Sunday, February 28, 2010

Duck Comics: "Date with a Munchkin"

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dumbo (1941)

Is the depiction of the crows in Dumbo racist? Well, of course it is; no need to equivocate, but the fact remains, there's racist and then there's racist--the crows are stereotypes, sure, but they're nonetheless sympathetic characters and they aren't treated in what I would call a condescending manner. Basically, while there's no way that such characters would appear in a movie today, and with good reason, I do not find them especially troubling--especially given that this is also the movie that features the mind-boggling "Happy-Hearted Roustabouts," where the giant, faceless, black workers cheerily sing about their own economic exploitation ("when other folks have gone to bed/We slave until we're almost dead/We don't know when we get our pay/And when we get our pay we throw our money all away").

It's easy to just say "holy shit" and leave it at that, but within the context of the movie, I'm really not entirely sure whether that is an adequate response. Dumbo takes a pretty dim view of society generally--witness the piously self-satisfied bourgeois hypocrisy of the non-Dumbo's-mother adult elephants, the vicious cruelty of the children, and the thoughtless exploitation of Dumbo by the clowns. These are all decidedly white people (or, in the elephants' case, unambiguously coded as such).

Contrast this with the good-hearted, black-coded crows, on the other hand, who live outside of this uncaring (white) society, and it certainly seems highly plausible that there could be some subliminal anti-racist messaging going on here. This does not, of course, mean that the crows become automatically unproblematic, but for a Disney movie released in 1941, it's still a surprisingly progressive move, if you buy it.

And of course, you might not. But if you do then I think you would have to conclude that it's not outside the bounds of possibility that "Happy-Hearted Roustabouts" could be intended as a particularly vicious bit of satire--it does kind of come out of nowhere, and the "look how viciously they're being exploited! And enjoying it!" message strikes me as just a little too pointed (on a partially related note, I wouldn't absolutely swear that when one of them calls another a "hairy ape," it's not an oblique reference to the Eugene O'Neill play by that name, either). I don't at all care to be an apologist for Disney; their films often contain highly objectionable content, and I will readily heap scorn and ridicule on them when called for--but I'm not sure whether it's called for here. This seems like a more ambiguous case than most.

Anyway, that's all I have to say about that, really. I like the movie generally. Timothy the mouse is what Jiminy Cricket might be like if he were less useless and irritating. The hallucinogenic, small-children-traumatizing "pink elephants on parade" sequence is something else--try putting a scene where the main characters get blitzed out of their minds in a modern Disney movie and see where it gets you. The sequence where Dumbo's mother sings to him from the cage is really heartrending. Also: Sterling Holloway as the stork! I'm not sure why, but I always get a kick out of his vocal performances.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Oh look, a Sarah Palin supporter

From the paper:

President Obama, everyone knows you graduated from Harvard, you are well educated and very smart,but you have no common sene.

You sorrounded your self with all the thugs you could find from the Chicago area,none of which ever run a business of any kind, now they are trying to run the country,GM, banks, insurance companies and anything they can get their hands on.

Please, President Obama, get some common sense and clean house, then hire people (and not your buddies) with an education and common sense. I don't care how much education anyone has ,you must have common sense.

David W. Frye

Traditionally, I have opposed literacy tests for voting, due to their being racist and undemocratic and all these things, but let's note several facts:

1. Mr. Frye is a white person (duly noting the not-so-veiled racism in his post).

2. Democracy doesn't seem to be working too well these days anyway.


In passing, we might note that this is yet another example of "it may not actually be true, but it's emotionally true, which makes it even truer"--it would certainly be amusing to ask Mr. Frye to pick out just which members of Obama's cabinet are "thugs...from the Chicago area," but it would also be beside the point.

More important, though, is that business about "common sense." I personally believe that it's just common sense that we shouldn't start wars of choice, let people die from lack of health care, let corporations purchase elections, and on and on and on. And yet...I'll go out on a limb that Mr. Frye does not believe that any of these positions are common sense at all. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that his number one (and very likely ONLY) common sense solution is "tax cuts." "Common sense" appears to have evolved to mean "simplistic ideas that strike me as true on a superficial, visceral level." I think it's safe to say that by this standard, any "common sense solution" on any issue more complex than "whether to come in out of the rain" is almost certainly fucking wrong.

And yet, this is the kind of thing that appeals to people, in spite and because of its deep stupidity. It's why Mooselady resonates with some. Really, although it can be fun to mock her, on a deeper level it's just horribly dispiriting--as horrible as our previous president was, you can sort of imagine how, if he had just been your nutty right-wing neighbor, you could have gotten along with him well enough as long as politics didn't come up. It's impossible to imagine that with Moosey--she's just a mean, dumb, narcissist. I feel like the contrast between her superficial physical attractiveness and her profound, soul-deep ugliness is almost too heavy-handed to be effective as irony. Who's writing this thing, anyway?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Duck Comics: "Close-Ups"

William, it was really nothing. Actually, I just wanted to say that, since I somehow failed to fit it into the entry itself. This is one of the longest blog entries I've written (THE longest?). It's more about William Van Horn than it is about the specific story in question.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

You know who fascinates me?

Actors who play long-standing characters on long-running soap operas, that's who. Say you're William Roache, for instance. That means that you've played the same character on Coronation Street, continuously, for going on fifty years. Apart from a purely conceptual thing like Sleep that isn't meant to actually be watched, that seems like the closest thing we have to the map equaling the territory, à la Borges' "On Exactitude in Science." I know I'm stating the obvious here, but when a novel or a movie takes place over the span of many years, it's selective; it doesn't try to cover everything; if it did that, it would take as long to read or watch as the period that it covers. With the likes of Coronation Street, that seems pretty close to being literally the case.

Roache was twenty-eight when he started pretending to be Ken Barlow. Now he's seventy-seven, and whaddaya know--he's still at it. According to IMBD, he's appeared in a staggering nine hundred fifty-one episodes. The question is: how the heck does that affect you? Are you really able to perfectly compartmentalize--to decide, okay, this is my job; I go in every day for however long and pretend to be this other guy; then I punch out and go about my life? Maybe you are--obviously, I have no relevant experience here. It's just hard to believe that inhabiting this character for so long would not in some way have an effect on you. It really does seem as though you'd be leading sort of a double life. And the difference (aside from length) between this and someone on a long-running sitcom or whatnot is that a sitcom (or a drama) is selective in what it depicts; as I understand it, a soap opera is more naturalistic--at any rate, it's meant to depict characters' lives in a more thorough, extensive way than other kinds of teevee shows.

When you think about it, I suppose it might not be that much different than being a long-serving Senator or similar--given that politics is so suffused with artifice, you're essentially playing a public role for your constituents. Still, in that case there's at least a connection between your public and private lives--and sometimes you slip up and publicly lament the fact that pro-segregation candidates failed to become President, and then you have public relations problems.

According to his Wikipedia page, Roache is a conservative whereas his character is a socialist. This would seem to indicate that he is indeed able to keep his lives separate. But who knows? Maybe doggedly maintaining separate politics is a defense mechanism. I have to imagine that if you're playing a character with opposite political views from your own who is supposed to be sympathetic (I assume; My Terrible Secret: I've never seen Coronation Street and know nothing about it aside from the fact that some dude's been on it for a long time), you would at least become somewhat more receptive to his belief system.

I could be wrong. Regardless, it seems like the dichotomy would make for an interesting story in any number of different literary modes.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Let's cursorily fisk poorly-written Wikipedia articles!

Salty the Seal was a recurring character in the Pluto cartoons. He was a seal who would show in the most unlikley [sic] places (the beach, the arctic, etc.),

Actually, those kind of sound like the least unlikely places to me. I assume "etc." means "the seal enclosure at the zoo."

who would usually annoy Pluto into chasing him causing Pluto to drown himself.


Salty would save him and they would become best friends.

So he's some sort of necromancer. Talk about burying the lede.

Thanks; I'll be here all week. Try the vegan veal substitute.

Floyd Gottfredson, The Monarch of Medioka

The first thing to be made clear is that Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse stories were written as daily comic strips, not for comic books (although they were frequently republished in comic book form). This meant that they could theoretically go on for much longer than book stories, which (again, theoretically) offered interesting story possibilities. Theoretically, but probably not actually--look at the glacially-paced soap opera strips still inexplicably running in newspapers to this day. They too theoretically (the word of the day, apparently) have this freedom, and yet they still have zero unironic fans, and with good reason.

But anyway. Keep it in mind. The story that has been retroactively entitled The Monarch of Medioka is, if I'm not mistaken, the longest sequence in the long-running strip's history, running from September 8, 1937 to May 2, 1938. It's also modestly famous for having been banned in Yugoslavia, officials having felt that events in the story could be construed to an unacceptable degree as criticism of the government. That's gotta pique your interest at least somewhat, right? At any rate, I decided I would read it, in one of my periodic efforts to appreciate the rodent.

The story is loosely based on Prisoner of Zenda; Medioka is in financial trouble because of its king's profligate ways, so several of his underlings get Mickey--who looks just like him--to come and take his place for a while to try to calm things down. Naturally, Mickey makes a great king, and solves all of the country's problems. How? Oh, go on, take a wild guess. It's the same way certain persons think every single problem we face today can be magically solved.

That's right: TAX CUTS. This is the beginning and the end of his solution to the problems facing the country. Some guy suggests that this story might have inspired Reagan, and there's a certain gruesome logic to that. More on this later.

Above: President Palin hard at work on her first budget.

Anyway, there's an evil dude scheming to usurp the throne, he gets defeated, the newly-responsible king is reinstated, everyone is happy. The end.

Now, when criticizing this story, we have to accept the fact that part of the problem comes from the transition from comic strip to comic book. In the version that I have (and in all contemporary versions, I think), the strip format is not preserved; instead, the panels are rejiggered to look like it was always meant to be a book. This results in a notably herky-jerky reading experience: abrupt transitions from one scene to another, frequent brief textual recapitulations of what just happened, and joke sequences that seem like bizarre non-sequiturs. This likely wouldn't be an issue were you reading it in the paper strip by strip as it was being published, but for us here today, it kind of is.

That's not the main issue, however. The main issue is this: aside from a few vaguely amusing bits of slapstick at the beginning (mostly involving Horace Horsecollar, my favorite character in the Mickeyverse if I'm required to have one) when the characters are just sort of dicking around before the main actions starts, there is absolutely nothing to recommend The Monarch of Medioka. Well, okay, I suppose there's some minor sociological/historical value to it, but story qua story, there's nothing worth remembering. The jokes are almost uniformly dire, there's absolutely no sense of drama, the art is functional at best, the pacing (even if it isn't all Gottfredson's fault, per se), is terrible, and Mickey is still an incredibly irritating character. And the story doesn't end so much as peter out in a series of pointless gags and then just sort of stop--the least satisfying conclusion imaginable (again, not wholly Gottfredson's fault, but still…). In other words: gah.

The Gladstone Comic Album reproduces some old New York Times articles of the time regarding the Yugoslav censorship thing, and there's an interesting critical essay by Geoffrey Blum (who I think might hate me after I accused Thomas Andrae of plagiarism:-( )that frames the story as a conflict between American and European values--an interesting gloss, but it doesn't make it any more fun to read. Still, those two extra-textual bits at least add some value to the book. I guess.

The other thing of value is that it helps to clarify why I don't like Mickey. Don't think I didn't TRY to enjoy his stories as a young lad--and sometimes I even succeeded, sort of, but it was always an effort, and it never got any easier. See, the thing is, Donald--as written by Carl Barks--is not a simple character. He's occasionally capable of acts of great bravery or generosity, but he just as often flies into fits of rage and falls into crippling self-doubt. He's prone to greed and hubris. You can't pigeonhole him down in any simple way. And that's why he's a great character.

Whereas Mickey--well, unlike Donald, he never had a truly visionary artist behind him, and thus never developed any kind of real humanity. So instead what you have--as amply evidenced in Monarch--is a deeply vapid character. Maugre the odd suicide attempt, he's essentially a relentlessly cheerful, upbeat, boy-scoutish person of absolute moral rectitude. Any shades of gray in his character or in the situations in which he finds himself are notably absent. He's like something out of a Victorian morality tale for small children. In other words: it's very easy to see how he could have inspired Ronald Reagan--his utter, unjustified moral certitude and empty-headed, moronically simplistic pollyannaishness is really a perfect analogue for the attitude that Reagan was trying (and succeeding) to instill in the country with his "morning in America" schtick. It's easy to see why this resonates with people, and in the years of the Depression when the strip was at its height, you can see how this could even be justifiable. But that doesn't make it any more palatable to me.

Was I thinking about all this when I was small? Obviously not. But I sort of think that unconsciously, I understood the differences between Donald and Mickey, and that the one was therefore far more interesting than the other. Of course, it didn't hurt that, regardless of the characters, Barks' plots were generally far more interesting than those that Paul Murray or whoever it was came up with. And I probably did on some level have the idea that Mickey and Goofy were excessively childish, or represented the worst aspects of Walt Disney's empire. To get all theoretical on your asses, you might say that my dislike of the character was--and is--overdetermined.

At any rate, I guess I owe Monarch a debt of gratitude for making me think about these things. I'd still give it one star if this were an Amazon review, however. Maybe an extra star for historical reasons if I were feeling hyper-generous. But there's no reason in the world that anyone who's just looking for a decent story should bother with it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Actual student quote, in response to receiving a suboptimal grade

"As much as I do respect the guidelines set forth for the paper length I do have my own view on my paper length."

Monday, February 15, 2010

Guest Post: Lunar's Incoherent Cosmology

My brother wrote this. It will be complete gibberish if you're not familiar with Lunar and Lunar 2.

Don't get me wrong, I love the game, but . . . I suppose the problem is that it's really humanistic to the core, but they haven't remotely thought through the ins and outs of this message and how it's presented. First, we learn that the goddess Althena no longer exists: The explanation that her Luna-hologram gives is that she decided that people had just gotten too dependent on her, and that this was preventing them from seeing their own true potential. I might stop here and note that if this was her reasoning, she seems to have failed pretty badly. The people of Lunar don't seem to have gotten the memo that she no longer exists and Althena worship is still as strong as ever supported, no doubt, by the fact that priestly magic never stopped working (a priestly placebo effect?) nor did the healing goddess statues.

The first thing we have to wonder is, how did this self-annihilation (celestial suicide?) take place? She says that she assumed human form "as I had many times before" in the form of Luna. And indeed, we recall from the first game that her human incarnations were nothing new (there may have been something slightly different about that one; for one thing she doesn't know that she's the goddess, and Dyne seems to have had a hand in her incarnation-- recall the confrontation between him and Ghaleon; Dyne: "I see a bright future for humanity and stuff." Ghaleon: "I see only despair.") But I digress. The point is that this was solidly Luna's decision. And why did she do it again? Because she fell in love with Alex and decided to remain human, she explains. Wait a minute, that has nothing to do with humanity becoming too dependent. And since Althena had incarnated as a human many times before, I still don't understand why she couldn't have both: stay human to marry Alex and all that good stuff, and then revert to her goddess-hood at the end.

Shut Up Shut Up I'm not listening! Look, she decided to stay human for Alex and then sometime during their marriage she decided that people were too dependent. Okay (I guess) but even then, the consequences of this are pretty murky at best. Maybe we can try to make sense of this by pointing out that there seems to be a definite dichotomy drawn between being immortal (like a goddess) and embracing all the wonderful human love and potential etc. etc. After all Luna left the whole goddess thing for love of Alex, and Lucia tells Nall in the first ending that she's going to follow the same path that Althena did (trade her immortality for humanity) since she sees how great humanity is (a blatant bald-faced lie, but never mind that). But this dichotomy seems immediately contradicted by the fact that A) the dragons (Nall and Ruby) seem to do just fine balancing immortality with the whole warmth, love and friendship thing, and B) when Lucia returns to the blue star she has learned all about the greatness of humanity, and even experienced it herself (she tearfully tells Hiro that she loves him, and has gained the self-proclaimed faith in humanity to turn the Blue Star over to them when it's ready), but she is clearly still the immortal Princess Of The Blue Star as is evidenced by the fact that she's returning to wait maybe centuries more for it to be habitable. So this is really a false dichotomy.

The other elephant in the room here is the question of an afterlife: is there or isn't there? While in most cosmologies that postulate a mythological goddess like Althena the answer is yes, here it would seem to be an unequivocal no. At first glance. There are three possibilities. In the first scenario there used to be an afterlife, but it was dependent upon Althena's existence, and since she has ceased to exist (in her words) there's no more afterlife. The thing is that this would make her own choice to blink out of existence so unspeakably selfish and dickish that I think we have to rule it out. A second possibility is that there is no afterlife for people and never was, even when Althena was around. This seems like the most likely choice, but let's look at option 3. In this scenario there IS an afterlife for people, but Althena just personally chose to blink out of existence due to the whole people+hyper dependence thing (I suppose it's theoretically possible that Althena/Luna just chose to opt for the mundane human afterlife, but not very likely; "I no longer exist" seems pretty conclusive). This doesn't seem very likely, but it is solidly supported by Ghaleon's shuffling off of the mortal coil: He looks up toward the light of the sun that is streaming into his face and seeming to engulf him, a near universal bit of symbolism for being drawn into the other world, and he says, "Are you watching in secret Dyne? These children shine with your light." Then he does the whole disappear into thin air as his empty clothes fall to the ground thing. So it's tough to say, but I still wonder about the Althena faithful (Ronfar and Lucia) not finding this revelation unspeakably traumatizing (As it happens, they take more of a "Well this kind of sucks, what do we do now?" attitude).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Heroic Humans

The word "hero" is not flung around lightly on this blog. But I was listening to a Fresh Air podcast today, and Terry Gross was interviewing a defender of death row inmates in Texas, David Dow (transcript here). It really brought home (not that I needed convincing) what a horrific, immoral nightmare capital punishment is (as if I needed another reason to Hate America™. If you can listen to/read this interview and still call yourself a supporter thereof...I dunno. I'm afraid there's something seriously broken inside of you. Or maybe--and this is the scary possibility--you're working exactly the way humans are supposed to work, and it's people like me who are the freaks. Anyway, here's a quote--an answer to a question about why Dow witnesses his clients' executions--that succinctly demonstrates why I would call him a hero:

There's a lawyer in my office who was asked to witness an execution at the end of last year and she asked me whether she should, and I'm going to tell you what I told her. What I told her was that it is something you will never get over, that you have nightmares about it for weeks, months, maybe years. And so, what you have to decide when you're making the decision about whether you're going to witness your client's execution, is whether the suffering that you're going to have for watching it is greater or lesser than how much your client needs you to be there. I watch executions only if my clients ask me to. And if they ask me to, I watch because if they ask me to I feel that it is more important to them that I be there than it is to me that I not be there.

Unfortunately, I'm pretty convinced that extraordinary people like this are no match for all the malignant stupidity that constitutes American culture. Still, it's good to know that such people exist.

Fourteen Love Songs for February Fourteenth

"Blah blah Valentine's Day, started by Hallmark, commercializing human emotion, goddamn am I ever cynical."

You hear it every year, and it's largely true, but the fact remains, that's some pretty lazy-ass cynicism there, guy. If you want to be a cool cynic, you really need to step up your game a little. Or a lot. I'm just saying. You're not impressing anyone. I mean, I'm single and not all that overjoyed about it, but even so. Let's try to have a little dignity.

So rather than giving in to derivative cynicism, let's provide a brief list of some romantic songs ('romantic' being fairly loosely defined). Truth be told, it's only random chance that there ended up being fourteen of them, but I'm going to pretend it was intentional. That's just how I roll, retconning the shit out of some shit.

Angela Lansbury, "Beauty and the Beast"
"Bittersweet and strange/Finding you can change/Learning you were wrong." Spoiler alert: this will probably be number one in the list of Disney songs that I may write one day. Really exquisite. It probably goes without saying that I am referring here exclusively to the version sung by Mrs. Potts, NOT the hideous AOR version that plays over the closing credits. It's kinda heartbreaking--they came SO CLOSE to perfect artistry with this movie, but then they just HAAAD to let Céline Dion get her bony talons all over it. Oh well--nothing can spoil the power of the proper version.

Suede, "The 2 of Us"
"The snow might fall and write the lines on the silent page/But you're outside making permanent love to the nuclear age/Two silhouettes by the cash machine make a lovers' dance/It's a tango for the lonely wives of the business class." Brett Anderson's lyrical facility doesn't get much better than this. Just a really breathtakingly lovely song.

Nick Cave, "To By by Your Side"
"Over the shifting desert plains/Across mountains all in flames/Through howling winds and driving rains/To be by your side." This is the song that plays over the closing credits of Winged Migration, a kind of documentaryish thing made up of mind-boggling aerial footage of migrating birds. The song perfectly evokes the kind of hushed, primal power of this ancient ritual.

Heaven 17, "Come Live with Me"
"I was thirty-seven; you were seventeen/You were half my age, the youth I'd never seen/Unlikely people meeting in a dream/Heaven only knows the way it should have been." Pretty sure that's illegal, but Glenn Gregory sells it perfectly with his always-sumptuous singing, creating an atmosphere of gorgeous melancholia. Probably the band's lyrical height.

Sparks, "(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing"
"When I kiss you, When I kiss you, I hear Charlie Parker playing/Will I miss you, will I miss you, when the playing ends one night?" Surely you did not doubt that Sparks would be present here. A lot of people would choose "Rocking Girls," and I can see their point, but for me, this is the sentimental favorite.

Oysterband, "A Time of Her Own"
"She moved me to tears, she tripped away years/Turned my dark night into day/Now all that is gone like the soft winter sun/And turned all my green into grey." Man, someone broke up with someone while this album (Here I Stand) was being written. With artistically rewarding results, however.

Blood or Whiskey, "When You Sing"
"Let your pain just leave you when you sing, she said/Let your pain just leave you when you sing/Let your pain just leave you when you sing, she said/And may god to you his mercy bring." A surprisingly tender love song from the rather rough-hewn Celtic-punk band (made up of actual Irish people, unlike many such ventures).

The Pogues, "Lorelai"
"I've thought of you in far-off places/Puzzled over lipstick traces/So help me god I will not cry/And then I think of Lorelai." Not particularly Celtic-sounding, but when you have a song as stunning as this, caviling seems inappropriate. Phil Chevron, as far as I can tell, has only ever written TWO songs, this and "Thousands Are Sailing." They're both exquisite-- so what the heck happened?

Marc Almond, "Love Letter"
"There are times/You can't hold back the tears/And hurt won't heal/With the years." Crazy that a guy who can write the most misanthropic songs you will hear can also on occasion throw off something as casually affecting as this.

Joe Jackson, "Steppin' Out"
"You can dress in pink and blue just like a child/And in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile/We'll be there in just a while/If you follow me." I feel sort of lame listing such a ubiquitously-known song, but dammit, I am highly familiar with just about everything JJ's ever recorded (excepting the dubious 'classical' experiments), so I feel entitled. Anyway, this song deserved to be a big hit, because it's beautiful. End of story.

XTC, "Seagulls Screaming 'Kiss Her, Kiss Her'"
"I say 'I like your coat'/Her thank you tugs my heart afloat/I nearly didn't hear for/Seagulls screaming 'kiss her, kiss her.'" This would be worth it for the title alone, but the song itself is nearly as evocative as what it's called. I don't always care that much for XTC, but this is really great.

Leonard Cohen, "Light as the Breeze"
"There's blood on every bracelet/You can see it; you can taste it/And it's please baby please baby please/And she says drink deeply, pilgrim/But don't forget there's a woman/Beneath this resplendent chemise." It occurs to me that I could probably fill this list with nothing but Cohen songs. But, as great as songs like "I'm Your Man," "Lover Lover Lover," "The Gypsy's Wife," "Winter Lady," "Suzanne," "Hallelujah," "Famous Blue Raincoat," "Dance Me to the End of Love, "A Thousand Kisses Deep," "Do I Have to Dance All Night?" "Take this Waltz," "Ain't No Cure for Love"--as great as they ARE, this one won out, which ought to tell you something or other.

Tom Waits, "Invitation to the Blues"
"She's up against the register/With an apron and a spatula/With yesterday's deliveries and the tickets for the bachelors/She's a moving violation, from her conk down to her shoes/But it's just an invitation to the blues." If you remember Waits' character in Short Cuts, you get the idea. Battered yet hopeful.

Lilium, "Lover"
"She got dressed and left that morning, in her hair the autumn rain/She didn't leave a number; wouldn't tell me her last name/She said don't fall in love with me, if you want to be my lover." Thought I'd go a little obscure for this one. I suppose it may be more of an anti-love song than anything else, but hey, I didn't specify "love songs" (okay, maybe the post title did, but hey--it's MY list, so we do it MY way); I just said "romantic," and a strung-out, fragile, and bleary-eyed song like this qualifies, I think.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Marxist Advertising Executives?

There is of course a long tradition of people going "I ONLY WATCH THE SUPER BOWL FOR THE COMMERCIALS HO HO HO!" Yes! You're willingly and absolutely subservient to American consumerism! Ho ho ho, indeed. Such people were likely disappointed this year by a remarkably lackluster crop of ads. Let's just pass over in silence the commercial about babies' sex lives and the bizarrely anti-green green car piece. Someone could probably say something interesting about the fact that there seemed to be more unpleasant misogyny than usual, but for now I'll leave that to others.

Instead, let's take a moment to reflect on cheap beer commercials. I don't know if I'm only noticing this because I've been quite rapidly radicalized by a combination of my studies and our current nightmarish political situation, but the one featuring the house made of cans of Bud (Coors?) Lite struck me as a bit too...metaphorical...for comfort. Think: the house is made of consumer products. All the people are heedlessly ripping them out of the walls one by one. You don't have to be an engineer to see that if they keep doing this--and why would you expect them to stop?--the entire edifice is going to come crashing down, sooner rather than later, and kill all of them.

Even more obvious--so obvious I probably don't need to say anything about it--is the one where the people construct a human bridge for the beer truck to drive over. Either some Dangerous Subversives somehow found their way into some advertising agencies, or some Dangerous Subversives are kicking back and relaxing right about now, safe in the knowledge that the regular ol' cogs-in-the-machine are clueless enough to do their work for them.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Emptiness of Christian Hair Metal

When teaching the 'religion' chapter of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, I like to show my classes this video, a 700 Club report about popular Christian metal band Stryper, to attempt to drive home the point. The theory is that this will work because there is absolutely no chance that any students today will find this 'cool' in any way, and thus they won't be roped into exactly the mode of thinking that Postman is inveighing against. This exercise meets with mixed results. However, I have to say, I love the SHIT out of it.

Sidenote: What the hell does the bee theme have to do with Christianity or ANYTHING? Maybe there's some explanation for this, but if there is, I don't want to hear it--it's such a surreal, inexplicable touch that I'd hate to see it ruined. Also, while noting that God must have quite a sense of humor is a cliché, hearing Stryper Man earnestly intoning that "the reason why we look the way we do and the way we are is, first of all, God's called us to do this, okay, and when you're called from God you do it" suggests that this sense of humor runs towards the dadaist, and I wouldn't want a rational explanation to ruin that rather charming image.

What's there to love? Where to start...there's the 'reporter' at the beginning (standing in front of some random greenery for no obvious reason) intoning that "the language is called 'rock music' and unfortunately their teachers often have names like 'Twisted Sister,' 'Iron Maiden, or 'Ozzy Osbourne'"--as opposed to THIS band's much-more-fortunate choice of names, which every single person to see it without hearing it will think is pronounced 'Stripper.' There's the way Pat Boone is only barely able to choke back his loathing while talking about how things like this may be necessary to reach Kids Today. And of course, there's the 'wait, what?' moment where we learn that "Instead of urinating on the crowd, popular at other concerts, Stryper throws New Testaments."

That last is worth dwelling on for a moment, because it demonstrates the extent to which fundamentalist Christian culture creates its own version of the big, evil, scary, sinful outside world. You would think that after less than a moment's thought it would have occurred to The 700 Club that people generally don't enjoy being pissed on (and for actual watersports fans, a concert hall surrounded by a bunch of sweaty strangers is not going to be the preferred locale). Being non-Christian doesn't have anything to do with it. And then they would have edited out that silly little clause. But no--because this is one of those situations where the literal truth is irrelevant: instead, they're going for an emotional truth, which is that the secular world is a dark and scary land of sin of inexplicable depravity where everyone revels in unspeakable perversity. The fact that presumably many of these people have if not friends then at least friendly acquaintances who are non-Christian--whom they would honestly never dream had such predilections--is entirely irrelevant. No joke: the entire secular world is a GG Allin show. That can't be a healthy mindset to go around with.

The funniest moment in the video, however, comes when the narrator intones that "instead of the sexual hip movements of other groups, the LA Times describes Stryper's movements as 'energetic in a non-sexual way,'" as the band members do something that looks very much like the Hokey Pokey. Man, with moves like that, it's no wonder the band's albums went gold(!) and platinum(!?!).

Let's also take a minute to appreciate the fact that The 700 Club is still hung up on "sexual hip movements"--dudes, Elvis had been dead for nine years by the time this aired. Time to move on!

That's not the really interesting thing, though. Sure, a lot of the 'movements' that accompany popular music are meant to evoke sex, but it's certainly not a necessity. I wouldn't call Russell Mael jerking around spastically 'sexual,' exactly. It makes sense, though. It fits the material. But what the blue blazes does the Stryper Men's energetic non-sexuality have to do with the music or Christianity or anything? Nothing! It's completely isolated from anything around it! God called you to do this and this is the best you could come up with? Your religion doesn't have a sufficiently rich aesthetic history that you could come up with something that can't be accurately and completely summed up by what it's not? Apparently not! Or, probably more accurately, its alleged practitioners are too far removed from their roots to engage with them in any meaningful way. So instead we get what I can only describe as an empty signifier, and one that seems to me to be quite emblematic of this conception of religion in general. This would also relate to the bee theme--our band is called Stryper, bees have stripes, queue ee dee. Never mind that this has nothing to do with that band's putative message. All in all, this is the worst kind of un-self-aware postmodernism.

And lest you think I'm being too mean to the band, note that they dropped Christianity like a hot coal as soon as they deemed it commercially inexpedient. Well, why not? The God that they and The 700 Club worship is nothing if not responsive to market forces.

POSTSCRIPT: What the hell do you suppose it is that the uploader awkwardly edited out of the video at the 2:05 mark? I am genuinely curious/intrigued.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Omensetter's Luck: brief addendum

This is just to say that if you really want to get a handle on the novel, you should pay little heed to my maundering--which is okay as far as it goes but only goes so far. Instead, you should read the relevant chapter in HL Hix's Understanding William H. Gass. It doesn't clarify everything, but it clarifies a lot. It's funny(?)--Hix is a poet, and I saw him do a reading a few years back, before I had read anything by Gass or knew that there was any connection between the two of them. Which is really too bad, because it would be great to be able to talk to him on the subject. I mean, how often do you meet an expert on so recondite an author as Gass?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

William H. Gass, Omensetter's Luck (1966)

Let's hear it for novels set in Ohio! Represent!

Omensetter's Luck. Oh-Men-Set-Ter's Luck. I had wanted to read this novel for a long time without really knowing anything about it. It seemed to be a well-regarded book that was still somehow obscure. It had about it--or seemed to have, to my limited perception--a kind of sexy, postmodern aura. And that title, man--that evocative, mysterious title. Omen--a mystical, occult kind of word. Setter--a more practical, craftsmanlike word. Juxtaposing these two to create this totally unique name--it floored me. What kind of 'luck' would such an individual have?

Somewhat surprisingly, these vague, inchoate notions of mine are actually relevant to the book--Brackett Omensetter isn't actually the main character, but he is a leatherworker, and there is something putatively mystical about him. I win!

Is the novel 'postmodern?' Well, sure; you could make the case--certainly, the brief first section, "The Triumph of Israbestis Tott," makes it clear that there is at least a good case to be made for seeing the history presented therein as stories the accuracy of which it is impossible to judge. However, this isn't exactly all-pervasive, and in terms of history-making, it seems more like a somewhat less extreme Absalom, Absalom! than anything else. Indeed, Faulkner and Joyce seem to be the novel's key reference points. It's a fairly difficult novel, and there are times when one is strongly reminded of parts of Ulysses.

The real main character is Jethro Furber, the town's new preacher, a man torn apart by cynicism, unbelief, thwarted lust, and feelings of inferiority. Gosh, when I put it like that, I make him sound like every stereotypical fallen man of the cloth ever, but he is redeemed from banality (I think) by the writing itself--his narrative often lapses into ferocious streams-of-consciousness, punctuated with occasional dirty (or just plain bizarre) doggerel, and while the effect can be trying at times, I find it mostly mesmerizing.

It would be very, very tempting to compare Furber to The Tunnel's Kohler (their names even sound the same, sort of!), but while the resemblances are pretty obvious, dwelling on them would very likely cause one to short-change the differences, which to my mind are more important: the thing about The Tunnel is that, to employ a really obvious turn of phrase that I have no doubt a whole bunch of people have already used in relation to the novel, there is no light at the end of it. It's more of a mausoleum, really. An architectural marvel, sure, but still--Kohler is essentially a corpse. No meaningful relationship with the outside world is desired or possible. Furber is not at all like that--he may be a cynic, he may spend a disproportionate amount of time ranting at the ghost of his predecessor, but there's still life in him--he isn't dead inside; he still aspires, on some level, to be more than he is.

This is illustrated in his relationship, such as it is, with Omensetter. The back cover describes it as a "confrontation between…a man of preternatural goodness and…a preacher crazed with a propensity for violent thoughts." This creates the impression that we're going to be witnessing some sort of allegorical battle between Good and Evil, which isn't really the case. Describing Omensetter as "preternaturally good" seems like a stretch; it would be more accurate, I think, to say that he represents--to Furber, certainly--a kind of natural, prelapsarian simplicity. Furber tries to imagine Omensetter experiencing sexual desire and fails, because he can only picture his nemesis as an Adam, having sex if at all in a purely animal way devoid of all the cultural entanglements that make up sexuality for the rest of us (paging Judith Butler).

But does this make Omensetter "good?" As I hinted at earlier, we don't actually see all that much of the character, and I'm tempted to just call this a failing of the novel. I'm not convinced that we really have all the information we would need to get a clear bead on him. However, is it "good" that he's perfectly content to let a fox who's fallen down his well die of starvation/thirst if the fates don't somehow see fit to rescue it? Is it "good" for him to refuse to get the doctor for his infant son who is evidently dying of diphtheria? You could argue that I'm getting caught up in irrelevancies here--the point being more Furber's perception than Omensetter himself in any objective way--but the fact remains, he is shown doing these things and you want them to mean something.

At any rate, this is Furber's problem with Omensetter--as someone hopelessly ensnared in his own fears, neuroses, and doubts, he is desperately jealous of someone who appears to have no such problems, and this jealousy manifests itself as anger. But! He isn't turning his back on the world. When Omensetter is accused of murder, Furber finds himself defending the man (and having a nervous breakdown of some sort, but what can you do?). His section, which makes up the great bulk of the novel, is entitled "The Reverend Jethro Furber's Change of Heart," and this is what that title seems to be referring to. On balance, he reveals himself to be a sympathetic character, which is more than you can ever say for Kohler, and that's why the novel works for me in a way that The Tunnel didn't.

At any rate, these are just my scattered thoughts. Don't try to crib them for your book report, kids. I've completely elided any mention of one important character, for instance, and your teacher might wonder about that. Also, at the lack of any mention of the "luck" in question. Just read the damn book like you're supposed to--you probably won't regret it.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Lion King II: The New Batch (1998)

Yeah, so I know straight-to-DVD Disney sequels have a dire reputation, but I wanted to see for myself. Conventional wisdom, I have often found, is full of shit. But damn, man...

I actually watched the first ten-fifteen minutes of the movie in kind of a delirious haze--it was sort of like how I felt playing Suikoden II--OH BOY OH BOY, all the characters are back how exciting! I was absolutely all ready to love the shit out of this film and if that meant that I had irredeemably terrible taste, then so be it.

Alas! Or hooray, I suppose, if we care about my taste's reputation! This was not to be.

First, you have to swallow the idea that Scar, during the original Lion King, had a mate and three cubs, but uh, gosh, we sorta forgot to put any mention of this in the movie, possibly because it would have made Scar into a completely different character. If you can buy that, you shouldn't have much trouble buying the notion that there were also a whole bunch of other Scar-aligned lions hanging around just off-camera. Anyway, Simba banished them all, because, on the evidence of this sequel, he's kind of a dick. You probably aren't able to accept all this--what sane person would be?--but you HAVE to, because we're moving on, okay?

The regular lions look fine--pretty much just as they did in the original--but the banished lions are kind of hideous--they're meant to be Scar-ish, but the results are not pretty or even particularly ept. Can I say something? Yes, there are a handful of Disney movies I haven't yet seen, but I'm going to provisionally state that Scar is easily Disney's best villain (though I wish they'd allowed him to maintain some dignity at the end). His widow, Zira--not even CLOSE. They try so desperately to make her a female version of the character, and they fail so utterly. It's pretty embarrassing to watch.

As stated, she has three cubs: forget about the girl cub; she's not a significant character (although she made enough of an impact on somebody that she has a li'l fanpage--I like it; a very late-90s-geocities aesthetic). Then there's the older boy cub, a scraggly teenage-Scar type who combines his father's personality with disaffected teenage petulance. I really can't tell you the extent to which riffing on Scar's character like this feels utterly, cosmically wrong. He dies, but no one cares because he was an awful character. His mom's sad, but we don't care about that either, because she's an awful character too. With more competent writers/character designers, they could have actually done something affecting here (if you're willing to accept the egregious retconning that was necessary for these characters to exist in the first place), but there's no point mooning over a meaningless counterfactual.

Then there's the main cub, Kovu, the good one and the love interest for Simba's daughter, Kiara. Here's a particularly inept instance of the movie trying to have it both ways: it is stated several times, not particularly artfully, that, oh he's not Scar's real son; Scar just, uh, found him. Somewhere. And adopted him. Never mind the fact that he is designed to look like a less-evil Scar. This intelligence seems to have no purpose in the story; nothing's ever done with it. Then, you realize that it was so he could have a romance with Kiara without raising the specter of incest. Okay, but then there's a whole fucking big, angsty deal made about the question of whether he can escape the evil that was in his father or whether he's inherited it; there's a part where he sees his reflection in a pool and it morphs into Scar, BUT YOU JUST SAID THEY WEREN'T BIOLOGICALLY RELATED! WHAT THE HELL?!? ARE YOU *TRYING* TO DRIVE ME CRAZY?!? I'm pretty sure that the incest thing didn't even occur to them until late in the game, so they hurriedly inserted the not-really-related disclaimer without any regard to the fact that it makes the character's ark totally nonsensical. That, my friends, is a commitment to art.


For what it's worth, Kiara is a perfectly competently-done character, and Kovu isn't exactly unlikable, notwithstanding all the incoherence surrounding him--but they are drowning in a sea of madness.

There are also songs. I can't call them terrible, because that would imply that I remember anything about them. The filmmakers try to recreate the original's whole big-musical-set-piece thing, but they fail utterly. I'm not actually a huge fan of the original's soundtrack, but "Hakuna Matata" and "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" are undeniably instantly memorable, whereas the only song from the sequel that I remember at all is "Upendi" (it means 'love,' apparently--trying, clumsily, to copy the idea of having a song with a Swahili refrain), and the only reason for that is because of its completely batshit sequence where Rafiki is playing matchmaker for the two young lovers while they float down a river and through the air on a leaf-boat and various hearts and shit flutter around, and I cannot TELL you how bizarrely out-of-place it is. Also, there's a song where the prey animals sing. That, too, is seriously strange.

Anyway, there's a little bit of conflict, blah blah, the two prides fight, Zira dies, all of the other exiles go from being evil degenerates to good guys over the course of about thirty seconds, the pride's reunited, the end. Sorry for spoiling it for you, but believe me--it was for your own good.

Fuck--I can't even claim to completely hate the movie; there's just something about redemption stories that I think we're programmed to respond to, even when executed as poorly as they are here. But you couldn't even remotely call it a good movie, and I think my curiosity about these direct-to-DVD sequels is pretty definitively cured. But hmm…maybe the Aladdin sequels are better...? NO! THAT WAY LIES MADNESS!

Duck Comics: "The Three Caballeros Ride Again"