Saturday, September 25, 2010

On Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and CressidaWhy have they stopped making silent film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays? Surely it was a terrific idea... And it's what Shakespeare would have wanted -- as Troilus put it*: "Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart." Who needs words? Allow me, please, to remake Shakespeare's splendid Troilus and Cressida in silent movie fashion. I wouldn't need any "mere words" and I wouldn't need but thirty seconds and this is how it would go:

A parade, with all the noble combatants of the Trojan War marching along, the Trojans in one column, the Greeks in another. The scene is "Noble", "Resplendent," "Honorable" -- read the Illiad, in other words. From there, however, the imagination of Shakespeare and his times takes over. Next in the parade comes Patrocolus, doing shoddy but apparently hilarious impressions of the warriors in front of him. Then comes Cressida, running away from Troilus (She's not really huffing it mind you -- more like a light jog. What a slut!). Then Pandarus comes, cheering the couple on and making lude gestures all the while. And then...well, I may have to throw the rest in there somewhere or other -- where is Helen in all this, for example? and Cassandra, the Trojan "prophetess"? and Paris? surely he can't march with the men... But certainly the finishing touch, the man to bring up the rear, as they say, would be Thersites, "a deformed and scurrilous Grecian,"** who is marching along with an awful smile, shouting victoriously (albeit silently) things like "all the argument is a cuckold and a whore" and "Lechery, lechery! Still, wars and lechery: nothing else holds fashion."

Certainly it was a gutsy move to use the Trojan War, often called the founding event of Western civilization and covered by no less than three epic poems, several ancient plays, and plenty of modern derivative works besides, as a backdrop for a sort of comedy, a trivial love story, a kind of political "problem play" that makes definite statements on the eternal folly of war. But the man who ventures the most risks will, if successful, reap the most rewards, and certainly some more audacious than I have come to call Mr. Shakespeare one of the most talented avant garde theatre artists of our time.

* "as Troilus put it..." in an entirely different context -- just one more reason not to trust words or the people that bandy them about!

** "a deformed and scurrilous Grecian," as described in the Dramatis Personae added by the eighteenth-century editor Nicholas Rowe.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Atlas is [Hugging]"

Recently my mother's 21-year-old fellow Family Dollar employee came into the knowledge, from obvious sources, that I have some interest in Russian literature. Thus he promptly suggested, in my mother's words, a "Russian female poet of the first half of the twentieth century." My mother could not remember the "poet's" name of course, but said that he had an edition of her work that he was willing to let us borrow. A few weeks later she finally brought the book home... It was The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. My life is an anticlimax.

And of course now she, my mother, has had her interest piqued and is well along on reading it -- even while many of my regular and, I think, appropriate suggestions languish on the bedside table for months at a time. Life is... ah, but no more truisms for today. After listening to my whining on the subject for a little while, she issued this compromise: "Okay, recommend me a book and I'll read it."

I chose Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story, a graphic novel memoir written by both Malice himself and American Splendor author Harvey Pekar, illustrated by Gary Dumm. Malice is a perfect libertarian: a train wreck of selfishness, pride, and an overbearing need to see others suffer -- in other words, ego, hubris, and yes, even malice. And a big admirer of Ayn Rand, naturally. As if Howard Roark didn't paint an ugly enough picture by himself -- in an admittedly idealized, even propagandistic self portrait -- I had to go and enlist a real-life counterpart. "Michael Malice is a real piece of work" says Harvey Pekar on the graphic novel's cover, and Pekar was never a man for understatement.

I, of course, absolutely refuse to read anything by Ayn Rand, while at the same time having very strong opinions about all of it. I know her story, I say to myself... I don't know everything, but I know enough! She was the one who called herself "the most creative thinker alive," riding high on the completion of her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged -- then fell into a deep depression shortly thereafter when the novel was poorly received by several critics. She was the one who regularly flew into a rage when one of her admiring minions disagreed with her -- minions who were so smitten with her, I might add, that many of them dressed like her, generally obeying her opinions religiously, even on things as incidental as fashion.

Her latter-day supporters are no less embarrassing. As Mr. Malice has shown us above, the modern Ayn Rand supporter is invariably a conservative, a libertarian perhaps -- a Ron Paul supporter in Malice's day; a goof ball marching down the street, waving a "Don't tread on me!" flag, in ours.

Somehow, however, Ron Paul and his supporters have never scared me. Essentially opposite to my own political tendencies -- but not Nazis, nor the KKK, nor something considerably more obscure and therefore ominous. The Tea Party, on the other hand, is a group riding high on overt racism and xenophobia, vague statements and empty promises. I ask myself, "What kind of world do we live in where most conservatives see Sarah Palin as a better candidate for the White House than Ron Paul?" (And I must answer, "Essentially the one we always have.")

And there, I think, is the crux of my fear: libertarians, in general, might have the capacity to strike fear into my heart, if only they were more influential. As it is, however, they are not the conservative group who currently have six candidates for the senate, thirty-four for the house. No, it is the "tea baggers" behind this sudden surge. As wise man says, amongst ignorant cave men it is the one with the fire you oughta look out for. The others we can all laugh at, on account of their silly antics and outrageous claims.

I'd say Ayn Rand's defining and shining moment was a 90s-era Modern Library reader poll -- it's probably one of the most embarrassing things I have ever seen. The end of the twentieth century naturally brought with it no small amount of "top 100" lists -- and the Modern Library did not sit quietly by. They went and polled experts to create a ranked list of the top one hundred English-language novels of the century. Certainly plenty can be said about this list -- for example, in a list of one hundred spots does Joseph Conrad absolutely need to fill five of them? and shouldn't the criteria of the list exclude Ulysses automatically? But the real joke came with the list compiled based on an online reader poll. On that list seven of the top ten spots are occupied by books from either Ayn Rand or Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard. Hey, it was the nineties, when the Internet was young, and statistics and common sense hadn't been invented yet.

No excuse has been dreamed up, however, that can explain away modern supporters of Rand -- nor supporters of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh for that matter.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Review: Medicus, by Ruth Downie

Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire (Gaius Petreius Ruso, #1)My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun fast read: I like a good mystery now and then, and of course it doesn't hurt if the book in question happens to be set in Ancient Roman times. Roman Britain, in fact, during the relatively pleasant and peaceful reign of Hadrian. But enough history:

The main attraction here is Gaius Petreius Ruso, divorcée, army medical doctor (medicus, medical... I think I get it!) and reluctant protagonist of this here tale. He is such a stick in the mud! A nice guy at heart but, trouble is, everything seems to be going wrong... his wife left him a few years ago but he still hasn't gotten over it, he's overworked and still lives in squalor... he lives in Britain... and worst of all, he somehow manages to get himself wrapped up in the murders of two prostitutes from a nearby brothel.

Ruso is the classic put-upon patriarch, an old and well-worn character trope which has been a staple of comedies at least as far back as the Romans themselves, and which found success long into the twentieth century (I can name three perfect examples: George Banks from Mary Poppins, Mr. Alonzo Smith from Meet Me in St. Louis, and "father" from E.L. Doctorow's 20s-set historical novel Ragtime). Secure in his faith of his de jure position of authority as a man -- over women, children, slaves, and anything else that moves -- the impotent patriarch is at the same time quite shocked when his de facto influence falls way, way short of his expectations, usually to comic effect. The modern approach of this kind of character is ambivalence at best: glad to see a few cracks in the patriarchal stranglehold, yet full of sad feelings regarding the mere existence, past and present, of that stranglehold. For my part, I say it's good to be back in the days when men were men, slaves were slaves, and cataract surgery was scary as all get out.

Ruso's the main attraction, of course, but a decent supporting cast surrounds him. There's Tilla, the dying native girl Ruso reluctantly buys off some random guy dragging her home -- a real fixer upper. She turns out to be a looker, though, so I guess that counterbalances the whole "sorry I got you wrapped in a ridiculous mystery" thing. Then there's Valens, the handsome, funny, socially at ease fellow doctor and roommate. And Priscus, the balding, bureaucratic administrator of the hospital -- who can really handle himself with a kitchen knife. There are others of course, but they're all women and/or slaves, so you can understand my silence.

This book, it is Roman enough for my tastes -- and modern enough too. "This book could be set at any time period, any place." Well yeah, granted, jokes about British cuisine never go out of style, but surely the Romans have a character all their own! Surely... lead water pipes, slaves, and a life expectancy of thirty-five -- isn't that enough? Ruth Downie, she does a pretty good job. Yeah, yeah, she's not Robert Graves, but then she's not Robert Fagles either (impressed yet? okay, how about Robert Redford? Robbie Williams? Robin Williams? Okay, I better stop...) Like I said, the book is Roman enough -- enough to get me in the mood without tugging and tearing at my poor little overworked brain cells. This delicate balance saw me through to the end of the book, allowing me to overlook the slow start, the just average writing style, and the really rather average mystery tale itself; to shrug my shoulders and go along for the ride. My little local library, for some reason, has every book in this series so maybe I'll go back for a double or even triple dip. *shrug* "When in Deva..." as they say.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Richard III (and Peter Sellers too)

The above clip is from the 1965 TV special "The Music of Lennon&McCartney" -- and yes, your eyes did not deceive you: it is indeed a dramatic reading of "Hard Days Night" by the now-legendary comedian Peter Sellers in full parody of Sir Laurence Olivier's turn as Richard III. I laugh when he says "alright" every single time, in spite of myself.

Youtube naturally has a variety of Richard III (and Peter Sellers) -themed clips:
By now it must be obvious what I've been reading lately... I finished my first reading of the play only Yesterday and now have nothing but good things to say about it. I love the spread of the body count; that the most important people (ie Richard's two brothers) are the first to go, and early too, in the first few acts. And I like Richard -- a pure villain, with little to nothing of the sympathetic about him. And the other characters are all fine by me -- a bunch of murderous, power-grubbing inbreds. Their bickering amongst themselves comes to the effect of: "Fiend! You did kill my brother!" "Yeah, well, you killed my father and my cousin!" Seeing all this, in history and in this play, one may be driven to think that there was not an innocent one among them -- though the two "Boys in the Tower" are obvious exceptions.

In a sense, all the characters share in the role of villain -- and no doubt tear down the reputation of those who ruled England just before the Tudors, that glorious dynasty that still ruled in Shakespeare's day, some one hundred years after the events of this play, in the form of Queen Elizabeth.

I liked the "ghost pageant" at the end, wherein the lost souls of all the slain men -- with the soul of two boys and a woman in their mix -- glide across the stage, then a still-sleeping battlefield, cursing Richard. tossing and turning in his tent, and blessing his competitor, Richmond (Henry VII), blissfully asleep in his. Though the ghosts have only as yet drifted across my imagination, still I can imagine this scene as one of the best, most dramatic climaxes in all of Shakespeare.

Peter Sellers thinks so too.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Review: Parade (with fireworks), by Michael Cavallaro

Parade (With Fireworks)My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'll start with a quote from the author's acknowledgements page:
"In the 60s my parents and grandparents moved to the U.S. from southern Italy. They brought a lot of stories with them about what it was like growing up there in the first half of the century. These were vivid and revealing tales, and seemed to hint at a rich and ancient world that had been lost somehow between two World Wars. At some point I decided to start writing them down."

The story of this book is "a strange little vignette," as the author put it, "hovering between fact and fiction, a quick fade-in and fade-out of a small puzzle piece of [his] own history." It is the story of one day in 1923 when Cavallaro's paternal grandfather, "Paolo" in this rendition, wrecked his life irrevocably. A band walks home after a festival. A group of fascist sympathizers "escorts" them on one side, and a group of Socialists, spurred on by the chance of a confrontation, walks along the other.

The page I have placed here to the right is perhaps the book's most understated; it is also one of my favorites. It is a short study of a typical day in the life of Paolo (the guy on the right) and his friend, the "Professor," just before havoc hits. We learn from this page that "Vincenzo has brought a whole parade with him." And the nature of the fireworks can easily be guessed at.

Dragged into the fray by matters of family loyalty, mixed in with the crazed clannish idealism of the time and place, Paolo commits murder and is tried for it. He only gets six months, but things are vastly different when he gets out: the burden of his legal defense has ruined his family financially, and the stress has led to the death of both his parents.

Raw passion is replaced by raw ruin.

However, the fiery passion of the Italian radical spirit, it seems, was not to be subdued. But he doesn't dwell long on his pain, as is apparent from the last page.

The artwork in this book is fantastic, and perfectly mirrors the intense mood, laced with sadness that this story epitomizes. It has big bold colors, with sharply defined shadows, and what I can only see as great pencil work, obviously done by a person with a strong background in animation. All of which made me audibly take notice when taking my first flip through, and elevate this book greatly in my imagination.

The comic, as I found out after a little digging, was originally published online, one page at a time, for free on a "webcomix collective" called Act-I-Vate. Web comics are a dime a dozen these days, but in this case "eyes popped" and publishers took notice. The story was published in a two-part miniseries by Image and later packaged into one trade paperback. The whole thing can still be read online, for free (though I am of the opinion that the colors, a big draw for me, lose of their impact when viewed on a monitor.)

And the story is apparently only the beginning of a planned larger arc, tentatively titled "Seven Years Without the Sun" -- though, as far as I know, no additions to the series have materialized. It seems Cavallaro has moved on to other things, but hopefully he never forgets his past -- and even remembers to write and illustrate some more of it, so the rest of us who have nothing but drunks and heart failure to fill up our family histories have some more great personal history to read.

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

(And, hey, you heard it here first, folks.)

Yesterday, on a wild impulse which I am at an utter loss to explain, I watched the 1990 film adaptation of Tom Stoppard's breakout play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It is the story of two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet and their bewildered, humorous wanderings through the tragic happenings of the great play. And how was it? Well, didn't I once write "impulse has become a magical word with me"? And although impulse with me does not mean an "I *heart* so-and-so" tattoo or even a new shade of hair, still I am satisfied that R&G* is a great movie and may well be an even better play.

As I told a companion, amid a profusion of other less successful words, the play is rather like the last thoughts of a potted plant before it gets smashed against the wall. She seemed to connect to that analogy, to think it made a lot of sense. I stole it, I guess -- though not without justification, I know -- from the novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. In the novel a starship equipped with an "improbability drive" spontaneously creates two things, a whale and a bowl of petunias, miles above a planet. As it comes plummeting to the ground, the whale does what we can only assume every sentient being would do: asks important questions like "Who am I?" "What am I?" "Where am I?" "And what is that large hard-looking thing rushing towards me?" etc. -- while the only thing the bowl of petunias thinks is "Oh no, not again!"**

Both this play and that novel perfectly corroborate my image of classic British absurdism.. "How ridiculously absurd!!" cries the man with top hat and bubble pipe as he jumps on his pink kangaroo and hops away to Wonderland.

It was a fitting analogy, now that I look back after spitting it out. Absurdism is the key word here: these are men that are really no better than potted plants. They aren't supposed to have any thoughts, to wonder at the nature of their existence; nor, in turn of course, of their demise. Originally they were little better than a plot device, and also perhaps another set of walls for Hamlet to bounce his wit off of. And, oh my, they are entirely interchangeable! a fact that causes them much confusion in this play.

But while the Hitchhiker's Guide series is all about laughs and is little inclined to the philosophical, this play has much more to brood about. Perhaps it was simply the nature of the play on which it was based or maybe the dark cloud of an ending we all know is coming for our two heroes -- but I always had a difficult time laughing carelessly, carefree, at this play. How can I laugh when pondering the nature of existence? (Honestly, don't you wonder what Socrates was like when squeezing out a turd?)

Certainly, the humor is not perfectly to my liking: I have long had a great disdain for this kind of nonsensical humor, the sort of thing an audience member might respond to with "That's not funny!" only to be shot down by the wild irreverent response of the performer: "Exactly!" Much of the humor in this play revolves around the "inadequacy of language," which as you can imagine, tried my patience. "Yes, yes, we get it," I thought over and over again: language is not the perfect philosophical medium you thought it would be. Sorry for your loss, of course, but that entire thread of thought weakened my overall impression of the play: when one of the boys shouts out something like "Oh, what's the point?" I see little use in the other promptly responding, "The point of what?"

One last point before I go: the concept of metatheatre -- ie, a play about plays. No doubt inspired by Hamlet's play-within-a-play, R&G Are Dead several times has its main characters watch the on-stage players perform. At one point, in the movie at least, the on-screen players themselves are watching a puppet show. And since R&G could be considered a metaplay my final count is five levels. Inception eat your heart out.

Though I was overall impressed, pleased even, with this movie, I wonder about what the original play is like. Occasionally movies are little more than taped stage performances, but based on the thing as I saw it with my own eyes, and on the few reviews of others I have read, I expect a stage performance would be wildly different, better even, than this particular movie. I would jump at the chance to see this play live.

* honest to goodness, I almost wrote "R&R"!

** Adams finishes this passage with a decided turn towards the philosophical: "Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now." You can read the whole of the passage at Goodreads.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Imperfections of David Copperfield

The below passage is from Chapter 52 ("I Assist at an Explosion") of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Note: italics added.

...Mr. Micawber had a relish in this formal piling up of words, which, however ludicrously displayed in his case, was, I must say, not at all peculiar to him. I have observed it, in the course of my life, in numbers of men. It seems to me to be a general rule. In the taking of legal oaths, for instance, deponents seem to enjoy themselves mightily when they come to several good words in succession, for the expression of one idea; as, that they utterly detest, abominate, and abjure, or so forth; and the old anathemas were made relishing on the same principle. We talk about the tyranny of words, but we like to tyrannize over them too; we are fond of having a large superfluous establishment of words to wait upon us on great occasions; we think it looks important, and sounds well. As we are not particular about the meaning of our liveries on state occasions, if they be but fine and numerous enough, so, the meaning or necessity of our words is a secondary consideration, if there be but a great parade of them. And as individuals get into trouble by making too great a show of liveries, or as slaves when they are too numerous rise against their masters, so I think I could mention a nation that has got into many great difficulties, and will get into many greater, from maintaining too large a retinue of words.
The passage comes right in the middle of a long speech by Mr. Micawber, the amiable but financially unsound "fallen gentleman" David has known and liked since he was young. It's a tirade, really, and its target is Uriah Heep, the scheming, lying, cheating bastard of a clerk who has slithered his way to the top (or writhed his way, as Dickens put it) through obviously unsavory means. But Mr. Micawber, who in his eternal lack of money seemed the perfect candidate for a clerk that Mr. Heep could keep under his thumb, has spent months gathering evidence and now, in this chapter, unleashes the full angry wrath of a Vesuvius.

I loved that chapter (and it could be worth reading it by itself, in its entirety) but the above-quoted paragraph made me laugh on its own account. That the one man so many high schoolers have wanted to resurrect and beat over the head for writing novels instead of haikus should interrupt his already tall narrative with a tirade against useless words... It seems gently ironic, and you know we hipster are all about the i, big or little.

I finished David Copperfield just a few days ago (how much it feels like a millennium has gone by!) and I now feel I have a clear view of Charles Dickens: not the most inspired man, by nature, but earnest always and eloquent in his plainness. You always know what he's about; and he's very British -- two ambivalent statements that I choose to interpret positively. Even when he made mistakes -- interrupted his narrative, for example, with the kind of chafe quoted above; or else took his good old time getting to the target even when he stayed on course -- I am inclined to forgive him. I see these imperfections as the idiosyncrasies of a harmless old grandpa -- a cast of character I am very sympathetic towards -- rather than the tiresome ego-soaked digressions of a blowhard at a podium in front of a captive audience.

Dickens comforts me, not only in the contents of his writing, but in his manner of writing it, too. What one calls rushed another calls produced on a deadline. Either way, Dickens' work seems always imperfect, smushed or squeezed, not polished to a shine. We are not all Joyce and some of us prefer it that way. Though I will never call Dickens rough-hewn -- on the order of bred-from-the-soil writer/farmers, whose many names escape me at the moment -- I still believe that it was what, not how he wrote that was the main compelling force for Dickens and in turn the chief concern for his readers. For my part, despite the imperfections, David Copperfield is one of the most charming books I've ever read... Yes, charming -- that's the perfect word.