Wednesday, February 26, 2014

30 For 30: Fight Club

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 12, we take a look at one of the greatest love stories of the last 30 years, and I resist the urge to mention Meatloaf or use that still-frame from the end of the movie with the guy's dick.
 Amidst all the controversy that greeted Fight Club upon its release—all that talk of it being a misogynistic or fascist or pro-violence film—there was one significant lack of controversy. And it was that Chuck Palahniuk, the man who wrote the novel upon which the movie was based, thought the movie was better than the book. You see, most authors famously hate the films that are made out of their novels. This includes Stephen King, who is maybe the only person alive who hated Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Yet there's an interview I can't track down that I read years ago wherein Palahniuk basically admits that he now finds the book embarrassing compared to the film because it does a better job with the ideas and themes he was trying to lay down.

Having read the book during my college years, I can say with certainty that he's absolutely right. Understand that I think Palahniuk is one of the best authors of the modern era, even if I haven't felt compelled to keep up with his newer works. Yet Fight Club, and to an extent his 'true' first novel, Invisible Monsters, were undercooked and unfocused compared to his novels that followed. So while I've only ever read Fight Club once, it still means a great deal to me, because I have watched it dozens of times.

However, in the same way that Radiohead's OK Computer continues to mean something to me even though I rarely listen to it, I only watch Fight Club once every couple years. It's still an amazing film, even judged simply from a visual perspective, and you should really go watch it if you only know of it as “that violent movie with the soap or whatever.” I have a well worn copy of the early 2-DVD release of it from my high school days, and to be sure, I watched the fuck out of it when I was younger. I can't say that it made me want to go out and fight someone or blow up a bank, but watching it, especially with the DVD commentaries on, did help me to appreciate it on another level.

 The packaging is just perfect, too.

In fact, I'll go ahead and say that, without seeing Fight Club at that time of my life, I might never have gotten into movies on any kind of serious basis. I never really thought about the things they teach you in film school, such as what makes acting good, or cinematography interesting, or how special effects can help tell a story without distracting from the rest of the movie. But watching the movie over and over, and listening to the various commentary tracks, I began to see and think about Fight Club, and other movies I was watching around that time, in a totally different way. No longer was it just a movie with great quotes and use of music; now I was actually noticing the fact that I didn't see the people in the movie as actors, I saw them as their characters. No longer was I impressed by how cool the explosions looked; now I was actually noticing the subtle use of CGI throughout the film to, say, put prices and items in the narrator's apartment or to add steamy breath to the scene in the cold cave with the penguin.

The nerd in me wants to know what font they used here.

It's fascinating to think how Fight Club may ultimately be regarded as a cult classic yet it features actors and a director who are anything but cult. David Fincher didn't really solidify his reputation until after Panic Room, true, but it's hard to imagine that the lead actors Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter could have given better performances at that point in time, and could have gone on to do the roles they did afterward. I don't doubt they would have had careers without Fight Club but I don't know if they'd have had as good a demo reel, you know what I mean? This isn't to say that everything they're done in the 21st century is pure gold but so much of the work they pursued post-Fight Club feels encoded in the acting they did in this film. Personally, I used to think of Brad Pitt as a pretty boy with no real acting chops or range, and Fight Club changed that. Go watch it again and as you do, think about the roles he'd go on to play in Inglourious Basterds, Snatch, and even something lesser known like The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. And for what it's worth, I have a pet theory that the reason Tim Burton cast Helena Bonham Carter in Planet Of The Apes is that he saw her in Fight Club and fell in love with her portrayal of Marla Singer. 

Ah, romance.

Speaking of love, I'd like to conclude this entry by saying that I think of Fight Club as being one of the best love stories in recent times. This may sound crazy, since upon first viewing it feels like anything but a love story (in fact, you can't really pin a basic genre like drama or comedy to the movie at all, can you?). However, think about the scene where the narrator's apartment is blown up and he briefly calls Marla before not saying anything and trying Tyler instead. Knowing what you know about how the movie ends, don't you think the whole point of the movie is that he should have gone for Marla right away and stopped heading further in the Tyler direction? After all, she only stops seeming so crazy once we realize everything she has gone through with the narrator and Tyler. It's worth noting, too, how much less suicidal she is once she finally gets some action, and how strong she suddenly seems when she walks away from a destructive, confusing relationship—or tries to, anyway, before she's brought right back to the narrator at the end of the movie. On a side note, I love how she reacts throughout the ending scene. There's something sweet and tender about the way she tries to fix the narrator's wound that works in a way 90% of other overtly romantic movies can never hope to achieve.

Anyway, the lesson here is, if you ever meet a girl (or guy!) who loves Fight Club, you should probably marry them. That way you won't develop a split personality, beat the shit out of yourself, and blow up a bunch of banks while 'Where Is My Mind?' by the Pixies plays and a still frame of some guy's dick flashes by.

Monday, February 24, 2014

30 For 30: Trout Fishing In America by Richard Brautigan

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 11, I shy away from high brows, accept the middle ground...and end with the word mayonnaise.
I have a confession to make, one that may knock down my pseudo-intellectual street cred: I've owned One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for years and haven't read it. To be honest it's for a petty reason and also a very good reason. The petty reason is that I think there's no way it can live up to how stunning its title is; the very good reason is that, holy shit, that book is dense. And I mean dense in the physics sense of the word, because it's almost overwhelming how many characters there are. I feel bad, because I'm sure it's as amazing a novel as everyone says, but I feel like I'd have to read it over a week long vacation and take notes. Something so grand in scope just overwhelms me these days.

What's more, the last time I read Ulysses by James Joyce was in college. Somehow that makes sense, right? I even wrote a long essay for a Mythology class wherein I compared the novel to Homer's The Odyssey, a work which it famously parallels. Yes, that's the sort of trouble you get up to when you're a young pseudo-intellectual who spends most of his free time in the campus library. Not starting bar fights or having sex with several women in a night, oh no no no!

It almost boggles my mind to think I read Ulysses because it's the sort of reading that doesn't interest me at all nowadays. In different ways but for similar reasons, I think of it as being as 'difficult' and 'dense' as One Hundred Years Of Solitude, and I think I simply have too many things I want to do with my free time. Also, my poor short term memory is taxed enough as it is without having to keep track of seven generations of a family like One Hundred Years demands of a reader.

Yet I feel guilty about this, and I think I know why. It's this whole elitist notion that only serious/difficult literature is worth reading and discussing. Don't get me wrong, I (used to) love that kind of stuff, but it's not for everyone. It's like insisting the people who like Adam Sandler movies should be watching The Tree Of Life or The Seventh Seal instead: do you really think they'd enjoy it or get anything out of it? You have to have an entire background and the right type of mind to enjoy, let alone understand, what is being done in those films. There's a happy middle ground to be found, so that as much as I think Christopher Nolan films are a bit overrated by people who haven't seen enough movies, they are still veritable art films compared to anything Michael Bay scrapes off his boot and releases in theaters.

This, finally, brings us to Trout Fishing In America by Richard Brautigan. Well, it brings us to how I discovered it and what it means to me.


During the Summer of 2012, I was going through a real low point in terms of caring about literature. I was exclusively reading non-fiction and ignoring the unread copy of One Hundred Years Of Solitude on my shelf. I kept feeling as though I wanted something new and experimental in fiction reading but not in a difficult or dense way. Probably the last time fiction had really excited me was while devouring the works of Mark Z. Danielewski after the recommendation of a friend. His books are still brilliant and exciting...but in a difficult and dense way. I mean, Only Revolutions isn't a book I want to re-read any time soon.

Something you should know if I've never brought it up before is that at my job, I get to see a lot of random vintage items. This has led to some fun gems, like a semi-rare Bob Dylan 45 single and a book of Monet prints suitable for framing. But this chaotic way of scavenging for diamonds in the rough isn't a good way to find the next fiction to excite my mind, or so I always thought. For, one day during the Summer of 2012, amongst a mound of other used books, I came across a collection of works by Richard Brautigan (which not only has Trout Fishing in it, but also one of his poetry collections, The Pill Versus The Springhill Mine Disaster, and another of his novels, In Watermelon Sugar). I'd never heard of this guy before, but I was intrigued by the cover and the titles.

So I opened it up and the interior of the cover says “Welcome, you are just a few pages away from Trout Fishing In America.” Then I flipped to the first actual page of the novel and see that it begins by describing the cover of the book. “Huh,” I thought to myself, “this is either one of the best books I've never heard of, or it's the most precious and annoying things ever.” I don't have to tell you which it was, but I do have to tell you that I think of Trout Fishing as being like that middle ground I spoke of earlier. It's not exactly a low-brow book—there's a running post-modernist stunt wherein 'trout fishing in America' can be used as a character's name, an activity done in the book, the name of a hotel, etc—yet it's also not completely high-brow, because there isn't really a plot and no greater meaning or themes to take away. To put it another way, if you think about the book afterward, it won't be to ponder the symbolism or figure out who the real villain was.

Trout Fishing In America is just this fun, whimsical, and clever little novel that came along at the right time of my life. I don't tend to re-read books all the time in the way that I tend to re-play the same music all the time, so I hope it says something that I have to make myself read other things because otherwise I'd just keep reading the Brautigan collection I got from work. I find it to be exciting and inspiring literature; it feels like something that wants to be read and enjoyed and isn't some insular work of a depressed or deranged outcast. If Charles Bukowski's Post Office made me want to write a novel, Trout Fishing In America makes me want to write another. Perhaps one that other people might read and enjoy and tell their friends about, the way Trout Fishing is passed around by word of mouth. Perhaps, too, I'll write a novel that doesn't take itself seriously, and is willing to end with the word 'mayonnaise' because the author expresses a desire to do so in the previous chapter.

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to end one of these 30 For 30 pieces with a quote from Trout Fishing In America. Until now, it just never would have made sense or worked effectively.

“Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise.”

Friday, February 21, 2014

30 For 30: OK Computer by Radiohead

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 10, I talk about the thing that made all of this possible.
On my 30th birthday, after spending part of the night drinking a couple beers with my Dad and watching the last 2/3 of The Two Towers, I decided to listen to OK Computer. This may not seem like a particularly rowdy way to inaugurate my third decade of existence, but then again, you don't really know me, and so you wouldn't know how important this album has been to my life. You also wouldn't know that I never listen to it anymore. Mainly because I don't need to listen to it anymore.

I guess I should explain.

For at least four nights a week for the entirety of my high school career, I used to fall asleep listening to OK Computer. Sure, this may be a gross exaggeration due to time and sentimentality warping my memory, but it's as “true” as anything else I remember from my youth. I can say with absolute certainty that during that time I really did fall asleep listening to some sort of music every night. On nights when I was feeling especially depressed or anxious, I always went with OK Computer. It was like a world I could go inside to escape everything in my life. Every song is like its own little story, its own atmosphere or idea of music, and somehow they all work together. OK Computer is a record I got lost inside of, over and over, in the same way other people remember getting lost inside the world of a book or movie they loved, over and over, when they were a kid. Those late night OK Computer experiences were like how I imagined drugs or love must feel, that total loss of pain, of doubt, and of the ego.

In a very real, non-hyperbolic way, OK Computer is the central point upon which my life pivots. There was the time before I heard it, when I thought music was just kind of OK, but not as good as action movies, the military, and guns. Then there was the time after I heard it—the only way to encapsulate it is to imagine a torrential, endless downpour of art, music, movies, books, love, poetry, drugs, and interesting people.

This, then, is my world now, and OK Computer was the portal I stepped through to get to it. I can't get back out now, and I don't want to. Perhaps this is why I don't listen to the album that much; it feels like going back to the beginning when I'm not even to the halfway point yet. However, something about turning 30 made me want to give the album a fresh listen, and surprise surprise, it's still amazing. But you knew that, right?

At this point, OK Computer has had its 10th anniversary, and has long since entered the canon alongside past classics like Dark Side Of The Moon. As with Pink Floyd, I don't usually bother asking people if they've listened to Radiohead when I talk to them about music. It just seems like a basic assumption you can make about people who like music. Even if they can't stand, say, The Beatles or Radiohead, they've at least listened to them enough to form a coherent opinion. So it often feels a little silly to write about OK Computer because it's the music equivalent of telling someone “you know, I really like The Dark Knight.”

Not that I'm equating the two in any way, mind you. Though comparing the themes of OK Computer and The Dark Knight is the sort of headache inducing wank the 20 year old version of me would've been up for. But I digress.

I wish I could say that I have some fresh perspective or insight on OK Computer at age 30. As it happens, I still have the album all-but-memorized, to the point that I almost don't hear it when I listen to it. It's so much a part of my mind, drilled down deep into my subconscious by years of playing it incessantly, that listening to it is almost irrelevant. The only profound thought I had was, “wow, this is the first time I'm hearing OK Computer in my 30s and it still sounds as amazing as it did the first time heard it in my teens!”

So, yes, I don't need to listen to the record that changed my life anymore. I still do, sometimes, but it sort of feels like re-watching The Dark Knight for the umpteenth time and neglecting all the other great movies that are out there. OK Computer's lasting contribution to my life is as much the music itself as it is the very intimation implied by its existence, that of “hey, there's probably a bunch of other stuff like this in the world, stuff that will also make you feel incredible things. You can stay here, but wouldn't you rather go and discover?”

I suppose, then, the only thing left to say is that OK Computer led me to become who I am at age 30, and to be writing these words. Oh, sure, I was already kind of a weird kid who had an interest in writing before I heard the album. And sure, if it hadn't been OK Computer that did a number on me, turned my world from black-and-white to technicolor like the scene from The Wizard Of Oz, it would've been something else instead. Still, though: all these years later and OK Computer still means something to me. It might not mean everything like it once did, but it does make me want to keep going on. It inspires me to keep writing, to keep exploring what's out there, to experience new things, to think about the world in a different way...Just as it once started me on this path I'm on now, it's still around to serve as a reminder of how far I've come and how there's so much farther I want to go.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

30 For 30: Grouper

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 9, I talk about insomnia and a musician who sounds like a dream.
There are generally a few nights each week where I suffer from insomnia. It's not that I don't sleep at all, it's that I can't turn my mind off and I get restless. That yawny/sleepy feeling never kicks in so I toss and turn for an hour or two before getting up and doing something to kill time until I'm actually able to sleep. Some weeks I have two or three of these kind of nights in a row, depending on what's going on in my life at the time, and it's always at these points that I now reach for Grouper, the music project of Liz Harris.

There's something almost subconscious about her music, as if you're listening to songs pulled into our world from a dream. It's for this reason I think her music means the most to me when I'm in the grip of insomnia. This music has the texture of dreams, which isn't to say that it's all calm and pretty sounding. Particularly on her earlier records, there is a dark and claustrophobic quality to some of it that speaks to people who have fitful wake-up-every-hour-or-so sleep patterns or frequent stress nightmares.

'Hold A Desert, Feel Its Hand' (2005)

Still, it's definitely the more serene and otherworldly aspects of Grouper's music that I love most. Every night during one particularly lengthy bout with insomnia, I used to play A I A: Alien Observer very quietly, over and over, until I fell asleep. You might assume that an album putting me to sleep would be an insult but there's a huge difference between a metaphorical “putting me to sleep because it's so boring” and a literal “putting me to sleep because it calms me down.” In fact, Grouper released a two track album called Violet Replacement with a 51 minute song called 'Sleep' that seems expressly designed for this purpose.

'Alien Observer' (2011)

Beyond the way the music of Grouper makes me feel, though, Liz Harris means something to my life because I'm inspired by the searching quality of her output. From the beginning, she has continually experimented with the way her music sounds and pushed herself to try new things. Just when she seemed to get more streamlined and songwriting focused with the masterful Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, she followed it up with a double album that sounds like a more focus take on the eerie and atmospheric style of the previous album, Cover The Windows And The Walls. I have a split record she did with Inca Ore which features her playing a lot of piano, something she still doesn't do too much, giving it a unique quality. Then there's the interesting collaborations she's done more recently, of which I think the Mirroring project with Tiny Vipers is a near-perfect combination of their two styles. So I guess what I'm getting at is, I'm inspired by the way Liz Harris does whatever she wants to. She is never content to keep making the same album over and over, yet there's a consistency to her style which would be ruined if she made too dramatic of a change. Try to imagine what Grouper would sound like as a full band, with drums and all, and it wouldn't be the same.

As much as I don't like judging people by what kind of music they like, I do think in certain cases you can learn something about their personality using this method. Grouper has always been a good litmus test for me, since I think you have to have a specific mindset and taste to 'get' it. I guess this is true with many cult bands or movies, but in Grouper's case I think there is just such a small percentage of people who will become as obsessed with Liz Harris's music as I am that I feel closer, somehow, to my fellow devotees. To put it another way, in an ideal world I would be married to Liz Harris. But in an acceptable world, I would be married to someone who also can't stop listening to Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill.

'We've All Gone To Sleep' (2008)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

30 For 30: Jurassic Park

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 8, we consider what makes a truly great popcorn film, and how entertainment can be artful.
Dinosaurs have enjoyed periods of popularity since paleontology began, but at no point were they so ubiquitous as in the late 80s and early 90s. Maybe this is a product of my own myopic view of the world, since I grew up during this time and was obsessed with dinosaurs from a very young age. But I don't think you could argue against the impact Jurassic Park had on a generation of moviegoers. It is as important a cultural touchstone as Star Wars and Jaws were for their time, and likely inspired many of those who grew up to pursue paleontology and other scientific fields. In another lifetime, I wouldn't be writing this; I'd be in Montana or Alberta on my hands and knees, cleaning away dust and dirt from fossils with a toothbrush.

In fact, I took a class in college called Jurassic Physics, and one of the weeks we focused on the scientific inaccuracies in Jurassic Park. It's funny that as a kid I was a little bothered by the movie's depiction of Velociraptors, since the film clearly patterned their creatures more after Deinonychus, but that was only the tip of the problems, as it turned out. Still, considering some of the liberties taken, Jurassic Park's point isn't to be completely accurate. Keep in mind, we can never really know how much it got right. Paleontology is, after all, a science of inductive reasoning because we can't concretely test any of the hypotheses without a time machine. The point, then, of Jurassic Park's science is the same as in any science fiction: that it serves the story in a way that is not only plausible, but also believable. I can't speak to how realistic the technology is in Star Trek but because of the way it's portrayed I never question it. The same goes for the T. Rex in Jurassic Park. The movie works so well as entertainment, science fiction or otherwise, that you don't even question the illogic of the T. Rex somehow sneaking into the building, without notice, during the ending fight with the two Velociraptors.

Ironically, this was a banner for a museum retrospective on the TV show Dinosaurs

Steven Spielberg gets away with this kind of thing a lot in his films but other than Internet nitpickers, who gives a shit? When movies are trying to be entertainment more than art, you need to have Chief Brody blow up the shark at the end of Jaws even if the ending in the original novel is far more plausible. After all, we are talking about an absurdly large shark that is smart/vengeful enough to not only attack their boat when they're drunk and singing, but to, against all instinct, throw itself up onto the deck of a boat that is already sinking. As a movie Jaws isn't going for gritty realism; it's a popcorn flick, not an expensive-five-course-meal-and-bottle-of-wine flick.

So I have to wonder why it is that I think a popcorn flick like Jurassic Park still holds up, even gets better with time, while other popcorn flicks from my youth have atrophied into guilty pleasures. Let's even keep this somewhat relevant by contrasting Jurassic Park with the film Independence Day, both of which Jeff Goldblum appears in. I used to love both movies when I was younger but I think Independence Day is just a dumb, dumb movie when I watch it with an adult's perspective. I'm not even talking about the scientific accuracy or anything like that. I simply mean that I still get lost in Jurassic Park's world and characters but I never believe anything about Independence Day.

To put it simply, I see Ian Malcolm when I watch Jurassic Park and I only see Jeff Goldblum playing himself when I watch Independence Day. It goes beyond writing or acting. It's something intangible, a quality that Spielberg manages to bring to even his most maudlin and poorly executed films, like The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Even if he seems to be doing a project for the money or to appeal to a wide audience, I feel like Spielberg cares about his movies and wants people to like them. He has a vision he wants to execute and succeeds at doing so. If some of his films are filled with one dimensional characters and don't have any interesting ideas that linger with you once they're over, you feel as though it was his intention to have those things but something got muddled along the way. Meanwhile, Independence Day tries to have characters with some kind of emotional arc and development, but it feels like the usual Hollywood hack crap. It tries to have something to say, but does so in the most clumsy, ham fisted ways—consider the over-the-top speech given by Bill Pullman at the end, or the groaningly obvious scene where Israeli and Iraqi pilots join forces.
This one's for the ladies...

I think the reason Jurassic Park continues to grow on me is that it features so many interesting ideas and messages without having to force feed information or opinions to the audience. You could argue that some of its messages—technology is bad! Man shouldn't try to play God!—are overly obvious, but that's not really the film trying to say that to the audience. It's the characters arguing about these ideas with each other. What the movie does present to the audience is all the good and bad things that can happen and lets the viewer think about them afterward. Sure, genetic engineering dinosaurs is portrayed as a foolhardy use of science, but the movie isn't saying that all genetic engineering is bad. Ian Malcolm makes this point during the dinner argument scene in response to John Hammond suggesting he wouldn't have a problem with using genetic engineering to create a flock of endangered condors. Malcolm responds by arguing that Man playing God to correct the mistakes of Man is one thing; Man playing God to correct the mistakes of God is quite another.

Ultimately, though, you're left to decide for yourself. Even something as simple as the villain of the movie isn't as cut and dried as it seems. I mean, yes, the dinosaurs do kill people, but isn't this due to the hubris of Man to re-create them and try to control them in the first place? Isn't this also due to the greed of Man, or anyone one man, who doomed his employers for money from an even-less-ethical rival company? Meanwhile, Spielberg wisely avoids making the dinosaurs into vengeful killers. What I mean is, the dinosaurs may seem to be the villains of the film when you're a kid, but really, it's the humans who play the good and evil roles. Yes, the T. Rex and Velociraptors come after our heroes, but this isn't portrayed as being their sole intent. At one point our hidden heroes are witness to the T. Rex chasing down and eating other dinosaurs, giving it the believability of a carnivorous animal instead of just a movie monster out to get the main characters. Were Jurassic Park handled by the people behind Independence Day, the T. Rex would have somehow noticed our heroes and came after them instead.

Mostly, though, I think Jurassic Park continues to mean something to me because it demonstrates that, just as you can do artful things in an entertaining way, you can do entertaining things in an artful way. Spielberg manages to give us a sense of awe at the majesty of nature throughout the film, whether it's the first reveal of the dinosaurs—to which even the cynical Ian Malcolm reacts like a stunned child on Christmas morning—or the way the sheer enormity and dominating force of the T. Rex turns cars into something akin to a chew toy for a dog. Perhaps more important is Spielberg's artful way with characters. Consider the way Dr. Grant gradually warms up to the two kids throughout the movie—we are shown that he becomes attached to them, and by implication more comfortable with the idea of having children of his own, without there needing to be a scene where Ellie looks at him and says “so I guess you're ready to have kids now!” Consider, too, the way the movie bucks the Hollywood trend and has kids in it that aren't annoying and worthless; just as the film is empowering to women via Ellie's character, it's empowering to children, too. As much as I love Aliens, it bothers me a little bit that Newt is portrayed as this little girl who survived on her own without weapons but then turns into a kind of damsel-in-distress as soon as adults are on the scene. In Jurassic Park, not only are Lex and Tim able to escape the Velociraptors on their own, but Lex is established as a “hacker” whose computer skills prove just as useful as any of the adult men from the earlier parts of the film.

Too bad he doesn't have a lightbulb in his mouth, that'd make for a great Uncle Fester impression

With movies like Jurassic Park and Back To The Future, you don't need me to tell you how good they are. Everyone has seen them and already knows. The interesting thing to note is that they aren't just dumb popcorn flicks. There's things to consider and talk about afterward, ideas and ethics to debate. This is why modern popcorn films like Transformers and older ones like Independence Day leave such a little impression on you once they're done. They're all surface and flash with no heart or brains; any thinking to be done is done for you or ignored entirely. Jurassic Park may at first glance seem to be in line with these films; it was, after all, renowned for its then-cutting edge special effects. But so was Terminator 2, and neither film neglected their story or characters, whereas with most popcorn films, they would probably have less story and characters, and more action and special effects, if they could get away with it. As George Lucas once said, “a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” As George Lucas often demonstrated with the Star Wars prequels, a boring story with pretty special effects is a shitty thing. Here's hoping the people behind Jurassic World have learned this lesson.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

30 For 30: Admiral Fell Promises by Sun Kil Moon

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 7, I try to use words to talk about an album that makes me feel things I find it difficult to put into words.
In the midst of preparing for this series I was going through a deeply introspective time, thinking about all the writing I've done over the years. I talked about my motivation for writing in greater detail in the entry on Post Office, but I didn't mention the final puzzle piece that clicked into place and got me to truly understand why I write. The day I wrote the Post Office piece, I happened to read a new interview with Mark Kozelek, the man behind Sun Kil Moon and formerly of the band Red House Painters. In the interview (located here) he says the following: “I make music to process—because I have to, not for praise or accolades or reactions.” Maybe this unstoppable driving force to create—to have to create—is obvious to other creative people, but I had never been able to figure out why I do the things I do until reading that. It was like someone cleared away my ego, the part of me that thought I wrote to express myself to other people or to get people to notice me. No, I write to express myself—period, end of sentence.

This wasn't the first time Mark Kozelek's words had inspired me in some way. Growing up in Ohio with melancholia as a constant companion as he did, I suppose I have a connection to him for those reasons alone. But it's his music and his lyrics that have continually spoken to me on many levels since I came across him. Longtime readers of Whiskey Pie may remember this review, which is a little rough around the edges but the spirit and enthusiasm of a fan shines through some of the clumsy writing. In some ways I don't think I'll ever have that same revelatory experience with a new album from Kozelek. It's the difference between discovering a favorite new artist and simply hearing a great new album by an artist you're already deeply familiar with.

Yet—and let this “yet” be a loud, resounding thing that dispels the four-out-of-five-star review I gave it upon its 2010 release—I don't think Admiral Fell Promises has been challenged by anything else Mark Kozelek has done or will do. If you're the sort of person who judges a work by considering the artist's intent and how well you feel they accomplished this, I don't think you could find a fault in Admiral Fell Promises even if it's not your kind of music. He set out to make an album with just a nylon-stringed guitar and his voice, and he did it in his trademark beautiful/sad way. It's an act of bravery and simplicity as stunning, in different ways, as Nick Drake's Pink Moon.

This music speaks to me in a way I think I could only approach with my own writing by doing another novel. And in that form it would take far more words and be far less effective (probably) at doing the same thing. There are lyrics on Admiral Fell Promises that hit like a memory that stops you dead in your tracks because the feeling is still so strong. There are other lyrics that haunt my thoughts and daydreams like people I once truly loved but will never see again. In a world of fast movement, of constant touring and travel, of people who come in and out of his life, Mark Kozelek is obsessed with cataloging people, passing feelings, and places, trying to hold onto them by making them part of his music. In 'Third And Seneca' he sings:

From my view at 32nd Street
Winter throws its snow down heavily
empty halls of friends who've come and gone
I'm awoken, rushed and dragged along

This cataloging of people, feelings, and places is also something I try to do with my writing, but he says it much better. I tend to get attached to certain places I've been, whether due to the memories I formed there or the people who were around, and to want to return to them, over and over, and have it all be the same. Since this is not really possible, I guess it's why I live so much of my life in books, records, movies, and the like. Their permanence is reassuring to me. So as much as I don't miss certain ex-girlfriends of mine, and the places we shared together, lyrics from the title track of the album still get to me by contextualizing the disintegration of a relationship inside memories of a thousand days shared together in a house while the writer, in the present, looks at a night sky that echoes the emotions:

A thousand days have passed in that house she and I were sharing
and I hate myself for it, but I've stopped caring
the Maryland sky tonight is black and blue and beautiful

Lest I just keep quoting lyrics from songs and giving myself chills in the process, I'll explain why this album means so much to me. It goes far beyond the fact that I love how it sounds and how it makes me feel. It goes beyond the way it's by turns beautiful and sad, and then both at the same time, and always—always—bittersweet. See, reading Kurt Vonnegut for the first time when I was fairly young felt like discovering my literary Grandpa. He was much older, like a Grandpa would be, but through literature he spoke to me on deep levels, teaching me about the world and about my place in it. To an extent, he helped me figure out who I was, and more crucially, why I was the way I was. I don't know that I have the kind of depression that requires medication, seeing as how a therapist I saw during college told me I didn't, despite my protests. But at least after reading Vonnegut when I was in junior high, I understood what the feelings I had every so often were all about, and how it meant I wasn't so much broken or damage as I was different.

Admiral Fell Promises, then, feels like my older self doing the same thing to my current self, helping me understand everything better. This older self is more mature and poetic than I am; it's seen and done more things. It's there to let me know that, while I will never be completely happy 100% of the time, I will learn the hard lesson that, while life is indeed bittersweet, the sweet wouldn't mean anything without the bitter.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

30 For 30: Salvador Dali

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 6, we get a little weird with Salvador Dali.

I've seen Captain Beefheart referred to as “the Salvador Dali of rock music”, which is just critical shorthand for “he's a really weird cult-like figure who made peerless, visionary art.” Whether or not you like Beefheart or Dali, there's no denying their totality of vision, their originality. I see them as being separate people who happened to exist in the world in a way so out-of-step with normal reality that they become akin to twins or brothers. I'm not grasping at straws trying to tie the two of them together. Once he retired from music, Beefheart became a painter of some repute himself, after having been a child prodigy artist in his youth.

The big difference, at least as far as the art they produced goes, is that Salvador Dali never purposefully dumbed down his work to appeal to a mass market. He wanted to make money—I'm pretty sure some of the portraits he did were commissions—but never at the cost of having to change or edit his vision. Beefheart's music sometimes had to bend to the will of the commercial world, so there's a stark contrast between overproduced AOR albums like Bluejeans & Moonbeams and unfiltered madness like Trout Mask Replica (which, fun fact, contains a song called 'Dali's Car').

What drew me to Captain Beefheart is the same thing that drew me to Salvador Dali: they're weird as hell. It's a bit broad to say I've always liked weird things without being able to get more specific but it's also kind of the truth. When I was young, I liked Ren & Stimpy because it's weird. When I was a bit older, I liked EarthBound because it's weird. When I was even older, I liked David Lynch films because they're weird. Each of these is weird in a different way, but there's a characteristic “other” quality to each one that becomes immediately obvious when you compare them to most of the rest of their respective mediums. For instance, Inception is kind of a weird movie, but it's completely normal compared to Lynch's Inland Empire. So what I meant by 'a characteristic “other” quality' is that you'd have to file it under “other” when categorizing it, as you would with Dali. I mean, there's no “weird” genre category on Netflix, is there?

Salvador Dali is, to me, the king of weird. It's difficult to have a conversation about weird or surreal things without him coming up because he's like the nexus point of weirdness. I'll never forget watching Un Chien Andalou, the surrealist film he made with Luis Bunuel, during a film class in college. This movie is from 1929 but still has the capacity to unsettle and confuse modern audiences. It's timeless in the way all great art is timeless to someone with an open mind. This is to say nothing of Dali's art, which is still as popular today as it ever was. I'm not that informed when it comes to visual artists but anyone I've ever talked to who is more knowledgeable has agreed that he's a genius.

This is the book I have, though the cover is in English 

I may not know my art too well but I do know my Dali. I have a huge book containing every painting he ever did, and I've gone through the entire thing several times. During the Summer of 2011 I had this daily routine where, when I got home from work, I would put on music, smoke some pot, make some tea, and sit in the sunshine beside my living room window while smoking clove cigarettes and looking through as many pages of the book as I could before it was time to go make dinner. I used sheets of paper to mark off pages that held my favorite pieces and each time through the book my favorites kept changing. I don't think you need chemicals to enjoy doing the same thing because I'm also obsessed with Dali even while sober...but they certainly didn't hurt.

Dali was inspired by the unconscious, of course—you could describe each one of his paintings as being its own dream world—but his vision also encompassed one's conscious visual imagination while awake. His work created with the “paranoiac-critical” method is like the art version of optical illusions and images that change depending on how you focus on them. A good example of what I'm talking about is shown below—in the first case, you can see either a rabbit or a duck. In the second case, the work 'Paranoiac Visage' (1935), Dali took a postcard of African villagers sitting in front of a hut and painted it so that, when turned on its side, you see a woman's head. It's like a more advanced version of how, if you look with the right eyes and imagination, electrical sockets and the front of cars can look like faces.
Rabbit or duck?
Villagers or face?

The reason Dali means so much to me is that, once I got beyond the initial delight at how weird his art is, I keep coming back to him because there's more going on than just weirdness for weirdness's sake. You can throw together any mish-mash of ideas and images, post it online, and have people look at it and go “LOL so random!” Indeed, much of Japan's weirdness seems built on this foundation. But with Dali, there's an intelligence and vision to his works that go beyond him just trying to make weird looking things to amuse himself and freak out the squares. I may never know what he's saying with some of his pieces, or if he's saying anything at all, but it always strikes me more as playful than nonsensical. With his greater works, I seem to either see new things in them each time or I react to it in a different way. With something as dense as 'Hallucinogenic Torreador' (1968-1970), you can always pick out new details you missed before, provided you have a high quality version of it to look at—the little boy in the lower right corner of it is Dali's portrait of himself as a boy, and appears as an ongoing motif in a few other paintings. 

Might have to find a bigger image to get the full effect

With a lesser known and minimalist piece like 'Dark Tapeworms' (1978), I feel something different every time I see it. I don't really know what it is about this painting that sticks with me. I doubt any other Dali fan in history has liked this one as much as I do. His other better known images that have become part of the collective consciousness—like the burning giraffes, the melting watches, the paranoiac-critical method paintings like 'Swans Reflecting Elephants' (1937)—may be what the public goes to when they think of Dali. For me, though, he has become as much about 'Dark Tapeworms' or his shockingly normal paintings like 'Glass Of Wine And Boat' (1956). 

Peaceful, eerie

In this way, Dali's importance to my life has been to remind me that we are, all of us, never just one thing. Dali isn't just the weird-ass artist because if you look beyond his two or three best-known works, he surprises you with some some still life's, nudes, and landscapes that no one would guess are his. Captain Beefheart isn't just that weird-ass musician, because his early music is pretty much bluesy garage rock and he went on to make a living as a painter. And as for me, I'm not just a guy who writes about music. I wrote a novel, once. I write poems, sometimes. I make music, sometimes. I like booze and crazy experimental music, but I also like quiet afternoons and tea. Not to mention, this 30 For 30 series encompasses videogames, books, music, movies, TV shows, and artists. If this makes me a dilettante, I guess it's better than having monomania.

In spite of my taste for weird, I really love this one

Friday, February 7, 2014

30 For 30: Mystery Science Theater 3000

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 5, I mean, "in the not too distant future..."
 It seems with any TV show that comes to an end, people will spend years afterward arguing for one of two things: either that it ended too soon, or that it should've been cancelled several seasons ago. What's more, a show needn't be over for this debate to happen. Anyone who brings up The Simpsons on the Internet will quickly this find out. The edge cases are those TV shows which were on the air for a fair number of years and never really had a chance to decline in quality. I'm sure there are thousands of people who would watch more Breaking Bad or The Sopranos if given the chance, but after five and six seasons of each, respectively, it's hard to argue that they ended before their time, and certainly no one feels they should've ended sooner. With TV shows that lean more toward the dramatic/plot focused side of things, though, it becomes very difficult to continually come up with new stories and things for the characters to do without a series chasing its own tail or falling down the slope of quality.

With TV shows that lean more toward the comedic/entertainment focused side of things, they can go on perpetually as long as they give the audience what it wants at the same level of quality. More than The Simpsons did during its prime, I think South Park has become the standard bearer of this ideal. Certainly there are always some forgettable or thrown-together episodes each year, but after 17 seasons I still don't see many people complaining that it should've stopped years ago, like I do with Family Guy or The Simpsons. Don't even get me started on debating the merits of bringing back shows like Family Guy and Futurama from cancellation, or we'll be here all day. But seriously, Simpsons should've ended like a decade ago.

Post-Season 10 Simpsons: it stinks.

Which brings me to Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show that never came back from a cancellation but did nearly end at one point before returning for three more seasons. It's an odd case because, while I think the cast and crew were talented enough to have done another few years, I also think it had the perfect amount of seasons. Since each episode is as long as a movie (literally), it's hard to get greedy about wishing there was more MST3k because there is already so much of it, from a standpoint of sheer time alone. With close to 200 episodes, each one (roughly) an hour and a half long, you've got (roughly) 300 hours of viewing to get through if you want to experience the whole series. To put this in perspective, there have been (roughly) 540 episodes of The Simpsons, which is 2.7 times as many as MST3k. At an average of 24 minutes per episode, though, it's only got (roughly) 216 hours of viewing to experience.

I'm not great at math so I should end this digression and move on.

When I wrote about Jackie Brown two years ago, I referred to it as a great 'hang out' movie. I defined it as such: “'Hang out' movies are, to me anyway, the sort of films where the the overall plot is subservient to getting interesting characters together to do and say interesting things.” I think this is why MST3k works so well, because it's a 'hang out' TV show. Since every episode is so long compared to the average TV show, you end up spending a lot of time with the characters. At a certain point it becomes like watching movies with friends, albeit really smart and funny friends you can't interact with to, say, go get you another beer as long as they're already up and getting one for themselves. Of course there were always groups of friends watching movies and making fun of them together before MST3k existed, and there are people who do it now without any awareness of the show. Yet there's a world of difference between the rapid fire, crafted jokes of MST3k and your drunk friends improvising lewd comments or saying “this sucks” over and over. Sure, the latter is still fun, but it's like comparing a bar fight to a boxing match.

Speaking of fights: where do you fall on Joel vs. Mike as host? When I discovered the show it was late in its life, so as far as I knew Mike was the only host. I always tended to lean toward him because I'm more familiar with his era but over the past two or three years, thanks to torrents, Netflix, and Hulu, I'm now right in the middle, leaning toward neither Joel nor Mike. To me it's just great that we got to have two hosts who were equally good and brought their own feel to the series. If the show had become as successful as The Simpsons and persisted for ten more seasons, it would probably have had another host at some point that everyone ended up hating. The only upside would be that Mike and Joel fans would have stopped arguing with each other and joined forces to hate this theoretical third host together.

Dividing fans quicker than Kirk Vs. Picard since 1993

With Joel Vs. Mike, keep in mind that you don't have to choose. As I said, I don't, and it depends on my mood and many other factors anyway. It's like asking me to choose between pizza and burgers; I need more context to make a choice: what time of day is it, am I sober, am I in a good or bad mood, am I at home or somewhere else? I suppose if I'm in a good mood, I go for Joel episodes. His era tends to be free-wheeling and goofy; he and the bots might really hate a movie but they're usually not mean spirited about it and try to amuse themselves along the way. Mike's era is more cynical and sarcastic; it's what I go for when I need to see a crappy movie get flayed alive because I'm in a bad mood and I need help to bring me out of it. Still, it's true that both of these styles existed to some extent in both eras—after all, Mike was the head writer for a time before he took over hosting duties when Joel left.

MST3k has been a longtime love of mine and I had no idea that it was as important to other people until I got on the Internet. It wasn't like with EarthBound, where I didn't think anyone else but me loved it and was obsessed with it. After all, MST3k was on TV, and had been so for years. But thanks to the Internet, I realized how crucial it had been to shaping the comedic sensibilities of a generation-and-a-half of people. It isn't like The Simpsons where it's ubiquitous and people regularly reference episodes or quote lines they've memorized to make people laugh; MST3k is more about the way it makes you look at movies, and I would argue, the world around you, too. I think I'm often so quick with sarcastic remarks and one-liners because I was trained by the masters. Training is better than memorizing. While I often quote or reference specific Simpsons jokes, I've never learned jokes from MST3k and used them verbatim in real life. Rather, I learned how they saw the world and how their sense of humor functioned, and I subconsciously began to imitate it.
 I'm probably the only person who likes the Godzilla episodes more

The strangest thing about my longtime love for MST3k is that when I was younger I only understood about half of the jokes. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that for a period of years I thought of the show as being akin to New Yorker cartoons, in that back then I assumed any humor I didn't understand was too high brow for my adolescent brain. If I didn't get a joke from MST3k or a cartoon from New Yorker, I assumed they were too smart for me, when really it was a product of being too young and immature to understand them. There is also the obscurity factor. If you don't have a thorough knowledge of pop culture from the 1960s onward, you could be the smartest person in the world—someone who understands every New Yorker cartoon, even—and many MST3k jokes will go right over your head. I still don't know some of the reference points they're pulling from, but thanks to the fansite The Annotated MST3k, you can now look up anything from (practically) any episode of the series.

Despite this 50/50 ignorance of MST3k's references, the show served as a respite for my younger self. After being forced to go to church with my family week after week, I used to come home and watch the rest of whatever episode was on SciFi Channel that morning. It unknowingly became a ritual that I felt counter-acted the religion I was increasingly moving away from. MST3k isn't anti-religious but I think you know what I mean. In other times of my life I had an author or a band or a favorite cocktail or a girlfriend to be there for me, to help me endure the things I didn't want to have to endure, but had to for whatever reason. In that period of my life (1997ish through 2000ish), MST3k was there for me. Even though going to church meant missing the first half of each episode, the limited viewings were like a window into another world I wished I inhabited, where there were people who talked and thought like I did, only way more funny and articulate.

It occurred to me at some point last year that MST3k is my favorite TV show of all time. I wasn't even actively thinking about what my favorite show was, it simply popped into my head as a fact the way one's wandering mind might arrive at “you know, strawberry Starburst is my favorite flavor” while waiting in line at the DMV. My reasoning may be suspect because it's not like I'm a superfan who watches it every day; I'm by no stretch an expert on the show. I wish I could at least give my own list of top episodes but I can't because I couldn't possibly decide. Not because I have too many favorites, but because—past the rough first season or two of the show—I think of every episode as my favorite, as essential. I laugh more at some episodes, I think some of them have movies that are better or worse as fodder for jokes, but I have never seen anything close to a mediocre or outright bad episode. Even other TV shows that would make a list of my favorites have a handful of episodes that I find to be subpar or not worth watching again. When it comes to MST3k, though, I am down to watch any episode, any time, even if I have already seen it multiple times. So I figure, it's by default my favorite show.

Now...which one do you want to watch?

This one is great, but you knew that

Thursday, February 6, 2014

30 For 30: Alien

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 4, no one could hear me scream...because I was hiding in my room playing Sega Genesis instead.
 If you really wanted to define each art form, the most accurate way to do so is to reduce them down to their constituent parts, until you arrive at what it is each does best and is most essential to its nature as a medium. For example, there can be a visual component to music (concerts, music videos, album covers, etc), but it is obviously all about what you hear. For music to work best, as entertainment or art, it has to do so as an audio experience. Videogames couldn't exist without visual, and to a lesser extent audio, components but their interactivity is what sets them apart. It's what they do best and should focus on. BioShock could function as a film experience because of its sound design and the art direction, but it is most fully realized as a videogame because you are experiencing its world by interacting with it, determining (for the most part) the pace and what you're seeing.

With books and films, their strengths are diametrically opposed: books are the best at telling you something, films are the best at showing you something. Alien will always hold up as a classic film because it shows you very little for long periods of time, demonstrating that not showing isn't automatically boring, and that what is not being shown can be just as crucial as what is being shown. I don't even just mean the alien creature itself, I also mean the way the first 1/3 to 2/3's of the movie utilize a lot of long, slow moving shots with very little happening to continually build atmosphere and momentum until the last few scenes are constant anxiety and dread. Alien is like a haunted house set in a spaceship and it needs those periods of slowness, of not showing much at all, to work properly. Constant jump scares and action aren't worth much compared to how effective it can be to instead dole out these things at a slow pace and gradually increase their frequency as the film goes. The sequel does this at a more accelerated rate; Aliens rightfully gets the credit for being akin to a rollercoaster, but just calling Alien a haunted house is selling it a little short. The ending sequence of Ripley running through the ship's corridors, all flashing lights and disorienting smoke, is a brilliant little action sequence. I always seem to believe that she just might turn off that self destruct in time, too.

"Hmm, maybe if I yell at it, it'll go faster..." 

In addition to showing and not showing, lately when I rewatch Alien I'm struck by how little it tells you. Everyone who writes about this film focuses on the obvious effectiveness of how you only get a few good looks at the alien creature, and most of them at the very end. So what about all the unanswered questions, the things it never tells you? If you'll permit a digression, I think this is why my opinion of Prometheus soured so much over the days and weeks after watching it. The entire movie's premise is about answering certain questions, then it adds more questions, and then it never answers any of them. This frustrates a viewer because if all you're left with at the end is more questions than you had at the start of the film, then you may as well have been watching a nonsensical surrealist art film. Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou doesn't pretend to have a plot or any overt meaning yet this doesn't mean you can't take any meaning or motive from it. By contrast, Prometheus pretends to have a plot and some kind of meaning yet it ends up feeling like a series of things that happen to people because...I don't know. Anyway, Prometheus isn't supposed to be directly connected to the Alien films, despite the constant cross-references that only ended up confusing the shit out of everyone, so let's get back to what I was starting to say.

What Alien doesn't tell you is most of the things Prometheus seemingly promised to tell you. You're left to work out the grand details for yourself, and this is why Alien has always meant so much to me. It trusts in the intelligence of the viewer to think about its riddles as much or as little as they want to. Just as we didn't need to know that The Force in the Star Wars films came from midichlorians, we didn't need to know anything about the crashed ship and its contents in Alien. Whatever information is necessary for the rest of the movie we either pick up as we go—discovering the rest of the lifecycle of the alien creature, for instance—or it's left up to each viewer to fill in the blanks with whatever satisfied them. There are no wrong answers when you're answering questions without any answers.

Just for the fun of it, here are the things I ask myself when I watch Alien, the things I'm neither told nor shown that make me love the movie on a deep level such that I still find myself thinking about it from time to time. So, OK, how did the alien ship crash, and why? Why don't we see any other crew members? If an alien burst out of the pilot-looking dude in the chair-looking thing, where is it at now? What exactly is that weird blue laser field covering the eggs? Have these been lying dormant for awhile and somehow re-animate when they sense a living thing nearby? If the species who created the ship were advanced enough beyond human technology to be transporting the eggs as some sort of biological weapon or scientific research project, why didn't another of their ships reach the crashed ship first to recover/salvage it? Is this ship like their version of those various boats and airplanes that have seemingly disappeared without a trace, never to be seen again, on Earth? Jeez, I haven't even gotten to the other, far more important alien species in the movie and I already have enough questions to write an entire essay or fanfic!

"Hey mister, wanna buy some Girl Scout cookies?" 

One of the most unique plot aspects in Alien is that the characters spend no time wondering about the origins of the crashed ship or any questions similar to those I posed above. There isn't a scene where they discuss the religious implications of not one, but two, alien lifeforms. There isn't a scene where they go back to photograph the crashed ship and everything inside. Ultimately, they were on their way back home and that's what is most important to them—other than some debate about extra pay for setting down on a planet and doing something that isn't their job. This is the key to the movie's “space truckers” realism. If it were written by anyone else, all the characters would turn into wide eyed pseudo-scientists and philosophers, losing all their personality and perspective, spouting expository dialogue that does the thinking for the audience. In fact, Parker (played by Yaphet Kotto) seems like he's more surprised by Ash being a robot, as if the existence of advanced cyborgs is more outlandish to him than alien parasitic lifeforms. He seems like he doesn't give a shit about the alien as long as he's getting paid and going home. Until it kills his buddy, that is, at which point he only wants revenge.

When I originally sat down to write this piece, I wanted to work in so many different topics it got to be overwhelming. I intended to write something about Alien's far reaching influence on pop culture, about how it helped me discover the art of H.R. Giger, about how it works equally well as a standalone film as it does part of a series, about how the opening title sequence and music give me chills, about how it's one of the reasons I developed a taste for strong no-bullshit women, about how much it lives up to its title, etc. But since this 30 For 30 series is ostensibly about me and what these 30 things mean to me, or the things they do/have done for me, I thought I should end with two stories, both based around the chestburster scene.

The first time I watched Alien, I was probably 8 or 9, and I had already seen the sequel several times. Aliens was one of my favorite movies, largely because I also incessantly re-watched the Terminator films and it felt more action packed like those (not knowing anything about directors, it's interesting that I picked up on the similarity since I had no idea who James Cameron was). I always used to fastforward past the chestburster scene from Aliens because it freaked me out too much, and I'm not sure why. I had watched it the first time I saw the movie, so it's not like I didn't know what I was getting into on subsequent viewings.

At some point my parents suggested I watch the first movie, and they described most of it in great detail so I could tell if it'd scare me too much. I made it through OK until the chestburster scene, which my parents had built up as being one of the most shocking things they ever saw in a movie theater. I knew what a chestburster was because of Aliens, and I knew it was coming in Alien because my parents let out an “uh oh, here we go” after the scene when Kane wakes up just prior to dinner, yet something about it happening in a more realistic looking place was too much for me. Think of it like this: in Aliens it happens in front of futuristic Marines with guns, in a poorly lit alien nest. You almost kick yourself for not expecting it and for being so busy freaking out that it doesn't occur to you that they're just going to kill it within seconds. They're powerless to help the poor woman, but they aren't powerless to deal with the chestburster: it's brief remorse at a failed rescue, followed by the immediate satisfaction of a successful flamethrowin'. But in Alien it happens in front of regular people in a well-lit area, and the only weapon they have is a fork. Not only that, it happens to one of their crew members; indeed, a friend. It feels awful to be unable to help a random stranger but it is a much worse feeling to be unable to help a loved one. You have to wait to the very end of Alien for any kind of relief from the way this scene makes you feel, and that's only after everyone else but Ripley dies, too.

But I digress. The unbearable tension of the whole scene was probably so much worse because I knew what was going to happen but I hadn't seen it yet. To tie back into the earlier theme of this piece, seeing it was more important than being told about it. The anticipation was like that moment just before the rollercoaster starts its descent, and I felt equally terrified and sick to my stomach. So as Kane started to thrash about and scream, I couldn't take it anymore and ran upstairs to play a Sega Genesis hockey game my parents had rented for me along with Alien on VHS. For this reason I will always associate hockey with unbridled terror.

Pictured: unbridled terror

The second story is shorter but no less memorable. One of the very few times in my life I had done magic mushrooms, I ended up watching Alien on Bluray. By this point in my trip I was already coming down but the movie still seemed to take on another life. You might expect I'd have been scared out of my mind, but I became oddly fascinated with the idea of the lifecycle of the alien. I had never before considered that this was a species that, technically speaking, “hatched” twice: first from an egg, and then from a living being. In fact you could put it better by saying it's a species that hatches and later gets born, too. I began to go further with this idea. If these aliens existed in reality, would some scientists or TV shows study this species, as we do real violent and creepy animals on Earth? Suddenly the chestburster scene took on the feel of watching a nature documentary in which brutal animal-on-animal violence isn't edited out. I thought of nightvision footage of lions or hyenas, their face and fur wet with blood, or of orcas forcing an infant whale away from its mother only to cruelly drown it and not bother eating any of it. I thought of that parasite which crawls into a fish's mouth and replaces the tongue with itself, still helping the fish eat by behaving like a tongue but also feeding off its blood directly from the source. I could already hear a British accented voiceover speaking in grave, hushed tones about how from the moment it's born, the xenomorph alien can defend itself thanks to its acid blood, and about how the host it burst from is arguably as much its parent as the facehugger or even the queen that laid the egg the facehugger came from...

...and then I started laughing hysterically, because it struck me as strange that the little boy who ran scared from this same scene had grown into a man who was now watching it under the waning influence of a psychedelic and not remotely frightened. There's facing your fears, and then there's thinking about your fears to such a ridiculous extreme that you forget you were ever afraid in the first place.
Pictured: not unbridled terror