30 June 2007

Day 3, Part 2: Starnberg

Reed has decided to give himself a crash-course in German over one day using a 1960s grammar manual and some help from my father, who still remembers a lot of German from his high school and college days. However, Reed is already frustrated and thinks he can never learn the language after only half a day attempting it. However, he managed to order two large Cokes at the local (and only) McDonald's in Starnberg.

Yes, Reed and I went to a McDonald's in Germany. That sounds like a horrible tourist betrayal on my part, but we were so dehydrated from walking around Starnberg and crawling through the woodlands that we just needed the Cokes. Please forgive me, I'm an awful American pig. But the Germans seem to have something against drinking fountains.

But the rest of the day has so far been very Bavarian. It's amazing how many people here wear the traditional Bavarian jackets and dresses. We attended a brunch at a wealthy family's house in the town of Feldafing; my sister received the invitation through people she knows from the school. The house was built in 1905 for the workers on a nearby castle, and it was refurbished into a beautiful mansion near the edge of Starnberg Lake.

The food was excellent (love those Bavarian pretzels) and even though we were a touch underdressed, everyone was pleasant to us and they all could speak decent English. I got a chance to talk about the Gormenghast novels by Mervyn Peake with one of Colleen's British friends and explain the rough outline of German history to my family while we watched a automatic lawn-mowing device make its indecisive way across the enormous back yard. But it was a long (although beautiful) walk to and from the train station, so even though it's only four in the afternoon, I already feel tired out. I still haven't made the proper shift to German time. A Coke from McDonald's does help. So there, I've excused myself.

I'm back at the house now, watching Cuba rip apart paper packing on the ground while the others are out shopping for a grill party my sister and her husband are throwing tomorrow afternoon. Apparently, most groceries are closed on Sunday, so they have to get all the shopping done now. My sister says even Munich is a sedate and quiet place on Sundays, with most stores closed.

And now Cuba's barking at me. She must want to go out. Be with you later.

Day 3, Part 1: Starnberg

Do you like the Imperial German coat of arms? I certainly do. Welcome to my first full day in Deutschland!

My first morning waking up in Germany was a touch strange becuase the suburb where my sister lives, Starnberg, resembles parts of Oregon. The air, temperature, and the foliage look the same as well. It's hard for me to imagine right now that I'm in a foreign country. Compare this to the awakening in Brussels yesterday, and I feel as if I've suddenly returned to the U.S. All of Armin and Colleen's friends from the International School that we met are Americans, so I feel as if I've hardly met any Germans yet. Although everyone else seems happy to relax right now, I'm feeling itchy to get out of here and into Munich proper to see genuine Bavarian culture. At least Cuba isn't yanking at me and trying to prevent me from putting on my shoes; she's gone to puppy school for the morning with my sister's friend Melanie.

29 June 2007

Day 2: Brussels–Munich–Starnberg

The "day" started with my brother Reed erroneously thinking it was 7:00 a.m. and getting up to shower, shave, and dress, only to find out it was really 3:15 a.m. I didn't say anything to him as he rummaged about and I lay there in bed, and I only looked at my watch after he left, wondering what the hell did he think he was doing. He came right back up after he realized his mistake, but it was had for me to get back to sleep after that. And the streets outside were filled with celebrants, probably French college students, until about 8:00 a.m. Around 5:00 a.m. they all spontaneously broke into a rendition of "Stand by Me." Why? Who knows. Belgian beer will do that to you.

When we got up for the morning for real, all still jet-lagged, we ate the continental breakfast in the hotel’s dining room, and then headed out via taxi to one of the wonders in Brussels I was most interested in seeing: The Atomium.

Built in 1958 and only supposed to last for six months for the World Expo, it has stood ever since on the fields of Heysel as a symbol of the city and a memoir of the Atomic Age. It stands 335 feet tall and is made up of nine spheres representing an iron molecule. We traveled through six of the spheres, connected by escaltors, with each sphere holding a different exhibit about the construction and history of the Atomium. It was recently refurbished and is more sleek and polished looking than ever. Reed got down on his back in order to take this shot of me at the base of the Atomium.

The Atomium commands a view of most of Brussels, as well the Stade du Heysel, the soccer arena infamous for a Livepool soccer match that ended in a riot and forty dead.

We returned to the hotel and lugged our bags (in the starting rain) to the train station to get back to Brussels airport. (And—hooray—my suitcase was waiting for me!) The flight to Munich only lasted an hour, but it was aggravating because the loudest screaming child I have ever heard started screeching for fifteen minutes straight before take-off. This wasn’t a normal child cry, either: it was a near-inhuman shriek that made me remark to my brother that "they shouldn’t allow pig slaughtering onboard civilian aircraft. It just isn’t safe." Once airborne, a four year-old girl started to run up and down the aisles for the remainder of the hour-long flight. That about drove us crazy.

We landed in Munich where my sister Colleen and her husband Armin met us at the airport. We didn’t enter Munich proper, but took the long train ride to the suburb of Starnberg where they live. The apartment is pleasant, if a bit too much on the modernist side for me, and they haven’t properly moved in yet. They also have recently purchased a dog, a puppy mix of Burnese Mountain dog and German Shepherd named Cuba (pronounced Coo-ba). Cuba is frantic and chews and tugs at everything, and Colleen just trying to take her for a walk is a desperate tug-of-war. They have to keep giving her “puppy time-outs” when she keeps pulling on people’s pants or biting at their hands by locking her in one of the bathrooms.

It’s a quiet night, which we all need. Colleen and Armin took us to the local biergarten and retaurant, Absofort, where we met some of the other teachers whom she works with at the International School. I left early when it got cold and am now sitting in the kitchen pounding out this new blog entry for your entertainment. Not sure what we’ve got on the schedule tomorrow. More to come...

28 June 2007

Day 1: Brussels

First of all, before I do some complaining about travel, let me just tell you that Brussels is an amazing city. There.

Hell, this was two of the most difficult traveling days of my life. A nightmare of discomfort and rattled nerves. Already exhausted after a red-eye flight to Atlanta and an eight-hour layover in the city's sweltering heat, our family then went through the most aggravating security check I've ever had the displeasure of experiencing at the Atlanta airport. I thought the L.A. security check was bad in my last post, but that tempted fate far too much. After a wait in line this long, I think should be entitled to go on a ride like Splash Mountain at the conclusion. Instead, I get the "shuck off everything but the boxers" routine. And whoever administers the crowds at the Atlanta airport needs to rethink their paradigm.

And then there was New York. Loaded onto our 767-300 for Brussels, we then waited on the runway for three hours as a huge lightning storm kept the plane grounded. In don't fly easily, and this long wait while gazing at a threatening lightning show did not help at all. All that tension did exhausted me enough that I slept through most of the eight hour flight. At least that part was easy.

And then, they lost my luggage. Sounds like the end of a bad joke, right? But it's true. I did pack an extra set of clothes in my carry-on in case of this event, however. My suitcase will arrive tomorrow, and we'll pick it up at the airport on the way to Munich. So it didn't end up that awful. But it was the big topper of a horrendously long transit period.

Enough griping.

Ah, what a city this Brussels is, the unofficial "Capital of Europe." The classic Western European model city, with twisty flagstone streets and buildings two to three hundred years old crowding against each other. Each restaurant has a busy outside café area, and the melding of the country's two languages (Brussels Capital Region is officially bilingual) French and Dutch on the streets is euphonious.

The train dropped us at the city center, only a few blocks from our hotel, Hotel Mozart. Figuring out the pretzel of tiny streets was at first confounding, until we learn to recognize where street names are posted (on blue signs bolted against walls, with both French and Dutch names, and smaller than a optometrist’s chart). Hotel Mozart stands on a tiny street, blocked to cars, and busy with Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine restaurants. I grabbed a Red Bull at the snack stand once we got to the hotel so I could power through the rest of the day and wipe out the jet-lag. (Apparently, eliminating jet-lag was one of the first purposes of Red Bull, long before someone discovered it was the best way to get through a marathon session of Halo.)

The hotel is typical of many downtown old European hotels: elegant but cramped. The elevator is essentially a closet that moves up and down, and the hotel was built through three separate older buildings and is therefore tricky to maneuver though.

Immediately after arriving (and showering), I headed for Brussel's #1 attraction, which was but two blocks away: Grote Markt, “The Great Plaza,” (Grand Place in French) an immense market square surrounded by the titanic City Hall (built 1415 and expanded in later centuries), the old Palace of the King (built 1823), and the lavish guild halls, most of which were constructed after the French mortared the city in 1695 during the Franco-Spanish War. The Grote Markt is the sort of place for which the word “awesome” should be reserved. The size of it and the European elegance is overwhelming. This is the City Hall (you can see Reed in the lower left corner):
Because of the power of the guilds, it is also one of the birthplaces of the corporation. We took a tour of the Brewer’s Guild, and the overly friendly barkeep there kept us well supplied with the local Belgian brew—which is outstanding, and I'm saying that as someone who doesn't usually like beer.
We also went around the City Hall and looked through the many restaurants that now sit in the old Guild Houses. We ate at a restaurant housed in the former Tailor's Guild. Mom found herself at war with the toadish lady who charged .25 Euros to enter the bathroom; Mom went up with a .20 piece by mistake and found that forgiveness dwells not in the heart of Flemish bathroom guardians. More beer was consumed at this meal (a delicious cherry beer—never imagined I would like this) along with the Belgian specialty of beef in a dark beer sauce.

The walking tour of the area also took us past the Royal Palace, through Brussels Park, where an MBA school was holding its graduation ceremony, in front of the Belgian Parliament building, and down to the first of many cathedrals I'm sure I'll see on the trip, the Sint-Michiels en Sint-Goedelekathedraal (St. Michael and Gudula Cathedral, usually shortened to "Sint-Goedele"—aren’t you glad?). Smaller than some of the great cathedrals of Europe, but still stunningly designed, especially this 1538 stained-glass window:
How this survived the French cannoning the hell out the city in 1695 is beyond me.

All this, and I was able to eat a Belgian waffle—in Belgium! What a feat. (We usually think of the Belgian waffle as a breakfast item, but here it’s a desert, and is often served in specialty shops much like ice cream stores.)

It’s getting close to 10 p.m., and it’s still light outside, but I’m crashing—it’s been a long two days. But at last I’m in Europe, and I’ll be here for another three weeks.

27 June 2007

Day 0, Part 2: Atlanta

No, I am not in Europe yet. Not even close. I'm in Atlanta, in my brother Reed's apartment where he stays when he's in medical school at Emory. I already feel like a zombie after the red-eye flight, filled with turbulence and not much sleep. I did enjoy watching the new Marvel animated film The Invincible Iron Man on my laptop—the first time I've used the technology. And I liked it much better than those two Ultimate Avengers movies released last year to DVD. But damn, I hate air travel. And this was the longest I've ever spent in a security line. At least I've been able to get a shower here at my brother's place and feel semi-human again, ready for the next leg of the trip.

We're here until 2:30 p.m. when our flight takes off to New York. And then finally we get on the plane to Brussels. Sheesh, this is taking forever.

26 June 2007

Day 0, Part 1: Pre-Trip Information (and grousing)

Technically, this is Day 1 of my trip to Europe since my plane leaves for the first leg of the journey this evening. However, I won't actually arrive in Europe until the morning of the 28th, Brussels time, so I will consider that Day 1. This is merely the day-and-a-half of transit. Too much transit. Flight at 10 p.m. to Atlanta, eight hour lay-over (thrill), followed by a two hour flight to New York, a three hour lay-over, and then the seven-and-a-half hour flight to Brussels. Arrival time in Brussels in approx. 9:30 a.m. on June 28th.

To give me persepctive on all this, I've already set my watch to Brussels time. Right now, it's 7:16 p.m. on the 26th. It's going to be a long time before I get there. Sigh. I like being in other countries, but I don't particularly like travel, especially when it's a marathon like this. And I've never slept well on planes, so I expect to arrive in Brussels extremely tired—right as the city itself is waking up. Caffeine time when I get there...I want to get on their schedule as quick as possible.

18 June 2007

Movie review: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Directed by Tim Story. Starring Ioan Gruffud, Michael Chiklis, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Doug Jones, Julian McMahon.

I didn’t like 2005’s Fantastic Four at all. It outwardly made the correct decisions in portraying one of comicdom’s legendary and influential titles, aiming at a more child-friendly and bright daylight sort of science-fiction adventure to counter the darker comic movies. Nothing wrong with that: not all comic book films should aim for the gravity of Batman Begins, and the comic book The Fantastic Four is much more a combination of a dysfunctional family sitcom with big epic world-saving adventure. The problem with the film was simply that it was poorly directed, executed, scripted, and lacked much in the way of real action or excitement. It was sadly inconsequential—something that should never have occurred to such a cornerstone of the comic book universe.

The sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, makes for a significant improvement. In fact, I think I enjoyed it more than this year’s overloaded Spider-Man 3, and it feels refreshing in the midst of a flood of overblown and tired sequels parading past us this Summer of ‘07. It aims for a younger crowd, and there’s nothing wrong with a few comic book movies for the kids, I say. The dialogue leans toward the silly, but this adds to the retro-1960s charm of it. The introduction of another great franchise character, Jack Kirby’s Silver Surfer, is a huge plus. The action is far more plentiful, and with the characters already established the script can leap right into the thrills. The Human Torch pursuing the Surfer across the globe makes for some exciting viewing, and there’s an excellent rescue at the Millennium Wheel in London. The four actors playing the Fantastic Four feel more comfortable in their roles, and even though Jessica Alba is still too young to play Susan Storm, she has improved since the first go-round.

As for Doug Jones, who plays the Surfer, all I can say it… this fellow rules the “Suit Actor” world. His performance in Pan’s Labyrinth as the Faun was remarkable, and he again shows how physically adept an actor he is. (Laurence Fishburne voices the Surfer, but it is Doug Jones and Weta Digital who are mostly responsible for his effectiveness.)

But… Rise of the Silver Surfer contains plenty of flaws. Principally, I've got two big complaints:
  1. Julian McMahon as Dr. Doom. Or not as Dr. Doom, since once again he makes no impression whatsoever. The power-mad egomaniacal dictator, perhaps the greatest villain in the Marvel Universe? He’s nowhere to be seen; instead we have the same one-note bland scientist with ethics problems. I can’t for the life of me understand why director Tim Story didn’t fire McMahon and recast the part. McMahon's non-performance is infuriating.

  2. Where the hell is Galactus? One of the iconic “villains” in Marvel Comics, the cosmic entity known as Galactus appears here as nothing more than a space tornado. Maybe a bit like V’Ger from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Where in Mephisto’s Hells is my two hundred-foot dude in purple armor, spouting his cosmic philosophy of destruction? There's no need to make Galactus more “realistic.” This isn't Batman Begins; we can tolerate an armored space-giant who must destroy worlds to live. Galactus was one of artist Jack Kirby’s best creations, and it’s lame that his unmistakable form here is reduced to a few shadows in a storm—as if hints of Galactus’s famous horned helmet inside a twister is supposed to make me happy. Well, they don’t and I’m not.
Yes, this last point comes from the comic-geek view. For many of you, it won’t matter at all. But I think the movie would have improved if they had adhered closer to Kirby’s version of Galactus. It would have made for A more impressive ending.

Take the kids to Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. They’ll love it, and it won’t totally tick you off—unless you care about Galactus as much as I do.

13 June 2007

The Final Clark Ashton Smith essay begins

I’ve started worked on my fourth and final feature article about the fantasy cycles of the great (but still not famous enough) Clark Ashton Smith. I’ve covered his medieval province of Averoigne, black comic Hyperborea, and last continent of Zothique. For this final article, I’m analyzing three “mini-cycles,” which appear to be abortive attempts by the author to craft longer series, but his departure from fiction writing in 1934 brought them to abrupt ends. There are five stories about Poseidonis, the last vestige of foundering Atlantis; three about an unusual version of Mars called Aihai; and two about the distant planet Xiccarph. Although these “series” aren’t large enough to allow comprehensive opinions about the settings as I did in my other articles, they do contain a number of Smith’s best stories and deserve close scrutiny and appreciation.

In particular, “The Last Incantation,” “The Death of Malygris,” “The Double Shadow” (Poseidonis), “The Vaults of the Yoh-Vombis” (Mars), and “The Maze of Enchanter” (Xiccarph) are classics. Smith felt strongly enough about two of them to publish them in his own privately printed volume The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies when he couldn't sell them to magazines. (Obviously, “The Double Shadow” is one of the stories in the slender book;“The Maze of the Enchanter” is the other. The latter did eventually appear in Weird Tales in an edited form titled “The Maze of Maal Dweb,” which is actually a more ‘Smithian’ title.)

I started work on these long articles, which will eventually tally up to approximately 24,000 words of analysis (which would take up about eighty pages in a standard printed book) a year and a half ago from a suggestion by editor Howard A. Jones, and they have turned into a special labor of love for me. Clark Ashton Smith is one of the authors I most ardently champion, on an equal level with Cornell Woolrich, and I’ve felt privileged to share my knowledge and love of his work with the world through these essays. I've gotten some wonderful letters from people who have read the articles and felt they mirrored their own admiration for this uniquely talented writer who still defies facile classification. I also hope my essays have drawn new people to discover Smith’s work. He can be life-changing, since there simply is nothing else like him out there.

Update: The article is finished and up for your enjoyment.

11 June 2007

Another reprint: Hyperborea

Black Gate has posted my essay “The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith, Part II: The Book of Hyperborea” on their site. The essay has appeared before, but the design work here is—as usual with Black Gate—impeccably snazzy.

There are four Clark Ashton Smith articles available on Black Gate:
  1. “The Averoigne Chronicles”
  2. “The Book of Hyperborea”
  3. “Tales of Zothique”
  4. “Poseidonis, Mars, and Xiccarph”
In related news, I would like to mention that today is the anniversary of the suicide of one of the foundational fantasy authors, and perhaps the most influential American author in the genre. Seventy-one years ago today, on the morning of 11 June 1936, Robert E. Howard died by self-inflicted bullet-wound from a .38 automatic. He was only thirty years old. I hope he feasts well in Valhalla.

08 June 2007

Naming Memes

There's a new fad going around I call "Google Monikering," or just "Google-Mon" for short (let's see if I can get a name trend started). This is the gag of typing your name into Google or any other search engine, followed by a verb, and seeing the top results. The most common version of this is "(Your Name) is…" I've also come across "(Your Name) needs…" and "(Your Name) wants…" Usually, you send the results to your friends and urge them to try it and their results, forwarding it to more friends...thus creating an Interner "meme."

I usually don't fall in with these memes, but I will sheepishly admit that Google Monikering can be damned amusing. A few of the results won't be genuine answers that make grammatic sense—you can just ignore these. I will now torture you with my name using the standard theme:

  1. Ryan is crying while eating
  2. Ryan is hungry
  3. Ryan is saucy
  4. Ryan is cool by association
  5. Ryan is convicted
  6. Ryan is dating Jessica Biel
  7. Ryan is filthy rich
Number 4 is my clear favorite, but I wouldn't mind if Number 7 were true. Number 6 is true, and I dare you to prove otherwise. (Jessica, honey, give me a call about our weekend plans, okay?) Number 3 is actually the name of a Ryan Philippe fansite, and Number 5 is about the conviction of former Illinois Governor George Ryan of racketeering and fraud. Oddly, no Jeri Ryan or Meg Ryan results popped up; I usually get those with "Ryan needs…" and "Ryan wants…" tests. Like, "Ryan needs a bra." Hah hah.

Why do these Internet "memes" amuse us so much, and why do they spread so rapidly through email, LiveJournal, MySpace, and other social networking sites? It's one of the more harmless social outgrowths of the Internet, and I believe it comes from a need to see how the random patterns of the world can circle around us as individuals. Seeing a computer screen spit back odd statement using your name, that special word that identifies you and that has lived with you since birth, appeals to a desire to see our very personal identifier used in strange ways. Your friends and family can tell you who you "is" ('scuse the awful English) if you ask them, but what does a random global network that links together corporations, homemakers, high school kids, charities, and pornographers think you "is"?

Or Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?

Sorry, I just had to toss that Louis Jordan song lyric in there.

Remember, Ryan is cool by association.

04 June 2007

The Shakespeare of Yesterday—Today!

Another satiric article from The Onion that nails an issue I've had for years. As a Shakespeare-lover, the current vogue of continual "updating" and "re-imaging" of his plays into unusual settings bothers me. Here's a couple of made-up examples, although none of these is actually too far-fetched: As You Like It in a women's prison, Henry IV, Part I in Andy Warhol's Factory, Othello on a mining colony on Titan, or Coriolanus set...well, anywhere. (Does anybody perform this play? Cripes, even Titus Andronicus gets staged now, but not Coriolanus.) The creative and thoughtful setting of Shakespeare in an unusual or contemporized setting can often work effectively (I've always wanted to see King Lear in the American West during the end of the cattle boom, where it would work near perfectly, and I once experimented with a screenplay that used the original language in 1880s Wyoming backdrop) but too often directors and producers do this revisioning just to be "cool" and "artistic" and place a big stamp over the production that says, "This Is Mine." It's no surprise to me that the best Shakespeare productions I've seen have used Elizabethan costumes and set designs, or historically accurate outfits for plays taking place before Shakespeare's own day, such as the Histories and Julius Caesar.

I believe that Shakespeare doesn't need help to be "relevant." He's relevant no matter what. Hamlet doesn't need to wear a black Armani suit and work in a Wall Street company called Elsinore for us to understand him. I think he work best in a late medieval castle in a chill country, or (as would have been staged in Shakespeare's time) wearing standard Elizabethan garb. I've heard people say that since in Elizabethan theater actors dressed in contemporary outfits, contemporizing them for our own time is just following tradition. I don't understand this logic. To me it sounds like the same thinking that leads to colorizing movies. I was once in a small part in a college production of Measure for Measure, done with straight contemporary clothing: suits, etc. And you know what? It was boring. The feel of the bawdy, dirty age fell apart, and we had a story about a dull corporate raider with bad sexual morals, the convent aspect made no sense at all, and the more overtly comic characters felt out of place. (The director also had a projection screen that showed images during the play and completely distracted the audience; I have no idea what she was trying to achieve with this.) Was this production more "relevant"? Audiences would have gotten the themes if the actors had worn proper 16th-century Italian outfits without feeling that the director was trying to hammer them with "Message." Shakespeare doesn't need that kind of help. The guy is the most famous English language author for a reason. Don't drag Shakespeare to your age, bring your age to Shakespeare. He'll take good care of you, I promise.

There's something wonderful, almost ethereal, about seeing Shakespeare staged "Globe Style," with Elizabethan costumes on the traditional open stages (no sets, but plenty of props and platforms and color). You watch another world and time come to life... and speak right to you. So much artificial updating and re-imagining seems to talk down to Shakespeare, and ironically often blocks his language from getting through—the exact opposite of what the re-imagined production is supposed to do.

Again, I don't think there shoud be no updating or revision. For example, Richard Loncraine's film version Richard III based on a popular stage version was done in a 1930s semi-fascist London, and it was brilliant. Some of the Victorian settings for the comedies have worked nicely. Those Peter Brooks stagings in the 1970s sure were interesting. But the whole movement has gone overboard now. Let's see a King Lear in early Dark Ages Britain, a Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E. Rome, a Romeo and Juliet in 16th-century Italy, a Richard II in early 15th century England, As You Like It in a late 16th-century pastoral English or French countryside, and Coriolanus well, just Coriolanus period. (Does anyone put this play on? I'm not a huge admirer, but I've never seen it staged and would like to see how it plays. Just curious.)