Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Team Haymitch: My Review of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games Trilogy Boxset (The Hunger Games, #1-3)The Hunger Games Trilogy Boxset by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, I finally did it. Having resisted this latest youth culture icon for a couple of years, I saw the preview for the movie The Hunger Games and decided it looked pretty awesome, actually. So I dragged my wife, who uncharacteristically loved it, couldn't get enough of it. We left the theater with Hunger Games fever, and since you feed a fever (you starve a cold; I think that's how it works), we hurried ourselves over to Barnes & Noble and bought ourselves the first volume in the trilogy, adding books two and three in rapid succession. And now, five months after seeing the movie, I've finished all three books. And my fever has faded.

The Hunger Games is a clever book; anyone who can pull off a dystopian trilogy for kids and write in the first-person for a thousand pages and not lose me should be congratulated. Suzanne Collins creates some truly compelling characters, from Katniss the lead to the two boys vying silently and longingly for her affection, and the supporting cast from Cinna Kravitz to Elizabeth Trinket, Collins mad me care about a full canvas of characters, to mourn the deaths of some and wish for the deaths of others. At a time when the 99 percent and the 1 percent are already portrayed in stark contrast, Collins effectively exaggerates the divide while demonstrating effectively how people can be unknowingly complicit in horrific treatment of other human beings. Panem is the most stylized dystopia I've ever pictured in my head.

My wife is not as well read in dystopian fiction as I am; she was in it for the love triangle: Katniss and Peeta and Gale. I won't spoil anyone's fun by revealing the identity of the boy who gets the girl, but I will say that Collins handles the triangle well and resolves it in a satisfying way--by which I mainly mean that she put her with my preferred him, but also that she makes Katniss's choice not only sensible but wise and tender. That being said, I think that by writing to the lovers of love (like my wife) and to the lovers of societal decay (like me), Collins attempts too much. I suspect she wrote with the movies in mind, and in so doing failed to do justice to the books.

Love, internecine conflict and adolescence can occasionally work: Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story and all that. And it works in The Hunger Games to a point. But the big picture is too important, in Collins's telling, for a proper love story; I'm reminded of (spoiler alert) Rick's farewell to Ilsa in Casablanca: "The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." The further into the trilogy I got, the less a triangle made sense. Even as I sorted through Katniss's feelings from the vantage point of her inner dialogue in the dramatic present, I found it hard to believe she was really aching for Gale or falling for Peeta. She was too busy, in my mind, trying not to get killed.

And yet, all that lovey-dovey stuff distracted Collins, I think, from fully forming the universe she presents to us. I found myself wondering almost immediately, Where's Russia? I can hardly recall a civil war, let alone seventy-five years of the worst kinds of human rights abuses, that every other country in the world left alone. And yet Collins very deliberately sets The Hunger Games in the near-future of our very own world, with no intervention, no mention of even bordering countries like Canada and Mexico. She could have put Panem on its own planet, in its own universe, and still powerfully communicated her commentary on the plight of the poor in a world that is slanted toward the rich. But our world doesn't operate like this--rampant human rights abuses in every corner of it notwithstanding. Our world thinks that killing kids for sport is wrong, that no government or rebel force should be ignored. I kept waiting for news from beyond District 13, to learn that Panem was the tip of a tyrannical iceberg waiting to thaw, that there were persecuted peoples throughout the earth waiting to catch fire. I kept waiting, but Collins never delivered.

Here's what I think I would like, something for Collins to consider: a trilogy for a younger (or at least more lovelorn) audience that downplayed the games and the revolution and the death; and a trilogy for a grown-up (or at least more jaded) audience that puts Haymitch at the center of Panem's universe.

Haymitch, after all, is the most enigmatic and yet most fully-conceived character: We know that he's suffered, we know that he's stared the absurdity of existence in the face, we know that he still has the capacity to love but can't quite bring himself to do it. We know that Haymitch is capable of ferocity and heroism and wisdom. We know that Haymitch wouldn't be satisfied with one district or even one country having the right to self-determination while the rest of the world suffers tyranny or neglect. At least I know it: I'm Team Haymitch, all the way.

It's probably expecting too much from a book to ask for a different protagonist, or a different universe. And I like Katniss and liked an awful lot about this trio of books. But the author is expecting a lot from me: she wants me to drop good money on three books and four movies. She probably wouldn't mind if I bought an action figure or two. In exchange, I only ask for some focus: you can write a love story, or you can write a war story, but think long and hard before you write both at once.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Neil Gaiman Is a Genius: My Review of American Gods

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You should congratulate me. I just got an e-reader. It's a Nook tablet, because what I really wanted to do was play games and watch movies, but it's nice to be able to read books too. My first download, my first read on the Nook, was Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Bottom line: good choice.

I've always been sort of a fan from afar of Gaiman. I read some of his comics and had a hard time understanding him. Then I read Neverwhere and found it stunning. I follow him on Twitter and enjoy his tweets. But it's been a while since I dipped my toe back into his literary pool. American Gods was a whim, but it fit pretty nicely into my recent reading and made me eager to read more of his work and genre. The conceit of the book is based on the reality that the United States of America is (if you set aside for a moment the native peoples who predate Europe's expansion into the new world) a nation of immigrants. All these people came from somewhere else, and the places they came from had their gods and legends and mythologies. Immigrants brought those gods with them, but time and dislocation have taken their toll on people's devotion, such that those transplanted gods are now forced to eke out a meager existence and scare up worship and sacrifice wherever they can find it.

The hero of the book, Shadow, knows none of this. He only knows that he's thisclose to being released from jail, a place he survived by keeping his nose clean and making a friend of his celly, Low Key Lyesmith. A tragedy secures Shadow an early release by a matter of days, and we discover that Shadow survives life by accepting the reality that he's presented with and doing what he feels is right and responsible from one moment to the next. That makes him a good lackey/understudy to Wednesday, an enigmatic and charismatic traveler he meets on the outside. Wednesday leads Shadow into the middle of a brewing war between the old, immigrant gods and the new breeds of the New World: gods of gadgetry and image and spectacle, gods that hardly earn the title but that pose a real threat to the gods of the ages.

We're meant to identify with Shadow, and if he weren't so endearingly adaptable and even keeled that would be nearly impossible: I'm a wee little man, raised on the easy life, whereas Shadow's had it hard his whole life. He's a big guy with good reason to be angry and lash out, and yet he never does. It's impressive, but hardly resonant. It becomes easier to identify with Shadow, however, when you go looking for someone else to identify with. They're all gods, it turns out (so, strike one); they're also all sort of sad and pathetic, and almost none of them approaches anything resembling nobility.

I understand Gaiman (and by extension his comics and even some of his tweets) a little better having read American Gods. He's a mystic and a mythologist, and the way he looks at the world and his underlying melancholy are in view throughout this book. Not that it hurts the storytelling; there were many times when I could not bring myself to stop reading--even though, because I was reading an ebook instead of a paperback, committing to another chapter could sometimes mean committing to another forty to fifty pages. But it's not just the epic that enthralled me; Gaiman tells a great story, but he also paints great scenes and portrays great characters. I did have a hard time keeping the pantheon straight, but that didn't matter as I pictured Easter, for example, the type of girl you'd do anything for and never take your eyes off of; or Czernobog, whose Eastern European accent rang in my ears even as I winced at the thought of his taking a sledgehammer to Shadow's/my head.

I learned a few things as I read, about mythology but also about technology, most notably that there's an outer limit to the number of characters from an ebook you can share on Twitter or Facebook. Gaiman offers lots of aphorisms cleverly contained in dialogue or circumspection or even simply narration. I highlighted a lot and wanted to share more than intellectual property laws and conventions apparently allow. So I guess you'll just have to read it for yourself--or, if you have a Nook, I could loan it to you, highlighting and all. Apparently you can do that sort of thing.

Every year I attend a retreat at which we circle up and share with one another our favorite book of the year. I always get a little anxious, because it's a room full of editors, and they are generally compelled by different genres than I am. But this year, when it comes to my turn to share, I will smile proudly and hold up my Nook tablet and click on the icon for American Gods. And I will tell them that it's my favorite book of the year and that they should read it. And I suppose here I'm telling you the very same thing.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Bat-Canon: Must Reads for the Wholly Perplexed

My mind continues to return to The Dark Knight Rises, which is, in my mind, a good thing. I imagine there are people of other opinions; I read, for example, a strong case against the myth of redemptive violence by Shane Claiborne that, while not referencing Batman stories, probably could have if Shane had wanted a few more hits. I know that violence begets violence and that peace should be our pursuit; still, I like a good Batman movie, and I'm not particularly embarrassed by it.

I suspect that some folks are a little bewildered by the Batman mythology that makes up the trilogy of films. Assuming that to be the case, and assuming that people still have some energy for the subject matter, here are some good books, comics and graphic novels to help you enjoy the movies better.

First off, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. This has nothing to do with Batman, but everything to do with the primary medium through which Batman stories have been told. McCloud is a genius, and in this book he offers a McLuhanite understanding of comics as a medium, and all the possibilities that open up when we open ourselves to it. (If you're a little comic-timid, I'm sure this Ted Talk that I haven't watched is quite good.)

Next, Batman Unmasked by Will Brooker. This cultural history of the Caped Crusader (in straight prose--the only non-comic in this list) brilliantly offers meaning and continuity between a Batman who is occasionally campy (as in the 1960s TV show) and occasionally rightly asked "Why so serious?"

OK, now on to the Batman comics. Two are obvious and bookend the crimefighter's career; they're also both written by the same person: Frank Miller, who does dystopia better than pretty much anyone. Batman: Year One is an origin story that emphasizes Bruce Wayne's early wrestling with the nature of crime and the ethics of punishment. It's here that Batman says "I'm no killer" and eschews guns, so all fisticuffs aside, Shane Claiborne ought to like it. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is probably one of the two or three most influential comics ever written and the primary source material, I suspect, for Christopher Nolan's cinematic vision. It's set some years after Batman's retirement, and shows a world gone horribly bleak. In such a world, a humorless, anachronistic vigilante can actually inspire greatness. It's more violent than Year One, so Shane, don't say I didn't warn you. By the way, they're better read in reverse order; Dark Knight Returns was written first, and Year One is better read with it in mind.

Alan Moore's The Killing Joke is a particularly good and insightful look at the Joker and his relationship to Batman. I don't love the art, but as a story it's tragic and genius. Very disturbing, just so you know; probably a chief source for the second Batman film, featuring Heath Ledger as the Joker. For a helpful insight into Batman's complicated relationship with Ra's al Ghul (and family), check out Batman: Son of the Demon. It's been a while since I read it, but everything I know about Ra's I got from it--and that seemed to be enough.

Finally (nothing on Bane, sorry), because I'm really into Neil Gaiman right now, you should read his piece "When Is a Door" in Secret Origins Special #1, an otherwise missable one-off comic. Like Brooker, Gaiman brilliantly connects the dots between the campy and the caustic in Batman's various mythologies; "When is a door" is a philosophical statement, a suggestion that our context shapes our ability to understand what is good and true, or something like that.

Honorable mention to Jeph Loeb's Catwoman: When in Rome, a short story following Selina Kyle on an intriguing caper. Batman: Year One gives us a similarly insightful look into the Catwoman, but I always liked this one.

That's it. Happy Bat-reading!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Heroes of the Everyday Sort: The Dark Knight Rises

Don't tell my friends, but last night I saw The Dark Knight Rises, the third in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. I don't want my friends to know, since next Saturday I'll be seeing it (again) with them, in glorious iMax, at Navy Pier on Chicago's lakefront. It'll be the first time I've seen one of the films on iMax, and I'm pretty excited, but I don't want to ruin the experience of the film for my friends. So I'm keeping it secret.

I would have been content to wait, I think. But my wife thought it almost criminal that, after seeing The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man on their respective opening nights, I would let this most important superhero movie of the year languish unwatched on screens for more than a week. So she mustered up her courage and went to opening night with me.

The debut was marred, of course, by the horrific shooting in a theater outside Denver, a shooting that some think was inspired by the trilogy. And in one sense they're probably right: dark themes can evoke dark thoughts and correspondingly dark deeds. And the Batman trilogy is, in fact, dark and gothic. There are moments in each film that might well haunt some people, might inspire others to indulge their sociopathy. In fact, much of the canon of Batman itself explores these ideas--whether our heroes fight pre-existent evils or provide fuel and a forum for evil to perpetuate itself. It's this kind of circumspection that lifts Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy above the pack of other superhero films, what makes these random acts of violence that seem to trace back to the films incidental rather than essential. The Dark Knight Rises is completing a Batman story but it's telling our story--a story of fear and what we do with it.

I could talk about the details of the story, of arch-villain Bane's concealed origin story and startling swagger; of cat burglar Selina Kyle's perfect blend of self-assurance, guilt and thinly veiled panic; of the guarded disappointment from Bruce Wayne's proxy parents Lucius Fox, Jim Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth; of the knowing reverence and yet cynical judgment of orphaned rookie cop John Blake. I could even talk about the surprising omissions--most notably the silence surrounding Heath Ledger's Joker, who was the apparent center of the second film, and whose memory Christopher Nolan chose to honor by leaving out of the third. I could talk about the profound aphorisms that snuck their way into the film's dialogue or the action that shook my seat from start to finish. But I'd rather talk about the Scarecrow.

Jonathan Crane, criminal psychiatrist, figured prominently in Batman Begins, the first film in the trilogy, and has minor roles in the second and third. Whereas in the first film he was menacing, he has since provided something closer to comic relief--at least as comic as a film can be in which a billionaire dresses in tights and fights crime, while his city is terrorized by a clown. A student of fear, Crane dressed himself in the first film as a scarecrow and terrorized people for fun while making his living as a proxy for Ra's al Ghul's incursion into Gotham City. In the second film he was reduced to a petty criminal. In this film he serves as a judge of the new Gotham, the Gotham "liberated" by Bane so that the powerful, who for so long had tyrannized the poor, now are themselves subjects of tyranny. The people of Christopher Nolan's Batman universe, as a result, are judged by fear.

Fear runs through all three films like a current, and by the end of every film we think we understand it. In this third installment we learn the truth: we've been wrong. Fear is not the enemy to be mastered, not the thing to be conquered in pursuit of immortality; fear is in fact our friend, who properly understood energizes our right pursuits and turns us away from our wrong pursuits. Accepting fear as our friend opens us up to another friend: humility, which teaches us to accept the things we cannot change, change the things we can, and to know the difference betwen the two. All along we've been misdirected by our understanding of fear (misdirection is another theme of the film), but in this film an older, wiser Bruce Wayne can learn lessons that eluded him in earlier installments. We're older and wiser too--more than ten years removed from the terrorist attacks of September 11 that made us so confused about a proper sense of fear. Events like the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, threaten to drag us back into confusion, but I do hope we learn the lessons Batman learns in The Dark Knight Rises. What we need, year after year, are not heroes like Batman, whose abilities are beyond reality. We need heroes of the everyday sort, heroes who take notice of the everyday sorts of injustices and indignities that we far too easily neglect, who accept fear as part of life, and who let it push them to rise above it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Whatever a Spider Can: Two Reviews and a Gift

It's really a great time to be me. Honestly, if you had told me when I was ten that in thirty years or so all my favorite superheroes would be topping the box office charts, I would have looked down at the ground, shrugged, said nothing and prayed silently that our conversation would soon end. If you had told me fifteen years ago that Marvel Entertainment Group, then languishing at less than a dollar a share on the DJIC, would soon be making a billion-dollar movie about the Avengers, I would have grinned awkwardly and shuffled away at my earliest convenience. But here we are, in 2012, and every few weeks or so I march out to the theater and watch all my heroes come to life.Like I say, it's a good time to be me.

The latest turn at the box office goes to The Amazing Spider-Man, which suffered a fair bit of incredulity thanks to the short span of time between its debut and the close of an earlier Spider-Man film franchise. Toby Maguire's Peter Parker has been supplanted by Andrew Garfield's take on the same; in place of Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson we've been introduced to Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy. Norman Osborne, so prominent in the first franchise, has slipped to the shadows in 2012--still an ominous presence, but so far we haven't seen his face.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is now, officially, my wife's favorite superhero movie. The chemistry between Garfield and Stone is great, and they pull off a nice awkward teen love vibe, despite both actors being firmly ensconced in their twenties. The quality of acting in this film is, however, not an improvement on the acting in the first franchise. I rewatched Spider-Man (2002) shortly after seeing The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) for the second time. Maguire, Dunst, Willem DaFoe as Norman Osborne and James Franco as his conflicted son Harry lead a strong cast of familiar character actors in that one, and while the leads seem less convincing in some respects as teenagers than Garfield and Stone, the former film is far more plausible. (Come on, a high school student is the lead intern at a multinational biotechnology company?) And as a coming of age film (trilogy of films, really), the first franchise is actually a better piece.

The key distinctives, for me, are the fight scenes, the villain, and the relationship of Peter Parker to the audience.

I remember sitting in the theater at my first viewing of the 2002 film and thinking how ridiculous the fight scenes looked, like an oversized episode of the Power Rangers. I had that same experience on my most recent viewing; the innovations in special effects over the ensuing decade are painfully obvious. That didn't have to be the case; other films around the same time, such as the 2000 film X-Men, didn't seem so overtly choreographed in their battles. Neither did they have the forced banter of Spider-Man calling the Green Goblin "Gobby" within a few minutes of their first encounter. The director pandered a bit too slavishly to the fanboy audience he hoped would drive ticket sales; or perhaps more likely, the director realized that Power Rangers fans would be looking for a film that delivered exactly what struck me as so silly. In that respect he was right: I remember a theater full of little kids freaking out over the action scenes that struck me as utterly ridiculous, laughing uproariously at the banter that was causing me to groan. The film scored $800 million-plus in global box office. Guess the director was right.

I've never been a huge Willem DaFoe fan, maybe because he played Jesus so unconvincingly in The Last Temptation of Christ. And in the clunky Green Goblin costume, with his heavily affected snarl, he looked and sounded ridiculous. But on my more recent viewing I was struck by how effective he was as Norman Osborne, at times utterly fragile, at times just barely containing the madness. In the new film the villain is much more sympathetic, as Curt Connors serves both as a link to Peter's past and as a stand-in for our own frustrations with weakness. His desire for "a world without weakness" is as absurd a premise to me as his selection of a high school student as his chief research aide, but I suppose you allow some absurdity in every superhero story. You root for him in his quixotic quest to grow back his arm (why not get a prosthetic?), and you suffer for him as you watch the madness gradually take over. Plus, when he fights, you actually can imagine someone getting hurt. So, like the fight scenes, the 2012 film wins out over the 2002 film in the villain department.

In the case of Peter's relationship to the audience, I declare a tie, only because I find the contrast so interesting. It's a vindication of the controversial reboot, I think; alternate visions of imagined characters don't have to compete with one another if each is fresh enough to stand on its own. In 2002 Peter was a narrator, filling the audience in as the story moved along. Maguire never quite winks at the camera a la Ferris Bueller, but you do feel an affinity with him, an almost conspiratorial relationship. By contrast, Garfield's Peter Parker doesn't know we're along for the ride--the director's goal of showing us the world through his eyes notwithstanding. We are voyeurs in this Parker's world, in part because he's a true teenager, and all worlds revolve around the teenagers in them but also because this Parker doesn't know himself well enough to narrate for us, to invite us in. I'm reminded by Maguire of the true original Spider-Man from the early 1960s, who let us in on the joke in every panel. Garfield's Spider-Man reminds me of the stories told by Brian Michael Bendis, which rely less on narration and vocalization and more on nonverbals. Maguire as Spider-Man is self-disclosing, and we love him for it. Garfield is brooding and inscrutable, and we love him for it.

Anyway, Spider-Man inspired a character, Night Vision, that I created in my book Comic Book Character to give a sense of the human drama in all superhero stories. I include that excerpt here as a gift to you. For the whole book, click here.


Consider a typical day for a junior-high-aged hero. In the tradition of matching initials (from Lois Lane to Bruce Banner), let’s call him Fritz Fryling. Fritz wakes up, tucks his wings into an oversized shirt and walks to school—even though he could fly. As he reaches his gym locker, he hears behind him the first of many taunts from the class bully: “There’s Owl-boy. I hope you don’t lose those Coke-bottle glasses of yours during dodge ball. Hoot hoot!” Then our mutant friend feels the sharp sting of a wet towel snapped against his legs.

He knows he could spin his head all the way around to face his attacker; he knows that he could easily fly out of reach of the towel; he even knows that his razor-sharp, retractable talons could quickly shred a bully whom no one would miss for long. He knows that he’s smarter and nicer to girls than the bully; he even knows that in reality he’s stronger and more dangerous than the bully. But he stays silent, and he keeps his secret.

That’s just gym class. We, the readers, know what our hero’s classmates, teachers and family don’t know, and we sympathize with his plight. And in a way, we share in his suffering because we are all too familiar with the pain of alienation, of victimization. We know that bullies call the shots in junior high and that one moment of satisfaction in returning violence against a popular, powerful nemesis would open the door to all kinds of trouble.

We know this whether we are the bullied or the bully. There are social forces at work in our lives, whatever season we find ourselves in. We are part of a pecking order because fallen human beings operate consciously and unconsciously in power dynamics. When we are weak, we wish we were strong. When we are strong, we fight to retain our strength.

I’d like to pretend, for example, that I was always the victim of such bullying and never the perpetrator, but I can’t. I certainly could have been: when I was a child, I was hardly ever in the in-crowd. I was a band geek who collected comic books, for heaven’s sake. As such, I was manipulated into helping pretty girls cheat on their finals, I was called a nerd and a loser to my face, and I was pointed out for public ridicule and threatened with a beating on more than one occasion.

And yet, I managed to find a way of asserting myself within the caste I found myself in. My friends and I invented ways of ostracizing people that would cause maximum pain—the most unimaginative being “the group” membership cards we passed out to those people we considered part of our A-list. (Imagine the humiliation of being rejected for membership in a group of nerds.) At my worst, I made a girl cry all the way home from school, and I beat up a boy for being too new to our town. I didn’t have much social power to defend, but I defended what little I did have with ferocity.

But back to our hero. Fritz trudges his way through a day filled with occasional humiliations and the constant awareness that at any moment he could overturn the power dynamics in place. That night he hits the streets, with wings spread wide open and talons extended. He is no longer Owl-boy; now he is Night Vision, ready to use his power without restraint against whatever forces of evil threaten the peace. And so are we. Just as our hero has escaped his everyday world to live free as his expanded self, so his readers leave behind the frustrations of paying bills and finishing homework and avoiding trouble and enduring rejection to play hero.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...