February 25, 2009

Philip José Farmer


February 23, 2009

Praise and Requiem for my Smoking

I won’t have had a cigarette in four years come next month. I recently mentioned this to a co-worker who remarked through clenched teeth that, if I had in fact quit permanently, I couldn’t have ever been a “real” smoker. Not for nothing, but I’m nearly twice this young woman’s age. I was sneaking cigarettes after math class back when her mother was deciding on whether or not to have an abortion.
I know, too harsh. If I still smoked, I’d say I’d need one about now...
But I don’t –and so I don’t.

I shouldn’t say I was a smoker. I should say: I loved smoking.
I really loved it.
When I was in college, I smoked Lucky unfiltereds, at the rate of a pack and a half a day. At Cooper Union in the late 1980s, you could smoke in class. All my professors were shameless cigarette moochers. You could smoke in the metal shop. My friend Patrick practically smoked in his sleep. I used to smoke while I ate.

Did I mention that I used to love smoking?

I have fond memories of riding between subway cars on the number 2 IRT northbound train with my best friend Michael Davila, lighting up menthols on school nights if we didn’t have anything stronger. Smoking was something we did to take the edge off. It was our decompression from our days at a private school to the ironically lower P.S.I. of our South Bronx neighborhoods.
I was a nerd, I was an artist, I was a brainiac, but even at 12 years of age, walking up-street with a lit cigarette in my swinging fist, I was no one to fuck with. I scared older, tougher kids because they were scared of cigarettes and by extension freaked out by me. I knew this, and I figured it beat fighting all the time.
I knew this and I figured, “let this be my thing.”

A girlfriend once waited for me outside my high school, in a miniskirt, combat boots, fishnet stockings and my battered leather jacket. She was lazily smoking a cigarette leaning against a building’s corner on 81st and West End Avenue. My friend Jeffrey spotted her from a window and leaned over to me and whispered “Your girl is all day punk rock trouble.”

Fuck yeah momma.

I’ll never smoke cigarettes that taste like the ones of my adolescence. That taste of freedom, that taste of delinquency, that taste of procrastination… that taste of getting away with something isn’t an ingredient found in any cigarette I can buy today.

I occasionally have dreams in which I’m smoking. They are always the dreams in which I am being “cool.”

It’ll kill you.
It’ll stain your teeth and make your burps smell like wet ash trays
It causes all kinds of cancer

But it looks cool.

It makes doing average things look cool.
It looks cooler than anything else you could do.
That’s the thing that can never be taken away from smokers: it’s cool.

Smoking is fucking cool.

The more dangerous they say it is, the more “TRUTH” ads they put out there, the more likely they make it seem that smoking is something Darth Vader would do…
-and that is fucking cool, my friends.

About four years ago, when I was about to turn 37, I was struck with a very bad flu that nearly turned into pneumonia. For three weeks, I fluctuated between getting better, and then sinking back into sickness at night, breathing with great difficulty. At times it felt like I was under water. I quit smoking altogether about a week after pulling through.

Although I had stopped smoking for months at a time and for a full year during the 1990s, I was always white-knuckling it. From 1995 to 1999, I’d drink obsidian pints of Guinness at a bar called The Pageant and bum half a pack off of my good friend Mark Cassar in one single night.
Today, I can’t bring a cigarette to my lips without feeling a little nauseous, a little put off. Today, a cigarette tastes like a cigarette, -and only like a cigarette and nothing else, and I am left wondering why?
Perhaps it wasn’t the actual smoking itself that I loved after all, but some ineffable state, some dimension I stepped into as a youth whenever I bathed myself in the mercurial light of a match and drew in the sinful, sexy blackness from the end of a cigarette.

I think I was “cool” once upon a time.

I think I was in love with something harder to pin down and describe, something looser and more abstract than the cigarette smoke I drew in...

But I sure did love to smoke.


February 6, 2009

Lux Interior, 1946-2009

"Roll on.
Rock on.
Raw bones.
Well there's still alot of rhythm in these rockin' bones.

I wanna leave a happy memory when I go.
I wanna leave some thing to let the whole world know,
that the rock 'n roll daddy has a done passed on,
but my bones Will keep a rockin' long after I'm gone.

Roll on.
Rock on.
Raw bones.
Well I still got all the rhythm in these Rockin' Bones.

Well when I die don't you bury me at all,
just nail my bones up on the wall.
Beneath these bones let these words be seen:
"This is the bloody gears of a boppin' machine."

Roll on.
Rock on.
Raw bones.
Well I still got all the rhythm in these bockin' bones.

I ain't worried about tomorrow just thinkin' about tonight.
My bones are getting restless and I do it up right.
A few more times around this hardwood floor,
before we turn off the lights and... close the door.

Roll on.
Rock on.
Raw bones.
Well there's still alot of rhythm in these Rockin' Bones."

Rest in peace, Lux Interior...
or just roll on, rock on.


Thank you for a lifetime of great music.


February 2, 2009

How “Watchmen” Might Not Suck.


That title has a weight attached to it for comic book creators like myself that rivals “Moby Dick,” “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Citizen Kane” in their respective mediums. Back in 1985, everyone who knew anything about comic books understood what they could be…
but that year Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons actually went out and did it.

Of all comic book-to-film adaptations in history, “Watchmen” has the most built in resistance, the most astronomical expectations and the most byzantine lore behind its realization. Terry Gilliam, James Cameron, the Wachowski brothers and David Fincher have all been rumored to be “in talks”, rumored to be “attached” as directors, rumored to be “shopping it around” for years among many other names too numerous to mention.
For people not familiar with it, or who only know it as a graphic novel (its collected form as a single trade paper back) “Watchmen” is first and foremost a comic book about superhero comic books.

Watchmen” was originally conceived as an inaugural piece for characters acquired by DC comics from Charlton Comics. Charlton was another lesser known superhero based comic book company that was largely regarded as the Connecticut based independent alternative to Marvel and DC. Alan Moore wrote, what was largely regarded in the eyes of DC comics editors like Dick Giordiano, an “R-rated” masterpiece that left the newly acquired characters at endpoints that could not be expounded upon in future stories. It is largely held that it was Dick Giordiano’s suggestion that entirely new characters be fashioned in order to leave the Charlton characters available for future stories. So “Blue Beetle” became “Nite Owl,” “Captain Atom” became “Dr. Manhattan,” “The Question” became “Rorschach” and so on.
Watchmen” differed from all other series in the 1980s for many reasons. No other comic book in the history of the medium had ever so directly reflected the dread and geopolitical anxieties of its own time. Instead of using superheroes as a power fantasy to ameliorate the tensions readers felt about the cold war and the possibility of a nuclear Armageddon, writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons rewrote actual history, with superheroes as influential actors living in civilization and affecting historical reality. Superheroes and their abilities in Moore’s “Watchmen” are as integral and consequential to history as the machine gun, famine, industrialization and disease are in our own world. The plot was a deceptively simple murder mystery concerning a superhero that eventually leads the reader to a conspiracy by another superhero who hopes to avert nuclear war by staging an extraterrestrial threat. Woven throughout are details of a world, frighteningly similar to our own with horrifying but logical differences. This is a world in which Richard Nixon is running for his fourth term, in all likelihood due to the fact that the Watergate break in would have been performed by government-sponsored superheroes… so they were never caught. It is a world described with supplemental text documents at the end of every episode; magazine articles, police files, textbook excerpts and tell-all books. By far its most subversive and haunting element is a fictional comic book within “Watchmen” itself called “Tales of the Black Freighter.” This comic book-within-the-comic book is Moore and Gibbons' homage and rebuke of the 1950s; lauding its creativity and deriding its conservatism, specifically recounting the effects of McCarthyism on the medium and its bravest creators.

The question for people who have lived with this very heavy, textually dense and semiotics obsessed comic book since the 1980s is:

What film could ever capture these ideas and this experience?

Hollywood as an industry does not have a great track record with regard to superhero movies. Bad movies outnumber good ones by a ratio of about 10 to 1 in my experience. The challenge of bringing any comic book to screen is that it is a visual medium to begin with, employing a specific graphic or illustrated reality. Comics express this specific reality on their pages and superhero comics in particular have suffered in cinema because human beings and even the materials and fabrics they wear cannot look the way they do in a comic book. Comic books are about characters above all else, so a failure in their physical depiction almost always means a failure in a film’s adaptation. While I’ve never thought this was absolutely important (and am largely alone in this sentiment,) even my sensibilities have been offended by uniform designs in movies and television.

The difficulties lie beyond “the look of the thing” however.
I believe the real challenge comic book adaptations face is capturing what my friend Abraham Castillo once called “the delicate truth” of a story, -not exhibiting a direct or shot-for-shot reproduction of the visual elements in a comic book. I experience a lot of resistance on this point. Some fans just want to see, live and experience the exact same thing over and over again.

This is not possible.

Comic books are comic books and movies are movies. Never shall the two meet. They can only reflect and transliterate one another, using each medium’s own unique phenomena, devices and aspects to expand or elaborate on common subject matter and narratives.

A good recent example of how a comic book adaptation can work in my opinion was Robert Rodriguez’s "Sin City". While he uses various compositions and graphic elements straight out of Frank Miller’s artwork, it’s not the visuals that enabled this movie’s resonance as an adaptation. Rodriguez managed (with the help of some actors who are so iconic in presence as to rival clichés in Film Noir for their potency as symbols) to create the world beyond the frame of "Sin City." The world moves and sounds they way the comic book implies. Rodriguez communicated its morality, its dramatic laws and emotional possibilities convincingly because he focused on the “the delicate truth.” The makers of “Watchmen” the motion picture have their own “delicate truth” to assess and communicate.

For “Watchmen” to succeed, I believe it will have to in some way be a “movie about superhero movies.”

One element that gives me hope, other than Zack Snyder’s inspired remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” is a trailer I saw that was scored with a different version of a Smashing Pumpkins song “The End Is the Beginning Is the End,” which was used in one of the most hated and pilloried superhero films of all time; Joel Schumacher’s “Batman and Robin.” The costume designs leaked to the public are very reminiscent of the injection molded synthetic muscle exo-suits used in that film as well. Perhaps there is now enough history in superhero cinema to give this film a chance at expressing the fascinating postures and complex ideas of its printed inspiration by commenting on its cinematic predecessors and stepping beyond a direct, frame for frame adaptation. In short, a movie that aims for as much profound meaning, sophistication and self awareness as the comic book it is named after.

Right now, only Zack Snyder and a few other people know for sure what path they took.

See you at the New York Comic Book Convention next weekend.


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