Monday, December 26, 2005
While in DC, I'll be staying at the pop art Hotel Helix which, Mike Rhode tells me, is quite new, part of the dressing up of downtown. It's probably good to be a little way away from the main conference hotels--there is no anxiety quite like the job hunt anxieties at MLA. Think of it: thousands of people competing for hundreds of jobs, all trying to shine as brightly as they can for days on end. Having been on both sides of the table, I know it's an exhausting process for everyone.
Say, isn't there a good used bookstore in DuPont Circle...?
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Monday, December 19, 2005
Saturday, December 17, 2005
Friday, December 16, 2005
A new study published by the Department of Education reports (and reported in the New York Times and other newspapers) that literacy has fallen significantly for recent college graduates, as well as alarmingly amongst Latinos. Working at an open admissions university, I have seen this trend first hand. It is one of the challenges of working here to balance a classroom with a wide array of student preparedness.
What the study highlights is not this problem, one educators know well, but the overall impact of the failure of education in this country. The study reports that only 13% of the population achieves the level designated "Proficient." This is the top level of measurement, mere proficiency, which they define as:
• reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts as well as synthesizing information and making complex inferences
• integrating, synthesizing, and analyzing multiple pieces of information located in complex documents
• locating more abstract quantitative information and using it to solve multistep problems when the arithmetic operations are not easily inferred and the problems are more complex
Only 13% of the population? What percentage of the population graduates from some college? Surely more than 13%! Yet so many are apparently incapable of the skills required to pass my Freshman Composition course. Clearly, we are falling down on the job. It's easy to see why: education has no value, but it has prestige. As John Gardner wrote,
We must learn to honor excellence in every socially accepted human activity, however humble the activity, and to scorn shoddiness, however exalted the activity. An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.
Here's to honoring excellence!
Friday, December 09, 2005
From the very first frames, Jackson cues us that this is loving tribute to the original, from the art deco credits to the loving evocation of 1930s New York (as reconstructed in New Zealand). Yet he gives the film an edge of modern sensibilities in reconfiguring the characters and the arc of the story. Over all that may be the biggest problem, the uncomfortable mismatch between 1930s sensibilities and those of the 21st century, especially when it comes to problematic things like racial portrayals and what you might call moments of "movie magic," i.e. things that happen because they need to do so. However, that's really a quibble for post-viewing discussion over drinks with friends (and in large part due to Jackson's faithfulness to the original story). And occasionally he lingers just a little too long on the faces of Watts and Kong; the film could be cut without major sacrifice, but --
In short, it was a fantastic ride and I loved it.
Naomi Watts is luminously filmed and made up so she glows like a vintage Hollywood star. She brings a surprising new sensibility to the role (including her comic work) that makes her more appealing to modern temperaments without discarding the traditional feel of the part. Jack Black is reined in somewhat from his bombast, although he is supposed to be a bit of a hustler and manages to make the director who will get his film done at any cost both sympathetic and eventually, suspect (one can't help seeing a little self-criticism from Jackson). While the on-board fate of the writer played by Brody may be a little too on the nose, he does admirable work in making us believe his role, as does the more comic turn by the "hero" Kyle Chandler. Terrific supporting cast including Andy Serkis, Thomas Kreschmann as the captain and Evan Parke as Hayes. A good number of in-jokes (most horror related) sprinkle the opening half hour, at which Gene and I were about the only ones laughing.
Oh, wait -- you want to know about the ape, right? Well, I've never been big on monkeys and apes (apart from Hanuman and Gene, the monkey man whom I love for reasons unexplained), but I may have been won over. Looks good. Which is to say, believable, moving, real -- scarred, emotive, authentic. An animal, not a human in monkey skin -- one of the most affecting things is that his non-human (but intelligent) nature comes through. The island and all its amazing creatures look good -- and terrifying in most cases. Jackson does a terrific job of giving the audience stunning moments of awe, then jerking you painfully into terror (one of the most beautiful and sweet versions of this comes near the end).
If you want to know nothing at all before you see the film, stop here. If you don't mind knowing the arc of the story (which is much the same as the original) without any important spoilers, continue:
You know Kong fights a dinosaur. You have NO idea. Absolutely amazing.
You know there are big bugs. You have NO idea. I was squirming in my seat.
Joey: the bats! You will love them.
You know we end up on the Empire State Building. I have a terrible fear of heights and vertigo. I was near collapse by the end and sweat was pouring off my hands as my knees went weak. One of the interesting choices was all the long shots of Kong atop the building, making him look so tiny in the big city, so lost.
In resisting the desire to completely anthropomorphize Kong, the ending seems even more bitterly cruel. Watts is our conduit to Kong throughout and the face of our grief, our empathy, and she does an incredible job of conveying thoughts and emotions without any words -- as does the face of Kong, both familiar and alien. Like us, but not us.
In the end, it's a movie about a giant ape. Some might find that silly. It is silly. But it works -- it is spectacle. And Jackson's humor and thoughtfulness make it work. Unexpected turns keep the action lively (and yeah, sometimes quite funny), and the familiar story takes on new resonance. It may be a touch of nostalgia, but it delivers. I laughed, I cried -- I was totally absorbed. It was really cathartic.
Thursday, December 08, 2005
I don't like to dwell on death days: I'd rather remember the beginnings, the creations, the wonder. I turn away from television programs that glorify the fifteen minutes of fame awarded a mentally-deranged gun nut because he killed someone famous. And as always, I turn to funny things to make me laugh.
Of late, there's the appearance of John Lennon on "Not Only...But Also..." which recently came my way. It's got John playing a men's room attendant and also performing in one of the In His Own Write pieces. The great book of the Beatles' connection to British humor has yet to be written. Think of it: George with the Pythons and Rutles (and pre-Python Rutland Weekend Television, singing the Pirate song and playing "Pirate Bob") or all the Beatles on Morecambe and Wise (which at least we have audio now on the Anthology). What made them a success from the start? Their charm -- a large part of which was due to their shared sense of humor and the absurd. It was always there -- sometimes hidden away in the fan club Christmas messages, sometimes more directly in the songs and in the films.
Today, let us always remember that "It's a laugh a line with Lennon!"
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
I was struck by the gravity of the ritual, and yet the reluctant recognition that it could not be controlled. "Try to get the students to stay" was the theme, whether it was to get them in line for the procession or in their seats after the walk across the platform. And then there's the arena itself--keep off the grass! Minute Maid Park has to be maintained in game shape. What to do when rituals collide? No victory laps for the graduates; decorum must be maintained!
Sunday, December 04, 2005
I can't recall for sure the exact order of things. I know that around the same time our local PBS channel at MSU was showing Monty Python, their sister NPR station was playing not only the Goon Show but also I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. Just about the time I had got hooked on the shows, they also began to broadcast The Goodies. Then there was finding A Poke in the Eye with a Sharp Stick (probably in Wazoo Records or FBC in East Lansing), the first of many Amnesty International comedy benefits. This introduced me at last to the genius that is Peter Cook.
Well, I think that was the chain. It all seemed to happen at once. Maybe I actually found the Beyond the Fringe LPs before that. I can't really tell anymore. As Gene has noted recently, when I get obsessed with something (or re-obsessed in this case), I go all out. Between the long awaited release of many of these shows on DVD and the wonders of the internet in making available recordings no longer available (thank to things like the BBC wiping tapes -- ayiiii!), I am reveling once more in this terrific comedy. Things I never thought I'd see, like At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set have actually been released here (and yes, I have them).
Best of all? The humor stands the test of time. While the occasional timely joke falls flat, most of the humor remains fairly timeless. Unfortunately, there will always be pompous idiots, craven politicians, misguided wars and hypocrites. And perhaps, too, there will always be some kind of C. P. Snow, ravens who must be taught to swim and, somewhere warm, four Yorkshiremen who reflect on life as it used to be.
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Friday, November 25, 2005
Monday, November 21, 2005
Friday, November 18, 2005
From the very first frames Phoenix's Cash is sweating profusely -- he seems to burn all the way through the film. It's a flame that powers his inspiration -- and his danger. It kind of helps that I already know a lot of the story, although this is not really so much a biography of Cash and Carter, as the account of their inevitable collision. From the first moment when little J.R. hears 10 year old June on the radio (a moment, Gene pointed out, that would seem totally over the top if it weren't true), it seems they are careening toward one another as much as they try to hold back.
The flame that is Cash crashes through life unable to shake off the shadow of his brother's untimely death, unable to knuckle under to the "realities" of life his wife Vivian tries to get him to reconcile himself to absorbing. But he's unable to ignore the siren song of music, of fame, of Carter's good girl charm. While Vivian tries to bank the flames, Witherspoon's Carter feels its draw but resists surrendering to it. It's wonderful to watch these two inhabit their roles. Phoenix becomes Cash, growing into the voice of the battered penitent, while Witherspoon brings out the amazing strength beneath the polished professional exterior. There's a wonderful scene where a Southern woman puritannically rips her apart with matter-of-fact cruelty, and she responds with conciliatory words of apology that show both her well-trained persona and the depths of her pain. While her life is sketched even more lightly than Cash's, there are many moments of delight, such as when she and her folks chase off Cash's would-be drug dealer. If only her legs weren't so skinny! It's inhuman.
Phoenix will undoubtedly receive the bulk of the acclaim, but they both do terrific jobs appropriating this story of a love that burns and nearly consumes them both.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
The film covers the life of 17th century poet, dramatist and, of course, libertine John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, who had a master's degree by 14 and died by the age of 33. He wrote love poems, dramas and scorn:
Were I - who to my cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man -
A spirit free to choose for my own share
What sort of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
I'd be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,
Or anything but that vain animal,
Who is so proud of being rational...
Monday, November 14, 2005
Hurriedly, she grabbed her satchel and thrust the ancient book, as well as a few reference materials, into it. This made the satchel extremely heavy and bulky, but as a liberal arts professor she was used to that. Almost as an afterthought she grabbed the thirty student essays that she was supposed to be grading and put them into the satchel as well...
Ha ha -- Painful accuracy there! Sounds like most days for me.
Sunday, November 13, 2005
Well, that's according to the novel in progress by my Horror cohort Richard Crawford. Here's a sample:
“Right. Okay.” Fred cleared his throat. “Do you have any contact information for this Doctor Nefario? Any way of getting in touch with him should, say, a class be canceled for any reason?”
Joe nodded. “Yep. In fact, we may have to use it tonight if Doctor Laity doesn’t show up to teach. Where is that woman?”
Fred nodded sympathetically and said, “I understand. We’ve got a few slackers down at the precinct.”
“You don’t understand,” Joe said. “This is totally unlike Doctor Laity. She’s a professor of literature or medieval studies or something at the University. You don’t get to be a professor like that if you’ve got sloppy work habits and can’t come to work on time. She’s never late. Never even called in sick. I have to say,” he added, “I’m a bit worried about her.”
This is all part of NaNoWriMo, the write a novel in a month project that unfurls talent every November. It's a great kick to get going if you've ever thought about writing a novel. Try it! And stop by to see how I get killed in Richard's novel...
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Friday, November 04, 2005
Reviews of the film have been mixed (or just negative) and it's easy to see why. While visually stunning and inventive, the story drags. It's a simplistic tale of good v. evil writ upon the life of a (pre?) teen girl, but that in itself is not a problem -- how many great narratives have begun with just that frame? No, the problem is that movement from one point to the next is not propelled by story but by what seems to be the desire to create another stunning tableau. And they are stunning whether gorgeous or menacing, but that's not very engaging. Because of the lack of engagement, the Neil moments stand out a little more nakedly: funny, sure, but unconnected (I still think Neil needs an Anthony Blanche to warn him away from the dangers of charm). While the actors manage to round out the characters, they are forced by the plot to become little more than chess pieces, moved by the need to get to the next tableau rather than by the need to accomplish something.
There is a fun cameo by Stephen Fry.
The visuals are amazing, melding live action and special effects seamlessly for the most part, creating incredible creatures and wonderful buildings. But the film, in the end, is a big picture book with the rudiments of story. The pictures are amazing. When one character appears without the omnipresent mask, it's a bit of a let down. I immediately thought of Garbo's response to the revelation of Jean Marais at the end of Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete: "Give me back my beautiful beast!" Why settle for anything less than the extraordinary?
Monday, October 31, 2005
UPDATE: here's why we miss our good friends so much this time of the year -- here's the Joey Zone and Perilous Cheryl as Papa Legba and Marie Laveau at Ralph's Diner in Worcester, MA, photo courtesy of Sasquatch and the Sick-a-Billys drummer, Miss Natalie.
Thursday, October 27, 2005
Then there was waking up at quarter to four; it was difficult to get back to sleep and so my thoughts turned to what I had been trying to write earlier. I knew I would likely forget all I had thought, so I got up and wrote down the new version, and it seemed better (of course, it was the middle of the night). I had to try not to trip over the cats ("what are you doing up? this is our time" "I'm going to follow her" "No, I am!") on my way to my office and back, but I finally got back in bed and eventually fell asleep,
Convinced I had dreamed it, I got up this morning and sure enough, there were the new scribbles on a pad next to the computer, so I typed it up and fixed the layout and started printing. I went off to my class in the Woodlands and then came back to finish printing. Then Gene and I sat to fold, sign, envelope (ow! paper cuts -- some lucky people are getting a little blood with their cards) and stamp the cards, before I ran out to the post office to send them off.
It may seem a little silly just for Halloween cards, but getting something done -- having tangible results -- is always a great feeling. Now it's time to get back to work on projects with less immediate feelings of accomplishment.
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Thursday, October 20, 2005
"... it is a truly wonderful thing to behold Peter Cook, Denholm Elliot and the great Harold Pinter (as an fantastically smarmy TV talk-show host) appearing in the same frame trying to out-smarm each other. It's a three way draw. Brilliant."
But the reviewer is also correct that the overall effect is unsuccessful. While Peter Cook is unsettling and surreally charming as Rimmer, there's also a remoteness that keeps the characters from ever becoming engaging, although Denholm Elliott very nearly succeeds in making the too-easily-corrupted Peter Niss, if not sympathetic, at least believable. Given the current climate of bald-faced media manipulation by politicians, this film seems far ahead of its time. The ease with which the sociopathic climber Rimmer succeeds, moving from deceit to dissembling to outright murder (and perhaps more chillingly, from ad exec to eventual dictator), hits a little too close to home to be very funny anymore.
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Apparently this all came about because Conan's show is now broadcast in Finland, and Finnish fans have started showing up at the tapings in NYC, which delighted Conan -- even more so when he decided that he had a more than passing resemblence to Finland's President Tarja Halonen (note that Finland's president has no qualms about posting her resume on line). He has decided to help in her re-election effort for that very reason (although as an extremely popular president she doesn't really need much help).
So, they prepared a "campaign advertisement" for Finnish television, with Conan and Ulla portraying a couple at the dinner table. Ulla did most of the talking, since the ad was in Finnish (much of it very silly but positive things about Halonen's presidency, like "now we have more carp!"), but Conan repeated the final lines about voting for her "because she looks like me!" in Finnish. Very funny.
Undoubtedly, after this performance Ulla will be much in demand for television roles -- and who knows? Are movies next? I wouldn't be at all surprised. [In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that not only am I a friend of Ulla, but I also worked with Conan's dad at Harvard Medical School.]
Sunday, October 16, 2005
The conference was at the M. D. Anderson library at the UH campus across town. They're also hosting a lovely little exhibit of medieval manuscripts which will be a fine extra credit opportunity for my students, I think. There were some beautiful examples of manuscripts, and they were matched with a nice display of the tools and techniques of manuscript production, as well as recreated pieces of manuscript art produced by some Fine Arts students.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
Well, the conference ended better than it started. It helped a lot that Rod and Elena came up to hang out for the afternoon (thanks again, I really appreciated it!) We went to the Witch History Museum which was a hoot. All these tableaux with Sears mannequins dressed as Pilgrims. It was clear 1) how old they were (Elena pointed out the authentic cob webs) and 2) how much our knowledge of the history has diverged from the original narrative the mannequins tell. So there was a clear split between the rhetoric of word and of image. We got out just in time to go over to the Boys & Girls Club for my talk. To my surprise there was a pretty good crowd (I expected a half dozen at most, including me, Rod and Elena. There were forty or fifty people there, I think, and fairly enthusiastic. At least they seemed to laugh in the right places (“oh dear, I’ve got a huge lump on my arm! What do you suppose caused that?”) and asked a few questions, asked for my card at the end, and best of all, bought the books I brought with me. Yay! It was a fun talk – one I’ll have to repeat. Of course I tried to cram way too much into the time, but hey, I do that.
We had a great dinner out on the Pickering Wharf at the Captain’s and then Rod and Elena had to head back to Connecticut. I ran inside in time to catch Sharyn November’s storytelling hour. She’s the editor of Firebird, the YA imprint of Penguin, and a really lively individual and a straight shooter. Although the picture she painted of the editing world was far less glamorous than some audience members hoped, she clearly loves her work and gets a serious charge out of it. It was clear from the way she quizzed audience members on their current reading and recommended writers they might not have heard of yet. Besides, she folded an origami crane while she was talking.
It was an easy transition to Charles de Lint’s story hour, since he’s one of the those writers she edits, and anyway, he was already sitting in the audience. He started off reading his story from the forthcoming Firebird anthology (Firebirds are Go! just kidding), which Sharyn has convinced him to expand to a novel. It was both funny and touching. Then it was coffee hour time. Charles and MaryAnn explained that they liked to have more informal sessions to allow fans to ask questions and eat -- they brought chips and salsa. Sharyn stayed to kibbutz and had people laughing out loud often, especially when the two Canadians kidded her about her fascination with their Canadianism. Eventually Charles and MaryAnn got back to making music, stopping in between songs as usual to tell stories and explain connections. I finally couldn’t resist asking if Sam were there, and sure enough, he was along for the ride -- and we were also introduced to MaryAnn’s little bear Ted who travels with Sam, but seldom gets the spotlight. Charles was aghast to hear one young woman suggest that Sam the Monkey was really an ape, but said it didn’t really matter anyway. “His name is Sam the Monkey,” he said, which didn’t necessarily mean he had to be a monkey. “My name’s Charles de Lint but it doesn't mean I'm made of lint.”
A lot of songs, mostly different from the night before, except for ending on “Cherokee Girl” (which has continued in my head all day -- when will they finish their CD?). They sang Charles’ crow girls song, “Bad Girls,” which he described as a sort of Tom Waits/Ennio Morricone/Pink inspired tune. MaryAnn (or should I say, “Blind Citrus Harris” as she was introduced) even played harmonica on one song rather than her usual turns on mandolin and shaker. At the end, Charles signed books and we reluctantly left, to await the (last!) yellow school bus back to the Sheraton.
And now is only the waiting -- I should do work, but somehow I don’t much feel like it. At least I have plenty to read…and a computer!
[Written: 10/10/05 3.45 pm -- the plane was delayed about four hours, so I finally got back to the house about 11.45pm]
Sunday, October 09, 2005
Those problems aside, it was a delightful show nonetheless. And no, not just because they played my request "Crow Girls" right away, or what would have been my second request (the song about the dog that Karen Shaffer [who is not coincidentally Charles Vess' wife, and who co-curated the Mythic Journeys art show last year]) without my requesting it. Everybody sang along with the chorus of "Cherokee Girl," the song Charles wrote for Terri Windling, which he hoped would help send healing thoughts her way as she was suffering from a cold. The two of them told stories, finished -- or corrected -- one another's sentences. "We're married," MaryAnn added superfluously with a smile. The stories were always fun and gave little snapshots of their lives and adventures. As usual, they performed some Fred Eaglesmith songs, including one called "Good Dog" which brought tears to a few eyes. There was a tribute to author and conservationist Edward Abbey, and a Dave Alvin song about a painter who worked long enough to get money, went out into the desert to paint, returned only to sell paintings and get supplies. One time he just never came back. The chorus was something like "they never found your body, never understood your mind." Very moving, but they also had plenty of upbeat songs, like their paen to Highway 105, the route they take to their school-bus cottage on the lake.
It was a bit dark and the PDA takes only so-so pictures, but here's a blurry one (that too speedy shutter):
Saturday, October 08, 2005
Out my window it's a beautiful fall day, a little drizzly with the leaves only beginning to turn. But I can see miles and miles of trees and it makes such a difference. Yesterday when one of the bus drivers took us along the shoreline, I realized just how much I miss the water, too. Bayous just aren't the same. They are either nigh invisible trickles or raging floods. It's good to be in New England, if only for a visit.
Off to Pottermania! (I just realized that my blog still maintains central time, so I added the hour.)
Friday, October 07, 2005
Nope -- just the patched over ceiling of my hotel room. But did you see the gorgeous crescent moon last night? And two planets clearly visible nearby -- Venus? Mars?
Well, after a 45 minute wait I finally got on a shuttle bus (you know this conference is going well, right?) for the 40 minute ride to the other hotel, but I did manage to do a little touristing and shopping. What's Salem without a visit to the cemetery?
Here's the last known resting place of both Nathaniel and Jon Archer. And of course, I couldn't resist swinging by the Pirate Museum.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
I thought maybe they were waiting on a vet to sedate the dog that we could hear barking madly, but no. The captain comes on the intercom to say that we needed a new tire and it would take 45 minutes to an hour to accomplish that. After a little more time, they decided we needed to get off the plane, but told us not to go too far. I barely had time to call Robert and annoy him at work when they called us to reboard. We were all set to go when they realized that two people were missing from the tour group. Their friends tried phoning them, but they had left their cell phones off. One of the tour leaders loudly proclaimed that she would not depart without them, and in her firm resolve I imagined the story of another tour who had left one behind, disappearing into the jaws of an itinerant crocodile. But they arrived at last, out of breath, deeply embarrassed and greeted with applause.
After that things went smoothly, and I stretched out across my empty row and slept most of the flight (not used to those early hours!). Before I knew it, we were descending into Boston. I weaved my way among the retirees on the jet way and walked out the door of Logan to find an Avis bus just pulling up, and hopped on it to go get my Ford Focus. There’s always a lot of traffic north of Boston, but two rotaries (and a pass nearby Malden, Adrean!) later I was approaching Danvers and the Sheraton. I got in all right and they had a registration desk for the conference too, but not my registration stuff (forgot to send my last owl). Then I get to my room and find there is not, in fact, internet access because the wireless network cannot be found in my room. Nice eh? So I’m writing this in Word in my room, and if the free wireless does work in the lobby as the front desk now says (after three calls and no answer!) then I’ll put it up. If not, I’ll be entering these when I return.
Well -- the free wireless in the lobby isn't working, but I finally found a spot in the room where I can get the wireless signal: between the room door and the bathroom door. Lovely -- welcome to the Fawlty Towers of the North Shore.
Then there's only MLA... (eek). But I should have plenty of time to get that paper polished before the last week in December. Right?
Monday, October 03, 2005
Saturday, October 01, 2005
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
We've seen some old clips of Kate recently due to, I suppose, the very small world of British showbiz. A while back we got the box set of the Secret Policeman's Balls (Amnesty Int'l benefits) and there she was, singing "Running Up that Hill" with her mentor Dave Gilmour. The oddest thing was a short clip of her (thanks Jeff) on Peter Cook's Revolver singing "Them Heavy People" where her performance was edited with clips of the ball from The Prisoner (the refrain of the song is "rolling the ball..."). And I swear I saw a young, pre-punk Billy Idol in the audience. Have to watch it again -- not entirely unlikely after all, given the small world of British showbiz.
It can be a good thing -- think of all the collaborations owed to it, not least of which would be Monty Python. All of them worked on various shows and projects and at just the right moment, together. Unlike the US, where people are instantly pigeonholed by their first success, it is possible in the UK to go from pop star to novelist to chat show host. But here -- well, maybe Fitzgerald was right, except when it comes to movies.
Saturday, September 24, 2005
Friday, September 23, 2005
The windows are covered as much as possible (which makes it rather dark in here, despite the sun still shining outside). Just checked in on Peter who also offered us a port in the storm -- if our power goes out, we will probably think about taking him up on that. Of course, we would bring movies with us ;-)
I have to take the bird feeder down soon, but it's very busy right now with a bunch of sparrows filling up before the storm arrives. Kipper is sitting on the window seat, eyes glued to their fluttering wings. Even Maggie is prowling around when she would usually be asleep. They can no doubt feel the difference -- air pressure? or just the quiet? It's not silent, but quiet enough that every sound magnifies. A car driving down Main Street reverberates here. A dog barks, and the echoes resound across the streets as the next dog picks up the cry.
No paper this morning -- it's amazing how much of my morning routine depends on poring through the paper. I guess I can read it online, but it's not the same. But the radio is on, "bringing us news of fresh disasters," to steal a line from Beyond the Fringe (must write up that review, absolutely brillant DVD!). Perhaps it's time to turn off the radio -- obsessively retelling the tragic story of that bus does not add anything new.
Thanks for all the kind wishes, folks. It's always wonderful (and humbling) to know how many people care about us.
Thursday, September 22, 2005
Cell networks are already overloaded, so calls may not go through. We'll plan to update you all via the blogs because that will be the simplest thing. We will probably lose electricity, so we may not be able to email as constantly as usual, but we'll do our best to update Fri and Sat when the worst of it will be.
Wish us luck -- hope for the storm to reduce or at least track further east. We'll try to keep warm and dry.
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Monday, September 19, 2005
Sunday, September 18, 2005
On Friday, we watched a recent Ebay purchase, Not Only But Always, the film based on one of the biographies of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. It was pretty good as these things go (condensing anyone's life into 100 minutes is going to leave out a lot). But what a surprise to be looking through the drama section at Half Price the next day, and find a UK edition of Dud and Pete: The Dagenham Dialogues. I just stared at it for a minute -- it just seemed a little too much like a thought made manifest, but it's real enough. How odd, though, that it should make its way to a suburban Texas bookstore at just this time.
I think one the funniest things I heard recently was when Alan Moore was interviewing Brian Eno for Chain Reaction, a Radio 4 show, that Eno said when he and Bowie get together they slip almost unconsciously into Pete and Dud voices. I've found my own inspiration from all this by writing a very silly play. I'll be sure to pass it around when it's done.
"I've got a viper in this box. It's not an asp..."
Monday, September 12, 2005
My other piece is the account of the Conference on Women and the Divine this June in Liverpool. It appears as "Coming Together from Many Nations" in the new issue (36) of The Beltane Papers. As usual it has a gorgeous cover, this one by Maria Snedecor. And I'm right "next door" to my pal, intrepid Finnish-American reporter Diane Saarinen. Of course, TPB is full of great essays and lots of reviews, too.
Gene got an amazing publication in the mail, too; perhaps he'll write about it on his blog.
Friday, September 09, 2005
My first priority right now is my medieval academic work, but I don't want to let my work on ritual studies get too far behind. It's hard to have so many interests sometimes. There simply aren't enough hours in the day...
Thursday, September 08, 2005
I'll see 'em all if I can. After all, I survived Lambert's Beowulf, so I am hardy enough for any of these -- however silly they may end up. Yet I await most eagerly Benjamin Bagby's full-length production slated for the Met next year. I have seen him twice perform the first portion of the poem. He performs much like an Anglo-Saxon scop in Old English with a reconstruction of a Saxon lyre. It's quite amazing.
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
Sunday, September 04, 2005
The opening acts were both good. Gone were the whiny boys of the past couple tours. First up was The Like, a trio from SoCal who play stripped down rock. The bassist looked about 14 and the drummer like Cousin Itt, but they played straighforward music despite the vocalist being a bit muffled. After that the Ditty Bops came on. They were fun and playful, a sort of jazzy bluegrass style like a stripped down Squirrel Nut Zippers meets Dame Darcy.
Tori came out in a pink chiffon dress and played "Original Sinsuality" against a backdrop of a big apple tree with a snake curled around it. As usual, the audience was screaming for her. She segued into a rather long journey through "Beauty Queen" and "Horses." So it was a surprise when she dipped further back and produced "Caught a Lite Sneeze" which sounds quite different with only her own accompaniment; although, as usual she was doing a lot of the dual keyboard playing -- one hand on a piano, the other on an organ, and her swaying between. Also as usual, it was a treat to see her intereact with fans, complementing them on being "such great comrades" and happily complying with shouted demands to "show your shoes!" (she's well known for her shoe fetish).
A note on the merchandise table (where Gene bought me the cool pirate bag and an iron-on patch!) said some of the money would be going to the Red Cross for victims of Katrina. Thoughts of New Orleans seemed to guide her choice for the piano bar section. After a long intro about "her survival" she segued into a cover of the Animal's "House of the Rising Sun," although most of audience didn't seem to realize it was a song about New Orleans and that's who "she" was talking about. Tori then tried to figure out a song her make-up assistant requested, which she had never played, but then finally decided it wasn't going to happen and sang her way out of it, "maybe in the encore..." Instead she did Elton John's "Daniel."
There's not so much story telling as in the past -- one of the things I particularly loved -- but she does tend to do longer intros to songs, sometimes incorporating stories, or explaining the genesis of songs, such as the sung introduction to "Taxi Ride," the tribute to her friend, the late Kevyn Aucoin. There was a mood of wistfulness throughout the show, broken by a rare appearance of the sprightly "Happy Phantom." I don't think I have had a chance to hear her play it live before, and the easy joy of its bouncy melody and positive lyrics provided a respite before diving into the depths of "The Beekeeper," a song about the pain of loss and dealing with death.
She came back for two encores, finally ending with a slow rendition of "Baker Baker" before giving her last waves to the adoring crowd. We all trailed out to the parking garage. Since we were on the fifth floor, Gene and I enjoyed the not-completely sweltering night (a rarity!) by leaning over the edge of the wall gazing at downtown (well, you can't see the stars with allt he light pollution). The bayou was an oily black and the gaudy ferris wheel drew the eye. There's not much to see in Houston at night. I remember Ulla saying it looked more like an Eastern European nation. But traffic wasn't moving for a bit, so we spent the time thinking about other concerts -- like running down to NYC from UConn to see Cibo Matto at the Bowery Ballroom when they debuted Stereotype A. A long night, but worth it.
See the whole set list from The Dent.
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Monday, August 29, 2005
"Growing up in Texas, my gang of neighborhood kids would gather on Saturdays to act out movies like ROBIN HOOD, THE WOLF MAN, and CAPTAIN BLOOD. I discovered then that playing the bad guy was a lot more fun than being the hero. The villain always had the best lines and the big death scenes... "
Even better, the website also says:
"In the spirit of the Peter Pan charitable legacy, a portion of the author’s royalties will go to the Peter Pan Children’s Fund, an organization that supports children’s hospitals through philanthropy programs."
Rogues with good hearts, what could be better? I'm going to keep my eye out for the book. Speaking of rogues, I am trying to find out whether the ever-fabulous Vic Reeves' Discovery series Rogues Gallery will ever come to the States. Vic looks into the lives of famous rogues like Dick Turpin and Black Bart.
Sunday, August 28, 2005
You can see a better picture here. I mentioned its return on the Kantele Players Guild list and Jane Ilmola of 3 Rivers Kanteles mentioned that she had a link to a real pikebone kantele. From their website, click on the link for instruments, then click on the Martti Pokela collection. You can scroll down and see the boney kantele.
The pikebone is traditionally the source of the first kantele. According to the Kalevala, the runesinger Väinämöinen made the first instrument from the jawbone of a giant pike he and his cohorts had wrestled from the sea. Its strings came from the tail of Hiisi's mare. You can find a version of the tale here, and more about real pikes here.
Thanks, Gerry! I am so lucky.
Friday, August 26, 2005
Grimma Gaest: I wrote this short essay on Beowulf for a collection on cannibalism and eating "the other" [terminology from literary theory, defining the one who is not "us" the assumed narrator -- it can mean women to a male point of view or indigenous people to a colonialist POV, etc.]. My piece focuses on Grendel as the horrific "other" to the warriors of the story. He turns their world upside down and breaks the most fundamental taboo by eating them.
The Sorcerer: Thanks to S. T. Joshi I may have another piece to write for Greenwood Press. The collection is Icons of Horror and the Supernatural and I would be writing the section on the figure of the Sorcerer from antiquity to the present, in literature and popular culture. I'm just awaiting official word (and a contract) from Greenwood.
I was going to write a review of Weird Tales of the Ramones, but Gene beat me to it!
Monday, August 22, 2005
As it happened, while trying to find something else, I ran across this short review (at Gothic Press) by Gary Wiliam Crawford of my encyclopedia entry on Ramsey Campbell:
Laity, K.A. "Ramsey Campbell, 1946- )." Supernatural Fiction Writers: Contemporary Fantasy and Horror. 2nd ed. Ed. Richard Bleiler. New York: Scribner's, 2003.
A good biographical and critical survey with a selective bibliography. Discusses Campbell's subtlety and his use of urban settings that make Campbell's work more immediate and gripping.
It's also right below the review of the previous volume's entry on Campbell (an accident of alphabetizing), and I'm relieved that it shows me in a favorable light. It's also a mark of the desperate writer who is cheered by such a small thing.
Campbell is not only a wonderful writer, he's also a savvy film reviewer. See his film reviews at BBC Liverpool.
What is it about me and that seaside town? I'm currently reading Steven D. Stark's Meet the Beatles, which I will review as soon as I finish it. So far, I'm enjoying it and -- can you believe it? -- finding out a couple things I did not know about the Beatles.
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Sunday, August 14, 2005
Thursday, August 11, 2005
If you're familiar with Herzog's work, you know to expect no easy answers. Herzog lets Treadwell's remarkable footage speak for itself most of the time. Treadwell becomes an intimate part of the grizzly world in Alaska, maintaining a foothold on the dangerous periphery of the bears' lives. Through his lens, we see them: powerful, individuals, enormous! The up-close view of grizzly life will perhaps be Treadwell's greatest contribution.
But there's also the unravelling of a deeply damaged person. In the months of solitude, Treadwell turns to his camera as to a confessional. His disgust with the human world emerges clearly, as do his erratic mood swings. The childlike delight in the beauty of the remote paradise clashes with his increasingly antagonistic anger toward perceived enemies of his sanctuary. Companion interviews with Treadwell's friend and family fill out the portrait of a deeply troubled man. The grizzlies provide an initial rescue from substance abuse, but seem to become another destructive obsession. It's hard not to see Treadwell's choice to remain longer and longer among the bears as a kind of intricately orchestrated suicide.
In the end, Herzog cannot resist imposing his own view of nature as chaotic and cruel. Over footage of the bear that most likely killed Treadwell and Huguenard, Herzog expresses his view of the grizzly's "blank stare" and sees him as a cold killer, without acknowledging that his reaction is just as shaped by his expectations as Treadwell's was. Neither can see nature without romanticizing or demonizing it. But Herzog chooses from the hours of footage sequences that show the amazing lives of these animals, their beauty and their power; the footage itself inspires awe in the simplest form for these magnificent creatures who live in a harsh and alien world.
There are some extremely horrific moments, though not the deaths themselves. There is an audio tape of the event, taken by Treadwell's video camera with the lens cap still on. In a overly self-conscious moment, Herzog listens to it in front of Jewel Palovak, Treadwell's former girlfriend and co-creator of Grizzly People. Herzog asks her to turn it off, declares she should burn it and never listen to it, which makes the scene feel much too exploitive. Similarly, the scene where uber-creepy coronor, Franc Fallico, hands Treadwell's (still functioning) watch to Palovak while explaining that it was found on his severed arm, is both awkward and, well, creepy. Likewise, Fallico's singular dramatic recreation of the death scene adds new resonance to the bizarre coroner, now a seeming staple of television.
The film is fascinating. I'm not sure how I feel about Treadwell in the end. He was deeply troubled, no doubt, and perhaps misguided. What really stays with me is the ironic difficulty people have dealing with nature. Living in the midst of a mostly unnatural city which seems at times paved end to end, I can see how the separation from the natural world leads to both Treadwell's and Herzog's viewpoints, either romanticizing it as a lost paradise or demonizing it as dispassionate killer. That separation is the real tragedy.
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
Joy of Warriors: Juliana’s Masculine Ecstasies
The Cynewulfian poem Juliana features a harsh connection between physical pain and spiritual ecstasy. The young virgin saint’s very body becomes the alchemical cauldron that converts the sadistic torture of her fiancé into a public spectacle of pious triumph. While the events take place in ancient Rome, Cynewulf’s singular vision replays the drama in the realm of Anglo-Saxon warrior poetics. Juliana’s power derives not just from her divine connection to the god who is the wigena wyn (joy of warriors), but also from her embrace of hegemonic masculinity. Because heroic behavior to the Anglo-Saxon audience was equivalent to the strict warrior code, even female saints like Juliana (although this can apply as well to Judith and Elene) could become heroic by performing masculine behavior. Her appropriation of masculine vocabulary and action has immediate effects on those around her, including the demon she holds and tortures while herself in prison. The demon recognizes her as wigþrist ofer eall wifa cyn (most battle-ready of all woman kind) and the warriors gathered in the city respond to her courage with the clashing of weapons. In her final ecstatic speech of triumph before her martyrdom, Juliana employs martial language, reminding her audience to keep on their guard and watch for the clamor of battles. In Cynewulf’s heroic poem, the virgin saint transforms from a passive canvas for divine presence to an active warrior for ecstasy.
Even more fun, one of my colleagues also submitted an abstract, so it's quite possible we'll both be going (ahem, assuming our department can afford to send us).
Monday, August 08, 2005
Adding to the ambivalence: I only got this opporunity due to the recent death of poet Lorenzo Thomas. Lorenzo was our big name in the English Department, well known in the world and respected by so many people. He was a big part of the Houston Poetry Fest; I saw a number of the Poetry Fest folks at Lorenzo's funeral.
The wheel of life, always turning...
Thursday, August 04, 2005
Monday, August 01, 2005
There are some other interesting reads there, too. I really enjoyed Kat Mead's "Authoress Despair," about the vagaries of film versions of writers. I admit it -- I love those films even when they're awful. Even if they're not awful, they are usually nothing at all like reality. But the reality of writing could not be more dull to watch, so I understand why filmmakers dwell on the angst and crumpled papers. On the more serious side, there's an essay on "Advertising and the Exploitation of Female Sexuality" by Chineze J. Onyejekwe, which not only highlights the phenomena but also discusses efforts to address the problem. There are also a number of related links that provide fascinating reading.
Sunday, July 31, 2005
"They run up and bite me on the leg -- I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off."
Bradbury conveys well the excitement of creative work. He also tells great stories: meeting sideshowman Mr. Electrico who claimed to know him in another life or, feeding dimes into a pay typewriter to furiously type Farenheit 451. He also gets to the heart of what makes the struggle worthwhile:
"What is the greatest reward a writer can have? Isn't it that day when someone rushes up to you, his face bursting with honesty, his eyes afire with admiration and cries, 'That new story of yours was fine, really wonderful!' Then and only then is writing worthwhile."
Of course he's also distressingly sexist. It's always "he," always. I remember why I lost patience with him in later books. The Halloween Tree was terribly misogynistic. But I could not do without The October Country, or Dandelion Wine or Something Wicked This Way Comes. It's a pity though that he could never see the little girls who ran through the fields just as wildly as his beloved young boys.
In the end, it's the work that matters. As Bradbury writes, "Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together. Now, it's your turn. Jump!"
Thursday, July 28, 2005
Hmmm. Let's see -- her latest single and video is "Sweet the Sting." Let's try "sting" -- bingo! Two orchestra seats. I just wonder why it wasn't on any of the BBS...
Thank you, Ticketmaster, for the $9.10 service charge per ticket!
Good thing her shows are always worth it. Always surprising, always intense -- you never know quite what she'll do, or sing, or what story she might tell. This tour even includes the "Piano Bar" where she will play cover songs the fans have requested, just like in the old days when she played in a bar and took requests. Fun! Hmm, what request shall I send?
Friday, July 22, 2005
Three disappointments in a row from Burton: the less said about Planet of the Apes, the better; Big Fish could just as easily have been a "fine Lifetime movie" as we refer to them; and then, Charlie. Sigh. I wanted to like it so much. I do love the original, but this seemed an ideal remake, one that would -- according to Burton -- stick closer to the book. Well, hmmm -- except for the ENDING.
Here's where I talk about a lot of things that SPOIL both movies, so if you haven't seen either yet, avoid this!
The overall problem are those changes -- creating a backstory of a mean dentist dad who won't let the elborately braced Charlie eat any candy who, like an evil Sauroman, throws his Halloween cache (yes, supposedly in England -- I know, I know) on the fire. Even Christopher Lee cannot keep the maudlin sentimentality from dripping off the screen. Burton's Wonka is damaged goods, a germophobic man-child. Yes, comparisons to Michael Jackson are inevitable, but despite Depp's gamest efforts, the film falls flat. His Wonka seems on the brink of collapse.
While Wilder's Wonka -- as Gene never fails to point out -- acts as a kind of YHWH in his little candy land, Depp's Wonka is apparently powerless. Things just happen and he is helpless to stop them. While the earlier film allowed all good children to vicariously enjoy bad children (for once!) getting punished, the new film barely fleshes out the bad kids. Rather than revelling in their just punishments, we feel (if not sorry for them) very little at all. Burton's Wonka seems more like a serial killer than a man who loves candy, one who has surreptitiously planned the "accidents" occurring to the children. He's terrified by that grey hair, not realizing an inevitability of passing the baton. The ridiculous assertion that Charlie must choose between his family and the factory betrays Burton's own ambivalence, not Dahl's.
The squirrels are a hoot; but think of all the weeks Burton spent trying to train them. What a waste of time, when he could have been developing the roles of his fine supporting cast. Pity. And what is with Helena Bonham-Carter's teeth? Like most films of late, more attention has been spent on appearance than on content. And let's face it; however much you tart them up, the Oompah Loompahs will always be colonialist baggage.
The one shining light is Freddie Highmore, who continues to show the wonderful qualities he brought to Finding Neverland. He infuses Charlie with spirit and thoughtfulness as well as wonder. He was one of the reaons I had high hopes for this film, because the glaring error of the first film was Peter Ostrum as Charlie. Never mind that he wasn't English; he was unbearably homely and a poor actor. He had to be the emotional center of the film, but he created a vaccuum. Wisely, he became a veterinarian rather than continue acting.
The grandparents are wonderful from David Kelly on down. James Fox is totally wasted as Veruca's stuffy father, and it's a crime to give so little rein to the often hilarious Missi Pyle. Way too much effort was spent on the musical numbers which already look dated ("word!") rather than clever. The only song that works is the Wonka theme (one of those catchy Elfman bits that sticks in your head like taffy) sung by robotic dolls that spark then catch fire, melting horribly, even losing an eyeball.
It's the best moment of the film.
Like the running subtext of cannibalism, which is enough to disturb but never gets developed in a meaningful way, there are all kinds of potential themes. If only Burton realised that subtext is where the power lies. Psychological issues need not lead to bad filmmaking. Look at Hitchcock. His unresolved issues created some of the finest films of the last century. He even turned loveable Jimmy Stewart into one of the most disturbingly repulsive characters ever in Vertigo. Dahl's book is full of themes both wonderful and troubling. Burton should have read it more closely -- and he should have relegated his own problems to the subtext.
Thursday, July 21, 2005
Of course the best part of the con is staying with Susan, and hanging out with Mildred and Birdie. And of course, Gene managed to add to the fun by making both me and Birdie spew things out our noses laughing (or across the kitchen floor in my case -- at least it was the tile floor). Laura rounded out the crew once again, although she managed not to spew liquids out her nose, she did share her uncanny ability to mimic a cat purr. That's got to fit in a story somewhere...
I had a lot of fun serving on panels, giving a talk on weird facts from the middle ages and of course, doing a reading myself, something I always enjoy. I performed a version of "Raven Sister, Cuckoo Sister" with my kantele, then read one of the new short stories "Eating the Dream" to a small but appreciative audience. We all had fun with films like Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, the dubious Evil Alien Conquerors, Terminator (which Gene had never seen), and Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson's tastelessly tacky Meet the Feebles. We also nearly fainted to see a picture of Jackson in a recent entertainment mag -- he's lost 70lbs and had lasik surgery.
Always hard to return to reality after so much fun -- thanks again to Susan for being the hostess with the mostess (food, fun and beer!) and to Mildred and Birdie for...everything!
Wednesday, July 13, 2005
We're off to Trinoc*con in the morning. It will be fun seeing our pals Susan, Mildred and Birdie (and all the cats!). And of course, we're also guests at the con. Lit GOH is Joe Lansdale his own self, so that will be
fun too. With luck, I will have time to send updates from NC, so we'll see whether the Horror curse gets invoked (either that yet another chuckle-filled showing of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Named after Dionysus?
I realise that learning Greek and Roman culture, history and literature has become a thing of the past, but surely people look up names before they use them? Or is there some kind of irony at work?
Our campus has a local chapter of BACCHUS, an organization which says it is "an international association of college and university based peer education programs focusing on alcohol abuse prevention and other related student health and safety issues." Nothing wrong with that -- but why call it Bacchus? Yes, it stands for "Boost Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students," but is there an intentional irony? Or an attempt at an elaborate bait-and-switch? Maybe they hope that students in search of a bacchanalia will stay for a sobriety talk -- yeah, that's likely.
Sunday, July 10, 2005
I just finished Sunshine on Putty which I enjoyed despite a lot of reservations about the style (and the accuracy -- if he got things wrong that I knew like mistaking Smokey Robinson for Otis Redding (!) and calling Tod Browning's Freaks "the great silent classic," how many more things did he get wrong that I wouldn't know?). But as an overview of the 90s comedy in Britain, it hasn't much competition yet. Someday more people will realize the genius that is Vic. In the meantime, I've started Humphrey Carpenter's (much more competently written) A Great Silly Grin and, as usual, am always amazed at what a small country England is.
Speaking of amazing: in a theater we saw the trailer for Rob Zombie's new film which appeared to be entitled The Devils Rejects. Saw TV ads too. Finally, this weekend, it was changed at last to The Devil's Rejects. In all the many months of creating, marketing and exploiting the film, no one noticed the missing apostrophe? Wow. It's still incorrect on his website, which is needlessly Flash enhanced. How many posters did they print then fix?
Wednesday, July 06, 2005
Thanks go out to Gerry Henkel, editor of New World Finn, who has been enthusiastically supportive of my work and who illustrated the story with the mythically elemental paintings of Joyce Koskenmaki. Thanks also are due to the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow where I completed the story earlier this summer.