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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Deadbeat Dads from Space and Pearls Before Swine

We saw a couple movies the other day.  Vanya on 42nd Street and Prometheus.

Vanya is essentially a performance of Uncle Vanya, not quite the gloomiest of Chekhov's plays.  I adore Chekhov; one of the delusions I harbored about acting was that it would involve doing Chekhov for a living.  If I hadn't learned better the hard way, this film's bonus documentary would have schooled me, since it involves the actors, including legendary performers and one genuine star, talking about how doing Chekhov for free without an audience was the last best hope any of them had to work on this material.

The film reminded me a bit of The Passion of Joan of Arc, the silent classic.  Close intimate faces, group compositions.  Obviously this relied on line readings a bit more though.  Intelligent, thoughtful acting.  What I want from theatre.  It saddened me to hear that, film aside, this group's ongoing exploration of Vanya was only ever performed for a coterie of A-listers.  It leads me to think the future of good theatre may be in private readings and such.

In fact, that's another association I had with this film: Almost a decade ago I was in a community theatre production of The Goat by Edward Albee, and a beloved figure of local theatre had missed it for health reasons.  Instead of a cast party, we gathered in her home and read the play.  I was astonished at the intimacy of it: we didn't need to project to the back of the house or make our expressions visible.  It was the difference between a blowtorch and a candleflame.  Vanya on 42nd Street is a movie about candleflame acting, not blowtorch acting.  It is also, of course, about Chekhov.  Codirector Andre (of My Dinner With Andre fame) says in the extra feature that Chekhov's plays are primarily about the sensation of being alive, which may be why I value them so.  Uncle Vanya is also about resenting the years wasted glorifying that which held one in virtual enslavement, so I can't help seeing it as being about the mug's game of professional acting.  Bitter?  Naw.  Although today I rewatched the demo reel of the only genuinely gifted graduate of BSC Theatre Department's Class of '96 (who graduated early in '95, and I missed her) on IMDB... She was such a remarkable performer, and her reel consists of minor TV appearances, microscopic movie appearances, and commercials for garbage.  She radiates so much humanity, sexiness,and humor, in these professional snippets, but she has been wasted by the entertainment/advertising industry.  She is pearls before swine.

As for Prometheus, I'm not sure what its titular titan has to do with the narrative, but I knew one of the main writers of Lost was involved in the film, so I wan't surprised that it included such Lost motifs as:

  • Convoluted pulpy plotting that doesn't parse very smoothly
  • Ensemble sassing
  • Skinny pretty actors
  • Pregnancy body horror
  • The present witnessing the past as an immediate way to unfold the history of the environment
  • New-ageyness that pines for simplicity yet grudgingly acknowledges complexity
  • God talk
  • Daddy issues, Daddy issues, Daddy issues

Spoiler Warning: I'm with the android.  Who cares what deadbeat Space Daddy thinks?  The Space Daddies are contiguous neither with God nor the heroine's actual Daddy, so I say she's a sap to go chasing after them.  Let the Aliens eat 'em and live your own life, gurl.  I did like the thing about the withered old immortality-seeking patriarch lurking secretly on the spaceship like the gender-bending patriarch of The Old Dark House, and his relationspaceship with his icy blonde Second was reminiscent of economic politics here in the town I reside in... for that matter, Uncle Vanya might be as well, with its self-absorbed old man toodling along and blithely exploiting the locals.

Oh also Ridley Scott has made a fantastic looking film, but I can't imagine the working class heroes of the original Alien sitting still for the operatic New Age bromides that underlie this flick.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Fat and burned, bloody and cursed



The last play I did in Birmingham was an outdoor production of Macbeth.

The director made it clear that we would be saying “Macbeth” freely throughout the production, defying the moldy old superstition that to do so brings a curse down upon any show that dares utter the dread name in rehearsal.  This cheered me, because I knew that if I went through the rehearsal period without saying Macbeth, I’d be unable to say it when the performance day arrived.

The costumer was a young woman who put all the Thanes (aka warriors) in topless outfits.  Her concept sketches revealed a fantasy of bare-chested beefcake barbarians.  Perhaps she had not noticed the doughy Alabama bodies of the men she was actually dressing.  Some of the younger guys were trim, sure, but many of us, including Your Correspondent, were too tubby and wobbly to inspire much fear on the battlefield.  Pasty saggy man-nipples melting over fuzzy guts; the evidence of our sedentary lifestyles certainly counteracted any Braveheart/300 fantasy our overseers might have had in mind.  And isn’t that comic gap between intent and onstage reality part of the joy of community theatre? 

Instead of shirts we got body makeup.  Intriguing swirly faux-tats, black and beautiful, sprayed on (no showering till after we close!).  Did I mention that we were doing this outside?  In the sun?

The day of the performance the costume designer had us Thanes pose for a few pictures.  Before each snap she urged us to roar like warriors.  We did our level best, and after she took the last of many pix, she sighed, “I love it.  So manly.”  This left me feeling a bit cheap, but that’s probably a small karmic down payment on any number of things I’ve done that’ve left others feeling the same way.

The show ended with a dope swordfight between Macbeth and MacDuff, and our Macbeth got a nasty hit on the forehead.  When I (and many others) detained him after the show to tell him how great he was, we (or at least I) assumed the blood streaming down his forehead was stage blood.  Nope.  He had to rush off to the emergency room, but was gracious enough to stand there and smile while we twittered at him.  He’s a preacher, so maybe that gives him a sense of self-sacrifice, I dunno.  Anyway, one cast member who had warned of dread results should we utter the cursed Name in rehearsal felt himself vidicated.

The show has marked me as well; standing in the sun with my bare shoulders covered in crusty black makeup gave me a memorable burn that remains as a peculiar constellation of freckly glyphs.  A fitting souvenir of my final Birmingham show. 


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Good Timing, Andy


Good Timing, Andy

by Aaron White


Car felt ready to fold up.

Ice flipping powdery rippling blacktop like on a windy beach.

Night clerk loaned her teakettle.

Monday morning went to get lobby coffee, glanced out door to outdoor pool, and that had dumped a load all over, in for audition.

Table; challenging and new that aren't going to be produced by attending audition.

Auditioned like a green tea drinker a Red Bull drinker.

Chatted with, and many them got no.

Enticing offer, except required being away for year... and a newlywed.

Packed and loaded car, incidentally glancing down hall to parking level that flooded ankle-deep with runoff.

looking good gloomy no change there.

took down a highway, off a ramp before end, into an area that clearly a week ago toppled reveal that too much.

Hunt oddly building.

Good timing, Andy.

*******************************

I wrote the preceding poem by working through this blogpost as an assignment for a free online poetry class (which I'm taking though Coursera from Professor Al Filreis, whose podcast Poem Talk is essential listening).

For this exercise, I removed every word with the letter "S".

The results were promising but insufficient, so I removed all the "of"s and "the"s, most of which were now lacking referents and just cluttering up the place.

Still too much, so I removed first-person pronouns and my least favorite remaining sentence from each paragraph.

Still not satisfied, I removed all but one sentence from each paragraph.

Finally I went through each line and scapeled out whatever I pleased.

Then I lightly polished the grammer and punctuation, capitalizing words that were now the beginnings of sentences, etc.

I'm pleased with the results, not because I think I've created great art, but because the process of reducing the memory this way gives me a sensation of letting go.  The residue of this pivotal event reduced to tea leaves which may be read and interpreted, or rinsed out of the cup.  I hope you enjoyed it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cityscope

When I was a kid, the cities of Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee seemed as big and funky as a city could be.  When I read fiction (as I did) about cities, I plugged the sights and sounds and smells of these mid-sized Tennessee cities into the books' descriptions of New York or wherever.  I grew older, and found that mid-sized cities seemed more placid and manageable as I grew in size and experience.  I assumed that the overpowering richness and immensity of The City had been, in part, a matter of my childhood size and inexperience, and I would never see the city as such an overwhelming thing again.

Last week we went to New York, and it made me feel the way those Tennessee cities used to make me feel.  It's exactly what New York is cracked up to be.  I'm grateful.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Beauty

Let's call her Lana.  She was Beauty.  Around the time I started high school I auditioned for a play at the Chattanooga Little Theater (as it was then called) titled The Masque of Beauty and the Beast.  I got the role of the banker.  Remember the banker in Beauty and the Beast?  Neither does anyone else.  My character was little more than a plot point, so after a scene or two I went backstage to a tiny little alcove and happily worked the tape recorder that triggered the musical cues, never to be seen again by the audience until the curtain call.  A future Public Radio announcer was Beast, and girls in the audience always wanted to talk to him after the show.  We got a lot of letters from children who saw the play (presumably these letters were school assignments, but we enjoyed them anyway) and Lana got a lot of mash notes from young boys.

Lana was indeed a lovely young woman with a stage presence like a steady candle flame.  A willowy blonde, she wasn't quite to my boyish tastes (I was more drawn to Beast's outgoing girlfriend and the heavyset bookish girl who played Beauty's narratively nonessential sister) but she was an ideal icon of storybook beauty.  In real life she had a kindly sass and a willingness to engage others, qualities I admired and envied.

Years later we met again.  She was answering phones for a mail-order company where I was wasting time as a security guard.  An obscene caller had been terrorizing the operators by calling up and asking them to have sex with him.  Lana brought this to an end by replying to his request with "Yeah, sure.  Where are you?  Let's do this."  He never called again.

Enter the Age of Facebook.  Someone started a memorial page for the deceased graduates of our high school.  Someone else reported that Lana had committed suicide.  I tried to verify this, and was able to find a death notice.  I cannot and will not square what I know of her life with what I read of her death.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Blogging Behind Your Back

Let's call him Steve.  He was a pink-faced, bleach-haired college boy with hellzapoppin' energy.  Everyone in attendance at the coffee shop open mike standup comedy scene was grateful for his presence.  He spat out his anecdotes about fast food mishaps with an idiosyncratic flair, one arm gesticulating, both feet shuffling, a spastic marionette with a voice that sliced through aural clutter.  His twisty punchlines within punchlines unfolded in startling directions.  Fast food joints were a recurring subject, though he had less fat on him than I had in my knuckles.  Most of the regular or irregular performers at the Wednesday night open mikes could charitably be called weak; a few were solid.  Two regulars could really deliver the goods.  Steve topped them all, while inspiring them to fresh heights.  Steve was a comedy machine.  An HBO special someday?  Not too farfetched.

He repeated his material from show to show, but hey, who didn't?  That's how comics refine, and besides, for us regulars it was like hearing favorite songs.

Steve was really supportive.  I tried my hand at standup, and after my first night he told me I delivered the strongest first standup session he'd ever seen.  Maybe he said that to all the boys, but it made me feel floaty.

(Side note: one thing I learned from doing this is that when you do some weak standup, and a solemn-faced young woman approaches you to say "You were really funny," what she's really saying is "I am really lonely."  So be nice to her.)

I remember once he introduced a friend of his at the open mike, and proceeded to hang his head in embarrassment for said friend as the friend (oh, let's call him Chuck) delivered a puzzling attempt at humor.  He was a likable, gangly guy, but his jokes seemed like improvised remarks in the noble tradition of Mort Sahl only dumb.  I only remember one thing he said:

"It's hard to be a Christian in the South!  Everybody takes the Lord's name in vain!  Why don't they take someone else's name in vain instead?"  This is an oldie but a goodie on the Christian Comedy circuit, but that first line was perplexing.  Did Chuck mean southern Saudi Arabia?  The Southeastern US probably presents fewer challenges to Christians than anywhere else in the word 'cept maybe the Holy See.

After a while we began to wish Steve would cook up some new material, even if it wasn't as strong.  Once Steve delivered a new joke, but I'd first heard it from my friend J'miza.  I recounted this to J'miza, who muttered "That nigga loves to steal jokes."  (Steve's whiteness might bear a mention here.)

The open mike shows and I drifted apart as I got more involved in community theatre (tediously documented on this blog's back pages) and I didn't see Steve for a while.  Eventually my friend Chauncey told me, "I saw Steve doing a show out of town last week.  He's still doing the same jokes about fast food."  I began to wonder who had written Steve's original material.  Had a ghost writer crafted the stuff?  If Steve wrote it himself, why wasn't there more where that came from?

And then, years later, I got a Fecesbook friend request from Steve.  I accepted, and discovered that:

  • He's a defense attorney
  • He's a Ron Paul fanatic
  • His Fecesbook posts aren't jokes.
I found his Paultard banner waving a bit tedious, but my own idées fixes are probably less than delightful to some of my FB friends.

He offered up a free downloadable album of his comedy.  I eagerly downloaded it, but found it less delightful than I'd remembered.  I find recordings of most standup to be a bit underwhelming (Minnie Pearl is an exception for some reason) so it may just be the lack of his physical presence.  I noticed, though, that a spirit of "Afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable" rippled through the comedy; not consistently so, but it was there.  A lot of ethnic humor that didn't engage other cultures; not that a comic can't play that game, but a white male child of privilege might want to be thoughtful about it in a way Steve didn't seem to be.  Some slut shaming.  Some virgin shaming.  Some low-on-the-economic-totem-pole shaming.  All's fair in comedy, or so I thought in the mid-Oughts, but it wasn't sitting too well with me half a decade later.

And my lack of laffs wasn't directly tied to my politically correct objections; heaven knows I can still enjoy some down and dirty comedy.

I wound up deleting most of the album.  I kept a few golden bits to remember him, and then, by.

Steve posted an article about how his firm, with himself involved, got a man off charges of murdering his wife.  Were they saving a poor man who'd lost his spouse, only to be falsely charged with her death?  Or were they getting a killer off?  I don't suppose I'll ever know, but I suppose it was their job either way.

Anyway, this past week saw Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day.  For the benefit of the not-impossible future reader of this epistle who isn't a scholar of corny sociopolitical brouhahas, the owner of Chick-Fil-A came out and said that he donates a portion of profits to anti-gay causes.  His choice, but some gay rights supporters called for a boycott, and in return conservative person Mike Huckabee called for "Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day."  It became a thing.  Lots of anti-gay types, many of them politicians, showed up at their local branches of Chick-Fil-A to gobble down some mall food and photo-op it up.

Steve, who had seemed to be slightly sympathetic to bullied gays in his standup, posted something to the effect of "This Chick-Fil-A food is as delicious as freedom!  Long live Christianity and Chick-Fil-A!"  And no, it wasn't a joke.  He didn't go for that brand of irony.  Fed up, I commented "Kil Mor Homos" in response.

He deleted my comment, and I finally defriended him.  Was I trying to goad him into giving me an excuse?  Maybe.  I'm sure he'll be fine.  I'm sure I will too.  It's a long way from being the most regrettable relationship conclusion in my 38 years on this earth.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

We Need To Blog About Kevin

We saw We Need To Talk About Kevin last night.  Having read and enjoyed the book I was surprised by the film's fragmentary retelling.  The novel tells the story of a woman whose son committed a school shooting.  It's an epistolary novel in which the Mom reflects to her now-absent husband on how she always believed her son was a damaged soul.  This reflective narration allows for plenty of chronological flexibility, but Mom unspools each memory or thread of incidents in a carefully detailed and closely argued fashion.  In one of my favorite passages, the Mom, whose blend of wit and misanthropy recalls Humbert Humbert, details her loathing of a McMansion her husband bought the family.  She goes on and on about every last repellant detail of the bloated McGormenghast, and it is hilarious.  Mom is a hoot.

She's also, in another Humbertian nod, an unreliable narrator.  Is her son really as monstrous as she describes him, or is her misanthropy the root of the boy's damage?  It's a Turn of the Screw-style riddle without a provided solution.

In the movie the Mother's voice, along with her vinegar wit, is mostly excised.  No voiceover or soliloquies here.  And since the film shows what the book tells, the filmmaker (Lynne Ramsay, whose painterly and elliptical filmmaking here is a tour de force) must make a hundred little choices about how to show the boy's defiance and seeming wickedness.  He comes across as thoroughly reptillian, which tilts things in the Mother's favor.

The film is also more fragmentary, skipping through chronology in a succession of quick cuts, as if George Roy Hill circa Slaughterhouse 5 dropped acid with Antonioni circa Zabriskie Point with an assist from Resnais circa Last Year at Marienbad.  Oh, you know what I mean, quit bellyachin'.

You know what the film really reminded me of?  Anime movies based on long-running series.  These movies tend to toss linear narrative out the window and rely on a kinetic parade of highlights from the story in the original TV series/comic.  Lots of details are alluded to but glossed over in the assumption that you've engaged the source material and know the context of details that are plopped down into the movie without explanation.  If you want to see an example of what I'm talking about, by all means check out Evangelion: Death and Rebirth, the adaptation of the Neon Genesis Evangelion TV show that makes utter hash of the narrative, on the assumption that you've seen the show and just want a fancy recap before the screamy, spastic, let's-throw-every-idea-we've-got-onscreen-because-we-may-never-get-another-chance-before-we-have-to-go-back-to-hackwork-for-hire film it precedes: End of Evangelion.

Anyway, I liked the film on its own gawgeously photographed terms, but I had a few quibbles.


  • No spoilers, but there's a big tearjerking surprise in the novel's conclusion that the movie flattens out by choosing to remove the Mother's narrative.
  • The film decontextualizes some of the novel's elements so vigorously that they seem like little more than accidental residue.  Mom's seeing her son's TV interview; Mom's work as a travel writer.  These things are alluded to in the film in a fashion that left my wife, who didn't read the book, confounded.  I don't think my wife was alone in this.  I know the director didn't want to elaborate things in the rational manner of the book, but I'm not sure the bewildering surrealism of the way these elements of the novel irrupt in the film seem like anything more than arty intrusions to viewers who missed the book.
  • One of my favorite parts of the novel involves the pre-shooting teen psychopath boy befriending a witless hanger-on, and their attempt to frame an innocent schoolteacher of student molestation.  Author Lionel Shriver turns this into a screamingly funny passage about how it takes brains and guile to be a successful villain; brains and guile that hangers-on can't muster.  I missed this, is all I'm saying.  The film pared things down, and some fun sequences got lost.
  • One last thing.  There's a sequence in the film where the boy takes a bow to an imagined audience in the gym just before his crime.  It's shot like something out of Triumph of the Will, which makes sense as a cinematic look at the connection between self-glorification and brutality, but as a matter of taste I'd have preferred a found-footage style presentation that replaced the Wagnerian lighting with a verite smeariness.  The subtle irony of the film's approach to this shot might be lost on people who don't get the Triumph of the Will reference, while a Who-does-this-daydreaming-little-foreskin-think-he-is? presentation might puncture the self-dramatizing more deflatingly.  
I think "deflatingly" is a good way to end a sentence or a blogpost.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Do Not Mistake the Pointing Finger For the Moon; or, From Mediated Life to Life.

In the late 90s I was enraptured by an anime miniseries called Please Save My Earth.  Never mind the story; the people who made the show certainly didn't.  It was adapted from a long-running comic book series (that screaming you hear is nerds yelling "It's not a comic book; it's MANGA!") that had way too much made-up-as-she-went-along plot to fit smoothly into the adaptation, added to which the story in the comic wasn't yet finished when the anime was made.  The first episode of the six-episode show had a leisurely pace, but as it went on the tempo picked up, with incident trampling over incident until, at the end, we got a montage of unaddressed plot threads that felt like a "Next time on Please Save My Earth" trailer and an effort at poetic, rather than narrative, resolution.  This failure/refusal/confounding of linear narrative resolution, no matter how clumsy, prepared me for literary modernism in a way my literature classes hadn't.  The ending burst like a seedpod, flinging unresolved plot threads and dimly glimpsed story points all over, and I found it more entrancing than any tidy conclusion could have been.

So I was really into this show.  At one point in it there's a shot of a tree with its leaves wafting in the breeze; it had no narrative significance, but it was pretty to look at while the heroine narrated at us, and perhaps it suggested a context to her affairs that a more conventional picture of her face wouldn't provide.  For some reason this animated image of a tree resonated with me, perhaps because I lived in a neighborhood full of trees.

Every night I would come home from my second-shift job and walk the dog in the dark.  One of our neighbors had placed a light under a tall tree; the light shone up the shaft of the tree, illuminating its entire length up to the canopy of leaves.  I think I would have overlooked it if I hadn't had that animated image of a tree awakening me to the way trees exist on their own beside our lives; the numinousness of trees suddenly mattered to me after a life of living around them, and that illuminated tree became a nightly touchstone for me.

So.  I've progressed from cartoon trees (that in retrospect looked more like wobbling green bubble gum blobs than foliage) to trees with dramatic lighting, to just liking trees in general.  I regard this as progress: from the mediated experience to the thing itself.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Joaningo Road

I saw a movie called Flamingo Road recently.

  • Michael "Casablanca" Curtiz directed, and the film does a crackerjack job of zipping around multiple locations in a small city without ever getting confusing.  I felt like I knew my way around town by the end.
  • It's one of those movies where every little diner is the size of a ballroom, and beautifully lit, yet still seeming cozy cuz of all the little nooks within that expanse.  Lots of delightfully sassy waitresses and such, any one of whom could support a picture of their own.
  • Joan Crawford stars as a sweet young thang, despite clearly being in her mid-forties.  She plays the part well, but still looks more like your Aunt than your crush.  Multiple scenes of guys seeing her for the first time and reacting as if she is the most desirable woman they've ever set eyes on.  Maybe this is part of her appeal for her hardcore fans; the obvious element of fantasy and role-playing.  No wonder people who are drawn to drag are also drawn to Joan; she was kinda doing drag.
  • Sure, it's easy to laugh at this movie, but one thing makes it linger with me weeks after I saw it.  Joan's character wants the freedom to pursue happiness.  She gets involved in politics, not because she's drawn to the politics, but because a political power broker (Sidney Greenstreet, doin' his creepy thang) is messing with her, and she has to push back to achieve that objective.  Through jobs, arrests, love affairs and betrayals, Joan's character is never passive, never just about supporting her man, and never a Femme Fatale.  She's bold and assertive, but the film never makes her out to be wicked.  It's kinda proto-feminist; the idea that a woman can pursue happiness on her own terms isn't common enough in Tinseltown, then or now.



Friday, May 18, 2012

http://robilla.tumblr.com

It's my new picture blog.  A mix of abstractish art, stuff I liked as a kid/teen/kidult, oddball bricabrac, pop culture with its pants down.  Admittedly most of it forwarded from other such sites, but some personal pix and fireside chats.  I started it for a class on social media as they pertain to libraries, so expect some class-related modulation between now and the end of the Summer term.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Minnelli Bovary

I'm fascinated by this essay.  Robin Wood was a brilliant and idiosyncratic film critic whom I respect, so to read his heartfelt defense of Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary is an intriguing experience, since I consider the film to be a stinker.  My wife and I watched the film shortly after finishing the novel (in Merloyd Lawrence's translation).  I don't expect film adaptations to be "faithful" to the source in a pious way, but to play with it the way Charlie Parker played with Embraceable You, to wit:


So I'm a bit put off by Wood's insinuation that those of us who dismiss the film for straying from the book are demanding overmuch fidelity to source material at the expense of the film's own integrity.  I don't ask for much from adaptations, but at least read the darn book before adapting it.

Wood and I agree, though: it's fruitless to evaluate the film in relation to the novel.  I doubt that anyone who worked on the film even read the novel, except an uncredited script department drone who wrote the plot synopsis which I suspect was the true source material for the film.  After all, if you're trying to capture the complexity of Emma Bovary, you don't cast a hambone like Jennifer Jones in the role.  And poor James Mason, in the thankless role of Flaubert, gets stuck mouthing narration that hews far more closely to Ye Olde Tinseltown Hack's Guide to Purple Prose than, well, Merloyd Lawrence, through whose translating lens I've viewed Flaubert.

I don't mind that, as Robin Wood explains, Minnelli made a film that was not a Flaubert adaptation, but while he was making a film that wasn't a Flaubert adaptation, couldn't he have refrained from titling it Madame Bovary, as if it were a Flaubert adaptation?  I call it a bait and switch.  I call it rude.

It's odd that Wood doesn't talk about the casting of Van Heflin as Charles Bovary.  In the book poor Charles is a nebbish who puts his wife on a pedestal but never understands her longings or perceives her infidelity.  Heflin, whom I liked as a tough-but-sensitive hero in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (where he convincingly out-butched Kirk Douglas), isn't obvious casting for the role of a clueless nebbish, and the way Minnelli mans Charles up to suit Heflin while still sticking to the plot summary memo he'd received from the script department is rather remarkable.  Heflin plays the role like "Chuck Bovary, Gumshoe Cowboy," and a guy like that doesn't miss his wife's philandering.  No, what he does is forgive it.  Confronted with written evidence of Emma's straying, he burns the proof in front of her, letting her know that he won't hold it against her.  It's almost as if he gives her tacit permission to be monogamish instead of monogamous if that's what it takes to keep her.  As daring as the novel was, the film actually one-ups it with this striking portrayal of a man letting his wife cheat if that's what it takes to keep the marriage afloat.  It's the kind of thing that probably goes on more than anyone wants to acknowledge, so kudos to Minnelli for tellin' it like it is.

One more thing: a lot of the action in the novel and film takes place in the city of Rouen.  How do you pronounce Rouen?  I don't know, and neither does anyone in the film.

"So how do you like Rown?'

"Oh, it's marvelous!  Row-wahn is the loveliest place I've ever seen!"

"Yes, she's had quite a time here in Roo-en."

Pure community theatre.

But check out the Ball scene, which Wood singles out for praise.  Revisiting it on Youtube almost convinces me to give the film another try.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Bibliophile Owl-Earl

Apropos of nothing, I'm thinking about Sepulchrave, the Earl of Gormenghast, in the novel Titus Groan.  I need to reread the book, but as I recall, his situation is this: required by inherited title to perform meaningless rituals all day, he traipses, alone, to his library each night to find solace in books.  The rituals he is bound to perform every day are things like throwing rose petals into a fountain while reciting a bit of verse.  All these rituals are ancient parts of Castle Gormenghast's culture, but the meanings of the rituals are neither remembered nor considered.  In Gormenghast, the signifiers remain, but their referents have been sawed off beneath them.  The value of the rituals is not in what they signified to their originators, since no one remembers what that might have been, nor in what fresh significance might be crafted for them by the current practitioners, since no one bothers.  The value is seen as intrinsic: doing the rituals is what is done, for the good of The Stones, the stones that make Castle Gormenghast.  However complex the signification of these rituals may have been in a (presumed, never acknowledged) Golden Age, they have been reduced to the level of superstition and taboo.  It's no surprise that the Earl's job satisfaction is poor; there's no sense of accomplishment or significance in what he does, only obligation.

I don't recall what his reading consisted of (another reason to reread the book), but The Earl's nightly library time doesn't seem to involve any research into the point of the rituals.  Perhaps he could refresh the rituals by delving deeper into his own culture, but this he does not do.  He's the pitiful bibliophile, using books as solace/escape from a disappointing life, rather than as an enrichment of life.  This, I can assure from personal experience, is no way to live.

Sepulchrave goes cray-cray after his library burns down; he thinks he's an owl.  This animal isn't chosen at random; Gormenghast's highest tower is abandoned by humans, inhabited by giant owls.  Perhaps this owl masquerade is the Earl's desperate attempt to go deeper into Gormenghast's heart than the stagnant contemporary culture of Gormenghast will permit; or perhaps the poor man just wants to escape from meaningless symbolism, unmotivated (and unmotivating) busywork, and insufficient significance.   Owls don't do symbolism (although they can be made to symbolize, as Pallas Athena could attest).  Owls just live, as The Earl tries to live, mouse-eating and all.  Finally The Earl goes to The Tower, ascending into that physical, rather than idealogical, part of Gormenghast that humans have abandoned, and gets consumed by owls himself, which may represent a cathartic embrace of The Real for the under-stimulated Earl, but of course it does neither himself nor his family any good.

The Gormenghast books leave me contemplating missed opportunities, as each character, many of whom have promising qualities, is held back from fulfillment by the pointlessness of everything their culture values (which boils down to the aforementioned ritual).  if the Earl could have found, in his books, a means of instaurating (a term I take from fantasy critic John Clute) his culture with the best bits of what it had forgotten (why throw those petals in the fountain?  Is the forgotten meaning worth remembering?), he might have saved himself and his culture.  Cultural stagnation and arteriosclerosis of the class system are the ruination of Gormenghast.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Alma Matters

When I arrived at my alma mater, the student newspaper wasn't anything to call your Mom about.  People routinely carped about the puff pieces, the weak efforts at humor, the amateurish layout (And yes, I know I'm being awfully snarky for someone who uses a prefab Blogger website, but I make no pretense to this being other than a vanity blog, while a student paper ought to sit up straight and comb its hair).  One time in my freshperson year, the paper grasped for greatness, at least of a comic nature, with a proto-Onion article about a fraternity getting a bug zapper;  this inspired some real amusement.  Its knowing lack of substance was no less nutritious than the rest of the paper's offerings, though, so the joke reflected poorly on the whole journalistic enterprise.

Over the years of my time there, more ambitious up-and-comers changed things.  By my senior year, some future editors of professional papers were testing their skills at the rag.  I recall sitting at the cafeteria table with freshman K--- W------- as he leafed through the school year's first issue and dissected its failings with an anger that suggested he would soon be pressing for changes.  He would indeed, along with G----- B---- and G---- P-----.  By the end of the year the failings K---- had detected were gone, baby, gone.  Soon the paper boasted an improved layout, a lively editorial page, and even a humor column that, lo and behold, was amusing.  The only thing missing was that staple of college papers, vulgar cartoons.  Dunno why.

The paper even indulged in some investigative journalism, proving that the administration's claims that the the campus food services were being run on a nonprofit basis were false.  Not that there's anything wrong with trying to make a buck per se, but all students were required to buy into the meal plan, and there were no refunds for unspent meal plan moneys, so trying to make a profit off a captive customer base (with no competition for those moneys) wasn't exactly playing by Adam Smith's playbook.  Nothing changed, but at least we knew where we stood.

After I graduated I still came crawling back to campus and scooped up the paper.  It continued to grow in might.  The humor writers got funnier and more pointed, and the editorial page initiated two regular columns, one by a fightin' liberal (who largely focused on local social justice issues) and one by a peacemaking conservative (who extended the hand of come-let-us-reason-together bipartisanship to lefties in a manner I found irresistible.  I need to find out what happened to that guy.)  And although I wasn't a sports fan, I'm told the sports page was exceptional.

Then one year the bottom fell out.  Suddenly most of the student-written content vanished, to be replaced by syndicated national news stuff, so if you wanted to know what Bill Clinton had done the previous week, the school paper was your rag.  Heaven help anyone who gets their national news from a college newspaper.  The humor columnists and the lefty guy remained, but the conservative guy had graduated and his replacement lacked his ability to draw illuminating connections.  She just typed up that week's values voter talking points and called it a day.

I was friendly with the lefty guy, and still consider him a friend (despite his cold snubbing of my facebook friend request last year) so I asked him (this is shortly after the paper's downturn) what happened.  As he explained it, K--- W------- and G---- B---- had been grooming the sports page editor to take over, but the Student Council had the final say in the matter, and they chose Miss Affability instead of Mr. Black Guy With A Track Record.  (For the record, two of the three editors who made the paper great were in fact editrixes, and the better of the humor columnists was female, lest anyone think I'm implying that the gender of the new editor (or righty editorialist) was a problem.)  It seems the new sheriff in town just wasn't up to scratch.

The climax came a few months later, when the paper carried a huge advertisement, a half-pager or so.  As I later heard from an English Prof (who accepted my facebook friend request, bless her) someone called the ad editor and placed a big order.  The ad editor said "yes I said yes I will yes" without adding "Oh, sorry but I have to ask: the ad doesn't say the Holocaust is a myth, does it?"  And so the ad went straight to the printer without anyone from the paper checking to make sure it didn't say the Holocaust was a myth.  And so my alma mater's school paper found itself one day besmirched with a tiny-type explanation of how Them Thar Juden are skeered to honestly debate the reality of the Holocaust.  I assume I was not the only person to send the editor an email explaining that she was perhaps a bit of a fool.  Apparently everyone with on-campus emails got an apology/explaination, while those with email accounts ending in ranma.com didn't, which explains why I didn't.  ( I also found that ranma.com email accounts only had enough memory for about two messages, which may explain why it did not last and ranma.com is a rather enigmatic website today.  It was the 90s, people.)

About a decade later the paper got some national notoriety because, as part of its hallowed tradition of reporters interviewing their friends and fobbing it off as journalism, the paper ran an interview with a pair of students who went on to burn down a bunch of churches.  This interview got a lot of play in what-were-they-thinking articles.  (Another thing about those guys: I was almost in a lo-budget comedy movie with them.  I auditioned, got offered a small part in which I woulda been interacting with the arsonists themselves.  I thought the script was unpromising, and took a pass.  The production was scuttled by the boys' arrests.  The filmmaker planned to salvage to footage with a documentary, but he didn't seem like the sensitive insight type, so I doubt it panned out.  On the other hand, his awesome loft apartment/audition space was decorated with Kandinsky and Klee prints.  Kandinsky and Klee are My Favorites, so maybe I'm underrating his potential.)

Recently I went looking for online versions/archives of the alma mater paper, like grown-up college papers have.  I found a couple of listless, abandoned efforts at online versions scattered about the place, but for archives you gotta go to my alma mater's library.  Have fun.

If this article reads oddly (or even poorly), that's what comes of mixing foreign beer with American microbrews.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Teenager From Inner Space

Daddy Tired.

I'm in Gradjulate Skuwl so I don't have as much time/energy/focus for this blog as I did when I had an office job and posted during lulls in work.  Heck, I barely have time to make the eight espressos a day I swill down just to keep the pace brisk.  Plus we have a new cat we're trying to teach not to shred the flesh off of everyone who comes near.  

Of course when a Man/Child gets this much responsibility, he starts to remember more innocent times.  Times when he took games like Teenagers from Outer Space really seriously.

When I was in high school, this game (abbreviated TFOS) seemed to offer a way to reframe the whole experience, make it less frustrating and more fun.  A few years later I discovered anime, and yet I didn't make the connection between Rumiko Takahashi, a manga artist whose work Teenagers From Outer Space openly cannibalized, and TFOS itself, even though I was obsessed with Rumiko Takahashi's work (because it seemed to offer a way to reframe my whole post-college experience, make it less etc.)  Only now, as I take a fresh look at TFOS, do I see that I was playing in Rumiko's world before I ever fell in love with Rumiko's work.

What's more, I have two supplements to the game, one from R. Talsorian, the company that released the game, and another from a third-party startup.  

The first is called Field Trip.  It's a module (for non-dorks: a role-playing module is essentially a ready-made story for gamers to use, absolving the referee of the responsibility of creating the story, instead socking the ref with the responsibility to learn the story) that I haven't really read.  The plot hinges on a School Vice Principal organizing a booby-trapped field trip.  The idea of an utterly hostile Vice Principal doesn't square with even my most persecution-complexy school memories, and strikes me as a nonclever variation on what I wanted from TFOS: a recasting of school experience to make it more fun.  Yeah, I liked satirizing the faculty in these games, but I knew they didn't HATE us.  They just hated the cruddier things we did.  Early in the module the Vice Principal hijacks the school bus and reveals himself to be a terrorist sleeper agent, at which point I ran out of patience, not due to post-9/11 sensitivity, but out of exasperation.  These dumb jokes don't resonate with my school experience.

Then there's a more recent thing called The Landing.  It's devoted to describing a shopping mall for the TFOS characters to enjoy.  The writing is a mess.  The original TFOS writing style has a competent-standup-comic verve; the jokes may be hit or miss, but there's a sense of humor and an offer to enjoy yourself.  The Landing's style isn't reminiscent of standup; it's reminiscent of a science project report, droned aloud by a dull, serious student.  It's full of poorly thought out ideas for jazzing up your fantasy mall, but the most irksome element is the new races.

TFOS has 4 races your characters can be: human, near human, not-very-near-human and Real Weirdie.  Not so much races as categories, right?  It's a terrific way to encourage the right loosy-goosy spirit, because you can play pretty much anything under these rules.

So why do you need new races?

The new races turn out to be various categories of Furry.  One humanoid fox race, TWO humanoid cat races (one anthropomorphic cat, the other human-with-cat-ears-and-tail, an oddly popular image in Japanese cartoons) and grumpy-old-man goldfish.  Okay, the goldfish are cool.

(Sidenote: In my view there's a substantial difference between traditional funny animals (Uncle Scrooge etc.) and the whole furry thing.  Uncle Scrooge is really a human disguised as a duck for a practical cartooning reason: cartooning is in part about abstraction, and by giving Scrooge a duck bill and a ducklike stance he's abstracted far away from any human appearance.  So you can't judge him by his looks.  You have to evaluate his deeds and words.  So it is with most funny animals; they're just people whom we must judge by their behavior, since their appearances don't reveal much about them.

With furry art, though, the duck bill or the squirrel tail is the whole point.  These characteristics are fetishistic, not always in a sexual sense, but certainly in a broader meaning of the word "fetish."  And people have a right to their fetishes, even if they ick me out (and furry icks me out to an illogical extent). but I love cartoon animals while disliking anything forthrightly furverted. )

I don't mind a'tall that some people take their TFOS with a side of Furry.  To thine own self be true; I always used this kind of game to address my heart's yearnings, so why shouldn't furries?  But I'm a little irked by the way furry stuff permeates The Landing, not because I don't like furry stuff, but because I don't like the attempt to encroach on the freedom of the original game's premises.  The nature of TFOS is to allow for any kind of character, but the nature of The Landing is to mandate specific kinds of character: the kinds The Landing's creators enjoy.  In this sense TFOS is small-l liberal and/or libertarian, while The Landing is small-c conservative.  The former gives unfettered permission to Do Your Thing, while the latter wants you to Do The Author's Thing; it tries to corral you into a rigidly defined set of values and fetishes (and fetishes are usually rigorous in their rigid definition.)

Anyway, I'm going to grad school as part of my ongoing (in part successful) efforts to have good life experience directly instead of mediating life through entertainment.