Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Teaching is done for the semester, just finals to go. I was sad to see the back of my film class, but they were more than ready to move on to finals and summer and graduation. It's Walpurgisnacht, so bonfires are burning -- and in Finland people are probably already drinking sima for Vappu (and getting ready to fry tippaleipä). We're off to see the Jesus of Cool. No doubt, I'll be writing up the sold-out concert tomorrow.

The joey Zone sends along this oddity: an impressionistic film of Peer Gynt from 1941, starring a teenage Chuck Heston. Seems appropriate for this wild night.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Jetsetter Returns

Actually I returned Sunday night, but a bit later than expected due to an extended stay in Toronto. Unlike Halifax (the last place Air Canada stranded me) there were at least restaurants open and a few shops to idle at when I was too tired to read. Apparently I looked sufficiently woebegone that the guy at customer service gave me a lunch voucher. "Oh," he said, "you came from London -- you must be tired." Can we say "duh"? Fortunately I had not quite finished the fourth book I had with me, so I was better off in that respect -- I had to resort to buying something in Halifax. There's not much in the airport bookstore milieu that appeals to me.

The rest of the journey was fine. There was the Australian woman who chewed her gum like cud on the Toronto-London leg, but as soon as dinner was over I put in my earplugs and put on my eye shades and went to sleep. She was frustrated trying to watch the movie because the video was not functioning well. On the return journey, the little monitors worked fine, however I didn't bother watching anything because a previous passenger had apparently broken off the earphone jack in the hole, so I couldn't get mine in. The flight attendant shrugged. Ah, service.

But things looked up as soon as I landed in Heathrow because Liz was there to meet me. It's always good to see a friendly face after a long journey. We were soon home to Chez Brooks with hugs all around and a nice cuppa. There was even time for a nap before picking up Sophie from school, which helped my jet lag considerably. A homey evening relaxing and watching TV, then up early and off to the station at Ealing Broadway for the train to Oxford. Along the way I spotted oodles of crows, some in their nests high in the trees, visible because the leaves were just beginning to come in; a kestrel flew over the tracks at one point, a pheasant strode through a field and a large brown hare sat up, watching the train go by. A magpie sailed over the train and later another one hopped along a garden fence, keeping pace with me as I trotted back to the train station.

It was a terrific conference with scholars both new and venerable examining modern culture appropriations of Anglo-Saxon culture. Heather O'Donoghue chaired my session which was an honor, although my co-presenter John Halbrooks of the University of South Alabama referred to our panel as the "American Ghetto" (we were the only presenters from the States). Nonetheless our panel was well attended and they laughed in the right places. Although I didn't get too many questions at the end, several people came up to me afterward and indicated their enjoyment of it, as well as their eagerness to seek out Buffini's play, Silence. Most had never heard of it, so I'm glad to get the word out. It feels as if Britain lags behind in popular culture scholarship -- some of the grad students in attendance mentioned that they found a great deal of resistance to the topics addressed at the conference. Perhaps the Oxford imprimatur will help batter down that resistance.

A quiet evening watching episodes of Drop the Dead Donkey was just right for the wind-down of a speedy weekend. Up at an ungodly hour in the morning and off to Heathrow -- such is the life of the busy academic. I was tempted in the duty-free to buy a bottle of Absolute Disco [pictured left] but decided to settle for some Cadbury Whole Nut. Thanks again to Brad and Liz and Sophie for giving me a home away from home.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Happy Birthday(s)!

[Nice cake, eh?]
Happy Birthday, Liz! Happy Birthday, Clare! And on Saturday: Happy Birthday, Johnny 10X!

Off to England this afternoon. At least I'm not running around shouting "tickets, money, passport!" Packing etc. is so automatic now: going for such a short trip, there's little to pack anyway. Paper has been printed, jump drive packed, books chosen, boarding pass and rail ticket printed, phone topped up. On the road again...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Long Coats

I'm not happy with my paper for the conference in Oxford. That's not unusual (when am I ever happy with something I've written apart from fleeting moments here and there?), but I have been particularly swamped with work and it had left me with a feeling of nagging doubt. So I woke up this morning with the thought that it's time to throw on the long coat and find my inner Captain Jack. The Torchwood one, that is. Amazing the power of the long coat: one of my favorite moments in the crazy Alex Cox film Straight to Hell is when Frank orders his desperadoes to "get out the long coats, boys." Of course, the Torchwood coats have been much parodied, but I feel now it's time to sling on the mental long coat and head out like I mean business. Then again there's revising, too, which usually helps.

Speaking of Captains Jack, the other captain has been spotted in northern Wisconsin. Thanks to my fabulous in-laws, Gene Sr. and Jane, we found out that Johnny Depp is currently filming a Dillinger movie up in their region. Hee hee: maybe they'll get me an autograph!

A million things to do, yet off to England tomorrow. At least it's a teaching light day: workshops and a film showing. I knew I'd be crazed by this date. The good news is that after Saturday I don't have another paper to give (maybe until next March -- could I wait that long?). The summer will be writing and some fun travel (gasp! even a possible vacation). But first I have to get through Saturday.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Steal this Book

Well, I can't afford it. From Fantagraphics, the latest from the wonderful Linda Medley:
Castle Waiting: The "Hand Made" Special Edition.
This ultra-deluxe, hand-assembled edition of the Castle Waiting graphic novel includes the following (click links for photos):

• full-color archival chapter-divider bookplates printed on acid- and lignin-free 50 lb. stock with pigmented inks; the adhesive is a permanent modified acrylic (no gooey rubber to gum up the works). Each plate measures 4" x 5".
• Tipped-in front endpaper plate.
• Gilded edge pages.
• Tiny flat two-sided solid pewter charm added to the bound-in ribbon bookmark. Measures approximately 1/2" wide x 3/4" high.
• Original dustjacket with brass protective corners. Reproduced from the vintage tooled-leather cover Linda's very own extra special personal copy wears. Printed in full-color on heavyweight glossy paper.
• "Liberry Card" set of three cards: includes a Library Card, Borrow Slip, and Author Card in an acid-free pocket affixed into the book. All are printed both sides on acid-free cardstock and each card measures 2.75" x 5.5". The Library Card is reproduced from a Victorian (circa 1898) library card, and the signed Author Card is in the style of cabinet cards of the same era.

Tip o' the blog to Gene-Gene, the book-buying machine, who's been posting archival materials from the Milwaukee years.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Think like Lester

"The point is that I have no idea what kind of a writer I am, except that I do know that I'm good and lots of people read whatever it is I do, and I like it that way."


"I'll probably never produce a masterpiece, but so what? I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own, and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus while this stupefying world careens crazily past his waxy windows toward its last raving sooty feedback pirouette."

Why can't I find my copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung?

Sad news today that Danny Federici died. Very sad...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Algonquin Roundtable

This semester, as many of you know, I have been teaching a class about films that portray the lives of writers. Most recently we watched Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, which tells in part both Parker's life and the coterie that was the Algonquin Roundtable (as drawn by the inimitable Hirschfeld here). It's a little bit of a mess as a film: star Jennifer Jason Leigh went all out to achieve realism in capturing Parker's singular cadences of speech -- sacrificing intelligibility along the way (much to the students' annoyance); plus the story arc seems to flatten jarringly by the end, which seems to come abruptly without much warning.

I had originally scheduled us to do Stranger than Fiction, but by time it came around, I just didn't want to do that film. As much of a mixed bag as Mrs. Parker ends up being, it is far more meaty than the rather slight STF. I think the students would have preferred the latter; when I announced the change, one student joked "okay, we're not friends anymore," but she brightened considerably upon the realization that she could now write on that film for her final paper. Normally the students leap onto Blackboard to begin discussing the films even before they end, but so far only one student has posted on this movie, although we finished watching it yesterday.

But it's Dorothy Parker! and the Algonquin Roundtable! Parker is amazing and her ability to skewer is unparalleled in American culture. We don't appreciate wit in this country. We consider humor too lightly. Under her jests, however, there is a steely critical eye, unerring in its judgment:

Fighting Words

Say my love is easy had,
Say I'm bitten raw with pride,
Say I am too often sad--
Still behold me at your side.
Say I'm neither brave nor young,
Say I woo and coddle care,
Say the devil touched my tongue--
Still you have my heart to wear.
But say my verses do not scan,
And I get me another man!

The Algonquin Roundtable has always represented for me the idea of what it ought to mean to be a writer: to be part of a lively, witty and endlessly inventive group. I have always yearned to be in that kind of milieu this hotel evokes (Vonnegut's memorial was even held at the Algonquin). I feel moments of that sensation with our pals in CT, and there's our local roundtable every Tuesday at Mahar's (ironically, not with the English department folks, but with the History and Political Science crew), but no reality can live up to the romantic notion that got fixed in my head all those years ago. It's no more "real" than Homer's drunken party recollection of a similarly erudite gathering, but it persists in my head.

That's part of what the class is about: examining all the romantic notions we tie to the idea of being a writer. Yes, we do always teach classes where we hope to learn something. I don't know how much I'm learning -- I do have an awfully sharp group of students -- but I am thinking.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Solid, Jackson!

Saturday night we headed down to Kingston, mon, to see Joe Jackson at the UPAC. Of course, Robert gave us a fine feast first (mmm, chicken satay). It was the first time we had been to the venue, so it was interesting to look around. It's a nice old theatre.

The opening band, two guys in casual wear (no, that wasn't their name which escapes me), left little impression although the crowd that was in the theatre seemed to enjoy them. Most of the crowd was instead enjoying the bar. I whispered to Gene that I could remember when rock stars tried to look sexy. He thought they were going for a kind of hobbit chic.

They were not succeeding.

In contrast, Jackson looked suave in his grey suit and open black shirt. His trio included Graham Maby on bass (and vocals) and Dave Houghton on drums (and vocals). Houghton's kit was all synth -- if it had been analogue it would have been nigh on Keith worthy. They started with "Stepping Out" in a torchy mode for the first bit, then the trip-hop beat kicked in and the song took a whole new swing. It was wonderful. Jackson's voice still sounds the same, that singular sound. They did a lot of songs from the new album Rain, but a few of the old songs, too. I couldn't have been more surprised when he launched into "On Your Radio" after introducing it as dating from "when dinosaurs walked the earth," but I wasn't the only one pleasantly surprised. A terrific song, sung now with the full confidence of success rather than the brash bravado of youth, it still maintains that bite.

The combo played together tightly and Maby and Houghton had a lot of vocal fans in the audience. When they departed for Jackson's solo set -- which included the new song "Solo (So Low)" -- the audience sent them off with applause and welcomed them back enthusiastically afterward. The big hits in the encores, of course, brought people to their feet. Jackson seemed surprised by just how enthusiastic the crowd was, singing the chorus to "You Can't Get What You Want" so loudly that he leaned back and just mimed the words while we sang. The applause went on so long that he gave a third encore.

It was a really satisfying concert. Thanks for the tickets, Robert! And hey, the end of the month we get a visit from the Jesus of Cool himself, the fabulous Nick Lowe. Wonder if he'll do "Bay City Rollers, We Love You!"

By the by, if you've been wondering why no posts of late, it has been due to problems with the router. Irksome, to say the least -- so finally a moment on campus to write. Much work to do before Oxford next week. Eek. Two more weeks of teaching -- yee ha. So very tired...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Are we really going out with him?

We're heading down tonight to see Joe Jackson with Robert. Flashback to the 80s? I suspect he'll be doing the more recent jazzy work, but those hooky singles were terrific -- there's not much more gleeful you can get than the lyrics to "On Your Radio":

Ex-friends, ex-lovers and enemies
I've got your case in front of me today
All sewn up
Ex-bosses you never let me be
I got your names and your numbers filed away
I've grown up
See me
Hear me
Don't you know you can't get near me
You can only hope to hear me on your radio...

From that great album, I'm the Man.

Yesterday, before we went to lunch at Karavalli's (mmmm), I spoke to Mary Meany's Women and Religion class at Siena College. I spoke about modern paganism and gave them a little more context than the essays they had read. Of course I managed to work into the conversation Jonathan Miller, Roald Dahl, Alan Moore, medieval history, Buffy and Charmed. It was fun -- different from when I spoke to Crispinus' class, but still a lot of fun. Talking to someone else's class, I don't have to worry about whether they're learning. Hee hee!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

What's got art and sounds like a bell?

The last of the Jonathan Miller events took place at the Tang Teaching Center at Skidmore (which comes up on Google after the drink and the dynasty). This was a conversation which seemed to have more potential for fun than the panel discussion and more interactivity than the lecture.

Miller took a stand for versatility against creativity, making a point about what he called our "art intoxication." We don't value the really creative things we do all the time, he said, like speak coherently in our language to one another which takes an amazing amount of knowledge, versatility and creativity. This also brought him back to the unconscious which he distinguished from Freud's view of it as a kind of prison from which ideas might escape "like Mr. Toad dressed as a washerwoman." For Miller, the unconscious is a pool which enables us to do so much because we know far more than we realize. The conversation veered from Darwin to bats to bosh shots and beyond. I wish there had been time to hear more about directing, but then again, Miller insists that there is no great mystery in directing -- it's all about making actors forget what they think they know and accessing what they do know unconsciously about how people really act.

All this was in between the seminar and then lecture from our Distinguished Scholar, James Collins. He was terrific and accessible to the students, and had lots of compliments for them later. Presenting a work in progress in the afternoon seminar allowed both faculty and students to critique the argument and examples, and offer alternatives and further illustrations. The lecture was a lot of fun and I was really proud of my students from the film class who were able to recognize immediately the still on the screen at the start of the talk which was only an inky hand holding a quill. What a great class! It was terrific to welcome a fellow popular culture scholar to campus, too. There are still some who cock a suspicious eye at the field.

Speaking of terrific, Doctor Who is back -- yay! Catherine Tate's character is far more restrained than in the Xmas show, fortunately (and anyway, yay for funny women!). DW seems both more fun and far less irritating than Torchwood, which at least brought back James Marsters for the big finale. Yet, we still watched the whole season of Torchwood. Just goes to show you how little there is worth watching here.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


We headed up north again yesterday to meet Crispinus at the Parting Glass before the next Miller event:

Panel Discussion - Film & The Imagination
The panel will feature Jonathan Miller and Faculty members Tom Lewis (English), Marc-Andre Wiesman (Foreign Languages and Literatures), Erica Bastress-Dukehart (History), and Skidmore student Sean Mattison '08.

The pub was a good choice: good pub grub and there was time enough for a couple of Boddingtons before the panel. We arrived to find the auditorium well-filled. After some technical difficulties, things got rolling with a response to the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice. Miller began somewhat crankily by arguing that good books should never be make into films, that bad books make better films. While I'd agree with the latter, I certainly don't agree with the former -- and I thought, Miller (director of a fantastic version of Alice in Wonderland, mad tea party image above) didn't really either.

So when questions were solicited, I raised my hand and asked about this. Miller admitted that this was very "contradictory" of him and that he indeed thought Alice a good book, but he wasn't so much filming the book as a kind of essay about it. I didn't get a chance to ask whether other directors of films from good books might not be doing the same thing, as there were many other eager questioners. I did talk to Erica Bastress-Dukehart afterward, who felt that Miller had dismissed her interpretation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail a bit too quickly. So, we bonded over Python, bad medieval movies and their usefulness in the classroom.

Today we have James Collins here on campus which ought to be a lot of fun. There's still the interview with Miller at 4.30, which I might be able to swing between the Collins events. We'll see how much energy I have by this afternoon. Tired, over-busy and feeling a bit cranky myself (and unappreciated).

That's academic life: surrounded by insecure people who know how to find the weak spots in others and exploit them in order to prop up their own timorousness. Yeah, I chose this line of work -- and it's still better than working 9-5. I have no plans to ever go back to that soul-sucking life, but at times I do have to suppress the temptation to carry a cricket bat for corrective measures (only, of course, "to threaten them with a spanking when they're sulky"). Life is a glorious cycle of song, a medley of extemporanea...

(Oh, and my academic email address has been hijacked for spam -- yay!)

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Miller's Tale

We headed up to Crispinus' college to see Doctor, er Sir Jonathan Miller Thursday night. How much of a comedy geek am I? Well, here I am getting my program for Beyond the Fringe signed by the good doctor. He joked about the description of him in the program, then 27 years old. It was a fantastic evening of laughter and thoughtful analysis. Miller has always been quite the raconteur, and his wealth of experiences and polymathic interests has made sure that he has an enormous cache of anecdotes for any occasion.

He does a good impression of his former co-hort Peter Cook (my idol) and used his piece "Sitting on the Bench" (which you can find 3 minutes 50 seconds into this clip) to delve into some of the reasons that he found both Henri Bergson's and Sigmund Freud's theories of comedy insufficient.
In the course of the discussion, Miller also did great impressions of his other co-hort, Dudley Moore (but not Alan Bennett), as well as Goons Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, using their comedy for fodder in the argument about the nature of humor. In this talk, Miller wanted to bring out the pleasurable aspect of humor and explain its appeal. While he may not have come to any definite conclusions, the journey was a lot of fun and the crowd enthusiastically devoured all the stories and jokes, many of which were no doubt new to them.

There are two more events -- with luck, we will be able to attend them, too. I'm glad I worked up the courage on the first night to get the program signed: I would have chickened out later. It's quite an artifact -- funny little tie-ins in the ads, from North Thames Gas to the official tailor, Dougie Millings & Son mentioning the title, as well as ads for then current productions: Chita Rivera and Peter Marshall in Bye Bye Birdie at Her Majesty's Theatre and Christie's The Mousetrap, then only in its "10th Imperishable Year!" of keeping new productions from the West End. Playgoers are commanded "Now you must see Kenneth Williams in One Over the Eight" which had been written by an undergraduate Peter Cook, and which they promise is "snappy and gay" (well, it is Kenneth Williams).

Now I have to go read up on Erving Goffman and John Austin, whom Miller mentioned and intrigued me enough to want to find out more.

Thanks to Gene for the photos!

Friday, April 04, 2008

That Kind of Day

But there are few moods that cannot be elevated by hearing (and seeing) the Dickies sing the Banana Splits theme.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Reviewed: Folklore/Cinema

Daniel Peretti of Indiana University reviews the Folklore/Cinema collection for The Journal of Folklore Research and seems to like it. My essay gets a specific mention:
Laity’s essay, which focuses on Ingmar Bergman’s film The Virgin Spring and Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, reveals an interesting phenomenon. Laity demonstrates Bergman’s familiarity with the ballad on which he based his plot--referred to in English as “Sisters murdered by brothers avenged by father”--but does not do the same for Craven. Instead, we learn that Craven based his film on his recollection of Bergman’s film, a recollection, Laity notes, which was not entirely accurate. Laity’s analysis of the film is insightful, but what the article tacitly calls for is a fuller understanding of influence and transformation as it occurs within an individual’s repertoire. Film studies eschews the fieldwork process so integral to folkloristics, but this seems one case where the analysis of the film and the dynamics of storytelling could have greatly benefited from interviews.

Good idea -- now if only I can get my department to pay me to go do those interviews...

Thursday Already?

My, how time flies!

Tuesday night went well -- we had a nice chat over an early dinner at the Pearl, then rushed over to the library amid a sudden downpour and an amazing rainbow (okay, the picture to the left is *not* the rainbow from that day, but one of myriad lovely images from Missouri Skies). There was a small crowd, but we were out-numbered which is good enough. Jan, Pam, Kelly (who needs a webpage!) and I had a good time chatting about Tolkien, the books and the films, and more importantly (for me anyway), about his sources, cool stuff like Njal's Saga and Beowulf. Yes, I did manage to declaim some Old English verses (you're not surprised are you?).

Tonight, of course, I'm excited to be going to see Jonathan Miller at Skidmore (thanks again, Crispinus, for the tip off). An original member of Beyond the Fringe, polymath, raconteur and director (including perhaps my favorite film version of Alice in Wonderland -- and no, not just because it has Peter Cook), Miller will no doubt be a lively and illuminating speaker.

I can't decide whether to have any interest in Forbidden Kingdom -- on the one hand, Jet Li and Jackie Chan! and a lot of nods to great wǔxiá films like The Bride with White Hair, but -- it's also got some bland American twenty-something actor, clearly for Hollywood reasoning ("Ya gotta have an Amurrican in it! That's what audiences want to see!"). Bleh.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

It's a Robot! Playing Guitar!

The Tornadoes' "The Robot" -- another gem from the great folks at Bedazzled, where they feature brilliant things like early Gen X video and a gazillion Harry Nilsson videos and music. Beautiful!

Off to the library tonight -- it should be fun.