Monday, February 06, 2012

The Month That Was - January 2012

The Month That Was - January 2012: Because it's very important that I not have any free cash around to tempt me to such evils as food and gas and clothing, I get to buy a new furnace. I love my house but it could just kill me. But what the hell, the Mayans say this year is it, may as well be warm.

What it actually means is that major travel is pretty much out. It'll be cheap long weekends and holidays for me.

Apart from that since returning from New Orleans (below) things have been pretty steady. I have been writing. I think I'm going to kick out something fairly esoteric as an Amazon Singles and see how it goes. There may be something in that going forward.

Oh, and I finally got my Thanksgiving week photos up on smugmug.

[Books] Book Look: Ready Player One
[Rant] Nothing New
[Travel] Down Nawlins
[Books] Book Look: It's Beginning to Hurt
[TV] It All Started With a Big Bang
[TV] TV Roundup

[Books] Book Look: Ready Player One

Book Look: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: I can't imagine a book that would be more fun than this one. It's been a long time since I anxiously tore through a book in a couple of sittings, but this one got me.

In an apocalyptic future, the main source of escape and entertainment is a huge virtual universe called OASIS. When the creator of OASIS died he left clues that lead people on an extended quest through this virtual universe. The first one that completes the quest gains wealth and fame and inherits control of OASIS. Naturally with such high stakes in play, nefarious forces from the real world bring an element of real danger.

Sounds kinda lame, doesn't it? Especially when you add in the cliche of good-hearted, downtrodden, multi-ethnic, nerdy high-schoolers overcoming an evil profiteering corporation and finding love and an appreciation of reality over virtual life. I cringe just writing that.

But it was a blast. Here's the thing. The creator of OASIS was obsessed with pop culture form the 1980s, when he was a teenager. John Hughes movies, Monty Python, Dungeons and Dragons, old Atari video games. So part of it is just my personal sense of nostalgia. When I was in my 20s and I could play Missile Command and Defender for as long as I wanted on a single quarter. I could recite huge swaths of The Holy Grail. So yeah. The other part of it is the the plot moves at a breakneck pace, the puzzles solved are relate-able to anyone familiar with '80s gaming. The prose reads easy, and the characters, if cardboard cutouts, are at least likable.

It is limited, of course, by it's simple-minded plot and its, perhaps appropriate, dialogue from an eighties sitcom. In fact, apart from a couple of superfluous adult-themed passages, I wondered seriously why this was not marketed at the young adult demographic. Then I remembered the young adults in 2012 will not likely have a working knowledge of '80s pop culture (although, really, everybody should).

Should you read Ready Player One? I can't imagine any harm coming to anyone from reading this. Certainly if you are forty-ish-plus and did not grow up in an Amish household, you probably have the pop culture knowledge to relate. If you are forty-ish-plus and were even mildly nerdy as a youth, this is a time trip, courtesy of someone who clears knows what it was all about.

[Rant] Nothing New

Nothing New: The Ready Player One review (above) made me realize something. The Eighties was the last decade that was aesthetically different. That is to say, if you went back to, say, 1996 today you wouldn't see any blatantly obvious differences (except that nobody would be texting on a giant smartphone). The clothes, hairstyles, music, cars, and stores would all feel very familiar. It is new to my lifetime that this is the case. You can spot the '80s in an instant. Same with the 70s, '60s, and '50s. Differentiating between them is obvious. It's as if in the last twenty years, the visuals of popular culture have just stopped changing.

I first took notice of this a few years ago when I read a throwaway quote by Gregg Easterbrook about the film American Graffiti. He pointed out that American Graffiti was produced in 1973 as it was a nostalgia filled examination of simpler the simpler times of 1962. In '73 you could look back 11 years and see a different world. Today, if you looked back at 2001 you'd see a reflection.

It's an interesting exercise to evaluate how cultural signs have stayed settled over the last twenty years. In the realm of the arts, the '90s was the endgame of the ongoing ascendancy of Film and Video (and their black sheep cousin, the videogame) over all other forms of art in terms of cultural significance. Genre books occasionally capture a mass audience, but only once in a while and even they get their main boost from Film/Video adaptions. Mainstream fiction is purely niche at this point. Even popular music gave way, only maintaining cultural relevance when associated with Film and Video, such as inclusion in a movie soundtrack, or being highlighted on American Idol or Glee, otherwise music is fragmented into nearly atomic markets, partially thanks to technology.

In fact, with the film and video microcosm, the '90s was when TV overtook movies for quality drama thanks to boundary busters like Buffy and Sopranos, both of which have not dated in the slightest. Movies have been reduced to sequels and remakes and remakes of sequels. The only thing that's changed about this is that people are starting to notice. (Bragging: I was about 10 years ahead of the curve on TV being better than movies.)

In personal style, let's see: stupid teenagers and even stupider young adults still let their pants fall down their butts. There was a side burn thing a few years ago. For a while, men were wearing suits without ties thanks to George Clooney. Oh, and some people seem to like spikey hair. There has been a barely noticeable return of preppy. Clogs anyone? None of this is remotely widespread or so far outside the mainstream as to challenge the status quo. Since the '90s we have had nothing widely adopted as leather jackets and brylcream ('50s), tie-dye and bell-bottoms ('60s), silk shirts and platform shoes ('70s), leg warmers, parachute pants, and multiple swatches ('80s).

How about music? Rock, Funk, Disco, Punk, various forms of Electronica, New Wave, Indie, Rap, Hip Hop, Alt-Country. All pre '90s inventions. Is there a new genre that I don't know about? If there is, it can't be all that relevant can it?

In the realm of cars, well, we now drive SUVs instead of Minivans. Despite a gas price shock or two, the best-selling cars are still mid-size sedans (Camry, Fusion) and pickups (Ford F-150). A lot of cars now have little electric motors to help them along, but that's functional technology advance, not an aesthetic one.

Common architecture hasn't changed one whit, although that has been the case since before I was born.

I don't profess to have any deep understanding of why this is. I'm sure everyone will jump to the conclusion that it's symbolic of some sort of grand socio-political sea change. One such person is Kurt Andersen over at Vanity Fair, who has an excellent and slightly different take than I do. I'm not so sure it's not just chance -- the probabilistic waxing and waning of ideas reaching a tipping point.

Also, let's not forget that, while we are stagnant aesthetically, technology is still turning our culture on its head regularly, said the man with his entire collection of books and music in his pocket who manages employees half the world away and hasn't seen a bank teller or stock broker in years. The results of disintermediation alone (eliminating the middle men, such as publishers and prfessional sales forces, in any exchange) will keep us on our toes for years to come.

[Travel] Down Nawlins

Down Nawlins: Good ol' Crescent City. It's perfect for a long weekend with friends. There are really two things to do in New Orleans: music and food. You can do some of the historic tours or visit the Garden District, but that's one day tops. After that it's all about eating great food and enjoying the music. And that, for the most part, means you're going to be centered on the French Quarter, and Fauboug Marigny for some added options.

And that's what we did (Me and Miss Kate and HRH Miss Anna). Gumbo at Mr. B's. Beignets at Cafe Du Monde. Et touffe and muffalettas and jambalaya, oh my. Trolling the crypts in St. Louis Cemetery. A Pimm's cup and Napolean House. Nightcaps at the Monteleone. New Year's Eve with some traditional jazz at Maison Bourbon. Strolling around St. Louis Cathedral and the French Market.

Oh and there was a football game. We were on a package tour for the Sugar Bowl. It included a pep rally which was wedged into such a small space that we watched from a store window behind the stage, a short paddlewheel boat tour where we were to be served "heavy hors d'oeurves" and had a waiting line so long and was so obviously going to be crowded enough to capsize that we skipped it altogether, a "tailgate" held inside a hotel ballroom with an expensive cash bar and a chintzy and crowded buffet line and not enough chairs so we were sitting on the floor, and tickets to game with seats in the last row of the Superdome which is one of the least hospitable stadiums in the world.

The game itself was an amazing, undeserved overtime victory for Michigan and that made up for a lot. And we were in New Orleans, that made up for everything else and more. Miss Anna has decided she wants to go back to the French Quarter with her friends on spring break (what could possibly go wrong with that?). If we ever go back to the Sugar Bowl, we'll get game tickets only. A long weekend in New Orleans requires no guidance from the outside.

[Books] Book Look: It's Beginning to Hurt

Book Look: It's Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun: Since we're relating things to Ready Player One (above), I'll say that this book is the polar opposite. It is a book of quiet short stories featuring characters coming to terms with weltschmerz. Weltschmerz is the sorrow that arises when you realize the real world can never meet the idealized image you have in your mind. When you are young you can simply acknowledge this intellectually without it really affecting you. As you age and the images of life in your mind become more realistic and essential, coming to terms with not meeting them has more force. As you get even older and you find yourself without time to make even the struggle worthwhile, it is gut wrenching to say the least.

I have never been attracted to short stories. They are marvelous writing exercises: to build character and scene, conflict and resolution in a few pages -- it's a challenge to say the least. They are inherently impressionistic, though, which makes me think of them as a sort of a sigh, as if they all come down to a kind of primordial "alas". They are often designed to leave you with a certain feeling rather than relate a narrative. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But as you can guess, when trying to face down existential weltschmerz, short stories work well because it's all about the feelings. The stories here are filled with characters coming to disappointing realizations, about themselves, about loved ones, and about the paths they have taken with confidence only to find doubt and uncertainty. They react in various ways, usually ineffectually. It's Beginning to Hurt is an apt title.

Critically there is a really little more to say. Lasdun is a confident and clean stylist with no discernible affectation. If you are of an, ahem, certain age you will feel a palpable familiarity in these stories. Lasdun has clearly "been there" and has expressed it assuredly. Moreover, an aspect I found truly admirable is that there really are no fringe presonalities here. The characters are middle-class normals. Long time readers know one of my hobbyhorses is how writers have a bad habit of focusing on the edges of humanity. Deeply abused victims or perverse hedonists or violent criminals get lots of coverage at the expense of the drama of normality. Lasdun bucks the tend, which alone makes him a stand out author.

Should you read It's Beginning to Hurt? It won't cheer you up. There is no "action" in the common sense. Just quiet anxiety. It will touch the emotionally mature only.

[TV] It All Started With a Big Bang

It All Started With a Big Bang: It's been a long time since I've really like a standard network three-camera sitcom, probably since Seinfeld, but Big Bang Theory got me. The setup is 4 young scientists, living in the deepest depths of nerdom, find that an exceedingly hot little blond ditz has moved in across the hall. Hijinks ensue.

Except it is so much more than a rehash of Revenge of the Nerds. The nerds are not portrayed as pathetic little puppies to be laughed at, yet pitied. They are, in their own way, truly cool people who I would love the hang with (well, every once in while maybe). What makes them this way is the exceeding wit of their dialogue and the delicacy with which they are provided just enough humanity to engender attachment.

It's easy to completely overlook what a tremendous writing achievement it is to pump out a consistently funny sitcom for years on end. The writers of great and glamorous cable shows that highlight how astounding TV writing can be have an advantage in that they only need generate a dozen or so episodes every year and if they aren't quite up to snuff, they just delay things for a few months. This is a positive development for writing in general, but it is no greater an achievement, I would argue, than cranking out 26 sitcom episodes every year, like clockwork, no delayed deadlines, and having them be consistently funny and fresh.

Yes, there are clunkers Big Bang Theory but surprisingly few considering the constraints. You have about 24 minutes per episode. You need a short bumper, you have roughly two 8-10 minute segments to hammer through three acts, and you have a trailer. You may not use profanity. Adult themes are under scrutiny. No long story arcs. You are stuck with limited set options and virtually no special effects. You cannot do anything too unexpected ro challenging. You need a laugh line or gag about every twenty seconds.

Imagine sitting in a writers room with a handful of other stressed out, underpaid writers, with nothing but blank paper and an empty whiteboard in front of you, and knowing you have to come up with an conforming premise, plot, and teleplay by the end of the day, and if it's not completely hilarious you will be writing corporate press releases to pay your rent.

Big Bang Theory writers have mastered that environment for multiple seasons now. For what it's worth: Respect.

Most of the accolades for the show have centered around the actors, which is fine because they are astonishingly great comic actors. Impeccable timing all around. And multiple Emmy winner Jim Parsons as Sheldon is as good as everyone claims. Even the guest stars sparkle. There's another unsung hero: Casting.

It's a geeky show, that's part of the premise, and if you were are at least fractionally geek you will apreciate all the in-jokes and references. There's another writing triumph: they trust their audience enough not to feel the need to explain every Star Trek or computer gaming reference. When one character says, "I am the Internet Explorer to your Firefox" or they make a reference to the "The Ice Planet Hoth" no one feels the need to elaborate for those that don't get it.

In it's own way, Big Bang Theory is as fine an achievement as the best of the high concept cable dramas.

[TV] TV Roundup

TV Roundup: I really begin to wonder how long TV, as it were, will continue to be relevant. I have about a year left in my subscription to Charter. Nothing would make me happier than to go to a totally on-demand set-up -- get everything off Netflix/Amazon/Hulu/Apple TV/Whatever whenever I want them and not worry about paying for shows and channels in which I have zero interest. At some point your delivery method of choice will be irrelevant (phone, pad, plasma screen, brain implant) and the only thing of concern will be the content. I know that day is coming, probably in my lifetime, but I doubt we'll reach it in a year. Which means I'll probably end up with another subscription.

That's not to say Charter is a lock for a re-up. They have turned out to be at least as expensive as Comcast, for less content. I may have to check out DirectTV, although I have heard conflicting stories about its reliability. The one I would really like to try is FIOS from Verizon, but since they currently only cover about 15% of the country the chances of them reaching Dexter, MI in the next year are approximately zero.

Anyway, here's my latest tube impressions. Evidently, I continue to be attracted to shows that with stand-out dialogue.

Justified - the plots are wonderfully twisty, if somewhat contrived, and border on black comedy. Which is to say it aptly channels the soul of Elmore Leonard. But what I really love is the dry drawly wordplay. It virtually musical. Any conversation between the Timothy Olyphant and Walter Goggins is worth rewatching. They really catch the wily country boy rhythms.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand - This series, completed and replaced by the just beginning Spartcus: Vengence, is pretty much the ultimate in exploitation of sex and gore in the service of attracting attention. But a funny thing happened on the way to the orgy. They managed to create some excellent and affecting stories and characters, all couched in a heavily-styled quasi-Elizabethan dialogue that's really quite delightful. It's an odd juxtaposition, kind of like Milch's uses of profanity in Deadwood. It raises the show above its own lurid presentation. It is everything the old HBO series Rome tried to be and failed.

Luck - Oh yeah, baby. The master of awesome dialogue seems to be in good form. It's still early, but I think The Milch is going to nail this one. Like all his work, it's clearly going to be a slow build. Probably multiple episodes before you even have a full grip on the universe. But it's going to be beautiful. Watching Milch after watching any other show is like hearing Brahms after leaving a loud nightclub. It's already been picked up for a second seaosn. Did I mention that I'm reading all about the art and science of gambling on thoroughbreds just so I can keep up?

30 Rock - On the downside we have this show. It's pretty abd. I've only seen a few episodes, mostly because the reruns come on right after Big Bang Theory, and I am occasionally too slothful to reach for the remote. The acting is atrocious. The comedy completely unfunny. From what I've seen it's a bad show with bad ratings yet it creates all kinds of journalistic buzz, apparently because of the numerous US Magazine-level celebrities who play roles. In that sense it bears a strong similarity to Jersey Shore. This is what I mean when I say I hate paying for things I don't watch.