Monthly Archives: August 2009

Media Confession: What classic book have you *never* read?

I’m curious how many other people share my particular secret guilt: The knowledge, gnawing away inside you, that there is a classic book that you know you should have read by now but never have.

I’m convinced everyone must know of a book (or movie or TV show) that is widely disseminated in popular culture —but that if word ever got out that they, themselves, had never consumed it, they would never again be considered hip or urbane or literate. That they, in fact, will never get invited to hang with cool people again.

For me, that book was “The Phantom Tollbooth,” the children’s classic by Norton Juster.

I think I was always bothered that the giant dog thing looked so pissed. Very off-putting.

When my well-read friends ever speak of it — even if they overhear it referenced in passing conversation — they always stop to comment, “Oh, I loved that book.” To which someone else will reply, “Yeah, that was great, wasn’t it?”

I don’t know how I missed it. I ever remember the librarian sitting us down and reading excerpts to us at Beechwoods Elementary. I remember sitting crossed-legged on an ochre carpet thinking that any book with a title like that was sure to be good. Then, for whatever reason, I never picked it up.

Thirty years later, driven mad by guilt (and the thousand-somethingth time I had been left out of a conversation about it), I finally picked up a copy and read it.

The monkey is off my back! But oh, my friends, my book-loving, media-savvy, witty and wise friends: I found it tedious.

Yes, I’ve just compounded my original sin (not reading a classic) with a newer, fouler sin (not loving a classic). I didn’t realize “Phantom Tollbooth” was a quite literal allegory about the search for knowledge, and the merits of learning over ignorance and complacency. Milo, the personality-free cipher of a protagonist, experiences a series of random, quip-laden encounters with school-bookish characters like the Spelling Bee and Mathemagician and the Threadbare Excuse.

“Well, you might say I’m a specialist,” said [Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord]. “I specialize in noise — all kinds — from the loudest to the softest, and from the slightly annoying to the terribly unpleasant. For instance, have you ever heard a square-wheeled steam roller ride over a street of hard-boiled eggs?” …

“But who would want all those terrible noises?” asked Milo, holding his ears.

“Everybody does,” said the surprised doctor; “they’re very popular today. Why, I’m kept so busy I can hardly fill the orders for noise pills, racket lotion, clamor salve, and hubbub tonic. … Without them, people would be very unhappy, so I make sure that they get as much as they want. Why if you take some of my medicine every day, you’ll never have to hear a beautiful sound again.”

“I don’t want to be cured of beautiful sounds,” insisted Milo.

“Besides,” growled Tock … “there is no such illness as lack of noise.”

“Of course not,” replied the doctor, … “that’s what makes it so difficult to cure. I only treat illnesses that don’t exist: that way, if I can’t cure them, there’s no harm done.”

The absurdity and just-so-clever dialog invites a lot of comparison to “Alice in Wonderland,” another classic that, let’s be honest, is also kind of tedious. (Have you ever read it? Sure, it’s loaded with great imagery and memorable moments, but if you plow through the whole thing, you’ll wander through so much aimlessness you’ll need a Boy Scout and a compass to come out the other side.)

So either this proves I’m a craven half-wit, or that I just have a low tolerance for enigmatic characters and absurdist plot. But at least I know what everyone is talking about!

While I invite you to call me on my poor taste, I’m quite curious to hear your answer to a more pressing question:

What book have you never read that is making you feel guilty and less cultured as we speak? Come clean. It will be good for the soul.

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Three-Word Review of ‘Ponyo’

Inscrutable, wet dream.

Captions don’t count: You don’t really watch a Miyazaki film for plot. Invariably, the Japanese director of “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro” delivers films of visual richness and inventiveness with an uncanny understanding of the wonderment of children. In this regard, “Ponyo” is no different. Its layered 2D animation luxuriates in the details of a bobbing, bubbly undersea world, making more marvel out of hand-painted cels than a host of Hollywood rendering computers ever could. It is, in every way, like watching a dream. The plot, however, makes not an ounce of sense. It involves a sea wizard’s well of wizardy hoodoo, vampiric healing magic, a localized tsunami, a moon on the move, and the inexplicable requirement to have two 5-year-olds commit to a long-term relationship in order to, uh, save the world. Somehow. (Because when your plot relies on magic, you can make any rules you want and no one can question you. A great “Simpsons” episode taught us to hand-wave away the plot illogic of fantasy stories by saying, “A wizard did it.” And in Ponyo, the entire plot is one big “A wizard did it.”) But you watch a film by Hayao Miyazaki for the power of its visuals, both big (a girl racing across the tops of magical, living waves to a stirring Wagnerian score) and small (the spreading movement water makes when you leave a wet footprint on pavement). If that’s what you go in expecting, you’ll be well rewarded.

Captions don’t count: You don’t really watch a Miyazaki film for plot. Invariably, the Japanese director of “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro” delivers films of visual richness and inventiveness with an uncanny understanding of how children view the world in wonderment. In this regard, “Ponyo” is no different. Its layered 2D animation luxuriates in the details of a bobbing, bubbly undersea world, making more marvel out of hand-painted cels than a host of Hollywood rendering computers ever could. It is, in every way, like watching a dream. The plot, however, makes not an ounce of sense. It involves a sea wizard’s well of wizardy hoodoo, vampiric healing magic, a localized tsunami, a moon on the move, and the inexplicable requirement to have two 5-year-olds commit to a long-term relationship in order to, uh, save the world. Somehow. (Because when your plot relies on magic, you can make any rules you want and no one can question you. A great “Simpsons” episode taught us to hand-wave away the plot illogic of fantasy stories by saying, “A wizard did it.” And in Ponyo, the entire plot is one big “A wizard did it.”) But you watch a film by Hayao Miyazaki for the power of its visuals, both big (a girl racing across the tops of magical, living waves to a stirring Wagnerian score) and small (the spreading movement water makes when you leave a wet footprint on pavement). If that’s what you go in expecting, you’ll be well rewarded.

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Where the Good Books Are

If you’re the kind of person who reads this blog, you’re also probably the kind who’s fully aware of the upcoming Where the Wild Things Are movie due in October.

Just the very mention of a children’s picture book being turned into a movie brings to mind such painful memories as The Cat in the Hat travesty…

This was the movie that gave us a "dirty hoe" joke. Boo. Forever.

… or The Grinch That Stole Christmas tragedy …

Stop trying.

… or the Go, Dog. Go! fiasco.

Even worse was the sequel: "Go Dog Go 2: Die Dog Die" starring Michael Vick.

Beloved books all, and roundly pooped upon by Hollywood. So the notion of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” joining that list was unnerving. But, of course, if you’ve seen the two trailers, you saw something totally different. Something reverential. Something literary.

You can't spell "monster" without "emo."

Instead of wacky novelty music, a moody indie soundtrack. Instead of exaggerated emotions, subtle shades of sadness and loneliness. Instead of a palette of exploding Technicolor, muted earth and sepia tones. Even the messaging written into the trailer is surprising:

“Inside all of us is … Everything you’ve ever seen … Everything you’ve ever done … Everyone you’ve ever loved.”

Hunh. Kinda makes ya think… think that this movie won’t stink, that is. Director Spike Jonze gave us both “Being John Malkovitch” (one of my favorite films of all time), as well as the “Jackass” franchise, so really there’s no telling which direction this thing will go. But I’m filled with hope.

Still, if the Hollywoodization of a beloved children’s picture book makes you nervous, the novelization of a Hollywoodized beloved children’s picture book should just be downright wrong. You should expect nothing more than a pure, artless cash-in at best — and a rude dumbing-down at the worst. But here’s where I got a surprise this week.

The New Yorker is running excerpts of the afore-dreaded novelization of the Where the Wild Things Are movie. As it turns out, this novel has been written by wunderkind Dave Eggers, the author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and the founder of the McSweeney’s literary journal. Eggers worked with Jonze on the screenplay (I had no idea), and no less than Maurice Sendak himself asked Eggers to write the accompanying novel, giving him full freedom to make it a thoughtful, all-ages prose adaptation.

And did he ever exercise that freedom.

It was a very strange time in Max’s life. The day before, his sister had tried, by proxy, to kill him. Her tobacco-chewing friends had chased him into his snow fort, and at the moment when he felt safest, in the cool white hollow, they had jumped on the roof, burying him. His sister had done nothing to help, and then had driven off with them, and to punish her, because she was no longer his sister, he’d doused her room with water. Buckets and buckets he’d emptied everywhere, in a furious, joyous process. It had been great, and felt so right, until his mother came home and found what he’d done. She was mad, Claire was mad, and so, tonight, the only person in the house who seemed to like him was his mom’s chinless boyfriend, Gary, and even thinking that sent a shudder through him.

After he runs away:

The air! The moon!

He felt pulled as if by an outgoing tide. The air and the moon together sang a furious and wonderful song: Come with us, wolf-boy! Let us drink the blood of the earth and gargle it with great aplomb! Max tore down the street, feeling free, knowing he was part of the wind. Come, Max! Come to the water and see! No one could tell that he was crying—he was running too fast.

Well, I’ll be damned. The movie opens Oct. 16, and the book hits shelves on Oct. 1. In a fur-wrapped cover. I’m pretty certain we all need to buy this. (Thanks to Retort reader Anneke for the tip; because, yes, I’m just not that guy who reads the New Yorker.)

Good news, Furries! Wear your favorite fetish costume to Barnes & Noble to receive a 2% discount.

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Look, it’s Intellectual Property Man!: If only ideas really were bulletproof

The bullets, they tickle me.

Issues of idea ownership have been on my mind lately, and ta-da , here’s the ongoing Superman copyright battle still in the news to help me articulate my thoughts.

It starts with this: Owning an idea is not like owning a house or a gun or a spoon or anything else you can hold, steal, break, lick or leave a fingerprint upon. Likewise, the laws covering idea ownership are twisty and murky; they are as clear to observers as the view from inside a Turkish bath.

You can have an idea that wakes you in the dead of night, something unique and original and wonderful. That thing is yours, locked away in your head, for as long as you want to own it.

But it has no value there. If you want to get something for it, you’ve got to get it out of your head, and let others see it, and here your troubles begin.

If someone sees your idea, will they steal it? Can you sue to get it back?

If someone helps you improve the idea, should they be rewarded with part of the ownership?

If someone gets your idea out in the market where it can make you money, should they own some of it as well?

If someone makes variations of your idea down the road, do you own part of their creation?

You’d think the creators of Superman, one of the most recognizable icons of the 20th Century, would have gotten rich, rich, rich for their efforts. And of course, they didn’t. Idea-havers never do, do they? (We’re leaving you out of this, J.K. Rowling.)

It's the Fireplug of Tomorrow!Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster dealt with their intellectual property issues in an era before “intellectual property issues” were a well-defined topic. So when they wanted to monetize their comic book superhero creation in 1938, they didn’t have a legion of fellow creators or lawyers waving red flags at the contract with Detective Comics that sold the rights to Superman for $130.

A hundred and thirty beans. That’s it, in exchange for some contract work producing the comic — that is, Siegel and Shuster gave away the potential for long-term gains in exchange for the security of some short-term work.

Imagine changing a super poo.Over the years, courts have upheld this copyright contract in favor of DC, so that Siegel and Shuster got bupkus. (To be fair, DC acknowledged some moral obligation in 1975 by granting Schuster and Siegel an annual $20,000 pension apiece and health care benefits. Which is nice … but clearly, not quite what one would expect to earn for creating one of the reigning icons of all time, eh?)

But copyrights were never intended to last forever. And that’s where it starts to get thorny. Beginning in 1999, the estate of Joel Siegel (who died in 1996) began its battle to reclaim its share of the copyright, and Shuster’s estate followed a few years later. The result? A maddening patchwork of rulings that parse the Original Idea into absurd bits that seem to defy logic. As Variety reports in an Aug. 13 story:

[Siegel’s estate] has “successfully recaptured” rights to … the first two weeks of the daily Superman newspaper comic-strips, as well as portions of early Action Comics and Superman comic-books.

This means the Siegels … now control depictions of Superman’s origins from the planet Krypton, his parents Jor-El and Lora, Superman as the infant Kal-El, the launching of the infant Superman into space by his parents as Krypton explodes and his landing on Earth in a fiery crash.

But not all is lost for DC!

DC owns other elements like Superman’s ability to fly, the term kryptonite, the Lex Luthor and Jimmy Olsen characters, Superman’s powers and expanded origins.

Really? An idea birthed in the 1930s by a couple of hardscrabble artists has now been diced like sushi and spread into every corner of the bento box. When you own “Superman’s ability to fly” how much do you get when Supes catches some air in someone else’s comic? (Or do you price your commodity so high that Superman has to take the bus?) If the Siegels own exploding Krypton and Superman’s “landing on Earth in a fiery crash,” can DC retcon his story so Kal-El is adopted from the Krypton Super Orphanage and delivered to Smallville by a Cosmic Stork?

My father would call this “a furschluggin mess.”

The lesson, then, is simple: Creators, own your work. Don’t let it go for cheap. In the words of another DC-spawned philosopher: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” (—The Joker, “The Dark Knight”) Unless, that is, you don’t mind having somebody else owning your hero’s right shoe and his ability to pronounce the letter P.

Sure, my fellow creatives, sometimes doing “work for hire” is the only oasis in a wide desert, but if that’s where you choose to drink, be aware — be very aware — that unless you negotiate a nice canteen and some ice, you’ll be just as thirsty tomorrow as you are today.

Does DC own this pose? Or does Barack owe Jerry Siegel a quarter?

Does DC own this pose? Or does Barack owe Jerry Siegel a quarter?

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‘The Wolfman’: Now THAT is a trailer

Holy smokes, I did NOT see this movie coming down the pike:

Warren Zevon on the prowl.

The Wolfman stars Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, and Hugo “Elrond” Weaving — and I may just spend the rest of the night watching this beautiful trailer. It may be enough for Universal to make up for The Mummy.

Can’t wait for Feb. 12.

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The world’s best media room: The Batcave vs. The Nautilus

Every man’s fantasy includes, at least on some level, the perfect manspace in which to view the movies he loves. (This fantasy may go on to include Swedish Bikini Teams or truckloads of tangy pork ribs or the re-sprouting of long-lost hair, but in all ways it must begin with a movie media room.)

I’ve kept a portfolio hidden from my wife of “some day projects” to achieve this perfect manspace. It began with nearby Abt Electronics in Glenview, Ill., which used to maintain a series of Truly Boss Media Room displays, featuring the kind of excess of equipment and overindulgence of design that is engineered to stimulate the pleasure center of every male until he’s a drooling mess with an open wallet. Abt is the first place I ever saw a gaudy, wonderful, tricked-out media room that put the theater in home theater: several rows of stadium seats, velvet curtains, armrests and cup holders … Oh, I saw what was possible and was made glad.

Abt doesn’t maintain as many cool media rooms as it used to, but that’s OK: I’ve refined my expectation of what such a thing should look like, having narrowed my preferences to two options decidedly not on the menu at Abt.

First, may I introduce The Batcave:

Alfred, pop some Bat Corn. This could take a while.

It seems like a lot of seats, but really it means Batman, Robin and Alfred each get a row to themselves.

There’s some question whether this beauteous creation is simply a little showroom showmanship from vendor Elite Home Theater Seating, whether it actually exists in a home, or is merely a nice computer-generated dream. Little matter to me; now that I have seen it, I know that money can make it happen.

Just today, though, I’ve found the first viable contender for the Batcave, and it has me all atwitter because not only is it a real, concrete, in-service theater, it was homemade by a crafty maker-ninja in Switzerland, who has copious photos of the construction and final product at his own site.

Behold, the Nautilus!

Yarr, I know there be a squid attacking the hull, but there still be 20 minutes left in "Marley & Me."

Captain, according to these depth gauges, the characters in "He's Just Not That Into You" are actually dangerously shallow!

Ladies, sit back and let Captain Nemo set sail with your love.

It’s got the panache of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with all the Victorian steampunk of Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” A fine place to take a brandy and another viewing of “Iron Man,” wouldn’t you say?

UPDATE: I found another Nautilus-themed home movie theater. How cool is this planet?

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Things That Make Me Absurdly Happy VII

Been watching Lord of the Rings with Oldest Boy (9) and Younger Son (7) because they’ve been asking, and I’ve been putting it off, and finally we agreed they were ready for Sheer Awesomeness.

You know that scene in The Two Towers where Legolas rides a shield down a staircase while shooting orcs left and right with his Elvish Arrows of Unlikely Accuracy?

The sort of antics that made those pirate movies plausible.

And then, as he dismounts, he stabs an orc in the chest with that selfsame shield?

And he sticks the landing!

The boys were on their feet, wooing and pumping their fists in the air. Younger Son, overcome by the moment, shouted, “Surf’s up!

My boys are men now. Nerdy, wonderful men.

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