Summer ’99

In my memory Ocean City is a pretty lonely place.  Even though I was living with a friend, sharing a house with four other people, and working with a dozen more, the sharpest parts of that summer are ones I spent alone.  This is true of anywhere, and why solo travel is more revealing than group tourism.  Ocean City wasn’t either of those, though.  It was a place to live for a summer that fit all of my requirements and fell into my lap.  A house, they claimed, for little enough, a few blocks from the beach and the lively boardwalk that meant jobs aplenty.  I can still feel the house, that amazing blend of wood and carpet, sand and dust that comes from being near the ocean and open to the weather.  Some houses, too often boarded up against storms or families returning to their northern homes, claimed a different odor, that of disuse and neglect, of age and mildew, with the ocean’s presence as an afterthought, something to be sought out beyond the walls.  Not ours.  On Sparrow Lane, a little two-block curve of road between Bayshore and Robin, both of which ran along the inlet, it was a place that seemed to have no windows or doors, the air constantly suggesting the weather outside.  We added to this with our plethora of fans, seemingly the only furniture college students in the north east ever really own.

Ocean City, on a map, resembles nothing so much as an accident, a mistakenly placed label over a long sliver of land separated from the coast of Maryland and Delaware.  For most of it’s length the city manages no more than four blocks of width, from bay to ocean.  Save for odd protuberances, small peninsulas on the bay-ward side like the one formed by Bayshore and Robin, which stretch west an incredible additional four blocks from Ocean Highway, which, running north to south is two blocks from the boardwalk and, usually, equidistant from the bay.  Like most accidents, Ocean City has the feel of a place clinging to its name, and to life, with the manic rush of a really good party.  It is a vacation town, an east coast boardwalk town, and a college one at that.  Our house, filled with five mostly-impoverished students on break and holding down whatever jobs available, was by no means unique.  The houses on either side were similar, and the trash in the big plastic blue can that sat by the telephone pole demonstrated a diet of Bud Lite and pizza delivery.  A lot of OC survived on late-night pizza, which was good, because two of my roommates made it, often coming home at one or two with a pie they’d prepped for our house while they closed down the kitchen.  I don’t know what it’s like now, that house, with it’s two-storey living room, the stairway winding up one side to a balcony, but if it’s just the same I wouldn’t be surprised, empty in the winter, housing another bunch of hopeful and hopeless students for the summer.

This college vacation town didn’t seem lonely.  With groups of people on each porch, with games of drunken whiffle ball in the street, it had the constant late-night ruckus of a town built on the service industry, where no one got off work until ten o’clock.  It was a place where a night out started when a friend who’s bouncing got on shift at a club, where activities on off-days consisted of going to visit the roommate that worked at the mini-golf range and playing a few rounds gratis.  No, on the surface, or when somebody’s folks came to visit, it didn’t seem lonely at all, always bustling with people, always somebody on their day off going to the beach.  But under that busy summer feel there was a sense of just how empty this place would be, in a few months, and just how little any of the people who had rolled up for the summer with their beach chairs and their shades on really cared.

I used to get up early, around five, to work the breakfast shift, a pretty good job, around fifty dollars for the morning if the place was busy.  Funny to say, since I’d walked into the house at the last minute, the final roommate and the last person to arrive, but I had the best job of the house, which wasn’t as good as it sounds.  I worked at a surf n’ turf place, right on the boardwalk.  Attached to a hotel, and with a pool bar, we only did breakfast and dinner, which was a great gig, and the hotel meant plenty of people, even when the weather sucked and no one wanted to wander the boardwalk before dinner.  When I woke my roommates would be sprawled out from the night, having come home at two with a pie and a sixer and gotten loud right around when I needed to get to bed, which didn’t bother me.  At nineteen going on twenty I’d gone sober for the summer, and was up and unlocking my bike from the porch before the sun.  Looking back those rides are a lot of why Ocean City seems so quiet, so lonely.  Sure someone might be passed out on the lawn next door, but more often the road was empty, the city asleep, and the sun just beginning to climb.  I’d bike down Robin to Bayshore, a couple of blocks, across the highway and out to the boardwalk.  The buildings, mostly one or two storey, were all shuttered, locked and graffitied, concrete shops that in the evening would have tables out slinging barbecue or ice cream, with flocks of people eating, chatting, and roaring off again down the highway.  Two blocks of old wooden beach-side residential, looking the way rental houses look after fifty years of weather and wear, and then two more of modern brick and concrete squares designed to sell something cheap to a whole bunch of people who’d never be back.  Without the crowds, as the sun broke over the horizon, it wasn’t an inviting sight.  I’d always remember my head waitress’s words then, crossing the empty four lanes of the highway on my mountain bike.  “In the winter,” she’d say, when we’d talk about how busy the boardwalk seemed, standing outside the restaurant just before opening in the evening, “you can walk the length of Ocean Highway and not see a single car.”  At five am it felt like I could do the same, as though the season had changed while I slept.

Then I’d get to the boardwalk, sharing it for ten blocks with the other bikers and joggers, mostly old folk up to see the sunrise on vacation.  I wondered if they knew about the ruckus that went on, a few blocks behind their ocean-view rooms, until just about dawn every night.  I wondered if they realized that the people living on food taken from the shop in which they worked, who washed with towels they stole from their hotel jobs, were just a block or two behind them, passed out on the lawn, having spent their marginal wages on the cheapest beer they could find within walking distance.  And then I’d glide down the boardwalk, riding with no hands, and I’d watch the sunrise over the Atlantic, which, for all the Pacific says they’ve got, is a beautiful sight worth waking up for.  The sun came up on that city like a curtain of orange and then pink and then yellow and then white, pulled up over this pale light blue wash that covered the sky.  Everyone on the boardwalk, all hundred of us or so, spread out over the fifty blocks, would turn and watch, just stand real still in our own little worlds of amazement.  And when it got to a certain height we’d all turn back to our jog or our hotel room, and I’d pull that swinging screen door open and head into the darkened kitchen.

Talking about the future

Ethan arrives in town, my second visitor in a month, attending a conference at Rice while the undergrads are on break.  We meet after his session is over, on the grass in Houston’s sunshine.  It is seventy degrees, and he, coming from Wyoming, is in shorts and t-shirt, rejoicing at the freedom.  It has been years since last we met, on an evening in Shanghai when he had likewise, without direct intention, arrived in the city I inhabited.

Encountering friends from previous ages, from far away places like college, high school, or Tokyo, we drift in two ways.  Either meeting becomes more and more an act of presentation, of accounting for the time spent apart, or it is approximately as it ever was, and the conversations gain from the separately gathered wisdom.  A teacher now, I do not know what he will appear as, and, biking up on my Haro in sandals and shades, I thrill to see him, unshaven and care-free, his back against a brick wall, sneakers crossed, the New York Times on his lap.  He pushes his shades up on his baseball cap and gets up, the Ethan I knew, and we go forward, rather than explaining.

Visits from friends of the second kind, who need no introduction and require no apprehension, are necessary.  Planning our lives, in the largest sense of destinations, aspirations and occupations, requires conversation, or is better for it.  Speaking of things that are far from now, or may never become real, is an art, that of conjuring a future for ourselves.  Out of these conversations come goals, followed by struggle and possibly success.  A matter of shaping the future, and one that depends on who we can work with, and talk to.  With an ever-expanding circle of friends, well-known and just met, the gift of a few hours with one from years prior is just that, and we sit in the sun outside Valhalla.  The beers are ninety five cents, the sun warm, and the conversation of jobs, and purchases, of the cost of things, and living with no income.  We talk of girlfriends and travels, of the freedom to go and the reasons to stay.  He mentions hand-crafted skis, I show him my hand-crafted bag, and we go round again through teaching and life lessons.

Gifts like these, arrivals of friends from experiences long since past, are the best parts of living so often so far from anything I know.  Friday afternoons on grass in the sun with people who are often likewise give us some space to toss around ideas and histories until it is time again to separate.  Four years ago the gift was Shanghai’s streets, this week Rice’s empty campus.  Our lives happen in between, built out of the hopes first voiced in these discussions.

Growing up Watchmen

The hardest part about Watchmen, that everyone seems (wonderfully) to understand, is that it was built as a comic book.  It references itself in the way that the best comics can, because it is so easy for the reader to flip back, having a visual guide as well as the words.  The comic book really is a wonderful medium, and Watchmen is its pinnacle.

Now, going to see this adaptation last night we knew these things:

1.  Story is fantastic (having both read graphic in past week)

2.  Snyder stuck to visual guide (from previews)

3.  Story will be simplified (no pirate sections)

4.  Snyder thinks that crunching and gasping equals fighting and sex (from 300)

5.  If he gets anything right at all I’ll be excited because I love it (same as LotR)

Walking out three hours later, which is neither too long nor something audiences can’t stand, we remembered those points, which really helped.  Yes, the story was fantastic, and, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, who got the 300 treatment, everyone looked good.  Rorschach and the Comedian were incredible.  Watching Dr. Manhattan drop the photograph on Mars made me so happy, as did watching his suit assemble itself on him (which I would have watched for longer).  Things like the long pull out from the statue in the rain prior to the Comedian’s burial were wonderful.

The cuts were understandable.  Hollis’ death was the last thing cut (says Wikipedia), which I understand (and am glad was the last thing to go).  The pirate ship story was of course going to go (though is supposed to be added in for the DVD).

Now we come to the personal portion of this review/examination:  Zach Snyder’s incomprehensibility.   Here we have someone who grew up with the same influences as I did, who deeply loves the same books.  I think it’s pretty impossible to see Watchmen and not think that Snyder loves the graphic.  He does, and I believe that, and I think that it’s very visible in the scenes he does not alter.

The problem is that Zach Snyder has almost no sense of subtlety.  As noted earlier, he thinks that a fight is not a fight if bones don’t come through skin.  Every punch must have an accompanying *crunch* sound effect so loud as to make the audience wince.  The sound track has only two volumes: loud, and REALLY LOUD, which is reserved for touching, soft, or very complicated scenes.  The visual grace that began this generation’s obsession with intricate fight scenes, that of the first Matrix and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, is utterly lost.  The Nite Owl is an out-of-shape 40 year-old man, and yet when he punches bones break and people crash through walls.  Zach Snyder is unable to see that people will understand a fight scene without bone crushing.  This is a flaw we were well aware of going in, because of 300, and simply hoped he would avoid as it did not hew to the source material at all.  He demonstrated no such restraint.  The prison escape is a perfect example.  Rorschach’s scenes are handled with wit and delicacy, even in their gruesome nature, but the Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II are forced into an awkward (and utterly manufactured) brawl that is both unfortunately long and ridiculously loud.  By making them so forceful Snyder removes a central portion of Moore’s idea, that these are heroes who are adventuring for the first time in years.  In Gibbon’s original art this is handled so deftly (see page 15 of issue 3).  Snyder will have none of this deftness.

Dr. Manhattan, as mentioned earlier, has the physique of a body-builder, and is more frontally nude than a) he is in the graphic or b) is necessary.  He also is needlessly shown exploding Vietnamese soldiers, another moment where Snyder looked at Moore & Gibbon’s work (which the shot otherwise mimics very closely) and was like “well, this was cool, but it would have been so much better if they EXPLODED.”  In so many ways it is like watching a fifteen year-old boy’s thoughts.  More bone breaking, more nudity, and louder sound effects are always better.

I had a good time.  But every time a fight scene approached I winced, hoping we could get through it without any horrible disfigurations.  This doesn’t mean all the fighting was poorly done.  The opening fight was wonderfully done.  Most of Rorschach’s fighting was excellent.  The re-visioning of the death of the convict Rorschach ties to the cell bars was very good.  Snyder’s attempt to modernize the conflict with the inclusion of oil and energy was awkwardly welded to a cold-war plot.

In retrospect, this is a better movie than I expected from a very tasteless director.  He delivered his personal brand of utterly over-the-top and graceless fighting alongside a very tight rendition of the story.  Big props to the screenwriter.

There are only two scenes that stop the movie from being good, and something that I would go see again:

1. Nite Owl & Silk Spectre II’s love scene in Archie.  In utter contrast to the first love scene, on the couch, which is moderate and tasteful and NOT set to absurdly loud music, this second scene is so awful and horribly over-long that most of the audience was cringing and looking at their phones.  Absolutely uncomfortable to watch is usually not what directors are going for in sex scenes.

2. Rorschach putting a cleaver into the guy’s head.  Unlike the previous mention, which is basically straight from the book just shot & scored horribly, this scene is totally created for the movie, and alters Rorschach’s character fundamentally.  Rorschach is not a deranged psycho killer who cleaves people in two.  This scene fails in all three of the ways an adaptation can fail, that being it alters the story and characters, adds nothing, and takes unnecessary attention away from the original work.  For those who may not know or remember, in the original Rorschach cuffs the man to a chair, sets the house on fire, and throws him a hacksaw with the advice “don’t bother cutting through the cuff, you don’t have time for that.” He then stands outside the house for an hour, but no one comes out.  As originally written it is evocative and characteristic without being over-the-top gory and psychotic.  But, as we all know, Snyder is unable to appreciate subtlety or simply good writing.  His mantra of “more gore louder!” is impossible to miss.

Yeah.  So for all of you who have been asking me how I feel about this on Twitter/im/text, here’s your answer.  It’s good, it’s fun, it’s much better than I possibly expected Zach Snyder to do, and if it could be edited again (by someone else) it could be really wonderful.  Unfortunately, even with a supremely tasteful base text (as opposed to the incredibly simple and violent one he had with 300), Snyder is unable to resist his own urges, to everyone’s detriment.

Recommendation:  Go buy the graphic and read it before seeing this film.  The hype surrounding this movie means it is available at every major book store, and well worth your time & money.  If you saw the film first, the same advice applies.  You’ll have to trust me that the parts you’ve complained about (horrid score, awful fighting, painful sex scenes, atrocious cleaver-to-the-head shots) were Zach Snyder, and not Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons.

M83 and the album of 2008

A lot of people post about their albums of the year.  Usually they do it sometime within that year.  I don’t bother, though sometimes lengthy emails go out, those last weeks of December, extolling something to people unfortunate enough to attract my attention with similar lists.

Most of those lists, painstakingly crafted, are then forgotten, set adrift into the winds of a million similar compilations and lost forever.  Or at least until the next December, when we all vow to make better lists than last time, because some of those songs were so popular, we didn’t look indy enough at all.

Sometimes, though, we’re just right.  Looking back, months later, we can say “Wow, really nailed that one, absolutely hands down the best thing to have come out of 2008, musically.”

M83 Saturdays = Youth is that rare truth.  Listening to ‘Too Late’ as I write this it is both timeless and relaxing.  Timeless seems an odd adjective, as most reviews start with “M83 is a blast of nostalgic ’80’s sound done well” or some other nonsense.  Timeless in that, unlike MGMT’s hits from last summer, I am not immediately transported to a place or a time.  Which is good, because that means when I hear M83 in another few months it will still sound just good, not “like that one time we…”

It’s the best album of the year, it’s the best album of a long time.  If you don’t have a copy go dig it out and throw it on.

Sometimes it’s nice to be right.

Some days I party, some days I sleep

The best thing about weekends is not needing them.  Because of Marie and the impending Rice spring break several of us went to some gallery openings Friday, and then a bar for some karaoke covers of songs no one knew.  A good way to end the week, after a lot of thinking and some writing and some planning and well yeah everyone having plane tickets the next morning.

Except me, which is good for the novel and the pocketbook and bad for the whole “talk to people not using the computer” portion of my life.  Which is fine, that’s what cell phones are for.

The realizations though that drive this are: going out with friends is fun, but better when not dependent on the day of week, because things are crowded on weekends.  The grocery store on Saturday is a nightmare, just like the laundry machines on a Sunday, both of which I avoid whenever possible.  I got a table at the Agora today by virtue of being early, but it was packed by four pm in a way Monday-Friday never is.

What I’m saying is that, should you not work 9-5 Mon-Fri you have a gift that few people ever have, revel in your time.