Harry Potter and the Half-Assed Social Commentary

I was fairly nonplussed about the new Harry Potter book coming out, but the package tracking from amazon.com has gotten me back around to plussed. I pre-ordered it, more out of laziness than omg omg i’ve got 2 know what happens!!!! excitement. I kept seeing promotional countdowns all over Borders and Barnes & Noble, and then Amazon politely recommended that I pre-order it, since I’ve bought (and read, usually all in one session) all the other other ones. So I figured instead of fighting crowds of slobbering, pimply people in wizard hats, and the children who’ll be buying the book as well, I’d just have it sent to me and read it at my leisure (pronounced to rhyme with “pleasure,” of course).

In almost-but-not-quite retrospect, that may have been a mistake. Going for convenience is missing the point almost as much as the trite and curmudgeonly op/ed pieces written by this bloke and this one. They hit all the usual marks when people write about Harry Potter: it’s excessive hype, bookstores open at midnight, sales are beyond comprehension, Pope spoke out against it, a Canadian supreme court issued gag orders on people who bought early copies, it’s a cultural phenomenon even though the books aren’t really all that good, but Rowling gives to charity so she’s all right, and there’s adults reading it as well as kids, and hey look I’m getting my book too so I’m just as guilty as anyone else isn’t life funny? Those columns don’t really provide any new insight other than to dispel the notion that British people are inherently wry.

Yes, it’s good that the books encourage kids to read. That’s every bit as true now as it was when the first one sold eighteen bajillion copies. But it’s amazing how quickly commentators take the easy way out — snap some pictures of a kid in horn-rimmed glasses and a wizard hat reading a book on the floor of a bookstore, mention how Rowling’s made a metric assload of money, talk about “religious” groups protesting the book, and you’re done, like Groundhog Day. What’s much more interesting is seeing how these pop media releases turn into such huge events.

It’s easy to say that it’s all advertising and marketing and publishers and book-chains and media outlets building up hype. But that doesn’t give the fans enough credit. The DaVinci Code sold a ton of copies but didn’t have people making such a big show of their purchase. Fans, even really young ones, are more media-savvy than that, and they wouldn’t be dressing up and going to bookstores unless they wanted to be part of an event. Even if this book somehow ends up being more profound than any of the previous ones, the kind of book that changes a child’s life forever, the experience of actually reading it won’t be as memorable as going out and just being there with dozens-to-hundreds of other people who are all shameless fans of the same thing. It’s why people stood in line for hours to see Revenge of the Sith — whether the actual “product” was any good was pretty much irrelevant. Being there was what was important.

And for the record, I don’t think Rowling gets enough credit. It’s easy to pont out how much money she’s made and dismiss it as just another example of easily-accessible “mass entertainment” prevailing over True Art, while begrudgingly making concessions about charity and the magic of a child reading. But there’s a lot to be said for writing something that appeals to such a wide age range. Great literature? Maybe not. But they do have messages about family, friendship, responsibility, and staying true to your principles even at the risk of being popular. And they exist as more than just marketing vehicles for some trading card game (all the product promotion came afterwards). And what’s better, a competently-written book that reaches millions of people, or an important work of literature that everyone means to get around to reading someday but for now we’d rather just sit and play Pokemon?

Laudable.com

I don’t know from audiobooks. Just not my scene, man. Even if I did have the attention span for reading material that lasted longer than the time it takes to have a bowel movement, I get nervous and my mind wanders when I don’t have more than one source of input. What are you supposed to do when you’re listening to someone read you a book? I don’t take public transit and have never had to commute longer than 30 minutes. And I sure as hell don’t exercise. Are you just supposed to stare at the wall? I’m so self-conscious that I can’t even look directly at a wall for more than a few seconds without feeling uncomfortable.

The only time I tried an audiobook was back when I lived in Georgia and decided to take a solo road trip to visit my friend Alfredo in Washington DC. The only audiobooks the Conyers library had available were a biography of Princess Diana and a couple of Star Trek novelizations, so it shouldn’t be any surprise which one I picked. Did you know that Diana’s family was originally part of the House of… okay but seriously. The Star Trek book was engaging enough, and fine for passing the time while driving through the Carolinas, but it’s hardly literature. Real literature doesn’t include laser sound effects, for one thing. The book was read by Levar Burton, which gave it a “Reading Rainbow” quality. (I could be making that up, since I don’t remember which cast member actually read it, but I’m allowed to make shit up because I can do anything!) Anyway, it was fine for that one trip, but I never had the desire to try another one. And I can’t imagine that blind people (no offense) and those who go on long road trips by themselves (no offense) are enough to drive the popularity of the things.

It’s certainly not because the audio adds anything to the experience. Today I’ve been feeling even more culturally illiterate than usual, so I started trying to find a podcast of National Public Radio (the website is kind of Mac-hostile). That didn’t turn up anything useful, but I did find iTunes carrying an audio book of Roy Blount, Jr.’s book, Feet on the Street. “Cool,” I thought, and clicked on the preview.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Now, no offense intended to Narrator Paul Boehmer; dude’s got hella diction, yo. But casting is crucial. And if you’re, say, Paul Winfield, and you’re three chapters into reading the autobiography of, say, Rosie Perez, don’t you have some kind of obligation as a professional narrator to stop and say, “Hey wait a second… this just isn’t working out.”

I just spent a whole over-long blog post going on about Roy Blount Jr’s voice and how it comes through in his writing. And it ain’t that. Part of that lack of pretension I was talking about, is the fact that Blount can write the line “Chameleons skitter across turquoise stucco to disappear among elephant-ear leaves and bougainvillea blossoms, which Tennessee Williams likened to bloodshot eyes,” without it sounding all fruity. Even when he is referencing Tennessee Williams. It’s the author’s voice that’s important — if you were doing an audiobook version of Walt Whitman poems, would you cast Nathan Lane?

I was already halfway through this blog post before I checked the site again, clicked on the wrong link, and found the abridged version, which it turns out Blount narrates himself. (I’d assumed that they’d use the same narrator for both versions, and just audio-edit out the parts they wanted to abridge). Now that’s more like it. Picayune has just barely over two syllables, not three. Oyster has an extra r in there somewhere. And you can tell it’s genuine, because it’s got that half-stilted, half-familiar sound that comes from a non-actor reading his own work.

Sounds like one of my uncles proudly reading a kid’s book report to the family. At least, I imagine it would until he got to the parts of the book about how New Orleans taught him to be less apprehensive around gay men. Or how he was walking along the banquette (pronounced banquette) one morning and “coming the other way… are two head-shaven guys and between them a pretty woman with long black switchy hair… And here, from across the street, is what I hear the woman say: ‘My hole hurts!'”

So let it be said that I’m against audiobooks. At least, until I find the version of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s as read by James Earl Jones.

Credit Dauphine

Or, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Television Again.”

I finally got around to watching the last disc of season 1 of “Alias” last night. Man, they weren’t kidding about the “big cliffhanger” thing. Murders, everybody finding out all about everybody else, simultaneous torture scenes, the return of some old favorites from the pilot, and a valuable life lesson: don’t disable a giant ball of mysteriously suspended water unless you’re sure where all the water is going to go. Give the people what they want, JJ!

Best part for me: I’d expected there to be four episodes on the disc and was surprised to see it end suddenly, so I watched the extras and blooper real. From this, I learned two things:

1. I’m in love with Jennifer Garner. Watch your back, Ben.

2. The makers of the show “get it.” I mean, obviously if you’ve got a show with as many double-agents and ancient manuscripts and, you know, the zed-word, they’re not taking it too seriously. But still, I’d been treating the show as a guilty pleasure, trying to maintain a level of distant smugness that I was appreciating it on a level of pure escapism that the makers of the show didn’t intend. Entertain me, plebians!

But in the making-of-the-pilot documentary, Abrams mentions how fortunate they were to get a cast and crew who understood the tone of it. Because it’s always right on the verge of parody, and would descend into just pure nonsense unless everyone treated it as if it were 100% serious.

That actually struck me as somewhat profound. It’s not camp, it’s not “Touched by an Angel” earnest, it’s not an attempt to be gritty and realistic. And it’s not that nebulous three-layers-of-irony detachment of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” where it’s not a silly teen soap opera because it’s smarter than that but don’t get us wrong we don’t take ourselves too seriously and aren’t afraid to make fun of ourselves but then again it’s a metaphor for life and we do Meaningful Important episodes as well. The “Alias” guys are just trying to make an entertaining roller-coaster of a show without taking it too seriously and without being too self-referential. And they do a damn good job of it, too.

Plus, Jennifer Garner is at least 18 times more appealing than Sarah Michelle Gellar. I’m going to go back and recant all my Hilary Swank comments.

I just don’t understand how y’all managed to wait a year between the cliffhanger and the next season. I didn’t even last 12 hours; I couldn’t wait for Netflix, so I went by the video store to get the first disc of Season 2. Your mom was a spy!

By the way, when I was up on Haight street to get the video just now, I saw Fred Schneider of the B-52’s and a small, easily excitable entourage. I thought it might’ve just been somebody who looks like him, but then I heard him talk. Odd. I wonder what he was doing up there, and I hope that someone hooked him up with some kind bud.

Joims!

I’d planned on skipping War of the Worlds until it came out on DVD, or at least until I was watching it with someone else. But I was in Japan Town for dinner, one thing led to another, and I caught the late show.

I think Mr. Spielberg has been reading my blog, and I’m sorry I was so hard on the guy. The movie is relatively schmaltz-free, the music is understated, the reaction shots appropriate, and the cast can actually act. Dakota Fanning is just scary good; child stars are not supposed to be able to act that well. (Go Conyers!) And there are even scenes with Tom Cruise and Tim Robbins in them, together, and you don’t want to claw out your eyes or run screaming from the theater. That’s saying quite a bit. It’s pretty much exactly what I asked for — the tense and memorable action scenes that Spielberg is really good at, without the schmaltz and the neat & tidy message.

But man, is the result bleak. I mean, sure, the source material is pretty bleak, and when you do it as realistically as you can manage instead of having a layer of 50’s sci-fi irony on top of it, this is what you get. The reviews I’ve seen all keep saying “intense” and “relentless,” and that’s accurate. This is an old-school horror movie, from when people understood that “horror” meant less gore and cheap surprises, and more horrible things happening to people for no reason and they can’t figure out why or how to stop it. Imagine the T. Rex scene from Jurassic Park with better child actors and no goofy toilet gag, then repeat that for two hours.

So it ends up being very well-done, but kind of hollow. Spectacular effects and full-to-bursting with memorable scenes, but without any real depth to make it resonate. And I think that’s not the fault of the director, or the screenwriter, or any of the actors, but just that that’s as much as anyone could possibly get out of the source material. Adding a “life lesson” more blatant than the “don’t get too cocky, mankind” that’s already in there, would’ve come across as trite.

Instead, they decided to go as realistic as they could manage — no clumsy exposition (the narration just gave it a 50’s sci-fi feel, and was appropriate), no sudden epiphanies or life lessons, no gearing-up-for-the-big-battle, just random death, destruction, and confusion. You’ve got to give them kudos for that. (And kudos for having the leads of the 1953 movie show up in cameos). It ends up being pretty upsetting; when the attacks first start, both the kids ask if it’s “terrorists,” which gives he movie some relevance and makes life outside the theater seem even more dark and pointless.

Also, I’m pretty sure someone involved in the production has played Half-Life 2. Obviously they both use the same source material, but a lot of the scenes in the movie are like a live-action version of the game, with all the weapons to fight back removed. I thought it was neat.

Plus they showed a trailer for Peter Jackson’s King Kong before the movie. I’m going to watch the hell out of that movie. It just looks damn cool.

Spoilers for War of the Worlds after the link…
Continue reading “Joims!”

007something

Five discs down on “Alias,” and they lost me somewhere. Maybe it was because I had to rush the thing back to the video store, so I fast-forwarded through the clip-show episode and any bit where acoustic guitar started playing and people started talking about their feelings. But I wasn’t intrigued by the Saga of the “Snowman.”

Before the show came out, I read a preview in Entertainment Weekly or something, where they interviewed J.J. Abrams. He said the concept of the show was “what if Felicity were a super-spy?” That’s what sold the show for ABC and most viewers, apparently, but it’s what turned me off and made me not want to watch it. (Plus, the descriptions of torture scenes.)

I’ve watched a lot of WB series since then, and I had prepared myself for lots of montages of our-heroine-in-emotional-turmoil while pop hits play in the background. But it seems to be getting less of the “Felicity” influence and more of the Ken Olin influence. I mean, good for the guy for producing and directing, and throwing a bone to his “thirtysomething” cast-mates by giving them (and himself) cameos, but I personally don’t want that in my action series. Therapy sessions and sepia-toned conversations while drinking wine and sitting on throw pillows? No thanks. Riding motorbikes towards Hummers full of gun-toting former-Soviets only to launch an ejection balloon at the last second and get picked up by a passing DC-10, leaving the motorbike to ram the bad guys in a huge fireball? Bring it.

Now that I’m going to be getting them in the mail, hopefully there’ll be less pressure to watch them like blipverts, and I won’t get “Alias” overload. If nothing else, it should keep every blog entry from being about that damn TV show.

Internet Movie Fun Special Friendship Society

I signed up for Netflix again, because I needed another monthly expense and a source of meaningless consumerist stress and deadlines. They were very happy to see me back, and they had my queue and my friends list waiting for me and everything.

And that’s the thing. I’ve got one Netflix friend and that’s fine, but it’s just… I want more. Partly because my friends list looks skimpy and sad, and partly because all his movies are, how do I say it?, kinda Frenchy. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just gotta wonder why you hate America so much.) And mostly because I’m just curious to see what other people have in their queues.

So if you know my e-mail address, and you’ve got a Netflix account, see if you can add me to your friends list. If you’re on Netflix but don’t know my e-mail or don’t know what I’m talking about, then send me your address and I’ll get you on my list. And if you’re on Netflix and know my e-mail but don’t want to be on my list, then fine. Screw you.

Moron Alias

Okay, I’m 11 episodes in, and I’ve got the next two DVDs sitting there waiting for me so I can’t write too long. But I’ve had cases where friends have gotten into series on DVD long after I’d lost interest in them, and it was always neat hearing their take on the show. It was like being able to watch the show again, from the start, without having to do something as exhausting as sit and watch television.

So here’s my take on the show so far, divided up into the bad like the evil SD-6, and the good like Sydney’s ever-loyal friend Francie:

  • Bad: The wormy, nerdy “Q” guy, Marshall. Yeah, it’s a spy show, so you’ve got to explain the gadgets. But the whole schtick doesn’t work on any level, as comic relief or otherwise. It’s annoying, not endearing.
  • Good: Victor Garber as the dad. He’s got the toughest part to play, I think, and on a show this over-the-top, he could’ve come across as really lame, either two-dimensional bad guy, or over-sympathetic killer-with-a-heart-of-gold. He just sells it.
  • Bad: The surfeit of twists and subplots. I get that the show’s supposed to be fantastic, escapist, action television, but it’s veering around so much that it never gets to linger on anything of significance. Maybe that’s an aspect of watching it all at once instead of having to wait a week between episodes, though.
  • Good: Stuff really happens, in every episode. I’m used to series that introduce subplots that never get resolved until the end of the season if that soon; it’s cool to see a show that isn’t afraid it’s going to run out of ideas. If someone makes a threat, they’re going to do something about it within the next two hours. If you get hint of a deep dark secret, you’re not going to have to wait long to find out what it is. There are at least two cliffhangers per episode!
  • Bad: The annoying reporter friend. He’s just a tool, and he deserves to die.
  • Good: Jennifer Garner really is pretty hot.

All right, back to it. I’m in the middle of a meeting at CIA headquarters in which we just learned the identity of the assassin who killed Agent Vaughn’s father!

I wonder if it remembers me

The neat thing about amazon.com’s comments sections, apart from the obvious entertainment value, is that people on the internet are so eager to jump on top of each other to show how hip they are that you can often learn something useful.

Case in point: the soundtrack for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou does not have the music that plays when Zissou & the rest of the Belafonte crew finally make contact with the jaguar shark. Thanks to a bajillion amazon readers, though, you can discover that it’s called Staralfur by Sigur Rós and it’s available for free from this site.

Of course, I can’t listen to it, because ten seconds into it I remember the scene from the movie and start blubbering, but maybe one of my many weblog fans will be able to take advantage of free post-rock Icelandic music!

38 Seconds

That’s how long I was able to watch G4/TechTV [warning: link is slow and annoying] tonight before having to turn the channel out of disgust. As a frame of reference and to give an idea how much tolerance I have for bad television, I turned it to VH-1 and “Gameshow Moments Gone Bananas,” hosted by Ben Stein giving a “shout out to his ‘peeps’,” making the quote sign with his fingers around “peeps,” and was able to leave it on that channel for a good 12 minutes. I only had to turn the channel when they put on one of those “Where You At?” ads with the granny talkin’ all hip-hop on a cell phone.

How did we let it get to this? I watched a lot of television in the 70’s and 80’s, and as awful as it got, it was never able to overwhelm me with its sheer crass stupidity and desperation. I’ve lived through “Dynasty,” through Carrot Top commercials, through Pauly Shore’s popularity, through all the “I Love the 80’s” marathons. I used to look forward to watching DIC and Filmation animated series. I’ve even seen “Magic: The Gathering” tournaments televised on ESPN-2. I’m not exactly one of the cultural elite.

But tonight on G4, a loud young woman with bleached hair, a nose ring, and a Jem and the Holograms T-shirt was showing viewers a fan site dedicated to David Hasselhoff, and the whole hip, young, fun, and irreverent cast were pointing at the pictures and tossing paper airplanes about. And for some reason, this made me sadder than the entire Trinity Broadcasting Network ever could. It’s depressing enough that there’s even an entire network devoted to videogames, but when the human beings (presumably) on this network are even more shallow and obnoxious poseurs than videogame characters… it boggles the mind. It was as if the characters of a self-described “cynical” alternative comic had somehow come to life and taken control over a television studio.

I just realized that I would rather watch Country Music Television and UPN than the network that is trying to target me.

Betcha I can tell ya where ya got them shoes

In all the hoopla over four-year-old media, I forgot to write about Feet on the Street: Rambles Around New Orleans by Roy Blount Jr.

It’s always amusing to read reviews on Amazon from people who just plain don’t get it, but I can’t fault “New Orleans traveller” too much, because apparently he or she was looking for a travelogue about New Orleans. This book isn’t a travelogue, even though I feel I’ve got a better idea of the city now than I did from any number of movies or books or television specials about it. This book does exactly what the title says: rambles. And it’s a mistake going into a Roy Blount Jr. book expecting to find a hands-off, balanced analysis of the topic at hand; you read the book to find out what Blount has to say about it.

Expecting a straightforward travelogue out of Roy Blount Jr. is missing the point as much as expecting Dave Barry-esque “humorous essays” out of his essay books, or calling his memoir “self-indulgent” or “not as funny as I was hoping from the Garrison Keillor show.” Blount doesn’t just write about cities or people or politics or sports or dogs or presidents or whatever the topic is at hand; Blount writes about himself. And his friends, and his family, pets he’s owned, jobs he’s had, movies he’s seen, things he’s found at junk stores, and whatever else pops into his mind as relevant to the subject. By the end, you don’t feel as if you’ve read a travelogue as much as you feel that you’ve caught up with an old friend who for this conversation, happened to keep veering back to the topic of New Orleans.

That’s why I think Blount’s writing transcends the “humor” or “travel” or “essays” labels that get assigned to them in bookstores. Taken together as a body of work, it’s about the whole of human existence, at least as much as he’s processed. Hyperbolic? Maybe, but then again, somewhere between hyperbole and “he’s funny on the radio” describes how amazed I am by his writing. When I’m reading his stuff, it’s like watching a magician who’s pointing out the wires and mirrors and hidden pockets in his cape, but is still somehow able to make a flock of doves appear out of nowhere and leave you convinced that it’s magic. He’s written whole essays about writing and how difficult and laborious process it is, but can still come up with a perfectly concise and evocative phrase to describe New Orleans humidity (“those deep-summer days that make a person feel swathed in slowly melting hamfat”) and make it sound as if the phrase had just popped into his head in the middle of an unfocused ramble.

When people talk about writing, they talk about how difficult it is to find your “voice.” Blount’s not only found his voice, but it’s all-encompassing. It’s the voice of a man who’s got total control over the English language combined with a total lack of pretension. It’s “folksy” without being naive, funny without being meaningless, rambling without being pointless, introspective without being self-indulgent, and disarming without being deceptive. Once you’re disarmed, he can talk about oysters and orphans and leave you with sympathy for both. In this book, he talks about the death of his friend Slick Lawson, and it was neither a casual aside nor a maudlin eulogy, but real, genuine memories. And of course, memories are what writing is all about.

Blount’s been my favorite writer for years. One of my favorite things I own is a postcard he sent me in response to a fan letter I wrote to him back when I was a sophomore in college. It’s one of the old kinds, with the scalloped edges, and has a photograph of two radio personalities from Alabama I’ve never heard of. On the back are a couple of paragraphs of tiny handwriting, responding amiably to a couple of the points in the letter and wishing me well. Somebody else reading it wouldn’t think much of it — it doesn’t say a lot, and it’s not particularly funny for a “humorist,” and there are references to things that I must’ve written in my three-page computer-typed letter that even I don’t remember writing.

But it was the perfect response. In a short essay called “Having Wonderful Time Suckling Little Dog” in his book Now, Where Were We?, he writes about his postcard collection and how postcards, especially second-hand ones, always have something more going on than is obvious on the surface. Bizarre or bizarrely mundane photographs, personal messages without any context, and captions that are either completely misplaced or painfully self-apparent — the best postcard is at the same time a non-sequitur and something indefinably familiar. So what would be better to send to a young man who’d sent a long, gushing fan letter out of nowhere, expressing an admiration for his work and an odd sense of familiarity just from reading it?

Blount uses a lot of poetry in his work, and it’s almost always clever and funny and bounces around an idea. But the real poetry — the sense that you’ve just read something profound without seeing it coming, and the admiration for an idea that is perfectly expressed using just the right words — is in his prose. I haven’t yet read his biography of Robert E. Lee, but considering how much Blount talks about Lee in Feet on the Street, I’m worried that he may have kept himself out of the biography and stuck to the facts. That would be a huge disappointment. I want to see Blount write more biographies, and make himself as much as a character as he always does — not some dry, distant dump of some other person’s life, but a real conversation. “Here’s everything I’ve figured about how life works so far. What’ve you got?”