Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Scott McCloud interview

Scott McCloud is the creator of comics like Zot!, Understanding Comics, Making Comics, and digital comics like one about Google's new browser. He's as much an evangelist for comics as he is a creator of them.

This interview focused on The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, an original graphic novel he did entirely on computer -- something still uncommon today but utterly revolutionary in 1997-1998. Scott's website is The original version of this interview included lots of behind-the-scenes artwork, but that's sadly not here since I retrieved this from the Internet Wayback Machine. Another sign of the changing times? The art arrived on a CD sent via Fed Ex, instead of via e-mail.

by Chris Galdieri
webdate: 2/6/98
"You can do anything in comics. That's my religion," says Scott McCloud, author and artist of Zot! and Understanding Comics.

McCloud is putting that belief to the test with The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, a 144-page graphic novel that will explore the myth and the reality of American history through the conflict between two versions of Lincoln. One will be an impostor reminiscent of the idealized Lincoln everyone remembers from their fourth-grade history textbook: the tall, heroic frontiersman who freed the slaves and saved the Union. The other will be the genuine article: a flawed, human figure, whom McCloud describes as "this tall lanky guy with bad skin and a high, reedy voice who has to go to the bathroom a lot."

"The big controversy in the book is which one is the real McCoy," McCloud explains. "The first that comes back grabs a bunch of grade school kids and takes them on a tour of American history, but something's definitely wrong with it. One of the kids figures out pretty quickly that he's a phony. When the real Abraham Lincoln comes back to challenge him, he doesn't quite fit our idea of what Abraham Lincoln is supposed to be like."

The Lincoln impostor's version history is heavy on mythology and light on accuracy. "It goes to the American Revolution where three ragged guys with a fife and drum are facing off a troop of British soldiers. Ben Franklin captures electricity in his kite and sends it straight into Thomas Edison's lightbulb. Lincoln frees the slaves himself, up on a mountaintop. Everything is screwed up, but in a way that feels right. I wanted to see what would happen if someone started teaching that stuff as gospel," McCloud says. "The fake Abe keys into this idea of American history that most of us already have buried deep in our heads from grade school. He hoodwinks everybody from Congress to the President to the American public and just about the only person who doesn't believe him is this 12-year old kid named Byron, who goes on this crusade to prove that this guy is a fake, but it isn't easy. As soon as the fake Abe shows up, he stages a bloodless coup of the United States government."

When the real Lincoln returns and tries to reveal the impostor, however, he doesn't meet with resounding success. "The two Lincolns have a debate and it turns out that the phony Lincoln is a much better modern politician. He understands the sound bite, and the real Abraham Lincoln thinks that all the people are really interested in are the facts. And it turns out that that's not exactly true."

While The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln definitely comments on the state of contemporary American political culture, McCloud says he's not out to promote a personal or particular ideology. "It's been a long while since I've wanted to identify myself as either a Democrat or a Republican," he says. "I think that party politics have gotten really kind of creaky. And I think some people may be surprised at how apolitical The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln is. It's not really jumping into the fray."

McCloud says Lincoln will focus more on symbols and their power than on politics, current or otherwise. "Our minds sort out the details of what we can use to represent the world metaphorically, [in] a way that makes sense to us but doesn't necessarily have anything to do with actual history. We revere the Constitution as some holy document rather than some piece of paper that was written on by actual living breathing human beings. In a way, that's closer to the truth because of the power [the Constitution] really does have," he explains. "So in some ways that magical idea of history can be closer to the power of truth than the real thing. But there can be dangers, too, because modern politicians can use those symbols in a way that can actually degrade the things that they mean."

Adams sees a very real example of this kind of manipulation of symbols in recent years' debate over banning flag burning through a Constitutional amendment. "I think the symbol of the flag represents the ability to express a negative feeling about the country," he says. "That's what makes the country so incredibly strong. But that's an example of a symbol that has overtaken the truth. Suddenly this red, white, and blue piece of cloth is somehow supposed to be elevated above what it means. I think the sacred part is the freedom itself, not the piece of cloth. Don't ever get them mixed up."

Lincoln himself, of course, has become something of a symbol in modern society. One of McCloud's biggest challenges was to separate Lincoln the symbol from Lincoln the man. McCloud made some interesting discoveries about the sixteenth President in the course of researching Lincoln's life in preparation for this book. "I didn't turn into a scholar but I definitely read up on him and found a lot of interesting stuff," he says. "The real Abe Lincoln was a real oddball. He wasn't a saint and wasn't a sinner but he was really interesting. What's sad is that the more you learn about him you realize what a really hard life he had. He probably had the most miserable time of any President. For most of his Presidency he thought he was going to lose [the Civil War]. He was criticizes from within his own Cabinet. People made fun of the way he looked. His wife had terrible emotional troubles. He lost children to disease and tragedy. And he still managed to have a great sense of humor and be as positive as he was. To make Abraham Lincoln a human being itself is a very shocking thing. It's shocking to read him as a real person and not as some marble statue sitting on a throne somewhere."

The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln is an unusual project for more reasons than its subtle look at American symbols and history. Like his last project, Understanding Comics, Lincoln will be released as a graphic novel rather than as a monthly comic. McCloud feels that the nature of the story he's telling is best suited to the graphic novel format. "I think the graphic novel format can really build up an emotional story. When you have to break things down, you kind of lose the emotional resonance of the story. It usually takes a few pages to get into something emotionally. In 24-page chunks, it seems like as soon as you're getting into the story, it's over. So if I wanted to do something with a wider arc, a story that follows a lot more emotional ups and downs, I've found that the graphic novel tends to work a little bit better that way. [Lincoln is] not just adventure and superhero type action, where all the conflict is who is going to get beaten up. It's somebody battling for the minds of an entire nation."

Lincoln will stand out from other comics in another way: McCloud's artwork for the project is completely computer-generated. "Apart from some pencil sketches for the characters, everything that you see on the page was generated digitally. All the backgrounds are 3D modeling. The characters were colored and drawn in Photoshop, the lettering and the panels and a lot of the detail work was done in Adobe Illustrator," he says. "I think the computer is an extraordinary tool and the style of art in Lincoln is actually just a small part of what it can do."

McCloud is enthusiastic about the role computers can play in creating comics, so much so that his next book Reinventing Comics, a follow-up to the wildly successful Understanding Comics, will largely address computers' impact on comics. "Just as I finished Understanding Comics I got my first computer and began an obsession that has become more and more intense ever since," he explains. McCloud feels that computers and comics are a natural combination and represent the next giant leap for the medium. "In Understanding Comics I spend some time talking about how I think comics predates print, that is, comics is not automatically tied to print. And if comics can predate print, it should be able to postdate print as well. Comics is such an exciting and resilient artform, it certainly can travel beyond wood pulp and glue, and do all kinds of exciting things in a digital environment. But it will change how comics are perceived and how they are made, just as comics were very different before print."

After Reinventing Comics, McCloud is uncertain what his next project will be. "I have a list as long as my arm -- literally as long as my arm, because I use these long sheets of paper -- of projects I would like to do at some point," he jokes. "Many short subjects are going to wind up on my website,, which will be launching sometime in the middle of next year. Some are adaptations of poems. Some are autobiographical. I want to do an adaptation of Oedipus Rex entirely in black and red silhouettes. There's just a million things. I think that if I'm lucky, in the course of my lifetime I'll be able to do most or even all of them."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Movie review: Armageddon

Of all the Michael Bay movies I have ever seen, Armageddon was the loudest and Bay-iest. I don't think this review quite captures the schizoid sense of hyperkinetic boredom the movie induced in me; I kept realizing throughout the press screening that I was in a movie theatre, watching a film that was very loud and flashy indeed, only to have my attention wander off for a few moments until I remembered where I was again.

Chris Galdieri
webdate: 6/26/98

Despite its enormous budget, generally talented cast, and high concept,
Armageddon is an overlong disappointment that fails to use any of its
potential assets to its advantage.

The premise of the movie is simple: a Texas-sized asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. Since the asteroid is too big to blow up from the outside, NASA sends a team of deep-core oil drillers, led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), to drill a hole deep into the asteroid, where a nuclear warhead can be detonated and thus prevent the asteroid from destroying Earth and every living thing on it.

The first twenty minutes or so of the movie are promising. NASA discovers that the asteroid is approaching when a meteor shower destroys the space shuttle Atlantis and meteor strikes rain down on the Earth from Finland to South Carolina. NASA chief Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton, easily the best thing in the movie) convenes a meeting of top scientists to figure out exactly what's going on. And what's going on, they determine, is that the asteroid will strike Earth in a mere 18 days. The meeting itself is everything the rest of the movie isn't: suspenseful, informative, and tense, with a sense of impending danger that's strangely absent from the rest of the movie.

The film goes astray with the introduction of Willis' oil drillers. The urgent tone of the movie goes flying out the window as the drill crew, whose personality quirks (one's a cowboy, one's a womanizer, one's a gambler, one's a fat guy, ad nauseum) seem to have been decided by focus group, becomes the focus of the action. Aside from the wild improbability of NASA picking amateur astronauts to carry out the most important mission in the history of humanity, there are so many drillers that it's difficult, if not impossible, to keep them straight, never mind get to know or care about them.

One driller who does get plenty of attention is A.J. (Ben Affleck), who is clandestinely seeing Harry's daughter, Grace (Liv Tyler). This romance, along with Grace's estrangement from her father, is presumably intended to give the film an emotional resonance, but it falls flat. Affleck and Tyler have no chemistry and their scenes are almost painful to watch. An early effort to establish Grace as a strong young woman is quickly abandoned and Grace becomes just a daughter and girlfriend waiting for her father and her boyfriend to return from the mission. Worst of all, once the drillers set out into space, Grace has absolutely nothing to do but wander around Mission Control looking concerned. Which she does, in shot after shot after shot. Tyler's performance does nothing to compensate for the writing, but in all fairness to Ms. Tyler, it's doubtful that anyone could have made this character work.

One of the most maddening aspects of Armageddon is the lack of attention paid to scientific detail. The movie is rife with such impossibilities as sound in space, characters breathing in airlocks which should be empty, and spacesuits (made from a substance that looks suspiciously like corduroy) that magically compensate for the microgravity of the asteroid's surface. One of the characters actually gets "space dementia." A more reasonable explanation would be that the character had too much oxygen in his air supply, but that would have required too much homework for the scriptwriters.

The movie also asks us to believe that NASA, which we're told is as woefully underfunded in Armageddon as it is in real life at the start of the film, has two top-secret super-advanced space shuttles that can be prepped for launch in something like a week, and that these super-shuttles have been designed to land on and take off from the craggy surface of an asteroid. And while I'm no geologist, a hole less than a quarter of a mile deep doesn't seem like it would make all that much of a difference on an asteroid we're told is the size of Texas (and is that in cubic or square feet, anyway? And why are things always the size of Texas? Wouldn't an asteroid the size of Rhode Island or Delaware be plenty scary on its own?).

Armageddon also suffers by not describing in any detail just what the drillers are supposed to do when they get to the asteroid. Sure, we know they're drilling a hole and dropping a nuclear warhead down it, but we're
never told anything about drilling. The result is that we never have any idea what the drillers are doing on the asteroid's surface, and thus there's no real suspense during the actual drilling scenes. Since we don't know what's happening we can't care about what we're seeing, and whenever anything happens, we don't know what it means until one of the characters reacts.

The soundtrack is particularly distracting. Ambient noise, sound effects, and what seems like an endless string of Aerosmith songs all overwhelm spoken dialogue for what feels like almost a quarter of the film. And with a running time of two and a half hours, the film is far too long.

Somewhere along the line, this could have been a genuinely good science fiction film. Instead, it's a mess that veers from scene to scene with little internal consistency and never gives a reason to care about what was happening onscreen. Armageddon promises a bang but delivers a whimper.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Humor: When I Am the Captain

This is another humorous piece I wrote, inspired by years of watching Star Trek and thinking, from time to time, things like, "Boy, I bet that prisoner wouldn't have escaped if he's been guarded by more than one person." I was gratified to find, a few years later, a message board thread that expanded on the list with additional jokes -- though I'd have been more gratified if this had become an annoying e-mail that people forward to each other at work instead of working.

Shortly after this ran I had a series of e-mail exchanges with a guy who demanded that I credit every web site I'd plagiarized this list from. When I told him I'd never seen any such sites, and noted that he hadn't included links to any such sites, and that perhaps any similarities between my list and these hypothetical other lists out there resulted from watching and reacting to the same show, he sent me a final snippy message and then I never heard from him again.

The Internet is weird.

When I am the Captain...

by Chris Galdieri

1. I will not permit my crew to use the holodeck, which constantly malfunctions and jeopardizes the ship. I will teach my crew to amuse themselves by reading ancient data-storage devices called "books", which use no energy and can not, for example, create malevolent beings which can take over the life-support system.

2. I will order my Chief of Engineering to install circuit breakers on the ship in order to prevent control consoles from exploding when the ship is attacked.

3. I will not allow teenagers to fly my ship, no matter how intelligent or precocious they may be, or to which member of my senior staff they are related.

4. If one of my crewmembers has an evil duplicate or twin, I will have a discreet mark tattooed on the crewmember's hand to prevent said evil duplicate from impersonating my crewmember.

5. If a member of my crew refuses to follow orders during a crisis or battle situation on ethical grounds, I will remove him from his post and have another crewmember replace him. I will have my first officer hold a fair and impartial hearing on the matter when the crisis has passed.

6. If a Klingon starts to prattle on about "honor", I will ask him to defend Commander Kruge's execution of a civilian hostage in Star Trek III. Then I will shoot him.

7. If a crewmember must travel to a distant world to grapple with personal issues, I will put him on leave and give him fare to fly there commercially.

8. I will forbid members of my crew from wearing spandex. Uniforms will be outfitted with an ancient feature called "pockets", which will allow them to carry small personal items from place to place.

9. I will have a row of metal bars installed across the front of cells in the brig to supplement the force field in the event of a power failure.

10. I will recommend that Starfleet build a fleet of starships for the specific purpose of defending Earth's solar system so that the fate of the universe will never again depend on "the only ship in the sector."

11. I will call other starships for help if my ship is ever "the only ship in the sector."

12. If a legendary starship captain brought to my time from the past becomes pinned
under large rocks, I will remove the rocks and try to save his life. If I cannot save his life, I will see that he is accorded a proper burial and funeral and not left to rot under a pile of rocks.

13. I will not permit my crew to time travel. If my crew is ever forced to time
travel, we will endeavor to avoid changing history and we will not permit individuals
from the past to return to the future with us.

14. I will not patronize members of less technologically advanced races. I will remind myself and my crew that humans were once technological primitives, and suggest we can learn something from the way less advances races conduct their society.

15. If I ever find myself attracted to a female alien, I will remind myself that inter-species romances are impossible due to physiological differences, and take a cold shower instead.

16. I will make sure that my head of security will be versed in many different methods of armed and unarmed combat.

17. I will have dangerous prisoners escorted to the brig by a team of a dozen heavily armed security guards, who will be under orders to shoot to kill any prisoner who tries to escape.

18. I will install seat belts on every seat on the bridge so that crewmembers can remain at their posts in combat situations.

19. I will find a chief engineer who will be calm, reasonable, and able to speak clearly and evenly at all times.

20. I will replace any science officer who tells me that a planet has one climate.

21. If two of my senior officers have had a relationship in the past, I will ask them to deal with it calmly and maturely during their off-duty hours. If the problem
persists, I will have one of them reassigned to another ship.

22. I will not allow my starship to have a bar that is bigger than the bridge, sickbay, and engine room combined.

23. I will not allow my starship to be carpeted.

24. I will ban pastel colors from my ship. My starship will be painted conservatively and in keeping with the military nature of its mission.

25. I will reinforce my starship's shields by adding armored plating to the exterior of my ship.

26. I will not allow the chief medical officer onto the bridge unless I summon him or her. If the doctor wishes to meet with me, he or she can make an appointment to do so when I am not on the bridge.

27. I will discourage members of my crew from becoming emotionally involved with
residents of newly discovered worlds which are not yet advanced enough to join the Federation.

28. I will prohibit members of my crew from hosting visits from former commanders, old friends from the Academy, or family members, since such reunions inevitably either endanger the ship needlessly or distract everyone from more pressing matters.

29. In any situation where I must choose between a minor violation of the letter of the Prime Directive and the survival of my crew, I will choose my crew and stand for
court-martial afterward.

30. If a primitive society is threatened with extinction, I will try to interpret the Prime Directive in a way that will allow me to save them rather than leave them to die.

31. If I want insights into the psyche of an opponent, I will ask a psychiatrist and not a counselor, since a psychiatrist is a trained medical professional, while a counselor is just someone who calls himself or herself a counselor.

32. If I am being chased through my ship by the Borg, I will not stop to change clothes in mid-flight.

33. If I ever have the chance to destroy the Borg, I will take it.

34. I will require my security officers to engage in intensive, regular target practice and combat workouts.

35. I will teach my security officers to hide and call for reinforcements when they are outnumbered and outgunned.

36. I will not enter into a sexual or emotional relationship with the leader of an alien planet until I learn what side they are on.

37. If a crewmember must enter a radioactive chamber to make a repair that will allow the ship to escape imminent destruction, I will recommend that he or she wear a full radiation suit, and not just gloves.

38. I will not allow synthehol or near beer on my ship.

39. I will not eat Klingon food, ever.

40. I will have landing parties beaming into dangerous situations in alien environments wear camouflage instead of brightly-colored uniforms to make them less obvious targets.

41. I will bring my phaser with me when I go on shore leave.

42. I will not turn off my communicator, ever.

43. I will not ferry Ambassadors, Admirals, scientists, or brilliant scientific prodigies around the galaxy, as such missions invariably result in the pointless death of some member of my crew.

44. I will not permit Starfleet to Beta test software on my ship.

45. I will install shields on all of my ship's shuttlecraft to prevent them from blowing up.

46. If the members of an alien civilization decide that I or a member of my crew is a god, and that perception will facilitate my ship's mission on that planet, I will not presume to question the wisdom of the natives.

47. If my ship visits a planet where another starship disappeared years earlier, I will go into the situation prepared for battle, because if a starship disappears,
it's probably because something bad happened to it.

48. I will require my chief medical officer and medical staff to wear latex gloves during all medical procedures to prevent the spread of germs and illness among the crew.

49. I will have a sprinkler system and fire extinguishers installed in my ship.

50. If a supposedly advanced alien race wants to put me and my crew on trial for the sins of humanity, I will demand that that race demonstrate its advanced nature by providing us with a defense attorney, presuming our innocence until a verdict is reached, following established rules of discovery, giving us a trial by a jury of our peers, and allowing us to appeal a guilty verdict. I will point out that a trial for the past sins of humanity is inherently rooted in the concept of "corruption of the blood," which was banned in America in the 18th Century, and ask why a supposedly advanced race bases its justice system on an invidious and outmoded concept.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Humor: Interviewing the Magic 8-Ball

This piece shows the things you will do to fill space when you're understaffed and underfunded. It was one of the easiest things I ever reported, since my only source was a magic-8 ball (and I note that I used a real magic 8-ball, since anything less would have made me the online entertainment journalism equivalent of Stephen Glass). That, and I asked my co-workers what shows I should ask the 8-ball about. I wrote a lot of humorous pieces during my year at Mania and will post more as they turn up.
The last show mentioned in this article is something called "The Sentinel." I had to think for a while to remember what it was -- a UPN series about a secret agent with super-human senses for some reason. At the time I wrote this, it had been canceled, and was the subject of a fervent fan campaign to bring it back for another season. It was, and then it was promptly canceled again.

Magic 8-Ball answers TV cliffhanger questions

by Chris Galdieri
webdate: 5/29/98

This TV season has ended with cliffhangers everywhere. Is that guy on The Sentinel really dead? Will replacing Dax on Deep Space Nine really work? Is Angel going to be trapped in Hell forever? Will Buffy ever return to Sunnydale? Will Frasier get his job back at the radio station? Will Mimi Rogers' character on X-Files die? Viewers and fans of these and other shows are going to spend the rest of the summer agonizing over the fates of their favorite characters, asking themselves and each other variations of the same question: What happens now?

No human being can predict the future, of course, short of kidnapping and torturing the relevant TV writers and producers. But that would be illegal, as well as expensive as all heck. Fortunately, we've got another means of divining the answers to the many questions this season's TV cliffhangers left us with: the Magic Eight Ball!

As every schoolchild knows, the Magic Eight Ball knows all. And so, as a public service to you, our loyal readers, we're going to go straight to the Magic Eight Ball to find out what's really going to happen on your favorite TV series when they return this fall.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Question: Is Angel trapped in Hell forever?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "It is decidedly so."

Question: Will Buffy return to Sunnydale?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Better not tell you now."

Question: Is everyone going to be ticked off at Xander when they find out he didn't tell Buffy Willow was trying to restore Angel's soul?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Concentrate and ask again."

Question: Is everyone going to be ticked off at Xander when they find out he didn't tell Buffy Willow was trying to restore Angel's soul?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "My sources say no."

Question: Will we ever see Spike and Drusilla again?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "It is certain."

Question: Are Giles and Buffy's mother going to get together?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Signs point to yes."

The X-Files

Question: Is Mimi Rogers' character going to die?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "It is certain."

Question: Will the X-Files be re-opened, either in the movie or next season?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Signs point to yes."

Question: Is Scully going to date Frohike?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Without a doubt."

Question: Will Mulder get a new, aboveground, office?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "My sources say no."

Question: Is Mulder going to beat the snot out of Spender?

Magic Eight Ball sez: Very doubtful.

Question: Will the show be the same after the movie and the move to Los Angeles?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Yes, definitely."


Question: Will Frasier, Roz, Bulldog, and the rest of the station get their jobs back?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Yes."

Question: Will we ever hear that catchy Spanish version of "Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs" again?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Outlook not so good."

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys

Question: Will Hera remain trapped in Tartarus?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Very doubtful."

Xena: Warrior Princess

Question: Is Gabrielle really dead?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Yes, definitely."

Question: Is Hope really dead?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "My reply is no."

Question: Is Callisto really dead?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Outlook not so good."

Star Trek: Voyager

Question: Will the ship ever get back to the Alpha Quadrant?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Ask again later."

Question: Will Paris and Torres break up?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "My sources say no."

Question: Will Janeway and Chakotay get together?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Outlook not so good."

Question: Will the ship ever get back to the Alpha Quadrant?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Signs point to yes."

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Question: Will Worf still be married to the Dax Trill's new host next season?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "It is decidedly so."

Question: Even if the new host is a man?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "It is certain."

King of the Hill

Question: Was Hank killed in the propane explosion at the Mega-Lo-Mart?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "It is decidedly so."

Question: Is King of the Hill really moving to Hollywood?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "Signs point to yes."

Question: If Hank is dead, will Boomhauer and Peggy get together?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "As I see it, yes."

The Sentinel

Question: Is that guy really dead? You know, the one who died?

Magic Eight Ball sez: "As I see it, yes."

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Movie review: Disturbing Behavior

My only professional qualification for doing movie reviews was the fact that I was the only person on staff who lived close enough to D.C. (our offices were in Manassas, Virginia) to attend press screenings. I enjoyed reviewing quite a lot, and not just because of the free movies. This was one of the earliest reviews that I wrote, for an early version of the low-budget, low-wattage horror films that young actors are required to do by law these days. I think posting this review is the first time I've thought about this movie since 1998; at the time, Katie Holmes was an up-and-coming starlet. Now she's Tom Cruise's pet and something of a national punchline. Life is weird.

Not At All Disturbing, Not Even the Smallest Little Bit
Chris Galdieri
webdate: 7/24/98
The only thing that's genuinely disturbing about Disturbing Behavior is the fact that such a disjointed, incoherent, and poorly constructed film actually made it to the screen.

The movie is set in Cradle Bay, a town on an island in Washington State, and centers around Steve Clark (James Marsden), whose family moves there in search of a fresh start after Steve's brother commits suicide. In addition to a nearly formalized array of cliques at the local high school -- car guys, computer geeks, skateboarders, and the like -- there are also the "Blue Ribbons," the squeaky-clean jock- and cheerleader-types who belong to a nebulously explained youth group run by Dr. Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood), the school psychiatrist. You can tell right away there's something odd about the Blue Ribbons: they wear (gasp!) sweater vests! They hang out at the (horrors!) yogurt shop! They listen to (oh, the humanity!) Wayne Newton!

Actually, that last one is pretty scary.

In addition to their ultra-clean-cut appearance, the Blue Ribbons are known from time to time to fly into fits of uncontrollable rage, attacking anyone nearby. For some reason, no one in town seems to mind, and the local sheriff gladly covers up any incidents.

The only kids at school who think there's something odd about all this are Gavin (Nick Stahl), his pasty-faced doper friend U.V., and Rachel (Dawson's Creek's Katie Holmes). You can tell right away that she's a bad grrl: she's got a bunch of piercings and wears leather. She pouts and rolls her eyes a lot, too. Who said method acting was dead?

Gavin is convinced that he saw one member of the Blue Ribbons kill a girl and a sheriff's deputy, but no one believes him. Apparently, no one notices when the girl and the deputy stop showing up for school and work, either. Gavin is certain that some kind of mind control is behind the Blue Ribbons and the radical behavioral changes that students undergo when they join the group.
Steve and Rachel don't believe Gavin's conspiracy theory, of course, until one night when Gavin's parents sign him up for the Blue Ribbons. And the next day, Gavin shows up for school with a haircut and wearing a dreaded sweater vest.

Once this happens, Steve and Rachel investigate, and find themselves plunged into a web of conspiracy and deception, learn that the Blue Ribbons have been brainwashed by Dr. Caldicott, yada yada yada.

There's very little in this movie that hasn't been seen before, and done better, in other movies. Een the film's press materials refer to the teens as "Stepford-like." What we see of the Blue Ribbons' indoctrination is a riff on the brainwashing tapes from The Parallax View. Other sequences have been lifted in toto from Total Recall and Star Trek III. When a movie starts ripping off an odd-numbered Star Trek movie, you know there's a problem. Even the Blue Ribbons' name calls to mind The Wave, that ABC Afterschool Special where a teacher turned his class into brainwashed neo-Nazis and used blue as the group's unifying symbolic color.

Structurally, the film is a mess and displays no internal consistency in terms of time or geography. It's the kind of movie where two characters can start having a conversation at the high school in one scene and are on the beach in the next continuing the conversation exactly where it left off at the high school. In another sequence, Steve and his friends decide at the end of the school day to go get beer. Hey, they are rebels, after all. When we cut to them in the parking lot of the grocery store, trying to find an adult to buy said beer for them, it's pitch dark out. Either this is appallingly sloppy construction, or Cradle Bay is on one big darn island and only has one grocery store.

The script has the characters do things that make little or no sense simply to advance the plot along. At one point, Steve is attacked by a group of Blue Ribbons -- while he's taking a walk through the woods at night in the rain. At another point, Gavin overhears the meeting at which his parents sign him up for the Blue Ribbons. He knows that if he goes home, he'll be brainwashed. So what does he do? He goes home. He not only goes home, he goes home, records a message for his friends on his CD burner, leaves his house to hide the CD where they'll find it later (as opposed to, say, going to one of their houses just giving it to them -- or for that matter, staying there overnight and leaving town the next morning), and then goes back home, where he apparently twiddles his thumbs until the Blue Ribbons come for him.

Disturbing Behavior
also suffers from its lack of a clearly defined antagonist. Sure, the Blue Ribbons are mean and nasty when no one's looking and beat the stuffing out of Steve a few times, but they're pretty much a faceless horde, yet not faceless enough to be frightening in their anonymity.

And while Dr. Caldicott, as the mastermind behind the brainwashing program, would seem like the logical choice of villain, he appears in only a few scenes and has very little direct conflict with Steve until the very end of the film. There's no one to root against except for a vaguely defined "them."

By and large, there's little that's good to be said about the performances in Disturbing Behavior. As Rachel, Holmes is a cipher, although much of that must be blamed on the script. We're told just about nothing on this character; we're apparently just supposed to be wowed by the fact that the chick from Dawson's Creek has a pierced nose. James Marsden is amiable, if bland, as Steve.

The only person in the cast having any fun is William Sadler, who plays the school's reclusive janitor, obsessed with getting rid of the town's problems with rats. Sadler is the only actor who appears to realize what a ludicrously bad movie he's trapped in, and goes completely over-the-top with a performance that's a welcome relief from the rest of the movie's ridiculously solemn ponderousness.

The sole virtue of Disturbing Behavior is its brevity; the film clocks in at well under an hour and a half. So if you do find yourself somehow trapped in Cradle Bay, don't worry. You won't have to stay very long.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Mike Scully interview

I'm sure this interview originally ran with a witty or clever headline, but if it did, I sure can't remember it. At the time, I was for some reason convinced that The Simpsons couldn't possibly stay on the air for more than another year or so, and that we'd never actually see a Simpsons Movie. I also thought John Kerry would win at least 300 electoral votes, and that Mitt Romney would cruise to the GOP nomination after winning in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Anyway, this is a fun look back at what's now just about the midpoint of one of the longest-running shows in TV history.

by Chris Galdieri
webdate: 11/24/97

The Simpsons has been hailed since its 1989 premiere as an innovative, groundbreaking, and intelligent animated comedy, and deservedly so. No other television show could match The Simpsons' insane plots, seemingly infinite cast of supporting characters, and graduate-level cultural and historical references. As the show nears the midpoint of its ninth season, however, The Simpsons has become an institution, as well. The man behind the production of The Simpsons, executive producer Mike Scully, sat down with Mania to talk about the challenges of keeping the show fresh and original and the future of America's favorite cartoon family.

After nine years, it's not uncommon for the quality of a show to decline; just look at Happy Days or Murphy Brown. But Scully says he and the rest of the show's writers, directors, and producers are determined not to let that happen to their show. Scully attributes this to one simple, but powerful, emotion: Pride. "We all take a great deal of pride in the show," he says. "We don't want to overstay our welcome and get to the point where people are yelling at you to get off the air. We try to keep the stories fresh and the jokes funny."

The Simpsons paved the way for the successful prime-time animated shows of the last several years, such as MTV's Beavis and Butt-Head, Fox's King of the Hill, and Comedy Central's South Park. Scully is pleased to see animation gaining acceptance among mainstream audiences, but points to the spate of failed animated series that premiered in the first years of The Simpsons' run as proof that animation alone is no guarantee of success. "For a while there were other shows that tried, like Family Dog and Fish Police and Capitol Critters. The mistake the people behind the shows made was thinking that the audience was responding to just the animation, that just because The Simpsons was animated the show was a hit. In reality, it was the writing, and the animation was secondary."

Scully thinks that the nature of animation makes quality writing critical to the success of any animated show. "It really is writer-driven," he says. "You don't have to worry about making Roseanne happy or whether or not somebody's locked in their dressing room refusing to come out." At the same time, Scully credits animation with allowing writers to push the edge of the envelope. "Animation allows you to do certain jokes you couldn't do in a live action show because there's a certain level of reality that's removed with animation. Like last week, where Homer bought a gun and he had it right in Marge's face and it was going off at the dinner table. If you saw real people sitting there, it wouldn't be funny anymore."

The Simpsons has always sported political and social commentary as pointed as its plots are outrageous. Past targets have included atomic energy, secret societies, censorious parents groups, and Social Security. Scully points out that the show's social criticisms are usually nuanced and omnipartisan. "[The NRA] show is a real mixed message show, which is the kind of message we like the best, just lay it out there and let the audience figure it out. Initially, the gun people we portrayed as gun nuts, but as we got to see them over the course of the show, they were very safety conscious and Homer was the nut and they kicked him out. If a gun owner got mad at the initial part of the show he'd really miss the point of it."

Scully is proud of the show's willingness to address controversial topics in a satirical manner, and considers it a trademark of the series. He is also proud of the show's willingness to take aim at a broad spectrum of sacred cows. "We like pointing out hypocrisies. We try to spread it around, and hopefully if people see all the shows they realize they're not being singled out. I guess when it applies to your particular belief it feels like it's targeted at you. But it's there for fun. All it's there for is to make people laugh, and if we make you think once in a while, then so be it. But we're not trying to single anybody out."

The Simpsons is also famous for its guest-stars. Celebrities ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Dustin Hoffman to Leonard Nimoy have voiced guest characters. Indeed, all three surviving Beatles have appeared as animated versions of themselves. Scully promises that this season will be no different. "Coming up is Apu facing the prospect of his arranged marriage. We have Andrea Martin from SCTV and Jan Hooks from Saturday Night Live guest-starring in that one. In February, we have Krusty the Clown retiring from comedy, and the guest-stars are Jay Leno, Janeane Garafalo, Steven Wright, and Bobcat Goldthwait. And in May is our two hundredth episode, it just happened to fall in May sweeps. The guest stars on that one are Steve Martin and U2."

While it seems like everyone and his brother has already been a guest on The Simpsons, Scully says there are still a few "dream guests" that haven't yet made it onto the show. "Janet Jackson expressed interest in doing the show, and we're still looking for something for her. Steve Martin we had actually been after for several years, but we finally got him this year. Tom Hanks I'd love to have on the show sometime, and I'd love to have Bruce Springsteen on. But we don't want to approach people until we have the right part. And if they say no, we start stalking them."

While Scully has big plans for this season and next fall's tenth season, he does admit that the creative minds behind The Simpsons do occasionally give some thought to what the final episode of the series would be like. "There are certain things you would like to see happen," he says. "I'm sure people would like to see Smithers confess his love for Burns. People would like to see stuff like that, I think. We always talk about what would be a great last episode and we still haven't gotten it yet. Sometimes there's one that, after they air, we're like, "That would be a great final episode!"

Just as some episodes seem in retrospect to be perfect final episodes, occasionally there is an episode that, in hindsight, would have made a perfect movie. "The Hank Scorpio episode, where the Simpsons move to a town called Emerald Cavern, we thought, whoa, that might have been a movie. We cut so much out of that show, we realized later that maybe we could have opened that one up to a movie."

Scully does see a Simpsons film as a real possibility "somewhere down the line. We want to make sure we do it right. We don't want to take people's money. If you do a bad job on the movie, we'll taint the memory of the series. It's also a matter of money. It would be far more expensive to do than the weekly show, in terms of the quality of the animation. But I'd love to see it. If we find the right idea, I think we'll do it."

Whatever the future holds for America's first family of animation, Scully hopes that The Simpsons will continue to amuse with a sharp, satirical edge. "We've always maintained that every joke can't be for everybody," he says. "When you do that you wind up with Three's Company. We're hoping people are enjoying it."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Walter Koenig interview

Walter Koenig was one of the last of the original Star Trek cast members to publish a memoir about his time on the show and his life and career afterward; this interview was made possible by his book's promotional push. Koenig's personal web site is located at

Chekov's Log: Walter Koenig's Take on
Life, Trek, and Everything

by Chris Galdieri
webdate: 5/8/98

The first sign that Walter Koenig's book Warped Factors: A Neurotic's Guide to the Universe is not your typical Star Trek memoir is the cover photo of the author, who played Chekov on the original series and in seven motion pictures. Instead of a heroic, square-jawed portrait, like those that adorned the books of William Shatner and George Takei, Warped Factors depicts Koenig with a bemused expression, with raised eyebrows and a smile that can be safey described as a goofy smirk. It aptly captures the humorous tone Koenig brings to his recounting of his life and his career before, during, and after Star Trek.

Koenig almost didn't use the photo that appears on Warped Factors' jacket. "When [the publisher] chose that one, my vanity was abused," he said. "But then I said, 'You know what, this really says what the book's about more than any other photo that I have.' There's a little bit of whimsy, there's a little bit of craziness. It stands out, it's different, and it marks the difference between my books and the others."

Warped Factors certainly has a lighter tone than many of his fellow Trek actors' tomes. The light touch nicely balances Koenig's recountings of his early difficulties in school, his constant worry that "the other shoe" was always about to drop, and his early career as a struggling actor. "A lot of the events were quite disastrous at the time they occured. I was not able to see the humor in them. With distance, you know, you develop some objectivity," Koenig said. "And I thought, if I was going to tell these stories, rather than beat my breast and ask the audience to pity me, I could show them the humor I see in it now [and] then we would all be better off for it."

One of the refreshing aspects of the book is that it is as much about Koenig's life, from his early acting career to his efforts to break into scriptwriting in the 1970s (at one point he nearly became the story editor on The Incredible Hulk) and his heart attack in the early Nineties, as it is about Star Trek and Chekov. "It's an autobiography. It's about me. That it is about Star Trek is secondary to the fact that it's about me," he said. "Maybe it's just an uncontrollable ego to think that somebody would want to read this. All I know is that I had a great time writing this, and I'm tickled that people are enjoying it."

While his roles on Star Trek and Babylon 5 have made him famous, Koenig emphasizes throughout the book that he considers his success in many ways to be the result of good fortune. "The point I make from start to finish is that I don't consider myself to be an extraordinary person. I think I have a respectable gift as an actor, but I don't think it's at genius level. And I had gone through all the pitfalls, the potholes that everybody else does in life. And I just managed to survive and prevail in a modest way. I think it would be a book that would be encouraging," he said.

There's still plenty of Star Trek in Warped Factors, of course. Koenig opens the book with an imaginary story of the cast joining hands and sharing a moment of spiritual harmony on the set of "The Gamesters of Triskelion." It's a glimpse at the Trek every fan wants to believe in, despite the public disputes between some cast members. "Everybody would like to believe that we were this wonderful family that loved each other and Bill was our spiritual leader as well as the star or our show," Koenig explained. "It was setting the tone as well. There will be stories that will, hopefully, tickle you a little bit."

Koenig also addresses the subject of the problems some members of the supporting cast, whom he dubs the "Gang of Five," had with series star William Shatner. While other cast members have discussed their displeasure with Shatner's reblocking of scenes to focus on his character, Captain Kirk, in both the original TV series and the subsequent motion pictures, Koenig is the first to suggest that part of the problem was the supporting cast's unwillingness to confront Shatner. "I felt as intensely as anyone else did about the things that went on," Koenig said. "But it occurred to me at one point that, yeah, we all got up and complained about him at conventions and interviews, but I couldn't remember any time that any of us stood up to him and told him straight to his face that he was behaving badly. Bill protests, and I kind of believe, that he had no understanding of how we felt. He'd go from his trailer to the set and back to his trailer. So if he didn't know and nobody told him, then maybe we should have told him. We never put ourselves to the test. So if my position is a little different, it's because I feel that we all hold some responsibility."

During the filming of Star Trek: Generations, Koenig finally did refuse to shoot a scene as Shatner suggested. While it was cathartic for him to do so, he doesn't consider that an especially brave act. "He was not the star of that movie, and this was the last movie I was going to do, and there wasn't any danger [of] injury in the future. I think it would have been more courageous if I did it in spite of what the consequences would have been."

Koenig has had one of the most successful post-Trek careers of any of the original series' cast members. He has, of course, won acclaim as Babylon 5's villainous telepath Bester. Though he only touches on the role and B5 briefly in Warped Factors, it's clear that Koenig is having a terrific time playing the part and he has nothing but terrific things to say about his co-stars and B5 creator J. Michael Straczynski.

Koenig also belongs to the Los Angeles-based repertory theatre company Actors' Alley. "We're looking for something that I could direct right now," he said. "I've been to half a dozen plays or more, trying to find something that would be exciting to do. I like to do comedy, Moliere or something of that nature. Or I'd like to do something very modern, Pinter or Pirandello. Something where there's real input by the director. I just don't want to be up there having the actors move from one part of the stage to the other. I love being an integral part of a piece and through direction elaborate on the writing."

Generally, Koenig leaves his science fiction credentials at the door when he's directing for the theatre. "I don't promote it as 'Directed by Walter Koenig, formerly known as Chekov.' The audience is generally not even aware of me in that capacity. I don't even put it in my biography in the program. I don't want it to distract from the work," he said.

When he's not acting or directing, Koenig writes. In addition to Warped Factors he's had several screenplays optioned, written one novel, Buck Alice and the Actor Robot, and plans to return to another, The Man Who Wasn't There, when he finishes promoting Warped Factors. Koenig found his inspiration for The Man Who Wasn't There on a plane ride home to Los Angeles. "It's kind of a mystery. I was on the airplane and I was thinking, what would happen if I came home and the next morning I discovered in the newspaper that the plane I had flown in on had crashed before it landed and there were no survivors? That was my springboard. One agent in New York thought it was quite extraordinary and compared me to Philip K. Dick. Another agent thought it was utterly incomprehensible and didn't know what the hell was going on. So I've got to decide who's right," he joked.

Comedy Central has also given Koenig a chance to showcase his lighter side, both in a sketch on Viva Variety and as the host of a series of cult science fiction movies. "The money was impossibly modest and I had to fly to New York to do Viva Variety. But I did it because it was comedy and I want the world to know that I do comedy, and I thought it might lead to something," he said. "And though it didn't lead to a lead on an NBC sitcom, they did think of me again when they decided to have somebody host this month of cult movies. And maybe this, in turn, will lead to something else."

"I pretty much live my life one step at a time," he said. "I don't know how to plan in advance. I don't know how to take control of my career in an industry which is so capricious, where you blow hot and cold by the rise and fall of the sun. It's just not in my power. So I just do what I can, and hope that I'm planting seeds as I go along."

Darren Aronofsky interview

In the summer of 1998, I had the chance to interview this up-and-coming filmmaker whose indepenedent, black-and-white movie Pi was picking up some healthy buzz. Since then he's directed Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, and married Rachel Weisz. Clearly, he's doing something right.

Putting Ideas Back in SF Movies

by Chris Galdieri
webdate: 7/24/98

Pi, a stark black-and-white film that cost $60,000 to make, may turn out to be one of the best science fiction films of 1998. And it doesn't feature a single asteroid, comet, monster, or special effect.

That's fine with writer-director Darren Aronofsky, who financed his debut film by soliciting $100 donations from friends and relatives. "The idea of making psychological sci-fi films, as opposed to effect-driven sci-fi films, is really attractive to me," he said. I think Hollywood's sort of forgotten that science fiction doesn't mean special effects. Science fiction could be concepts and ideas. So we tried to avoid the special effects and make it more about the haunting mind of a mathematician."

That mathematician is Max Cohen, the protagonist of Pi, played by Sean Gullette. Cohen is a reclusive young mathematical genius obsessed with finding a numerical means of predicting the stock market. As his research progresses, he finds himself pursued not only by a Wall Street conglomerate but also by a group of Hassidic Jewish Kabbalah scholars certain that Cohen's research will reveal to them the long-lost true name of God. Aronofsky didn't worry that the film's eclectic themes would alienate audiences, however.

"I don't think Pi is strictly necessarily a math movie. The hardest math problem in the film is 41 plus three, and we give you the answer, like, five, ten seconds later. Mostly it's the really cool math you hear at cocktail parties," he said. "The most important thing about this film for me was to make a thriller. I wanted to make a very tight-knit roller coaster ride, so that in 90 minutes we try to keep people glued to their seats. And I figured that if I succeeded in that, then I could introduce some more esoteric ideas. At the core of Pi is a chase film."

Aronofsky's interest in his film's theological themes stems from his experiences with Kabbalah scholars he met during a trip to Israel. "They showed me a lot of their secrets, not knowing I was going to put them into a movie," he said with a laugh. "When I was studying with them, I saw things that were pretty much miracles, that, as a secular person, totally blew my mind."

The use of the Kabbalah scholars as major players in Pi is also the movie's most visible manifestation of Aronofsky's desire to make his film and his cast as diverse as possible. The decision, Aronofsky explains, had more to do with defying expectations than with political correctness. "Hollywood is very limited in what they'll cast, and so, besides having badass Jews, which you'll never see in a Hollywood film, we had one of the bad guys [be] a black female, which you'll never, ever see...besides being a bad guy, she's also head of a Wall Street firm, which is breaking stereotypes, too," he said. "It was very intentional to cast as many interesting actors as possible."

Casting isn't the only distinctive part of Pi, however. Aronofsky shot the movie on high-contrast black-and-white reversal film to give it a look unlike any other film around. "It was purely a creative decision. In fact, it cost more money to shoot the film stock we shot than color film. It's basically used for music videos. It's never been used in a feature film before," he said. "If you expose it correctly, you get the effect you want, which is a black or white movie, not a black and white movie."

Aronofsky is also a comics fan, and comics influenced several aspects of the film, from its gritty look to the voice-over narration by Max Cohen. "Frank Miller's Sin City is what inspired the look of Pi...Kevin Smith said that Pi is a comic book and that was great. We were trying to make a comic book," Aronofsky said.

Pi will become a comic book in form as well as style later this summer when Dark Horse Comics releases a graphic novel based on the movie.

Aronofsky also had comics in mind when he and Sean Gullete wrote Max's voice-over. "When I was writing the script I didn't spend any time working on the voice-over, because I knew when I had the images and cut it together I would have a better sense of the type of stuff to write. When it got done [Sean and I] just basically sat around for a long time to get it where we wanted," he said. Finding the right balance between the images on screen and the words of the voice-over was a priority for Aronofsky. "It was a hard process because there's a danger of being cheesy and a danger of being too much on the nose, so we tried to get a very careful balance for the voice-over."

The movie's bare-bones budget forced Aronofsky to be extremely creative in constructing sets, particularly the set for Max's supercomputer, Euclid. "What we did for that is, we basically recycled about three tons of computer parts. We begged cop stations, hospitals, universities, called up everyone around the tri-state area, asking them for any parts they had. We drove around in a white van and loaded up on old Macs and IBMs. The concept was very much like Terry Gilliam, to take old technology and reinvent it as new technology," he said. In retrospect, Aronofsky thinks Pi's tight budget turned out to be a benefit in constructing the supercomputer. "If I had a million dollars and built a Euclid supercomputer it would look dated in five or six years, just the way HAL [of 2001: A Space Odyssey] is dated. So, we wanted to make something that would be timeless. So we took all these computers and we shelled them and ripped out different microchips and created, basically, a computer sculpture."

Now that Pi has been released, Aronofsky is working on two new film projects, Proteus, a science fiction/horror film set on an American submarine during World War II, and an adaptation of the Hubert Selby Jr. novel Requiem for a Dream. "[Proteus] will be the scariest movie you've seen in the last ten years. I know it's a boast. And the reason I say it is, for me, I haven't seen a scary movie in a long, long time," he said. "I haven't had nightmares from a movie in a long, long time. And I've been wondering why that is...I have a feeling that, like sci-fi, horror has gone down a road of effects movies...horror's become just about gore. So for me, it's about trying to figure out how to make stuff scary again. I think the way to do it is to be psychological."

Aronofsky thinks that his success with Pi can serve as an example to other aspiring filmmakers. "Six months ago, I was nobody. So anyone can do it. It's a lot of homework and a lot of hard work, that's all it is," he said. "It's all about the work. It's all about the craft." And what's his advice to anyone with dreams of directing? "Be as completely and fully original as possible. Be completely yourself. Pi, if anything, will hopefully show people that you can do something totally different and find success through it. It's much easier to get recognition for something completely original."


From 1997 through 1998 I was a staff writer for AKA, AKA's Mania -- a web site so far ahead of its time it flamed out years before the dot-com bubble burst for everyone else. This blog is simply an archive of some of the more interesting things I wrote during that time, and occasionally to put some of these writings in the context of ten years later.