Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thoughts on Pee Wee's Big Adventure



Today I read Alden Ford's review on Pee-Wee Herman first movie, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, on Splitsider.com. Although Ford isn't a fan of the movie - he says it underachieves and "feels like an experiment in style and character that doesn’t do justice to the potential of either the character or the director (Tim Burton)" -  I disagree. And because it is one my all-time favorite films, here is an essay I wrote about movie way back in 2002.

A Classic Quest

Throughout cinematic history, many great movies have been made about people’s quests for objects of deep meaning.  Such examples include Indiana Jones’s hunts for both the lost ark and the holy grail; Sam Spade and many others searching for the Maltese Falcon; and the duo of Rosa Klebb and Konsteen and their search for a Russian decoding device in the James Bond classic From Russia, with Love.  Sometimes the story goes beyond just the mere search.  That is the case in the 1985 masterpiece Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, starring Paul Reubens as Pee Wee Herman.

Pee Wee is the most “happening” guy in his neighborhood.  Along with a house full of gizmos and doo-dads and a dog named Speck, he has the most fantastic bicycle ever.  It is his pride and joy.  His love for his bike is evident when keeps it in a secure secret area and has custom-made upgrades made for it.

Unfortunately for Pee Wee, he also has a very jealous neighbor, Francis Buckston.  Francis is the son of Mr. Buckston, a very wealthy man who has told his son he can have anything he desires for his birthday.  Francis wants Pee Wee’s bike.

One day, after taking the necessary precautions and chaining his bicycle up, Pee Wee goes to the local bike shop to pick up an extra-loud horn.  When he returns, his bicycle is missing.  Pee Wee first accuses Francis of stealing the bike, but with no proof, he must look elsewhere.  And so begins his epic adventure.

Pee Wee’s love for his bike takes him on a cross-country journey, to such notable places as the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas and Warner Brothers Studios, Hollywood, California.  Along the way he makes friends with various people from different walks of life, from Mickey, the prison escapee found guilty of cutting the “Do Not Remove” labels off mattresses, to Simone, the truck stop waitress with dreams of visiting Paris.  Each of the new friends helps Pee Wee in their own way.

Pee Wee also benefits from his own quick thinking.  He always seems to escape dangerous situations by out-smarting his enemies.  One of the highlights of the movie occurs when the members of the Satan’s Helpers bike gang surround Pee Wee.  Pee Wee defuses the potentially ugly scene by raucously dancing to “Tequila”, much to the delight of the gang.

Pee Wee eventually makes his way to Warner Brothers Studio, where he must again use his quick wits.  Several movie sets are destroyed as Pee Wee attempts to elude the authorities in order to reclaim his prize possession.  Although the adventure never ends, the excitement and suspense peaks when Pee Wee rescues hundreds of animals from a burning pet store outside of the studio, only to be confronted by the cops one final time.  Is he to be deemed an outlaw or a hero?

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is more than a movie about a guy searching for his missing bicycle.  It is a story about dreams, and the quest to make those dreams a reality with the help of some great friends.  For this reason, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure will continue to be a timeless classic.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Review of Dan Drezner's Theories of International Politics and Zombies



I usually don't buy or read books immediately after they come out. Especially when it comes to political texts. I'm more likely to read literature from the Cold War or some other conflict when I can use the perspective of hindsight than to engage something rife with modern opinions and recent theory. I had to make an exception however with Dan Drezner's Theories of International Politics and Zombies.

This book is too important to sit on my shelf for years. I had to read it as soon as possible.

A few disclaimers:

1) Theories of International Politics and Zombies is written for academics, students, or practitioners of international politics.  Although Drezner provides background on the different theories of international politics, enjoyment of the book is most likely proportional to knowledge on the subject. Being that I have never worked in the international field, Drezner used a lot of terms that I haven't seen since grad school.

2) I am a Dan Drezner fan. I've read his blog since 2007, at first when it was on his own site, and then I followed when he went to the Foreign Policy web site. If I thought international theory study could be lucrative and working in the field could provide a retirement to beaches of senoritas and margaritas, there are few professors I would want to study under more.

3) I am not much of a zombie fan. I think their utility in film is vastly overrated. They have zero personality and are the crutch of far too many uncreative filmmakers.

Now that I have that out of the way, Theories of International Politics and Zombies was very enjoyable. Drezner uses the simpleness of zombies as the constant against various political theories. He writes about how responses based on realism, liberalism, American neoconservatism, and constructivism could be used to counter an emerging zombie threat. He also writes about how domestic politics and American bureaucracy could both help and hinder anti-zombie efforts.

At only 120 pages of text, Drezner only tears the flesh of large-scale anti-zombie processes. As I was reading, I thought of a few measures he doesn't cover. One is the idea that a stronger nation could possibly attempt to herd zombies and utilize them as a un-living border patrol. Allowing autonomy to a group in exchange for providing a buffer between a nation and what they perceive as problematic neighbor has been done at various times in history. Imagine a five mile swath between the US and Mexico populated by thousands of zombies. Although there would be a huge initial investment, while US military forces monitored the fence and the zombies (who I doubt would complain about persistent monitoring), this borderland would provide an increased deterrent against illegal immigration.

In his domestic chapter, Drezner fails to mention what I believe is one of the most important laws in America: Posse Comitatus - the limiting of military forces in domestic law enforcement. Since the United States lacks the uniform citizen military ideal seen in Israel or Kurdistan, there is no way private arms, local police, or even the National Guard could coordinate enough force to counter a zombie threat. Posse Comitatus would have to be suspended and that would lead to a major political dispute in at the national level. I would have liked to seen Drezner at least mention this issue.

Another important point I think Drezner missed is the politics of resources. Sometimes even a powerful nation should logically use a capability created by another nation to fight a threat, but they don't due to politics and the impression of strength - even if it costs the stronger nation money and casualties. One of example of this scenario is the Russian fire fighting plane Ilyushin Il-76 which sat on runways while fires burned in Asia, Africa, and South America.  Drezner mentions the need to create international organizations that would work to migrate a zombie catastrophe, but he doesn't mention how difficult it would be for these organizations to sequester the necessary capabilities.

As I mentioned, Theories of International Politics and Zombies is a quick read, but it is well-written, fun to read, and I think it is the precursor of an army of undead academic-themed literature that will soon swarm bookstores everywhere.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Review of Aldous Huxley's Island



Since I recently lost my job, I've been able to catch up on my reading. This week I read Aldous Huxley's Island. I've been a big Huxley fan for a long time, but for whatever reason I had never read his last book until now.

Published in 1962, Island is an absolutely great book about a a journalist's visit to an island called Pala. Pala is a land inhabited by a peaceful people who are struggling against a militant neighboring nation called Rendang. In a scenario that has become almost cliche today, the rulers of Rendang and their cohorts in the global oil industry have targeted Pala due to it's bevy of natural resources.  If the plot of Island sounds similar to James Cameron's Avatar, it is because it is.

However, it blows Avatar out of the water.

Island is much more in-depth philosophically than anything done today. Huxley thoroughly describes the religious, educational, and social foundations and philosophies of the people of Pala. Most profound is their hybrid Buddhist-Hindu mindset, which is, like other Huxley novels, enhanced through the use of psychological drugs - sort of how Native Americans use peyote to enhance their religious experience. There is no mention of any other philosophy among the residents of Pala, their communal behavior is guided by more of an overarching mindset than a "religion"- sort of how Islam guided early Muslim communities in the 8th Century. There is no "church" nor "state" on Pala, just a proper way of being and attention given to the present moment.

Island is a culmination of many of the other Huxley books I have read. It follows Huxley's thoughts on hallucinogenic "oneness" discussed Heaven and Hell, The Doors of Perception, and Brave New World. It also features characters that are stereotypes of religious fanaticism, military dictatorships, consumer lust, and impersonal corporate greed, opposites of the people of Pala, yet traits the Palanise attempt to live alongside.

(Heaven and Hell inspired me to write my first ever philosophical book review. It was that deep. I might have to find that and post it here someday.)

If Island was told today, there would be some insane twist at the end, such as in Avatar when the natives overthrew the soulless exploiters. To be honest, with all the detail Huxley put into describing the Palanise people and the fact that there was no mention of a military confict, I almost expected the journalist, Will Barnaby, to be dreaming his visit to Pala, a la "The Newhart Ending". But in Huxley's novel, Barnaby wasn't dreaming. Like any journalist stuck in a war zone, he could do nothing more than watch the collision of two nations. Island definitely ends with what I call an "Empire Strikes Back" ending - where the good guys don't win. The antagonists don't necessarily win either, but they have the advantage.

Huxley often preached about the dangers of power: who has it and how societies exist under it.  He believed in decentralization, the power of the individual to make his own decisions, and idea that people could unite in societies under common goals without the need for an aggressive power-hungry government. Those themes are exceedingly evident in Island.

(Check out this 1958 interview between Huxley and CBS mainstay Mike Wallace where Huxley discusses the potential for authoritative governments to take over. Eerie.)

It is fitting that Island is Huxley's last book before he died in 1963. Huxley intended Island to not just be a story, but a message. A message movies like Avatar touch upon, but lose among their Hollywood glitz and glamor.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Groundhog Day and the Life Insurance Conspiracy

I know Groundhog's Day just past, but I couldn't resist posting a video that writer Jonah Keri found on youtube.

This video is, of course, all of the Ned Ryerson moments in the movie Groundhog's Day. I have an interesting theory about Ned's role in that movie. It is a theory no one agrees with me on, but I swear by it.

I think Groundhog's Day is not a movie about love or finding the right person or anything pf those sappy moments Hollywood would have you believe. It is a movie about life insurance. As a matter of fact, the whole film is a commercial for why you need life insurance, and I wouldn't doubt if it was funded by the life insurance lobby.

Remember, it is not until Phil Connors agrees to buy life insurance (in an unseen scene) that Phil can live his life again. Think about it. With that in mind, watch and enjoy.

Learning Comedy Part 9 - Dissecting Peanuts

Today, I'm going to finally wrap up the dissecting, analyzing, and taking apart of my favorite pieces of humor by taking apart, analyzing, and dissecting the legendary Peanuts comic strip.

For over 50 years, creator Charles Schultz entertained readers with the Peanuts cast. The strip ran in thousands of newspapers, was made into anthologies, and into cartoons and movies such as "Charlie Brown's Christmas" and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown".  There is absolutely no question Peanuts is a staple of 20th Century American culture.

Here are a few of my favorite Peanuts comics as found on Comics.com.

1)  Snoopy ponders a bird's career:




Subject/ Target: Career aspirations

Why it's funny: The humor is in the twist at the end. While Snoopy is caught up in the drama of Woodstock's career path, Woodstock himself is ambivalent. Woodstock's ambivalence carries over to Snoopy in the final panel as Snoopy expresses both Woodstock's attitude and his own change in perception.

2) Snoopy and the Universe




Subject/ Target: Life

Why it's funny: In this comic, it is Snoopy who is ambivalent. While Lucy discusses Snoopy's place in the universe, Snoopy listens, and instead of getting depressed that his actions won't matter, he does the one action he thinks will give the most pleasure at the moment - sleep. The humor is in the twist in the third panel. The reader knows Snoopy will reaction to Lucy's discussion, but they don't know how. Then there is a relief when Snoopy doesn't overreact or panic, and instead takes it in stride.

3) Charlie Brown and Happiness




Subject/Target: Sports and life

Why it's funny: Charlie Brown is the ultimate sympathetic figure in comic strips. Nothing, whether it is kicking a football or his relationship with the red-haired girl, goes his way. The humor is that readers feel superior to Charlie Brown because, compared to him, their lives are not that bad. They sympathize with him and then, when things get worse, they laugh at his fictional tragedy. In this strip, the reader roots for Charlie Brown, and then when things don't work out via a sports analogy, he becomes sympathetic and through that sympathy he becomes comical.