Monday, May 17, 2010

Movie Review: Iron Man 2

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to go with your daughter to see Iron Man 2 on Mother’s Day? The answer isn’t entirely clear. On its most obvious level, Iron Man 2 is a 13-year-old boy’s dream: weapons, explosions, and Scarlett Johansson. But at the same time, this is a movie that not only puts Robert Downey Jr. on screen in nicely tailored suits, but also musses up his hair from time to time and shows us plenty of close-ups of the big brown eyes. Who’s happy now? And let’s not forget that the almost-pointless plot offers us Gwyneth Paltrow as the CEO of an arms manufacturer. Glass ceiling, indeed.

Still, the movie begins with a striptease, albeit not your typical striptease. This striptease takes the Iron Man suit apart, to reveal RDJ fully clothed. Behind him, women dance around in Sexy Cheerleader costumes while fireworks explode. Yup, the man is the attraction, but he’s clearly the one in charge of the display, and he has no intention of taking his suit off.

Iron Man 2 is not exactly the most coherent of films, and perhaps that’s what makes it so entertaining. The actual plot is there only as a sort of pictorial background. The real interest in the movie is all the rest of it—the banter between Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and RDJ’s Tony Stark, the earnest and goofy robots, Jon Favreau bumbling his way through a nebbishy anti-director’s role, and Mickey Rourke reprising his Wrestler style, but looking somehow both disgusting and endearing at the same time. All of this is the filigree that decorates the plot about the Bad Guy who wants to Blow Things Up. It’s the icing on the Iron Man beefcake.

Among the many things that Iron Man 2 is is a riff on George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. Think about it. Shaw gives us an arms manufacturer who believes that his work brings and keeps peace. The play avoids being a diatribe against war and weapons by both terrifying its audience with a grim vision of destruction as well as the hopefulness of the arms-maker’s vision. In the hands of skilled actors (like Simon Russell Beale who led the cast in London two springs ago), it’s an unsettling exploration of violence and creation.

Iron Man 2 doesn’t exactly unsettle, but it does raise the specter of an army of drones succeeding at something humans don’t want to do, and don’t always want to be good at. The movie serves, like it or not, as a position paper against drone use, endorsing an old-fashioned view of warfare as hand-to-hand (or electrified whip-to-iron hand) combat. Tony Stark in his red-and-gold suit, and Don Cheadle in his silver one, are far nobler creatures than the drones whose heads and faces have been replaced with guns by Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko.

But in the end, it’s not the Cold-War replay we’ll be thinking about when we leave the theater. Nor the movie’s staging of the current drone warfare issue. We’ll be thinking about how RDJ talks to the robots, and about the preposterousness of Sam Rockwell’s excellent slime-ball. And about the grace with which Downey stretches, bats, or swats away the electronic images that seem to be an extension of his imagination.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Story Catcher

For a writer, I’ve been acting a little strange lately. I’ve been driving around eastern Massachusetts with a pre-amp and a pop screen and other assorted pieces of sound equipment in a large messenger bag, and wielding a folded-up microphone stand in one hand. I’ve been poring over sound files, cutting out extra-long pauses and noticing that I’m starting to recognize the shape that particular words form in the sound waves of Garageband. I’ve been working with short fiction, making editing suggestions, commenting on tone. But none of it has involved looking at actual words.

This past Saturday marked the launch date for my new writing venture: The Drum, A Literary Magazine For Your Ears. The Drum is a lot like other online lit mags, except for one thing: the stories, novel excerpts, and essays it publishes exist only as sound files. This is writing out loud. Literature to listen to.

I had the idea for The Drum some time over the summer, as I listened to audiobooks during long car drives and wondered why there couldn’t be an audio counterpart for short works. I did some research and, at that point, didn’t find anybody who was doing exactly that. I took the fateful step of mentioning my idea to two friends (whose names appear on The Drum’s masthead) who rather than pat me on the arm and change the subject, reacted with enthusiasm and—more dangerously—with names of people I should talk to to make the idea happen. Over the next several months, and with help from lots of people, I gradually put together the magazine whose website will go live on Saturday.

The process has been fascinating. I have learned that, thanks to the truth of six degrees of separation, you already know everyone you need to know to get practically everything done. A lawyer to draft the rights agreements? The mother of my daughter’s castmate knew just the right person. A web-builder? My rowing coach referred me. A logo designer? Two rowing connections led to that one. How to incorporate and apply for 501(c)3 status? A rowing/hockey double-whammy. Sound editing? My neighbor’s son. All fall, I turned all my friends, writers or not, into focus groups for one aspect of the magazine or another. There was no coffee-drinking or hockey practice or dinner that didn’t involve some sort of brain-picking on my part, if only for a moment. (Perhaps the biggest lesson here was: if you want to get something done, ask a rower.)

But despite all the real excitement I’ve felt at getting the project ready, the best part has come these past two weeks, as I’ve begun the actual recording—when the solitude of writing turns collaborative. Grub Street very kindly allowed me to use their space as a central recording location. But that didn’t cover writers like Aimee Loiselle who lives in western Massachusetts. To save her a long drive, I recorded her short story in her friends’ farmhouse midway between our two homes. Last week alone, I recorded in a Back Bay apartment, the Park Plaza hotel, and homes in Franklin, Oxford, and Jamaica Plain. There have been slight occupational hazards, like the train rumble in Porter Square, the dog barking in Annisquam, and another dog chewing loudly on a bone on Commonwealth Ave. All of it, wonderfully, can be edited away.

As I go from house to apartment to office, I joke that I’m the Story Catcher. But it’s kind of true. I go around capturing the American Short Story in its element, like a cross between a lepidopterist Nabokov and the legendary Alan Lomax, who recorded folk music throughout the US in the 30s and 40s. My travels are a vivid reminder that there are stories everywhere, and there are great writers everywhere, eager to hear their words brought to life. To me, the short works to be published in The Drum are the records of a new American folklore—the folklore of contemporary literary culture.

So last Saturday, again thanks to Grub Street, The Drum made its debut at Grub’s Muse and the Marketplace conference. I was busy capturing stories all day both days. Seven of the Muse panelists contributed recordings during their free sessions, and a dozen other Muse participants came to the The Drum's walk-in sessions to record their 500-word pieces of flash fiction that we might include in a future issue. (If The Drum doesn’t take the piece, you get to keep the sound file as a souvenir.) If you missed the Muse, come by the website and hear the first batch of writers aloud at The Drum.

[this post first appeared on Beyond The Margins]