Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The make your own conspiracy sweepstakes!

OK, so I know that the Blade-Selene showdown is past due, but I'm putting the vampire cage matches on brief hiatus because tomorrow I'm hopping in my car and driving to Ontario for the summer. I've sort of been running around madly the past few days getting everything in order here, and will hopefully be able to post from the road with some road trip pictures &c, but expect posting on this blog to be somewhat light over the next week or so. I promise the Blade-Selene fight will be up within a week.

IN THE MEANTIME. I caught this screen capture from Lewis Black's utterly brilliant evisceration of Glenn Beck on The Daily Show last week. I think it bears a close look.

See it? In the very middle at the top of his chalkboard, Beck has written—in caps, and circled—the word TIDES. Tides. Seriously. Which makes me wonder: what the hell kind of cracked-out conspiracy theory has he got going for this one? How, precisely, do the tides figure in on Obama's Islamohomosocialifascist agenda?

Well, I think this is a fabulous opportunity to make our own conspiracy theories, gentle readers. Please share how the moon's nefarious, and probably ultra-left-wing control over the rising and falling of the seas fits into the imminent government seizure of your guns. Or possibly health care. Really, who the fuck knows.

Winner of the contest gets a crisp new five-dollar bill.*

*may not be legal tender

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My two cents on Lost

Whatever else the series finale of Lost accomplished, one thing is certain: no other television finale has ever excited so much delight, confusion, anger, annoyance, rapture, and of course argument and discussion (and as I write this, it is still only thirty-six hours since Jack's eye closed on Sunday night). For this reason it stands as a landmark television event. I can think of few television series that have excited such an intense emotional response. I remember when M*A*S*H ended (I was eleven, and my parents allowed me to stay up to watch the finale), there was an editorial cartoon in which a neighbourhood of houses collectively wailed "W*H*A*A*A*H!!" The days leading up to last Sunday evening featured a similar chorus of lamentation on Facebook and in the blogosphere as people girded themselves for the end.

Just as an aside, I've been trying to compile a list of the best series finales. Know what? There aren't many good ones. It would appear to be a difficult sub-genre to get right, especially for series that have been well-loved and that actually have the opportunity to wrap things up with a bow—as opposed to those which end abruptly, get cancelled, or just sort of spin down in their twilight days, having run for several seasons past their best-before date. The West Wing, which I'd had such hopes for, was limpid and disappointing—basically it was President Bartlett being harried by his secretary Debby to hurry up and leave the White House, when it could have done so much more. Seinfeld was just insipid, Buffy sort of meh, and I had long ceased caring with Friends. Angel at least went out with a bang. In the small category of good finales goes The Wire, whose closing montage pretty much wrecked me. I'm also one of the people who thinks that The Sopranos' controversial cut-to-black ending was brilliant.

But the hands-down winner, no question, is Six Feet Under. The final season of this show made up for some missteps and directionless story-arcs to absolutely eviscerate viewers with a season-long narrative that at times bordered on the nihilistic. But in the last few episodes it did something incredibly rare: it redeemed its characters and came to a hopeful end without being trite or saccharine or disingenuous. And the final sequence never fails to make me tear up. It lacks much of the emotional punch if you don't know the characters, but it is still a lovely bit of storytelling:

But, back to Lost. My considered opinion at this point is as follows: the way they ended the show, I think, definitively gives the lie to Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse's claim to have known how they were going to end it all along. Now, to be fair, I've cried bullshit on that claim before—I think it was plain pretty much from the beginning that much of the show was being made up as they went along. I'm not saying there wasn't an over-arching thematic shape to the show—the whole black/white, good/evil, self/other binary is pretty much embedded in the show's DNA—but I don't think that really coalesced into the Jacob vs. Man in Black mythology until much later in the series than the writers would have us believe.

My main reason for saying this is that Lost ultimately provided a collection of red herrings that seemed so incredibly significant for much of the series, only to be left by the wayside once Jacob's role as gatekeeper and his selection of Jack et al as "candidates" came into focus. Such elements as the persistent ancient Egyptian references become, in hindsight, more or less incidental to the story. Don't get me wrong—I don't want every last thing to be explained, and I am actually on board with stories and narratives that leave much to the imagination. My problem is not that such elements are not accounted for so much as that, in the end, they seem to have nothing to do with where the story ultimately goes. Lost has become equally notorious for dropping sly allusions and references and for the fans to discuss their significance endlessly—that has been, for many people, one of the central pleasures of the series. To a certain extent, Lindelof and Cuse kind of gave themselves an impossible task—there was no way everything was ever going to be accounted for, but in the end I find myself less impressed with the show's self-conscious intertextuality as I come to suspect that much of it was done simply to be clever and mysterious, as opposed to playing a significant narrative or thematic function.

All that being said, I must confess I loved the final episode. I completely understand many viewers' ire, and indeed agree with much of it. But what the final episode struck me as being, more than anything else, was a love letter to the show's characters and the fans who have followed them for six years. Like all great television, it was the characters that made the show, and the finale was an incredibly over-the-top but deeply gratifying exercise in emphasizing the web of connections between people through the simple expedient of having them remember. Each flash of memory, and the characters' recognition of that memory, played directly on the heartstrings of the viewers. (The Juliet/Sawyer moment of recognition seems to be the favourite, but mine was Sun and Jin in the hospital).

If I were to be uncharitable, I would call this a cop-out on Lindelof and Cuse's part, fudging the show's complexity to give us instead a gratuitous love-in at the end with Christian Shephard (finally someone calls that name out for its heavy-handedness) playing the symbolic role of redeemed patriarch for a cast of characters plagued by daddy issues for six years. And yes, I did find the final fifteen minutes in the church a little hard to stomach, but that was nicely balanced by Jack's last moments on the island, collapsing in the bamboo patch where it all started, with Vincent the dog stretched sympathetically out beside him, seeing the airplane with the others escaping.

It was no Six Feet Under ... but it will serve.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

On teaching poetry to first-years, and other purgatorial endeavours

WARNING: long, rambling, thinking-out-loud blog post that has been written over several days ahead. Those wishing to cut to the chase are recommended to read the first four and last three paragraphs. I promise I won't be offended.

I realized on Friday that I was past due submitting my book orders for the fall term ... which means I was past due in figuring out what texts I want to teach next year. The first selection is fairly easy: English 2213, "Twentieth Century U.S. Fiction." I always have fun making a series of lists, and finally winnowing it down to six novels (the most I can realistically teach in thirteen weeks) that ideally cover a broad swath of time and include a range of authors across history, gender, and ethnicity.

The final list for next year, if anyone's interested—or planning on taking the course and want to get your reading done over the summer—is as follows:

  • Willa Cather, My Ántonia
  • John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
  • Richard Wright, Native Son
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
  • Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
  • Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

It perhaps goes without saying, but I love teaching this course. It's a pretty popular course too, though that has less to do with me than with the fact that students look at the title "Twentieth Century U.S. Fiction" and think to themselves "I like all of those words!" Twentieth century? Score! American? Right on! Fiction? Sweet!

It is of course the last word in the title that seals the deal. If I were instead to teach "Twentieth Century U.S. Poetry," my enrolment numbers would drop off precipitously. Because here's the thing: English students are generally reluctant to read poetry. Sad, but true. Even a bit counterintuitive, perhaps. I mean, if people dedicated enough to literature to make it their major area of study at university don't want to read poetry, who will?

(That question, by the way, is rhetorical. I know there are many, many poetry enthusiasts out there—they just don't tend to take my classes, at least not in numbers large enough to make a difference).

However, at least with English majors one does not really have to justify the inclusion of poetry in the curriculum. They may bob and weave all the way through their degree, avoiding classes with poetry as much as possible, but they do accept—however grudgingly—that an English degree entirely sans poetry is lacking. They may not like it, but they deal with it, much like sociology students suffer through their required stats courses.

It's an entirely different ball game with first-year classes. Here at Memorial, every single student is required to take first-year English. At the very least, they have to take English 1080, a general introduction. Most faculties and degrees also require a second first year English, either 1101 (fiction), 1102 (drama), 1103 (poetry), or 1110 (advanced composition). Guess which course is most in demand?

I'd taught 1101 a few times before finally teaching 1080 this past autumn. I don't mind admitting, the course pretty much kicked my ass—teaching a course that is part literature survey and part introductory composition to a class of students who, on the balance, have no interest in literature and at times are actively resentful of the course, is an entirely different kettle of newts than anything else I have ever done. Even 1101 is substantially easier to deal with—the students have choice in which second-term first-year English they take, and at that point have a semester of university under their belt.

Plus, in 1101 I'm not requiring them to read and analyze poetry.

Poetry may not be the focus of my own research and scholarship, but I am a devoted believer in its educational value. The potential for experiencing the sublime when poring carefully over Donne or Adrienne Rich or Seamus Heaney should not be understated, but films like Dead Poets Society do literary study a disservice by dwelling exclusively on the romantic dimension of personal emotional gratification; as a friend of mine once observed, of the many reasons John Milton wrote Paradise Lost, wooing women was probably not high on the list.

It's a nice thought to imagine going into a classroom of recalcitrant first-years who plan to major in business and engineering, and opening their minds to the inspired beauty of great poetry, but any teacher going into a classroom with only that goal in mind is going to end up pandering and probably not teaching anything of any substance. I want my students to appreciate the aesthetic pleasures of poetry, and I hope they learn to do so, but more important is the intellectual exercise itself of reading, critiquing, and understanding the text.

To put it another way: Why study poetry? Because it is complex and subtle and nuanced, and offers multiple interpretations simultaneously. What literary study offers is not breadth, but depth. What it offers is an opportunity to pit your mind against some of the greatest linguistic creations of the past five centuries—difficult at times, frustrating, but ultimately more rewarding than reading something facile and one-dimensional. To use a sports analogy, you don't get better by playing with or against inferior players.

I always encourage my students to think about not just what readings are on the course, but why those readings—why Native Son and not Invisible Man? Why this writer and not another? What does this course leave out? What is the significance of what it includes? Along similar lines, I encourage them to think about what the use of a given course is. Why do an English degree? As someone who has spent now half his life answering that very question (or the common variations like "So what kind of a job will that get you?" or "So ... I guess you're going to be a teacher?"), I encourage them to be self-reflective in this way partly out of self-interest—a class full of engaged, reflective minds is infinitely preferable to a class full of apathetic students majoring in English as a default. If you're doing this degree simply because you like to read novels, I always say, join a book club and save your tuition.

Obviously, I wouldn't be doing what I do if I didn't believe rather passionately in its worth and value. Making a case for the liberal arts however has to thread a needle between its practicality and its worth simply in and of itself. On one hand, the value of studying arts and humanities is always going to be rather more nebulous than such professional degrees as engineering and medicine or anything that has immediate, practical application. Study for the sake of study and learning for the sake of learning benefit you in uncounted intangible ways. On the other hand, I like to make my students aware of the concrete, valuable, and marketable skills literary study teaches: clarity of expression, critical acumen, sophisticated analysis, and the ability to present a cogent and lucid argument.

I don't have to work too hard to sell students on the applicability of essay-writing and composition. But they balk at reading writing about poetry.

Teaching English 1080 for the first time this past year, I tried a strategy of starting gently and gradually ramping up the complexity and difficulty of the texts. We started with straightforwardly persuasive writing: political oratory, and then polemical essays. We moved from there to satirical essays, personal essays, and then into short fiction. We finished with poetry, and my hope had been that the students would see it on a continuum of rhetorical strategies.

Starting gently didn't help. Somewhere around the middle of the fiction unit, we foundered, and hit a wall with poetry.

I've come away from the course with two conclusions. The first is that next year we do poetry right out of the gate. Leading a horse to water didn't work; perhaps we'll drop the horse in a pool from a great height and see if that makes more of an impression.

The second is a clearer personal conception of poetry's contemporary significance. There have been a host of defences of and apologies for poetry over the centuries, from the Roman poet Horace who gave us the still-relevant assertion that poetry's twin mission is "to delight and instruct," to Shelley who held that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." What, however, is the role of poetry in the digital age, of instantly accessible information, of media sound bites, political talking points, viral YouTube videos, "brand recognition," and endless PowerPoint presentations?

Next year in 1080, while I will completely reorganize the readings, I'm keeping my theme, which is that all language is rhetorical. All language is designed to convince us of something. In moving from political oratory to poetry, I hoped to illustrate how that "something" is not necessarily specific, and can in fact possess a multiplicity of meanings—and that very multiplicity resides an exercise in reimagining the world.

That is the value, and necessity, of poetry to the contemporary moment: poetry is the antithesis of propaganda. The same can of course be said of literature more broadly, but poetry is the most overt expression of this principle. Propaganda reduces, flattens, simplifies; its main purpose is to reduce language to the narrowest number of meaning possible. It is not just anti-intellectual, but anti-thought—it aims for instinctual and visceral responses, whether those be hatred and fear or the desire for the lifestyle depicted in Nike ads. For in the democratic West today, advertising is the most pervasive and pernicious form of propaganda to which we are exposed; the practices of advertising have infected political discourse, something we witness when pundits straight-facedly opine that this or that political party needs to improve its "brand." Poetry resists simplistic interpretation, and demands that we tease out a host of sometimes contradictory ideas, thoughts, meanings. And as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously asserted, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Propaganda creates illusory clarity; poetry values ambiguity, ambivalence, and contradiction. Like Orwell's Newspeak, propaganda wants to limit meaning; poetry seeks to multiply meaning.

It's like I tell my students: you will never be asked to analyze Wallace Stevens' use of surreal imagery or the conceit of aging and the seasons in Shakespeare's sonnets in a job interview (unless, of course, you are applying for a job as an English prof). But serious time devoted to doing those things over the course of an English degree does train your mind to be alive to the subtleties and nuance of language, and imparts a talent to read and write with a greater sophistication than you would otherwise develop.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Cage Match: Eric Northman vs. Drusilla

I hope that Joss Whedon fans are pumped for the first semifinal, which after Angel's decisive thumping of Damon Salvatore 25-6, comes down to Angel and Spike. I'll tell you right now, that fight's going to be too close to call. I will leave it in the capable hands of my tens of fans.

But before we can get there, we have two more fights to get through, the first of them today between another Whedonverse favourite, Drusilla, and Eric Northman of True Blood. Drusilla won the coin toss, and has opted to fight in ... well, I'll let you see for yourself.


Eric peers around at the surreal landscape, which looks like a cross between the fevered imaginings of Lewis Carroll and Christina Rossetti. Drusilla, he has learned, was cursed with clairvoyance in her mortal life in Victorian England, and driven crazy with religious guilt by Angelus before being turned. The result was a deeply unstable, highly unpredictable and exceptionally cruel vampire. Eric is confident in his own power and strength, but in his long life has learned to be wary of the caprices of an insane mind.

He senses her before he sees her.

"Pretty boy," she coos, her singsong voice echoing eerily around the murky storybook landscape. "I do so love my pretty, pretty boys. So much tastier than the repulsive child of the snow and dark."

Eric favours her with a long, appraising look. Drusilla stands about thirty feet away, under the branches of a gnarled and massive tree whose trunk, Eric realizes with a jolt, is twisted into a cruelly expressive face. Drusilla wears a simple white dress, and has draped over her shoulders a deep crimson wrap. She is barefoot.

"This is you, isn't it?" Eric asks, gesturing around him. "This place. This is some sort of manifestation of your own mind."

She gives a high, trilling laugh. "They said, they said, choose your territory. Where are you most at home, I was asked."

In your own mind, Eric thinks in reply. He peers into the gloom of the sinister cartoon forest, whose rustles in the nonexistent breeze sound like the whispers of a dozen voices.

Eric does not move, but stands with feigned nonchalance, staring intently at Drusilla. For the first time, she seems slightly discomfited.

"Will you not come and join me, my pretty boy?" she sings out to him, but he hears the slight quaver in her voice.

"I think not." Eric smiles. "I am very old, Drusilla ... much older than you, and I really have no need to hurry. I can stand here as long as is necessary."

She frowns, and clucks her tongue in annoyance. "So very, very boring. The ugly child of snow and dark liked to play."

Yes, I imagine that was his undoing, Eric thinks.

Drusilla emerges from beneath the tree, letting her crimson shawl trail behind her like a silken wound. "Do not be boring, my pretty boy. Come play with me."

Eric does not move. Drusilla flashes past him, letting the wrap float on the air. Eric raises his hand in time to block the loop of piano wire Drusilla had hidden in the shawl. As she yanks on the wire, he wraps his hand in it and hauls forward. Drusilla finds herself pulled toward Eric as he throws his head back to crunch into her face. Whiplike, he spins around, pulling the wire from her stunned hands and winding it around her neck.

"You know, someone once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result," he says conversationally. "I've never quite understood that." He tightens the wire and watches Drusilla explode in dust.

Projected Winner: ERIC NORTHMAN

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Texas, redux

Back in March I wrote a blog post about the Texas Board of Education and the attempts of its majority faction of Christian conservatives to introduce significant changes to the state's social studies curriculum, and thus its textbooks. My earlier post focused on their elision of Thomas Jefferson from the revised curriculum, which I argued was part of a larger strategy to downplay the influence of Enlightenment philosophy on the United States' founding documents.

Well, the board will shortly vote on their proposed amendments. The new curriculum will, among other things:

  • Introduce a new focus on the "significant contributions" of pro-slavery Confederate leaders.
  • Teach that "the right to bear arms" is crucial to democracy.
  • Drop Sir Isaac Newton, and focus instead on how military development facilitates scientific advances.
  • Suggest that Joseph McCarthy's red-hunts were justified.
  • Rename "slave trade" as "Atlantic triangular trade."
  • Assert that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is driven more or less exclusively by Islamic fundamentalism.
  • Teach that economic prosperity requires "minimal government intrusion and taxation."
  • Describe the Civil Rights Movement as creating "unrealistic expectations of equal outcomes."
  • Claim that Martin Luther King and the Black Panther movement were simply two sides of the same coin.

Read the article about this in The Guardian—it gives a good overview of the preoccupations of the board's conservative faction, many of whom have argued in the past for introducing creationism into the state's science curriculum. As the article notes, while they were unsuccessful in modifying science classes, they have done much better with history and social science.

I'm not going to contest the bulleted highlights above—most frequent readers of this blog will know my general thoughts on them, and anyone who thinks all those changes are totally valid? Well, I imagine our perspectives are incommensurable.

No, I'm more concerned about the repercussions outside of Texas. If the state wants to regress its already blinkered schools to a pre-Copernican mindset, that's Texas' problem. The thing is, because of the economics of textbook publishing, the largest states tend to dictate what textbooks the rest of the country uses. Already, the Guardian article observes, "By some estimates, all but a handful of American states rely on text books written to meet the Texas curriculum."

That's right: because a handful of god-fearin' creationists who believe that the separation of the church and state is a liberal conspiracy got themselves elected to a state education board, kids in Delaware and Oregon will be taught that taxation precludes economic health, and that without a citizenry armed to the teeth, there is no democracy. (Somebody alert Sweden and tell them they got it exactly wrong.)

If nothing else, this saga is as good an argument as any I've heard for getting involved in local politics.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The guilty pleasures file: perfecting chicken wings

If I had to rank my favourite food indulgences, chicken wings would certainly make the top five. They certainly count as one of those foods that come with a host of associations: pubs, beer, time out with friends. They also count as food you don't want to consume frequently (though really, any pub food falls into that category).

Your standard pub wing is dusted in flour and deep fried, then tossed in your sauce of choice. This is how they are both wet and sticky and crunchy—which is important, because the texture of a wing contributes a great deal to how good it is. However good the sauce happens to be, if it's soggy it just doesn't do the same thing.

That's all well and good for pubs and restaurants, who have industrial fryers constantly on the go and therefore don't have to think twice about throwing a basket of wings in to crisp up. But if you're like me and love to cook, making wings at home can be an issue ... especially if you're also like me and (a) get nervous about having a pot of hot oil on the stove, and (b) hate the cleanup afterward.

The solution is to bake the wings, which actually works rather well. If you dust them in flour and bake them at about 400 degrees until golden brown, the chicken fat does much of the work that the fryer does otherwise. Then, make your sauce and toss the wings in it, and you're good to go.

Of course, I was never happy to leave it at that, and after much experimentation have arrived at the ultimate no-fry homemade chicken wings recipe.

The two secret ingredients here are panko breadcrumbs and buttermilk. Submerge your wings in buttermilk and let sit, the longer the better. Overnight is great, but at least an hour or two will suffice.

For the breadcrumbs, I like to mix in some corn starch to add to the crispness factor; some garlic powder, paprika, chilli powder, and cayenne. Really, any other herbs you want to add—it's up to you, but that's what I use. Mix the seasonings in thoroughly, and dredge your buttermilk-coated wings in the coating. Space them out evenly on a rack resting on a cookie sheet, and put them in an over preheated to 400 degrees.

They should take 30-45 minutes. They'll be cooked through in a half hour, but I recommend leaving them in longer so they have a nice, crunchy crust. I usually wait until they are a few shades darker than golden; the buttermilk keeps them from drying out.

Now, the sauce: I have experimented with dozens of variations on wing sauces, and tried several store-bought ones, but must come back in the end to the classic Buffalo sauce. It is so simple as to be criminal: equal parts Louisiana hot sauce and melted butter (the second part of this equation is also why you don't want to make these a regular meal).

Seriously. You simply cannot do any better than the original recipe, invented by some genius bar owner in Buffalo so many years ago. I favour Frank's Red Hot, but any variation on the classic Louisiana hot sauce will do. If you prefer spicier wings, you can ramp up the heat by adding Tobasco.

A tip: I have found that the best way to make the sauce is to put the butter in a small pot on an element, but don't turn it on. The heat from the oven will do the job for you, and when you're about five minutes out whisk in the hot sauce.

Get yourself a really big, cheap plastic bowl. Put the wings in the bowl, pour the hot sauce over them, and toss the wings until completely coated. Serve with baby carrots and blue cheese dressing. Invest in a box of wet wipes. The wings go well with a pale ale or dry white wine.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Cage Match: Angel vs. Damon Salvatore

Well, based on the crushing defeat Spike handed the first-seeded vampire--with the margin of 34-3!--I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that this tournament is now his to lose. He certainly excites a lot more voting than anyone else competing so far ...

As far as that goes, I noticed something interesting in my SiteMeter stats—every time I post a Spike fight, I'm getting a lot of referrals from a web discussion group called Don't Kill Spike, whose Live Journal page reposts the fight account and links to me. So a shout-out to those lovely Spike-obsessed peoples, and thanks for coming out to see the fights! Please don't be shy about leaving comments ...

But now, on to fight number two of our quarterfinals. Angel has returned from his Mexican adventure, ready to face Damon Salvatore. Angel wins the coin toss, and, in spite of Spike's earlier comments, selects the Sunnydale cemetery for the fight's location.


Damon sits cross-legged on top of a lichen-crusted tomb, peering around into the gloom. An interesting place, he thinks. I saw at least two other vampires stalking in the shadows, and also what I could almost swear was a Lubber Demon. Haven't seen one of those in decades.


Damon leaps to his feet, startled. Angel stands behind him about ten feet away.

"Nice," Damon jumps to the ground. "It's been a long time since anyone's been able to sneak up on me."

Angel shrugs. "Welcome to Sunnydale."

"Quite the nightlife you've got here."

"Being on a Hellmouth does that."

"Might take up residence here myself."

"Well, the town comes with a resident Slayer, but hey ... knock yourself out."

Damon peers more closely at his adversary. "I've heard a lot about you."

"Really? I can't say the same about you."

Damon shrugs off the jibe. "From what I've heard, you were pretty badass back in the day. Now you're all domesticated and concerned with mortals and stuff."

Angel's expressionless face suddenly splits in a wolfish grin. "Well, I guess you're about to see just how much of a house cat I've become."

"I've already seen it," Damon snorts derisively. "My brother Stefan is just like you. Weakened and hobbled by a conscience. I can't believe—"

Angel's attack catches Damon under the chin, and the blow lifts him up in the air to land on his back on top of the tomb. He rolls off, dropping into a defensive posture. Angel stands impassively, his arms at his side, as if he had never moved.

"I thought you said you'd heard of me, Damon," he says conversationally.

Damon snarls, and launches himself forward. They trade punches and kicks, neither managing to land a blow; on his guard, Damon finds that he can match Angel's seasoned fighter's skills, but cannot break through his defense. They move in a brutal ballet through the graveyard, leaping atop tombs and mausoleums, each testing the other carefully. Damon feels his blood seethe, enjoying the exchanges of blows, not having been matched against such an adversary in years and years.

They pause several meters apart, looking at each other appraisingly. "Not bad," Angels says grudgingly. "You've got a natural speed, and your viciousness almost makes up for your lack of technique."

"I'm just getting warmed up."

"Indeed?" Angel's arm flashes forward, throwing something at Damon's face. Damon feels a thin shell crack against his cheek and a gelatinous fluid spray out over his face.

He's throwing eggs at me? he thinks, enraged at the insult but puzzled at why Angel would stoop to such tactics. He wipes the goo from his face, and is about to sneer something derisive as a reply; he notices that it is not egg yolk on his hand at about the same time as he feels his knees buckle and the energy leave his body. He falls to the ground.

"This is—"

"Concentrated vervain extract? Right first try." Angel kicks the stricken Damon over on his back. "See, when I said I'd never heard of you, that wasn't entirely true. I have a pretty accomplished research team, and we were able to find out some fun things about you." From beneath a nearby tree, Angel retrieves the sword he'd hidden. "I'm sorry you'll never find your Katherine, friend. I mean that."

And he brings the sword down.

Projected Winner: ANGEL

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose

Friday Night Lights is back, and I say to everyone who has never watched this amazing TV show: go out and rent or buy the DVDs for the first three seasons. Seriously.

This is a tough show to sell, mainly because a lot of people are reluctant to give the benefit of the doubt to a television series about a high school football team set in rural Texas. To all the doubters, I encourage you to ask my father about my own personal enthusiasm about football. He would likely share a variety of anecdotes in which I rather comically make my ignorance and/or indifference about the sport known. Not a football fan. Never have been.

And yet I love this TV show, and think it's one of the best currently on network television. Why? Well, for the usual reasons, really—it is really well written, with interesting and complex characters, and is beyond that really well shot. Visually, it isn't afraid to play with colour and unconventional (for television) camerawork.

But really, it's all about the characters and the way football dominates the lives of everyone in the town of Dillon, Texas. The show both loves and loathes the sport, and oscillates between unabashed boosterism on one hand and the depredations such single-minded obsession has on the life of the town and the team on the other. The Friday night game is the center of the town's energy and self-image, and the first season saw new coach Eric Taylor trying to negotiate between his own coaching style and preoccupations, and the constant criticism and interference from the townsfolk on the other. Win a game, and be lionized; lose, and find insulting signs on your lawn the next morning.

I can understand people's scepticism going into Friday Night Lights considering how often and how heavy-handedly sport gets used in film and fiction as a grand metaphor for America; also, how nakedly emotionally manipulative climactic sequences are as the hero comes to bat at the bottom of the ninth, or as the final seconds tick away while the team faces a do-or-die touchdown attempt. Make no mistake, Friday Night Lights employs exactly this kind of emotional manipulation quite frequently (and it is deeply satisfying when it does), but the serial nature of its medium subverts the normal catharsis provided by sports movies. To put it another way: yeah, they just won the big game in a squeaker, but next episode or next season life goes on, and the pain and difficulty and struggles of everyday life are waiting underneath the euphoria of triumph.

This, I think, more than anything else is what sets Friday Night Lights apart from more typical sports narratives. We're never entirely certain whether football is balm or blight on the economically depressed town of Dillon; it offers on one hand a way out for those select few players who manage to score football scholarships to college, and galvanizes the town's pride and sense of self. On the other hand, the resources and energy devoted to winning often transgress moral and ethical lines; educational concerns take a back seat to football; and the team and coach are subjected to incredible pressure from the town, with predictable results: good players are venerated like kings, poor players vilified, and players suffering injuries that end their careers become immediate has-beens.

All of which is embedded in the town's oft-obsessed over history of football victories and championships. If ever there was a show that evoked Springsteen's song of pathetic nostalgia "Glory Days," this is it.

In other words, Friday Night Lights is about football the way The Wire is about drug dealing and policing. Nor is this analogy unapt for the new season. Friday Night Lights, after three seasons, was going to face a problem faced by all TV shows set in a high school: main characters graduate, which means that you either devise increasingly lame reasons to keep them around or you have the necessity of completely changing up the cast every few years. Friday Night Lights is splitting the difference: about half the main (student) characters have decamped for college, and the other half are sticking around for various reasons. But in a narrative move that promises to keep the show from getting stale, the end of season three saw Coach Taylor elbowed out of his job and hired by the impoverished East Dillon High. This season we're seeing parts of Dillon only hinted at in previous seasons. East Dillon is predominantly poor and African-American, and Taylor finds himself with a raft of problems he has never faced before—the big one being his new team's relative indifference to football and their understandable reluctance to be shouted at by a white man. The economic woes of Dillon in general that we saw previously now come into sharp relief.

I realize I've spent this post talking about Friday Night Lights in broad strokes, and not speaking about specific narrative points or characters. But then, if you're already a viewer, you know what I mean; if you're not, I don't want to give too much away.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Cage Match: The Master vs. Spike

And here we go! We begin Bracket A's second round with an all-Whedon showdown, between the first Big Bad of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Master, and the bad-guy-turned-good (well, sort of) Spike. Both had pretty easy fights in round one, but now each find themselves with a pretty formidable opponent.

Spike won the coin toss, but then asked me "So what are my options here? The vamp winning the toss has been choosing home turf ... but what home turf? I'm pretty old. I've lived a lot of places."

"What about the Sunnydale Cemetery?" I asked. "You lived there for a while."

"Oh, come on ... vampires fighting in a graveyard? How cliché do you want to go here?"

"OK," I replied, "fair point. I guess we never clarified the rules. You won the toss—choose wherever you want to fight."

Spike smirked, and rubbed his hands together gleefully. "Brilliant! I want this to be a proper bloody cage match. Let's do this in the UFC Octagon. I love that stuff."


The crowd is on its feet long before the fighters appear, cheering, waving signs. The announcer walks into the center of the Octagon, and speaks into the microphone that descends from above.

"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! We bring you a first in the UFC ring, a fight between the undead ... to the death! Our first warrior is an ancient vampire, whose kills are numberless. Ladies and gentlemen, The Master!"

The Master enters the ring to boos from much of the crowd, clad in his usual archaic, sober suit. He seems ill at ease in the midst of the chaos, discomfited by the noise of the crowd.

"Our second warrior tonight is the Maven of Mayhem, the Bleached Berserker, the King of Chaos himself, Spike!"

The crowd explodes in cheers. Spike enters the ring to the thunderous strains of "Anarchy in the UK," clad only in a loose pair of blue boxing shorts. He waves to the audience, eliciting more cheers, and does a jaunty lap around the Octagon with his fists raised above him. He comes to a halt in front of The Master, who has watched his circuit in confusion.

"I don't understand," he says. "They love you."

"Bloody right."

"They do know you would just as soon eat them, right?"

"People love a good villain."

"Then where are my fans?"

"Well, here's the thing, mate," Spike grins, "you were the big bad of a short season. And never really a compelling one, if truth be told. I was around for six seasons of Buffy as both villain and good guy, and then a few seasons of Angel as a good guy. Sort of. And I'm pretty sure," he points out at a clump of audience wearing ornate nineteenth century military tunics, "that those are some Torchwood fans." He bounces back and forth on the balls of his feet, throwing a few jabs at the air. "Plus, you have to admit, I'm much prettier than you."

"Gentlemen," says the nervous-looking referee, "please go to your corners. Since you won't, ah, be needing me, I'll be leaving the ring. When the bell goes, come out fighting."

The Master and Spike walk away from each other, The Master with affronted stiffness and Spike still bouncing, waving his arms to gin up the crowd. The referee scrambles out of the ring with unseemly haste as the bell goes.

The crowd roars. Spike immediately sprints out of his corner, surprising The Master with the speed of his attack. He manages to land two punches before The Master lashes out with a fierce backhand. Spike ducks, but is caught with a glancing blow that staggers him back a few steps. He shakes his head to clear it and grins again.

"That the best you got, nancy?"

"You insolent pup!" The Master snarls. "You have no idea of what I can do. I will destroy you."

"I don't think so," Spike dances in again, feints with his right and then lands a vicious kick against The Master's knee. The ancient vampire's leg buckles and he sinks into a crouch. He manages to block Spike's follow-up punches, but only barely. "You're not worth the skin off my knuckles, old man. You're nothing compared to what I've seen. I've fought every demon there is, and I'm still standing."

The Master hauls himself to his feet, his eyes blazing with rage. "You're a traitor to your kind!" he shouts. "You allied yourself to the Slayer!" He lunges at Spike with blurring speed, but his opponent spins away untouched.

"Yeah, and guess what Sunny Jim?" Spike leaps into the air and lands a kick solidly on the side of The Master's neck. "She taught me a few things."

The Master staggers, enveloped in the crowd's deafening roar. For a moment it seems to him that all of his victims have returned to this arena to call for his death, so vicious are the catcalls he can hear above the din. He spins, trying to catch Spike, but his rage and confusion muddy his movements. Spike, conversely, sucks in the crowds energy as he leaps in to pummel The Master with a rain of blows that would have killed a mortal.

"You know, I can only guess that when they ranked you number one for this tournament, it was based on your entire career and not what you've done lately," Spike mocks him. "Because from where I stand, for the last century you haven't done dick."

The Master roars, blind and incoherent in his anger. Spike nods to someone outside the ring, and two long staves with sharpened ends are thrown in. He kicks one to The Master and picks up the other, spinning it around.

"Let's end this," he suggests.

The Master tries to get a handle on his fury, and takes a defensive stance, the stave clumsy and unfamiliar in his hands.

"Not so used to holding a weapon, eh?" Spike sneers. He lunges in, knocking aside the point of The Master's stave, bringing the butt of his own around to connect with the side of his head. Through vision blurred by the force of the blow, The Master sees Spike smoothly sweep his weapon around and lunge forward with its wicked point.

The last thing The Master hears before exploding into dust is The Sex Pistols being played at ear-splitting decibels over the noise of the cheering crowd.

Projected Winner: SPIKE

Thursday, May 13, 2010

End of round one!

With Blade's sound thumping of Max Schreck by a margin of 15-1 (the widest margin, by percentage, so far; the widest margin by numbers remains Spike's vivisection of Edward Cullen, 30-4), we bring round one of the vampire cage matches to a close. From here on in the fights get more interesting:


The Master (Buffy the Vampre Slayer) (1) vs.
Spike (Buffy, Angel) (5)

Damon Salvatore (The Vampire Diaries)
(10) vs.
Angel (Buffy, Angel) (4)


Eric Northman (True Blood) (3) vs.
Drusilla (Buffy, Angel) (9)

Selene (Underworld) (6) vs.
Blade (Blade) (2)

I'll post the first fight tomorrow. Predictions?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The reality virus

I suppose you could make the argument that "reality television" has always been around, given that sporting events, game shows, and cooking shows—and news and documentaries—are, for all intents and purposes, effectively based in reality. But the moniker "reality TV" really only gained traction with the premiere of Survivor ten years ago. I remember being told the premise of Survivor, and being vaguely horrified; now, I look back on it as the time reality TV had integrity. Twenty seasons later, the grande dame of the reality TV is still going strong even as the television dial becomes increasingly clogged with imitations, variations, and whole new species of the reality genre.

And yes, for the record, I do know Survivor wasn't the "first" reality TV show, having been preceded by such MTV offerings as The Real World, and presumably Mark Burnett's brainchild was at least partially inspired by the original European versions of Big Brother. But it is largely responsible for establishing a recognizable genre: an elimination contest featuring "ordinary" people, which has spread virus-like into a televisual juggernaut including American Idol, Project Runway, Top Chef, America's Next Top Model, The Amazing Race, So You Think You Can Dance, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and at least a dozen others I can't call to mind right now.

My virus analogy isn't merely colour commentary, either: one of the most interesting elements of reality TV's ascendancy is the way in which its narrative conventions have infected television practices more broadly. One reason for the spread of reality TV is simple economics; it is, after all, much cheaper to employ a bunch of volunteers all fighting towards a single million-dollar payday than to produce a sitcom like Friends, whose actors were all claiming million-dollar paydays per episode by the end. On the other hand, the Survivor-style series introduces a key motif that is part documentarian and part religious: the confessional. Cut into "dramatic" sequences between the show's players, the talking-head moments function as the revelations of truth ... or to put it more specifically, they function as simulacra of truth, employing our cultural and historical investment in the confession's innate truth-value.

To see the ripple effects of this, we need look no further than what The Office hath wrought. In the original British series, which ran for a grand total of fourteen episodes, the conceit was that a documentary crew was following the office lives of a bunch of ordinary working stiffs at a paper company. The camera was present, and obtrusive; at the end of season two (episode twelve), the "documentary" ended with obnoxious manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) being fired. The two-part coda to the series was a "reunion," in which we see that Brent has attained a sort of limited celebrity from the airing of the documentary.

The point here is that the original British series kept within the basic conceit of the documentary; because of the short format of British television, it could do so. The translation of The Office into an American series makes believably maintaining the conceit difficult, if not impossible. It is now in its sixth season and comprises one hundred and sixteen episodes as of this week, which strains the credibility of its status as documentary. In terms of casual viewing, this is not a glaring problem: for the most part, the original conceit fades into invisibility and viewers do not need to struggle to suspend their disbelief. It is worth noting however that the camera is occasionally intrusive, and the show sometimes references its documentary framework. These moments are few and far between, but one in particular serves to illustrate some of the issues involved.

At the end of season three, the longstanding unrequited love between the characters Jim and Pam would seem to have been resolved; at the start of season four, the characters play coy, pretending that they are not romantically involved (while the rest of the office, of course, speculates madly). The camera follows Pam as she drives away from work at the end of the day, and watches as she picks up Jim a block or so away, capturing on film their kiss as he gets in. Pam and Jim are then presented with the footage on a television in the office conference room, eliciting their admission that they are, in fact, now together.

Beyond inspiring squeals of delight among fans, this moment effects a rupture of The Office's tacit realism, for in drawing attention to the presence of the film crew, it raises the question of audience: for whom is the documentary, which presumably is a reality television series, being produced? Who is watching what the film crew films? And why has this visibility not substantively impacted the lives of the characters? The original series' depiction of David Brent's pathetic celebrity half-life dramatizes the real-world effects of having been on television—in his case, he attempts to cling to his brief window of fame as it fades from people's memory, but the American Office there is no suggestion that anyone is watching. The series adapts the original documentary framework and employs it at times as plot device or narrative tool, but also actively ignores or glosses the camera's presence. The point here is not so much to critique The Office for this inconsistency as to observe that this particular narrative model is becoming increasingly prevalent. Two new comedy series, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family, are structurally modeled on The Office, with the difference that the faux-documentary frame is exclusively structural and not narrative—that is to say, the camera is not itself part of the story. The characters "interview" both diegetically and extradiegetically, but the camera is essentially static and not intrusive.

All of this is undoubtedly me over-analyzing, and I certainly don't mean to suggest that these shows are somehow deficient for not being faithful to the documentary conceit (indeed, I love The Office, and both Parks and Recreation and Modern Family are very smart, very well-written shows). What is worth noting however is the interesting trajectory from the original Office as self-consciously documentarian to the essentially unacknowledged use of the documentary structure in the more recent series. I would argue that what this demonstrates is the traction that the confessional nature of reality TV has.

Why does any of this matter? Well, speaking as an English professor, I find this fascinating because it is, in part, a spectacular vindication of an argument made by Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality. He observes the power of the confession as a means to convey truth-value and the concomitant power it thus wields:

... the confession became one of the West's most highly valued techniques for producing truth. We have since become a singularly confessing society. The confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relations, in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life, and in the most solemn rites; one confesses one's crimes, one's sins, one's thoughts and desires, one's illnesses and troubles; one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell.

In the past century, Foucault notes, the confessional has left the sphere of religion and taken central importance in secular life. From the boom in therapy and pop psychology that began in the postwar years, to the public displays of expiation we expect from public figures when they are caught transgressing, to the on-the-couch admissions that are a staple of talk shows: that reality TV has taken both network and cable television like wildfire really should not be a surprise.

There is a sense in which it all feels belated, by which I mean it functions as a sort of aftershock or echo to a half-century whose investment in confessional culture often was, at its most egregious (think, for example, of Joseph McCarthy, HUAC, and the red-hunts of the early 50s), trading in significant and society-changing issues of privacy and personal freedom. The talking-heads on Survivor or Big Brother (or their parodies on The Office) are reflective of a cultural moment when, to quote James Wolcott, the "effects of Reality TV have reached street level and invaded the behavioral bloodstream, goading attention junkies to act as if we're all extras in their vanity production." Or, to come at it another way, does the promiscuous dissemination of "confessional" television ironically signal a moment when the confession's authenticity has been negated?

I do not, at this point, have a conclusion. As usual, this is me thinking out loud. But thoughts and suggestions are solicited.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cage Match: Blade vs. Max Schreck

With Selene's sound trouncing of Bill Compton 12-4, we arrive at the last of our first round fights. In this corner, the Daywalker, the ass-kicking vampire Blade from the eponymous trilogy of films; in the other corner, the original Nosferatu, Max Schreck—who, in the wonderful Shadow of the Vampire, is imagined as an actual vampire posing as a method actor. I think the odds are pretty long against him for today's fight, but he certainly would be in the top five for best film.

Schreck won the coin toss, so today's fight will take place at an old abandoned castle on the Poland-Czech border.


When Blade sees his opponent lurking in the shadow of a crumbling wall, he feels somewhat foolish for how heavily he armed himself for this fight. Schreck emerges into the wan moonlight ghosting the old castle's courtyard, a sneer on his thin lips.

"All that, just for me?" he rasps. "How many of me did you think you were going to have to fight?"

Blade draws his handguns, and tosses them with a clatter to the broken cobbles. He retrieves an assortment of knives and edged weapons from their hiding places under his coat, and throws them down as well. Lastly, he draws his sword from over his shoulder and, after brandishing it for a moment, stabs it into a gap in the stones at his feet.

"How classic of you," Schreck mocks. "If I can draw your sword out, do I become king?"

"Laugh all you want, old man," Blade replies evenly. "But in my line of work, it's always wise to be prepared."

Schreck shrugs dismissively, and nudges one of Blade's discarded weapons, a circle of steel studded with razor points, with his foot. "So very modern of you," he says. "What became of the stake and the clove of garlic?"

"It's a new world."

"No," Schreck sighs. "It really is not." And he launches himself at Blade.

Surprised, Blade manages to evade the attack, but the gnarled old vampire is startlingly fast. He spins away, but Schreck's talon-like fingernails leave a rent down the side of his leather coat. Blade whips it off and tosses it aside, impressed in spite of himself.

"Not bad, old man. You're showing me something here."

Schreck does not reply, but holds up one hand as if in salute to the moon. His features seem to dissolve, becoming indistinct as he fades into a cloud of mist that spills across the cobbles.

Whoever did the ranking for this thing didn't do enough research, Blade thinks, annoyed. There's a neat trick, that. Tossing aside the weapons doesn't seem such a good idea, now.

He plucks the sword out of the ground and spins cautiously around, watching tendrils of mist ripple into the shadows. He stills himself, sword at the ready, standing motionless as the rivulets of fog creep past.

Blade closes his eyes and breathes deeply. He spins as he exhales, lunging forward with his sword to spear Max Schreck, who has rematerialized immediately behind him, through the chest.

"It is a new world, old man."

Blade withdraws the sword and sweeps the ancient vampire's head off.

Projected Winner: BLADE

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Wire and the logic of counterinsurgency

As I mentioned (warned) in my previous post about re-watching The Wire, it's inevitable that some of the issues and ideas that I start making notes on will bleed onto this blog a little. It has become in part my forum for thinking out loud.

I've been working through an idea for an article, one that has been kicking around in the back of my mind for about a year now. Its general topic is, as my title suggests, the way in which The Wire replicates the logic of counterinsurgency. I'll be coming back to explain what I mean by that more generally in a future post; suffice to say for the nonce that the series offers an implicit critique of the heavy-handed tactics initially used by the U.S. military in Iraq. This is not to suggest that this is ultimately what The Wire is about; rather, the War on Terror functions as sort of a background noise for a series that very subtly highlights the serendipitous parallels between the War on Terror and the War on Drugs.

Intrigued? Well, I'll post more on that at a later date. Today I want to talk about one specific thread of that larger discussion, or rather one specific character who I have come to see as embodying the show's moral trajectory.

The more I watch The Wire and the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with the character of Ellis Carver, as portrayed by actor Seth Gilliam. Carver is, compared to such big personalities as Jimmy McNulty and Omar Little, relatively innocuous. He is initially (in seasons one and two) the slightly more sensible half of his partnership with Thomas "Herc" Hauk (Dominick Lombardozzi), a meathead narcotics cop with more muscle than brains who thinks the beginning and end of policing involves cracking heads. Carver is more or less of the same mentality—at first. He muddles along through the first two and a half seasons, making sergeant at the end of season one though a backdoor deal but rising to his rank and becoming a half-decent supervisor. And then, late into season three, his major, Howard "Bunny" Colvin (yet another of the wonderfully nuanced and subtle characters in the series) sits him down and delivers the following speech:

This speech is a pivotal moment, both for Carver's character and for the show's thematic trajectory. Season three sees Major Colvin finally lose patience with the "War on Drugs" when one of his detectives gets shot while making a miniscule undercover drug buy. Pretending to his men that it is a tactical diversion, he gets them to force all drug dealers into a few abandoned, uninhabited sections of the city; as long as they conduct business in the sanctioned areas, he tells them, we leave them be. In other words, he effectively legalizes drugs. Meanwhile, with only a handful of cops detailed to supervise the free zones—nicknamed "Hamsterdam" by the dealers—he is able to reassign his police to doing, in his words, real police work: investigating burglaries and robberies, responding to neighbourhood crises, but above all being a helpful presence in those neighbourhoods, rather than a gang of toughs jumping out on street corner dealers.

Season three of The Wire presents an eloquent argument against the current prosecution of the war on drugs, and the crux of it lies in Colvin's distinction between policing and warfare. Of course, the Hamsterdam experiment is only temporary, as Colvin knows; as soon as the media gets wind of it, the commissioner and mayor are running scared and they basically blackmail Colvin into taking the fall alone.

(Incidentally, if anyone is thinking sceptically that I am giving a lot of rhetorical weight to what is essentially a fictional scenario, you should watch this video of a drug bust that went down a few weeks ago in Columbia, Missouri. A home was invaded by a half a dozen SWAT police in full body armour touting automatic weapons; the suspect's pet dog was shot as a threat. And in the end, all for a possession charge of a few ounces of pot. That's right—a small army bearing a veritable arsenal of weapons knocking down a door, shooting pets, and brutalizing the home's inhabitants, and the drug in question wasn't even a narcotic. Be warned: the video is disturbing.)

I remember a number of years ago, a black community leader in Toronto was vilified by the police, the city's municipal politicians, and the press for saying that crime-ridden black communities in the Jane-Finch area did not provide assistance to police because they viewed them as an "occupying force." Rather than recognize the uncomfortable truth being uttered, people chose instead to attack the messenger, because to do otherwise would have meant admitting to a strategy of policing that was antagonistic and oppositional.

I remembered this incident the first time I saw that sequence between Colvin and Carver: the metaphor of "occupied territory" is particularly powerful on The Wire, as the series draws a subtle parallel between the war on drugs and the war on terror—especially in terms of the way the latter is prosecuted in Iraq. The Bush Doctrine and the post-9/11 landscape is never obtrusive in The Wire, but functions, as mentioned above, as a sort of background noise. When I read Thomas Ricks' book The Gamble, which is about the "surge" in Iraq, I couldn't help but think of The Wire and the philosophy of Bunny Colvin: beyond having been an influx of extra soldiers into Iraq, the surge constituted a fundamental shift in strategy wherein U.S. forces spread out from a few large bases into a series of smaller posts within the most problematic areas. Soldiers were instructed to perform more foot patrols, were schooled in local customs of courtesy and etiquette, and attempted to gain the trust of local imams and community leaders. The principal maxim of counterinsurgency, they were taught, is to secure the community.

It is, at this point, hard to tell whether General Petreus' sea-change will ultimately yield results or whether it was too little, too late. But the same principle that an occupying force that only knows how to crack heads and humiliate locals creates a populace that tolerates and offers succour to the very insurgents being targeted underwrites much of the logic of The Wire.

While almost universally lauded as possibly the best television series ever made, The Wire does receive a certain amount of flak for being pretty unrelentingly dark and defeatist. That the show offers few rays of hope is undeniable, but one of them is the transformation of Carver. At the very beginning of season four, we see some of the lessons learned from Colvin taking hold:

"If you bust every head, who are you going to talk to when the shit happens?" The Carver of seasons four and five is a changed man, a police who knows the names of all the players on the street corners, a savvy and smart cop whose promotion to lieutenant at the very end of the series suggests that some lessons are being learned.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Cage Match: Selene vs. Bill Compton

Drusilla edged out Marlow 8-6. The voting was a little tepid on that one, people! Only fourteen votes? We need to get the word out!

Today's fight is between the divine Selene from the Underworld series of films, and everyone's favourite southern gentleman, Bill Compton from True Blood. Selene won the coin toss, and so the fight will take place in the subway system of an unnamed metropolis.


Bill is ill at ease. He has never been comfortable in larger cities, especially not those of the modern era. He paces the subway platform nervously. When he sees his opponent emerge from the darkness of the tunnel, he feels a curious mixture of dread and attraction. Selene strides toward him with purpose, her long coat billowing out behind her. She stops about twenty feet away, and crosses her arms over her chest.

"Just for the record, I think this 'tournament' is idiotic," she announces.

Bill shrugs, and smiles with as much charm as he can muster. "We don't have to fight, I guess."

Selene's eyes narrow, and she suddenly tosses him something shiny. Bill catches it, and yells in pain. He drops the silver dollar to the group, nursing his burnt hand.

"Why?" he demands angrily.

"Just testing something out," she replies. "If you're allergic to silver, this will make things much simpler. And quicker."

From beneath her coat she draws a semiautomatic pistol and shoots Bill twice in the heart.

"Sorry about this," she says. "But I really don't have time for this shit."

Bill has just enough time to feel the burn from the silver nitrate in the bullets. And then nothing.

Projected Winner: SELENE

Saturday, May 08, 2010

My carefully considered, exhaustive critique of Iron Man 2

Robert Downey Jr. is snarky. Sam Rockwell is smarmy. Scarlett Johansson wears a cat suit.

What's not to like?

Friday, May 07, 2010

Carpe Jugulum ctd.: Mel Gibson vs. the Nac Mac Feegle

A few nights ago, Braveheart was on television. I can now definitively add that film to my list of dangerous night-time movies—dangerous, because I invariably happen across them at that listless channel-flicking moment when I'm just beginning to overcome couch-induced inertia and go to bed. And then I start watching a movie I've seen before. More often than not, what then happens is I sit up much later than I had planned, constantly thinking "OK, now I will go to bed," but unable to move because I just can't look away.

(Other films in this category include both Star Wars trilogies, all Star Treks except numbers one and five, The Green Mile, Underworld, any John Hughes film, anything involving predators or aliens, and anything starring Humphrey Bogart ... who. it must be said, would probably flinch to be included in the preceding company. However, the all-time winner for repeat offender is Tremors, that wonderfully awful Kevin Bacon film about subterranean carnivorous slugs. What is everyone else's late-night compulsive viewing?)

For the record, I think Braveheart is a terrible film, albeit a very pretty one that makes me want to go back to Scotland. Watching it the other night reaffirmed my original assessment, which was that this unbearably long three-and-something hour historical epic could have been tightened up into a tidy and relatively inoffensive ninety-minute popcorn flick if Gibson had simply played all the slo-mo sequences at regular speed. Seriously. While I love haunting Celtic music as much as the next third-generation Canadian of Scottish and Irish extraction, to say Gibson lays it on a little thick is a wee bit of an understatement. Indeed, to quote the best film review ever written, this film looks down on over-the-top as if from a great height.

(Incidentally, has anyone else noticed that Mel Gibson seems to have a disturbing thing for torture? Braveheart, Payback, The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto—all films with rather excruciating torture sequences.)

Braveheart was however made more amusing to me because I was midway through Carpe Jugulum when I watched it the other night, and the high seriousness of Gibson's self-consciously epic film was undercut by the thought of the Nac Mac Feegle. The Nac Mac Feegle, or "wee free men," are described in The Folklore of Discworld as follows:

To humans, they are one of the most feared of the fairy races—indeed, they can put trolls to flight, and even Nanny Ogg's cat Greebo retires under the furniture at the sight of them. They have shaggy red hair, and are covered all over with blue tattoos and blue paint, in patterns which indicate their clan. They wear kilts or leather loincloths, use feathers, bones or teeth as decorations, and carry swords almost as large as themselves—though they go in for kicking and head-butting too. They are about six inches tall.

The Nac Mac Feegle make several appearances in Carpe Jugulum. Technically, they are pixies—or, in the proper spelling, "pictsies." Har. They speak—or rather, shout—in a more or less incomprehensible brogue, and steal cattle. Nanny Ogg describes their livestock-thieving procedure:

Four. One under each foot. Seen 'em do it. You see a cow in a field, mindin' its own business, next minute the grass is rustlin'. Some little bugger shouts "Hup, hup, hup," and the poor beast goes past, voom! without its legs movin'. Backwards, sometime. They're stronger'n cockroachers. You step on a pictsy, you'd better be wearin' good thick soles.

The funniest sequence in the novel comes when the Nac Mac Feegle rescue King Verence of Lancre. The main plot of Carpe Jugulum is about a family of vampires who smoothly take over the kingdom of Lancre by essentially hypnotizing everyone they come into contact with. Verence is relegated to his bedchamber under non-vampire but still nasty mercenary guard. The Feegle come to liberate him.

[Verence] could hear very faint voices, apparently coming from somewhere below his pillow.
"Rikt, gi' tae yon helan bigjobs?"
"Ach, fashit keel!"
"Nach oona whiel ta' tethra ... yin, tan, TETRA!"
"Hyup! Hyup!"
Something rustled on the floor. The chair of one man jerked up into the air and bobbed at speed to the window.
"Hyup!" The chair and its occupant crashed through the glass.
The other guard managed to get to his feet, but something was growing in the air in front of him. To Verence, an alumnus of the Fools' Guild, it looked very much like a very tall human pyramid made up of very small acrobats.
"Hup! Hup!"
It grew level with the guard's face. The single figure at the top yelled: "What ya lookin' a', chymie? Ha' a wee tastie!" and launched itself directly at a point between the man's eyes. There was a little cracking noise, and the man keeled over backwards.

Now, perhaps I'm speaking just for myself here, but you've got to love dialogue that reads like a Robbie Burns poem.

At any rate, as I watched Braveheart the other night, I found myself giggling every time Mel Gibson intoned one of William Wallace's sententious speeches, as in my head I heard the Nac Mac Feegle saying "Waley, waley, waley! Seeyu? Grich' ta' bones outa t'is yan! Hakkis lugs awa'! Bigjobs!"

I recommend reading Carpe Jugulum, if for no other reason than its efficacy as an antidote should you ever find yourself watching Braveheart late at night. It makes the movie ever so much more entertaining.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Cage Match: Drusilla vs. Marlow

Sorry about the delay in getting back to this. See last post for explanation.

Well, unsurprisingly David went down to Eric Northman 15-5, but the bad boy vamp lives on as a tortured anti-terrorist agent. Perhaps it will turn out that Eric is actually the mastermind behind this season's monstrous conspiracy; he'll find a more difficult opponent in Jack Bauer, and that possible plot line has the added merit of being no more ludicrous than any other we've seen over the last eight seasons of 24. Though I have been pleased to see that Katie Sackhoff's character has turned out to be a badass double agent—I was concerned she would be the whimpering, whiny character she initially was for the entire season. Somehow that just seemed beneath the dignity for the actress who portrayed Kara "Starbuck" Thrace.

But I digress. Today's fight features everybody's favourite looney-tunes vamp, Drusilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Marlow, the leader of a pack of feral vampires from 30 Days of Night. When I told them to call the coin toss, Dru started chanting nursery rhymes and Marlow tried to eat the hand holding the coin. So I made an executive decision and shipped them off to Barrow, Alaska.


The snow crunches under Drusilla's bare feet as she stalks through the night-shrouded town. She does not feel the cold, and with her pale skin and thin white dress she might easily fade into the snowy landscape. Only her black hair and silken crimson shawl, which she lets trail from her hands, stand her out against the background in stark relief. Somewhere deep in her addled mind, beneath the polyphony of voices constantly talking to her, she knows quite shrewdly the figure she cuts. She knows that, crazy as she may be, she has style.

Not so much her opponent, one of those voices whispers to her disdainfully. He emerges from the darkness, seeming almost to shamble as he shuffles cautiously toward her. An old, stained and ragged suit, and a fierce mouth full of sharklike teeth. Some might see the feral hunger in his dead eyes and feel dread, but Drusilla has long been insulated against such trivialities as fear.

She clucks her tongue. "Ugly, ugly child," she croons, "teeth so sharp, eyes so cold, so very very ugly and old."

Marlow pauses, cocking his head in puzzlement as Drusilla talks. He spits words back at her in a guttural and raspy tongue.

"Clickety click goes the ugly child," Drusilla responds, "so hungry, so base, so wild."

Marlow, unused to prey so unafraid of him and so indifferent to his hunger, feels an odd emotion well up in him—rage. With a high-pitched screech, he launches himself at Drusilla, his clawlike hands grasping for her throat.

Drusilla whirls like a matador, her crimson wrap goading Marlow, now practically gibbering with fury. She pirouettes, evading his lunges, all balletic grace in the face of his animal strength. As he grazes past her, she leaves a lithe foot in his path, and he falls face first into the snow. All at once Drusilla is on his back. Her wrap goes floating off on the wind, and she winds the piano wire she had secreted in its seam around Marlow's neck.

So fragile is the ugly child," she sings in his ear. "So silly to lose his head, so foolish ... that now he's dead."

With a strength that belies her tiny frame, Drusilla hauls back on the wire. Marlow's head goes rolling off into the snow.

Projected Winner: DRUSILLA

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

ADD, Terry Pratchett, and the noble Burton Pond Eagle

Sorry about the brief hiatus—I've been trying to do some writing, and made the reasonable assumption that perhaps I should give the blogging a pass while I did so. However, based on my abject failure to produce anything of substance these past four days, I am brought back to a fairly elemental truth about myself: that I'm more productive when I'm always stepping sideways, as it were, from one bit of writing to another. So I come back to the blog today on a break from other stuff.

I sometimes think I have a mild form of attention deficit disorder. Actually, I'm fairly certain I do. Anyway, I—Oooh! Shiny!

[three hours later] ... OK, where was I? Oh, right. Blogging, etc.

I'll be back to the vampire cage matches tomorrow. The next fight is a fun but difficult one to write—the batshit insane Drusilla of Buffy and the well nigh feral Marlow of Thirty Days of Night. Not sure how to call that one.

Today's topic du jour is Carpe Jugulum, one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, which I just finished reading and which is possibly the funniest one I have yet read. Given that Pratchett is generally one of the funniest writers I have encountered and this is the seventeenth Discworld novel I have read (out of thirty-seven!), that is saying a lot.

I'm not going to embark on a lengthy critique of the novel; I just want to share, over the course of two posts, some of the parts that tickled me the most. The funniest running joke I will leave for part two. Today I want to take use a moment in the novel as an excuse to post some pictures I've been meaning to get to for a while.

One of the best secondary characters in Carpe Jugulum is the royal falconer, an unfortunate soul named Hodgesaargh—whose name proceeds from the fact that the birds of prey he is always training are always attacking him:

[Agnes had] seen Hodgesaargh occasionally, around the edges of the woods or up on the moors. Usually the royal falconer was vainly fighting off his hawks, who attacked him for a pastime, and in the case of King Henry kept picking him up and dropping him again in the belief that he was a giant tortoise.

King Henry, in case you're wondering, is the name of the King's eagle. Which is as good a segue as any to mention the noble Burton Pond eagle, a rather impressive bird that hangs out in the vicinity of Memorial's student residences in the winter and keeps the duck population under control. A former student of mine, who has dubbed him "Lord Talonforth I," snapped some pictures of him some time ago and posted them to Facebook.

To come back to Hodgesaargh, who would almost certainly be victimized by Lord Talonforth, the following passage is a great example of Pratchettian humour for the uninitiated. The fledgling witch Agnes Nitt runs into Hodgesaargh at a royal banquet, who introduces her to his buzzard William:

"This is William. She's a buzzard. But she thinks she's a chicken. She can't fly. I'm having to teach her how to hunt."
Agnes was craning her neck for any signs of overtly religious activity, but the incongruity of the slightly bedraggled figure on Hodgesaargh's arm brought her gaze back down again.
"How?" she said.
"She walks into the burrows and kicks the rabbits to death."

For reasons unclear at the time, I found this passage unutterably hilarious and had to put the book down while I laughed. And then I remembered one of the other pictures of Lord Talonforth, in which he is very determinedly walking towards some ducks, looking for all the world as if he's about to kick the crap out of them.

As Pratchett intuits in Hodgesaargh's comment, there is something inherently comical about birds choosing bipedal locomotion over flight. It's why we laugh at penguins.

So there you have it—the merger of wildlife journalism and literary criticism. Next up: Pratchett hangs Braveheart out to dry.