes one of the most heartbreaking things you will ever see. 

  10. Forbidden Planet--This movie. This damn movie. It probably shouldn’t be on this list. I probably shouldn’t like it as much as I do. It has so many problems. It is sexist. The plot has numerous holes. The characters are mostly ciphers and/or cardboard cutouts. It uses Freudian psychology to express a Jungian concept. The soundtrack is simply fucking annoying. THE ROBOT GETS DRUNK. And yet. And yet and yet and yet. It’s The Tempest! In space! With Leslie Nielsen and Walter Pidgeon! And Anne Francis! And special effects that seem positively charming by today’s standards, but which at the time were the most awesome thing anyone had ever seen. And the frankly amazing matte work, which still dazzles today. And this sequence in particular, which makes up for any number of drunken robots: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYFr3UyVpRA

  11. Away We Go--It received mixed reviews when it came out and it’s probably not to everyone’s tastes--it does have a certain I’m-judging-you-from-my-perfect-bubble tone in the first and second acts that can be very off-putting. But the exquisitely written third act (basically starting around the time the scene shifts to Canada at Chris Messina & Melanie Lynskey’s house) puts all that aside and shakes John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph’s characters down to their foundations, causing them to question first their assumptions about others, and then their assumptions about each other, and finally their assumptions about themselves. The final scenes are as wonderful as any I’ve seen in four decades of going to movies. Throw in some excellent acting from the principal cast (especially Messina and Lynskey, who are the astonishing pivot on which the movie makes its unexpected turn), and a simply lovely score featuring the work of Alexei Murdoch, and you have a wonderful little film that will surprise you into caring more about it than you think you will. 

  12. Schindler’s List--I know it’s not “hip” in certain critical quarters to enjoy Spielberg movies, especially his “prestige” pictures (Jonathan Rosenbaum, I’m casting a massive stinkeye at you), but honestly. Seriously. I defy you to watch this film and remain unmoved. Even Rosenbaum admits he was unable to do so. There is no cynical, licensing driven profit motive here, and while there is some emotional manipulation going on, it’s in the service of the story and of charcacter motivation, so it has a purpose beyond pulling at heartstrings. What we have in Schindler’s List most of all is a document, driven by equal parts sorrow, anger, and gratitude. The sorrow is in every scene, a deeply felt, powerful and overwhelming loss; those of us who have not experienced  the Holocaust can only begin to guess at its depth. The anger, as well, is in every scene--and for much the same reason. The gratitude? It comes to the fore in Spielberg’s powerful ending. I did not cry in the theater when Liam Neeson’s Schindler wept at how much more he could have done. But when I saw the real life Schindler Jews come up the hill and place their stones on his grave, I wept openly. And if that’s not hip enough for you, then screw it. One of the best movies ever made. 

  13. Brazil--Roger Ebert committed one of the few genuine flubs of his career by giving Terry Gilliam’s magnum opus a two star review, calling it senseless and hard to follow. (He seemed to have a thing about Gilliam--his review of The Fisher King was similarly lacking in patience and far too literal for that movie’s symbolic nature). Couldn’t agree less. Brazil is a marvelous tapestry of madness, equal parts Orwell, Huxley, Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison--with maybe a little Vonnegut thrown in for good measure. Jonathan Pryce shines in this madhouse tale of a midlevel clerk, prone to flights of fancy, who gets caught up in the machinery of the totalitarian civilization he himself is a cog in, and slowly comes apart at the seams trying to change . . . anything. Featuring Bob Hoskins as a vicious repairman, Michael Palin cast brilliantly against type as a smiling torturer, and Robert DeNiro in one of the best cameos in movies. Do yourself a favor and watch the uncut version.

  14. Duck Soup--”Remember men, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did!” It’s probably not an exaggeration to say it’s impossible to measure the effect The Marx Brothers had on the film industry, and on comedy itself, over the course of their careers...and beyond. Case in point: Duck Soup, the brothers’ last movie as a quartet, and unquestionably the craziest thing they ever committed to film. Barring a few establishing shots and sadly, Zeppo, there is not a moment in this movie that is devoid of laughs. Everything--Chico’s madcap malaprops, Harpo’s zaniness, Groucho’s armor-piercing one-liners--is spot on and fierce, waiting around every corner to tickle the bejaysus out of you. And of course there’s this crowning moment, one of the funniest things EVER committed to film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKTT-sy0aLg

  15. Pan’s Labyrinth--I have saved this one for last for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I have seen all the movies on this list multiple times except for one--this one. Yet it has stayed with me and in many ways haunted me since the moment I walked out of the theater. For another thing, it is one of the few fantasy films I have ever seen that understands what fairy tales really are, takes that knowledge and runs with it, and makes itself into something more than mere escapism. As my friend Ilana wrote on her blog, “The horrors [Ofelia] faces in her fantasy world are mirrored in the real world, and one could even posit that the atmosphere of torture and blood that pervades the lair of the underground monster is something she has sensed in the house of the Captain, without quite understanding what it was. The tasks that Ofelia must complete in order to become a princess, chosen and special, mirror her real-life struggle from childhood to maturity in a world where childhood innocence has been torn to shreds.” This is a haunting, beautifully photographed and sensitively acted film, that never once takes the easy path or fails to ask the harder questions. And at the end, you are not left wondering so much as you are left thinking. Seven years later, I’m still thinking about Pan’s Labyrinth. And that is nothing to scoff at.

And that’s my list. What are some of your favorites? Share them below. Or not. I’m gonna go rest my fingers.

02 May 2014

Going dark-ish for a bit

Hey all: This week I started working on a long-form writing project (yes, a novel) that is probably going to be taking up a lot of my time for the foreseeable future. I will try to post here when I can, but between work, family, and writing I don't know how much I will be able to do. I have a few posts I want to make--I owe Jeff VanderMeer a post about Annihiliation that I've been putting off until I can read the book again, for instance--and I would like to do some more music blogging as well. But right now my thoughts are filled with the story I'm working on, and until I can get a bit more of that down "on paper" (or more realistically, the thumb drive I'm carrying it around on--and yes, I have it backed up elsewhere), I'm likely to be scarce around here.

Oh, by the way--I was talking about The Wheel of Time in my last post. Shame on you if you thought otherwise.  ;)

21 April 2014

The Tangled Weave We Web

So, the Hugo nominees were announced this weekend, and I'm a bit disturbed . . . and more than a little saddened. It’s just awful, what’s been done.


There’s stuff on that list that just does not belong there, and it’s shameful the way the nominations process was manipulated in order to get it there. It’s sad, the level to which some will sink in order to gain accolades for overrated work. I feel bad for the people who have to read it for the first time while deciding how they will vote. i feel even worse for those who have had to suffer through it the first time, only to need to subject themselves to the pain of it again. The strain of it  . . . I can’t imagine. All that hyperbolic language and needless padding. The mind shudders at the thought.


I wish you luck, Hugo voters. You are in for a season of hell. Or at least of heck. Or maybe just mild discomfort, depending upon your intestinal fortitude. And the strength required to keep turning the page in the face of what is to come. Some may faint and pull their hair. Multiple times.

Yes, Hugo voters, I wish you luck. You’re gonna need it.

03 April 2014

"Now it’s just the bare bones of what I am."--Quadrophenia at 40


Brighton is a fantastic place. The sea is so gorgeous you want to jump into it and sink. When I was there last time there were about two thousand mods driving up and down the promenade on scooters. My scooter’s seen the last of Brighton bloody promenade now, I know that. I felt really anonymous then, sort of like I was in an army. But everyone was a mod. Wherever you looked there were mods. Some of them were so well dressed it was sickening. Levi’s had only come into fashion about a month before and some people had jeans on that looked like they’d been born wearing them.

*

1973 was a mixed year for music. Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon. David Bowie became the first rock artist to perform at Earl’s Court. Malcolm and Angus Young performed as AC/DC for the first time. Queen released its first album. Elvis’ Aloha From Hawaii special was broadcast to over 40 countries worldwide. Jim Croce and Gram Parsons died. Ronnie Lane left the Faces. Ian Gillan quit Deep Purple. The Everly Brothers broke up.The 1973 oil crisis caused a vinyl shortage and many records became unavailable until the following year, damaging holiday sales for the entire industry.

And Pete Townshend had had enough.

1972 had been a terrible year for The Who. They hadn’t performed in over twelve months; sessions for the follow-up to Who’s Next had produced two singles (one of which wouldn’t be released for two more years), several middling demos, and a lot of rethinking. Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle were working on solo albums and their attention was very much not on the band, and Keith Moon was  . . . Keith Moon. Meanwhile, Pete was still studying the teachings of Meher Baba and wondering what it all meant, this rock and roll game he’d been playing for the last ten years. What was it worth, all this aimless rebellion and destruction? How long could you let such a lifestyle tear you apart until you broke into pieces? When did you leave it all behind and grow up a little? Could you do that, and still keep your audience happy? Most importantly, was it more vital to give the audience what they wanted, or continue to challenge yourself and your expectations--and by association, theirs?



*

On the second night I saw the posters going up outside the Odeon for a WHO concert. I’d seen them down at Brighton. They were a mod group. Well, mods liked them. They weren’t exactly mods but mods did like them. They had a drummer who used to play with his arms waving about in the air like a lunatic. The singer was a tough looking bloke with really good clothes. If I hadn’t have seen him near home I would have said his hair was gold. Real gold I mean, like gold paint. The guitar player was a skinny geezer with a big nose who twirled his arm like a windmill. He wrote some good songs about mods, but he didn’t quite look like one. The bass player was a laugh. He never did anything. Nothing. He used to smile sometimes, but the smile would only last half a second and then it would switch off again. My friend Dave said he smiled a lot more at his sister, they were engaged I think. His bass sounded like a bleeding VC10.

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The abandoned Who’s Next follow-up that eventually became Quadrophenia shares some odd funhouse-mirror parallels with the abandoned Lifehouse project that eventually became Who’s Next. Lifehouse started as a follow-up to the Who’s best album to date (Tommy), and was a deeply personal project whose technical limitations proved insurmountable. The sheer scope and ambition of Lifehouse nearly broke Pete Townshend’s mind, and the wreckage was salvaged into Who’s Next.

Rock Is Dead--Long Live Rock! started as a follow-up to the Who’s best album to date (Who’s Next); it was not really a concept album per se, save for a mini-opera that appeared to be a mostly-nonserious biography of the band in the vein of The Who Sell Out. But Townshend, unhappy with the work thus far, wanted to reach for something more, something deeper. This desire evolved into Quadrophenia: a deeply personal conceptual project that taxed the technical limitations of the new studio the Who built specifically to record it, and whose sheer scope and ambition proved fractious for the band.

Hardships continued. The aforementioned vinyl shortage meant that a lot of fans couldn’t get their hands on the album until months after it was released. Lack of sales kept it from climbing the charts, ruining any momentum radio play might have built. The subsequent tour found the Who under-rehearsed and feeling constrained by performing to backing tracks (more on this later), and the resulting  tensions fractured the band’s gestalt, to the point where they would never write or record as successfully together again. The worst aspect of this was that it caused the band to practically disown the album for most of the next quarter-century.


*

I never ever felt like I blasphemed. You know, in an old fashioned sense. But I was in a pretty blasphemous mood when I left for Brighton. Brighton cheered me up. But then it let me down. Me folks had let me down, Rock had let me down, women had let me down, work wasn’t worth the effort, school isn’t even worth mentioning. But I never ever thought I’d feel let down by being a mod.

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Quadrophenia is a song suite (or “rock opera” if you prefer) about a young man named Jimmy, a “mod” in mid-60’s Britain who doesn’t get on with his family, doesn’t have friends he can rely on, whose girl has broken up with him, and whose addiction to pep pills is accelerating his mental illness--a form of multiple personality disorder so pronounced he calls it “quadrophenia.”*

Quadrophenia is a story about the Mods in Britain in the early and mid 1960s--a subculture that grew out of the bohemian “trad jazz” scene. Mods became typified by their tailor-made clothes, affinity for R&B music, and dancing all night while high on amphetamines, which they called “leapers.” Mods were also closely associated with rioting in seaside resort towns in 1964, where they clashed with rival gangs of rockers, notably in Brighton. The mod scene largely disintegrated by 1966, split into subgroups that were absorbed by other facets of British youth culture--notably Swinging London, the West Indian “rude boy” scene, and interestingly, the skinheads.

Quadrophenia is an album by the Who, about the Who. Coming off the greatest commercial success of their career, they were taking stock of where they had been, and where they were going . . . and were coming slightly undone at the seams in the process. Money issues had led to the ouster of manager Kit Lambert. . . but Pete Townshend insisted on keeping Lambert around as a sounding board for his ideas. (One of those ideas was to endow the Jimmy character with four personalities that reflected each individual band member.) The studio they built to record Quadrophenia was half finished when recording started, and equipment had to be borrowed to get tracks on tape. The weather was so bad and the ceiling so leaky, water was practically pouring down the walls. And all this chaos found its way, in one form or another, into the album.

Quadrophenia is about feeling disillusioned with aging; about trying to recapture past glories, and failing; about realizing that those glories were never really all that glorious in the first place; about the realization that what you’ve made of yourself is not necessarily what you wanted for yourself; about fighting the urge to go on as you always have because it’s all you know; about lashing out at others in anger you should be directing at yourself; about being sick at heart and soul and not knowing what the cure is, so you keep treating the symptoms with pills; about the loneliness of crowds; about the loneliness of solitude; about the loneliness of trying to be yourself when you don’t know who you are.

Quadrophenia is about a young man stuck on a rock in the sea off Brighton, caught in a torrential rainstorm, feeling and thinking all of these things and trying to articulate them, not so you will understand him, but so that he can at last understand himself.

Most of all, Quadrophenia is about moving past all this, and growing up.



*

It used to be alright at home. My dad would get pissed out of his brain every single night, and when the telly finished he’d storm out of the house like a lunatic to get to the Eel and Pie shop before it closed. He’d come home with enough for an army. I never liked the eels, just the pies and mash, and the liquor. My friend Dave said that eels live on sewage. My dad must be full of it, he used to eat five bleeding cartons of eels a day. I don’t think he ever twigged I was doing five cartons of leapers every day. Each to his own sewage.

*

When Keith Moon overdosed on horse tranquilizers at San Francisco’s Cow Palace on Nov. 20, 1973, it was symptomatic of a lot of things wrong with the Who at the time.

. . . that probably needs some background, doesn’t it? Okay, here goes:

Pete Townshend: “Someone handed Keith Moon six pills backstage before the show and told him, ‘These are horse tranquilizers. If you take one with a glass of brandy, you get a very interesting high.’

“And Keith said, ‘One?! Sod that, I’m Keith Moon!’ And took the lot!”**

Moon made it an hour into the show before collapsing. He was dragged backstage, stuck in a cold shower, given a cortisone injection, rallied, and came back out to thunderous cheers . . . only to collapse again three minutes into the next song.

Moon was taken to the hospital, and a clearly irritated Pete Townshend stepped up to the mic to ask, “Can anyone here play the drums? I mean, somebody good!”

As luck would have it, a drummer named Scot Halpin was in the front row with his buddy. Said buddy talked Scot’s way onstage for him; Halpin was seated behind Moon’s kit, and given a pair of sticks. After some instructions from Pete, Halpin played three songs with the band to help them finish out the show in something better than ignominy.
Rolling Stone magazine later named him their pick-up drummer of the year. Moon was back behind the drums for the next show, the tour went on, and now you have your background.

And it was symptomatic, as I said, of the way things were with the Who, and with rock music in general in the 1970s. The youthful exuberance of the 1960s had largely faded, and the rot had set in. What hadn’t gone away was a feeling of invulnerability--despite the deaths of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin within a few years of each other. Rock stars, especially the big ones like the Who, the Stones, and Zeppelin had become insulated from the realities of their own lives to a large degree. Part of that was a natural outgrowth of being part of a huge shambling juggernaut of managers and handlers and hangers-on, who were only too happy to hand you a half-dozen horse tranquilizers with a wink and a nod. This led directly to the other part of it: the fog of rampant, day to day partying that birthed and/or fed addictions, destroyed talents, and wrecked careers. Townshend had seen it firsthand, first with Jimi Hendrix’s death, then again with Eric Clapton’s bout with heroin addiction.

Surely this was weighing on his mind as much as his memories of the Mod scene as he wrote the music and lyrics for Quadrophenia. There’s a bitter helplessness to many of the lyrics, a sense of futility, of good things just out of and forever out of reach. This alternates with a druggy, hazy feel in other sections--an acknowledgement of that removal from reality I mentioned above. The song “5:15” is an essential example, where Jimmy takes so many pills before boarding the train to Brighton that he essentially has an out-of-body experience--much to the dismay of his more staid seatmates, I’m sure.

This alternation between bitter reality and druggy fantasy is essential to the album, and to Jimmy’s character--because it shows the ultimate pointlessness of losing oneself in the numbness of drugs, and of trying to escape from, or just to augment, reality for a while by taking a pill with a glass of brandy for an interesting high.

Keith Moon could tell you all about that, if he was still around to do the telling.


*

What a laugh. It must be alright to be plain ordinary mad. About halfway over I took a swallow of this Gilbeys gin I’d bought. Booze never did help me much though. On the boat it did me right in, especially on top of the pills and the come-down. Anyway, the sound of the engine turned into this drone, then the drone turned into a sound like pianos or something. Like heavenly choirs or orchestras tuning up. It was really an incredible sound. Like the sort of noise you’d expect to hear in heaven, if there is such a place. I pinched myself and I wasn’t really drunk anymore. I was floating. I felt really happy. I must have looked bloody stupid as it happens. I was waving me Gilbeys around in the air and singing in tune with the engine. The sound got better and better. I was nearly delirious when I got to the Rock. I switched off the engine and jumped onto it. When the engine stopped, so did the music. And when that beautiful music stopped, I remembered the come-down I had, I felt sick from the booze, the sea was splashing all over the place and there was thunder in the distance. I remembered why I had come to this bastard Rock.

*

Quadrophenia did not sell as well as the Who’s previous albums. There was the vinyl shortage and the mixed reviews (Rolling Stone: “Superbly performed and produced, exquisitely packaged, and extremely boring.”). There was also the muted audience reaction to the new material the subject matter of which was so unfamiliar to Americans that Townshend and Roger Daltrey felt compelled to explain them between songs on tour, certain death when you’re performing arena shows. The pre-recorded backing tracks of synthesizers and horns (used due to Pete’s determination to have the Who and only the Who on the stage) were plagued by miscues and often didn’t work--and when they did function they tied the band down rather than freeing it.

And there was the sense that the album was something of a mis-step, especially in America. 1973 was the year of, among others, Pink Floyd’s sweeping Dark Side of the Moon, Elton John’s sparkling Good-Bye Yellow Brick Road, Alice Cooper’s over the top Billion Dollar Babies, and Led Zeppelin’s sprightly Houses of the Holy. Amongst all that here came the Who with a double album about some crazy mod kid having flashbacks on a rock in the ocean, with monochrome album art as grim as that sounds. The songs were complex, multilayered compositions about aging and losing a youth you can never regain--challenging stuff , especially for American listeners who were still mostly getting high and grooving to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” without thinking about what it really meant.

Audiences were puzzled by the sound of the album as well. Townshend worked with different guitar effects than he had used before, and Entwistle’s bass was in a higher than usual register on many of the songs. The vocals were mixed down (much to Roger Daltrey’s irritation), and even a remix a few years later didn’t seem to help. It’s not hard to see how all this played into the perception at the time that Quadrophenia was something of a dud. Audiences, US audiences in particular, wanted the old Who--and a disillusioned Townshend soon relented and began giving them what they wanted. He felt he’d completely miscalculated on everything to do with the album, and aside from a film adaptation in 1978 Quadrophenia remained mostly ignored, the red-headed stepchild of the Who’s oeuvre.
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All of which is a shame, as Quadrophenia is a stone classic. It stands with Tommy and Who’s Next at the apex of the Who’s output. Like those other two albums, Quadrophenia shows the band firing on all cylinders, churning out one killer tune after another, and finishing with one of the greatest power ballads ever written. Today, Pete Townshend regards the album as the best thing the Who ever did.

Looking at it now, forty years on (good lord), hindsight and an improved remix lends Quadrophenia a lot of benefits. For one thing, Pete Townshend’s songwriting was never, ever better than it is here. The individual songs are strong, some of them simply goddamn amazing--”The Real Me,” “The Punk and the Godfather,” “5:15,” “Drowned,” “Doctor Jimmy,” and “Love, Reiogn O’er Me,” for instance--and each one stands on its own very well as an individual composition. Even the one genuinely mediocre song, “The Dirty Jobs,” is guilty at most of being incredibly obvious and earnest. And even it has a sweet melody and chorus.

Take the album as a whole, as a series of interconnected compositions, and close listening reveals a wealth of interlinking and repeated themes and images. They play off of each other, reinforce each other, and unify the album into a cohesive unit. Individual leitmotifs crop up again and again on the album: First we have the vaunted “four personas” represented by the Who--the “Helpless Dancer” fanfare (Daltrey), “Bellboy” (Moon), ”Love, Reign O’er Me” (Townshend) and the exquisite “Is it me for a moment?” chorus (Entwistle), which is in my opinion the single loveliest thing Pete Townshend has ever written. Even beyond that, the songs quote each other regularly. Lyrics from “I’ve Had Enough” show up in “Sea and Sand,” the melody of “Cut My Hair” serves as the intro to “5:15.” “5:15” and “Drowned” both quote each other. And as if this wasn’t enough, the songs quote earlier Who songs from the mod era, such as their old High Numbers chestnut “Zoot Suit.”  “My Generation” crops up more than once, usually in sardonic, mocking fashion and so does a snippet of “The Kids Are All Right.” The truly amazing thing about it is none of this feels forced. Each of these moments flows naturally through the music. By the time the penultimate track “The Rock” comes around, and Townshend starts weaving these themes together so that they play harmoniously next to one another, signifying Jimmy’s personas collapsing inward into a cohesive whole, you realize that you are in the presence of some serious genius. Even Tommy’s  considerable compositional strengths pale beside what Townshend did with this album. I believe it’s safe to say he took a lot of lessons from the abandoned Lifehouse project and applied them here.



Second is the power of the story itself. Jimmy is very much an everyman (or maybe “everymod”) character, and his story is the story of a lot of disillusioned kids trying desperately to belong, only to have their asses handed to them--by work, by their parents, by their boyfriends or girlfriends, by their heroes, by their music, by their drugs. The tale is a common one: Jimmy loses his faith in life and goes seeking past glories, only to be shown that those glories are nothing to have faith in either--”you can’t go home again,” as a certain Mr. Hardy once noted. Jimmy rages against this realization, reaches a crossroads--or in his case, a lonely rock in the sea--and battles the hardest thing to fight--himself, and his own failed expectations. The epiphany Jimmy achieves in “Love, Reign O’er Me” (and Townshend leaves it open ended as to whether Jimmy walks away from this epiphanic battle or not, though he later asserted Jimmy survives) is one that many of us face in our lives, with varying degrees of grace and success: Move forward and grow, or stay where you are and wither on the vine. Townshend pulls this off sublimely, both in his lyrics and in his first person liner notes, written from Jimmy’s perspective. Again, Pete seems to have taken his lumps from Lifehouse and used them to his benefit.

Finally there is the music. Aside from some issues with song sequencing (“Drowned” seems to happen at the wrong time chronologically, and the “Quadrophenia” suite happens too early and almost derails the album), and an over-reliance on synthesizers (which would later trip the band up severely in concert), Quadrophenia shows the Who at their peak. This music is vital, urgent, approaching manic--even the acoustic numbers and ballads seem to tumble over themselves to get out. A lot of this is Townshend’s songwriting, but an equally large part of it is Keith Moon--his drumming was never more dynamic than it is here. Once the lovely “I Am the Sea” mini-ture gets out of the way and “The Real Me” slams into the room, you understand that the Who means business. The album all but grabs you by your lapels and shouts in your face to pay a-fucking-ttention, dammit. And that never really lets up, even as “Doctor Jimmy” shifts gears for another heartbreaking chorus of “Is it me for a moment?” It’s a relentless, almost savage album that somehow encompasses yearning and gentleness at the same time.  

Never are those twinned qualities more evident than in the album’s climactic song. “Love, Reign O’er Me” is widely acknowledged as one of the Who’s classic songs. I am going to take that a step further and tell you, here and now, that it is very probably the best song Pete Townshend ever wrote. It’s a rare, genuine ballad from the man who spent the early part of his career smashing guitars to pieces; it’s a searing, desperate cry for love at the heart of a storm; it’s an ache for balm in the midst of anguish, and is itself the balm it aches for. It has an exquisite melody, a breathtaking middle eight, and like just about every other song on the album it is a powerful, urgent song, surging like the tide and the waves Jimmy sings it to, demanding your attention, commanding you to acknowledge it. And that’s before Townshend’s brief, wrenching guitar solo.

The album ends as it begins: in thunder and pounding surf, this time represented by Keith Moon’s drums and a crashing brass chord courtesy of Entwistle. And the listener, if he/she comes to it sufficiently open, leaves changed--possibly even renewed, as Jimmy on his rock is. The destructive fires within him have been banked, his disparate selves united and made whole, tempered like steel, forged into a newer, more mature version of himself. He has flensed himself down, and now what you see is the real him, just the bare bones of who he is. And through him, who Pete Townshend is.

Through Jimmy, Pete Townshend challenged rock music to grow up.

Forty years later, we’re still waiting for rock to answer the challenge.

*

I didn’t know then what I was up to, but I know now.






*Yes, I know that isn’t how schizophrenia or MPD works, but that wasn’t widely known at the time the album was recorded, so please give me and Mr. Townshend a break. Thank you.

**Source: video interview with Pete Townshend for 30 Years of Maximum R&B documentary. Couldn’t find a link, so quoting from memory.