Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Secret Meaning of Disco

It took me almost a year from this post to come up with an answer. I had been pondering the annoying question of why so many language learning books have exercises without answers. Actually, including the answers may be what sets the Teach Yourself series apart.

Then last night I was reading the entertaining Scribblers, Sculptors, and Scribes, a supplement to the famous Wheelock's Latin I used in college a million years ago, but one that focuses on things like ancient graffiti -- which is a pretty fun idea for learning a classical language. Anyway, in the back of the book, they mention the Teacher's Editions of Wheelock's and the attendant Workbooks -- which are only for sale to teachers. The penny suddenly dislodged. The reason language books don't contain the answers is to prevent cheating.

Okay, duh. But the reason it just never occurred to me is because, dude, I can't find any classes! I can't cheat at something that doesn't exist! Especially for a language like Hindi, I have no choice but to attempt the self-taught route. Apart from the Door Into Hindi online series, my most-helpful book so far is R. S. McGregor's Outline of Hindi Grammar (with the caveat that it's usually a fluke which book is most helpful to what person), which is subtitled "With Exercises." But I can't know if I'm screwing up the exercises or not. When the book was published, though, I don't think it would have occurred to anybody that people would ever use it outside of an academic environment.

Even for a more traditional college language like Latin, I haven't been able to find a physical class that I can actually take. So the thought of trying to cheat just seems absurd.

Anyway, the best part of my Scribblers-induced Latin refresher was the sudden realization that, years ago, I learned the conjugation "Disco, Discere, Didici." Which means, of course, "to learn."

So whenever one is yelling "Disco! Disco! Disco! Yeahhhhh!" (as one does), one is actually saying "I learn! I learn! I learn!"

Sometimes synergy is a wonderful thing.

Actually, when I win the lottery, I plan to open a library with a design scheme based on Disco Dancer stage settings. With a voodoo/hoodoo archive and chapel in the backroom. And a wine bar. Take that, Rem Koolhaas!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Anthropomorphic Tuesday

Filmi Secret Santas have begun (see ringleader Beth's blog for more info, if you're curious), and I have been blessed with an awesome taste of Disco Masala:

There has been a tragic lack of Disco Masala in my life lately, which I must remedy, and quickly!

Speaking of films, when, o when, will I be able to see this movie? It was clearly designed for a Target Audience of One, who is Me. (Naginas, Irfan, and the author of The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer together at last).

Or this one? For which the same comment applies. (Crazy-looking psychological horror film. About ballet!)

I know it's already too late, what with the cursed "limited releases," but I want them both to be huge hits, or at least major cult favorites, so the "Sci Fi" Channel will someday do a crossover extravaganza: Swan Vs. Nagina. The very fate of the human species will be at stake, so -- dance-off! But in the end, the ballet dancing Swan and the Kathak dancing Nagina will join forces to destroy the dull, colorless Philistines who are going to tear down the roller rink for an overpass ... wait, how did Roller Boogie get in there?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Small and Of No Account Christmas

The holiday season has kicked off in the Octoberzine House, and for once, we can indulge in Christmas spirit willy-nilly, since my honey has a new job, far from the fields of retail. And what would we do, besides watch movies? What else is there?

That screenshot is from a trailer for the 1957 animated film The Snow Queen -- a Soviet production which never became a fondly remembered children's standard -- which appears in the Something Weird Retro Christmas Classics collection. I know it's a cheap shot, but it still makes me giggle.

My favorite entry in this collection of strange old short films must be Encyclopaedia Britannica's Christmas Rhapsody -- a black and white tale about The Christmas Tree That Needed Prozac. A little evergreen stands in a mountain forest, and a mournful voice narrates thoughts like "I am small and of no account" (Geez! Who knew we had to worry about the self-esteem of our Christmas trees? Thanks a bunch, Charlie Brown Christmas) and "These trees are small. The forester laughs. He's coming to laugh at me."

No, actually, he's coming to chop you down! Fortunately for the kiddies, the film doesn't graphically portray this, although the tree does fatalistically ponder, "Why have they come for me?"

It all ends in a creepily happy ending, where the tree is taken inside "by the glow of the hearth." Dude, they're burning other TREES! You think you've got "the warmth of the fire on  my branches" -- how do you think your brethren feel?

It's probably cruel to laugh 'til you cry over a tree with Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I can't help myself. There's a RiffTrax version available for downloading, if you're into that kind of thing (downloading, I mean), but this is a case where the humor value really speaks for itself. I don't know how it could really be improved upon.

The DVD includes various other shorts to remind a person why Christmas can be the most depressing time of the year. There's one from Sid Davis in which a frankly drunken-looking Santa Claus allows the toys to become human, and then guilts them into becoming inanimate again in order to be given away as gifts. He gives them life, only to take it away! It's really disturbing considering another of the films, about a little girl who abandons her old favorite toy for the new gifts on Christmas Eve. (And in turn, she's punished with creepy stop-motion dreams).

Unfortunately -- just like freakin' Warner Brothers! -- Something Weird seems to be really going for totally no-frills DVD production. Like the other set I recently bought (Boozers and Losers),  the Christmas collection is a DVD-R. This is mainly annoying since it contains 16 shorts, with chapter stops every so many minutes. So to find a particular one, you just have to keep fast-forwarding and hope you don't overshoot. I used to mock those cases for no-frills DVDs that would advertise "Interactive Menus" as a feature. Now I realize that really WAS a feature, even a luxury!

Also, again just like the WB movies-on-demand, this trend means that it's hit and miss whether these discs are available for sale through anywhere like Amazon. To get them, or even find out they exist, you have to go directly to their websites, or (at least in Something Weird's case), pick them up on eBay. In the case of Warner Brothers, I've been waiting literally years for William Castle's Macabre to be released in any home format (it never made it to video before DVD took over), and it was only dumb luck (or the hand of fate) that I found out I could get it. Macabre is listed on Amazon now, but it wasn't before Halloween, when I bought it.

With Something Weird, at least it's such niche marketing that the kind of people looking for their collections of strange vintage material will generally know where to go. But who would guess that a weird old William Castles picture from the '50s would turn up in the WB Shop? I had no idea there was any connection. While there's an argument for buying directly from the source, but it does seem like they're making it harder for these films to find their audiences.

At any rate, I can at least assure everyone that the features on the Retro Christmas Classics disc are all G-rated. Potentially nightmare-inducing, as retro cartooning and stop-motion animation can be, but G-rated. It doesn't even have the standard promo, but only the short hypno-wheel logo-n-music, so nobody will have to explain to the kids why that scantily-clad lady is putting a snake in her mouth.

In a nice "Oh, and By the Way" segue to our Feature Presentation: the Retro Xmas disc opens with a trailer for the infamous Mexican Santa Claus, from 1959, which claims that "a dazzling panorama unfolds before your startled eyes." Startled eyes is right. Here's how the creepy Claus keeps tabs on the little girls and boys:

Proving our seasonal masochism, we then watched Santa Claus in its entirety -- fortunately, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version (speaking of the RiffTrax fellas).

This picture doesn't even begin to convey how truly creepy these wind-up reindeer really are.

The plot of Santa Claus is painfully simple: Santa, as an avatar of goodness, is apparently a long-time enemy of Satan, the avatar of evil. The film does not use the term "avatar."  So Satan sends up a shiny red devil named Pitch to thwart Santa's plans, which he does by inspiring a few Mexican street urchins to throw rocks at a department store version, and then plot feebly to kidnap the real thing when he comes to deliver their presents. It's no spoiler to say Santa isn't in any danger.

There's also a little girl who opines that Santa doesn't bring gifts to the poor -- and well, not only does the film actually address the injustices of the class divide, but when the devil is tempting her to steal a doll, he makes some valid socioeconomic points. Because it's a cheesy kid's movie, though, magic makes everything right in the end. Sweet little Lupita and her Mom pray that Santa will come, so he delivers an enormous doll to their doorstep. One wonders how long it'll be before the folks pawn it to buy food.

But never mind that! Most of the film's running time is spent on bizarre hijinks in Santa's Cloud City, and showing him laboriously getting out of the sleigh and going down ladders on rooftops.

Either or both are definitely recommended for hipsters and other assorted oddballs who've seen the MST3K version of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians as many times as some people watch It's a Wonderful Life, and are looking for something equally whacked out to make the season complete. And remember, eggnog can only improve them!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Something Fishy

From what may be my last original post on the local horror-movie blog. I originally set it up in the hopes that the link through the local newspaper's website would allow some folks in my Obscure Midwestern Town to stumble across talk of strange films. Gotta find out these things exist from someone! But with egregious "updates" and other annoyances, I'm rethinking the whole project. Especially since it seems impossible for me to get my custom header reinstalled. Grrr ...

But here goes:

One good thing about Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981): if anyone asks what's the worst debut film by a future Academy Award-winning director I've ever seen, I'll have an answer that springs to mind. Poor James Cameron was far, far from being the King of the World when this mishmash of fake blood, family drama, and T & A was made, although a good portion of it does take place underwater -- a hint at the direction of Cameron's later career. The film also fortuitously brought him together with Lance Henriksen (very young, but still weird-looking), with whom he'd work on much, much better films, like The Terminator and Aliens. Henriksen is the best actor in the movie; no surprise, he's that kind of actor. But he really stands out here among the clumsy "comic relief" characters, and the languid topless chicks whose dialogue -- I can tell by looking at them! -- is being dubbed from Italian.

In fact, many commentators claim that Cameron only shot portions of the film, including the scuba-diving stuff, giving him a first-time director's credit, and the Italian producers an American name for marketing purposes. So he may not really be the one to blame for the movie's ineptness. However, I do want to know who to give credit to for the absolute insanity of the fish attacks, because it was worth sitting through just to get to them.
They're not piranhas, technically. They're mostly grunion, that have been genetically combined with other fish, including piranha and flying fish, in order to create killing-machine fish that can survive in any environment.

How those wacky government scientists thought they could control these beasties for military purposes is never explained. But they did breed a hardy species, one capable of living in the body of a corpse, inside a morgue freezer, no less, for at least a day. At which point it can fly out of a wound, attack someone else, then smash through a glass window and fly off to safety. Wow!

This scene was truly laugh-out-loud funny, as were most of the scenes of piranha carnage. Bathing the fish in red light, giving them a loud whirring noise, is clearly meant to build suspense about them. But when these big, rubber-looking things fly out of the water and latch on people's necks, nothing could have really prepared us for the sight.

I realize I haven't mentioned the plot, but it's hardly relevant. Various shenanigans take place at a Caribbean island resort, and then someone gets eaten during a dive class. Lance is the Sheriff Brody character, but it's his estranged wife, a handy marine biologist, in the Matt Hooper role. The resort guests plan to party hard the night of the grunion run, but the fish have other plans. Oddly, when the time comes, the two factions, one group in tropical shirts, with tiki torches, and the other whirring loudly and stirring up the surf, seem like they're marching head-on into battle.

I'd put this in that hallowed category of "I can't possibly recomment, but am glad I watched."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Halloween Three

The Evil Dead (1981)

Bruce Campbell is so good on TV's Burn Notice as Sam -- a wisecracking, hard-drinking, ladies' man of a retired shadowy government operative -- it's like he's been the character all his life. Of course, that's very much not so, but it was still almost startling to see him recently at the very way-back of his career, in the original Evil Dead.

In the later films, especially Army of Darkness with its "primitive screwheads," Campbell's Ash pushed the limit of how big a jerk a protagonist can be and still get an audience to root for him. In the first one, his Ashley pushed in the opposite direction: the hero was soft-spoken, compassionate, and refreshingly passive. One of my favorite scenes puts him in the background, uncertainly clutching an ax, while his buddy fights off his demonically possessed girlfriend. For once I thought, if this actually happened, I wouldn't know what was going on. I wouldn't jump to assume I should start mutilating my friends. This edition of Ash actually deals with bizarre supernatural threats as reasonably as a person could be expected to.

I was also amused by the scene in which Ash attempts to recite a Greek toast at dinner, but stumbles over the pronunciation.  The origin of the famous "maybe I didn't say every single little tiny syllable"?

Despite its flaws, and some obviously low-budget acting on display, I've always been fond of Evil Dead for being the closest thing to a straight horror film in the series. And, well, at this point in history, nothing much else needs to be said.

Night of the Demons (1988)

I must have picked up this video box a hundred times at the old videostore, looked at the cover, pondered, and finally said "Naw." Now I've finally broken down and watched it, I can say that I should have trusted my instinct, since it turned out to be a pretty generic entry in the subgenre of dumb teens endangering themselves.

There are some good points to the film, however: the opening cartoon credit sequence is pretty cool. Star Mimi Kennedy has a great "I'm possessed by a demon" dance scene in front of a fireplace, and her whole big-haired '80s/Goth gown look is not bad either. That's Heathers' Kurt Kelly (actor Lance Fenton) as the Final Girl's date (just as much of a jerk as he would be to Winona Ryder). Most importantly, I'm always happy to see Linnea Quigley, no matter what the circumstances, and here she has one of her most iconic scenes, on a par with the Dance of the Chainsaw from Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. It involves a lipstick, and some prosthetic toplessness, and that's all I care to say.

Come to think of it, while this is actually pretty inept on all levels, when compared to Quigley vehicles like Nightmare Sisters (top on my list of Terrible Movies I Can't Defend In Any Way, But Of Which I'm Inexplicably Fond), it actually looks like a movie. A bad movie, yes, but at least not like something shot on video in someone's garage.

House of Frankenstein (1944)

Divine Providence seems to be aiding mad scientist Dr. Niemann (a hypnotic Boris Karloff) in his desire to carry on the work of his hero, Dr. Frankenstein. First, a collapsing building springs him and his murderous hunchback assistant from prison. Then they conveniently stumble on a traveling Chamber of Horrors, whose owner they quickly dispatch, leaving them to travel at will with Dracula's bones in the back. (The late lamented Professor Lampini was no charlatan, even though nobody would be able to tell any random skeleton with a stake jammed in its ribs from the real thing). They even find the original monster frozen in the ruins of Frankenstein's old castle, along with clinically depressed wolfman Lawrence Talbot, who helps them find the doctor's old notes.

Niemann is well on his way to revenging all the wrongs done him, with a scheme that involves a shell game of brain-swapping, but a hunchback/wolfman/gypsy girl love triangle is going to thwart his plans. Hunchback Daniel rescues dancer Ilonka from an abusive employer, and she's nice to him in return, but she clearly prefers the gloomy "Larry."  I laughed out loud at a delightful scene in which Larry broods, while the rather Basanti-like Ilonka sits next to him, chattering and beaming brightly all the while.

This film packs in a ton of action, even going off on a tangent with a bunch of extraneous characters menaced by John Carradine's resurrected Dracula (a much more distinguished role for him than the one he played in Nocturna, Granddaughter of Dracula), and still gets it all done in 71 minutes. And it's no real spoiler to say that it all ends with an angry "burgermaster" and a torch-wielding mob. Just like it should.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

If you can't trust that face ...

...what can you trust?

(By the way, I KNEW I recognized these outfits from somewhere).

I really had no idea what I was getting into with Badaltey Rishtey (1978), but I was delighted to revel in the enjoyment of Rishi Kapoor, at his baby-faced best, getting to play the bad guy, at least for a while.

Pretty music teacher Savitri (Reena Roy) meets hard-working but happy-go-lucky Manohar (Rishi) in scenic Simla. Every glimpse of view out everybody's window made me swoon! Eventually, he wins her over, as Rishi will. Meanwhile, Sagar, the brother of one of her students, comes to town, and he's totally smitten with her voice, among other things. He's rich, he's handsome, he's Jeetendra, and although Savitri's family lives in genteel poverty, his family is thrilled with the match.

A run of bad luck brings down the heroine's spirits, and poor Reena spends the second half of the movie looking melancholy:

When she initially refuses Sagar's proposal, her mother collapses, and the doctor blames Savitri for causing her tension; Manohar ends a romantic song about their future honeymoon by wiping out on skis and whacking his head on a tree, ending up in the hospital; and when she bows to the inevitable and marries Sagar, her new husband drives a car off a cliff on their wedding day, which upends and bursts into flame! (Fortunately, he was thrown free). All this angst is complicated by an astrologer's prediction that the man she marries will die within 40 days, but that she'll marry again, the second time happily.

Jeetendra scoffs when he hears about his supposed fate, and cheerfully marries her anyway. (The brass band that meets the newlyweds, by the way, plays "Jhoot Bole," from Bobby!) Just in case, though, he vows not to touch his bride until he's safely passed the 40 days.

Feeling guilty over Manohar's eventual broken-hearted decline, Savitri writes a "shameless" letter, revealing all about the prediction. At her brother's wedding reception, Manohar, who's been the life of the party, decides he's not going to leave it up to fate:

Gasp! I was honestly startled by this unexpected turn of events.

Savitri manages to thwart this effort with song, but she can't stop the two men from becoming friends without betraying herself.

The normally reserved Sagar says that peppy Manohar is "a magnet! An absolute magnet!"

"Jumping Jack" Jeetendra was subdued and likable in what I kept thinking of as the Ajay Devgan part. Rishi, of course, deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award in Cheerful Puppy Love, and he's good at it here, but he was also quite convincing (and much more fun) when full of smiling duplicity. Of course, the things that are not as they seem really aren't as they seem -- this isn't exactly a hard-hitting film -- not that I want to spoil any surprises.

There's another villainous Rishi film out there called Khoj -- a Ramsay Production, co-starring Naseeruddin Shah, with a Bappi Lahiri score. This sounds like a whole new level of awesomeness; sadly, one that's only available on VCD. More motivation to study the Hindi!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Lots of fresh, young blood

A neon sign blinks "Hotel Transylvania." An aggressively deadpan young woman in a flowing gown strides down the corridors of a Gothic castle. In the background, a particularly repetitive disco song is insisting that "love is just a heartbeat away." (It's a Gloria Gaynor tune, and you can watch the whole opening here).

Welcome to the world of  Nocturna, Granddaughter of Dracula (1979). The lovely but expressionless title character tells us up front that she's "in no hurry to get married." Wow, even vampire chicks get the pressure from their families! She's busy running the tourist trap hotel at the ancestral castle, where she's just hired the Moment of Truth, a multi-musician ensemble whose songs are surprisingly pretty good -- closer to the Motown soul than the bad disco I was expecting (but don't worry, that's en route). Nocturna singles out the blondest (and I have to say, most Jason Stackhouse-like) guy in the group to flirt with, with tragic results. I don't mean anything to do with the plot -- I mean his dancing. Here's the clip, which is labeled "Hot Disco Vampire Dance."

At least that's not boring, unlike the following "love scene." Then the movie grinds to a halt while Bonet takes an excruciatingly long bubblebath, running the gamut "from nakedness to nudity," as her werewolf assistant (billed as Brother Theodore) describes it, while he watches her from a keyhole. For those of you it might make more bearable, the nudity does go on and on.

As she scrubs, she ponderously voice-overs: "Now I have fallen in love with a mortal man. What is going to happen to me?" One Hot Disco Vampire Dance with Generic Blond Dude, and all the dubious vampire/mortal love stories throughout history become instantly more plausible in comparison. She mentions her "eternity of bloodlust and murder," but it's no spoiler to say the worst thing she does in the movie is some disco dancing. Which I guess is evil enough in its own way.

"You have no right to love. You can use men for nourishment only!" Grandpa Dracula tells her. Nonetheless, she runs off with the boyfriend to New York, where she stays with an old family friend named Jugula -- yes, as in Vein. It's Yvonne De Carlo, looking obviously more mature, but still as beautiful as when she played Lily Munster. "In my time, I've seen so many broken-hearted vampires," Jugula says, and come to think of it, so have I! Usually because of their unfortunate tendency to fall for the same human beings they snack upon.

Nocturna, though,  thinks that the power of love, combined with the power of disco, is in fact beginning to turn her mortal. "When I hear music, I become those times, my reflection can be seen in mirrors." That's something I don't think they tried on Dark Shadows, or Angel, or Forever Knight. We do know that Angel was secretly fond of Barry Manilow, but that didn't do the trick.

The gals go to a meeting where creatures of the night discuss the problems of the "urban vampire," including the amount of hypoglycemia in the population. When confronted by a policeman, they all turn into cartoon bats and fly away! The cartoon bat effects are totally quaint and adorable, and that's the point when the movie really started winning me over. Shortly after that, there's a great scene of Nocturna frolicking through Times Square to the tune of Vicki Sue Robinson's "Nighttime Fantasy."

A sweet little caption pops up over her head there that says, "Oh wow such a lovely city, isn't it?" Agreed. And special thanks to the diverse group of crazy people who've posted snippets of this hard-to-find film on YouTube.

A young Sy Richardson (of Repo Man fame) turns up as a flamboyant character called RH Factor, pushing a sniffable blood product (what could that possibly imply, in the '70s?), and running a vampire massage parlor (more nudity).Then the later disco scenes, with the camera in the middle of the dance floor, make it look like it would be fun to dance there, and live it up in a strobe-lit bacchanalia! So despite its very obvious flaws, the movie definitely has points in its favor.

This was obviously a labor of love -- starring, executive produced, and "based on an original story by" belly dancer Nai Bonet. She gives the impression that she's reading the script phonetically, but she's pretty, and has a big smile. It's the kind of part someone like Charisma Carpenter (speaking of Angel) could have made something of, although she probably wouldn't have done the bubblebathing.

Nocturna's bimbo boyfriend was played by Anthony Hamilton, an Australian model and ballet dancer who died in 1995. Crazy IMDB tidbit: "Cubby Broccoli tested him as the new James Bond when Pierce Brosnan was at first unable to get out of his Remington Steele contract to play the role. According to some reports ... it was agreed by both Hamilton and Broccoli that the former's known homosexuality would work against him in the role." This is also mentioned on numerous other sites. I wasn't surprised by the gay part -- when RH Factor scoffs at Nocturna's non-vampire boyfriend by saying "You got yourself a straight man," my reaction was, well, not exactly.The idea that he'd be a creditable Bond, though, seems like a stretch, but admittedly, Nocturna probably wasn't the best showcase for his acting skills.

Poor John Carradine plays Dracula, griping about his dentures. Unbelievably, this movie came out the same year as Monstroid! Another of the finest awful movies in which Carradine played thankless supporting roles.

More clips:

the Moment of Truth tune "Love at First Sight"

And a scene I think of as "Disco Jealousy"

Tragically still unreleased on DVD, copies of the film occasionally turn up on Amazon or eBay with reasonable prices. Just don't get it confused with the Spanish animated film from 2007, which is usually the first thing to come up in a search. And really, don't mix that one up with Granddaughter of Dracula.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Too Old to Dance, Too Young to Weld

a.k.a. "My Love/Hate (Mostly Hate) Relationship with Flashdance"

"I'm a steelworker/I kill what I eat."
-- Steve Albini, "Steelworker"

As an old hand at So-Bad-It's-Good, there's nothing particularly odd about admitting that I own a copy of Flashdance. I mean, I've watched The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies more than once. Come to think of it, more than twice. Not even counting the Mystery Science Theatre version.

What I've never, ever told another human being before is: I kinda liked Flashdance the first time I saw it. Wow. It actually hurts to say that. Funny it's so hard to admit, now that it doesn't matter to anybody, even me. I remember the vehemence with which I despised it and everything it stood for, and how much I mocked to my unsuspecting teenage friends, who uncritically enjoyed it for the silly Hollywood fairy tale it is. But deep down, a part of me secretly enjoyed it too.

Embarrassingly enough, after seeing the movie, I had a secret dream of taking dance lessons. These took place in a cartoonish vision of life in the big city, borrowed from sitcomy movies (of the kind written by Neil Simon in the '70s), where I pictured myself walking down the sidewalk with a bag full of workout clothes, and maybe a loaf of French bread. I fell in with punk rockers instead, and that all worked out much better. But for a fleeting time, I wanted to believe in Flashdance, because it managed to manipulate the little girl who never got to take ballet lessons.

Now, knowing me as well as I do, I'm almost certain that I would have hated ballet, with all its fussy precision, if I'd actually studied it back in elementary school. Sports, board games, even the Brownies were too confining for me. It is, however, a chicken/egg situation: would I have chafed under the structure and rebelled, as would seem in character? Or, if I had been exposed to such discipline as a child, would I have learned the value of it? Just like Jennifer Beals' Alex, I never got the chance to find out. Unlike the fictional version, who was the same age as I was in 1983, I knew perfectly well even then that neither of us would really be able to "have it all."

Standard disclaimer applies: the following is in no way meant as a criticism of the many people who have fond memories of Flashdance, or accept its fable of empowerment at face value. As a devotee of Rock Dancer, I'm obviously in no position to judge. And I don't want to ruin anyone's innocent enjoyment. I'm mainly interested in exploring why this particular movie has always put my hackles up, so feel free to bolt now.

For those of you who are still here, let the evisceration begin. First things first: the music. I hated the music! In fact, I hated that whole Fame/Flashdance/Footloose spectrum, and even more, I still do. Many songs that I disliked in the past, I can now look back on fondly. But "What a Feeling" raises the bile in me like I'm still an Angry Young Woman.

I didn't start out as a music snob. I used to listen to the radio, and I liked the majority of it. The FFF movies (and their horrible soundtracks) come from the era when my taste and Top 40 began to diverge. What I find so annoying about the Flashdance songs is that they seem to take themselves seriously, without bothering to have any substance to back up their attitude. They're overwrought, emotionally bombastic, while remaining bland and generic in their sentiments.

Like that "Gloria" song. Re-watching the movie, I remember that when I saw Flashdance for the first time, and realized the song was starting, I was like: Dear God no, not "Gloria"! Laura Branigan is emoting for all she's worth, stretching her voice, being all dramatic and operatic, and the music is all synthesizer-symphonic, but it's not really in the service of anything. She's breaking her back singing "I think they got your NUMBER! I think they got the ALIAS! That you've been living UNDER!"

I know, I know: Rock Dancer! But it's like Laura Branigan and Irene Cara were the beginning of the whole Bonnie Tyler "Total Eclipse of the Heart"/Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston era -- people with these technically fine voices acting like they're singing something so important, but the lyrics and situations are banal. I always remember the Mariah Carey song "Emotions" in this regard, with lyrics like "You got me feeling emotions." Disgust? Scorn? Could she be more specific? The exact same problem as "What a Feeling," which contains more unspecified emotion. I know there's lots of disco piffle that I don't judge so harshly -- ridiculous songs like "Fly Robin Fly" and "Shake Your Booty" -- but those songs were fun and silly and danceable. They had no pretentions.

At any rate, a movie about dancing with music I despised (hey! Despising something is a feeling!) has already got one strike against it. With that in mind, if you stick it out to the end of the post, I will unveil my alternate Hindi disco Flashdance soundtrack, which I think you'll agree would improve it no end -- even if you don't hate the original the way I do.

And then there's the story. OMG! 18-year-old Alex works as a welder in a steel mill by day, and by night, does arty modern dance (no nudity) in a blue collar bar frequented by her coworkers.


Her dream is to join the prestigious local ballet company, although she has no ballet training whatsoever. She starts dating her much older boss, who gets her an audition. She overcomes her fears and wows the judges. The end.

In her book Salaam Bollywood, Indian film journalist Bhawana Somaaya interviews the director of a children's home about the problem of runaways who came to Mumbai, either to meet movie stars, or become movie stars, and how they end up on the streets. She describes them as "led astray by false promises and impossible dreams." Now, in the making-of features on the Flashdance DVDs, the producer and director sound very sincere that they were trying to make a female empowerment story, a "Rocky for girls." Jennifer Beals was cast because she was the actress who most appealed to the women who saw the screen tests, and they wanted someone women would relate to, not mainly someone guys would be hot for. Unfortunately, the story they chose to tell -- the details of her underdog scenario -- subvert that by giving the audience only false promises and impossible dreams.

It's one thing to make an inspirational film about following your dreams. But for it to actually be inspirational, the dreams have to be achievable. I could dream about becoming a Catholic priest, but my desire isn't going to make it possible. A sports team might have a distant shot at winning the big game, but nobody makes it to the pros when they've never played the game before. And nobody auditions for a football team by playing tennis. It doesn't matter if you're the best tennis player in the world, that's not going to get you to the NFL.

Or, to paraphrase The Big Lebowski: "This isn't 'Nam. This is ballet. There are rules."

When the Star Wars movies have Yoda telling anyone they're "too old to begin the training," the first thing I think of is ALWAYS ballet. I recommend Zelda Fitzgerald's gorgeously baroque novel Save Me the Waltz for a grueling depiction of what it's like for someone who attempts to start serious ballet studies in her twenties, as Fitzgerald herself did.

But even if Alex could beat the odds, what she performs at the big audition is more a gymnastics routine, involving leaps, spins, and tumbling, rather than dancing as such, much less anything that would be useful in a ballet company. I'm going to guess that ballet judges have seen talented gymnasts before, at least watching the Olympics. They don't rush out and hire them for Swan Lake.

What's going to happen when she shows up on Monday, and is supposed to dance with people who were in "pre-ballet" classes when they were four years old? Who've been training for pointe since they were twelve? Does she know what a tendu is?

The movie makes a point of contrasting tomboyish, blue collar Alex, with her wild hair, heavy boots, and baggy clothes, and the rarefied world of the ballet dancers with their buns and their toe shoes.

But this is the world that it is. Alex is supposed to be a breath of fresh air in an uptight, snobbish establishment -- but she also supposedly wants to be part of that establishment. It's a particular kind of annoying American fantasy, wanting to be recognized, appreciated, as a ballet dancer, without knowing anything about ballet. The film would be more honest if she looked at the ballet company and said, you know what? This isn't for me. I'm from the street, I do things my own way, and that's fine. After all, the one scene in the movie that has real credibility is performed by honest-to-goodness break dancers (the Rock Steady Crew).

Ballet, though, is something different. It has survived as an art form, and kept its identity, because it's a discipline, in which things are done just so. Even in the most entry level classes, you put your hair in a bun, you put your feet exactly where they tell you to, and all the terms are in French. Because that's what ballet is. If you don't do it that way, it may be a valid form of dance, but it ain't ballet. And it's never going to be. Obviously, I also have wild hair and baggy clothes, so I can identify with Alex feeling alienated amongst the dainty ballerinas, but it's ridiculous to blame ballet for being ballet.

I'll note here that although Alex has multiple jobs, and seems to be in no bad shape, financially, there is no indication that she's ever taken a single class in ballet as such, despite that being her dream. Nor has she bothered to pick up a pair of shoes, which, I was recently surprised to discover, aren't even expensive.

Audition Strike #1: Those are not ballet shoes, my friends.

A side problem is that the only reason she gets the audition is because she's dating her boss, a rich older man who's able to pull some strings for her. Because he believes in her dreams, etc: but also because she's freaking gorgeous. What happens to the girl with dreams and talents who has nothing to lure a sugar daddy with?

It's frustrating in that the story offers us a potentially inspiring story with sidekick Jeannie, who's been training as a skater for some big ice show. Unlike Alex, this is something she's halfway prepared for, based on her own hard work. In the film, Jeannie flubs her big audition and becomes disillusioned, her dreams derailed. Now, if she managed to overcome that, with her own skill and determination -- well, in these people's hands, it would probably still be a paper-thin movie. But it might be a little more to the point than what we get.

It's also sort of odd that, after the audition, boss Alex's boss Nick says "She'll do better next time," and Alex sadly responds, "There won't be a next time." Why not? There are no other ice shows in America? If it's meant to be age, actress Sunny Johnson was actually thirty in 1983, but I'd never have guessed. And the United States Figure Skating Association has official competitions for people all the way to ages 61 and up!

For no other reason than she's not lucky enough to be Jennifer Beals, the poor ice skater ends up at Lee Ving's sleazy strip joint, not so much actually stripping, but lounging around topless. At least we can understand how this job pays her anything, unlike the bar where Alex and her friends dance without getting tips. Showgirls is almost a corrective, as if someone realized the only way certain elements -- like the conversation Alex has with an embittered, world-weary fellow flashdancer -- would make sense is if the gals were actual strippers. And yes, that movie's writer Joe Esterhasz also wrote Flashdance.

And what about that welding? I'm admittedly no expert, but plenty of people online have commenting that when they or family members were in the industry in the '80s, it generally took two years of training to qualify as a welder, and then sometimes an apprenticeship before you could get a job. I would be happy to hear from anyone with specialized info on this subject!

Last minute factoids:

Jennifer Beals reminds me of Apollonia in Purple Rain. At first viewing I just thought she couldn't act. But it's really more that both of them come across like sweet girls who've suddenly found themselves in the middle of a major motion picture. They're relatively natural, and they're not trying too hard. For girls obviously cast 'cause they're pretty, they're not doing too badly. They just don't know how to make the most of being on camera: a little too girl-next-door to be really dynamic.

My husband pointed out that the line "And she's dancing like she's never danced before" actually has two interpretations. It's safe to assume they intended the meaning "she's exceeding herself," but literally, it also says she's dancing like this is the first time she's ever danced.

He also pointed out that the ending doesn't actually tell us anything about the result of the audition. The thrilled reactions of the judges, and her joyously bounding into Michael Nouri's arms, both imply that Alex got the gig. But by not saying so in so many words, it's still got plausible deniability.

Bizarrely enough, "Gloria" singer Laura Branigan, and Sunny Johnson, who ice skated to it, both died of brain aneurysms. It took less coincidence than that for, say, Poltergeist to get a reputation as a curse.

According to the IMDB,  "Irene Cara wrote the lyrics to the film's Oscar-winning theme song while riding in a car to the recording studio the day she recorded the song." Let's just say that explains a lot.

Also, if the IMDB is to be believed, the ultimate in movie "might have beens" -- David Cronenberg was offered the chance to direct. The same year that Videodrome came out! Just the thought of "David Cronenberg's Flashdance" is almost enough to make my head explode.

And finally, my alternate soundtrack of danceable hits:

"He's a Dream" (also known as "that song where Jennifer Beals dumps water on herself") -- "Barso Re" (Guru)

"Maniac" -- "Nach Baliye" (Bunty Aur Babli)

"I Love Rock N Roll." Okay, I love Joan Jett. But this song is so wildly inappropriate for montage of Girls in Heavy Makeup Do Aerobics Against Stark White Backdrop, it's totally tarnished by association. (Nor could I find the scene on YouTube). Here we need something silly and fun, to clue the audience in that we KNOW this is silly. Hence -- "Shut Up and Bounce" (Dostana)

"Lady Lady Lady" (a.k.a. The Love Montage. Particularly hard to choose, because anything would be an improvement) -- "Pyar Kar" (Dil To Pagal Hai)

"Manhunt" -- "Love Mere Hit Hit" (Billu)

"Imagination" (the Kabuki TV song) -- "Crazy Kiya Re" (Dhoom 2).

"Gloria" There is no love for the ice skating! The only other video I could find with the actual scene from the movie had a different song edited in. Great minds think alike! -- "Jimmy" (from the M.I.A. album Kala). Ahhh, now that makes me feel so much better!

"What a Feeling" is the toughest, but I'm going to say -- "Dance Pe Chance" (Rab Ne Bana De Jodi)

So, until next time, remember ... you may not be able to "have it all," but you can still take your passion, and make it happen. While you're doing that, though, better outfits, a decent soundtrack, and basic logic will go a long, long way!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Crazy movies are nothing without someone you love to share them with

Oh, come on. Would life even be worth living?

For all that I gripe about Facebook, I have to give it credit: a comment there by friend and one-time Secret Santa Irene Nexica reminded me that I'd never actually seen Mahogany (1975), although I loooved its moody theme song ("Do you know where you're going to? Do you like the things that life is showing you?") when I was a little girl.

It all starts with the kind of insanity on the catwalk that I haven't seen since Rekha's turn as a high-fashion model out for vengeance in Khoon Bhari Maang.

They're throwing this at us before we even know who the characters are, and it's like a fashion show from the Star Wars prequels. Naboo is the only place I can think of where these clothes would make any kind of sense. But the craziest thing about these outfits is that they're only the beginning!

After this "Kabuki" debacle, the word "success" is uttered to Tracy (Diana Ross), the fashion designer responsible, throwing her into confusion and a film-length flashback about the struggles of a girl from inner city Chicago to find success. She works for a department store by day, and takes design classes by night, where she's scolded for her outre work.

At several points, Tracy's reminded that she shouldn't set her sights too high in Chicago -- partly because of racism, but mainly because this isn't where you "make it," it's where you "end up." I couldn't help thinking, hmmm, what does that make North Dakota? Best not to speculate.

Eventually, though, she meets two important men: suave and sexy Billy Dee Williams, who's a political organizer fighting against greedy landlords in the 'hood, and (actually kinda sexy too) Tony Perkins as the jaded photographer who's going to turn her into a famous model, rechristening her "Mahogany." He's first impressed when he sees her in a dress she designed, and chats her up about the sophistication of Rome. Because of this?

Well, eventually the film will take us to Rome, and we'll learn that their parties in the '70s were as full of bad disco as everybody else's, so I'll take their fashion sense with a grain of salt.

The film clearly prefers Williams, with his talk about social conscience, and his selfless working for the little people versus the frivolous world of fashion, but what plays out on screen is largely a man putting his dreams and ambitions over his woman's, which makes him kind of a dick. When Ross helps him with a campaign, she uncovers one of her drawings on the refrigerator, and symbolically covers it up with Billy Dee's handsome face. The symbolism is complicated, for me at least, because it's a drawing of that same rainbow dress.

Maybe some dreams really are better left unlived!

Eventually, however, Tony Perkins tempts her to Rome. For a while they work in a good creative collaboration, but it's at the cost of turning her into an object of fantasy. Then there's the sad fact that when a guy wants to sleep with you to prove he's not gay, but then he can't go through with it, it always puts a strain on a relationship. (One has to wonder if this role hit close to home for Perkins, who's generally acknowledged to have been gay, and also sincerely happy in his marriage to model Berry Berenson). Of course, Tracy's standard pillowside speech about how it doesn't matter, and there's more to life than sex, has all the more conviction because she didn't really want to do it anyway.

Before all the angst starts kicking in, though, we get this:

and this:

and this:

Which are all from the very same montage! Okay, to be fair, Ross isn't always ridiculous-looking in the film, but is also quite beautiful:

Also in its favor, the movie has a nice retroactively period-piece quality, with its glamorous, photogenic stars walking through rubble-strewn Chicago streets. (Amusing, since at one point, Williams' activist gets angry about the exploitative nature of a fashion shoot in a ghetto neighborhood). Plus, at one point we hear a radio broadcasting from "WVON, the Mighty 1390, Chicagoland's Black Giant," which is awesome.

Reviews on the IMDB range from "this movie is awful!!" to "THIS MOVIE WAS BRILLIANT," and that actually gives you a pretty fair summary. There's also a great "favorite outfit" thread -- the sort of thing one finds on the Internet that makes one think, thank Rishi, I'm not alone! It's probably obvious to everyone where I'd fall on this question. The song asks "Did you get what you're hoping for?" and the answer is yes, yes, yes!

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Giant Crab Comes Forth

"What a beautiful night," Pat remarked as they passed along the barbed-wire fence which enclosed War Department property. "If only we didn't have to worry about giant crabs!"

--from Night of the Crabs by Guy N. Smith.

Which the back book jacket describes as "a seafood cocktail for the strongest stomachs." Ha ha ha! While there are plenty of giant monsters on film, and the Sci Fi Channel, there aren't nearly enough of them in, umm, "literature."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Kamikaze Girls and the Frog

Odd, disjointed bunch of film-watching lately. The usual, in other words.

Chi Bi, a.k.a. Red Cliff (China, 2008)
The cute young cops of Chungking Express (Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro) have grown up to be the handsome warriors of Chi Bi. Nice! Especially on the Takeshi Kaneshiro front. The movie's so epic and awesome, I immediately ordered the box set containing the 2,340 pages of novel it's based on (Three Kingdoms, also called The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong). I'm still cliff-hung, though, since I haven't had time to watch Chi Bi II yet.
The Princess and the Frog (U.S., 2009)
Against all odds, Disney has finally made a movie for me. Yes, I could have spent a lot more time with the old hoodoo lady in the swamp, who was much more interesting than the schmaltzy musical romance and the cute anthropomorphic critters. But it was great to see the 1920s New Orleans setting. Even better, Dr. Facilier (great name!) joins the villains of Live and Let Die and Sugar Hill (which I saw advertised as Sugar Hill and Her Zombie Hit Men) in the select list of Baron Samedi-looking bad guys. Plus, he's voiced by Keith David, formerly an important member of the John Carpenter Players. Yup, that's the sound of a They Live fanatic squealing over a Disney picture. It sounds just as strange as you'd expect.
Shimotsuma Monogatari, a.k.a. Kamikaze Girls (Japan, 2004)
Motorcyles, fight scenes, and frilly dresses -- together at last! I don't know if I've ever seen a movie where the plot was driven so openly by clothes, and that's just one of the reasons for my wild enthusiasm. Oddly detached teenage Momoko spends her time fantasizing about her ideal life in 18th-century Versailles, and all her money on elaborate "Lolita" style fashions from her favorite Tokyo shop. Needing cash, she advertises some old bootleg "Versach" clothes her father once tried to sell, and meets tough-talking, long-coated Ichigo, who belongs to an all-girl biker gang.
The film is full of stylized humor and strange asides, even breaking into anime for flashbacks. It kind of reminds me of Muriel's Wedding, even though it's completely different in every way. Momoko ignores Ichigo and Ichigo bullies Momoko, but eventually a friendship develops. As the characters use fashion to give their lives meaning, the film depicts the paradox of expressing individuality by embracing what could seem like stereotypical identities, and it ends up being crazily inspirational. In addition to just plain crazy.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Girl Who Reviewed the Film

Truth in advertising: the girl does, in fact, have a dragon tattoo, but even more so, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) is full of Men Who Hate Women (a more literal translation of the actual Swedish title). 

Random thoughts:

Swedish is a very strange and alien-sounding language to me, and it's odd to think that my great-grandparents would have spoken it. (Another set spoke the closely related Norwegian). I have no twinge of connection at all. A couple of generations, and it has nothing more to do with me than any randomly selected language in the world.

While they were at it, the characters seamlessly dropped the occasional English word and phrase into their Swedish, making me wonder if people call that "Swenglish."

There were also the subtitle oddities, like when the guy says he thinks his niece was murdered, and the protagonist says "Murdered?" The vowel sound was slightly different, but the word was clearly "murder." It's not like this is an unusual phraseology: it's a perfectly rational conversation. But someone typing up those subtitles said to themselves, "Hmmm, I don't like the word 'murdered.' Let's say 'killed' instead." I mean, it's not inaccurate. The words are basically synonymous. But I still wonder what they're thinking when they clearly say one thing and the subtitles say another.

But about the actual movie (and I doubt I need to tell anyone that there'll be spoilers): I had some of the same reaction as I did when flipping through the book. There's a pretty horrible level of violence against women -- probably the closest I want to get to a Hostel film -- and that's particularly off-putting in something that gets talked about for its "feminist" slant. Although it was interesting to see so many respectable grandmotherly types packing the theater for a film full of brutal rape and murder. But they must have known what they were getting into, since every respectable grandmotherly type in my Obscure Midwestern Town has read the book.

Anyway -- the thing about the level of violence, and the fact that the film almost seems to revel in the abuse heaped on poor Lisbeth Salander (who I find myself wanting to call Lisander), albeit so it can revel in her turning the tables on her abusers: it occurred to me that this a story about violence against women, as explored by men, for men. I think it annoyed me that Lisbeth, despite being the Girl of the title, was more of an object in the narrative, acted upon, than the subject or point of view character I'd have preferred.

But that may be part of the strategy. There's a lot of material about rape and misogyny that's already directed at female audiences. Here, Mikael is the identification character for the audience, and he comes to understand how bad the situation is for some women via the literal mystery (in mystery novel terms) of what happened to Harriet, and the mystery (in more psychological terms) of what happened to Lisbeth.

I was reminded of those days in the '80s-'90s when there was a lot of academic furor over misogyny, with women reading Andrea Dworkin, and arguing that all men are rapists. Well, all men aren't rapists; all sex isn't rape. But rape and violence do exist, and in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the protagonists are decent men who aren't rapists or killers themselves, but are forced to confront the evil committed by other men. The two prominent women in the story have faced it directly (and it's probably on purpose that those women are so different, one being a social outcast, the other growing up rich and privileged). The two men (the sympathetic friend/lover Lisbeth finds, and the kind, nurturing relative who couldn't imagine the abuse suffered by his beloved niece) have to learn about it, and align themselves with the women against evil.

If misogyny and violence against women are part of a society, it's because the society tolerates it in some ways, to some extent. There's almost certainly some symbolic value in the fact that here, the killer didn't flounder into this out of alienation or general psychological traumas. He was literally taught that women were his to abuse and kill. So the metaphors are about the responsibility of men within the society.

Also, sadly, most people aren't motivated so much by abstractions. They almost always care more about things that affect them directly, or could. Which is why women are generally more aware of violence against women, and for men, a good motivational starting point for their concern is the fact that it could happen to women they care about.

Obviously, with this kind of discourse, this wasn't a feel-good film that I'll be re-watching for entertainment value. If you're up for a grim, well-crafted movie with Swedish subtitles, then go for it. I'll add that star Noomi Rapace was really great in the title role, and none of the American actresses whose names are being thrown around for an American remake seem in any way up to her level. We'll see...

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Natural History of the Apocalypse? (with slightly unnerved postscript)

Part the First, started sometime last week:

I've been reading Cao Xueqin's The Story of the Stone/The Dream of the Red Chamber, and have oddly discovered that one of the primary themes of this enormous 18th-century Chinese novel is much the same as that of Anna Akhmatova's brilliant "Poem Without a Hero" (1942). Then I realized it also has a lot in common with the story of Marie Antoinette (since I just re-watched the movie last weekend, it's fresh in my memory), with Le Morte D'Arthur, with the chunk of the Bhagavad Gita I read most recently, with medieval Christian apocalyptic theology, and with the post-apocalyptic sci-fi of which I am so fond.

To put it in its most reductive terms, let's throw in Shakespeare (from Cymbeline): "Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust." Or as one the few truly famous 20th-century American poets put it, "So Eden sank to grief/So dawn goes down to day./Nothing gold can stay." (Robert Frost, from the poem aptly titled "Nothing Gold Can Stay").

Or a personal favorite, from Gerard Manley Hopkins: "It is the blight that man was born for."

Then I was doing a little research on the fossil-hunters of the Victorian age (inspired largely by reading Dry Storeroom No. 1: the Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, by Robert Fortey), and that got me thinking about evolution. I don't know enough to argue the science coherently, except to say that I don't think there's any inherent contradiction between science and faith, so let's leave that to the side. Whether an attribute and/or instinct was put into us by our creation by a divine force, by the workings of evolution, or by a divine force working through science, is a question I can never know the answer to, although I personally tend to agree with Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason. That is, if there is a God, what we can "know" about him (as opposed to "believe") is through what he created, and whatever we learn from an objective scientific study of the natural world can only tell us more about that God and his intentions. (Use of male gender based on Methodist Sunday school, and morning laziness).

Now, just like with fossils: if you find the same themes recurring in completely different times and/or places, that's got to be meaningful. And we do find this recognition -- that everything passes away, no matter how immense or solid it seems -- in art from various time periods, from all over the world. So what popped into my head, from these trains of thought, is that perhaps human beings, in all times and places, have an instinctual understanding of entropy. Just like we seem to have some half-n-half conception of ourselves as individuals and as members of a group (neither lone animals, nor hive ones, but a hybrid: partly devoted to our own selfish self-interest, partly trying to connect with something "more" outside ourselves), the knowledge that nothing can last seems (practically) universal.

(That "practically" is there because, if I learned nothing else from literary study, it's the need for disclaimers!)

Of course, one doesn't really have to posit an actual "entropic instinct" shared by human animals to explain this. But it's fun to do: just like Freud with his "death drive," which is another way of saying the same thing. Where he saw a "drive," though, I just see people who have seen the reality of the situation, and are trying to deal with it in a world that tries to ignore that reality.

In lieu of an actual instinct, all it really takes is observant people of some sensitivity, looking at the world around them. People and animals age and die. The works of human technology -- buildings, roads, monuments -- are subject to time and the weather. Even certain individuals live in a historical period of relative stability, there are records of other places and times, folk tales set in bygone "once upon a times," family histories passed down -- something that will tell them that things have changed.

Certainly the Bible, from the Garden of Eden on, is full of examples to teach the unwary about the instability of nations and traditions. This is relevant because something like The Story of the Stone or Le Morte D'Arthur is about more than the personal entropy of loss and change (although they're there too): they're about the fact that there's a macrocosm, in which societies, nations, empires, all rise and fall and change, sometimes evolving into something totally different, sometimes disappearing altogether.

But despite the omnipresence of entropy in art and literature, both individuals and their larger societies tend to motivate themselves by repressing this fact, in small ways and large, operating as if they'll last forever, until it becomes impossible not to face it. Having this kind of doublethink in their minds, though, doesn't mean that, on some level, people don't realize the truth. Some individuals and some societies come up with ways to bridge this gap in relatively healthy ways. And some don't.

Personally, I’d say that right now we're living in a time when a lot of people are not dealing in a positive way with this inherent fact of human existence. Despite social choices that have accelerated the rate of change into a crazy whirligig of novelty, and a fetishization of change in the business world, too many people still seem to sincerely believe that certain of the underlying principles and structures they believe in exist as some kind of immutable law: just for one topical one, the idea that people of a certain social class, or race, or nationality will continue to be dominant, reaping certain benefits that others don't.

Part the Second:

I had this big chunk all written up, but realized I didn't have any conclusion to make about anything. So I set it aside temporarily. When I'd been talking about all the different places I've come across the theme of the impermanence of everything, no matter how solid it seems, I remembered a line of poetry, but had to track down which of my many books it was in, to cite the source. It's from Tulsidas, in Songs of the Saints of India:

"Many houses have collapsed;
Many houses are collapsing;
Many houses will collapse.
Says Tulsi, this is a bad way to be --
To see this and hear this and know this
And not let it really sink in." (p. 170)

So on Friday, before I got the correct Tulsidas quote into Part One, and before I could concoct some kind of point to the preceding, my home town was devastated by a tornado. The official pronouncement: "NOAA said tornado was EF4, with peak winds over 170 mph. The damage path was 1.1 miles wide, 10 miles long." Frankly, ten miles is about the length of the whole town!

Everyone who's there has said the photos don't even begin to show the scale of the destruction, but here's some photos from the local newspaper. If you scroll through, you'll see the one that really gives me a sense of perspective: "Wadena’s pool is reduced to rubble." That's where I learned to swim. Whoa! Unfortunately, the shots of all the trees and headstones knocked down at the cemetery, where I spent so many happy hours, are all on Facebook, and thus inaccessible from without. (NOTE: Yes, there were photos at the time, but I was being all ethical by not copying the photo, but now it's unavailable. Dead link. Argh!)

At any rate, I could hardly have asked for a better illustration of the theme that "houses are collapsing," however much we try not to let that fact sink in. Excuse me while I go compose a blog post about how some people win fortunes in the lottery and use it all to do good works, with no ill effects to anyone!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Internet Rumor Starts Here

Flipping through recent back issues of Entertainment Weekly with my morning coffee, I came across the startling news that there are TWO film versions of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in the works right now. One is being produced by Disney, with David Fincher attached to direct (and let us ponder how strange the juxtaposition of Disney and David Fincher would once have seemed). The other is a co-production by brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, with a script by the Clash of the Titans remake writer, and possibly directed by the guy who did Wanted (two movies I've never had the slightest interest in seeing).

So far, there's no word on the all-important casting of Captain Nemo (but thank Rishi and all else that is holy in life that the rumored starring of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has been debunked). Last summer, I pondered this very question, of who could play a "deeply embittered, morally ambiguous genius somewhere between the ages of 35 and 50," one the audience will be sympathetic toward, and who's described in the book as much finer-looking than I imagined from previous film versions.

Sometimes, the laziest and most obvious answer is, in fact, correct: I'm going to make a stand now that if one of these productions doesn't at least consider Shah Rukh Khan for the role, they are freakin' crazy people. He's the right age; he's got the right look; we know his English is fluent; and based on the more dramatic and/or straight-faced roles in his oeuvre, he could be totally awesome! Sure, people, take the gushing fangirl seriously....

But really! There's also the built-in appeal of having an iconic Indian character from classic European literature being played by an such an iconic Indian actor. SRK can do sympathetic, he can do morally ambiguous anti-heroic, and he can certainly do larger than life. If he weren't interested, having gotten his own sci-fi extravaganza off the ground, that's one thing -- but come on, someone should at least try.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

From the Forgotten Tales of Conan the Librarian

A little private joke I threw together for the Nerd/Geek Pride Day they're having on Facebook. If you don't know who Conan the Librarian is: dude, get yourself to UHF!

The Illyrian warrior stepped warily into the cavernous antechamber, where a ghoulish pall already hung over the Borrowing Tab. Broadsword at her side, bejeweled dagger at the ready, she faced the first round of battle. Her face set in grim determination as she scrolled through the symbols and counted her foes, those items that were in the "New" and "Waiting for Process" statuses even though they were owned by her own library.

There was no way to know what kind of enemies she was dealing with, save testing them one by one. The sound of steel rang out in the Borrowing Queue as she hacked and slashed in a frenzy of bloodlust, copy and pasting, first in the Interlibrary Loan module, then in Circulation, piercing to the very heart of the matter: which items were available, which lost or missing in battle. With the panther-like speed of one seasoned in the arts of database war, she toggled to the Word document on which her text was saved.

Straining with every ounce of her enormous strength, she continued to copy and paste, and a red mist rose over her eyes as she furiously clicked the "Print" keys to generate mildly-phrased letters to say "We cannot order items through Interlibrary Loan that are owned by the library. You may place this item on hold." Then one by one, her foes laid defeated before her, she delivered the clean killing stroke of "Delete."

Wary of the time that had already passed, and how far into the cavernous reaches of the module she must traverse before the break of day, she wielded her highlighter swiftly, folded and stuffed the envelopes, and put them hurriedly aside. Later she must face the bloody jaws of the postal meter, which had driven many brave men into a screaming frenzy of insanity from which they had not returned.

But the time was not yet for that task, nor the others that lay before her: the Lending Requests, the OCLC Requests, the Incoming Mail, each weirder and more harrowing than the one before. She wiped the blood from her dagger against her strong thigh, and was about to pass into the next dim chamber when her eye was caught by a fleeting slither flickering in the queue, and she discovered a new foe, camouflaged in the shadows as "Locate in Progress."

She recognized Now That's What I Call Music 31. They had met before, in the crimson-soaked battlegrounds of CD labeling. This was also an item owned by the library, and not eligible for Interlibrary Loan. The warrior cursed beneath her breath. Could it be because the mystical sigils of the ISBN were not attached to the record? But no CD was destined to bear the mark of the ISBN tattooed upon its flesh...

Not only must this request be slain, but the fight would not be over even then. For she must yet face -- the Help Ticket of Doom!

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Old School

"We cannot learn from doing anything right. We already know how to do it."
-- Systems Thinking guru Russell Ackoff

My recent attempts to belatedly learn something about technology, through the McGuffin of my amateur radio license, have led me to some pondering that, well, at least gets me onto the verbal and theoretical footing I'm more comfortable with. Slightly ironic, considering the subject du jour.

What happened is, one day my honey and I stopped at a used bookstore (and yes, my supposed book-buying fast is still in effect, so not truly wise), where I picked up a copy of Basic Physics: A Self-Teaching Guide, by Karl F. Kuhn. I had read reviews of this very book on Amazon, where the top review (by a reviewer I definitely voted "helpful") described it thusly:

"Dr Kuhn has made a somewhat different approach to the usual methods of teaching physics.
1) Mathematically (formulas!)
2) Conceptually (no mathematics, just ideas, more like 'popular science')...He has sought a pedagogically stronger middle ground (balancing act) between these two methods ... especially in the minds of those who can't do mathematics very well but communicate well, or do mathematics very well and not the communicating thing very well."

That made me think this would be a good text for me, and that's definitely going to be relevant later on.

I started slowly, and much to my surprise, kind of halfway understood the concepts. However, at one point, I had to go back a few pages and re-read the formula for acceleration with gravity. When I did this, I felt a completely disproportionate sense of discouragement, as if it proved I was never going to learn this stuff, and it was probably hopeless. Basically, because I hadn't instantly memorized something I was previously unfamiliar with. Fortunately, I recognized this thought as insane, and then asked: where on earth would I get an idea like that?

Well, how about my entire educational experience?

So, in today's edition of "Anarchivist solves the world's problems," we're going to look at aspects of the American public educational system, at least as it exists in much of "middle America." (That is: what goes on in those private schools or charter schools or what have you, I'm not in a position to judge).

1. Much of our educational system rewards us for what comes easily to us, and doesn't support our learning what doesn't.

The current educational system skews us heavily toward the things we have a "knack," or a natural aptitude, for. That steers us into studying what comes easily, staying within a comfort zone, and doesn't reward us for taking chances, or attempting things that are more difficult.

If you have the knack for something, a natural aptitude, it's like having an ear for music. You know what sounds right and what doesn't. You can start picking a subject up pretty easily, and it's easier to integrate the new material with what you already know -- clearly a boon for learning.

If you don't have the knack for something, the introductory material will already stymie you. Most learning builds on information. If you didn't understand the concept on the first day, the second day is only going to get harder, because the lack of understanding is cumulative. And in too much of the modern American educational system, there's no time: the material is generally presented en mass to a group of students with diverse knacks, abilities, and levels of previous learning. Something is scrawled on the blackboard, and students either "get it" in the beginning or they don't, but either way, the teacher has to move on. Except in rare and lucky cases, if students don't "get it" immediately, they're screwed, because they're never going to have any leisure time to catch up.

Because of this tendency to immediately fall behind, I think too many of us assume that if we can't do something right immediately, we're doomed to fail at it. We don't believe we can apply ourselves and learn, and we don't learn the value of doing so. We give up too quickly. And we label ourselves by possibly insignificant experiences (maybe we just had teachers who mumbled on the first day!) as if we know something essential, and flawed, about ourselves.

2. Teachers of a particular subject are generally people who have a knack for that subject: it came easily to them (relatively), and they won't relate to the problems of students who don't have the knack.

Now, as I get into discussing teachers, I'm not saying it's easy for people to acquire substantial knowledge in their fields. Even people with a natural aptitude have to study and apply themselves to really master their subjects. But if they already have the knack, it's significantly easier than if they don't.

For students who don't have any knack at all for a particular subject, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the material is mainly being taught by people who excelled in their subjects, or had a natural interest. By and large, Math is taught by people who get math, and English is taught by people who get English. But the knack itself can't be taught -- it has nothing to do with teaching or learning. And it tends to be difficult for people who have the knack to communicate their subject to people who don't.

That's why my memory of math classes consists of someone rattling off some verbal information, writing a formula on the blackboard, and then saying, "You see how I got that, right?" They might as well have speaking Sanskrit for all I got out of it, and today, if they did, I'd have more of a fighting chance that at least something would sound halfway familiar.

I don't blame them, because when I briefly taught English composition and literature, I had no advice to give to students who had a hard time with the basics. I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books, heavily motivated to learn to read; I had older sisters who helped me out whenever I had a question; and I had a natural aptitude. I don't know how I learned to spell, or why I easily picked up how to use grammar and sentence structure. That kind of thing just came naturally to me, and fell into place.

3. All of this creates an artificial divide between people who have the knack and those who don't.

Or to put it another way, between people with a knack for one thing and people with a knack for something else. The classes we took, especially the crucial introductory ones, contained a mixture of people with different aptitudes. So some of the students would get it and excel, others wouldn't and would fail, while everyone watched. I think these experiences led, again, too many of us to divide ourselves up into people who get math and ones who don't, ones who are good with words and ones who aren't. And that kind of self-defeating self-definition is a terrible attitude for learning. Once you say "I just can't do math," you feel doomed to failure, so the motivation to try to learn is hard to come by.

The distinction is really between people who'll get it more or less easily. The fact that you did or not grasp a particular subject or concept immediately doesn't say anything essential about who you are, or how intelligent you are.

Now, the idea of an animosity between groups on the basis of this difference is clearly absurd, and yet it's all too common. I've met my share of academics who were privately disdainful of blue-collar work (where people are sometimes crazy-smart in technical subjects), and more than my share of people who are prejudiced against the book-learned.

Much more might be learned by combining disciplines, and by individuals learning outside what comes easily to them.

Because I more or less randomly decided to get a ham radio license, it forced me to learn something about subjects that I've always been interested in, but was discouraged from pursuing. I very much do not have a knack for gadgets, or for the kind of practical scientific knowledge that most of the radio folks take for granted. But because I wanted to, and began to apply myself, I now find myself in the club meetings with a roomful of people who can be handed some specs and discuss the technical ins and outs of different antennas. For my entire previous life, something like this would have seemed impossible; unthinkable, even. On the one hand, I feel like a poser, but on the other, like I'm overcoming a divide that was put between us at an early age, which now seems foolish and, more than anything else, wasteful.

Obviously, there are motivated individuals who overcome the obstacles and become well-rounded, and thank goodness! And it's certainly possible to meet individuals with different interests and skills, from different walks of life, in various ways. But when one considers our disciplines, the realms where those interests and skills are used, it's often as if they exist in completely separate, parallel worlds. However, the electric company and the poetry reading both exist in the same world: one which has grown increasingly complex, full of almost unfathomable interconnections. Trying to make sense of it, and really solving its problems (as opposed to, say, blogging) will almost certainly require skills from all across the spectrum. The kind of artificially induced segmentation that I experienced, and which I still see all over in society, is totally counterproductive.

So, new law: no more beating myself up for how long it takes to learn things. अच्छा!