Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Debut Albums

In honor of the 50th (!) anniversary of Bob Dylan's debut album, NPR Music has a list of 50 debut albums that failed to light a fire with the public. This is a list of artists who needed more than one record to become the musician(s) we know today. I would add Genesis, Amy Grant, Billy Joel, Chris Botti, and Peter Gabriel to that list.

But what about the artists who nailed it the first time out? Here are a few that strike me as having it all down on that first album.

Chicago Transit Authority (1969)

It might come as no surprise to anyone that my very favorite Chicago song is "Introduction," which is track 1 on side 1 of this debut double LP. Everything that Chicago had become in the bars around the midwest was present at the creation. Killer horn licks, smoldering guitar solo, and Terry Kath's vocals waiting over it all. It goes on from there. This is the album from which two concert staples emerged: "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It It?" and "Beginnings" Throw in "Questions 67 & 68," the Steve Winwood cover "I'm a Man," the underrated "Poem 58," the anti-war song "Someday," and the 14-minute "Liberation," this album pretty much told you all you needed to know about this band. Sure, they'd hone their artistic direction with Chicago II, their songwriting skills with Chicago V, and, yes, their pop sensibilities with Chicago 17, but all the elements were there on album #1.

KISS (1973)

While technically 1975's KISS: Alive! is the album that vaulted the foursome from concert oddity to stardom, all the basic elements can be heard on this debut. At least half of the album's 10 songs are still played regularly (Deuce, Cold Gin, Strutter, Nothin' to Lose, Firehouse, 100,000 Years) and that, in itself, should show you the heft of this album. Yes, the live versions of these songs are heavier and more propulsive, but the template was there on that first album.

Sting - Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985)

You might call this a cheat since Mr. Sumner already had a debut with The Police back in 1978. But Sting's first solo album deserves separate mention. In nearly all ways, you'd be hard pressed to compare Outlandos d'Amour and Blue Turtles and say that the same brain made this music. Jazz rules on Blue Turtles and, if I'm being honest, I'd have to say that this album helped solidify the joy of jazz in my head. There was a time, there, when I stopped listening to my Police cassettes precisely because it was so unlike Blue Turtles. I have always been more of a Sting fan rather than a Police fan and it was Dream of the Blue Turtles that did it.

What are your favorite debut albums where the artist got it right from the start? Or other artists who needed a few albums to come into their own?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In Defense of "John Carter"

“John Carter” is a very good film, not as bad as many critics have said, provided you know one thing: How To Have Fun.

To understand this essay, you have to understand where I come from and the type of viewer and reader I am. “A Princess of Mars,” Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first Mars book—first book period (!)—and the basis for the new movie, is one of the very few things that can literally transport me back to that glorious time in my life in the late 70s halo of those immediate post-Star Wars years where I learned about science fiction. While I cannot say with certainty that the John Carter books were my first literary SF, they were among the first. I re-read “Princess” a couple of years ago and found that the tale still held sway over my imagination despite my more adult observations on the technical proficiency of ERB’s writing style. In preparation for the new movie, my SF book club agreed to read the first two novels of the series (the second being The Gods of Mars), watch the movie, and then retire to a nearby restaurant and discuss.

As to the type of reader and viewer I am, let’s just say that I thoroughly enjoy being entertained. When it comes to TV cop shows, I can enjoy “The Wire” and “CSI: Miami” for what each of them are. CSI: Miami will never win over critics the way The Wire has, but I often have more fun with Horatio Caine and company versus McNulty and his pals. I was completely engrossed by “The Dark Knight” back in 2008 but also really dug the animated “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” released the same year. For another example, I am a proud member of the Star Wars Generation, a kid when it was released. As an adult, I was jazzed to see the new movies, yet left the theater after Episode I and Episode II having to justify many aspects of those movies. Of the six Star Wars movies made, only one is great, one is very good, and the rest are all muddled together. All this is to say that, while I don’t often wear my critical hat every time a watch or read something, I am no drone for properties and characters and universes I enjoy.

Which brings me to John Carter. I read no spoilers ahead of time. The older I’ve gotten, the more I prefer to be surprised in the movie theater rather than a grainy YouTube video or geekboy script breakdown published somewhere on the web. I knew those in control of the subject matter, namely Andrew Stanton, Michael Chabon, and Disney, among others. Stanton’s work with Pixar is magnificent, Chabon’s novels and mastery of the English language are often sublime, and I love Disney stuff. That Chabon and Stanton grew up loving the Barsoom (i.e., Mars) books and were in charge of the story left me no worries that they would shepherd the film with loving detail. I trusted in them, and, frankly, they did not let me down.

But I am a different type of viewer than your average viewer. I knew the material. In fulfilling my obligation to my book club (read the first two novels), I became so engrossed in the characters and landscape of Burroughs’s imagination that I have, to date, completed the first four novels and am reading the fifth. I pulled my old issues of the 1970s-era John Carter comics published by Marvel and am re-reading them. I’ve even bought the new anthology edited by John Joseph Adams, Under the Moons of Mars, new stories inspired by Barsoom. Sure, the books are laced with wild coincidences, pulpy writing, and outlandish plot details. So? You could say the same about The Da Vinci Code and not a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories, too, and I liked them. A simple story told simply isn’t bad. What I wanted most to see was Burroughs’s imagination come alive on screen. And, in that, Stanton delivered more than I could ever have hoped for.

Burroughs populated his adventures with giant four-arms green fighting men (Tharks), giant ten-legged Martian “lions” (banths), giant flying crafts that “sail” the air (Barsoomian war ships), and giant, four-armed white apes. See a trend here? Burroughs’s world is over-sized, filled with wondrous creatures, fierce and noble races, vile villains, and amazing technology. The oft-used phrase “sensawonder,” an amalgamation of “sense of wonder,” permeates the very text of Burroughs’s books and comes alive in readers’ imaginations.

And they come truly to life in the new movie. The Tharks I had always pictured to be muscle-bound hulks, but in Stanton’s hands, they are aggressive yet elegant, beautiful almost. Gollem, in The Lord of the Rings, is my standard by which I measure how computer animated characters interact with human characters. The Tharks have joined him. I love the Tharks in this film! I always pictured the white apes to be vicious brutes, and in Stanton’s interpretation, they are larger and far worse than I’d thought possible. Woola, the calot, or Martian dog, was a ten-legged beast in the books with little personality other than loyalty. On screen, Woola is a joy to watch as he is both loyal and laugh-out-loud comic relief. The flying ships are large and graceful, but can pack enough firepower to destroy whole towns. Yes, they sound like ships from Star Wars: Episode I, but who cares. There are only so many ways you can make spaceships sound. I caught the reference, and then quickly moved it aside in my mind. I was having too much dang fun.

I’m very glad that Stanton and company kept the framing device. In both the book and the movie, a fictional version of Burroughs is entrusted with a manuscript written by Carter that tells of his exploits on Mars. From there, the epic of John Carter is revealed. One of my fellows thought the film should have begun with Carter waking up on Mars. I liked the back story (and the additions Stanton made, especially the ending) and considered it to give Carter a bit more emotional resonance. Where the literary Carter is a military man nearly incapable of *not* joining a fight, the film version of Carter is a qualified fighting man, buy one for whom violence has taken a toll. That still doesn’t mean it can’t be the butt of a joke. I was laughing out loud when I watched the scenes of Carter, on Earth, being captured by the Union cavalry.

For a century, certain images from the books have been stuck in the imaginations of readers. One of the dangers that a faces a film like “John Carter” boils down to this: will the filmmakers “see” the scene like the readers have seen it. From my point of view, they nailed it. More than once in the novels, Carter fights hoards of beasts, the carcasses piling up around him. Stanton got this pitch perfect. The flying ships are exotic yet real, steampunk-inspired, yet futuristic. Helium as a city is magnificent, regal, yet lived in, as befitting a dying planet. Sure, George Lucas made his Star Wars universe “lived in,”—a quality the newer films kind of lacked—but he was probably inspired by Barsoom.

The Acting

You don’t watch Star Wars for acting lessons. Ditto the Harry Potter films, the Twilight films, or any random superhero movie. True, great acting emerges, either in certain characters (Heath Ledger’s Joker), certain scenes (the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Cedric dies), over the course of a movie/series (Sean Astin’s Sam in The Lord of the Rings), and, occasionally, in a computer-generated character (Gollem, Wall E, or Anton Ego from Ratatouille). But, like a Michael Crichton novel, you often only need to let an actor say the lines that needs saying and propel the plot forward.

That doesn’t mean that the actors cannot embody their lines with life and verve. Here, however, is the tale of a man lost, a stranger in a strange world. How would *you* feel if you woke up on another planet? For me, I never saw Taylor Kitsch in anything until I saw him as John Carter. That’s a benefit for me, for I didn’t have his Friday Nights Lights character to influence how I perceived his portrayal of Carter. Ditto for Lynn Collins, the actress who plays Dejah Thoris, the princess of Mars. They were tasked—burdened?—with bringing to life and personifying a century’s worth of reader imaginations, to say nothing of the scores of young men who dreamed that *they* welded Carter’s sword and rescued Dejah themselves. And they did a good job. Neither rose above the text and overpowered the film, but they were not subsumed by it either.

Of the two characters, Dejah got an update. When you read the original novels, you will note that, while Dejah did find herself in numerous instances of peril, she wasn’t some limp-wristed damsel who did nothing but scream. She helps Carter in more than one spot, paving the way for future heroines like Princess Leia and Ripley from “Alien.” In the new movie, Dejah is still a princess, but she’s also a scientist who is researching the ninth ray, the mystical ray that, could it only be harnessed, it could even the battlefield against Helium’s enemies. Oh, and she’s a great fighter, too. Oh, and she’s beautiful. The other members of my book club rolled their eyes over the fact that all three traits were rolled into one. I, frankly, had no problem with it. I like strong women. It leveled the playing field between Carter’s supernatural strength and Dejah’s brain.

The love story worked for me. As innumerable love stories on film have done, you have two opposing personalities discovering their love for each other but go to great pains to hide it. We knew, going in, that Carter would fall for Dejah. The fun in the movie, however, was how Dejah fell for Carter. Remember the movie version of The Bridges of Madison County (stay with me, here) and how Meryl Streep’s character kept stealing glances at Clint Eastwood? Same stuff here, but, for example, through the reflection of a Martian sword. Collins had her work cut out for her seeing that generations of young boys probably got quite excited when their imaginations filled in the figure of the mostly naked princess of Mars. She had to embody this famous heroine, give her brains and brawn, but also be beautiful at the same time. Pretty as she was, she won me over with her sly smiles at Carter’s fighting prowess and her growing respect, admiration, and the fact that she saw in Carter a kindred spirit. It is through her eyes that the loves manifests itself first, and it is in her heartbroken eyes we see Carter’s initial refusal to help. She did a great job. One reviewer commented that he’d like to see a movie featuring Dejah alone. While I would not go that far, I was thoroughly impressed by Collins and thought she carried more than her share of the film.

The Changes

Readers and critics could debate all day on the merits of filming all the events from A Princess of Mars. One critic who panned the film talked of Stanton’s slavish devotion to the source material. I think there is a fine line between slavishly creating something on the screen from printed material (Watchmen) or taking inspiration from a book and creating something that is, in effect, a hybrid. Readers in 1912 traveled with Carter throughout this basic travelogue of a book, having adventures along the way. In that year, the spectacle of Mars was pretty much enough to maintain interest. In 2012, we’ve sent spaceship to Mars itself, so we know the truth. We have a more sophisticated appreciation for storytelling and, frankly, expect more and different things from a movie. Stanton and Chabon, knowing this fact, reached the only logical conclusion: incorporate the best elements of the main book, throw in a few elements from the second, and make up some new stuff to satisfy the demands of the viewing public.

All in all, they succeeded. SPOILERS start here. The villains from The Gods of Mars—the Therns—are brought into this story. These immortal beings, lead by Matai Shang (Mark Strong) control the lives and events of mortal souls. They know the secret of the ninth ray on Mars—a source of great power—and give it to the human bad guy of the film (Dominic West’s Sab Than, Prince of Zodanga, the great rival of Dejah’s Helium) to help him rule. The Therns are shape-shifters, able to, in the blink of an eye, change form. Cool! This is not in the books, but it works here, and it enables Carter to do exactly what the first movie in a (potential) series needs to do: defeat the smaller bad guy but not the larger bad guy. Think about the end of the first Star Wars film: Vader lives, but the Death Star is destroyed. You know he’s going to bring back the big guns, but that’s in the next movie.

Teleportation. In the books, Carter uses astral projection to get to Mars. Here, in the movie, it’s a combination of that plus a technological component. His body remains here on Earth while a living, breathing copy of him emerges on Mars. This concept sets up the great epilogue, a point I’m not spoiling here. I really liked that it was a scientific means of getting Carter to Mars, and, by having to possess an actual artifact, gave Carter a nice MacGuffin to chase.

The Criticisms

Yes, I have some. Earlier I mentioned how Stanton and Chabon picked the best parts of the first two books and put them in this movie. It must have been a tremendously fun exercise, much like the fun Anthony Horowitz must have experienced when he penned the new Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk (2011). Think about it: you get to assemble what amounts to a mix tape of your favorite scenes. The one problem I have is that they may have picked too many.

Take, for example, a hallmark of Burroughs’s tales: the arena fight. I’ve forgotten how many exist in the novels, but it’s a lot. Likely the writers knew that they wanted to include one in the film and chose a rather awkward time for it. Sure, it set up the Braveheart-like visuals of Carter splattered with blue blood, but even I kind of shifted in my seat when I realized that Carter was captured yet again. But, I quickly reminded myself of the books, where Carter and his friends always get captured. Then, of course, in the film, you get the arena scene and the giant apes. Yes, I thought of Star Wars: Episode II at the start of the scene (and Spartacus and Ben Hur and Gladiator)…and quickly put it out of my mind. Arena battles are numerous in films and mythology. There are only a few ways to do them. And the way Carter did it was thrilling. Dude, he swung a giant bolder and smashed the head of a giant white ape! Yeah!

The Voice of Barsoom. In the books, Carter learns the one language of Mars the old fashioned way: by hearing it and, bit by bit, understanding it. In the movie, there is a magical liquid that the Tharks give their young and that one of the Tharkian women in charge of Carter gives the Earthman. Lo and behold, he now speaks their language. It’s a simple and straightforward way to get all the characters speaking the same language in the blink of a scene, but it’s a little eye rolling.

There are other minor criticisms, but I’d be throwing pebbles at a boulder. Who cares, really? I had a blast with the film.


If I had to sum up my thoughts into one word, it might be “thankfulness.” I’m thankful that Stanton, Chabon, and everyone involved were devoted to making a fun, entertaining, fun, faithful, fun, and exciting movie experience. I’m thankful that they played it straight with their film, not like the cheesy Flash Gordon movie of 1980. I’m thankful that they reminded us that jaded, post-modern takes on historical or old ideas need not be the only way to update old material. I’m thankful that Stanton hired Michael Giacchino who composed a superb soundtrack that evoked not only the thrilling soundtracks of Hollywood’s days gone by with the bombast of fight scenes, but also the ethereal, otherworldly music that shines and yet lovingly caresses the actors on screen during the quieter moments. (I’m thinking of that final episode of “Lost” and the openings of “Star Trek” and “Up” where his music nearly single-handedly brought tears to my eyes. That gravitas is present here, too.) I’m thankful for Disney who put up the money to make a giant pet project that millions of readers and viewers adore, no matter the final financial outcome. I’m thankful that movies like this are still being made, movies that entertain and thrill with no other ulterior motive than that. I’m thankful that there are moments in this movie where I wanted to stand up and cheer, where chills coursed over my arms, where my jaw dropped at the sheer size of the spectacle before me, and whose closing scene had me grinning like the eleven year old that I still am when it comes to this material.

I loved this movie for what it is: the best dang movie experienced I’ve seen in a long, long time. There are formidable movies that have planted their flags and laid claim to moments in my life, from childhood to adulthood: Star Wars, Superman, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Amadeus, Back to the Future, Die Hard, Batman (1989), Dead Poet’s Society, When Harry Met Sally, The Fellowship of the Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Return of the King, Ratatouille, The Dark Knight, Toy Story 3, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. John Carter of Mars has landed with this company.

I loved this movie and I want to return to this universe. If, however, a sequel is never made, I will still cherish this film, these books, and this universe. If a movie sequel is never made, I implore Chabon and Stanton to write the novel. I want to know the next chapter in this new yet familiar story. It’s a long shot in these immediate days after the premiere, but there exists hope, and hope, according to John Carter, is enough.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Book Review Club: The John Carter of Mars Trilogy by Edgar Rice Burroughs

(This is the March 2012 entry in Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the icon at the bottom of this review.)

In the run-up to the new Disney movie “John Carter,” bowing this Friday, the guys in my science fiction book club decided to read (or re-read as the case may be) the first two books in the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars (1912) and The Gods of Mars (1913). Me being the completest person that I am—and because the second book ended on a cliffhanger—I forged ahead and read the third book, Warlord of Mars (1913-1914). After nearly 600 pages of action and adventure, one question still puzzles me: how the heck do you have a sword and all hosts of aliens and monsters when you’re naked?
To be honest, as I re-read Burroughs’ Martian tales—A Princess of Mars was his first book, pre-dating Tarzan by a few months—I kept an eye out to see if the characters really did wear loin clothes, robes, or what. Turns out no one wears clothes. Strange Martian custom. But, then again, strange was the way our hero, John Carter, found his way onto Mars.
A Civil War vet, Carter and a friend found a gold lode in the mountains of Arizona. There’s a problem, natch: Indians. They kill Carter’s friend and come after him. He’s holed up in a cave, waiting to go down with guns blazing when a strange thing happens: he becomes paralyzed. He hears the Indians approach the cave entrance…and then turn in fear. Great, thinks Carter, whatever scared them is behind me and I can’t do anything about it. Turns out, the thing behind him is…himself. He’s some sort of phantom and, before he knows it, he ‘wakes’ up on Mars. There’s little in the way of actual scientific facts regarding how Carter “teleported” to Mars, but that’s really okay. The book isn’t about science. It’s about battles, honor, bravery, and love.
And he’s Superman. He can leap tall buildings (most of the way) in a single bound. His strength is beyond that of mere mortal Martians. Lucky for Carter the Warrior the first beings he meets, the Green Men of Mars (huge hulks (heh) that stand nearly fifteen feet tall with a set of intermediary limbs below the arms and above the legs) only speak War, Bravery, and Combat Prowess. He woos them, even though he’s ostensibly a prisoner.
A Princess of Mars is basically a travelogue of Mars. Carter learns how Martian (Barsoomian in the language of the natives) babies are born, how naval vessels fly through the air, how the thin Martian atmosphere is treated, and how water is preserved on a planet without any surface water. Along the way, he doesn’t even bat an eye that he, and everyone else, is naked. That would include Dejah Thoris, the princess of the book’s title. She is captured after a battle and Carter falls for her. Well, of course. She’s naked. The rest of the book is his attempt to return her to her land and her people usually with many valiant sword fights and battles.
The Gods of Mars picks up ten years after the events of the first book when Carter returns to Barsoom. He saved the day at the end of the first book and mysteriously returned to Earth. Upon re-materializing on Mars, he finds himself in the Valley Dor alongside the River Iss. What makes this particular location treacherous is that Dor and Iss constitute the Martian afterlife. Think about the end of the Lord of the Rings when Frodo and Bilbo sail off into the sunset. No sooner is he back on Mars that he’s doing battle with heretofore unknown plant men, his friend Tars Tarkas (natch) by his side. Through battles, more battles, captivity, escape, more battles, Carter learns more about the religion of Mars, the deception that has been going on for ages, and that his beloved wife, Dejah Thoris, believing Carter dead, has taken the pilgrimage to the valley. What would a Carter/Mars novel be without a princess that needs saving? Not much fun to read, if you ask me. Along the way, Carter assembles allies (his discovers his son in held prisoner *in the very same prison* he land in…of course!) and enemies, charging ahead when mere mortals would think twice. Finally, he reaches the side of Dejah deep underground at Barsoom’s southern polar region only to have her snatched away again in the books final pages (natch).
Warlord of Mars picks up where Gods of Mars ends. Dejah, her staunch comrade, Thuvia, and enemy, Phaidor, all are captured inside a giant temple, the only door of which opens once a year. Oh, and the last time he saw his princess, Phaidor, knife in hand, had launched herself toward Dejah. Carter manages to follow his three main arch-enemies as they secretly rescue all three women only to escape…again! The bad guys fly literally all the way to the top of Mars, with Carter and a new ally, Thuvia’s father, chasing them. More battles, more heroics, more monsters and history of Barsoom ensue.
Let’s not go too deep here. These books are pure, unadulterated fun. Burroughs’ books and stories inspired countless creators of science fiction literature and films throughout the twentieth-century. There were a couple of places where you could see directly how George Lucas was inspired. At one point, Dejah is taken before a giant, ugly monstrosity. Jabba the Hutt and Princess Leia anyone? Speaking of Leia, I think we all know what she told Darth Vader in the first Star Wars movie. Come on. Do I have to quote it exactly? “I am on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan.” Now, cut to this exchange between Dejah and her captor from the first book:
"And the nature of your expedition?" he [bad guy] continued.
"It was a purely scientific research party sent out by my father's father, the Jeddak of Helium, to rechart the air currents, and to take atmospheric density tests," replied the fair prisoner, in a low, well-modulated voice. "We were unprepared for battle," she continued, "as we were on a peaceful mission, as our banners and the colors of our craft denoted."
Of course, I see Star Trek in there, too. And Avatar. And Fern Gully. And Dances With Wolves. In fact, my biggest fear for the movie is that folks who don’t know will just think that “John Carter” ripped off Avatar, not realizing that Avatar ripped off Burroughs first.
The remnants of Victorian prejudices still color Burroughs’ characters. The Green Men of Mars basically are communists. They all live together each person owning nothing individual. One exception is Dejah herself. Like Leia and other damsels, yes, Dejah’s in distress but she holds her own, even helping out Carter a couple of times. It speaks to her character and the fact that Carter doesn’t put up a fuss makes him a better man for it.
This first three books in the eleven-book series is really a trilogy, meant to be read in order. Not all feature Carter and Dejah—I’m reading book #4 now which stars Carthoris, the son of John Carter going after *his* captured love (natch)—but Mars is the real featured player in these stories. Well, that and all our eleven-year-old imaginations that still live within us. I first read A Princess of Mars over thirty years ago and it is one of the few things in which I can literally transport myself to a younger time. In re-reading these stories, that magical time of discovering once again visited me. I’m hoping the movie will do the same.
Yes, there are flaws in these books: yes, a princess is always needing help; yes, there are coincidences that boggle the mind; yes, Carter can come across too good to be true. But logic is not why you read books like these. When you crack these covers and join John Carter on his adventures on another world, you will soar to the heavens with great abandon, losing yourself amid epic tales of heroism and courage, adventure and love. And let’s be honest: isn’t that one of the reasons you read books anyway?