Monthly Archives: June 2014

Baseball Tonight: A Reflection On Ken Burns

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I went to a Phillies game tonight with my good friend Joe Master. And even though the team isn’t exactly electric right now, it was—as always—a pleasure to spend some time at the ballpark with an old friend, munching on dollar dogs, catching up on all of life’s complexities, and enjoying a sport that holds more innumerable sublimities and subtleties than one could ever hope to know fully in a lifetime.

As I sit here on my porch at the close of the evening, I think back to Ken Burns’ impossibly spectacular documentary Baseball, which I count as one of the most culturally informative pieces of work I have ever seen. I had the pleasure of meeting Burns two years ago when he spoke at Rowan University. Here’s a brief article I wrote about the experience. If you only want a taste, here’s something he said that night. He, like the sport he so beautifully documented, is an American treasure.

Just before showing us an exclusive preview clip from The Roosevelts, a work-in-progress that follows the story of the American political family, Burns said, “Think about the person closest to you in your life. A husband or a wife. They remain inscrutable to the end. There’s always something unknowable about the person closest to us, which makes all biography, in a way, a failure. How can you possibly take someone who has been dead for decades and bring him to life when you don’t even know the person you sleep next to at night? That’s a fact of human beings. But we wouldn’t be human beings if we didn’t try, if we didn’t rage against the dying of the light and try to make stories.”

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Philly Comic Con!

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This Is Your Brain

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The Love For A Dog

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“This soldier, I realized, must have had friends at home and in his regiment; yet he lay there deserted by all except his dog. I looked on, unmoved, at battles which decided the future of nations. Tearless, I had given orders which brought death to thousands. Yet here I was stirred, profoundly stirred, stirred to tears. And by what? By the grief of one dog.”

Napoleon Bonaparte, on finding a dog beside the body of his dead master, licking his face and howling, on a moonlit field after a battle. Napoleon was haunted by this scene until his own death.
Pasted from http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/109399-this-soldier-i-realized-must-have-had-friends-at-home

Doctor Who Marathon: The Krotons

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Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: David Maloney
Producer: Peter Bryant
Story Number: 47
Number of Episodes: 4
Season: 6

When I first started digging into classic Doctor Who last October (in preparation for the upcoming 50th Anniversary special) I scoured the web for blogs that could help point me in the direction of some of the series’ most essential stories. The goal was to watch at least one episode from every Doctor’s era (including the 1996 TV movie), and with 239 stories from which to choose I needed a little guidance. If you’re interested, here’s a great Doctor-by-Doctor guide from The Nerdist and another from WhatCulture.com.

What I didn’t understand at first was why some of these stories were so universally celebrated. For instance, everyone just raved and raved about “Tomb Of The Cybermen,” but when I got around to watching this Troughton classic I left the story feeling kinda…meh. I just didn’t see the big deal. Now, 43 stories into my marathon, I can officially say that I get it, and “The Krotons” is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

This story marks the first effort from writer Robert Holmes, who would go on to pen a host of celebrated classics like “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Deadly Assassin”, and “The Caves of Androzani.” Holmes is widely regarded as one of the show’s most interesting and engaging writers, a fact that gave me a false sense of hope going into “The Krotons.” With Homles’ name attached to it I figured this one had to be pretty good. Alas, my expectations were left sadly unmatched by the story.

The thing is “The Krotons” isn’t a bad story. Believe me, I’ve seen a lot worse. It’s relatively taut (only four episodes long) and the plot moves along at a rather brisk clip. But on the whole it’s a more-or-less mediocre romp that, to my mind, serves to remind us why other stories in the classic Who oeuvre are considered to be veritable masterpieces by comparison. A story like “Tomb of the Cybermen” not only provides us with a haunting plot, menacing villains, and very clever direction, but it also gives us some intriguing new layers to the Doctor’s character and an internal conflict between saving the day and satisfying his insatiable lust for knowledge (a compelling conceit that is often a hallmark of what makes contemporary Doctor Who stories so fascinating). Consider, for instance, this brilliant bit of introspection from “Tomb of the Cybermen”:

“The Krotons”, by comparison, doesn’t have anything of the sort.

The Plot: Coming off a particularly harrowing Earth adventure (the most excellent “The Invasion“) the TARDIS appears on a planet inhabited by the Gonds, a somewhat primitive human-like race ruled and enslaved by aliens called Krotons. As legend has it, the Krotons’ ship—the Dynatrope—crash-landed on the Gonds’ planet thousands of years ago, and they’ve been in charge ever since.

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I am a Kroton. If you make any jokes about putting me on a salad I will disperse you immediately!

But no Gond has ever seen a Kroton. Instead, the Krotons maintain control over the planet’s indigenous people by educating them through a mysterious computer that only teaches them as much as the Krotons want them to know (knowledge of advanced weaponry and corrosive chemicals, for instance, is strictly verboten). Every so often two of the best Gond students are chosen to become “companions of the Krotons.” They’re invited into the Dynatrope, which every Gond thinks is a pretty cool honor, but all it really means is that the chosen Gonds are drained of their mental energy and then killed with some kind of insidious gas. Bummer.

After some time The Doctor eventually figures out what’s going on. The Krotons are in a state of suspended animation and are only interested in absorbing mental power from the smartest Gonds. When they’ve built up enough of the brainy stuff they can re-materialize, fix their ship, and get the hell back to Krotonville. But of course their plan goes tits up when The Doctor arrives, eventually destroying the Krotons and their Dynatrope with sulphuric acid.

The Pros: Like so many classic Who stories, this one starts off with a promisingly mysterious premise. Why the hell is everyone so eager to be chosen for a one-way ticket to Kroton companionship? It’s a conceit that drew me in immediately, and it’s not until the third episode—once we get an actual look at the K Monsters—that the mystery unravels and is replaced by a more literal LET’S KILL ‘EM plot. Also, Jamie has a pretty bad ass moment in the first episode when he opts to fight one of the Gonds and dismisses the option to use a weapon. “I won’t be needing that, thank you.” Yeah Jamie. Rock on.

The Cons: I often fall into the trap of assuming these classic stories are going to unfold in a manner that I’ve come to expect from the show’s contemporary iteration. For instance, if this were a Doctor Who story being written today, The Doctor would not merely be content with destroying the Krotons. Sure, they’ve enslaved an entire race for thousands of years and throttled their intellectual evolution at the service of their own needs. But come on. All they want is to go home. Are they not even slightly justified? It would have been much more interesting if The Doctor decided to not only help the Gonds free themselves from bondage but to also assist the Krotons in their effort to get back to where they once belonged (everybody wins!), setting up a fascinating conflict between the Gonds’ justified need for vengeance and The Doctor’s more holistic view on every living creature’s right to survive (well, within reason). For an example of this you should check out the ninth Doctor story “Boom Town,” where The Doctor is forced to contemplate whether or not he has the right to sentence an enemy to death, no matter how grievous their actions.

Final Rating: 5/10 (It’s as middle-of-the-road) as they come.

The Beatles: Let It Be & Yesterday And Today

For today’s entry I’ve posted my evening post from The Spin, a Tumblr blog dedicated to my vinyl record collection. Enjoy.

As I’ve mentioned in previous Spin posts, I haven’t put much conscious effort into adding Beatles records to my collection. Not only are worthwhile copies usually outside my spending threshold on any given day, but I kind of harbor this notion that at some point in the (not too distant?) future I will actually commit to bulking up on these Liverpudlian lads’ library. And when I do I want to do it right. Should I go all mono or all stereo? Should I look for particular pressings (about which I known nothing at this point) or just pursue quality in general? Until I sort all of this out, I sort of just take whatever comes my way. Which is how I came into this rather shoddy copy of Let It Be.

I honestly don’t remember how this came into my possession, but I think it may have been one of several records Cydnee’s mom donated to the cause about two years ago. Which was cool. Despite the rather sad circumstances under which it was recorded, it’s always been one of my favorite Beatles efforts. Sure, you come for classics like “Across the Universe” and the album’s famed title track, but you stay for the more obscure ditties like “I’ve Got A Feeling,” “For You Blue,” and “One After 909.” The whole thing is a testament to the fact that even when the band’s chemistry and endurance was up against the ropes, these guys still managed to put out a collection of kick ass music.

The shame of it all is that this record is practically unlistenable. It’s not warped or scratched, but for some reason the pitch of every song ebbs and flows from start to finish, making it sound like someone is slowing it down and then speeding it up at random intervals. I don’t know why, but it kinda sucks. Still, the album looks pretty cool, which is something. I guess.

It also came with like 20 photocopies that someone decided to make from the album’s iconic cover. I wonder why…

Then there’s Yesterday and Today. Again, I don’t know how it came into my possession (see the above theory for a possible explanation) but I’m glad it did.

Released in 1966, the album is a compilation of tracks from the band’s two most recent British LPs at the time—Help! and Rubber Soul—as well as a few from the upcoming Revolver. Unfortunately the copy I have is not one of the original pressings, which came with an entirely different cover, known in most circles as “The Butcher Cover.” Here’s what it looked like:

Yeah, I know. There’s a very interesting story behind this original cover, as well as the reasons why it was eventually changed. To read all about it click here. Obtaining a “Butcher Cover” copy of Yesterday and Today is considered a Holy Grail in most vinyl collector circles, so until I set out on that particular pilgrimage this one will have to do. Besides, the cover of the one I have still has an interesting little anecdote. Notice who’s sitting inside the trunk? Yup. That image is just one of many supposed “Paul Is Dead” clues littered throughout Beatles lore. And the music isn’t half bad either.

Today’s Mess In Iraq: How Did We Not See This Coming?

Look, I don’t want this to turn into a longwinded political screed, so I’ll try to stick with a single (and yes, overly simplistic) premise: How did we not see this coming?

I didn’t. At least not in the very beginning, when I was an overly zealous collegiate champion of what President Bush was planning to do in Iraq. Back then I still held onto the naive (um…innocent?) notion that many of the world’s international quandaries could be remedied with a wholesale devotion to overarching ideals like “democracy” and “freedom.” It’s hard for me to admit now, but that’s the truth. I was, in many ways, immature in my political perspective. Perhaps a bit of a pollyanna. I wanted my version of truth to be true, because that’s the world I wanted to live in. There was comfort in it. But I was wrong. To those I may have offended along the way, I’m sorry. Truly.

But it wasn’t long after our so-called liberation of Iraq that I began to get wise to the folly of what we had done, along with the expectations of the entire premise. And it all began when I started delving into our own nation’s history, most specifically the American Civil War.

“Here’s the key thing about the Civil War,” I recall my good friend—and Civil War virtuoso—Joe Master telling me one night over Manhattans. “Before then people used to say the United States are. After the Civil War people started saying, for the first time, the United States is.”

See the distinction? Prior to the Civil War this country was perceived—both internally and externally—as a collection of individually sovereign states. Crazy, right?

The concept compels me to recall a moment from the brilliant HBO film adaptation of David McCullough’s John Adams. After recently arriving in Philadelphia for one of the first meetings of the Continental Congress, Adams and Benjamin Franklin are found walking through a courtyard with none other than Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson seems perturbed about having to leave his home in Virginia, asking Franklin, “When will we escape this dreadful city, doctor?”

Adams then responds with a question. “Philadelphia is not to your liking, sir?”

“I’d rather be in my own country,” says Jefferson. “Would not you?”

“I would Mr. Jefferson,” says Adams. “Yes.”

Get it? To Jefferson (and Adams), Philadelphia was no more a part of his “country” than France or the moon. And even after a bloody revolution and the formation of a “unifying” constitution, the United States still had to endure the better part of a century (89 years to be precise) and the deadliest war in modern history before it could even begin to consider itself unified. We might even still be working on that one.

The moral of the story: Building a self-governing nation is hard fucking work. And guess what? It takes a hell of a lot of time.

To that end, what intellectually honest individual could have ever believed that building a unified, democratic, sovereign nation in Iraq (a country generationally rife with sectarian and ideological divides) would require little more than a few hundred billion U.S. dollars and the ouster of a single dictator? Oh sure. Let’s “free” the people of Iraq and then just sit back and watch the glory of democracy magically take hold. Simple as that.

Look, I know I’m treading through territory about which books have already been written, so I won’t belabor the point. But the bottom line is that anyone with half a sense should have seen today’s crisis in Iraq from miles away. And guess what? Sadly, this isn’t even the beginning of the end. If—and that’s a big if—Iraq ever forms itself into the nation upon which the entire U.S. invasion was predicated, it probably won’t be realized until after most of us have shuffled off this mortal coil. And this is not a political point I’m making here. At all. Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, or somewhere in between, you must acknowledge that this is a crisis of human nature; of our seeming inability to unite without violence and, perhaps more importantly, our continued ignorance of the lessons we should be learning from histories that have unfolded in our own backyards.

And so I leave you with two clips from the ever-prescient and peerless Jon Stewart. Bot clips are, as usual, both hilarious and insightful: