Monday, May 29, 2017

Reconsidering the franchise through the lens of Alien: Covenant

Q: Are we not men?
First, the spoiler-free stuff. I rewatched 'em all this past week. If asked to rank the Alien movies I'd say 1, 3, AC, AP, 4, 2. Prior to seeing Alien: Covenant I would have placed Aliens ahead of Alien 4, but Ridley Scott threw in a development that surprised me and forced me to reassess the entire narrative on his own particular terms.

I'm not going to spell it out explicitly, but if you're one of those people who refuses to watch trailers, from here to the post's conclusion there is a potential for spoilers.

I'm with Matt Zoller Seitz, who says of the Alien franchise, "The series’ repetitive structure is a feature, not a bug, as in the James Bond, 'Star Wars' and Marvel franchises. If you don’t like them, you can complain that they recycle the same images and situations. But if you like them, you can compare them to sonatas or sonnets or three-chord pop songs, where part of the fun lies in seeing what variations the artists can bring while satisfying a rigid structure." With that in mind, MZS and I both think Scott's late-in-life return to the franchise has yielded some of the most thought-provoking results in its history.

In Covenant, Scott adheres religiously to the template, right up until the conclusion. Enough foreshadowing occurs that I was not surprised by the finish, but I was surprised Scott chose the conclusion he did. Leaving the theatre, I said to my friend, "Scott broke the ending." And when I considered it further, I realized he also "broke" the ending to Prometheus -- and in so doing he added emotional and spiritual weight to the earlier narrative of Ripley as Christ figure.

That is the deeper surprise, for me -- Scott has not always struck me as being well-attuned to his own themes, never mind those of others. But AC demonstrates he has in fact paid close attention to the thematic through-line that Aliens 1, 3 and 4 developed and exploited before Scott returned to "his" franchise. His latest chapter adds nuance and emotional value to those earlier movies, two of which were made by other people.

Getting back to my ranking, generally this is a series that defies the attempt, as each movie contributes to the others. By placing 2 at the bottom tier, I'm not calling it out as inferior -- it is arguably a more streamlined entertainment than, say, 4. But Cameron's movie is an action flick, while the others are horror movies. In order to work, horror requires moral ambiguity, while action movies do not. And even if Cameron wanted to explore moral ambiguity I'm not sure he has the capacity for it (unlike, say, his ex-girlfriend Katheryn Bigelow).

In any case, good and evil are clearly demarcated in Aliens. And, given how xenomorph designer H.R. Giger was either shown the door or willingly absented himself from the scene, the overall aesthetic to Aliens dates the movie directly to its particular era in ways the other movies managed to avoid.
1986: only 119 more years to go!
Further spoiler-laden reading: Alien: Covenant sneakily explores the horrors of directing blockbusters in 2017 by Todd VanDerWerff.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

I had low expectations of the previous GOTG flick, but left that movie with a grin on my face. I had low expectations of the current one also -- is the Marvel Universe growing slack, or am I just weary of its media omnipresence? -- but this time my emotional torpor was no buffer from disappointment. Volume 2 falls flat, in other words. But I've been having trouble putting my finger on why this is so.

It could be I was in the wrong audience. Early into the movie I found myself laughing while the rest of the crowd was silent, and vice versa. I quickly shut up, and stayed shut up -- even when I was young and freshly college-smart, I disliked audience members who used laughter to signal they were in on a joke the rest of us squares were missing. That a dad in his 50s needed to check himself this way during a comic book movie did not bode well, I thought.
"Trust me, kids -- this is funny, funny stuff!"
In the initial movie, the Chris Pratt character ("Peter" or "Star-Lord," take your pick) was a smart-ass -- a mouthy guy who occasionally stumbled across a good idea. In this movie, all signs of smarts have vanished -- he's just an ass. I was ready to accept him as a ditz (the more buff Pratt gets, the easier it is to let his shiny eyes and open face distract from the keen intelligence that got him where he is), but the director, cast and crew kept pulling punches at every turn, hoping (I imagine) to keep their chief meal ticket the locus of audience sympathy.

Yeah, but . . . when your long-lost dad shows up looking like Kurt Russell fresh from the hair-salon and introduces himself as "Ego," surely even a ditz is going to roll his eyes.

Russell surprised me by being all smarm and no charm. His CGI younger self drives a '78 Mustang 2 King Cobra -- a notorious lemon we used to deride, back in the day, as a shined-up Pinto (a friend's older brother owned one for a couple of weeks, before unloading it on the next gas-addled doofus hoping to score with a cheerleader). To make matters worse, he's got "Brandy (You're A Fine Girl)" cranked, while the chick beside him whoops and hollers with noninfectious glee.

I took from this that Pratt's Peter was due to discover two unpleasant truths about his parents -- daddy-o is an inveterate sleaze (no surprises here), while dearly-departed ma was evidently not one of the brighter bulbs in the chandelier of humanity. Hey, there's plenty of good material to be mined from such a promising vein -- in fact, the writers who've stepped into the Guardians comic book stable are generally squalid enough in their instincts to make something amusing from their characters' darkest disappointments and insecurities.

Not so the movie writers, alas. Earnestness and easy sentiment -- "Every meanie in the galaxy is just a misunderstood child, except for Bad Old Dad!" -- overrules everything. Nobody so much as sniggered when Ego recited the lyrics of "Brandy" as if they were akin to Homer's laments. Perhaps this is what the omnipresence of the comic book universe has wrought -- po-faced recitals of pop culture ephemera taken at face value, while the narrative source code deteriorates from bit-rot and recedes from memory.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Editors and Authors

When I was young and full of literary piss and vinegar, I gave several of my short stories to a friend who was taking courses to become an editor. I got them back with the expected red ink, and followed through on her suggestions. To my surprise and delight, her reading of what made my work "work" was spot-on. She improved my writing.

I've meditated on this experience a great deal over the years. It opened my eyes to what goes on behind the wizard's curtain in pro publishing -- where she quickly found a job and soared to the top, editing some of this country's most recognizable names.* Happy as I am to throw my words into the digital realm without any outside interference whatsoever, this relationship -- between writer and editor -- is the one element of pro publishing that I still view with wistful longing.

It is not the easiest relationship, of course -- there is a long and colourful history of quiet and not-so-quiet disputes between author and editor, the latest chapter of which is a collection of epistolary emails between editor Fred Ramey and novelist Marc Estrin, called The Insect Dialogues.

Ramey, who edited Estrin's initial 900-page draft to a snappy book that clocked in beneath 300, is in the unusual position of seeing his charge's first draft come to public light -- through the wondrous advent of easy, inexpensive self-publishing. Both versions are, apparently, readable -- Estrin, though hardly a household name, is no slouch as a writer. But which is "better"?

Over at Slate, Colin Dickey does a terrific job of surveying the ideological and aesthetic no-man's-land these three books expose -- highly recommended.
*She's gone freelance now. If you're trying to "break out" give her a note and tell her I sent you.

Misunderstood Alien

Over at VICE, Corey Atad sez cinematic universes are killing film as we know it, citing the latest Alien chapter as proof.
I haven't yet seen Alien: Covenant, but I'm fairly confident I'll enjoy it more than I would any of the sequels to the original Fast & Furious,* which Atad gives a pass.

This weekend I'll be queuing up the previous Alien films** and giving them another look. I can't say how many times I've watched all except the most recent -- it's likely in the single digits, though the first might well be more than that. I find them all visually interesting and unique. The story architecture is identical throughout, but as Peter Sobczynski points out, "Each film has changed things up each time by taking the basic formula of what one can rightly expect in an 'Alien' film and filtering it through different stylistic, narrative and philosophical approaches, in order to give viewers new ideas to contemplate and new terrors to leave them shivering in their seats."

They're ambitious genre films, in other words. More, please.***

*I saw the first in theatres. Can't say I remember much of what went on -- Michelle Rodriguez excepted, of course.

**Minus the AvP series, which is best viewed through an ironic lens.

***"These creatures are to biological life what antimatter is to matter." Someone please greenlight the William Gibson script for Alien 3.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Digital horizons, and guitar amplifiers

I was astonished to see a digital modelling guitar amp given high-profile prestige coverage by Quartz, of all venues.
Quartz isn't your usual destination for guitar gear appraisal, for one thing. More than that, digital modelling amps are generally considered "entry-level" items. They are light-weight in every sense of the word, and typically sell for less than $1000 (usually around half that amount). In other words, if you've got a 13-year-old who's been dilligent about attending lessons and practicing guitar, this is the sort of thing you reward the kid with.

Or if you are (as I'm assuming writer Mike Murphy is) a Neil Young fan with a few bucks to spare on your burgeoning future as an amateur musician, this is the sort of thing you reward yourself with.

I can't claim to be a Young fan, myself -- I don't dislike him, but I don't often willingly queue him up. That said, even I know Neil would never give this device the time of day. He loves old Fender Mustang amps for the same reason he loves old cars with finnicky carburetors -- he knows he can actually get his hands under the hood and tweak as the spirit leads him.

For those of us who don't have that same urge to feel tubes and wires with our fingertips and inhale the ephemera of hot soldering wire, digital modelling amps present an Aladdin's cave of wonders. Digital modelling is its own artform -- to get it to the point where even Shakey couldn't tell the difference between hot tubes and cold zeros-and-ones requires two or three times the cost of the Mustang GT. That is changing with the speed we've come to expect from digital innovation, and there are a number of models on this device that fool my ears. Throw in any combination of dozens of effects, and the possibilities become dizzying.

The most remarkable toolkit in this particular amp, however, ekes out sounds that are utterly distinct -- tones and utterations that cannot be produced by anything but digital means. If you skip to the 9:00 mark on the Quartz/Fender video you'll get some idea of the potential. It's too early to declare this THE FUTURE!! of digital tone-shaping for guitar, but I have to wonder what an enterprising kid might make of this potential.

Amp modelling is a noble calling -- anyone who makes elite and fiscally-out-of-reach tone-shaping immediately accessible to enterprising musicians on a tight budget is doing commendable work. But it strikes me that digital potential could reach well beyond "mere" modelling. Where is the digital horizon for guitar tone-shaping?

Friday, May 05, 2017

Dreams and Podcasts

I recently dreamed I was being given a bus-seat-eye's-view of an old town built in a hilly, verdant geography. It was a sunny day with deep blue skies. The houses were similar in vintage and construction to the one I live in. The colours vibrant, textures palpable. As I toured, I marveled that my brain -- which, when awake, could not possibly be relied upon to catalogue the items in a room I've dwelt in for the past 20 years -- was somehow conjuring a setting intimately baroque in its every detail.

Dreamscapes (for me, at least) usually have blurred edges. This one did not. It had identifiable horizons that promised further details and wonders, if I could only stay and explore.

The next day I listened to this interview with Robert Lanza. It is the briefest of précis of what appears to be (again, for me) an intellectually challenging theory, so I am not at all confident I've caught the gist of what Lanza is saying. But the nearly immediate juxtaposition of the dream and interview was an enjoyable coincidence.

CBC Ideas with Paul Kennedy: Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness and the Illusion of Death, interview with Dr. Robert Lanza, here.

The image above is a still from Dreamscape, a short film by Richard Wakefield. Check it out here.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Of concerts, setlists and Infernal Devices

I can't recall the circumstances that prompted me -- likely a favourite jam improbably kicked out by the Infernal Device's dodgy randomizer -- but when I consulted the webz to see how Eddie Spaghetti was faring I was informed the Supersuckers were due to perform in Toronto in two nights' time. If the cancer didn't kill him, this tour just might.
Hoisting the 'horns', even as he plays.
The evening's soporific put me in a nostalgic mood, and for a moment I considered booking the ticket. I consulted the calendar. My commitments made attending the concert formidably difficult, but certainly not impossible.

I begged out, however. Making the calls to reschedule, then committing myself to two-plus hours of driving for a Tuesday night concert in a venue almost as difficult for an out-of-towner to get to as this one -- if you throw in the fact that I no longer imbibe at these affairs, the likelihood of me feeling pissed with myself as I negotiated physical discomfort on the venue floor was very high indeed. I did the next best thing -- bought a T-shirt on-line and loaded the setlist onto my Infernal Device. is quite the gift to music nerds. I've used it to fill in the blanks on shows I've seen and songs I'm not familiar with. And now, more often than not, I use it to put together these sorts of playlists of favourite performers I won't be seeing. Sometimes an act will throw in a song I've always found inexplicable -- the appeal of which becomes clearer during the performance. The concert environment can't be squeezed through a headset while mopping floors, of course, but often the order of play is enough to transmit glimmers of the magic afoot in those elsewhere moments.

Listening to the setlist of the current Supersuckers tour, I realized the night was almost certainly a thrill for those in attendance -- to my ears it was the ideal set. Have I any regrets? Mm . . .