One Thing I Like About Loki

The new Loki series is a victory for “genre fiction,” since it’s full of weird stuff that’s not that weird anymore.

Pretty early in the first episode of Loki, there’s a brief scene where he’s forced to consider whether he’s a robot without being aware of it. I like the scene because it’s got such good line reads from both actors. More than that, though, it’s a good example of how the MCU acknowledges the absurdity of the whole premise of the MCU: trying to translate decades of comic book weirdness into “mainstream” movies and television.

I liked the first episode of the series a lot, but there wasn’t the same “electricity” I felt from the novelty of watching WandaVision. And I don’t think that’s a criticism! It’s a sign that 10+ years of gradually pushing out the borders of what’s “too weird for Hollywood” has paid off.

There’s so much great stuff going on in this series: the set direction, art direction, costume design, prop design, a fantastic retro animated sequence, some imaginative VFX with various time doorways and what is essentially an “exposition projector,” not to mention great casting including the always-welcome Pillboy. (Eugene Cordero, who’s just great).

And yet, I don’t have much to say about it! It’s not that novel anymore; its presence alone isn’t that remarkable. Which means I don’t have to consider the changing level of respectability of genre fiction in the mainstream, parallels to aesthetics of the Fallout series, how ideas established in comics translate to live action, any of it. I can just enjoy watching it. (Of course, I realize I don’t have to write about any of this stuff for free on a personal blog; I just am unable to turn off that portion of my brain for some reason).

The first episode was full of moments and design decisions that would’ve drawn attention to themselves just a few years ago, but now it just feels like it all simply works without comment.

Also, I was surprised at the end of the episode. We’ve known about the premise of this series forever, so in retrospect, the revelation probably should’ve been obvious. “Who’s the villain in a Loki series?” But I didn’t see it coming at all, which I take as a sign that I was actually watching the show, instead of being in detached cinema studies/media analysis mode. I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of metatext, but just as a story.

Which is how most of the source comics work, now that the 90s are over and there’s less of a trend of high-profile comics stories about comics stories. It feels like we can stop defending genre fiction and justifying genre fiction, and just enjoy genre fiction. And appreciate a Marvel series that finally seems to be embracing the Marvel aesthetic.

Image of the Timekeepers and the "sacred timeline" from the animated sequence in the first episode of Loki

Literacy 2021: Book 10: Moonwalking With Einstein

I’ve already forgotten what this one was about, yuk yuk!

Book
Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer

Synopsis
After covering the World Memory Championships as a journalist, Foer spends a year learning about the history of memory-training techniques, our understanding of how memory works, and training with some of the other competitors, before competing in the championships himself.

Pros
It’s difficult to imagine being more committed to a story about memory competitions. Does a good job of balancing personal memoir, coverage of the events and their competitors, and deep dives into the history of mnemonics and the current neurological and psychological studies. Gives an overview of techniques like memory palaces and mnemonic systems, along with explanations of why the location- and imagery-based techniques are more effective than rote memorization. Includes interviews with people with remarkable memories — either positive or negative — that are conducted with as much compassion as objective interest. Maintains an appropriate level of skepticism about his interview subjects and the entire endeavor as a whole.

Cons
Reads more like a collection of magazine articles than a cohesive book, which is great for spending time with a topic but not so great for pacing. Little practical information for learning the techniques yourself. Hints at larger practical benefits for all of the exercises that keep them from being just a stunt, but those passages are a little more vaguely hand-waving than the rest. Reading the book has made me less encouraged to try out any of the systems, since the thought of having to think of elaborate imagery to remember the name of a person I’ve just met, while they’re still talking to me and expecting me to respond, sounds more stressful than just admitting I’ve already forgotten their name.

Verdict
Emphasizes some interesting ideas: that memory is more about indexing information than simply storing it, and the ways in which memory and intelligence are interconnected. (Remembering isn’t the same as learning, but it helps learning because it gives us more frames of reference to make incoming information more “sticky.”) But I was left feeling a little disappointed that none of it seems to have much real-world practical benefit.

Fahrenheit 451 and the Author Who Refuses to Die

Re-thinking some of my own condescending opinions about Ray Bradbury’s work

I’ve been thinking a lot about Fahrenheit 451 and its surprisingly nuanced take on censorship. The kerosene-filled salamander trucks are the most dramatic, but not the most unsettlingly relevant image in the book. Instead, it’s the society that slowly and gradually gives in to our own fears and assumptions to the point where we think the firemen are a good idea in the first place.

I already wrote about Ray Bradbury’s Coda, which was included as an afterword to a 1979 edition of the book. Searching for the full text of his essay online, I could only find the occasional personal blog post, and then a full copy of it included in an obituary of Bradbury on the Cato Institute’s website. Which I won’t link to, because F the Cato Institute.

I don’t know what Bradbury’s specific and personal politics were, because I get the impression he was adamant about letting his work speak for itself. (An idea that seems forcefully underlined by his Coda). I only just started reading Bradbury’s work for the first time in the past couple of years — going roughly in order of “famousness” — and I’ve been struck by how he has a clear and undeniably specific voice, which he uses to describe concepts that are universal.

It’s that combination of universal concepts plus early-to-mid-20th-century-American mindset which initially left me with the overall impression that his works are “brilliant, but dated.” To me, they’ve seemed to communicate ideas that are immediately and crucially relevant to 21st century liberal progressives, despite their being shaped by the mindset of a period in American history that so many of us are now recognizing needs to be dismantled and un-learned.

I imagine it’s that same universality that lets people at a well-funded libertarian “think tank” interpret it as a “got ’em!” dismissal of social progressivism and inclusivity as assaults on free speech driven by frivolous special interests.

Bradbury’s Coda to Fahrenheit 451 suggests — insists, really — that neither of those takes is the right one. Except I’m a little bit more right than they are, and here’s why.

Continue reading “Fahrenheit 451 and the Author Who Refuses to Die”

Literacy 2021: Book 9: Trigger Mortis

Book
Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz

Series
A contemporary continuation of the James Bond series from authors chosen by Ian Fleming’s estate

Synopsis
Set just a couple of weeks after the events of Goldfinger, Bond is assigned to compete in a deadly Grand Prix to counter a Russian assassination plot, eventually leading to a diabolical plot from SMERSH and the mysterious multimillionaire Jason Sin, to disrupt America’s space program!

Pros
Nails the voice of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. It’s been decades since I’ve read any of them, but this is exactly how I remember them. Contains previously unpublished material by Fleming, written for a Bond TV series that never happened, and even after reading Horowitz’s afterword, I’m still not able to figure out exactly which parts are his and which are Fleming’s. Like everything else I’ve read by Horowitz, it’s engaging and fun to read throughout; he can somehow make the slower moments as compelling as the exciting ones and make the whole thing flow. Steadfastly and apologetically set in the 1950s, but still brings contemporary sensibilities to the plotting, without feeling like a parody or a modernized adaptation. Goes to locations and puts Bond in situations that I haven’t seen before. Good character resolution for Pussy Galore. Has a character named Harry Johnson, which is hilarious. Great title for a Bond novel, although it ends up being used in the book just a couple times too often.

Cons
Nails the voice of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. There’s a reason that it’s been decades since I’ve read any of them. If you’re turned off by casual misogyny and xenophobia, you’ve come to the wrong place reading a Bond novel, but what I’d forgotten were the run-on sentences, and Fleming’s bizarre, almost Kardashian-like obsession with brands. The “supervillain reveals his entire plot” monologue is a staple of Bond stories, so it’s not the inclusion that feels off here, but that it actually makes the villain more sympathetic, not less. Feels pretty low-stakes for a Bond adventure, and the action set pieces were on the smaller side; I kept wondering whether Horowitz were subconsciously bringing his TV-screenwriter frugality to a Bond novel.

Verdict
I doubt this would convert anyone over to the James Bond franchise, but it feels to me like a solid continuation of the series. Makes me even more convinced that the movies should’ve set Daniel Craig’s version of Bond in the 50s instead of trying to keep them current. I think the stories are so much more interesting when they can embrace the idea that Bond has a very specific sensibility from a very fictionalized version of a very specific time period, instead of trying to keep the “women want him, men want to be him” idea going for decades past its prime.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Brothers and Sisters!

How long has it been since you’ve seen the video for 1987 dance hit “Pump Up the Volume” by M/A/R/R/S? I’m betting it’s been too long, and you’ve forgotten that the video is actually pretty rad, with tons of old space race footage and NASA visualizations.

After you watch that, wind things down with one of my favorite songs by actual brother and sisters: The Von Trapps doing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” with Pink Martini. Put the needle on the record when Debussy goes like this:

Fahrenheit 451 and the Various Ways to Burn a Book

More thoughts about Ray Bradbury’s coda to Fahrenheit 451, and the book’s broader definition of censorship

In an essay included in the appendix of my edition of Fahrenheit 451, written as a coda to the 1979 edition of the book, Ray Bradbury says that a college student wrote to him asking if he would consider rewriting The Martian Chronicles to include more women characters. Bradbury responds by calling her an idiot.

All right, to be clear: he doesn’t pull out the word “idiot” until several paragraphs later, after he’s mentioned several other examples of his work being censored or rewritten, and worked up a good supply of anger over the long history of works being bowdlerized to suit one group or another. But it’s still wonderfully exciting to read an author flat-out refusing to make concessions over the integrity of his work in order to appeal to critics.

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with lit matches.”

Think of the outrage that would result if he’d written that in 2021! Especially if Bradbury had had the patience for social media! I don’t know enough about him to know how, or even if, his opinions changed over the years, but I like to believe that he’d have a fierce and eloquent take on exactly how social media has escorted western culture contentedly off of a cliff.

But imagine! An established, white, male writer not just rejecting a call for a more inclusive version of one of his works, but actually equating the request with censorship! I can just see the hordes of people using their non-pearl-clutching hands to fight each other off to be the first to dramatically collapse onto the fainting couch!

We should all read more

999 Happy Cooks

An idle observation about the Haunted Mansion and what makes it timeless

At this point, I’ve read two books about Disney’s Haunted Mansion; Rolly Crump’s autobiography, which as you’d expect contains a lot of his stories about working on the attraction and the Museum of the Weird; and I’ve gotten to ride the three versions of the attraction in Anaheim, Orlando, and Tokyo, plus the Phantom Manor in Paris. So I’ve got some opinions.

To give an idea of how much I like this ride: one morning, I got the opportunity to ride the Magic Kingdom’s version over a dozen times back-to-back — I lost count, but I think it was 16 times? — and if I’d been given the option (and had a bathroom break), I would’ve wanted to ride it over a dozen more. It would be going a bit too far to say that you see new details every time you ride, because there’s definitely a point at which you’ve seen everything, but it doesn’t get old because it’s just fun to be surrounded by all of it.

One recurring bit of information that I’ve seen pop up repeatedly is that many of the Imagineers who worked on the ride — Marc Davis in particular — weren’t happy with how it turned out. In The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion, Jeff Baham describes how the attraction went through years of design with multiple teams of Imagineers assigned, all with different styles and opinions about how the attraction should be focused. Some wanted stronger story, while other wanted “mood.” A persistent argument, never settled even after the ride opened, was whether the attraction should be funny or scary. Baham cites an interview from Haunted Attraction Magazine, in which Davis says there were “too many cooks.”

Marc Davis was a genius, and his work is indisputably one of the main reasons I love Disney parks so much. But I disagree on this one. I think the apparent lack of focus in The Haunted Mansion is exactly why it’s so timeless, and why I never seem to get tired of it.

For evidence: the Phantom Manor in Paris. It’s more cohesive, more consistent, and more polished. The visual design of the house itself — like just about everything in Disneyland Paris — is striking, and it sets a perfect mood as an Old West version of the Bates house. It’s got a story that (if I remember correctly) is made all but explicit, which fits in as a key part of the fully-fleshed-out story of the entire land. It felt to me like a team had the vision of what they wanted from the start, and they worked to make everything fit. And it didn’t do a thing for me.

The key impression I got of the attraction was that it was overwrought. There’s very little of the fun and humor I associate with the “real” Haunted Mansion. The tone does lighten up in the last act of the ride, but by that point, I was just left with an overall feeling that they’d tried harder to make the story work than to make the experience fun.

Even an attraction I love, the Tower of Terror, loses a little something from its focus on story. The build-up can’t be beat: seeing the tower from a distance, passing the sign into the ominous queue, the path through the garden covered in fog from the misters if you’re there on a hot day, haunting 30s jazz music coming quietly from out of nowhere, an abandoned fountain with a long-neglected statue, the cobweb-covered lobby, and then the preshow that has the lightning from the TV escape out into the real world… it’s just exceptional place-building. But then our characters are zapped into the Twilight Zone, and the whole thing is over.

And while I haven’t ridden Rise of the Resistance enough to be sure, my first impression is that its story is part of what’s kept it from being one of my all-time-number-one favorite attractions. It is a phenomenal piece of design and execution, but I was still left with the feeling “Well, that happened.” It felt over, instead of ongoing.

I get the sense that there’s a long-running “debate” within Imagineering — frankly, probably more within the nerds like me who have strong opinions about Imagineering — about what it means to say that Disney’s strength is “story.” My opinion is that “story” is the best word for it, but that’s only because I can’t think of a good word for “something in between just a themed queue, and a narrative with beginning, middle, and end.”

The Haunted Mansion feels endless. Even as you’re leaving, the ghosts are encouraging you to hurry back. It’s a place, not a story, and it feels as if things are happening inside, and will continue happening forever, even when I’m not there to see them. It’s obviously most similar in tone, design, and structure to Pirates of the Caribbean, but unlike that ride, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching scenes from the past, but from a perpetual present.

Except that’s not quite it, either. One of the things that makes Walt Disney World’s version superior — for the record: California has the better exterior, Florida has the better interior, there will be no further questions — is that it has so many paintings still on display. They’re intensely nostalgic, of a very specific time and aesthetic, which is late 60s camp horror. Some have the quality of the best Scooby-Doo concept and background art, some seem straight out of horror comics like Creepy and Eerie, some feel like cover art of a cheap horror paperback.

Combined with other memorable visual touches throughout the mansion — like the chair next to the endless hallway, or the eyes repeated in the wallpaper — they’re such a specific aesthetic that they feel unquestionably designed. It’s foolish to assign sole authorship to anything in something as collaborative as a Disney theme park attraction, much less one with such a long process involving so many people not just in the original version but with all the refurbs, but the details feel distinctly like they were made by someone. Not a committee, or a project leader, but individual artists. Each adding their mark to the house over the years, like a real mansion.

Disney fans like to make it sound as if originality in the parks is doomed because of the company’s preoccupation with IP over original attractions, as if there weren’t at least a dozen counter-examples of outstanding attractions based on an existing property. I think that’s mostly nonsense, but there is the tiniest of valid criticisms at the core of it: making something as long-lasting as a Disney attraction needs to have enough room for it to be indefinitely expansive. Even if you have a ton of talented people working to the best of their ability, all filling the experience with tons of expertly-crafted details, it’s inevitably going to feel a bit small if it’s kept tight, focused, and cohesive, instead of being given room to grow and be at least a little bit weird.

Literacy 2021: Book 8: The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion

Book
The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion by Jeff Baham

Synopsis
A history of the early concept and lengthy, tumultuous design of the Haunted Mansion attraction in Disneyland, along with a tour of the ride, and an overview of its associated collectibles and promotional events.

Pros
Fairly exhaustive but accessible, with enough details that many theme park nerds might not have already known about, but still broad enough an overview for normal people. Baham seems to have consulted or interviewed anyone who might know anything about the Mansion, including interviews with Imagineers conducted by himself and compiled from various other park historians like the E-Ticket magazine. Includes several photos I’ve never seen before, contributed by fans and researchers, from the opening of the attraction and many rare collectibles. Rigorously updated, containing sections about the recent Ghost Post subscription box, the restoration of the Hatbox Ghost to Disneyland, and the somewhat new Escher room in Walt Disney World’s version. Baham’s description of the ride itself doesn’t feel like a dry, detailed overview, but captures the fun of actually being on the attraction.

Cons
I wish there’d been more focus on the Walt Disney World version (and the Tokyo Disneyland one, which is almost identical), since as it is they’re mentioned more or less in passing, and the differences between them are interesting. I didn’t see any mention of the recent-ish interactive queue addition to the Walt Disney World version, the family crypt. The pictures included are fantastic, but I wish the book included more, to give context for what was being described. The downside to its being rigorously updated is that it feels a little less cohesive — some minor typos and repetition are a little distracting.

Verdict
The first book to read by anyone who’s interested at all in the Haunted Mansion; even if you think you know it all, you’ll probably learn at least one piece of new information here.

One Thing I Learned
The phrase “Grim Grinning Ghost” is originally from the Shakespeare poem Venus and Adonis.

Related Resources
Baham is the creator of the excellent site Doombuggies.com, probably the best — or at least most exhaustive — place on the web for deep dives into the history of the attraction.


Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Music for the Hottest Girl in School

Music that transports me to a place where I’m hot and moist and can still taste fish and chips

Today I’m back on my bullshit about how much I like Epcot. Specifically: the Illuminations fireworks show, still one of the best things Disney’s ever done. The last time we went to Epcot, I got to see it, knowing that it was my final time seeing it, and I just cried and cried as I said goodbye to what felt like 20 years of my life.

Any obsessive fan can tell you that the appeal of Illuminations wasn’t just the fireworks, but the whole experience. In that way, I imagine it’s like Burning Man for middle-class suburban white people. (Or in other words, Burning Man). Even before the narrator blows out the torches all around the lake, there was an electricity as people walked around the World Showcase to find a good spot to watch the show. All set to early 2000s new age world music, composed in an environment where Gregorian chants set to electronic beats were played on popular radio. Most memorable is probably “Our Life” by Uttara-Kuru, from the album East Wind.

For years, I just assumed that if these songs never appeared on an official Disney album, there’s no way I’d be able to have recordings of them. But then I remembered the internet exists. A playlist by Timothy McJilton on Apple Music compiles most of the songs from the Illuminations preshow, and there are countless others on streaming services and YouTube.

That’s how I know that the song I’ve always known as “Holy Shit The Fireworks Are About to Start” is actually called “Gaviotes” by Hevia, from the album Tierra de Nadie.

Literacy 2021: Book 7: Fahrenheit 451

Book
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Synopsis
In a version of the United States where teams of firemen are sent to homes to burn the books contained inside, one fireman meets a young woman walking alone at night. Their friendship makes him question everything about his career and the society he’s grown accustomed to.

Pros
265 pages of Ray Bradbury writing angrily and with righteous conviction. Wonderful passages with all the qualities of Bradbury’s best writing: that combination of sci-fi, horror, and elegy for middle America, simultaneously prose, poem, dialogue, and sermon. Explicitly not about the supremacy of books, as I’d always assumed, but about the supremacy of ideas. Eerily prescient about social media — Montag’s impression of the incessantly clamoring TV walls is exactly my reaction to opening TikTok — and the parasocial relationships that result from them. The edition I read has a fantastic introduction by Neil Gaiman, which provides context for the elements that contemporary readers would find baffling.

Cons
Feels like an unsettling assault, as it should. As an AirPod-wearing defender of popular media who spends a lot of time watching YouTube, I can’t help thinking “I’m in this book and I don’t like it.” With its depiction of flighty, gossipy housewives, and seeming preoccupation with teenagers driving too dang fast, it sometimes threatens to go from “Universal Truth” to “Old Man Yells At Cloud.”

Verdict
An essential masterpiece. It’s profoundly ironic that I never made a point to read this, assuming that “I got it” from the over-simplified popular conception of it, instead of what’s actually contained within. Yes, it is about censorship, but more than that, it’s about the kind of laziness, incuriousness, and aversion to challenge or even inconvenience that makes us choose censorship. It implicates us and explicitly refuses to place the blame entirely on an oppressive government, instead showing how we’re eager to embrace the things that governments use to divide us and keep us stupid and docile.