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Perhaps the Worst Movie: The Room

Perhaps the Worst Movie: The Room

“I do not know just how to write about or describe this thing. I have never in my life seen such a horrific mishmash of elements which are very bad in and of themselves, very badly executed, very badly mixed up with each other, completely out of left field, nonsensical as hell, and ramped up to about 13 on the manic madcap scale to top all the rest of it off.”

I wrote that back in 2011, a couple of years after Netjak’s demise and before my short stint at Filmdumpster; back when I was still a critic who had some sort of clout. It was about Howard the Duck, the famous bomb that signified the start of George Lucas’s downward trajectory. Now, here I am in 2017, trying to finish off a degree and back to square one as a writer, and it once again applies to a movie I just saw: The Room. The Room doesn’t have the balls-to-the-wall mania Howard the Duck did, but Howard the Duck was about a sentient duck from a different dimension, so that’s not a trick you would want to see repeated.

There are movies about which the stories of all the chaos on the set are legendary: Steven Spielberg couldn’t get the robot shark to work for Jaws; George Lucas couldn’t get anything on the set of Star Wars to go right except the score… Those movies overcame the long odds to become beloved eternal classics anyway. Well, The Room didn’t overcome all the long odds. It was looking like a clunker at every stage in the process, and it’s a clunker. It became such a clunker that one of the stars of the movie, Greg Sestero, wrote a book about the making of the movie. (The book, for those wondering, is called The Disaster Artist, and it quickly became my favorite book about the movie industry ever.) Tommy Wiseau, the man who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in The Room, had a private toilet made up for him on the set; two film crews quit on him; Sestero had to serve in a variety of other positions…

The mootness of The Room is something to behold. Wiseau has earned comparisons to Ed Wood, but you get the feeling watching Wood’s movies that he was trying to make a tangible point. There are so many plot points in The Room that are ultimately of so little consequence that you would think Wiseau was a nihilist. The Room comes with a collective total of about 20 minutes of sex scenes in an hour-and-a-half running time. There are also a lot of scenes of the characters throwing around a football, at least three scenes of characters making “cheep” noises at each other after calling each other chicken, and two characters – one named Peter and one unnamed – who seem to pop up out of nowhere. And this is coming from a movie with an excess of unresolved plot threads: One character DEFINITELY (emphasis hers) has breast cancer. Another character owes money to a drug dealer. Two more randomly break into the main character’s apartment for quickies. All three of those threads are precisely one scene long.

In The Disaster Artist, Sestero confessed that at some point, most of the actors just stopped trying. Sestero, who invented a backstory for his character in an attempt to be able to play the random aspects of him, was convinced that The Room would never make it to the theaters. This is reflected in the performances of most of the other actors too, save Carolyn Minnott and Robyn Paris. (Paris plays her role as Michelle in a way that looks like she’s really enjoying herself. According to Sestero, she was possibly the most-liked person on the set.)

The thin strand of plot that exists in The Room revolves around Creep One, Queen of Evil, and Plain-O. Okay, their names are respectively Johnny, Lisa, and Mark. But Johnny has a creepy side, Lisa is evil, and Mark is so plain that the script projects features onto him almost at will. Johnny and Lisa are engaged. Lisa is bored and decides she doesn’t love Johnny anymore. Lisa starts having an affair with Mark. That sums up the movie. Yes, there are a lot of scenes in this movie that try to trick you into thinking it has depth, but since they’re the aforementioned no-go plot threads, you’re not going to buy it. Let’s call them what they are: Padding. The Room is padded because nothing about the main plot makes any sense.

Let’s meet Johnny. Johnny is the main character, and he’s a pretty great guy. We know he’s a great guy because everyone else in the movie is a walking billboard about how great he is. In fairness to everyone, though, they have reason to think he’s great: He treats Lisa like a princess. He has a great job with a future, he supports a sort of adopted little brother by the name of Creep Two (okay, his name is Denny, but holy SHIT is he creepy), bought Lisa a car, and is pretty much a saint. Lisa has decided she’s bored with him, even though she’s known him for five years. But since she has all the emotional maturity of a cheeto, instead of simply speaking up to Johnny, she talks to Mark, who is Johnny’s best friend. Lisa starts seducing Mark on a regular basis, and although Mark is initially reluctant, he decides at one point that he’s suddenly not. The affair gets revealed at a big birthday bash for Tommy, and Tommy, despite everything else that’s been going right with his life, decides that all the walking testaments to his greatness have turned against him. Since his emotional maturity isn’t much better than Lisa’s, he swallows a gun.

There are lies aplenty told by Lisa for… Well, attention, I guess? I don’t even know. I do know that Lisa tells some whoppers, like getting hit by Johnny to being pregnant, and she’s at it through everything. Out of pure boredom, apparently. Like Mark, she seems to be written with convenience to the writer rather than a full character in mind. Unlike Mark, though, she does come with a defining characteristic: She’s the Queen of the Harpies. Her mother, Claudette, also gets a lot of crap for being manipulative, but I didn’t get that out of her; I got that she’s probably the biggest Johnny cheerleader in the movie. She’s the one advising Lisa to stay with him because he’s just such an awesome dude. So here’s what we come down to: One character betrays Johnny, another kinda, sorta, mighta, but it’s difficult to tell whether or not he’s betraying Johnny. When Johnny has the grand “realization” that everyone is against him, really he’s just pissy about getting dumped. Denny still loves him. Claudette still loves him. Peter still loves him. Michelle still loves him. Mark has a last epiphany and decides he still loves him. The weird person who only came into the movie in the last 15 minutes and gave a great lecture on how much Mark and Lisa’s shenanigans would hurt him still loves him. And yes, that’s a thing that happens.

I’m convinced that all the go-nowhere threads were brought into the movie in an attempt to give it more depth, and that the reason they don’t go anywhere is partly because there are way too many of them, and partly because Wiseau didn’t have any idea what he was doing. Sestero wrote in The Disaster Artist about Wiseau’s attraction to Marlon Brando and James Dean, who are the vintage Method actors responsible for changing the way movie acting is done. Sestero believed that Brando and Dean were magnetic figures because they had an instinct for knowing when to go big and when to hold off. Wiseau seems to have missed that aspect of their performances. Sestero’s take is that Wiseau believed the best approach was to go big at every possible moment, and it’s hard to argue. (In Wiseau’s defense, that was the approach that worked for Charlton Heston.) Everything Wiseau does in The Room, he does with maximum intensity and enthusiasm, and this is one case where cooler heads didn’t prevail. So Wiseau created The Room trying to do his personal interpretation of what a movie should do, and not what a movie really does.

That means The Room is something that creates a lot of memorable scenes, even though they fail repeatedly as scenes. There’s a scene where Johnny visits a flower shop. That’s 20 seconds long, but it’s one of the defining scenes of the movie because the script seems to be written backwards. Yes, Denny owes money to a drug dealer named Chris-R, but that never goes anywhere. Yes, Claudette has breast cancer, but that’s hand-waved.

The Room is either awesomely bad or badly awesome. When it became an unexpected classic of midnight cinema, Wiseau got his ultimate wish – to make a classic movie that people would see and love and talk about – in the most perverse way possible. Everyone in this movie has seemingly been able to eke out a living based on it. Wiseau and Sestero have been making the rounds from it forever. Robyn Paris is working on a web mockumentary about what happened to the cast (which I can’t wait to see). People recognize everyone who was in the movie, and they’ve all spent time appearing at fan conventions and film screenings. No, The Room isn’t a work of bad movie genius – you’re thinking of Sharknado. The difference between Sharknado and The Room is that the people making Sharknado KNEW everything about their series was hackey. The Room is a bad movie made as a misguided attempt to be a good movie, and it’s the over-the-top sincerity of it combined with its master and commander’s lack of talent that sends it over the top. If you have any love for bad movies at all, you need to see this thing. It’s required viewing.


Tabletop Games vs. Electronic Games: The Ultimate Games!

Tabletop Games vs. Electronic Games: The Ultimate Games!

Games are one of life’s simple pleasures. We all love the big outside escapes – travel, movies, museums, arts and culture events, things like that. But those things tend to cost money and take time, and so games provide everyday escapes from the skullduggery of work, chores, and daily news. Games are fun to play, they take your mind off the rest of the world for a few hours, they can bring people together, and you can use them to learn about basic principles of sportsmanship.

The kinds of games available can be drawn into two different categories: Tabletop games and electronic games. Tabletop games are basically games that can be placed on a tabletop so everyone playing can have equal access to the equipment. They are probably better known as board games, but calling them board games tends to leave out various card and dice games. Electronic games are games that are hooked up to a television or computer. Many of them can be played online.

As many people know, I grew up pretty well-versed in the ways of both, but had a clear preference for electronic games. I spent seven years as a critic of electronic games, but tabletop games were recently reintroduced into my life and I started thinking about which type of game is better. So let’s do this! Tabletop games vs. electronic games. One day, I’ll learn.

Remember that I said games can be used to teach the basic principles of sportsmanship? Yeah, if you play a lot of tabletop games, that’s something you’re going to be learning plenty about. Tabletop games require you to have a good sense of humor about defeat, because even a lot of games where you get a significant amount of control over the game’s universe require good, hard luck. It doesn’t matter how much you understand about the laws of probability – if you’re playing a card- or dice-heavy game, you’re going to fall victim to some weird masterstrokes of fortune. The more complex the game, the more odd luck can get. Games like Dungeons and Dragons add an extra dimension with the sheer details they throw in – Dungeons and Dragons itself is famous partially for the number of 12-to-20-sided dice it includes in a package. While little novelties like that are intended to tip the odds, you’re still not allowed to find your favorite number and plop the die down with it facing up, and that can result in things like a dwarf with two hit points charging through a small army of ogres. (That was something that happened to me once playing Dungeons and Dragons.) Electronic games can also require a certain amount of luck. Back when video games were first starting out, one hallmark was the fact that developers were constantly throwing in little glitches and obstacles made to ensure the game always had the advantage. That meant gamers had to deal with traps in scrolling games meant to throw off any sense of rhythm, which could place a gamer in a precarious situation. Other games were loaded with dead ends and unfair traps which the people playing had no way of knowing about in advance, and to make those matters worse, some sadistic developers would randomize those things, which meant a gamer would put a lot of hard work into getting into the game only to get locked in some inescapable room on a deep run. Electronic games also utilized keyboards and controllers instead of dice.
Electronic games. Although unfair little gameplay quirks will always be a trademark of electronic games, they’re not showing up nearly as often now, while tabletop games are always depending on the luck of the draw or the roll. Besides, having direct control over a video game character through a controller can mean that someone truly skilled will always have a chance. That’s not the case on tabletop games. Yes, there are degrees of skill required to play tabletop games well, but unless you’re sticking to one of the old school staples like checkers, chess, othello, or go – which don’t depend on luck – you’re always going to be reliant on elements of gameplay that are out of your control.

Social Bonding
Despite their competitive nature, a good game can help cement a bond with people you know and create one with people you don’t. This can be especially apparent with tabletop games, because any tabletop game worth its salt requires that you have other people around to play against. (Unless you like to play solitaire.) Unfortunately, that can also be a great weakness for the shy and introverted: In order to really enjoy a good tabletop game, you have to be able to coax others into wanting to visit you to play. Electronic games can also be a source of fun for friendships; even after the game is turned off, a great game can have friends talking strategy and tactics for hours afterward. And while their solitary nature allows them to be enjoyable for a single person, our increasingly online world actually opens up the outside for those willing to take the time to learn online gaming, because it allows people to connect with others anywhere in the world. It’s not unusual these days for real-life couples to say they first met in the online world during a game of Everquest.
Tabletop games. Yes, it’s possible to meet people online, but there’s the reverse of that as well: Online gaming has become a source of bullying and sometimes crime. There are a thousand different stories of friends and couples who met online, but the faceless nature of electronic gaming has given rise to forms of blatant sexism, racism, and other bad -isms which have discouraged potential gamers who were dabbling in a new hobby. The Gamergate movement exists because of people who believe electronic games are the exclusive domain of a very particular type of person (think a Y chromosome and a low melanin level); they’ve taken to attacking, insulting, and threatening anyone different from them – roughly half the population – for the crime of having an opinion. You never heard of behavior like this developing from tabletop gamers.

It’s hard to find a good story in a tabletop game, but not impossible. Hell, when I was a kid, I loved a role-playing game called Hero Quest, which became a sort of gateway to Dungeons and Dragons later on. Hero Quest had defined good guys and bad guys who were thrown into various scenarios for reasons told in the fashion of a linear story by a game master who knew the ins and outs of the scene. The game master always had the most access to the story, and would slowly reveal it over the coarse of the game. Electronic games operate on much the same principle, except there aren’t any players there to reveal the narrative – it’s done by the game as you advance. In both formats, the players make choices which are supposed to affect the story, but electronic games were a bit slow to catch on to that aspect of it; the earliest electronic role-playing games were set strictly on rails. You simply walked through the game as any other and tried not to die. Tabletop role-playing games offered a bit more flexibility because it would be possible to find the right piece of information through communication with the game master. Electronic games didn’t have that – you got the information the game felt like giving you, which would only loop itself if you tried to press the issue. If you didn’t have a strategy guide, you were shit out of luck. Of course, not every tabletop game had a story. A lot of the classics just brought people together to play. Electronic games might seem to have an advantage here then, but they didn’t have a lot of story either. Games like Pong, Frogger, and Pac-Man never even bothered. What little bits they had as stories were nothing more than objectives.
I’m going with tabletop games on this one. Yes, electronic games are evolving and very much improved on the way they tell their stories and interact – Fable II has become a favorite of mine. But you’re still at the mercy of a game which isn’t going to tell you any more than it’s programmed to know. Tabletop games can be easier in reveals and puzzles if you’re able to figure out the right way to communicate. Also, I should note tabletop games don’t make use of arbitrary and unobtrusive bits of debris to prevent you from reaching your goal, either. That’s one of the great banes of being an electronic gamer for a few reasons, not the least of which is because it’s so fucking stupid. But the bottom line here is that your personal decisions have a greater impact in the world of a good tabletop game while even many of the best electronic games stop updating the current events halfway through.

Playing Equipment
A complex tabletop game can turn into an OCD sufferer’s worst nightmare. Boards, cards, dice, and figures are often parts of the most basic game setup. That’s no frills here – I’m not even considering the many pieces of equipment that can get thrown into games with 3D settings. Lots of the little accessories needed to play a good tabletop game are small and easily losable. And every time you want to go out and buy a new game, you get a whole new set of more losable equipment meant to go with that game and no other! So you would think the victory for electronic games here would be automatic. And 20 or even 10 years ago, it might have been – you get one CD or cartridge which contained literally everything on it. No need to worry about losing a piece or 13. But with the technology advancing, it started getting a bit more complex than that. If you play your electronic games on computers, you have to make sure the specs are just right, then go through the pain-in-the-ass process of downloading it. That’s called “installing” the game. Taking the time to learn the various keyboard and controller functions can also be a bit of a chore, and the games themselves try to rob you of the fun of learning yourself because they’re increasingly involving mandatory tutorials which can’t be skipped. If you want to play on the internet, you have to buy an expensive piece of equipment that enables it.
Electronic games. For all the bullshit you have to go through of buying all the equipment and installing the game, most of it is a one-time purchase. And you don’t have to worry about all your little knickknacks being inside the box once you decide you’re finished playing. It’s just a little on/off switch. Yes, electronic games cost more, but it’s worth the price to make sure you don’t lose anything because some poor loser swept the entire board off the table.

So you finished a game and thought it was good. That doesn’t necessarily incentivize an immediate second play through. There have to be enough different ways to go about playing through a good game to warrant replays. And tabletop games shine at this: You can always find new people to play with who see things differently and force you to innovate and invent new ways of playing. Luck can always swing from one player to the next, and how the player on the hot streak plays can turns everything in a whole new direction. Video games also offer incentives to replay them: Some have secrets to find, some have different levels to challenge you, and some have variations in the gameplay. Of course, the differences in tabletop game replayability depends on who you have playing, and electronic games have it based on the gameplay itself – some games offer direct decisions on exactly what you can do.
Tabletop games. Electronic games can only have so much replayability. Games where your actions really affect the surrounding world are a very recent development, and even many of those get a lot of flack for not changing enough. And before them, electronic games were basically rote memorization of patterns. The early attempts at being nonlinear were noble, but all they offered was the same scenery in a different order.

There will always be a place for electronic games, but tabletop games are throwing them off the hotel balcony.

Another Reason to Hate the NFL

Another Reason to Hate the NFL

I know I’m not the only person on Earth whose mind immediately jumped to Jason Collins when NFL draft prospect Michael Sam made his big announcement. Jason Collins was the NBA player who came out of the closet last year, becoming the first professional sports player to do so. Like anyone with a forward-thinking brain, I was initially thrilled because Collins was played up by the sports media as a perfect candidate: Former first round draft pick, played on two teams that made the Finals, was well-liked and respected in his locker room, and about to become a free agent. What could possibly go wrong? Well, like any other NBA enthusiast would, I then punched Collins’s name into a search engine and out jumped the number 3.6 like a common calculus function. That was Collins’s career points per game average over his 12 years in the league. His career high was 6.4 in 2005.

Needless to say, my enthusiasm was dampened after learning that. That free agency was going to prove to be a nasty issue with Collins trying to find his next team, I figured, because any homophobes in the NBA now had that pathetic points average to hide behind. I was right, and Collins was never signed to a new contract, and it’s hard to blame anyone for letting him go loose. A 3.6 career PPG average is so bad, it almost makes him a liability. If there had been a big coming out party for a transcendent superstar like Kevin Durant or Derrick Rose and they weren’t picked up, we would have known something fishy was going on.

Michael Sam is a first-round draft prospect for the NFL who recently came out of the closet. He’s going to try dipping his toe into the macho man’s land of the world’s most neanderthal sports league by walking into the NFL as its first openly gay player. The players’ reactions have been very welcoming. Steve Gleason called him a high-character guy. Jonathan Martin said what he did takes guts. Ross Tucker said he’s tired of hearing about hypotheticals regarding how players and fans would react and said it’s time to find out, and even Richie Incognito sent his well-wishes. So if Sam is going to become the gay Jackie Robinson, he’ll at least be setting foot into a warm welcome for an ironically hyper-masculine sport in which straight people regularly act like they’re doing things like groping, grabbing, and ass-patting, which would put one’s sexuality under scrutiny in a common nightclub. (No one blinks an eye at these things when the people doing it are wearing plastic pads and helmets, for some reason. I just thought that might be worth pointing out.)

Although the league is outwardly saying they want to embrace the Jackie Robinson story this time, Sam is still going to have a certain obstacle to get over: As of now, there’s a disappointing lack of a Branch Rickey on every team to sign him; a guy who has enough guts to say that one day, they’re going to stand before God and answer for their sins, and if God asks why they never let that gay man play football and they say ’cause he’s gay, they fear that might not be a good enough answer. 12 different general managers, coaches, and scouts have decided to hide behind anonymity to give weak explanations of why they’re never going to bring Sam onto their teams. The quotes I’ve read so far are trying to excuse their own homophobia by hiding behind everyone else’s. You know the ones: They’re the people who are claiming that they fear for Sam’s safety against everyone else in the league, saying he would be a distraction and claiming they would have drafted him ten years from now, when it would be more ideal. Other things I’ve read come off as emergency excuses from general managers and scouts who were raving about him at first, only to suddenly decide he wasn’t fast enough or big enough to make an impact in the league.

This from a sports league that drafted Rae Carruth; forgave Michael Vick; overlooked the Minnesota Vikings sex boat; and kept letting teams sign Lawrence Phillips. GMs regularly sign people with character issues and arrest records, so the excuse trotted out by numerous folks – including, notably, Herman Edwards – that Michael Sam would be a distraction aren’t going to fly. The New England Patriots had two giant distractions in the buildup to the 2013 season: Their star tight end was arrested for murder, and then they signed Tim Tebow. They still managed to win 12 games on their way to the AFC Championship game. One of their former players pointed out that if the Patriots can handle all that, a gay player wouldn’t be a problem, and that any team whining about a distraction is a terrible team anyway.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Michael Sam. He has no character issues, no arrest record, and his classmates with Missouri apparently knew he was gay. And if a sexual orientation is a character problem, then I’m Casanova. Missouri certainly didn’t seem to be having very many problems with Sam. They were the fifth-ranked team in the country, and Sam registered 11.5 sacks for them in the last season. He really is a perfect person to make the NFL put up or shut up. When you get at the opposing quarterback 11.5 times in a season on the way to a Cotton Bowl victory, people notice. He also made 123 tackles – 36 for loss – six forced fumbles, and six interceptions for his college career. Although Sam was never projected to be a first round draft pick, every draft board and mock draft had him being taken in the early rounds.

Last season, the San Diego Chargers drafted Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame player who played his heart out for a dying girlfriend that turned out to be a hoax. Te’o’s first season with the Bolts went by without controversy – you know, distraction – as he quietly made a solid 61 tackles in 13 starts. The weirdest hoax in the history of sports seems to be a thing of the past. So without the usual homophobic excuses to use against drafting Michael Sam, if he gets left on the board come draft day, I can’t wait to see every team executive on the planet trip over their tongues trying to explain why they decided not to take him.

A Raving, Maniacal Tribute to Star Wars

A Raving, Maniacal Tribute to Star Wars

I’ve read the Jedi Prince series. It’s not something I’m proud of. It isn’t anything to do with the fact that it’s a series of Star Wars books. Star Wars is very popular. It resonated with so many people that it turned into its own industry, so why shame myself about loving Star Wars? It isn’t the fact that the Jedi Prince books are objectively awful, either. Reading them yields ridiculous shit like Luke Skywalker using The Force like an inept buffoon at some points while unleashing its absolute hell at others; a main villain more concerned about his image than anything in Trioculus; Han Solo and Princess Leia fretting over their wedding; Han Solo, scoundrel rogue smuggler, wistfully building his dream sky house; a Mount Yoda; Jabba the Hutt’s pop winning Cloud City in a card game against Lando; Lando running a holographic theme park (with 1138 THX Ultrasound speakers, dear fucking GOD I wish I was making that up); villains wishing each other “dark greetings;” Han Solo finishing his sky house in the third book, throwing a housewarming party, and teaching Leia a dance called the Space Pirate Boogie; and Chewbacca being relegated to a background character while new character Ken turns Luke into the annoyed pop. (You’re dying to read these books now, aren’t you?) Hell, back when these books came out, you couldn’t blame kid me for reading them because the expanded universe that’s gotten wider than the Star Wars universe itself basically didn’t exist. There was just the Jedi Prince series and Timothy Zahn’s acclaimed Thrawn Trilogy. And THAT is where my embarrassment is. I missed The Thrawn Trilogy because I was too busy reading the Jedi Prince books. All I have to stand by for my alibi is the fact that I was very young and didn’t know any better.

It was pretty disheartening to hear about the recent closure of LucasArts and the impending cancellation of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I joke a little bit about the LucasArts closing: On the downside, it means less Star Wars and fewer video games. Of course, the practical upshot is that it means fewer Star Wars video games! In all seriousness, though, it’s sad mostly because it’s 150 people who are now out of work because Disney switched the business plan. I’m certain it has something to do with money.

As a game developer, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a diehard game fan mourning the track record of LucasArts. It relied heavily on the Star Wars license, and while Star Wars has a better track record than The Simpsons as far as licensed games go, there’s no simply stumbling into a Star Wars game in the local Gamestop and buying it there. As individual games, the galaxy-wide span of Star Wars games runs the gamut of quality. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is considered one of the greatest video games ever made. After that, the quality tends to drop to your Lego Star Wars (a title I always believed should have been granted the subtitle “Together at Last!”), your Rogue Squadrons, your Battlefronts, your Episode I Racers, your Bounty Hunters, your Obi-Wans, your Flight of the Falcons, your Rebel Assaults, your Yoda Stories, and, finally, (sigh) your Masters of Teras Kasi, one of the worst video games ever made. As a whole, though, Star Wars video games are well on the sucky side.

Then there was Star Wars: The Clone Wars. In the entirety of six live-action movies, George Lucas left the vast majority of the Clone Wars to our imaginations. Throughout the Original Trilogy, in fact, we knew three things about the Clone Wars: Number one, they were wars. Number two, they involved clones in some way. And number three, they were epic enough to snap Luke Skywalker to attention when Obi-Wan Kenobi said he fought in them alongside Luke’s father. Episode IV also gave us a vague description of Luke’s father: Best starfighter pilot in the galaxy, cunning warrior, and great friend of Obi-Wan. In Episode V, we got the added detail that Luke’s father was at the right hand of the Emperor wearing a new, evil identity known as Darth Vader, so we now knew something had gone wrong for him somewhere on the line. The Prequel Trilogy was a big letdown in large part because it deprived us of a lot of those descriptions, and we only saw the beginning and end of the Clone Wars. The Clone Wars was a great series because it was able to give us the parts left out, showcasing Anakin Skywalker at his Jedi best. It went into detail about the war itself and gave us Anakin’s friendship with Obi-Wan, as well as a few other things like Mace Windu in real combat and Anakin training an apprentice named Ahsoka Tano.

I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan. I got into Star Wars before I was even into video games, which means this passion goes back quite a ways. The first time I saw the Original Trilogy was probably about the time they were first being aired on TV, when my parents were recording them – Return of the Jedi had only been released one or two years previously at that point. Star Wars is the movie I’ve probably seen more often than any other now, with the possible exception of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I still remember the first time I saw it. I hadn’t yet learned to read so I couldn’t read the opening monologue, but you can bet your ass I understood the swooping crescendos of John Williams’s magnificent score, telling me I was in for an adventure beyond anything my underdeveloped mind yet had the capacity to imagine. The opening theme ended, and then came the opening scene, with the biggest damn starship I’ve ever seen whizzing over my head. Finally, the Rebel Alliance soldiers made a heroic last stand in the halls of their doomed transport, were mowed down by the terrifyingly faceless Imperial Stormtroopers, Darth Vader appeared, and Princess Leia was captured as C-3PO and R2-D2 made a break for the planet below. Like every other kid who watched that spectacle, I was hooked on the spot. Hell, anyone who isn’t yanked right in by the time the droids reach Tatooine just hates movies. Period. It’s still probably the greatest, most effective movie opening I’ve ever seen.

Luke Skywalker became one of my childhood heroes, and Princess Leia my first dream girl. To this day, those two particular characters are extremely representative of the kind of man I want to be and the characteristics I like in women. (It’s no coincidence that my biggest celebrity crush as a teenager was on Sarah Michelle Gellar.) Upon the introduction of the Prequel Trilogy, in which we learned that the whole saga was the story of Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker, it took on an even deeper resonance. In a spiritual sense, I was able to draw certain parallels between Anakin’s choices and my own life. I’m aware of the little plotholes and inconsistencies, and I frankly don’t care. I’m still waiting for the day lightsabres become a reality.

I’m not exactly what it is about Star Wars that it casts such a spell over myself and others like me. Perhaps one answer is because the Star Wars universe is so simplified and its views of good and evil are so direct. Did anyone, on seeing Darth Vader for the first time, have any doubt he was the bad guy? While the obvious retort to that idea is the end of Return of the Jedi – where Vader finally renounces the Dark Side and becomes Anakin Skywalker long enough to perform his final act as a Jedi Knight – every movie in the series, as well as a lot of the material in the expanded universe, emphasizes The Force as having a Dark Side which is always there, tempting the Jedi who know giving into it produces dire consequences. The Star Wars universe gives us something we don’t frequently have in real life: A clear-cut division between good and evil, where the bad guys are easily distinguished by their heavy english accents and dark, mysterious wardrobe choices. The good guys are archtypes: The young kid looking to learn, the wisecracking hero, and the seen-it-done-it old guardian whose pearls of wisdom offset the younglings’ ability to get the group into trouble. In the inversion category, Star Wars gives us three cute animal sidekicks: One is a tense ball of nervousness and primness; one is his adventurous best friend who excels at getting them into trouble; and one is a beacon of overwhelming physical strength with a heart of gold. The Princess is both an archtype and an inversion of it – she needs rescuing, but is more than capable of defending herself. Her immortal first line when the good guys bust into her cell is a masterwork of defiant snark: “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”

My mother explains my father’s love for Star Wars by saying it’s a classic fantasy story in a sci-fi cover. I don’t doubt that, but this angle has been run into the ground, so I feel very little need to expound on it.

In a way, Star Wars also tells two stories which are, at heart, quintessentially American. The first speaks to the country’s origins: A small band of struggling rebels rises up and overthrows an evil, oppressive empire. No matter how debatable the accuracy of that summary is, it’s still the commonly propagated story every American schoolkid hears to the point of such repetition that they all tune it out after awhile. The less obvious parallel is the story of Luke himself, rising from a humble, unassuming origin to become the most powerful Jedi Knight in the galaxy. I imagine that while Han Solo may steal much of the show, it’s Luke Skywalker that many of us dream of being in some way or another. By the end of the Original Trilogy, it’s Luke who has grown the most. After starting as a naive little farmboy with nothing to offer except an open mind, Episode IV ends with him being awarded as a hero of the Rebel Alliance, a result of his resourcefulness and maximization of the few abilities he has. By the end of Episode VI, he’s the greatest Jedi Knight in the galaxy. In the expanded universe, Luke has the responsibility of beginning the Jedi Academy after Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine nearly wiped out the Jedi. Like Luke, many of us dream of rising as high as we can using our smallest, most bare resources and abilities.

It seems a little too easy and convenient to play the Star Wars is Just Cool card because it comes so close to winning the sabacc hand that doing so feels like cheating. But it is true, and anyone who doesn’t think that is either a hipster or Alec Guiness. I can sit here and write out rehashed intellectual theories until the banthas come home, but I’m also part of a generation that was fortunate enough to see the magic of Star Wars when it was still a very recent thing. Did I know WHY I like Luke and Han? Nope. I knew I loved the Battle of Hoth scene, and that I wanted a lightsabre. Even the comparative suckitude of the Prequel Trilogy and the Jedi Prince books never spoiled it for me. Why couldn’t I have my own smuggling cargo spaceship to go to an interesting planet like Bespin? People falling in love with Star Wars for the first time at a young age aren’t saying “What kinds of different meanings and influences could the mysterious Force hold? What parallels can be drawn between the Battle of Endor and modern Islam?”

Disney owns Star Wars now, and they’ve handed it off to JJ Abrams for direction, and subsequent spinoffs will be written by Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. George Lucas said there would be no more new Star Wars movies after the Prequel Trilogy, but hell, he also said that after the first Star Wars movie. (Which explains a few things in Empire and Jedi.)

I’ve had the fortune to be introduced to a lot of beautiful sci-fi/fantasy escapist paradises in my lifetime: The Lord of the Rings; Dune; Doctor Who; and Harry Potter. That last one there, Harry Potter, brought in the only weapon possibly cool enough to equal lightsabres with the way it used magic wands. While the magic wands don’t have the ominous whirling sound and hypnotic glow of a lightsabre, they do have the ability to produce many powerful spells. But, given the choice, I would probably still take the lightsabre. Actually, I take that back; I would take the magic wand, immediately use it to construct a lightsabre, then sit back and relax as “problems” and “irritants” became concepts relegated to the knaves.

The Easter Story of an Emergent Agnostic/Atheist

The Easter Story of an Emergent Agnostic/Atheist

The plaster cast felt like a glove, and it was about as tough. If I had molded it into a more grabby shape, I probably could have played hockey in it. I couldn’t help but make fun of the absurdity of a solid, hard plaster cast of my own right arm. It was to be exhibited on an artistic interpretation of the Stations of the Cross, some kind of Jesus-related thing I had never heard of until a couple of weeks previous. Over the preparation for the exhibit, I also helped mold and paint little crosses.

The Stations of the Cross wasn’t a concept I had any kind of attachment to, at all. It sounded like another bit of Christian dogma my pastor had not bothered to teach me about in confirmation class. At least, I didn’t remember being taught anything about it. Considering that I hated confirmation class and had been seething quietly through what I considered an elaborate initiation ritual which would allow me full membership into my church’s wine and wafer club, I was concerned with getting just enough info to pass the final than actually learning anything. Confirmation class was a course I spent two years sitting through, after all, when no one I knew could offer a remotely satisfying answer to the question: WHY am I being denied what is obviously a very important sacrament of Christianity until I listened to my minister’s blah blah blah-ing for two hours every freaking Tuesday for two freaking years? Apparently I had missed a commandment somewhere along the line. Thou shalt have no other gods. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt take a two-year course to determine thine communion worthiness. Yeah, sounded about right.

Well, my inquisitiveness took its toll. Seven years after my confirmation, I had ditched Christianity entirely for a whole new religion. Three years after that, I ditched religion entirely. One of the instigators of my religious walkout was that everyone was dying for me to be able to perform rituals and recite passages on command, like some kind of dog/parrot genetic mutation. I was – am – an atheist, in large part because of these unbending dogmas I was being taught, and in even larger part because I had a bad habit of asking just where these rituals were written out in the Bible. The people I was questioning had an even worse habit of telling me the church does it that way because the church has ALWAYS done it that way. Grace Commons, my faith community in Chicago, was a breath of fresh air when I stumbled into it because here, at last, was a community which was challenging the very fundamental core of religion. The questioning of old religious tenants didn’t keep them from partaking in some of the rituals, though, so I saw no harm in partaking in the preparation and execution of the Stations..

Grace Commons being Grace Commons, they needed to give the Stations of the Cross an artistic spin. I was game and, truth be told, a little eager to see if I could get away with a little bit of stealth blasphemy. We created 15 stations with our own metaphorical spins on the traditional imagery. In the third station, in which Jesus fell for the first time, we created a drawing of a cross being pushed over by a montage of images of the world’s suffering and injustices, and propped back up with another montage of positive images of things which prop people in times of need. The tenth station, in which Jesus is stripped, was a board covered with red paint and black fabric. The fourth station, where Jesus met his mother, was a hand drawing of Jesus and Mary consoling each other.

I had a grand old time creating the exhibits. While creating the little clay crosses, I was given artistic license to create them however I saw fit, long as they were crosses. So I made a bunch of kooky-looking traditional crosses, some Celtic crosses, and one slab of clay on which I carved the word “CROSS” in large, commanding letters. I painted them however I saw fit, and I also created a weird little mold of my hand. Still, while I was doing these things, it was more out of my enthusiasm for being a creator than out of any attachment I had to Christianity. I had no feelings toward the Stations of the Cross one way or the other. As far as I was concerned, they were just another unwritten faith tenant the church had culled from the air in order to control the masses by promising some extra brownie points with God. My mother was more excited for my participation than I was. The Stations of the Cross had been something she knew while growing up as a Catholic. She was more appreciative of rigid religious observances and routines than I was, even though she’s a bit of a religious upstream swimmer herself.

The big day came, and I walked in fully prepared to make a few observations and maybe crack a few jokes. Basically, I was expecting to be at least mildly underwhelmed. I had never been particularly moved by the religious displays I had seen everywhere growing up, after all. Maybe it was just a result of the fact that everything about the killed-for-my-sins idea seemed was so distant, or that the questions I had surrounding the entire doctrine had wrecked it for me, or that I had been numbed by the imagery, but the common images always left me with a rather blase attitude. Well, my visit to this display felt a lot different. It WAS different, in a few ways. Instead of the redundant imagery of Jesus going through his crucifixion, the imagery in the Grace Commons Stations felt current, relevant. The focus of the Stations were rarely on Jesus, and few of the Stations featured his likeness at all. I saw the first Station (the condemnation of Jesus) with its portrayal of mob violence, and it clicked. My sense of cynicism had departed by the second Station, a painting of a man grieving the loss of his firstborn child, a metaphorical representation of Jesus being given the cross he had to bear.

Each Station was questioning me, and leaving me challenged; challenged about my ideas of injustice and sin; challenged about my role in fighting them; challenged about how I might have been a contributor. Many ideas which I held to be black and white in the past were being stirred up and tinted in grey. My mind searched for answers and coherent thought with each display as I moved along, and I began to withdraw into myself in a way I had done very few times in the past. By the 14th Station, a display of Jesus being placed into the tomb, I felt drained and somewhat broken down. Station 14’s display was that of a ghostly white face, against a white background, with a translucent white shroud covering it, inside of a pitch-black room lit only by a small flashlight which was there only to illuminate a real prayer, written by a Jew during the Holocaust, asking for the captors to be forgiven of their sins.

Station 14 was the point where I finally tore up. I choked up and fell silent and, in dire need of a breather, I returned to the area where the service had taken place. My thought had now overwhelmed me to the point where everything was now blending together and being replaced by a raw, unnamed emotion. As a handful of others slowly filed into the room after me, all I did was sit and watch the candle flames perform their silky tango. It was a half hour before anyone was able to say anything, and it was only once everyone had processed what we just saw that our usual post-service chirpiness started filling the room.

The traditional pictures of the Crucifixion had never affected me. Having seen them since a very early age at which I wasn’t able to understand what they were, I didn’t realize they were supposed to be affecting pictures of a suffering deity, and so I never had any feelings toward them one way or another. And now I was sitting here, with a series of images seemingly disconnected from the event, moved in a way I had never been by anything religious. Of course, it wouldn’t send me running to dunk my head into the baptismal font, but after many years of religious instruction being hotly questioned and abandoned, I couldn’t help but feel like something was finally working.

A Review of Premium Rush by a Former Bicycle Messenger

A Review of Premium Rush by a Former Bicycle Messenger

Premium Rush won my heart so thoroughly with its opening monologue alone that it would have taken a galactic screwup for me to be completely put off it. Reviewers have made a lot over one small line in said monologue: “I like to ride. Fixed gear. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.” Its been called smarmy and ridiculous, but I doubt much of the bicycle messenger community shares that opinion. I worked that dangerous and punishing job myself on the Chicago circuit for several years, and in my official capacity as a former messenger (no, we don’t call ourselves couriers), I can honestly say the opening monologue – which actually rambles on for a couple of minutes – wouldn’t be a better summary of a messenger’s job had I written it myself. Yes, it’s a movie, and so writer/director David Koepp is naturally prone to taking some Hollywood license with it. But he also captures enough of what life is really like for this unique breed that I wondered if he had ever made his living as a messenger himself. By my estimation, the accuracy rate of the portrayal of messenger work in Premium Rush stands around 80 percent.

If Koepp didn’t work as a messenger, then it’s eerie that he was able to write it so well. I notice a lot of reviewers tend to look at the script of Premium Rush with an air of disbelief, naturally thinking Koepp was writing in the drama of “messing” as he pleased. Messing, though, is a job in which the real life might be more unbelievable than anything based on it. The main character in Premium Rush, Wilee, rides a fixed gear bicycle. Fixies, as they’re called, are track bicycles made strictly for racing. Fixed gear means the gear is directly attached to the chain, to the bike can only move when you peddle. They’re made with an emphasis on lightness and speed, so most of them don’t have brakes; the ones that do have only one brake. Fixies are possibly the most insanely dangerous bicycles on Earth even if you know what you’re doing, but some messengers really DO use them, although the practice isn’t common. Also, people who have been messengers for any serious length of time do have multiple stories about getting hit by cars, doored, and flipped over their handlebars. There was an early scene in Premium Rush where one messenger makes a phone call from a freight elevator, showing that in many buildings messengers ARE segregated from the business public and made to go through the back. (This isn’t good for the messenger; freight elevators are very slow, and since almost all messengers are contractors, time is money. The messenger union once held a strike outside of one building on LaSalle Street in Chicago because it was easy to spend 20 minutes waiting for the freight. Another building, on Wacker, tried making messengers go through the freight for a few months, but that experiment was quickly axed when the businesses in the place complained that delivery slowed to a crawl.) Messengers frequently eat, drink, and make phone calls on the peddle. Ripping off motorists’ mirrors really is a way messengers frequently attack drivers if they’ve been pushed too far, except in real life we don’t use our locks to do it because they’re bulky and mirrors aren’t the most tightly bolted part of a car. We know there’s no consequence for such a thing, ever, because who besides the driver will care? Yes, it’s possible Koepp might have written everything believing he was just making the movie more exciting, but take it from the pro: THIS STUFF REALLY HAPPENS.

Naturally, I was jacked at the release of Premium Rush, a movie which featured a messenger as the hero! Unfortunately, my euphoria was knocked out a little at the beginning of the movie because of the attitude of the main character, Wilee. Mercenary attitudes are common in messing, but Wilee acts like one of the anti-heroes from 90’s movies. It’s a point against the movie because it makes him unlikable, and shows that the only reason he’s the hero is because Premium Rush needed a hero. So anyway, here’s this perfectly ordinary bicycle messenger named Wilee, who gets sent to a location to pick up an envelope and make what is supposed to be an everyday run. As he heads out, a guy in a fancy suit walks up to him and starts demanding the envelope. See, he REALLY NEEDS it! Wilee, being the honor-bound and noble messenger, of course escaps him and is off to make an average run as part of his $80-a-day job. This scene, by the way, is one that requires suspension of disbelief from messengers. If someone wants a package off a messenger THAT badly, he’s getting it, no questions asked. No matter how committed, all messengers know there’s no such thing as a package worth dying for, and I knew one or two people who had no reservations about outright destroying packages out of frustration themselves, though it was extremely rare.

Anyway, things kick up a notch when Wilee hits the road and douchebag suit is now following him in his car! He just doesn’t give up, even when Wilee jumps into the other lane to ride into traffice coming at him. (This happens in real life.) Koepp makes some astounding chase sequences though the movie, and there are some incredible stunts. The chase sequences make Premium Rush fun, and it occurs to me that, had the chase alone been the whole movie, it would have been a wild ride and ended a lot better. In fact, Premium Rush could have spotlighted a day in the life of a bike messenger, and it would have been very exciting.

That’s ultimately where Premium Rush goes wrong. A lot of reviewers like to point out the whole thing takes place in real time, but it certainly doesn’t feel like real time. Real time is when the entire movie follows one character for the whole 90 to 120 minutes spent watching it. Well, Koepp and his co-writer, John Kamps, get credit for the realisation that, had Premium Rush followed Wilee through this one delivery, it would have been shorter than the average sitcom episode. So how does he get around the problem? By creating arbitrary contrivances, of course! After a few minutes of the first chase, the movie then decides it should probably try to develop the bad guy. Now, the bad guy chasing Wilee, Bobby Monday, is so over-the-top that he would have worked better without a background. But not only does Monday get a background, he gets a backstory which would make us sympathetic to him had he not been so over-the-top. He needs what’s in the envelope to pay off a gambling debt before his loan shark knocks him off.

Oh, yeah, Monday’s a cop. So Wilee can’t just go running to the Police. To the screenwriters’ credit, he thinks of that, but that plan is abruptly axed when Monday shows up at the station Wilee visits to file his complaint. After he escapes the station, the whole movie goes nuts. Wilee has to outrun Monday, a particularly zealous bicycle cop who is also out to get him for, well, I don’t know. (Seriously, the only crime Wilee committed was riding on the sidewalk. As much as pedestrians whined and threatened to call the Police at messengers who got too close, the cops DON’T CARE. Especially not the officers who are also on bicycles. The only time they’ll say anything is if the messenger is dangerously close to running them over, and even then, we’ll get off with nothing but a stern warning.) Wilee also goes to return the package from where he got it because he’s angry. (Would never happen.) Alas, one of his messenger buddies gets it first and now Wilee, guilt-ridden after finding out what the package would mean for the person who originally called for it, has to race his pal to get it back.

Did I just ramble through two paragraphs off my original point? I guess I did. So anyway, plot contrivances are just one of the ways Premium Rush pads its length. The other is flashbacks, which are in there for the sole purpose of telling the story that could easily have been told just as easily chonologically. In doing this, the filmmakers give themselves both a gimmick and a way to get around the inconvenience of having a gimmick. It’s certainly nice to know what the story is, but the way it’s presented destroys the flow of the movie. There’s a chase, then a flashback, chase, flashback, chase, flashback. Virtually every switch of a scene feels disruptive, especially during the action sequences because here you are, just enjoying yourself and tuning out when you suddenly have to turn the switch back on to pay attention again.

Want more contrivance? Wilee is also having girlfriend problems. Apparently his best friend, Manny, is moving in on his girl because the girl (who, by the way, is a messenger) thinks Wilee is out of his freaking mind. Manny is also a messenger. See, the difference is that Manny isn’t out of his freaking mind like Wilee is. We know that because he uses a proper road bicycle with real shifters and brakes! So, through the course of the movie, we see these three knotheads call each other while making their runs almost constantly. (Doesn’t happen, at least not with messengers who use phones provided by their services. Messengers DO makes phone calls on the fly – it’s damn near required to be able to pull that off – but the calls are only with dispatchers.) Does boy get girl back? When has the hero of an action movie ever been left hanging for nookie?

Half of Premium Rush, I was rooting for Monday. That’s how bad this sucker is with its characters. After all, Monday had the mob on his tail and we don’t know what the hell some other person wants with the envelope until later. When Wilee made his inevitable heel-face turn, I wasn’t sure I believed it. Maybe that could be seen as more length-padding desperation – Koepp and Kamps were so stuck that they made the mistake of trying to develop the guy we’re supposed to hate.

Once my messenger years were behind me, I felt a little conflicted about walking away. On the one hand, I’ll never have the kind of personal freedom offered by messing again. On the other, since it’s a poor-paying contract job, I walked away with a mountain of debt in taxes and medical bills, the latter of which I haven’t even started to repay, and was glad I wouldn’t see them rise more. I’m also now afflicted with a series of cumulative old injuries upon which my body – especially my wrist and ankle – will never be the same. Ultimately, I’m glad I’m not a messenger anymore, even if the economy did force me to move back home. Yet, there is an understandable appeal to the lifestyle. That also sums up my feelings about Premium Rush; some truly wonderful points, but the experience just didn’t feel worth it to me.

Be nice to your messengers.

A Tribute to Local Independent Musicians and My Most Unexpected Chicago Reunion

I’ve never met Robert Plant. Never shared a room or a building with him. I know we’ve been in the same country at a few points in our lives, and we might have intersected cities once or twice. On a personal level, though, Robert Plant is still a massive, thundering deity living over the hills and far away. He is to be heard and worshipped as he sits on his golden marble throne somewhere on the top of Mount Olympus, never to be touched by us lowly knaves.

This is actually just fine with me for the most part. I like Robert Plant a lot, and love his work whether he’s there playing it himself or with Jimmy Page, Alison Krauss, Strange Sensation, or the immortal band that put him on the map, Led Zeppelin. I own many of his albums, including the maligned Dreamland; the classic Principle of Moments; the severely underrated Mighty Rearranger; and the anthemic Walking into Clarksdale, which he created with his old bandmate Page. Beyond the incredible music, though, what would a guy like Robert Plant have to offer a humble dayworker such as myself? I have no doubt that Plant loves each and every one of his fans, but for a trendsetting bigshot of a musician like him, it probably gets tiring to hear from millions of people – some whom are truly nuts – how they own all your work and are obsessed with House of Cards as if those millions of other fans didn’t exist. If we were to end up sitting next to each other on the Amtrak, I’m fair sure I would struggle to find any kind of common ground on which to base any casual conversation. (Although I would be sure to ask “Dude, you’re Robert Plant! Why are you riding the Amtrak? In business class, no less?”) Don’t get me wrong; if I was ever offered an opportunity to meet Robert Plant one-on-one, I would take it. Then afterward, we would both return to our agreed-upon roles: Me as the starry-eyed fan looking up from a ground level containing thousands of others just like me and him as Thor moonlighting as a musician. I pay ticket money, he plays In the Mood, and we go on with our lives.

I started following local bands when I was in my mid-teens, after cursory reads of the local entertainment section of the newspaper revealed a world of hidden music I wasn’t aware of. At local festivals, I started becoming more attentive of the bands I was watching. McCarthyism was an early favorite of mine, and I later learned of the music of Kilbrannan and moe. Upon my return, one of the first things my best friend did was take me out for St. Patrick’s Day in South Buffalo, where we spent the night jamming to the unique musical stylings of Penny Whiskey, a band that rose from the ashes of Kilbrannan after their breakup a few years ago. During the St. Patrick’s season in South Buffalo, in the Goin’ South Irish Feis, Jackdaw is a hot ticket. In my last few years before I moved out of Buffalo, going down to the Buffalo Irish Center to hear live music became a way for me to socialize; albeit only to an extent, because at that point I had alienated myself beyond most human contact and didn’t know quite how to socialize with people.

It wasn’t until Chicago that I began to really appreciate the small-time, independent local acts and the color they brought to the neighborhood. Moving there, I was clueless about the local culture, and knew that I was going to have to learn about it if I was to be anything more than a hermit. After living in the city for a few months, I joined a political group which happened to be renting space in the NNWAC building in Bucktown. Our meetings happened to overlap with music nights on Mondays, when one of the local bands would play in the front of the building while my group sweated in the back. Leaving the group after some seven months freed up my schedule to finally visit the NNWAC building on a Monday to listen to the music and take in the show. I quickly came to like the crowd there; I also loved the fact that the bands were always up for a chat with the audiences, and willing to play with us; I would shout the occasional mock request immediately after a set closed for a Rush song. (Usually it was By-Tor and the Snow Dog. One band cleverly responded by teasing me about their second act being nothing but a Rush medley.)

As I took in more of the local sights and music, I got to better know what the performance venues looked like, and I became a regular at a weekly talent night in what a friend described to me as an underground art gallery. The place was called Quennect4, and it was so rebellious that it wasn’t even registered, meaning it didn’t exist to the powers that be. It was housed in the ruins of a business which didn’t exist anymore, which all meant the Police could (and a couple of times, did) raid it. They were so secretive, they encouraged people to stay inside to smoke in a designated smoking area. The up and coming bands around Chicago got to know me there. One band once asked me to go onstage and play bass with them, but I had to say no on the entirely reasonable ground of “I don’t play bass. Or anything else, for that matter.”

The connections between musicians and audiences in small indie venues are always more personal. Starting out playing in a small place, I imagine it’s hard for musicians to think of themselves as Robert Plant or Bono. There’s no security row to block the people at the show from the stage, and those small shows – especially when they feature bands that haven’t yet made names for themselves – have much more of an anything goes atmosphere. The invitation to play bass at Q4 made me love the place, and I loved it all the more a few minutes later when a random audience member audibly said “Fuck it, I’m gonna go up there and play some bass,” and then did just that. Playing a show in the middle of 60,000-seat Soldier Field, standing some seven feet above the front row where you can’t see anything but tops of peoples’ heads, might have a disconnecting feeling. Everything is carefully organized and choreographed, and the highly alert security forces are all prepared to throw you out for moshing when you should have been waving a lighter. For the indie bands, it’s just between them and complete trust in an audience so close, you can feel the afterburn of their Jack Daniel’s shots.

After my little scotch ordeal concluded on Monday, I thought it was time to reacquaint myself with Chicago’s musical underground. It had been awhile, after all. The quest to do that took me to a small pub called Schubas, which coincidentally took me right back to Southport. Schubas was holding a singer/songwriter showcase featuring the locals: MER, Johnny Perona, Scott Burdsall, Meagan Hickman, and Tim Stop as a featured artist. Although I tried to keep up with the Chicago indies, that group of names still didn’t mean very much to me. The one person onstage whose work I knew – who I knew – was a woman there to lend her vocals to Perona: Leslie Beukelman. I knew Leslie from back in those early music nights. Along with Nanette and the music night organizer, Rob Clearfield, Leslie was among the first people outside of work or politics I spent time around. While I met a lot of the musicians Rob brought into the sets, Leslie always stood out by virtue of her radiant smile and otherworldly singing voice.

After paying the cover, I quietly stepped into the Schubas showroom in the back and took a quick look around. The show hadn’t started yet, and the audience had apparently decided late arrival was fashionable. I returned to the front of the bar and ordered a beer; being a beer snob, I went with one of the local delicacies: Green Line, a brand of 312, named for the city’s area code. Taking my time sipping the frothy liquified hops, I returned to the still-sporadically-populated showroom and quietly looked around. There wasn’t anything unique or charming about it; it came off like the proverbial smoky room Journey probably had in mind when they penned Don’t Stop Believin’: Dark, standing room only, warmed largely through body heat. No smoke, though, because Chicago law forbade it. No wine or cheap perfume either, although the night was young. Its charm was in its charmless, no-frills, practical approach. I approached the deejay box along the right-side wall and leaned against it, hoping to appear inconspicuous. That effort was mooted because I was dressed like a giant white glo-stick. As far as going unnoticed went, I might as well have grown a pair of angel wings, because even that couldn’t possibly have made me more visible.

All of the musicians sounded excellent. I took a particular liking to Hickman and Stop (whose band was the second set), and in fact I was going to put my name on Hickman’s mail list but I got occupied doing other things. I talked with one of the other patrons, a friend of Hickman’s who was there to lend her his support. The crowd trickled in during the set, and by the time the songwriters were finished, there were enough people in the room for me to lose the musicians as they mingled and charmed while working the room. This was ultimately why I chose to start supporting the local indies, no matter where I lived. Off the stage, whatever divine aura that maybe existed was gone, and the musicians went right back to being the regular people from their neighborhoods. People who loved their music enough to want to create and share it with others, possibly over beer or coffee. There was a genuine affection between these artists and the people in the audience who had ponied up the money to see them.

Leslie sounded incredible, as she always did. She was allowed to sing one of her own songs, with which she killed the room. At some point, I stepped out to retrieve a scotch on rocks to calm my nerves a little bit. I wanted to jaunt out of the crowd and say hello, but I’m shy, very introverted, and not a big fan of self-embarrassment and I wasn’t sure if Leslie remembered me. Although Nanette and Rob both became valued and trusted friends, I hadn’t seen Leslie very often. Although we had spent a lot of time around each other way back when, it had been so long that I figured worst case scenario, she misses me and I don’t push it. Best case, she remembers my image vaguely and I have to jog her memory a little. I knew there was no threat of her snapping at me, because she had always exuded a naturally warm and sunny personality which could put a seasoned Marine drill Sergeant at ease. Yet, people losing patience with me and breaking keeps lingering as a fear, no matter who, and no matter how unreasonable. I’ve had this fear of Nanette, the last person on Earth who would verbally attack me. I was badly overthinking this whole scene, but a lifetime of being the outcast tends to do that. My head was still going at warp speed when Leslie reached the back of the room and we made eye contact.

She smiled. “Hey! Do you remember me? Leslie!”

Did I remember? How could I forget?

“You don’t make yourself an easy person to forget,” I said.

I meant every word of that. Leslie was still her cheerful, outgoing self for the next 20 minutes while we caught up. I chose to give her the nutshell version of the turn my life had taken rather than the full one. She came up with an endless number of questions to ask, and we talked about things from the sorry living state of Buffalo to our mutual friends to our own pasts in Chicago. I got comfortable enough to confess that I was a little surprised she remembered me so well. Musicians have to have good memories if you think about it. Leslie’s was at least as photographic as my own. She also appeared happy that I had come from a place all the way over in Lincoln Park just to see this show. I actually didn’t think of it as some major distance. What was it, four stops on the nearby Brown Line? Maybe five? It didn’t seem all that significant to me. Showing up didn’t exactly make me Marco Polo going to China.

Leslie had to go – she said she would be sticking around for a quick beer before heading out the door. I turned my immediate attention back to the stage, where Tim Stop came out and rocked his set. I left after awhile myself because I was busy the next day. Still, the night had been a good one. It had exhibited everything I loved about independent musicians and given me a reconnection with someone I had known from way back in the beginning, when everything in my life (and apparently hers too) was going right.