Monday, March 31, 2014

Movie Review: Mr. Peabody and Sherman

Directed by Rob Minkoff. 2014.

A simple test will tell whether Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a movie for you. The evaluation has nothing to do with whether you can get your head around the sight of a talking dog or time travel or such, but rather tells taste in humor. Imagine this: Peabody and Sherman find themselves amidst the French Revolution and, after Peabody executes a slick escape from the guillotine by use of a melon, an outraged Robespierre picks up the sliced fruit and exclaims, "Tricked by a cantaloupe, the least of fruits!" If that qualification, the least of fruits, which is impossible to explain or understand, doesn't tickle your funny bone by its absurdity and resistance to reason, then neither Mr. Peabody and Sherman, nor any of the classic Jay Ward cartoons, may be for you.

If you chuckled, though, then welcome aboard.

Mr. Peabody, a dog, is a brilliant scientist and father to Sherman, his adopted boy. The clever twist to this reboot is recasting Peabody from a wily historian into a genius sophisticate, as at home splitting atoms as he is regaling guests with witty banter and mixing his classic drink, the Einstein on the Beach. He can also whip up a Baked Alaska while he plays the piano, electric guitar, and didgeridoo, before he cures your backache. There are two keys to Peabody's success in this picture, though. The first is Ty Burrell's voice acting, which imbues to Mr. Peabody a maturity, charm, and paternal concern which win us over. The second key is that Peabody's many skills are introduced mostly in the service of the story. We don't get many cutaway moments like the opening in which Peabody shows off just for laughs, but rather jokes built into the plot.

That plot could scarcely be less substantial, but it's enough to hold the jokes together; Peabody has to entertain an irascible couple who is threatening to have Sherm expelled for fighting with their daughter. During dinner, Sherman and that classmate along with Peabody are whisked through time. Slight as it is, though, the script takes enough time to set up Peabody's relationship to Sherman as tutor and mentor. Mr. Peabody educates him himself, tells Sherman how to succeed at school, and finally dropping him off there, gives him a little dog whistle to call home. What a splendid little touch.

The script even takes enough time and thought for a touching little montage in which Peabody, after tucking Sherm in after a rough first day at school, reminisces about raising the orphan he found one rainy night. Set to John Lennon's Beautiful Boy, Peabody's look back at raising Sherm wisely starts in the present and works its way back, a brilliantly simple way of avoiding montage conventions. Similarly, and with a touch smart for the film and sensible in the plot, Peabody via his WABAC time machine has raised Sherm throughout other eras–there's a cute picture of him with Gandhi–letting the montage add variety to the film's visuals while avoiding the tendency to cram too much into the main story. Little details and efforts like these make a difference.

Speaking of that time travel, Mr. Peabody and Sherman have a funny blast through history. In one episode of the classic original Schubert runs out into a street of motor-vehicular traffic. Eek. I realized I was in good hands here, though, when Sherm proudly exclaimed that the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree was apocryphal. And bless him, Sherm actually used the word apocryphal. The time traveling scenes are a hoot and I laughed my tail off. Agamemnon is a muscle-head psyching up his Greek troops, who get duped into letting Peabody's miniature wooden horse into. . . their wooden horse. The writers even exonerate, though perhaps accidentally, Marie Antoinette by showing us the terrible misunderstanding in which she became known as the queen who said, "Let them eat cake." It's not just the historical sets, setups, and gags that make Mr. Peabody and Sherman funny, though, but the movie's off-kilter tone which gives everything a charming, comic bent. It's a note seldom sought or struck today, but when it's hit, it's deliriously fun, and that tone is zany. Sometimes that tone is set by dialogue, other times by a character's eyes or walk, but somehow it's always there, making us look at everything cockeyed, and laugh.

The script also does a slick job of working Peabody's historical descriptions into the plot so they don't feel like lectures. Yes, Peabody tells us about King Tut, but it's only to tell Sherm's little friend that given the young king's fate he might not make the best husband. Sure this is whimsical and silly, but it's not dumb. There are puns aplenty, too–I guess I'm an old Giza!–and even a running joke in which Peabody and Sherm repeatedly chuff out the rear ends of various animal-shaped vehicles. And that's the running joke! Wacca wacca!

Anyway, Peabody gets a laugh out of Mona Lisa, the kids take a flight in Leonardo Da Vinci's flying machine, Beethoven plays Dance Dance Revolution and Robespierre gets tasered. If that doesn't make you want to take a quick spin through history with this charming polymath and Renaissance dog. . . well who am I kidding, of course it does.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Be Vivaldi.

Sometimes I wonder whether I actually like to read. Many of my friends read voraciously across all genres, authors, and topics. To be frank with you, dear reader, I most often look at writing and think, "Who wants to read all that?" Take for example this beast in The Atlantic. It's fifteen pages in 12 point font, single-spaced. Is all of this necessary?

It's pretty presumptuous to write at length. First, the time and patience of the reader is limited. Try to get to the point. Second, yes, many great works are long or big, but the length of Parsifal is not license for others to write tomes. In fact, very few people should be writing anything so long as a book.

Don't imitate Wagner, imitate Vivaldi. Get in, make your point, and get out. See that smile above? That's the smile of someone who isn't wasting his or your time with the perfunctory.

Writing 101

Nothing stupefies the amateur so much as what liberties the experts take with impunity. The amateur toils away in obscurity, following the rules, while the expert tosses them to the wind amid approbation. Harrumph! Yet the grammatical misdemeanors of Ciceronian hyperbaton, of Catullus' elisions, Shakespeare's neologisms, and Eliot's poetical periphrases are not mine to forgive but the Muses', and the beauty of such works is the vindication and celebration of genius over grammar. Of course not everyone billed as an expert owns the name, and it's the venerated balderdash that irks most. The trend today is ostensible authors publishing middlebrow fare  to whoop for their books. Alas, since the passing of its founder, Arts and Letters Daily seems to specialize in promoting this aggrandizement.

Today's Arts and Letters docket brings us the case of Katie Roiphe in The Financial Times. Forthwith I would like to throw the FT editor under the bus with the author. Second, I want to postulate and hopefully demonstrate beyond its exemplarity as bad writing that the piece is a failure to persuade

Even the sloppiest authors usually get the first sentence approximately right.
Do you know someone with insomnia who wakes up at 4am and ends up working and reading novels and cleaning closets and cycling through anxieties until the sky turns pink? I know her and sometimes I am her.
The purpose here is to introduce the character of an insomniac and make her sympathetic and engaging. The detail first, though, that plenty of people wake up at the wee hour of 4AM, or thereabout, to go to work. No pity points there, and while I comprehend that the point is she loses sleep, regardless of when it is, few but the literati elite will sympathize with her pre-sunrise wakeup. Lesson: know your audience.

The author is trying to convey the desperate meandering from task to task that is the torture of the insomniac seeking sleep. The problem is that she hasn't chosen examples which exemplify the condition or linked them, i.e. written, in a way which conveys the condition. She uses polysyndeton, extra conjunctions, which conveys quantity, but quantity is neither the only nor the most important characterization of the experience of insomnia. She doesn't write to convey the variety and often frivolity of the tasks, her desperation, or the interminable duration of the sleepless hours dripping by. There is a substantial disconnect between style and content in which the former betrays the latter to languor.

Now I've relaxed about using the objective case in English, even to the point where "than me" doesn't up by dander, at least when used without a linking verb. Still: I am her? The author doesn't make the mistake later so the possibilities remain that the paragraph was not edited or that the author, or editor, thinks the correct alternative would cause more confusion or grief in its uneducated audience. In either case, unfortunate.

The next paragraph:
I often hear friends and acquaintances talking about being up in the middle of the night, worrying, whirring, working. It’s not a boast but there is, to a certain extent, a personal mythology being advanced. There is a sort of counter-intuitive esprit de corps these anxious friends are tapping into. There is a definite and possibly weird element of pride.
Talking about being up in the middle of a lousy sentence. What a prepositional participial mishmash. The asyndeton and alliteration of worrying, whirring, working here is the same mistake as in the first paragraph and is whirring the right onomatopoetic word here? Insomniacs fly quickly about? Before she was cycling and reading. What mixed, unclear imagery. The remainder of the section is a confusion of indecipherable phrases:
  • advancing a personal mythology
  • sort of counter-intuitive esprit de corps
  • a definite and possible weird element of pride
Their tales of insomnia are stories about how they came into existence? The morale is sort of counter-intuitive? The pride is definitely present, and possibly weird? The next paragraph, which desperately needs a concrete thesis, hypothesis, or at least definition of something, doubles down on the sophomoric adjectives:
  • pretty universally
  • bad thing
  • possible that certain segments
  • strange level
  • common mystery
Then we read about the "tremendous artifice" of the energy via an example about coffee-drinkers craving more coffee, without explaining how it's related, but she keeps describing "energy" and so we don't know if she's talking about the coffee-drinkers or something else or anything at all.

Oh, and how can you be jangly? By clanging pots and pans? Perhaps she uses the less common meaning of upset, but coffee and/or insomnia now makes you irritable or upset? When? How? Please, dear writer, help me!

The next paragraph is cheap piece of rear-end covering, admitting that some people may be clinically anxious, meaning I don't know what exactly but presumably that in some cases anxiety is objective, involuntary, or a disease. This is just a cheap bow to science and reason as she plunks ahead without investigating how the science might impact her argument. Then she goes on to use the word addictive, so whatever.
There is a particular vitality in anxiety, a sort of nervy power that one can’t say is fun, exactly, but is nonetheless slightly addictive. It can be productive, in a crashing way. It gives us a feeling of motion, of momentum, of wheels turning. One gets used to it, maybe seeks it out. One inhabits it, sets up camp.
This is a noteworthy paragraph because it both demonstrates how not to depict an idea and is the point at which I get annoyed. She keeps using delimiting words like particular, sort of, feeling of, used to without actually following up with a definition, giving use the illusion of explanation. The style is vexing to serious readers and pleasing to the soft-minded. The next sentence is a cake-taker.

The power is not fun (but it is in some way, we're supposed to gather, I guess), but nonetheless slightly addictive? So something which may or may not be fun is anyway addictive. Slightly. Perfectly clear. It's also productive, in a crashing way. What exactly about the act of crashing is meant here? The energy give us a feeling of motion. So is there any actual motion? One maybe seeks it out, but if he doesn't, then does he accidentally set up camp there? 

The next is a sad spectacle that makes you long for a real writer:
She used as an inspiring example an employee who successfully battled stress by stopping to gaze at a tomato plant in the concrete, urban nightmare of his life.
Aside from its Oprah-esque you-can-too tune-in-at-11 mentality, it leaves out a relevant detail: how often did the man gaze: regularly, or once? Makes a difference, no? 

Anyway, you can read on if you want more phrases like invented a thing called, usually sort of blah, and pretty much, but writing like this is frustrating enough when it's about nonsense, but aggravating when it's about something good. It cheats you of both knowledge and experience. A sentence of G. K. Chesteron accomplishes the feat Ms. Roiphe missed:
One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it.
He lures is in with a long unrolling of simple words, grabs our attention with suddenly strike, slows down again to set two locations, and then slows down more as if asking us to lean in for a secret. Halfway he masterfully shifts to the perfect tense, making us feel as if we've missed the point, but rushes on about the importance of that point, finally calling us a fool for having missed it. The experience of reading the sentence is the topic of the sentence. 

It's not unlike Ms. Roiphe's piece with talk of "strange moods" and apparent simplicity, except it works and is beautifully brief, clear, and specific. We are curious about the experience and eager read it again, and it's a pity when you can't say that about writing. I sympathize with Ms. Roiphe's premise and so acutely feel the piece's lack of cogency. How frustrating it is to see just the glimmers behind the words instead of the idea in full radiance. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Movie Review: If You Don't, I Will

or Arrête ou je continue. Written and directed by Sophie Fillières. 2014. 


Every movie begins with a promise to its audience: to make good on the premise of its opening scene. The movie has until the final shot to make good on that commitment. Some finales fulfill in a grand gesture, a la 2001, others, like Mr. Hulot's Holiday, trot off in quiet, and some very few disguise their exits, prompting us to wonder whether we've been cheated or have missed something. If You Don't, I Will fits into the latter, smaller category. It opens with a gesture grand in implication but subtle in presentation: a couple looking at a painting that bears the line from Matthew's gospel, "God calls us to be perfect." Pomme is skeptical while her husband Pierre is outright offended, judging God presumptuous.

We don't know or even sense it at the time, but the call to perfection is the struggle of this troubled couple whose every exchange is a strain on both partners. Something, and we never find out what, has come between them and in every quarrel their reconciliation seems to ebb away. The movie drops a lot of hints as to what it might be–financial strain, a lack of children, infidelity, distance after Pomme's surgery–but these are all red herrings. We don't need to know why they're apart because we've been given the key at the beginning: perfection. Perfection for Pierre lies in loving his wife once again, and Pomme's salvation lies in reuniting with her husband. Or does it?

Throughout If You Don't, I Will Pomme suffers wound after wound. Sometimes they're emotional, such as the slights and chills of her husband, but they're as often physical. She falls in the shower, gets paper cuts, gets pestered by ants, loses of a button off her pants, has to dash for the bus, cuts her lip on glass, and on and on. The continuous barbs against her body magnify the emotional thorns her husband drives in every time he rejects one of her endless prompts for mere kindness. Sometimes she gives him a chance to compliment her, other times just to do things the way they used to, and always in response, rejection. In a bittersweet moment Pierre compliments Pomme by calling her honey, and she looks up ready to take the olive branch only to discover by his confusion that he endeared her by accident. The simple moment reveals that if Pierre would simply let go of something, his inclination to love Pomme would take over. Instead he willfully closes himself off.

Mathieu Amalric's performance of Pierre is a little masterpiece. Pierre is so closed off that at every turn he looks as if about to collapse in on himself. All of this implosive energy, in each gesture and word, looks as if it wants to burst forth in either love or hate, yet always retreats back in. We sense a resolve, a guarded barrier between what wants to come out and what willfully repressed. Pierre's gaze even seems ever to look past the Pomme he sees to find something terrible from which to retreat. His emotional disconnection climaxes in impotence when in a scene of poised eroticism Pomme exposes her breast to him, hoping to entice her husband, or perhaps test him. At the voluptuous sight Pierre is stolid, and a moment later Pomme cuts her lip on a glass.

The couple finally parts while hiking in their old wooded haunt, to which Pomme all but has to drag her husband. We assume that in leaving she's trying to teach him a lesson and that she'll soon come home, until night passes, and then the following day, and then day after day. In time we realize Pomme is wondering whether to return at all, wandering the primordial grounds to test whether she wants to return to life before Pierre, who back at home represses his fear for her by resuming their old routine. In fact Pierre sets out to find his wife only when Pomme's son tells him that something is gravely wrong. Brief and unsuccessful, the search is another impotent gesture. Back in the forest, Pomme meanders a long while, and don't we all when making a grave decision? We engage a little, and run away, tiptoe down one path, and then turn back for another. I think I can forgive Pomme her lengthy searching.

Two scenes in the woods symbolize the potential ends of Pomme's search. In the first, getting hungry, Pomme approaches a brace of hares, a couple in fact. She tells the male as she approaches, "Kill yourself. Cook yourself. Your wife will be safe." He might as well be Pierre, and we realize that Pomme is, or thinks herself, strong enough to get along without him. In the second, a chamois (a goat-antelope) stumbles into he hole where Pomme is spending the night. She watches him, and watches and watches, of course to no reply. It gets dark and she lights her lighter, resolved to see him. Pierre again? In the morning she helps the lost creature out of the hole. Can she do the same for her husband?

Pomme's choice, which I won't spoil, will invariably seem unsatisfactory insofar as it seems simultaneously decisive and arbitrary. After all, we know neither what separated the couple nor what might reasonably reunite them. Her decision, though, does not neglect the film's promise. We may not like Pomme's choice, but it forces us to ask where, in what, or in whose love we find our perfection.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Some Classics Whimsy: Coloring Pages

Some will tell you it is debt, corruption, and slackening moral standards that threaten the prosperity of today's children. I, however, point to a different scourge sabotaging childhoods throughout the land: inferior coloring pages. Oh yes, it's the high point of hot June afternoons and days when teacher just can't stiffen the sinews enough to teach, but what kind of pages are we giving our kids? Coloring should be a joy not bound by cheap photocopies.

Ah coloring. Whatever the means it's pure delight to open that box and take in the polychromatic splendor, watching one color fade into the next. There's no bad tool either. Who doesn't love the smooth roll of the crayon and its waxy sheen on the page. What a treat to watch a marker's ink slowly bleed into the paper, tincting it fiber by fiber. Pencils, though, were always my preference, with their superfine points you can nudge into every nook of the page. How soothing too their scratchy scraping on the paper.

Whatever your choice, you budge the little stick from its special rank and file and you're ready to color. Still we ought to support the joy of coloring not just with quality implements but worthy subjects.

I came across today, then, an old book of paper dolls, although both ignorant and indifferent to just what a paper doll is, I continue to refer to my findings as coloring pages. I noticed immediately their fine quality, especially the varying thicknesses of the lines which delineate the areas. More noteworthy though are their historical subjects, still more they're so far from the beaten path, and most of all that they're not simply generic drawings but sketches or composites of ancient artifacts. Take this page of Sappho, modeled off actual korai:

click to enlarge

To my astonishment its publisher, Bellerophon Books, is still in business and selling a variety of similar books which I hope are of similar quality. While Bellerophon offers a number of classically-themed books, their medieval alphabet looks perhaps the most fun to color. Imagine filling those swirling letters intertwined with their figures, bramble, and borders.

Here's another page from the volume I have, Great Women. Refreshingly it's not another bland picture of a leggy goddess frolicking in a tunic or toga. It's Boudicca, complete with authentic torc and carnyx.

She comes with a helmet and shield too, and Cleopatra with an array of headdresses. Again for you classicists, the Infamous Women volume includes Messalina and Agrippina.

Yes, these are probably too difficult for the wee ones, but better they scribble over Boudicca a bit, and perchance wonder about her, than fill in time-wasters. I should warn you, though, that these are definitely not for adults. It's not at all fun to look up the original art and artifacts and meticulously color in these pages. They're available on Amazon for about $5 each. Think of the children!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Movie Review: 300: Rise of An Empire

Directed by Noam Murro. 2014.

It's wisely observed that solemnity is a breath away from stupidity. Take, for example, the following pair: "The borders of Lacedaemon will mourn the death of a king descended from Hercules." vs. "The Greeks were betrayed by a hunchback." The former, reported in Herodotus, retains even in translation a sense of grandeur whereas the latter, written by Zack Snyder for 300: Rise of An Empire, invites chuckles. Now it may seem strange to begin the review of an action flick with quibbles about writing, but the movie was so heavily narrated and the action scenes so spectacularly forgettable that this 300 comes off as a drab, talky, slog.

In fact, I've forgotten all of the movie's sword-and-sandals action except for one part where the Greeks were fighting with big bronze axes. The highlight is of course the naval battle at Salamis, but an utter lack of environment dulls this climax. Without a sense of size, scale, strengths, topography, and geography, we're just watching activity in which any result is possible and therefore don't invest in the action.

I'm not at all opposed to set-piece battles and even whole movies revolving around one climactic brawl, whether The Two Towers or Waterloo, but you need to prepare the audience so we can wrestle with expectations and possibilities and, hopefully, engage the story. There are a few notable shots of ramming triremes, although the movie's best shot is of them still, and a great big Persian oil barge goes Exxon Valdez and then kaboom, but the action here is unremarkable.

The script doesn't redeem this 300 either, following up an interminable prologue by confusingly bouncing among 1) narration over Thermopylae, 2) flashbacks of Thermopylae 2) narration over Marathon, 3) Themistocles in the past trying to persuade the Spartans to commit ships, 4) Themistocles in the present fighting at Salamis, 5) Persian General Artemisia talking to Xerxes at various points in time, and 6) Artemisia fighting at Salamis. The plot is intelligible, but the sequence of events is confusing and enervates the momentum.

To its credit the script attempts to sketch two opposing characters in Themistocles and Artemisia, but it would be nice if it had ventured something beyond the fact that one loves Greece and the other hates it. The smoldering cool of Eva Green's Artemisia is the more interesting, but it wears over the course of even 100 minutes. She doesn't change or have any cause which might be refuted, and while she does bring about her own downfall, it's predicated off actions which are but hastily recounted, neither taking place during nor developed in the movie. Themistocles on the other hand is flat and dull. In truth I can't recall a thing he said. And then the two knock boots on Artemisia's barge because Zack Snyder is writing the script.

Given how much the film leans on Spartan Queen Gorgo's narration and how she's driven for vengeance like Artemisia, the two women should have been cast opposite instead of Artemisia and Themistocles. Since I can't resist speculating...

You could give parallel arcs to the two wronged women in which Gorgo, who lost her husband to a cause she didn't believe in, achieves justice in contrast to Artemisia, the victim of rape, who is consumed by her desire for vengeance. Then you could oppose Themistocles and Xerxes, in which beside the obvious theme of liberty opposing tyranny, Xerxes could chide Themistocles with the taunt that the fickle Athenian mob will turn on him. That would have been something.

I appreciate that both 300 flicks tried to flaunt a brash bravado and an unapologetic purity of purpose, but if a film's going to be so simple it needs to be flawless to be effective. The alternative is an adolescent mishmash from which we walk away stolid instead of stirred, hostile even to a scant script that can't support cheesy dialogue, lackluster pacing, flat acting, and dull, clumsy visuals. To be fair, I enjoyed bits of 300, but it's a shame such a source should yield anything so terribly forgettable.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Switching Off vs Switching Over

It's a trite saying of the self-important that sometimes you just need to relax. The claim isn't even tough to justify, for just about everyone feels either that he works hard or hard enough and even the most leisured seem to find themselves at the edge of exasperation. One can find plenty of intellectual confirmation for the cause too, with just about any school of thought or philosophy making room for a little rest and relaxation. Yet the key component to relaxation is in fact the work itself. You don't realize how pleasant and restorative is relaxation until you've pushed yourself to the limit.

Teaching this academic school year has been instructive for your blogging educator. The early years of teaching, one hopes successful teaching, follow a familiar path. First you learn to establish order and organization, then you find the ideal presentation of the curriculum as you have found it, then you slowly perfect the curriculum, finally learning to adapt it to students, time, and place. All along the way you develop and find your own voice, style, and teaching demeanor. Occasionally an upheaval at one step sends you back a few, but the process seems reliably sequential. It also seems like many professional endeavors, to accelerate. This year I've gotten pretty carried away, and I won't out my hubris by suggesting at which step I find myself.

Re-designing tests, scanning articles, making projects, I'm progressing to the point where work is my default activity. It is swallowing everything. Weekly Shakespeare? Gone. Online and mail-order lectures? Poof! The fruits of my leisure reading are found on my bedside desk, on which reside half-a-dozen or so books, opened but plopped text down a few pages in.

Worse, even my interest for other things seems to wane. Less often do I anymore awake on Saturdays yearning for Bach than do I rise to find my mind turning to tweaking yesterday's work. Instead of the old postprandial hankering to write a new blog post, I've found it easier just to tackle the next test or assignment coming down work's pike.

There's no villain in this story, though. I like my job, respect the material, and honor the agreement with my students and patrons. I can do no differently than I do. The curiosity is that even exciting, challenging, and valuable work, including intellectual work, can be stultifying. Man is multifarious. I recall still the tremendous indignation I felt toward the musicologist who wrote that, and I paraphrase, Mozart's musical abilities were developed radically beyond his other skills. (Emphasis mine.) Indeed they were, though, and the trio of interest, skill, and effort tend to amplify each other and resonate to the deafening of all other desires. We're often encouraged to be well rounded, but seldom reminded how difficult it is to keep that pleasing, burnished bent.

Again there's no villain here, except the extremities in which some virtues consume all of the oxygen, extinguishing others. It's easy to praise rest and moderation as well, but it's in fact even easier when you can feel the coarsening effect of immoderation. Naturally, to notice the effect you need to stop and reflect, which is tough to do when you're tired. One cannot reflect or meditate in exhaustion.

Of course, it's a trite saying of the self-important that sometimes you just need to relax. It's an easy enough claim to justify, for just about everyone feels–so what to do? It's easy to cry for moderation, but how exactly can one champion mediocrity? Anyway, effort is preferable to indolence, and tepid work means tepid relaxation.

It seems a prudent start to view relaxation not simply as the absence of work, but also as calling for the cultivation of other virtues; the slackening of one line to pull on another. I ought to note that here by work I mean anything done by necessity or disposition, i.e. something which inclines toward extremity. In this way one cultivates an interest which opposes the other to balance. In the alternative, either the lacuna of inactivity swallows up work or the wave of work fills the crevices of your mind. By an opposed arrangement vigor is checked so that it neither dominates nor collapses into sloth, and instead of relaxation as idleness, we have purposeful repose which repairs and permits the exercise of all virtues in quiet, humble balance.

Monday, March 3, 2014

How Not to Write, Think, or Be

All artists strive for a connection between form and meaning and I'm always happy to point out when they succeed. Take this condemnable Salon piece which is as intellectually confused as it is syntactically jumbled. Now Salon's suffered from political dysentery for years and it's apparent willingness to hire anyone on the left has liquefied the once esteemed publication into a chowder of cheap ingredients. Still this article makes me wonder: do they edit their pieces to make them worse? If not this is a shockingly inept display from an author and editor.

Let's look at the choice grammar first.
I am going to start with three beloved movies of my childhood, and end with a suggestion of why liberals will probably never be able to come to grips with what they winningly call “inequality.”
Start what? Discoing? It's probably not a great idea to leave out the main verb of the first sentence. Then he sets up his thesis as a conclusion. "Will probably never be able to come to grips with what they" is one of those phrases that would vanish had the author read it aloud even once. What a clunker. Next, we wonder what "winningly" could possibly mean here. Charmingly? Successfully? Now we wonder why "'inequality'" is in quotations. I'll give a pass on the referential use of "of" but boy is it awkward. It's best to restrict that use to idioms.

Then we get this work of brilliance:
Well, no. And with that acknowledgement, let me advance to my bold hypothesis: The dick joke is not always what it seems to be. The dick joke is not always your friend.
First, is this a hypothesis or thesis? Is an experiment going to follow or are you laying out argumentation? Choose the proper word, please. Worse, though, we realize the statement isn't even the "hypothesis," because the phrase "what it seems to be" explains nothing but rather refers back to the previous paragraph. It's always nice when the author can't be bothered to explain his idea in one clear sentence.

Alright, I'll drop the grammatical dissection. The article is badly written. What about its content?

Let's look at his three points:
  1. Animal House isn't liberal because its protagonists are like liberals' bad guys in real life.
  2. Caddyshack isn't liberal because conservatives make fun of country club grandees too.
  3. Ghostbusters isn't liberal because in it one government official is bad and the good guys run a business. 
Well guess what, you verbally incontinent intellectually costive fool: the movies aren't political at all. The frat boys of Animal House aren't heroes, but we rally around them because they're enthusiastic and frank. Nobody likes stuck up country club blowhards, and finally, the right doesn't have a monopoly on entrepreneurship. The Ghostbusters aren't right wingers because the EPA dweeb lets the ghosts out. Neither party has a monopoly on any virtue, and to taint any by claiming it for one ought to mark any man the fool as much as heedless ordination into political file.

Oh, and whence this cheap shot?
Drink, take and lie: translate it into Latin and it could be the motto of the One Percent.
Yeah I hear there's a really active Eta Sigma Phi over at Bear Stearns. Try this one on for size:
Quam recitas meus est libellus: sed male cum recitas, incipit esse tuus.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Joy of Contrarianism

A great deal of philosophical, scientific, and broadly intellectual investigation involves the search for universal truths: A is A, force equals mass multiplied by acceleration, murder is immoral. Yet man has always had a fascination with the aberration, be it bad boys or black pearls. There is often pleasure in variety, even in anomaly. As applies to human action, the maxim may simply Grouch Marx's that no one wants to be part of the club that will have him as a member, a predilection which can take an unhealthy turn into oikophobia and hatred of the familiar. Whatever the condition, I hope it's not serious, because I've got it.

How else can I explain the contrarian joy I find in not watching the Oscars tonight? And major sporting events, and the darling shows of the critics, and so on down the populist line. It's so pleasant to walk another path and remain in ignorance of the vulgar, and for once I don't wholly mean vulgar in a pejorative sense but merely common. Of course it's always hard to tell whether I don't like the subject or simply its popularity. I suppose if the whole nation were suddenly glued to Don Giovanni that I would join in.

Maybe not, though. Maybe I'd put on The Magic Flute out of spite. Childish perhaps, but possible, for popular success confuses the two most cherished elitist beliefs: that great art has universal relevance and that the majority is always wrong.

Perhaps that's not the appeal of contrarianism, then. Maybe it's the way standing out, even if in some infinitesimally small way, seems to magnify the deliberate nature of the change. Just the teensiest bit of effort makes one feel less the lemming and more the individual, even when the change is of no other consequence. The slightest choice seems to liberate one from the torpor of conformity and to energize my studies. I'm doing no great work this evening, I don't think, but how precious it seems, how much more mine.

I also feel, quite foolishly perhaps, that I'm getting a jump on all the rubes when I'm walking out of step during popular events. In fact I've often imagined I could best Lex Luthor and take over the world in a cinch were I to play Don't Stop Believin' in every American bar during the World Cup, which I figure would incapacitate most of the our humble globe's population.

World domination aside, I'll have to make do with that comforting ignorance of bourgeois boobery. I don't know a lick about any of the frippery which adorns tonight's spectacle. Such are the joys. Sure, I'm missing out on dishing some facile ridicule, and who doesn't like that, but they're fish in a barrel. What non-Congressional body could possibly be more ripe for insult?

No, I'm just going to sit with my tea, T. S. Eliot, and Bach in this corner of civilization which is tonight especially private.

Movie Review: Ghostbusters

Directed by Ivan Reitman. 1984.

If George Lucas' Star Wars prequels are good for nothing else, they demonstrate that you can spend the span of three movies without telling us anything interesting about characters or making us care about or understand them in nearly any way. Among the many virtues of Ghostbusters is that its script shows how to explain everything about both characters and relationships in about ten minutes. In that tiny space of time, we not only meet our trio of paranormal investigators, but befriend them. 

First we find Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), and discover he's not the greatest professor or the most serious scientist, that he's a ladies man, and that, willing to stretch the truth, Pete's a born salesman. Then we meet Ray Stanz (Dan Aykroyd), an intimate as well as colleague of Peter, who trusts him to permit his physical gags which are right out of a Marx Brothers routine. Ray has a childlike love for science and a plucky enthusiasm which crosses over into heroism. He's the heart of the soon-to-be Ghostbusters. Finally, we meet the brains, Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). He's a cloistered nerd, keeping a physician's distance from things and interacting with the world via tools and gadgets. Egon is also close to Peter, who demonstrates his kinship with Egon by rewarding his nerd pal with a candy bar, but not before first teasing him with it. Friends and scientists, the salesman, the genius, and the boy wonder. Not bad for ten minutes' characterization. 

Even the last moments of the introduction, though, characterize. The difference is that this scene characterizes the whole movie. When the trio corners its ghostly prey in the basement of the New York Public Library, the ghoul lashes out and the investigators flee out onto Fifth Avenue. The sight is pretty ghastly, with a toothy luminescent beast bursting from the body of a little old librarian, but the music which simultaneously erupts is a jaunty ditty on the piano. The message is clear but subtle: we'll be busting ghosts, but this is going to be fun. 

Now while the first scene establishes the characters, the second scene ignites the plot. Getting kicked out of their cushy, well-funded Columbia University digs establishes the guys as underdogs and forces them out into the world to do something.  

The script wisely delays the entry of the fourth Ghostbuster, Winston Zedmore (Ernie Hudson) until the team is officially in business, a delay which has several substantial benefits for the script. First, it de-clutters the opening. Introducing four characters probably would have been too much. Second, the delay allows us to play the role of straight-man, identifying with the trio of friends. Had we met Winston earlier, his sober character would have competed with us for acceptance into the group dynamic. Instead we feel so close to the guys after the introduction that when they go into business, we share their risk and thrill. Third, Winston's arrival gives us a sense of success because the Ghostbusters are expanding. Lastly, he gives the group another straight-man to whom they can explain their paranormal shenanigans. 

Instead of the fourth Ghostbuster, then, we meet their wheels and pad, the now iconic ambulance and firehouse, most memorable for their dilapidation and Ray's affection for their vintage cool. Whereas their first customer, the single cellist and unwilling object of Venkman's libido, Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), gets the plot going, it's their first emergency that gets the movie rolling. The call comes in and the team flies out, sirens blazing, to a hotel which in busting they promptly trash. There they vanquish the ravenous green Slimer and emerge The Ghostbusters.

We could summarize the plot, which holds about as much water as can a story involving a shape-shifting Sumerian god destroying the world from a Manhattan rooftop, but as novel as ghost busting, proton packs, and ghost traps are, we watch for the characters. It's simply a pleasure to watch the chemistry between these guys, goofing around and playing off each other's virtues and vices as they try to succeed against all odds. Each by himself is entertaining to watch, but it's a delight to see Pete admonish Egon's relentless calculating, Ray explain in detail science that goes right over Pete's head, and Winston look on flabbergasted at the bunch. Too many movies to count throw out a few vague characterizations at the beginning only to follow them up with bupkis, but the gang of Ghostbusters stays Pete, Ray, and Egon throughout. Ghostbusters never drops its characters and a few scenes demonstrate the consistency.

Take that scene when the Ghostbusters are called into action. The alarm sounds and in response, childlike Ray flies to the fire pole, Peter grabs his food so he can go down with it, and Egon buttons his jacket. When they enter the hotel, Peter blurts out, "Has anybody seen a ghost?", Ray looks at Peter's boorishness in shock, and Egon looks at a woman, amazed that she's actually look at him. Looking for the ghost, Egon whips out his detector, Ray jumps right in guns blazing, and playboy Peter stoops to getting slimed. After they've bested the beast, the Ghostbusters emerge victorious: Ray is full of piss and vinegar, explaining their feat, while Pete whips out the invoice pad and Egon gestures to him how much to charge.

At last with all the pieces in place–characters, equipment, and ghosts–we get one the most satisfying montages in movie history and the introduction of an unexpected character: New York City

Now if there's every a movie which knows how to hit its beats, it's Ghostbusters. Each scene knows what it's about and so do we. You can easily characterize each scene so far:
  1. character introduction x3 & establish group dynamic
  2. spark the adventure
  3. building the Ghostbusters
  4. prepare the main plot
  5. first fight: Ghostbusters are born
  6. amplification via montage
The next step, naturally, is to throw a monkey wrench into the smoothly turning wheels. How? Dana is violently kidnapped by the main baddie and turned into the gateway to Earth from the supernatural plane while her neighbor is turned into a dog and the key to the gateway. Got that? To amplify the sense of complication and variety, the teams splits up: Peter goes out with Dana, Egon crunches data at headquarters, and Ray and Winston are out on the town. Slowly they piece together the mystery of the Gatekeeper, the Key Master, and the corner apartment at spook central. 

Finally, to escalate us into finale territory–hit those beats!–EPA prick Walter Peck accidentally releases all of the Ghostbusters' captured nasties, setting the stage for the arrival of Gozer and the Day of Judgment. To top it off, the Ghostbusters are arrested. Again, when most movies would forego characters and details to focus on plot, Ghostbusters keeps the characters, well, in character. When the team is called up by a mayor desperate to stop Manhattan from falling into chaos, Ray and Egon give the science, Winston appeals to him as an everyman, and Peter reminds the mayor how wise it would be to save millions of registered voters. 

Of course Ghostbusters isn't all plot and characters. There's plenty of room for snappy dialogue and gags that are fun in themselves. The most famous and hilarious is a running gag in which Dana's hapless neighbor, played by a brilliantly spastic and oblivious Rick Moranis, gets locked out of his apartment again and again. Ghostbusters isn't all writing either, though, and its special effects hold up today, in particular the matte paintings that capture NYC to a tee. In a day of facile digital effects, it's satisfying to see so many practical ones from matte paintings to scale models, character miniatures, and real rocks, fire, and goo. 

It's also refreshing to see a movie whose rough edges weren't burnished for political correctness and cheap shots. There's plenty of smoking and liberal use of shit in conversation and exclamation. There are even references to religion, four of them, without any ironic or sarcastic twists. Likewise, can you imagine today a movie in which the bad guy is from the EPA and the good guys are businessmen? What about one in which the good guys not only rake in the dough, but save the day, and without any sly twists about the evils of money and entrepreneurship? Speaking of which, the product placement is pretty subtle. Producers and directors can get obnoxious with placement, and this movie has Coke cans floating around and such, but they're pretty inconspicuous. Ghostbusters hasn't been airbrushed for maximum marketability and loaded with cheap ads. Yes, it spawned a huge line of toys and cartoons, and there are even shirts and mugs worked into the movie, but they make sense in context and the film maintains its authenticity. 

Ghostbusters remains about the characters, though, and the final conversation in which the guys plot to overthrow Gozer the Destructor is as authentic as their first in which they launched their paranormal eliminating business: Ray is prepared to go down fighting, Peter is cracking jokes, Egon's calculating the science, and Winston thinks this job doesn't pay enough. When the boys say goodbye before they cross the streams and hope to stop Gozer, we realize that we'd miss them. We've befriended these guys, and when they wake up after the blast and Peter has the girl, Ray's his adventure, and Egon his science, we share in the victory. When they drive off in Ecto I with the uncharacteristically grateful citizens of NYC running behind, we agree with Winston who gets the movie's last line: I love this town! Yep, and we love the Ghostbusters too.