Zombies and cannibals.

Let’s begin this post with an exercise. Take a moment, and try to bite a chunk out of your forearm. I’ll wait.

I’m going to guess that you couldn’t do it—if you actually tried, that is. I certainly couldn’t (and, for the record, I’ve tried on more than one occasion). But it’s a certain kind of couldn’t: what we might loosely call a psychological or instinctive couldn’t—our lizard brains prevent us.

I’m after a different kind of couldn’t: I’m curious whether or not it is physically, physiologically possible for a human being—say, a thirty-year-old male with reasonably well-preserved teeth—to bite into and tear a chunk off of another living human being’s limbs or torso. The biting-my-own-arm experiment is really unhelpful in answering this question: sure, I coud bite my arm harder than I’m willing to bite it, but I have no way of judging if that extra force would be sufficient to puncture and tear human skin and muscle.

Why am I interested in this question, you might be wondering? Zombies, that’s why.

I’m currently working on a paper—and by “working on” I mean “I wrote and submitted an abstract to a conference and I’m not writing anything else until I hear if it was accepted”—…a paper about the connection between zombies and late-early-modern (1650-1800) European representations of cannibals. One of the things I’m interested in is tracing a genealogical path between the two—someday maybe I’ll write a post about that. Right now, I’m interested in teeth:

Gnarly-ass zombie teeth. They don’t look capable of chewing on a raw steak, which I’m guessing—but only guessing—is easier than chewing on tasty (again: guessing) human flesh. The point is that her teeth are prominent—like, say, this dude’s teeth:

Pointy damn teeth, and the defining feature of the photograph. Without the filed teeth, the photograph is something else, something less memorable: the teeth make the man.

I’m not sure I have a point yet, except to point out that teeth are perhaps the defining feature of both cannibals and zombies. The defining action of both is, of course, that they eat people; and, certainly, other physical features are more prominent—zombies are more or less decayed, cannibals are “black” (in the sense that they aren’t “white”). Both of those markers are external, on the skin, difficult if not impossible to conceal—but the teeth can be hidden until the moment of biting.

There’s something to that: think of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring (the film) when Bilbo, old and decrepit, sees the Ring in Frodo’s possession and suddenly lunges at him—no, don’t think about it, watch it: scary teeth! I’m sure I could find examples in, I don’t know, Alien or any adaptation of Dracula ever made. The teeth are revealed at the moment when the threat is revealed as a threat: or, rather, the revelation of scary (read “pointy”) teeth is what reveals the bearer of the pointy teeth as a threat—one that is about to attempt to eat whoever it is that’s just seen those scary teeth.

Hopefully my abstract will be accepted, and I’ll have an excuse to keeping fleshing this out—and we can all ponder together whether or not human teeth are capable of what zombie teeth do, and why that might be important.

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“The Force is strong with this one.”

I grew up with Star Wars. That’s not saying much: a whole lot of white American dudes who are my age, ±10 years, also grew up with Star Wars. It’s a cultural touchstone.

There are degrees of “growing up with Star Wars,” though. For me, Star Wars was just the original trilogy. I was aware of the novelizations of the films—but I’ve never seen the point of reading a book based on a movie—and of the Expanded Universe. I played Shadows of the Empire on the N64—but I think we’d rented it, and it didn’t really make sense to me as Star Wars. I never read any of the novels or comic books, though—which is a bit odd, because I read at least a few Star Trek novels (Dark MirrorImzadiFederation, some others the titles of which escape me). Maybe it’s not that odd: Star Trek was episodic (even the original crew’s films are episodic), and so the standalone stories of the novels were just other ‘episodes’ in the narrative of the EnterpriseStar Wars—the original trilogy—was a self-contained narrative arc: it didn’t need extra stuff. More than that: the extra stuff detracted from the unity of the trilogy. (I’m writing in the past tense because I’m trying to recreate the reasoning of my 13-year-old self—I don’t know if it’s working.)

Jack is also growing up with Star Wars, but his experience is entirely different. The EU wasn’t really a thing until the late 1980s or early 1990s, when the original trilogy was already cemented in my mind as the totality of Star Wars. Jack’s first exposure to Star Wars—at not quite three years old—was a Youtube clip of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi fighting Darth Maul at the end of The Phantom Menace. He wanted to watch sword fights, and the duel at the beginning of The Princess Bride didn’t hold his attention long (the banter was over his head, I guess). We moved from there to other lightsaber duels, in clip form, removed from context—and pretty soon, all he wanted to watch was the battle sequence from the end of Attack of the Clones. We finally let him watch the movies—and we started with the prequel trilogy, and if that’s a problem, fuck you—when he was sick with a stomach bug after Christmas 2010, when he was three years and a few months old (it’s possible I have this wrong—it might have been 2009). Then there were Star Wars LEGOs. For his fourth birthday, he got the first season of the Clone Wars series, and seasons two and three for Christmas, and that’s where we are.

I have a point, I think. Several points, maybe. The first is that, for Jack, the EU is a given, and the original trilogy is not a self-contained narratively-unified entity. He’s got a decent collection of Star Wars LEGOs (which I’ve written about before), and his play with them is pretty fluid: characters and events from the entirety of the Star Wars universe (or the parts of it he knows) are fair game, and he has no respect for canon or continuity (hell, sometimes Gandalf shows up). He’s writing fan-fiction, basically, and I hope he continues to do so as he gets older. That’s the first point.

The second point: I think a lot of dudes (of both sexes) of roughly my age try to recreate their own experience of Star Wars for their children, and—an much as I enjoyed reading this account of such a re-creation—maybe such a project is misguided. Our kids are not us, and they should have their own experience. We can guide, but that guidance should be minimal and unobtrusive: and not just with Star Wars, but with life in general. Let kids explore, experiment, &c. I’m sure there’s a name (or several names) for this parenting philosophy. Montessori parenting: that’s a thing, right? Close enough.


Contagion

I just got back from watching Contagion (there’s a dollar theater in Plano—I didn’t know those were still a thing): it’s been on my list of movies to watch since I heard about it, and I went tonight instead of waiting for the DVD release because I’m going to be teaching the film in the spring. A colleague and I are putting together a writing course on disasters, and Contagion is one of the texts.

One of the things that means is that there will be more posts about this movie, from a more critical/pedagogical perspective, as I actually teach it—and so for now, I’m just going to talk about how awesome it was. Also: there will be spoilers.

The film opens with Gwyneth Paltrow, coughing, and we know very quickly that she’s going to die (if, in fact, we didn’t know that going in). When she gets home to Minnesota from Hong Kong and hugs her son, who is about seven, we know he’s going to die, too—and we might expect her husband, Matt Damon, to die as well, but he doesn’t. There’s a fair amount going on during the opening minutes—we’re introduced to some other major characters, we see the early spread of the virus—but the mini-arc involving Beth (Paltrow), Mitch (Damon), and Clark (the kid) is one of the best parts of the film. Beth is sick, sure, but then she collapses at home, is rushed to the hospital, and dies—very quickly. Damon’s performance as he’s being told of his wife’s death is … well, excellent: it is not excessively (obviously) emotionally manipulative, and it gives a personal, individual weight of grief to the sufferings of countless millions that the film gives us. And when Clark dies while Mitch is at the hospital, well, you know that the film isn’t fucking around.

The cast was uniformly good. I was particularly impressed by Kate Winslet—which reminds me that I should watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind again soon—and by Jennifer Ehle (though I must say that Regency-era dress is more flattering than an orange biohazard suit). I am always impressed by Matt Damon.

Jude Law did well with a shitty character—my initial impression is that the blogger he plays is an antagonistically-written caricature, but I may change my mind. The character is used to make some interesting and salient points about the way misinformation spreads virally (get it?), but he also feels one-dimensional in a way that even more minor characters don’t. That’s one of the film’s strengths: despite the large cast of characters, and the ensemble cast, everyone feels like a real person—except Law’s Alan Krumwiede, despite his admirable efforts. I mean, what the hell kind of name is Krumwiede? The next stupidest name in the film is “Cheever,” and that’s not stupid at all.

I’ll end by saying that this is one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen—even though it ends better than one might expect—and now I feel compelled to stockpile canned goods and bottled water and vegetable seeds and ammunition and batteries, and et cetera, so that I can quarantine myself and my family when this shit actually happens, because we’re overdue for an epidemic.

Also: apparently chefs in Asian casinos don’t wash their hands after handling raw pork. So, watch out for that.


Day 214: Measure your IQ.

The Book provides a handy nine-question, ten-minute test with which I am to measure my IQ.

Before I tell you how I did, let me tell you a few things. First, I have never taken an IQ test, and so I have nothing with which to compare the results of the Book’s test — and I’m pretty skeptical about the Book’s test, having spent 214 days with the thing. I suppose an IQ test might have been administered to me somewhere back in the depths of grade school, but I’m not sure, and even if I did take such a test, I have no idea what my score was.

Second: I have no idea what the numbers mean. I remember that Forrest Gump had an IQ of seventy-five, which was five points lower than was required by the state of Alabama for admission to public school, and that his mom had to fornicate with the principal in order to get him in. That’s my only frame of reference.

So, without further ado: according to the Book’s test, my IQ is 149, which is at the high end of the Very Bright range, and two points shy of Liar.

That seemed high, I guess, if only because of its proximity to Liar, and so I took an online IQ test — at IQTest.com, where else? — because an online IQ test is bound to be infinitely more accurate than the one in the Book —— and keep in mind that it’s late, and I’ve had a few bourbons ——— but the Internet puts my IQ at 134. Splitting the difference — which I’m going to do, whether it makes sense or not — puts me at 141.5, which I’ll round up to 142.

That’s pretty good, I guess? It’s all bullshit, of course, but I’ll take it.

Also: Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.


Some thoughts on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part two.

I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two on Sunday evening. I came out feeling … underwhelmed.

I almost said “disappointed,” but I wasn’t, exactly. Just underwhelmed.

I would like to say that this underwhelm-ment has nothing to do with the fact that the movie was different than the book — and I think I mostly can say that, because the myriad changes to Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows, Part One didn’t bother me that much. Films are different than books: each can do things the other can’t, and there isn’t much (or maybe any) real overlap.

And yet: it’s hard not to compare the two, especially because the final battle as Rowling wrote it is so cinematic. It’s full of exposition, but not in a boring, didactic way: it’s exciting exposition. But in the movie, there’s not anyone there to exposit to as Harry and Voldemort square off for the last time. That bothered me, a bit; it felt anti-climactic. Also, Voldemort’s death made no sense in the movie: he loses the wand, and then disintegrates? No. Bullshit. He’s not Sauron; he didn’t forge carve the Elder Wand; his power is not bound up with it. Even if we assume that, in the movie, Voldemort has cast a Killing Curse and Harry has cast Expelliarmus — as happens in the book — what happens in the movie is not a rebounding of Voldemort’s Killing Curse onto himself. I’m not sure if that made sense, but it certainly doesn’t make sense in the movie.

That’s a relatively minor quibble, but it’s also a moment in which the movie misses a chance to be really spectacular, and settles instead for … mediocrity is the wrong word; smallness? Yes, that’s closer: this final film feels like the first few — and they’re fine, in their own way, but they have a certain small-screen quality to them that the “epic conclusion” ought not to have. An epic conclusion should have exactly the opposite quality: there ought to have been so much going on — so many curses and countercurses and rubble and swearing and howling flying through the air — that one would have to watch the movie twice or thrice before one felt even close to comfortable with what was going on.

There are other moments like that: Fred’s death (and Remus’s and Tonks’s, also); Molly Weasley’s duel with Bellatrix; Neville’s decapitation of Nagini; basically all of the dueling that doesn’t involve Harry or Voldemort. The break-in at Gringotts and the destruction of the Room of Requirement are, I think, the only moments that really feel big enough, and they could have been better.

I’m sure I will see this movie many, many more times — I have children, after all — and it will probably grow on me, but I think I will always prefer the novel. Unlike Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films — which are not better than the novels, but which can stand on their own — Deathly Hallows Part Two will always remind me of how good it could have been, and wasn’t.

Not that I could have done a better job, of course.


Day 182: Return to childhood.

Let me tell you what I was like as a child: I was a foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, and misanthropic crotchety old man who read too much and played with Legos. That is: exactly the same as I am now.

Done and done: time for a drink.

No, not really. Not really done, I mean — it’s always time for a drink.

One of the other things I did as a child was watch movies: I probably saw the original Star Wars trilogy several hundred times before I was ten (and I’m on the way to seeing it a hundred more times before my son is ten). The difference is that suspension of disbelief used to be par for the course for me when watching a movie. If, as a child, I ever stopped to think how absolutely ridiculous it was for a giant worm — with teeth! — to be living in an asteroid, let alone how absurd it was for there to have been enough of an atmosphere in its intestine for Han and Leia to walk around in street clothes outside the Millennium Falcon —— I say, if such things occurred to me, I ignored them and went back to enjoying the movie. I tried to return to that — that simple, unquestioning, naive engagement with a film — as today’s task.

I went to see Cars 2.

You need to understand that I love Pixar’s movies, all of them — this could be a very long digression, but I’ll just say that I can’t watch the last twenty minutes of Toy Story 3 without someone chopping up onions — also I should say that I have crush on Mrs. Incredible — and Flik’s “I know it’s a rock! I’ve spent a lot of time around rocks!” line is funnier than it should be — you know, if I only had Pixar’s filmography and the films of the Coen brothers to watch, I’d be a happy man ——— anyway, I was saying that I love all of Pixar’s movies, except Cars.

Don’t get me wrong: Cars is better than a lot of other animated films, most of which are nothing more than dog shit run through a projector, but it’s still just okay in terms of the rest of Pixar’s canon. I also cannot — absolutely can not — suspend disbelief while watching it. The reasons why are numerous, but they boil down to cars don’t have opposable thumbs, for fuck’s sake.

And since sequels are usually worse than the films that spawned them — with notable exceptions, of course — I was anticipating having trouble with this task, especially since I’d been informed that Cars 2 was running 34% at Rotten Tomatoes.

I was pleasantly surprised. No, scratch that: I loved it. It’s visually stunning, which we expect — the fly-over shots of London were breathtakingly realistic, though — and Michael Caine was phenomenal, but what sold me was the fact that it’s a spoof of spy movies (just like Burn After Reading, another movie that I love but nobody else does). I’m sure it won’t hold up to repeated viewings, but it might surprise me, and it’ll definitely always be better than the first one — but I had fun, at a movie, which hasn’t happened since…

…well, since last November — since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I.

No, wait, I saw Super 8 last week, and it was fantastic. Fun, even, despite the fact that I wasn’t trying not to think about it.

I’m not sure where that leaves us. I guess movies are just more fun the first time, on a giant screen, and so loud we should all be wearing earplugs?

Probably so, yes. I guess I should go to the movies more often.


Day 156: Redesign an everyday object.

There are two ways this could go — two ways it does go, because this happens all the time — the object in question can become genuinely better or more useful (the iPhone being the best recent example I can think of); it’s far more common, though, for the object to just get more complicated, without becoming any more useful, and often complication makes the object less useful. To wit:

Any idiot design student can take something that works just fine and render it non-functional — and I could have taken that route, no problem: spill-proof glasses which are hollow spheres, energy-saving lamps that don’t turn on, fans with no blades, &c.

I didn’t want to bullshit my way through this task, though; I wanted to do more than “redesign” something: I wanted to reinvent, to revolutionize — and I wanted a technology so old and so ubiquitous that people don’t even think of it as technology anymore.

As an aside: I’ve been using a lot of italics lately, and I’m not sure why. It just feels right, is all. Also I’ve started using longer dashes, and probably nobody cares, but I love dashes — Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is full of dashes, of all sorts of lengths, and they’re one of the many things I love about that novel.

Anyway, about the “everyday object” I chose to radically improve:

I chose rocks.

There’s an old episode of The Simpsons in which Bart and Lisa play rock/paper/scissors — as another aside, I have no idea what that should look like in print — and Bart picks rock, like always, and thinks to himself: “Good old rock; nothing beats that!” — and loses, because, of course, paper beats rock.

Well, not anymore. And that’s not all — except I can’t really tell you what else the New Rock™ does, or what modifications I’ve made, because the patent isn’t filed yet, and I don’t want my brilliant ideas stolen. Rest assured, though, New Rock™ will change your life in ways you can’t imagine: New Rock™ will not only replace your old rocks, it will replace your blender, your kitchen knives, your plunger, your spouse, and your sense of self-worth.

New Rock™: this shit just got real.