Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Does Star Wars need saving?

J.C. Macek III asks, “Can Star Wars be saved?”

I didn't think it was a franchise that needed saving — one so-so box office return hardly spells inevitable doom, to my mind — but it's entirely possible I'm wrong.

Star Wars is a massive intellectual property — not counting the movies, there are several TV series, voluminous (and on-going) comic book runs, video games and, of course, an expanding library of novels set in the expanded universe.

The catch to its saleability, however, is that its appeal is almost strictly North American. Unlike its rival/bedmate, the Marvel Comics Universe, the international audience for the Star Was Universe is scant to the point of insignificance. So if a Star Wars film tanks at home, it tanks — period.

That means Star Wars is losing its audience.

Disney does not want that.

Macek's screed is predominantly a rant — but an exceedingly well-informed rant. The points he scores are criticisms that never would have occurred to me because I haven't read more than a handful of the expanded universe novels. In a throw-away comment in my review of The Last Jedi I said, “If you have a jones for thematic exploration, you'll love it; if consistent world-building is more your thing, this movie will make you crazy.”
To wit.
Continuity and consistency are a very big deal to Macek, and I think his is a voice that ought to be considered by the suits at the whiteboard. I flip-flop rather egregiously on the issue of continuity. If the visual panache is sweeping enough and delivers emotional punch, I'll give continuity concerns a pass. If the heartstrings aren't tugged, I suddenly get tetchy about continuity.

I'm a hypocrite, in other words (what else is new?). But follow the money. Listen to Macek.

Also, listen to SWU continuity cop Leland Chee. Keep this guy in the boardroom and mebbe ask him which of the expanded universe properties resonate (hey, you recently acknowledged the value of The Clone Wars — now that's what I'm talking about!). Those are the elements, I would think, that you want to bring in and nurture.

“I was writing about self-deception, and deceiving myself while I was doing it.”

Logged in last week to see a picture of my friend situated beneath the crummiest headline imaginable. Now his family, colleagues and friends — including me — are recalibrating.

I have been listening to this collection of 24 T Bone Burnett songs — a lot.

“I’ve written a lot of really tough songs; I’ve been really tough on my characters a lot of times. But at the same time I know that any discussion of morality begins with one’s self, and the person I was really dealing with in all those songs was myself.”*
Burnett’s reticence toward these songs contributes to their draw, for me.

Some of his ambivalence (to put it mildly) has to do with production issues — of the eight songs he included in his 40 song retrospective from 2006, Burnett went back into the studio and painstakingly re-recorded five.
But Burnett’s aversion to revisiting the rest of this material feels more personal. He seems to dislike the young punk situated in that particular time and place, the dude who had the brass to give direct expression to his darkest shadows and commit it all to the reel-to-reel.
“All these songs are about ridiculous people. ‘Strange Combination’ is about an awful person. [‘Amnesia And Jealousy (Oh! Lana!)’] is about a terrible person. ‘Having A Wonderful Time, Wish You Were Her’ is a completely sardonic song addressed to a phony lover. The only thing close to redeeming is ‘My Life And The Women Who Lived It,’ but even the title is kind of a horrible thought.
“Is there a moment of light on this record? I don’t think so. I was just starting to come out of a dark personal time, and was working these things out of my system. My original title was Beneath The Trap Door. That’s how it felt.”**
Ridiculous, terrible people — people I can nevertheless to some degree recognize within myself. Pretty much exactly what I need to hear right now.

*Blog heading and LA Times quote are from T Bone Burnett: A Life In Pursuit, Lloyd Sachs.

**Liner notes to the 2007 re-release of Trap Door/Proof Through The Night/Behind The Trap Door.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Facebook sucks — do you have a newsletter?

Facebook seems to have reached some sort of tipping-point.
Maybe not this bad. But still...
I don't think there's any need for me to go over the scary headlines about the evil unleashed on this fair planet by the blue-and-white behemoth — heritage media claims of FB's villainy and calumny strike me as just a tad overblown. My beef with Zuckerberg is personal. The worst shift in Facebook isn't just that it's become a platform strictly for “The Olds,” but that we Olds have become the shrill, reactionary nitwits we once thought the exclusive domain of extreme youth. You made it possible, Zuck — well done!

And speaking as someone who can appreciate an economical line of code — who are the engineers who came up with the Facebook feed algorithm? These people have somehow zeroed in on delivering me only the stuff I have absolutely no interest in — what a rare, miraculous feat!

I miss email.

Oh, sure — we still have it. But our exchanges on it have become truncated and perfunctory — inadequate, really. The digital revolution seems to make every human interaction inadequate.

Remember the early days of email? It was like opening a letter you'd received in your mailbox, only better.

No, seriously — back in the days of pen and paper, receiving a good letter might inspire you to respond in kind. But the odds were against it. You had to find your own pen and paper. Then you had to sit at a table and think. And write.

Email was better. You had the letter right there in front of you, provoking all manner of thought and emotion. And you didn't have an excuse to not respond — while you were reading, the means to respond was physically at your fingertips. Your fingers might never fly as quickly as your thoughts, but they often came close. Revisionist Mennonite history, beach party movies, gloriously awful Christmas music, erotic kung-fu fan-fic generated by the Sunday funnies — anything could trigger a voluminous epistolary exchange that might run for days or weeks at a time.

Our species never got closer to a true meeting of two or more minds than during the early days of email.

There's no going back, of course — the promise of email has been eviscerated by the anxiety of the present. As has the initial promise of Facebook.

Beloved Facebook peeps — I apologize. You've been posting some amazing links, beautiful pictures, moving stories. I know I haven't been hitting “Like” nearly as often as I should. But the truth is if I have to search for it — if it doesn't show up in my feed, because Zuck's algorithm doesn't think it's worth his time — I'm not gonna look at it. Please forgive me.

And I know that is just as true for you also.
I want to see pictures of your family, the cover of the book you're reading during vacation, the band that's got you pumped. It'd be great if I could get a quick update on what you're doing — doesn't need to be more than a word or four (“Getting married! So exciting!” (with accompanying picture, of course)). Doesn't have to be more than once a week, or even once a month — unless you're keen to do more, in which case go for it.

If only there was an alternative to Facebook.

Oh, but there is — the newsletter.

I've subscribed to dozens of newsletters over the years — I've probably unsubscribed from a few dozen also. But if the tone is engaging (read: “personal”) and there exists at least the possibility, if not the probability, of surprise, then I want that newsletter in my email box.

For my virtual money, nobody does this better than Warren Ellis.

When it comes to pro writing, the guy is killer prolific — I could never hope to keep up with his output, and usually resign myself to sampling the occasional finished comic (James Bond: Vargr was a welcome palliative to the last three movies, and it's lovely that Ellis' early masterpiece Ultimate Galactus (which has subsequently gone on to influence everything) is widely available thanks to the webz).

But I look forward to his Sunday evening newsletter with the same anticipation I had as a child waiting for Hymn Sing to end so The Wonderful World of Disney could begin.

Not sure why, exactly. Ellis chatters about stuff I can only dimly relate to. But he's pleasant about it. He's like a Mr. Rogers for the weird — and I want to be his neighbor.
Although that business about "good fences" probably applies.
Anyhoo, his is the direction I hope to take this blog, at least for the time being. Wind seems to have left my writerly sails — not entirely (obviously) but certainly quite significantly. I shall let them luff whilst I (hopefully) attend to the personal work necessary. I'm still committed to weekly updates, but they might be pictures of a book off my shelf, or a CD I'm currently keen on, with maybe one or two links that have me cogitating.

In the meantime, give some thought to your own newsletter. Then let me know when you take the plunge.

Facebook sucks. We've got the means to do better — so ... why not?

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Humour me: Coriolanus and The Glass Menagerie

Even the heaviest plays contain some elements of humour and levity — though often only the savviest of directors and cast tease those out.
Stick with me...
My wife and I attended two plays usually given austere treatment — Shakespeare's Coriolanus and Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. In our case both productions were intelligently teased apart to yield insight and, yes, laughter, where lesser talents have plodded directly into the morass. Both plays are tragedies, but the humour — even if it is ironic — is finally what makes a production humane and relatible.

Robert Lepage's Stratford production of Coriolanus is sensational and not to be missed. Lepage's enthusiasm for designing dynamic set-pieces is put to excellent effect.
The play is given a contemporary setting, and a fifth-act exchange of texts between two soldiers is guaranteed to bring down the house. Lepage and cast clearly understand that Coriolanus' twin defects are his pride — he is a gifted soldier, but also a belligerent moralist and a stiff — and his entitled status as a mama's boy. The latter is played to great effect, keeping audience reception warm and engaged.

Menagerie's Tom Wingfield is also a mama's boy, albeit one whose sense of entitlement is deliberately leading him out of the family fold.
Most productions feature Tom in a remorseless state of pique, well past receptivity to any of his mother's expressions of love — which are fraught, to be sure, but needn't be played with po-faced “Mommie Dearest” hideousness. Annette Stokes Harris' and Michael Serres' direction of Menagerie for Port Perry's Theatre On The Ridge artfully avoids that temptation.

You can't rewrite the play — Tom is clearly beyond ready to leave — but Liam Lynch embodies Tom with a fading, but still present, awareness of his mother's love, as well as his for her. Where other actors present a seething mien when Amanda spins off into yet another southern belle reverie, Lynch lets slip a reluctant smile, and the sense that his initially sarcastic response to her play-acting is a mask he wears for his own sake, and occasionally slips as the three Wingfields settle into their co-dependent fortress.

Full disclosure: Annette and Michael are our dear friends. My wife and I enjoy their company, in large part because they embody the creative/collaborative spirit. With Theatre On The Ridge they have pulled together a cast of up-and-coming actors-on-the-cusp, and the results for Menagerie are utterly spectacular. Lexi MacCrae, Michael Williamson and Lynch are all advanced students in, or recent graduates of, esteemed drama programs — the fusion of youthful energy/hunger with the keenness to go pro must have been an absolute gas for our friends to work with, and it shows.

The concluding performance of The Glass Menagerie is tomorrow, 7:30 at Port Perry's Townhall Theatre. Don't miss it.

Coriolanus runs until October 25, in Stratford, Ontario.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Anniversary 'Airborn' covers by Jim Tierney

While browsing the bookstore shelf the other day, I noticed that Kenneth Oppel's fabulous Airborn trilogy has finally received the cover art it deserves, via Jim Tierney.
If Tierney's aesthetic seems familiar, it's because he's become a justifiably high-profile cover artist. Here Tierney presents the trilogy's Edwardian High Adventure motif with just a whiff of the Steampunk jazz that Oppel so delightfully fused into it.

I wish I could transplant these covers to the jackets currently donning my hardcover copies of the trilogy. In the nine years since I initially discovered the books, I have revisited the stories many times. I've often thought the first book could be an excellent textbook for aspiring novelists of every stripe. Oppel's narrative architecture is patiently and meticulously laid out, giving the sincerity of his emotional investment an utterly persuasive heft. Write whatever the hell you want  if you can pare it down to Oppel's standard of disciplined delivery, you will be leagues ahead of 90% of what you see on fiction shelves.

LINKS: The ladies at BookWars duke it out over the various covers Airborn has received over the past 14 years, and declare a winner. Kenneth Oppel is on Twitter. He seems like an eminently approachable chap with a grounded sense of things  check him out, then check out his books.

House Of The Rising Sun, James Lee Burke

House of the Rising Sun (Hackberry Holland, #4)House of the Rising Sun by James Lee Burke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Burke's House of the Rising Sun is remarkable in that it contains two female protagonists possessed of complex, but understandable, motivations. Long-time readers of Burke will easily recognise the third and final act (nothing wrong with that: it works, and it works well), but the first two are built on a studied emotional subtlety that is sometimes missing in Burke's ever-expanding library. New readers and long-time fans should find this a very satisfying read.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Winnie-the-Pooh origins?

I couldn't say whether or not this "Heritage Canada" moment made it into the new movie...