Mary… Poppins? Musical theater isn’t my thing.

July 25, 2009

poppinsFROM JASON’S LONG, SAD AFTERNOON — Andrew and I have often discussed our very different opinions on musical theater. I am not fond of it, while he tends to be a fan.

Two-and-a-half hours trapped today in a balcony seat affirmed why I eschew this particular medium. It’s the singing. And the dancing.

Please don’t misunderstand; both in small doses can be just fine. But the live version of Disney’s Mary Poppins can’t stand against the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. On stage, the actors put so much weight into the song-and-dance routines that they miss out on what I love best about stories — the  characterization.

It was the wife’s idea — or maybe her revenge after I forced her to sit through Star Trek — to hit the State Theater on Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland. She’s a huge fan of children’s media as long as it’s ripped from a book and in no way contains transforming robots, laser-wielding terrorists, cat-men with magic swords, any manifestation of ninja (mutant or otherwise), or is any way related to either DC or Marvel. Also, science fiction in her eyes is bad, whilst magic is just peachy.

She loves the singing. And the dancing. Sigh.

She must also love being too far away from the action to see any facial acting. And she must love that the actors rush through spoken lines too quickly to get to sing-song ones. She must hate dramatic pauses, establishing shots, and all the dynamism that comes with camera-work. Film editing must be anathema.

But she sure liked the disturbing narcissism and cold shoulder-ing that Poppins embraced in her live role, which if IMDB is to believed is actually much closer to how the character acted in the source material by novelist P.L. Travers. In addition, there were homoerotic living statues, a scene where toys come to life (which was cut from the Disney film), and not a dancing penguin to be seen.

But that’s just the method of delivery. Make no bones about it, I’ve always loved the film version of Poppins, and couldn’t stop whistling the catchy Sherman Brothers songs all the way home. Chim-chim-char-oo indeed! Look, I’m just a guy who likes to drink beer and play video games. Musical theater crosses a line that can sometimes be masked on film. That’s all I’m saying.

Not everything about the theater performance was unbearable. The sets were amazing works of both engineering and art, with some very clever built-in special effects that made the production just as much a magic show as a story. Sometimes the wires were visible, but other times the ingenuity of the builders had me scratching my head and wondering where the trap doors and puppet actors could possibly be hidden, or whether they were using radio controls and servos to accomplish certain effects.

Matter of fact, I spent more time wondering trying to reverse engineer the set than I did paying attention to the actors. Or the singing. And the dancing.

My mind also wandered thematically as Bert mused about the self-reflexive nature of Mary Poppins’ appearance. Cyclism is a time-honored philosophical device… the Norse had their Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, and Battlestar Galactica had its refrain of,  “All of this has happened before and will happen again.” Bert suggests in both the stage and screen versions that Poppins works in much the same way, and that this story is just one of many in which she’s involved herself.

Bert’s authority on that matter has always intrigued me. There’s never an explanation for how Poppins knows Bert, or from whence comes his narrative omniscience. I posit that either A) Mary was summoned as Bert’s nanny when he was a child or B) he’s a kindred magical spirit.

I’m glad the writers left the matter ambiguous. Can you imagine the same movie written today? The producers would insist, of course, of sapping the power out of the enigma by creating a concrete backstory for who Mary is, where she comes from, where she returns to. There would be an elaborate scene showing her origin. There might even be a montage showing her popping up in conspicuous places throughout history.

Also left unabashedly unexplained is the subtle romance between Mary and Bert… which Travers allegedly hated. The story goes that she made Walt Disney promise not to slip it into the script (yet there it is, underplayed and remaining a loose string to this day).

Word is that Travers didn’t like anything about the Disney version — hating it to the point of storming out of the premier. She had script approval on the film, but Walt laughed last by clinching final draft approval and giving a firm rejection to her attempted rewrites.

She also didn’t like the singing. And the dancing.

It didn’t matter. It was Disney’s most expensive film to date, but it was also the highest-grossing of the lot from 1965 to 1985. It raked in $102.5 million at the box office and won five Academy Awards.

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Read This: On a Pale Horse

June 22, 2009

palehorse01FROM JASON’S TRIP TO HALF PRICE BOOKS — Just ignore for a moment that On a Pale Horse is written by one Piers Anthony Dillingham Jacob, author of those hideous Xanth novels.

Up front: It has flaws. It’s simplistic to a Da Vinci Code fault, clearly pointed at the young adult audience. You get the impression that it was written in one long incense-fueled sitting, and the whole mass simply congealed on the pages. On a Pale Horse isn’t style over substance; it’s concept over substance.

I’m not doing a hot job of selling it, am I?

Still, it has its novelties, and that’s why I was willing to spend $3.56 to own it (can I plug Half Price Books any more ardently?).

Anthony does something quite rare; he writes into a unique niche I’ll call science fantasy, or sci-fa. The most interesting conceit of his Incarnations of Immortality series (of which this is book one) is the world in which it is set — a modern mirror Earth where dark magic is employed alongside nuclear energy. Where soldiers fired spells as well as bullets during World War II. Where car manufacturers compete for customers with flying carpet makers. Where Satan’s marketing department wages a massive billboard PR campaign for Hell. Where succubi can be had (for a price) and computer programs can summon demons.

Anthony does such an excellent job of fusing arcane arts, monsters, skyscrapers, and technology (early 1980s tech, anyway) that it many times overshadows the adolescent dialogue and clunky plot dynamics. Not all the time, mind you, but enough of a Band-Aid to pull it out of the proverbial hellfire.

The premise: Young Zane (an 80s name if ever I heard one) manages to shoot and kill the personification of Death and, just like in The Santa Clause, must take his place. Zane travels the world on his titular steed, harvesting the souls that are in perfect balance between good and evil and deciding whether those souls should go to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. Thanks to the meddling of other Incarnations — War, Fate, Nature, and Time — he becomes ensnared in a plot by Satan to kick-start World War III.

Think Death Takes a Holiday on a Harry Potter level, but without the depth.

Again, I know I’m not being very persuasive on behalf of On a Pale Horse, and I do apologize. But my feelings on this one are complicated. While Anthony’s style is oversimplified and sometimes even vacant, I am completely taken with the idea of an anthropomorphic Death who exercises choice, and has personality, compassion, and rules.

Here’s a Death who struggles with the ethics of mercy killings (incredibly progressive for 1982), rails against the rules God’s instituted for original sin, goes on strike, and isn’t afraid to rescue a select few “clients” who he believes are getting shafted by Fate.

And hey — Zane even loosely inspired Bryan Fuller’s Emmy-nominated Dead Like Me on Showtime, which featured similar Grim Reapers working the Seattle area. That’s got to count for something.

So this review was less than glowing. Not everything on my bookshelf is literary gold. If you’re interested, then do what I did — read it in an airport.


Fuller says Trek needs new classic-era characters? Try Piper and Sarda!

June 21, 2009

dreadnought01FROM JASON’S VULCAN HALF — Hey Bryan Fuller, I’ve got a pitch for a fresh Star Trek television show that could potentially be set in the J.J. Abrams movie universe.

Why don’t you try using Piper and Sarda, the Starfleet Academy cadets who took center stage in Diane Carey’s Dreadnought! and Battlestations! novels?

Fuller, who has some free time now that his Pushing Daisies has been canned by ABC, told Sci-Fi Wire a few days ago that he’d like a crack at creating a new classic-era Trek show (for CBS, which owns the rights).

“I love the aesthetics of the new movie,” he said. “I think it has to be set in that world… [and] I think we need a new ship with a new crew and an entirely new adventure that is in the timeline and the aesthetic of the movie, but it’s telling a different story.”

Carey’s cadets fit that bill perfectly.

Piper is a wannabe Kirk thrown into the middle of a conspiracy against the Federation, and Sarda is a conflicted Vulcan she has mortally offended in the past, to whom Piper turns for help in her darkest moment. The result has a tinge of romance mired in a personal enmity — a dynamic Kirk and Spock never had to struggle through.

It’s all very reminiscent of the TNG episode Below Decks, and Piper as lead has enough dimension to warrant her own space legs.

“I made her female, because if I’d made her male everyone would have said I was trying to do a young James Kirk and outshine the captain,” the author said in Voyages of Imagination, a 786-page summation of every Trek novel through 2006.

“In fact, James Kirk remained the hero of Dreadnought!, which was very important. He was one step ahead of [Piper] the whole way…. My [new] characters were young, imperfect, and clumsy, but they had heart and integrity,” Carey said.

The novel broke pretty much every Trek rule theretofore established by Pocket Books, and the editors loved it when it shot up the New York Times bestseller list. Carey followed six months later with a sequel, Battlestations!.

And then we never heard from Piper and Sarda again. That’s a shame, because the original series Star Trek universe has needed new life — new characters and perspectives — for a long time.

dreadnought02Carey’s imagination also gives us new technology that (to my knowledge) never again manifested in the Trek-iverse, but which would give a new and dangerous spin to the Abrams one. There are the Tycho class interceptor and the Arco class attack sled, which are X-Wing-ish fighter shuttles.

There’s also the titular war machine, officially Christened the Star Empire, which boasts a strange, phaser-resistant hull, unimaginable weaponry, and a holographic projection system that can fool scanners into “seeing” dozens of realistic copies of the ship.

The top-secret battlecruiser is stolen — seemingly by terrorists with connections to Piper — but the cadets (and Kirk) eventually find evidence that nothing is quite as it seems, and the real enemies could be posing as allies….

Dreadnought! would make a good two-hour pilot.

Disclaimer: Trek novels tend to settle into the young adult subcategory of science fiction a little too easily. I wish they had more substance, a grittiness more in line with, say, Battlestar Galactica than The Phantom Menace. Dreadnought! is the only Trek book I still own; that’s a testament to its ingenuity. And my reluctant nerdiness.


Read This: Inside-Outside by Philip Jose Farmer

June 12, 2009

insideoutside01FROM JASON’S REPLENISHED BOOKSHELF — Take heart, the banana-hammocks shown on the cover are never actually described inside the book. Or if they were, I repressed those memories.

No, what gets top priority description-wise in Philip Jose Farmer‘s Inside-Outside is the vicious, artificial world of Hell, where humans and demons suffer side-by-side.

It’s a cavernous and barren dessert domain, revealed mid-novel to actually be (spoilers here, folks) the hollowed inside of an asteroid where souls are imprisoned more or less as laboratory animals at the whim of a highly-advanced alien race.

In many ways, it’s a pre-treading of Farmer’s Riverworld Saga — not a re-treading, because he published Inside-Outside seven years prior to To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It also seems to foreshadow the route writer-director Alex Royas would take more than two decades later in Dark City (1998).

Farmer gets credit for being a master of American science fiction, but in my mind he’s not so much a crafter of great stories as he is a crafter of great fantasy settings. A good 80 percent of Inside-Outside is spent tromping through the bowels of Hell and meeting its challenges, not actually getting answers to the teleological puzzles the netherworld presents.

insideoutside02This is where Farmer succeeds: His version of the afterlife is like the third panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights brought to life. It’s debased. It’s surreal. It’s pain and doubt and vice at every turn.

But it’s also a tangible world ruled by its own peculiar physical laws, not some protoplasmic spiritual dimension, even though there are unearthly monsters a-plenty.

Corporeal though it is, Hell is lavished with religious iconography. I mentioned the demons; there is also a baffling and perhaps ghoulish Christ figure, stone idols, sewers filled with Inferno-esque denizens, the curse of eternal life through resurrection from the dead, machine-made “souls” reminiscent of Scientology’s so-called thetans, and (for all intents) omnipotent alien “gods” with their own agendas.

As well as Farmer creates his environment, he doesn’t do a terrific job of sculpting characters. There’s nobody to like in this novel. We have a protagonist, sure, but he’s a spiteful, violent, selfish brute. Jack Cull is not really a hero, although technically you could probably say he’s on a hero’s quest.

Cull is looking for hope, but by book’s end he does not find it — in fact, he finds the opposite, that he is doomed to help his masters subjugate other races to a grinding, pathetic Purgatorio for their own supposedly “ethical” but still very, very flawed reasons.

And it’s all due to a big mistake. With a big twist in the final 10 pages (again, spoilers), we find that Hell is not really the afterlife… Cull and everyone else are alien-made souls who have never lived, and who were injected with false memories of time on Earth. The planet has long since been destroyed by nuclear war, and there will never be more human babies born in which Cull and his companions’ souls may be placed.

Which makes for a fun trip down the peroverbial rabbit hole.

It’s a good read for atmosphere, if nothing else. And at just 169 pocket-sized pages, it’s a quick read (I think I buzzed through in five or six hours). That’s not bad for $1 spent on the spinner rack at my local Half Price Books.


World War Z + swine flu = paranoia

May 2, 2009

zombies01

worldwarzFROM JASON’S BOOK SHELF — I might have picked the exact wrong time to read World War Z, Max Brooks’ geek-celebrated “oral history of the zombie war.”

I was raised in a deeply superstitious household that embraced Christian mysticism. One of the most basic tenets of Christian mythology is that resurrection from the dead is actually possible.

I’ve since shrugged off the shackles of that thinking in exchange for atheism. But no matter how much intellectual growth you experience, childhood religious indoctrination leaves behind a tiny, immutable nag in the mind that panics at the sight of religious iconography.

So you can’t help but jump and shiver and glance over your shoulder when dealing with tales of the undead. America being so thoroughly saturated by Christianity (76 percent of citizens self-identify as adherents), maybe that explains why we hold such a fascination with works of horror and supernatural thrillers.

I was reading Brooks’ novel with that baggage already weighing me down, and then reports of the swine flu hit the airwaves.

Now, it’s important to understand that one of the reasons that World War Z works is that it shows how real people would react to news that a mysterious epidemic is spreading. It portrays complacent characters who don’t react until too late; folks who discount media reports and underestimate the danger of the zombie plague. They disbelieve accounts of the living dead. They look for a rational explanation under the seeming supernatural tide.

And it all started off small, with reports of a mysterious, unstoppable disease spreading across borders. You can see why “swine flu” had my Spidey Sense tingling.

Compounding my Brooks-induced paranoia is an RSS toy built by our fellow Front Row Crew forum friend, Sonic. The gadget, called A.Z.O.N.S., or Automated Zombie Outbreak Notification System, is a gag based on the ol’ nerd joke about the “pending zombie apocalypse.”

I mean, any geek worth his salt has thought about what they would do if suddenly dropped in a nightmare world out of the mind of George Romero, right?azons A.Z.O.N.S. scours Web news sites for a list of terms related to said apocalypse. It analyzes them and reports “threats” to your RSS reader — in my case, to a widget on my iGoogle page.

Some of the key words it hits on are “strange disease,” “unknown disease,” and other medical terms. Guess what has its alarm klaxons sounding these days, right as I finish up World War Z?

I’m not honestly suggesting that I believe swine flu has anything to do with zombies. But when a work of fiction interlaces just so with real-world meta events, it can be enough to make your skin crawl. I did a literary double-take before I could settle down and remind myself that it’s just a book.

zombiehippyThat’s the beauty of Brooks’ writing. He makes the undead uprising seem so plausible. Sure, his zombies are the shambling, moaning ones. They aren’t the rampaging, quick-footed plaque zombies of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (which I really liked).

But that doesn’t make them cartoon-ish Scooby Doo apparitions, either. They aren’t for instance, the lovable reanimated clowns of ExtraLife artist Scott Johnson’s 56 Zombies Project.

They are terrifying and unstoppable demons. They are the traditional horde zombies that sweep down and close in, never stopping, never giving quarter. They are not afraid. When one falls, another takes its place. And every human they kill joins their cause.

Oddly enough — and here is where I was happiest with World War Z — the zombies aren’t the most intriguing part of Brooks’ work. They provide an excellent backdrop, but they aren’t the soul of the book. Like the very best plot devices, they are merely there to facilitate character stories.

In this case, the zombies are just the grind stone used to wear down the humans. The real genius of the novel is how deep a psychological toll is taken on the survivors of the war: They suffer everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to self-delusion, cannibalism, multiple personality disorder, and stunted cognitive progression.

Some, called “quislings” in the book, are so badly damaged that they are knocked into a dissociative state where they actually think they are zombies though they remain uninfected. A suicide pandemic strikes other survivors, while others are so hope-lorn that their minds shut down. They simply go to sleep and never wake up.

This is my fear for the big-screen adaptation helmed by director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Monster’s Ball): That it will be an action film and not a story of the human spirit’s breaking point. Perhaps Forster’s track record with thinking-man flicks is why he was chosen to spearhead the 2010 project. I can certainly hope that he finds the right angle instead of just cutting and running with another living dead gore-fest.


‘Futureland’ and a co-worker’s racism harsh my Obama high

January 21, 2009

futurelandFROM JASON’S GRITTED TEETH — My outlook swings day-to-day from gloriously optimism to blood-boiling pessimism.

Yesterday, watching Obama take control of the mess into which the executive branch had fallen, was a good day. In the evening, I told Andrew I believe we’ve done much more than we realize to eliminate racism in this country, or at least make it so socially odious that it might as well not exist.

Today, however, was a pessimistic day as my idealism was smashed. In the cubicle next door, I heard a co-worker raving about an encounter with a client he labeled “a damned Arab.”

“They’re all terrorists. Even the children… You can’t trust any of them. I don’t know why they have to call me, talking all Arab. We should blow them all up,” he said.

I am sheltered. I normally associate with people of extreme education, raised in a strict environment of social correctness. This co-worker’s words were alien and loathsome. There was nothing in them to which I could connect on any level.

They were not the starry-eyed hope I felt during Tuesday’s inauguration. This co-worker clearly does not agree with Obama’s words: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and latino America and asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

The fever of the inauguration had given me a temporary peace. But my co-worker’s words jogged me into a blacker vision for our nation’s future, one that’s been reinforced in the last week while reading an excellent science fiction work by Walter Mosley, titled Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World.

This dystopia is no Idiocracy; it’s a world of corrupt geniuses and the helpless victims pulled into their sphere of influence. Futureland is a place of designer brain-viruses, corporate city-states and megalomaniacal dictators, genetically-engineered slaves, and politically oppressed masses.

It’s a place where children are drafted into government cabals; where the race and gender divides have exploded; where the Supreme Court allows citizenry to be revoked from anyone the authorities deem socially dangerous; where property rights have been all but abolished; where pre-teens live in underground concentration camp castes while the rich cavorte in the streets above; and where science and religion have been merged into one InfoChurch to keep the desperate under thumb.

Some days Mosley’s futurescape seems laughable. Others — when a co-worker reveals such ill-masked, torturous hate — his grim vision seems as imminent as the vignets he ties together in this book. And then I wonder whether we’ve really progressed at all as a nation, or whether we’ve simply deluded ourselves into thinking our attitudes are evolving at all.


Read This: The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher

January 11, 2009
trips11 trips2 trips3

FROM JASON’S OVERFLOWING BOOKCASE — If you survived a low-level college literature course, or ever read Watchmen, then you’ve probably at least heard of Percy Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias.

The short verse — written 191 years ago today — describes a broken statue of Ramesses the Great, ruler of Egypt, and the desolate desert it inhabits. Shelley’s theme is that the pharaoh’s empire and all the work of his 66-year reign are now turned to dust. In the wind.

A month after Shelley’s poem was published in 1818, his friend Horace Smith published a competing poem of the same name and subject. The second half of his work wonders whether centuries from now, the “modern” civilization will appear just as anciently alien to our descendants as Ramesses’ appears to us.

“We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.”

I bring this up because I just finished re-reading John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, science fiction novels written between 1967 and 1968 for young readers. I first encountered these books about age nine, and my wife was clever enough to hunt them down as stocking-stuffers this Christmas. I was very happy with her.

Like much sci-fi and fantasy novels of the 20th century, Christopher’s are re-skinnings of the old Joseph Campbell heroic monomyth. The young male protagonist, Will, is discontent with the tripods, huge War of the Worlds-inspired machines who rule over a post-apocalyptic Earth, and must journey the path of “the Hero With a Thousand Faces.”

The set-up: the tripods graft mind-controlling mesh “caps” onto the heads of humans at age 14. The caps keep people complacent and incurious, causing society to revert to pre-industrial agrarianism. There are no more large cities. There are no more machines. There is no more war, but neither is there invention or exploration.

At the start of the first book in the series, The White Mountains, a vagrant named Ozymandias approaches Will and tells him freedom fighters still exist who fight the tripods. They live in the Swiss Alps; following Campbell’s formula, Ozymandias charges Will to leave his tiny English village and quest across France to find the last human stronghold.

Like the hunter of Smith’s poem, Will and his incidental traveling companions come across the ruins of a 20th century city — not London, but Paris, destroyed 100 years past. They are amazed by horseless carriages, a subway system, and wrist watches that seem like magic to their limited technological understanding.

These books have a real My Side of the Mountain vibe, in that they focus on pre-teenage boys who choose to live apart from establishment and provide for themselves. (I’m sure I will end up writing someday about how much I love that book.) Along the way, Will and his friends are forced to contemplate the value of humanism and self-determinism. They have to decide whether it’s better to embrace their own manifest destiny with its inevitable pitfalls and pain, or to have the tripods decide humanity’s destiny in exchange for peace and security.

And you know what ol’ Benjamin Franklin said about that: “He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security.” It’s funny how science fiction tends to be progressive along those lines, instead of regressive like religion.

That gave me a lot to chew on at all of nine years old. And there’s no shame in reading these books as an adult, either. If you like them, there is also a prequel titled When the Tripods Came, which explores how the tripods used subliminal messages to spark the initial takeover of Earth. It was written 20 years after the launch of the series; I recommend reading them in the order in which they were published.