Thursday, January 28, 2010

Transferring the Curse

Many years ago (I had bangs then) I was cast in a small supporting role in a Shakespeare in the Park production. I was in the first scene as a servant to a Duke. The man they cast as the Duke was a really nice guy whom I've seen do good work in a lot of parts, but for some reason Shakespeare just tripped him out. He'd start one of his speeches and suddenly slide into glossolalia: "That strain again! It had a dying fall. Hum, lumlum lum lum, fffm mum gum mmm mmm, sum pum sumthum bum gum gum bum bum." More or less iambic pentameter mumbling whenever he drew a blank on the lines, which was frequently.

He struggled with it, wanting to get it right but never quite nailing it. He'd fix one passage and forget another. I felt a mixture of sympathy and frustration... in later years I've done a bit of study on techniques for learning and speaking Shakespeare, but at the time we were both amateurs and I had no wisdom to pass on. Still, at least I knew my few lines and was able to spit them out whenever the discombobulated Duke came to the end of his Shakespearean scat-singing.

So opening night arrived, and whaddaya know? The Duke got his speeches out letter perfect. I was quite proud of him. And he turned to me for my first cue: "How now! What news from her?"

And I said: "So please my lord, um mum gum mum mum mum bum."

Somehow he had transferred the curse to me. When I hear the phrase "The magic of live theatre," this witchery is what comes to my mind.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Goonybird Cinema

H. G. Welles was famously unimpressed by Metropolis. And it seems to me that his criticisms were more or less on target... yet the film's aesthetics have enriched the world of film in ways that Well's own film, Things To Come, can't claim. Only a chimp could regard Metropolis as a worthwhile narrative, but whatever the film lacks from a literary perspective, the sets, costumes and such are rich in cinematic virtue. They suggest possibilities for purely cinematic expression that owe about as much to substantial dramaturgy as the average ballet.

Avatar is a proud descendant of Metropolis; dumb as it can be, but saved by technical brio. About all its got going for it is the range of possibilities it offers to future films; like Jurassic Park, no sensible person will want to watch it once its technical innovations have been absorbed by the film industry. The film boasts the most nuanced and expressive CGI animation I've ever seen (well, as nuanced and expressive as the acting on most Hollywood films, so it's little more than slick emotion-porn, but still, it's a step up from the faux-human acting in previous CGI attempts). The artificial environment of the film is a fine-grained engagement with the natural world which reveals the director to be more than a hollow technonaut, and for me this artful take on nature is the most exciting thing about this flick.

Problems? Most of the lines of dialogue could be changed to "I am a macho person!" with no harm done to the warp and woof of the film, the character aesthetics are straight out of Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell (this is not praise (god bless 'em for getting Wayne Barlowe to do the critters though)) and the just-add-water plot is marred not only by the usual paper-thin Joe Campbellianism that we expect from big loud Hollywood but by the hoary old White-Man-Impresses-The-Soul-Brothers-By-Having-Just-As-Much-Soul shtick that one would have hoped we'd be past by now. And lefty that I am, I'm uneasy about being asked to cheer the deaths of American Soldiers (yeah, I know that's not the denotation, but that's certainly the connotation. Well, maybe they're more like Blackwater, but still).

I never would have bothered posting about this film, though, if I hadn't read this post. I'm fond of the author, who gives me my weekly dose of vitamin fanboy, but "He's out to make a film that is timeless, mythic, and universal in its appeal so it should be no surprise that a story with such broad intentions would have roots in other tales that have been told many times over" stuck in my craw. It's the kind of misunderstanding that nerds generally use to excuse callow just-add-water Jungianism in their junk fiction. The logic goes something like this: "mythic, legendary stories are simple, so to tell a truly mythic tale you should strip it of complexities and idiosyncrasies." Wrong, wrong, wrong. Read Ovid. Read Beowulf. Read Malory. Lit Crit has a term: "roughen the text". This refers, as I understand it, to the ways in which texts are complicated in ways that require the reader or viewer to slow down, to get (one hopes productively) confused, to think it through, to engage the complexities nestled within the narrative. You'll find boatloads of roughening in genuinely mythic talespinning. Hollywood baby food is another story. Hollywood has taken to heart Ezra Pound's dictum: "The secret of popular writing is never to put more on a given page than the common reader can lap off it with no strain whatsoever on his habitually slack attention." The libretto of Avatar is not mythic; it is faux-mythic, lacking real insight into human motivations and history. Enjoy the spectacle, but take it seriously at real moral peril.

* * *

Another nutty movie we've enjoyed recently: The Fountainhead. Written by Ayn Rand, directed by King Vidor, music by Max Steiner. So you know it's gonna be a model of restraint and good taste. It didn't make me want to read Rand's doorstops, but it did make me wanna see more Vidor; the man had style, a style Pauline Kael described as "hog-wild expressionism." So he was a good match for Rand's spittle-flecked narratives. Laurie and I got a series of kicks from this film (Those dresses! Those suits! That old-movie hamming!) but found the overlong speech at the end a bit comical. It's the money shot for Rand, a propagandist first and foremost, and it goes on and on. Apparently Vidor wanted to cut it, but Rand insisted on keeping the whole thing, and the studio gave her a measure of respect they never dreamed of extending to, say, Faulkner. The speech could be summarized as "the first person to bake a pie was the first person to be hit in the face with a pie." It monkeys with the Prometheus myth in an odd way, turning the vengeful gods into grubby dumb humans. And while it's sometimes true that dumb people reject true innovators, isn't it truer to say that it's the gods, or fate or what have you, that grinds innovators down? The Prometheus myth rings truer than Rand's petulant appropriation of it, and her own continuing book sales should give her shade pause. If all those folks, not all of whom can be elite, love her so much, what does that do to her elitist position?
* * *

The great Eric Rohmer died recently, so to pay tribute we watched one of my favorite films, Le Rayon Vert, released in English variously as "Summer" and "The Green Ray." One of Rohmer's most improvised films, it excites me the way Altman does, finding life with the camera instead of constructing it for the camera. The star, Marie Riviere, shows us what real expressiveness is. I have no idea if she's an actor per se or simply an intuitive performer, but she's perfect for this film, which looks better with each viewing.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Time to unload some more cel-phone photos on you.


Tile from around the way.


Union Street, Concord NC.

Fixing up the gallery at Concord.
More Concord.
Down the street from the house.
Kannapolis at night.
Striking the Marat/Sade set.
The set.
Christmas in Nashville!
The old ornaments on a new tree.
Bespectackled mouse on a swing.
Stuff.
Folks.
Backyard.
Cat.
Graveyard at the mall.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Fit The Frame

Edit 1/13/13: Greetings, those of you who found this because you're searching for calendars to fit in Lang frames!  Your best bet is probably here.  Hope that helps!

I'm selling calendars in a mall kiosk part-time. It isn't what I thought I'd be doing when I was 36, but nevermind. I've learned a few things in the process.

Kid's calendars don't sell. I thought those Disney Princess calendars would fly outta here, but they just sit there, slowly warping on the shelves. I finally figured out why. Kids don't need calendars.

No one wants dog calendars. They want Their Dog calendars. When someone looks at a dog calendar and exclaims "That's my Missy! That looks just like her!" I know we've made a sale.

When women buy beefcake or cheesecake calendars, they always think they need to explain themselves.

There is a calendar publishing company called Lang that has a fiendishly brilliant scheme for locking in repeat customers. All their calendars are lovingly crafted kitsch art that're designed to look pretty on a kitchen wall and won't give you diabetes the way Thomas "No Shame" Kincaide will. But their secret weapon is the frame.

People ask for Lang calendars by name, and then tell me about the frame. Lang sells wooden frames that fit their calendars... and only their calendars. Some assembly required; women always say they bought the frame, but men always say they built a frame, as if they chopped down a tree and hand-carved it. And once people have that frame, they feel duty bound to stick their next calendar into it.

Once the Lang calendars were almost sold out (You won't find Lang calendars for sale at half price after the holidays... they'll all be gone) the Lang Frame Gang started fretting. I had customers express dissatisfaction with the few remaining Lang calendars, wander around the kiosk looking for something more appealing, and cry out "Nothing I like will fit the frame!" A common existential delimma, pithily expressed.

Do you suppose they bought the calendar they liked and decided to put the frame in the closet for a year?

Not on your life. They all bought Langs they didn't like. Gotta fit the frame.