The Watchmen Bestiary 2: There’s a Ship…

[Note: As will be customary for this series, Watchmen spoilers ahoy.]

Continuing my journey through the Annotated Watchmen v2.0, the notes for page 4 of issue 1 addresses the frequently-recurring comic within the series, Tales Of The Black Freighter. Here’s what the annotations have to say:

“The Black Freighter” is the name of a song in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s opera The Threepenny Opera. It is sung by a woman who tells of a black freighter that comes into town in order to kill everyone in town but her.

Well, no, not really. As I found out when I rented the 1931 movie version of Threepenny Opera, there is no song called “The Black Freighter.” And by the way, despite its name, The Threepenny Opera is not an opera. It’s a musical.

In any case, there is a song in the show called “Pirate Jenny”, which seems as though it might fit the rest of the description. Funny thing, though: I listened to that song in the movie, and it never mentions a black freighter at all. Now, granted, it was in German, but the captions seemed pretty clear. Jenny sings “Und ein schiff mit acht segeln”, which the captions translate as “And a ship with eight sails.” It’s no black freighter, or at least the lyrics never say so.

A fascinating thing about the Criterion version of the movie is that its second disc provides an entirely different version of the same film. In what was apparently not an uncommon practice at the time, director G.W. Pabst shot two Threepenny Opera films at once. Right alongside the German movie is another one in French, with different actors using the same costumes and sets, as well as a few plot details changed. Knowing this, I thought perhaps that it was the French version which mentions the black freighter, but no. The French lyrics are captioned something like, “There’s a ship at full sail.”

At this point, I felt pretty sure that “Pirate Jenny” was the song to which the annotations refer. But where does this black freighter come from? I didn’t think the annotaters would have just invented the connection from whole cloth. So I dug a bit more, and unearthed Nina Simone’s version of “Pirate Jenny.”

Holy. Crap. My friends, I believe we’ve found our black freighter. Not only that, we’ve found an astonishingly powerful rendition of “Pirate Jenny,” one that sheds a clear light on parts of Watchmen. Upon rereading the book, I found it a little bit odd that “pirates” was the genre that replaced “superheroes” in the comics of the Watchmen world — don’t they really serve entirely different emotional purposes? But the black freighter of Simone’s “Pirate Jenny” is just as visceral a power fantasy as any issue of Wolverine, albeit rather darker. Its pirates exact revenge on the narrator’s oppressors in ways that the Comics Code Authority might never approve, but any bullied kid certainly would.

It also seems no accident that the freighter is black. The racial subtext in Simone’s rendition is clear — so clear really that it’s a stretch to call it “subtext” — but it wasn’t her who injected the black freighter into the lyrics. That was the work of Marc Blitzstein in his 1954 Off-Broadway adaptation of the show — the same translation which launched many a successful cover of “Mack The Knife.” So the freighter’s blackness preceded Simone’s apocalyptic invocation of black revolution — in fact, it was Lotte Lenya who sang the role of Jenny in the 1954 production… just as she had in the 1931 movie. Its blackness, then, is just the blackness of doom, which the narrator anticipates eagerly.

In Watchmen, the freighter also symbolizes not revolution but doom, albeit the doom that the so-called “world’s smartest man” imagines to be a revolution. Ozymandias, like Jenny, envisions his triumph atop piles of corpses, but unlike her, he cloaks his bloodthirsty dream in images of final peace and harmony. He seems genuinely surprised when Jon reminds him of the obvious: there is no “final” peace. Nothing ever ends.

Next Entry: The Old New Comics
Previous Entry: The Black And White Panther

The Watchmen Bestiary 1: The Black And White Panther

[NOTE: This post contains spoilers for the Watchmen graphic novel, and I’m assuming readers are familiar with its plot and characters.]

Remember a few years ago, when I said that I wanted to reread Watchmen, but this time with the Annotated Watchmen alongside? Well, the time has come at last. As expected, it’s producing a much more satisfying reading experience — even just rereading the graphic novel with an eye towards structure and symbolism is deeply rewarding, as opposed to the first time, when I was just reading for the plot. Now the project is spawning a few sub-projects of its own.

I thought it would be fun to pursue the references embedded in the annotations, so as to get a richer understanding of Watchmen‘s various layers of allusion. Here was the first one I saw, in reference to The Comedian’s secret(ish) identity as Edward Blake:

“Edward Blake is obviously a reference to Blake Edwards, the director of the Pink Panther comedies. And, no one’s spotted this, Rorschach’s methods of terrorism are all taken from Pink Panther movies.”

Are they, now? Are they really? Very well, I believe I’ll watch the Pink Panther movies. (That means the Sellers/Edwards Pink Panther movies, mind you. I’m sure Alan Moore wouldn’t want me to have to plow through Alan Arkin, Ted Wass, Roberto Benigni, Steve Martin[who I love, but come on — those are paycheck movies for him], or the truly execrable Trail of The Pink Panther, about which more later.)

Verdict: There’s something valid in the comment, but it’s quite overstated. I’ll buy that Edward Blake refers to Blake Edwards. And there are definitely some parallels between Rorschach’s behavior and one of the movies, The Return Of The Pink Panther. For instance, in the film, retired jewel thief Sir Charles Litton, aka “The Phantom” (played here by Christopher Plummer, taking over the David Niven role from the first movie) investigates a crime for which he’s being framed. In doing so, he pushes around a stoolie, abusing the man’s fingers just as Rorschach does to a low-level underworld type in chapter 1 of Watchmen. Well, not exactly “just as” — Litton’s victim is played for laughs as his hands are squeezed, whereas Rorschach’s target is clearly in agony as his bones snap. But still, the finger torture analogue is there.

There’s an even more blatant connection, though. In Return Of The Pink Panther, Edwards revists the running gag from the previous Inspector Clouseau movie (A Shot In The Dark), in which Clouseau has instructed his manservant Cato to attack him by surprise at any time, so as to keep the Inspector’s battle skills sharp. In Shot, Cato attacks Clouseau in the bedroom and in the bathtub, but in Return he steps up his game by leaping at Clouseau out of the freezer:

Cato leaping at Clouseau out of the freezer in Return Of The Pink Panther

In chapter 3 of Watchmen, Moloch encounters a similarly unpleasant surprise:

Watchmen Chapter 2, page 20, panel 7: Rorschach leaps out of Moloch's fridge, slamming into Moloch.

So yeah, there are definitely parallels, and the “Edward Blake” thing seems like a clear enough reference that the parallels are unlikely to be coincidental. However, that’s about as far as it goes. You don’t see Cato following up on his freezer trick by leaving a “Behind you” note next time around. The Phantom doesn’t shoot anybody in the chest with a grappling hook gun. And Clouseau sure as hell never burns somebody with cooking fat or kills dogs with a cleaver, even if they bite.

Isn’t it odd, too, that while Edward Blake is supposedly The Comedian, it’s Rorschach who gets all the best gags? I mentioned in my last writeup that The Comedian is never funny, but what I didn’t notice is that Rorschach often is. And by “often”, I mean “seldom”, but a lot more often than most of the other characters. It’s Rorschach who actually tells a joke (albeit in his diary — the Pagliacci joke at the end of chapter 2.) He delivers many of his lines with bone-dry irony and sometimes even biting wit. (“Tall order.”) And he provides the biggest laugh in the book — indirectly, admittedly — by dropping Captain Carnage down an elevator shaft, a rather Clouseauesque fate for a villain to meet. His moral simplicity, along with his talent for verbal understatement and physical overstatement, make him the funniest character in Watchmen.

As for the Pink Panther movies themselves, well. One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, to this day, is The Trail Of The Pink Panther. I didn’t actually walk out of the theater, but considering I was twelve years old when I saw it, I think it was the first movie I’d seen in my life that was bad enough to make me think, “This is a terrible movie,” as it unspooled. It was the first time I can recall thinking critically about a movie while watching it.

Trail is basically the movie equivalent of one of those clip shows that long-running television programs sometimes resort to when deadlines are plentiful but inspiration is not — a loose frame story provides excuses to show lots of highlight reels from previous episodes. Peter Sellers died fully 18 months before production began on the movie, and Edwards strings together a Sellers “performance” by using a bunch of deleted scenes from the fifth and last Pink Panther film, along with the funniest bits from the first four. They haul out the carcasses of Sellers’ major co-stars from the previous films to give talking-head interviews about Clouseau. David Niven was so weak that they actually chose to have his lines dubbed in by Rich Little in post-production.

The movie is so bad that Sellers’ widow in fact sued its producers, claiming that it had diminished her late husband’s reputation. The courts agreed, and awarded her over a million dollars. Still, watching all five Pink Panther movies in a row, I could see why the clip show approach must have appealed to Edwards. Every one of these movies is essentially a bunch of middling-to-great set pieces and jokes dangling from a plot that’s more or less beside the point. I saw these movies first in bits and pieces myself, watching over my parents’ shoulders growing up, and re-watching them now, it’s clear how much they were just vehicles for Peter Sellers to be funny. To watch them in sequence is to witness an actor and director zeroing in on a character’s comedic voice.

In the first, eponymous Pink Panther movie, Sellers isn’t even the lead. He’s a supporting character to David Niven’s roguish jewel thief, but Sellers steals the show so wonderfully as Clouseau that Edwards immediately sought another showcase for the character. He found it with A Shot In The Dark, originally a stage play with no connection to the Pink Panther universe whatsoever. Edwards rewrote the screenplay (along with a pre-Exorcist William Peter Blatty) around the Clouseau character, and Sellers hit another home run.

Lots of people cite Shot as the best Pink Panther movie, but I’d have to disagree. In my opinion, the one where the pieces all came together is the one to which Moore tips his hat: Return of The Pink Panther. That movie reprises the compelling characters and setting from the first movie, layers in the funniest elements of Shot (Cato, Dreyfus), and strips away some of the previous distractions — Clouseau as cuckold, Clouseau starry-eyed in love — to focus on the detecive pursuing a case through one spectacular failure after another. They crib some costuming from the intervening Arkin movie, and Sellers perfects his outrageous ultra-French accent, complete with befuddled reactions from other characters. After the formula jells in Return, the subsequent films have the easy rhythm (and sometimes the tiredness) of recurring SNL sketches.

Sellers certainly nails all the physical comedy — I laughed out loud the first time he spun a globe and then tried to lean on it — but I found that my favorite parts were the more subtle verbal interchanges. The conversations where Clouseau, in his certainty, completely bewilders another character while not even realizing he’s doing so, are pure genius to me. And I adore him getting worked up and confronting a suspect with, “I submit, Inspector Ballon, that you arrived home, found Miguel with Maria Gambrelli, and killed him in a rit of fealous jage!” Once the films had fully codified the character, even his wardrobe was funny. Come to think of it, that trenchcoat-and-hat combination looks awfully familiar. Haven’t I seen it in something I read recently…?

Next Entry: There’s A Ship…

Searching For Sugar Man

One of my favorite books as a teen, and a huge influence on me during that time, was a novel called The Armageddon Rag, by the then-little-known George R.R. Martin. The book is about… well, it’s about many things, including loss of innocence, the metaphorical end of the Sixties, the rewards and regrets inherent in revisiting the past, and the enormous power of music. The way it is about those things is that it follows a journalist investigating a murder, one that seems inextricably bound to the music of a fictional Zeppelin-esque defunct band called The Nazgûl, whose lead singer died on the same date as the murder. As the journalist investigates the story, he is startled to discover that the band is getting back together, and somebody who looks and sounds a whole lot like the singer is fronting them…

The documentary Searching For Sugar Man is about many things too, and the way it is about them is that it follows a journalist investigating how a beloved artist died. The artist’s name is Rodriguez. A Detroit singer-songwriter in the Dylan mold, he released a couple of albums in the early 70s — good albums, beloved by producers and critics, but completely ignored by the American audience. He quickly faded into total obscurity. Well, almost total. By some quirk, the albums became wildly popular in South Africa, their protest lyrics credited with awakening an anti-apartheid generation to the possibility and power of questioning authority. One South African describes Rodriguez’s popularity there like so: “If you went into any white, middle-class, liberal home in South Africa and started flipping through the record collection, there are three albums you’d always find: Abbey Road by The Beatles, Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel, and Cold Fact by Rodriguez.”

But while there are reams of information available about The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, South Africans could learn almost nothing about Rodriguez. They couldn’t even find out how he died, though many seemed to agree it was grisly in some way. Did he immolate himself on stage? Blow his brains out right after the encore? Nobody seems to know, so in the 1990s, South African music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Styrdom starts researching an article whose premise is: “How did Rodriguez die?” He followed the money, made a lot of phone calls, and also made use of this nifty new tool called the Internet. With fan Stephen Segerman, he created a website called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt”, casting far and wide for leads on the mystery.

I don’t want to reveal what he found. It’s best learned watching the film. Quoth Roger Ebert: “Let me just say it is miraculous and inspiring.” For me, it was like a mirror image of The Armageddon Rag: where the story of The Nazgûl is dark and apocalyptic, the story of Rodriguez is redemptive and luminous. Even better, the story of Rodriguez is true. I spent pretty much the entire movie thinking it was a hoax, along the lines of Dave Stewart’s Platinum Weird stunt a few years ago. Nope. It’s not a hoax. It is one hundred percent true, and it shone a light on a couple of things that really moved me.

The first of these is about mystery and music. Not to sound like a village elder, but I am old enough to remember a time when you could hear a song, or an album, and love it, but have almost nothing more than the song or the album. If you heard it on the radio, you might not even know the title or the artist! I once taped a lovely Robert Plant song off the radio, and it took me years to find out the title of the song, and that it was solo Plant rather than Zeppelin.

Even if you owned the music rather than hearing it on the radio, you might have an album cover or some liner notes to peruse, but those could be sparse or willfully obtuse, and in any case they were merely snapshots in time. You could subscribe to Creem or Rolling Stone and get up-to-date news, but only for the artists they chose to showcase. You might be able to find some historical info at the library, for well-established artists, but again, that would be up to the caprice of your library’s collection. Even the albums themselves could be elusive — I remember driving all around Aurora, searching fruitlessly for a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut.

This atmosphere gave rise to wild rumors and legends. I suppose the poster child for this would be the Paul is dead phenomenon, but these legends lasted well past the Sixties. I remember someone confidently asserting to me that Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant had a daughter together. It is a truth universally acknowledged that when there is a vacuum of information, human beings will fill that vacuum with speculation, and doubly so for the things we’re passionate about. Thus were many hours spent trading ridiculous stories of our pop idols.

That’s all different now. Don’t get me wrong — the age of rumors wasn’t golden, and I wouldn’t want to go back to it. I absolutely love that we have Google, and Wikipedia, and Shazam, and even horrible ad-splattered lyrics sites. The trade wasn’t something for nothing, though. What we lost was a little bit of that mystique, that sense of the unknowable. Having information at our fingertips about the musical pantheon brings them a lot closer to earth with the rest of us. It’s a mixed blessing.

The other aspect of this film that really spoke to me was about recognition and arrival. The filmmaker speaks to Rodriguez’s daughters, who knew their father as someone who had put his music out into the world, only to see it immediately sink beneath the surface. When they learn that it finally found its home in South Africa, that those songs were deeply loved by an entire nation of people, the revelation is immensely powerful. They see that their father’s spirit, his true self, has been kept alive for all those years. Did the news come too late? Maybe, but I don’t think so. See the movie and judge for yourself.

This part of the movie felt allegorical to me. We each have our core, our essence, and as bravely as we can, we express it to the world. Sometimes the world embraces it, sometimes not so much. But it never goes away. It is there, still waiting to be seen and heard. Sometimes, it gets seen and heard in the most unexpected ways, and when that happens, the resulting illumination is a wonder to behold.

The Avengers

[We interrupt our regularly scheduled IF reviews for this topical superhero discussion. That review of Mentula Macanus is coming soon– er, on its way.]

I’ve been reading a lot of 1960s Marvel comics lately, letter columns and all. I did this once before, with just Spider-Man comics, which was a lot of fun. This time I’m skipping around more from title to title, getting a feel for the way the universe gelled, and how the constant stream of feedback from readers contributed to that process. It’s really given me a sense for what Marvel did differently back in those early days. For a while there, they could almost do no wrong — “what they did differently” was more or less synonymous with “what they did right.”

Know what else I’ve been doing a lot lately? Seeing Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie. Well, okay, just twice, but that counts as “a lot” in my movie-watching book. The movie is everything I wanted it to be. It was even more satisfying the second time around. Like those early Marvels, it makes the right call pretty much every time. Really: just like those early Marvels.

Continued stories
In 1961, when the Marvel Universe as we know it began, comic books were disposable, not collectible. There was no expectation that whoever bought issue #41 would necessarily have bought issue #40 or have any intention to buy issue #42. Consequently, each one was required to be self-contained, with one story, or even multiple stories, that began and ended within its covers. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the general expectation was that a comic book contained at least one complete story. Sure, there were motifs that continued from one issue to the next, but they were more or less in the form of an established status quo. Clark Kent always works at the Daily Planet. Lois Lane never gets any closer to figuring out his secret identity. Jimmy Olsen is always just as young and eager and boneheaded as he ever was or ever will be. Stories that deviated from this status quo always made sure to return to it before the issue was over.

Many early Marvels followed this pattern too, though their internal status quo was a fair bit more interesting. However, it quickly became apparent that the stories they wanted to tell were too complex to be contained within a single book. Not only that, they seemed to be attracting older, more sophisticated readers, who might be more reasonably expected to buy a title consistently. So, in many books, “continued stories” became the rule, and whoever read issue #41 might in fact need the previous one or the next one, or several iterations thereof, to get the full tale.

Oh, the complaints that readers sent in about this! The company was accused of greed, insensitivity, poor storytelling, and more. In fact, the hue and cry was so great that at one point Marvel actually abandoned continued stories and tried to keep all issues self-contained. The (predictable) result? Duller, more superficial stories. In fact, it may have almost been a calculated move on their part — by the time they did it, the Marvel Universe had already been established as an enormous tapestry of characters whose lives regularly interwove, collided, and separated again. To write the very kind of stories they had made obsolete may have been their way of saying, “Oh, this? Is this really what you want?” Needless to say, continued stories returned soon afterwards.

In 2012, the majority of movies are self-contained, but there are plenty of franchises in which each sequel moves the characters along a larger arc. However, what we hadn’t seen yet is a movie that ties together multiple franchises in the way that The Avengers does. There are four different lines of movies, each with its own sequel trajectory, that come together in this one. Four sets of stories feed in, and this story will resonate along at least three lines in the future. (I’m not sure if there are going to be any more Hulk movies, though no doubt the success of Avengers makes that outcome more likely. Heck, maybe even Black Widow and Hawkeye will get their own franchises.)

This is an immensely powerful position for a movie to occupy. In the comics, a shared universe gets you several great things:

  • If you’re following multiple lines that come together, you get to feel like an insider when the collisions happen. The more lines you follow, the more satisfying this can be.
  • The coherency of each strand is enhanced by its participation in a greater coherent whole. When Spider-Man bursts into Stark Industries, he may wonder why Iron Man isn’t showing up. Those of us reading Iron Man know that he’s trapped by a villain in another part of the factory, and knowing this lets us feel that both Spidey and Stark are a legitimate part of a larger, grander story.
  • When personalities do come together, especially if they clash, the drama of the encounter is greatly enhanced when each character is fully fleshed out with a detailed background and a story of his own.The Avengers movie inherits each of these advantages, along with the sheer pleasure of seeing a bunch of great actors thrown into an ensemble cast, and an enormous sense of payoff from the most elaborate setup ever.

These people do not get along
As I said, Marvel set up a fictional universe in which its superheroes were constantly running into each other. And when that would happen, inevitably, they would fight at least once. Fans loved seeing the good guys square off against each other, if only from the geeky desire to take the measure of each hero. And so Stan Lee would contrive some sort of misunderstanding or unusual circumstance that would force the heroes into conflict. Letter columns were always full of people eager to know who would win in a fight: Hulk vs. Thor? Thing vs. Iron Man? Spidey vs. Black Widow? Hero vs. hero conflict gave those fans a little satisfaction, though not always as much as they wanted, given that the story often took a left turn before either hero suffered a full defeat.

The Avengers takes this cue and runs with it. And, uh, now it’s probably time for the SPOILERS ASSEMBLE! warning.

The movie gives us so many awesome hero vs. hero matchups:

  • Black Widow vs. Hulk, twice. She dominates him strategically as Banner, he dominates her physically (of course) as Hulk
  • Thor vs. Iron Man vs. Captain America
  • Hawkeye vs. everybody, which was a great way of establishing Hawkeye’s badass credentials. (Casting Jeremy Renner didn’t hurt either.)
  • Stark, Banner, and Cap piercing Fury’s subterfuge, leading to a great 6-way argument and a lovely Whedonesque camera move, inverting the heroes and placing the Staff Of Bad Influence in the foreground
  • Thor vs. Hulk
  • Black Widow vs. Hawkeye

And that’s all before they team up to fight the Big Bad! No wonder this movie had to be 143 minutes long. These matchups do several things for the movie, besides their obvious Big Action Thrill value. I mentioned how turning Hawkeye against everyone, and having him nearly take down the whole shebang, was a great way of establishing him as a powerhouse to be reckoned with, despite his lack of superpowers. Really, that’s true for all the inter-hero fights. In order for us to believe in the enormous victory the Avengers pull off in the movie’s climax, we have to believe in their powers and abilities. Having them establish these against each other is both efficient and effective. This way, we see more heroes in action more of the time, and our belief in one reinforces our belief in the others.

Moreover, the physical conflicts help the movie express the characters’ underlying philosophical conflicts. Superhero stories, at least when they’re done well, are metaphors writ large. So when Thor fights Iron Man, it isn’t just Thor fighting Iron Man — it’s the Mythical/Ancient/Pastoral at war with the Modern/Scientific/Technological, and it’s not accidental that the image of Idealized Patriotism and Selfless Heroism is defeated by neither and brings both together.

Finally, the conflicts move the plot along, which is far from a given in modern action movies. Heroes fighting each other does everything from achieving key turning points (such as when the Widow administers a “cognitive recalibration” to Hawkeye, switching him back to the side of the angels) to subtly filling in explanatory details (such as when Banner finds himself holding the Stick of Psychic Malevolence as he’s getting angry.)

How do you solve a problem like The Hulk?
In fact, this last one helped me understand something about the movie that puzzled me the first time around. I’ve mentioned before that although the Hulk exists in a world of superheroes, he’s not a superhero himself — he’s a monster. Unlike everybody else on the team, he’s not necessarily here to help. This is a hard problem to solve for any story that includes him as a protagonist, and the first time I saw The Avengers, I thought the film hadn’t quite solved it. Why is he all “SMASH BLACK WIDOW!” the first time he appears and then all “SMASH ONLY BAD GUYS AND CATCH IRON MAN AND GENERALLY HELP OUT!” the second time?

Then my friend Tashi suggested this interpretation to me: Banner’s revelation during the climactic battle (“I’m always angry”) indicates that he has figured out that suppressing his anger is the wrong way to go. So instead, he lives with it all the time so that it doesn’t blossom into rage, and tries to atone for his past damage by helping the helpless. (Boy, sounds Whedonishly familiar, doesn’t it?) He believes that he might be able to control “the other guy” now that he’s learned to live with his anger, but he’d rather not take the chance if he doesn’t have to.

Then he gets tangled up with the whole SHIELD thing. He finds himself aboard a massive airship — as he comments when it takes off, that’s a worse place for him to be than even a submarine. Loki’s whole plan is to get the Hulk to wreck everything once he’s aboard the Helicarrier. Well, that and also get Hawkeye to wreck everything from outside the Helicarrier. So, using the remote magic of the Nasty Pointy Spear Of Malefic Intent, he manipulates Banner’s mind (as indicated by the “put down the scepter” scene), weakening his mental control so that when Hawkeye strikes, the Hulk is in rampage mode rather than “I’m at peace with my anger” mode. Then, later, when Banner motors up for the final battle, he’s himself again, and can drive the beast enough to be a hero.

I love this explanation, and I think it’s supported by the film. It’s certainly better than anything Stan Lee figured out in the 60’s. His Hulk was constantly hunted, and his Banner was far from reconciled with his anger. (That is, once it was established that anger is what triggers the change. At first it was actually nightfall that did it, like a werewolf. The anger/stress thing set in pretty early, though.) He tried pills, and he tried locking himself away. He tried staying out of stressful situations. You can imagine how well all that worked out. The comics Hulk was often well-intentioned, but always misunderstood.

There wasn’t a trace in this movie of Thunderbolt Ross-esque anti-Hulkism — on the contrary, the government is looking for Banner to enlist his help, despite knowing he could potentially Hulk out. You don’t get much of that in the early comics, though they repeatedly attempted to cast the monster as a hero. In fact, he was even a charter member of the original Avengers… but he was out of there by the third issue. He’s really not much of a team player.

Homage and better
Having the Hulk be present for the founding of the movie Avengers is just one of the many lovely ways this film pays respect to its source material. Just as in the comics, Loki is intimately involved with the Avengers’ formation. Just as in the comics, the early Hawkeye and Black Widow are a couple, albeit one frequently beset by misfortune. Just as in the comics, the Avengers bicker and argue and crack wise, although the players and personalities are a bit different in the film from how they work in the original stories.

The movie is far from a literal recreation of those early Avengers issues. Instead, like the first Iron Man movie, it faithfully absorbs the spirit of the comics, but compresses, abridges, and enhances to make a coherent story that fits together like an exquisite puzzle. Thank you Joss, for mining the gold from an enormous vein, then shaping and polishing it so beautifully for us. And by the way, that really long sequence shot that went from hero to hero during the third act was JUST AWESOME. Mmmm, I think it’s time to see this movie again.

Syllabus: The Allusive Stevie Nicks

I got both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English Literature, and for quite a while there I thought I was going to become an English professor, one of those new media and popular culture types combined with a wide swath of 19th century novels and poetry. Then I watched Laura go through her Ph.D. process, and thought, “There have to be less excruciating paths to travel — maybe I’ll pursue this computer thing.”

I don’t regret for a second my decision to abandon academia, but sometimes my brain starts to spark, and I think of the classes that might have been. Recent such sparkage has been inspired by Stevie Nicks’ new album, which I’ve been listening to many times over (as should surprise few who know me.) I’ve been wanting to write about all these flying thoughts, and suddenly I realized the perfect form. It allows me to gesture grandly towards a bunch of broad themes, without having to apply any actual rigor to discussing them. Hooray! Plus, since it’s imaginary, I don’t have to try to engage with some of the more irritating (to me) aspects of what the field has become, or rather what it was 17 years ago, the last time I read a syllabus. It’s my party, and I don’t have to invite Julia Kristeva if I don’t want to…

In Her Dreams: The Allusive Stevie Nicks

Stevie Nicks’ 2011 album In Your Dreams serves as a capstone to her 35-year career as a singer/songwriter. Its songs both build upon and comment upon many of the themes, poetic modes, and even specific lyrics that emerge from her considerable body of work. Beyond that, they draw from a rich variety of sources — literary, cinematic, musical, autobiographical, and more. As is typical of Nicks, their meanings are layered and their referents not always clear. This class will explore issues of allusion, intertextuality, and influence both external and internal, using the work of Stevie Nicks as a lens and the structure of In Your Dreams as a frame.

We will meet once per week, with each session dedicated to exploring a different aspect of Nicks’ work, as highlighted by a particular song or songs from In Your Dreams. Naturally, these themes enrich each other, so we’ll bring them together more and more as the class goes on, with a couple of sessions at the end devoted to synthesizing what we’ve learned. Class sessions will be focused on discussion, and participation will comprise a key part of the course grade. The other elements of the grade are a final paper and two Chain Links projects, explained below in the Grading section. For each class session, course material will be assigned along with supplementary reading, viewing, or listening of interviews and documentary programs.

Your grade will be based on the following components:

1) Regular attendance and active, engaged participation in class discussions. Students are expected to have paid careful attention to that week’s assigned material, be it words, music, or video, and to arrive in class having already thought through some of its implications and interconnections. I encourage you to do further reading and listening beyond what’s assigned — the more you know, the better you’ll be able to recognize important connections.

2) Two Chain Links projects. As we’ll see in this course, Nicks’ work is deeply engaged with a panoply of sources, works that resonate and harmonize with each other. Together, these works form a web of influence, “the web that is my own” as she sings in “Edge of Seventeen.” The purpose of Chain Links projects is to add to this web. The nature of what you create can be fairly free-form: songs, films, essays, stories, poems, paintings, plays, and computer games are all examples of viable projects. However, while their form is flexible, their content must meet some specific requirements. First, all Chain Links projects must be engaged with Nicks’ work, either directly or on a clear thematic level. Secondly, all Chain Links projects must be approved by me in advance. Meetings will be scheduled during my office hours for these approvals. I also strongly recommend that you bring works in progress to me for coaching sessions, to ensure that you’re on the right track. Because of the flexible nature of these assignments, grading is highly subjective — let’s be sure we’re on the same page.

3) A final research paper, 12-15 pages in length. This is a thesis-driven paper on a topic of your choice, due at the final exam session for the course. As with the Chain Links projects, you are required to discuss your topic with me before turning in your final paper. I expect a research paper to be original in its conception, rigorous in its argument, and polished in its execution. Remember, an “A” paper is one that teaches me something.

Final evaluation components are weighted as follows:
20%: Participation
20%: First Chain Links project
20%: Second Chain Links project
40%: Final paper

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Fleetwood: My Life And Adventures In Fleetwood Mac, Mick Fleetwood
Storms: My Life With Lindsey Buckingham And Fleetwood Mac, Carol Ann Harris
Complete Stories And Poems, Edgar Allan Poe
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
Interview With The Vampire, Anne Rice
The Vampire Lestat, Anne Rice
Reading Packet: Selected articles and interviews

New Moon, Chris Weitz
The Dance, Fleetwood Mac
Selected interviews and program excerpts

Fleetwood Mac – “Angel” [Tusk]
Fleetwood Mac – “Destiny Rules” [Say You Will]
Fleetwood Mac – “Dreams” [Rumours]
Fleetwood Mac – “Everybody Finds Out” [Say You Will]
Fleetwood Mac – “Eyes Of The World” [Mirage]
Fleetwood Mac – “Freedom” [Behind The Mask]
Fleetwood Mac – “Gypsy” [Mirage]
Fleetwood Mac – “Illume (9/11)” [Say You Will]
Fleetwood Mac – “I’m So Afraid” [Fleetwood Mac]
Fleetwood Mac – “Not Make Believe” [mp3 provided]
Fleetwood Mac – “Silver Springs” (1997 live version) [The Dance]
Fleetwood Mac – “Sisters Of The Moon” [Tusk]
Fleetwood Mac – “Storms” [Tusk]
Fleetwood Mac – “Sweet Girl” [The Dance]
Fleetwood Mac – “That’s Alright” [Mirage]
Stevie Nicks – In Your Dreams [full album]
Stevie Nicks – “After The Glitter Fades” [Bella Donna]
Stevie Nicks – “Battle Of The Dragon” [Enchanted]
Stevie Nicks – “Bella Donna” [Bella Donna]
Stevie Nicks – “Candlebright” [Trouble In Shangri-La]
Stevie Nicks – “Desert Angel” [Timespace]
Stevie Nicks – “Edge Of Seventeen” [Bella Donna]
Stevie Nicks – “Enchanted” [The Wild Heart]
Stevie Nicks – “Fire Burning” [The Other Side Of The Mirror]
Stevie Nicks – “Ghosts” [The Other Side Of The Mirror]
Stevie Nicks – “Have No Heart” (demo) [mp3 provided]
Stevie Nicks – “I Can’t Wait” [Rock A Little]
Stevie Nicks – “If Anyone Falls…” [The Wild Heart]
Stevie Nicks – “Lady From The Mountain” (demo) [mp3 provided]
Stevie Nicks – “Leather And Lace” [Bella Donna]
Stevie Nicks – “Long Way To Go” [The Other Side Of The Mirror]
Stevie Nicks – “Love Is” [Trouble In Shangri-La]
Stevie Nicks – “No Spoken Word” [Rock A Little]
Stevie Nicks – “Rooms On Fire” [The Other Side Of The Mirror]
Stevie Nicks – “Rose Garden” [Street Angel]
Stevie Nicks – “Secret Love” (demo) [mp3 provided]
Stevie Nicks – “Sleeping Angel” [Enchanted]
Stevie Nicks – “Sorcerer” [Trouble In Shangri-La]
Stevie Nicks – “Stand Back” [The Wild Heart]
Stevie Nicks – “Street Angel” [Street Angel]
Stevie Nicks – “Touched By An Angel” [Sweet November Soundtrack]
Stevie Nicks – “The Wild Heart” [The Wild Heart]
Selected interviews

Supplemental interviews and articles will be assigned each week along with the scheduled reading, listening, and viewing.

Week 1: Introduction — A brief history of Stevie
In-class listening: “The Chain”, “Dreams”, “Go Your Own Way”

Week 2: “Must secret loves secretly die?” — Clandestine romance and veiled autobiography
Reading due: Fleetwood: My Life And Adventures In Fleetwood Mac
Listening due: “Secret Love”, “Stand Back”, “Everybody Finds Out”, “Secret Love” (demo)

Week 3: “Part of a great romance” — Retrospection and introspection
Reading due: Storms: My Life With Lindsey Buckingham And Fleetwood Mac
Listening due: “For What It’s Worth”, “Rose Garden”, “Love Is”, “Sweet Girl”

Week 4: “Always in and out of your light” — Power struggles and regrets
Reading due: Jane Eyre
Listening due: “In Your Dreams”, “Dreams”, “Silver Springs”, “Bella Donna”
Viewing due: The Dance

Week 5: “In the smoke and the fire” — Fiction and reality
First Chain Links project due
Reading due: Wide Sargasso Sea
Listening due: “Wide Sargasso Sea”, “Fire Burning”, “I Can’t Wait”, “No Spoken Word”

Week 6: “I stare at my city” — Permeable roles and the general maternal
Reading due: Interview With The Vampire
Listening due: “New Orleans”, “Illume (9/11)”, “Ghosts”

Week 7: “The candle burns bright” — Rock and roll vampires
Reading due: The Vampire Lestat
Listening due: “Moonlight (A Vampire’s Dream)”, “Candlebright”, “Lady From The Mountain” (demo), “Sorcerer”
Viewing due: New Moon

Week 8: “The moon never beams without bringing me dreams” — American gothicism
Reading due: Selections from Edgar Allan Poe
Listening due: “Annabel Lee”, “Gypsy”, “Have No Heart” (demo), “Storms”, “Edge Of Seventeen”

Week 9: “I am a soldier’s mother” — Permeable roles and the specific maternal
Listening due: “Soldier’s Angel”, “Desert Angel”, “Eyes Of The World”, “Battle Of The Dragon”, “Freedom”

Week 10: “But you’re so alone” — Isolation within adulation
Second Chain Links project due
Listening due: “Everybody Loves You”, “Sisters Of The Moon”, “Not Make Believe”, “Enchanted”

Week 11: “Like a ghost through the fog” — Closures and hauntings
Listening due: “Ghosts Are Gone”, “Angel”, “Long Way To Go”
Listening to revisit: “Sweet Girl”, “Silver Springs”, “Ghosts”

Week 12: “Love was everywhere, you just had to fall” — Storybook romance
Listening due: “Italian Summer”, “The Wild Heart”, “If Anyone Falls…”, “Destiny Rules”, “Rooms On Fire”

Week 13: “I used to dream that you were an angel” — Resonance of recurring themes
Listening due: “You May Be The One”, “Sleeping Angel”, “Touched By An Angel”, “Street Angel”, “I’m So Afraid”

Week 14: “Deeper than a deep well” — Country music and love songs
Listening due: “Cheaper Than Free”, “Leather And Lace”, “After The Glitter Fades”, “That’s Alright”

M-m-m-my TCONA! [Days 2 and 3]

On day 2 of TCONA, the first trivia event was scheduled at 8:30am, but it was the Quiz Bowl Seeding Test, which I co-wrote. So I wouldn’t be taking it, which was all for the best, since I’d had a late night. I left my sister asleep in our room and toddled on down to the conference room around 9:45, as the test was breaking up.

The next event was “Learned League Live!”, hosted by Shayne Bushfield, or rather his alter ego, Commissioner Thorsten A. Integrity. If you’re not familiar with Learned League, it requires a bit of explanation. The game is played over the Internet, six questions per day in a variety of categories, and with varying levels of challenge. The twist is that each 6-question match places you head-to-head against another player. You must not only answer the questions, but also play defense against the other player by assigning a point value to each question — a zero, two ones, two twos, and a three. The points are how much the other player will score upon answering the question right. Consequently, you’re required to both assess the difficulty of each question and also guess your opponent’s chances at getting it right, depending on his or her skills in the category. And LL provides zillions of stats, so you can make this analysis just as painstaking as you like.

When I first heard about the game, it sounded a bit overwhelming, intimidating, and time-consuming. I stayed away for a while, and then even after I was ready to join, I had to wait to be invited by a trivia buddy. Now that I’m in it, I love it. The questions are excellent, the format is fun, and the whole thing is quite addictive. The live version of it was a lot of fun too. The group was seated at a bunch of tables, 8 people to a table. Each player was assigned a number and given a packet of questions. Then we faced off in a series of 7 four-minute matches — you’d turn the page to reveal the questions, scribble down your answers and assign points to them, then the Commissioner would read off the answers. You’d compare notes with your opponent to learn your scores, and figure out who won the match. Here’s a sample set of questions, along with the point values I gave them and whether I got them right or wrong:

  1. Name the three yellow properties in the standard American version of the board game Monopoly. (1 point, wrong)
  2. This 1942 Aaron Copland ballet tells the story of a young woman, accomplished in all the skills of a cowpoke, who hopes to attract the attentions of the head wrangler on a ranch; commensurate with the pre-feminist tradition of the day, he is unimpressed by her skill but succumbs to her charms when she trades her cowboy duds for a dress and shows a more “womanly” side at the ranch dance. (3 points, wrong)
  3. Among other things, this film is known for G, A, F, (octave lower) F, C. (0, right)
  4. The holiest city of Zoroastrianism, Rhaga, is today known as Rey, a suburb of what western Asian city? (2, wrong)
  5. What is the mode in this number series? 1,2,2,3,3,4,4,4,5,5,5,5,13,17,17 (2, right)
  6. This word can be used generally to apply to any appendix or supplement, but when used as a legal term refers specifically to an amendment to a will. (1, right)

It was a whole lot of fun. I ended up with a record of 3-2-2, which is pretty comparable to how I tend to perform in online LL (I ended my first season 13-11-1, and I’m 18-15-3 overall.) That meant that I didn’t advance to the championship round which was held later that day. My teammate (and tablemate, and the guy who actually invited me to LL) George Doro did, though, and ended up taking the silver medal overall! (Did I mention that TCONA gave out actual medals to event winning individuals and teams? It was pretty cool.)

After lunch was one of my favorite parts of the entire event: a panel featuring Ken Jennings, Bob Harris, and Ed Toutant, talking about Jennings’ match (with Brad Rutter, who bailed on TCONA in the 11th hour) against IBM’s Watson computer. This, as you may know, was an event that I found fascinating, so a live panel on it with Jennings himself was catnip for me. Even better, it turns out that Toutant, in addition to being rich and famous (well, game-show famous), spent his career as an IBM engineer, and served as a consultant to the team that built Watson. He observed the computer’s behavior in its middle stages, and wrote a report that provided his insights as both a software designer and a game-show expert. After that, he played against Watson in its final practice matches before it went in front of the cameras. Toutant’s report is available online at I particularly enjoyed his entry on gamesmanship, which not only has very insightful tips about Jeopardy! strategy, but finally explains why Watson chose such bizarre dollar amounts for its Daily Double wagers!

The panel explained that there are four strategic elements in Jeopardy:

  1. Daily Double wagering
  2. Picking a square
  3. Buzzing or not
  4. Final Jeopardy wagering

Watson was programmed to take advantage of all these strategic elements to the best of its ability. It picked squares to maximize its chances of finding a Daily Double — these generally occur in the harder clues (the bottom 3 clues of each row), and I was fascinated to discover that according to the unbelievably comprehensive J! Archive, the first column on the board has by far the highest percentage of Daily Doubles found. Watson based its buzz on its confidence level — a delay was intentionally built in on answers where Watson was less confident. And the reason why it wagered such peculiar numbers for Daily Doubles was basically to increase its chances of screwing up an opponent’s mental math. As Toutant wrote, “One of the most challenging parts of Jeopardy! for many players is the need to do quick math in their head under pressure, especially when making a bet. It is always easier for humans to do math that involves only round numbers. Unlike humans, Watson can’t get flustered and forget to carry the one during addition. So Watson should exploit his inherent math superiority by never using a round number on a Daily Double wager… This may give viewers the impression that Watson’s thinking is very precise, but the real motivation is to make the math more difficult for his opponents when they have to make a wager.”

Another great aspect of this panel, and of TCONA in general, was the opportunity to spend some time with Jennings. I wasn’t watching Jeopardy during his run, so he isn’t an icon to me at quite the level he is to some people, but he’s still the closest thing the trivia world to has a rock star. How cool it is, then, that he is down to earth, funny, and personable. In a roomful of trivia nerds, social skills stand out, and Jennings excels in this arena. Interestingly, he didn’t dominate every competition. He held his own, but was beaten in some events. I ended up convinced that his knowledge is very strong, but what made him so hard to beat in Jeopardy was his extraordinary touch on the buzzer — he’s just about peerless in this physical aspect of trivia. Well, unless he’s competing against a computer. Jennings’ own account of TCONA is here.

After the panel were the quiz bowl matches. If you’re not familiar with the quiz bowl format, I explain it here. I think it is still my favorite trivia format. It combines individual challenge (in the toss-ups) with team synergy (in the bonuses), and it encourages that zen trivia flow state that I love. This time, unfortunately, the fates were not with my team. The six-person Anti-Social network added a couple of friends and split into two four-person teams. In addition to that, our team took on an extra person, a Las Vegas native who had shown up solo at TCONA and was seeking a team to join with. He was knowledgeable, but a bit eager, and not terribly accustomed to the format, so there was a bit of a breaking-in period there. Unfortunately, once that period was over, we only had a couple of games left. We played five games in a round-robin format, and ended up doing well in the later ones, but it wasn’t enough to advance us to the finals. On the plus side, I got to spend some time with Dave Gatch, who wasn’t participating in TCONA as a player, but who came out to Vegas to serve as a reader for the quiz bowl portion. (Dave and his mom come to Vegas a lot, so apparently it wasn’t a big sacrifice.)

After flaming out in the quiz bowl, that was pretty much it for my trivia day — the only other events that day were playoffs for which I hadn’t qualified. So that meant that my sister and I got to hit the town! We took the monorail to the Bellagio, saw the fountains, gambled a bit. She took me to a fancy dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Olives, where we had so much delicious food. Once again, we wandered around gambling and hanging out. I taught her a bit more about video poker and she taught me a bit more about slots. At the end, we headed back to Bill’s room for a little more pseudo-Jeopardy, then gambled into the night. It was a great, great time, and a great close to a second day of Vegas and trivia.

Day 3 was playoffs and championships, and I wasn’t much involved. I stuck around to watch the quiz bowl finals, but for some inexplicable reason they chose to repeat a set of qusetions for the semi-finals — not a lot of fun to sit and watch the same questions asked twice. So I bowed out at some point and went to a final buffet lunch with my sister before she caught her plane for home. I still had one more night at the hotel — I had tickets to see The Beatles’ LOVE (Cirque Du Soleil show) at the Mirage that night. I decided after hearing the album that I had to make a pilgrimage to see the show, so there was no question that if I was in Las Vegas, I’d be going.

And I’m so, so glad I did, but that experience deserves a post all its own. For now, let’s revisit those Learned League questions:

  1. Name the three yellow properties in the standard American version of the board game Monopoly. Atlantic Avenue, Ventnor Avenue, Marvin Gardens
  2. This 1942 Aaron Copland ballet tells the story of a young woman, accomplished in all the skills of a cowpoke, who hopes to attract the attentions of the head wrangler on a ranch; commensurate with the pre-feminist tradition of the day, he is unimpressed by her skill but succumbs to her charms when she trades her cowboy duds for a dress and shows a more “womanly” side at the ranch dance. Rodeo (You’ve probably heard its most famous song, Hoe-Down).
  3. Among other things, this film is known for G, A, F, (octave lower) F, C. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (This.)
  4. The holiest city of Zoroastrianism, Rhaga, is today known as Rey, a suburb of what western Asian city? Tehran
  5. What is the mode in this number series? 1,2,2,3,3,4,4,4,5,5,5,5,13,17,17 5 (Mode means the number occurring most often.)
  6. This word can be used generally to apply to any appendix or supplement, but when used as a legal term refers specifically to an amendment to a will. codicil

I ended up tying my opponent in this match, with a score of 5 points each.

Good Questions, part 4

Sad to say, I just found out I’ll miss the next Basement Bowl, due to vacation. Drat! On the plus side, I’m scheming to attend the Trivia Championships of North America, a weekend-long trivia explosion scheduled for Las Vegas in July. In any case, it’s time for one more installment of this series. Previous posts have focused more on the philosophical aspects of question construction, but in this one, I’ll get a little more technical — more about the craft than the art, as it were. I think I’m about out of gas after this, so let’s call it the season finale and get rolling.