Mythed Opportunities

I’ve got nothing in particular against blockbuster movies. I appreciate the way they dazzle and explode and create jobs for a small army of artistic technical engineers. But the movies that truly thrill me tend to be the small quiet ones, the ones that dig down and grapple with the slippery business of being human, or not.

Last night I watched  “Pretty Bird,” a small independent film from 2008 about three men existing on the slim borderline between failure and mediocrity who catch fire when one of them, the dreamer/hustler Curtis, played brilliantly by Billy Crudup, inspires the other two to believe in his dream of building a rocket belt. Curtis, with his guileless smile and serene self-confidence, exemplifies the perfect huckster, one who believes so fiercely in his own impossible schemes that he projects an innocent aura which lulls even the hardened skeptic.

Paul Giamatti, as the skeptical rocket scientist, is terrific as always, portraying a bitter genius driven to the edge of madness by double dealing and corporate abuse. And as Kenny, the sweetly devoted friend who cheerfully sinks all his money into the project, David Hornby is achingly convincing.

The fictional movie is based on actual events, but it’s fueled by the deft character studies. There’s humor and intrigue and a certain amount of suspense, but what you come away with is a kind of modern version of Icarus. The dream of flight continues to lift men out of their ordinary lives, but coming back down remains a challenge.

“Pretty Bird” reminded me in some ways of another small independent film that blew me away back in the 90s. “Bottle Rocket,” the first film written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, is another story of three men, each a bit lost, each motivated by a different passion. The film, which really showcases the Wilson brothers, Owen and Luke, is funny and tender and understated, and, though the characters aspire to be successful thieves, it ends up making the same point as “Pretty Bird.”

You can fool yourself, and you may fool your friends for a while, but sooner or later, if you’re human, you have to come back to earth. All rockets fizzle eventually.


I had thought I was finished with vampires.

You know how it is. One minute you’re obsessed with the whole ‘creature-of-the-night-immortal-love-hunk’ idea and the next . . . not so much.

And with the plethora of vampire-related novels, television shows, and films glutting the marketplace, it seemed inevitable that the mania for all things fangish would play itself out. And I was fine with that. Until I took one last bite. Now I’m ready for more.

Or rather, Moore, as in Christopher Moore, whose hilariously snarky Bite Me simply won my heart. Yes, it’s wildly inventive, raunchy and irreverent, as are all of Moore’s works. But there’s also a cleverly hidden soft delicious core of sappy goodness that—well, I’m a sucker for sappy goodness, what can I say?

It’s not a book designed to appeal to the masses, which is probably just as well. Nor is it likely to win any awards from highbrow literary types who sneer at pop fiction. But, you know what? There are times when I don’t want to read a book that’s going to break my heart, or completely hammer me with the unrelenting misery of much of the world. Yeah, I know it all needs to be fixed. But every now and then, we who hope to make things better need a break from all the angst and anguish. And for that, I’m deeply, truly grateful for Christopher Moore and his brilliant comic gift.

My advice for the world weary? Next time the news makes you want to do something unhealthy, try Bite Me instead. It may surprise you.

Lurching Toward Freedom

All right, so the U.S. is out of the World Cup again, and Andy Roddick went down swinging before the semifinal at Wimbledon, and the Mariners, well, they’re still trying. But we still have one thing to celebrate, right?

That’s right, the freedom to dress up as a zombie and lurch through the streets with thousands of like-minded undead neighbors all united in the common drive to wrest the world record back from the Brits. And what record would that be, you ask? Why, the record number of zombies gathered in one place at one time, of course.

The proudly independent Fremont neighborhood in Seattle held the record last year with a tally of 3,894, but later they were usurped by the British, who mustered 4,026 zombies to claim the title. Organizers of this year’s Zombie Walk, slated for tomorrow, July 3, in Fremont, are hoping to smash the record with a massive turnout of gruesome participants.

It’s more than just the fun of creeping people out with homemade gory effects. There’s also a blood drive (hah), a food drive to benefit Solid Ground, a zombie concert and a screening of a classic zombie film.

The fact that zombie walks have become a regular feature of the modern cultural landscape worldwide, with annual events taking place from Brisbane to Pittsburgh in an atmosphere of friendly, albeit twisted, competition, says something about our species. I’m not sure what. But for some reason I find it cheering.

It’s not that I’m a huge fan of the genre, or that I’ve succumbed to the anti-charm of zombie chic, but rather I like that it’s a game without rules that anyone can play. It takes a lot of coordination, dedication and effort to master most games. But anyone can be a zombie. You just have to stumble along, aimlessly, moaning a bit from time to time. Perhaps this explains the popularity of the idea. There’s a little zombie in all of us.

The Dragons of Summer

Summer’s almost here. The ice cream truck has already made a few tentative sweeps of the neighborhood, tootling its signature “Bicycle Built For Two” theme song. Lawn chairs have been wiped free of spiders, and umbrellas lowered to half mast. Any day now the rains will taper off and the glorious Seattle sunshine will triumph over the gray sky for a few blissful months.

Many people choose summer as a time to travel, to leave home and see exotic new lands. But it’s hard to leave Seattle in the summer, when for two straight months it’s a non-stop hiking, biking, sailing, gardening, ball playing, fireworks dazzling, festival dancing in the street kind of place. The sun comes up around four a.m. and the sky stays light until ten. You have to pace yourself so that you don’t burn out by two in the afternoon. Coffee helps. But for me the best strategy to get the most out of the summer marathon is to partake of a shady spot and a good book midway through the long afternoons.

Currently I’m savoring His Majesty’s Dragon, an exceptional fantasy by Naomi Novik, whose interest in Napoleonic history and experience as a computer programmer working on game design is reflected in the smart plotting and clear vision of her writing. The dragon at the heart of her novel is a fully realized character, and the alternate history in which dragons form an integral part of the military force is brilliantly evoked. I’m so in.

It helps, of course, that the day before I started reading the book I went to see How To Train Your Dragon. The bulk of the matinee audience was made up of fidgeting four-year-olds, a few parents, and a handful of college-age dragon enthusiasts. And then there was me – absolutely mesmerized from start to finish. And not just by the dragon, who is as cute as a kitten, if a kitten were the size of a seaplane. What keeps HTTYD in the air is the snarky humor, the sleight of hand plot exposition, and a core of timeless themes – the tension between father and son, the desire to fit in, to stand out, to find love/acceptance, etc. Yeah. I liked it. It’s a kids’ movie and I liked it. So there.

The common denominator in Novik’s dragon series and the animated film is that the dragons conflate expectations. By avoiding the pitfalls of conventional conceptions of dragons as mere one-dimensional fire-breathing monsters, the author and filmmakers succeed in making dragons heroic. And that’s what I’m looking for these days. The world seems all too well supplied with real monsters. It’s hard to get away from them.

This summer, when I want relief, I’ll take dragons.

Mythic Mountain

We’ve all seen it. On the news, in movies and cartoons. It’s a man-made icon of one of America’s most compelling products. Its image evokes a land of golden opportunities, bright stars and happy endings. And it’s threatened by development.

The Hollywood Sign has loomed in tilted splendor above sprawling Los Angeles since 1923. In the beginning, no one expected it to become a national landmark, much less a treasured symbol of an industry that markets dreams to the world. In a way, the Hollywood sign represents the imaginary romance of LA, in the same way that the Eiffel Tower represents the imaginary romance of Paris. At the time of its construction in 1889, many Parisians considered the Eiffel Tower an eyesore and a waste of money. Yet in time the city embraced the tower, and it became symbolic of all things French. In Hollywood, surely no one expected the 45-foot-high crude letters on a mountainside to become legendary, yet so they have.

In the eighty-seven years since it was first built as a temporary advertisement for “Hollywoodland” the sign has been restored a few times, most recently in 1978 when the original letters were replaced with steel thanks to the philanthropy of major Hollywood supporters including Roy Rogers and Alice Cooper. The sign itself is now owned and maintained by the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation. But the 138 acres of open space behind the sign which provide its dramatic backdrop are now threatened by development. Supporters are trying to raise 12.5 million before April 14 to protect the mountain on which the Hollywood Sign stands for all time.

It could be argued in a world like ours, where tragedy and chaos devastate lives with depressing regularity, that to put money and effort into saving a mere symbol of the creative imagination is frivolous, if not reprehensible. But I would argue that the human ability to imagine a better life, to hope for an end to suffering, to dream of a better future, is what enables us to continue fighting to mend our world. And Hollywood, for all its flaws, feeds the flames of hope all over the world.

You can say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

Glory Daze

It’s been a week since the Olympics in Vancouver ended, but I still can’t get that anthem out of my head. It seemed like every time you turned around somebody on a podium was getting misty-eyed as they lustily sang along to “Oh Canada.”

Why don’t we have a song like that in our country?

I know, we have a national anthem. But wouldn’t it be cool if it were the sort of song normal people – not necessarily trained in light opera or gospel powerhouse – could sing?

Controversy over national anthems is nothing new, of course. Even in Canada apparently they’ve had long-running debates over the translation of their anthem (the original was in French – mon dieu!; and they also have an Inuktitut version). Here in the fractious United States there have always been champions of other anthem contenders such as “God Bless America” – the easiest to sing by far, “My Country T’is of Thee” – the first patriotic song many public school children learn, and my personal favorite, “America the Beautiful.” Over the years there have been nominations for a handful of other spirited songs – Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” among them. But in the land of the free-for-all and the home of the reckless, it’s pretty hard to get a consensus on anything, even something as seemingly innocuous as a song.

Yet the power of music to motivate and lift the spirit is undeniable, and for that reason the importance of a national anthem which the people of the nation can actually sing is not insignificant. During the Olympics we get a chance to hear the anthems of a variety of nations (or at least any of them who happened to be sharing the podium with an American, since our television coverage gives the impression that the only medals which count are those won by Americans – but that’s another rant).

I have to say that for the most part, the anthems of other nations don’t register with me. “La Marseillaise” is an exception, thanks in part to the unforgettable scene in “Casablanca” where Victor Laszlo leads the oppressed patrons of Rick’s Café Américain in a rousing rendition which drowns out the competing Nazi oppressors at another table. A minor victory, perhaps, but a telling one.

Which illustrates the problem with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Suppose teams of singers were chosen at random from the spectators at a soccer game between the United States and France, and they had to compete in a simultaneous sing-off of national anthems. I think we all know what would happen. The US team would start off boldly, but the song wasn’t designed to be sung by average people. The melody swoops up, it swoops down, it almost never settles into a steady rhythm, and it ends with a killer high note. Thanks a lot, Francis Scott Key.

To its credit, TSSB is a stirring song. Like “La Marseillaise,” it’s a battle song, fit for football kick-offs and baseball diamonds. But, it ain’t hummable. Unlike that Canadian number. Man, there’s a catchy tune. Like a slow-moving train.

Here’s when it hit me. I was watching the men’s final of the curling event. Yeah, I know. I never thought it could happen to me, but you know how it is. You start by watching a few rounds, just for laughs, and then you realize that it’s a kind of prehistoric version of billiards crossed with shuffleboard, and it casts its own hypnotic spell. Plus there’s the pleasure to be had from any mystery, i.e., what the hell’s going on? The Canadian men were fighting for their first gold against a skilled Norwegian team who had generated a lot of media buzz due to their pants. That’s right. I said pants. When all about you are wearing sober black and you show up in harlequin red and gold, it gets noticed.

Anyway, things were rolling along in the sedate, some might say catatonic, way of the sport. A general air of civility and quiet was evident in spite of the growing excitement among the Canadian fans that they might actually make history. And then it happened. Sometime around the ninth end (a technical curling term), from the Canadian fans a soft sound grew as the familiar strains of “Oh Canada” rose on a fervent swell of national pride. This was unprecedented! Singing in the seats at a curling event? The players waited, bemused expressions on their faces, even the Norwegians, who by then could read the cursive on the wall, until the song ended, and a polite cheer went up.

This could never happen at, say, an American hockey match. And it’s not because we don’t all know the words to TSSB. It’s because the song wasn’t written for ordinary mortals to sing, not even ordinary mortals who’ve had a few beers and are feeling fairly invincible.

But “Oh, Canada” has the kind of easy-going, middle-of-the-road range that any child can sing. And it’s not about bombs bursting and rockets glaring. It’s about brotherhood and love of country. That’s all I want in a national anthem. At least until we can all agree on Bruce Springsteen.

The Beauty in The Beast

The spirit of the wolf lives on in every dog.
The spirit of the wolf lives on in every dog.

Beasts: how we love them. Love to fear them. Love to hate them. Love to hunt them. Love to tell tales about them.

Since before the dawn of printed words, stories of wild animals whose actions blur the line between species have fascinated humans. To talk to the animals, to know what they think and feel, remains a subject of vivid interest. And of all animals, dogs have shown the greatest ability, and desire, to bond with humans, to serve, follow, and work for them. But . . . inside every dog, from the tiniest Chihuahua to the burliest mastiff, lurks genetic memory code of its ancestry — the wolf. Not exactly man’s best friend.

Wild inside.
Wild inside.

The romance of this idea has been exploited for centuries. And while modern teenagers may think, judging by some of the gushing postings on the web, that werewolves were reinvented solely by the author of the “Twilight” series, the truth is more complicated. The concept of the man/wolf, or the beast within us all, has been the subject and/or inspiration of many imaginative works, both literary and cinematic. When the “Twilight” generation were still wearing Pampers, Jack Nicholson astounded audiences in 1994 with his riveting portrayal in “Wolf.” One of the things that made Nicholson’s performance so impressive was that his convincing transformation from man to wolf was produced without the aid of digital enhancements or fake fur. It was all in the eyes, the attitude, the snarl.

Last week Benicio Del Toro joined the ranks of fine actors who have taken a walk on the wolf side in the new film, “The Wolfman.” It’s a grittier rendition than, say, Hugh Jackman’s pimped-out Wolverine character in the X-Men movies. But that’s part of what makes the genre entertaining. In literature and film, you really can teach a dog new tricks.

In Toby Barlow’s brilliant 2007 debut novel “Sharp Teeth” the myth of the lycanthrope is given a terrific noir spin. Set in modern LA, with a cast of characters that include a down on his luck dogcatcher, some female werewolves with sharp teeth of their own, and some competitive bridge players with more than cards up their sleeves, the story deals with issues of loyalty, justice, compassion and community without ever slipping into sentimentality. And, did I mention the entire thing is written in blank verse? I know. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to hack it. But the clarity and occasional poetic power of the language, the nimble pace, and the fine-edged tone of the whole is such that you forget about the form and get swept away by the wonder of a good story well told.

Allen Ginsberg would have loved it.

Attuned to Hornby

Ever since he demonstrated an uncanny ability to portray the almost pathological obsessiveness of a certain type of male music fan in his novel “High Fidelity,” British author Nick Hornby has gone on to broaden the scope of his acute observation to include the frailties of marriage, the perilous borderland between childhood and young adulthood, and the bewildering moral minefield of the modern world.

In his latest novel, “Juliet, Naked,” Hornby weaves all of these themes into a compelling and immensely entertaining examination of a man’s obsessive interest in a reclusive rock musician, and how it unravels his life and marriage. Hornby’s portrait of Duncan calls to mind the almost painful excesses of devotion which the author revealed in “Fever Pitch,” his confessional memoir which detailed his lifelong love of football – the British version, what we in America call soccer. Hornby’s ability to empathize with characters who, for whatever reason, find their deepest connection to life through a kind of hero worship, allows him to make believable characters with whom the reader can sympathize.

“Juliet, Naked” exposes the kind of music fans who over-analyze every word and every recording of their idols, and the Internet-based communities who thrive on their own closed-circuit opinions. Hornby’s satisfying plot device takes off when Duncan’s long-time girlfriend Annie dares to post an opinion of her own on the website where he is considered to be the expert. The chain of events which follows sheds light on Duncan’s failure as an adult, and awakens Annie to the reality of the half-life she’s been willing to accept.

I have enjoyed all of Hornby’s novels. “About A Boy” – far superior to the film, and I liked the film a lot – “How to Be Good,” as thought-provoking as anything he’s done, and even “High Fidelity,” which is perhaps not as much fun as the movie with John Cusack (thanks in part to one of Jack Black’s finest moments), but nevertheless offers an astute assessment of the sort of man who ranks everything from songs to women in terms of “the top five.”

Anyway. If you are of a certain age you can’t help but relate to the story in “Juliet, Naked.” Many of us who grew up worshiping rock stars, imagining them as true artists with the ability to give voice to feelings we shared, have felt the letdown when those artists either lost their creative spark or revealed themselves to be only human.

But Hornby’s novel suggests that the value of great art lies not only in the passion with which it is created, but the passion with which it is experienced. And in that sense, “Juliet, Naked” offers a tonic antidote to idolatry.

We Came For The Vampires

A little more than a year ago I went on a road trip that wound through some of the more spectacular scenery here in the Pacific Northwest. We took in the view from Hurricane Ridge, watched orcas cresting in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and felt our own insignificance beside ancient trees in the Hoh Rainforest.

One sight that we more or less breezed through on a pit stop was Forks, the tiny hamlet on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula which, since the release of the film version of Stephenie Meyer’s chart-breaking bestseller Twilight has become something of a tourist hot-spot, especially for families with adolescent girls. Visitors now can enjoy seeing the high school where Bella, the awkward heroine, first encounters Edward, the sensitive but extremely macho vampire. They can also see other sites touted to be the actual places these fictional events occurred, although true Twilight aficionados will tell you the film was actually filmed in British Columbia, but it’s the thought that counts, right?

At the time of our road trip the Twilight books were selling like hotcakes, and I had brought the first volume along for something to read, and to see what all the fuss was about (and this was before the fuss really got its game on). As we drove slowly through Forks we saw one homely sign that touted a “Twilight Special” at a local motel, but that was about it. The Twilight fans had not been hit with the image of Robert Pattinson yet.

Not long ago we had dinner with some friends who have a daughter in the target market age, and they regaled us with an enthusiastic account of their recent pilgrimage to Forks, where they saw not only the house Bella lived in, and the school she attended, but the truck she drove, the house Edward’s family lived in, etc. etc. Clearly the Twilight tide has lifted many boats in Forks.

It’s become fashionable in certain literary circles to sneer at Stephenie Meyer’s writing, as if anyone could have done what she has, such as land a $750,000 contract during a pitched bidding war with the first book she ever wrote. Hah. I suspect most of those sneering may be feeling just a wee pinch of envy at the 75 million books Ms. Meyer has sold so far with her Twilight saga.

I read the entire series eventually, although I slowed down after the second book because it looked to me as if we were headed toward a conclusion that no mother could love (although Meyer is the mother of three sons, so clearly the ending felt right to her). But, although the end of book four ties things up squarely for the most part, my criticism remains. Perhaps some mothers would be pleased to see their daughters become vampires and suck happily ever after. But while I yield to no one in the readiness with which I can suspend disbelief in the most improbable fictions, when it comes to a mother’s love, I’m less flexible. I didn’t enjoy Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for instance, because it was just too painful, but I wouldn’t deny the power of her observation and the truth of the emotions she puts on the page. The mother in Beloved commits a horrific act, but one that is consistent with a mother’s passion for her children. There’s a lot of passion in the Twilight series. But a mother’s love is nowhere in it.

Still, that hasn’t hurt sales. And the cross marketing continues to boldly grow where vampires have never gone before. This Christmas the hot Barbie dolls are the “Twilight” series, Bella and Edward in plastic, proving that reality still tops fiction for sheer wackiness.

There Is No “I” In Scream

I once went to a truly scary movie by accident. It was “Repulsion,” a riveting psychological suspense thriller starring Catherine Deneuve as a delusional young woman alone in her apartment, imagining the worst. There was very little actual blood, no monsters lurching, biting or slashing. The horror was all in the heroine’s mind, and Ms. Deneuve conveyed her terror with such conviction that I could hardly bear to sit through the entire thing.

So. Not such a big fan of the horror genre. That said, I appreciate a finely wrought suspense film or novel, and admire the mastery of Hitchcock, the snarky brilliance of Polanski. But I wonder sometimes about the current gentrification of horror. Tonight is Halloween, a holiday which once occupied a single day, and was celebrated mostly by children under the age of twelve. Now in this country, the only country where Halloween has undergone a kind of Hollywood makeover, the Halloween season lasts for the entire month of October, and adults throw themselves into it with far greater abandon than the kids. I know, because I was once one of the happy party people arrayed in wigs and sparkles and fake gore, where applicable, and it was fabulous fun.

But as I wandered past the Halloween stores in the malls near Washington, DC, last week, I found myself wondering if perhaps we haven’t taken the thing too far, and if so, why?

For myself I know that Halloween used to offer a kind of release, a temporary escape from the altogether more frightening and far more entrenched terrors of the modern world. I’d list them but I don’t see any point in Pox News. Maybe the reason Halloween has grown so huge commercially is that people are responding to the underlying paranoia that lurks like a poisonous gas beneath the surface of our slick technological confidence.

If only werewolves and vampires and zombies were all that we had to fear.

I just finished reading “Boneshaker,” a cool steampunk novel by Seattle author Cherie Priest which explores the ways in which we humans allow fears and rumors to keep us from taking positive steps to fix problems. I related to the novel not only because it was set in a kind of alternate Seattle, but because the heroine is a mother battling hordes of undead and fiendish psychopaths in addition to her own sense of inadequacy as she tries to make things right with her only son. I like a heroine who can kick ass when it’s called for, while still retaining a core of emotional vulnerability.

That’s just one reason I detest most of the “women-in-jeopardy” films and novels which purport to be entertainment. Women all over the world are in enough jeopardy, and have been since the days when they were considered chattel. To perpetuate barbaric attitudes and to depict them in such quantities that people get numb to the ideas embedded in them seems criminal to me.

However, if the annual crop of slasher films is any indication, clearly the hooligans are dictating the playbook these days. It seems a large number of people enjoy screaming in horror at the movies.

I guess I understand. In the face of of global warming, nuclear threats, terrorists and plagues, it’s easier to avert an imaginary disaster than to work to prevent the real thing. I could just scream.