Friday, March 6, 2009

Watching the Watchmen

So Judy and I saw Watchmen last night. We went to the 12:01 am preview showing here in Lewisville. The theater was pretty full; not surprising as this is, without a doubt, the most anticipated film in geekdom, and has been for the past two decades. There's a lot to discuss here, so please bear with me.

OBLIGATORY WARNING: If you're spoiler sensitive, go elsewhere and return  after you've seen the film. You will not be warned again.

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with pop culture knows, Watchmen is the groundbreaking graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons that set the bar for all other such illustrated works when it was first published over the course of a year in 1986-87. Originally intended as a showcase for the Charlton superheroes that DC had recently acquired, the story eventually took on such a dark and disturbing tone that upper management felt it would be better to utilize all new characters. Probably a wise choice. It's a bleak, dystopian look at a world in which masked vigilantes are real, and the world stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation. 

Virtually as soon as the maxi-series concluded in 1987, folks started talking about what a great movie this would make. Certainly, Gibbon's layouts were exceptionally cinematic; reading the book one could almost see the pictures move. Part of what made the reading experience of Watchmen great, however, was its visual and literary density. Moore and Gibbons packed an awful lot of ideas and concepts into twelve issues, some overt, many more subtle. The result was an overall package that many believed to be unfilmable. Certainly, there have been efforts over the years. At one time or another, both Terry Gilliam and Paul Greenglass were attached to the project as directors, but eventually threw up their hands, defeated by the densely-packed narrative.

Now, however, with comic book movies proving to be big box office, Hollywood apparently decided that the Watchmen was going to come to the screen, unfilmable or not. And so it has.

Was it worth the wait? Does Watchmen live up to the hype? Yes and no.

It's an odd experience watching something like this on the big screen. I first read Watchmen when it was originally published, devouring each and every issue as it hit the stands. Consequently, Watchmen has been a part of my life, and my pop cultural conciousness, for more than 20 years. Given that, on the one hand, it's pretty cool to see Dave Gibbon's art come to life like this. It's also oddly unsatisfying.

All through the movie, I kept feeling that I had seen all of this before, that it was almost like listening to an audiobook version of a book you've read several times. Yeah, it's a slightly different experience, but not significantly so. While it's cool to see a panel you recognize come to life every now and then (like the Owl Ship bursting out of the Hudson River), after a while it becomes stale and repetitious. For this, I blame the director.

Helming this 163 minute epic is director Zack Snyder, whose previous efforts include a remake of the classic horror film Dawn of the Dead (2004) and 300 (2006), a big screen adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel based on King Leonidas's victory over the Persians at Thermopylae. Snyder's biggest problem as a director is that he has absolutely no sense of imagination. He can faithfully replicate someone else's vision on screen in a workmanlike way, but he himself brings absolutely nothing to the production, serving more as a mere conduit than as an actual artist. If you want a director that can simply get the job done, I suppose Snyder is it. If you want someone that's going to actually bring something to the film, look elsewhere.

Based on Snyder's previous films, it seems fair to say that character is not his strong suit. 300 was a perfect example of style over substance, as Snyder brought Miller's graphic novel to the screen without a shred of insight or actual character dynamics. The whole film can be summed up in the line, "Hey, let's go fight those guys!" It's been called "war porn," and for good reason. There's absolutely nothing in it other than a bunch of mostly naked guys oiling each other up, yelling, and fighting a lot.  It's a big budget, CGI flex fest. Even Steve Reeve's Hercules flicks had more depth.

That's an even bigger problem in this movie version of Watchmen, in which the characters are as flat and two dimensional as the paper they were originally printed on. They go through the motions adequately enough, but without any real feeling. Unfortunately, that means that the audience has no one to connect with or care about. There's absolutely no sense of emotional connection, a problem with ensemble films that Snyder seems unable to overcome.

An analogue might be the first Lord of the Rings film. Although Peter Jackson was dealing with a large cast of characters, he made sure that his audience liked and felt strongly about each and every one of them. Not so Snyder. His attempts at character building fall flat, as though he really doesn't care about the characters either, simply using them as an excuse to get to another special effects shot or fight scene. Again, a more imaginative director would likely have been able to bring more to the table, creating a rich world out of the tapestry spun by Moore and Gibbons.

Snyder's lack of imagination can also be seen in his horribly cliched music choices. At a number of key points in the movie, Snyder opts to use popular music rather than an original soundtrack. There's nothing wrong with this choice necessarily, but the way he pulls it off is ham-handed and dull. For example, for the scene of Dr. Manhattan striding across the battlefields of Vietnam, Snyder chooses to use Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. For the opening montage, as we see vignettes tracing he rise and fall of the Minutemen, he plays The Times They Are A'changin'. During the Comedian's funeral, Snyder opts for Simon and Garfunkel's The Sounds of Silence. During Ozymandias's final revolution,Tears for Fears Everybody Wants to Rule the World can be heard, followed by the opening chorus from Mozart's Requiem. It doesn't seem like Snyder spent any time at all picking this music, opting instead for the most blatantly obvious, and cliche-ridden choice available to him. These are the choices that a first-year film student would make in putting together a first film project. More should rightfully be expected from a director working with the budget Snyder was. And yes, I realize that many of these pieces were specifically mentioned in Moore's version, but hearing them in your head and hearing them on the screen like this twenty years later are two vastly different things. It's a reliance on the source material that actually works against the movie.

And therein lies the biggest problem with Watchmen: it's too much like the graphic novel. The novelty of watching individual panels comes to life quickly wears thin, and one soon wishes that there was more to this than simple reverence for the source material. It's ike watching Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998). At a certain point, you have to why bother? I'm not necessarily advocating sweeping changes in the story, but a director should bring some kind of vision with him to the filmmaking process. Snyder doesn't. The result is a workmanlike production with no real heart that plods along like an automaton without any real semblance of life.

Part of the problem is that, as cinematic as the original work was, in terms of camera angles and such, there's a fundamental difference between comics and film, a difference that Moore himself observed in a December 2001 Entertainment Weekly interview: "With a comic, you can take as much time as you want in absorbing that background detail, noticing little things that we might have planted there. You can also flip back a few pages relatively easily to see where a certain image connects with a line of dialogue from a few pages ago. But in a film, by the nature of the medium, you're being dragged through it at 24 frames per second."

Snyder looks at each panel, and brings it to the screen - like painting a copy of the Mona Lisa - without considering the story as a whole. It's obvious in reading the graphic novel that Moore and Gibbons knew exactly where they were going before the first line was set to paper. It was that macro overview of the whole story that made it all work. It's equally as obvious that Snyder has chosen to go in the other direction, taking a micro view of each panel and slavishly bringing that image to the screen, without any real understanding or care about the overall story. The feeling that one comes away with is that Snyder believed if he took care of the details, the story would take care of itself. It doesn't. While over the course of a 12-issue, year long series, one can afford a certain amount of digression, for example, in a movie an abrupt shift of scene and tone is often jarring and confusing. But that's exactly what Snyder does here; he flips from one scene to another simply because the comic did it that way, without caring about why the comic did it that way. As a result, he sacrifices the narrative flow and the buildup of tension that should be central to a movie like this.

Directing a movie is like conducting an orchestra. The conductor has the score in front of him, and he knows the notes that each instrument will be playing. he knows the approximate tempo of each section, and the relative dynamics, as most times those are indicated by the composer. So, before he ever sets foot on the podium, the conductor has a roadmap for the piece in front of him. In the same way, a director goes into a production like this armed with a script, that gives him the story and the dialogue, and storyboards, which give him a sense of the visual flow of the film.

When a great conductor steps up to the podium, a conductor like Herbert van Karajan or Sir Georg Solti or Robert Shaw, they don't simply read the score and wave their arms to make sure everyone keeps time together. A truly great director brings something more to the music, an understanding of the composer's intent and the music's purpose. By bringing that extra dimension to the music, a conductor makes each and every performance his own. There's a difference, for example, in the way in which von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein conduct a Beethoven symphony. Both were brilliant musicians, and both brought a unique and valuable interpretation to the music.

In the same way, a great director brings more to a motion picture project than a simple line reading of the script and an ability to line up shots according to a storyboard. Look at the three different film versions of The Maltese Falcon, for example. All three, the first filmed in 1931, the second made in 1936 under the title Satan Met a Lady, and the last one made in 1941 with Humphrey Bogart, are based on the same story, but all are very, very different. The last version, directed by John Huston is an early film noir classic, not only because of Bogart's star turn as Sam Spade, but because of Huston's incredible aesthetic as a director. Huston brought more than the script to his production, he brought an understanding of the source material that enabled him to create a unique and lasting interpretation of Dashiell Hammett's book.

And this is where Snyder fails miserably. He's the equivalent of a conductor who merely stands on the podium waving his arms, desperate to keep everyone at the same tempo. There's no attempt at artistry or interpretation, just a plodding, dull insistence on getting through to the end. There's no shame in not being an artist these days; most director's aren't. But then one should recognize their weaknesses and not accept projects that require a virtuoso performance. I'm sure there are plenty of teen buddy comedies, slasher films, and Adam Sandler films to keep Snyder busy from now until doomsday.

The lack of tension and the lack of any real buildup to a conclusion is a central problem in this movie. In the original graphic novel, there are two main plots that propel the narrative: the world on the brink of nuclear catastrophe, and the mystery of some unknown assailant killing masked adventurers. Snyder effectually neuters both of these  issues, leaving little to move the picture forward.

The issue of the cape killer is effectively spoiled in the first few minutes of the film, as Snyder treats us to an extended battle between the Comedian and a black-clad assailant (the whole thing is disposed of in a few panels in the original, a much better choice), a battle that results in the Comedian being flung through a plate glass window to his death. Anyone who can't recognize the black-clad man when he's introduced again shortly thereafter just isn't paying attention. Snyder revels in action sequences, however, and obviously felt this was a good chance to show someone's head being slammed into a granite countertop, so why not go for it? The fact that the extended sequence is pointless and actually harms the film seems to make no difference to Snyder. Also, unlike the book, the movie only shows us one killing. Others, like the death of Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl, are omitted altogether. How Rorshach pices together a pattern based on one event is something that we, as the audience, apparently aren't supposed to ask.

The second plot point, that of the world on the brink, is central to the story. In the graphic novel, Moore plays this up beautifully, using, among other techniques, a  Greek chorus in the person of an old newsdealer who comments on the world situation, constantly updating the reader on the escalation to Armageddon. We see, through his eyes, the perception of the world's common - i.e. non-superpowered - people, an important element as it gives us a broader view of the situation. That newsdealer is gone in the movie, reduced to a single cameo near the end, and so is the function he served. Instead, we get some vague threat from the Russians, and an elderly Dick Nixon (in some of the most embarrassingly bad character makeup I've ever seen), telling someone to "go to DEFCON 1." It feels like a virtual throw-away in Snyder's version, which totally emasculates the ending. If we're not convinced of the threat, we're not convinced of the need for the response to that threat, and therefore Ozymandias is a murderer, not a savior.

And that brings us to the controversial ending, the only piece that Snyder changed significantly. Now, I'm no Watchmen purist. I can accept the need for change if its necessary, but this ending felt forced, an unnecessary nod to The Dark Knight Returns in that it makes superheroes the bad guys. Moore's ending was over-the-top, but it worked: In order to save the world from itself, Ozymandias created an otherwordly threat, a giant squid-like being,  that this world could then band against, thus ending the sectionalism and cross-border fighting that was threatening the world's existence. If, he reasoned, mankind had a common enemy to fight, there wouldn't be any time for fighting amongst itself. That he was eventually proved right justified his extreme actions of obliterating most of Manhattan.

Snyder decided to jettison the squid in favor of another ending: Ozymandias has secretly been replicating Dr. Manhattan's energy and creating bombs that are designed to destroy major population centers around the world. The idea is that, once the energy signature is recognized, the world will think Dr. Manhattan was responsible and band together against him (In Snyder's version, it isn't enough to just take out Manhattan, he has to obliterate at least a half a dozen additionally cities around the world as well). Why Dr. Manhattan would do this, when he's spent years working for the betterment of humanity, is never explained.

There's a big problem with this, however: the world knows that Dr. Manhattan is unbeatable. In Moore's version, the US maintains its superpower status because they know no one will dare challenge them while Dr. Manhattan is around. In fact, several time during the movie, Dr. Manhattan's near god-like status is referred to. Why band against a foe you have no hope of defeating? In Moore's version, the threat quite rightly came from without; in Snyder's version, the threat very much comes from within; Snyder puts the blame squarely on an American citizen, thereby entirely negating Veidt's entire premise. In fact, Nite Owl comments at the end, "As long as they think Jon's watching, we'll be OK," turning superheroes into Big Brother fascists with a single line. It's an unsatisfying ending that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

I mentioned the horrifically bad Nixon make-up before, but the age makeup applied to make Carla Gugino look like a 67-year-old woman is equally amateurish. Even worse are the black areas around Dr. Manhattan's eyes, that are so obviously makeup, it makes him look like a kid who's been playing with mom's Max Factor. It looked great in the comic, but here it looks bad... really bad. These characters in particular look so cartoonish and fake that it tears one right out of the movie every time they're on screen. The fact that Nixon and Sally are played by particularly unconvincing actors doesn't help, either.

Speaking of actors, the cast of Watchmen is a mixed bag. Easily the standout performance comes from Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach, in what could easily be a career-making role. Haley brings Rorshach to life, not just as a crazed vigilante, but as a rich and complex character who works for the good in a morally questionable way. He is Rorshach in a way that none of the other actors achieve. Patrick Wilson turns in a good, but not great, performance as Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl. The rest of the cast, however, is less than stellar. Malin Akerman as Laurie, the second Silk Spectre, looks good, but is utterly unconvincing in the role of a superheroine. Super model, maybe, but not a dedicated crimefighter. She's stiff and wooden, the Jessica Alba of this movie. Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, is far too detached to elicit any sense of sympathy from the audience. Moore's Ozymandias was a caring, conflicted man who did what he felt he had to do, and felt deeply the pain and suffering he had caused. Snyder's Ozy is aloof and cold, coming across as more supervillain than savior. It's a great performance for, say, Lex Luthor, but not for Ozymandias.

There's not much to say about Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan. His flat, emotionless delivery fits the character, I suppose, but it's not very interesting to listen to. His revelation about the value of humanity near the end, a wonderful moment in the comic, here seems forced and unconvincing. He's a big special effect, but little else. Likewise, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Comedian is adequate, but little more.

Another disturbing aspect of the production is Snyder's insertion of pointless and gratuitous violence and sex. This is simple pandering to a bunch of immature fanboys, no doubt, who will sit in their seats drooling over Malin Akerman's nakedness and nudge each other in the prison scene when an inmate's arms are sawed off. Moore and Gibbons wisely eschewed focusing on these aspects in their original works, and Snyder's including them does nothing to make the film better. Just the opposite, in fact. It's unnecessarily offputting and brings the tone of the film down.

Part of the problem, too, with bringing Watchmen to the screen, is that it's very much product of its times. The Cold War was still a big deal when the comic came out. In 1986, we were on edge about the state of the world, with Afghanistan and the Falkland Islands seen by many as being powder kegs upon which rested the fate of the world. We knew that the world could end at any time; that the world Moore was showing us was disturbingly like our own. Therefore, when Veidt does what he does to bring the world together, we could understand his motivations and feel the fear that drove him to such a desperate act.

Now, however, with twenty years hindsight, we know that the world didn't end, and that nuclear annihilation was not visited upon us. Viedt's fears, it turns out, were groundless, and, knowing that, it's much harder to have any sympathy for him. As things turned out, all those people died for nothing, a victim of Veidt's overreaction. So much for being the world's smartest man. With this sense of hindsight, Veidt becomes, at best, a lunatic, and at worst, a mass murderer. Neither option gains him the sympathy and understanding Moore's treatment gave him.

The real question, of course, is not how this movie is going to play to the fans, but how it appeals to the civilian population. I think that viewers who go to the movie cold - i.e. without having read the graphic novel - are going to come away confused and unsatisfied. My prediction is a strong opening weekend with a fast fall off a word of mouth gets around. So far, the reviews have been mixed to negative, even among the comics crowd. There's little if any over-the-top praise for this film. Rather than being the next Iron Man or Dark Knight Returns, I think this is likely to be the first Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull of 2009.

So, the question remains, is Watchmen a good movie? Not really, but it's not as bad as, say, Catwoman or Elektra, both of which were rip-your-eyes-out bad. As far as comic book movies go, this is about on a par with Daredevil or either Fantastic Four movie, which isn't saying much. It's watchable, but it's bound to leave any real Watchmen fan with an empty feeling, sort of like eating a jam sandwich: it tastes all right at the time, but it's quickly forgotten and ultimately unsatisfying. Perhaps the inevitable remake a decade from now will be better.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Best of Intentions

When I started this blog, I really intended to be more regular in posting. What, after all, is the point to blogging if one does not blog?

And then, of course, life got in the way.

After spending several weeks writing catalog copy for Heritage, I found out that a book proposal I had submitted to MacFarland had been accepted. That's great news, and something I'm very excited about, but that means that most of my writing time is going to be taken up with the book (it's about monster movies, by the way). Blogging likely to be infrequent from here on in.

That being said, there are some things I'd like to get off my chest:

This stimulus bill just doesn't work for me, in spite of all the grandiose speeches and promises that are being made. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not some bitter Republican with an axe to grind, still grumbling that "my guy" didn't get elected. I support Barack Obama. I supported him in the elections, I voted for him, and I think that we, as a nation, made the right choice in putting him in office.

But I think he's succumbing to business as usual with this stimulus package of nearly $1 trillion.

He promised us a new way of approaching problems, a new paradigm for addressing the catastrophe that has engulfed our nation. And yet, when all is said and done, this so-called stimulus package is no different than virtually any other government spending bill. This bill needed to address the immediate crises that face our nation, like unemployment, rising healthcare costs, and an increasing rate of home foreclosures. And it needed to do it now.

Unfortunately, our lawmakers, led by our new President, opted to fund projects that, if they address these issues at all, will do so down the road (18-24 months, according to many analysts). That's fine if you're a Congressman, whose healthcare - along with a generous salary - are provided to you by the American people, but what if you're one of the more than 3.5 million unemployed who can't afford your mortgage payments or your diabetes medicine? You don't have 18-24 months to wait, you need something to happen now. And the number of people in situations like this is growing every day.

To be fair, many of the projects earmarked in the stimulus bill are worthwhile, and should be pursued. They include:

*$350 million for research into using renewable energy to power weapons systems and military bases;
*400 million to help state and local governments purchase efficient alternative fuel vehicles to reduce fuel costs and carbon emissions;
*$500 million for energy efficient manufacturing demonstration projects;
*$6 billion for broadband and wireless service in underserved areas;
*$462 million to enable CDC to complete its Buildings and Facilities Master Plan, as well as renovations and construction needs of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health;
*$50 million for monument and memorial repairs at Veteran's cemeteries;
*$400 million, including $200 million to address the deterioration of the National Mall, such as repair of the Jefferson Memorial's collapsing Tidal Basin walls; $150 million to address the repair backlog at the Smithsonian; and $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.

And that's just a small sample. Now, like I said, there's no doubt that these are all worthy projects, and in a time of strong economy and employment, I would cheer the funding of each and every one of these. But is this really where we want to be putting our money in a time of National Crisis? Imagine your house is on fire; is your first priority trimming the hedges? Of course not.

Last night, during President Obama's speech, he talked about giving more money to the banks so that they could make more credit available to people to buy houses or cars, or support small businesses. It's a laudable idea, but several months ago we gave an enormous amount of money to America's banks for exactly the same purpose, to absolutely no effect. The result was a bunch of banks hoarding our money, not giving it out in loans as was intended. Why would anyone think this handout will be used any differently?

Even worse, we're hearing just now about Northern Trust bank, the recipient of $1.6 billion of our money, throwing a massive golf tournament and party, complete with entertainment by Sheryl Crow and Earth, Wind, and Fire, expensive hotel rooms for employees and guests, Tiffany gift bags, fine dining, and more, all to the tune of millions of dollars. When pressed, a spokesman for the bank replied that the money used was the bank's money, not the bail-out funds (how does one distinguish between the two?), and said that Northern Trust was a "healthy" bank that didn't really want the government's money, but accepted it as it "agreed to the government's goal of gaining the participation of all major banks in the United States." The translation: we'll take your money and do what we damn well please with it. Merry Christmas to us. Making matters worse is the fact that Northern Trust isn't the first, nor is it likely to be the last, bank to spend our money in such a questionable way.

Knowing that, why does anyone think it's a good idea to give the banks more money? Haven't they proven that they can't be trusted to spend or invest that money wisely? Aren't these the very practices that got us into this mess in the first place? I'm not necessarily advocating the nationalization of banks, but someone has to step in and do something here. Throwing more money at them and hoping that, somehow, these greedy, arrogant bastards have grown a conscience - or at least a sense of fiscal responsibility overnight - seems incredibly short-sighted.

But this is the way government works. It's a big boy's club in which the wealthy and powerful belly up to the trough and are rewarded for being wealthy and powerful. It's Voodoo Economics, and the disastrous continuation of Ronald Reagan's "trickle down" theory. If the last several decades have proven nothing else, they've proven that money doesn't "trickle down." Give money to the people at the top, as Reagan did and as Obama is doing now, and they keep it. It's simple human greed. If you want to infuse money into the economy, you have to put money into the hands of the people, as money flows up. When they have it and times are good, people spend. And that money inevitably makes it's way up the chain, benefitting everybody on its way by. Giving money to banks and corporations and government agencies is just business as usual, a plan that is doomed to failure from the start.

I still think that, if Obama really wants to change things in a powerful and immediate way, he should take that stimulus money and put it directly in the hands of the American people. How about this: Every taxpayer who filed a 2007 return showing less than $250,000 in income gets a check for $200,000. It's simple, it's direct, and it would have an immediate effect on the economy. People could pay off their homes, but new cars, buy health insurance coverage, or whatever. They could blow it all at Wal-Mart or at Choctaw, for all I care. The point is, that money would flow back into the economy, strengthening businesses and creating jobs. 

Of course, the government has tried this before, but on a much smaller scale. Let's face it, $300 isn't a significant amount to most people. That's like throwing a homeless guy a quarter and expecting him to turn his life around on that amount.

Obviously, the money exists for a plan like this if we're spending close to a billion on things like refurbishing tombstones, but it's not the way government does business. Never has, never will. The government is invested in making the American people believe that it, and it alone, can save them. Rather than putting the tools for success in the hands of actual working Americans, government has traditionally taken a controlling role. That's business as usual, and it shows no signs of changing in this new administration.

I understand that Obama is new to the office, and many will cry, "You have to give him time." That's all well and good in good times, but these are not good times, and Obama knew that when he took office. Thanks to the previous administration, there is no time. America, and many of her people, are on a collision course with ruin and disaster. Something must be done now, without all the political posturing and deal-making that has been a hallmark of our government for far too long. Rather than playing partisan politics, as far too many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been guilty of for far too long, this is a time for bold, decisive action. Rather than catering to special interests and lobbyists, which this stimulus bill obviously does, it's time to consider the welfare of the American people. Rather than feeling secure in the salaries and benefits provided to them by the taxpayers, it's time our lawmakers felt a sense of urgency about this crisis, and moved to act as if it were their homes and their families in jeopardy. Nothing else is acceptable.

I had high hopes that night that Obama was elected. I really believed that a sea change in the way our government functioned was imminent. Now I'm not so sure.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Puppy Mills are Evil

For the last several days, we've been baby sitting two dogs for my sister-in-law's family while they're off at Disney World. Now, Judy and I have always had dogs. We're no strangers to the requirements of our canine friends. We're also big advocates of rescue dogs, and we've always gotten our animals from rescue organizations, the pound, etc. In our view, it's just the responsible thing to do, and we've gotten some great dogs that way.

One of the dogs we're watching is Sparky, a one-year-old Australian Shepherd that was purchased at a pet store, and originated in a puppy mill. Sparky's a sweet dog, but, because of the way he came into the world, he has issues.

If you're not familiar with the concept of puppy mills, these are large-scale dog-breeding facilities that produce puppies as quickly as possible and sell them to pet stores, creating a number of problems for the dogs and their owners.

Before going any farther, I think it's important to differentiate between puppy mills and legitimate breeders. Puppy mills are a high volume business that treat dogs as commodities, with no care for the animal's welfare whatsoever. Legitimate breeders, more often than not, specialize in a specific breed of dog, and are concerned with producing good, healthy dogs for responsible owners. While I personally think that there are more than enough good dogs out there, in pounds and shelters and foster homes, to satisfy every potential dog owner, I can't really fault the legitimate breeders. At least they're concerned with the health and well-being of the dogs they produce.

Not so the puppy mills. Imagine an area crammed with cages, each one holding more dogs than it comfortably should. Imagine that the cages are filthy and not well maintained. Imagine that the dogs aren't given enough food or water, aren't exercised, aren't provided with proper veterinary care, and aren't given any love or attention. Now imagine that when the puppies are born, they're left with their mothers for only a very short period of time - a healthy dog stays with his mother for at least eight to ten weeks  - and is then ripped away so that the mother an go into heat again as soon as possible, to be transported and sold, if they're "lucky" enough to survive. Often, these dogs are sold as purebreds, although the lax and indiscriminate breeding practices at puppy mills makes it almost impossible to guarantee this. If you don't see the above as cruel and horrendous, imagine what the reaction would be if people were routinely treated like this. In fact, substitute people for puppies in the description above, and it's tragically parallel to the way that Africans were brought to this country at the height of the slave trade. Ripped away from their families with no regard for their happiness, stored in filthy, overcrowded conditions with minimal food and water and no medical care, and then sold to people who saw them only as property. Dogs are thinking, feeling creatures. If we wouldn't treat people that way, why should we subject dogs to that kind of treatment?

The result of these mass breeding practices is, sadly, dogs that are doomed to a life that is difficult, at best. Right out of the box, they start with two strikes against them. Because they were torn away from their mother's side at such an early age, these dogs tend to be badly socialized with both other animals and humans. We see it clearly in Sparky. He's a sweet dog, but incredibly fearful of strangers and more than a little neurotic. He's also been very hard to train, and, at a year old, still isn't housebroken. He's failed puppy training classes several times, often on the basis of poor socialization skills. These aren't traits that typically endear a dog to a new family, making the poor animal's life even harder. Additionally, dogs from puppy mills tend to be more prone to health issues later in life. It's a bad situation all around, and one that should not be tolerated. Like I said, Sparky's a great dog, but he's obviously badly damaged.

In these so-called "enlightened" days of sensitivity and compassion, we like to think of ourselves as socially aware and, especially in America, champions of justice for all mankind. We invaded Iraq ostensibly to liberate the Iraqi people and give them a better life full of hope, prosperity and freedom. We went into Vietnam for many of the same reasons (at least that's what we were told. Whether that's truly the case or not is entirely another discussion). But we turn a bind eye to the suffering of innocent animals. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those PETA whackos who want to call fish "sea kittens" so that no one will eat them, or who believe in a totally vegan lifestyle. I believe in the food chain and am happy to participate in it. But there's no excuse for wanton cruelty for no other reason than blind profit. The practice of puppy mills is reprehensible, and should be stopped. Period.
There are plenty of places to go for more information about what goes on at puppy mills, and how to stop this cruel, inhuman and barbaric practice. Two good places to start are the Humane Society and the ASPCA. But if you really want to help change things, and eliminate this hateful, obscene practice, start by talking to people about puppy mills, urging them to boycott pet stores, and begging them not to buy puppies over the Internet. I encourage people to have dogs; they're wonderful friends and wonderful companions, and make a great addition to the family. If you're interested in a specific breed, try the rescue organizations. A Google search using the breed term and the word "rescue" should give you plenty of options. Or go to the local dog shelter or pound. There are a lot of great dogs there that really need a good home. These difficult economic times have seen a marked increase in the number of abandoned and released dogs, as people are forced to move from houses into apartments that don't allow pets.

Be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Random Thoughts

Here are a couple of topics that have caught my attention lately. Feel free to discuss:

1. Fanboy Panties in  Bunch Over The Dark Knight

Okay, so the Academy Award Nominations are out, and the only major nod given to The Dark Knight is a sympathy nomination for the now-dead Heath Ledger. Fanboys across the world had themselves convinced that this was their year, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would finally recognize one of "their" movies as the Greatest Cinematic Experience of All Time.

Didn't happen.

Frankly, I'm pleased that the movie got passed over, as I'm one of the few people on the planet that thought it was only an okay film. I can see why all the little fanboys wet themselves over this: it's dark, it's gritty, and it's incredibly nihilistic, just what the little comic zombies seem to go for these days.Unfortunately, it's also unpleasant, too long, and badly filmed.

First of all, let's talk about Heath Ledger's performance. I make no bones about the fact that I've never been a Heath Ledger fan. I thought A Knight's Tale was god-awful, The Brothers Grimm was even worse, and The Order was a steaming pile. In my not-so-humble opinion, had Ledger not died just before the opening of The Dark Knight, we wouldn't even be having this discussion right now. He was, at best, a B actor who someone made it into a couple of A movies.

Ledger's Joker was a one-note character, who simply moved the plot along by destroying things. He had no motivation, no reason, and no goal in mind; he just was. Proponents of the film hail his characterization as "a force of nature," or "an anarchist spreading chaos through fear." 


The fact is, the cinematic world is filled with "forces of nature" like this. Just look at Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Leatherface, the Aliens, Godzilla, etc., etc. These are all characters that kill for the sake of killing. They are plot devices that serve to provide something for the hero to contend against. As cool as they are, they are not three-dimensional, well-rounded characters. Ledger's Joker was over-the-top all the time. There was no shading to his character, and nothing that required any kind of acting skill. It was a competent performance, but nothing more. Ledger's performance didn't leave us with anything to think about or ponder, outside of, "Gee, I wonder of you really could kill a guy with a pencil like that?" 

I've heard the movie called "revolutionary," "groundbreaking," and "important," but I don't see how any of these adjectives fit. Birth of a Nation was groundbreaking, in that it helped establish a new cinematic language that had never been seen before. It was revolutionary in that it demonstrated that movie-going audiences would embrace a feature-length film (most pictures before Birth were one- or two-reelers). Terminator 2 was groundbreaking in that it introduced a level of CGI that had never before been seen in the movies. The Dark Knight was none of these. It was unrelentingly brutal and mean-spirited (as well as being confusing and meandering), but it certainly wasn't revolutionary, groundbreaking, or important. Only obsessed fanboys with no sense of cinematic history could believe that.

The Academy's charter in awarding the Oscars is to "reward the previous year's greatest cinema achievements as determined by some of the world's most accomplished motion picture artists and professionals." It is not simply a popularity contest. Box office success, or failure, should not influence the voting of the Academy's members one way or the other. 

So does the Academy always get it "right?" Of course not. But simply screaming that The Dark Knight should receive Best Picture, Director, Actor, etc. nods merely because it was a box office hit is ludicrous. Box office has nothing to do with the quality or achievement of a movie, as we all know. I really wish the legion of fanboys who are so up in arms about this "slight" could just relax and revel in the fact that so many comic book movies are being made today. Iron Man was great (far better than The Dark Knight in telling a compelling story with believable characters), The Hulk was a definite improvement over the Ang Lee version, and we have Watchmen to look forward to in a few months. Let's face it folks: we won. The geeks have inherited the Earth, and we should be celebrating that fact, rather than bemoaning the fact that TDK hasn't been canonized as the Most Transcendental and Uplifting Film in the History of Mankind.

I don't really want to go into a long discussion/critique of the film's weaknesses, but looked at critically, there are quite a few, from bad acting to sloppy storytelling to bad cinematography to a seriously excessive running time. Was it a good summer action film? Apparently so. Was it Oscar worthy? I say no.

2. Teaching Creationism in Public Schools

Apparently, the religious right is at it again, rallying in Austin to demand that Creationism (or "Intelligent Design") be taught in public school science classes right alongside evolution.

What a load of crap.

Why are we still having this discussion? You'd think that we were living in Salem, Massachusetts during the time of the witch trials. We're talking about science classes here, classes with a mandate to teach science. Not mythology. Are conservative Christians so weak in their beliefs that they can't abide any opposing argument be heard? 

And why, when they talk about providing a "fair and balanced" approach to generative issues, are they only concerned with teaching the Christian doctrine of creation? Would they agree that a fair and balanced approach would also necessitate teaching the Muslim creation myth, or the creation stories of the various Native American tribes, or the creation myths of other, even more obscure and uncommon cultures? Of course not. This is nothing more than a totally transparent attempt to shove their particular religious beliefs down the throat of a public that doesn't necessarily want anything to do with them.

The issue here is that Creationism (or Intelligent Design, if you prefer) isn't science. There's absolutely no physical or objective proof that some outside intelligence created the world and everything in it. It doesn't stand up to scientific rigor in any way, shape, or form. It's faith, pure and simple. Yes, I know it's in the Bible, but that's no more proof of the existence of God than Action Comics is proof of the existence of Superman.

The proponents of Creationism are insisting that "the strengths and weaknesses" of evolution be taught in the classroom, yet they've never identified any of these so-called weaknesses. It's a weak position, and one that really shouldn't be argued anymore in this day and age of increasing scientific understanding. Do we really want to close our children's minds before they've even had a chance to be opened. 

That, simply, is why it should not be taught in science classes. Evolution is a scientific principle that we see in both large and small ways. Large, in that we can study the fossilized bones of extinct creatures and examine the way they developed over time. The development of the modern horse, descended from Eohippus, is a great example of this. Small, in that we can see cross-bred plants produce entirely new organisms and we can see the results of directed breeding in dogs throughout the years. Evolution is a fact, not a theory, and just because we don't have all the answers yet regarding the origins of life does not diminish the fact that evolution, the survival of the fittest, is the way things are.

But I understand that some people don't agree with the above, and they have a right to educate their children in the ways of their faith. That doesn't mean their specific belief structure has to be validated by the State Education Department. Thomas Jefferson advocated the separation of church and state for a very good reason. 

Here's a thought: if you're a Christian, and you want you child to learn about Creationism from the point of view of your faith, send them to Sunday school. That's an appropriate venue in which to teach them all about your beliefs. By learning about evolution in school and Creationism in church, your kid will be well-prepared to make an informed, intelligent decision as to what they personally believe when he or she grow up.

But that's not what these people want, obviously.

3. A Modest Proposal for Economic Recovery

Like many people, the current economic crisis is very much on my mind. I read about businesses receiving billions of dollars in Federal bailout money, but I have yet to see any positive results of all this governmental largesse. A large part of the reason for this is that the money was handed out under a corrupt administration with no strings attached. Why was the Federal government so hesitant to treat the banks in the same way that the banks have always treated their borrowers? It makes no sense to me. Now, of course, the auto industry has its hand out, and I hear that the retail industry is going begging to Washington to shore them up after a disastrous holiday season. When does it ever end?

Frankly, I think the wrong people are getting the cash.

Personally, I have no interest in bailing out a bunch of banking or auto execs, who knew exactly what they were doing when they put in place corporate practices that got them into this mess. The banks held a carrot in front of the noses of the poor and lower middle class, encouraging them to take out mortgages they could never afford, under terms that only benefitted the lenders. Did they really think that someone making $50,000 a year could really afford the mortgage on a $500,000 house? And yet they pushed those mortgages out there anyway, with balloon payments that looked good for the first year or so, but quickly became a monster, threatening to devour everything in sight. And these same banks that are now asking to be kept afloat on a raft of taxpayer money made a fortune sending out pre-approved credit cards, looking to hook the public into easy money with exorbitantly high interest rates, knowing that the vast majority of people would get themselves into trouble. But did the banks care? Not as long as they were making money.

And what about the auto execs, who insisted on making large, gas-guzzling, high maintenance vehicles, even during a time when consumers were telling them they wanted smaller, more fuel-efficient, better built cars. Hummers? Are you kidding me? The fact that auto sales for Ford, GM, and Chrylser are in the toilet should come as no surprise to anyone, least of all these corporate big shots who knew exactly what they were doing when they kept on rolling out Ford F-150s that got 12 miles to the gallon. And now they want us, you and me, to bail them out and ensure that their bloated corporate salaries and benefits packages stay intact. The writing was on the wall years ago, and they chose to ignore it. Now they want us to take the fall for their bad decisions.

I think we need to cut these guys loose. They've proven that they can't run a business, and the days of what amount to Federal grants to the exceptionally wealthy should be over. Here's what I propose instead:

Instead of giving the money to the guys at the top, give it to the guys at the bottom. Roosevelt's WPA programs in the 1930s are a good model, but we have to reinvent them. During the Depression, America's economy was largely built on labor and manufacturing. Therefore, when FDR instituted a policy of public works, which included building new roads and structures, it was perfectly suited to a time in which a large percentage of the workforce were laborers. 

Today, however, we are an information-based economy, and with that realization comes the need to find a way to employ people who are not laborers in the traditional sense. Computer programmers, for example, aren't going to be your best road workers. WPA-like projects to improve our infrastructure should definitely continue, but they can't be our only solution.

There is a way to create jobs and put people to work in a variety of areas, however. I'd propose that the Federal Government make available non-taxable grants to anyone on, or eligible for, unemployment who can outline a plan to use the money constructively. For example, say you're unemployed and you want to go back to schoool or write a book or make a movie or start a business or whatever. When your plan is accepted, the government would, in effect, fund you for one year. At the end of that year, you would have to show some sort of measurable result (i.e.: a B average if you were in school, a completed manuscript and evidence of submission to publishers, an established business, etc.) or be required to pay the money back. This way, it would be clear that the government was not funding you to sit on your ass for twelve months, but would be actively looking for results, much like an employer would. If you could show substantial progress, you would be eligible to apply for an additional year of grant money.

Freed from the necessity of finding a full-time - or worse yet, part-time -  job, these people would be able to better themselves and make a contribution to the life of society at large. They would also be able to spend money, putting it back into the economy and fostering growth. They would be able to work with their strengths, which should be the goal of any public employment program.

To properly implement this new program, it would be necessary to establish offices in all major cities, staffed with enough people - experienced in various disciplines - to process and turn over applications quickly. This would create a large number of Federal jobs in addition to all the people that would be helped by the grants. Jut by taking the amount of money spent on the ridiculous bailout package, we'd be able to help almost 1 million people with a plan like this, not counting those that would be put to work administering the plan.

We've seen that money flows in just one direction: up. Reagan's voodoo economics program - the "trickle-down" theory - was an utter and abject failure. when you give money to the people at the top of the pyramid, they keep it for themselves. Very little of it "trickles down" to the people it was intended to benefit.

When you give money to the people at the bottom of the pyramid, however, they spent it - on things like rent, food, cars, entertainment, etc. - and circulate it throughout the economy, benefiting people at all levels of society. This seems like a simple concept, yet few of those in charge seem to have a firm grasp of real-world economics, preferring to look down from the mountaintop rather than up from the valley.

So really, it comes down to this: who do you want to help - a relatively few wealthy individuals at the top of the food chain, or vast numbers of real, everyday people struggling to do their best and make a living in this fragile economy?

I know which group I choose.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Day...

Well, we have a new President. Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of office this morning, and you could practically hear America breathing a collective sigh of relief. It's truly a watershed moment in American history.

I'm glad Obama won the election. I voted for him and supported his candidacy, and I truly believe the right man got the job. He brings a spirit of optimism to the country that we haven't seen since the days of John F. Kennedy. I know that I should be over the moon after this morning, dancing naked in the streets and jumping over bonfires. And yet...

President Obama has made a few troubling decisions in recent days. I realize he's just taken office, but he's certainly been in the spotlight since November 4, and some of the positions he's taken already are enough to make me go, "Hmmmm."

First is his decision to have evangelical pastor Rick Warren deliver the inaugural invocation. Warren was an outspoken supporter of California's Proposition 8 - a bill designed to deny simple human rights to gays and lesbians - one of the most heinous pieces of hate legislation ever put on a ballot. Legislating bigotry and opression like this is akin to putting a bill on the ballot that would reintroduce slavery. It's wrong, it never should have happened, and it needs to be reversed. Now. By giving an admitted bigot and hatemonger like Warren such a national forum, Obama gives tacit approval to his beliefs. Barack ran on a platform of inclusion and change; why embrace the ways of the past in such a straightforward and offensive way? It's not like there's a shortage of pastors, ministers, or preachers in this country. As Obama should know better than any President to come before him, civil rights is an important issue, but civil rights have to apply to everyone, not just a particular minority group. I'm all for someone being strong in their faith, but not at the expense of someone else's rights.

Even more disturbing is the report from CNN that Obama has stated that he has no intention of eliminating the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy (one of his widely-quoted campaign promises), and that he has no interest in pursuing investigations into illegal activities by Bush staffers and administration, specifically regarding their actions concerning the Department of Justice. If these people, or anyone in the Bush administration, broke the law and betrayed the public trust, they should be held accountable, just as any public citizen would be. That is, ideally, how our system of government works, that no one is above the law. To ignore their crimes for the sake of political expediency is reprehensible. There are many people who would like to see former Vice-President Dick Cheney held responsible for authorizing torture at Guantanamo Bay, for example. The chances of that actually happening seem slimmer and slimmer.

Of course, Obama has just been sworn in, and anything can still happen. I voted for him and I intend to support him. But that doesn't mean that I won't be the first to cry "Foul!" or criticize the man when he loses sight of the reason he was elected. We put him in office not because he was young, and not because he was black, and not because he was polished. We put him in the office because we truly felt that he was the best possible person to lead us out of the dark pit of despair in which we've found ourselves, back into the bright light of hope. He has a House and a Senate that are solidly behind him. Now, after today's festivities are over, Barack Obama needs to hit the ground running and begin the process of healing, rebuilding, and inspiring this much-maligned nation. He needs to do this not for the black community, not for the evangelicals, not for the wealthy and powerful. He needs to do it for everyone, and he needs to do it fast.

Let's hope he's up to the task he's undertaken.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Commentary Track

I've been told by at least one person that posting comments to this blog has been problematic. Hopefully, after tweaking some of the default settings on Blogspot, that problem has been addressed. 

So go ahead and comment away. Both of you.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Book Review: The Dexter Trilogy (Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Dearly Devoted Dexter, Dexter in the Dark) by Jeff Lindsay

I admit it: I'm fascinated by serial killers. From Ed Gein to Henry Lee Lucas to Ted Bundy to Jeffrey Dahmer, those individuals who commit gruesome murders, often according to some kind of pattern or design, intrigue me. I'm not sure how one gets to the point of being able to eliminate other human beings without any seeming sense of remorse or regret, but there's something inside these people that obviously makes that possible. And that's the fascinating part. These people regularly cross a line that the vast majority of us find untenable, placing themselves outside of "normal" human society. They're a dark mirror, revealing to us a dark part of ourselves that we ordinarily keep suppressed.

Of course, serial killers, both in fact and fiction, make up some of the darkest icons of our collective unconscious. Who hasn't heard about Jack the Ripper, and the horrific murders he committed in London's Whitechapel district in 1888, or Thomas Harris's greatest literary creation, killer and gourmand Hannibal Lechter? Even such cinematic favorites as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Kruger take their inspiration from such real life fiends as Andrei Chikitillo, Albert Fish, and Danny Rolling.

And then there's Dexter, the creation of author Jeff Lindsay. By day, Dexter Morgan is a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department, but beneath his charming, laid-back exterior, Dexter harbors a horrific secret: he's a serial killer, far worse than most of the people he helps send to jail. Dexter is no ordinary serial killer, however. He only kills those who have, in turn, murdered others and somehow gotten away with it. He's a serial killer with a code, a code he takes very seriously.

That's what makes Dexter an interesting character, a new take on the old serial killer model. Most serial killers, real or fictitious, prowl the nights, stalking their innocent victims whose only crime might be to have long, straight brown hair, or to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Not so Dexter. He actually performs a public service, eliminating undesirables from the community when the courts fail. Like Batman or Daredevil, he rids the world of vermin that have been placed beyond the reach of the law, and, believe it or not, we love him for it.

And therein lies the strength of Lindsay's writing, that he makes us care about this bloodthirsty human being. It's not easy to find a serial murderer likable and charming, especially when you're fully aware of his extracurricular activities, but somehow, Lindsay pulls it off.

The majority of the first two books are told through Dexter's interior monologue, which displays both the strength and the weakness of Lindsay's writing. The choice of narrative focus allows Lindsay to, literally, get into Dexter's head, which makes him a fascinating character. We see the world through Dexter's eyes, as if we were tagging along with him on his gruesome journey, and we experience, with him, the thought processes that occur before, during, and after one of his murders. It's an intriguing perspective, albeit a fictional one. 

The cost of this singular POV, however, is to the secondary characters, especially Dexter's sister, Deborah, his girlfriend, Rita, and his assortment of friends, none of whom are as well developed or as interesting as Dexter himself. They all run through the book, going through the motions that Lindsay requires, never becoming more than two-dimensional caricatures. We never develop an attachment to them or really care about their ultimate fate, because they're no more real than cartoon characters, included as mere window dressing.

It's for this very reason that this becomes that rarest of instances, a time in which the adaptation (i.e. the Showtime series) is actually better than the books upon which it is based. With such wonderful actors as Michael C. Hall as Dexter, Julie Benz as Rita, and Jennifer Carpenter as Deborah, these characters finally take on three-dimensional life. Deb and Rita actually become well-rounded, realistic characters, as do other members of the supporting cast through the wonderful moments and subplots given to them by the series' writers. The biggest beneficiary of this development is Deb; in the books, she's nothing but an eternally angry cop, there simply to feed information to Dexter and to allow him to solve the case. The Showtime series actually makes her a real character, with feelings and ideas and a real backstory. She actually helps to move the plot along, rather than just existing as a talking signpost. By doing this, Dexter seems even more removed from humanity, and thus more terrifying.

As for the books themselves, Lindsay writes in a pulpy, potboilerish style that keeps the plot advancing, resulting in a fast, easy read. The first two books are stylish and thrilling, but the third veers off into some bizarre territory involving supernatural elements that might have been best avoided. Although all three books are fun, the third is definitely the weakest of the lot.

Lindsay's biggest problem as a writer is in the payoffs of his novels. By the time one reaches the end, it feels as if the author has grown bored with his story, and wants to wrap it up as quickly as possible. This makes for a highly unsatisfying conclusion, especially given all that the reader (and Dexter) have gone through to get to that point.

So, finally, the books are certainly recommended as something different in the area of serial killer fiction, but the Showtime series carries an even higher recommendation, especially for the performance of Michael C. Hall who, by all indications, is certainly an actor to watch.