Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Dumpster Exchange

As children, one of my cousins and I were avid dumpster divers. We had rooms filled with other people's junk we'd collected with the frequent comment, "How could they have thrown this away?"

At some point the lure of good garbage was surpassed by pride and I could no longer dive into anyone else's dumpster. This is not to say that I haven't thought about, because I have; I'm just too good (in my own mind) to lower myself into a dumpster (or even snag some perfectly acceptable piece of rubble from the top of the pile).

This morning, however, I once again contributed to that great past time by donating my own junk to the heap. I rolled out my office chair and placed it next to the dumpster this morning as I headed out for an oil change. The chair had seen better days. The leather was marked by a thousand cat claws. The seat was formed down to the shape of my butt. Alas, I would have kept it but at some point it started to cause me a great deal of back pain to sit in it.

Two hours after I'd deposited the chair next to the dumpster it had be replaced with someone else's chair. This one was smaller, cloth covered and with less sturdy casters and arms. Someone had traded up at the dumpster exchange. Only a few hours later, that chair too was gone. It was claimed, I'm sure, with an exclamation, "How could someone throw this away?"

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Remembering John Hughes


I'd like to take a moment to remember John Hughes. I haven't seen his best remembered films - Pretty in Pink or The Breakfast Club - that is, other than the tidbits as I troll through the television channels. So for me, the short article from Lawrence Downes - John & John - was the most fitting remembrance.

The New York Times did a nice job appreciating all things John Hughes. Here's a few:

The John Hughes Touch by A.O. Scott

The Neverland Club by Molly Ringwald

Remembering John Hughes

As a child of the 80's, albeit mostly of the late 80's, the passing of John Hughes is another reason to remember the way things were, and of course, to plug in my copies of Uncle Buck or Planes, Trains and Automobiles for one more viewing.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

(500) Days of Summer - An Appreciation

Movies have long been as close to a passion as I might have. For me, movies are meant to accomplish a couple things.

First, they entertain by allowing us to escape for a moment into a place we might not otherwise find ourselves. In the midst of this feat a truly great movie will also shed light into our world by revealing to us the lives, the dreams, the conflicts and the hopes of others. If a movie manages these two things - to entertain and to enlighten - it is both rare and wonderful.

Given the infrequency of a truly great movie, entertainment is often enough. The whiz and the bang, the explosion, the impossible love, the daydream - all the while it flits across the screen we sip our sodas and munch our treats with contentment. If movies offered nothing more than this I would still shell out my cash, sit in the darkness and await the first flashing lights of the projector.

On the other hand, if movies were nothing more than art, I would be less enthralled. The art movie, meant as a work of influence and meaning and imbued with passion and importance, can enlighten and inform but just as likely bore us. When I choose to see these movies I often come away with some new insight or an appreciation for the work itself but much more rarely do I leave the theater entertained.

My lack of enthusiasm for movies that critics might deem important for me to see leads me to consider the sadder development of my long history with movies. As I have grown older, movies have continued to lose their magic. There's no obvious place to put the blame - cynicism, understanding of the process, actually knowing actors, poor movie-making - but this does nothing to alleviate my longing for that singular sense of complete immersion in a movie like when I was child.

The great movies of my youth - or so I think of them - I saw almost exclusively on commercial television or grainy VHS from the gas station movie rental rack. Yet no matter the size of the screen or the quality of the picture and sound those movies were as real and wonderful to me as anything I've seen since.

Often it is the technical that supplants the magical. We can watch a film and know that it is technically superior. We appreciate the insightful story, original and intimate. We marvel at the actors communicating an array of emotion with a single shift of posture. The lighting may be brilliantly cast, the camera angles novel and expertly arranged or the editing might add to the effect of the story but the movie may fail to sweep us away, lift us above the process and deposit us squarely into the heart of the story.

In the end, it takes a perfect balance of many things to make a movie great, but for me there is a silver bullet. It is the same for movies as it is for books, television and even stand-up comedians. It is the connection. If while sitting in a darkened room I can look up to a lighted screen and upon it see a life or a character or a place not unlike one I have known myself then most everything else that makes the movie a movie simply melts away.

In those long ago days when I watched Goonies I wanted to be one of those kids. I wanted those friends and that sort of adventure. When I watched Stand By Me I had had those conversations, told those kinds of stories and lived that type of life. I wanted to meet aliens with the Explorers, fight in my spaceship with The Last Starfighter and I longed for just one Reese's Pieces eating alien in my closet.

Sadly, this connection does not always hold up to the test of time. A connection can be a fleeting thing whereupon the first viewing of a movie is powerful and magical, but when watching it the second time it becomes obvious there was something in that particular moment that captivated me and could not be duplicated. As such, the rarest of all movies must be those that are technically sound, truly entertaining and bridge a connection that stands the test of time.

It remains too early to say whether (500) Day of Summer is such a film. I do know that it entertained me and I enjoyed it. I know that for a time the rest of the world, the real world, dissolved into the mists unseen and unheard. I know that as I walked out the doors I felt I had seen something that may have connected with me more than it might have others, or even my own movie companion. In Tom, the main character, I had seen much that I see in myself. Perhaps I am not so handsome. Maybe I am not so assertive. I do not contend that it was as if looking in a mirror but there was much material on which to draw out the resemblance.

The movie was technically sound if somewhat risky at times with the narration - always dangerous - the shifting back and forth through time, the use of little numbered screens for temporal clarity and one brilliant but difficult split screen showing the differences between Tom's expectations and his reality. In the end, none of that matters because this way my movie. This was a story about a man not unlike me, living in the city in which I live, under circumstances similar to my own and with a perspective frequently indistinguishable from my own. In other words, for this viewer at least, it was movie gold.

My appreciation for (500) Day of Summer resides in the strange recirculation of my thoughts about it. The movie became a reflection of a reflection like two mirrors facing one another. Whenever I stopped to consider the movie and ask myself the questions it posed about the nature of love I was reminded that this act of consideration and analysis was in fact reflected by the parts of the movie I was considering. Thinking about the themes of the movie was also my connection to the movie.

Later, I sat with my movie companion and quizzed her on her thoughts about the film only to realize that within our conversation of Tom and Summer we were becoming more like them. As I thought more about the movie, indeed, as I sat down to compose this appreciation, I was analyzing life and the nature of love (of movies? of people?) just as Tom would have done.

After chasing this idea around for awhile I realized that whatever anyone else may think, whether my companion gave it 3 and a half stars or hated it, none of that mattered. Love doesn't make sense. Love is coincidence and timing. Love may only reside in one heart - (500) Day of Summer shows us that. It is as truthful for people as it is for movies.

So for now, I love this movie and though time may slowly cause us to drift apart, like Tom and Summer, I have the joy of the first time I saw it and the happiness of this 1 day of my summer.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


I have long been a computer gaming nerd, but I like to think I don't take it to extremes. I used to sit up through the night playing Age of Empires over a dial-up 56K modem, but that was college. Now I'm more casual. My brother calls me up on random weekends and we kill things on Civilization 4.

Recently, though, has come massive online multiplayer games courtesy of social networking sites like Facebook.

So I maintain my little farm with its chickens, sheep, fruit trees and countless plots of corn or rice (high profit, large cash flow).

I also kill things, rob things, blow things up and buy countless properties that I must maintain and protect from other roving bands of made men.

For awhile I had a castle and village in a place called Evony, but I couldn't seem to dedicate the time and effort necessary to compete on a global scale. I'd check in for a few minutes each day only to discover that neighboring players had spent far more time building and arming their little simulated worlds. Soon, they'd attack and I'd die. I repeated this process three times. Now I just tend my farm back on Facebook.

Then, by chance, I stumbled across Erepublik. I should love this game. The basic premise is that you are a simulated person in a virtual reality version of the actual planet. Each person has a job, trains in the military, takes part in politics and so forth. One can create a business, run for president or write a newspaper keeping track of the myriad intricacies of the game. Also a bit of a perk is that I can literally play for a few minutes each morning and accomplish the basics.

Sadly, Erepublik took gaming too far for me. The realities of the game too closely approximate real life - buying food, going to work, etc. Huge swaths of humanity are at this moment living inside this fantasy world working very hard to become the next president of a fictional United States. I was generally okay with this scenario allowing that others could write newspapers about things that weren't real and I could just accumulate some points and mess about a little. This did not last.

California was invaded and conquered by Indonesia. My US dollars were worthless and I couldn't buy food. I traded some cash on the open market and bought tickets allowing me to move to Peru and then back to the US, this time to Kansas. Within a few days Kansas had been conquered by Russia. I traded the last of my dollars to buy some food so that my simulated me wouldn't expire. Now I'm being asked to send messages to complete strangers to get tickets to move to New Jersey and keep fighting the good fight.

I have decided to die.

This really is too much. I have reached my limit of technological tomfoolery. I have embraced Facebook and the blog, but I will not tweet and I'm done with my cyberspace Kansas existence. I'll spend some time in reality for awhile and catch my breath. Meanwhile, in Erepublik, a man named Atticus will slowly succumb to starvation.