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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, and Lenny Kravitz

Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt

Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

Directed by Francis Lawrence

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And so we return, coughing at the dust, pulling cobwebs from our eyes, bursting with thoughts and opinions on Katniss Everdeen. It’s weird to me that Catching Fire is what finally got my fingers moving, because the first Hunger Games film left me kind of cold. I liked it well enough, it had some memorable moments, and an actually brilliant narrative trick in which the viewer is encouraged to cheer the “good” tributes only to be reminded that the Games aren’t actually a competition, they’re a bunch of children being forced to murder each other for the entertainment of the elites and the distraction of the masses. It’s not about winning. It’s about control. However, as a whole, the film had no staying power for me, and left me with no excitement about a sequel. Catching Fire changed that.

Catching Fire picks up a year after the first film. Although basically set for life with their winnings, Katniss still goes out into the forest, where she sits silently and shoots nothing, and Peeta spends long hours in the kitchen, baking endless bread. However, Katniss and her mockingjay badge have become a symbol of resistance in the Districts, so President Snow requires that their victory tour be a performance to pacify the restless and the oppressed, a believable pop idol romance to distract the people from their hunger and their hope. And if they fail, he will conclude that the Victors have become a liability to the State. Katniss and the defiance she inspires must be undermined or they must be destroyed, utterly, like District 13. And the way to do that is, of course, with a new, all veteran Hunger Games.

A coworker of mine pointed out that Katniss actually has little apparent agency. Her most important choice happened at the beginning of the first film, when she volunteered, impulsively and heroically, to save her sister’s life. Since then her life has been rapidly yanked from her control, and this only becomes more acute after she survives the Games. The President himself comes to her home to tell her she will put on a performance, or lose her family, her District, and her life. Effie and Cinna, delightful though they are, tell her how to dress and what to wear as she prepares to die. Hamich works around her prickly disposition to arrange alliances and conspiracies. And Plutarch Heavensbee, the new showrunner for the Games, literally and directly controls her entire future, with a complex and shadowy agenda. Not to mention that by simple virtue of being brave, compassionate, and good, she has become a hero to the oppressed. Then again, while Katniss doesn’t have control over sweeping political events or the Big Picture, that’s never been what she cares about. She hates the injustice she’s seen and had to be a part of, but what matters to her has always been the personal: Prim, Gale, Peeta. They are what drives her, what focuses her intense, brilliant anger into the sharp point she needs to survive. They are what make her fight.

I can’t say how it is in the books, never having read them, but taking the Big Picture out of Katniss’s hands also forces the film to focus on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta. Though strained by Peeta’s unrequited love, they are bonded in adversity. They share the same psychic scars, and a unavoidable closeness. When Katniss wakes up screaming, it is Peeta who understands and comforts her. Linda Holmes at NPR has a beautiful analysis of the way their relationship defies typical Hollywood norms with regard to gender, but for the purposes of this review, I’d just like to focus on their relationship on its own terms. For all their estrangement, it seems clear that they would do anything for each other. Peeta has a mastery of interpersonal relationships and social politics that Katniss completely lacks, and he uses them to protect and support Katniss. He is sad, even bitter, after her rejection, but avoids behaving like Actual Boyfriend, Gale, who sulks and snipes like a petulant teenager, which, of course, he is. Katniss, for her part, takes responsibility for Peeta, who is not weak and is reasonably competent but clearly couldn’t survive without her. It is important to her that Peeta live. It is essential. She can control nothing else in the world, but she desperately needs to control this. She needs to make sure that Peeta survives.

I mention this because it is one of the core tensions of the film, but also because trauma, pain, and grief are the motifs of Catching Fire, the uniting narrative threads. You may have noticed from previous reviews that I think it’s important that action heroes, if they are truly going to be heroes, suffer terribly before they win. They have to feel things, not just physically but emotionally, and in a way that feels genuine. Less screaming and emptying your clip into the sky, more pulling shards of glass out of your feet while trying to convince your only friend that you are hanging in there. Ranging from the kind of vivid, hallucinatory flashbacks that movies have taught us are the hallmark of post-traumatic stress, to the more subtle look of pain that crosses Katniss’s face when she aces a marksmanship challenge and realizes how easy and reflexive killing has become, Catching Fire shows us just how costly our hero’s survival has been. And it’s not just Katniss. The  bulk of the cast are victors from previous games, brought back to be traumatized all over again by their government. They are broken and damaged, strange, eccentric, and angry. They invade personal space and strip naked in elevators, they’ve lost their power of speech and sit there, eyes rolling anxiously. Every single one of them is a survivor and a killer, from raging Johanna to gentle Mags. Is it any wonder that Hamich drinks? Or that Johanna, in one of my favorite moments from the film, tells the entire Capitol to go fuck themselves? They have all been forced to do, and be, terrible things. As Hamich says, there are no winners in the Hunger Games. Only survivors.

I liked Katniss in the first movie, but it’s really in Catching Fire that she starts to feel truly heroic, despite how much of that heroic image is out of her hands. She doesn’t actually want to be a hero at all. She seems incapable of seeing herself as powerful and transformative. She does what she does out of necessity, because it is her nature. Where others see her as strong, proud, resourceful, a potential leader, she only sees her own anger and pain and fear. This doesn’t diminish her. She is strong, resourceful, and in possession of a forceful, earnest nature and deep well of compassion that draw people, the best people, to her. And she has courage, in abundance. She has always been one to take on the world alone, and to sacrifice herself for others. All of these qualities combine to make her a hero, and her flaws, her temper and aloofness and Games-inflicted pain, make her one we can believe in and admire. After Catching Fire, I admire Katniss Everdeen. I think that’s a worthwhile quality in a hero.

This movie made me feel things. I came close to crying quite a few times, embarrassing my friends with my sniffles. It is an emotionally charged story about sacrifice, defiance, grief, pain, and betrayal. It is a well-executed film, and I can’t praise Lawrence enough for her ability to channel raw emotion in a way that breaks my heart. Despite its narrative flaws and somewhat ponderous length, Catching Fire managed to redeem a franchise that I was having a really hard time being excited about. I’m excited about it now. I’m committed enough that I feel justified writing over a thousand words about it, and there’s still so much to say. This is a film that causes emotions and thinking and conversations, with a compelling hero and an escalating conflict. It is what I love about watching action movies.

Pre-order on Amazon! Still in theaters, go see it!

Tomboy (2011)

Starring Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, and Mathieu Demy

Written and Directed by Céline Sciamma

Tomboy

Tomboy is the story of a young French girl named Laure who introduces herself to a new group of friends as a boy named Mikael. When watching the film, I found that when Laure was at home, surrounded by her family, I tended to use female pronouns, while when Mikael was playing with his friends, I tended to use male. I’ve used both pronouns in this review, because the film doesn’t make any definitive statements about Laure’s gender or sexual identity. While I certainly would understand someone reading this as a trans* film or a film about genderqueer identity, I’m reluctant to assign a label when the film declines to do so. I hope this doesn’t cause anyone injury or offense.

Laure is a tomboy. She dresses in shirts and pants, keeps her hair cut short, and has little interest in makeup or the more traditionally feminine toys her little sister plays with. Her family accepts this and doesn’t discourage her, even showers her with affection and love. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I haven’t been taught to expect this kind of family narrative when dealing with issues of gender or sexuality. Laure is their daughter, and they love her, and that is enough. But when they move to a new neighborhood, the first kid Laure meets mistakes her for a boy, and Laure takes this opportunity to become Mikael, the new kid in town.

What follows is a mix of summertime games, family love, and the constant risk of exposure, a potent blend of sweetness and anxiety which kept me simultaneously tense with fear and nearly melted with tenderness. Mikael makes friends, growing close with Lisa, the only girl close to his age in their group of friends, and struggles to maintain his new identity in the face of daily challenges. It is heartwarming and heartwrenching in about equal measure, making you cheer for someone you know must fail.

Laure’s family life is the sweetest and safest place, with scenes punctuated with such tenderness I almost couldn’t stand it. Sciamma got such a genuine and adorable performance out of her child actors, and Laure’s younger sister, Jeanne, will absolutely break your heart with cuteness. As Mikael comes closer every day to inevitable exposure, his home, and especially Jeanne, become a safe place, an unconditional place, where Laure can be herself without fear. Her parents love her, and her sister loves her, and they all want her to be safe from harm. This sense of safety makes it more bearable when Laure’s identity is exposed, but, in a way, it also makes it more painful. There is no more sanctuary.

I say “inevitable exposure” because it is summer, and classes begin in a few short weeks. Mikael is not on the rolls. Laure is. And the friendship of children is as quickly retracted as offered. Watching Mikael at play is like watching any young boy play soccer in a minefield. Everything could explode at any moment, and I watched with a knot in my stomach, knowing his luck couldn’t last, but hoping it would for just a bit longer. Laure likes being Mikael, maybe even prefers it. The way she looks at her newborn brother with something like envy, because he simply is born a boy while she has to do so much work, speaks to the happiness she has found in her new identity, and the bitterness of knowing that it cannot last. When the reckoning comes, it is shattering and humiliating, tempered only by the love we know her family has for her, and the strength Laure has shown throughout.

Despite its pain and anxiety, Tomboy feels like a hopeful film to me. It so perfectly captures the summer of childhood, with its innocently vulgar games of truth or dare, its petty humiliations, its quiet romances. Laure is an exceptional character, less pulling a con and more finding herself. And the story is ultimately one of love, even if that love is severely tested. Sciamma leaves the ending, like Laure’s sexuality, intentionally ambiguous, but I think there is hope in it. Laure learned something from her experience, and even if her experiment couldn’t last, she was changed by it. And, I have to believe, she is going to be okay.

Tomboy is instantly viewable on Amazon, or can be purchased on DVD at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

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I wish I had written Saga. It’s the kind of brilliant mash-up of science fiction and fantasy that I loved as a kid, complete with robot princes, adorable animal people, and a bounty hunter wearing a superhero cape. It’s so far from hard science fiction that the moon people cast magic and the space marines have giant feathery wings. As far as I can tell, every starship in the galaxy runs on an abundant supply of handwavium. And with all due respect and affection to the hard stuff, this kind of space opera is where my scifi heart lives. Brian K. Vaughn has taken the idle imaginings of a kid and turned it into a mature, fantastic, slam-bang epic of a story. And I can’t get enough of it.

Gwendolyn doesn't trust reviews

The setting is a galaxy locked in a seemingly endless war between the winged and tech-reliant inhabitants of Landfall and the horned and magical inhabitants of its moon, Wreath. Unwilling to risk catastrophic damage to their homeworlds, the belligerents have taken their war into the galaxy at large, fighting on remote worlds and dragging nearly every other intelligent race into a genocidal, galaxy-wide proxy war. And into this hostility, two soldiers from opposite sides fall in love, conceive a child, and run.

Meet cute

The story is intermittently narrated by Marko and Alana’s daughter, offering reflective commentary and the occasional foreshadowing. It’s clear from this – and the title, I suppose – that this is the beginning of a long arc, an epic tale, and it’s likely that not everyone will make it to the end. The pace of the story, however, is action-movie quick and the retrospective narration never intrudes on the immediacy of events. The action rises and falls like the perfect rollercoaster, and I’m so caught up that I keep re-reading as if hoping that one day I’ll turn to the end of the second volume and find the next issue picking up where it left off.

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The writing is Vaughn at his best, maybe better than he’s ever been. The dialogue, even the expository passages, is quick and punchy, unencumbered by archaisms or futuristic slang, no matter what strange creature you’re looking at. Marko and Alana are strange aliens in a strange alien war, but they are recognizable as young people in love, as new parents, as people. Even the Stalk, an alien Freelancer who I think is best described as unsettlingly beautiful, speaks profanity-laced contemporary English like a Hollywood assassin or Elmore Leonard hitter. And this comfortable Leonard-quality dialogue meshes seamlessly with a wonderfully strange galaxy of creatures and events, incorporating death threats, incorporeal babysitters, and cosmic eggs as easily as observations on love, politics, and parenting.

Izabel babysitter

I sometimes have a hard time evaluating art in comics, but the art in this book is goddamn beautiful. Fiona Staples is really more of a co-author in visual form, her style integral to the telling. Lying Cat communicates whole stories about her and her relationship with the Will, even though she never says more than “Lying” or “Mrrn”. When ghostly babysitter Izabel complains that Alana is being dumb, the way Staples draws her is what kicks her voice in my head to an exasperated teenage whine. The narrative itself is punctuated by broad panels and full page illustrations that drive the drama home. Every now and then we’re even treated to a double-page splash of some amazing beautiful thing. It’s a perfect match between writer and artist, and just completely gorgeous to look at.

The Will and Lying Cat

Although Star Wars is a pretty good comparison in terms of genre, Vaughn doesn’t seem to be telling a story of predestined heroes and plucky rebels trying to change the course of history. Firefly might be a closer comparison in terms of stakes, as right now it’s tightly focused on this one family and their survival rather than the fate of a free galaxy. Vaughn already told his Most Important Boy in the World story with the excellent Y: The Last Man, and although Saga has some similarities, it’s clearly a very different tale, and not just because it’s set a million lightyears from Earth. Alana and Marko are not exceptional through a quirk of fate like Yorick or Mitchell Hundred, but because they decided they wanted a life different from the ones chosen for them. Even when being pursued by gray-moraled assassins, war-scarred aristocrats, and vengeful ex-girlfriends, even riding a magical rocketship from a planet full of psychic ghosts, it’s a story about romance, family, and people. Vaughn and Staples have put together a brilliant world full of amazing characters, and they are telling a fantastic story. If you aren’t already aboard, now is a terrific time to hop on.

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Buy Volumes One and Two on Amazon(1/2) or Barnes & Noble (1/2), or pick them up with the latest issue at your local comic shop.

 

Frederik Pohl (1919 – 2013)

Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl is dead. I’ve looked for his name in the used book store for as long as I can remember buying my own books. Science fiction has a not entirely undeserved reputation for humorlessness, Douglas Adams excepted. For every Bill the Galactic Hero there are a dozen Dunes and Foundations demanding to be taken seriously and scowling mightily at those who would go to space on a lark. I’m not saying that Pohl didn’t take his writing or his stories seriously, and he certainly wasn’t writing comedy. His subjects are often world-changing events, political upheaval on a planetary scale, and the fate of humanity. But his characters feel more recognizably human than anyone on Arrakis, and even his aliens are easier to empathize with than Harry Seldon. That may be what has always made him stand out for me in the field of authors: he never elevates the Grand Idea of a story to the point at which he loses sight of the human beings caught up in that story. The characters in Frank Herbert’s Dune are well-drawn and intensely memorable, but they are also explicitly at the mercy of something larger, and more important, than themselves. I don’t think that Pohl ever believed the plots of his books were more important than the people in them.

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One of these books approaches its subject with substantially less gravitas.

Of course, I’m basing this analysis on a hilariously small sample, considering that Pohl published almost continuously since 1937, writing more than 40 novels, and I have read five of his books. I think the first was Black Star Rising, because look at the cover art, followed by Jem, which is considered one of his best works. I remember liking them well enough, though I feel like I was vaguely dissatisfied by their endings. Maybe they were more cynical than I could appreciate at that time in my life. It’s long enough ago that I can’t remember any of the details of the stories or characters, but at the very least I liked them enough to pick up Gateway.

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Gateway is an asteroid riddled with alien-made tunnels and starships. The starships go to any number of preset destinations, but the human prospectors who ride in the craft don’t know where that destination is, how long it will take to get there, or what will greet them when they arrive. If the explorers don’t starve to death on a decade-long trip, their ship may still return to Gateway full of corpses, its occupants killed by radiation, gravitational stresses, or some inexplicable anomaly or mysterious accident. Survival is more or less random, and coming back alive but empty-handed isn’t much better than dying in deep space. But those who return with an artifact or scientific discovery that the Gateway Corporation can exploit can retire to a life of luxury back on Earth, the envy of billions.

Into this walks Robinette Broadhead, a young man from the food mines of America, looking for his big break. His story is confessional, from the perspective of an older Broadhead confiding to his holographic psychiatrist. Although the absent Heechee, classic precursor aliens who have all but completely vanished from the galaxy, are an important part of the novel’s setting, this isn’t a story about unraveling ancient mysteries, or saving the galaxy, or even interfering with the intrigues of corporations and nation-states. It’s story of personal risk, adventure, and romance, and all the fear and wonder and heartache that comes with that. Gateway manages to inhabit a rich setting complete with alien mysteries, environmental catastrophe, and multi-national power struggles without ever losing sight of the human story Broadhead painstakingly reveals from the psychoanalyst’s couch.

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Gateway is terrific, but Broadhead’s story doesn’t end there. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is a more traditionally plotted novel, bouncing among several viewpoint characters converging on a climactic confrontation. The story is full of brilliant and well-executed ideas, though, and it’s refreshing to see the Heechee universe from outside of Robin’s head. More fantastic Heechee technology is discovered, with dramatic consequences, and we begin to see the outline of the void that the Heechee left when they escaped the known Universe. It’s a more traditional novel, but it also captures more of that traditional cosmic wonder and awe of discovery that I find in more traditional space exploration science fiction. It satisfies that Star Trek itch to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations, to go someplace, as a reader, that I’ve never gone before.

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The last novel, Heechee Rendezvous (there are other Heechee-related books, but I believe they are supplemental to the main trilogy), is the weakest of the series, but still explores some fascinating territory. Pohl experiments again with a less straightforward narrative; Broadhead looks back on recent events from the perspective of one who has been “vastened”, which has the effect of creating an omniscient first-person narrator whose point of view is sometimes interrupted and counter-balanced in tidy inserts by the advanced artificial intelligence known as Albert Einstein, a creation of Broadhead’s wife. In spite of Essie Broadhead, the writing is at its most dated with regard to women, featuring just a bit too much sex-as-survival-mechanism for my tastes. Pohl also attempts to up the stakes, both for the Earth, which is increasingly gripped by political and social turmoil despite the advances brought about by adopting Heechee technology, and for the Universe, as the threat that caused the Heechee to retreat from normal space is finally revealed. It’s clear, however, that Pohl’s real interest is in Broadhead and his companions, and the story’s real strengths lie in its meditations on aging and death, the potential implications of technology that grants a kind of immortality, and what I found to be surprisingly endearing relationship drama. It’s an uneven story, bouncing between fascinating alien races and the emotional burden of being a burgeoning AI to cringeworthy passages subjecting various women to the intolerably selfish Wan. Despite this, I found it more consistently enjoyable than Dark Knight Rising, and a more satisfying capstone to a trilogy I quite enjoyed.

Frederik Pohl was active in science fiction from his first publication in 1937 to the present, and he blogged about life, science fiction, and politics right up until his death at age 93. It’s an all but unsurpassable accomplishment. I will still look for his name on the shelves of old bookshops, and look for his influence in my own spacefaring tales. I will reread Black Star Rising and Jem. I will recommend Gateway to anyone who will listen. I will remember Frederik Pohl as one of the Grandmasters of the Golden Age, who left a mark on my favorite genre that will not soon be forgotten.

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Visit his website, or his blog, where you can read the obituary from which I got whatever personal details I included in this post. Buy his books from Amazon, especially Gateway.

Bob’s Burgers (Seasons 1 and 2)

Starring H. Jon Benjamin, Dan Mintz, Eugene Mirman, John Roberts, and Kristen Schaal

Created by Loren Bouchard

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I have a difficult time writing about comedy. I don’t have the language for it, maybe, because I’m so used to thinking in terms of dramatic plot and round characters and rising tension, and don’t know how to apply that to something that is primarily comedic. So when I love a comedy, I don’t really know how to talk about it beyond saying that it makes me happy. Why do I love Spaced more than Eastbound and Down? I like Eastbound and Down, it’s pretty great, but Spaced makes me happy. And even when I understand why I find something so funny and joyous, I’m wary of explaining the joke, of making something laugh-out-loud funny seem silly and dull.

But this is the year of challenging myself, so today I’m going to try to capture what I love about Bob’s Burgers.

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Bob’s Burgers is the antidote to bad days. I avoided it for a while, afraid it would be some kind of Family Guy clone, five-count cartoon family, dumb dad, precocious kids, etc, etc. But it is so much sillier and stranger and funnier than that, and has little in common with Famly Guy or The Simpsons other than the dad wearing white shirts all the time. It doesn’t rely on pop culture references, topical humor, or shock-value gags. It is goofy character-driven fun that brightens my whole day.

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The names H. Jon Benjamin (of Home Movies and Archer) and Kirsten Schaal (of Flight of the Conchords, The Daily Show, and Gravity Falls) were what finally brought me in. Coach McGuirk and Mel? Yes! Now, at first, you will probably find it strange that Schaal is the only female voice actor when the main cast is 60% female. Linda and Tina are voiced by John Roberts and Dan Mintz, and that will seem weird at first, and funny later, and then you’ll forget all about it and be unable to imagine them having any other voice. The voice acting in this show is 100% excellent, from regular cast to special guests, including Kevin Kline, Sarah Silverman, and Aziz Ansari. I’m not sure how, but H. Jon Benjamin manages to both have a comfortingly distinctive voice and completely and uniquely inhabit the character of Bob. Good voice acting makes you believe in the characters, and the talent in this show really does that for me.

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It’s a character-driven kind of comedy, similar to Spaced, in that the characters do have certain comedy-driving traits – Bob is stubborn and proud, Linda is obsessive, Louise is manipulative – but they aren’t two-dimensional. Bob is proud because he’s genuinely great at what he does, which is making burgers (Mr. Fishoeder, the landlord, calls him a “beefartist”), even if that same pride makes it hard for him to admit that he’s terrible at running his business. Linda gets obsessed with strange things, but she devotes that same obsessive interest to supporting and encouraging her family. And Louise torments her siblings and manipulates stupid adults, but her relationship with Bob is actually one of the sweeter aspects of the show. There’s a lot of sweetness here, between the characters. And the relationships between them have such an instant familiarity that it makes the comedy sharper, and deeper, than I think it would be with a shallower cartoon family

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Family is kind of the key, both to the comedy and to my deep affection for the show. The relationships between the characters, the sense of family, feel very real to me. The Belchers feel like a family, and the comedy is as likely to be silly family stuff as wacky hijinks involving angry vegan documentarians or bank heists. The show isn’t realistic, exactly, but the cartoon world of Bob’s Burgers doesn’t feel too terribly far from our own, and the Belcher family doesn’t feel so far away from families I have known. It’s not about making commentary or lampooning real life in some way. It’s a comedy about a family trying to make ends meet, and also about kids growing up loving their family but really having no sense of the stakes involved in being an adult. Gene and Louise just want to be weird and have fun, and Tina doesn’t have a choice about being weird because she’s a teenage girl and just wants to touch Jimmy Pesto Jr.’s BUTT. And because, as a viewer, you are invited to participate in this family comedy, you, or at least I, develop so much affection for this family. I love them, every one of them, but probably Tina the most, because awww, Tina.

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Looking back, I’m doing a terrible job of describing why Bob’s Burgers is funny. It’s weird and silly and smart, vulgar but not exploitative, simultaneously problematic and generous in its handling of, say, trans* sex workers, takes joy in avoiding easy moral lessons and then delivers some unexpectedly sharp and insightful joke as a throwaway gag in the middle of a scene. It takes risks and can be almost too goofy sometimes, but it always comes back to the family, and well-crafted comedy, and a generous amount of heart. That’s why I love it, and I hope, if you give it a chance, you’ll love it too.

zombie kiss

Watch seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix, or on Hulu, or on Fox Sundays. Or buy Seasons 1 and 2 on Amazon.

All gifs are from the Bob’s Gifs Tumblr.

Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor

hip hop family tree cover

I’m not proud. It took an awful lot of white people to get me to recognize the value of rap and hip hop, and that is, I think you’ll agree, kind of fucked up. In high school, DJ Screw was a big deal, but I didn’t know it. I just knew the lockerroom was filled with Chopped and Screwed, and I wanted to listen to Queen. Or Jimi Hendrix. I spent the turn of the 21st century stuck in the 70s, afraid of liking something uncool. It wasn’t until I read somewhere that, in order to be cool, I had to have a favorite member of the Wu Tang Clan that I paid any attention to rap. Shortly after that I saw Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai and realized, with a shameful amount of surprise, that RZA is an exceptionally gifted musician. Much later, I heard “Smells Like Compton“, a mashup of NWA and Nirvana, and found out that Ice Cube is a stone cold badass and gangster rap is more than just noise and violence. And then, much later, when the mainstreaming of rap had me thinking that maybe dismissing an entire genre of music made me kind of an asshole, Ed Piskor started publishing Hip Hop Family Tree on Boing Boing.

hip hop don't stop

Hip Hop Family Tree started almost accidentally as part of Ed Piskor’s regular “Brain Rot” feature on Boing Boing. His comics, with their distinctive newsprint style, influenced by the kind of pulp comics he grew up with, weren’t about anything in particular until he started talking about his love of old school hip hop. It started with a comparison of hip hop to superhero comics, and then went all the way back to DJ Kool Herc and his house parties, often credited as the origin of hip hop 40 years ago. And Piskor is still just getting started, tracing the spread of hip hop and rap from its origin on the streets and in the clubs of New York to its place as a pillar of the American music industry.

grandmaster cas

The way Piskor tells this story feels comprehensive and authoritative. It feels true, and I think that feeling comes from both thoroughly researching his subject and his clear enthusiasm for it. His love for hip hop is apparent in the way he crafts the stories, the way he draws the characters, the way he inserts bits and pieces of rap lyrics wherever he can. He loves it enough to learn everything he can about it, from the definitive moments, like the formation of Sugarhill Records or the production of Wild Style, to obscure bits of hip hop apocrypha, and his enthusiasm for one is equal to his enthusiasm for the other. And yet somehow he also manages to sound like a detached observer. He acts as a historian, not passing judgement on, say, the business decisions of Sylvia Robinson except by implication. That, also, creates a feeling of authenticity to his work that makes me wonder how real world Robinson, if she were still alive, would feel about the Robinson we see on the page.

sylvia lays down the law

The project started with a joke about the way hip hop artists have alter egos just like superheroes, and Piskor takes special delight in crafting unique visual styles for Russell Simmons, Kool Moe Dee, Afrika Bambaata, Grandmaster Flash, and all the rest. Hats, shades, and hairstyles become a visual shorthand for key players, with more minor figures often wearing shirts with their names on them even as he develops their unique style. Rick Rubin is drawn in such a different style from Afrika Bambaataa that he might as well be in a different comic, but that’s part of what makes it so terrific when they all come together. They are so distinctive that they stick in the brain, and even one panel illustrations of Bad Brains or Henry Rollins are fun. And when these characters come together it often is for something of comicbook-level epicness, such as Kool Moe Dee’s showdown with Busy Bee Starski, or the battle between Grandmaster Flash and the Brothers Disco. Or, and this includes what is probably my single favorite splash panel, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force premiering Planet Rock.

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The actual family tree has gotten a bit unwieldy at this point, and difficult to parse. The user interface for the comic is also super unfriendly; each page is simply a tagged post on Boing Boing, so there isn’t really an easy way to navigate and pick up where you left off. However, this is my only complaint about Hip Hop Family Tree as a project. It takes in street corner DJs, night club MCs, Freddie Fab5 and Blondie, the Treacherous Three and the Beastie Boys, drawing lines and making connections. Piskor sets out to document the “viral propagation of a culture”, and does so with incredible style and a great sense of pacing and narrative, managing a sprawling cast of characters with panache. It’s exciting to see the origins of familiar names like Doug E. Fresh or Public Enemy, and watch the culture spread to the west coast, with Ice T and Dr. Dre.

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It’s embarrassing how long it took, but I’m on board now.  I’m excited about this music. I have a better understanding of where it came from and what it means, and I’ve started exploring what else is out there. Understanding the origins of hip hop gives me a foundation from which to experience Jay-Z and Tupac Shakur, Tyler the Creator and Kanye West, and UGK and the Screwed Up Click. So if you are the sort of person who has ever said “I like all kinds of music except rap”, pick up Hip Hop Family Tree and start relieving your ignorance. I give many thanks to  Jim Jarmusch, Ed Piskor, and especially mixmaster Lindsay Schmitt, for relieving mine.

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Read Hip Hop Family Tree online at Boing Boing, starting from the beginning here, or pre-order Volume One at Fantagraphics or Amazon. Check out Piskor’s other work at his site.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Sorry about the prolonged hiatus! It turns out that deciding to quit your job and move to Chicago to be a writer takes up a lot of time that could have been spent reviewing Pacific Rim or Luther or something else with Idris Elba in it. July was a panic of goodbyes and packing and discarding the accumulated Stuff of Life, and I’m still settling in, still grappling with the reality of uprooting my life and moving it to another city. A city with winter. But now I’m back, and writing is back, and it’s time to talk about books and movies and other such things.

The Tiger's Wife

When I think of the craft of storytelling, I often compare it to weaving, with characters, plot elements, and recurring imagery as threads bound together to create something intricate and beautiful. Writers weave tapestries out of moments of life, images of violence, the voices of characters, and the reader is drawn inexorably to something whole and emotionally satisfying. There is a special kind of joy that comes from seeing all the threads of narrative converge and the finished image at last revealed.

The Tiger’s Wife is very much a woven story, a tapestry of convergence. Natalia’s story, as she tries to understand her grandfather and why he chose to die in a remote village far from home, intertwines with the stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife, and those stories are supplemented by still other stories nested within them. It’s not meta, exactly, but Story, it’s importance and relevance, it’s living nature, is a central theme of the book. It is Natalia’s story and it is her grandfather’s. It is present and past, mystery and myth. The deathless man and the tiger’s wife are set against the bombing of Belgrade, glimpses of life under Tito, borders shifting with the collapse of empires. It is a vast story contained in a slim volume of words, and finds space to grapple with profound questions of destiny, death, and truth.

Though the two central characters are both physicians, this novel is about death, or more specifically, how we die. Our protagonists are in the business of fighting death, gaining mastery over it, and the narrative often confronts them with situations that show contempt for that mastery, like the diggers who refuse medical treatment for their illness, or the NATO bombing campaign, or the riddle of a man who simply will not die. Natalia grapples with this in the form of her own grandfather’s death, retracing his steps forward to the foreign village where he died, and backward to the remote mountain village where he grew up. The story is driven by the metaphysical question of why, but the narrative itself is deeply physical. Obreht provides no easy confirmations of magic or evidence of life after death. The most blatantly supernatural element, the deathless man, is experienced second-hand, through the grandfather’s tales, and even then everything is rooted in the material world, so much so that the clear defiance of natural law is frustrating both to the reader and to the characters. Obreht’s imagery gives her story the weight and presence of the real world. I am left with indelible images of the fevered touch of the diggers in the orchard, the profound cold of the mountain village, the sight of blood on snow. Her command of language is poetic, but also visceral; you feel the truth of it in your gut.

My favorite part of the novel on this first read through was, as seems appropriate, the story of the tiger’s wife. Something about a tiger haunting a mountain village during the fierce winter before World War II, the mixture of rational explanation by Natalia and the demon-haunted terror of the villagers creates the best kind of legend, one that even stripped of supernatural explanation is remarkable, thrilling, and beautiful. In the midst of the villagers’ fear of what they do not understand, the boy who would become Natalia’s grandfather learns about beauty and the proximity of death, and that sometimes no amount of effort or love can save those doomed to die. Framed as a historical investigation by the backward looking Natalia, the story also includes brief histories of characters such as the butcher and the apothecary, men integral to the grandfather’s story but about whom he probably knew little in life. They are revealed as heroes of their own tales, tales which lead inevitably to the winter-locked mountains and the tiger. Their stories are their own, but are also intricately woven into the greater story of the novel. There are many threads, but only one tapestry.

The Tiger’s Wife satisfies a deep narrative longing in me. It is rich with history and humanity. Obreht’s stories and substories are keenly crafted and transport me to another time and place, packing multiple layers of detailed narrative into a novel of less than 400 pages. Téa Obreht has created something complex without being complicated, deep without being unfathomable. It’s a story that can be enjoyed once or reread and studied closely for greater rewards. It is a true accomplishment.

Purchase the novel on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound. Visit the author’s website here.