Friday, November 23, 2007

Spout #8: Out of Balance

This latest entry in my Spout Mavens reviews is probably the one I was looking forward to most, which makes the length it took me to view it a bit puzzling. Out of Balance plays into one of my pet obsessions; global warming and the corporations at the heart of the problem. Leaning more towards the left side of the political spectrum, environmental concerns and a distrust of large corporations is almost hard-wired into my thinking. And here the target is Exxon, the largest oil company, and, as the film argues, the largest CORPORATION in the entire world(I have no idea if that's true, and the film offers no quotable sources, but it sounds like it could be true). The only way this could be more up my alley was if the corporation being targeted was Wal-Mart.

Living in Alaska I may be quicker to distrust Exxon than most. The 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound was a huge disaster that we're still reeling from today. It wasn't just the largest oil spill in history, but it was in an area where people made almost their entire living on the water, from tourism or fishing, and both were, essentially, ruined for years to come. I remember two trips to Homer to study the beaches, both during school field trips. One trip was in 1988, the other was in 1990, and the difference, even in an area not directly in the path of the oil spill, was noticeable. The year after the oil spill the beaches in Homer were not devastated, but they were a little more empty, with not quite so many fish, crabs or octopus, and the sand was noticeably looser, and you would sink in above your ankles where the year before you would stand comfortably on the hardpacked sand. To me the Exxon oil spill is not the firsthand disaster it was to the people who lived in the Prince William Sound area, but neither is it the empty headline of some faraway tragedy that it must have been for people living in, say Missouri. The continuing problems are increased by Exxon's refusal to pay the $5 billion in punitive damages they were court-ordered to pay, money that would help cover cleanup, health care for those with problems stemming from the spill, and the loss of income to many families who depended on fishing as a way of life. Just a couple weeks ago there were a new string of news stories detailing Exxon's continuing, and partially successful, attempts to get the Supreme Court to lower the amount they're required to pay. You don't need to try and convince me that Exxon is an immoral, harmful corporation.

Tom Jackson, the director and our guide through a list of Exxon's atrocities, seems like a well balanced, likable enough guy. That actually is important, because many of these anti-establishment style documentaries come off as reactionary, pretentious, and unlikable. Tom Jackson, however, puts himself right alongside the audience as he asks questions and learns the truth with us. He admits that global warming was something he didn't want to believe, in part, because he loves to just get in his car and drive. This everyman persona works slightly better than Michael Moore's attempts; his films may be more successful, both message-wise and monetarily, but he should stop trying to play the ignorant American constantly amazed by the things he puts in his movies.

The only real complaint to this film is it's brevity. At barely over an hour long, the film doesn't delve too deeply into specifics. There are plenty of talking heads, scientists, journalists and the like, but they focus more on the problem of global warming as a whole than Exxon's contributions. In fact, there's not really a lot here that the people watching this film wouldn't know already. Or maybe that's me, and people outside of Alaska aren't as aware of Exxon's misdeeds, but I couldn't help feeling that this film was preaching to the choir. It's unlikely that anyone not yet aware of global warming would pick this film up at their local video store, while anyone who would be interested in this sort of thing probably already knows this already. Still, Mr. Jackson is a decent guy, and the decision to film his own personal journey to find out why Exxon was so evil wasn't a bad one. The movie's heart is in the right place, and this is definitely a message that needs to be said, but there's not much here to recommend it over the other films of it's ilk.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Convent

The Convent is an odd film, and certainly not for everyone, but I still find myself subjecting my friends to it whenever someone comes over who hasn't heard of the film, and I tend to enjoy it a little more each time I watch it. That may be due to the opening scene, which sets a high water mark that the remainder of the film cannot hope to sustain. It's a knockout of an opening that ranks among my favorite movie moments. This gives the rest of the film a sense of anticlimax, which is unfortunate because it's actually quite fun, although very low-rent and goofy.

Opening with a woman wearing black leather walking in slow motion into a convent, where she promptly chugs some whiskey, and proceeds to pull a baseball bat out of her duffel bag, attacking the nuns with abandon, all to the strains of a perfectly placed pop song from the sixties. This act goes unexplained for a bit as the film flashes forward several decades, to present day where the condemned convent has passed into urban legend, and Christine, the leather-clad woman from the opening, lives unseen in a spooky house after being released from a psychiatric ward. It's a bit suspect that a woman responsible for so many violent murders would ever be released, but if this bothers you, you may want to stop watching; logic isn't necessarily something you should expect from this movie.

The movie follows a group of college kids as they head out on an annual rite of passage to sneak past the local police and vandalize the convent, immortalizing their fraternity's logo. The "witty'' banter between these kids is anything but, and yet I still find myself chuckling at the atypical goth girl's perkiness and horndog Frijole's repeated claims of being able to seduce any woman in "fiiiiiiiiive minutes". Megahn Perry plays Mo, the entirely too-chipper goth girl, and is one of the highlights of the film. Staying behind at the convent when the local cops(played by Bill Mosely and a twitchy Coolio) bust the kids for trespassing, Mo runs afoul of a couple of poser devil worshipers, the hilariously effeminate Lords of Darkness. The Lords of Darkness are at the convent to, apparently, impress a couple of gullible women with a phony satanic ritual that unfortunately summons actual demons.

The effects in this movie are lower than low budget, amounting to basically glow in the dark makeup and blacklight. The most professional this gets is a bit of sped up camera work during the demonic transformations that looks like a cheaper version of the same effect used in Jacob's Ladder. Still, this isn't a complaint. You don't necessarily look for slick, polished film making in direct to video horror films, and the low rent effects fit perfectly with the quirky, cheesy charm of the film. And The Convent is self aware enough to know that this stuff is silly, and makes up for it with actual comedy, particularly when it comes to the scenes involving the Lords of Darkness and their inept bungling as they realize the bullshit they've been spewing is actually real.

There's a cooler-than-cool cameo towards the end of the movie that I won't spoil, although IMDB and the All Movie guide have no such qualms, so those of you without the patience to sit through a 90 minute movie can go find out who it is at any time. As I said, that opening scene may lead you to believe the movie your watching is better than it is, and may lead to some disappointment as you watch this the first time. But if you let your judgment go, and just settle back to enjoy a fun "bad" movie, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Soundtrack to my Life

As I have mentioned more than a few times lately, I recently received a very massive iPod. So massive that I can put my entire collection on it, and still have room for a couple years worth of CD purchases(to be honest, I'm a bit ashamed that my entire collection fits so nicely on this one iPod). One of the great things about going disc by disc through my collection and importing them into a portable CD library is that I'm becoming reacquainted with some artists and albums that I haven't listened to in awhile. Some not even in this century. The usual question, and the one I've been asked by work friends who obviously don't know me well enough is 'why do you need all those CDs, if you don't listen to so many of them?' The obvious, logistical answer is that with so many albums in one collection, it's impossible to listen to them all regularly. But of course the real answer is probably the same one that would be given by anyone with a record collection in the triple(or quadruple) digits; these discs are important to me.

I know it isn't particularly enlightened, and we're all supposed to see material goods as nothing more than 'things', but if a house fire were to destroy my entire CD collection, DVD or book library, or even my collection of pop-culture memorabilia, I would be highly distraught. In the end these aren't family members, and so I wouldn't be devastated, but I am also more emotionally connected to my collection of 'things' than I think most people view as healthy. I can't yet explain it, as I've chosen not to closely analyze this compulsive collecting, but I think in the end I do agree with Rob from the novel High Fidelity; it's what a person likes that matters more than what a person is like. OK, a disclaimer; I don't follow that exactly, but I think the sentiment is a fairly close to how I view the world, good or bad.

People rarely show the outside world everything about themselves, and even the largest asshole you run into in the supermarket has hidden depths. The 'things' people buy can end up defining them in greater accuracy than a casual acquaintance could, if you know what to look for. And I think that's how I view my collection of CDs, books, movies and memorabilia. That after I'm gone, someone could sift through all of this stuff and know who I was, warts and all. They may not know that I have the admittedly lackluster Golden Earring album Cut on both Vinyl and CD because as a child my mom played that album during summer roadtrips across Alaska(this is also partly why I have so many Electric Light Orchestra albums, although the rest of the reason is because they rock!). There's no way someone randomly looking through my CDs would know that I own ABBA Gold because during a few months in London I would go to the club Trash every Monday with the Swedish woman I was staying with, and the final song every night was Dancing Queen. They played it ironically, I think, but I ended every night thinking 'this is the best song in the history of ever!' However this collection still traces the path of my life, my interests and my moods.

Everything I own has a story to go along with it, and a connection to my life that goes beyond what you might think. And although people probably won't get the whole story, my collection of 'meaningless things' forms as personal a roadmap of my life as any diary could be. If you know how to read it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Tales From the Discount Bin: A Princess of Mars

I am now up to the 'S' section of my music library, which means I'll soon be done, and will be able to once again devote my time to blogging and writing in general.

Reading up on Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the most recent book in my 'bargain bin' project, I couldn't help but feel a sort of kinship for the man. Born in 1875, Burroughs tried to enroll in West Point but wasn't accepted, enlisted in the army but received a medical discharge before too long. After that he took a few odd jobs, ending up at his father's firm in 1899, marrying in 1900, and quitting his job in 1904. He took a few odd, low-paying jobs, wandered the country, did some ranch work, and in 1911, as a pencil sharpener salesman(a job which I find it hard to imagine ANYONE doing) found himself with a lot of free time. It was during this free time that he began reading pulp magazines and novels, of which he later said:

"...if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines that I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines."

And so, at the ripe old age of 36, with no prior experience whatsoever, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the serialized story that would eventually become A Princess of Mars, the first book in his still-popular and influential series of books dealing with Mars. From there it was only a short time until Tarzan came out, becoming one of the most recognizable(and profitable) characters of the last century.

I don't mean to imply I'm a wildly talented and influential author, or even that I one day aspire to be, but I still find this man's life story inspiring and especially relatable to my life. It's been said, and I always assumed, that aimlessness and slacking off were traits specific to the later section of the 20th century, an affliction unseen in such abundance before Generation X. And here is proof positive that that is incorrect. Here is a man who spent his entire twenties wandering aimlessly from one short, low paying job to another, turning his back on his father's business even though he had a wife and children to provide for. A man in a job with a lot of free time, and a sudden, almost idle desire to begin writing. And he became as successful at it as anyone in his day. Moreso, in most cases. It gives me hope, as I near my thirties, with an ever-growing list of job titles behind me and no clear idea of what I want to do with my life. With a longtime girlfriend and a four year old daughter and still no driving ambition, only a desire to make a modest living doing things I enjoy and making my family life as happy as possible. It isn't too late for me to discover my purpose(for lack of a better word), and there's still plenty of time to make my way out of my 'wilderness years.'

Not having read too many(or, more truthfully, any) pulp fiction magazines from the early 1900s, I can't honestly say whether or not Burroughs succeeded in writing stories superior to the ones he had read, although I think history has proven him the victor. Certainly A Princess of Mars was enjoyable as all get-out, and to realize that this was Edgar Rice Burroughs' maiden voyage as a writer, his first attempt, is all the more impressive.

Featuring absolutely none of the techno-babble that stalls so many other sci-fi books, Burroughs instead focuses his book on one action set-piece after another. John Carter, a ridiculously virile man, a southern gentleman fresh out of the Civil War, hides in an empty cave from a tribe of hostile Indians, and is inexplicably transported to Mars, where he is 'captured' by the Tharks. Tharks are a race of green men larger than humans, with four arms and huge tusks. The Tharks are warriors by nature, almost a proto-Klingon; fierce and barbaric but with an honest and strict code of conduct. On Mars, John Carter finds he has almost super-strength(owing mainly to the low gravitational force), and when he strikes a Thark for rudeness, accidentally killing him, he finds himself made a lesser chieftain in this alien society. During his time with these Tharks, he witnesses a battle against a race more like his own in both appearance and temperament. The Tharks take one captive, a princess of this human-like race, and of course John Carter falls in love with her and they plan their escape back to her kingdom. The book is, I have to admit, a nifty piece of fantasy wish-fulfillment, both for the author(John Carter is clearly the type of man Burroughs would like himself to be) and the reader, with every obstacle overcome triumphantly, and every action as noble and self-sacrificing as could be.

Although Burroughs never gets bogged down in politics or technical minutiae(both of which murdered A Brand New World, my last purely sci-fi read), his vision of Mars is remarkably well thought out, even if we don't see everything. The society of the Tharks is believably constructed, and although it conveniently allows our hero some loopholes which allow the story to progress, it is always logical. They even have what is reputed to be the first example of a detailed alien language in sci-fi, although rudimentary and not very detailed. The weaponry and other assorted gadgetry is explained only as much as it needs to be in order for the story to make sense. There are a few questions raised that are never answered, most notably in my mind is exactly why and how John Carter was sent to Mars, although it's somewhat understandable why he came back. And what was up with that morbid tableau that greeted John when he returned to Earth in the very same cave? I'm assuming that these questions will be answered in future books, and the prospect of unfolding this mystery is especially tantalizing.

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed the hell out of this book. It was consistently fun and fast moving, although in that 'I'm getting paid by the word, lets use as many run-on sentences as possibly' way. And although the story progression isn't exactly complex, it has a sense of depths unseen that most of the books I've been reading in this project just don't have. I can't wait to read more, not just of this series but of this author.