Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Dipping My Toes In a Meme

I haven’t tried one of these before, but my online friend Aunt B over at Tiny Cat Pants did it the other day, so why not? It looks like fun. For those of you playing along at home, follow the instructions, and post it to your own blog or to my comments or just pass it along on the internet.

Answer the question "If you could be ---____ . Choose five titles from the list [below] and answer the question for each of them. Add a job title to the list when you are done, if you would like, but you can't choose your own newly added job title.

Scientist - Farmer - Musician - Doctor - Painter - Gardener - Missionary - Chef - Architect - Linguist - Psychologist - Librarian - Athlete - Lawyer - Innkeeper - Professor - Writer - Llama rider - Failed actor gone political - Moonbat - Street Performer - Pro Bowler – Psychic – Skipper

1) Professor. Well, I guess I’d be a Professor of Improved Common Sense. I’m not sure how many people I’d get to sign up for my classes, but the idea would be to get people to forget all about their beliefs that they have common sense, and to instead try to look at the ways their beliefs may differ from people with different backgrounds. Then, after careful studying of a variety of different belief systems, each class would end with a project attempting to create new and improved common sense capable of being applied across vastly different circumstances.

2) Scientist. I’d want to be one of those science popularizers, like Stephen Jay Gould. I’d particularly love to find a way to make evolutionary theory so easy to understand that not even the most fundamentally fundamentalist could poke a hole in it any more. And, while I’m at it, I’d like to make science fun and exciting to the general public to counteract all the misunderstanding that has become so much a part of the American concensus.

3) Librarian. I’d love to be in charge of the Library of Congress, with the special task of finding one previously neglected interesting tome per week and writing a USA Today column on it. Who knows how many fascinating novels and works of non-fiction are sitting there in Washington gathering dust? As an aside, I’d make it my special mission to explain Library of Congress alphabetization rules, so that people who work in record stores will forever understand things like the reason Los Straightjackets belong in “L”, not “S”, or the logic behind putting short words before longer ones in alphabetical order.

4) Lawyer. If I’m gonna go to the trouble of becoming a lawyer, I’m damn straight gonna be a Supreme Court Justice. It’s my fantasy, and I’m taking it all the way to the top. My first joy would be arguing with Scalia and Thomas day in and day out, knocking them sideways with my encyclopedic knowledge of cases and precedents which would make all their horrific ideas seem like the work of kindergartners. Then, I’d set to work on protecting the rights of all Americans as they’re supposed to be protected. Ain’t no overturning Roe V. Wade on my watch, either.

5) Athlete. As long as we’re just playing, I might as well say that I really would love to be a professional hockey player. I had a few skills in the street hockey world, but I was prevented from pursuing a career in the NHL (and thus losing all my teeth by the age of 25) because of an irrational fear of attempting to move while wearing ice skates. So, I’d like to have the chance to get out there and stop Brett Hull from getting any shots on goal.

There you have ‘em, my dreams for the day.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Sin City Sincerely Silly

When I was eight years old, I thought it would be a brilliant idea to turn my favorite comic books – specifically, Adventure Comics #350 and #351 – into a live action movie which recreated every single panel and word of dialogue and narration. At the time, my only hope was to will myself to sleep at night with the attempt to force such a thing to at least take shape in my dream.

Now, while I still think it would be a hoot to put the Legion of Super-Heroes onto the big screen – I’m thinking Matter-Eater Lad, the hero who could eat and digest anything and Bouncing Boy, who could, well, bounce, could set new standards for CGI – I’ve long since realized the differences between comic books and movies are pretty damn important. Obviously, there are similarities, but remember, movies move, and comic books split time into discrete elements with each individual panel.

So, when comic book creators borrow from motion pictures, they do so by turning one aesthetic into a series of short hand references. Because of the static nature of comics, you can jump all over the place in point of view without freaking out the reader. In movies, you need to maintain perspective long enough to give the viewer a chance to understand what’s going on. And, vice versa is important, too. Comic book writers don’t have the luxury of attempting to be too naturalistic in dialogue. They’ve got to move the story along with a minimum of verbiage, or the reader will just go look for prose.

What I’m leading up to is pointing out that “Frank Miller’s Sin City” is a load of crap as a movie. I suspect it may be a load of crap as a comic book, too, but I have to confess I’ve never read it. I’ve read enough of Miller’s “Daredevil” and “Batman” work to recognize his stylistic and aesthetic quirks here, though. This guy just views the world as a completely untrustworthy collection of morally empty individuals. And, though he at least allows men to be relatively differentiated containers of individual tics and tactics, women are a) video-game beautiful (not that that’s my concept of beauty), b) sexually available in exchange for payment or services, and c) angelic innocents who induce perfect love for the barest of plausible reasons.

Apparently, Robert Rodriguez got thrown out of the Director’s Guild for declaring Miller to be his co-director – somewhere in there, Quentin Tarentino wound up getting a share of credit, too. But, really, there’s nothing in this movie that doesn’t bear Miller’s stamp. Every word of dialogue, every narrative explanation, every camera angle, everything that makes up the whole picture is lifted straight from “Sin City” comic books. As such, you’ve got a whole lot of crazy-quilt camera angles, smoky, shadowy lighting, idiosyncratic effects of color and the use of blank whiteness to represent spurts and splatters of blood (unless, of course, the blood is on somebody’s face, in which case it’s bright red), short, declarative dialogue, all the stuff that a talented comics artist can use to make his work stand out, but which a director ought to be smart enough to realize will simply look and sound silly on the screen.

Sin City” wants to be an homage to film noir, albeit with modern-day cynicism and violence toleration making the 1940s flicks seem like episodes of “Sesame Street”. The mood music that permeates the background is clearly meant to echo that era, and tie in with the mostly black-and-white look and seedy underworld setting. But, by making all his characters hyper-human – multiple bullet holes don’t necessarily kill people, requiring excessive limb and head chopping to make sure somebody is really dead – Miller pretty much removes any reason to care about individual scenes of violence. It all seems pretty random, and while some of these scenes may have been ghoulishly funny when read in thirty seconds in a comic book sequence, they just seem interminable when taking up precious minutes in between plot developments.

But really, it was all the “angel” and “whore” references that drove me craziest. Yeah, all the actors do great jobs chewing up the stilted dialogue, but I just couldn’t stand to hear Mickey Rourke’s character go on about how one particular prostitute was so perfect simply because she was the only woman who ever had the courage to fuck him despite his especially ugly latex-provided kisser. And, why did the camera linger so lovingly on her “perfect breasts which were no longer moving with her breath” after his Goldie was dead?

We go to Old Town for extended sequences, and learn that the Prostitutes have struck a deal with both the police and the mob to allow their services to be performed without need for pimps or fear of arrest. In other words, we are supposed to believe that women will empower themselves most perfectly by taking complete control of their ability to be whores. In doing so, they seem to have artificially inflated standards of beauty by making sure that nobody gets to join the sisterhood without being capable of fitting a Charlie’s Angel-styled silhouette. And, we are shown that despite the sistas doing it for themselves nature of their ability to fight as warriors in between giving blowjobs and gang bangs for money, these ladies are also capable of getting all gooey and googly when they see a man kill bad guys, too.

Miller does have a way of inventing amusing minor characters, like the guy who stands around with an arrow in his chest trying to decide if somebody should call a doctor, or the villainous henchman who talks as though he’d swallowed an entire American Heritage Dictionary. And, I had to admire the occasional excessive limb hacking just for the sheer practicality of it as a killing or torturing method. But, mostly, I just kept waiting for this thing to be over. In “Sin City,” the deadliest sin is boredom.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Another Baseball Book

You can’t argue with success, or maybe you can’t successfully argue with somebody who has achieved success. At any rate, arguing isn’t on Buzz Bissinger’s mind anywhere in his new book, “3 Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager.” Nope, instead, Bissinger wants to worship Tony La Russa, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals for the last ten years. Bissinger bows down and prays to every tidbit of wisdom from the mind of the man who has one more games than all but a handful of managers in baseball history.

I’m not trying to say Bissinger doesn’t perform some useful functions here. Any baseball fan, especially any Cardinal fan, will find plenty of fascinating insights and tidbits, as Bissinger was basically around on a day to day basis for long stretches of the 2003 Cardinals season. He does seem to have won the trust of La Russa and many of the players, and as such, he paints a portrait of human beings, with individual foibles, skills, and instincts they trust above all. And, Bissinger doesn’t shy away from revealing disagreements between players and manager.

So, yeah, it’s fascinating to follow the interaction between La Russa and Kerry Robinson, the St. Louis-bred backup outfielder who was convinced he would be a star performer if given a chance to play, despite offering no evidence of the necessary skills to excel in such a role. La Russa thought Robinson was a useful cog in the makeup of his team, but he got frustrated when Robinson tried, as he often did, to move outside his talents, and to play for himself rather than for the team. Because baseball is a game which allows anybody to be a hero on any given night, Robinson’s game-winning home run in the third and final game examined in this book is a stroke of irony Bissinger which must have left him excitedly scribbling down the structure of the whole project.

The book is built around a three game series between the Cardinals and Cubs in August, 2003. At the time, the two teams were running neck and neck in the standings, so the series had both pennant-winning meaning and the traditional rivalry between St. Louis and Chicago to add drama. But, Bissinger doesn’t just talk about individual events within each game, though he does describe some of them in great, and insightful detail. Rather, he jumps around in the minds of the players and La Russa, and talks about previous events in their lives (both personal and on the field) which help to explain what is happening in these games.

For example, there is a fascinating side trip down the history of baseball pitchers throwing at the heads of the best players on the other team. La Russa is aware of how badly players can be hurt as a result of this risky course of action, and he hates more than anything – or so he convinces Bissinger – to retaliate. But, he knows he cannot command the respect of his players if he allows the opposition to hit his stars without ordering his pitcher to do the same. So, he has come up with an elaborate schema for when and how to do such a thing, and he refuses to allow his players to act on their own in such a situation.

Elaborate schemes and La Russa seem to go hand in hand. Whenever a chance is given, La Russa refutes the claims of baseball analysts who use statistical studies to contradict the conventional wisdom within the game. Bissinger treats these refutations as proof of La Russa’s hard-earned genius, despite never once allowing the arguments to be discussed in depth. “It’s also why he gave his little conspiratorial laugh in spring training when he heard of the Red Sox plan, based on analysis by statistical guru and team consultant Bill James, to have rotating closers instead of one designated pitcher. James, in part because of what he felt was the inflated statistic of the save (you get one even with a three-run lead), believed that it wasn’t always necessary to bring in a classic closer to pitch the ninth. La Russa respected James, but based on managing nearly 4,000 games, was convinced James was wrong. La Russa was also right: the Red Sox ultimately dumped the idea when it became clear that closer-by-committee was no-closer-by-committee.”

Well, let’s see. James and most sabermetricians have argued that the single closer idea is an inefficient usage of resources. If theoretically a closer is the very best relief pitcher on the team, why should he be used only in the ninth inning, whether or not that is the time you most need your best pitcher? If, as happened in Saturday’s Cardinals game, the opposing team has its best hitters due up in the 8th inning, why would you use a theoretically lesser pitcher to face them, and save your best pitcher for the lesser hitters batting in the ninth? And, what if the most dangerous part of the game comes in the 7th? Why should you leave your best pitcher on the bench until other pitchers have given up runs which could have been prevented?

The Red Sox did indeed try to change the pattern of usage in 2003, but, alas, they did it with pitchers who weren’t good enough to use for the experiment. And, because this led to the Red Sox losing some close games, the conventional wisdom acts as though this one example has destroyed any chance of trying it again. Never mind that the single closer method leads to many lost games, too. It’s engrained in everybody’s mind that this is the only way the game can be played. Which is amazing, because La Russa himself only invented this method twenty years ago.

For a man who distrusts statisticians, La Russa relies on statistics more than most managers. He prides himself on basing decisions based on the individual performance of each hitter against each pitcher. But, most of these examples are built on the smallest of sample sizes. If a hitter has made nine outs in ten at-bats against a particular pitcher, there is no reason to believe this performance will continue. Any random ten at-bats in a baseball player’s career can be found with similar results, but no major league player can stay in the game with a .100 batting average.

Tony La Russa knows how to manage major league baseball teams. There are many different paths to success, and we can’t argue that La Russa isn’t capable of picking some that work, because he has won again and again throughout his 25-year career. But, Bissinger, in his rush to elevate La Russa to a solitary, poetic figure, missed an opportunity to truly challenge his subjects ways of thinking. (Look at the cover, with La Russa standing in the shadows at the top of the dugout, his back to the camera, the brightly lit field he tries to control stretched out before him.) I find it interesting that everybody in St. Louis refers to this as La Russa’s book. While clearly Bissinger makes it his own tale – the overwrought writing style wears thin whenever the subject under discussion becomes overly familiar – he does so without argument.

I gobbled this book up in a couple of days. The subject itself was too near and dear to me to do otherwise. I detected much more of the human element within the players, coaches, and managers than I’m used to noticing. But, ultimately, I found Bissinger’s tone to be too pretentious – this is the guy who wrote “Friday Night Lights,” which I haven’t read – and not contentious enough for my taste.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Doing My Jury Duty or: The Longest Post Ever

The idea was to accept jury duty as a break in my routine at work. But, as I mentioned, there is no job, hence no routine. In fact, after going to the Civil Courts Building the first four days of this week, I think I’m now going to miss a new routine already.

I’ve always been a strong supporter of the jury process, so there was never any question of trying to avoid the duty. I believe in the principles of our legal system, even if there are chinks in its armor of execution now and again. And, I’ve watched about a million TV shows with courtroom sets, from Judge Judy to Perry Mason to all the Law and Orders to my late, lamented Murder One. I’m at least somewhat familiar with the processes.

Four days of jury duty, including sitting on a trial, netted me $72, which is more than I earned the previous week. Alas, my new job will have nothing for me to do for at least another 3 and one half years, which means I’ll probably have to start searching for something else in the interim.

DAY ONE:

Monday morning, armed with a big thick novel and a giant cup of iced tea, I marched into the waiting room figuring I’d be sitting there all day long just like the last time I was called back in 1990. That time, I had not brought anything with me, and I was bored out of my skull waiting for my number to be called. Of course, this year, I was put on the first panel called at 10 am. That had still left me two hours to read, and enough time to finish my tea before going up to the court room.

The St. Louis Civil Courts Building is a beautiful old skyscraper dating back, I believe, to the late 1920s or early 1930s. One of its best features is the grandness of the courtrooms themselves. They are large, with tall windows, high ceilings, and plenty of room for all the participants in the trial. I felt filled with awe walking into the room, seeing the lawyers seated at their tables, as well as the defendant.

Unless you watched “Murder One,” you’ve probably never seen the voix dire process on TV. That’s where the lawyers question the panel of 48 potential jurors seeking to weed out the ones who would be prejudicial in advance of hearing evidence. From 10:15 or so, when the judge actually arrived, until 3:30, that’s what we did. Well, except for the many hours of non-consecutive recesses we had.

The prosecutor on this case did her best to put everybody at ease. She told us this was a trial in which the defendant was accused of kidnapping, forcible sodomy, attempted rape, and one other charge I can’t remember. Many questions followed, with way too many answers. One thing I learned about this process. Citizens take their personal experiences seriously, and want to tell lawyers and judges about them in excruciating detail.

I was impressed to find another guy on the panel whom I had gone to high school and college with. I hadn’t seen him since 1979, and wouldn’t have recognized him at first if she hadn’t said his name. We had a grand time chatting during one of the interminable recesses.

The defense attorney was completely different than the prosecutor. Where she tried to be friendly, he tried to appear intense. He told us that he and his client didn’t have to do anything, and could sit and play cards during the trial if they wanted, because the burden of proof was on the state, not on the defense. He also told us he would act like an SOB when questioning the victim of this crime, because that’s what he would have to do to defend his client. I was torn at this point, because I understand the need for a vigorous defense, but I am generally offended when victims get blamed for rape. I was curious to see how that trial would have gone, but not especially sorry I didn’t get picked for it.

Back downstairs at 3:30, and by 4 pm I was on another panel in another courtroom. The judge read instructions, and introduced everybody, but that was it for Monday.

DAY TWO

Another day, another voix dire, this one longer and more painfully detailed. I was shocked at how many people out of a randomly selected group of 48 had been victims of crimes, had relatives who had committed crimes, or had committed crimes themselves. I could hear individuals on the panel talk themselves off the jury as we went along. One guy, when asked about opinions regarding firearms used in a crime, told us he has co-authored legislation which will be introduced in the Missouri Senate which will give mandatory sentences of something like ten years for any crime committed with a gun, and as if that wasn’t Draconian enough, to purposely separate the criminal from his or her family, their sentence would be served in another state. It was scary watching his eyes widen and his cheeks puff up as he told this story.

The prosecutor in this case reminded me of a taller version of the guy who played the prosecutor on early seasons of “Homicide: Life on the Street.” The defense attorney looked like a taller version of a friend of mine, so much so that I was convinced Tony Patti was sitting at the table when I walked in on Monday. I suspect that my friend Tony could have mounted a stronger defense than this guy wound up presenting, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The defense attorney told us the robbery in this case involved a dog who was taken and never returned. This served to weed out even more jurors. Strangely, he only asked opinions of people who currently own dogs, ignoring the possible strong views of people who either have recently lost their dogs, or who just love all animals so much they would be even more prejudiced against a criminal who caused harm to come to one. My view on this was that, while I would certainly be angry about the animal’s involvement, I would still be able to judge the facts in the case impartially. If he did the crimes – which were bad enough even without the dog – I would find him guilty. If there was no evidence that he did them, I would vote not guilty.

After all the questions had been asked, the attorneys and the judge gathered around to consider strikes for cause. I was familiar with this process through “Murder One,” though I assume in California courts, the strikes take place as the questions are answered, rather than at the end. At any rate, this time we waited forty-five minutes as juror after juror was removed from contention. At that point, I realized my odds had changed from twelve in 48 to about one in two of making the jury.

Yup, I was seated in the box along with eleven other individuals. And, soon enough, the attorneys were making their opening statements. The prosecutor was telling us that the defendant stole at gunpoint a 2000 Lexus from a man who had just parked in front of his daughter’s home to deliver her some White Castles. This was in February two years ago. Three weeks later, he robbed a purse, again at gunpoint, from a woman as she was walking into her parents home. The defense attorney asked us to carefully listen to all the evidence, and to agree that his client couldn’t have done these crimes.

Then came the first witness, the detective who caught the defendant. Evidence was entered, as the detective explained that he showed the two victims photographic line-ups, a set of four pictures which could have included the perpetrator, though they didn’t have to. The victims each picked out the defendant. Then he told us about the physical line-ups, each of which led to the same identification. The defense attorney objected to the introduction of every bit of evidence regarding identifications. I began to think he was playing for an appeal, though I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was wrong with this evidence. Time then to go home.

DAY THREE

In the morning, we heard from the two victims in this case, both of which clearly and firmly told their stories in detail, and seemed absolutely certain that the defendant was the man who robbed them. He definitely has a memorable face, and I think his features would have been seared into the mind of anybody being held up at gunpoint by him.

But, still, I want to presume him innocent, and I wait for the defense attorney to poke holes in the evidence. Instead, he fiddles around trying to convince us that one of the line-ups wasn’t good, because the robber wore a black hoodie, and in the line-up, the defendant was the only person wearing a black hoodie. He hammers on the fact that when questioned after the robbery, both victims mentioned the robber had gold teeth, and the defendant doesn’t have gold teeth. He talks again and again about different hairstyles of the robber and the defendant, even though hairstyles can be changed. In short, he has nothing that can create any doubt about the testimony of the witnesses.

That afternoon, the defense presented their case. First, came a witness who lived with the defendant at the time the robberies were committed. He was the boyfriend of the defendant’s mother. According to him, the defendant would generally do the following during the last two weeks of February, 2003 (which would include the specific date of the second robbery, though not the first): he would sleep until 3:00 pm, then get up, listen to his radio, and get on his computer until 3 or 3:30 in the morning. He could not say anything specific about the actual date the crime was committed.

Then came the defendant himself. If I’ve learned anything from watching crime shows on TV, it’s that this is almost always a bad idea, and this real life example was stunning in proving the adage. First, his alibi differed from the one his mother’s boyfriend had just tried to give him. He would either be at work at McDonald’s during that time – though he was off on the day of the crime – or at his friend’s house two doors down the street, or at home watching videos on TV or on the computer. He was always watching videos.

The defense attorney asked him about gold teeth, which was a huge mistake on his part. The defendant did say he had one in the back of his mouth, but none others, and that he had never worn temporary gold caps.

Uh-oh. What’s that glinting in the prosecutor’s mouth? I don’t remember him having any gold teeth before. On cross examination, the prosecutor asked if the defendant could see the gold in his mouth. Then he popped it right out in two seconds, destroying any question that gold teeth mattered at all. This was as good as any TV lawyer I’d ever seen.

From there, the defendant fell apart. “Do you remember what you were doing on February 2, 2003?”

“Wait, on what day, now?”

“What day? You’ve been here for three days, you’ve heard us mention the date many times. This is your trial! How can you not know what day we’re talking about?”

Further questions started bringing a combative attitude towards the prosecutor. Twice, the defendant actually asked, “What is your point?” before the judge cautioned him to answer the questions, and to avoid asking any himself.

That was it. That was all the defense had. No further witnesses, nothing that could counter the credibility of the prosecution, no hint of doubt that we could grasp in that jury box.

The judge asked if we wanted to go ahead and hear closing arguments and retire to the jury room for deliberations. I was in favor of it, but the vote in the jury was five to five with three abstentions, so we adjourned one more time.

DAY FOUR

Remember that book I mentioned on Day One? I was up to page 379, reading whenever there was a break in the action, just thirty pages away from the end when we were finally called in to the courtroom, forty-five minutes after schedule. I’ll tell you about that book one of these days.

Closing arguments were presented. The prosecutor was boring but strong. He pointed to each of the elements of the charges, and told us how he had presented compelling evidence that the defendant had done as the charge read. The defense attorney wandered all over the place. He started talking about how the witnesses never gave a physical description of their robbers, though we had no way of knowing this, since he never asked them about such a thing. He focused on gold teeth as a ridiculous method of hiding one’s identity, as if that was ever implied to be the reason the caps were worn in the first place. He tried to imply that the two crimes were done by different people since they were different sorts of crimes. In short, he did his client no favors at all.

On to deliberations. I was firmly convinced, as were nine of my fellow jurors, as soon as we walked into that jury room, that this guy was guilty on all four counts. (He was charged with armed robbery in each incident, along with the additional charge of armed criminal action for each. Now, philosophically, I don’t think I feel comfortable with a crime existing merely for the purpose of adding a mandatory sentence to a different crime, which is what we’re talking about here. If you’re convicted of a crime involving a deadly weapon, then you have to be convicted of this additional crime, too. But, mine was not to be philosophical, but to determine the facts, and he was guilty.)

The doubts that existed were minor. One guy was not at all pleased about the line-up with the black hoodie. I agreed this was a serious mistake on the part of the police. To be fair, a line-up should not be set up in a way that could call extra attention to the person who was under suspicion. But, the line-up was only one of three identifications of this suspect for this crime; the other two seemed pretty clear-cut.

Two other jurors were concerned about being wrong, even though they were leaning towards believing his guilt. Thus, we took about an hour with everybody offering opinions about the case. There was a lot of serious discussion, with some very interesting viewpoints, though sometimes it could veer off into paths far from the topic. I remember somehow there was suddenly talking about the roles of parents in modern society.

Eventually, the votes were in, and we were brought back down to reveal the defendant’s fate. This 19-year-old kid, who was 17 when he was first arrested for these acts, was found guilty on all four counts, and he burst out crying when the third one was revealed. It was heart-breaking, and I certainly understood the sickening feeling described by some of my fellow jurors. Still, I knew we had done the right thing, as hard as it was to consider the results of our decision.

The judge came back to talk to us after the trial, and he actually told us about some of the issues discussed at sidebar, which was fascinating. I very much appreciated that he was opposed to mandatory minimum sentences as well. He seemed like a very sensible, prudent, and liberal judge.

Finally, after lots of chit-chat from the bailiff, who I liked but who loved to talk about her job more than anything else in the world, there was an opening to get out of there. I was ready to go home for the first time in days (I wasn’t spending a whole lot of waking time at home Monday or Tuesday night, and Wednesday I had gone out).

The experience was fascinating. I wouldn’t call it pleasant, though I did tell my fellow jurors it was a pleasure to share it with them. I think it was the strenuous efforts by all concerned to be fair, to really deeply consider what we were doing, which impressed me the most. I know for a fact that the twelve of us came from dramatically different backgrounds, that we had very little in common socially or politically. But, when given an opportunity to weigh facts, we were able to come to a common conclusion with little or none of it based on our backgrounds. In other words, it showed me that people are better than they’re often given credit for being.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Hey Kids! Comics!

When I was a kid, I loved comic books more than anything in the world. By the time I outgrew them – and it took me longer than it took most people, since I was 21 when I sold the collection in exchange for enough money to buy a camera and a trip to Columbia, Mo. to have sex with my girlfriend – I had amassed some 5000 of the darn things. Even now, 25 years afterwards, I can perfectly recall details from hundreds of specific issues of the Avengers, Fantastic Four, Doom Patrol, Justice League of America, and many more.

I do remember the growing pains caused by being mad about those comics while all my peers were moving on to teenage concerns. Here’s the crazy confession, though. At the time, I was absolutely convinced that the problem was in the form, not the content. I actually went around telling anybody who would listen that I would prefer to read the same stories in prose, but the only way to get them was in these four-color, skinny little pamphlets.

This was years before the culture came to accept comic books. Between the Batman TV series in the mid-60s and the Superman movie in the late 70s, there was no conventional belief that comic books were anything but trite, if thrilling, trash. That was my era, and I believed that comics were the greatest literature in the history of the world. Who was the best writer, Shakespeare or Steve Englehart? It was no contest for me. And nobody could try to tell me that Rembrandt was a better artist than John Buscema, either.

As I said, eventually I wised up, and realized that while there was some really cool stuff in those books, they weren’t uniformly good enough to keep spending so much time and money on them. Music had taken over so much of my free time after I reached college, anyway, and I was also realizing that this Shakespeare guy actually did have a way with words, and he wasn’t the only literary master who could provide me with better, more consistent reading rewards.

Time kept marching on, and I occasionally dabbled in the passions of my youth, but never very extensively until the mid 1990s, when deluxe books reprinting seemingly everything I’d ever owned or wanted to own as a lad started being published. Now, with an adult’s eye, I could see the value of the form itself, the methods of telling stories, the ways in which time was manipulated through panel breakdowns, the intricate relationship between words and pictures, the method in the approach to pictures not necessarily meant to be seen as realistic. I could see that often, the pressures of cranking out multiple tales each and every month meant that even my favorite writers and artists missed as often as they hit, but I was glad to see that sometimes those commercially produced comic books really did have some nice little artistic touches.

Meanwhile – there’s a word I read about a zillion times - the comic form started being used for a whole lot more concepts than just telling superhero and funny animal stories. (And, the original genres were being reinvented every time you turned around, too.) A whole generation of younger creators – usually writers and artists combined in the same human being, which was not the norm when I was growing up – were tackling everything from the Holocaust to punk rock lifestyles.

It costs a whole lot to keep up with all that stuff, though, so I’ve only encountered it now and again. But, now, on your bookshelves for something around $25, you can buy an excellent single volume compilation of work by many of the most interesting and frequently exciting new comics artists around. It’s the new McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue No. 13, edited by Chris Ware. (McSweeney’s is a publishing concept which deserves a whole lot more attention maybe some day down the line; for now, suffice it to say, they publish books as if they were magazines.)

You’ll laugh, of course, because a lot of the artists today are full of yucks, applying a frequently, though not always cynical update to the classic tropes of ancient newspaper comic strips. You’ll cry, because many of these artists are capable of telling the most intimate details of human pain and misery. You’ll sometimes flit back and forth between both emotional extremes. But, mostly, you’ll just find a lot of pleasure.

There are interesting articles (and some old rare sketches and published work) about comics artists of the past, but mostly, you get contemporary work, gathered in no particular order. Honestly, I liked pretty much everything in here, though there were a few pieces which stood out especially. Chris Ware’s story was a major highlight, for example. Ware, whose “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” was one of the most successful comic book collections of recent years, tells a particularly touching, riveting tale of a woman who lost a leg as a young girl. She meets a man, falls in love, and lives without him later, and the whole story is pretty much told through scenes set in the bedroom in which she grew up. It’s truly beautiful stuff.

(Here’s an incidental paragraph wondering why Ware has to draw such teeny-tiny panels all the time. He loves small print, that’s for sure. We old folks have to squint quite a bit to read his stuff, and for that matter, the work of several other artists collected here. It does make each individual page look stylish, but I’m still gonna complain anyway.)

Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, the brothers responsible for “Love and Rockets,” one of the greatest comic book series in history, contribute a few recent stories. Some of these were ones I’d read before, but they still hit me with the poignancy of their ability to pull the largest truth out of the smallest events. Gilbert’s episode of “Julio’s Day,” his series showing events from different periods of his title characters life, in which little Julio goes from the joy of learning on his first day of school to the pain of being bullied afterward is absolutely unforgettably sad.

But, enough about the people I already knew (though, of course, Linda Barry has a wonderful piece, and I had the usual mixed emotions about R. Crumb, he of the major talent and the major issues with women). I discovered artists I’ve never encountered before, too. I loved Marc Beyer, who harkens back to Winsor McKay (the turn of the 20th century artist who drew Little Nemo in Slumberland) with his whimsical approach to each panel of the ultra cynical “Amy and Jordan” strips. Richard McGuire takes a bird’s-eye-view approach to the world, and uses bright, plain colors devoid of shadow to tell a mysteriously amusing story with at least one major surprise on every page.

Debbie Drechsler meshes mundane reality with intriguing dream images in her tale of a woman getting an abortion. Kim Deitch offers a comics-as-journalism tale with “Ready to Die,” an examination of one particular death row inmate, his death, and the people who knew him. Joe Sacco shows the life in Sarajevo after the recent war in excerpts from his long work, “The Fixer.” It’s full of compelling, frightening details.

I’m not ready to return to my old obsession full time, but it’s nice to see that the possibilities of the comics medium are being so thoroughly explored. There’s also an essay by John Updike, who apparently dabbled in cartooning before he turned to prose, that as much as anything I’ve read provides insight into the way comic stories are created. All in color and black and white for a whole lot of dimes!

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Stand-in - The Unemployment Line

You never know when watching a movie will resonate with real life. Sunday afternoon, I set up the DVR to record “Stand-In,” a 1937 flick starring Humphrey Bogart, Leslie Howard, and Joan Blondell, who bears a sweet resemblance to my wife. Sunday evening, I lost my job. Monday evening, I watched “Stand-In,” a comedy of sorts, and suddenly came to the part wherein Howard’s character loses his job. So much for escapism.

In September of 1984, I was hired by Vintage Vinyl, and I couldn’t have been happier. I was leaving a record store that was only a few months away from going under, and heading to the coolest place in St. Louis. I spent half my spare time in that little shop anyway, so it seemed the perfect place for me to earn some cash.

At the time, it was hard to earn a living. I was 25, in my first apartment, and broke all the time. But, I was soaking up so much knowledge from the people who worked at the store with me. And, I was often working alone, so I could play any open record in the store, and learn even more. If it weren’t for that time in Vintage Vinyl, I don’t think I would know a tenth of what I know about music.

Over the years, business kept getting better, and I worked my way up through just about every job that could be had there. I worked with hundreds of different fellow employees – heck, I hired dozens of ‘em myself. I kept on learning, not just about music, but about inventory levels and balance sheets and financial projections and managing people and computers and spreadsheets. I figured, for the longest time, that I would work there until I died, or at least retired.

The strength of Vintage Vinyl was always in its people, but the strength worked best when times were good. The record industry has taken some hits in recent years. I’ve never believed for one second that these hits were caused by file-sharing. To me, the problems are more cultural than that. Music doesn’t mean to kids now what it did to people of my generation. Oh, they like it alright, but it’s just one of many entertainment distractions. I can’t for the life of me figure out why anybody would want to waste ten seconds with a video game – well, maybe the baseball or hockey ones, if I actually had any hand-eye coordination. But, that’s where the big money is now.

Something had to give to keep Vintage Vinyl going, and I was the sacrificial offering to the retail gods. Now, I’m sitting here terrified and thrilled about the future. I can envision equally living in the gutter and living an even more comfortable life from here on out. Legally, I get to stay on the company bought medical insurance, though I have to pay for it now. That won’t last forever, but it’s a big deal. If I have to buy my own insurance, I think I have to deal with pre-existing conditions clauses, and that’s not a good thing.

I’ve got skills I haven’t even thought about, and my next step is to figure them out. That’ll come in a day or two. You’ve got to take some time to mourn, and some time to distract. Big life decisions shouldn’t be made while you’re in shock. But, they will be made, and I hope I’ll be alright.

Hey, did I mention my wife is losing her job this year, too, because of a corporate merger? Oh, yeah, scary and thrilling, you betcha.

Now, about that movie. “Stand-In” was one of those 1930s b-pictures that didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. The character actors ham things up about as much as any I’ve ever seen, especially Jack Carson with his motor-mouth fast-talking and his loud, high-pitched laugh. Bogart has a blast playing comedy, though he doesn’t get nearly enough funny lines. Howard carries the picture, playing a prim, prissy stuffed shirt who only understands numbers and doesn’t even know who Shirley Temple is. Naturally, he saves the movie studio and gets to marry Blondell.

This movie reveals a whole lot about the back-stage maneuverings of motion picture studios. There is dirt on the content of star contracts, on their vanity, on the incompetence of some directors, even on the sexual shenanigans of some serial polygamists. There is also a lot of technical information shown of how movies could create believable scenes right on the studio lots.

I thought that was unusual for the time, but then, near the end, the movie transforms into a battle between labor and capitol, allowing for the nuanced view that even the man in charge can be an employee at the same time. When Howard is fired, he rallies all the studio workers to keep working for two days so they can finish the re-edited picture that can keep the company out of the hands of a speculator who buys movie studios so they can be shut down. Just try to imagine a movie being made nowadays which shows that the workers actually have and deserve some power.

I didn’t have that option, but it was kind of fun watching somebody do it.