Friday, January 08, 2016

On hiatus

I have known for a while that as I am trying to accomplish so many different things, I might find I need to take a break from blogging, and I think I am there. It might have made more sense to do it earlier, but I do wait too long to give myself a break. That's one of the things I'm trying to change.

I don't anticipate it going much longer than a week, but we'll see.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Band Review: Blinking Underdogs

The holidays are over, but I am once again reviewing a band that is not current, because it kind of fits with the Star Wars theme of the week. I read a reference about Oscar Isaac's former band, Blinking Underdogs, and then I liked what I heard, so I'm going for it.

Blinking Underdogs is a ska-punk band formed by students at the University of Miami School of Music. They released their first full-length album independently in 2001. There is also a note from 2001 on their archive page that Oscar has gone off to Julliard so they are taking a break, and Alan (Mills, trombone) has gone also, and it isn't really the same band without horns (it wouldn't be) so they are going to be a different band.

Before I get into the music, I want to say some things about that note. It sounds so familiar, remembering my college days and how every time you ran into some people their band name had changed because of member shifts. These things happen, but also the existence of an archive seems brilliant to me. There are so many bands that I wish I could go back and listen to again, where I am lucky if I happened to pick up the cassette tape back then, that finding that this music has been captured saved is a good thing.

I enjoyed the music overall. My favorite tracks were "Away", "Blue Alishia", and "Trailer Park". "Blue Alishia" may actually be the better song, but I am drawn to the class consciousness and loyalty of "Trailer Park".

Some of the tracks seem to lose strength by being too experimental. I love the intro on "Salvation", and it has some other elements that are really good but feel mismatched in their almost cacophonous blend. Still, these are music students, so some experimentation would be almost mandatory, and with the track that seems to be called "artist", while it sounds very different from the other songs it goes to interesting places. (Some tracks show a strong jazz influence.)

There are more links available that you would expect for a band that has not been together since 2001, though some of them seem hastily thrown up by Star Wars fans. The most useful sites were the archive and AllMusic.

Those are listed below, but I have also done some searches to try and find out the whereabouts of other band members. I got the idea after seeing an interview where Isaac said that the bass player, Nick (Speck, also the one who write the note on the archive) plays for Orgy now. Checking them out, that is a pretty good band, and I may want to do a full review of them later. (With some names you need to be careful on your search parameters.) Anyway, this is what I could find. I hope I got the right people.

Oscar Isaac (vocals, guitar)
Okay, we kind of know what he is doing now, but there is a fan page with a section on music and you could start there, or maybe watch Inside Llewyn Davis:

Nick Speck (bass)
Apparently Orgy isn't his only other band. I will probably get back to him.

Bill Sommer (drums)
Apparently also an author now.

Alan Mills (trombone)
All I could find was that he was also in a band called The Know How, but that came before Blinking Underdogs.

Keith Cooper (sax)
There is a nice bio here with his endorsement of a reed.

Matt LaPlant (guitar)
It looks like he might be doing sound mixing now. Some similar names made finding information on him more difficult.

And here are the Blinking Underdog links:

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Rey does stuff

"Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female - whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male." - Simone de Beauvoir

The other big complaint I have seen about The Force Awakens - though I have seen more people refuting the complaint - is that Rey is a Mary Sue.

You can make good arguments for why she is not, but then other people were arguing that the term should be done away with completely. Having thought about the term at length previously, I couldn't agree with that, but people are definitely applying the term in ways that are not appropriate. I think I may have a great deal to say about Mary Sues and Strong Female Characters at a later date, but for now, let's stick to this movie.

The complaint is that Rey is too good at too many things, making her unrealistic, and then if you really hate that plus hate Finn being black then the real problem is that this is a fan-servicing Social Justice Warrior favoring movie, and how dare they pander like that?

Given that this type of complaint looks suspiciously racist and sexist anyway, it's tempting to simply ignore it, but this stuff in between, that people miss when they are looking for reasons to be offended, is exactly what interests me, so I shall blog on, and there are going to be some real spoilers here.

We see Rey being good at three things: mechanics, piloting, and the Force. In some of those cases, "good" can be relative. Also, we see that she is strong, smart, and scrappy - not terribly surprising for someone who has been surviving as a scavenger.

The scavenging of mechanical parts makes her skill with mechanical repair more plausible. I'm sure you can scavenge without knowing a lot about parts, but knowing more will help, and there is something else that we see when she is discussing the Falcon with Han Solo later: Rey loves this stuff.

She could have grown up merely trying to understand which parts would be most valuable, and probably many of her fellow scavengers are more like that, but she likes this stuff, so she has learned more. I've worked with computer geeks, and I have seen that light that goes on when there is a new problem that requires unraveling. That doesn't happen for me when the issue is a computer problem (for other things, yes). The majority of her waking hours are spent crawling around on old vehicles; with the interest and inclination she has in them, it's no shock that she gets to be good with them.

And they don't have to go together. Poe is presumably a better pilot than Rey, because he is a better pilot than anyone, but he probably is not a mechanic. I believe one of the reasons X-wing pilots have droids with them is for diagnostics and repairs. That's okay. There are probably also good mechanics that don't care much for vehicle operation.

Personally, I am good at more than one thing. Some of them are things that I do because I have to - they are associated with a job or some type of responsibility. Some things I am good at because I love them and I pursue them even when I don't need to. However, my sisters and I share an ability that is almost mystical, in that we are quite good with claw machines. Other people don't understand it, they send us articles on how they are rigged, but we just keep on accumulating prizes and then giving them to toy drives. That "force" is strong in our family.

Before I get into Rey's quick adaptation to the Force, I'm going to take a detour. Among the many storylines that I have thought of occurring in the Star Wars universe, there was a planet where those who followed the Force were not Jedi. They mainly used it for agriculture and understanding the balance between man and nature. Some of that came from Qui-Gon not disintegrating at death, when Obi-Wan and Yoda did. Like maybe they learned if from the farmers, who took "dust-to-dust" a little more literally. (Okay, I didn't like those movies, but I thought about them.)

My point with that is that if the force is always there, the Jedi can be one discipline for understanding and harnessing it, but not necessarily the only one. If the Force exists independent of the Jedi, and some people can be inclined toward it before training, then it should be possible to gain at least some traction with it without formal training.

So, in the process of being interrogated by Kylo Ren, Rey learns how to resist and pulls something from him. It is only a beginning, but it is a good beginning and plausible. Have you never been going toe to toe with someone and things come out you didn't mean to? Didn't that even happen with Harry Potter and Snape?

Practicing it, she is able to get a storm trooper to obey her. It doesn't work on the first try, but she doesn't give up. Also, storm troopers are conditioned for obedience, which probably doesn't hurt.

If Rey had defeated Ren on her own, that might be hard to swallow, but there are a few key points there. Ren was injured, and I hope there was some emotional toll going on there. And frankly, I'm glad we got to see the injury because the way he dealt with it by hitting the injury, like it was a nuisance instead of a serious medical problem, was super creepy and really gave insight into him. (And he is not villain that Darth Vader was. He doesn't have nearly the level of control, and while his training is not complete yet, you have to wonder what his personality will allow.)

In addition, Rey and Finn tag-teamed him, and they were both seriously injured. Rey was unconscious while Finn was fighting him. Actually, another good thing about the fight is that the side flares on Ren's light saber seemed foolish to me before, like you would be more likely to injure yourself than your opponent, but okay, I saw their purpose during the combat. Sorry about your shoulders, Finn.

Finally, it was not a definitive defeat. They kept the fight up long enough to have a chance to get away, which was greatly helped by the planet starting to fall apart.

Those are fascinating things for me: how we learn, how we become the people we are, what gives the edge in a fight. You have to ignore all of those mitigating factors if you want to declare that Rey is unbelievable, but doing so also ignores that at least in the past it has been common to have heroes who were good at everything and it wasn't questioned. Those types of characters can be boring, and we don't see them as much now, but did people find it implausible that James Bond was good at shooting and gambling and mixing drinks and strategy, not to mention good with the ladies? Oh well, I guess he had really good training.

I think it is reasonable for Rey to accomplish what she does based on the resources she has available. Even if that does not make her extraordinarily gifted, some human beings are, and some of these human beings are women.

If that sounds too terrible to be accepted, I do have one other quote from Simone de Beauvoir:

"No one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or scornful, than the man who is anxious about his virility."

Really makes you think.

Related posts:

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The moral philosophy of Star Wars

There may be some spoilers here, but nothing major.

I've really only heard one person mention this issue, and that was in the Feminist Frequency review by Anita Sarkeesian:

She had a point. On her larger point that a lot of these things fall apart if you think about them, I am going to disagree on that, because as I think about them I can find ways that they work, whether that requires a fair amount of fan effort or not. However, clearly not all lives are valued equally.

When I first saw the original movies I thought the Storm Troopers were robots. Actually, I think I thought that Darth Vader was a robot too. Their only visible humanity was when the two troopers were talking about the new models of some kind of ship (or something, it's been a while), but it went right over my head then. (Remember, I was five.)

Even under that viewpoint, I'm sure I would have been upset about the death of C-3PO or R2-D2, and there were plenty of non Storm Troopers on the Death Star as well, all of whom would have died (not too mention that poor Dianoga), so yes, we are accepting the deaths of the bad guys with no thoughts of moral complexity and I went along with that.

Later we find out they are clones, but there is no reason that having identical genetic material would prevent the development of unique personalities. My younger sisters are identical twins. Their DNA is identical, and they were raised pretty much the same too, but they are still their own people. So, if the source of future troopers later becomes seized children and conditioning, I suspect there was a lot of conditioning with the clones as well.

I don't see a conflict that someone who balks at mowing down unarmed villagers willingly shoots people who are coming to kill him. What the movie doesn't get into is that there probably would be guilt later, especially for Finn who has not previously only been moved by the death of one storm trooper, but who also spent so much time with them as a unit. There would be an emotional toll, no matter how much sense it made to shoot in the moment.

The other thing that is interesting to me is that some of the early interactions give us a way of viewing the basic conflict beyond good versus evil.

The Empire/First Order were big on conformity, no matter how it was accomplished. Signs of deviation get you sent to reconditioning. The very uniforms are designed to hide the wearer's humanity, because humanity is a foolish and treacherous thing.

In contrast, our first contact with Rey shows her coming to BB-8's aid, and her complaint against the attempted captor is that he doesn't have regard for anyone. It is easy to believe she will refuse to sell BB-8 later, and that she will see Finn for a person when he comes along.

In addition, Poe Dameron also sees Finn's humanity. He won't call him by a serial number, but gives him a name. (This reminded me of Geordie and Hugh from a different franchise.)

One interesting thing about that is that while the Rebellion/Resistance is primarily humanoid, I don't recall any other life forms on the other side. Yes, Vader was willing to hire various others as bounty hunters, but only humanoid Boba Fett got to ride along with him.

You can view the struggle as one of individuality versus conformity. The state wanted to crush the individuals, and then when they were no longer the state they still tended in that direction. The Rebellion has room for individuals; when they become the state, do they lose that? Historically it happens a lot.
One of the most interesting ideas I have seen about the movie comes from Gail Simone, who suggested that psychologically Kylo Ren is a school shooter. Seeing his blowups, that makes sense. It makes him a different sort of villain from Darth Vader and perhaps one that makes more sense for our time period.

That sort of personality could easily fall on either side of a dispute, but one thing about being open to individual differences is that it makes it a lot easier for you to feel peace. If you don't trust that others can vary and that it can be all right, that tends to inspire fear. It can even inspire hatred.

Fear is the path to the dark side.

Monday, January 04, 2016

I saw Star Wars!

Sure, if she's so excited, why is she posting so late? Just swamped right now, is all.

Nonetheless, I do have some thoughts, and now is a good time to post them. I don't intend to post any real spoilers, but I guess it depends on your definition of spoilers. Like, if knowing that two characters have a scene together is going to ruin it for you, maybe you should avoid reading this week.

The first thing to say is I really liked it. I wasn't initially sure I wanted to see it. I loved Star Wars - and was influenced by it - more than I can even explain. I ended up thinking of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi together with it, like they were all one thing, but the big hit was Star Wars (which I have never thought of as A New Hope).

I remember being really keyed up to see it and I'm not even sure why. I was five, so everything I watched on television was on PBS, with no commercials, but even before the movie I was so excited I could hardly stand it.

Anyway, I loved them, and as I got older I become aware of their imperfections without diminishing the love, but episodes 1 and 2 really killed that. I still haven't seen 3. I know people say it's good. I might care someday.  

With that, and with Hollywood overdoing it on remakes and sequels and reboots, I wasn't even sure that I wanted to see this one, but the word of mouth was good, and I went for it, and if it didn't erase 1-3, it at least numbed them.

There are a few specific things I remembered going wrong with The Phantom Menace. One was the scene with the fish, where they were not realistically sized or shaped. I get that CGI allows you to be unrealistic, but that doesn't mean it's always a good idea. That leads to the next thing; the most exciting sequence in the movie had no CGI, but quick camera cuts, a fake-out, and yes, some really fake looking dolls. I know those were not the most common complaints, but they seemed to illustrate most how the love of technology had taken away the heart of the previous series.

One thing I appreciate about The Force Awakens is that it has a love and respect for the original trilogy but maintains a healthy sense of balance. The Pirates of the Caribbean sequel went overboard with references to the original, to where it took me out of the picture. Here I could see similarities to the original, but it didn't kill the current story.

That allowed me to remember things and enjoy them. My affection for Han Solo never dimmed, but I forgot how awesome Chewbacca was. It was fun to see him again.

Also - without naming any instances where previous movies fell short - this movie had some pretty good actors.

My favorite interaction was the early one between Poe and Finn. Where Finn is just starting to come alive to how life can be and what he can do, Poe is so good at enjoying everything that there couldn't be anyone better to come alive with.

I have read some very high praises of Oscar Isaac from other movies, but this is the first chance I have had to see him, and okay, I get it.

So I'm going to have fun with it this week. There have been a few complaints or concerns about the movie that I have thoughts on, and that theme might even make it into the band reviews.

And every single post might be late.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Band Review: Christie Front Drive

One of my big goals for this year is to finish listening to all the bands in Nothing Feels Good. It's not really that it necessarily takes that long, but I do too many other things and forget about it. It feels like I have been in Chapter 4 forever.

Chapter 4 has some good stuff. This is where we get into Jimmy Eat World, whom I liked then, and The Get Up Kids, whom I saw perform a great show just a few months ago. Besides them, the band making the strongest impression on me is Christie Front Drive.

They already seem to have left a pretty big impression on others; I still see mentions of them in odd places, though part of the point of that time period is that these bands had a strong emotional impact that wasn't going to fade away. That led me to listen to them early.

My first thought was that I liked them, and so I didn't mark them off because I wanted to listen more. Then when I went back I didn't like them as much, but I wondered if I was wrong. That's why I decided to review them.

The issue appears to be that I like their later stuff a lot more than their earlier stuff. This may seem like splitting hairs when the lifespan of the band was really only about three or four years. Nonetheless, I still like Stereo best. From Anthology, I prefer the songs that were not on the First LP.

(The discography can be a little confusing because they did a lot of splits, but these are the titles used by Spotify.)

The sound is a little fuzzy, and reminds me of jangle in a way, though those two qualities don't get combined a lot. The singing is incomprehensible to me, and plaintive to the point of whining. That description does not sound likable, but there's something about it. This may make Christie Front Drive the quintessential emo band.

They have had a couple of reunions in the past decade. I don't know if they have plans for more, but I would take them up on it.