Category Archives: Blog

Book Festival and Margot’s

http://bit.ly/pgPk3L

The Friday before last, I went to the Southern Festival of Books, which is thrown every year by Humanities Tennessee next to the courthouses of Nashville. I like this convention more and more each time I go. The first time I went, it was actually held in Memphis and it seemed to be just a string of tents with some vendors selling books there. Then some years later I ran into it again in Nashville and learned that there were talks given,  just like in the sci-fi conventions that I was more familiar with. And what talks! The first one I went to was hosted by Susan Orlean who wrote the Orchid Thief, the novel that one of my favorite movies, Adaptation, was based on. Since then I’ve learned at least one new thing each time I’ve gone. I learned about the history of beef, about the southern gothic genre of books, how dependent we are on utilities, and how networks propagate over time.

At the book festival the emphasis is on books, rather than a specific genre. At this point in my life I find I like to read a lot of nonfiction; so I appreciate the relaxation of the guidelines. There is an emphasis on the south, which those of us who grew up here knowing how to speak correctly usually have something of an ambivalence about, but because the people at the festival can read and in fact do so avidly, you get to see all the interesting parts of Southern culture without lamenting the fall of civilization quite so much.

This year I went to the festival with my father and saw an interview between a host of a podcast and Tom Piazza, who among other things, is one of the writers that work on Treme. He mainly talked about music and some of the stories he wrote about the characters he met while reporting on the subject. They were entertaining stories, and I got his book, Devil Sent the Rain, because of them, but I’ve got to say that I’m more impressed that I got to shake the hand of a guy who works with David Simon. Homicide was good enough. The Wire made me rethink how a crime drama could be made, and Treme…well I don’t like Treme as much but a lot of people do like it and anything that allows Lucia Micarelli to make her awesomeness more apparent is good.

Anyway, after I got Piazza’s autograph, I asked him a couple questions about the show. One question was whether he was on board with the death of John Goodman’s character and  he said that he was against it originally, but that he warmed to the idea eventually.

Dad later asked him something to the effect of why do people in New Orleans blame Bush for Hurricane Katrina when the real problem was that the levees weren’t adequately maintained. While I agree with Dad that blaming Bush for that situation is something of an oversimplification, I didn’t think that that particular moment was the best time to engage in a political discussion.

Thankfully a friend of Piazza’s showed up and he had to go. After his panel, Dad and I went to the last half of another panel about the biographies of people that no one remembers, which was actually kind of interesting. The idea was that you can get an idea of the atmosphere of a time by knowing about the lives of people who were influential, but stayed more or less in the background.

The front of Margot's Cafe and Bar

After that, Dad and I wanted to sit at a bar and talk about things, so I looked at the map function on my phone and found Margot Café and Bar. It was rated highly and it said “bar” in the name so I figured it would be good. It was. It was great. But it was a little classier than I had thought from the name. Dad was dressed well, but I had just worn a t-shirt and cargos that day and felt a little scruffy. We were both wearing our Irish hats, so maybe that masked some of my uncouthness, but we were seated in the far corner, so maybe it didn’t. They didn’t cast any overt aspersions, and the service was excellent. So I can’t complain.

I got to try a few dishes I had heard about on cooking shows. Margot’s had scallops that tasted great and seemed to melt on the tongue. Dad got the mushroom risotto and found that very enjoyable. Good food, great service; it was an excellent cap to the day.

 

Review: Ring of Fire

Last Saturday I got the chance to see a production of Ring of Fire performed by the Gaslight Dinner Theater at the Renaissance Center in Dickson, Tennessee.  The show plays until October 15th and features excellent performances of songs by Johnny Cash as well as scenes depicting times in his life. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch it, but the sheer amount of talent on the stage was mind blowing. Every one of the twelve cast members acted, sang, AND played a musical instrument as good or better than anyone I’ve seen on the stage, and I’ve seen several Broadway musicals.

The show is really more of a concert than a musical. In fact, I felt that some of the acted out scenes took away from rather than added to a few of the performances, but the blocking and musical-style frame work did allow each performer to showcase their considerable talent and it prevented the scenery from seeming stale as it can with a standard concert.

I would caution that the show is a PG or PG-13 affair, as they do go into the time Cash spent in prison. If you are familiar with Cash’s oeuvre, though, this isn’t a surprise, and it provides a nice contrast to the other songs in the show.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys Cash’s music. I give it an 8 out of 10, which is a high mark for me (I would have to have a quasi-religious experience to rate something a 10 out of 10). I’m a Johnny Cash fan by way of U2 and Nine Inch Nails, so I’d say you don’t have to be a country music person to enjoy the show. On the other hand, don’t be expecting Walk the Line in musical format. Although the show does dip into the darkness a little with a few somber set ups, it doesn’t have the sturm and drang of the movie. That’s a good thing, though, as far as I’m concerned. Ring of Fire is a fun, feel-good showcase of the songs and life of Johnny Cash. The feeling I got from watching it is actually similar to watching a good show at at Opryland: A friendly atmosphere punctuated by explosions of talent.

Review of After Dark

If you’re interested in being a writer, every now and then it’s good to go ahead and read, watch, or listen to something you’re pretty sure you aren’t going to like. First,  you might be surprised and actually like it. Second, even if you don’t like it, there might be things about it that you do like and you can use them in your own writing. Finally, if you still don’t like it, you can try to figure out why you don’t like it so you can make sure never to do those things yourself.

Along these lines I recently listened to an unabridged audiobook of After Dark by Phillip Margolin. The story is about a wealthy female prosecutor, named Abby. She’s accused of killing her soon to be ex husband  and pinning it on a serial killer she had failed to keep in prison.

I got the audiobook at a garage sale because of the reasons I’ve outlined above, and because I thought it would be something to listen to while I was cleaning and what not. Although you might think it was a horror novel from the title, it’s actually a courtroom thriller. I’m not particularly fond of those, which is why I wasn’t very excited about it. But there are a few examples of the genre that I have enjoyed, or at least, I’ve enjoyed the movies inspired by examples of the genre. Anyway, the book wasn’t that bad. There have been novels I actually haven’t been able to listen to because of their terrible-ness and this was not one of them. With four tapes comprising the audiobook and two sides to a tape, I had seven golden opportunities to stop listening, but I kept going, and not out of any bloody minded determination to continue to the end, but simply because I wanted to know what would happen next.

Why was this? Well part of it was, of course, that I didn’t know what was going to happen next. The other part was that I cared about what happened next. I would say the first part is relatively easy to recreate in a story: you just don’t tell the reader everything all at once. I say it’s relatively easy, because it can be hard to remember to be coy about exciting details when you’re chomping at the bit to let them all come out in a gush of exposition. The second part is harder, though. It revolves around creating sympathetic characters, or at least characters who are interesting.

The most interesting character in After Dark is the serial killer Charlie Daniels, with his charmingly evil demeanor and love of game shows. You pretty much know he has had something to do with all the deaths, the question is more about how Abby and her attorney, Mathew Reynolds can prove it. Matthew has a quiet intensity and a desire to not let any of his clients get the death penalty. The title of the book, After Dark refers to what defense attorneys have to do when their clients get the death penalty. They have to go to a court house after dark the night they are executed. It is the thing Matthew is most keen on avoiding. The title phrase is used perhaps over much throughout the last part of the book, but I am glad when an author chooses a title for a reason, rather than on a whim.Tracy, Matthew’s competent assistant, is arguably the main protagonist, as she discovers some secrets that provide many of the twists and that move the plot forward, but oddly, I found her to be one of the least fleshed out characters. In fact for half the book I kept confusing her with Abby. Abby is probably the second most interesting character. At least in the beginning, she shows herself to be very resourceful and assertive, but she has to deal with a very difficult situation.

These characters were just interesting enough to make me worry about them and how their stories panned out. Why, though, wasn’t I more interested?

It’s tempting for me to say the story was clichéd, because it felt like a lot of other crime dramas. Even though my experience with the genre is limited to the few Grisham novels I’ve read, I feel like I sort of know the drill. But while it seemed like old ground, it wasn’t predictable. Yes I knew all the way through it that Charlie was up to no good, but the main thrust of the story is proving Abby’s innocence, if she is in fact innocent. All of which left me guessing. So if it’s not predictable, what about the story makes me feel as if it is?

I think perhaps it’s the way the new information is presented. Although I don’t know what exactly a character might reveal in After Dark, I can tell, simply by context, that they’re going to reveal something surprising. It’s unpredictable, but it’s predictably unpredictable. The feeling is a little like watching a soap opera. When the camera comes in for a close up, you know something emotional is going to be said, even if you don’t know for sure what that might be.

The take away of this for me is that although having plot twists may be enough for some readers (Margolin did, after all, get his book published and made into an audio book, which suggests that a good number of people must have read and enjoyed his work), it’s not quite enough to make a work seem fresh. You have to vary the way the twists are presented too. In other words, you don’t want the plot to feel like a mad libs game, where there are surprising moments in a cookie cutter frame work.

I think following a character’s natural motivations will tend to keep the cookie cutter feeling from coming up. I’ve never read any interviews or anything from Margolin, but my guess is that he’s a plot first kind of guy. The characters in his stories are colorful, but they seem a little animatronic, tied to the things they must do to get to the next scene rather than free to do as they really wish.

One place where I feel this most acutely is when Abby is supposed to fall in love with Matthew. At this stage doubt has been placed on Abby’s innocence, and the seductive manner in which she addresses Matthew lends credence to the idea of her guilt, but it doesn’t quite mesh with how she acted in earlier scenes. This isn’t the only problem with Abby. Before her trial starts, she seems like a competent and intelligent woman, but once the trial starts she seems passive and confused about everything. She’s a lawyer, but there are times where she seems ignorant of courtroom procedure.

In one of the Amazon reviews, someone has complained about not knowing whose story the book is telling. I agree with this, but I also know that there are books without a definite singular main character that still work. I think if I have to put my finger on what is wrong with After Dark, it’s that the characters aren’t given enough freedom to act appropriately.

Overall I give the book a 6 out of 10.

My Own Back Yard

Passion flower. Image from http://www.neoninc.org/budburst/resources_plant.php?Species_ID=27

For the last six months or so I’ve been walking the dogs around the field behind my house, and I’ve noticed there is a great diversity of plants there. I got into to plant identification for a while, and it was fun figuring out what everything was, but I had slacked off the last couple of months because I started teaching more classes and other things came up. Last week though, I started reading Evil Genes by Barbara Oakley, an interesting book about the genetic and environmental causes of evil. Oakley writes the book in a conversational yet journalistic style and she often describes the area where scientists live or where their labs are situated by talking about what kind of plants are there. She’ll say things like “The lab is nestled amidst hills of wild barley and bluegrass.” This gave me another reason to look into plant identification: it can help with my writing.

Another factor is that Fall is beginning to influence things. Plants that were unremarkable before now have flowers and color. There’s an area in the back of the field where you can walk between two copses of evergreens. And there, almost hidden in the nettles that the dogs were sniffing through, was a very strange and awesome looking flower. It looked almost like something you’d expect on an alien world. It was pink and purple and had some very prominent stamens or something sticking out of it, and it was on a vine. There were a bunch of them, so I cut one off and brought it inside and showed it to my mom. “Oh,” she said rather matter-of-factly, “That’s a passion flower.”

“A passion flower?”

“Yes. It becomes passion fruit later on.”

Well, this blew my mind. I thought passion fruit was from some exotic place like Hawaii or Madagascar or something. Turns out it’s native to Tennessee. In fact the passion flower is Tennessee’s state flower. The natives in the area called it ocoee and it’s the namesake of the Ocoee river.

Ironweed

After this, I found a strange purple flower along the edge of the field where some dogwoods and honeysuckle separate the field from the road and determined that it was Ironweed, so called because it has a hardy root system that’s difficult to dig out. The Indians supposedly used some part of it to ease stomach aches. There were also several large plants that looked a little like wild carrot, except they were larger and the flowers were much more sparse and not in a true umbel but more of a branched system. I thought that these were cow parsnips until I did some further research for this blog. There’s another plant that looks a little like a thistle mixed with an aster that I haven’t been able to identify, but these set backs if anything, make me want to know more.

All this is very exciting, but civilization places pressures on the situation that I didn’t quite expect. Yesterday a man came by the house to work on the tractor, which has lain more or less dormant since the beginning of spring. Weeds and grasses pushed through its mechanisms, the back left tire had gone flat. When the man got the thing to start by replacing the battery and shorting the starting circuit with a screwdriver, it seemed to be asking us to please leave it alone to die in peace. The man said that he would come back and do some more repairs on it, but that we ought to be able to use it to mow the field if we didn’t care that none of the gauges worked and the screwdriver method was the only way to start it.

Our tractor sitting in our field after Tractor Man looked at it.

We could mow the field.

And I felt a surge of panic. Mow the field? But that’s where all the plants are! You can’t just mow them down! Sure there are snakes and ticks and chiggers and what not that breed and stalk their prey in the tall weeds and grasses, but I still haven’t figured out what all the weeds and grasses are.

Crazily I thought of maybe just asking my brother, who operates the tractor usually, to just mow part of the field. Or maybe leave a circle untouched, but I know the field is going to be mowed eventually. All the plants will grow back next year, just as they have this year, and it someways maybe they are there in the first place because we mow the field. Still, it’s a little disheartening.

Canoeing on the Harpeth

A couple of weeks ago I went canoeing with my friend David and some of his friends and family on the Harpeth river. It’s really more of a stream than a proper river, but it’s a pleasant stream with lots of bends and plenty of wildlife to see along the way, so it makes for good canoeing.

The Harpeth river forms the Harpeth valley, sometimes called the Harper valley, and for a while the area reached a certain level of fame from a country song by Jeannie C. Riley called Harper Valley PTA that came out in 1968. It’s a very simple song (there’s two points where the key changes slightly and that’s as exciting as it gets musically), but it deals with a mother refusing to bend to the will of a semi-theocratic quasi-socialist regime (the Parent Teacher Association) and so the lyrics give it a little punch.

It had been some fifteen years since I went canoeing. I had gone a few times in the scouts, and what I remembered from that was

  • I was going to get sunburnt
  • I was going to get wet
  • I was going to need water
  • Either my posterior or my knees were going to hurt
  • And at some point the canoe would tip over.

Bearing this in mind, in the hour or so I had to prepare before I showed up to the meeting place I rushed through the house looking for swimshoes that I haven’t worn since the Clinton administration, knee pads that were marginally more comfortable than cardboard, a completely dorky fanny pack for putting snacks in, and a few bottles of water, which I completely forgot about when I eventually showed up.

My brother Shane was up as I was searching through the house and he asked me where I was going. When I told him he said, “Ew,” and asked why I would ever want to do that. I said something to the effect that it would be fun and I’d be able to hang out with some friends. Shane asked me if I had ever seen the movie “Deliverance.”

Ignoring his warnings, I got everything I needed from home, put it in the car, and left.

cell phone dry box and dry pouch

My chief concern was that my cell phone and wallet might get wet when my canoe tipped over. So after I drove the twenty minutes into town I went into Walmart and got a water proof cell phone box and a water proof pouch for my wallet. The makers of these items had an interesting sales strategy. They said that their waterproof containers were not intended to be submerged. Now I understand the idea. Basically I can’t go scuba diving and expect them to work, but “submerged” can mean a large range of things, and what I want when I’m purchasing water proof containers is some assurance that they are, in fact, waterproof. So I don’t know, maybe do what watch makers do and say that they’re waterproof up to ten feet or something?

Anyway I showed up at David’s father’s house to meet everyone on the trip. It was Me, David, David’s father Tom, David’s wife Kristi, a girl visiting from China named Nicole, and another friend of David’s named Gray. Gray was the only other person wearing swim shoes, which made me feel slightly less like a dork. David was wearing long jeans and army boots, almost daring the river to try to mess with him.

Tom provided us all with Ziploc bags for our cell phones, which I used along with my dry box, because I was pretty sure my canoe was going to tip over. After having a nice chat about our previous canoeing exploits, most of which were variations on the terrible things that could happen if you got tipped over in the rapids, we all got into our vehicles and went down to the company that was going to rent our canoes. The company’s name was Tip-a-Canoe.

It was me, Nicole, and Tom in one boat, David, Kristi, and Gray, in the other. The girls weren’t terribly keen on rowing, so they sat in the middle. The way canoes work is that the person in the back does most of the steering, the person in the front provides thrust and helps with the steering, and the people in the middle try to make themselves feel useful with varying levels of success. Kristi took several pictures on the river, and both she and Nicole helped during some of the trickier areas of the course, so everyone participated.

I was glad to have knee pads as the seats on the canoes are amazingly uncomfortable. I also like paddling better on my knees because of the lower center of gravity, or maybe it make me feel like I’m going faster. Unfortunately the knee pads I was using weren’t intended for extended use. I eventually fell into a rhythm of alternating between sitting on my rear and sitting on my knees as each area got more painful. I like to think that I was better off than my friends, who just sat, but I’m not entirely sure.

I had of course forgotten to put sun tan lotion on, but thankfully the weather was mostly cloudy that day so I only got slightly sun burnt on my arms. It wasn’t too hot either, and there were several relaxing tranquil moments as we let ourselves be pushed by the current and admired the profundity of the nature around us. There were several turtles along the river. Often just as we spotted them, they would slide into the water, making us wonder if we had seen them at all. Tom shared a story with us about how David once had been conscripted to move a turtle off a road. I won’t go into any details, suffice it to say the moral of the story was: “Don’t ever try to pick up a turtle, unless you are sure it’s not a snapping turtle.”

We saw a heron or two launch gracefully into the sky, and at one point we came across a flock of ducks. David shared with us a little song at this point that described the behavior of one of the ducks perfectly: “Shake your butt / Shake your butt / Poop!”

That wasn’t the only singing that took place. Gray revealed that he had quite a good singing voice and belted out a few lines from some of his favorite songs. He mentioned one of his favorite singers was John Denver, which I found a bit odd. The only thing I really know about John Denver is that he died in a plane crash and one of his songs was used to ominous effect in the first Final Destination movie. I couldn’t figure out a way to leverage this into conversation, so I just let it go.

At some point during the trip I started quoting Monty Python, as I am wont to do. This prompted Nicole to ask me how to speak in an English accent. Not being from the UK myself, I had to inform her that I was far from an expert in the subject. Next I told her what my father always said about the accent, which was that the best way to imitate it was to imagine there was a bumble bee in your mouth while you were talking.

Nicole knew a great deal of English, so I was surprised when she asked what a bumblebee was. Tom and I explained it several different ways, describing how it buzzed, how it could sting you, but only once, which was a little sad. How wasps had chemical stingers and could sting you several times and were nasty little things… I got the impression that Nicole figured it out after a few seconds, but let us carry on for the entertainment value.

We all stopped for lunch halfway through. Tom had made a plethora of chicken for us to eat, and we did our best to consume as much of it as we could. It was at this point however that I learned there wasn’t any water in the cooler. There was only diet soda, diet tea, fresca, and Pepsi. The Pepsi was the only thing that didn’t have aspartame in it, and aspartame tastes nasty to me, so I had that. It reawakened my love of high fructose corn syrup. David and I had a discussion about corn syrup’s deleterious effects. He lauded a number of brands of soda that used sugar instead . I said that I kind of preferred the corn syrup to sugar. My main problem with sugar soda is that for some reason it’s almost always flat. It sometimes doesn’t taste quite right either. Maybe I’m just a victim of consumer culture.

At one point we came to a hole dug into the rock on one side of the river, and Tom told us how it had been carved by slaves under orders from Montgomery Bell. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were canoeing around the Narrows of the Harpeth, near Mound Bottom an archeological site where artifacts have been found from as early 900 CE. I’m definitely going to want to check the area out on foot sometime. It looks pretty interesting.

Once we reached our end point, we took pictures of each other while we waited for the canoe truck to come by to take us and the canoes we rented back to the starting point. It was a good trip over all. Nobody tipped their canoes over, which I was a little sad about after all the anticipation. We did have to get out quite a few times to carry our canoes over the shallow regions, but it was no substitute. I still have an unfinished feeling about the trip as a result. Still glad I went though.

Big Dumb Aliens

The alien Mo-Ron from the show Freakazoid

Last night I watched yet another movie with big dumb aliens in it, Cowboys and Aliens. Don’t get me wrong, C&A was a pretty good movie. I’d give it a 7/10. It’s fun, and it turns out Olivia Wilde is a sexy alien, which I always kind of suspected. But it seems that if an alien isn’t humanoid, they have to be some kind of horrible beast that kills people for some inadequately explored reason. Just listing some recent ones there’s Cowboys and Aliens, Super 8 (7/10 I’ve downgraded it from a previous score), Battle: Los Angeles (6.5/10), and the tv-series Falling Skies (4/10). Not so recently there was Independence day, and who can forget the aquaphobic aliens in Signs. Basically ever since the movie Alien, there’s this trope of big dumb aliens attacking us, that kind of has me peeved.

In Alien it made sense. The Giger alien monster didn’t come to us, we came to it. It was a creature, not an intelligent being, at least not in the first movie or so. But in all the movies I listed, to a greater or lesser extent, all the aliens come from innumerable light years away using technology we can only dream of, and when we see them we are distracted by how coldly they are separating our heads from our torsos using their serrated appendages.

There are other cases where this makes sense. I included Battle: Los Angeles because the aliens are big and burly and are attacking us, but in that movie they were just the soldiers sent to Earth by the weaker, presumably nerdier ruler aliens. In fact for all we know in the movie the soldiers might even be another species conscripted into battle by their previous conquerors.  I still call Big Dumb Alien in B:LA, though,  because there’s something missing in it that’s missing in all of them. Communication. You can’t really develop any advanced level of technology without communicating. You can’t organize the concerted invasion of a planet without it either. And yet we hardly see the aliens communicating at all in Big Dumb Alien movies. Not to themselves, and certainly not to the humans.

Super 8 is a little bit of an exception here. The alien does eventually communicate with a human and vice versa, but, I still include it, because the alien acts like a savage animal throughout most the movie. It can make people understand it if it touches them. Fine, but as my brother asked after he watched it, why doesn’t it just touch everybody then? Why not do that instead of killing people, or tying them up in some cocoon thing?

The aliens in Falling Skies might also be considered an exception because some humans eventually find out they communicate on radio frequencies. And they can also use children as cyranoids, speaking through them against their will. But why not do this all the time from the start? Their goal is to rape the Earth of its resources, fine. But it isn’t exactly working out that well if your operations keep getting attacked by the indigenous population. The idea is that they’re supposed to act like European colonists, but the European colonists had Indian guides. They didn’t start out mindlessly attacking natives. They ate with them, traded with them, gave them small pox that decimated their population, and THEN they killed them.

The other thing I don’t like about Big Dumb Aliens is that they aren’t just dumb, but big too. It just seems to me that any creature that can kill other creatures easily probably has little incentive to develop an advanced civilization. We humans have got opposable thumbs and our brains and that’s pretty much it as far as physical advantages go out in the wild. We have martial arts, but that’s a developed skill requiring technology. We have weapons, but that’s already technology right there. Just us, by ourselves, we ain’t much. That’s why we had to use our heads and work together to survive.

I just have a hard time believing that something with razorblades coming out of its armpits would ever try using a rock to kill something. The whole premise of these naked creatures being intelligent enough to travel through space seems off to me. It’s possible, but it just doesn’t seem likely. The whole reason we wear clothes is because we’re vulnerable. I just tend to think that if we didn’t have to wear clothes, we would have never invented the internet.

One of the best things about Cowboys and Aliens is the alien technology. There’s a nifty alien gadget that melts gold and floats it, dripping, up to receptacles that move it to the core of their ships, presumably giving them power somehow. Their ships aren’t just slightly tweaked versions of our aircraft, they look completely different and yet move how you might expect them to move. There’s a strange feeling I got while watching where I forgot that what I was watching was impossible. The mother ship is buried in the earth (which also seems to be a running theme in these movies now that I think about it) with a large part sticking out of the ground that looks similar to the rock mesas around it in the desert. When the camera first showed it, my eye just sort of took it in with everything else. There’s the plain, the sun, part of a mesa, an alien space craft, another mesa, a horse…wait what? The arm band thingy too, was different, yet it worked so naturally I wouldn’t have been that surprised to find out Steve Jobs or somebody designed it.

But all that care that went into the tech is rather wasted on the big dumb aliens that use it. A human gets a hold of one of their arm guns. Do they organize a group to go after that human and retrieve the weapon? Nope! They just carry on, tra la la, business as usual, kidnapping humans, making them watch television until they forget who they are and then cut them up and kill them for no real reason.

Of course in the movie, the humans are equally stupid. Okay, you know the aliens have these nifty arm guns that are the only things that seem to do them any noticeable harm. You manage to kill a few of the aliens that have the arm guns by luck and guile. What do you do? Keep shooting bullets so you can watch them ricochet off their impenetrable armor… WRONG! Cut their arms off and get their freaking arm guns! What’s wrong with you people!

…But I digress.

Basically the point I’m trying to make here is that if you’re going to write a movie where aliens are going to invade earth, take a few moments to think on things from the aliens’ perspectives. Yes, having a smaller alien body part come out of a larger alien body part is creepy, but how does that help the alien? Is it being creepy on purpose? Is that the alien’s way of saying hello? How about showing that the alien uses the smaller body parts for sophisticated tasks requiring a lot of dexterity or something? Anything. If you can let us know something about where the aliens come from and especially if you can show them working out some form of counter strategy to what the humans dish out instead of them just being evil, that will make the story so much better.

Just a thought.

Super8review and excuse

I recently saw Super 8 at the theater. It was great, like a mix between E.T. and Godzilla, I give it a 8.5 out 10.Watching it gave me the same feeling as riding a ride at Disneyland or Universal Studios. I always felt like there was something else going on. There’s practically a war going on through out most of the movie, but the camera focuses on the children who are the main characters. You see a lot of the effects of the war without ever seeing what caused them. In one scene the wall of a room explodes away from the kids unexpectedly. Surprising, and it keeps things interesting. At first the alien didn’t seem very intelligent. It acts like some kind of monster through most of the movie, which I find a little annoying, but the movie makes up for it by the end.

I originally wrote a more extensive review of Super8 as well as some other movies, but it got lost when I hit ctrl-c instead of ctrl-v. My family and I got back late today from garage sale-ing. We ended up going all the way (about an hour) to Brentwood to go to an estate sale, which, it turns out, wasn’t going to happen until tomorrow (my brother’s fault:-)). We went to some other places though, so it wasn’t too bad. I got a bunch of old books, a portable tape player and a CD holder.

Garage Sale-ing

My family and I have developed a new past time: Garage sale-ing. Of course other folks have no doubt been doing this for awhile, but its new for us. We look through the local paper to find out where they’re having yard sales and then drive to them and look for things to buy. It’s a lot of fun and sometimes we find some good deals.

I mostly look for books and movies. My mom found some antique silver pieces, and my brother made some good deals on ebay. Recently, I got a videocamera that doesn’t appear to work and a lamp, pictured here to the left. I’m hoping to fix the video camera, or figure out how it works.

As for the lamp, I just thought it looked neat. It didn’t have the lampshade when I got it. I paid a dollar for it.  Pretty cool.

Anyway, it’s fun stuff.

Turd Polishing

Earlier I posted a review of a production of The Great American Trailer Park Musical  in which I basically praised the cast and crew, but made a few remarks about how I didn’t care for the source material. This review was part of a deal I had with a friend of mine where he would post my reviews of local events to his website, so he can get content and I can get practice and/or recognition for my site. However, my review was apparently a bit upsetting to someone involved with choosing the productions . I’ve since gotten rid of most of my criticisms in my review. The way I figure it, I’m supposed to help promote these events so I should leave my issues with them out of it. However combating this idea is the idea that even if I’m promoting something, I should be as frank as possible so that the promotion rings true. Also there’s another layer to this, as I don’t necessarily have to promote all the events if I don’t want to, and in fact maybe I shouldn’t.

I don’t do this professionally. I’ve done a lot of reviews of movies and some books on my livejournal page, but those weren’t done with any real attempt at quality. I’ve done one other review for my friend’s site, and that’s it. I don’t work for a newspaper or a magazine. I might like to some day, but I’m doing this in my spare time, and I don’t really have a lot of that. So I’m not as prepared as some to deal with these moral quandaries. Am I peeing in the punch bowl by giving criticisms in my reviews? Or if I don’t give criticism am I being a soulless shill?

My guess is the answer is yes on both counts. So I try to go middle of the road, but in this case going middle of the road means you get hit by both lanes of traffic.

Anyway, I’m being overly dramatic. Unfortunately or fortunately, we live in a world with other people who we sometimes disagree with. I disagree with the person who chose the musical. I think the players did an admirable job polishing it and making it look pretty, but that ultimately GATPM is a turd. That isn’t to say I’m right and the people who like it are wrong. Just that my opinion, amateur though it may be, is that GATPM is a disturbing example of wish fulfillment and has no moral compass.

The reasons I think this are perhaps unique to myself and a small set of people. First off, I don’t find infidelity to be very funny. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t mind that I don’t get Showtime stations in my cable package (watch an episode of Californication if you don’t know what I’m talking about). I’m not married, but my parents still are, and I have friends who are, and so I see marriage as an overall positive thing. Furthermore, while I don’t believe people who cheat on their spouse are going to Hell or anything of the sort, I do think that a marriage is a contract between two people, and if someone breaks that contract, then they are despicable and cannot be trusted. In GATPM, Norbert cheats on his wife the moment he gets a chance, but it’s the wife’s fault he cheats, because she can’t leave the trailer due to her agoraphobia. It’s sickening to me, and that kind of distracts from the humor.

That isn’t the worst part though. Jeannie, Norbert’s wife, has agoraphobia because the last time she left the trailer, her baby was kidnapped. Her. BABY. Was. KIDNAPPED. So she’s afraid to leave her trailer for twenty years. There is no indication however that any attempt was made to try to find the baby. No police were consulted as far as the audience knows. If it weren’t for the fact that the kidnapping is performed on stage, the audience might miss that it even happened in the first place. Nobody seems to care that a baby has been taken from his home by unknown persons. Maybe I wouldn’t be as upset about this if it weren’t for the trial of Casey Anthony that was recently concluded. Kaylee wasn’t kidnapped, of course, but something about watching a baby get stolen while the audience is supposed to laugh reminds me of stuffing a baby in the trunk of a car to go partying. Again, this distracts from the humor.

Finally throughout GATPM, different characters sniff markers to get high off their fumes. I don’t find this particular funny either. Maybe if I didn’t know that a great number of people in trailer parks are addicted to meth or some other drug I would think this was perfectly fine. But I can’t help thinking sniffing markers is a placeholder for all types of drug use, and to see it be promoted to such degree…well again, it distracts from the humor. It’s difficult to say why I have a problem with this and yet still enjoy movies like the Hangover, which blatantly promote drug use.  The humor of the Hangover arises from the characters dealing with the downside of drinking and taking drugs to excess. Another movie I enjoy that promotes drug use is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and again, its how the character deals with the effects of the drug, and not the taking of the drug itself which is funny.

Perhaps that’s the central issue with GATPM. Sad things happen in the plot, and they’re laughed at, and yet we only rarely see characters dealing with them, which I think is completely backwards. I’ve seen movies about sad subjects from divorce to suicide which were hilarious, but they were funny because of how the characters dealt with the problems, not because of the problems themselves.

GATPM was written by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso. I don’t know what involvement Betsy had in the writing, but I suspect some amount of wish fulfillment on David’s part. Norbert has an affair with a stripper and at some point both his stripper girlfriend and his wife are singing about how much they love him. All is forgiven by the end of the play. There are no repercussions. Granted, this is a comedy, but repercussions can be funny. In fact, I’d say that almost half of comedy is repercussions.

So I think GATPM is a turd. The people who performed it did a good job with it, but that doesn’t change my opinion of the musical.

Yay for digging deeper holes.

 

Review of The Great American Trailer Park Musical

Last Friday I was able to watch a dress rehearsal of The Gaslight Dinner Theatre’s production of The Great American Trailer Park Musical.  The songs and choreography are great, and this production will make for an entertaining night or afternoon out. In particular, if you like musical comedies, but always wished they could be a little more like reality television, this is the show for you.

The play will start showing July 5 and will continue until July 30, with matinees on Tuesday and Thursday at 12 noon and night showings on Fridays and Saturdays at 6:30 pm at the Gaslight Theatre in the Renaissance Center of Dickson, Tennessee. I would advise against bringing children or people who might be offended by lewd behavior to this as there is some objectionable content. There isn’t anything in the musical that is worse than PG-13 really, but there are references and allusions to things that might be difficult to explain to an innocent or pious soul without blushing.

The story of the Great American Trailer Park Musical takes place, appropriately enough, in a trailer park in North Florida. The main characters are Norbert and Jeannie, a married couple living in one of the trailers and Pippi, a stripper who is on the run from her boyfriend. Throughout the play we also hear from three female characters who act as a sort of Greek chorus, explaining the situation and being a sort-of model audience for what happens. Betty is the landlady; Linoleum, who was born on the kitchen floor, has a husband on death row; and the last is Pickles, a young woman with a penchant for having hysterical pregnancies. Pippi’s boyfriend Duke also plays a fairly large role as a marker sniffing, pistol wielding, truck driving, jealous boyfriend who runs over animals on the street with a devil-may-care attitude. At the beginning of the story, Jeannie is afraid to leave the trailer because the last time she went outside, twenty years ago, her baby got kidnapped and, even worse, she got a really bad haircut. Norbert, frustrated with this situation, has an affair with Pippi. After this, you are left to watch the situation boil over.

The action takes place with a cheerful, even celebratory atmosphere. The original production of the musical has been compared to South Park and to some extent the comparison works. Immoral acts and tragic events are depicted through zany song and dance numbers. However, South Park eventually settles into some form of moral statement, even if it is something a bit askew. GATPM never distinguishes between right and wrong. It’s an unhesitating, hedonistic glorification of human folly, much like the talk shows it lampoons during one of its numbers.

This friendly sign greets you when you first enter the theater, welcoming you to the trailer park that is the setting of the musical.

The Gaslight’s production of GATPM was done very well. During the rehearsal, there were a few problems with the set and costuming, which were probably fixed by opening night, but the music and choreography were phenomenal. During one number, Pippi’s boyfriend is depicted driving a truck while swerving and hitting a number of animals. The three members of the chorus back him up with their singing and move him around while carrying flashlights in such a way that the audience gets a distinct image of a truck driving down the road and swerving almost out of control. During another song “Great American Tv Show” a whole Jerry Springer-like production is set up and acted out  during a dream sequence. The quality of these performances  makes the production seem grander and more over-the-top then you might think such a small, intimate stage would allow.

The Gaslight also uses a live band, led by Nathan Brown. The musicians do an amazing job. Productions with recorded music can work, but they sometimes seem bland and antiseptic. Even if nothing else about the musical appeals, it’s worth it for the band and their music. It makes for a warmer and more energetic experience.

Everyone in the cast did well with their roles. Emma Jordan, who plays Pickles, gives her role a delightful effervescence that livens up the whole production. Jenny Norris-Light, who plays Pippi, also does a remarkable job being comically seductive, a task that requires a fair amount of balance. Jama Bowen and Alan Lee, who play Jeannie and Norbert, hold up the center of the cast admirably well. Chris Egging shows great physicality in his role as Duke. Margie Mills gives her character of Linoleum a good deal of brass that works nicely for her. Last, but not least, Paula Makar does probably the most amount of costume changes of the cast as Betty, and actually plays a number of different characters throughout the production, making each one believable even while allowing them to be larger than life.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical may not be for everyone, but the Gaslight Theater does a remarkable job with it. At the very least, it will definitely be something you’ll want to talk about with whomever you see it with.

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