From Saigon to Fort Chafee

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Title: Vietgone

Rating: 5 Stars

When I went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year, this was one of the plays that I wanted to see. For the past several years, they’ve sponsored a new play about a different part of the American experience. Vietgone was this year’s play. Unfortunately, it was sold out, so I didn’t get to see it in Ashland.

I saw that it was playing at Seattle Rep, including most of the players from the Ashland play. I went on-line, searched all dates, and got literally the last ticket available. So, yes, I went to a matinee on a fucking Wednesday to see it.

And yes, it was totally worth it.

To boil it down to essentials, it’s a love story between two recent Vietnamese immigrants to America after the fall of Saigon. That’s a gross oversimplification. It’s a story of loss. It’s a story of resilience. It’s a story of family. It’s a story of adjusting to a new life.

The young man is Quang. He is a helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese army. He has a wife and two children. His plan is, if the North Vietnamese invade, is to fly his helicopter, rescue his wife and children, and fly them to safety. However, the invasion happens too quickly. He has to fly his helicopter to save other women and children first. He never gets to rescue his family. He has to leave them behind.

The young woman is Tong. She is a tough, independent woman who refuses to conform to Vietnamese stereotypes of women. At her job, she manages to get two passes to escape Saigon. She tries to convince her brother to go with him, but he refuses to leave his love. Instead she takes her mother, who is a very traditional woman.

All need to come to terms with the fact that effectively their family is dead to them or they are dead to their family. That’s the price that they need to pay for escaping Vietnam and starting a new life in America.

The presentation was creative. When acting as Asian characters, they spoke perfectly flawless, unaccented English (which was them speaking Vietnamese). The American characters spoke horribly broken, occasionally nonsensical English (which was them attempting to speak Vietnamese). The Asian characters would speak broken English when it was clear that they were attempting to speak English. I’m not sure if what I just wrote made sense or not, but it had the result of integrating the audience into the difficulty of assimilating into a new culture and language.

There lines were spoken in a street vernacular. So, instead of some stilted or formal sounding English, there was lots of shits and motherfuckers. Again, the intent was to make it real that these were real people living real lives. There’s a universality in their struggle and in their love that transcends nation of origin or culture.

I must have skipped over the part where it said that it was part musical (my bad). I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but in this case it was effective. Instead of conventional singing, the songs were hip hop rap, in which the actors could freely express their rage, pain, and frustration in a format recognizable for characters within their age group. Somehow, this made the singing seem more real to me, as opposed to the more conventional musicals in which the songs seem to be more disruptive then integrative.

The unaccented English and the hip hop was probably also a statement by the playwright regarding his own background. Assuming there’s some germ of personal truth (one of the characters in the play acts as the playwright), he is a first generation Vietnamese. So, the perfect English and the hip hop is the language that he knows. The play, and he himself is a synthesis of Vietnam and America.

This comes to a head at the end when he’s interviewing his father (Quang and Tong are his parents). He casually says that the war in Vietnam was a mistake and his father erupts in anger. All that he is today (and by reference, so many others like him) is a direct result of American intervention. He is grateful for the opportunity that the American ‘mistake’ gave him.

The playwright and his father make up by hugging and singing a Waylon Jennings song together.

I found this play to be a poetic, amusing, and moving experience.

 

 

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A Safe Ride To A Predictable Destination

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Title: The Monkey’s Raincoat

Rating: 3 Stars

This was my first exposure to the Elvis Coles / Joe Pike crime series. I usually start at the first one of a series, but I think that this is a mistake to do and that I should probably learn from it. Authors are usually pretty good at making sure to bring new readers up to speed in subsequent books if the reader is starting in the middle of the series. It’s obviously in their best interest to do so.

The first novel of a series is quite often a weaker candidate. First of all, there has to be a bit more exposition just to get the story rolling. Also, the author often is still figuring out / fleshing out the characters, if not the actual approach to writing.

In the case of this series, I should have followed my gut and started with L.A. Requiem. That is generally acknowledged to be where Crais throws off the straitjacket of conventional detective prose and starts to discover his own style.

So, I’ll reserve final judgment on the series until I read that one.

Now, for The Monkey’s Raincoat, it’s a perfectly serviceable  detective story, if somewhat derivative. It clearly owes a debt to Robert B Parker’s Spenser / Hawk series.

This was written in the late 1980’s and it shows it. It’s written in the mode of old school crime fiction, where you have a smart ass detective who has a way with women, gets in hot water with the cops, and kills with impunity.

Elvis Coles, a Vietnam veteran, is a quirky, yoga loving, smart ass of a detective. His partner, Joe Pike, is a sociopath that would normally be a scary and dangerous person except for his high code of ethics and devotion to Coles. Interestingly enough, Dennis Lehane also owes a debt to Robert B Parker, and his sociopathic sidekick in his Kenzie / Gennaro series (named Bubba) doesn’t really even have a recognizable code of ethics (although is blindly devoted to Kenzie and Gennaro, thereby putting him kind of in the ranks of the good guys).

The story here is that a woman’s husband and child have disappeared. She hires Coles to find them.

It’s pretty clear that Crais is, at this point, still discovering the art of writing crime fiction. The plot is pretty linear. Coles finds a clue, investigates it, whereby he discovers another clue, which he investigates, and rinse and repeat. There’s not much evidence of dead ends or frustrations. He pretty much just works the case and things fall into place for him.

In many ways, even more so since it’s set in Los Angeles, this feels like an updated Chandler story.

Although he’s into Jiminy Cricket and yoga, Coles is a tough guy who pretty much never loses a fight. Tough guys go up against him, he gets the drop on them and hurts them, usually with a smart ass quip along the way.

He beds a woman for no obvious purpose. It does not advance the plot. In fact, after it happens, it’s pretty much never referred to again and things carry forward just as they were. It was almost as if the sex box in the plot outline needed to be checked.

As is typical of gumshoes, Coles has an uneasy relationship with the police. The lower echelon (Sargent or below) have a begrudging respect for him while the Lieutenants or special operations guys want nothing more then to bust his balls.

Of course, the police tell him to stay out of it, and of course, he doesn’t, and of course, he ends up saving the day.

Coles kills many bad guys and seems to suffer no consequences from it, let alone express any emotional range, growth, or remorse over killing. The police basically just give him the equivalent of a noogie on the head before letting him continue on with his business.

 

I know that this review is reading snarky. I did enjoy reading it. It’s just that I’ve been reading mysteries pretty much my entire life and in all honesty, I’ve been on this ride before. I enjoyed the ride and I’ll do it again at some point, but there just weren’t any surprises in it.

And The Cash Machine Continues To Spew Forth

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Title: Rogue One

Rating: 4 Stars

I just went to Rogue One and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a well made, well paced, well acted movie with outstanding special effects. I saw it at the Cinerama, so the picture and the sound was outstanding.

So, great movie. Go see it. What got me wondering (as so many people do) is what exactly is it about the Star Wars franchise that inspire such adoration (and untold profit; with their upcoming release schedule, they will be minting money just like the Marvel franchise).

It’s clearly a quite simplistic good vs evil kind of thing. There are no shades of grey here.

Evil:

  • The Imperial forces are monolithic
  • Most of them are in uniforms that make them look inhuman
  • The faces that we can see are essentially old white guys
  • The old white guys are wearing uniforms reminiscent of Nazi Germany
  • They kill with impunity and without remorse
  • They’re horrible shots (naturally)
  • All buildings are artificial and mechanical in nature
  • There is a sterile cleanness to their environments
  • Long, narrow architecture appears to be inspired again by Nazi Germany (thanks, Albert Speer!)

Good:

  • The Rebel forces are diverse (white, black, and Asian characters, not to mention different alien races)
  • Their architectural structures are more organic; they appear to be made from  materials from the local environment
  • The Rebel environment is much dirtier, hectic, disorganized
  • Faces are always clearly visible
  • The Rebel forces robots consistently have a goofy, comical aspect to them (hence the robots act more human than the actual humans serving the Empire)

Interesting that the Nazi theme comes up a couple of times in the evil attributes. Universally, WWII is considered to be the last ‘good’ war. Who was right and who was wrong was very clearly defined. As a world, we’ve lost that moral clarity (ie America, who always considers itself to be the good guys, is now regularly killing civilians in drone strikes halfway around the world in an undeclared war; whether you believe it’s justified or not, it pretty clearly does not have the moral clarity of fighting Nazi Germany and Hitler).

Anyway, in addition to uniforms, attitude, and architecture, I saw the following WWII echos:

  • Fighting on the beach was reminiscent of D-Day
  • Fighting in the jungle was reminiscent of Pacific fighting
  • The aerial dogfights almost seemed like WWII war footage

Other random thoughts as I watched the movie…

Another archetype is a little force, heavily outnumbered, taking on a large, evil, rampaging force. The most obvious examples are Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. Even more on point is The Guns of Navarone, in which a small group of soldiers take on an impregnable Nazi fortress (hey, another WWII reference!).

Thanks to the global nature of movie making, especially when we’re talking huge budget films like this, there are positive Asian characters. Here there are two, both played by well-known Chinese actors (yay! progress). The trope here again is well trod. You have the spiritual blind man who has tapped into some greater unseen force that gives him powers vastly beyond what he has lost with his sightless eyes. Following him around is a worldly sidekick, gruff, uncouth, and irreligious, but fiercely loyal to his friend. By the end of the movie, seeing the strength of this unseen power, the sidekick himself has become a believer.

I find the whole preference of the natural, organic world to the artificial, mechanistic world to be quite fascinating. Look, we live in the United States of America. This is the most advanced industrial country in the history of humanity. In the 20th century, a very real argument can be made that the US drug the rest of the world from the ashes of WWII into the overtly industrialized world that we live in today. Everyday, people are leaving the rural life to live in a city. The middle of our country is being emptied. Entire small towns are dying out daily.

And look at myself in particular. I work for one of the world’s largest defense company. Hell, if somewhere on Earth someone was building a Death Star, I’d probably be working on it (and, oh, by the way, Empire? Death Stars and Death Troopers? You really need to work on your branding. I’m sure you mean Freedom Stars and Patriot Troopers).

Pretty clearly the industrial way of life is actually improving the overall lot of people (yeah, I know, Akron, you got screwed, but I’m talking in the aggregate here). Since the industrial age has started, median life expectancy has gone up, food production has gone up, there is much more leisure time available, and just overall standard of living has improved.

So, why do we prefer the ‘natural’ way? Is it something ingrained into our psyche? The need for open spaces? Or is this our shorthand for hearkening back to a simpler time (essentially some kind of archetypal universal childhood)? Why do I, who work for a large company building large things and live in a large city, naturally feel the need to cheer on those living close to their environment?

Sorry, one more thing. Yeah, I’m not sure that I’m thrilled with the whole idea of resurrecting dead actors via CGI and placing them in the movie. That seems somehow wrong to me. Peter Cushing actually has a sizable role in Rogue One and he’s been dead for 20 years. Maybe it was (and this was a coincidence since I bought the ticket days ago) just especially meaningful to me since I saw the movie literally on the day that Carrie Fisher died. Although her role was much smaller, there she was, at the end of the movie, in full CGI, looking 19 years old. It was jarring and, at least to me, unethical and inappropriate.

This goes back to the fundamental question of science and progress in general; just because you can do something, does that mean that you should do it? And is this possibly the larger underlying message for us cheering on the Rebels? As the Empire builds things like the Death Star, is our own visceral reaction to it an acknowledgement that we don’t trust our scientists, our engineers, our leaders, and our industrial might not to ultimately enslave us / oppress us in some inevitable march of progress?

 

A Literary Pop-Up Book

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Title: House of Leaves

Rating: 5 Stars

Where do I even start? How do I sum up what I just went through? How do I contain this?

I guess I’ll start with the plot. My struggle summarizing the plot will probably go a long way towards explaining my struggles describing the novel itself.

There’s a famous war photographer named Will Navidson (known by all as Navy). He has a wife (Karen) and two children (Chad and Daisy). Because he’s always on the road for his work, he has not been a great husband or father.

Acknowledging that, he buys a house in a quiet neighborhood somewhere in Virginia. He intends to focus on his family. Because he is a photographer, he positions cameras throughout the house, with a goal of somehow producing a work demonstrating the normalcy of living a domestic life.

The domesticity starts to fray when suddenly a new room appears in the house. Navy and Karen are understandably confused. How did they never notice the room before? Navy investigates and comes to a stunning conclusion. The house is 1/4″ larger inside then it is outside.

Of course, this is impossible. He calls in his twin brother (Tom), a housing contractor, and an engineer friend, Billy Reston, to investigate. They all come together convinced that this is just a measurement problem and that they’ll quickly get to the bottom of it.

As they start investigating, they discover yet another door that previously never existed. This door leads to an entire labyrinth of nearly infinite size and complexity. Not only that, but it’s ever shifting (eg like a house made of leaves).

Not only that, but when they go into the labyrinth, which appears to be completely featureless, they occasionally hear something akin to a growl or a roar. Is there a monster down there? Could it be a Minotaur?

Eventually, several expeditions are made to investigate, to plumb the depths of the labyrinth. The limits are never reached and several people die in the attempt. Navy himself nearly dies.

All this time, extensive film footage is being collected. Navy, with the help of Karen, edits the film into a movie length documentary (The Navidson Record). The film is released by Miramax and is championed by the Weinstein brothers. Many celebrities and intellectuals comment upon it, including Stephen King, Harold Bloom, Hunter S Thompson, and Camille Paglia. It becomes fairly well known and becomes the subject of many celebrity and academic books and articles.

That’s the inner plot. The next layer plot features a blind writer named Zampano. He has made it his life’s work to perform an analysis of The Navidson Record. He obsessively compiles every note and comment that he can find on it. Ultimately, this drives him to isolation and probable madness.

One day, he is found dead. It appears to be natural causes, but huge scratch marks are dug out of the floor near him (perhaps the work of the monster Minotaur?) Another man, Johnny Truant, looking for an apartment, checks out Zampano’s apartment. He does not choose the apartment, but interested in all of the notes that Zampano took regarding The Navidson Record, takes the chest of notes back to his place.

Johnny spends many months arranging and rearranging Zampano’s notes into some semblance of order. As he does so, he himself begins to descend into isolation and madness, at several points he is sure that he is being stalked and about to be attacked by some kind of monster as well.

So, House of Leaves is Zampano’s analysis of The Navidson Report (complete with his copious footnotes); which in turn is annotated by Truant’s own copious footnotes concerning his analysis of The Navidson Report, his comments on Zampano’s notes, as well as notes about his ongoing descent into madness; which in turn is annotated by an anonymous editor, who footnotes the Navidson Report, Zampano’s footnotes, and Truant’s footnotes.

Got all of that? Usually, I can do a plot description in 100 words or less. I’m already almost up to 700.

Let’s talk about the complexity of the book. The text is formatted to match the action. Therefore, when Navy is stuck in a narrow crevice, the entire page only consists of two lines. When a character is in the crazy structure of the labyrinth, the text is sometimes angled off to the side, sometimes it’s upside some down, sometimes it’s mirror writing.

The book communicates in many languages. There are quotes in French, German, Russian, and Spanish. Part of the text is in braille. Part of the text is in Morse code.

Although Zampano and Truant both appear to be writing the truth, the truth itself is elusive. Zampano heavily quotes from The Navidson Report, quotes intellectuals for their comments, and references literally hundreds of critical articles and books concerning the documentary. However, Truant can’t find the film anywhere. The few celebrities that respond to him deny all knowledge of The Navidson Report. He travels to Virginia and can find no evidence that the house ever existed (although does come across a 17th century first person diary that appears to reference the labyrinth).

So, in the universe of House Of Leaves, does The Navidson Report exist? Does the house exist? Does the labyrinth exist? What does the labyrinth represent? Does the monster exist?

Or is this all just from the fertile mind of Johnny Truant? We learn from an appendix of his mom’s letters that she has a serious mental illness and that Johnny had a truly horrible upbringing that included his mom trying to strangle him as a child. Is the empty, sterile, yet dangerous labyrinth Johnny’s relationship to his mother?

All the time that Danielewski  is weaving this magic he is also making tip of the hat references to David Foster Wallace (committing suicide by microwave), Borges (seriously, Pierre Menard joke? what the serious fuck?) and to Thomas Pynchon, and probably many others that I’m simply not smart enough to catch.

And oh yeah, you want a little more meta in your literature? How about Navy, stuck in the labyrinth, knowing that he’s about to die, and is running out of light. He decides to read a book. He has one match left. He lights it, quickly reads a page, tears it out, lights it, reads the next page, tears that out, lights it, etc. The book he’s reading? House of Leaves!

Not quite enough? Later, Johnny is listening to a band. They play a song that reminds him of what he just went through. He goes up to them to talk about it. They excitedly tell him that they were inspired by a book that they’d just read. They show the book to him. House of Leaves!

So, yeah, this is one bad-ass motherfucker of a book.

But here’s the thing, believe it or not, it was a sheer joy to read. There were times where I quite simply couldn’t put it down. I was expecting to take a month to read it, but I had some time during a break and I finished it in three days.

Not only was I intellectually challenged, but there were times when I legit laughed out loud. I’ve haven’t done that with such a serious piece of literature since Infinite Jest.

Infinite Jest is the work that I kept coming back to. House of Leaves suffers from much of the same flaws as Infinite Jest, in that Danielewski is clearly brilliant and extremely well-learned and so he just throws everything into the work in a ‘look ma no hands’ kind of show-offy way, very reminiscent of Foster Wallace. However, the fact that they both can and do back it up with what can only be described as a literary masterpiece makes it all worth it.

So, yeah, if what I just wrote here sounds fun, go out and read it now.

If you’re sitting here and are thinking WTF, well maybe you should heed the book’s dedication:

This is not for you

 

 

A Movie About The 30’s Actually About The 60’s

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Title: Bonnie and Clyde

Rating: 4 Stars

I’ve been re-reading Nixonland, a story about the rise of the youth movement in conjunction with the rise of the modern conservative movement. It discussed the release of the movie Bonnie and Clyde, and what it represented. A couple of years ago, I re-read Public Enemies, a story of the depression era gangsters, of whom Bonnie and Clyde were featured prominently.

I hadn’t seen the movie for several years, so I went ahead and watched it. It still holds up pretty well, especially considering the time that it came out of.

Bonnie clearly is a proto-feminist. She knows what she wants and is not willing to settle for less. Although clearly beautiful and smart, she does not want to just be some rich farmer’s wife. She wants excitement and thrills. She is overtly sexual and open about expressing it, must to Clyde’s dismay.

Clyde does not care about conventions. He has no interest in working hard and trying to get ahead. He has no respect for authority, especially the police. He thinks that he should be able to take whatever he can without consequences. He’s robbing a grocery story and is flabbergasted that one of the proprietors actually tries to fight back. He had no intention of hurting anyone; the fact that he had to club a person into unconsciousness is entirely the fault of the person for trying to get it in his way.

This is an early call-out to the celebrity culture. They regularly read the newspapers and whenever they find an article about themselves, they read it to each other. The fact that they appear in the newspaper somehow validates them and makes them feel more alive. In fact, when one of Bonnie’s poems, about their life on the run, appears in the local paper, Clyde, who is impotent, feel so empowered that for the first time he successfully has sex with Bonnie.

The movie is clearly a paean to youth and to the youth movement, flouting notions of convention and tradition for that of freedom.

Although they have the basic facts right, the movie was definitely oriented to that message. Bonnie and Clyde weren’t glamorous. Bonnie was under 5′ tall and by the end of her life was crippled by painful burns. Clyde was a stone cold killer. He was apparently brutally raped while in prison so was determined not to be taken alive. Although taller then Bonnie, he weighed something like 115 pounds. They had very little money and basically lived most of the time in difficult conditions in their car. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty they weren’t.

One thing that they did get mostly right was the ending. One of their henchmen’s father made a deal with the police to turn them over for leniency for his son. The police riddled both of the bodies with dozens of shots with not even an attempt to allow them to surrender. It was a pure ambush.

So, as a historically accurate movie, like all movies, it had its ups and downs. However, it still holds up as an important statement regarding the mood of the 1960’s.

Who’s On Trial Here?

When I was living in Tukwila, for some reason I seemed to always get jury summons. I probably averaged one jury summons a year. It would be semi-understandable if it was consistently coming from the same courthouse. However, it came from a variety of sources. I remember getting a couple of summons from King County (from multiple court houses in the County), one from the federal courthouse, a couple from Tukwila, and even one from the city of Sea-Tac. I didn’t even live in Sea-Tac. I remember I called them to ask them why they selected me. They said that they didn’t know and they didn’t care. I had to come down anyway.

One day I received a jury summons for the city of Tukwila. I wasn’t too worried, because Tukwila, at least at that time, was a pretty sleepy town. Really, all there is to Tukwila is the Southcenter mall. I figured I’d go down to the courthouse and listen to stories about young men shoplifting teddies from Victoria’s Secret or something equally nefarious.

I did my civic duty and I showed up bright and early in the morning. At the time that I did this, I was, I think, 29 years old. I was by far the youngest person in the prospective jury pool. It was almost entirely composed of retired men and women. Not only that, but at 29, I still was still getting regularly carded at bars. I probably looked somewhere in my early 20’s at the latest.

Some of these people looked at me and gave me these looks like they could just tell that I’m a wonderful young man who probably makes someone a proud grandparent. I was beginning to bask in these feelings when the judge came in and started things up.

The courtroom itself was a pretty modest affair. It basically looked like the set of a cheap courtroom drama. There were a couple of rows of benches in the back of the room. That’s where we prospective jurors were sitting. There was a little guard rail between these benches and where the lawyer sat. Each side had its own desk, which kind of resembled the old desks that teachers used to have in grade school. In the front of the courtroom was a semi-circular wooden structure. Facing the front of the courtroom, the section on the left was where each witness was sworn in and testified. To the left of the witness box was the jury box. On the right was where the court clerk sat. In the middle in a raised section was where the judge sat.

The judge came in and it was all pretty routine, if somewhat small scale. For example, at the King County courthouse, there’s usually several hundred prospective jurors and there’s at least a dozen or so trials going on. Here in Tukwila, there was maybe 25 or 30 prospective jurors, and there was only one trial.

The judge himself looked to be relatively young, probably something less then 40 years old. Everyone rose as he came in. We all sat after he sat.

I stole a look at the people sitting at the two tables in front of me. On the left was the prosecutor. He was the only one sitting at his table. He was even younger then the judge; probably not even thirty, but already balding. He wore a suit, slightly worn, that looked like it was bought at JC Penney.

On the right was the defense. The defendant was a very attractive young woman dressed in a somewhat provocative, tight clinging dress. The lawyer next to her was probably somewhere in his fifties, portly, and was dressed in an improbably green suit.

The first thing that took place was figuring out what jurors were actually going to sit in on the trial. Usually, I don’t even get called; after which I can just go home. However, this time, my name was the first one to be called. In Tukwila, when your name is called, you actually have to get up and sit in the jury box.

So, I got to sit in the first seat in the front row. The bailiff called the other names. All of the other names were retired men and women and they took their places in the jury box.

Thus did the voir dire process start. Most people know, from the near infinite number of legal shows endlessly broadcast, what the voir dire process is. It’s the chance for the two attorneys to ask questions of the jurors and to determine whether or not they’d be acceptable. They can ask pretty much whatever they want to ask. Since I was the first juror selected, I was the first one to go through the voir dire process.

Before the questioning started, the bailiff came over, made me raise my right hand, and promise to tell the truth. With that, the prosecuting attorney proceeded to ask me questions. He first started by explaining that the case involved illegal touching at the Déjà Vu. This was a local strip club. I immediately started sweating a little.

He started off with pretty basic questions. After some initial questions, for some reason, he asked me if I was married. I’d literally just been married the week before. I mentioned this fact, and all of the retired people perked up and they really proceeded to give me the warm puppy dog looks. You could just tell that they were so proud that I was to embark on this wonderful adventure named marriage and that I was going to very soon bless my lucky parents with that ultimate gift, grand children.

The prosecutor congratulated me and made some further small talk. He then mentioned that it was common for young males before their wedding date to have a bachelor party. He asked me if I’d had a bachelor party. I said that I’d had. He said that many times bachelor parties are held at strip clubs. He asked me where mine had been held. The headlights on this train are now rapidly approaching.

You see, I’d been married less then a week. Just before the wedding, a couple of my buddies had taken me out to the very strip club at which the illegal touching took place.

Let me state at this time that it was not my usual habit to frequent strip clubs.

Keep in mind that I was in my 20’s and I was not yet at the height of respectability and responsibility that I am now at. Also, that maybe I wasn’t as discrete in the selection of my friends as I could have been.

Let us now proceed with the story… I took a deep breath, considered the consequences of lying (jail time) versus the near certain public embarrassment about to occur, and after several beats, responded that it’d been at a strip club.

From the retired people gazing lovingly at me, there was an audible gasp. I think I actually saw one reach for his asthma inhaler. Another dabbed at her eyes with a finely croquet-ed handkerchief.

Before this point, the questioning was somewhat lackadaisical. Upon my confession of my near real-time experience with the strip club underground culture, the prosecuting attorney quickly moved to a position directly in front of me and the defense attorney’s head audibly snapped as he jerked towards me. The comely young defendant smiled knowingly and crossed her legs demurely underneath the table. Even the judge, whose head was nodding gently to some invisible dream music, snapped awake and glared down at me.

The prosecuting attorney asked me which strip club that I’d been to. Totally red-faced and seeing the headlights of the train now beaming directly into my eyes, I somewhat glumly admitted that it was the strip club in question. I was really hoping that admitting this fact would cauterize my public wound and they would quickly kick me off the panel, after which I could slink home in shame.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The prosecuting attorney thought that, since I had such obvious first hand knowledge of the whole strip club scene and since apparently from his point of view I can’t go more then a week without going at least once to a strip club, he began to ask me detailed questions regarding the practices at said establishment.

He asked me if I’d received a lap dance. I’d said yes. He asked me to explain what a lap dance is. So, in open court, I explained that the usual practice was that you’d sit at a table some distance from the dance floor. The DJ / MC would call out some dancer (usually named Desiree or Gabrielle or Monique or Gertrude). This woman would come out wearing a tiny little bra / panties number and dance on the elevated platform. There literally is a pole in the middle of the platform (hence the phrase pole dance) and the women would perform various quasi-dance, semi-gymnastic moves on the platform while liberally making use of the pole as a prop. Various popular songs would be playing while this was taking place (Flashdance, Footloose, Dude Looks Like a Lady). At some point during the dance, the top and bottom of the costume would come off. At the conclusion of the dance, the dancer would put back on her top and bottom and then walk from table to table asking if someone wanted a dance. A straightforward dance, where she’d do basically the same thing that she did on stage but much closer to you would be $5. However, a lap dance would set you back $10.

Since I had friends with me and it was my bachelor party, they each bought me a lap dance (which actually, at this place was called, I believe, a Texas couch dance). After they paid, the girl led me to the dark fringes at the back of the club, where a number of chairs of a quality that you’d find at a young man’s first apartment were set along the back wall of the club. She set me down in one of these, and when the next dancer came out with her song blaring on the sound system, the girl started performing her lap dance for me, which in its entirety consisted of her rubbing her back end in my lap to the beat of the music.

In hindsight, a somewhat sordid business. And all of which, I got to explain, in great detail, in open court in front of a couple of dozen of the elderly who were now convinced that not only was I not a shining example of young manhood but a level three sex offender. There was literally no one making eye contact with me now from my fellow jury pool.

And the prosecuting attorney was relentless. I remember him asking questions like, was the woman dancing for you or was her sole purpose to arouse you sexually? After what seemed to be hours of questioning, he turned to the judge and said that I’d be acceptable to him. I was shocked. I thought at least, if nothing else, I’d get the boot.

I was not done yet. The defendant’s attorney, stood up, and started walking towards me. He started to ask me how I felt about the police. I didn’t have any real special feelings about them one way or another. They have a job to do and it needs to be done. I’m not thrilled to see them in my rear-view mirror, but all in all, I’ve got no problem with them.

He then proceeded to ask me if I’d had any run-ins with the law. Thus, the headlights of a second train started approaching me in the tunnel. You see, approximately two years before, I’d gone to a party with some friends, and had just a little too much to drink. I’d gotten pulled over, did the whole how drunk am I test, and ended up getting arrested.

So, once again, in open court, I’d said yes, I’d had a run-in with the police. He asked me if I’d ever been arrested. I’d said yes, I’d been arrested. At that point, with an audible scraping noise, the lady next to me scooted her chairs six inches further from me.

I got to explain, again in great detail, the details behind that magic night. Why the policeman pulled me over (I was weaving and speeding), what kind of tests were performed, which ones did I fail (walk a line, pivot, walk a line), was I handcuffed, did I spend the night in jail and other interesting facts that I’d not previously shared with anyone, let alone with strangers.

By the time that I was done, I wanted to hide underneath my chair. Even then, after all of that, the defending attorney said that he had no objections to me serving on the jury, so I still didn’t get excused.

Between the two attorneys, I imagine that they spent somewhere close to thirty minutes grilling me. The other potential jurors collectively they blew through in about 15 fifteen minutes.

Before the trial started, the defending attorney said that he had a couple of motions to run through before the trial can start. These were motions that the jury was not to hear, so we were excused to go to the deliberation room.

The deliberation room is a tiny little room with one long table with six chairs. I was the first one in (because I was still in the first chair of the first row). I took a seat at the end of the table. As the other jurors trooped in, they all grabbed chairs and moved to the other end of the table. After all was done, I was by myself at one end of the table and the other five somewhat elderly ladies and gentlemen were all piled together at the other end of the table a safe distance from the alcoholic pervert that was in their midst.

They talked nervously about a couple of topics, studiously managing to avoid all eye contact with me. After several excruciatingly uncomfortable minutes, the bailiff came and thankfully rescued me.

The judge was ready for us again. We trooped back into the court room and took our seats. The judge said that because of reasons that we don’t need to worry about, that the case had been dropped.

The prosecuting attorney sat slumped glumly at his desk. The defending attorney sat with a sly smirk. The defendant looked bored as she sat twirling her long black hair. The judge then thanked us for our service and excused us.

All of the other jury members got up to go. I sat in the chair, shell-shocked. I’d just gone through a public examination of my sins, and then at the end of the day, I didn’t even get to enjoy the fruits of my public humiliation and actually get to experience a trial? Emotionally exhausted, I finally got up to walk slowly to my car. I got in, drove home, and promised to myself that no one would ever learn of this story.

About a month later, I was at the local neighborhood grocery store. I heard a voice whisper, ‘Sssshhh… there he is’. I turned and looked. It’s one of the little old ladies pointing out the local pervert to her outraged, protective husband. Shortly, after that, I moved.

A Bad Way to Wake Up

Several years ago, I was living with a woman that is now my ex. At the time, she was very unhappy with where she was working, and one of the ways that this manifested itself was in pretty much an incapability to wake up when the alarm went off. It got to the point where she would hit the snooze button without really waking up eight or nine times before she would finally get up.

One night, we went to bed as usual. Out of a dead sleep, I wake up to the sound of a man screaming. Notice that I didn’t say yelling. It was a man screaming. It wasn’t a man screaming in anger or in pain. It was the sound you’d hear if you were working in a 1940’s era insane asylum. It was the loud, shrill, and piercing scream of a man in a violent, hopeless, manic rage.

It sounded like it was coming from the front door of our apartment. I kept waiting for the man to move away from the door. But he didn’t. For what was an eternity (although only a second or two), he stood at my front door and screamed.

Determined to call the police, I moved to get out of the bed so that I could call 911 on my phone. When I did, I realized that, in fact, he wasn’t screaming from my front door, but was actually screaming on the other side of my bedroom door. He was in my apartment, screaming like a madman.

My bedroom door is unlocked. Any second now, I expected this, whatever he was, man to come bursting into my bedroom. I jumped out of bed and started running to the door. What was I going to do? I had no idea. I just knew that it was up to me to try to fight off this screaming fiend. There was no time to call for help. At this point, I’m sure that I was myself yelling, screaming, and cursing as I headed towards the door, fairly confident that I was possibly on my way to a fight to the death.

As I was running to the door, in my panic, I heard my ex yelling as well. I thought that she was yelling in fright and panic, so I ignored it, and kept heading towards the door.

As I got ready to open the bedroom door, I finally heard what she was yelling…”it’s an alarm, it’s an alarm!”

Apparently the previous night she’d downloaded a new alarm app. Once it goes off, it only goes off at full volume and does not turn off until you pick it up and walk around with it for some number of seconds. The sound options were man screaming, woman screaming, and fire truck. She downloaded it and set it without telling me or testing it.

She was very apologetic and immediately deleted the application, but she clearly thought that this was a very amusing anecdote. Sure enough, I heard her tell it many times in different settings.

And yes, it’s an amusing story. However, whenever she tells it, it puts me right back in the moment, when I quite literally thought that I was, clad in nothing but my underwear, going to have to fight a screaming lunatic, who might have had, for all I know, everything from a gun to an ax, to one of our deaths.

I think it very well could have been the scariest moment of my life.

Tralfamadorians Invade Earth

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Title: Arrival

Rating: 2 Stars

The movie starts with a linguist, Louise (Amy Adams) raising, caring for, loving, and then mourning her daughter when she dies of a rare cancer.

Now lecturing, her class is interrupted when alien ships appear in various locations around the world. She apparently is a world recognized linguist. The military recruits her to communicate with the alien ship stationed in Wyoming.

After some difficulties, she does begin to communicate with them. Ultimately, she learns that the aliens are here to bestow a gift upon humanity. That gift is their language, which, once learned, allows you to essentially effortlessly traverse time. We learn that the child that we thought had died in her past is actually a flash forward to the child that she will have. She knowingly will have the child, even though it is destined to die of the rare cancer.

The film starts off really well. It demonstrates the mass panic / concern that will arise when/if aliens appear en masse. It shows the governments of the world working together, and then, inevitably, the relationships start to deteriorate. It does a good job showing the aliens as not just some ugly bipedal life form but actually a uniquely different form. It attempts to demonstrate an innovative new form of communication.

And now the problems.

First of all, why is Ian (Jeremy Renner) even there? What does a physicist have to do with establishing communication patterns? His role appears to be exclusively that as a future romantic partner for Louise.

The scene where Louise actually shares space with the alien was just a little too 2001ish for me. The setting was just too silly. The music score was overwhelming (throughout most of it, the score was about as subtle as a meat cleaver).

Whenever a movie starts fucking with time, I know that it’s going to probably head South, and indeed it does here.

The idea is that time is nonlinear. All time exists and any one time is accessible at any time. For those of you who are into Vonnegut, this should remind you very much of the Tralfamadorians from Slaughterhouse Five. And indeed, it seems pretty similar and introduces the same issues.

If time is available to all, then there is no free choice. There is no dramatic tension. Everything happens because it is always happening. It cannot happen anyway else. The movie makes it seem as if she chooses to have the child despite knowing that it will die, but the fact is, she really does not have a choice. That is the essence of nonlinear time.

The key to understanding the language is that they use no tense (as in, future or past). This makes perfect sense because, if all time is happening, then there is no future or past. However, in the crucial scene where Louise is communicating to the alien, all of the sudden the alien starts communicating using tense. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but that really annoyed me.

Of course, then there’s the whole thing where the Chinese and the Russians are the villains looking for an excuse to shoot the alien crafts down. I’m actually surprised by this choice; given the size of the Chinese cinematic market, it seems like choosing to have the Chinese act in a typical dictatorial manner would hurt the box office. It makes me wonder if a subtly different version will be shown there.

All in all, not a horrible movie. I have a predilection against sci-fi movies, and possibly my predilections are showing through here. Generally it received high reviews; I just did not get much out of it and got annoyed with it several times.

 

Matryoshka Revenge

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Title: Nocturnal Animals

Rating: 4 Stars

Well, first of all, let’s talk about how the movie starts. It opens with naked, aged, morbidly obese women performing exotic dances. The women danced with the practiced boredom and dead eyes as if they’d been doing it for 40 years, never knew anything else, and know that this is all they’ll ever do.

Eventually, the movie pans out and it is revealed that the dancers are part of a gallery opening (although I still have to say that the dancing went on uncomfortably long enough to become gratuitous). The director of the gallery is Susan Morrow, whose life in some ways mimics those of the dancers. She made an early career choice, is good at it, but clearly now regrets the choice that she has made but sees no path forward to get out of it. In a similar manner, she’s married to a gorgeous businessman, but it quickly unfolds that his business is failing and that he is cheating on her.

In short, she appears to have everything in her life, but is deeply unhappy.

In the midst of this, a package arrives that is from her first husband and her first true love. In the package is a novel that he’s written that he has dedicated to her. She begins to read it.

And thus begins the story within the story. Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a man with his wife and daughter driving along when they are accosted by three men in a car. The three men force the  Hastings’ car off of the road. In a series of tense scenes, the men drive off with Hastings’ wife and daughter, while he can only feebly and futily fight back. He is left for dead but eventually manages to get back to a house where he can call the police. Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) is assigned to work the case. Hastings is crushed by the shame and guilt of failing to protect his family. Ultimately, all three men are tracked down by Andes and Hastings and all three end up dead.

As the inner story is unfolding, Morrow is re-living her relationship with her ex-husband. They had an idyllic relationship but ultimately she was not able to provide him the support that he needed to become a successful writer. She ultimately cheats on him and he discovers this in the most brutal way imaginable.

By the time that she’s finished reading the book, she has contacted her ex and requested to meet. She is clearly excited to meeting him and holds some hope that perhaps they can rekindle what they once had. They agree to meet, she shows up, but he never does. With a breaking heart, she realizes that the novel that he sent her is revenge for her betrayal to him, proof that he can be a successful novelist, and that he has moved on beyond her. The movie ends with that realization.

So, yes, a pretty emotionally brutal movie of grief and revenge, in both the main story as well as in the inner story.

This was an engrossing movie with great visuals (as you’d probably expect from Tom Ford) and a sophisticated plot. It was refreshing to sit in a theater and sit glued to your seat trying to figure out what’s going on on the screen and what it means to the overall plot.

Not only was it engrossing, but there was also one legitimately scary moment that no one saw coming in the theater. It’s interesting because it makes me wonder if there was more such moments that was left on the cutting room floor. Regardless, it came out of nowhere and was genuinely shocking.

My quibble with this film is similar to the Green Room. Just like blindly loyal non-thinking skinheads is kind of an old trope, so is the hick Southern boys having their way with the elite sophisticates. It is an obvious battle between rural and urban where the viewpoint is heavily skewed towards the urban.

The elites are polite and well mannered while the rural hicks are drunk, boorish, and violent. The elite is man-handled and un-manned by the rednecks. Ultimately, the elite man learns his lesson, toughens up, and beats the rednecks at their own violent game.

Maybe this kind of social commentary was fresh during the time of Deliverance, but can we possibly have a slightly more nuanced point of view then uneducated, rural Southerns as drunken, raping, murdering buffoons?

If the liberal Hollywood elites paint the rural population like this, is there any reason that the elites aren’t hated in the flyover states?

 

One Too Many Vertical Loops

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Title: Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits

Rating: 4 Stars

The setting is some recognizable near future. A businessman / gangster (Arthur Livingston) has recently died and there’s a mad scramble to seize his assets, especially a super secret project that he was working on that has the ability to give superhero capabilities to anyone. Many years ago, he had an illegitimate daughter that he neglected. She is now living in a trailer park with her mother. For reasons not clear, he has bequeathed his entire estate to his daughter (Zoey Ashe). Now, people loyal to Livingston are trying to protect Zoey while others (including a really bad guy named Molech) are attempting to kill her and destroy the city that her father essentially built.

That’s the plot in a nutshell. In short, this is another David Wong novel. I first encountered Wong when reading the Cracked website and listening to the Cracked podcast. He is an insightful commentator on our world today (especially in the current Trump environment). He’s a pretty unabashed liberal who has not forgotten his conservative Midwest upbringing and tries diligently to marry these two political threads of his life.

Wong has written three novels. The first two are a series, with a slightly postmodern edge in that David Wong is a character in the novels. David Wong is a pseudonym for Jason Pargin, but he’s so open about this fact that, at this point, I honestly don’t know what good there is in continuing to use the name David Wong.

The third book, by the looks of things, also appears to be the setup for at least a sequel, if not an outright franchise.

Wong’s books all kind of follow the same path. The protagonist is a low rent, white trash kind of person. The protagonist is not really successful in life but clearly has a lot of native intelligence that has gone substantially unused due to the environment that he/she lives in. Some external force enters the protagonist’s life and throws it all into upheaval.

The protagonist, relying upon his/her wits, must, in the face of rampant violence and a nearly invincible foe, rise up to the challenge and conquer the foe to save himself/herself and quite possibly the world itself.

He writes with great cleverness and creativity. He does a good job imagining a world that is different but yet is recognizable. His characters, instead of wilting in the face of extreme danger and certain death, appear to adopt a Ryan Reynolds persona, blithely brave and cocky, throwing out clever quips while around them bullets and other implements of destruction are shot at them.

It’s basically a roller-coaster ride. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as you know what you’re getting into.

He could use a stronger editor. His books all seem to reach a point of absurdist singularity, where things just get so extreme that he loses control of the plot and the action. When I read Wong, I eagerly consume the first several hundred pages and marvel at his creativity. For the last third of the book or so, I’m ready for the book to end. How many more explosions do we actually need? How many more near death experiences must our protagonist face? How much closer does the world have to get to destruction? To get back to the roller-coaster analogy, the ride just goes on a bit too long and instead of being thrilled, the riders begin to get just a bit fidgety.

To his credit, it took longer in this book then it did with the others to reach this singularity, which I’m interpreting as a hopeful sign that he’s becoming a stronger writer.

I did enjoy the book and I’m hoping that the roller-coaster ride continues to tighten up over time.