Thursday, May 30, 2013

“I'm A Real Wild Child” The (Tragically Temporary) Salvation of John J. Rambo

This is my conclusion to yesterday's post.

First Blood sets up Sylvester Stallone's character as a Lone Wanderer — a hippie-type, nameless for the first 12 minutes, wearing an Army jacket and carrying a bedroll. He strides into an Edenic setting, surveys it . . .
. . . and smiles.
It ain't much, and it's the only smile we get for the entire movie.

He approaches a black woman, hanging laundry on a line. She appears to be barely submerging her hostility. He notes her surliness, but cheerfully presses on, showing her a picture of the man he is looking for, an old army buddy from 'Nam. She informs him that his friend has died, of cancer — from Agent Orange. This woman has just said the most lines a woman will deliver in this movie. She offers him neither solace nor hospitality.
The Wanderer's smile disappears. He apologizes, gives her the picture, and discards a small address book as he leaves Eden and returns to the road.

Now the sky clouds over, and the temperature drops. After walking undisclosed miles, Our Hero approaches a town: the ironically-named Hope.
Here our next Protagonist steps out, surveys, and smiles: Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy).
He likes what he sees. Hope isn't perfect — he asks one resident old-timer, “Gonna take a bath this week?” (cleanliness is a big deal for this Sheriff) — but it's perfect enough. He spots the Lone Wanderer, decides he doesn't like what he sees, and ushers him out to the far side of town, telling him to keep walking. The Lone Wanderer turns around and walks back toward Hope. The situation deteriorates.

The direction the script could take — the direction many subsequent Stallone scripts have indeed taken — is to set Teasle as the antagonist, and the Lone Wanderer as the protagonist. First Blood takes pains to keep that from happening, by introducing an unregenerate antagonist and bully: Galt (the incomparable Jack Starrett).
Galt, left; David Caruso, dutiful son, centre.
So far the Wanderer has been quietly undermining their assumed authority. Like a mopey adolescent, he only does half of what they tell him to do, testing their patience. Teasle stares incredulously at the kid, trying to understand what the hell is wrong with him. Galt just wants to beat him up, but he is held in check, somewhat, by Teasle.
Dutiful son #2, left.
In the police station, names are introduced. There are a number of young deputies — Ward, Mitch, Lester. The Wanderer is John J. Rambo, recipient of a Congressional Medal of Honour. A broader psychological portrait is fleshed out, with Teasle as a father figure — to the boys around him, and increasingly to Rambo. The boys affirm his authority, and they seem happy. This John guy clearly accepted authority from someone, once upon a time. Why can't he get with the program and defer to Teasle?
The situation escalates. Teasle pushes, Rambo passively resists. Then Galt assaults, triggering the dark forces we know are pent-up in Rambo. The Wanderer transforms into the Wild Child, and escapes. Teasle takes off in pursuit. Out of town, in the mountains, Teasle's car crashes . . .
. . . just as Rambo's motorcycle flips. If the two protagonists were sane, they'd take a deep breath, extend a hand and say, “Can we start from square one?” But by now we know they share the exact same character flaw: each cannot abide the other's authority.

The kid scampers into the woods. The Father summons the Family, and lumbers in after him.

It takes some time, and involves considerable peril — Galt, the Nobodaddy, comes closest to destroying the Wild Son, and perishes in the process* — but Rambo endures and slowly turns the tables of authority on the avenging Father. He spares Teasle, and advises him to “Let it go,” words that, perversely enough, form an invitation to the opposite effect.
Teasle does the expected, and summons the State Troopers to help him in his quest. And thus we are introduced to the third and final protagonist — the Mother Figure, Colonel Trautman.
"I've come to get my boy."
Played with old-school cool by Richard Crenna, Trautman is a nearly unreadable cipher. His terse utterances signify Military Swagger — “God didn't make John Rambo: I did.” “You send that many men after him, don't forget one thing: a good supply of body bags.” etc — and he prowls around Teasle's camp of Weekend Warriors with a leonine authority that Teasle simply cannot muster. But for all his clipped verbal bravado, Crenna's Trautman in fact spends most of his screen-time silently observing the proceedings.

Trautman clearly has rank and common-sense on his side. But where a younger Trautman might bump chests with the blowhard Teasle and end this circus before it gets worse, the older Trautman — invested with Crenna's sorrowful, sagging hound-dog face — is the very picture of matronly discretion and composure, frequently communicating that most distant trait of masculinity: deep regret for the road not taken.
As the Mother figure, Trautman understands that the Father and Son share equal responsibility for this debacle. But as the Mother figure, Trautman is also too deeply invested in the spiritual drama to see a clear way through to salvation. Trautman's practical solution — “Let him go. Issue an APB. In a month he'll get picked up in Seattle, or some other city, and no-one will get hurt” — is superficially spot-on. He knows that without the fight, the Son is nothing — just another drifting loser. He also knows the same holds true for the Father. The Mother intuitively knows there is no “practical” road to wisdom for either of these loved ones,** and so does not press the point.

The conversations between Teasle and Trautman are akin to the dialogues of long-married couples who have settled on a script. (Think I'm stretching credibility? Try this: go here, and read Trautman's lines with Angie Dickinson in mind.) “She” proposes the practical solution — ”Let him go.” “Now why don't you forget what you're thinking and clear out while you can?” The Father jeers back at The Mother — “And what would you do? Wrap your arms around him and give him a big sloppy kiss?” Confronted with this bluster, Trautman tellingly does not dismiss the possibility out of hand, and instead (yet again) keeps his counsel.

Of course the Son is triumphant in the wild, and returns to Hope to visit vengeance on the Father. The Father, defeated, eggs him on in typical “masculine dis-associative” language: “Go ahead, you crazy son of a bitch!” (You're your mother's fault.)
Rambo seems on the verge, but Trautman steps forward, interrupting the patricide.
"It's over, Johnny!"
Beneath the Maternal gaze, the Son's defences crumble.
He rages . . .
. . . then he sorrows . . .
. . . then he wilts.
It turns out that the Mother's embrace was exactly what the Son required.

There are people who don't quite “get” that scene — Roger Ebert was flummoxed by it. He thought the content of that final monologue had been delivered with more force in movies like Coming Home. This may be true — for a film critic. In his commentary for the DVD, novelist David Morrell marvels at the bales of letters he's received from Vietnam vets who said this was the first movie they could take their wives to and say, “See, that's what I'm trying to tell you!” I submit that the bizarre, and seemingly accidental, wisdom of this scene — in this movie — holds a primal appeal to four types of movie goer: Active Personnel and the family members who love them; adolescents, and the parents who love them. Ebert was none of these things when he saw the film.

Rambo's monologue is a wildly audacious gamble,*** and Stallone invests everything — every emotion, every instinct, every facet of his intelligence as an actor — he has in it. If the scene doesn't work for you, it's not because Stallone was holding back, or keeping anything to himself. Ebert thought the movie in the woods was the movie that should have survived. But take away the monologue, and Stallone's invested delivery, and the movie comes apart at the seams.

Prior to First Blood there were glimmerings that Stallone could sell as an action figure. Sadly, Ebert's kvetch (“Stick to action, Sly”) proved to be the road taken for Stallone and his handlers. The subsequent Rambo adventures lack all traces of the heart and soul Stallone pulled out and threw on the table (Crenna's performances also suffer, his jolliness for the regular paycheck too obvious to conceal). Indeed, all Stallone's subsequent performances have a searching quality to them, as if he might locate something of whatever it was that made this movie and this role so very memorable, if only he knew where to look.

So it goes. Hoping for another good Stallone action movie is probably like hoping Brando would pull it together one last time for a final bravura performance that actually meant something to the man himself. It'll likely never happen. But there are still a few of us hoping Stallone catches sight of his original brilliance, before the final curtain drops and extinguishes it altogether.

* Galt's is the only death in this movie, another anachronism for an action flick (thoroughly “remedied” by the sequels).

**Here I might be stretching the film to fit my reading of it: the more credible reading is that Trautman sees in Teasle the younger, bloodthirsty man that Trautman himself once was, back in 'Nam.

***The only Hollywood movie I've seen take this level of risk since then is P.T. Anderson's Magnolia.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Is ‘First Blood’ Sylvester Stallone's ‘Last Tango In Paris’?

Is there any chance I'll ever enjoy a new Sylvester Stallone movie on an irony-free level? The odds are long, I grant you. Neither of us is getting any younger. In the last three decades the closest he's come to achieving that feat is Cop Land (1997) an inept movie of sincere, but modest, charm. Other than that, well . . . I haven't seen everything Stallone has done. But I've seen more than half of his movies.

Which is to say I've seen a lot of crap.

The movies that run between the original Rocky (1976) and Rocky III (1982) stand head and shoulders above the rest of Stallone's career. F.I.S.T., Paradise Alley, Nighthawks, Victory and even Rocky II showcase the charisma and talents of a journeyman actor flexing considerable chops and steadily gaining the confidence of the camera. But by Rocky III we see the “new” Stallone taking shape: a journeyman celebrity, who steadily morphs into the Slab of Sly we know and watch today.

The four non-Rocky movies drew a modest box-office, so a third trip to the Rocky well was pretty much expected. Prior to that, however, Stallone was shooting the movie that altered his career more definitively than even his award-winning brain-child, and shaped the public's movie-going appetite for the next 20 years: First Blood.

Although First Blood ushered in many of the tropes of the '80s Action Movie — a muscle-bound hero who levels swathes of enemy troops by using superior cunning and a really big gun — it remains in many ways a quintessential product of the '70s. Prior to this movie, director Ted Kotcheff (a Canuck!) had delivered The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Fun With Dick And Jane, and North Dallas 40three stand-outs among other recognizable '70s fare. Standing beside him as Director of Photography is Andrew Laszlo, who performed the same function for Walter Hill, in The Warriors (wpeschewing zooms, and keeping the lenses wide, Laszlo pulls a certain grit into the frame, a practice that eventually got polished into oblivion in the decades that followed.

Consequently there are visual elements that belong to the '70s as well. First, if we consider Stallone's trademark physique . . .
. . . the athleticism, while definitely a cut above even physique-conscious types like Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood, is nowhere near what Sly currently maintains. It is even conceivable he achieved his original “Rambo” physique by natural means.

Along the same sight-lines: relative newcomers to Stallone might be surprised to discover he is “vertically challenged” (William Goldman famously followed Stallone into a swimming pool just to ascertain this fact). For decades now Stallone has been framed in such a way as to give him the height advantage — not just with women, but men as well. First Blood however, shamelessly capitalizes on his true physical status, framing him naturally as a smaller “underdog” the audience will root for.
Sly, all 5'7" of him, on left.
This being the pre-digital age, the stunts are all very physical, and utterly beholden to gravity — including, most spectacularly and memorably, a leap from a sheer face of rock to a drop dozens of meters below.
Look Ma: no green-screen!
And then we have a screenplay, whose credits include novelist David Morrell (for the modestly-promising source material), Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim and . . . Sylvester Stallone — which I suspect should probably read, “Sylvester Stallone.” He takes credit for Rocky and Paradise Alley as well, of course, and I suppose it's possible he pounded them out on a typewriter in his off hours.

The author photo should
clear up any doubts
However, given this early run of movies, and the long dreadful onslaught that's followed, I have to wonder if he didn't have someone in his posse who could spot — and improve on — an already promising script. The standing theory is either Stallone finally alienated this person (an ex-wife?), or the actual punches he kept gratuitously taking to his head finally robbed him of all narrative sense.

There is, however, a third possibility: that First Blood was for Stallone what Last Tango In Paris was for Brando — a decimating personal apocalypse that forced the actor to draw from previously unplumbed depths, and confronted him with a terrible self-awareness which he spent the rest of his lifetime fleeing.

“Wait,” you say, “aren't we talking about an action movie?

Ah, but First Blood isn't just your run-of-the-mill action movie — it's a brutal journey into the Heart of Darkness that is American Masculinity.

Next: The horror. The horror!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Trekking Even Further Into Darkness

A few further links into the growing disappointment of Star Trek Into Darkness. First, the spoiler-free stuff:

The Harlem Shake is kind of a big deal right now. But the Star Trek Shakethat's been a big deal since the '60s! Here are some GIFs to help you out with that.

So you've seen the last two Star Trek movies and had a good time — good enough to finally consent to watching The Wrath Of Khan after years of pestering from your boyfriend (“Greatest Star Trek movie — ever!”). Your first thought: “Kinda overrated, no?” Ho-ho-hoooold on there, newby!

Next: the SPOILER-LADEN links:

After his subtle, spoiler-free meditation equating Abrams' Trek to the trophy partner we gave up our soul mate for, Locke Peterseim tucks in and exposes where Abrams and Crew are egregiously betraying Trekkies.

The arena of charged political debate is hardly verboten to Trek writers. But would George W. Bush dig this movie? Would Dick Cheney?

In a brilliant bit of fan-fic from The Awl, Leonard “Bones” McCoy surveys the post-Into Darkness landscape and wonders if, “perhaps on further reflection, we were a bit naive”?

And finally, Roger Ebert's far-flung Turkish correspondent Ali Arikan argues robustly that “Survivor's Guilt” ought to qualify Mr. Spock for the role of the central hero in the new Star Trek.

O, Canada -- What Is Up With Your Politics?

Our two leading political scandals offer a study in contrasts.

On the one hand we have our famously reclusive Prime Minister, holding down the nation's most visible job and, beyond tweeting a few shots of his beloved cat, keeping his daily dealings as hush-hush as possible. He lards a Senate he once offered to abolish — nothing new, that, and voters expected no less. And of course it takes some time, as these stories tend to, but eventually it comes out that some of these appointments are indulging either in some creative accounting, or are being spectacularly sloppy with their expense claims. It takes a little longer — some think a little too long — but eventually heads are rolling.

On the other hand we have the Mayor of Toronto, who can't seem to do anything privately — including, ostensibly, taking a toot off a glass pipe. His sense of entitlement is wildly evident, his capacity for self-indulgence and bold ineptitude a matter of public record. But he got to where he is by being “just folks,” and — more importantly — by capitalizing on a garbage strike that really, really, really pissed off the people who actually vote.

I never dreamed the stink of that strike could become such a distant memory so very quickly, but the Ford Brothers and their Collapsing Circus of Casualties have done the impossible.

It's the “circus” element that surprises, delights, disgusts. The people in the spotlight are all seasoned performers — once-proficient jugglers now baffled by the directions the balls are bouncing. In the case of former Senators Duffy and Wallin, we're talking about television journalists, fer cryin' out loud: people who covered the beat. Their Senate appointments relieved them of all professional expectations to be The Measured Voice of Reason, and introduced them to the rowdy world of partisan banquets and barbecues, where they guzzled Cutty Sark and delivered Catty Snark. Heady drinks, indeed, to so besozzle these former journos into forgetting precisely what morsels of indiscretion inevitably bring the Fifth Estate sniffing into corners one typically thinks of as “private.” No doubt the two of them are hard at work on “It's somebody else's fault” memoirs. By the time they're published, Harper won't have any teeth left to grind. And if he appeared to be paranoid and overly-controlling before this broke, wait'll you see what's next.

As for the Ford Brothers, I'm forced to recall one of George Carlin's quieter footnotes: “Where do people think these politicians come from?”

We've all been to High School. We all know swaggerers from privileged homes who dealt a little (or a lot) of hash, and who gradually parlayed that swagger into “respectability.” Now take a glance at the Ford Brothers.

You don't need a PhD in Psychology to read their body language — they think they're still in High School.

The front page news isn't news to anyone who's awake. C'mon: we know the Ford Brothers. It's the people who do the quiet work, the drudge work, the difficult work, in the hallways and offices and church basements and school gymnasiums we're not so familiar with — because that's the sort of work and those are the types of places we'd rather avoid.

Sound like I'm pointing fingers? Fine: I'm even lazier than you are. So let me advocate my standard of staying informed as the bare minimum for responsible citizenry. And here's the good news: it's pathetically easy!

Google the councillors in your riding. Google the candidates from the last election. They've all got Twitter-feeds (or Facebook pages). Now add them — all of them — to yours. The ones that are the most boring, that are begging you to attend a re-zoning meeting while you're watching the Monday night hockey game, are the ones to pay attention to and the ones you probably ought to be promoting in your own little way.

If we all do that, maybe — just maybe — we can keep dealers and goons out of City Hall. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Star Trek Into (Spoiler-Free) Darkness

Four years ago I wrote, “In the Star Trek universe, yesterday's movie is only as good as tomorrow's.” Well, I saw “tomorrow's” movie — yesterday — and thought it was roughly as engaging as Abrams' first franchise movie had been. Which is to say, the sense of diminishing returns is setting in, big time.

I did have fun, yesterday, watching the kids explore and play with the grown-up roles they've been handed. And it was mostly fun tallying up the “alternative” tweaks the new time-line introduces. But here the strain of the premise is beginning to creak — at times quite painfully.
"Captain: he did say 'creak,' did he not?"
J.J. Abrams' is resolutely non-Trekkie — which needn't be a problem. Nicholas Meyer wasn't a Trekkie, either, and he single-handedly resurrected the franchise with his narrative instincts. But where Meyer demonstrated a novelist's capacity for depth of character and irony patiently cultivated for the distant pay-off, Abrams and his (assuredly) Trekkie writers are resolute storyboard dazzlers, opting for flash and distraction and perpetual one-upmanship. “You liked ____ in The Original Series, right? Well, we do it too — only this way!” I burst out laughing at one such tweak — unfortunately at a time when Abrams & Co. were hoping I'd be dabbing at my eyes.

“This new franchise is starting to feel like the young trophy partner we left our soul mate for,” says Locke Peterseim, in a terrific (spoiler-free!) deconstruction: “sleek and alluring and lots of fun, but eventually blithely inane.”

I wanted to send our mutual trophy partner a little post-coital reading — David Gerrold's TOS corrective.* But two realizations stalled this impulse: a) Trek has always worked best as television, where it can be oh-so-patiently developed into a vehicle with legs. And b) this Trek isn't really for Locke or me, or our generation — not primarily, at any rate. That we can willingly take our kids to see these movies and not complain too bitterly on the ride home is pure gravy for Paramount. In another four or five years the kids will be taking their dates to see the next instalment, while we old-timers stay home and content ourselves with DVD memories of the soul mate that slipped away.

And Paramount is super-fine with that, too.
"You say 'trophy partner' like it's a bad thing!"
*Gerrold calls out, among other howlers, the egregious absurdity of a Starfleet flagship staffed by over 400 professionals playing host to three or four hot-shots who do all the work and have all the fun.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Robert Crumb, Chris Sanders & The Fine Art Of Genuine Desirability In A Disney Pin-Up

All links SFW, with one noted exception.

Some furor has been raised over Disney's manipulation of Pixar character Merida. The headstrong tomboy in Brave has been given a makeover, rendering her more Disney-feminine. The aesthetic formula at play seems to work something like this: Fancy Strapless Shoulder-Baring Gown + Shiny Buckle – One or Two Ribs – Signature Weaponry = Pretty Princess.
My first reaction was surprise at how deftly both Disney and Brenda Chapman, Brave's creator, capitalized on the moment. Brave was a fair-to-middling Pixar product that garnered fair-to-middling box office results (in league with How To Train Your Dragon and Dr. Seuss' The Lorax but nowhere close to Toy Story 3). As the parent of daughters I applauded the attempt at a female lead impelled by passions unrelated to Finding True Love, even if I (and my daughters) finally found the emotional content underwhelming.

But with regards to the controversy of Disney's Body Image Problem, I have to admit — it is a problem. That Disney attends to the aesthetics of sexual attraction* doesn't bother me: if their characters didn't have some sexual appeal, Disney's standard storyline would be entirely without interest. Still, as a hetero dad who's endured a parade of Disney cheesecake, I find it remarkable how aesthetically forgettable most Disney heroines are — forgettable because they're interchangeable. The Little Mermaid, Jasmine, Belle, Tiana — what's the difference, and who cares? If a straight fella (who enjoys a little lewd cartoonery (SFW, unless you scroll through the slideshow)) ain't piqued by the Disney figurine, I have to conclude the artists are banking on the age-old absurdity of fashioning heroines who are aesthetically attractive to girls.

That Disney apes Vogue in this regard is hardly a surprise: Disney has commodities galore it intends to sell, to as many children and parents as possible. Whether Disney has a larger interest in expanding its aesthetic is finally for the market to determine. The Merida Makeover is their canary in the coalmine.

Anyway, as I mused over the past decade-plus, I realized there is exactly one (1) Disney heroine whose desirability factor stands head-and-shoulders — or hips-thighs-calves-and-feet — above this parade: Lilo & Stitch's Nani Pelekai.
Nani, on right.
Here she stands in contrast to a “Pamela Lee Anderson” figure — another body-type we don't see much of in Disney movies:
I won't say I find the latter body-type unattractive, what with its sweeping hips, the supple shoulders supporting an ample, but not grotesque, decolletage, and of course those arms and the cut of the . . . uh . . .  where was I? Right: let's not replace one culturally predominant unrealistic body “ideal” with another. Perhaps it is best to note Nani's posture and facial expression, which indicate Our Hero is in a supplicant relationship to the curvier (white) woman. (The scene ends badly.)

Still, Nani, as drawn by Chris Sanders, is a figure of considerable power, thanks chiefly to her muscular, almost chunky, base — more than a little reminiscent of Robert Crumb's favoured proportions, on display here . . .
. . . and more explicitly here (NSFW, I suppose — there's none of Crumb's unhinged sexual hi-jinx, but, y'know, she is nude).

I Googled for more Chris Sanders, curious to see where Nani fit in with his overall aesthetic. When it comes to his pin-up art, Sanders does indeed have a fetish for sturdier bases . . .
"Where's Spring Breakers playing, again?"
. . . but after that the distinctives become subtle to the point of disappearing. Bruce Timm, Dean Yeagle and even Darwyn Cooke lean heavily on many of the same tropes: essentially wasp-waisted, pert-nosed, late adolescent girls in varying states of compromised (or soon-to-be-compromised) innocence. I understand the thematic predominance, but if you draw up a giant screen of these guys' pin-ups, the final effect is a blurred uniformity — 21st Century America's india ink version of the Venus of Willendorf.

It may be that Nani's singular appeal relies on her sharp aesthetic contrast to the Disney template. But as bold a departure as her curvature is, the power of her story also contributes — greatly — to her appeal. She is perhaps Disney's most fully-realized female character.

A single young woman who becomes the sole guardian of her little sister after their parents are killed in a car-wreck, Nani finds she cannot manage the physical, never mind the complex emotional needs of the grief-struck child. She gets considerable support from David, with whom she seems to have had something going on, prior to the tragedy. You can see he's crazy about her, and that she cares deeply for him. But theirs is a relationship that has, understandably, been put on hold while Nani seeks to secure physical and emotional shelter for her sister.

Say, he's pretty hot too, isn't he?
Lilo and her “pet” Stitch form the nexus for the movie's action, but the deeper revelations all belong to, and are embodied by, Nani. One of the “lessons” a viewer innately gathers through Nani is how the terrible events that accrue in any life can either drive people into a larger concept of family — or into crippling isolation. This makes Lilo & Stitch Disney's most visceral movie since Dumbo, and it has certainly earned an emotional connection with me. I can't even write about it without choking up.

Weirdly enough, here, too, I'm reminded of Crumb. It ain't just the cross-hatching and stippling that sets his pin-ups and other work apart from the Timms and Yeagles and Sanderses of this world. For those who can stomach it, it's Crumb's candour and never-ending internal conflict being brought into play against hapless Others that make his work work. Self-knowledge is a dangerous thing — and absolutely necessary to the erotic imperative.

So, to Disney or anyone else out there in the business of crafting pin-ups: more of that, please, and I for one will buy it.

*Sexual desire is a motivation Pixar mines, if at all, as a very distant secondary concern — with one exception, which adroitly dodges the issue of body-image aesthetics altogether.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Gatsby vs. The Haters!

We still have a few hours before the unwashed masses gain admittance to Baz Luhrman's adaptation of The Great Gatsby, but already the haters are hatin'. Not the movie, mind you* — the book.

“I find Gatsby aesthetically overrated, psychologically vacant, and morally complacent,” sez — nay, thunders!Kathryn Schulz. “I think we kid ourselves about the lessons it contains.” You hear that? Lessons! So rev yerself up for some good book-larnin', kiddo, and click on that link.

The Great Gatsby has often been called 'a novel of yearning,' which for me has always meant a yearning for it to be a better book,” sez — nay, snarks! The Globe & Mail's new Books editor, Jared Bland. “So why do we keep caring? . . . because for the most part we have it all wrong.” So get it right for once, you numbskull, and click on that link!

Some years back this guy did a “Reader's Manifesto,” which I thoroughly enjoyed (as I did these two pieces). He went one further than Schulz and excised large swaths of writer's prose, which he then excoriated. I giggled along with the man, for the most part, but every once in a while I thought, “Uh — sorry, dude, but this time the author's got me onside.”

Similarly with the passage Bland stabs at:

He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky and frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifting fortuitously about . . . etc.

Sitting on its own like that, the passage does indeed emanate a purple aura (this guy's sentences suffer similarly). But “poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air”? I can dig it.

You get to a certain age and you realize it doesn't matter what your youthful aspirations might have been: your dead ancestors are more present than ever, consuming your dreams and angling for the final word on your life. So by my reading, this metaphor works just fine — for me, and most certainly for Gatsby's larger themes of striving and deficiency (not that you'll ever hear me declare my reading to be The Right Reading. I kinda thought we were beyond all that).

Still, it's a bracing pleasure to catch a little acidity from The Gloat & Wail's Books editor. The previous editor, Martin Levin, was eminently fair-minded and even-tempered — traits that served him and his pages very well during the era of Carol Shields (surely the most fair-minded and even-tempered literary talent this country has laid claim to), but not-so-well in the age of digital decimation. A scrappier temperament might yet inject a little life into those pages — and links. So keep throwing down, Mr. Bland — our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

"Here's mud in yer eye!"

*Although from the outset Luhrman has been dressed down by the usual scolds, a force of habit for some that shows no signs of stopping.

Friday, May 03, 2013

When Is An OS Not An OS?

You know I'm a Linux user. My PC has been a dual-boot for the past seven years — i.e, I use Windows, too, but only to sync up the family iPods. About a week ago I installed the new desktop version of Ubuntu.

And then the problems started.

I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say they weren't the usual stutter-starts that occur when an OS has been released prematurely. No, this stuff was “Everything is hanging in the balance” serious. I rolled up my sleeves and got to work, keeping my super-talented brother on speed-dial.

At first I assumed the problem was with me — I'm as fluent in coding as I am in German or French. Put me in a roomful of natives (or open a terminal) and I'll eventually get my point across, but it won't be pretty.

As the trials (and days) wore on, I began to wonder if something wasn't seriously messed up with this release. That's happened before, and with Ubuntu's stubborn insistence on a tablet desktop (which is crap on tablets and worse on PCs) it could be that their development eye is so far off the ball they've forgotten how to cover the basics.

But when, after various re-installation attempts for Ubuntu and Windows 7, I was greeted with this screen . . .

. . . my brother began to wonder if the problem didn't originate with “our friends in Redmond.”

Maybe, maybe not. All I know is:

a) right now Windows 7 is the only OS that installs successfully on my PC.

b) Windows 8 is Microsoft's “closed” OS — i.e., Microsoft is now emulating Apple's method (to dubious effect, of which I'll say more later).

c) Windows 8 monkeys with the host BIOS. In other words, if you install Windows 8 on a machine — or get a machine with Windows 8 already on it — Windows basically breaks into the BIOS and changes the locks behind it, so that Windows 8 is the only OS that will run on that machine.

Microsoft isn't the only outfit that can monkey with a BIOS, of course. As my friend, who did time as a BIOS engineer, is fond of saying, “Firmware ain't that firm.” But I'm not a hacker. I doubt I even qualify as a geek. Opening up the BIOS and putting it back together so it does what I tell it to — I'd have an easier time performing that function on my cat.

Besides, “User Error” is still the likeliest cause of my troubles. For now I'm stuck using a functional-if-disagreeable OS, and contemplating Microsoft's larger market strategy. The whole experience has got me wondering.

Why would Microsoft lock up the BIOS? More to the point, why would hardware manufacturers consent to this? Anyone who buys a new PC hoping to install something else on it now faces a hacker's challenge, which the manufacturer's End User Licensing Agreement strongly discourages. I studied Hewlett-Packard's EULA this week, and they aren't threatening patent infringement lawsuits — yet. But as my screen message amply displays, the component manufacturer is keen to let the user know this is certainly a possible scenario.

This antagonism toward the consumer is baffling to me. It's hardly putting the best foot forward with potential customers. For Apple to sell their closed and externally controlled environment they had to have a product that made the consumer swoon. Windows 8 ain't doing that. Sales for their OS aren't just hurting, they're having a negative effect on the hardware that hosts it. Meanwhile, closed systems are losing momentum precisely while “open” systems like Android are taking flight.

But secondly, just consider the ironies of my situation: I only bothered myself with a PC because it could run Linux simultaneously with Windows, which accommodated my household Apple products. If I am now forced to align myself with a closed system, whatever would possess me to take up with the company that pulled the rug out from under my feet?

Anyway, I've already put the money down, so for the foreseeable future a Windows 7 user I shall be — which ain't a bad OS, frankly. Who knows? I might just finally give Halo a spin. New mantra: contentment in confinement.

All I'm saying is, any OS that bears down hard on the dilettante coder cannot be a good thing.