Archive for June 2015
I decided this year that I want to live to be at least one hundred years old. I’ve always had an interest in extremes—walking outside at -20°F windchill, taking the elevator to the highest floor, exercising 19 days in a row, watching all ten episodes of Band of Brothers in one day—so reaching one hundred feels like another link in the chain. A link mighty far down the length of chain, albeit, but another link nonetheless.
I feel like I have the genes to do it. Nothing chronic in my family except longevity, though my radar is tuned to glaucoma and diabetes. My father will be 78 this year and is wearing it pretty well. His mother made it into her eighties before her heart gave out. All my siblings have been relatively healthy (get it?), except for lifestyle choices. I’ve led a pretty healthy lifestyle thus far and don’t have plans to slow down too much, though I realize that I might not be the one who makes the decisions about slowing down.
If my running is an accurate gauge, I should be able to make it. I’ll limp across the finish line… hell, I’ll drag myself across the finish line, but I should be able to make it. It seems that dragging myself across the finish line is pretty much how running is going these days anyhow, so when the time comes I should at least be used to the idea.
And speaking of running… the sun is setting on my running career. I think I knew this as far back as five years ago, and have been trying to delay the inevitable by running. Circular logic, I know. But I think it’s working. The sun may be setting, but I’m keeping it pretty far above the horizon still. I’m about to enter a new age division for most races (the 45-49 age division), and I’m actually looking forward to it. In fact, I’m attacking it. I’ve done nothing more than work out this summer to lose some weight and make like Stella. The results have been fair to midlin’. I can’t deal with humidity anymore, which I started to realize three years ago. The heat just takes it out of me. It was so humid in a race I ran last week that I actually walked. I didn’t feel like I could breathe, and rather than gut it out, I cut back. There’s still that cross country runner inside me that is shamed when I do that, but that cc-er is still only 16. He wasn’t thinking about still doing this at forty-four. It might be time to change that mindset. So if my ability to deal with humidity is any indicator, the sunset is looming.
There’s a dark side to all this, too. Living to one hundred will inevitably mean attending a lot of funerals. What’ll it be like to see most of my family and friends cross the border of the undiscovered country? Dunno. Guess I’ll find out. That’s a big part of life anyhow, finding stuff out. It’ll probably inspire some kind of writing at some point.
There’s the fact, too, that I’m stubborn. I can’t see giving in easily when the end is near. I don’t see myself signing things over and slipping away. I can’t think of too many times in my life when I’ve done that anyhow, so I’m not sure I’d know how. How bad will it get? How much pain will there be? Again, dunno. Guess I’ll find out.
So I’ve been thinking these thoughts for the past year or so. I figure now is as good a time as any to get them out there since my birthday is tomorrow. Just last spring, I was having these meditations when the following poem showed up on The Writer’s Almanac. Seems fitting for right about now.
a song with no end by Charles Bukowski
when Whitman wrote, “I sing the body electric”
I know what he
I know what he
to be completely alive every moment
in spite of the inevitable.
we can’t cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take
it will have known a victory just as
I’m halfway through the third season of Orange is the New Black, the Netflix original series that has garnered little less than full praise from, well… almost everybody. I can’t argue with a lot of what comes up in reviews from sources I respect and trust: The idea of a women’s prison drama is unique, the show offers authentic marginalized voices to what would otherwise be an apathetic public, the ensemble cast is a powerhouse, it has pathos galore… and let’s not forget the lesbian sex. A lesbian that was in the poetry workshop I attended last summer cautioned me that, “It’s not even good lesbian sex, except for one particular scene.” She didn’t explicate further than that, and I didn’t rewatch anything to see if I could find the one she meant. I don’t think the lack of verisimilitude with the lesbian sex is keeping anybody away from the show.
The show on the whole is worth watching, and I’ve been surprised at how much I have liked the third season thus far. I was skeptical when the second season ended with an extended episode that was little more than a farce. The major antagonist escaped the prison, and despite being a hardened criminal, made a ridiculous decision to place herself along a busy road… where she was, of course, run over by another inmate who made an escape in a prison van in one final glorious joy ride before succumbing to terminal cancer. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the crooked Executive Assistant to the Warden was exposed by an aspiring subordinate, and the sexual act between the two of them was nothing short of ridiculous.
The show has been categorized as a black comedy, which I don’t necessarily agree with. There was plenty of grit in the first two seasons to make it a full-on drama with some memorable lighter moments or quirky characters that kept things lighter if not interesting. And as far as “interesting” goes, forget about it with Piper, the point-of-view character. Hers in the least interesting story line in the show, mostly because who really gives a crap about what happens to the privileged white chick? She’s gonna be outta there and back in her staid lifestyle soon enough because she’s a privileged white chick. I don’t really care how neurotic, desperate, selfish, and manipulative she is finding herself to be—it’s the minority characters who are the most interesting.
Unfortunately, OITNB runs backwards far too often. It’s annoying as hell. You can’t get more than two or three minutes into any particular episode without a flashback showing what a particular character did to end up in jail, or what his or her life was like before prison. The majority of the characters are marginalized and minority women, so guess what? Their life circumstances were pretty much shit before they got pinched for whatever crime. They were either responding to the environment, or made some profoundly poor decision that led to their prosecution. Or, through pure ignorance, they felt above or beyond the reach of the law. It’s pretty much the same with all of them, but for some reason the writers need to club the audience over the head with the same idea. What’s worse is there seems to be some kind of contest going now regarding who can write the most interesting or unexpected backstory for whatever character—but it’s pointless because it all comes back to “character x” committed “action y” and is now in prison. I don’t need or want to know that Chang was a mail-order bride before becoming shady Chinese underworld figure; I don’t need or want to know that Big Boo was a temperamental diesel-dike who ran an underground gambling ring. I don’t need or want to know that Pensatucky killed a nurse at an abortion clinic for disrespecting her, or that her mom hopped her up on Mountain Dew to get more welfare money. What I’d rather see is things unfolding moving forward. For instance, Pensatucky is a helluva lot more interesting when she’s talking about how she didn’t kill the abortion worker for religious convictions (a pro-life group paid her attorney fees), but for a selfish, short-sighted, immature reason. Her dialogue in season three completely nullified the need for her flashback in season one. It was really no surprise—a character’s actions and dialogue speak volumes about her and develop her more effectively than slamming on the plot brakes and showing what happened back in ’88 or ’94 or just six months prior. The whole show can’t run on forward momentum at this point, but they could be doing a lot fewer flashbacks and achieve a greater effect. The risk of so many flashbacks is that they become irrelevant or unnecessary. You need look no further than the flashback for corrections officer / counselor Mr. Healy. It’s enough for us to see that he’s frustrated in his marriage to a mail-order bride, that his initiatives in the prison are short-sighted and shallow, and that he is incredibly sensitive and insecure. All that is a bunch of interesting stuff that the actor portrays effectively. Instead of continuing with him moving forward, we got to see an episode from his childhood so absurd and ridiculous (and cliche) that it looked like the producers had hired David Lynch to direct the flashback and insisted that he make it some kind of tribute to “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
My fear is that the flashbacks will continue to dominate the show and diminish the drama and grit that has made it worth watching. It needs to be itself, with it’s own voice, and not make such heavy use of the same contrivance that makes Family Guy so hilarious. It seems that everybody now is slavering over more backstory for the character Crazy Eyes. I didn’t even want to know what we were already told about her privileged upbringing in an adoptive white family who couldn’t seem to manager her anxieties, social awkwardness, and temperamental outbursts. I don’t want to delve deeper into her background. I want to see how she continues to struggle with her issues; I want to see her failures and rejections and delusions and her violent attacks on other inmates. That’s far more interesting than the ho-hum thread that the writers will eventually develop for her to explain how she ended up in prison.
Despite this, the show is still worth watching. I hope it remains so. It makes for compelling viewing with an interesting umbrella conflict. As trusted friend Bo remarked, the women in Litchfield are overall trying to maintain a balanced, manageable environment under circumstances that no person would ever consider balance-able or manageable. Their struggle is epic, and certainly worth watching. They have to establish and develop the very skills they lacked outside the prison walls in an environment in which most everybody is lacking those skills; where lacking them can have great consequence and further their predicament, and where there are no role models for how to develop those skills. The biggest surprise for me this season is that the show has subordinated the main (and even interesting supporting) characters frequently to focus on how the prison is run. It’s a very current issue as even The New Yorker this week took a look at prison reform and hinted about the privatization of prison management. If OITNB is an indicator, letting corporate America take over rehabilitation and reform isn’t going to work too well.
In the ideal world, I guess I’d like to see season four unfold in real time over a thirteen-hour period inside the prison. It would be a tremendous feat of writing, but one that would make an equally tremendous impact on what television can be. And there would be no flashbacks. Is it possible?
I saw Mad Max: Fury Road a few weeks back, right after it opened. I was excited because the Mad Max movies were a mainstay of my adolescence and shaped how I watch films. Max ranked up there with James Bond and Indiana Jones in regard to cinematic heroes, and was perhaps moreso a “true” hero given the nature of how the films were shot and their approach to the action sequences. I guess I shouldn’t have held my hopes so high, though—my disappointment in Fury Road has been palpable.
One issue is that Max Rockatansky’s backstory is warped to suit an audience either too lazy or disinterested to watch the orginal film. Max came in the early 80s on a trail of vengeance for the outlaw bikers who killed his wife and infant child. The original film is a genius piece of low-budget exploitation. We next saw him in The Road Warrior, which kicked an insane amount of ass with unbelievable car chases and smashups, and not only kept the low-budget thrills coming, but kept them somewhat plausible, all while shadowing the classic western Shane. The thing is that Fury Road has to take place between the original Mad Max and The Road Warrior because Max is driving the same car he was driving at the end of Mad Max: A suped-up Ford Falcon XP with a V8 engine. The car is destroyed in The Road Warrior, but somehow is also destroyed, or at the very least lost to Max, in Fury Road. And is this supposed to be some kind of supercar? The car is pretty well smashed beyond repair in the opening scene of the film, but reappears later, seemingly unscathed, and is a steady presence throughout the rest of the film, until it is demolished yet again. So what gives? Ever heard of continuity? The car is totally destroyed halfway through The Road Warrior after going through pretty much the same thing it went through in Fury Road.
Then there’s the child who haunts Max’s mind as he wanders the wasteland. She’s much older than the infant child he lost in Mad Max. Maybe there were more families with whom he came in contact and couldn’t help… really? How are we supposed to know? Better yet: Why does it matter? Anybody who read much of anything about the film knows Fury Road is the fourth film in the series. It’s easy enough to watch Mad Max and see what happened to Max’s family; i.e., why he’s so mad.
There was far too much suspension of disbelief. It started with the immortal car impervious to guns, exploding spears, crashes, and all sorts of hell that is unleashed upon it. Or maybe the car can regenerate itself. Whatever. But the humans seem every bit as indestructible. Max pretty much walks away from the opening scene crash, but in The Road Warrior, he suffers a similar crash and almost died but for being rescued. One of the other main characters in Fury Road is also smashed up pretty bad… yet shows no physical damage? All it takes is a little rest, and some water coincidentally trickling on his head, and he’s good to go, despite being in desperate need of a blood transfusion when we first meet him. Elsewhere, Max is strapped to the front of his car during a major chase. There are explosions and wanton destruction literally in his face, but nothing touches him. He’s barely singed by flames and exploding metal. Later in the film, a pregnant woman goes under the tires of a truck, but when her body is recovered, it looks like she might have fainted, and that’s it. It’s assumed that the audience should suspend belief when seeing a high-octane action film, to pretty much unplug the brain, but it went too far in Fury Road. The Mad Max films were known for their realistic stunts and practical effects, so there should ostensibly be less suspension of disbelief, not more.
There has been a lot of talk about practical effects in Fury Road. Everybody seems to be raving about how every car was built for the movie and actually worked as shown in the film. I’m cool with that, because that falls in line with the previous films. In fact, the previous films were renowned for their technology because the cars were freaking real! The producers didn’t have the money to do much more than what was literally practicle and doable and what could be accomplished by piecing together some cars busting up a few stuntmen. The days of somewhat realistic practical effects are over, I guess, replaced by bombastic computer-generated effects. Despite all the practicality evident in the film, it is still washed with tons of CGI. The problem is that too many directors can’t find the “off” switch, or even a dimmer switch to control the intensity of the effects. There’s too much temptation to go bigger, bigger, constantly bigger. I had read a year ago or so that producer / director George Miller had set up a bunch of cars and something known as a “car catapult” during filming. I held my breath, hoping that Fury Road would be a game-changing action movie in that it would be a return to practical effects, or in the least be a sensible balance between practical effects and CGI. It wasn’t. In fact, it was every bit as bad as The Hobbit.
And do we really need a huge truck in the film’s grand chase that operates as a bandstand, replete with a guitarist wailing on a guitar that is also a flamethrower? Really? The post-apocalyptic world is ripe with such genius impractical feats of engineering, and the resources are there to create them? Part of the fun and wonder of a film like The Road Warrior is to experience how people adapt to a major shift in the world by piecing together what they have into what they need to merely get through the day. It’s oft times basic and sinister, but it’s more realistic to the setting. And if the flame-throwing guitar wasn’t enough, did we need a huge set of kettle drums on the same truck to keep a thundering beat? Ultimately, it looked like Miller let fellow Australian director Baz Luhrmann direct the film. Their two very distinct styles go together about as well as beef jerky and ice cream.
So about halfway through the film, I was far too disappointed with the wanton “too much” production concepts to much appreciate the feminist angle that has been raved about by pretty much anybody who has reviewed it. Feminism is not something you expect in hardcore action films, especially in Mad Max films, and it takes a lot of guts to make what happens with the women such a central part of the script. It takes a great deal of screenwriting skill to make it work, too (see Aliens). I guess I could have appreciated this particular artistic flair and social commentary as much as anybody else if I hadn’t been dwelling on how Fury Road went so wrong from the start in so many ways.
Finally, the fact that there’s a colon in the title of the film confirms that there will be a rebirth of this series. Someone smelled “franchise,” and of course it has to come at the expense of gutting and bastardizing what came before it until what was originally quite excellent has been turned into something that is not even average. See The Hobbit. See Star Trek. See whatever you might have cherished in your earlier years. Goodbye nostalgia, hello big Hollywood money because the general movie going public needs only see the carrot to be lead right into their seats at the cineplex.