29 March 2008

the concert, plus some other stuff

Does everybody hate their boss? I can't imagine that's an unequivocally true statement, but it's got to, at the absolute least, be one that at least a sizable portion of the population can sympathize with.

I have two bosses; I don't hate either one of them. I do like one significantly more than the other, but that's because one of them has what I would consider a healthier outlook on his job, and on mine, than the other.

Not to belittle academics or anything, but for my money, there's a serious difference in importance between someone who simply amasses a lot of knowledge, and someone who takes that knowledge and applies it, and as a result, contributes something, or creates something, or simply makes something happen. Therefore, I don't see a ridiculous amount of value in checking out and packaging books to send across the country when, for all I know, the person for whom they're intended may not even wind up using them in a dissertation or a thesis or... what have you. I'm not helping someone write a speech that could turn the rest of the country's opinion around on universal health care, I'm not shipping books out to an attorney or a team of attorneys, I'm not even sending a book to a writer who's doing research for a new book, even a bad one. And the same goes for the books that I move around the building for the tuition-paying members of our university.

I don't want to rant for too long about how much I dislike my job, because it's really not that bad. It's low-pressure, less than demanding, pays all right, and I don't have to take any work home with me. Once my work day is done, that's it. I have the rest of my life to do, well, what I want to do. It's just that the longer I spend working this job, the more of my time I feel I'm wasting, the more of my life I feel I'm wasting, and the further and further away I get from actually achieving any of my "life goals."

The point of all this prefacing is that several weeks ago my best friend and I had planned to go down to Arizona for a few days, because a confluence of great events practically demanded it. In the span of five days, we could have seen not one but two Colorado Rockies spring training games, the Phoenix Suns face off against the Golden State Warriors in the battle of the two teams that play basketball the way it's supposed to be played, a Helmet concert in Utah on the way back home, and one of the best bands in the world, Explosions in the Sky.

The problem: he and I work together at the library. One of my bosses is his boss. You can figure out which one.

The other problem: our boss' boss was taking a 5-week vacation. She was going to be gone during that pissant little 5-day period we were intended to be gone, as well.

He (our boss) came to the conclusion that he couldn't afford to have both of us gone at the same time that she wasn't around, either. But, of course, no one at this place can actually make a decision and stand by it without pushing it up the chain of command, so the day before she (our boss' boss) leaves on her (once again) 5-week vacation, he (our boss) takes our reasonable request to her, and basically tells her that he needs her to rubber-stamp his decision to not let us go. Nevermind the fact that she's not going to be here, and that he doesn't know how to do any of the stuff that we do, so it's not like we're expecting him to cover for us during those three days of work that we're going to miss. He, of course, can't just come out and say that he doesn't think he can handle having the three of us gone at the same time (which I wouldn't have agreed with, but would at least have had to accept. Despite my vast array of complaints, he's my boss. I have to ask him for time off. I would've respected him a little for making a decision on his own, particularly an unpopular one), because he can't be the cause of any conflict. Hence the buck-passing, a skill it seems you have to develop if you're going to work where we all work.

So, we couldn't go. All right. Our appeal has been rejected, we move on. We don't necessarily appreciate it, but we move on. The problem is that she felt it was important to explain to me her thought process (our boss says he doesn't want us to go, but he can't just say that, so he has to get her to cover for him. It's an easy process to understand) as she's on her way out the door for her long-ass vacation. And it's not that I don't appreciate her at least pretending to care about what I think, it's that she made a point of explaining to me that one of us could still go on the trip, and then asked me which one of us was going to get to escape.

How many times in the history of ever have you, dear reader, made plans to go do something with someone else (friend/neighbor/relative/significant other/pet/whatever) where that other party wasn't fairly essential in the enjoyment of the plan? When you're supposed to meet a long-lost friend for dinner, and your friend has to cancel, do you still decide to go to dinner alone, staring forlornly at the place setting across the table from you? Would she have gone ahead on her rafting trip plans if everyone else she knew that was going all of a sudden couldn't come along (I don't honestly know the answer to this - it may well be yes)? I'd like to think no. So why in the hell would Matt or I take the time off to go to these games and concerts alone while the other one wastes away at work? Who thinks like that?

I explained this reasoning to her in a much less argumentative fashion, that we'd made these plans together, and we weren't going to leave the other one behind on a mad dash to Arizona. Arizona as a destination wasn't all that important, it was the things happening in Arizona that mattered.

"Oh, now I feel guilty," was her response.

Okay. Good. Feel guilty. You're taking five fucking weeks off while we all have to cover for you being gone, and as a result, I can't take three piddling days off work to go do something awesome. Go on vacation and leave us to all have a much better time at work while you're gone.

Now, the point of all this very long-winded, tangential prefacing is that Explosions played down in Denver this past Wednesday. I was there; you'd best believe I was there. You couldn't drag me away, as Reginald VelJohnson said in Die Hard.

It was a fantastic experience, much like my first Pelican show all that long ago down at the late, lamented Rock Island, or the first day I actually listened to Ten all the way through, not having any idea what I was getting myself into (that was a good day). Overall, I'd give the crowd almost as good a response as the band, as into it and quietly grooving as they were. Much though I enjoy the sort of music that people run into each other for, I've never been all that down with the concept of smashing into my fellow concert-goers as the band plays on. I'd rather just enjoy the music (which is one of the genuinely serious upsides to getting older - the 21+ section seems to support fewer of the mosh-pitters, mostly, I imagine, because no one wants to spill their overpriced drink), which makes me right at home at less than 40% of the concerts I go to.

The band, unsurprisingly, proved why they have virtually no peers in the post-rock scene (or in much of today's music world, in general) - there's no bullshit with Explosions. They took the stage, introduced themselves, and proceeded to play songs from all across their catalogue for the next... I don't think I could even tell you for how long they played. I know it was just about long enough, really. I can only stand in one place, bobbing my head, for so long, and they took just the right amount of time.

I raved about how good I think All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone is earlier, so I won't go to the ridiculous trouble of restating myself. Suffice to say, they don't lose any of their awesomeness when they leave a recording studio (which anyone could gather from other, better, more established people than myself, but it's always better to see/experience/other infinitives for yourself). And while I badly wanted them to kick off the show with "Birth & Death of the Day," they probably made the right decision to open with "First Breath After Coma." That song's really impossible to use as anything other than a beginning. They placed "Birth & Death" at a really awesome moment in the show, which did more than a good job appeasing me.

I've never been as bull on Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever as I have on the other albums (even How Strange, Innocence, because I think it's really interesting to hear Explosions in kind of a proto-mode), but that's all changed since the show. "Greet Death" translates phenomenally well into a live setting (which, while not shocking at all, is still worth mentioning), and I knew I should've written this all down while it was fresh in my mind, but I swear I remember "Yasmin the Light" washing over me.

No bullshit. Played as long as they needed to play, and didn't soak up the audience's energy by making them applaud way too long for an encore. Lights came up almost right after they left the stage. My friends and I could begin our too-long search for the right restaurant to grab dinner (but that's a story for another night).

To make this all wrap around (because that's what a good writer does - s/he brings the end around to build off the beginning), what tees me off the most about the whole vacation disaster thing is that I could have had this Explosions experience more than once in a month, but no. I know I probably appreciate it more for just having seen it the one time, but it's been almost seven years since they've been here last. I hope it doesn't have to sustain me for another 3/4 of a decade (though it probably could. Just that spectacular).

Thanks, guys. You've taken your skill and your abilities and made the world a better place by applying them to something more than a simple... furthering of them.

You know what I'm trying to say, right?

24 March 2008

Escape from... Scotland?

Let's get this out of the way: I love The Descent. I use the word "love" in a fairly unhealthy manner, too. I was infatuated with it from the moment I sat down to watch it in the crummy little theater in Longmont when it finally made its way Stateside, my adoration was rekindled a few months later when it came to play at the International Film Series here at CU, and infatuation finally gave way to full-blown adoration when Neil Marshall's "real" version of the movie finally made its way to DVD.

I also like Dog Soldiers, a movie I didn't expect to have any real interest in. It is, in most of the ways that count, The Descent: The First Try, but it's a compelling enough monster movie on its own terms. Nothing near its virtual remake/sequel, but... werewolves. In the forest. Against British military men (now that I think about it, you could probably make a few reasonable parallels between Dog Soldiers and Assault on Precinct 13 - the Carpenter original, not the remake, and let's avoid getting into how Carpenter's movie was, for all intents and purposes, a remake of Rio Bravo...). It's imperfect, but interesting.

That, I suppose, brings us to a weekend or so ago, when my roommate Matt and I decided to trek to our local cineplex to catch Mr. Marshall's latest project, Doomsday. I have to admit, the title alone gave me pause. It seems "extreme" in the same way that Paul W.S. Anderson movies try to be "extreme" (and that is not, NOT a good thing). The trailers also weren't doing a good job of advertising it, and it's tough to imagine him making the same quantum leap in quality that he made from Dog Soldiers to The Descent in the transition from The Descent to Doomsday.

Trepidation had grabbed on with both hands, basically.

Like Matt said, though, it's Neil Marshall, and we should support his work.

It's happening more and more often that we're among the small contingent of people that show up for these weird, off-the-wall kinds of movies (when we went to see Grindhouse, there were maybe thirty other people in the theater. Doomsday? Maybe half that, maybe. Admittedly, this was around 11 in the A.M., so that should be taken into account). I just wish people would, instead of complaining about the same stupid romantic comedies being shoved down their throats week after week, actually go to something that's weird and different. Action needs to be taken, people; we don't all want to end up like Hamlet.

It's worth taking a look at what some of the more prominent members of the critical press said about Doomsday, at least in blurb form:

Marshall cribs whole sections from other movies (Aliens and The Road Warrior, most blatantly) so baldly that you have to wonder how he'd like it if someone ripped off The Descent this egregiously.
" - Gregory Kirschling (EW)

"I still believe with all my heart that no movie with real car stunts, a tough-chick hero, and a severed head that thunks directly into the camera can be all bad. But this is pushing it.
" - Jim Ridley (Village Voice)

Most fantasy-action films blow their budgets in the first half-hour, and limp home with their makeup smeared. Doomsday is unusually patient, smartly saving most of its fireworks for the later innings.
" - David Hiltbrand (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Writer/Director Neil Marshall’s entertaining, sorta-cheesy, if at times derivative homage to post-apocalyptic cinema delivers exactly what action fans of the genre crave.
" - Peter Hammond (Boxoffice Magazine)

With reviews like that, even the most foolish, most bull-headed, most reactionary filmgoer should know exactly what s/he's getting into: a dumb, testosterone (by way of estrogen)-fueled, B-movie action romp. If you like them, you'll like it; if you don't, you don't. And if you think you're smarter than everybody else, you'll probably hate it.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: I loved it. And you know why? Because Marshall's smarter than all of the critics combined (though, I have to admit, I never thought I'd be in agreement with Peter Hammond about anything. I just don't think he takes it far enough).

Yes, the U.K. of Doomsday deals with a killer plague (the "Reaper" virus - could've stood some more originality, I'd say) by building a huge wall all around Scotland and cutting the country off from the rest of the world. Sure, the society that develops within that wall is half 80's U.K punk scene and half Middle Ages, knights-and-squires-and-all-that (and why the hell don't we get any real resolution re: the Malcolm McDowell character? I wanted to see him get his head blown off by a cannon or something). And, yes, it's a nightmare of a production design, mostly because it's all Sex Pistols meets Mad Max meets Aliens, but you know what? That's the fucking point.

Marshall wants to be John Carpenter (a man who also proved himself to be more than the sum of his influences), I think that's pretty clear by now. So, what better way to declare yourself a candidate for his throne than by totally bypassing trying to make one of his absolute best films (Escape from New York) and putting your own spin on one of his most tragically misunderstood projects: Escape from L.A.?

I'm not going to steal John Kenneth Muir's entire critique of EFL.A. here (but everyone who's interested should take a look at it - Muir's written/writing some of the best genre criticism of anybody else out there), but suffice to say, the movie is not meant to be taken as a serious, foreboding tale of the grim things to come if we don't watch our backs, nor is it a straight-out, balls-to-the-wall actioneer. The whole thing messes with your expectations, subverts the way barely serviceable action movies try to twist and turn our emotions around their fingers (while doing a damn fine job of it pretty much throughout), and tells us that, sometimes, what we're expecting to get is not even close to what we find.

That's why all the action-film-genre-hopping works here, and only here. He's fucking with our expectations; he's giving us what we want, but in the most ridiculous way he can. That's why this train-wreck of a production design is a blessing, not a curse - THAT'S THE FUCKING POINT! That's the only way to make a movie like this any good anymore, to just let go of it and allow it to land in the most ridiculous place possible. That's why the car chase (that fantastic car chase - Bond meets Mad Max) works as well as it does. He doesn't want you to gasp in terror, he wants you to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, to cheer in triumph as our heroine finally extricates herself from the mashup of worlds in which she's landed.

This is why Matt and I were the only two people in the theater laughing; we were the only two that got it.

And it's all held together by Rhona Mitra, who plays
Snake Plisken's daughter by Ellen Ripley far better than anyone ever could've believed. Beneath this toned, tanned, infrequently eye-patched exterior beats the heart of an orphan, saved only by the decency of a soldier willing to sacrifice his life, his expensive equipment and his more expensive training for a little girl that has no practical instant benefit to the world, certainly not the same sort as his machine gun-carrying ass.

I'll end my ranting while the ranting's good, and leave you with the words of one member of the press I vow I'll pay more attention to from here on out:

Marshall reveals himself to be a terrific showman of chaos and comic savagery. This is Baz Luhrmann's Mad Max.
" - Wesley Morris (Boston Globe)

Amen, sir. Amen.

05 March 2008

put the dice away before I take them away

I can't say I would know his name if it weren't for Futurama; I never really considered myself a nerd of sufficient caliber, one that could get down with the Dungeons & the Dragons on a regular basis. I'm more of a science fiction/science fantasy person than a true, straight-ahead fantasy person, anyway.

Doesn't mean I'm not saddened at the passing of one of the greatest nerds of this, or any age: Gary Gygax, known in parents' basements the world over as the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, which is still probably the most purely nerdy activity that any human being can engage in (with the possible exception of Star Wars-based sexual roleplay, but lacking much experience in either area, I can't really give the edge to one or another).

What's more pure than sitting around an unfurnished, subterranean space while you listen to the nerdiest one among you, the thickest-lensed of the glasses wearers, the Nutty Professor of Jerry Lewises, describe, in exquisite detail, the fire-dunes of some Purgatory-inspired alternate plane of existence, or the labyrinthine corridors underneath a pearlescent, perfect city that, as luck would have it, isn't? Rolling dice to figure out whether or not your chaotic-good half-elf ranger pierced the eye of the great oppressive capitalist dragon, bartering with a shopkeeper to save a few coins on a batch of healing potions, or hefting (metaphorically, of course) a sword and shield for the ages, the sort that would've made Mordred and his mother quake in their boots and run away crying...

Okay, so maybe I played some D&D. But until it made its way onto the computer, I wasn't ever much good at it. It's far easier to boot up Neverwinter Nights for half an hour and run around with my sorcerer and his elf paladin sidekick than it will ever be to get six or seven or eight people together for most of a day to play the game in person. I still get the giddy thrill of yelling "Magic Missile!" every single time my character casts that fantastically ridiculously named spell; I can still take out my piddling daily frustrations out on a legion of dipshit goblins or trolls.

The problem, though, is obvious: Neverwinter means me in front of my computer, by myself. Still in the basement, but no friends. No storytelling, no joking around, no banter with people that happily accept you for you; while they might mock you for misquoting the Bridge of Death scene from Holy Grail, you're not going to get items or, god forbid, a level docked from your character. You're still part of the group; hell, you might even be happy that your friends care enough about you to teach you the right way to perform a one-man version of a Monty Python routine. People that enjoy this type of social gathering, at least in middle/junior high/high school (when it really matters), seem to spend too much time alone as it is.

Maybe that's what Gary's true legacy's going to be, showing nerds that they can have a community. That it's okay to skip going to the homecoming dance for a Weird Al show, because you're having far more fun singing along to "The Saga Begins" than you'd ever have standing awkwardly off to the side while your more conventionally socially adept, less self-conscious friends enjoy themselves on the dance floor.

I'm still not down with LARPing, though. That shit weirds me out.