Monthly Archives: May 2008

News Flash: Real-life archaeologists aren’t like Indiana Jones

Not knowing a good thing when it lands in his lap, some archaeologist has gotten up on his hind legs in the WaPo to complain that the Indiana Jones movies give people the wrong idea about his field, and that he and his colleagues really aren’t swashbuckling babe magnets who can duke it out with platoons of Nazis and Commies while hunting for tchotchkes with supernatural powers. To which Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford can only blush, look abashed and say, “Gee, sorry about that.”

Reminds me of my bright college days, when I took a class in paleontology expecting . . . well, Christ in a sidecar, I don’t know what I was expecting, but what I got was a stocky, Amish-looking guy who droned about cladograms for three hours a week while my brains gently dribbled from whichever ear was lowest at any given time. In evolutionary terms, his personality was perfectly adapted to the role of spending three sweltering months in the Wyoming hills gently scraping crumbs of rock from a fossil without losing his mind. The fun stuff was all in the Ray Harryhausen movies. And now you tell me archaeologists don’t use their bullwhips to swing across piranha-filled moats? Well, paint me yellow and call me a cab!

Personally, I was thrilled when The Pelican Brief came out, and I spent every week of its release hoping that people were getting the idea that being a newspaper reporter involved gun battles, car chases and making time with Julia Roberts. But that’s just me.

Meanwhile, everything I’ve heard about the current entry in the series, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Grecian Formula, only makes me gladder that I kept my butt out of the theater and my ten bucks in my pocket. Though I was ready to stand by the screen and cast rose petals into the air whenever the divine Karen Allen appeared, she apparently has virtually nothing of interest to do — she doesn’t even clock Indy on the jaw for old time’s sake.

But what really killed my interest, and killed it double dead, was the news that the film is loaded with computer effects — really crummy looking computer effects, from what I hear. Nope, uh uh, no way no how. The Indiana Jones flicks are about stunts and practical effects. Sure, there’s always a big Industrial Light and Magic blowout at the end, but up to that point it’s been armies of stunt men and women getting scuffed up. CGI ants? What is this, the Lost in Space remake? I ask you!

Tagged , , ,

Gabriel’s angels

My obsessive listening champion for 2008 so far is Passion, Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. Nothing else even comes close.

The last time I was this fixated was the summer of 1993, when I had Sugar’s Beaster (Bob Mould’s finest, blastingest post-Husker Du record to date) in continuous rotation for two months, relieved only by K.D. Lang’s Ingenue (a concept album about unrequited love, with each song corresponding to a stage in the journey from crush to rapture to self-abasement to numbness to recovery), which in turn would enter continuous rotation until I switched back to Beaster. I don’t know why these fixations develop, but when they do I let it ride and allow my subconscious to control the old mental iPod.

At first I thought the thing with Passion might have been nostalgia for that Saturday morning in 1988 when I headed to New Sodom to see Martin Scorsese’s film and found the street in front of the Ziegfeld had become an open-air Bedlam of Bible-bangin’, snake-handlin’, tongues-talkin’, sermon-shoutin’, fire- and brimstone-flingin’ Jesus whoopers all lathered up and ready to mud-wrestle Satan right there in front of the ticket booth.

It certainly isn’t nostalgia for the movie, which I found as unwatchable as the underlying Nikos Kazantzakis novel was unreadable. The idea that so inflamed the Jesus whoopers — that Christ could have been tempted down from the cross with the vision of an ordinary man’s life — seems perfectly acceptable in theological terms, though it was the kind of thing that could have gotten your eyes gouged out in medieval Constantinople. My problems with the book were strictly literary and artistic, considering that the book’s 500-plus pages of theological grunting and groaning were leading up to one of the biggest foregone conclusions in literary history. That and some curious turns of phrase that could have been the result of poor translation, but which probably reflected the fact that as a writer, Kazantzakis was a little less than divinely inspired. The film compounds those problems with its own clunkiness, exacerbated by a tiny buidget and restricted shooting schedule, some unfortunate improvisations and performances (couldn’t Harvey Keitel have hired a vocal coach to work on that New Yawk accent?), and terrible casting choices. Andre Gregory as John the Baptist? Puh-leez.

But the soundtrack is sort of magnificent, emulating the film’s most original idea — the Holy Land as a teeming crossroads of cultures and nationalities — by weaving African, Asian, Balkan and ambient textures into a patchwork that comes across as a unified whole. It all comes together, appropriately, for the closing music, in which Christ’s decision to accept crucifixion is celebrated by trilling Arabic voices, thumping African drums and a simple, celebratory motif that occasionally takes on the overtones of church bells. Even if, like me, you view these theological concerns from the outside, it’s a moving summation for the film.

Tagged , ,

Readers aren’t born, they’re self-made

Like Jeff Sypeck, I grew up devouring Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain novels, as well as some of his other fantasy works, so I was saddened by his death a year ago. Jeff, however, had some author-to-author correspondence with Alexander, and read into his work a lot more deeply. For instance, he has read something with the ungainly title of The Gawgon and the Boy, which turns out to be Alexander’s most autobiographical work:

In the Prydain books, Lloyd Alexander used heroic fantasy to chronicle the pain of growing up. In the Westmark trilogy, he cast a kingdom in shades of gray to explore, with greater wisdom than most “adult” writers have done, the moral implications of shedding blood in the name of revolution. These series aren’t as different as they seem: at the heart of every Lloyd Alexander novel is, as the author once explained it, a simple concept: “how we learn to be genuine human beings.” It’s a sign of Alexander’s maturity that The Gawgon and the Boy continues that theme not with monsters or tyrants or magical kingdoms, but through a more subdued story that’s no less engaging: how an author-to-be learned to read and love books.

We read other people to find out about ourselves, and often fantasy is the surest way to appreciate quotidian reality.

Tagged ,

Conan the Commentarian

I’ve learned to avoid DVD commentary tracks, unless they’re by Roger Ebert or Peter Jackson, because most of them are so tedious they leave me wondering why I liked the movie in the first place. But this commentary track . . . the perfect match of form and substance. Perfect, I tell you.

Suze Rotolo, scene stealer

It’s no secret to anyone that becoming famous is a deranging process, but until I read Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, I hadn’t really thought about whether it would be equally if not more deranging to know somebody who’s becoming famous — or, even worse, to be in love with someone undergoing that transformation.

It was Rotolo’s good fortune and bad luck to become Bob Dylan’s girlfriend shortly after he arrived in Greenwich Village and shortly before the wildfire success of his 1963 second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, transformed him into the leading light of the folk music revival. “Good fortune” because Rotolo, like Dylan, had been drawn to the Village by its mystique as an enclave for poets, artists and nonconformists — he had to travel all the way from Minnesota, while she hopped the subway from Queens — and she got to participate in a hugely significant cultural moment. In fact, when she huddled with Dylan for the Freewheelin’ cover shoot– he 20 years old, she a mere 17 — Suze Rotolo became an icon of that cultural moment.

“Bad luck” because the strains that eventually ended their relationship produced harsh songs like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.” Though Dylan was courtly and generous about their relationship in his recent memoir Chronicles: Volume One, I can hardly imagine what it must have been like to be on the cutting end of so many songs. We’ve all gotten nasty breakup letters from our exes, but how many of us have had to hear those breakup letters sung on the radio by Peter, Paul and Mary?

For all his womanizing ways, Dylan has managed the difficult feat of staying on civil and even affectionate terms with many (if not all) of his exes. Nevertheless, it is a testament to Rotolo’s largeness of heart and spirit that she can write about her days with His Bobness without falling into spitefulness or fannish hagiography:

Bob was driven — focused on his path. He could see how things were so very clearly that it could be scary to be around him. He was his own person from the beginning. There lies his honesty. Artists we admire aren’t necessarily exemplary human beings just because they are exceptional in their chosen fields. Their art is the work offered for public consumption, and nothing else.

We loved each other very much, and when it ended it was mutual heartbreak. His way was to do as he wished and let things sort themselves out without making decisions that might hurt. Yet that hurt more. He avoided responsibility. I didn’t make it easy for him, either. My mounting confusions and insecurities made me mistrust everything he said. I was difficult and unreasonable. He tried to reach me, but I was too far gone to hear him. I made him crazy.

To write so dispassionately about one’s early passion, and yet do it in a way that honors that passion, is no mean feat, and Rotolo manages it beautifully.

A Freewheelin’ Time is not the place to go for big revelations about His Bobness. Anyone who knows enough about Dylan to want this book will already be familiar with the outlines of the story. A Freewheelin’ Time is, however, the book to read for shadings and nuances. Here is where you get hints of how Rotolo’s political leanings — she was a “red diaper” baby, with politically committed parents — helped steer Dylan’s move into protest music. Here you will get glimpses of this most guarded of celebrities in moments of vulnerability; here you see this most formidable of hipsters getting his act together while he was, in many ways, still just a gauche kid from the Midwest.

The book is charming rather than commanding, observant rather than penetrating, but in her artless way Rotolo gets her points across, sometimes with unexpected subtlety. A long description of her travels through Italy, with forlorn love letters from Dylan littering her path, initially feels like padding, albeit highly readable padding — Rotolo clearly had a whale of a time. Yet once back in New York, Rotolo found herself getting frost from many of Bob’s friends and admirers, who thought it selfish of her to spend time having fun in Italy — i.e., living her life — while Dylan moped. The contrast between Rotolo’s widening horizons and the small-mindedness of some of the Villagers speaks for itself.

While A Freewheelin’ Time is of immediate interest to Bobcats, I think it will linger alongside Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage as part of the story of the rise and fall of America’s bohemian capital. Rotolo came at the tail end of the heyday of Greenwich Village, and to her great credit she doesn’t blink when describing its dark corners. She delivers short, precise sketches of the key players, like Dave Van Ronk, whose arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” was appropriated by Dylan for his debut record, causing a rift that took considerable effort to repair. In particular, she does the service of reminding us what it was like to be a beautiful young woman, and therefore a fantasy object, in a society where it was considered the woman’s problem if she didn’t like getting her butt pinched in public, or wanted to sit alone in a coffee shop without becoming a magnet for every Lothario in the immediate area. Because for all the energy the Villagers applied to the task of breaking free of the conformity of white bread society, the boho life was every bit as much a man’s world:

For a time, the Five Spot was up and running on the corner of St. Mark’s Place and Third Avenue. It was a small and smoky club. One night on our way someplace else, Bob and I stopped in to see Charlie Mingus play with his quartet. That night, the piano player was white and female. The band was in full swing when Mingus, still playing his bass, started to comment aloud to the pianist as she played. His voice got louder and more insistent as he critiqued her abilities.

Go ahead bitch, show me what you can’t do; white lady wanna play jazz: He was vicious and he didn’t let up. I watched, mortified for her. But she continued playing like a pro, her face betraying nothing but concentration. She hit those keys, swung those notes as if her life depended on it. Mingus tormented her to the very end of the set and then said no more. In the sparsely crowded club, people stared into their drinks, pretending nothing out of the ordinary had happened. After some applause, Bobby and I left in silence. It took a while to get a grip on what we’d just witnessed.

Even when the words were meant to be complimentary, the effect could be quite different. Rotolo describes a meeting with folklorist Alan Lomax:

He believed I was exceptional because, in so many words, I stood by the poet, the genius. I unselfishly tended to his needs and desires. I put him first. I was a rare girl for these times.

I was offended and found nothing complimentary in that description. I didn’t see myself as subservient to my boyfriend or anyone else — nor was this what I aspired to be. I seriously doubt Bob saw me that way, either. We live within our own time and at that time, prefeminism, not may gave a thought to equality between men and women . . . I hated being thought of as so-and-so’s chick: I did not want to be a string on Bob Dylan’s guitar.

Rotolo lingered on the scene after it started to come apart, after Dylan went off to conquer the world and the tourists started to siphon off the energy, when Greenwich Village became a museum for itself and the people Dylan left behind started to fray around the edges, look for another act, or — as was the tragic case with Phil Ochs — lose themselves completely. Though she is blunt and unsentimental about the era’s excesses, Rotolo is equally firm about its value, and how most of the changes wrought by the Sixties were not simply necessary, but laudable. At a time when deploring the Sixties is almost mandatory, Rotolo’s perspective is welcome and refreshing.

Rotolo decided early on that she was not going to be simply a footnote to somebody else’s story, and she went off to make her own way in the world. Unlike some other people whose lives entwined with Dylan’s — Howard Alk, for example, or Bob Neuwirth — Suze Rotolo remained the heroine of her own story, which is the reason her story is very much worth reading. The Greenwich Village scene took a good chunk of her life; in A Freewheelin’ Time, she steals it back.

List, list O list!

Looking at this new tome 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die leaves me wondering: if I try to read all of them but fall short, does that mean I won’t die? And if I do read all of them, will I drop dead as soon as I read the last word of the last book?

Say, here’s an idea for a book title: 1001 Books You Would Rather Die Than Read. How about 1001 Books Whose Authors You’ll Want to Kill. Or 1001 Books You May Die Before You Finish?

Going to bat for Bat

Officially Approved and Hart-Certified novelist Christian Bauman has a pretty good podcast interview at the Bat Segundo site. The subject is Bauman’s new novel In Hoboken.

The Big Snooze (1946)

Duh rabbits are coming, hurray hurray! Duh rabbits are coming, hurray hurray! Duh rabbits are coming . . .

Nudity! Cross dressing! Sexual threats! Drug use! “The Big Snooze” is a Bugs Bunny cartoon for the whole family! The title pokes fun at Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (which Warner Bros. had adapted for film that year) and it’s even got a closing line from Fibber McGee and Molly. Woo hoo!

“The Big Snooze” is the swan song of Bob Clampett, the unheralded maniac who inherited the leadership of the Termite Terrace cartoon unit at Warners Bros. after Tex Avery left in 1941. Under the circumstances, we can assume Clampett’s employment issues influenced the opening, in which Elmer Fudd finally gets fed up with playing the patsy and — how do they put it? — breaks the fourth wall by addressing “Mr. Warner” and tearing up his studio contract.

What happens next reflects Clampett’s love of Salvador Dali and the Surrealists in general. Standing over Elmer Fudd as he naps, Bugs ingests a bottle of sleeping pills, invades the dream and before you kow it Elmer is running around naked except for a derby and a garland, then he gets hooched up in a dress and wig, then he’s menaced by zoot-suited wolves (“Howwwwooooooolld is she?”) and let’s just say the whole thing is pretty Freudian. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but what do you make of a little bald guy struggling to get out of a long tube so he can spray shots at something he wants? Anybody here want to take that one on?

Terrified by the chaos unleashed by his decision to step outside the confines of his assigned role, the wised-up Elmer returns to work playing the guy who never wises up.   

After quitting Termite Terrace, Clampett briefly worked for Screen Gems and Republic Pictures before turning to television and winning acclaim (along with some Emmy awards) for the puppet show Time for Beany, Thunderbolt the Wondercolt and Beany and Cecil, an animated version of the puppet show. Many of his colleagues despised Clampett as a credit-hog who tried to obscure the contributions of the other Termite Terrace animators — Clampett tried to claim he cooked up Bugs Bunny on his own after watching It Happened One Night — but his Warner Bros. cartoons are some of the finest the studio ever produced, and his manic sensibility put an end once and for all to any stylistic connections between Warner cartoons and Walt Disney.  

Harry Potter and the Brutal Orson Scott Card Beatdown

Orson Scott Card administers a severe thrashing to J.K. Rowling over her lawsuit to prevent a small publishing house from releasing a Harry Potter lexicon, and I have to say I agree with most of his criticisms.

I was initially sympathetic to Rowling’s claim that the book — drawn from a popular Harry Potter fan site — would be a misappropriation of her work, but my thinking has pretty much done an about-face since then. Not simply because Rowling’s past support for the site renders her complaints hypocritical, but simply because any judgment in her favor is going to set a terrible precedent for any critical or scholarly work about other living authors.

Since I agree with Card that Rowling’s legal  theatrics will likely get her nothing more than a dismissal and a big legal bill, I think Rowling should cut her losses and get to work on her new projects. Unlike Card, I think she’s got more good work in her. That good work should take precedence over bad litigation.

Indiana Jones and the Spurious Quotation of Doom

Jeff Sypeck trashes all our illusions by pointing out that the line from Charlemagne quoted in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was not, in fact, spoken by Charlemagne. Next he’ll be telling us there isn’t a warehouse with a big golden cask that melts the faces of Nazis whenever it’s opened.