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Pareidolia, Foie Gras, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2: A (sort of) Terrible Review


Have you ever been in the midst of a dream, and then realized that you were dreaming? You’re there, and you’re standing naked in front of the class, or you’re taking the stage and you’ve forgotten your lines, or you’re soaring in the sky with psychedelic dolphins or whatever, and it clicks: this isn’t real. It can’t be real. The world doesn’t work this way.

Suddenly, the dream is a lot less convincing. Probably you wake up. Or maybe you turn into Neo and you’re able to change the dream to suit your whims or something. Either way, it’s like one of those pareidolia images of faces in everyday objects: once you see it, there’s no unseeing it. You can’t ignore it and go back to believing that the dream was real.

pew-pew-pew

What’s all this about, then? Well, the wife and I saw Guardians of the Galaxy 2 last night. And about halfway through the film, like Neo in The Matrix, I woke up. Not that I had fallen asleep — no, as is Marvel’s wont, the action is cranked to eleven in this offering. Rather, I looked around. Noticed the seams on the walls, the jagged edges at the periphery, the hidden patterns in the carpet. And the spell was broken. I wasn’t just watching a movie anymore, I was in a world that I knew had been crafted deliberately, created to work surreptitiously on my subconscious.

(Spoiler note: This isn’t exactly a review, and there’s nothing explicitly spoiler-ific here. But if you’re planning on seeing it, and want to be able to immerse yourself fully, you might want to don your peril-sensitive sunglasses now.)

Now, sure, movies are designed to do this to you anyway. Hell, so are stories. Creators craft these things to manipulate your brain from top to bottom: telegraphing some story elements to invite you to make predictions. Playing to well-known tropes to help you find your footing in a strange world.

And GotG2 does that. But this isn’t that. I wasn’t discerning the hand of the creator in the brush strokes. Rather, I was discerning the hands of the studio execs molding the story externally as it was crafted. A whole new matrix within the matrix.

Here’s what I mean: Marvel’s using a pretty simple formula these days. Stories get bigger and bigger. Crazier, wilder villains (see: Doctor Strange doing battle with a god). Savvier, snarkier self-satirizing heroes (see: the entirety of Deadpool). And a sequel is always measured against the yardstick of the original.

And how do you make a sequel better than the original? Easy, you take the same characers, craft an entirely new storyline that plays to their developing relationships and strengths that tests them in all new ways, encouraging more growth, more development, more feels from the audience. Right? HA HA HA no. The way you make a sequel that plays as well as an original is you take everything the original does well and you do it more.

Don’t sweat the storyline so much: you’ve already got viewers baked-in. Just ratchet up the things they loved about the first movie. Give the funny characters more funny. Make the romantic tension a little more taut. Make the explosions even more explodey.

What made GotG1 so much fun — what audiences loved about it — were a few things. The old-school music soundtrack laid over a futuristic world. The irreverence. The niche-ifying of every character (there’s the snarky central guy, the badass no-nonsense chick, the brick-joke, doesn’t understand sarcasm or interactions in general dude, the jerk-store a-hole raccoon, the mute monster with a heart of gold. See also: Five-Man Band.)

And about halfway through the film, I realized that this film wasn’t actually doing what a sequel should do. There was very little new development. Not much added to the larger universe of which this story is a part. Instead, this movie was focus-grouped to make me want to watch it by giving me more of what I liked about the first one.

Let me not drive this into the ground: a few examples will prove the point.

Musclebound Drax, whose brick humor was the cornerstone of his character development (what, again, does he actually contribute to the team?) is tossing out even more deadpan sarcasm-proof jokes here, at what felt like a ratio of twelve-to-one over the original.

Angry little ball of sentient fur Rocket, in GotG1, made his place by throwing out sarcasm and lashing out when people called him a raccoon and just general dickery. His character development here: he’s a total a-hole to everybody, with at least two characters specifically pointing the fact out to him along the way.

And of course, the soundtrack is just as jarring in its strange setting, but there feels like even more of it, and it even becomes a focal point of the story itself: the central villain spins one of the songs into a metaphor for his own development. It’s well done, mind you. What at first seems like this big, romantic yen about wanderlust morphs into a twisted, sociopathic rejection of humanity (and all lifeforms in the galaxy, actually — readers of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will hear echoes of the denizens of Krikkit in the villain’s desire to wipe out everything in the universe that isn’t him).

There’s nothing wrong with any of the above. But once you hear the voice in your head — the voice that says “OH YOU ENJOYED THIS THING ABOUT THE ORIGINAL MOVIE? HERE HAVE MORE OF THAT THING” — you see it everywhere in this movie. Douglas Adams wrote brilliantly about humor that what makes it so lovely is its rarity. In the midst of a hot summer, you run out into a surprise thundershower for the joy of splashing around in the puddles, for the sprinkle of the rain on your face, because these things are rare and not happening every day. But when humor is everywhere — when it’s been raining for weeks and weeks, each day like the last, with no hint of the sun — the rain is a little less magical. GotG2 is like that: it’s a week-long deluge when what I really want is the surprise afternoon shower.

Put another way: they make foie gras by force-feeding geese until their stomachs explode. Having watched GotG2, it feels that I’ve been force-fed in the single aim of extracting more dollars from my wallet. And my stomach is near to bursting.

I say all that to say this: GotG2 is good fun. It’s perfect summer fare — lighthearted, action-packed. If you liked the first one, well, you’ll probably like the second one; not least of which for the reasons I’m talking about here. But if you miss the movie? Well, you’re not missing much.

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I’m one of those guys who still wears a watch.

I know, right? Older than old school. Positively ancient. Not only do I wear a watch to begin with, but I don’t even wear one as a fashion statement: I wear the tacky digital kinds (one of those backward primates who still thinks digital watches are neat).

Why bother? When we have what are essentially supercomputers tucked in our pockets, what’s the point of having an outdated piece of tech strapped to the wrist?

Well, regular readers know already that I’m a little bit preoccupied with time as a concept. I wrote an entire novel (still in edits — okay not in edits yet, but slated for it soon) about time-traveling teenagers. There’s no telling when that phone in your pocket will run out of juice or kick the bucket all on its own (as the technology increases, so does the crash potential). Not to mention the fact that — and perhaps I’m showing my teacher stripes here a bit — I find it enormously tacky whipping your phone out as regularly as breathing to check anything: social media, e-mail, the time, the weather. I’m guilty of enough of that without resorting to the phone to check the time several times an hour.

Further, something about my bare wrist bothers me. Hard to nail down why, but my unadorned body kinda skeeves me out. I wear all kinds of stuff, preferably the kind I don’t have to take off, just so that my naked skin isn’t just flapping in the breeze. Rings on both hands (I’m down to just one on each hand these days). A three-year-old glow-in-the-dark bracelet from a 5k. A really rather sharp man-chain necklace, a gift from my wife in our first year together. I even, back in times we won’t talk about, dabbled in earrings, and in my really dark days, an anklet. (I know. I KNOW. It was the nineties. God.)

And then there’s my watch, which is the only functional accessory in the lot.

I dunno, I think there’s something elegant and classy about being able to track the movement of time — time, dictated by the very movement of the planet around the sun, or, in a less direct sense, by the actual vibrations of Cesium electrons (and yes, okay, they’re not “Cesium electrons” but rather electrons in orbit around a Cesium atom GOD this isn’t a science class) — just with a flick of the wrist, an adjustment of the sleeve. Plus, and I know I’ve mentioned this before, I’m a teacher, and teaching types live and die by the number of minutes left in the period, so I like to have that information handy. (I am so sorry. No I’m not. Every pun is deliberate.) Seriously. Digital watches are neat.

And my watch broke the other day.

Well, the band broke. And with the caliber of watches I traffic in, that basically means the watch is dead to me, because it costs only slightly more to buy a replacement watch than it would cost to buy a replacement band, not to mention finding the right band and fiddling with microscopic screwdrivers and tiny pins and pieces that can barely be seen with the naked eye. No thanks. Plus, that battery will be going soon, for that matter, and … yeah. It’s quicker and easier to shell out $20 for a new watch than to sink time and repair into the old one. (#firstworldproblems, I know.)

How did I break the band? Fair question. Here’s my humble-brag: push-ups. Apparently my wrist bulges like an inflated python, and after — man, how long did that watch last? let me ratchet this humble-brag up a step — let’s say a few thousand reps, that thing snapped like a fat man’s belt at a Vegas buffet.

So I have to muddle through a few days, watchless.

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Don’t look at the tan-line too long. You could go snow blind.

And it’s painful. Because I have no idea what time it is, outside of knowing that it’s generally night or day based on the light coming in through the window. Sure, I could check the systems clock at the bottom right of my computer screen — or the digital display on the cable box — or the Roman-numeral-analog job hanging on the wall — or the other digital display on the stove — or the one in the dash of my car — or my alarm clock that shows the time TWICE (once on its face and once projected in foot-tall letters on the bedroom wall — OR OKAY FINE MY PHONE — but no.

NO.

I needs my watch.

I feel naked without it.

So naked I’m thinking of putting an anklet on my wrist.

Please, think of the anklets.

No, wait. Don’t. Don’t think of the anklets. EVER.


Why I Am an Atheist


I “came out” yesterday, but I didn’t tell the whole story.

I’m not here today to tell the whole story, either, but I do want to tell part of it.

I started this post once and then threw the whole thing out. I had hacked together a list of the big reasons why I believe what I believe and gave brief explanations and justifications. (Lack of evidence. Bible and other holy texts contradict themselves. Problem of evil. So forth.) But then I realized, there are other, better, cleverer sources out there for all the standard atheist talking points. Seriously, every atheist has a post like this. And not just because I didn’t want to overtly follow the crowd, but I realized that as much as all those well-stocked, off-the-shelf answers do apply to my beliefs, the big guns — the personal stuff — the story are maybe a little more interesting.

And I fancy myself a storyteller, after all. So.

I stopped going to church when I was a teenager, maybe partly because I started to catch the whiff of BS from the whole thing, but mostly because I was lazy and didn’t enjoy it. Thus was my belief put on an ice floe and set adrift to wither and die as I went off to college and began to really learn things about the world. Probably the near-daily occurrence of encountering a fire-and-brimstone street preacher pounding the bricks at the Tate Student Center at UGA fueled my growing doubts about the beneficent nature of religion in general; these guys (and they were always guys) would scream death and damnation on gay students, on sexually active students, on basically anybody who walked by. Not a good look for Christianity, even if, to be fair, those angry handful are a pitiful minority.

I guess that was when I became an agnostic; neither believing in nor disbelieving in god. Organized religion was right out, but inwardly I determined that maybe it was possible that a well-intentioned god had set the universe spinning and was unable to control it or interact with it much beyond that point, sort of like a kid who folds up a paper airplane and tosses it off the top floor of a skyscraper. I stayed there for a while, just sort of grinning and bearing the devout types while shaking my head and pitying the true atheists.

I think even then I felt it was better to believe in something than in nothing.

But then I had a kid. (To be fair, my wife had the kid … I mostly wandered around in the background and tried not to pass out.)

And our kid had a birth defect.

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My son, 1 day old.

He had gastroschisis, which in short, meant that his intestines spilled out of his abdomen in utero and had to be, for lack of a better term, stuffed back in after birth. To be fair, on a sliding scale of birth defects, to quote our specialist, “this is the birth defect you want.” In the vast majority of cases, children with gastroschisis make full recoveries.

And he’s lucky. We live in the 21st century, where medicine is in many cases indiscernible from magic, and our son is now perfectly healthy and will likely never suffer any ill effects from this condition. Had he been born even forty years ago, even surviving would have been a long shot.

His defect earned him a stay in the NICU for the first twenty-six days of his life. If I needed proof beyond doubt that there was no benevolent god looking out for us, I found it in the neonatal intensive care unit. Here were children — infants, no less — innocent of anything save being born, suffering from all manner of maladies. Some were “minor” like my son’s (though it’s hard to view having your intestines in a bag and being unable to eat except through a tube inserted in your skull as a minor thing). Others were far worse. Birth defects run the gamut from immediately, horrifically terminal to survivable with lifelong care or disability to, as in our son’s case, merely inconvenient. Some of the babies who shared air and nurses and doctors with my son would not survive even the twenty-six days my son was in residence.

And that’s nothing short of tragic.

(Let me sidebar to say that the staff we interacted with were phenomenal. Their jobs put them in the least desirable of situations daily — people are not by and large happy to be spending their days like ghosts hanging around the dim corners of the NICU — but they were soldiers, and they made soldiers out of us.)

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Somehow, in those early days, he learned to smile.

I didn’t think about it at the time; I was too focused on my wife’s and my grief and my son’s health during the whole affair. But looking back on it now, that time in the hospital was the nail in god’s coffin for me. I couldn’t — and still can’t — square the idea of a god who cares in any way about the humans he’s created after seeing all those infants fighting for life, breathing and eating through tubes, hooked up to machines — man-made machines, mind you — that gave them their only prayer at life, a prayer they would never have had if all were left in god’s hands.

Yeah, there’s the problem of natural disasters and evil and all of that, and I have trouble squaring those, too. But for me, the question of atheism is a lot more local. A lot more personal. A lot more visceral. And there’s maybe more to be said at another time. But the fact is, as many reasons as I have for what I believe, I only really need one reason.

If we had left my son’s life in god’s hands, my son would be dead.

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Now, though, he’s a pretty awesome big brother.

For all that, though, I don’t view the world in a cynical way. Far from it. The world is an incredible place. We are lucky to have even the blink of an eye in which to appreciate it. I am lucky that my son was born in a time when the advances of medical technology could give him a chance at life. And no, I don’t claim to know where we came from. And only a fool would claim to know where we are going.

But we are lucky, and the world is incredible, independent of any god.

As Douglas Adams put it:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, too?

 


I Write Like Awesome Writers


I was recently directed to a neat little corner of the web: a textual analyser designed to scratch the egos of fledgling writers everywhere by informing them that they write like this or that famous author.

Now, obviously, only James Joyce writes like James Joyce, but it’s fun to pretend. And testing a few of my samples in the machine, I got results that pleased me mightily.

First…

I write like
Douglas Adams

I Write Like. Analyze your writing!

Which just makes me smile, seeing as he’s absolutely, full-stop, make-no-exceptions my favorite author. But then, just for icing on the cake, I tried another sample and got this one:

I write like
Neil Gaiman

I Write Like. Analyze your writing!

At which point I stopped, because why keep playing when you’ve already won the game?

You can check it out at I Write Like.


The Button at the End of the Universe


Sak was exactly the sort of man you’d want to have his finger on the big, red button in the control room of the Omnilator, the Empire’s moon-sized death-ray that drifted in and out of hyperspace to annihilate entire planets at a whim. Sak was shortish, baldish, ever so slightly round around the middle, and perfectly boring. It was widely rumored that he had once talked an eternal stone tree on Naraloos Seven to death. It was also widely known that he was the best paid finger in seven galaxies. For that was Sak’s only task: to wait for the order of Commander Martock, confirm it, and push the button that would open a black hole at the planet’s center, sucking it away into infinite nothingness.

But the nights are long in space, especially in a tri-star system in a galaxy billions of light-years from home where there is no day nor night, just a constant, neverending noon, and eventually ways must be thought of to pass the time.

And over the course of several deployments, and a score of worlds evaporated away into the gaping void, a contest was concocted by the crew: get Sak to push the button early, and win a reprieve from all duties for the space of a full galactic month.

The Omnilator loomed in deadly orbit around a tiny, peace-loving planet named Pardala. The coordinates of its horrible assault had long been programmed into the targeting computer. Peace talks dragged on for months as dignitaries of the Empire wheedled with the elders of Pardala, and day by day, Sak’s finger floated over the button that would make Pardala into nothing more than a memory.

Lieutenant Loda thought to catch Sak unawares by sounding the alarm in the middle of the night and haranguing him into pushing the button on Martock’s authority, but it turned out that Sak didn’t even respond to an alarm, such was the power of his monotonous routine. The klaxon sounded for a full five minutes before Commander Martock caught Loda and sent him for a week of latrine duty.

Engineer Elara, she of the flowing hair and generous assets stuffed into a too-tight Empire-issued space skirt, wagered she could distract him with her wiles while Deckmaster Dervin imitated M’s voice to give the command. But Sak paid no more attention to her bouncing personality than to the flavorless sandwiches he lunched on, and Dervin’s voice broke in a way that Martock’s never would, and she swayed away, dejected, to cozy up with Dervin in a closet instead.

Navigator Norr decided that perhaps the way to Sak’s finger was through his heart, and invented all manner of truly horrible insults that the poor fated planet was purported to have leveled against Sak’s mother and sisters and any other women who happened to be in his life. But Sak, he informed Norr sadly, was adopted by a happy single man and had never had use for any women, and besides he wouldn’t feel right murdering an entire planet just because of some hasty words.

Dozens of schemes were hatched to try and budge Sak’s finger, but he shot them all down, deftly and without much interest. They finally admitted that Sak was, after all, the perfect man to man the switch.

And then, finally, the call came down from Martock himself. Peace talks had failed, and the Pardalans were doomed, by order of the Emperor. Martock’s voice barked out, rattling the far reaches of the ship, the order: destroy them.

But Sak’s finger did not budge.

Lieutenant Loda thought he must not have heard properly, and urged Sak to push the button, but his finger would not budge.

Engineer Elara thought perhaps Sak suspected another prank, and shook him and insisted that he push the button, but his finger would not budge.

Navigator Norr knew that Martock’s wrath would be terrible if his order was not followed, and pleaded for Sak to push the button, but his finger would not budge.

Then the door exploded in from the hallway, blasted to pieces by Commander Martock’s custom-made multi-phasing disruptor rifle. It smoldered with menace as Martock stalked into the control room, his face red and twisted with fury.

He saw Sak sitting by the button, his finger poised but still not pressing. Without a word of explanation, he shouldered his rifle and fired. Sak caught the red bolt of plasmic death in the shoulder, whirled, and fell from his chair, the bloodless wound hissing with smoke.

Who’s going to push the button?” Commander Martock’s voice rang in the silence like the calamity of two planets crashing together.

As one, they dove toward the big red button, clawing across Sak’s still smoldering corpse. Norr, through luck and lanky arms, was the first to touch it.

As the button clicked home and the wicked machinery of the Omnilator began to hum, Sak hopped up from the floor, throwing off the smoking, hissing trick jacket and howling with laughter. He and Martock flung their arms around each other in hysterics, pointing and cackling like madmen at the horrified expressions on the faces of the crew.

Their joy was short-lived, however; the black hole yawned open in the heart of Pardala and, with no more fanfare than an Arquillian Flea emerging from its egg, swallowed the planet, the Omnilator, and half of the surrounding galaxy in an infinite mass of inescapable gravity.

It had, Sak decided, been worth it.

##########

Chuck’s challenge this week is a Space Opera. I wrote a truly epic, philosophical piece of utter tripe before scrapping it entirely and writing this bit of fluff instead. Not exactly my usual style, but a fun time nonetheless.

This work was inspired more than a little bit by the collective works of Douglas Adams and the steady diet of Doctor Seuss I’ve been reading with my son of late.


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