Currently viewing the category: "Pop culture/Reviews"
Don't be these guys.

Don’t be these guys.

“The Shelter,” season 3, episode 68: air date: September 29, 1961

One of my criticisms of apocalyptic fiction — particularly the alien invasion or nuclear war variety — is that most characters are not hysterical enough. For example, the early aughts CBS show Jericho, which was all about a small Kansas town surviving after 25 cities are nuked, was enjoyable and disturbing, but nobody was ever upset enough about the situation. The very first shot of a faraway mushroom cloud is seen by a little kid standing on his roof — and it’s just killer. But five seconds later, after only the kid being shown in tears, that’s it. No adults are crying, no adults are hysterical in the nightmare way that I truly believe they would be. Not that civilization would crumble, or people would eat their children in five minutes, exactly, but that in the initial moments and days of nuclear war — even in the face of a visible mushroom cloud — people would flip. Even if they later rallied, the toughest among us would break down to some extent.

The Twilight Zone is not known for its realism — social commentary notwithstanding — perhaps because old TV shows are inherently a bit theatrical to youthful eyes (or to cranky people like my father).

Burgess Meredith the bookworm is eventually suicidal after he survives the H-bomb attack in “Time Enough at Last,” but he’s still impossibly mild-mannered about it all. “Time Enough at Last”  is a classic episode for a reason, but I don’t fully believe his reactions after the world is gone. The Rod Serling-penned episode “The Shelter” — in spite of some dramatic, necessarily dated elements, and some showing, and then telling — works better.

We see that Dr. Bill Stockton is throwing a dinner party, with his wife and three other couples. A warning comes over the radio that unidentified objects have entered US airspace.  Stockton, who has previously been teased for his doomsday preparations, has a fallout shelter in the basement. The other couples run home. Stockton and his wife, along with their nauseatingly chipper ’60s son, gather supplies. There’s an eerie conversation between Stockton’s wife and himself about the point of survival at all after the missiles come. The actress (Peggy Stewart) does a fabulous job, not hysterical, but displaying a bleak, tearful terror that shows she has already given up just from imagining the world that is to come. Stockton (Larry Gates) is not quite as good, but his sweaty, wide-eyed determination to save his family still rings true enough. He’s all masculine, reasonable panic.

The true conflict arises when one by one the couples come back, some with children in tow, begging to be let into the shelter. They have no basements, or they have half-finished ones, or they simply know that Stockton has a shelter and they do not. They plead, they cry, and Stockton grimly says there isn’t enough air or supplies. Every single person with dialogue sells this episode. There are no women to be slapped back into sense, no men who have everything in hand, there is just barely-contained desperation that explodes.

And the way they turn on each other — AKA, the topical commentary of it all — mostly works. Half of them preserve their humanity fairly well, the worst man goes from zero to xenophobic — turning on the sympathetic, desperate mustached guy — and he also has the bright idea of breaking down the shelter door. This mob, with some protests from the two half-reasonable men, does so. The viewer will note that everyone crowds in once the deed is done. (No mention is made of the fact that they have doomed Stockton and family, and still not saved themselves through this idiocy.)

The moment they are inside the shelter, the radio says the objects were just satellites. There is a palpable sense of shame in the air, again done well. The final speech from Stockton — wondering whether something besides a bomb destroyed them that night — is not fully necessary. Nor is the Serling tag that says the only moral here is that “for civilization to remain, the human race must remain civilized.” This was already there for the teaching, without the postscript.

Contrast “The Shelter” with “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” — another Serling classic — and you can see the former is vastly superior. Written at the height of the Berlin crisis, it feels credible, in spite of the aforementioned moral lampshading. “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” is the story of another block dissolving into suspicion, fighting, and hatred. But they do this simply because the power is out and a few strange things are happening. Much of the dialogue feels clunky, and the episode cannot be watched today without it feeling like a hamfisted anti-McCarthyist screed. The end result that it’s all been an actual alien experiment in inducing paranoia — something the aliens feel the need to highlight, though it was clearly already shown to us — doesn’t make the conflicts feel any more believable.

And the ET subject matter isn’t the problem. Move “The Shelter” to an imminent alien invasion, and it would feel just as true, and the barely-contained terror radiating from the actors would still impress. I am an optimist about human nature, but we were told to fear fear itself for a reason. It does bad things to us. Serling, more subtle than average, shows this nicely in “The Shelter.”

Don't be this guy either.

Don’t be this guy either.

“One More Pallbearer,” season 3, episode 82: air date: January 12, 1962

Another Serling-penned episode, this mostly exists as a character study of an awful man. The setting is a bomb shelter and the stage is set for a would-be practical joke. Millionaire Paul Radin (Joseph Wiseman) invites three people from his past to come to his lair, and has readied a fake Civil Defense warning and a television screen with bomb footage to make them believe that nuclear war is now.

Present are his former highschool teacher, his former military commander, and a reverend, all of whom he has decided wronged him, but we see that only in his arrogant, nasty impression of how things were. Unfortunately for Radin, they all believe his trick, but after unpleasant conversation (the teacher is particularly good and cutting, she’s played by Katherine Squire), each one chooses to leave the shelter instead of begging his pardon, and to let them stay. This is all Radin wanted, but they won’t do it. They face annihilation rather than apologize to him — or rather, they are not interested in living out their days with an awful man in his awful, doomsday kingdom.

They leave, and he yells at their backs, and then rather abruptly he seems to lose his damn mind. The audience is waiting for a twist, and Serling plays with that expectation — maybe a nuke will really happen just at this synchronistic time! Nope. Radin has just snapped. His Twilight Zone fate is to be nuts and to believe he is the only man left after nuclear holocaust. The message here isn’t so much remain civilized in the face of the greatest imaginable horror, but don’t be a dick, otherwise people will let themselves be melted rather than spend time with you; this makes it a bit less satisfying an entry in the nuclear terrors Twilight Zone canon.

steigerwald-montage-2I could have written many more articles, with many more examples, I realized while rewatching season two with my mother.

All of the dirty DC dealings in Netflix’s House of Cards arguably make it the most cynical of the current crop of highly-acclaimed and talked over television shows. However, the epic Game of Thrones – in spite of its fantastical elements – paints an even more brutal picture of the vile nature of politics, and the ruinous nature of wars with even the noblest stated intentions.

The HBO series, set in the magical-tinged fictional land of Westeros, is nearly finished with its fourth season. The show is often criticized for its graphic violence – though that usually has a larger purpose – and laughably gratuitous sex scenes. But neither gore nor smut is the point. The truly entrancing quality of the show (carried over fromthe books by George R.R. Martin on which it is based) is the scads of gray, but sympathetic characters to worry over. Indeed, there are flawed, but compelling characters on every side in the series’ ongoing war to win the Iron Throne. Hence the tension that comes from watching, and from the knowledge that there is no happy ending in store for everyone. Hell, there may be no happy ending for any of these characters.

On Monday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an exhaustive comparisonbetween the dragons of would-be Westeros queen – and George W. Bush proxy, according to both liberal and neocon interpretation – Daenerys Targaryen and the game-changing quality of nuclear weapons in warfare. This side-by-side mostly works, but the ideology of Daenerys remains more interesting than her monopoly on dragons/WMDS. For all her conquering hubris, Daenerys considers herself on a humanitarian mission to free the slaves of various cities that lie along her route to win the throne. She is well-meaning, deeply principled, and yet she is shown bumbling into cultures of which she has no awareness. It’s sometimes hard not to read her journey as a parallel with US foreign policy (even if necons prefer to twist that into praise of the Bush doctrine). If Daenerys says she means to bring freedom with her army; if she shouts her noble, chain-breaking mission from the hilltops, everything is sure to end well. And if she savagely punishes the slave masters in various cities, well, they deserved it and there shall be no negative consequences from changing culture by military force. (There will be, though, because this show is that good.)

The rest here

600full-joe-strummer6) Townes Van Zandt, Be Here to Love Me

Before I watched this thing, I knew “Pancho and Lefty” and Justin Townes Earle’s namesake, and that was about it. But this sad, sad, documentary that is a country song in itself went so well with my last Nashville adventure. S.T. and I perched in R.B.’s disaster of a music nerd bachelor apartment and sunk into the life of Townes.

The most memorable part, besides the quiet, woeful songs? Van Zandt’s son talking about how he learned his dad was dead. Switching across the stations one night, the son heard one of his dad’s song, which was rare. Then he heard another one and thought, oh, a two-fer, great. A third song followed and he knew something awful had happened.

Before S.T. and I watched this, and before we saw Old Crow Medicine Show that night for a WSM radio show, we had paid tribute to Townes by having a beer at The Gold Rush. There is a picture of the man himself above one of the bars. When S.T. and I went to take a photo, the middle-afged bartender began telling us perfect, tragic stories about how shit-faced Townes used to stagger home from the place. Sometimes he would leave his lyrics-covered napkins behind, and the bartenders would keep them for him. By telling us these raw, real tales of sorrow, the bartender managed to simultaneously puncture the unserious fun time impression of the country-drunk and enhance it one hundred-fold. All in all, it was a very Nashville moment.

Favorite Townes Van Zandt song (besides the one I put in Friday Afternoon links below):

Oh, and here’s the whole documentary on Youtube!

5) Tommy Jarrell, Sprout Wings and Fly

A group of us has rented a little house in Nashville — by us, I mean the collection of oddballs I met from internet Old Crow Medicine Show fandom, all of whom are at least 15 years older than I am — to see the group at the Ryman for the switch from 2010 to 2011. There was moonshine, black-eyed peas, collard greens, Prince’s Hot Chicken, and S.T. and J.K. busking their hearts out on the corners and side-streets off of Broadway. And when S.T. and J.K. practice their fiddle and guitar, it gets serious — even religious. During their practice at our (for the moment) little house, the DVD of Les Blank’s Sprout Wings and Fly was brought out. “Tommy” they called Jarrell. In their reverence, he needs no other name. I didn’t display my ignorance, but watched and tried to learn the appropriate lessons and display my old time piety.

Jarrell was an old school Appalachian fiddler, absolutely from another universe, even while Blank filmed him at the end of his life in the 1980s. It’s just one of those perfect folk moments in amber that makes one wish to be named Lomax. S.T. told me later that the story goes that Jarrell’s musician father learned “Poor Ellen Smith” from Peter Degraf himself as he sat in jail for the poor woman’s murder. That story is so America, that I hope never to confirm whether it is true or not.

Favorite Tommy Jarrell song:

Here’s the trailer for the documentary:

4) The Clash, Westway to the World

I don’t remember the first time I watched Westway to the World, but my 15th and 16th years saw the DVD nearly worn to splinters. It’s just the Clash talking, with archival footage. Headon is withered and still on heroin, Jones is all teeth and a bit of smarm, Simonon is still handsome and cheeky, and Strummer seems sweet, and sad, and regretful about his key part in fucking up the completely magical foursome had had going.

Favorite Clash song:

And the documentary:

3) Joe StrummerLet’s Rock Again!

Oh,  Let’s Rock Again! I waited breathlessly to watch, sobbed my eyes out when Strummer is passing out flyers to his own gig, or sitting on the sidewalk chatting with teens, or being hugged by hysterically joyful Japanese fans, and then I could never watch it again. The Clash I missed by miles, but if congenital heart defects and my lack of prodigious coolness hadn’t gotten in the way, I could have seen the Mescaleros, dammit. I missed it. I fucked up. I was late. But the whole documentary just makes you love Strummer’s humanity and his earnest, human optimism. (Which, knowing how he turned out, makes asshole, must be a punker, 1976 Strummer even more adorable.)

Favorite Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros song:

And the clip where Joe passes out flyers to his own show — contrived or not, I want to hug him real bad. Strummer was the most huggable of all the old punk rockers.

2) Simon and Garfunkel, Songs of America and The Concert in Central Park

The latter, a 1981 concert that made 12-year-old me infuriated that I had even missed that pale imitation of a folk reunion by six years of life — making the ’60s I yearned to visit seem farther away still. The former, though officially packaged with a shiny new version of Bridge Over Troubled Water a few years back, came to my eager hands as a grainy VHS from an internet friend (I “met” her in an MSN Paul Simon fans group. She also sent me a burned CD of a bootleg of the once-rare The Paul Simon Songbook). That tape was painfully wonderful — finally a glimpse of the duo at their peak, the thing I missed. The thing itself is pretty low-key, sometimes it lags, but there are some good concert scenes, and a particularly wonderful Simon and Garfunkel warming up bit.

Favorite Simon and Garfunkel song:

And Songs of America! (You God damned kids have no idea what it was like pre-Youtube. The dial-up days were dark indeed.)

And the Central Park one as well!

(I finally saw Simon and Garfunkel in 2004, though for most of my childhood I assumed it was impossible. I heard “The Only Living Boy in New York” and “Suspect Device” that year. Seventeen was a good musical year.)

1) Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense

This, for the distinctive memory of my father rushing home from work one day, piece of mail in hand, and how he popped in his brand new VHS of the flawless Talking Heads doing their thing. He and mom were actually there for one of the nights the concert was made from. Though they were a very New York City band, my parents in LA in 1984 watching David Byrne in his great big suit, dancing with a lamp, makes them seem very California, and very familiar in a way — as if they helped raise me. And the concert is as wonderful as everyone says — its slow build from David Byrne playing “Psycho Killer” all alone to the full, wild stage and incomprehensible energy. It’s perfect, and it’s strange, and it’s my parents being cool and before my time.

Favorite Talking Heads song:

And —

— David Byrne and that lamp.

258c9a567fba3fc64abf3573d93b0db1Okay maybe guest blogger Todd Seavey didn’t stick to the Tuesday Apocalypse theme, but if we can’t go off theme at a libertarian/anarchist blog, what good is having an anarchist/libertarian blog? Seavey is a great writer, so we let him go on a nerd journey about some of the new X-Men films. The Stag Blog welcomes submissions on any and all subjects — including delicious nerdery. Check out below for links to some of Seavey’s other works. — LS

Word is that 2016 will bring the film X-Men: Apocalypse, set in the 1980s and featuring the centuries-old, conflict-creating, villainous, Egyptian mutant named Apocalypse (and perhaps a teenage version of X-Men team member Storm, back in her days as a street thief in Cairo?). This is just one of several reasons I can confidently predict that this year, in the film X-Men: Days of Future Past, the X-Men timeline will be rebooted (a la J.J. Abrams’ relaunch of Star Trek). Every X-Men film you’ve seen except for 2011’s X-Men: First Class will be erased from the fictional timeline at a theatre near you one month from now, mark my words.

But why? Well, when Star Trek, Star Wars, and Tolkien all went the prequel-film route, those franchises got worse. X-Men, by contrast, arguably gave us the best entry in the whole series with the swingin’, James Bond-influenced X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbinder were as engaging, in their own way, portraying the 1960s versions of heroic Professor X and anti-heroic Magneto as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen had been in portraying the aged, present-day versions of the characters in the other ensemble X-Men films. More important: McAvoy and Fassbinder’s contracts weren’t about to expire, as are the contracts of many of the Stewart/McKellen ensemble.

Rumor has it that Fox had long had its doubts about whether the unwieldy, megastar-filled cast of the main trilogy of X-Men film was worth the trouble of paying and scheduling, especially given what a small portion of the general film-going audience can keep track of all those mutant characters. The tortured one-on-one relationship of McAvoy and Fassbinder is easier to do — and Mystique, the shapeshifter mutant for whose loyalty they’ve battled, is played by Jennifer Lawrence, suddenly a big star in her own right. Why not focus on these three?

But first: this year brings X-Men: Days of Future Past, with a great built-in excuse for starting from scratch at film’s end. The whole plot (which was not conjured up just for the strategic purposes I’m describing here but was genuinely derived from a classic story in the original comic books) revolves around the Stewart/McKellen versions of the characters using time travel to prevent an apocalyptic war between mutants and humans circa 2023 — by teaching their younger selves (McAvoy and Fassbinder) to be peacemakers instead of warriors. Clearly, it’s easiest to end this film with a clean slate, back in the 1970s, and just proceed with McAvoy, Fassbinder, Lawrence, and whatever fresh, young actors we choose, leaving Halle Berry and other potentially-pricey old cast members to exit with dignity.

The fact that 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse takes place in the 1980s, then, strongly suggests that from here on out we’ll just keep moving forward from the newly-improved 1970s. That means Stewart et al — and the five films in which those actors appeared — will no longer be the foregone conclusion to which the franchise is leading. From here, it’s just First Class (which took place in the ’60s, remember) and forward. New viewers looking to save time can skip all the rest. It makes everything so easy! (Though admittedly having a major film franchise stuck in the fictional 1980s is a bit odd — not that you’ll hear any complaints from this Duran Duran fan).

The fresh start would also make it easy to ignore/erase the multiple continuity errors that the series has accumulated by skipping around to different eras (even before the time travel-themed film comes out on May 23), nitpickily cataloged by io9 here (though I don’t think any of those are impossible to reconcile). To avoid creating new continuity errors, though, let us just hope they remember in X-Men: Days of Future Past to show the 1960s Wolverine with bone claws, since he didn’t get laced with metallic adamantium until 1979 (as depicted in mediocre X-Men Origins: Wolverine).

 That’s a cold, hard fact, and you can’t just go changing facts willy-nilly.

You can catch guest blogger Todd Seavey talking about similarly nerdy things on this YouTube channel, his personal blog, the libertarian pop culture site LibertyIsland, and, on April 18, 2014, live and in person onstage in New York City as part of a comedic panel discussion (details of which will be announced on the aforementioned blog shortly).

15752340I have no idea why people join cults, and certainly the fear of cults as moral panic has caused its own misery (Waco being the most prominent example). But followers and leaders of Jonestown, The Family, Heaven’s Gate, and yes, the Branch Davidians themselves caused plenty of suffering. And every single survivor of these horrors that I have heard of speaks of their cults in the same fashion — they always say it was wonderful at first. They talk about how people loved each other so much.

I saw the ghastly Jonestown photos years before I learned that the members of the People’s Temple started out feeling as if they had found a place of benevolent communism and racial harmony. The Manson Family was hippie farm living for lost souls until it was stabbing Sharon Tate and painting the walls with her blood.

My mom is always skeptical about the trope of the neighbor who thought the BTK killer was just a charming fellow. She tends to think people can see who will go bad, or who always was bad, if they only look a little harder. But brainwashing works wonders, as does a mixture of kindness and cruelty and charisma. People join cults. People voted for Hitler. There’s got to be a reason, and we all endlessly wonder about the reason. Young Adult novels, with their angsty first person narratives and their action — not their “Oh my God, the suburbs are like, totally artificial, bro” whining — are a great format with which to explore why someone might give up their free will and what they do when it comes creeping back thanks to teenage hormones and rebellion.

In Gated, by Amy Christine Parker, our narrator is Lyla. Her parents, and her three friends, and the leader known as Pioneer are the main characters. Cute son of the local sheriff Cody is mostly a plot device for some serious faith questioning, but then, that’s lampshaded enough to be fairly unannoying. The whole idea there is that Lyla — “intended” toward her friend Will — has never had the pleasure of teenage attraction. It doesn’t matter if Cody is important himself, just that Lyla has been deprived of the pleasures of youth. Yes, all the teenagers in the cult are engaged to be married to someone picked by Pioneer, but this ain’t the Children of God or even the Branch Davidians. Everyone is 18 when they are married, so it’s nice and legal. But they do have an awful lot of guns! And a bunker!

Lyla, 17, and her family have been in the cult for ten years, since her older sister was kidnapped from the front yard and 9/11 happened all in the span of a week. The book opens with a demonstration of Lyla’s inability to shoot the human-shaped targets in the head and chest, and her scolding by Pioneer. (Yes, it’s Chekov’s gun-y.) Yes, well, it’s sort of silly to be unable to shoot a damn target. But we quickly learn this group is preparing for a time when they may need to shoot unworthy, desperate outsiders who may come for their supplies or to hurt them once they realize the truth — that the apocalypse is only months away.

For someone well versed in real cults and some of their disastrous endings (with or without an outside authority making things worse) the only question is how things are going to end for the group. Will it go Jonestown, Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, or Waco? Parker mixes in hints that suggest it could be any of them, upping the tension for old fogy readers like me.

Though law enforcement characters are disappointingly not at all bad, the cult itself is pleasingly gray. Most of the people Lyla lives with she truly loves, but she and they are all true believers to varying degrees. The community is rigid, but pleasant and pastoral. Pioneer is all “brothers and sisters” and mood swings between joyful and wrathful God. (Very Koresh and Jim Jones, and most every other big and small molder of minds and sapper of free wills, it seems). Some of the best bits are when Lyla questions something small about Pioneer’s teachings, but demonstrates in that narration that she has yet to even consider that maybe the Brethren, the alien-god types, have not chosen her and her loved ones. Maybe they are not at all real. Instead, it’s maybe that Pioneer didn’t need to punish Lyla and her friends so hard, but certainly the apocalypse is only months away and the Brethren are watching from above. That slow build of questioning in someone already more skeptical than average, and less willing to harm potential outsiders, works flawlessly well. I suspect there would be levels of realization like that.

The prose is all basic, but YA-serviceable. It’s superior to the later Hunger Games novels, but not as interesting as the more flawed 5th Wave. Lyla herself isn’t a terribly compelling character, but then, perhaps she hasn’t yet become one due to her upbringing. Making her both solidly brainwashed and sympathetic is a hard narrative task, but Parker pulls it off well. Lyla’s friend Marie is also similarly deftly drawn. Marie is both a stauncher believer and more prone to small acts of rebellion (sneaking out with the boys, smuggling in verboten Coca Cola) than her friend. Lyla’s dad is clearly struggling with belief, whereas her mother, it is implied at the end, may never recover and go back into the world. They both commit unforgivable betrayals, but they both care about their daughter. They are credible people. They are good people who suffered, and began to believe something stupid, then wrong, then evil. You can make a whole life out of what’s been poured into your head from people who swear they know everything, and you are a cipher for their will — or the will of alien gods who have been telling you their will, depending.

The tension in Gated builds admirably towards what becomes an early deadline for the group to hide in the bunker and await the end. The ATF and police come, though Lyla sees almost none of it. The bunker is closed. Pioneer goes even more mad; and I have to say, I prefer either a true-believer villain, or one who knows exactly the evil he does (shades of The Operative in Serenity). A con man or someone enjoying the process of evil is no fun.

The very end (spoilers) is relatively happy. Only a few of the cult members die. And the final scenes are of Lyla and Will (not intended for marriage anymore, but friends again after his disbelief in her) staring at the stars with the other members of the group on The Day, waiting to make very sure that an apocalypse doesn’t come. This has shades of the Great Disappointment, but it’s more a melancholy moment of crumbling belief combined with hope that the real world might be worth living in after all. (Apocalypse averted is also important as a theme — hell, it’s the whole damn Cold War, now that I think about it.)

Gated is a satisfying picture of the types of people who need someone to follow, and then do so at the cost of their own lives. The strangest thing about it is how true it is to varying degrees for so many people in the world. There are people waiting for the end of the world every day, because they’re bitter or because the Messiah had tarried long enough. And there are many, many individuals who are quite keen on other individual wills being subservient to that of someone who knows better. Most people may not be alien doomsday cultists, but everyday nationalism and statism and much religion seems to be a difference in degree, not kind.

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times in movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we will also branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries about alien invasion.

Today I wrote four mini reviews of two books and two movies  — they cover nuclear war, alien invasion, a vampire plague, and a comet. All four of them are worth three out of five stars, worth reading or watching, but ultimately sort of unsatisfying. Post your howls of outrage in the comments.

61aUlQj4PSLI Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954):

Though I am a good Twilight Zone fan and Matheson wrote some of my favorite episodes, I learned about the ending in the original novel through a Cracked.com list. This, contrary to the half-assed 2007 Will Smith movie (which started quite good), is that (spoilers) Robert Neville, the vampire slayer hero of our story has turned into an ironic villain once he is the new minority, and vampires begin their new society. One of the novel’s many high points is that Neville is well aware of how darkly amusing that is, and even dwells on it before he dies.

Though the novel has good details of the zombie-vampire plague, and describes the monotony of Neville’s life so well that it is almost a fault (it becomes a bit monotonous to read), something about it remains unsatisfying. Its scope is so limited, and every chapter and section seems to end with Neville getting smashed, then restraining himself from running outside to feed himself to the vampires. The whole thing is clearly influential in terms of both vampire, zombie, and post-apocalyptic fiction, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done better in later works. And apparently the various loose movie adaptions all changed Neville to a scientist. That would make his autodidactic solving of the plague’s mystery a lot more believable. As it stands in the book, I can’t quite buy it when Neville seems to have begun his task with no scientific knowledge at all.

Oddly enough — if only because this feels very Hollywood — the most emotionally powerful bit is when Neville finds the stray dog, and when he loses it again. His desperate hope and his careful patience in building up the dog’s trust, only for it all to go to hell at the end, is one of those perfect apocalypse fiction moments. Neville’s tiny interactions with the dog are more moving than the destruction of the whole damn world.

51NVOjbTQJL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (2013):

This is a YA (that is to say, for teens more or less) novel that starts off feeling new and terrifying, but gradually goes downhill once the plot starts moving. This is the story of Cassie Sullivan, a 16-year-old who is alone and surviving on an earth that is nearly extinct of real humans. An alien invasion has brought “waves” of attack that began with an EMP attack that disabled all electronics, and has culminated in extraterrestrials who look a lot like humans roaming the countryside. The final twist — the title reference — is that aliens have managed to trick the survivors into picking each other off through paramilitary training.

The opening scenes are phenomenal in their bleakness; Cassie and her father walking home from school after the EMP, the plague that kills her mother, the mysterious army of apparent survivors who move in to eliminate a refugee camp, the simple fact that the alien ships spends a week in utter silence, lurking above the earth, when they first arrive — there is some great stuff here. I read it all with an unpleasant feeling in my spine, which is all I ever want in such works.

And that it goes all YA-ish. As a character, Cassie has to walk a careful line between credible teenager that was pre-invasion and current grim survivor now in a new world. And she does more or less. But the mandatory trimmings of a love triangle and an attractive young man who isn’t who he seems don’t pack the same weight as the opening chapters of horror did. The plot really gets going when Cassie begins her quest to free her little brother from alien captivity, and though there is no reason to believe that the aliens would be flawlessly competent, it seems like they should be able to counter Cassie and friends’ revolutionary actions a bit better. The book also drags when it leaves her head and enters that of the other two members of her unfortunate triangle.

Things pick up in tension after a draggy second third, but I was almost disappointed to learn this was just part one of a planned trilogy. I rather liked things ending with a moment of quiet relief for our survivors, but with the overriding knowledge that humans are completely fucked.

MV5BMTkwMzEzMTI4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDc5Nzk1MDE@._V1_SX214_Ladybug, Ladybug directed by Frank Perry (1963):

This small Cold War panic film waffles between righteous antiwar flick and precious propaganda. The plot is simple: an alarm is tripped at a country school (filmed in Pennsylvania) and a few phone calls by teachers and the principal (played by Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World, FYI fellow-millennials) suggest this may not be a drill. The teachers are told to walk the students home in groups, and that’s the whole thing. Some of the kids are unafraid. Some are deadly seriously and slightly too well-spoken. A female teacher stuck in heels for the long walk is not comforting; the fear in her eyes shows. The groups get smaller and smaller as kids go home to tell their doubting parents what happened.

The cinematography is lovely and menacing. The acting is occasionally a bit theatrical and 60s-earnest, but everyone (the kids are mostly amateurs) carries it as well as could be expected. The dialogue is hard to trust as really realistic, except when I remember how everyone claims kids during the Cold War used to say “if I grow up” not “when.” (Remind me to check on the realness of that.)

A highlight is the completely heart-breaking moment when a little girl runs home to tell her mother about the alarm, and she just doesn’t believe her. She is a completely believable harried, old-school mother; her daughter is a believably desperate little kid who just wants the older people to understand what is happening. It’s a basic, banal conflict, except that the stakes are apocalyptically high.

Things peter out a bit when the alarm is revealed to be a mistake (probably). The moody conversations during the students’ long walk don’t have the same terror then. The confusing and ambiguous ending is also unsatisfying. I like question mark endings in terms of Lost in Translation or Jim Jarmusch pictures of humanity that leave people after spending a while with them. But I prefer to know whether a nuke was dropped on some children or not.

MV5BMjE4NDE3MjA1NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMjQxMDM5._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_Deep Impact directed by Mimi Leder (1998):

Oh, the warring comet movies of 1998. In some ways I should just embrace Armageddon for its unsubtle, Aerosmith-sountracked picture of Bruce Willis saving the earth. But Deep Impact is better and worse of a film, in that it manages to provoke some human feelings, but it still wallows in disaster movie absurdities.

Ever since I was little, I was disturbed by scenes of panicked masses in movies. Even in movies I knew were cheesy, I was troubled by the unhinged hysteria and the general trampling each other bits of humanity. Deep Impact has those action-packed scenes, but it has something worse, it has waiting. In fact, most of the movie is about waiting for the end. And that is the most disturbing part about the apocalypse, trying to figure how to live while it inches closer (this is why On the Beach is so good).

The movie follows three main stories: Elijah Wood as the youth who first spots the comet; Tea Leoni as the reporter who breaks the story (this is the only film in which I have ever liked her, maybe because with a bob and a character profession as a cable news reporter, her stiffness magically changes into hey, she’s my old journalism adviser who used to work for CNN!); and finally and the least interesting, the team of astronauts who are going to save us all from doom. The movie also includes the gravitas-tastic Morgan Freeman as the president and some other side characters.

I don’t know that I could defend the whole movie — certainly not Elijah Woods’ last minute, highly bullshit efforts to rescue his ladylove Leelee Sobieski. Except that the moment where Sobieski’s parents put her on Woods’ motorcycle, pass her her little sibling, and basically pry her fingers away as she hysterically says “I’ll see you soon” is lovely and gets me in the gut every single time. As is the moment when the parents, instead of fleeing in vain from the comet-made tidal wave just turn and smile at each other at the end.

Less effective, but still powerful is Leoni’s characters’ end. And there are the visuals — the last-minute helicopters in the sky over New York City; the crowds of hysterical people trying to enter the sanctuary of the caves (though in real life I think there would be a lot more soldiers machine-gunning people)… and they all work too well for something so popcornish. And they have no business working in what is still a cheesy, impossible action movie. But they are like the extras and the secondary characters in Titanic who act circles round the main characters and the tedious love story plot. They give heart and stomach-churning anxiety to what may be a crap movie in the end.

Half-good movies are more frustrating than entirely awful ones. But halfway good movies can still raise a chill and make me think about how people spend their last moments before the end of either their world or the world entire. Deep Impact does this, and that’s not bad for a summer thriller.

Maybe I just want to hang out with her and Tavi Gevinson. Is that so wrong? Is it?

Maybe I just want to hang out with her and Tavi Gevinson. Is that so wrong? Is it?

6) Hats, specifically fedoras, are not some signal that the wearer is a mouth-breathing creeper (creepertarian is some circles) whom you can instantly dismiss. You’re thinking of trillbys. And honestly, shut up about both. Fashion — especially the male variety — is dull enough already without all of your judgement, people.

(Let’s bring suspenders back, though. I’m on that, but nobody else seems to be.)

5) Taylor Swift, whom I enjoy in small doses on occasion, is not particularly anti-feminist. Some critiques are fair, like the point I saw somewhere that Swift is the beautiful, rich insider who has a bad habit of playing the aggrieved ugly duckling even now,  but some (looking at you, Jezebel, back when you thought Lady Gaga was your new artistic God), are way too prude-shaming, romantic-shaming, in my day we smoked clove cigarettes and used boys before they used us and we never, ever fawned ever bullshit. Other people are different, Jezebel. Nobody knows how contrived Taylor Swift is as compared to any other famous woman, but some people are less comfortable with meat dresses or leotards than others.

(I also dig this New York Magazine piece that notes that Swift is a woman, but she’s making 12-year -old girls fawn all over her the way they usually do over boys/non-threatening men. That’s cool. She’s the musician on stage. And since the majority of those girls will grow up to be heterosexual, they maybe want to be her, not dream of dating or marrying her. That’s not bad at all.)

All I ask is for folks to stop using the lyrics to “Fifteen” as proof that Swift is a big old slut-shamer. When she sings “Abigail gave everything she had/to a boy who changed his mind” she may or may not be talking about sex, but she is certainly also talking about feelings and emotions and such. The song also includes the lyrics “I swore someday I was going to marry him/but I realized some bigger dreams of mine” and “In your life, you’ll realize bigger dreams than/dating the boy on the football team/I didn’t know it at 15.” Again, not bad at all. Stop willfully missing the point, snob-feminists. The net lady power gain of Swift is debatable, but that song is not the sign of her and society’s creeping conservatism the way every blog decided it was circa 2010.

Also, at least half of you are lying when you claim never to have felt even a twinge of the sentiments expressed in “You Belong With Me.” Lying.

Try to ignore this photo, though.

Try to ignore this photo, though.

4) Guy Fieri is not that bad. Okay, maybe I don’t like him exactly, but there’s something totally non-threatening about his brand of douche-bro, at least within the context of his Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. His propensity for wearing his sunglasses both on the back of his head and upside down is upsetting. His hair is ridiculous, as is his mall-trash-rockabilly thing. But dammit, the show is glorious, glorious, greasy diner porn, with travel porn mixed in. And Fieri is just sort of genial about it all. He seems to know he has an enviable job. He talks, but not incessantly. He makes the experience about him to some extent, but more about him enjoying the food. And he knows where to go. Every restaurant I have been to that had his picture on the wall was amazing. (Nashville staples Prince’s Hot Chicken, and Bros, as well as the original Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh).  Just, calm down about Guy Fieri, America. I don’t think he means us any harm.

(I wish he wouldn’t refer to his show as “triple d,” on the other hand. That’s a little nails on the chalkboard.)

3) Neither is Zooey Deschanel the devil. First of all, stop calling every character a manic pixie dream girl, especially “Summer.” Deschanel is doomed to be that, and it’s partially her fault for embracing a certain type of wide-eyed, childish, vintage-clad, sparkle and cupcake-loving character But she’s more than that, by virtue of being an actual breathing human.  And like Taylor Swift, I can’t speak to what aspects of her personality are “real” and which are contrived. But the assumption that no female wants to wear vintage clothing (I do) or be obsessed with cute little cakes (okay, not so much) unless they’re “trying too hard” is tiresome.

And the entire point of 500 Days of Summer, a decent movie, is that it stars an unreliable narrator. That is made abundantly clear to audiences, that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character has romanticized the relationship and is constantly projecting things onto Deschanel’s character that are not there. And yet, this movie, which arguably subverted the quirky woman exists for your growing and learning experience, man-boy! trope even before Ruby Sparks did, is tossed into the pile along with much less thoughtful versions of the trope. And Deschanel herself seems pretty solid, especially when she says bad-ass things like ” I want to be a fucking feminist and wear a fucking Peter Pan collar. So fucking what?”  You go, girl.

Also, there are a few decent She and Him songs. And New Girl is sometimes funny.

2) Leave Girls alone, but stop talking about it. Girls is a decent show. It is not nearly as bad or as amazing as people have suggested. It is occasionally funny or poignant, if slow-moving. The self-centered quality of the characters is moderately interesting, especially since they’re females and that is more rare, letting them be this unpleasant. Lena Dunham’s body and her awkward sex scenes are kind of interesting and were a sort of bold idea. (And people being complete assholes about her body kind of proves her point, by the way. So ha.) Everything about the show is pretty okay, if not ever super thrilling or lovable. Now let’s never speak of it or its deeper meanings ever again.

Look at these fucking hipsters.

Look at these fucking hipsters.

1) Stop calling everything hipster. It once meant something (like the death of the western world, am I right, Adbusters?!) 1950s and cool. It may have meant something recently (circa 2004, it was the high school students I knew who wore ugly clothes and listened to Mates of State and said things about vinyl that should have been a cliche to any self-aware 17-year-old). It means nothing except “thing I don’t like” now. And those of us who have ever been accused of being one I am sure have our reasons for being annoyed by the slur. I like vintage clothing and old shit of all kinds, so I am under suspicion. And my love of folk, old time, and country is more suspect than it was in 2008. (That’s the trade-off for having a lot more bands to enjoy. I will take it.)

Back in 2009, I dragged my skeptical mother to an Old Crow Medicine Show concert. She had heard some of the band’s earlier music, the sort that sounds bizarrely close to 80-year-old string or jugband music, and thought it was too derivative. Something about it couldn’t be taken seriously. But then she saw them live, chock full of runaway train, punk energy, and her mind was changed. Bandleader Ketch Secor is clearly putting on a show, both in interviews and at concerts. But he clearly has this fondness and fascination with the past performers that translates into a theatrical, but honestly sincere way of writing songs and speaking about music. He knows it’s all a show, but you can’t tell me he doesn’t love this old music to which he’s devoted his life. Nor can you tell me he did that just because it was going to make a killer Oxford American story someday.

While dancing to Pokey LaFarge a few months ago, I noticed the band’s dapper outfits, their ’20s style of music. Is this hipster? I wondered. Indeed, what the hell is that word, except an accusation that someone’s appreciation isn’t sincere? That it is instead a competition for most strange or obscure interest? Is wanting to buy quirky old shit on ebay hipster? Does it matter if my love of old objects — even, say, a hilarious old ad — is not condescending towards the foolishness of days gone by, but based on a breathless thrill that comes from trying to believe in a time for which I wasn’t around? Mom heard the jugband-influenced Old Crow as sort of jokey. I heard it as delightfully alien, and real, and holy shit, once this was what people heard on the radio and played in their kitchens. Ears hear differently.

You don’t know other people’s hearts and minds. So stop crying hipster-wolf and unless there’s proof of otherwise, assume that people love what they love — because they were going to love something — and this is what they picked.

Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, some Brit as her sexy, sexy cousin.

Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, some Brit as her sexy, sexy cousin.

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

This week, the subject is the new movie How I Live Now, and the 2004 young adult novel upon which it is based. It is a story of war, moving to a new country, and why sometimes you just need to sex up those relatives who catch your eye.

Apocalypse cinema or television (or even books) lives for the money shot — be it grand destruction of a famous monument, or a more humble bit of well-written or captured horror. The movie How I Live Now has two types of sequences, the bleak and the bucolic. It does them both very well, but in the end, though it’s better than the Meg Rosoff YA novel upon which it is based, the movie falls apart for similar reasons. It’s as flimsy as its anorexic, neurotic heroine, and though it tries to find a hard-ass center, there just isn’t much to it.

In each medium, 15-year-old Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a cold New Yorker. She is sent to  her cousins’ in England to get her out of the way of her father and stepmother. She killed her mother at birth, and therefore has issues. Meanwhile, war is looming, not that any teens give a shit. Upon arrival (in the book), she drops her American ‘tude approximately four minutes after meeting her wood sprite cousins. In the movie, this include annoying Issac who precociously drives at 14, scrappy Piper, sevinish and a bit of a Mary Sue, and Edmond, the dreamy, disturbingly attractive cousin. Yes, Daisy and Eddie hook up. Yes, it’s a little weird. But it wasn’t the dealbreaker for me that it was for, say, this io9 writer. It just isn’t enough to be the whole heart of the story, except, too bad, it is.

Daisy has a relatively endearing run-off sentence style in the book. But her narrow eye becomes less appealing — and much more contrived — after the fourth time she conveniently decides to ignore an adult’s explanation for what exactly the fuck is going on with this war business. Her obsessive focus, useful in surviving, if not contextualizing, is turned into an acknowledged character trait in the movie (basically OCD), but anything from her view still feels shallow and myopic.

The book just rakes on the cliches of the faeryland of England. There are more cousins there, and the cliches are divided up between them. Eddie has the mysteriously telepathic powers. He just gets Daisy, man. His twin, melded into him for the movie, is the obligatory strong, silent, and Dickon-esque type. And yes, I could choose to see this as so deliberate an homage to The Secret Garden that it is acceptable. But I can’t. If only because all that English shit was so appealing to me as a tween, I can’t. Edmond has a falcon, for fuck’s sake. I can’t stand it. He speaks to cows. The Secret Garden plus nukes sounds great. Why don’t I buy it?

The movie initially seems more promising — tightening things, and letting the loving, but not syrupy shots set the scene. And the English cottage is falling down, and there are dishes in the sink. Piper is a dirty-faced, solemn, kind, but human ginger, not a pixie making every soldier fall in love with her. The war situation is not treated quite as much as an excuse for playing Lost Boys as it is in the book. And the moment when we know something is wrong is treated with the gravity required . The paradise of a day at the swimming hole, during which Daisy begins to accept her God damned magical surroundings, is stopped by a rush of wind, darkening skies, and falling ash. We don’t even see the mushroom cloud. Little Piper, of course, calls it snow. It gives the necessary chill down the spine, and it gave me false hope that the movie was going to get away from the book more than it did. But again, if you want your doom and gloom money shots (and I do), the movie does come with that.

They survive. And still have a good time for a bit. Daisy burns her pass to go back to America because Eddie is now her whole world. But soon enough, scary soldiers (still British, though) come to separate the two boys and two girls. And that’s it for the plot, really. It’s all Daisy and Piper being shoved away into a creepy old English house, being sent to sort potatoes on a farm, and planning their escape back to their home. In some ways, the movie’s choice to ignore some of the details of the book make it better, or at least less maddening that Daisy has no questions about what the hell happened to her new country. The shots of wrecked countryside seen flickering through her window when she and Piper are taken are effective, showing enough for horror, but not enough for clarity or contrivance that she doesn’t see the whole picture.

But it’s still too little. There’s an enemy, at one point they “take [a] checkpoint.” A neighbor boy is shot, in the head, and is actually show still alive on the ground for a few seconds, groping in the mud. Same with the eerie details of a downed plane — the first object Daisy and Piper see is of an oxygen mask lying in the woods. Shudder. And the same with the moment when Daisy has to dig through a pile of bodies to make sure it’s not her cousins. It’s flawlessly-crafted, in the vein of the opening of the pilot for The Walking Dead, but much starker. Yet, it’s still just a nightmare moodpiece. (This is a problem for apocalyptic fiction — that dread is unsustainable — and why it so often delves into survivors sniping. And why the fiction that doesn’t do that is something special.)

Too many sad pop songs over beautiful landscape. Too many montages. How I Live Now doesn’t commit the unforgivable sin of putting conspicuous music over its worst bits, but the filler feels like all music sometimes. The frantic, whispered voices in Daisy’s head that were supposed to represent her OCD and anorexia worked better than I would think. I appreciate that she didn’t warm up and become hero mom figure to Piper like she did in the book, but some sign of caring about the red-headed moppet wouldn’t have been amiss. Ronan is good, the Brits are all decent. Nobody is stilted, but nobody is exceptional.

And though the lovely cinematography of the movie makes the book’s flimsy plot seem more substantial, it had the same endless problem. I want to know more about the war. And I want more than a teenager falling in love with a place and her cousin, then being taken away, and having to walk back for a week over broken landscape. Piper and Daisy seem exhausted, in book and movie, but I still want to say, dammit, have you not seen Rabbit-Proof Fence? You pansies think a week of walking in England is bad? Somehow, again in both mediums, the characters treat the situation too heavily and too lightly. And nobody ever asks what’s going on. I don’t care how hot your cousin is, I don’t care you much you miss him, you take the time to fucking ask an adult who nuked London.