Friday, August 19, 2011


This has been a long time coming. I'm ending this blog and starting a new one. Blogspot has been very good to me, but I want to be more successful as a freelancer. I've started up a new site that uses my name as the url. This is something that I've been stewing over for some time, as eponymous websites can sometimes come off as narcissistic. Having one's own site with a url free of a "blogspot" or a "wordpress" in the title, though, does look much more professional, and I want to switch over before I'm too wedded to this site/format.

I've ported all of my old content from this site over to the new one, and will now be blogging at Hopefully you guys who have enjoyed reading my various rants and word-spewings will head on over.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

"You're Tearing Me Apart, Lisa!"

The Room is a terrible movie.

It's developed something of a reputation as one of those movies that is called, variously, the worst movie ever, so bad it's good, and the ultimate midnight movie, etc. It's gained in popularity with late-night screenings that occasionally have the writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau in attendance. It's one of those bits of pop-culture ephemera that for some time I knew only by reputation and hadn't bothered to consume. Recently, though, I had a few folks over to my place and, aided by various brain-killing beverages, we gave the movie a watch.

Most movies that are known for being terrible are known for their awful special effects and horribly contrived genre conventions. Plan 9 From Outer Space is emblematic of the kind of B movies that are traditionally known as the Worst Ever.

You get the idea- badly delivered lines clustered with cheesy sci-fi jargon, costumes that are impossible to take seriously, and storylines that reach for epic status and fall woefully short. That's the traditional kind of Worst Movie Ever. The Room is not like that at all. The Room is more like this:

It's like they only rented the flower shop for thirty seconds, and only did a single take.

The guy speaking, by the way, is Tommy Wiseau, the writer/director/producer/actor auteur behind The Room. He is like that in more or less every scene, and his line reads and terminally awkward demeanor are what make The Room a truly weird and awful movie. Here's his most famous line:

The plot is mainly a love triangle between Johnny (Wiseau's character), Lisa, and Johnny's best friend Mark. Lisa is engaged to Johnny but has fallen out of love with him, and subsequently starts boning Mark because hey, why not. After that, bad things happen. There are a number of other plot lines as well- Lisa's mother at one point reveals that she has breast cancer, and a friend of Johnny and Lisa's apparently owes money to loan sharks because he has a drug problem. These plots never show up again. Not even in the scene they're in. Take a look:

Did you see all that exposition? All that backstory? Did you catch that big dramatic reveal "I definitely have breast cancer"? That's it. That's the entirety of that storyline in The Room. None of that information is ever important ever again. Breast cancer floats in, says hi, and then is never heard from again for the entire run time. The same thing happens with drugs and loan sharks- stuff from which a whole plot can make just floats into a scene and then dissipates into nothing.

And then there's the sex...

The Room is front-loaded with sex scenes, first between Johnny and Lisa and then between Mark and Lisa. Even with ample nudity, the sex scenes manage to be utterly and completely unsexy and completely devoid of anything that could be coherently construed as erotic. The sex scenes are set to hideous nineties R&B songs and lacy curtains hang from bedposts. Red candles flicker in the background, roses figure prominently, and it has a weird stilted softness that suggests Tommy Wiseau might not actually know how making the beast with two backs actually works. It's as if he's gotten all of his ideas about sex from soap operas, soft-core pornography, and romance novels. It's all about as sexy as watching someone clack Barbie and Ken dolls into each other while playing Celine Dion in the background. Having my eyes and ears assaulted by Tommy Wiseau's notion of strangled, plastic eroticism made me glad that I had a trusty bottle of Ninkasi nearby- the beer was far more physically pleasurable than anything going on in the film seemed to be.

The romantic relationships in the movie fall apart, dramatic shouting happens, and eventually there's something like a climax and the movie's over. It's all terrible and bad and awful but, really I sort of enjoyed The Room.

It's fun to watch because it is utterly singular. There are other bad movies out there, but they're bad because of their production values or cliches or because they're merely studio cash-cows. The Room, though, is bad because Tommy Wiseau doesn't seem to really have a handle on how actual human beings talk, act, have sex, do things, or even buy flowers. He doesn't seem to know how to act like any version of a convincing human being, and seems to live in a world slightly askew from ours. He may very well have some kind of mental disability (which would make me feel bad for laughing at him) but it's sort of diverting to see the world from such a weird perspective.

The Room is not something that I'd recommend watching alone. Get some friends, stock up on beer, and prepare for an incoherent mess. It's bad, sloppy, weird, and amateurish- but at least it's also somewhat interesting. That's more than you can say of a lot of films.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Adventures in Euphemisms: "Bath Tissue"

Earlier today I was at Fred Meyer and looked up. I saw this: 

I'd seen this before but never really thought about it. Fred Meyer, it seems, is politely refraining from using the dread phrase "toilet paper." Their in-house brand does the same:

Okay, technically it says "bathroom tissue," but it's basically the same thing. I got to wondering if any of the brands of toilet paper in my immediate vicinity actually proclaimed what they were- paper that you use after going to the toilet. I looked about and did not see a single one. Not one brand of toilet paper actually used the words "toilet paper" on their packaging. Instead, there were lots of pictures of cute puppies:

Or cartoon bears:

Or babies:

The entreaties to softness, light, and general distance from things excremental even extends to invocations of the celestial on packaging. Juxtaposed, of course, with a baby:

I looked around for some kind of generic or earth-friendly brand that maybe dared to call itself by its true name, but found not a one. The only copy I saw was that recalling softness and, sometimes, absorbency. I wasn't put out by this because I think that "toilet paper" is the most fantastically well put together diptych of words in the English language- I simply appreciate honesty. No one says "I'm going to pick up some bath tissue," or "Hey, sweetie, pick up some bath tissue on your way home," or "Crap, guys! We're out of bath tissue." No human talks like that. We all call it toilet paper, but the aisles and packaging assume that the general population are too demure to be assaulted with such vulgar words.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera said that kitsch is the denial of shit. He meant that literally. Denying that certain gross biological things happen to us is a form of intellectual laziness and naivete. I'm inclined to agree with him, and it seems that the most shit-denying place on earth, the kitschiest piece of real estate in existence, is the toilet paper aisle.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

This is Ironic, Right?

Please let this be ironic. That is the only palatable reason I can think of for this thing being on N Mississippi.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Found Card

A neat, orderly little stack of these cards were inside the lobby of my company's building earlier today. I'm just going to choose to believe that it's all part of a work of satire, or a clever hoax, or a whimsical piece of performance art. All of those options seem far more appealing than a true believer earnestly searching for something that's not there.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Holy Cats!

Tiger: ROAR!

Me: Wow! Did something just roar? I shall check it out!

(I move my bike over in front of the cage I was about to pass, so I can see the source of the roaring.)

Tiger Keeper: Sir, could you please move your bike. He don't like bikes.

Me: Okay. Did he have a bad experience with a bike once?

Tiger Keeper: I don't know. He don't like bikes.

Me: Can I take a picture?

Tiger Keeper: Keep it quick.

Tiger: ROAR!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Die, Continuity, Die!

In an announcement that has the geek world's knickers in a bunch, DC announced that they're completely rebooting their continuity. Many nerds have been seemingly transformed into mouth-breathing bags of aggression because of this. I'm very happy with it, though. In fact, I think that DC and Marvel should do this sort of thing more often.

I love comics. I also really hate DCU and Marvel continuity. It's not that I dislike big, serialized stories. I don't. But with long-running continuity, nothing ever really sticks and that makes everything matter less. When dramatic changes happen in either comics line, they don't feel real because they'll inevitably get erased or smoothed over.

Superheroes have a sort of "zero point" that they always have to bounce back to. Spiderman's zero point, for example, is that he wears a red and blue costume, keeps his identity secret, and has a girlfriend named Mary Jane. Some years ago he donned an Iron Man-esque costume, publicly revealed his identity, and was married to Mary Jane. All of those elements have been erased- he once again wears the red and blue, keeps his identity secret, and Mary Jane (I believe) is his girlfriend again in current continuity. Everything reset- I think Marvel blamed it all on Mephisto or something stupid like that.

This happens to every superhero. They bounce back to their set point of pop-culture expectations. This is aggravating, and robs the drama from comic book stories. I didn't care when Captain America "died" because I knew he'd be back in a few short months.

This is why I actually like superhero reboots. One of my favorite Superman stories is Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" because it wraps up a given continuity. It was a rare time in the DC Universe where it seemed that things actually mattered because there wouldn't be a story later that reversed it. It has a climactic tension that is sorely lacking in most superhero comics.

Here's what I'd like to see: DC and Marvel rebooting their continuity all of the time. Every five years or so. This would allow changes to actually stick inside smaller, more self-contained continuities.

Let's say that DC reboots their universe now, and then ends it five years later. In that five years, they can introduce us to Batman, Wonderwoman, the Flash, etc., and then actually put them through some pretty dramatic changes. Inside that continuity, let's say they killed the Flash. Not temporarily killed him- killed him for good. For real. Lets say the Flash were allowed to be as dead as any other character in any other book or movie.

That would actually make me care about what's going on and actually worry about what happens for a change. There would be tension and suspense where there's now none whatsoever. If the Flash could die, that means that maybe Hal Jordan could, too. Or Hawkman. I might actually start to care.

This continuity could continue for a while, and then DC could wrap it up. Superman, Batman and the rest could have a big, climactic finish and the whole line of comics could come to a conclusion. Then, DC could relaunch everything again and re-introduce their characters back at the zero-points where we're used to them. In the new continuity, the Flash would be back and maybe they could kill Batman or something.

This wouldn't be that different from what they're doing now with superhero movies. In the Christopher Nolan Batman continuity, Ra's Al Ghul and Two-Face are both dead. This doesn't negate all the other things with Two-Face or Ra's out there- those media stand on their own. In the Nolan continuity, though, things matter way more than in any Batman story wedded to the zero-point that all superheroes inevitably get dragged back to.

So, DC, thank you for rebooting your continuity. Make it end with a blast, and go ahead and kill off a few beloved characters. A few years down the line, though, I hope you do it all again.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

On Receiving Tips

I got stiffed on tips earlier this week. It did not do my mood any favors. I had several other things to do over the course of the afternoon, and while I did get some refuge from a quite delicious cup of cold-brewed coffee, the lingering feeling of tiplessness stuck in my craw while I attempted to go about my other tasks. I sort of trudged through them, going "grrr" to myself while I attempted productive ambulation.

On other days, precisely the opposite happens. Some days after a tour the fives and tens and twenties come out in something like a flood, and my wallet has a reassuring fatness to it afterwards. People not only compliment and applaud me, but give me money as well.

On those days, after making perhaps $150 over the course of a few short hours, I'm hugely happy. I'll treat myself to lunch at a favorite food cart, and I know that the rest of the day will have a comfortable ease. My heart won't beat as fast and I'll know that I can look to that stack of bills as a reassuring affirmation that I am, in fact, good at my job. The fives and twenties and tens say "You are smart, charming, and fun to be with. You were worth the price of admission and more. People like you so much, that you made enough in a single day to pay for two week's worth of groceries." (I think that my internal monologue has used the term "baller" once or twice after particularly successful tours.)

I like to think that I have a pretty good sense of when I'm on and when I'm not. After a fair amount of teaching, tour-guiding, and occasional stand-up, I like to believe that I can tell when I have a group of people and when I don't. I'm my own harshest critic, though, and often I'll be self-critiquing my own performance as I'm doing a tour. I'll dwell on the tone of my voice, the meter I'm affecting, and the attention that people are paying to me, wondering if I'm doing it wrong or reading the crowd incorrectly. Then, at the end, they'll tip me. When I'm hard on my self and then get tipped anyway, that's a massive affirmation.

But, getting stiffed inevitably spoils my mood. I seldom think "Yeah, that was a lousy tour and didn't deserve a tip," though that has happened. Instead, I think to myself "What's wrong with you cheapskates? You don't like me? You don't like the massive, personable knowledge-dump that I just gave you? You don't like the map of Portland with restaurant recommendations that I just did for you? You don't like my brilliant (though admittedly dumb) jokes? What?"

Sometimes it might just be because they didn't know to tip a tour guide, or didn't go to an ATM, or really couldn't afford a tour in the first place and couldn't do a tip on top of that. I suppose those are all reasonable. But still. A lack of cash makes me, as they say on the internet, a sad panda.

It's nice to think that someone could be virtuous enough to not care about money, but I don't think I'm alone in admitting that money makes me happy. Getting it, earning, feeling that I'm worth it and and not having to worry about it is a great feeling, and It's somewhat silly to pretend otherwise. Money is one of those things (kind of like sex) that is seldom ironic, sarcastic, or bullshit. It's a concrete backing to applause and thanks.

Ultimately, I would rather where prices and wages were a bit higher, and no one tipped. That would make things much easier, and my personal budget would be much more predictable. However, that's not going to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, I'll keep enjoying that high that I get from getting tipped.

Of course, the nice people who stiffed me wrote a pretty nice review of me on Trip Advisor later, so their lack of tip was probably just an honest mistake. Still, I dwell on it far too much. I love it and am exasperated by it, and the end of a tour when the wallets come out (or don't) is perpetually a high or low part of my routine.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Agony and the Ecstacy of Pub Trivia

I can't believe I haven't blogged about this yet.

For a bit over a year now, I've been sort of obsessed with pub trivia. I enjoy competitively answering questions about historical, literary, and pop culture minutiae to probably an unhealthy degree. There are two here in Portland that I go to with some sporadic regularity: Geek Trivia (which is about comics and such) and Quizissippi, a weekly trivia night about a block away from where I live. I've been to others, but those two are the only ones consistently good enough to keep me coming back. I have done decently well at both of these events- it is because of Geek Trivia that I now own a few Hellboy trade paperbacks, given away as prizes.

Pub trivia is kind of like reading Ulysses or watching The Simpsons. Both of those works of fiction serve as reward systems for knowing lots of stupid arcane factoids. With Joyce, it's fun to see how much of the mythological and literary allusions that you can pick out from the narrative. With The Simpsons, pop culture references abound. In either case, the reader or viewer can say "Hey, I know what that is! I recognize that! I know exactly what you're referencing here!" It's a carrot for knowing useless things, and one can pretend that the various factual flotsam bubbling about inside one's brain actually is good for something after all.

Of course, trivia can also poke ungently at your store of knowledge and mercilessly show the cracks therein. I can't remember how many times I've heard a question and been at least a little familiar with the answer. It is something I've heard, something I've encountered before. The answer is swirling about just under the surface, and I know that I'll recognize it when I hear it aloud, but cannot give it real form. That feels, in a way, worse than not knowing the answer at all. At least when you don't know you can blame simple unfamiliarity. When you know something, but cannot summon it up from memory's basement, that is when you feel ignorant. There have been plenty of times where I've blindly stabbed at an answer, crossed it out, and blindly stabbed at another, only to find that the original guess was correct. The crossed out wrong answer is probably the most wrenching sensation one can experience, and a slap on the forehead usually ensues.

Another pitfall is overthinking the possibility of trick questions. Those certainly happen, but far too often I am my team mates have thought "that can't be the answer, it's way too obvious." Probably the most telling example of this was at Geek Trivia some time ago where the host asked who wore the Iron Man Mark IV armor. My teammates and I thought that Tony Stark was way too obvious an answer, so, assuming that the question was trickier than it really was, we assumed that it was James Rhodes, a.k.a. War Machine. We ended up being quite wrong. It was not a trick question, it was merely easy.

These hazards are, of course, entirely necessary, and I find wracking my brain and conferring with my friends about obscure details of, say, Civil War battles to be fun, especially in the face of a time limit. Without the potential of teeth-grinding defeat, it wouldn't be nearly as thrilling, and there is not shortage of schadenfreude one gets from seeing other teams implode due to wrong answers.

Trivia is not really about how smart you are. That is part of it, but moreso it is about how good your memory is and how good you are at guessing. Being able to conjure up possible answers from the depths of the brain and pick the one that is probably right is the key to winning most of the time. Nevertheless, winning still makes me feel smart. External affirmation is always nice, and pub trivia can be something like the adult equivalent of getting an A on a paper or exam.

I know that I wouldn't be nearly as into it if I didn't take some narcissistic pleasure in my status as a know-it-all, but it is nice to put all those facts and things and details to use, to turn them into a game. That's not a small thing. Deriving a certain amount of pleasure out of all that useless effluvia of information gives it all a sort of ad hod form and meaning. Every time I go to pub trivia, science and pop culture and literature all seem to matter. It's like all of those details are suddenly doing something besides sitting in archives. Paying attention and clarity of thought seem important and valued, and there is an immediate use to all of one's nerdery and disparate interests. For the time being, each evening the contents of one's head seem slightly less trivial.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

In Which I Finally Get Around To Reading Something By Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections has been on my "to read" list for some time. I moved quite a few copies of it when I worked in a bookstore, and Jonathan Franzen has been in the back of my mind as a Big Important Author for quite a while. The release of his new novel last year reminded me, and I finally got around to purchasing a used copy of The Corrections at Powell's a while ago. Last week, I finally finished it.

It was very well done, and I didn't really like it.

Let me get this out of the way first: Franzen is a phenomenally good writer. I want to make this clear in no uncertain terms, because I'm going to spend most of this post criticizing him. His characters are extraordinarily vivid, his language rich, and as I read The Corrections I felt as if he were able to stir bits of recognition in my mind. It was if I'd encountered the people and phenomena he was describing, as if he were writing what I'd thought before, but could not express. His characterization and style are superb, and I'm pretty sure I would cash in an unimportant body part to have his talent.

That said, there are two things about The Corrections that I didn't especially care for. One was the plot, the other was the worldview that Franzen seemed to don while he was writing it.

First the plot. That's a slightly smaller issue. The Corrections is divided into several different subsections, each of which has their own miniature arc. The book mainly focuses on Enid, the stuffy grandmother of the Lambert family, trying to get her grown children all together for one last Christmas in the small Midwestern town of St. Jude. Her children, in turn, all get various subsections and mini-plots in turn.

There is not much in the way of "action" in The Corrections, most of the activity is actually the various characters agonizing about their emotions and relationships. This does not mean, though, that Franzen does not have to provide a beginning, middle, and end. A lack of real, physical action doesn't mean that the author is released from having to provide tension, drama, etc. There still has to be an arc, even if nothing happens. A few dramatic things do happen in The Corrections, but no real satisfying plot connects them, and the whole thing ends up felling disunited in a weird way.

Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers, and I've consistently admired her ability to make plot arcs, climaxes, and satisfying narrative based solely on the emotional lives of her characters. Next to nothing happens in To the Lighthouse, but the ending is powerful and cathartic. That novel has probably one of my favorite final lines of any book, and Woolf pulls it off because she knows that the interior lives of her characters are something that can be exciting and stimulating. A person's revelations, emotional vulnerability, failures, or epiphanies: these are all things that can be used as capstones and plot-points in a good character-based story.

However, as vividly as Franzen paints his characters, he doesn't seem want to give them any kind of emotional dynamism. None of the characters in The Corrections have any moments wherein we see that singular, emotional climax, where the plot-arc of their interior lives comes together and they, for good or ill, are changed. Franzen wants to write a book about the interior lives of a single family, but withholds from his characters the kind of comic or tragic catharsis or epiphany that would serve as a resolution to that narrative. And I'm not just talking about "resolution" in a good way. Horrible and tragic resolutions can be just as narratively satisfying. Franzen seems to want to give The Corrections a happy ending (of a sort), but he doesn't earn it by showing how the characters have evolved. That does not make for satisfying storytelling, and I couldn't help but wonder if he tried to give his characters emotional narrative climaxes, and just wasn't very good at it.

The other, bigger issue of The Corrections, though, is the horribly bleak (and worse, inaccurate) worldview that Franzen seems to adopt while writing it.

Franzen seems to think that because he is portraying his characters as so unabashedly ugly, he is telling the truth. Because he lays bare their selfishness, their fears, their smallness, he is painting complete portraits of them. Because he does not shrink at portraying human frailty, it's as if he thinks he boldly portrays humanity.

I don't mind that he's negative. That's fine. Franzen, though, seems to mistake cynicism for truth. That's why a lot of The Corrections reminded me of Seinfeld.

Seinfeld's basic premise was that its characters were selfish, small, and never learned anything. There was no real character development on the part of Jerry and Co. At no point did one really think that any of the wacky hijinks they encountered actually have any impact on how they lived their lives. The show is amusing in short bursts, but if you think about it as a long-form narrative, it doesn't work at all. People are not static. If someone were to go through all of the weird stuff that Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer did, they would either be wise in the ways of the world or perhaps hugely cynical. They would not stay small and naive, which is precisely what those characters did. They would change.

The reason I can't really watch Seinfeld anymore is because of its insistence that it rests upon a static zero point. I do not buy the characters or their lack of evolution or dynamism. People like that do not exist. It may occasionally be diverting, but it is not accurate or truthful.

Characters in The Corrections suffer this same fate, but Franzen seems to think that because he's presenting a heavily negative Seinfeldian worldview, he's somehow saying something profound or interesting. I know, I know- I'm being slightly unfair about this, that it's a little presumptuous to make suppositions about an author's personality based on their work. Franzen, however, seems like precisely the sort of jaded male hipster who, upon reading and misinterpreting Sartre, would tiredly declare that "Hell is other people."

It isn't, though, and I'll bet that Franzen's a smart enough guy to know better. This is the man who famously asked Oprah to stop endorsing his book, though. I would not be surprised if someone as attached to that kind of supposed authenticity has trouble accepting beauty.

And, weirdly enough, even after all that I will still read Freedom, probably when it comes out in paperback. Franzen really is a magnificent stylist, and his prose is rich enough to make me want more. I hope that in his latest offering the issues from his most famous novel have been, shall we say, corrected.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why Dressing Up in Funny Clothes With Lots of People is Awesometastic Fun-Times

That is a picture of me dressed up as my villainous alter-ego, the Defenestrator. His superpower is throwing people and things out of windows. I didn't crack out the leather and goggles on my own, though. The getup was for a pub crawl hosted by the Alter Egos Society, an organization in Portland dedicated to, well, dressing up like superheroes and supervillains. This last weekend several of Portland's enthusiastic geeks donned crazy clothes, took on the persona of characters of our own devising, and cavorted throughout town.

Now, why the costumes? Why not just go on a regular pub crawl? Why not just get a bunch of people together and have a night out? That's possible, certainly, but dressing up in crazy clothes gives it an extra amount of specialness, of awesome-osity.

Costumes are an outlet for creativity

There were some fairly impressive getups on display, from a quartet of horn-sporting demons to a mad scientist character who had an extremely impressive metal mask. I myself worked a bit on a logo for the Defenestrator that I appended to the back of my jacket, and settled on a distressed-looking down arrow that suggested dramatically crashing into the ground. (Several people asked me "Are you supposed to be the economy or something?")

While it's perfectly possible for me to go to an art store and load up on canvas, charcoal, and fixatif any time I want, knowing that I was going to attend a themed pub crawl gave me a reason to start scrawling out a symbol for my own fictional villain. Having a reason for something, a deadline, and looming event fires the productive imagination much more than most things.

Costumes are an instant conversation piece

While I can occasionally get pretty extroverted, it is still sometimes difficult to start conversations with strangers. I found myself talking to plenty of people I didn't know, though. The demons I mentioned earlier- they'd rigged up pitchforks that shot flames out of the end, and of course several of us started using them to light clove cigarettes. Socializing ensued. People commented on my leather pants, I talked to a guy who happened to be wearing an "Ike and Nixon" button, and briefly chatted with a man in a luchadore mask. All of these interactions were smoothed by the presence of weird clothes. "Dude, awesome costume!" was an instant conversation topic.

Costumes can change peoples' personalities

A friend of mine was dressed up as an evil mastermind he called Lord Skullfucker. Now, he's normally a pretty demonstrative guy, but got no shortage of joy talking about how he was going to initiate amorous relations with various peoples' ocular cavities. Likewise, my girlfriend was dressed as the deadly and beautiful Rocktopussy, and found herself voguing and striking David Bowie poses much more than she normally does. A guy dressed up as an 80s metal themed hero kept flashing the horns, and the various heroes and villains pretended to hate each other to amusing effect.

With crazy costumes, you can try on not only clothes, but a whole other bombastic and weird persona that you wouldn't use in real life. I know this is a bit of a cliche, but it's wonderful to see in action, with folks trying on personalities to go with their new tights and masks.

It's fun to freak the mundanes

Obviously, not everyone in Portland was dressed up in crazy duds. There were plenty of perfectly normal people out and about, and we got a fair amount of stares. Most of them were very appreciative, and several cars honked in support of our wackiness. Of course we waved back. Several onlookers from the Portland Streetcar pressed their noses to the glass of their vehicle as we walked by, and we responded with waves and whoops.

I'd venture a guess that most of them later told their friends "Hey, guess what I saw!" and we managed to improve their evening, just a little.

Weird stuff is a source of civic pride

This is probably specific to Portland and cities like it, but I'm quite grateful that I live in a city where quirky stuff happens on a fairly regular basis. The evening before I dressed up a the Defenestrator, I'd been playing extreme mini-golf. This weekend I'll probably see the mayor of Portland dressed up a robot. On Sunday, there's roller derby to be seen. Say what you will about Portland being self-consciously weird, it's not boring.

Of course Portland has other events like this. There's a pirate themed pub crawl. And the one where everyone dresses up as Santa. I hope to be at both, filled with joy at living in one of the funnest towns ever.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

In Which I Finally Watch Scarface

Scarface has been one of those pillars of pop culture that I've somehow avoided seeing all my life. I'd heard of it, certainly, and I'd heard "Say hello to my little friend" quoted again and again, but I'd never actually sat down and watched it.

Then I read that someone was making a $1000 special edition of the thing, and I finally decided to see what the fuss was about. Also, I'd been feeling ill and having a very long movie to take up my time sounded good. I plopped myself in front of my computer, and watched Al Pacino unleash his characteristic bombast.

Short review: Scarface is kind of overrated.

Long review: The film tells the story of Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who rises up the ranks of Miami's cocaine-dealing hierarchy. He starts as a lowly foot soldier and then becomes lord and master of a coke-funded empire.

The story arc was fairly predictable, but I wondered if that was an artifact of me watching it in 2011. All of the rags-to-riches-to-rags tropes seemed to be in place, and I wondered if the movie would have seemed less clunky and obvious in the early eighties. A predictable movie, however, can be overcome with great characters and good writing, though. Unfortunately, there wasn't very much of that.

None of the characters in Scarface "pop." All of them are pretty broad and one-dimensional, and the supporting cast is never really given anything to do except react to Tony Montana. The movie really is all about one guy. Tony Montana says something, and the supporting casts reacts. He does something, and the plot moves forward. He gives a speech, and the other characters react with rapt attention. It was as if the people who weren't Al Pacino just disappeared when they weren't on screen.

Pacino himself was fine, but to tell the truth I found his goofy faux-Cuban accent get in the way of his acting. For the whole movie I could not shake the thought "Wow, that's a really stupid voice that Al Pacino is doing." Pacino is great and quite fun to watch, but I found myself wishing I was watching one of his better performances, like his turn as Satan in The Devil's Advocate.

I also didn't find Tony Montana to be all that interesting of a main character. The movie is largely about what happens when a poor guy suddenly finds himself extremely wealthy. Tony doesn't do anything particularly interesting with his money- he buys a bunch of gaudy gold shit and a big house that he can be bored in. I know that the movie was trying to say something about the emptiness of materialism or whatever, but I had trouble buying it. I sort of wanted to shout at the screen "Why don't you go take an interesting vacation or something?" I know that Montana is supposed to be something of an uneducated yokel, but I found his gross lack of creativity hard to empathize with.

Also, he's an utter scumbag. I don't usually mind following evil characters as long as they're interesting, but Tony Montana has the drawback of being both a nasty human being and not particularly smart. Late in the movie, the viewer is supposed to empathize with him because he refuses to kill a child. That didn't get my sympathy, though. Refraining from kid-killing is a fairly low bar to clear, and the scene felt manipulative and false.

So it has a predictable plot, and uncompelling characters. The thing that saves Scarface (a bit) are two very well done scenes. One is a tense scene towards the beginning that ends up with a guy getting killed with a chainsaw, and a subsequent gunfight. Another is the ending, wherein Tony's mansion is stormed by a small army of hitmen.

When the line "Say hello to my little friend!" did finally jumpt out of the speakers, I did enjoy it, and the bombastically violent finale is fun in an 80s action movie type way. There's blood and bullets and a nice sense of finality when Tony Montan finally, finally dies.

But Scarface left me cold. It's not as good as The Godfather, Goodfellas, or even Casino. It's not really Pacino's best performance. The action sequences are good, but not enough to carry the movie. Had I seen it with no expectations, I probably would have enjoyed it more, but it certainly didn't live up to its reputation. Anyone who actually gets the $1,000 special edition of this thing is, I'm afraid, something of a chump.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Your Scooter is Stupid: An Invective

During the past week, I've had a few non-good traffic experiences with scooters. Not terrible, mind you, but small instances that drove home what a colossally stupid machine the scooter is.

Recently my girlfriend's car was stuck behind one on a sizable road with no passing lane. We had no choice but to follow the puttering thing at a slow and inefficient 30 mph., as it was squarely in the center of the lane and we had no means of going around it.

A few days ago when I was riding my bike to work, I was attempting to merge from a bike lane into a proper lane so I could merge. With cars, this isn't a problem. However, an obnoxious scooter was right beside me and would neither accelerate nor decelerate in order to let me in. I made a forceful effort of it, passed, him, and got in fine, but there was the brief temptation to go all Ben-Hur and his puny vehicle so I could get myself a spot in the lane.

Lastly, I saw a scooter while waiting for the bus the other day, and it simply looked and sounded dumb, as if a grown man were riding Baby's First Motorcycle.

The scooter seems to operate in a weird netherworld between bikes and motorcycles, embodying the virtues of neither.

With a bicycle, you get exercise. You can use bike lanes, don't consume any gas, and produce absolutely no annoying "put-put-put" or "whirrrrrr" sound as you ambulate about the metropolis. Bikes are virtuous, green, and allow their riders a totally deserved measure of smug satisfaction as to why they are Part Of The Solution. Scooters, however, go about as fast as bikes and offer none of the benefits related to the environment or personal fitness.

Motorcycles are awesome. Even though they're somewhat dumb vehicles, I have a soft spot for motorcycles, and the chrome-plated two wheeled machines would probably be my preferred method of dealing with a hypothetical midlife crisis. I implicitly assume that all motorcyclists are killer badasses, and probably know some weird, messed up way to kill a man using only one's own left pinkie. Scooters, however, are about as intimidating as a basket of doe-eyed baby otters.

If you're riding a scooter, the message I get is "I'm too lazy to ride a bike, and too much of a poncy Little Lord Fauntleroy to ride a real motorcycle. I don't like making physical exertions when I move, and neither do I wish to wear full length man-trousers."

I know The Who rode them. I know that they were chic and mod and all that back in the sixties. Whatever. They hold none of the virtues of other forms of assisted movement, and for that, they will get nothing but my sneering derision as I pedal past them on my bike.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Windows Open

The scene: A recent party at my apartment

Friend: Do your windows open?

Me: What?

Friend: Your windows. Do they open?

Me: What do you mean?

Friend: I mean, do your windows open.

Me: I don't know. I use Windows Seven. I like it alright. What's this "Windows Open" thing? Is Microsoft trying to incorporate social media into their OS or something? Is it like Google Buzz? I don't see that going very well.

Friend: No. Your windows. Like, the glass ones to the outside. Can we open them? There are lots of people in here and it's getting way too warm.

(Long, embarrassing pause)

Me: Yeah. We can do that.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Plea For Coat Checks At Portland Music Venues

Dear Every Portland Venue Ever,

Please have a coat check.

We have a fantastic music scene in this city. On any given night of the week, you can rock out for not very much money. The clubs, pubs, bars and venues here are absolutely wonderful, and I'm proud to call the local music scene mine.

Except for the lack of coat checks.

Why? Please, for the love of all that is decent and holy, why doesn't every single venue in this town have a coat check? I don't want to dance, gyrate, headbang, and otherwise get crazy in my jacket. I want to do all of that sans-jacket. What's more, I don't want to have to worry about my jacket being rifled through while it sits on a bench somewhere. And, even if it isn't rifled through (I admit this is a remote possibility, actually), there is the potential that some drunken jackhole (and I use the term "drunken jackhole" in the most affectionate way possible) will spill beer on it during the festivities. Just the other I was at the Crystal Ballroom (a magical place) and my girlfriend and I left our jackets on a bench. When we got back to them, after the show, her jacket was somewhat moist. This did not spoil the evening, but it was unpleasant.

So, have a coat check. Please.

It rains here. It is often wet and dark and cold. Crowds of people file into concerts and then have to shed various layers of waterproof gear before venturing out onto the floor of a concert. Oftentimes, piles of discarded jackets litter the sides of concert venues. This is messy, undesirable, and could easily be solved. Each venue could make a tidy bit of money chekcing coats. It is mystifying why you don't offer this service.

Every Portland venue ever, I implore you: Give me a place to check my jacket. A place where I can stow it safely and not have to think about it's security, structural integrity, or moisture level while revelries transpire. This is a simple problem with an easy solution.

I love you, Portland Music Scene. A lot. Gobs and bunches, in fact.

However, the lack of coat checks is utterly moronic. Fix it. I will give you all big, appreciative hugs if you do.



Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In Honor of Washington's Birthday: Our New National Anthem

It was March of 2007. I was in Tokyo for the first time, crashing in an inexpensive hostel. In the morning I heard an American voice singing in the shower. "America!" it sang, "Fuck yeah!"

It was The Fourth of July, 2009. Rolling down the streets of North Portland, a ridiculously augmented pickup truck rapidly rolled. The wheels were raised and beneath it various auto parts vibrated audibly under the influence of it's immense speakers. "America!" said the speakers, "Fuck yeah!"

It was a week or so ago. I was making breakfast. Eggs, probably. Someone said "America." I said, instinctively, "Fuck yeah!"

And of course, there's this:

Team America: World Police was, at best, an uneven movie. There were parts of it that I enjoyed, but other parts of it that I thought fell flat as satire. The abovereferenced song, though, is probably the most successful thing that Trey Parker and Matt Stone have every created. It is better than any single moment of South Park or Cannibal: The Musical. It is better than Orgazmo. I doubt that their upcoming musical, The Book of Mormon, will be able to best their success here.

The song is obviously about how bloviatingly bombastic America and Americans are or are perceived to be. It's a send-up of the ultranationalism and chauvinism that typified George W. Bush's America, a thumb to the nose of everyone who has a "Don't Tread on Me" bumper sticker. Parker and Stone go out of their way to portray America as evil (by referencing slavery), shallow (by calling out Bed Bath and Beyond) and stupid (by taking credit for sushi, which is notably from a place that is not America).

However, if the song was only a hateful spitwad, it wouldn't have the enduring appeal that it does. There is something genuine about the song. Even an urban liberal type such as myself really does think, at times "America! Fuck yeah!" I don't think that the guys in the big truck blasting on the Fourth of July were getting it wrong, either. It wasn't the case that the satire was lost on them. They were reveling in the very real (and sort of obnoxious) patriotism of the song.

Yes, I think this song is patriotic. In a juvenile and twisted way, it is. Displays of patriotism are often overtaken with saccharine injections of sentimentality that make them nigh-unpalatable to anyone with even a modicum of skepticism. Parker and Stone, though, have put in just enough self-critical irony make it palatable.

Yes, I know there are problems with irony, but put those aside for a moment.

Let's all admit, if only for a moment, that F/A-18s are really fucking cool. That it's sort of awesome that we invaded France and kicked Hitler's ass. That we totally won the Cold War. And, that ruling the world is sort of cool. Yes, yes yes. Admitting this makes you feel weird. Trust me, I feel the same way. I used to have a Che Guevera poster on my dorm wall, for god's sake.

But, just for a moment, think about how stupidly awesome we are. Doesn't it feel sort of neat?

Parker and Stone made it possible to sing proudly about America even as we acknowledge all of the problems this place has. All of the stupidity and greed and big, nasty history. All of those things that get in the way of singing about Purple Mountain Majesties. (And besides- since when are mountains purple?)

Patriotism doesn't mean being uncritical or sentimental. It doesn't mean you love unreservedly. It also doesn't mean that you have to be all solemn and pietistic. It doesn't mean you have to stop being self-aware.

So, happy birthday, George Washington! Thanks for kicking King George's ass, though you couldn't have done it without France's help.


Fuck yeah.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

In Which I Rant Angrily About a Particular Feature of StarCraft II

After a long, long wait, I recently purchased StarCraft II. Yes, I know it came out last year, but I only recently got a computer capable of running it. The game is great. It is absolutely everything I wanted out of a StarCraft sequel. I even love that it's not even the complete game- that we have to wait for Zerg and the Protoss campaigns. Knowing that there's more there adds excitement.

However, there's one thing that I don't like at all about StarCraft II. One thing that I find almost inexcusably loathsome. Horrible. Hideous. Disgustingly terrible.

I hate, hate, hate, hate that it's an online game. Or rather, I hate that it has to be one. I have no problem with, Blizzard's multiplayer network. In fact, I kind of love it. I love that it matches players of like skill level and that you can import Facebook friends. I love that there are all kinds of achievements that you can get to decorate your profile. I love how easy it makes online gaming.

But I don't want to have to be there.

It is impossible to play StarCraft II without logging into This is distasteful. Right now, I'm playing through the single player campaign, yet every time I start up the game, I have to log into, and that offends my sensibilities. This is not because I don't like it is a veritable strategy game paradise- but because StarCraft II is so closed and locked-down, it might as well have been designed by Apple.

There is no option to play on a LAN. This is repulsively horrid. I have fond memories of playing SC on my dorms LAN back in college. It's ridiculous that a multiplayer game won't allow for such things- multiplayer games and LANs are practically synonymous.

Mods and whatnot will be much more difficult to implement. I've played quite a bit of Civilization IV, and that game was greatly enriched by Fall From Heaven, a fantasy-based mod. Several other player-made mods (sometimes of dubious quality) abounded on the Civ forums, and the old copy of Unreal Tournament that I've got socked away on an old hard drive is very heavily modded with all kinds of ridiculous add-ons and extra widgets.

I also very much believe that games should be playable for an indefinite period of time. If you get a copy of Risk, for example, that game is playable as long as you have all the pieces. Likewise, if you were to get an old NES you could fire up any old cartridge you wanted and it would still function. Games that are dependent on online support don't have this. StarCraftII demands that you authenticate it with Blizzard in order to work. I know that some enterprising hacker will find a way around this, but it's terrible that if in thirty years there's no more Blizzard, those old SCII discs will be unplayable as-is. Old NES cartridges and copies of Risk, on the other hand, will still work fine.

I guess I'm starting to sound like Corey Doctrow or some other anti-DRM digital web-libertarian type. I've all but shouted "screws, not glue!" I do believe in that sort of thing. I do believe that once you own something, you should do with it as you please, and that games, after money is exchanged, should be play-withable without a lot of mandatory interference from their makers. And, it's not that I don't like But, as beautiful, as wonderful, and as expertly engineered as it is- it should be optional. 

Monday, January 24, 2011


I recently had the pleasure of accompanying my friend D to that temple of geekery and consumption known as Fry's- the magical place filled with myriad shiny toys and software. It's one of those stores that fills you with the aspiration that consumption relies upon. Stepping over its threshold, one is filled with the knowledge that they, one, can own all manner of shiny gizmos.

I was there because D was getting a new laptop and I like to look at electronic things that I can't really afford. While she was checking out the various computers, I amused myself by walking over to the game section, because, hey, video games.

The games that were set up were all fairly family-friendly and inoffensive. Gran Turismo and that ilk, and mostly sports. I suppose having bloody FPSs set up in an area with potential kids would not be the best PR move. I grabbed a PS3 controller and started playing the newest version of NBA Jam, a cartoony basketball game for people who don't really like sports games.

Of course, I chose to be the Portland Trailblazers. When selecting my opponent, I chose the villainous and vile Los Angeles Lakers.

I don't know much about sports, but I do know this: If you like the Lakers, you earn some major douchebag points. Likewise, if you are a fan of the NY Yankees or Dallas Cowboys, you're publicly stating what prick you're capable of being. Liking the Lakers, Yankees, or Cowboys is sort of like wearing Dockers: It's boring and jerk-tastic at the same time. I know this is irrational, but whatever.

In my game of NBA Jam, Brandon Roy's knees were working just fine, and he was able to outmaneuver, outshoot, outblock, and generally run circles around big-headed AI-controlled Kobe Bryant. The announcers kept shouting goofy catchphrases (BOOMSHAKALAKA! being the big one) every time my zanily-proportioned basketball dudes made a basket. I thought I was just going to give NBA Jam a try, but I ended up playing a whole four-quarter game right there in Fry's.

I realized something about sports games: Of all of the types of games out there, they are the only genre wherein players can bring the hurt to actual, real celebrities. I have watched many a Blazer game going "NOOOO!" at the screen while the Lakers (bastards that they are) played well and scored points. While watching it with other Portland fans, we all believed that it was because the refs were biased and Phil Jackson has some kind of Nietzschian hypno-power that he was using on the officials.

Watching the Lakers win was always massively, horribly painful. Other teams, like San Antonio, never quite brought on that sort of emotion. When I watched the Spurs kick our ass I just thought, "Wow, the Spurs are really good at this basketball thing." When I saw the Lakers do it, I filled up with rage. There was just something weird and awful about the Lakers- they were, after all, from LA. Jack Nicholson and his self-satisfied smirk goes to all of their home games. They represent a city that is everything Portland (supposedly) isn't- sprawl, waste, stress and utter lack of culture.

Playing NBA Jam, though, made me realize how much I enjoy that rivalry and hate, how much sports really does need villains. It's great that lots of people think LeBron is a dick- that'll be a major boost to the drama and emotional stakes of his games. It was that rivalry that made NBA Jam so much fun. Also, I could not think of any other genre of video game where you can best actual, real media figures.

There is no game out there where I can challenge Sarah Palin to single combat, or get into a boxing ring with Glenn Beck. (Actually scratch that. Beck wouldn't be any fun. He'd just start crying. I'd rather fight Bill O'Reilly- he'd make it interesting.) There isn't any kind of game where I can humiliate Brit Hume or challenge Larry the Cable Guy to a lightsaber duel. Most of the time (unless you count fighting Hitler in Wolfenstein), I can't pwn celebrities via video games.

Athletes, though, are a different matter. Dunking on Kobe was hugely satisfying not just because of the game play, but because, through the magic of video games, I was able to vent out a whole bunch of Blazer fan-rage onto cartoon Lakers. It was a nice release, and scratched an itch I didn't know I had.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Why Portlandia Doesn't Work

One of my favorite comedies right now is It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The central characters in it are all utterly horrid examples of humanity- each episode is about their various petty squabbles, arguments, idiotic schemes, jealousies, weaknesses, and manifestations of stupidity. The main cast fights, bickers, make horrible decisions, hurt each other, hurt innocent bystanders, and generally act in a contemptible fashion.

But, because the show is made by some very talented people, I still like them.

Even as the creators of It's Always Sunny send up their characters as objects of ridicule and mockery, you can tell that they still quite like their characters. As nasty as Mac, Dee, Dennis, and Charlie can be- they still manage to grab a certain amount of my affection. I know that in each episode they will do awful things, but it's a testament to the skills of the actors, directors, and writers that even as they are objects of farce they are also full, real characters whom I am capable of feeling something for.

Likewise, Alec Baldwin's character on 30 Rock is oftentimes toweringly evil and self-centered. Jack Donaghy is something like a better-coiffed Dick Cheney in his demeanor and outlook. However, as much as he's portrayed as a villainous caricature of a certain type of conservative exec, Baldwin & Co. don't forget that for us to keep coming back to 30 Rock, there has to be some humanity there. As much as I'd loathe Jack Donaghy in real life, he remains a real person worthy of empathy in addition to being a figure of fun.

The deft injection of affection and empathy into farce and satire- the streak of love that runs through ridiculous and mean humor- that is what's missing from Portlandia. That absence of underlying reality- that the people on screen should be people in addition to jokes- is why the show will probably fail.

I've only seen the first episode and a few of the promo shorts, but what I've encountered so far is not inspiring, and so far I have a certain loathing for the show. This is not because Portlandia is insulting my hometown- quite the contrary, I would love it if we had our own version of Northern Exposure. The problem is that Portlandia doesn't lampoon this place especially well.

The first episode starts with a clip that's been going around quite a bit, a song about how "the dream of the 90s is alive in Portland." You've probably seen it already, but here it is:

As far as a big opening number, this doesn't work at all. Fred Armisen was born in the sixties, and Carrie Brownstein in the seventies. Both of them were in the twenties and thirties in the nineties, and, presumably, enjoying what the youth culture of the time provided. They seem flabbergasted, in the opening song, that some amount of youth culture is still extant, like an old hippie amazed that young people still listen to Led Zepplin.

Yes, current hipster/alternative culture grew out of nineties grunge. Which reacted to, and grew out of eighties new wave and hair metal. Which sprang from seventies punk-rock. Which owed a lot to hippie music from the sixties. Who were preceded by greasers in the fifties. Who in turn were preceded by beatniks in the forties.

Arguing that any kind of youth/pop/alternative/creative culture is similar to what preceded it is facile, annoying, and utterly non-funny. The best humor is smart, and hits upon unthought-of truths. When one says of a comedian "he's saying what we're all thinking!" we're talking of comedy's ability to express what was known, but never voiced. Portlandia's introductory song expresses the obvious and holds it up as if it's some kind of profundity.

That was only the opener, though. Sitting down to watch the first episode, I hoped that there would be something more inspiring, something that would actually, you know, make me laugh, something that would make me go "yeah, that is true," and nod in amused recognition.

This did not happen. The sketches seem clunky and joyless, and the whole show occupies a kind of forced, airless space. Not even a Steve Buscemi cameo was able to inject some life into the proceedings.

The central problem was that throughout the episode none of the characters portrayed by Armisen or Brownstein seemed to be real people. I had no sense of connection whatsoever with any of the people whom they portrayed. This is not because they were playing idiots- the crew from It's Always Sunny have roundly proved that one can play an idiot and still connect with the audience- it was because they seemed uninterested in injecting humanity into their characters. (While on the subject of sketch comedy- there's more drama, feeling and reality in a single College Humor sketch than any single section of Portlandia. The CH crew also prove that you can mercilessly mock your characters and still get the audience to like them.)

I do want this show to do well. I want it to dramatically improve, take on some new talent, and become a kick-ass sketch comedy show that makes me laugh. I want to hear jokes about how everyone has food allergies, wears stupid hats, has weird facial hair, and eats doughnuts that have bacon on them. My hometown is, I admit, filled with things that can be hilariously mocked.

But I want them mocked well, and with a little bit of love, and joy, and fun. I want to smile while I see my tattooed neighbors insulted. So far, prospects don't look good.