Friday, December 11, 2009

Ne'r-Do-Well Narratives

If there's one thing I've learned from being married to a scientist, it is that science can't be usefully engaged in any depth without specialized knowledge. In other words, laypeople can no more process scientific matters in depth than people who can't do their five-finger exercises can play the Brandenburg concertos. Which makes engaging the climate change issues a bit frustrating.

Out of fairness I want to engage the arguments that global warming isn't as big a problem as we've been lead to believe, but the few scientists in that corner are engaging complexities of data and interpretation that most folks, myself included, cannot follow. The rest of the denier pundits are laypeople like myself, so all they can do is craft narratives at me. Between data I can't interpret and Exxon-funded noise-machine narratives that I can interpret but can't take seriously, I'm left to fall back on faith that the majority of scientists know what they're talking about; a faith that listening to hours of scientists gossiping about their jive-turkey colleagues has shaken. Of course I could try to study the info in sufficient depth that I could overcome the knowledge gap. I could also learn to breakdance and make a baked Alaska, but don't count on it.

I figure warming or no, pumping out less pollution is probably a good thing. Some industry flacks say compliance with carbon regulation, etc. will be punishingly severe for our economy and way of life. They said the same stuff about emancipating the slaves and child labor laws. And they were right! Ending slavery and child labor clobbered our economy in the short run. Doesn't mean they weren't the right things to do.

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One of my favorite aspects of Pride & Prejudice (which I finished recently) was the way Darcy changes his callow, classist ways, but does it mostly offstage. His changes are suggested bit by bit as he and Elizabeth bump into one another and she is constantly surprised by his improved behavior. Only near the end is the narrative arc of his changes explained, and it makes perfect sense as a believable process of self-improvement. I think this pleased me because it tracks with our observations of human change in real life. We see the evidence of change in unexpected fragmentary glimpses, and only later, if ever, do we get an account of the motivation and process behind the changes.

The most unsettling part of reading P&P was getting caught up in suspense over Lydia and Wickham's tawdry affair, only to remember that my frame of reference on such matters is rather different from Jane Austen's. In fact Lydia and Wickham's courtship and marriage wasn't all that different from mine with Laurie. To be fair we don't live under a dowry-based matrimonial system, from which (along with modern birth control) all the relevant liberalizations flow. I wonder which of our social structures will someday seem as bizarre and antiquated as dowries seem to us. I'd nominate employer-based health insurance for that honor.

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Among movies we've seen lately: Marnie. I've seen it three times now. The first time I was a kid watching it with Mom. We both enjoyed it, but all the sexual stuff flew right over my head. I recently gave Laurie the capsule synopsis of it: Tippie Hedren is a safecracker with a crippling psychomelodramatic problem; Sean Connery hunts/heals her.

"Do they get it on?" asked Laurie.

"You know it," I said.

And so Marnie went to the top of our queue.

Two things about Marnie struck me this viewing:

1. Tippie Hedren is really, really good. She plays the type-A ice queen with submerged Freudian issues so well that she was indistinguishable from my last supervisor at my old office job.

2. Sean Connery's attempt at an American accent is such an utterly unique hybrid dialect that it resembles a new kind of speech. I love that. Bad accents that go beyond badness all the way to surprising newness are one of the best things actors can give us.

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Another recently viewed flick: The Mothman Prophecies. I read a big chunk of the non-fiction(?) book this was based on. In it (IIRC) freelance journalist Jim Keel goes to a small West Virginia town where a diverse mix of insane phenomena (UFOs, monsters, Men In Black) are causing trouble. The MIBs, rather than being simply sinister, take comical cluelessness to the nth power; I remember being painfully embarrassed by their antics. I also remember being beguiled by Keel's blend of faux-hardnosedness and gap-jawed credulity. Since much of the narrative consisted of punishingly sidetracking anecdotes about how this UFO siting is similar to these other UFO sitings Keel has on file, that monster sighting is similar to these other reported monster sitings, etc., I eventually put the book down and didn't pick it up again. (If I've gotten any details wrong in this synopsis, that's entirely in keeping with the ambiguous nature of the book.)

The movie plays really fast and loose with the original narrative. The reporter becomes a top reporter for the Washington Post, gets a new name, a melodramatic dead-wife backstory, and an advisor on spooky psychic stuff. This advisor gets to be the self-appointed expert on Ultraterrestrials (as they are called in the book) so the reporter doesn't have to be a nut from the start. I would have preferred they stuck closer to the book: a nutty reporter who loves to trot out his knowledge of Fortean lore would be way more amusing than Richard Gere's glum character.

The supposedly hardnosed reporter is awfully quick to buy into far-fetched theories, though, which is hardly justified by the weirdness swirling around him. A real hardnosed reporter would try to Occam's Razor his way through such peculiar events.

The main MIB in the book, Indrid Cold, is mostly offstage but on the phone in this film, so all the wacky stuff about MIBs making public fools of themselves is snipped from the narrative. The film's awfully serious, in a furrowed-brow manner. The backstory with the dead wife comes to the fore as it appears she is, in some inexplicable fashion, hanging with Indrid Cold, unless Cold is playing some cruel Dopplerganger game. This subplot leads to some letting-go-of-the-past-and-the-dead stuff that I quite liked, but the films' top-heavy with dead-wife melodrama that the psychotronic source material didn't need.

Also the film goes for a David Lynchian weirdness, with David (Seven, Fight Club) Fincher visual stylings. The cinematography goes for sedate colors and fine-grained detailing, but then slips into highly formalized scene-to-scene and even shot-to-shot transitions. Disorienting camera angles and A Bout de Souffle editing create an uncanny mise-en-scene, but as the film progresses it piles on the cinematic funhouse gimmicks until it starts to feel like a demo reel of tricks, and each new trick seems like part of a predictably escalating succession. I haven't made a study of it, but it seems to me Lynch pulls off the uncanny with greater ease because he exercises a bit of restraint with the weird stuff. When he goes weird he doesn't simply use interchangeable tricks; the weirdness is more specific and deeply rooted in narrative than the tilt-a-whirl bamboozlement devices in Mothman.

A Season Three X-files episode titled "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" is clearly influenced by The Mothman book and is closer to what I would have wanted from an adaptation: uncanny, comical and open to a near-Marenbadian multiplicity of readings. It's more fun than the Mothman movie and will take less time, so give it a try.

(This subject of unofficial or accidental adaptations that surpass the official adaptations is one that preoccupies me: Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education is a better Lolita movie than either of the entertaining but insufficient Lolita films, Ang Lee's Hulk movie is a better Neon Genesis Evangelion adaptation than Hulk adaptation, etc.)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Box. You Opened It, We Came.

Last night I had my first sip of wine in a while, and it got me rhapsodizing about the glory days... the BOXED WINE days.

In the late 90s I drank wine from The Box. Real wine was too 'spensive. I knew boxed wine was allegedly no good, and I didn't argue the point, but I figure that if it was good enough for me then it would be a shame to waste real wine on my cloddish palate. Later, of course, I learned that wasting real wine on my cloddish palate was the only way to refine my palate, but despite my college education I didn't quite grasp that I was capable of learning and growing. But that's another story.

When I shared an apartment with two other guys (and two of us weren't paying rent) it was boxed wine that smoothed over the many, many rough edges. Well, that and Neon Genesis Evangelion, which was specifically calibrated for tipsy twentysomething girlfriendless nerdboys.

I eased off the box once I moved across the street from V. Richards, which had a real wine selection, but the subject of The Box came up during a production of Angels in America II. I declared that if I ever became a DJ my stage name would be Chillable Red, in honor of a particularly Kool-Aidish variety (or is that varietal?) of boxed wine (as if there's any boxed wine that doesn't taste like sour Kool-Aid). Our Prior Walter admitted that in his college days his roommates and he would remove the sack (for those who haven't enjoyed The Box: inside The Box is a wine-filled plastic bag with a rubber nozzle) from the box, hang it on the wall somehow, and squirt cheap wine directly into their mouths as they passed it. That's the good life, for college boys.

I offered to bring a Box to the cast party. Everyone laffed except for Tom, who is from Sand Mountain.

I showed up to the party and Tom met me on the porch, eyes glowing with eagerness. "Where is THE BOX?" he asked. The Box was produced and we drained it to the lees, paying no attention to the many bottles of better wine that had been brought by our betters. The evening ended with Tom and myself trying to play jug music on the nozzle of an empty plastic bag. I think it was the last time I ever wallowed in boxed wine. A fitting blowout conclusion to The Boxed Wine Era.