Who Goes There?

I am an atheist: start from there. There is no God, no higher power, no consciousness directing the universe. Everything that happens, happens because of random chance, multiplied by time. The essential symbol of my worldview is the Big Bang: everything that exists came from an explosion.

So then how do things make sense?

How does an explosion create a stable planet, in a stable solar system, at the Goldilocks distance from the sun, with liquid water and an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere? With a tilted axis and an oversized moon allowing for seasons and tides? How does an explosion, nothing more than energy added to matter, create life? How does that life continue to exist long enough for evolution to take place, which eventually leads to – me? How can I be sitting in my air-conditioned living room, next to my dog (who is lying on his back waiting for tum rubs [He gets a good skritch every time I pause. Like now.]), typing these words in English on my laptop computer, drinking coffee with half-and-half and stevia and and cinnamon-flavored honey – because of an explosion?

People of faith see the answer to these questions clearly: the answer is God. We are surrounded by miracles, and there is no clearer evidence of the existence of a benevolent creator. People have been reaching that same conclusion independently for tens of thousands of years, all the way back to the people who were buried with Earth Mother figurines, and those who raised Stonehenge or made the heads on Easter Island. We look at the amazing world we live in, and we assume it had to come from someone or something divine.

But there is no God: that is the starting assumption. So then how?

I hear people say, “Let go, and let God.” I mock it, because I find the idea of surrendering free will, of one’s own free will, inconceivable. I hate being told what to do. I hate trusting someone else to figure things out for me. If I could, I would grow my own food, fix my own car, whittle my own furniture. I have been struggling recently because in the upcoming school year, I have been instructed to use a pre-determined curriculum, one detailed and prescribed down to two-minute intervals, scripted and designed and carefully laid out in every way. Oh, I’ve been told that I can, and should, adapt it to my own preferences; but my preference is to chuck the entire thing out of a moving car, preferably into the midst of a brawl between switchblade-wielding badgers. I don’t want to teach what someone else tells me to to teach. I have never liked that, and I have never done it: other than some small things here and there, an idea for a lesson, a single handout, I have never followed anyone else’s plan for a class (Except for one: I taught David Schmor’s Speech class, pretty much start to finish; his assignments, his lectures, his grading methods. But that says more about how well David designs a class than it does about my predilections. We’ll call it the exception that proves the rule.). Whenever problems arise in my life, I handle them, either by myself or with my wife by my side: two of us against the world. I don’t like the idea of relying on anyone else: certainly not on God, whom I don’t believe in and wouldn’t trust if I did.

But how can I do that? How can I create everything I do as a teacher out of my own head? I was a terrible high school student – skipped or slept through many of my classes, never did the work, passed because of a good memory and a love of reading, and with the mercy of more than one teacher. I didn’t learn anything in my teacher-preparation program, except from the time I spent student teaching – which I largely did on my own; that is to say, I got advice and feedback from my master teachers, but I designed the lessons, I taught the material, I graded the work. I read pedagogical textbooks with an eye so jaundiced it’s nearly blind; whenever I take any teacher training workshop, I either don’t pay attention or I don’t do what I’m told. So how on Earth am I a good high school teacher? Where did that come from?

It’s nearly the same thing when I write. I have never really studied writing, other than as literature I have read; I’ve never had a writing mentor. I don’t edit: the first draft is pretty much the final draft. I don’t think much about what I’m writing in advance; I plan out my novels pretty extensively, but my blogs? I just pick a theme, think of an opening, and go. When I hit the last sentence, I post it On top of that, I’m generally pretty damned lazy, and unfocused: I am one of those people who pick up new hobbies and put them down again right away, because I’d rather be playing video games. How did I get to be a good writer? Where did this ability come from? Not from my parents, who are both intelligent but non-creative. I have writers in my family tree, but are creativity and writing acumen really genetic?

The miracles that surround us aren’t just natural: this morning as I stood in my shower, hot water streaming over me, sluicing away the shampoo and soap, looking at the tile walls, glass window, wood and brick house, electric lights, municipal water supply and sewers, I thought about: how could people possibly create all this? Particularly what has been added to our world, in terms of capability, of convenience, of complexity, all in the last century? A hundred years ago, if I had the running water (Never happen on a teacher’s salary then – but would I have been a teacher 100 years ago?), it wouldn’t have been hot, and I wouldn’t have had the electric lights, the coffeemaker, the refrigerator (Maybe an icebox), the computer, the dog adopted from the animal shelter. Just 100 years ago. My grandparents were there. How have human beings been capable of creating all of this? Did we have guidance? Divine inspiration? Can we create because we were made in the image of a creator? And if not (Not, indeed), how?

When one of the millions of the faithful “lets go and lets God –” what happens? Who goes there? Things don’t stop happening, and the lives of those who put their faith in God do not fall apart in a spectacular collapse; things often work out just fine. It’s like someone’s guiding them, making things work out. So if it isn’t God (And it isn’t. Spoiler alert: this writing is not leading to my spontaneous conversion.), then who is steering the ship? Starting from my basic assumption of atheism, of a universe without a creator; who or what makes things work out for the best?

My wife and I have adopted two dogs from shelters, one in California and the second here in Tucson. Both of our dogs have been absolutely lovely: very smart, very loving, almost no trouble to train and care for. In neither case could we possibly have predicted, when we chose them and brought them home, that those dogs could have been the sweet, wonderful companions they both proved to be. And we frequently ask ourselves: How did we get so lucky?

I’ve been reading The Watchmen, and one of my favorite moments in the book is when Dr. Manhattan, a man-turned-divine being who is trying to decide if he should save corrupt and fallible humanity, tells his former (and very human) sweetheart that he longs to see a thermodynamic miracle: an event so unlikely that is is effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously turning into gold. He says that he has realized, in talking to her, that he is in the presence of one such event: her. The chances of her parents coming together to make a child; of one particular sperm out of hundreds of millions uniting with one specific egg; of that zygote’s survival to become a child; of her upbringing and life experience turning her into the woman she is, and of her meeting and loving (and being loved by) Dr. Manhattan, a blue-skinned superbeing who can see neutrinos – that’s a miracle. Every human being is a miracle, Manhattan says; and he decides he will save humanity because of that.

I’ve used a similar example with my students. I met my wife Toni at Cabrillo Community College in Santa Cruz, California. She worked in the bookstore for her workstudy, and I had a job one semester taking ID photos, in the cafeteria upstairs from the bookstore. The IDs were $8, and so I always had to get change; I went down to the bookstore to get it. That’s how we met.

But look at the probabilities involved. Toni didn’t go to college right out of high school; like me, her academic transcript was spotty at best. She chose to enter the world of employment, where she did quite well for several years. She decided to leave a perfectly acceptable middle-class lifestyle, one that would have satisfied millions of Americans, and go back to school to study art. She decided to start her education at the community college; she decided to go full-time, and leave her job, which is how she ended up working in the bookstore. If she had gone to school earlier, or later, or if she’d kept her full-time job or gone to work in the registrar’s office instead of the bookstore, we’d never have met. Me, I wanted to go to UCSC because I wanted to study creative writing, and because my father, who worked at Stanford at the time, had a friend who taught physics at UCSC, who told my father, who told me, that they had a good creative writing program. He showed me the town on one visit, and so I decided to go there. But my grades were terrible, and so I couldn’t get in to UCSC. But rather than choose one of the thousands of other schools – rather than stay in Massachusetts, where I grew up – rather than join the Peace Corps or start a grunge-rock garage band, I decided to go to the community college in Santa Cruz, 3,000 miles away from the place where I lived, with no better recommendation for the university I had decided on than the word of my dad’s friend, for two years before transferring to UCSC. Except then my Cabrillo counselor screwed up, and my general ed. program turned into three years, instead of two.

I met Toni during that third year.

How did this absurd chain of events (And it goes farther: I had just ended a relationship about a month before meeting her. What if I hadn’t? Our first conversation ever featured me acting like an idiot, mumbling and stumbling through every sentence; what if she hadn’t wanted to speak to me again? What if, what if, what if?) come to pass, and lead eventually to my finding the love of my life, my soulmate? It’s no wonder people decide that fate is real, or karma, or God. What other explanation makes sense?

When people pray, and then hear the voice of God tell them the answer, what voice is that? Something tells them what to do, where to go, how to act; something gives them the solution to their problems, the inspiration they need to create something new and revolutionary, or the comfort to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. If it’s not God, then what is it?

It’s not God. That I’m sure of. So you know what I’ve decided it is? What is responsible for humanity’s incredible accomplishments, and our unbelievable resilience, and adaptability? The reason we can handle anything put before us? The force that makes our world full of wonders, that brings long chains of coincidences into some kind of order?

It’s us. We do these things ourselves. Because we’re fucking awesome.

How can I teach well, without any resources other than my own brain? Because I’m just that good. How do I write well? Because I’m a genius, and because I read the writing of other geniuses, and I pay attention. I am standing on the shoulders of giants, but they are tall because they stand on others’ shoulders – not because God raised them up. Human beings made the miracles, not the other way around.

How did Toni and I get to be the couple we are? The actual meeting had some dumb luck to it, but mostly, we made it happen because we wanted to. She chose to speak to me, and then she chose to speak to me again; eventually, I broke through my awkward shell, and she saw how awesome I am.

How did we get awesome dogs? Because dogs are awesome, and we treat them well and appreciate them for what they are.

How can people handle whatever terrible trials that life throws at us? By being absolutely incredible, strong and determined and intelligent and resilient.

We are incredible. We can do anything. There is no God: we need no God. We are enough, and more. We are.

So the next time your life seems about to overwhelm and drown, remember: remember what humans have done, remember what humans can do. You can do it. You’re human. You’re awesome.

No better way to close this than with the collaborative work of several of my all-time favorite creative humans.

Third Time’s the Charm

UnLunDun
by China Mieville

I’ve tried to read Mieville’s books before. Twice. Couldn’t do it either time. (Same thing with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Two strikes. There won’t be a third pitch with that bloated sack of wood pulp.) Admitting that makes me feel like less of a fantasy reader, as everyone seems to just love China Mieville’s work. He”s one of the stars of fantasy fiction of the last ten years. What kind of a twerp can’t appreciate his writing?

So that feeling of inferiority, that niggling voice that tells me that everyone else is right, and I’m just not reading this stuff the right way (Must be because I’m not smart enough?), made me go back a third time to try Mieville’s work. I tried to read Perdido Street Station and couldn’t; I tried to read King Rat and couldn’t — maybe this one will be better.

UnLunDun.

You know what? This one was better.

In fact, I loved this book. I loved the two heroines, the pair of school-age tween girls from the council flats (British version of the projects) who find their way to UnLunDun; I loved the Wonderland feel of the anti-city that these two girls go to; I loved the characters they meet there, particularly the bus conductor, the strong man in the diving suit, and the rooftop Parkour gypsies. I loved the humor of the book, the sheer joyful whimsy of it. I loved the bad guy, the patsies, the thugs and monsters on both sides. I loved the ladder-tower of books — and I know what my UnLunDun job would be. I loved the morals tucked away here and there between the puns, and how they didn’t rise up and slap you in the face, but just sat there, quietly, waiting for you to notice them: books are a path to wonder. Destiny doesn’t matter as much as choice. Courage and loyalty can win the day — sometimes. Corruption is everywhere — but it can be fought.

This is a book I would strongly recommend. I would recommend it to people who love fantasy, to people who love humor, to people who want to see the world in a new light. I would highly recommend it to young women looking for fantasy books with female heroes, as this may be one of the best examples I’ve read of that particular under-represented character in the fantasy/sci-fi world: girls who kick ass.

And I’d recommend it to people who want to read China Mieville but just can’t get into his books. This one worked for me.

Maybe I’ll give another of his books a try.

Yup. I read it.

Go Set a Watchman

by Harper Lee. Duh.

The answers to your questions: it is not as good as To Kill a Mockingbird. You don’t have to read it. That is not to say you shouldn’t, or you won’t enjoy it – I did – but you don’t HAVE to read it.

It is precisely what it is purported to be: the story of Scout Finch, all – or almost all – grown up. It is also a rough draft of sorts of Mockingbird; there are passages that were taken straight from this book and put into that one, some descriptions of Aunt Alexandra, the history of Maycomb’s founding, that sort of thing. It is not the same book, retold at a different time; it is also not the sequel, as there are several small details that do not mesh with Mockingbird — Cousin Francis is Alexandra’s son, not her grandson; the Radley family is missing entirely, but there is a reference to another boogeyman who sneaks out at night and eats cats.

For someone who has never read To Kill a Mockingbird, this would likely be a good, but probably not a great book. This is me theorizing, of course, because I’m a high school English teacher, and I’ve taught Harper Lee’s masterpiece (It gave me a laugh to look inside the front cover and see “Also by Harper Lee:”) and read it a dozen times. I think the reality, the tangible, concrete weight of the characters and their personalities was already in me from Mockingbird, and I’m not sure it would be present for someone who didn’t read that book. This book’s central conflict climaxes with more speechifying, as if Atticus’s closing argument were moved to the final chapters and combined with the conversations about Boo Radley and Jem: more slow buildup and a longer period of talking through it. But the writing is still Harper Lee, and it is still wonderful: there is the same elegant prose, the same remarkable ability to switch from formal to casual, the same ironic humor, the same incisive understanding of the people and history of the South, and it’s still a joy to read. So I would recommend it.

For those who, like me, have read Mockingbird and loved it, you should think carefully. This book is good, but it is not a masterpiece. The wonder of Mockingbird hinges on the choice to make Scout a child. That simplified the story, and enabled Lee to treat race and hate and human nature with innocence and simplicity – through a child’s eyes. The adult Scout – now Jean Louise, an emblematic change – doesn’t have it so easy. She is much more reflective, thinking about what people say and whether they actually meant it or not; trying to decide whether their words and their character are a match to what she remembers of them from the past; trying to decide for herself where she belongs, and what she loves and what she can’t stand. The characters that were simple are now not, particularly – and most tryingly – Atticus. In Mockingbird, Atticus is the perfect father-hero. But now, Scout is older, and in this book, she finishes growing up. And it hurts to see Atticus the way she is forced to see him. It made this book hard to read. And, to tell the truth, so did Lee’s erudite references to Victorian authors and 1950’s historical and cultural icons, several of which I did not understand.

I would absolutely recommend this book as an exercise in the writer’s craft to those who teach Mockingbird, and to those who write themselves and know Lee’s classic. It is fascinating to see the changes between this earlier book and the later one, to see the author’s choices that made that book great, and this one less so.

For those who love Mockingbird for its own sake? If you think you can handle it, I would highly recommend this book to you, too. Because just like Scout, I think we need to grow up, and see our heroes in a more human light. And even though this book is more complex, more troubling, it is the difference between idyllic, idealized childhood and murky, gray-shaded adulthood; and this is still Scout. It’s still Atticus. It’s still Maycomb. It’s still Harper Lee. It was wonderful to go back and see it all again.

The Wordy Shipmates

I was hoping this book would be a revelation. It wasn’t.

That’s not to say I was disappointed with it. Okay, I was, but that was no fault of the book’s: it’s a good book, well-written, interesting, informative. It’s just that I wanted my jaw to drop, wanted my impressions of the Puritans — built through a childhood spent in Massachusetts, going to Plymouth Plantation  on a school field trip every year between third grade and eighth–  to undergo a startling transformation. It’s happened to me before, when I first seriously taught Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, about the Salem Witch Trials; because in the play’s text are extensive passages of background about the Puritans of 1692 Massachusetts, and one of the companion pieces I taught with it was On Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth Colony. That was the first time I saw the Puritans as courageous, traveling thousands of miles into an unknown, landing in the wrong place, losing half of their number in the first winter — and then staying there anyway, and fighting for survival in a harsh and hostile environment. Miller talks about how this circumstance forced the Puritans to live in each other’s pockets, because they either worked together and protected each other, or they all would die; it was just this sort of all-in collective life, surrounded by a danger that the Puritans personified as Satan (who lived in the woods and had wild animals and the Native American “savages” as minions) that led to the Witch Trials as Miller depicted them in his play.

I was hoping this book would change my mind again, and give me yet another perspective on the Puritans beyond “Religious fanatics whose draconian morality caused half of our country’s hypocritical opinions regarding sin and pleasure, and work ethic and such,” or “Those Thanksgiving guys (who actually betrayed and slaughtered the Native Americans who helped them out).” And it sort of did, because Vowell shows that the Puritans were extraordinarily literate — hence the “wordy” in the title —  and valued learning and reading and writing and thought, all of which  I appreciate. She shows how their remarkable idealism was what really pushed them to become the trailblazers they were, and allowed them to survive in the conditions they met on that trail. She shows most clearly how that idealism both informs our modern view of America, and how it has been corrupted by cynical politics, when she speaks of the co-opting of “the City on a Hill,” which came from a Puritan minister’s sermon, and was then used by both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, among others.

But while I hadn’t known how literate the Puritans were, I don’t know how interesting that is. Which is how I felt about the book. Maybe I was already too aware of the Puritans and their history; maybe I am not aware enough of the history of literacy and the valuing of education; but the book was good when I wanted it to be great.

 

I hope someone else can find it great.

Good Movie? Pssh. Let’s Watch Sharknado!

You’ve seen Jaws, right? We’ve all seen Jaws. Jaws is a brilliant movie. It is a classic of cinematic art. Jaws has built lasting artifacts in our psyches: the theme song (duh-dun . . . duh-dun . . . Unfortunately impossible to render phonetically and keep the air of menace. Just picture a shark circling around your ankles. And not that nice Bruce from Finding Nemo.), the idea that great white sharks are a terrible danger to humans (There were 106 great white shark attacks between 1916 and 2011, only 13 of them ending in fatality. In 1996, 11,000 people were injured by buckets.), the movie’s most famous lines — “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” and “Smile, you son of a bitch!” and “This was no boating accident.” Jaws has done what art should do: it has made an impact. Thrown into the pond of our collective consciousness, there have been ripples that have spread across the entire surface, and they are still echoing.

You know what else Jaws created? Sharknado.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of bad movies. I enjoy them: I used to have video tapes of Chopping Mall and Return to Horror High; Summer School with Mark Harmon and The Principal with Jim Belushi. I’ve seen eight action movies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, and all of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comedies, including Red Sonja. I’ve sat through six Police Academy movies, four Hellraiser movies, and nine Friday the 13th movies. I’ve seen Superman IV, Highlander II, and Leonard Part 6. Howard the Duck. Showgirls. Battlefield Earth. Thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000, I’ve seen Manos: The Hands of Fate and The Robot Versus The Aztec Mummy and Gorgo. I’ve seen Roadhouse. Several times. Red Dawn, too.

I like to play Six Degrees of Separation not to Kevin Bacon, but to Red Dawn. It’s not hard: the movie starred Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Harry Dean Stanton, and Powers Boothe, and was directed by John Milius, who wrote Apocalypse Now. The horror. So Jaws starred Richard Dreyfuss, who was in Stakeout with Emilio Estevez, who is Charlie Sheen’s brother and has been in several movies with him, including Men At Work, Young Guns, and The Outsiders. Charlie Sheen played Matt Eckert in Red Dawn. Three degrees.

So my point is, I didn’t just watch Sharknado. I loved it. I haven’t laughed that much since Big Trouble in Little China.

Sharknado is everything a bad movie should be. The writer, the impossibly named Thunder Levin (Who also wrote Mutant Vampire Zombies from the ‘Hood, which starred C. Thomas Howell — who was also in Red Dawn.), knew it, and that’s why the tag line of the movie is “Enough said.” He knew he had something brilliant, something timeless. Something that should be cherished.

Because this might be the worst movie ever made.

The premise is: global warming (clearly identified as the villain during the expository TV Newscast scenes explaining the strange events happening in LA) has caused an unprecedented number of sharks to come closer than ever before to the LA coastline, followed immediately by the first hurricane to strike California (Fun fact: this is marginally plausible! The reason no hurricane has struck California full-bore is the cold water along the coast, so if climate change increases the surface temperature of the water . . . watch out for flying sharks.). The storm causes waterspouts, which lift up uncountable sharks and then move over land, flinging airborne sharks all over the place. Whenever the sharks fly by or land on someone, they bite, tearing off limbs, heads, faces, you name it.

Yeah, that’s right. Waterspouts moving over land and not dissipating (until they are blown up by the heroes!). Flying sharks, tumbling through air (and therefore strangling), and they still bite anything human they come into contact with. At one point a shark bites through the roof of a car. How did it open its jaws wide enough to sink its teeth into a flat metal surface in a perfect ellipse of pointy doom? Why did it tear out the section of roof, spit it to the side and then try to eat the humans inside, when it should have been busily dying of oxygen deprivation? BECAUSE SHARKNADO!

The movie has one of the weirdest opening sequences I know. You know in Godzilla, and Jurassic Park, they show the monster wreaking some havoc and some innocent person on a beach or a fishing boat getting stomped and eaten? Right: in this one it’s a fishing boat harvesting shark fins. Just to make us wonder if maybe we deserve what’s about to happen. The seedy criminal captain is bargaining with an Asian man who wants to buy the cargo of shark fins — but he doesn’t want to pay full price! There is a bizarre confrontation involving guns on both sides and a storm the ship sails into; it ends when flying sharks tear off the captain’s face, one piece at a time.

This is Sharknado.

We move ashore, where we meet our hero, Fin Shepard, a divorced father of two (Forgive that — errr — spoiler, but I didn’t want anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet to be as blindsided by Fin’s status as a middle-aged divorced father as was his shotgun-toting, worst-fake-scar-outside-of-a-six-year-old’s-Frankenstein-Halloween-costume-having, exploitative-bikini-wearing barmaid Nova Clarke. Her reaction to the news that her boss and vague awkward crush has an ex-wife and two kids, “WHAT?!?! You have a SON, TOO?!?” was more extreme than her reaction to the flying people-biting sharks, the which she tends to just kill without any reaction, emotion, or facial expression, finishing with her own patented quip: “I REALLY hate sharks!”). Fin surfs, and so is in the water when the still ocean-bound sharks attack innocent civilians at the beginning of the movie; he rescues his Aussie buddy Baz by using his surfboard to vigorously poke the shark that nearly bit Baz’s leg off, an injury that disappears almost as soon as it happens (Because, y’know, he got it bandaged. Hey, if Rambo can seal a gunshot wound through his kidney with gunpowder and a burning twig [Rambo III? Yeah, I’ve seen that. Oh: and Sylvester Stallone was in Demolition Man with Wesley Snipes, who was in Major League with Charlie Sheen.] and then slaughter an entire camp full of Commies, then Baz can handle the Sharknado even with a game leg.), even though everyone else who gets even sideswiped by a shark loses whole limbs in mere instants. Fin also owns a crappy bar right at the end of a pier, the which is first invaded by sharks (Not to worry — Nova doesn’t even blink before she kills the first shark to crash through the window and land on the floor snapping at passersby. She stabs it with a pool cue.) and then washed away by the hurricane. He then drives his friends up into the hills to rescue his ex-wife and children (BAZ: “They’re like a thousand miles inland!” FIN: “They’re 6.6 miles inland, and it’s not far enough. Not for this storm.”), stopping along the way to rescue drivers standing zombie-like on an on-ramp, a school bus full of children, and then finally all of the students at his son’s flight school, before helping to end the Sharknado. What a dad. What a hero.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ian Ziering. From Beverly Hills, 90210 straight to Sharknado, with a brief stop at Melrose Place in between (And not a whole lot else.). The funny thing is, he was the best actor in the movie, and I’m including John Heard, a genuinely good actor who made me very sad by playing George, the lovable lush with the barstool, whose alcoholism and creeping on the ingenue are redeemed when he dies to save a trapped dog from the tidal wave of sharks, by smashing the car’s window with his padded barstool (He killed a shark with the barstool earlier.). Dog’s a golden retriever, of course, because Hollywood’s racist — pit bulls only get to play servants and villains. Though I need to know how the dog’s owner, one of the people who senselessly park and get out of their cars on an LA freeway on-ramp during a hurricane, managed to lock both her dog and her keys in her car, necessitating George’s barstool-rescue.

I can’t tell you how bad the acting is. And the script. And the continuity. The sharks are either really bad CGI or stock footage, as is the weather; the best part is that since the film was made in LA, there is no bad weather when the camera is on the heroes; then we look behind them, and the world-ending global-warming-produced hurricane is chucking sharks at them in between thunderclaps. Then back to Ian/Fin, who is dry and standing in sunlight. Remarkable. The weather pauses whenever they have need of a pensive moment — to mourn the loss of George, for instance, or to wonder, as the characters do on several occasions, about the absurdity of their own situation (“Man. Unbelievable!” Ian/Fin mutters as he drives away from the shark-infested on-ramp. All you can do is nod.) — and then returns when it’s time to get sharky again. Floods dry up instantly; when Ian/Fin rappels from a bridge down to the roof of the school bus to save all those kids — even though all he does is hand them the rope, whereupon Baz, the unsung hero with the nearly-severed leg, hauls them all the way up to the bridge with the help of a single block-and-tackle attached to the bumper of Ian/Fin’s SUV — the bus is nearly inundated by water, with sharks swimming all around it; except the water recedes as soon as Ian hits the bus, falls off the roof and swings around like a doofus for a moment before he opens the emergency door on the back.

When we visit the palatial home of Fin/Ian’s ex-wife — played by the hard-plastic-shelled Tara Reid, and I refer both to her post-operative body composition and to her acting — the sharks invade on a wave of water through the windows, flooding the house to a depth of three or four feet, enabling both the shark-ingestion of Tara’s shmuck of a boyfriend (Clearing the way for our heroes’ reconciliation — I can’t wait to see if they’ll get back together!) and a knock-down drag-out brawl with a shark whom Fin/Ian and Baz fight off with a bookcase. But then they escape through the front door — and the front yard is dry. I don’t mean mostly dry, it’s dry. “How can the house be flooded?” we ask; and then the house bursts in an explosion of water and sharks, giving us the answer — clearly it was built atop a shark geyser (Covering a massive lake of burning hot death-juice, known at Old Faithful as magma, and in Sharknado as the script.). This must explain the completely absurd observation by Nova, who looks out at the flooded LA cityscape and says, “It’s like Old Faithful!” Which, though I have never been there in person, I cannot think in any way resembles a hurricane-flooded major metropolis, with or without flying sharks. My assumption is that she is clairvoyant, and while she may be staring at LA in that moment, in her all-seeing mind’s eye, she is gazing on the collapsing house that flooded in a dry field. Like Old Faithful. With sharks.

There are several shooting scenes — including when Baz puts a scuba tank into a shark’s mouth and Fin shoots it, blowing the shark into smithereens (But he never says “Smile, you son of a bitch,” so clearly, this wasn’t stolen from Jaws. Yeah. And Vanilla Ice wrote the tune for “Ice, Ice, Baby.”). Nova — played by a woman who clearly has never even handled a shotgun, let alone done any actual acting — blasts a shark five times in the head, opening funnel-like holes in its skin, kind of like when the super-terminator in Terminator 2, played by Robert Patrick (Who was also in Striptease with Demi Moore, who was in Ghost with Patrick Swayze — who played Jed Eckert in Red Dawn) gets shot by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator (Also in the first Terminator? Michael Biehn. He was in Navy Seals with Charlie Sheen. Three degrees.) and yet keeps running; this shark dies, flooding the entire pool-sized living room with enough blood to turn the water a murky deep red color (Baz makes a menstruation joke! “Looks like it’s that time of the month!” Pure hilarity!). When the shark bites through the roof of the SUV, Nova shoots that one in the face, and one shot is enough to launch the shark off the car’s roof, flipping it in the air before it crashes to the ground with half of its face torn off. She must have used the big shells that time. My favorite, though, was when Ian/Fin is protecting his son, Matt, while Matt and Nova fly a helicopter into the storm so they can blow up the sharknado; there are half a dozen sharks flying at the helicopter, and Ian/Fin draws his pistol, closes one steely eye, and fires off exactly one shot per shark, each of them falling out of the sky instantly with each pull of the trigger. If a cartoon dog popped up with the sharks in his paws, it would have been Duck Hunt.

All right, let’s get to the climax. So the sharknados (Sharknadoes? What’s the plural here?) — are swirling around downtown LA. Ian/Fin has rescued his ventriloquist dummy of a wife, and the pouty angsty ball of helplessness that is his daughter, and they have arrived at the flight school where his son Matt is a student. They decide they can’t just run and leave LA to the mercy of the flying sharks (And the devastating tornados and the hurricane, I guess — but really, the scary part is the sharks, am I right?); they have to do something. So they have an idea: there’s a helicopter there, and since the instructor was sucked up when the sharknado passed over the flight school, the only one who can possibly fly it is Matt. So they go to a nearby warehouse filled with various tools and hardware implements (I had A-Team flashbacks at this point) and get strapped up: Fin/Ian gets himself a chainsaw — and hands to his wife a hedge trimmer. An electric hedge trimmer. Baz, Matt, and Nova make bombs out of propane canisters. The plan is for Matt and Nova — who have a moment of just sublimely bad acting while they are building bombs and Matt asks about Nova’s weird fake scar, which is on the side of her thigh and looks kind of like she was clawed by a tiger with the shakes, four or five parallel ridges that could not ever have been made by a shark’s teeth; Nova explains how her grandfather took her fishing and they went overboard and everyone but her got eaten by sharks (She actually echoes Quinn’s WWII shark story from Jaws, saying, “Six men went into the water that day. I was the only one who came out.” I really wanted her to break into “Farewell and adieu, ye sweet Spanish ladies.” And maybe grow a scraggly beard.), and then she ends with a heartfelt, “That’s why I hate sharks.” Matt responds, “I think I hate sharks now, too!” — Matt and Nova will fly over the sharknados and drop their propane bombs into them. Because a tornado is the result of warm air crashing against cold air, Matt tells us (with all the sophistication of someone who saw it on Weather Wiz Kids one Saturday morning), and if an explosion could change the balance, the tornado might dissipate!

I don’t mean to lose my willing suspension of disbelief here, but — a flight student. Is going to fly a helicopter. Into a hurricane. Above a tornado. And drop a bomb made of a can of propane, a smoke alarm, and a roadside flare all duct-taped together, which can’t weigh more than five pounds, total. And this thing is going to explode, and — blow up the tornado, essentially.

Sure, okay.

They do it, and they kill two of the sharknados. But there are three sharknados, and they run out of bombs. And then the sharks from the third sharknado hit them, and one grabs onto the skid. And in trying to dislodge it, Nova falls out of the helicopter, and is grabbed, in midair — not by that shark, but by another one flying by at just the opportune moment. How sad! There was a romance brewing there! (A word about that: the woman starts off as the love interest for Ian/Fin, but she gets scraped off on his son before the ending, once the ex-wife has finished her bitchy sniping at the younger, hotter woman, so that Fin/Ian can reconcile with his ex-wife, proving that absence and flying sharks both make the heart grow fonder. And that Stephenie Meyer is not the only writer to use “Well you can date my child instead of me!” as the deus ex machina to end a love triangle. People are so frigging creepy.) Sharks crash into the helicopter, which comes down to a crash landing nearby where Fin/Ian and wife and daughter are hiding in a retirement community (Because he already saved kids and dogs; now he just needs to rescue old people. Which he does. From a shark that lands in their swimming pool. Why were they swimming during a sharknado-producing hurricane, you ask? Because the weather is just fine where they are. Apparently the stock footage of the storm hadn’t caught up to them yet.). They lost Baz to sharks at the flight school/warehouse, so now it is up to Fin to drive the oversized Hummer they picked up after their SUV was eaten, and which Baz has filled with explosives, in a re-creation of the climactic scene of Twister: he drives the Hummer straight at the last remaining Sharknado, lights the fuse on the bomb, and then leaps out of the truck (which appears to be going about 80 mph, so he has to roll an extra time in order to come to a stop unharmed) and lets it jump off of a ramp (At the end of a highway switchback that appears to lead absolutely nowhere. In downtown LA. Or maybe we’re in the hills outside of LA. It’s not really clear.) into the Sharknado, where it explodes and saves the day.

But that’s not the end.

Because the sharks that were airborne, are now falling from the sky. It’s raining sharks. Ian/Fin jumps up from the concrete, and — without even an attempt at continuity — he is suddenly running down an alley towards his family, his daughter yelling “Daddy!” as she runs toward him while he’s waving her away, yelling, “Get outta there!” Because she doesn’t see the shark falling behind her: coming right at her. And in a series of jump-cuts worthy of Army of Darkness, Ian/Fin shoves his daughter out of the way of the flying shark, starts up his chainsaw, runs forward with the Gritted Teeth of Fury, and leaps up into the shark’s mouth.

The shark falls. Our hero is dead, giving his life to save his daughter.

But wait — the shark’s belly moves. A sound is heard. And then — a miracle! The end of the chainsaw bursts out of the shark! The blade comes down, a large slit is made, and from out of that beast’s belly (Sliced-open shark belly really looks a lot like foam rubber. Who knew?) is born our hero, blood soaked and screaming incoherently.

Then he reaches back into the shark, and pulls out Nova.

That’s right. Matt performs CPR, she spits out water — water? I guess she was drowning inside the shark’s stomach. Or maybe she got a mouthful from the storm when she was screaming, “WHY WON’T YOU DIE?!?” at the shark on the helicopter skid. Anyhoo — and they embrace. And, in one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of an actress who cannot bear to do what the sript calls for, Tara Reid wipes the blood off of Ian/Fin’s mouth and they have a kiss, after which her look of disgust is impossible to miss.

And appropriate, considering the movie that preceded it.

 

Why have I told you all of this? Why dedicate this much time and this many words to a movie that was all the ironic rage two years ago (and which has spawned two sequels, the upcoming installment entitled Sharknado Oh Hell No) but is now just something really awful that the Scify Channel made once?

Because this is what movies are supposed to be. It was fun to watch. I was entertained. Sure, I wasn’t entertained in the way they wanted me to be; the filmmakers weren’t clever enough to make this thing truly ironic in the tradition of the Evil Dead franchise; they wanted me to relate to the characters and sympathize with them, and to imagine how terrible it would be if there were sharks raining down on my family, and all I had was a chainsaw and gritted teeth. And I couldn’t do that, because I was too busy laughing. So it didn’t do what the filmmakers intended it to — but it did live up to its purpose. At a workshop I attended last week, on teaching AP Literature, there was a moment when the instructor declared unequivocally that “No novel has a message. The purpose of literature is to entertain. Great novels give insight into the human condition — but the author’s goal is entertainment.”

Jaws is a great movie. It gives insight into the human condition; I can relate both to Sheriff Brody, who is swamped in bureaucracy and ignored by his superiors despite being right, and to Hooper, the scientist with a passion that everyone else thinks is crazy. And who is invited in as the expert, and then they don’t listen to him either, and his angry sarcastic rants at the idiots who won’t listen could just as easily have come out of my mouth. The movie asks about the dangers we face when the natural world, which we don’t understand, is ignored in favor of capitalism and profits and maintaining appearances; I consider that a very real issue, one that we should spend more time thinking about. And at the same time, Jaws is entirely entertaining: from the first swimmer getting pulled down, to that eminently satisfying concluding explosion, Jaws is fun to watch.

So is Sharknado.

And only one of those movies has a scene with a chainsaw.

 

Oh: and John Heard, who plays George of the Barstool? He was in My Fellow Americans. With Richard Dreyfuss. Jaws to Sharknado in just two degrees. The circle of life is complete.

Here. Have a chainsaw.