Not Like That


Viral, viral, viral.

I've been thinking a lot about that word these last few days. Not in the sense of desperate ad men, chasing after the most recent buzz word theyve glommed onto. Side-bar: you can't arbitrarily shoot for your campaign or video 'going viral' dummy, that's the point of the concept. It happens unintentionally and without reason. Rant over. No, the viral I've been thinking about is the bad kind. The kind that makes you question every sore throat and itchy eye.

Like the Plum Island kind of viral.
I found a book. I think maybe I gave it to my father in law for a birthday. How quaint, right? A paper book! It was an exposé on the secrets and history of Lab 257 on Plum Island, out past Long Island. It has a strong whiff of conspiratorial cloak and dagger to it, but it was still a fun, gripping jaunt down the rabbit hole into a world of viruses and germ warfare I assumed only existed in Resident Evil games. If you ever read my post on the paranormal-focused podcast Mysterious Universe, you would know I have a strong inclination for the unknown and whispered about. The things that go bump in the night. Plum Island is the kind of place born of the mind of a fevered fiction writer, not the stern, sober minds of the United States Armed Forces. It's long been rumored to be home to horrifying experiments and animal testing. While the white-coats there aren't creating something for the Umbrella Corporation, they still do work with some of the deadliest pathogens known to man.

So here we are. That's a real place.

Lab 257, written and researched by Michael Christopher Carroll, is an expose that dates back to just after WWII. It's common knowledge we brought over Nazi scientists to build the rockets for our burgeoning space program. It's less commonly known that we brought over the best and most creative virologists to develop the latest thing: germs. 
This tiny little island, off the coast of New England, is home to labs that not only house some of the most deadly viri and bacteria in the world, but some of the most appallingly lax security. It used to be strong, mind you. Carroll's exhaustive history tells of elaborate and maddening levels of decontaminization coupled with strict protocol. All of this seemed to go out the window when the US Army pulled out of the facilities and handed control over to the USDA. Yes, that USDA. Whereas the Army would snipe the deer that would occasionally swim to the island (and possibly carry infected bugs off with them, because why not?) the USDA would just not deal with it. The manner in which Carroll lays out the facts and history here, you begin to see how not only Lyme's disease, but also the West Nile virus spread from the supposedly safe facilities. Also, the numerous security lapses and de-con failures are staggering. Straight up raw sewage, laden with still hot germs, was being dumped for years into what used to be fertile coast line.
Crazy stuff.

You've got to read this book. It is a page turner in the absolute best way. It's the kind of book where you come in to it with an incredulous attitude, only to find yourself flipping furiously through the pages and thinking 'No way would the government let this happen'. Yet it totally did. Read up! It's fascinating.


Video Playback

Recently while running errands with my better half, we passed the remains of what used to be a Blockbuster Video store. Noting that there had been signs hung stating they were going out of business and had to sell off their inventory, we began to reminisce over a tradition that is no more. 

"Think of explaining all that to our kids someday," she said. "What a strange thing to have to do, like using a rotary phone." 

She was totally right. You don't think about it so much now, but it was a funny thing to have to do. Friday night, you and your friends would all pile into one car, drive to a store and wander around, arguing over what movie you wanted to see. If it was taken, you couldn't see that movie and had to pick something else. How strange does that seem now? We have wide spread systems called Watch Instantly and On Demand. There used to just be a single copy of a movie at the rental places and if it was gone - tough luck! On top of that, you usually only had one night to watch it. No planning ahead. You had to go get it, watch it and drop it off the next day. That seems like a weird pressure to have for enjoying a movie. However, being out and about did afford an opportunity (or, more likely, an excuse) to stop and grab snacks for the movie. This little benefit seems to be offset by the fact that if the weather was bad (as it could be in winter) then you had to weigh the risk/reward for venturing out. That is how people got sick of watching the movies they owned. 

As weird as this little ritual used to be, I am a bit sad to see it go away. I can recall a lot of good times from goofing around in the video store, as well as the unexpected surprise of my mom saying "Oh, I rented a movie for you while I was out." How nice was that? I wasn't always out doing things with friends, particularly before I had my license, so these unexpected movies were a great treat. My mom would randomly stop by the video rental place and grab something for me or my younger brother. That is something I'll never be able to do for my kids. Instead I'll have to sit them down and say "You're going to watch The Goonies and you're going to like it!" Who am I kidding? That will never happen. They won't be able to have an attention span long enough. Neither will I, really. 

Random surprise movies were fun. That was the only reason I saw (oof) The Phantom Menace when I was younger. Also, here's a confession - one time, the surprise movie was The Princess Diaries. Yes. You read that right. I'm not ashamed of it. I had some qualms about watching a girly Disney movie, but in my defense, I was severely grounded and it starred a little-known actress named Anne Hathaway. It wasn't bad, actually. Maybe my teenage sensibilities and a burgeoning crush were more forgiving than my current palate. Then again, I can cop to a spotty track record for hits and misses in pop culture. 

There was also the small joy of asking "Hey mom, if you're out and about today, could you pick up this movie for me?" Sitting in the basement and going through a mental queue of movies was my own precursor to Netflix. There was one snowy night I made a point of watching Reservoir Dogs and Chasing Amy, which felt at the time like the most independent and out there movies in the world. What an adorably sheltered life I led. 

I guess that's the way it goes, though. Time and technology march on. When I was a teenager I couldn't have possibly hoped for anything like I have now. Last night, when I couldn't sleep, I sat in bed watching an episode of The X Files on my iPad. Not only was I freed from the time and location restrictions of a TV, I had an overwhelming amount of choices of what to watch. We are absolutely spoiled when it comes to media and consumption. I'll keep that in mind the next time I feel nostalgic about the dearth of old habits or the prices of a movie ticket. 


Pure Menace

I went to see The Phantom Menace this weekend. Intentionally and with surprisingly high hopes, I should add. 

My reasons for doing so were varied, but I essentially wanted to see if it truly is as bad as the collective internet would have us believe. Though, really, it was a chance to hang out with a friend of mine and go to the movies, which happens so rarely these days. I had a great time with my friend, but the movie...what a fascinating misstep in the annals of film. 

Here's the short version for anyone not in the know: George Lucas was responsible (mostly) for some really great movies. He took a huge hiatus from a beloved franchise and when he returned to it almost 20 years later, he made a movie that has become synonymous with disappointment and fan-backlash. Since then, he made two more that only made incremental improvements, thus tarnishing the very series that brought him to prominence in the first place. Lucas cut a deep dividing line between his older work and his recent work, one body being heartfelt and the other being coldly focused at selling toys and crowding the screen. But I'm getting ahead of myself. 
I loved the Star Wars movies as a kid. As a teenager, my focus shifted (girls, music, what have you) and I never even saw The Phantom Menace in its theatrical release. I eventually rekindled my love for the series a few years ago, the nostalgia fueling a passion for which little else holds such high regard in my eyes. So when the Blu Ray editions of the six film series were announced, I was on board from the get go. Yes, the whole thing, not just the good half. I wanted the whole set, not just for completion's sake, but to evaluate the series with fresh eyes and new presentation. I hadn't seen TPM in ten years, and the only time I saw it was on a VHS on a small screen TV on a sunny afternoon. Hardly ideal viewing conditions. When I watched the movies on Blu Ray a few months ago I simply skipped large parts of TPM, wanting to get to the movies I love instead of enduring what I assumed was absolute dreck. 

I was mostly right in doing so. 

Going to the theater on Saturday, I had a fresh viewing experience ahead of me. The hatred and fervor behind the movie had died down. It would not only be on the big screen, but in 3D as well. This was the big selling point for the re-release and I'll admit, I wanted to see how it changed the movie. As it turns out, not even a fresh, forgiving perspective could fix the missteps Lucas took in constructing TPM from the ground up. The 3D, while subtly applied, didn't add a great deal, just more depth of field and a darker, frustrating image. In my home experience it was bright and vivid, full of clear imagery. This was muddled and sleep-inducing - the bulbs are never turned up bright enough on 3D projectors. While I enjoyed the whole ritual of going to the movies, our immediate reaction upon leaving the theater was amazement. We weren't simply trashing the film for the sake of dog-piling. It really is just that bad. 

Mr. Plinkett's review makes every single flaw with the film abundantly clear, as it is nearly as long as the movie itself. What I can do, though, is give more concise insight. 

For starters, I still can't say with any certainty what the movie is about. I know, I know. Trade routes and Federation disputes, blockades and diplomats. It's insane. Three times, now, I've seen this movie and I still shrug at the actual supposed motivations. I can't event bother with paying attention to the nuts and bolts of the political process in the movie. I get so fed up with politics in my own life, I don't want to pay attention and get invested in ones in a fantasy world. Compare that to plots in IV, V and VI - rebel spies, revenge, running from the Empire. Simple, comprehendible motivations, despite the fantastical setting.

Wooden acting is another integral problem. The only lively elements were Jar Jar and Ewan McGregor, and even McGregor was limited to imitating Alec Guiness. He got much more loose with it in the following installments. Even here it was apparent he was the only one who seemed to know not to take it too seriously. Liam Neeson is stiff and distant, very hard to root for. Natalie Portman just didn't seem to know how to play her part. Ian Mcdermid at least had a sense from his prior experience to ham it up a bit.
On top of all it is the fact that the screen and the universe Lucas created was simply so cluttered at this point. While the first three movies suggested a rich, developed universe behind the story, here it was presented as a full on, unrelenting onslaught. Every inch of the screen was packed with action and detail. The clutter was mind boggling. Seemingly every character had had or eventually had a back story or a novel or a video game spin off. I don't want to have to know all that business - I want to be able to just watch the movie and follow the action on screen.
I know I'm being harsh. There were some cool moments. Seeing the Gungan city revealed in 3D in the theater was actually pretty breathtaking, as were some of the other establishing shots. The score was classic Star Wars. The lightsaber dual wasn't bad. There were moments where the original trilogy poked through, but they were so few and far between that they couldn't buoy the film out of slow, steady sinking process. It was, as I've said, fascinating to see how intrinsically flawed the movie is at every level. I also know I'll go see Attack of the Clones next year. I'm just a glutton for punishment and too quick to give second chances, I guess.



I had a revelation this morning. 

The past two nights have afforded me something quite rare and unusual - an uninterrupted hour, each night, with which I was able to indulge my fading passion for video games. That may not sound like such an occurrence, but it actually has given me quite a bit of insight into my behavior and tendencies as a gamer as I've gotten older. What I've realized, on further reflection, is that I am quite the outdated dinosaur when it comes to games. Allow me to explain. 

I'm not ready for the retirement home, but I'm no spring chicken, either. The closer I edge to the big 3-0, the more I realize (thanks to steady employment and scrupulous saving) that time, not money, is the commodity now. I could buy a game or console on launch day, sure, but when would I ever have time to play it? I'm up before six, not home from the office until six at night, and in bed by ten. If you account for cooking (yes, that is possible and actually necessary for good health) and running, let alone the things necessary for the next day like doing dishes and laundry and cleaning the cat box, there's so little time that I find it amazing I get anything done at all. I don't even have kids. I want to enjoy the evening with my better half. Sure, I could pull a late night marathon session, but at this point in my life I'd rather be well rested than at the next level, of which only I would care. 

Which brings me to my next point - I am absolutely of the old guard when it comes to gaming. I have taken my 360 (which I only purchased in 2010) online once. That single foray into online gaming wasn't even to play with others - it was to update the console and download a game. That game? An re-working of the decade old N64 choking Perfect Dark. It barely ran on that old system, now it looks fantastic when running at 1080p and 60 fps. I don't want to play with a bunch of people who are online incessantly, insanely better than me and more likely than not to spend the entire time belittling me with xenophobic slurs. Why should I put up with that? The games I play are completely solo endeavors, as is the nature of the experience. My preferred experience is a huge TV in a darkened room with some headphones, and maybe a glass of wine to steady the nerves. The games I'm playing hardly have any mutli-player of which to play. Other people would just take me out of the moment. 
Not only am I an isolated gamer, I can't play for very long anymore, these days. I remember a sleepless series of nights in college while I waited to have a root canal dealt with. I coped with insomnia by working my way through Resident Evil 2, front to back in all permutations of the plot. If that happened now, I'd be risking my job by coming in as a sleepwalker. The most I can sit and play is an hour. After that, my joints start to hurt and my eyes burn. I either have to take a break and walk around or just call it quits for the night. At this point in my life I feel like gaming is such an indulgence that more than an hour or two a week is time that could be better spent writing, reading, cooking, cleaning, running. Really, the guilt accumulates just as the saved games do. 
On top of this is the recent realization that I have moral quandaries about the games I play. I want nothing to do with pretending to be a soldier in the midst of a horrible war. I don't want to inflict pain or cruelty onto others unless the game requires it to progress. Life is hard and nasty enough, I don't want my downtime filled with unsettling moral choices and wanton destruction. Sounds pretentious, I know, but I prefer games that tell a story and have a reason for the madness, not mindless 'point and shoot'. Bioshock had an amazing story and surreal artwork to bolster the experience. Arkham Asylum let me indulge my childhood obsession with Batman delivering justice. Alan Wake was a spooky trip through a world quite similar to Twin Peaks. I recall playing Dead Rising and feeling kind of exhausted and wrung out after the despair and death in that game, just from the first hour or so. I love it, but more for the Romero-esque fantasy than seeing the imagery. Forget Call of Duty. Give me a story. 

Realizing I'm not a modern gamer has helped me reconcile my fading habit with my current life. I don't mind not being as culturally relevant as I used to. The industry is a juggernaut. It's more a realization that my tastes and habits are changing, ever so slightly, in ways that I only occasionally pick up on. I would have thought that this would make me sad to see, that not gaming as much meant I was getting old and stiff and boring. Instead, I love who I am more and more, I just appreciate my time and what I do with it more. Time is the commodity. I'm not going to make anyone watch me play a a game any more than I would make them watch a movie they can't stand. It's all much more personal for me, as a result. I get a personal, private adventure. The scarcity makes it all the more memorable.