Unreview: Captain Marvel (No Spoilers)

Unreview Rules:

  1. I have to like it,
  2. I have to pay for it,
  3. I try my best to use E-Prime (avoid using any iteration of the verb “to be”) whenever I talk about the thing.

 

The thing I liked most about Captain Marvel and the thing I liked least are both liked to such a huge spoiler, I can’t talk about it. That means I can’t tell you the main reason why I liked the movie so much and the one thing I felt… Well, dammit. I can’t say that without breaking Rule #3. Let me try that again.

I don’t think the thing doesn’t need to be said—I think it does need to be said—but there’s a moment where the filmmakers lay it on so thick, I think it detracts from the point. And that moment, that tiny moment, pulled me out of the movie.

Again, not because I disagree, but because…eh, I should shut up. Because I really like this movie. I like it so much, I’ve moved it up into my top 5 Marvel movies.

When the trailers started hitting the screens, I must admit, I did not feel it. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see this movie. (In fact, according to my latest schedule, I’ll be seeing it two more times before Wednesday.) They just weren’t doing it for me. Trepidation crept into my heart. But once Brie Larson hit the screen, that moment died. The trailers completely failed to capture Brie Larson’s screen presence. That woman could loan you 10 points of Charisma and she’d still have 18+. She held my attention throughout the film; from the first tête-à-tête to the first post-credit scene. (There’s two. You should stay for both.)

And the way Marvel handles her throughout matches up with a few other films I’ve seen over the past year. Films like Bumblebee, Alita: Battle AngelIncredibles 2Ant-Man and the WaspOcean’s 8, and many others. Beautiful women who are not sexualized in any way. Sexy as all Hell, but not sexualized. Makes me feel happy. Makes me feel that maybe, just maybe, Hollywood has figured out how to make films women want to see. Hell, that want to see. I mean, I work in an industry where fetish and fantasy are used as synonyms and I’ve been fighting against that shit since 1995. I’m glad to see others are, too.

Funny story and a bit of a side-step, but trust me, it’ll make sense when we swing back. When I was in high school in Georgia, one of my teachers had pictures of both MLK and Malcolm X on his wall. I told him, “I know who MLK is…but who is this?” He gave me a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X to read. When I was done, he asked me what I thought. I told him, “I feel angry. And sad. And confused.”

Later, I went to see Spike Lee’s movie. I lived in Los Angeles at the time and when I went into the theater, I was the only white person there. The only one. I was frightened, but I stayed put. When the movie ended, I looked around. I was certain something was going to happen. And while I watched the film, I realized how few white people were in it. And it was at that moment I realized, “Well shit, this is what it feels like.” That moment when nobody in the theater and nobody up on the screen looks like you.

That walk from the theater to my car in the dark parking lot took a month. But nothing happened to me. Probably because everyone knew what would happen if something did happen to me. That night changed my life forever.

So, back to Captain Marvel. Watching this movie and watching Bumblebee and watching Alita: Battle Angel and watching Widows (why did you not see Widows, people?) showed me something new. All those movies showed me walking, talking examples of “the female eye.” Something I’d heard about before but didn’t understand until I actually saw it. That’s because I’m slow and I need to see things to understand them. When I sat in the theater for Bumblebee and saw young and gorgeous Jorge Lendeborg Jr. taking off his shirt, I suddenly realized: “That’s not for me.” And when the theater responded to him taking off his shirt, I was back in Los Angeles, sitting in a theater of people who didn’t look like me.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

No, wait. That’s not just okay. That’s pretty awesome. Because the people who make movies can make movies that aren’t just about people like me. They can be for someone else. But I still get to enjoy them because they’re great storytelling.

Pay close attention to why Carol Danvers becomes what she is. I can’t say much more without spoilers, but trust me, you’ll want to pay attention here. She isn’t given anything, it’s because of the choices she makes. Because of who she is. This isn’t empowerment, it’s empowering. There’s a difference. Take a Mythology 101 class and learn the difference.

Loved the cat, loved the friend, loved the friend’s daughter, loved Jude Law…

I did not love the Stan Lee thing at the beginning. At the end of it, someone in the theater shouted, “Thank you Stan Lee!”

I shouted, “And Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko!”

That’s all I’m gonna say about that.

Unreview: Adjustment Day

Normally, my rules for an unreview include an attempt to use E-Prime. In other words, I try my best to avoid using any iteration of the verb “to be.” Let me start this unreview by breaking that rule.

This shit is mean. I mean bleak. I mean if the Red Wedding got you to throw a book across the room, this one is gonna make you head out to the garage for the gas can and start a bonfire. I mean this shit makes Fight Club look like Club Med. In an interview, Chuck said, “My parents are dead. I can write what I want.”

That’s your warning. Your last warning.

When I started reading Adjustment Day, I felt like I was reading Fight Club, Part 3. That’s how I felt at the start. That feeling didn’t last long. I quickly grew to understand this was something different. Something meaner. Palahniuk has always been a satirist, but not all satire has to be mean. This shit is mean.

It’s mean to the identity politics of the Left. It’s mean to the separatist movements of the Right. Like the “protagonists” in the book, this book has a List. And you’re probably on it. I’m on it.

Talking heads who are too busy making millions commenting on the system rather than trying to fix it. They’re on the List.

Politicians who are too busy making millions abusing the system’s loopholes rather than trying to fix them. They’re on the List.

Conservative pundits who scream about globalists, Jews, and Libtards being responsible for all their problems. They’re on the List.

Liberals who weaponize identity politics to make sure they can point blame in all directions. They’re on the List.

Separatists in Texas, Alaska, California and The South who holler about bringing about the next Civil War. They’re on the List.

We’re all on the List. Including me. Including you. Really angry men with guns are tired of our shit.

And Adjustment Day is coming.

 

I read through the book, laughing all the way. When I laughed, Jessica looked at me curiously. I told her what I was laughing about and she did not laugh. She winced.

I’m laughing because I’m wincing.

This is Swift’s A Modest Proposal on Percocet. And unlike science fiction, this shit ain’t about what could be, it’s telling things the way they are.

People don’t care who the leader is so long as there’s a leader. That may as well be a quote from the book—and I mean the book inside the book, the book called Adjustment Day that’s being passed around by really angry men with guns. And two years ago, I would have scoffed at that thought. Not here. Not in America.

Yeah. I was wrong. I was wrong about a lot of things. Like saying “Adjustment Day is coming.”

Nah. It’s already here.

 

GLOW

Glow on Netflix—a show about women in wrestling that isn’t just for wrestling fans.

Every GM should watch professional wrestling.

Let me amend that. Every GM should watch good professional wrestling. And yes, before you ask, let me say that there is such a thing.

For most people, their experience with the genre is limited to 80’s style WWF kick-punch-repeat. Well, my fellow gamers, that’s like someone saying, “I don’t like gaming” after playing Tomb of Horrors.

When friends of mine ask me how I can watch pro wrestling, I ask them for twenty-five minutes of their time so they can watch Max Landis’ Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling. And if you aren’t a wrestling fan and you’re wondering why I am and you haven’t seen it yet, you should. Video below (probably NSFW, depending on where you work).

I could go on about this, but that’s not why I’m here. Why I’m here is to encourage you to watch GLOW on Netflix. A show that’s loosely based on the real all-woman wrestling promotion from the ’80’s. I say “loosely based” because while the show does tell the story of an actual wrestling promotion, the characters are completely fictional. Now, me being a nut for history—especially the history of the things I love like gaming and pro wrestling—I recognized a lot of what’s going on. There are tips of the hat to the actual people involved and that’s kind of cool. Almost like making a fake version of Europe for a fantasy roleplaying game…

Watching the show reminded me of running an all-woman game of Changeling a while back. Running a game for women is entirely different than running a game for men. Priorities are different. The tone is different. And watching a show run by women, written by women with an almost entirely female cast about something I love gave me an entirely different perspective on professional wrestling.

But then again, this isn’t a show about professional wrestling. It’s a show about women in professional wrestling, but it’s still a show about women. And in the hyper-testosterone world of wrestling, that’s not just a breath of fresh air, it’s like opening the door on Socrates’ cave.

I not only enjoyed the heck out of watching GLOW, I’m also grateful for it. I ran all the way through it, watching episode after episode. And I’ll probably watch it again. Seeing GLOW and Wonder Woman in the span of a couple of weeks had a profound impact on me as a writer, a storyteller, a game designer and a man.

A friend of mine once asked me, “John, why do so many women play your games?”

I replied, “I try to make games women want to play.”

GLOW isn’t just a show for women, but it is a show about women. And women shouldn’t be the only ones watching it.

UnReview: Luke Cage

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I just finished watching the first four episodes of Luke Cage and after the first, I came to a realization.

I could not write this show.

The other two Marvel shows, I could have taken a swing at. I could write about Daredevil, I could have written about Jessica Jones. Whether or not the shows would have increased or decreased in quality isn’t the issue. I could have taken a swing at those shows and written with some skill.

I watched the first fifty minutes of Luke Cage and knew I wouldn’t have stood a chance at making something this awesome. Not only that, I would have been lost in the woods.

Back in the ‘90’s, Spike Lee took a lot of heat for saying a white man couldn’t direct a movie about Malcolm X. I understood what he meant at the time. My 10th grade Civics teacher was a black man. We were in Georgia. He had a picture of King and Malcolm on the wall. I knew who King was, but I had no idea who Malcolm was. So, he gave me a copy of Malcolm’s autobiography on a Friday. I read it all weekend. Stayed up at night. I burned through it like a Stephen King novel. I returned it on the following Monday. He was surprised I read it that fast and even suggested I hadn’t read it and gave me a small verbal quiz. Then, he asked me what I thought.

I told him, “I understand why you don’t trust white people.” Then, I said, “In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t trust white people anymore.”

So, when Spike Lee said a white man couldn’t make a Malcolm X movie, I understood what he meant. The same goes for Luke Cage.

Sure, I could write a Luke Cage script, but it would not have the nuance or substance this show has. It wouldn’t have the same dialogue, the same nuance. I would have never thought to put the Notorious B.I.G. on Cottonmouth’s wall. I couldn’t write the basketball dialogue. I wouldn’t know the black authors and poets to invoke. In short, I would have made the script white. And Luke Cage isn’t white.

I love this show. I can’t express how much I love it. I spent five years in Georgia, and for three of those years, I was steeped in black culture. That’s because I was a kid from the North. The white kids literally tortured me. For the latter part of my life in Georgia, most of my friends were black. The black kids didn’t trust me at first, but I earned that trust. Even still, that was a long time ago and I was still an outsider. But I learned blues and jazz from men and women who played and sang. I learned how to tell stories from an 80-year-old black man, sitting on a back porch, drinking sweet tea. But I was still an outsider.

Watching Luke Cage reminds me the world is a lot bigger than I see. Luke’s Harlem may as well be on the other side of the world. The language is different. The culture is different. If I stepped into Luke’s world, I’d be stumbling around helplessly trying to figure things out.

But the people are people. They care about family and friendship. They care about keeping your word. They love good food, good music and good sex. And…

… hey, let’s stop for a moment and talk about how amazing the music is on this show? Marvel, can I haz soundtrack, please? Please?!?!?

Luke Cage is a hero. A different kind of hero who lives in a different kind of world. It’s a world that I’ve seen as an outsider, but I could never write with the degree of authenticity and urgency this show has. If I wrote Luke Cage, it would be his story through the eyes of a white man. And that would be a goddamn shame.

Oops. Swear jar. Sorry Pops.

UnReview: Suicide Squad

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A desperate plea to all screenwriters. Please stop trying to destroy the Earth. Or, if you’re gonna do it, have some guts and actually do it.

I have a notion for a Star Trek campaign for my friends. They’re Federation cops on the fringe of Federation space handling smugglers, renegade Klingon captains and other miscreants. Their ship is small (a command crew of five with a squad of marines) but heavily armored and armed. Yes, they try to use diplomacy, but their job sometimes calls for a little firepower.

They stumble on a shapeshifter plot to destroy Earth and cripple the Federation. They capture one of the conspirators and with the help of a Vulcan mind meld, they discover the details of the plot. They send the information back to Earth—they’re on the fringe remember?—and start heading back to help and drop off their shapeshifter buddy.

Then, the Earth blows up.

All Federation computers go down. All starships have to be manually rebooted and are helpless while doing so. Sixty minutes of emergency life support and nothing else.

The shapeshifters invade with the Romulan Empire.

The Klingon Empire divides into two factions: those who want to help their allies and those who are ready to exact revenge.

The Vulcans look at the situation and come to the only logical conclusion to save their species: they surrender.

Everything’s fucked. Every. Thing. Is. Fucked.

And our little police ship—with a crew of five, some marines and a shapeshifter in the brig—are on their own.

If you’re gonna blow up the world, have the guts to blow up the fucking world.

So. We were talking about Suicide Squad...

My friend Rob Justice (www.robjustice.net) ran a Suicide Squad game for our online group last year. I had a blast. We all had a blast. Rob understood the comic is about consequences and choices. The characters not only pay for the consequences of their past lives, but pay for the consequences of their choices in the Squad. Folks die. A lot of folks die. Our first mission had us waking up in mid-drop, plummeting toward the ground. We all pulled our parachutes… and Kraven the Hunter’s shoot didn’t open. He went splat.

Was that intentional? Was it an accident? Was it a message? We didn’t know and our boss wasn’t telling.

That’s how our game started.

My favorite session involved Amanda Waller ordering us to find and kill The Batman. We spent four hours talking about it. How we would do it, if we should do it, if we should just run. I asked Waller, “Can I have a suitcase nuke?” She said, “Yes.” And gave it to me.

Shit got real after that.

But the game was always about the consequences of our choices. The World’s Greatest Thief, the World’s Greatest Assassin, the World’s Greatest Mastermind and the World’s Greatest Imposter. Others died around us, and we knew we could die at any moment. And our choices mattered. Our choices got other folks killed. And maimed. And splatted.

Because that, my friends, is what Suicide Squad is about: choices and consequences. Everything else is bells and whistles.

And so, when the movie came out, with all of us in one place at Gen Con, we conspired to see it together. A little drunk. Well, the world conspired against us and that didn’t happen, so I saw it myself this morning.

I really liked the beginning. I liked the style of it. Liked the introduction of Deadshot and Harley Quinn. The others… eh. Oh, except for Diablo. I loved Diablo. But more on that later.

I love “gathering the team.” And that’s exactly what the first act of this film was. The director made it fun, the actors made it interesting and I was thinking, “Why do people hate this movie so much.”

Then, the second act started. And I wished I was doing anything else. Such as laundry.

You see, the plot has our anti-heroes going after a villain who wants to destroy the world. Is she going to succeed?

NO. OF COURSE NOT. ARE YOU FUCKING STUPID????

Of course she’s not going to succeed because that would mean the end of the DC Cinematic Universe. And because this is Warner Brothers, they’re not going to do anything remotely that interesting or daring or challenging.

Instead, we make sure to get plenty of shots of Harley’s ass. Make sure she bends over, boys. As often as you fucking can.

 

Now, let me stop right there for a quick aside. Because I have something to say about Margot Robbie. She saved this fucking movie for me. Her performance sold me. She knows the Harley Quinn character. She’s perfect for the role. This is despite all the bullshit dialogue they throw at her, despite all the cheesecake shots, despite all the… well, despite the film itself doing its best to bury her performance.

And Will Smith delivers. He gets an opportunity to play a real bad ass. And he milks it for all he’s worth. I don’t know for certain—in fact, I’m just guessing—but I believe his best lines were written by him or improvised on the spot. Will Smith’s Deadshot is a real motherfucker and I like him. Despite the fact the film does its best to bury his performance.

And let’s talk for a moment about Jay Hernandez in the role of Diablo. Goddamn, I loved him. I loved this character. I bought it. There’s a bit at the very end that made me stand up and cheer. Granted, I was in a mostly empty theater, but I did it anyway. My buddy Mark Diaz Truman needs to see this movie for Hernandez’s performance. I’m telling him that as soon as I get done here.

 

So, anyway, back to the whole blowing up the world bit. The second act begins with the Squad crash landing on the outside of the city where all this shit’s going on and they have to hoof it to the huge beam of light flashing into the sky to stop Zul from opening the…

… yeah. It’s the plot from the first Ghostbusters. Fucking hell.

So, like Frodo and Sam, they walk to the fucking big beam of flashing light. And that’s when the plot grinds to a dead halt. We get a fight scene we know they’re gonna win because they have to get to the big beam of light. And they have another fight scene we know they’re gonna win because they have to get to the big beam of light. And Harley has a solo fight scene so we can prove she’s a real bad ass in high heels and a thong and we know she’s gonna win because…

… you get the point.

Everything that happens after the crash landing bored me to fucking tears because I know where all this is going. We’re gonna get to the big beam of light, they’re gonna fight the villain, they’re gonna win. And maybe—just maybe—some of them are gonna die.

Deadshot? Not a chance.

Harley Quinn? Not a chance.

Killer Croc? He has maybe two lines of dialogue, so I don’t give fuck all about him.

Captain Boomer—

… sorry. I had to stop myself from crying/laughing. Captain Fucking Boomerang.

In other words, you know exactly who’s disposable and who isn’t. Unfortunately, they kill off the most interesting non-disposable character—if you’re paying attention, you know who that is—which also made me wish I was doing anything else.

Because I know how this all ends. The Squad beats the villain, saves the world and goes right back to their cells. I’m not intrigued. I’m pretty fucking far from intrigued. And when you kill my favorite character… yeah, you can fuck right the hell off.

I really liked the first act. I liked it a lot. But the movie misses the entire point of the comic.

Choices and consequences. They don’t matter in this universe. We’ve seen that in the Zack Snyder movies. Choices and consequences don’t matter.

In Suicide Squad, they’re the only things that do matter. Except in this film.

In this film, the only thing that matters is walking to the inevitable ending.

 

 

 

BATMAN v (supersomeguymaybe) PLUS WONDER OMG WOMAN

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Before I begin, I feel the need to reintroduce my concept of an “unreview.”

I write reviews using e-prime, a linguistical tool that excludes all uses of the verb “to be.” In other words, I can’t say “the movie is bad” or “the plot is confusing” or anything like that. I put this limitation on myself because I feel most reviewers would be out of a job if they couldn’t utilize that language. Instead of telling you whether or not the movie is good or bad, I just talk about my own reactions to it. My own highly subjective reactions that you evaluate on your own. Using e-prime also assists a writer in getting rid of a pesky little habit known as “passive voice.” If you want to learn how to write, I suggest you try it sometime.

Also, in reference to reviewers of any kind, I highly suggest you remain skeptical of anyone who makes a living criticizing the creative accomplishments of others.

Oh, and I’m including spoilers. Just so you know.

 

 

Now, in other mediums (cough-cough-Facebook-cough) I expressed some doubts about Zach Snyder directing a second Superman film. In fact, I think I expressed doubts on whether or not anyone should allow Zach Snyder to direct any movie ever again. However, I decided to check out this latest my adoration for Superman demanded I check out this film.

I liked Gal Gadot. She looks right, sounds right, moves right. My friend Mike said that when he first saw her—the way she moved, the slinky red dress, the way she was flirting with Bruce—that he thought she was Selina Kyle. I could see that. My (very healthy) preoccupation with Wonder Woman means I could not make that mistake, but after some reflection, I could see why he would. And I liked the way she looked in the costume. Although, I couldn’t parse out why she wanted her picture back. Because she didn’t want a picture, she wanted a digital copy of a picture which… well, I didn’t understand that part. Maybe because I was distracted by the fact every outfit she wore directed by eyes to about three inches below her shoulders. Not that I’m complaining! I like her shoulders very much.

I thought this Bruce Wayne was the most comic book Bruce Wayne we’ve seen yet. What I mean by that is, this whole movie felt like a Batman comic. Out of all the Bruce Waynes I’ve seen on the screen, I like Ben Affleck’s the best. I like the news about him getting to write and direct his own Batman movie. I think I will like that one more than this one. Although, I have to say, if we’re going with a Batman who kills people—and he kills a lot of people in this movie—I can’t think of a reason why the Joker is still alive in the DC Cinematic Universe. A Batman with such a casual attitude toward murder would not allow the Joker to take ten more steps. Harley Quinn, neither. In fact, half the cast of Suicide Squad should be in the ground. Batman murders gangsters without blinking an eyelash, he sure as shit ain’t lettin’ the Joker walk away. He’d take one look at that crazy sumbitch and PLLLLTHTHTHTH no more Joker. Which also made me wonder why Lex Luther was alive at the end of all this. Batman killed his cronies, why didn’t he kill Lex? Hm. Questions to ponder.

I felt the initial scene of Wayne in Gotham should have started the film. I’ve seen Batman’s folks killed a thousand times already, I don’t need to see it in Zach Snyder Slow Motion (TM). In fact, those moments really took my breath away, that shot of everyone running away from the wreckage and ruin and Wayne running toward it? That moment communicated more to me about who this Bruce Wayne is than anything else in the movie. I like this Bruce Wayne. Which made all the moments after that one really difficult for me to watch.

I didn’t like Batman and Superman threatening to kill each other. Not at all.

And I don’t like being ahead of the detective. For those of you who don’t read mysteries, “being ahead of the detective” is when you feel like you’ve figured out the mystery before the protagonist does. In this movie, I know from the first second of the film that Superman is a hero (e-prime protocol break there; my apologies). I know this, but Batman does not. Which means throughout the entire film, I’m ahead of Batman. I’m smarter than Batman. And it isn’t until the very end of the film that Batman catches up to the audience. I didn’t like that. Not one bit.

As for other stuff I liked…

Um…

Uh…

Yeah.

Gal Gadot looked fantastic. I understand Snyder isn’t directing the Wonder Woman movie. I’m glad about that.

And if I have to suffer through this movie to get an Affleck Batman… after seeing Gone Baby GoneThe Town and Argo, I’m good with that.

The Hateful Eight

 

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I watched Reservoir Dogs on VHS tape, late at night. I was at  party and someone asked if I had seen it yet. “No,” I said. It was one of those “You’ve got to see this” moments. And, the people who showed it to me were right. I really did need to see it.

Fifteen minutes in, I thought, “Holy crap, this is a Richard Stark novel… except Parker would never take this job.” I watched the “Caper Movie Where You Never See the Caper” and felt the delight build in my belly. I loved every minute of it. Watching it was like reading a Stark novel: no bullshit. Like Elmore Leonard advises: “Leave out the parts that readers skip.” That’s exactly what this movie did. Trim, immediate… Stark.

Tarantino turned me into a fan in just one hour and thirty-nine minutes. Eh, screw that. I was a fan after fifteen minutes.

His follow up, Pulp Fiction, added an element that made me even more of a fan. The colorful dialogue, the tight plotting, the non-sequential chapters… a Stark novel. But if Pulp Fiction were a painting, Tarantino added a single brush stroke of magic. Just a single brush stroke. I like to call PF a work of “magical realism.” And that was enough to make me interested in just about everything he would do after that point. I’d see anything he directed.

Last night, I saw The Hateful Eight. Invited The Legend Jessie Foster with me, also a fan. We sat down in the small theater with the big screen—we went to see the 70mm print which will be 16 minutes longer than the standard print—and we waited for the show to begin.Me and the Legend

No trailers. No advertisements. The movie just started. The distinct musical voice of composer Ennio Morricone filling the theater. The same man who composed the music for all of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. The first time Tarantino’s ever used an original score. As if he was just biding his time, waiting for Morricone to agree to score one of his films. And, of course, it’s a western.

Over the years, Tarantino’s style has changed. I like that. He’s evolved as a film maker, keeping the original voice I liked, but expanding its vocabulary. This movie was no Reservoir Dogs. That film opens with a rapid fire tommy gun conversation and a swirling camera, almost as if Tarantino is daring you to keep up. This movie takes its time. Setting that huge 70mm lens on gorgeous landscapes as the music encourages us to sit back in our chairs and enjoy. Like a British nature documentary.

But then the stage coach comes rushing in, carrying the plot with it. And before you can say, “Royale with Cheese,” Samuel L. Jackson looks up from under a wide brim hat and says the first line of the film in his own distinctive voice.

“Got room for one more?”

Yes, there’s room for one more. Where they’re going, there’s room enough for everyone. Because they’re all going to Hell.

Tarantino himself said this film was a mix of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Reservoir Dogs. And if we are to be “critics,” we should evaluate a film on the film-maker’s intent. Did he accomplish that intent? From my own perspective, sitting in that dark theater with a small group of fellow devotees, I can tell you that we certainly believed he did.

The Hateful Eight does not have the magical realism of Pulp Fiction. Eight strangers, in a small room,surrounded by a merciless blizzard, none of whom have any reason to trust each other, all wearing guns, and sitting in the middle of that room, is a bounty worth ten thousand dollars. And someone in that room, as Kurt Russell says, “Is not who he says he is.”

Reservoir Dogs meets The Thing. There’s a reason both Sam Jackson and Kurt Russell are in this film. That, my friends, is a deliberate choice.

And as much as I feel Tarantino succeeded in that goal, I wasn’t thinking of either of those films as I watched them. I was thinking about the basement scene in Inglorious Basterds. For my money, my favorite scene in that film. The slow, agonizing build. The threat of violence boiling under deliberate politeness, wit and near comedy. Pure dread of knowing that—at any moment—everything explodes into a bloodbath.

What QT did here was take that one scene—the basement scene—and run with it for three hours.

He divided the film into two acts and the first one ends with a literal bang. Tension broken, we know what happens next.

Bloodbath.

But he gives us fifteen minutes of INTERMISSION to sit in that theater and wait for it.

That, my friends, is a man who understands how to hook an audience, hold them in the palm of his hand… and squeeze.

That’s why I’m still a fan.

A Bittersweet Goodbye

I. The Awakening

I heard my first Rush album when I was thirteen. Staying at my grandmother’s house, looking through my uncle’s record collection, I was admiring the Molly Hatchet covers (all Frank Frazetta paintings) when I stumbled on a strange looking album cover. A woman in a ’50’s style dress, the skirt blown up by the wind. A street, flooded. I had no idea what to make of it. I had no idea what kind of band this could be. I gave the album a look over, pulled the inner sleeve out and saw only three people in the band: bass, guitar and drums.

Only three guys? How could that be any fun? But I saw the lyrics on the inner sleeve and started to read them. The first song, “The Spirit of Radio.” I started reading through and stumbled on a lyric that hit me harder than anything I had ever heard before. In just a few words, it summed up everything felt about the radio.

Invisible airwaves crackle with life
Bright antennae bristle with the energy
Emotional feedback on timeless wavelength
Bearing a gift beyond price, almost free

“Bearing a gift beyond price… almost free.”

That last line… it stunned my little thirteen year old brain. I spent hours and hours listening to the radio, hearing all kinds of music. Back in the day (I’m old, I can say such things), I’d scan through the channels. There were no digital radios when I was thirteen—you had to do it manually. If one station played a song I didn’t like, I’d twist the knob to another channel, looking for something else. It was a wonderful way to discover music. Kind of like eating crab. You have to work to get the good stuff.

I immediately slipped the album out of the sleeve and put it on the turntable. I had to hear this song. I had to. I didn’t expect much, after all, it’s just three guys. How much sound can three guys make? The record player hissed and clicked for half a second, and suddenly, I was bombarded. A guitar riff that was more like a solo. An onslaught of sounds that I couldn’t quite understand. I had never heard anything like this before.

And I could hear everything. The bass, the drums, the guitar. A perfect alchemy of sounds. And the chorus swept up… and the singer sang the line I wanted to hear.

“Bearing a gift beyond price, almost free.”

And he sang it with such earnestness. Like he believed it. Not a performance, but a testimony.

I was getting into the grove of the song… and it switched. I mean, completely switched. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand what a time signature was at the time, but I could feel it. Something changed. And yet, the song kept going. Then, it happened again. And the song kept going. It was abrupt, but intuitive. I understood what had happened. Like the band had suddenly changed its mind in the middle of the song, started playing another song, and I… I…

I got it.

The song came to an abrupt, crashing end and I was left there, stunned. I looked at the inner sleeve again. And I distinctly remember my next thought.

There is no way this is only three guys.

I listened to the rest of the album. “Freewill” was next. Another sledgehammer to my face. But then, up in my grandma’s attic, listening to my uncle’s records, reading along to the lyric sheet, I read something that changed my life. Another moment where the lyrics spoke something that was deep in my heart. This time, something buried so deep, even I didn’t know it was there.

A planet of playthings
We dance on the strings
Of powers we cannot perceive
“The stars aren’t aligned,
Or the gods are malign”
Blame is better to give than receive

 

On that last syllable… I stopped listening to the song. Something clicked in my head. Because, I think, someone else had said it. After years of going to Catholic mass and listening to Lutheran sermons (my father, he was Orange and my mother, she was Green), sitting in the pews, trying to make sense of God… I suddenly realized…

… God didn’t make sense.

Yes, folks. The reason I am an atheist is a Rush lyric.

Just hearing it from someone else’s lips… I understood what all the doubt and confusion in my head was about. I had already started playing roleplaying games (the link between D&D and listening Rush further confirmed), already started to build my own mythologies, already studied Lovecraft… but here was someone else saying the thing that was in the back of my head, but I couldn’t hear. Pointing out the ridiculousness of a divine entity in charge of everyone’s destiny.

Blame is better to give than receive. 

In just over ten minutes, my whole life had been changed. And by nothing more than music.

Needless to say, I had to start the album over again. Listen from the start. Listen to every word. Permanent Waves only has six songs: three on each side of the album. The shortest of those songs is 3:50. Far too long to get on mainstream radio. However, thanks to album-friendly radio stations—which I had not discovered yet—I was able to listen to all kinds of new music.

And it was still a year before Moving Pictures hit the streets.

I saw Rush in concert that year. I told my folks I was spending the night at a friend’s house and someone snuck me out and got me into the concert. And for the first time, I confirmed there were indeed only three guys playing all that music. It was my first concert. And I was surrounded by people (men, almost entirely) who were all there for the same purpose: to see the band they loved. We had great seats. I was sitting up close. Only about ten rows back. I had to stand on my chair to see. The guys ahead of me stood a little to the side so I could peek through their shoulders.

And I saw three men playing songs that were bombastic and intricate. Dynamic and subtle.

And I saw my first Neil Peart drum solo.

I don’t think I blinked once. The acrobatic pyrotechnics he performed that night made me doubt the limits of the human anatomy.

 

 

I left the show both deaf and dumb. I had no idea what to say and I couldn’t hear anything anyone else was saying. But I knew one thing.

I wanted to be a drummer. And I wanted to be in a band. And I wanted to write lyrics for the band like Neil Peart did.

My life, for better or worse, had changed completely that year. 1980. The Year of Rush. I was thirteen years old.

II. A Bittersweet Goodbye

2015. Thirty-five years later, and I’m at what may be the very last Rush concert I ever see. One of the first things I notice: there’s a lot more women here than the first time I saw them.

I mention that to Jessica and she says, “There’s a lot more women everywhere.” She’s got a point.

For thirty-five years, Rush has been a part of my life. I can remember where I was at every album release. What state, what city and what state of mind. I could trace them like chapter headings. Those three guys have made many musical choices as we all grew older. Sometimes, the choices clicked with me, sometimes, they were perfect counterparts, and sometimes, we were “planets to each other, drifting in our orbits to a brief eclipse.”

I still remember Counterparts—still one of my favorite albums—and how every single track on that album seemed to speak directly to me. I always describe that album as “wet.” It’s leading track, “Animate” resonates in ways that are deeply personal to me. I’ve always had a “ghost sister.” My mother had an awful loss—a miscarriage—before she had me. I had a dream once of waking up, looking in the mirror and seeing a woman a little older than me looking back at me.

 

Goddess in my garden
Sister in my soul
Angel in my armor
Actress in my role
Daughter of a demon lover
Empress of the hidden face
Priestess of the pagan mother
Ancient queen of inner space

 

I’ve never been uncomfortable playing women in RPGs, nor have I been uncomfortable writing from their viewpoints. Bayushi Kachiko, Queen Elaine, the dowmgas in Orkworld, Tamyn Taval in Wicked Fantasy… it’s almost as if there was a female voice inside me. A ghost sister. It’s a fantasy I’ve indulged for a long time and hearing “Animate” for the first time was almost spooky.

 

 

I still remember Vapor Trails—a hard album for me to listen to—because it came out just before Jennifer and I split. A dark time in my life that I’m not entirely sure how I survived. I know part of it was listening to that album. One Little Victory hit me hard, almost to my knees, but the song that really dug into my heart and kicked me in the teeth was How It Is. A song that articulated the hopelessness of depression so clearly and so cleanly, it’s all I can do to not break down every time I hear it.

 

It’s such a cloudy day
Seems we’ll never see the sun
Or feel the day has possibilities
Frozen in the moment…
The lack of imagination
Between how it is and how it ought to be

 

I rationally know what’s happening to me. I rationally know that my mind’s chemicals are out of whack. I rationally know that my perspective is skewed.

And it just doesn’t matter.

Hearing someone else say it launched me back to my grandmother’s house in 1980. Hearing someone else say the same thing…

 

 

The lack of imagination between how it is and how it ought to be. And the person who can change that is me. If I could just get off my ass and do it.

I’m responsible for me. I’m responsible for my own emotions. And I can change it. I CAN CHANGE IT.

Depression has been a constant enemy of mine. An enemy addressed perfectly in the song Double Agent. “The doubt and the fear/I know would all disappear/Anywhere but here.”

For the longest time, I used Rush songs as armor and shield against that enemy. Rush songs became “pep talks” to keep myself reminded of my own responsibilities. Songs like “Something For Nothing,” (You don’t get freedom for free.) “The Analog Kid” and Marathon”…

Holy @#$%, “Marathon.”

It’s a test of ultimate will
The heartbreak climb uphill
Got to pick up the pace
If you want to stay in the race
More than just blind ambition
More than just simple greed
More than just a finish line
Must feed this burning need
In the long run…

Like I said, pep talks.

It wasn’t until I started reading Neil’s travelogues that I began to understand that I wasn’t the only one who used music to fight demons. And that was a revelation to me. In the same way that I learned how hard he worked to be as good as he was. Watching Peart play drums is like watching water fall over the side of a cliff. It seems so effortless. He makes it look so easy. But when I watched Anatomy of a Drum Solo and he talked about working on a particular part for a year before he started to get it right… I understood the devotion and dedication (and emotional endurance) he had. A dedication to doing it right. To making the impossible look easy.

And accompanying all those little pep talks was music… that same music that confounded me and inspired me the first time I heard it. Complicated, yet elegant. Musician’s music. Great riffs backed by arrangements suitable for an orchestra. Music that elevated the lyrics above simple poetry into something… sublime.

On the Snakes and Arrows tour, I won a contest that made me eligable to meet Geddy and Alex. Of course, Neil wouldn’t be there, and I didn’t expect him to be there. I was a little disappointed—I wanted to thank all of them—but I respect Neil too much to make an exception on my account.

Standing in line, waiting to have five seconds to shake their hands and say “Thank you for thirty years of music,” I was struggling for the words to say. Finally, it was our turn. We stepped up, shook their hands and I said, “I don’t know how to thank you for thirty years of music in five seconds.”

Alex laughed and said, “That sounds about right.”

I smiled and nodded. “Yeah,” I said.

They took the picture and we were ushered away.

See that big, dumb grin on my face? Yeah.

Anyway…

Thirty-five years after I heard my first Rush song, I was sitting in the US Airways Center, waiting for the lights to go down. I had memorized the setlists. I knew if they played “The Wreckers,” they’d be playing “How It Is.” And though I didn’t mind if they played something else, what I really wanted last night was that song. Hell, they could play polka music for the rest of the night (what would Rush playing polka sound like?) but if they played that song, I’d be happy.

The lights went down. The music started.

“The Anarchist.” Yep. That’s the opening track for the show. A great song. Not the one I’m waiting for.

The second song… “The Wreckers.”

I nodded and smiled.

As the set went forward, it also went backward. Backward in time.

The songs were in reverse chronological order, and as they went through albums, guys in red jump suits came on stage and began dissembling the props. The stage would reflect a Rush stage from that time period. Some bits removed, others added. Clockwork Angles to Snakes and Arrows to Vapor Trails.

(Just then, I wrote a typo. “Vapor Trials” rather than “Vapor Trails.” A Freudian slip.)

Geddy announced “How It Is.” And my eyes swelled up, my throat got thick and I couldn’t hold it back. My cheeks were wet in moments. They’d never played that song live before and…

… oh, did I mention I’ve seen every tour? Sometimes twice? Yeah, I’m that fan…

In short, I was a wreck. I knew every word, every note. And I sang it out loud, as loud as I could.

There’s a part of me that really appreciates the “let it loose” element of Japanese culture. Keeping all your emotions wrapped up, then finding a moment to let them all out in a controlled yet irresponsible way. Concerts are like that for me. And last night, I let out so much emotion in a controlled yet irresponsible way.

I was crying and I didn’t give a single damn who saw it. I just didn’t care.

As the concert progressed, the stage became more bare. Stuff moving away. Until finally, there was just the three guys and their instruments. (There was no keyboard on the stage, and I thought to myself, “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen Rush with no keyboard on the stage.”) There were two speakers hoisted up on chairs and a locker room projected on the back wall of the stage.

Just three guys making music.

Three friends who have been together for forty years.

The show ended. They all waved goodbye. Perhaps for the last time.

I stood up. I waved back. Perhaps for the last time.