Friday, June 01, 2007

All Star Superman #2: 'Superman's Forbidden Room'

After reading three issues, what strikes me most about the series is the way Grant simultaneously manages to make it goofy fun and smart and emotional, all at the same time. It’s largely because he’s never condescending or giving a wink to the audience, he loves this material in all its ridiculousness and that makes it infectious. We get just as caught up in the world and totally believe in it.

One of the funniest running gags in the series is the fact that Lois just won’t believe that Superman is Clark Kent. It was always hard to buy that people wouldn’t recognize the similarity between the two characters, and you’d think playing off that would make it more believable. So, it’s ironic that her total disbelief actually makes you believe people could buy them as separate people. His acting as Clark so thoroughly sells people on this persona that it seems like there’s no way they could be the same.

I love Quitely’s Lois, you usually don’t think of Quitely’s people as being pretty, but she is, in a really modern way. I think there’s a tendency to stick to classic designs for these characters, but the update on Lois works great. I also really like the way he dresses her, very stylish clothes. Morrison and Quitely always place great emphasis on style and glamour, we saw it in New X-Men and we see it again here. There’s not much you can do with Superman’s outfit, but Quitely runs with it on the characters he can design.

I like how Superman walks into the Fortress with the greeting “Afternoon, robots.” Throughout the issue, we get the sense that Superman really enjoys showing Lois all his stuff, he’s proud of what he’s done and is happy to share it with someone. I particularly like the moment where he brings her the flowers from Alpha Centauri.

Superman describes the Fortress as a time capsule, capturing “how it felt to live at the dawn of the age of superheroes.” Morrison’s best superhero work taps into our own feelings about the future. In X-Men or Flex Mentallo, superheroes are presented as the next step in human evolution, a guide to move humanity forward. That concept is made literal here, with Superman offering this place as a guide and memorial of what humanity is and could be. It’s notable that so far in the series, Superman hasn’t done any violence, he’s just helped people.

I love the gritty deconstructionist superhero work Alan Moore did, and I’ve always been annoyed when he said stuff like all superhero books since are based on one bad mood he had twenty years ago. But, reading this book shows that you can do mature, smart superhero books without resorting to violence and deconstruction. This is just a straight ahead embrace of the Superman myth, that this is a guy who offers humanity a vision of what they could be, and our goal is to try to live up to that, to reach his level.

I had read that the series consisted entirely of standalones, and that’s true to some extent, but the overarching Superman is dying thread provides a great structural backbone and urgency to the tales. In this case, the entire tension of the issues comes from the fact that Superman can’t tell Lois what’s going on with him, leading to her paranoia. Why doesn’t he just come out and say it? I feel like it’s largely because he doesn’t want to admit it, that he has flaws, that he is, on some level human. Lois says she doesn’t want to believe that a part of him could be Clark Kent. So, one of the central questions of the series seems to be, if Superman is everything humanity could ever hope to be, what does it mean that he too is flawed?

The issue ends with Superman giving Lois the super serum, setting up the next issue. I like the way the issues flow into each other, so that even if they are essentially standalone tales, things seem to build and flow into each other. This issue also sets up some interesting future stories, during Lois’s encounter with the Unknown Superman. Some of the future Superman stuff seems like a retread of what Morrison did during JLA, but it was great then, so it’s ok to bring it back.

So, this issue works as a great fusion of crazy silver age fun with some real emotional stuff. The sequence where Lois’s typing is intercut with Superman looking at himself in the mirror reaches a real emotional place, and the ending is great. I just love spending time with Morrison’s Superman, he’s the coolest guy around, and I guess that’s the point.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

All Star Superman #1: 'Faster'

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely have arguably the best partnership in the history of comics, perfectly complimenting each other and producing consistently brilliant comics. Coming off the amazing We3, they dove into All Star Superman. I have to say, I wasn’t thrilled to hear that Quitely would be spending two years drawing the adventures of Superman. I’m glad that he’s working with Morrison, but the amount of time it takes Quitely to draw means each project he does must be amazing to justify the time spent. He is a precious resource and should not be wasted.

After two issues, my initial reluctance to the project has largely dissipated. While I’d still prefer to see them doing something original, this is a fantastic book, fun, exciting and the only book I’ve read that really understands Superman and is able to make him work in stories. The very nature of the character makes it nigh impossible to do ordinary stories with him. You can deconstruct him, as in Miracleman, mythologize him, as in Supreme, but is it possible to just do straight up Superman stories? Here, Morrison proves that it is, managing to fuse massive stories and personal drama to create something really special.

Morrison has previously written Superman during his run on JLA, and there he treated the character as the idol of all the superheroes, the model they aspire to, a pure, goodhearted true hero. The entire series was about treating the heroes as gods, battling the largest foes on an intergalactic stage. That made for some great storylines, but only in the stories of the lower level heroes did we get any really meaningful character development. Here, Morrison manages to make Superman a viable character, and the end of the first issue sets him off on a potentially very interesting arc.

The issue begins with a page that almost has to be read as a big middle finger to the Brian Bendis style endless retreading of a hero’s origin story. We all know the Superman myth, do we need to spend seven months getting off Krypton? While I liked Bendis’s take on Ultimate Spider-Man, in fact, the extended origin is easily the best arc in the book’s run, I love the jump right into the action style that Morrison takes. The All Star label is perfect for him because it allows him to pick all the best elements of the mythology, what people know about the character, and leave behind the excessive complication that can come from long term continuity. I really do feel this is a book you could confidently show a new reader, certainly a better take on the mythos than the generally unsuccessful Superman Returns.

So, Superman’s origin’s wrapped up in a page and we’re introduced to the man himself in a glorious two page spread. A lot of what makes Quitely’s Superman work is the facial expressions, you get the sense this is a guy who’s just on an entirely different mental plane than everyone else, he just loves what he does, and that’s great to see. I’ve frequently said that one of the primary differences between Moore and Morrison is that when Moore sets out to make a tribute to Silver Age comics, he tries to literally replicate them in all their datedness, what Morrison tries to do is replicate the impact they had on him as a child, recapture that pure excitement of seeing heroes in action in crazy universes. Moore doesn’t have the same love for this material that Morrison does, and in every page of this book, you can see his glee at having the chance to write Superman.

I love the odd look of green haired lady who speaks about Superman’s progress. I’m not sure who she is, but it doesn’t matter. I think that’s one of the great things about this book, I’m not that familiar with the Superman mythos, but I can still appreciate the vast weirdness of everything that’s happening. We know about the man himself, and that’s enough.

Morrison plays with the repeat conventions of superhero stories, having Lois write the headlines before they happen. They have that much confidence in Superman. A similar concept occurs in Luthor’s operation of the machine, sending all his directions to the sun nine minutes ahead of time. Luthor’s mission is to kill Superman, and he realizes that you can’t do that in the present, what he does to Superman here is more subtle, overcharging him to take away his immortality.

Superman’s appearance in the ship, saying “Not if I can help it” is another great moment. Quitely renders him as a guy who’s totally confident, he knows he can beat the exploding man, he’s just that powerful. That power is what makes it nearly impossible to write compelling Superman stories. This opening sequence isn’t tense in the traditional sense because we know that Superman will win, Lois has already written the headline.

By bringing in Superman’s imminent death, we change the nature of the stories. He’s forced to reassess his role in the world, he’s no longer above humanity, he too will eventually join them in death. I’m guessing that much of this arc will be about Superman becoming more human as a result of his imminent mortality. This is all told to us in a visually dazzling manner, with the Technicolor dreamcoat wearing Doctor Quantam operating in a cool floating blood void. What Quantum makes clear is that Superman is as important as an idea as he is as a man. He inspired Quantum to work harder because he wants to prepare for what the world would have to be without Superman.

One of Morrison’s central thematic ideas is that superheroes are the blueprint for our future. As we evolve, they are the myth we will turn to to understand our new abilities, and Superman is the ultimate model for humanity, what we one day hope we can be. We saw this at the end of Morrison’s JLA run, in the World War III arc, and also in Flex Mentallo. The logical end of this series would be for Superman to die, but in having lived, create a world where everyone can be like him.

Morrison’s Clark Kent is a guy who’s having fun pulling one over on the world, presenting this jokey parody of what he thinks humans are. Reading this page, it is hard to believe that he’s Superman, and the intercutting of him saving the kid with Clark’s goofiness is great.

Things end with Clark telling Lois he’s Superman, a revelation that’s not that powerful because we didn’t know if she already knew this. But, it’s an essential moment of the Superman mythos, and allows Morrison to go in a more personal direction for the next issue. I think Morrison’s goal with the series is to do the greatest hits of the mythos, create a twelve issue series that tells you everything you need to know about Superman, and this moment is a big part of that.

So, I was very impressed by this first issue. It makes Superman work, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The character feels mythic, but still human and accessible. Quitely’s art is phenomenal, and together, the two of them become something so much more. I go back on who the best artist in comics is, Quitely or JH Williams. The most reliable answer is the one I’ve read most recently. JH has incredible versatility, but Quitely has a singular elegance and emotion. We shouldn’t have to choose, and luckily they both spend most of their time working with Morrison and Moore, so we get the best writers and best artists creating the best comics.

!!! @ Studio B

I go to a lot of shows and most of them are entertaining enough, but a lot of the time, the audience seems disinterested in the goings on, standing in place and barely getting involved with what's going on. It's annoying to have more people taking pictures than getting into music. So, it was a relief to go to !!! and find a band that put on an incredible, high energy show, and an audience that was totally into it right from the start.

Myth Takes//All My Heroes Are Weirdos//Pardon My Freedom//Dear Can//A New Name//Yadnus//Must Be The Moon//Coke//Heart of Hearts//Intensify

The show opened with 'Myth Takes,' then kicked into high gear with 'All My Heroes Are Weirdos.' After the incendiary opening of the song, they abruptly cut for a moment, then brought things back. At this point, the audience was going nuts, the entire center of the floor was moving and dancing. I got shoved around in there, and it was a lot of fun to just jump around and get really into the show. I haven't seen this level of enthusiasm at a show since my younger days when I'd go to ska punk shows from bands like Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish. There, the show seemed to be an excuse to go and push people around. Here, there was the same level of energy, but it was less violent. People were just really into it.

After the first couple of songs, I was covered in sweat, most of it not my own, and wasn't sure if people would be able to keep going at this level for the entire show. I'm only really familiar with their new album, Myth Takes, so some of the songs in the middle bled together, until they got to the new stuff. But, the energy was so high, it didn't really matter. I love that they didn't play any slow songs or spend a long time talking, it was just consistently up tempo dance songs.

The highlight of the show was 'Weirdos' just because the crowd had so much energy, but 'Must Be the Moon' was pretty close. That's their best song, and they tore it up. There was a song, I believe it was 'Coke,' that went into a rave/trance style, and that worked great too. 'Heart of Hearts' was another great performance, featuring a crazy stage dive by their backup singer.

I'd heard that !!! were a band whose live shows far outdid their recorded work, and I found that hard to believe after listening to Myth Takes, but after seeing this concert, it's definitely true. There would be no way to capture the energy of what was happening on record, the experience was as much being a part of the crowd as it was about their playing. They were great, and Nic Offer had some fun rock star posturing, but they didn't any frills, the music alone was enough to make this a great show. It was really fun to go to a show where the crowd got completely absorbed, and at the end, I was almost relieved there wasn't an encore since there was really nowhere left to go.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Crusade: 'The Path of Sorrows' and 'Appearances and Other Deceits' (1x12-1x13)

The series comes to an end with its best episode and a decent one. 'The Path of Sorrows' is the first episode that really hints at a larger world of possibility within the show, an overarching narrative that extends beyond standalone episodes. The show always had elements of that, since it drew on the mythology built up over five years of Babylon 5. That's the show's greatest asset in a lot of respects, we know the details of the Shadows and the Psi Corps, and we can understand references that would just be cryptic babble on other sci-fi shows.

A work like Babylon 5 almost demands a plethora of spinoffs and ancillary material since the universe is so richly detailed. Right from the first episode, JMS seemed to know everything that was going on with the characters and their universe, and over the course of the five years, we learned a wealth of material. I know more about the history of the Centauri Republic than I do about a lot of real nations.

But, the fully developed nature of the universe can present difficulty when making a spinoff. How much can he rely on what already exists, and how much should be new, so that new viewers can pick up the show? Ultimately, I think he finds a workable balance, new viewers could easily watch this and not miss anything. Yet, as someone who's watched B5, I did find myself wishing for more ties to the mother show.

But, before getting into musings on the series as a whole, let me go through these last two episodes. 'Sorrows' wasn't quite at the level of 'Signs and Portents' in terms of redefining what the series could do, but it did give us some much appreciated character background and set up what would likely have been a major theme of the series, the search for forgiveness. All the characters here have some bad deeds in their background, something they need to atone for, and the creature they find tries to help them come to terms with those past trangressions. The episode reminded me a bit of the Firefly episode where we flashback to where all the characters were before they came to the ship. That was a great episode, the brief snippets told us all we needed to know in a more efficient way than Lost's neverending flashback parade.

I liked the way they used the text captions to communicate the creature's pure feeling in a way that couldn't be represented by speech. It reinforces the idea that this thing is just giving the people what they want, like the cave in Empire Strikes Back, you only see what you bring with you. My favorite flashback was Mathison's, which gave us a glimpse of the telepath war. That's a piece of history we skipped over and it was great to fill it in. I would have loved to see a Lyta Alexander cameo, or at least mention, but what we got was great. Galen and Gideon's flashback were a bit more expected, but still well done. In general, I love devices like this, that force the characters to assess themselves in some way. Buffy's 'gimmick' episodes were all on some level about forcing the characters to examine themselves, be it in dreams, music or conversations with dead people. Taking the characters to a more subjective mental place is a great way to get to know them better, to understand the facade they present to the world.

'Appearances' was a less successful episode, one that, while entertaining, contains a lot of JMS's consistent writing problems. For one, the episode didn't have much tension. No one we actually knew was infected, and it was fairly obvious they'd find a way to resolve things in an easy way. That's because JMS almost always gives his characters, at least the heroes, an easy way out. People like Sheridan and Gideon always find some trick or tactic that will let them save the day without hurting anyone. Only occasionally will he force characters to make hard choices, and those are the most memorable moments of the series, the Londo arc or even the standalone in B5's first season where the kid dies. That was a bold call, this is the obvious ending. Because it's so easy, we don't get any satisfaction from the victory. It just goes by as expected. It would have been a more powerful ending to have to kill all the infected people to save the ship.

Another thing that bothered me about this episode was the use of the guy who played Neroon on B5. He looked similar and talked the same way, how can we buy him as a different character? This problem cropped up on B5 too, when they used Wayne Alexander in countless roles. That's fine if he's random alien every week, but once he played Lorien, he became too recognizable to be believable in a different role. I can understand wanting to be loyal to your actors, but it was distracting.

The biggest problem with this episode, and countless others, is that it's tough to make the audience get invested in a standalone hour of TV. The thing I love about the medium is the possibility to tell massive stories, developing characters' lives over years and years. That's what JMS did in the later years of Babylon 5, and even though you do need to set the groundwork, it's possible to have arcs right from the first year. The Sopranos managed to keep running plots going over the first season, and even if there were more standalone stories, they didn't feel as disconnected as these do. JMS should have learned from the first year of B5, that standalones just don't work as well. Even if you're doing a five year arc, put a mini arc in the front of the series to hook people.

Ultimately, the series, while entertaining, is futile viewing. It doesn't lead anywhere, and the characters don't go through much growth. While it's more rewarding on an episode by episode basis than early B5, that doesn't make it particularly worthwhile. I thought Dureena was a great character, and Galen had a lot of potential, but that's pretty much all the show was, potential. It works best as a dessert after B5, giving you a final jaunt through the universe before moving on.

That said, the Lost Tales film could change that. Some of the elements here will likely return there, and maybe that film will tie this series closer to the mythology. I'm eager to see Galen back, and I'd love to see Dureena or Gideon appear in a future film. Though, there's a bunch of B5 characters I'd prefer to see first.

B5 succeeded because of its scope, watching all the pieces of this elaborately constructed narrative fall into place. It was never a show that was about the moment, it was all about the big picture. Yet, with Crusade, all we have is moments, and that's not enough to satisfy.

Next up, I'll finally reach the end of the Babylon 5 universe, with Legend of the Rangers, leaving me all caught up for the imminent arrival of new material. Look for that review soon.

Summer Movie Preview 2007

You may say, the three biggest films of summer have already been released, isn't it a little late for a preview? Well, yes, but I forgot about it and didn't realize until yesterday that I should do one, so here it is: the 2007 Summer Movie Preview.

May 4
Spider-Man 3 - I saw this and it was alright. The script had too many elements to cohere into a satisfying whole, but I still think it was a stronger film than the first one, and some of the odd emo Spider-Man stuff worked well. If they had cut out Sandman, it would have been a much stronger and tighter film. I would have also liked more Gwen Stacey since Bryce Dallas Howard was really hot and had a great energy, certainly more than Kirsten Dunst, who should only act in Sofia Coppola films.

Away From Her - Julie Christie always does interesting stuff, and Sarah Polley's been great at choosing interesting projects, so her direction should be worth seeing. I don't know if I'll make it to this in the theater, but it'll certainly be DVDed.

Paris, je t'aime - Anthology films are rarely satisfying, usually the uneven nature results in you leaving not particularly satisfied. But, the talent involved here is unparalleled and from what I hear, it's worth your time for the Tom Tykwer film alone.

Civic Duty - I saw this a while back, and reviewed it for Blog Critics. While I wanted to like it for Peter Krause's sake, it's just not a very good film. It's got a totally cliched thriller video style and the characters aren't particularly likable, so it's not worth your time. Just watch Six Feet Under instead.

May 11
28 Weeks Later - Another one I've already seen. While it lacks the digital grit of the original, it's still a wonderfully constructued, tense and exciting zombie film. The score is phenomenal and it manages to keep the feel of the original without feeling like a retread. I'd be up for the threequel hinted at by this film's finale.

May 18
Fay Grim - I'm not a huge Hal Hartley fan, and I haven't seen Henry Fool, but Parker Posey as a spy in his quirky universe sounds like a perfect match. I believe this is already out on DVD, so I'll be checking it out soon. This image sold me on the film, the glove, the coat, the boots, so stylish:

Once - A modern day indie musical set to the music of The Frames? Sounds good. I love musicals, for me, film is about the fusion of visuals and music, and no genre does that on a purer level than the musical. The trailer was so good, I stopped watching it halfway through because I didn't want to spoil the film. I'll be seeing this one soon.

May 25
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End - I'm hearing mixed things, but I like Dead Man's Chest well enough. You got to the film for the Johnny Depp, and considering it's three hours, we should get plenty of that in this film. However, it's not something I'm rushing out to see, and I could see this one slipping to DVD.

Angel-A - The new Luc Besson hasn't been getting great reviews, but I've been looking forward to this one a long time. Leon is one of the greatest movies ever made, and I loved Besson's Joan of Arc, so I at least owe him a viewing on this.

The Boss of It All - New Lars Von Trier is always worth a look, though this one doesn't have me as intrigued as Manderlay or Dogville. Again, I'd guess this will get a DVD viewing down the line.

June 1
Knocked Up - Apatow's Freaks and Geeks is one of the all time great TV series and The 40 Year Old Virgin was one of the best comedies to come out of Hollywood in a long time. Rogen was great in F&G and the buzz on this one is really strong, making it a must see.

June 8
Ocean's Thirteen - Unlike a lot of people, I think Ocean's Twelve was a superior film to the original. Soderbergh may have been picking up the check, but he still had enough energy in the cinematography and editing to keep things interesting. There was no need for this film to exist, but it will probably still be fun.

June 20
- I've been waiting for this one for a long time. Boyle's made some great films and intelligent sci-fi is always welcome. It's a top notch cast and buzz coming out of England is pretty strong. I'm curious to see how this one turns out.

August 10
- It's based on a Neil Gaiman story, and the trailer has some of the wonderful fantasy vibe of his best work. However, it also seems to have a bunch of annoying fantasy cliches. But, it's a great cast and should be worth a look.

August 17
The Invasion
- This is a troubled film, but the premise is strong and the cast is great. Craig owned as Bond and Kidman has done a good job of choosing interesting, challeging projects. Hopefully this isn't just a check pick up for the two of them. Even if it is a trainwreck, there will probably be a lot of interesting stuff.

Superbad - Seth Rogen writing, Judd Apatow producing and Michael Cera starring, that is a nasty combination. Cera gave one of the all time great comedy performances as George Michael on Arrested Development and the trailer looks like it's funny and smart enough to avoid teen movie cliches. That said, the Cera film I'm really looking forward to is Juno.

So, there's a lot of interesting stuff out this month, after that, not so much. Hopefully some good indie films will turn up. I'll be working in New York so there's no longer the annoyingness of having to travel to go see an indie movie in the city. Perhaps I can finally move on from bad blockbuster movies and really embrace quality stuff in the theater.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Meeting Joss

I graduated from college yesterday, and as part of the festivities, they had a series of talks from alumni and such, including one by Joss Whedon on "The Importance of Being Keanu." His basic point with this talk was that Keanu had chosen roles that presented a specific agenda, one of nonviolent problem solving. I'm not sure how this jives with the shootouts of The Matrix and such, but he sold it well and told a bunch of interesting anecdotes about working with Keanu on Speed. I saw Keanu speak last year at a screening of A Scanner Darkly and he seemed like a smart, thoughtful guy. He said that Neo was the perfect role for Keanu because he has a kind of inhuman beauty, a perfect mix of racial characteristics to be the sort of generic ideal of humanity. So, he could serve as the BuddhaChrist in The Matrix. I'd be curious to see what Joss would say about the possible casting of Keanu as Dr. Manhattan in the Watchmen film.

After that, there was a Q&A where he talked a lot about the subjugation of women in Hollywood, similar themes as his recent Whedonesque blog posting. His points are definitely valid, and I try to bring out females who aren't defined by their relationship to men in my work. It's weird to watch people make films where all the women are girlfriends or wives.

He talked about his experience directing The Office, how they shoot double the amount they use in an episode, and will frequently try five or six different versions of a joke, and do an improv take, then use the best one. He said that Veronica Mars was the first show he was happy to have called "The next Buffy." Charmed, not so much. He also said that Battlestar Galactica was the best thing ever on TV, and The Matrix was the best movie ever. Also, The Body was the best thing he ever did.

My favorite thing he talked about was a meeting with Eliza Dushku where he asked her "Why do you keep making these shitty movies?" And, she replied they don't try to make them shitty. This was in reference to finding good roles for women, and he said that she needed to seek out the best directors and try to work with them.

This was a good event, after I walked down, and the line for signings was ridiculous, so I left and went on with my day. Later, I went over and watched some fireworks then wandered down towards this party in a tent for alumni and graduates, and who should be milling about but Joss himself.

He went over to talk to some people and I went over to my friend Vanessa and was like “It’s Joss!” So, we went over to talk to him, and talked for 15 minutes or so about a bunch of things. I asked him why he couldn’t get the Buffy movies made, considering studios are all about creating branded franchises they can go back to time after time. He said that the studios felt he could get people to work cheap because they’re his friends, and they refused to budge on the funding. He said they didn’t see a precedent for what he was trying to do, so I mentioned that perhaps the new Babylon 5 movies would do that. He hadn’t seen any of the show. During the Q&A, he said he hasn't seen Heroes and has only seen the first episode of The Sopranos, but thought it was one of the best things he'd ever seen on TV.

Vanessa asked him if he’d seen the thesis films this year, and he said no. I told him about mine, the nature of the plot and how it was inspired by him and Grant Morrison. He said that Morrison was great, the reason that he decided to write X-Men, but sometimes Grant had issues with story structure. I asked if he’d read The Invisibles, and he said that, like a lot of people, he had read some and really liked it, but never finished the series.

I asked him if he’d ever want to do an original musical, and he said that’s his dream project. He talked about how the Buffy musical was so easy to write because he tailored it to what he knew his people could do, and it’d be tougher to do something original. I told him that season six was my favorite season, and he said there was a small group of people who felt that way. I asked him if he ever thought of doing some kind of coda episode after ‘Chosen,’ but he said that the show was always going to end with the slayers being activated, because that was the thematic finale he wanted. I’d still argue that a little more character time was needed, but I guess we’re getting that with the comic. He said that by the end of season seven they knew it was time to go and were feeling a bit burnt out, but they were thinking about doing either a Faith or Slayers show, but that didn’t happen.

Then, I asked him if I could send him my thesis film to get his reaction to it and he said he could do that, but to give it to the head of the film department and say he really said yes because she gets people who want to send him 900 page fanfic. Vanessa asked him how he felt about people writing fanfic with the characters he made in his head, and he said that it was weird because they were writing about people he knew, like Willow wasn’t just Willow, it was Aly. But, he was happy that people were writing it, even if it was erotic fanfiction, since he wanted to inspire passion, and sexual passion was just as good as any other kind.

So, this was an amazing chance to talk to one of my idols one on one, and hopefully he'll send me a critique of the film at some point in the future. That would be just incredibly cool.

The Sopranos: 'The Second Coming' (6x19)

I’m running a bit behind with this review, but that’s in no way a comment on the episode’s quality. This was another amazing episode, each week I feel privileged to have work of this quality. I don’t think there’s been a run this good since Six Feet Under post Nate’s death. In each case, the death of a major character has forced the others to reevaluate their attitudes towards life. This week was just an incredible hour, as the series narrows its thematic focus for this final run.

I take issue with people who have nothing but bad things to say about the show’s last season. There were some issues with the first half of season six, but the Kevin Finnerty episodes were among the most imaginative and challenging things the show has done. After that, there was a somewhat meandering narrative, but once you’re aware of what Chase is trying to do on a thematic level, it makes a lot more sense. The entire season is about addiction, not so much to drugs, though that does figure in, rather to the lifestyle that has all these people hooked on an easy life outside the bounds of traditional work.

It’s difficult to watch the show sometimes because the characters constantly make inexplicable choices, the first time through the Vito arc, I was so frustrated when he abandoned his life up in New Hampshire to go back to Jersey. On some level, he knew he was going to be killed, but he’d rather take that fate than actually do a day’s labor. The sequence where he tries to work and gives up by 10:30 AM is both funny and deeply sad, the best demonstration of what failures these people are at working within the rules. They cannot escape this life, even if they want to, largely because everyone around them are enablers. That’s what we saw made literal in Christopher’s arc, he was unable to break out of the addiction cycle because the world he lived in required the use of substance. Yes, it’s something of a narrative dead end to show a character try to quit then relapse again and again, but it’s also realistic.

This last season has been all about puncturing the fantasies that the show unconsciously perpetuated during the earlier seasons. Much could be written about the relationship between Chase and his audience, a relationship in which each side frequently seems to hate the other, but they’re still caught up in a cycle of dependence. There’s so many attacks on the fanbase, or at least one segment of it, within the show, and Chase’s comments in the media add more. The show began as kind of a fantasy for middle aged men, that you could have a loving wife and great kids, yet still be able to sleep with anyone you want, hurt people who disagree with you and work out of a strip club. I think Chase began to recognize that people were identifying too strongly with the characters, looking at them as role models, and put a series of increasingly violent incidents in to try to break the fantasy. A notable example of this is Ralphie killing Tracee in “University.” Paulie killing Min Matrone in season four is another example, but nothing he did could break the fact that people still admired these characters.

So, he spent the first half of the season trying to show the ways their world is losing the allure it once had, as boredom sets in around Tony. This year, he’s been bringing to the fore Tony’s total lack of morality, creating a really interesting juxtaposition between our lingering affection for the character and the fact that he’s doing really awful stuff. For the first time, people really seem to be recognizing just how much of a bastard he is.

Yet, the brilliance of the show is that we always understand why he does what he does, and are still able to remain sympathetic. I generally prefer characters who are fascinating to ones who are likable in traditional ways, characters like Spike or Magneto, and Tony is one of the greatest antiheroes ever created, a mess of contradictions and lax morality.

Anyway, this episode sees Tony struggling with the aftermath of his peyote trip, and his son’s suicide trip. The first four episodes of this season were strong, but starting with “Walk Like a Man,” there’s been an intense focus on very specific themes, and it’s produced one of the best runs of the entire series. The focus has been on Tony and his two sons, AJ, his real son, and Christopher, the man he’s treated as a son and who was groomed to be his successor. Last week saw the end of Christopher’s journey, as Tony killed him. Tony remained completely unrepentant about what he did this week, enraptured more with what was going on back at home.

I love the scene where Tony talks about taking peyote with his crew. He’s always had more intelligence and intellectual curiosity than any of them. They joke about it, but don’t understand how deeply meaningful the experience was for him.

But, the core of the episode’s first half was the final steps in AJ’s descent into depression. AJ has deep issues with the world he comes from, unable to deal with all his privilege after being made aware of just how poor other people are. A lot of this ties in to what happened with Blanca, but it’s also symptomatic of the expansion of his worldview. He doesn’t fit in anywhere, making his suicide feel inevitable.

Yet, it’s still surprising. If you’d told me that Tony would kill Christopher one week and AJ would try to kill himself the next, I wouldn’t have believed you because it sounds like the kind of over the top melodramatic storytelling Chase usually avoids. However, he does it in such a way that it feels totally organic to the universe. AJ’s suicide is played cold, you observe it and can do nothing. His inability to actually do the deed is both a relief and darkly funny. Tony rescues him in a gutwrenching scene that lets us see Tony totally unguarded for perhaps the first time in the series. In this moment, he just wants AJ to live and it almost feels like we shouldn’t be watching this, it’s too intimate a moment.

The cut from the pool to AJ in the wheelchair, looking completely braindead, is one of the most powerful in the entire series. That jump tells us everything we need to know. Robert Iler has kicked up his game this season, having become essentially the second lead of the series. While the lengthy hiatuses between seasons may have hurt the series in some respects, it did give us the opportunity to see AJ go through this, he’s been brought to an age when he can have a legitimate crossroads in his life, and that’s riveting to watch.

There is no escape from the family, and AJ is the only character who seems to have faced up to the morality of what they’re doing. Meadow always seemed to be the smarter one, but in this episode we see her slipping back, dating Patrick Parisi, who may be a lawyer, but is still part of the world she belongs to. We haven’t seen much of her this season, but this development was a great way of subtly drawing her back in. We’ve always seen that she has a deep love for her family and places that above any objective moral judgments of what they do.

AJ’s suicide attempt brings up a lot of bad feelings. Tony, on some level, hates his son and feels that Carmela is the one who messed him up, made him soft. We see that come out in the Melfi scene, which also features Tony’s revelation about what he realized on the peyote, that our mothers are the bus drivers and we spend all our lives trying to get back on the bus. This is an interesting tie in to what Janice said back in “Soprano Home Movies,” that their mother was unable to accept the fact that her children were growing up and away from her. It’s a mess of trouble that is a perfect conundrum for Tony. He simultaneously hated what his mother was and hates Carmela for not being like her with AJ. And, with all his repeating of “poor you,” he’s becoming Livia.

This episode was really intense, and emotionally wrenching. The show is so tightly focused, pondering Tony’s legacy as he ends his reign. Things seem to be going to hell all around, Phil is out to get him, AJ is not doing well and Tony himself continues to burn his bridges. Two episodes out, I still have no idea how it’s going to end. Will AJ be Tony’s salvation, or just another failure? Will they actually war with New York or will it be averted yet again? Only one more week to get some answers.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Time: An Agent of Change in Fictional Reality

This was a paper I wrote for a class called "It's About Time." The class was pretty bad, but the paper assignment was write about something that involves time, so I got to do this piece. Enjoy...

In works of fiction, the passage of time can change a character’s life, and travel through time can alter the world the characters live in. However, few works examine the nature of time itself. The Invisibles by Grant Morrison and Watchmen by Alan Moore, use their fictional universes to explore the implications of the idea that time is not a uni-directional arrow, rather all times, past and present, exist simultaneously.

All works of fiction allow the viewer to experience time from a 4-D perspective, free of the linear flow of time that binds us in our real lives. The first read or viewing of a work is analogous to three-dimensional time perception. We are not aware of what will happen to the characters, and experience the work in a linear fashion, moving from beginning to end, much like we live our lives.

However, after this first viewing/reading, the reader can return to the work and view it with foreknowledge of what will happen to the characters. You can open a book to whatever page you want, or fast-forward a film to a specific moment, traveling freely though the time continuum. In doing so, you are able to experience time from a 4-D perspective, viewing all of time as one pre-existing continuum, with no past or future, just the present one chooses to experience.

There are works that deliberately alter the linear passage of time, such as the film Irreversible. In this film, events unfold backward, starting with what is chronologically the last event and eventually ending up at the earliest. Irreversible is the story of a woman who is raped, prompting her boyfriend to seek revenge. Revenge drama such as this has been the subject of countless films, however in reversing the sequence of events, director Gaspar Noe is able to alter the audience’s perception of the events that occur. The film opens with two men beating someone to death with a fire extinguisher, the brutality of the violence instantly disturbing. As we move back in time, we see the catalyst for their actions, the rape of Alex, and are able to understand why they murdered that man. But because we viewed the event out of the emotional context, we can understand that seeking revenge has only succeeded in destroying even more lives, the violence begetting more violence.

The film ends and begins with a title reading ‘Time Destroys All,’ and in the case of this film that’s certainly true. By the end (the events at the beginning) the lives of three main characters are completely shattered, a disturbing contrast from their happy, hopeful existences before these things occurred. The structure of the film encourages us to view these events outside of a traditional linear time continuum, the knowledge of what will happen in the future coloring our view of the past. Notably, though the narrative progresses backwards, there is no indication that the events occur in flashback, rather every moment is the present, we’re just shown things outside of the linear continuum.

If time destroys all, and certainly we are all headed for death eventually, the only way to overcome this destruction is to exist outside of time. Transcending the idea of time as an inevitable projection forward, we get to the idea that there is no past or future, instead all moments exist simultaneously, so that the past and future all already exist, and every moment that ever happened is happening now. This conception of time is explored in the works of two graphic novelists, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.

It is appropriate that they have chosen the comic book as the medium in which to explore this view of time. Assuming all time exists simultaneously, the physical comic book serves a perfect representation of this. We can flip through the book and see each moment, frozen in time as a single panel, existing independently of the time progression that one experiences when reading the book. It is easy to go from the end of the book to the beginning, and travel back through time in the process. This means that even if a character dies at the end of the book, they still exist, we just flip to an earlier page and they are alive again. The reality is dependent on which moment one chooses to experience.

With The Invisibles, Morrison set out to make a series that would reveal the secrets of the universe, taking on material with a very broad scope. While working on the first volume, he had an “abduction experience,” in which he claims to have been taken outside of time and shown the nature of the universe. Morrison claimed “it was like Shakespeare’s just over there, and the dinosaurs are around the corner from him, but you can see them.” (Neighly, 241) This conception of time became central to the series’ cosmology, and Morrison used the book as a way to process the abduction experience.

Obviously, it’s impossible to verify whether this experience is a legitimate peak behind the curtain at the workings of time, a hallucination, or a story designed to build his image and sell more books. However, for the purposes of this analysis, it is useful in the context of how it influences the fictional universe he creates.

The abduction experience is the model for a sequence from the book’s second to last chapter, in which one of the characters, Jack, is taken outside of the linear time continuum. Removed from the limits of three-dimensional perception, Jack sees himself as a ‘timeworm,’ his motion represented by a trail of himselfs existing simultaneously at all moments in the past. This image is designed to simulate 4-D perception for the reader. If every moment is simultaneous, that would mean that a version of every person exists at all those moments in time, so one’s entire life could be seen on this line, a progression from childhood to adulthood to death.

The next panel depicts what Morrison claims to have seen, people from different eras of time pass each other in the same space. Essentially what these images show is one space at all times. So, we see someone from the present as well as someone from World War I and others, all represented as ‘timeworms,’ their past actions receding off into the background.

These panels also contain the crucial philosophical idea of the series, the notion that time exists to allow humanity to grow and better itself. Time is change and without the passage of time we would have no opportunity to improve ourselves. Time may destroy all things, but at the same time, it is only through the passage of time and destruction of the old that we can grow. This idea is conveyed in skewed 4-D speech, “Time is soil and for nourish larvae and grown in,” essentially humanity is in a larval state and it is only through the passage of time that we can evolve into something greater. (Morrison, 254) According to the series, the entirety of human existence is one time continuum designed to bring us to the point where we can make an evolutionary jump.

As a result, much of the series became concerned with issues surrounding time and perception, most notably the segments of volume two concerning the building of a time suit. At this point, we learn that one of the series’ main characters, Robin, has actually traveled back in time from 2012, using a timesuit constructed by Takashi, a scientist whose younger self she meets in the present. We see her in 2012, speaking to older versions of characters we know from the present, before she is sent back on her mission. They assure Robin that she will do well. Her mission is guaranteed to be a success because it has already happened.

So, in this conception of time travel, events can never be changed. Robin’s actions in our present will not alter the future because in the future they have already happened. This is different than something like The Terminator films or Back to the Future, where the use of time travel devices rewrites the present, essentially wiping out the world that the characters traveled from. In the cosmology Morrison constructed, this is not possible. Robin’s actions cannot alter the future because she is living in a future built through her actions. Since all time exists simultaneously, her actions in the past have already occurred.

This presents a question inherent in 4-D time theory. It has been a conundrum since the dawn of thought: do we have free will or our actions already decided? This is addressed in the final page of the series when Jack speaks directly to the reader refuting the entire question of free will. He says “there’s no difference between fate and free will. Here I am; put here, come here. No difference, same thing.” (Morrison, 285) Even if all of time is written, at some point, we make every choice and that means that when we pass through time, we are not following a plan, we are inventing reality with every decision. If all time is simultaneous, every action we take has already created a new world.

For Jack, the issue of free will is resolved there, but for Jon a.k.a Dr. Manhattan in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the power of 4-D perception alienates him from a linear world. Jon was an ordinary person transformed into a god-like being through a lab accident. Jack claims that fate and free will are the same thing, yet this would not be true if one was able to vie the future events. This is what John can do, he perceives all time simultaneously, so whatever moment he’s in the time continuum, he’s aware of the actions that he and others will take in the future. This locks him into a fatalistic worldview, summed up when he says “We’re all puppets, I’m just a puppet who sees the strings,” implying that no one has choice, we’re all just playing out a predetermined sequence of events.

Forced to live life with this perspective, he grows increasingly distanced from humanity. After Kennedy’s assassination, people ask him why he didn’t stop it. They cannot understand his perception. He does not see future events in the sense of something that has not yet occurred, he sees events that have occurred already and he has no choice but to enact the role that has been laid out for him. So, the very fact that Jon knows Kennedy will be assassinated means he is powerless to stop it
The most striking representation of Jon’s perception occurs in the fourth chapter. The chapter begins after Jon flees Earth for sanctuary on Mars. He sits staring at a photograph of himself before the transformation and though the chapter takes place over only a few minutes, Jon’s perception in these moments encompasses his entire life. Staring at the photo, he returns to the moment when it was taken, not the memory of the moment, but the moment itself. At the same time he is sitting on Mars, he is a child dreaming of being a watchmaker, he’s a physicist doing an experiment and he’s in Vietnam, fighting for the army. All the moments are the same for him, an infinity of simultaneous presents. Holding the photograph he counts down in his head to the moment when the photograph will fall and he will move on. He knows it will happen because it has already happened; his life is devoted to acting out predetermined events.

The storytelling here is striking because the interweaving of different times makes the reader experience the same sense of time out of joint. The moments blend together, all of them carrying a stark inevitability. Seeing Jon walk into the reactor, we know that it will result in him being transformed, and yet are powerless to stop it. So, the reader observes these events of the past in the same way that Jon lives the present. It is this feeling of imprisonment in time that distances Jon from humanity. He is more interested in the grandeur of Mars’ landscapes, in the stunning construction that brought them to life than in the insignificant tribulations of humanity.

The frustration that one could feel interacting with Jon is apparent in chapter nine, when Laurie is taken to Mars. Jon goes to her and says that they have an appointment, essentially he has seen in the future that at this moment they will come together to talk, and as a result, he goes to Earth to find Laurie so the conversation can occur. Similarly, he already knows what they will talk about, and tells her, and she commits to not fulfilling his plan, proving him wrong. Yet, unintentionally she does end up saying exactly what he said she would, foreknowledge of what she will do does not prevent her from still doing it. Speaking with someone so distant is difficult for her, his coldness a stark contrast to her emotional vulnerability at that moment. She rails at Jon, but he coldly tells her that this is just what happens, what she was always going to do, and the implication that she has no choice in the matter is an affront to her humanity. Existing outside of the uncertainty of human existence, Jon finds it difficult to connect with ordinary people.

The end of their discussion causes a major change in Jon. Laurie breaks down upon realizing that the man who raped her mother years earlier is actually her father and in this moment, Jon realizes that though humans may be trapped in these linear patterns, the series of events that must occur to create any given person are extraordinary. He imagines all the generations of people who would have had to meet at a specific time to bring about Laurie’s conception. He concludes that each human being takes such an improbable confluence of forces to exist that they are all miracles, and it is only the fact that there are five billion miracles walking around that makes us forget this fact.

So, Manhattan takes a renewed interest in humanity, recognizing, much like Jack, that even though everything is already written, with each moment we live we still write it. That’s the essential paradox of 4-D time theory, if all time exists simultaneously, that would imply that all our decisions have already been made, yet at the same, because there is no past or future, that means that every moment is now and every decision is critical. With each moment we have the chance to choose a new future, and it is these decisions to break from the expected and do something novel that can allow someone to reinvent their own reality.

At the end of the book, a tachyon generator causes John’s perception of the future to become unclear. Tachyons are objects that travel faster than the speed of light. According to special relativity, objects moving faster than the speed of light experience time distortion, so it’s logical that a prevalence of these objects would alter Jon’s perception of the future. (Encyclopedia Britannica) As a result, for the first time in years he experiences uncertainty, and exults in the fact that he does not know what will happen to him next.

This joy gets to the core of one of the major issues concerning the idea that all time exists and we just view it in a linear fashion. If this is true, that means that were we able to view everything simultaneously, as Jon did, we would lose the mystery and uncertainty of life. Jack is taken outside of time and shown how time functions, but he is not shown his own future. When he returns to linear time, he is aware of the fallacy of temporal perception, but is not able to perceive outside of it. For Jon, the fact that he can perceive all time is a curse, he is unable to be emotionally present in any particular moment, because he is always existing simultaneously in the future and past.

Existing in this timeless state would result in an inability to grow. It is only through experience that we can change, to already possess all experience and be aware of it at once would mean being a constant being, set in a specific mode of thought, as Jon was. But is there a way to have this long form view of time and also be connected to the world, able to alter events through choices?

This question is addressed in the events surrounding John a Dreams from The Invisibles. John was a regular person living a life in the linear continuum until he encountered a timesuit and was turned into a 5-D being. What is a 5-D being? To consider this hypothetical, we must first look at Morrison’s conceptions of reality. The characters in the book are two dimensional, but we exist in a three dimensional reality, and have the power to manipulate their time, see their entire lives in one moment. So, imagining that we are in the book’s reality, which exists as a 3-D space, a 4-D being would be one who had full temporal perception and the ability to shift between moments on the continuum.

So, when Robin wears the time suit, she is able to shift from a version of herself in 2012 to a version of herself in 1988. From her perspective, time begins with her birth in 1988 and proceeds until 2012, at which point she is sent back in time to 1988 as an adult, and then lives until 1998, at which point she is thrown past the end of 3-D time in 2012 and her consciousness is raised to a new level of awareness. However, viewing things from a 4-D perspective, Robin never actually travels through time, it’s essentially that two versions of her exist from 1988 to 1998. The original, child version of her is still there, growing up, moving towards 2012, but there’s also the older version. In New Mexico in 1996, Robin sees the younger version of herself from a distance, while Robin at 8 sees the woman who she would one day become. So, it’s not like she moved to the future then came back to alter the present, it’s that she was always there.

Anyway, this 4-D perspective would afford us the luxury to view things from outside of time. What would a 5-D perspective do? According to the book, it would allow someone to alter both time and space. When Robin goes into the timesuit in 1998, she is thrown into the future, beyond time, and the suit is refracted back to the Philadelphia church, in the form of a 5-D being, which John and King Mob come across in 1993. John is taken into the suit and is missing for most of the book.

Touching the suit, he became a 5-D being, someone who exists outside the context of individual identity.
One of the critical tenets of Morrison’s philosophy is the idea that humanity is in actuality one large organism, with each human being like a cell. However, because the cells have separate identities we are unable to function at their higher level, held down by the human weakness that keeps us separate. The entire purpose of our existence on Earth, of the existence of every person who has ever lived, is to move us closer to unification into this one larger organism, moving to a mass higher consciousness. Much like our body is composed of individual cells, which work together to create the person, each human would be part of a larger global entity.

Regardless of the validity of this idea, this goal is crucial to understanding Morrison’s construction of John as a being outside of time and space. When he goes into the timesuit, his identity as an individual is destroyed and he becomes essentially an agent of progress that exists as pure consciousness. John takes on a number of guises to interact with the characters and move them to the point where they will make the decision that will lead to humanity forward. The idea is that existence is a game with an ultimate objective, and John exists as someone who can manipulate the pieces to ensure that the objective is achieved. So, John shows Jack the structure of time in the guise of the blind chessmen, and this is what allows Jack to make the leap in consciousness that ultimately contributes to the 2012 event, and at the same time, John is wearing the guise of George Harper fighting alongside Jack a year later for the same goal.

So, unlike Manhattan, John a Dreams is not a prisoner in time, instead he is an agent taking on various personalities at different points in the continuum to bring about a desired end. He can see and experience all, but it does not contain him. He shapes how events will proceed through his actions. John actually has the ability to alter the future by moving freely through 4-D space, influencing the characters to bring about a desired goal. The best metaphor is to use is that of a writer. If a gun is needed in the third act of a play, it’s easy to revise the start and place a gun on the wall in the first act. John has the ability to move through time and ensure that the gun is present beforehand so it can fire when needed.

This leads us to the question of intelligent design, something that Jon also ponders. If all time already exists, was it shaped by some higher hand to bring about the world we live in now? Is time really soil for humanity to grow and flourish in, or does it just exist, our actions essentially meaningless. For Morrison, our actions do have a higher meaning; the suffering of humanity is a necessary step to make us stronger on our journey towards the jump forward. Moore’s view, at least in Watchmen, is that humanity is subject to time and as a result, we must simply enjoy the moments that we do have, the uncertain future proving our humanity

These works of fiction both explore the scientific and philosophical questions that arise from the idea that all time is simultaneous. Through the characters, the authors are able to convey their own philosophical musings on the nature of time and humanity’s place within it. While both work within contemporary scientific paradigms, they are each more concerned with the effect of theoretical physics concepts on individual characters. By choosing to present their philosophy within the medium of serial graphic fiction, each of the writers has chosen a medium that is uniquely capable of illustrating the points they seek to illustrate, and gives the audience an idea of what it would be like to exist outside of the linear time continuum.