Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Paterson: The power of a blank notebook

Directed by Jim Jarmusch

If you’re looking for a filmmaker who can accentuate the poetic nature of everyday life, you could definitely do worse than Jim Jarmusch. That’s kind of what his whole career is all about, even when he’s making movies about modern-day samurai or guys escaping from jail. This one is one of his more down-to-earth ventures though, following a regular guy with artistic aspirations through a week of his life.

It’s a pretty low-event movie, one that seems to take place mostly in its main character’s head, and even its most dramatic moment featuring a struggle that’s almost entirely internal. And who better to play a guy of few (verbal) words but one that has a lot going on under the surface than Adam Driver, that most inscrutable (in a good way) of young actors. He plays the eponymous bus driver, who shares a name with his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, and while he seems to just quietly go about his work and observe what is happening around him, we see him regularly write poetry in a notebook that he always carries with him, and we hear him read these poems in voiceover, often delivering them in a somewhat halting manner, as if he is still composing them.

And that’s about all there is to the movie. Paterson continues throughout his daily routine, working on his poetry and trying to take inspiration from his hero William Carlos Williams and his surroundings, although he seems to be struggling a bit. And that’s where the slow-moving, internal nature of the movie becomes fascinating. It seems that everyone around Paterson has some sort of artistic pursuit of their own, from his wife and her multiple creative outlets (including fashion, interior design, baking, and music), to a young girl he meets who is also a poet, to the bartender at his evening haunt, whose pursuit of his love of chess may end up causing him some trouble, to a cameo by Method Man as a rapper working on his verses while waiting for his clothes at the laundromat. Many of them also seem focused on fame, with the bartender highlighting famous Paterson natives on the wall behind the bar and his wife dreaming of becoming a country music star. And most of all, the spectre of Williams, who is certainly Paterson’s most famous son in Paterson-the-man’s eyes, stands out as the person whose example he’ll never live up to.

But is that really the point? While Paterson’s wife pushes him to share his poetry with the world rather than hiding it in his “secret notebook,” isn’t art truly about expressing yourself creatively, no matter who is watching? Or is Paterson’s intensely internal nature keeping him from sharing his poetry with anyone else, and he needs a push to get him to acknowledge to the world that he’s more than just a bus driver? Whatever the case, he definitely becomes forced to face himself and do something, and that’s where the movie attains a kind of sublime power, a call to action to not let your artistic gifts lie fallow.

I’m especially fascinated by the film’s repeated use of twin imagery. Paterson encounters several sets of twins throughout his week, as well as other instances of doubling (two bus riders having a conversation in which they each relate an experience in which a pretty woman flirted with them, but nothing came of it; a pair of old ladies sporting similar attire and hairstyles; the bus dispatcher complaining about his personal troubles on multiple days, and so on). At first, this seems like a cryptic detail that highlights the poetry that Paterson sees in the world around him, but then it takes on relevance in relation to his wife’s urges to photocopy his poetry notebook. But after thinking about it, I feel like it’s the world telling Paterson that he is more than one thing; he contains multitudes. He can be a bus driver, and a loving husband, and a friendly guy at the local bar, and also a poet. It’s an empowering realization, and one that we can all take to heart.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Jerusalem: When can I make a pilgrimage to this new holy land?

By Alan Moore
Published by W.W. Norton

Alan Moore is a weird dude, but he's been writing compelling, fascinating stuff for decades now. Most of his body of work has been comics, but his first novel (or was it a collection of interlinked short stories?), Voice of the Fire, was pretty successful, so he apparently decided to go for broke and pour as many ideas as possible into his next work, and Jerusalem is the result, a 1,200-page doorstop of a book that is in turns mindbending, frustrating, and exciting in its sprawl of concepts and styles.

Like Voice of the Fire before it, Jerusalem centers on Moore's hometown of Northampton, England (specifically the working-class neighborhood known as The Boroughs), which he posits as centrally important in the history of Britain, a wellspring for much of Western culture, but a neglected and downtrodden place that is constantly being shat upon and systematically destroyed, possibly leading to the eventual downfall of civilization.

That's a pretty big idea to take in, but it's only one of the crazy concepts that Moore explicates here. While the story jumps around in time, with segments ranging from over 1,000 years ago all the way to the end of the universe (and also beyond time itself into higher dimensions), the story centers around a family native to the area, the Vernalls, and their fitful awakening to the role they play in the relationship between "our world" and the higher realms of the afterlife and the ghosts and spirits that inhabit it. It's an interesting multi-generational story, with everything leading to a climax of a sort, although now that I've finished, I'm still pondering exactly what to make of it all.

The journey from the beginning of the book to the end is definitely worth taking though. It starts with a prologue about Alma and Michael Warren, a brother and sister who grew up in the Boroughs in the 1950s and 60s. The defining incident around which much of the book is built has to do with a day in 1959 in which Michael, at three years old, choked on a cough drop and spent nearly ten minutes in which he was basically dead before being miraculously revived, with no memory of what happened during that time. But nearly 50 years later, in 2006, he has an accident and the memory of those 10 minutes comes flooding back, and it's so crazy that he thinks he might be going insane. He tells the story to his sister, who grew up to be a somewhat famous artist, and she decides to create an exhibition of works about his experiences, one that she says will make everything right that has gone wrong in their dying neighborhood.

But, having defined these two events that are of fundamental import to the story (Michael's near-death experience and Alma's exhibition), Moore proceeds to make us wait before he gets to them. Jerusalem is divided into three "books", and the first one skips around all over the place, focusing mostly (but definitely not exclusively) on members of Alma and Michael's family from earlier generations and their propensity for what seems like madness but turns out to be a knowledge of higher dimensions. This exhibits itself in different ways and to different effects, but it probably comes across most strikingly in a chapter told from the viewpoint of their great-grandfather Snowy Vernall, whose fourth-dimensional experience of his life means that he knows everything that will happen beforehand and simply follows predefined steps with his every action. Fascinatingly, Moore turns this into a beautiful examination of how this type of life would be experienced, describing how he still feels all of his emotions and lives every moment, even though he knows what's coming, and it ends up being a beautiful look at human life as lived without the illusion of free will.

There's plenty of other excellent drama and ideas in this first third of the book, with the perspective shifting in every chapter and jumping around in time to follow not only other members of the Vernall/Warren clan, but other characters as well, including a modern-day Boroughs prostitute, a former slave who emigrated from the United States, a medieval monk who hauled a stone cross from Jerusalem to mark Northampton as the center of England, and a ghost who roams the Boroughs living a strange sort of purgatorial existence.

That last one is one of the more interesting chapters, since it offers a hint at the weird cosmology that Moore has devised here, in which the departed can roam their former haunts and tunnel backward and forward in time, gaining sustenance from a sort of extradimensional fungus that looks like a bunch of conjoined fairies (you can see a depiction of these "Puck's Hats" right next to the title on the book's cover art, which was drawn by Moore). And when Moore finally comes back around to what happened during young Michael's near-death experience, you understand that he has been laying the groundwork for Book Two, which functions as an extended trip through the afterlife, a higher dimension known as Mansoul.

Book Two functions as one of the travelogues that Moore is famous for (think of William Gull's tour of London in From Hell, or, perhaps more analogous to this book, Promethea's journey through the Immateria), with Michael taking a premature trip through the afterlife, which sort of sits "above" our world and functions as a place where the dead can congregate, interact with angelic "Builders", and journey to any moment in history to witness what took place. This leads to plenty of adventures, many of which occur after Michael joins up with a group of apparent children (we learn that the dead tend to take the form at which they were happiest during their life) called the Dead Dead Gang, and they take him exploring through various moments in history, interesting areas of Mansoul, and sights that he needs to see to be able to later relate them to Alma so she can turn them into her art exhibition.

This second third of the book is probably where it works best, since it functions as a rollicking adventure through time and space, shifting perspectives each chapter so that we not only experience Mansoul through Michael's eyes, but also check in with each member of the Dead Dead Gang and learn about their lives and what led them to take part in these momentous events. There's an exciting scene in which they watch a fight between two Builders who come to blows over Michael's fate, an encounter with a demon whose nefarious schemes may or may not all be part of the grand plan, moments of profound sadness and joy, and a grand finale that's a fitting send-off to the kid before he rejoins his natural lifespan.

Following that tour de force exploration of the workings of the crazy afterlife that Moore has come up with, the last third of the book can't help but feel somewhat less satisfying, with much of it seeming like it's killing time before we can finally get to Alma's big exhibition and the culmination of all the book's plots. But there are still some fascinating ideas and continuing exploration of this world, including a trip to the end of the universe, a look at the world's monetary system (another thing that Moore claims has its origins in Northampton), and the payoff to some plots that had been simmering throughout the entire story.

Book Three also gives Moore a chance to experiment and push the limits of his format, sometimes in ways that test readers' patience. This is especially true in a chapter about James Joyce's daughter Lucia, who spent several decades in a Northampton mental hospital. Moore writes the chapter in what seems to be a pastiche of Joyce's style (I haven't actually read any Joyce, so I can't say how effective of an imitation it is), and it's a chore to get through. Everything is written phonetically and with lots of misspellings, rearranged words, and malapropisms, and reading it kind of drove me crazy, since it required constant decoding to determine what it was saying. I did get the hang of it after a while, but I was certainly glad when it was over, even though the content of the chapter lurking under the stylistic presentation was really interesting, with Lucia's fractured mental state allowing her to traverse multiple time periods and interact with lots of fantastical people and creatures.

Moore also throws in a few other semi-experimental bits, including a chapter that's presented as a sort of stage play (with Samuel Beckett, Thomas Becket, John Bunyan, and John Clare as characters), another that takes a stream-of-consciousness journey through one peripheral character's evening, and a third that takes the form of a poem (with an ABCCBA rhyme scheme that seems to reflect the book's structure itself). It's all rather playful, and by the time the book is over, it makes for a kaleidoscopic range of stories and ideas.

I'm still processing what exactly Moore is trying to say with all of this, but one thing I'm thinking is that Alma Warren is sort of a stand in for Moore himself (her name even sort of functions as a verbal anagram of Alan Moore), and this book is his version of her art exhibition, with the purpose of capturing the history and character of his beloved hometown and preserving its importance even as it (and, by extension, the rest of the world) decays into ruin.

But the book is really about so much more than just the importance of Northampton. It's full of fascinating ideas, and its extreme length lets Moore take side trips into whatever seems interesting, including Oliver Cromwell's psychological makeup; the struggle to come to terms with the fact that John Newton, writer of the song Amazing Grace, was also a slave trader; and even a look at cartoonist Ogden Whitney and his creation Herbie Popnecker. The book contains multitudes, and I'm sure it's full of additional secrets and symbols that I didn't catch. It's a pretty incredible experience, one that's like nothing else I've read, even among Moore's extensive, challenging body of work. It definitely requires an investment in time and mental energy, but it's totally worth it.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

I Watch TV Too: I need more time

I got behind on Timeless, but I'm all caught up before new episodes start again, so here's a quick review dump:

Season 1, Episode 8-10: "Space Race," "Last Ride of Bonnie & Clyde," and "The Capture of Benedict Arnold"
NBC, 2016

Welp, Timeless is still rolling along, and I'm still enjoying it. Of the three episodes that closed out 2016, we've got one that's an "adventure of the week," one that's sort of a character piece, and one that furthers the show's overarching plot in kind of interesting ways.

First up is "Space Race," in which the team heads back to 1969 to save the moon landing, which bad guy Garcia Flynn and his kidnapee/accomplice, the lead time machine scientist played by Matt Frewer (who I hope gets to travel to the 80s at some point and note his similarity to Max Headroom) have decided to sabotage for some reason. It gives our heroes their usual chance to geek out over being witness to a famous historical moment, and it also leads to some pretty amusing technobabble in which Rufus has to figure out how to fix a virus that Frewer infected NASA's computers with (he supposedly used a DDoS attack, which doesn't make any sense). Interestingly, he does so by recruiting Katherine Johnson, the real-life woman who was an unsung hero of the space program due to her race (she's played by Taraji P. Henson in the recent movie Hidden Figures). I do like that this show manages to work in historical figures like this and point out bits of less-remembered history.

As amusing as all of this is, with jokes about how the giant computers running the space program can hold 10 whole megabytes of data, it definitely strains credulity, with mission control spending most of the episode sitting around with their thumbs up their asses while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin sit there on the moon waiting for the guys on the ground to fix the computers. The episode also suffers from its other plot, in which it turns out that the NASA stuff is mostly misdirection so Flynn can go meet his mother and try to change his family's history for the better. I think the show is trying to humanize him, making him into a conflicted villain who does evil for what he thinks is the greater good, but it ends up being kind of a muddle, with the audience not sure who to root for or how much they should care. Oh well, it's off to the Depression for the next episode!

You can guess the setting of this episode from its title, "The Last Ride of Bonnie and Clyde." Unfortunately, it's not especially interesting, maybe because the actors playing the eponymous bank robbers are no Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. Our heroes head into the past to meet up with them when they find out that Flynn is after a key that Bonnie wears around her neck, which he has helpfully labeled as the "Rittenhouse Key" in some documents that the government recovered, so everyone knows it's important to the series' conspiracy plot.

Aside from a shootout that happens when Bonnie and Clyde rob a bank that Lucy and Wyatt have wandered into, the episode kind of drags, spending a lot of time with the characters hanging out with the historical figures and quizzing them about where they got the key (turns out Clyde stole it from Henry Ford and gave it to Bonnie in lieu of a wedding ring, since she was already married to someone else). I think we're supposed to wonder if Lucy and Wyatt are also forming a budding romance and maybe see some inspiration in these historical examples, but they don't have much in the way of chemistry, so I hope not.

Anyway, aside from an interesting scene between Rufus, Flynn (who is posing as a bounty hunter chasing the Barrow Gang), and Frank Hamer, the Texas Ranger who led the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde, there's not a whole lot of interest here. Flynn ends up getting the key he was looking for, and the episode ends with him using it to open a steampunk mechanism in some old-timey clock and retrieve a mysterious scroll, which we're supposed to find exciting, if the dramatic music is any indication. What does the scroll contain? Find out next episode:

"The Capture of Benedict Arnold" functions as a Fall finale for this season, and it's back to exciting territory for the series as the cast faces their own "would you kill baby Hitler?" dilemma. This time, the gang heads back to find out what Flynn wants with, yes, Benedict Arnold; turns out he's a founding member of the evil Rittenhouse conspiracy, which is what that mysterious scroll told Flynn. We learn his plan when the team runs into George Washington and he introduces them to a familiar spy from the Culper Ring (a reference that I knew, having read Y: The Last Man) and asks them all to go on a mission to kill the traitor who recently defected to the British.

So that's their first big decision: should they trust Flynn and work with him to try to destroy Rittenhouse at its inception? Flynn tries to get them to agree by showing them that Rittenhouse is behind every travesty in American history (Lucy cites the Trail of Tears and the Waco Massacre), which is enough evidence for them to agree, I guess. When they do catch up with Benedict Arnold, the plot thickens even further when he reveals that Rittenhouse is just one man at this point in history, so if they can kill him, maybe they'll change history for the better?

This is all pretty dubious stuff, and it's the kind of thing that annoys me about not just this type of science fiction, but conspiracy stories in general. Trying to pass of centuries of horrible acts that real people carried out as a sinister plot by some evil overlords cheapens the real human cost that everyone should reckon with. Plus, it's less dramatically interesting, in my opinion. The banality of evil, the fact the real, regular people are capable of the horrors that we've witnessed throughout history is much more interesting than the idea that there is a cabal of moustache-twirling bad guys pulling everyone's strings.

But that's what you get in shows like this, so at least they make it fun by having the evil progenitor of the show's conspiracy be played by Armin Shimerman (Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). He almost immediately sees through our band of misfits' assassination plot and captures them, smirking the whole time at his superiority over them. The good guys still win, of course, but mostly out of luck and dramatic necessity, and they end up killing not only Rittenhouse, but Benedict Arnold, and the British General Cornwallis, and who knows what changes that will have on history.

But Rittenhouse's young son gets away, providing the big dramatic climax of the episode, since Flynn wants to kill him, but Lucy won't allow it, even though we got a scene in which the kid told them all about how his dad thinks that the powerful people are destined to rule over the peasants, preferably from the shadows while mollifying them with the appearance of democracy. The kid is definitely shaping up to be an evil mastermind, but now that his dad is dead, maybe he'll change? That's the argument anyway, which plays out to tiresome extent in the episode's climax, even though it seems obvious that even though the show regularly changes history, it won't actually sign off on child murder. And sure enough, the kid gets away, which enrages Flynn enough to kidnap Lucy and take her with him in his time machine, leaving us on a cliffhanger until next time.

So sure, the show is still fun, although I'm finding the conspiracy plot to be increasingly tiresome, for reasons stated above. Of the three leads, Rufus is the only one who seems to have much personality; Lucy and Wyatt are bland and boring, no matter how many times they reiterate what they're fighting for (for the former, it's to try to fix things to bring back her sister, who was accidentally erased from history; for the latter, it's to maybe try to do likewise with his wife, who died in a car accident that might have been masterminded by Rittenhouse for some reason).

Interestingly, one of the series' minor players, the Homeland Security lady who sends the team on their missions, gets one of the more affecting scenes of the entire series in this episode when she has Lucy over for dinner to meet her family, confides in her that she's horrified at the possibility that they might change history in a way that makes her wife and kids disappear without her even knowing that they existed, and asks her to carry a thumb drive full of photos and videos of them with her on her missions in case that ever happens. It's a kind of goofy idea, but it fits into what the show has been doing, and actress Sakina Jaffrey totally kills the scene, demonstrating that with a decent performance, real emotion can be wrung out of these situations.

If the show has to shoot for emotion and drama in future episodes, it would be great if it's more like this than the overwrought angst the series' leads usually engage in, but I'm not especially hopeful. Instead, I'll just be glad whenever we get to see some fun time travel shenanigans, meet historical figures both well-known and less so, and recreate various settings on whatever backlot the show shoots on. That will probably be enough for me to keep watching.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

One Punch Man: When you start out big, where do you go next?

One Punch Man, Volume 5-6
Story by One
Art by Yusuke Marata
Published by Viz Media

One thing I enjoy about shonen manga is its sense of growing scale. Stories often start out following one character or group as they seek to become the best fighter/ninja/pirate/whatever in the world, and they slowly get better and better as the series progresses, gathering allies and gaining strength until they're ready for a massive final confrontation with the forces of evil. It's a great formula, one that makes following a lengthy narrative over the course of multiple volumes really satisfying.

But as with any formula, it can be fun to subvert it and play against expectations. That's what this manga does, with its main character starting off the series as the strongest there is at what he does and then subverting tropes as he easily defeats any threats that he faces. The creators get a lot of mileage out of the comedy that comes from a guy who is kind of a schlub being super-awesome, with his struggle being to find a worthy opponent, or just to get through his normal life when he's too good at what he does.

The fact that this is a superhero comic also gives the creators a chance to put their own spin on that genre. And they certainly do so, making this a very manga take on capes-and-tights, with characters competing to attain certain rankings in a superhero system that's strictly controlled by an organizing body. There's also an emphasis on master/student relationships, although the central one, between main character Saitama and his cyborg disciple Genos, regularly gets upended, as the student is the competent one, only following his teacher in an attempt to discover how he reached his off-the-charts strength levels.

So really, this manga is all about comedy, as well as plenty of shonen manga style awesomeness. Saitama is an impossibly strong superhero, able to defeat any enemy in a single punch, but how he got these powers is a mystery (he claims it came from working out so hard that all his hair fell out, he lost all feeling, and he gained incredible strength, but when he describes his workout regimen, it's not exactly back-breaking).

The first few volumes of the series saw Saitama wondering why he was having trouble achieving recognition as a hero, until he realized that he hadn't joined the Hero Association. Once he did that, he then struggled to be able to officially defeat bad guys, and since he was ranked so low, people thought that he had somehow cheated and couldn't possibly be so strong. And lots of other stuff, like rivalries with other heroes, got in the way of his progress. But maybe things are finally starting to look up for him as new threats that require his awesome strength arise.

As volume 5 starts, several other heroes (including an offensively-stereotyped gay-panic-themed weirdo named Puri-Puri Prisoner) are facing a monster named Deep Sea King who has invaded land and begun killing everyone he sees. It takes Saitama most of the volume to even show up for the fight, giving everyone else the chance to defend innocent bystanders and make courageous stands against impossible odds. We get plenty of dynamic spreads in which punches explode off the page:

But when Saitama finally gets there, he ends things pretty quickly, as always. But perhaps this is the moment when the creators decided that that joke can only go so far, so they spend the next volume or so building up an impossibly large threat to the planet in order to give Saitama an opponent who can survive a fight scene longer than a page or two. As seems to be standard for the series by now, it takes an entire volume of build to get to the confrontation (with lots of page time devoted to other heroes fighting over-powered bad guys in awesome manner), so we'll have to wait until volume 7 to see how it finally plays out, but given the series' track record with comic timing, I bet it will be pretty enjoyable.

So, this is a fun manga, full of dynamic action with stakes that are ridiculously high (entire cities are regularly laid to waste during the battles that take place), but an emphasis on comedy that keeps things light and silly while still taking plenty of time for general shonen awesomeness. One area of particular interest (to me, at least) is the way that Saitama himself is depicted. Artist Yusuke Murata uses a visual alien style when drawing him most of the time; where everything else is hyper-detailed and full of speed lines, Saitama himself is usually drawn with simple lines and minimal detail. It's another weird bit of comedy for the series, emphasizing that the main character is something of a blank slate, and someone who doesn't really fit in with what's going on around him.

The series makes for a really enjoyable read, albeit one that goes by quickly, since so many pages consist of characters attacking each other in explosive bursts of power, but I'm happy to spend that time having fun and being entertained by whatever nonsense the creators come up with next. I don't know how long they can sustain things, but I'm definitely planning to see them try.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I Watch TV Too: Out of time

Season 1, Episode 7: "Stranded"
NBC, 2016

As I've stated, I enjoy this show, but it's not exactly good. That is, it's fun when it gets into rollicking time-travel adventures, but it's at its weakest when focusing on interpersonal drama between its characters. But while this episode does feature some of the latter, it balances it out with a decent amount of the former, enough so that I'll call it a win.

I suppose some focus on the characters was necessary after the big revelations in the previous episode, which set the main trio of the show at odds with each other as they all found reasons to be distrustful of one another. So, this episode sticks them in multiple situations in which they have to figure out how to work out their differences, which is fine, but neither the writing nor the acting is strong enough to justify the time spent. This means that we have to suffer through some interminable conversations about how they have to learn to work together and all that jazz.

But luckily, the rest of the episode has some fun stuff. The team pursues their nemesis, Flynn, to Pennsylvania in 1754, thinking he's going to try to change the outcome of the French and Indian War or something. But it turns out he has something more dastardly in mind: sabotage of their time machine in hopes of causing them to get stuck in the past with no way to get home. Oh no!

Luckily, our heroes are resourceful, so they come up with a ridiculous plan to sneak into a French fort and steal some supplies so Rufus, the team nerd, can cobble together a capacitor and get the ship working well enough to jump back to the present. This is pretty ridiculous (not that I've looked into the science or anything, but replacing circuitry with some bottles and flattened tin seems suspect), but it's one of those things that sciencey guys can do on shows like this, so we'll go with it.

And they also end up having a series of adventures on the way to their destination, including being captured by both French troops and Native Americans, with the latter providing one of the more dramatically ridiculous moments of the episode when Rufus somehow convinces them that he's not a slave and he'll put his life on the line to free his friends. This scene also gives us the requisite brush with history, as Lucy gets excited to meet their chieftess, Nonhelema (who has a surprisingly good grasp of modern English slang), but doesn't get the chance to explain who she is. Maybe they just didn't have time for the exposition, but it was kind of nice to have a character acknowledge that this is somebody notable without giving us a synopsis of their term paper about them.

And along with the historical shenanigans, there's also some drama in the present as the team of time-travelers try to send a message to the future through a time capsule, which gives Gia, the mousy (in Hollywood terms) technician who Rufus has a crush on, the chance to angst about her relationship with Rufus and eventually use their shared history of incredibly obvious sci-fi fandom references to interpret the message he left that will help them get back to the future. It's an example of a bit of writing that doesn't make sense (why would he leave such a cryptic message?), but as a way to develop character relationships, it works much better than the dramatic scenes between the three leads.

So, sure, the show is still fun. It's got time travel adventure, action, technobabble, and lots of ridiculousness (my favorite thing this episode was when our heroes were trying to hide from French soldiers and they just kind of wandered around in the forest without checking to see if they could be spotted). I'm still on board, although this focus on interpersonal drama might wear me down at some point. But as long as there's stuff like people dressed up in tri-corner hats and breeches and guys using blacksmith equipment to fix a time machine, I expect I'll be enjoying what they've got to offer.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Black Dahlia: She's not ready for her close-up

A Treasury of XXth Century Murder: Black Dahlia
By Rick Geary
Published by NBM

True crime seems like a genre that would be perfectly suited to comics, but there don't seem to be too many examples of it, at least not in the English-language comics scene. But maybe that's because Rick Geary has got the market cornered, first with his "Treasury of Victorian Murder" series and now with his ongoing "Treasury of XXth Century Murder" books. Between the two series, that's more than 15 books of impeccably-presented tales of people meeting their gruesome ends, and it covers some of the most famous cases of the past couple centuries, giving readers pretty much all the information they need to know about these examples of human nastiness.

Actually, that might be selling Geary short. His books aren't just basic recitations of facts with competent illustrations; they're detailed examinations of events that cover as much as possible in around 80 pages, examine the relevant personnel, and place these events within the proper perspective, filling in whatever details about the time and setting are needed to understand what captured the public attention and continues to make them intriguing. While some salacious details are provided, Geary makes implication go a long way, keeping most of the gory imagery off the page but still providing a sense of realism. I love the way he gives things a sense of the mundane, making the players seem like everyday people who got caught up in something larger than they ever expected.

This particular case gives him plenty to work with, featuring a young woman's mutilated body found in a vacant lot outside of Los Angeles in January of 1947. Some investigation reveals that her name was Elizabeth Short, but while dozens of men were questioned, the killer was never found, and the horrific nature of the murder (she was beaten and had her face sliced open, and the body was cut in half) almost defies comprehension. Geary brings up several possible explanations, including that she might have had mob connections or that there may have been a serial killer who preyed on several women in the area throughout the 1940s, but none of it is satisfying, which is the nature of many of these true crime tales, and a probable element of why they continue to be so compelling.

But Geary does give as complete a picture as possible, delving into Short's troubled history as a would-be model and actress who bounced between her hometown in Massachusetts, Miami, Chicago, and southern California, developing relationships with a string of men but never able to find the right guy to settle down with and eventually getting involved with some unsavory characters in LA's underworld. Geary makes her into a sad character, someone who is never able to realize her dreams, but she still feels painfully human, undeserving of her awful fate.

And as usual, Geary brings it all to life with fascinating detail. He has a knack for giving people a homely look, the kid of person you would expect to encounter on the street, but they're all individual, unique people, everyday Joes and Janes lost in the sea of humanity, only standing out due to their proximity to events that we're still trying to reckon with.

And he also does his usual great job of filling in the settings, which here consist mostly of the palm-tree-lined streets of Los Angeles, but also include a variety of hotels and nightclubs. I like the way he gives many of these places an art deco feel, evoking the era without being too obvious about it.

So, all in all, it's what you would expect from someone who has gotten to be a real pro at this sort of thing. I don't know if I feel especially enlightened by what I've learned, but that's to be expected. Cases like this are famous due to their incomprehensibility, but they're still intriguing because they involved real people, and Geary is able to capture both the realism and the mystery, tying it all up in one succinct package. If you're looking to immerse yourself in some of the uglier moments of recent human history, you're not likely to find a better guide. Just don't expect to gain much understanding of humanity along the way.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I Watch TV Too: I want MORE of Timeless (I suppose)

It's been several years since I wrote about a TV show on an ongoing basis, so here's the first installment of what will hopefully be a recurring feature in which I discuss at least one show that I watch:

Season 1, Episode 6: "The Watergate Tape"
NBC, 2016

It's been a while since I've had a show that I enjoyed as something fun and kind of silly, without much in the way of importance on any real artistic level. Luckily, I'm kind of a sucker for time travel stories, and this show, which began airing on NBC this fall, pushes all the right buttons for that genre: recreations of the past that mostly focus on recognizable signifiers, people gawking at famous historical figures, characters recalling important details that help them in their adventures to the past, lots of hand-wringing about maintaining the sanctity of history, that sort of thing. And it's all wrapped up in a goofy ongoing plot about some sort of Illuminati-based conspiracy too!

So, the story goes as follows: some corporation invented time travel and immediately had their time machine stolen by some sort of evil mastermind who is out to destroy the United States by wrecking important historical moments. Luckily, they have a backup time machine on hand, so they recruit a young lady who is an expert in American history and a rakishly handsome special forces soldier, and along with one of the scientists who acts as their pilot, they get sent back to the past to foil the evil plots. That's your basic structure for every episode: the scientists track the bad guy's time machine, figure out what event they're going to screw with, and send our heroes to stop them. Rinse, repeat, enjoy.

And it has been pretty enjoyable, with the characters getting involved in events like the crash of the Hindenburg, Abraham Lincoln's assassination, and the Alamo, and interestingly, they've often ended up changing history, resulting in significant alterations when they return to the present. There's plenty of angst about whether or not they should try to change the past, but much of this is just a dramatic hook to hang the next action sequence on. They do at least try to make it compelling; the episode about Lincoln had some real emotional moments built around whether to let a great man die just because it's supposed to happen, along with a nice look at the plight of black soldiers who fought in the Civil War. It's all generally fun times, but the show does seem to want to struggle a bit with its themes, and maybe with American history as well (there's a nice moment in the pilot episode when Rufus, the time machine's pilot, says that as a black man, pretty much any moment in the past would be a bad one for him to visit).

But, since this is a TV show in the 2010s, there has to be an ongoing plot and some sort of shadowy conspiracy pulling the strings, and many of the early episodes have seen some menacing stuff going on around the fringes. The pilot, Rufus, had been tasked with providing intelligence on his fellow time travelers by secretly recording them and providing said recordings to his boss (British actor Paterson Joseph, who retains the aura of creepiness that he brought to his role as a cult leader on The Leftovers), and he's only doing so because some organization called Rittenhouse is threatening his family. In the first episode, Lucy, the historian, ran into the bad guy, Flynn (played by ER's Goran Visnjic), and he claimed that he's actually carrying out a campaign to bring down these same Rittenhouse people, and he's helped in his task by a journal that he received from Lucy's future self. So many secrets; when will our heroes ever find out about them?

Well, this week's episode answered that, as most everything was brought to light. During a trip to 1972 to recover the missing 18 minutes of Nixon's recordings (it turns out he's also afraid of Rittenhouse), all three main characters have their secrets revealed to each other, and now they're all rather mistrustful. But they also discover more about the Rittenhouse conspiracy, which seems to involve some sort of secret society that is so intertwined with American history that it's basically inextricable from the United States itself. Which may provide some interesting plots going forward; should they continue trying to stop Flynn each time he tries to ruin history, or should they team up with him? How can they use their exploits in the past to give them more power in the present? Will they ever stop whining about how they can't trust each other? We'll have to see, I guess.

But in the meantime, I'm sure there will be many more time travel adventures to go on. This episode had some enjoyable moments, like Lucy and Rufus getting in touch with Deep Throat (since we actually know who he was now) to try to extract some information about the Watergate burglary, or Rufus happening to know all about the relationships between the leaders of the Black Liberation Army so that he can convince them he's a member in order to recover something they were hiding from the Nixon administration (it turns out to be a person who knows a bunch of secrets about Rittenhouse, but for some reason nobody asks her to share any of that information with them, even though it would probably help them fight this evil conspiracy).

This show isn't exactly high art, but it's a pretty good time, with lots of action and at least some attempts to pay attention to historical details, even if those often take the form of interesting factoids that somebody can note on their current trip to the past. It's fast moving and goofy enough that you can usually just roll with it, even when some things don't make sense (where did Flynn get his army of thugs who are all too willing to accompany him to the past and get killed in the many shootouts that he has with the heroes?). Because why worry about the boring stuff when you can go on an adventure where you get to shoot a bunch of Nazis? That's what I'll be tuning in for each week; more of that sort of thing, please.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Kung-Fu Klassix: Return to the 36th Chamber

Return to the 36th Chamber
Directed by Lau Kar-Leung
China, 1980

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of the all-time great martial arts movies, cementing Gordon Liu into the ranks of the best kung fu stars and establishing a lot of the standard tropes about training sequences and Shaolin monks. This sequel-in-name-only is an odd way to follow up on that greatness, taking a much more comedic approach and only vaguely paying lip service to the original. But it's still pretty fun, even if it doesn't rise to the level of its predecessor.

This time around, Gordon Liu plays a goofball who poses as a monk to beg for money from people on the street. His brother, who works in a dye factory, starts having trouble with the management, who bring in outside workers and start docking everyone's pay, then threaten violence on anyone who tries to quit. The poor working stiffs (one of whom include a guy with some ridiculous-looking buck teeth) come up with a plan to have Liu pose as a Shaolin monk and confront the boss to tell him to treat his workers fairly. This leads to some goofy bits in which they help him pretend to use his awesome kung fu powers by throwing themselves around after he waves his arms at them:

This all backfires as expected when the boss, a guy with some actual martial arts skills, challenges him to a fight, and the resulting beatdown that everyone is given puts them in a worse place than ever. So, in despair, Liu decides to go to the actual Shaolin temple and get some real kung fu training so he can avenge his pals.

But, since this is a comedy version of the kung fu movie, he can't get officially admitted as a monk, so he has to try to sneak in to the temple, leading to lots of shenanigans as he pretends to be a monk, tries and fails to participate in the training, and gets repeatedly humiliated. But the wise abbot uses some lateral thinking and tasks him with building some scaffolding around the entire temple, with the ostensible goal of fixing the roof. This gives him the chance to not only build his physical skills, but also to watch as the monks train and come up with his own makeshift version of their techniques:

After spending something like a year working on this, he finally completes the scaffolding, so the abbot kicks him out, having seen that he has unwittingly learned everything he needs to know. He returns despondently to his hometown, feeling like a failure. Everyone is excited to see him, and they're sure he's going to use his new kung fu skills to avenge them, but sadly informs them that he didn't learn anything. But then he discovers his amazing reflexes, and realizes that he did learn kung fu after all, so he goes to confront the bosses at the dye factory.

And all this build-up leads to a pretty great series of fights, as he not only uses the standard punches and kicks to beat up the bad guys, but he also utilizes his scaffolding skills to tie guys up with strips of bamboo in mid-fight:

And then there's a final battle that takes place in a construction site, meaning that Liu has plenty of scaffolding and bamboo to use, giving him the chance to do stuff like this:

So, overall, this one is pretty fun, if not one of the all time greats. It's definitely on the goofier end of the spectrum, with lots and lots of humor that's hit or miss, and it takes quite a while to get to the good stuff, but the final series of fights is enjoyable enough that the wait is definitely worth it, especially when you've got a charismatic performer like Liu to watch throughout. And it's got some unique ideas; I love the way some of these older films would come up with techniques and fighting styles that fit the story and characters while still feeling dynamic and exciting. And there's also plenty of the old standby stuff, like the way the bad guys' weapon of choice in the final battle is those stools that people were always using to fight with in old-school kung fu movies.

I'm always up for a classic Gordon Liu movie, and this one was definitely worth checking out. I wouldn't recommend it for first-timers, but if you're looking for a fun bit of Shaw Brothers chop socky, you could definitely do worse.