Thursday, June 28, 2018

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, episode 8, Confidence Man

Confidence Man
"Hold on!"

Events: Sawyer and Boone have a confrontation over Shannon's missing asthma inhalers. Jack gets involved but Kate intervenes, explaining that she might have better luck as Sawyer says they have "a connection." He doesn't give her the inhalers but when Kate asks about the mysterious letter he's been reading, and insists she believes that he still has human emotions, somewhere, Sawyer invites Kate to read the letter aloud. Written by an angry young boy, it implicates him in a murder/suicide after a con gone wrong,

As Sayid attempts to find out who hit him during the transceiver incident, Locke suggests Sawyer and gives Sayid his hunting knife. After Jack saves Shannon without medication he demands that Sawyer give up the inhalers, which Sawyer refuses to do. Sayid, who has experience with torture, can't get Sawyer to admit where the inhalers are so Kate agrees to kiss him instead but it turns out he knows nothing about them anyway. Convinced that Sawyer is lying, Sayid charges him with Locke's knife and inflicts a serious stab wound on his arm. After Jack treats the wound, Kate confronts Sawyer's self-destructive behavior, asking why he brings such anger and hatred upon himself. Sawyer admits he was the boy who wrote the letter and explains that he ironically became just like the confidence man who ruined his own family (which is illustrated in multiple flashbacks although he neglects to tell Kate that the sight of a young blonde boy seeking his mother's attention was enough to make him walk off a con job).

Unprompted, Sayid decides to leave the beach camp, disgusted with himself for having committed violence against Sawyer after he vowed never to do so again. He says goodbye to Kate and sets off up the unexplored area of the beach, alone.

"I know who you are and I know what you done."

Greater Meaning: Kate is specifically interesting for Sawyer in two ways: she's a criminal, like him, and she pays attention to him. It's clear that he desires her, having made suggestive comments several times before this, but after his letter is explained, we learn that it was Sawyer's mother who was conned and killed; he is a boy who grew up without a mother. Despite the fact that Sawyer went on to con women, it was the questioning little boy that drove him from the phony investment deal, which along with his obsession over the letter he wrote to the original "Mr. Sawyer" proves Kate was right in thinking he still had humanity. The exterior is of utmost importance for Sawyer, making people think of him a certain way, but Kate is really the only one who gets to learn the truth about him.

Further Questions: 

1. Did Sawyer's boss come after him for the money he left on Jess and David's floor, as he promised he would?

2. Will Jin find out that Sun speaks English?

3. Will Shannon's asthma come up again?

4. Is Jack jealous that Sawyer and Kate made out?

5. Where will Sayid go?

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, episode 7, The Moth

The Moth
"Give me my bloody drugs!"

Events: Charlie is in active detox from his heroin addiction; John attempts to distract him with exercise but it turns out he really just needed bait for a wild boar trap. When he asks Locke for the drugs he found inside the Virgin Mary statue back, Locke says he'll return them only after Charlie asks him three times, that giving him a choice in the matter is important. Later as people relocate to the caves, Charlie offers to help and things go poorly. Jack blows him off, ("We don't need you right now.") Charlie brightens when Hurley seems to notice his guitar, but Hurley has no real interest in it, he just needs Charlie to move it. Protesting the way he's being disregarded to Jack in anger, Charlie proclaims, "I'm a bloody rock god!" The force of his voice causes the cave he and Jack are in to collapse; Charlie gets out, Jack is trapped. After getting a group of people together to help Jack, Charlie asks Locke for his drugs a second time. John responds by showing Charlie a moth cocoon and explains in detail how the moth's struggle is difficult but necessary. Charlie ends up saving Jack by climbing into the cave himself and pushing back out. After his third request, John gives Charlie the drugs but Charlie throws the heroin into the fire.

In other events, Sayid, Kate, and Sawyer attempt to triangulate the source of the French woman's distress signal but just as Sayid switches on the transceiver someone clubs him with a stick from behind, knocking him down and thwarting the mission.

"I could help it,"
In flashbacks, Charlie's rock star lifestyle presents several moral challenges, prompting him to quit Drive Shaft after a priest's warning during confession. He admits to brother Liam, the lead singer, that the music is getting lost in the chaos of the band's success and implores that they both walk away if it gets to be too much. Eventually, Liam sings over Charlie's vocals at a concert, openly takes drugs, and misses sound checks. Charlie decides again to leave Drive Shaft but Liam responds with cruelty, driving Charlie to use drugs himself. Just before the crash of Oceanic 815, Charlie visits Liam in Sydney in an attempt to reunite the band but Liam, clean now, refuses. Charlie expresses his anger, blames Liam for his own drug addiction, and walks off.

Greater Meaning: The themes of this episode focus around religion and respect. Charlie has been religious in the past yet he actively experiencing drug addiction. The fact that he was singled out by a boar and before, a polar bear, suggests the monkey-on-the-back metaphor of drug addiction or a physical embodiment of being literally chased by one's demons. John compares Charlie to the boar in discussing the factor of choice that humans employ, not just a blind, animalistic devotion to physical drives (which in many ways, Charlie has lived in his experiences as a rock star). Religion seems to have been an influence in Charlie's life prior to the plane crash and his music career, but on the island, animal instincts, not just in him, become more important than an organized system of social rules and norms. Events on the island seem to have primal, immediate implications that supplant religion.

Early in the episode, Charlie is disrespected multiple times yet still insists that he can be useful. His former "Rock God" status, which earned him respect in the past, doesn't matter on the island; music is nice but actual survival skills are more valuable now. Charlie ends up proving his use in the best possible way----he earns the respect of the two most important people on the island (Jack and Locke) through what can be rightly viewed as sacrificial behavior: putting his own life at risk to save Jack and forgoing his own physical needs for the drugs to rise to Locke's expectations of him.

The issue of respect applies to many other character dynamics in this episode, too. While Jack and Hurley's disrespect of Charlie brings about serious consequences, Kate's disrespect of Sawyer does the same. In her dismissive treatment of Sawyer, Kate brings forth equally cruel and defensive reactions from him. Jin appears to consider Sun's comfort in relaxing his attitude on her wardrobe, moving toward respect, and Walt sees his own father, someone still somewhat unfamiliar to him, assert his skills and take charge, moving toward respect, and Locke, in the end, respects Charlie's decision to ask for the drugs a third time, although he had no foreknowledge that Charlie would destroy them.

Further Questions: 

1. Sayid insists their survival was extremely unlikely, so why did it happen? How?

2. Who hit Sayid, and why?

3. Jack admits to Charlie when speaking of confession that he's "no saint, either." What sins has Jack committed?

4. Will Charlie stay sober?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

His Being Has Many Facets: A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole

The backstory of this novel is very interesting. Published in 1980, its author, John Kennedy Toole, was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for it the following year. The genre is described as "Picaresque" (from the Spanish word "picaro," meaning rogue), which often focuses on the struggles of an eccentric character who attempts to make his way in a hostile world. The cinematic genre of French New Wave would later take this concept and run with it, showcasing plotting or dishonest male characters who must continue to find ways to beat an upper-class or legal system that aspires to keep them down. John Kennedy Toole is said to have based parts of this novel on his own experiences in academia and food-vending as well as those of a professor colleague; he died by suicide in 1969. His mother took the unpublished manuscript to an author acquaintance and with his help, the novel was published.

The rogue in this story, not Spanish but quite American, is Ignatius Reilly. He resides in New Orleans with his mother, is educated, and spends his time writing extensive monologues in Big Chief tablets, itemizing his health calamities (which mostly focus around his pyloric valve), and lamenting the direction his life has taken at hands of the goddess FORTUNA and her spinning wheel. I could go on about the plot, where places and language are highly influential, the characters, which are equal parts realistic and caricatured, or some of the situations of racist, sexist, and homophobic language (of which there are several), but it really is a great example of a work that's way more than the sum of its parts. To be clear; the story isn't mean or hateful but does convey opinions and ways of talking that were probably honest for the time during which it was written, and these are jarring and offensive, period. More than all of this, though, the overall reading experience here is outlandish, but in the best possible wayIn other words, this is a ridiculously bizarre story about a ridiculously bizarre collection of people written by an extremely intelligent person. John Kennedy Toole had obviously seen some things in his life in order to put this all down on paper. The words are assembled and delivered in such ways that you almost find yourself wondering how someone could think this way to even come up with them. Just thinking now about an actual person saying some of these lines in life makes me want to both laugh out loud and cringe. Hard.

Art by Sloppygee
For example, some witty narration:

1. "When Fortuna spins you downward, you go out to a movie and get more out of life. Ignatius was about to say this to himself; then he remembered that he went to the movies almost every single night, no matter which way Fortuna was spinning."

Easy enough. Or this, as a former professor discovers some previously disregarded correspondence:

2. "As he turned over one essay, his eye fell upon a rough, yellowed sheet of Big Chief tablet paper on which was printed with a red crayon:

Your total ignorance of that which you profess to teach merits the death penalty. I doubt whether you would know that St. Cassian of Imola was stabbed to death by his students with their styli. His death, a martyr's honorable one, made him a patron saint of teachers. 
     Pray to him, you deluded fool, you 'anyone for tennis?' golf-playing, cocktail-quaffing pseudo-pedant, for you do indeed need a heavenly patron. Although your days are numbered, you will not die as a martyr--for you further no holy cause--but as the total ass which you really are.

A sword was drawn on the last line of the page."

Yes, things begin to heat up, becoming toward the end quite serious:

3. "'Are you referring to a psychiatric ward by any chance?' Ignatius demanded in a rage. 'Do you think I am insane? Do you suppose that some stupid psychiatrist could even attempt to fathom the workings of my psyche?'
'You could get some rest, honey. You could write some stuff in your little copybooks.'
'They would try to make me into a moron who likes television and new cars and frozen food. Don't you understand? Psychiatry is worse than communism. I refuse to be brainwashed. I won't be a robot!'"

"You may send a map of my new route to the
mental ward at Charity Hospital. The solicitous
nuns and psychiatrists there can help me
decipher it between shock treatments."
The thing about this novel is you will know from the very first page (or actually the stuff above will also serve as indicators) whether or not you're going to enjoy it. I didn't particularly like any of the characters, though they were certainly well-written and always over the top, but I very much enjoyed reading this book. More than once I found myself wondering what in the world would happen next, or how this particular dilemma would resolve, happy to dive into whatever that day's chapter was.

The events were funny and entertaining, but really this all came together with the dialogues (which were not for one second realistic, but whatever). A lot of screaming, a lot of belching (these were actually the most common dialogue tags throughout the story), and a lot of sarcasm. You must enjoy sarcasm if you're having a go at this book. At its core, this is really the tale of a very abrasive yet misunderstood guy who gets himself into bad luck situations but the whole thing still manages to unfold like a weird, smart-talking dumpster fire, each chapter crazier than the last. I do encourage Americans to read this, with caution and I don't know, maybe equal parts patience and humor. Try to have fun with it. It's interesting, it's clever, but I can't deny that my suspicion is that the common reaction will be similar to the one-word response a good friend of mine once used to describe one of my ex-boyfriends, which was "GRODY."

Give it a try; I'd love to hear your takes on this one!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

When dishonesty is the best policy: 1984

I've fielded over the years various interested-yet-confused questions about why I read so much, how I remember so much of what I read and watch, and how on earth (with all I have going on) I manage to find the time for all of this! I don't know how I ended up such a dedicated lover of stories, but I have a feeling it came from having parents (one is a book person, the other a TV/film person) who loved stories themselves. Learning music at an early age probably helped with the memory bit, but honestly, remembering my favorite passages of writing or lines of dialogue makes me pretty happy, too. I might never be a stage performer or a great public speaker but if you need the exact wording of Violet Newstead's sexist bigot speech from 9 to 5, are wondering in which Harry Potter book Snape flapped off, "looking ludicrously bat-like," or are curious about the differences between the Song of Ice and Fire novels and their television show counterpart, Game of Thrones, I GOT YOU. 

What does any of this have to do with George Orwell or the Great American Read book list? I love words, I love stories, and I love that there are people out there, right now, talking about words and stories. Controversial stories, I think, are the very best ones; they force us outside our comfort level and expose us to "truths" we may not have considered. I hope these acts--reading challenging material, seeking different narratives, learning of others' truths--never vanish from our world because these things are necessary! Not just for the sake of literacy or even happiness but to know and to understand each other as people. Without stories life would be just gray emptiness, boring apathy. It would be like Oceania in 1984. 

INGSOC=English Socialism in Newspeak
1. Nineteen-Eighty Four by George Orwell

The word Orwellian means "of or relating to the works of George Orwell (especially his picture of a future totalitarian state)." If you've read anything else of his, maybe Animal Farm or even the nonfiction work Down and Out in Paris and London, you know that status, power, the plight of the labor force, and the search for truth all have had a strong influence on his writing. 

What most people remember about this novel is Big Brother, maybe the Thought Police, or perhaps even Room 101 where bad citizens were taken after they were caught defecting or committing thought crimes--in other words, the main events, as it were. These items make up the action-heavy parts of the book, all the spying, the disappearing, and the torturing; it's well-written and engaging content, no doubt about it. What makes this novel a slightly challenging read but yet deserves equal attention to the memorable scenes are the pages and pages of descriptive language of the places, the objects, and the reflections of the main character, Winston Smith over what his life and country has become. The wars and the dystopia are very interesting, but this story, at its core, is really about the loss of humanity seen through Smith's eyes, and you have to be observant to catch all this and put it all together. 

Photo by Errata Security
The setting is Oceania, a global superstate made up of the Americas, the British Isles, disputed parts of Southern Africa, and Australia/Oceania proper. Oceania is always at war with one of the other two superstates, but exactly which one changes several times throughout the course of the book. The government that controls the citizens is known as "The Party," and the philosophy it enforces, "IncSoc," (English Socialism). Language has changed to something called "Newspeak," literature has been largely destroyed, and food consists mostly of rationed portions of supplemented, mass-produced, facsimile product and Victory Gin. Citizens' roles and opportunities are defined by how advanced they are within The Party, which rules over all.  

Proles are unskilled, unaffiliated with The Party, and poor but have managed to hold onto what are widely considered to be unsavory human acts such as folk singing and breeding
Low Party members comprise the workforce, enjoy a minimally comfortable standard of life but are constantly monitored by Thought Police, telescreens, and even their own children for signs of disloyalty
Inner Party members dictate policy and enjoy the highest standards of living while encouraging lower members (and their children) to report each other for any perceived slight toward The Party
Big Brother is the celebrated icon, leader, and champion of The Party, referenced often and seen in propaganda but never in person
Emmanuel Goldstein is a mythical leader of Oceania's opposition to Big Brother, the subject of many hateful demonstrations (i.e., Hate Week, Two Minutes Hate) whose human existence has never been officially confirmed
Winston Smith is a low party member, employed by The Party's Ministry of Truth. 

Winston Smith
played by John Hurt
On the surface Smith is a loyal party member, dutifully spreading lies for his department, eliminating contrary evidence against The Party, and participating in patriotic events, but something is at conflict inside Winston Smith from the very first chapter. Nearly everything The Party puts out is a lie, represented as the truth, the whole truth, always having been the truth (even when evidence exists to the direct contrary). As we read what his days are like, what rules are enforced, and how he responds to all this, we begin to recoil a little--most of us aren't accustomed to cheering on explosions that kill fleeing prisoners, seeing violent acts committed by children toward their parents, or being witness to direct government falsification of facts or destruction of questionable evidence on the regular. Such are the first topics Smith begins to write about in an illicit diary he secretly obtains in an old shop, but as time goes on we see that despite everything The Party has taught him, he finds himself seeking out forbidden objects, images, and memories. He wakes from a dream murmuring "Shakespeare" for no apparent reason; he longs for his own mother and sister long since vanished or killed; he talks with a shopkeeper about lyrics to a song about the churches of England. All of these things that were once valued, literature, the family unit, singing, and religion, have been replaced by The Party's sterilized version of them (with the exception of religion, which is now unnecessary), and Winston Smith isn't having it. 

Everything one needs to know about this novel is presented in the very first chapter, but the format is more or less the same throughout. Descriptive language and exposition, reflection, small bits of action, and usually a significant reveal are all interwoven in each chapter together with occasional pieces of IngSoc philosophy presented as listed rules or writings taken directly from Party (or oppositional) sources. Paranoia and repressed emotion are constant.

From the first page: 

"The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for an indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran."

"It's inner party coffee. There's
a whole kilo here."
Things change for the positive for a bit with the coming of Julia, a younger party member who becomes Smith's love interest, but only briefly. There are glimpses of happiness and color through objects such as a coral paperweight or real sugar and coffee, but these are only moments; the greasy, foul-smelling world that has become reality persists aggressively and in the end, Smith is made to question (in the infamous Room 101) even these most sacred memories and whether or not he really experienced them.   

Although it's a great story, one gets a very wrinkle-nosed feeling reading it. Nearly all of the smells described are of cabbage, surfaces are always greasy, and there's bodily harm being done pretty frequently throughout (specifically beatings, humiliation, starvation, torture, and early on rape is mentioned but never committed). The vibe is dismal and gray. 268 pages isn't too bad, it's probably only a few more than this review ended up being, but this is still a book that you have to want to read. Films such as Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), The Matrix Trilogy (The Wachowskis, 1999, 2003), and V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2006) introduced different "enemies" into the narrative but still have their roots in the same kind of story. John Hurt played Winston Smith in the British production of the film, 1984 (in 1984). 

If you're intrigued but still on the fence, read Animal Farm, first. The story is very similar and half the length. If you enjoy that, you'll probably enjoy this. I think Americans should read this, and in summarizing why I'll again reiterate how important I think the little things are, the things that make us us. Our words, our books, our food, our songs. We're all human, but we are also our own unique selves (Americans just ❤❤❤❤ being individuals!)  This story explores what it feels like to be symbolically made into a human robot and to be denied one's own thoughts and feelings. The idea of burning literature is upsetting to me, but even more so is the idea of printing a volume of lies to prop up in its place (think this doesn't happen today? It IS happening). Children are turned against parents, human biology and impulses are disregarded, and opinions become punishable-by-death offenses. 

Be an informed American. The minute someone in power starts telling us who we are and taking our books away, we're done. 

Friday, June 1, 2018

Bully for You: William Zabka wins in Cobra Kai

Cobra Kai, 2018 
Starring: William Zabka, Ralph Macchio, Courtney Henggeler

Back in the best decade of all time, the 80s, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) was a bullying, karate-wielding enemy to Ralph Macchio's Daniel LaRusso in a film called The Karate Kid. You might have seen it. You might have thought it was cheesy and formulaic and I don't know, clunky (I say this lovingly about the original only, the sequels were both downright horrid). The film focused more on the story and less on the actual martial aspect of martial arts, but it was a popular film and a memorable work. Lucky for us, both Zabka and Macchio have returned to their respective roles in Cobra Kai and the overall experience is pretty sweet. YouTube Red is streaming the first two episodes for free; if you like what you see, a YouTube Red trial Membership is also free for one month. These episodes are short enough to binge in one night, easy, and if you're reading this review with any interest, you'll definitely want to.  

So it's very much the same kind of story, updated for 2018, but with some positive differences. For one thing, Cobra Kai has a somewhat oppositional focus: this is Johnny Lawrence's show, first and foremost (and yes, this will cause many to skip it on principal because really, what sympathy can a former bully really evoke) but hear me out and give it a chance. Bullies can change their stripes; some bullies can feel remorse! But even then, some bullies still make poor choices and lead others to make them, too.

Turns out, Johnny Lawrence is one such bully. Despite our assumptions during the events of Karate Kid, he didn't have such a great life even before he was Cobra Kai's golden boy, cruising the arcade or having fancy dinner dates with Ali, and all the other stuff that made him appear to be such a privileged, effective little jerk. This backstory along with Johnny's downward spiral after the illegal leg-sweep and subsequent choke hold from his Sensei at the film's final karate tournament make for a very different Johnny Lawrence experience. This isn't to say that everyone is sympathetic to him. In fact, outside the audience and perhaps one important supporting character, no one really is, least of all Daniel LaRusso. Though wealthy, handsome, and still besting Johnny at everything, the one-time Karate Kid isn't exactly as we remember him, either (truthfully he comes off as a bit of a douche, at least at first). 

This highlights another difference in the show compared with the film: nothing is absolute, not the morals of the characters, not the guarantee of a happy ending, and not even the promise of unconditional, good feelings toward our favorite people. We have David Chase's Tony Soprano to thank for complicated bad guys who come with depth instead of pure evil, and this concept in both Johnny's character, the characters with whom he interacts, and the progression of the series' events shows us that although the 80s were great, a lot of the screenwriting was really basic. We see now that it got a lot of things wrong because these stories aren't so neat anymore. Narratives are complicated because people are complicated; people who go to the movies (or watch television) don't necessarily want open and shut cases of good versus evil because they come off feeling fake or simplistic. We have baggage, we overreact, we hold grudges, and nothing ties up nicely anymore, not really. If it seems cheesy to think of an entire show revolving around a bully's if not redemption, then re-education, or if you don't want to
overthink things in this way, you really don't have to--there is still entertainment to be had among all this ideology. I like to think of it as a way for everyone who loved The Karate Kid to get a huge, acknowledging shout-out in the form of being gifted more time and experiences with characters we weren't ready to let go of yet. 

Not sold yet? Okay, there's more: 
Flashbacks (full video sequences)
Music (Poison, Foreigner, The Alan Parsons Project, Ratt, Bruno Mars, Dean Martin, and more!)
Environments (Daniel's first apartment, the mini-golf place, Mr. Miyagi's house)
The New Blood because of course there has to be a new aspect to an old rivalry (aka family drama!) 

There's quite a bit of profanity not suitable for elementary school kids as well as some harsh sexual innuendo and bullying that occur in a high school setting. Middle and high school kids will probably be interested (mine were) but they definitely aren't the target audience for this show, the people who grew up with Daniel and Johnny are. Kids who didn't watch the films are going to come away from it with a much different take on who they're aligned with, whose struggles they connect with, and who they want to win even though none of this is very straight-forward (my two older kids went immediately with Johnny from the beginning but wanted very different things from him as time went on). Take a look: 

Who will love this show: Fans of Zabka (trust me, there are significant numbers who appreciate his work as an actor in The Karate Kid, Back to School, National Lampoon's European Vacation, and Just One of the Guys as well as his work as a Oscar-nominated director of the short live-action film, Most), fans of The Karate Kid franchise, nostalgic GenX-ers, underdogs, people used to being underestimated

Who won't be into it: Martial Arts purists, the overly religious, fans of Macchio (if he has any; I heard from a credible source that he's a dick IRL).  

Hard goodbyes are a thing of the past: second season is slated for 2019!