Holidays With the Idiot Box: What I Learned From Watching Way Too Many 1980s Christmas Specials

This past Saturday a friend of mine hosted in a party with a simple conceit: We’d all gather ’round her television and watch Christmas specials from days of yore. Not the good ones. The terrible ones. The cheap ones. The ones specifically designed to fascinate credulous, stupid kids. For nearly eight hours a roomful of twenty- and thirtysomethings drank copious amounts of booze, stuffed ham into their faces, and consumed the stale remnants of TV past. This is what I gleaned from the experience.

The Jetsons’ Christmas Carol

I never felt one way or another about The Jetsons. I might have watched the show a bit when I was very, very young, but I discovered Star Trek and science fiction pretty early on, and TNG and Asimov were soon scratching my space itches. Cartoon space people didn’t seem all that interesting compared to Captain Picard. Based on their Christmas special it seems that Young Me made absolutely the right decision, because this show seemed extraordinarily dull. That made me a little sad, as the futuristic optimism that seems to pervade The Jetsons seems admirable. We’re awash in dystopias and apocalypses, and I’d love to see modern science fiction get back to flying cars and pet aliens, if only for a moment.

I liked the Jetsons in that one Kanye video, though.

Yogi Bear’s All-Star Comedy Christmas Caper

Yogi Bear is a bad character. I thought that as a kid, and I think that now. He’s an asshole who steals people’s lunches and always gets what he wants. He harasses a put-upon government employee who’s trying to keep our national parks system running, and jerks around his weary sidekick. He’s neither a character that the audience can root for, nor is he an interesting bad guy a la Walter White. He’s just a jerk we’re supposed to think is funny.

You know who’s way more cool than Yogi Bear? Winnie the Pooh. Pooh struggles, learns, and wrestles with the world around him. Despite being a Bear of Very Little Brain, Pooh puts that brain to use and attempts to grapple with challenges in a way that’s identifiable and sympathetic. We have all been Pooh. We have all had to deal with blustery days, been afraid of huffalumps, and eaten too much honey. Pooh is Job. He’s an everyman. He’s us. Yogi would probably steal Pooh’s lunch and just think it was funny.

Yogi’s Christmas special is garbage. Snagglepuss and some other people show up. Yogi dresses up as Santa. Woo.

The Cabbage Patch Kids Christmas Vacation

The Cabbage Patch Kids are effing creepy and if you think they’re cute it’s probably because you’re a serial killer with several lengths of stretched human skin drying in your basement. My personal theory is that they are not children at all, but demonic cabbage golems closely related to the goblins from Troll 2. I did not like this special.

Christmas Comes to Pac-Land

There was a whole slew of media layered onto Pac-Man (including a theme park) and in retrospect it all seems massively forced. There’s no real depth to Pac-Man. He eats things. Ghosts chase him. Sometimes he chases ghosts. That’s it. Any pursuit of a larger mythology is going to run into a wall eventually, because writers tasked with making a Pac-Man cartoon are going to have to constantly dream up a new adventure for him that involves chomping. Every plot, problem, solution, everything: It will all have to involve power pellets. That does not make for a compelling, deep story or fictional world.

In Christmas Comes to Pac-Land Santa’s Sleigh crashes, but Pac-Man and his friends fix it. Santa’s worried that he doesn’t have enough time for Christmas, but Pac-Man gives St. Nick and the reindeer some power pellets. Fueled by the most unadorned of video game power-ups, Kringle & Co. zoom through the air and deliver presents to the children of the world. As far as Pac-Man Christmas stories go, that’s pretty much the best you could probably do. It’s got Santa, there’s a central conflict, and then the problem is solved with glorified gluttony.

G.I. Joe, Cobra C.L.A.W.S. Are Coming to Town

G.I Joe was the one cartoon I wasn’t allowed to watch as a kid. My parents said that it was jingoistic and glorified militarism and, to be fair, they were absolutely right. Cobra C.L.A.W.S. Are Coming to Town prominently features a shrink ray that is also an embiggening ray, and at the end of it a giant parrot saves the day. This special wasn’t great, but given all the wackiness I kind of wish I had been allowed to watch G.I. Joe.

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Chirstmas Special

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is one of the only pieces of kid media that I’ve enjoyed more as an adult than as a kid. I didn’t get it as a kid. There was usually only the bare bones of a plot, I found Paul Reubens’ voice grating, and I was probably profoundly bored by the sever lack of dinosaurs, swords, and spaceships.

Now, though, I appreciate the gleeful maximalist surrealism of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and the Christmas special was utterly fabulous. The list of stars (Magic Johnson! Charo! Oprah!) is extensive to the point of ridiculous, and the show seems to know exactly what it’s doing. It knows that it’s a plotless, shiny mess, and it revels in its own weird nature. I don’t know if I really like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse now, but I certainly respect it.

Super Mario World, The Night Before Cave Christmas

Super Mario World does not (somewhat confusingly) take place in a world called “Super Mario World.” It take place in Dinosaur Land. There are no dinosaurs in Dinosaur Land. There are turtles, dragon turtles, piranha plants, and angry eye-having mushrooms, but there are no tyrannosaurs, triceratopses, or pachycephalosauruses. Sure, there’s Yoshi. Yoshi is, like, some kind of deinonychus thing (I guess) but she’s (I’m assuming the female pronoun is okay here, because egg-laying) is all cartoony and cute. Dinosaurs are not cute. Dinosaurs are prehistoric instruments of thunder and blood, and Yoshi is too scared to go into a ghost house. A real deinonychus would not be scared of ghosts, be they house-based or otherwise. A real deinonychus would find a way to hunt and eat an incorporeal being.

ANYWAY, Dinosaur Land is a place where there are no dinosaurs, but there is Yoshi, Mario, Luigi, Peach, and some cavemen. At least there are in the cartoon. There were no cavemen in the Super Mario World video game. As a kid, it made me really, really angry to see cavemen portrayed next to dinosaurs in popular culture. “CAVEMEN AND DINOSAURS DIDN’T LIVE TOGETHER” I would angrily shout at the Flintstones and other, similar things “THEY DIDN’T WHY ARE YOU WRONG I DON’T LIKE THIS CARTOON.” Maybe as a result of this I’ve never thought that cavemen are cool. Early humans are cool. I totally geeked out over Otzi the Iceman when they found him in 1991. That was amazing, and I learned all about how he might have lived from various TV specials and articles that came out at the time. I enjoyed anthropology classes. Early humans are alright.

As a cultural and genre concept, though, I’ve never liked cavemen. Cavemen are almost always portrayed with dinosaurs and as a trope they represent more than anything else pop culture being wrong about science. Bowser, for some reason, captures a caveman and then Mario and Luigi have to save him. Then something about Christmas. I don’t know. This show was awful.

Super Mario Super Show, Koopa Clause

No. No, no, no. NEXT!

The Smurfs Christmas Special

The Smurfs Chirstmas Special is all about Gargamel trying to sell children to Satan. Well, he’s not called “Satan” specifically, but he’s a bearded dude in a red cloak with magical powers who makes people sign contracts. So, Satan. Essentially. Gargamel sells kids to Satan in exchange for anti-Smurf magic, and then the Smurfs have to somehow save the kids from the Lord of Darkenss and the Father of Lies. Satan makes a big ring of flames that would look totally badass at a metal show, but the Smurfs defeat him with the power of love. This one wasn’t “good” or “watchable” but I admired it for being downright weird.

The Claymation Christmas Special

For a moment there in the eighties it seemed like claymation was an unstoppable juggernaut. The California Raisins were everywhere and movies like The Adventures of Mark Twain seemed to be the next big thing in artsy, trippy animation. And then it just went out. Gone. There’s a little bit here and there, but nothing like the juggernaut that used to exist.

The Claymation Christmas special is essentially plotless and it’s badly written. Two dinosaurs evocative of Siskel and Ebert introduce Christmas songs, and then a music video happens. The visuals are amazing, though, and the energy and enthusiasm of the animation almost makes up for the utter lack of story, character, or jokes that are not horrible.

It was all surface. It’s great surface, but still, that’s it. Maybe that’s why claymation fizzled out in favor of CGI. That’s a lot of surface, too, and probably a bit less messy to animate.

The Real Ghostbusters, Xmas Marks the Spot

The 1980s were awash in cartoons based on hit movies (like Rambo!) and I think it’s safe to say that most of them were cynical cash-grabs. The Real Ghostbusters (as opposed to the other Ghostbusters) probably started out as one of those, but it somehow rose above the rest and became actually good. I was legitimately surprised as to how good X-Mas Marks the Spot was. The Ghostbusters go back in time and end up busting the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, and bad things ensue. The solution they come up with involve both dressing in drag and a 2001 style journey into a weird non-space populated by angry supernatural creatures. It’s amazing.

I want to actually watch more of this show now. It was funny, well-plotted, and legitimately entertaining. It was also written by a pre-Babylon 5 J. Michael Stracynski, which was kind of neat to see.

The He-Man and She-Ra Christmas Special

I freely acknowledge that The Masters of the Universe was badly animated crap designed to sell toys. Of all the badly animated crap designed to sell toys, though, it was the best. The creators probably just assumed that kids liked lasers and space and monsters and pegacorns rockets and swords and robots and everything so it just all goes in there. If it’s cool, if kids like it, it’s in there. Don’t worry about how it works. Don’t worry about how He-Man can breath in space. Don’t worry about how She-Ra’s pegacorn can travel between planets. Don’t worry about any of that. Just let it all coexist. That’s what kids do when they play pretend, after all.

I kind of admire that commitment to absurdity and awesomeness. It’s still dumb, but it’s dumb in a lovable, almost earnest way that’s impossible to deeply hate. The Christmas special (in which two kids from Earth teach Orco and Skeletor about Christmas) isn’t great  but it’s satisfying. The two main characters team up, share screen time, and defeat a slew of robot monsters, Hordak, and Skeletor. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with this bit of

She-Ra, by the way, is way cooler than He-Man. She has a better villain to contend with and (I cannot emphasize this enough) a pegacorn.

I hope that children’s television has improved, at least a little, since I was a kid. Most the junk that I and my friends beamed into our eyes this past Saturday was disposable tripe that had little to no respect for its audience, and I sort of hated the idea that any of this soulless crap ever worked on me. While some of the shows were definitely gems, they were hidden under the big pile of slag that comprises most of pop culture at any given time. For every bit of nostalgic wonder that we had, there were ten moments of hate and boredom, and I wondered what my parents must have thought when they saw me watching things that were so transparently bad decades ago.

Most of the media your remember from childhood was consumerist waste. Most of the stuff you liked as a kid and think fondly of is probably not anything that you’d want to affix your eyeballs to now. Most of it was made by people who probably didn’t have an iota of respect for the end-users, the kids who’d tune in every week. But, somehow, taking it in can be fun. It can be transporting. Against our better judgement we still spend time with things we know are not good, enriching, or valuable. That’s the devious power of nostalgia.

The Top Ten Christmas Songs That Are Not Awful

It’s that time of year again, where the background music of retail establishments goes from being merely bland and soulless to actively noticeable and soulless. Audiophonic muck seeps out of the PA systems of various kinds of public spaces, and offensive, grating “music” sears the ears of perfectly innocent citizens who only want to ambulate from one section of a shopping establishment to another. It’s the most musically awful time of year. It’s Christmas, and that means foul, foul song-like noise is getting blasted at you, me, and everybody until the 25th.

Jingle Bells, The Twelve Days of Christmas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are all terrible abominations that mock the laws of God, Nature, and Man. They are without value or merit. They offend the ears and make the listener long for silence. These oft-played Christmas songs suck, and they do so with vigor and persistence.

I hate them. You are advised to do likewise.

Believe it or not, though, there are a few Christmas songs that are not the aural equivalent of having your hand frozen with liquid nitrogen and then smashed with an impact hammer. Some seasonal tunes are actually nonterrible. Some you can even tolerate. Some are even actually good. Here are ten of them.

10: The Snow Miser and Heat Miser Songs

If either of these songs got the kind of exposure the Frosty the Snowman got, they’d probably be insufferable, too, but they’re not, so they’re charming. My favorite part of these songs is that it’s just the Snow Miser and Heat Miser saying hi. They’re receiving Mrs. Clause and her pals in their climate-themed throne rooms, and immediately bust out the song and dance. The dialogue directly after the songs makes it clear that both of them know Mrs. Clause decently well, so we can only assume that this is how these guys say hello every single time they meet someone. I kind of dig that.

And yes, that is the Snow Miser song that Mr. Freeze grooved to in that awful hunk of solidified bile that was marketed as a Batman movie.

9: I Believe in Father Christmas

You get the idea that Greg Lake doesn’t really believe in Father Christmas, or the ideas of Christmas, or God. He’s perplexed at the idea of having a season of peace when there’s so much terrible conflict around, and is obviously perturbed that folks can say “Merry Christmas” while still supporting war and belligerence. However, he seems to want to believe in Christmas and he finds it achingly painful that he can’t actually partake in that feeling that he remembers from childhood. As an atheist who still kind of likes this holiday, I find that touching and very easy to relate to.

8: The Boar’s Head Carol

This song is about food, and more specifically about eating a pig’s face, and how great it is to eat pork face. Okay, the song hearkens back to primal pre-Christian sacrifices and ceremonial feasts (and that’s neat) but food is easily one of the best things about Christmas or pretty much any holiday. The Boar’s Head Carol is about how awesome treats are, and how excited people are to stuff a bunch of herb-bedecked pork into their face holes. That’s festive, and something that pretty much everyone can relate to.

7: O Holy Night

O Holy Night really does feel, well, holy. It’s the kind of thing that could ring through a clear, cold night inviting contemplation and peace. It’s a welcome antidote to the bombast and obnoxiousness that typifies, say, The Twelve Days of Christmas or its ilk.

6: The Holly and the Ivy

The Holly and the Ivy is of a piece with The Boar’s Head Carol in that it evokes a kind of old and even ancient European yule tradition. Unlike a lot of other Christmas music, The Holly and the Ivy seems to have a sense of restraint to go along with its grandness. Most choral versions of it alternate between solo voices and the full rush of a choir. This restraint and return to individual voices during the verse makes the song conversational and communal, something lacking in lots of other songs.

5: Good King Wenceslas

The song loses points for Wenceslas only helping a particular peasant at a singular point of need, rather than implementing systemic reforms that would help a broader class of people, but the idea of a king and a common person sharing a table together is still a nice image.

4: The Carol of the Bells

The Carol of the Bells, as good as it is, doesn’t seem to be much about or evocative of bells. A better image is one of a progressively building snow flurry, light dusting eventually building into an aural blizzard. It sounds like winter feels, cold and harsh and raging around you.

Also there are lots of metal versions, so that’s cool.

3: Adeste Fidelis

Also known as Oh Come All Ye Faithful, but really this song needs to be in Latin. Quid latine dictum sit altum viditur, after all. Latin is the language of soaring Gothic arches and stained-glass panoramas. It’s a language that evokes vistas of Heaven, Hell, and transcendent divinity. Sure you can sing it in English, but if you do it no longer sounds like the Celestial Vault is suddenly filled with Angelic Hosts who are proclaiming the presence of God on Earth. As someone raised Catholic, Adeste Fidelis is one of the songs most evocative of badass, thundering God glory, and its majesty stands in welcome contrast to how inane most other, lesser Christmas songs tend to be.

2: White Wine in the Sun

I was only recently introduced to this song, but it pretty much ticks all the boxes of the problems I have with Christmas, and but why I like it anyway. Tim Minchin’s ode to family togetherness is, more than any other song on this list, all about the True Meaning of Christmas. I almost put this in the number one spot, but the song doesn’t feel archetypically Christmassy enough for top honors. Call it Northern Hemisphere bias, because it is. No, the best Christmas song, the one that’s all about snow and cold and the one that sounds like the season feels is…

1: Fairytale of New York

Pretty much every person who has conflicted thoughts about Christmas is required to like this song, and I’m no exception. It’s all wind and snow and ringing bells, with a few bad words thrown in for good measure.

This one’s particularly endearing to me, though, because during my first Christmas in Japan, I was at karaoke with a number of my students and coworkers. An enthusiastic student asked me to sing a Christmas song, so I and a female coworker (also a Westerner) cracked this one out. There was much bewilderment and confusion at the two of us joyously calling each other vulgar names. We sang, we swayed back and forth, and then we probably drank a bunch of horrible beer because that’s what you do in a Japanese karaoke bar. This one will always remind of having Christmas in a weird foreign place, which I suppose is what the song is about to begin with.

In Which I’m a Zombie at a Haunted House

ZombieDr. Dre thrummed along in the background while I was being turned into a dead cop. The makeup artist told me to close my eyes while she worked, spraying paint of various colors on my face. The decades-old beats of The Chronic played away, and I refrained from bobbing my head. “Hold still,” said the makeup artist, “I’m going to splash blood on you.” I held still. She splashed blood on me. It tickled.

Last Friday evening I spent much of my afternoon and all of my evening at FrightTown, one of the largest haunted houses in Portland. A few of my friends had volunteered as monsters previously, had said it was fun, and convinced me to come out.

Based on my height, my looks, and the casting guy’s three second appraisal of my general demeanor, I was put in the role of Evidence Locker Zombie. “It’s high energy,” said the guy, “you think you can handle that?” I said that I could. He gave me a card and told me to report to the costume and makeup people. I was given a torn-up jumpsuit that said “POLICE” on the chest, and sat down to get turned into a blood-splattered corpse.

I was initially a little disappointed at being made a zombie. They’re pretty-much played out in popular culture. I’d hoped that FrightTown would make me a werewolf, what with being all hirsute and such. However, there were no werewolf roles. I decided, though, that I’d make the most of being a walking corpse. Zombies are solid, respectable horror antagonists, and at least I hadn’t been cast as a killer clown.

When I stepped out of makeup I was surrounded by a plethora of bizarre figures. Cultists. Fish people. A guy with a chicken for a head. A guy with a cooked chicken for a head. More zombies. A gigantic fat man with no shirt and gigantic shoulder armor. Killer clowns. A go-go dancer all of whose skin was green. Evil Santa. It was kind of like the Star Wars cantina, except an entirely different genre and no one was drinking.

I and my fellow zombies were given a brief acting lesson (we weren’t allowed to talk, for instance) and led into the playwood-and-props maze that was to be our haunt, a zombie apocalypse inspired by 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, and The Walking Dead. (FrightTown is actually three different haunted houses. There was also a Lovecraftian villiage and a haunted funhouse.) The sets were painted to look like desolate streets, bloody hospitals, and sinister decontamination chambers. As a zombie cop, I was to hang out in the destroyed police station, specifically in the evidence locker. It was, I think, the most physical job in the entire haunt.

The evidence locker contained several metal shelves behind a cyclone fence. The fence and shelves were bolted together in such a way that they were stable, and the zombie within could climb up and scare the passers-by. The following photo is of poor quality (and there was obviously much different lighting while the haunt was in full effect) but it gives you an idea of how I appeared to most people going through FrightTown.

photo

When the fluorescent lights went off and the music and sound effects started up, I paced nervously in my abandoned, post-apocalyptic police station. I was wondering if I’d actually be able to scare people, or if the public would find any of the sets and costumes at all convincing. As people came in, though, my worries died away.

The first people I saw were a teenage couple clutching each other tightly as they ran past my evidence locker. I didn’t even get a chance to jump out and scare them. As other people moved in, I got into a groove. I’d hide behind the metal shelves and wait for them to look into the evidence locker, wondering where the zombie was. I’d jump out, scare them, snarl, and then climb the shelves and fence like I meant to pursue them. Sometimes I hung out on top of the fence, draped over it like a dead-looking dummy and then went “RAWR!” as they looked up. If there were a lot of people passing through the room at once, I’d gnash and yell and scream from my perch. My habit of towering above the customers while screaming and rattling the fence got me nicknamed “King Kong” by the event management. I was fine with that.

It was effective.  There were some people, mostly young men, who acted too cool for the haunted house, but for the most part folks seemed to appreciate the show I was putting on for them. The most rewarding bit of my night was when a woman, after I jumped out, said “you’re behind a fence, you can’t get us.” I locked eyes with her, screamed in her face, and began climbing and yelling. A very loud “WHAT THE FUCK” left her mouth, and I was satisfied with a scare well done. Many other people seemed disquieted by my performance. “You can’t climb,” they said, “zombies aren’t allowed to climb.” But I did. I climbed up the fence like I was coming for them, and they ran away to the next room of horrors, a cadaver-strewn jungle populated by undead soldiers.

Kids were numerous and scared easily. To tell the truth, scaring kids almost felt like cheating. I got no end of amusement, though, at seeing the smiles on adults as their children screamed their heads off. Large groups of adolescents and twentysomethings came in, almost always clutching each other. One person would have their hands on the shoulders or about the waist of their friend in front of them, holding themselves against the monsters. The haunted house veterans called this formation a conga line, and I wondered how many people were using the scariness of the haunted house as an excuse to cop a feel. Probably a lot.

My gig as the evidence locker zombie is the most physically demanding thing I’ve done in a while. Constantly climbing up and down a thing, jumping, yelling, and generally being a rage zombie from 7:00 until 11:30 is, it turns out, fairly tiring. I also blew out my voice out from all the screaming and growling and I sounded sort of like Christian Bale’s Batman for the next 48 hours. My arms were cut up and bruised from places I’d hit myself on the fence, and my whole body was sore.

It was all worth it, though. As a lover of horror and someone who enjoys being freaked out and scared it was great to help create the sense of dread. I have no idea how many zombie movies I’ve watched or video games I’ve played. As much as I’m tired of them now (and I do think they’ll come back around) it was a wonderful feeling to finally be the thing I enjoyed, not just consume it. As I yelled and growled and pretended to hunger for flesh I felt more connected to the genre than every before. It wasn’t something I was watching or playing or reading. It was something I was embodying. Getting dressed up as a walking corpse was a fantastic reminder of how great it feels to imagine, to put on a show, and to create.

No Trouble at All: Why A Comedic Episode About Cooing Balls of Fur is the Heart and Soul of Star Trek

Last weekend I took in what’s become a cultural staple of Portland, Trek in the Park, an annual performance of an original series Star Trek episode in, well, a park. It’s become something of a massive cultural juggernaut and this year, regrettably, is the last time that theater group Atomic Arts is doing the performance. They went out with a bang, though, performing the Trouble with Tribbles, one of the best-known Trek episodes. It had been a while since I’d seen it, but watching it performed live this past weekend really drove home what Star Trek is about. Tribbles may not be the greatest Trek episode ever (that’s either The Best of Both Worlds or Balance of Terror) but it’s a fantastic episode that sums up what Star Trek‘s all about.

The episode is very much a slice-of-life portrait of what it means to live in space, deal with space problems, and have a space job where you have to do space things. Kirk tangles with an annoying Starfleet bureaucrat, is forced to be cordial with Klingons, disciplines a number of his subordinates for getting in a bar fight, and investigates a shifty merchant selling dubious merchandise. Kirk doesn’t give any inspiring speeches, call for a red alert, or ever command the Enterprise in combat. Throughout the Trouble With Tribbles Kirk (along with Spock) simply does his job, executing his duties as an administrator. That’s precisely what makes Tribbles such good television, though. We get to see the characters breathe and do things other than just dive into the kind of heavy situation that would be suitable for a movie plot. A big part of Trek’s appeal is its hugely detailed world, and in Tribbles we get to see people simply live in it. Along with Kirk we also get to see McCoy doing doctor things at the tribbles, Lurry (the manager of the station where much of the action takes place) dealing with the Federation and Klingons simultaneously visiting his station, and Cyrano Jones (the sleazy space merchant) trying to make a living by hustling exotic animals and artifacts. We also get to learn that Scotty reads technical journals for fun, which is kind of endearing.

The regular problems and issues of life in outer space are the heart of Star Trek. While the show has had its fair share of action sequences (I do love seeing Kirk fight a gorn) it’s really always been a show about problem solving. The crew gathers to discuss an issue, either on the bridge or in a conference room, susses out just what precisely is going on, and eventually come up with a course of action to deal with it, usually involving the application of technology, medicine, diplomacy, or lateral thinking. The motivations of the characters generally have very little to do with their own survival, avarice, emotional problems, or self-betterment. Most often, Trek‘s characters are grappling with the issues at hand either to pursue knowledge or make the galaxy a slightly better place.

If there is action, it’s usually to just show us the stakes. Torpedoes are firing, so it’s important to come to a solution quickly. People are dying, so it’s necessary to science or diplomatize as fast as possible. Action in Star Trek is generally auxiliary to the main plot, rather than something pursued in and of itself. Trek‘s usually at its most awkward when it attempts to be an action movie, rather than a thinky show. Probably my least favorite part of Trek is the string Next Generation movies which (with the kinda-sorta exception of First Contact) generally fell flat because they tried to turn Picard into John McClane. Insurrection and Nemesis were embarrassing failures not just because they were bad Star Trek, but because they seemingly forgot what Star Trek‘s about.

The emphasis on action and de-emphasis on problem solving is precisely what’s missing from J. J. Abrams’ current version of Trek. The two Star Trek movies that have come out so far have done a good job of re-creating the characters (especially Zachary Quinto as Spock) and are both perfectly fine action movies that happen in space. I want to emphasize, in no uncertain terms, that I enjoyed them as space adventure movies. However, Star Trek isn’t just about high-stakes movie action. Very often, it’s about put-upon administrators who just want their space station to work right, annoying interplanetary bureaucrats, and troublesome alien furballs that breed constantly. It’s about the weird stuff you find in the great unknown reaches, the unforeseen problems, big and small, that come with discovery, and the great panoply if life and phenomena that could be somewhere out there. The great unknown does not always need to threaten your life and limb, declare war upon you, or present an insurmountable menace. Sometimes it’s enough for that unknown to just grow fur, coo at you, and eat your chicken sandwich.

Bonus! My wonderfully multitalented girlfriend, Sarah, was tasked with taking the official photograph of the cast. Check it out.

A List

Bucket lists tend to be big things (“see the Taj Mahal” “go diving in the Great Barrier Reef”) and tend to betray a desire for the list maker to want to achieve greatness, or be connected to greatness. This is not a bucket list. These are not great or lofty goals. These are small things to achieve, dumb little flourishes I’d like to add to my persona and portfolio of experience for no other reason than to be mildly more interesting to myself and others.

-Learn to juggle four balls, not just three.

-Completely memorize Yakko’s World (despite it being out of date) and perform it flawlessly.

-Actually read Finnegan’s Wake.

-Learn to crack an egg one-handed.

-Beat Super Mario Bros. 3 in one sitting without using a warp whistle.

-Get a perfect score at a pub trivia night.

-Run one of those goofy obstacle course runs like the Warrior Dash or Tough Mudder.

-Reliably be able to make risotto.

-Memorize the order of U.S. presidents. (I’m good on the twentieth century, and the early ones, but the late 1800s always messes me up.)

-Learn to say the alphabet backwards.

-Appear as an extra in a movie. (I’ve already done so with TV. It was interesting.)

-Successfully perform a handstand.

-Successfully perform a kip-up.

-Get an okay grasp of physics so I can talk about it without sounding like an idiot.

-Participate in some kind of fun run, perhaps while wearing an impractical outfit not suitable for jogging.

-Actually eat frog legs and then attempt to evaluate them as fairly as I can, taste-wise.

-Learn to juggle five balls, not just four.

-Achieve existential fulfillment.

Rocket Punch International: Go See Pacific Rim

245941id1b_PacRim_1sided_120x180_2p_400.inddOne of the best parts of the Toy Story trilogy is the opening sequence of the third movie, in which Andy imagines fanciful scenarios wherein his plastic friends do battle. The piggy bank isn’t just a bank, it’s an evil scientist with a spaceship. Woody and Buzz have to stop him from causing a train wreck. There’s a dinosaur. Aliens. Action. Hijinks. We see inside the head of a kid thwaking his disparate toys together and imagining scenarios where they all go “PEW, PEW, PEW,” spout cornball dialogue, and team up to save the day. The sequence works beautifully. Just about every kid has played with their toys in exactly that fashion.

Pacific Rim is like watching a big version of Andy play with his toys in the best way possible. Throughout the whole robots-versus-monsters slugfest, I kept imagining Guillermo del Toro as a hypercreative kid playing with his various action figures. He picks them up, gives them whimsical names, and then provides shape and narration to the imagined conflict. This toy robot? Its name is Gypsy Danger. It used to be a big deal, but then one its pilots died and now no one knows if its up for the fight. This plastic monster? Its name is Otachi, and is one of the largest monsters ever to attack human civilization. Oh no! Otachi is attacking Hong Kong! Can Gypsy Danger save the day? Keep talking, kid. We want to see where this is going.

For a movie ostensibly about death, destruction, and the potential doom of Earthly civilizaton, Pacific Rim is a refreshingly bright movie. It’s bright in its colors, tone, and, most of all, in the feeling of togetherness and cooperation that pervades it. For humanity, repelling the Kaiju is an international effort that takes a diverse array of Russians, Chinese, Australians, Americans, Japanese, and, well, everybody. Nations seem to exist in Pacific Rim, but nationalism and jingoism don’t, really. Cooperation, both international and interpersonal, is ultimately humanity’s key to combating the monstrous kaiju. It takes two mind-melded pilots to operate the gigantic robotic jaegers. It takes a gigantic crew of diverse people to keep them up and running. One more than one occasion, characters say “let’s do this together,” and they mean it. It’s hokey in a Benetton or Captain Planet kind of way, but compared to jingoistic, racist movies like the Transformers series, its refreshing to see a film mainly set in Not America where people of differing races, nationalities, and native languages all get together and be awesome together.

It’s not a perfect movie, by any means. Many of the story beats are mostly perfunctory, the characters are mostly flat (albeit very well-defined), and despite being a fairly diverse movie there are only two female characters, one of whom barely registers. The diversity can also be fairly superficial. The Russians and Chinese (who are portrayed in such a stereotypical way that they would look at home in a Street Fighter game) have barely anything to do, and the main character is a conventional white guy. But, at least the movie cares enough about pluralism to implicitly say that international cooperation is an awesome thing right up there with rocket punches and giant swords. The idealism behind Pacific Rim‘s vision of cooperation isn’t realistic, certainly, but it is heartfelt and endearing. Guillermo del Toro, playing with his toys, also imagines everyone getting along, which is pretty damn laudable. Most other action movies don’t bother.

Go see it. It’s fresh, energetic, fun, and isn’t another damn sequel, reboot, or adaptation. It’s enthusiasm writ large. It’s the most imaginative kid you know playing with his toys. It’s everyone on Earth getting together to kick Cthulhu’s ass. It’s zoomy and colorful and colossal, It is, in other words, pretty much everything a blockbuster should be.

Destroy all Consoles

Sony announced the PS4 yesterday, and it is a thing that should not be. Game consoles as we know them need to go extinct. They present system is clunky, inefficient, bad for the consumers, and frankly annoying. Below are a few of my cranky gripes about the state of gaming, why consoles should die, and what I’d like to see.

All consoles should be able to play all games. Remember back when CDs were a thing? I know, it was a long time ago, but bear with me. Would you have bought a CD player that could only play discs from EMI? What about one that would only play albums by artists on Atlantic Records? How about some indie player that only ever played Kill Rock Stars? Would you accept that? Obviously not. Yet, that’s the system we accept for games. It’s mind boggling in how long it’s persisted, and kind of maddening that consumers aren’t more upset about it. In no other kind of media to buyers accept such limitations, but when it comes to video games people actually get fanboyish about their favorite consoles. That’s ridiculous.

Physical disks should die. Why the hell do we still have physical disks? We have the Internet. Cutting out disks would mean that game companies would no longer have to worry about the manufacturing and distribution of disks or retail middleman taking a cut. That would (hopefully) drive down the costs of games. Hopefully. Maybe not EA or Activision’s games, as those companies are kind of shadowy and evil, but hopefully those of other companies.

There needs to be an iTunes for old games. Yes, Nintendo had the Virtual Console, but that wasn’t enough. Far too many old games are fading away because the hardware that ran them has gone obsolete. I’d love to have a service where I could purchase classics like Planescape: Torment, Monkey Island, or the Sega X-Men games.

Nintendo should just be a software company. The whole reason people buy Nintendo’s consoles anymore is to play Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games. I seriously doubt that anyone buys Nintendo’s consoles because they want to play games in general. No, they want to play Nintendo’s games specifically. As someone who grew up with Mario, Link, and Samus I’d be happy to sit down and revisit some of these old IPs for a game or two, but not so much that I want to actually buy the ridiculously clunky flop that is the WiiU.

Consoles should be generic and upgradeable, like PCs. I replaced all manner of parts in my old desktop. I jammed more RAM into it, gave it a new graphics card, replaced the fan and the power source, swapped out all of the peripherals, and replaced just about everything except the motherboard and CPU. I’d appreciate that kind of screws-not-glue approach to consoles. Instead of things being upgraded in fits and starts with new generations of consoles coming every few years, we’d just have a gradual increase in what people’s machines were capable of.

Fuck it, consoles should just be PCs. A PC that hooks up to your big TV where you can do stuff with a controller, and you’re not locked into a single company’s hardware, OS, game library, or anything like that. Can we have that? No?

Fine, I’ll just wait for the Steam Box.

What I Learned From Going to the Zoo Yesterday

oregonzooYesterday my girlfriend and I went to the Oregon Zoo for a Valentine’s Day date. It was great! I’d recommend going on a weekday, as one does not have to compete with crowds, and we got a good long look at several of the animals. At the end of it, I was giddy. Animals are amazing, and being exposed to so much tremendous biology in a single afternoon was a great experience. Here are a few things I learned.

-Sea Lions are huge. Seriously. You know that because they’re an apex predator and they have “lion” right in their name, but when you seem them up close it’s sort of eye-popping how large and graceful they are. They also make a noise that’s kind of a bark-y roar-y sound.

-Bats can be beautiful. People think of bats as being creepy (like Dracula) or kind of dark and badass (like Batman) but one doesn’t really think of them as beautiful. But they are. Bats don’t glide- they are the only mammal to truly fly, and they do it well. Their movement is graceful and precise, and they are every bit as inspiring as birds.

Baby elephants are cute. If you don’t think so, then you are probably one of those serial killers who physically lacks a sense of empathy.

-Everybody poops. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera famously characterized kitsch as the denial of shit. If that’s the case, than the zoo is one of the least kitschy places one can visit, as the reality of excrement is vividly apparent. But that’s okay! Pooping does not make you less cool. Everyone does it. Even awesome animals like rhinos.

-Naked mole rats are actually quite small. They are more like naked mole mice.

-There’s a species of gazelle that eats vegetation while standing on its hind legs. It’s called a gerenuk and it’s really weird to watch it not fall over.

-Male lions are not actually all that king-of-beast-y. They don’t really hunt (the lionesses do) and they sleep a lot. Nevertheless, we got to see a male sitting on a rock with his mane blowing in the wind looking all Lion King and stuff. It was cool. Lions at least get style points.

-Bald eagles like fish. We saw America’s national bird with a fish in its talons tearing it apart with its beak. It was amazing to watch such an up-close example of predation, and it also made me happy that Benjamin Franklin didn’t get his way about making the turkey our national symbol.

-African wild dogs have adorable ears. They’re big and fuzzy.

-Mammals are awesome. They can do all kinds of things. Water stuff? We have sea lions, otters, and polar bears. Flying stuff? All kinds of bats. Climbing stuff? Check out those monkeys. Running stuff? You can’t beat the cheetah. Digging stuff? Naked mole rats, actual moles, and various rabbits have that covered. Mammals are amazing in their diversity and complexity. They’re like a G.I. Joe team where all the members have a niche that they’re good at. I’m proud to be a mammal. It’s good company.

-Hippos are something you should fear. They might seem all big and cute, but really they are gigantic bags of pure anger.

Caracals are one of my new favorite cat types. They have tufts on their ears and can jump really high to hunt birds.

And lastly,

-We live in an extraordinary world. It’s a world filled with monkeys and tigers and iridescent birds. It’s mind boggling, diverse, and wonderful. Nature should hold you in stunned awe. Evolution has given us millions upon millions of co-residents of Earth, and seeing even a tiny sampling of them can make for an extraordinary afternoon.

In Which I Finally Watch Requiem For a Dream

Requiem_for_a_dreamLast night, recovering from a nasty week of being sick, I stayed in my apartment and watched Requiem For a Dream. I’d never seen it, and it’s been on my to watch list ever since I’d seen Aronofsky’s (utterly hilarious) Black Swan. I didn’t know anything about the movie, other than it was about drugs and that Jennifer Connelly was in it. Having seen Aronofsky’s goofy Pi and chuckle-inducing Black Swan, I expected Requiem to be as broad and silly as his other work. It wasn’t. Not really. Requiem For a Dream is almost, but not quite, camp or exploitation. It goes up to the line, but doesn’t cross.

Spoilers for a twelve year old movie ahead.

Aronofsky can’t resist the building blocks and stylistic flourishes of camp. Requiem For a Dream abounds with fast edits, sped up footage, slowed down footage, fish-eye lenses, high emotions, exploitation, and a even a little bit of speechifying. Several of the scenes scenes involving hallucinations veer almost into the comical- a refrigerator opens to reveal several jagged teeth, a character imagines watching herself on television, and people jump from a television set and into a living room. There’s also a dumb scene with an imaginary pie. At the end of the movie, the four main characters, all drug users, meet grisly fates worthy of an after school special. One is jailed, one is in a psychiatric ward, one becomes a prostitute and another gets his arm sawed off. Say no to drugs, kids. You’ll become a crazy one-armed hooker, and then you’ll go to jail.

And yet, I don’t think Requiem For a Dream is camp or exploitation- it works as a genuine drama.  Most of the credit for that goes to the actors- the four principals all play their roles straight. In the midst of Aronofsky’s goofy (but enjoyable) direction they seem like real, actual humans rather than the overy stylized meat puppets that inhabit most camp or exploitation movies. I’d go so far as to say that the actors save the movie- the story is basically “don’t do drugs,” the director seems to busy playing with lenses and footage speed, and the soundtrack (can’t believe I haven’t mentioned the soundtrack yet- it’s really overbearing, but also kind of great) sounds like it comes from the opening credits of a daytime soap opera. The performances, though, don’t clash with the over-the top style. Rather, they balance it out. They’re like the cool tonic and lime to Aronofsky’s harsh, spiky gin. The four actors ground the movie, and in hammier, more scenery-chewing hands, the film would have been a frothy, hokey disaster.

After watching Requiem, I couldn’t help but think how much better it was than Black Swan, and how much more I was on board with it, goofy elements and all. I enjoyed Black Swan a good deal, but not really as drama. I liked it as an exercise in excess, and I’m not sure if that’s what the filmmakers wanted. At the end of Black Swan I thought “that was absurd and entertaining.” At the end of Requiem, I actually felt something for the characters.

Aronofsky seems to be one of those artists who shouldn’t be allowed to do whatever he wants. He needs something, be it a budget, a producer, a person he knows, to call him out on his excesses and tell him when to reign it in. Requiem demonstrates that he can make a great film, but Swan shows that, if left to his own devices, he probably won’t.

2012: A Slow Climb

I’ve found the conversation starter “What do you do?” to be more than a little annoying. For the most part I’ve said “I’m a tour guide,” and left it at that. I don’t like introducing myself as a writer. After all, if someone waits tables and occasionally acts, they are not an actor. They are a waiter who acts. You’re an actor when you do it full time. In an attempt to be honest or humble, I answer “What do you do?” with my day job, as opposed to the job that I find truly rewarding. I am not a writer. I’m a tour guide who writes. You’re a writer when you do it full time.

In 2012, I’ve found that this perspective is unproductive and self-defeating, especially because it’s become more and more not the case. I’ve spent a good part of this year as a freelance contributor to the Portland Mercury, the awesomest alternative weekly in the U.S. I reviewed books, movies, and television, blogged about video games, history, and a conceptual art museum, wrote a few long-form features, and interviewed several interesting people, including mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith on election night. When not writing for the Mercury, I also did a bit of Portland-centric travel writing and ghost wrote some marketing copy. In 2012, I wrote more than I ever have before, and I loved it. On top of that, I started doing regular history lectures at downtown Portland’s Jack London Bar, which has been a blast. I am a tour guide. But I’m a writer, too.

However, gnawing at the back of my mind is the pessimistic fact that I’m playing catch-up. I’m thirty-two years old (young yet, I hope) and I still don’t have a full-time job. I’ve made things work, stitching together my part time job with several freelance assignments. I’m able to pay for rent, groceries, all that. But, I don’t have a steady position inside of an established institution. That gnaws at me. I would give up quite a bit to have a full time job. Ideally, I’d want something in the fields of publishing or communications, but I know those are dying industries- newspapers will probably not last the decade. However, being a crew member of a sinking ship seems better than never setting sail at all. Realistically, I’ll probably get a position in marketing firm somewhere. If I were ever given a chance at any kind of regular editorial job, though, I would learn how to do backflips specifically so I could do them in celebration.

I also acknowledge that if/when I do get a full time job, Future Me will look back on this time like it’s some kind of idyllic Bohemia, and long for the days when I lived in a studio apartment, worked for tips, and freelanced for a publication that let use swears as much and as often as I wanted to. 2012 has been good. In some ways, very good. I have no anxiety whatsoever, for example, about my personal life- I have a fantastic girlfriend and a wonderful social circle. I’m glad that all of my angst is connected to professional matters and not more intimate affairs.

If 2013 is like 2012 (but moreso) I will get somewhere. If 2014 is like 2013 (but moreso) I will get somewhere. And so on. However, opportunities for meaningful employment are not as numerous as they were in previous decades. We can climb, we have to, but the summit is shrouded with clouds.