Journey to the Stars

Planetarium show at the American Museum of Natural History.

Planetarium shows should never, under any circumstances, feature the words “Now that’s STAR power.” That’s not even a fun bad pun. It’s just stupid, especially when delivered by Whoopi Goldberg in the broadest possible manner. Just … no.

(500) Days of Summer

In theaters.

The periodic narrator of (500) Days of Summer announces early on that “this is not a love story; this is story about love.” I disagree. This is neither a love story nor a story about a love but rather a story about narcissism, passive aggression, and rank immaturity, and as such, it’s not a particularly enjoyable tale.

God knows it’s not unusual for a romantic comedy to traffic in all sorts of twisted ideas about love and romance, but (500) clearly—and incorrectly—fancies itself unusually wise, which makes it unusually annoying. For one thing, despite its pretensions, the movie dabbles in plenty of the usual clichés (the impossibly wise child adviser being a particularly obnoxious element), but it’s the warped “romantic” hero that really gets me. The movie knows he’s in the wrong, but it never truly acknowledges just how in the wrong he is, and although it wants to pretend that Tom has Learned Lessons and Grown over the course of the movie, that’s not really the case—mainly because the filmmakers seem a bit foggy on what lessons he should have learned. They make a joke about Tom having badly misinterpreted the ending of The Graduate, but the joke’s on them: frankly, I don’t think they completely get it either.

Columbine

By Dave Cullen. Published in 2009.

Dave Cullen taught me the difference between hate and contempt. Some five years ago, he wrote an article for Slate exploring the motives of the notorious Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, with new analysis from the FBI’s lead investigator on the case, a clinical psychologist. The key idea was that the two boys were very different people: Harris was a full-blown psychopath (in the true psychiatric sense), and Klebold was a suicidal depressive who fell into the other boy’s orbit.

That conclusion and the well-informed rationale behind it are fascinating, but it was the distinction between hate and contempt that haunted me. In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, most people assumed that the killers’ motive was hatred—for jocks, for minorities, for Christians, whatever—but judging from the considerable evidence left behind, Harris, the mastermind, wasn’t motivated by hatred of individuals or even of specific groups. In a way, that would have required acknowledging his victims as human beings, fellows worthy of hate. Harris considered himself a god among insects; his victims were interchangeable fodder for his apocalyptic vision. In short, he didn’t feel hate so much as general contempt. And that’s what makes him so frightening.

Cullen expands upon that old article—along with his numerous others and a decade’s worth of investigation into the attack—to produce Columbine, an exhaustive, compelling look at that horrific day in April 1999, the months that lead up to it, and the years that followed. At once a true crime tome, a psychopathy primer, and a media criticism treatise, the book is engrossing and deeply thought-provoking. That unforgettable lesson on hate and contempt is not an anomaly: Columbine is not a rubber-necking tabloid tale but a reflective, compassionate view of both the trees and the forest. As the New York Times acknowledged, Columbine isn’t In Cold Blood reborn (which cracked me up: Capote’s masterpiece is truly the unattainable grail of the true crime genre), but by virtually any other standard, it’s a triumph.

Castle

Select episodes from first season available online at ABC.com (and soon, I hope, on Hulu). Season two debuts Monday, September 21, on ABC.

I recently read an interview with a short story author who said she enjoys writing short works because she feels more freedom there to explore extremely dark, bleak places—places she would be reluctant to visit, as either a writer or a reader, for the length of a novel. The idea rang true to me (partly because I’m presently in the midst of a provocative but depressing, emotionally draining novel that I wish were a bit shorter), and although I think the notion could easily be taken too far (perhaps it would be better to say that that overwhelmingly dark subject matter is more challenging in a novel than in a story), I find it fun to extrapolate from that notion to other media.

For example, musical devices that might be tiresome in a longer work—gimmicky orchestration; the incessant drill of a single rhythmic pattern; light accompaniment of a guileless melody—can be charming in a short piece (see: Sabre Dance). A movie can use simple, archetypal characters that would become flat and tiresome in an ongoing work like a TV show (see: Pan’s Labyrinth). And a TV show with a charismatic lead character often can get away lackluster storytelling because spending time with the character is the whole point of watching the show.

Such an encapsulation would be a little harsh for Castle, ABC’s one-year-old mystery drama, but not by much. The premise is gimmicky, the policework is standard, and the mysteries vary in quality (to be fair, that’s typical of crime shows), but none of that really matters because Nathan Fillion is the star: Castle is fun and compelling to the extent to that Fillion is fun and compelling, which makes it quite fun and compelling indeed.