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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (5/22/17) 3:30pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  On the Origin of Species, The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction
Movies:  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Your Name.
TV:  Tabletop [seasons 1 & 2], Good Eats [season 11]

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
This is Darwin's 1859 tome that originated the theory of evolution.

I finally came around to reading this book after arguing with some rural Texans who, thanks to enthusiastic gerrymandering, happen to be in my school district, were arguing for creationism in schools.  It became very clear that they'd never read any primary sources about evolution (just various 'takedowns' of it in the Dominionist press), and then it occurred to me that, hmm, I hadn't either.  I mean, I took college-level biology courses, but I'd never sat down and read anything Darwin wrote.

So I found a cheap Kindle edition of On the Origin of Species, the big kahuna of his work, and started in.

For a while, I thought I'd be able to happily report that, in spite of its age and its length, it's actually an engaging read, easy to understand and well and clearly presented.  But nope, those early chapters misled me, and it quickly slowed down to become the epic slog that I was expecting.  There were long stretches of this book where I got the general gist of what was going on, but my eyes were moving across a lot of words without really taking in their meaning.

Reading stuff from the 1850s is hard.  It's not nearly as hard as reading Austen, where every couple of pages I'd hit the end of a paragraph, ask, "Wait, *what* did I just read?", and then scurry back to figure out which words I'd subtly misinterpreted.  But it's not quite as smooth as Dickens, where the challenge to the reader is more one of page count than of semantics.

Generally Darwin writes in a way that I understand.  If he were writing a non-scientific document, I'd probably keep up admirably.  But Origin of Species is a massive piece of scientific work.  Darwin marshals a wide field of evidence, drawing on paleontology, and geology, and farming, and horticulture, and biology, and birdwatching, and hints of math.  And even if you have a background in all of these fields (I don't), you're still stuck figuring out the 19th-century *jargon* in that field.  Occasionally my kindle's "look up this word in wikipedia" feature would throw up its hands in hopeless confusion and tell me nothing.

But it's not completely opaque, and what I could understand of it was surprisingly interesting -- I'd expected just a dull retread of established evolutionary theory, but there's more to it than that.  It's neat to see him sort of tug at the edges of discoveries that aren't quite there yet.  There's a stretch where he remarks on how, hey, sometimes male animals inherit certain traits directly from male (and only male) ancestors, and why should that be?  And you're reading that thinking, "IT'S THE Y CHROMOSOME DUDE LET ME DRAW YOU A PUNNETT SQUARE."  And to think Mendel was busily crossing his pea plants that same decade.

It's also kind of amazing how falsifiable the theory is, as it's laid out.  Darwin lists massive ways that his theory could be proved wrong -- places where he just doesn't have the data he needs, but if, say, seemingly related species were found in widely-disparate low-level land areas, or extinct species reappeared in the fossil record for no apparent reason, or a completely deleterious variation suddenly took over a population, his claims would be thrown in serious doubt.

It makes you realize that one of the problems with adducing evidence for evolution is that we just take it for granted.  I was kind of floored to realize that when Origin of Species was published, the scientific community wasn't sure that extinction was even a thing.  Lots of people were of a mind that animals never disappeared, and the apparent disappearances of strange beasts in the fossil record had been misinterpreted.  Now, granted, I love the prospect of Dinosaur Island as much as the next guy, but it's just kind of brain-breaking: what did these people think happened when, say, the last mastodon died?  Did new mastodons get magicked out of the ether?

And then you realize, oh, if your basic notion of the origin of species is "they got magicked out of the ether", then maybe you can reckon with the idea that nothing goes extinct.  We're so used to evolution that extinction makes intuitive sense.

You also see how there really is nothing new under the sun when it comes to arguments against evolution.  Darwin alludes to the "how could evolution make something as complicated as the eye?", an old canard that still makes regular appearances on facebook flamewars.  He devotes an entire chapter to the incompleteness of the fossil record, another creationist favorite.  (I saw one of them seriously pose the question, "If evolution is real, why haven't we found a fossil halfway between a cat and a dog?")

It's impressive to see all the avenues for research this book kicks off.  I suspect that many of the great advances in STEM are like this: a Big Idea gets proposed, and suddenly there are a thousand things to chase down as we all work out the details.  I alluded to all the falsifiability in the book -- every one of those claims of "if we find <x>, evolution might be a crock" becomes a fruitful line of research.  Every one of the varied studies of plant hybridization, or tests of seed transport in currents, or predictions about the fossil record, or hypotheses about continental drift or ice ages or migration patterns -- all of those become obvious next steps for the natural philosophers of the day.

That said, I can't recommend reading the book to most folks.  If you're a biologist, read it.  If you want to score worthless Internet points in online flamewars, read it.  Otherwise, surely there has to be a more lucid summary for modern readers out there.


The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction by David Schmid [audiocourse]
This is David Schmid's Teaching Company audiocourse about the history of "mystery and suspense fiction", a genre that, for Professor Schmid, includes thrillers, mysteries, spy novels, and police procedurals.

The odd realization I had while listening to this audiocourse is that it's not actually an audiocourse.  Instead, it's a set of essays read aloud.  This may sound like a subtle distinction, but it becomes an obvious one as you listen to the course.  There isn't the off-the-cuff, style of their other lecturers -- it doesn't have the sort of cloud of conversational noises that make it feel more like getting the ideas across to you, and less like presenting them.  It's all very measured.  Ninety percent of the time, you sense that he's reading exactly what he wrote, and comes across less as a professor than a slightly stilted actor who's just been handed his sides.

And then there's the material itself.  Again, this is not a course, but a set of essays.  So that means that each half-hour lecture is almost hermetically self-contained.  "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", the commonly-accepted progenitor of the genre, gets introduced in the first lecture.  And then it gets re-introduced and re-described in nearly every subsequent lecture.  And very, very few of the concepts in one lecture get referenced or built upon in later ones.  If you put the lectures in random order, it would feel a bit scattered in its progress, but everything would still make perfect sense. 

And that's not good.  I want an audiocourse to have a sort of spine to it, some overall point that it's trying to make that sort of organizes the material.  And then I want the lectures to build on each other, with early ones giving an overview of the topic and later ones going into more detail.  This course presents more of a "sampler's platter" of small ideas that don't really build to anything.  Each essay is one little foray that often has to retread material from previous essays.

That said, I still really enjoy the genre, and so, for me, the course has its moments.  You can get a whole range of solid book recommendations out of the course.  Granted, a lot of the lit-crit in the book feels thuddingly obvious ("Why yes, villains *do* let us vicariously experience being transgressive and powerful.  How shocking!"), and other points sometimes feel like a reach.  Occasionally he makes a cool point that I'd never thought of -- for instance, the way that gay private-eye characters can play off the way that both gay people and private eyes can be relative outsiders to most parts of society.

But it's definitely not required listening.  If you really feel compelled to listen to one of the Teaching Company's "genre audiocourses", do the sci-fi one instead.


Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 [spoilers]
This is the 2017 Marvel film about the continuing adventures of Peter Quill and his roving band of wisecracking space vigilantes.

Sometimes I think Guardians of the Galaxy was created just to troll everyone working on the DC Cinematic Universe.  After DC has put out movie after movie of its humorless, scowly, teal-and-black murderverse -- and then Suicide Squad, which took that same aesthetic to Hot Topic and left audiences saying, "Nah, that was a mistake, just back to your usual scowly stuff" -- we have Guardians of the Galaxy raking in more money than a good-sized tinpot dictatorship.

And it's hilarious to watch it do this by being, essentially, the anti-DCU.

The movie is funny.  It's unabashedly funny.  And it's very *good* at being funny.  What impresses me most is that it doesn't really need jokes -- it can draw its humor from these strongly-drawn characters just being themselves.  Drax talking about his father recounting the story of his conception every solstice is not funny in and of itself -- it's funny *because* it's Drax.  Rocket forcing baby Groot to spit out an insect is not funny in and of itself -- it's funy *because* Rocket is being forced into an unlikely parental role (yes, and it's happening during the giant battle with a space squid).

It was especially instructive to see this movie after the Wonder Woman trailer.  Now, let's be clear: I hold out a quixotic and desperate hope that Wonder Woman will be a good movie.  But its latest trailer tried to show that it can be funny, and the humor on display is pretty much just Chris Pine delivering bland, snarky one-liners.  And then the trailers finished, and we went straight from that "fine and competent" humor to the sustained hilarity of Baby Groot dancing through a battle scene.

Joss Whedon's Batgirl can't arrive soon enough.

And I think the humor speaks to a larger difference between this franchise and the DCU: Guardians feels like much more confident filmmaking.  More specifically, it feels like James Gunn doesn't care about whether you think he's cool.  He's making the movie that *he* thinks is cool, and if you're going along with that, great!  But if not, c'est la vie.  Nothing about the movie is trying hard to *tell* you how impressive the movie is.  Instead, it's drenched through with stuff that the filmmaker loves: the wall-to-wall classic pop songs, the tripped-out, prog-rock-cover-art scenery, the bazillion obscure comic references.  It's a relief to see a movie say "Here are all the things I love" rather than "My movie is serious and important and you should be impressed."

Even the nepotistic decision to give Sean Gunn (the director's brother) a much larger role works perfectly.  As any Gilmore Girls devotee will tell you, he's just a damn funny actor, and not in a "this joke tested well in a half-dozen focus groups" sort of way.

The look of the film is delightful.  Again, it feels like the anti-DCU, like it's just laughing at the grimdark "teal, black, and if you're all very good and respectful, maybe a hint of orange" color pallette of their Very Serious Superhero Movies.  Screw it, we're using every color on the color wheel, *because it's fun*.  And I love that the trippy, psychedelic turn from Doctor Strange seems to have given other Marvel movies license to explore that look.  The "750 jumps to Ego" thread felt like it was just an excuse to sporadically cut to crazy spacescapes and unsettling facial distortions.  And I have no problem with that.

But above all else, I can't say enough good things about how the movie is structured.  I have seen many many tentpole action movies collapse under the weight of Plot Bloat: they are lurching behemoths, servicing three different storylines with eight different characters and eventually it's all just a big mess, somehow both chaotic and torpid.  Now, let's be clear: Guardians is aiming to do just as many plot threads and character arcs as, say, one of the later Pirates of the Caribbean omnishambles. 

The difference is, Guardians is doing that juggling act very very well.  Each arc is very clearly defined, with short, emotional scenes directly telling us everything we need to know.  Take the arc with Gamora and Nebula.  If we extracted that out of the film, we'd get maybe three scenes: (1) Nebula pursues and catches Gamora; (2) Nebula admits why she always hated Gamora; (3) they come to a truce over it, and go their separate ways.  That's simple.  That's actable.  That's followable, even in amongst all the gewgaws and whirligigs of a Marvel tentpole.

And they do this over and over again: each thread has a clear, unmistakeable spine.  Quill wants to reconnect with his father, discovers his father is evil, and reconnects with Yondu only too late.  Yondu wants to get the respect of the Ravagers, helps save the galaxy, and gets a Ravager funeral.  None of it is subtle or nuanced, and that's *good*.  We don't want to out-clever ourselves here; just do a strong, simple story that we can follow through all the battle scenes.  And remember: writing simple stories is not *easier* -- generally speaking, simpler is *harder*.  My highest praise is that I'd compare it to the emotional arc between McClane and his wife in Die Hard: clear, incredibly concise, and relatable.

And on *top* of that, they're deftly threading all those arcs through the massive sudoku puzzle that is a tentpole superhero movie.  The degree of difficulty on that is mind-blowing.  They have to braid all these stories so that there's an action sequence every ten minutes or so.  They have to set up a threat to the entire galaxy that only this crew can fight.  They have to make that threat intrinsically connected to Quill's newfound relationship with his father -- that way, they pay off all the hints about Quill's father without it feeling like a pointless tangent.  Then, when the story is done, they have to neatly clean up after themselves, making sure that Quill doesn't have any leftover superpowers.[1]

That they invent a potential Guardians spinoff crew at the end of the film feels like just showboating.

But the movie ably checks all the boxes, and it's like watching somebody solve a completely messed-up Rubik's cube in the minimum number of moves.

That's not to say it's completely without flaws, or that I had the best experience of all time watching it.  I wonder if, to some extent, I'm kinda done with superhero movies.  Every ten minutes, a fight scene clocks in, and I yawn and tune out.  ("Wake me when the punching stops.")  I'm sure part of it is that Americans don't know how to direct fight scenes, and part of it is that I'm watching mostly CGI bouncing around, and part of it is that they're just trying to do enough smoke and mirrors with editing to convince me that movie stars who don't really fight really are fighting.  Whatever the reason, it just feels like watching somebody else play a video game, only without the witty commentary of a good twitch stream.

And I have to roll my eyes that the film features both (1) the Strong Female Character who should be in charge of the whole thing, but is instead a useful helpmeet to the real (male) hero, who is an inept Chosen One; and (2) a 'born sexy yesterday' lady.  And this, in a movie that honestly floored me with one of Gamora's lines to her sister: "There are many other girls out there, like us.  You can stay with us, and help them."  It made me realize that lots of action movies give a kind of sop to feminism with the Strong Female Character -- "Yeah, she's a babe, but she's just as tough as the boyzzz!"  But stepping tenuously close to the fourth wall to say, "Our society treats women like shit, and that has to be stopped", and to say it in an international-release, multi-bazillion-dollar action flick -- I was happily surprised.  It made me think that James Gunn's heart really is in the right place, but he's working in a genre that pushes people towards problematic stock female characters.

Yay, systemic problems.

And I've heard that friends of friends were moved to tears by the emotional storylines in Guardians 2, but I was nowhere near that.  I think Chris Pratt has done a lot of great work, but "heart-wrenching emotional vulnerability" is not his strong suit -- and honestly, it isn't for Kurt Russell either.  Mr. Pratt is unmatched for goofy heroism, and Mr. Russell is one of the great screen badasses of the last fifty years, but neither of them are the ones you hire to get at the wrenching emotional core of a metaphor about an agonizing rejection of abusive parenting.

But again, the things that it does well, it does fantastically well.  It's true that, on some level, I was leaning back from the film, intellectually appreciating the complexity of what it was pulling off -- I wasn't often really in the tank emotionally for the characters -- but it was still a hell of a ride, from the first frame to the closing credits.


Your Name.
This is the 2016 Makoto Shinkai animé film about two teenagers, a boy in Tokyo and a girl in a small village, who switch bodies.

Since a lot of the fun of this movie is the sustained "huh what is going on???" of it, I'm putting my spoiler-heavy review in a separate post.

If you haven't seen it, I'd say that unless you just can't abide animated movies, go and see it.  It's incredibly good.  It's a piece of work like season 4 of The Simpsons or Sgt. Pepper's, where yes, it garners critical acclaim, but you also can't really imagine anybody disliking it.


TableTop [seasons 1 and 2]
This is the first season of Wil Wheaton's webseries where, every week, he plays a new board game with various nerd-famous friends.

I did not mean to binge the first season of this show.  I found myself watching an episode here, and then an episode there, and then I figured I'd just start from the beginning, and somehow I was suddenly finishing the first season and on into the second.  It's sort of the candy of TV shows -- I'm just watching engaging, funny people having a fun time.  It doesn't take a lot of mental effort, and it's always a hell of a lot of fun.

And board games themselves, with just a few explanatory graphics alongside them, are surprisingly watchable.  It becomes a sport -- you're riveted by wanting to know how the game turns out.  It's like storytelling pared back to its purest "how will this end?" essence.

This first season brings in a really wonderful range of games.  The show can serve as a sort of primer: this is roughly what tabletop gaming is like these days.  There are a couple of RPGs, both GM-less (Fiasco) and traditional dice-y (Dragon Age).  There are casual games and party games, traitor-mechanic games and collaborative games, and a good collection of classic German strategy games.

And there's just a warm, charming quality to a show that clearly comes from a place of loving the hobby.  Wil is delighted every week not just to play with his friends, but to introduce great games to a wider audience.  And they are amazing games -- I've installed several of them (Tsuro, Elder Sign, Alhambra, Star Realms) on my Android tablet and lost countless hours down that rabbithole.

Highly recommended.  Plus, you should know by the first episode whether it's for you or not.


Good Eats [season 11]
This is the eleventh season of my watching-while-exercising mainstay, Alton Brown's sketch-comedy-infused, scientifically-informed take on explaining basic cooking principles.  At this point, though, I have nothing to add that I haven't said ten times before: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 [guess I missed 7?], 8, 9, and 10.


For next week: I have to take a deep breath and write up Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and BoJack Horseman and OJ: Made in America -- I liked them a lot, and have lots to say.  While exercising, I'm on season 12 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight.

_______
[1] I do wonder, a bit, if killing off Yondu was a similar bit of cleanup -- now the closing film of the trilogy doesn't have to deal with the awkward unmanliness of "so, we're father and son now".

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