Friday, March 30, 2007
This goes on all the time, of course; one culture after another picks an animal and makes the poor critter the repository of all the alleged cultural virtues, whereas the animal itself is just trying to make a living and support the wife and kids on the crummy salary national symbols get paid. This happens to birds all the time; the French cockerel, for example, does not worry all that much about projecting pride, arrogance, and that certain je ne sais quoi that makes the French French. No, he’s just trying to avoid being the coq au vin when your family comes over for Sunday night dinner and sometimes he does not succeed. Recently, Americans had had to put up with penguins marching hither and yon, like maitre de’s on parade, and some animated nonsense about penguins dancing up a storm south of the border, down Antarctica way. Now, penguins may dress better than your average bird, who, with a few exceptions, tend to dress with all the style of your sixteen-year old son going to the junior prom (ruffled pink shirts and big bowties? What the hell were we thinking?), but penguins also tend to live together in huge colonies without bathrooms, like the completely stoned inhabitants of some very bad 1960’s hippie commune—ashram—Volkswagen minibus packed with Deadheads, and feed their kids by puking half-digested fish into their mouths on a regular basis. Try doing that with your kid and the tuna sandwich you had this morning and see how fast you wind up in the slammer. Clearly, while the penguin is, no doubt, a very snappy dresser, penguins are lousy dancers and it’s pretty clearly they lack the social graces to be successful in modern American society. So, eagles are noble, doves are peaceful, swans are romantic; this sort of thing is all codswallop and balderdash, when it isn’t busy being poppycock. Birds are none of the above; they are altogether filthy creatures with quite disgusting, if not actually nauseating, personal habits, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they wouldn’t mind crapping all over your brand new shoes just for the fun of it, if you gave them half a chance. All the patriotic chest thumping about the symbolic importance of the bald eagle can’t change that one damn bit.
Other species get the same sort of treatment as well, and I blame most of this on Walt Disney. During his career, Walt probably did more to protect animals that don’t deserve protecting than anyone else in human history. Mice, whether you call them Mickey or Minnie, are not cute little adorable balls of furry fun; they are vermin. Ducks really are as vile-tempered as Donald is, so there’s a little truth in advertising there, and deer are not sweet, lovable nature’s children who only want to play and frolic in the forest primeval with their cute little furry friends without having to worry about people and their nasty firearms; deer are oversized rats with hooves. Deer don’t want to frolic in the forest primeval; they want to eat my mother’s geraniums and her shrubbery and crap all over my front yard every chance they get. So when my co-workers accused me of trying to kill Bambi the other night, my answer is a) I didn’t kill the deer, b) I wasn’t trying to kill a deer at all, it was an accident, and c) the little bastard had it coming.
The fact is all I was doing was going to get my mother some milk and eggs. I was on a back road and a car had just passed me when I saw a deer bolt across the road like he’d just heard Bugs say deer season. I jammed on the brakes, as the one thing you learn quickly about deer around here is that where you see one, you will quickly see two. In my case, there were six or seven of the despicable beasts, all charging across the road at top speed without bothering to look to see if there was any traffic coming. There was; I was it. I managed to miss deer two through six with considerable ease; number seven, on the other hand, proved a little harder to miss, given its insistence on charging right in front of me and then hurling itself up onto the hood of my car. I slammed on the brakes; it seemed the right thing to do at the time; and the sudden de-acceleration caused my somewhat unconventional passenger to go flying through the air with the greatest of ease, and to land without the slightest scintilla of acrobatic grace. He landed with a pretty loud thump. As if that were not enough, the beast then gave me a dirty look that said if he had two legs instead of four, he’d be looking for a lawyer and suing my ass off right now. Then he went charging off into the woods after his friends, and without giving me his insurance card, either, which is the sort of silly irresponsible behavior that give many deer a bad name these days, if you ask me.
I suppose things could have been worse; hitting the deer only resulted in $327.56 worth of damage to the car. While he was busy being an unwilling hood ornament, the deer managed to kick my passenger’s side mirror off its mounting and to damage the electrical system on that side of the car, too. I wasn’t hurt at all, except in the wallet, and I think the deer suffered little more than bruised ribs and injured pride; he was up and running within seconds of my hitting him; so maybe this will alert him to the dangers of running around with a fast crowd after dark. If it doesn’t, then the next time he gets in my way, see if I cut Nature Boy anymore slack; no way, Bambi—next time, you’re venison.
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
It’s not like other people don’t do have their ethnic celebrations in the spring and summer already. The Puerto Rican Day Parade is usually in late June, usually on the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, and that parade pulls in people like nobody’s business. Once upon a time in America, the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade was the biggest parade in the ethnic pride game, the champ o’champs, in a manner of speaking, but all of that is one with Nineveh and Tyre now, I fear; the Puerto Ricans have the Irish beat hands down when it comes to parades these days. You can ascribe the reason to any number of different things: salsa is easier on the nerves than bagpipers, the chicas are usually easier on the eyes than the colleens, although I shouldn’t say such a thing in public, and the Irish all live in the suburbs now and prefer to watch the parade on television just like other Americans, while the Puerto Ricans still live in the city and can get to the parade on mass transit. These, of course, are mere rationalizations. The reason the Puerto Rican Day Parade can draw more people is that the Puerto Ricans don’t have to worry about a foot of snow falling the day before the parade. March weather is famously variable, much like the Irish themselves; sometimes you will get a parade day that is warm and sunshiny, and other years, like this one, you will find that winter likes it here in this part of our Great Republic and has no intention of moving on peacefully, even if you call the cops.
I suppose I could have gone to the parade, if I’d really put my mind to it; the railroad announced that they were running special express trains down to the city so people could get to the parade more or less on time; I even heard some of those trains go by. It’s just that to get to the train I had to exhume my car from beneath a veritable Chimborazo of snow first, and this, as with so many things in life, was very easy to say and not quite as easy to do.
Among the complicating factors was our happy little burg’s own highway department. The boys love a good snowstorm, because it lets them show their stuff to maximum effect. During the warm months of the year, a good many people wonder just what in the hell the highway department does with all of its time and our tax money, especially since all anyone ever sees them do when it’s warm out is stand around holes of varying sizes in the road discussing what to do next while wearing orange reflective vests and hard hats and not really doing very much about the hole. In winter, though, the boys down at the highway department come into their own. Let the weatherman predict a couple of inches of snow and they leap into action. Hardly a snowflake will have touched the ground before they are out with the sanders and the snowplows, spreading sand and salt and good cheer amongst all and sundry, pushing the snow off the roads so nervous motorists can go about their business in relative safety. This is a good thing, I think, and the citizens of our happy little burg ought to thank the highway department and all of its minions for the good job they do in clearing the streets of unwanted precipitation.
But Einstein, or someone else way smarter than me, explained that matter and energy are really one and the same thing, and because of this, therefore, you could not destroy matter, only transform it into something else. Thus it is with snow. When the highway department comes through clearing the streets with their plows, they are not actually getting rid of the snow; they are taking the snow in the road, which prevents people from using the roads safely, and moving the damnable stuff into people’s driveways, which prevents people from using the roads at all. It is small wonder, then, that there are so few traffic accidents after the plows have come through a given neighborhood: in order to have a traffic accident, you must have traffic, which isn’t going to happen until the populace can dig their cars out from under of the twelve inches of snow that just fell in their driveways and the several feet of snow the highway department just shoved on top of the snow you haven’t managed to get rid of yet. Some people have complained about this in the past, to little or no effect; the snow in the road has to go somewhere and the highway department takes the view that where the snow goes after they’ve moved it out of the streets is the snow’s own business; it’s a free country, after all, and the complainers should be happy that the highway department is providing settlers in our happy little burg with ramparts that will withstand the most vigorous Indian attack until the cavalry arrives, assuming, of course, that the cavalry doesn’t have to use the local streets.
In addition to this, one must always expect the utterly expectable. You do not go to a bordello, Mel Brooks once remarked, and then complain to the management that the place is not a Howard Johnson’s. Life is not like that. Deserts are hot in the daylight and cold at night. Rivers are, almost without exception, fairly wet. Pistachios, if consumed in large enough quantities, will cause your gall bladder to rebel. There is something newsworthy happening right now in the Middle East. Letting your little brother borrow your snow blower is not a good idea. These all fall in the realm of the expectable. You should not expect that something different from what you know to expect to occur. It will not. The wise man will know that it is in the nature of little brothers to borrow snow blowers and tell you that you will get the device, which you bought for well over $700, back shortly. This is a delusion. It will not happen. You will stand next to your car, your heart pounding dangerously in your chest as you shovel and shovel and shovel like there’s no tomorrow, and in this case, there isn’t; nobody has a day after Saint Patrick’s Day parade; and there your little brother is, steadily pushing your snow blower and using the gas you bought for the purpose of clearing your driveway to clear his driveway. Your little brother will be big about the situation, though; after he has used all of your gas he will help you dig your car out, and with his contribution to the task at hand, you will have the car out of the snow bank and ready to go to the train station in time for the Puerto Rican Day Parade. I guess that’s something.
Sunday, March 18, 2007
My love of the subject, however, does come with this one drawback: historically based films tend to annoy me no end. It’s not that I have anything against the genre per se; I simply find that no matter how much I want to suspend my disbelief I can’t help noticing what the producers got wrong. Even such an innocuous film as the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice annoys me when I watch it. There’s nothing wrong with the film, of course; with a screenplay by Aldous Huxley and starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, this version of Jane Austen’s classic is one of the best cinematic adaptations of a great work of literature ever made. What annoys me is that while the novel is set at some unnamed point in the 1790’s and early 1800’s, the women in this adaptation are wearing clothing that wouldn’t be in style for another thirty or forty years. Pointing out this sort of thing tends to mark one as insufferably pedantic at best and as an unspeakable bore at worst, so I usually try to go to such films by myself, the better to gloat over the stupidity of the producers, who spent all of that money getting the facts wrong when they could have gotten the facts right and still have an excellent film.
This leads, invariably, I think, to a discussion of 300, the new multimillion-dollar cartoon about the Spartan stand against the Persians at Thermopylae. This film is based on a graphic novel, a form of publication people my age still call comic books because calling them comic books annoys teenagers no end, and let’s face it, anything that can annoy a teenager no end can’t be all bad. The trouble is that the comic book and its sensibility, if you want to call them that, damage this film from start to finish. There are so many problems with this flick that the mind boggles at where to start, so let’s start with the basics: the script bites the big one.
At this point in my movie going career, I know the drill when it comes to historical epics: the dialogue is always stilted, stiff, and altogether dopey, and does not, in any way, shape, or form, resemble human speech as such speech is known to occur in all human societies at all periods since the Paleolithic Age. The further back in history you go, the worse this problem gets. The 1964 movie version of this battle, The 300 Spartans, starring Richard Egan and a host of other people whose names escape me at the moment, has the same problem, although it has one great line that somehow managed to get into the script: “the gods give us beautiful girls to marry, and then they turn them into wives.” This sort of heavy wooden dialogue is simply part of the genre package. Ten-ton dialogue is especially prevalent in almost any movie based on the Bible. In The Ten Commandments, for example, Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner could have raised a couple of pyramids using the words in the script alone, and I would be willing to bet good money that the reason Heston and Brynner got those roles is that they were the only two actors in Hollywood who could say those lines and one, make them sound even vaguely credible, and two, not collapse in hysterical fits of laughter on a regular basis while trying to say them.
Most people, however, other than the usual suspects, do not speak as if they thought the FBI had a bug in the room and they didn’t want get caught saying something incriminating. Even people in 480 BC didn’t talk that way. 300’s dialogue problem occurs because no one should be saying this stuff out loud in the first place; you should be reading it in a balloon over the character’s head, and now, freed from the space limitations of the printed page, you can listen to more of it than you really want to. The dialogue feels like someone’s pumped it full of steroids and couldn’t care less if the actors can’t pass the drug test. The actors aren’t really delivering their lines, they’re bloviating on camera, and their inexperience shows; only politicians can really bloviate well, and why would you spend ten bucks to see actors bloviate badly on a movie screen when you can, in the comfort of your own home, watch Congress bloviate for free on C-Span?
The battle scenes are suitably gory, as befits a war film, but even here, where the film should be on solid footing, the whoppers accumulate like crabgrass. If the producers of 300 had taken the trouble to consult a book about Sparta other than the comic book they based the film on, they would have quickly learned that the Spartans, like the Prussians, were not a country with an army; they were an army with a country. The Spartans were, without a doubt, the premier soldiers of ancient Greece, the individual Spartan soldier being the final and finest product of a militaristic society that brutally trained men from childhood to withstand anything any enemy could throw at them. War and the preparations for war were the central focus of all Spartan society, subsuming every other field of intellecual, artistic, or commercial endeavor. Combat provided the Spartan state and the individual Spartan soldier with the very reason for their existence. In short, unlike the cinematic Spartans of 300, the real Spartans were probably the last group of men in ancient Greece to show up for a major battle wearing only their underwear.
Yet, in the movies, as with the Almighty, all things are possible, and in 300, the Spartans fight while bare-chested and wearing leather underwear (I am assuming that it’s leather and not very dirty Fruit of the Looms). The producers let the cinematic Spartans keep their shields, swords, spears, and greaves; I suppose they did not want to strain the audience’s credulity too much, although I should point out that there were no elephants at Thermopylae, no cavalry charge at Thermopylae, and no armored rhinoceros at Thermopylae, either (I thought the rhino was pretty cool, though). If Xerxes really wanted to bring along an elephant or a rhinoceros he could have found someone to get him a pair, I guess; he was the king, after all, and as Mel Brooks says, it’s good to be king; but he didn’t. Neither did he order a cavalry charge; if had done something that stupid Herodotus would have mentioned it in his history of the war. No, Thermopylae was a straight up infantry battle that the Persians won because they found a way around the Spartan position; a man named Ephialtes told the Persians about the mountain track that led around the position, ratting his fellow Greeks out for money. Herodotus does not mention if this two-bit stool pigeon looked, as 300 would have it, like a Hellenic version of Gollum.
As for the political intriguing in Sparta, the less said the better. Much as I like watching a good-looking woman eviscerate a crooked politician with a sword, this scene poses two immediate problems. First, why doesn’t this scheming pol have his money at home in the freezer like any good anti-war politician should, instead of carrying his boodle around in his wallet, and second, the Persians paid the man off in gold. The man was a Spartan. Where was he going to spend the money? The Spartans used iron bars tempered in vinegar for currency; they wanted to make sure no one spent a lot of time trying to get rich when they should be out training to fight someone. The Spartans had little use for commerce in general and none at all for luxury goods. They were a plainspoken, simple, agrarian society and the Spartans intended to stay that way.
As for the Persians in 300, well, if I were an Iranian government official looking at this film, I wouldn’t be happy, either. Iranians regard this period, from the rise of Cyrus the Great to the toppling of the ancient monarchy by Alexander, as one of the greatest eras in their long national history, and watching Hollywood turn your culture into prolonged camp cannot be that easy to stomach. I mean, really, is it just me or does Xerxes and his travelling freak show look remarkably like they’re trying to find their way to San Francisco’s annual Gay Pride parade? The producers make Xerxes look like an epicene twit who’d have a monumental hissy fit if those nasty Spartans broke just one of his fingernails. And there were entirely too many shots, I thought, of bare-chested Spartans standing around looking buff in their leather briefs. Gay erotica is all very well and good if you like that sort of thing, but 300 is, ostensibly, a war movie, even a tragedy, and not, as the producers seem to believe, a celebration of beefcake.
And I suppose in these politically correct times I should point out that, for all their talk of freedom, the Spartans weren’t exactly the most inclusively democratic people who ever lived, but that is anachronism in its purest form, and I had a history professor who warned all his students that engaging in anachronism, speculation, and the genetic fallacy were historical sins you should avoid at all costs. So, I will take his advice and skip the usual rant about the gross inequities of Spartan society, and just say that if you really want to know what happened read Herodotus’ The Histories. There is a great film in the epic Greek stand against the Persians in the mountain pass of Thermopylae. 300, unfortunately, is not it; in fact, 300 barely qualifies as the cartoon version.
Monday, March 12, 2007
But this year’s play was wonderful, as such things go; the kids did their best, but speaking verse doesn’t come naturally to American kids unless they’re rapping about politically incorrect antisocial behavior, and so they filled the night with a singsong manner of speaking they wouldn’t dream of using in their real lives without a Dr. Seuss book in their hands and their annoying little brother or sister sitting next to them. Still, they did a good job of it, all things considered. The parts with Bottom and his merry crew of incompetent thespians went very well, indeed; here the requirements of the part and the skill of the actors met and melded in a positive orgy of overacting, with the smell of ham fried, roasted, and boiled permeating every part of the theater, to the absolute delight of the audience, who no doubt thought that the play was over and Rachael Ray was somewhere in the building about to cook up a thirty minute meal for everyone. In short, a good time was had by all and sundry.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have gone to this showing, but the niece was in the play this year and I had to go and show moral and financial support. She was one of Titania’s fairies; it was not a speaking role and so, along with the rest of the nonverbal cast, she had to spend a lot of time up on stage nodding her head as if she agreed with everything the principals were saying and in general being conscious that hundreds of people were looking at her not do anything. As a high school student, of course, she often spends a good deal of time not doing anything with hundreds of people around, but she is usually not cognizant of their presence. Ignoring an audience is a bit harder to do, especially in the new high school’s equally brand spanking new theater. That auditorium is huge, not at all like the overheated hole in the wall wherein I flung my iambs all those years ago. I also noticed that the typical high school division of labor was yet again at work in this particular production. The popular girls got all the best roles, and apart from my niece, who is tall and willowy, most of the rest of Titania’s fairies looked remarkably like the Chicago Bears’ defensive line. If Oberon, the king of the fairies, had tried anything with Titania while those girls were on stage, they’d have knocked him back on his ass for a fourth down and a loss of seven yards.
In any case, the niece had very little to do up there and she did it very well, I thought, and I was impressed that she thought so much of the part that she actually colored her hair a uniform shade of something dark in order to play it. This is, in and of itself, no mean accomplishment, and I think you could safely say that this might even be one of the few triumphs of modern American secondary education. The niece’s hair has been all the colors of the rainbow these past few years, and often several of those rainbow colors at the same time, and for a school project to engross her to the extent that she would willingly surrender her ongoing experiments in tonsorial spectroanalysis is nothing to sneer at. Of course, the dark color her hair is now is not her natural color, or, at least, I don’t think it is; it’s been quite a while since I saw her hair in its natural shade, so I could be wrong about that.
Monday, March 05, 2007
I don’t mind doing the signs, nor do I mind proofreading other people’s signs or doing the occasional tweak that will make a sign that much more effective in not reaching the broad swath of people who daily pass through our doors to submit their lungs for mycological experimentation. It was in this latter capacity that I found myself with a new sign on my desk and a note from the nice Chinese lady who runs the monthly movie program asking me if I would check her grammar and, while I was at it, could I make the reds in the sign a little redder? Sensing a challenge ahead of me, I immediately set to work on her current creation.
After about an hour, I gave up. The sign’s text was fine; there were no grammatical errors and the meaning was clear: the library will present, on the last Friday of the month, the 1954 version of A Star is Born, starring Judy Garland and James Mason. The problem came when I tried to brighten the reds in the sign. Every attempt at brightening or saturating those reds led ineluctably to the same result: the picture of Judy Garland saturated way too much. In fact, the picture saturated to the point where Ms. Garland’s face and hands looked as though they had blood smeared all over them. In frustration, I sat back and tried to think of some other way of doing this, and as I did, it occurred to me that there aren’t any really good Broadway musicals about mass murderers anymore.
There was Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, of course, and while there just aren’t enough good things you can say about a homicidal barber and his slightly odd lady friend’s attempt at making cannibalism an important part of the ever competitive fast food industry, the play first went on the boards some twenty-five years ago, if my memory serves me correctly, and there hasn’t been a successful one since then. The Texas Chainsaw Musical closed out of town when the Peoria Police Department’s SWAT team cut down the cast in a hail of automatic weapons fire, and many other projects simply never got off the ground, either for lack of funding or lack of interest. Even the one everyone thought was going to be a massive success, The Silence of the Lambs, failed miserably, despite its classic story of boy meets girl, boy flays girl, boy gets shot by girl FBI agent. Some critics say that the producer’s attempt to generate some buzz by having a naked actress randomly fire a shotgun into the audience turned off many theatergoers, while the consensus of opinion amongst many Broadway professionals was that the songs didn’t really support the book, and as a result what the public saw was a somewhat disjointed effort that neither edified nor entertained, despite the near constant gratuitous sex and violence that audiences have come to expect in the theater these days.
It’s a shame, I think, that a proud old genre like the American mass murderer musical should have fallen on such hard times. Those musicals, the product of a much more innocent time, spoke to our hopes and dreams of a better world, but facts remain facts, no matter how unpleasant. By the 1960’s, the audience simply outgrew the genre and moved on to other things. Today with the Internet and 500 cable channels, it would be difficult, at best, to bring back a genre that required little more than a willingness to suspend your disbelief for a couple of hours and wait for the slutty blond to die a horrific and spattery death while wearing the minimum of clothing required to avoid a police raid.