Monday, September 30, 2013

Breaking Bad Is My Favorite Show And You Should Watch It Right Now.

I won't spoil more than the basic premise established in the first episode.

We're in a golden age of television, and it's hard to know which show(s) to watch. It's like trying to get through classic literature - everything is great, so where do you start?

                                                           You start with Breaking Bad.

If we start on the surface and work our way in, we'll notice the show has earned a lot of awards in its 5 seasons:
Emmys for Best Drama - nominated second through fourth seasons, won fifth season.
Emmys for Best Actor - won first three seasons, nominated last two seasons.
Emmys for Best Director - nominated every season except the second.
Emmys for Best Supporting Actor - nominated second, fourth, and fifth season, won third season.
Emmys for Best Supporting Actress - won fourth season, nominated fifth season.
AFI's Best TV Program of the Year - won every season except the second.

I'm just going to give up listing and say this: it has won 50 awards and been nominated for 151, outranking all but a handful of TV shows. Why?

The Cast

You know how when you see Samuel Jackson in a movie, you say "hey it's Samuel Jackson." Or you see Morgan Freeman and say "hey it's Morgan Freeman." Or you see Nicolas Cage and just start laughing? Well, what happens is there's now a degree of separation between you and the character that actor is portraying. You'll always see that actor in a certain way, and won't fully accept them doing something new. Therefore The Rock can't play a bookworm and Ryan Gosling can't play someone unattractive. So how do you cast for a role that demands subtlety in the expression of every line but also huge swings in character over long story arcs? You cast people who are unknown. Like Bryan Cranston (only known as the dad in Malcolm in the Middle) and Aaron Paul (only known as the kid in that Juicy Fruit ad).
Tack on some more unknowns for the supporting cast, and now everything is believable if the actors can sell it. And sell it they will. For example, take a look at this two-minute scene from one of the first episodes. Here we see Walter dealing with some of the side-effects of having cancer. Other than that it's totally spoiler-free.

Notice how Walter stumbles to the counter, drags his hand to the pills, closes his eyes while taking the pills as if he can't look at himself, but then does look at himself and hates what he sees, and starts working his jaw as if maybe that will start to go on him too, then looks down while reaching for the trimmer, but then stands straight and square and gives himself one last hard look before the scene ends. That's phenomenal acting, and it's all in the subtlety. You see surprise in his eyebrows, sadness in his eyes, feebleness in his stance and facial lines, and anger in his mouth. 
But also notice how much stronger (and graphic) that opening shot is than Walter saying something like "there's blood in my urine" to a family member. And then notice how the camera starts from the bedroom, tucked far away and a little out of focus. We don't recognize this new character, even though we're used to the surroundings. And then the quick cuts of him popping pills show us repetition, anger, and futility without a line of dialogue. And the mirror image of Walter on the glass jar handle at 48 seconds shows us literally a "flip-side" to Walter. He is becoming someone new, he is unstable. And the last shot, of him at the counter with his back to us, is much longer than any of the other shots. This makes it stand out, prolonging the moment we're all waiting for when he'll put that razor to his head. Also the camera's distance and angle prevent us from actually seeing his face. The real Walter and the mirrored Walter are going through something too personal for us to witness, so instead we just get to see the character's actions. That's great directing.
And lastly notice how the music has a faint pulse to it. It resembles a heartbeat, and the smallness of it suggests Walter's heart could go out at any minute. His future is uncertain. Great composing.
This is a two-minute scene of a guy peeing, popping pills at a mirror, and deciding to shave his head. But look at how much you can get out of it; look at how much went into it. Imagine what season finales would look like. 

The Music 

LOST brought you beautiful, emotional music from the same guy that made you cry in the first two minutes of Up. House had a killer intro song by Massive Attack, and always topped off the episode with a great hit. (The ending to Season five, when they played "As Tears Go By," actually had me in tears.) 

Breaking Bad avoids conventional music as much as possible. The intro song, played against that green periodic table background, was made by banging on the empty gas tank of a car. 
Many would say this song is in the most intense scene in the series. With no context (because no spoilers), notice the buildup at 1:00 and the dropoff at 1:09, followed by a pounding heartbeat. And then the insanity at the end. The whole thing is haunting, the instruments themselves unsettling. Add some dialogue and great acting, and you're now screaming at your TV. And, with the perspective of that earlier head-shaving scene, you can appreciate the variety of emotion a simple heartbeat conveys.
What this creates for the show is a very intense, in-the-moment soundtrack that conveys a character's thoughts more-so than a beautiful backing like LOST or something poppy like House. Instead it's ephemeral, temporal, tactile. And then it will throw in a famous, catchy song and BAM: you're knocked back down from your TV-screaming stance. It comes out of nowhere, but fits the scene so well you couldn't imagine it any other way.
I love the graphic novel Watchmen, and one of my favorite things about it is the song quote concluding every chapter. They're all real lines from real songs, and it'll drive you insane how tailored they are to the happenings of that chapter. You'll think they bent their story around a handful of popular lyrics. It's the same with Breaking Bad, where every song isn't just chosen for its mood but also for its words. To the point where the lyrics sometimes explain more than the episode does, making you wonder how the song was written twenty years ago. Especially in that series finale...I mean Jesus, you could write a dissertation on the song choices for those last fifty minutes.
The Plot

Again, no spoilers

This story goes deeper and darker and further and harder than anything else out there, while never breaking with logic or stretching reason. Which is why it is so haunting and entrancing. Crazy things happening on the news capture your interest more than crazy things happening in Star Wars, and this show captures that real-world feel so well.
It also intricately knows what each person is fighting for and how they can get it. But the driver of the story is a moral one, and the show keeps that in mind. This leads me to a big idea I've been developing about another popular series:
Game of Thrones is beautiful and impressive, but look at the character arcs.
good -> stays good        -> dies
good -> becomes bad    -> lives
good -> becomes bad    -> dies
bad   -> stays bad          -> lives
bad   -> stays bad          -> dies
bad   -> becomes good  -> dies

The good characters die and the bad characters live or die. This creates soap opera-y writing, where people are killed on whims and there's no destination in mind. Not just any characters either - mass amounts of people we've been following from the beginning die in seconds. The competent die and the incompetent stay in power, and it all has this tone of "this is real life man, it's dark and hard and makes for great writing because it's unpredictable." But unpredictable doesn't matter when there's no higher level for people to reach.
Harry Potter is great for this reason because, being a series for kids, it puts these terms on simple levels that can serve as a kind of template for anything else. Game of Thrones has no post-Voldemort era, where all the people rally against evil and see a better day for future generations. Or no post-Sauron era for the Hobbits, elves, dwarves, and men to rebuild. There's no Jennayyy for Forrest to woo and no Darcy for Elizabeth to wed against society's demands. And a fun side effect of those things is we learn from one that even an impaired person can change the world if he's just a decent human being, and from the other that character matters more than appearance or status in choosing a spouse. In Harry Potter there are hundreds of things to learn, from eradicating slavery (house elves) to not fearing death (Dumbledore). Some run really deep, way beyond any normal kid's understanding, and that's why there's college courses dedicated to this HP stuff. In Game of Thrones there's no evil to overcome, because there's no good to replace it. And because of this, I don't really care about any of the characters. I want Joffrey dethroned and Tyrion to replace him, but I'm sure he'd die within minutes. Or maybe he wouldn't, but he wouldn't get anything done either way.
Part of the problem is that George R. R. Martin admits he didn't storyboard the series. Meaning he walked into this thing blind 22 years ago and has just winged it through 4000 pages so far. This scene-by-scene writing prevents some unrealistic things from happening (like how in movies the good guy always hits the bad guys, and the bad guys always miss the good guy because, well, the good guy has to survive for the next scene), but it makes it hard to throw in something as intricate as Horcruxes, or the secret that Vader is Luke's father. (which isn't just a twist, it's the explanation for the strength and evil thoughts Luke got earlier. Funnily enough, Horcruxes are also the explanation for the strength and evil thoughts Harry got earlier. But Harry Potter is still very original here because Horcruxes are miles away from a simple blood line.)
To bring this back to Breaking Bad, the show has a higher plateau for every character to reach. The intensity comes from watching them fumble up and down the ladder, affecting others as they go. And although you can say Harry Potter is too simple (which is like complaining that there's too much fat on your bacon), you can put Breaking Bad on the Harry Potter template and see that it holds up just fine.

Last Note

Don't spoil things. Don't be that person. Don't be that person who spoils things for yourself either. The whole point of every story ever is to take you on a roller coaster of emotions and triumphs and trials and change that can only be done when you don't know the outcome. When you tell me Titanic is "sad" I spend the whole movie waiting for someone to die, and that really takes the fun out of those dance scenes. That's a dumb example because the Titanic is a real thing and I already know the ending, but you get my point. So if you're reading this and deciding maybe you'll watch Breaking Bad, don't google the ending to see if it's what you want first; I could write a whole 'nother blog on how you're living life wrong.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

12 Pubs

1. The First Post
Self-explanatory, the start of their journey.
2. The Old Familiar
Familiar because it looks identical to the first pub.
3. The Famous Cock
Gary King is famous at this bar for being a cock - so much so that he’s banned from here for life.  Also the cock on the sign appears to be wearing King’s boots.
4. The Cross Hands
Hands are crossed in the bathroom fight. The tiled background on the sign is the bathroom floor. The ring imprint on one of the hands could represent Steven Price’s divorce.
5. The Good Companions
The five of them have made a pact to stick together, becoming Good Companions once more.  Note the four sad faces and the one happy face - Gary King’s.
6. The Trusty Servant
The trusty servant is Reverend Green, the drug dealer, who tells them to submit to the Blanks.
7. The Two Headed Dog
The two headed dog is the Blank twins who try to kill Rosamund Pike.  Note the dog is restrained from its kill by a wooden peg...a wooden Simon Pegg.
8. The Mermaid
The dancing women are like Sirens, seducing the gang to get their fluids.  Also, the three mermaids on the sign are the marmalade sandwich - blonde, redhead, blonde.
9. The Beehive
Much as a beehive is like a harmonious community, the entire town is now run by harmonious Blanks, with Pierce Brosnan as the Queen bee.  When Nick Frost attacks Brosnan here, a huge fight breaks out - he has disturbed the beehive.
10. The King's Head
Gary King has let the bar crawl get to his head, adamant at finishing all 12 at the risk of their lives.  This could also refer to the smoke house scene when King slams his head into the post to prove he’s not a Blank.
11. The Hole in the Wall
They drive a car through the pub, putting a hole in the wall.
12. The World's End
This is when the world ends.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Books, English, Literature.

It was well into my third year of high school when a friend of mine - a friend who had gone through three years of accelerated English with me - said to me "I don't really get why English is a subject." It wasn't like she was in a bad mood or had just failed an English test; she said it casually as if talking about the weather. Those words tore into me, got me thinking. It occurred to me that she was not alone.

At its heart English tries to give you two things: an ability to learn how to write, and an appreciation for what writing does. This here is what baffles most people. When you take math, you start with basic concepts (adding, subtracting), get slightly more complicated (multiplying, dividing), then get pretty advanced (algebra, geometry, trigonometry), and finally get really advanced (calculus, analysis, and beyond). Every year takes roots from the previous year and combines them to allow for new possibilities. You learn that adding many times can be done with simple multiplication, that multiplying many times can be done with simple exponentiation, and so on. Physics works in the same way.

Biology and Chemistry are different, but apply the same basic rules. You put words to objects and learn their functions, and after memorizing are able to move to more objects and their uses. It's as if these subjects are one giant check list that extends for miles, and every time you learn something you get to check it off. The pros have almost everything checked off.

This idea, this notion that education is simply memorizing the check list for each subject, is very comforting. You can prepare for every test in the same way - go over what you learned, memorize the material, and proceed down the list. Poor grades are simply the result of not spending enough time memorizing the list. If you work really hard you can learn most of that list, and after college and grad school you'll make a living off of that list. A decade of rigorous schooling will give you a mental receipt that extends for miles, branching out into little idiosyncrasies that most others haven't spent the time or energy to learn. That makes you the expert. That kind of guarantee is what makes engineering and other tech fields so appealing. People can visualize the list, can check off their progress. It is for this exact reason why English is so frightening to them, and why it challenges them. English is not a check list.

Applying that methodology to English will get you through the grammar portions. You can learn with concreteness that a period goes here and an exclamation point here. Grammar is no different than math in that way. You can even read books and memorize characters and plot and theme and the climax and the ending. Stories, like grammar, are concrete. Standardized tests will rarely ask anything else of you, so memorization will let you float through English unscathed. At the end of the year you can finally exhale and not have to see that room ever again. But you will have missed something.

Literature's purpose is not to exponentiate. There is no multiplying after adding. You read a book when you're five, you read a book when you're fifty. The purpose of literature is to act as a moral compass. You learn how to write so that you can contribute to that world with your own experiences and passions. Books are fodder for thought. Math will teach you how to build anything in the world, but without understanding its purpose there is no reason for it. So when I suggest that English tries to give you two things - an ability to learn how to write, and an appreciation for what writing does - it is those who want the check list that only take in the first part. There's no way I can really know what having an appreciation for english looks like, but I am positive it's not something that you can just "get down." At times you will hate it, at others love it. The important thing is that you feel it. And feeling it isn't something that will help you on a test. It's something you do on your own, because you want to, not because it was assigned. Literature is a written form of human emotion, and what you build or learn from it is not something you can make a living off of - it's something that guides where you want to take your life.

So when I come across someone now who says they hate reading, I don't feel any anger or bitterness. There's just pity. I've experienced so much joy and happiness and triumph while curled up on the side of a couch, and they won't be able to get that. I've ran with Hassan to catch a kite and I've defended the innocent alongside Atticus and I've held the children in the rye with Holden and I've swam alongside Huck 'n Jim on my way to freedom and I've carried the fire in the gunmetal light and I've cruised through West Egg with Gatsby and Old Sport. These are not items on a check list; they're experiences, journeys. They're only as real as you allow them to be. Don't read them to read them - to get down plot and narrative and structure. Read them to become them - to live them, feel them, understand them, breathe them. You'll forget all about the assignment behind it or the fact that you're sitting on a couch, and instead will experience a different life. And by the end, maybe you'll know a little more about what to do with your own.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

1984 and 2011.

While certain aspects of our society have grown to resemble that of 1984's, the Orwellian dystopia is a point we are far from reaching. Today we have surveillance cameras virtually everywhere, and GPS in our cars and cell phones to locate us at any moment. We live with this knowledge because we understand why it exists. Two hundred and thirty five years ago we became our own country, and faced a difficult decision. In forming a Constitution to rule our land we must both honor privacy, and the right to protecting that privacy. These two utopias, absolute security and absolute privacy, are on opposite ends of a seesaw. The more we have of one, the less we have of the other. In the past fifty years or so, and certainly since 9/11, we have started to raise our level of security. We now are patted down at airports, our phones may be tapped if we are suspect, yet we accept these infringements on our privacy because we understand the reason. I would rather be "violated" by TSA screeners than have a terrorist get through and onto my plane. These enhanced security measures exist so that crime can be stopped before it's committed, not mourned after the event. The same goes for security cameras in stores, schools, offices, and streets. If one was committed enough, and granted enough access, they could probably follow me on surveillance cameras from the moment I pull onto a major street in my car to the moment I return back home. Yet I don't care, because I understand that those cameras are only there to ensure that, in the event of an accident or theft, visual proof can be given. The government has absolutely no interest in the personal dealings of its 300 million people, only in stopping the few who decide to violate its laws. That's where 1984 and our world really clash. In 1984, the government wished to know what every person was doing, experiencing, and thinking at every moment. To make sure they perfectly obeyed. For us to get that way, we would have to overhaul the Constitution, Bill of Rights, spend trillions of dollars on installing surveillance equipment throughout the country, and convince 300 million people - all of which have grown up with the principle of expecting freedom and receiving safety in this land of opportunity - that their individual rights are worthless. Not just worthless, but dangerous. It's unthinkable, unreasonable, and impossible in the foreseeable future. We bawk at the thought of being "tracked", convincing ourselves that the government has nothing better to do than record our lifestyles. The government doesn't have the money, time, manpower, or interest to follow us all. In the meantime, we are perfectly free to voice our opinions, seek any occupation we find interesting, and write whatever we feel. In fact, there are 8 candidates running against our President right now, all voicing the fact that the government has become too invasive. More than 50% of the population (according to the President's approval rating) agree with them. They've gained power through an agenda that takes us away from anything resembling Orwell and his dystopian land. We flourish under our government because it doesn't seek to control, but rather to protect. A controlling government isn't just on the horizon, but is so far gone it has faded from sight, having gone round the bend of Earth's axis. That's our reality.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


The manufacturing industry is the glorious industry of America's past. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, our efficient production and advancing technologies have peaked us as the world superpower. Manufacturing got us through World War I, out of the Great Depression, surged us through World War II and Johnson's Great Society. Whenever our country faced a problem, we could literally build our way out of it. It's a simple reason: more manufacturing means more production, which means more jobs and higher investments and expenditures, which means a higher GDP and lower unemployment rate, which means an expanding and successful society. It's critical that we understand the changed nature of our world, and why manufacturing - for America - is a thing of the past. We haven't accepted this notion for two very good reasons: manufacturing keeps us employed, and it's worked pretty well for us so far. It's time for change.

The world has finally become competitive. We industrialized before all other countries, and thus find ourselves a few decades ahead of other superpowers. Take China as a good and classic example: it runs on manufacturing. Over the past few years, we've all shaken our fists as they "steal" our jobs and undercut their employees. Any major business - and family consumer - knows that when it comes to products, China sells them cheaper. That's why we go to Wal-Mart, where 70% of their products come directly from Chinese hands. There isn't a single politician out there who hasn't preached the commanding rhetoric "Made In America." For good reason: saying otherwise would not only kill their chances at election (or reelection, Obama), it would cause national outrage and spark labor union strikes. I can say this because I am a nobody, someone who has no repercussions for voicing the bitter realities: manufacturing is a dying art.

Once gigantic power plants are built and assembly lines created, the only puzzle piece missing is the workers. Given simple jobs that require repetition and an ability to switch off the brain for their shift, they require no other skills. They don't have to speak, don't have to think. Just do. America recognized this a hundred years ago, and China has put this into practice today: children are just as efficient as adults, and without government protection, we find child labor documentaries popping out of the woodwork. We've all seen a "Made in China" sticker, and most of us picture a child working in a sweatshop. When all you need is hands, you don't need a brain. Therefore, you don't need an education. Ergo, you find your country stuck in a non-progressive swirl of profit marginalization. China has the sweatshops and power plants, and with a population of over 1.3 billion people, they certainly have the manpower to fill them. What they DON'T have, and what every other country on this planet doesn't have, is our level of education.

A Personal Computing Industry Center spokesman stated "As long as the U.S. market remains dynamic, with innovative firms and risk-taking entrepreneurs, global innovation should continue to create value for American investors and well-paid jobs for knowledge workers. But if those companies get complacent or lose focus, there are plenty of foreign competitors ready to take their places. If this happens, the benefits from the global innovation system could quickly shift away from the U.S." This is America's key, our niche that will keep us afloat today in the most competitive international market in history. This is why Mexican's flood our southern border, and why thousands of chinese emigrate to us every year. We teach creativity, the frightful prospects of thinking outside the box. We excel through competition, forcing us to always think more creatively and design more efficiently to outdo our competitors. In short, we go through sixteen years of education to design the iPod, and other countries send their children into factories to build it. Yet we fight daily to become the builders, when we should do just the opposite.


We struggle to win back our mind-numbing labor because it's easier and, in most cases, it's all we've learned to do. We watch in fear as the baby-boomer generation suffers massive lay-offs all over the country. Many businesses that soared through the airwaves of expansion filed for Chapter 11 within a few years. I speak of Circuit City, Countrywide Financial, Lehman Brothers, Nationwide Airlines, Value City, The Reader's Digest Association, Stanford Financial Group, Borders, and hundreds others. We watch as they cry out in protest, unable to find new employment and keep their families going. The reality is that they are the unfortunate generation of an international shift. Most finished high school, and found factories instead of college. They used their hands to make immediate profit, instead of investing their brains in education to become innovative. And that was good for the time, because that's what was working for America. The rest of the world finds itself at that place now, and their competition renders our unlucky generation out of work. We can't fight to become more competitive at building, we have to learn to be more inventive, more innovative, more progressive. The unemployed face the daunting choice of either returning to college or living in virtual poverty as they collect government checks and stumble through minimum wage jobs to keep food on the table. For most, college is not an affordable option - it takes too much time and too much money. Countlessly we see 20-year-olds taking the jobs of 40-year-olds, for not only are they healthier, but they have received a higher education. This isn't wrong, it's the unfortunate byproduct of our progressive society.

It's my generation that has to pick up the slack now. We, the children of the unfortunate generation before us, who have to keep America on top at a most critical time. We do that not through 40-year commitments to established factories, but through 4-8 years of college and intellectually stimulating careers. Through good grades and outside-the-box prospects. By letting our fantasies get to us. By remaining idealistic until we die. By exploring the final frontier. By fulfilling our manifest destiny to make the unknown known. We must stand foremost among our planet and surge onward toward a better horizon.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The American System

America faces a major crisis. We brought it upon ourselves, and now we need to fix it. It's this: our measurement system is foolish. The United States customary units system (or American System) is one without a logical foundation. Before we continue, let's make sure we're all on the same footing. These are the American System measurements:

American units of length: inch, foot, yard, mile, league.
American units of volume: teaspoon, tablespoon, ounce, cup, pint, quart, gallon.
American units of mass: ounce, pound, ton.

These are the International System of Units's (also known as "SI" or "metric" units's) counterparts:

Metric units of length: millimeter, centimeter, decimeter, meter, kilometer.
Metric units of volume: milliliter, liter.
Metric units of mass: milligram, gram, kilogram.

And, just so we understand the popularity of these systems, have a look at this image. The red countries are those in the world that do NOT use the metric system:

You will notice that "red countries" only refers to Liberia, Myanmar, and, of course, the United States of America. Before I go into why America has not made the switch, I would first like to discuss the importance of making the switch.

The metric system is a better system. Flat out. The reason why a third-grader can memorize a multiplication table, yet I cannot convert cups into quarts, is because of one all-powerful rule: numbers have a base of 10. This means ten 10's makes 100, and ten 100's makes 1000. The metric system operates the same way. If you look back at the "metric units of length", you'll notice a lot of "meter" suffixes. That's because their measurements have a base of 10: 10 millimeters makes a centimeter, 10 centimeters makes a decimeter, 10 decimeters makes a meter. It's all too simple, and all too efficient. Americans have managed to create (and stick to) a system that has 256 tablespoons in a gallon, 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon, 8 pints in a gallon, 16 ounces in a pound, and 5280 feet in a mile. The more you look at it, the more you realize how haphazard the entire system is. It's a miracle these ratios even end up in whole numbers - and the whole numbers they convert to seem to be as arbitrary as the names themselves (tablespoon? Cup? Those are tools, not measurements. Why isn't a "foot" just called a "ruler" then?). It's almost as if American measurements were made independently, and later were compared to each other to see how they matched up. It begs the question why Americans have refused to adopt a system grounded in uniformity, logic, and function.

Speaking only in reference to the United States, I present three reasons why we have not made the switch: arrogance, tradition, and affordability.

There is no denying it: America is the most powerful country in the world right now, and has been for almost a century. With that kind of power comes an arrogance that is hard to wag a finger at. Frankly, we are not metric because we can afford not to be metric - a unique position no other country on this planet is in.

Our nation is firmly rooted in its past. Over half our country is Republican, a party that prides itself on upholding traditional values. Most of us don't see the need to learn an entirely different system because - as I just mentioned - we're doing fine without it. I think we're failing to see the importance of being a part of an internationally unified system. The "foreign" system is used by the rest of the world, makes much more sense to an unfiltered eye, and would be a giant step of progression for our country.

The most important reason, though, is that we simply cannot afford to convert right now. School curriculums around the country would have to be revamped, every road sign in the country would have to be changed, highway mile markers would be askew due to the gap between a mile and kilometer, all American product manufacturers would have to change their assembly lines to eliminate American measurements (which means a big loss in exports), and so on. It would cost billions. Billions we don't have.

Given the state of today's economy, this would be a very poor time to make such a drastic adjustment. Thus, change will come as it always has in America: slowly. Kilometer marks will creep their way beneath speed limit signs, both systems will be taught in schools, and eventually the federal government will recognize the International System of Units. Only then will we begin to fade out our system, when not only do we recognize its inefficiencies, but we have cast it out as unusable on the national and international markets. Efforts have been made: the 1968 U.S. Metric Study pushed for it, asking for a decade transition process. The Metric Conversion Act of 1975 was passed by Congress soon after, hoping "to coordinate and plan the increasing use of the metric system in the United States". However, conversion was voluntary, and met more ridicule than approval. It was quickly dropped when Reagan cut the U.S. Metric Board to reduce federal spending. Then the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 designated the metric system as "the Preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce". It wasn't very popular, and a 1998 highway bill (TEA21) struck it down. Omnibus asked for government funding to aide businesses in the transition, and everyone else agreed the money would be better spent on highway construction. Thus, the transition never happened.

It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. The sooner, I say, the better. There's a whole world of competition out there - we might be in the lucky country, but The Information Age has shrunk the world to the click of a button. If we intend on showing the world that we're still the strongest country on Earth, we would do well to adapt to it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

What Harry Potter Means To Me

My generation is privileged to have been raised with Harry Potter. I was seven when I first sat down with my family to watch The Sorcerer's Stone, and having not read a word of the series at that point, I was sucked in - I stand at seventeen now, as the Blockbuster franchise pounds its last drum. Ten years ago I sat in the same theater, envisioning the unwritten finale in the inevitable future - having no idea what would be on the screen, I did my best to put my seven-year-old feet into my seventeen-year-old shoes.

As of this post, the eight-movie Harry Potter franchise has made over $6.4 billion, making it the highest-grossing film series of all time - even higher than James Bond, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings. Its midnight opening made $43.5 million, beating the previous world record set by "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" at $30 million. As for the books, Rowling has sold 450 million copies of her 4,100 page story, breaking historical records every step of the way. Rowling herself is the first author to ever become a billionaire. There are more of her books around the world than there are people in the United States. It's all because of the story.

Harry Potter has action, adventure, drama, good vs. evil, magic, creatures, romance, and everything else - but it shouldn't be defined as any of these. Harry Potter is a coming of age tale, about a boy with a tragic past who is forced through the gauntlet of adolescence. Nothing magical about that. By putting her story into a magical world, Rowling was able to do literally anything she wanted with it. That's why this story is so relatable. It isn't about the magic of the world that the story is in, it's about the magic of the story itself, given free reign by its fantastical setting.

And what a world it is. She throws in everything - giants, fairies, elves, goblins, dragons, werewolves, vampires, centaurs, unicorns and, my personal favorite, a phoenix. She then gives them personalities, stereotypes, character traits, and societal constraints. She created a government that becomes so concerned with public image, it sacrifices reason. A government that, even in a magical world, cannot escape discrimination. Giants are cast out, centaurs are "near-human", house elves are slaves, and pure-bloods always seem more impressive than half-bloods and muggle-borns. I reiterate the fact that, as wonderfully chaotic as this environment is, it is only the stage that Harry is centered on.

Harry Potter is an ordinary boy thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Having no memory of his deceased parents, he is born without any parental guidance or comfort. The Dursleys only further alienate him. He finds solace in Hogwarts, and while the Weasleys do their best to care for him, he's still orphaned by this new world. He feels out of place, nervous on his first Hogwart's Express journey over how bad he will be as a student, and is unable to cope with his sudden fame. You don't have to be a wizard to feel out of place. The Mirror of Erised shows him his parents, and at eleven years old he is forced to realize that he will never have them back.

In his third year, he discovers Lupin and Sirius. Lupin supports and advises Harry, while Sirius is the closest thing Harry will ever have to a father. We quickly realize that Sirius is just as alone and outcast as Harry - and remains that way until his death two years later. Immediately after, Dumbledore resumes the father role.

The chapter "The Lost Prophecy" at the end of book five is the most pivotal point of the entire series, and is one of my favorite chapters for it. It takes five books to build it up. Harry sees Cedric die at the hands of Voldemort, who returns to power. He attempts to prepare the world for this, and is instead mocked and shunned by the entire ministry of magic, while avoided at school. Ron and Hermione are too busy bickering with each other over nothing to be able to support him. Dumbledore is avoiding him. Sirius is confined to Grimmauld Place. And just when things couldn't get any darker, any more depressing, Sirius dies. The entire fifth book is angst. Harry knows everything, and is believed by nobody. As any incredibly, incredibly upset person would do, he takes out his rage on someone - Dumbledore. The chapter "The Lost Prophecy" is Dumbledore apologizing to Harry and telling him everything. For once, Harry is treated like an adult. In this same chapter, he becomes one. Cedric's death unhinged Harry, causing him to snap at everyone. Sirius's death leaves him in numb acceptance. In other words, this chapter is the end of Harry's adolescence. The last two books find him ready to handle anything, as long as it helps brings down Voldemort. In those last two novels he loses Dumbledore, Lupin, Hedwig, Fred, Moody, and Tonks - everyone who was close and advisory. He's never been so alone, but he's never been so active against Voldemort.

There are plenty more ways in which Harry evolves. In the fourth book he becomes infatuated with Cho Chang, a gigantic trial-and-error relationship that brings out an entire side to Harry we've never seen before. We learn that, as well-intentioned as he is, he's lacking in that area. We also see his ongoing hate with Draco culminate with Harry saving his life in the Room of Requirement. The first time he sees the minister of magic, he's terrified of getting sent to Azkaban for blowing up his aunt. Three years later, he is standing in the Weasley's garden with the minister and strongly objecting to what he and his ministry stand for. Dumbledore's man through and through. Since we are with Harry every step of the way, I think we sometimes forget how unique he actually is. Yet he's just an average, well-intentioned kid, cutting his way past the throes of life - Rowling accentuates this by expanding his conflicts to epic proportions. The point is, we should all be able to see ourselves in Harry. My generation is the lucky one that's going through its adolescence at the same time.

Chapter thirty-four of The Deathly Hallows, "The Forest Again", is my favorite chapter of the series. Harry has just discovered that a part of Voldemort lives inside of him - always has, since that Halloween night as a baby - and that he must die in order to end this. As he walks down to the forest, he resists every human instinct to yank the cloak off and escape. Anything to avoid dying. But he's entirely alone. He's reunited with his parents, Lupin, and Sirius - the first time they're all together, and only the third time we ever see Harry's parents at all. The Mirror of Erised, at the beginning of his journey, then in the graveyard, when Voldemort has completely returned, and now in the forest, at Harry's death. Of the entire whirlwind of emotions this series shocked me with, nothing hit me harder than Lily telling her son "you've been so brave."

I think the impact of this series should never be forgotten. Isolated entertainment is when we aren't touched on a personal level. Those who don't get anything out of this series are those who can't and won't see beneath the surface. Others were late to join the party, and no longer can feel the mushy mess that aging brings to a child. Literature is one of those rare devices that is able to push through entertainment and hit us at home. Rowling did just that, and the world is better for it. I stand in line with a hundred million others who would like to thank her personally for that.

As I grew up Harry Potter was a friend, a pastime, a mystery, and guidance. The story has concluded now, but I'll keep it breathing. It will never be lost on me.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Quintessential Americans

Of all the film genres out there, I must say that the gangster genre is my weak spot. I'm not sure if that makes me a good critic or a bad critic; do I like gangster movies just for being in that genre, or am I tougher on them because I know the genre well? I think it's a mixture of both, but my inclination is justified. Some of the greatest movies ever made fall in to the gangster genre. Americans have had a fascination with mobsters since the Depression, where they represented the new Cowboy, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. This concept of good guys who just do bad things is how gangsters are perceived to the American public. They are quintessential Americans.

We must begin with the greatest gangster movie, and maybe even greatest movie of all time,
The Godfather. Not only does it fill our quota for violence and carnage, it is a deeply emotional movie; at its heart it is a film about family. You fall in love with the characters. When Sonny meets his untimely demise, you cringe just knowing the pain it will cause the Corleone family. The most compelling character of the film is Michael Corleone, played fantastically by Al Pacino. We meet Michael as a young man returning from the war. His father tries to keep him out of "the family business," but his father's failed assassination proves to be too much for Michael and he takes revenge on the perpetrators. Michael begins a good man, but the final scene of the film shows what he has become. The world his father tried to keep him out of has changed him into an evil man, one who has no regrets about the crimes he has committed.

The second gangster movie that deserves note is one by the most prolific gangster film director since Raoul Walsh (who has potentially the greatest look of all
time). Martin Scorcese created an instant classic with his film GoodFellas. With a cast led by Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta, Scorcese shows the rise and fall of a young gangster (Liotta) as he learns the way of the Mafia.

goodfellas20large.jpg good fellas image by jdsotelo7

Liotta's character, Henry Hill, finds his way into the world of crime as a young boy. He learns the tricks of the trade, though never develops the stomach for killing, to the point of becoming sick when he has to bury the body of a made man. He is easily the most human of the trio, as Pesci plays a psychopathic killer and DeNiro a hardened criminal. Even so, Jimmy Conway (DeNiro) and Tommy DeVito (Pesci) are still human and Jimmy's breakdown outside the coffee shop when he hears of Tommy's murder is incredibly heart-wrenching. We, the viewers, feel bad for this criminal and murder, even with all of the bad things he has done. Henry's relationship with his wife Karen is anything but the classic American love story, but it still feels real. Along with Scorcese's other gangster film of the 90s (the stylishly indulgent Casino), he paints a romanticized picture of gangster life, though everything never works out in the end.

One cannot discuss gangster movies without bringing up Quentin Tarantino. His numerous additions to cinema have changed films forever, and it all began with his first film Reservoir Dogs. Although based on a botched robbery, we can tell from the first scene that this movie will be like no crime movie we have ever seen before. Tarantino's beautiful, yet coarse dialouge provides color to the perpetrators. The cast, including Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buschemi, and Michael Madsen, discuss anything from the hidden meaning of "Like A Virgin" to the appropriate tip for a waitress. The explosive dialouge characteristic of Tarantino itself sets this movie apart from all others, and yet, it still exceeds that. Though about a botched diamond robbery, the actual robbery is never shown, we only see the planning and chaos once all planning has failed. The real star of the movie is the relationships between the men who only know each other's code names. When it becomes apparent that someone in the group is a police officer, the violent men try and prevent themselves from being killed. The last scene is explosive, and Harvey Keitel's moan at the end is that of a broken and betrayed man. Even with its plot twists, the movie holds up with subsequent viewings.

The gangster genre is a fantastic addition to the movie lexicon. Not only are the movies endlessly entertaining, they allow us to see ourselves in a corruped position; we get to feel like the bad guy. Some of the most emotional movies ever have fallen into this category. I think I can be a subjective critic when it comes to mob movies, but I will always have a weak spot for a man with a gun and a suit.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sit Down, Shut Up, and Watch.

Movies deserve to be watched. There are few places I would rather visit than the local movie theater, but every trip has me silently fuming as I am forced to immerse myself with the hundred shameless individuals seated around me who just don't get movies. It's distasteful. I put up with the occasional whisper, and the monotonous crunch as jaws gnash together in a sloppy mess of popcorn, butter and teeth. People seem to fail to realize their drink is depleted, preferring to suck in air through their straw as if it's life support.

There are two things that kill me. For starters; texting. If something is so urgent that it can't wait two hours for a response, you chose poorly on your evening location. If you're at the movie theater, you're already with the friends you want to be with. Talk to them. Even worse, every theater has at least one individual seated in the front row who hosts this compulsive texting urge. This strategic location ensures that, no matter where you cast your eyes upon the screen, the little white rectangle of light never leaves your peripherals. The fact that you're seated in the front row already tells me you don't care about this movie. The front row is solely reserved for those who show up last minute, laughing loudly to each other and already in "I'm going to reorganize my entire address book on my phone during this movie" mode. If you're going to ruin the experience for everyone, do that in the Fast and Furious theater, where the handful of people seated with you are anything but interested in the big screen.

The second thing that kills me; leaving the moment the credits appear. More often than not, the first few minutes of the credits is a computer artist's time to shine. There is some form of art that accompanies every name, having relevance to the movie in some way. As an audience, we should appreciate it. Behind this beauty is a few men who sweat out 18 hour work days for your viewing pleasure. It took the guys behind Iron Man several months to create the opening credits sequence. Several months of work witnessed by probably one in every thousand people who watch the movie, optimistically. Not only are the credits a time to appreciate the unsung heroes of the movie industry, but they are a time to reflect. What did you just watch. If you just saw a romance, appreciate the build-up of the relationship over the past two hours. If it's a horror, unclench your fingers from the arm rests and think about what it would be like if this actually happened in real life. No different from the feeling of just finishing a novel, you need time to consider what you just experienced. Ray Bradbury had it right in his novel Fahrenheit 451, when he emphasized the point that not only do you need books to read, but just as importantly you need a proper amount of time to think about them. Sit in the theater, turn towards your friends, and drown yourself in thought as the symphony strikes behind the credit roll. A good movie will affect you so strongly it doesn't leave your mind for the entire drive home. Only the best movies keep you up that night, running over plot twists and the chaotic storyboard as you twist and turn in bed. That's the beauty of movies; they produce thought, the cornerstone to our sanity. I ask of you this; seek your sanity properly.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A New Era

The impact of film on shared human culture cannot be overestimated. Truly great movies are able to transcend time. Citizen Kane can still wow viewers with its beautiful angles and epic scope. The Godfather hasn't lost its emotional hold after 38 years. The baptism scene will draw gasps and sounds of awe as Michael Corleone's fall from grace completes itself.

Pulp Fiction has added to this shared culture. I consider it to be my favorite movie, and I don't think I am alone in this. Quentin Tarantino created a perfect blending of pop culture, philosophy, and machismo to appeal to almost any intellectual mind.

Drawing from the pulp comics of the 40s and 50s, Tarantino updates the noir genre for the postmodern era. This is most evident in the characters of Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega.
Whether debating the sexual significance of a foot massage or cleaning brain and blood out of the back of a car, they exude a masculinity dating back to the days of Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney. They are the classic anti-hero. They may be shooting people for their underworld boss Marcellus Wallace, but you still want to see them succeed. They are more fallen angels than demons. Jules sums up this persona when he says, "The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd."

Yet, even with the bloodshed they cause, we can still relate to them. Vincent's speech to himself in the Wallace's bathroom is incredibly human. He must make the choice between his newfound love interest, Mia Wallace, or the inevitable death that will befall him, should he pursue his desires further.

Pulp Fiction is also memorable for the phenomenon is created. Not only did it spark a craze of teenagers who wanted to shoot some heroin and down a Sprite, it changed the way movies were created and molded. Imitations of Tarantino's style began and many movies attempted to copy the blend of pop culture, amazing dialogue, and sheer brute force. The only one worth noting in the same breath is Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, but even that movie pales in comparison. The slew of catchphrases inspired from Pulp Fiction cannot be counted.
In all, Pulp Fiction is a violent throwback to the serial films of the 40s and 50s with a modern nihilism thrown in. It is endlessly watchable as well as quotable. Movies have never been the same, non-linear storytelling is the norm, and seemingly pointless violence and profanity have penetrated mainstream America. It has created its own place in pop culture, but even more-so, this still is a tasty burger.