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

Monday (6/29/09) 9:18pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Generation Kill [parts 1-3]
Books:  The Metamorphoses [audiobook]

Generation Kill [parts 1-3]
This is the HBO miniseries about a platoon of marines in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  It was created by David Simon and Ed Burns, who are best known for The Wire.

I admit, I approached this miniseries with some trepidation.  David Simon is an angry, angry man, and while The Wire funneled that rage into a heartbreaking portrait of a dying city, I imagined that his take on the second Iraq war could be painfully shrill.  Lord knows, my more political friends (on either side of the spectrum) have a lot of trouble discussing Iraq II without getting shouty.

But David Simon & Co. were up to something different.  As far as I can tell, Generation Kill is mostly about observation.  It doesn't have time to pontificate about the geopolitical rationale for invading Iraq a second time, because it keeps its action on the ground.  These are not high-ranking generals or vote-chasing politicians, these are marines.  And it's not about how the marines are Deeply Conflicted about What It All Means -- it's about how they get by day-to-day.  It's much more observational than didactic.

I'm sure any right-wing pundit who deigned to watch it would squawk about its clear liberal bias.  The soldiers are crude and violent.  Some of them are stupid and racist.  All of them are champing at the bit to kill the enemy ("get some").  Often the military higher-ups don't fare much better, providing insufficient equipment and, occasionally, bewildering orders.  The show doesn't shy away from the Catch-22-style bureaucratic humor that's endemic to military culture ("We did not receive sitrep on J-Lo.")

At the same time, the observation is so detailed and convincing, and the marines are so thoroughly realized, that none of those problems distance you from the characters.  The same way Simon seemed to learn an entire language for the corner boys of The Wire, all the men here speak Marine, and as a viewer, you slowly get used to the rhythm and jargon.  Whatever the government's motives for going after Saddam, these are a bunch of guys who are trying to do right by their country under very adverse conditions.  They have flaws; we all have flaws.

At first, you can't really tell anybody from anybody.  Military practice tamps down outward signs of individuality, so you're looking at a crowd of guys, all twenty, all with the same build, all with the same haircut, almost all white.  But soon the individuals stand out:  the resident snark; the sensible captain; the redneck hothead; and so on.  You pick up on the most obvious traits, and the nuances follow.

The show is making some harsh criticisms about the invasion, but its argument is more sophisticated than what I had expected/feared.  Instead of haranguing us about geopolitics, it's more like Simon is giving us a season of The Wire that takes place in the military.

The Wire was about systems that didn't work.  Baltimore was in deep trouble.  Its war on drugs was failing.  Its schools were a disaster.  Its crime was rampant.  The problems were bad, and it there were systems in place designed to *keep* them bad.  Okay, that's overstating it.  We can say it's *as if* the city was designed to resist improvement.  If your politicians have to primarily chase donation money, if your cops have to deliver happy-looking crime statistics, if your journalists have to limit their work to quick, superficial, sensationalist stories... well, then the town is going to stay what it is, won't it?

Generation Kill shows us how the military system -- even one in which everybody is doing their job, and even one in which the vast majority of men are competent and ethical -- is going to naturally lead to foul-ups.  A lieutenant colonel wants to prove his initiative to his higher-ups, so he sends Bravo company to capture an airfield -- and that's how you end up with a bunch of guys in un-armored humvees on a possible suicide mission.  Alpha company gets bad intel and loses communications with Bravo -- and that's how you wind up blowing up a civilian target.

More often, though, it's a system that lets little problems compound with other little problems and bad decisions get amplified by other bad decisions.  Even when nothing disastrous happens to the marines, you still see how the military has set itself up for a long painful occupation spent fighting off angry insurgents.

Maybe Generation Kill is exactly as angry as I expected it to be.  Maybe David Simon & company just get a pass because they make their points with stories instead of speeches.

The Metamorphoses [audiobook]
I must report -- with some shame, but mostly amusement -- that I had no idea what was going on through most of this audiobook.  This is easily the longest book I've ever read in such a state of sustained confusion, handily stealing away that title from The Crying of Lot 49.

I'm not quite sure *why* I was so confused.  Part of it was the language, but the translation (by Frank Justus Miller) was fairly straightforward and the reading (by Barry Kraft) was really rather amazing.  Part of it was my lack of a real background in the classics; I'm guessing Ovid wrote these stories for a Roman audience that already knew them, so they (for instance) didn't have to keep reminding themselves, "Oh, right, Hercules and Alcides are the same person."

But mainly I'll bet the problem is one of structure -- as in "this book has none".  Even wikipedia admits it:
"Ovid works his way through his subject matter, often in an apparently arbitrary fashion, by jumping from one transformation tale to another, sometimes retelling what had come to be seen as central events in the world of Greek myth and sometimes straying in odd directions."
So you'll be listening along to the story of Daedalus and Icarus, and then there will be *one line* along the lines of "if you thought that was something, check out this other thing," and then suddenly you're in a brand new story.  Often times the transitions will occur when a character in one story decides to relate a completely different (and very long) story.  It's very easy to get confused as to what story you're currently on, and who is telling it to whom.

This is also a case where listening to it as an audiobook is not convenient.  I suspect if I were reading this on paper -- well, first there would be copious footnotes, and second, I could keep checking back.  "Wait, did Ovid just start a completely new section with no introduction whatsoever?  Okay, yes.  Yes, he did."

Ostensibly I was listening to this in preparation for the Improv Shakespeare show, at which it was no use whatsoever.  I probably should have just read the wikipedia entries about the individual myths, or perhaps Mary Zimmerman's play based on the same material.

Still, moment to moment it was engaging stuff.  Two weeks ago, I described the book as "an incomprehensible fever dream of rapey gods, gorey battles, and people getting turned into birds for no apparent reason," and that description held true to the end.  I'd hear some momentary description -- say, the horrifying shipwreck in Book XI -- and it held my attention fast.  Still, I had little idea who was being shipwrecked, how they got into that situation, or why it was important, or why, not long after, I was listening to a very impassioned speech about vegetarianism.

Hopefully that will be my last very long audiobook for a while.  For now I'll kill time with more EscapePod episodes.

Not much new, podcast-wise.  I listen to a lot fewer podcasts now that I'm using my iPhone for reading most of the time.

Music-wise, I'm now listening to Liszt.

For next time:  Idiocracy, Grosse Pointe, and more Troilus & Cressida -- although frankly I doubt I'll get to much of any of it, owing to the big blues party.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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Date:Tuesday (6/30/09) 12:49am
I saw the play Metamorphoses at the Mark Taper Forum in 2000, swimming pool and all. Along with Into the Woods with Bernadette Peters, which is the first live musical I can remember seeing ever, it was probably one of the most transcendent theater experiences of my life, so...I'm a little biased.

But I would've already been biased, because I fscking love mythology in general, as I do fairy tales.

I think, in some ways, if you're going to take any kind of post-modern or even just critical view of the Metamorphoses, you sort of have to say "...oh, yeah, that. I've seen that someplace else. What does that mean, here, though - what feeling does it give here, in this particular story arrangement?" It's all very nebulous; everything bleeds into everything else. And that's just very typical of source works in general, of fairy tales - you've seen these stories so many other places, in so much more specificity or whatever, and it's sort of discombublulating to see it in this so much less organized form, which really isn't taking into account your narrative expectations at ALL.

I've never listenened to an audiobook version of these stories, and I can only imagine how weird it must have been. So. Yeah.

Nevertheless, \Ovid/!

...On an only semi-related side note, though: have you seen the newer episodes of Jim Henson's The Storyteller - the Greek myths ones? Because good God, the episode with Derek Jacobi as Daedalus alone is worth the price of admission; I have trouble watching any of them without crying like a little baby.
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Date:Tuesday (6/30/09) 7:44am
[...] you've seen these stories so many other places [...]

Erm, well, 'you' in the sense of 'not me'.  I knew a few of the myths from the book, but only a few.

I've never listenened to an audiobook version of these stories, and I can only imagine how weird it must have been.

One simile I had considered:  "It was like reading a five-hundred-page paragraph." :)

On an only semi-related side note, though: have you seen the newer episodes of Jim Henson's The Storyteller - the Greek myths ones?

Nope -- I only vaguely recall seeing an episode or two of the first series, actually.
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