Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Movie Review: "TRON: Legacy"

In short, it's not worth the price of admission. If you really want to know why, then by all means read on. I just didn't want you to waste any more time on this movie than necessary.

I mean, don't get me wrong, this isn't a bad movie. It's just that there's nothing good in it. From start to finish, it's as bland and predictable as a Disney movie can possibly be. You probably already know the whole plot already, or else you could make an educated guess.

The acting is wooden and unbelievable, the narrative is riddled with gaping, obvious plot holes, and the villain is laughably destructive, killing underlings and civilians without warning or mercy, even when it would be in his better interests NOT to kill them.

The good guys are equally unlikeable. Kevin Flynn, the protagonist's Zen-Master/Wizard/Hacker father, never expresses any believable remorse for missing out on twenty years of his son's life. That son, Sam, immediately forgives his father upon learning why he disappeared one night when he was seven, never to be heard from again. Hey, no hard feelings, right? We cool? Yeah, we're cool.

The love-interest, Quorra, lacks even a rudimentary pesonality - she alludes to being less patient that her mentor, but this quality is never demonstrated onscreen. I'd call her eye-candy, but it's a kids' movie, so there's not even enough skin to make her any more appealing visually than she is emotionally. But this doesn't stop Sam from falling for her the moment she bursts right into the Games Arena in a transforming off-road vehicle (no joke!) to save his sorry ass, even though she's never seen him before.

It might, might, be worth the price of admission, if you're:
A) a kid under the age of eight,
B) a CGI-fanatic, or
C) such an enormous fan of the franchise that it's starting to damage your social life.
If none of these terms could be applied to you, then just save your money.

ADDENDUM: There was one bit that I thought was clever. When Sam and Quorra go to the dance club (yes, really!), the event is DJ-ed by two helmeted men who look suspiciously like an homage to the French techno-duo Daft Punk.

... that's it. The only part of the whole movie that was clever or (intentionally) funny.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Book Review: “The Spiderwick Chronicles, Vol. 2: The Seeing Stone" by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi (2003)

In the second entry to the Spiderwick Chronicles, we begin to see a darker, scarier side to the realm of the fae, as well as the darker side of our hero, Jared Grace. In Volume 1, he was largely shy and reserved. In Volume 2, we begin to see the first hints of his anger and rage. He's obviously hurting; his parents are newly divorced, his dad lives on the other side of the continent, and his mother still believes him to be responsible for the dangerous and mean-spirited "pranks" of the brownie-turned-boggart Thimbletack. He's not doing well at school, either. All that frustration and helplessness must (and does) find a release.

After Jared's identical twin brother Simon is spirited away by an invisible band of goblins, Thimbletack tells Jared that he knows a way to help Jared see the fae: his Uncle Arthur's seeing-stone.

Thimbletack leads the boy to the workshop where the stone resides, but refuses to give it to Jared until he makes a promise not to use it improperly, or show it to anyone else, and to return it safely when he's done. Frustrated at the brownie's refusal to cooperate while his brother may be in mortal danger, Jared attacks the little man and takes the stone from him by force, setting in motion a terrible chain of events.

I liked the construction of this book; it's very taut and exciting, with almost no unnecessary elements. Everything leads quickly and precisely to a satisfying conclusion. It's a very satisfying read.

I was a little shocked (in a good way) by the story's brutal honesty; particularly with regards to the fate of Simon's cat. I feel that a lot of authors, particularly those writing for young adults, are afraid to allow characters to fail or come to bad ends. Especially good or innocent characters.

...But I feel that allowing the unfairness and capriciousness of real life to bleed into the text allows for a more powerful effect when the heroes do eventually triumph, because their victory was never guaranteed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book Review: “The Spiderwick Chronicles, Vol. 1: The Field Guide" by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi (2003)

I've known of these books for a while now. I saw a boxed set of them on the shelf in my cousins' basement, and read the first chapter of the first book, thought it was good, and decided to check 'em out. Then I promptly forgot to do so.

Fast forward to October 2010. While searching the children's section of the Ypsilanti District Library for books on fairies (for reference, of course!), I came across Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. Each and every creature depicted therein (in beautiful, full-color plates) combined aspects of real-world flora and fauna to create something that was fantastical, and at the same time, believable.

I had to see more. So I began to read the books from which the illustrations were taken.

I've recently completed the first book of the five-volume Young Adult series, The Field Guide. It's a very quick read: I finished it in two bus-rides. The Library of Congress blurb in the front of the book pretty much says it all:

When the Grace children go to stay at their great-aunt Lucinda's worn Victorian house, they discover a field guide to fairies and other creatures and begin to have some unusual experiences.

The illustrations are pen-and-ink, with a pronounced sketchy quality, like the scientific portraits that Darwin or Audubon might have drawn in their journals while observing nature in action. In his dedication, the artist, Tony DiTerlizzi, specifically thanks noted illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), hoping that he may "continue to inspire others as you have me." Rackham is also no doubt the visual inspiration for the titular Arthur Spiderwick, author of the eponymous Field Guide.

I especially liked the illustration on page 42 ("Just chop it."), depicting Mallory, the eldest of the three Grace children, with her hair tied to the bedstead in dozens of tangled braids by a malicious boggart. It's surreal.

I also liked the honesty of the book's depiction of childhood as a time of unfairness and fear. I feel that far too many authors (and people in general) look back on their childhoods through sepia-toned glasses. They forget the fear that accompanied each night in a strange house, the unfair conclusions to which adults often leap, and the powerlessness that a small child feels in relation to school, their older siblings, and their parents.

It's gratifying to see that some people still remember what it was like, being a kid in a grown-up's world.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Novel Progress: Slow

I haven't been religious about keeping up with my word count. I'll admit it. I feel bad about this; I feel like I'm slacking off. In a sense, promises you make to yourself are the most important ones of all. There's no one else to disappoint, so really it's a test of your own willpower. How far will you go under your own steam?

On the other hand, I do have a pretty good impetus to get this thing done: that check I'll have to write to a certain group of assholes out in Kansas. I have no intention of ever giving them anything more substantial than the finger. I will NOT be sending them money at the end of this month, because I'll be finishing my damn book!

In related news, many other cooks in the kitchen at Buffalo Wild Wings have expressed interest in reading my book when it's done. One of them, who admitted that he hasn't read a book for pleasure since he graduated high school (!), said that he's eager to read my novel. Another, who never reads for pleasure and works "a hundred hours a week" (seriously, he does!), said that he would make an exception for my book. This is flattering, and does more than a little to inflate my ego, but it's also daunting: it means people are actually going to read this thing!

In a related note, I've been debating whether I should continue on a second project after finishing this book (since it looks like I'll finish the story in less than 330 more pages). I'd like to be able to say that I finished NaNoWriMo this year, not just finished the novel I've been plunking away at for a year. Writing 50,000 words in a month just sounds so much more impressive. But I've only done a quarter of the writing, and I'm halfway through the month. That means I'd have to do three-quarters of the work in half the time.

Part of me says that just finishing the novel is enough, and I'll need the extra time to do editing anyway. What do you think? Should I keep going after I finish? Or stop punishing myself and stick with one project at a time?

Monday, November 8, 2010

NaNoWriMo Update

I've been a bad, irresponsible novelist.

My my calculations, if I'm supposed to be doing about 10 pages a day, then I should have somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 pages done by now. At last count, I've only done 42. That's just over 50% of the writing I should've done by now. In grading terms, that would be a D, or maybe an F.

I need to step up my game. I need to keep my eye on the prize. I need to stay focused. Can't let myself get diverted by easy entertainment, and the petty distractions of day-to-day life.

If I don't take this project seriously, then who will?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

National Novel-Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo)

Three years ago this November, spurred on by a friend of mine, I decided to attempt one of the craziest things I've ever done in my life: I entered a literary marathon known as National Novel-Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo).

The goal of an aspiring novelist who enters NaNoWriMo is simple to say, but very difficult to do: write a 50,000-word novel in a single calendar month. The entrant is not allowed to edit, revise, or otherwise worry about the quality of his/her writing in any way; you can save the self-criticism for later. Obviously, it was an insane thing to even try, and there were nights when I gave up an hour or more of precious sleep after working a 10-hour shift, with classes the next morning, just so that I could meet my daily requirement of 1,667 words.

My grades slipped, my social life suffered, and even my sleep cycle was affected. But twenty-eight days later, when I crossed the 50,000 word mark in the Halle Library computer lab at EMU, sometime around two in the morning, I felt what may well have been the greatest sense of accomplishment I had experienced in my life up to that point.

I learned a lot about myself, about what I can do when I've got a goal, a deadline, and consequences for missing said deadline. I learned a heck of a lot more than I would have in "Health & Fitness," that's for sure.

The next year, I gave NaNoWriMo another go, but was defeated early on. I didn't really have a story I believed in. The year after that (i.e., last year) I attempted the task again, this time with a better story in mind. But once again, my resolve flagged, and I allowed the mundane world to swallow my literary ambitions. I chipped away at the massive task over the course of the next year, though I was forced to stop for nearly six months, due to personal crises (such as the basement-flood, and the subsequent Black Mold infestation).

Since beginning my book (which remains untitled), my current page-count sits at 177. That's a lot of writing, and I'm very proud of myself for getting that much done, but I've still got a long way to go. Probably less than a hundred pages, but that's still a daunting task.

But since it's coming up on the anniversary of my starting this novel, and NaNoWriMo is looming once again, I find that I'm seized by the urge to finish the damn thing. I want to formally dedicate myself to the task of completing my manuscript, and getting the whole darn thing off my chest. Of course, the quality will necessarily be low, but NaNoWriMo is about quantity, not quality. You can go back and edit later; the important thing is to get all your ideas out on paper, before your conscious mind can say Hey, this is the worst thing anyone's ever written, and I should destroy the manuscript before my friends and family find out what an idiot I am.

So, here is my formal declaration:

I, David Frederick Keeber Wurtsmith, by the end of November 2010, will finish the first draft of the novel I began last year, or else I will have a trusted confidante mail a $20 check in my name to the Westboro Baptist Church.

It is up to you, my friends and family, to keep me on track and honest with myself. Throughout the month of November,

I realize that now isn't the best time to try to write a novel. I have other responsibilities: work, friends, my girlfriend, shopping for groceries,etc. But there's never a good time. There's always a bill to pay, or a job to find, or a party you really can't cancel, or the floor needs to be cleaned, or the dog needs to go to the vet, or something.

Even if you wait until you're retired, you still won't have all the time you want, and you'll probably have forgotten half the plot by then. Worse still, you'll probably have convinced yourself that your idea wasn't that good to begin with, and you're better-off not exposing your friends and family to something that bad.

That's why I need to do this now, before I can come up with more and better reasons why I shouldn't attempt it. As Shakespeare had it:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.

-Julius Caesar, II.2.33-4

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Movies To Avoid: "Dracula" (1931), starring Bela Lugosi

The other day, inspired by the approach of All Hallows' Eve, I had a desire to watch a horror movie. Lacking both money and a library card (I know, I know!), I decided to search you Tube for Bela Lugosi's world-famous 1931 performance as the infamous Count.

I have to say, was deeply disappointed. It started pretty early on; the acting was stilted and awkward, but that was only to be expected. After all, audiences back then expected something very different from their actors than they do today.

The first thing that jerked me out of the experience was the scene in which we first see Castle Dracula, and its inhabitants, both living and undead, which includes spiders (duh),bats (naturally), an opossum (Umm, okay...) and a nest of armadillos (WTF?!). It's like they didn't even think to research what kind of animals live in Europe, or that they might be different from the ones that live in California.

Speaking of uncertain locations, only about half the cast had English accents, despite the fact that the film was set in London, England. One particularly memorable performance, by Charles K. Gerrard, has one of the most gratingly fake Cockney-esque accents I've ever heard in my life. Furthermore, his character, Martin (a guard at Dr. Seward's sanitarium) is entirely useless as both a person and a character. He lets Renfield escape from his cell on several occasions, and is entirely ineffectual at restraining him. Also, his endless interjections ("'E's croizy! Comploitely looney!") are, as a rule, glaringly obvious, and largely ignored by the other characters.

Furthermore, Dracula's facade of normality is so laughably flimsy that it's a wonder that his own wives don't take him out, for his numerous and flagrant violations of the Masquerade. I mean, he doesn't make even the slightest attempt to hide what he's doing, and practically announces his next victims in public. It's a shock that it took Dr. Van Helsing himself to even notice that something wasn't quite right with this Dracula fellow.

Overall, the film entirely lacked any power to frighten, horrify, disgust, or even intrigue any modern viewer. I have a hard time believing that anyone was ever frightened by it. And don't give me any of that "It was a different time" crap! H.P. Lovecraft was still making a name for himself while this was being filmed, and his stories still scare the bejeezus out of me! And eighty years previous, Edgar Allan Poe penned The Tell-Tale Heart, one of the creepiest stories ever written in English. Hell, even Shakespeare told a few good ghost stories in his time. It's not as if no one had ever frightened an audience before 1931.

If you want a scary, classic vampire movie, watch F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. If you insist on knowing how this movie ends, watch Bram Stoker's Dracula instead. It's got basically the same plot, and it does what it sets out to do (i.e., it's actually scary) which is more than Tod Browning's film can say.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

Oftentimes, when someone wants to express extreme gratitude or well-wishing, they say "May all your dreams come true." I find this very strange and counter-intuitive, as I can hardly think of a more unpleasant thing to wish on someone.

Think about it. What kind of dreams do you have, if you can remember them? Do they tend to be idyllic romps through tropical paradises? Probably not. Most people have dreams about what they encounter in everyday life: friends, family, school, and work. Visions of your old house or school are far more common than a nighttime visit to the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

Researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz, divide dream-emotions into five broad categories: Anger, Apprehension Sadness, Confusion, and Happiness. Notice that positive emotions take up only one-fifth of the spaces on the list. Seems to me that joy and contentment are less common in dreams than many people believe, despite extensive experience to the contrary in their own dream-lives.

However, just because "Happiness" is the only positive emotion on the list doesn't mean it's the least-commonly experienced. If it weren't a common emotion, it wouldn't be on the list at all. I'm just saying that other emotions are important, too, and we need dreams in order to explore them. If your brain just replayed positive memories and fantasies all night long, what good would that do? If you wanted placid, inoffensive nightly entertainment, you could just as well watch Lifetime. Dreams dealing with the other emotions are more important than the happy ones, because they allow us tho confront our dilemmas (even ones we're not consciously aware of) in new and creative ways.

If you go to an online dream database and read a few dream summaries, it quickly becomes clear that very few of them are about "happy" subjects. They often include bizarre and frightening imagery, the significance of which is sometimes only known the the dreamers themselves.

Admittedly, positive dreams may be reported less often because they are less memorable, seen as less important, or may express desires the dreamer does not feel comfortable sharing with the rest of the world.

But even so, whatever kind of dreams a person may experience, a wish that they all may come true is clearly a disastrous wish for one simple reason: nightmares.

As anyone who has had a nightmare can tell you, they're not fun. And almost everyone has had one at some point in their lives. So why would anyone wish for all of someone's dreams to come true, if they know that they've probably had at least one nightmare in the past? The only thing about nightmares that makes them bearable is the fact that they end! And when you wake up, they (hopefully) will have no bearing on the rest of your life.

So, with all this in mind, why on Earth would anyone ever wish for ALL of someone's dreams to come true?!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Republicans For Voldemort," and Other Unhelpful Slogans

Way back in about 2007 or so, I first started noticing a certain slogan, prominently displayed on numerous cars and T-shirts in the Ann Arbor area:

At first, I thought they were funny. Republicans are evil, and so is Voldemort, so it makes sense that they would support him! Har har har! Good one, guys!

But after a while, a niggling little doubt began to gnaw at the back of my mind. Perhaps Repiblicans were not, after all, the Nosferatu-esque monsters I had always assumed they were. Perhaps, just perhaps, they were people. Not real flesh-and-blood humans like you and I, but they do have children (I've seen the pictures!), and so maybe they're not as universally reviled as I imagined.

I began to doubt in the unassailable rightness of my cause. How could I groan at news of Republicans refusing to "cross the aisle" and get stuff done, if I spent my free time accusing them of being Death Eaters.

Even if done in jest, such barbs are often harmful. In a way, the dismissiveness of the slogan made it even worse. As Dumbledore himself pointed out, "[i]ndifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike" (Order of the Phoenix, pg. 834).

Recently, the meme has mutated, producing the virulent "Sarah Palin is actually a vampire" strain. Let me state, for the record, that I disagree with Sarah Palin's views on virtually every subject, from rape survivors' rights to the proper handling of the Gulf Oil Spill.

But I do not hate her. I strongly disagree with her, just as she has a right strongly disagree with me. That's how democracy works. I will not support her bid for any public office, but I know she's not the delusional half-wit that many liberals make her out to be. She can't have made it to the Governorship of Alaska without knowing how to do something right!

Besides, we don't disagree on everything. Recently, she joined a growing list of petitioners calling for Florida-based Rev. Terry Jones to quit being a dumbass and not turn the entire Islamic world against us forever by burning a big pile of Korans on Sept. 11. At least she and I can agree on something. Right?

And so, you liberals out there who still enjoy ridiculing people whose views differ from yours by accusing them of being in league with the villain of a Young Adult fantasy series, I have a request for you:

Stop it. You're hurting America.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Book Review: "American Born Chinese," by Gene Luen Yang

This is actually the second time I've read this book, which should tell you something about how much I like it.

Honestly, this is one of the finest graphic novels I've read. The story is funny and engaging, the art is simple and clean, and the blending of Chinese folklore, modern-day high school drama, and racial politics is deft and precise. Nothing feel arbitrary or out of place. In fact, since it's my second reading, I'm able to look at little details in a new light, and realize that the author was dropping little clues throughout the book. Nothing that could possibly give away the ending; just little things that take on new meaning on the second read-through.

The narrative consists of three seemingly-separate threads:

1) the story of the Monkey King, one of the most-beloved heroes of Chinese folklore;
2) the story of Jin Wang, an American-born Chinese boy who moves to a new, largely Asian-free school; and
3) a purposely-painful sitcom about a boy named Danny, tormented by the annual visits of his unbearably Fresh-Off the Boat cousin, Chin-Kee.

Being a white, upper-middle class American male, it's sometimes difficult for me to really understand what it's like to be seen as an outsider. That said, Mr. Yang's book does an excellent job of conveying that sense of other-ness. Mostly this comes in the form of the seemingly random and arbitrary taunts which Jin Wang and his other Asian classmates receive from white students.

Jock #1: "Hey, I chink it's getting a little nippy out here."
Jock #2: "You're right! I'm gettin' gook bumps!"

It's moments like these, when Jin Wang's classmates gang up on him without any provocation, which make him so powerfully appealing to the reader. It makes you truly understand how the dual pressures of assimilation and rejection combine forces to tear apart the young man's psyche. He wants to be accepted, but he wants to be left alone. he tries his best to act white, but no matter what he does, his otherness is always in the spotlight. He's embarrassed by who he is.

If you're looking for a book that can powerfully and concisely explain to you the difficulties involved in growing up Asian-American, then I strongly recommend this book.


I hadn't realized this the first time (I'm embarrassed to say), but this is a very Christian book. It wasn't until I read on the back flap that the author "teaches computer science at a Roman Catholic high school" that everything fell into place.

I'd noticed a few hints of Christian imagery here and there (Wong Lai-Tsao and the Monkey King following a star on their journey; the adoration of the infant Buddha, etc.), but I figured it was just part of the original myth. And it may well be. But that doesn't stop it from resonating with Christin themes.

The name of the principal deity of Chinese folklore, Tze-Yo-Tzuh, is here translated as "He Who Is", an obvious allusion to Yahweh, whose name means roughly the same in Hebrew.

The Monkey King eventually gains the title of "Heavenly Emissary". In the later chapters, his abilities and puposes are similar to those of a guardian angel, which is highly appropriate, since our word "angel" comes from the Latin angelus, which means "messenger" or "emissary". (Coincidence? I think not.)

You can find plenty more examples of Christian influence in this book, if you look for it, but Yang never beats us over the head with it. Yang allows the reader to draw their own parallels between the story of the Monkey King and the biographies of any number of Christian saints.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

In Defense of LARPers

The other day, Brianna's friend Nicky was asking me about "Vampire," and how the game works. One of the questions she asked was whether or not we dress up and act out the parts. I told her no, we don't do LARPing (Live-Action Role-Playing).

"That's one bridge we don't want to cross," I said.

Suddenly (and quite unexpectedly), Brianna told me that I was being unfair to LARPers, and should stop making fun of them. She told me that I'm constantly ridiculing LARPers for their passion, and that since I spend my Wednesday nights pretending to be a vampire (who spends his time in the library, no less), I didn't have a rhetorical leg to stand on. I confessed that I hadn't realized how often I denigrated LARPers, but that they were just "weird", and "way too into it."

Brianna's first contact with the phenomenon of LARPing came from the movie Role Models, so she approached LARPing from a more positive angle than most people do. To her, LARPing and traditional tabletop RPGs are just different points on a continuum of nerdyness. In fact, she said, LARPers always look like they're having a blast, doing what they love, and getting sunlight, fresh air, and exercise. Who am I to ridicule them for doing what they love?

The intensity of the verbal drubbing I received forced me to open my eyes. I realized that I was not only being unfair to LARPers, but to all nerds, and even to my personal philosophy of nerdyness.

Brianna was right. I am being unfair to LARPers. They've never done anything to harm or hurt me, and they don't bother anyone. All they do is have fun with their friends, in the way they most enjoy. And there's nothing wrong with that.

So from now on, I will do my level best never to make fun of LARPers again. They've done nothing wrong, and all nerds must stand together if we're going to gain any kind of widespread acceptance of our passions and hobbies.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Saga of the Swamp Thing

I just finished reading the first volume of Alan Moore's legendary 1980's run on the horror comic Swamp Thing.

God dammit. How can one man be good at everything? It's just not fair. Some authors get so married to their genre that they have to use a pseudonym to publish anything outside their area of expertise. But Alan Moore is equally at home writing superheroes, steampunk crossover orgies, post-apocalyptic political science thrillers, bizarre multidimensional examinations of culture and dreaming, existential nihilism, and pirate-comics-within-larger-comics. Hell, he's even a pretty good songwriter!

But I'm not complaining. Not really. I mean, it's a bit intimidating to know that there's someone as talented as him out there, but it's also comforting to know that it's possible to branch out after establishing oneself in publishing, and not be tied to one story for the rest of one's career.

And if it wasn't for Alan Moore, we wouldn't have so many awesome comics. I feel that he is part of a small group of comic-book writers (along with Neil Gaiman, Scott McCloud, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, et al.) who are recognized by mainstream critics as having real literary talent. The quality of their writing is so great that not even lit snobs can look down their noses at them without seeming openly hypocritical. They force the mainstream to evaluate their work on its merits as stories, not as "kiddie fare."

But anyway, getting back to Swamp Thing:

It's amazing. Simply surreal, yet simultaneously human. It feels as if Moore actually journeyed into the DCU and took case studies of humans mutated into plant-based life-forms before he set out to write this. I've never seen retconning done so well, so seamlessly. It doesn't just change the stories of the future; it turn the whole tale, from beginning to end, into an entirely different beast. It's like the big reveal at the end of The Usual Suspects: it forces you to go back and watch it again. (It feels a bit weird to talk about the shock-value of something published more than twenty years ago, but hey, it's news to me.)

And damn if he isn't a good horror writer too. Just let me say that I'm glad I read "A Time of Running", the last chapter of the book, in a well-lit room, on a night I was sleeping at my girlfriend's house. I don't know if i could've fallen asleep without someone in the bed next to me. That shit be creepy, son! It's amazing to me how, no matter how otherworldly the agents of fear may be in Moore's work, they always point us back to the fact that human beings are capable of much worse than even the vilest demon or most degenerate beast.

And that, is true horror.

Don't read it alone.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The End of the World

Yesterday morning, at about 8:00 AM, the series finale of The Masks of the Damned came to its long-awaited conclusion. The final episode clocked in at just under 12 hours. That's way too long for any TV show, even a long-running soap-opera, but it's not an unheard-of length for a tabletop role-playing game. Which is what it was.

For almost exactly one year, The Masks of the Damned has been a collaborative effort in group improvisational storytelling, and the brainchild of my good friend and former roommate Ian Murray. Ian will shortly be leaving for grad school in Buffalo, New York, which is why the series had to come to an end.

But what an end it was! Nothing else can come close to the nail-biting intensity of a long-running RPG's final session, partly because the viewer can't just sit back and watch how things will unfold. If you make the wrong move, it could spell doom for not just your beloved character, but all other viewers as well (and by extension, their characters, too). Audience-involvement is a must.

For those of you who don't know, The Masks of the Damned utilizes White Wolf's Dark Ages: Vampire setting, and takes place in medieval Krakow, in (roughly) the Year of Our Lord 1230. Not many people know this, but at that time, Krakow was something unheard-of in medieval Europe: a democracy. Granted, it was democratic only for a small group of powerful noblemen and landowners, but it was a step in the right direction.

Anyway, at the opening of the final night's chapter, the city had been under siege by Hungarians for about a week, taking heavy losses by night when the invaders' vampiric masters awoke, and laid their own siege with Tzimisce [chim-EET-see] war-ghouls. In the midst of a major battle, Nicodemus, the former ruler of vampiric Krakow, reappeared and announced that he had come to reclaim what was rightfully his. Instantly, the city began to tremble, and a titanic dragon erupted from beneath the royal palace: a dragon formed of thousands upon thousands of human corpses, bound together and given an unholy life by blasphemous magics. The beast raced with shocking speed to the Eastern Gate, preparing to smash the city walls and allow the Hungarians access to the defenseless, sleeping city.

I don't think I've ever heard of a more epic final battle, which took place on the dragon's freaking back as it raced through the city. Imagine the final battle in Army of Darkness, but instead of taking place in a castle, it takes place ON GODZILLA'S BACK, WHILE HE'S IN THE PROCESS OF DESTROYING TOKYO!!!

During said battle, the fighters held their own against a powerful Tzimisce named Lazarus, who wore a suit of armor made from his own skeleton, and dealt unhealable damage! Oh yeah, and he could fly. Meanwhile, the weak-armed mages (i.e., just me) attacked the beast's weak points with burning barrels of tar, trying to cripple its' legs before it could crush the rest of the city.

Oh, and did I mention that, for all intents and purposes, the dragon had INFINITE HIT POINTS!?!?!?! And that it was almost ONE-HUNDRED FEET TALL at the shoulder?!?!?! And that as you climbed us its body, the uncountable hands and mouths of all those corpses would bite and rake and claw at you?!?!?!?!

It was an epic battle to end all epic battles.

But then came the True Final Boss!

I believe I mentioned earlier that Nicodemus, Krakow's former ruler, had returned? Well, we had to fight him. Immediately. He made a brutally difficult boss: he was older than dirt, he could fly, cast tons of magic, turn himself into a gravity-defying puddle of blood, use telekinesis, fill entire rooms with nigh-impenetrable darkness, hold hundreds of gallons of blood in his body, and knew a spell that could collapse people's skeletons at will!!! For a mortal, having your ribcage collapsed would be instantly fatal. For us, it just made us loose half the blood in our bod-- Oh, wait. When you're fighting someone tougher than the fucking Antichrist, loosing half your ammo is pretty much fatal, too.

Normally, a boss like that would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible. But do you remember how, mere minutes previous, Lazarus dealt most of us a ton of unhealable damage? Things were not looking good for the heroes of Krakow.

It was only in the last minutes, hemmed in, badly wounded, low on blood, and still unable to deal a single point of damage, that we came across a possible solution: Wolfgang (my character) still had a dagger on his person. A dagger with a spring-loaded poison chamber. A poison that had proved devastating to vampires in the past. I drew it from my pocket, and checked how much ammo it had.

It had one. dose. left.

Using my own limited flight powers, I took to the air and made a final desperate stab at the seemingly-invulnerable Elder Vampire. I rolled a seven. If that result had been one point lower, we all (probably) would have died then and there. (Which is not to say that I was the only one pulling my weight in the life-saving department; every character had more than a few brilliant ideas and close brushes with Final Death. This particular one just happened to be mine.)

With the successful application of the poison, Nicodemus was badly hurt, and we were eventually able to subdue him. The Page (an extremely powerful child-vampire of indeterminate gender) who had been sitting in his/her/its throne and watching the battle, congratulated us on our unlikely success, but reminded us that, in becoming the rulers, heroes, and villains of Krakow, we had nothing left to do but train our replacements, and know that one day, we too would be overthrown.

'Twas a very bittersweet ending, but what else can one expect from the chronicles of the Living Damned?

Heere endeth ye tale of Ye Masques of ye Damned.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Becoming the Buffalo

For three days during the Ann Arbor Art Fair, I did something that few adults will consent to do, even in pleasant weather: I willingly put on a full-body buffalo costume and paraded myself through crowds of onlookers.

My feelings about the experience are mixed. While the wearing of the suit was incredibly difficult, the actual experience of becoming "Blazin' the Buffalo©" was... well, it was fun. I liked it.

Putting on the buffalo suit (or any mascot outfit) equals instant popularity. Everyone loves a mascot. They're funny, instantly likable, and always up for a good joke. Total strangers will wave to you like an old friend. Children will run up to you and hug you without prompting. Strangers will ask if they can take their pictures with you. In assuming the identity of a mascot, you're essentially given carte blanche by the normally all-powerful Social Contract.

You can do any damn fool thing you want, when you're in a buffalo suit. You can dance in public, try on hats, check yourself out in a mirror, mock authority figures, try on hats (or even more flamboyant articles of clothing), and people eat it up. They love it! They want to take pictures of Blazin' the Buffalo wearing their merchandise, perusing their art, or playing with their children

Sometimes, the smaller kids were afraid of me, but all I had to do was "cry" for a moment, and they would usually get over their fears, in order to comfort the "sad buffalo". As for older kids (i.e., seven- to thirteen-year-olds) could go wither way; some thought I was really cool, others seemed embarrassed by my attentions, as if I were implying that they were younger than they really were. Teens, I noticed, were generally keen on having their pictures taken with me. Adults were generally indulgent, but didn't seem eager to get too close to me.

But please, for the love of God, PLEASE STOP ASKING MASCOTS IF THEY'RE FEELING HOT!!! Just knock it off! It's incredibly hot work, but we work hard to stay in character and have a good time, and be friendly and silly. We do it for the kids. When you ask us if we're hot, or say how you pity us, or commend our bravery for coming outside in "this awful heat", you're forcing us to break character, to acknowledge that we are not a mascot, but just a man in a costume. It's no different (and no less rude) than walking up to an actor in the midst of a performance and asking them how they stay in character when they're surrounded by such crappy sets. It takes the magic out, if deflates the fun. When I'm trying to be the Buffalo, I don;'t need people reminding me every few seconds that I'm really just a cook in a faux-fur suit, sweating my balls off and wishing desperately for a cup of ice-cold water. So for the love of God, STOP ASKING US IF WE'RE HOT!!!!

Whew! Glad I got that of my chest.

Anyway, the process of becoming a mascot was fascinating. It reminded me of those Vodouisants who "become" the god whose mask they wear.

It might be a slightly creepy way to describe the experience, but at times, it felt less like I was inhabiting the role, and more like the persona of "Blazin' the Buffalo©" was carrying me along of its own volition. I always knew what to say and do, what gestures to make, without ever having to think about it. I guess I knew how to be a mascot without having to be trained, just from watching them in action. It was an experiment in acting, subconscious learning, and... dare I say it?... spirituality.

It was almost as if "Blazin'" himself were acting through me. All I had to do was let go of my ego, the part of me that would have been embarrassed to be seen in public wearing a fur suit, and just... let the Buffalo do the talking.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

To Infinitus... And Beyond! (Part IV)

The Night of a Thousand Wizards took a lot out of us (it lasted 'til 2 a.m.!), so Brianna and I decided to skip the early programming, sleep a little later, and head to the convention around 11 a.m. or so. Once there, we decided to split up, she attending a "Writing Wizard Rock!" workshop given by her friend Lena, about whom I've already told you much.

I chose to see a presentation just a few doors down the hall: The Better Man: The Morality of Youth in the Harry Potter Series. The speech was given by a guy named Garreth Fisher, who "teaches religion and anthropology in upstate New York". He was a fascinating and well-informed speaker, and I was intrigued by many of the points he argued. Unfortunately, I can't remember the most of the things he said, which is what happens when you're lazy and don't write down your experiences quickly enough. (What I wouldn't give for a Pensieve right now...)

As it ended, I turned around to go and saw Brianna waiting for me at the door. It turned out that Lena had massively overexerted herself the night before, and was sleeping in, trying not to succumb for a second-time to a stress-induced illness which she had picked up, as a result of her overbooked schedule and musical debut. Brianna was understanding of Lean's desire to not get sick during the convention, but at the same time disappointed that her friend had failed to show up for a crowd of 90 people, all eager to speak with her about Wizard Rock.

But the next presentation I remember quite clearly, because it was about an undeniably awesome subject: Werewolves! I won't quote you the entire presentation (My, What Big Eyes You Have! Lupin, Greyback, and the Modern Werewolf Revival), but she managed to work in stuff like AIDS, homosexuality, pedophilia, witchcraft, and social justice issues addressed by Rowling through the characters of Fenrir Greyback and Remus Lupin.

From there, it was off to a speech given by a woman majoring in a field of criticism so obscure that I had never heard of it before: "Fat Studies"! She had some interesting points, but not much in the way of eye contact. She basically read us her dissertation, verbatim. After her, in the same room in fact, came a 15 year old girl from Chicago, who gave one of the most animated speeches I had heard all weekend: Snape, Dumbledore, and the Power of Love and Choice.

Next up was a round-table discussion on The Problem of Hermione. Too often, round-table discussions devolve into either pointless banter or flame wars, but this was stayed remarkably on-topic. Brianna maintained, as she often does, that Hermione should have gone with Viktor Krum, on the basis that he is much more responsible and honest about his feelings towards Hermione; that Ron simply "isn't good enough for her." I countered that Ron may not be the most responsible person, but his heart's in the right place. Ron has friends who care about him; it is unknown whether Krum has any close friends at all. My money's on Ron.

After sticking around for Snape, Dumbledore, and the Power of Love and Choice, there wasn't really anything we were dying to see, we decided to go back to the hotel and take one last swim in the pool. (Did I mention that this pool had a little beach of its own? Made of actual sand? And a water slide disguised as an old castle? It was freakin' sweet. The nicest hotel pool in which I've even had the privilege of swimming.)

When the time came, Brianna and I went back to our room to change into our formal-wear. She wore a white silky dress which she bought specially for the occasion, set of by an adorable little black hat with feathers. She looked extremely glamorous. I wore a bright blue shirt, pinstriped gray slacks, and a deep blue velvet cloak which used to belong to my Dad. And a wand holster on my hip, of course (courtesy of Brianna's skill with a sewing machine.)

We arrived a little late to the Night of Frivolity Ball, but we had time to dance to a few Muggle songs, before the start of the Wizard Rock Comedy Slam (again, I find it bizarre to think of Wrock as having subgenres, but there you go.)

The first band, The Quaffle Kids, were pretty bad. I didn't like any of their songs, I'm afraid. The next group, Hawthorn and Holly, were slightly better, but not by a lot. The Blibbering Humdingers were pretty funny, though they needed to work on less repetitive lyrics. I enjoyed Fred Lives, but by the time they got onstage, Brianna and I were both falling on our faces, and annoyed that the star attraction of the evening, The Parselmouths, wouldn't be plying till well after 3 in the morning.

Fortunate that we did decide to cut out when we did, or we would've stayed up late for no reason! We learned the next morning from other convention-attendees that The Parselmouths had been canceled, and were going to perform at breakfast (a.k.a. the Leaving Feast), as a way to make it up to their many fans. At least we got to hear them play, and on the bright side, we got our picture taken with them! So we didn't miss too much.

The trip home was largely uneventful, except for a somewhat serious delay in the bus that was supposed to take us from the hotel to the airport (it was more than an hour late!) But we didn't miss our flight, we got home safely, and we had a great time doing it.


Well, I'm afraid I don't have anything more to tell you. It was a wild ride, and the tale was long, but I've nothing more to say. I hope that you had as much fun reading about Infinitus as I did writing about it.

Mischief managed.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

To Infinitus... And Beyond! (Part III)

Ah, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Where should I begin? Well, I caught my first glimpse of Hogwarts Castle from Seuss Landing, which, let me tell you, was a surreal sight.

The park was crowded, hot, and noisy. It must have been at least 95 degrees, eighty percent humidity, and not a cloud in the sky. The place was packed to the gills, as the photos will demonstrate. I've gotta say, if I'd had to wait 40 minutes in that kind of weather for for all the rides in the park, I don't know if I could've made it. You can't even get indoors for a relief from the heat; they only allow twenty people in the shops at a time, in order to preserve the atmosphere (and probably to comply with fire regulations). But I think the shops were probably so crowded because everyone else was trying to get out of the heat, too.

The shops were great. Asides from the heat and the Muggles, it just like being a Hogwarts student out for a weekend excursion to Hogsmeade. But I've gotta say, the fake snow on the rooftops felt enormously, wildly, ridiculously out-of-place. There was just no way to suspend my disbelief, even for a moment. It was just. too. HOT!

Probably the first (and longest) line you'll notice is the one for the Butterbeer wagon. They serve it chilled, in either a free plastic cup, or a souvenir glass (which costs a lot extra). The foam on top is not a product of the drink itself; rather, it's a separate fluid, which is plopped on top of your glass when it's almost full. It never dissipates, it just floats in the center of your glass, even after you've finished it. It tastes good, like butterscotch with an aftertaste like the butter they put on popcorn at the movies. It's good, but extremely sweet. It's definitely designed for the palette of small child.

The same goes for Pumpkin Juice. It tastes like a like pumpkin pie, even though (according to the ingredients) it's mostly apple juice. It comes in a nice bottle, with a lid shaped like a pumpkin, but I recommend that, if you're traveling in a large group, buy one bottle, and let everyone take a sip. It's too sweet for one person to finish the whole thing. Brianna and I wound of throwing away half a bottle apiece.

The park was full of robe-wearing employees, who acted as shopkeepers, security guards, and emcees for special events like the Durmstrang and Beauxbatons Dance Extravaganza. We saw them forming a line as we were leaving the "Flight of the Hippogriff" ride, and decided to follow them. They went to a little shaded area beside Olivander's, where they performed a modified version the dance number from Goblet of Fire.

But the star attraction, the real show-stealer, was the ride within Hogwarts castle itself, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. We didn't even bother with that one while it was still light outside, because the wait was 90 minutes long. Sure, we could've bypassed all that with out Express Passes (courtesy of the convention), but I knew it would be special, and wanted to save it for the Night of a Thousand Wizards.

In reality, it was mostly Witches, not Wizards, and there were more than two thousand of us! It was an incredible experience, one I'll (probably) never duplicate. For one, the trip costs too much, and for another, I don't know if they'll ever hold a convention like this again. But man, oh man, am I glad I was there to see it, to be part of something so big.

And I believe that every single one of us rode the Forbidden Journey that night. I don't have any pictures, but I don't think they could do it justice. It was all about the experience of actually being there. I think that is was the only theme park ride I've ever been on where the line was almost as exciting as the ride. It was packed to the rafters with HP memorabilia, props, sculptures, and audio. It was all incredibly immersive. For example, there were tons of portraits, but it wasn't immediately apparent which ones were static, and which ones would move if you looked at them long enough. Sometimes, they would even converse with each other. There was one room where the Hogwarts Founders bantered back and forth with each other. Their dialogue was so well-written and snappy that I suspected that JKR herself had a hand in its creation (though I could be wrong).

The ride itself was a head-spinning, stomach-twisting thrill which blurred the line between real, physical motion, simulated flight, and animatronic wizardry. For example, in one scene, we chased (and were chased by) a Hungarian Horntail, which led to us crashing through a bridge. We were jerked to the side, and all of a sudden we were inches away form a giant robotic dragon head, which opened its mouth and shot a blast of artificial, underlit fog and hot air at us, producing a shockingly real facsimile of fire-breath. There were Dementor attacks, giant spiders that spat water (supposed to be either drool or poison) on the riders, and even a hair-raising brush with the battering branches of the Whomping Willow! For a moment, all I could think was "Oh shit, what if they've got the timing on this ride wrong? We'll all be crushed!" That's what amusement park rides should be like! I was (literally) transported to a world of magic, and brought safely back. Just like the books!

Well, it's late, and I need to sleep, but there's more to come. Tomorrow, I'll try to give you my final account of the trip, and sum it all up, as well as incorporating anything else that I might have forgotten.

Friday, July 23, 2010

To Infinitus... And Beyond! (Part II)

Friday morning, we overslept (hur hur hur!), so we missed most of the early-morning programming, including a really interesting-looking talk on gender stereotypes and the female Shadow. But we did arrive in time to see "Shining Light into Shadows: Canon Clues to Seeing Snape", which consisted of four smaller essays, entitled "Snape Through Adult Eyes," "Bullies, the Bullied, and the Bystanders: In Just Seven Years You Can Unmake a Man," "The Bravest Git I Ever Knew," and "Developmental Alchemy: The Transformation of Severus Snape."

These essays frequently mentioned that JKR seems unwilling to accept alternative interpretations of her canon. I mean, I know she wrote the whole thing, but is it really that impossible to see why someone would find Snape intriguing, even deeply sympathetic (besides what she dismissively refers to as the "bad-boy complex"?) Is it so hard to see why someone might think that Dumbledore should have done more for Draco, instead of standing on the sidelines as the poor boy was ensnared by the Dark Side? I say that the fact that fans insist on wanting to comfort the flayed-baby Voldemort-soul thing in King's Cross, even though Dumbledore explicitly says "You cannot help", shows that her message shines through in every page. The fact that people feel attraction and sympathy towards even villains she has tried so hard to make "irredeemable" shows that she is an uncommonly truthful and sensitive writer, perhaps even more so than she gives herself credit for.

But, moving on...

I'm not quite sure where we went after lunch. I think it was "We, the Jury, Find the Following Characters... Redeemed?" (I'll have to ask Brianna.) After that, we skipped the rest of the programming, in favor of attending the Islands of Adventure. We wanted to get to see the rest of the park, and our passes only worked for that particular day, from 2pm to 2am. And we had to get back to the Convention by 5pm, so we could get our reserved seats for... the world premier of The Final Battle!

That's right, folks, it's a(nother) Harry Potter musical! It was directed, composed, and written by Brianna's friends Lena Gabrielle (a.k.a. "The Butterbeer Experience") and Mallory Vance. The two of them conceived the idea just nine months ago! They recruited dozens of actors, stage crew, and orchestra members, and rehearsed the entire thing, from beginning to end, over Skype. That's right: not one person in this entire play had ever met for a live, in-person rehearsal until two days before the actual premier. And they moved mountains!

And it was AWESOME! I mean, I don't think it would appeal to non-fans, especially because of all the in-jokes, but to anyone who has any fondness for the series, you'll have a blast! The musical numbers are great, the costumes are incredible, and everyone enjoyed themselves immensely! I got goosebumps when the whole cast gathered behind Harry, to pledge their undying support for him.

Now we come to the true subject of my tale: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter itself! It's so awesome, to utterly immersive and mind-blowing, that I feel it deserves a post all to itself. So, keep your eyes peeled, everyone! I'll have it up ASAP!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

To Infinitus... And Beyond!

What a weekend!

Brianna and I left on Wednesday at about noon, and just in two-and-a-half hours, we were on the other edge of the freakin' continent! (Air travel never ceases to amaze me. Just a hundred years ago, that journey would have taken the better part of a week! But I digress.)

When we landed in Orlando, and stepped out into the hot, wet air, I felt like I was stepping into the Bird House at the Detroit Zoo. Even so, it was a welcome change from Michigan's perpetually-overcast skies. The sun was shining every day, all day long, with only a few clouds, and one brief thunderstorm. But it stayed hot all the time; the night brought only a little relief form the heat, and it was just as humid as daytime.

But the heat is irrelevant if you've got an air-conditioned fourth-story room with a view! Our hotel, the Portofino, was a sprawling complex of faux-Italian architecture, based on the real-life Italian town of the same name, which was a popular destination in the 1950s for Hollywood royalty. Our hotel was so posh, it had three pools, one of which had its own beach! Real sand and everything! It was incredible.

The first day of Infinitus 2010 began at 10am on Thursday, when the Common Room opened. I didn't buy anything from the vendors, though I did try on some robes and sweaters, and Brianna considered buying a wand.

After that came the Live Wizard Chess Demonstration, which was half chess-game, half witty banter, and half swordplay (in total,150% nerdy). Every time one "chess piece" tried to capture another, they would have a choreographed sword fight to see who won. There was a lot of back-stabbing, double-crossing, and gratuitous spanking (courtesy of Fred and George, visited upon Umbridge).

At the Welcome Feast, they served Mexican, buffet-style, and everybody ate way too much. After lunch, they held the 141st Merlin's Cup Quidditch match. I watched for a bit, but the brutal humidity drove me inside before the end.

Form 3pm to 5pm, we attended formal programming: speeches and lectures given by really smart people. Brianna and I saw "Casting Your Patronus: Representations of Psychological Processes in Harry Potter" (by David Martin), and "Our Own Rita Skeeter: Muggle Media Mishandles HP" (by Connie Neal). The "Rita Skeeter" one talked about how so much empahsis is placed on Christians who still object to Harry Potter, despite the fact that they are a tiny, tiny minority among American Christians, and that several major Chrisitian publications (including Christianity Today) have already publicly stated their support for the moral lessons contained in the Harry Potter saga.

Then, we attended the "Classic Wrock Show" (stronge to think that the genre is already old enough to be divided into "new" and "Classic"), featuring The Butterbeer Experience (Brianna's friend, Lena Gabrielle, who also directed/wrote The Final Battle [more on that in the next post!]), The Moaning Myrtles, Justin Finch-Fletchley and the Sugar-Quills, The Whomping Willows, and The Remus Lupins.

So that's Day One. I'll have more later, but right now I gotta get to work. 'Bye!

(P.S. Brianna and I even got a lot of work done on our respective novels! I added more than ten pages to mine, over the course of two flights.)

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Protocol

Have you ever seen someone you know in a public place, and you haven't really talked in a while, and you're not sure if you should say hello?

So you act like you don't see them, give yourself a moment to get your thoughts together. Will they be miffed that you haven't said anything to them in so long? Will trying to be friendly make it worse?

But then, to your horror, you realize that if you've seen them, then they've probably already seen you! Now they've already seen that you're not responding to their presence, and they must think that you've already snubbed them. Oh no! The whole encounter is ruined, before either party has openly acknowledged the other's existence! NOOOOOOOO! How could it all go so wrong?!?!


So yeah. Has that ever happened to you?


Me either.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Walk in the Woods

As I was biking back from the pharmacy, I was possessed by a whim to see a small park on Eisenhower, which I hadn't visited in more than a year (I don't remember the park's name, just its location). I knew that there were some lovely nature trails, and a huge tree, just like the one Totoro lives under, but I didn't realize that they had paved some of the walkways. They used wooden planks, raised a few inches off the ground to prevent muddy shoes, and to avoid obstructing the flow of rainwater.

I set off down the path, though I didn't know where it went, determined to follow it until I came out somewhere. There were a few times when the bugs and the heat and the humidity almost made me turn back, but I stuck with it, knowing that I'd never rest if I had to keep wondering where it led.

In the process, I became deeply lost.

I don't mean that I couldn't find my way back. The fact that I'm writing this now is proof that I could. I mean that I completely lost my bearings, by sense of relative position within the city as a larger whole. And that felt awesome. i felt like an explorer searching through new lands, or a traveler on a journey to a strange country. It wasn't until I emerged from the woods that I saw a single living soul. The sense of isolation and mystery was delicious. It was like living out a childhood dream.

In the process of getting lost, I discovered several previously-unknown features of my immediate area, including a disc golf course; a basketball court; a very modern-looking playground; a footbridge over I-94; and a runoff pond that's home to ducks, geese, egrets, heron, and even a swan! I even picked some wild raspberries, sun-ripened and delicious, and ate them right there on the trail. They were better than any I could ever buy in a store, because I picked them myself, using my knowledge of local plants for practical reasons.

So the next time you see a path in the woods, and you don't know where it goes, go ahead and walk it. You just might have an adventure of your own.

Robin Hood: A Real American Hero

With all the hoopla surrounding Russel Crowe's new Robin Hood movie, I've been hearing a lot about how the beloved hero is nothing more than a socialist thief, a tool of the New British Empire to weaken America's defenses by draining our coffers with needless welfare programs. A quick Google search reveals that there are quite a few people, mostly on the conservative side (though there are exceptions), who share this view of Robin as a wealth-redistributing traitor, stealing from those who had the Ayn Randian courage to "risk their financial well-being", cutting checks to layabout hog-farmers and welfare widows.

Now this made me mad. Robin Hood, unamerican? Please. How could you find a folk-hero more American than Robin Hood? Sure, his origins are English, but so are mine, if you want to get technical. He's very much a part of the American pantheon. He's our trickster-god, a cultural hero as precious to us as Jason to the Greeks, or Beowulf to the Saxons.

It is my contention that Robin Hood, by word and action, by thought and by deed, supports every single one of the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting...the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." When King John makes it impossible for Robin to live and operate within society, Robin simply uproots himself and his men to Sherwood Forest, where they live (mostly) unmolested by the State or its agents. And of course, the whole thing started because there was no way for Robin, or the people in general, to obtain redress for their grievances."

The right to bear arms and form militias? Oh, yeah. What are the Merry Men if not a militia formed by concerned citizens, working to overthrow a corrupt system?

Amendment three? That's a tough one. The quartering of soldiers wasn't really a problem in the middle ages; they just slept in tents and bought or stole what they could from the locals. But in Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights (yes, it counts as part of the mythos), Robin arrives home just in time to see the repo man hauling away his castle, so in a sense he's being deprived of his living space in order to finance the king's coffers. This ties nicely into Amendment Four, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

The Fifth Amendment is kind of a sprawling statement, but it guarantees, among other things, that "private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation." Robin and his Merry Men personally enforce this law for the benefit of the downtrodden commoners, protecting or compensating them for this unreasonable confiscation, often with arrow and sword if need be.

Frequently, Robin's death-sentence is handed down from on high by an authority (King John, or the Sheriff of Nottingham) who is anything but impartial. After the warrant for his arrest is issued, the legal system skips over all that boring "trial by law" stuff (which is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment) and jumps straight to the execution. Often, anyone who meets Robin is empowered (and even encouraged!) to kill him on the spot. This lack of a trial also violates Amendment Seven, which insists that "the right of trial by jury shall be preserved."

The Eighth Amendment protects against "cruel and unusual punishments," and torture, that confession-extraction method favored by medieval monarchs, certainly falls under that category.

Amendments Nine and Ten deal with powers denied to the State, and reserved for the people. Isn't that what Robin was always fighting for? The right of the common taxpayer to stand up and be heard by Big Government?

The fact that Robin's tale addresses the same issues as the American Bill of Rights, almost four hundred years before the Americas were even colonized, speaks to the timelessness and universality of Robin's crusade for freedom. His influence on the English-speaking mind is profound and long-lasting, and reminds us all of the need for brave men who will stand up to corrupt systems, and rally people with their words and their actions, to throw off corrupt rulers, and remind us that we're only as free as we make ourselves.

And if that's not American, I don't know what is.