To the ends of the Earth

What is it lately with all the apocalypses? Everywhere you look in pop culture, someone’s trying to survive one. There’s your garden-variety plague apocalypses (Station Eleven). There’s your zombie plague apocalypses (Walking Dead, World War Z). Comedic apocalypes (Last Man on Earth). A capital-A Apocalypse (the villain from the upcoming X-Men movie). HBO apocalypses (The Left overs), celestial apocalypses (SevenEves), and apocalypse remakes (Fury Road).

Why are we so obsessed with the world ending? There’s a theory out there that says that the post-apocalyptic genre taps into a deep desire to return to our primal roots—and not necessarily in a good way. If the society’s infrastructure crumbles, then all social conventions go out the window. And then its totally acceptable to kill strangers. In fact, in the case of a zombie plague, it’s downright pragmatic.

I’m not sure I’m ready to go that far, that all post-apocalyptic stories are excuses for us to vicariously satisfy our bloodlust Besides, I think we’re probably just as bloodthirsty now as we were twenty or thirty years ago. So why are post-apocalyptic so overwhelmingly popular now? Why is Kansas’ governor officially declaring October zombie preparedness month? Why are Zombie Runs and Zombie Paintball so popular? Why is ‘Doomsday Preppers’ a thing?

It’s not hard to figure out why movies in the 1950s featured atomic monsters like Godzilla or Them!. (Not ‘them,’ ‘Them!’) Back then, nations were legitimately scared of being wiped off the map by nuclear war. Compared to the real fear of a nuclear holocaust, ‘It Came From Beneath the Sea,’ or ’The Giant Gila Monster’ seem downright cozy.

So what’s zinging our zeitgeist in 2015?

How about the fact that we’re just too damn connected? Facebook, Skype, texts, emails, tweets, photo streams… We are inundated with enough messages and info to choke the most robust of data plans. Thank goodness for those of us with phone phobia, the only means of communication that seems to be going extinct are actual phone calls. Still, it’s becoming a bit alienating as constant contact replaces human contact.

For many Millennials, who have grown up in a world of Google searches, push notifications, Netflix queues, and geofencing, the idea of all those connections suddenly ceasing probably seems equally fascinating and horrifying.

So what are we going to do about it? Move into a solar/wind powered cabin, somewhere off the grid? Actually it would be far easier to download The Dog Stars to our phone and visit the post-apocalypse whenever we like—in short escapist bursts—between checking Tinder.

PS: I guess I should complain about the ubiquity of post-apocalyptic stories, since I just contributed to the genre myself. (Try Idyll for an apocalypse on another planet!)

PPS: I just finished Peter Heller’s ‘The Dog Stars,’ so I’m hoping to write a review in about a week.

The best parts of Wet Hot American Summer

WHAS4Back in 2001, Wet Hot American Summer became one of my all-time favorite comedies. I think it’s the only DVD I ever rented more than once (Remember video stores? The ones other than Blockbuster?). I even listened to the DVDs commentary track, which was pretty hilarious. With all that said, I’m as surprised as anyone that Netflix has brought the movie back for a prequel series, 14 years after it settled into its cult status.

If you’ve never seen the original movie, I say check it out. I’d also suggest you be forewarned, this is one of those bits of art that is fairly divisive. It’s like the cinematic version of a Vampire Weekend or a Velvet Underground album. You’ll either fall in love in the first 10 minutes, or you’ll scratch your head and wonder what all the fuss is about. WHAS_cast

At the very least, you’ll be shocked by the cast breakout stars: Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, as well as a lot of funny faces you’ll recognize: Michael Ian Black, Christopher Meloni, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino… all of them ‘young,’ before their careers took off. I put ‘young’ in quotes because most of them were in their late 20s, playing teenage camp counselors. The movie goes for the typical belly laughs that you might expect from an ‘end-of-summer’ sleepaway camp teen comedy from the 1980s. But the best parts of the movie are more subtle homage or skewering of the sloppy conventions of those movies.

First of all, as mentioned above, all sleepaway camp movies must feature twenty-something actors pretending to be teenagers. The editing, the effects, and direction have to look as shoddy as possible. If you have seen the original movie, then check out some of my favorite moments. Hopefully this will get you fired up for the new series premiere on July 31.

7:00
David Hyde Pierce and Janeane Garofalo have their first bit of hilariously awkward dialog. Listen for the canned ‘breaking glass’ sound effect whenever anything flies off screen. The producers use the same sound in the next scene with Christopher Meloni.

25:00
Blocking? What is blocking? Blocking is where the director plans positions for actors as they stand or walk—or how they enter or exit a scene—to create the most narrative impact, and to create the least amount of distraction. This is one of the movie’s first bits of ‘absurdist blocking humor.’ What do you do with Zak Orth to get him out of a scene so that Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks can have ‘a moment alone?’ You have him take a long walk off a short pier. WHAS5 25:10
Paul Rudd calls his Journal a ‘Gournal.’ No one corrects him.

33:00
Another bit of absurdist blocking humor. Several excited counselors frolic out of Garofalo’s car, to go stand against a cabin wall, Blair Witch style.

37:15
Ken Marino drives a van, sings ‘chain of love,’ and then rams a tree for no good reason. WHAS6 39:50
Check out the horrible wig on Joe Lo Truglio’s stunt double as his motorcyle chase is stymied by a single bale of hay in the road. This is made doubly hilarious (or maybe just disturbing) by the fact that the filmmakers seem to be throwing real child actors out of a moving van during several other scenes of the movie.

42:00
Zak Orth and A.D. Miles slyly exchange a secret handshake—which is pretty much a regular handshake. Right after that, Michael Ian Black and Bradley Cooper share sweet, sweet man love in their athletic socks.

59:30
Who’s the voice of that can? Why it’s H. Jon Benjamin, future star of Archer and Bob’s Burgers!

1:09:30
The movie launches into the obligatory 80s motivational musical montage. And the song (Higher and Higher) is that perfect blend of parody and actually cheesy greatness. Like the part in Boogie Nights where Dirk Diggler sings The Touch, which was also in the BEST Transformer Movie.

1:14:00
Can’t afford a big river rescue scene to rev up the climax of your movie? Just pan in on Joe Lo Truglio mugging for 15 seconds over splashing sound effects. He can wow the viewers with ‘you shoulda seen what I just saw!’ awesomeness. Also, don’t bother to tell the child actors being rescued to bother acting scared.

That’s a few of my favorite scenes in WHAS. Wha’s yours?

Hey jealousy

jealousmuch

Maybe I’m just a highly evolved person. Or maybe I’ve watched too many Jerry Springer episodes. But I have a hard time grasping the idea of jealousy as a motivating emotion.

I feel like I don’t get jealous. Yes, I’m one of those people. Although if I analyze the times when I feel standoffish, or intimidated, or curmudgeonly around other people, I’m sure I could ascribe those feelings to some form of jealousy. Or maybe they come from some other scarred and socially-unacceptable part of my psyche. Like I said, I have a hard time fully grasping the essence of it.

I think my confusion started with Jerry Springer. I saw too many episodes that started like this: A 300-pound man walks on stage wearing a pink micro-mini dress with peekaboo panels to show off his hairy belly. The audience boos and acts disgusted. He waves his finger at them and declares, ‘Y’all just jealous!’

‘Y’all just jealous,’ has become the rallying cry of anyone who refuses to accept the slightest bit of criticism (or good sense). To these people, haters are everywhere. Always drinking they Haterade.

Haters think being 16 and pregnant is a bad idea. Y’all just jealous
Haters won’t ‘leave Britney alone.’ Y’all just jealous
Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate.
They refuse to congratulate.

In fact, jealousy has become such a ubiquitous, expected thing that sometimes its apparent absence is viewed as an insult. Consider the following exchange:
“Sia has such a pretty singing voice. Don’t you think so, Brenda?”
“I guess.”
“Aren’t you jealous of how talented she is?”
“Not really.”
“You won’t admit you’re jealous?”
“No, I won’t say I’m jealous of Sia. I’ll say I admire her, but not that I’m jealous. That context is too negative.”
“God, Brenda, I don’t even know why I hang out with you.”

In a post-Kimye world, it’s not surprising that anyone would develop an overly-sensitized and cartoonish notion of jealousy. And this is a problem for me because, as a writer, I’m supposed to render any character’s emotion, no matter how vile, as realistically (If not relatably) as possible. So where can an author turn for an example of a character that is truly, undeniably jealous?

Cain, for one. He was probably the original hater.

Or Iago? He is considered one of Western culture’s greatest villains. And no, I’m not talking about the animated parrot. I’m talking about Shakespeare’s character from the tragedy ‘Othello.’ Iago’s plots make him the epitome of jealousy. If Cain was the original hater, then Iago was the first ‘frenemy.’

Except both of these examples exist in a sort of heightened, poetical reality. They’re not necessarily relatable.

How about the narrator from John Knowles’ novel ‘A Separate Peace?’ Here is a more conflicted, more ambiguous type of jealousy. The narrator, Gene, becomes good friends with Phineas, who is perfect at everything. Gene is impressed and intimidated by Finn, and eventually his jealousy manifests itself in one impetuous but devastating act. I like this portrayal of jealousy, because it is paired so closely with remorse and self-loathing.

And maybe that’s a good way to look at jealousy. It’s a catalyst emotion, it’s a ‘companion’ emotion. Anger and self-consciousness and resentment can all stem from jealousy, or jealousy can color those emotions. John Knowles has an excellent grasp of this. And he wrote a book that is read in tenth grade literature classes across the country.

Now, aren’t you jealous of him?

A year in the life of Walter White

On Sept 29 it will be a year since Breaking Bad had its series finale. In that time my family has moved to a new house. My daughter started kindergarten, and my office transitioned through a huge paradigm shift. But compared to Walter White’s fifty-first year, I might as well have spent the last twelve months frozen in carbonite.

Breaking Bad was an incredible creative achievement. I can’t think of any other series that was so masterfully outlined from beginning to end—and executed with such unerringly focus on total viewer satisfaction. But I can’t understand why Vince Gilligan decided to stuff fifty episodes of plot into one year of actual story time. Here’s a list of major events that occurred in Walter White’s life between his fiftieth and fifty-first birthday.

health_breaking_badDiagnosed with inoperable lung cancer

death_breaking_badKills a couple of drug dealers

hired_l_breaking_badBegins a successful (and illegal) freelance business

hired_r_breaking_badReconfigures his business model after his first kingpin boss is killed

death_breaking_badOne of his employees is assassinated

hired_l_breaking_badHis pregnant wife returns to the workforce

health_breaking_badWalt’s cancer goes into remission

hired_r_breaking_badReconfigures his business model after finding a new drug kingpin boss

baby_breaking_badWalt’s daughter is born

death_breaking_badEffectively murders another victim

health_breaking_badUndergoes surgery

home_breaking_badSeparates from his wife

fired_r_breaking_badFired from his day job after sexually harassing his boss

hired_l_breaking_badReconfigures his business model with a new lab and a new lab assistant

death_breaking_badMurders a few more drug dealers with his Pontiac Aztek

death_breaking_badOrchestrates the murder of his new lab assistant

hired_r_breaking_badStarts a new (semi-legitimate) business

home_breaking_badWalt’s family is put under protection of the DEA

death_breaking_badPoisons a young boy (but doesn’t murder him)

death_breaking_badKills his boss

hired_l_breaking_badReconfigures his business model; partners with neo-nazis

home_breaking_badWalt’s wife has a nervous breakdown

 

That’s a lot of living for one character! More mayhem than your typical season of Scandal. Is it any wonder that he turned so cranky?