Archive for January, 2014

The Cover That Started It All

When I was a kid, my parents brought home a word processor for our Apple //e computer called Bank Street Writer. The cover (see right) featured a proud mom and dad watching their little Virginia Woolf pump out pages and pages of fiction on the dot-matrix printer.

That image did something to me. I wanted to be that girl so bad. Not because I sought the approval of mom and dad (I mean, I did, but they always gave it automatically), but because I loved the idea of such sheer output. Her fingers were producing work in the form of paper. What alchemy is this!?

Ever since, I’ve been fascinated with the imagery of writers at work. I have a photo of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ typewriter over my desk — not because she’s my favorite writer in the world, but because it’s a pretty picture (flowers in a vase, lovely crystal paperweight) and I love mechanical typewriters. (Not writing on them, although that’s fun, but the idea of their existence. They say William Gibson wrote the first draft of Neuromancer on a typewriter. Dude.)

I bristle hard at the notion of embracing the pretense of artistry without putting in the work. But I am deeply in love with the romantic ideal of the lone wordsmith, pounding out the symbols in a desperate attempt to convey some significant meaning. (It’s not quite the same magic when you’re actually doing it, of course.) I guess, so long as I continue writing, I get to also lust after the iconography of writers. WOO!

This Primus song is one of those: “The Pressman”

The universe can seem like a cold and terrifying place. Cosmos whirl and spin, hurling gas and fire into themselves with no concern for the life inside. Stars explode, burn up, die out. Wolves hunt to survive, red in tooth and claw. Even humans do wretched things with horrific abandon — conscience drained, or damned, or disavowed.

Sometimes in winter, grey skies obliterate the sun for weeks at a time. Frozen wetness slathers the ground in hard ice and slush, slipping pedestrians and skidding cars. We brace ourselves against biting wind, and our skin chafes against the raw, moistureless air.

Our entire existence can seem like a Sisyphean slog, as we yank each other off the ground for another day — another attempt to impose some positive outlook on this bleak landscape.

So when I had to stay late on Friday (which some teachers were able to take off completely), grading papers and filing final exam grades, I felt frustrated. The hands of fate had dealt me a rough card. Chained to my desk, I was annoyed at the temporal vampirism. I watched the sands of time drift away through the hourglass of my life.

But when Anemoi decides to provide me (and my nearby teacher friends) with a Super Bonus Weekend on the anniversary of my birth — well, that is evidence of a compassionate force in the universe, dropping little care packages of grace into our lives.

Thanks, universe. WOOOO time for video games!

Freedom Chemicals

According to Department of Environmental Protection officials, Freedom Industries is exempt from DEP inspections and permitting since it stores chemicals, and doesn’t produce them.

I love that the company responsible for the chemical spill in West Virginia is called “Freedom Industries”. You have the freedom to not drink your tap water, or bathe with it!

… yet on its About Us page, Freedom Industries says:

Freedom Industries is a full service producer of specialty chemicals […]

Why I Didn’t Like “The Hunger Games”

I finally watched the first Hunger Games movie last night, and unfortunately I was not impressed. Once again — as with Harry Potter, Twilight, and Divergent — I find myself somehow missing the enthusiasm and euphoria that so many people (especially my students) have for these stories.

My main gripe is conceptual: I don’t understand what the games have to do with keeping the districts from rebelling. If anything, watching some of their children get murdered seems to increase the likelihood of furious revolt. If spectacle is the point (as in Brave New World), where do gladiator-style deathmatches fit in? If brute force is the purpose (as in 1984), why bother with the elaborate process of drafting kids into postmodern murderball?

In the past when I complain about foundational bits like this (which make it impossible for me to suspend disbelief), I’ve been accused of “analyzing it too much” or clinging to other stories/series that I have emotional attachments to (usually because I found them in my youth). I guess I can’t deny these accusations, but I don’t think they make my problem invalid.

The story itself is fine. Don’t get me wrong — having pre-teens murder each other for public entertainment is great. The iconography of desperation and horrifying thrill of blood sport are well-depicted.

And, as Diane points out, Caithness is a hardcore kick-butt female lead (which is rare for Hollywood). I’m intrigued by the tension of pleasing people you hate in order to get sponsored, and by the Lord of the Flies-esque ruthlessness that shows up once all bets of civilization are off. (Not to mention the class conflict, the power of solidarity that emerges, and the stress of personal vs. family/social responsibility.) I did enjoy those bits enough to want to see future installments (which was not true of the Harry Potter books/films, after I consumed the first of each). 

Some might say that I done goofed by only watching the movie, not reading the book. As an English teacher, I accept that films tend to skimp on the backstory and sociopolitical context. Maybe I will read the book(s) at some point. On the other hand, someone who didn’t care for the movie version of V for Vendetta for similar reasons would not hear from me a demand that s/he read the book. Yes, there’s more depth in the text (much more), but it’s not drastically different from the basic setup in the movie. I suspect the same is true of The Hunger Games.

I will also recognize several other factors contributing to my distaste for this project. First of all, I feel a deep kinship for a long line of dystopian literature (as the allusions above demonstrate). I’ve been a huge SF fan my whole life, and I suppose there’s some resentment in me that this series is so popular, while Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano languish in obscurity. Even Fallout 3 does a better job, in my opinion, of contrasting the opulence of wealth against the terrors of deprivation among the masses. (Of course these comments make me sound like an obnoxious hipster, which frustrates even me.)

I will also admit that I feel sad being unable to join the crowd of people who love a thing so popular. In the same way that I felt powerful joy during the heyday of The Simpsons because I actually fit in with people who liked that show, I — despite many appearances to the contrary — really do want to like things that other people like. I’d love to share the thrill of discussing this story. (In the same way that I get a big kick out of discussing The Wire with Chris. or Downton Abbey with Betsy.) The fact that I’m held back by a small (but urgent) flaw in the story’s setup makes me sad.

Finally I will confess to having awkward expectations here. I expected to find a postmodern Gladiator with kids, and that’s more or less what I got. That’s fine, but I wanted something more. And, just as with Harry Potter and Twilight, I can’t easily put aside the movie I want to simply appreciate the movie I have. I will point out that this is not an impossible task for me — when I first watched the SF film Moon, I wanted something bigger than the setup behind it all. But when all was said and done, I recognized that the movie itself was still great, regardless of the weird hopes/expectations that lurked in my head. I guess The Hunger Games just didn’t pull off the impression that Moon managed to achieve.

Sorry, fans! As I say, I wanted to like this more than I did. Maybe I’ll have a better opinion of Catching Fire.

EDIT: Laura Miller wrote a review in The New Yorker which makes exactly the same point as mine:

As a tool of practical propaganda, the games don’t make much sense. They lack that essential quality of the totalitarian spectacle: ideological coherence. You don’t demoralize and dehumanize a subject people by turning them into celebrities and coaching them on how to craft an appealing persona for a mass audience. (“Think of yourself among friends,” Katniss’s media handler urges.) Are the games a disciplinary measure or an extreme sporting event? A beauty pageant or an exercise in despotic terror? Given that the winning tribute’s district is “showered with prizes, largely consisting of food,” why isn’t it the poorer, hungrier districts that pool their resources to train Career Tributes, instead of the wealthier ones? And the practice of carrying off a population’s innocent children and commanding their parents to watch them be slaughtered for entertainment—wouldn’t that do more to provoke a rebellion than to head one off?

Two Quotes

Dennis Rodman had been drinking? Hard to believe!

 “It had been a very stressful day. Some of my teammates were leaving because of pressure from their families and business associates,” he explained. “My dreams of basketball diplomacy were quickly falling apart. I had been drinking,” and felt “overwhelmed” by the time of the interview, said Rodman.

Also: Chris Christie responded to questions about how the traffic flap (which I understand a little less than I care about it) with an amusing retort:

I know that everybody in the political media and in the political chattering class wants to start the 2016 race. And universities can’t help themselves but do polls that are meaningless three years away from an election. And you guys can’t help but put them on the air and talk about them.