14 December 2011

The Jones Report = Game Over, Man

I've decided to pull the plug on The Jones Report.

Now, before you get all weepy-eyed and start rending your garments, go to this website:


Bookmark it.

Happy now?

And as always, thanks for reading.


24 November 2011

This Is How Many Movies I Saw in 2011

Each entry on the list you are about to read/skim represents an instance of 2011 movie-going for me. Kids: Unless your last name is "Ebert," don't try this at home:


That's 80 movies in total, which is simultaneously impressive and depressing. And the list doesn't take into account the movies I saw on Blu-ray and Apple TV, or the movies that I took my girlfriend to see. Last night she and I went to see My Week With Marilyn. A few weeks before that, we saw Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In. Pro tip: If you want to sound sophisticated at your holiday office party this year, inform everyone within earshot that you've just seen "Almodovar's latest." Everybody will be all like, "Wow, that guy in [INSERT YOUR DEPT. NAME HERE] is pretty sophisticated."

Not pictured: jacket caves.
Now, here is some math that is probably wrong: Assuming an average runtime of 90 minutes per movie, that's 7,200 minutes--or 120 hours--of theater-going. There are 168 hours in a week (24 hours per day multiplied by seven days), which means that I spent the equivalent of five back-to-back 24-hour days watching movies.

I was going to do even more math for you, breaking all of this into fractals, perhaps even work out a pie chart for your enjoyment. Then I remembered that I am a product of the U.S. public school system, and that my math skills, after several decades in hibernation, have degenerated to the point where I can no longer perform such feats. What those math feats would have displayed was this: I spent a not-insignificant chunk of this year sitting in the dark.

Because Vancouver receives more than its fair share of rain, I usually take a daily vitamin D supplement. Since I started reviewing movies, I've doubled my dosage, lest I find myself on a downward spiral of misery and popcorn.

I do not look forward to the movie screenings. Not because I dread seeing all of these terrible movies, an act which I'm certain is eroding my terrible math skills even further. I dread the screenings because of the people. Put a bunch of people together, lower the lights, and bad behaviors inevitably occur.

Once, in New York, I found a seat in a packed West Village theater, only to realize, when the lights went down, that the man sitting next to me had trojan horsed a dozen hot wings into the theater with him. He noisily began eating them in the dark, gristle taking flight all around him, the pungent smell of Frank's Hot Sauce searing my nostrils. Beside myself with fury, I moved to the only remaining seat in the theater--which was in the front row, of course--where I sat quietly fuming (and, worse still: craving hot wings) for the rest of the movie. I couldn't tell you the name of the movie that I saw that night. But, for as long as I live, I will never forget that a-hole and his hot wings.

My biggest peeve these days is the phone-checker. I do not understand for the life of me why one would spend $12.50 on a movie ticket, then choose to text throughout said experience. And no matter how discrete these people think they are being, no matter how skillful they are at constructing elaborate jacket caves in their laps, the light always seeps out at some point, searing the faces off the skulls a la Raiders of the Lost Ark of myself and everyone else in the vicinity. Number of times in 2011 that I asked phone checkers to cool it: 16. Number of times they actually cooled it: 16. Because they know, even before I give them the shoulder tap and the would-you-mind whisper in my nun voice, that what they are doing is rude and wrong. Today's life lesson: people will do all kinds of rude and wrong things until they are caught and/or someone tells them not to. See: Herman Cain.

Another story: During a recent early morning screening of The Three Musketeers (I know) at the Tinseltown Theater, a man with a Bluetooth earpiece blinking in his ear and a military-style haircut sat in front of me cracking and gobbling pistachios that he had smuggled into the theater with him. He really wolfed them down too, eating with wild abandon. People always eat with wild abandon in movie theaters, myself included. (Side note: The only time that I wish I had a third hand is when I eat popcorn. Well, there is one other time when I wish that I had a third hand, but I won't be going into it here.) As this guy cracked and gobbled away, I seethed and seethed. I no longer watched the movie. Instead, I tried, in vain, to think up some stern but gentle words that I could whisper to him post shoulder-tap. "Sir, would you mind not cracking those pistachios so loudly?" "Excuse me, but could you eat your nuts a little more quietly?" Everything I came up with sounded plain ridiculous. 

In the end, I did nothing. I glared and fumed and seethed at Dr. Pistachio, which is what I had dubbed the man (I imagined him as a small-time Batman villain for some reason), wishing with all my might that his pistachio-eating head would explode.

After the movie, the lights came up. Dr. Pistachio, when he rose from his seat, turned out to be far shorter than I expected him to be. And he had two teenaged boys with him--obviously his sons--who, by the number of eye rolls-per-second they delivered in his direction, no doubt gave Dr. Pistachio hell early and often in his days. In the darkness, the man was a nut-hoovering fiend who gleefully destroyed my movie-going experience; in the dark, he had become larger than life. But in the post-movie light, I realized that the man was simply a beleaguered dad wearing an old jacket with a hole in the sleeve who was out with his kids to see a free movie on a Saturday morning. Dr. Pistachio, if you're out there reading this, I am sorry for seething and fuming at you that day.

My most memorable movie-going experience of this year happened in late March, on a brisk, clear morning. My colleague and movie-going partner Victor Lucas and I hustled over to the Park Theater on Cambie Street for a 10 a.m. screening of Insidious. Of the four venues we typically see movies in, the Park Theater is by far the oldest, creakiest, and most cavernous. It's a throw-back theater that shows--how quaint--only one movie at a time. The Insidious screening was press-only, which meant that the movie was being shown inside this airplane hangar-sized theater to six shivering writers, Vic and me. Pro tip: If you attend an early-morning screening at The Park, wear an extra sweater. It's cold in there.

This was also one of those rare screenings when I knew almost nothing about the movie I was about to see. This is the ideal way to see a movie. The less I know, the more surprise I get. All I knew was that Insidious was a horror movie, a genre which makes me prone to writing phrases like "laughably terrible" in my notebook. That's not to say that I don't like horror movies. I do like them. But the number of good horror movies out there, the ones that are not laughably terrible, the ones that give me, as I say, a "good creep," can be counted on two hands (while my third, fictional hand busily shovels popcorn into my mouth).

So the lights went down inside the Park, the Psycho-like violin shrieks--WEET, WEET, WEET--began coming from the Park's old, blown out speakers, and the word INSIDIOUS appeared on the screen in 11,000-point font. "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!" I said, elbowing Vic who was shivering next to me and sipping his tea. "Look how laughably terrible this is!"

Then I stopped laughing and elbowing. And then I started quietly cursing at the screen, which is what I do whenever I experience a good creep. There is a five minute stretch of this movie that was so difficult for me to watch that I briefly considered leaving the theater altogether. No kidding. If you're wondering what stretch I'm referring to, here's a hint: It begins with a late-night knock at the front door. You're right, the last act of Insidious goes to hell--in more ways than one--but the first two-thirds of the movie got under my skin, where it continues to reside to this day.

Getting under my skin is no small achievement. Of the 80 movies I saw in 2011, only about 10 managed to really get under my skin: Bridesmaids, Rango, Insidious, X-Men: First Class, Source Code, Hanna, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Drive, Moneyball, Real Steel, J. Edgar. OK, so that's 11 movies. Of those 11, four would probably qualify as drop-everything-and-go-see-it events: Bridesmaids, Rango, Drive, Hanna. And of those four, the only movie that I would whole-heartedly recommend, the only movie that doesn't require any caveats or disclaimers from me, is Bridesmaids. Boy, did I ever enjoy that.

Did I nod off a few times? Sure I did. Hey, you try and sit through Cowboys & Aliens, or Mars Needs Moms. But what surprises me the most when I look back over this list is how little I experienced in the way of real feeling when I saw these damn things. There isn't much in the way of bona fide escapism here. Nothing really moved me much, or captivated me. Hell, most of these movies barely held my attention. Most of these movies left me feeling empty and numb. They went into my eyes, and my ears, but they sure didn't stay for long. Now that I think about it, maybe people are building those jacket caves and buzzing through bags of pistachios for a reason.

I've got a few more movies to see before I can wind down for the year: Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol, the new Sherlock Holmes, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Adventures of Tintin, David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. So my work isn't quite finished, not yet anyway. Sure, I'll do it all again in 2012. I'll spend another five or six of the ensuing 365 days sitting in the dark. Here's hoping I feel more--much more--in the coming year.

17 November 2011

Zelda: Still Crazy After All These Years

Over the past week I have hurled myself at the The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword the same way that the 747 hurled itself into the island on Lost or Chris Farley hurled his stomach at coffee tables. I have spent more time "living" in the game's fictional world lately than I have in the real world.

My sincerest apologies to friends, family, girlfriend, and cats.

How intense was my Skyward Sword obsession? While walking by a brick wall in the stairwell of my building on Beatty Street a few days ago, I noticed a suspicious-looking crack and, no kidding, thought, I'd better get a bomb on that.

I can already hear the doo-deet-doo-doo-dee song.
Skyward Sword is one of those rare, borderline-unhealthy, personal-responsibilities-shirking experiences that a person has maybe only four or five times in his or her lifetime. (You can read my A.V. Club review here. And the Reviews on the Run review aired last Monday on G4 and City TV. Check your local listings, Canada.)

At the start of the game I was 100-percent certain that I'd outgrown the Zelda series. 2003's Wind Waker bored me to tears and was a struggle to finish. I made two runs at 2006's Twilight Princess, and wound up abandoning the game both times at the same juncture. (That juncture: when you meet the man/lady person dressed in the robes/housecoat who lives in the hut with the kids at the base of the Goron-inhabited mountain.) And the DS games, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks? They didn't jazz me much.

When I dutifully reported to the Nintendo booth last June at E3 for my demo of Skyward Sword, I dreaded having to fly a pet bird, or play a harp, or sample the one-to-one Wii MotionPlus Master Sword controls. I thought: Who on earth could possibly still be into this baloney except for the people who sh*t themselves blind whenever Nintendo announces dumb things like Luigi's Mansion 2When the well-groomed public relations person (note: Nintendo's PR people are always extremely well-groomed) bestowed upon me a Wii remote for my demo, he did so with dramatic reverence, as if he was allowing me to sip from the Holy Grail itself rather than letting me play a couple minutes of what appeared to be Ocarina of Time 9: Now With Harps. During the demo I flicked the Wii remote at the TV screen with the same brand of zoned-out disinterest that I typically reserve for flicking something I don't want off my index finger. And, yes, the thing that I don't want in question would be a booger.

Flash forward to early November. One rainy afternoon Skyward Sword arrived via Fed Ex. The game and I, not surprisingly, did not get off to a good start. The first 10 hours--yes, I said "the first 10 hours"--were almost all uphill for me. What follows are actual texts that I sent to my colleague, Victor Lucas, during that 10 hour stretch:

"Four solid hours into Zelda and I am delivering soup to some f***ing guy. Goddamn it all."

"Now I'm being told that I need to purchase a bug net. A BUG NET. Four hours in."

"No, I'm not even in a dungeon yet."

"Honestly, I think Nintendo has been smelling their own farts for too long."

"Six and a half hours in, still have only gotten through ONE DUNGEON in Z."

While still struggling through those initial 10 hours, I'd leave work each afternoon, informing Vic that I was going home to enjoy my daily "Zelda nap." I wasn't kidding. Every afternoon I'd fall sound asleep on the couch while the Zelda-branded gold controller, sitting in my lap, quietly lost communication with the Wii.

Then Skyward Sword came howling to life. From that point forward, I experienced more jaw-dropping awe in every 15 minute interval of Skyward Sword than I did in Uncharted 3 in its entirety. And I'm comparing the two, partly because doing so will further aggravate Uncharted 3's staunchest fans, and partly because both games, if you really think about it, have similar goals.

1. Both games set out to tell the story of an everyman hero on a quest.

2. Both aim to evoke a sense of curiosity and wonder.

3. Both send their heroes into the darkest, most dangerous places in the name of acquiring shiny treasure.

Despite their thematic similarities, one game is a masterpiece of design, an elegant marriage of form and function, and a legitimate work of art, while the other is a middling series of noisy set-pieces interspersed with quippy cutscenes. In summary: One game I lived; the other I observed from afar.

No, Skyward Sword isn't perfect. Things go to hell at times. What you've heard about the Wii MotionPlus controls is true: they really do malign the game. Sometimes the controls stand between you and your enjoyment, which is borderline unforgivable. No, they're not insurmountable by any means, but during any sword-centric boss battle--and there are plenty--many gamers will want to quit in frustration. Pro tip: Don't quit. Pro tip number two: Purchase the best shield in the game--the one that repairs itself during battle--as early as you can, and get accustomed to using it. This will probably shave about 10 hours off your playthrough. I didn't appreciate the importance of the shield until the very end. And when I say "the very end," I mean "the final battle." Instead of using the shield I went with a lock-on-and-jump-around-a lot approach. What a dummy I am sometimes. Pro tip number three: Don't fool with the wood or iron shields. They are rubbish. I've been finished with Skyward Sword since last Saturday and I still have an unused iron shield collecting dust in the Item Check at the Skyloft bazaar in the center of town.

Here's a text that I sent to Vic during my final 10 hours of Skyward Sword:

"I had about 500 dungeon orgasms today. No kidding. This is the most fun, most satisfaction that I've gotten from a game in years."

And my final text:

"It's over. :("

Not pictured: Me sobbing.
What an utterly stunning turn of events. If you came to me three months ago and told me that Skyward Sword was going to completely blow my toupee off, I would have backed away from you slowly while scanning my surroundings for an object I might be able to use to deliver a blow to your head. What amazes me most is that this truly beautiful game, easily one of the most artful games of 2011, comes to us courtesy of the now-dead Wii, the kick-sand-in-its-face puniest of the recent generation of consoles. A bit of perspective: the Wii has even less horsepower than the 3DS does.

Boy, is this game ever a thumb in the eye to every developer and publisher out there who practically trips over himself to make boasts about their cutting-edge tech. For the last time, people, tech does not matter. I'm so sick of hearing about how your new game uses the Bink Video (no way!), or what the 4.2 version of your engine (codename: Pterodactyl v. 4.2) can do, or how many mega-polygons were used to build such and such character's dumb hat. We spend far too much time in this industry talking about tech. New Year's resolution, everyone: Let's try to talk about tech less in 2012.

As we stare down the barrel of the new console launches in 2012--and the rumor is that Microsoft will reveal their new Xbox thing at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in a few short weeks--as we find ourselves tempted to celebrate the "specs" of this console or that upcoming game, remember to center yourself by recalling 2011's Skyward Sword, i.e. a game that is most definitely not in high-definition (not even remotely); a game that is so far behind the damn times tech-wise that it's practically archaic (it looks like a game that the characters in Modern Warfare 3 would point and laugh at); a game that, despite these woeful shortcomings, features as much heart as, if not more heart, than any game released this year.

So find a way to play it. Find a way to cope with the control scheme. Find a way to get through those opening 10 hours, even if you have to hire a neighbor kid to do it for you. Because there are things in this game, bona fide wonders, that every gamer has to see.

04 November 2011

Dear Games: Please Stop Trying To Be Movies. Your Friend, Scott

Last Thursday afternoon I sat on a panel at the Merging Media conference here in Vancouver titled, "A Tale of Two Worlds: When Film/TV-Game Worlds Collide." Fellow panelists included the current narrative director for the Halo franchise (Armando Troisi); the script writer for Steven Spielberg's Big, Vague, Not-Boomblox Videogame Project from a couple years back (Adam Sigel); the writer for the Avatar and Lost videogame adaptations (John Meadows); a guy who is currently making an MMO based on the Family Guy series (Ian Verchere); and a woman from New York who specializes in something called "transmedia" (Caitlin Burns). "Transmedia" was only the second most overused buzzword at the conference. "Gamification" was the first.

Talking with these fine people got me thinking about the role that stories play in videogames these days. Though more energy, effort and money is being spent on professional writers, producers, and motion-capture/facial-capture technology than at any point in videogame history, the stories that games tell, or at least are attempting to tell, somehow seem to matter less all the time. Case in point: put a gun to my head and ask me to recount the plot points for the following three titles and here's what I would likely tell you:

Gears of War 3: I killed a bunch of guys, then more guys showed up. These new guys were glowing, and I killed them, too. Then Baird said something stupid. Then Marcus takes off his doo-rag and reveals that he is, in fact, not balding at all. Then he stares remorsefully out at the ocean, apparently reflecting on all the Regular Guys and Glowing Guys that he killed. THE END.

Battlefield 3: I went to some vague Middle Eastern country/hot zone and killed a bunch of bad guys, then I went someplace else. I flew in a jet, and there were some nuclear weapons involved at one point. I had a few side objectives now and then, but for the most part I shot at the people who were shooting at me and/or wearing ski masks--anyone wearing a ski mask must be killed on sight!--and I continued to shoot at them until they stopped shooting at me. THE END.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception: Nathan Drake and his elderly, cologne-wearing gentleman companion go on a globe-trotting adventure to find treasures, and along the way, villains show up, because they want the treasures, too. Then Chloe, the sexy one with the dark hair, blue eyes and man's voice from the last game, shows up, which makes the game interesting for awhile. But then she goes away, which is sad. Then that milquetoast Elena shows up. Goddamn it, Elena, go back to buying old issues of Good Housekeeping off eBay or whatever it is that you do when you're not starring in/ruining an Uncharted game. Then I ran away from the same skittering spider horde about 42 times. I shot a bunch of bad guys, and near the end some Special Bad Guys with fire instead of heads (!) show up, and I shot them too. THE END.

The narrative thread common to all three games is this: I shot a bunch of bad guys. Which, after fifty years, is somehow the one story that videogames can tell really, really well. In fact, someone should make a game titled, I Shot A Bunch of Bad Guys. That might move the needle a bit. Digression: I also would like someone to make games called Exploding Barrels (self-explanatory), Cutscene (nothing but cutscenes), and H.U.D. (the head's-up display is so intrusive that it occupies no less than 100-percent of the screen at all times). Because the only way that we're ever going to get past these crutches is by exploding them. Digression two: Exploding Crutches would be a terrific name for an iPhone game. Someone please make it.

A cutscene was once revered as a rare, hard-earned treat. It was the apple pie at the end of the steak dinner, served to gamers for putting in the time and for playing well. I remember sinking entire nights into Street Fighter II (SNES) in my tiny apartment in Chicago in the early '90's, all in the name of achieving the game's "perfect ending." (See it here, along with an incredibly tense final two rounds between Ryu and M. Bison.) In order to achieve this ending, one had to finish the game on level eight--the greatest level of them all--without losing a single round. No small task, I assure you. Yet I did it. My reward? A static group snapshot of the game's roster of characters peering out at me from my 19-inch TV screen. Sprawled across the screen was the word "CONGRATULATIONS" followed by an exclamation point, which appeared to have been typed out by a bleary-eyed programmer only seconds before the game shipped.

No doubt I shuddered with jizz-blowing joy when I finally saw this screen. I probably envisioned myself among that group of elite fighters, thinking, Yes, friends, we have waged many battles since Thursday, or perhaps Wednesday. But in the end, once a champion has emerged (me), after everything is said and done, we shall always respect one another as warriors....

It's funny to me now to remember a time when I would have worked so damn hard for a photo of a bunch of characters, a word, and a piece of punctuation. 

But I did.

Not all that long ago--maybe two, three years ago--whenever I would trigger a cutscene in a game, I would put down the controller, sit back, and really soak it in. I would think, So that's what happened after I shot all those guys. I ran that way and exchanged lines of terrible/inane dialogue with a non-playable character. Ha, ha! I once chastised a fellow gamer after he confessed to being a chronic cutscene-skipper. "Without the story, without context, you're not doing anything other than pressing some buttons!" I said excitedly, waving my arms in his direction like a crazy person. He wasn't convinced.

Yet now, every cutscene in every game has somehow become little more than an opportunity for me to check email or scan Twitter. It's true. No matter how brief or pithy it is, no matter how many best-selling science fiction writers were hired to punch up the dialogue, or how cutting-edge the facial-capture technology is (Heavy Rain featured a record 7.6 different kinds of frowns), watching a cutscene almost always results in me waking up on my couch half an hour later feeling as if Dexter Morgan has chloroformed me. Even the cutscenes in Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, which purports to be the ultimate realization of cinematic videogame experiences (remember these commercials?), seem to somehow matter less--far less--than the cutscenes did in Uncharted 2.

So what has changed over the last couple years? Why is it so damn easy for me to ignore this stuff?

Maybe I'm playing too many games these days. Which is a possibility, because right now I am consuming an almost inhuman amount of content each week. Or, maybe I'm simply tired of having my supposedly interactive experiences abruptly turned into one-way streets. Or, maybe it's the superfluous nature of cutscenes, i.e. watching Marcus Fenix stare out at the ocean matters less, or feels less purposeful, than shooting at the Glowing Guys. No matter what it is, relying on cutscenes to do the heavy lifting when it comes to telling your game's story feels old and lazy to me. Games--and I talked about this during the panel last week--need to stop trying so damn hard to ape film and television all the time. The goal should not be to make a game look or feel more like a movie; the goal should be to figure out what games can do that no other medium can.

Games have gotten into the habit of telling us things instead of showing us things. They explain away whatever mystery they might have had. Nothing is ever subtle, or left to the imagination anymore. Every game tries to out-cutscene the game that came before it--we need more dialogue! more motion-capture! someone turn the money hose back on!--and the result is a kind of cutscene arms race which can only lead to a wasteland populated by legions of blank-eyed, Twitter-checking gamers.

Gamers are among the smartest, most imaginative people I know. All we ask for, all we need is a little narrative nudge. We can fill in the blanks for ourselves. Trust me, Game Developers, we can handle it. We're glad to do it. 

I recently played a game titled Kirby's Return to Dreamland for the Wii. One particularly memorable moment involved me defeating an enemy by--get this--sucking a second enemy into my mouth (press the 1 button) and blowing him at said enemy. (I know!) After doing this, a star-shaped hole suddenly opened up in the center of the screen for no apparent reason. I thought, Why not? and I jumped into the hole.

The star-shaped suck-hole (another great name for an iPhone game: Star-shaped Suck-hole) transported me to another "land" where an encroaching purple cloud threatened to kill me. Question: How did I know that the cloud would kill me? Answer: It was a particularly evil shade of purple. I ran/waddled away from the purple cloud, navigating obstacles and using my suck-blow attacks on enemies as quickly as I could, attempting to always stay a few steps ahead of what I was sure would be my doom.

No, none of this makes any sense whatsoever. 

Yet there is a self-evident logic inherent to the experience. The game creates its own unique visual language; it has its own set of  surrealist rules (example: purple clouds are bad). It has a tangible sense of discovery and wonder. Best of all, it evokes a specific feeling--the feeling one gets when something shouldn't make sense, and yet, against all odds, somehow does--that is, to my mind, far more powerful and exciting than even the mightiest of mo-capped Hollywood-grade cutscenes.

So exactly what kind of narrative is this? I'll tell you what kind: it's the kind of narrative that games can do, and should do, more often.

14 October 2011

The Last Time I Will Ever Write About Star Wars. (Ever.)

Two weeks ago I consumed all six Star Wars movies--the prequels, the tampered-with originals, the special features--in the span of 48 hours. Not by choice or because I'd temporarily lost my mind, but because I was reviewing the new Blu-rays for the show. I locked the doors, lowered the lights, and kept a pillow nearby in case I needed something to rain blows down upon and/or cry into. I pressed PLAY.

And so it began.

Along the way, I located an old friend who I'd presumed lost forever: the Star Wars fan within me. In the 10 years since I'd last seen him, he'd grown pale and gaunt. More animal than human now, he no longer wore clothes, or made attempts to cover his genitals or butt areas. He'd written the words "HAN SHOT FIRST" in poop on a nearby wall.

He peered at me out of the darkness. I peered at him. Then, to my surprise, he spoke. "Friend?" he croaked.

I decided I'd better finish watching the movies before I gave him my answer.


*Naboo = the most boring fictional place ever invented.

*Worst line of the movie Mace Windu: "I do not believe the Sith could return without us knowing." Doesn't look too bad on paper? Try saying it out loud. See? Terrible.

*OK, new worst line just in: Yoda (to Anakin who is being assessed by the Jedi Counsel): "How feel you?"

*Anakin/Jake Lloyd driving his pod during the seemingly nine hours-long pod race = looks like he's playing with a bunch of cheap-looking props.

*Ewan McGregor's ponytail = creepy.

*There's a petty cockiness to the whole thing. This movie is less about expanding a universe or telling any kind of a story, and more about Star Wars taking a victory lap--hooray for Star Wars, everyone! hooray!--while George passes the hat.

*More shit.

*Line that made me put my belt in my mouth and bite down like a cowboy does in movies when he is having a bullet removed from his leg by another cowboy who is using a rusty knife as his surgical instrument: Anakin says these words while flying in space and inadvertently destroying an entire battle station: "This is tense." I'm pretty sure the expression on my face in this moment could be described as woe. This is the moment, I think, when my Star Wars pilot light blew out.

*There is a Forrest Gump mentality to the whole thing: Simply having pluck--not skill or intelligence--is enough to destroy entire battle stations. Another example: at one point Jar Jar Binks gets the arm of a Clone droid, still wielding a blaster, stuck to his foot. As he tries to shake the arm off, he inadvertently shoots at least three other Clone droids. More appropriate title for this movie: Star Wars Episode I: The Inadvertent Menace.

*On their death beds, the staunchest of Star Wars fans will still utter the words, "But...Darth...Maul...was...cool." The truth is this: Darth Maul is not a real character. He is a man wearing scary makeup and devil horns who enjoys doing lightsaber dances with the Jedi. That's it.


*Side note: Before the movie debuted, Harry Knowles "leaked" his review of Attack of the Clones, stating that Episode II would right all the wrongs of Phantom. (No Jar Jar, less Senate machinations, more action, etc.) Harry lied to me, and ever since I've discounted his opinion, and Ain't It Cool's opinions, to $0.000001.

*Ewan McGregor grows an impressive beard.

*Watching this movie is like watching the world's most powerful money hose spray at full bore for two and a half hours.

*More dog shit.

*Anakin's ponytail = looks like the back of his head is shitting.

*Everything feels small and inauthentic. Every vista feels plastic and manufactured, probably because every vista was created in the George Lucas Synthetic Vistas Lab. Why bother going to Tunisia when you can recreate a digital version of whatever you want with computers on your ranch in the woods?

*Mace Windu gets another terrible line: He shows up at Count Dooku's arena and says, "This party's over." (Yes, someone got served.)

*Another terrible Yoda line: While hovering in a ship above the gladiator arena, Yoda says, "Around the survivors a perimeter create."

*More lightsaber dance parties.

*Shit explosion.

*Boba Fett = now ruined forever. Both Phantom and Attack seem hellbent on stripping the Star Wars universe of every bit of mystique it once had.

*Yoda gets into a lightsaber fight. Now I'd been imagining this moment for more than 30 years. And it's so boring. He bounces all over the place like one of the Flea Men from the Castlevania games. That's his move: bounce, bounce, bounce, etc. What kind of bullshit fighting is that? I actually feel bad for Dooku in this fight because he must be so annoyed.

*These CG creatures all look like crappy toys I'd put underneath the wheels of my mom's car to see what they'd look like after she'd back over them on her way to work in the morning.

*Anakin and Padme's romance is the most bloodless relationship ever captured on film. Have two people ever been more neutered or had less chemistry? Man, you could practically see the erections on Luke, Han, and Chewie whenever Leia was around. Seriously, the erections were there; George later had them erased in his Synthetic Erection Erasing Lab. At the other end of the spectrum, when Anakin and Padme kiss, it practically creates a rift in time and space in which every love story ever written, including Romeo and Juliet and The Notebook and Love Story, gets sucked into, never to be seen again.


*Everyone is clenched in these damn movies. Ewan McGregor = clenched. Samuel Jackson = clenched. Natalie Portman = clenched. Hayden Christensen = so clenched. The only person not clenched is Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine/The Emperor. He and his old woman lips scowl and whoop like he just finished his shift as the host of "Monster Movie Matinee" before reporting to the Star Wars set. He seems to be the only person who had any fun at all while making these movies.

*Mace Windu's death = shit.

*George Lucas was once a student of life, but he is no longer. [Side note: I wrote this down while watching the movies, though now I'm not exactly sure what I meant by it at the time.]

*More lightsaber dances.

*More shit.

*Hayden Christensen is supposed to look angry and evil throughout the movie--he's the personification of the struggle between the Light and Dark Sides--but instead he always looks like a varsity quarterback who is vaguely bitter about losing "the big game."

*Darth Vader operating scene: Do they not have access to morphine at Darth Vader Transformation General Hospital?

*Also: Why is Darth Vader so short? He towers over everyone in the old movies--except for Chewbacca, of course--but here he looks like a kid wearing his dad's Darth Vader outfit. The proportions are completely off. Not for one second do I believe that the real Darth Vader is inside that suit.

*It's over. And all I can think is this: what a wasteful enterprise. Even when I was a kid in the 70's and 80's I understood why someone might be tempted by the dark side, how a person could be potentially be corrupted. When Vader reveals that he's Luke's dad in Empire, part of me, even as a child, thought, "Jesus, Luke, just go be with your dad! Go rule the galaxy together. It might be fun. Plus, you'll be with your dad."

But then George has to go and give us eight more hours of movie explaining how one might be tempted, to show us in the most painstakingly banal and condescending way imaginable the good/bad duality that we're all born with. The prequels presume that the audience members, adults and kids alike, are all mush-brained simpletons; that we've never lived a day.

Because how could we possibly understand anything unless George spends eight hours and millions of dollars explaining it to us? "George," of course, being a man who has lived like Howard Hughes--minus the pee jars--in his secret woodland retreat for the past 25 years? Surely he knows everything about life and has plenty of wisdom to share with us? Yes? [Note: That's sarcasm.] [Note 2: I'm pretty sure it's this exact thought that resulted in me writing the "George was once a student of life" note from earlier.]


*I'm tired of everyone always heaping praise on Empire at the expense of Star Wars. Empire is a lot of fun, but Star Wars is the better, more human, more complete movie.

It's true.


*While Star Wars ends in a satisfying fashion, Empire leaves everyone and everything in jeopardy. One: Han is trapped in carbonite. Two: Luke learns that Vader is his father. Three: Luke now has two ghosts--Yoda and Obi-wan--in his ghost collection. True to its title, the Empire really did strike back in this movie.

*Now that I think about it, it's that three year wait between Empire and Jedi that probably turned so many of us into fans/nerds. I had three years, which at that point was approximately one third of my lifespan, to ponder the fate of these characters. Three years to go to bed at night thinking about them; three years to dream about them. That kind of intense wondering, that kind of extrapolation, especially for a kid, does something to a brain that can't easily be undone.


*Yes, there's plenty of mugging and hey-now moments in Return of the Jedi. Yes, everyone was probably drunk and going to orgies at night and doing drugs while filming the movie, because they were all incredibly rich and famous at this point. But I don't care. I still love Jedi. The scenes between Luke and Vader are about as exciting as anything I've ever seen. And I've never understood all the hate for the Ewoks. They're in the movie for about 20 minutes. And they're not that bad. The only truly unforgivable moment for me is the inversion of the "I love you" moment. (Han says it to Leia in Jedi.) Otherwise, Jedi does an admirable job of wrapping up the storyline in a credible, exciting fashion.

And it's over.

Two more things before I wind this down.


I remember the night in 1977 when my Uncle Jack--now dead for several years--took my brother and me to see Star Wars. (My father, never one for flights of fancy, wasn't interested in this kind of "horse shit.") We lived in the country at the time, on a damp acre of rural property, surrounded by miles of pine trees. Uncle Jack drove us to the nearby city of Rome in his El Camino--not unlike the way Obi-wan takes Luke to Mos Eisley--and showed us something that would, unbeknownst to me at the time, forever change who I was.

When he dropped us off later that night after the movie, I remember the image of my mother standing in the glow of the porch light in her white nightgown. She was waiting for my brother and me to come indoors. I remember walking towards her, towards the porch light, somehow knowing even then that, like Luke, I wouldn't always live here.


For months my brother and I coveted the two-album John Williams score for Star Wars with all our hearts. Each time we'd visit the local Western Auto--a chain of auto parts stores that also carried housewares, sporting goods, and, yes, records--we'd fondle the shrink wrapped album until the sales clerk would ask us to kindly cease doing so.

One October afternoon we came home from school to find our grandparents' car sitting in the driveway. When I walked into the house, I knew right away that something was different, that something was happening. The Star Wars theme was coming from the stereo speakers. A closer inspection of the stereo revealed that album one of the two-album set was indeed playing. Our grandparents--like Uncle Jack, also now dead for several years--had brought it to us as a gift.

My brother and I practically began shitting ourselves with joy. Which was an actual danger for me, as I had literally shit myself with excitement on Christmas morning only a year earlier.

Man. Sometimes I really miss that kid--the one who once could get so worked up about something that shit would involuntarily come out of him.

After my recent 48-hour Star Wars digression, to my surprise, the old pilot light flickered back to life again. What's surprising to me is how much time I've spent thinking about Star Wars since. I've had hours of conversations about the movies with friends and co-workers. For years now I've operated as if the Star Wars universe is no longer relevant to me. For better or worse, that's not entirely true.

Since revisiting the movies, I've located the untampered-with original trilogy on DVD. (It's the 2008 box set. I found it on Amazon. It wasn't cheap.) And, after acquiring said box set, I saw Han shoot first for the first time in about 20 years. It's absolutely cathartic seeing this footage again. And it's also oddly pornographic, as if you're watching something taboo, something that you're no longer supposed to be able to see.

I've also since purchased an action figure--a Darth Vader--from a terrific store called Toy Traders in Langley, BC. Vader joins the modest collection of Star Wars action figures that I currently keep in my guest bathroom in my apartment. There's a Luke, a Han, an Emperor, a C3PO, an Obi-wan, and even a vintage Boba Fett circa 1979.

All of which, I suppose, is my way of saying to the revolting, pathetic, poop-flinging Star Wars fan who still lives in me:

"Yes, old buddy. Friend."

16 September 2011

Ode To That Crying Guy on the Subway Platform

I had an idea of how my life was going to turn out. I had a plan.

My plan was this: I was going to be a teacher. Preferably a college professor. Or, failing that, an instructor at a tony private school in the New England states, not unlike the one that Robin Williams teaches at in the movie Dead Poets Society. I would have my summers off, during which I would sip tea and tinker with my thousand-page novel in the afternoons and kiss my cute wife in the evenings. Each fall I'd select a turtleneck from my collection of turtlenecks--all shades of blues and blacks--and return to the campus where I'd resume my place in my creaking office chair while gazing profoundly out the window at the impossibly red leaves on the old maple tree in the Quad.

It was a good plan. Even now I get a little excited just thinking about it.

That plan obviously never came about for me.

I did go to graduate school, which was the first step in my plan. I mingled with other writers. I taught classes. I shopped for turtlenecks.

But three years later, when it was time for me to graduate, it dawned on me one day that I'd endured a dramatic change of heart. I no longer wanted to teach. I no longer had any romantic notions about colleges and universities.

So I let go of my creaking office chair and my maple tree on the Quad. I would still keep my Latin textbooks on my bookshelves for a few more years, thinking that I still might go back, that I still might get a PhD in this or that eventually, that I still might wind up teaching Antigone to teenagers after all. But what I wound up actually doing was this: I moved to New York.

Which, I now realize, is what people do when they don't know what else to do with their lives.

I thought that in New York, no matter what happened to me--good or bad--at least I'd still be in New York, home of Papaya King, David Letterman, and The Place Where John Lennon Was Shot. I thought, If any place in the world can tell me what I'm made of, it's this place.

So my Latin textbooks, my turtlenecks and I moved to New York.

What followed, of course, were many years of abject despair. I lived in crummy apartments. I worked lousy jobs. I fell in love with the wrong girls.

Then I went through some medical woes in the late '90's. I suffered through things that I wouldn't wish on anyone. In the name of trying to at least slow the rapid downward spiral I was on, I saw a therapist a few times a week. It was Woody Allen-type therapy--me, on the couch, with the therapist, who bore a striking resemblance to Sigmund Freud, sitting in a nearby chair and quietly writing in his notebook.

After my original career had gone out the window--or, at this point, had flown out a series of windows, then fell to the street below where it lay in a mangled heap and then a large piano had fallen on top of it--I decided that I would be part of a new generation who didn't have traditional careers. Those people with careers? Like my college classmates who had taken jobs with Lehman Brothers and would be there until the end of time (or so they no doubt thought)? They were the suckers. They were the clueless.

Me? I'd be like the guy in that old Dion song, "The Wanderer."

"Oh well, I roam from town to town." (I would.) "I go through life without a care." (That's me.) "And I'm happy as a clown." (That sounds fun, right?) "With my two fists of iron and I'm going nowhere." (I have no idea what that last line means.)

Anyway, I distinctly remember one afternoon sitting in my office at the terrible magazine where I worked. I opened a dark red envelope from Fannie Mae, the student loan people. I'd recently missed a series of student loan payments. As Fannie Mae realized this, they began to send me color coded envelopes. At first the envelopes were, in retrospect, a concerned yellow. But when I ignored them, they turned orange. And now, I was up to red. I was pretty sure that the next envelope I received from Fannie Mae would be an extremely angry purple.

I opened the envelope. Though I was fully aware of what was coming, it never failed to completely shock me. I found a bill for more than thirty thousand dollars. I sat there, trying to breathe, wondering how in the world I would ever pay off this monstrous debt. Beyond that, I wondered if I'd heal, if I'd get better. And beyond that, I wondered if I'd ever get out of the terrible, miserable office where I was working at the time.

"You can always come home," my mother said to me over the phone when I told her what was going on. "New York isn't for everybody."

After work that night, I remember standing on the subway platform at the 36th Street and Sixth Avenue station. It was rush hour. People were so crammed on the platform that they were in danger of falling onto the tracks. My train, an uptown B, pulled into the station. It was filled to capacity.

The doors opened. No one got on and no one got off. The doors closed.

The next train was even more full than the previous train. Doors opened. Doors closed. No movement.

A third train was so full that it did not even bother to stop. It simply rolled straight on through the station--something that trains sometimes did during rush hour--with hundreds of bodies pressed against the windows.

I did my best to steel myself. I told myself, This is the universe testing you, seeing what you're made of. I thought, This is the best you've got, Universe? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I am laughing at you, Universe. Because you have a stupid look on your face right now, Universe. Well, you do.

But 10 minutes later, which equals approximately 100 years in subway time, when another train entered and left the station without stopping--this time without so much as even a tapping of brakes from the train operator--whatever steeling I'd done to myself, whatever bravado I'd been able to muster, was completely gone. Before I could do anything about it, I felt tears coming out of my eyes.

I could feel them running down my face. I couldn't believe it. I was standing on a subway platform in New York City and weeping like Ryan O'Neal does at the end of the classic 1970 movie, Love Story.

I was certain in this moment that nothing good would ever happen to me. I was sure--100-percent sure--that my life would be nothing but debt, and terrible jobs, and ruin, and a series of subway trains that wouldn't ever stop for me. What I didn't know that day is that I would eventually turn everything around.


I would, in time--and it wasn't easy--get myself out of that mire. Oh, there would be other mires, and I'd get out of them, as well. (Fact: The mires never end, really.) Earlier this week I realized that I have been doing what I currently do for 10 full years now. And I realized, to my complete surprise, that though I never wanted one, I somehow, someway wound up with a career anyway. I wound up doing something that I'm proud of, something that I love to do. I'm not sure how this happened. But it did.

I've done things, and seen things, and gone places that the crying man on the subway platform couldn't even imagine.

If only I could go back to that time, back to that platform, and talk to that guy. I'd slip an arm around him, and say, "Hey, buddy. It's all going to turn out OK. I know it doesn't feel like it right now, but it is. Trust me. It is."