Sunday, March 27, 2011

I've decided to start a new little blog called Existentialtainment. I hope to turn it into sort of an online gallery of examples of existentialism in movies, TV, theater, music, popular fiction, and other forms of entertainment.

What's "existentialism?" Well, it depends on who you ask. I'm by no means an expert on it. From what I've been able to gather, it's the collection of issues that human beings face when they try to figure out what in the heck they are doing in the world and how they are supposed to behave. Should I accept the bad things in my life or try to change them? Am I responsible for all the results of my actions or just the ones that I can conveniently attend to? If I am unhappy, is that because of external forces or because of how I choose to think about the situation? If the Earth is eventually going to be consumed by the Sun and vanish from existence, what is the point of exerting any effort at all?

For many if not most people, these questions are at least partially answered by religious doctrine. But others of us, while we recognize that religion can have much to teach us about everyday life, find that religion does not answer all of our questions about how and why to go on living. We have to figure it out ourselves.

My favorite movies have always been stories of ordinary individuals trying and often failing to grapple with life, films like "The Graduate," "I Heart Huckabee's" and "About Schmidt." And last year, I discovered a couple of TV shows—"Louie" starring Louis C.K., and a British show called "Peep Show"—that humorously deal with the everyday struggles of everyday guys. Over time, as I've learned a bit more about existentialism, I started to realize that the thing that these favorite movies and TV shows all had in common was that they covered existential themes, like choice, responsibility, futility, alienation, resistance, integrity, and uncertainty.

Existential themes have always been well covered in literature, by authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and by high-brow playwrights such as Samuel Beckett. But they also crop up frequently, if not so explicitly, in popular culture, and that's what this website is going to focus on.

We'll see how long I can keep it going. One feature of is that it allows readers to submit their own examples of existentialism in entertainment. I've been encouraged that in just the first week, I've received and published three outside submissions, including one from Michael A. Britt, host of a popular psychology podcast called The Psych Files.

For the time being, over in the right-hand column of the front page I've added a list of links to the last five exhibits on It's right below the random photo and "Today's Death-Grip Pairing" (another new little web project of mine, on which more later).

Friday, March 25, 2011

All-Purpose Management Exercise Input

Last week I took a bit of a break from award winners and read Bellwether by Connie Willis. Willis has got to be one of my favorite authors now and I heartily recommend anything she has ever written, even the things I haven't read yet.

Bellwether was really fun. I won't get into it here except to say that it is all about fads. In it, one of the characters reveals five things that are always appropriate to give as input for whatever faddy productivity exercise you are forced to go through by Corporate Management. I thought I would pass them along, for the benefit of anyone else out there who has to go through such exercises:

1. Optimize potential
2. Facilitate empowerment
3. Implement visioning
4. Strategize priorities
5. Augment core structures

Monday, March 21, 2011

From the "Life Imitates Art" Category...

What do these three famous persons all now have in common?

Hint: Violence is no solution.

Curt Schilling's Lost Weekend of Tweeting

I happen to follow former Red Sox pitcher / current video-game company entrepreneur Curt Schilling on Twitter. He rarely posts anything not related to his current venture, a video game company called 38 Studios (the company recently decamped to Rhode Island after the Ocean State gave it a $100 million loan guarantee).

But this past weekend, apparently alone in the house, he decided to get on the Twitter and start answering questions from followers. Someone asked him about the best athletes he's seen, and I was surprised to see this response:

Shows how little I know about Fernando Valenzuela. Looking on Wikipedia, he was indeed an above-average hitter for a pitcher, winning two Silver Slugger awards.

Anyway, lots of interesting nuggets from Curt about playing baseball and the off-field life of a baseball player:

Curt Schilling Answers Questions on Twitter
(note that the tweets are shown in reverse-chronological order).

Friday, March 18, 2011

Book Review: Peter’s Pence

Jon Cleary
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

This book is sort of the Da Vinci Code of 1974. It’s a heist story set in the Vatican, so it has the same sort of caper-in-the-inner-circle-of-the-Catholic-church thing going on. There is a disillusioned, lapsed-believer lead male character and a gorgeous Romance-language-speaking (Italian, in this case) lead female character who end up running from the law through (almost) no fault of their own. And they are pursued the whole time by a creepy crazy man devoted to a fanatical cause.

As a piece of writing, it’s a bit better than the Da Vinci Code. A little bit.

The book starts with a group of IRA members plotting to steal some of the Vatican’s treasures so they can use the ransom money to bribe corrupt Ulster politicians and finally bring about peace in Northern Ireland. They get Fergus McBride, the Vatican’s press relations man and the American son of an IRA martyr, to help them get inside. But the heist goes terribly wrong and they end up kidnapping the Pope instead. They spend the rest of the book trying to figure out how to get out of the situation with the ransom but without having to kill the Pope.

In the meantime, the son of a German SS officer is running around Rome trying to assassinate the Pope because the Pope, who is also German, was imprisoned in Dachau during the war and gave evidence against his father which led to his execution.

Problem #1 is that the characters are all unbelievable and annoying.

The IRA gang is made up of an Irishman, an Australian, a tortured, self-divided Irish/English man, and the aforementioned McBride. The Pope is a kindly German and the SS officer’s son is an evil German. The Roman chief of police is a mustachioed, macho Italian. Each man is a complete ethnic stereotype and acts according to type. I found the Irishman particularly over the top.

And don’t even get me started on the women. There are four women with substantial speaking roles in the book. One is the “man-hating” (yes, that is a quote) nun who is the secretary to the Pope. Two and three are the classic jaded prostitutes with hearts of gold who work the street outside McBride’s apartment building. And the fourth is McBride’s girlfriend Luciana, a member of the Italian aristocracy. She is ravishing, passionate, prone to fits of panic and fiery anger, and, of course, has a steel backbone when it comes to protecting her man. Luciana is explicitly described as having elements of both the Madonna and the whore. I had thought that was always just an unspoken cliché.

Problem #2 is that the writing and the plot both just plain drag. There was just barely enough of a wisp of tension to keep me reading the whole way through.

Friday, March 11, 2011


Revealed on a Boston sidewalk when two months of snow melted away:

Sticks & leaves
Cigarette butts
Broken glass
Broken taillight
Dog poop
Roll of paper towels
Coffee cups (Dunkin' Donuts, Mike's, Newman's Own)
Cow femur head
Chicken bone
Empty pack of American Spirit cigarettes
Latex surgical glove

Friday, March 04, 2011

Book Review: This Immortal

Originally published in serial form as ...And Call Me Conrad
Roger Zelazny
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

The funny thing about this book is that it is not a terrifically complex story, and it is pretty short – 216 pages in my 1989 paperback edition – but it shared the 1966 Hugo award for best novel with the mighty Dune.

And I have to say, I agree with the Hugo voters. It’s a really good book.

I think the reason it is up there with Dune in spite of its plot’s relative normal-ness is because of Roger Zelazny’s character development and writing style. He has this weird combination of plain speaking narrative that occasionally switches into the elaborate, archaic language of religious texts and ancient legends with total smoothness. This can be really funny and also oddly mournful. (Zelazny exhibits this talent to the hilt in his other Hugo-award-winning novel, Lord of Light.)

The story takes place on Earth several hundred years after a three-day nuclear war wiped out most humans and destroyed most continental mainland. The few humans that survived mostly fled to islands or to off-world colonies on other planets or space stations.

Since the war, we humans have met the Vegans – that is, blue-skinned humanoid aliens from the planet Vega. They are far more advanced and civilized than us (which is especially obvious since we blew up our planet) and have basically taken over, buying up much of the remaining quality Earth real estate and turning the absentee human government on the planet Taler into a puppet regime.

The Vegans send an emissary down to be led on a tour of Earth’s greatest places. He is supposedly there to write a travelogue, but some humans – especially those in the anti-Vegan resistance movement known as the Radpol – think he is there to figure out how to put the final nail in humanity’s coffin.

This is where it gets good. Because the puppet human government has assigned him a native Earth guide and bodyguard – Conrad Nomikos, the narrator of our story. Conrad is ugly, proud, grumpy, and cynical, but also a natural leader, an excellent fighter, and cool-headed and sane compared to just about everyone else. He is none too pleased about acting as a Vegan’s protector and pretty much just wants to be left to himself to lounge around on his Greek island with his wife.

He also just happens to be immortal (a side effect of a radiation-related mutation). He does his best to conceal this from his acquaintances but sometimes it just, you know, comes out. Especially when he runs into one of his great-great-grandchildren or someone else who knew him in a previous life, or somebody, like the Vegan emissary, takes the time to do a computer search on humans with Conrad’s unique physical characteristics and comes up with four or five matches spread out evenly across several hundred years.

Which, as it turns out, is why the Vegan chose him as his bodyguard and tour guide in the first place.

The story is basically just the tale of Conrad accompanying the Vegan on his mysterious tour and trying to prevent various Radpol agents from assassinating him until Conrad can figure out if the mission is for good or for ill. They also run into plenty of dangerous mutants – human, animal, and combo human/animal – who want to do them in. It’s a bit of a parallel (overtly referenced by the author) to the twelve labors of Hercules, with Conrad as the Herc.

The story is fun and plenty of the other characters and beasties are entertaining. But what it lacks (compared to Dune, at least) in depth and length, it makes up for primarily with the quirkiness and appeal of both the main character and the writing. It’s more of a modern, quickly-read narrative and less of a fantasy/religio-legendary tale than Lord of Light, but Zelazny does this one just as well.
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