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Portrait photo of H.G. Wells

The Watchmen Bestiary 38 – Utopia Cinema

WARNING: If you keep reading this, Watchmen spoilers are in your future. There are also spoilers for H.G. Wells’ film Things To Come and book The Shape Of Things To Come, as well as Alan Moore’s Miracleman.

We first learn of the Utopia Cinema in Chapter 2 of Watchmen. It’s October 19th, 1985 — a Saturday night — and the theater is advertising This Island Earth. Come Chapter 5, it’s only two days later — Monday the 21st — but a new week must have started for the theater, because the Utopia is now advertising Things To Come. We know this because of panel 4 on page 10, the peculiar reflections-within-reflections image I pointed out in my last post:

Watchmen Chapter 5, page 10, panel 4, a confusing panel in which we see Dan's face and Laurie's back, along with a reflection of the Utopia Cinema. It's difficult to discern in this panel what's a reflection and what's real.

Here’s what the web annotations have to say about this image:

Panel 4: The Diner is across from the Utopia. (The people walking on the street have been shown in passing before.) They’re now showing “Things to Come” (reflecting the theme of change).

I suppose it’s true enough that Things To Come is “reflecting the theme of change”, but predictably, I think there’s much more going on than that.

The End Is Nigh

Like This Island Earth, Things To Come is a vintage sci-fi movie, but of an even earlier vintage. The film was released in 1936, the result of an agreement between Hungarian-British film producer Alexander Korda and legendary (even by then) British science fiction writer H.G. Wells. Wells had established his reputation at the very end of the 19th century, with an extraordinary string of imaginative and successful “scientific romances”: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War Of The Worlds, all of which were published between 1895 and 1898. By 1936, he had become rather a grand old man of letters, and was far less interested in novels than in using his reputation as a far-seeing thinker to try to shape the future.

In 1933, Wells had published The Shape of Things To Come, a book-length speculation (one can’t really call it a novel) of future history, extending from the then-present day to the year 2106. In it, humanity endures a long “Age of Frustration” before emerging into a socialist utopia called the “Modern State”, a future which, for Wells, represented humanity’s apotheosis. Meeting with Korda “over a plate of sardine sandwiches in a Bournemouth tea shop”, Wells was so excited by the prospect of bringing his vision to the screen that he “signed a contract on a penny-postcard there and then.” (Things To Come [Frayling], pg. 18) That contract granted Wells an unprecedented level of control and involvement in the film, stipulating that not a word of his treatment was to be altered in any way, and that he would have a say in all aspects of the production.

The trouble was, Wells had no idea how to write for the screen, and was also quite incapable of receiving any constructive criticism on the matter. This would become a huge problem for Korda and for the film’s director, William Cameron Menzies. Wells wrote many of his descriptions in broad abstractions (for instance, “a fantasia of powerful rotating and swinging forms carried on a broad stream of music”) and then got highly indignant when the film’s designers failed to capture what he meant. (Things To Come [Stover], pg. 126)

Despite these considerable difficulties, Things To Come is a remarkable film in many ways. Yes, it suffers from Wells’ overweening didacticism, frequently coming across as more of a lecture than a story, but the music (by Arthur Bliss) ended up becoming famous in its own right, and many of the visuals (with contributions by an impressive array of early-20th-century modernist artists and architects, many of whom withdrew before Wells’ routinely scornful reception) remain striking even today.

In fact, some of those visuals, especially from the first act of the movie, might feel startlingly familiar to readers of Watchmen who have been attuned to juxtaposition. The scene opens at the approach of Christmas, 1936, in a place called “Everytown”, which is transparently London. Menzies very effectively juxtaposes images of gaiety and merrymaking with ominous portents. We see a vendor selling Christmas holly, and a news truck pulls up behind him, bearing a poster reading “THE WORLD ON THE BRINK OF WAR.” A happy, laughing couple with a Christmas tree in the back of their car stops in front of a cinema, alongside another van, whose poster reads “WAR STORM BREWING”.

And then there’s the Buckingham Theatre. In front, an acrobat turns cartwheels, presumably to attract attention to the show playing that night, but right beside him a man walks toward the camera, bearing a sandwich board reading “WARNING TO EUROPE”.

A still frame from Things To Come. A man in the foreground wears a sandwich board reading "Warning to Europe: Read Basil Sims in the Sunday News." Next to him, a sidewalk sign advertises "Buckingham Theatre Christmas Pantomime - The Sleeping Beauty". These signs are in front of a building with "Buckingham Theatre" on the marquee.

Just as in Watchmen, the show playing at the theater is an ironic commentary on the larger story. In the case of Things To Come, that show is Sleeping Beauty. This detail doesn’t appear in Wells’ original “film story”, so perhaps it came from Menzies, though then again Wells was apparently constantly on set making changes to various details, so who knows? In any case, it’s a very Alan Moore touch, as is the juxtaposition with the sandwich board. Clearly here Europe is the beauty who is about to receive a rude awakening. In fact, the man with the warning sign is himself reminiscent of Walter Kovacs in Watchmen, who carries another roughly accurate prediction of the future around on his shoulder.

Indeed, war sets in, and we see an extremely destructive air raid befall Everytown. Guns on the ground are helpless against the devastation, and Menzies brilliantly reuses settings from the film’s first two minutes to show us what happens to the sleeping beauty. The merchants are gone from the street, replaced by soldiers and trucks carrying gas masks. In front of the Buckingham Theatre, panicking crowds knock over the sidewalk sign, which now shows that Sleeping Beauty has closed.

An animated gif from Things To Come. Panicked crowds in front of the Buckingham Theatre push past policemen and knock over the Sleeping Beauty sidewalk sign, which now reads "CLOSED" over the Sleeping Beauty details.

Meanwhile, the cinema features in one of the most impressive shots of this sequence — we see the giant marquee itself explode and collapse.

An animated gif from Things To Come of the cinema marquee exploding.

Here we have an art form depicting its own symbolic destruction, and here again there’s an echo of Watchmen. Moore and Gibbons show the erasure of their medium on multiple levels in the book. A recurring motif reminds us that in this world where real costumed vigilantes roam, superhero comics never had their 1950s and 60s renaissance, and have been replaced by pirate comics. Even these fall victim to Veidt’s plot, as do their sources. The comics writer perishes in an exploding ship, the newsstand vendor lies in a pool of blood, and on page 6 of Chapter 12, the comic itself drifts in the wind, torn and unread. The ad on its back cover delivers yet another layer of irony: “THE VEIDT METHOD: I will give you bodies beyond your wildest imaginings”.

Detail from Watchmen, Chapter 12, page 6. The dead bodies of the Bernards are in the center, framed by two enormous tentacles. In the foreground, papers flutter downward: the Pink Triangle poster, a newspaper with the headline "WAR?", and the Tales From The Black Freighter comic.

Somebody Has To Save the World

Narrative moments like this in Watchmen are the result of a sublime synthesis between Moore’s script and Gibbons’ art. As we’ve seen over and over in the book, the creators are working in perfect tandem to exploit the potential of their medium, resulting in very powerful artistic effects. Like many of the best comic writers, Moore scripts to the strengths of his artist, and Gibbons knew how to highlight Moore’s intentions for maximum impact.

Wells, by contrast, was constantly at odds with his visual collaborators. Both Korda and the film’s star, Raymond Massey, separately remarked that Wells’ involvement made Things To Come the most difficult film they ever worked on. (Frayling, pg. 21) Korda hired Menzies in hopes of counterbalancing Wells’ abstract descriptions, as Menzies had more or less invented the role of high-level production designer in the movies, and in fact won the first Academy Award in the category (though it was called “Art Direction” at the time.)

However, Menzies’ visual skills failed to meet with Wells’ approval, and the author repeatedly expressed his objections in the most high-handed of ways, as film historian Christopher Frayling relates:

Easygoing Menzies soon discovered that the script’s author was “a very testy man.” He had conferences about the usual continuity sketches (with [set designer] Vincent Korda and [director of photography] Georges Périnal), but was then showered with drawings by H.G. of where the actors should stand and how they should deport themselves, and memos about how the world of the future must under no circumstances look like “an imaginative utopia, an ideal but impracticable existence.” “I want,” wrote Wells in February 1935 — not altogether helpfully — “to convey the effect that the condition of life shown on the screen is a practicable objective; in fact the only sane objective for a reasonable man. Our only hope of achieving a planned world is to get people to realize in the first place that such a thing is possible.” Another memo from Wells to Menzies was rather more lucid: “This is all wrong. Get it in better perspective. The film is an H.G. WELLS film and your highest best is needed, for the complete realization of my treatment. Bless you.” (pg. 29-30)

For his part, Moore did have a falling-out with Gibbons eventually, but not until decades after Watchmen‘s publication. During their period of collaboration, they seem to have been completely simpatico, quite unlike H.G. Wells and his filmmaking partners. This difference speaks well of Moore and badly of Wells, or at least, badly of Wells’ ability to write for the movies and understand his own shortcomings.

That said, there are some clues in the Frayling passage above that might shine a light on Wells’ rather inappropriate haughtiness and intensity. He sees the correct interpretation and presentation of his ideas as “our only hope of achieving a planned world.” For Wells, Things To Come was not intended as mere entertainment, but rather as pure propaganda, his “highest best” hope of creating the future he envisioned. Despite his protestations, the movie is in fact an “imaginative utopia”, depicting a future state that seems to him obviously necessary, sane, and reasonable, if only the obdurate mass of humans could be enlightened about it.

Aiming at no less than saving humanity from itself, it’s no wonder that Wells found himself hammering his collaborators about the smallest points. For him, the stakes could hardly be higher. Much like Ozymandias, he hoped to save the future by tricking humanity away from its worst impulses.

And what was that future he imagined? His “planned world” was no democracy, that’s for certain. While it’s not foregrounded in the film, Wells’ book delivers withering critiques of “parliamentary gang governments”, some of which critiques (it must be conceded) still resonate in today’s struggles between democratic and authoritarian power structures. Instead, Wells envisioned a world government something like an overlapping meritocracy and technocracy, in which “The Air and Sea Control” (called “Wings Over The World” in the film) is led by the brightest minds on the planet, and wields its superior technology to dominate humanity for its own good.

Portrait photo of H.G. Wells in 1920, by George Beresford.

H.G. Wells, 1920

For Wells, the war that comes to Everytown (and everywhere) is a cleansing force, a necessary catalyst to create the destructive explosion of the status quo, the only way that the ground can be cleared for the Modern State to be built. As for the leaders of the Modern State, Wells looks to the most impressive technology of his day: the airplane. Aviators and mechanics (symbolized by Massey’s character John Cabal in the film) patrol and subdue the warlords who rise from the rubble of a decades-long conflict, bombing them with “peace gas” to anesthetize resistance and thereby muzzle it.

Thus it becomes clear that, writing 6 years before the debut of Superman, Wells is telling us a story about a world saved — and ruled — by men who could fly.

In Wells’ book The Shape of Things To Come, there’s a scene where the architects of the Modern State are debating how to deal with recalcitrant groups still clinging to the notion of nationhood. Most governments and corporations are moribund at this point in the story, but a few of them tenaciously continue to insist upon their own importance, despite the fact that their power has clearly been eclipsed by technologists. At a conference in Basra, one of these technologists lays out the options:

“There are just three lines of treatment possible,” said Ryan brutally. “We can treat with ’em, bribe ’em, or rule ’em. I’m for a straight rule.” (The Shape Of Things To Come, pg. 313)

Essentially, these are superpowered beings, deciding how to deal with humanity — one of the recurring topics in Alan Moore’s 1980s work. In Miracleman, for instance, the title character eventually decides to dominate humanity — a straight rule. He does away with State power as expressed in human terms, and institutes a kind of super-State ruled over by the equivalent of a pantheon of gods. The superbeings tear down all existing power structures and remake the world into an endless well of plenty, offering all humanity the chance to have the same powers that they do. That book winds up as more or less a utopia, though one whose total beneficence we might have good reason to doubt, given Liz Moran’s rebuke of it. Wells, on the other hand, would likely recognize and appreciate much of it — the sense of universal abundance, the eradication of money, and of course, all the flying.

In Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan is that god who walks the earth, and he isn’t interested in elevating anyone else’s circumstances. Instead, human State power remains in place through his rather listless collaboration, while the Comedian enthusiastically embraces the State for his own cynical purposes. Meanwhile, the rest of the characters must decide how to react to the State’s suppression of them via the Keene Act, since it won’t tolerate any costumed adventurer it doesn’t already sanction.

Many characters capitulate to this power, such as Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II, who abdicate their roles, while most of the Minutemen had thrown in the towel (or otherwise inactivated) already. Doctor Manhattan eventually just loses interest in helping the State, abandoning both it and the planet. Rorschach, on the other hand, militantly defies the suppression, remaining on patrol while bemoaning the abandonment of his former allies. Then there’s Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt appears to be in the same camp as Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II, having voluntarily given up his heroic identity (except for the occasional charity performance) in the face of the Keene Act. We eventually learn, though, that he never stopped trying to save the world, in his own calculating way.

Of all these reactions, it seems to me that only Ozymandias and Rorschach believe they are making the world better, at least until the events of the book begin. Dr. Manhattan describes The Comedian as “amoral”, but in fact that description applies to both of them. The retired heroes have stopped trying to make a difference. Until Ozymandias’ agenda becomes clear, that just leaves Rorschach — the only one to investigate Edward Blake’s murder. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why readers are drawn to Rorschach despite his monomania and general awfulness. Of all the so-called heroes in Watchmen, Rorschach is one of only two who actually sees himself as heroic, and whose actions are intended to… well, fight crime.

Panels 1-3 on page 13 from chapter 1 of Watchmen. Rorschach and Dreiberg are discussing the fact that they used to be partners. Dreiberg says, "Those were great times, Rorschach. Great times. Whatever happened to them?" Rorschach replies, "You quit," and walks away.

What We Call The Boss

Wells has his own analysis of crime, laid out in Book II, Chapter 3 of The Shape of Things To Come. He identifies it as an outgrowth of an increasingly complex and unplanned society, and the breakdown of psychological boundaries brought on by World War I — or as he called it at the time, the Great War. The book is written from the perspective of a utopia looking back on its origins, so there is a fair amount of incredulity baked into its descriptions of social insecurity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “We laugh now,” he writes. “It is all so impossible. Few of us actually realize these were flesh-and-blood sufferings that living men and women went through only a century and a half ago.” (pg. 138)

This conceit gives Wells a platform from which to declare his ideas while simultaneously insisting on the correctness of those ideas and the inevitability of his predictions. For him, the planned society of socialist equality is the cure-all, and his descriptions of crime are meant to highlight their inextricable origins in a lack of socialism. Economic inequities motivate violent individual redress of those inequities, in the form of hold-ups, extortions, kidnappings for ransom, and so forth. Tariffs cause smuggling. Repressive prohibition of alcohol causes bootlegging. The police and law, bound by rules, constantly struggle to keep up with the rule-breaking criminals.

Notably, for Wells, the vigilante — either as an individual or in groups — is no different from the criminal, as both are simply reacting to the chaos of a society not ruled and planned by its smartest and most capable technologists. Not only that, vigilantes and authoritarian governments (well, the ones that aren’t the “Modern State”) blend together for him as well. He classes “the Ku Klux Klan in America, the multitudinous secret societies of India, China, and Japan, the Communist Party which captured Russia, the Fascist who captured Italy, [and] the Nazis who captured Germany” into one single category, and says about them:

All these were structurally great gangster systems. Instead, of specific immediate blackmail they sought larger satisfactions; that is all the difference. Even when the organization as a whole had large conceptions of its function, it was apt to degenerate locally into a mere boss or bully rule. (pg. 147)

The film version of Things To Come dramatizes this kind of rule in its long second act. Ralph Richardson plays Rudolf, a character usually referred to as “The Boss” or “The Chief.” He rose to power violently, by shooting the contagious victims of a terrifying plague called The Wandering Sickness — a very early iteration of the zombie apocalypse trope. In his zombie-shooting, he becomes a kind of action hero, and he sets himself apart superhero-style by wearing much more outlandish garb than any of the struggling peasants around him.

A still frame from Things To Come. In the center of the frame is The Boss (Ralph Richardson), who wears a pith helmet decorated with feathers, a fuzzy vest, and a bandolier of pouches like some kind of 1990s X-Men character.

Ralph Richardson as The Boss, center with furs

However, the movie makes clear that he isn’t a hero at all, but a petty tyrant. He becomes the main antagonist to an older John Cabal, the only one dressed more ridiculously than The Boss.

A still frame from Things To Come of John Cabal (Raymond Massey) emerging from his single-seat futuristic airplane. Cabal wears an enormous helmet that rises about a foot and a half above his head.

Raymond Massey as John Cabal, emerging from his “futuristic” airplane

In their conflict, The Boss represents that “bully rule” of vigilante violence, while Cabal enacts the “straight rule” advocated by Ryan in the Basra conference — an enlightened domination leading to a triumphant society.

Their analogues in Watchmen are Rorschach and Ozymandias — the two characters positioned as heroes in their own minds. For Rorschach, violence is pretty much always the answer. He delivers his message against the Keene Act in the form of a murdered multiple rapist. He douses his prison tormentor with hot cooking fat. He chafes at Dreiberg’s methodical computer searching, saying, “Give me smallest finger on man’s hand. I’ll produce information. Computer unnecessary.”

Ozymandias, on the other hand, while certainly capable of violence, uses it only to subdue opposition — just one tool in a vast array of tactics meant to rewrite the world order. While Rorschach works like a detective, constructing theories to solve a murder case, Ozymandias works like a Machiavellian ruler, constructing mechanisms on a wide variety of levels to make a Moloch machine aimed at producing his vision of the greater good. Like Cabal, he believes he knows what’s best for humanity, and he has the tools to realize that vision.

Wells would likely recoil at Adrian’s underhanded methods, though. His Modern State emerges from the rubble of war as an obviously far better alternative to the nation-states and corporations who precipitated that war — again viewed as a retrospective history from the socialist utopian future. When Wings Over The World overthrows The Boss’s fiefdom in the film, there’s nothing surreptitious about it — just a display of overwhelming force, anesthetizing any resistance on the way to building a better world.

In that Basra conference scene of The Shape Of Things To Come, Wells does address the approach of using trickery to achieve the Modern State’s aims. Its problematic advocate is “the intricate Shi-lung-tang”, pretty much a racist “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype. Wells gives Shi-lung-tang a reasonable argument, suggesting that rather than instituting an immediate tyranny in service of creating the Modern State, the movement could save bloodshed and misery by gently insinuating its ideas over several generations of education and/or propaganda.

He is overruled by a representative of the conference’s majority called Rin Kay, who says, “If we were a Society of Moral Supermen, we might venture to be as disingenuous as this… We have a difficult enough task before us just to do what we have to do, plainly and honestly. We cannot afford to say and do this and mean that.” Shi-lung-tang’s plan for subterfuge, it seems, could be executed only by people so incorruptible that they would not themselves fall into the boss/bully trap.

If there’s one thing that the characters in Watchmen aren’t, it’s moral supermen. Adrian Veidt is no exception, even as he insists that he’s made himself “feel every death.” Of course, neither are the governments Adrian hoodwinks, not by any stretch. But Rin Kay’s critique applies to Adrian as well — in order to keep the peace, is Adrian willing to dominate the world, by whatever method? If so, doesn’t he just usurp the position of Boss? And if not, what happens when humanity’s self-destructive tendencies rear up again?

In other words, what happens when superheroes try to create utopia? For H.G. Wells, those superheroes are aviators, who wield the incredible power of flight. The end of Things To Come takes this flying theme to its furthest extreme, as Cabal’s descendant uses a “space gun” to shoot a young couple into a lunar orbit. In the final scene, he looks out at the stars, declaiming:

For man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet, and its winds and waves. And then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last, out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time… still he will be beginning.

A still frame from Things To Come, of the space gun. It is a roughly conical tower, with a crane alongside that lifts a capsule up to be placed inside it. In the foreground are long curving elevated roads.

The space gun. The crane holds a capsule that is lowered into the barrel.

In the Wellsian view, the path towards utopia is straight, if painful, and it is represented in the film’s three acts. First, a long war to clear away the current economic and political structures. Second, a consolidation of technological power to wipe away the remnants of feudal rule that the war leaves behind. Finally, a glorious planned society that provides a platform for humanity’s endless reaches into the universe.

He was writing in the shadow of World War I, and not only that, the economic calamity of the Great Depression that struck 10 years later. Between the massive loss of life and the massive loss of prosperity and stability, it must have felt a bit like the End Times, or at least the end of an era. He was also quite prescient about the coming of a second enormous war — the book predicts a German invasion of Poland in January 1940. However, from there his future diverges from reality, as he projects a utopian future growing out of the war, albeit with a long intervening “Age of Frustration” in between.

Alan Moore, on the other hand, was writing in the shadow of a nuclear-amped Cold War, in which the end often seemed close at hand, an end which would not signal a new era — the end of everything. He finds room for a kind of hope too, albeit an awfully fragile one. Rorschach describes the post-trick world as “Veidt’s new utopia”, and realizes that Doctor Manhattan is determined to protect it. “New Utopia” appears again on page 31 of Chapter 12, as the rebranded name for the cinema which showed Things To Come.

But while Wells was completely sincere in his belief that the Modern State would create the best of all possible worlds, Moore is clearly more skeptical about Veidt’s shaky new status quo. Far from reaching into the stars, humanity is simply rebuilding itself, albeit with a clear increase in cultural sharing between the former rival superpowers. But the revised graffiti tell us that now one in three go mad, and the truth about Adrian’s trick is poised to appear, just under Seymour’s waiting hand. Like the cinema in the beginning of Things To Come, this engineered serenity is just waiting to be exploded.

Previous Entry: Reflections, Echoes, and Symmetries

An image of my wrist with two friendship bracelets on it, one with pink and purple beads, another with blue and purple beads and the word KARMA.

Everything You Lose Is a Step You Take

Happy New Year! As always, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2023 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that very little on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to last year that meant something to me.

Looking back over mixes from previous years, I was startled to discover that this is the 20th anniversary of me sending these music mixes! Posting the liner notes on >SUPERVERBOSE started several years later, but I first sent Siân and Kelly a mix as a holiday gift in 2003 — Lonely As The Stars, after a Christine McVie lyric.

20 years later, Christine is all over the mix again, but this time it’s as a tribute to mark her sad passing. It’s also got a ton of Taylor Swift, as I pretty much said would be when I wrote last year’s liner notes. Usually the list of song candidates for these mixes comprises 1-3 songs per album, plus one-offs I pick up here and there. This year, I added pretty much the entirety of Swift’s folklore album to that list, as I really couldn’t stop listening to it throughout my November-October year. (My Spotify Wrapped told me I’m in the top 3% of Swift listeners, heh.) In fact, I watched the Disney+ special where she plays through the whole album both last Halloween and this Halloween. It’s become easily one of my favorite records of all time.

There are plenty of usual suspects in the rest of the list — Roxy Music, Stevie Nicks, The Who, P!nk — plus a few selections from concerts I saw this summer, and a little sprinkling of other stuff I fastened on. Last year’s mix was dominated by the ongoing disaster of my Dad’s sickness and death, and that’s not absent from this one either, since he died on December 9th, but it’s certainly not the overriding theme anymore. This year has had its share of loss, though — just more of the “life transition” sort than the pure awfulness of losing a parent.

The biggest transition by far was seeing Dante off to college in September, but perhaps surprisingly there isn’t really much music on here that I specifically associate with that change, possibly because everything has gone reasonably well so far. No tragic tunes to hook my heart when the news is basically good. There has certainly been some work pain, somewhat unexpectedly, and that leads us into track #1.

1. Taylor Swift – You’re On Your Own, Kid
As much as I love Taylor, I didn’t go see her Eras Tour show when it came to Denver. Tickets were so expensive and hard to get, and as it turned out that was the weekend when Mom, Dante, and I had planned a road trip to Albuquerque so that he could visit a legendary string shop in the region called Robertson & Sons. (Laura took a pass on this trip because… Albuquerque in July.) It’s probably for the best I wasn’t in town, or I might have ended up in the parking lot straining to hear the show.

I did go see the movie, though, and while I absolutely loved it, I can’t separate it from the emotional context of the day. I’d bought my ticket in advance, but it just so happened to fall on one of the worst days of the year for me –- a pinnacle of work stress that had been building for quite a while, leaving me feeling betrayed and heartbroken. Who better than Taylor Swift to provide solace and recognition for that mood? I was already weepy just thinking about the movie, but once I got in there the floodgates opened and rarely stopped.

That’s partly because of the movie itself, but even more from the magic of the community she’s created. Throughout this tour, fans have been making and trading friendship bracelets with each other, inspired by a line in this song. I was in the very back row of the movie theater, at the very end of the row, and sure enough, just before the movie started, the woman next to me reached out and offered a friendship bracelet. This moment of human kindness touched me profoundly. “Oh my gosh, you’re so kind!” I said. “But I don’t have anything to trade with you!” “That’s okay,” she said, “this is karma for you.” The necklace she handed me, with blue and purple beads, spelled out KARMA in the center. As soon as the lights went down, I was just sobbing with the loveliness of it. I felt like the universe was stepping in to support me.

About 70% through the movie, that woman’s companion reached out to offer me another friendship bracelet, this one pink and purple. I told them I was going through a hard time, and that their kindness meant more to me than they could know. And it’s true. I loved the film –- next best thing to being at the concert, and about 20 times cheaper -– but I truly will always treasure the feeling I had of sitting in that theater, heartfelt music all around me, lifted up by the love and friendship of strangers.

Taylor’s set on that tour was the same night after night — as well it should have been, given all the wild theatrics and spectacle accompanying each song — except for a little acoustic section of “secret songs” that changed from one show to the next. For the movie, one of those songs was “You’re On Your Own, Kid”, and it spoke to me so deeply when I heard it. Not because of the pining away for somebody part, but because of its fundamental recognition that we must always fall back on ourselves at the deepest level, and the turn it takes to show the narrator doing just that.

“I gave my blood, sweat, and tears for this” was exactly my feeling about my job, and I felt blood-soaked that day. To hear “everything you lose is a step you take” while wearing those friendship bracelets helped me feel that I didn’t need to be afraid, that I could face this.

2. Fleetwood Mac – Over My Head (single version)
Perhaps surprisingly, Stevie Nicks has said that “You’re On Your Own, Kid” has helped her grieve the loss of Christine McVie. So I connect Christine to that song now. “Over My Head” is a special track to me because it’s the song I practiced with when I was learning to play chords on the guitar, way back when I was all of 19 years old. I’d just gone through a breakup, and had lots of excess emotional energy and time on my hands, so I decided I was going to learn to play guitar.

I bought a Fleetwood Mac songbook that showed chords and fingerings, and I practiced this song over, and over, and over, and over, until I finally got to the point where I could confidently play the chords and accompany myself singing. From there, I started branching into other songs, and while I never got terribly good, I could at least make some music, which is all I wanted. I was listening to a re-release of the 1975 Fleetwood Mac “white” album this year, and was struck by how different this single mix sounds from the album track. I realized that this is the one I’d heard on the radio a million times, and therefore that’s what was in my head when I played that song again and again in my parents’ basement.

3. Fleetwood Mac – Come A Little Bit Closer
When I heard the news about Christine, this is the song I reached for. It’s my very favorite song of hers, by quite a wide margin. I so adore the piano at the beginning, bursting into gorgeous strings, drums, bass, and guitar. Her vocals here are pure magic, that elegant mixture of wistfulness, affection, ambivalence, and loss that she did better than anyone. It’s so strange that she’s really gone, but every time I hear this song, I feel her with me.

4. Stevie Nicks – For What It’s Worth
Stevie released this cover in late 2022, and it really resonated with me this year. So many of the lyrics are startlingly contemporary. “There’s a man with a gun over there / Telling me I’ve got to beware” feels more true than it was in 1968. “Paranoia strikes deep” makes sense for me personally, but even more so as I look at the stickers, signs, and flags on cars and houses when I’m out walking. And “There’s battle lines being drawn / Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong” was the dominant theme in the news as I was making this mix.

5. Indigo Girls – Tether (live)
And here’s another song that fits right into the times. “We keep making it worse / We keep getting it wrong.” Yep. We, the humans, sure do seem to have that tendency. Laura and I got to see the Indigos live again this year, after a long pandemic-induced hiatus, and “Tether” was a big highlight from that show. They played at the Chautauqua Auditorium, and we somehow managed to be in the front row, albeit pretty far off to house right (aka stage left) — definitely close enough to be swept up in the power of Amy rocking out on this song. I included “Tether”, the studio version, on Lonely As The Stars, so a live version on this one feels like a nice bookend.

6. Simon & Garfunkel – Blues Run The Game
Ha ha, “bookend”, see what I did there? Sometimes things just come together. I’ve been going through remasters of the S&G albums, with extra tracks added, and this was a bonus on Sounds of Silence. Heard from this distance, that’s probably their worst album, though that’s only in comparison to the rest of their stellar catalog — it’s still a great record. Still, in this listen it was the bonus track that really drew my fondness, with its gentle melancholy and impeccable harmonies.

7. Foreigner – Girl on the Moon
That gentle feeling leads nicely into the spooky ambience of this Foreigner deep cut. I actually saw the band live this year, though I should probably put some quotes around “the band”, since there isn’t a single member of that touring band who played on this track. It was still a great show, though — a bunch of classic songs, expertly delivered, especially by their current lead singer Kelly Hansen, who I’ve liked going way back to his days with a hair-metal outfit called Hurricane. The show was predictably a greatest-hits affair, but they did pull out this one as an acoustic performance, which thrilled me — it’s always been one of my favorite album tracks of theirs.

8. Taylor Swift – the 1
This is the first track on folklore, and it’s got one of the all-time great album kickoff lines: “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit / Been saying yes instead of no”. Every time I hear it, I know I’m about to go on a journey — usually because the rest of the album is about to follow. It’s a great tune on its own, though. I love the wordplay — “We never painted by the numbers, baby / But we were making it count” — the yearning vocals, the moody sense of regret for chances missed, and the fabulous but spare instrumentation.

9. Roxy Music – Editions of You
In the not-so-spare instrumentation department, Roxy pulls out all the stops on this one, with three different solos in a row — sax, synth, and guitar. It couldn’t be more different in mood from “the 1”, but lyrically they feel a bit connected to me. “Well I’m just looking through an old picture frame / Just waiting for the perfect view” could be a lyric lifted straight from folklore. “Too much cheesecake too soon”, though… not so much. 😀

10. Nick Lowe – So It Goes
I’m a power pop fan, but I’d only known Nick Lowe from “Cruel To Be Kind”, “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?” (albeit Elvis Costello’s version), and a little bit of Rockpile and his production work. I remedied that this year with a greatest hits collection, and this song really grabbed me. The lyrics seem kind of like gibberish, but I love the feel of it and the catchy melody.

11. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – Bad Reputation
I got to see Joan Jett this year too (shout-out to James and Joanne Hall for offering the tickets), and oh my god, she is just as fierce as ever. I’ve always been a big fan, and I’d seen her once before, wayyyy back in 1988, opening for Robert Plant. This year she was opening for Bryan Adams, and honestly she was the main attraction for me. She has so many great songs to pick from — I went with this one because it had a little resurgence for me after I caught up with Freaks & Geeks, and because it’s not on I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll, which I’ve played to death at various times in my life.

12. Cheap Trick – Surrender
Rounding out the power pop section, it’s this weirdo of a song. Like “So It Goes”, the lyrics are kind of head-shakers, but oh my god the SOUND! I love all those frosty synths, stacks of harmonies, big drums, and sleazy guitars. I listened to it on the Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 soundtrack, but this song always reminds me of a scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, where ticket scalper Mike Damone is trying to unload Cheap Trick tickets onto somebody by giving his best impression of them.

13. P!nk feat. First Aid Kit – Kids In Love
Out of the power pop section, into the kids in love are alright section. This song actually does remind me of Dante, but not because of anything thematic — he’s never had a romantic feeling in his life. I was just listening to this album (TRUSTFALL) a lot in September, including when we dropped him off for his first semester at Oregon State, and I have vivid memories of playing it while the three of us drove through winding roads in coastal Oregon woods. I’d discovered First Aid Kit — a folk/rock/pop sister act duo from Sweden — last year, and was excited to see P!nk collaborating with them. I think they sound heavenly together.

14, 15, and 16. Taylor Swift – august, betty, cardigan
For most of her career, Taylor wrote mostly in an autobiographical mode, documenting her various personal joys and heartbreaks from one album to the next. On folklore, though, she explored using characters, and for my money the results are most spectacular on this trilogy of songs. On the album, they appear in a different order (“cardigan”, then “august”, then “betty”) and are spread out amongst all the other songs, but for this mix I strung them together and arranged them in what feels like chronological order of the story, which coincidentally works out to an A-B-C order as well.

These songs tell the story of a love triangle, of a foolish kid named James who breaks the heart of Betty, his high school girlfriend, by having a summer fling with an unnamed other girl, and then seeks redemption and forgiveness. Each character in the triangle has their own song, and “august” belongs to that fling. What I love about this song is that while this character could easily have been portrayed as a villain, she isn’t at all. Instead, she’s just somebody who thought she and James had something real, only to realize that she was just a side trip for him. “You weren’t mine to lose” has such an incredible ache to it. Also, the moment where the instruments rush in on “canceled my plans just in case you’d call” gives me the chills every time.

James’ song is “betty”, and it’s redolent with an awful sense of regret at what he now realizes was a terrible mistake. The intensity of this regret both makes sense for the character and makes the poignancy of “august” all the sharper — seeing the scenes she remembers sweetly as “a figment of [his] worst intentions”, knowing that even as he slept beside the unnamed girl, he was dreaming of Betty all along. So, skating along under this burden of shame, he agonizes about what to do. Should he reappear in her life, even knowing that she knows everything about his unfaithfulness, hoping that the love they had before will carry him through? And then he does, and the song lets us wonder how it all turns out, as she stands there in her cardigan.

At last, “cardigan” returns to the story, this time from Betty’s point of view, looking back from many years later. The verses are sung in a lower register than Taylor’s usual, and its recurrent “when you are young they assume you know nothing” gives the sense of an older perspective, contrasting with young James’ earnest “I’m only 17 / I don’t know anything / But I know I miss you.” Betty’s heartbreak is vividly apparent, blood and scars imagery and unsettling comparisons — “leaving like a father.” But what she remembers is him coming back to her, that when she felt discarded, he lifted her up again for good. The whole album is amazing, but even if it wasn’t, this brilliant set of interwoven songs would be more than enough to make it a classic.

17. The Who – The Kids Are Alright (live acoustic)
“The Kids Are Alright” was never one of my favorite Who songs, probably not even in my top 40, until I saw them live and heard Roger sing the new lyrics he’d added on. This live acoustic recording is from 2020, and first gives us a lovely rendering of the song, then a bit of Pete and Roger’s playfully antagonistic banter, and then finally those lyrics. They go straight to my heart, and it soars with them every time. “Now my body’s been broken, my eyes can’t see / My ears can’t hear anymore, BUT I’M STILL ME”. Oh my god. Yes. I’m still among the temporarily abled, but I can see the road ahead, and that feeling is at the deepest core of it. As long as I still can, I’ll survive, and I’ll keep hanging on to the kid that’s inside.

18. Eddie Vedder & Mike McCready – Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time)
In 2011, Cameron Crowe directed a Pearl Jam documentary called Pearl Jam Twenty — a tribute to the band’s 20th anniversary and a little sly play on the title of their first album, which was Ten. I saw the movie years ago, but was listening to one of the soundtrack discs this year, and this is one of my favorite tracks. It’s a sweet little scene from that movie — Mike and Eddie sitting in the stands of an Italian arena in the daytime, way before an audience is to arrive. If I recall correctly, Mike is playing a tune on the guitar, and Eddie improvises lyrics on the spot. It’s surely one of the strangest Christmas songs in my collection, but no less lovely for that.

19. Fleetwood Mac – Songbird
When Christine died, I knew this song would be part of the 2023 mix. It’s the iconic Christine McVie song, and while I love “Come A Little Bit Closer” more, “Songbird” is probably her most beautiful songwriting and performance. I’ve seen Fleetwood Mac many times, and the best closing moments of a show are always when Christine is around to sing this song.

20. The Beatles – A Day In The Life (edit)
“Songbird” isn’t going to close this mix, though. I wasn’t present at the moment of my dad’s death, but my Mom and I got to him shortly afterwards. He was still warm. As I wrote on his CaringBridge site, I was reminded strongly of the chord that plays at the end of this song, fading out slowly over 40 seconds. It felt like we’d arrived after the chord had been played, but before it had faded.

There was no other choice to end this mix. It is an edit, though — the vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper’s has a kooky little repeating sound clip in its run-out groove, and the only way for the digital version to imitate that was to play that clip on repeat a few times after the chord finally fades. I appreciate the inclusion, but I knew it would be wrong on here, so I cut that piece out. As a bonus, that’s what helped this mix fit on an 80-minute CD — that little piece would have pushed it over the edge!

My association with this song also calls back once more to “You’re On Your Own, Kid.” The therapist I was working with while Dad was dying once said something to me like, “The death of a parent is no small thing, but it’s also not all bad.” That statement struck me as odd, and I asked her to explain. She talked to me about the arc of human development, the notion that as we progress through our lives, we occupy ourselves and our place in the world more and more fully as we go. When a parent departs, we know with finality that they are no longer there to fall back on, that we must rely on ourselves and what we’ve built instead. In other words: everything you lose is a step you take, and you’re on your own, kid.

Except, I’m not. From my mom, to Laura, Dante, and Nimbus, to the artists whose work sustains me, to my team at work, to my various social groups, to strangers in a theater, to the close friends in my life, more often than not I feel surrounded and supported. That’s the thought I want to carry into the new year.

Ice candles shining in the darkness.

Brief Candles

Oh my it’s been a year. I know that pretty much every person who lives long enough will witness their parents declining and dying, but the commonness of the experience didn’t stop it from feeling utterly unique to me. My dad experienced a health catastrophe in June — a glioblastoma diagnosis, and then a massive stroke during the craniotomy to remove his tumors. He died on December 9th. That experience obviously left the biggest mark on my year, but it was a year of pain and loss in other ways too. Two key colleagues at my job — one my boss and one my peer — moved on to better opportunities within a few months of each other, and both shortly after Dad’s health crashed. Also around the same time I underwent a major change in my role at work, a change that is definitely for the best but that still felt like another loss.

I’m so grateful, though, that through all this, Laura and Dante have remained rock-solid. Their steady support has been an incredible comfort through all this other turbulence, and their presence has been the source of some of this year’s sweetest memories. In particular, Dante and I went on a wonderful Pacific Northwest college-visit trip in the spring, meeting with Laura at the end in Portland, where she’d gone for a library conference. Then, just after Dad’s surgery, the three of us visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park, staying at a marvelous and unique vacation rental when we weren’t out exploring.

It’s a blessing to have those times to look back on, and there have been some silver linings to the other parts too. Mom and I have spent a ton more time together — I saw her and Dad pretty much every weekend while he was alive, as well as some weekdays where she and I took care of all the various pieces of financial and logistical business that all this spawned. Even though the reason is shitty, I’m glad to have spent all that time with her. And though I’m way out of my comfort zone at work, as Laura always says, when you leave that zone you find it’s larger when you come back.

Musically, I’ve spent time as usual doing deep dives on albums alongside exploring new reaches via Spotify. There’s some music that I finally checked out after long intending to, some stuff from beloved artists who had newer material, some left-field finds from random experimentation, and some things that just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I also saw my first concert since the pandemic — Stevie Nicks at Red Rocks, which, come on, I wasn’t going to not see. It was outdoors, and felt safe enough to me. When I was there, it felt like revisiting a part of myself I’d locked away for a long time.

This mix kind of shook out into thematic pieces, and that’s the arrangement that felt best to me, so it really moves from one major destination to the next, starting at home.

1. Steve Forbert – Romeo’s Tune
I came across this song in a really sideways fashion. For a while there pre-pandemic, I had a side gig putting together trivia rounds for a pub quiz company, including audio “name the artist” rounds. I made one with a “Romeo and Juliet” theme, and unearthed this gem while searching for tunes to fit the theme. I was totally unaware of this song when it was popular, and it never got any play on local radio, but I absolutely loved it when I found it. That made me search out a Forbert collection, another piece of which will appear a little later on. As for this song, I find it to be a sweet tribute to the comfort of a strong relationship.

2. Taylor Swift – Sweet Nothing
With every passing year, I become more and more of a Swiftie, I was listening to folklore on repeat right as I passed from this year’s listening period into the next one — so look for that on next year’s mix — but right at the end of October, Midnights came out and I switched into listening to that on repeat. On one level, I don’t exactly vibe with this song, because I don’t think it’s a real thing (or at least a good thing) for a relationship to demand nothing from you.

But at the same time, there are times when the world can feel so demanding, when it’s so healing to come home to someone who knows you and only needs you to be you, and be there. That’s how I take this song. With everything going on in the latter half of the year, it sometimes felt like I was on a Twister mat, just trying to cover everything and adjust to whatever new things come up. At home, at least some of the time, I’m able to untwist.

3. Frightened Rabbit – An Otherwise Disappointing Life
Again, on one level this isn’t me. I’m not disappointed with life overall. But this year has been filled with disappointments, disasters, and frustrations outside my door, so it’s an immense relief to have a choir at home to sing my life back to life. Frightened Rabbit mostly trades in depression and despair (though they make it sound incredible musically), so I love it when they let just a little bit of hope peek through.

4. The Who – Break The News
During the period when a ton of stuff was unfolding every day, I’d come home nightly and just tell the whole story to Laura. She would listen, and witness, and it was the best thing anyone could do for me. In the slow-motion car crash that was June, July, and August, there was so much to take in, and talking through it was crucial to processing it all. This song has a bit of ambiguity to it — it could be read as the words of somebody who only tells the good things, so as to keep the happiness flowing, but I see it as being allowed to break the news, speak the truth, as long as the other person lets you.

It’s interspersed with sweet images of closeness, hearkening back to earlier days of the relationship, but leavened with the security that comes with a longtime connection. “If there’s an answer, we’ll find it without doubt.” “We fell through time and space / And cast upon this place / And so far we’ve been saved.” And most of all, “Life’s amazing, but it’s been a bumpy road.”

5. Regina Spektor feat. Ben Folds – Dear Theodosia
This year I listened to The Hamilton Mixtape, a wild ride of various artists covering, reinterpreting, or riffing on songs from the musical. This one feels so precious to me — a moving crystallization at the feeling of wonder you can get from your own child. Watching Dante bloom this year has knocked me out. He has turned into this person who knows what he wants, and is deeply dedicated to making the most of his opportunities. He takes a raft of challenging classes and involves himself in a bunch of extracurriculars, mostly centered around making a better world — High School Democrats, Environmental Advocacy, National Organization for Women, Sexuality & Gender Alliance.

Then on top of that, he’s thrown himself into the cello, practicing hours and hours a day in the summer, and finding time even during school to keep his chops up. This summer (and extending into the fall), he worked a job he disliked at KFC so that he could save up the money needed to upgrade his cello, and in the spring we spent many an hour driving to various string shops around here so that he could upgrade his bow. He’s blowing me away already, and I can only imagine what’s to come.

6. America – Ventura Highway
This spring, Dante and I visited some colleges together. He wants to pursue a forestry major, and had done some research into what schools a) have the best forestry programs, and b) are places he’d want to spend four years. We built our visits from that list, starting with a drive up to Colorado State in Fort Collins. Then we flew to Seattle to visit the University of Washington, and drove down to Oregon State in Corvallis. After that, we headed to Portland to meet up with Laura and some longtime friends of hers, some of whom live in Portland and another one of whom was there for the same library conference as Laura was.

The visits were great, and one of the fun parts was that during the drives, we traded off who would pick the album we listened to. So Dante got to hear a lot of classic rock (among other things), and I got to hear a lot of video game soundtracks. One of my picks was America’s Greatest Hits, and this song in particular always brings me back to those drives together. Also, we had a lot of fun dissecting how truly weird their songs can be sometimes. Alligator lizards in the air?

7. Austin Wintory – Nascence
Now it’s only fair to include one of the video game songs. This is a special song for a lot of reasons, and it requires a bit of explanation. For years now, Dante has been a fan of certain video game music composers, and one of his favorites is a guy named Austin Wintory, in particular his compositions for a game called Journey, which follows a traveler through the desert on a symbol-laden, uh, journey. “Nascence” is the first song on the Journey soundtrack.

Dante loved these songs so much that when he had the opportunity to nominate a song for his school orchestra to play last fall, he selected a song called “Apotheosis” from the Journey soundtrack. His teacher agreed to have the orchestra play that song, and asked Dante to play the cello solo, which is a challenging piece of music. Basically, it’s the motif you hear at the beginning of this piece, but played much lower down on the cello’s strings, so that the tones are pitched high and hard to keep in tune. As I learned from Dante’s college essays this year, it was that experience, of focusing on making that solo good, that inspired the passionate commitment he’s acquired for his instrument.

This year, we drove to Great Sand Dunes National Park, an environment that looks a lot like the setting of Journey, and while we were still playing the album rotation game from the spring during our drives, we agreed that as we approached the park, we should play the Journey soundtrack. This song filled the car as we got closer and closer to those dunes, and it will always, always make me think of that day, of Dante, and all the hundreds of times I heard him practice those notes. He still plays it today, just for fun.

8. Indigo Girls – Muster
One more “parent” song. I dove deep into Look Long this year, and I really appreciate how Amy and Emily are incorporating their experience as parents into their music. I tend to feel pretty hopeless about the gun issue in America, but this song both puts that issue into a broader context and also brings in a little hope, with the promise of persistent dedication and the inspirational image of the Parkland kids. This song also connects to a movie I saw this year called Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, a documentary that draws a pretty clear connection between her recovery — slow, agonizing, partial — and our ability to push against the culture that proliferates gun warfare throughout our country. But stepping back, progress is visible. And possible.

9. MARINA – Man’s World
This is one of those off-the-wall tracks that Spotify served up to me, and it caught my ear. She is apparently Welsh! (Just like my friend Siân, a recipient of this mix gift.) I like the production, and the sound of her voice, and the central statement appeals to me. I don’t wanna live in a man’s world anymore either.

10. Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
I wasn’t super wild about this album overall — I tend to prefer the less slick versions of both Lewis and Rilo Kiley. But this song is a gorgeous exception to the overall tone of the album, and one of her all-time best. Most of the songs on this mix I relate to personally in some way, but this one is just a lovely piece of writing, attached to a touching piece of music, produced well and sung with sincerity. That’s enough!

11. The Decemberists – Make You Better
I was never a Decemberists fan — not that I didn’t like their stuff, but I just never made the effort to get to know it. This song was my way in, this year. I heard it on a Spotify playlist and was immediately captivated by the killer chorus, the excellent bridge, and the grainy harmonies. I like a band that harmonizes male and female parts, like the New Pornographers, or Jefferson Airplane, or, well, Fleetwood Mac.

12. Simon and Garfunkel – Fakin’ It
Speaking of harmonies. This album has been with me for pretty much the entire time I’ve cared anything about music, which is to say about 45 years, and different songs speak to me at different times. In the beginning of this year, I was trying to make the best of a weird work situation, and “Fakin’ It” could have been my theme song. I mean, I always have some amount of impostor syndrome going on, but this year has felt even more like frantic ad-libbing than usual — pretty much the minute the work situation was resolved, I was already trying to grope my way through the wholly unfamiliar terrain of terminal illness, medical bureaucracy, and omnipresent grief.

13. Frightened Rabbit – Break
Into that landscape stepped this song. Those moments when I want to hear a song over and over, learn it by heart, are precious and rare for me anymore, but WOW did this one ever vault over that fence. I identify with pieces of it so much. I was listening to it amidst work struggles that felt just like “off the ledge throwing punches”, and bending so I don’t break has been pretty much the order of the summer and fall. I did lots of driving back and forth to my home town of Aurora during my Dad’s illness, and I had a very memorable drive where I just sang my head off to this song on repeat — very cathartic.

14. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – The Minstrel Boy
From Scotland to Ireland. Part of the cruelty of my Dad’s condition was that the stroke didn’t just stop his body — it broke his senses too. He had severe double vision that prevented him from reading or watching video. In addition, his hearing (or perhaps his auditory processing) became muffled and distorted, which interfered not only with conversation but with music. It was unclear at first how severe this impairment was, and in the early days of his recovery we used to ask him if there was anything he wanted to hear. The answer was always “Minstrel Boy”.

He had various versions of this (and many many other folk songs) on his phone, but the Clancy Brothers’ rendition always seemed to bring him the most pleasure. Why he found this song and this version so compelling I don’t know, but I cherish the memory of his closed eyes and half-smile when it began to play. He later slipped away from the place where this worked for him anymore, but it was a sweet moment on the path.

15. Steve Forbert – January 23-30, 1978
As I said, I’ve been making a lot of trips to my old hometown over the last several months, so the mood of this song works for me right now. Not that I’m hanging out with old friends, but I am definitely visiting or passing by a lot of old haunts, kind of inevitably, and helping out with my childhood home. It’s a feeling that combines a sense of time travel with a sense of dreaming, because some things are exactly the same, and other things are so different. It feels strange, but as Steve says, “Life is strange, oh yes, but compared to what?”

16. The Eagles – Peaceful Easy Feeling
This song connects to my favorite movie of the year, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. This came to me kind of unexpectedly — I knew nothing about the viral videos that had come out in 2010, 2011, and 2014. I just went into it knowing it had gotten great reviews, and oh my gosh how I loved it. I don’t want to talk it up too much, but seriously, give it a try. It’s not just funny (it’s hilarious), it’s also a profound meditation on grief, loss, letting go, and moving forward. It was the perfect movie at the perfect time for me, and this song plays an important part in it.

17. The Zombies – Brief Candles
I always loved “Time Of The Season”, “She’s Not There”, and “Tell Her No”, but I’d never gone any further with The Zombies. Then they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as Stevie Nicks, so of course I watched the ceremony and saw this incredible outpouring of love for their album Odessey and Oracle. I gave the album a try, and I wasn’t disappointed. Picking a track for this collection, at the time I was pulling it together, this one just jumped out at me, not just as the right song to include but an impeccable title track as well.

18. The Alan Parsons Project – Old and Wise
A nice side effect of listening to more Zombies was to give me a deeper appreciation of Colin Blunstone’s voice, and in turn his vocal contribution to this Alan Parsons Project track that I’ve liked since high school, and that I absolutely love now. I can’t put into words what this song brings me today. It’s exactly what I need, and the peace it expresses is all I could wish for my dad.

19. Taylor Swift – Anti-Hero
Almost anything would be an anticlimax after the last song, but “I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser” feels like a pretty divine transition. Like I said, I ended October listening to Midnights on repeat, and while there are plenty of good songs on that album, this one is a clear standout. Not only is it a brilliantly catchy melody, it also beautifully articulates familiar feelings of self-doubt and inner criticism. Every time I hear it, I want to hear it again. Pretty great video, too — a deft mix of comedy and parts psychology.

20. Stevie Nicks – Wild Heart / Bella Donna (live)
For the end of this collection, I wanted to revisit one of the best moments of the year for me — Stevie Nicks’ return to Red Rocks over the summer. She had held off touring during COVID, so I hadn’t seen her for a long time. In fact, I hadn’t seen anybody in concert since before the pandemic started. Her set list hadn’t changed much from her pre-COVID shows, but that’s okay, because she’d gotten more adventurous at that point. Case in point is this medley of the title tracks from her first two albums — I never expected to hear either of these songs, because I suspect she’s not capable of singing some of the parts anymore. This blend skirts those tough parts, and is more than satisfying to me.

21. Stevie Nicks – Rock and Roll (live)
This was the final song of Stevie’s show, and it felt so perfect. It really had been a long time! I still get goosebumps hearing it now — it felt like all 8,000+ of us were re-embracing life and joy in that moment. I know I’ve put this on a previous collection, and I usually try not to repeat stuff, but this cover took on whole new layers of meaning for me this year, and there was no other choice for an end to this collection.

That’s all for 2022! Eyes closed, deep breath, eyes open, and forward.

Poster for This Island Earth

The Watchmen Bestiary 29 – Lonely Planet

Attention, people of Earth! This article contains spoilers for Watchmen. In addition, there are spoilers for the novel and movie This Island Earth, and very minor spoilers for the HBO Watchmen series.

In Chapter 3 of Watchmen, Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk walk over to Hollis Mason’s apartment together. As so often happens in the book, Moore and Gibbons intercut this scene with another scene, in this case Dr. Manhattan preparing for his TV interview with Benny Anger. Juxtaposition abounds — on the top of page 11, panel one shows a receptionist overcome with existential nausea at Dr. Manhattan’s sudden materialization. “They’re not paying me enough for this…” she says. Then panel two:

Watchmen chapter 3, page 11, panel 2. Dan and Laurie walk towards the camera in the rain. To their right is a poster (mounted on something freestanding) reading "PIA CINEMA" at the top, showing a mutant with an exposed, oversized brain and hollow eyes, with the title "IS ISLAND EARTH" showing. To their left is a fragment of the same poster, showing "UTO" at the top and "THI" as the title. Behind them is the Institute for Extraspatial Studies. Superimposed over the image is a caption reading They're not paying me enough to handle monsters from outta space

Watchmen, up to its usual tricks, superimposes the dialogue from the previous panel onto this one and emphasizes two parts of the image to tie it to that dialogue: the Institute for Extraspatial Studies and the movie posters for This Island Earth. Both parts evoke “monsters from outta space” in a different way. The Institute for Extraspatial Studies operates more as foreshadowing for the final chapter (as well as an explicit reference to “outta space”), but the movie poster on the left serves up a great big monster on its face. The posters advertise a movie playing at the Utopia Cinema — we can tell that’s the name because the left-hand poster gives us the “PIA” while the right-hand poster has the “UTO”. This theater is apparently some kind of sci-fi revival house — as the web annotations helpfully point out:

The Utopia Cinema, which is showing “This Island Earth,” reappears later.

Indeed, we find it in Chapter 5 playing the movie Things To Come, and from Chapter 8 onwards playing The Day The Earth Stood Still (at least until the epilogue, in which it has become the “New Utopia” and shows a Russian cinema double feature.) Subjects for future posts, no doubt. For now, though, let’s focus on This Island Earth.

Universal Appeal

By 1955, Universal Pictures (named Universal-International at the time) was finding its successes in some odd places — Ma and Pa Kettle, Abbott and Costello, Francis the Talking Mule… and science fiction. The studio already had a stable of classic and beloved horror icons — Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Frankenstein, Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man — and was working to capitalize on a new sci-fi/monster craze kicked off in 1950 by Destination Moon.

Producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold had turned in a couple of big black-and-white hits: It Came From Outer Space and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Arnold had also directed Revenge Of The Creature (a Black Lagoon sequel) and Tarantula, both of which did reasonably well. The studio felt it was time to make a “prestige” science fiction picture, and saw its chance in the novel This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones, the rights to which had been purchased by director Joseph M. Newman. Newman had commissioned Edward G. O’Callaghan to write a shooting script from the novel, but had failed to raise the necessary money to make his movie independently. Nevertheless, when Universal-International decided to buy the rights and engage Alland as the producer, those rights came attached to Newman as director and O’Callaghan as screenwriter.

U-I made some big investments in this movie. For one thing, they decided to shoot it in Technicolor, which was significantly more expensive than black-and-white stock but brought with it a “wow” factor, especially for sci-fi spectacle. They also brought in Franklin Coen to rewrite O’Callaghan’s script. Coen was not a science fiction writer, but knew how to focus on character and theme. His revisions brought some weight and depth to O’Callaghan’s original treatment. U-I may have also recruited Arnold to reshoot some of Newman’s work in the last act, though sources differ as to the extent of Arnold’s involvement, or indeed whether he was truly involved at all. Finally, the studio devoted quite a budget to visual effects, creating elaborate miniatures, matte paintings, fire, explosions, and (to Coen’s chagrin) a monster.

Prestige picture or no, This Island Earth was science fiction, and in Universal-International’s eyes, they’d never hook the teen and preteen audience they needed for it without a creature. As actor Jeff Morrow, who played the sympathetic alien Exeter in the film, later recalled, “the Studio felt that a Sci-Fi film had to have a monster”. (Universal Filmscripts Classic Science Fiction, Volume 1, pg. 15)

This monster from outer space was the Metaluna mutant, whose image we see on the Utopia Cinema’s poster in Watchmen. The mutant was invented wholly for the film — it doesn’t exist in the novel at all. And even in the movie, it feels pretty tacked-on. Nevertheless, the mutant is today the most famous and enduring aspect of This Island Earth (well, aside from the fact that this movie was somewhat unfairly chosen as the object of ridicule in the theatrical version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but that hadn’t happened yet in 1985) and it may be the primary reason why Moore and/or Gibbons chose the film to feature in the “monsters from outta space” panel. Certainly the mutant is one of the all-time iconic 1950s Hollywood space creatures.

A still frame from This Island Earth, showing the Metaluna Mutant

Reassembling The Components

There’s more resonance here than appears in that panel, though, and to understand it we need to explore This Island Earth a little further. The book and the movie share a premise, but diverge radically about halfway through their stories. At the beginning of both, though, is Cal Meacham. He’s the kind of omnicompetent man common to 1950s sci-fi, a Scientist who does Science but who is also no stranger to action and fighting, plus he’s pretty good with the ladies. He receives a mysterious replacement part from a supply warehouse: a capacitor much smaller than he was expecting and with much greater capacity.

This leads to a catalog full of these mysterious parts, from which he orders the pieces for something called an “interociter.” Using his Science smarts, he builds the interociter, which turns out to have been his unsolicited audition for a mysterious outfit whose stated goal is to “put an end to war.” They fly him in a pilotless plane to their remote compound, where they’ve gathered other scientists like him, including PhD Ruth Adams (psychiatrist in the book, physicist in the movie), and entice him into working for them.

Something doesn’t feel quite right, though, and the same curiosity that drove Cal to build the interociter spurs him to investigate his benefactors. Before long, he discovers the truth: they’re aliens! Their purpose on Earth is to recruit humans to help them build tools and weapons for a war they’re waging against an implacable enemy.

From this point, the book and the movie diverge completely. In the book, the interociter turns out to facilitate telepathy, and it allows Meacham first to read his alien mentor’s mind, then to absorb the full context of a war between an affiliation of planets called the Llannan Council (i.e. the good guys) and another affiliation called the Guarra (bad guys.) Intrigue ensues, including a scary encounter with lizardlike Guarra agents.

Earth is destined to become a battleground between the Llannans and the Guarra, and the Llannas have decided to let it be overrun, until Cal goes before the council and argues that they’ve been executing the same plans (determined by a computer) for decades, and that their predictability has been their undoing. He persuades the Llannans to defend Earth, and ends the book looking forward to returning home with Ruth (to whom he’s become engaged in the course of the story.)

The movie, on the other hand, follows Cal’s discovery with an action sequence in which he and Ruth flee the compound with another scientist, played by Russell Johnson of Gilligan’s Island fame. Johnson’s character gets vaporized by some kind of space ray, and Meacham and Adams try to escape via plane, only to have their plane sucked into a flying saucer commanded by Exeter, leader of the alien compound. Exeter and company turn out to be from a planet called Metaluna, which is under relentless assault by another race called the Zahgons, whom we never see apart from their ships.

Exeter wants to bring Meacham and Adams to Metaluna to help create machines to power its defenses, and in the process of bringing them there we get to see a lot of those fancy visual effects that Universal-International paid for, including one in which Meacham and Adams step into tubes that put them through a mysterious process meant to help their bodies cope with the greater atmospheric pressure on Metaluna. What this looks like is some crazy lighting, and then the consecutive appearance of various anatomical systems — nervous, circulatory, skeletal, muscular.

Scene from This Island Earth: Cal Meacham and Ruth Adams in tubes being prepared for travel to Metaluna -- their bodies show a nervous system, then skeleton, then musculature.

For readers of Watchmen, it’s a familiar set of images:

Watchmen chapter 4, page 9, panels 4-7. Panel 4: two frightened men's faces in the foreground. One is looking back, screaming, at a brain and nervous system suspended in the air. Panel 5: caption "It's November 10th now. There is a circulatory system walking through the kitchen." The art illustrates this. Panel 6: caption "November 14th: A partially muscled skeleton stands at the perimeter fence and screams for thirty seconds before vanishing." Again the art is a straightforward illustration of the caption. Panel 7: caption "Really, it's just a question of reassembling the components in the correct sequence." Art is wristwatch pieces laid out on a black cloth. Young Osterman's hand is picking one up with tweezers.

Given that This Island Earth gets name-checked in chapter 3 of Watchmen and Dr. Manhattan’s system-by-system reconstruction of himself appears in chapter 4, it’s not beyond reason to wonder if the movie’s visuals influenced Moore and Gibbons’ portrayal of Osterman’s process. Certainly both sequences suggest bodies deconstructed and then reconstructed into something greater than they were before.

In any case, by the time Exeter and the humans reach Metaluna, they find they are too late to save it. They encounter the mutant, who inadvertently and unsuccessfully impedes their escape a couple of times, and then they are back on Earth — Cal and Ruth in their airplane, and the mortally wounded Exeter plunging his saucer into the sea.

We Have Met The Enemy

The plots of these stories differ — largely because the latter half of Jones’s book wasn’t visual enough for the movie producers, and introduced too much complexity to fit into a film. But they do have a metaphorical underpinning in common. In each of them, the people of Earth find themselves part of a greater galactic context than they’d imagined, and are exploited by extraterrestrials who are themselves at war.

1955 was a mere decade past the end of World War II, a war in which the Allied and Axis forces battled on many fronts, including islands in the Pacific whose indigenous people had no idea of the greater context of war around them. Those indigenous people were often recruited to build airstrips or help in the manufacture of military supplies. The novel’s version of Exeter calls out this parallel explicitly, in a line of reasoning that explains the title:

These primitive peoples… had no comprehension of the vast purpose to which they were contributing a meager part, but they helped in a conflict which was ultimately resolved in their favor.

(This Island Earth, pg. 93)

“Earth is an island,” he says, “which can be by-passed completely, or temporarily occupied if need be.” (pg. 98) Similarly, film historian Robert Skotak, in the DVD commentary for the movie version, explains Joseph Newman’s intention with the film:

One of the themes that the director had in mind was to show the love of our planet and how valuable our planet is and how it is just a mere island in the vast infinity of space. And, if we aren’t careful, we could destroy ourselves — using Metaluna as… a metaphor for what could be us. This was made not too many years after the bombing of Hiroshima, the detonation of the hydrogen bomb, the Soviets getting the hydrogen bomb, the Cold War. So fears of the end of the world were on the minds of many artists, many people, and that was one of Joe Newman’s main themes.

Now, these readings are a little bit different from each other — one emphasizes Earth’s unawareness of the larger universe, and the other emphasizes its fragility and irreplacability. But in both of them, the story’s aliens stand in for humans. At the metaphorical level, we are both the exploitative aliens and the humans they exploit, two groups separated by facts of geography, culture, and technology.

Watchmen literalizes this metaphor further, by having a seeming alien invasion that is in fact a front for one human exploiting other humans for what he sees as the greater good. That’s the thread that ties This Island Earth to the Institute for Extraspatial Studies, more than just “monsters from outta space”. Here’s Joseph Newman one more time, explaining his first impressions upon reading the novel:

I think the overwhelming thing that came into my mind when I purchased Jones’ novel was to illustrate, as the title of the book suggests, that this planet is in reality a small island in an extremely vast and unknown universe, and that it is to the welfare of all the inhabitants of this island, Earth, to eliminate and submerge their petty hatreds of any of the many groups of human dwellers on this tiny island of matter. Our concerns might be, in the not-too-distant future, I thought, forces and elements beyond the present-known universe…

(Universal Filmscripts, pg. 19)

This is exactly the point that Adrian Veidt hopes to make as well, submerging the mutual hatred of the USA and USSR in the face of forces and elements beyond their present knowledge. It’s just that where Jones and Newman make their point through art alone, Adrian writes his fiction into the world as an enormous alien invasion hoax. As I mentioned in the Revelation post, Veidt authors his own apocalypse to resolve the unbearable tension between what he sees and what he desires. In doing so, he reframes Earth as an island subject to occupation, hoping that this new perspective brings all the natives into line.

Book cover for This Island Earth, showing the title, author, and a drawing of an alien against a field of stars.

Stories, Masks, and Trauma

Just as Veidt’s hoax is a kind of authorship, so I would argue are the masks and identities of Watchmen‘s costumed adventurers. In HBO’s excellent Watchmen series, Laurie Juspeczyk says this:

People who wear masks are driven by trauma. They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids. Ergo, the mask. It hides the pain.

But hiding the pain isn’t all that masks do. They also tell a story, a new story, about the traumatized people behind them — rearranging their faces and giving them all other names. In this new story, the masked people aren’t powerless, but powerful. They exist to carry out their own agendas, rather than having their agency taken away from them. The new story told by the mask exists as an attempt to help mask-wearers process and relieve their trauma.

Well, isn’t this the function of art? Through the things that we create, we seek to understand our world and its inhabitants. At an individual level, it’s well-documented that the creation of art can channel grief, trauma, and heartbreak into some new form, transforming it via creative alchemy into something that briefly assuages those emotions both for the artist and the audience. That’s the catharsis that Aristotle describes in his Poetics.

But grief, trauma, and heartbreak don’t just exist at the individual level. There are larger versions of trauma that transcend the personal. Granted, using the term “trauma” becomes more metaphorical beyond the individual level, but I believe that a family can be traumatized, a school or workplace can be traumatized, a town can be traumatized, and a culture can be traumatized. And if we accept that trauma can exist at a cultural level, I think it becomes very clear that the art it produces functions in part to help process that cultural trauma.

This Island Earth, and 1950s science fiction movies in general, are an example of this. World War II, and in particular the enormity of the atomic bomb, was a massive cultural trauma. The rapid escalation of both calamitous bomb technology and tensions between the superpowers quickly brought us face to face with our ability to destroy ourselves. Hitler’s concentration camps made plain humanity’s capacity for barbarism. Not only that, the process of the war itself and its aftermath changed America radically — women had new roles after stepping into professions vacated by men, racial politics mutated after Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, and the 1944 G.I. Bill introduced a tremendous amount of new class mobility into society.

75 years on, we can see these changes as unalloyed benefits, but at the time they were just as frightening to some as the bomb and the Nazis. 50s B movies told stories of invasions, of incomprehensible malevolence, of science and technology run amok, of venturing into the unknown, of humanity’s warlike nature, and so forth. It’s not hard to see cultural anxieties projected onto those aliens, giant insects, and monsters from the deep. It’s a genre obsessed with unexpected consequences.

So if 1950s sci-fi movies were processing the cultural trauma of World War II, what set of cultural traumas does Watchmen meet? Well, some of this isn’t really subtext. 1985 was peak Nuclear Anxiety time, and Watchmen obviously means to grapple with that. In this way, it’s a direct descendant of stories like This Island Earth.

Watchmen chapter 3, page 17, panel 2. Dreiberg walks down the street alone at night. Behind him is a large poster advertisement for The New Frontiersman. Some of the letters are cut off but we can infer that it says "In your hearts, you know it's right." Underneath "right" a graffiti artist has scrawled "wing".

But there are other, more festering wounds at work in Watchmen too. The clash of political Left and Right, so strident and polarized now, had been climbing since the days of Goldwater vs. the counterculture, but hit a new level during the Reagan/Thatcher years, and found its Watchmen expression via Nova Express vs. The New Frontiersman. Even more than those two competing media sources, the superheroes themselves in Watchmen interrogate the competing values of individual action vs. social action. American culture reveres the lone principled individual, but in Watchmen the two individuals who best fit that description are Rorschach and Ozymandias. Though politically they are opposites, temperamentally they embody the same extremist impulses, and Watchmen shows both as deeply problematic.

This isn’t the Cold War. It’s closer to the Civil War — an ongoing series of battles in an America deeply divided against itself, with good and bad actors on both sides, plus a whole lot of grey in between. It’s part of why Watchmen remains relevant and powerful today, powerful enough to inspire the whole new story that appeared on HBO last fall.

I’ve called Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock “fan fiction” — meant gently — and in a way Damon Lindelof’s HBO Watchmen is no different. It’s an extension of intellectual property that has been taken rather than granted. The only ones who could really “officially” continue Moore and Gibbons’ story are Moore and Gibbons, or successors anointed by them, regardless of what corporation owns the rights. But what made Lindelof’s work so compelling, so true to the spirit of Watchmen, was its singular vision and its engagement with the cultural trauma of our time. In the HBO series’ case, that trauma is race in America rather than the Cold War, but its medicine is just as strong.

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Previous Entry: Mutiny, I Promise You

The Watchmen Bestiary 28 – Mutiny, I Promise You

Ahoy there! Spoilers dead ahead, both for Watchmen and for the many versions of Mutiny On The Bounty. You’ve been warned.

I’ve got mutiny on my mind today because of this panel:

A panel from Watchmen Chapter 3, page 7, in which Laurie gets into a cab in front of the Treasure Island comic shop, which displays a Mutiny On The Bounty poster in its window.

Actually, let’s zoom in on the bottom right corner of that panel:

A detail from the panel, which shows the Mutiny On The Bounty poster clearly

The web annotations zoomed in on this spot as well, pointing out:

Also, note the comic “Mutiny on the Bounty” in the comic shop’s window, and the prevalence of pirate themes in the covers of the other comics. One comic has an “X” in its title, perhaps a sly reference to the “X-Men” comics of the real world. (The title “X-Ships” appears on a comic early in Issue 1.)

As much as I love to chase down every little reference, I won’t be writing a post on the X-Men and Watchmen — the connection is just too slight. The annotators are probably correct that “X-Ships” references X-Men, given that X-Men comics were at their peak of popularity when Watchmen was being written. Since pirate comics dominate the Watchmen world, X-Ships are their likely X-Men analog, but that strikes me as just a little joke, not the kind of intertextual allusion that this series digs into.

Mutiny On The Bounty is another matter. I would argue that this reference illuminates several levels of Watchmen. But before exploring that, let’s talk for a while about the story itself.

Making a Mutiny

One might ask first why Mutiny On The Bounty would be a pirate comic at all. Sure, it’s a nautical tale, but it’s hardly Treasure Island. Where are the pirates?

Well, it turns out that most versions of the story refer to the mutineers as pirates. They may not be one-legged parrot-keepers plundering merchant ships for doubloons, but they do in fact take the ship they had crewed, and anyone who seizes one of His Majesty’s ships becomes a pirate in the eyes of the British Navy.

The historical facts of the mutiny are as follows. The cutter Bounty was commissioned to collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti and bring them to the West Indies, in hopes that the tree could be cultivated as a food source for plantation slaves on those islands. Lieutenant William Bligh commanded the ship, which had been specially fitted out to hold six hundred plants. This remodeling shrank the living space of everyone on board, making an already uncomfortable sea voyage even more difficult.

Bligh’s original plan was to travel west from England to Tahiti, rounding Cape Horn on the way to Oceania. However, bureaucratically-imposed delays meant that the Bounty didn’t start sailing until the weather had turned impassable south of the Cape. Bligh, a disciple and former navigator to the revered Captain Cook, was an immensely confident sailor, but this circumstance thwarted him. He tried for nearly a month to get through, but eventually gave up and headed east, stopping to re-provision the ship at Cape Town, then sailing onward, south of Australia (called New Holland at the time) and New Zealand to Tahiti, where he landed in late October of 1788.

By all accounts, Tahiti was a sailor’s paradise. It had gorgeous weather, stunning landscapes, abundant food and water, and friendly indigenous people, with a far less sexually inhibited culture than that of 18th century England. The Bounty‘s botanical mission obliged its crew to stay on the island for several months, so that they could secure agreements with various native chiefs to take plants from their groves. In the process, many members of the crew also formed relationships with native women. The initial delay in launching the ship also meant that it must wait out the western monsoon season, which wouldn’t end until April. Thus began a five-month tropical sojourn for the ship and its crew.

A painting of the Bounty in front of a Tahitian landscape

On April 5, 1789, laden with over 900 breadfruit plants (Bligh had somehow made room on the ship to store even more than planned), the Bounty set sail from Tahiti. Their orders were to pass through the Endeavour Straits (now known as the Torres Strait) between Australia and New Guinea, in hopes that Bligh’s navigation and surveying skills could help define a safe passage for future missions. But the Bounty would never travel through those Straits.

At dawn on April 28, master’s mate Fletcher Christian and several accomplices awakened Bligh. They dragged him, clad only in a nightshirt, up on deck. The mutineers ordered Bligh into the Bounty‘s launch, where he was joined by seventeen loyalists. Several others remained on board the Bounty, either detained by the mutineers for their skills, or simply unable to fit into the already dangerously overburdened launch.

Bligh and his crew traveled over 3,600 miles in an open boat, from the site of the mutiny to the island of Timor. They endured extraordinary hardships of starvation and exposure, and they did in fact pass through the Endeavour Straits. Bligh’s entire crew survived this journey, with the exception of quartermaster John Norton, who was killed by hostile indigenes on an island where the crew had attempted to re-provision. After reaching the Dutch settlement on Timor, Bligh and company found their way back to England, where his journey was rightly hailed as an astonishing act of seamanship.

Meanwhile, the mutineers and remaining loyalists splintered. Some stayed on Tahiti, taking wives and having children. These men were collected several years later by the British vessel Pandora, which itself then sank in the Endeavour Straits. The survivors of that shipwreck took the remaining prisoners back to England, where they were court-martialed. Some were acquitted, some were found guilty but pardoned by the crown, and some were hung. The rest of the mutineers had fled to the remote Pitcairn’s Island. The British never caught these men, but they fell out among themselves and the Tahitians they had brought along, such that there was only one Bounty crew member remaining when an American vessel stumbled upon the island twenty years later. The descendants of these mutineers and Tahitians live on the island to this day.

What doomed the Bounty? What brought Fletcher Christian and his fellow crewmen to such an emotional extreme that they were willing to become pirates and set eighteen men adrift to what must have seemed like certain death? What does this mutiny mean? The answers to these questions have been much disputed, and their portrayals over the years are a saga unto themselves.

Story vs. Story

Bligh returned to England in March of 1790. He was court-martialed — mandatory for any captain who lost his vessel — and exonerated of all charges. Within a few months, he published his Narrative of the Mutiny, which in fact devoted a scant six pages to the mutiny itself, and another eighty to his open-boat journey. He declined to speculate on Christian’s motivation, saying only that he heard the crew cheering “Huzza for Otaheite” (“Hooray for Tahiti”) as the launch pulled away. (The Bounty Mutiny, pg. 10) Based on this narrative, England hailed him as a hero. He met the king, was promoted twice, and subsequently set sail on another breadfruit expedition, departing in August 1791 aboard a ship called the Providence.

Meanwhile, the Pandora had launched to capture as many mutineers as it could find, and its survivors returned to England in March of 1792. The prisoners’ court-martial that summer resulted in three hangings, four acquittals, and two royal pardons.

After the dust settled, the first competing narrative began to take shape. Fletcher Christian’s brother Edward, a Cambridge-educated lawyer, took it upon himself to interview all returned survivors of the mutiny, both those who had journeyed with Bligh and those who had been captured by the Pandora. He released a pamphlet with a partial transcription of the court-martial, and an extensive appendix (The Bounty Mutiny, pg. 67), which used those interviews to condemn Bligh as a tyrant and show Fletcher Christian as a noble soul who rebelled only as a last resort under intolerable circumstances.

The front page from Edward Christian's version of the story. It reads "Minutes of the Proceedings of the Court-Martial held at Portsmouth, August 12, 1792, on Ten Persons charged with Mutiny on Board his Majesty's Ship the Bounty, with an Appendix containing a full account of the real causes and circumstances of that unhappy transaction, the most material of which have hitherto been withheld from the Public."

That argument saw print in 1794, in the midst of a historical moment ripe for such a story. The French Revolution had overthrown the monarchy there just a few years prior, and the American colonies had rebelled less than fifteen years before that. Individuals longing for freedom and deposing tyrannical authorities were the cultural order of the day, and Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge found an avatar in Fletcher Christian. In addition, the Jacobins of the French Revolution exalted the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose notions of mankind’s goodness in a “State Of Nature” were easy to overlay upon the Tahitian indigenes, thus providing another justification for men who wanted to leave a corrupt civilization and live amongst “noble savages.”

Bligh returned in 1794 and exchanged retorts with Edward Christian, but the sailor was ineffective against the lawyer, and the damage to Bligh’s reputation would never be fully undone. The discovery of survivors on Pitcairn’s Island in 1808 excited public interest again, and launched a new wave of Bountyphilia. Sir John Barrow published an account in 1831 which upheld the image of Bligh as an overbearing martinet. Barrow was a family friend of Peter Heywood, one of those captured by the Pandora and later pardoned by the crown. In 1870, Heywood’s stepdaughter Lady Diana Belcher published another version of the story, again justifying Heywood and Christian against a Bligh portrayed as ever more villainous.

There were theatrical plays made of the story, but it didn’t receive the full novelistic treatment until the twentieth century, when Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall published Mutiny On The Bounty in 1932. For dramatic purposes, they created the fictional viewpoint character Roger Byam, who stood in for Heywood on the Bounty‘s crew. Nordhoff and Hall grounded their story in many historical facts, but also invented details to corroborate Bligh’s cruelty and Christian’s nobility. There was in fact a full Nordhoff and Hall Bounty trilogy — book two followed Bligh’s voyage and book three the life of the mutineers on Pitcairn’s Island — but it was Mutiny On The Bounty that caught the public’s imagination most. Hollywood took notice.

Mutiny On The Big Screen

MGM released its film Mutiny On The Bounty in 1935, directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian, Charles Laughton as William Bligh, and Franchot Tone as Roger Byam. MGM’s movie directly adapted Nordhoff and Hall’s novel, and it was a smash success, capturing the 1935 Academy Award for Best Picture. Gable, Laughton, and Tone were all nominated for Best Actor, splitting the vote and leading to the creation the next year of the “supporting role” Oscars.

The Lloyd Mutiny film amplified every exaggeration of Nordhoff and Hall’s, and layered in quite a few new ones. For instance, in the novel Byam witnesses another captain order a man flogged, and the punishment kills its target. The captain then orders that the flogging continue until the full complement of lashes have been delivered to the bloody corpse. (This scene has no basis that I can find in the surviving historical evidence surrounding the Bounty.) In the movie, it is Bligh who gives that order, and stands watching with satisfaction until the grisly punishment is complete. In historical fact, Bligh had a fastidious aversion to flogging, and tried to avoid it as much as possible.

Similarly, where Bligh’s actual log records his disgust with his surgeon Thomas Huggan, who he saw as a “Drunken Sot” (The Bounty, pg 84), Nordhoff and Hall give the surgeon a wooden leg (nodding to Stevenson, I suppose) and an ever-present bottle of brandy. Lloyd’s film has everyone on board calling the surgeon “Old Bacchus”, introduces him by hauling him aboard in a net, and turns Dudley Digges loose on him with a ridiculously broad performance.

Then there are the scenes entirely invented for the film. Laughton’s Bligh keelhauls a man, which happened in neither the book nor the historical record — the practice had been outlawed in the British Navy for decades. Gable’s Christian turns to mutiny after some crew members are unjustly imprisoned, but in the book, he simply bristles at being unfairly accused of theft. Finally, Lloyd’s film shows Bligh himself in command of the Pandora, unlike the book which correctly depicts its captain as Edward Edwards. Aside from these story changes, the simple act of casting Gable as Christian and Laughton as Bligh tells the audience very clearly where its sympathies should lie. Laughton in particular turns in a marvelous performance as a corrupt, blustering villain.

A still from the preview of the 1935 film, showing Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh

All these changes are made for the sake of drama, and they work very well, but their dramatic logic is simple indeed. Every uncertainty and nuance of the historical record, already greatly flattened by Nordhoff and Hall, gets sanded down into a stark story of good versus evil, of corruption overthrown by force. Just as Hollis Mason observed about Superman’s relation to the pulps that preceded it, Lloyd’s film (released three years before the debut of Superman) similarly removes the last of its predecessors’ darkness and ambiguity in favor of a basic, boiled-down morality.

Interestingly, after 1935 the pendulum began to swing back in the other direction. In 1962, Carol Reed and Lewis Milestone directed a version of the story starring Marlon Brando as Christian and Trevor Howard as Bligh. When Gable clashed with Laughton, you knew who to root for, but in the 1962 version, no character is particularly sympathetic. Bligh is awful, of course, a sociopath who uses others to accomplish his mission without for a moment considering their experience or humanity. But Brando’s preening and simpering Christian is also far from admirable. He’s foppish and contemptuous from the start, only goaded into mutiny by the character of John Mills (played by Richard Harris) as the devil on his shoulder. Even the Tahitians come across as weirdly unpleasant. By making everyone a villain (or anti-hero), the 1962 version mostly indicts the system — showing the impossible position into which the men are put. They are utterly at the mercy of Bligh, who cares nothing for their lives, but they will also die if they go against him.

There was one more filmed version of the story: 1984’s The Bounty, starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Christian. This is by far the most historically accurate Hollywood depiction. Bligh and Christian, rather than being exaggerated villain & hero, or exaggerated villain & anti-hero, come across as three-dimensional humans, both deeply ambitious and deeply flawed in their own ways. This version still injects a bit of fiction, giving Bligh a strangely burning desire to circumnavigate the globe, and very subtly suggesting that he had a homosexual attraction to Christian, but in general it redeploys historical detail to reshape the simple good and evil story that Mutiny On The Bounty had become, into a nuanced tragedy of complicated people at a complicated historical moment.

Here at last we can return to Watchmen. Tracing the path of Bounty portrayals up through 1935 makes it clear that they constitute a kind of Watchmen project in reverse. Where Moore and Gibbons started with the simplistic Golden Age and laid in layer after layer of realism, humanity, and grit, every new version of the Bounty story stripped those layers away, culminating with the Lloyd film’s simplistic depiction of hero Christian versus villain Bligh. This depiction has never left the public imagination — “Captain Bligh” is still a synonym for a tyrannical and oppressive leader.

Leslie Klinger’s annotations assert that the Watchmen panel in question shows a “vintage poster in the window for the 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty“. This is a little different from the web annotations’ suggestion that we’re seeing a Mutiny on the Bounty comic, but either way it makes sense that the poster would reference the 1935 version of the story, since that was the most successful and culturally impactful version ever made. Not coincidentally, that version is the most simplified, melodramatic adaptation of the story known to mainstream audiences. Its appearance in the comic shop window is the pirate equivalent of Action Comics #1.

Watchmen itself, on the other hand, is more like the Hopkins/Gibson Bounty movie — a movie that happened to emerge in 1984, when Watchmen was being written. By placing Mutiny On The Bounty in a window of the Watchmen world, Moore and Gibbons give us a window into how narratives and genres can evolve over time, and they reflect their own project in doing so.

Mutineers

Watchmen itself was a kind of mutiny. It rebelled against the established order in mainstream comics, striking at the injustice and hypocrisy beneath the cultural authority of superhero narratives, narratives that had claimed the mantle of justice and righteousness for themselves. Like many mutinies, its results have been mixed — superheroes’ cultural authority is stronger than ever, as Marvel’s box office receipts will tell you, but at the same time they were forever changed by Moore’s story. That story is full of mutineers, too.

There’s a quote in Nordhoff and Hall’s novel that’s particularly apropos to Watchmen. It comes in a reflective moment, as Byam describes Fletcher Christian:

His sense of the wrongs he had suffered at Bligh’s hands was so deep and overpowering as to dominate, I believe, every other feeling. In the course of a long life I have met no others of his kind. I knew him, I suppose, as well as anyone could be said to know him, and yet I never felt that I truly understood the workings of his mind and heart. Men of such passionate nature, when goaded by injustice into action, lose all sense of anything save their own misery. They neither know nor care, until it is too late, what ruin they make of the lives of others.

A panel from Watchmen, Chapter 4, page 23. It shows a body with a note pinned to it, reading "Never!". The captions say, "The only other active vigilante is called Rorschach, real name unknown. He expresses his feelings toward compulsory retirement in a note left outside police headquarters along with a dead multiple rapist.

That notion, that a supposed hero fighting for justice could ruin the lives of innocents, comes entwined in Watchmen‘s DNA, while the quote also captures the spirit of several characters. Certainly it applies to Rorschach, and no less to Ozymandias. Though not born from a passion for justice, detachment from human costs and consequences characterizes several others as well: The Comedian, Silk Spectre I, and of course Dr. Manhattan. Then there’s the narrator from Tales Of The Black Freighter, who certainly can be said to have lost all sense of anything save his own misery. The Black Freighter itself, as discussed earlier in this series, evokes Pirate Jenny, a true rebel against oppressive authority, who plots gleefully to slaughter them all.

The panel we’re examining juxtaposes two mutinies on the same page. Janey Slater rebels against Jon and the dominant story of her past by vilifying Dr. Manhattan to Nova Express. Laurie, as she walks by the Treasure Island window, is in the midst of defying the will of a government that just wants her to “get the H-bomb laid every once in a while.” In the government’s eyes, her mutiny may have doomed the ship, as “the linchpin of America’s strategic superiority has apparently gone to Mars!”

That same government enacted the Keene Act outlawing costumed vigilantes, and that’s an authority against which there are plenty of mutineers. Rorschach, of course, rebels from the start, killing a multiple rapist and using the body to deliver his note of refusal to police headquarters. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre join the mutiny many years later, as they suit up and go out on patrol in Chapter 7. Meanwhile, Ozymandias has been rebelling in secret all along, pretending to acquiesce to authority even as he engineered his fake doomsday plan, without a care for the ruin he’d make of the lives of others.

Story Vs. Story, Revisited

Ozymandias’ plan comes down to storytelling. That’s why he recruits writers and artists — he knows that his “practical joke” must be a convincing enough story that every nation in the world will believe it. But he’s not just telling a story to the world. Like Captain Bligh, his story to the world is also a story to himself, one that casts him in the role of hero and savior, the only one brave and capable enough to save the lives in his charge, despite all opposing forces. Like Bligh, he has no doubt that his narrative will prevail. Like Bligh, he will have an unexpected competitor.

Rorschach, through his diary as submitted to the New Frontiersman, will become the Edward Christian to Ozymandias’ Bligh, presenting an alternative version of events that radically recontextualizes the story known and accepted by the public. Like Christian, Rorschach has his own agenda and values that influence his version of events. I don’t mean to suggest that Christian has the truth on his side as Rorschach does, nor that Bligh intended a deception as Ozymandias does — only that the final level of drama in Watchmen comes from competing narratives, and invoking Mutiny On The Bounty can’t help but shine a light on how stories within Watchmen fight each other for dominance.

Rorschach and Ozymandias are the grand competing narrators of the work, but there are other narrative clashes within the book. For instance, every secret identity operates as a clash of narratives, in which a character keeps trying to smother the truth with a different explanation. In the case of a character like Hooded Justice, the competition becomes even more complex, especially as it’s reflected at the reader’s level. We never learn who Hooded Justice really was from the text itself, but we do get speculations from Hollis Mason. These speculations seem reasonable enough, but they are all we get from the text until Chapter 11, when Ozymandias tells his story of investigating Hooded Justice’s disappearance.

Veidt wonders: “Had Blake found Hooded Justice, killed him, reporting failure? I can prove nothing.” Now we as readers must evaluate several strands. There’s what we know about Rolf Müller, which comes strictly from the pages of Under The Hood — circus strongman, East German heritage, disappeared during the McCarthy anti-superhero hearings, found later shot through the head. Then there’s what we know about Hooded Justice — an early hero who came into serious conflict with The Comedian at least once. Then there’s what we know about Blake himself — someone who wouldn’t hesitate to execute an enemy and throw him in the ocean. These strands seem to present a coherent picture, but in all cases they are presented through the lens of another character telling a story for a particular purpose, some of whom may be more trustworthy than others. As with the history of the Bounty, we are left to discern the truth for ourselves.

Also like the Bounty, Watchmen itself has endured numerous forces trying to shape its story from the outside. Zack Snyder’s film version was loyal in its fashion, but also changed the story and the tone in ways both necessary and unnecessary. DC gave us Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock, which tried to extend the Watchmen world beyond the boundaries of the graphic novel, laying claim to canonical preequel and sequel stature by dint of being the original’s publisher, a claim which Alan Moore would vociferously dispute. Now, within just a few weeks of this post, HBO will debut yet another Watchmen story, this one a speculative sequel in TV series form.

All of these Watchmen versions wish to capitalize upon the status of the original, and to make us view it in a different light. They may not be mutinies, but at some level they are seizures, attempting to take a well-known ship in a new direction. Is that new direction fruitful? Is it necessary? Does it honor the mission? As befits the conclusion of Watchmen, that decision is left entirely in our hands.

A promotional image for HBO's Watchmen series. The words "Nothing Ever Ends" appear in the familiar Watchmen colors and font, with "2019 HBO" in smaller letters.

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Geek Bowl XIII answer recap

Here now, the Geek Bowl XIII answers!

Geek Bowl XIII question recap

Vivaaaaaa Geek Bowl! Though it started out in Denver (and returned there for its tenth anniversary), the Geek Bowl has bounced all over the nation since 2012, and this year it landed in fabulous Las Vegas. It was a great location — plenty of fun stuff to do and an excellent venue in The Joint, which is the theater attached to the Hard Rock Hotel. Travel and lodging there are also pretty cheap, unlike last year in Boston, which was equally fun but a much more expensive destination.

I’m a little startled to notice that this year was my own 10th anniversary of Geek Bowling. I keep coming back because Geeks Who Drink puts on a fantastic event, and I somehow have found myself on an incredible trivia team. We won Geek Bowl VIII in 2014 as “How I Met Your Mothra”, and have stuck with variations on the Mothra theme ever since. This year we were “A Mothra Day In Paradise”, because (trivia!) much of what we call “Las Vegas” is actually located in the town of Paradise, Nevada. Plus, the Hard Rock Hotel itself is located on Paradise Road.

Mothra had a phenomenal run of success a few years ago, placing first, second, and second in three consecutive Geek Bowls. We had (for us) a bad year after that, coming in 15th, then battled back in Boston to claim 6th place. No cash prize for that one (money only gets awarded to the top four places), but still a showing to be proud of. This year we had seven great rounds and one really rough one, and still managed to place 7th! On the one hand, it’s frustrating, because we were within a question or two of cash. On the other hand, 7th out of 240 teams is astonishing, especially when you consider the competition.

Concentrated Brainpower

See, Geek Bowl has become a premier, elite event, and that means that it attracts the cream of the trivia world — people who run their own trivia companies, people who construct puzzles for a living, people who’ve had legendary runs on game shows like Jeopardy! and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. I stayed at the Hard Rock and the guy who checked me in said, “Yeah, right before you I checked in the first woman to win the million dollar prize on Millionaire.” There was a video that surfaced from the weekend (taken by a member of the winning team, as it turned out), of a crowd gathered in a bar watching the Jeopardy! All-Star Tournament. In the crowd: many of the same faces from the tournament itself. In fact, Geek Bowl has gathered such momentum that there are now supplementary, unaffiliated trivia events attached to it, such as America’s Quizzing Championships (AQC) and the Toutant Trivia Tournament. The Geeks have recognized this trend by instituting the “amateur prize” — cash for the highest-placing team that includes no previous Geek Bowl winners and nobody who has won more than $10,000 on a game show. This year, the team that won that prize came in ninth overall.

To me, this gathering of trivia royalty has become a very cool side benefit of the annual weekend — a chance to hang with some of the best of the best, and sometimes get creamed competing with them in buzzer games, should the chance present itself. That in fact happened in Vegas, and contrary to the rules I’m going to take it out of Vegas by posting it here, but not just yet. First, I would like to give it up for some of the smartest, funniest, and friendliest teammates ever to grace a trivia table. Ladies and gentlemen, A Mothra Day In Paradise:

Team photo of A Mothra Day In Paradise

From left, that’s me, Don, Jonathan, George, Larry, and Brian. As is our habit, we spent some pleasant time together prior to the Geek Bowl, quizzing each other with warmup questions — some rounds we wrote, some name-that-tune, and some prefab trivia cards. Five of us got together Friday night (Don wouldn’t arrive til Saturday morning), along with Brian and George’s wives, and ate at Block 16 in the Cosmopolitan, where one of podcaster Brian’s listeners very graciously comped our dinners. Woo, just got to Vegas and winning already!

Then Larry, Jonathan, and I headed to the Toutant Trivia Tournament, which turned out to be many rounds of five-person simulated Jeopardy!, thanks to Bill Schantz and his marvelous J! Simulator, as well as the many excellent writers who submitted questions for the event. At the Tournament (which was really more like a Basement Bowl) were some of those trivia celebrities, either famous from TV or just famous to me because they’re some of the best in the nation and I see them ply their craft on LearnedLeague and elsewhere. So much fun getting to play against a crowd like that, and I have to say I did okay, considering.

Saturday was lunch at the Wicked Spoon Buffet, again in the Cosmopolitan, which involved standing in line for 45 minutes so that you could get in the 30 minute line, but once inside the food was ah-MAZING. So many things, so unbelievably good. Just fantastic. (Also, winning $100 on the Simpsons slot machine just before lunch was pretty sweet too.) That time there were still five of us (plus spouses) — we’d gained Don but lost Jonathan to the AQC, which took place all morning and afternoon on Saturday.

After noshing all the nosh we could possibly nosh, we headed to a quiet back room in the Hofbräuhaus, a German-style beer hall across the street from the Hard Rock. The staff there was reasonably gracious about the fact that we were drinking but not really eating anything, because we couldn’t possibly. (We left ’em a nice tip.) We did a lot of audio and question warmups, joined by Jonathan once he was done AQC-ing for the day, and then headed over to enter the Geek Bowl!

Mothra’s Rules of Pub Trivia

We found our table, which had the unexpected bonus of being draped with flags honoring our two championships. (Larry, George, Brian, and I were on a team that won Geek Bowl V.) Also on the table was this plate of cheese and crackers:

A plate of crackers with various cheeses. And, uh, the crackers are shaped like penises.

Oh, Geeks. Dick-shaped crackers. Maybe couldn’t afford the vegetables for a crudités platter, so went for a crudity platter instead? Though no doubt such “specialty” crackers don’t come cheap either — pretty sure the Masterpiece Cakeshop gave ’em a hard pass. (As it were.)

No, I knew what it was about — this was a punny edible tribute to the night’s musical headliners, Richard Cheese and Lounge Against The Machine. These guys are a comedy/music act, crooning various popular songs Sinatra-style, especially songs from the worlds of hard rock and explicit rap. Imagine the lyrics to Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” sung by Bill Murray’s Nick The Lounge Singer character, except backed by a full band playing well, and you’ve pretty much got the gag. It’s fun. A bit repetitive, but fun.

Anyway, once we were at the table, it was time for the annual reading of Team Mothra’s trivia rules, though it turned out to have been a tactical error to have waited, because the music in there was really fucking loud. Nevertheless, we persisted, with me belting ’em out to the back row:

  1. Read/listen to the damn question.
    1. Read it again.
    2. Pay attention to the category.
  2. Don’t interrupt the question/audio; let it finish before guessing out loud.
  3. If you think of an answer, say it/write it.
    1. Make sure at least two other teammates hear/see it.
    2. If you heard a teammate suggest a good possible answer that’s not being discussed, throw it out there again.
  4. Everyone look over each answer sheet before turning it in.
  5. If the answer is a name and surnames are enough, we don’t need to write the first name.
  6. If spelling doesn’t count, don’t sweat it. Likewise for punctuation.
  7. If an answer is used once in a quiz, nothing prevents that answer from being used later in the same quiz (the Quincy Jones Rule).
  8. Avoid facetious answers (the Ernie Banks Rule – so named after we got a question wrong in a practice round when somebody jokingly said that Ernie Banks, aka “Mr. Cub”, was “obviously from the Mets,” and then our non-sporty scribe dutifully wrote down “Mets.” Heh.)
  9. Put an answer for each question, even if the whole team believes it’s probably/certainly wrong. You can object to that bad answer, but have a better answer at the ready.
  10. If you are 100% sure that your answer is right, say so.
    1. For that matter, try to indicate your confidence level on all answers.
    2. Focus discussion on answers that aren’t “locked”.

That last rule is a new one, meant to help address a weak spot from last year, where we didn’t realize that one of our answers needed more discussion. Geek Bowl rounds are high-pressure, with only two short minutes from the time the last question is read to the time when all answers are due. These rules give us our best shot at quickly sifting through our thoughts on the questions, putting our heads together in the most efficient and effective way possible.

With the rules freshly read, we were ready to Bowl! And for those of you uncertain as to what that means…

The Geek Bowl Format

This is the part where I copy and paste the same explanations and disclaimers I include in this post every year, with a few alterations as appropriate. If you already know the drill, feel free to skip down to Tiebreaker.

As I’ve done in previous years, I’m going to recap the questions and answers here. A few caveats about this, though. First, the Geeks are pretty careful about their intellectual property, and the agreement we’ve worked out is that I won’t post these recaps until at least a week has elapsed since the Geek Bowl. (Though all things considered I’d have a hard time getting this together in less time anyway!)

Second, I consider these recaps a tribute to the excellent question writers of the Geek Bowl, and an advertisement for a really fun event, but I am in no way officially associated with Geeks Who Drink. However, thanks to Geeks editor-in-chief Christopher Short, I have been supplied with question material this year! Prior to Geek Bowl 12, these recaps were based off notes, memories, and photos of question slides, and in fact many of my descriptions will still suffer from this circumstance, but at least the wording of the questions will be correct. Huge thanks to Christopher for the help, and anything remaining that sucks is my fault, not the Geeks’.

The GWD question material leans heavy on pop-culture and light (though not zero) on sports. In between, there is plenty of academic trivia: history, geography, science, and so forth. There’s also generally a certain amount of edgy (or sophomoric, depending on your point of view) content each year — witness the dick-shaped crackers. However, they’ve moved beyond the place where this feels like an obligatory part of the evening, and are moving towards a tone where (most) anything goes, but there isn’t a raunch quota they always have to meet. I heartily approve of this direction. I don’t have a problem with filth and profanity, or else I wouldn’t have kept coming back, but it’s lovely to feel like they’re no longer a compulsory part of the brand.

Here’s the format: each team has its own small table, with 6 chairs. (Except for a few teams who ended up in fixed seats. As always, I salute you, fixed seat teams!) Quizmasters read questions from the stage, and the questions are also projected onto large screens throughout the venue. One rounds is all-video, meaning that rather than anyone reading questions, the whole round is encapsulated in a video presentation on the screens. Once all the questions in a round have been asked, a two minute timer starts, by the end of which you must have turned in your answer sheet to one of the roaming quizmasters.

The game consists of 8 rounds, each with its own theme. Each round contains 8 questions — usually, each question is worth one point, so there’s a maximum possible score of 8 points for each round. However, some rounds offer extra points — for instance, Round 2 is traditionally a music round, with 8 songs played, and one point each awarded for naming the title and artist of the song. In a regular GWD pub quiz, it’s usually only Round 2 and Round 8 (always the “Random Knowledge” round) that offer 16 possible points. However, in this year’s Geek Bowl, Round 3 also offered 16 possible points. (Actually, the pre-printed answer sheets made it look like there were going to be five 16-point rounds, but this turned out to be an error.)

Finally, a team can choose one round to “joker”, meaning that it earns double points for that round. Obviously, you’d want that to be one of the 16-point rounds, unless you really believed you wouldn’t score above 8 in any of them, which is highly unlikely. We discussed our jokering strategy ahead of time, and decided on thresholds. Our threshold for the music round was 14, and our Round 3 threshold was 13. Failing either of those, we knew we’d have no choice but to joker Round 8.

Tiebreaker

Usually Geek Bowl opens with a big splashy number, but this year the first thing that happened (after a video warning everybody not to cheat) was related to the Bowl’s charitable partner, Opportunity Village. For the last few years, Geek Bowl has been a “Quiz For A Cause”, with some proceeds going to a local charity. Opportunity Village’s mission is to serve people with intellectual and other disabilities, creating opportunities for them to participate in society at large to the fullest extent possible. In that spirit, a few of the Village’s beneficiaries were invited to read the official Geek Bowl XIII tiebreaker question.

The format for this question is to take a few questions, all of which have numerical answers, and combine them into a formula. Some of these questions are nearly impossible to know exactly, so you have to approximate. The Geeks then use these answers to determine placement among teams whose overall scores are identical — the closer you get to the correct final number (on either side), the better.

This year’s tiebreaker had a bit of Vegas flavor, and since I’m about to report it, I guess the question recap has officially begun! As always, I’ll describe our team’s experiences inside [square brackets], and provide the answers in a separate post.

Take the year that Haiti declared independence from France. Add to that the number of Foot Locker stores in the world. Now multiply that sum by the number of legal brothels in Nevada. Now divide that product by the number of human figures in the MySpace logo. Or, to put it a bit more formulaically:

[(H + F) x B] / M

Where H = year of Haiti’s independence, F = worldwide Foot Locker stores, B = legal brothels in Nevada, and M = human figures in the MySpace logo.

See the answers

Now it was time for the big number, and out came Richard Cheese, who in turn introduced our host for the evening, Fort Collins quizmaster Jenna Riedi. The two of them did a funny song parodying everything about Las Vegas. The whole thing wound up with the full Vegas treatment, including a parade of featherheaded ladies dancing behind the performers. (Well, maybe not the full Vegas treatment, but at least a PG version thereof.)

Soon enough, it was time for…

Round One: You Just Ate This Round

[Now, this was a proud moment for me. Remember how I said that the Mothrans were quizzing each other with homemade warmup rounds? One of the things we try to do in those is to pretend that we’re Geek Bowl writers and anticipate what sorts of rounds may be written. Somebody wrote a round with all 13-related answers, for Geek Bowl 13. Somebody wrote a round in which all the questions related to different Vegas casinos. And I wrote a round in which every question mentioned a different kind of cheese, in honor of the musical guest. Well, I was pretty damn close.]

1. Suburban housewife, junior college student, and Zoya the Destroya. That’s on the TV résumé of what adorable star?
2. The multi-culti cartoon dog Ren Hoëk has a Dutch-ish name, but belongs to what breed that descends from Toltec times?
3. The rhyming nickname for Martina Hingis, and a shitty hot chocolate brand that’s not even from the Alps. What name refers to both?
4. Kumail Nanjiani culture-clashed in The Big Sick when he met his sorta-ex-girlfriend’s parents, played by Holly Hunter and what whitest man ever?
5. A company started by Muhammad Ali’s wife, an L.L. Cool J album, and a bunch of obnoxious Tom Brady fans have all used what acronym?
6. Some 5,000 miles west of the Netherlands, you’ll find what 1940s structure that Woody Guthrie once sang about for the Bonneville Power Administration?
7. Narrated by the daughter of intergalactic refugees Alana and Marko, an Eisner-winning comic series by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples goes by what generic-ass title? [All three comicbook geeks at our table (me, Brian, and George) locked in on this one.]
8. Barely ten weeks after the whole black-guy arrest thing last spring, another Starbucks employee got fired for mocking a customer’s speech impediment, in what East Coast shithole town?

[Also, I guess it turns out that the cheeses on the plate were the 8 cheeses named in this round. In any case, we aced it. Great start!]
See the answers

Round 2: You Win Some, You Lose Some

In the pub version of Geeks Who Drink, Round 2 is always a music round, asked via mp3 clips. Sometimes the recordings are a little askew (e.g. lullaby versions of songs, or slowed-down versions of songs, or 8-bit versions of songs, etc.), and sometimes the theme is a little different (e.g. name the song and then figure out what chemical element abbreviation is made by the artist’s initials), but one way or another, there are 8 questions worth 2 points each, requiring some music knowledge, and Geek Bowl is no different. This means that Geeks Who Drink in general selects pretty distinctly for geeks with popular music knowledge, and generally our team is quite strong in this category. But tonight, hoo boy, tonight was a different story.

We really struggled in Round 2 this year, and I think it comes down to a few different factors. First among these was the musical act itself. Now, Geek Bowl has been doing a live music round for as long as I’ve been attending it. For a while there it was a different band/act for every single question in the round (whew!), and for the last few years it’s settled into one headlining act doing the whole round. That’s how it was this year, but having Richard Cheese be that act added a new dimension of challenge to the music round. See, we’ve had crazy acts before (a mariachi band, a heavy metal mariachi band, The Dan Band, etc.), but all of those acts have more or less kept the musical portions of their covers intact from the original, albeit reinterpreted. Cheese, on the other hand, throws out a lot of the instrumentation and melody of the original song when he does a cover, replacing the tune with crooning or talk-singing, and taking the arrangements in wildly different directions. This is great for fun and originality, but it tends to turn name-that-tune into something more like identify-these-lyrics. That cuts out the strength of a couple of our music stalwarts.

Secondly, unlike many previous years, Cheese only did each song once, which made the lyric thing even more challenging as we’re trying madly to scribble down words we know we won’t get a chance to revisit, in clips that often felt very short indeed. Not to mention, the house lights were turned way down, so we could barely see the words we scribbled. Finally, the songs chosen just hit a bunch of weak genre/era areas for us. And that’s nobody’s fault but ours.

The Geeks have now posted video of this round, but the Cheese slices (sorry) are right up against the answers, which makes it hard to quiz yourself. So here’s what I’m gonna do. The video will go in the answers post, but here you just get my lyric transcriptions. (Which are now much better for having seen the video.) I swear listening to Cheese himself doesn’t give you much more information. Watch the video and see if you don’t agree.

This was allegedly a round about winning and losing, but in our experience (and really, based on the songs too), it was mostly about losing.

1. Snap back to reality, ope there goes gravity, ope
There goes Rabbit, he choked, he’s so mad but he won’t
Give up that easy, no, he won’t have it, he knows
His whole back’s to these ropes, it don’t matter, he’s dope
[“Hey, this won’t be so hard.”]

2. Consider this, consider this
The hint of the century
Consider this the slip
That brought me to my knees, failed
What if all these fantasies come flailing around?
Now I’ve said too much
[“Awesome! We are going to kill this round.”]

3. Hit me!
I put it right there made it easy for you to get to
Now you act like you don’t know what to do
After I done done everything that you asked me
Grabbed you
Grind you
Liked you
Tried you
Move so fast
Baby now I can’t find you
[Annnnnd here’s where it all started to fall apart.]

4. I just fell, I don’t know why
Something’s there we can’t deny…
And when I first knew
Was when I first looked at you

5. A day late, a buck short, I’m writing the report
On losing and failing, when I move I’m flailing now

6. Got so much to lose
Got so much to prove
God don’t let me lose my mind

7. We belong together
And you know that I am right
Why do you play with my heart?
Why do you play with my mind?
Said we’d be forever
Said it’d never die
How could you love me and leave me
And never say good-bye?

8. I was in my room and just staring at the wall
Thinking about everything
But then again I was thinking about nothing at all
“Mom, just get me a Pepsi, please? All I want is a Pepsi”
And she wouldn’t give it to me
Just one Pepsi
[This one we knew, at least. Not sure how it relates to the theme, but whatever.]

[Eee-yikes. That’d be 6 points, out of a possible 16. Not good. Combined with our previous 8, we now had 14 points.]
See the answers

Round 3: Don’t Be A Buster

Round 3 at Geek Bowl (and in Geeks Who Drink broadly) is usually some kind of gimmick round — true/false, this or that, speed round, etc. The past few years at Geek Bowl, it’s been 7 true/false questions and an 8-point speed round on the final question, for a total of 15.

This year, we could see it was going to be different. The answer sheets marked it as a 16-point round, with 8 questions, each of which had a pre-printed “A”, “B”, and “C” on it.

It turned out to be a blackjack-themed round, and the second-cleverest concept from this year’s Geek Bowl. Here’s the Geeks’ explanation:

We’ll give you three questions with numeric answers. Two of those will add up to 21. If you hit 21 on the dot, you get TWO points. If you’re under, you get ONE point. If you’re over — or if you don’t circle exactly two choices — you get NOTHING.

EXAMPLE:
A. The age of Shirley Temple when she signed her first film contract.
B. The age of Barron Trump right now.
C. The legal smoking age in Nevada.

Shirley Temple was 3 when she got her first contract. Barron Trump is 12 today. The legal smoking age in Nevada is 18. Thus, A and C are the two-point answer. A and B would be a 1-point answer. B and C, or any other answer, is worth zero.

We loved the concept of this round, though it turned out to be a very intense experience, with basically triple the usual number of questions to answer.

1.
A. Lakers’ NBA titles.
B. Steelers’ Super Bowl titles.
C. Brazil’s FIFA World Cup titles.
[Thank you to sporty Mothrans Don, Larry, and Jonathan.]

2. Billboard Hot 100 #1 singles as a lead artist:
A. Madonna.
B. Rihanna. [Larry was very confident on this one, which gave us a great anchor.]
C. Katy Perry.

3.
A. Number of TV seasons for Gunsmoke [Somehow I just knew this number. Not sure why.]
B. Number of TV seasons for Wonderfalls
C. Number of TV seasons for Numb3rs

4.
A. Number of human pituitary glands.
B. Number of human baby teeth. [Jonathan had this cold.]
C. Pairs of human cranial nerves.

5.
A. Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels. [Don had a confident answer on this one, not locked but confident.]
B. Books in the main “Left Behind” series. [George had the same on this one. (Not the same answer — the same confidence level.)]
C. Books in the main “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. [Nope, nobody had this one.]

6.
A. Number of Canadian provinces.
B. Number of Canadian teams in the NHL.
C. Total number of astronauts recruited by the Canadian Space Agency.
[We were very clear on the first two, which was all the guidance we needed.]

7.
A. British Commonwealth nations in Africa.
B. African U.N. member states that start with Z. [Several people locked this part.]
C. African nations in the top 100 on the 2018 Human Freedom Index.

8. Including straight-to-video:
A. Hellraiser movies.
B. Land Before Time movies.
C. Police Academy movies.

[This round was super duper fun, and we loved the concept, but the time limit was very, very challenging. We were pushing hard to get our answers nailed down for all the questions within the two-minute window, and as the proctor came up to collect our answer sheet, I was shouting, “ARE WE JOKERING? ARE WE JOKERING?” We very quickly made the decision that we didn’t feel confident enough that we had 13, so we didn’t joker, meaning that we would definitely be jokering Round 8.

As it turned out, this would have been a great round for us to joker. Thanks to an outstanding team effort, Mothra ended up with a perfect score on this round, for a total of 30.]
See the answers

After Round 3, it was time for a scoring break, which meant that Richard Cheese came out to play some of the songs from his regular repertoire. Then he played some more. He seemed to play for an unusually long time. We started to feel the shades of much earlier Geek Bowls, in which scoring breaks stretched to crazy lengths. The Geeks seemed to have whipped this problem in recent years, so the extended Cheese-fest was feeling like a throwback. Not only that, it made the lack of repetition in Round 2 and the harsh time limit (considering the number of questions) in Round 3 feel a little more frustrating. If there’s any knock on this year’s Geek Bowl, it’s that there were pacing problems throughout — a lot of “hurry up and wait.”

One thing that ameliorated this, though, was the fact that the Geeks have really stepped up their PowerPoint joke game. For many years, the Geeks have had a PowerPoint slideshow playing before the Bowl, after the Bowl, and between rounds, generally with lots of gags relating to the host city, but this year there were both more jokes and funnier jokes, or so it seemed to me. A couple of my favorites:

A slide with the heading "Casino Confidential" and a body reading "Texas Hold 'Em is also now the motto of the Department of Homeland Security."

A slide with the heading "True Las Vegas Facts", and a body reading "Edge Of Seventeen is actually about Stevie Nicks' blackjack addiction."

There was also time to check out the incredible food spread. This year’s Geek Bowl was a giant leap forward in terms of the food provided, including mini-cupcakes with the Geek Bowl 13 logo on them. How cool is that? Anyway, the scores finally rolled. A Mothra Day In Paradise was in 45th place, out of 246 teams listed.

Round 4: Splitsville!

Vegas is the divorce capital of the world, so this round is called Splitsville!

1. Square peg Tris Prior is the main character in what oddly-best-selling young adult series? [Great team effort puzzling this one out. I think it was Don who finally hit upon the right answer.]
2. The very first atomic fission experiment karate-chopped uranium into what other, more enema-tastic alkaline earth metal?
3. Having peaced out in 1847, the Missouri Synod now ranks behind the ELCA as the second-largest U.S. body of what Protestant branch? [In a Slumdog Millionaire moment, this question related directly to Don’s childhood.]
4. Good look, guys: What 1896 Supreme Court case gave a judicial-branch imprimatur to “separate but equal” facilities?
5. Fred Martin may have created it, but Bruce Sutter definitely popularized what breaking pitch?
6. Tammy Wynette had a hit with “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” around the same time she split from Don Chapel and married what other country legend?
7. The breakup of Czechoslovakia was pretty amicable, but it did cause the resignation of what playwright-president with way too many V’s in his name?
8. Hanumanasana is the original Sanskrit name for what beastly yoga pose that’s literally just a split? [Jonathan, bless him, got this from the Sanskrit.]

[Another perfect round for us, taking our score to 38.]
See the answers

Round 5: FrankenBarry Manilow

Round 5 in typical Geeks Who Drink is a visual round, meaning a half-sheet of paper with some image-oriented challenge on it. Round 5 in Geek Bowl raises the bar up to video, and the Geeks’ video productions have been top-notch for a while.

Lucky for me, they’ve posted this video, so I don’t have to try to describe it. Fair warning, though, that the answers are interspersed throughout, so exercise that pause button if you want to try guessing them yourselves.

[7 out of 8 for us on this one — more details in the answers post. Anyway, our total now stood at 45 points.]
See the answers

Round 6: We’re Here, We’re Querying

The Geeks recognize that their core audience is a lot of white dudes, and so they’ll often try to add a little challenge (and maybe do a little education) with rounds on minority groups and topics. This time, it was a round on LGBTQ+ people in the sciences and humanities.

1. Before predicting a few election outcomes, Nate Silver worked with what 12-letter realm of baseball stats that have nothing to do with swords? [I usually know zilch about sports, but somehow I knew this. Perhaps from seeing the movie Moneyball? Like 3 other teammates were on it before I opened my mouth, but I was a little pleased with myself anyway.]
2. At the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes used repeated phrasing and syncopated rhythms to bring us what musically-inspired poetry form?
3. Cooked up by pathologist Louise Pearce in 1919, tryparsamide saved millions from what tsetse-borne disease?
4. Pearce’s roommate, medical researcher Sara Josephine Baker got her greatest claim to fame in 1907, helping to identify what famous Patient Zero?
5. Alexander von Humboldt is best known for a big 19th-century science treatise, which resurrected what ancient word for the whole ordered universe?
6. Sally Ride was famously the first American woman in space, duh. She went there on what shuttle named for a 19th-century British research vessel? [We started to go wrong on this but Jonathan steered us back to the correct course.]
7. Revelations is the signature work of what alphabetically advantaged New York dance icon, who once worked in a nightclub duo with Maya Angelou?
8. AIDS researcher Bruce Voeller set up a foundation whose name was what Spanish word for “butterfly,” that’s also Mexican slang for “gay”?

[Another 7 on this round, for a total of 52.]
See the answers

After this was a scoring break and more Richard Cheese. Quite a lot of Richard Cheese, which ended at some point, leaving Riedi to kind of helplessly vamp up on stage. Timely score tabulation was definitely an issue at this year’s Geek Bowl. They did throw in some “Jay Walking” style videos with Riedi on the street accosting passers by and asking them questions from previous Geek Bowls. Here’s an example.

They also did a lovely In Memoriam video. This is a Geek Bowl tradition — it starts out with various pop culture figures who’ve died in the past year, then moves on to fictional characters who died in the past year’s worth of TV shows and movies. Richard Cheese accompanied it with his version of Metallica’s “Fade To Black”. Here it is, but spoiler warnings for the following: Arrow, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Good Place, The Conners, Black Panther, A Star Is Born, and Avengers: Infinity War. If you’re spoiler-allergic, you can watch up to 3:28, then pick it up again at 4:09.

For those of you who didn’t watch it: this year’s video included a very touching tribute to Ed Toutant, a quizzing legend (and CU Trivia Bowl winner) who won $1.86 million on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in a remarkable comeback story. I met Ed a number of times at various trivia functions, and he couldn’t have been a nicer guy. He is very much missed, and I loved that the Geeks tipped their hats to him.

At last, the scores rolled once again. A Mothra Day In Paradise was at #21! Considering that we hadn’t jokered yet, we were very pleased to be ranked that highly.

Round 7: Street Theater

Remember how I said that Round 3 was the second-cleverest idea at this year’s Geek Bowl? Well, this was the best one. The Round 7 quizmasters started off by talking about the Fremont Street Experience in Downtown Vegas, and then explained that they were going to bring that experience into this year’s Geek Bowl. For those not in the know (which included me), this means street performers! Every question in this round was presented by a different street performer, each of whom did a little of their act, in a way that each time was a hint to the answer.

There is video of this round as well, but as with the Round 2 video, but the clips of the performers are a bit abbreviated, and the answers are in the video. Once again, you’ll find it in the answers post, and I’ll just leave my original descriptions here.

1. Three Elvis impersonators come out, one of whom is a little person. The larger two sit down to get to his level, then the three of them exchange this dialogue:
“You don’t even know what’s inside these bunkers, do you?”
“Rolexes.”
“Rolexes are swell, but I’m talking about Kuwaiti bullion.”
“You mean the little cubes you put in hot water for soup?”
“No. Not the little cubes you put in hot water for soup.”
“Gold bricks.”
“5 kilos each, $50,000 in today’s market.”
“For one gold brick?”
“I’m sure Mr. Hussein has divided his bricks into many different hiding places, but just one hiding place should be easy to take, and that would be enough to get us out of our day jobs.”

At this point, a slide comes up reading, “Name the 1999 movie.”

2. A guy sets up a bunch of overturned buckets, then plays an awesome drum solo on them. He is handed a mic, and reads:
“Drive a Shelby Mustang. Kiss the most beautiful girl in the world. Get a tattoo. Skydiving. Visit Stonehenge. Drive a motorcycle on the Great Wall Of China.”

Slide: “Name the 2007 movie.”

3. This was the most amazing one of all. There’s a safe — not a big one — on stage. Out comes a guy in a full-body suit with an alligator print on it. Turns out the guy is a contortionist. In some inexplicable, astounding way, he gets himself into the safe, reaching out through a little trapdoor to spin the wheel locking it from the outside. A Geek holds a mic up to the side of the safe, and out comes the guy’s voice:
“WHAT’S IN THE BOX???”

Slide: “Name the 1995 movie.”

4. A magician makes things appear and disappear, including a wineglass, handkerchiefs, etc. While he’s doing this act, he says this:
“Rule number one, this is the, what can you touch and not touch. Can you touch this? Can you touch this? No no no no no no. Second touch. Can you touch this? Can you touch this? No no no no no no no. And finally, last one ladies, can you touch this? Can you ever touch this? Well that too the law says you cannot touch. But I think I see a lotta lawbreakers up in this house tonight.”

Slide: “Name the 2012 movie.”

5. Three women come out and do a jump rope act. During the act, they read the following lines:
“We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”

Slide: “Name the 2012 movie.”

6. A ventriloquist act. The ventriloquist and his dummy sing part of Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity.” Finally, the dummy says:
“Now that’s entertainment!”

Slide: “Name the 1989 movie.”

7. Three people in full-body animal costumes dance and sing to “Shout” by the Isley Brothers.

Slide: “Name the 1978 movie.”

8. Two more little people, this time dressed in quasi-Game Of Thrones garb. They fight, and dialogue:
“I want to know what’s going on. No one just gets as good as you do. Especially you. Start talking! Are you training with someone?”
“Uh, uh, training? I didn’t–”
“It better not involve this.”
“I, I know, this… looks really bad, but, you see, this is uh… Uh, you’re right! You’re right, you’re right. I, I’m through with the lies, I’ve been making… outfits! So, you got me. It’s time everyone knew. Drag me back, go ahead… here we go… OW! Why would you do that?”
“That’s for the lies! And that’s… for everything else!”

Slide: “Name the 2010 movie.”

[We really struggled on #6, but otherwise did well on this round. 7 out of 8, for a total of 59 points.]
See the answers and video

Round 8: Random Knowledge

Time at last for the final round, and our inevitable joker. Round 8 in Geeks Who Drink is always themeless, or rather I guess I should say each question has its own theme. In Geek Bowl, the questions in this round are always worth two points apiece.

1. a) “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” was a Mustafa-rific slogan for what personal-care brand? b) What big-ass company owns that brand?
2. a) A citrus fruit called the tumbo was the traditional fish-curing agent for what Peruvian national dish? b) And according to their creation myth, the Aztecs got chocolate from what feathered-serpent god? [I didn’t track who got part A of this question — I just had a moment of feeling very grateful for my team, because somebody had it locked.]
3. a) What robot-fighting game character bizarrely debuted as an air freshener in Sega’s 1991 arcade racer Rad Mobile? b) In 2018, Styx concerts finally included what operatic prison-break anthem? [Thank you Brian for being dialed into video game questions. George and I debated through the Styx part and did hit on the correct answer.]
4. a) In November 2016, Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh co-founded what yarn-based activist movement? b) And a main character bailed on an intervention and got 20 years for grand theft auto, in what 1908 kid-lit classic? [Jonathan nailed part B, and I came up with a reasonable guess for part A.]
5. Two Creed points: a) Long before The Office, Creed Bratton played on the #5 hit “Midnight Confessions” for what band? b) What do Christians call their still-repeated statement of orthodox faith against Arianism?
6. Since 2000, Jeff Bezos has founded a space tourism company and bought up a major newspaper. Name both ventures.
7. Two Ramsay TV questions: a) Did Hell’s Kitchen originally air in the United States or Britain? b) Actor Iwan Rheon starred in what failed Marvel show that’s also a fair description of his Game of Thrones character? [Part A was essentially a coin flip — we debated, voted, came up with the wrong answer. Oh well.]
8. I’ll name a sports tournament, you name the current reigning runners-up: a) FIFA World Cup? b) Stanley Cup Final?

[We had a very good Round 8 — 14 points, doubled by our joker to 28. We ended Geek Bowl XIII with 87 total points.]
See the answers

There was one last long, long scoring break, so long that Richard Cheese was cracking jokes about how many more songs he’d have to do. Brian, who has actually hired Cheese before for a podcast event, had no doubt that Cheese was charging them extra for the additional time. Oh well, it was more enjoyable than nonplussed quizmasters would have been. Also, I should mention here that various people approached me throughout the night to let me know that they enjoy these recaps, which was quite touching. They’re fun for me to do, and I love knowing that they provide a little entertainment to others as well.

At last, the final standings were ready, and Geek Bowl 10 winners Shiny & Chrome emerged victorious once again. Huge congratulations to those trivia titans, to everybody else who came out and played, and to Geeks Who Drink for putting on another extraordinary live trivia event. The final video let us all know that Geek Bowl XIV will take place in Chicago! See you then and there!

The Watchmen Bestiary 25 – Whose Mind Is Pure Machinery

First things first: this project has a new name. I was never entirely satisfied with The Annotated Annotated Watchmen as a project title. Not only is it an awkward mouthful, it’s factually inaccurate. I’m writing essays, not annotations. But The Essayed Watchmen never really did it for me either.

For many an entry have I fretted about this, but I just could not find an alternate title that spoke to me loudly and clearly enough. For this 25th post, though, I resolved to redouble my efforts, and in a reread of Chapter 1 noticed this panel:

Chapter 1, page 23, panel 7 of Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan is manipulating machinery and says, "I think I'm close to locating a gluino, which would completely validate supersymmetrical theory if we could include it in the bestiary."

The bestiary! In Watchmen, the bestiary seems to be two things. First, it’s a collection of items that underpin the universe, which Dr. Manhattan examines in order to better understand the workings of that universe. So far, so perfect — that’s exactly what these essays are working to do, one exotic and breathtaking specimen at a time. The other Bestiary in Watchmen is “where the real heavy-duty thinkin’ gets done” by the Gila Flats crew in Jon Osterman’s early days as a physicist. It’s the on-base bar where the various residents find themselves “at play amidst the strangeness and charm.”

That meaning works perfectly for me too, because these essays are my way of extending the tremendous strangeness and charm that Watchmen exerts over me and millions of other readers. And doing so is just plain fun for me, which is why I keep doing it. It sure isn’t for the money or fame.

Therefore, I proudly present The Watchmen Bestiary, a rechristening of my ongoing Watchmen project. As a part of this change, I’ve gone back in and renamed all the old entries, and in some cases done some light editing and updating of them. If anyone happens across anything screwed up as a result of this, please let me know.

And now, on with today’s entry. Please note that, as always, there are Watchmen spoilers in this post. I also discuss the plot of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.

Most of these essays focus on a single work, or at least the works of a single artist or author. Today’s entry, though, focuses on a name. It’s a name that spans many works, many authors. A name that echoes through millennia. Moloch.

Chapter 2, page 21, panel 2 of Watchmen. Rorschach has Moloch pinned to the ground, and says, "No. Edgar William Jacobi, also known as Edgar William Vaughn, also known as William Edgar Bright, also known as Moloch."

Here’s what Chapter 2 of the web annotations has to say about him:

Moloch, an ancient god who became a demon in Christian cosmology, is also the name given to the giant machine with a giant dial operated by the oppressed workers in Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis”.

The annotations are quite right to cite the Bible and Metropolis, as both were pretty clearly influences on Moore. He references the Bible throughout Watchmen — the Pale Horse reference to Revelation is just the first of many.

The Metropolis connection is a bit more tenuous, but apart from being able to count on Moore’s general erudition, there’s also the fact that both Metropolis and Lang’s recurring character Dr. Mabuse feature prominently in the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen story Nemo: The Roses Of Berlin. Granted, that book came out much later than Watchmen, but let’s also remember that in 1984, music producer Giorgio Moroder restored and re-released Lang’s film in theaters, with a pop music soundtrack. Between the fact that the pop Metropolis was roughly contemporary during the writing of Watchmen, and Moore’s later demonstrated connection to the material, I’m comfortable asserting that Metropolis would have been in Moore’s constellation of references when he chose to name a character Moloch.

Also in that constellation are the writers of the Beat movement. We’ve already seen how strong an influence William Burroughs had on Watchmen, but it turns out he wasn’t the only Beat with a connection. As it happens, Allen Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl”, repeats the word “Moloch” 39 times in the 383 words of its second section, employing imagery that was clearly influenced by Lang. There are plenty of other writers who incorporate Moloch — Milton and Flaubert are a couple of the biggies — but it’s the Bible, Metropolis, and “Howl” that seem most connected with Moore’s repertoire, so let’s focus on them.

Moloch The Abomination

In the Bible, Moloch or Molech (both spellings appear in the King James Version) seems to derive from the Hebrew word melech, meaning “king”, combined with the vowels from the word for “shame” to give it a pejorative flavor. The implication is of a “Lord” (or god) whose worshipers should be ashamed.

Most of the mentions of Moloch occur in Leviticus, a book concerned with setting out rules for the Israelites. A typical mention, as translated in the KJV: “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy god: I am the LORD.” (Lev 18:21) This diction may obscure just what’s being forbidden, but the English Standard Version is as usual more straightforward: “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” In 1 Kings he is called an “abomination”, and we see Solomon seduced into worshiping him. (1 Kings 11:7)

So it would appear that Moloch is a rival god to Yahweh, and that Moloch’s distinguishing feature is his demand that followers sacrifice their children to him, likely by ritual burning if the oft-repeated phrase “pass through the fire” has any literal meaning at all. In fact, a couple of 19th-century German scholars offered the radical argument that the cult of Yahweh in fact grew out of the cult of Moloch, differentiating itself by its rejection of human sacrifice. Other critics saw anti-Semitism in this premise, an attempt to slander Jews by suggesting that the “orthodox” version of Judaism was entwined in blood rituals. For our purposes, what matters is that the Biblical Moloch is synonymous with human sacrifice, in particular the sacrifice of children, and that this practice sets him apart from Yahweh.

18th-century depiction of Moloch as a statue with chambers for burning.

What does this idea of human sacrifice have to do with Watchmen‘s Moloch? Very little, I would argue. Edgar Jacobi, aka Moloch, who Hollis Mason describes as “an ingenious and flamboyant criminal mastermind” in his heyday, seems to be Watchmen‘s canonical example of the “schmuck in a Halloween suit” that the Comedian derides in one of this chapter’s flashbacks. He’s non-threatening enough that Veidt’s marketing department eventually wants to make an action figure out of him.

There is almost no hint of human sacrifice, nor indeed any kind of murder, in what we know about him. He initially styles himself as a stage magician, and tends to sport a tuxedo in the flashbacks to his active days. In Chapter 4 we see him with a spooky skull necklace, but that’s about as close as he gets to courting death. He appropriates the name (and perhaps the pointy ears?) of a demon-god, but does nothing very demonic or godlike, moving into organized crime in the 1940s before finally spending the Seventies in jail.

So why the name Moloch? What does the concept of Moloch have to do with anything in Watchmen? Well, the actual Edgar Jacobi may be a red herring, the literal example of false danger that The Comedian cites in the Crimebusters meeting, but there is indeed a figure who embodies all that Moloch represents: Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt fancies himself somewhere between a king and a god. In the Bible, the difference between good god Yahweh and wicked god Moloch is whether that god is willing to sacrifice its own. Yahweh doesn’t demand the killing of anyone’s children. (Well, except for that one time, and it turns out He was faking it.) Ozymandias, though, creates an entire plan predicated on human sacrifice, and not just any humans, but the very New Yorkers whom he protected in his days as a costumed hero.

Even before the book’s climactic slaughter, Adrian is methodically killing people all over the place. He blows up the boat containing all the writers, artists, and scientists he bribed and tricked into his scheme. He eliminates every underworld figure who could be traced back to Pyramid Deliveries. He irradiates Dr. Manhattan’s associates to give them cancer, thus making Watchmen‘s Moloch the subject rather than the object of sacrifice. All in the service of his vision.

When comparing Watchmen to the book of Revelation, we saw how much Moore and Gibbons’ story was an inversion of the Biblical apocalypse, from its disruption of the good/evil binary to its reversal of the typical combat myth. In Ozymandias, we see yet another Biblical reversal — rather than Yahweh’s rejection of child sacrifice, Ozymandias turns into the kind of god who embraces it. The closest thing to a child character in the book — Bernard the younger — dies in the arms of his elder namesake when Veidt’s squid creature arrives.

The Moloch Machine

Adrian also has a few things in common with Joh Fredersen, the master of the title Metropolis in Fritz Lang’s film. Both men are masters of a business empire, who have attendants hanging on their every word to carry out their orders. Where Veidt built the Antarctic refuge of Karnak and its fantastical vivarium, Fredersen created the “Stadium Of The Sons”, in which the male offspring of Metropolis’s 1% frolic among freely available plants, fountains, and women. Where Veidt registered the patent for spark hydrants thanks to possibilities opened up by Dr. Manhattan, Fredersen creates a dazzling city thanks to the inventions of archetypal mad scientist Carl Rotwang. And where Nite Owl and Rorschach uncover the horrific human cost that Veidt is willing to incur in order to realize his dream, in Metropolis it’s Joh’s son Freder who makes the sickening discovery.

One day, as Freder is having his usual grand time in the Stadium Of The Sons, his merriment is interrupted by a working-class woman named Maria, who has taken a group of children up to the stadium to see how the upper crust lives. He becomes obsessed with Maria, and tries to follow her down to the underside of Metropolis, where workers endure endless toil to keep all the city’s machines operating. As viewers, we’ve already witnessed scenes of exhausted workers trooping through the undercity, their lives ruled by an omnipresent clock — another symbol in common between Metropolis and Watchmen.

When Freder enters the undercity, one of the first sights he encounters is an enormous machine, with rows of workers pulling levers in steady rhythm to keep its mysterious energies flowing. As Freder watches in alarm, one enervated worker struggles to do his part, but falls short, and the mechanism’s temperature rises. Finally, the thermometer reaches a critical level, and an explosion rocks the machine, sending workers flying through the air. At this moment, Freder has a vision of the machine as a huge, terrifying demon that consumes workers alive. Shaved and chained, they trudge up the stairs to be thrown into the fires within its gaping mouth. Overcome by the vision, Freder shouts out one word: “MOLOCH!”

Side-by-side screen captures from Metropolis, first of the machine as it is, second the way Freder sees it in his vision.

There’s not much ambiguity about the symbolic weight of this Moloch machine, nor in fact most of Metropolis, which takes its cue from the novel of the same name written by Lang’s then-wife Thea Von Harbou. The film announces in its first title card, “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart!”, and then goes on to make it clear that the brain is capital (i.e. Joh) and the hands are the proletariat (i.e. those devoured by the Moloch machine.) In Joh Fredersen’s Metropolis, the price of that beautiful stadium, and the debauched club Yoshiwara, and all the other amazing conveyances and edifices and inventions, is human sacrifice. Working class people struggle and die to keep the machines fed, and when those machines go explosively wrong, the ruling class sees it as an impersonal correction, just one of those things.

When it seems like the “hands” might revolt, under the leadership of Maria, Fredersen and Rotwang disguise an android with her appearance, so as to disrupt the rebellion by discrediting its figurehead. Disaster ensues, culminating in a rooftop swordfight between Rotwang and Freder, who finally triumphs, killing the mad scientist. The film’s rather naive ending solves the problem of the city’s cruel machinery when Freder (as the mediating heart) joins the hands of capitalist Fredersen and lead worker Grot.

Ozymandias, too, builds an enormous machine to fuel his fondest dreams, but in his case the machine isn’t made of dials and levers and gears. It’s made of plans, and it consumes people for its purposes with no mediating heart in sight. Like the machines of Metropolis, it also reaches deep under the surface. According to this chapter, Veidt formed his intention in 1966 to solve the problem of inevitable nuclear war. According to Doug Roth in Chapter 4, Wally Weaver died of cancer in 1971. That means that Veidt’s plan was in motion within at least 5 years of that Crimebusters meeting, and that its turning gears had claimed their first life by then. In the ensuing 14 years, it finally realizes its destiny as “a lethal pyramid”, killing everyone involved, excepting some but not all of our main characters. After the hordes of corpses in chapter 12, Rorschach is the final slave to be marched into the gaping maw of Adrian’s Moloch machine.

It isn’t just planning, though. Veidt also relies upon a remarkable technology stack to create his “practical joke,” one even more farfetched than the androids and mega-machines of Metropolis. He kills his servants by elaborately staging their “deaths from exposure, after drunkenly opening [his] vivarium.” Like much of Metropolis, it makes for a hell of a visual, but falters under a bit of scrutiny — why would a tropical vivarium in Antarctica ever need to open in such a way, anyway? When Dan expresses skepticism that Adrian is even capable of killing half of New York, Veidt calmly explains that he cloned the brain of a psychic named Robert Deschaines into a “resonator”, with “terrible information” coded into it. Then, when its host creature dies, this mega-psychic brain somehow broadcasts “the signal triggered by the onset of death”, and that signal somehow kills 3 million people from “the shock”.

I think of Watchmen as a realistically grounded superhero narrative, maybe the most realistic one ever at the time of its publication. If you can accept the notion of Dr. Manhattan and how his existence would change the world, the rest plays out logically with no further recourse to the supernatural, right? Well, wrong. Because as wide-ranging as Dr. Manhattan’s powers and effects may be, they don’t reasonably explain the presence of psychic abilities in human beings. Veidt gestures to advancements in eugenics as Laurie fawns over Bubastis in Chapter 4, but telepathy is another story. Because Watchmen drapes itself in superhero tropes, it’s easy to overlook, but for Veidt’s plan to work, we must accept not only the implications of Dr. Manhattan, but the entirely separate implications of people who can project their thoughts.

Besides sharing in its implausibility, Ozymandias also echoes Metropolis by wielding super-scientific advancements as a murder weapon against anyone opposing his utopia. Despite his Egyptian iconography, Adrian Veidt is a technologist who achieves his victories through a combination of commerce and machines, using flesh draped on a bomb like the false Maria in Metropolis.

Moloch Whose Fingers Are Ten Armies

Cover of Howl by Allen Ginsberg. It reads "Howl and other poems. Allen Ginsberg. Introduction by William Carlos Williams." The top banner reads "The Pocket Poets Series" and the footer reads "Number Four." In Lang’s Metropolis, the Moloch machine consumes hordes of anonymous workers. In “Howl”, Allen Ginsberg ups the ante. His Moloch destroys “the best minds of my generation.” His Moloch is a “sphinx of aluminum and cement” that “bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination.” In other words, Ginsberg’s Moloch of industrialization doesn’t just destroy the working class hands, but also the open hearts that might have tried to serve as mediators.

He invokes “Moloch” like a chant in section II of the poem, and some of the imagery recalls Metropolis pretty clearly:

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!

The second quoted stanza clearly identifies various parts of the city as Moloch, and a Metropolis-like city it is, with skyscrapers, factories, smokestacks, and antennae. The anthropomorphization of buildings and tombs into body parts of the monster strongly echoes the way that the panels, apertures, and pipes of the Metropolis machine become eyes, mouth, and claws in Freder’s vision of Moloch. And of course the “cannibal dynamo” of its breast is pretty much a straight description of what happens in the Metropolis Moloch scene.

There may be another allusion to Lang here as well. One of the director’s trademarks was having a shot of a hand in each of his films, one way or another. Rotwang has an artificial hand that gets some attention, but there’s another sort of hand shot in the movie as well. There’s a sequence where Maria tells an allegorical story about building a “Tower of Babel”, another example of planning brains heartlessly directing working “hands”, and one famous shot from that sequence is of five columns of workers converging into a foreground of shave-pated men sullenly trudging forward.

The "workers hand" shot from Metropolis as described in the essay text.

As Tom Gunning points out in The Films Of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, the shot strongly suggests a hand. “The shape itself acts as a trope, based on the synecdoche introduced in Harbou’s text, the workers as ‘hands.’ We see the converging columns as the outspread fingers and the circular insert as a palm. The composition of roiling bodies also functions as a symbolic close-up of a hand, one of Lang’s most powerful visual tropes.” Separate regiments of workers coalesce into one central force. Or, if you’re Allen Ginsberg, “Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!”

So if the Biblical Moloch demands human sacrifices, like Adrian, and the Metropolis Moloch uses humans as fuel, like Adrian’s plan, what does Ginsberg’s work add to our understanding? Simply this: that those sacrifices aren’t just anonymous workers or unnamed children, but characters we come to know and care about through the course of the story. In section I of “Howl,” Ginsberg introduces us to a litany of behaviors and characters who embody them. Most of these are of the heroic-romantic nature, albeit from a bohemian point of view, fugitives from mass culture who bravely maintained intellectual independence and created unfettered works. They are all destroyed, and it is Moloch who destroys them.

In Watchmen, we come to know some of the “ordinary” people who get killed on November 2, 1985. There’s Bernard the newsstand vendor and Bernard the young reader, who we hear from throughout the book. There’s Malcolm Long and his wife Gloria, stars of Chapter 6. There’s Joey and her girlfriend, who we see in the throes of painful relationship dissolution. There’s Detective Steve Fine and his partner Joe, who open Chapter 1 and continue to investigate crimes on the fringes throughout the story. Ozymandias is the Moloch to whom all these victims are sacrificed, to appease his thirst for surreptitious control of the world’s nations.

That day is the final step in Adrian’s homicidal plan, and a trail of death leads up to it. There’s the island full of artists, writers, and scientists — Max Shea, Hira Manish, James Trafford March, Linette Paley, Norman Leith, Dr. Whittaker Furnesse. The best minds of their generation, destroyed in Veidt’s madness. Not to mention the literal “best mind”, Robert Deschaines, who apparently was more than a “so-called psychic and clairvoyant.” And Wally Weaver, and Janey Slater, and poor Edgar Jacobi himself, all marched into the maw of Ozymandias’ Moloch machinations, feeding their energies into its terrible purpose.

The sad, cancerous old man pinned to the ground by Rorschach did none of these things. In fact, he was just another victim of them. Jacobi pleads, “I’m not Moloch anymore,” and he’s right. The new Moloch is Ozymandias himself, whose mind is pure machinery.

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The Watchmen Bestiary 18 – A Real Rain

Hey, you. Yes, I’m talkin’ to you, because I want you to know that there are spoilers in here, both for Watchmen and for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. We’re talkin’ about Taxi Driver today because of one cjb@ice.physics.salford.ac.uk, who turns out to be named Christian Burnham. Burnham contributed to the v2.0 Watchmen Annotations, those annotations being a crowdsourced effort built atop Doug Atkinson’s original work. Burnham was the one who asserted way back in my first installment that “Edward Blake is obviously a reference to Blake Edwards,” and that “Rorschach’s methods of terrorism are all taken from Pink Panther movies.”

This time around, he claims that “Rorschach’s opener on page 1 issue 1 is a dead ringer for the dialogue of Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver.” Burnham has a tendency to overstate the case, and this time is no exception. While it’s true that both Rorschach and Bickle (Robert De Niro) keep a diary, and that their diary entries are provided in “voiceover” to give us insight into their minds, I wouldn’t call one a “dead ringer” for the other. There are definitely similarities, but also some important differences. Let’s compare styles.

Rorschach: “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘Save us!’… and I’ll look down and whisper ‘No.'”

Bickle: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal. Someday a real rain’ll come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”

Both these excerpts begin with shocking language and images. Both indicate a loathing and revulsion for the urban environment. But Rorschach’s opening sentence imitates his speech patterns — clipped sentence fragments, with articles and pronouns extracted, an almost Tonto-ish way of talking. Moore in fact uses this pattern as a tool later on to indicate the psychological split between when Walter Kovacs simply wore a mask and when he became Rorschach, as well as the psychological shift in Malcolm Long.

Interestingly, the rest of the excerpt (and most of Rorschach’s diary) is much more discursive than his usual speech. He spins grandiose, almost biblical images, like this one in which he stands as the vengeful god to punish human sins. Elsewhere, he documents the city as he sees it, or takes notes on the murder case. He even tells a joke.

First 3 panels of Watchmen, with Rorschach's dialogue as quoted above. All three panels are overhead shots, with the camera gradually pulling upward to reveal more.

Travis, on the other hand, is much more prosaic and down-to-earth. He talks about what happens in his job, how much he makes, and recounts details like “I had black coffee and apple pie with a slice of melted yellow cheese.” His diction is slangy and vernacular (not to mention casually racist and homophobic), where Rorschach tends toward theatrical, elevated words. Travis would never say something like, “This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.” When his diary entries become introspective, they tend to be vulnerable and searching, as opposed to Rorschach’s judgmental pronouncements. Travis reviles the city, sure, but he also explicitly laments his loneliness, something Rorschach only barely approaches when he asks (without a trace of irony), “Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”

However, just because Rorschach’s journal isn’t a “dead ringer” for Travis’s diary doesn’t mean that the comparison between Watchmen and Taxi Driver is pointless. On the contrary, I think it’s a very useful juxtaposition, one which illuminates them both.

THE NEW NOIR

Taxi Driver gets called a neo-noir film, a term which more or less means “a whole lot like film noir but made after 1958.” (See Hirsch and Schwartz, for example.) The notion of film noir itself has never enjoyed a stable, consensus definition, and in fact there is still contention over, for instance, whether it’s a style or a genre. But like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s relationship to pornography, critics know it when they see it.

Here are some film noir commonplaces:

  • A mood of pessimism, cynicism, and/or fatalism
  • Night scenes, especially night scenes in a city
  • Rain. Lots and lots of rain.
  • Also lots of smoke and smoking
  • Femmes fatales. As Roger Ebert puts it, “Women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa.”
  • An ordinary person drawn into crime, often based on some relationship with a femme fatale
  • A grim investigator unraveling a crime, an investigation which often reveals deep corruption
  • Odd or askew camera angles
  • Shadowy or high-contrast visual composition
  • Flashbacks, particularly telling the bulk of the movie in flashback, introduced by a frame story
  • First-person voiceover narration

A movie doesn’t have to have all of these to be considered noir, but the more of them that occur in one movie, the more noir it becomes. Once I started thinking about Taxi Driver as a noir movie, it became blindingly obvious to me that Watchmen is a noir comic book, or at the very least that Rorschach is a noir character, right down to his 1940s trenchcoat and fedora. While his narration differs from that of Travis, the presence of their narration serves the same set of functions. It sets the grim tenor of the story but makes it clear that the mood is filtered through one character’s mind, and that this character is himself unreliable and twisted in certain aspects.

The juxtaposition of narration and images allows us sometimes to see the story’s world as the character sees it, and other times to understand through ironic contrast where the character’s perceptions are limited, or where he may be lying to himself or others. And as both Taxi Driver and Watchmen postdate the classic film noir period, they are fully aware of noir conventions and use voiceover as a kind of combination homage and allegiance.

They have plenty in common with the noir sensibility besides the voiceover, too. Both have an overall sinister tone, and both end with a psychopathic character unexpectedly cast in a heroic light. Both stalk the rainy night city, Travis in his cab and Rorschach on foot. Smoke, too, figures into each story in different ways. None of the characters in Taxi Driver smoke, but mist and steam emanates from the streets themselves — the first several shots in the film include a taxi emerging from a cloud of smoke (along with the title itself), and that same smoke following Travis as he walks into the cab service to apply for a job.

Lots of characters smoke in Watchmen. In just the first two chapters, we see Detective Fine, Hollis Mason, various criminals, restaurant patrons, Laurie Juspeczyk, and Eddie Blake smoking various types of cigarettes or cigars. In addition to his stogie, Blake also shoots riot gas to smoke up the streets, and makes Captain Metropolis’ map go up in smoke as well. However, the smokiest thing about the book is easily Rorschach’s dialogue balloons. The character is never seen with a cigarette, but every time he talks or thinks, the edges of his words crinkle and curl, an ever-present noir vapor.

Shot from Taxi Driver with title emerging from smoke, next to panel from Watchmen showing Rorschach's smoky dialogue balloon

Femmes fatales, on the other hand, are noticeably missing from both works. I’ve already discussed the role of women overall in Watchmen: they mainly exist to demonstrate or alter male emotional states. That is somewhat true for the classic femme fatale as well, but in Watchmen the women are more victims than masterminds. No woman is calling the shots on anything in that story, but rather stumbling or being thrown from one mishap to another. Even Janey Slater, clearly embittered and smoking up a storm, turns out to have been Adrian’s pawn in her takedown of Dr. Manhattan.

Women in Taxi Driver are filtered through Travis’s consciousness, which will only allow for two categories: virgin and whore. He can hardly bear either one. He idolizes what he sees as the purity and elevation of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), and even manages to take her out on a date, only to make the site of their date a porno theater, as if he must taint that purity and expose the taintedness of his own inner self. Then he fixates upon a different mix of virgin and whore: the twelve-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster). Where he wanted to sully Betsy’s innocence, he wants to restore Iris’s, trying to convince her to go back home, and sending her $500 to help her leave her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel). In neither case does he engage with the woman in question as a person, but rather interacts almost exclusively with his projections of them.

No, it isn’t a femme fatale who draws Travis into mass murder. Rather, it is his utter inability to connect with other human beings. Whether this disconnection is an aftereffect of service in Vietnam, or whether it is inherent to Travis himself, the film doesn’t make clear. However, his “loneliness has followed me all my life” voiceover suggests that while Vietnam may have stoked his inclination to violence, Travis’s fundamental alienation is his own.

De Niro does a masterful job of building upon screenwriter Paul Schrader’s script to demonstrate Travis’s utter lack of facility with simple personal interactions. He’s baffled by simple expressions like “moonlighting” or “how’s it hangin’?”. He’s culturally isolated — at various points he says he doesn’t know much about movies, much about music. He watches his television periodically, with a look of longing and confusion on his face; eventually he pushes that TV off its stand, destroying it. In a knowing twist on noir convention, Travis tries to kill the father figures of his various women, not at their urging, but as a sort of revenge for the relationships they have, which he is forever denied.

Watchmen takes the other noir plot — not the common man corrupted but the cynical detective whose astute investigations soon land him in trouble beyond his capacity to deal with. Moore begins the story as a standard murder mystery, and in fact for a moment we believe we might be following the police investigation of Eddie Blake’s death. Soon enough we are following Rorschach, but even then, the pattern of introducing a series of characters and providing background on the deceased is a familiar one to mystery readers. Watchmen turns out to have a lot more on its mind than just solving a crime, but at least from Rorschach’s point of view, his trajectory is not all that different from that of the classic Phillip Marlowe or J.J. Gittes type, the private eye whose own investigation devastates and undoes him.

As for visual style, both Watchmen and Taxi Driver employ enough shadows and unsettling angles to easily qualify as neo-noir. Taxi Driver gives us shots of Travis’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, framed by blackness. It shows us fetishized close-ups of the taxi itself, driving through the rain, with garish Times Square movie marquees and porn store signs in the background. There’s a motif of high-angle shots straight down on a tableau – the personnel officer’s desk, the porn theater counter, the gun suitcase, Betsy’s desk. These culminate in a magnificent high-angle shot of the mass murder scene, moving slowly past the heads of stunned policemen, down the hallway and out into the street.

High angle shot from Taxi Driver of the murder scene

That same high angle appears in Watchmen‘s very first set of panels, the ones with the narration that started us down this road. The camera looks down at the bloodstained street, gradually pulling up, up, up to the site of Blake’s defenestration. Weird camera angles and shadowy composition abound especially (and not surprisingly) in the portions of Watchmen focused on Rorschach.

In Chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry”, we get a recurring shot of the Rumrunner’s neon sign, reflected in a puddle, disturbed by Rorschach’s footstep. It’s a perfect noir shot, encompassing rain, darkness, the sinister city, and a sense of foreboding and destruction. Rorschach’s mask itself is the ultimate in high-contrast, its shadows always moving across his face. This effect is played up in “The Abyss Gazes Also”, whose penultimate panel is in fact nothing but blackness.

Finally, there are the flashbacks. Taxi Driver has none — it refuses to explain Travis by exploring his past, and it almost exclusively sticks to his point of view, denying us the capacity of understanding his world beyond his perception of it. Watchmen, on the other hand, is flashback-crazy. Whole chapters take us into the backstory of various characters, and previous chapters get called back by later chapters. Even single panels sometimes quickly throw us back to the past before returning to the scene at hand. Both, in their way, subvert the traditional noir mode of a frame story taking us into the past, either by sticking zenlike in the present or jumping around through time all the time.

Still, while neither Watchmen nor Taxi Driver ticks every box on the film noir checklist, there is more than enough evidence to call them both noir stories. But there’s something more: they’re also both superhero stories.

THE URBAN VIGILANTE

There are many ways to interpret the plot of Taxi Driver. Here’s one. An ordinary man, Travis Bickle, takes a blue-collar job after returning from war. This job brings him in contact with the worst parts of New York City. He sees firsthand the violence, the constant menace, the routine attacks upon innocent people, including attacks upon Travis himself. He witnesses the sleaze and degradation occurring in the city at night, and it becomes clear to him that the establishment police and politicians are fundamentally unable to stem its tide. He even connects with a heartbreaking victim of the city’s evil: a twelve-year-old girl named Iris, forced into prostitution by a pimp named Sport. That pimp pays Travis $20 to look the other way.

This $20 bill becomes a totem to Travis. He carries it with him, plagued by his guilt about not saving Iris from her dangerous situation. Finally, he makes up his mind to make a difference. “The idea had been growing in my brain for some time,” he writes in his diary. “True force.” He embarks on an intense regimen of physical training, honing his body until every muscle is tight, and he is nearly impervious to pain. He purchases an arsenal of weaponry, and rigs up ways to attach those weapons to his body, deploying them quickly when needed. He puts together a uniform which allows him to conceal the equipment he carries. “Here is a man who would not take it anymore,” he writes.

Shot from Taxi Driver of the device Travis rigs up to hide a gun in his sleeve and slide it out when he wants to use it.

He uses the $20 bill to pay for Iris’ time, in a failed attempt to get her to leave Sport of her own volition. But he finally realizes: he is the one who must rescue her, and save the innocence of the city itself. He creates a new persona and guise, one which will strike fear into the hearts of those he hunts. At first, he tries to bring down the corrupt system by targeting a political demagogue, but he soon realizes that he must go into the underworld directly. Armed with his equipment and his frightening appearance, he defeats Sport and two of Sport’s henchmen. He returns Iris to her parents, and is hailed by them and by the media in general as a hero. Some time later, he has returned to his job in his ordinary identity, but we know that he is ready to confront evil again, whenever he encounters it.

Sounds an awful lot like a superhero origin story, doesn’t it? In a certain light, Travis doesn’t look so different from Bruce Wayne, or Tony Stark, or Frank Castle: men without superhuman powers, but who nonetheless deploy muscles, weapons, and a frightening appearance to fight the crime in their societies. For that matter, he’s even closer to a character like Rorschach, who shares all those qualities with Travis, and a few more as well.

Rorschach’s own origin story touches a lot of those same points. Walter Kovacs comes from a traumatic past and enters a blue-collar job. In the course of that job, he encounters a woman who later becomes the victim of a horrifying crime. Kovacs sees not only the ineffectiveness of standard social structures, but also the impassive detachment of people in general to the evil that surrounds them. He trains his body for strength and endurance, and acquires a set of equipment, a uniform, and a countenance to frighten the criminals he’s chosen to fight. He records his thoughts in a journal, in which he repeats his philosophy to himself. His culminating trip over the edge happens in response to the victimization of a child — his personality finds its fullest cohesion by murdering the victimizer.

Taxi Driver wasn’t meant to serve as a commentary on superhero stories, but it certainly was aware of its cinematic precursors, urban vigilante films like Dirty Harry, Walking Tall, and Death Wish. In those films, a man suffers tragedy and/or witnesses evil, and decides it’s time to work outside the law. He arms himself and slaughters the criminal(s) responsible.

The difference is that in the preceding films, the vigilante is lionized and held as the moral center, in contrast to corrupt or incompetent law enforcement. Schrader applies a corrective to this narrative with Taxi Driver, showing us that the man who kills criminals is himself violently disturbed. In fact, in Taxi Driver Travis simply wants to kill the father figure to one of his women, and tries first to kill the presidential candidate. It’s only because he fails, and ends up killing the pimp, that he is hailed as a hero. Watchmen, too, deeply problematizes the notion of vigilante heroism, in response to a similar romanticization of it in superhero comics. It shows Rorschach, like Travis, to be a deeply lonely man, one who has become insane and dangerous based on his experiences and his disconnection.

Travis Bickle does not understand other human beings. He sees them as objects — threats, idols, barriers. His movies are porn movies, whose entire job is to turn people into objects. Porn lets you project yourself, explicitly, into a sexual interaction. It’s the closest Travis comes to a connection. Rorschach, too, does not relate to other people, and tends to see them as objects, pawns on a board. Moreover, the traditional superhero genre has a hard time understanding human beings as well. It objectifies them into projection screen, threat, barrier, or prize. Watchmen surrounds Rorschach with humans, rather than objects, and by doing so reveals the absurdity of his Objectivism.

Film noir was never concerned with heroism. Its subject was the darker sides of humanity, and how the naive man can be inadvertently drawn into them. Both the urban vigilante film and the superhero genre, however, take heroism as a central theme and trope. By mixing noir into these genres, Taxi Driver and Watchmen leave us questioning those tropes, and understanding that sometimes our cultural perception of good is no more valid than our perception of evil. Travis Bickle looks in the mirror and says, “You talkin’ to me?” But he’s only talking to himself. It’s Scorsese, Schrader, Moore, and Gibbons who are talking to us.

Shots from Watchmen and Taxi Driver of sleazy Times Square

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The Watchmen Bestiary 11 – No Voice Is Eternal

Avertissement! As always, spoilers are ahead for Watchmen, and this time I’ll also be spoiling the 1981 Jean-Jacques Beineix movie Diva.

For you see, The Annotated Watchmen suggests that there is a connection between these two works. In their analysis of page 15, panel 1 of chapter 1, the annotations assert:

The character with a shaven head and dark glasses is a dead ringer for one of the villains in the popular French movie Diva, which came out in 1981, a few years before Moore and Gibbons were creating Watchmen. The character in the movie (played by Dominique Pinon) had an earphone, which he was constantly pressing to his ear, attached to a cord; the character here has a similar cord attached to his glasses (see page 16, panel 5).

Watchmen chapter 1, page 15, panel 1. A silent panel in which Rorschach walks past a table of people at Happy Harry's, including a bald man in sunglasses, with a cord trailing from them.

So I watched Diva, and I enjoyed it very much. I was particularly looking out for Pinon’s character, who is credited as “Le curé” (which the captions translated as “Priest”, and Roger Ebert glossed as “the treatment.”) Having seen quite a lot of him, I must take issue with the claim that the nameless Watchmen extra (let’s call him Fred) is somehow a “dead ringer” for Le curé. Here they are side by side:

side-by-side

Yes, there are certainly some similiarites. They’re both wearing sunglasses, albeit of a noticeably different style. They both have a somewhat broad nose. And they both have a trailing cord near their right ear. However, there are quite a number of key differences as well. Fred is entirely bald, while Le curé has a buzz cut. Pinon has a very distinctive look, with horizontally compressed features and a high forehead that seems to take up as much space as the rest of his face put together. Gibbons could easily have portrayed (or even caricatured) that, but Fred’s features are much more generic.

Importantly, Fred looks frightened in both panels in which he appears. He’s visibly sweating (an excessive amount, really) in the second panel. Le curé never looks nervous. He’s always grim, and most of his lines are just him expressing dislike for things. (“I don’t like parking garages.”, “I don’t like Beethoven.”, “I don’t like elevators.”, etc.) Even when he dies, it happens suddenly, with no time for him to get scared.

Finally, Le curé’s earpiece is a weird and specific character trait. The entire movie, we wonder what he’s listening to, and once he dies we get the payoff, which is that it seems to be jolly accordion music, as might have come from the comical street busker who appears midway through the film. Fred’s not listening to anything, and given that he only appears in two panels of the book, he isn’t enough of a character to be specific. Yes, his croakies are somewhat improbably emphasized in his second panel, but they barely appear at all in his first. It’s quite a slender thread upon which to hang an annotation.

So once again, I think we have a blind alley here. But since I went to the trouble of screening Diva, let’s just suppose for a moment that there indeed is a connection between these two works. Upon what would such a connection hinge?

Well, they do both have a plot trope in common: the villain disguised as a hero. The villain behind the villains in Diva (and the employer of Le curé) is Saporta, the leader of a drug and prostitution ring. The twist is that Saporta also happens to be the chief of police. In fact, when we first see him, he’s directing the Paris police’s investigation into his own gang. Watchmen, of course, has a similar betrayal in that Ozymandias, one of the book’s fraternity of superheroes, is in fact the menace which they all face, and whose murder of a fellow superhero sets the plot in motion.

However, I believe this film’s connection to Ozymandias can be traced even deeper, to a theme that drives them both: questions of permanence. In order to illuminate that further, let’s review part of Diva‘s plot:

The movie’s main character is Jules, a young postman who’s also an opera buff. In particular, he’s a fan of American opera singer Cynthia Hawkins, who is the film’s titular diva. Hawkins has a phenomenal voice, but has idiosyncratically refused ever to release an album, or indeed to be recorded at all. She insists that a concert is a sacred moment between performer and audience, and that this unique moment should not be subject to repetition. Her manager argues with her about this, pointing out that her career cannot continue for many more years on this path. He reminds her that she is thirty-two years old, and even now is exhausted by the effort of giving two concerts a month. “No voice is eternal,” he chides, “except through recordings.” Nevertheless, the diva remains insistent.

Diva-small

Jules, however, has secretly recorded Hawkins’ Paris concert, simply for his own love of the music. His recording expertise is considerable, and the resulting tape is of such high quality that it catches the attention of Taiwanese gangsters, who wish to use it to blackmail Hawkins into signing a record deal with them. The gansters’ pursuit of Jules provides half of the movie’s narrative propulsion.

The other half arrives when Jules’ life becomes complicated by a different tape. A prostitute named Nadia, who was Saporta’s mistress and knows of his secret criminal identity, has decided to reveal Saporta’s perfidy. She knows she will be killed for this, possibly before she can testify, so she records her testimony onto a cassette. As she heads towards her meeting with the police, she realizes she is being tailed by Le curé and his partner (who is called L’ Antillais.) Eventually, it becomes clear that she will not make it to her rendezvous, so she surreptitously slips the cassette into the saddlebag of Jules’ moped, which is parked nearby while he makes a delivery. Almost immediately afterward, Le curé kills her with an icepick to the back. When Saporta finally realizes that Jules has the tape that could bring him down, he sends Le curé and L’ Antillais after the harried postman.

So the two MacGuffins that drive the plot are both markers of a struggle with permanence. Hawkins resists having her vocal performances preserved, insisting that her gifts must only be shared within an ephemeral moment. When she is confronted with the fact that a recording has been created without her permission, she is thrown into crisis.

Nadia, on the other hand, relies upon a recording to resolve her crisis. She’s been forced not into permanence but into transience, and hopes that even though she won’t survive her decision to testify, the cassette she created will succeed in destroying Saporta.

Of course, neither story is so simple. Jules (with considerable help) eventually retrieves the concert tape, and plays it for Hawkins. She seems entranced, saying, “But… I’ve never heard myself sing!”, and they dance slowly to the music. There seems to be an implication that she will reconcile with the concept of recording. As for Nadia’s tape, it turns out that she wasn’t as completely reliant on it as it appeared. At one point Saporta is able to get his hands on the cassette, but pulls the truly incriminating evidence out of its case: photos of himself and Nadia together. So in neither situation was the recording an end-all, but in both situations its immutability had a lasting effect on the main characters.

As I touched upon earlier, Ozymandias also wrestles with the nature of permanence. In his soliloquy to the dead men in chapter 11, Veidt frames Alexander’s failure as his inability to build “a unity that would survive him,” and extols the Egyptian pharaohs for “their wisdom, truly immortal.” With his mad alien squid plot, he sees himself as having transcended Alexander’s failure and assumed “the aspect of kingly Rameses, leaving Alexander the adventurer and his trappings to gather dust.” Ironically, he sees his slaughter as a way to preserve humanity. For him, the worst part of nuclear war would be its eradication of the human past, present, and future:

Save for Richard Nixon, whose name adorns a plaque on the moon, no human vestige would remain. Ruins become sand, sand blows away… all our richness and color and beauty would be lost… as if it had never been.

He calls the outcome of his scheme “an end to war… an end to fighting.” Somehow the world’s smartest man fails to see some obvious facts. He seeks to preserve humanity but end fighting? Humanity without fighting would have to be classified as a whole new species, something even the biggest scare couldn’t bring about. Fright may change behavior, but the change won’t be permanent, especially when you’re talking about an entire species over an eternity of time. As Jon must point out to Adrian, “nothing ever ends.”

Thus Ozymandias wrought amazing and monstrous works, but those works will never last forever, though their ruins may retain the power to terrify. Someone wrote a good poem along those lines, but that’s an article for another time.

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