Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Write...Edit...Publish: Haunting

Denise Covey is hosting Write...Edit...Publish, a monthly bloghop (details here). October's theme is "haunting" and my humble submission is offered below.  My story is 946 words long.  Please respond with comments only.  Be sure to visit the other participants as well.  The link list is at the end of my post.

All Saints’ Day

            Damn it!  The living room light was still on.  Somebody was awake.  Probably Mom.  After yelling at me for missing curfew, she’d pepper me with questions:  Why are you late?  Who were you with?  Were his parents there?  You’re telling me they don’t have a phone?  Who drove you home anyway?

            Please, Mom, no questions tonight.

            I’d walked home from the Halloween party, fighting that hyperventilating hiccup a boy gets when he’s trying not to cry.  Yes, I’d stayed later than I should have, hoping to talk to her if only for a few minutes.  Why the hell did she want to be with that jerk instead of me?  I missed my ride home waiting so long.  I had to walk.

            I opened the door quietly – not entirely sure why.  Judgment and sentencing had likely already been passed.  A surprise waited in the armchair facing the door: Dad.  My father staying up past 9 o’clock was never a good sign.  I bet he’d had that hard, cold paternal stare locked and loaded from the moment he heard my feet come up the path.  As soon as the door swung open, he was ready to fire.

            But then he saw me and knew the torture I was already imposing upon myself.  His face of granite softened to leather, the corners of his mouth dropping. He turned to stare at the rug.  I was more lost than ever.  Finally rising but still not looking, he pointed to the couch.  “Have a seat, son.”

            Instead of sitting back down himself, he made for the kitchen.  I heard the fridge door, the clink of glass from the cupboard, the pouring of liquid, the fridge again.  He returned with a tumbler of milk, setting it down on a coaster beside me.   We sat quietly for a while, both of us staring at the rug, I taking the occasional sip.  When I was half done, he stood, putting a hand on my shoulder.

            “Go to bed.  We’ll talk in the morning.”  He went upstairs and I was alone.  He didn’t even ask what was wrong.

            Thank God, he didn’t ask!

            Seven the next morning brought a knock on my door.  Dad poked his head around, softly commanding, “Get some clothes on.  We’re going for a walk.” 

So, was this my punishment? Forced to get out of bed before noon on a Saturday?  Or was this just the interrogation?  Trudging to the kitchen, Dad was pouring coffee into thermal mugs for both of us.  I don’t think he asked if I wanted any, or if I even liked the stuff.  Handing me one, he reminded, “It’s chilly.  You’ll want a coat.”

The sun was starting to pull itself up over the horizon as we left the house.  There certainly was a nip in the air, the cool damp of an autumn morning.  We walked in silence, heading towards the school.  Decorations were still up.  A few jack-o-lanterns had suffered the brutality of teenagers overnight, smashed to pulpy orange bits on the sidewalk.  One house had been TP’d, another egged, judging from the smell.  Pressed, I could probably name the culprits.  No longer cute enough to beg for candy, they resorted to the last privilege of childhood left to them: making a mess for someone else to clean up.

Upon arriving at our expected destination, we sat on a bench facing out across the school’s parking lot.  I knew why Dad liked this spot.  In a neighborhood dominated by oaks and beeches, a single maple tree stood across from the front door of the school.  Every fall, it would blaze a deep, satisfying red against all of the yellows and oranges around it.  Dad loved that tree.  As we sat quietly, he stared at the fallen leaves pooling on the ground.

I dreaded the questions.  Please Dad, don’t make me talk about her.  Don’t make me relive my humiliation.  Yell at me.  Ground me.  But please don’t make me talk.  I don’t want to cry in front of you.

“You know, it scares the shit out of us when you’re not home on time.”

At this, I finally looked up at him.  His gaze was still on the leaves.  I saw the circles under his eyes, his unshaved chin.  I don’t think he’d even brushed his hair yet.  He hadn’t slept any better than I had. 

And when did he start going gray around the temples?

When he lifted his gaze to me, it was my turn to stare at the leaves.  “Things happen to kids your age, son.  We worry.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Next time, give us a call so we’ll at least know you’re safe.  Okay?”


“And if something happens and you need a ride, call us.  We’ll come get you.  There’s no shame in wanting to get home in one piece.”

We both knew that’s not what had happened but I acquiesced with a nod.

Looking at each other was still too hard.  We sat, sipping our coffee, shivering from the occasional breeze, light spreading in pink streaks across the sky.

“ I know you had a rough night and I’m sorry.  I don’t need to know why.”  Then reluctantly, “unless you want to tell me.”  We both knew I didn’t.  I almost laughed.  Now he was embarrassed? “But next time, at least call.”

“Okay, Dad.  I’m sorry, too.”  I really meant it.  I didn’t always do such a great job of living up to that promise in the following years but that morning on the bench across from the maple tree, I definitely meant it.

It really was a spectacular tree.

Copyright 2013

I hope you will consider joining the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, my bloggers' book club.  Please sign on to the link list at the top right of my blog, where there is also a link to more details.

Once again, comments only please.

Star Trek: The Menagerie, Part I

Episode: "The Menagerie, Part I"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 11
Original Air Date: November 17, 1966
via Wikipedia

"The Menagerie" was the only two-part episode of Star Trek's original series.  Roddenberry created the episode as a cost- and time-saving measure.  Consistently falling behind in the production schedule, Roddenberry hatched a plan to throw together two episodes on the cheap while also recycling material from the original, unused pilot, "The Cage" (reflection here).  "The Menagerie" incorporates footage from "The Cage" in a new adventure.  However, this new story is a lot more than just a convenient contrivance.  It is one of two original series episodes to win the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.  As it is a two-parter, I will wait to comment on the narrative until I've watched the second half.  I will say that it is shaping up to be the first truly great Spock story.

via Wikipedia

Malachi Throne (Commodore Jose I. Mendez) was born December 1, 1928 in New York City.  A successful stage actor, most of his high-profile television work was in guest starring roles.  In addition to two different Trek series (original and The Next Generation), Thorne appeared in Batman, Lost in Space, Mission: Impossible and The Six Million Dollar Man among others.  An interesting twist for Thorne in this particular episode: he'd also been featured in "The Cage" as the voice of the Keeper.  For "The Menagerie," the voice was electronically altered so as not to match Mendez's.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Family Movie Night: The Lion King

Title: The Lion King
Directors: Rob Minkoff, Roger Allers
Original Release: 1994
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia

The Lion King is the highest-grossing hand-drawn animated film of all-time.  I did not know that until this weekend.  I suppose it's easy to understand.  The visuals are absolutely breathtaking.  Some of the artists traveled to Hell's Gate National Park in Kenya for research on the setting.  Our Girl chose this one because she watched part of it at her after-school program and wanted to see the rest.

The story, very loosely based on Shakespeare's Hamlet, is... okay. Simba is a lion cub, heir to his father Mufasa, king of the pride.  A jealous uncle, Scar, contrives to kill Mufasa and take the throne himself.  While Scar had hoped to knock off Simba at the same time, the cub survives and Scar convinces him to run away in fear of being blamed for his father's death.  Simba takes up with a meerkat and a warthog in a life of leisure and anonymity.  However, Nala, an old friend, finds him and brings him back to challenge Scar and claim the throne.

The film's score is composed by Hans Zimmer but the real musical star of the show is Elton John, who wrote the songs, lyrics by Tim Rice.  Confession: I love Elton John.  I know he's been much parodied over the years - by himself as much as by anyone else - but he and his lyricist Bernie Taupin certainly have to be considered one of the great song writing teams in the history of popular music.  The songs I like best I love for the lyrics so maybe it's Taupin I really like.  Still, no one on earth makes a simple chord change sound as impressive as Elton John does.  The Lion King songs are good but they rank far below the duo's best work from the '70s.  Here's my favorite, a song which expresses my own feelings about New York perfectly:

The movie's fun, though definitely better for kids than for adults.  When I asked how she liked it, Our Girl got that dreamy look in her eye.  I expect this one will come around again in the rotation.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: November Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, November 29th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

And please do sign on if you intend to participate.  In October, I stumbled upon two Coffeehouse posts I didn't even know about during my regular blogosphere wanderings.  For me, having the links all in one place makes the whole affair feel friendlier - you know, like a coffeehouse.  If you forget, I understand, but if the technology is giving you trouble, please let me know.  I'm happy to add your link for you.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: October 2013

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Marble Season
Writer and Artist: Gilbert Hernandez
via drawn and quarterly

Gilbert Hernandez is one of the biggest names in indie comics.  Brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez created the groundbreaking series Love and Rockets, first published in 1982 - groundbreaking in part because it focused on Latina characters and in part because it was initially self-published.  I have yet to explore that series but this more recent semi-autobiographical graphic novel has me convinced that I should.

Set in 1960s southern California, Marble Season chronicles the adventures of childhood.  Huey - the young Gilberto in fictional guise - is the second youngest in a large family.  No surprise, he likes comic books.  In fact, there's nothing particularly unusual about Huey's life - which is sort of the point.  Marble Season is an honest glimpse of what it is to be a kid.  He has friends, though not always the same ones.  Some move in to the neighborhood, then move away.  Others drift in and out, fueling particular interests, fulfilling certain needs.

The downside of youth is here, too.  There are full-blown bullies in the neighborhood along with the petty cruelties children everywhere inflict upon one another.  Huey and his brothers must be wary of sketchier friends. 

The biggest changes come as they all get older.  The neighborhood tomboy ditches her baseball bat and cap for a dress (though she's still far from demure).  The brothers all gradually take more interest in girls.

There is some clear Peanuts influence in Marble Season.  One never sees any adults, though it's clear they're important.  The afore mentioned tomboy has quite a lot of Lucy in her.  Hernandez was also a big fan of the Archie comics growing up and has always sought to bring a similar teenager sensibility to his work.

If you're keen for more bloghops, a couple of fun ones are coming up next week: Denise Covey's Write...Edit...Publish on Wednesday and Tony Laplume's Ode-Athon.  Go check them out!

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post November's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is November 29th.  In the United States, that's the day after Thanksgiving so it may well be a quieter month at the Coffeehouse.  On the other hand, a short vacation provides a chance to catch up on reading!


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Star Trek: The Corbomite Maneuver

Episode: "The Corbomite Maneuver"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 10
Original Air Date: November 10, 1966
via Memory Alpha

Since beginning this project, I've wondered what it is that works so well for this show.  Nearly half a century after the first aired episode, Star Trek remains a vital force in popular culture.  Trek was cancelled after only three seasons but is far better remembered than the more successful programs of its era.  The acting is stilted.  The stories are frequently hokey and formulaic.  And yet few programs in the history of American television have a legacy worth comparing.  I won't deny it.  I love it, too.  But why?!!!

Strength of characters?  Check.  Solid world (in this case, galaxy) building?  Certainly.  The same could be said for other shows.  What's so special about this one?  I think an episode like "The Corbomite Maneuver" offers a clue.

The Enterprise crew find themselves in a jam: they get on the wrong side of Balok, commander of an alien vessel who takes issue with the fact that our heroes destroyed his marker buoy.  Apparently, the offense is so severe that the Enterprise must be destroyed.  Testy!  Through cleverness, Captain Kirk & Co. wiggle their way out of harm, but leaving Balok's ship marooned, too far from the mother ship to even call for rescue.  And so, the inevitable dilemma: do our friends scamper off or stick around to help?

For Spock, the obvious, rational choice is get away while the gettin's good.  For Kirk, the higher purpose, "to seek out new life and new civilizations" takes precedent.  The risk of boarding a hostile ship is outweighed by their responsibility as galactic citizens.  A rescue party beams to Balok's ship and...

The writer (in this case, Jerry Sohl) completely drops the ball with the whole Clint Howard thing.  Oh well.

While set in the distant future, Star Trek is a product of its own era.  The mid-sixties were interesting times in American society.  The Civil Rights Act had passed.  The Vietnam War raged.  By 1966, the counterculture was getting noisier.  NASA was preparing to go to the Moon.  The message from Gene Roddenberry and his disciples was an important one: if we're serious about space exploration, we'd darn well better get our own act together first.  Mind you, Roddenberry was no hippy.  As an ex-cop and decorated war vet, he was well acquainted with the world's darker side.  His galactic future for humankind was predicated on moral advancement as well as technological.  Yes, we were going to venture to the stars.  We were also going to be better people once we got there.

That, I believe, is why Star Trek works.  It's certainly a big part of why it works for me.

via Memory Alpha

Matt Jefferies (art director) was born Walter Matthew Jefferies on August 12, 1921 in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.  He served in the Second World War as a bomber pilot, just part of a lifelong love affair with aviation.  Jefferies designed both the interior and exterior of the Enterprise, along with numerous other props and sets.  He served as art director for several other iconic television shows, including Mission: Impossible, Little House on the Prairie and Dallas.  Jefferies died July 21, 2003 of congestive heart failure.

via Trek Core

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Family Movie Night: Fiddler on the Roof

Title: Fiddler on the Roof
Director: Norman Jewison
Original Release: 1971
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia

All of us seem to be getting in on the movie musical game these days.  However, anyone who has seen Fiddler knows that it's a lot more than just a showcase for catchy ditties.  The story itself is a simple one. Tevye, a Jewish dairyman in Tsarist Russia, shares his life troubles, primarily the marrying off of his five daughters when he and his wife cannot afford much of a dowry for any of them.  Meanwhile, the world around their small village of Anatevka is closing in around them, challenging the very foundations of their way of life - a sad truth which repeats itself eternally through human history.

Regular visitors to The Squid may have caught on to the fact that I'm very picky when it comes to musicals. I tend to put them into two categories: those which have strong music and those which have a strong story.  My Fair Lady would fit in the former category, Singin' in the Rain the latter.  There's  only one I feel is equally strong in both: West Side Story, the best of the best.  The power of Fiddler is the story.  I like the music well enough, especially the songs which are most faithful to the Eastern European Jewish tradition.  But Fiddler is the movie that it is for the story.  One cannot watch without falling in love with Tevye, his family and his community.  The injustices committed against them are felt by us all.  From the perspective of history, we all know life is only going to get a lot worse for the Jews in the Ukraine.  The end of the movie is entirely predictable and thoroughly heartbreaking.

This was a new portion of world history for our daughter.  Halfway through the movie, we took a break for dinner preparation and I brought her over to our world map to explain about the Jewish diaspora and the pogroms in Russia.  I think she got the general idea, at least enough to understand what was happening for the rest of the film.  She says she enjoyed the movie.  This one might be interesting to revisit in a few years after she learns more about the history.

It's a heavy story, but there's plenty of light, too.  My favorite scene:

The bottle dance is pretty awesome, too:

Saturday, October 19, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Palestine

Title: Palestine: A Nation Occupied
Writer and Artist: Joe Sacco
via Amazon
I have a few guiding principles when it comes to blogging, rules for maintaining The Armchair Squid as a friendly venue for the exchange of all ideas - my own and those of any who might grace my posts with comment.  One of the most important principles is avoiding politics and religion as much as humanly possible.  Don't get me wrong.  I believe strongly in the rights of all people to voice their opinions on both matters with great pride and volume.  But in the interest of maintaining my own friendly ties within the blogosphere, I do what I can to avoid such discussions in this medium.

But here's the problem: exploring any artistic medium, or really any function of culture, with sufficient breadth and depth leads to inevitable confrontation with both religion and politics.  As much as we might wish to believe that we are above the fray, much of who we are within the global community is defined by those two considerations.  Art can be beautiful and transporting but at times, it must also be topical and revealing.

Joe Sacco is an unusual figure within the comics industry.  He is a journalist first, a comic artist second.  For over two decades now, he has traveled to the world's war-torn regions - Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya - and filed his reports in comic book form.  Palestine is one of his best known works, a nine-issue series of material compiled from interviews in both the West Bank and Gaza from December 1991 to January 1992.  A Nation Occupied collects the West Bank portion of the story, issues #1-6.  Sacco presents a ground-level view of the hardships endured by ordinary Palestinians during the Intifada of the late '80s and early '90s.  The perspective is predictably biased.  Even so, reading such a book leaves one planning donations to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Sacco's artwork is richly detailed, down to individual bricks in the cobblestone.  People, including the artist himself, are generally rendered in a more satirical fashion than are their surroundings.  The visual imagery provides a more textured world than might have been possible through text alone.

I don't want to delve too far into my own feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I grew up in a community with a large and prominent Jewish population.  Israel was a front burner issue.  There was also a smaller Arab contingent at my high school who were not shy about sharing their opinions.  Full disclosure, I'm also married to an Arab-American.  In short, I've had plenty of exposure to both sides of the matter and my own position is long-considered and well-developed.  It's virtually impossible to be a global citizen in the 21st century without awareness of the conflict.  Nothing in Sacco's book came as a startling revelation.  People at war do horrible things to one another and it's hard not to feel sympathy for those in the weakest position.  That's not politics.  It's compassion.  I'd hope we can all agree that the world could use a lot more of that.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Bone

Title: Bone, Volumes 1-3
Writer and Artist: Jeff Smith
via Thrash Lab

I would imagine that just about anyone who works in an American elementary school is aware of the Bone books - seemingly required on classroom bookshelves.  During standardized testing week (groan...), I occasionally find myself proctoring for a bit while the classroom teacher takes his/her prep period or steps out for a bathroom break.  After the kids finish the test, they're allowed to read and the Bone series is the go-to for many of them, especially the boys.  I never gave a thought to reading them myself until I learned more about their stature within the broader comic book world.  While children are certainly the target audience, I discovered more and more adult readers (including my blogger friend Andrew Leon) who have read and enjoyed them.  So, we got Volume 1 for Our Girl for her birthday.  I figured if she liked it, I'd give it a try, too.
via Goodreads

She definitely liked it, buying the next two books herself not long afterward.  I, however, was not initially convinced.  The first volume (Out from Boneville) is good, mind you, but it didn't do quite enough to hook me.  The next two (The Great Cow Race and Eyes of the Storm) sold me.
via Goodreads

The story so far:  the Bone cousins - Fone, Phoney and Smiley - are driven out of Boneville when one of Phoney's schemes goes wrong.  After they are separated by a storm of locusts, the story follows Bone, the most personable of the three.  He meets and falls in love with Thorn, a human girl.  He essentially moves in with Thorn and her grandmother.  Eventually the cousins are reunited, each having experienced adventures soon to be intertwined.  Meanwhile, a dragon seems to be protecting Fone, though the reason why is as yet unclear.

There's more, of course, but them's the basics.  The first book doesn't get far beyond the basic story of the Bone cousins but the next two delve into the broader context of the dragons, the rat creatures who are essentially hunting the Bones, and Thorn and her grandmother's connection to all of the above.  The strength of the story is the mix of lighter, comic elements with the dark realities challenging the characters.  I'm invested now and definitely up for more.

Star Trek: Dagger of the Mind

Episode: "Dagger of the Mind"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 9
Original Air Date: November 3, 1966
via Memory Alpha
The Enterprise makes a supply run to Tantalus V, a penal colony for the criminally insane.  An apparent inmate escapes the colony by getting himself transported aboard the ship, hidden inside a box.  In time, we learn that the escapee, Simon van Gelder, was actually a doctor at the colony, his madness the result of a treatment experiment gone wrong.  Captain Kirk transports to the surface with ship psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Noel, to investigate.

Dr. Tristan Adams, the highly regarded psychiatrist who directs Tantalus V, seems charming enough, welcoming Kirk and Noel warmly.  He introduces them to the neural neutralizer, a booth where a subject is bombarded by a hypnotizing beam.  Adams had van Gelder had tested the device on himself and the staff before subjecting the patients to it, explaining the vacant expressions of staff members.  Predictably, Kirk has to try for himself, sneaking into the booth with Noel at the controls.  Adams discovers this unauthorized experiment, subdues Noel, takes over Kirk's brainwashing, and the real trouble begins.

Trek culture note:
via Memory Alpha
  • "Dagger of the Mind" marks the first appearance of the Vulcan mind meld, a form of targeted telepathy, used by Spock in this instance to discover what really happened to van Gelder on Tantalus V.
"Theme from Star Trek," the piece played for both opening and closing credits of The Original Series, was composed by Alexander Courage (1919-2008).  Courage claimed Richard Whiting's "Beyond the Blue Horizon" as his initial inspiration of the piece.  Mahler and Bruckner influences are both prominent as well.  In an underhanded move, producer Gene Roddenberry wrote lyrics to the theme without Courage's knowledge with the intention of being able to claim half of the royalties.

The theme:

The story, in Courage's own words:

Courage was born in Philadelphia and went to conservatory at the Eastman School in Rochester, New York.  Beyond Trek, most of his high-profile work was as orchestrator for better-known film score composers like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith.  Courage won an Emmy in 1988 as musical director of Julie Andrews: The Sound of Christmas.

via Film Music Magazine

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Family Movie Night: Singin' in the Rain

Title: Singin' in the Rain
Directors: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Original Release: 1952
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia

If we have a favorite Family Movie Night movie, it is most certainly Singin' in the Rain.  It is the movie that has been picked most often and has been chosen by each of us at least once.  Yes, I keep stats.

Singin' in the Rain is a movie for people who love movies.  It is the fictionalized account of one of the industry's great transitions: the emergence of "talkies," motion pictures synchronized with sound.  Don Lockwood (played by Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are the silent film stars.  Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) is the ingenue who catches Don's eye and Lina's ire.  Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) is Don's goofy sidekick.  Many of the characters are based on real-life actors who struggled to survive in the new landscape brought on by the advent of sound.

My own feelings about the film are the reverse of my feelings for last week's feature.  In this case, I feel the story is stronger than the music.  The songs are catchy but, in the grand tradition of show tunes, a little too catchy.  The witty dialogue sparkles and the acting is delightful, especially from Hagen and the show-stealing O'Connor:


The real treat of Singin' in the Rain, however, is the dancing.  Obviously, no less than genius should be expected from Kelly in that regard but O'Connor matches him step for step.  Keeping up was a much taller order for Debbie Reynolds.  Apparently, Kelly was horrible to her regarding the dance numbers.  Reynolds, however, had an unexpected savior.  Fred Astaire found her crying under a piano in the studio one day and offered to help.

The central plot involves Kathy dubbing Lina's voice in the new talkies.  In a cruel twist, Singin' in the Rain was also dubbed.  When Kathy dubs Lina, Jean Hagen's natural voice is used instead, for both singing and speaking.  When Kathy sings as herself, she is usually dubbed by the uncredited Betty Noyes.  Debbie Reynolds's natural singing voice is only heard in her one sung line of "You Are My Lucky Star."

After the movie ended, Our Girl asked if there were more Gene Kelly movies.  We reminded her that she's actually seen a couple of them: An American in Paris and The Three Musketeers.  Given her interest, I expect I will be featuring more of his work over the coming months.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Marvel Star Wars, Vol. 4

Title: Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago...., Volume 4
via Wookieepedia

As part of its Omnibus series, Dark Horse Comics has collected comic books from Star Wars's days with Marvel back in the 1970s and '80s.  Volume 4 compiles issues #68-85, Annual #3 and Return of the Jedi #1-4.  My reflections on the first three volumes can be found here, here and here.

I felt the strongest part of this collection was the comic adaptation of Jedi - quite a pleasant surprise, actually.  To me, Return of the Jedi (ROTJ), classic that it is, was the weakest of the original trilogy.  However, I'd say the comic adaptation is actually the best of the three.  For the first time, the adaptation was a separate series from the main Marvel run.  I expect timing was key to the success.  The ROTJ comics were released a full five months after the actual movie, plenty of time for the creators to have seen the film themselves.  As such, the ROTJ adaptation is a more faithful rendering of the original than had been possible with the previous two movies.  The artwork (Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon) is especially impressive.  Certain elements of the story, like Leia's initial encounter with Wicket, are glossed over in the comics, undoubtedly with the safe assumption that most readers had already seen the movie.  Even with the changes, the heart of the story is well-preserved.

Volume 4 only includes five issues with stories set after the events in ROTJ, a time period untouched by the movies until 2015.  As discussed in previous posts, the Marvel comics are low canon in the Expanded Star Wars Universe, lower than the more extensive Dark Horse Comics and many of the fan fiction novels.  As such, the Marvel version of life after Jedi isn't likely to be given much consideration in the sequel trilogy.  Even so, it's fun to watch our friends struggle to build a new republic and otherwise sort out their post-Rebellion lives.  Several missions are made to establish diplomatic ties with old friends in an effort to build a new government.  Both Han and Lando pursue balance between their old scoundrel selves and their new respectable reputations.
via Wookieepedia

My favorite new character from the collection is LE-914, a manifest droid who belonged to Rebel Tay Vanis.  I like her partly because she is obviously intended to be female, unusual in the Star Wars universe.  Her story, featured in issue #80, is also a surprisingly touching tale of devotion to Vanis.
via Wookieepedia

I have only one more Omnibus volume to go for the old Marvels.  My curiosity in the post-ROTJ story is holding firm so far, even knowing much of it's been contradicted by higher canon material since.  I look forward to reading the last 22 Marvel issues.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Star Trek: Miri

Episode: "Miri"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 8
Original Air Date: October 27, 1966
via Memory Alpha
As mentioned previously in this series, I feel that the Star Trek franchise does not handle stories about children particularly well. Wil Wheaton's Wesley Crusher character in The Next Generation, in particular, has been much maligned over the years and I'll admit upfront that he's not my favorite either.  But here's the thing: I don't think it's Wheaton's fault.  For starters, I'll always love Wil Wheaton because he was Gordie in Stand By Me but I also know that even the world's greatest actor can't save a poorly written script.  Don't believe me?  Have you ever seen Family Business?  Shudder...

While the children in "Miri" tend in the opposite direction from goodie two-shoes Wesley, I still feel it is one of the weaker episodes I've watched in my current exploration.  When the Enterprise crew respond to a distress call on a planet with a strong resemblance to Earth, they find the only surviving inhabitants appear to be children.  Turns out, the children contract an infection which kills them once they reach puberty.

Miri is the lead character among the children, an older girl clearly not too far from puberty herself.  Miri takes a shine to Captain Kirk, of course, which leads to all kinds of trouble.  The rest of the children are highly suspicious of the visitors as they are of all "grups" (grown-ups) and work to undermine efforts to cure the disease.

The best among the child actors is Michael J. Pollard (27 at the time, though - not exactly a kid), who plays the gang leader Jahn.  Generally, though, the performances are unconvincing.  So perhaps the real problem is in casting capable children?  I'm not sure - just doesn't work for me.
via Memory Alpha
Grace Lee Whitney (Yeoman Janice Rand) was born Mary Ann Chase on April 1, 1930 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She got her start in show biz as a singer, eventually opening for Billie Holiday and Buddy Rich in Chicago nightclubs.  Before Trek, she had a successful stage career, starring in the national tour of The Threepenny Opera, among other roles.  On the big screen, she had a small speaking role in 1959's Some Like It Hot.

In the beginning, Yeoman Rand was one of three female characters intended as regulars in the original Star Trek series.  By the middle of the first season, Rand was squeezed out and Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett, also creator Gene Roddenberry's fiancee) was greatly diminished, leaving only Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in the central cast.  In her autobiography, Whitney reported being sexually assaulted by a show executive during her stint with Star Trek, though she refused to name him.

On a lighter note, several of the children appearing in "Miri" were the offspring of cast and crew, including Whitney's two sons.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Family Movie Night: My Fair Lady

Title: My Fair Lady
Director: George Cukor
Original Release: 1964
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia

This, my friends, is the power of Pandora.  Our daughter has two stations of her own on my Pandora account and one of her seeds is "Singin' in the Rain" as sung by Tony Martin.   The song has introduced her to the broader world of show tunes.  This movie choice was influenced almost entirely by the songs from her station.  I'm certain it won't be the last.

Another factor may have played in the decision.  My Fair Lady has been a favorite in my family for four generations now.  My Sister was first introduced by our maternal grandmother during a visit.  Once she got back home, she dug up the Broadway cast LP from my parents' record collection and we started listening all the time.  It was several more years before I saw the film, by which time I already knew most of the songs by heart.

One tune in particular has played a significant role in my life.  "On the Street Where You Live" is one of the greatest tenor showstoppers in the entire repertoire.  When I moved to New York City in my mid 20s, the song was one of my audition pieces for choirs and voice teachers.  I also once serenaded My Wife with it on the streets of NYC early in our courtship.  It's one of my father's favorites, too.  He is also tenor.

Over the past year or so, I've given voice lessons as part of a barter arrangement.  A woman in our community gives Our Girl piano lessons in exchange for vocal training for her husband.  Often the lessons are back-to-back so my daughter gets to listen.  "On the Street Where You Live" is one of the songs I taught him so she's also heard me sing it and knows how I feel about it.

The film version of My Fair Lady was enormously successful, though not without controversy.  The movie was a box office smash and took home eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  But the Broadway devotees were furious over the casting of Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle.  On stage, Julie Andrews had sky rocketed to stardom in the role.  The film producers didn't think she was a big enough name to carry the film.  Hard to imagine now, right?  Well, she certainly got the last laugh - story here.

A similar mistake was nearly made with the Henry Higgins role, too.  Among several others, Cary Grant was offered the role.  His response was blunt: no, and if Rex Harrison weren't cast, he wouldn't even bother to go see the movie.

Rex Harrison was, indeed, cast in the role he'd made famous on stage - won an Oscar, too.  Stanley Holloway also performed his role on both stage and screen, that of Eliza's father Alfred.  They are both so ideally suited to the roles that one wonders in hindsight why Warner Brothers didn't just sign the entire Broadway cast en masse.

Judged on the music alone, My Fair Lady may be my favorite musical of all - well worthy of a 5.  But to me, the story itself is less engaging and also a bit too long.  I once saw a stage performance of Pygmalion, the George Bernard Shaw play upon which My Fair Lady is based.  The side characters are better developed in the original, especially Freddy, the love interest.  Also, Eliza leaves Henry for good in the play - a far more satisfying ending.  Our Girl loved the movie, even considered the ending a happy one.  We did tell her that if she should ever find herself in a similar situation, stick with Freddy.

Hepburn is a great Eliza, even if they did dub most of the singing (take another bow, Marni Nixon).  The Julie Andrews hubbub was hardly her fault.  Apart from being a charming actress, she's a costume designer's dream come true.  If you love hats, in particular, this may be the greatest movie ever made.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Star Trek: What Are Little Girls Made Of?

Episode: "What Are Little Girls Made Of?"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 7
Original Air Date: October 20, 1966
via Memory Alpha

The early Star Trek writers were especially fond of stories with duplicate Kirks.  For the second time in three aired episodes, we get a bonus Shatner, this time by virtue of a robotics/cloning project.  In "What Are Little Girls Made Of?", the Entreprise crew travels to Exo III in search of exobiologist Roger Korby.  For garnish, Korby is also the fiancĂ© of Nurse Christine Chapel.  Turns out, Korby's been building robots, key to his shady plan for galactic conquest.  Two of his androids are in the photo above: Ruk (Ted Cassidy - Lurch of The Addams Family) and Andrea (Sherry Jackson).  Korby actually inherited Ruk from the planet's former inhabitants, referred to simply as "The Old Ones." Andrea is a Korby creation.
via Memory Alpha

With a centrifuge contraption, Korby creates the aforementioned Kirk copy.  The new entity even maintains memories along with the physical replications.  The double is good enough to fool Chapel at the dinner table but the real Kirk cleverly plants a clue in the android to tip off Spock when the fake is beamed back to the ship.
via Wikipedia

Gene Roddenberry (series creator) was born on August 19, 1921 in El Paso, Texas.  During the Second World War, Roddenberry served in the Army Air Force, flying combat missions in the Pacific Theater.  After the war, he worked first in commercial aviation, then for the Los Angeles Police Department.

While working for the police, Roddenberry started writing scripts for various television series.  After several other failed ideas, he created and produced the series The Lieutenant, which aired for a single season.  He first conceived of Star Trek as a combination of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, plugging it as "Wagon Train to the Stars."  The series was picked up by Lucille Ball's Desilu Studios, then pitched to NBC.