Year: 2015

All You Can Do Is Type

I’ve gone a little typewriter mad lately. In addition to my grandma’s IBM Selectric I, I’ve recently acquired a Smith-Corona Classic 12, Royal Futura 800, Rover 5000 Super deLuxe, Smith-Corona Skyriter, and a Smith-Corona Electra 12. All at thrift stores or antique shops and all for $30 or less. They are all fixer-uppers in one way or another, though mostly just need cleaning.

Tonight I banged out a first draft of an upcoming review on the Futura. It was strange. My style of writing with word processors consists of starting from somewhere in the middle of my thoughts and editing as I write. But I can’t do that on a typewriter. All I can do is write and compile my thoughts as they come, and save the editing for the computer. An occasional change of habits is good, I think, for the soul and for the craft.

The Typewriter Revolution

typewriter-revolution

I discovered, located at my local library, checked out, and read Richard Polt’s The Typewriter’s Revolution within about two days. And wouldn’t you know it, now all I want to do is use my typewriter.

Reading this beautiful book—nay, merely getting a few pages in—inspired me to uncover the IBM Selectric I that I inherited from my grandma when she moved into a different place and get the ink flowing again. Despite the incessant hum that accompanies electrics, I love the whole process of using it, and the basic thrill of having a piece of paper stamped with the words of my doing without the overlording influence of the Internet and that blasted distraction machine we call a laptop. I can’t wait to write more on it, and to retrieve the other typewriters from my parents’ storage and see if they can’t be brought back to life and service.

Usually when we see a typewriter in action these days, it’s at the hands of a young Occupy Wherever libertine or an elderly, quite possibly curmudgeonly, traditionalist: people who don’t accede, intentionally or otherwise, to the Information Regime (as Polt’s Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto calls it). My chief connotation with them were my grandma’s missives on birthday and Christmas cards, discussing the weather and congratulating me on recent academic achievements. “Take care and keep in touch,” they would always end. Perhaps she was on to something. Taking care of ourselves and our instruments, keeping in touch with them and each other; these are the principles inherent in the Manifesto, which affirms “the real over representation, the physical over digital, the durable over the unsustainable, the self-sufficient over the efficient.”

It’s easy and tempting to scoff at these “insurgents” for not giving in to the Regime, or for doing it so ostentatiously, until you actually consider why typewriters remain useful tools and toys. The possibility that I might find some practical application for these not-dead-yet mechanical wonders, and do so without ostentation, thrills me. Here’s to the ongoing Revolution.

Love & Mercy

As biopics go, Love & Mercy is more interesting than most. I liked how the two arcs and time periods of Brian Wilson’s life start off on their own but then slowly merge like converging highways. Having ’90s Brian in our heads as we watch ’60s Brian slowly devolve personally and psychologically, even as he peaks musically and famously, lends more dramatic irony to the film. Most Beach Boys fans probably already knew Wilson recovered and returned to music, but the film doesn’t let on until the credits (and fanboy postscript).

As for the Pet Sounds sessions, at times the process of inspiration to execution took on the feel of the movie version of Jersey Boys, where someone would say offhand “Big girls don’t cry…” and then we’d see the proverbial lightbulb over Valli’s head, and then cut to the band singing the fully formed “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” I suppose it’s just an efficient way to signify the creative process, but it’s also a bit disingenuous. Lightbulb moments do happen, but shotgun songwriting in my experience tends to be the exception and not the rule.

The movie luckily doesn’t overuse that trope; indeed, it dedicates good time to watching Wilson “compose” the album via the many studio musicians and strange new sounds. And the subsequent self-doubt and uneasiness about the album’s prospects for success will ring true to any musician or artist venturing into unorthodox grounds.

I’m grateful, above all, that it didn’t go full-bio. We learn just enough about Wilson’s upbringing to provide context for the story; and we see just enough of Older Brian to get a sense of his nadir. Put those two halves together and you’ve got a story that says more than if they were to actually include more.

More of that, please.

Sidenote: Paul Giamatti is a national treasure. He can be likably flawed (John Adams, Win Win), a colorful character actor (Saving Private Ryan, Parkland), and total sleezeball or straight-up villain, as he is in Love & Mercy and 12 Years A Slave. (Also, his middle names are Edward and Valentine, apparently. If he were around in the 1930s and ’40s he could have gone by Eddie Valentine and been a badass Edward G. Robinson doppelgänger. Come to think of it, he is today’s Edward G. Robinson.)

Guns Kill People

It is right and good that the New York Times chose, for the first time since 1920, to publish an editorial on Page 1. “End the Gun Epidemic in America” captures the zeitgeist well, at least that of reasonable human beings without a vested, monied interest in seeing the NRA-sponsored carnage continue.

“It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment,” the editorial reads. “No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.” Indeed, it seems the only right in the Constitution that has found itself immune from debate is that of the Second Amendment. The beneficiary of a modern-day gag rule, wherein even researching the causes and effects of gun violence is outlawed, our supposed right as American citizens to own unlimited military-grade weaponry is considered as self-evident and God-blessed as our country itself.

We need a John Quincy Adams. An incorrigible ramrod of righteousness with nothing to lose. Smart enough to use the system to the cause’s favor and intractably annoying to its enemies. We also need the truth to be spoken through the research—research!—that we’ve consistently denied because denial is bliss. When enough people finally open their eyes to this culture of death we’ve protected, the delusional, cowardly mania for guns will compare in the future’s unfavorable eyes to the same delusional, cowardly mania for slavery that gripped this country for far too long.

Refer Madness: PB & A

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

Here’s an interesting one that came to the desk: the PseudoBulbar Affect. (Pseudo “false” + Bulbar, referring to the brainstem.)

A patron said she had it and was looking for some scholarly information about it. According to PBAinfo.org, PBA occurs when “certain neurologic diseases or brain injuries damage the areas in the brain that control normal expression of emotion. This damage can disrupt brain signaling, causing a ‘short circuit’ and triggering involuntary episodes of crying or laughing.”

These outbursts can be inappropriate (spontaneous crying or laughing when neither are warranted) and exaggerated (more intense or larger than the situation merits). Common causes include traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s or dementia, stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The first reference to PBA is credited to the Charles Darwin, in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and it’s in the kind of language that sounds crass now to our more medically enlightened ears: “We must not, however, lay too much stress on the copious shedding of tears by the insane, as being due to the lack of all restraint; for certain brain-diseases, as hemiplegia, brain-wasting, and senile decay, have a special tendency to induce weeping.”

The more you know.

The Hunt for Vulcan

I’ve never forgotten the scene in Men in Black, when Jay (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) are sitting on a bench facing the New York City skyline. Jay has gotten a brief but shocking glimpse of the secret alien world Kay is trying to recruit him into, one that few people know about.

“Why the big secret?” Jay asks. “People are smart. They can handle it.”

“A person is smart,” Kay responds, but “people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

This scene came to mind right after I finished reading Thomas Levenson’s new book The Hunt for Vulcan: …And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe. Levenson writes about the now-forgotten period between 1859 and 1915 when scientists believed our solar system had a planet called Vulcan within Mercury’s orbit. An anomaly in Mercury’s orbit affected its gravitational trajectory just enough to suggest another mass was tugging on it. Professional and amateur astronomers alike made several attempts to observe this mystery mass, and some reported doing so. But it wasn’t until decades later, when Einstein applied the principles of his new theory of relativity to the orbital calculations, when those sightings were finally reclassified as misidentified stars and the coulda-woulda-shoulda planet Vulcan was expunged from the solar system.

(more…)

The Guns of August

I like books with spunk, and Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August has it. Published in 1962, it’s too old to be considered the definitive historical work on the First World War, as I’m sure more modern books have benefitted from a more widely available historical record and emotional distance from the events now a century past. But damn, The Guns of August comes out firing and just doesn’t let up.

I must admit that I haven’t finish it. To me the play-by-play of battles and movements of armies is a lot less interesting than how and why they got to the battlefield. Perhaps I’ll pick it up again and get a better sense of the Great War’s nitty gritty, but for now I’m satisfied and impressed by the sniper-like precision Tuchman wields in her dramatic reenactment of the political, diplomatic, and military machinations that triggered a catastrophic war between and within the great European powers.

Citizenfour

The hotel’s fire alarm testing in Citizenfour = the nighttime controlled explosions in Force Majeure.

I wonder how well this documentary would work with someone who knew nothing of Edward Snowden, who wasn’t aware of the NSA leak when it happened and its subsequent firestorm. Without knowing that context ahead of time and carrying it through the viewing, I doubt the scenes of Snowden in the hotel room breaking down his documents and sharing his (quite poised) reasons for whistleblowing would carry the same weight.

The flipside of that is, remembering that time very clearly and still harboring animosity for the skullduggery Snowden revealed, I thought it was gripping. Poitras’s footage allows us to be present at the epicenter of the hurricane, before and after the public learned of “Ed” Snowden and his very deliberate actions. It’s like a zoomed-in photo negative. Recommended.

A Reader’s Guide to Back to the Future

I noticed a motif of paper, reading, and the written word throughout the Back to the Future trilogy. Perhaps that’s much more common in movies set in pre-Internet times, but I thought it was especially prevalent in the Holy Trilogy:

Part I:

Part 2:

 Part 3:

 

Closing the Almanac

Marty_almanac-1955

On the Fandom-Industrial Complex and Moving Forward from Back to the Future

The day Back to the Future fans have waited for is finally here. The thirty-year countdown to October 21, 2015, one of the most well-known dates in movie history (despite how often it has been incorrectly reported on the interwebs), is over [1]. There’s been an ongoing celebration of the trilogy on the internet and in real life: this Wired dispatch by Jason Tanz, “Fandom Eats Itself at New York Comic Con,” spotlights the kind of reception a widely loved favorite like BTTF gets in the more insular (yet quickly expanding) world of nerd culture:

The rowdiest panel I attended was about the film Back In Time, a documentary about Back to the Future fans. The documentarians presented themselves as Back to the Future fans, but also as fans of other Back to the Future fans, like the guy who spent more than $500,000 to buy the original DeLorean time machine. The audience greeted the documentarians as celebrities too, making them fans of fans of fans of Back to the Future.

Fandom is eating itself, but from the tone of the article and the culture at large you wouldn’t think this is a bad thing. Tanz describes the end of the panel, when the documentary filmmakers give away replicas of the specially produced Pepsi Perfect bottles featured in Part II to everyone in the audience. “Before the event,” he writes, “I had rolled my eyes at the promotion, a two-decade long-con of corporate sponsorship. But here, surrounded by red-vested Marties, whooping and stampeding toward the back of the hall, I couldn’t help but feel a begrudging thrill as I grabbed my goddamn bottle of Pepsi Perfect. What can I say? I guess I’m a fan.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say Back to the Future has been a foundational element of my life. I don’t remember when exactly I watched the trilogy, but middle school was when it caught on with a fury. Since then it’s embedded itself into my identity so thoroughly that I’ve heard from several friends and acquaintances that I’m the first person they think of to send BTTF-related articles, parodies, fake product announcements, and news bites of every stripe. It’s a distinction I’ve willingly cultivated over the years, what with my effusive writings on the subject, my collection of homemade and gifted memorabilia, my eager attendance at meet-and-greets with cast members, and my delight at two separate encounters (both arranged by my very accommodating father) with cosplaying Doc Browns.

So when I read articles like this, at the tail end of decades of brand-sponsored fandom, I’m conflicted. The incipient parade of new Star Wars films and its adjacent subculture has helped me see this phenomenon of superfandom from the outside. I’ve never been much of a Star Wars fan. This might be due to not watching them at an impressionable young age as I think was the case with many of its proponents. But, separating my impression of it from its iconic place in film history, I also don’t like them all that much. So when every scrap of news from the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm universe is alternately drooled over and dissected, I get that “uncanny valley” feeling of seeing another version of my BTTF-loving self that doesn’t quite feel right, that I’m prone to criticize or roll my eyes at without realizing how much it looks like me.

In a post called “Withdraw Into Yourself Forever,” Fredrik deBoer criticizes what I’ll call the fandom-industrial complex, the natural outgrowth of a cultural landscape littered with infinitely rebooted Superhero Brand franchises and their surrounding ecosystems that encourage you to keep on loving and buying it in perpetuity, and blur the lines between those two things. “It’s the creation,” deBoer writes, “of an economic, social, cultural, and even political infrastructure to convince you that your urge to dive deeper into the stuff you already like is always the correct feeling. It’s an ideology of taste that is totally unfettered by anachronistic compulsions to be more widely read, or to try new things, or to acquire a cultural literacy other than the stuff that you have always loved.” And it’s a phenomenon perfectly encapsulated in Wired’s dispatch from Comic Con.

I’m not advocating for consuming only new things or for abandoning the things you love simply because other people like them (nor do I think deBoer is). Rewatching favorite movies, or going back to an album that perfectly scores a moment or mood is a unique thrill—and that in our time is unbelievably easy to do. But I still try to subscribe to the tenets Alan Jacobs lays down in his great book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, which I’ve adapted for moviegoing here:

  • Whim: Watch what you want, when you want to, without shame.
  • Aspiration: …but don’t get stuck watching the same stuff—branch out and seek to be a better watcher.
  • Upstream: Seek out the older works that inspired your favorites and be challenged to “swim upstream.” It might be challenging sometimes but the rewards will be greater than just coasting downstream.
  • Responsiveness: Don’t be afraid to take notes and respond to what you’re watching—make moviegoing matter.
  • Slow: You’ll miss the little things if you view moviegoing as simply uploading information. Slow down and you’ll absorb more.

Jacobs meant for these to be an approach to reading books, but taken together they work just as well for a more balanced and thoughtful approach to consumption of whatever culture you’re into. They’re also a challenge for myself, and a reminder of what other good I could be missing every time I return to Hill Valley, however weirdly charming it is.

I’m not breaking up with BTTF. I married a Jennifer, for Doc’s sake. In 2015 no less [2]. Our first dance was to the movie version of “Earth Angel,” which was immediately followed by a group dance with our bridal party to “Power of Love.” I think I’ve fulfilled my density. The trilogy will always be there for me to enjoy. But the hegemony it has enjoyed over my identity has begun to wane. I don’t want to withdraw into Back to the Future forever. I’m so grateful for its place in my cultural biography and for its fraternity of enthusiastic fans, but I’ve got the same blank page Marty and Jennifer got at the end of the trilogy when Doc says their future hasn’t been written yet, that it would be whatever they made it.

It’s time to explore a new future, and today is as good a time as any to begin doing so.

 

Footnotes
1. I think November 5, 1955, is the more important date, but who’s asking?
2. Believe it or not, this didn’t dawn on me until a few months before the wedding, which unfortunately didn’t happen in the Chapel O’ Love.