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It’s a bit of a celebration day around these parts, because there’s a new Janelle Monae video, and that means that we’re probably not that far away from a new Janelle Monae album.

The Atlanta-based Monae, and her Wondaland collective, aren’t as well-known as they should be outside of R&B circles, despite Monae appearing in a Cover Girl ad and on bunches of magazine covers.  Monae did appear on Fun’s “We Are Young,” though, which probably helped her exposure a good bit.  Still, even if you’re kind of aware of her from those appearances, her own music is a fresh, vibrant surprise when you finally hear it.  She’s one of the most creative artists out there, and when she’s hitting on all cylinders, it’s hard to think of anyone since Outkast who’s made rap and R&B so funky, weird, and accessible.

Relevant to this little corner of the Interwebs, she also likes to mine science fiction tropes for her songs and videos.  2007’s Metropolis Suite I: The Chase and especially 2010 excellent The Archandroid cloak themselves in a futuristic dystopia.  The story of the Archandroid is essentially this: Monae’s character is actually from the 28th century, but was sent back to the 21st century so that her DNA could be used as part of a clone-based rebellion against Metropolis’s secret ruling class. I think. It’s a little unclear sometimes, but that’s OK. You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the records, and the videos are visual treats all their own.

Still, three cheers for Monae and her crew for creating some of the most futuristic funk since Parliament stepped off of the Mothership.

This first video, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” is the new one and has a little bit of that sci-fi flair before getting into some straightahead bootie-shaking and a fierce rap by Monae to close things out.  It’s OK that the video and song, to some extent, ditch the science fiction device. One of the things I like about Monae’s approach is that she doesn’t let the concept and the songs get in each other’s way, making use of whatever she needs at the time:

Her older “Many Moons” video features her tale’s clone-heavy aspects and some of its implications:

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I love it when I learn something new, especially when it’s something I meant to learn a long time ago.  Back in the days before Wikipedia and an Internet full of answers (a time best captured here), I was religiously reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, in which he had a personified version of Fiddler’s Green walking around. At some point, Gaiman may have alluded to what Fiddler’s Green was all about, but I missed or forgot it if he did.  Nothing in my paltry mythology library at the time had anything on it, and eventually I forgot all about it.

But tonight, I caught this video of Cary Hudson singing an unreleased song called “Fiddler’s Green.”  Cary Hudson was the leader of the criminally under-appreciated Blue Mountain, a roots rock or alt-country or whatever-you-want-to-call-them band who recently broke up.  Hudson writes strong songs and plays some nasty slide guitar, but I think this acoustic number might be one of his best yet.

So what’s Fiddler’s Green, since I brought the whole thing up?  Well, it’s a mythical afterlife where the drinks never stop flowing, the musicians never stop playing, and the dancers never get tired.  Think Valhalla without the war drills or a Big Rock Candy Mountain for salty sailors and sea dogs. It apparently exists between Heaven and Hell, and sounds like it beats the heck out of limbo, where, if Dore’s illustrations for Dante are accurate, a bunch of robed philosophers just stand around being mopey.

Here’s Hudson singing about it.  I really like this song.

Also worth noting that I found the video on the Couch by Couchwest site, a kind of alternative avenue for musicians to get their music out during the SXSW festival.  They can be in Austin, or they can be anywhere else in the world. Apparently, the only rule is that you can’t be on a stage in your video.  There’s some good stuff all over this site, especially if you like the rootsy stuff.

Some Cary Hudson links:
https://twitter.com/caryhudsonmusic
http://www.bluemountainband.net/
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cary-Hudson-Music/124389767589979

In the otherwise forgettable Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Captain Jack Sparrow looks upon the corpse of the Kraken.  Barbossa tells him, sympathetically, “The world used to be a bigger place.”  Jack responds, “World’s still the same.  There’s just less in it.”  In Hellboy II, the film’s most poignant moment comes when Hellboy is forced to kill the last elemental, knowing that doing so will take just a little bit more magic out of the world.

One of the problems with our modern world is that there’s not much magic or mystery left in it.  Saw a ghost in your bedroom at night? Sleep paralysis.  Mermaids? Mistaken or scurvy-addled glimpses of manatees.  UFO’s? The classic weather balloon.  Skepticism is healthy and good, but when there’s a logical explanation for dang near everything, it can get downright boring.  (This, of course, is said from a fantasist’s perspective.  Science is all the time coming up with good stuff. I’m especially fond of astronomical discoveries, but maybe that’s just because I always thought it would be pretty cool to be the Silver Surfer.)

The Memory Palace is a podcast I just started listening to (props to Boing Boing’s Mark Frauenfelder for recommending it here), and it constantly evokes a past world that was interesting precisely because so little was known.  As host Nate DiMeo often says, there was a time not so long ago when people were lucky if they left their town or went over the hill, never mind traveling to Paris or Cairo.  So World’s Fairs and theme parks would construct whole recreations of far-away cities and towns.  People traveled from hundreds of miles away to ride the first Ferris Wheel.

It was also a time when charlatans and dreamers roamed the land, often crossing paths — and you can imagine how that usually turned out.  A newspaper could run wild, completely made-up articles about a race of beavermen living on the moon.  Snake oil salesmen could sell tonics made of pretty much anything that didn’t explode when it was mixed together.  A simple prank by two little girls could lead to international paranormal fame.

It’s a wonderful podcast, full of wonder and beauty.  DiMeo’s writing and delivery are top-notch, and I’d go so far as to say it can get downright magical.  I had to listen to his episode on the Dreamland amusement park, which burned down in 1911, twice.  It’s just that good, putting you right  in the middle of attractions like Venetian canals, newborn infants in incubators, and a nightly six-story building fire that Dreamland employees pretending to be firefighters and inhabitants would recreate.

So if our world’s truly contains less than it once did, at least Nate DiMeo is guiding us through the rooms of his Memory Palace, doing his part to remind us of what we’ve lost.

I finally got around to seeing The Hobbit.  Not in 3D Hobbitscope or whatever the fancy-schmancy option is, but in two dimensions, which is historically about all you need to tell what’s going on in a film.

If I’m not already on record with my love for The Hobbit and for Tolkien’s Middle Earth, I will be many times in the future. I can remember picking up a yellowed paperback copy of The Hobbit, the old one with Tolkien’s watercolor illustration for a cover, at a yard sale when I was about ten or twelve or so.  I’d always been a voracious reader. I’d check out six or seven books at a time from the library. I’d tear through comic books like there wasn’t even a plot to slow me down (and to be fair, these were ’70s-era DC comics, so that’s not far off).

The Hobbit, though. Man, that was something different.  I’d never read fantasy before, and to be initiated with a fantasy world so fully realized and rich … well, it’s safe to say I was hooked. From there, I made my way through a lot of inferior fantasy trilogies, some of them direct rip-offs of Tolkien. That love for the genre remained, though.

I was also pleased with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.  I was ecstatic to see a Middle Earth that looked so much like I had imagined it. I can see the argument that the films were a little too much in the action/adventure vein, but really, have you seen those battles?  Have you read those battles in the original Tolkien?  If anything, Jackson might have been a little too tentative in spots.

The new film adaptation of The Hobbit, though?  It’s pretty much there but maybe not all the way back again.  Martin Freeman is excellent as Bilbo Baggins.  Sir Ian McKellan slips right back into the character of Gandalf like it’s an old robe, and I even like the portrayal of the dwarves (I was initially afraid that most of them would be used as shortcuts to comic relief instead of filled out as characters, which did happen a little). The Shire and those Hobbit holes yet again make me want to smuggle the family to New Zealand and start digging into a hillside.

So what’s my beef?  Well, I thought the film felt a little flat.  Not for lack of material.  Most of my doubts about the extra material were soothed once I could see that parts of the book, like the scene with the trolls, and new material, like the subplot about the Necromancer, were being used to show the creeping evil that presaged Sauron’s re-emergence.

If there’s one extra piece that doesn’t sit well with me, it’s Azog the Defiler.  As part of the dwarves’ backstory, Azog cuts a terrifying figure: pale and scarred, twice the height of the orcs that he rules, merciless in battle.  Azog has something of a beef against Thorin Oakenshield — some little grudge about Thorin cutting off Azog’s arm in a battle — and he’s hellbent on making Thorin pay.  I’m not sure the film needs this subplot.  Tolkien set up plenty of obstacles for the Company to encounter on the way to Smaug.  To have Azog continually chasing them, only to have the dwarves get away by hook or by crook or by giant eagle?  Well, it kind of makes Azog look like the Coyote to Thorin Oakenshield’s Roadrunner.  I suspect we’ll be stuck with Azog until Thorin takes his head in the Battle of Five Armies, but I can hold out hope that he’ll be dealt with before then.

Do they make an ACME catalog in Orcish?

Do they make an ACME catalog in Orcish?

Maybe another problem with the story, if you’ve read it already, is that there’s no real danger.  As we know the story from the book, the Company doesn’t get whittled down as they trudge their way through orcs, goblins, giant spiders, elves, and men.  So when we see these set pieces where the members of the Company are in peril, there’s no real peril.  And at least this early in the trilogy, there’s not enough characterization for most of the dwarves to make us really care what happens to them anyway.  It’s certainly possible that the filmmakers might decide to throw a curveball and dispatch Fili and Kili in a freak mead-drinking accident, but I think it’s unlikely.

By all rights, every one of the dwarves, and Bilbo along with them, should have died ten times over in the film’s two most ridiculous scenes: the stone giants and the escape from the goblins.  In the film, we have the characters attached to the legs of a stone giant as he rises from the mountainside to do battle with other stone giants.  The dwarves get thrown to and fro, slammed up against mountainsides, and merely suffer the inconvenience of having to brush chips of stone from their shoulders.  The escape from the goblins, for its part, is a silly bit of Rube Goldberg design in which our heroes at one point fall hundreds and hundreds of feet on a section of broken bridge and walk away none the worse for wear.  Words really can’t do justice to this whole scene, which feels like something out of Sonic the Hedgehog, justice, so I shouldn’t even try.  But it does make you wonder if the trilogy will succumb to a syndrome of “Bigger! Louder! More!” out of some misguided notion that it needs to outdo the Lord of the Rings.

It also makes me wonder why similar scenes in the LOTR films were so effective by comparison.  When Frodo and the others are fleeing the Mines of Moria, there’s certainly nothing small or restrained about the way the baddies scrabble on every available surface in their pursuit, and good God, the Balrog is still everything we dreamed it could be.  Even though we knew how those scenes were going to end, we felt tension and darkness.  Maybe this whole difference in tone is a result of the books’ differing tones.  The Hobbit was considered a children’s book, so maybe you can’t really add darkness when it wasn’t there in the first place?  Maybe it was because we were still gobsmacked because we were seeing it all for the first time?  Even those gorgeous New Zealand landscapes seemed like something out of a pastoral fever dream. Now, when we see some of the same gorgeous scenery used for The Hobbit? It’s not as egregious as the SyFy Channel recycling footage from one movie to the next, but it has a touch of “been there, seen folks get chased by Wargs through that.”

Maybe the most disappointing part for me is the movie’s lack of emotional heft.  I’m one of those people who cries at the drop of a hat during a movie, especially if someone is realizing their destiny or dying a heroic death.  You won’t catch me within 100 yards of a public theater showing Amour.  The first ten minutes of Up? I might need a six pack of beer to get through that again.  Boromir’s death? Sob city. Faramir’s anguished, suicidal charge against the orcs? Even that got the tears flowing.  Even the scene where the Riders of Rohan are gathered on the crest of the hills overlooking Gondor, ready to ride down into death’s maw, had me looking for tissues.  But watching The Hobbit? Nothing.  The closest it comes is when dwarves gather around the fire in Bilbo’s home and sing, in voices as deep as the heart of a mountain, about their lost home.  That has the feel of a movie that’s about something.  Maybe Parts II and III will recapture some of that.

Strangely enough, I still have to say I enjoyed The Hobbit.  I know the last 1300 words don’t make it sound that way, but I did.  It was fun, gorgeous to look at, and for an old Hobbit fan like me, it had the feel of going home again.  Unlike some, I didn’t think it overstayed its welcome.  I didn’t tire of it as I was watching it.  At this point, though, the concerns that it raised weigh heavily on my enjoyment of it.  I wonder what it’s like for someone who hasn’t seen the film.  On a recent Writing Excuses podcast, Mary Robinette Kowall, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells discussed the fact that people who didn’t know the LOTR storyline were totally fooled by Gollum’s redemptive path through the first two films, only to be heartbroken when he betrays Frodo.  Is The Hobbit a better film for those of us who aren’t so emotionally invested in it?

Dangit, Kij Johnson! I really was not expecting the short story “Ponies,” which took up so few pages in the Nebula Awards Showcase 2012 collection, to do me so much damage.  When I was done with it, I pretty much sat there in the bed, every now and again running my eyes back over the last few paragraphs.  Then I read the story again all the way through, decided I’d had enough, and turned out the lights.  I haven’t forgotten the story since.

A lot of readers might not have the same reaction to “Ponies.” I suppose it’s possible that some might even find it slight (a thought that strikes me as heresy, but still…).  I have a daughter, a socially awkward one, who’s on the cusp of leaving pre-school and entering first grade.  The very thought fills me with new and exhausting forms of dread.  What if she doesn’t like it?  What if the other kids pick on her?  Worse, what if the other girls, as a group, turn on her?

That kind of fear is at the heart of “Ponies,” a story Johnson says she wrote as an examination of the damages that girls inflict on one another.  At first, the premise seems so simple and nonthreatening.  A girl named Barbara receives an invitation to a party.  Sunny reads over her shoulder and says, “I can’t wait to have friends!”  Thing is, Sunny is Barbara’s pony, and in this world, ponies have wings, a horn, and can talk.

The birthday parties in this world are also horrible, ritualistic affairs where the ponies must give up one of the things that makes them special.  The party at TopGirl’s house, where TheOtherGirls and their ponies form a tight group, is already a political minefield for Barbara, who wants friends so badly that she molds herself on the fly to be acceptable.

To say that it goes horribly wrong, for Barbara and for Sunny, is something of an understatement.  Again, part of my reaction probably lies in my fears about my own daughter, in my fears that her need for acceptance will lead her to change the oddball, left-of-center things that make her so unique.  I’ll do my best as a father to tell her that it doesn’t matter in the long run.  The people she knows in grade school will fall away as she gets to middle school. Those people in turn will disappear behind her as she navigates high school. In the end, she’ll be lucky if there’s more than a handful of people from those days she’ll even stay in contact with.  So who cares what those shallow nitwits have to say?

There’s probably a little transference going on there.  Sounds pretty much like my youth.  I wasn’t terribly social, and had my own bully issues to contend with.

At any rate, when my daughter’s day comes, little that I say will seem like it contains much wisdom, or salve the kinds of wounds that other kids can cause with the flick of a wicked tongue.  I’m only a dad, and it seems that very few ponies stay whole.  But I’ll do my best, that’s for sure.  “Ponies” scares the hell out of me, and I’d like to say it will make me more vigilant.  It will, but there’s only so much that vigilance can do when the bulk of my daughters’ days will find her on her own, learning lessons hard and fast, making mistakes, making friends, and making choices that might not bear fruit for years down the line.

You can read Ponies online here.

My son has lived and breathed Star Wars for months now, ever since he first encountered the Lego Star Wars game for the Wii.  He’d never seen the movies. (A situation we’ve since rectified by letting him view the first three.  The original three. The holy trinity of Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi that God and Nature intended.)

So for months it’s been Darth Vader, the “Robot that Freezes People” (R2D2), and the “Guy that Walks Slow” (C3PO).  Then my son went to Disney World and met Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers in the flesh. It scared the wits out of him and seemed to scare him straight of any aspirations to become a Sith Lord.

The severity of this might have gone unnoticed if it hadn’t happened right before Christmas.  Suddenly, our son who’d spent months asking for everything Star Wars was opening his presents from Santa and complaining that he didn’t like Star Wars anymore.  We had a quick talk, about graciousness when you’re receiving presents and that he might as well steel himself for more Star Wars presents from his grandparents.

It turned out OK in the end. Most of the presents he got were more cartoonish depictions of the Star Wars universe, and after a little hesitation, my son took to them.  It turned out that he was traumatized only by realistic depictions of Darth Vader.  That’s understandable.  It’s hard to look the devil in the eye.

During my talks with my son, though, I found myself saying things like “Darth Vader was good in the end, so why don’t you just decide that it’s the good Darth Vader. You can like the good Darth Vader and not the bad one” or “Boba Fett’s a mercenary.  Mercenaries can hunt bad guys just like they hunt good guys.”  Essentially, I was telling him that he could create his own Star Wars universe, that he could make it into what he wanted.

It made me think of J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.”  In that essay, Tolkien laid out a set of conditions by which he thought stories did or didn’t qualify as fairy stories in the classic sense. One of the more interesting ideas in the essay, if I remember correctly, was the idea of Creation: that you could create something that was a fairy story as long as it had consistent rules and logic that the reader could use to suspend disbelief.

So here I was basically telling my son to create his own Star Wars if it kept him liking the game and the movies and the toys.  I gave some thought later as to why it meant so much to me, when I might have just shrugged if he decided he suddenly didn’t like other things. As both of my children have proven, interests can be fickle and fleeting things.

It was Star Wars, though, that helped set me down the path to geekdom (buying a paperback copy of the The Hobbit at a yard sale when I was 12 would seal the deal), and despite all of the affronts that George Lucas has inflicted on the franchise, the Star Wars universe means a lot to me.  And it means a lot to me that my kids at least get the chance to experience imaginary worlds and creations like Middle Earth, Earthsea, the Federation, the Tardis, and so on.  After that, they can certainly make up their minds to roll their eyes everytime their parents start gushing about Firefly or the latest Neil Gaiman book.  But I won’t let a chance encounter at Disney World snuff out my son’s interest before it gets a chance to catch fire on its own.

I suppose, in the end, that my makeshift tactic for talking my son down would be Lucas-approved. He was very much in the Joseph Campbell school when he filmed Star Wars, and Campbell was always a big proponent of myths and legends adapting and evolving and being repurposed to fit new times and cultures.

So crisis averted this time.  My son has a much more relaxed attitude about the whole thing now.  I don’t have any idea what I’ll do, though, if we go to Dragon Con or something and he gets spooked by someone dressed as Gandalf.

Note: I currently have two WordPress blogs that don’t typically overlap, but in this case they do, so I’m posting this entry on both. I don’t know if there’s blog etiquette or standard operating procedure for that sort of thing. I’m just happy to be posting. 🙂

A little late to the party on this one, but Bridget McGovern (the non-fiction editor over at Tor.com) is doing something interesting with her re-read of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  She’s constructing (or more accurately, just finished constructing) a loose mix-tape for the chapters as she goes through them.

She plays it a little loose (which I approve of) by not limiting herself to songs explicitly mentioned in the book, but also including songs that feel like a good inspirational fit.

If I’d had this idea, I might have made one small change by limiting myself to only American music since American Gods is Gaiman’s version of an American road novel.   As soon as I say that, though, I feel a bit silly.  Gaiman’s America is an America as seen through the eyes of an Englishman, so who am I to begrudge a little Beatles or Elvis Costello?  And those gods in the book?  They’re coming from all over the place. So just ignore me.

It’s a fun exercise and I’m looking forward to making my way through all of the entries.

And to add a video/song choice of my own (although it’s possible McGovern got to this one as well), here’s Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”  Whenever I think of Odin throwing back a drink, letting the bloodlust course through his bones, I like to think he’s hearing this in his head: