BSG finale: Religious buffoonery and other shortcomings

March 23, 2009

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FROM JASON’S SPOILERS — Did you see the Galactica ram the base star? The crash was amazing! And the old-school centurions during the assault? Awesome! Cavil eating his own bullet? Sweet!

Not to mention how hot Caprica Six was in that flack jacket. Then Baltar finally got some redemption, and Andrew and I were all cheering for him as he took that assault rifle from Apollo. How cathartic was that?

And then there were angels. God-damned angels. Sigh.

It was Andrew, that dirty whelp, who convinced me in early February to consume a couple of hours every night for the past month and a half shotgunning all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica. I rather enjoyed it, mainly for the whodunnit intrigue.

I’m proud to report — and Andrew can attest to this — that by the middle point of season two I had successfully prognosticated the identities of the Final Five (though I was really only half-joking when I suggested early on that Tory was a nanny Cylon sent to watch over Hera).

I guess all those hours in college studying narrative devices and literary mechanics were worth something after all.

Sure, there were highlights: I had been rooting for Roslin’s death since season one, for instance. “WHY WON’T SHE DIE?!” became a rallying cry in nearly every episode. (Sorry, Lydia.) And who could deny that seeing the Final Five standing together on the CIC bridge was really stinkin’ cool and a pay-off well worth the wait?

But while I tremendously enjoyed the series, the finale rang a bit empty for several reasons, mostly thematic.

The biggest problem I had was the religious aspect. Of course the Mormon undertones are there; they have been since the 1978 iteration. There was the Christ symbolism with Baltar and the constant reference to the zodiac. There was the whole Last Supper promo pic ordeal. But that’s all just mythology, and I could stomach it. What upset me was the intervention — for no apparent purpose — of the supernatural on a scientific universe.

Those damned angels.

Baltar’s “mental” Six and Caprica’s “mental” Baltar turned out to be messengers, nay meddlers, from God instead of projections, Cylon programming, the products of the subconscious, or some other clever mechanism. Angels to me have always been the same as amnesia: the very worst kind of plot device.

Also, I had been hoping all along that the writers would choose the humanist high ground and force the characters to learn that higher powers — whether monotheistic or polytheistic or the Force — were all fake. I wanted the show to be about how people live or die by their decisions, not the whim of some invisible bearded man.

Even if they hint that god is Bob Dylan.

The larger problem with the idea that god’s master plan was behind the events of the series is that it makes god a horrible murderer. Think about it: He didn’t use his agents to stop the genocide of the 12 colonies, or the ensuing war that killed thousands more humans and (ostensibly) millions of Cylons. You’d think that an all-powerful being would answer a higher moral calling to prevent that kind of death, but no.

It brings to mind the old Epicurean addage:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Or to crib from Denis Leary: “If there is a god, he’s got a whole shitload of explaining to do.” Or if you prefer Mark Twain: “If there is a God, he is a malign thug.”

Then there’s the Starbuck quandary. She’s apparently an angel too, which ruins the big emotional investment we had in her character. She just vanishes while talking to Lee. There’s not so much any pay-off there, and no real answers as to why she’s been “special” since she was a child or why she’s been painting the concentric circles so long. Another great character chalked up to mysticism.

Neither was I such a fan of the colonial and Cylon settlement of “our” Earth. I mean, Douglas Adams called: He wants his plot back. If you looked carefully, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect were in the background checking out the same group of 148,000 AD primitives.

And who but Arthur Dent would have slept with those primitives? Surely not the advanced humans; they wouldn’t cross the huge intelligence and developmental gaps to mate with Neanderthols. So when did the Cylons, humans, and proto-humans merge into our singular modern race? The whole “they are us” idea is just candy, but it doesn’t really work.

The anti-technology message, though it’s a typical mantra in science fiction, was a bit too strong as well. Our buddy Thaed said it right: The show’s lesson is that technology is bad. Hell, it’s practically a recruiting tool for the Amish. “I have never seen a bigger middle finger given to an audience of a show before in my life,” Thaed said.

And I agree. Why would such a brilliant show overall advocate that kind of arbitrary Ludditism?

That’s all I’ve got to say. Everything else I’m going to choke back to avoid fanboy gushing or overt nerdiness (I mean, more overt than outright blogging about a sci-fi show to my Internet friends. It’s possible to get more nerdy, I suppose, if I were to try). I’m going to clench my teeth and make sure this isn’t a revisiting of the ol’ Firefly trauma. The show is over.

Now I’m off to watch the 1978 version, which has people in capes and that one guy from The A-Team.


Wallpaper of the Week: Paul Cézanne

March 20, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — I’ve had an itch lately for colorful impressionist paintings. I don’t know why. My tastes normally run to art deco (see: Batman The Animated Series), but in the past couple of weeks I’ve gained great contentment from heavily-daubed European country-scapes.

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Now, I’m no real art nerd, though I do love both versions of The Thomas Crown Affair. So I really have no eye or authority to comment on paintings; I’m a groundling, here. But to me, Cézanne is different because of his use of color.

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Sure, other 19th century painters (especially Cézanne’s French compatriots) had already experimented with shape being the most important element of a work; what I like is his ability to use bright, active colors further define those shapes.

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So enjoy these desktop wallpapers. As usual, I’ve touched them up with a couple of Photoshop filters to reduce fading and fuzziness, and resized them to the 1024×768 standard. I know there are better monitors out there, but again I am a groundling, trundling away with my pitiful 4:3 display*. Enjoy.

*That will change come Christmas, won’t it, Lisa? Yes. Yes it will. You know it’s true. Buy me a big LCD widescreen monitor. You know you want to. Do it. Everybody is doing it. You want to be like the cool kids. C’mon. Do it. Do it. DO IT. DO IT NOW.


YouTube Cinema: Robotix

March 16, 2009


Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11
Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15

FROM JASON’S ROBOT AND DINOSAUR OBSESSIONS — Robotix was to LEGOs what MASK was to Hot Wheels. It had a limited release, an oh-so-brief flare of popularity, and then collapsed into obscurity when marketing agents turned their backs on it.

A product of Toei Animation — the Japanese studio that gave rise to both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata — Robotix was a typical 1980s cartoon enterprise in that it was a blatant vehicle for a toy line.

The “Motorized, Modular Building System” made by Milton Bradley was comprised of interlocking blocks, gears, differentials, winches, tires, and sci-fi accouterments. It was a worthy antecedent to the far more successful LEGO Mindstorm franchise, and is surprisingly still sold today (though by a different manufacturer and distributor). Every set made is still backward-compatible to the original 1984 systems.

Those systems were the byproducts of a 90-minute movie which aired just once in 1985 as part of the syndicated Super Sunday. The Marvel Entertainment block ran several serialized ‘toons, including Jem, Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines, and Inhumanoids. It split Robotix into 15 six-minute shorts. Jem and Inhumanoids became popular enough to warrant full-length treatments, but at the end of their respective runs, Bigfoot and Robotix got stomped into cartoon purgatory.

I was five years old, living in Oregon at the time, and happened to see a couple of those episodes. Like any true 1980s man-cub, I was captivated by the Eastern animation idea of mecha; I was equally caught by the magnetism of GoBots, Transformers, and RoboTech, Exo-Squad, AT-ATs and AT-STs, Centurions, and of course Voltron.

So I was stupidly happy when a family friend (I believe it might have been a sometime babysitter) purchased a Robotix kit for me that Christmas. Certain clickable pieces, which themselves resembled smaller red-and-chrome robots, remained in my possession for years, finding an out-of-place life in the ol’ LEGO bucket.

They may still be there, hidden away in my parents’ attic, held hostage along with some action figures and comic books until such time as I give my parents some grandchildren.

Some awesome person posted the full Robotix series on YouTube two years ago, and it has yet to be yanked down on any kind of copyright claim, which is excellent because the ‘toon is only on DVD in the UK.

Helmed by Wally Burr, voice director of G.I. Joe the Movie, it’s rendered in the same detailed anime style of the 1980s’ most memorable 22-minute-long toy commercials. It’s also got some of the most interesting pulp plot elements: Stars going nova, lizardmen, giant robots, benevolent supercomputers, suspended animation, alien spirits transfered into machines.

And it seems as though Burr tapped some of his old Joe buddies — who geeks will recognize as some of the biggest names in the voice business — to star. There’s:

  • Peter Cullen, who was Pincher from GoBots, Zander in G.I. Joe, Optimus Prime in Transformers, and Cindarr in Visionaries.
  • Frank Welker, known for playing Scooter from GoBots, Megatron in Transformers, Torch in G.I. Joe, and Slimer in The Real Ghostbusters.
  • Pat Fraley, aka Marshall Bravestar, Krang on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Max Ray on Centurions, and Ace in G.I. Joe.
  • Corey Burton, who was Spike in Transformers, Tomax in G.I. Joe, and Dale from Chip & Dale’s Rescue Rangers.
  • Michael Bell, who had big roles as Duke in G.I. Joe, Lance in Voltron, and Prowl in Transformers.
  • Arthur Burghardt, who was Devastator in Transformers, Destro in G.I. Joe, and Turbo in GoBots.

Robotix also had narration by Victor Caroli, who did the same type of voice-over for Transformers: The Movie in 1986 and several of the television series’ episodes.

That, and many stylistic choices (such as the rock-anthem theme that’s one-half “who you gonna call” and the other half Max Hedroom), made it obvious Marvel was trying to capitalize on the Transformers craze and hoping to spur a similar sales frenzy.

Sadly, it didn’t work.

It’s a shame, because as such things go it wasn’t a bad story line, boasting a bit more complexity than most children’s adventures of the day. Of course, Robotix had the normal, innocent lack of moral ambiguity as most shows; the bad guys were determinedly evil, the good guys irreproachably ethical. But it also cooked up some interesting Cold War metaphors, and served them on a plate of techno-imagination to a pre-computer-literate audience.

Oh well.

I guess I pine a little too much for these old-style cartoons. They seem so much more detailed and rich and imaginative than the line-and-paint-bucket-fill computer-aided works aired today by Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. And believe me, I’m tired of the modern “burps and farts are funny” and “wacky, zany people doing anti-social and ludicrous things” mentalities.

I wish we could go back to blasting through the universe in spaceships that look like oversexed submarines with fins, and exploring the jungles of exotic planets filled with dangerous and mythical inhabitants.


Wallpaper of the Week: Leonid Afremov

March 13, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — Usually my wallpaper selection strays toward geek culture, but sometimes sheer force of atmosphere is what’s needed. And that’s what Belarusian painter Leonid Afremov provides.

Afremov’s gallery is replete with hundreds of heavily-oiled canvases, all sharing an affinity for Cézanne-ish clashes of warm-on-cool color combinations.

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The 53-year-old, a graduate of the Vitebsk Art School, emigrated from Russia to Israel and now lives in Florida. He uses a palette knife-heavy technique that gives his works a thick and textured quality with large, raised edges that pop off the monitor.

It’s easy to see how those Mediterranean-cum-western-Atlantic influences have shaped his works; Afremov’s oil paintings are decked with Spanish and Romanesque architecture, glowing electric light and a permanent, golden autumnal theme.

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The result — in my younger eyes — is very collegiate, like an eternal first semester on campus. There’s a certain romance to the intimate enclosures of deciduous trees and paving stones and umbrellas, with the paths covered by what looks a recent warm rain.

His paintings remind me of the season I met my wife, and the nights we walked under the broad leaves talking. That’s probably 90 percent of my attraction to Afremov’s work.

At any rate, his paintings make excellent desktops, providing your monitor isn’t huge. I was able to eke several worthy 1024×768 backgrounds from the downloadable content on his deviantART page, and there’s many more to be had if you want to take the effort to clean them up and size them in Photoshop.


Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic is all about a confused man-child with daddy issues

March 3, 2009

FROM JASON’S RENTAL CARD — Just because you’re simple doesn’t mean you’re uncomplicated.

That’s how I felt about George W. Bush — or at least his silver screen caricature — after watching Oliver Stone’s W. Sunday night. That, and surprisingly a small amount of pity for a man whose policies I’ve despised and whose actions I’ve cursed.

I told Andrew after watching the film that it’s too apologetic, too humanizing of the 43rd president. It gives ol’ W. a bit of leniency by showing his Oedipal angst and constant quest to find self-worth despite his skin-deep Texas swagger. Stone pushes the younger Bush as a man-child desperately seeking his father’s attention and trying to come to terms with his lack of career acuity, and it feels like a back-handed sympathy party.

From his failure to make it as a blue collar salary man, to his drunken Harvard fraternity nights, and then his coat-tails ride into the political arena, Josh Brolin as Bush seems more a confused teenager in an adult body than the evil corporate oilman his opponents have labeled him.

brolin-bushAnd trust me, the guy from The Goonies (Brolin) is good. The face is Brolin’s, but the trademark derisive snicker is Bush’s, as is the Lonestar State strut and the halting delivery of contorted Bushisms lifted straight out of the newsreels. He infuses W. with a mannish petulance, showing Bush trying desperately to maintain a pretense of control as his decisions constantly kick him in the groin.

It’s the facial expressions, really, that clinch the performance. Brolin gives the recognizable Bush squint while mulling the really tough ideas, radiating the idea that if he can only knit his brow a little tighter then he might be able to pierce the veil of information around him and find out what is really going on, and why his policies are having such disastrous consequences.

Brolin and Stone also dally a bit, much to my delight, on the right-wing religious angle, making a fairly acute statement on the pandering of Bible Belt politicians.

“Nobody’s ever going to out-Texas or out-Christian me again,” Brolin-as-Bush says after losing his early Congressional bid. He spends the rest of the film pausing frequently for showy prayer breaks and even telling his preacher that God is speaking to him audibly.

My stance on such things: Hearing imaginary friends talking to you is a sign of paranoid delusional schizophrenia.

Bush is in the reticule with this one, but Stone doesn’t miss an opportunity to skewer Dick Chaney (Richard Dreyfuss) as a manipulative, power-hungry warhawk; to simultaneously golf clap and give a shame-on-you to Colin Powell for his role as a Bush enabler; to jab at Karl Rove’s smug calculative nature; to borderline impune Donald Rumsfeld as certifiably insane; and to cast Elizabeth Banks as an (unrealistically) sexy version of Laura Bush.

I don’t know exactly why W. scored just a 59 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I’d be willing to guess it has to do with the political charge of the film; it scores slightly higher with a 6.9/10 rating on IMDB.

Personally, I’d recommend it slightly higher than either of those metrics, but with the admonition that it’s not going to spur much demand for repeat viewing. I definitely wouldn’t buy W., especially considering how it will be dated as we put the Bush presidencies behind for good.

It will be interesting to see in eight years whether Barack Obama will require Stone to rev up the camera for a similar treatment.


Literary feedback loop: Same ol’ books, same ol’ movies

March 2, 2009

godfatherFROM JASON’S REDUNDANT HOME LIBRARY — Well, it happened again. I grabbed my battered, old copy of The Godfather on the way to the bathroom a couple of days ago, and before I knew it two hours had passed and I was 120 pages in.

It started when I caught a much-edited showing the Coppola’s film on Bravo — it’s one of those films that is a must-watch if I stumble across it while flipping channels. But the Bravo version didn’t end the right way, with Kay (nee Adams) Corleone praying for Michael’s soul.

The more I saw, the more scenes I missed… either those that were edited, or those that never made the script. It’s perhaps my favorite movie of all time (I waffle between The Godfather and Goodfellas, which is strange because I don’t really care so much about mafia as a subject, just the conspiracy of it all).

But there’s none of Vito Corleone’s rise to power in Coppola’s film. You don’t meet Genco Abandando. Almost all of Johnny Fontaine’s story has been excised (which was supposedly all about Frank Sinatra, and Sinatra hated author Mario Puzo for it). Aside from the first scene, there’s nothing more about Lucy Mancini. You don’t get a whole lot about the wooing and turning of ex-cop Albert Neri.

I love those character studies. They are not the focus of the story. They are not the brain of the story. But they are its heart — all the people Vito has pledged to protect and provide for.

My reading binge didn’t stop there. The Godfather was just the ignition point for a terrible habit. I go through re-reads like fire goes through gasoline. I find myself, year after year, returning to the same cache of old hard-bound friends: The Three Musketeers. Breakfast of Champions. The World According to Garp. Dune, The Belgariad, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 2010, Ender’s Game, Robin Hood.

They are familiar. I worry this habit is just childish, escapist regression. I justify it as stress relief, as returning to familiar works that deserve time and attention on a second or third or forty-third reading.

It’s happening with movies, too. I went through a particular rough patch in my life a few months ago, and ended up watching Fight Club every other night or so for two weeks, just because it was looping on G4 and my emotional malaise turned into apathy.

I rarely hit the video rentals these days (though I just finished watching Oliver Stone’s W.). Instead, I opt to watch the animated 1984 Transformers movie endlessly, or to rehash Lucky Number Slevin for the 20th time, or pop in a random Arrested Development disc.

I’m a little paranoid about the habit, I think, because I’m nearing 30 and starting to wonder whether my choices reflect an overall mental slowdown. I find it less and less appealing to pick up an all-new title with its unknown depths. It’s so much more comfortable to go back to those novels to which you already know the ending as soon as you read page one.

Is this a sign that I’ve reached my mental peak? If I am more and more hesitant to absorb new knowledge, new stories, does that mean my cognitive growth is stagnant? Is that the point where I can consider myself old?

And here I thought the middle age crisis was a psychological myth.

By the way, have you heard of Goodreads.com? It’s a list-keeping service that helps track all the titles you’ve ever read, organizing them into databases that can then be cross-references to find new books you might enjoy. You can share and compare your lists with your friends.

Some of mine include:goodreadsI had been wanting to sit and draw out just such a list for a few years, trying to see just what scope and breadth of literature I’ve read. I’m sure I’m missing quite a few, and will continue to flesh out my account as I remember and/or visit the library.


Good-bye Fruity Pebbles, hello Raisin Bran Crunch

March 1, 2009

FROM JASON’S CERAMIC BOWL — Count Chocula is a hack. Cap’n Crunch is all washed up. Lucky the Leprechaun is clearly a pedophile. And I’m pretty sure Tony the Tiger is dead.

The best cereal in the world doesn’t have a mascot. It has two scoops and a delicious, sugary coating that ensures crunchiness.

Now, I don’t often endorse commercial products, or even really care about them. But in-between keystrokes, I’m scooping oversized spoons of Raisin Bran Crunch into my mouth. I can’t stop. This is my third bowl. I am in love.

Where has this cereal been all my life? Think of all those years I wasted, suffering through soggy regular Raisin Bran as a teenager, pouring lumps of sugar into the bowl to try to offset the weak wheat flavor that no sun-ripened grapes could ever mask.

This is how I know I am an adult: when I was a child, cereal served as just a vehicle for enough sugar to fuel my hyperactivity and ensure early onset diabetes. I wanted puffed rice saturated in corn syrup, then coated with rainbow-hued dyes:

I wanted loops of something that was probably fried corn dipped in three unique artificial flavors that tasted really nothing at all like cherry, orange, and lemon:

I wanted what ostensibly were marshmallows cut to look like clovers, clowns, robots, Pac-Man, vampire bats, balloons, or ghosts:

I wanted crushed cornmeal seeped in brown sugar- and honey-flavoring and treated to keep away the Soggies during sea-faring missions:

These days, I’m looking for an actual meal. No more Crunchberries. No more Cookie Crisp. No more Honeycomb, Marshmallow Crispies, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal, Smurfberries, Frankenberries, Honey Smacks, C-P30’s, Urkel-O’s, Cocoa Krispies, or Apple Jacks.

As an adult, it’s all about getting bran that tastes decent and has a satisfying crunch, sun-dried fruit, and some granola clusters. I salute you, Raisin Bran Crunch.