In Praise of the Binge

I was excited about the reboot of Battlestar Galactica when it first burst upon the scene back in 2004. I’m a big Edward James Olmos fan and the idea of swapping genders for Boomer and Starbuck I thought would help tone down some of the cheese from the 1970s original.

And then it came out and it was… awesome. Kind of mind blowing, really. It was one of the rare shows that you can’t wait to talk about at work the next day because everyone was watching it live.

Then SciFi announced that it was going to move from miniseries to full series and we all lost our shit. I mean, it was all we talked about.

But I didn’t watch it. I wanted to watch it. All those months while they were shooting the first season of the series I was planning on watching it, but then it came out and I just didn’t. My friends enthused over it. Everyone assured me that it was on par with the miniseries quality-wise. And I still didn’t watch it.

This was not a new syndrome creeping through my already damaged brain. In one way or another, to one degree or another, I go through this same unwillingness to recommit every year. The show ends in the spring, summer passes, the show comes back and I have to force myself to watch that first episode so I can get back into it. Sometimes I don’t. With BSG, I didn’t.

Right now the final season of Mad Men is still sitting unwatched on my DVR for the same reason.

I should also mention this only happens with dramas. Comedies are no big deal. Right now I’m counting down the days until Brooklyn 99 comes back.

During the time that BSG was playing out its seasons, I somehow came into possession of all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show I had watched religiously when it was on the air, and one summer I just started watching from the very beginning. I watched every episode, even the ones I knew were sub-par, and listened to every commentary track.

It was an epiphany for a completist. (dibs on the album title)

I understood for the first time, that when you binge watch something, you don’t have that gap between seasons (or even between shows during Nielsen deadzones) that causes you to lose your commitment. So as soon as BSG reached its conclusion, I spent a summer watching the whole thing front to back.

It was a revelation. All the myriad story threads were there to behold because my mind wasn’t dropping them between seasons. Character arcs, plot twists, everything was coming at me like a novel for television unspooling at a steady rate.

So when I lost the desire to watch Breaking Bad during the first season – I think I got five episodes in and just lost interest – I waited until it finished its run and then binge watched it with My Lovely Assistant.

Actually, the deal that I made to myself was that if MLA would watch it with me, not a sure bet because she doesn’t normally care for violence, then we would binge watch the whole thing together just to get everyone off our fucking backs about it. It turned out to be a wonderful experience for both of us.

But like any drug, it left us thirsty for more and supply was thin.

Binge watching a show for the first time requires two hard-to-find ingredients. 1) You have to actively not watch a great show that all your friends are addicted to and 2) You have to keep them from spoiling it for you. For years, if necessary.

Yes, I was one of those assholes who didn’t want anyone to talk about Breaking Bad in front of me because I was going to watch it “someday.” Despicable, I know.

I can’t force myself not to watch Better Call Saul, it’s arguably the best show on TV right now, and shows like Sleepy Hollow play to obviously into the “building a mythos” strategy. They drop it on you all at once like then contents of a haunted bric-a-brac drawer. You end up feeling simultaneously overwhelmed by too much information and underwhelmed by a general lack of creativity.

The binge series is just one of those things that has to happen on its own, coming to you from the blue via circumstances that are out of your control. Like magic and unicorns.

 

Just found a grammatical error on my About page (to instead of too) that’s been there for months. It’s endless…

Wolves In White

A few years ago I went through a particularly tough summer of reading when my book list ran into a series of super disturbing, ultra downers. It went a little something like this:

  1. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. The only book ever to make me actually hate its author.
  2. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  3. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. Children of Men by P. D. James
  5. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffennegger.
  6. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Needless to say I was in a bleak, suicidal state by the time September rolled around. I can’t remember which book came along to save my life, but in my memory it is Ready Player One though it could have been 11-22-63. In any case, the drug that put me into a stupor was also the thing that pulled me out of it.

What all these books have in common is a downer ending that comes right before the story’s true resolution (which is not provided by the author). Except for Time Traveler’s Wife which is a nearly perfect novel that’s just very, very sad, these books seem maliciously willing to drag you down for no other reason than they like you better down there.

1Q84 never seemed to be about anything and then it just stopped and Never Let Me Go was so disturbing that I have blocked any real memory of it.

Oryx and Crake and Children of Men are just bleak indictments of mankind that have nothing at the end to make you feel like maybe there’s a little hope out there.

And I hated Dark Places so much that I swore an oath to never read another Gillian Flynn novel. I ended up breaking this oath with Gone Girl because people wouldn’t stop asking me if I had read it. And yes I hated it even more than Dark Places and now I’m doubled down on my promise to never read her again.

So what does that have to do with Wolf in White Van and the Southern Reach Trilogy? Well, I’m really just setting the bar very high for downbeat books that have no definitive resolution before I rain high praise on these two stories.

Basically, I’m saying that if I like these books even though I hate this type of book with every fiber of my being then everyone should like these books.

Wolf In White Van is a mystery from page one, sentence one. You never really even know what the story is about until you reach the last page. But it’s written so well and constructed with such meticulous ship-in-a-bottle detail that you wish it would never end. Considering the lyrical style of the prose, it makes perfect sense that the author, John Darnielle, is the primary member of the band Mountain Goats.

The Southern Reach Trilogy defies description so I’m not even going to try except to say that a hole has opened up in reality on the west coast of the United States and is gradually expanding, replacing our world with something else, something alien and different.

That’s the elevator pitch but that is definitely not what the story is about. Instead, it’s about the people who are trying to deal with the invasion and how the mysteries of “Area X” affect them.

Neither of these stories has any answers for you, nor do they lead up to satisfying conclusions that tie everything up in a nice bow. These are the kinds of stories that leave you thinking. You’ll dream about them a week or so after you finish reading them. Stray thoughts from Area X will invade your train of thought in meetings. That possible meanings of that long trip down the hallway to the parents’ bedroom in Wolf will sneak into your consciousness every time you turn down a certain corridor at work.

You will finish them but they will never be finished with you.

 

The Empty Well

I wonder if what I think of as “Depression” is actually just a period of creative recharge. It does always seem to come after a period of high productivity and it would make sense that the energy I use to create is also the energy I use to keep my spirits up.

Whatever it is, I have certainly hit a wall.

Deciding to publish the six novellas and two novels that make up the Dangerous Thoughts series all at once seemed like a great decision at the time and, in fact, I still think it’s the only way to do it in this market, but it is such a stupendous undertaking that, much like a marathoner reaching that first edge of his personal limits, I am flagging in the middle of Episode 5.

It’s not writer’s block because I actually know everything that needs to be written, there are no unwelcome blank pages here, but rather a simple lack of energy both physical and emotional that strikes me from time to time.

It starts with ritualistic living, trying to fire up the motors by revisiting experiences (mostly restaurants and bars, let’s be honest) that have provided good vibes in the past. But my brain is so low on dopamine that I can’t muster the joy those indulgences should provide.

Next it moves onto binary living, in which I only want to eat, drink and write. And everything in between I just want to sleep through.

Finally, we arrive at the zero energy state which is where I am today. I no longer even want to eat, drink or write. I just want to sleep.

The good news is that this is the final stage and it only lasts a short while. After taking a few days off to let my brain recharge, something positive will happen (a good meal, a five star review, a big day of sales, the Nationals bullpen won’t collapse in the Seventh Inning) and I’ll be off and running again.

In the meantime, I plan on reading books and watching a lot of movies so expect to see more posts here.

* I got the image for this post here:  Dry Well and I chose it for its obvious symbolism but also because it reminded me of the inverted tower in the hauntingly beautiful Southern Reach Trilogy which should be read by everyone.

 

Kill Me Three Times

@Genrist Bottom Line: Don’t waste your time.

For the first time in recent memory, I had to go to Rotten Tomatoes to be told why I didn’t like a movie. Even as I was watching this movie, I found myself checking the clock, looking for other things to do, and when the power went out about twenty minutes before the movie limped to an end, I took it as an excuse to bail out early.

I did watch the last act, eventually, when I had nothing else to do, but time away was unable to improve the experience.

Foremost in my mind was the excellent cast being wasted here. I kept asking myself why I didn’t want to see Bryan Brown, Simon Pegg and Teresa Palmer (whom I loved in Take Me Home Tonight) in a movie about people screwing each other over.

Well, because their characters weren’t likable or believable. Teresa’s Lucy is basically a bitchy, entitled cheat. Pegg’s hit man is shallow and unbelievable (he repeatedly has trouble getting his gun out of the holster. Not in a funny way done for laughs, but he just looks awkward drawing the gun.)

Since every character is unlikable, there’s little catharsis when the bodies start hitting the floor. The plot is convoluted, the characters are poorly drawn and the director doesn’t seem to care about them as much as he does the cars they’re driving.

Here’s a tip: The next time you decide to make a Tarantino movie, go back and watch Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to remind yourself that even though everyone in those movies is technically a bad guy, they are all still likable, relatable individuals that the audience cares about.

The grocery store has become the museum of foods I used to be able to eat.

Heinlein The Liberal

Ever since that terrible movie came out in 1997, people who’ve never read Heinlein found it fashionable to talk about what a fascist he was. This came from the misinterpretation of a single concept in the book Starship Troopers, namely that “service guarantees citizenship.”

This grumbling about RAH’s fascist leanings began in the 1960s when the idea of military service became anathema to people protesting a bad war.  Far from a fascist, Heinlein was a level headed liberal who started out as a Democrat and migrated to the Republican party during the sixties when he felt the Dems had gotten crazy liberal.

But many, many, many men from Heinlein’s generation felt that a stint in the military served to sharpen their minds, toughen their hides and start their careers. It also provided a place for them to blow off some of that nervous boy energy that tends to get us in trouble. He also happened to be a military man when the whole world went to war so logic along the lines of “If you love your country so much, you should be willing to defend it” and “if you don’t have the responsibility to serve your nation you don’t deserve to vote in its elections” might have sat quite well at the time he wrote it.

There’s a lot of dithering about whether he intended civil service to count as “service” and public corporal punishment and so on but to me that’s just cherry picking details in search of outrage. This book, like Starman Jones and Tunnel in the Sky, is just a story of a young person finding their way to adulthood told against a fantastic background in which the author indulges in a few thought experiments.

The point of the book that’s often missing from today’s coming of age stories, is that it’s a good thing to grow up well, that as a young person you shouldn’t be seeking to delay the onset of adulthood but rather trying to discover the way to achieve a type of adulthood that adds some value to the world.

 

Lexicon

Genrist Bottom Line: Fast moving story with a fascinating premise populated by distinctly human characters. Read it.

Max Barry is probably the best science fiction writer you’ve never heard of. I fell in love with his stuff when I stumbled across a book called Jennifer Government and I’ve read everything he’s written since.

While Machine Man was very good, Lexicon is the closest he’s come to hitting that raw nerve of pure genius a second time.

Were you that kind of kid who would spend half a day reading the definition of random words in the dictionary? I was. And that love of language has led me to believe that there is something magic about it, something we don’t consciously understand but can control intuitively.

Lexicon is a great read for any fan of genre fiction, but it will be a special treat for those secret dictionary readers out there. Firstly, because it’s about a group of people who have been trained to use language in a very specific, very powerful way and, secondly, because it’s about people.

This isn’t one of those science fiction books that puts ideas ahead of character development. It’s a very human story set in a very surreal environment. It moves fast but is never sketchy and ropes you in almost immediately.

It’s good. Read it.

American Ultra

@Genrist Bottom Line: Go see this movie.

There are a lot of people working in Hollywood right now but there are only a few who are having any fun. They’re the ones who remember what it was like to be a kid in the fifth row of a movie theater when the lights went down, that rush of angst and desire that flooded through their bodies, that sense of hope for wonder and adventure, and the dread of unimaginable horrors that would follow the trailers.

If you’ve ever heard Max Landis (son of John Landis who directed, yes, Animal House) pitch an idea (and you can hear him do just that by clicking this link) you will find yourself blinded by the light that shines from a pure, unadulterated love of movies.

This can be a little bit much for those who aren’t like minded, people who go to the movies to blow off steam or catch a quick nap, but if you truly love movies and you remember what it was like when those lights went down, you will get why Max is considered such a cinematic genius even before he’s really done very much.

The most important thing that people forget when making an action movie is that they’re supposed to be fun. The difference between Die Hard and a hundred Direct to Video action movies is the characters and the humor and the inventiveness. It’s not a matter of having an explosion every three pages, no matter what studio executives believe.

American Ultra is populated by some wonderful characters played by some wonderful actors like Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, John Leguizamo and Connie Britton (a cast like that for a movie like this tells us that, at the very least, it started out as an excellent script).

It starts with a bang, it moves fast, it’s funny, it’s scary and it’s heart breaking. And its voice is unique because it was written by Max Landis.

I would say Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Kingsman), Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim) and Max Landis are the most original voices in action films today. Their work puts the regular shoot-’em-ups to shame.

Give me a Kick-Ass or a Scott Pilgrim or an American Ultra over Age of Ultron any day.

Go see this movie. Seriously, why are you still sitting there?

 

The Obsolete Man

Work. In its simplest case, you hunt or you gather and you eat. The tribe works together to make sure everyone is fed and clothed and protected. That’s one of those self-reinforcing unwritten laws that works fine until the tribe gets to a certain size.

To grow to that certain size you have to have agriculture, which requires specialization, and that’s when you’ve got a problem: People without skills. It’s a small problem at first because there are two default jobs in society that almost anyone can do: women can have babies and men can take a spear to the chest at the front of a charge.

But over time that percentage of people who are necessary to keep society running shrinks and the pool of unemployable people grows. This is really exacerbated by industrialization which seems to create jobs just so they can be replaced by machines within a single generation.

Now robotics and AI sweep in to finish the job and what’s left? Seven billion people all standing in line to apply for one million jobs.

Part of that problem is in how we define work.

The equation is pretty simple. You should help society if you want to benefit from society. And we can extrapolate that out to say that the more you help society, the more you should benefit.

Suppose we take out the concept of “work” and eliminate the word “job” and instead talk about how “citizens” add “value” to the economy. Now extrapolate the current advances in software and robotics out to the logical conclusion and what value is left for citizens to add to the economy?

Entertainment and war. Although, with drones taking over for human soldiers, I would imagine the latter will soon fall under the heading of the former much like the entertainment division took over the news division in the movie Network.

The value that citizens can add to society in that case has to do with the fact that entertainment cannot exist in a vacuum. It has to be enjoyed for it to be worth making.

My prediction is that those who don’t create will consume. Full time. And they will drive the world economy more with Likes than with money.

The Creator Class, as I’ve talked about previously, will spend their time making stuff designed to stand out from the ocean of other stuff so they can garner as many likes as possible. And if you don’t have talent or vision or a functioning sense of shame then your creation can be yourself, Kardashian style.

But, in any case, we are already seeing the end of the traditional definition of work just as we’re also seeing the end of the traditional workplace and the very idea of full time employment.

What the strident capitalists out there refuse to acknowledge as they hang on to the old world by their fingernails is that with most of the jobs gone and the rest on the chopping block, there won’t be any customers for their products unless things like universal healthcare and universal income are implemented to keep people in a position to buy things.

Welcome to the brave new world. It comes with a universal remote.

Picture Attribution: Vintage Every Day