Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tooting My Own Horn A Bit

Well, Readers Mine, I'm pleased to be able to announce that as of today, I'm officially a published writer. Watcher Junior: the Undergraduate Journal of Whedon Studies, published it's latest issue today, and I'm in it! "'We Just Declared War': Buffy as General" grew of out a presentation of the same name I gave at Slayage 4 in St. Augustine last year, and I'm still pretty proud of it. Go check it out!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Books, E-books, and Reading

My Kindle, as Appian's The Civil Wars
I’ve been chewing on this one for most of a year now, Readers Mine, so I figured it was about time to ruminate publicly. As you may know, I am an avowed bibliophile, and have been since my early teens. Over the years I’ve managed to compile a respectable library, and have developed into one of those people who, in the words of Anna Quindlen, “believe that decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” Let’s be clear, though. I’m not a collector. Oh I have a few moderately valuable editions, and some signed copies, but they came to me through accident or happy opportunity rather than careful acquisition. Above all, I’m a reader, so my library is as much mass market paperback and ex-library editions as anything else.

All of that is to remind you that I am a lover of books not merely as communications technology, but also as things, as objects to be possessed and treasured, touched, held, and smelled. At the same time, I am a reader, so the idea of having the equivalent of my library accessible through one, lightweight, hand-held device that I can carry with me pretty much anywhere is a heady proposition. So I waited, and watched e-readers – and the Kindle specifically – go through a few generations, and kept an eye on the development of e-books in general, and finally, last year, I bought my Kindle. It wasn’t an unprepared plunge. By this point I’d dipped into Project Gutenberg and Google Books, and even had the opportunity to read a book on a first-gen iPad. I find computers and other back-lit screen devices adequate for short pieces, but when I get the chance to curl up for a weekend and really read a novel or two, or get so hooked in one that I say to hell with it and stay up until 3am to finish it, the back-light really begins to hurt my eyes. It seemed that the Kindle’s (and now Nook’s), non-backlit, e-ink display was the way for me to go.

And it was. Crisp, print-like text, light (particularly when compared to the iPad), and capable of storing approximately 3500 books, the Kindle is a device built for readers like me, who are apt to spend hours on end reading. To be fair, I was also not looking for a device that lets me play Angry Birds or surf the web, or play my music. I just wanted an e-reader, pure and simple, and that’s what the Kindle is. Financial concerns also entered into my decision. Not so much the cost of the device (though I waited until competition had begun to have its effect, price-point-wise), as the cost of content. Look, as far as I know, it is impossible to obtain hardcopy formats of the complete works of Jack London, H. P. Lovecraft, H. Rider Haggard, Mark Twain, Alexander Dumas, A. Conan Doyle, etc, etc for $5 or less apiece. I have all of the above on my Kindle for about the price of a hardcover book. Literally over 1000 books, plus stories, poems, essays, etc, for the price of one. Not only that, but many of these writers’ works are hard to find, even when you’re just looking for Haggard’s Alan Quatermain adventures. I’ve always wanted complete collections of these guys, and now I have them. Of course, the price is reflective of their (mostly) public domain status, but still.

Beyond the classics, I’ve read histories, classic and modern SF, how-tos, PDFs (which the Kindle isn’t so hot with), poetry, and even used a Kindle version of the Bible for a recent class. I really like the device. Reading on it is a joy, the battery-life is fairly long, and the thought of having so much content right there in my hand still makes me a bit giddy. I’ve read on the Kindle in waiting rooms, on vacation, at home, over lunches, and my Kindle travels with me to class every single day, slipping into my backpack without adding any appreciable weight, and insuring that I never unexpectedly find myself without something to read. It’s fantastic. That being said, e-books are not going to replace books for me. They comprise reading material in addition to, but not in place of, books. When favorite authors publish a new book, I still want it in hardback. Add to that the usual discounts offered by Amazon and Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble on new releases, and hardcovers generally aren’t much more expensive than e-editions. Yet. I still want the sense of physical possession that books bring, especially with favorite writers, and e-books just don’t cut it when it comes to that.

Of course, I have to face the fact that this likely springs from the fact that easily 95% and more of my reading life has been through books. It is a format I am intimately and unconsciously familiar with. When I want to find a specific passage or quote in a book, I can often find it because I remember where it falls, physically, in the book, and so open the book to the appropriate section without need for a look at the index or table of contents. My brain and body have been programmed through years of practice to be a surprisingly efficient search tool when it comes to books. Plus, whether I buy a book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Got Books? I only need one “device” to read it: the book itself. (The real revolution in e-books will occur when there is one standard file format, or all e-readers come with the built-in ability to reformat files so that I can read all my e-books on one device, no matter where purchased.) Younger generations, particularly those who will grow up with e-books, will undoubtedly develop similar technology-specific skills as those I have for books.

In the end, go get an e-reader. It’s totally worth it, though I recommend doing some research and test-drives to determine which one is right for you, and whether you want a dedicated device or something more like a tablet. It turns out the magic isn’t in the device, anyway. It’s still in the words.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Super 8: B-

A couple of weekends ago, Mock’ was throwing a fillies only shindig in honor of the Belmont Stakes, so I picked my horse, placed my bet, and then ABD and I got out of there and headed for the theater to check out Super 8. The movie earned a resounding “meh,” from us both. There is much of the nostalgia piece about this movie, for those long ago days when Spielberg really knew how to make a movie. Echoes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. abound, although given a somewhat different, darker twist by director J.J. Abrams. It’s a period piece, and necessarily so as some pretty significant plot points hang on having to wait three days for 8mm film to be developed, and on the lack of cell phones and the internet.

In a nutshell, a group of young teens and ‘tweens have been bit by the moviemaking bug, made possible by Super 8 cameras and a proliferation of amateur movie-making and Fangoria-esque monster-makeup magazines. The hero of the piece is the techie, Joe Lamb, the talented model builder turned sound-man and makeup artist for the kids’ monster movie, played by Joel Courtney who falls hard and innocently for the 14 year old ingénue Alice Dainard, played by Elle Fanning. Keep an eye out for these two actors. In fact, keep an eye out for all 6 of the young actors who form the core of this film. They bring a level of talent and heart to the screen that I haven’t seen in far too long. Fanning, in a lovely movie-within-the-movie scene where she is rehearsing an emotional goodbye to her husband in the kids’ film, manages in a few lines to remind us how magical the art of acting can be, and how powerfully we can be moved by it. I really just can’t heap enough praise on this group of young actors. They make the movie worth it.

Unfortunately, the talent is better than their vehicle. The plot proceeds along the expected lines. Witnessing a horrific train accident, the kids are the first to know that something fishy’s going on in this small Ohio town, and knowing more than the adults who refuse to listen to them, they set out to investigate and eventually our boy-hero saves our girl-heroine and the alien gets to go home. Pretty much cookie cutter filmmaking here, Readers Mine. Still the first hour to hour and fifteen minutes of the movie are quite good. J.J. Abrams is actually very good at portraying human interpersonal relationships, often very complex ones, and in creating three dimensional characters, and when he sticks to that, as he does with the kids in the first half of the film, he's really good. However, he didn't take the time to equally develop the adults in the story or their relationships with their kids, and this winds up really hurting the film. Where Abrams consistently falls short, though, is when he attempts to bring the fantastic, whether aliens or islands.

In the last half of the film it begins to feel like you’re watching two different movies that never quite manage to get together as the kids’ storyline and escaped alien storyline careen into overdrive and at best just kind of glance off one another. I literally found myself thinking in classic MST3K fashion, “meanwhile, in another movie…” This is exacerbated by Abrams' stock trick of delaying the reveal of the monster through a series of fast, blurred, and partial glimpses of the beast, or just sound effects followed by shots of after the fact devastation. It doesn’t work. Not in LOST, not in Cloverfield, and not in Super 8. The reveal, as usual, is a letdown. It just can’t compete with the monster you’ve built in your head, and doesn’t. This kind of tease-and-reveal is incredibly hard, and even artists who are really good at it, like H. P. Lovecraft was, have a hard time pulling it off. Abrams isn’t good at it. Rounding out the stock-plot is the evil military colonel, the misunderstood alien, and parents learning the lesson of how wonderful their kids really are. All great stock-plots. Stock-plots that made Spielberg! Abrams, however, is no Spielberg, and in his hands the final half of the film winds up clunky and forced. (And let’s face it; once the monster has started chowing down on humans, I’m with the bad colonel. Hell, I’m with Ripley: nuke the town from orbit: it’s the only way to be sure. Letting the thing escape just doesn’t seem like a good idea, you know? Round up the kids and send in the SRBMs.)

So, over all, Super 8 gets a “B-,” mostly due to the efforts of the group of young actors at its center, and for the first half of the film. Be sure and stick around for the credits to see the 8mm movie the kids were actually making during the film, it’s one of the best parts. Super 8 is well worth putting in your Netflix cue or hitting for a $5 matinee, but go to the Dollar Store before hand and smuggle in your candy. No need to give the theater too much money for this one.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Watching TV (on DVD)

Recently I’ve undertaken a rather intensive rewatch of the insanely wonderful Australian science fiction series Farscape on DVD. This comes on top of – and for the moment is supplanting – my ongoing rewatch of Angel, and comes only a few months after viewing the first five seasons of Supernatural on DVD in a four month period. I’ve been watching a lot of TV on DVD lately, in other words, and it’s got me thinking.

As someone who has begun to look at TV as something worth studying critically, and who remembers the days before even VCRs were generally affordable, I’m struck by the way technology has changed not only how we access various TV shows, but the individual and cultural experience of TV as well. Over the past four years I’ve done a lot of catching up on TV shows through a variety of media. I watched the last 2 seasons of Battlestar Galactica via my DVR (and deleted every episode in a fit of pique after the atrocious series finale was phoned-in from the SF Plot Convenience Warehouse, completing the last season and a half’s utter betrayal of the show’s brilliant promise) since my work had me getting home halfway through the original air-time, and often beat to boot. I used the DVR again during the mercifully brief run of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, so that Mock and I could watch them together, and we watched the series finale “Epitaph 2” streaming from Hulu when Fox changed the air-time and the DVR missed it. I caught up on the dark, brilliant, and beautiful genius that is Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad (back on July 17th, BITCH!) by means of DVD sets for seasons 1 and 2, and, with the kind permission of a friend, iTunes for season 3, which I watched on my larger screen TV via a HDMI cable. Recently, I’ve been advised to watch Showtime’s Spartacus via streaming media from Netflix.

So, DVR, DVD, free streaming through Hulu, paid downloads from iTunes, and subscription streaming through Netflix. That’s how I watch my TV today. Seriously, Readers Mine, these days the only time I watch a TV show on its original air date and time is when I’m in a hotel, or idly flipping through channels on the couch with Mock’ and she finds something she’s willing to light on for longer than 1.8 seconds (or decides to torture me by stopping on the “History” Channel, which will be showing something about Ice Road Truckers, or How to Make a Snickers Bar, which, while it may be interesting, ISN’T FRELLING HISTORY!!!!). This is wildly different from the TV habits of my youth, when if you missed the original airing, you had to wait for the rerun, and in the era before cable began its habit of the 1 hour later, then every hour on the hour for three days reruns of shows they thought were popular the wait could be a long one. This change in the means of viewer access has led, in turn, to a change in viewer culture, and the rise of an interesting type of nostalgia-viewing, typified by the rewatches of Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Nik at Nite, the blog of Nikki Stafford, who literally wrote the books on both shows.

As TV became common throughout the United States, viewer culture grew up around the imposed schedules of the Big Three (later Four, then Four and A Half) networks. Viewers became used to a schedule of programming where a show aired at a certain time on a certain night, weekly, with terrible doldrums in the summer months perhaps enlivened by reruns or old favorites now in syndication. In any event, sometimes millions of people would all gather around their TV sets at the same time, on the same day, watching the same channel to follow the ongoing adventures of Marshal Dillon, or Hawkeye Pierce, Archie and Edith, Andy Sipowicz, or Buffy. That episode was followed by a week of waiting, often discussing the show with fellow viewers in “water-cooler talk,” and anticipating the following week’s installment of the story. This anticipatory period was heightened between seasons, when one had to wait several months for new episodes, often after the previous season had wound up with a cliff-hangery finale (to borrow a term from David Lavery’s Buffy Lexicon). TV was a strange sort of shared experience, even if the people you were sharing it with lived a thousand miles away. A fairly big chunk of America was howling right along with you as Jerry dealt with a woman with “man hands,” or the reanimated corpse of Lenin awoke and began a zombie-like quest to destroy capitalism because Homer Simpson was in command of a US ballistic nuclear submarine (deep cuts folks, deep cuts), or were waiting just as anxiously as you were for November to roll around to see if Chris Carter had really killed off Mulder and/or Scully.

With the evolution of fast and reliable mobile broadband, and growing ownership of smart-phones, TV is becoming as ubiquitous as music and with just as much potential variation in content being viewed at any one time. TV is now available on the viewer’s schedule rather than the networks, and content providers are struggling to keep up. Note the rise in “on demand” and “start over” programming. And we’re already way beyond DVDs. DVR/TiVo devices, streaming media from an ever-growing number of sources, a multitude of ways to have access to an enormous amount of material without it ever taking up space on your shelves or the storage space on your hard-drive (if the device you’re watching it on even needs a hard drive). The collective aspect of TV is disappearing. People no longer necessarily even try to watch shows when they air, preferring to wait for the inevitable DVD release after the current season. And there’s no longer any need for that deliciously annoying anticipatory period between episodes or seasons, you can watch Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes back to back until “Zinda – his face black, his eyes red” if you want. Cliff-hanger finale? No sweat, pop in the first disc/start streaming the first ep. of the next season, no muss, no fuss, no commercials, no waiting – ain’t America great?

And it is! It is great. I love it, love being able to forgo commercials and watch two years worth of TV in two months or less. Love being able to return to Babylon 5 again and again and revel in the stories, love having the ability to watch what I want, when I want, how I want, where I want – mostly. And yet… The thing about the art form of television that has set it apart from film, theater, and novels is that all of the former are brief experiences, whereas M*A*S*H premiered the year I was born, and aired it’s last episode when I was 11. ST: TNG began its run on my 15th birthday and when it ended I had already been a college drop-out for 4 years. You can have a frakking relationship with a TV show. You can grow up with a TV show. A film is over in two hours or less, generally. Hell, it wouldn’t even take more than a couple of years – max – to read Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth/Mission Earth series if you wanted to (but you really don’t), but man, I lived with some TV shows for years! Now what used to be a committed relationship boils down to an affair of a few months. I suppose it’s the difference in hearing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on your handy-dandy iPod and going to see it performed by a professional orchestra. Live. In 1826. When music wasn’t available at the touch of a button, or at all beyond your and your friends’ own abilities to remember and carry a tune. Can you even imagine what it must have been like to assemble in a hall full of people, in that day and age, and hear such music? What the experience must have been like? How much power the music would have held? I think it must have been something like catching a glimpse of God.

Now you can just pause playback if something comes up, or just have it on for background noise, you know, without really listing to it. Don’t get me wrong, I love music on command, but sometimes I think I might trade it for music with the power to stop the world and make it listen. I wouldn’t trade my DVDs and streaming capabilities, but sometimes I kind of miss staying up until 2 am on a Saturday night because I didn’t have cable and that was the only time I could catch Babylon 5 when it originally aired. I was there, every week. I gritted my way through the season breaks and every continuing story arc. It was a part of my life for five years. Babylon 5 was also the first TV series I ever owned on DVD, and revisiting it at my leisure is one of the pleasures of my life. While it’s lovely to be able to pick and choose my episodes these days, I can’t escape the sense that I’m not seeing the work as J. Michael Straczynski composed it, as if I was reading War and Peace by dipping in at chapter 30, then chapter 3, etc. The experience is fundamentally changed, and the tension between acts is oddly diluted without the commercials to build-in anticipation.

I think this kind of nostalgia is what drives the rewatches over at Nik At Nite, where a limited number of episodes are viewed each week, and in the interim, participants engage in an ongoing conversation via comments on Nikki’s blogs, discussing the episodes they’ve just seen, sharing their personal experiences with watching the shows either currently or previously, and speculating on where things are going and why, and where things have been, and why. It’s a throwback to the old TV culture, ironically made possible by the same technologies that have fundamentally changed that culture, and people love it. So, maybe we can get the best of both worlds as fan-culture continues its long-time mass infiltration of the interwebs, so that no matter what show you’re into, you can find your people, be they ever so rare or, you know, Dutch. It also appears that the new media are at least partly responsible for the Golden Age of Television we’re currently living in. Neilson and his families no longer have control, or at least have less of it.

So is this actually a win-win situation for the viewer? You know, I think it may be. For the moment anyway. If anyone’s got any thoughts about this, I’d love to hear them. Comment away, Reader’s Mine – I’m off to watch some TV.