30 March 2018

Careless Memories

It would seem that 2018 is going to be the year that nostalgia truly rules. Roseanne is back on television, Def Leppard and Journey are playing a summer stadium tour, and a lot of the fashion trends thought dead and buried more than three decades ago are sprouting up again (for better or worse!).

But the granddaddy of all nostalgia trips is making the leap from page to screen this week, so that’s what I’m here to talk about. Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One takes place in a dystopian near-future where a true energy crisis has hit the planet, leaving people stranded at home, even for work. The only way to go anywhere is virtually, though a massive online construct called the OASIS. Through this framework, a story unfolds following (of course) the unlikely heroics of the book’s protagonist, a self-described overweight kid who’s greatest relief was when school moved online so that he could get away from real-life bullies.

If you don’t know the story by now, with all the coverage of the movie, here’s the nutshell version: An eccentric Steve Jobs-type video game creator, the man that started the OASIS, dies and leaves a message for the whole world. Out there, in his virtual creation, he’s hidden an Easter egg and clues to get to it. Whoever gets there first becomes the owner of the OASIS and, oh yeah, a couple hundred billion dollars to boot. Our protagonist – Wade Watts, because his dad was a fan of Stan Lee-style alliteration – becomes an egg-hunter, or gunter for short, with the dreams of winning this spectacular contest. He does so with the help of a few friends, while battling the evil corporation trying to take control of the OASIS for their own nefarious plans – which are basically focused around putting the whole thing behind a pay-wall and selling ad-space.

Okay, all caught up? Up to this point, the book and the film are tracking perfectly. This is the spine of the story, and that spine remains true. But the rest of the skeleton, and the muscles, tendons, organs, and skin that make up the rest of the body of work couldn’t really be much more different.

(**Spoilers for both book and movie ahead, but I’ll try to keep them minor**)

In the book, the challenges to find the three keys are much more cerebral. That’s not to say smarter, but they involve more sleuthing than their movie counterparts. The first key, for instance, is located in a hidden replica of a Dungeons & Dragons expansion, where the seeker then has to battle a demon king in…an arcade game. In the film, as promised by the very earliest of teaser trailers, the challenge consists of an all-out, no-holds-barred race instead.

I’m not going to go point by point and compare and contrast. The gist boils down to this: The book deals more with problem-solving, working things out in your head, piecing puzzles together. The movie has puzzles, too, but they’re more color-by-number visual situations than brain teasers. Basically, finding the Easter egg in the movie requires…finding Easter eggs in movies.

There is, and will continue to be, a lot of debate over whether the changes made in the translation from page to screen are any good. Personally, I told a group of friends a few months ago that I was keeping my expectations low because I knew there was no way they could pull it off by staying true to the book. But after I said that, it dawned on me that I was looking at it wrong. Yes, the film took its cues from the book, but it’s a separate beast. It was never going to be a direct adaptation. And if it didn’t work, the book wasn’t going anywhere. If I preferred that, it was always going to be there for me to go back to.

The movie doesn’t delve into any deep secrets of the universe, though it tries to be philosophical toward the end. It’s filled with visual spectacle and so many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references, I think it’s destined to be one of the most freeze-framed movies ever. But it’s a Spielberg film targets at younger (not kids, but younger) audiences. You know what you’re going to get going in, and if you have that mindset, you won’t be disappointed. If you go in with a checklist from the book, then you’re setting yourself up for frustration. And I guess if that’s your goal, you won’t be disappointed in that case, either.

I do have a few honest complaints about the movie itself, separate from comparing it to the book. Mark Rylance as James Halliday didn’t work for me. I’m confident Rylance did exactly what Speilberg wanted, but the character is supposed to be a Steve Jobs-like character with a social awkwardness that became a recluse later in life. But he had no charisma, just the awkwardness. I can’t fathom how this character would become a household name that people would recognize like Jobs was. I think they just tipped the scales too far in that direction.

Similarly, I think Ben Mendelsohn’s villain, Sorrento, was very one-dimensional. He didn’t seem smart enough to be leading a corporate division, because he barely seemed competent enough to use the restroom without someone showing him how the door worked. It felt like a bit of a waste of a talented actor in a bit part that was actually a really important role.

T.J. Miller, on the other hand, was really amusing for a guy that never once appeared on screen. He was just voicing a digital thug in the film, but he was such a “gamer dumbass” type that it just worked perfectly. His character was engrossed in his virtual character, so much so that I imagine him to be the type that forgets he doesn’t really look like that when he’s in the real world.

On the hero side, the leads all did their jobs well. Nothing groundbreaking, but not really any stumbles, either. There’s a lot of story to be told and, even in nearly two and a half hours, there’s not a lot of time to focus on building the characters. This is one place the book has an advantage over the film. Told in the first person, the book lets us focus on Wade, to get to know him, his thoughts, and his motivations. But if they tried to be that centered in the film, the filmmakers would get crucified for making the other characters secondary. That’s part of the world we live in now.

Cline’s original book was a love-letter to all the things Cline loved as a kid, from the video games to the movies to the music to the pizza joints with a few coin-op machines in the back room. The movie is also a love-letter, this time to all the visual spectacle of the summer blockbusters that have come to define movies of a new generation. It’s different from the book, but that’s okay, because of one really big reason, in my estimation. As one of the screenwriters, the movie is still an Ernest Cline love-letter.

28 February 2018

Where Have All The Good Times Gone

When do we stop liking “new” music? I never wanted to be that guy that just keeps listening to the same stuff over and over, but here I am. And I don’t just mean genres, either.

After listening to a group of younger folks talking about new artists this past weekend, I realized I had no idea who about ¾ of the names were. And the names I did know, I knew for the wrong reasons (usually tabloid headlines). So when does this happen to us?

CC DeVille of Poison - St. Louis, MO - 2017


Strangely, there does appear to be an answer. A study published a few years ago found that most people tend to stop going after new music and circle back on “coming of age” favorites when they reach about 33 years old. Men are less likely to listen to newer music than women, but the median age still averages out about the same.

But what that doesn’t explain, really, is why. Over the last few days, I’ve had the SiriusXM radio streaming at work. Rather than my fall-backs of Hair Nation, Ozzy’s Boneyard, or even Turbo, I put on Octane to see what’s new in the genre I love – hard rock and heavy metal. And none of it was bad, not a one of the songs was something I would point to and say “what the hell is that???” The problem, for me, is that none of them stood out enough to get that far. It all just sounded the same.

Doing the concert photography thing, I’ve found myself hanging out with photographers generally younger than me (getting into the game late). I get excited when the bands of my youth are coming back to town – Poison and Def Leppard and Judas Priest are all coming through my area, and I hope to be in the pit with them! But when newer bands, bands that excite my fellow shooters – Queens of the Stone Age, MGMT, Muse – come through, I’m looking to shoot those shows because I know their popular and I want them for my portfolio and to attract people to my work. It’s not that I have any problems with the music, it just doesn’t excite me.

The flip-side is that I feel the same way about what I see as “legacy” acts coming through – the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Chicago. These are bands that are legendary, but they’re before my time. I want to cover the shows for the prestige of having them in my collection, but not for the show itself. (And even committing these words to the electronic ether, I run the risk of it getting back to a publicist and having them say “well, if you don’t really want to be there…” But that’s a chance I’ll take.)

The thing is, these are all bands that fall into the circle of music I should like. Old and new, these are rock acts. But only some of them are mine. There are a few exceptions. I’ve really gotten to like The Struts, and Ghost from Sweden. A few others are pulling at my attention, we’ll see if they latch on.

Luke Spiller of The Struts - Champaign, IL - 2017


I don’t know what it is in out sort-of evolved primate brains that, at a certain point, we just say “nope, that’s enough. I like what I like and all this other stuff is just white noise that won’t get through my filters.” I don’t really like having those filters, but it really seems deeply ingrained. I’m trying to break it and shake it, but I just keep coming back to what I know.

Just my rambling thoughts for a Wednesday afternoon.

12 January 2018

Disposable Heroes (pt 1)

I’m going to start this off by saying this is going to be an incredibly geek-centric writing. I think it’s applicable to a lot of things, but it’s being fueled in large part by some of the debate around the newest STAR WARS film, “The Last Jedi.” You can expect spoilers for that movie, also, so don’t say I didn’t warn you!

It’s been roughly a month since the latest film from the galaxy far, far away landed in theatres near, nearby. As is easily predictable, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth among “fans” on the internet. I put that in quotes because there seems to be a sub-culture of movie-goers who call themselves fans, but who seem to take an inordinate amount of pride in expressing their hatred for the product. I’m sure this sort of thing has always existed, but the internet has given them a broader platform and a louder microphone. But that’s a subject for a different day.

Today, I’ve been thinking about one of the chief complaints coming from this group: The characterization of Luke Skywalker in the film. In this movie, the character is a curmudgeon, living in a self-imposed exile and fully intending to stay that way. This is – or more correctly, appears to be – contrary to his characterization from the original films. The original films showed the character change from an idealistic kid to a skilled soldier to a self-confident warrior. But throughout that arc, one trait he had was his optimism: I’m going to save the princess, I’m going to help my friends, I’m going to redeem my father.

This is the crux of the issue, though, in my opinion. In-character, everything that Skywalker did in the original films was for himself. He wanted to leave home. He wanted to help his friends. He wanted to save his father from what he perceived as the twisting of the Emperor. Never in any of those adventures did he say “I have to do this to save the galaxy!” And that’s what he’s being called on to do in the new film. That’s what he says he won’t do. He’s told he has to redeem his nephew not for the sake of redemption, but for the sake of galaxy. And he says, point-blank, that’s not who he is. The rest of the universe sees him as a legend, and when he started to believe that, that was his hubris, and his failure that created this monster in the first place. Saving the galaxy was never his quest.

Stepping out of the fictional word and into the world of the writer, the quest is the story to be looked at. The original films were all about the progression of this character. And his story was told. If they brought the character back to have him save the day, then all the complaints that swirled around the previous film – “The Force Awakens” – would be realized: rehashing the previous movies. Luke Skywalker, the hero on Joseph Campbell’s journey, doesn’t exist anymore. That story was told. This is a new story, and the character of Rey is on that journey. Skywalker has moved on to the role of the mentor, not the hero. From a story-telling point of view, he quite literally can NOT be the person to save the day, any more than Luke’s mentor, Obi-Wan, could have killed Darth Vader in the original film. It simply doesn’t work.

The legendary actor who portrays Skywalker, Mark Hamill, came out and expressed his own concerns over the portrayal of the character in this film. I admire him for speaking up, because so many actors are hesitant to say anything that isn’t complete, full-throated support for their projects. It’s a business, after all, and if you talk bad about your employers, you’re likely going to find yourself out of work. Hamill pulled back on his statements, though, saying how he felt differently after seeing the final product. Some people have taken this to mean he was threatened or paid to change his story. I have a tendency to take people at face value unless they give me a reason not to.

I don’t know Mr. Hamill, I’ve never met him, so this is pure speculation on my part, but I think his issues may have stemmed from the same thing that plagued his fictional counterpart. I think he began to see the character as the legend. Luke would never abandon the quest, would never leave the galaxy in peril, would never go off into hiding. But as they pointedly discuss in the film, that’s the legend, not the reality. I think Mark Hamill feels protective of this character, has taken custody of the character, and wants to make sure he’s handled respectfully. I think, like many of us, he has built up the character to an image in his own mind, and this movie has done to that image the same thing that has happened in the film itself – dissolved the myth and legend and left the man, or character, revealed for the flawed, “real” person he is. Strange as it is to say that about a fictional character, I think that’s what this film has done.

Maybe the true issue is that this is too deep to be dealt with in a STAR WARS film. I don’t know how to phrase this without being insulting, but perhaps writer/director Rian Johnson wrote something that’s simply smarter than the universe he was writing for. STAR WARS has always been a sword-and-sorcery fantasy film, the good guys on white horse versus the bad guys in black armor to save the princess trapped in the castle. The fact that there are ray guns and laser swords is just window dressing. But Johnson completely deconstructed the story of the Hero’s Journey and rebuilt it, using familiar pieces in different places that has rattled the foundations a number of the fans of the films have built up in their heads. Personally, I think it’s a brilliant move. I think it’s the right character progression, and avoids stagnation of story.

And that’s only his take on one iconic character.