Archive | February, 2014

Sayings I Don’t Like: Failure is not an Option.

24 Feb

“Failure is not an option.”

Let me ask you this, in any endeavor run with good faith, is there any reason why one would choose to fail?  I guess there are situations where failure is an option, but the norm is that we do things to succeed.   It’s human nature.     So part of the reason I hate this saying is that I find it to be nonsense.   Failure sometimes is mandatory–after all, certain parts of any plan will fail, and then the planners will change things as needed.  That’s the normal process for things.   Also all things, given enough time, eventually fail.

I also loathe this saying because it’s the kind of t-shirt message that really means nothing.   It sounds like a positive bit of pappy advice, but what it hides is not quite so positive:  perfectionism.

Perfectionists believe that failure is not an option, and perfectionists are a stressed out and unhappy lot.   Failure being not an option does not allow people to take risks or to change anything.    It’s the sergeant’s bark to get you back in line.  Can you imagine telling some baby learning to walk that failure is not an option, so they either need to walk correctly or to sit and do nothing?   To walk, one must fall down over and over and over again, learning each time.

Well I’m here to tell you that failure is and will always be an option.    You can fail at anything, and you can choose to fail at anything.    I invite you to have a great big wonderful messy failure.  To choose to make one.   Fall on your face today, and live to laugh about it.

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LIST: My Favorite Animals

23 Feb

Well guys, today I’m going back to elementary school, and letting you know what my favorite animals and creatures are.   So let’s jump in.

1.  Hedgehogs–It’s a miniporcupine that can’t stick you.   They are so adorable, and watching them just wander about is like watching a toy!

2.   Seahorses–Unearthly, odd creatures that look like something made in a scientist’s workshop.  They also are one of the few creatures where the males carry the young.

3. Black Panthers–These are the bad-ass cats.   Unfortunately they are genetic mutations and not a real breed of anything.

4.  Golden Retrievers–While I generally like dogs, the Golden Retrievers I’ve met have been exceptionally loyal, intelligent, playful, and warm.   There’s something about them that makes me melt a little.

5.  Raccoons–Many see these creatures as pests (which they certainly can be) however, they are so very smart that I can’t help but be impressed with them.

6.  Dragonflies–Unfortunately dragonflies live in places which have other less beloved insects, but I think they are beautiful.

7. Preying Mantis–Another one of those creatures that look like something made in a  lab.

8.  Otters–The funnest most playful creatures around.

9.   Hummingbirds–I run into them now and then here in Portland.   They sound like they’re made of electricity.

10.    Goldfish–They are very common, but I think they are absolutely stunning.   Sometimes the simplest things are the most beautiful.

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

17 Feb

Inside Llewyn Davis is an extremely uncomfortable masterpiece from the Coen brothers.   What we get is a day in the life of Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk musician in Greenwich Village in the early sixties.  His failure has made him hostile, and his stubborn clinging to artistic credulity limits his options.

This movie really points at the flaws in the American Dream.   First, if you have a dream and work hard enough you will eventually succeed.  Nobody works harder than Llewyn, and he goes nowhere.   The people around him who have a chance of success are no more talented, and often have less passion for the work than Llewyn does.   He’s surrounded by ghosts of his future, people who have followed his road–and none of the endings are happy.  We’ve got John Goodman as the Jazz musician who’s addicted to heroin, Justin Timberlake whose bland persona covers up a suburban worldview where he ignores things that will be obvious trouble later, Carrie Mulligan raging at the whole world, Llewyn’s father who is sinking into blankness under dementia, the professor who has a collector’s appreciation of music, but no feeling for it–nobody in this movie gets fulfillment from their art.

That’s the second myth that this movie pokes holes in–if you follow your bliss, the whole world will unfold before you.   In this movie, Llewyn Davis sacrifices everything for his music.  He throws away his childhood things in a box by the curb, he is broke, he has no place to live, he only has his guitar and a desire to sing–and that makes for a very hard life.   The truth is, he cannot feed off his dreams forever–sooner or later something is going to break.    The world doesn’t run by the secret–wanting something bad enough does not make it happen.

Also talent has nothing to do with it.  Every example in this movie of somebody succeeding has nothing to do with how talented they are or not.   One man in the Army who’s slated for success merely picked up folk singing to pass the time.   The hit song that they recorded was  a novelty.  In fact, for all the music happening in this film, nobody really ever talks about music outside of it being a business.   It’s also clear that the people who are in position to make or break these folkies often have little appreciation for the music.  In fact, during Llewyn’s visit to Chicago, he meets up with a man who’s the biggest producer in folk music, and he mostly judges him in terms of being able to connect with an audience, than how good he is.

Then there’s the myth of the exceptional person.    Nearly every movie is about a person who has that special something which marks them for greatness.  We are told since the beginning of our lives that we are special and we can be anything we want.  Can we?  What if we’re perfectly ordinary?  Or what if we’re even pretty talented and that doesn’t matter?   For many, this is a very depressing thought.  We want to feel like we’re completely in control of our destinies, but generally, we’re not.  Puncturing that illusion of control and significance is a big ego bruise, after all we are all stars in our own lives.   Why isn’t that enough?

In the end Bob Dylan shows up on the stage to perform just as Davis is leaving.   It’s hard to know what we’re meant to feel seeing this.   Perhaps it’s a bit of happiness that somebody gets to become an artist in all this, but at the same time, Dylan is the one who will eventually make the whole folk music scene irrelevant in a few years time.    Also while Dylan is a visionary genius, Llewyn is merely a talented musician.

I find this movie to be excellent–a deconstruction of music history while having every shot look like one of those classic folk covers.   My only quibble is that Justin Timberlake is a very muggy actor.   It’s like everything he says or does is a smirky Saturday night live joke.   Not enough to ruin the movie, but still.

Thoughts on Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

16 Feb

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Ok, so I just finished Perdido Street Station, a book that is highly divisive with readers.   People either seem to find it a mesmerizing world to fall into, or an overlong big baggy monster of a book.   I am definitely in the former camp.   I’m not going to do a formal review on this one, because egads it’s just fricking huge.  It would take a book just to describe this book to you.   However, there’s some things I noticed:

1.  This is Mieville’s anti-Tolkien epic:  Instead of going on a fantasy world tour, our protagonists stay in one city.  Instead of pseudo medieval times, we’re set in imaginary Victorian.   The main characters do not have hearts of gold, and aren’t particularly special.   The threat is not world threatening (though serious).   The landscape is unclean, dripping with filth and garbage on every page.   The good guys don’t get rewarded and the bad guys don’t get punished.   I could go on and on but Mieville is going out of his way to show that you don’t have to get a group of people to destroy an item that can destroy the world to have a credible fantasy novel.

2.  The steampunk moniker is overrated:  I don’t see this book as being particularly steampunk.  I don’t mind that.  Steampunk to me is a style–it often has things that look cool but have  no substance behind it.  While the city of Bas-Lag does seem a product of Dickens’s worst nightmares, at the same time you don’t have any of the steampunk silliness of hirsute handlebar mustachioed men riding rocket unicycles in space.

3.  The animal/human/computer division has broken down:  Throughout this book we see humans being twisted and distorted as the remade into completely unnatural beings.  We’ve got people with bug’s heads, bird people, fish people, cactus people, hand people who use people like puppets, robots who gain consciousness and people who lose it.

4.  The theme of choice:  There’s a big bit explaining how the garuda (bird people) hold choice as sacred, and removing other people’s choices is the basis of all crime.   While we really don’t see that system in action, we do see how most of our characters through most of the book have absolutely no choices–rather they are completely manipulated by New Crobuzon, their environment.   In fact, I can see only three places where an individual has a choice and the power to follow through on it.   Isaac chooses to start work on getting Agarak flying again, Lin chooses to take a job with Mr. Motley, and Isaac chooses not to give flight to Angarak in the end due to his crime.   Even in these three choices the characters do not have the foresight to know the possible consequences to these choices.     Even the powerful are largely reacting to forces beyond their control.

5.  The Weaver:  My favorite character.  This spider trickster and his devotion to beauty (on his terms) just delights in any scene he’s in.   He cuts off peoples ears, collects scissors, plays tic-tac-toe with a dead man, dresses people up in fancy dress before dropping them off in a sewer.  He is pure raw energy, uncontrollable, and a scene stealer.

6.  The Ending:  There’s a lot of complaints about the ending.  It’s an ending that is no ending, the protagonists merely leave and nobody wins.   Yes, the slake moths are dead, but in a way, the moths’ threat of drinking people’s consciousness is not gone.  In fact you could argue that New Crobuzon does exactly the same thing, it’s just that the moths are more efficient.

On the whole a very satisfying read.  I highly recommend it.  Just know that this book is VERY dark, not a beach read at all.

 

Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings

11 Feb

Ok, so I’m talking about the books here, not the movies.  I like the movies, but it’s an incredibly different thing entirely from the book–with different strengths and weaknesses.

So The Lord of the Rings might be one of the most influential pieces of literature written in the 20th century.   Fantasy as a genre emerged because of this book alone.   The Epic, which really hadn’t been a viable format since the death of popular poetry and operas, came roaring back to life.   What’s more, Tolkien made something that was somehow both extraordinarily popular, and artistically viable.   In fact, The Lord of the Rings often comes up as the set of books that nearly any reader will have a fondness towards.

The interesting thing is that China Mieville, whose wonderful books I’ve been reading lately (reviews will come) does not like Tolkien at all.    He calls him “a wen on the arse of fantasy.”  Personally I wouldn’t go that far, I love The Lord of the Rings.

But I see his point.

Tolkien might be the biggest influence on fantasy, but that doesn’t mean he was a GOOD influence.    After The Lord of the Rings it was impossible to have a fantasy novel that wasn’t a Tolkienesque epic–the whole thing is such a cliche by now.

Also, what exactly is Tolkien really saying? (Tolkien often resisted the idea that he was saying anything, by the way, however–I don’t believe him.)

So he neatly divides his middle-earth into two groups–good and evil.   There’s a FEW people you could say were neutral…maybe, but everyone else is wonderfully good or terribly evil.   So what separates the two?

GOOD:  Individualistic, team playing, rule-following, human or human-like, domestic, ordered

EVIL:  Greedy, Power hungry, hordes, cruel, irredeemable, disordered, love of chaos

So to go against these evil hordes we get an elite team of special members that can destroy these hordes.  Added on to that the support of fate and prophecy (because they are good), they’re pretty much guaranteed to succeed.   Yes, they might have some losses, but still there will be mostly rewards for the good and punishments for the evil.

The fight is usually over 1 all powerful item (the ring) which will destroy the world if it falls in the wrong hands.   Here’s the issue I have here–the Dark Lord wants to destroy the world and basically run it.  He’d rather be king of a trash heap than a peon in a palace.   However, he never wants anything BUT that, in fact he’s a disembodied face that is just evil.   He already has a lot of power, but he doesn’t seem to use it for anything, and is willing to risk everything in order to make sure he owns each and every inch of this blasted land.  His followers follow him because they’re basically hitching their wagon to the star.   And that’s my problem.   Never do our heroes get caught in the throws of two equally valid options–one is always the good option, and the other is the evil one, and it’s such an extreme way to view the world.

Also, funnily enough, we see the good guys kill a lot more than the evil ones do. Now if this wasn’t such a moralistic trope (rag-tag gang of good guys fight evil), I wouldn’t mind, but the emphasis is so much on how good and pure-hearted they are, and I’m not so sure they have earned it.

I mean, the reason they are “the good guys” are because society chose them–they were born into it, because of prophecy, because of secret royal lineage, they are special–they–and only they–are meant to lead society to a new age.

And what’s weird with these good guys–it’s totally ok to kill some people if they’re the right (evil) sort of people to kill.   It’s ok for whole cultures to die out and move on, because their time is past and the good guys time is now, they never have to worry about money, they rarely worry about ordinary people (beneath them), they are constantly hanging out with the elite, worrying with the elite, and protecting the elite.  That is where their loyalties lie.

The reason why Mieville snubs TLOTR is simple–it’s a sham construct–that there’s a group of “good people” that are better at ruling the world.  It’s elitism and classism, and while I know that’s only one way to read this book, it’s hard for me to say that the Tolkeinesque fantasy is pretty escapist–it’s about being an order where good people get rewarded and bad people get punished.   It’s kind of a sham that really tells us more about our inner desires than anything about people or the way they work.  We are looking at idealized individuals, not real ones.

I still love The Lord of the Rings–the knock-offs, not so much.  The reason whole generations of fantasy readers could go through reading essentially the same story over and over, is it’s a security blanket.  We like the stability, we like that it’s completely predictable, we like that the characters are little more than broad generalizations and stereotypes.

But perhaps, it might be time to put the security blanket down.   There’s so much more to see!

Essay: The Bottom of the Internet

9 Feb

A couple of days ago I ran across a phrase that I really liked–“the bottom of the internet.”  I don’t remember what article I read it in, and for all I know it’s a common phrase that will show everyone how uncool I really am.   What it was referring to was the comments section that is pretty much standard on any website.

In the mid-90’s, back when I was in school and the internet was called the information superhighway (remember that?)  one way people imagined cyberculture was a place where people could have in depth discussions about many topics and a sort of enlightenment would come about.  That hasn’t happened.  In fact, it became clear rather quickly that people wouldn’t cluster around discussions about platonic ideals or, symbolism in 18th century poetry, or which painter had the most masterful use of the color red.   Nope–what we get are memes, porn, and trollish snarking.   I’m not saying there aren’t some wonderful things the internet has, and there’s certainly some corners of the internet that have bracing conversation, but scroll to the bottom of nearly every page, there it is, the dregs.    Here’s what is objectionable there:

1)  Racism and homophobia:  One thing that is unclear in these comments is how much is authentic, but you’ll hear more racist and anti-gay epithets thrown around here than anyplace else.   Whether the person is racist or just likes pissing people off, it’s just as awful.

2)  Preaching:  Because I will choose my religion based on what people say beneath an article about Paula Deen.

3)  Extreme opinions:   You’ll get people wanting to spout off without listening to anybody.

4) Justin Bieber and Barack Obama:  No matter what the article/video is about, conversation will inevitably go towards one of these two.   It doesn’t even have to have anything to do with politics, pop culture, or music.   How a story about a Picasso painting possibly being a forgery can lead to a rant about Obama overregulating everything is beyond me.   Ditto a recipe for sponge cake and whether this is the most delicious or not can veer into Bieber rants.  Are these two guys the center of the universe?

5)  Horrible grammar:  I can handle things being a little bit rough–I’m no stickler, but there’s comments that are barely readable.

6)  ALL CAPS:   Caps doesn’t make me take you seriously.

7)  Rants about how the video you just watched sucks:  Look guys, the internet is purely voluntary.   I can understand getting sick of hearing about an overexposed celebrity, but if you go to a site and choose to watch something, you’re the idiot.

8)  Rants under articles where it’s clear the person didn’t read it.

9)  “You call this news?”:  Even when the comment is correct, it’s really annoying.

10)  …back when music was good:  Let’s be clear.  There was never a magical year where “music was good.”  Every year thousands of songs come out, most of which aren’t very good at all.   What you’re telling me with that statement is that you like certain songs that you’re used to and are uninterested in anything else.

11)  …things used to be so much better:   You’ll get someone going on some sort of speech about things being better “way back when.”   People used to be respectful.  Kids used to be clean cut.  Everyone went to church.  America was glorious and strong.  A regular person found it easy to do well.    Sorry people, this is completely imagined.   When I was little, people used to say that about the fifties.  Now people say that about the 80’s (?!)  Yep, the mall decade was officially when people used to be respectful, music was good, pie tasted better, and everybody got laid.   Nope.   Not even close.

12)  Complaining about “political correctness”:  Political correctness isn’t political at all.  They’re examples of the social bargain, where we as individuals sacrifice some of our desires due to the group.  In exchange we get the benefits of society.   This is why you don’t pee on the subway or slap a crying baby or a number of other things.   Sometimes both sides can go too far.   Sometimes the group demands too much, and sometimes individuals push their limits on freedom.   However, to claim that politics has anything to do with this conflict that has existed since tribal times, is incredibly ignorant.

Oh, there’s much much more you’ll find at the bottom of the internet–conspiracy theorists, anti-smoking zealots who smoke pot, “knowledge” that is really hearsay, mentions of studies that never actually happened, corporation bashing, haters, bringing up Hitler, exaggeration, trite sayings, and more.

So this is what enlightenment looks like.

Huh.

 

 

 

 

Movie Review: John Dies at the End

2 Feb

john-dies-banner1

 

If you go to a rock concert at a local hole-in-the wall, you aren’t going for perfectly arranged melodies or high production value, rather you’re going for a rock stompin, balls-to-the-wall, wild time.   That’s John Dies at the End.  End of Review.

Ok, so it’s not the end of the review, and ***WATCH OUT FOR SPOILERS*** not that I think you can have too many honest-to-goodness spoilers in a movie like this.  John Dies at the end is really an episodic series of stories tied together by this man who’s telling his story to a reporter in a diner.   There’s this drug called soy sauce that opens doors to another dimension that all our main characters take.   So in a drug spiked fantasy, you’ve got a man possessed by a swarm of flies, giant leeches, a meat monster, a gigantic tentacled monster intent on conquering the world, a genius dog, and about a million other little things of that nature.   It’s always interesting, and the movie flows at a pretty good pace.

What it reminds me of the most is The Naked Gun movies–not in subject matter, but in the sense that you’ve got a bunch of things thrown at you and some things will stick and some things won’t.   In the end more of it sticks than doesn’t.  But don’t look for cohesion, or character development, or a nice pretty little story that comes to a really nice little loop at the end.    I have to give the movie a lot of credit for taking an incoherent storyline and making it consistently interesting.  It’s so easy for a movie like this to fall into weirdness boredom where once you get accustomed to the atmosphere and nothing really adds up to anything beyond that.

However, there are a couple of moments this film where the muddiness of plot caused confusion.   The connection to the creature at the end and the oddities going on in the real world could have been stronger, and I’m still not sure how the main characters ran their ghostbusting business.   However, this isn’t the sort of movie that you’re meant to focus on these things.

One thing that gets me is the amount of very negative reviews this movie gets.   I think it’s because this movie is intentionally messy, a little bit hipster, and slightly smug at times.   I get that, but that movies like this are pulling from movies that are unintentionally entertaining (good-bad movies), and trying to intentionally make something like them with a much bigger budget–I don’t see that as blasphemy.   In fact, John Dies at the End has fewer boring moments and lulls than those good-bad movies tend to.   All in all, I highly recommend this movie, if you’re in the mood for something a little different.