Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Catching Up

For this, my 666th post, I have to make what may be the most embarrassing admission a writer can make.

I wasn't always that much of a reader.

Not that I couldn't read. I read above my grade level from the time I started school. I just didn't read. At least not much.

It may have been Verne who did it to me. I was ambitious when I started 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, perhaps too ambitious. And it wasn't just Verne. In my enthusiasm for the classic Universal horror and science-fiction movies, I attempted Bram Stoker's Dracula as well, and also hunted down a copy of The Invisible Man.

Well, I made it through to just past the death of Lucy in Dracula before giving up, and it turns out I had checked out the wrong Invisible Man from the library. It was Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man I was reading, a depressing wade through racism and crap that I barely remember, except for one throwaway moment where there's a boxing match or something with a bare-breasted ring girl, so being a good Christian boy, I sensed the book was going into places I didn't want to go and quit.

The Hardy Boys I liked, and Lester Del Rey's The Runaway Robot I read over and over. But every time I tried to read a "classic," I was disappointed. I made it through Ivanhoe, though thinking back, I think it may have been some kind of movie adaptation or something. Plus, I had a major problem with it. The Sword in the Stone, which I tried to read after seeing the Disney film, shocked me mainly because it was full of cursing--damned this and damned that--so I never finished it. Nor did I finish A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which I found grungy and ugly compared to the comedy of the movie.

So by my young teens, I had sworn off books, at least books that were too "mature" for me. Because I didn't like being disappointed and I didn't like losing.

I got really good at faking my way through English classes without reading the "classic" novels I was supposed to be studying. Barely read a sentence of Great Expectations. Didn't read Silas Marner twice, once in seventh grade and once in eleventh or twelfth. In high school, I read Dune and The Lord of the Rings, the first couple of Anne McCaffrey Dragon novels, and a ton of Bradbury, but that was about it. Oh yeah, and some early C.J. Cherryh, but that was just because she was local. I liked to write, but I didn't really like to read.

And then I got to college. And it wasn't the classes which got me into the habit of reading. It was gaming.

I would sit around the table with the other gamers, and they would start discussing some favorite book or another, Elric or Corum or Conan, and I would just sit and nod silently, because I had no idea what they were talking about. I felt stupid next to these guys who had a wealth of knowledge that I just didn't have. So I started reading.

And maybe it was just that I was reading more modern stuff, but I actually started to enjoy it. I read a bit of sword and sorcery, mainly Moorcock and Brian Daley's Coramonde books, but I also branched out to read quite a lot of horror and science fiction. This was before media tie-in books started crowding the shelves; there were no Dungeons and Dragons novels, nor Battletech, nor Star Wars (apart from the movie novelizations and Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye). Instead I was reading Fred Saberhagen and Stephen King, Peter Straub and Alfred Bester.

And the game tie-ins, of course. M.A.R. Barker wrote a tie-in to his Empire of the Petal Throne game, The Man Of Gold. I read it even though I had never played the game. I read Raymond Feist's massive Magician, based on the Midkemia series of game supplements. I read Joel Rosenberg's The Sleeping Dragon, about a group of gamers who are drawn into the fantasy world they've been playing. I didn't read Rona Jaffe's Mazes and Monsters, which had been made into that awful TV movie starring Tom Hanks, but I did read John Coyne's Hobgoblin, about a disturbed teen who gets obsessed with a role-playing game and then thinks a monster from his game is stalking him and his girlfriend. And of course, I read Niven and Barnes' Dream Park several times. Loved that book.

College was ultimately not a successful endeavor for me, but the love of books and reading I developed, which grew out of gaming, shaped my life later. And as an added bonus, the friends I was making in the gaming club I could relate to much better than my high school friends back home, with whom I had never really fit in. Gaming was giving me an actual life, or at least a fuller, more well-rounded one.

So of course, some assholes had to come along and ruin my good time, starting with a guy who actually died before I started gaming. A guy named James Dallas Egbert III.

But that's next week.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Movie Monday - The Milky Way

Sorry for the muddy pics. The print wasn't in the best shape, but I cleaned up the screen caps as well as I could.

In the 20's, Harold Lloyd was the biggest thing going. His films outgrossed both Chaplin's and Keaton's. He didn't have Chaplin's artistic sensibility, nor Keaton's pure physical skills, but he was a solid, prolific filmmaker, and his regular guy persona was more appealing than both of them put together.

Unfortunately, the one thing he had in common with Chaplin and Keaton is that his career didn't survive for long after the introduction of talkies. Which is too bad, because last week's "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock" and this week's film are okay. Both feature clever scripts, funny gags, and Lloyd's trademark appeal. They ultimately fall a little flat compared to the best comedies of the time, but they compare well to, say, the Three Stooges' pictures, whose iconic status is a little mystifying.

In "The Milky Way" from 1936, Harold Lloyd plays mild-mannered milkman, Burleigh Sullivan. The script is pretty good, based on a Broadway play, so the plot structure is more solid than most movie comedies of the time, and there's lots of clever wordplay. Lloyd makes an appealing leading man, and the scenes where he gets to play physical comedy work well, but his timing isn't so sharp when it comes to dialogue as his castmates.

The plot: Burleigh's sister, Mae, works as a hat check girl, where she catches the eyes of a couple of drunks.

Mae is played by Helen Mack, well known to fans of Famous Monsters of Filmland as Hilda from "Son of Kong." The two drunks are Speed McFarland (William Gargan) and his friend Spider, played by Lionel Stander (who also had a small but memorable role in last week's Lloyd film).

The two drunks accost Mae outside the club when milquetoast milkman Burleigh comes to the rescue.

There's a brief fight, and somehow Burleigh stays on his feet while Speed is knocked out, which causes quite a sensation. You see, Speed is the middleweight champion of the world.

The next day, Burleigh visits Speed and his manager, Gabby Sloan (Adolphe Menjou) to set things straight. Burleigh explains how his highly developed ducking skills enabled him to dodge Spider's punches with ease, which led to Spider knocking out Speed. The demonstration ends with Speed being knocked out a second time, just before a horde of reporters rushes in, making Burleigh an overnight celebrity.

So Gabby, desperate to rescue the reputation and income stream of the former champ, convinces Burleigh to be a fighter. Burleigh takes the job because he needs the money for his sick horse, Agnes.

Oh yeah, and in the process of calling a doctor for Agnes, Burleigh ends up in the boudoir of lovely and wholesome Polly, a manicurist with whom he falls in love.

Gabby's plan is to have Burleigh win a series of set-ups, paying fighters to lay down for Burleigh so as to get him a title fight with Speed, where Speed will knock Burleigh out and rescue his reputation. There are a couple of problems with the plan. Number one is that Burleigh is not a natural fighter.

Number two is that Speed falls in love with Mae and refuses to fight his brother-in-law. When Gabby suggests that Speed delay the marriage until after the fight, Speed declares "We can't, I mean, we don't wanna." Burleigh's sister got busy!

But success has gone to Burleigh's head, which leads to a schism with Polly, a conflict with Mae (who convinces Speed that her brother needs to be punched out), and a brawl with a society matron.

Okay, actually not that last one. In fact, Burleigh's teaching Mrs. Winthrop Lemoyne how to duck, in a pretty good scene that gets referenced a couple of times later in the film, as when Mrs. Lemoyne ducks a swing by the announcer as she takes the ring before the big fight.

As I said earlier, though the movie ultimately falls flat, it really shines in spots and makes me want to look up some more of Lloyd's talkies. I also want to look up "The Kid From Brooklyn," the remake from 1946 starring Danny Kaye.

Oh yeah, a couple of things that really struck me. Besides having Lionel Stander in common, there are a couple of scenes in "The Milky Way" that call to mind "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock." In one scene, Burleigh terrorizes a hotel lobby with a pet lion on a leash.

And in another, Burleigh busts out with a Diddlebock yell.

So yeah, the first couple of classic comedies were pretty pleasant surprises. But they're not all gems. Not by a long shot.

As you'll see next week.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Horror... The (Dunwich) Horror...

Last night was another bad movie night, and this time, the subject of evisceration was "The Dunwich Horror," the 1970 low-budget film starring Dean Stockwell ("The Boy With Green Hair") and Sandra Dee ("Gidget"). The film is a very, very loose adaptation of the 1929 horror story by H.P. Lovecraft.

The film was elevated above the standard exploitation fare being churned out by Arkoff and Nicholson's American International Pictures by the big-name celebrities in the cast and the classic horror nature of the source material. Unfortunately, there are two big strikes against it. Number one, this was exec-produced by Roger Corman, who had pretensions to quality, but never the patience nor taste nor attention to detail. And number two, it was unlucky enough to be made during that unfortunate interstitial time after the optimism of the 60's had curdled into drug-addled pretension, but before the "fuck it, let's have fun" backlash of the later 70's.

True to the AIP formula of mixing sex and horror to attract teenage audiences, "The Dunwich Horror" overlays a goofy rape-drug-plus-fertility-rites "love" story over the bones of Lovecraft's plot. Former child star Dean Stockwell brings his porn star 'stache to bear on the role of Wilbur Whateley, oddball son of an insane mother and demonic creature from another dimension. Wilbur has a fondness for pinky rings and likes to pretend he has gills.

Wilbur wants a copy of the Necronomicon like the one in the Miskatonic University Library. So he seduces librarian Sandra Dee, drugging her and taking her into his weirdo house, where she has psychedelic hallucinations of being groped by hippies.

Everything builds up to the big climax where Wilbur lays the librarian across a big stone altar and uses her as the centerpiece of a ritual to summon Yog Sothoth back to our world. But before he does the summoning, he opens his shirt to reveal that his body is covered with pseudo-hieroglyphic tattoos (which just coincidentally form a clown face with a propeller hat in the middle of his chest).

A professor of antiquities or something faces off with Wilbur during the ritual and uses his own knowledge of the Necronomicon to abort the ritual. At least, that's what I gather was supposed to be happening. The budget didn't allow for any special effects, so imagine the beam duel between Lo Pan and Egg Shen without any actual magic happening, just two guys shouting nonsense words and making weird gestures at each other like two wino street preachers in downtown Los Angeles at 6 a.m. on a Sunday.

Okay, that metaphor got a little too detailed, which makes me think I'm remembering more than I want to about my sojourn in the City of Angels.

Anyway, the point is, the film sucks, but it's funny, too. Oh, and as a point of trivia, the screenplay was co-written by a guy named Curtis Hanson, who went on to become a fairly respected director of films like "L.A. Confidential." Which doesn't really mean much, but on another hand, means a lot.

Because although you can say, "Well, everybody has to start somewhere," which is true, it's also true that he'll always have that in him. No matter how many times Akiva Goldsman writes something like "A Beautiful Mind," he'll always have "Batman and Robin" and "Lost in Space" lurking inside him, waiting to ambush us. You'll never know with John McTiernan whether you're going to get a "Die Hard" or a "Last Action Hero." Life is a crapshoot and even the best produce some turkeys.

And "The Dunwich Horror" is worse than a turkey. It's like a diseased, undead turkey. Ick.

ETA: Oh yeah, almost forgot. Go here and watch the trailer for the movie, not only to discover the badness for yourself, but also to hear the narrator intone, with all seriousness, "He believes the history of horrendipity written here..."

Horrendipity? Seriously?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Out of the Vault - Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Pt. 3

As our in-depth look at Frank Miller's 1986 Batman: The Dark Knight Returns continues, Batman has appeared once again in a corrupt and frightened Gotham, drawing the attention of both the criminals and the law. And in chapter three, "Hunt the Dark Knight," they close in on him from both sides like the jaws of a trap.

The book opens with a couple of former Mutants (who vaguely function as Miller Batman versions of C-3PO and R2D2) having joined up with a woman named Bruno, who is a fusion of the triple Miller fetishes of Amazons, Nazis and leather bondage gear.

Batman, disguised as a bag lady, fights with Bruno (from whom he wants to learn something important), but is on the verge of losing when Bruno's bullets melt in midair, her gun grows red-hot and she is suddenly tied up in steel pipes. A voice says, "Bruce, we need to talk," but Batman puts him off until the next day.

Meanwhile, TV news is abuzz with talk of a number of unexplained incidents in Gotham which seem to indicate the presence of a certain figure who's faster than a speeding bullet but cannot be named lest they lose their FCC license.

Next day, Bruce and Clark meet in a field, and it is clear they don't like each other much, which was a huge change from the former characterization of these guys as best friends.

I mean, they had shared a monthly book, World's Finest Comics, for over forty years (the book was cancelled in 1986, the same year as the Superman reboot and Miller's graphic novel). They had known each other's secret identities and covered for each other seemingly forever. Now suddenly here was Miller, changing not just Batman's characterization, but a central relationship of the entire DC Universe.

Also notice that the President of the United States is depicted as a decrepit Reagan. This story was published during Reagan's second term and was taking place over ten years in an imaginary future, which gives it another point of similarity with Alan Moore's Watchmen--both postulated imaginary Americas in which a Republican president somehow refused to give up office and stayed in power long past the two-term limit prescribed in the Constitution. I don't know how that meme got established, nor why it endures (during W's term, it was constantly bandied about by leftist paranoiacs that Bush would somehow declare martial law rather than give up the presidency), especially given that the only President in history who actually served more than two terms in office, and actually inspired the 22nd amendment, was liberal icon Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Before Clark leaves, he delivers a warning to Bruce that he may be sent to bring Bruce in. And on a completely unrelated note, the new Commissioner of Police, Ellen Yindel, has also issued a warrant for Batman's arrest.

Which is unfortunate, because the Joker is planning something big. He's appearing that night on David Letterman, to show how harmless he is or something. When Batman shows up at the studio, he gets in a massive battle with the cops on the rooftop while the Joker and his fat flunky Abner kill everyone in the television studio. The Joker escapes downstairs as Batman barely gets away from the cops in his voice-activated Batcopter, which inspired the voice-activated Batmobile of Burton's movie.

Yeah, Carrie Kelly aka Robin is a computer genius who reprogrammed the chopper, but Batman doesn't mind a little initiative if the results are good.

So Batman searches for the escaped Joker, leading him to madam Selina Kyle, who has been beaten and tortured to help the Joker in the next stage of his plan. Meanwhile, Superman is battling enemy forces on the island of Corto Maltese (a name taken from an Italian comic strip from the 60's and referenced in Burton's "Batman" as the location where Vicki Vale had taken her pics for Time magazine) in a sequence that takes visual inspiration from the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 40's.

Batman races to the county fair too late to stop the Joker from murdering sixteen Cub Scouts, but is determined to end the Joker's murderous ways once and for all. And once again, the Batman uses his bat-shuriken to painful effect...

which, by the way, inspired the use of similar implements in Nolan's "Batman Begins."

The battle between Batman and the Joker builds to a final savage confrontation, with the Joker knifing Batman in the ribs multiple times just before Batman breaks his freaking neck!

Of course, he doesn't kill the Joker, just paralyzes him. But the Joker, with one final act of superhuman will, kills himself, knowing that the Batman will be punished for his "murder." As the third issue comes to a close, Batman collapses next to the Joker's corpse, bleeding from his belly as the cops close in and the world goes dark.

And what you may not realize at this point is how unprecedented all this was, how Miller was literally breaking all the rules--Batman fighting the police, Batman and Superman as enemies, or at best uneasy rivals, Batman breaking bones, maiming, Batman being hurt (Batman got knocked out a lot in the 70's, but broken arms and stab wounds were on a different level).

And then there were the satirical jabs being taken at politics and media, the alternate takes on stagnant supporting characters like Lana Lang as the chubby managing editor of the Daily Planet and James Olsen as the head of Galaxy Broadcasting, the cursing (which had been absent from both comics and filmed versions of Batman prior to this, but which was present in Burton's "Batman"), the usual Miller fetishes of bondage gear and prostitutes among others, and perhaps most disturbing of all, the weird, almost sexual relationship between Joker and Batman (the Joker keeps calling Batman "darling" and "dear" and "my sweet" throughout the entire book, at least until he dies).

And because all the rules were being broken, we really had no idea what to expect in the next and final issue. Batman appeared mortally wounded, his reputation ruined. Everything had grown progressively darker, more brutal, with every issue. And let's face it, Bruce Wayne had been pining for death since literally the first page. If this were any other book about Batman, we would have said, "No way he could actually die," because DC would clearly not allow that.

But this book, this Batman, had done all sorts of things already that DC would not normally allow. Miller was coloring outside all the lines, so for the first time in literally my entire life of reading comics, I had no idea what was going to happen in the next issue and was preparing to accept what seemed at once inevitable and unthinkable: the death of Batman.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - A Word That Starts With C

As I was saying last week, during that memorable convention weekend, I got my first taste of The Morrow Project. I played the game twice, and both times, the game turned into a word that starts with 'c' and ends with 'lusterfuck.' But not in a bad way, necessarily.

The Morrow Project was a game published in 1980 by TimeLine Inc. The basic storyline: the project was formed by a man named Morrow at the head of a coalition of rich industrialists. Morrow had certain knowledge (and perhaps even physical proof) of an upcoming nuclear holocaust, and formed the project to help the world recover. Teams of experts in science and medicine, specially trained, were cryogenically frozen and stored in underground bunkers, set to revive after the war. But something went wrong, and the project members slept longer than planned. When they woke up, they had no communication with Prime Base and no idea of the condition of the world outside their bunker.

And the world outside is a mess. Unlike most RPG systems that start out with character generation, The Morrow Project starts out with rules for determining where the bombs fall, including a list of targets and diagrams of MIRV spreads and diameters. And the rules contain extensive descriptions of modern-day weapons, bands of roving bandits and mutated creatures.

If that sounds like a recipe for fun and adventure, you might be right. But it's also a recipe for paranoia and confusion. As my first experience with the game proved.

For my character, I decided to be a chaplain/medic, reasoning that if we were supposed to help a traumatized population recover, it might be good to offer some sort of spiritual comfort as well as physical. We woke up in a bunker, a bunch of us (I don't remember how many exactly). Because we had been recruited and frozen at different times and places, we didn't know each other. We explored the bunker and attempted to contact Prime Base through the computer. But the computer was damaged, so we were out of luck.

We decided to pack up and move out, try to establish radio contact outside or something. We had a large four-wheel drive vehicle waiting for us. We opened the bunker doors and prepared to get in the vehicle, when disaster struck.

One of the players, it turns out, decided to be a douchebag. He jumped into the vehicle and took it for a joyride before all of us had even gotten in. He went roaring out the bunker door and into the night. Several of us ran out after him, thinking he might just run the thing around the block or something, then come back after us. Meanwhile, a couple of the other guys who stayed in the bunker got into an argument over the secondary vehicle and some other equipment.

Long story short, the douchebag wrecked the vehicle in the woods just outside the bunker, killing himself and his one (or two) passengers (one of whom had been clinging to the door of the vehicle, deciding whether to jump out--when the vehicle rolled, the door was torn off, taking his arm with it). As we were running forward to help the victims, the spilled fuel caught on fire, which ignited the ammo stored in the vehicle, causing a huge explosion. I managed to avoid the blast, but the others were hit by shrapnel and either died instantly or were rapidly bleeding to death. Meanwhile, the morons still in the bunker got in a firefight over something stupid and killed each other.

My chaplain/medic was the only one left whole, trying to save the life of a guy bleeding out through a wound in the jugular (and the detailed rules for wounds and shock and healing were pretty detailed and unforgiving--no D&D-style abstractions here). Unable to stop the bleeding, I put a bullet through his head, then snapped and began preaching to the advancing flames of the forest fire started by our exploding vehicle.

It was a horrible gaming experience, yet brilliantly memorable. So for some reason, I ended up buying a copy of the rules myself. And a couple of years later, back at USC, I decided to run some of my friends in a game.

My scenario opened much the same way that the convention game had. The characters woke up in a bunker with a bunch of strangers and a broken computer. They managed not to kill each other leaving the bunker, and followed a road to a small town by a lake. There they found a small population of people supporting themselves by agriculture and fishing the lake.

But there was something strange about this town. The Fishers were scared to stay out after dark, and there was a large abandoned church building that they were afraid to approach. Yep, you guessed it--vampires, or should I say, wampyrs (keep in mind, this was back in the days before the vampire revival that started in the late 80's, so this storyline that sounds so stale post-"30 Days of Night" actually had a touch of freshness in it at the time). These were actually people with a strange post-holocaust disease a'la "The Omega Man."

Two children accidentally violated a taboo and turned up missing, so the player characters decided to rescue them, which ended up in a big pitched battle in the middle of town after dark. It was pretty wild--heavy weapons blowing up buildings and starting fires, a horde of bloodthirsty bestial enemies, the rescued kids turning out to be infected and attacking their rescuers, players characters shooting the kids, then shooting their comrades who had been bitten (not even waiting to see if they turned up infected first). It wasn't quite a TPK (Total Player Kill), but I think at least two-thirds of the party died, and the rest ran for their lives before the surviving Fishers could organize against them for destroying the town.

It was a beautiful disaster. I had planned to push their paranoia buttons, and they had reacted just the way I intended. And though the adventure had been a disaster for the characters, it had been an intense and interesting disaster, and I had not set up their expectations for any kind of long on-going campaign, so no one was disappointed when we never played again.

And I learned another valuable role-playing lesson.

Role-playing Rule #6: Even 'losing' adventures can be fun* and rewarding, if they produce an intense experience and give the players a story to tell afterward.

But let's jump back a couple of years. Last week, I mentioned that there were two stages to my exposure to a wider world through role-playing games.

Because the games weren't just a hobby I had adopted to kill time on Saturdays. They quite literally changed my life. I'll talk more about that next week.

*ETA: I realize that my use of the word 'fun' to describe an adventure that included the killing of children (however savage and dangerous they might be) may give the wrong impression. The adventure wasn't 'fun' in the traditional sense as it was going on; it was intense, and the players were panicking and freaking out. But afterwards, they were able to laugh about just how intense a session of rolling dice on a tabletop had managed to get.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stygian and Protean

I know, I know, two posts in one day. What the hell, right? But I had to link this post from Sargon the Terrible. It's a flash fiction piece which was his entry in our writing group's Christmas Fragment contest. The theme was Robots and the challenge word was "stygian."

The story itself reminds me of an incident from my past which compels me to name-drop. When I was reviewing movies for The Daily Oklahoman over twenty years ago, I went to Hollywood on a publicity junket for a movie called "Amazing Grace and Chuck." It was a mediocre movie about a Little League baseball player who refuses to play sports as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, and the way his strike grows to paralyze the entire nation. I wasn't interested by the premise and didn't much like the movie when I saw it.

But I hadn't gone on the junket because I was interested in the movie. I went on the junket because Jamie Lee Curtis was in the movie, and I had a huge crush on her. There was no way I was going to miss the chance to meet her in person.

So the big day comes and there I am in a room with Jamie Lee Curtis and two other reporters. And I am so in awe that I literally can't form sentences, can't formulate a single interesting question. And at some point, as she is talking about incidents in her past career, she brings up an interview by "that bitch" from Rolling Stone or somewhere, who had used a word to describe her.

And she couldn't remember the word. "It means unformed," she said. So I figured, here's my chance to impress Jamie Lee Curtis with my vocabulary (yes, I'm that big of a geek). So I threw out a few words, but none of them were what she was thinking of.

So she waves it off and goes on to another subject, but she keeps looking at me. And I, of course, being both smitten and near-sighted, am staring back at her with some intensity. So much so that she stops the interview and says something like, "And see, now it's really bugging me, because you keep staring at me, and I know you think I'm stupid because I can't think of that word."

And of course, I can't say, "No, I don't think you're stupid. I'm just in love with you." So I don't say anything.

And the interview goes on, with many uneasy glances at me, and suddenly, she stops in mid-sentence and leaps off the couch, thrusting her finger into the air and shouting, "PROTEAN! That's the word! Protean! Write that down. P-R-O-T-E-A-N. Ha! I showed you."

And thus ended my one and only meeting with the celebrity girl of my dreams. I mean, there's no cursing robot-pirate in it, but you can't have those in every story.

Beating Verne

I just finished Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, and am currently reading the sequel, Round the Moon. It only took me a week or so to read the first one, which sort of surprised me. I've been in a Victorian phase for a while here, having read Kipling's Kim (which was much better and completely different from what I expected) and H.G. Wells's First Men in the Moon (which I had read in high school and therefore missed much of the nuance of).

Verne's book itself is hailed as one of the first, if not the first, true science fiction novels. That is to say, instead of inventing some magical pseudo-scientific device to enable the characters to explore space, like Cavorite or warp drive, Verne attempts to explain the practical problems and their (possible) practical solutions. He therefore predicted with amazing prescience the launch of the first moon mission from Florida, as well as discussed in some detail the astronomical movements that would have to be calculated and the velocities it would be necessary to achieve and stuff like that there.

Of course, he also has the characters planning to establish an outpost on the moon, intending to stay in the deep valleys where the breathable air and the water are, so it's not as if the science is really all that hard.

If this does not sound like the stuff of thrilling drama, you are so right. The plot, in brief: The members of the Gun Club of Baltimore, a collection of artillery enthusiasts and inventors, find themselves with nothing to do because, the War Between the States being over, there is no more use for artillery at the moment. So the Club's president, Impey Barbicane, announces a new challenge: to prove the superiority of American artillery, they will build a huge cannon and shoot the moon.

Such an audacious proposal captures the imagination of the nation and much of the world, so donations come pouring in. After consulting with Cambridge Observatory, Barbicane decides to build the cannon in Florida and construction commences. As preparations continue, however, a telegram arrives from a Frenchman named Michel Ardan, telling them to redesign the projectile, because Ardan plans to ride inside it to the moon.

Ardan convinces Barbicane and Barbicane's arch-rival, Captain Nicholl, to ride along with him (which they do without any hint of hesitation or trepidation at the idea that, having once left the earth, they can never come back), and once construction is complete, the three men get inside the projectile and the cannon is fired. The fate of the three men is unknown.

There's very little in the way of dramatic tension or character conflict in the book. For the first half, Barbicane acts sort of as the book's Doc Savage, which is to say he's better at everything than everybody else. For instance, at a meeting in which they are to discuss and decide how to make the cannon, the other members make their suggestions, then Barbicane says, "Actually, I was thinking this," and his idea is better, so everyone agrees with him. They encounter no opposition or difficulties at any stage of the plan, with the exception of Captain Nicholl, who is literally the only man in the world who opposes the moon shot, and then only because he's jealous. And Nicholl ends up joining the expedition.

Verne tries to make up for the lack of conflict or tension or plot by writing in a sort of wry, humorous style which takes gentle jabs at stereotypes of all nations. It's not exactly a good book, but it's mostly inoffensive, though animal activists might take exception to the scene where they test-fire a cat and a squirrel from a smaller mortar to see how they survive the acceleration.

The reason I say I was surprised to finish the book so quickly is that my only previous experience with Verne was attempting to read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (twice) and being beaten by it (also twice) by the same incredibly boring passage. In the book, the narrator goes to sea on an American warship in search of a sea monster which has been sinking American ships. The monster appears from under the water and rams the ship, sinking it. The narrator then finds himself being rescued by the monster, which turns out to be a submarine captained by Nemo. The narrator and Nemo become friends of a sort, having many conversations (translated in the book as having much "intercourse," unfortunately), and then Nemo allows the narrator to look out the window as he turns on the lights.

At which point the book stops dead and turns into a catalog of all the kinds of fish the narrator sees. As a child, it was this section which stopped me from finishing the book (and perhaps established my youthful habit of not finishing books I had started). When I was an adult, having read through all the begats in Genesis and Matthew and Luke, having read The Lord of the Rings at least three times, having read The Iliad and The Mists of Avalon and Interview With the Vampire and The Stand three times (which is not especially boring, but really fucking long), and having even gotten all the way through the incredibly boring The Witching Hour, I figured there was no way Verne could beat me a second time.

But the fish catalog beat me again.

So I figured that was it for me and Verne. And if it weren't for the fact that I'm still toying with a custom prop idea I hinted at last year, I wouldn't have attempted From the Earth to the Moon. But now that I've gotten through it rather easily, I'm actually starting to think about trying to best Nemo again. I mean, lots of other people have managed to read this book. There's no reason I can't succeed someday.

Is there?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Movie Monday - The Sin of Harold Diddlebock

So my mom, not having any idea what to get me for Christmas, gave me a little money (which I ended up spending mostly on bills), but then, just after Christmas, she also handed me a bag with some vintage public-domain comedies on DVD. And at first I wasn't that interested, but then, on the first one I looked at, there was a title I recognized: "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock," a movie I had never seen, but had watched at least two or three times.

Which sounds like nonsense, but it goes like this: when I was a kid, in the days before cable, our local broadcast stations would air old movies on Friday and Saturday nights. And although they never aired a movie called "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock," they did air a movie titled "Mad Wednesday" a few times, which was the exact same movie with several minutes edited out. So although I had seen the movie a few times, I had never seen the whole thing under its original title.

Written and directed by Preston Sturges and released in 1947, "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock" stars silent film star Harold Lloyd in his last film, along with a sparkling supporting cast. Oh, and her...

A credit like that just screams "sleeping with the director," but she actually wasn't too bad. This was her first credited role, and her last, except for a couple of appearances in documentaries about Sturges and Lloyd.

The film is mostly forgotten today, and I've got to say, the opening isn't promising.

It doesn't inspire confidence when the first moments of the film are telling you how good the star was in that other film over twenty years ago, nor when the first ten minutes of the film are actually just a rerun of the climactic sequence from that aforementioned silent film. Lloyd plays Harold Diddlebock, a waterboy who becomes an unlikely college football hero.

Then the movie shifts to a talkie with young Lloyd being offered a job by a rich sports fan. Twenty years later, that same fan, Mr. E.J. Waggleberry, fires Lloyd, who in the intervening years has stayed in the same position at the same desk, and is now a worn shabby shadow of his former self.

He reminds me of pictures of my dad when he was the same age: same glasses, same nose.

Harold cashes out his meager savings and then says goodbye to a pretty girl in his office, "the youngest Miss Otis," whom he has worshipped from afar, as he did her six older sisters who had all previously worked for the same firm over the last 18 years. The scene is clever, like the previous scenes with Waggleberry, but slow-moving. After the frenetic silent-film action, the story takes a while to build momentum again.

Harold goes out job hunting, but all seems lost until he meets a street hustler named Wormy, who takes Harold to a bar to have his first taste of demon rum. Where he meets bartender Jake (Edgar Kennedy in a memorable turn), who, upon hearing that this will be Harold's first drink, says, "You arouse the artist in me."

Wormy suggests a drink called a Texas Tornado, but Jake pooh-poohs the idea.

The Tornado's a perfectly reliable, commercial drink for conventions and hangovers and things like that, but this, this is almost, ah... Is the word 'vestal?' I mean, it oughta have organ music.

Jake mixes up a complex mixture he dubs "The Diddlebock," which inspires a rather unexpected reaction in Harold.

Suddenly transformed into an energetic confident fireball, Harold runs out to find a barber and a tailor, determined to remake himself. And in the barber shop, he encounters several other memorable characters, including a prissy tailor and a sassy manicurist (when the tailor says, "I guess they have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch you in bed," her answer is, "It's been tried.")

Harold impulsively bets a thousand bucks on a horse, through a bookie's rep played by Lionel Stander, and wins on a 15-to-1 shot, which inspires a wild party montage.

And all this time, I'm wondering why I barely remember the film and don't absolutely love it, because the script is clever and the characters are funny and the energy is building and building...

And then Harold wakes up on his couch with a headache and no memory of the last couple of days, being hectored by his sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, and all the energy goes out of the film.

It's like a doughnut, this movie, with a big hole in the middle. Halfway through, and it's almost like starting over. Harold learns that in his drunken revelry, he hired a personal chauffeur (in a horse-drawn carriage, no less) and won a circus in another horse race--a circus that's broke and full of hungry lions.

So Harold comes up with a plan to sell the circus, which involves him going door-to-door to all the banks on Wall Street with a lion on a leash, which of course goes horribly awry when he ends up on a skyscraper ledge with the lion in a scene reminiscent of his most famous silent comedy, the classic "Safety Last!"

And what ends up happening is that you end up with a movie that has a series of good scenes--the football game, Harold's scenes with Waggleberry, Harold's scenes with Miss Otis, the scene in the bar, the scene in the barber shop, the scene where Harold learns just what a nightmare his circus is going to be--but that somehow fails to gel overall. The pacing is too uneven, scenes go on too long. Most of the supporting characters are funny and interesting, but you sort of wish there weren't so darned many of them and that you had more time with the really good ones.

By the end, the film has pretty much worn out its welcome, which is too bad, because its best moments are very good, and it's not every day you see a comedy with "sin" in the title.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Out of the Vault - Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Pt. 2

Continuing a four-part look at Frank Miller's seminal redefinition of Batman from 1986, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

When judging an adaptation of a character from one medium to another--say, a movie adapted from a novel--one criterion that is often brought up is how true the adaptation stayed to the "spirit" of the original. It is a simple fact that adaptations, by their very nature, cannot be too slavish in their copying. In order to stay fresh, potent, an adaptation must be "the same, but different."

Miller's Batman definitely hit the sweet spot on the "same, but different" scale. And it should be emphasized yet again that Miller was not working in a vacuum here. Alan Moore's Swamp Thing had ignited an interest at DC in freshening up all their franchises, which led to the massive Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity reboot, which then led into John Byrne's Man of Steel miniseries in 1986, rebooting that continuity as well.

So even though Miller's Batman tale was supposedly outside continuity, taking place in an alternate future, rather than being a proper reboot, it still felt consistent with what DC was doing on their other books, which may be one reason fans embraced all the big changes Miller made to the character so readily.

In issue 2, Batman confronts a wave of violence being committed by a gang called the Mutants (whose symbol is a red visor resembling that of Cyclops of the X-Men), and we see that as the enemies he faces become more savage, Batman responds in kind.

Holy crap! Yeah, it was jarring enough to see Batman carrying a rifle last issue, but that was just a harpoon gun. Batman gunning a guy down with an M-60? Dude.

Batman also inspires some crazies, people who dress up in copies of his costume in order to settle some personal scores, as well as a young teen girl who decides to dress up as Robin.

So Batman first tracks down the source for the military weapons the Mutants are using, applying a bit of persuasion that will look pretty familiar to anyone who saw "Batman Begins."

The trail leads to a U.S. Army general, who commits suicide rather than face the public disgrace. Next Batman decides to confront the leader of the Mutants, who is conducting a huge "Can You Dig It?" rally in a dump. Batman heads there in Miller's vision of the Batmobile, which became the inspiration for the movie Batmobiles to come.

Yeah, it's a tank, carrying heavy armament, inspiring the machine guns and bombs of Burton's version, and even more explicitly, the military-prototype Tumbler of "Batman Begins." Batman uses the Batmobile to scatter and demoralize the Mutants, then faces the Mutant Leader in a one-on-one, man-to-man slugout.

Which he loses. Seven years before Batman's back was broken in a lost hand-to-hand fight with the powerful Bane, Miller showed Batman being humiliated by the Mutant Leader in similar fashion. Batman's arm is broken, and his costume is slashed to ribbons. He only escapes death through the intervention of Carrie/Robin and a pellet of sleep gas from his utility belt.

Carrie manages to get Batman back into the Batmobile, which drives itself back to the Batcave (the entrance to which is concealed by a hologram, which inspired a throwaway moment in Burton's film). Batman limps off into the darkness and sheds his ruined costume to reconnect with the Bat-Spirit of his youth. When he returns, naked and revitalized, young Carrie leaps into his arms in a joyous, yet creepy, hug.

Meanwhile, the ruckus stirred up by the Batman's return has attracted the attention of Washington, where the President expresses his concern to a certain blue-clad hero with a big red "S" on his chest. Batman takes on the new Robin to train as his new sidekick, and the first order of business is to lure the remaining Mutants down to the spot where a sewer pipe empties into the river. Batman and Gordon organize the Mutant Leader's escape through that pipe, where Batman, now in a new, darker costume--gray and black rather than gray and blue, without the familiar yellow spotlight on the chest--publicly defeats the Mutant Leader in front of his gang.

The book ends with Commissioner Gordon retiring and Bruce enjoying his new life, unaware of the storm that will soon descend on him from all directions.

Next week: Hunt the Dark Knight