Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In the Midnight Hour: Roxy Music, New Year's Eve, 1979

Thought I'd close out the old year and welcome a new one by passing along one of my New Year's traditions: watching and listening to the cool, sleek groove of Bryan Ferry and Co. covering a Wilson Pickett classic.

See you next year!

New Year, Old Thoughts.

When I was a kid, I was often struck by the idea that at any given moment, someone somewhere on Earth was celebrating their birthday. Given the number of people on the planet, it just stood to reason. As I got older, the idea evolved; I came to see that every moment was, for someone out there, the worst or best moment of their lives. Every moment, the Earth witnesses scenes of hellish violence and idyllic peace. Somewhere, someone is awakening on a long-awaited day, while elsewhere someone is lying down after a grueling ordeal. Someone is pausing in a teeming crowd, someone is sitting alone. One person gazes at noonday Sun, another sits and contemplates the stars.

It was, and is, an overwhelming thought, this rush of simultaneity, this multitude of experiences all happening at once.

When I was a bit older, a teen, I imagined that if I listened hard enough on a quiet night, I could hear the low rushing sea-sound of billions of voices, the vast blanket of human thought and interaction stretching out and around me. There was a sense of being interconnected, in the sense that we are all human and can relate to each other at a basic level, at least. It was a comforting thought, really, this notion of a galaxy of humans swirling about on their respective paths. Yet, as I've said before, it brings with it a certain sadness, as I am reminded that I will never know beyond even a tiny, infinitesimally small number of all those people; vast numbers of potential staunch friends and great loves, all to remain strangers due to sheer logistics.

The internet helped cement these thoughts for me, long after the awe I felt when I was young had dissipated. The great net that is now cast across the Earth has helped rejuvenate that awe for me, to reveal that, indeed, the multitudes live out their daily lives, advancing the human experience one person at a time, but all together, and all at the same time.

Not long from now, as I write this, 2014 will begin its advance around the globe. The changing of years is, for me as it is for many, a time to contemplate both the past and the future. The passing year has not been the greatest for me (though really, I have no reason to complain), but maybe it was for you. I hope the coming year will be good for all of us.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A leisurely South Seas cruise...to Skull Island.

You know as well as I do, probably better, that none of us live in a vacuum. Our lives are a string of moments that teach us something, whether we choose to learn from them or not. Most of those moments aren't labeled as lessons in big, bold letters, so too often we ignore them and move along, searching and waiting to find the "real" lessons we are sure will rise into view over the horizon with luminous sails. But that's never how it is, is it?

Sometimes it's seemingly inconsequential things that have stuck with me throughout my life, causing me to reflect back on them to suss out their meaning countless times. So many moments, preserved in memory like flash-lit photos, barely noticed while happening, yet treasured for decades. A lingering glance across a frozen parking lot, a hushed conversation in a kitchen lit by the light of an old stove, a laugh shared with strangers in a crowded check-out line, a childhood argument bitterly fought on an Autumn playground, a passage from a book read at random in a cramped library, a missed phone call presaging years of silence...they all add up to a greater meaning, if only we take the time to figure out just what that meaning is.

When I write these blog posts, I hope that it's clear that most of the ostensible subjects are really MacGuffins. That is, while they are interesting in and of themselves, for me they are vectors to talk about and ponder larger issues. They are outward manifestations of an inner life. I try to approach what I'm talking about with concrete examples, and even if those examples are not the cup of tea of any given potential reader, I would also hope that the underlying intent is of some interest.

I've been a dinosaur fan since I was a kid. Even more fascinating to me are prehistoric mammals. Now, don't get me wrong, I find modern animals fascinating, too, but there is something haunting about the vast array of creatures that roamed the planet before the advent of humans. The Earth spun silently on in its solar revolutions for eons, while life spread and throve and died and returned in different forms. What we see today is a snapshot, a moment caught and examined in detail by those with the ability to really see the larger mural of existence on this planet. It's almost heartbreaking to think of all the animals that are long lost, both the ones we know about via fossils or historical record, and the ones we will never know existed. Much of what we know has to be inferred from what evidence was left behind, leading to a lot of speculation, and, by extension, fiction. So tales of dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters enthrall me, as they make me consider what they may really have been like.

It is inevitable, then, that King Kong would have piqued my interest. Back in the days before home video and cable TV, I had to wait until Thanksgiving to see what was, for me, the ne plus ultra of dinosaur movies. A local UHF station played it Thanksgiving night for years. I was easily frustrated by all the non-Kong stuff going on in the movie; I knew what people were like, for crying out loud! I needed to see what the dinosaurs and giant apes were like. It was a window into another world, and I didn't want it blocked by silly romances and huckster schemes. Kong and the dinosaurs of Skull Island were clearly the stars of the movie, even if RKO didn't seem to get that.

Time marched on, as it does, and King Kong, while retaining its mystique for me, had become time-worn and known inside-out. So, too, was its sequel, Son of Kong, which had revealed an even more varied ecosystem for Skull Island than was evident in its predecessor. There were plenty of dinosaur flicks and TV shows that came later, especially with the rise of computer-generated effects, but none held the same potential to evoke wonder as King Kong. Peter Jackson would do a remake of it in 2005, which, while drubbed critically, still managed to recover some of the magic of the original - this Skull Island was a worthy successor. Riotous with life, dangerous as a green Hell, and a glimpse into a world that might have been, but never quite was.

Some years back, I snagged what I still feel is the coolest movie tie-in book I've ever seen: The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island. The book was by the Weta Workshop, the special effects folk responsible for both the Lord of the Rings movies, and the 2005 King Kong, all of which are Peter Jackson movies. Say what you will about Jackson's Kong, but the amount of work and detail put into the creation of Skull Island is astounding. I wrote a review of the book a long while ago, but I thought I'd post it here, too.

Books like this are the kind that can stick in one's memory for years. Sure, it's a fictional place, but it takes reality and tweaks it a bit into a tantalizing glimpse of what-might-have-been on some alternate timeline. I put it alongside the atlases and encyclopedias on my bookshelves, as well as other "never-were" books like After Man. To me, it adds a touch of wonder for both young and old alike to compare, contrast, and dream about far-flung places both imaginary and existing, to contemplate the borders between the real and unreal and where they shade into each other.


The discovery and subsequent expeditions to Skull Island until it disappeared beneath the waves are revealed. The gradual shrinking of the island as it sinks into the sea is discussed, and the reader learns it is due to volcanic activity. Also discussed are the huge ruins that seem to have covered a large part of the island at one time, the builders of which are unknown.

I. The Crumbling Coast and Village

While some of the coastal creatures – such as large crustaceans and various water-loving animals like reptiles and amphibians, as well as birds and other flying creatures – are detailed, the human village is of even more interest.

The humans here are a dwindling, desperate lot, pushed to the limits of existence as they are forced into more and more inhospitable living conditions due to the encroaching sea. They are of a racial stock unlike any that are indigenous to the region, and could be the descendants of the builders of the ruins. If so, they have lost any memory of their history. The ritual sacrifices to the mighty Kong are also discussed.

II. The Shrinking Lowlands

The primary domain of the true heavy-hitters of Skull Island’s dinosaur set, such as the brontosaurus (yes, brontosaurus, not apatosaurus) and the V. Rex (V standing for vastatosaurus), a big, meat-eating tyrannosaur descendant.

The implication of this chapter is that as Skull Island sinks, the competition for territory and food forces the animals here to live a life of constant danger and violence. With so many large, dangerous animals squeezed into an area getting smaller everyday, the place becomes almost cartoonishly violent.
A study of how Skull Island is sinking.

III. The Winding Swamps and Waterways

Called the “Blood of the Island,” these wet areas ensure the sustainability of life on Skull Island.

IV. The Steaming Jungle

Perhaps the most familiar part of Skull Island, the jungles contain probably the greatest variety of life. Life forms range from graceful ceratopsians to proto-monkey creatures. There are flying lizards (“flizards,” not quite pterosaurs), a wide array of nasty-looking insects, “flying rats,” strange sorta-bats, and “burglar monkeys” (the aforementioned proto-monkeys) inhabiting the forest canopy. Below, giant flightless birds, huge centipedes, and lots of large, nasty lizards prowl the jungle floor.

V. The Abyssal Chasms

This is the deep, dark, dank, and perhaps most alien region of Skull Island. Deep fissures cleave the island, and are kept moist by the tropical climate, and very warm due to volcanic activity. Spiders, giant worms with big, nasty teeth, and weird, pterosaur-like “vultursaurs” lurk in these areas. Think of what you find under a rotting log, mix it with a lot of fungus, and make it all really big and hostile, and that’s what you have here.

VI. The Barren Uplands

While inhabited by a variety of creatures, such as the bifurcatops, an agile ceratopsian that fills a mountain-goat-like niche, this region is most notable for the giant apes that claim it. How and why a species of huge, gorilla-like primates came to exist on Skull Island is discussed, but a lot is left to speculation.

An interesting idea that is presented is the notion that these creatures were brought to the island by the mysterious ruin-builders, and bred into their giant size from gigantopithecus stock. The species’ gradual decline, until only the mighty Kong remained, is discussed, as is the demise of Kong himself, and provides a melancholy end to this book.

Size Comparison Chart

A fold-out section at the end of the book shows the various creatures of Skull Island standing placidly in profile on a New York City street. We get to see just how large all the dinosaurs and other animals are in relation to each other, as well as in relation to humans (such as Ann Darrow/Naomi Watts), biplanes, and New York’s elevated trains.

The Good

This book conjures up Skull Island as a fully-realized, living, breathing place. It’s such an interesting place, that it makes me wish there really was such an island in the world. The book never “breaks character” and dispels the illusion, treating its subject with respect and perhaps a bit of awe. This includes a rather neat vintage-looking map on the inside covers and end-papers of the book, as well as several maps showing the climatic/ecological regions of the Island. It really seems like a place I’d like to…well, not visit, really, since it’s so dangerous. OK, maybe I would like to visit it; it's too tempting. But I’d definitely love to see a National Geographic special on it.

Another neat thing about the book is that the creatures on Skull Island are not simply frozen-in-time hold-overs from the Cretaceous era. They are descendants of the animals from that time, and have evolved various specializations over the eons.

The Bad

Honestly, I can’t find a legitimately bad thing to say about this book. I only wish it was longer and contained more artwork.

The Ugly

The carnictis sordicus is a species of intestinal parasites that somehow evolved into giant worm-like creatures, and which live deep within the chasms of Skull Island. Described as “animated stomachs” with a “sphincter-maw of teeth,” these critters made a pretty spectacular and, yes, as the book says, repulsive appearance in the recent King Kong movie. Very creepy, shudder-inducing fellas.

Why You Will Like It

Perhaps first and foremost, this book is gorgeously illustrated. The images are clear, vivid, and fire the imagination. The detail put into the ecosystem, while pushed to the limits of credibility and beyond, still shows a lot of thought and effort. This makes the book a fun read as it straight-facedly presents Skull Island as a real place.

Why You Won’t Like It

If depictions of unrealistic, pulp-magazine style jungle-clad islands inhabited by dinosaurs and giant apes don’t appeal to you, then you probably won’t like this book.

Where’s the Fun?

The fun is in the sheer chaos of the island’s ecosystem. It’s bright, colorful, over-the-top adventuring fun. Really dangerous bright, colorful, over-the-top adventuring fun. There is a cliffhanger (often literally) every few yards, with the fauna (and maybe even some flora) out to eat the unwary. Realistic? No. Fun? Hell yeah.
Giant Apes + Dinosaur Fights=Fun

Final Assessment

I love this book. It’s the best movie tie-in I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading and looking at. It can be read as a study of a place that never was.

One of the things I didn't emphasize enough, regardless of the pictures I posted, is just how beautifully illustrated this book is. There are no stills from the film; the art consists of concept paintings and drawings from the Weta Workshop, which did the special effects for the film. This is an important point, I feel, as the book establishes its own identity separate from the film. One could comfortably read and enjoy the book without ever having seen the film. 

But what does all this have to do with anything? For me, it points up the wonder and fragility of life. It shows the importance of imagination, and the firing of that imagination. It represents the manifestation of a memory, and childhood flights of fancy that can still thrill an adult. Most importantly, though, I wanted to write about Skull Island. I hope others like reading about it, and both "get" why something like this is important to me (and why other things are important to them), and actually get the book if it seems like the kind of place they'd like to visit, if only in the theater of the mind.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Back in my ears again.

Somehow it got by me that the Mavericks, one of my very favorite bands, released an album earlier this year. Yeah, I don't know how that happened, either. I guess it was because I'd given up on seeing a new slate of songs from them years ago. I'm not gonna wear a hair shirt over it, seeing as how it went a good decade since their last one. Then I chanced across this song:

It's a thing of beauty. Chugging along with that bouncy Tex-Mex rhythm, it really embodies a type of song I love: sad lyrics with a happy melody. I could have written this song; still could, if it hadn't already been done so well here. It put me in mind of my own life, and what I've learned, and what I still need to work out.

Love, lost love, love gone wrong...it's all endlessly fascinating. We fall in love, riding the waves, and, often enough, sinking to the depths. You know it as well as I do. It's a constant. Some luck out and manage to navigate through the depths of life without running aground or hitting the bottom, but the rest of us have to wreck against the rocks at least a few times.

Sometimes we can drag ourselves from the wreckage and try again quickly; other times it takes a lot longer. I'm one of the latter cases. It took me years to even think about putting to sea again in the relationship ocean. We all move at our own pace, of course. Life continued to flow, and other matters required attention, and one day I noticed the skies, felt the wind, and decided to set sail again. Storms always pass, waters become calm again...for a time, and a sad song can make you happy just from the knowledge that you made it through the Clashing Rocks like the Argonauts, and can look back and be glad that you survived. Because you will, because I did.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Overpass Love, or the Loneliness of Highway Declarations

I find it oddly comforting that people still pledge their love this way:

Don't ask why; I can't explain it. I see these scrawled declarations of devotion, and I feel a strange wistfulness, a sense of the universality of love making us all do strange things, regardless of age. This is out in an area where city gives way to country, where graffiti is scarce and becoming even less so. It stands out, and seems at once both bold and lonely to me. Some might see a defaced public work; others might see a sloppy tag; I see an attempt to grasp at immortalizing an emotion.

Many, many years ago, decades really, when I was a little kid and the world seemed huge and mysterious, I remember a similar tag on a railroad trestle. The trestle was black, and on it, in fat, puffy white letters, someone had painted CALIFORNIA BOUND. I would see it on occasion as my parents drove the stretch of minor state route the trestle spanned. It was near a convergence of major and minor highways, where traffic was chaotic at times, but farm country was also near. It always struck me as a sad, lonely place, a place that seemed as far from where anyone would want to be as you could get. But there, in bold, crude letters, was a declaration of intent, two words that held a hovering potential of something greater, a quest for a dream. Back then, of course, I couldn't articulate all this; I was a kid in the early 1970s, and CALIFORNIA BOUND was like some arcane invocation that meant everything, everything in the vaguest sense of what was good and exciting. As I grew older, the scrawl remained, until I was an adult.

As I became a teen and then an adult, I often passed under this trestle. I would wonder if the person who'd painted it had made it to California, and whether they would even remember painting this rally cry for a trip to a far-off land of wonder. It both inspired and saddened me. It inspired me because it became a small mental goad, urging me to follow my own path to California, a place that had come to haunt my dreams, and which I would, eventually, reach. It saddened me because it was part of a larger story I would never know anything else about. It hung there over that highway, tantalizing in its mystery. I hoped the person who'd painted it all those many years ago was happy, whether or not they'd reached the Golden State, but I feared that, like so many, that dream was dashed somewhere along the way, forgotten, the only evidence of it being painted across that desolate stretch of road.

Until, one day, unnoticed, it was painted over.

For so long, decades, it had been a landmark to me, both geographically and mentally. Why it loomed so large in my mind I can never explain, but it made me think about many things: mortality, dreams, the way we connect, how even the least of our actions can have unintended effects years and years after we do them. Now, tonight, after taking and looking at the picture above of a new bit of graffiti on a different overpass, it makes me think once again, about how all these blogs we write, here and elsewhere, are similar attempts to say something, to declare our existence, to state what we love. I can only hope that something I write, even the least bit of doggerel, has the kind of impact on someone out there that CALIFORNIA BOUND had upon me.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thor: The Dark World - my not-a-review

I like to relate most things I talk about here on Dark Dimension to my life or my philosophy of life, such as it is. "Philosophy of life" seems really pretentious, I know, but it's the best term I can come up with for the various ruminations and epiphanies I've managed to glean from being alive as long as I have been. I suppose you could call it "a bunch of things I've managed to learn by falling back-asswards into them," but it doesn't hold the same cachet, does it? Whatever you want to call it, let's get to the subject: Thor: The Dark World.

First, let me get the particulars out of the way: I liked the movie. It was fun. Big, loud, chaotic, bombastic, and with more than a dollop of lunacy. I don't go to the movies much these days, and when I do, I look for spectacle. Thor: The Dark World certainly has its share of that.The plot is properly comic-book-ish, with huge battles and daring escapes and interdimensional travel. It was a stronger film than the first one, and is a solid entry in Marvel's continuing effort to construct an interconnected film franchise the likes of which has never been seen before. Oh, and Loki stole the show. Seriously.

Loki is not that far off from the source material, to boot.
Now for what it all means to me. Because that's why you're here, right?*

Oddly enough, I was a fan of Thor, so to speak, before I became familiar with his comic book avatar. I remember being fascinated by tales from Norse mythology when I was very young. That Thor didn't seem very approachable, really, but somehow my impression of him was positive. Something about those tales, with Thor and the Asgardians fighting giants and causing general mayhem seemed to contain a kernel of...something positive. At the least, the Asgardians were a little less capricious than the Greek gods, at least it seemed to me. That's not saying much, I know, but for me, back then, it was enough.

I love when Thor does stuff like this.
As a kid, I was troubled by the source material of most of the mythological figures who were imbedded in our culture. I had a hard time reconciling comic characters like Thor or (especially) Hercules with their mythical forebears. Those myths and legends often showed those characters as being nothing short of psychotic killers, while their comic counterparts were noble, brave, and true. It was, and is, hard to see how those character got from there to here.

Cultural drift accounts for the changes, of course, as each successive generation takes what they already have in their cultural lexicon, and morphs and adds to it all to suit their own sensibilities. But that doesn't explain why we choose to keep and alter certain characters. Why Thor (or Hercules)? What about such a character keeps him relevant, or has such appeal that a culture retains or adds him to their mythology? I don't know, exactly, except to point to their basic humanity; those characters, though gods, were flawed, yet still somehow relatable. Somewhere along the way, their rough edges were sanded down smooth to make them even more palatable. Those "rough edges" were egregious atrocities in the cases of some characters, like Hercules, or Jason of Argonauts fame (and Jason was a doozy when it came to rehabilitating his image for modern sensibilities, but that's a whole 'nother story).

Interestingly enough, while blunting the sharp edges on a character like Thor to make him a virtuous, friendly hero, our culture also likes to create anti-heroes, rough edges and all. I think, though, that in our hearts, as a culture, we long even more for the shining knight to save the day. Sure, the cynical among us may eschew those paragons in favor of the character with bigger flaws and more shadowed soul, but I still believe that in most of us, maybe buried deep, is the hope that someone we can truly root for will come along. We certainly seem to, with the adoration given to superheroes in pop culture, and the adulation given first responders and military personnel. We long for a true superhero to come along, but maybe it's the certain knowledge that we are all on our own, that no titan-strengthed hero will appear to make things right, that makes some shun or react against the very idea of heroism...or which makes some dig down deep to try to save the day.

So, yeah...I haven't said a lot about Thor for a while, have I? I think what has drawn me to Thor in recent years is much the same reason that I've always been a Superman fan - both are imbued with godlike powers that render them effectively immortal, yet they are, in essence, decent, responsible people. Maybe they came about that decency and responsible nature in different ways - Superman by way of a solid, caring upbringing, Thor by way of hard experience and self-scrutiny engendering humility - but they both manifest those qualities in similar ways. Characters like Thor and Superman (especially) are notoriously difficult to write, because their physical invulnerabilities means that the only recourse is to explore their vulnerabilities - those basic, innate qualities of decency and responsibility that make them admirable to us. Thor: The Dark World does, indeed, explore those vulnerabilities; all the flash and thunder aside, all the pitched battles and spectacular set pieces notwithstanding, the real conflict is Thor's sense of duty to those who could use his help...humanity. A kernel of that quality can be found in the source material, which may be what drew me to the character and his latter-day incarnations.

Plus, he has a flying hammer. How cool is that?

* Psst: that's sarcasm.