Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Stephen King: entertainment and the subconcious mind

In search of Halloween entertainment, I discovered Stephen King's Cat's Eye under the "supernatural horror" genre (perfect for those of us who want scariness w/o the blood) on nextflix. After a mindless 20 min. wasted on Interview with a Vampire, (Brad Pitt is just too cute to be a vampire and Tom Cruise looked ridiculous with red cough syrup dripping from his teeth every five minutes), Cat's Eye helped me to rebuild the brain cells I lost. (I promise I'm done with parentheses . . . as of) now.

Upon completion of the film, I felt as impressed by it all as I was at the start of things, but my adulation left me scratching my head. It's easy to say why some writing is great: it might convey powerful ideas that change your life (E.M. Forster) or overwhelm you by the sheer craftsmanship of it (Keats). In this case, the highest compliment that I could give the work was that it was very entertaining. The word entertainment connotes pure mind fluff, which certainly didn't fit the bill. I felt like these stories were working on me at a deeper level than I could comprehend.

Which brings me to my new grand theory about the whole "it's just entertainment" thing. I've decided that all art, whether it's high-brow or low-brow, lofty or merely entertaining, must contain powerful ideas. It's the ideas that make the work capture our imagination, whether the intended effect is sobering or just plain fun. The difference between art that is applauded for being "intellectual" and art that is relegated to the "it' just entertainment" category, has to do with how the art form works on the brain. It it effects us at a conscious or rational level, then we will certify the art as being full of big ideas. If the art works on us at a subconscious level, we will likely say that the art is gripping, but we may fail to give it the credit it deserves, mainly because we are not fully attuned to how the the art works on us.

Comedy is perhaps the best example of what I mean. Have you ever watched a comic routine and felt like a lot more was communicated than meets the eye? It's tempting to say "oh, it just made me laugh" . . . but when you think about it more deeply, you realize that the comic was playing off of deep seated stereotypes, social mores, and taboos? In Stephen King's case, his stories might seem like they are "just entertaining," but they pack a punch by assaulting our deeply rooted concept of real v. fantasy and, above all, by exploring the perennially fascinating good-verses-evil theme. King's stories target subliminal instincts and values without us knowing it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Shakespeare: the language of the heart

I recently read (and reread) an excerpt from Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. What impressed me the most was the dramatic flair of the writing. Every stanza was devoted to fleshing out the fiery passions of Venus, bringing her to life for us like a prima donna on stage. Shakespeare seems to be most interested in the emotional and the irrational and how those urges translate themselves into action. In this poem and in the plays I've read so far, the characters are all driven by passions which result in actions which may or may not have desirable consequences. But the characters never worry about things like consequences. Hearts are on fire, the gestures are grand, characters get tangled up with themselves and with life . . . just the perfect recipe for a great play. It's Shakespeare: would we expect anything less?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Gerard Manley Hopkins: nature and God

In his lifetime, Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, which explains the preoccupation with religious themes in his poetry. From what I've read so far, Hopkins is primarily interested in the divine origins of nature and the divinity that links us with nature and with God. Like Keats, he has a transcendental temperament. Unlike Keats, however, his mindset is religious as opposed to secular. Where Keats turns to beauty in and of itself for inspiration, Hopkins turns to beauty because it manifests God's love and existence. As a result, his poetry has a jubilant, peaceful tone. Hopkins has a quiet certainty about the cosmos . . . Keats, on the other hand, is somewhat burdened by a divine vision of reality that he feels unable to completely comprehend and understand. Keats is on a spiritual quest while Hopkins has spiritually arrived. Hopkins's "The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe" manifest a joy in religion I rarely encounter.

As a quick side note, Hopkins loves alliteration and assonance almost to a fault. But the result is a unique style. He also likes to play with punctuation and structure, but not at the expense of the beauty and readability of the poem.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Keats: Sleep and Poetry, a unique world of words

Every now and then, (or not so every now and then), one comes across a writer who's way with word is so particular that they construct a unique universe out of language. Keats is just such a writer. While reading Sleep and Poetry, I was astonished by the uniformity of the aesthetic. Keats created a mood of otherworldliness without dropping the ball once for pages on end. Every word contributed to the grand tapestry of the whole.

Purposefully cutting ties with reality, Sleep and Poetry weaves in and out of interior monologues and dreamscapes. We experience Keats's dreams with him and experience him talking to himself about his dreams . . . dreams both in the sense of sleep dreams, and dreams in the sense of life ambitions and goals. We learn about Keats's never ending quest to create great art and his sense of despair at not having achieved that goal, at which point he escapes into his sleep and dreams.

One of the most surprising things about Sleep and Poetry was that it was more philosophically robust that I expected it to be, and Keats came off as being more intellectually restless than I remember. I had him stereotyped as a fluffy, pretty poet. I mean, who would write a whole poem about a vase? Sleep and Poetry, however, was a sophisticated investigation into the meaning and purpose of art and life. For all it's surface beauty, it had an urgency and despair, even an aggressiveness, that gave me something to sink my teeth into.

A dilemma Keats grapples with is how to live with himself, how to handle his dreams and passions. On the one hand, he wants to push himself to climb that artistic mountain so to speak and translate the ineffable into poetry. At the same time, he shies away from that burden and extolls a simpler, perhaps more hedonistic approach to life. He rhapsodizes about nature and romance and yes, even sleep.

Certain tendencies associated with romanticism proliferate, particularly the romanticization of nature and romance, transcendentalism, and morbidity. The mood is passionate and vital, but there is a tone of despair. The poet seems convinced that there is more to life than he is somehow able to comprehend; only in art (and sleep) can he experience the euphoria and grandeur of it all. Woe betide that he should die before experiencing and expressing it all.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Canterbury Tales: a joy to read when read in translation.

While steadily plugging away at the Norton Anthology of English Literature, I must admit I was a bit disappointed when the Canterbury Tales popped up because my last experience with them was not so good. All I remember was impossible vocab and grammar (think two centuries before Shakespeare, yep that rough) and blue humor that, at the tender of 12 or so, made me blush. The solution? I printed a "modern translation" version off the internet and listened to lots of hip-hop . . . after which what used to pass for dark blue humor seemed rather, um, pastel?

Now I can say that I love the Canterbury Tales, enough to call them a favorite. Above all, I loved the comic, irreverent voice that emerged from the writing. Chaucer is shrewd and analytical, but his criticisms of the world ultimately amuse and delight him. He took on a host of themes that no other writer before him (at least no other writer featured in the anthology) explored, including sexuality, gender, religion, politics, society, class, etc. His critical perspective felt surprisingly modern and topical. Contrast that with the grand Anglo-Saxon epics (e.g. Beowulf) and the genteel Arthurian romances (e.g. Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight), and Chaucer comes off as a strong, down to earth personality, determined to use literature to explore the (what was then) here-and-now and put his own comic stamp on it. There was something individualistic about his writing that surprised me. And, above all, I laughed at a lot of the stories and found the work to be as entertaining as it was enlightening. Thanks to Chaucer, the late middle-ages feel much, much, closer.

A favorite random moment: Pertelote, beautiful hen and wife of Chanticleer, the even more beautiful rooster, rips into her husband for his fear of a fox: "Have you no manly heart to match your beard?" she squawks :)

Or what about when one of the pilgrims interrupts the priest who goes on and on and on and on with one tragic, moralizing story after the next. The value of said stories? "Nat worth a boterflye" he snaps in Middle English. Precisely so. I've never liked tragedies. Too depressing. The pilgrim then turns to a fellow pilgrim and asks him to change to the topic:

"Come forth, you priest--Sir John, now come ahead!
Tell something that will gladden us inside,
Be blissful, though a nag you have to ride.
So what if you've a horse both foul and lean?
If he will serve you, should you care a bean?
Be merry in your heart and always so."

Little Shop of Horrors: creepy without trying to be.

Little Shop of Horrors is a delightfully eccentric, well-written movie. Famously low-budget, it was filmed in two days, or so the story goes. The star of the film, a man-eating venus fly-trap, is more hilarious than freaky thanks to "special effects" I could have simulated using random crap from around the house. The spookiness of the film comes from the casting and offbeat dialogue. The characters do and say the strangest things and it just doesn't feel like they're acting. Seriously, the "actors" in this movie seem to be genuinely weird people. Further, a tone of morbidity runs throughout, with constant jokes about and illusions to death, illness, and funerals. The movie even has a mad dentist. (What could be creepier than a madman with a hand drill up your mouth?) This is a good one for watching at 4:00am Halloween night . . .

Cadillac Records: tacky, but better than nothing.

I would recommend this movie for music fans only. It helped me put a face to legendary names like Leonard Chess, Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Little Walter, and Howlin' Wolf. Otherwise, I think this movie was a flop . . . okay at best. I'm being quite picky, it's just that that, well, Beyonce is way too gorgeous and sweet to play Etta James. She's super talented so she pulls it off as well as she possibly could, but every time I saw her pretty face saying foul things or screaming for gin or smack, I just couldn't suspend my disbelief. All in all, the script failed to create complex characters. The characters talked and acted in ways that felt too predictable, shallow, and over-the-top. The screenplay just wasn't well written. When the bad-boy Little Walter died, bloody and broken-toothed in Geneva's arm, I couldn't help it . . . I burst out laughing. Tackiness always cracks me up.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Bye Bye Birdie: I am deeply disturbed!!!

I'm not joking! Some people refer to this 1963 film as a "satire." I think there is a hidden agenda, but that doesn't make the film's excesses tongue-in-cheek. The fact that so many people who review this film enjoy it as something that "takes them back" to the "good old times" proves that if the filmmakers were attempting to seriously question or subvert 1950s pop culture, they widely missed their mark. "Parody" would be the better term. This film exaggerates and thereby gently pokes fun at numerous aspects of 1950s suburban culture: Elvis, the nuclear family, the Ed Sullivan Show, teen consumer culture, teen "rebellion" (as in kissing your boyfriend/girlfriend).

I couldn't even get through more than 15 min. of the movie, truth be told, it was so grating. I'd like to finish it now though, just to understand it better. I guess what I'm interested in figuring out is what kind of a society would create such a thing and enjoy it as somehow being wholesome, uplifting, and entertaining. I know it seems like I'm over reacting, but this film creeped me out. I get a dark feeling in my gut when I embrace their premise that naivete is a thing to be praised, particularly when that message is targeted at women. The women were especially dumb, but the men were half-brained too. This movie is all about never wanting to grow up, get older, and engage with the world. It, and other entertainment like it, functions like a giant megaphone shouting: "Happiness is being dumb, in love, and 16. Or remembering when your were dumb, in love, and 16. That is the great climax of life." I've enjoyed a lot of chick flicks and silly movies in my day so I promise I don't always take things so seriously, but there was something about this movie that was very sinister.

Many people are reviewing this film as capturing an era that we have lost that was somehow more mature? Somehow more about "family values"? What in the hell do they mean by that? Is it a good thing if people's worlds revolve around a rock star coming to town, getting "pinned" by their boyfriend, or, um . . . what's for dinner? Is it just me, or is the whole Shriner's men's club association thing downright weird? Did anyone else feel antsy after seeing female after female after female wearing what looked to be very uncomfortable dresses and bras? I guess Stepford Wives sums up the vibe of that movie for me. I've never seen so many vapid women. Honestly, the mother goes ga ga over the rock star, too? And we're supposed to chuckle at that? It's disgusting.

Yes, the movie does have an adult edge to it . . . but not the right kind. Sure, they lampoon the Soviets in what could pass as very light political satire. But the adult edge comes in the Britney Spears for middle-aged men effect. One reviewer at imdb.com pointed at the film's under-handed glorification of Anne Margaret's burgeoning sexuality. Several, in fact, have discussed feeling rather, um, "aroused" by her performance. It's true, the opening and closing credits where she sings her little guts outs like a true vixen in front of the blue screen are provocative. And whoever dressed her seemed to favor outfits that tended toward . . . tight. So they snuck in a little sex for the adults. Gross.

I'm glad that whole 50's thing got shattered because it wasn't real anyway. And if it was . . . then what a nightmare . . . to live in an all-white community where everyone is in harmony because they have the exact same lifestyles and values. Sounds racist, classist, sexist, everything bad. Why do people feel so threatened by growing up? Why shy away from complexity and waste adult minds on wanting to be 16 forever? Talk about a mental trap. I hated being 16, I didn't know who I was, I didn't have an adult perspective on things. Wisdom and experience are to be prized, not regretted.