This Makes Me Smile…

Okay, this will take a bit of setup, so bear with me for a moment, please.

As part of its all-out exploitation, um, that is, expansion of the Star Wars brand, Disney has recently begun producing animated shorts set in the SW universe and released through the Disney YouTube channel. These shorts, collectively known as Star Wars Forces of Destiny, are each two to three minutes long and focus on the female characters of Star Wars (there is, however, at least one centered on Luke Skywalker). I’ve seen a few of them and they’re… nice. They’re obviously aimed at a very young audience, and they’re too short for any deep storytelling — mostly they’re little vignettes that fill in plot details you never knew you were curious about — but they’re cute, upbeat, well drawn and animated, and — I especially like this — they include familiar voice talents from both the SW feature films (Daisy Ridley, Felicity Jones, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, and even Mark Hamill) and other animated SW series (Ashley Eckstein from Clone Wars and Rebels, Vanessa Marshall and Tiya Sircar from Rebels).

As if all that weren’t gratifying enough, though, I just spotted something in one of the latest ones, “Bounty Hunted,” that really made me smile. See if you can catch it, too, about 14 seconds in:

Did you see it? Did you? Eh, probably not. The moment passes quickly, and you’d have to be an old super-nerd like me to even know what you’re looking at.

At 0:14, there are a couple shadowy figures in the foreground who, on closer inspection, appear to be Jaxxon, the six-foot-tall green humanoid rabbit from the original Marvel Comics series of the late 1970s, and Skorr, a cyborg bounty hunter seen in the Star Wars newspaper comics of the same period, which were drawn by the legendary Al Williamson. (Skorr was meant to be “that bounty hunter [they] ran into on Ord Mantell.”)

It’s funny that this would cross my radar this morning, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the early days of the Star Wars phenomenon, in particular that short-lived period between the release of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back when there really weren’t any rules or conventions yet. Today, the franchise labors to breathe under decades of backstory, questions of what is or is not “canon,” and, most significantly, the weight of expectations, both from the property owners and the fans themselves. But back in the day, 1977-1980, well… it seemed like anything was possible then, and the only thing anyone really cared about was that there should be more. My friend Kelly recently called that period “the gonzo years,” and it’s an entirely appropriate title. The stories being published by Marvel and in the very earliest tie-in novels by Brian Daley and Alan Dead Foster were colorful, freewheeling, frequently weird, sometimes awe-inspiring, and most of all, they were fun. (I think part of the reason I responded so positively to the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie is because I saw in it the same pleasingly anarchic sensibilities as the early era of Star Wars.)

It makes me happy that somebody at Disney remembers “the gonzo years” and was able to honor them even in a small way.

And it makes me even happier that Jaxxon is now officially canon…

However, on a slightly grumpier note, I thought the last line of this short, the one about telling Han that Leia is a keeper, was a real heartbreaker considering what we learn about them in The Force Awakens. Han and Leia not being together, or at least not getting back together, was one of the many reasons I didn’t like that movie, and one of the many fundamental decisions underpinning the sequel trilogy that I disagree with. But that’s another entry…

 

spacer

Happy Birthday, Mr. Shatner!


Well, the planet has made another trip around the sun, the hard gray skies of winter are softening into the rain clouds of spring, and it’s time once again for my annual tradition of wishing a very happy birthday to the irrepressible William Shatner. The once and future Captain Kirk is 87 today, and, as always, my offer to buy him a celebratory drink applies any time he (a) hears about it and (b) wants to take me up on it.

In case you’re wondering, this year’s birthday photo comes from The Shat’s latest television project, a short-run series called Better Late Than Never, in which he and three other older celebrities — actor Henry Winkler, ex-football player Terry Bradshaw, and former heavyweight boxer George Foreman — along with a young sidekick named Jeff Dye, travel the world and experience other cultures. It’s admittedly a pretty silly show that sometimes labors a little too hard to generate its fish-out-of-water laughs; nevertheless, I find it weirdly endearing, if not downright inspirational. Given my fears about aging and letting too many opportunities slip past when I was younger, it’s reassuring for me to see old people still out there trotting around the globe in their Golden Years, and Shatner in particular is amazing with his curiosity and sense of adventure. He was a hero to me when I was young for playing Kirk; he’s a hero to me now, in my middle age, for setting an example of how to keep living instead of simply… diminishing.

I hope I’ll still be traveling, discovering the world, and spending good times with friends when I’m in my 80s, just like Bill…

 

spacer

Book Review: The Poseidon Adventure

The Poseidon AdventureThe Poseidon Adventure by Paul Gallico
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I suspect this potboiler would’ve been entirely forgotten by now if not for the classic 1972 disaster movie it inspired.

While the film followed the book’s plot fairly closely — the screenplay shuffles around a few major events and pares away some characters — the two properties are very different in tone. Gallico presents us with a group of unlikable characters who are all, to one degree or another, the last person with whom you’d want to be trapped in a life-and-death struggle. It isn’t merely a case of these people being flawed and having to find their individual strengths or rise above their weaknesses, which is how the movie presented them. These people are genuine jerks, in particular the vacationing police detective Rogo (played by Ernest Borgnine in the movie) and even the ostensible hero, the Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman in the movie). Scott is an especially frustrating character because the reader never fully learns what it is that’s driving him. There are some hints, things that the movie expanded upon, but on the page he remains a cypher. As for Rogo, he has some redeeming, humanizing moments toward the end, but it comes across as too little, too late, especially as those moments are counteracted by one sneering comment he makes in the final pages.

In addition to the obnoxiousness of the characters, the book fairly drips with anti-Semitism, misogyny (lots of “don’t worry your pretty little head” types of attitudes), and homophobia. Possibly this simply reflects the attitudes of the time — it was first published in 1969, the year I was born — but it’s difficult going for the modern reader.

As for the writing, well, Gallico’s style is serviceable at best. There are occasional glimmers of poetry, nice images here and there, but there’s also a whole lot of clunky prose and info-dumps in between them. And the dialog is incredibly stilted.

And yet, I have to confess that the book held my interest. It was a genuine pageturner infused throughout with an authentic tension and claustrophobic feeling, as well as a sense of relief when our survivors are rescued at the end, followed by a sadness at their realization that they’ll likely never see each other again. For that emotional response alone, I’m giving the book a positive rating. If you’re a fan of the movie, it’s worth a look to see where the film came from.

But believe me, this is the rare case where the movie was better than the book.

View all my reviews

spacer

The Point of Star Wars

This just reminded me of something I said myself not too long ago…

The point of Star Wars isn’t exactly to turn your brain off, but it is to turn your heart on, and let that organ be the shepherd that guides you through all the stars and all the wars.

— Chuck Wendig

 

 

spacer

In Memoriam: Stephen Hawking

In the summer of 1993, I was in England, playing the role of student at the University of Cambridge. I lived in one of the historic colleges, I punted the Cam, I rode a bicycle through the grassy parkland known as The Backs, and of course, I downed quite a few pints of Guinness in smoky waterside pubs. But there was one quintessential Cambridge experience I never managed to check off my list: meeting Professor Stephen Hawking. He evidently lived somewhere near Selwyn College, my home-away-from-home for the duration of the International Summer School program, because several of my housemates reported encountering him on the street. But I never did. Not once during the month I was there did I so much as catch a glimpse of the famous physicist.

I’ll be honest, my desire to cross paths with him was, in part, simply because he was a celebrity. Hawking had been a household name for several years at that point, ever since the publicity around his bestselling book A Brief History of Time had made his face and his Cylon-like electronic voice as familiar as any movie star’s. But that wasn’t the only reason why I felt drawn to him.

The bigger piece of the puzzle is a little difficult to explain, or perhaps it’s only difficult for me to talk about. You see, the illness that Hawking suffered from, the thing that put him in that wheelchair and took away his natural speech, was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It’s the same degenerative nerve disorder that took the life of my dad’s brother. (He died, coincidentally, around the same time that A Brief History was published.) But while my uncle Lou lasted only two years after his diagnosis — entirely typical for ALS patients — Hawking lived with it for 55 years. Somehow, his body tamed the demon that killed my uncle. And that’s always fascinated me. I saw Louie every time I looked at Hawking: the withered body, the slumped head, the spastic flicker of a smile, even the sheen of drool around his mouth… the exact same effects that ALS had had on my uncle. Except… while my uncle died, Hawking lived. Some people might have felt resentment toward Hawking because of that; I never did, at least not that I can recall now. But I did feel a weird sense of connection with him. This man from an entirely different background, who would have had nothing in common with my blue-collar family, nevertheless felt like some kind of kin. And I wanted to meet him. I have no idea what I would’ve said to him if I had, but that was beside the point. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

A few years after my Cambridge sojourn, Hawking came to Salt Lake City to deliver a lecture. I attended, of course; I think half the valley’s population was there. It was held not in a lecture hall or even an auditorium, but in a sports arena. The title was something along the lines of “Does God Play Dice with the Universe?,” and I won’t pretend that I understood much of it. But again, that wasn’t the point. The point was to be in the same space with him, and to watch him. He didn’t move much, and of course his synthetic voice was essentially prerecorded. And yet he was compelling, even charismatic, in his stillness. I learned this week that an old girlfriend of mine met him after the lecture; another near-miss for me, like something out of a farce where the characters keep going through opposite doorways and around the same pillar.

Hawking probably would’ve enjoyed that image. By all accounts, he had a mischievous sense of humor, which he displayed in numerous TV cameos, starting with the memorable poker game he played with Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein in a holodeck fantasy on Star Trek: The Next Generation; through appearances in cartoon form on The Simpsons and Futurama; and finally the no-less-than seven guest shots he’s done for The Big Bang Theory. I loved these latter appearances especially. It cracked me up whenever Hawking would zing a one-liner past the uptight Sheldon Cooper and then flash an enormous grin of satisfaction. And yet… even when Hawking was smiling, I could see something in his eyes, the same haunted look I remember in my uncle Louie’s eyes. Maybe it was just my imagination, a projection of old hurts brought to the surface by Hawking’s reminding me of an ordeal I’ve never really gotten past. Perhaps it was a trick of the disease, some kind of physiological change wrought by ALS that suggests a particular emotional state that may or may not have been true. Or maybe, just maybe… in spite of all the things he accomplished with his mind, all the worldly success and fame, maybe there was still a part of Stephen Hawking that was beating against the iron cage of his own wasted body.

You’ve no doubt heard by now that Hawking died early Wednesday morning at his home in Cambridge. He was 76. Against all the odds, he lived out a normal lifespan in spite of having a far-from-normal life. Professor Hawking did not believe in God or an afterlife, and I won’t disrespect him with any well-intentioned sentiments to the contrary. The truth is, I’m not so sure about those things myself. But I will say that even if his actual consciousness dissolved like dew in the morning sunlight, at least some bit of that enormous intellect endures in his books, and more importantly in his work that scientists to come will build upon.

I never met Stephen Hawking, as I once hoped to do. But I guess it’s about time I got around to reading A Brief History of Time

spacer

Friday Evening Videos: “In the Land of the Blind”

If you haven’t heard, my main man Rick Springfield dropped a new album recently. It’s called The Snake King, and while it isn’t exactly the blues record I’ve long hoped he would someday do — you won’t find any covers of Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters here — the DNA of rock’s mother genre is threaded all through this collection of 13 tracks. The album’s thematic preoccupation with God, the devil, and sex is, of course, primal blues territory, and the blues sound rises and falls from song to song, meshing surprisingly well with Rick’s pop-rock sensibilities. It’s a far more natural fit for him than his flirtation with country on his previous album. Not that Rocket Science was a bad album; it’s just that…. this is better. Rick’s playing and songwriting both feel invigorated in a way that they haven’t for a while. In short, The Snake King is a great listen, probably my favorite release of his since shock/denial/anger/acceptance way back in 2004.

Rick evidently thinks so too, because he’s been doing quite a lot of publicity for it, making the rounds of various TV talk shows and giving a lot of interviews. And he’s even done a conceptual music video (as opposed to a performance clip), which is, as far as I know, his first such video since he was fighting to liberate humanity from its alien overlords with the help of a young David Fincher. [Edit: Turns out I’m wrong about that; he did a video for the song “Down” from his last album in 2016, I just missed that one somehow.]  Without further ado, here’s “In the Land of the Blind,” which happens to be one of my favorite cuts from The Snake King and a really nice sound to start your weekend…

Incidentally, Anne and I attended the launch party for The Snake King out in Los Angeles and even spent a couple minutes chatting with my main man… but that’s a story for another time…

spacer

Letter to a Teenager

I’ve never gotten around to having children, and being an only child myself, I have no nieces or nephews of my own to play surrogates. Nevertheless, I occasionally find opportunities to insert myself into the life of a younger person and act vaguely dad-like for a while… or maybe it’s more like a half-assed Dumbledore. I’m never entirely sure.

One of these opportunities popped up recently when a friend of mine solicited people to write down some “words of wisdom or important life lesson” — her words — to give to her son on his upcoming 13th birthday. I said sure, no problem, figuring I’d just toss out a few pithy bullet points that would fit nicely on a 3×5 card. Instead, I ended up writing a two-page letter to the boy. To borrow a phrase from the irrepressible Han Solo, “Hey, it’s me.”

I’ve vacillated over posting that letter here, fearing that (a) my Loyal Readers wouldn’t be interested, and (b) it’ll come across as self-serving or pompous or maudlin, or just plain lame, but I’ve decided to go ahead and do it anyhow. I believe in what I wrote in that letter, and I think it’s fairly good advice, if I do say so myself. Perhaps someone reading this right now knows a teenager they could pass these words to. Perhaps someone reading this actually is a teenager, although why one of those those would be reading this old-man’s blog, I couldn’t begin to fathom. But you never know, do you?

In any event, here’s what I wrote:

Sunday, March 04, 2018

 

Dear Sam,

 

As a present to you on your 13th birthday, your mom and Mike asked their grown-up friends if they would give you some words of wisdom and important life lessons. I don’t know that I’m particularly “wise,” but I am almost half a century old, and I’ve got the white beard to prove it, so I must’ve learned something in all that time, right? Well… we’ll see, I guess. Here’s what I’ve got:

 

  1. You’re about to become a teenager, and I won’t lie to you, being a teen can be pretty tough sometimes. Nobody takes you seriously, your feelings are all dialed up to 11, and everything seems like it’s going to be the end of the world. Trust me, though… it’s not. You’ll get through it, whatever “it” is. Also, don’t overlook the bright side of being a teen. At your age, you’ve got a universe of possibilities in front of you, and you’re about to start doing a lot of things for the first time. That’s exciting, or at least it should be. Cherish that feeling, because the “firsts” get a lot farther apart when you get older.
  2. On a related note, don’t hesitate to sample the possibilities. At this time of your life, you have the freedom to try out a lot of different things, so do it. Get a weird haircut, wear some flashy clothes, eat some bizarre foods. As you get a little older and move out into the world, try out different jobs, and if you go to college, different majors, to figure out what you’re really interested in and what you really enjoy. My biggest mistake as a young person was always thinking everything I tried was going to be permanent. I ended up paralyzing myself because I put so much pressure on myself to get it right the first time, for fear that I’d be stuck someplace I didn’t want to be if I chose the wrong thing. Don’t do that. Experiment. Look around for what makes you happy. Not what other people think will make you happy, but what makes you happy
  3. If something’s making you unhappy—a major, a career path, a relationship—don’t just hunker down and put up with it. Find a way to fix it, and if you find you just can’t fix it, then move on. I’ve wasted a lot of time and energy on situations I hated because I thought I just had to endure them. The old “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it” thing is nonsense. You only have to lie in it if you keep lying there. I’m not saying you ought to spend your life bouncing around from one thing to another and never settling down, but don’t think that you have to stay someplace you don’t want to be either.
  4. Be decent to other people. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them, you don’t even have to respect them, but there’s really no reason to be unkind or hurtful to them. You don’t know what they might be going through, what kinds of things might be hurting them already. Besides, people tend to give back what you put out there, so if you don’t want others to be a dick to you, don’t do it to them.
  5. Here’s a big secret that grown-ups usually try to avoid admitting to kids, and often even to themselves: nobody knows what the hell they’re doing, and everybody is just trying to do the best they can. Everybody. Celebrities, athletes, the president, your parents, girls, even old guys like me. So don’t be too hard on yourself when you start thinking you’re clueless. We all are. We just get better at dealing with our cluelessness as we grow up and grow older.
  6. Learn some history. See old movies. Listen to old music. Talk to older people and really listen to what they have to say. Understand where things came from and how we got to where we are now. That may seem really boring and pointless to you right now, but it will become more important as you get older. Really.
  7. It’s a big world with a lot of wonderful, crazy, beautiful stuff in it. Explore it. Travel as much as you can. Experience as much as you can. Don’t let yourself live inside a safe little bubble surrounded by people who look and think and talk just like you, and where you see the same damn scenery all the time.
  8. Life is always worth living. Always. There may be days when you wonder what’s the point, and why should you struggle on and keep banging your head against the wall. On those days, you might find your thoughts going to some pretty scary places. But I guarantee you that there’s always something worth living for, whether that’s Buster Keaton movies (some of the funniest things ever filmed) or warm spring days or the taste of your favorite ice cream. Never give up, never surrender. And never be afraid to ask for help if you’re having days like that.
  9. Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t beat yourself up too much when you do. Just try to improve the next time out.
  10. Don’t be afraid of other people. It doesn’t matter what race or religion or political party we belong to, we all want the same general things, to live a good life, to find love and good friends, and to feel like we matter to somebody. But you only learn that if you’re willing to talk to other people.
  11.  

    I’m almost done… bear with me…

     

  12. Seek out an old song called “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” It’s from the 1990s, so you’ll probably think it’s ridiculous and cheesy, but listen to it anyway. Pay attention to the lyrics, because there’s a lot of good specific advice in them that I haven’t covered here.
  13. And lastly, print this letter and put it somewhere safe; in the future, you will wish you’d kept things. Trust me on this.

 

Happy birthday, Sam. Thirteen was a pretty awesome age for me; I hope it is for you too.

 

Sincerely,
Jason Bennion
(some weird old guy)

I hope the boy I wrote this for will read it and find something of value in it. If he doesn’t, maybe somebody out there in Internet-land will. Hey, anything can happen, right?

 

spacer

Tarantino on Hitchcock

From a two-year-old interview with Quentin Tarantino:

“People discover North by Northwest at 22 and think it’s wonderful when actually it’s a very mediocre movie. I’ve always felt that Hitchcock’s acolytes took his cinematic and story ideas further. I love Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock movies. I love Richard Franklin’s and Curtis Hanson’s Hitchcock meditations. I prefer those to actual Hitchcock.” And Tarantino also prefers—passionately defends—Gus Van Sant’s meta art-manque shot-by-shot remake of Psycho over the original Hitchcock film.

I always knew my sensibilities were incompatible with this guy’s, even if he does know how to compose a nice shot.

spacer

Friday Evening Videos: “Can’t Cry Anymore”

Man, if you’d told me 20 years ago that I’d someday be nostalgic for the 1990s… well, let’s just say I would’ve found that highly improbable. But then, the idea that the ’90s were 20 years ago seems pretty damn improbable to me as well.

I was in my twenties during that decade and, at the time, things didn’t seem to be going so well for Mrs. Bennion’s golden child. I’d graduated from college without the slightest idea of what to do next. I didn’t know how to search for quote-unquote grown-up jobs, or even what sort of job I wanted, and so I spent more years than I should have working low-paying, demoralizing temp gigs. While my friends were out there beginning careers and starting their lives, I was feeling stuck and beginning to have my first real battles with depression. In addition, I was feeling increasingly alienated from the one thing by which I’d always defined myself, popular culture. I’d also become politically aware just in time for our politics to begin their devolution into nasty, scorched-earth-style partisanship. And my love life was a source of never-ending angst, naturally. Basically, my twenties were pretty shitty. At least… they seemed that way at the time.

But time is a tricksy devil. It has a way of knocking off the rough edges and sanding the surface smooth. When I look back now on the decade of my twenties and the crazy era they occupied, I don’t see all the anxiety and self-loathing. Well, not much of it, anyhow. What I see now is a moment I wish I could recapture, honestly. I see a lot less responsibility and a lot more free time than I have now. I see energy and possibilities in quantities I wish I still had. I see the excitement of new love and of early travels, the joy of discovering things — discovering everything, really — and the confidence that comes from not yet knowing how hard the world can really be. I see a world that was curiously naive compared to the morass that surrounds us now. I see golden-hour sunlight and open roads, and I feel soft breezes in my face that are rarely so balmy now. Mostly, I just see myself young, more handsome than I believed myself to be and stronger than I knew.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that era the past few days, so here’s a song from back then that I liked. No particular reason, no specific associations. I just liked this one. I still do.

“Can’t Cry Anymore” was the sixth single from Sheryl Crow’s smash debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club, which was one of my favorites back in the day. The song was released in May of 1995, nearly a year after the album itself, and although it only rose to number 36 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was Crow’s third top-40 hit.

Have a good night, kids…

spacer

Valentine’s Quiz Thing

I’m a couple days late with this, but I’m a sucker for these silly quizzes that used to be so popular in the old days of blogging, so here’s a thingie I stole from Facebook:
 
💟 How long have you and your significant other been together? 24 years (!)
 
💟 Do you have any children together? Nope.
 
💟 What about pets? Our kitty boy Evinrude, plus various feral and semi-feral cats that include ‘rude’s mother and a sad-eyed, scruffy-looking bugger we’ve started calling “Stuart” because he reminds me of the pathetic comic-shop owner on The Big Bang Theory.
 
💟 Who said I love you first? I don’t remember… probably her. Girls are mushy like that.
 
💟 Who is the most sensitive? Depends on the subject. We both have our Big Red Buttons.
 
💟 Where do you eat out most as a couple? Geez, I don’t know… probably Five Guys.
 
💟 Who’s older? Me, by a year and a half.
 
💟 Who has the worst temper? Well… I’m more prone to spontaneous flare-ups, but she has this thing where she can simmer for hours that’s far more frightening than my passing storms.
 
💟 Who is more social? Me
 
💟 Who is the neat freak? Me, although I’m not extreme about it. In other words, I generate plenty of clutter too, but I usually break and start to tidy before she does.
 
💟 Most romantic? Her.
 
💟 Who is the most stubborn? We can both be pretty hard-headed about things that matter to us.
 
💟 Who wakes earliest? Her during the work week; me on the weekends.
 
💟 Who’s the funniest? We make each other laugh pretty often and pretty hard, so I really can’t say.
 
💟 Where was your first date? Squatter’s Pub. Anne is convinced I was trying to get her drunk. I just wanted to introduce her to good beer. (She hates beer. Sigh.)
 
💟 Who has the biggest family? Her — I’m an only child.
 
💟 Do you get flowers often? Occasionally, when she’s trying to butter me up. 😉
 
💟 Who was interested first? Her, no question.
 
💟 Who picks where you go to eat? We tend to play the “I don’t know, where do you want to eat?” card a lot, so… both?
 
💟 Who is the first one to admit when they’re wrong? Her
💟 Who wears the pants in the family? Who wears pants?
 
💟 Who eats more sweets? We both have pretty demanding sweet-tooths. (Sweet-teeth?) Anne probably gives in to hers a little more often…
 
💟 Married? Um…well… somehow we never got around to that…
 
💟 More sarcastic? I don’t know… her, maybe? Depends on our respective moods, I guess.
 
💟 Who makes the most mess? Her
 
💟 Hogs the remote? We’re pretty egalitarian with that.
 
💟 Better driver? I’d say we’re both pretty decent drivers.
 
💟 Spends the most? Um… well, I am the one who just ordered that coffee table book of classic Star Wars newspaper comics…

💟 Who is smarter? I’ve got more book learnin’, but I let her do my taxes, so you tell me…
 
💟 Did you go to the same school? Yes, but I didn’t know her until after I graduated (she’s younger)
 
💟 Where is the furthest you two have traveled to? Scotland
 
💟 Who hogs the bed? Her — sorry, ducks.
 
💟 Who does the laundry? Her… but I help with the folding.

💟 Who’s better with the computer? Me. Which is scary because computers hate me, and I hate them right back.
💟 Who drives when you are together? Depends on whose car we’re in.
spacer