Category Archives: Pop Culture

Time for Some Pop Culture Opinions!

These days, it’s very easy to have Opinions, and to express them online for all the world to see. But is it really wise to do so? And is it really possible and morally justifiable to NOT have an opinion on something that doesn’t impact you?

Why yes, it is. In fact, I think it makes more sense to NOT have opinions on things that don’t impact you, even when the world around you — well, Twitter and Facebook anyway — are telling you that you MUST have opinions on EVERYTHING! And you MUST EXPRESS your opinions LOUDLY!

There are lots of opinions I don’t have. Here are some of them.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU):

I’ve heard it said that the last couple of Marvel movies — in particular, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder — have not been up to snuff, or up to the other earlier films in the franchise. Me, I don’t know. I haven’t seen them, nor have I seen any MCU films beyond The Avengers and the first Iron Man. I saw the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but wasn’t invested enough to go on with it. I certainly haven’t seen any of the television shows, but that might be because I haven’t invested in Disney+.

The main reason is lack of interest. I have enjoyed a few superhero movies; I really liked the first two Sam Raimi Spiderman films with Tobey Maguire, for example, and I thought Iron Man was fun. But in general I don’t care all that much about superheroes. I didn’t even collect many superhero comics when I was a kid; the comics I collected were mostly Richie Rich and some horror comics. I also like the Sandman graphic novels by Neil Gaiman, as well as the over-the-top weirdness that was Garth Ennis’s Preacher. Beyond that, though, I just don’t have much interest.

I’m not trying to out myself as some sort of superior pop culture snob here. I have no problem with superhero movies. I’m glad they exist and that so many people take pleasure in them. They’re just not for me.


Sure, the Twilight craze is over. The books are still in print and the movies are still streaming, but Stephanie Meyer’s heyday seems to have faded.

Still back in the day I was asked a few times what I thought of Twilight, and, especially, of the vampires in the series, probably because they showed up shortly after I’d finished running a long Vampire LARP with a lot of players. I had to reply honestly that I had no opinion, because I had not read the books, nor seen the movies.

“But the vampires sparkle!”

Vampires in lore throughout human history do all kinds of things, and as far as I know, there are no real vampires we can check to see what actual vampire behavior is. So… I didn’t care.

I also don’t like vampire fiction that much. I don’t know why, but whenever a vampire shows up on the page or the screen, my reaction is a yawn and a “Oh, another vampire. Yawn,” thought.

Again, I’m not putting it down or denigrating it. I will observe, though, that too often in our culture movies, books, television shows, and so on that are enjoyed by women (and particularly by young women or girls) are joked about, denigrated, and not taken seriously by the culture at large. This is the tragic and stupid thing.

Star Wars

I saw Star Wars before it was called A New Hope, when it opened in 1977 and I was 10 years old and easily impressed. I haven’t seen any of the movies, though, after Attack of the Clones, because I really did not like that movie and didn’t want to continue my experience. I hear tell that the subsequent movies are better, and all the TV series are good, but I am just not into Star Wars. It’s not my thing. Star Trek is more up my alley, though I wish Paramount were nicer to their fans.

That’s all the opinions I have.

For now. I also have Political Opinions, which I put out there in December. Not much has changed there, and I don’t need to repeat them here.

In other news…

I’m on a social media hiatus. I’ve deleted bookmarks to Twitter and Facebook, and removed the apps from my phone. It was getting me down with a constant barrage of bad news, of opinions masquerading as news, and so on. I’ve been looking at Google News for my news each morning, and that’s all I need. I’m still open to email, phone, Facebook Messenger, Twitter direct messages, and so on. Just not Facebook and Twitter themselves. I’m not sure when I’ll be back.

And that’s all. I’ll be breaking my social media hiatus to post a link to this blog post, but that’s it.

Have a fine day, all!


About Those Rings

Actual image of me reacting

I like The Lord of the Rings. I really do. Granted, I haven’t actually read the trilogy since the early 2000s, and I only re-read The Hobbit back in 2017, but I do own the DVDs, which I recently ripped to our Plex media server so I can watch them whenever I want, and I listen to the soundtracks frequently. I own the books written by Tolkien and many other books besides, as well as books like The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, and Defending Middle Earth. Every now and then I pick up The Atlas of Middle Earth and browse through it delightedly.

So when I learned that Amazon will be airing a new series based on the history of Middle Earth, I was… sort of excited? I mean, it’s a great setting, great epic fantasy, and there’s so much about Middle Earth’s history — the Second Age, the coming of Man, and so on — to explore. And while J. R. R. Tolkien may not have written much of his lore for popular reading, his son Christopher certainly did. I watched the teaser trailer for Amazon’s series, and enjoyed the look of the show. I’ve included the teaser below for you to watch.

But today I learned that while Amazon owns the production rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, they don’t actually own any of the rights to anything beyond that. They do not own the rights to The Silmarillion or The Histories of Middle Earth and so on. So their vision of the Second Age of Middle Earth,  the time period where The Rings of Power takes place, is based purely on their own imagination and wee gleanings from the books the Tolkien did write. So, it’s all up to whoever writes the series, and I’m so skeptical of anything that comes out of massive media empires these days that I’m just not sure I’m going to enjoy this.

But what really bothers me, actually, has little to do with The Lord of the Rings and the One Ring and Middle Earth. It has to do with the fact that there is so much good material out there to work with to make sprawling epic fantasies. Yes, N. K. Jemisin is writing the screenplays for her genre-defying Broken Earth series, which is a good thing, but other fantasy and science fiction worlds exist that can be made into movies. There’s racial diversity in The Rings of Power, it looks like, which I’m happy to see (there was precious little in Peter Jackson’s films), but still… Let’s see some diversity in storytelling, in settings, in characters.

And yes, I’m well aware that there are some good non-Tolkien-inspired films and TV shows out there.

Maybe, though, I’m just Old. I don’t get that excited about superhero films (the Marvel Cinematic Universe is so vast that I’m tired just thinking about where to start, and DC’s Batman films are getting progressively darker and darker, and frankly I haven’t really enjoyed a superhero film since 1980’s Superman II). I don’t go on and on about how movies were “better back in the day” because many of them weren’t, and I know this objectively.

Still, though.

The world’s a big place, and the actuality of what we have in the way of storytelling is much vaster than anything Tolkien conceived of. Let’s see some more of it.


Living in a Post-Monstrous Age

I had a blast at FogCon, as I usually do. The panels I attended were all fascinating, the people were great, &c. I was a little miffed that the bio I wrote for myself on the website didn’t manage to make it into the printed program, but I’ve learned to live with small disappointments like that. I also enjoyed hanging out with other writers and talking craft and projects with them. That’s always worthwhile.

The panel I was on, “Cuddly Horrors from Outer Space”, went in a direction that I wasn’t expecting, and as a result I felt a bit out of my depth at times. I was far more prepared to discuss cosmic horrors and Lovecraftian critters and how making them cute is, in a sense, defying the nihilistic culture we live in, so when we veered into social commentary about Dracula and similar creatures of imagination, I was a bit surprised. And although I felt I didn’t have much to contribute to that particular part of the conversation, I enjoyed it.

The more I think about it, the more I think we live in a culture with more “defanged” monsters than actual scary ones: monsters which are cute and cuddly, rather than horrific and scary. It’s far easier to buy a plush Cthulhu than a monstrous statue of him, for example; and cartoon images of vampires and werewolves abound, to the point where they show up on Sesame Street as the Count and Stephanie Myers writes about glittering vampires playing baseball in the sun.

The “Disneyfication” of horrifying cultural tropes came up as well. Many of the folk and fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm were cautionary tales for children (and some were meant for adults), and some were just plain scary for the sake of being scary, but Disney transformed the original Snow White into Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As a result, the original horrific element of that story is lost in a whirlwind of singing birdies. Of course, as time has gone on we’ve seen reimaginings of, say, the “Princess” trope, where the definition of a Disney princess has gone from the meek and helpless Snow White to the nearly (but not quite) feminist characters found in Frozen. I think more work needs to be done with these tropes, but I am heartened by what we’ve seen so far (yes, there are feminist retellings of these fairy tales but on the whole they’re meant for adults and not for children).

We also talked about humanizing monsters, making them sympathetic, and about exploring the human side of them. We see this in works such as Frankenstein, where in the novel the creature is meant to be sympathized with and Frankenstein himself is the weak and pathetic character who runs screaming from what he’s created and refusing to take responsibility for it. Seeing our own reflections in these monsters helps us, I think, reflect on our own humanity.

Of course, we also have shows such as Hannibal and Dexter, which invite the audience to see serial killers as sympathetic creatures in spite of their terrible crimes. This brought the conversation, in a roundabout way, to a discussion of our current political climate, in which we “normalize” monstrous people such as Nazis and fascists and find coverage of them in The New York Times, while the forces of good, such as the antifa movement and Black Lives Matter are rendered monstrous.

We talked also a wee bit about “humanizing” zombies, though I am pretty sure we agreed that the point of a zombie is that it is a creature that has lost all dredges of humanity entirely; and thus the moment you start to humanize them, make them sympathetic, then by definition they cease to be zombies. I can’t think of any exceptions to this off the top of my head. Even novels like Scott G. Browne’s Breathers, which is told from the point of view of the zombie, doesn’t really have any zombies in it.

I don’t know for sure. Am I moving the goalposts here, redefining what it means to be a zombie as I discuss the concept? There are plenty of iterations of the vampire motif, so why not so with zombies?

On the whole, then, I think we live in a post-monstrous age, where the supernatural creatures are no longer scary and the monstrous within isn’t examined anymore. While zombies might represent the faceless evils of racism and consumer culture, it’s still pretty easy to find plush zombies in the stores and online through ThinkGeek. Even Sadako and Samara, the yurei that feature so terrifyingly in The Grudge and The Ring so supernaturally, were recently pitted against each other in a more comedic film (in much the same vein as Freddy Vs. Jason).

Are there monstrous beings anymore? Can we be frightened by vampires and werewolves and Cthulhu anymore? Is it even possible? Or can we still find horror within, reflected by media overgeneralizations of cultural forces?

I’m going to have to think about this some more.


You Are Now Entering…

I’ve been watching the original Twilight Zone series on Netflix, and loving it. I’m currently halfway through season 2, and last night I saw the episode entitled “Night of the Meek”. In this episode, Henry Corwin, a department store Santa, gets drunk and is fired from his job. He informs the store manager that the reason he gets drunk all the time, and especially at Christmas, is that he can’t bear to see all the suffering and sadness in the world, especially in the faces of children, and especially at Christmastime,and know that there’s nothing he can do about it. Look at this picture of him. Doesn’t he look sad?

But the night he’s fired, Henry stumbles across a magical burlap sack that seems, at first, to be full of nothing but garbage. But he soon finds that it’s full of gifts, and not just any gifts: the heart’s desire of anyone he encounters. He gives gifts to the downtrodden at a Salvation Army soup kitchen, to the manager of the department store he was just fired from, and to the neighborhood kids.

Finally the bag is empty, and he lets it drop to the ground and goes on his way… only to encounter a sleigh, some reindeer, and an elf who says to him, “We’ve been waiting for you!” Henry’s own wish — that he could be the real life Santa Claus to give gifts for everyone — has come true.

I personally think that “Night of the Meek” is one of the better episodes that Serling himself (who was born on Christmas Day) wrote, and it actually made me a little bit sniffly. When I read a book in 2003 called [amazon asin=0765301520&text=The American Fantasy Tradition], I was more than a little surprised to see that Rod Serling was not mentioned at all.

Reams and reams have been written about The Twilight Zone and its impact on American pop culture (especially in speculative fiction), and I won’t bother going into that here. For now, I’ll just say that the show definitely impacted my own creative sensibilities. Over the past couple of weeks, as I’ve been watching this show, I find myself feeling more inspired to work on my own fiction, and giving it more subtle twists and bits than I normally would be include toward. No one has ever accused me of being a very subtle writer, so perhaps binge-watching The Twilight Zone will help change that.

If you want to buy me something for Christmas or my birthday or just for the heck of it, might I suggest [amazon asin=1250082374&text=Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone: A Fifth-Dimension Guide to Life] by Mark Dawidziak? I heard the author interviewed on a podcast I regularly listen to and this sounds like a fun book.

A couple of administrative notes:

  1. As you know, I no longer cross-post to Livejournal. Now, I cross-post to Dreamwidth, where my username is underpope2.
  2. I’ve applied a new theme to my blog. What do you think? Is it pretty? Ugly? Pretty ugly? I think it needs some tweaks.
  3. Finally, I’ve moved some of the free stories off my writing page and onto their own page at My Monstrous Universe. Enjoy!


Today’s Secret Word Is…

Today’s secret word is antepenultimate!


It will be defined in the antepenultimate paragraph of this blog entry. And this word has probably displaced defenestrate (which, of course, means to throw someone or something out of a window) as my favorite word.

Today, this blog entry is just about some snippets that happen to be floating in my brain. For example: In my opinion, the Terminator franchise ended with Terminator 2: Judgement Day. There was no need for any other films after that one. It wrapped up all the various threads and plot points and so on, and presented us with a nice clean storyline that worked on plenty of levels. It was a solid action story, but it also had depth of theme and characterization. The rest of the movies are just schlock cashing in on the name of the franchise.

That said, I did really enjoy the Terminator TV series: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.That show was well-written and executed, and deftly played with themes of time travel, family, and so on. It’s a shame that the WGA strike in 2007/2008 (am I right about the dates?) killed the show before it really got a chance to get going.

Same with the Alien franchise. Alien was a solid horror movie; Aliens was a solid action movie. Both are fine films. The rest of the films in the series are junk. Even Prometheus, which, I admit, was beautiful to watch, especially in 3D. I haven’t even bothered watching Alien: Covenant, though I might if it ends up free on Amazon Prime or Netflix. This video here demonstrates precisely why Prometheus was such an awful film:

Not all movies have to have thematic depth or solid characterizations to be good fun, of course. The 2014 Godzilla film was pretty much nothing but an action movie featuring giant monsters duking it out over the Bay Area. Characterization was kept to a minimum. It didn’t really hit the right thematic notes that the 1954 Gojira film had; that film was more about the US atomic attacks on Japan than about the monster itself. I enjoyed the 2014 Godzilla but I struggled with its purpose beyond the aforementioned monsters slugging it out.

The next American Godzilla film, Godzilla: King of Monsters, is, I believe, set to be released in 2019. Again, it will probably be light on character and theme, but heavy on CGI monsters battling each other.

Antepenultimate means “the third from the last”. As in, this is the third-from-last paragraph of the blog entry. Or, more precisely, “before the penultimate”.

And this entry is the penultimate paragraph; that is to say, second-to-last. I read a novel many years ago by Phillip K. Dick called The Penultimate Truth and it, like everything else Dick wrote, it was odd and bizarre and has stuck with me ever since I read it as a freshman at UC Davis. Come to think of it, this might have been one of the books that drove me toward getting a philosophy degree.

And this is the ultimate paragraph; that is to say, the final one. I hoped you enjoyed it.

[amazon template=wishlist&asin=B005MZN172]

The Wizard of Oz: Moral Pauper, Devious Mastermind, or Simply Dumb?

A few months ago I wrote in this blog about my theory that Glinda, Good Witch of the North in the Land of Oz, is actually a Machiavellian mastermind, scheming and using Dorothy Gale’s serendipitous killing of the Wicked Witch of the East as the opening gambit in a plot to eliminate the Wizard and make herself the only magical power in the entire country.  Since I wrote that, I’ve read some more of the Oz books, and discovered that later plot elements confirmed my theory; once Dorothy left, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man took over the leadership of Oz until Ozma was returned to power, and once Ozma was back in power one of her first acts was to outlaw magic and witchcraft, save that practiced by her good friend Glinda.

Glinda is definitely a power mad fiend.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

This time, though, I wanted to address another aspect of the Oz storyline that really bugs me.  This element I’ve only noticed in the play and in the 1939 movie, so as far as I know it doesn’t represent anything that L. Frank Baum (or his successors) wrote, but it’s in the script and the screenplay, and it bugs me.

But before I begin, I guess I should say that I really do love the movie.  The music is fun (in particular, I love the Scarecrow’s song), the visuals are spectacular, and the storyline is an elegant incarnation of the Hero’s Journey.  It’s got the Call to Adventure, it’s got the Wise Mentor, and, of course, the Return Home with Gifts.  The actors are all wonderful and the characterizations are delightful.  It really is a fun movie, and I’ve seen it often.

It’s just that the Wizard is such a schmuck.  "It’s not how much you love," he tells the Tin Man at the end of the film, "but how much others love you that matters." And the sad thing is, the Tin Man believes him.

I suppose that in some ways, it’s not all that bad a message.  In particular, it’s probably a good tool for socializing young children.  "It doesn’t matter how many people you love or how much you love them," we might say to them.  "All that matters is how much other people love you."  Frank Morgan as the Wizard of OzThis could easily help children behave at school or in public.  "Act in such a way so that people will love you," we could tell them, ensuring that they will behave properly.  And, of course, there’s the underlying subtext:  "The person who dies with the most people loving them wins!"

The trouble is, that doesn’t really work, and the number of people who love you is a horrible measure of the kind of person you are.  Remember the line one of the Princes had in Into the Woods?  "I was raised to be charming… not sincere."  With sufficient charm and charisma, even the most horrible person can get plenty of people, even thousands, to love them.  Ask Squeaky Fromme if you don’t believe me on that.

More to the point, though, I think that there are plenty of people out there who are fully capable of loving other people deeply and whole heartedly, but who are not very capable of expressing that love; and because the way they express it is inadequate, sometimes even inappropriate, in spite of years of people trying to teach them otherwise.  I’m thinking in particular of the many nerds and geeks I have known throughout my life who suffered from this problem.  Some of them were very, very loving people but just plain incapable of showing it.  Perhaps they had Aspergers.  Perhaps they were autistic in some other way.  Or perhaps they just never learned the appropriate skills.  The point is, in spite of their huge hearts, they weren’t well loved by many other people (this is actually a theme I’ve been playing with a bit in The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster).

So what, exactly, is the Wizard trying to imply with his comment to the Tin Man?  He was spot on in his advice to both the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, I think, so what was he trying to say to the Tin Man?  Was he being deliberately dim?  Was he trying to undermine the Tin Man’s self confidence, knowing that the Tin Man would take over leadership of Oz after he left (if so, would that put him in cahoots, somehow, with Glinda, or was he possibly trying to bring Glinda’s machinations to a halt)?  Or was he simply reflecting a worldview popular in 1939, when the film was made?

Being me, I, of course, look for the nefarious motives here.  It was all a conspiracy.  Not just one conspiracy, in fact, but a web of competing lies and manipulations which proves that even a simple place like Oz can be a web of internecine conflict which could rival the current Republican Party.

Watch the film, kids.  Enjoy it.  But remember that what the Wizard says to the Tin Man is just wrong.

The Matrix and Philosophy

The Matrix and PhilosophyThe Matrix and Philosophy edited by William Irwin

My bachelor’s degree is in Philosophy (UC Davis, 1992), and The Matrix is one of my favorite science fiction films ever; and so this book seems like it would be a perfect match for me, doesn’t it? It’s part of the same Philosophy and Popular Culture series which includes other books such as The Simpsons and Philosophy, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Philosophy (which I have and which is a surprisingly entertaining read, save for the very last essay), and the forthcoming The Undead and Philosophy, which I need to get just because the title sounds so impressive. There’s another book out now called Superheroes and Philosophy which I want to read, even though I have never been much of a fan of the superhero genre.

Continue reading The Matrix and Philosophy