Thursday, April 28, 2011

Machine Man

Thanks to the Blockbuster queue (my seven-year-old son calls it the Blockbuster “cube”), I saw a fantasy film last night that brings together many of the issues I’ve been blogging about of late: technology, spirituality, fatherhood. It was, of all things, Iron Man 2, and like its predecessor, it wasn’t half bad (even if, in the end, it was a bit muddled). Still, I’ll take it over The Dark Knight any day.

Iron Man 2 opens with gazillionaire Tony Stark hosting a revived “Stark Expo,” which his deceased father originated a quarter-century earlier. A showcase for his dad’s (and his own) technological utopianism, their belief that technology can make the world not only a better place but a perfect place, the Expo seems to be vindicated by the exploits of Stark’s alter-ego, Iron Man, who in a very short span of time has used his high-tech iron suit to bring about an unprecedented era of world peace. But the film undercuts Stark’s confidence by showing what’s going on behind the scenes: Iran and North Korea are trying (though at the moment failing) to build their own Iron Man weapons, Stark’s competitor for military contracts is creating Iron Man drones, and a rogue Russian physicist, memorably played by Mickey Rourke, has succeeded in reproducing the reactor technology his father co-designed with Stark’s father, enabling him to wear and wield a high-voltage reactor weapon. Meanwhile, the reactor technology built into Stark’s own Iron Man suit, a technology that not only gives him super powers but keeps him alive, is also slowly killing him as its radioactive elements leech into his bloodstream. All is not well, it appears, in the world that technology has built.

But then, with the introduction of a home-movie lecture from Stark’s father, the film shifts, suggesting that technology is indeed not only a panacea but may well be divine. Looking directly at the camera (and at his son, who’s watching the home movie), the absent father, who in life was too busy with his experiments to pay attention to his young son, reveals to his grown heir the sub-atomic secrets he himself was unable to unlock due to technological limitations. Armed with his father’s knowledge and the technological advances of our own day, Tony manages with ridiculous ease to produce a particle accelerator that creates a new element, one capable of keeping his heart beating without destructive side effects. In other words, the Starks, father and son, become gods, creating new matter and new life. Faith in technology--and in fatherhood--seems safe once more.

And yet, in another turn, the Stark demons come home to roost when Iron Man must face an army of the drones his own technology has enabled his competitors and enemies to create. He triumphs, of course, with the help of his trusty African-American sidekick (a racial stereotype the film could well have done without), but only after the drones, as well as the good guys’ efforts to defeat them, have caused untold chaos. So we’re left with a very ambiguous message, wherein advanced technology both saves and destroys, brings both peace and war, serves both God and Satan (not to mention Mammon).

What I like about the Iron Man movies is this ambiguity, or ambivalence, or even (to be less charitable) this confused, have-one’s-cake-and-eat-it-too mentality. Unlike the Batman movies, which trot out simplistic propositions about life and refuse to challenge or undermine them, the Iron Man films question their own conventional wisdom, their own sacred truths, even their own vested interests. (Let’s not forget, after all, that the cinema itself is a highly advanced technology, and any film that traffics in technological utopianism and/or dystopianism implicitly fingers its own medium. The Iron Man movies make this connection explicit, as everything in Tony Stark’s world--his phone, his coffee table, the interior of his suit, even the air around him--is transformed into the equivalent of a handheld, wireless touch-screen.) So where the Batman films are screaming at the top of their lungs “Life is complicated!”, but doing nothing to visualize or, for that matter, complicate such complexity, the Iron Man films are showing us something of that complexity in the texture of the films themselves. In that respect, these films are heirs to a long and honorable fantasy-film tradition, going back to Metropolis and The Wizard of Oz and forward to Alien, Blade Runner, RoboCop, and others, in which technology becomes both medium and means for reflecting on matters of church and state, machine and man, faith and fantasy--including our culture’s faith in the fantasy of film itself.

This doesn’t make these films masterpieces. But it does make them worth watching--just as the issues they address are worth watching out for.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hollywood Fatherhood; or, Bad Dads

For some time I’ve been fascinated, and increasingly frustrated, by Hollywood’s love affair with fathers. From the start, the film industry has been heavily invested in the assertion of patriarchal authority, generally by portraying fathers as the ultimate source of benevolence, wisdom, and social cohesion. Since the eighties, though, the theme has shifted somewhat: fathers are frequently portrayed as two-bit bums, scoundrels, even monsters who ultimately, through some life-transforming experience usually involving time spent with annoying young children, become icons of fatherliness. It’s as if all the contemporary concerns about “deadbeat dads,” the degradation of the male role in minority communities, and other indications of patriarchal fault lines in the culture are being enacted and then wished away through the magic of the movies.

I was thinking about this when I watched the latest movie on our Blockbuster queue, “The Game Plan.” It’s about a self-centered quarterback who discovers he has an insufferably cute eight-year-old daughter by a previous marriage; inevitably, this egomaniac (played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) becomes a model parent, the kind of guy who’d give up a $25 million endorsement to spend an afternoon with his little girl. It’s the same plot, all else being equal, of half the films on my bookshelf: “A Night at the Museum,” “Shrek 4,” “Jurassic Park” (parts 1 and 2), “War of the Worlds,” “Big Daddy,” “Tron: Legacy,” “Despicable Me,” even, for God’s sake, “The Simpsons Movie.” Granted, that last one plays some riffs on the theme, but unless my DVD collection is wildly out of step with the rest of the nation, this appears to be a trend.

I’m a dad. I’m a pretty good dad, if I do say so myself. I spend tons of time with my kids, read to them, play with them, support them, encourage them, hug them, tell them I love them; I don’t ignore them, abuse them, demean them, deny them. But I’m also human, and I do have to balance my own needs with theirs; I can’t always put aside everything for them or find complete and total fulfillment in them. This makes me, according to Hollywood, a Bad Dad. So I’ve got to be whipped into shape, subjected to an endless barrage of reminders that Dads are the rock (“The Rock”) upon which civilization rests and without which it would crumble. I’ve got to be treated to the Hollywood obsession with simultaneously glorifying and demonizing Dads, fingering them as failures unless they live up to an unrealistic ideal every moment of their lives.

Maybe I’m just watching the wrong movies. But then, there is no film of which I’m aware called “Mother Knows Best.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Greediest Generation

Journalist Tom Brokaw famously dubbed the generation that came of age during the Depression and World War II "The Greatest Generation." This was a group of people with the wisdom to face these two global evils, the courage to confront them, and the selflessness to accept the sacrifices meeting them entailed.

By those standards, I guess you'd have to call the present generation of so-called grown-ups in this country "The Greediest Generation."

I was reminded of this when I read that all but one of the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted to deny the reality of global warming, regardless of cause. Yep, they actually voted--nary a climatologist in the bunch--to deny that global warming exists.

The hubris of such a vote is nearly unfathomable. It's as if they'd voted to deny that the earth revolves around the sun.

Beyond this, such a vote is strikingly stupid.

To put it in perspective, let's imagine these clowns had been in the House during our grandparents' time. They decide to take a vote on the reality of the Depression. Sure, lots of folks are out of work, the banks are bankrupt, the breadlines are growing, the breadbasket is blowing away in a cloud of dust, but is the Depression really real?

Nope, we don't think so.

And what about those politically-motivated rumors of war over in distant Europe? They say some guy named Hitler invaded Poland; that he's currently bombing England and France; that his tanks are in North Africa; that he's moving on Stalingrad? Let's take a vote on it.

No, there's no war.

We can deny all we want. We can even legitimize our denial through the political process.

But we can't change the nature of reality. It'll always be there, silent and irresistible, to show us when we're wrong.

Monday, April 18, 2011


I had another short story accepted for publication yesterday, in a print anthology titled Beyond the Grave, to be published by Static Movement. The title of my story, "Aphasia," might not seem to have a lot to do with beyond-the-grave stuff, but trust me: read it and it'll all make sense! I'll let you know when it's published so you can do just that.

This'll be my third anthologized work, which I've found is a nifty way to get genre fiction in print: there are many small publishers producing many, many themed anthologies, and they're always looking for more. They don't pay as well as some of the genre magazines, but who cares? I'm in this for the love, not the money.

Good thing, too; I think my royalties from last year were a whopping $14.86. Needless to say, I don't plan to quit my day job anytime soon.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Novel Idea

Well, I did it. I really did. It's done, and I did it.

What did I do?

I wrote a novel!

Yep, just finished it yesterday. Four hundred and twenty-five manuscript pages, about 93,000 words, twenty chapters plus a prologue and epilogue, title page and epigraphs and table of contents and everything. It's not done done--that is, I still need to revise it--but it's completed.

I know, I know, people write novels every day. So what's the big deal?

Well, people may do it every day, but I haven't done it since college.


That's almost twenty-five years ago. I've started a couple since then (including one in the summer of 2009), but they've all fizzled. Call it work, call it family, call it lack of inspiration (or talent), call it whatever you want to call it, but for the past quarter-century I haven't been able to muster the time, energy, and perseverance to complete anything longer than a short story.

Until now.

So for me, at least, this is an auspicious occasion. Whether this thing ever finds a publisher, as of course I hope it does, is secondary to the fact that I've proved to myself I can still do it.

So congrats to me, pats on the back, parties and parades, all that stuff.

Now back to work.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Dreck Knight

The word on the street is that the next Batman movie is going to be filmed right here in my hometown of Pittsburgh.

My advice to the producers: don't bother.

After what seems years of hearing that The Dark Knight is a must-see movie, one of the classics of the fantasy/action genre, a gritty, atmospheric mood piece anchored by Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance as the Joker, I finally saw the thing on DVD.

My reaction: yawn.

I'll freely admit I've never been a fan of "the Batman" (as those who are serious about this drivel refer to him). I never read the comics; I watched the TV series but was too young and, I guess, too straight to catch the camp; I found the Tim Burton films (with Pittsburgh's own Michael Keaton) pleasantly silly but nothing more; and I find the Frank Miller Dark Knight hooey utterly pretentious and preposterous. So maybe I'm not the best person to ask about this particular film.

But come on! The whole Batman mythos is built around the idea that a guy who wears a costume and engages in vigilante justice is somehow making a profound statement about LIFE. In reality, though, the philosophy of the dark knight boils down to sophomoric propositions anyone over the age of ten could tell you. Like: GOOD PEOPLE SOMETIMES DO BAD THINGS! Wow. Deep. Or: LIFE IS UNPREDICTABLE AND RANDOM. Really? I didn't know that. Or my favorite: THERE IS GOOD AND EVIL IN ALL OF US!!!!! Now that one I'll have to think about for a while.

Putting one guy in a bat suit and another in clown make-up to "represent" these obvious, simplistic truths does not make them any more interesting. It merely illustrates how banal these truths truly are.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love lots of trashy fantasy films: Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, Dragonheart, Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans. I just don't get all serious about them and think they hold the answers to life.

I also happen to think there are many fantasy films that are eminently worth discussion as works of art: Alien, Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, and so on. Such films are both stylistically daring and thematically rich.

The Batman films, alas, are neither.

But maybe I'm being unkind. After all, in The Dark Knight, there's a character, Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face), who gets badly burned so that one half of his face is skeletal while the other is strikingly handsome. This represents the fact that THERE IS GOOD AND EVIL IN ALL OF US!!!!

Yep, there's one that'll keep me up nights.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Puppet Master

This whole business with the "independent" drilling inspectors has gotten me so worked up . . . I couldn't resist.