Saturday, January 09, 2016

The Month That Was - December 2015

Another year bites the dust. And what a year it was. A fair amount of upheaval for me, what with my Mom dying. Lots of changes at work. Got my ass kicked in the market. Sadly little progress in other areas of my life. I think the difficulties are going to continue through the outset of 2016, but I do hope by mid-year to be back to my carefree self.

Any complaining I do has to be tempered by the base knowledge that I continue to lead a life of good fortune. I am healthy (physically and mentally, especially for my age), wealthy (well, enough that as a singleton I have no money worries), and wise (enough to know how lucky I am). Whatever conflicts or concerns I may have, I remain safe and secure and future-oriented. There will be times in my senescence when I look back on this as if it were utopia. And at least I will never have the regret of not realizing how good I had it. I know and appreciate it.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that it has been one of, if not the, warmest December in history. On at least two occasions I was able to go out running in shorts. I could do with winters like this going forward.

[Rant] That's, Like, Just My Opinion, Man
[Books] Book Look: Trigger Mortis
[TV] Fargo, OK Then
[TV] The Truth Will be Out There

[Rant] That's, Like, Just My Opinion, Man

The past few months I have been struggling for things to write about here. So naturally, I am writing about how I am struggling for things to write about. Part of the problem is that I don't write about a number of aspects of my life. I never write about work, and I never will. I never write about personal relationships except in the vaguest way, and I never will. I do not subscribe to the modern notion that private life should be a source of entertainment for others. I never write about my obsession with fitness because I have the strong impression that most people find such stuff a crushing bore. Perhaps I should start, though -- it's not like I'm not boring you from time to time, and there is the outside chance I could find a way to make it interesting. I am also travelling significantly less than I used to, so trip reports have been rare.

But the main problem is I just don't have that many strong opinions any more. Oh, I do on books and movies and such, but in other aspects of life, not so much; and I actively resist having opinions on politics or current issues and so forth.

It's a long steady change from, say, 10 years ago. Back then I could crank out a 3000 word football column for Blogcritics full of snark and glib assessments, expressed with great assuredness. Hell, I could write multi-page reviews of hotel rooms for the late, lamented Hotel Chatter site. But for some reason I changed. A lot. So much so that it makes me wonder how I managed to change so thoroughly and, more importantly, whether it has done me any good.

Part of the reason I changed is humility. I simply don't have the faith in my beliefs and opinions that I once did. This has just been the result of ongoing observation. Whereas I used to look on those who disagreed and foolish and wrong. I realize that I am as likely to be the one who is foolish and wrong. And I don't want to be foolish and wrong, or more importantly, I don't want to regularly read something I wrote five years ago and think, "God, what an idiot I was." Instead, I have to consider the possibility that I am being an idiot and that it's probably best to keep my mouth shut. Note: If everyone felt this way, what passes for political discourse in the media would grind to a halt.

After a certain age, if you continue to spew your opinions like that, in any non-trivial capacity, you are either a) truly exceptional at deluding yourself about your chance of righteousness, b) you believe the expression of opinion is of value in itself regardless of whether you are right or, possibly, c) there is financial gain in it for you.

In reverse order. There is no financial gain in it for me, at least there would not be any immediate gain. I would have to have a noticeable outlet and build a following to either get paid fees or garner eyeballs. So I would essentially be spending time acting like I was worked up about stuff for the sake of entertaining those who get worked up about whatever I was acting like getting worked up about -- if you get my meaning. An honestly, I don't think the ultimate payoff for that is all that great.

As for the expression of opinion being of value -- that's empty. An opinion is only of value if it informs, or otherwise brings a new perspective to a situation. Otherwise it is just sort of a proclamation of identity, a shot at increasing your status by demonstrating you hold proper or superior beliefs. Sadly, I don't give a rat's ass what you think about me or any topic.

Deluding yourself of your righteousness means you are expressing your opinion either to persuade others to those beliefs, or perhaps to bolster the spirits of others who already believe as you do. That's actually a good reason. Without that there would be no discussion of any topics, no furthering of understanding in any area that wasn't mathematical or scientific. Everyone would be going around shrugging in indifference at each other. Of course, considering the amount of discourse that is civil and valuable, shrugging might be better in ninety-nine out of a hundred cases.

But I have, perhaps unwittingly, chosen a to resist self-delusion. I'm not sure I would recommend a similar path. I don't know that it has done me much good. I like to think it makes me objective and makes me see things a bit more clearly, but even if it does (which in itself may be delusion), what does that get me? It has probably made me apathetic in equal measure. It's also possible I am mistaking a desire for objectivity for fear of failure -- the failure of being wrong.

I don't know. I haven't figured it out. I am comfortable with myself mostly, and I think I am better liked than before (said the guy who not two paragraphs ago said he didn't give a rat's ass what people thought of him). But when I read a well-written, fervently-argued, clever opinion, I find myself a bit envious that I don't/can't/won't do that anymore.

On the other hand, please disregard the above opinion. God, what an idiot I was.

[Books] Book Look: Trigger Mortis, by Anthony Horowitz

Trigger Mortis is an attempt to write a new classic James Bond thriller. The time period is back in the Cold War. All the cultural references are from the mid-sixties-ish. Evidently this is supposed to have occurred just after Goldfinger. It's a noble cause, but perhaps doomed.

The plot starts out troubling and only briefly improves. We begin with Bond keeping Pussy Galore (from Goldfinger) "safe" with him in London, although being the playboy that he is, he is angling to get rid of her. He gets called away on a mission that is going to involve him racing in a Formula One race to foil a somewhat implausible Russian plan. In the course of his training he has to work with a pretty, but tough, female driving instructor. After the implausible Russian plan is foiled and there some other tight situations are overcome, the pretty but tough driving instructor and Pussy Galore end up together as a couple and they both blissfully disappear from Bond's life. Because if you're James Bond, no other man can compare, so the only way to rid yourself of unwanted romantic entanglement is for the women to go lesbo on you.

I want to pause at this juncture to make a point. If the intent was to generate a new Fleming novel it has failed. What I just described is mock Ian Fleming. Caricature at best, parody at worst. It's a fine line with Bond and very few interpreters either in print or on film can toe it.

Some aspects of the Formula One section are quite good. Interestingly, this is the section that was guided by some found notes of Fleming himself. After that's over we get into a standard world domination plot with a plucky female Treasury Agent sidekick whom Bond will eventually bed. The final third of the book is dominated by a handful of narrow escapes, chases, and action scenes. None of which are terribly compelling.

Aside: Action scenes are immensely hard to write in a way other than as a straightforward description of what you would see if it were on a movie screen. The problem is that pure action scenes rarely affect the plot or the characters -- they are simply descriptions and therefore, even in the hands of someone skillful at building tension, they are filler in the scope of the book. Even if there are events in the action scene that alter the arc of the characters they tend to be brief moments wedged in middle of 10 or 20 pages of serial activities.

Should you read Trigger Mortis? Nah, don't bother. There are better choices. Though the time frame of the book promises the old Ian Fleming experience, all you end up with is a rehashed Roger Moore film.

[TV] Fargo, OK Then

It's brilliant, Fargo is. At least as brilliant as everyone says. Almost certainly the best drama on TV for 2015 and pushing at the edges of the Pantheon. There are so many good aspects to Fargo it's hard to know where to start but let me try an unconventional place: Tone. A multi-point balance of absurdity and earnestness, satire and reverence, triviality and moment. It amazes me how this can be kept up over ten hours of drama. You feel for these characters; they suffer and you want them to overcome, and yet everything about them is utterly surreal.

One key to this is the acting, and it is uniformly great. Jeffrey Donovan, fattened up as a semi-psychotic, pouting, North Woods gangster, is a long way from Burn Notice, yet he's perfect. Ted Danson as a gruff, old cop -- also a long way from his Cheers safe zone. Kirsten Dunst has always been a wonderful actress and she just nails the role of self-absorbed, deluded housewife. Everyone is playing a role that is either cliche or caricature, but it's done with such reality that you buy in instead of just smirk.

And in the end, as with the previous season and the movie, the good guys win. And by good I mean the sincere, helpful, faithful Minnesotans with their laughable accents and their ridiculous weather and their bland folksiness. They are prodded and teased, but not belittled or sneered at. The reward for their victories is the continuance of their lives and loves and hopes -- no ugly, angry, or cynical comeuppance. It's like nothing else on TV. Should you binge it? You're darn tootin' you should.

[TV] The Truth Will Be Out There

Even if you have no pretensions to geekhood, you probably know that the X-Files is coming back for an eight episode run in 2016. This is good news, of course, but there is also great news that I will get to after I dish out another long-winded preamble about the X-Files place in history for a moment.

If we look back before The Sopranos we can identify the nascent shows that would eventually lead to the quality TV we are all familiar with today. It all started with Hill Street Blues back in the 80s. It was really the first show that held any pretense of being literary in nature, or even artistic. This was also the origin show for David Milch who eventually begat Deadwood. (I shall regale you with a deeper appreciation of Milch at a later date.)

The '90s brought us a pile of quality classics. The obvious ones being Homicide from David Simon who begat The Wire; the tragically forgotten Northern Exposure who's executive producer, David Chase, gave us The Sopranos, which in turn gave us Matt Weiner who gave us Mad Men; X-files brought adult tone to goofy horror and gave us Vince Gilligan from whom we received Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul; and Buffy grew from tripe into legendary status and of course gave us Joss Whedon who went on to make a handful of obscure and unpopular Hollywood films. That's the quick and dirty family tree of the quality TV.

That was just for setting the stage as to why X-Files is important and not just another sci-fi reboot for next gen geeks. Now, long time readers may recall that I have waxed poetic about the work of one of X-Files writers, Darin Morgan. In fact I wrote an ode to him over ten years ago when I was writing for Blogcritics. I stick by every word of that and I would also note that he has since achieved minor cult status from folks who would agree with me. I've had the chance to rewatch his episodes once or twice over the ensuing decade and my esteem only grows.

So imagine my delight when I heard that Morgan is writing an episode for the reboot. And imagine my further excitement to discover it is going to be called "Mulder and Scullly Meet the Were-Monster". OH. HELL. YES. This is going to be great! (BTW, how did I miss this? It has been known since July and I'm just finding out. What other Earth-shaking news have I missed? Next thing you know I'll find out they've made another Star Wars movie.)