Thursday, November 17, 2016

The operative word is fascism

And it's the theme of this article by Glen Weldon, who wrote a book about Superman a while back. On NPR.

Although conceived in a progressive spirit, the superhero genre's central narrative has always been one of defending the status quo through overpowering might; in the vast majority of those cases, the one doing all that defending and overpowering is a straight white male. (This is just one of the reasons that the superhero genre, which has a knack for distilling American culture to its essence, can get a little on-the-nose, sometimes.)
More often than not, the straight white male in question has a square jaw and killer abs and holds vast amount of power but chooses not to use it to subjugate others, simply because he's a Good Person.
Which is to say: historically, the genre's organizing principle is that the only thing keeping fascism from happening is that straight white dudes are chill.
But slowly, incrementally, as comics (and movies, and tv shows, and games, t-shirts and coffee mugs) start to fill up with more characters like Ms. Marvel (a Pakistani-American teenage girl from Jersey City), the visual iconography of superheroes, and what those superheroes mean to the culture, will force the genre to do something it has historically resisted.
It will change.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Supergirl and Superman

Here are some links to a blog called Comic Odyssey, which gives some insightful analysis of Superman with specific reference to the Supergirl iteration.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Another book about differences

A while back the folklorist Tok Thompson came to IU to give a couple of talks. He devoted one entirely to the book The Origin of the World's Mythologies by E.J. Michael Witzel. Thompson denounced it as a work of poor scholarship, of misguided ideas, and of racism. he reviewed the book for the Journal of Folklore Research Reviews. Here's the conclusion (spoiler alert, I guess):

To conclude: this book will no doubt prove exciting for the gullible and the racist, yet it is useless—and frustrating—for any serious scholar. This is a work which should never have reached book publication stage: a whole series of scholarly checks and balances—ranging from Harvard's venerable Folklore and Mythology Department, to the editors and reviewers at Oxford University Press—should have been in place to guide the scholarly inquiry, which would have prevented the socially irresponsible publication of such grandiose, brash, and explicitly racist claims based on ill-informed, highly problematic scholarship.

 I haven't read Witzel's book yet, but I intend to do so for this project. He lays out an argument that there are two large groups of people (Gondwana and Laurasia), and that they have differing mythologies. It's worth noting that the publisher is Oxford. Yes, the university. And Witzel teaches at Harvard.

Here's another, less critical review of the book. It was published by the Institute of social and cultural anthropology, at Oxford, for what it's worth. There's also something called the Laurasian Academy, with which Witzel is affiliated. More on this when I've had a chance to get through it. I just wanted to keep the links to these reviews handy.

Friday, September 16, 2016

New Project Time: Myths of Difference

Right now I'm in the middle of doing about a million different things. There's my full-time job at Indian University changing light bulbs and turning on computers. There are the two books and the one article I've got to edit for various publishers. There's the class on religion and/as fantasy that I'm taking because I get free tuition at IU for changing light bulbs (to be fair, they're really expensive light bulbs). There's the novel I really intend to finish very soon (I have about one thousand words left, right in the middle of it). There's the revision of the Superman book I'm probably supposed to get through soon. And there's the article I want to write on Santa Claus.

That's only eight things? Well, put the other 999,992 in the category Raising Three Kids.

So, on top of that, I'm going to start keeping track of potentially useful links and ideas for the book I plan to start researching next year. Right now it's called "Myths of Difference." You'll get the idea:

An article by Saladin Ahmed about the value in reading works by a variety of types of authors (i.e., authors of various color of skin, sexual orientation, religious background). Its title sums up an endless discussion on the internet that simply won't go away, no matter how hard writers try to argue it, and how logical the support for reading books not written by white men is. The Great Internet Debate about Not Reading Books by White Men. I scanned the comments section, and it's amazing just how far readers will twist what the writer wrote because they don't like it. Man, some people just can't understand the basic idea that some institutions are inherently racist. The youtube video linked to in Ahmed's article, featuring stand-up by Aamer Rahman, is worth a look, too.

And while we're at it, an earlier article about the same topic, by K.T. Bradford, is useful too. What both of these articles argue, and what's useful, is that the very idea of a meritocracy determining who gets published and supported by advertising campaigns and reviews is inherently problematic because it reflects centuries of established prejudices.

While we're on that topic, here's an article about a book called Human Achievement by Charles Murray, which appeared in the New York Times a while back. Yeah, I'm probably not going to spend money on a copy of that book.

I've been doing this in hard copy for a while now, in a file folder in my desk, but it's time to start expanding.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


These days my work has been pretty consistent. I spend the first half (or maybe two-thirds) of the day on editing, which I do on a freelance basis. I set a number of pages I have to do for the day, determined by how many pages are in the book and when the deadline is. A typical day is about seventy pages for developmental editing. I've done as many as 175 in a single day. That day hurt, but it was worth it to get the book done early; thus an early pay check. Today I'm going to finish editing a novel, I hope.

Once I've hit my page count for the day, I get to do some research. Right now I'm working on a short academic article about Santa Claus. I take notes on one article a day. I'm eventually going to figure out how to conduct some fieldwork for this project, hopefully planning for this winter. I'm also reading through some academic journals that I've accumulated over the years--getting through one a day so I can get rid of them.

I read at least one story a day. Right now I'm working through the complete stories of Dorothy Parker. She's got a good style. Her stories are more like character sketches. Often they're a monologue. In others, one character talks over another. She began writing in the twenties, and her stories are set in New York. Before Parker, I read Harlan Ellison's Can & Can'tankerous, also a collection of short stories.

If I'm not in the mood for a short story, I mix in a lot of folktales and other stuff collected by folklorists. I'm also working through a novel at any given time. Just finished Virginia Woolf's Orlando.

If I get through all that, I work on my own stories. At this moment, I'm about half way through typing up one right now. I try to type 2000 words a day, which takes 20-30 minutes. I type pretty fast.

That about does it. I'm going to add writing on this blog every morning, if I can. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Another All-Star 10 essay

It's called "How Superman Saved my Life," written by Alice W. Castle for the website, which I like quite a bit. It includes a scan of the page from All-Star Superman 10.

Says Superman: "You're much stronger than you think you are."

Castle writes:
Those words were like a firebrand in my mind, scorching away the pain I’d been suffering through. In one page, I felt like I was the one being held in Superman’s arms and being stopped from taking that fatal plunge because, of course, he was right. I am much stronger than I thought I was and it was never as bad as it seemed. For every terrible night, there was the dawn of a new day that let me try again. That let me seek out help and friendship, comfort and warmth. Those words stopped me from doing something terrible and set me on a course that, in so many ways, brought me here today.

I tell you this to give you context to my relationship to Superman. It’s a pretty emotional one. I’m not the kind of person who loves Superman because he’s a cool character or because I like seeing him punch Brainiac in the face or what have you. I love Superman because, for a time, Superman was all I had. And, sadly, it felt like that was being taken from me as I watched Dawn Of Justice.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Best Stories in the World: Box of Daylight

Raven had been kicked out of his father's house up in heaven because he ate all the food. His father sent him through the hole in the sky to go down to earth, with some supplies such as salmon roe, berries, and a raven skin so he could fly.

The world is all dark, and Raven is sick of that. So flying along he finds the hole in the sky that leads back to the heavens. There, he takes off his raven skin and finds a spring outside the house of the chief of heaven. He transforms himself into a pine needle and floats on the water. The chief's daughter comes out to get water from the spring, and she inadvertently drinks the needle. Soon she gives birth to a baby boy, who is Raven. This made the daughter and chief very happy.

The boy grows and begins to cry, "Hama, hama!" He wouldn't stop crying, but nobody knew what he wanted. One of the wise men figures that the baby wants the box of daylight, called ma. The boy stops crying and plays with the ma, rolling it around the house. The chief soon forgets about this--until the boy runs away with it. He was pursued, but made it to the hole in the sky, put on his raven skin, and returned to the earth.

It was still dark. Raven flew up the Nass River. He finds some people, called Frogs, fishing with bag nets, and asks them to throw him one of the things they've caught. The people refuse four requests, so Raven threatens to break the ma. The people still refuse, naming Raven Txa'msem--the liar--, so Raven breaks the ma, bringing daylight to the world. This caused the north wind to blow, driving the Frogs down river where they stick to a rock and become stone.

This is a popular story in the Pacific Northwest. Here I've summarized a Tsimshian version (which can be read here in full I'm really not doing it justice), but the Tlingit version is perhaps more well known. There's a nice video with a dramatized retelling of the Tlingit version:

In many versions, the baby unleashes first the stars, then the moon, then finally the sun to light the world. In these versions, Raven starts out white. But when he is fleeing the house after releasing the light, he gets stuck in the smoke hole at the top and soot from the fire turns him black. The Tlingit version retold in Erdoes and Ortiz's American Indian Trickster Stories starts like this...

Raven was there first. He had been told to make the world by his father, but we do not know who his father was or how he looked. There was no light at that long-ago time, a time of beginning. Raven knew that far away in the North was a house in which someone kept light just for himself. Raven schemed, thinking of how best to steal the light to illuminate the world.

There's a pretty great picture book version by Maria Williams and  Felix Vigil.

Here's a couple of videos on vimeo that delve into the story (based on the video above), with one of its tellers named Walter Porter, part 1 and part 3. (part 2 is the story, which on vimeo is of better quality than the one embedded here) He gets into the variation (such as what kind of pine needle Raven becomes (spruce, hemlock, cedar, even a speck of dirt). He also talks about how the chief's daughter can't conceive a child, and is distraught. Part 2 is essential to understanding the story.

Important to the story, interestingly, is Raven's cry. He cries to get the sun, and he cries whenever he does something significant.

Believe it or not, there's also a rock song that retells this story. Also, this. I was surprised to see how many different versions there are on youtube.

So why is this one of the best stories in the world? For one thing, the numerous versions all work on their own, telling the story in ways that make sense but differ in aspects such as Raven's motive for stealing (sometimes curiosity, sometimes he wants to be able to hunt with light, sometimes he wants people to be able to see how beautiful he is). For another, lots of people love this story. You can get jewelry based on it. This story has and still does inspire wonderful art, too. I love it because it can be a creation story if you want it to be, or it can be just an odd little story. And for whatever reason, the transformation into a pine needle is satisfying.

by Tommy Joseph

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A few more Superman links...why not?

All-Star Superman has been getting some scholarly attention recently. Here's "Making and Breaking the Superhero Quotidian," by Frank Bramlett. It was published by ImageText, an online journal of interdisciplinary comics studies. It's a pretty good journal. They also published an article on Alan Moore's Superman a while back as part of an entire issue on Moore's work.

Then there's this four-part examination of Morrison's Superman that spans decades' worth of stories. Very thorough, by Jim Dandeneau.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Superman and Lois Lane Links

ComicsAlliance has been posting a lot of Superman material lately. There's this appreciation of Superman, and this one of Lois Lane, and most recently this look at the electric phase (which seems to be a series).

Then there's this Vulture article about the occasional conflict between Superman and Batman.

This one's pretty interesting: A virtual tour of the Cleveland Superman sites. It's a Google Earth sort of thing, street view.

Hey, anybody read those new Lois Lane novels? I'm thinking I might check them out. They're by Gwenda Bond. 

Speaking of which, there's an edited volume of scholarship about her called Examining Lois Lane. Looks pretty good. I'll have to track down a copy.

It's been 10 years since Superman Returns? Really? Here's Brandon Routh talking about it.

That'll do.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Best Stories in the World: Ylla

This is really just an excuse to include The Martian Chronicles, but that's more than one story. So..."Ylla." I've read this story a lot, maybe once every couple of years. I just keep coming back to it, to the despair and hope it captures. It's a reminder that someone's dream may be someone else's nightmare. Not kidding about the nightmare part--you ever see The Honeymoon?

See, there's this martian couple, and the wife keeps having this dream about a space ship landing, and the man who emerges. It begins like this:

They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfulls of magnetic dust, which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind. Afternoons, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no one drifted out their doors, you could see Mr. K himself in his room, reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play ah harp. And front the book, as his fingers stroked, a voice sang, a soft ancient voice, which told tales of when the sea was red steam on the shore and ancient men had carried clouds of metal insects and electric spiders into battle.

From that you can probably tell whether or not you'll like Bradbury's stuff. He certainly doesn't hold anything back, in terms of his style. That one paragraph establishes tone, history, and setting while hinting at character.

Soon enough, we learn that Mrs. and Mr. K are not happy these days. Their problem seems to stem from Mrs. K--Ylla--who is restless, waiting for something that's just not happening. She's tired of their life, I guess, and Yll neglects her. So she dreams of a man, obviously from Earth (at six feet he's a giant to the Martians, and his blue eyes are an absurdity to them, who have eyes of gold). The couple discuss her dream, dismissing it and at the same time Ylla wonders if it could be true that someone from Earth will come. She begins singing strange songs, talking in her sleep, dreaming the man in the rocket. And Yll becomes desperate, trying to pay attention to her like he should have before. He's jealous.

On the day her dream has predicted that the man from earth will arrive, Ylla says she's going to visit a friend beyond the green valley--the location the rocket is supposed to land. Yll makes an excuse to keep her home, then goes out "hunting." Ylla, at home, becomes agitated, waiting for something to happen. She feels it: "There was a warmth as of great fire passing in the air. A whirling, rushing sound. A gleam in the sky, of metal."

She dismisses it as a trick of the imagination. Then...

"A shot sounded."

There's more, of course. But it's better to read it in full then to endure my butchering summary.

Yeah, Bradbury has written better stories, more iconic stories ("Sound of Thunder" anyone?), but it seems trite to include one of them. "Ylla" doesn't get as much attention, though you can read an excerpt at It's also been adapted to theater, television, and radio. Martian Chronicles is my favorite of his books. Lots of good stories there, many of which were published independently. "Ylla" was originally titled "I'll Not Ask for Wine" and published in Maclean's in 1950. That's from Wikipedia, so make of it what you will. Like I said, there's not much on the Internet about this one.

So what makes it one of the best in the world?In thirteen pages, Bradbury combines just enough world building with character work and a satisfying conclusion. Maybe "satisfying" is the wrong word. It's more like a punch in the gut.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Heroism and Superman

I think about Superman: Earth One a lot, primarily because I do not like it at all. But in light of recent Superman stories, maybe I'd be better off rephrasing: These days, Superman isn't for me. Smallville, the various DC comics, Man of Steel--looking at what the stories have in common is instructive, leading me to figure out why I don't particularly care for Superman these days.

What's the biggest difference between George Reeves in Adventures of Superman and Tom Welling in Smallville? What separates Earth One from All-Star? Man of Steel from Superman: The Movie?

The answer could be multi-faceted; we could talk about mood and tone, about narrative sophistication, about musculature, about time frame, etc. But for me, the difference comes down to conflict. George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Grant Morrison, Richard Donner...all these versions of Superman are confident in their role, they don't have any internal conflict over what they should do. Tom Welling, Henry Cavill, Zach Snyder, and J. Michael Straczynski...they all show us a Superman who hesitates, equivocates, and sometimes just plain doesn't want to be a hero.

I'm not saying that Superman shouldn't be allowed a few moments of doubt, or of weakness. Neither am I saying that there shouldn't be stories about heroes who are reluctant or who flinch in the face of difficult choices.

What I'm saying is that I don't care for Superman in that role. I don't need to see him trying to figure out his morality. I don't need to see him wandering, second-guessing himself or his place.

But that's just me. My Superman was fully formed after a single page of exposition written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster. Even when they had chances to expand--such as in the Superman ongoing series that debuted soon after, or in the newspaper strips--they didn't depict Superman as hemming and hawing about whether or not he'd be a hero. He just is one.

Apparently, a sizeable chunk of the audience does want to see him trying to figure things out, questioning himself. Evidently there's a market for a Superman who is also Spider-Man. That's fine; it's just not for me.

The interesting thing about this, about the current versions of Superman, is to place him into larger contexts. What can we infer about, say, the mentality of the United States based on the version of Superman that dominates pop culture right now? 

For one thing, the United States has a confidence problem. It's no longer sure of its identity. It wants somebody to tell it what to do. Sadly, that somebody seems to be military in nature. This lack of self-confidence and the military nature of our appeal for help  probably reflects the origin of the nation in both genocide and civil war. When in doubt, charge into battle. This nation is not missionaries, it is not compromisers, it is not negotiatiors.

A while back, when I was in full research mode, I went through All-Star and counted up the total number of panels devoted to violence. It's something around fifty (though I'm not going to look for that page of notes within the thousands that are weighing down my filing cabinet). It's not a story about fighting. It's about finding other ways to solve problems, through unity and sympathy. Whole issues go by without a single punch thrown.

In short, I don't think the United States has always been this way. It's tied to 9/11, of course, and reflected in the dominant stories of our time (as stories have always reflected their tellers' situations). Stories like Superman/Batman and Civil War seem to be meditations on how the United States should use its power. As far as I can tell, they're literally arguments between people about this topic that turn into violence.

Wait a second. Are these movies really about gun control?

I guess I'd have to watch them to find out. I might just reread All-Star instead.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Superman Links

A couple of interesting statements about Superman came on the radar this morning.

First, a look at the death and return by Chris Sims. I've read lots of statements like this one, emphasizing the real, felt absence of Superman, and the affecting return. My only thought on the story is that it's not as effective reading it with the ending in mind. I didn't read it when it came out, but it's hard to avoid spoilers. So when I worked through it a couple of years ago, I knew that none of the four replacements were genuine. I also knew how the original came back. So there was no suspense, no mystery. I guess this is just one of those things for which you had to be there.

Second, a short documentary about the enduring appeal and meaning of Superman. The filmmaker, Sami Jarroush, gets interviews with lots of people with academic, professional, and personal interests in Superman. Worth watching. The main point of the documentary is that Superman as a character is only boring if he's written without imagination. It's a counter to people who think that his powers and morality make him less compelling than other characters.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Wizard Comes to Town

Mercer Mayer seems to be known today mostly for those Little Critter books. There's a bunch of them. But he's been around for a while, and has done all kinds of books. He's adapted some fairy tales, invented lots of characters (I like his little monster series and wish they were still in print). One of my favorites is called The Wizard Comes to Town. It's about a boarding house run by Mrs. Begg, where comes a wizard to board; he goes by the name Z. P. Alabasium. Alabasium causes a bunch of trouble in the house, with unexpected weather, an infestation of various demons, and boarders floating around randomly. Begg first tries asking him nicely to leave. Then she involves the authorities. It doesn't go well for them.

The constable came and knocked on the door. "Open up, this is the constable." 
Suddenly the constable turned into a ram. "Baaaaaaaaa," he said and ran down the stairs.

Soon Begg realizes that she has no choice but to take matters into her own hands. She finds a witch kit in the attic and puts it to use.

I've had blizzards/snakes and lizards. I've had rain and wind to bear./
She summons a horde of monsters that forcibly removes Alabasium from the house. They deposit him in a dump. Everything returns to normal at the house...only for the boarders and Begg herself to find themselves bored. Nothing unusual is happening, until a new boarder shows up.

Pretty good stuff. That is all.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Best Stories in the World: Wolverine Creates the World

I love this story so much...

It starts before stuff, when pretty much everything in the world was under water. Wolverine survived by leaping from stone to stone. He worried that things would get worse, and that would be the end of his wandering. So he called all the water animals together, and asked them to dive down below to bring up some land.

Otter went first, but he couldn't find any soil. Then Beaver dove down, but he couldn't stay under water long enough to find anything. Then Wolverine told Muskrat to go, but Muskrat said he'd go only if Wolverine tied a strap to his leg. Wolverine complied. Muskrat was gone a long time, long enough that Wolverine pulled the strap back up only to find that it had come untied from Muskrat's leg.

And everybody thought that was the end of dry land. From this point on, I'm just going to quote the story directly:

But just when he had given up, Muskrat surfaced. His mouth was so full of ground that he couldn't talk. Nor could he breathe. Wolverine put his lips to Muskrat's ass and blew as hard as he could. Out came the ground from Muskrat's mouth, more and more ground, heaps and heaps of it, seemingly without end.

This ground is the very earth we walk today.

I first encountered this particular version of the earth-diver tale (which is how mythologists refer to it; it is the story organized around motif A812) in Brian Swann's Coming to Light, a collection and contextualization of native North American stories. It also appears in Wolverine Creates the World, by Lawrence Millman (which may or may not be about to be reprinted later this year as Wolverine the Trickster). It's a story told by the Innu people of the Labrador Peninsula in Canada. They call Wolverine Kwakwadjec, in case you were wondering. Millman--who's not an Innu--tells us that Wolverine stories are "much closer to dirty jokes" than the cycles of trickster myths common in other parts of native North America. Also unlike most myths, Wolverine stories lack ritual context and prohibitive storytelling conditions.

The earth-diver story is not confined to North America. The folklorist Alan Dundes wrote an interesting analysis of it in Freudian terms. It appeared originally in American Anthropologist, where it sparked some debate (there was a response to it in the next Volume of the journal, and then Dundes wrote a rejoinder), and shows up in the collection Sacred Narrative, which the author edited. Dundes sees the earth-diver as a story told by men to compensate for their lack of procreative power; they postulate a cloacal theory of birth and pregnancy envy. Which, you know, might be true in some sense.

So why is this one of the best stories in the world? Go back and reread the italicized part if you need to figure it out.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Batman versus Superman

Here's a topic that will probably always get me to link to it: That page in All-Star Superman 10.

Then there's this thing, claiming that nobody cares about people disliking BvS. I'm willing to look past the title, even though I very much do care what people think about this movie.

And here's an example of why I care.

And another example: discussions about superheroes don't get more interesting than this one, from site I've come to like quite a bit. Yeah, it's got that Morrison/Quitely page from All-Star Superman 10 once more. Still inspiring people. If you're reading along, make sure to check out the comments on that article, since they make a counter-argument that's also worthwhile.

Still haven't seen Dawn of Justice. But that preview of Rogue One looks cool.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Comics out Loud

-->  It’s hard to read a comic out loud. Storybooks are easy. One picture per page, and the words match. Strangely, with a storybook the hardest parts to read are the pages without words, when the narrator and the characters are silent. What do you do then? I make sound effects. 

When I was a kid, the comic I read the most was The Mighty Thor—in particular, numbers 337-382, the Walter Simonson run. It’s still my favorite comic story. I had to buy the omnibus edition when it came out in 2011, and his new Ragnarok series draws me to the comic shop the day each new issue goes on sale.

Despite owning the omnibus, I’ve never done more than flip through it until recently. I know the story well enough that I don’t need to read it straight through. I flip through it, looking at specific moments and battles. It’s a fantasy comic, much moreso than it is a superhero comic, and it rewards this kind of revisitation. But a few weeks ago, I go lucky when my five-year-old son asked me to read the whole thing to him. I’m not sure what prompted this request, but I wasn’t about to refuse.

Now, understand that my kids ask me to read comics to them quite a bit. After the first time, I’ve said no about seventy-five percent of the time. We’ve read a few Super Dinosaur, Transformers, and Uncle Scrooge, but not many of them. But they’re all a bit of an ordeal. You’ve got to point to the panel you’re reading, often back and forth between multiple speaking characters in the same panel. And characters frequently speak off-panel just to complicate things further. The sound effects often sound altogether wrong when uttered. Then, in some comics, you’ve got to differentiate between thought bubbles and word balloons. And if you do voices…

Storybooks lack that complicated structure—even though many of them are almost exactly like comics, lacking only word balloons.There's usually just one or two pictures per page spread, and often I can read through the words quickly enough. With a comic, there are so many pictures per page that it's hard to keep his attention on a single panel at a time. He often asks about what's going on in a panel on the bottom of the recto whilst I'm still reading narration for the first panel on the verso. Sorry for the obscure diction. That just happens sometimes.

So, yeah, I do voices. My Odin is a lot like John Houston. Thor is an octave lower than my own. Balder is soft and light. And the warriors three are probably what you'd expect: Volstag bellows everything. Fandral is my attempt at Errol Flynn. Hogun is Charles Bronson (I don't remember where I came across the information, but I'm fairly certain that Kirby had these men in mind when he designed the characters). I do my best fox impression for Loki, even though it makes no sense. And for reasons I don't understand, I make Beta Ray Bill sound like John Hurt. Nobody has an English accent. I don't even want to describe what it sounds like when I read the women's dialogue.

Then there are sound effects. What I have found is that, strangely, these almost never work for me when I read them out loud, so I end up just making a noise like what I think the thing would sound like.

So far, we've read nearly 500 pages of the omnibus. Lots more to go, but it's a fascinating, challenging experience.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What is Superman?

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice opened up. I've become slightly obsessed with reactions to it. I have no intention of seeing it any time soon, but I can't help reading and watching how people feel about it. I went through a similar sort of obsession with Revenge of the Sith. Maybe the best reaction so far has been this article:

19 Real-Life Heroes who Remind us Why Superman still Matters.

But there are thousands of other responses, most of which are critical. Some people do like the movie. And it made a lot of money. So there's that. But what I've really taken away from everything on the internet about this movie--the title of which I refuse to type again--is that it's poorly constructed, poorly paced, and that the director/writers don't do much interesting with Superman. This stems, it seems, from a mistaken notion of what and who Superman is; Zack Snyder, people are saying, doesn't know what Superman means.

Most of the time, I don't like to dictate what a given story means (one of the qualities that gets a story into the Best Story in the World is its capacity for multiple interpretations), but I do think that there are limits to how far you can stretch any story or character from its center before it becomes something different. From what I've read about this movie, even the people who like it don't think it's a good portrayal of Superman.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Theory

I wonder if this one image from Frank Millers' Dark Knight Returns... responsible for the pouch fad in 90s superhero comics.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Likely Story, part 2: Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

I don't know why this never occurred to me before, but in Apes 68 Taylor really has no excuse for not knowing he's on Earth until he runs into the Statue of Liberty. I mean, it's hard to believe that in all the time he was there, he never looked up at the night sky and saw the moon.

For whatever reason, reading the novel version of Apes made me think that.

Planet of the Apes, as a complex of stories, reveals itself to be all about language as the defining characteristic of humanity. It's not the tools, or the opposable thumb; lots of other animals have those. I read Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee a while back, and one of the ideas I took away from that book is that pretty much everything unique about humanity comes down to degree, not kind. Other species have architecture, use tools, develop communication systems, and whatnot; we just have developed them in greater complexity.

Language, like species, evolves, and it does so virtually without artificial selection. Sure, people sometimes try to police the way we speak, and we've developed things like dictionaries that prescribe rather than just describe language, but most efforts are futile. We can more directly, if slowly, influence the course of certain species. Language, in the apes stories, signifies not merely sapience, but more importantly the capacity to transcend through defiance. The apes' first word is a defiant "no." Language also allows for classification--it's how Caesar, in Dawn, rationalizes killing Koba. Once you've got language, as the chimps in the novel demonstrate, you can keep secrets. It's also how people consolidate power.

The punchline to Boulle's novel is that the same thing that happened on the Betelgeuse planet (called Sorros in the novel--a name given by the humans but also, strangely, used by the apes as well) happens on Earth, too, while Ulysse's in space. There's a slight problem there: Ulysse's narrative ends with this arrival on earth and the realization that he's meeting apes instead of humans. The last line reveals that, then we jump straight to the vacationing couple. The narrative leaves unexplained how, then, Ulysse's manuscript got into space. If he left Earth again, why doesn't he write about what happened? If he didn't leave Earth, how'd it get into space?

The most plausible sequence of events, I think, puts him in space with apes in control (maybe going to visit Betelgeuse?). He smuggles his manuscript and, unable to write in it anymore, he jettisons it first chance he gets. This postulates an antagonistic relationship with the apes of Earth, but there's no reason to think it must be that way. What if they're excited to see him? They might have read of his space flight in history books or records and been waiting for him, wanting to see what he's like compared to the humans they know. That would make for the beginning of an interesting story.


Well, that brings us to the end of the apes...for now. I hear there's another movie in the works, called War for the Planet of the Apes, set to be released next July. I suppose it will be good to revisit this topic then.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Likely Story: Planet of the Apes...the novel

I'd forgotten that Pierre Boulle's novel (in French: La Planete des Singes) has a framing device. It's a pretty good novel, I think. Boulle himself didn't much care for it. He also wrote Bridge over the River Kwai.

Planet of the Apes, 1963.

A couple is taking a pleasure cruise through the cosmos when they find a "message in a bottle" sort of thing. They read the manuscript inside, and it's the story of a man named Ulysse Merou, who was on the first manned interstellar flight. He and two other men went to a planet near Betelgeuse, on which they land. It's habitable for humans, and they soon find humans. Unfortunately, the people there are human in shape but not in mentality; they're animals, plain and simple--they can't talk. Soon, they're attacked by apes. Ulysse is captured and caged.

Soon he starts communicating with a receptive chimp named Zira, and eventually learns the apes' language. He demonstrates his intelligence before the apes at large, and is treated well for a while. We learn that Zira's fiance Cornelius is investigating ape origins, and the three go to an archaeological site that is older than anything apes have found. Ape history goes back about ten thousand years. At this site, they find evidence that ape civilization was preceded by a human civilization.

Cornelius eventually finds a way to make other humans talk through some weird brain science, and this somehow allows him to tap into racial memories through a woman. This reveals, luckily, exactly what they want to know about their history: namely, that human civilization did precede their own, and that humans began keeping apes as pets and servants, and that the apes slowly gained sapience, and eventually, over time, deposed humanity. Interestingly, when apes learned to talk, the first thing they did was refuse the humans' commands. It's easy to imagine this being Cornelius's story from Escape that the first ape word was "No" (dramatized in Rise).

Eventually the novelty of a talking man wears off among the apes--especially the orangutans. Ulysse has impregnated Nova, and she gives birth to a boy who shows all the signs of sapience. This of course poses a threat to the apes, and the orangutans and gorillas will certainly do something drastic in response. Zira and Cornelius conspire with some other chimps to get the new family off the planet, back to Ulysse's orbiting space craft, and back to earth.

Twist: Earth is now dominated by apes!

The novel ends with the couple finishing the manuscript, and commenting on how it's not plausible because of the intelligence it ascribes to humans. We learn what we've suspected all along: that the vacationing couple are chimps.

If a picture's worth a thousand words, how come there's so much more in a novel than in a film? A novel like Apes, which must be 80,000 words at the most, would only be worth 80 pictures. Film is thousands of frames--and each frame a picture--flickering at 24 per second, for, let's say 90 minutes. That's 7,776,000 pictures. Yet a novel feels richer. Without reducing things to raw data (pictures do take up a lot more space on a hard drive than the thousand words they allegedly represent) I have to say that we must call into question the meaning of "worth."

What I'm getting at is that the novel of Planet of the Apes feels so much denser than the film--any of the films. I love these movies; I'd go so far to say that I like them more than the book on which they're based. But they don't have a human mating dance (yep, that's something that happens in the novel), nor do they have the various speculations about the course of evolution. The narrator and characters in the novel assume a telos, a natural progression of evolution with a species dominating the planet even if they don't assume a specific end point. There's also a lot of discussion of the nature of ape as a verb--to imitate--and its relationship to the apes' sapience. The apes of the Betelgeuse planet are, strangely, stagnant when it comes to their culture, science, and development. It's implied that they haven't advanced since taking over for the humans ten thousand years before Ulysse's arrival. They can imitate, but not generate, if that makes sense. Some chimps are showing their intellect, but it's not many, and they're considered outliers by the orangutans and gorillas; they're not altogether trusted.

This stuff just doesn't fit in a movie very well.

I'm rambling on and on without end, so I think I'll continue this tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Best Stories in the World: KFR

There's this married couple, see, and they're about to celebrate their first anniversary. But their lives are hectic, almost out of control as they try to work hard enough to save money for their first house. Both are full-timers, staying late. So they decide to give themselves a break on their anniversary. On their way home, they pick up a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The husband sets out a picnic blanket on the floor, dims the lights, and pours the wine. The wife gets the plates. They chat and flirt and though things are tough, they see a bright future ahead of them. They don't mind that they're eating cheap food. Until the wife takes her first bite of a drumstick. There's something wrong with it, she says. It tastes weird, and it feels weird. The husband turns the lights up, and they see the tail of a rat hanging down from the battered and fried drumstick.

Is there a better urban legend than the Kentucky Fried Rat? Maybe. I don't know. Who cares? The rat is glorious. So glorious that it persists--just last year a dude reported receiving a rat instead of a chicken from the fast food restaurant. He even supplied photographic evidence. What's even better: the KFC in question had the offending meat tested at "a lab," which determined that it was chicken after all.

The story comes in lots of forms. One with a particular meaning places all the blame on the wife, who promises to cook for the husband but runs out of time, prompting her to get fast food and disguise it with fancy plates and napkins.

I remember teaching folklore right around the time that KFC changed its name to the initials instead of Kentucky Fried Chicken. My students insisted that they did so because their meat had been altered genetically to the point that it couldn't legally be called chicken anymore. Which is awesomely hilarious. I mean, why would anybody think KFC operates its own chicken farms? And believing this urban legend requires a person to believe that science has advance to the point that people can genetically engineer life forms without feathers, beaks, and the like. Sure, scientists can produce embryos with snouts instead of beaks, or turn on the gene that produces teeth, but things haven't progressed that much.

So why is this the best story in the world? Well, all urban legends comment directly on some element of society, some way that we're making ourselves uncomfortable. This one's about food preparation, reminding us that we probably put too much faith in overworked, underpaid teenagers when it comes to giving us things to eat, that we put too much faith in gigantic corporations that probably don't have our best interests in mind when it comes to giving us things to eat. So the story implicates her in the tragedy for not doing her wifely duty. Misogynistic or not, the story is about our failure to engage with our own lives in the important realm of sustenance. I also love it because, like all urban legends, it makes us shudder.

This legend goes back a few decades. Jan Brunvand writes about it in The Vanishing Hitchhiker. Gary Alan Fine devoted an article to it for the Journal of the Folklore Institute.

"If Colonel Sanders was to be careful how he worded it, he could actually advertise an extra piece."

Monday, March 14, 2016

Scars make you strong: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Of the Apes movies made this millennium, this one is the closest to being a remake--of Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, 2014, directed by Matt Reeves.

 It starts with apes fighting a bear and hunting deer. It's been ten years since the battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, and the apes are doing well in their new Redwood home. They haven't seen humans in a couple of years, so they get kind of disturbed when a few show up in their park. Caesar (Serkis again) leads a party to the human stronghold in the city and tells them to stay away. Of course the humans don't--they went into the forest in the first place to try to get a dam working so they can maintain their electricity. See, civilization sort of fell apart after Rise, what with the super-virus killing ninety-some percent of humanity.

Caesar lets the humans get at the dam, but one chimpanzee in particular--Koba (Toby Kebble)--isn't happy with it. Koba was mistreated, scarred, and experimented on by humans, so he's more than a little bit angry at the whole species. He goes to the city and finds out that humans are stockpiling their weaponry. He then steals some guns, and shoots Caesar. But nobody sees him do it, so the rest of the apes are convinced when Koba says that a human did it. Based on that, Koba is able to lead the apes in an attack on the humans, using the guns they stole and a bunch of horses that they got from who knows where. Lots of dudes and apes die.

But Caesar isn't dead, and the humans who were with the apes take him back to the house where Rodman raised him. There they fix him up, and he goes to confront Koba. The two fight, and Caesar lets Koba fall to his apparent doom. That last bit is important, because one of the ape rules is "Ape Not Kill Ape." Koba recites this to Caesar at the end, but Caesar replies, "You are not ape" before dropping him.

It's pretty grim stuff, but compelling. It's more or less a meditation on the origins and necessities of civilization. Caesar begins the movie with a scowl, which lasts until he's shot. Not even the birth of his second son cheers him up. Once he's revived by the humans, his scowl becomes a frown and he spends the rest of the movie being sad.

Caesar's a great character, but even so when I was watching this movie the first time I was disappointed by it. The whole plot with the dam felt a little light-weight for a movie about revolution and apocalypse. But this time I saw it for what it was--an excuse to throw the humans into conflict with the apes. That's why it doesn't matter that they get the dam going almost immediately. This movie borrows quite a bit from the end of the earlier apes franchise, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, in which Caesar goes into the ruins of the city to find some old recordings of his parents. It doesn't so much matter there, either, why the two groups come into conflict--though in that film the humans attack the apes' settlement. Dawn reverses that.

Battle and Dawn both highlight the ambivalence of civilization. Neither side can claim to be wholly good. Caesar's decision to drop Koba at the end highlights this. In Battle, the conflict among the apes is also inter-species; Koba's role is filled by a gorilla general named Aldo, and Aldo falls to his death through no action of Caesar's. Chimps dominate Dawn. One orangutan, Maurice from the previous film, gets some screen time, and there are gorillas, but not named or given anything to do but be intimidating.

Where Battle felt unnecessary to me because Caesar had rejected violence at the end of Conquest, this one isn't about rejecting violence. It's about, in some ways, purging the violent or undesirable element...through violence. That's the bleak part about it. It seems to be saying that civilization will always have that element, no matter how you try to eradicate it. Even redefining the problem doesn't get rid of it; it's merely rationalization. Once the apes have language, what do they do with it?

I've been interested in these movies partly because of the potential to explore a culture of another species. It's one thing that speculative fiction can do really well when it wants to--show us how someone other than us solves the same problems we encounter. Speculative ethnography. In the apes movies, we get very little culture (movies really aren't suitable to any sort of deep depiction). So we see that the female chimps attending Cornelia's labor are wearing weird face veils, which they may or may not wear during other times (not all of them wear the veils, which seem to be made of shells or something, can't really tell). The standard is to show viewers an education scene, in which kids are being taught something. Battle did that, making it fit into the conflict between the gorilla and chimpanzee ways of doing things, and showing us the second-class (or maybe fourth-class) status humans endured so soon after the revolution. Dawn gives us one such scene, during which apes are being taught by Maurice. That's where we first see the "Ape Not Kill Ape" rule. We also see their sign language, since even the best of them can speak only haltingly, with great difficulty. I'm no expert on sign language, but it looks like they've developed their own based on what Maurice and Caesar knew before their escape. I like that about the film.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Superman Links

I was surprised to learn that the Batman/Superman movie is coming out in two weeks. That explains why there are so many articles about Superman on various websites. Here are a few that seem interesting.

The m0vie blog is running a series of retrospectives examining Batman and Superman comics stories. Here's the one on Superman Unchained; one on Morrison's Action Comics run, and on about Superman and the Joker.

Speaking of the movie, IO9 put up this article about how Zack Snyder has responded to criticism of the ending of Man of Steel.

"There's nothing wrong with Superman, and hating him only proves there's something wrong with us."

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Your ape...he spoke: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

There's a lot to unpack in this film. Of all the Apes movies, this one feels like it was written with somebody like me in mind.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011, directed by Rupert Wyatt.

At Gen-Sys, a laboratory in San Francisco, Will Rodman (James Franco) is trying to cure Alzheimers's disease with some kind of virus. They test on apes, and one of them shows results. But that ape goes on a rampage and is killed. They then discover that she has a son. Ordered to kill all the apes, Rodman brings the baby home to hide him. They name the baby Caesar (Andy Serkis).

Caesar inherited whatever changes the virus/drug wrought on his mother--specifically, he's extremely intelligent. Pan sapiens. Eventually his presence in Rodman's house is discovered (eight years later) and Caesar is taken to an ape sanctuary place. He's tormented by the apes and the men who run the place. But he's smart, and rises to the top of the food chain among the apes. He then steals the virus that Rodman used to make them smarter and exposes the rest of the apes to it. Then the apes kill one of the guys who run the place and escape. They set loose the apes from the zoo and Gen-Sys lab, and make their way to a redwood park north of the city. On the way, they wreak havoc in the city and confront the authorities on the Golden Gate Bridge. They win the big battle, and go to the park to make their new home.

Then there's the virus. Rodman gave it to his father to see if it would work, and it does for a while. Then the Alzheimer's gets worse, so Rodman makes the drug/virus more aggressive. During one trial on a chimp (named Koba), one of the guys in the lab is exposed to the new virus. He gets sick, spreads the sickness to a pilot, and dies. The pilot then spreads the virus, and eventually it goes global.

Also, we're told that NASA has launched the first manned mission to Mars, which disappears.

This is Caesar's movie. Andy Serkis and the technology are great. I like the story itself, which has an ambiguous relationship with the previous Apes movies. Based on just this film, we can say for sure that Escape, Battle, and Conquest didn't happen, at least not precisely the way they played out. This Caesar isn't the son of Zira and Cornelius. Yet the mission to Mars leaves open the events of the first two films.

What I like about this film is that it jettisons the time travel components. I found Taylor going forward in time okay, but once the apes came backward and planted the seed for apes evolving and taking over, I was sort of disappointed. I'm not much of a fan of stories that devolve into a "loop of inevitability." It's okay, but it's not terribly compelling. At least to me.

In addition, this film provides a more realistic way for the apes to develop intelligence. Instead of a single generation, in which apes evolve without any explanation (as in Conquest), we're given the Alzheimer's therapy. It's still easy, but it allows for several generations to develop sapience and fully upright posture. And the fact that Caesar inherits the changes allows us to accept, if we want, that he's even more developed than the first generation. He can talk, which means that the difference is physical, not merely neurological.

Then there's the virus, which allows humanity to descend as the apes rise. So from my reading, Rise presents a more streamlined (as in no time travel) sequence of events for the ape ascension. It also shows them as being apes, which makes sense because they're just regular apes for most of the movie.

There are still references to Apes 68--"Bright Eyes" being the first. And Draco Malfoy utters Heston's "stinking paws" line. I watched one of the special features and learned that the writers named the drug ALZ112 because the first apes movie was 112 minutes long. That's...well...I guess, why not? Apparently the story took shape because of the little bit of ape lore from Escape, in which Cornelius tells us that the first ape to speak said, "No." In the earlier version, the defiant ape certainly wasn't Caesar. Still, I like that they went that way with it.

It's Caesar's movie, and it's only because of him that it works. In the beginning, I pitied him. He was stuck in the house, watching the world around him, unsure of what kind of creature he was. It gets worse when he's taken to the sanctuary, beaten by Rocket the chimp. Then the emotion he evokes changes; he becomes chilling as he takes over. When he's teaching the apes sign language and the human owner of the sanctuary sees him, the look on Caesar's face is calculating, cold, and confident. At this point, he's kind of a villain, from a certain point of view.

It's interesting that the movie doesn't make any substantial comment on the animal drug trials. We're not invited to condemn Rodman for testing on chimps. We might interpret the virus and the subsequent downfall of human civilization as comment enough, but it's not framed that way (and by Dawn, the drug is all but forgotten, along with Rodman). We are invited to despise Rodman's boss, whose motivation for sponsoring the drug research isn't so much to cure a disease as it is to make money. His story doesn't end well. Rodman's, on the other hand, who illegally tries the drug on his own father and illegally keeps a chimp (though it might be legally done; we don't get the details), doesn't really end at all. He wants to help Caesar, and he's turned away at the end.

Yet we're invited to root for the apes. Americans tend to root for the underdogs, and a bunch of apes facing off against machine guns and helicopters is an underdog story. Point of view matters a lot in the apes movies. Who's dehumanized, who advocates war and bloodshed, who faces insurmountable odds? These questions matter. I'm reminded of the shift in tone that happens during Escape; in the first bit, things are meant to be light and fun, but then Cornelius has to kill a dude, and things get tense for the rest of the series. Here, we begin with pity, for Caesar as well as for Rodman and his father. That leads to simultaneously rooting for Caesar to escape and worry about what will happen when he does. Is Caesar a hero? Of course; he's an ape hero. And we're apes, albeit with considerably less hair.

Watching this film, you can't ignore the ambiguous relationship it has with its predecessors. Will things turn out as they do in Apes 68, with an ape society that's strictly hierarchical in terms of its distribution of knowledge, that's slave-based, that's essentially no better than anything humans have come up with? Or will Caesar learn anything from how he was treated and pass that on? Then again, Apes 68 takes place well into the future, so things will have changed regardless. Caesar's best intentions might not matter in 1500 years. A lot of movies can take place during that time frame.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Best Stories in the World: Ali of Persia

I'm calling it right now: "Ali of Persia" is the greatest story in the world...I write that with only a little irony.

In the story Shahrazad tells from nights 294 to 296 of the 1001 Nights, Haroun al-Raschid, protector of the faithful, is bored. He calls for a story, and this is what he gets:

This guy named Ali (he's from Persia, as you've probably figured, but he lives in Baghdad) goes to Cairo. When he arrives, this other guy comes up and grabs his satchel, claiming that he lost it yesterday. The two of them fight over it, and they're taken to the qadi (i.e., a judge). "Tell me what's in the bag," says the qadi, quite sensibly. "Whosoever gets it right is the rightful owner."

The thief goes first. He says (and it's worth quoting directly from Malcolm C. Lyons's translation): "In it there are two silver kohl sticks, together with kohl for my eyes, a hand towel in which placed two gilt cups and two candlesticks. There are two tents, two basins, a cooking pot, two clay jars, a ladle, a pack needle, two provision bags, a cat, two bitches, on large bowl and two large sacks, a gown, two furs, a cow with two calves, one goat, two sheep, a ewe with two lambs, two green pavilions, one male and two female camels, a buffalo, two bulls, a lioness and two lions, a she-bear, two foxes, a mattress, two couches, a palace, two halls, a colonnade, two chairs, a kitchen with two doors and a group of Kurds who will bear witness to the fact that this is my bag."

That having been said, and without batting an eye at the list, the qadir asks Ali what's in the bag. Ali says, " little ruined house and another one with no door, a dog kennel and a boys' school, with boys playing dice. It had tents and their ropes, the cities of Basra and Baghdad, the palace of Shaddad ibn 'Ad, a blacksmith's forge, a fishing net, sticks, tent pegs, girls, boys, and a thousand pimps who will testify that the bag is mine."

Then the first guy strengthens his case: "In it are fortresses and castles, cranes, beasts of prey, chess players and chessboards. there is a mare and two foals, a stallion and two horses, together with two long spears. It also has a lion, two hares, a city and two villages, a prostitute with two villainous pimps, a hermaphrodite, two good-for-nothings, one blind man and two who can see, a lame man and two who are paralyzed, a priest, two deacons, a patriarch and two monks, a qadi and two notaries, and these will bear witness that this is my bag."

The qadi gives Ali one last chance to prove it's his bag, and Ali says, "In this bag of mine is a coat of mail, a sword and stores of weapons. there are a thousand butting rams, a sheep-fold, a thousand barking dogs, orchards, vines, flowers, scented herbs, figs, apples, pictures and statues, bottles and drinking cups, beautiful slave girls, singing girls, wedding feasts with noise and tumult, wide open spaces, successful men, dawn raiders with swords, spears, bows and arrows, friends, dear ones companions, comrades, men imprisoned and awaiting punishment, drinking companions, mandolins, flutes, banners and flags, boys, girls, unveiled brides and singing slave girls. There are five girls from Abyssinia, three from India, four from al-Medina, twenty from Rum, fifty Turkish girls and seventy Persians, eighty Kurdish girls and ninety Georgians. The Tigris and the Euphrates are there, together with a fishing net, flint and steel for striking sparks, Iram of the Columns and a thousand good-for-nothings and pimps. there are exercise grounds, stables, mosques, baths, a builder, a carpenter, a plank of wood, a nail, a black slave with a fife, a captain and a groom, cities and towns, a hundred thousand dinars, Kufa and al-Anbar, twenty chests filled with materials, fifty storehouses for food, Gaza, Ascalon, the land from Damietta to Aswan, the palace of Chosroe Anushirwan, the kingdom of Solomon and the land from Wadi Nu'man to Khurasan, as well as Balkh and Isfahan and what lies between India and the land of the Blacks. It also contains--May God prolong the life of our master the qadi--gowns, turban cloth and a thousand sharp razors to shave off the qadi's beard, unless he fears my vengeance and rules that the bag is mine."

Acknowledging the oddity of what he has just heard, the qadi orders the bag opened. In it were a piece of bread, lemons, cheese, and olives.

The caliph Haroun al-Raschid hears this and laughs until he falls over.

This story is often referred to as "The Wonderful Bag," and believe it or not it has been illustrated as a children's book. Also, heaven help us, it was adapted for theater.

So why is this the greatest story in the world? Seriously? Didn't you just read it? What in the world is going on with this story, do you think? Why would someone invent it? There's probably some clue to be found in the escalation of items found in the bag. I don't know. Honestly, my favorite part is that Ali says the bag contains "wide open spaces."

Monday, March 7, 2016

Get your hands off me: Planet of the Apes (2001)

What does it say about a movie that I can't pick out any memorable lines, even though I finished watching it less than one minute ago? All that lingers are references to Apes 68, and that weird run through the ape caves when the humans are escaping.

Planet of the Apes, 2001, directed by Tim Burton.

The movie starts on a space station, testing chimps (and, apparently, other apes) as pilots to go into situations that might be dangerous for humans.  A few minutes in, and they send out a chimp named Pericles to explore this weird space storm thing. When they lose contact, a pilot named Davidson (Mark Wahlburg) steals a ship and goes after it. Things get all screwy because of the storm, and Davidson crashes on a planet. His ship sinks.

Almost immediately, a bunch of people almost run right into him. They're being chased by apes, who capture a lot of them, including Davidson. He's given to an orangutan named Limbo, apparently for some sort of experimentation. It's never clear to me what's supposed to happen. While being sized up, Davidson grabs a sympathetic ape named Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), threatening her in order to get free. Instead, for some reason, Ari agrees to buy him from Limbo. So, along with the pretty girl with whom he was captured, he's now a slave in Ari's house. They escape, bringing along Ari's dad and brother (?). The dad dies along the way. For whatever reason, Ari and her gorilla friend Krull go with them, and they capture Limbo along the way. A bunch of other junk happens, and eventually the group finds the space station ship thingy from the beginning of the movie. Even though it's apparently been a whole long time, the batteries still work, so they learn that the apes on the ship--who have been tampered with scientifically--eventually killed everybody and are apparently the ancestors of the sapient apes on the planet.

The apes have followed the gang to the ship, and they attack. When things look bleak for our heroes, the ape test pilot Pericles shows up. This confuses people and the fighting stops. Then Pericles goes into the ship--that's what he was trained to do--followed by the bad ape general and Davidson. There's some irrelevant fighting, and then it's over. And Davidson gets in Pericles's ship and tries to get back home. He leaves Pericles behind for some reason. Anyway, he goes back through the storm and crashes on Earth, which is now dominated by apes.

It's not a great movie. When Davidson and his gang arrive at the old ship, all of a sudden all these other people show up and start treating him like he's the messiah or something. It's weird, and out of nowhere, and doesn't contribute to the story or character development other than to have a bunch of humans there to fight the ape army when they arrive. Then there's the chase scene, in which Davidson et. al. run through a bunch of apes' bedrooms in caves because there don't seem to be any doors on anybody's rooms. This is where we learn some stuff about the apes' lives (worshiping, doing weird mating dances, etc.), but it plays so strangely that I can't even say any more about it.

The ape effects are great, though. Rick Baker is, of course, the best there is at this stuff. There was a lot of attention to ape behavior, from facial tics to the way they walk and run. There's even a moment of brachiation that no other Apes film has bothered to show us. And the male orangutans actually have cheek pouches. However, and oddly, the movie seems to think that apes have incredibly strong legs, capable of standing long jumps that put Olympic athletes to shame. That's a weird thing for them to evolve.

The previous Apes movies have all explored some aspect of something beyond themselves. In the first, it was dehumanization and the nature of civilization, with a bit of youth culture commentary thrown in. Others were about what makes us human, over and against what makes an animal in our eyes, or the threat of nuclear annihilation, or the cost of violence. Stuff like that. I can't really say that this film is about anything other than Planet of the Apes movies. There's stuff in here that only works if you've got knowledge about the previous films, and it suffers for that.

I'm not really sure what they were going for with that ending, though. Where were they going to take it for a sequel? I guess it doesn't really matter. Like gigantopithecus, this one's an evolutionary dead end.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The greatest danger of all is that danger never ends: Battle for the Planet of the Apes

Not the best way to end the series. But then, if it didn't end badly, it probably wouldn't ever end. Oh, wait...

Battle for the Planet of the Apes, 1973, directed by J. Lee Thompson.

We see that the gorillas are militant, the chimps are smart, and the orangutans are...there. Half a generation or so has passed since the night of fires, and ape society is doing its best. Humans are second-class, if that. They're not allowed to say "no" to an ape. The gorillas are all for exterminating what few humans there are. Things aren't going well, so MacDonald (not the black guy from Conquest, but his brother, which is weird; they even refer to the brother, but he's not in it, just like this brother was referred to in Conquest but wasn't in it) tells Caesar, who's in charge, about tapes that will allow Caesar to hear his parents talk and help him figure out how to deal with the problems in his society. Caesar, MacDonald, and an orangutan named Virgil to go to the nearest city. They do hear the tapes, and find out how bad things turn out--for both humans and apes.

But of course the mutants living under the city discover them. They follow the group and find their settlement, and decide to destroy it. They've got lots of guns and bombs, see.

Back at the settlement, the gorillas are trying to take over. Caesar's son Cornelius overhears the gorillas' plans, so the gorillas (well, the lead rabble-rouser Aldo anyway) tries to kill the kid. He only partly does the job. Then the humans attack, and the apes defeat them.

With his dying breath, Cornelius reveals that Aldo is his killer. When everyone learns that Aldo has violated the inviolable ape rule of "Ape shall never kill ape," they forsake his attempt to take over. Caesar confronts him, though it's not a fight. They just climb a tree and Aldo falls out, to his death.

There's a framing mechanism, in which the Lawgiver is telling the story of this battle. At the end, we learn that he's teaching it to a bunch of human and chimp kids. So learning about the past has, at least six hundred years in the future, allowed Caesar and those who come after him to make a different future than the one that Taylor found in the first two films. Then, we see a statue of Caesar, and for some reason it's crying.

What a horrible way to end the movie, and the series. Why in the world is that statue crying?

Anyway, the coolest thing about the movie is that John Huston plays the Lawgiver. What a great voice. As great as Ian McKellan was as Gandalf, Huston's version from the Rankin/Bass cartoons is the one I hear in my head (though I couldn't reproduce it well when I read Lord of the Rings to my son the first time).

The apes' fashion doesn't change in the thousand years or whatever it is between this movie and the future of the first film, when Taylor arrives. Neither does their English. The fact that everybody speaks English is hard to get around, and I'm willing to forget that. But that they wear exactly the same clothing, divided by species? Not so much.

There's some effort devoted to making the apes move like apes, but it's mostly confined to the way they run and facial twitching. C for effort.

I'm not crazy about the villain falling to his death. It's a cheat, a way that allows for resolution without requiring the hero to kill. 

I couldn't get into this movie. It just seemed so unnecessary to me. I see what they're going for, in establishing that Caesar steers the future away from what Taylor found, but I feel like this was maybe the least interesting way to go about it. And the proto-mutants, who worship the nuclear weapon that Taylor eventually sets off, aren't very interesting. I'm not sure what I was looking for in this movie, which I don't think I'd seen before (except in its more recent reconfiguration as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), but this wasn't it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

In case you were wondering exactly what kind of nerd I am...

So the other day I was listening to The Beatles's "Across the Universe." Now, the thing about me you need to understand is that I can't understand song lyrics. I mean, I never know exactly what the words are unless I read them. I usually just have to make them up if I want to sing along in my head, because I'm not one to look them up.

So, "Across the Universe" is on, and for the first time I realize that I have no idea what the chorus is. Never have. It doesn't even sound like it's in English (and it isn't, of course). I understand that "Nothing's gonna change my world" well enough, but what's that next line? You probably already know what it is--this is the Beatles, after all. You want to know what I'd thought it was, for like the last two decades?

"Shai Hulud Avon."

Yup, I thought John Lennon was singing about the sand worms from Dune.

And, yeah, I just accepted that I didn't understand the last bit. 

Turns out he was singing "Jai Guru Deva Om," a transcendental meditation mantra about dispelling darkness and enlightenment and whatnot. Apparently he learned that from some bracelets he got in India.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Now that I know they won't kill me, I don't enjoy them: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Roddy McDowall returns as his own ape son. Armando (Ricardo Montalban) is back, too. This film follows from the more intense ending of the last. There's little humor, lots of social commentary, even a black guy, which allows for some reflection on race.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes: 1972, directed by J. Lee Thompson.

The story starts 20 years after Escape, at which point apes have already gone from pets to slaves in the wake of the space virus that killed all the dogs and cats (no mention of the fate of pet fish, hamsters, and birds, though I presume they're dead, too). Caesar (now all grown up) is brought to town--though I don't think which city they're in is ever stated--by Armando to advertise the circus. The ape has a hard time seeing how humanity treats the apes, and when one ape is being beaten badly, Caesar yells at the police. Since he's not supposed to be able to talk, the police confront them. Caesar runs, but Armando goes to the police so as to try to avoid suspicion of Caesar being Cornelius and Zira's son. Caesar blends in with the rest of the apes, and is eventually bought by the mayor. Armando, meanwhile, dies in police custody after trying to deny that Caesar is intelligent. Caesar finds out, and his hatred for humanity increases.

Eventually, the mayor finds out that Caesar is the talking ape. He orders an execution, but his assistant MacDonald, who just happens to be black, balks at the idea--even after he learns that Caesar can talk. So MacDonald saves Caesar, who then gets out and organizes and ape revolution. They take over the city, and Caesar at first calls for ape rule and what sounds like brutality toward humanity. Then he steps back and says that they'll show mercy to the mayor and others. The city is burning.

Okay, a couple of things. First, that last scene is pretty weird. The apes have won the city, and they've got the mayor in their hands. The gorillas stand ready to execute him, and at first Caesar is going to give the order. But MacDonald tells him that this wasn't supposed to be how it was and he shouldn't be so violent. Then Caesar gives a rousing speech about taking over and ruling and making humans their servants. At the end, I expected all the gorillas to cheer, but everybody just stood there quietly for a moment. Then a few gorillas raised their weapons like they're going to kill the mayor, but the woman chimp speaks for the first time and says, "No." Caesar then tells everybody that they're going to be kinder than the humans have been to them. And the film ends.

Second, at one point MacDonald is talking to the (white) mayor about treating the apes like slaves. The mayor says, "All of us were slaves once, in one sense or another." And MacDonald doesn't so much reply--he's only the assistant, after all.

There's a lot more ape behavior in this one, since there are a lot more apes that aren't so far removed from their current evolutionary form. Except for Caesar, they can't talk yet. So there's lots of grunting and arm waving; at the beginning, Armando even has to teach Caesar to walk more like an ape, using his shoulders more, so he fits in. Yet all the apes walk more upright than their wild forebears, and they've got hands that are more like human hands. And the female chimp talks at the end. Those are huge evolutionary changes in a single generation. So, now, let's deconstruct that notion.

Conquest is set in the 1990s, at which time humans have already been far into outer space. Things are different, especially when it comes to science. They've got suspended animation, which we learned in the first Apes movie. So why not advances in evolutionary biology: let's say that, upon adopting apes as pets, and discovering just how useful they were as servants/slaves, people started modifying them. A more upright posture would free the hands for more tasks. Following that, modify the fingers and thumb for better tactile use. But don't give them speech--they still know Zira and Cornelius's tale about the end of human civilization and fear talking apes. I actually think it makes more sense for the government to be afraid of talking apes if they'd set apes down a different evolutionary path already. They're afraid of their own creation. Why not?

I liked this movie a lot. There's an extended sequence in which we see the apes preparing themselves for revolution. They do apparently simple things in protest, like keep a lighter away from the lady who utters the quotation I put in the title of this post. Or polish a guy's sock instead of his shoe. Or dump over trash and start stomping on it. And in the background of all these acts of protest, Caesar watches, nodding his approval. Caesar goes from a guy being swept up in something to an underground guerrilla leader. It's pretty cool. I liked watching his struggle with the fact that he couldn't speak or he'd give himself away.

Monday, February 15, 2016

So were your mother and father: Escape from the Planet of the Apes

The scale is smaller, the budget is smaller, yet the stakes are higher. Strangely, the escape from the planet of the apes has already been accomplished by the time the movie opens. Unless you want to see the title as somewhat more figurative, which is worth pursuing.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes: 1971, directed by Don Taylor.

The movie opens with Taylor's space ship ocean. Some military guys bring it to shore and out come Zira, Cornelius, and and ape we've never met before named Milo (he dies early on). The apes don't talk, and they're taken to a zoo infirmary where, eventually, they reveal to a veterinary psychologist (Dr. Bratton) that they are intelligent. They're brought before a committee and show the world that they can talk and whatnot. There follows some lighthearted scenes of the apes in human society, buying clothes, drinking wine, hobnobbing, and the like. But there's another scientist, a time travel expert sort of guy named Hasslein, who finds holes in their story and eventually learns that the apes rule the earth in the future and that the planet gets destroyed. Hasslein becomes convinced that the only way to save the future is to kill the apes--including Zira's unborn child. The apes are taken into custody, but they escape, killing a guy in the process. The hunt is on, and Bratton hides them in a circus run by a guy named Armando (played by Ricardo Montalban of all people). Zira has her child--born about the same time as another chimp at the circus. But for reasons I can't recall, the apes can't stay in the circus. Instead, they hide in an old shipyard. They're found, and all three are killed. Another bleak ending...or is it.

Of course not. They need more sequels. So, as was hinted earlier, Zira switched her own baby with that of the other chimp mother at the circus. Armando is fully aware of this, and it's with him and baby Milo that the movie ends. Milo proving his lineage by saying "mama."

Maybe the most interesting thing about this movie is the jarring shift from the apes romping about town with their human entourage and the murderous last act. After the previous movies, you've got to know that something bad is coming, but, man...

As with the previous movies, there's not much interrogation of the concept that an evolved ape would be appreciably different from a human being. There's no distinctly chimpanzee behavior displayed by the adult apes, though the newborns are, interestingly, played by actual apes. Apart from the scene in which one is shot four times, of course. There are a couple of vocalizations on the part of Roddy McDowell/Cornelius that veer toward simian in character, again when he's distressed, but that's it.

We get more of the future history of earth, though, which is interesting. We learn about the plague that killed all the pets and, I think, inspired the direction of the two most recent films. We learn that, though the apes speak English, they don't know it by that name.  We learn that people started keeping apes as pets, and that eventually apes gained sapience and learned to talk through close contact with humans.

There was an opportunity to critique the culture of the time, with the apes being clothed in human trappings, but it's largely not taken. This isn't that kind of movie, though I wish it would have been, at least a little. A little less plot, a little more of the ape perspective on 1970s America could have been really interesting.

Still, I liked this movie. I don't recall anything about its two sequels, though, so I'm interested to see where they go.