Friday, September 28, 2018
The age of the DVD didn't last that long – it got barely half the time that the VCR reigned supreme before it was replaced by non-physical options – but they can still have a tremendously long shelf life.
Even in this era of downloads and streams and torrents and playlists and clouds, there is still a place for the humble video disc. They make it relatively easy to build up a great archive of the weirdest shit, and can't fall victim to the whims of the cloud, and don't get lost when hardware inevitably fails.
I still have hundreds of the things, and while I don't buy nearly as many as I used to, I still fucking love having a decent DVD collection.
The sheer amount of stuff that was released on disc in the past 20 years due to the cheapness of the format meant there was a deluge of DVDs for years, with a glut of audio-visual delights that offer up the craziest films, TV shows, music videos and documentaries.
For a while, everything was getting a release. Shelves in stores and rental outlets were choked with all the usual big blockbusters that you would expect, but the most esoteric shit was also coming out, and movies that I had only read about in dusty old books about cinema were suddenly easily available.
So after years of trying to find the last few films in dear old Kenneth Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle - I could never find the tape with the early stuff like Fireworks and Rabbit's Moon on it - I found a complete compilation of all his films in a set that is no bigger than a small paperback book, and it's been surprisingly easy to end up with things like multiple Bill Hicks live shows.
These things were often available on video tape, but never really got to my corner of the world, and the DVD age suddenly saw these things show up in bargain bins at the local big box retail stores. They also rarely show up on YouTube or other online video streaming platforms, and when they do, they often vanish again within months. Why wouldn't I hold onto the discs?
Because once you buy a disc, it's yours, and nobody can take it off you without physically snatching it away from you. All the weird and wonderful things I found, they're all still there, many of them within arm's reach of where I write this.
They're also always available, always there on the shelf or stored away somewhere safe and secure and easily accessible. If I feel the need to watch Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear or The President's Analyst or Twentyfour Seven or that 2003 documentary about Robert Anton Wilson, they're all right there.
They don't get lost somewhere on the hard drive, and I don't have to spend hours searching around for them. They're all there.
And a good collection can look gorgeous on the shelves. I'm still such a shallow motherfucker that I totally judge people by the standard of their bookcases, and that includes any DVDs they also have on the shelf.
If the only DVDs you have sitting there are a copy of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and two Pixar films, I can be pretty sure we don't have much in common.
Mind you, it took me forever to get onto the DVD train. I'm always, always a late convertor to the new tech, and the discs were no exception when they really started making a splash in the late 90s.
I stuck to my video tapes for far too long, annoyed by the skipping that early discs were always super-prone to, and slightly annoyed that I had to complete restart the film collection from scratch, even though the quality was obviously so much higher on disc, and the cases themselves took up so much less space, allowing me to cram several universes onto a single shelf.
Since then, I've amassed a few hundred discs, with the best taking pride of place on the bookshelf (just in case anybody else comes round to judge me by my tastes), and some unseemly piles of discs in the spare Room. All the favourite directors, a lot of grungy new movies, entire TV series of the best shows ever, entire videographies of the best bands in the world, days and days of things to watch, (and more all the time)
I never made that next big step to blu-ray or any kind of high definition system. The leap in quality wasn't enough to justify starting the movie collection all over again, and the shorter, squatter packaging always felt strangely off. Standard def was always enough for me.
Things have obviously slowed down in recent years. Even though you can pick up the most magnificent movies for a couple of bucks, I'm buying less and less, although this is probably because I've got all the classic shit I need, and there are only half a dozen films every year that I feel the need to get a copy of.
(Although, somehow, I still don't own a copy of the first Predator film, which I'm slightly baffled by, because it has been a source of ongoing shame for more than a decade now.)
All the DVD rental stores are gone now, with only the arthouse outlets with a dedicated clientele still hanging in there. But when I went to the last closing down sale, I only walked away with the relatively recent Good Time, because I had everything else I really needed. There really are limits, and this collection is near its limit.
While the pace has died down a lot, I'm still buying DVDs and I'm never going to give the ones I do have up until they literally fall apart on me. Some of them are starting to crap out, but they're easy to replace, or even copy across to new discs.
This weird little format, which will soon become nothing more than a footnote in the history of media consumption, still has a lot to offer. It has so much history, and so much reliability to give us, that's it's not so easy to give up.
Sunday, September 23, 2018
After years of keeping all my comic books safely wrapped up in the usual plastic bags, I've spent the last few weeks methodically going through the whole lot, and ripping them free, and putting them back into cardboard box storage without the offending plastic.
It's taken hours and hours to go through the whole lot and carefully remove them from the plastic, taking extra care not to get all that tape caught on the covers. Towards the end of this industrial effort, I just ended up ripping the bags apart around the comic, because I just ended up with thousands of useless bags – some of them 20 years old and already falling apart themselves. It took me ages to even find out if this huge pile of clear gunk was recyclable.
It's also been enormously satisfying. I should have done this years ago.
Comic books just look so much sexier when they're all unwrapped, the covers look better without going through a plastic filter and the individual comics I have stacked in the bookcase look like their own little pieces of art, not like something that is sealed away forever, never to be touched.
I'm far, far more likely to actually pick the comics up and read them if I don't have to worry about the tedium of the bag process. It's a tiny effort, keeping all these bags and boards and comics sorted, but it's still an unnecessary effort, and I'm trying to cut back on those.
These things are made to be consumed and enjoyed, so I'm consuming and enjoying them.
Whenever I got given an action figure as a kid – and I was all about the action figures – I would always rip it out of its container as soon as possible. The latest GI Joe or Walrus Man from the first Star Wars needed to breathe, he needed to flex some of those joints, or he'd never really come alive.
I never kept any figure in its box, never kpt anything in mint condition. The thought literally never even occurred to me, until much, much later in life. The thing was dead if it wouldn't move, but it would come alive as oon as it came out of that packaging.
It means that few of them survived for that long, because they would just be played to death, and if they were lucky, they might go out in a blaze of glory during the fireworks season, (the unlucky ones broke down into a mess of small parts that never added up to a hole, and are stuffed in a box that looks like Doctor Frankenstein's wet dreams). Many quickly lost an arm, although some proved surprisingly resilient – I still have Spock, Kirk and Ilia figures from the 1979 Star Trek film, all in one pace, although the blokes are showing some large bald patches as the paint wears thin. Relatively true to life, then.
But in general they were doomed the moment they were handed over to me. At least they lived for a while, instead of getting stuck in that suspended imagination.
Comic books didn't come in any container, and the thought of putting all of them into nice, safe bags never occurred to me for the longest time.
When I was young and every comic was a precious thing, I would read them over and over – odd comics like the last issue of Master Of Kung Fu, or Uncanny X-Men #154. It would be no use putting them away, because I would read them over and over again, every day for weeks and months, until they started falling apart from the constant handling.
I still have a lot of those ragged pieces of shit, all of which have lost their covers, and probably the first few pages as well. They're genuinely worthless, but I'm such a sentimental piece of shit that I'm never getting rid of them, no matter how rough they get.
By the time there were piles and piles of comics stacking up around me in my teenage bedroom, and they were all starting to get a bit tattered a few weeks after buying them, I started filing them away in bags. One of the first things I ever bought from a comic shop was 100 of those snug plastic covers and instantly stored away the very best comics, (you know, like 1990's Ghost Rider #1).
Still, putting them into a bag was more than enough. I never felt the urge to get them slabbed or graded or anything like that. That's fine for a certain kind of comic collector, but that's not for me. A grade 8.9 issue of Amazing Spider-Man #14 might be a goddamn art treasure when it's put up on the wall, but it's just as inert as a Cobra Commander who was never released from his packaging.
It's probably just because of the way I've always had my comics quickly deteriorate through over-reading, but I've never really gone to any huge effort to keep comics in mint condition – to the point where I kinda enjoy seeing the look of horror on my local comic shop owner's face when I stuff a bran new issue in the back pocket of my jeans.
I'm still annoyed if I spill my drink over some glorious double-page spread, and the pages rip apart after getting stuck together, but I like them a bit rough and ready – as if each crease has its own story.
My comics are all stored away in banana boxes, and have been for years. They're still the best for stacking and shelving away in the cupboard, and you can get a few hundred issues in each one. I don't obsessively re-read every single comic I buy every time, just once or twice before they go into this storage, so they don't need to go into bags to be protected, and they can all go.
A select few of them are still in bags, because they're already ragged and almost ruined, and at least the bag is keeping things together. The Excalibur comics that I read and reread and reread in 1989, and the Indiana Jones that I was deeply into a few years earlier wouldn't survive much longer outside some kind of protection.
But they're almost all been freed now, and just the physical act of freeing them has inspired me to dig back into things. I've got a pile of Eightball comics I haven't cracked open in years that I've just liberated, and it's past time to see how they hold up.
Wednesday, September 19, 2018
it's sometime in late 1983, on a hot summer Saturday afternoon in an empty Timaru, and all I care about is Return Of The Jedi trading cards. I'm 8 years old and all I need is card #47 - Boba Fett's last stand - and the #1 title card, and I've got the whole flipping lot.
It's all anybody cares about, all my friends are collecting the same cards, and the local dairy runs out of new packs in less than a day. We're all chewing the nasty gum that comes with it, and we're all trading doubled-up cards with each other, trying to fill out our own sets.
And with so much less media saturation, we're into it for months. There is no Youtube to watch our favourite scenes over and over again, and most people even didn't have a video player yet - and it takes years before ROTJ is available on tape - so printed material like magazines and trading cards were the only way to relive the fun.
So when I finally, after weeks of trading and searching, I find card #47 in a pack bought from May's Bakery (who still make the best pepper-bomb pie on the planet), I know I've nailed it. I can ditch all the excess double-ups I have for a #1, which is exactly what I do with my mate Phil later that week, and then I've got the whole lot, and it's the best feeling in the whole world. When it comes to geek shit, nothing really comes close to that feeling again.
Even before the ROTJ-mania, there were other trading cards, I had bits and pieces, usually inherited from cool uncles. I had a surprising amount of the very first Star wars cards, and random samplings from the Superman and King King films.
(I never got to see that 70s Kong, and when I did it was crushingly disappointing, because the art in the cards usually featured the extraordinary pre-production art, not the clumsy reality.)
Due to the fact I was only 2 years old when those cards came out, I never had a chance of getting a complete set from those films. So when Jedi rolled around, and it was possible to actually get the whole lot, it became a major obsession. I can still taste the thrill of it in the back of my mouth, although that might just be that bloody bubble gum again.
This needs to be put in some context, because we're talking about the early eighties and I'm a kid with no income living on the arse end of the world, who is already feeding some substantial comic and Doctor Who habits on the small change I can get out of my dad when he's had a couple of jugs.
This means I never had the chance to get the complete set of anything. Distribution of all the cool shit from overseas was always awful, and trying to get Uncanny X-Men every month was hard enough when you're scraping the cents together, but it's impossible if they never show up on the shelves in the first place.
After obsessing over the impossibility of getting all the Marvel comics, or completing a set of all the Doctor Who novelisations, getting the chance to get a complete run of anything was intoxicatingly rare. And even if they were dumb little cards, they were something where I could get it all.
A few years later, when I'm goddamn teenager, I take another shot at getting a complete set of cards, when the 1989 Batman movie comes out. I never come close, even when I buy a complete box of unopened cards, and find that even with dozens of dozens of unpacked cards, it's still full of repeats, and missing half a dozen key cards.
This sours things on the completest front for a while.
When everybody card crazy in the nineties, I'm right there, and there are severeal trading card series that I buy with the disposable income of the working youth - sets featuring Mark Bagley's Spider-Man and Bone and loads of Jim Lee artwork.
There are lots and lot of painted superheroes on these cards, and some of them feature gorgeous work by artists like Bill Sienkiewicz and Glenn Fabry and Chris Bachalo that has never been reprinted anywhere, and a lot of art featuring bulbous muscling from the likes of the Brothers Hildebrant.
There are card sets for every comic and TV show and movie under the sun, and I sample a lot of them. I don't get hooked on any enough to try and get a complete set, but some of them are lovely little objects, and I have a wide sampling.
I do eventually get a couple of complete sets - the DC super teams one and the oversized Vertigo cards that mixed terrific original art with the best covers in the line - but I just buy them complete from the local comic shop. there's no hunt, there's no fun, there's no satisfaction.
I haven't bought trading cards in years now, but I still have a small box stuffed full of them. I recently found I had lost some of the ROTJ cards so I don't even have a complete set anymore, even though I somehow have a huge amount of doubles. I don't know how this happened. Maybe they've been breeding in the back closet.
All those Batman '89 cards have vanished, along with the few wrestling and cricket sporting cards I had. They never lasted.
I use those Jedi doubles now as bookmarks, which is exceptionally helpful, because I have about 100 spare cards and I am historically bad at losing bookmarks. They disappear within old books or down the back of the desk, and now I've got a supply that should last me a couple of years, before they vanish into the ether.
I'm still an 8-yer-old dork at here, still trying to capture that feeling of a complete set. It's got a lot easier over the years, and I've managed to track down whole runs of favourite comic books with ease, but it's still a rush to fill it out, and I'm still chasing it.
It will never fucking end. About the same time I go crazy for the Return Of The Jedi cards, I start collecting 2000ad comics, and 35 years later, I'm still dozens and dozens of issues away from getting a full 2100-issue set (and it's all pre-prog 100 comics). Maybe I should've just gone for the Judge Dredd trading cards.
Saturday, September 15, 2018
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that everything wasn't made for me. That every form of every entertainment didn't have to appeal to the tastes of a working-class piece of white trash on the arse end of the world who reads a lot. That everything that didn't appeal was rubbish, and everyone who liked it was an idiot.
I'm still ashamed that I didn't figure this out until my mid-twenties. I found a video tape full of the shitty, shitty home movies my mates and I used to do in Temuka in the early 1990s, so I've been wallowing in flashback fever every time I hear my voice, and I really wish I could go back and slap the shit out of my dumbarse younger self, who fucking thought he fucking knew fucking everything.
I'll still never pay good money to see a Transformers movie, I don't understand My Little Pony and I remain baffled by the continued existence of Coronation Street, but that's okay, because they're not made for me. They're not inherently awful, just because I don't get them. And it's not like there isn't still a fucking shitload of other stuff directed right at me, and more every year.
I just can't believe I used to sneer at other people's passions, and I always apologise to anybody that I did it to, back when I was young, dumb, and full of bullshit.
It's been a while now, and I've shoved that all embarrassing behaviour right into the end corner of the cupboard of secret shame, underneath the staircase that goes nowhere, down the back of the Tearoom of Despair. It can stay there.
You can like what you like. There is no shame in it.
Wednesday, September 12, 2018
A new Frank Miller comic was once a Event for the entire medium, and all anybody would talk about for months afterwards. The comic fanzines and pro magazines went apeshit for everything he did for more than a decade after he took hold of Daredevil, and with good cause, because his comics were stylishly innovative, surprisingly witty and deadset iconic.
He burned off a lot of that goodwill over the past few decades – turning off any sensitive readers he had left with the unrepentant misanthropy of the Sin City comics; baffling the fanboys with the dayglo DK2, and driving away the last of the cool kids with the unmistakable Islamophobia of Holy Terror. The third Dark Knight series - published in the past few years - was fast food comics, and nobody cares enough about fast food to write anything about it. (Well, almost nobody.)
So now, after years and years of promises, Miller has finally produced a sequel to his massive 300 comics, and nobody really cares. When it was first announced, about the only thing people had to say about it as that Miller was obviously an idiot, because he didn't know that the era of Alexander the Great was nowhere near the time of Xerses, but he was talking about a direct succession.
Fortunately, the lack of any real attention really highlights the fact that Miller doesn't give a fuck what anybody thinks, and can just go crazy with his comics, and his latest Xerses comic is just glorious, beautiful nonsense.
It's all over the place, setting up another tale of brave Greeks facing formidable Persian odds, and then abandoning that to flash backwards and forwards through the life and death of Xerses for a while, before then leaping forward to the end of his line. It's barely a coherent story, lacking the ultra-tight focus of his 300, and even making fun of the Spartans from that story for their humourless efficiency.
But the new series is still amazing comics for the spectacle, and the strangeness of it all, and its absolute refusal to adhere to a predictable three-act structure. There is still a goofiness to his action scenes, with victims of deplorable violence being slaughtered with the dopiest looks on their faces, and the dark humour of ancient soldiers who don't know the meaning of mercy.
Battles are reduced to extended tableau, before the years slip away over the course of a panel. The title character, the godking bought low by a bunch of determined Greeks, flares and burns in the narrative, and is soon lost in the sands of history, his line dying out over the years. (Despite the earlier sneering about Miller's historical accounting, it does actually make sense that it ends with Alexander the Great taking over the mantle of ruler of the known world, because empires don't fall in a single battle, or even over a single lifetime, but fade over the generations.)
And it doesn't look like anything else - more than 40 years after his art was first published, and after a period of ill health, Miller's line is a lot shakier than it used to be, giving the art a delicate nature, with detailing that has usually been drowned out in heavy black ink, and reducing some pages to pure abstraction. But his figurework is as striking as ever, his usual lithe figures loaded up with baffling garnishing as they leap and strut across the page, and there is some literally dazzling colour work from Alex Sinclair - it's a bright, shiny interpretation of dirty old history.
This lack of focus and general haphazardness is unlikely to appeal to many 300 readers, and is highly unlikely to bring back anybody driven away over the years. But Frank Miller is still producing some beautiful comics pages, even after all these years, and that's always worth talking about.
Sunday, September 9, 2018
Alan Moore's series of Lovecraft-inspired comics for Avatar - which recently climaxed with his Providence series - are not an easy read, in any sense of the word. His meanderings down Lovecraft Lane are dense and dour in a way that his works rarely are, and they have an artistic flatness at odds with the creeping menace that contributes to a numbingly repetitive structure.
This isn't typical Moore, (which was probably his main attraction to the style in the first place). Even when he has been dealing with heavy concepts and intense narratives in his previous comics, there has been a light touch to the storytelling, guiding the reader through the hard stuff by making it as charming and entertaining as possible.
But the story that unfolds with sinister moistness in the pages of The Courtyard, Necronomicon and Providence doesn't have that. It's easy to blame the legally blind artistic director at Avatar comics for the creation of comics that are so hard to get through - Jacen Burrow's art hasn't evolved much from the last time I moaned about it. But it also doesn't help that each issue ends with up to 14 fucking pages of handwritten scribblings in a fictional notebook.
Over his long comics career, Moore and his artistic collaborators have been paring back the clutter inside the comic panel, banishing goofy sound effects altogether and abandoning cheerful thought bubbles for stark captions full of dense purple prose. He's now even thrown away the captions for the most part, leaving the reader to find any nuance or inner feeling in the artwork alone (another area where Burrows just doesn't have the chops).
But Moore can't leave it with that, and now gets inside his main character's head by reproducing the man's journal almost completely at the end of each chapter, and it's just huge fucking chore to get through.
Some of it is certainly illuminating, especially if you're only passingly familiar with all the Lovecraftian details, but a lot of it is just going over the things we've already just seen in the comic, and making sure that everything is spelled out clearly and repeatedly.
It also leaves the reader with the inescapable conclusion that the character they're following though the wet and wild terrors of the United States is just a bit dim, and you wonder how many times people have to say to his face that's he's a goddamn herald before it actually sinks in.
It's just no fucking fun to read through, when half the story a comic is trying to tell you isn't even in the comic format. It certainly offers up value for money if you measure a comic's worth by how long it actually takes to read
When he's spent much of the past decade producing 600,000 words for his Jerusalem novel, as well as a startling number of long-form essays in various places, and when half of his latest comic doesn't have any pictures, it's hard to not feel that Moore just looks bored in comics. His constant promises of retirement certainly add to this.
Mind you, none of this over-wordy gloom and deep despair is in Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, where he is currently working with one of the great depraved comic artists of the modern age on the final installment. That series is just as manic and propulsive and playful as ever as it barrels towards a sci-fi end.
So it's probably all just an attempt on Moore's part to capture Lovecraft's unique mood of turgid dread. Which works, because Providence is certainly turgid, and a quite dreadful reading experience.
Thursday, September 6, 2018
Charley's War, by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun is the greatest war comic ever produced, for so many reasons. It's because it has gorgeous art, where Colquhoun would squeeze every speck of WW1 battlefield mud into the frame, while impeccably depicting the horror and despair on the faces of the soldiers in the middle of it.
It's because it's massively dense in both plot and art, with the three-page chapters forcing everybody to get to the bloody point. It's because it was immaculately well-researched, building characters and storylines out of many real-life events. It's because it never flinches away from the brutality and pointlessness of it all, and darkly exposes the nastiness of the class structure that keeps the war machine turning.
And it's because it also manages to find moments of grace and beauty among the sucking mud and shrapnel in the air, and there one comes late in the day, when the guns fall silent on the last Christmas of the war.
It's hard to avoid getting too mawkish about the idea of the Christmas truce, and too easy to give into trite sentimentality (Steven Moffat has spoken of a similar problem depicting the event in his last Doctor Who story). The idea that for one day, the war stops before carrying on as usual the next day, can be cheapened and disrespectful to the poor bastards who lived through that actual horror.
There is nothing cheap and disrespectful to the men on the front line of Charley's War. The friendly exchange between a Fritz and a Tommy that kicks off the final truce comes right at one of the grimmest points of the vast, sprawling story. There has been so much death and tragedy, Charley has lost all his mates several times over, and it's not over yet.
Meanwhile, Mills is busy humanising the enemy by showing us life in the German trenches, but this just adds to the despair, because there is a young fanatic named Adolf Hitler on the other side of no mans land. And as fun as it is to see that young ruffian Bourne beat the crap out of Der Fuhrer, it's also a constant reminder that there is so much more blood coming in the future (Mills' run on the story will end on a panel revealing that Hitler has risen to power.)
But none of that matters in the shining, timeless moment when Charley and Big Bruno walk out of their trenches and say hello. When the massive Teutonic brute and the plucky young lad from the London terraces reach out and forget about killing each other for now, it's a massively powerful moment.
The young readers of Charley's War demanded more action in their weekly three pages, so the peace only lasts until the end of the next episode, with a terrible reminder that 1918 would be the last and most terrible yer of the war. Stark, clear captions reveal that many of those who laid down their arms for a few hours still won't survive the war. Even Big Bruno only has a few short weeks to live, killed after his leave in cancelled for starting the truce.
And the comic strip takes to the skies and oceans after this, with Mills turning to the experiences of Charley's cousin and brother, and when it comes back, the yuletide peace is forgotten as the war barrels to its end, and the forgotten Russian aftermath.
But for one moment, nobody dies and the war is settled with gentlemanly fisticuffs instead of mass slaughter. It's only the tiniest part of this massive story, and an while it doesn't last, it's a welcome break from the slaughter,
All of Mills and Colquhoun's epic story has been recently collected in three fat omnibus editions, so there really isn't any excuse not to follow Charley's story through the Somme and beyond. It gets a bit grim sometimes, but it also roars with utter humanity.
Saturday, September 1, 2018
This is the Man From LOVE:
#1. It all starts at the movies
#2. No shot
#3. All you need is dance
#4. A night off from saving the world
#5. Dinner with the Goodsons
#6. Cleaning up afterwards
#7. How to sign up
#8 A virtual certainty
#9. All will be well
#11. Don't look now
#12. Dealing with it
#13. Metaphysical manipulation for fun and profit
#14. Run fool, run
#15. This is not normal
#16. The man in the moon
#17. A nice glass of red
#18. The Trevor situation
#19. Left behind
#20. There is no Trevor
#21. This is not you
#22 Cross country
#23. Good morning
#24. Lost with the fairies
#26. Fighting and fucking
#27. The House of Good
#28. How the world works
#29. Everything is everything
The Man From LOVE was written for the NaNoWriMo thing a few years ago, which should be obvious due to its brevity and half-assed plotting. It was also born out of a general frustration that every attempt to do a 'secret agent for the 21st century' story was still mired in 20th century genre and cliche, and I wanted to do something that genuinely tried to update the conventions.
Like almost everything piece of fiction I ever write, I just wanted to do it for fun and did absolutely nothing with it when it was done. This was mainly because I couldn't even imagine anybody ever giving a shit about it, but also because it painfully exposes my crippling anxiety about mortality, which is a bit embarrassing.
But this has been a rough year, and I needed to take a break from writing about the latest dumb comics and movies for a while, so dug up this story from the depths of a half-dead hard drive and put it up. It's out there now, for all the world to see, and we can all move on. Normal service will resume later this week.
I should really get around to finishing The Woman From LOVE, a sequel which is more of the same, with added time travel and vampires and maybe even an explanation of what LOVE and HATE stand for. That'll probably appear here in another three or four years. You can't rush the meaning of life.