Category Archives: Reviews

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

January 2, New York: There is an inherent danger in revisiting comedic favorites, I’ve learned. Your expectations are high, but with your distance from the material you are discovering many of the jokes anew. Monty Python, though funny, was hardly the wriggling bucket of hilarity I remembered it being from my teenaged years of obsessively loving this movie.

Jill and I watched it together last night (we had to order a DVD because you can’t stream it anywhere on the ol’ internet) and we did laugh with frequency. Various points tickled out a chortle and there were the occasional guffaws. But were we rolling around on the couch with tears coming out of our eyes? No.

I think cinematic comedy has evolved rapidly in the last few decades. Comedic expectation quickly gobbles up and digests new high water marks like Monty Python in their heyday and then mixes their techniques into the next generations of comedic works along with more and more laughing-bits until the original source material is no longer easily identifiable. The things that make us laugh in this film seem few and far between because more recent comic works have taken the absolute funniest bits and further compressed them so that its laugh after laugh after laugh.

The other difference here is that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is, at its core, a series of Monty Python sketches. There are a few recurring characters and vaguely a plot super-structure, but its basically just “Hey you Pythons, do your work but set it in the middle ages.” This feels like another aspect of the humor challenges— contemporary comedies are plot-driven funny trains, not wandering journeys through the lands of the laughs.

But look, this movie was still funny. Gilliam’s animations were great; the knights who say nee and their shrubbery; the battle with the black knight; the fearsome bunny and the holy hand grenade: all really great.

Okay, so in order to buy this film, you’re going to have to order the DVD. I know, I know.

My own work: 13-17

As a part of the Creative Influences theme, I am also reviewing my own work. This will be in three phases: high school, college and a little bit after, and my adult life.

January 1, New York: There’s nothing quite so mortifying as going back through your old work. I decided that if I was going to re-visit the media that influenced me, I should also look at the result of that influence. (I also apparently think I don’t already have enough work to complete just the 150 works, to add more to it.)

I went through the old folder, deep in my computer archives, where I collected everything from high school until just after college. My journal used to be typed and it’s all there in a single document. Lists of phone numbers, ideas, quotes, and media to consume (still haven’t read A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift). Documents with titles like “Songs to play at my own funeral” and “Presidential policy ideas”. Long-term planning, there. Amidst all that I tried to pick out the representative work: short stories, an essay, and one play. I couldn’t even bring myself to open the poetry.

A One-Act Play
Probably the most mature and complete work in here is a one act play I wrote called “The Son of the Son”. It takes places after the death of Jesus and posits that he, Jesus, fathered a child with Mary Magdalene. The child grows up to take on the mantle of his movement, make it about political power, and then accept the emperorship of Rome. The twist is that he chooses the name Nero for himself— that’s revealed at the end at his coronation. (Twist!) It’s not bad… the dialogue is a bit stilted (“the way they talked in the olden days”, I guess) and I wish I could have had the patience to actually triple-check the spelling before submitting it to competition. But the concept is strong and the characters relatively true. There is a ton here that needs to be better, but this is the one work from this period that captures a true, complex emotion and teases it out. At seventeen, I felt abandoned by a father who it seemed like was being lionized in his death. I would have denied it at the time, but it drips from these lines of dialogue.

Short Stories
I really thought of myself as a strong writer at this time. I was cocky about it. I unsuccessfully submitted my work to be published everywhere I could find. I wish now that I’d held that back. This was a painful collection to re-peruse. Mostly, I either wrote vignettes of men ten years my senior experiencing emotions I’d never experienced (the death of a wife, for instance) or I wrote vaguely fable-like sarcastic stories. This latter wasn’t half bad, if immature. There was a story in there about the serpent in the Garden of Eden that seemed like a paler imitation of Mark Twain, but not entirely condemnable. Not like the rest. The only other story with a tiny bit of merit is also funny, something I wrote in a single night as a joke with my best friend Chris about a girl who liked him. It is totally unfair to the girl, but it’s the only one with anything near the truth. This is the only story about being a teenager.

Essays
I only re-read one of my old high school essays— about Immortality, the book that began the 33 Project. In it, I explored the idea that Kundera and Agnes are the nuclei of two bonded atoms— his in the real world and hers, the fictional. It’s not perfect (I also strayed into mathematics and physics) but I see here the yearnings to write better non-fiction. To explore with essays instead of stick to formula.

What’s missing
Truth is, this is where I am finally butting up against format availability. On all 150 works I’ve been able to find some way to get to them, even though sometimes difficult. With my own, not everything was preserved with forward compatibility in mind. The written work is in a version of Microsoft Word no longer recognized by Microsoft Word. We were able to come to an agreement in TextEdit. But what’s missing here is my earliest video work: four short movies we produced for my high school video production class. I co-wrote and starred in all four, and they all won the competition for which they were made. Retrieving these (I know who has them on DVD) will be a project for the future. Archiving all of my own work will have to be a project to tackle with an eye toward the 66 Project.

Nothing to buy here.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

December 28, Lafayette, LA: I really did love me some Hunter S. Thompson as a teenager. I started, like most, with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But that work never really captured me. I didn’t really get it. I didn’t care about the drug stuff— I wasn’t titillated by the laundry list of pharamcological horrors in the trunk of the Red Shark. The subversion I loved most was the writing. And really, my favorite Hunter S. Thompson was the political reporting in The Great Shark Hunt. Anything with him on the campaign trail with Nixon and especially peeing next to him at a urinal.

Why did I love Hunter S. Thompson if I didn’t give two shits for drugs? His was some of the first writing I read that jumped and skittered across the page like a monologue. You read not just the voice, but the intonations of the voice. The emphases were never implied, they were always explicit. As a verbal storyteller from a long line of verbal stroytellers I longed to capture that in the written word. And here, Thompson could do it. I wanted to write that way.

I became, in my late teens, that worst kind of teeange copycat. I poured out paragraph after paragraph of Thompsonian prose. Truth was, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure all this gave me license for was to be sloppy and argue that I was never in need of a good edit. (I was arguing against editing deep into my early twenties.) What escaped me then is that while Thompson’s style may read like it was the first draft of a stream of consciousness ripped from the brain of a drug-addled crazyman, the truth is there was a lot of work put into this prose. I learned the put-a-lot-of-work-in thing far later.

Re-reading this book now I realized my strongest connection to it was the movie. And man, did Gilliam really capture this book.

But the book makes a lot more sense to me as an adult. I didn’t understand seventy percent of the drugs referenced in my first read. And I had no comprehension of the historical context. Now, I get it a bit more. This is the book you read after Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. After Wolfe warns you that the LSD experiment might not, in fact, shift a global consciousness into higher order thought, it is Thompson (who appears briefly in those pages) who shows us its corruption and utter failure. That America’s beating heart has moved from Haight Street to Paradise Boulevard and its population has gone from longhairs to crew cut drug cops.

Oh what the hell, take a weekend and re-read Fear and Loathing.

“Cold Journey in the Dark” by Parke Godwin

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

December 26, Baton Rouge: When I left the wrestling team in high school (yes, I know) it was for Drama Club. I stuck with theater for three year of high school and then I dabbled a little in college. At some point in there, I took an independent theater class in downtown St. Petersburg (my parents won it in an auction) and the instructor gave me this scene to do with a partner.

“Cold Journey in the Dark” is the only play published by science fiction author Parke Godwin. In it, the ghosts of Jesus and Judas meet again for the first time in a modern day cathedral (the play should be performed in a church) and argue over their shared legacy. Jesus is the misunderstood teacher, the intellectual leader caught up in the emotions of his emotional followers. Judas is the follower who needed a leader and found his choice to be wanting. It’s a pretty great conversation. I chose Judas.

Later, gearing up for State Thespian competition I needed a dramatic monologue. This one from Judas was the one I chose. I got real good at this.

From Cold Journey in the Dark
Everything from “I didn’t want to understand…” to “Dead, you’re a god.”

The play tickled at some threads of memory as I read it, but this monologue sang in my heart. I couldn’t recite it from memory today, but I know every single word as I read it. I knew this thing so well. I remembered the various intonations I tried with it. I remembered the ones that stuck. All the unwritten enunciations and emphases. The material is fantastic, too. Solid, polysyllabic material with multiple builds to crescendo and then that perfect final line: “Alive, you were nothing but a troublesome ethic. Dead, you’re a god.” Ah, it’s so good.

It wasn’t the last thing I ever performed, but this monologue was probably the height of my theater career. I poured myself into this one. And after my Dad died, this was exactly the right tenor to leech out the complex of emotions around fury and betrayal and deep, lost loneliness. Throughout that time of my life, theater was a great release, but I didn’t want to be an actor forever. I would rather write the stories then act them out. I tried a couple of times in this time of my life to write similar material, but the best I ever did was a one act play (in desperate need of an a few edits) about a bastard son of Jesus shot through with similar themes of betrayal and anger.

I did well at State competition with this monologue, but the comedic monologue paired with this one dragged my scores down and I didn’t quite make Nationals. It was fine. This is what I needed from the stage: emotional release. Stand up in front of a crowd and purge the worst. And how better to do that than as Judas, yelling at Jesus?

I had to buy a used copy of a collection of plays to find this again. There’s one in there by William Gibson!

“The Toynbee Convector” by Ray Bradbury

This post is the first in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work.

December 25, Westford, MA: I’ve always loved to spin stories. When we lived on the sailboat, my mother would keep me up late with her on night-crossings and tell me to tell her tales. Just the two of us, in the pitch black ocean twilight, my little mind spinning out fantastic kid-fictions to keep my mother awake. I began to write stories as soon as I could write— starting with attempts to write my own Hardy Boys books.

Throughout my life I’ve written continuously. Bad things, good things, very few of that latter, very much of the first. A thousand disposable works have passed through these typing fingers, it feels like. Mostly half-finished. Finishing has always been my greatest nemesis.

Throughout high school and into college I lacked writerly discipline of any kind. I would throw myself mentally into the excitement of an idea, write as hard and fast as I could and the idea would blossom and explode around me, spiraling out to the size of an epic (always that size, never modest) and when I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore I would lay down on the bed and toss and turn and continue to build the story (and imagine its wild success). The next morning, most times, I would wake up and hate the story. Convince myself it was garbage. Never work on it again. That was my process for years.This was mostly a problem because I always wanted to write things that would take me longer than a single night. I could never be satisfied with a short story— only a novel (or a trilogy!), because that was all I read.

Well this here was the first time I read a short story that really astounded me. The incredible thing about “The Toynbee Convector” is that it is an epic world but contained within a very short story. This is something I thought impossible before I read this. In it, a time traveler has shown the world a beautiful future and the world has rushed to meet it. It’s a beautiful utopian picture with a hell of a twist. And in a few short pages, you dip in, you see the wonders, you soar out.

Buy a whole bunch of Bradbury in the book of short stories that carries the story with this name.

Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch

December 24, Westford, MA: My grandfather lived in Louisiana much of his life. For where he lived, I’d consider him fiscally conservative, socially moderate. He was exactly the voter in play when the South flipped from Democrats to Republicans, the upper middle class white male. We would, from time to time when I drifted back to Louisiana for a holiday or a visit, talk politics. And I’ve always remembered that one time he told me something along the lines of: the South would have integrated in time, we just weren’t ready yet and pushing us to do it made things dangerous. Well, yes, Papa, but the folks who were on the other side of segregation were long past ready for integration. And whose perspective is more important in that decision?

I originally read Parting the Waters for a job. I’d been assigned to help produce Black History Month coverage for the high school audience news channel I worked for and we were doing some pieces on the civil rights movement and I don’t mind being thorough if it involves a big, thick book. This book is certainly big and thick, and what’s more it is the first of a trilogy. So the total tale is massive in scope (and wordcount).

I was really excited to re-read this in 2014. Particularly the first volume which delves into the roots of King’s philosophy of non-violence. I’d felt like I’d glossed over that in the past. And the book is so engaging; it reads like a historical thriller, capturing all the tension of the age. It covers the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides, Birmingham and the Letter from its Jail, and culminates in the March on Washington. It’s not just King, but the whole movement. You get to know Bob Moses and a very young John Lewis. You spend time with the Bobby and Jack Kennedy, struggling to comprehend what’s happening in the South. It’s the perfect detailed and surprising re-telling of a story you thought you knew so well.

The first time I read Parting the Waters I thought about how far we’d come. This time I thought only about how much further there is to go. I was deep in these pages as the grand jury decisions came back on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. I was reading about white southern juries necessitating federal civil rights legislation as contemporary northern grand juries were inspiring debate about whether we needed to invoke those laws again. The former felt so far away in the past— lynching can’t happen any more, can it? But the present day stood up and mocked this at every turn. Our playfield remains far from level.

Buy and read this book because it is so important to understand how we got to where we are today and what it might take to move us even further.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

December 21, Amtrak from New York to Boston: The first time I read Catch-22 it blew my tiny teenaged mind. That lazily drifting prose that could bring you from tale into another like the shifting of a beach dune— I loved it. An oral history delivered by a fast-talking, easily-distracted scatterbrain. Today it felt a little less revolutionary. My colleague Victoria and I had a conversation about this this past week and she remarked “That’s why they assign you a book like that when you’re a teenager, because it will blow your mind.” Today, of course, it doesn’t quite.

Partly the book is disappointed by memory. If you know Snowden’s secret, waiting for that reveal doesn’t hold the same tension. If you remember where Orr goes, you don’t miss him when he’s gone. Or that gruesome scene on the beach, every time you’re at the beach you’re dreading it. The book is also ruined by movies. Not necessarily the film adaption— I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. But the 101,000 absurdist comedies that completely replicate the tone and frenetic energy of the novel. You can’t not see this as a film in your head and you can’t not imagine Bill Murray in the lead. I would venture 75% of successful 1980s comedy was Catch-22 in a different setting with different characters.

All of that said, I really enjoyed reading it again. I love the prose. I would giggle at the funny bits. The heart-wrenching parts still proved just as heart-wrenching. And the perspective shifted as my age passed their immortal twenties and they went from faraway adults to kids in my eyes. Kids in the worst of situations in the worst of ages. I pitied them completely.

Read Catch-22 again. It’s totally worth it!

Brazil

December 9, Flying from JFK to SFO: I love this movie and I love this song. The song is perfectly in my register and I find myself singing it often. The movie is just the sort of oddball perplexity I’ve always had a weak spot for. It’s such a wonderful picture of byzantine bureaucracy, hilarious in its over-farcical concepts and technology stripped of its casings. The ducts featured throughout (and especially at the beginning: “I want to talk to you about ducts.”) are incredible set pieces, tying this world together no matter what scene you’re in.

Brazil takes place in my favorite location: the nameless European city riddled with mal-intended dysfunction. I love this city here, I love it in Alain Robbe-Grillet, and I’ve tried to write it myself a few times. It is the city with no exterior world, the wholly-contained metropolis. (“Where should we go?” “Anywhere.” “There isn’t anywhere.”)

Not the first time, but a memorable time when I watched this movie it was in a little terrible movie theater across the street from USC. They had a well-curated midnight movie series and we all made it out for this one. It was the perfect setting in which to watch Brazil: cramped, warm, stuffy. And the projector kept breaking throughout the film, at one point nearly burning through the print on the screen. I can’t even remember if we finished the film.

This time, though, I definitely finished the film and was a bit disappointed by it at the very finish. I remembered the ending quickly into the final sequence (Spoiler) and that it was all a dream. Watching this time and knowing that reveal was coming, the ending dream sequence seemed to drag. Oh for the first time viewing again. Or for the dysfunctional metropolis movie theater in Los Angeles, long since torn down.

Take a trip not to Brazil but to someplace that is not Brazil in a movie called Brazil, by purchasing this film not as a film but as a computer file on the internet.

Van Morrison

December 7, New York: I’m an early Van Morrison man, like most. I love me some Astral Weeks and Tupelo Honey, the hits and the rest. I was a teenager when he released his Best Of album and I loved it. Years later, in college and after college, friends began to introduce me to their favorite full albums and I discovered how deep the Van Morrison discography could go. There is no filler here!

My four Van Morrison albums are Astral Weeks, Moondance, Tupelo Honey, and Saint Dominic’s Preview. From these I derived the “title track theory” of Van Morrison: that despite the radio hits, the best songs on any of these albums are their title tracks. This is probably true, but it does leave out “And It Stoned Me”, “Jackie Wilson Said”, “Wild Night”, and “The Way Young Lovers Do”. That first one gave me chills when it came on during this listen. But, c’mon, “Tupelo Honey”?

The incredible thing about Van Morrison is that all four of these albums, though different, are so perfectly him and nobody else. I think it’s easier to give Van Morrison his own genre than to try to apportion out his albums across different influences.

These albums have been stitched through my life in so many instances. Dominic introduced me to St. Dominic’s Preview and I can’t listen to the title track that includes his name without thinking of him. “Tupelo Honey” was one of Jill and I’s driving-up-the-coast songs, an all-time favorite love song. We closed our wedding ceremony with “Jackie Wilson Said”— a perfect note of celebration. (And listening this time to “You’re My Woman” I couldn’t help but wonder how many Van Morrison songs are absolutely perfect wedding songs.)

With apologies to “And It Stoned Me”, “St. Dominic’s Preview” is my favorite Van Morrison song of all time and it’s album is my favorite album. God, those saxophones on “Jackie Wilson”. I could lay in bed and listen to “Almost Independence Day” for hours on end. But, oh man, that title track. It’s celebration, it’s nostalgia; it soars and it dives; it’s ruling class and it’s working class; it travels the world to spend time with friends and to share in good fortune; and every time the chorus comes back around I sing along. I want my life, in summation, to be “St. Dominic’s Preview”. To live well but be humble, to travel widely but see friends frequently, and to take moments out with Dominic and others to sing this song at the tops of our lungs.

I really enjoyed my weekend shot through with Van Morrison. None of this music is ever far from my heart, so I didn’t expect a lot of new revelations of come of it. Though it was only really on this last listen that I realized how much of St. Dominic’s Preview is dedicated to San Francisco. The title track itself, with its references to the city and to “a Safeway supermarket in the rain” is named for a San Francisco church (thanks Wikipedia). There’s “Redwood Tree” of course and “Almost Independence Day” is a 10 minute catalogue of locations around the Bay. Another great nod to nostalgia.

They sell Van Morrison on the Internet, duh. Start with Astral Weeks!

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concertos

December 6, New York: Years ago, I convinced my mother that the media I most wanted for Christmas was the Rachmaninoff Complete Recordings. It was a handsome set of CDs (the pinnacle of recording technology in that time), featuring Rachmaninoff’s work played by Rachmaninoff. Amazing. Though expensive, it was a good investment. That boxed set (particularly the first two discs, composed of his piano concertos) was my go-to classical fare for much of my twenties. Whenever the high-faluting mood took me, Sergei and his piano were there.

I still have those CDs, but they’re buried in deep storage and I wanted to listen to the albums away from the house. Ah the plight of the modern condition. I want it now! Here! Surely I could find this music streaming on the internet? Well, it took some sleuthing! Rdio did not have the complete recordings (and I only remembered the album by sight, not by exact name). So I Googled into the Amazon and I found a visually-similar collection just of the Piano Concertos. Cross-checked: it’s right there on Rdio. Success!

There are four concertos, numbered one through four, and I mostly know them inside and out. But it is the very beginning of Piano Concerto No. 1 that I could start singing from memory anywhere and anytime. No earworm could possibly dislodge it; I could be standing in the middle of the stage at the VMAs, pop music on full assault, and I could still pluck this melody out of the distant reaches of my memory. The orchestra clears it throat with eight quick notes and then it begins, that chaotic Rachmaninoff piano I love so much. This section in particular, which sounds like a ragdoll tumbling down a steep slope. The chaos is what attracted me to Rachmaninoff: great rushes of it, of organized, planned chaos that takes your full attention to follow the pattern and assure yourself that you are not listening to an orchestra tear itself apart in a concert hall donnybrook. It is commanding chaos.

It’s always been Russian composers for me. And you see this across the Thirty-Three Project. In my teens: Tchaikovsky. Going into my thirties: Shostakovich. And here, right in between, Sergei Rachmaninoff and his crazy pianos.

You can buy the whole damned thing… on CD. Or you could listen to the same album I found on Rdio.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

December 6, New York: How powerful the reversal of dominant narrative perspective? Such a simple idea and yet in Things Fall Apart, so expertly delivered. This was one of the few novels I was assigned in high school that really shook me. They’re all supposed to; they shoot these books at you like buckshot and hope that one or two break through to each of you, even if they’re not the same ones. It as Achebe for me. It was the absolutely tranquil village and the perfectly human and complex Okonkwo and the vast bulk of the book you spend getting to know and love it all before the swift decline. It’s important to seek different perspective, I learned then from this book. It is important to question dominant narratives.

If this book was not one of the ones the shot you through with perspective when you first read it in your teenaged years, you should buy it and go back and try again. It’ll be worth it, I promise.

Battlestar Galactica

November 30, Scituate, MA: I dawdled on restarting Battlestar Galactica. It was only the press of time and the daunting volume of television left to consume that finally pushed me into it. Why did I wait? I wanted so badly for Jill to watch along with me for the first time. I kept telling her it was West Wing in space. That out there in the deep black, Admiral Adama and President Roslin spent episodes testing the very foundations of representational government at its furthest extremes. That’s what I remembered most strongly from my first viewing back when this was on the air: a space epic shot through with politics. And how! Battlestar truly was a perfect time capsule of the issues of the mid-aughts: terror, revolution, suicide bombers, constitutional tensions, an invisible enemy among us. Good people faced tough choices in impossible circumstances and all of that caused us the audience to question our assumptions about the dominant cultural narratives of our day. It was almost a series designed by the very critical theory professors who told me in college that mass media was a reflection of societal subconscious; that Independence Day was really about immigration. But at it’s core it was so fun to watch.

Battlestar Galactica was more than cultural mirror, it was representative of a fundamental shift happening on television: the rise of the megastory, the double-digit-hour-long sprawling televised epic. Battlestar began the same year as Lost, two years after The Wire kicked off. It was one of the first brave new shows that began with an end in mind. Clues are laid in early episodes that build to the final conclusions… a trait that contemporaries like Lost struggled with, but something we’re all too familiar with now. It was one of the first shows upon which I binged (though, then, it was to catch up with live viewing), cranking through DVDs late into weekday nights.

Battlestar is not quite the megastories to come. It lacks the production value, for one. Where today we’re used to the sumptuous budgets of Game of Thrones or even Mad Men, BSG still feels very much like other SciFi Network originals. (If SciFi could have bottled this lightning they could have been AMC five years earlier.) The ship itelf conveniently looks like 1970s technology because Admiral Adama is cantankerously anti-tech, which saves them from the Cylons in the initial attack. The show also struggles with the chess-game-like storytelling of the true television epic: moving pieces across the board in each episode building to big finales, behavior that’s acceptable to binge-watcher but vexing to the weekly viewer who doesn’t recall each and every detail. We see here, especially in wayward Season Three, many self-contained episodes or 2-3 episode mini-arcs that feel more akin to 1990s television than what comes later: bottle episodes and other plot diversions.

That said, Battlestar is a truly revelatory piece of storytelling. It is so rich with detail, so intricately-woven. Where costs may have been cut on set design, there has been no expense spared in plot. From the taut early tensions of the Cylons in the fleet to the revealing of the final five; from Baltar’s guilt to his assumption of the role of Jesus; from Kara’s death to her rebirth as an angel— a hard twist to pull, but fully and completely earned by the writers— this series just fires on every possible authorial cylinder. The repeating of time works incredibly well throughout as a framing device and also a mechanic to keep the audience guessing— what next will be repeated and what might break the cycle. The details of the tactical assaults— these crazy missions that come out of Adama or Starbuck or Lee that are so brilliantly-designed and executed. I thought about the assault on New Caprica for days: the drone decoys and then jumping into the atmosphere to release the Vipers and then sacrificing the Pegasus at the end. So good! All of that and cherry-topped by the Adama-Roslin storyline which is so wonderful. The tension and the love. You, the viewer, care for them both so much.

With all of this, the writers earned the maximum amount of respect and flexibility from the audience. They could do nearly anything, ask us to suspend nearly any disbelief. Except for the final episode. That absolute pinnacle of televisual disappointment: the final episode of Battlestar Galactica.

I was expecting this let-down. I knew it was coming. I thought maybe this time I’d see it differently. I didn’t.

It starts to get rough after the mid-season finale where they discover the original Earth. Particularly rough because that could have been a fine end to the show. A few loose ends yet to tie up, but perfectly satisfying. The show continues, however, and the writers have earned that. We give them the benefit of the doubt: through Dee’s suicide and the two-episode-arc revolution/mutiny which accomplishes little from a plotting perspective. We warm to Ellen’s return and simmer through the soap opera subplots of Tigh’s love triangle. We see there is a plan here; we trust that the writers, like Adama and Roslin, will lead us to the promised land. The first two episodes of the three episode finale ring true: one last desperate tactical assault, tying up all the loose ends left around the universe, and finally, at the end, discovering Earth— OUR Earth.

But the final episode is just silly. Starbuck disappears. Just disappears. The Caprica flashbacks we’ve been tolerating build to nothing we didn’t already know. And in the stretchiest of disbelief, to the point at which it breaks, the colonial remnants scatter across the Earth. They elect not to build a city, not to build a new civilization, but to trek off on their own paths. Keep in mind, these people are lawyers and soldiers and spaceship captains and space miners and god-knows-what-else and suddenly they’re all talking about staking off plots of land on a relatively wild planet and starting from the absolute beginning? They barely have food! They leave carrying backpacks! What do these people know about cabins, farming, herding, distilling, child-rearing, mid-wifing, and on and on and on? All for the tiny ending payoff that Hera is “mitochondrial Eve”, our first ancestor. Meaning everyone else probably just died off in the first or second year of being idiots and not sticking together as a civilization. Dummies. (Not to mention the final bit of the robot sequence, asking if we’re just around the corner from beginning the cycle again. For a series so incredibly in touch with the social issues of the day… to suddenly declare that ROBOTS are the great lurking evil? My God.)

So, in respect for the 74 episodes that come before the last and for the fully and wonderfully satisfying story they tell, I offer you an alternate ending:

Andrew’s ending for Battlestar Galactica:
The Colonials, with their democratic structures and advanced technology, settle not in Africa but in Greece and not 150,000 years ago but in the time immediately prior to Homer. The loners get islands, but they’re all still pretty close. The Raptors run out of fuel, but they build triremes. They bring their ideas a) of Greek Gods and b) of democracy to this new land and they seed the future for Western civilization. Baltar, accepting exile at long last, goes to the Middle East to spread the word of the one true God. And Starbuck doesn’t disappear, because she doesn’t have to disappear, she moves in with Lee and they’re happy. I mean, c’mon. They’ve earned it. And then in the far future (today) archeologists discover not Mitochondrial Eve, but some little token from space like an octogonal book or a piece of tillium that could lead our society to space travel. And the two angels (invisible Baltar and Caprica) walk away from reading the article over the series creator’s shoulder while talking about God’s Plan and how it brings us to the heavens or some crap. Boom. Done. The End. Hashtag Satisfying.

There you go. So, please go back and re-watch Battlestar. It’s really quite good, flaws and all. But instead of watching the finale, just watch 74 episodes and then imagine that my ending happened.

I’m not going to lie, it’s going to cost you a pretty penny to re-watch Battlestar because it’s not on Netflix Streaming. You can either sign back up for Netflix DVDs or you can buy episodes from the Amazons or you find a… DVD rental shop?

The Velvet Underground

November 28, Westford, MA: I know the Velvet Underground in many contexts. When I was a teenager, I remember seeing the iconic big banana on a boxed set in a glass cabinet in my favorite record store. I don’t recall why (maybe because I hate bananas) but I wrote it off as silly music. Something I would never get into. The Velvet Underground turned out to be another of those many abject lessons in just how wrong I’d been in my youthful assumptions.

I suspect Dominic was the first to introduce me to the Velvet Underground; it’s with him that I have my first and strongest memory. One night, in his big boat of a Cadillac with the red leather seats, he put on “Sister Ray” and I put on my seat belt and we drove madcap to the ocean under the streetlights of Adams Boulevard for seventeen straight minutes.

Starting with that experience of “Sister Ray”, the Velvet Underground has always been a driving soundtrack for me. Particularly the self-titled Velvet Underground and Loaded, with their country-infused-rolling-rock. “Some Kinda Love” and “Beginning to See the Light” are my hands on the wheel. And always “Sister Ray” is my foot on the accelerator. It’s three o’ clock in the morning deep in West Texas, fighting desperately to stay awake and make New Mexico by dawn. It’s careening down the steep grade of Interstate 10 into Los Angeles County from the east, lightly tapping the gas when momentum itself isn’t enough.

There’s so much more to the Velvet Underground than that, of course. “Heroin” is such an incredible masterpiece of a song. And “Sweet Jane” is possibly the best song of all time. Which is always the thought you have in mind as you slide into “Rock n Roll”, which is a close competitor for the title. I love the Mo Tucker-voiced “After Hours” and “I’m Sticking With You”. Even the Nico classics and the little bit of John Cale that sneaks in from time to time. The whole of the discography is incredible. And more incredible are the directly derivative works that spin from those handful of albums: John Cale’s “Paris 1919″ and the Modern Lovers and Jonathan Richman and of course, Lou Reed’s Transformer.

But it will always be two hands on the wheel and a foot on the gas for me and the Velvet Underground. A car pointed west and “Sister Ray” at full blast. “Oh man, I haven’t got the time-time.” I’ve always got seventeen minutes for you, Velvet Underground.

Maybe you should go buy that funny Velvet Underground boxed set with the fuzzy Warhol banana.

Goodfellas

November 21, Flying from SFO to JFK: Goodfellas is the most satisfying gangster movie ever made. It’s all about the music. Scorsese pulls from the popular music of the era across Henry Hill’s sordid career, starting right at the beginning with a perfect blood-stained, red-lit freeze frame scored by a swell of big band, right after the very first line of voice-over: “As far back as I can remember, I’d always wanted to be a gangster.”

That technique sticks out throughout the film: I could watch that slow zoom into Robert DeNiro’s face over the overmodulated “Sunshine of our Love” a hundred times and not be sick of it.

It continues right into the end of the film which kicks into black over a punk cover of “My Way”. Scorsese is using all the tools in his toolkit to bring the coolness Hill feels to us, the audience. That incredible (and famous) tracking shot through the Copacabana as Henry brings Karen there for a date… it is so smooth and so effortless and subliminally it’s Henry that’s doing it, not Martin. Or the snappy editing of scenes like Henry getting in the car, popping a pill and saying quickly: “Now take me to jail.” (Hard cut.)

There’s not a thing about this movie I don’t love. Every actor is a treat to watch, Liotta most of all. Karen and Henry’s relationship, which is so fucked up by the end, is so charming to watch nonetheless. That scene of her yelling at him on the street after he stands her up for their double date is priceless. Him laughing and loving it, her furious but pulled in by his gravity. Watching her change, watching that grin creep up the side of mouth: so good.

As cool and charming as the whole thing is, Scorsese succeeds in not over-glorifying the life. You are as disgusted as you are entranced by Joe Pesci. Even DeNiro’s quickness to brutality is more frightening than his sweetheart charisma is attracting. That’s a difficult balance to strike; I felt like Scorsese lost that battle in Wolf of Wall Street for example, and the balance tipped from midway to moral judgement to all the way to full glory. In Goodfellas the balance is perfect. You are seduced by the cool, but you are sickened by the realities. And that’s the hardest and most important thing to accomplish in an American gangster movie. You have to hit that balance with the accuracy of a tuning fork. And god, does this movie succeed.

You know you want to re-watch Goodfellas. You should do it tonight.

Ponyo

November 18, San Francisco: Though it was released well into my adulthood, I’ve enjoyed (and re-enjoyed) Ponyo with all the enthusiasm of a child in its target age group. The first time Jill and I watched it, we watched it a second time in the same sitting. It’s one of the few films that we actually bought the DVD for.

Why is that? Well, you start with a base foundational layer of the myth of the little mermaid. But then you cook it in the kitchen of the master chef Miyazaki. You add in the incredible animation, believable yet fantastic, particularly from a child’s eye. And then you layer in a moral ambiguity absent from most American cartoon narratives. This last is key. There is no villain in Ponyo. There is the father, who is anti-human and a demanding father, but for whom, by the end of the film, we are also affectionate.

Another magical piece about Ponyo is the way in which the adult world around the kids adapts so easily to their reality. Five year olds going on grand adventures, unchallenged by the adults they meet along the way. Reality enhanced with a dash of magic and never questioned. Soskei’s mother doesn’t really bat an eye when a lost little girl shows up at their house (nor later when she agrees to take her on as another child to raise).

But why Ponyo over other Miyazaki? Above all else, Jill and I love Ponyo because Ponyo herself is so heart-meltingly cute. Her delight and exclamations over things in the human world just make you giggle. Her favorite thing in the world is ham and anytime it’s served to her she shouts “HAAAAAAAAAAM!” It’s ridiculously cute.

Whether or not you love ham, you will probably love little Ponyo.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

November 17, Flying from JFK to SFO:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

That first line gives me shivers it’s so good. And when the end of this book came, sneaking up on me like the cyclone its pages describe, I had chills too. I cannot imagine a better written book. A book that succeeds in being so satisfying, so true, and so beautiful all wrapped up in itself like a perfect gift.

I started reading this book for the first time in a patch of warm sunlight in the grass of Golden Gate Park. The sun was warm in the chill air, the scent of eucalyptus was all around, the book itself had roughly-cut pages and a worn cover, a totally satisfying tactile experience. It was one of the few moments in my life marked for feeling perfectly content. I’ve done encyclopedic journaling of the low points, but this moment sticks out as a clear-headed happy brief second. This was right before Jill and I began dating. It was important to be happy on my own, and I was, alone in the park that day.

Jill began reading One Hundred Years of Solitude not long after we started dating. She picked it up in my apartment and started to make her way through it. One day, near the end, we had a cataclysmic fight and very nearly broke up. I forbid her to finish the book. Still to this day, there is a prohibition on completing this book.

That’s the beauty of this novel. It not just pulls you into that world of solitude, but Marquez’s world bleeds over into your own. The fantastical, the cyclical nature, it pulls its way from the pages into your everyday. Dangerous in that way like all the best books. And don’t we all need a little magic in our lives?

I like to remember enjoying this book so much because it came with that happy moment. From the fore, I neglected to think of this book as one of my favorites, because I assumed it was situational. I was wrong. In this case it is a reversal of the Thirty-Three Project narrative. I went into this full of suspicions about the temporal satisfaction of my first read, only to find that this is the perfect book. Rock solid in the top five of my canon.

You need a little magic in your life. Buy this book and read it or re-read it in the sun.

Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers

November 17, Flying from JFK to SFO: Once you get past the silliness of “Brown Sugar” this is a damn fine album. If you start your listening with “Sway” it’s damn near perfect. A little bit of blues, a little bit of country, a couple of mournful ballads. “Wild Horses” is overplayed but deservedly so. “I Got the Blues” is hackneyed lyrically, but man those keys. It’s a great album; it was good enough to even win over Aaron Kyle despite his anti-Rolling Stones objections.

“Dead Flowers” is the real star here. It anchors a perfect four song progression that closes the album. Some of the best nights of my life featured a moment, drunk, singing this song at the top of my lungs in chorus with the best of friends. Walking through darkened streets, around a crackling campfire: “You can send me dead flowers by the US mail.” It was the only song I ever learned to play on guitar (“play” is used here charitably).

“Moonlight Mile”, though, is a perfect morose crescendo. Few songs invite you so strongly to turn the lights off and just listen. And I’ve done that multiple times. Of all the things I love about this album, it’s “Moonlight Mile” that makes it divine.

Are you, like Aaron Kyle, a Stones skeptic? Let Sticky Fingers win you over.

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue

November 9, New York: An ode to Sundays. To the sunlight streaming in and no haste to be found anywhere. An ode to black coffee and its steam rising in the morning sun. An ode to reading books or the newspaper and to feeling content to be reclined. Kind of Blue captures all of that for me, right in one single album. It can set any Sunday right.

You should own Kind of Blue. It is a crime if you do not.

The Odyssey by Homer

November 9, New York: The Odyssey was that rare schoolbook that was assigned multiple times over multiple years. I read it once in high school and then I think twice in college. I was fully sick of it on the last reading, rolling my eyes mightily and gesturing with my brows. That final reading was by far the best.

At USC I enrolled in the honors program called “Thematic Option”, which offered cross-discipline classes by extraordinarily talented professors. (One of those classes read Lolita.) The Odyssey was taught in one of these classes, paired with The Iliad and taught by Professor Anthony Kemp. The class was designed to give us as much context around the epics as possible. It was incredible. And all fueled by Kemp who, despite being the mightiest of classics nerds, was one of the most animated professors I’ve ever had and would, in fact, reenact sections of these stories like Hector being chased around the walls of Troy, screaming with a high pitched voice around the classroom. We went deeply into the Greek in these classes, and learned words like nostos or homecoming, the thing Odysseus desires most above all things.

The Odyssey is a masterfully constructed narrative. We are introduced to the story through a supporting character, the goddess Athene, who brings us to our hero. We meet him near the end of his story, and we see it all unfold in flashback. Meanwhile there is the parallel story of the Telemachy and then the final story with the suitors. This is no hard-driving tale from start to finish, it is stories within stories and timelines folded back on themselves.

We learned also in our class that one prevailing theory of The Odyssey was that though Homer may have written all this down, these stories were of an oral tradition, sung by the singers with their lyres. We even see, in the house of the king of the Phaikans, one such singer tell stories of The Iliad as one if its heroes listens and weeps. There were these epics, but in a given night the audience would hear only some part. “Singer, tell us the about Odysseus sailing unscathed past the Sirens!” Like a favorite pop song demanded from the wedding DJ.

The theory then extends that the oft-repeated phrases like “his armor clattering thunderously around him” or “resourceful Odysseus” or “white-armed Nausikaa”, these were all syllable fillers to help the singer keep thr rhythm. It’s not that the story was memorized as we read it in Homer, but rather the singers knew the thrust of the narrative and wove together these building blocks of syllables. In that way that you would always follow a “Throw your hands in the air” with a “and wave them like you just don’t care.”

Oh sure, you’ve read The Odyssey. But it buy it and read again. Buy the Lattimore, only the Lattimore, and Zeus, son of Kronos will look upon you with pleasure.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

November 4, New York: What I remembered most vividly about Invisible Man was the setting of the Prologue: in that forgotten subbasement, surrounded by the blindingly bright white lights. And the declaration of invisibility, I remember that clearly as well. But most of the rest of the book was a re-discovery and a thoroughly enjoyable one.

I was particularly taken with how funny the book was. Sure, it’s a bitter funny, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the entirety of the scene in the paint factory. Mixing the black in to make a perfect white. The lone black man in the basement who is the only one who knows who to make the perfect white paint. And of course the twinned lines: “‘If it’s optic white it’s the right white.’ If you’re white you’re right.”

You cannot overstate the importance of this book. And particularly, in reading it, to think about the millions of college kids who found this on their reading lists and saw the world from the invisible perspective. But it’s also such an enviably well-written book. The thematic threads that track throughout are so powerful (the pocket and then the briefcase, filling up with hated artifacts like the broken chain gang link and the Sambo paper doll). And the striking visual scenes Ellison conjures are indelible. The final fight with Ras, for example. Or the mayhem in the Golden Day. Ellison writes in the Introduction that he wrote the Battle Royale scene (augh, what an incredible and bile-inducing scene) and had it published as its own story, but was then worried that he couldn’t recapture that magic. He needn’t have worried.

There have been and still are plenty of things wrong with this country (as learned in the recent re-reading of Howard Zinn’s book), but I do thoroughly appreciate that our culture can produce, then appreciate, then teach from a book like this. That, in the end, a beautifully rendered human experience can capture the imagination away from prejudice.

Buy Invisible Man, which you read once long ago, and re-read it. Trust me, you’ll love it even more.