01 December 2012

The week’s multimedia, #2.

Been a while since I last wrote about the multimedia I’ve been consuming. So here goes nothing.

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. A basic rehash of the whole sad story of the Lincoln assassination, in great detail. If you don’t know these details, it’ll be new to you, but I’ve already read quite a lot on Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Civil War, so this book has told me absolutely nothing I didn’t know already. I gotta give credit to O’Reilly and Dugard for keeping the facts straight—more or less. Still, they can’t help but editorialize about how evil and cowardly John Wilkes Booth was, as were his co-conspirators. They also make Booth’s doctor sound like a fellow conspirator, which he wasn’t; he was unfairly imprisoned for years as a result of setting Booth’s leg while Booth was on the run. But, like the vengeful federal government at the time, the authors were more interested in prosecution than justice. I also found it a bit off-putting to tell the entire story in the present tense, as if it’s all happening now; it’s a gimmick which makes the book feel less like history and more like news—but as a result it feels less like history. Well, at least there are no vampires.

Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer, by William Knoedelseder. I’d always been curious—but never actually knew—what all the great 100-year-old breweries did to stay afloat during the 13 years of Prohibition, when it was illegal to sell beer. Seems Anheuser-Busch sold brewer’s yeast; if they couldn’t be a brewery, they could at least equip every homebrewer in the nation. So I picked up the book partly to learn that, and partly ’cause I was curious about the company. (There’s a Budweiser plant in Fairfield, so to people in my town it’s a local business.) Knoedelseder goes over the members of the Busch family who ran the brewery—mostly on August “Gussie” Busch Jr., who also ran the St. Louis Cardinals—until it was sold to InBev in 2008. It’s mostly family gossip, mixed with public record. There’s not a whole lot of insight as to the ins and outs of running and growing the company. Way too much credit is given to clever TV advertising; very little is said about the thousands of little ways Budweiser is deliberately inserted into the national consciousness. Then again, it’s written by an investigative reporter, not a business writer, so he’s more interested in dirt than ideas. He’ll tell you all about the women who have died around August Busch IV, but not so much about how Budweiser makes it into nearly every American restaurant and stadium. (By offering the owners freebies and incentives, of course; it’s not in the book, but I knew it already.)

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by John Meacham. I’m only three chapters in, so I can’t give you the full summary yet. Thus far it seems to be about the origins of Jefferson’s philosophy, and less so a conventional biography. Which is something conventional biographies tend to skip; yeah, sometimes they mention mentors, and what they thought, but they don’t focus on mentors and thought, which is a mistake. For thinkers like Jefferson, their philosophy was based on what they read, and not so much what they lived. There’s only so much insight you can pull from the circumstances of their lives. You gotta look at their bookshelves, and Jefferson’s bookshelves eventually became the Library of Congress, so that should tell you something.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold, by James Tucker and Matt Jelenic, etc. Contrary to your average comic book nerd, there are actually two Batmans. There’s the serious, brooding Dark Knight, who was the Batman originally created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, recreated in 1984 by Frank Miller, and widely known from Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies (plus Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s Batman: The Animated Series). But from the ’50s to the mid-’80s, there was the deadpan boy scout who had all sorts of ridiculous adventures and fought wacky villains: The Batman of what’s called the “Silver Age of Comic Books,” also created by Kane and Finger—they wrote those stories too!—which is the Batman we know from William Dozer’s TV show starring Adam West, and from the dreadful movies made by Joel Schumacher. Comic book nerds argue he’s not the real Batman. I beg to differ. I grew up watching that Batman’s TV show and reading that Batman’s comic books. He’s just as much the real Batman as the serious Batman. It’s okay to like both of them.

What Batman: The Brave and the Bold did was bring back that Batman: The serious crime-fighter who just happens to live in a funhouse of a universe. Every episode, he teams up with two or more other superheroes—like Green Arrow or Blue Beetle or Plastic Man or Aquaman, or even something ludicrous, like Detective Chimp, or the ghost of J.E.B. Stuart in a tank. And he fights talking gorillas, or looney costumed villains, or ghosts, or space aliens, or whatever, just like Batman did in the ’60s comic books. It just reminded me how much I missed the old ’60s TV show. And, of all things, they took two characters who used to irritate me—the boring Aquaman, and the pestilent Bat-Mite—and turned them into an over-enthusiastic adventurer and the universe’s biggest fanboy, and made them hilarious. Now that’s good writing. I plowed through all three seasons pretty quick.

The Mentalist, season 3, by Bruno Heller, etc. I started watching this show because Heller wrote Rome, which I liked, historical inaccuracies and all. It’s set at the fictional California Bureau of Investigation in Sacramento, and their consultant, Patrick Jane, is an ex-carnival psychic who now uses his knack for reading people to solve murders. Yeah, you can usually figure out the murderer in the beginning of the show, and Jane’s fellow investigators are sometimes too stupid to live, but the character of Jane is entertainingly amoral, so you watch it mostly to see what zany thing he’ll do next. A minor peeve is how frequently they get northern California’s geography wrong—I used to live in Sacramento, y’know—but then again it is written by Brits and southern Californians.

Dead Like Me, by John Masius and Stephen Godchaux, etc. Started watching this because of its creator, Bryan Fuller, who wrote some other shows I like. It’s a comedy about grim reapers in Vancouver some undetermined Washingtonian city; mostly Georgia Lass, an 18-year-old smartass who’s killed by falling space debris and has been drafted into taking people’s souls just before they die. The story switches back and forth between her grieving family, and her attempts to adjust to her new existence. Naturally, there’s a lot in it about dealing with loss. And since it aired on Showtime, there’s a lot of profanity. But the writers were clearly running out of things to say when it got cancelled, so at least it was killed off while it was still good.

As for TV and so forth, I’ve kept up with it less and less. I’d rather watch entire seasons and movies and so forth. Why wait a week for the next episode, when if you wait a year, you can watch them all, marathon-style? Of course, the down side is you immediately notice all the story arcs that get dropped, or left hanging. Writers need to think further ahead than a month. But that’s another rant.