Monday, March 30, 2009

Earth Hour and plastic bags

Excuse me while I put on my cynic's hat. I like to think of myself as fairly environmentally minded. But I found this whole Earth Hour thing this past weekend to be a cheesy bit of feel-good symbolic environmentalism, a big empty gesture that doesn't exact much in the way of change. Shut off or reduce your power for an hour, they said. But why turn off your lights for an hour and tell yourself you're clean and green if you don't do much in the way of changing your habits the other 364 days of the year? New Zealand's energy consumption went down 3% for Earth Hour; but how much would it go down if people didn't just pat themselves on the back with one hour and instead did things like buy energy-efficient bulbs, turn them off when you're not in a room and the like?

PhotobucketThe intention behind Earth Hour is wonderful, I know, and it's geared toward getting people to think about a new global climate deal, but I guess I tend to find it very vapid cheerleading that doesn't really lead to much in the way of action, allowing people to think they've made a difference and then go on as before. I guess as I get older and more cynical I find less appeal in these gestures, but then again, maybe I'm just a cranky git and it will make some people change their habits. But I have to wonder, are people really going to turn off the Eiffel Tower and Las Vegas lights every Saturday now?

On the other hand, one movement that is gaining steam in New Zealand does have a lot going for it -- charging people for plastic bags at stores. Chains like Borders and the Warehouse (our big Kmart sort of chain) are now charging customers an extra 10¢ if they want a bag for their purchase. I like it - it makes you think twice. If you're just buying a single book, you don't really need a bag, for instance. Borders reports bags have cut down by 80 percent after they introduced the levy. Yeah, sometimes you need a bag, but most times you don't. We recycle our plastic bags we do have for trash and so forth, but probably could do without a great many of them. If you hit people in their wallet, they have to reconsider habits a bit. Considering how many zillions of bags clog the planet right now, movements to reduce or even ban useless bags are change I can get behind. (Has this gotten anywhere in the US at all? Apparently in California it's actually illegal to charge for bags!)

I'm not wanting to be smug as I'm nowhere near a "perfect" environmentalist; sure, we compost, grow some of our own vegetables, recycle most of our trash, never buy Starbucks or fast food really, only have one car between us, don't eat much red meat (my wife's a vegetarian). But we use electricity, our cranky old Subaru smells funny, I do have a nasty habit of driving to work when I could walk (it's the 6.30am bloody start time darn it) and do love the smell of Pledge furniture polish. It's good to see people thinking more and more about the future now, but that ever-rising cynic in me still keeps worrying it's about 20 years too late.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

This week in an assortment of random things...

PhotobucketThis week in television shows: We've finally gotten the HBO TV series "True Blood" on the air down here, starring New Zealand's very own Oscar-winning Anna Paquin, whom I must say has, er, filled out since "The Piano." I've only seen two episodes so far but I rather dig this new spin on the vampire mythology by "Six Feet Under" creator Alan Ball. Brief synopsis: thanks to the invention of a "blood substitute" drink, vamps have come out of the closet and are trying to integrate into human society, and "True Blood" focuses on one small Louisiana town's reaction to the vampires in their midst. Paquin is quite good, doing a decent Southern accent, and I like the way the very adults-only show straddles bloody Gothic camp and psychological depth. The satire of other minority movements is great ("God hates fangs" reads one sign). It really captures the relaxed, sultry yet tense feeling of the American South without descending into caricature. (The South is frequently larger than life, and "True Blood" is honest there.)

This week in upcoming cool music: Did I mention back when I saw them in January with Neil Finn that it turns out Wilco has recorded much of their upcoming new album down here in New Zealand? Actually just up the beach not too far from where the family bach is. I'm eager to hear how the land of the long white cloud has influenced Chicago's finest. One of my favorite bands and one of my favorite places = better than peanut butter and chocolate. Come on, June!

This week in music I've never heard before: I finally got around to checking out some of the famous Captain Beefheart, and good god the man is like Tom Waits' alcoholic eccentric older uncle or something. Madness but kind of compelling as well in a clattering fashion. Good for those 4.30am drives into work when my head is not awake yet. Urg.

PhotobucketThis week in sad media cutbacks: Blender magazine folded, and with it went my last remaining US magazine subscription (I had a really good deal and did like a 5-year renewal long before we emigrated). But the magazine had really fallen off from its peak several years back, getting increasingly slim and trashy. At one point, though, it was quite a good music magazine with a nice cross-section of coverage (you might find Jay-Z, Metallica, T. Rex and Pavement all in the same issue), some snarky yet intelligent articles and some nice reviews. It was trying to be a kind of US answer to far superior UK mags like Q, Mojo and Uncut I think. But as sales slipped they tried to sex it up and dumb it down and so they died. The last year or so featured an increasing amount of near-naked non-talents on the cover, so I can't say I'll miss it as it is now, but it's a shame few US magazines can break the dull Rolling Stone/Spin monopoly of coverage.

This week in media voices who actually have something to say:
I rather like Time magazine's Joe Klein, who perfectly captures the one-crisis-after-another-hysteria "Americans are outraged" meme of the week: "If you want to be angry about something, get pissed at a media culture that goes berserk about bonuses one week and forgets all about them the next." A whole bunch of journalists repeating something over and over doesn't always make it true. Another nice piece of sane perspective against hyperbole comes from NZ Herald writer Paul Thomas. Now, if you want true "outrage," go see how politics are typically conducted in places like Zimbabwe, Thailand or East Timor. The gap in the journo-sphere's perspective-less view of the Obama administration (he's up! he's down! he's all around!) contrasts mightily with the view of most average Americans I know whose ability to parse a thought can actually extend beyond one news cycle. Or as Obama put it himself, "One day I'm a genius, one day I'm a bum." A presidency is not made in weeks.

This week in frustration: Still nearly two weeks till my holiday from work.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My Classic Comics ABCs: Incredible Hulk #340

PhotobucketOK, I've gone highbrow with some parts of this series, but forget your "Cerebus" and your "Eightballs" as we continue an alphabetical gallop through my comics collection. This is straight-up jaw-trembling muscle-straining sinew-bursting superhero action, effendi! Or in other words -- HULK SMASH!

"Incredible Hulk" #340 boasts one of the most iconic covers of the past few decades, and a delicious Hulk vs. Wolverine battle that is still probably the best clash these two have had. Wolverine is so overexposed as a character that good stories are rare, but this one does a nice job of showing Wolverine trying to "mature" (he actually declines to brawl with the Hulk at first). It ain't Shakespeare, but for hero-on-hero action it's a decent read. But this comic also feels so 90s, even though it came out in 1988. A lot of that is due to the art of Todd McFarlane.

I never was a huge fan of the whole "Image comics" school of art, but of them McFarlane was probably the best. His work seemed a bit of fresh air at the end of the '80s, a sharp contrast to more conservative draftsmen like Herb Trimpe or Dave Cockrum. McFarlane specialized in sharp angles, peculiar lines and dynamic tension; I never really got into his absurdly pretentious "Spawn," but his work on Hulk and Spider-Man at the time had a trashy power that still holds up. I particularly liked how ugly he made the Hulk, all gnarled muscles and bubbling anger. He captured the Jekyll and Hyde essence of the character better than many artists. His "pretty" characters, by contrast, looked like eerie Barbie dolls.

But the McFarlane art is only part of what made "Hulk" #340 such a solid superhero-vs.-superhero romp. Peter David was just starting off his record 12-year run on the character, and he had a ball playing with the basic concepts of the Hulk - in his run we had gray Hulk, smart Hulk, crazy Hulk, a variety of personality takes on Dr. Banner and his alter ego. David's mix of humour and psychological angst worked well on the Hulk, and I still treasure his run as the best the character's ever had. In this issue you feel him start to unfurl his wings and try some new ideas out. He ran out of steam towards the end, but for most of the duration he made the Hulk truly exciting -- something the childlike green giant the Hulk had been for many years wasn't. Writers since have tried to capture David's invention with mixed results. ("Red Hulk"? Please.) When I think of the Hulk, I think of Peter David's definitive work on him.

(*Previously in this series: A: Amazing Spider-Man, B: Batman, C: Cerebus, D: Doom Patrol, E: Eightball, F: Flaming Carrot, G: Give Me Liberty, H: Hate.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday shuffle: Your mom busted in and said what's that noise?

PhotobucketWaiting until it's a suitable time to be ordering Friday night fish'n'chips and making a giant fort of cushions, blankets and assorted paraphernalia/cat trap. It's all for the boy, honest. Because fish'n'chips takeaways instead of McDonald's may not be particularly better for you from a health standpoint, but good god they're yummy in small doses and one of the nice things of being in the commonwealth.

1. Who Are You (Single Edit Version) 4:59 The Who*
2. Ungudi Wele Wele 8:29 Konono NÂș1
3. P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) 3:59 Michael Jackson**
4. My Little Corner Of The World 2:25 Yo La Tengo
5. Helpless 3:33 Neil Young
6. This Poison 4:21 Magazine
7. Confusion 3:42 Electric Light Orchestra
8. Man, It's So Loud In Here 4:03 They Might Be Giants
9. Your Genius Hands 2:45 Everclear
10. Activa 1:49 Deerhunter***
11. Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over 3:17 Jack White
12. 16 Days 3:54 Whiskeytown
13. Fight For Your Right 2:07 Richard Cheese****
14. He Doesn't Know Why 3:20 Fleet Foxes
15. Open Arms 3:19 Journey*****

* I could be seeing The Who (or rather, Townshend and Daltrey and side men) tomorrow night in Auckland, but just too danged expensive and I don't really like stadium shows. Judging from the huge amount of ads I've seen hawking tickets for the show the last couple days, a lot of other people feeling the same way. Still, kinda wondering if it'd be worth the $200 just to see Pete do that 'windmill' thing one time...
** What is up with the demented "Mickey Mouse" voice interlude in this record? Who thought that was a good idea?
*** Very good space-rock band that put out one of last year's more enjoyable discs.
**** Fish'n'chips are one of life's joys. Richard Cheese's demented lounge-rock parodies are another.
***** Never apologize for Journey.

The cards we are dealt

...I haven't written a lot the last few months about my father-in-law, who some might remember took ill back around Christmas. Since then, he's been diagnosed with brain cancer and has been undergoing a combination of chemo and radiation therapy. Peter Senior has dealt with this with a remarkable combination of courage and stamina I think. He and my mother-in-law (and my wife and her sister as well) have been dealt a very hard blow these past months and it is a big, hulking thing to have to think about. The support of family and friends has been invaluable for everyone.

PhotobucketIt occupies my thoughts often enough that I need to at least mention it now and again. I don't want to turn this into "the cancer blog," nor is it truthfully my right to do so. But I figured it might be time for a brief update. At this point, nothing is certain but he is doing fairly well all things considered. There are many things that change when you have cancer in the family -- it's a strange new dark thing for me and my wife to have to deal with. I have been incredibly fortunate up until now to have minor family bouts -- a spell of prostate cancer, that sort of thing -- that, cross fingers, have been treatable. Treatment for brain tumours is changing all the time and so far Peter Sr has responded very well to treatment, far better than the horror stories you sometimes associate with it. We don't know what the coming year holds -- but then again, does anyone?

But it certainly does put a spin on our decision to move over to New Zealand, with little Peter, 2 1/2 years ago now -- and makes us very glad we're here, where each new birthday celebrated and visit has taken on a slightly more important tone to us. I take things for granted every single day, but am trying to do so just a little less.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Death and dying in the newspaper industry

Photobucket...Another day, another slew of terrible news for the newspaper industry. The Seattle P-I joins the Rocky Mountain News in the papers who are no more pile, and according to a lot of folks, it's just getting started. The tipping point has been reached and it's all downhill from here.

The new 2009 report on the State of the News Media by Pew Research Centre's Project for Excellence in Journalism doesn't mince words: the first sentence is, "Some of the numbers are chilling."

Pretty much every journalist I know back in the US has been hit by this -- I know a half-dozen former co-workers who've been made redundant, or had to face salary cuts just to stay afloat. These are good folks who don't deserve this. NZ's journalism scene isn't faring a lot better, but it's smaller and more compact. You'll see newspapers morphing to the web model like the P-I, which is workable if done well (and an importance is put on solid, in-depth reporting as well as the breaking-news-by-the-second that websites excel at). A lot of small, crochety papers that are still debating whether to cut "Dear Abby" to four days a week will die. A lot of journalists will enter new careers. I am hopeful of my own job security in the industry, for now, but have to admit I'm uncertain too if journalism is where I'll be in 10, or even five years.

I've written before on the industry collapse (I don't think "slump" is quite the right word anymore) -- and I've said that I don't think newspapers are dying. But they are radically changing, rearranging and some of it is quite messy. And the human cost is enormous -- the industry lost at least 10 percent of newsroom jobs last year, and the toll is likely to just keep getting higher. One of the previous papers I worked at had 3 very talented full-time photographers. It now has one. It's a vicious circle; you cut staff to contain costs, quality plummets, and less people read the paper so you cut more staff. Until, like many a paper now faces, you close your doors. Two-newspaper towns are now a rarity in the US; it's a matter of time until some are no-newspaper towns.

News-gathering as a profession isn't going anywhere, but I do mourn the traditions of the past -- newspapering is a terribly romantic business in my mind, despite the often boring nitty-gritty of reality. I think of Cary Grant and "His Girl Friday," of HL Mencken and Herb Caen and Lewis Grizzard tapping out columns, of long days and nights and the rewarding roar of the press at the end of it all. Something of that is being lost.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Movies I Have Never Seen, Part I

So in recent months, spurred on by a meme I did a while back, I've been trying to catch up on "famous movies I haven't seen that I really should have." Y'know, rather than watching "Drillbit Taylor" or the like. There are a lot of movies in the universe, after all, and despite having worked in a video store for a year or two I still find gaping holes in my film knowledge. Here's my quick thoughts on some of the classics I've recently seen for the first time:

Why it's famous: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!"
What I thought: Satire gets dated fast but this media tale still holds up pretty well; a struggling television network takes advantage of an anchorman's blooming insanity and makes him into a star. I was surprised at how dark this story got, and how Howard Beale's madman persona is less blustery bravado and more genuine mental illness. But that actually makes "Network" even more cynical than I thought; Faye Dunaway's ice-cold producer is willing to do whatever it takes, even murder, to get ratings. Great performances, particularly by Peter Finch (the only actor until Heath Ledger to win an Oscar posthumously), Dunaway and Ned Beatty.
Worth seeing if you haven't: If you ignore the dated fashion and trappings of the tale, it's as relevant today as it ever was.
Grade: A-

Why it's famous: Bizarro '60s sci-fi with an often-naked Jane Fonda.
What I thought: This is as goofy as '60s sci-fi gets, starting with Fonda's famous strip-tease in zero-gravity and her carpeted space ship crash pad. It's an absolutely oddball movie with cheesy special effects, but underneath the pleasure machines and go-go boots there's a lot of creative ideas and Fonda brings a real charm to Barbarella's bubble-headed naivete. Word is there's going to be a hip modern remake -- please lord, no. In its inane way this one is just right, although really it wears out its welcome after about an hour.
Worth seeing if you haven't: Set Camp-O-Vision Goggles to 3000 and dive in. Warning: Do not watch without Camp-O-Vision Goggles.
Grade: B

Why it's famous: Winner of a zillion Oscars including Best Picture. Vietnam. Christopher Walken. Russian roulette.
What I thought: Yeah, this is a great movie, and one that passed me by for a long time. A sprawling epic about a group of young men and their experiences before, during and after the Vietnam war, it's often called one of the best movies of the 1970s. Director Michael Cimino puts heart and soul into his American saga, and even the Vietnam segments, after acres of Nam movies since, still have a horrifying freshness. Stellar performances from the likes of DeNiro and Walken before they became ubiquitous, and one of my favorite actors of the '70s, John Cazale. It's harrowing to watch, particularly the final act, but this is a classic for a darned good reason. War is hell and all that.
Worth seeing if you haven't: Absolutely, but be prepared for intensity and a long spell on the couch (it's over three hours long).
Grade: A

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

No obligation! 12 cassettes for ONE CENT!!

PhotobucketBuy one, get 12 free! Mail-order record clubs were how I discovered a heck of a lot of music back in the 1980s and 1990s, pre-download, pre-My Space page era.... sadly, though, they're dying out. BMG Music service, the last remaining big one, is closing up shop in June. Columbia House, the other big music outfit, had shut down a couple years back.

I know it's kind of weird to mourn the demise of a scheme that screams "corporate rock," but hey, although it's been several years since I was part of a mail-order music club, they were great at the time. My first memory of joining one of 'em was back circa 1984 or so, when as an impetuous teen I dove into the waters of a cassette club. 12 tapes for the price of 2? My god! My very first order, I vaguely recall, introduced me to cutting edge acts like Madonna, Chicago's "17," Huey Lewis's "Sports," Men At Work's "Cargo," and Van Halen's "1984" (which I recall I really didn't like).

That's how I ended up owning stuff like Rockwell's "Captured." Because you usually found about half-a-dozen tapes you really wanted, and then sort of took a chance on others. Sometimes it didn't quite pay off. Sometimes it did -- I got Richard and Linda Thompson's "Shoot Out The Lights" on a whim having vaguely heard of it, and it's become one of my favorite albums of all time. The time I spent studying the fine print in the catalogues looking for something that seemed cool added up to days, probably.

Like most obsessive music fans I gamed the system, "joining" and "quitting" the clubs several times over the years to get the whole 12-tapes-or-discs-now deal over and over again. If you did the math you might realize you weren't actually saving much money at all in the long run (something like $3 shipping per CD in the days of 25¢ stamps added up), but you didn't care. Music in the mail! When my hometown had one fairly pathetic record shop in it, the packages from Columbia House/BMG and the like seemed like dispatches from the outside world.

Sure, the "must reply or you'll get this unwanted MC Hammer CD" cards were annoying, but hey, I got a lot of my music collection from these clubs. Even the CDs you got in error (by failing to send back the card in time) could sometimes pay off -- that's how I first heard The Pixies and "Dolittle." The clubs were fairly dodgy affairs -- mysterious extra charges, ignored mail messages, selection omissions (nobody ever had the Beatles!), lousy customer service -- but the function they filled, well, it meant a lot back in the day if you wanted to find out about Neil Young, Depeche Mode and David Bowie and didn't have a record store in town. Ah, the kids these days, they'll never know what it was like to get 12 CDs for a dollar.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Movie review: Watchmen*

PhotobucketSo I've been sitting here for a couple days trying to figure out how I felt about "Watchmen," the motion picture. General thoughts: I liked it, a lot more than I thought I would. I want to see it again and absorb it more. But it's still strange, coming and watching images from a story you've held dear for 20-something years play out on screen -- you can't be surprised by the story (although there were a few changes), so instead you're watching something familiar spool out in a new medium. It's kind of a weird deja vu feeling.

Graphic novel writer Alan Moore is notorious for his disapproval of a "Watchmen" movie, which he's fully entitled to; I've held off writing anything about "Watchmen" during the making of the movie, because I wasn't sure I wanted a movie, halfway wondering if there was any need for it. Of course, a movie, after all, doesn't affect the book -- it doesn't validate its greatness, doesn't erase its impact if it sucks.

But darn it, director Zach Snyder has more or less pulled it off, condensing one of the comics mediums' greatest achievements into a zippy, yet moderately thoughtful Hollywood movie that occasionally has moments of poetic beauty. My fears Snyder would turn it into an airhead video-game like his "300" or "Dawn of the Dead" weren't met.

PhotobucketIf anything Snyder is religiously faithful; entire panels and sequences of co-creator Dave Gibbons' art play out line for line. The detail is astounding, full of Easter eggs for the "Watchmen" aficionado. He plays down his annoying directorial fast-slo motion tendencies, using them sparingly (and to extraordinary effect in the haunting opening credits montage that carries us through the rise and fall of superheroes in America, one of the best parts of the movie). Ditched, of course, are a great deal of the symbolic undercurrents of the book (no "Black Freighter" or appendices here), and many of the minor characters are demoted to bit walk-ons.

Excessive fidelity can often lead to a rather inert movie (see: most of the "Harry Potter" flicks), but "Watchmen", through sheer bombast and some stirring imagery, manages to leave a fair amount of emotional impact. It's no "Lord of the Rings," but as adaptations go, it's a decent go. Interestingly, I found the dialogue got most leaden whenever it did veer away from Moore's sacred texts, so maybe you just can't win!

Things I liked:
PhotobucketGenerally, the acting was quite good, but particularly Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. The man is freakily like the twisted images of Walter Kovacs in the book, and he's so darned good I wish he wasn't wearing that eerie mask so much of his time on screen. I also really like Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian, who gives the character a real sinister resonance. My favorite, though, might have been Patrick Wilson, so great in "Little Children," who was an uncanny doppelganger to the Dan Dreiberg Nite Owl right down to the hairstyle. Wilson's work isn't as showy as Rorschach or the Comedian but really his is the central figure in the movie, and one of my favorite moments was how the sad-sack Dan transformed when he finally puts on the Nite Owl costume again.

You can't fault Snyder's visual eye, which magically recreates the entire book with stunning accuracy, right down to Nite Owl's winter costume and billboard advertisements. But he also really makes Dr. Manhattan's powers frightening and alien, and the interlude on Mars has a glacial beauty. I was also really pleased when they cast Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, as I think he gave the demigod a gentle yet stern, above-it-all presence that really works. The effects for Manhattan were generally superb, especially in some of the flashbacks.

The changes to the ending, the biggest tweak from the book, worked well. It's a change more of method than of meaning, really, and y'know, that squid never really woulda worked on the big screen.

Things that I didn't like:
PhotobucketGenerally it all came across a bit rushed. Even for a 2-1/2 hour movie it seems a bit trunctated. Supposedly there'll be a 3-hour director's cut which flow a bit smoother. While I understand, of course, the time limitations made it hard to make characters like Bernie the newsman or Bubastis more than cameos, the one major impact this has is that the ending of the book lacks emotional impact when 99% of the story has been focused exclusively on the superheroes. Moore gave close to equal time to the everyday citizens of his New York, and that's what gave the final chapter of "Watchmen" its kick. Here, unless you're a devoted fan of the book much of the climax is lost on you.

Snyder also gave in to his inner zombie filmmaker a bit too often by amping up the gore to distracting levels (a slashed throat becomes a gross double-amputation, the camera fetishizes Dr. Manhattan's powers a bit too much). The violence in the fights also often merely came off as cartoony sub-"Matrix" kung fu.

Matthew Goode's Ozymanidas is capable without ever quite being as imposing as he should be. He's too young for the part (a fortysomething David Bowie would've been perfect, in my humble opinion) and seems a bit callow. Other reviewers have also faulted Malin Ackerman's Silk Spectre, but I found her decent -- she totally looked the part, but like Goode seemed a bit young and unseasoned for the character.

The attempts to portray an aged Richard Nixon don't work at all. Maybe it's because I'd just watched "Frost/Nixon" the night before, but the rubbery latex elderly Nixon of "Watchmen" looks badly out of place.

Still, it's amazing a "Watchmen" movie got made and that it didn't vomit all over Moore's book. I don't think it will be a huge "Dark Knight" style hit as it's rather inside baseball and an awful lot of people won't get past the blue glowing man's penis (which tells you more about them than it does about the movie, frankly). The reviews are all over the place, from New Yorker Anthony Lane's utterly dismissive one (he manages to completely miss the point by writing that it "marks the final demolition of the comic strip, and it leaves you wondering: where did the comedy go?") to Roger Ebert's quite thoughtful musings on the nature of Dr. Manhattan. But I'm glad it's made, and look forward to the inevitable director's cut DVD that will fill in some of the gaps. And hey, if it turns people on to reading the (still superior) graphic novel, that's not a bad consequence at all.

*No, I won't title this post "Watching Watchmen."

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

No shirt, no shoes, who cares?

PhotobucketPass the cheesecake -- I just recently found out about this grand online documentary by Joe York on Oxford, Mississippi's late great Hoka Theatre, "Sorry We're Open." For anybody who ever passed through Oxpatch in the halcyon daze of the 1980s and 1990s, the Hoka was one of the best places in town to pull in for a spell; a highly ramshackle former cotton warehouse-turned-alternative movie theatre/hangout and restaurant, run in a charmingly relaxed fashion. Like many Oxonians I spent many a night there, eating cheesecake and checking out "Pulp Fiction" and "The Piano" for the first time, watching cowpunk bands and dealing with the er, temperamental projectionist Barton. York has made a swell short documentary that features many familiar Oxford faces and a salute to a now-closed, now-demolished piece of Oxford history. (It's hilarious to see my old editor/boss Chico interviewed credited as a "Hoka Archivist/Conservationist!") I've lived many a place and many a country, but in my memories Oxford is the friendliest place I ever called home. The Hoka was a big part of it. "I never felt bad at the Hoka," as Ole Miss's Sparky Reardon says.

• A wonderfully-written piece by Stephen Rodrick in New York magazine about Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle and his extremely devoted fans, one of the best pieces of music writing I've seen in a while.

• Another excellent magazine article, this one about the late writer David Foster Wallace and the work he left behind. As good an answer we may get to the question of why he killed himself last year and a requiem for an extraordinary talent (plus welcome news of his final unfinished work "The Pale King," which will be released next year).

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: Then and Now

PhotobucketSo I've been on a mad binge lately. It's not the vodka, pills or the crack, but the Battlestar. "Battlestar Galactica," that is.

After meaning to get around to watching the modern "reinvention" of the kinda goofy '70s sci-fi show for a few years now, we finally dug in and did it. And yeah, as with most things I discover long after the fact, I can't believe I waited so long to see it -- we didn't have the cable station it was on when we lived in the US, and kinda like "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," after a while it all seemed rather daunting to take on. In a way, though, it's great to wait until several seasons of the show are out on DVD and have a binge.

But boy, what a great TV series this is -- we've torn through Series 1 and 2 on DVD and are just starting Series 3, while simultaneously watching Series 4 as it airs on TV down here. We dream of Cylons.

I'd been toying with some sweeping, massively impressive and insightful blog take on "Battlestar Galactica" for a couple weeks now, but the thing is there's so danged much talk out there already that I don't know if I have a lot new to add.

PhotobucketBut one of the things that had stalled me from checking out the reimagined "Galactica" is that I was actually quite a big childhood fan of the original series, even if I know in my heart of hearts it wasn't actually all that good. Still, there was a spunky, cowboyish charm to the tales of Starbuck, Apollo and Adama back in the disco era, and when you're 8 or 9 years old you don't care about the rather wooden acting, cheap, recycled special effects (how many times did they reuse the Viper flight sequences?) and silly plots. The basic idea of "Galactica" was quite interesting, and the Cylons, firefighter boots and all, were spooky-cool villains. I didn't know if I wanted to see a grim and gritty new series reinvent the wheel. But even at age 9, I could see a lot of wasted potential in the old "Battlestar Galactica" -- the only episode I really remember as special was the bizarre "Galactica 80" one where Starbuck and a Cylon end up shipwrecked and become bestest buddies.

In contrast, the new "Galactica" fully embraces the germ of a good idea at the concept of the series and explores it in fascinating new ways. Mankind nearly wiped out by the mechanical Cylons, on the run and searching for the mythical planet "Earth" -- check. 1970s "Galactica" pretty much used that plot as an excuse for frothy sub-"Star Wars" adventures. 2000s "Galactica" grabs at the cold horror of mass extinction and doesn't flinch.

Just a few of the things I, as a '70s "Galactica" fanboy, appreciate about the new series to date:

* The conflict between a military force and a civilian government in times of war is grist for great material. There's a lot of subtle (and some not subtle) takes on the "War on Terror" and the Bush administration in the ways we see the cold calculus a struggling mankind applies in dealing with an implacable foe. Moral dilemmas are commonplace and rarely neatly sewed up.

• The Cylons are far more interesting than the robot army of the original series, with their humanoid mimicking, creepy mythology and endless conspiracies they generate. "Galactica" questions what it is to be human, what our identity really means, and how we ever know who we really are.

• Space as a setting in the series is grey, mechanical and seemingly devoid of any non-human or Cylon life. The ships are creaky, full of old-fashioned walkie-talkie communicators, munitions instead of lasers and none of the "Star Trek" trappings we associate with science fiction. It's a lived-in reality that reminds me a bit of how Joss Whedon's great "Firefly" series portrayed space.

Photobucket• The acting is uniformly superior, with the excellent Edward James Olmos as Admiral Adama, Mary McDonnell as President Roslin and Katee Sackhoff as the female version of Starbuck. But the best is the wonderful James Callis as Dr. Gaius Baltar, a character who was a rather one-note sniveling traitor in the original series but who has been rethought as the series' conscience, villain and failed hero all in one. Baltar's weaknesses, machinations and occasional moments of heroism make for a great character, and Callis is superb at reflecting his self-loathing and greed. And how cool is it to see Richard Hatch, Apollo of the old series, as the scheming Tom Zarek?

"Battlestar Galactica" is a bleak, often staggeringly dark series (there are some episodes so unrelenting it's hard to get through), but exceedingly well done for all that. I can't wait to finish Series 3 and 4 and see where the tale ends up, and I imagine I'll have more to say along the way.