Sunday, August 28, 2016

Kirby changed everything

Today is the late great Jack Kirby's birthday. I didn't get his artwork as a kid; it was too old school, I thought. Then I grew up and gained some perspective: it's some of the most dynamic, propulsive art I've ever encountered. There was modern art before Kirby and then after Kirby, with his influence felt everywhere. He was Pop Art before the movement had a name. Our modern pop culture is built on a foundation he laid with Stan Lee: the characters and worlds on display at your local theater in recent years originated with his pencil. Star Wars features a plot that's curiously reminiscent of Kirby's magnum opus, the Fourth World saga. His unused concept art for an aborted sci-fi film was used in Operation Argo, the CIA rescue mission to save American hostages in Iran. He brought the fight for commercial artists' rights to the forefront.

I jokingly refer to my nuclear family as the Fantastic Four. I couldn't do that without Jack Kirby and our popular culture landscape would look entirely different had he not forever altered its scope and trajectory. He helped artists everywhere realize the limitless possibilities of putting pen to paper. Also, he looked and seemed a bit like my dad--hard working, honest, with a strong sense of fairness--which was always a nice added bonus for me.

Happy birthday to the King.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Who You Are: Pearl Jam's No Code Turns Twenty

Twenty years ago this week, Pearl Jam released No Code. This raises two questions in my mind. First, where the hell did those two decades of my life go? Second, has the album held up all these years later? To the first question I can only shake my head in disbelief and mutter to myself. To the second, I can answer unequivocally that yes, No Code does indeed hold up. In fact, it's an album that's only improved with both age and some distance from the preconceptions of critics and fans back in 1996. Songs like "Sometimes," "Hail Hail," "Off He Goes," and "Present Tense" are near-perfect examples of what the band does best: heartfelt sincerity laced with a strong does of caustic world-wariness. Other tracks like "Smile" and "Red Mosquito" remind us what ramshackle fun their music can be. And the lead single and polyrhythmic tour-de-force "Who You Are" simply baffled listeners—it sounded unlike anything the band had recorded before. Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, and Jack Irons combined to make an album full of extraordinary depth and nuance. At the time of No Code's release, however, the prevailing response was one of confusion—"This isn't the band that recorded Ten, is it?" They had been the World's Biggest Band for several years at that point, but not long after No Code that label started to fade. This was a band that had sold nearly one million copies of Vs. during its first week of release in 1993. No Code couldn't compete with those numbers. Critics and fans alike complained that it was too strange, too loose, and just not enough like Ten or Vs. These people couldn't seem to wrap their heads around the fact that the band had been evolving for years, with each new album bringing with it new and experimental tendencies. This seemed to peak during that era with Vitalogy and No Code, which coincidentally or not might just be their two best records. Both albums are bold statements from a band that was spreading out and evolving, becoming something more than an arena rock band. The music they made during those years—including their work with Neil Young on Merkin Ball and Mirrorball—incorporated new and extremely satisfying elements to their sound, to this listener's ears at least. Thankfully, it seems that others are starting to recognize this also, with critical reevaluations of the band's catalog popping up frequently these days. There's an article at the AV Club this week, detailing what made No Code special and how it deserves to be remembered alongside the band's best work.

It's hard to untangle my feelings for Pearl Jam from my own personal experiences over the years I've spent listening to their music, and especially my salad days of the 1990s. They were the first band that I truly felt spoke to me. It was as if they stole the lyrics right out of my head. Eddie Vedder was the first rock star I ever cared enough about to want to be like. During the 1990s, he was sometimes dismissed for being overly earnest and overly serious. This was utter bullshit. If you paid any attention to the band, it was clear that Vedder was intelligent, kind, and in possession of a gleefully dark sense of humor. He was also incredibly thoughtful and appeared to simply feel things in ways that could often be crippling to him and was often mocked for this. Even today we all still have that friend who continues to make fun of Vedder and Pearl Jam for these qualities. But Pearl Jam was the perfect tonic for a kid like me who was too thoughtful about his life—to the point of feeling things too intensely or simply wanting to shut out the world so I could feel nothing instead. They showed me that it was okay to be who I was—"You are who you are"—and fuck anyone who tried to tell me differently. They spoke to the various facets of my personality and only further cemented who I was becoming during those years. Being earnest, sarcastic, hopeful, pessimistic, resistant may sound like I'm a Gen X stereotype, but that's fine with me. I think the qualities that an older generation was dismissively assigning to us back then were rebelled against because of the messenger's negativity. They claimed we didn't care about anything; in reality we cared too much about everything. That's why kids like me found Pearl Jam's music so life affirming. They believed in things and even fought for those beliefs, such as their mid-'90s battle with Ticketmaster. They maintained a healthy distrust for authority—"I don't want to hear from those who know"—because why should we trust those in charge who lied and got us into this mess in the first place? It's obviously not as simple as all of this and it only grows more complicated the older you get, when you begin to worry about being part of the problem yourself. As Vedder sings on the blistering and trenchant "Not For You" from No Code's predecessor, the seismic and absolutely essential Vitalogy: "all that's sacred comes from youth / dedication, naive and true / with no power, nothing to do / I still remember, why don't you." Like Vedder, I too remember how it felt to be young and confused, or ignored, or dismissed. Holding on to these feelings as we grow up reminds us of what we believe in and who we want to be.

In the summer of 1996 I was wading into a sea of uncertainty. By contrast, the previous summer had been spent working long and grueling hours at a catering job with other malcontents and goofballs, breaking free for nightly adventures with a couple of close friends, and finally dating a girl I'd crushed on for years only to discover that she was actually as cool as I'd dreamed she was. In other words, it was good summer. Of course I didn't always realize how good I had it at the time. Youthful angst and insecurities combined to cloud my perspective a bit. I've written about that summer, which was in many ways the last time that I was mostly free of responsibility—I had two years of college left so the urgency was still barely visible off in the distance. By the summer of 1996 though, that urgency was approaching like a speeding bullet. I was jobless and bummed out about it, plus I lived long distance from the girl I'd been dating since spring semester—the same girl, incidentally, who became the woman I've built a life with that includes two amazing children. So I was madly in love that summer, in a way I'd never been before, but also increasingly nervous about what lay ahead after senior year. It was at this point in late August that No Code dropped, and to say I'd been eagerly anticipating it would be an understatement. In the envelope, tucked inside one of the many letters we sent each other that summer, my future wife included an article about No Code. Is it any wonder I married this woman? A few days later the album released and I bought it as soon as the record store opened. I played it endlessly for days, weeks, and months even, completely addicted to its offbeat musical charms and deeply personal words. In a series of introspective songs, some slow and contemplative and others loud and fast, Vedder and the band provided a blueprint for how to proceed. Things wouldn't be easy, they might even get more difficult (they did), but if I remained true to myself and let the surrounding bullshit recede a bit, then I could get through anything. I've returned to that notion repeatedly in my life, especially when facing what feel like impossible obstacles. Having even a partial sense of who I am helps get me through it all.

It's also important, even necessary, to remember who we were. We grow and change, but we try to retain the parts of ourselves that represent the best of what we can be. It's a constant struggle, one that Pearl Jam was working out over a series of albums. That's why their music affected so many of us, and why it still endures today. In No Code's "In My Tree," Vedder revisits themes similar to those found in "Not For You," including how we need to retain a sense of youthful innocence in order to hold on to who we really are.
had my eyes peeled both wide open, and I got a glimpse
of my innocence... got back my inner sense...
baby got it, still got it
Yet another example of Pearl Jam's lasting impact. Twenty years after No Code, the album's themes remain relevant to anyone trying to better understand who they are and how they fit into this world.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Writing Roundup: Suicide Squad and two cult classics

Go read my reviews, or I'm sending the Squad after you.
Another post collecting links to stuff I've written elsewhere? Yep, afraid so.
I've started reviewing cult classic movies over at The After Movie Diner, which has been a blast. So far they've shared two of them—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Howling II. If you read this blog you know they both originated here. After my review of Class of 1984 goes live at the Diner, the rest of my reviews will likely debut there. I love cult classics, genre films, b movies, and the stuff polite society turns their noses up at. I work in scholarly publishing and overall most of the people in my life are scarily intelligent and learned, but let's be real: sometimes smarties miss the joke. I've been guilty of it myself once or twice. But enjoying movies that are so bad they're good (or in some cases just legitimately good and no one seems to notice), helps keep us all humble, I think. I have a mental list of films I want to cover for the Diner, including two from underground legend Abel Ferrera, Ms. 45 and King of New York. I'm also considering watching and reviewing the sci-fi space vampire turkey Lifeforce, god help me. Stay tuned.

Did you see Suicide Squad? What did you think? I was pleasantly surprised and actually really enjoyed it. I reviewed that one for the Diner as well and you can check it out here. To me, it was gloriously over the top and didn't take itself too seriously—just like a lot of cult movies, incidentally.

One last note: I interviewed Bob Proehl about his new novel, A Hundred Thousand Worlds. I reviewed it for Sequart recently, then had the pleasure of talking to Bob about it. That was a lot of fun and I appreciated him humoring me with some pretty spectacularly thoughtful answers to my questions.

As a famous man has been known to say: Excelsior!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Cult Classics: Class of 1984

Awww, the cuddliest bunch of punks you ever did see.
Upon its release in 1982, two questions about Class of 1984 emerged: was it trying to serve as a prescient forecast of what was to come in secondary education, or was it just an unsubtle parody of those types of stories? I think it's a little from column A and a whole hell of a lot from column B. It veers straight into absurdist territory early and stays there throughout. The film's inner-city high school is equipped with metal detectors—something that didn't become a reality in schools until the 1990s, if I recall—but the most vile and troublesome kids at the school also look like they either just stepped out of a Broadway musical or are extras on loan from Fame. Ah, the early 1980s, when movies and television depicted punks in a way that can only be described as hilariously clueless. Who can ever forget the infamous episode of Quincy, M.E. that tried to scared the bejesus out of parents all over the country with its portrayal of the scourge of punk rock? It's clear that the respective creators behind that cult episode and Class of 1984 had never met any actual punks in their lives. This, along with several other factors, makes it hard to take the movie seriously. It's so ludicrously exaggerated that it shoots right into cartoonish caricature. Still, the over the top moments—and trust me, there are plenty of them—can't diminish the movie's fast-paced manic energy or some of its most genuinely disturbing scenes. This film hits the ground running and never lets up. The problem is, the character's motivations and actions are so random, the performances and dialogue so high pitched and frenzied, that it's hard to take any of it seriously. At times it feels like most of the leads in the film are competing to see who can over-emote with the most gusto.

Sporting the punk rock style!
Whatever the filmmakers' intentions may have been, no audience will walk away from this movie thinking it was a serious treatise on our troubled youth. It's a b movie genre flick, a video nasty, all the way. Stegman (Timothy Van Patten), the leader of the evil gang of miscreants terrorizing the school, is a well-off kid who lives in an immaculately furnished high-rise apartment with a mother who dotes on him. The kid is a piano prodigy who seems to live a double life—sweet and kind at home to mommy, but threatening and increasingly violent on the streets and at school. It's almost as if he acts out because he's simply too smart for everyone else. Which might be an interesting idea to explore, except nothing about him seems real enough to hold up under any amount of critical scrutiny. The film would have had greater impact if it hadn't made the lead baddie such a cipher. The problem is that he and his pals come off as kids play-acting at being bad. There's hardly any nuance to them so it's impossible to see them as anything but silly most of the time. This fits squarely with the prevailing approach to criminals in genre films of the era. For example, see any Death Wish film for further evidence.

Terry's having a very bad day. A Michael Douglas in Falling Down kind of bad day.
All of those complaints aside, the film does push viewer's buttons with exploitative and gratuitous violence, thus confirming it's reputation as a video nasty—one that will disgust the cinematic establishment but play well to home video audiences who enjoy some blood and guts. So while the violence might be as overwrought as the actors, there are some genuinely disturbing scenes. One involves a teacher named Terry, played by Roddy McDowell, who has mentally checked out due to the sheer insanity of his daily existence at this hell-hole of a school. As the film progresses, McDowell's character tries to talk some sense into newbie teacher Andrew Norris (Riptide's own Perry King!), reminding him repeatedly that there's nothing he can do for these kids anymore and it's best to just put your head down and stay out of harm's way. But Terry is too good at heart to follow his own advice, which leads him to an inevitable nervous breakdown. He winds up holding his out-of-control class hostage with a gun in an attempt to force them to learn something. It's a suspenseful scene and well acted by the legendary McDowell. Previously in the film, McDowell was all bluster and scenery chewing, offering sarcastic asides and ominous declarations. But in this scene, after a particularly violent and heinous act has finally driven him over the edge, McDowell really shines. He's finally cracked under the constantly looming threat of violence at the school, crossing over into a netherworld of doomed fatalism. It's one of the film's more touching and harrowing scenes and a tour de force for McDowell. Later, he literally goes out in a blaze of glory, providing a sad ending for a character you just knew wasn't going to survive this mess.

"You will learn to read sheet music in my class!"
Does Andrew learn from Terry's fate? Nope. See, Andrew's a stubborn guy. He retains a myopic view of the situation through most of the film—he really thinks he can turn these kids around if they'll just listen to him—which makes him seem delusional at best, entirely out of touch at worst. Just when you think things can't get any worse for Andrew, they do indeed get worse. It's obvious throughout that he and Stegman are on a collision course that might well leave one or both of them dead. The whole thing is like a mad game of chicken that can only end with both cars crashing into one another and exploding spectacularly. The film's already frantic pace kicks up a notch towards the end, culminating in a wild orgy of mayhem and violence. Andrew engages in bloody combat with Stegman and his gang in the dark halls of the school while everyone else attends the orchestra concert in the auditorium. One by one, Andrew prevails over the various goons in increasingly preposterous ways. For instance, one of the delinquents has a particularly bad run in with the table saw in the shop room. The final showdown between Andrew and Stegman is certifiably over the top. Which, to be fair, is highly appropriate and consistent with the rest of the movie's approach to the material.

Graffiti fu: some very uninspired wall scrawlings in this movie.
Class of 1984 is a nasty little genre film, from an era when they had a certain charm that's partly been lost in our modern streaming age. I realize this write up has been a bit hard on the film, but I do recommend you check it out, especially if you're a b movie fan. Hell, if you are a b movie fan, you have to check it out. Lovers of trashy cinema can find something redeeming in almost any piece of garbage. And we don't necessarily see garbage as a derogatory term either, because we love to revisit and reclaim trash. To quote Moby-Dick:
"And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way."
Yes, I just quoted Melville while discussing a movie where someone actually asks, "What's the matter with you? What's the matter with me? What's the matter with matter?" I can't make this stuff up, kids. I'm also unclear if its intentionally or unintentionally funny? If that piqued your curiosity (and really, why wouldn't it?), give Class of 1984 a shot—just don't expect a lot and you probably won't be disappointed. You may even be entertained, like I was. At the very least you can marvel at a baby-faced Michael J. Fox as nice kid Arthur, who's habitually tormented by Stegman and his sadistic pals. In the same year this movie was released, Fox began working on a new sitcom, Family Ties, which would help launch him into superstardom. Class of 1984 was his swan song in b movies. He got out, which is more than can be said for poor Terry in this movie.

So long suckers, Alex P. Keaton is outta here.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Writing Roundup: Superheroes and Fandom

Over the last month or so I reviewed a couple of books and also wrote an article about growing up a Cloak and Dagger fan—something that might not resonate with many but likely will with at least a few Gen Xers of a certain age. These pieces are all available to read on Sequart.

Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life was a phenomenal essay collection that shines a light on how some of us will always keep certain fictional characters close to our hearts because they offer us hope in difficult times and also bring joy to our lives. I can't recommend this one enough. It's heartfelt and moving throughout and was a real pleasure to read and review.

Bob Proehl's debut novel A Hundred Thousand Worlds is set in the world(s) of comic cons, following a cast of lovable loser creative types as they travel cross-country, finding love and hope along the way. So basically right in my wheelhouse. It's as if he wrote this one for me. It's also heartfelt and moving—are you sensing a theme?—and highly recommended. I was completely swept up in the book's easy charms and wonderfully sensitive exploration of creators, fans, friends, and family. One of the leads is modeled after Gail Simone, or at least her public persona, and she's a great, richly developed character that I'd follow into other books. Maybe Proehl will bring her back in the future. Keep an eye on Proehl, this is a fantastic debut.

Finally, I looked at how a strange pair of antiheroes from Marvel Comics, who debuted at just the right time for me and many others (the early 1980s, when we were just kids), helped a shy and sometimes awkward kid navigate the world just a tiny bit better. There's a little bit of analysis about what made (and still makes) Cloak and Dagger interesting and vital, too.

So, if you're into geek culture, then stop listening to the Nerdist podcast for just a few minutes and give these a read.