Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Funnies

While waiting for the fog to clear from my Sunday Morning Brain, I usually scroll through the work of comic book artists. Today was William Stout Day, and after the cursory Google Image search, I clicked over to his website for a closer look.

Selfie by Stout
The site includes a journal, which I didn’t hold out much hope for — most artists don’t have a facility for words, and are understandably stingy about posting artwork online.

Three hours later, I forced myself to finally close the browser. Holy Moly, what a trove! Stout posts artwork (his and others), he critiques and analyzes (his recent posts on Moebius are delicious), he reminisces about his days working in La-La Land, he interviews, he writes (prolifically — check out the man's book) about the Blues. But enough of my yakking: go check him out yourself.

And speaking of comics, this piece by Daniel Rasmus about the bygone era of the Star Trek daily strip has piqued my interest. The strip is considered non-canonical — primo catnip to Yours Truly.

Unfortunately, the collection consists of not one but two(!) pricey(!!) coffee-table(!!!) books. Yo, IDW — call me when you release the digital version, please.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Weird Al's Weird Blitz

How do you like Weird Al Yankovic?

Oh, Al: in my eyes you'll forever be preserved in the pastel-hued amber of 1984.
If you’re a guy in my demographic (straight, Canadian, on the cusp of fifty, too clever by half for most of that time) you like him just fine — happy to have him around, adding his goofy-gas to the pop zeitgeist; a living, breathing, accordion-playing Alfred E. Neuman.

Not that I've bought any of his albums — catching his parodies on the Dr. Demento Show or MTV was exposure enough for my taste. Mind you, I’m the father of daughters — parents of sons usually acquire a disc or two (or more) by the ten-year birthday celebration. I imagine these parents feel a tad more conflicted about the wavy-haired joker, much the way I’m ambivalent about Hairspray! The Musical.

Anyway, the video for “Tacky” just came out. I giggled, of course, and came this close to sharing it on a couple of platforms, before stopping myself and thinking, I know at least a dozen people who are going to do this: what do I add to any of that? Then he followed that video up with two more in the span of days, plus of course the brand new album. And now I’m wondering why in the world have his people taken this route of sudden saturation? And why an album? With some performers, there’s an inherent appeal to the structure of an album: 45-to-90 minutes of music, thematic explorations, altered movements that cohere in resolution, etc. Weird Al has at times indulged in that, but he’s chiefly the master of the one-off. I’d think that puts him in an ideal position to exploit the new media for all they’re worth.

I’ll be curious to see how the album fares. Are today’s ten-year-old boys buying anybody’s CDs? No, of course not. But how about their parents?

Addendum: Al responds directly to "Why an album?" with typically disarming candor.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Gone Fishin'

Took some books for the shade: Peter Mathiessen's In Paradise (link), The Friedkin Connection, by William Friedkin (natch), and The Longer I'm Prime Minister: Stephen Harper & Canada, 2006- by Paul Wells (discuss).

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Her: Why Is This A Movie?

We watched Spike Jonze’s Her the other night. I enjoyed it, and found the story, the aesthetic and dramatic execution gently provocative. But when the end credits rolled I was left wondering, “Why was that a movie?”
"Maybe for the movie poster?"
The reflexive answer (not the one I’m after, but let’s out with it) is, “Why shouldn’t it be?” No reason, of course. People make movies of just about anything, and good on ‘em. But my question isn’t directed against Her’s existence; it’s more of a “Why this, not that?” question. In this case, why is Her a Big Movie, and not a long short story? What does it accomplish as a Big Movie that it couldn’t possibly in the pages of the New Yorker (where it could have surely found a home)? My two cents: the aesthetic aside, not much. So why is it a movie?
It's a question I asked — a lot — back when Kenneth Branagh was throwing Shakespeare at the Silver Screen. Branagh's abilities as a Shakespearean actor were unparalleled, and he clearly had what it took to nudge similar levels of insightful performance from his cohorts. I had few doubts he was a sensational director for stage.
Branagh's grasp of cinematic potential, on the other hand, was rudimentary. Long, static shots, close-ups that forced the actor to twitch and snort to hold viewer attention. And one hoped in vain for any cut-away to supply ironic contrast.
In that same era, Richard Loncraine's direction of Ian McKellan was gloriously distinct from all that. Here's the memorable, “Now is the winter of our discontent” monologue, in which Loncraine and McKellen exploit cinema's full potential to dramatic effect.
It's brilliant enough that Richard begins by publicly toadying up to a roomful of people he justifiably holds in contempt, then morphs to the inevitable admission of self-loathing — in the pissoir. But using a dollyed close-up of the bathroom mirror to break the Fourth Wall? For the second time in two minutes? To invite and incriminate the viewer in Richard's evil scheming? Oh, bravo, sirs — bravo!
The closest Branagh came to realizing similar cinematic success was his We're-sayin'-all-the-words! Hamlet, an epic production that would have had a much harder run of it on-stage.
Anyway, I saw all the Branagh movies, usually more than once, and certainly didn't begrudge the time spent. But for most of them, the question, “Why is this a movie?” had only one plausible answer: “To reach a wider audience.” No small thing, that. Wider audience = industry recognition = a better shot at career longevity doing stuff that genuinely engages the artist, and not having to put on a Starfleet uniform to pay the bills.
Ditto: Her. More people will watch a movie than read a New Yorker story. Fair enough, no hard feelings. But coming from the director of Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation, I'm just surprised the bar wasn't set a little higher.

Related: P.T. Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Baz Luhrmann, Kathryn Bigelow, Wes Anderson love 'em, hate 'em, or both those cats are clearly making Movies, dammit.

Friday, June 20, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up: Finale

Phase 1. Phase 2. Phase 3. Phase 4. Phase 5.

Kafka was a fan. Not just of The Man Who Was Thursday, either — I'm talking the whole ball of wax. Weird, huh? The man who gave us Gregor Samsa enjoyed reading G.K. Chesterton.*

Anyway, my conclusion to the debt we grubby Neo-Pagans owe Chesterton will be as scattered as the post that kicked it all off. Consider yourself forewarned.

If you head over to goodreads and check out the “fair-to-middling-to-poor” reviews of The Man Who Was Thursday, you’ll find a common observation among them. The book divides neatly into three acts. The first act enchants, the second takes some of the shine off that effect, and the third baffles and alienates. Frankly, it's a fair summary of my own experience as a reader.

Thursday’s first act presents itself as an ominous and enclosed mystery, which threatens to overwhelm the last of our compromised hero’s remaining virtues. The second act, to most readers’ surprise, subtly shifts from a paranoid fatalism to an absurdist caper. The third act is almost all explication — making sense, insofar as sense can be made, of everything that led up to it. A seemingly inescapable solipsistic tragedy has flowered into a great, romantic awakening.

The almost universal approval of the first act is curious to me. Fatalism has its own romantic appeal, of course, and who among us can resist a good conspiracy theory? The contemporary reader, however, is disinclined to be “freed” from the conspiracy. Philip K. Dick is commonly referred to by Thursday's goodreads reviewers, and with good reason. If there is a predominant (and predominantly appealing) Post-Modern narrative, surely it's that of the Grand Conspiracy. It can spin apart via entropy a la Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, or disappear down the solipsistic rabbit-hole a la the Wachowski Sibs' Matrix trilogy or V For Vendetta. Neither option dodges the sensational spectre of fiery, apocalyptic blood-letting. Nobody wakes up from the nightmare — the Post-Modern hero just does a subtler job of apprehending it.

This, then, is the predominant motif within the Magisterium of the Western Imagination. Approach with caution.

"Also: an adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered..."
*This, with other factual observations, comes courtesy of A.S. Dale's The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G.K. Chesterton. The errors, on the other hand, are all my own.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up, Phase 5: Re-Essaying Jacob's Ladder

Phase 1. Phase 2. Phase 3. Phase 4.

The rabbi whose identity continues to morph from Saul to Paul spent the rest of his life trying to communicate how his understanding of things had changed after the interrupted trip to Damascus. Clearly, that change was radical.

Paul and his followers are not an easy read. I’ve read their letters all my life, and it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve sensed just what a revolutionary cross-pollination of religious* understanding they represent — and promote.

My penny-dreadful summary: in the death and resurrection of this itinerant Jewish rabbi “Jesus,” who’d devoted the bulk of his time, energies and teaching to the outcasts of the empire and his own religion, the entire species’ presumed Pantheon was turned upside-down. God-through-Jesus brought into harmony not just Jewish efforts at atonement, but pagan ones, also.

“Overturned” is not “obliterated.” Paul anticipated that at some point all Powers will submit themselves to the authority of Jesus — either as willing and grateful servants, or as damned subjects. “Powers” seems a vague appellation — a nearly empty metaphor — to a modern imagination beguiled by the West’s simplistic dualist execution of secularism. There was nothing vague about it to the ancient imagination, which saw an elaborate (and corrupt) Chain of Command that led directly into the ether.

I believe Lewis’s imagining of Bacchus’ place within Narnia’s Pantheon is an exercise inspired by, and respectfully aligned with, Pauline cosmology. Moreover, any Christian who presumes the banishment or outright obliteration of all pagan modalities has a severely impoverished and predominantly egoistic comprehension of the cosmology to which they claim subscription.

If it is true a person cannot comprehend Christianity without some comprehension of its Jewish origins, I would suggest this is equally (if not more) true of its pagan origins.

"Overturned," not "Obliterated."
*Or “mythical,” if you’d rather.

Friday, June 13, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up, Phase 4: Aromas, Shades & Incantations

Phase 1. Phase 2. Phase 3.

In our third year in the house, I woke up to the smell of baking cookies — vanilla biscuits, perhaps, or shortbread. It was around 1:30 in the morning.

The house is semi-detached — we share a wall with the neighbours. They were a couple of single fellas, at the time — younger and a tad boisterous, but not to the point of being annoying. Girlfriends came and went. I figured somebody over there got a case of the midnight munchies, and whipped up a quick batch for a bedtime snack.

This continued through the winter, and picked up again the next. In February of that year, I woke up again to the smell — it was almost heavy and cloying — and thought, The neighbours, then rolled over onto my other side. Then I remembered: we had no neighbours. The fellas had each got serious with their respective girlfriends and were living elsewhere. Other than us, the house was empty.

Later that month, I hired a guy to put up drywall. He had access to our basement, for overnight storage. He spotted some iron rods lying against the basement wall and said, “Looks like someone used to work in a bakery.” He explained what the rods were used for, the purpose of which I no longer recall, because my brain went white hot with panic.

That night when I again woke up to the gentle smell of baking cookies, I shrieked, THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS THEE! Only the Mennonite version. And in a very soft whisper, because I didn't want to wake my wife.

This went on for the next two weeks. Nothing changed. So I did an attitude check. I mean, cookies, fer cryin' out loud. Not thumping in a basement room, or chains being dragged across the floor, or fingernails scratching from inside a closet — cookies.

My sleep improved. Then one night my wife shook me awake, said, “I think you left the oven on!” I rubbed my eyes, sniffed the air. Oh, that. Uh . . . it's alright, babe. I'll tell you about it in the morning.

Still, as the years accumulated and the aroma continued, I remained slightly ill-at-ease with it all. There were rational explanations: auto-suggestive-neurological . . . whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it. It wasn't explaining away the odour, so why not resort to the irrational?

The ancient thinking on ghosts and hauntings is fairly straightforward: ghosts don't generally hang around because they're happy.

If someone was unhappily caught between Here and There, and “Here” happened to be our house, I hadn't the first clue what to do about it. But I was, and remain, a praying man. So when the “baking” woke me up, I gave thanks for and blessings to the people who made and lived in this house for several generations. I asked for mercy on their souls. I asked, on behalf of all who lived in this house, for the courage necessary to face the heart of Love, and Truth, and final release. On and on in that vein, until I drifted back to sleep.

It's been three years since anyone in the house has last smelled that aroma. There are rational explanations for that, too, I expect. Those will be more important to some people than they are to me.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up, Phase 3: Inside Jack’s Imaginarium

One saw sticky and stained fingers everywhere, and, though mouths were full, the laughter never ceased nor the yodelling cries of Euan, euan, eu-oi-oi-oi-oi, till all of a sudden everyone felt at the same moment that the game (whatever it was), and the feast, ought to be over, and everyone flopped down breathless on the ground and turned their faces to Aslan to hear what he would say next.

At that moment the sun was just rising and Lucy remembered something and whispered to Susan,

“I say, Su, I know who they are.”


“The boy with the wild face is Bacchus and the old man on on the donkey is Silenus. Don’t you remember Mr. Tumnus telling us about them long ago?”

“Yes, of course. But I say, Lu — ”


“I wouldn’t have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.”

“I should think not,” said Lucy.

The Pevensee girls encounter Bacchus, in Prince Caspian, by C.S. Lewis. "But that's ****ing pagan idolatry!"  sez this homemaker.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up, Phase 2: The Woman At The Water-Cooler

Phase 1, here.

It’s coffee-break, I’m at the water-cooler with my friend. She’s lovely, Jewish, a few years older and curious about the preacher’s kid, happy to ask the occasional provocation, and to oblige a few of my own in return. Today she asks, “Do Mennonites talk about the Pharisees at all?”

The Pharisees? Oh, for sure. Can’t have Jesus without the Pharisees.

“So how do you describe them? What do they represent to you?”

I provide the rote description: anal-retentive legalists whose lengthy arcana of behavioral restrictions discouraged potential seekers of God. Is that accurate?

“Well, not from our point of view, no. We think they’re the heroes.”

Come again?

“Absolutely. You talk about ‘lengthy arcana,’ but that’s precisely what they liberated us from. They pared down the Torah from an unimaginable burden to something that could be lived out and practised, even during generations of extreme pagan oppression. Thanks to them, our culture, our religion, our faith remains alive to this day.”

Huh. No kidding?

“Mm. Wup — look at the time. Fill your cup?”

"Wait: 'heroes'? Seriously?"

Monday, June 09, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up, Phase 1: Saul’s Difficulty

Messiah cults were nothing new. Stand in the courtyard of the Jerusalem Temple and throw a rock in any direction: if you only hit one “Messiah,” you weren’t throwing hard enough.

Zealots, every last one of them. Inevitably some putz off the farm, with just enough Torah to cause trouble.

All of these jokers had at least a smidgen of charisma. A few had genuine oratory skills. They might whip up a handful of supporters; they might whip up a mob. Either way, the Empire knew how to deal with the situation, and it was best to clear out and leave them to their methods.

Let the Enemy thin your herd; hold focus on the Pharasaic imperative.

So why the personal furor over this bunch? What was different?

The resurrection element was admittedly odd, but not entirely unheard of. “Assumption into Heaven”? A common enough motif for even the Greeks and Romans.

But “Son of G_d”?

Such language, coming from people — his people — insisting on their right to say this filth while in Temple?

Now that was fucking pagan idolatry.

From Martyr's Mirror: The persecution of Stephen, the first
Christian martyr. Saul observes, to the right.

Nor was he entirely wrong on this point . . . .

Friday, June 06, 2014

Hey, Look Over There!

Yahmdallah links to Time Out's 100 Best Animated Movies, here. I've seen 58 of these (missing the bulk of anything Japanese that didn't come out of Studio Ghibli), so I'm hardly entitled to quibble. But:

1) I really dislike The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and think it's way too high on the list. This isn't a knee-jerk “Not Wes Anderson!” response, either — I've enjoyed watching actors sink their chops into what Anderson hands them (I'm thinking particularly of Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums). And I won't deny TFMF its technical virtuosity. But as I snarked to Y-man, if you contrast Fox with The Nightmare Before Christmas you see the difference between a director who's really pleased with himself, and a director who's taken such a deep pleasure in the work that he has disappeared from view.

2) Rango has its amusements, but is a bust on all sorts of levels. I would have left it off the list and added Flushed Away, which came first, and told the same story — successfully.

3) Nice to see Waking Life included. I'm also a big fan of Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, and would have made sure it was on the list — probably a slot or two higher than Waking Life, actually.

Speaking of Richard Linklater: wow, does this movie poster ever look unpromising:

Still, the kids are fond of him. And it's not like I'm a Jack Black hater, per se. He just makes me . . . wary.*

So, remembering that I've yet to be disappointed by a Linklater movie, I went ahead and took it home from the library. I was hooked within the first 20 minutes. Better yet, the conceit of the movie never dawned on me until the end credits started to roll, at which point the whipsaw effect of realisation was so dramatic I had to go back and watch the damn thing from beginning to end again. What fun!

Enjoy your weekend.

*As does Will Ferrell, although Ferrell threatens to nudge me further. The LEGO Movie! would have been nearly perfect if Ferrell had remained nothing but a voice. I mean, I understand why they went “meta” by movie's end — much like a viewer can understand why Spielberg went with the mawkish opening and closing scenes for Saving Private Ryan — but dramatically that scene is the least engaging of the entire movie. Starkly so, when contrasted with the rest of the movie — again, much like Ryan. But rest assured: LEGO! is the better movie.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Promissory Notice

“So when are you going to finish with G.K. Chesterton?” asked my wife.

Argh. This week — I promise. Once the Kings and Rangers settle into the playoffs for Stanley, I’ll be less preoccupied.

On another note: how do you think the Sin City sequel will do at the Box Office? Will it play like 300: Rise of an Empire (which pulled in a little better than half of the receipts 300 did)? Or will it play like the sequel to Star Wars? My guess: it'll do a bit better than the 300 follow-up, but not much.

Hey, they both star Eva Green! As good an excuse as any to post her picture:

Links: I thought the Sin City comics and movie were pretty much the signal of Frank Miller's artistic decline.  Still do.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Watching Jesus People USA Through A Telescope: Then & Now

When I was 16 I wanted to join the Jesus People.

The year was 1981. I chose to get baptized, and was doing my best to read and believe the Bible the way my bearded and bonneted forbears had — which was completely at odds with everything that seemed to be happening south of 49. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and the only book of the Bible he seemed to place any faith in was the Revelation of St. John the Divine. Christians were apparently on-board, professing themselves pro-nukes and anti-abortion, and pro-Free Market in a big, big way.

Life sucked.

To make matters worse, I was listening to Christian Rock, which also sucked. I liked my music HARD, dammit: AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, RUSH. I mentioned this to my youth pastor. He said, “Have you heard Resurrection Band?” No, but the name alone did not bode well. “Give them a try anyway. They're pretty hard.”

I took a bus downtown to the Canadian Bible Society, then trudged upstairs to their second floor, where they had a small room devoted to Christian records. Sure enough, behind a divider labelled “REZ Band” were two albums — Rainbow's End, and Awaiting Your Reply. The second was larger, with a gate-fold, and looked just a tad more promising. I bought it and took the next bus home.

It rocked.

And not just the music, either. Even the lyrics were bracing: when frontman Glenn Kaiser sang,

“Tell me why did you come 
and why were you born 
where the dogs eat dogs 
and the pigs get all the corn?”

and put a little spit behind his emphasis on pigs, it gave me the shivers.

And the album art was first-rate — edgy and counter-cultural, but polished, and not at all amateur. There was a mini-sermon in the corner, addressing the sort of social ills suburban churches were keen to ignore. All in all, a package that spoke directly to the alienation and disaffection I felt as a pious young Menno.

Tripping the gate-fold fantastic.
The credits said the band were members of Jesus People USA, and were living in community in the mean streets of Chicago. At the time, JPUSA was publishing their own magazine, Cornerstone, which pulled together many of the same strains: hippie-ish left-of-centre political critique, a heightened social conscience, and heaps of on-the-street sass and verve, particularly in its graphics and lay-out. And these cats were serious about their journalistic exposes, often bringing to light some supremely unsavoury activities from deep within the shiny bastions of the Evangelical elite. I subscribed to the magazine for over a decade, long after I'd lost interest in the music.
Up from the basement.
Flash-forward nearly 35 years later, and stories have come out alleging that JPUSA's Chicago commune was pretty much a fallow field for sexual predation. And I'm depressed by two things: the horrific accounts, of course, but also the fact that I don't find any of this the least bit surprising.

JPUSA is locked in legal wranglings with at least one of the alleged victims. I haven't any thoughts about that, one way or the other. These things get very complicated very quickly, and very ugly right from the git-go. The only reason I mention any of this, is this week JPUSA's legal team issued a “Cease-and-desist” letter to the film-maker who brought this story to light.

Now, granted, I'm still working on my PhD in Stoopid. But I'll go out on a limb, here, and declare that nothing good is gained — ever — when a religious institution issues a “Cease and desist” order.

JPUSA should know that better than anyone.

The eyes of the world are watching.

Friday, May 09, 2014

The Myth Of The Secular

I finally got around to changing the tires on the car, which means I finally got around to dusting off some of the podcasts mouldering inside my Infernal Device. Specifically, The Myth Of The Secular, from CBC’s Ideas with Paul Kennedy.

Producer David Cayley acts as tour-guide through contemporary thought on the matter. He interviews people invested in some frequently unexplored aspects of secularism. I’ve only listened to the first two episodes, but what I heard was engaging, challenging, and generously humane. Every time I’d nod my head in agreement with someone’s sentiment, another would follow to provoke thought in an unexpected direction. And who among us couldn’t stand a little more of that?

The episodes don’t seem to be available for download any longer, alas, but you can still stream them on the CBC site, here. Highly recommended.

Chesterton's Shades

I have sometimes fancied that this practice, the true psychology of which we really know so little, may possibly have contributed towards the disturbed or even diseased state of brooding and idling through which I passed at the time — G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography

Chesterton seems to have experienced two breakdowns in his life, the first a depressive slough from which he emerged while courting his wife-to-be, and the second a full-out nervous collapse which neither his wife nor doctor thought he was likely to recover from.* Recover he did, however, and it is the first which is of interest to me, since it set the template for Chesterton’s second recovery, and the prodigious output that followed.

In the above quote, Chesterton speculates that perhaps his experiments with the Ouija Board contributed to his depression. He was, at the time, a young man in art college, hanging out with the hipster nihilists of his day. He conducted his forays into the occult, however, with his brother and father.

He only devotes a few paragraphs to the misadventures that followed. Whatever was moving the planchette during these experiments was, Chesterton thought, cunningly deceitful and intent on luring these would-be Spiritualists into grievous mischief. Chesterton promptly quit with the fiddling, but descended further into gloom.

He filled his journals with grotesque drawings of apparitions that seemed to follow him everywhere, appearing at the most inconvenient times. He slept poorly, if at all. His condition showed no sign of improving, and threatened to grow worse. Persuaded of an essential Evil at work around and within him, he determined to unveil its polar opposite.

Even at this unhappy point in his life, he somehow managed to court his future wife Frances, and she in turn seems to have enticed him into the High Anglicanism she and her family were rooted in. He quit art school and found employment at, weirdly enough, a publisher of occult works, and turned his creative energies from sketching to writing. The two literary works that emerged from that time of inner torment are Orthodoxy and The Man Who Was Thursday, both of which continue to define the public person that Chesterton became.

In his Autobiography, Chesterton seems happier with that early collection of essays than he is with his first novel. I may be misreading him (dude’s difficult to draw a bead on, more often than not), but he seems almost discomfited by the latter’s enduring popularity — particularly among the sort of folk he usually faced across from his podium during his many debates. He suggests Thursday is popular because it is widely misread.

At a superficial level, Chesterton’s opinion is surely correct. There are, however, many other levels to read a work, especially when it comes to weird fiction, which the authors themselves are often blind to. I hope to explore some of this in my next post.

What is notable to me is how Chesterton’s artistry in Thursday continues to serve as the model intersection of myth and contemporary imagination, not just for the usual Christian suspects (Lewis, Tolkien, Williams and Sayers) who energetically sided with Chesterton’s larger cause, but also for decidedly post-Christian Brits like Neil Gaiman, China MiĆ©ville and Grant Morrison.

*One curious aspect to the second episode: GKC wrote his most notoriously anti-Semitic stuff (the "Marconi Affair" hooey) just prior to his collapse.