Archive for October, 2013

[50/50] Between a rock and hard place II

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

This bring my 50/50 countdown to the Top 15 — and a conundrum.

Clearly this year has not gone as planned. A severe injury and my dad’s death have left me reeling, and months behind my original schedule. At the current rate, I’d have to post at least one entry every day for the rest of the year to make my 50th birthday deadline. That’s at least 75 essays, each one getting no doubt longer as we get closer to #1. I really do enjoy writing these, but at 150 words an hour (yes, I’m that slow a writer), it is just not going to be possible to make my deadline and give my picks the praise they deserve. Certainly not with the holidays encroaching, certainly not with more pressing needs at work and at home.

I could skip through the list and just post the names — but where’s the fun in that? Plus, it’s not like my No. 1 movie or album is going anywhere …

Anyway, the countdown will continue as soon possible.

[50/50] Between a rock and a hard place

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

SomeGirls78This entry is about the oddest concert experience I ever had. This is also the only opportunity I’ll have to write about the Rolling Stones as (spoiler alert) they don’t appear anywhere in my Top 50, songs or albums. (Although, it should be noted, “Some Girls” came close to making the cut, and I always had a soft spot for their oddball hit “Emotional Rescue,” if only because I remember my friend Monty mocking Mick Jagger’s soliloquy at the end of the song, endlessly repeating “I will be your knight in shiiiiiinning aaaaaaaaaaamour …. on a fine aaaaaaaarab chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarger” as we played D&D in the Link’s basement.)

Anyway, back to the concert. After years of listening to my friend Rusty go on and on about how awesome the Stones’ famous 1981 tour was, and, having never seen them play live —[ Fun Fact Aside! One of the very first shows the Stones ever played in the U.S. was at the FARM SHOW ARENA in Harrisburg … in 1964! ]— my brother got us tickets to the 1989 Steel Wheels tour. This tour was notable in that a) it was the first band stage so tall it required FAA lights at the top of the structure so planes wouldn’t hit it and b) it was widely reported that this would be the Rolling Stones final tour.

… I’ll give you a minute so you can stop laughing…

So there we were, in Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia with 100,000 people before a structure the size of an aircraft carrier, with stories-high blowup dolls flanking the stage and swaying back and forth as Mick and Keith played the hits. They veered into stuff off their latest album and had just broken into a number called “Rock and a Hard Place” when a fight broke out in the row in front of us. Stadium security quickly appeared, but instead of coming down the aisle, they decided to swarm over the seats of our section and make a beeline for the brawl. Suddenly, my brother and I were in the middle of a huge scrum between the frat boys, still throwing punches, and overzealous guards grabbing over our heads. The crush of people carried us back and forth like a rugby ball as the chorus reached its crescendo and Jagger yelled repeatedly “Between a ROCK” and the backup singers replied “and a HARD PLACE.”

I looked at my brother and shouted out something like, “oh the irony.”

As the song ended the cops swept down the aisle and dragged the perps out. The guards wanted to clear the whole section and tried to throw everyone out, but the police stopped them. I don’t remember much after that except that we now had a much better view of the stage. Regardless, I wanted to thank the Rolling Stones for giving me my most literal rock-n-roll experience ever.

[50/50] Song #16: “Crazy on You”

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

[50/50] Song #16: “Crazy on You” — Heart (1977)

  You know who you are.

[50/50] Computer Game #1: “Robosport”

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

268009-robosport-amiga-screenshot-movie-player-screensComputer Game #1: Robosport (1991)

RoboSport--1I contend that Robosport is the greatest computer game ever, because it can only be played on a computer. Equal parts chess and S.W.A.T. tactics, players control a squad of programmable robots armed with machine guns, grenades, missile launchers and time bombs. Each turn, you and your opponents plot out all your moves ahead of time, ordering your robots to take actions in advance without knowing for sure what they’ll run into. This guarantees that a) you are forced to think carefully about your strategy each turn, and b) your best laid plans will usually, hilariously, go awry. Robots cackle gleefully as opponents are blasted from ambush, only to be vaporized seconds later while shouting “Ow!” ‘Bots with attack orders bound around corners and instantly annihilate one another, while those with move orders bounce straight past enemy units. Turns play out as mini-movies, and at the end of the game you can watch the fight unfold in one big exploding replay.

Cheeky and eminently replayable, Robosport is the thinking man’s Battlebots. In fact, I keep nursing along an old Mac with System 7 just so I have a machine on which to play it when my brother comes to visit.

[50/50] Genre Movie #1: “Star Trek II”

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Genre Movie #1: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982)

star_trek2-01For the 25th anniversary of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, we saw a special showing at The Carolina Theater with a fully restored 35mm print — and it was gorgeous. While you can laugh at William Shatner’s overacting or Ricardo Montalban’s chestplate, this is a stunningly beautiful film and, for all its special effects, a tense intimate drama. Kirk and Khan never appear in the same scene together, yet their interstellar mano-e-mano is one of the best boxing matches in cinema. Plus, thanks to big screen budget, we finally get to see the kind of damage starships can do.

“Star Trek II” isn’t just the best Trek movie, it’s a great sci-fi movie period. And, without its success — both commercially and storytelling-wise — there would never have been a “Next Generation,” no “Deep Space Nine” and (for what it’s worth) no JJ Abrams reboot.

And yes, I cried when Spock died. If you can get through Leonard Nimoy’s iconic death scene without shedding a tear, Scotty playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes will finish you off — heck, anyone playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes chokes me up. It’s a scene that deserves its reputation.


The Phantom Itch of Potential

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Yesterday, I junked the two most expensive pieces of metal I ever bought — a 2001 Volvo S40, and a Macintosh G5 I purchased in 2005. Even though we got them new, both proved to be problematic from the get-go, especially the S40, which almost qualified to be returned under the state’s lemon law. The Mac died a couple of years ago and was being used as a stand for the computer that replaced it.

prod_powermac_g5I won’t miss them, and, given the trouble they gave me over the years, I should have been happy to be free of both. Instead, I found myself wistful. I got the Mac when I quit the Herald-Sun and struck out as a full-time freelancer; it was The Big Purchase, the keystone of an exciting new venture. I had three big clients and work lined up for a year. Two days after I ordered it, Apple announced a whole new line of computers, but for those two days — and for the first and only time in my life — I possessed the cutting edge in technology.

Within a month, my primary client imploded, the result of an internal feud between partners. By spring it became clear a second client had promised more than they could deliver, and in short order I realized I could no longer work with the third. Luckily I landed at the Independent, but less than a year after it launched, my big adventure cratered.

As for the car, we got that when my wife was working in Raleigh and feared for her life every time she got on I-40. She wanted to feel safe commuting, so we got her a Volvo. Thanks to her new job we were actually in a position to afford it so … you probably know where this is going. Of course she got laid off a few months later. No problem, we thought, Volvos are still great cars and a great investment!


It seemed when Volvo was bought by Ford, they didn’t have a smooth integration: the 2000s and 2001s turned out to be the most unreliable cars they ever produced. When we’d bring it into the dealership for repairs you could see the guys’ shoulders sag from the parking lot. “What is it this time?” the mechanics would sigh. Usually it was the electrical system or the onboard computer. (I always wanted a car from the Year 2001: just my luck I got HAL.) They kept fixing it, nursing it along until they were clear of the cut-off date for the lemon law, at which point they washed their hands of us. Our S40 limped along for the next decade, literally falling apart around us — sometimes ON us, as when the sunroof fell in and hit me while I was driving — until it finally failed to pass inspection this year.

Again, I should have been happy when it was towed away.

Neither prospect ever delivered on their promise, but I couldn’t entirely write them off, disappointing though they were — I could still feel all that potential I felt when we bought these centerpiece items. If we had done things differently? — things still would have failed. Even with this knowledge, I could still see the plans we made, the goals we were hoping to reach. Failure somehow didn’t erase these when it took the rest.

Does that echo ever dissipate? I had a project once, a big one that took years to complete, and I needed a certain item from a certain store that happened to be on the way to a friend’s house in another state. Turns out they didn’t have it, and it forced me to find a different — and in the end, better — solution. Except…

That project has been done for over a decade now, but every time I drive down that highway I think, “don’t forget to stop and check.” Hell, not only is that store gone, the store that replaced it is gone, yet I can’t drive past it without thinking of getting off the exit and seeing if they have that part.

Unrealized potential, it seems, doesn’t have a half-life.

[50/50] Book #1: “The Great Gatsby”

Sunday, October 27th, 2013

Novel #1: “The Great Gatsby” — F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Gatsby_1925_jacketOne of the few advantages of working for the Indy is I get to meet a lot of writers. I ran into Allan Gurganus at a party last year and, knowing his great love of F. Scott Fitzgerald, asked him if he was going to see the new 3-D version of The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrman. “Oh I don’t know,” he replied, “I think I have to. I’m nervous — but I’m such a fan of Baz Luhrmam. ‘Moulin Rouge’ was fabulous.”

He shouldn’t have had to worry — in spite of the hyperactive CGI and modern soundtrack, the latest big screen adaptation of the Great American Novel isn’t just faithful to Fitzgerald’s original, it’s almost slavishly so. It’s as if Baz used the Jay-Z produced songs to trick high schoolers into seeing a live-action novel. Even the entirely-invented framing device of making Nick Carraway the author of “The Great Gatsby” — allowing the character to read passages from the novel in heavy-handed voiceover — doesn’t detract. If anything, it just showed that Luhrman knew he couldn’t have written better passages than Fitzgerald, and didn’t even try.


If you’ve been reading this blog long enough and noticed certain key words — nostalgia, loss, bittersweet longing — it’s no surprise this is my all-time favorite novel … well, ok, novel that doesn’t involve elves, starships or cyberspace. Long before I read it for the first time, I remember high school friends Matt and Paul going on and on about the party scenes. This is of course what is going to appeal most to a teen, that promise of promiscuity and looming bacchanalia. Later, in your 20s, you pick up on the clusterfuck of intertwined relationships at the heart of the plot, and by the time you reread it in your 30s or 40s, you understand the longing Gatsby cannot escape — that urge to recapture lost opportunities — at the same time you recognize his utter delusion. I look forward to seeing what reading it in my 50s brings.

I saw Gurganus give a talk on “The Great Gatsby” a few years back, delving into things you don’t get in your average American Lit class: how close the story mirrored Fitzgerald’s life, how carefully he chose the names of the characters to load them with symbolism, how his editor saved the book from disaster by cutting out half the original manuscript. What remained is suave and svelte, unabashedly sentimental yet deeply trenchant. Is it any wonder that Roger Ebert flew into an online rage when a Scholastic edition of the book stripped it of all language and meaning? How could you mess with one of the best denouments every written?

“And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

[50/50] Song #17: “Immigrant Song”

Saturday, October 26th, 2013

Song #17: “Immigrant Song” — Led Zeppelin (1970)

I was just looking for another excuse to post this:

[50/50] Computer Game #2: “Warcraft II”

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Computer Game #2: “Warcraft II” (1996)

warcraft-ii-tides-of-darkness-pc-016Long before World of Warcraft borgified the internet, Warcraft was a clever and humorous real-time strategy game where you chopped down trees, built castles, raised troops and raided your buddies’ kingdoms. While you could take on the missions laid out like chapters in a sprawling narrative, the real fun of the game — as always — was playing against your friends, no matter where they were. Warcraft II’s helped coordinate team play in the early days of the web, and enabled you to join forces with a co-worker and beat up your brother in Baltimore. Good times.

[50/50] Genre Movie #2: “Star Wars”

Thursday, October 24th, 2013


Genre Movie #2: “Star Wars” (1977)

Like Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas had a singular talent: he was very good at finding and hiring other very talented people. For everything that can be said about Lucas as a technician and movie maker — he was mechanically astute and had an exceptional visual eye — he was not a very good director, editor or writer. But he knew people that were. Everything we love about “Star Wars” — the look, the sound, the designs, the special effects, the sweep of the action — all of that was created by other people, who helped Lucas remix and reform the pop culture snippets he grabbed from movies and the pulp sci-fi he devoured growing up. (Heck, even the famous opening scene of the Star Destroyer rolling endlessly overhead was lifted from — or, if you want to be charitable, inspired by — a similar shot from “Space: 1999,” which aired around the time Lucas was in England to began pre-production work on “Star Wars.” As the old adage goes, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”) Lucas was a visual artist, yet the older he got, the more he forgot the most important rule: Show, don’t tell. The stuff people hate about Star Wars — the terrible writing, the abuse of English, the endless revamping and retconning — that’s all Lucas.


My “Star Wars” can be found in the amazing paintings of Ralph McQuarrie, who Lucas hired to help illustrate the script he was pitching. It was McQuarrie who gave shape to what we now recognize as the lasting legacy of the movie: its appearance. I still get the same sense of wonder each time I see these renderings, 35 years after I first discovered them in a short preview in Starlog magazine. These earliest images are curious too because the details are so different from what eventually was filmed, based as they were on an early draft of the script. In a way, I’m still waiting to see that movie.


(In a grand experiment, Dark Horse Comics recently began publishing a series based on Lucas’ first rough draft. Called “The Star Wars,” it is radically different — almost unrecognizable — from what appeared in theaters. I’m looking forward to reading it, if for no other reason than it, brings me full circle with my Star Wars experience.) As for that experience? Star Wars used to be much higher on this list, in my all-time Top 5 favorite movies, period. It was a massive influence on me as a kid, when I wanted to be a filmmaker, and even later, when it had a huge sway over me as a game designer.


By extension, “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) should be on this list of favorite movies as well. It is widely thought to be better than “Star Wars,” and is frequently held up as the best example of how a sequel could be done. (It should be noted it was not directed by Lucas, but Irvin Kershner.) The Battle for Hoth is still one of the most thrilling cinematic achievements ever. Lucas’ endless tinkering with his ‘baby’ — instead of making new movies, he just kept reworking the same three films past the point where anyone cared — doesn’t take that away.


In the end, people can be very hard on George Lucas — and justifiably so. But the fact remains: he is probably the only director to inspire filmmakers around the world twice — first, when he did “Star Wars” in 1977 and showed everyone how to make a movie; and again in 1999, when he did the prequels, and showed everyone how not to make a movie. How many people can say that?