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.