Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review: Infinite Jest

I made it to around page 150 or so before I quit. I do not often leave a book unfinished, but only once have I ripped one twice along the spine and thrown it away.

What I find interesting about reviews of Infinite Jest, or indeed of any work of art that eschews the mainstream and challenges people, is that most reviewers, pro or con, launch preemptive attacks on the other side early in the review. People who hated IJ know they will be labeled as dim-witted, so they often begin with a diatribe about hipsters who tote around IJ to impress people, pretending to like it merely because they have been instructed to do so by some entity that someone with the right authority consecrated as intellectual. Lovers of IJ, knowing this attack is coming, start their review by expressing their doubts as to whether detractors had their brains turned on while they were reading, or indeed whether or not they even have such an organ to turn on in the first place.

There is probably some truth to be found on both sides. It must be conceded that some readers may have been swayed by the power of suggestion and hype and laud IJ simply to be members of their preferred chorus. I will also concede that there may be genius and an enjoyable experience in that multitude of pages but that I lacked the sensitivity or perspicacity to see it. Nevertheless, I did not enjoy the experience, and I read IJ for the same reason I do anything: either to enjoy it or to make possible the enjoyment of something else at a later date. I accomplished neither, and so IJ landed, in tatters, in my garbage can.

I thought the book began well enough, and up to a certain point I liked it. The opening scene made me chuckle, especially the line that went something like, "What I saw in there, sir, was barely mammalian." I knew a little of the plot, so when Hal Incandenza appeared normal soon after, it seemed clear to me he had gotten hooked on the movie, been forcibly separated from it and this had damaged some of his humanity in the process. Much of what would follow, of course, would show us how events had led up to this.

There was more I found good. Whatever character it was who was obsessing over appearing nonchalant as he waits for a drug delivery (and whom I never saw again through the next 100,000 words or so) was worth a couple chuckles. I appreciated the first appearance of Orin and his battle against cockroaches. DFW had a flair for creating characters of the sort one might find in a Wes Anderson film: unrealistic but humorous caricatures and eccentrics. These and others were perfectly good inhabitants for a story, but after what must have been an entire normal sized novel - 150 large pages of small print - I lost faith that a plot was going to develop, while at the same time noticing that what was good in the book, which formerly had mingled with what was bad, was growing scarcer and scarcer.

The parts I considered bad were not truly detrimental to the work; they were tolerable so long as I was enjoying meeting new people. The sentences were long but basically parsable. I still do not know what, other than length, is achieved by ending a sentence three pages after it begins, nor what theme, nuance or specific bit of information is added by starting it with "And but so then", but I could understand what was written. These annoyances added to the work about what sprinkles of parsely add to french fries, but at least they were almost as easily ignored. If DFW occasionally hit a flat note by misusing a word, that too I can overlook, and the necessity of a dictionary when reading IJ has been mildly overstated.

What ruined the novel for me was that my growing, gnawing concern that DFW was taking too long to get where he was going met my growing, gnawing concern that he wasn't going anywhere in particular. More patient than Kurt Vonnegut, I do not demand that every sentence in a story either advance plot or reveal character - and indeed even if I were of this mind the very act of opening a 1,000+ page tome is implicit agreement to suspend this requirement - but these two functions are indeed the most important that a sentence in a work of fiction can accomplish. After we paint a picture, establish an atmosphere, toy with an idea and leave a little room for the occasional parenthetical aside, I think it is high time we advance the plot.

What, then, was DFW doing with all those sentences? Is there a reason we are treated to long stretches of boys complaining about how tired they are after tennis practice? Not just one passage, which itself was four times longer - at least - than it needed to be, but replicant passages that do nothing that I can see save belabor the point? Was there something subtle accomplished in this seemingly surplus verbiage? I have already conceded there might have been, but just as a man calls a woman a nymphomaniac at the precise moment her sex drive eclipses his, I call a tract useless at the precise point its subtlety eludes my detection. The bits of character and humorous moments came to be surrounded by greater and greater quantities of excess prose, prose for the sake of it, prose in the form of tortuous filaments of sentences which, despite the memory of past periods, one felt might finally shun that particular punctuation mark and keep going to the final page. If that last sentence left the good reader winded, I suggest he not attempt Infinite Jest. When a sand dune is a challenge, Mount Everest is beyond consideration.

Finally, interminability met aimlessness, or so it seemed to me, and I chose to go no further. What I have read about the book since has convinced me I made a wise decision, given my aforementioned determination to enjoy life. That opening sequence with Hal apparently serves no purpose; characters are dropped part way through; storylines never meet up; the book ends suddenly, arbitrarily, though it is possible there was a real ending in the two thirds of the book that was snipped from the first draft (those gifted at math will note that this supposes a first draft of about 3,000 pages).

I have occasionally dabbled at being a snob. I enjoy Hour of the Wolf, The Trial and David Lynch. I not only have the complete works of William Shakespeare but have read most of it. I once spent several hours perusing Caspar David Friedrich paintings in Berlin (and know what peruse actually means). I use a semi colon when it is called for. However, this pursuit must be abandoned; I relinquish any claim to snobbery these acts might have afforded me. I am not a snob. I enjoy plot. I require it, in fact. I may have a certain tolerance for dawdling but plot I refuse to do without, and so dies Infinite Jest on the sword-point of my opinion.

Nevertheless, I will not be called a dimwit. While I concede that all dimwits hate IJ, not all haters of IJ are dimwits. I hope the other side can concede that though not all lovers of IJ are hipster poseurs, all hipster poseurs love Infinite Jest, whether they have managed to get through it or not.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Wĭthûr Wē

The humble blogger has been away for a while, but the time was not wasted. I recently published my first novel, of science-fiction, and I am giving away a free PDF version at the official website,

The story is, of course, a libertarian one, and here is a summary:

Centuries hence, Man, seemingly alone in the universe, slowly spreads his civilizations across his corner of the galaxy. Tyrants vie for power, and in their fierce grip the colonies of the Milky Way are suffocating.

In this society of many billions, a young marine, a highly trained war hero, returns home from his tour of duty. Physically powerful yet shy, awkward and unable to sway the masses with pretty speeches, Alistair Ashley 3nn makes a decision to strike at the hierarchy the only way he can.

His decision starts him on a grand adventure, and as he is carried along by forces beyond his control, he comes to confront an ancient secret, one which may reveal Humanity’s future.

Some people have had some very nice things to say about it, and it seems to be picking up some steam. I hope the good reader will consider giving it a free test drive. In the meantime, there have been two professional reviews which I link to below.

ForeWord Clarion Review:

Withur We is a magnificent epic in the grand tradition of such works as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Frank Herbert’s Dune. Matthew Bruce Alexander, a first-time author, combines the warfare orientation of John Ringo and the lyricism and storytelling ability of Ray Bradbury with philosophical, political, and economical treatises similar to the works of such thinkers as Thomas Paine, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Noam Chomsky...

Apex Review:

...Considerably thought-provoking, Withur We is a compelling fantasy tale with a powerful central message: the importance of preserving freedom from the crippling grip of tyranny. In convincing fashion, author Matthew Bruce Alexander highlights the potential perils of a manipulative, controlling central government, while simultaneously inciting readers to remain ever-vigilant against the manifestation of such a grim reality. With strong libertarian overtones, Withur We paints a vivid picture of the ominous future that awaits citizens of any society who fail to guard themselves against the spread of abusive authority. As such, it offers a timely message of the true costs of freedom and liberty. An insightful, eye-opening read.

If you are ever in the mood for some science-fiction/action-adventure with a libertarian bent, I hope you'll give it a try. Rated R for language, sex and ass-kicking.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Battlestar and the Shark

It is a sad thing to see a good show deteriorate, to see pusillanimous producers stretch a concept thin rather than face the daunting task of developing a new show to fill a vacant slot. I hope it can be shown, on some bright tomorrow, that not only is artistic integrity preserved when a story is allowed to run its course in its natural time frame, but the bottom line as well. Might a show not be more profitable if it stays compelling, even if that means fewer seasons, perhaps even fewer episodes per season? It is devoutly to be hoped.

One of the great jewels of television of recent times, which could not escape that purgatory of mediocrity to which so many erstwhile masterpieces are consigned, is Battlestar Galactica. Through two seasons it remained as gripping a story as any ever told. There were moments of such fantastic intensity that I, as a viewer, was afterwards left in that quivering state of post ecstatic bliss which so eludes and embarrasses the infallible Holy See. Alas, it was not to last, and yet the decline was not due to producers who refused to say goodbye, like family members who keep a loved one on life support long after the part they loved is gone. BSG lasted only four seasons, an expiration date that was set early on, i.e., it began not only with a good story, but under the most favorable of circumstances: with a finale already scheduled and not too remotely in the future.

The malady that afflicted BSG, that sapped its vitality, hobbled it, caused it to become frail, was not the Stretching Disease that felled The Simpsons. Instead, the writers committed a series of blunders that worked like successive body blows in boxing. Was BSG left standing when the bell sounded? Perhaps, but it was bruised, bent over in pain and sucking oxygen.

The finale of BSG was always going to disappoint. This is due to the simple fact that the creators did not know where they were going, only how they were going to take off. The longer they went without sketching a climax, the more their odds of getting a good one came to resemble those of the chimpanzee with a typewriter trying to make a sonnet appear on the paper. This handicap, however, was not the ultimate problem. It started to manifest itself only in season four when, for instance, the writers revealed the history of the cylons from a hospital bed rather than through some interesting episodes, a clear sign that they were throwing together a hastily conceived conclusion. When that insipid bit of storytelling occurred, the show was already in decline.

The characters of BSG were, one by one and almost without exception, removed from interesting circumstances in which they began and placed in positions with fewer possibilities. The totality of these moves was as damaging to the show as anything else that happened to it. Consider Lee Adama, once a fighter pilot and CAG with an extremely talented but insubordinate and emotionally damaged ace to keep in line. He wound up as a politician sitting around a table making speeches. A storyline wherein the CAG had to maneuver through politics for some reason, something quite foreign to him, would make for an interesting episode. Unfortunately, it was not just an episode but an entire change of character, and the show suffered for it.

Boomer was one of the most compelling characters as she slowly realized, with horror, that she was a cylon. That made Chief Tyrol, her lover, more interesting as well. This particular storyline was wrapped up early but done so brilliantly I wouldn’t change a thing. Nevertheless, it is another intriguing part of the series that came to an end and left a hollow that was never filled with something as satisfying as what they originally had.

President Roslin, thrust into the role of Head of State when dozens of higher ranking officials were killed in the cylon attack, struggled to learn her new job and guide humanity to salvation even as she herself was dying of cancer. Her role lost luster when the writers decided to cure her. As if realizing this, they brought the cancer back, but it felt like a cheap trick. They should have had the guts to let the cancer kill her in the waning hours. Better yet, she, knowing she was nearing the end, should have sacrificed her life at some key moment, a sacrifice that kept the dwindling human hopes alive.

Baltar was probably the most fascinating character in the entire show. A cowardly yet brilliant scientist, he discovered that a cylon tricked him into giving away key defense secrets, thus ensuring the sneak attack would be successful. Even as the remaining humans relied on his skills to survive, he had to constantly be alert to keep his secret safe. Moreover, the cylon seductress who tricked him seemed to leave some sort of program in his brain, and he saw visions of her at the most inconvenient times. This storyline is so integral, its resolution should have been saved for the very end, culminating in something fantastic and inextricably woven into the climax of the entire series itself. At some point he definitely should have committed murder to safeguard his secret. Instead, they wrap up that arc and then spend a while trying to find something interesting for him to do before finally settling on a silly religious prophet with nothing at stake that relates to what the show is actually about (or should have been about).

Helo was once a fugitive, stranded on Caprica, running out of anti-radiation shots to keep himself alive on the now radioactive planet. He encountered another Boomer, but we knew she was a spy for the cylons. This new Boomer, soon to be called Athena, struggled with which side she should fight for, much like the original. When they reconnected with humanity, they still provided some mildly compelling storylines but they were always more interesting on Caprica. They should have spent the majority of the series there. They could have made contact with the human resistance movement and, when they finally did escape, discovered some key secret to the cylon plans to bring back to the humans. The revealing of this secret would have been a great beginning for the series’ last act. Keeping Boomer alive and in prison until Athena and Helo returned would have made for some possibilities too.

Just as deleterious as the increasingly lackluster characters was what happened to the cylons. We got to know them far too well. At times their motivations were bizarre, such as when they decided to occupy New Caprica in a blatant attempt to have something to say about the Iraq War no matter the damage done to the integrity of the show. They became a petty band of squabblers essentially indistinguishable from human beings. Other shows, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, have dealt with artificial intelligence and at what point such a creation should be considered a conscious being with rights like a human. Star Trek ultimately made Data very human, and it worked in that context. The writers of BSG went that route as well, but the consequences were disastrous.

At the show’s outset, the cylons were menacing, conscienceless killers who were out there somewhere, and might appear at any moment to wipe out the rest of humanity. They were like sharks in the ocean. One of the most terrifying parts was that they had built some models that looked human. The opening sequence set the tone: a beautiful robot meets a human at an established meeting point which the cylons have neglected for decades. She commits a most human act by kissing him… and then the station is destroyed. She displays no fear, for her program will be downloaded into a new unit. She does not suffer from mortality. Any indication of a conscience is absent. Another of the same model crushes a baby’s neck with no more remorse than we would have from swatting a fly. She does it merely as an act of curiosity. When that same model has sex with Baltar, her spine glows red, a characteristic which was a fine way to cast them as inhuman but which the writers forgot about, or abandoned, afterwards.

It is quite clear that these cylons were not humans. They should have remained machines, terrifying, hidden and never completely knowable. In proportion as the cylons regretted their actions, bickered among themselves and became too well known to us, they lost their mystique and ability to frighten. The show could not but suffer for it.

There were other problems too, but they were comparatively small and easily overlooked. It was the mishandling of characters and the cylon “race” that spoiled the project long before the lack of a total vision became apparent. It is a shame, and we do ourselves no favor by inventing excuses. BSG limped to the finish line, perhaps crawled over it, and the reasons are clear. Let the lesson be learned, so that the next promising start may have a better end. Do not launch until you know where you want to land. If you manage to create some interesting characters, realize what makes them interesting and keep them that way until the right time to finish their character arcs. And never, ever, ever ruin your villain until you are ready to drop the curtain.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Ohio State vs. Michigan

One need only watch a Michigan football game to understand why they have no souls. No sooner does the viewer see the opposing team commit the most atrocious unforced errors, or the line judge reverse a Michigan fumble by throwing a flag on a non-existent penalty, or the referee award a reception when the Wolverine receiver was well out of bounds, to wit, a Michigan team stumbling onto outcomes that, even in defeat, are far in excess of what their modest efforts on the field deserve, than he realizes that Wolverine nation has entered into a Faustian bargain at the cost of their eternal spirits. In return, they are to enjoy unmerited, though not unsurpassed, success on the football field.

I know of no Wolverine victory that was not aided by favoritism from the referees, or sloppy play on the part of opponents who, quite unmolested by the sluggish maize and blue defense, seem only to desire that the Wolverines have the ball again. I am aware of no Michigan defeat whose margin was not made narrower by the same. But even so, I strongly suspect that it was not with Lucifer that this pact was made, but with some minor demon in his employ.

I have reached this conclusion by perusing the college football archives since the time of Woody Hayes, and in that vast expanse of history I can find only one mention of a Michigan national championship, and a disputed one at that. In the decade of the fifties alone Ohio State managed twice as many. One imagines that Lucifer could have made Michigan nearly Ohio State’s equal had the bargain been with him. For this reason I feel confident that they have bargained with a lesser being who cannot lift them up to stand eye to eye with the Buckeyes, but only far enough to give them a good sniff of our flatulence.

Nevertheless, that rectal aroma is more than they deserve. Witness the 1998 game with Ohio State. Facing third and very long near their own goal line, but leading 14-3, the Buckeyes complete a long pass for a first down, a play that surely would have broken Michigan’s backbones if Wolverines were vertebrates. In steps the minor devil, and the referee rules a Buckeye fumble that replays conclusively proved was no such thing. Michigan gets a field goal and manages to stay close to the nation’s best team.

Or have a gander at the 2005 Penn State game, perhaps the Michigan game par excellence. Behind by a single score and with time running out, Michigan begins its drive by completing a pass in an area of the field generally reserved for coaches, bench warmers and the team cheerleaders. Typically, teams catching the ball there must return to the spot where they started the previous play and lose a down. Not so the Wolverines. Later in the drive, Michigan coach Lllllloyd Carr requests that the game be played for sixty minutes and two seconds, rather than the standard one hour, and this request is granted. At the sixty minute and one second mark, when most teams would be heading for the locker rooms, Michigan scored the touchdown it needed to win the game.

I could provide as many more examples as there are grains of sand in the Sahara. I invite the good reader to research on his own, if he has the stomach for it. The point here is that, if not a favorable wind, than at least a light breeze has blown in Michigan’s favor for as long as I have been acquainted with the gridiron sport, and that clearly some Hellspawn is responsible. Perhaps it is not strong enough to make them the leaders and best, but it more than suffices to irritate the rest of us who play the game without arcane interference.

There is good evidence that this sulfurous charm extends beyond the borders of the football field. Consider our thirty eighth president, Gerald Ford. A former Michigan football player, he got his ass into the chair behind the desk in the Oval Office. And how did he accomplish this? Not in the manner of the thirty seven presidents who came before him, i.e., by being on the ticket of a successful presidential campaign. Instead, Gerald Ford could do no better than the House of Representatives, and yet when first Spiro Agnew and then Richard Nixon fumbled their political careers away, he slipped into the Whitehouse without ever having earned the honor. If there has been a more perfect display of Michiganity, I have yet to hear of it.

But this year is different. Certainly, the Michigan win over Wisconsin had all the hallmarks of a typical maize and blue victory, Michigan State watched Michigan score a new kind of touchdown invented ad hoc by the officials in the replay booth, and Utah was struck by the same old affliction in the early going, but taking one game with another it seems clear that the minor devil, patron of the Ann Arbor pigskin, has come down with palsy. His modest powers have waned, and we see exactly what sort of record Michigan would have every year but for his sinister intervention. Fallen upon hard times even before this, at least against the noble warriors in Scarlet and Gray, Michigan comes stumbling into Columbus with lacerated hands, bludgeoned ribs and swelling of the brain.

Let our eleven warriors brave and bold take full advantage of this window of opportunity. Next year, no doubt, either the demon will recover or another bargain with another villain will be struck. This is our year, our time, to mete out to our northern neighbors in proportion as they deserve. May our boys with the beautiful silver helmets, riddled with Buckeye Leaves, not grow overconfident. Let justice be done, let goodness and decency thrive. Tomorrow, November the twenty second in the year of our Lord two thousand and eight, may Ohio State deliver such a thrashing to Michigan as to send them home howling and begging for mercy, so beaten in body and spirit that for a period of two years, they dare not return to Columbus, Ohio.


Monday, July 14, 2008

The All-Time Ohio State Football Team

It is generally acknowledged that THE Ohio State University football team is the most successful, tradition-laden, talent-filled football program in the entire world. The supporters of other powerful programs, like Notre Dame, Penn State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, Florida State, USC, LSU and Miami of Florida will readily acknowledge the superiority of the Buckeyes, as well as offer thanks for the many innovations and lessons that the men in Scarlet and Gray have given them over the years. In celebration of Ohio State, and as a culmination to the All-Decades teams we have named, let us choose the very best of the best of the men who have worn the uniform.


Troy Smith. No quarterback in Buckeye history has combined the patience and arm of a pocket passer with the quickness of a scrambler quite like Mr. Smith. Though this is not always the case, in 2006 the Heisman Trophy was awarded to the right guy.


Bob Ferguson. He was big, even by the standards of later decades. And he was fast. Those who saw him play, which the humble blogger must admit that he has not, generally say that Woody never had a better fullback. He came within a few votes of winning the Heisman himself.


Archie Griffin. Watch out, Mr. Griffin, because a young lad named Chris Wells is poised to surpass you, but for now we'll sti
with the universe's only two-time Heisman Trophy winner (and three-time All-American).


Orlando Pace. They invented statistics like the pancake block just for his sake. He took on other All-Americans and left them flattened in the dust. Any questions about his impact can be answered by looking at Pepe Pearson's stats in 1997, the year after Mr. Pace left, and compare them to 1996, when Orlando was still mowing down the competition.


John Hicks. An offensive tackle who came in second in the Heisman voting? The best lineman on what may have been the best offensive line in history: the 1973 Ohio State offensive line.


Jim Lachey. Did not start regularly until his senior year, he did not give up a sack the entire season, and went entire seasons in the pros without giving up a sack either. This was an offensive lineman who finished second in the state in the hurdles.


Jim Parker. Perhaps the greatest lineman in history, he was a multiple All-American and multiple All-Pro who could not be withstood. Anchored the line for the 1954 National Champions, paving the way for Howard Cassady.


Nick Mangold. Ohio State has had quite a few solid centers, but only Mangold was called the best prospect of the last fifteen years by pro scouts. Looks set to have a very fine and long NFL career.


Jan White. An All-American in a program known for allowing other teams to have the great Tight End athletes. One of the Super Sophs who won the 1968 National Championship.


Paul Warfield. His name was synonymous with excellence, both in the pros and in college. A multiple All-Pro, he ran alongside Bob Ferguson on the undefeated 1961 team.


Chris Carter. In a program famous, in recent decades, for its wide receivers, the two old school guys are still the best. Chris Carter, before a long and distinguished pro career, was an All-American for the Buckeyes.


Jim Houston. A sophomore on the 1957 National Champions and two-time All-American, he went on to have a long career for the Cleveland Browns. Woody said he was the best defensive end he ever had.


Mike Vrabel. It is generally acknowledged that this Buckeye All-American is the primary reason for the New England Patriots' recent success. At Ohio State, he was a sack specialist who could stuff the run too.


Jim Stillwagon. Another Super Soph from the 1968 squad, Mr. Stillwagon was twice named All-American as well as an Outland Award winner in 1970.


Dan Wilkinson. He wasn't at Ohio State very long, but he had perhaps more impact than any sophomore in Buckeye history. The number one pick of the NFL draft and All-American, he labored in the pros for a long time.


Randy Gradishar. No one was better than this two-time All-American, who in 1973 finished sixth in the Heisman voting. He went on to be All-Pro seven times for the Denver Broncos.


Chris Spielamn. For Buckeye fans who came of age in the 1980's, Spielman was synonymous with Buckeye Football. A tackling machine and two-time All-American, he went on to multiple All-Pro honors.


A.J. Hawk. It took a lot for Tom Cousineau to get knocked off the list, but no linebacker in recent memory has equaled what this two-time All-American did (keep an eye on Lauranaitis for his senior season!).


Shawn Springs. This number three draft pick and All-American with a long NFL career was the epitome of a shut-down cornerback. Quarterbacks simply did not throw in his direction, and for a very good reason.


Neal Colzie. Another stalwart from the 1973 defense, this All-American was a great kick and punt returner as well. There are plenty of other talented CB's from which to choose, but we think Mr. Colzie edges them out for the second CB spot.


Jack Tatum. The national defensive MVP of 1970, yet another Super Soph and 1968 National Champion. He was a two-time All-American and went on to a fabulous pro career. No one hit harder, no one was faster, only no one his size was stronger. You couldn't design a better strong safety, cornerback, monsterback or linebacker. Along with Jim Parker, Orlando Pace and Randy Gradishar, he might be the premier football player in Ohio State history. They just don't come any better.


Tim Fox. A very difficult decision. Do you take another strong safety and three-time All-American Mike Doss, or the all time interception king Mike Sensibaugh (yet another Super Soph)? We'll say that Mr. Fox edges them out for the final spot. An All-American and member of the 1973 defense, Tim Fox had an equally successful pro career when he was done playing for the Scarlet and Gray.


Mike Nugent. Never has Ohio State had a kicker with such range and accuracy. Ever.


Tom Tupa. Three-time All-American Tom Skladany is an acceptable replacement, but Tom Tupa was an All-American in an age when kickers and punters were finally out of the Stone Age.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

It has been a long time since we heard from Indiana Jones. In the interim, Harrison Ford changed, the world changed, cinema changed, but Steven Spielberg set out to deliver a movie as if it were old times. He waited nearly two decades to film the fourth installment, but if the wait between sequels is a positive boon for a movie maker, I would suggest he did not wait long enough. Perhaps he should have waited an additional two hundred years.

Set in 1957, when Indiana Jones would have been about as old as Harrison Ford is now, the fourth movie of the series replaces Nazis with Soviets, and the bulk of its action takes place in South America. The evil Commies are looking for a weapon, just like Hitler was in the two previous movies that matter, and they think they have found it with a strange artifact, thousands of years old, made of crystal and carved by unknown methods into the shape of a vaguely humanoid skull. Indiana gets caught up in all the fuss, and along the way meets up with some characters from his past while performing death defying stunts and such.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a diseased movie whose manifold infirmities have caused dozens of symptoms which ravage the celluloid. One disease is certainly George Lucas, who, if the tales are true, had too much of a hand in developing the movie. Another disease would be a rich, successful director with little reason to push himself and switch off the auto pilot. A third sickness would be a certain actress who one would swear has not acted since 1981 and failed to get all the rust off before stepping in front of the camera.

The symptoms of these diseases, to paraphrase Shakespeare, maintain such a politic state of evil that they will allow no good parts to intermingle. I say this with only the faintest trace of hyperbole, because in the entirety of the film there is almost nothing worth praising. The first act is an attempt to squeeze every single iconic fifties cliché and scrap of popular history into about a twenty minute time period. Other than Marilyn Monroe getting her panties revealed by an updraft, I think they managed to include them all. I found it distracting and entirely too cutesy. The first three movies were set in the thirties, and that was about it. Costumes fit the time period, at least as far as I could tell, but they never made a fetish of it. For some reason, the filmmakers decided that Harrison Ford, in the fourth film, needed to experience the entire decade in less than a half hour, and the result is distracting and entirely inappropriate for setting the mood of an Indiana Jones movie, on the order of a laugh track for Terminator II.

The characters that we knew from Raiders of the Lost Ark are gone, replaced by caricatures, as if lifted from a third rate sitcom. The banter that passes between them is as uninspiring and hackneyed as can be imagined, with entire exchanges bereft of the slightest mark of distinction, the merest hint that this is a conversation that belongs to these characters and not to any of a million underdeveloped roles languishing, never to be produced, on dusty shelves around Hollywood. These words are not the dialog of artistic inspiration, but merely an average of all the other conversations on like topics, an average that fits as well in your film as mine, but belongs in no film at all. That David Koepp, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, men with a combined total of over a century of experience in the industry, should make characters and scenes and dialog like this at this stage in their careers pleases me very little.

If David Koepp could not muster the energy to fashion a decent script, one can hardly credit Spielberg with a significantly better effort. His action sequences are glossed over, run through with ease, and Harrison Ford and the other actors take their cue from him. At no time does one feel that Indiana Jones is actually in danger, like we did during the magisterial truck sequence in the first movie, or during any one of dozens of sequences from Raiders and Grail. There is no effort to delve into the action and make it feel exhilarating. It feels as safe and secure as if it had been rehearsed a hundred times, like a dance number in a Broadway musical.

There is a moment when Indiana and Mutt (Shia Labeouf) are riding a motorcycle and being chased by bad guys. Indiana gets pulled from the motorcycle into a car, Mutt steers the bike to the other side of the car, and Indy pops out the other window and back onto the bike. It is accomplished in about five seconds with maybe five or six different shots and has no greater effect than that of a moderately clever sight gag. Contrast this with the aforementioned truck fight in the first movie, which is its own miniature film with a good beginning, middle and end. Along the way we feel every bump and bruise, we feel Indy being dragged along the ground, we fret when the grill on the front begins to bend and we see no way out for him. But this can only be achieved with an effort, which apparently Mr. Spielberg could not be bothered to spare.

As damaging as anything else about the movie is the lack of restraint on display, a lack which makes mystery and awe wither. When the credits roll after Raiders, the Ark is still an enigma, still awe-inspiring, still not completely knowable. Crystal Skull manages to turn its artifact and the beings behind it into something mundane. Too much is revealed about them; too much is made explicit and obvious. What a director does not show is every bit as important as what he does show, and Mr. Spielberg did not restrain himself enough.

This problem of restraint is also evident with the action sequences which, when shown in the trailers, made me uneasy from the outset. When Indiana Jones was entertaining back in the 1980's, it was with far more modest action pieces that were marvelously well directed at their best. Spielberg even managed to create a successful sequel with the third movie, but the intervening years have done something to him. Where before the action was grounded in a certain amount of believability, it is now absurdly exaggerated, well beyond the bounds of good taste. Pushed to a certain extent, an action sequence can be thrilling. Pushed too far, it becomes commonplace and boring. The trap of the sequel has ensnared even Steven Spielberg, who, in trying to outdo himself, has instead undone himself. Crystal Skull will take its place next to Alien Resurrection on the shelf of sequels that, I am prepared to swear, never happened.

Final Grade: D+

Friday, May 2, 2008

Ohio State Football All 2000's Team

With the horrors of the 1990's behind us, Buckeye fans were eager for a brighter future, and Coach Jim Tressel gave us just that. With three appearances in national title games, with a 2002 national championship, as well as multiple Big Ten titles and a 2005 class which produced five first round draft picks, the program seems to be back where Woody would have wanted it. For the first time since the 1970's, Ohio State has won the decade against Michigan, with two seasons remaining, and looks like the favorite to win the 2008 national championship.

Though there is still more to come before the decade is finished, already an impressive array of talent fills the All-Decade team. Nothing is set in stone, but here is a look at the best of the decade so far.


QB Troy Smith - Heisman Trophy winner and All-American, no one else can hope to match him in this time span.

FB Jamar Martin - Branden Joe was a very good runner, but Martin was more of a complete package.

TB Chris Wells - 1,600+ yards in 2007. And miles to go before he sleeps, and miles to go before he sleeps.


OL Nick Mangold - Called the best Center prospect to come out of college in the last fifteen years, an All-American who jumped right into the starting position in the NFL.

OL LeCharles Bentley - Either Bentley or Mangold would have to move to guard, but neither one can be left off the All-Decade team. An All-American.

OL Alex Boone - Another year to go, his agility is reminiscent of Pace and Hicks and his strength is unquestioned.

OL Kirk Barton - An All-American and part of the powerful 2007 O-Line.

OL Alex Stepanovich - A number of talented athletes could go in this last spot, including Datish and Olivea, but we'll go with Stepanovich because... just because.


WR Michael Jenkins - Strong career with great numbers to back it and a good attitude as well. No relation to the CB with the same last name.

WR Anthony Gonzalez - There is plenty of competition for the second receiver spot, but Gonzalez was stronger than either Holmes or Ginn and was just as fast. Keep an eye out for Robiskie in 2008.

TE Ben Hartsock - At a position which Ohio State does not generally stack with talent, Hartsock was a solid performer in all aspects.


DE Vernon Gholston - A physical specimen non-pareil, one wonders what would have happened with a senior season. All-American and #6 pick in the NFL draft.

DE Will Smith - Is beginning to dominate in the pros like he did for OSU, helping them win a national title. Big Ten Defensive MVP and All-American.

DT Quinn Pitcock - An All-American who caused no end of troubles for offenses as he charged up the middle.

DT Tim Anderson - Never attracted too much notice, but did great work for the Buckeyes' in 2002 and 2003. Continues to perform well in the NFL.


LB A.J. Hawk - The best LB to don the Scarlet and Gray since Chris Spielman. Described by some as a force of nature. Two time All-American and Butkus award snub.

LB James Laurinaitis - Let's see what happens in 2008; Hawk's position at the top is not entirely secure. This one will almost certainly be another three time All-American for the Buckeyes.

LB Matt Wilhelm - An All-American that the 'experts' said could not make it in the pros. He is now having the last laugh. An integral part of the 2002 national champions.


CB Malcolm Jenkins - Holds his own with the best Buckeyes of all time, and he still has a senior season to impress us some more. No relation to the WR with the same last name.

CB Nate Clements - A tough call with Gamble waiting in the wings, but Clements was a lock down corner, and he is now getting, in the NFL, the recognition he should have gotten in college.

S Mike Doss - Three time All-American? Say no more.

S Donte Whitner - Got some All-American recognition, but the NFL valued him a bit more accurately. Will Allen, Nate Salley and Donnie Nickey are acceptable alternatives.