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So, that happened.

If we complain loudly enough to the management, can we take 2016 back for a refund? Or exchange it for a model that isn’t broken? The one and only saving grace of this year is that it started with the birth of my daughter, Katherine Claire Barrett. She is amazing and beautiful, as is the rest of my family. My wife is strong, graceful, beautiful, and brilliant; my son is strong, full of life, and curious; my newborn daughter is a person of wonder. Thank God for my wife and children. I, on the other hand, am a goddamned wreck.

I have spent most of 2016 being exhausted. Exhausted because of a new baby, exhausted because of a job in which, when push comes to shove, “Oh sure, take whatever time you need when the baby is born” works out to being “You understand you’re back the day after the birth, right?”, exhausted because of trying to figure out how to pretend to rich people  — who live in an area of New England where they know full well they’re rich and expect to be treated as such — that I’m sufficiently one of them and that I understand their interests well enough that they want to give money to my employer, exhausted because it’s a job that wears me out before I ever even get a chance to think about doing anything I want to do, including spending time with my family, exhausted because stress causes shingles, exhausted because, well, how about that, my sleep study shows 81 incidents per hour with blood oxygen saturation levels at something like 71%, exhausted because my body knows that my thirties are mere weeks from being over, exhausted because I’ve put on something like 40 pounds since Katherine was born, exhausted because having two kids where you have no family and a majority of friends who are in an impenetrable bubble that you are no longer in yourself is isolating, exhausted because we’re broke, exhausted because in all of this I’ve also been looking for and applying to jobs, and exhausted because whoever said “it’s easiest to find a job when you have a job” was out of their friggin’ mind.

Latest development: I got a job offer over the summer, despite an initial gut reaction that it was a bad idea and that I was being talked into something I already knew I didn’t want to do, I had been convinced would be a fantastic step forward and would be an initial step in a direction that would allow me to make a difference in some areas where I really hoped to make a difference. That turned out to be a big mistake, and I am now unemployed. (Well, underemployed. I have a chanting position, and I’m also adjuncting, but these don’t exactly pay the bills.)

Gah. <Very, very, very bad word>.  Seriously, 2016. Give me something to hold on to here, please.

So, Theodore is an energetic kid. He is always on, and he is always turned up to 11. What’s starting to go along with that is that his little will is developing into something to be reckoned with, too.

I see memes on social media all the time like “an uncoachable kid becomes an unemployable adult”, which says to me that our society only values you to the extent that you can make yourself a cog in the wheel. Such memes make me worry about Theodore a lot. I worry about the issues a strong-willed kid might develop in our world. I worry about the difficulties he might create for himself in terms of finding a place where he can thrive and grow, and really, where he can be himself.

But that’s the catch-22, right? If he’s too much himself, then he’ll never find someplace where he can be himself?

My parents raised me to be my own person. To think for myself, to have my own taste, to make my own choices, to forge my own path, to stand up for myself, and not to put up with bullies, with nonsense, with petty tyrants. Not that there would never be consequences for being my own person, but that being my own person was first and foremost what I had to do to be able to look myself in the mirror.

It’s certainly never been an easy path for me. In elementary school it meant getting teased mercilessly for being a bookish kid who used words like “educational”, carried a briefcase to class, and wore a trenchcoat and deerstalker hat, with the bullying ranging from verbal abuse to getting sprayed in the face with glass cleaner. It freaked my parents out that they couldn’t keep up with what I was reading.

Being raised with the conviction that I should be my own person, however, meant somehow that I instinctively made a lot of The Right Choices. I got out of high school without having gotten anybody pregnant, without having tried drugs, without drinking, without having left Christianity (even though Evangelical Protestantism was already feeling like an awkward fit), and with what seemed to be reasonable prospects for college.

I followed my dreams, making big bets on them. I pursued being an opera singer seriously for a good 13 years; it took me getting beaten into the ground and having my 30s loom only months in the distance for me to say, at long last, “This isn’t going to happen.”

Orthodox Christianity had transformed my interests by this point anyway, and I shifted gears to church music and history. Here, my willingness to stake claims, put myself on the line, and persist paid off; I published early, and I distinguished myself.

You maybe know the rest up to here from other things I’ve written. When I came down with shingles and the sleeping problems became impossible to ignore (Flesh of My Flesh’s description of my snoring over the years had gone from “gentle little snorkles” to “you sound like you’re dreaming you’re a lion hunting antelope” to “OH MY GOD WAKE UP YOU’RE NOT BREATHING”), my doctor said, “I don’t care what you have to do; figure out how to reduce your stress or it’s going to kill you and you’re not going to ever have a chance to enjoy that new daughter of yours.” I hoped that the new job, being closer to home and theoretically more in my wheelhouse, would mean a reduction in stress, and that life would gradually even back out to normality.

And now — without going into clinical detail — I find myself now without a fulltime job, with no immediate prospects, two children with an eating habit, and the reality that thirteen years of near-continuous school have pretty much cleaned us out, and how. Let’s say that the hoped-for reduction in stress not only did not happen, but the situation started to veer out of control toward negative circumstances by the second week, and by Tuesday of last week it was already more than I could take.

There’s a lot more I could say. I’ll simply refer you to my description of how my parents raised me.

But here is the tension: my principles, my temperament, my choice to be the person my parents raised me to be now has the consequence of endangering my ability to take care of my family. I can not only look at myself in the mirror for the first time in a long time, but I can also look my wife and my kids in the eyes for the first time in a long time; the cost, however, is that now we have nothing. Expensive luxuries, principles — but it was plain that it wasn’t going to get any better, and I could not endure another day of how it was.

I do not know what I am going to do from here. I am nearly 40 and have years of school plus a spotty history of entry-level jobs; the things I have been most specifically trained to do are things it is unlikely I am going to be able to make a living at any time soon. I have things that I am very good at but that in and of themselves are difficult to turn into a living; they have to be applied to something else, and the areas where I can apply them do not really represent high earning potential. Also being nearly 40, my threshold for nonsense is much lower than it would have been at, say, age 24. I could be a great worker and a great collaborator and a great ideas person and a fantastic writer, speaker, teacher, thinker, or leader, but you’re just not going to look at my resume and see a great employee.

Being myself seems to have indeed carried the consequence that I have never found the place where I can be myself.

And then I look at Theodore.

Who dresses up in a homemade Batman costume, just as I did.

Who asks lots of questions about words, just as I did.

Who got bumped up a grade, just as I did.

Who is mostly friends with older kids, just as I was.

I worry. What is the future going to hold for my beautiful, energetic, strong-willed son? Is the world going to be just as unrelenting in trying to crush his spirit as it has been to me?

And then I get mad as hell, and I think to myself, Then I better teach him to be himself all the more, so he can live with himself when it comes.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do, but there is no other choice, for him or for any of my children.

I have been in a place like this once before. I’m forcing myself to remember some advice I got the last time I was anyplace like here, although now it’s worse, I’m older, and the stakes are higher.

This last week, I have had occasion to think about my time at The Archives of Traditional Music this week with the news of the passing of somebody I worked with there, Clara Henderson. She was a dear soul.  I remember as well the brief time I knew George List.

I was extremely circumspect about how I talked about this on the blog at the time, and I’m still not going to go into detail about it here, but I had come to the Archives rather bruised and bloodied from my previous place of employment. In addition — and this certainly was thoroughly discussed on the blog — I was despondent over the possibility of ever getting into grad school. Thankfully, ATM served something of a hyperbaric chamber for my battered psyche, and even if it took a few months before I no longer instinctively wanted to burst into tears every time somebody looked at me sideways, I was able to start pondering, now that I was out of the worst of my negative circumstances, what it might look like to start working towards something positive.

That’s when I met George.

George was emeritus faculty and one of the previous directors of the Archives. He ninety-seven, and had retired some 30 years previous. I had spoken with him on the phone a number of times; he was still working, and he still had an office that was maintained by the Archives, but since he had lost his sight many years ago, he was largely bound to a retirement facility, and had a series of short-term student assistants who helped him with his ongoing projects. Unfortunately, his final assistant failed to work out in a rather spectacular fashion, leaving George in the lurch.

So it was that one summer day in 2008 George called me at my desk. “Can you help me?” he asked, with a note of desperation in his voice. “I’ve just published a new book, I need to inscribe several copies to send to people, and I’m not going to be able to do that on my own.”

Well, I wasn’t unwilling, but it would require me to go out to his retirement home during the day, and it was thus a question of whether or not I could actually do so on university time. I put the question to Alan, the Archives director. He looked thoughtful and said, “This place wouldn’t exist without George, and we really try to show him what kindnesses we can. Yes, go ahead and help him; he’ll probably try to reimburse you for gas — don’t let him, we’ll take care of that.”

The next morning I drove out to George’s retirement facility, and did what he needed. The book was a self-published collection of poetry, short stories, and essays he had written over the years, and even the cover was his own work, a painting he had produced in 1933. He was sending it out to old friends and colleagues from various chapters of his life. Some of the names I recognized as people I had had to communicate with on behalf of the Archives. I saw from the publisher’s imprint that it was a local self-publishing outfit, so I knew he had paid for this himself, it must have been very important to him to actually produce it as a book, and all the moreso to send it to this collection of individuals. Each name was a story, and he told me some of them as we went. He also told me that he had been a widower for “seven long years” as he put it, and that he had even outlived his son.

As I was getting ready to leave, George said to me, “So, you’ll come back tomorrow so we can mail these off?” I said yes. Then something happened that I will never forget.

Suddenly he said to me, “Richard, I want you to know that I have reinvented myself many times over the course of my life, and had to do it on multiple occasions even before I turned forty. I turned out just fine.”

He said nothing else. I stared at him for a moment. Why did you say that to me? my head wanted to yell at him. How on God’s green earth did you know to say that to me? But I let it be.

I helped George for a few days; he passed soon after. To this day I have no earthly idea why he told me what he did. It was nonetheless something I very much needed to hear at that particular moment in my life, and it has continued to be a tape I need to play back for myself with some frequency.

Memory eternal, George. I think of you often, and with fondness.

So here I am. I’ve lost every last one of my professional and vocational bets. I’m feeling about as useless as I ever have. I have to reinvent myself, and I have no idea what I’m going to do next. I’m exploring a number of options. I’m sure I’ll figure it out, but the coming weeks, if not months, until I do are going to be… rough, let’s say.

I will say that some people have asked if they can do anything. Please pray for me; pray for my wife and kids; if you are aware of opportunities in your own social/professional networks for a 39 year old Boston-based individual with a BMus in vocal performance, who is ABD in History, and has a variety of work experiences and a broad-based skill set, please pass them on (LinkedIn profile here); you can make a tax-deductible gift to The Saint John of Damascus Society (since some of the options I’m exploring would be done under the aegis of SJDS, which would require SJDS to have a much-expanded budget).

So it goes. Onward and… well, onward, I guess. But I can’t say that this bit from The Fisher King doesn’t hurt to watch right now.

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Thoughts on the Twin Peaks revival (SPOILERS; DO NOT READ IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED)

Yesterday (Friday) was my birthday; I’m 38 now, I guess beyond doubt putting me in my late thirties. Twenty years have passed since I became a legal adult; I’ve known my wife for almost twenty years; Kurt Cobain has been dead for more than twenty years; Soundgarden has been broken up long enough to get back together and to remaster old albums. Hammerbox remains broken up after a failed revival, which, alas, is probably for the best (although their in-studio acoustic performance was pretty awesome). It’s been 20 years since George Lucas made it clear that he really did intend to make the Star Wars prequels, and now next year we’re going to get Episode VII. Tim Burton’s first Batman movie is 25 years old, old enough for Michael Keaton to make a movie that effectively functions as metacommentary on his time in the role.

And, now, Twin Peaks has been over long enough to get a third season continuation.

(That’s fan-made, by the way. It’s fifty kinds of awesome, but it’s fan-made.)

Y’all have no idea how big of a deal this is to me. A Cocteau Twins revival would be just about the only thing that could possibly make me giddier at this point, but I’d be wary of that after how Hammerbox’s reunion was apparently over before it began.

Flesh of My Flesh threw me a lovely dinner party with several of our new friends here at Holy Cross, and instead of making me a birthday cake, she made me a cherry pie (using the Access Guide recipe) as a way of celebrating the news; our crowd last night was mostly too young to have seen Twin Peaks, however, so this required some explanation. Explanation led to watching the pilot episode with some of our guests; I expect this will lead to watching future episodes with some of them.

Much pixelage has already been employed in speculating about what the 2016 season might look like, so I don’t want to repeat any of that. The series finale and Fire Walk With Me both suggested that there was still a lot of story that Lynch had to tell, so I’m not particularly concerned about that (particularly with Laura Palmer’s line to Cooper about seeing him again in 25 years).

What I am wondering about, however — and not from a standpoint of concern; I want my Twin Peaks revival and I want it now; bring me a TARDIS so I can go to 2016 immediately and watch this — is this: Twin Peaks, when it came out in 1990, had a context of a particular widely-held image of the Pacific Northwest. Money Magazine had declared Seattle the best place to live in the United States in August 1989, to be sure, but keep in mind that this was pre-“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Melody Maker had only just run their first major article on the “Seattle sound” in March 1989), and Microsoft had only just made their initial public offering in 1986, not to mention that Windows was only on version 2.x, so the tech industry had yet to permeate the Northwest landscape the way that it would by the late 1990s. Really, the main things that the Pacific Northwest was known for when Twin Peaks debuted were serial killers, UFO sightings, Boeing, mountains, and logging; Twin Peaks needed all of that to work, and it played with each of those elements on some level.

So, twenty-five years later, when Pearl Jam is now what Aerosmith was when Twin Peaks came out and Kurt Cobain is the Northwest’s iconic rock death (surpassing even Jimi Hendrix, maybe), when the image of the Pacific Northwest is now split between Seattle as the techie haven for the nouveau riche and Portland as the hipster capital of the world, when the Seattle Mariners are tied for the most wins during a season, the Seahawks have won a Superbowl, and basketball has left Seattle in favor of soccer, what will the town of Twin Peaks look like 25 years later? Now, the show was specific about locating the town in the northeast corner of Washington state, which is still basically the middle of nowhere, but if the Twin Peaks of the revival still looks exactly the same as the Twin Peaks of 1990-1992, well, it would be tempting to say that it’s David Lynch’s riff on Brigadoon. One wonders if technology might be kept self-consciously retro — will Cooper still be dictating notes to Diane via microcassette recorder even while the rest of the world has moved on to smartphones? Will we know that he’s still possessed by BOB because he drinks K-Cup coffee?

And, of course, there’s the question of how a new Twin Peaks season can break new ground after twenty-five years’ worth of television that has been influence by Twin PeaksX-FilesNorthern Exposure, even Veronica Mars — heck, for that matter, Hannibal the last couple of years, in which Mads Mikkelsen has given us a Hannibal Lecter with Ray Wise and Frank Silva as reference points every bit as much as, if not moreso than, Anthony Hopkins. What can Lynch bring to the form now, a quarter-century later?

Speaking of Ray Wise, since Fire Walk With Me he’s been a bad guy in 24 and, quite literally, the Devil in Reaper. Frank Silva passed away in 1995, so presumably Leland will now be BOB’s permanent form. The way they could get around this would be to cast Silva lookalike and opera star Greer Grimsley, but I’m not holding my breath on that.

I will say that the perspective I have now of Twin Peaks at 38 is wildly different than that which I had even twelve years ago. Watching the pilot last night, things that used to seem self-consciously melodramatic now seem quite real. Where I once might have wanted to chuckle at how deliberately over-the-top Lynch was being — for example, his cutting back and forth between a hysterical and screaming Sarah Palmer on one end of the phone line and a Leland Palmer who, presumably, is coming to the dawning realization that his daughter has been murdered and reaching hysterics himself (but is he? Even after Fire Walk With Me, this is still ambiguous) — now I look at it and think, “Yeah, that’s about what it would be like if I got the news that my child had been killed; Lynch just isn’t letting the camera move away, no matter how much I might want him to.” Broadchurch (and Gracepoint, to the extent that it’s a scene-for-scene remake) also manages to capture this rawness of parental grief, but in a much different way; it’s a far more self-consciously realistic treatment of a similar moment.

One final thought for now — Twin Peaks was a cultural moment, not unlike the ’89 Tim Burton Batman (yes, I know, that’s a touchstone that makes a particular kind of sense to me and perhaps nobody else), that was about the end of the 1980s marking some kind of a generational shift. Batman looked at this from the urban angle; Twin Peaks looked at this from the small town angle. Batman played with deliberate anachronism, putting Prince songs in the same world as 1920s-era gangsters, creating a Gotham City you couldn’t really locate on either a calendar or a map but that was still identifiable as a caricature of a New York that had produced Michael Milken, Ed Koch, John Gotti, and Bernie Goetz. Twin Peaks didn’t go the route of anachronism; rather, it gave the audience a world that was very specifically dated (24 February 1989 is the date given in the pilot episode, meaning it took place exactly 12 years before my wedding day) but that also freely employed the ethos of an earlier generation, while implying very strongly that that there was something seriously rotten underneath that generation’s surface. Certainly the presence of flannel, jeans, saddle shoes, and a sheriff named Harry S. Truman made Twin Peaks feel like a town that had been spared the nastiness of the ’80s; then there was the cast. All the young, scrubbed, shiny faces of James Marshall, Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, Madchen Amick, and Dana Ashbrook made the town look like a place where young people might be bored but safe (which made it all the more shocking when their faces might be smeared, sometimes with running mascara, sometimes with blood, sometimes both); Kyle MacLachlan’s lantern jaw, black suit, and slicked-back hair was clearly intended to evoke somebody like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.’s character from The F. B. I.; amongst the older adults, there was Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer, Peggy Lipton, Ray Wise, Piper Laurie — heck, even Michael Ontkean — all recognizable faces from the ’60s and ’70s, all of them now able to put on a sheen of middle-aged respectability, and the show subverted and undermined their respectability from the first scenes of the pilot episode. A generation that had grown up in the ’50s, become adults in the ’60s, and had kids in the ’70s were now having to face the consequences of their choices, Lynch seemed to be saying, and their children weren’t necessarily turning out any better just because they had fled the city for small-town life. This wasn’t Family Ties. Maybe small-town life just made it easier to hide weirdness, ugliness, and evil in plain sight.

Thing is, all of those concerns are basically old hat at this point. Many of us assume these days that the cities are corrupt hellholes and that there is no Mayberry, that small towns are probably cesspools of backwardness, ignorance, and abuse that cover it up with a sheen of self-righteousness that refuses self-reflection. We know that there are no safe havens anymore; New York isn’t really the land of opportunity and the small town in the middle of nowhere isn’t a sanctuary against the evil that men do. And, unfortunately, it’s no longer the bloodcurdling shock that it once was when we find out that Daddy was doing bad things to his kids, and we don’t need the distance of demonic possession to make it believable. We accept it, we process it as just one more tragedy, and we know that the generation that’s growing up right now is basically screwed no matter where we live or what we do. We’re over it; life goes on somehow. Next topic.

So, the point of this is to say — how will a new Twin Peaks season engage our current cultural anxieties the same way the original did, using the original’s setting? I assume Lynch and Frost must have something in mind for how they might do this, but how? In the real Pacific Northwest, the Ghostwood Country Club and Estates were eventually built everywhere, replacing the woods. Does that mean that the evil lurking in the woods has been let out into the open? Or has it just been built over for now, and it’s biding its time?

I guess we’ll find out in 2016.

A few items of special (read: “geeky”) interest for sale

Howdy — with twenty-five days left before we have to be out of our house in Bloomington (with it being somewhat up in the air when precisely we’ll land in Boston), I have a few special items for sale that it may be easier to deal directly on rather than wait for somebody to find them on Amazon. (I also have several books that I’ll devote a blog post to shortly, but I’ll start here.) All serious, conscientious offers will be, well, taken seriously. If interested send me an e-mail — rrbarret AT indiana DOT edu.

Update, 11 July 2014: I have listed all of these on eBay. Links to the eBay listing are with each item.

The items are:

  • Batman Original Motion Picture Score, Composed by Danny Elfman. Expanded Archival Collection, La-La Land Records LLLCD 1140, Limited Edition 2 disc set, 5000 printed. eBay listing.batman 1989 expanded score

 

 

 

 

 

  • Batman: The Animated Series, Original Soundtrack, Music Composed by Shirley Walker. La-La Land Records LLLCD 1082, Limited Edition 2 disc set, 3000 printed. eBay listing.BTAS score

 

 

 

 

 

  • The Dark Knight Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Music Composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. Warner Bros. 511104-2, 2 disc Special Edition. eBay listing.TDK special edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Akira: The Special Edition. DVD, Pioneer 11537. 2 disc special edition in tin case. eBay listing.AKIRA Special Edition DVD

 

Some thoughts on the Justice League rumors

Both of my regular readers might have some inkling that Christopher Nolan has been one of my favorite filmmakers of the last twelve years, that on the whole I’ve loved his Batman movies, and that Batman has been one of my favorite literary characters since I was probably six or seven.

A Justice League movie is an idea that people have been circling around for several years. There was the TV pilot in 1997 that a Google Image search shows to have been pretty ridiculous looking; the animated series from Bruce Timm and Paul Dini was awesome, but I’m guessing that Cartoon Network in the long run decided it was backwards-looking and chasing after an audience made up of the wrong age group. I never watched Smallville, but the pictures that I saw made their Justice League look low-rent to say the least. After Batman Begins and Superman Returns there was talk of George Miller making a standalone film with a totally different cast (like Armie Hammer as Batman and Common as Green Lantern); obviously that never happened, and since then, non-Batman standalone films seem to have been the plan, but I can’t say that there has seemed to be an overabundance of confidence in those projects. Neither Captain Marvel (I refuse to call the character “Shazam”) nor The Flash have really gotten anywhere. Green Arrow was supposed to be the hero in a villain-centric prison-escape film called Supermax, but that went nowhere. Superman Returns showed that there was still something of an audience somewhere for Superman movies, but it wasn’t a solid enough hit to maintain confidence in Bryan Singer’s vision. I didn’t hate Green Lantern, but for a movie that had as its fundamental premise somebody with a ring that they could use to build whatever they could imagine, it seemed to be pretty unimaginative. Wonder Woman has had a infamously troubled path to the silver screen, with even Joss Whedon not being able to put together a package that could convince studio execs to pull the trigger (and then there was a TV pilot a couple of years later about which, it seems, the less said the better).

After the success of The Avengers last year, Warner Bros. predictably announced that they would be making a Justice League movie their priority after The Dark Knight Rises was done, but whatever idea that seemed to be pushing that forward fell apart a couple of weeks ago. We’ve been left with Batman being apparently done for now, Man of Steel still being something of a question mark, and a consolation prize of a version of Green Arrow presently on TV who is clearly the poor man’s Batman, but he’s still pretty scrappy and reasonably enjoyable to watch.

Then, last night, a rumor started circulating that even got picked up by Forbes: after the demise of the most recent iteration of the Justice League idea, Warner Bros. has handed the reins of the DC film universe over to Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, with Christian Bale likely in the mix to come back as Batman and Zack Snyder (director of Man of Steel300, and Watchmen). Nolan is producing Man of Steel, and a version of the Justice League rumor was going around about a year ago, but Nolan seemed to intentionally distance himself from the concept in interviews.

Is it true? I have no idea. My guess is that nobody wants to miss out on the money that Marvel Studios is raking in with their cinematic universe, and that if Christopher Nolan plays his cards right, he’s got guaranteed budgets and creative control for all of his personal movies going forward. How do you reconcile such a move with the end of The Dark Knight Rises? I’m not overly concerned about that; surely that’s an opportunity for creative storytelling. It’s entirely possible that it’s true right now in the sense that it’s the idea they’re trying to make the deals for; a denial down the road may mean only that they couldn’t get everybody to sign on the dotted line, not that it wasn’t what they were trying to do. (My plan B: Bruce Timm produces, Christopher Nolan directs, Paul Dini writes. It’ll never happen, but that would be my dream team.)

I’m somewhat less interested in whether or not it’s true than a couple of other dimensions to the story. First, it’s evident to me reading comments on the various re-postings of the story that, bluntly, geeks have short memories. It’s no longer a novelty that an A-list auteur is directing a film based on a comic book with a big budget and an Oscar-winning cast, so it’s time to rewrite history so that the auteur in question is an overrated hack whom everybody has always hated (going all the way back to that second-rate piece of celluloid Memento) and whose contributions to the comic book genre of films have been miscast and mediocre at best, self-important trash at worst, and, really, even The Dark Knight was a second-rate Heat knockoff that mostly sold tickets because of the death of one of its stars. The Dark Knight Rises went off in a different direction than they’d hoped (tying off the arc of the cinematic character rather than opening up ways to tell more of the comic book stories), so now the guy everybody was drooling over when he was announced as the director of Batman Begins is persona non grata. Like I said, short memories, and I can’t really say that I get it.

The other thing that I find intriguing is the apparent article of faith in some circles that a Justice League film can’t work, that these characters fundamentally will look silly next to each other on the silver screen, that there are too many storytelling problems introduced by having Superman and Batman in the same world, etc. etc. Somehow these concerns are a non-issue when you’re talking about Marvel characters (The Avengers, after all, includes a Norse god, a chemically-enhanced supersoldier, and a genius gajillionaire in a wearable energy source that makes a nuclear reactor look like a 9 volt battery), but when it’s Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, it’s irredeemably silly somehow. Nobody’s really been able to explain why the DC characters are different, they just are, apparently.

Thinking about it, I’d like to toss out a possible explanation, and that’s one of generation. The DC characters, as the prototypical superheroes, inevitably are first archetypes of a sort and characters second. For the Golden Age characters, the basic point of reference is the circus, a common enough cultural experience in the 1930s. The costumes are all more or less based on the strongman/acrobat model; Batman’s not wearing body armor in Detective Comics #27, he’s wearing a leotard. The types of characters are all basically that, types — Superman’s origin is all of half a page in Action Comics #1, and the point isn’t to give him a psychology, the point is to explain why he’s got super-strength. He’s a strongman; Batman’s a detective and an acrobat, a mixture of Sherlock Holmes and Zorro; Wonder Woman is a goddess, again in a circus performer’s costume; the Jay Garrick Flash is a combination scientist and and college athlete, dressed up as Mercury; the Alan Scott Green Lantern is basically a wizard-type of character. The alter-egos are also essentially types; Clark Kent is a reporter (the trappings of which very much date the character and are not easily transferrable to the popular imagery of journalism of 2013 — it’s more Matt Drudge than Cary Grant), Bruce Wayne is an aristocrat, Diana Prince a nurse — and the 1950s revamps of Flash and Green Lantern keep this going, with Barry Allen as a police scientist and Hal Jordan as the ultimate manly man of the 1950s, a test pilot.

By contrast, being a generation later, the methodology has developed somewhat, and while the Marvel characters all certainly have some basis in types — mostly the “scientist” type — from the get-go they’re made into more than types by flaws and deformity. Peter Parker is a geeky high school kid whose powers convince him just long enough that he’s better than everybody else for it to cost his Uncle Ben his life. Tony Stark is a genius weapons engineer and industrialist whose talents are turned against him. Bruce Banner set free his own inner demon. And so on. If, as William Faulkner once said, drama is the human heart in conflict with itself, then one can argue that the Marvel characters are fundamentally more dramatic.

From this perspective, the problem with the DC characters maybe becomes a bit more evident. The whole premise of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern is that he is supposed to be without fear; that rather makes inner conflict a tougher nut to crack, dramatically. (And the film was hampered by this problem — the cinematic Hal Jordan’s inner self-doubt, while perhaps more “cinematic”, completely undermined the foundations of the character. Ryan Reynolds did what he could, but the result was, rather than the human heart in conflict with itself, a movie plot in conflict with itself.) It also makes more sense why Batman has been the most successful of the various attempts, and in more than just one medium — of the Golden Age characters, he’s the one who actually has a personal internal conflict to resolve, and it’s an incredibly effective, primal one at that. Superman is much harder to make interesting in that regard; the 1978 film’s use of Jor-El and Pa Kent was a good storytelling move in terms of giving him an inner conflict, moral poles to bounce off of, and the trailers make it look as though Man of Steel will draw some of its drama from Philip Wylie’s 1931 novel Gladiator, one of Siegel and Schuster’s key sources, so we’ll see how that turns out — but at the same time, there’s simply no reason for Superman to be wearing body armor.

To me, however, none of that says “won’t work on film”, it just says, “You’ve got to do it with the best filmmakers possible” — filmmakers who understand the archetypes they’re dealing with, understand what it is about those archetypes that people connect with, and not use artificial and false storytelling techniques to try to re-engineer the characters. None of it says to me “Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman can’t all be in the same movie”, either; again, it just says to me that you need a filmmaker who knows exactly how each character fits into the story you’re telling. Zack Snyder seems to have a reasonable grasp of how ensemble casts in comic book movies need to work; again, we’ll see how things look after Man of Steel comes out.

Anyway, to me it seems like a good day when the big thing you have to complain about is that Christopher Nolan might produce a Nolan/David Goyer-written, Zack Snyder-directed Justice League movie. I guess we’ll see.

“Do you feel in charge?”

Spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, and so on below.

The UPS truck came yesterday. Thus it was that once Theodore was put down, I took a break from Cicero’s letters, and I told Flesh of My Flesh, “I’m making dinner, and then we’re watching The Dark Knight Rises.” The issue being, you see, that she hadn’t seen it yet. Skyfall was the first movie we had been able to see together in   since The Avengers, and that was just because for my birthday, some friends offered to watch Theodorus Rex while we went out by ourselves.

I very much enjoyed Skyfall, incidentally, and have seen it twice now; the transformation of Daniel Craig as the new James Bond into, effectively, the old James Bond, is complete. If one knows something about the history of actors who might have been Bond, the presence of Ralph Fiennes (as well as the reveal of him as the “new” M, who’s really the “old” M) is clever; he was one of the actors being considered back in 1994 to take over the role after Dalton declined to participate in what became GoldenEye. If I’m remembering a particular issue of Premiere sufficiently, the list before they finally circled back around to Brosnan was Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Sam Neill, and Hugh Grant. Fiennes, then, as a former field agent whom we see take a bullet and fire off some of his own shots, takes on some real-life resonance, given that part of the idea with Gareth Mallory seems to be that he’s what Bond would have been if he’d just been a bit more respectable.

I liked the approach with Skyfall of “James-Bond-as-art-film”; we get a lot of Bond fighting in silhouette, and this can get a bit trippy, particularly when he’s silhouetted against lots of moving neon lights. Sam Mendes also seems to be trying to tell you something with how he frames shots; Bond is frequently centered in the frame, as is Javier Bardem’s Silva, but then, at the very end, when Bond is looking out over the city from MI6’s roof, it starts out with him centered only to have the camera nudge just a little bit right so that Big Ben is now centered. The point seems to be that Bond has finally decided once and for all that he’s doing what he does, not out of anger for Vesper’s betrayal, not out of the repressed trauma of his parents’ death, but for queen and country.

But I’m supposed to be talking about The Dark Knight Rises.

So, four and a half years ago, The Dark Knight took up a big chunk of my summer. I saw it, I think, nine times on the big screen all told, six of those in IMAX, and really what I did during July and August of 2008 was call up my friends and say, “Hey, want to go see The Dark Knight in IMAX with me?” I didn’t have much else to do; I had a French reading knowledge class I was taking, and I was working, but so far as I knew at that point, I was definitely not going to be working on a grad program anytime soon, and my wife was in Germany, followed almost immediately by her spending close to a month in Seattle after her dad was diagnosed with cancer. The Dark Knight seemed as good a way as any to kill time.

Obviously, my life has changed a lot in the intervening years, and I have other ways my time is occupied these days, thank God. Still, I managed to see The Dark Knight Rises four times on the big screen, two of those in IMAX. So, draw whatever conclusions you will about that — such as, for example, baby or no baby, PhD program or no PhD program, I’m still an unrepentant nerd.

The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the Batman took the rap for Harvey Dent’s murders rather than have Gotham lose their knight in shining armor. The storytelling reason for this seems to be so that Batman takes on some qualities of being an urban legend, almost a Spring-heeled Jack kind of figure; I suspect that the practical, real-world reason is because it had been seven years since they started shooting Batman Begins, which itself required Christian Bale to play Bruce Wayne over a seven to eight year span, and The Dark Knight was supposed to take place something like six months after Batman Begins while being made three years later. Everybody looks noticeably older than they did in 2005, in other words, and this gives them an in-story way to explain that.

In the intervening years, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, letting the physical and mental damage he suffered as Batman settle in. He tries to become a philanthropist, but he finds out projects that can save the world also have the dark side of probably being able to destroy it, a realization which just drives him further into the shadows. Commissioner Gordon has been able to use the memory of Harvey Dent to lock up a lot of people, but the lie is eating away at him. It’s a status quo that’s, for all intents, a well-polished rotten apple.

Enter four characters who each stir up the hornet’s nest in their own way. Selina Kyle is a jewel thief who has taken a curious interest in Bruce’s fingerprints; John Blake is a young cop who sees that everybody is pretty much just going through the motions to keep everything looking nice; Miranda Tate is an investment partner of Bruce’s who wants to show him that the world is worth trusting enough to save it… and then there’s Bane, who is manipulating much of this (or is he?) specifically to force Bruce to get back into the ring as Batman.

A running theme of the movie — which goes all the way back to Batman Begins — is that of the “clean slate”. The express purpose of the League of Shadows, after all, was to “wipe the slate clean”, as it were, when cities got too big and corrupt by destroying them, which is the objective that Bane has inherited; Selina Kyle wants to wipe out her own past (there’s a MacGuffin of the “gangland myth” of a computer program that can do this, which it turns out that Bruce acquired to keep from being used; since the Joker had no traceable record in The Dark Knight, it’s possible that this is intended to be an oblique reference to him); Gordon, Bruce, and Blake are all living with accounts needing to be settled, and so on. Is a revolution how society ultimately has to pay its bill? As R’as Al Ghul suggests in Begins (and as Bane trumpets in Rises), is burning away the brush always the solution, and it’s just a question of scale? Can one man show a better way? One might not be entirely wrong to detect a Christ allegory with where Nolan and company end up with this question (albeit thankfully not in the somewhat ham-fisted way that Superman Returns did), but it seems to me that Plato’s cave is far more explicitly referenced.

Rises does a nice job of bringing things full circle back to Begins; the story keys off of R’as Al Ghul’s conviction in Begins that “Gotham must be destroyed”, and shows that just because R’as Al Ghul died, it didn’t mean the idea died. R’as Al Ghul left a legacy, and it’s a legacy Bruce has to deal with.

Incidentally, for anybody familiar with the comics, there’s only one way the character of Miranda Tate was going to make any sense at all, and if you’re paying attention, they telegraph her identity as Talia from the get-go. She talks like R’as (she has a line about “restoring balance” early on), and there are visual callbacks as well, like showing her good at building a fire, much as R’as was in Begins. A reward of repeated viewings, too, is noticing that the little girl in the prison stabs somebody in the back in one of the first flashbacks, much as the adult Talia does to Bruce.

There are other interesting references to Begins; there’s the explicit comparison of the prison to the well young Bruce falls into in Begins, but there’s also Batman walking on ice (apparently having learned to mind his surroundings after all), and the memorial statue of Batman unveiled at the end bears a striking resemblance to the nightmare Batman that Scarecrow hallucinated in Begins. Both Begins and The Dark Knight end with conversations about thanking Batman — Begins: “I never said thank you.” “And you’ll never have to.” TDK: “Thank you.” “You don’t have to thank me.” — and while Rises has its own ending, it has its own version of this conversation: “Thanks.” “Don’t thank me yet.” It’s a little grace note that seems to say a lot about where Bruce sees what he’s achieved relative to his own ideals — in Begins the story ends with his ideals having won the day, in TDK his ideals have cost him dearly, and at this point in Rises it’s unclear whether or not he will even survive his own ideals.

The point of Rises, and I suppose of Nolan’s whole trilogy, is that in this story, Bruce Wayne isn’t trying to become a superhero, he’s trying to build a myth. As R’as says in Begins, “You have to become an idea.” The idea that there might be a big unstoppable demon that comes after you if you’re a bad guy, and you’ll never know who it is, is much more powerful than there being a human being who can be taken down with a bullet. In Begins he takes on the initial trappings of the legend, in TDK he sees a human being who he thinks could become the idea without having to pretend to be somebody else, only to see that person corrupted, and in Rises he has to complete the mythmaking by, effectively, dying and coming back from the dead — both so he can just be Bruce Wayne once and for all, and so that Batman can be that much more powerful. Along these lines, Bane is presented as sort of a counter-symbol to Batman; “No one cared who I was till I put on the mask,” he says.

Do Nolan’s films constitute a “definitive” Batman? Well, what do you mean by that? “Definitive” according to whose take on the character? Frank Miller’s? Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil’s? Bob Kane’s? Paul Dini’s? Adam West’s? Just by the nature of film, where you’re basically blowing up a short story into two or three hours and only being able to do it once every few years, you’re never going to be able to bring out all the nuances that one can play with in an ongoing serial like a comic book or a TV show. Like any film adaptation, the best you’re going to be able to do is honor the spirit of the source material while doing your own thing as well as you can. Batman, by virtue of being a symbol, is open to a lot of interpretation, and I think Nolan has made three pretty great movies with his interpretation. Somebody else will probably come along and do their own interpretation in a few years, and there may very well be things I like about that one better, perhaps things I don’t like as well; who knows? The comics themselves will still be sitting on the shelf right next to these movies, as well as Tim Burton’s 1989 film. What I think one can say is that this trilogy is a long Batman story that incorporates a lot of ideas and images from the comics as well as the animated series (there’s a decent amount of Batman Beyond in Bruce’s solution), and while it’s something you could never do with Batman as he appears in the comics (unless it were an Elseworlds mini-series or something of that nature), it’s a great way, from where I sit, to encapsulate the character onscreen in a self-contained story.

OK. Back to reading some Latin.

Star Wars, geek culture, and periodization

One of my earliest memories is being in the movie theatre for the second run of Star Wars. I think. I was not quite three when it was re-released on 15 August 1979, but I have a memory of seeing the Death Star run in a theatre seat. I might have been in my dad’s lap. At any rate, it was all Star Wars all the time from that point until I was probably seven or eight; the toys were a regular appearance at my birthday and Christmas several years in a row (the AT-AT was my main Christmas present in 1980, as I recall), I had all the storybooks and novels, I read some of the comic books, and I had the kids’ cassette tape read-along versions as well. Watching the film on VHS was a regular activity when my friends and I had Friday night sleeplovers, and I also recorded it one of the times when it was broadcast on CBS. (Fun fact: John DeLancie, aka “Q” on Star Trek: The Next Generation, was in a cough syrup commercial that aired with that broadcast.)

I never did get into the Timothy Zahn novels — by the time I was in high school, if it wasn’t a movie that George Lucas was involved with, I didn’t particularly care — but I remember the “Kenneth Branagh as young Obi-Wan Kenobi” rumors starting around 1993. (I still wonder if there wasn’t something to those, particularly since it’s come out that Obi-Wan was older in the original treatment of Episode I, and that this older character was basically split into young Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn.) I also discovered the early drafts of Star Wars online around 1996 or 1997, and became fascinated by what might reappear in the prequel trilogy. Might we see Whitsun? The planet Utapau? Would Anakin Skywalker’s character be anything like Annikin Starkiller? (No, yes, and sort of, but Darth Maul attacking Qui-Gonn and co. on Tatooine in Episode I was very similar to a key moment in one of these drafts.)

I never quite understood the unhappiness of some people with the Special Editions; yes, there was some lame stuff, but I had no problem with the stated reasoning behind them (after all, I was one of the people who clamored to see the “Director’s Cut” of Blade Runner that wasn’t actually a “Director’s Cut” in 1992). I also wasn’t one of the people who looked like the sun had just fallen out of the sky coming out of Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I enjoyed the prequels — again, yes, fine, there were stupid bits, but I didn’t get the near-total turning on Lucas that the Ain’t-It-Cool-News crowd staged. Were the new films the focus of my existence the way the first three had been? No, of course not, but nor should they have — the Star Wars prequels represented ages 22-28 for me, not 3-6. By the time Revenge of the Sith completed the cycle, the Lord of the Rings films had come to represent a more sophisticated, up-to-date view of fantasy-on-film (as they should have); to some extent, so did the Harry Potter series, and then Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies represent another stage of this kind of moviemaking, at least for me.

(Somebody somewhere along the way probably expected me to write something about The Dark Knight Rises. Well, I had a 4 week old baby when it came out, so that post kinda fell by the wayside. I’ll probably write something when the Blu-Ray hits the street. In short, I’ve seen it 4 times, and I think it rewards multiple viewings; one may perhaps argue that it’s a bad Batman movie, but I would argue that even if that’s the case — and I’m not sure it is — it’s still the right way for Christopher Nolan’s story to have wrapped up.)

Still, some things started to make me scratch my head. The behind-the-scenes material on the Episode I DVD showed Lucas talking about how Jar-Jar Binks was intended to be “the funniest character ever in a Star Wars movie”, and it struck me as weird that he would shoehorn a totally unnecessary character into a story he’d supposedly had plotted out for years. It was also evident from reading Michael Kaminski’s The Secret History of Star Wars that whatever Lucas imagined the prequels (and, perhaps, sequels) might have looked like back in 1979 was a completely different beast from what we got from 1999-2005; heck, for that matter, whatever he thought they were going to look like in 1999, even that was something very different from how he finished up six years later. It was also plain that Lucas really wasn’t a good enough storyteller from a technical standpoint to not need somebody else to edit him and bounce things off of, and that what we got really amounted to him making it up as he went along from movie to movie. Did that diminish the accomplishment? No, not necessarily, but why the need to resort to revisionist history every time he made up something new so that it was always accounted for in the “original master plan” that apparently never actually existed in the first place?

Last year, I made the decision to not buy the Star Wars Blu-Ray box. I could handle Darth Vader’s “NOOOOOOOO” at the end of Revenge of the Sith; it made sense in context. But to tack it on at the end of Return of the Jedi — nope, sorry, George, I’m not giving you my money for that, and I’m tired of apologizing for you. I don’t claim to understand his reasons for revising everything and pretending that it was always the way he intended it, even when it wasn’t, but I don’t want to play the game anymore. Sorry, I really don’t.

With today’s news, we get one more bit of revisionist history:

“For the past 35 years, one of my greatest pleasures has been to see Star Wars passed from one generation to the next,” said Lucas. “It’s now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers. I’ve always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me, and I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime.”

Compare with Lucas telling Starlog and Vanity Fair in 1999 that there was no way that there would be a sequel trilogy directed by other people, and telling Total Film in 2008, “I’ve left pretty explicit instructions for there not to be any more features. There will definitely be no Episodes VII – IX” (link here).

I would like to suggest that George Lucas has been perhaps the single greatest contributor to geek culture of the last forty years. Even in the last 15 years or so — in 1996/1997, websites like Ain’t-It-Cool-News, the original incarnation of Corona Coming Attractions, Dark Horizons, and the like all started popping up, and one of the major raisons d’être for such sites was that the trilogy that we’d all been dreaming about for over a decade looked like it was finally going to get made. Such sites made geek moviedom an exciting place to be for a few years.

I would further like to suggest that he has been the single greatest contributor to making geek culture the shrill, bitter, entitled, cynical group of online jackasses that it largely is now. (Lucas, as well as the studios realizing that these websites could easily be turned into just another cheap marketing outlet. I’m looking at you, Harry Jay Knowles, and I’m a guy who remembers AICN from the http://www.bga.com/~rodan/coolnews.html days.) I don’t relate to the “George Lucas raped my childhood” people, but I can’t deny that there’s a big group of movie fans that feel like they got the biggest bait-and-switch in history, and there have been consequences. (By contrast, the guys who maybe have contributed some very serious class to this brave new world? Michael Uslan and J. Michael Straczynski, whose respective abilities to be real gentlemen and to provide an inspiring window into the projects they work on are amazing. Yes, sometimes JMS comes across as a bit full of himself, and Uslan’s non-Batman movies are hit-and-miss at best, but nonetheless, they’re both doing it right in a big way.)

So now we enter the Disney period of Star Wars. One of the things I’m trained to think about as a historian is, when trying to come up with a schema for periodization, looking at the sources to which your historical actors are looking back. The Renaissance is the Renaissance because they’re looking back to Greco-Roman antiquity. Early Modern Europe is Early Modern Europe because they’re looking back to the Renaissance. That kind of thing. In making the first Star Wars movies, Lucas was looking back to serials, to Flash Gordon, to The Hidden Fortress, to a language of filmmaking that had been largely abandoned, so all he had to do, really, was rework it with the tools he had available in 1975, and invent whatever new tools he needed to be able to make that kind of cinematic experience up-to-date for the contemporary audience. There wasn’t really an existing frame of reference for what Star Wars was doing — Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run were what people thought of when it came to cinematic science fiction and fantasy.

The problem with the prequels, ultimately, is that they had an audience with expectations. Both Lucas and the audience had to look back to Star Wars, Lucas so he could figure out where he needed to end up, and the audience to try to second-guess him. Between 1983 and 1999, there were things like DuneHoward the Duck (ahem, George), Superman IVBatman and RobinAlien3 and Alien:ResurrectionIndependence Day… lots of ways that audiences had been shown that studios would cynically try to squeeze money out of them with inferior product. Surely George Lucas (who, as I mentioned, gave us Howard the Duck) wouldn’t do that, right?

And, as I say, I’m not convinced that he did do that with the prequels, but there are sufficient numbers of people who are convinced of that, that, really, Disney needs to be very conscious of what they look back to as they approach this new era of Star Wars. Are they going to look back to the prequels (which we might think of as the Middle Ages)? The originals (which we might think of as the Late Antique Roman Empire in full bloom)? The sources of the originals (Greco-Roman antiquity before Constantine)? Will we get a Star Wars Renaissance? Or something else? Are they going to give this to talented filmmakers who idolized the original trilogy growing up to try to reinvent and to do something as revolutionary playing in this universe as the first movie did in establishing the universe? Or are they going to give this to people who do serviceable work-for-hire and hope for a franchise that nobody needs to think too hard about, like Pirates of the Caribbean became? Will these new films be just so much big-budget fan fiction? At the same time, can’t one make the case that the prequels amounted to big-budget fan fiction that happened to be done by George Lucas? Dunno — guess we’ll see in 2015. We’ll see if this new trilogy is worth Theodore’s time the way the original trilogy was worth mine.

And meanwhile, Bryan Singer is back on X-Men, too. He’s coming back to do a sequel to a reboot/prequel/whatever — that he was supposed to direct in the first place — of a series that he got kicked off of to do a sequel to a different series, and the person who originally replaced him on the movie he got kicked off of, and who also replaced him on the reboot/prequel, is whom he’s replacing now. Got all of that? Days of future past indeed. Between this and Leia Organa now being a Disney princess, everything old is new again, and vice versa.

Thoughts on Prometheus

When I was probably five years old at the most (c. 1981), I remember my parents getting this really amazing machine called a VCR. Well, actually, it was an array of machines; there was the VCR unit itself that the tape went into, there was a separate unit that served as the TV tuner and timer (and I remember the hours that we had to spend turning the little knobs for each channel on that thing to get them to actually come in clearly so we could record TV), and then the humongous camera that connected to the VCR (which you then had to carry around with a shoulder strap if you were recording anything).

I don’t know why I remember this particular detail, but I do; the first movie my parents watched on that VCR was Alien. Maybe part of why I remember it is because they allowed me to be in the room, but I had to have my back to the TV the whole time, which I didn’t understand.

I didn’t actually see Alien myself until probably sometime in the early 1990s, perhaps some time after the time I first watched Blade Runner, which itself was probably around 1990 or so. Now is not the time necessarily to write a full-length essay about my love of Blade Runner, but what I will say is that it was a vital step along the way in my movie geekdom. Batman (1989) had gotten me excited about a number of things when it came to film — director as auteur, production design, the importance of the score, and so on — but Blade Runner really got me thinking about the process of filmmaking and how things change, evolve, progress, and yes, sometimes get messed up in the journey from page to screen. It was the first time I was introduced to the idea that there might have been a very different movie left behind somewhere in the process, and that it might be well worthwhile to restore those other concepts. (I’m sure somebody has mused at some point about the parallels between scholarly production of editions of texts based on application of theories of textual criticism to manuscript culture and the phenomenon of multiple existing cuts of a film.) Although I missed the original theatrical run in 1982, I saw it at the Neptune Theater in Seattle once if not twice in 1991, I saw the “Director’s Cut” (that wasn’t really a director’s cut, but never mind) at the Egyptian Theater in 1992, and I was also fortunate enough to see the so-called Workprint at the same theater in 1999. Another thing I remember is that each time I saw it, the place was packed to the gills. And yes, I’ve got one of the Final Cut briefcase sets. It’s right next to the Inception set. Don’t judge me.

Since Blade Runner, I have found Ridley Scott to be always creatively ambitious in the process with the final product being somewhat hit or miss, depending on the film. I still think The Duellists is an incredibly underrated and underappreciated piece of work; Legend (of which I’ve only ever watched the director’s cut with the Jerry Goldsmith score) is a movie with some fascinating ideas and beautiful visuals but that clearly was trying to overreach in terms of what could be done at the time (and in general makes me glad that nobody seriously attempted a live-action Lord of the Rings any sooner than they did); Black Rain and Hannibal are both technically terrific, and I like both movies, but they’re clearly work-for-hire efforts; Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven (the extended cut, anyway) are both great; I liked American Gangster and Body of Lies well enough even if neither were exactly earth-shattering; Robin Hood seemed like a fantastic idea with epic scope that somewhere along the way got scaled down to an attempt to use some leftover bits from Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven for a younger audience, and while it had its good points, it never seemed like I was actually watching a final product anybody intended me to see, but rather something that got assembled more or less by committee.

Which brings me to Prometheus.

The idea of Ridley Scott returning to what we might call “fantastic” fiction for the first time since Legend and getting to play in the Alien universe again has been an intriguing one to me from the get-go. He’s certainly a different filmmaker than he was in 1979, and technology has perhaps caught up more to the way somebody like him thinks — so what would he do? He’s said many times in interviews over the years that he would be interested in asking the question where the big guy in the chair in the first Alien came from, so presumably that’s where he would go. How would he get there and what would he do with it? At the same time, the business of filmmaking has changed a lot since 1979, so how would that impact the movie?

I saw Prometheus last night in IMAX 3-D. I’m not really going to write a review of it, as such; I can tell you that I enjoyed it immensely, thought it had a great cast, was stunning visually, told an interesting story that I expect is really just the prologue to the movie Scott really wants to make, and that it’s really more along the lines of SF adventure that has some tense, squirmy moments, rather than being a horror movie set in an SF context the way Alien was — but writing a critical evaluation of it point-by-point isn’t what I’m interested in doing. Right now I’m really quite turned off by a certain subset of movie geekdom that seems to go out of its way to tear down to component atoms anything that dares to not be exactly the same movie they’ve already made in their head (see the comboxes on a site like Ain’t It Cool News, for example — man, that site used to be pure gold; how far the mighty have fallen), and that’s not where I want to go. I’m more interested in talking about the ideas in the film, and how they link up with other things one finds in Scott’s filmography.

I will, however, acknowledge up front the impact that present-day moviemaking economics appears to have had on Prometheus so I can get it out of the way. There was a lot of nattering over the film’s rating; would it be R, like the original Alien, or would it be PG-13? Would the business side of how movies get made today allow for an ambitious R-rated SF film? You could do it back in 1979 for a number of reasons, but with today’s emphasis on the biggest opening weekend possible, it would seem to be a harder sell. When Prometheus was finally announced as having an R rating a few weeks ago, there were some who assumed that it was a “soft” R — that is, it had been edited down as much as possible in hopes of getting a PG-13, but ultimately couldn’t get there, and by that point it was too late to say, “Okay, we’ve got an R movie, it is what it is, let’s go ahead and throw everything back in.” And yes, that in fact seems to be the case. There is a lot of, shall we say, connective tissue that is missing from certain moments in the film that I assume to have been cut out in the quest for a PG-13. There are a couple of events that I suspect are the, shall we say, irreducibly minimal R-rated bits (if you’re a pregnant woman, you’re probably not going to want to see this movie until you’re well past delivery, I’ll say that much), but aside from those, in terms of language, general level of violence, sex, nudity, etc. there’s nothing that makes this a characteristically R-rated movie in the way that, say, Watchmen is. Does it come across as creatively compromised as a result? Not exactly, but I’m very curious to see how the inevitable unrated Director’s Cut differs when it comes out on Blu-Ray.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

I had a conversation the other day with one of my fellow DO summer school students in which the seeming affinity on the part of certain Evangelical Christians for Judaism and Israel came up. My colleague said, “Well, when you’re a kid, if you don’t like what Dad tells you [i.e., Catholicism/Orthodoxy], you go and ask Grandpa [Judaism]. Makes perfect sense.”

Prometheus is a story about going and asking Dad questions, and Dad not really liking that you asked and you not really liking the answers. In this way, it’s really more of a piece with Blade Runner, which in terms of theme is all about the creation getting to ask the creator, “Why did you make me, and why did you make me flawed?” It’s a moment that also crops up in Gladiator, when Commodus demands to know from Marcus Aurelius why he’s getting passed over (which is also paralleled in Prometheus by a scene between Guy Pearce’s Weyland and Charlize Theron’s Vickers). “Your faults as a son is my failure as a father,” Marcus Aurelius tells him, which echoes Tyrell telling Roy Batty, “You were made as well as we could make you.” The consequences are the same for both Tyrell and Marcus Aurelius, with the artificial golden-eyed owl in the former case and the statue heads of the Antonines in the latter case all impersonally witnessing the patricide.

Ellie Shaw has to do the same thing to her creator, her genetic “father”, but in this case it’s because her creator is about to kill her. She has led seventeen people to a far corner of the universe in order to meet the race that she believes engineered the human race, only to find out that God does not like us very much. Why? Well, that’s a question that isn’t directly answered, but the title combined with certain details in the film suggest some intriguing possibilities. Prometheus the Titan gave mankind fire against the will of the gods, and subsequently had to endure being chained to a mountain peak and having his liver eaten by an eagle every day for the rest of eternity. Were we created without permission? Certainly the film makes a visual point of the Engineers’ ship at the very beginning being a completely different design from the ships we see in towards the end, suggesting different factions. Are the Engineers ultimately victims of their own hubris, with their propensity for meddling with natural biologies resulting in weapons they can’t control, among which they count us? Certainly that would tie the iconic image of the xenomorph chestburster (which, yes, we do see in some form) to Prometheus’ mythological fate — which, incidentally, is why I don’t think the film’s final scene is “tacked on” in any way, as some have argued. It is part and parcel of the imagery and themes invoked by the title, and hardly just thrown in to underscore the obvious.

Back to the idea of going to Grandpa when you don’t like what Dad tells you. David, the android that is participating in the mission, is one part Ash (Ian Holm’s murderous robot in Alien), one part Roy Batty, one part HAL 9000, and a bit of Lance Henriksen’s Bishop from Aliens, but Michael Fassbender makes it entirely his own thing, too. He’s not terribly impressed with his creators, but he’s fascinated and delighted by what he encounters of the Engineers. David’s actions are never entirely benign, but neither is he exactly vicious in the way that HAL and Ash are. I’m certain that he was acting under Weyland’s orders to infect Holloway and get the impregnated Shaw into cryosleep as quickly as possible, but he also acts genuinely curious to see what will happen when he carries out those orders — like Ash, he admires what they’ve found, and wants to see the end result. David isn’t all that interested in why humans made him; one gets the impression that he wants to ask the Engineers (i.e., Grandpa) why they bothered making the humans in the first place. My guess is that the Engineer knocks David’s head off because he sees David as the result of humanity’s hubris, the same hubris that seems to have resulted in whatever happened on LV-223’s installation 2,000 years ago (what I assume to be an outbreak of xenomorphs, judging by the burst chests of the Engineer corpses).

I said that I expect Prometheus to be a prologue to the story Ridley Scott really wants to tell. I say that because of the narrative problem of deciding to tell the story of “the big guy in the chair”. In order for such a story to work, it has to be told from the standpoint of a human being, an audience surrogate. This protagonist has to have a reason to seek that race out, and how do you do that in a way that makes sense when, in terms of storytelling logic and what appears to be the framework set up in Alien, there’s no way the protagonist could know they exist? Well, by the end of Prometheus, Ellie Shaw knows they exist and has a reason to seek them out on their own turf, and it’s propelling the story forward into another film.

Miscellaneous comments: Ridley Scott has a thing for closeups of eyes. Instantly-recognizable shot from Blade Runner:

And Holloway in Prometheus:

 

I rather liked that David’s head was leaking milk. Nice visual tie to Ash in Alien. I also noticed that Ellie is dragging his body along as well, so presumably he will be whole again in a sequel.

I assume there is more of Patrick Wilson as Ellie’s father somewhere on the cutting room floor. Otherwise, why bother casting Patrick Wilson? Seems like luxury casting for five lines. Along similar lines, I assume there was footage shot of a younger Peter Weyland, because it doesn’t make sense to me to cast Guy Pearce specifically to put him in old age makeup. I could be wrong on both counts.

In terms of narrative ties to Alien — I’m sure we’ll find out more for certain in any future film, but it seems to me that the Engineers’ rush to leave the installation 2,000 years ago (and I’m intentionally not going to discuss the implications of that date in terms of Earth history) is probably what results in the ship that crash-landed on LV-426. Their weapons stock got out of control, and David mentions that there are “other ships”, plural, so not just the one that he and Ellie are flying to the Engineers’ home planet. The one on LV-426 was perhaps the one that actually was able to take off.

However, one point that I find really intriguing is the possibility of what the star map that David was interacting with might have been. Was it keeping track of every place that the Engineers had interfered or interacted with the evolutionary process? If so, they’ve seeded a lot of worlds. What else is out there to be found in this universe besides xenomorphs?

Even in its clearly toned-down form, Shaw’s self-caesarean was pretty rough going (and I assume it was ultimately one of the barriers for a PG-13 rating). I found it very uncomfortable to watch as a man; I can’t imagine what it would be like for a woman, let alone a pregnant woman. I won’t be suggesting to my wife that she watch it until we’re well past the birth. I’ll note that it is also one of the ways the imagery of Prometheus having his liver pecked out and eaten is invoked; Shaw’s faith and optimism are ultimately used against her, and this is the price. This is maybe overthinking it a touch, but as a name, Προμηθεύς means something like “forethought”, which Shaw seems to lack — she didn’t really think her ideas through sufficiently.

Anyway — Prometheus has my recommendation. Go see it and draw your own conclusions.

Addenda to Part the Third: Never before has so much been said about so little

It’s been close to a month and a half since I’ve had a chance to return to telling this story, and believe it or not, there have been a couple of people who have asked, “Hey, when are you getting back to that?” Of course, then there was maniacal laughter on the other end of the phone, followed by something that sounded like maybe one person being subdued by several, so you have to consider the source. Anyway, the last installment dealt with my religious formation from the end of my seventh grade year to the end of high school, approximately 1989-94. We’re effectively dealing with the years of my adolescence — messy years in any kid’s life, to be sure, and I’d rather this not turn into an after-the-fact tween confessional, but there are maybe some details worth talking about.

If I had to come up with a particular narrative arc to describe those five years of my life, I suppose I might call it a quest for community. I had a number of interests, and I tried to find ways of using them to make friends. Taking after my dad, I took up the guitar, first learning from him and then from a teacher, a great guy named Dave Head. I became a reasonable rhythm player, and I could learn the mechanics of other peoples’ solos pretty quickly, and so I tried to see what I could do about getting into a band. Can’t say it worked terribly well; bottom line is that I was neither cool enough as a person nor flashy enough as a player to be terribly attractive to anybody who actually knew what they were doing (plus I couldn’t exactly afford the highest end equipment). Eventually my teacher and I realized that being a rock guitar player just didn’t fit my personality — and part of it seemed to be that I actually had a teacher and wasn’t self-taught — and he put a piece of Bach in front of me and said, “Learn this. See what it does for you.” That marked my first step into the world of classical music, and my life was not to be the same. Anyway, I became acquaintances with some other band-minded musicians my age, and I got the impression that they respected my efforts and enthusiasm even if I wasn’t really up to snuff as a performer (or perhaps I have just wistfully constructed the memory of that impression), but it just wasn’t meant to be.

In January of 1990, winter trimester of my 8th grade year, my mom brought home a computer. It was an old IBM XT — two 5.25″ floppy drives, no hard drive, 128k RAM, monochrome monitor with no graphics card, and an internal 1200 baud modem, all running on PC-DOS 3.0 (as I recall — might have been 2.0). It also came with a printer — a Commodore 6400 daisywheel model that was larger and heavier than the PC and had something like a 6 characters-per-second output. The whole setup was a dinosaur even for 1990, but it had cost all of $100, and I’ll tell you what, I squeezed every last drop of value out of that $100. My first computer was an Atari 800XL that was a Christmas present in 1983, but I had never been able to quite figure out how to get the use out of that machine I wanted. The IBM, with all of its capabilities current to, well, at least 1985, I was able to still use in 1990 for word processing (even if it did take 20 minutes to print out a lab report), uh… word processing, and… well, word processing…

…but then I realized it had a modem.

In seventh grade, much like many other adolescents of my generation, I had read, and been captivated by, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. As a kid in “gifted programs” (whatever that meant) who seemed to have a hard time not being a target for others, obviously there was a lot of relatable material. Particularly fascinating, however, was the way that Valentine and Peter took over the world via some kind of anonymous electronic presence.

So when it was pointed out to me that the modem allowed me to use my computer to call up things called “bulletin board systems” — well, that just sounded like the coolest thing I had ever heard of. An issue of Puget Sound Computer User provided some phone numbers, and soon I was “Synthman” (just sounded cool) on Miranda S. Station, as well as “Demosthenes” (and that was the sound of everybody who’s ever read Ender’s Game rolling their eyes simultaneously) on The Centuriate Assembly and other boards. Here it was, a social (arguably) context where it didn’t matter what I looked like, whether I was awkward — it was entirely a matter of how I was able to express myself. And, while I had a bit of a learning curve about the etiquette and protocol of BBS interaction, I found I was able to express myself reasonably well.

My parents were not entirely thrilled; when the topic of BBS in-person meetups arose, it became a real conceptual problem for them and a bit of a catch-22 for me. These were largely high school and college people; I was in the 8th grade. “What could possibly be a good reason that somebody in high school or college would want to spend time with somebody your age?” was the barrier for them. The thing that was crazy-making for me was that they already knew full well that I had always tended to get along better with people older than me, but the entire idea of establishing any kind of basis for interaction independent of concrete external factors was completely foreign to them. It also meant that I was hearing concerns expressed about establishing online friendships for purposes of kidnapping and sexual abuse years before instances of these became national news. Anyway, eventually my parents relented, and it just became something that I was regularly involved with. I didn’t do any extracurricular activities in junior high, so BBS-land rather became my social circle. What in-person friends I did have in junior high seemed to follow me into the electronic realm; among this group is one Eric Rachner, a computer security expert and famous Seattle urban golfer. I remember going to his house and him showing me their Prodigy subscription; shortly after he came over to my house and saw what I was doing on various boards, he had written his own BBS hosting software.

My interactions on BBSes had a great deal of decisive influence on my musical tastes. My guitar playing took me down a path that included Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and lots of classic and progressive rock like Led Zeppelin and Rush (which also led to a brief dalliance with Ayn Rand in eighth and ninth grade); the BBS folks turned me on to Cocteau Twins, Lush, Gary Numan, the Smiths, et al. — everything a socially awkward young man needed in the early 1990s. Cocteau Twins in particular was my first foray into singing where there was an assumption that you weren’t necessarily going to understand the words, which was an important leap for me to take.

My taste in music also brought to my attention the Seattle bands that would eventually hit the big time — Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mother Love Bone (Pearl Jam’s predecessor), all right around the first wave of major label debuts hit from these acts (i.e., the first batch to be entirely ignored). I also recall the death of Andrew Wood (Mother Love Bone’s lead singer) being announced on one of the BBSes I frequented by somebody who was a friend of his. I can remember doing a presentation for my ninth grade Social Studies class sometime in the spring of 1991 about Seattle music starting to get national attention; Queensryche’s “Empire” and “Silent Lucidity” were getting some play on MTV, as was Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box”, but it was to be another six months or so before the hype would really hit with Nirvana’s Nevermind, so for the most part I remember a lot of vacant expressions on the part of my classmates during the talk.

My favorite Seattle band from the period was called Hammerbox. Right before I started my sophomore year of high school, I wandered into their Bumbershoot show, Labor Day weekend 1991, knowing nothing about them except that they were supposedly good, and I didn’t really want to go with my parents to see Tony Bennett. They were amazing. Carrie Akre was a great rock singer and had a stunning stage presence; I’m pretty sure that just about every guy who ever saw one of their concerts developed some kind of crush on her, and I was no exception. The songs were balls of energy that bounced through the Mercer Arena (a trope in their press clippings was that their sound was “whirling”), and all I knew coming out of there was that I had to find their CD, I had to see them again live, and I had to find some way to make Carrie fall in love with me. Well, I accomplished two out of the three; I was lucky enough to get to see Hammerbox a total of three times over the next couple of years, and I found their album. Carrie I would eventually meet and get to be at least friendly acquaintances with for a brief period in my early 20s, but, you know, by that point we had both moved on, you know what I mean?

Hammerbox, by the way, was a great cautionary example of what could happen to a Seattle band. I still maintain that the self-titled C/Z Records debut is one of the best releases of any local artist from that period; “When 3 is 2” should have been picked up as a radio-friendly hit for the same reasons that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was, and Carrie should have been somebody that the label realized could have been a gold mine. They signed with A&M Records, Soundgarden’s label, released Numb, their major-label debut, in 1993 (complete with a redo of “When 3 is 2”, clearly recognizing its potential as a breakout hit), and… well, and nothing. No MTV play, no airplay, nothing. Part of the trouble is that Numb sounded like somebody had tried to make a Nirvana record with Carrie behind the microphone, and even “When 3 is 2” came across as overproduced in all the wrong ways, as though the producer and engineer had completely misunderstood what made the song work both onstage and on the first album. Everything that was distinctive about the band’s stage presence and live sound had been sort of run through a grunge filter, and as a result there was nothing to distinguish the album. It’s sad, because the songs that are on the album were great live; on the CD, something just didn’t work the same way. By 1994 the band had broken up, and Carrie went on to form another band called Goodness… where just about exactly the same series of events happened, beat by beat, right down to the major label debut that should have been a smash but went nowhere because clearly the A&R guys had a completely misinformed picture of what they were selling. Girl just could not catch the break that she should have. Hammerbox had a very brief reunion about 8 years ago or so, but it doesn’t seem to have been meant to be.

In 1991, I started my sophomore year at Inglemoor High School. For the most part, all of my junior high friends were heading off to Woodinville High School, so I was faced with starting afresh, for better or for worse. As it worked out, this problem largely solved itself. For some reason that was never made clear, the schedules we had received in August were tossed out and completely reformulated right before the beginning of the year, which left me with some unexpected blanks in my day. In a move that turned out to be pivotal, I decided to take a bunch of English electives, which meant that in the fall I took both Speech and Drama, and in the winter I took Journalism. The combination of Speech and Drama did much to bring me out of my shell; I found that I could speak in front of people without really caring what they thought, and I also found that I had some ability to be onstage.

I auditioned for the fall play, a 1920s period piece from the 1950s called The Dark at the Top of the Stairs by William Inge (perhaps best known for the Warren Beatty film Splendor in the Grass). Much to my surprise, I got the part of Sammy Goldenbaum, a key supporting role, and what do you know? Suddenly I had a social circle, suddenly I had something to do after school, and suddenly I had something that I seemed to be good at. Dr. Chumley in Harvey followed in the spring, as well as the “Best New Actor” award from the drama club. Journalism, as it happened, was also something I turned out to be good at, so for my junior year, Advanced Drama and the school paper were both rather foregone conclusions.

Junior year was very busy indeed; PSATs, newspaper, and lots of shows. Clement in The Wisdom of Eve, Norm in Present Tense, Stuart in The Enigma, and then in another pivotal happenstance, Doody in Grease!. Short version there is that I knew a musical was coming. I hadn’t sung since elementary school, but I figured I had two options: try to sing and maybe get a role, or not try to sing and definitely not get a role. As it worked out, I was the only guy, besides the kid who was the foregone conclusion for Danny, who was able to hit Doody’s high notes in “Those Magic Changes” without looking like he was in pain, and I could play the guitar. As for the high notes, all I can say is, I didn’t know they were supposed to be high. It was a positive enough experience all around that I decided to do choir the next year, which became another pivot point, and I won the drama club’s Best Supporting Actor award that year.

Still another pivot point was my decision to tag along with Woodinville High School on their trip to the International Thespian Society’s high school festival at Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, June 1993. We didn’t really have the money for me to go, but I was bound and determined to make it work. I participated as fully as I could in the fundraising, and particularly since I was the only one doing that fundraising at my own high school, I was able to do pretty well. It all worked out; I went, had a ball (as it were), and even came back with my first girlfriend.

Here I should note that just because I was in theatre and had a social circle, it didn’t automatically solve all of my awkwardness. Our theatre crowd at Inglemoor wasn’t made up of The Beautiful People in the first place, and we all had our eccentricities, to say the least. Even in that context, I was a late bloomer, and kind of tended to be The Nice Guy Who Was Everybody’s Friend rather than anybody who girls might look upon with interest beyond that. I certainly had my share of girls I was interested in, but it was plain that it just wasn’t reciprocated. There was a lot of fumbling on my part my junior year with respect to The Girlfriend Issue, and it was all very frustrating.

A practical point is that I didn’t drive; I had taken driver’s ed the summer after my sophomore year, but Dad was very strict about the parameters of me practicing; short version is that unless he was the one in the passenger seat with nobody else in the car, I was not to be allowed to practice — he did not want me driving with my mother under any circumstances, for reasons I’m still not certain I understand. Anyway, because — as I’ve suggested — he and my mom were enduring their own circles of hell around this time, that meant he did not generally have the energy or presence of mind to allow me to drive, and the few times that he did, he argued with virtually everything I had been taught in class. His fear turned to anger so rapidly in those rare occasions that it was not an uncommon outcome for us to be pulled over with him screaming at me while I was sobbing. I almost failed the class itself because he refused to let me practice outside of class; his argument was, “We’ve paid for them to teach you to drive. If I’ve signed a check to relegate that responsibility to them, why is it still my responsibility to let you practice on my time?” The behind-the-wheel instructor (a kind gentleman, even if he was somewhat bewildered at my situation, named Vance Spangler) eventually realized what was happening, took pity on me, and started spending extra time with me outside of class so that I could pass the behind-the-wheel portion. For several months after the class was over, Dad and I had a ritual; I would go with him somewhere, ask if I could drive, and he would say, “No, not today.” If I asked something along the lines of, “If not now, when?” he would get mad and say, “When I think it is the right time. You driving is not at the top of my list of priorities right now, so drop it. I’ll let you know when you can practice.” There came a point when finally he said, “I want you to forget everything you learned. If we’ve satisfied a formality with you taking the class, fine, but I will be the one to teach you how to drive.” I thought that was a sign that we would be practicing more often, but it wasn’t, and before long he moved back to Alaska anyway (I’ll get to that). As I have said, this was a very difficult period in our lives at home, so this all has to be understood in that context, but it was what it was, and the practical effect was that I was The Kid Who Always Needed A Ride. Not exactly something to endear one to members of the opposite sex.

My not driving, incidentally, led to one of my more infamous goof-ups with the newspaper. Through Say Anything… and Singles, I had become somewhat enamored of Cameron Crowe, and was inspired to try to get an interview with Hammerbox for the school paper. I wrote letters to both The Rocket, the local rock weekly, and C/Z Records, trying to see what I could come up with. Turned out the person I connected with at The Rocket was the girlfriend of Harris Thurmond, the band’s guitarist, and she sent me a Hammerbox press kit as well as put me in touch with Harris. Harris and I talked on the phone several times, he was more than amenable to the idea, we set a date and a time, I found a photographer who could also drive, and we were set.

Except that I, the non-driver, had no idea how to get where we were going. I had assumed the driver/photographer would, since she spent a lot of time in Seattle. She assumed I would know how to get there. I had an address, and that was it — in 1993, long before the days of GPS or Google Maps or high schoolers having cell phones or things like this.

After about an hour and a half of driving around downtown Seattle, it became clear we weren’t going to find the place. When I got home, I tried calling Harris, I explained to his answering machine what happened as apologetically as I could, begged for a rescheduled time, and… yeah. Never heard from him again. “Getting Hammerboxed” shortly became a new expression amongst the rest of the newspaper crew.

Anyway, I was talking about my somewhat late development on the girls front. Somehow in the run-up to the Muncie trip (as Anna Russell might say, “D’you remember Muncie?”), I befriended a nice Woodinville High School girl who was on the tech end named Michelle. There was a level of mutual attraction, the week in Indiana turned out to be a good context for that to be investigated, and there it was. It wasn’t to last very long, but she has remained a good friend throughout the last twenty years regardless, so I guess it couldn’t have gone too horribly badly.

So, I was starting up my senior year as Drama Club president, editor of the school paper (getting Hammerboxed and all), and I had a girlfriend finally. I was getting ready to start what seemed like would be a triumphant last year of high school…

…and I got knocked down a few pegs, and I found myself going in a totally different direction by the end of the year than I thought I was going at the beginning.

That summer, Dad got an offer from a friend of his in Alaska to come work for his family’s bank in Anchorage. I have said that 1986-1993 represented years of hell for our family. This represented, more or less, the end of part of that hell for Dad. His attempt at being a small businessman in the suburbs of Seattle had gone nowhere fast since the rise of big box office supply outlets, to say nothing of Costco, and he was spending 70+ hours a week just trying to not sink too quickly. He had contemplated other options over the years (including the one he eventually took in 2003, Arizona), but could never quite bring himself to pull the trigger on what it would take to make the move. He had let go all of his employees, he was doing absolutely everything himself (except filing, that was my job), and there was no real way for it to get any better. As he said later, his friend lured him back to Alaska with one word: “Saturday.” He couldn’t get out of there fast enough; he closed up the shop as quickly as he responsibly could, and in September of 1993 he left for Alaska, marking the last time he was a regular, everyday part of my life. My mom and I stayed in Seattle so that I could finish high school; it was brutally difficult for both of us, but the options were between bad and worse. Staying was hard, but leaving would be harder.

In the fall, there was good news and bad news on the theatrical front. We were doing another musical, West Side Story, and I had my sights set on Riff. I knew there was no way I was going to be cast as Tony (that already seemed to be intended for the guy who had played Danny Zuko), since I wasn’t a good enough singer, but if I approached Riff as an acting challenge, then that could work. I was also enamored with Russ Tamblyn at the time — I had gotten into him thanks to Twin Peaks, and had become really impressed with his multitalented work in West Side StoryFastest Gun in the WestSeven Brides for Seven Brothers, and so on. Well, I got the part, but I also got totally shut out of the fall play — a student teacher was directing that one, and she decided she wanted to go with a cast that didn’t consist of the “regulars”. Well, fair enough, but it was the first time I hadn’t been cast in something in two years, and it stung a bit, to say the least (particularly when, late in the game, I was asked to be on standby for one of the roles when that particular cast member got a bit flaky).

I started Concert Choir at the same time, and it became very obvious to me very quickly, between that daily experience and West Side Story auditions, that I was well behind where I needed to be vocally. So, I started taking voice lessons from the guy all of the great singers in choir and in the musical were with, Dennis Kruse. No, we couldn’t really afford it, it meant giving up guitar lessons, but the choir director not only was able to get Music Boosters to pick up part of it, she herself paid for a chunk out of her own pocket. We made it work.

It was in this context that I was quite unwise with my heart for the first time. I won’t go into this story too terribly much (it’s boring, it’s exactly the kind of “tween confessional” nonsense I don’t want this to turn into, and I don’t really want to tell those kinds of stories about somebody who has a totally different life now), but I’ll just say that the main problem was that I fell in love with a voice and not a person, my surrounding circumstances were such that they constituted an emotional vacuum, and as a result the person to whom that voice was attached wound up getting the full force of my attempt to fill that vacuum, which was far more than she should have been expected to handle. It was a mistake that wound up being far more painful before, during, and after its making than really should have been the case for a high school relationship, but there we are. Under different circumstances, I would have been better equipped to keep what was going on in perspective, but that wasn’t what I had to work with at the time. Έτσι είναι ζωή (Greek for “C’est la vie”, which is French for “Life sucks, get a helmet”).

(Somewhere in here I finally got my driver’s license. Didn’t do me a heck of a lot of good without a car, and that was still a few years away.)

The upshot of that, though, was that opera first came onto my radar. This girl was being primed big time for the opera world, and my thought was, “Well, if she can do it, I can do it.” I sometimes gloss this by saying that I got into opera to impress a girl, which is not entirely untrue by any means. Thing is, I wasn’t really an obvious candidate vocally for that kind of thing — I had, effectively, an actor’s singing voice. I could carry a tune well enough to get through musical theatre, but I didn’t have the clear, clarion instrument that theoretically one should have if they want to be on the operatic stage. I wasn’t a “natural voice” by any stretch of the imagination. Still, I kept at it, and little by little I got better. Opera, I thought, would be the perfect melding of the things I was trying to be good at, acting and singing — so what if I didn’t know anything about it and had never been to one? I could act, and I was learning to sing. If I could get better and keep getting better, then it would be workable. Everything else was just detail. Somewhere in here I got admitted to Western Washington University; it was the only school I had applied to (being broke sort of made the whole exercise of applying for colleges moot), it was where we had talked about me going since sophomore year, and while the looming Alaska move meant that its advantages of location and being in-state were called into question if not eliminated entirely, I figured hey, what the heck, I’ll do a double major of theatre and music. No problem, right?

Being newspaper editor, by the way, was a disaster. Short version is that I was doing too much. Concert choir, jazz choir, theatre, voice lessons, school paper — I just wasn’t able to be the guy who could stay and put the paper to bed no matter what. The teacher who was the advisor later told me that he had had that concern from the beginning, but he figured if anybody could successfully keep all the balls in the air, it would have been me. “All you proved is that nobody can do all of that, which isn’t your fault,” he said, but he asked for my resignation anyway, and I was smart enough to know that retreat, at that point, was the wiser part of valor.

West Side Story went well, but some of us got stupid and decided to ruin closing night by replacing the fake profanity in the script (“…when you’re a Jet, if the spit hits the fan…”) with the real words. It was my idea, the impetus came from me, and I’ll totally own that; it was a dumb, dumb, dumb stunt, even moreso since the superintendent of the school district was in the audience that night. A two-day suspension and six hours of Saturday school later, and it was evident to me that things like that really weren’t as cool as they seemed when you were thinking them up.

Even so, I got cast as Charlie Baker, the lead role of Larry Shue’s The Foreigner, the very last play of my senior year. It almost didn’t happen (after the West Side Story incident, the principal wanted to make not casting me a condition of allowing the play to go forward, since she had concerns about its subject matter to begin with), but it did nonetheless. All I will say about it is that it, in my own estimation, it was the best performance I ever gave anywhere in anything, and I won the drama club’s Best Actor award that spring. Unfortunately, the audio levels of the videotape were set too low, so there is no way to get anything useful out of it and you’ll simply have to take my word for it.

I also had a curious experience that year going to an open call for the role of Robin in what was then being called Batman 3. If you ever see the name “Mali Finn” in the credits for a movie as the casting director, well, I met her, I still have her card, and I even got a callback (which was the same night as the winter formal, but there you go). They wanted an unknown, they wanted somebody who could be believably street smart, and presumably they wanted somebody who was going to be shorter than Michael Keaton (who was still attached to the part of Bruce Wayne at that point). Well, I was unknown, at least (I’m a good 3 inches taller than Keaton), and of course it didn’t get any further than that, but it’s one of the cool things that I can say happened to me in high school. Obviously, since they ultimately went with Chris O’Donnell (over, it was rumored, Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale), I’m inclined to believe that they were never seriously looking for an unknown to begin with, but who knows.

I had other interesting run-ins with show business; our drama teacher also worked for one of the big casting agencies in Seattle, and she would try to find opportunities for her students where she could. I read for a couple of commercials, and also read for a part in a movie we weren’t told the name of, but a couple of years later I was sitting in the audience for Mr. Holland’s Opus and realized I was watching the very scene I had read in the casting office. None of these came to anything; the one thing that actually happened was getting to work for three days as an extra on the movie Mad Love with Chris O’Donnell, Drew Barrymore, and Matt Lillard. (Don’t bother looking for me; everything I was in got cut. Still, you can see a bunch of my friends very prominently in several scenes.)

My dad flew back from Alaska the day before my high school graduation. We did some packing up of the house. The next day, I graduated high school. The day after that, my parents flew to Alaska together, and I spent the night in the house by myself. The day after that, movers came, packed everything, and put it on a truck to Anchorage. I also had a voice lesson that day; out, at long last, came a voice that was clear, strong, had even vibrato, and extended up to a high E flat. Dennis got up and gave me a hug, saying, “I think you left your kid voice at the graduation ceremony.”

That gets me through high school graduation, so I’ll stop there. As I said before — after that, things got complicated.

I should add that I would have never survived the high school experience without some excellent teachers who made it a point to take an interest in me and care what became of me — some in big ways, some in small ways, but all in important ways. Dennis Kruse, Laurie Levine, Judy Filibeck, Sean Burrus, Tim Curtis, Bob Engle, Hjalmer Anderson, Dave Head, Bob Stewart, James Wilson, Vance Spangler, and Sheri Rosenzweig are all the main teachers I think of; thank God for all of them.

Addenda ad Secundam Partem: In which the CIA and Howard the Duck make an appearance

Basically the years we’re talking about right now are third through seventh grade — two thirds of my elementary school years and my first year of junior high. It’s hard to make those years interesting on their own terms, but I’ll see what I can do.

When we got to the Seattle area, I managed to be placed in a magnet program called TAG, “Talented And Gifted”. (How on the nose can you be?) That took me up through sixth grade, and I discuss that experience somewhat here, so I won’t go over that particular ground again.

At the start of the school year, Wellington Elementary (where the TAG program was housed that first year I was in it) announced a musical — none other than You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Needless to say, I auditioned. I said earlier that I had thoroughly internalized the character, and this must have been evident in the audition process, because I was cast in the title role. It was my first theatrical endeavor of any sort (at least going by chronology of auditions; the first performed was an in-class presentation of “Witling and the Stone Princesses”, an adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale “The Queen Bee”) and certainly my first musical, although one could argue that I had been playing the part for some time by that point. The rehearsal process was fairly lengthy, as I recall, and I think nobody was quite sure how I’d actually do once it became work, but it was the time of my life up to that point. The irony is that I’d identified the character because I was awkward and felt like an outsider most of the time, but I loved the other kids who were in it with me, and tried to stay friends with them. That might have worked better had the magnet programs not all moved to their own school the following year, and I lost touch with everybody pretty quickly (plus I was on the younger side of the cast anyway). Google searches turn up some of those folks — here’s Katie Margeson, my Lucy; and her sister, Anne, was Patty (none of this revisionist “Sally” nonsense in our production!). Chad Afanador, our Linus, actually has an IMDB page, and the Snoopy, Scott Grimm, is now a linguist of some note. (I am blanking on the name of our Schroeder. I’m sorry, man.) Anyway, I’d love to put up some pictures or video of this, but I think my mother has all of the photos. Dad videotaped the dress rehearsal, but the tape has been missing since 1994, when it was loaned to my then-girlfriend’s mother who was considering putting it on with her elementary school class, and I was never able to get it back (and in fact it was later claimed that she never remembered having it in the first place). If you ever find a VHS cassette labeled “Original C.B. Play” with a piece of masking tape on the front, do drop me a line. The thing about the videotape is that at some point during one of the verses of “The Kite Song”, I realized I was being filmed and choked on the words for a line or two, so it was never perfect anyway (but the actual performances were spot on!), but that’s maybe in keeping with the spirit of the character.

In absence of any of those pictures or video, here’s something that I’m pretty sure not every kid on my block had. Short version is that it wasn’t too far of a leap from Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, and The Young Detective’s Handbook to spies, and I started reading everything I could on real-world espionage. A briefcase replaced my backpack to accompany the deerstalker and trenchcoat. When I was nine, I decided that I would be a perfect recruit as an intelligence agent — I was too young for anybody to ever suspect as a spy. With the courage of my convictions on the matter, I did what any normal kid would have done and wrote a letter to the CIA telling them they should bring me aboard.

I got a letter back, dated 5 March 1986, from one G. L. Lamborn, Public Affairs (who, if I’m not mistaken, is the author of this forthcoming book). “Dear Mr. Barrett: Thank you for writing the Central Intelligence Agency. You seem to be a bright, responsible, and ambitious young person. I am afraid, however, that you cannot be an intelligence officer until you are eighteen. We hope you will apply with us when you are older. A college education is useful for many of our positions — so study hard! We need people with your enthusiasm. I have enclosed two publications which will tell you more about the Central Intelligence Agency. Do not forget us.”

Well, obviously it didn’t turn into a career. It’s an interesting souvenir to have, at least, and I’m sure it made for an entertaining story for Mr. Lamborn.

Comic books became a big deal for me in around 1984. I still remember my parents freaking out the day when I decided that I was now collecting them — taking the advice of one collector’s manual to buy a bunch of new comics and see what I liked, I spent around $25 on a stack of new releases about as tall as my belly button (remember that these were the days of a 65-cent cover price). My Batman obsession has been reasonably well-discussed here, but I also quickly fell in love with the back issues of Howard the Duck. Yes, you read that correctly. The thing is, as written in the mid-’70s, Howard the Duck was an experiment on Marvel Comics’ part, a social satire, and it was hysterical. (I mean, c’mon. It took place in Cleveland, for heaven’s sake.) Imagine my bewilderment when I saw it realized on the big screen as kids’ horror-action-comedy. I still don’t quite know what George Lucas was thinking, but the movie’s duck simply wasn’t the same Howard who ran for President for the All Night Party in 1976 and fought Doctor Bong. Not even close. Batman in 1989 was a much happier time at the movies all around, to say the least.

In terms of music, piano lessons continued through the fifth grade, I think. There came a point where I was feeling overstressed; I was doing Columbia Boys Choir, piano lessons, and then my dad had enrolled me in karate lessons two days a week. I think I had one day at home after school a week, and it was getting a bit much. Plus, my voice was breaking, and I didn’t know how to manage that. This was in the middle of our domestic meltdown, so everybody was happy to have me doing less for multiple reasons. I didn’t necessarily give up the activities, just the formal involvement; I played Sir Joseph Porter in a sixth grade production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, and I started learning the guitar.

This meant I also picked up the pace in terms of reading. I read a lot of different kinds of mythology and folktales; Greek mythology, Welsh mythology (inspired somewhat by a book called Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones), Nordic mythology, and even French-Canadian folktales (in the form of a little collection called The Golden Phoenix). I read a lot of role-playing games, but I could never quite figure out how to play them myself. Genre fiction became a real love for me in sixth grade, starting with Piers Anthony, with whom I even had a correspondence going for a couple of years (well, with his assistant, anyway, even if he signed the letters). This really picked up momentum in my junior high years, so its flourishing is somewhat beyond the present scope.

“Hey, Richard!” I’m hearing a couple of people say. “That’s awesome that the CIA started a file on you when you were nine, but did you do any, you know, normal kid things?” Eh, I don’t know. I wasn’t a terribly athletic kid, and I didn’t really understand sports or why I was automatically supposed to care about them. I hated fishing — the first time I went, I was having a great time with my dad and my great-uncle until they took the fish I caught and bashed it over the head with a rock. I burst into tears — I was not expecting that in the least. I went to summer camp a few times, the YMCA’s Camp Colman and Camp Orkila. I played with fire once by burning some thread in the sink to see if they’d burn the same way fuses were depicted as doing in cartoons and movies. My parents freaked out when they found me, thought I was trying to burn the house down (the house that they were trying to sell), and I had bruises on my rear end from a plastic spoon for a week. I guess that’s reasonably normal.

I didn’t have a ton of friends in elementary school and was the object of a good amount of merciless bullying, much of it by girls, which meant that other boys generally wanted nothing to do with me. From third to fifth grade, my best friend in the world was Jeff Fletcher, a kid who was one year older than I was and who was simply a kindred spirit in many ways. He was always at my house, and we were inseparable. Then he went to junior high a year before I did (naturally enough), and our paths diverged a bit, coming back together when I got to junior high. There was also Brian Ward, whom I met in sixth grade and whose family also went to Overlake. In seventh grade, there was a bit of peer group that I found, consisting of Matthew Arndt, Brian, Eric Rachner, Eric Stangeland (another friend of mine with an IMDB page), Robert Stevens, and Russ Needham (who, with Brian, is pictured with me on 23 June 1989 at Luxury Alderwood Cinemas for Batman).

And that’s that for now.

Update, 6 February 2012, 3:06pm — I should mention that Jeff Fletcher and I were all-too briefly accompanied in our early years by one Chris Holtorf. He wasn’t around anywhere near as long as we should have liked, since his family moved to California when I was in fourth grade, I believe, but for the short time we were together, were a terrible trio, to say the least.

Chris and I recently (like, in the last few hours) re-established contact via Facebook for the first time in, I believe, twenty-six years, and he wanted me to also pass on that the three of us had a plan to construct a working replica of the Millennium Falcon in my backyard. It’s true. We were generally too busy sliding in sleeping bags down my staircase into Ember, my beloved Bernese Mountain Dog (an activity we generally referred to as “SLEEPING BAG DOGGIE!!!!!!!!!”), to actually get the damn thing built. Oh well.

In which the author takes note of the BBC’s plan to take over the minds of American geeks

Cliff Watson as the Usher, Tom Derbyshire as the Learned Judge, and Yours Truly as the Defendant. The martini glass was my own touch. (Bridesmaids, left to right: Kathleen Gillette, Angie Bartels, Tessa Studebaker, Katie Edwards, Winchee Lin, and Hollis Heron. My friends, if any of you are reading this, it's really hard to believe that was a decade ago this year. I miss you all terribly. It's been too long. I really didn't think I'd be out here anywhere close to this length of time, and now I don't have any idea about what would ever bring me back. To say nothing of the fact that I expect I would only ever be in the audience anymore for SG&S even if I were back.)

I can’t really claim to have ever legitimately been an Anglophile. I obviously was fascinated by Sherlock Holmes as a little kid, and reading “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” inspired me to badger my mother into preparing a goose and plum pudding for Christmas when I was nine years old, then for a few years I ran in Episcopalian circles (which isn’t really the same as being an Anglican, I eventually decided, but it’s as close as you can get in some parts of the country), had a stint in the Tudor Choir, honeymooned in Victoria, B. C., and also sang a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan. Still, I never actually went to England before five years ago, I never cared much about the Union Jack or tea or the Queen Mum (or any of the royals, really), and really couldn’t tell you the first thing about Winston Churchill. The way to put it that is at once most accurate and charitable is that, if anything, I was an Anglophile wannabe.

My love of Sherlock Holmes meant that my formative Holmes actor was Jeremy Brett, whom I saw on Mystery! probably starting in 1985. He was not only formative, but normative —  the gold standard in the way that Batman: The Animated Series is the gold standard of Batman interpretations regardless of medium. I do have to confess, however, that the first screen Holmes to captivate me was Christopher Plummer in the, uh, criminally underrated 1979 Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper film Murder by Decree (directed by Bob Clark, which is rather curious since he is probably most famous for A Christmas Story) (and Decree is also quite notable for having James Mason as Watson). The first time I saw that was probably in 1982 or 1983 on late night television — I remember my dad pulling me out of bed because he correctly thought I’d probably be interested in seeing it. There was also a production of The Hound of the Baskervilles at Woodinville High School in 1984 that I remember seeing — one of my teachers took me to see it, and I also recall that the actor who played Holmes came out after the play and talked to me for a little while. Can’t remember the guy’s name, but I remember being blown away by him.

Doctor Who I became aware of probably starting in 1989 when I began reading Starlog, and I remember seeing bits and pieces on PBS here and there. I think the part that sticks out most in my memory is catching the end of The Armageddon Factor. For better or for worse, however, the first Doctor Who I ever watched in its entirety was the 1996 Fox TV movie with Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and Eric Roberts as the Master. I certainly enjoyed it well enough to be part of the letter-writing campaign that tried to get Fox to pick it up as a series (as well as to save Strange Luck, but something about having historically been a fan of horrifically lost causes comes leaping to mind), but obviously that didn’t happen.

Skipping ahead to 2004, I read about Christopher Eccleston being cast as the Doctor in a relaunch of Doctor Who. Interesting, I thought, but how will I ever actually have the chance to see it? I don’t have cable, and I don’t really have time to organize my life around watching a TV show anyway.

Over the next few years, mostly through reading Neil Gaiman’s blog, I would catch bits of Doctor Who news here and there — David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and then, after apparently months of speculation that it would be Lenny Henry Paterson Joseph, Matt Smith — wait, who? — as the Eleventh Doctor. I had absolutely no idea what any of this meant, but it sure sounded like it would be worth watching if I ever had the chance. Also, around this time, mostly due to reading TheOneRing.Net and seeing lots of speculation about Martin Freeman as Bilbo, I started hearing things about a TV series based on the idea of a modernized Sherlock Holmes.

Well, in the fall of 2010, finding myself with a wife out of the country and our big TV out in the middle of the living room while my friend Phil Woodward lived in the second bedroom where the TV used to be, I decided I wanted to be able to watch Netflix Streaming on the TV. I had been able to plug my laptop into the set, but I could only do video — the video/audio-to-HDMI converters I had tried burned out within minutes, so I could watch the video on TV but I had to listen to it through the laptop speakers. The trouble was that we bought a Blu-Ray player right before Netflix Streaming had become standard on them, I didn’t really want to buy another Blu-Ray deck just for that functionality, and if Flesh of My Flesh had come home to us owning a Wii or an Xbox or some other gaming unit, she would have divorced me instantly (which in Indiana I believe involves a rusty pair of scissors and a clamp). I know, I know, First World Problems. In any case, I was persuaded by some poking around that AppleTV was the most cost-effective solution for my particular circumstances, and thus I brought one of the little black boxes home one day.

When I hooked it up and got Netflix Streaming up and running, I actually spent some time poking around the library, which I hadn’t done before — I had only noticed if a movie in my queue was listed as being available for instant viewing. Sure enough, there was the Eccleston Who — so I started watching. When it was over, I watched the next one. When that one was over, I watched the next one. Next thing I knew, the Ninth Doctor was telling Rose, “You won’t see me again, not like this,” and I was crying. Still, David Tennant was a lot of fun, but then when he disappeared from the beach before he could tell Rose he loved her, I was crying again.

Meanwhile, Phil, my housemate for the year, turned me on to Veronica Mars, which was also available via streaming (no longer, it seems — alas). I watched all three seasons, and I enjoyed it — Twin Peaks meets Beverly Hills 90210 is sort of how it seemed to me, at least at first — but I consider myself one of those who felt that it lost its way during the second season and never quite recovered. Even the first season — the way it was set up, it was absolutely awesome, and even the way they solved the season’s central mystery was fantastic and completely unexpected, but in general the wrap-up didn’t quite seem to follow through on the all of the convictions the setup had started out with. Without totally giving things away, I’m not entirely certain they played fair with the audience in the first season resolution, and then the way they returned to the same material for second season’s mystery was not in the least convincing. Also, in general, in the first season I was able to buy that these were high school kids, even if many of them were high school kids of significant privilege; almost all of that credibility went out the window during the second season. The third season — well, you’ve got an early appearance of Armie Hammer, which was kind of cool, but beyond that, by the end I was having trouble caring. The point of all of this is to say, American episodic television was leaving me wanting more. I’m aware that Veronica Mars is hardly representative of “American TV”, but nonetheless, that’s how it fits into the story.

I got through the first four seasons of Who, and most of the first two seasons of Torchwood. For the record, I didn’t really quit watching Torchwood, I just sort of ran out of time. I will go back and watch the rest at some point. John Barrowman is amazingly talented, and strikes me as what Tom Cruise would be like if Tom Cruise were a good TV actor rather than A Movie Star (that said, go see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, it’s the best of the bunch and Brad Bird slams it out of the park). I watched all of the long specials that constituted Tennant’s putative “fourth season”, culminating in the heartbreaking “I don’t want to go!” — and suddenly there was this gangly kid onscreen yelling “Geronimo!”

Around this time, I decided to bite the Sherlock bullet. It wasn’t available on streaming, but the season pass on iTunes was something like $16, so… what the heck.

And, with that — season (I know, I know, “series”) five of Doctor Who and Sherlock — I was plunged into the depths of Steven Moffat’s pulsating pink glob of insanity jelly that he calls a brain.

Matt Smith quickly became my favorite of the three relaunched Doctors (and that after thinking there was no way that Tennant could possibly top Eccleston, and then thinking that Tennant had it as nailed as anybody could possibly nail it). Despite his youth, he played old surprisingly well, and in a way was the oldest-feeling of the bunch. The thing that in general grabs me about Doctor Who is that there are really no limits to the kinds of stories it can tell; science fiction, historical drama, comedy, horror, with any mixture of any number of those being possible. The Doctor himself, “the madman with a box”, has literally seen it all; Willy Wonka is a common comparandum to the Eleventh Doctor, but one I haven’t seen before that I think is apt is Neil Gaiman’s Morpheus — terribly old but still timeless, and still mortal in some way even if not quite. If any kind of a Sandman project ever does get off the ground, I’d love to see Matt Smith in the role — he looks like Morpheus (particularly in some of his Goth-boy publicity shots), and there were moments during the second half of the sixth season (particularly “Let’s Kill Hitler,” “The God Complex,” and “The Wedding of River Song”) where he captured a kind of despairing self-loathing that, to me at least, is key to the Dream King. (And let’s not forget the fairly blatant reference to the Doctor’s shadow self in “Amy’s Choice” as “The Dream Lord”.)

When my wife got back from Germany, I told her, okay, I’m now going to introduce you to my new favorite TV show. I started with “The Eleventh Hour” to see if she’d find it at all entertaining, and she did. Given what happens in the fifth season, I went back to “Blink”, “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead”, then proceeded with the rest of the fifth season and then the sixth season, so that this year’s Christmas special was the first one we watched “in sync”, as it were. She made the interesting observation, after watching “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” and Captain America: The First Avenger in reasonably quick succession, that each one represents a very different kind of cultural memory of World War II. For England, the memory is one of being bombed, forced out of your home, losing loved ones, being terrified in the dark — and for the United States, the memory is of being the good guys, plain and simple. Since we’re now working our way through the Eccleston series, I said, well, you’re going to get quite a bit more of that shortly (I’m thinking of “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”, which, it occurs to me, are also the first Steven Moffat-scripted episodes).

So, then there’s Sherlock.

Since I’ve read “A Study in Scarlet” probably a half-dozen times, within the first minute or two of “A Study in Pink” I knew what they were setting up — the question was, does the person they’re going out of their way to not show or draw attention to have the same motivation as Jefferson Hope? Seemed unlikely that a teenage boy would fit in with the same kind of revenge scheme at the heart of “Scarlet”, so knowing the what without the why kept me watching.

I was not prepared for “Wrong!” “Wrong!” “Wrong!” “Wrong!”, much less “No, she was leaving an angry note in German! Of course we’re looking for a Rachel!” What I realized was that knowing the stories set up certain expectations in my head that allowed Moffat and co. to subvert them. Removing the setting of Victorian England, what becomes effectively a third major character in the stories, allows the series to focus on the stories and characters themselves rather than either selling the spectacle of a recreated period (like the Downey Jr./Law movies) or having to be somewhat deliberately stagy to avoid spending too much money on a recreation (like the Jeremy Brett series could be at times).

(I would nonetheless love to see a big-budget, faithful, period film of “A Study in Scarlet” someday. I have no doubt that it will never happen for all kinds of reasons that should be obvious to anybody halfway familiar with the middle portion of the novella — probably the backstory would have to be merged with that of “The Valley of Fear” or something like that, which itself seems like an apologetic rewrite of “Scarlet” anyway — but I hope that I might be wrong on that point.)

It was also fascinating to see the series creators work in other kinds of references. The end of “Pink” definitely recalls Vizzini vs. Westley in The Princess Bride, but it also sets it up with The Vanishing, one of the more terrifying — to me, at least — cinematic psychological traps of the last 30 years. (I’m talking about the Dutch original, by the way, not the remake with Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland.) “A Scandal in Belgravia” also cleverly works in a Fight Club homage as well as what I’m convinced is a subtle Star Trek II reference. “Hounds of Baskerville” includes a couple of Nolan-esque moments, one a riff of a moment in Insomnia, and conceptually it is indebted to Batman Begins as much as to Conan Doyle. These don’t strike me as derivative — if anything, they strike me as “Easter eggs” for a particular kind of viewer.

And then, of course, there are the performances. Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t impersonating anybody, he isn’t being reverent to Brett or Rathbone or Plummer or anybody else, he’s giving the audience a Holmes without the veneer of 19th century gentlemanly society, thus exposing him as a “high-functioning sociopath”. He’s every bit as good as Brett while being a completely different take on the character; I can’t wait to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I’m very curious to see what Hollywood makes of him, given the recent casting of him as the villain in the next Star Trek. Martin Freeman is a perfect foil, and the showrunners do a great job of giving Watson more to do than just chronicling and commenting on Holmes. Turning him into a hapless wannabe-ladies’ man is an interesting comment on how Watson’s love life works itself out in the Conan Doyle stories, and his everyman qualities make it plain why Peter Jackson thought he’d be the perfect Bilbo Baggins. Una Stubbs is a lot of fun as Mrs. Hudson, and her take on the character reminds me a bit of Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett. And, I have to say, I don’t understand why some people have such a burr in their saddles over how Moriarty has been handled. I’ll be curious to see where it goes with “The Reichenbach Fall”, but in the 21st century I find it quite reasonable to think that a master criminal might be, at heart, a man-child on a power trip who wants to get back at everybody who laughed at him growing up.

There’s clearly a shared creative DNA between Sherlock and Doctor Who; obviously there’s Steven Moffat, but there’s also Mark Gatiss, Euros Lyn, and so on. Sherlock and the Eleventh Doctor have similar ways of processing information (compare “What did I see? I saw…” in “The Eleventh Hour” to the “Bond Air” bit in “A Scandal in Belgravia”), and there are some very interesting similarities between “The Hounds of Baskerville” and “The Unquiet Dead” (the third episode of the Eccleston Who), both Gatiss-scripted. I haven’t yet seen Tintin, but I’m very curious to see how Moffat’s work translates to the big screen.

And there you have it — I’m still not really an Anglophile, but I’m nonetheless one of the people who helped make Doctor Who the most purchased-from-iTunes TV series in 2011, and I’m doing my part to pass along the disease. I’ve shown the first fifteen minutes of “A Study in Pink” to about ten people thus far, and there hasn’t yet been an instance where I haven’t had my hand slapped away from the remote when I’ve said, “Okay, that’s the first fifteen minutes, I’m sure you’re not interested in seeing the rest…” Nor has there yet been an instance where I haven’t been bugged for the next 2-3 days about watching the other two episodes of the first season. “The Eleventh Hour” has also had a similar success rate.

I’ll also briefly note that a recent British TV movie called Page Eight was something I was persuaded to check out by virtue of the cast alone — Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, and Ralph Fiennes. (One wonders if all of the Harry Potter alumni get together to do these kinds of things for fun.) It’s an espionage thriller, and a very understated espionage to say the least, but that hardly makes it uninteresting. Bill Nighy  — whom I’m embarrassed to say I first heard of because a friend dragged me to the first Underworld back in 2003 — is such a restrained character that the tension is ratcheted up just by the viewer’s fear of what will happen when he finally lets loose. Does he? I ain’t sayin’. I’ll just say for now that I hope he gets to return to the role at some point, and that Page Eight is well worth checking out — you can find it on either iTunes or PBS’s website, I believe.

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