Tuesday, August 24, 2010

WFJ Book Club # 5: Scott Pilgrim

I don't remember when I first noticed Scott Pilgrim in the comic book section of the book store, peering out at me with his oddly-proportioned eyes.  Somewhere in my head, I was aware that it was critically acclaimed, moderately popular, and artistically significant, labels which are generally good predictors of things that I will find to be awesome.  But lacking any testimonials from friends, actually reading it barely even crossed my mind.

That is, until Edgar Wright descended on Comic-Con with his enormous banners, and flooded all the internets and televisions with the unbelievably excellent trailers for his big-budget film adaptation.  The combined attraction of the movie's imminent release, as well as the release of the sixth and final volume of the comic book, proved too strong for me to resist, so I resolved to sample the source material and take the measure of Scott and his creator, Mr. Bryan Lee O'Malley.

What followed were several weeks of obsessive delving into a fantastical land of romance, rivalry, and rock n' roll, the Pilgrim-verse.  Or as it is more commonly known, Canada.

There's far too much plot for a simple synopsis, but I'll try my best in any case.  Twenty three-year-old Scott is on a quest to earn the love of one Ramona Flowers, a mysterious young woman from the mysterious land known as the United States, who possesses the crazy Sci-Fi ability to travel through a sub-space highway that just happens to pass through Scott's brain.  Standing in his way are her Seven Evil Exes, who in addition to being bitter and self-righteous about having been dumped by Ramona, also have super powers and a burning desire to destroy any one who wants to date her.  Scott must defeat each Ex in mortal kombat (emphasis on the "k") to make the world safe for his new love, all while trying to come to terms with his own old flames: the lead singer of a successful art-rock band, the drummer of Scott's own (unsuccessful) band, and a hyperactive seventeen-year-old named Knives.  Knives.

Scott Pilgrim is such a candy-coated pleasure to read that it takes a certain amount of reflection to get at its real merits.  The easiest thing would be to latch onto its central gimmick: Scott lives the life of a video game hero, his successes and failures measured in experience points, his skills and talents dependent largely on context and moxie. He may live in a terrible apartment, play bass in a terrible band, and show astonishingly terrible judgment (dating a seventeen-year-old girl is essentially par for this guy's course), but his exuberance and general indestructibility make his life seem enviably exciting.  It is also thoroughly hilarious, combining a wide range of references with a slacker sensibility and a good deal of old-fashioned cartoon slapstick.

The next obvious step, of course, would be to point out that Scott's video game existence is a metaphor for his development and maturation as an adult.  Scott plays games so much that he frequently dreams about them, but his gradual assumption of responsibilities and self-awareness doesn't diminish the relevance of games in his life.  The concepts of stats, leveling up, and achievements are integral to his understanding of life, the universe, and everything; and if it's occasionally an over-simplification, he can always expand his perspective by advancing to the next level.

I'm going to take it even further, however, because what struck me hardest after all those pages was the incredible level of subtext.  Apart from Watchmen, there is more to read between the lines of this series than just about any comic I've ever read (and I'll grant I haven't read as many as I should).  Scott's video game life exists side-by-side with a world that is as real as fiction gets, often within the same panels.  Most of what the reader sees is casually implied to all be (more or less) in Scott's head, but there isn't any reliable divider between his imagination and real life.  The book's world is full of outrageous and seemingly one-dimensional characters, but their actions and feelings become deeper and more human when viewed and considered outside of Scott's point of view.  Scott's efforts to reconcile his perspective of the people in his life with their living, breathing existences is a major focus of the last third of the series, but the contradiction is strongly apparent much earlier on.

Even more interesting are the efforts of Scott and Ramona to accept themselves, as events conspire to tear down the facades they use to hide their true selves.  Ramona in particular enters the series as a complete enigma (even her age is initially unknown), but reveals a complex personality over time, one defined as much by jealousy, caprice, and antisocial secrecy as it is by affection.  Scott, for his part, uses a superficial personality to mask his pathological determination to avoid facing up to his faults and mistakes; he's smarter than he looks (which isn't saying much, considering some of his ideas about Italy), and it hurts.  Ramona and Scott are both ultimately exposed as hypocrites on the run from their pasts, but also as a couple hopelessly in love with each other, and one another's best chance at a fresh start.

So the books are outstanding, a deadly combination of humor, romance, and adventure.  The movie is, unsurprisingly, an inferior adaptation, limited by the conventions of the medium as well as the volume of material.  Visually it is a masterful representation of O'Malley's artwork, as well as a the best example to date of the use of effects from video games and comic books in cinema.  It's amazing to look at, and it moves very fast (which is probably enough to put off some older viewers), so that every scene is packed with unpredictable energy.  The script is mostly very good as well, though it suffers near the end: Ramona's fifth and sixth Evil Exes are barely developed at all, and her behavior with regard to the seventh is both widely divergent from the original plot and has the effect of making her character appear more unlikeable.  A more faithful script would have made for a longer and more satisfying movie for the fans, but probably a less watchable one for everyone else, with too many big climactic battles in too short a time frame.

As a general rule, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (which is the title of the movie, and also the title of Volume 2 of the series, which is kind of weird) captures the really fun parts of the books perfectly, with fantastic comedic acting from the whole cast (yes, even Michael Cera) and a delightful sense of immersion into Scott's mental world of classic Nintendo games and three-chord garage rock.  It tends to either dispense, condense, or simplify the deeper elements of subtext from the source material, leaving behind a fantastically entertaining movie with just a little something missing, that something that holds it back from real greatness.

One of the best elements of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is its soundtrack, a kaleidoscope of musical styles that embraces indie rock, punk, and classic rock in varying degrees.  Older tunes share the program with a score by Nigel Godrich, and new songs composed by Beck, Broken Social Scene, and Metric (and often "performed" by the fictional bands in the movie).  These songs are not merely background noise, but an integral part of the film's world, where music drives the plot as often as games and romantic melodrama.  A particular high point is "Black Sheep," a song by Metric and performed in the movie by the Clash at Demonhead, a group led by Scott's ex-girlfriend, Envy Adams.  Scott's realization that Envy's new boyfriend and bass player is one of Ramona's ex-boyfriends is a classic moment, and Envy's triumphant performance is a real window into the minds of everyone involved; just the sort of thing the movie could have done with more of.

As I type this, Scott Pilgrim is pulling a highly respectable 81% on Rotten Tomatoes, and audience enthusiasm is reportedly high.  Unfortunately, the audience is also exceedingly small, as its pitiful box office earnings show.  America has once again let me down, preferring to waste its money to watch Sylvester Stallone blow shit up, or Julia Roberts eat Indian food, while letting poor Scott bomb on stage like some kind of chump.  Take it from me, everybody: Scott Pilgrim may be obscure, off-beat, and unconventional, but it is exactly the sort of story that deserves to be discovered and treasured out of obscurity.  Go see it.  Better yet, read the books and then go see it.  And then buy the DVD.  Or maybe just the books; reading them is the surest way to find the franchise's appeal.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Wolf of Albright: Part One

Note: the following story contains disturbing language.

"It's all rotting, like the stench of sweet gasoline, mingled with acid rain and slimy grey sludge.  In a decade, or a thousand years, the whole Earth will rot: a crumbing house on a corrupted foundation."  Mina Cardiff was moved to dark poetry by the ugliness of the stately front drive; all the better to stall her entry into that house.

The house was not crumbling, but it was soaked with the rain and looked ready to melt under the slightest pressure into a great pulpy puddle.  The reflections in the windows, flashing lights of candy-red and blue, were the only sign of life.  The mansion was dead from the inside and out, or close enough.

Mina did not want to go inside.  As far as she was concerned, there was enough death to be seen and smelt in the gutters and the siding and the shingles, and whatever was inside was only worse.  The best thing would be to walk away and never return, but the yellow crime-scene tape had fenced her in, and would probably never let her go.  The tape left the inspector with two options: to stand outside forever, risking hypothermia and death, or to seek refuge behind the ghastly blue and red glass.  Duty compelled her against her better judgment, and as she usually did she would regret it soon enough.

Keeping clear of the deeper streams of water, she approached the great front doors, which were not marked by violence but showed their age nonetheless.  Mina was not intimately familiar with the local lore, but it was otherwise widely known that the doors had held the threshold for over a century, since 1887.  The house itself was older still, a relic of the days of Hawthorne and Poe (and still it predated them both).  She did know that in all its days the house had not fallen, and thought it strange that an old house should have such an improbable, futile, and perverse will to live.

An officer met her at those great front doors with a disciplined salute and an utterly nauseated face; he had just come from inside.  "Good evening, Inspector Cardiff."

"Good evening, Officer."

Just inside, a cheery sign was posted on the left hand wall, kindly asking that houseguests place their footwear in the small cubby, for the sake of the carpet.  Mina gave the sign no more than half a thought and trudged forward with muddy boots, broad leaves clinging stubbornly to their sides.  The state of the carpets was the least of anyone's worries, as they were already soaked with crusting blood, along with the walls, furniture, and the corpses of Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Harfelt.  Their bodies were tucked away in a dark corner of the foyer, hidden from sight by shadow and a white sheet, itself stained through with muddy patches of crimson.

Mina Cardiff removed the hood of her trench coat, and long tresses of dark blonde hair curled around her shoulders.  As she surveyed the room, her slender, pale face was wrenched by the highest and lowest disgust.  She had never been called a shrinking violet, nor squeamish at the sight of blood.  In her line of work it was not exceptionally uncommon to see so much, under the most tragic circumstances.  But all that blood - the bodies, and the sweltering, dimly-lit room - it was the very definition of disgust.

She covered her nose with her fingers to block the all-encompassing reek and cast her eyes about for a master light switch.  When she found it, she realized why none of the officers present had touched it: it was still painted with the victim's gore.

Uniformed policemen and analysts busily measured spots of filth and sketched out notes for their reports.  Near the bodies a window was smashed from the inside, and Mina believed that this was obviously the perpetrator's mode of escape.  He would have fled through the East Wing Garden, and as Mina peered over the crystal shard of glass she saw more men outside, searching vainly amid the flowers for tracks, or blood, or perhaps a shred of clothing.  They were bound to be empty handed, as the rain mixed all incriminating evidence into the stinking mess of mud and topsoil.  This smell Mina also found unbearable: she retreated discreetly to the great hall.

Her job was simple, and it was horrible.  If she had lacked the stomach for it, she wouldn't have made it through an eighth of what she had; sulfur, putrefaction, and the evidence of every form of evil and inhumanity.  Indeed, through her career she had arrived at the belief that she could endure anything, all it would cost her was her sanity.  She had never felt sane in her life, anyway; would a sane person be so resigned to a bargain like that?

At the end of the hall were a pair of opened double doors, modest imitations of their more celebrated antecedents.  From a distance she looked inside, and presently a man stepped under the lintel.  He was large and looked even larger in his padded, rain-soaked overcoat, but his posture was diminished and his face hidden behind clutching fingers.  Nevertheless, Mina recognized him instantly by the gritty, strangled strands of auburn hair that drooped across his forehead.

"Inspector Harfelt..." she said, unsure if he was aware of her approach.

His eyes jerked up suddenly, and they smiled in anguish.  "Mina!  he said, with a voice of paper and glue, "...it's you!"  She wished she could not see his eyes.  The irises were not their usual shade of blue, not as blue they ought to have been: they were parched and cracked, longing for desperately needed tears.  His mouth opened slightly and he looked as if he had more to say, but his throat failed him.

Mina glanced down to avoid his eyes, unwilling to contemplate them, and unsure whether it was better to speak or be silent.  Tonight she could do neither well.

"Aaron, are you alright?"

"It's - huh, it's been a bit much," he conceded, as he probed his scalp with his fingers, perhaps digging for the words he needed to set himself straight.  "All of this, a bit too much.  Too much, too much for the senses."  He also averted his eyes, and was lost for a moment in the black wood grain that wormed across the walls.  "I'd trade my senses for, for, some sense.  Do you know?"  The question was more vain than rhetorical; she didn't really know, but he wished to hear her answer.

"Is Michael..?"

"Yeah."  Aaron indicated over his left shoulder into the next room, where Mina finally spied Lieutenant Bayern sitting on the port side of an elongated dining room table.  As he usually was, he was busy making notes in some illegible shorthand on his beaten clipboard.  She knew nothing in her boss's job description that warranted such activity, but it was beside the point: he seemed incapable of lucid conversation if his hands were not busily engaged in scribbling something or other.  If the scribbles were English, or even if they were words, she could never tell.

Aaron Harfelt left and slipped quietly down the hallway as Mina took her seat across from the Lieutenant.  She watched Aaron go with great concern, and it showed upon her face, but the Lieutenant made no show of any kind, only scribbling more, in perfect concentration.

"Michael," Mina began, still watching her colleague's receding back, "why is he here?"

"He insisted."  Lieutenant Bayern's hand slowed as he made eye contact with her, but it could not be entirely stilled.  "Besides, the house is his now: the Harfelts' will makes that plain.  Well, his and his brother's, anyway."

"This is no place for him to be.  He's walking right into the worst of it as we speak -"

"It'll be the third time for him.  You can hardly get him to leave."  His hands were pacing up, independently of any obvious intention of their owner's.  "You wondered what that nasty smell coming from the west windows was didn't you?"

"I honestly didn't notice."  She hadn't: her attention was decidedly focused on the eastern end of the foyer.

"Now I know that's not true."

Mina shifted in the antique wooden chair, uncomfortably elegant in its construction.  The dining room was slightly younger than the rest of the house, and less conscious of age or legacy; it had merely been a place for eating.  Now it was another part of history.

"I must have been distracted by the rest of the room."

"Easy mistake to make."

"Michael, what do we know?"

"We don't know anything," he replied, "except that Mr. and Mrs. Harfelt were attacked and mutilated, and bled to death where they're lying now."

"Attacked how?"

"Judging by the shape of the wounds," he said, scribbling faster and faster, "forensics believes it to have been done with fingers.  Bare fingers."

"You're not serious..."

"I am always serious, Inspector Cardiff.  Particularly in matters of men and women being torn to shreds by the hands of serial killers."  Michael Bayern was not a man without emotion, but he had a way of concealing his real feelings.  He always showed less than he truly felt, or might have been expected to.  At the moment he appeared to be annoyed, and he might have been, but Mina knew that he could easily have boiled with rage.

"...then you think it was the Wolf."  He made no reply to this inquiry, except to look back down at his clipboard.  Mina increasingly regretted answering the call of duty, regretted not calling in sick; the department's investigation was clearly operating outside of her area of expertise, right from the outset.  She could endure anything, she thought, any mind-curdling monstrosity of human nature, but as a matter of principle she preferred to limit her exposure to a necessary minimum.  "You realize it makes no sense."

"The first Wolf attack was in the hills, less than ten miles from here.  The wounds and cause of death are identical to that poor hiker's."

"That poor hiker was an isolated young woman in the wilderness," she retorted.  "These victims are middle-aged, old money, community pillars who were attacked in their own home."

"You couldn't make sense of the first attack, so don't tell me what does or doesn't make sense!"  He paused to collect his breath, and then, "Mina, people do not kill other people by grabbing chunks of flesh and stripping them clean from bone."  That much was true, but the Lieutenant could not help but betray his own uncertainty.  "We don't have any clues to work with.  There's too much contamination to retrieve anything even remotely useful.  We can only assume the two cases are related.  We can only assume it's the Wolf.  Do you hear me?"

"There's no need to shout."

"Just don't tell me that it doesn't make any sense.  It's the only thing that makes the slightest bit of sense.  The whole department's on pins because they expect him to strike again, and there's no way of telling when.  We'd probably be lucky if he did: at least he might leave behind some decent clue.  That's how little any of this makes sense."

Mina smiled.  "I didn't mean anything by it, Michael.  I stopped expecting these cases to make sense a long time ago."

"Is that right?  I thought pulling those sorts of things together was your job, Inspector."

"The world only makes 'sense' when reality backs off long enough to enjoy ourselves.  If we should ever become fully aware of the inhumanity of man, in all of its manifestations, we'd all be caught weeping like children."

"You should have been a poet, Cardiff."  The Lieutenant's hands, for once, were perfectly still.

"I could say the same for you, sir."  She winked, and rose from her seat with every intention of leaving the Harfelt house and never returning.

"It's good to keep a sense of humor, Mina.  But you've got a job to do here."  Lieutenant Bayern now looked painfully serious, and his pen-fingers twitched with anxious purpose.

"If we don't have a suspect, then there's no one for me to interview."

"There is one.  Inspector Harfelt has a brother, who lives in a room in the East Wing of the house.  He's an odd one, and seldom leaves his room for anything but food; seldom even food.  That's what Aaron said, anyway."

"Does he have an alibi?"

"Says he didn't hear a thing.  But it's certain he was in the house at the time of the attack, and a person like him wouldn't have to break in."

The implication was utterly cold, and Mina's heart shook at the notion.  Imagine poor Aaron, she thought, darkly projecting his nightmare onto herself.  She turned her head to look down the hallway, but he was nowhere to be seen.  She couldn't find him anywhere.

"There's still too much we don't know.  This is a big house, and there's zero physical evidence against the guy.  I just want you to find out as much about him as you can."

"That's my job, isn't it?"  She turned and left as the Lieutenant's hand came at last to rest, his mind a refreshing blank.  Thinking under such conditions would be no pleasure.

To be utterly without thought would have been a welcome blessing for Mina Cardiff, whose only notions were unpleasant and self-defeating.  More than most people, she pitied the universe for having to put up with the human race, however briefly.  And yet, she believed the universe must find her and all the rest of humanity to be terribly funny, "to get all distraught, all warped and weepy and inconsolable, at the thought of death: the universe is determined to kill them all anyway."  What a perfectly horrible point of view, she thought.

Mina found Aaron Harfelt at the west end of the foyer, heaving his shoulders and clutching at his right arm.  The limb hung from his shoulder as though it had been disconnected, but it ended in a tightly clenched fist, the hungriest fist that had ever been made.  It had no target, and he was hardly even seeking one; his eyes were so perfectly lank, unfocused.  For a moment, he may have been truly blind, but he saw her approach and returned, for a moment, to himself.

"Aaron," she began, unsure of the proper tone in handling such an unstable situation, "we should go upstairs."

"I'm alright.  I'm alright.  I'm all...right."  He let go of his fist and his arm sprung back to life, but his fingers were white as bones and tingled fiercely.  "I'm alright, Mina.  I'm a forensic scientist.  This is my job, it's just like all the rest."

Only fouler and closer, thought Mina, once again unable to look him in the eye.  "Aaron, please, I need your help.  Let's go upstairs."

"Right.  Of course.  Let's go.  Now."  He meant "in a moment," because his eyes were fixed on the unspeakable eastern corner and his feet could hardly move.  But Mina took hold of his elbow and led him insistently upstairs, as eager to finish her task and leave as she was to rescue him from his perverse fascination.

Whatever the spell that afflicted him, it seemed to pass as they reached the second floor.  He shuddered and took back his arm, and said "I'm sorry.  God help me, I can't stand it.  I really should do better."

"Nobody expects any more of you," she replied.

"I expect it from myself.  They'd expect it.  They -" and he stopped, his hand twitching with an attempted gesticulation, which he prudently kept from realizing.  His breath came a little easier, and he said "I'm sorry.  You need to talk to Henry now, right?"

"Yes, please."

"Alright, he's down this way."

The pair proceeded down the hall into the East Wing, Mina Cardiff following her colleague a few steps behind.  She was glad to be leaving the deathly odors behind, but she found little in the air to relieve her uneasiness.  The walls were narrow, the ceiling disconcertingly low, and each surface was plastered with positively unearthly wallpaper.  In the decent light of day it might have been attractive enough, but in the inevitable evening's gloom it was extremely disconcerting.  Pale flowers crept on pale, thornless vines, wound in parallel lines across a sickly yellow field.  The flowers seemed to emit a hateful fragrance of their own: the stench of dry wood and sawdust, a smell to stifle breath.

The scent hung in the air as the two inspectors turned a corner, and grew only more oppressive as Mina's mind dwelt more and more upon it; how desperately she wanted out of that house!  And then, something else was suddenly filling the air: a string of halting, harrowing chords in frightful syncopation.  It was the resonating sound of an electric piano, growing louder and more distinct with every step.  Mina was entranced, but Aaron stopped abruptly as the tune began to take shape.

"He's playing the Gnomus again," he said in a deadened tone of disapprobation.

"Is something wrong with that?"

"Nothing," he said as he resumed walking.  "Nothing, except that he always plays it in A minor."

The significance of this heresy remained lost on her: in any event the music was odd, grotesque, and increasingly fascinating as she drew closer to its source.  Aaron's words, however, had rendered it less mystical, less menacing, as her untrained ears strained to find fault in it if she could.  She could find no flaw, except that the music was frightening, but this she could certainly deal with.  She could survive the sound, and the smell, and all the dreadful colors: every last bit of it.

They reached at last a brown door, undecorated and  unremarkable apart from the notes that emanated from behind it, because it was the entrance to Henry Harfelt's bedroom.  Mina expected Aaron to open it, or knock; it was his brother after all, and she would not want to be presumptuous.  But he only stood off to one side, head cocked and appearing to listen intently.

"He prefers not to be interrupted while he's playing," he explained, "but don't worry, he's nearly at the end."

Mina nodded, and listened closely to the music, as much out of admiration as for her desire to forget the rest of the hallway's hateful stimuli.  She absent-mindedly curled the end of her hair with her fingers, until she was shocked out complacency by Aaron's sudden burst of irritation.

"Oh, Christ," he mumbled, "he's started it all over again!"  Aaron pounded the door with his fist, shouting out "Henry!  Knock it off!  We need to talk!"

The music halted suddenly, cruelly unresolved, at the sound of the older brother's harsh knocking.  Silence prevailed, and the walls echoed nothingness.  A few seconds later, Aaron Harfelt opened the door to his brother's room, and invited Mina to enter first.

Mina Cardiff could hardly have been astonished by what she found in that room; she'd seen all types of the surreal and the grotesque already.  But for all that experience, she wondered at the scene before her.  It could not have been a bedroom originally; more likely it was a gallery, as it extended a long way in one direction, with windows along the outer wall to allow the starlight in (if there had been any starlight, and not just storm and clouds).  The furniture was sparse and stashed along the most distant wall, an unexceptional assembly of cabinets, bureaus, and a spartan bed.  The room was blindingly well lit, leaving little of its disheveled eccentricity to the imagination.

More than anything, she noticed the pictures, because there were hundreds of them, hanging on the walls and scattered across the hard wood floor.  Many were brightly colored, others merely half-sketched, and appeared in every conceivable medium.  They tended to depict fantastic scenes of angels, elves, naiads, dryads, and ugly, misshapen dwarves; most were dressed in contemporary clothing, though many wore nothing at all.  Some of them held harps and flutes, while others hoisted rusted chains and other unflattering props.  No reason governed their arrangement about the room: they seemed to wander about the space without boundary or ense.

In the center of this sea of perfect madness stood an antique wood-paneled Wurlitzer piano, draped in wired and surrounded by speakers and other devices.  In front of the piano, wearing knee-length denim shorts and an off-white polo shirt, stood Henry Harfelt.  He was bent slightly over the keyboard, seemingly lost in the impenetrable thoughts that had rendered the wondrous scenery around him.  Mina struggled to form an impression of him, but for his part, he hardly seemed to notice her at all.

"Henry!" called his brother, and Henry turned his head in quick response.  "This is Inspector Cardiff.  She needs to talk to you."

"You said we were done last time."  Henry's hands still clutched the sides of his Wurlitzer, his fingers white from the pressure.  He looked reluctant to let it go, lest it should wander off on its own; or worse, some one should take it away.

"I know what I said.  But Inspector Cardiff has some questions that she needs to ask you."  He gestured to introduce her politely, but she recognized a look of distinct agitation in his eyes.  Aaron's presence was not strictly necessary; she had only encouraged him to come for his own sake, to get him out of that stinking foyer and away from his grief.  Now she began to believe she had miscalculated.  For whatever reason, there was little affection to be observed between the brothers; not even the kind that could reveal itself in the shared agony of loss.

Henry sat cross-legged by the piano, the one region of the floor that was mostly uncovered by papers and canvasses.  "He wants us to sit there with him," said Aaron dismissively.  As the room was lacking in chairs, and a change of venue seemed unlikely, she obliged.  The elder brother followed suit, barely containing his resentment; even so, he took pains to avoid stepping on the scattered pictures.

Mina found herself face to face with the great enigma, the man whose existence as a possible suspect in his own parents' murder had prevented her swift exit from the crime scene.  She bore him no ill will for this, and actually wished that she could have met him under better circumstances.  What circumstances those were, she could not imagine, but she disliked having to talk about the incident: she would rather have talked with him about his art, the art that surrounded his person in every sense.  At first she could only consider the family resemblance between the Harfelt brothers.  They looked very similar, with the same auburn hair, though the younger brother's blue eyes were paler, and less focused: Aaron's haggard blues were still cracking under the strain.

"Henry," she began, "I have a few questions I need to ask you, if you please."

"I know."  He did not look straight back at her; his attention wandered periodically to the Wurlitzer piano.

"Henry, are you aware of what happened to your parents last night?"

"Yeah, they died."

The frankness was surprising, but Mina saw in his distracted manners an indication of her subject's nature.  Was he capable of displaying such strong emotions, or was he truly as disinterested as he seemed?  Would he display any emotions at all?

"Do you know how they died?"

"They died.  They died.  They died...he killed them," Henry added, seemingly in response to a sharp look from Aaron, a nasty look which said "hurry up and answer the question."  Mina saw this and placed her hand on her colleague's arm, hoping to dissuade him from further interference.  Aaron bristled in response, and his face blushed deeply red.

"He killed them," Henry continued, "the Wolf killed them.  He killed them last night."

"How do you know it was the Wolf?" she inquired, keeping a neutral tone in spite of her amazement.  "The Wolf" was not publicly know, merely a department name for the perpetrator of an unsolved case.  Ordinary people shouldn't have known about him.

"I heard it.  The police said it."

"When did they say that?"

"When they were searching my room."

"Henry, do you understand why they were searching your room today?"


Aaron shrugged with indifference, offering Mina no explanation for his brother's obliviousness, except to suggest that it was typical.  Her expectation of gleaning useful information from Henry was dropping quickly.  She would endure what she had to and leave, sticking to factual questions with straightforward answers.

"Henry, when did you find out about what happened to your parents?"


"When today?"

"Probably this morning," offered Aaron, who received a cold glance of reproach for his trouble.

"Henry, what were you doing all of last evening?"

"I was in here.  I was painting.  I was painting...I was composing."

"You were composing?"

"Yes, yes, I was composing.  I was writing, I was writing a song.  An elf song."

"Elf song?"  Her eyes glanced upon a painting close at hand, and it happened to depict an elf: a sad, lonesome elf with pointed elf ears and a blue polo short, and a mournful disposition.  She wondered what a song for these sad-eyed paper people might sound like, but brought herself to focus again as she sensed a restless energy from Aaron.  He wanted to say something; that would not have been helpful.

"Henry, did you hear anything unusual last night?"

""No" was his answer, but he did not appear to be listening to her.  The beginnings of a delirious smile were breaking out at the corners of his mouth, as though some private joke had suddenly occupied the whole of his thoughts.

"Did your parents have any guests last night?  Any friends?"


"Do you know that for certain?"


Mina empathized with his lack of certainty, for she had little herself.  But her instincts told her that the useful portion of the interview was over; there was no need to prolong it.

She rose to her feet, and the brothers did as well.  "Thank you for speaking with me, Henry," she said.  "I'm sorry for your loss.  I'll leave you...to get back to your music now."

"Thank you," he said.  It was not really a reply, but it was close enough to finish a conversation.  His eyes drifted back to his keyboard.

As Mina turned to leave the room, Aaron Harfelt could no longer control himself, and she heard him speak behind her.  "It's just as well, you didn't hear a thing," he said with an unbecoming sneer.  "Mom and dad never cared what you did, as long as you were in here, making noise."

"Dad likes my music," Henry said absently.  "He told, he told, he told me..."

"Dad is dead, Henry," the older brother said, "Dead, dead, dead!  I've told you a million times-" he was shouting now "- a million times today, this is real!  It happened!  Mom and dad, mom and dad are dead!  Do you hear me, you miserable cretin!?"

But Henry was not listening.  His smile had grown wild, and his eyes were might have been blind for all they saw.  As Aaron's wrath grew hateful, and insults heaped on insults, Henry spun toward his instrument and let loose an awful sound: an egregious howling fifth, sustained so loud and long that both inspectors clutched at their ears in shock.

"Dead!" Henry called out, to no one in particular, his voice colored with emotions that knew no common description.  "Dead!  Awhooo, whoo-whoo-whoooo!" he howled, as the frightful chord at last began to waver.

"You bastard..."

Aaron took a menacing step toward Henry, but Mina snapped suddenly, "Inspector Harfelt!"  He froze, and could not bring himself to look at her now: he was sweating and nearly in tears.  Henry was silent, lost in faraway thoughts."

Mina's eyes fixed upon a huddled dwarf, a pitiful creature whose twisted misery seemed to cry out loud from the floor.  "Aaron," she said, "I'm going now."  He nodded dully in agreement.

No sooner had they left Henry in his bedroom than the piano began to play again; it was a proper tune now, but that no more comforting for his brother.  It resounded in the upper registers and held to a repetitive melody:

Aaron Harfelt stood silently for a moment, evidently unwilling to listen, yet unable to help himself from doing so.  Mina, for her part, was caught between compassion for one brother, and natural fascination with the other.  but which was which?  In the tumult that preceded she'd lost her purpose for being there, and she felt increasingly uncomfortable next to Aaron, wishing more than ever to leave the rotting house and set her thoughts in order from a distance.

"Listen, Mina," he said straining fitfully for the right words, lest he should appear even more monstrous, "Henry didn't kill...didn't kill our parents.  I led the forensics investigation myself a few hours ago.  There's no indication, there's no...physical evidence that he ever left his room last night.  There's no blood... there's no blood, no mud, no sign he was involved in a struggle with anyone... he must have been up there, just like he said, with his pictures and his... and his damned piano."  His face was ashamed of those words, but he continued, "Please keep this in mind when you submit your report to Michael."

"Aaron, you led the team yourself?"

"Yes, I did."

She sighed, not willing to imagine the the events of that afternoon.  "Aaron, I don't think you should be working on this case.  For your own sake..."

"Michael said the same thing."

"Please Aaron!  You're too upset; any one in the world can see that!  No one would think any less of you if you... took some time off."

"I know," he said, and his drying eyes were cast down.  "I wasn't disagreeing with you.  I, I...Michael's giving me a month, and Ray is taking over my section for the time being.  I just really... I just really needed to be here tonight."

"I understand," she said.  They were walking now, down the yellow hallway that set her so ill at ease, back to the unspeakable foyer.  But she had endured it, just as she knew she would.  At last, she could leave that house of death, decay, and God knows what horrors...

"Listen," she said, "we'll find the one who did this.  Don't worry.  I... we'll take care of it."

"I know you will.  Soon."

He paused as they came to the top of the stairs, and the smell of weather and carnage was rank once more.  Fewer policemen crowded the floor below than before, but the ones who remained were still hard at work collecting evidence and making reports.  The bodies were gone now, off to the morgue (thank God).  The rain was still coming down.

"Listen, Mina, are you busy tomorrow night?"

"I shouldn't be.  Why?"

"Would you like to have dinner with me?"

It wasn't a very unreasonable request, but for half a second she struggled to think of a suitable excuse; he would only want to talk about the case.

"Alright.  Sure."

"Excellent.  I'll meet you at the Raven on Sea Street at eight.  Sound good?"

"It's a date," she smiled.

Aaron did not smile, not perceptibly.  He turned to descend the staircase, his shoulders slumped under the weight of disastrous defeat.  As Mina followed him down, she thought she heard her colleague say something, a murmur she could barely make out.  For all the torrent outside and the chattering men within, she thought she heard him say, "God damn that animal."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Very Old Video Game Review: Final Fantasy VII

In many ways, video games are the defining art form of the past thirty years.  More than any other medium they reflect the accelerating transformation of society in the wake of new technologies.  The introduction of new hardware has reshaped each generation of games and expanded creative possibilities; what once was state of the art can seem astonishingly primitive in as little as five years.  Games from the mid to late 1990s in particular have received a rough beating from Father Time.  Many classics from that era retain a strong following from the nostalgic set, but are so inaccessible to most younger gamers as to be completely unplayable.  While the greatest games will probably be remembered for years to come, the bulk of that generation of titles is likely to be confined to the bargain bin of history.

Final Fantasy VII, the first role-playing game from Square Soft on the Playstation console, will undoubtedly be one of the lucky few to remain notable in the future.  Aside from its own intrinsic qualities, it is among the most highly-regarded games in a series which has been popular since the late 80s, and its release in 1997 brought RPGs to their greatest level of prominence in the American market.  The memory of this game will survive on that legacy alone, long after its three discs have ceased spinning.

I didn't play through this game until around 2002 or so, a mere console generation after its release; even then it was firmly embedded in the canon.  By the time I picked it up once more in the spring of 2010 it was not only embedded, but positively entombed in a musty den of solemn reverence.  More than even most classic games, playing FF VII is like stepping back in time; to a very specific point in time, when the nature of games and what was expected of them was undergoing a sea change.

To be clear, I enjoy Final Fantasy VII for its own merits.  Unfortunately, any reasonable assessment of those merits must also make note of its flaws, which are legion, and have only grown less tolerable with age.  If a game like this were released today, it would probably be categorized as a train wreck: a few good ideas wrapped in a presentation which actively dares players to dismiss it.  Historical context is its saving grace, allowing its fine qualities to shine through without becoming obscured by painful anachronisms.

Ironically, the worst of the game's flaws is entangled in what was initially its greatest asset: its graphical presentation.  FF VII is a beautiful game, and also a very, very ugly one.  Charmingly illustrated pre-rendered backgrounds are routinely spoiled by shamefully primitive character models.  Well, not all of the models are so bad.  The ones used in the groundbreaking full motion video cut-scenes have held up pretty well; likewise, the battle models are acceptable given the time period.  But more often than not, the characters look blocky, ill-defined, and decidedly non-human.  Back when the better aspects of these graphics were state-of-the-art, it may have been easier to ignore these sub-standard models.  In the present, they are an enormous distraction from the action at hand, dated even by comparison with other games of the same era.

Even less excusable is the laughable English translation, which often appears to have been done by a mediocre Japanese high school student.  The text is rendered in a stilted English that's riddled with errors in spelling and grammar, and only rarely does it rise to the occasion in an inspired way.  To this day I am at a loss as to how a game with a thirty million dollar budget could be localized so carelessly.  The translators were probably working for peanuts, which would be appropriate as the end result may as well have been typed by monkeys.

I could go on and on about these and other flaws (especially the lack of analog control, which is particularly frustrating), but that would be boring, and if I've bored myself then there's no hope for anyone else.  After all, something must have drawn me back to FF VII, and it certainly wasn't masochism.  At least, I hope it wasn't. 

Previous games in the Final Fantasy series had set a high standard for narrative, mainly drawn from the traditions of role playing games like Dungeons and DragonsFF VII largely upended this tradition by taking most of its cues from cyberpunk anime, and while the resulting plot may not have been completely original, it is still one of the better premises to be used for a video game story.  In addition to its stylistic appeal, the story features mature themes like alienation and identity, as well as broader political messages about technology, environmentalism, and the role of large corporations in perpetuating social inequality.  Although these themes are blunted by the aforementioned translation problems, FF VII still manages to tell its story in an elegant way, using the advanced capabilities of the Playstation to improve on the methods used by Square in its earlier games.

The characters and their back stories are generally interesting, with the main villain, Sephiroth, exuding an uncommon aura of charisma that plays deeply into the game's mystique.  The only real face-palmer among the heroes is Barret, an arrogant Mr. T knock-off whose defining piece of character development seems to be his realization that he is not a very good leader, and would be better off following the direction of one of his lighter-skinned comrades.  I'm not saying the game plays him completely for a buffoon, but it's not always clear how seriously the player is supposed to take his character when he swings so frequently into stereotypes.  But even Barret has his charms, and the overall characterization of the cast is strong enough to make the tale enjoyable. 

No review of Final Fantasy VII would be complete without a gratuitous praise-fest for the musical score, composed by Nobuo Uematsu and presented to the world in glorious midi tones. More than graphics or text boxes, it's these melodies that charge the story with the emotion that grips fans thirteen years on.  The soundtrack is undeniably one of the most memorable in the history of games, incorporating a wide range of timbres and styles and making bold use of leitmotifs and variations on themes.  The score is so stunning, even a game as flawed as this one begins to take on the feeling of opera.  Subsequent games would match this aural triumph with more sophisticated visuals, but this soundtrack has never been improved on, and is the most enduring and beloved aspect of the entire game.

If one word can justify this game's claim to greatness, then that word is ambition: for all of its flaws, FF VII changed everything about video games.  It signaled the beginning of an era of increasing technical achievement on all fronts, implicitly making a public case for video games as a legitimate form of art in the new century. It proved that advances in technology could not only make games more superficially impressive: it could also expand the experience in ways that developers are still trying to pin down.  Taking the time to play through it once again, I was as inspired by what it promised for the future as I was charmed by nostalgia.

In 2005, Square released a tech demo, a hypothetical remake of FF VII's opening cinematic using the graphical power of the Playstation 3...

... and then quickly reminded fans that it was only a demo, and that there were no plans to remake the venerable classic using graphics that one could actually stand to look at.  Nevertheless, persistent rumors have whispered that just such a project has been in the works ever since, and sources at Square Enix have grown steadily less absolute in denying their veracity.  Should any of this come to fruition beyond the fevered dreams of writers on blogs and message boards, it would be fantastic news.  A game of such historic importance as Final Fantasy VII is as deserving of preservation and restoration as any other.  It's only fitting that the ambitions of 1997 should be fulfilled in the new millennium.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Adventures in Cinema #2: Toy Story 3

When I was eight years old, Pixar Animation Studios released Toy Story, the first in a series of popular films that defied the laws of success: eleven features that collectively grossed somewhere north of eleventy billion dollars* and, with minimal exceptions, met with universal critical approval.  Fifteen years on it seems safe to say that, while not every production may be a masterpiece, Pixar is just not capable of doing bad work.  Artists are rarely perfect, especially when one's definition of "artist" is wide enough to include an entire film studio, but betting against a Pixar film would be perversely unwise.

*Adjusted for inflation.

But back in 1995, Pixar wasn't a surefire hit-maker.  Toy Story arrived in theaters with the Walt Disney logo prominently displayed, allowing the larger corporation to take a large share of the credit for its success (to say nothing of royalties).  It's difficult for me to say how much Walt's people had to do with the making of the film, but the relationship seemed like the right fit: Toy Story shared all the best traits of Disney Animation's best work.  It was beautifully animated, technically ambitious, intelligently sentimental, and delightfully musical; but most of all it was the kind of consummate children's film that celebrated the best things about childhood.  It was the sort of movie that made eight-year-olds feel great about being eight.

And then there's Toy Story 3, a movie that seems to have been written, produced, and released with the intent to make those very same eight-year-olds deeply sorry that they ever grew up, went to school, and forgot even one bit of the stories they told themselves when they were small.  A studio with craft like Pixar's makes movies that appeal to people of any generation, but I would argue that it speaks loudest to one generation in particular, and that generation is the audience of grade schoolers who saw the first one all those years ago.

The basic premise of Toy Story is that toys are not only living, willful beings, but that they have powerful emotional bonds with the children who play with them.  This fantasy works, and works marvelously well, because it is a metaphor for the bonds that children have with the worlds of their own imagination, and with the miniature figures that bring their imaginations into the physical realm.  Woody the cowboy doll loves Andy the child because Andy loves him, and Andy's love for his toys is the supreme motivation for everything that happens in the Toy Story series.  If Andy didn't love his toys then their story would be meaningless; they probably wouldn't even bother to move around on their own if Andy never moved them himself.

For all of the praise Toy Story 3 has received, it is not quite perfect.  A few plot turns are eye-rollingly obvious, some jokes are needlessly recycled, and a certain amount of second-sequel inertia has creeped into the writing.  The primary antagonist bears more than a slight resemblance in character to the Prospector of Toy Story 2, but is still different enough to warrant a pass.  The main action of the plot is a relatively standard series of events with typical kid's movie tropes, but I feel I must stress this again: Pixar isn't capable of bad work, and this one is always entertaining and never insulting to the intelligence.

In the bulk of the movie we get a satisfying sequel with appropriate character development.  Woody, who previously doubted Andy's affections to the point of jealousy and despair, has grown more confident and selfless in spite of being chronically neglected.  The deluded space toy Buzz has adjusted to his artificial nature (and increasingly willing to explore his romantic side).  The rest of the cast has been consciously pared down to a handful of the more integral secondary characters, who grow just enough to make their actions believable, but not enough to crowd the action or weight the story down.  Everything is lean and well-calculated to hit all the right notes.

And then in the final act, the movie turns its attention to the task of total emotional devastation.  First comes fear, as the toys come face to face with their own annihilation (I'm not usually one to overstate the scariness of a kid's movie, but some of these scenes are a bit much).  Having stood up to the possibility of death with resolve, the story takes an unprecedented turn and allows us to see the world from Andy's point of view for an extended period.  The formerly hyperactive boy has reached the cusp of adulthood, but for all his outward signs of maturity and independence he cannot help but remember his toys, and seems to recognize on some subconscious level that their devotion is an exact match for his.

In Toy Story 3's final moments, Andy manages to strike a balance between the requirements of adulthood and the needs of his childhood in a scene of such emotional power that grown men have confessed to crying over it.  Such confessions are by now a clichĂ©, so I don't feel obligated to make any here, but I would propose that the scene makes for a definitive test of one's lacrimal fortitude: the sort of test one might pass with training and effort, but certainly not one to be taken lightly.

Once the emotional kill shot is passed the whole movie is retrospectively enhanced, along with the previous two installments. If it had been clumsily handled the entire affair could easily have become an unmitigated disaster: a perfectly good story ruined by its ending, a treasured series tarnished by a sour finale.  But fear not, grown children.  The artists at Pixar are as deft and mature as they've ever been, and the Toy Story trilogy comes to an end that will satisfy just about anybody hoping to see the saga end beautifully.

I neglected to mention the movie's visual prowess, because praising a Pixar film for its visual beauty is a lot like praising the sky for its blueness.  At some point, we can take things like that as given.  I did, however, want to mention the 3D.  Friends and acquaintances may know that I do not see many films in theaters, and they may also know that I am intensely skeptical of the recent fad of objects flying out of the screen.  I have not even seen Avatar, a movie which I refer privately to as "Titanic for Nerds."  In spite of my trepidation I found the 3D effects in Toy Story 3 to be not only tastefully restrained, but effectively and artistically utilized.  At its best, it gently emphasized the depth of a scene's composition in a way which genuinely complemented traditional 2D design, and not once did an object come hurtling toward my face to break the spell.  Massive kudos to high-tech filmmakers who still know how to make good-looking films.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Comic Book Conventions and Other Attractions

As a pale-skinned nerd, I have an ambivalent relationship with the Earth's glorious sun, the source of all life on Earth and an endless producer of deadly ultra-violet rays.   For the twisted pleasure of an irrational God I was born in San Diego, a place where every month and every season can be fairly categorized as "sunny," with only a worthless bottle of Coppertone spray to protect me from the maddening burns I have known since childhood.  In a perfectly just world I'd have entered this world in a more suitable climate: perhaps Canada, or a dry subterranean hole.

But there is some justice in the world, and for the sake of the light-averse the city of San Diego has become one of the great capitals of Nerd Culture, as home of Comic-Con International.  This weekend celebration of what the Convention's organizers refer to as "the popular arts" takes place in the heart of summer, within sight and smell of the Pacific Ocean.  The most beautiful city in southern California beckons with its sun-drenched charms to thousands upon thousands of attendees, who then spend hours wandering through the cavernous exhibition hall in very silly clothes.

As part of an all-too-recent and all-too-frequently broken tradition, I return annually to my homeland in order to attend this most celebrated of Cons, communing with my similarly obsessed brothers and sisters and relishing the mass validation of our enchantment with comics and other media.  I close my eyes and feel at peace, with myself, comfortable in place and space - and quickly open them again, because it's impossible to walk more than about ten steps without bumping into something sweaty.  It's better to keep eyes and ears open in any event, because the heart and soul of Comic-Con is the indulgence of fans in all the sights and sounds that hold fast to their imaginations.

But even more important than the basal-nerd stimulation is the feeling of community one shares with all the people who care passionately about things the "mainstream" barely notices.  I have the pleasure of sharing this feeling each year with my younger brother, a young man with a jock exterior and a vibrant inner-dork.  As the eldest, it is my responsibility to teach him valuable information about life, a responsibility I routinely abuse by unsubtly indoctrinating him into adopting my taste in music, games, comic books, and anything else I deem important to his education.  Although he (stubbornly) retains many of his own opinions, within the halls of Comic-Con my expertise rules the day. 

Beginning in 2008 the powers-that-be eliminated sales of tickets at the door, requiring all attendees to buy their passes months in advance.  With my largely oblivious nature I missed the convention that first year, a tragedy I regret to this day.  I spent the summer of 2009 wandering aimlessly around Europe, but while wine tasting is nice, two years away from the Con of Cons is an awfully long time.

In years past, getting into the convention center was as much an experience as the convention, due to the lines of epic magnitude which encircled the building, winding in some cases into the marina.  For many of my tribe, waiting in line is a valued tradition, a rite of passage that demonstrates that irrational devotion peculiar to both nerds and religious pilgrims.  To them, I say this: there are plenty of lines for you to wait in once you're inside the convention center.  Thank God the king line is dead.

Upon my glorious return I took stock of the show floor and found it much as I remembered:, a motley collection of artists, salesmen and corporate razzle-dazzle.  Many things were almost exactly where they'd been years before: the Anime booths, the ridiculously-over-detailed resin statues, the acres of silver-age comics, the tragically circumscribed ghetto for webcomic artists, all of these were in their usual places.  Even the creepy little hentai booth was tucked shamefully in its usual corner behind an imposing rack of T-shirts, safe from the prying eyes of media coverage.

Although the dominant media narrative in recent years has been the invasion of Comic-Con by A-list celebrities, even on the busiest day I somehow managed to avoid seeing any.  My only confirmed celebrity sighting all weekend was Geoff Petersen over at the CBS booth, who doesn't count because he's a goddamned robot skeleton and technically neither a celebrity nor a real person.  I am told that flesh-and-blood celebrities did attend, and I believe these reports because they come with very convincing photographs, but I did not see them and I assume they were hiding from me.

Although the exhibition floor is clearly the most interesting part of the Con, upstairs a number of panels, lectures and symposia are scheduled throughout the day, principally to give nerds something to wait in line for.  My brother and I (mostly I) decided it would be edifying to attend at least one, and I selected Will Eisner, the Dreamer, a celebration of the late, great innovator of the "graphic novel."  Among the old fellows seated at the panel was none other than Scott McCloud, a legend in his own right and the giver of the single most interesting lecture I ever saw in four years of college, waaay back in the spring of 2006.  As educational as it was, the panel was surprisingly not boring, as even my attention-deficient brother had to admit.

Though I love the comics in all their forms, the highlight of the weekend was the opportunity to meet some of my favorite webcomic artists, the only people present who earned the right to take my money this year.  This year my precious dollars went toward supporting the twisted souls of Tycho and Gabriel, AKA Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, the masterminds of Penny Arcade.  Despite the free availability of their work on the internet, dark forces regularly compel me to buy the books they sell because they're just so damn good.  Another lucky dollar recipient was Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content, from whom I bought a print because he was selling some awesome prints.  I am unable to find an image of this print on the internet, so if you want to see it, you'll have to come and see it on my wall.  Or, buy your own.

Alternatively, you could wait until the print becomes available online, and I return to edit this post with a link.  Like I just did.

I also got this free pin-up from some guy named Erwin Haya, whom I have never heard of, but gets a free shout-out for handing out free prints.  I think they call that networking.

Let's not forget the cosplay, a sacred tradition of the convention scene.  Comic-Con costumes are always a hoot, but this year the selection seemed somewhat muted.  Not to knock the very impressive clothes on display, but when once you've seen an eight-foot Galactus roam the halls in search of planets to eat, your standards become appropriately elevated.  As if mocking my expectations, I saw no fewer than five young fellows sporting what I can only describe as Galactus-themed Burger King crowns.  Other costumes displayed more imagination, at least by half: I saw one guy walk by in a movie-quality Spider-man suit, while his girlfriend accompanied him in a Mary Jane disguise that was, to all appearances, a bright red wig.

But my favorite costume of the year has to have been "guy with random clippings from periodicals taped to his trash-bag poncho," whom I assume was doing something post-modern.  If you wish to earn my approval, tricking me into believing you're ironically subverting established aesthetic norms is probably the easiest way to do it.  That, or building an eight-foot Galactus suit.

They say that if San Diego doesn't expand the convention center soon, it's possible that the rapidly expanding Comic-Con of the future may relocate to some godforsaken wasteland like Los Angeles or Anaheim, leaving my hometown with precious little to appeal to the terminal nerd.  But as I left the convention, I saw cause for hope: festivities extending out into the street, costumed crusaders roaming through the Gaslamp Quarter in search of pizza and Scott Pilgrim screenings.  If Comic-Con must grow, let it morph into a street festival: let the nerds take over the city, and transform it into a paradise of social awkwardness and joy.  At least it'll get us out in the sun.