Monthly ArchiveMay 2009



Commentary 30 May 2009 01:27 am

In anticipation of perspiration

Here is my print column from May 28, 2009, as published in The Alliance Review:

Sweaty palms. Elevated breathing. Spinning head. A sinking sensation that everything you thought you knew you’ve forgotten.

No, it’s not a first date, although many of the same symptoms apply. It’s test anxiety, and judging from the number of people who nodded affirmatively in a very unscientific poll I conducted recently, it’s common.

One of the few people who doesn’t suffer from it is my wife, who can sleep like a baby the night before a big test and wake supremely confident that she will score nothing lower than an A.

Never sweats, that woman, which may be the result of years of living with me, Peter Panic, who has more hang-ups than the coatroom at Radio City Music Hall.

I thought when I became a teacher that my test anxiety would evaporate because I would be on the other side of the desk, the person handing out the papers and not the student regurgitating knowledge back into the teacher’s lap. (Nasty mental image, isn’t it?)
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Comic books 29 May 2009 06:46 am

Veronica, will you …?

 arch600

Archie Comics announced this week that its flagship title would present part one of “Archie Marries Veronica,” ending a decades-long love triangle among the freckled Mr. Andrews, snotty rich girl Veronica, and girl-next-door Betty. You can see the loser sobbing in the background of the jewelry store in the cover above.

But wait a minute. The story in Archie #600 is set in the years following the Riverdale gang’s graduation from college, and considering that the characters have been in high school for 65 years, it’s a safe bet that this little jump to the future will be a short-term, speculative, “What If?” kind of tale, and that the company will restore the triangle and the status quo once the six-part story concludes. True fans wouldn’t have it (or want it) any other way.

Still, the story — written by Hollywood producer and comics impresario Michael Uslan and drawn by classic Archie artist Stan Goldberg — might draw the same kind of attention as the recent “Death of Captain America” storyline over at Marvel Comics. In other words, the mainstream press might jump all over it, especially if it’s a slow news day. We’ll find out in August, when #600 is scheduled for release.

Movies 28 May 2009 08:06 pm

Cinematic cadavers

 skel

I hadn’t seen Jason and the Argonauts for many years until recently, when I ran some highlights for my freshman English classes following a study of “Jason and the Golden Fleece.” The movie follows the basic plot of the Greek myth with a few changes to take advantage of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects, such as skeleton warriors (one of which is seen above) who spring up from the ground to try to kill our hero.

To a generation raised on computer-generated effects, the stilted stop motion of Harryhausen is sometimes laughable, but I still find it riveting. While the skeletons are justly praised, my favorite effect from the movie is the giant bronze statue of Talos that comes to life after Hercules steals its treasure. The sword-wielding statue switches his blade from hand to hand and lifts the Argo out of the water, shaking the crew out of the craft and destroying it in the process.
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Media & Movies 27 May 2009 07:58 pm

Film Studies curriculum

film-reels

I changed up my semester-long Film Studies class at Alliance High School this year. In the past, I have followed a historical model, covering major film milestones decade by decade from the 1920s to today, showing two representational films for each decade.

This year, I decided to teach the course by genre, so we watched two films to represent each type — romance, war, horror, sci-fi, western, musical, and so forth. I tried to show one “classic” example and, where available, one newer offering. Instead of grading students on how well they regurgitated information about each decade, I graded them on individual presentations about movie milestones and on how often they chimed in during discussion. Overall, I like the new approach better.

In some cases, I ran out of time or resources to show two films for each genre. I only had enough time to show one war film, for example, so I went with the anti-war All Quiet on the Western Front. Sometimes, there were no good
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Books 26 May 2009 05:53 pm

 writ-jou

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers is an attempt to apply the theories of mythologist Joseph Campbell to the task of generating plot and characters. Writer Christopher Vogler expands on the ideas Campbell explored in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which itself drew from the work of Carl Jung. The Writer’s Journey manages to distill a lot of theory into a practical handbook that aspiring and professional writers will find useful.

At the heart of Vogler’s examination is “The Hero’s Journey,” a 12-step path that most protagonists follow, regardless of culture or genre. The steps are necessarily broad, sometimes overly so, to accommodate the rich vein of stories that can be analyzed using them. Each hero, says Vogler, will travel this path and encounter the following trials and assistance, although not necessarily in this order:
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Commentary & Movies 23 May 2009 10:23 am

‘All Quiet’ continues to reverberate

 aq

Here is this week’s print column from May 21.

Absent from the television schedule this Memorial Day weekend is “All Quiet on the Western Front,” a 1930 classic that demonstrates the foolishness of war.

An adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name, the movie follows a group of German schoolboys from the classroom to the battlefields of World War I. It begins with a military parade of German soldiers framed by the windows of a classroom, where a propagandistic teacher drills his students on their patriotic duty: To fight, and possibly die, for the glory of the Fatherland.

“Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country,” the teacher asserts. “Here is a glorious beginning to your lives. The field of honor calls you.”

Caught up by their teacher’s fervor, the young men agree to enlist, and are soon off to learn obedience from their town’s ex-mailman-turned-sadist Himmelstoss, a drill sergeant whose unkindly lash anticipates a long line of cinema sadists.
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Music 21 May 2009 10:35 pm

21st Century Album

 21-cent

At nearly 41 years old, I’m not typical of Green Day’s fan base, but I’m still a fan. To put it more precisely, I’m a huge fan of many of the band’s singles, and especially of its 2005 album, American Idiot, which still gets more airplay on my iPod than most anything else. So the bar was set fairly high for the band’s follow-up CD, 21st Century Breakdown, released last Friday.

The good news is that it sounds a lot like American Idiot. The bad news is it sounds a lot like American Idiot. The band hasn’t strayed very far musically or lyrically from the previous album. The new CD is another concept album that, like its predecessor, really doesn’t have a coherent storyline, but hey — neither did Tommy. Or The Wall. Or my personal fave among concept albums, Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare. So Green Day is among estimable company. The songs all sound like they could be a previously unreleased second disk of American Idiot, but if that were the case, I’d have to subtitle it The B-Sides. Strong material, but not quite as strong.

The highlights are “Know Your Enemy,” “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” and “East Jesus Nowhere,” but all the uptempo tunes are pretty good. Some of the ballads lack a hook and sound a bit hokey. Still, it should please Green Day fans well enough to move lots of product and sell lots of tickets. I like it, even if I doubt it stays parked in my iPod for years.

Commentary 19 May 2009 06:53 am

Spotting school success

Here is my print column from May 14, 2009:

How do you measure success?

Politicians and analysts who crunch school achievement data have tried to answer this for years, feeding rows of figures into computers and slaughtering acres of trees to clarify what quality education looks like, how far away American education is from the goal, and what we must do to improve.

Education in this country is at a crossroads as significant as the one faced by the economy. Maybe more so. Economy and education are inextricably linked: When the economy is bad, there is less tax money to fund schools; when schools are bad, there is a less-innovative future workforce to bolster the economy.

So how to fix it?
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Comic books 18 May 2009 06:36 am

The Life and Times of Savior 28 #2

 sav282

The Life and Times of Savior 28 may be the best book nobody has ever heard about. Even on publisher IDW’s website, it’s hard to find out information about it, likely because it’s alphabetized under “T” for “The” instead of “L” for “Life” or “S” for “Savior.” Somebody might want to fix that.

Writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Mike Cavallaro walk a fine line this issue by placing our hero — an amalgamation of Captain America and Superman — inside Buchenwald, where the horrors he witnesses push him over the edge, causing him to be institutionalized. It’s the same problem the virtually immortal Savior 28 faces in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, when his inability to save the Twin Towers leads to his multiple suicide attempts. Because he is more or less invulnerable, we are treated to several pages of him sticking a gun into his mouth and pulling the trigger, to no effect. 

Cavallaro’s art continues to be too cartoony for the subject matter, but that’s part of its appeal: The rendering of serous problems and issues though the lens of Jack Kirby. DeMatteis is intent on giving us his own deconstruction of the super-hero genre — familiar territory in this post-Watchmen world, but fascinating nonetheless by virtue of his skill as a writer. Recommended.

Comic books 17 May 2009 02:20 pm

Unwritten #1

 unwritten-1

Since the end of Vertigo’s Y: The Last Man, I’ve been casting around for a series to replace it in my monthly comics reading, without much luck. That search may be over with the advent of The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross.

The first issue, released last week, sets up an intriguing premise: Tom Taylor is the adult son of fantasy writer Wilson Taylor, whose most famous creation, Tommy Taylor the boy wizard, has overshadowed the real Tom. Following the disappearance of the elder Taylor, Tom finds he cannot touch his father’s fortune. Instead, he’s forced to ride the coattails of the Tommy Taylor craze, signing autographs for fans on the convention circuit and answering endless questions about his father’s publishing legacy. Until the public begins to question whether he is REALLY Wilson Taylor’s son — or a glory-chasing fraud. Or worse, the living embodiment of the fictional Tommy.
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