Of Life, Loss, Princess Leia, and the Crushing Weight of 2016

Originally posted December 27, 2016, for the Portland Mercury

Carrie Fisher died the morning of December 27. She had suffered cardiac arrest four days earlier on a plane taking her back to Los Angeles for the holidays. She was an advocate for women and for mental health issues. She was an acclaimed writer and she was a beloved actress. She was Princess Leia. She was a brutally honest, courageous, and hilarious inspiration for hundreds of millions of people in a multitude of ways over the course of her 60 years on this Earth.

People immediately took to their social media accounts, and the cries against the cruelty of 2016 rang out once again, fresh and raw as they’ve been all year long. Some people are referring to this abnormal, alarming increase in celebrity death the “Baby Bust,” a logical, slow-motion curtain call for the Boomers, a generation that changed— is still changing—the world.

I understand the anger at the year, and I get why people would choose to shunt all their frustration and disappointment onto the date, as if the calendar really gave a shit who left on its watch, or why. But it’s a thing I’ve been thinking about off and on this afternoon, this “Baby Bust” and how it just would not stop coming for our hearts in 2016.

I thought about the sheer number of people born during and just after World War II, the rise of our media machine into something altogether different after that, the way that media machine put so many people into our living rooms, the way we latched onto these movie stars, musicians, and athletes—the way they became the background noise of our childhoods and the fabric of the security blankets we’d tuck under our chins when life started kicking our ass and we needed to go lay down for a minute to recuperate.

Now they’re all leaving, and it’s not just the reminder of mortality that stings so much, because I think most of us know that all things end eventually, that it’s more about what you do with that time, and how you spend it, and who you spend it with. On some level we know it’s more about the how of our life than the what.

But David Bowie goes, and Prince goes, and Carrie Fisher goes, and Gene Wilder goes, and Muhammad Ali goes, all these stars going out one after another, and you can’t stop any of it, and you can’t help but think about your star, and the all the other stars in your orbit.

They’re all gonna go. Your mom, your dad, your sisters & brothers, your friends, your family. All of ’em are gonna go, and it’s coming faster than any of us wants, and it’s going to hurt goddammit, it’s gonna hurt so fucking bad—if these people we’ve never even met are going to affect us this much what’s it gonna be like when the people we really know wink out of our sky?

They’re all gonna go, and despite all our own bullshit and our stupid baggage, the struggles and the frustrations just trying to maintain in the face of our problems—we owe it to them to take their best parts, incorporate them into ourselves as best we can, and take that into the future, for everyone’s sake. We owe it to them. We owe it to us.

That’s one hell of a responsibility. That weight is not easy to carry. And this year just will not stop adding to it, reminding us of the impermanent beauty and genius leaving us every day, and it will never let up as we keep moving forward. Who wants to waste all that inspiration? Who wouldn’t want to be that inspiration for someone else if they could?

This is what life is, I guess. The absorption and transformation of love, into loss, and back again into more love.

That work is rewarding as hell, but it never gets easier. You get old, your heroes go, and someday you will go too. You just hope that when it’s your turn for transformation, you leave behind as much as all these amazing people left you.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about this afternoon. This is the cursed gift that 2016 won’t stop setting on our doorstep, a challenge to keep the skies filled and shining down on a future that deserves to have it better than we did. We were lucky to be around at the same time Carrie Fisher was, and we’ll be lucky to have a tenth of her effect on the people in our orbit. We owe it to her, and to ourselves, to try as hard as we can.

Published in: on 05/30/2017 at 8:31 pm  Comments Off on Of Life, Loss, Princess Leia, and the Crushing Weight of 2016  

Star Wars is for Everyone (and Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Different)

Originally posted at the Portland Mercury, December 16, 2015

A long time ago, in a galaxy—well, in this galaxy, actually, somewhere near the end of the ’70s—20th Century Fox released a goofy, earnest adventure movie about a boy in a bathrobe who goes from kicking rocks around the interstellar boondocks to becoming the most important person in the galaxy. This movie changed the way movies were made, changed the way stories were told and sold, and, ultimately, changed the way we interact with our entertainment.

In the nearly 40 years since, you could fill a library with all the books and documentaries charting the creation and consumption of all things Star Wars. And with The Force Awakens, the seventh iteration of this cultural monolith, a whole lot of people who haven’t spent much time hanging out in that galaxy are feeling a little left out of the conversation. Considering The Force Awakens has already raked in a literal billion dollars thanks to advance ticket sales and merchandising, that’s gonna be a pretty big conversation. The kind of conversation we don’t really have anymore, save for events like the Super Bowl, or to a lesser extent, a presidential election.

So now people are asking, “What do I need to know? What books do I need to read? What TV shows do I need to binge? What movies do I have to rewatch—and I heard there was a special order I have to watch them in, too? Can some nerd help me out with, like, a three-step plan on how to jump on this stupid bandwagon?”


 You don’t need to watch a single Star Wars film—much less all of them—before going to The Force Awakens. Yes, this new one is a direct sequel to 1983’s Return of the Jedi, but it’s also co-written and directed by J.J. Abrams, who was handed a property as desiccated, dusty, and insular as Star Trek and brought it back to candy-colored life in 2009. Abrams’ Star Trek succeeded for two reasons: (1) It made the series accessible to newcomers for the first time since the ’60s, and (2) it felt like a Star Wars movie, a feeling best described in a recent interview with The Force Awakens co-writer Lawrence Kasdan: “It’s fun, it’s delightful, it moves like a son of a bitch, and you don’t question too much.”

Much is made of “The Power of Myth™” in regard to Star Wars’ staying power. But the ubiquity of that mythmaking—which is present in nearly every piece of genre fiction—means you’ll have no problem figuring out who any of these new characters are. You’re already familiar with their archetypes from the last time you saw, say, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings—all of which became massive commercial and critical successes despite the vast majority of their audiences having never read a single word of the books they were based on.

So don’t bother with a six-film marathon to “catch up.” That old stuff can wait for later. The Force Awakens is a (mostly) new story, featuring appearances from people you may or may not recognize (“Ah, that’s what a Chewbacca is”) supporting brand-new characters on a brand-new adventure, allowing audiences to join in on the fun without having to memorize a deck of Star Wars Trivial Pursuit cards. Liking Star Wars isn’t that difficult. But if you do decide to refresh beforehand…


 Contrary to what Star Wars fandom might suggest, the requirement to ride this ride isn’t very high at all. Have you watched something with the words “Star” and “Wars” on it? Did you like it? Guess what: You’re a fan. That’s it. You don’t have to own a closet full of Lando T-shirts, or a shelf full of clone trooper dolls, or have memorized the differences between multiple versions of multiple films. In fact, you’ll probably have way more fun if you don’t count yourself among those types at all.

Because here’s the dirty open secret: Star Wars—one of the single most popular entertainments of the modern age—isn’t particularly “nerdy,” even though self-identified geeks have made it a key part of their creepy cultural-indoctrination rituals. It’s pretty hard to claim the Star Wars franchise has earned $30 billion dollars because of “nerds.” It got as big as it did because—even in its most questionable iterations—Star Wars looks cool, sounds cool, and features cool people doing cool shit. (Also, kids really like it.) The appeal of Star Wars isn’t far removed from the appeal of The Hunger Games, James Bond, the Fast and the Furious movies, or any entry in any of the superhero empires currently being assembled with the Marvel blueprint.

So no, you don’t have to shell out wads of cash and countless hours buying, collecting, eating, and slinging a bunch of bullshit in order to “get” the latest chapter in this money-printing machine. In fact, the only thing you need to know about The Force Awakens, and Star Wars in general, is this:


 Star Wars has always been about getting as many people as possible to have fun not just watching it, but experiencing it. The Force Awakens could have the best chance yet at accomplishing that: The old movies, engaging as they are, were made by a bunch of white dudes, starred a bunch of white dudes, and have been obnoxiously “claimed” by a bunch of white dudes. But now, under the guidance of Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, her multicultural brainstorming group, and the direction of Abrams, The Force Awakens promises to be the first Star Wars movie to actually reflect the skin colors and genders of its audience—knocking down what few remaining hurdles were in the way of every kid in the theater having an unobstructed pathway to the imaginarium exploding off the screen.

Much like Yoda’s cave on Dagobah (“the fuck is a Dagobah?” you might ask. You’ll get there, don’t worry), these films mirror what you bring in with you. You like goofy sci-fi action? Done. You like deeper mythological underpinnings? Just dig a little. Star Wars isn’t the impenetrable mess it can appear to be, thanks to the overstated importance pushed on it by the media (hi!), and the overheated arguments from its hardcore fans—many of whom, myself included, would make a Venn diagram of “entertainment press” and “easily perturbed men who have a hard time dealing” look like a full fuckin’ moon.

You can—and should—divorce these films from all their baggage. These movies have always worked best when they’re allowed to just be movies, not referendums on the validity of entire generations’ predilection toward escapism. So go into The Force Awakens the same way people went into Star Wars in 1977—with nothing more than an open mind and a taste for adventure. Because if everyone’s done their jobs, The Force Awakens will be a cool, funny, thrilling story about a bunch of kids trying to figure out how to fit in their own skin. And what’s more universal than that?

Published in: on 12/16/2015 at 12:05 pm  Comments Off on Star Wars is for Everyone (and Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Different)  

Why I’m Done With Geek Culture

Originally posted at the Portland Mercury, August 20th, 2014

Almost five years ago, comedian Patton Oswalt wrote an article for Wired called “Wake Up, Geek Culture, Time to Die.” It was equal parts eulogy for the romanticized nerd he once was, and a lament for the shape of nerdery to come.

At the time, I took issue with the idea that the mainstreaming of Geek was somehow a bad thing. I stand by that; I don’t think it’s wrong somehow that the star quarterback/homecoming king might bust out his 3DS and play some Animal Crossing on the way to the game, or that someone could watch their first episode of Doctor Who one week and show up the next in a bow-tie, a fez, and a working knowledge of all 12 Doctors (No, sir. All 13!).

But I find myself now, with the accumulation of almost five more years of Geek Culture foaming about my knees, looking back at Oswalt’s recommendation that it be euthanized and realizing he was right to call for it. In fact, I think it’s already dead. Or to be accurately clichéd, un-dead. It’s stumbling around, moaning and shuffling in a bad facsimile of its brief, former life.

In hindsight, the Geek Renaissance (2003-2010) looks, more than anything else, like a necessary social phase most people had to go through as their use of the internet increased exponentially. It helped provide context and structure for our presumably marginalized interests, simultaneously rewarding Geeks for our “weird” obsessions while reassuring us that we weren’t as weird as they thought. “It’s fine you’re on the internet more and more,” said an inner voice that probably sounds like Matt Smith. “It’s ‘geeky,’ and being geeky is cool now.” Eventually, the word was reclaimed—we the Geeks had, indeed, taken it back.

But now, the internet is the dominant form of interpersonal communication for hundreds of millions of people. Its perception as a mysterious electronic realm separate from “the real world,” where one could stash indulgent alter-egos, is outdated and corny now, a conceptual relic from the late ’90s that’s aged about as well as The Lawnmower Man. The kind of people who still believe in that internet have self-segregated to image boards and anonymous comments sections, a sort of appendix to the body internet: a once useful organ that is no longer necessary, existing almost solely to accumulate poison until it swells and bursts. We don’t need to be comforted by Matt’s soothing voice in our head anymore, because there is no longer an artificial divide between “the internet” and “real life” anymore. In fact, the internet is no longer even remotely special at all: It’s just the tool we use to talk with each other.

When Geek was reclaimed, the anti-social behaviors embedded deep in our subculture were minimized. Knowingly. A cheerful tribalism emerged, helping wave away a lot of the racism and sexism we’d rather not acknowledge, in exchange for the comfort of knowing it was okay to have a sword collection, or make Babylon 5 costumes in our spare time. Being Geek suddenly had a lot less to do with my inability to talk to the opposite sex, process a social cue, or interpret a joke; it was more about quoting lines from Ghostbusters or recognizing the Star Wars reference in that one movie (all the movies).

Thus the gates to geekdom were flung open and the mainstreaming began. Star Wars is a great example of this: Somehow, one of the most popular film series of all time, responsible for billions of dollars in box-office, home video, publishing and other merchandising over the course of three straight decades, was considered shorthand for Geek—and nobody questioned it. The bar for Geek—which was never that high in the first place—was now set at a point where the price of admission was equal to the price of the DVDs in your Amazon cart or a ticket to see Captain America. In the Renaissance, being Geek was not much more involved than simply buying something, and considering myself a more well-rounded, interesting person for having purchased it.

This shouldn’t have been a bad thing, as it led to the popularization of some really cool shit. More people enjoying more diverse types of media—and sharing that enjoyment with one another—was the realization of a dream for many Geeks who thought we were more or less alone in our interests. There was a security in choosing to attend a convention, and knowing I could feel (somewhat) safe among the multitude of costumes & logo’d t-shirts, all standing on common ground, a common ground more regularly spreading into that “real world” with things like book release parties, midnight screenings, and game releases.

The validation continued as Geeks watched the more well-known of our number join the industries we followed. Fans began making the games we played, drawing the comics we read, and writing the movies and TV shows we watched. Traditional media couldn’t expand fast enough, and fully-formed networks sprang up in response, offering things like podcasts, video game playthroughs and tournaments, and frame-by-frame dissections of Star Trek movies longer than the films themselves. The success was undeniable. The money was too good. Geeks finished the first decade of the 21st century and saw that we had “won.”

But champions must fight to keep their trophy, and kings must war to retain their crown. A few of us, who had been around before the renaissance had started, took stock of this changed landscape, and saw things that needed to be fixed. Thus began the defense of Geek Nation, a defense nobody really asked for, undertaken by volunteer warriors ill-equipped for their amateur endeavor.

Step one in protecting the sovereignty of this newly established country: We cannot admit the Geeks have won.

We can revel in the unprecedented importance of media in American life, we can marvel (pun intended) at the success of things like interconnected superhero movies and sci-fi, horror, and fantasy TV shows, but we cannot relinquish the otherness that comes with the title of Geek. That would mean recognizing the reclamation of the term has served its purpose and the name is no longer necessary, because—to paraphrase The Incredibles—when everyone is Geek, nobody is.

Admitting we won means we can let off the gas, and there’s no financial incentive to do that. Geek Culture is a legitimate market now, filled with customers eager to choose their own exploitation; well-trained the fine art of consumerism, we often consider quality a secondary or even tertiary concern behind branding. And any content provider would have to be a fool to entertain any notion that the Geek brand has run its course. There’s too many T-shirts left to sell, books to hawk, and talk-shows to host.

If we admit Geek Culture won, we’re admitting that, really, it’s just Pop-Culture—or even worse, plain-old Culture. Period. No hyphenates or slashes. But then it’s not unique anymore. It becomes harder to consider myself special for having engaged with it. Its status as an identifier of cultural importance is diminished. If tens of millions of people can love the surly raccoon and the dancing tree, it’s not so cool when I do, too. If Geek Nation has gotten too big to defend, then shrink it back down, to restore and protect that uniqueness.

This brings us to step two: removing the unworthy.

Letting everybody into the party was fun at first! We were excited at how remarkably popular this intergalactic kegger was, and surprised by the number of charming, attractive people lining up at the door. The outside validation was intoxicating, but some of us drank way too much, blowing past the fun buzz of supplementing our personality with geeky interests, and tilting headlong towards the blackout, where personality isn’t supported but completely subsumed, the person inside hollowed out and discarded to make way for more. In that state, it was easy to judge those who hadn’t drank as much as we did, to suggest they were lightweight, bridge and tunnel tourists who couldn’t hang with the real thing. The hangover that followed was rough indeed, as the method chosen to cull the nerd herd was sourced straight from Geek Culture’s quietly nurtured sense of white, male, heterosexual superiority.

Minorities were told their requests for representation in Geek media were unfair and silly. Women were told that—since Geek is now synonymous with “cool”—they were just faking their interests to have sex with us. A real anger began to boil over, scalding and scolding newcomers for crimes against the culture including (but not limited to): being late to the party, not valuing geek tradition, posting on Tumblr about Supernatural, complaining about being called a faggot on XBox Live, complaining about the broken spines of our oversexed heroines, and for having the gall to come into our basement and criticize the laminated pinups (targets) we have pinned on the wall.

This is confusing to many, although it shouldn’t be. When a subculture celebrates emotional stunting and infantilization as much as Geek Culture does, entitled little boys are going to act accordingly, especially if they hold any amount of power. And we do (just like plain old regular culture). With that power, we’ve chosen to alienate and excommunicate those not willing to just put up with our tantrum-throwing bullshit. And so it goes: Anita Sarkeesian can get the fuck out. Zoe Quinn can get the fuck out. Janelle Asselin can get the fuck out. They’re not real geeks anyway with all their faux-outrage and their PC whining, and if they wanna keep it up, I got an army of fedoras with dick pics and rape threats just raring to go, both for them and their thirsty White Knights.

Step three is currently underway, and involves one last act of reclamation.

Geek—the term that began as a derogatory and became a shiny marketing tool—is now too nice. So the keepers of the flame of Real Geekery, the protectors of a subculture that was never all that sub to begin with, a group of people who pledge allegiance to the illusion of individuality through the mass purchase of goods manufactured and sold by worldwide multimedia conglomerates, have decided Geek needs to be a derogatory again. Because it’s easier to kick out the women and the minorities who won’t just shut up and accept this is just how it is, than it is to adjust our behavior accordingly. To progress.

Instead, in the most sadly predictable course of action we could have possibly taken, Geeks have chosen to reboot our own past like a Platinum Dunes production. We could accept the reality that our subculture is just pop-culture now, that the relative ease of mainstreaming Geek means being Geek probably never really meant that much; we could use that opportunity to enjoy the common ground we’re sharing and invite even more people to share it than ever before—but instead, we’re going the easier, less imaginative route, and remaking the past. (But with new special effects!)

Because to go the other way, to go forward, to allow the culture to shed its former self and actually become something new, is to recognize that maybe we weren’t ostracized because we liked comics. We weren’t made fun of because we played Dungeons & Dragons. It had nothing to do with the things we liked or our choice of pastime. Now that it’s easy to see everyone can like the same stuff I like, and it hasn’t turned them into the misanthropic little shit I am, I have to deal with the possibility that it was just me. And I probably knew it was just me. But it was easier to blame it on Batman than it was to try growing the fuck up. And it still is.

So Geeks have doubled-down on the idea that anyone who has a problem with our culture, especially during the reign of Geek Nation, is a poseur who doesn’t deserve our title or our hospitality (such as it is). As a result, it’s undeniable that geeks are returning that exclusivity to their ranks. But the citizenship test now consists of questions that reward being exploitative, mercenary, sexist, mean-spirited, homophobic, closed-minded assholes. Some of us might try to say “Well, it’s not all of us. And there’s more good than there is bad!” And technically, yeah, maybe they’re right. But not by much. I think it’s time to admit that Geek Pride is a largely empty emotion, and “Don’t be a dick” doesn’t cut it as a philosophy or a battle cry. It never did.

So if this is what means to be part of Geek Culture, then fuck Geek Culture. I don’t want anything to do with it. You can have it back.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m damn sure not gonna stop watching movies, or reading comics, or playing games, or even going to conventions. I’m still gonna host my pub quiz, and make my podcasts, and maybe hook up a mashup or two. But I’m not buying into this toxic Geek shit anymore. None of the stuff I like needs to be a part of your insular, suffocating culture to succeed. I don’t need to look at things through that filter to better understand or like them. The stuff that works? It works just fine without you.

I’m honestly thankful that the Geek Renaissance was there to obliterate the unnecessary barrier to new forms of media for millions of people who otherwise would have never had their lives enriched in a multitude of ways. But I don’t think I belong here anymore—not if something as simple as enjoying some comics comes with a cost like denying whole swaths of people their basic humanity.

Geek Culture is asking to be abandoned, and I’m amenable to their offer. It’s much more important to me that I try being a better person rather than maintaining status as a good Geek, and the effort it would take to consistently reconcile the two is better spent doing more worthwhile things, like maybe inviting a group of friends over for a barbecue, grilling up some burgers and maybe watching a movie or playing a game or maybe just enjoying the company of people I consider good and decent for who they are, and not for what they think about a TV show. You know…

Like growing the fuck up.

Published in: on 12/12/2014 at 4:09 pm  Comments Off on Why I’m Done With Geek Culture  

Why The Iron Giant Isn’t the Best Superman Movie Ever Made

Originally posted by the Portland Mercury, January 24th, 2014

Warner Bros. dumped The Iron Giant into the crowded film landscape of 1999 with terrible promotion and minimal confidence, letting it wander off to be ignored like a neglected ginger in a mall. Brad Bird’s Cold War-era story about Hogarth, an adventurous boy with an unfortunate name who discovers a robot in his backyard and tries to keep him, was rescued on home video thanks to scenarios like: “My kid likes robots. This has a robot in it. It’s five bucks on VHS in a bin by the checkout counter. Why the hell not.”

Then the film, full of so many amazing moments that every viewing is like a tiny miracle of storytelling, works its surprising magic and (so long as you’re not a Cylon or a Replicant or some sort of lizard person) you wipe your eyes and snuff back your last sniffle and smile at the great time you just had.

So the conventional wisdom (which is almost always broken when it comes to Hollywood) morphed from “It’s a plain looking trifle” to the following lofty-yet-heartfelt sentiment:

Iron Giant is the best Superman movie ever made.”

I understand that sentiment. Especially in the face of divisive films like Superman Returns and Man of Steel, not to mention the confused Superman III or the earnest shoddiness of Superman IV. It’s easy to look at Iron Giant and say “That’s what I’m supposed to be feeling when I watch a Superman movie.”

But The Iron Giant is not the best Superman movie ever made.

It’s better than that.

To get the pedantry out of the way: Superman isn’t a character in The Iron Giant. “Iron Giant is the best Superman movie ever made” only works if the alternatives are so poor you’re willing to settle. Not that “settling” for The Iron Giant is a bad call, but this is the first and most obvious stop.

It does fit on the face of it, though: a literal man of steel from outer space who, through the kindness of caring, open-minded folk, becomes a protector of humanity. But the Giant’s journey is not the focus of the movie; the Giant isn’t the main character. Hogarth is the one we’re invested in, his arc is the one most developed, and his acceptance of what the Giant has to do is why the the film hurts so good.

The Iron Giant is instead the best essay ever delivered on why Superman works, why he’s lasted as long as he has in the public consciousness, why after 75 years of fumbled stories, ridiculous conceits, and poorly told tales, he still maintains the capacity to inspire little kids to tie a towel around their neck and place their hands on their hips, adorably jutting a jaw out. Or at least, they used to. God help whatever eight year-old is stumbling across Man of Steel or Flashpoint or any of the New 52 offerings in the last couple of years.

The Giant is very much a confused animal in the beginning. It’s only after hanging out with Hogarth, going through his stack of comics, and discovering Action Comics, that that an ideal of hope is awakened. Hogarth himself doesn’t see it at first. Superman’s just a really cool power fantasy, a guy who kicks ass in awesome ways.

While role-playing, Hogarth typecasts the Giant as the evil robot Atomo, and the Giant refuses, like a proud puppy would shed a ridiculous dog sweater you dressed him in. Instead, he spins around, with his hands on his hips, a piece of scrap fixed to his chest, and confidently proclaims “Me no Atomo. Me Superman!”

He could be a gun. He’s been programmed as such. He’s a scary, powerful thing. So is Superman. It’s why so many artists choose to draw this beacon of hope in the shadows, frowning, his eyes glowing red with death. But his friendship with Hogarth, and his exposure to those stories, help cement the Giant’s true role in the film: an example of pure inspiration, applied to a person (or robot) willing to believe that people are good. That inspiration can be transformative. It definitely changes Hogarth. He learns you don’t have to wear a cape and shoot lasers out of your eyes in order to do heroic things.

The Giant isn’t an analog for Superman. He’s an analog for every kid who’s ever read a superhero story and been affected by it. He explains why people still spend time caring about “that boring-ass Boy Scout.” The Giant gets to act out the daydream many fans, young or old, longtime or lapsed, have lost many an hour indulging; and when given the choice, he does not choose to be the gun. Brad Bird is using pop-culture shorthand to get at the heart of real heroism, and it’s hard not to feel every ounce of that truth in the three syllable decision the Giant makes as he closes his eyes.


Published in: on 12/10/2014 at 4:26 pm  Comments Off on Why The Iron Giant Isn’t the Best Superman Movie Ever Made  

Why Batman Can’t Be Black

Originally posted by the Portland Mercury, August 5th, 2013

To be a fan of anything is to be an amateur casting director. There’s more joy in imagining potential entertainments than in their actual consumption; it’s why we leave a movie after waiting patiently for the now-traditional mid-credits stinger, and immediately start brainstorming ideas for the sequel the instant our feet touch lobby carpet. The announcement of the latest inevitable reboot is met with all the enthusiasm of having to clean out the catbox, until we catch ourselves playing in that grimy sand, pushing recycled ideas around like kitty pickles; What if Spider-Man did this? What if the Terminator did that? What if so-and-so was the Doctor?

This past weekend, a new Doctor was chosen. Peter Capaldi is a great actor, and a wonderful choice, not only for the energy he can bring to the role, but for the fact he’s a massive Doctor Who nerd. But there was still disappointment to be found, partially because you just can’t please everybody, partially because he’s in his fifties and not conventionally attractive, and partially because he’s the twelfth straight white dude to play the character. Thirteenth, if you count John Hurt, who is playing a one-off version of the Doctor in an upcoming special.

Steven Moffat, Doctor Who’s current emperor, took time during the half-hour live press event announcing Capaldi to throw shade at the idea that the Doctor could be anything but a white guy, namechecking Dame Helen Mirren’s volunteering for the role, and smirking up a one-line dismissal about how he can’t wait until a man is chosen to be Queen of England.

So with those specific TARDIS doors clicked shut, pop-culture addicts have to move onto other scenarios with which to disappoint themselves, scenarios that almost always involve the same guy:


James Bond will have to be recast soon! Idris Elba would be perfect for that! There’s those new Star Wars movies, Idris Elba could be a Jedi! Maybe Warner Bros. can finally get a Wonder Woman movie off the—nah. It’ll never happen. People wouldn’t know what to do with a woman action hero. It’s too risky. Oh yeah, there’s gonna be another version of Batman in the sequel to the Superman reboot! Sure, people are talking about Josh Brolin & Ryan Gosling. But what about Idris Elba? Maybe?

(This fan-addiction to Elba is interesting to see, considering that while he can now be imagined as anyone who has ever appeared in a comic-book, from Lex Luthor to Shazam, the instant he was cast as goofy-assed Heimdall in the first Thor movie, people freaked out. Seems so long ago.)

Where these endless debates on Twitter/Facebook/forums become illuminating is when someone suggests casting a black person in a role that’s traditionally been white. I don’t know if Mr. Elba knows just how many arguments his mere existence has recently sparked, but hopefully he’s flattered that so many people find him so perfect for so many iconic roles, including, most recently, the Caped Crusader.

It wouldn’t even be that hard to do. Simply change Martha Wayne’s race from white to black. Now young Master Bruce is a mixed-race child. It’s not as if Batman does what he does because he is a white guy. His racial identity really doesn’t factor into any of the character’s motivations.

But often, this suggestion induces significant pushback, an understandable reaction after 70+ years of a character’s look having been burned into your brain. It typically takes the form of three basic arguments for why Batman can’t be black.

* The idea of a silver-spoon-fed socialite being a young mixed race child isn’t exactly plausible, which will make that child’s plausible transformation into a body-armored bat-themed super-ninja for justice really silly.
* The idea of taking an established superhero and just willy-nilly (it’s always willy-nilly, or thoughtlessly, needlessly, carelessly, etc) changing his race is insulting to current readers, and shameful pandering/race-baiting to potential readers.
* Why potentially ruin the appeal of an established, popular superhero when real diversity can be had by inventing a completely new one instead, letting them stand on their own feet, instead of an existing heroes’ shoulders.

These arguments have some merit, I guess, although they seem to me to be varying degrees of cynically conservative. But none of those make the case for why Batman can’t be black. They make the case for why a person doesn’t want him to be black, but you can’t say that out loud, because then you’re open to charges of intolerance, and that shit stings.

People don’t like the implication they could be the bad guy on this issue. Racism is bad. That’s axiomatic. Thus, arguments against changing Batman’s race tend to go like:

“It’s not that I don’t want Batman to be black. With the right writers, I bet it’d be cool! I’d love for popular culture to be more diverse! It’s just that, unfortunately, it simply can’t be done in the case of Mr. Bruce Wayne. There’s too much history and continuity. It’s a shame, but that’s just the way the world works. “

Which is bullshit. Bruce Wayne doesn’t exist. He’s not real. It wouldn’t take a miracle of genetic engineering to somehow flip the needed switches in his DNA to transform him from a rich white guy to a rich black guy. He’s completely fictional. Of course he can be a black man. He’s been a lot of things over the course of his 70+ years in existence, most of them infinitely more ridiculous and unbelievable than possessing a darker skin tone.


Yet his character has persevered and thrived over the course of those 70+ years. It can be argued that’s because of those reinterpretations, from talented writers providing their own takes on the character, enriching him in ways most writers never did; honestly, the large majority of comics writers throughout the 40s, 50s, 60s, and ‘70s were fucking awful; hacks in the truest sense of the word, people who didn’t really care about their craft, only their check. It seems weird to argue that Batman could survive that decades-long onslaught of mostly-terrible storytelling, but couldn’t survive a change in melanin levels.

“But why do you have to force racial diversity on readers by changing an established hero’s race? Why can’t you just create a new character, and let them be their own thing?”

I don’t think efforts to create new heroes for readers should be minimized. They absolutely should be encouraged and championed. But I also think this question is slightly disingenuous. Because most readers know new heroes usually don’t gain much traction; new minority heroes even less. For a genre of fiction so chained to the past, introducing spandexed strongmen without any real legacy is a handicap. Unless your character is part of an existing crossover event, or is sidekicking for an already established superhero, any hypothetical Black Superguy or Black Batdude probably isn’t going to stick. So the question is really just a disguised statement:

“Look, just create a completely separate black superhero, and put them in their own book, because that way I can easily ignore them. You make Bruce Wayne black, now I have to pay attention to his black ass and I really don’t like that idea.”

It’s a strange tug-of-war that many superhero fans are engaged in. There’s the desire to see superheroes look and act more like the people reading their stories, watching their movies, downloading episodes of their television show. And with the knowledge that everything will likely be rebooted/remade on a 10-15 year cycle anyway, part of the appeal in following superheroes is seeing how these characters are reinterpreted, what new twists are applied, what new beats can be dropped in the newest remix of a significant piece of pop-culture.

But how much can you really want a more diverse pop-culture landscape when you’re not even willing to sacrifice the imaginary racial identity of a completely fictional person? If that’s the price that must be paid to help get that playing field just a bit more leveled out, how can you balk at that?

Unless the racial purity of a make-believe crime-fighter who dresses like a flying rodent to punch out fat socialites is too socially important to play with; that it’s too risky an answer to the question “Why aren’t there more black faces in our escapist fantasy fiction?”

Maybe that’s all there is to it. Batman staying white is more important to people than pop-culture more closely mirroring the audience engaging it. That’s why Batman can’t be black, and the Doctor can’t be a woman, because even at such a low cost-of-entry, that price is too high.

Published in: on 12/12/2013 at 4:13 pm  Comments Off on Why Batman Can’t Be Black  

Roger & Me.

I had to write an obituary for Roger Ebert today. It was sad, and strange, putting the words into the little window and pressing “Post.” I’m working at a newspaper now, partially because Roger Ebert helped me realize that a film critic was a thing I could be. And after a couple of decades of fighting, and fumbling, and figuring myself out – sometimes in private but more often in public, via the words I constantly put in a little window above a button that says “Post” – I have a regular job at a newspaper. And today, that job led to me writing about Roger Ebert closing the balcony for good.

This death is hitting me a little harder than I thought it would. It’s no mystery as to why: I’ve spent a lot of my time talking about movies. I’ve spent a lot more time watching ’em. Had a brief period where I thought I could make one or two, but that didn’t pan out. This focus of mine on the art that is film, it can be sourced back to a few places, all of them obvious:

Star Wars. Looney Tunes. And yes, Siskel & Ebert At the Movies.

Those two were the first to clue me in to the idea there was more to movies than just the watching of them. There were puzzles in there—complexities of emotion and deeper meanings. I learned from that show what subtext was before I even knew there was such a thing as subtext.

I used to co-host a radio show, and we would present monthly midnight movies at a repertory theater, and invite the city to come. I remember, before one of those screenings, I put together a mixtape of Siskel & Ebert clips, closing with the infamous outtakes session. 600 people in that theater, and the instant the theme song to that show kicked in? Man, the cheer that came out of that crowd! I thought there’d be a laugh of recognition, maybe a stray “woo”. But that saxophone started winding its way up the scale, and a strip of film became an ampersand, and people legitimately popped like the Star Wars logo had just appeared on the screen in a burst of fanfare.

Oh sure, the boos came raining down after Roger took a few shots at a couple beloved ’80s “classics,” but even the boos were warm and friendly somehow. You can argue there were better critics, but it’s hard to argue they didn’t use their considerable influence for the purpose of promoting legitimate art. They excoriated movies that wasted their potential, and championed the ones that said things about us, and not us as in “moviegoers,” but us as in “people.”

Not only that, they championed the idea of thinking about why you like the things you like. They didn’t dictate, or preach, even when they got preachy. They were sharing. They weren’t just giving their opinions, they were giving up little bits of themselves as well. Maybe my parents thought it weird when I’d tug on their shirtsleeves to stay up past my bedtime and watch Gene & Roger review some blockbuster I was itching to see on one summer or another. But as the world of film started to open up underneath my feet, they were reliable guides. Why wouldn’t I want to follow wherever they were going? Even when I didn’t agree with them all the time. Especially when I didn’t agree with them.

But Ebert, in many of his essays, placed the movies he watched in the context of the life he lived. The man did a lot of living, and he never shied away from the opportunity to let that living inform his words. He was never just a stuffed shirt, a sweater and glasses. He was intellectual, but never at the expense of his heart. His brain was big, and he could dissect a frame of film down to the individual grains embedded within it; but his heart was huge, and the movies that worked on him worked on that big ol’ heart of his. How could you not admire that, even when you thought it was leading him wrong?

There were people, earlier today, who wondered if it was suicide. I could understand why. Writers are prone to it, I guess. Or at least that’s one of the romanticized views of the writer’s life. Some writers fit that role really well. Hunter went out spectacularly, his ashes shot out of a cannon atop a two-thumbed statue. And the assumption makes a sort of sense, I guess—someone who lived the story Ebert lived, who felt the stories he felt throughout his career as a critic? That man knows the value of an ending. If he chose to write his own after all this living, could you blame him?

But that’s not what happened. He was a man who discovered what he was best at, what made him the best Roger he could be, and he did it as best he could, and he shared it with us as long as possible. And one day, after admitting he couldn’t do it the way he used to, he stopped. He looked at his wife, he smiled at her, and he left. And that’s kind of beautiful, really. He arrived at his ending naturally, with a smile on his face, looking at the wife with whom he shared all of his big, loud heart.

I guess this hurts like it does precisely because of that: He was one of the few who you could tell honestly cared about the things he wrote. Even if you disagreed, you could tell. You could feel it. He cared. Not a lot of people do anymore. And now there’s one less.

Published in: on 04/04/2013 at 7:35 pm  Comments Off on Roger & Me.  

Review – Django Unchained

Originally posted at aintitcool.com, December 19th 2012

Pardon me the inarticulate nature of the following critique, but I believe it will prove to be as appropriate a summation of the film’s qualities as I can muster:

Django Unchained is a motherfucker.

It sounds like David Milch, stoned out of his gourd. It looks like a Bierstadt, except for when it looks like a Bosch. It is an ambling, mild-mannered nightmare; a bloody, mean-spirited, exhilarating wet mess of a movie.

Quentin Tarantino’s western plays much like Quentin Tarantino’s war film: It pulps America’s mythologizing of its own past. Django is set in a pre-Civil War South that is equal parts lurid and goofy. The star of this painterly cartoon of a western is Django (Jamie Foxx) a slave who is purchased and then set free by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an ex-dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, who needs Django’s help to collect on a bounty. Thus sets in motion the first third of the film: A buddy comedy about killing white folks and selling their corpses back to the government.

Once Django’s freedom is secured, he and Waltz hatch a plan to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from her owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who is a major player in the Mandingo Fight Game. Thus sets in motion the middle of the film: A con-movie about earning the good graces of a hopped-up rube so as to take from him things he doesn’t deserve.

Once Django and Schultz make it to Calvin’s plantation, “Candyland,” they run into Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) a toad of a man who throws a wrench into our heroes’ plans. Thus sets in motion the last third of the film: A revenge epic of head-spinning violence and depravity. It is this last third where the film thoroughly earns its status as a complete, total, unrelenting, unimaginable motherfucker of a movie.

You may ask “But is being a motherfucker a good thing or a bad thing?” The answer is “Yes.”

This is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent. But not in the annoying, eye-roll inducing way Death Proof was. While many seem to know him for his violence, Tarantino has always, first and foremost, loved the words that fall out of his giant noggin, and the salty-sweet syllables he puts in Waltz’s mouth are delivered so melodiously, it’s easy to forgive Django Unchained for spending much of its runtime pleasantly shooting the shit instead of shooting up hillbillies.

Django isn’t much of a protagonist for most of his own movie. He spends a lot of it with a wide-eyed, inquisitive look on his face, alternately curious and bemused about the world he finds himself inhabiting. It’s a smart choice – when you’ve got a tour guide as good, as charming as Waltz is, you don’t mind just letting him lead, and I’d imagine many in the audience will spend a lot of time goggling at the movie with a similar look on their face for most of the first hour. The reasons are two:

1) Robert Richardson is one of the best cinematographers that ever lived, and this movie is goddamned gorgeous thanks to his work on the film.

2) Quentin really indulges his second-favorite fetish, the one that puts racial slurs in his actor’s mouths; One slur in particular.

I know its period appropriate, but the experience of hearing that word casually fall out of 98% of the white cast’s face is jarring at first. Except for Walton Goggins, who as Hollywood’s current reigning King of the Peckerwoods I sort of just expect to utter that word at least once or twice. But Tom Wopat is in this fucking movie and considering how old you are, hearing Luke Duke utter the word his backwoods moonshinin’ ass never got to say on television is a bit of a jolt.

Don’t take this as an expression of dissatisfaction with the film; Django Unchained is almost constantly entertaining, even as its all sorts of sprawled out and irresponsible. Hell, that’s part of the charm, really. But its pleasures are edged. There’s a blend of unease and delight in things like Don Johnson as a dandified Colonel Sanders, succumbing to frustration as his carefully planned lynching turns into a whiny kvetch-fest; the oily, greasy way Leonardo DiCaprio pushes Tarantino’s words out between his browned teeth; the willingness of Samuel L. Jackson to nakedly wallow in total debasement. The character he’s playing might be named Stephen, but he’s channeling Uncle Ruckus from Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks so completely, you’d swear the wetness slicking up his protruding lower lip was made of pure, liquefied self-hate.

When Tarantino does get on with it, the violence is gaudy as hell, blood leaving bullet-riddled bodies via squibs that seem to work by dropping a firecracker into a jar of Smuckers strawberry jam. The cruelty of the South is never softpedaled in Django Unchained: You will see frequent, disturbing acts perpetrated on slaves. You will see that violence repaid in kind, often with that same queasy delight buzzing under the visceral thrills.

DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is some repugnant shit, and his performance is kind of amazing. At one point he lacerates the hell out of his hand by smashing a glass for emphasis, and he doesn’t break character, or even acknowledge that he’s badly bleeding, not until he has a chance to use that blood as a means to prove how deranged Candie is, smearing that blood all over Kerry Washington’s shocked face.

Washington is one of the more problematic parts of the movie, in that she doesn’t do shit but cry, look pretty, or look scared. In fact, most of the black people in this movie aside from Django and Stephen, don’t do shit but cry or look scared, ineffectually goggling at the audacity of Django the way Django goggled at the world upon being set free in it. It could have been worse for Broomhilda; Tarantino decided to cut two scenes in which she is raped. A scene in which a man burns off another man’s nipples was also deleted. This is what restraint looks like in Tarantino-land, and the movie is better for it. Django Unchained already spends long stretches of its movie doing a delicate balancing act, smudging the pencil-thin line between outrageous and tasteless as it is.

But when Django fully comes into his own with about a half-hour to go, the fresh hell he justifiably unleashes is probably the most adrenaline-infused thing Tarantino’s ever done. Bullets flying, blood splashing, Tupac and James Brown screaming on the soundtrack at the enemies Django is cutting down with no remorse. Jamie Foxx’s performance is underplayed and understated. He is maybe the most traditionally western thing about the movie, his Django a jut-jawed, squinting blend of Franco Nero and Clint Eastwood, delivering most of his lines through gritted teeth in a low, growling whisper, a triumphant portrait of stoic bad-assery.

The film doesn’t really ask too many questions of its viewers. There will be moments when large chunks of the audience find themselves laughing with clownish buffoonery instead of laughing at it, missing out on the moments of commentary Tarantino too rarely allows himself. In a film that is probably too long by 30 minutes, I wish he’d chosen to indulge his thoughtful side just a little bit more.

But Tarantino is most effective when he gives into his passion to share with you the things he thinks are really, really cool. Even after decades of success and acclaim, down deep, Tarantino is still an excited video store clerk who wants you to take a risk on something awesome you might not check out otherwise, and reap the rewards contained within. Django Unchained is full of rich, dirty, bloody bounties that sometimes cost just a mite too much to enjoy unreservedly.

Published in: on 12/23/2012 at 1:19 pm  Comments Off on Review – Django Unchained  

On Purchasing Murders

Originally posted December 12th, 2012. One day after the Clackamas Mall shooting, two days before Sandy Hook.

Gun control arguments are maddening, both for their perceived uselessness in the face of continued violence, and the disingenuousness often contained within. Statements like “Now is not the time” and “Let’s not politicize this” acting as speed-bumps, slowing down forward momentum on engagement with the issues at a time in which the issues are screaming to be discussed.

If I was a victim of gun violence, I don’t think I’d be selfish enough to believe your pertinent discussions on the matter need to be shelved until I “feel better,” whenever such a time might actually occur. In fact, I’d likely be too busy dealing with the trauma to pay attention to your discourse. So me and my feelings are off the table anyway. Your silence sure as shit isn’t actually helping me, and since I’m likely not paying attention to your discussions, you might as well have them, because at least from those discussions, a measure of prevention might be put in place. I’d think it’d be much more disrespectful if you clapped a hand over your mouth and held your feelings in (artificially) for my benefit, when it’s not even my benefit you’re concerned with: It’s the appearance of piety while others might be looking. You being quiet in a time of crisis doesn’t help me, and is not helpful overall, so stop acting like you’re doing something useful by shutting up.

Let’s stop using analogies that bring up the fact cars and baseball bats kill more people than guns do. Let’s stop reducing the gun to the level of “tool,” all while removing the context of what that tool does. It doesn’t join boards together. It doesn’t level bookshelves. It doesn’t ferry you from one destination to another, nor does it help turn double plays on the sandlot.

Guns are a tool for putting projectiles into another human being’s body at a high rate of speed.

When you purchase a gun, you are purchasing a potential murder. Maybe it’s a justifiable homicide. Maybe it’s a self-defense so by the book they will rewrite that book to include your example. But it’s still a murder. And you bought it. You knew that. You can’t divorce the tool from its intended use. Yeah, you can kill someone with a hammer. Yeah, you can run someone over with a car. Yeah, you can put someone’s head in an oven, or feed them Windex, but that’s not what those tools are meant for. Guns are meant for shooting people.

(Yes, some guns are meant for hunting animals, and the number of you still hunting your own meals is sufficiently small enough that to even bring up this example is to slather yourself in the disingenuousness that makes these discussions maddening. This isn’t about hunters, or hunting. This is about people purchasing weapons created for the sole intent of firing them at other humans)

I don’t doubt the belief some have that their gun is meant for self-protection. I’m sure that part of the power-fantasy that goes into choosing to purchase a future murder at the store involves at least one night spent drifting to sleep and imagining the miniature action movie that occurs when a home-invasion is stopped by your quick wits, your alertness, your agile reflexes, and the bark and flash of a tool properly used. You don’t want it to happen. It rightfully scares you, enough to have caused you to purchase a potential murder. But you bought that murder because you, at some point, imagined yourself carrying it out successfully.

Let’s not be disingenuous about the fact purchasing guns is largely keyed-in to the idea that you can purchase safety. That you can purchase power. And maybe you can convince yourself that at some point, you’ll take all the necessary classes, you’ll develop all the necessary skills, you’ll obtain the necessary mindset to make yourself a responsible gun owner that uses their tool properly, for the sake of protection, for the sake of keeping the people you care for safe. Maybe you’ll do just enough to get a paper from someone with an official stamp and a seal that says “Good job, you get it” but are those bars set high enough? Are the hoops they’re asking you to jump through tight enough? Much like people who purchase exercise equipment convince themselves they’ll use it for longer than a month, that they’ll use it correctly, that their purchase wasn’t in and of itself a shortcut to make themselves feel better, feel more empowered, more in control of their destiny.

They didn’t buy exercise equipment. They bought themselves momentary absolution from their guilt over becoming physically unattractive. And a lot of gun owners don’t buy protection. They buy themselves a false sense of security that can put 15 rounds of death into the air at a mile a minute in less than 3 seconds.

So if we’re going to honestly discuss gun control, we need to quit bullshitting each other about what these tools are meant for, what they do, and why we’re buying them. Because it’s not about actually protecting each other. If it was, there’d be a lot more volunteers for the police departments in your town/city/county. There’d be a lot more volunteers for the armed forces, for reasons beyond scholarships and government pensions.

You want to talk about tools? Politics is the tool we as a citizenry use to affect social reforms. Asking people to not politicize the issue of gun control is asking that we don’t use the tools available to us to attempt even a mild suppression of the alarming trends in gun violence over the last few decades. Why would you possibly advocate that people don’t use the tools they have at hand to put a dent in the growing number of neighbors, friends, children using the tools put in their hands by messrs. Smith, Wesson, Walther, and their friends at the NRA?

The Second Amendment is fundamentally broken. It has been for a long time. Anyone actually arguing for the idea that we all need guns in case the president decides to hit us with drone strikes needs to consider that we, as taxpayers and voters, are the only ones to blame for continually electing people who, over the past century, have built up such an astounding amount of firepower they can napalm whatever tattered shreds of security blanket the Second Amendment could possibly still provide us. In fact, many of the people advocating we all keep tools of homicide in our homes are people who approve of the military-industrial complex’s insane growth over the past century. If you’re worried about our government turning on its people, then maybe you should pay more attention to the people you elect, and less attention to the stockpile of murder weapons you’re keeping in the closet.

So if we’re going to have these gun control discussions – and we’re going to have them – let’s all have the common courtesy to cut the shit and be honest about where we’re coming from:

In a large majority of examples, when you buy a gun, you are buying a murder to be committed at an unnamed date. Let’s cease using terminology to make that endeavor sound a lot less mean. You’re buying someone else’s death, at your hands. And the majority of you owning those potential murders have never undergone the level of training, physically and mentally, to prepare yourself for what that means. You’re not ready, and you’ve never been ready, and you will likely never be ready. You’ve got to be a very mentally healthy person to withstand the weight of those actions, and their consequences, and that’s not a place a lot of America is at, nor will they be with the current health-care infrastructure in place.

We figure out how to change that? We figure out how to start heading towards a future in which gun control becomes effective. It’s not as simple as melting guns, seizing them, halting production. That’s just as ridiculous a daydream as those who argue the way-too-frequent mass shootings could all be nullified if more people had their John McClane permits tucked next to the holster under their jacket. For as long as we are a civilization, we will have tools of murder available for use. We need to start honestly talking with each other about how we’re going to ensure those tools get used as little as possible.

And that’s the last bit of disingenuousness I want to address: The idea that this discussion is useless if it can’t be reduced to zero sum game. If gun control measures are implemented, murders will still be committed, so there’s no reason to pursue gun control. That’s the same sort of bullshit logic you used to flick at your mom when she asked you to clean your room. “But Mom, why should I clean my room? It’s just gonna get dirty again. Why should I make my bed? I’m just gonna sleep in it. Why should I attempt to make things even a little bit better when things are just going to get messy again?”

If it didn’t hold water when you were whining about picking up your goddamned socks, what makes you think it’s going to hold water when we’re talking about picking up guns?

If you want to argue for this status quo, you better have a damn good explanation as to why those people in that mall in Clackamas, or that theater in Colorado, had to pay that price so you can feel better about buying your own future murders.

Because I would argue that’s a fundamentally unfair exchange.

Published in: on 12/12/2012 at 11:14 am  Comments Off on On Purchasing Murders  
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Childhood Cacophony

Originally posted at Edward Copeland on Film, 05/26/2010.

I was 4, and visiting The Dalles, Oregon, during the first Christmas I can consciously remember. My uncle, who had a satellite dish and a 21 inch TV, had bought this VCR for his family, one of those Ford Granada-sized top loading behemoths that were a sign that one had made it in this world. And along with the VCR, he had obtained a copy of a movie I hadn’t yet heard about. A movie called Star Wars.

I was 4. I didn’t understand half of what was flying off the 21 inch screen. I was 3 feet in front of it, close enough to be lost in the scan lines. I don’t remember much, but I remember that I was remembering everything. I was committing it all to memory. It was weird, realizing I was recording these memories as they happened; half toddler/half computer, clad in corduroy and orange, staring at walking carpets and drowning in the wonderful combination of strings and drums and wrenches on guy-wires and gargoyle scuba tanks, the beautiful cacophony spilling from 3 inch speakers on either side of that 21 inch TV.

I remember the hamburger ship. I remember the one-eyed garbage monster. I remember the X ships blowing up the O base and the football player teasing the hell out of the blond dude in the bathrobe. I remember the giant dog with the diagonal belt yelling in time with the drums and the trumpets as they all won Olympic medals for blowing up big gray basketballs. I remember that, and the view out the window.

I was 4, and just behind this strange, beautiful mish-mash of visuals was a window, and the porch light nearby illuminated every single fat snowflake descending from the clouds. And to my 4 year old mind, watching this movie with a hamburger ship speeding through Mylar tunnels in something called “hyperspace,” the snow wasn’t falling; The house was flying. And as the Falcon blasted toward Yavin, I fully believed my uncle’s house was ascending towards the cosmos, the Christmas lights bouncing off the white walls, softened by the shaggy brown carpet I was laying on, blending with the light through the window, melting into the sounds and images vibrating off the TV.

It is my birthday. I am 7 years old. It is December and I’ve spent the last month and a half circling Star Wars toys in the Sears catalogue. Return of the Jedi has been out for about a year and a half, and I still haven’t seen it. I’ve checked out the read-along book from the Marion County bookmobile whenever it is available. I’ve deprived so many kids of their visits to that galaxy far, far away. I read along and I listen along, at least once every day. I color over the read-along book. I fall asleep with the cassette playing on my Fisher-Price tape-deck. The film has just moved to the Star Cinema in Stayton, Ore., December 1984. It is a surprise birthday present from my parents, after constant nagging to do things like tape making-of specials off Channel 6, and buy me action figures they couldn’t afford. December 16th rolls around. My dad shows me the movie listings in the newspaper. My eyes zero in on the Star Wars logo. I look up at him, unblinking, unbelieving. He smiles back.

I’m in the car. I’m in the theater. I’m cracking up my parents because months and months of falling asleep to the read-along has me humming themes as they spill out of the speakers. Tiny hands conducting the London Symphony Orchestra from thousands of miles away, years in the future. I’m saying the lines a second before the actors can recite them. I’m a 7 year old affecting a shit British accent and stepping on Ian McDiarmid’s dialogue. “So be it…Jedi.”

This is the first time I’ve ever been inside a movie theater, and it is everything all at once and I love it.

We’re going home. Amazingly, the AM station segues from some lite rock into, of all things, the Star Wars theme. Snow is blowing across the windshield. It looks like hyperspace. I fall asleep in the backseat, John Williams in my ears. And that’s why, whenever it snows outside, I put in the soundtrack. The one that comes in the plain black cover with the plain white letters that say Star Wars on it. I let Williams play full blast. And I imagine my car is chasing after my Uncle’s house. And if I catch that house, inside there is a 4 year old in corduroy and orange, resting his head on his hands, elbows dug into a shaggy carpet, awakening to the concept of imagination, and realizing the majesty in it.

The visuals of my childhood may look like Jim Henson. But the audio? It’s all John Williams.

Published in: on 01/10/2012 at 1:21 am  Comments Off on Childhood Cacophony  
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The Fatboy Roberts Interview: Funky New Magic in Great Old Movie Scores

An interview by Scott E. Weinberg. Originally posted at Cinematical.com. Reposted here partially to indulge my own ego, and partially because AOL/Huffington Post were giant dicks to Cinematical, and I’d rather people read the interview here than give them hits.

Normally I approach “fan-made” remixes (be they audio, textual, or visual) with a grain of salt, a little charity, and a general sense of disinterest. But it took me less than ten minutes of Fatboy Roberts‘ recent release — Geek: Remixed III — before I realized how impressive this stuff was. My first exposure to his music was via the excellent Portland cartoonist / film critic / bon vivant Mike Russell. My reaction? “I love this Mario Bros. track because it’s not ironic.”

Mr. Roberts was truly enjoying the goofy little Mario ditty, and he wanted to make it sound a little, well, funkier. But then he approached movie music masters like John Williams, Ennio Morricone, and Jerry Goldsmith with the same amount of respect; Fatboy’s additions actively complement the already-excellent music that we know and love. This is not an over-caffeinated kid who is blaring noises over the ‘Jaws’ theme, but a sincere movie-lover who also has a real gift for bad-ass beats.

So I told the guy we should chat. And we did.

Harsh critics call this stuff plagiarism. Loyal fans call it a new angle on some great music. What’s your take?

It’s a nostalgia bath, really. Auditory comfort food. At least, that’s how I always looked at it. Both from the perspective of the stuff I’m sampling and the way I’m interpreting it: I’m taking the music of my nerdy formative years, and combining it with the sort of hip-hop production they stopped doing right around 1997, right before sample laws got really harsh and people started making beats that sounded like they were learning on a Casio made out of Tupperware. I can see the plagiarism argument: I’m essentially taking some genius from John Williams / Jerry Goldsmith / Danny Elfman, taking a razor blade to it and then throwing a sack of breakbeats at it. It’s not entirely original. But “originality” and “pop music” don’t necessarily go hand in hand anyway. Ask Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters what they think about Led Zeppelin’s existence, you’d probably get a different answer than the one Robert Plant would give you.

Every track (from all three albums) contains a theme from a film, a TV show, or a video game. Why is popular culture more fun to sample from than the more traditional DJ resources?

I started doing it because I was a nerd, and I thought there were hidden nuggets of unrecognized funk in some of these movie scores, and especially in the TV themes, and as I was learning how to make beats in the mid-’90s, I realized that you can’t just keep going to the same James Brown/Zapp samples. (That said, I think there’s a Zapp/JB/Parliament sample on every Geek: Remixed album.) And honestly, it was fun to play back a tape for my friends, have them nod their heads, and then spring the sample on ’em like “Oh yeah, you were just dancing to the theme from Barney Miller.” “WHAAAAA?” “Yeah, and then for my next trick, you’re going to start wilding out to Unicron’s Theme from Transformers: The Movie” “SHUT UP.”

When you hear a musical score you admire, do you start remixing it in your head right away, or does it take a while before you love something enough to “monkey” with it?

It typically takes a while. I think I make note of the moments when a cue feels like it can be flipped and re-arranged to fit a more typical song structure, but they don’t really make themselves apparent to me until I sit down and start deconstructing the cues into their component parts: 4-bar string rhythm here, big orchestral hit there, melody, bass line. From there, I can start stacking parts of cues like funky Lego blocks, adding and subtracting things until I get something nice and chunky sounding to play with.

For example, the ‘Doctor Who‘ remix I did on the third album; I knew it’d been remixed before, to wide acclaim, both by the KLF and by Orbital. But I didn’t know until I sat down for a couple hours separating out the bass and the melodies that my version was gonna end up sounding like someone stuck the TARDIS on 20″ rims and gave it hydraulics. Same thing happened with the Cobra Theme from ‘GI JOE: The Movie.’ But sometimes, like with “Why So Serious” from ‘The Dark Knight‘ – I know exactly how it’s gonna work on first listen.

Music or movies: you have to choose one. What do you do?

I think I go movies. But it’s kind of a cheat, since some of the most powerful and compelling moments in film are only achieved because of the score behind them. The first 15 minutes of “Up,” for example. But I think the opportunities for storytelling are richer in film, ultimately. Especially if you throw in television — some of the finest storytelling ever captured on camera has spilled out over the course of 10 episode story arcs on shows like ‘The Wire’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica.’

What are some of your favorite film scores and/or composers?

John Williams during his golden period: ’77 – ’85. I know others will say that should probably extend out to around ’92 or ’93. Recently, Bear McCreary’s work on ‘Battlestar’ is just awe-inspiring, and Michael Giacchino is some kind of phenom. Lalo Schifrin and John Barry are two of my bigger inspirations as well. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is probably the best piece of Bond music ever written, and even if the Propellerheads hadn’t perfectly reinterpreted that on their own, I think I’d STILL be too scared to attempt touching it. It took me three albums before I finally decided to try remixing “The Asteroid Field” from ‘The Empire Strikes Back.‘ I mean, I know that I’m not REALLY ruining these songs with these remixes. The originals are still there, and if anything, a crappy remix just makes the original look that much better by comparison. But there are some cues that I just won’t touch. There’s not gonna be some ‘Schindler’s List’ scratch tracks on any Geek: Remixed album.

The majority of your albums consists of music that belongs to other people, so (obviously) you cannot sell them. So all of this is just for the fun of it?

Yeah. I started doing them as a creative outlet for myself when my dreams of being a hip-hop producer were sputtering out and dying in my post-high school years in Salem, OR. So I’d make some beats for my aspiring rapper friends, and then they’d leave, and I’d watch ‘Aliens,’ and then I’d go back over to my set-up, and I’d go “I wonder if I can make an actual percussion section out of just the motion-tracker beep and an Alien hissing?” Just to see if I could do it. You can hear me learning how to structure and arrange on the first album, which was compiled out of about a decade’s worth of squirreling away these nerdy oddities. And it goes back to that whole “You’re never gonna believe what I just turned into a hip-hop instrumental” thing. It’s just fun to watch people reinterpreting / rediscovering the music they had relegated to the background of their memories. As in “You did NOT just make a beat out of Yub-Nub, did you?”

Who are your peers? Any other movie-score-remixers we should know about?

Peers is a strange word for me to use, because I consider what I do VERY basic in comparison to the people who’ve trod the same ground. The Eclectic Method is ridiculously good, on a much higher level than I’ll ever attain, both musically and visually: They don’t just remix songs, they remix the videos those artists produced. From what I understand, Daft Punk’s ‘TRON: Legacy’ score is essentially their film-score remix album that became a legitimate film score. Danger Mouse made The Beatles/Jay Z sound like a film soundtrack, and now he’s like, 21st Century Quincy Jones. Girl Talk doesn’t really do film scores, but it often sounds like the soundtrack to the greatest teen movie never made. DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing,” of course. The first real “Film Score Remix” album I remember being made aware of was “Star Wars Breakbeats” by Supergenius. I heard that after I’d done “Don’t Make Me Destroy You” in 1997 and got MAD, but it’s hard to stay mad when the mixes were so good.

There’s been a lot of examples in regular hip-hop, too: I took my basic idea for “Meatlocker,” my ‘Rocky’ remix from the first album, from a horn loop Brand Nubian used in “Punks Jump Up To Get Beatdown.” I remember wanting that song to go in a completely different direction than where it went when I first heard it, which is a ballsy thing to say considering what a classic it is. Same with “Lothos’ Prom,” which uses a sample of violin as played by Rutger Hauer in the ‘Buffy’ movie. Blockhead, a NY producer, used that sample once, extraordinarily well, and I wanted to take a run at it too. And OCRemix is a site that’s been the hub for all video-game remixing for a very long time now. In fact, part of “Pickin Veggies,” from the 3rd album, is built off a re-imagining of the Mario 2 theme done by a group called Estradasphere. There are some serious minds picking through video game scores for sonic gold over there.

There are lots of others, but we all sort of run into the same “anonymous dude” on the internet. I’ve had mixes of mine assigned to other DJs out there. There’s stuff that’s been put on mix tapes with no attribution, or wrong attribution, but I can’t get mad at that. 1) I’m essentially stealing the music in the first place to remix it, so any claims of ownership I might have are pretty negligible (and arrogant, really) and 2) Half the stuff online is incorrectly named anyway. There are probably lots of people who think if it’s a soundtrack, John Williams wrote it, period. The ‘Alien’ score is John Williams, right? He’s the guy who did the theme to ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘Forrest Gump’! That kinda thing.

My remix of “Made You Look” by Nas, with the music from the ‘Kill Bill’ trailer? I’ve seen that credited to at least four different DJs. Same with “The Requiem Overture,” which was my attempt at turning that ‘Two Towers’ trailer music into a coherent orchestral piece. I uploaded that thing to a couple fileshare sites in October or November of 2002, and I think currently about 2/3rds of all Anime supertrailers are using that mix. Also: I apologize to everyone who’s had that cue ruined for them due to its overuse by eager YouTube addicts (and Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’). I’m really sorry about that. I didn’t know.

Can you think of any films that are virtually ruined by a bad score? (I call dibs on ‘Ladyhawke’!)

The most recent example I can think of would be Darabont’s ‘The Mist.’ I love that movie to death, but the moment where the jeep is pulling out of the parking lot, and Dead Can Dance just starts warbling up out of nowhere? I remember thinking “This is some ridiculous Zack Snyder ‘300’ shit right here.” It just did not fit the tone the movie had worked so hard to build. And then the film shrugs off that misstep with THE scene (you know the scene) and then, in the aftermath – the music comes back, and its even WORSE than before. That’s the most vivid example in my mind right now.

What’s the finest compliment you could receive from a recent fan of your albums?

That they want to keep listening to it, that it’s not a one-and-done sort of experience. Of course, the fact they even gave it a shot in the first place is really satisfying to me. I appreciate that people even want to attempt putting this music in their heads. But the best compliment I’ve gotten is from people who tell me that they hear the original versions of the songs, and get thrown off for a moment because they’re waiting for the drums and the bass to kick in.

What would movies be without music?

A hell of a lot more boring and dry. Not to say there aren’t movies out there that aren’t successful keeping the music to a minimum. It took Kurosawa like 70 years before he would let a composer really breathe on his pictures. But so much of what makes movies such a pop-culture drug comes from the music in them. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, I think we, as people, want our life to be scored. Headphones and an iPod can turn a a basic train ride — a boring citywide commute — into a pretty little montage sequence. I know some of my best memories have music attached to them, whether there was music playing at the time or not.

The cliche goes “The Art is in the Artifice.” There’s nothing more artificial than having a pop song start playing in the middle of a key moment of your life — but there’s no way the end of “The Breakfast Club” works without Simple Minds singing in the background, right?

all 3 Geek: Remixed albums available, with sample info and artwork, available at http://geekremixed.com

Published in: on 12/16/2011 at 11:45 am  Comments Off on The Fatboy Roberts Interview: Funky New Magic in Great Old Movie Scores  
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