Friday, January 24, 2014

Two Magic Words: That Sucks

This week's episode of Parks and Recreation (Season 6, Episode 12 "Farmers Market") included a fantastic lesson to live by. Ann was starting to voice her displeasure at the more bothersome aspects of pregnancy, and Chris's efforts to tend to her every complaint were only quietly compounding her frustration, as his excessive proactive thoughtfulness was stifling her venting. Ron, Tom, and Donna counseled Chris on where he was going wrong:
Ron: You've fallen into a classic trap, Christopher—trying to fix a woman's problems, instead of just listening to what they are.

Tom: Hey, man, if Ann needs Tylenol, she can get it herself. What she needs from you is to just look her in the eyes, nod your head, and say those two magic words.

Donna: That. Sucks.

It's absolutely true. I've witnessed the magic of these words many times and even put them to use myself. What I've found, however, is that this advice works just as well when dealing with men as it does with women. Also, my own use of this trick has less to do with compassion than with keeping other people's issues at an arm's length.

One time, an older gentleman was confiding in me about how his marriage of more than twenty years was now a shambles. In fact, I barely knew this guy and could not comprehend why he was being so loose with such deeply personal information. He was neither a friend nor even a friend of a friend, but it was a situation where we both had a lot of time to kill and only each other for company. And, whereas I would have been content to silently read news articles to myself on my smartphone, this guy—well, he was a talker. He had quite a lot to say—stuff that had clearly been weighing on him, all the more so because the life partner he had grown accustomed to confiding in was now the person he needed to complain about. I'll spare you the sordid details; suffice it to say this guy's whole world was falling apart, and it was all happening very suddenly. He was at a loss as to how he was going to get through even that day. He finally stopped talking only because he ran out of details to share. Nothing was concluded. Nothing was resolved. There was an awkward silence. I supposed it was to me to say something. Awkwardness and silence are two things I savor, so I let it linger awhile, as I pondered how best to proceed.

I must confess, I have had relatively few male friends in my life, and the few male-male friendships I have been privileged to be a part of have been founded primarily on shared geeky interests, rather than on any kind of uniquely masculine bro-bonding. Through a weird set of circumstances (again, I'll spare you the details), however, I have, in the past, been able to play the part of observer to instances of guys being emotionally available for their bros. At least, the pretense is one of emotional support. The reality, when traditional-values males are "there" for other traditional-values males, is considerably more shameful and potentially very negative.

A guy bonds with his boys over beers and NFL Sunday, but it's not intended to be just a fun escape from their nagging ladies. It's a refuge, where guys can feel safe to share life and be real with one another. One guy or another spills his guts about his issue of the moment (e.g. marriage on the rocks, career setbacks, disheartening workplace politics, etc.) to the supposedly sympathetic ears of his bros. That's when the arrangement unravels. The other guys are all more than ready to offer their advice, and every guy's idea of advice is really just a lecture in disguise. Turns out, they all love to hear themselves speak, but none of them is very good at listening, except to hear openings for interjecting their own opinions. The reason this setup is ultimately self-defeating is because these masculine egos, even as they are supposed to be supporting one another, still retain the streaks of one-upmanship that persistently motivate them. They seize other guys' adversities as opportunities to demonstrate their own intellectual or moral alpha-ness via condescending lessons on the proper way to live.

Back to the situation I found myself in, as the unlikely confidant to this guy's marriage troubles, I considered, was I now supposed to condescend to him about how to handle his wife (as if I, being a never-married man half his age, had any clue)? I had gleaned enough from his soliloquy to determine that he fit the mold—husband, father, NFL fan, Bible-thumper, highly opinionated—so he was probably familiar with the routine. Was a lecture what he expected and wanted now from me? In fact, those are two separate questions. These guys surely know to expect the lecture, since it's what happens every time (and they probably really do confuse advice with admonition), but then they also tend to push back when it is offered.

That's when I considered, in contrast, how my female acquaintances worked with one another through their difficult days. For years, I spent most of my workday lunches with female coworkers, so I had observed many instances of this as well. And what I observed was that, instead of combating their sisters through their tough times, the girls would simply listen and then succinctly sympathize, and, amazingly, that would be enough to send them off in a better mood.

What I realized was that, when a woman is going on over lunch about the frustration of the day or week or month, she's not asking for advice or a solution (and especially not for your opinion); she just needs to vent. All she wants of the sympathetic listener is for them to listen and then to sympathize. And I thought, are guys really so different? Does any guy, already feeling crappy, really want to get a lecture in exchange for opening themselves up? Unless he specifically asks your opinion, maybe he just wants to vent (even if guys don't as often apply that word to themselves).

I hadn't had a chance to test my theory before applying it in the case of Mr. Shambles (can't say I was ever exactly eager to be anyone's sympathetic ear), but, after careful deliberation, I decided that, better than a lecture (or the third option (and my usual go-to) of offering zero acknowledgment and just waiting for the other person to walk away), I would offer a succinct and sympathetic "That sucks."

He chuckled and said, "Yeah. Yeah, it does."

That was the end of that episode. I'd like to think he got out of it just what he needed (at least as much as anyone could realistically offer in the way of comfort). If nothing else, I got what I needed, which was a graceful way of making it clear that, although I felt bad for him, I had zero interest in dealing with other people's problems.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"Edge of the Ocean" (Ivy, Long Distance, 2001)

Ivy - Edge of the Ocean (Single Cover)

"Edge of the Ocean," Ivy's signature track off its third album, Long Distance (2001):

I remember hearing this song a lot back in the day (well, actually, not even that long ago....). For a good couple of years, it was featured in many commercials, films, and television shows, including a 2001 episode of Roswell, where the band itself appeared on the show to perform the song. From the information available on Wikipedia, it seems the last notable use of it was during the end credits to the film Music and Lyrics (2007), which Ivy band member Adam Schlesinger did the music for.

Fast forward to 2014, and Ivy is a largely forgotten act. When I went to see Blondfire perform last December, my brother mentioned he had seen them open for Ivy some eight years or so ago, and I was like "Ivy? Who?"

Schlesinger, of course, remains an active and successful songwriter in film and television. The other two band members, Dominique Durand and Andy Chase, are married with children. The trio reunited after a six-year hiatus to release another album, All Hours, in 2011, after which Ivy quickly dropped off the map once more.

I tried looking on YouTube to see if there were any noteworthy live recordings of "Edge of the Ocean," but there's barely any video of the band at all. One fan channel, Ivy Fan Page, is virtually the only source for Ivy-related videos on YouTube (like the one above), including one circa-2002 acoustic performance of "Edge of the Ocean" and a lo-fi recording of the official music video for the Duotone remix of the song.

Anyway, the song and band came up on my radar again because I've been watching Veronica Mars (in preparation for the upcoming film), which features "Edge of the Ocean" on not one, but two separate episodes (Season 1, Episode 3 "Meet John Smith" and Season 2, Episode 10 "One Angry Veronica"), in addition to a couple other Ivy songs on other episodes.

Eventually Veronica Mars will be forgotten as well, but it's interesting how, in this Netflix era (though Veronica Mars specifically isn't on Netflix, so not the best example) of people binge-watching roughly decade-old shows for the first time, a strictly of-its-day hit like "Edge of the Ocean" can get a limited extension on its life from having been featured on a cult TV series.

Then again, according to TuneFind, "Edge of the Ocean" was used again as recently as 2011, on the short-lived ABC Family show The Nine Lives of Chloe King, so maybe the song yet has life in it!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

I just backed Yasumi Matsuno's Unsung Story

From the official Kickstarter page for Unsung Story: Tale of the Guardians:
Unsung Story: Tale of the Guardians is the spiritual successor in a storied line of epic tactical RPGs designed by Yasumi Matsuno. Playdek is excited to be partnering with one of the most legendary game designers, as well as you the fans, to bring out a refreshing, immersive new take on the tactics genre.

In the hands of the veteran tactical RPG master himself, Unsung Story will re-imagine a classic game genre, as Yasumi Matsuno weaves together one of the complex and rich game worlds that he is known for, with inspiring class based tactics game play.

I backed this at the $165 "Behind-the-Scenes Adventure (Design)" pledge level. That's subject to change. None of the rewards especially appeal to me, except for the opportunity to play test and balance the game, since I always have opinions on that stuff (why, for example, I think Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is, in many ways, a more mechanically polished and balanced game than Final Fantasy Tactics, but Final Fantasy Tactics is more fun and, ultimately, better). Of course, I don't think I even own a system presently that would be able to run this game, and if I'm being honest, I also don't know that I'd have the motivation to sink much time into play testing it, given that I don't even spend much time playing games for fun anymore. But there's a month to go on this Kickstarter campaign, and if I end up committing on that pledge, maybe the expense will encourage me to commit further and make the most of my rewards. I'm also hoping they'll come up with some better reward options before funding closes. I think it's kind of stupid that the coolest rewards—play test access and the art book signed by Yasumi Matsuno—are mutually exclusive.

At any rate, I'm looking forward to seeing this project realized. The developer, Playdek, does not appear especially distinguished, but they have clarified in the comments that "the storyline is being written by Matsuno himself." I'm also hoping that they'll reach the $1.3 million stretch goal to get Hitoshi Sakimoto on board as composer. But Matsuno's story is what I'm mainly investing in. Matsuno's writing was what crucially distinguished the great tactical RPGs I've played (Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together) from the imitations that bore similar design yet proved mediocre and forgettable (Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Final Fantasy Tactics A2). And, yeah, Matsuno also more recently wrote Final Fantasy XII, which I didn't dig so much, but I chalk a lot of that up to how his storytelling style—that is, the way he doles out story via short, closed-door conversations in between lengthy stretches of just guys whaling on monsters—lends itself especially poorly to a game with a world of the scale of a traditional JRPG. With this being a smaller-scale turn-based tactical RPG, I have high expectations. I wouldn't very well be funding this otherwise, would I?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Merlin (The Adventures of Merlin) (Series 5) (2012)

Merlin Series 5
"There are some paths woven so deeply into the fabric of the world, Merlin, that nothing can be done to change them."

Merlin Series 5, Episode 11 "The Drawing of the Dark"

Merlin (or The Adventures of Merlin), the BBC television series that began as the somewhat slapstick story of the untold early years of Merlin and King Arthur as young men, but which eventually came to encompass the entire span of the Arthurian legends, grinds inexorably toward its conclusion with its fifth and final season (or "series," as per UK TV parlance). There will be spoilers in this post, but, honestly, the biggest spoiler for the end of Merlin may be that nothing all that surprising happens. Rather than put a new twist on the final chapter, as the show had with other parts of the legend, the writers this time largely hold fast to the traditional story as most people know it. Mordred joins the cast as the last major piece to be assembled toward setting the stage for the Battle of Camlann, which forms the climax of the story during the two-part finale.

Mordred's arrival (or return, rather—he appeared as a child (different actor) way back in Series 2) and his quick addition as a member of the Knights of Camelot don't really set anything into motion. His betrayal comes rather abruptly just before the final two-parter, and he's barely relevant during the major mid-season arc. Still, Welsh actor Alexander Vlahos's performance as Mordred is the high point of the season. This version of the young knight (also secretly a warlock, making him a natural enemy of Camelot, where magic is still outlawed) seems to genuinely mean well and tries hard to prove himself however he has to against judgment from every side. He's proud to be a knight, and, in some ways, he is the sincerest believer in Arthur, which makes it all the more painful when the king lets him down and sentences Mordred's druid lover to death. As Mordred struggles to maintain his knightly composure while tearfully pleading to Arthur on her behalf, Merlin delivers once more one of its signature dramatic turns, when this typically lightweight, unassuming, even silly show suddenly becomes very weighty and very powerful. When Arthur shuts him down, not since "I Love Lisa" has it been possible to so pinpoint the moment of a character's heart breaking on TV, as cruel fate crushingly sweeps aside at once all he has hoped for, all he has believed in, and all he has ever loved. It's an outstanding moment and an outstanding performance.

The pity is that, as with Morgana, the story builds so deliberately toward that masterful moment when this character, once as innocent as any of us begins, at last becomes the villain we know from legend, only to leave us with an antagonist that is subsequently incredibly poorly developed and extremely one-dimensional. This is the third season of evil Morgana, and, with not even a glimmer left of her originally heroic character, her stark villainy now frankly defies comprehension. The one thing that Smallville, which inspired this show's conception, may have handled better than Merlin was the friend-turned-nemesis angle. Before Lex Luthor finally turned full dark side on that show, there was a much longer period during which the darker aspects of his self grappled against his conscience, and, although he would (rightly) suspect Clark Kent of not being an honest friend to him, still Lex would, more often than not, stand by Clark, whose friendship he genuinely valued.

It probably helped in Smallville's case that Lex was a morally ambiguous character to begin with, rather than being a clear good guy, as Morgana was at the beginning of Merlin. But the creators of Merlin must have known all along where they intended the character to end up; they clearly knew that it was all going to lead into the Arthurian legends we know. The liberty they took was in where they had Morgana begin. Sadly, her arc across five seasons of Merlin mostly just suggests that the writers never knew how to make that transition. There is really no way to reconcile the person Morgana is at the beginning of the story with the person she eventually becomes. Either she should have been more morally ambiguous in the beginning, or perhaps the writers should have been daring enough to take more liberties with the ending. Instead, it just feels like they wanted Morgana to start out heroic, then they made her evil for no better reason than "because that's what's supposed to happen," and, after it happened at the end of the third season, they kind of stopped thinking about it altogether and kept her simply as this one-dimensional antagonist. These turns are all the more depressing on Merlin because the prophetic "that's what's supposed to happen" angle is actually written into the show's mythology. Like the viewers, Merlin even knows that Morgana and Mordred are going to turn on Camelot well before they do. That he is consistently powerless to do anything about it makes this eventually kind of a dreadfully fatalistic show.

The finale aside, this last season includes among the show's least memorable standalone(-ish) episodes, which all tend to be on the more serious side. The mid-season arc, centering on Guinevere being brainwashed by Morgana to spy on Camelot, actually provides some of the season's more humorous moments (when Merlin and Arthur grow wise to the plot and have to figure out how to hinder Guinevere without either harming her or tipping her off), but it goes on for too long without ever really progressing anything. Previous seasons of Merlin had largely managed to avoid feeling labored, despite the fatalism, but the Guinevere story is too predictable, and if you actually remove it from the season altogether, you realize it has almost no effect on the continuity of the story.

Despite my disappointments with Merlin's fifth season, the ending mostly works, and the final images are quite poignant. Honestly, even if it's not altogether satisfying, I don't know how they could have handled the end to such a story any better. All told, Merlin was still, for five seasons, a surprisingly diverting program, and quite often something more.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005)


Brick is a most peculiar film, pairing the hardboiled plot and dialogue of a classical noir detective story with a contemporary high school setting and students as the main characters. The film does not appear intended as a parody in any way. Writer and director Rian Johnson plays it completely straight. The film and its characters exhibit zero self-awareness that they are out-of-place, out-of-time, or out-of-character. Get over the high school trappings, and Brick plays extremely true to genre as a hardboiled crime drama. It begins as a murder mystery that pulls its gumshoe protagonist ever deeper into a labyrinthine plot full of false leads, femme fatales, agitated tough guys, whispered names of men in the shadows, warnings and then threats to back off at every turn, and where everybody seems to harbor their own ominous secrets and ulterior motives.

That said, it's not easy to keep a completely straight face when confronted with such dissonance in the characters versus the things they say and the way they say them. There is something absurd, after all, about a cynical high school detective asking around about whom the victim ate lunch with. Or about the kingpin of a California drug ring being a white suburbanite teenager who has his mom providing snacks while he discusses business. Or about dialogue like "If I get caught like that, it's curtains anyway; I couldn't have brass cutting me favors in public. I'm just saying now so you don't come kicking in my homeroom door once trouble starts." The most ridiculous moment in the movie has to be that meeting between the protagonist and the vice principal, where the vice principal basically plays the part of the self-serving police chief who tries to shut down the private investigation. Up to that point, you can kind of read the movie not as what literally transpires at this high school, but rather how their self-important adolescent imaginations magnify and dramatize things.

Along those lines, it's easy enough to picture Brick as not only a production that real high schoolers could have made, what with its clearly minuscule budget (professional twenty-something actors posing as teenagers notwithstanding), but actually exactly the sort of movie that young film enthusiasts of limited means but tremendous passion would make—something exhibiting great admiration for classic craft and impeccable attention to screenwriting and cinematography, and missing only production values for things like costuming and set design.

In my experience, however, most adolescent-penned narratives don't even include adults, and the self-aggrandizing teenage daydreams tend to deflate the moment an actual grown-up intrudes. So it's a bit much, in this movie, for the vice principal to be role-playing along with whatever weird game these high schoolers are carrying on. But then I thought about it a bit more, and, well, isn't that police chief character typically kind of ridiculous even in the most conventional examples of hardboiled detective stories? I mean, it's never a character that the protagonist or the audience is seriously meant to respect, but only a minor annoyance that the detective must outwit and manipulate to his own ends. So maybe it doesn't matter that the scene is slightly absurd.

Indeed, Brick is peculiar, in large part, for all the ways it is conventional, rather than for the ways it isn't. I can't say I've ever been a huge fan of the genre, but, from what I've seen, hardboiled fiction is inherently bizarre. The actual investigation is almost impossible to follow, and even when the answers are revealed, you're not sure if any of it really adds up. A lot of the action is cerebral rather than tangible, and the protagonist's most unsettling obstacle tends to be his own self-menacing interior monologue. The story is ostensibly set in the real world, but it's so dark and enigmatic that it always seems just one step removed from there being some Cthulhu lurking in the shadows.

A movie like this is ultimately one that you appreciate for the atmosphere it builds, rather than for the story it tells. Going back to what I mentioned earlier about how adolescents like to imagine their lives as being much weightier, much more intense, much more dangerous than they really are, those fantasies are perhaps even informed by movies like this. After all, what could be more "adult" (not in the porno sense, but in the "adolescent's romanticized notion of adulthood" sense) than a cynical detective story? These things deliver extremely heightened senses of tension and of danger, all the while being, beneath the surface, completely illogical, completely incomprehensible, and completely insubstantial. So maybe Brick really does attempt something quite clever in layering a hardboiled narrative over a story starring adolescent characters.