Wednesday, April 22, 2020

An ode to Dazed and Confused, and days gone by

When cars were cars... 

Whoo-man, I just watched Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) last night, and experienced an intense bout of euphoria, nostalgia, and escape from present circumstances. What a great film—a film about kids doing nothing, but nevertheless manages to be about something very important. It captures the ethos of the 70s, but more than that, it captures the spirit of being a teenager on the cusp of responsibility, but not yet—critically, not yet, and with their senior year still to come can still revel the pleasures of companionship in aimlessness, the joy of a summer night with a cold beer.

There is no politics in this film—thank you Richard Linklater. No heavy-handed moral message or sermonizing. There is the quarterback whose coaches are pressuring him to sign a behavioral pledge, essentially asking him to sacrifice a piece of himself to the team. The kid refuses—it seems he will still play his senior year, but he’ll do it for himself, and his friends, and their bond, and not the dictates of the coach and what he stands for—conformity, sober, serious, responsible adulthood. Which now that I’ve experienced two+ decades of it, isn’t always a noble goal or the best of all aims. We exchange paychecks and respectable homes and careers for servitude and mortgages and loans. We lose our ability to be in the moment like these kids are, as our life becomes a series of worries about promotions, our boss, raising our children and their struggles, watching parents age.

There is something in Dazed and Confused that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s a vibe, it’s a feeling of being in the present in a warm night in Austin, Texas, with a trunk of cold beer. There is a lot of beer in this film, and lots of weed. I was never a weed guy but man did I enjoy (and still enjoy) beer. Kids ordering kegs of beer. Underage kids buying beer in liquor stores. Kids pulling up in cars with trunks full of beer, going to baseball games with open beers. Beer is the tool that completes the passage into liberation.

I can’t ever return to those days. But I can revisit the emotional reality of those days. Dazed and Confused can get me there in a heartbeat, as soon as “Sweet Emotion” and that orange 1970 Pontiac GTO makes that slow roll into the parking lot (damn, cars were SO MUCH BETTER back then—that’s not even debatable). I didn’t have quite the same experiences as these kids, but I had many that were very close—out of control parties when my parents went on vacation, buying beer underage, ramming trash barrels with my car, playing football, ogling girls. What I did share exactly in common was the joy of just driving around doing nothing with my friends. Popping a cassette tape in the stereo and hitting the streets and feeling like anything was possible. Parking in some secluded area and rocking out into the night, windows rolled down, cigarette smoke. I did all that, and it’s a part of my life that I look back on with incredible fondness. And I’m grateful that Dazed and Confused can still get me there, instantly and effortlessly there, in its 102 minute run time.

"That's what I like about them high school
 girls"... McConaughey's finest role.
I remember, vividly, when getting concert tickets to my favorite bands—KISS, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, RUSH—was the most important “job” of my summer. And so for me the end of the film, with the kids grinning ear-to-ear, laughing, enjoying each other’s company, as they roll down the highway to “Slow Ride” (the ride is the destination—don’t you see?) with the hugely important task of scoring Aerosmith tickets, and summer just beginning, is impeccably well-done. And a perfect note to end on—anticipatory, but also reveling in the now. The ride will continue, that slow ride with nowhere important to go.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Back to the basement: COVID-19 and my home gym revolution

I love my Rogue R-3.

COVID-19 was the final push I needed to invest in a home gym, and now that I’ve got a taste of working out in the basement I can safely say I’ll never set foot in a commercial gym again.

I’ve been working out with weights for more than 30 years, going back to my high school days when my freshman football coach handed us an offseason workout plan. God knows I could have used it prior, when I was an untrained, un-athletic, 14-year-old lineman taking his lumps. By the time my sophomore year rolled around the allure of iron had gotten its hooks in me. I realized I could get bigger and stronger through my own efforts, and powerful at an age when many kids feel powerless. Working out and watching my bench press go up and my biceps get bigger I felt a little like a sword-and-sorcery hero from my favorite comics and books.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Some notes on Tarnsman of Gor, Outlaw of Gor

A yoked Tarl Cabot beneath the
haughty gaze of Lara, Tatrix of
Tharna. Bondage! 

Daring admission: I am reading John Norman’s controversial Gor series and so far have enjoyed it, un-ironically. Tarnsman of Gor and Outlaw of Gor are entertaining sword-and-planet, with the latter ending on a cliff-hanger that has hooked me enough to want to seek out the third in the series, Priest-Kings of Gor.

Hold the pitchforks and torches for just a moment as I explain why.

Yes, they are a 100% unrepentant pastiche of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. Tarnsman of Gor is a shameless clone of A Princess of Mars. You’ve got your strange interplanetary journey of the main character, Tarl Cabot, an excellent swordsman and general bad-ass back on earth. Tarl falls in love with a beautiful woman, saves the day, and at the end is sent back to a drab earth, left to pine for his love beyond the sun and dreaming of his eventual return.

The Gor series is of course more than little controversial. There are hints of the infamous S&M/dominance narrative creeping in after two books, and a few elements “problematic” for a 21st century audience. Female slaves submit to men, and lose their autonomy, in a ritual that includes kneeling and placing their crossed wrists over their head. In general women in the Gor universe seem to spend an in ordinate amount of time cuffed, in chains, or asking to be whipped. Without question there is a weird undercurrent of what a healthy male/female relationship should look like, but in these early books it’s not so pronounced, and can be written off to Norman’s attempt at creating a unique, alien culture. There is no explicit sex, nothing (beyond ample violence, though this is largely stylized) to even warrant an “R” rating. From what I understand the series eventually goes entirely off the rails with S&M overwhelming the plot. But through two books at least these elements are (mostly) downplayed.

Is there better sword-and-planet to read? Absolutely. LeighBrackett is probably the best example of this sort of fiction, and of course you should go straight to the source and re-read Burroughs. Seek out Otis Adelbert Kline’s S&P, or Adrian Cole’s The Dream Lords Trilogy, for more examples. But honestly, the first two Gor novels are solid entertainment. Two books in and I find them to be entertaining, well-paced, with plenty of plot-twists and cliff hangers. Gor possesses an interesting alien culture. And Norman is a good writer. His style lacks a little of the Burroughsian/Howardian narrative drive, but it does the job, and in places is elevated, even inspiring.

If this makes me an awful person or just someone with unbelievably bad taste, so be it. I also think 80s metal is the pinnacle of music, so consider that in your evaluation.

Friday, April 3, 2020

1917 film review

Hell on Earth (but well done Hell).
1917 had been in my “to watch” queue for a long time (aka, floating around in the back of my mind), and last night I watched it with my older daughter, a self-described “film buff” who wanted to see what the hype was all about.

Two word review: Excellent film. It’s an intensely personal/soldier’s journey type of story, and also manages to convey the larger tragedy of the Great War. Outstanding costumes and set pieces, and deserving of its Academy Award for Best Cinematography. 1917 captures the enormous complexity/rat maze of the trenches in the latter stages of the war. It effectively juxtaposes the beautiful and relatively undisturbed green countryside of France existing behind the lines with the grotesque nightmare of no man’s land—massive shell holes collecting unimaginably polluted yellow water, ringed with corpses in various stages of decay, skulls and upthrust hands and filth. A little bit of Mordor.

Speaking of JRRT, a scene in which a young soldier (played by George MacKay) stumbles out of a corpse strewn river, on the verge of breaking, but is revived by the sound of Elf-like singing in the nearby woods, seems to me a bit of an homage to the professor.

It’s an engaging journey wrapped up in under two hours and I think it makes a great companion piece with Peter Jackson’s colorized documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (2018).

War films and the great stories build up a reserve of perspective on current situations. COVID-19 is scary. I’m worried about two parents in their 70s, one with a host of chronic illnesses including COPD, and my daughter who is still working part-time in a 62+ retirement community and putting herself at an elevated level of risk.

But when you think about men going over the top at the sound of the shrill brass whistle, with nothing but a cloth uniform between them and a machine gun bullet or shrapnel, present events are put into perspective.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

More Flame and Crimson reviews, Victory or Valhalla!

For those that might not know him, David C. Smith is the author of several works of sword-and-sorcery from "back in the day," perhaps most notably Oron (1978) and its spinoffs, The Sorcerer's Shadow (1978), and a series of Red Sonja novels in collaboration with Richard Tierney. More recently he wrote Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography (2018).

Needless to say I was so happy to find that David offered a very complimentary, well-written review of Flame and Crimson for the Black Gate website. Check it out here. David seemed to get a lot in particular out of the last chapter, "Why sword-and-sorcery." I put a lot of my heart and opinion into that chapter, more so than the rest of the book. I do agree with him that the book absolutely needs an index. I'll work on that for a future edition.

In David's piece was a link to the website of George Kelley, Friday's Forgotten Books, which also has a very kind review of F&C. Some interesting comments were generated from his review as well.

Finally, I also stumbled across a third review on Don Herron's personal website Up and Down These Mean Streets. Rediscovered: In the Annals of Sword-and-Sorcery is a review by guest contributor Brian Leno. Leno found that the book started slow for him and covered too much familiar ground (Leno is a longtime Howard-head, Howard essayist/critic, and sword-and-sorcery aficionado with multiple publishing credits). But he added that the book closed well for him in the latter chapters, a few editing gaffes aside, and made him want to read more.

I'm very happy with these reviews. Flame and Crimson is not a perfect book, as its my first, but I'm glad readers are finding a lot of value in it, are entertained by it, and are rethinking and revisiting their conceptions of sword-and-sorcery.

Finally, I wrote a lengthy review of the H. Rider Haggard classic The Wanderer's Necklace for DMR Blog. This one is highly recommended, and further evidence of the influence of Viking mythology/history on sword-and-sorcery. Haggard's oft-repeated Viking war cry of "Victory or Valhalla!" is apropos for the great struggle which we all find ourselves in the moment.

Kick some ass by staying home, and stay well.