On Being “Problematic”

The whole thing with liking problematic artists is something I generally don’t go into, because it’s a bog that can be easy to get completely mired in with no way out. The first problem is even bringing it up, because there is a contingent that will attack if you are not openly 100% against whichever people they don’t like. If you try to bring any balance or perspective into the equation, you are now and forever a horrible person and a rape apologist. Okay, so those lulus are easy enough to ignore.

But then you get into the deeper questions; what exactly makes someone “problematic”? Actions? Words? Both? How many? For how long? Do apologies or changes in character matter? Ever? How far does it go–is an actor who even appears in a film made by a director who is later found to have assaulted someone now tainted as well? See how utterly ridiculous and totally off the rails this can go? And where in ANY of it is there any real help or support for the victims of real abuse? Is there even any?

I know there are obvious examples but this whole thing has unraveled into finer and finer tendrils that are starting to poke in everywhere. I’m a pragmatist at heart and I fully accept that human beings as a whole are pretty awful creatures. We’re greedy, violent apes who use and abuse pretty much anything and anyone we come in contact with at one time or another while being capable of enormous compassion, generosity, kindness, and love towards one another. We seem to yaw from one extreme to another without much in the way of reason or rhyme, and still haven’t figured ourselves out.

So given that; actors, musicians, artists are all people too. They should not be expected to be some perfect model of humanity at all times, never ever making a single human mistake along the way. And yes, some of them are going to do awful things because humans are frequently awful creatures and some of them happen to be in the entertainment industry. But determining the level of awful, the qualities and weight, and then balancing that against what joy their work brings is a horribly difficult set of calculus to do if you have some kind of Purity Standard that must be met before you can watch a show or a movie or listen to a song.

I can hear the objection already, so let me address it:

Well then you’re saying that it doesn’t matter what someone’s done, you’ll still support them?

Stupid on its face, to be sure. No, it does matter. But the measurements have to be present and clear. Let’s give a concrete example. Harvey Weinstein. Will I throw out any movie I own that he had a hand in making? Fuck no. Will I go to see any new films of his? Doubtful. Will I do anything knowingly to enrich him in any way ever again? Absolutely not.

See, this is the kind of thing that has to be taken on a case-by-case basis, by each individual, based on his or her own judgment. I still own a DVD copy of Bill Cosby: Himself. It’s one of the funniest fucking things I ever saw, I still know the routines by heart, and though I haven’t thrown it out, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to watch it again. I think I keep it around as a barometer, to judge where my line is. I will, naturally, never purchase anything by Mr. Cosby ever again, or do anything to knowingly enrich him. That’s also where my line is.

But the thing is–I can still enjoy the work of someone who isn’t a perfect person, or perhaps is even a bad person. I will admit to still enjoying Mel Gibson’s earlier work, before he went off the rails, and I don’t believe that doing so means anything more than “Hey, I love the Lethal Weapon movies.” My enjoyment of something of which he is a part is not some kind of blanket approval of his entire existence, nor should it be. I can think of many authors and musicians and actors I probably wouldn’t get along with but whose work I love. I even like one of Ted Nugent’s songs (Stranglehold, if you must know) and I LOATHE that man. I can even look at the watercolor painting Hitler did and say that it’s not half-bad.

And again, more and more I see more obvious cases like Cosby, Weinstein, Woody Allen, and Roman Polanski yielding to much more specious “problematics”; people who make jokes, who are merely accused of something, or who are guilty by the court of public opinion based on rumors or lies. Things get blown out of proportion and swept up by the hysterical masses and suddenly someone who makes an off-color joke is on the same level as Weinstein. That’s what I have a problem with, and why I refuse to just jettison all my entertainment because someone else thinks I should.

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Musings on Telepathy

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of telepathy, of being able to connect with another person’s mind and understand that person completely. Though I have a particularly vivid imagination, which is far more expansive than I think anyone can imagine (and again, how can you know without telepathy, eh?), I find that I still can’t imagine what it would be like to touch another person’s mind, or how that would even work. Would it be pictures? Music? Feelings? No idea.

So I revel in the next best thing. Art. Music. Film. Books.

Books are telepathy. Someone’s thoughts put on a page, picked up by another person and pulled into their head. My thoughts here are being transmitted to you. It’s a crude form, but it works for us humans.

So an interesting theory came to me as I was pondering this idea. If you’re anything like me when you read, different texts have different “voices,” if you will; writers have different cadences that come across in their writing, and different writers appeal to different readers, which got me thinking even more.

Is there a connection between the mind of an author and the minds of readers who respond most strongly to their writing? A strong bond, similar lines/trains of thinking that make a strong connection?

For example: I am a dedicated reader of Stephen King. His books, more than any others, are able to absorb me completely. I feel like I’ve physically been to Derry, Castle Rock, the Overlook Hotel, Salem’s Lot, even Dallas TX in 1963. There is something about the way he writes, the style, the magic of how he puts words together that pulls me into a zone where I no longer feel that I’m reading. I’m reading, but the movie is playing full-speed behind my eyes. It’s that zone when you’re reading the words and seeing them on the page and yet not seeing them. When that happens there is a powerful connection made, and when it’s made over and over with totally different books (and in King’s case books that span decades), I wonder if that means that there are similar neurological things going on in my brain and his, that whatever grooves in his brain grooves in mine the same way, and that’s why his work absorbs me so quickly and easily.

This might be a fun experiment to try; find the authors (and it doesn’t have to be strictly fiction, since some non-fiction can be just as gripping) that consistently pull you into the “inner eye movie zone” and which ones don’t. Or which ones draw you in but only with effort, or the ones that you can’t approach at all.

IT has been a while

Long overdue but work shake-ups, breakdowns, and computer problems wait for no one.

I am very excited about the upcoming film IT. Apparently this is to be the first part of a two-part film, with the second film, assuming the first is good, completing the arc with the grownups. Very out of sync with the book, but if you know the book as well as I do (and I would guess that only King himself would, since I have lived and breathed that book on more than one occasion), you know that trying to turn it into a standard film would be impossible.

IT is a novel that spans not only 1000 pages, but also seven characters as children and then as adults, a town in Maine, a monster from beyond our dimension who has been there since time immemorial, interweaving an impossible web of their lives, the town they grew up in, the town itself, and the long, bloody history of which they gradually become aware. There are flashbacks and flashforwards and so many complexities that I am in awe that it flows as well as it does.

You don’t read IT.

You experience IT.

I’m a reader, always have been, since the first time I took TIME magazine to my mother and pointed at the headline letters demanding to know what they were. I read the way people listen to music, and books often transform in my hands and become movie projectors. King’s books do this often to me, not all the time, and some are stronger than others. With his writing I lose the sense of reading, it’s more like things are unfolding in front of me.

I’ve read IT probably nine or ten times, and each time it’s like going back to familiar territory, and the venues, the scenes, the visions are always the same. My internal movie screen is very reliable, and the Barrens, the clubhouse, the streets of Derry, the library, the Standpipe, the remnants of the Kitchener Ironworks, the Tracker Brothers lot, and the dreaded house at 29 Neibolt Street (in my head it is always nay-bolt, not nee-bolt) are as clear to me as if I were there myself.

The house on Neibolt Street in particular. If you’ve read the book you’re nodding, and if you only know IT from the 1990 miniseries you’re probably thinking “what?”

The miniseries that came out in 1990 was as good as it could have been for what it was; a television miniseries made on a TV budget in a time period where special effects were still in their infancy. To tackle IT at all was a feat, but the choices were pretty ugly; make a feature film that would try to cram everything into a two-hour story, make a really long movie that no one would want to see (and this was before Quentin Tarantino brought the idea of two-part films to us), or a trilogy that would require a huge commitment. Or, put it on television, with the concomitant lower budget but the ability to have more airtime.

I own the miniseries and have seen it multiple times (Tim Curry was the first clown to really scare the shit out of me), and it does have some very good scary moments that do sync with the book. But there was a great deal left out, naturally, and places where things just didn’t work. And it never synced up with my mental Derry from the book. While watching the miniseries I had to force myself to recognize them as the characters who existed so differently in my head.

The house on Neibolt Street is a rather large and important section of the book that was partly cut out and partly absorbed into other scenes in the miniseries, probably because the writers/producers didn’t know how to work it into the story, since it’s a confrontation with the creature, and a pretty important one, but isn’t the last one they have as children. It’s a lengthy engagement in the book, with Eddie and others going there twice before the big confrontation, where they determine that the house is where It lives and they make silver slugs to kill It. All of that was mashed into other parts of the miniseries and the house was never mentioned.

Evidently the house figures prominently in the film, and I am very excited, not least because the glimpses I’ve seen get very close to the mental picture in my head.

So to end this rambling, I am excited to see a film that seems to match up more closely with the mental movie I’ve been watching every time I read the book. I hope that they manage to extract the right half of the story and get it right, so that they’re able to finish it, and with today’s technology get maybe a little closer to the insanity of the end of the book.

When I was young, I didn’t really know what good music was; I was raised in a house that veered from Glenn Miller to Toto to Steely Dan, and I remember having a cassette tape of 50s songs (I think it was when McDonald’s was doing their rock n’ roll promotion thing, it had Rock around the Clock, Wake up Little Suzie, Runaround Sue, Runaway, Great Balls of Fire, Summertime Blues, and a few other fifties standards) that I played until it broke, but I never really had any real conscious knowledge of music until I was a teenager and I found the Beatles. Or rather, they found me. The insanity of Beatlemania drove me both forwards and backwards; I read everything about the Beatles I could get my desperate hands on, and that included reading about their inspirations and the music they listened to, which was Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and so on. Music I was already familiar with in part, but I raged on like the good little addict and snatched up any and all music I could get my hands on (not easy in the days before youtube and mp3s, when I had to try to find tapes or the newfangled CDs not to mention the money required for such things).

Strangely enough, I veered toward what you could call the “black” side of the “Beatle Inspiration” line; I found most of Elvis’ music boring and to this day find little to admire–I don’t dislike him either as a person or a performer, but I simply do not get what all the fuss is about and find other singers to be much more talented; to me Little Richard could bounce Elvis out on his ass any day of the week, but I digress. The white side was fine, but bland (save the always wild Jerry Lee Lewis), but the black side was the stuff that honey and gold was made from. As much as I might dig Rock around the Clock, Summertime Blues, and Blue Suede Shoes, those songs don’t get you leaping around nearly as well as Tutti Frutti, or Roll Over Beethoven, Maybelline, or Johnny B Goode. They’re all great, but I gravitated to the mighty Chuck early on, him and Little Richard, and never looked back. I don’t care how many times I hear it, the classic Chuck opening riff will never leave my soul or my heart, and even though Chuck has left us physically, his mighty spirit and music will always be here with us. Never got to meet him or see him perform, but his song and voice is in my soul, so maybe on the flip side I’ll get to groove on up next to him and do a little duck walk across the stars.

Thoughts on Supernatural season 12 episode “First Blood”

It’s now been almost a week since the Winchesters were returned to us, both literally and figuratively, and the six weeks the boys were locked away from us were actual days we the fans have been separated from Show. Supernatural fans handle the hiatuses in a variety of ways: some see it as an opportunity for a rewatch, others as a sentence to Purgatory, others approach it with the calmness of Zen masters. The hiatus between seasons, appropriately called a hellatus, can be agonizing or merely frustrating, depending on the last image the viewer is left with. I would imagine those who were left hanging at the end of season three still have the twitches.

We learn that the boys are accused of trying to kill the President of the United States, something that gets them a one-way ticket to an off-the-grid pair of cells somewhere. As expected, they say absolutely nothing to the men that ask them questions, and refuse to even react in any way. They’re separated, put into solitary confinement by the “good cop” older Secret Service guy, who’s going to leave them alone until the solitary drives them insane enough to talk.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking “Dude, you have no idea who it is you’re dealing with.” And they don’t, just as Henriksen didn’t, just as Jody Mills didn’t at first, just as every authority figure through twelve seasons hasn’t had a clue. They think they know, in that authoritarian “I know everything worth knowing and you’re the one who doesn’t have a clue” way that puts the salsa in the dip when that authority inevitably gets shattered, when they find that they are in fact the ones who don’t have clue one. I’ve always admired Henriksen in season three, because when his world got turned inside out and he realized he wasn’t the big badass who’d seen everything, he didn’t try to cover it up with more macho shit, but dealt with it right out front. And I’m still sad that he was so quickly killed off because he would have made one hell of an ally. C’est la vie.

Then Sam and Dean are inexplicably found dead, both of them, lying in the morgue while the guys-without-a-clue try to figure out how and why. Then Sam and Dean come back to life, snag the doctor, and break out with an ease that still bothers me–if this is supposed to be some super-secret it-doesn’t-exist place, shouldn’t it be someplace you can’t just walk out of? (Yes, I am pragmatic enough to recognize that the show can’t afford to have them bust out of the place and find themselves on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean or on the moon or even on a ship a la the Stallone flick Escape Plan. It’s also possible that even though they are considered dangerous beyond belief, the Secret Service or NSA or whoever would still make a bumbling mistake and think that a maxi-cell security hold in the middle of Colorado would be sufficient.)

The bad guys realize they’ve escaped, and now we finally get to the reason for the title. The big mistake the supposed “authorities” made is not torturing Sam and Dean. Six weeks of solitary is no picnic, but they were fed, given time to sleep, we see Sam working out–these are not ragged prisoners making a feeble attempt at escape. These are the world’s most elite hunters turned loose with enough strength to put up one hell of a fight if you give them time.

The scenes that follow are magic for me (hey, laying my bias cards down all nice and pretty). Jensen and Jared look lean and intense, moving in sync in a way that sends shivers down my spine. We know that these are two men who have gone up against things so formidable and dangerous that even a squad of highly-trained soldiers is hardly a challenge. The soldiers don’t know that, and that’s the fun; the same gut-level thrill you get watching Stallone’s John Rambo take out a bunch of cops and weekend warriors in the film from which this episode takes its title is present here, watching Sam and Dean take out the soldiers one by one, without killing any of them, with an ease that shows just how far they’ve come.

They finish, informing the two heads that they’re the guys who saved the world, and leave, knowing they won’t be followed. The hints that have dropped throughout–mentions of ‘midnight’–finally drop when they reunite with Cas and Mary, who used the British Men of Letters’ help to find them. They made a deal with Billie the Reaper while imprisoned; she agrees to kill them and bring them back one last time, on the condition that she gets to take one of them for good.

That seems to be the crux of most of the criticism with this episode, and I can’t disagree. Two men who have endured decades (in Sam’s case, a century) in Hell, Purgatory, insane tortures of the kinds that should have snapped their sanity years ago, and six weeks in a cell breaks them? I would say this is a case of writers taking the easy way out and making do as best they can, since the show is not going to turn into a prison film, but it was done too sloppy here, with too many things that just don’t fit together. It’s slapping paint on a wall to try to cover a big hole. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, and I’m nothing if not pragmatic. However, it still doesn’t remove the fact that a deal for one of them to die permanently is not, even at this stage, something they would agree to so easily, not without exhausting ALL other options first, and you cannot tell me that in six weeks they couldn’t think of any other way to escape. But again, that would probably require extra scenes, extra time, and they’re clearly needing to get them out and on their way in this 42-minute segment, so you get what you get.

Then comes the dramatic moment when Mary steps forward to offer herself, putting a gun to her head while her horrified sons look on. Billie is ready to take the offer, when she is stabbed from behind by an angel blade. Yep, Cas takes out the reaper, saying that he won’t let any more Winchesters die. As much as I enjoyed seeing the end of a character who frankly was getting on my last nerve, the whole denouement was a little too melodramatic to me, a little too ham-handed and blatantly setting up future angst. I’m not going to complain too much–Sam and Dean free YAY, Mary alive YAY (although she might be cozying up to the British Men of Letters BOO), Cas killed Billie BIG YAY, but it wasn’t the best writing even from this season. So all in all a solid episode, lots of fan service, but with some issues that are just too big to be ignored entirely.

Dune

Hey, I never said this blog was going to be all new movies, now did I??

If you’re a child of the 80s like me, you probably remember a very strange David Lynch film based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune. Also, if you are me, your memories were very vague, consisting mainly of images of a gross fat guy in what looked like soiled pajamas floating in the air, an almost-naked Sting wearing only a blue stylized Speedo, and people going around in form-fitting suits with innertube-like bulges and glowing blue eyes.

Recently, as I have been slowly collecting the films with which I very much identify my youth, I purchased Dune after catching part of the film on YouTube. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered and certainly wasn’t as bad as the reviews I’d read (contemporary reviews, as the film is now viewed as fairly faithful to the novel). There’s a certain twisted quality to the film that makes it intriguing.

I won’t try to summarize the plot; Wikipedia is just fine for that. Besides which, the story is one that defies any easy summary. Herbert’s novels encompass so much that it resists an easy boil-down. However, the basic premise is this–in the year 10,191 (approx. eight thousand years from now), the Known Universe is ruled by a feudal empire; there is an Emperor, whose power is kept in tenuous balance by the Landsraad, which is a collective of the Great Houses, the CHOAM corporation, which controls all the business dealings of the universe, the Spacing Guild, which holds a monopoly on space travel; at the center of it all is a drug called melange–or, as those who share cat memes no doubt know well–the spice, which exists in only one place–a desert planet called Arrakis. The spice extends life and expands consciousness, and a poison called The Water of Life enables certain members of a sect called the Bene Gesserit to become Reverend Mothers and gain powers of genetic memory and Truthsaying.

That’s the setting; the plot itself concerns two feuding Houses (Atreides and Harkonnen) and the Emperor’s machinations to eliminate the Duke of House Atreides, who represents a threat to his power. It’s a huge scope, involving plots and betrayal a young man with a mysterious destiny, who is driven to revenge after his father is killed by their mortal enemy. He flees into the deep desert with his mother and meets the Fremen, a desert-dwelling people whose ferocity in battle presents him with an opportunity to get revenge on his enemies and eventually take control of the planet, and thus the universe.

With those elements, the movie is very faithful to the book; yes, Dylan McDermott isn’t a teenager and some of the visual elements are extremely bizarre, but the plotline is the same. There is some very good acting from some of the cast (including Patrick Stewart) and some total overacting, but overall it’s not bad.

Where the film strays are elements from the novel that would admittedly be very hard to get across in film, less so with today’s technology but insanely difficult back in 1984. One of the main themes in the novel is the fact that Paul Atreides has prescience, or visions of a myriad of future timelines. The element missing from the film (aside from a very brief mention that is never followed up on) is that Paul, while training the Fremen in the weirding way (which is presented in the film as some kind of device worn around the neck and something held in the hands that allows the user to destroy with sound, but in the novel is more like a martial art), can see a tremendous Jihad that will be released by his ascendency to the throne. Much of the novel is involved with Paul trying to find a way to avoid this jihad, but ultimately when he defeats the Emperor and kills the heir to House Harkonnen he knows that it is inevitable that the Jihad will be released by the people who hold him as their messiah. The Paul of the film is not conflicted by this vision and is more occupied with his revenge, and the film ends not with the unease of what will be unleashed, but with the neat ending of Paul bringing rain to Arrakis (which doesn’t happen in the novel).

This is overall the compromise that often happens when books are translated to film–they are different media with different tools for telling a story, and the length of a book versus the shorter run time of even a longer movie means that things have to be condensed, summarized, or sometimes left out entirely. When it comes to Dune, no matter the opinion on Lynch’s choices for visuals, he comes very very close, far closer than many other adaptations.

Mechanic: Resurrection

I am an unapologetic Jason Statham fan. He, along with Stallone, Schwarzeneggar, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and Jason Momoa are my guilty pleasures, where I will watch whatever they’re in just because they’re in it (with certain exceptions) and the fact that they’re in it makes it worth watching (or owning a copy) to me. Hey, I even watched In The Name of the King just to see Statham . . . and, you know, to see how shitty it really was. (Not quite as bad as I feared but still bad.)

I find Statham to be quite a good actor, actually, for someone who didn’t get into acting by intention. He carries himself well, has a way of expressing things quickly, with glances and movements that are subtle and almost too fast to see. He doesn’t have a great deal of range, but he plays straightforward characters very well, and if you need intensity, there’s no one better.

I haven’t seen all his films, but when one catches my eye I will check it out. I saw a trailer for Mechanic: Resurrection and I was interested (having seen the other Mechanic film and knowing his character didn’t really die). So I cued up my Amazon Instant Video and gave it a look see. Now, with my biases up-front, I have to structure this as a response to the question “Is this a good movie?”

That depends ENTIRELY on you, the viewer. If you enjoy quick, tight action sequences that have you holding your breath, then the answer is yes. If you like lush visuals and exotic locales, then yes. If you like quirky performances by Tommy Lee Jones, who’s just as ornery now as he was in Black Moon Rising, only with a little more “I don’t give a fuck,” then yes. If you enjoy watching Jason Statham running around in a wetsuit with a gun, best get the blu-ray STAT. But if you enjoy complex or even simple plotting, a consistent storyline, compelling characters and character chemistry, this is definitely not the movie for you.

Other reviews have used the word schizophrenic and that word is very apt for this film. It can’t decide what it wants to be or do, what message, what meaning it wants to get across, if anything. The basic plot is this: Statham is Bishop, an assassin who isn’t interested in working for anyone anymore, thanks. He’s just trying to live his life but someone named Crain is determined to hire him to kill, going so far as strongarming a woman (by threatening the children she works with) named Thorne (Jessica Alba, who does her best with what she has) into being rescued from an abusive man by Bishop, who would then fall in love with her, then she could be kidnapped and held hostage to force him to carry out assassinations. Bishop finds out about the plan but plays along since there is something at stake (the kids), and comes to actually like the woman who was sent to seduce him. She is kidnapped as planned and Crain gives Bishop his targets to eliminate. He kills two, then turns the tables on Crain and everything works out in the end, so the plot does have a beginning, middle, and end, but it never really comes together.

Thorne is never a strong enough motivation for Bishop on any level; you never get the sense that he’s doing anything more than going through the motions, which makes his very fierce movements as he carries out his work confusing–what is he fighting so hard for? Unlike Frank Martin in the Transporter series, who has very firm rules and, dare I say, values, Bishop is a blank. We don’t know who or what he fights for, who he loves, what he cares for other than the veneer of loving Thorne, which is pretty fake any way you slice it. And that pisses me off on multiple levels, because there is STUFF there that they put into the film–she’s a veteran who works with kids in Cambodia, where she found meaning in her life, so this is a passionate person who has a life and meaning, and all of that is just left to sit there, unexplored. It could have been explored, but apparently they needed more screen time to kill the warlord in the prison.

Which Bishop does, and then he moves to his next target, which I have to admit, I enjoyed on several levels. The target is Adrian Cook, a rich fuck who made money in sex trafficking, and in true disgustingly wealthy fashion, has a penthouse with a cantilevered swimming pool–i.e. a pool that juts out from a VERY tall building. Just a glass rectangle in midair, so you can swim and look down thirty stories. The way he does it is just smooth and very satisfying. Worth watching just for this. (For me, anyway.)

Then Bishop finally figures out that he’s been killing arms dealers, essentially knocking off Crain’s competition. So when he reaches the last one on the list, he decides to ally with him, fake his death, and take out Crain. Or something.

See, that’s what it’s supposed to have been, but the movie never really commits to any one course of action. It kind of meanders, hoping that just movement itself will add up to a conclusion. It’s kind of like writing a paper in college and realizing you have no idea how to bring it to a close.

Bishop moves through the film like a man who’s beaten the game eight hundred times already. The visuals are great, the fight scenes and stunts are awesome, and Tommy Lee Jones is adorable in his small part, so if that is enough for you, then yes please watch this movie because you WILL enjoy it. Otherwise, maybe just rewatch Transporter or the first Expendables and get a better bang for your buck.