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TIME PILOTS – commentary on Ernest Cline’s novel “Ready Player One”

readyoneReady Player One author Ernest Cline probably did not select the 1980s as the nostalgia motif of his novel simply because it happened to be the era of his youth. In current pop culture, Stranger Things, IT, 24K Magic, and plenty of other manifestations keep making the ‘80s the decade that cannot be terminated. Decades foregone, do today’s Gen-Zers ever feel false-nostalgia for Marcus Welby or The Macarena? There is something specifically poignant about the ‘80s that Cline thought would resonate with multi-generational readers.

Teenage Wade spends his days and nights memorizing the dialogue of John Hughes movies, listening to New Wave song files, and, most importantly, mastering classic arcade video games like Pac Man and Tempest. The year is 2044. Teen character obsessions with ’80s pop culture in Ready Player One is more than pacifying entertainment in the age of a catastrophic global energy crisis. Their avatar identities connect to virtual reality through a visor and motion-controlling gloves and hunt for treasure in the vast network called the OASIS, where people can become anybody they want or visit any place in the imaginable universe. Hunters occupationally plunder VR worlds for currency credits, fighting skill points, magic weapons and clues to the location of a trillion dollar prize. Halliday, a genius and recluse who designed the OASIS, has died and willed its ownership to the hunter who first solves a series of puzzles leading to a final figurative Easter Egg hidden in the lore of Halliday’s own ‘80s pop culture obsessions. The contest requires intense familiarity with Halliday’s favorite books, cartoons, and videogames from own teenage years, and has led to a global ‘80s craze fifty years beyond. As Wade, isolated in his personal hideout, describes, “Spiked hair and acid washed jeans are back in style.” He means what is in style amongst his peers inside the idealized and abstract universe of the Oasis.

In the America of 2044, climate change, wars and corporatism have reduced most of the population to depressed scavengers. Teenagers like Wade have been forced to abandon most of what we might consider a normal life of school, friendships, sex, and stepping outside. He lives a lonely existence in a vertical trailer park ghetto. But in the Oasis, Wade’s anonymous avatar, Parzival, is becoming the most famous Gunter [Egg + Hunter] in the world, relying on his mastery of ’80 pop culture to pursue the trail of Halliday’s arcane clues. The bulk of the novel follows Parzival, along with his team of Gunter comrades known popularly as the High Five, solving Halliday’s posthumous challenges left inside elaborate movie and videogame recreations. Their nemesis is IOI, a greedy corporation plotting to control the Oasis with a force of avatar clone armies trained to win the contests through cheating, extortion, and real world murder.

If this plot structure – a gang of troubled but precocious young people combine their expertises to defeat the schemes of an unscrupulous adult enterprise – sounds to you like Goonies, or Whiz Kids or other ‘80s era media artifacts, say Uno!

A recent article in the blog Vulture asked in its title Why Are We Still Obsessed With The ‘80s? Some of their answers were practical, such as what we see on our screens and hear through our earbuds is coming from media creatives in their 40s and 50s who have an affinity for the pop culture of their youth. Also the time traveling powers of YouTube and Facebook have mid-lifers introducing children, younger siblings, or nieces and nephews to the pop culture that populated their childhoods. So maybe the resiliency of the ‘80s is a phenomenon of shared multi-generational touchstones more available through current technology. As Vulture commented, “When one generation influences a second (and a third) generation in this way, there’s a pop cultural ripple effect that keeps on rippling… The pop culture we grew up on? You couldn’t ignore it if you tried.”

On a more theoretical level, Vulture suggested the tendency of media creatives to delve into the ‘80s as a means to connect the “now” to an era taking first steps into a transformative technological age. Nostalgia mining always offers an escape to idealized memories of youth, but the 1980s is the last full decade before the internet became an avatar for human interaction. In other words, maybe the reason why we keep trying to relive the ‘80s is because our computers have disconnected us from an authentic shared culture.

Ab ovo, Halliday’s Easter egg hunt. The futuristic odyssey specifically revisits a past in which technology was capturing young people’s desire for adventure before the internet supplanted real human interaction. We have to remind ourselves in the midst of Cline’s story that the High Five’s swashbuckling teen teamwork is all an illusion. In real life, the High Five buddies reside in remote parts of the world and do not even know what their comrades or competitors look like. Winning inside the Oasis – just as all commerce, politics, and notoriety of the day – is just a fantasy. There are not really trillions of dollars at stake in finding Halliday’s egg, just trillions of zeros and ones. The youths of ’44 have no actual participative culture of their own. It was Halliday’s dying desire to bequeath them his antique pop culture passions in a way that would stimulate actual interaction, something the inventor of the Oasis felt personally responsibility for ruining. Halliday’s contest is his last chance at real human connection, ironically after his death.

We might also say that Halliday is Ernest Cline’s avatar. Both the Easter Egg Hunt and Cline’s dystopian aesthetic are respective expressions of loss over something the ‘80s represented, a lost era of social engagement. Halliday filled his OASIS with references and facsimiles of the ‘80s culture he loved, then willed a contest which could only be won by someone who cared enough to love his same interests. Likewise, Cline, in writing Ready Player One offers readers a chance to connect or reconnect with his ’80s fondnesses. Of science fiction, another author, William Gibson (credited with reviving the SF genre in 1980s), once said, “It doesn’t resonate back from the future, it resonates out of modern history.” Cline’s sci-fi depicts a future that still searches for something we are missing out of our modern history. Both Cline, the creator, and his creator avatar, Halliday, seek to reboot real human-to-human communication.

rp13As for the Ready Player One motion picture adaptation, despite excellent special effects, it misses the chance to visualize the vast possibilities of the Oasis so inventively depicted by Cline. Also, the game of our hero Gunters using their intellectual powers to solve Halliday’s cryptic puzzles is given secondary treatment to fighting and action sequences. Not to say the action sequences are not well executed. In particular, a recreation of the movie The Shining as the setting for one of Halliday’s challenges provides something amazing on film that a novel could never do. Still, a disappointing shortcoming is the movie’s inability to capture the literal aspects of the Oasis as simulacrum, to understand the world’s fixation with videogames in this future as a product of desolation. Overtrying to be hopeful, the movie steps around an important theme in the novel, which explores something dark about our modern society and the mass-loneliness advance technology is creating.

Social commentary in the novel is deftly weaved through exciting action challenges. The book also succeeds in making our protagonist (avatar) Wade/Parzival both socially awkward and cool. The last third of the novel avails too much deus ex machina, and an anticipated final encounter feels rushed and superficial after the novel’s earlier insightfulness (Spoiler Alert: Only reality is real). Overall, Ready Player One is an electric read, the experience of a complete future universe both exciting and tragic.

SIMON 2.GAY – commentary on Becky Albertalli’s novel “Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda”

simonSimon has a millennial age secret. He is gay and he is not ashamed of it. A 17-year-old suburban white kid with close friends and a chummy, functional family, Simon is not so fearful about being socially ostracized. His Gen Z size worry seems to be that people he already trusts to accept homosexuality will make his coming out a “big deal.” What is at stake for gay Simon in a post-acceptance era is that his differentness from the hetero default will eclipse the adult identity he is still in the process of constructing, and that people who would otherwise completely approve of his sexual preference, will appropriate their associations with him for their personal agendas.

As a coming-out novel, Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, written with soaring emotional intelligence by Becky Albertalli, approaches the subject rather different than the kind of young adult material of my 1980’s teen years. If there were coming-out stories, I did not read them. What I remember is clunky afterschool TV specials like What If I’m Gay? and The Truth About Alex. In both of those stories, which intended to present an affirming message about homosexuality, a high school jock’s closetedness is exposed through accidental circumstances, unleashing havoc on girlfriends, families, and sympathetic friends. In subtext, coming-out was audacious and reckless. Were teenagers of the era ready for The Truth? Where I grew up the only thing these specials produced were homophobic punchlines in the locker room.

Closeted Simon, growing up in present-day suburban Atlanta, has been engaging in an anonymous online romance with a mysterious boy from the same high school, going by the faceless moniker Blue. Simon is not a jock but a theater kid with a popular personality. A less popular and more awkward classmate, Martin, happens upon a school library computer display of Simon and Blue’s private homosexually revealing emails, which Simon accidentally forgot to close. Martin is not even homophobic, but he is a conniver and he threatens to abuse the secret unless Simon helps Martin get the attention of a female friend who is way out of Martin’s league. When the girlfriend does not show romantic interest, Martin posts a vulgar, fake coming-out confession on behalf of Simon to the high school’s gossip blog, and also hints at outing Blue. Simon might try to deny the gay truth, but instead our Twenty-first Century hero reluctantly accepts it an opportunity to start coming-out publicly. Some taunting and humiliation comes down from the jock clan at school, but mostly what is unleashed on Simon is a series of embarrassing endorsements. A dozen straight kids make a point of saying they support him. His BFF’s pick out guys they think are boyfriend prospects and squabble over who got to be first told. Teachers stand on guard for bullies. A lesbian couple hugs Simon and hands him their phone numbers. One girl reassures him that Jesus still loves him. Simon tolerates the undue attention, but he worries that the hullaballoo will somehow collaterally uncloset Blue. Will he lose Blue after his own carelessness with the library computer has set off a chain of events that might include schoolmate’s being so determined to embrace gay people, they will shortcut Blue coming-out on his own terms?

In Simon’s generally enlightened middle-class suburbs, one coming to terms with one’s identity can be just as scary, or risky, or embarrassing as it ever was. Albertalli has released a version of the coming-out story that updates the order of consequences. Simon is not ashamed of being gay, but he anticipates the unfairness of people coming to know him as that one thing. Before he has even had any real sexual experience, he will be redefined as his sexual preference. As Simon writes to Blue, “Do you ever feel locked into yourself? …Sometimes it feels like everyone knows who I am except me.” If Simon comes out, will his would-be allies receive him as he truly is, or will they impose some new version of himself he does not even know yet? Simon, version 2.gay ?

What is so fresh about the Simon character is that as he experiences typical teen rites of passage, he is also emotionally mature enough to recognize sexual preference as one part of himself. “I’m tired of coming out. All I ever do is come out. I try not to change, but I keep changing, in all these tiny ways. I get a girlfriend. I have a beer. And every freaking time, I have to reintroduce myself to the universe all over again.” Albertalli is suggesting that all teenagers reach a stage at which the adult they are struggling to find within feels like a secret identity. That every teen feels like the person they are perceived to be is a disguise over the person they actually are. That it is a universal experience to come-out as someone other than who family and peers recognize. “I don’t know how to tell them something like this and still come out feeling like Simon. Because if they don’t recognize me, I don’t recognize myself anymore.” Albertalli’s suburbs are progressive, but imperfect.

Progress has another modern consequence, as demonstrated by people in Simon’s orbit who use his sexual identity like an invisible token that can be invested into some other enterprise. As when Simon describes his coming-out to his family on Christmas morning:  “I guess it’s about what I expected. My mom’s asking about my feelings and my dad’s trying to turn it into a joke. Alice is getting political…” What Simon intuitively fears is that his differentness is something other people will treat as an object that may be taken from his hands. And it is. Martin, a kid who cares about his own gay brother and marches in a Pride parade, selfishly outs Simon on the gossip blog thinking that while it might be embarrassing it would be relatively inconsequential. Simon has to chew out Martin: “You don’t get to say it’s not a big thing. This was supposed to be mine. I’m supposed to decide when and where and who knows and how I want to say it… You took that from me.”

Recalling the good old 80’s again, I am reminded of a friend who was forced out of the closet at age fourteen when his father caught him messing around with another boy in a tent. Not only did the father make the remainder of his teen years a torment, he became a pariah among his classmates and community. No doubt ostracization still happens to gay and genderqueer kids, but the queer stigma in most American places is fortunately becoming relic. Simon is less concerned with people disliking him or being violent towards him, than he is in being defined by his society in a way that is both narrow and manipulable.

My initial reaction to the Simon novel and its adjacent movie adaptation was: Hasn’t the teen coming-out thing been done enough? But, in fact, I am hardpressed to find a story about a teenage protagonist coming-out actually made into a major studio film. Even if the accomplishment is tardy, teenagers will love Love Simon’s thoughtful humor. The screenplay is a loose adaptation of the book, and cleverly executed given that the source material is about 1/3 epistolary (those email exchanges). It successfully regenerates most of the same dramatic beats with excellent young actors. It does not quite arrive at the post-acceptance angle portrayed in the novel. Instead of peers looking out for Simon, the movie’s drama leans on alienation, misconception, and, like the old days, making the gay teen seem responsible for his own victimization. Although, at the end Simon’s classmates rally around him. And Simon’s relationships with his parents are more fully realized. The movie was emotionally touching and I recommend it.

Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda is a radical coming out novel. Because what is more salient now in our culture is not gay-or-straight, but the lingering requirement of a person to have a static sexual identity at all, or the requirement that one should have to articulate one’s sex life to the whole homo sapien demos. These issues are still confusing at a time when people are, for the most part, accepting of homosexuality, and people who are publicly unaccepting often become social pariahs themselves. Tolerance, fortunately came to sound too patronizing, and today in America acceptance might be said to imply cis-chauvinism, even when the accepting party’s intentions are good. Because knowing what sort of sex partner another person prefers, or knowing whether the person considers them self only male or female, is no longer an acceptable method of knowing the person. As it reads in one of Blue’s emails to Simon, “You can memorize someone’s gestures but you can never know their thoughts… people are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows.”

 

 

 

 

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12 MOST EDIFYING MOVIES OF 2017 (and 9 disappointments)

faceIn 2017 there were at least 800 feature-length, English-language movies released, of which I screened 63. Having seen only of fraction of what came out, I can hardly claim to know which were the “best” movies of 2017. Making a list of my favorites might be fair to the movies I didn’t see, but the expression lacks specificity. Instead I’ve generated a list of movies exceeding my expectations to which any artistic work should aspire:

Art should seek to edify understanding of the human experience, improve intellectual or moral knowledge, and expand contours of the form.

Thus, in order of release date, my list of the most personally edifying movies I saw in 2017.*  This is followed by a list of nine films I thought in some notable way failed to achieve my precept.

 

TWELVE PERSONALLY EDIFYING MOVIES IN 2017

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

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A live-action musical fairy tale. Belle, a self-reliant young woman taken captive in a castle by a hideous half man-half beast, looks beyond his ugliness and transforms him into a kind prince. I wouldn’t say this film is a feminist revision, but Belle is an enjoyable, smart heroine. The mosaic of live actors, motion capture and CGI is fascinating, and the musical experience is spectacular.

 

IT COMES AT NIGHT

In the aftermath of a near-future apocalyptic plague, a survivalist family hazards on allowing desperate strangers inside their remote cabin. Mistrust and paranoia intrudes, itcomesand heat between the families detonates into barbaric violence. The monsters residing in the human mind are mysterious and terrifying.

 

 

 

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APESwarapes

Roger Ebert once wrote that sequels are marketing decisions yoked to creative ideas somewhere farther down the food chain. It is evidential that, as the objective of profit precludes substance, the quality of the cinematic experience decreases (For empirical proof, try watching the progressively depreciative first POTA pentology,1968-1973). Somehow the current Planet Of The Apes series defies this rule. Each film has improved over the last in creating compelling stories, intense action, and emotional appeal for the ape heroes.

 

 

ATOMIC BLONDEAtomic Blonde (2017)

A British secret agent assigned to recover stolen documents in Cold War era Berlin, uncovers a cauldron full of double crossing international spies. Charlize Theron playing a bisexual, badass, James Bond is just fucking cool. So are the amazing Kung Fu sequences.

 

SHOT CALLER

shotcaller

A white-collar family man botches his life and earns a prison sentence. Through violent rites of passage, he becomes the leader of a high-stakes criminal gang. The film is adept at presenting the protagonist’s identity transformation, as well as sustaining his long strategy of self-sacrifice, played against other gangsters, in order to protect his family outside of prison. It’s too bad SHOT CALLER was a sleeper in 2017, its business is thrilling and smart.

 

ANNABELLE CREATIONannabelle

Attempting to overcome the undying grief of their daughter’s tragic death, an aging and weird farm couple take five orphan girls into their care. The presence of young girls in the house rouses the resentful ghost of the dead child inhabiting a homemade doll. This sounds like the kind of goofy plot that would inhabit an over-ambitious, under-funded freshman effort, but between the solid children’s acting and the filmmaker’s command of the haunted house space, this mid-budge horror succeeds. It is genuinely freaky and well-crafted.

 

GOOD TIME

Good-Time-585x390

A small-time crook goes to spectacular extremes trying break his handicapped brother out of police custody. What at first seems like a boilerplate heist story, veers into epic Sisyphean failure for the skilled, if unrecognizable, actor Robert Pattinson.

 

BRAD’S STATUSBrads-Status

A middle-aged dad touring New England colleges with his teenage son declines into a distressed state of existential underachievement. While not a particular achievement in filmmaking (I think the subject matter would be better suited to the stage), BRAD’S STATUS is well-acted, funny, and genuine. One of the most profound screenplays of the year.

 

BLADE RUNNER 20492049.jpg

The futuristic story of a policeman assigned to kill renegade, autonomy-seeking androids. It is bigger in universality, special effects, and plot complexity than its 1982 antecedent, although it does not achieve the predecessor’s bleak, emotional allure. BR49 is among the most stunning visual achievements of the film year and deserving of more accolades.

 

BEACH RATS

beachratsFrankie, a Brooklyn teenager, spends his summer getting high with his hooligan friends, meeting girls on the Coney Island boardwalk, and experimenting with clandestine gay sex escapades. Lacking confidence and direction, Frankie’s life is muddled by his attraction to men, his straddling of blue and white collar culture, and the creeping expectations of adulthood versus the lingering indolence of his youth. All of this is presented with a spare and sullen indie cinema vibe. BEACH RATS, with its frequently bare chested male actors, may look like a highly-sexed Abercrombie & Fitch catalog adapted for film, but there is also an interesting, inconspicuous story and a beguiling minimalist aesthetic.

 

THE POSTthe-post-2

Journalism drama drawn from true events and key players surrounding publication of the infamous Pentagon Papers. I’m usually uncomfortable with movies mounted on political bias, even when the bias accords with my own sentiments. However, what the U.S. requires right this second is an elementary refresher on the necessity of an independent press to investigate tyranny, and for reluctant influencers like the late Katherine Graham to be bold. Most impressive in THE POST is Meryl Streep’s ability to employ the shortcomings of her character so genuinely in an otherwise heavy-handed chronicle. THE POST isn’t made with a sense of environment like the great, paranoid ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, but it earns its credentials being both exciting and apropos.

 

THE STRANGE ONESstrange ones.jpg

An adult man and a teenage boy pretending to be brothers on a road vacation, are revealed to be running from a bizarre secret past. Viewers familiar with the dream motifs of Russian fillmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky may discover themselves on a similar metaphysical plane, questioning the certainty of what’s real or imagination. The surrealistic atmosphere, furthered by disturbing subject matter, gets progressively darker as does the performance of James Freedson-Jackson, playing the adrift teenager. He is an overlooked prodigy. THE STRANGE ONES is an overlooked prodigy.

Worth mentioning that the creepy tension is enhanced by an excellent electronic score by same composer of the similarly excellent IT COMES AT NIGHT.

 

Honorable mentions: GET OUT, BEFORE I FALL, CREEP 2, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, SHAPE OF WATER, MOLLY’S GAME

 

 

and now… NINE DISAPPOINTING MOVIES OF 2017

BABY DRIVER

Speeding toward you, BABY DRIVER looks like a stellar cast and a unusual take on heist genre (the getaway driver’s POV). Going away you might realize you raced pass any substance to see a lot of faux-hipsterism, overacting, and improbable robberies.

 

DUNKIRK

Certainly the task of creating an epic experience out of the WWII British evacuation of Dunkirk by land, sea and air looked worthy in writing. The raw elements of any of these three coterminous stories as a stand alone project would have made for a good movie (except for the air one). Unfortunately, what came out the other end of this massive endeavor was a dull, meandering, emotionally dry, muddle.

 

IT

I was told by I had to read the novel to get IT, which I tried and found IT, like the movie, both incomprehensible and lightweight, except protracted over hundreds of tedious pages. So to you ITidots, who love this thing, mazel tov. I’m bored.

 

MOTHER!

I dig surrealism as much as the next avant-gardiste, and I thought act one of Mother was intriguingly weird. What happens in the second act is an absurd abandonment of aesthetics that serves the filmmaker’s desire to shock, not to edify.

 

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

The first KINGSMAN movie was a successful James Bond for millennials. GOLDEN CIRCLE is Kingsman for people who are shallow and easy to amuse.

 

BETTER WATCH OUT

The Home Alone movies of 1990’s, specifically the casual, cartoonish violence appear to be the object of critique in this dark comedy. What they have produced here is something simply trashy, sadistic and unfunny.

 

JEEPERS CREEPERS III

Like other Creeps, I waited fourteen eager years for the next chapter of this literate, idiosyncratic horror series. JCIII is not just a let down – it’s insulting, uncreative junk.

 

I, TONYA

Maybe there is retrospective humor to be found in the imbroglio of the 1993 Nancy/Tonya figure skating incident. I don’t see what’s funny in 2017 about a man smashing a woman’s head into the wall to the beat of a Dire Straits ballad. Such video collages with music from the period seem to fill-in for the filmmaker’s lack of figure skating i.q. Also, I would like to mention that the athlete to whom this movie gives disadvantaged bonafides was sent to the Olympics twice by the elites that were supposed to be discriminating against her, and yet she still conspired to maim Nancy Kerrigan. I TONYA is a skewed, irresponsible, alteration of Harding’s story. It is also not a particularly creative movie.

 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

The intent of dark comedy is to create humor out of non-humorous subject matter, such as ridiculous and ironic human behavior in the wake of young woman being raped and murdered in fictional Ebbing, MO. It is a big ask for the audience to empathize with these flawed characters, but we are also are expected to give a humor license to policemen’s racism, homophobia, brutality, willful neglect, and incompetence. We are asked to tolerate all these offenses for the final justice of a racist policeman being given a mulligan by the surviving mother and the two together beginning a vigilante roadtrip as if they were Hope and Crosby. THREE BILLBOARDS produces some fine acting and dramatic poignancy, but at a time when America is perhaps starting to listen to the voices from embedded cultural oppressions, this movie is dreadfully tone deaf.

 

 

* Arbitrarily all selections are feature length. Also, 12 and 9 is of no significance. These were movies that stood out to me most positively or negatively.

 

Danny And Dinah – UP IN ARMS

Danny Kaye is reliably irritating in UP IN ARMS, a musical worth one great number. In this case, “Tess’s Torch Song” with Dinah Shore

25 Greatest Film Musicals Of All Time

This guy’s list is unbelievably bad, but it’s list

25 Greatest Film Musicals Of All Time.

NIGHT AND DAY clips

A couple of worthwhile scenes from the 1946 Cole Porter biopic NIGHT AND DAY with Cary Grant.

First, an amazing tap number featuring a specialty named Estelle Sloan. If anybody knows, I’d like to find out if the spinning move is called something other than spinning-around-real-fast:

Then there’s Mary Martin doing her signature song “My Heart Belongs To Daddy.” I think this was what was called “risqué:

Once you’ve seen these, you can probably skip NIGHT AND DAY.

Trivia: Mary Martin was the mother of recently passed actor Larry Hagman, I Dream of Genie and J.R. Ewing

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