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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bread and Circuses

Pollice Verso, by  Jean-Léon Gérôme
In my one of my periodic forays into autodidacticism, I've been reading and watching a lot about ancient Rome, in particular the aspect of Roman life known as the munera, which included the savage spectacle of gladiatorial battles. Over the next weeks there will be several entries here looking at books, TV series, and movies that covered the topic. I started by reading two books: Gladiators, History's Most Deadly Sport, by Fik Meijer, and Gladiators and Caesars, a text accompany an exhibition of artifacts at the British Museum, edited by Eckart Kohne and Cornelia Ewigleben.

A few facts: the first games, known as the ludi romani, were held in 509 B.C. in honor of the dedication of the great temple of Jupiter. The first gladiatorial games in Rome were held in 264, after the end of the Samnite War. The samnites were a people occupying the East portion of Italy across the Appenines, and the prisoners of war made up many of the gladiators. There were other sports involved in the games, including chariot races and hunts, but gladiators seem to hold the most attention in our modern view, perhaps because we can both look back at them in horror at their brutality, but also in a kind of secret, shameful fascination, since all cultures have adapted the concept in some way or another. Today they have developed into the sports of boxing and mixed martial arts, or the televised spectacle of reality show contests like Survivor or Wipeout. There was even a show called American Gladiators. Nobody really gets hurt, but we take delight in the contestants indignation and humiliation.

But the Romans were brutal, and the crowds loved it. The Roman satirist Juvenal summed up the reason for their existence: "Because, for such a long time now, ever since we sold our right to vote for nothing in return, the thought of continuing to allocate all the important posts in the state or the army the way we used to leaves us cold--no, people keep their heads down and ask for just two things: bread and circuses."

Meijer's book is a quick read, and not academic at all. He is highly detailed but always lucid. After deploring the violence of the Romans in his prologue, he points out that we can't really judge them in today's standards. Frankly, some of the things the Romans did would probably be acceptable to modern man. In a typical day of games, the morning would be spent with the hunt, or with animals fighting animals; i.e., a bull chained to a bear. The floor of the arena would be littered with thousands of animal corpses. PETA, if it had existed, would have had a collective seizure. But given that the pastime of hunting, long after it has become necessary for survival (for most people) is still popular, I'm sure many Americans would love to see that.

As Kohne points out, "From a modern viewpoint it is difficult to understand the enthusiasm left by the Romans for the bloody spectacle that will be described later in this book. However, we should not forget that our horror of watching the torture of human beings is an attitude that has arisen relatively late in the history of civilization, developing only slowly. Public torture and public executions were part of everyday life in many cultures, not least in Europe during the Middle Ages, and indeed, until quite recently, in the modern period."

At lunchtime, the executions would happen. Convicted murderers, etc. would be led out, tied together at the neck. They would be killed in a variety of ways, but most vividly they would be left for animals like leopards to rip them to shreds, while the crowds roared their approvals. Again, I'm sure you could find a segment of the population that would favor this even in today's world.

Then came the gladiator games. It was much more codified than we might imagine. For instance, there were different types of gladiators. They came from a variety of places--mostly prisoners, captured enemies, or even volunteers, but each had a style of fighting that they never changed. For example, a thraex (named after Thrace, a Roman province in what is now Bulgaria) fought with a round shield and a short curved sword. A murmillo had a rectangular shield. They were often combatants, but a thraex never fought another thraex. Later, in the imperial period, the retiarus was developed. He wore little armor (the others were helmeted, and wore armor on their shins and sword arm) and carried a net and a trident.

Gladiators and Caesars has many useful photographs of reenactors wearing the costumes of the various types of gladiators. They always stuck with their type. Some of them became quite famous and were sort of matinee idols for the ladies. They didn't fight very often--games were only held two or three times a year--and of course their survival record was not great. Statistics were kept, which today we know by epitaphs on gladiator tombs--they were almost like the back of a baseball player's bubble-gum card. A gladiator named Asteropaeus had no less than 107 victories.

Gladiators and Caesars also covers more than gladiator fights. Chapters cover Roman boxing, and an interesting chapter on chariot races uses the famous scene from Ben Hur as a starting point (of course much of it is inaccurate, but the writer urges us not to dismiss the excitement of the scene). The charioteers were divided into teams signified by color: red, green, blue and white. Fans rooted vociferously for a particular color (Caligula was a green fan), and even if racers switched teams the fans stuck with their color, which shows that Jerry Seinfeld's joke about modern sports fans rooting for clothes has ancient origins.

The book also covers Roman drama. I was a drama major in college, but I don't believe I've ever read a Roman play, as most ancient drama courses were dominated by the Greeks. Only three Roman playwrights have work that exists today: Plautus, Terence, and Seneca. I've ordered some books and hope to rectify my hole in that particular discipline.

Meijer also talks about movies, and novels as well. A few 19th-century books captured the romanticism of the sport, such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii and Henry Sienckewicz's Quo Vadis?, which focuses on the reign of Nero, when Christians were used as bait in the arena. He also focuses on two films: Spartacus and Gladiator. He likes Spartacus better, but points out a few problems, such as that Woody Strode's character is a retiarus, but they were only developed during the imperial period (Spartacus' revolt took place during the Republic). He is more hard on Ridley Scott's Gladiator, pointing out that the Latin is wrong in many places, and that the games were not depicted correctly--Russell Crowe's Maximus would have never had to fight men and a tiger at the same time. There's also the problem of the depiction of the emperor Commodus. Although he did like to take to the ring, he was not the weakling that Joaquin Phoenix portrayed. Nor did he kill his father, and he did not die in the arena. He ruled for 12 years and was assassinated.

The first film I'll be seeing in this period is The Fall of the Roman Empire, from 1964. It was in part inspired by the famous painting Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), by Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1872. Most scholars find it to be mostly accurate, as the victorious gladiator seeks the opinion of the crowd as to whether to kill his vanquished foe, who is raising his fingers in a plea for mercy. The vestal virgins are showing thumbs down, which is thought to be a call for death, but this is disputed. Some think the call for death was thumbs up, or a thumb thrust to the chest, which might mime a death blow.

The gladiator games ended when the Roman Empire dissipated, sometime around the sixth century A.D. Constantine had converted to Christianity, and the city had been sacked by Goths and Vandals. But their existence still fires our imaginations. Just take a look at the wildly popular The Hunger Games, which is a dystopian descendant of the concept. Bread and circuses has been a governmental strategy ever since, and probably always will be.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Curse of the Faceless Man

This Edward L. Cahn film from 1958 is basically a mummy flick, but with a historical twist. Instead of a bandage-encased, slow-moving guy from Egypt, this is a stone-encased, slow-moving guy from Pompeii.

The story begins with a workman excavating the Pompeii site (for those who don't know, Pompeii was destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79, and was discovered centuries later almost intact, as everything was sort of frozen in place by ash and stone). He finds a box of jewels, and then an entire corpse, covered in stone. Things start to get funky when a truck carrying him to the museum crashes, and the blood of the driver is found on stone-guys hands.

A medical doctor (Richard Anderson, best known to TV viewers as Oscar Goldman from The Six-Million Dollar Man) is called in to analyze the body. His girlfriend (Elaine Edwards), is having strange dreams about the faceless man. Over the course of the film we will find out that the man was an Etruscan slave and gladiator, who cursed his enslavers. He was in love with the noblewoman who owned him, who bears a striking resemblance to Edwards.

This is in many ways a typical mummy movie. The monster moves about as fast as molasses, is super strong and impervious to bullets but, like the Wicked Witch of the West, doesn't fare well with water. The suspense is not high, nor are the thrills plentiful. Those with an interest in Ancient Rome will recognize that the writer, Jerome Bixby, at least got his facts right.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Invisible Invaders

Are you cash-strapped while making your sci-fi flick? Try what Edward L. Cahn did with 1959's Invisible Invaders, and make your monsters completely transparent!

The premise of this silly but kitschy film is that there has been a race of invisible creatures living on the moon. They have paid the Earth no attention until they've started shooting rockets into space. Now they want to conquer us. Resistance, as they usually say, is futile, since the creatures and their ships are invisible. We have 24 hours to surrender or face total destruction.

These beings, in order to be seen, inhabit the corpses of humans. Therefore, we get the initial warning from the reanimated corpse of John Carradine, a scientist that was presumably blown to pieces in a lab accident, complete with mushroom cloud. His body is in remarkably good condition, considering. But, instead of going to, say, the president of the Unites States, he takes his warning to a top scientist and member of the Atomic Energy Commission. Of course, he is regarded as crazy ("I'm telling you, the corpse of John Carradine told me invisible monsters are going to attack us!").

So then the destruction starts, and amusingly it's all done with stock footage, mostly of bridges and buildings being demolished. The powers of Earth are now taking things seriously, and the scientist (Phillip Tonge,) his daughter (Jean Byron), a colleague (Robert Hutton) and a buff major (John Agar, a familiar face in '50s B-movies) are trapped in an underground bunker until they figure out how to kill the creatures. It turns how to be highly concentrated sound, which prefigures the Martians in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, who are killed by the music of Slim Whitman.

This is campy fun, especially since the invaders are so stupid. Instead of sneaking around, invisible as they are, they keep popping into corpses and walking around like zombies, which make they easy to catch. This reminds me of the Woody Allen stand up routine in which he tells us about a sci-fi story he came up with: the Earth is conquered by a superior alien race, and we are all forced into the dry cleaning business. But the aliens are foiled when they come a billion light years to pick up their laundry and forget their ticket.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Venus in Fur

Last weekend I saw an excellent play by David Ives at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway. Venus in Fur is a erotic, intellectual meditation on the politics of sexual domination, combining the sexual mores of today, a classic of erotica from the Victorian era, and the goddesses of antiquity.

There are only two characters in the play, which has only one scene without intermission. A playwright and director (Hugh Dancy) is disgusted by the lack of quality actresses he has seen to cast his play, an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Fur (usually it is known of as "Venus in Furs," like the Velvet Underground song, but Dancy's character insists it is Fur, singular). He is on his cell phone with his fiancee as thunder and lightning rage outside the small rented studio he has used for the audition: "No young women, or young-ish women. No beautiful-slash-sexy women. No sexy-slash-articular women with some classical training and a particle of brain in their skulls."

He is ready to pack up and leave when Vanda (Nina Arianda) busts through the door, wearing S&M clothing and full of excuses about rain, late subways, and frottage on the train. She is like a bull in a china shop, and not even performing Hedda Gabler at the Urinal Theater impresses Dancy. She seems to epitomize every stereotype about dumb actresses, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and The Bacchae need to be explained to her. But she is such a force of nature that she persuades Dancy to read with her.

It soon becomes apparent that she knows the play better than he thought she did, as she is able to recite lines off book. The character's name from Sacher-Masoch's book is also called Vanda, and they read together through much of the action, a play-within-a-play. The book is about a man who longs to be dominated by a woman, and Vanda takes him up on it, though the essence of power is ambiguous (not ambivalent, as Arianda frequently misstates). As Arianda points out, "He keeps saying she's got all this power over him. But he's the one with the power, not her. The more he submits, the more control he's got over her. It's weird." I can attest to that, as when I wrote for Penthouse Variations, which often featured tales of both male and female domination, the submissive partner is actually the one in control--it's called "topping from below."

When Arianda is playing the Sacher-Masoch Vanda she purrs with a Teutonic accent, and Dancy slowly becomes transfixed. Slowly, inexorably, the power shifts, and Arianda owns the upper hand. Soon he is begging her to stay and read to the end, and he ends up taking off her boots and putting on thigh-high leather boots that can be found in any dominatrix's dungeon in New York City. It's a quiet but electrifying moment.

Ives is clearly an erudite fellow. I wonder, totally without any knowledge, whether he considered adapting Sacher-Masoch's book (written in 1870, it was a sensation, considered pornography, and the author's name gave us the word "masochism") as a stage play, but like Charlie Kaufman trying to adapt The Orchid Thief, and ending up writing a movie about a writer trying to adapt the book (and getting Adaptation out of it), Ives ended up with this more interesting hybrid.

As I watched the play, completely enthralled, I wondered where it was going and was taken on many diversions. The actual ending fulfills the dictum that an ending should be inevitable, but unpredictable, and there are clues along the way. A key line is spoken by Arianda early on: "And Vanda really is Venus, right? Am I crazy? She's like Venus in disguise or something, come down to get him. To like, torture him."

Lest you think this is some academic exercise, don't be put off. This has a lot of comic, crowd-pleasing lines, from Arianda's vivid profanity to the line that ends up on the t-shirt for sale in the lobby: "You don't have to tell me about sadomasochism. I'm in the theater."

Under the direction of Walter Bobbie, the performances are great. Dancy is overshadowed by Arianda, but this is has it must be. He is, at heart, ineffectual, and he speaks pedantically but with the underlying fear that he doesn't know what he's talking about. Arianda steals the show, and should win a Tony. She has to play two parts, sometimes going from role to role on a dime--the coarse actress to the sophisticated lady in fur. She excels at both. Arianda is not what one would term a conventional beauty, and indeed when she auditioned for the part it was as it is in the play--an actress trying out for a part she believed she would never get. But Arianda, like Vanda in Venus in Fur, must have wowed them so much they couldn't say no. Keep an eye out for her in future projects, she should be a star.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little in Omaha in 1925, went from small-time hood called Detroit Red to a leader of the Black Muslims. At one time he was considered extremely dangerous by the police and the FBI, but was assassinated on orders by the group that he energized. Eventually his legacy was so transformed that he would appear on a U.S. postage stamp.

Manning Marable, who has sadly passed away since the publication of his carefully researched biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, fascinatingly recreates Malcolm's journey. Not only do we get an understanding of the man, but we also get many details left out of the landmark The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Hailey, which was published after Malcolm's murder, and went a long way in crafting his legacy. In addition, Marable gives us a history of the Black Muslim movement that traces back to the 1830s.

Malcolm's parents were Marcus Garveyites, followers of the man who pushed for black repatriation to Africa. They moved around quite a bit, but Malcolm mostly grew up in Michigan. His father died under mysterious circumstances (likely murdered), and his mother was institutionalized. He ended up jailed for minor crimes, and went by the nickname "Detroit Red." It was in the late '40s that he found Islam, and he would devote his life to it.

The leader of the Nation of Islam was Elijah Muhammad, who was considered a prophet by his followers. Malcolm became one of his greatest acolytes, founding mosques in several cities, including Mosque No. 7 in New York City. As Marable notes, "What made him truly original was that he presented himself as the embodiment of the two central figures of African-American folk culture, simultaneously the hustler/trickster and the preacher/minister." Marable also writes, "He was a truly historical figure in the sense that, more than any of his contemporaries, he embodied the spirit, vitality, and political mood of an entire population--black urban mid-twentieth century America." Marable also points out that the other side of the black civil rights movement, led my Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was predominantly led by the black middle-class who had grown up in small towns in the South.

Malcolm viewed these leaders as Uncle Toms. "The NOI could not imagine a political future where Jim Crow segregation would ever become outlawed. Consequently, Malcolm concluded, 'the advantage of this is the Southern black man never has been under any illusions about the opposition he is dealing with.' Since white supremacy would always be a reality, blacks were better off reaching a working relationship with racist whites rather than allying themselves with Northern liberals. This was a tragic replay of Garvey's disastrous thesis that culminated in his overtures to white supremacist organizations." Indeed, Malcolm would meet with the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell.

But the FBI misjudged the Nation's intentions: "The FBI never understood that the NOI did not seek the destruction of America's legal and socioeconomic institutions; the Black Muslims were not radicals, but profound conservatives under Muhammad. They praised capitalism, so long as it served what they deemed blacks' interests. Their fundamental mistake was their unshakable belief that whites as a group would never transcend their hatred of blacks. The FBI also viewed the Islamic elements of the Nation as fraudulent. As a result, the Bureau never grasped the underlying concerns that motivated Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, and how both men had constructed a dynamic organization that attracted the membership of tens of thousands of African Americans and the admiration of millions more."

Malcolm would become a national pariah in the white world after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when he said that "the chickens have come home to roost." This was a direct violation of Muhammad's entreaty that Malcolm avoid criticizing the government and Kennedy in particular. It was the beginning of a schism between Muhammad and Malcolm that would cost the latter his life.

His change was formed by two things: Muhammad's serial philandering, and Malcolm's travels through the Muslim world. Muhammad was a chronic exploiter of young women in the Nation--at one point he fathered four illegitimate children in one calendar year. Perhaps his impregnating Malcolm's old flame Evelyn Williams got under Malcolm's skin the most. Malcolm began blasting the leader for his distinctly non-Islamic ways, and broke with the Nation to found his own group.

But perhaps even more grating was Malcolm's realization that the Nation was not espousing true Muslim tenets. He made a hajj to Mecca, and visited many countries in Africa and the Middle East. He came to new conclusions: "I have eaten from the same plate, drank from the same glass, slept on the same bed or rug, while praying to the same God...with fellow Muslims whose skin was the whitest of white, whose eyes were the bluest of blue...[for] the first time in my life...I didn't see them as 'white men.'"

This was not welcomed in the Nation of Islam. "Most of Muhammad's family and the Chicago secretariat opposed Malcolm for two basic reasons. First, they were convinced that he coveted the Messenger's position: that once Elijah was incapacitated, or dead, Malcolm would easily take command. Their material benefits derived from being the 'royal family' would abruptly end. But equally important was the second reason: Malcolm's militant politics of 1962-63 represented a radical break with the Nation of Islam's apolitical black nationalism."

And angering the NOI could be deadly: "Punishment ran from simple beatings for routine transgressions to far, far worse. Elijah Muhammad, Jr.s stern reminder to the Fruit that 'in the old days' brothers who stepped out of line had been killed was inaccurate only its suggestion that such punishment remained in the past."

Marable points out that plans to kill Malcolm had been hatching for nearly a year before the date of his assassination, February 21, 1965, while giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Marable creates an exciting, novelistic moment-by-moment recreation of that day, and comes to the concrete conclusion that it was the NOI that murdered him. However, he also points that the police had no interest in solving the crime, and in fact sent innocent men to jail for it. There are unsolved mysteries: why did Malcolm have no bodyguards on the stage with him, and why did the bodyguard who shot one of the shooters (the only one who was correctly convicted) subsequently disappear?

Like many men who fell in the 1960s, Malcolm's death invites a host of sorrowful "what-ifs." "His new political goals, he went on, were firmly within the civil rights mainstream. 'I am not anti-American, un-American, seditious nor subversive. I don't buy the anti-capitalist propaganda of the communist, nor do I buy the anti-communist propaganda of capitalists." "Malcolm now claimed that God embraced Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike--'We all believe in the same God'--and denied that whites were 'devils,' insisting 'this is what Elijah Muhammad teaches...A man should not be judged by the color of his skin but rather by his conscious behavior, by his actions.' Malcolm explicitly rejected the separatist political demand for a black state or nation, stating, 'I believe in a society in which people can live like human beings on the basis of equality.'" Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. met only once, but imagine what they could have accomplished together.

Marable's book is never less than fascinating, but is not a hagiography. He goes into depressing detail about Malcolm's marriage to Betty Shabazz, who was saddled with several small children and a husband who was hardly ever home and perhaps cheated on her. Marable is also hard on Malcolm consorting with white supremacists: "To sit down with white supremacists to negotiate common interests, at a moment in black history when the KKK was harassing, victimizing, and even killing civil rights workers and ordinary black citizens, was despicable. Malcolm's apologetics about negotiating with white racists were insufficient."

But clearly Marable ultimately admires the man. "A deep respect for, and a belief in, black humanity was at the heart of this revolutionary visionary's faith. And as his social vision expanded to include people of divergent nationalities and racial identities, his gentle humanism and antiracism could have become a platform for a new kind or radical, global ethnic policies. Instead of the fiery symbol of ethnic violence and religious hatred, as al-Qaeda might project him, Malcolm X should become a representative for hope and human dignity. At least for the African-American people, he has already come to embody those loftier aspirations."

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Muppets

After a 12-year absence from movie houses, the Muppets returned in 2011 with The Muppets, a nostalgic paean to the cultural value of the felt puppets and their gentle satire. Jason Segel, a long-time Muppet fan, co-wrote and stars in the film, and while it did great business and no doubt warmed the hearts of Muppet fans, I found it to be lazy and not very inspired.

The premises is that two brothers, Gary (Segel) and Walter (Peter Linz), are big Muppet fans. That Walter is a Muppet himself is unspoken, a kind of very subtle joke. I was reminded of Steve Martin in The Jerk, who "was born a poor black child." Walter is so obsessed with The Muppets that he tags along on a trip to Los Angeles with Gary and his longtime girlfriend, Amy Adams. They visit the Muppets studio, which is crumbling, and Walter learns that an evil oilman (Chris Cooper) wants to buy the studio and tear it down to drill for oil.

The only way to stop Cooper is to raise ten million dollars so the Muppets can buy it back. Segel, Adams, and Walter find the Muppets, now scattered to the winds, to try to get them to put on a show to raise the money. This part of the film has some nice humor. Kermit is living in a dark mansion like Norma Desmond, but is on board immediately. He finds Fozzie Bear in a Muppets tribute act (called The Moopets). Eventually they track down them all, including the unhinged drummer Animal, now in an anger management program.

The only problem is getting Miss Piggy, now an editor at Vogue in Paris. Of course she will eventually sign on (the on-again off-again love affair with Kermit, which is strangely disturbing to me, given that they are not the same species) finally draws her in. But there's lots of logistical problems, such as getting the old theater in shape, getting a slot on a network, and then securing a celebrity host. Finally it all comes together, after Jack Black is kidnapped and hosts while tied to a chair.

Some of this is funny, most is not. Segel and Adams act in a gee-whiz manner, although a subplot is created when Adams leaves in a huff because Segel won't propose to her, and she has a lamentable musical number called "Me Party." Cooper overacts, and is given an unfortunate opportunity to rap, which I never, ever, want to see him do again.

The Muppets, as might be expected, has numerous cameos, from Dave Grohl to Alan Arkin to James Carville. Small children many enjoy its gentle humor, while Muppet die-hards will no doubt get a lump in their throat when the theme song of the show is played, or when Kermit pulls out a banjo to do "The Rainbow Connection." But for us who find the Muppets an okay diversion, this film disappointed.

The film did win an Oscar for its song, "Man or Muppet," which was sort of an existential look at the identities of Gary and Walter (it turns out that if Walter were a man, he would look like Jim Parsons). A lot was made this year that there were only two nominees in the Best Song category. All I can say is that of the sixty-some finalists, if "Man or Muppet" was one of the two best than the rest must have been abysmal. I'll say it again--it's time to drop this category.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Guns N' Roses

My final look at this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees in Guns N' Roses. I first had to check how their name is properly spelled and punctuated; the copy editor within me notes that an apostrophe should be before and after the n, which should not be capitalized.

Almost everyone under the age of sixty knows who Guns N' Roses are, including me, but I had never paid much attention to them. Of course I was familiar with their biggest hits. I picked up a copy of their greatest hits album and knew almost all of the cuts. I remember driving around the Florida Keys on vacation when their first and most successful album (indeed, the highest selling album in U.S. history) Appetite for Destruction hit it big. Every other song was "Welcome to the Jungle," "Sweet Child O' Mind" (their only number one single) and "Paradise City." These are all good rock songs, but I didn't get any sense of substance from them. They were a step up in sophistication from a  hair metal band, but not on the level of say, the British invasion.

They then suffered from the disease a lot of bands suffer from--they took themselves too seriously. After a second album, they released two records at the same time, called Use Your Illusion I and II. One of the songs on the greatest hits collection from this period is, I think, their best work, "Civil War," which is a poignant anti-war song that cleverly utilizes the famous speech Strother Martin gives from Cool Hand Luke. A sample of the lyrics:

My hands are tied
The billions shift from side to side
And the wars go on with brainwashed pride
For the love of God and our human rights
And all these things are swept aside
By bloody hands time can't deny
And are washed away by your genocide
And history hides the lies of our civil wars


But it also includes their biggest folly, "November Rain," a faux epic that could have been composed for a movie about a rock star like Axl Rose that starts to think he's some sort of genius:

Cause nothin' lasts forever
And we both know hearts can change
And it's hard to hold a candle
In the cold November rain
We've been through this such a long long time
Just tryin' to kill the pain


Yikes! This is the stuff you'd find in a junior high school kid's spiral notebook. I remember when the video, which was unusual in that the song was almost nine minutes long, was ever-present on MTV. Certainly Guns N' Roses was the biggest rock band in America, but I found them to be hollow.

But there's enough on the hits album to make it worthwhile. As stated, the three songs from their first album are small miracles, and "Patience," from their second LP, with its mournful whistling, is a pleasure. They also have a few well-chosen covers: Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," Wings "Live and Let Die" (although it is performed almost note for note as McCartney's original), the doo-wop classic "Since I Don't Have You" (from their album The Spaghetti Incident?) and a dry rendition of the Rolling Stones "Sympathy for the Devil." I will say this, Rose has better elocution than Mick Jagger.

After 1993, the world awaited the next G N' R album, which became almost mythic in its anticipation. I was surprised to read that the record did come out, four years ago! I missed that entirely, as did most of the record-buying public, as it undersold expectations. It was also the most expensively-produced album of all time.

The time for G N' R has clearly passed. They hung in the balance between generic rock band and something great. Rose, the only consistent member, is now 50, and is probably living the life of a tortured but well-compensated artist. They will be a key part of nostalgia for a certain generation that came of age about ten years after I did, as many high school reunions from kids graduating in the late '80s will have DJs spinning "Sweet Child O' Mine." I have no idea if they will ever produce any more music; their output is only six studio albums.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Coincidentally, I have been reading a lot about the gladiator games of ancient Rome. This gave me some additional insight into the film version of The Hunger Games that I was not completely aware of when reading the book. For instance, the name of the nation that has formed out of the ashes of the United States is Panem, which is Latin for bread, recalling the term Juvenal coined, "panem et circenses," (bread and circuses), the strategy of the Roman Empire to keep the people soft and at bay by providing them food and entertainment. The Hunger Games reinforces this by littering Roman names throughout, such as Caesar, Seneca, and Cato.

Following a rebellion, the government of Panem has created the annual hunger games as a means of both punishment and reward. From each of the 12 districts of the nation come two "tributes," aged 12 to 18, selected by lottery, one male, one female. In a large arena they will be pitted against each other until only one is left alive. This will be televised, complete with expert commentary, to the masses. The winner will be feted with riches. Perhaps the best reason for the existence of the games is spoken by the president, (Donald Sutherland): "A little hope can be effective. A lot of hope can be dangerous."

We only see two of the districts. District 12 is in what was Appalachia, full of coal mines and poverty (apparently, Panem forgot about the bread part). Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the daughter of a deceased miner, supplements her meager table by being an expert hunter. Her younger sister is in her first year of eligibility for the games, but her odds are low (like the NBA draft lottery, the system is weighted by certain factors). But indeed the younger sister is chosen, and Lawrence immediately volunteers to take her place.

Also chosen is Peeta Millark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker's son. He has long had an unspoken crush on Katniss, and the two had a moment when he took pity on her and threw her an old piece of bread. As the games go on, they will fall in love, although, intriguingly, they pretend to at first just to make their stories more interesting, which gets them sponsors to provide them extras for the games.

The other place we see is the Capitol, which is in stark contrast. It is kind of an Emerald City, full of wonder where the people wear flamboyantly colorful apparel and wigs. Lawrence and Hutcherson are wined and dined as they are prepared for the games, where they will have a 23 out of 24 chance of dying.

The book, one of a trilogy and a publishing sensation, is for young adults but contains some grown-up ideas, especially about totalitarian governments and the human craving for violence. The author, Suzanne Collins, says she got the idea while flipping channels and seeing, in short order, a reality game show (presumably Survivor) and footage of the Iraq War (one might cynically suggest she had seen the Japanese film Battle Royale, which is in many ways similar).

The film version, directed by Gary Ross, is a disappointment. Like many films based on beloved books, it is reverent to the point of being suffocated by its source material. As with the book, one waits impatiently for the games to begin, as we get a lot of preparation, including exposition on the rules, etc. The film is a bit long at 142 minutes, and could have used some trimming.

Mostly, though, Ross is a bad choice for the material. His milieu is bland, middlebrow entertainment like Seabiscuit, and I suppose the producers of this film simply wanted to make sure no mistakes were made as they reap the whirlwind. The box office and "A" Cinemascore indicates they have done that. But for those of us who expected to be more challenged by the material, Ross is like a musician who hits all the right notes but doesn't get the passion of the piece.

As it is, The Hunger Games is acceptable as a megaplex blockbuster. I'm not sure how those who haven't read the book will respond. For those who have, almost everything is here. Lawrence and Hutcherson are given handlers, including a sort of publicist (Elizabeth Banks), a stylist (Lenny Kravitz), and a mentor (Woody Harrelson), who won the games previously. In his first scene, Harrelson is drunk and expresses no interest in helping the kids, but later will be a kind of comic relief as he exhorts Lawrence to victory. Harrelson is fun to watch, but there's no reason given for his transformation.

I've loved Sutherland since he appeared in MASH, and he does a fine job here of a twinkly yet murderous president, but it's hard to hear his voice anymore without thinking of his ads for airlines and oranges. Stanley Tucci is appropriately over the top as the Ryan Seacrest of the games, adorned in a purple suit and blue wig. As for the leads, Lawrence and Hutcherson are bland. Lawrence physically embodies the role, convincing us that she really could survive in the woods by eating squirrels (one can't help but think back to her in a similar situation in Winter's Bone), but the character is so taciturn that there isn't much call for emotion. In the book she narrates, so there's a lot of internalizing that can't be expressed. Late in the film, though, when Katniss begins to rebel in her own way (such as by adorning one of the fallen children with flowers) we can begin to see Lawrence breaking through a bit.

As for the violence, as in the book, much of it is off-screen. Most of the bloodshed happens in montage. I wasn't particularly impressed with the editing of this scene, nor of the entire film for that matter. Maybe my own blood lust demanded more. But many of the deaths are perpetrated through out-thinking opponents, such as the clever use of a hive of wasps.

I'm sorry that The Hunger Games team didn't take a more daring approach to presenting the material. This will satisfy many, and that's fine, but I would have liked to see more creativity.

My grade for The Hunger Games: C+.

Friday, March 23, 2012

David Copperfield (1935)

After reading David Copperfield, I decided to revisit the classic 1935 version of the film, which I believe I saw many years ago on TV, but can't swear to it. There have been many film and TV adaptations of the book, but this is the best known, directed by George Cukor and featuring many stars. It also, audaciously, adapts a 1,000 page book into a little over two hours and hardly loses a thing.

The film was adapted by Hugh Walpole and Howard Estabrook, who have a lot of condensing to do. The major plot points are there--David is born posthumously, and his starchy aunt Betsey Trotwood (Edna May Oliver) attends the birth but turns on her heels after learning it's a boy. His delicate mother (Elizabeth Allan) dotes on him, but she marries a severe disciplinarian, Mr. Murdstone (Basil Rathbone), who beats the poor boy.

Eventually David's mother dies in childbirth and David is put to work in Murdstone's factory. He's miserable, but he does meet the delightful Mr. Micawber (W.C. Fields, in a casting masterstroke), a verbose gent who is perpetually hounded by creditors. After Micawber is sent to debtor's prison, David runs away, and his taken in by Oliver. The scene in which she decides to keep him away from Murdstone and his equally horrid sister is done resoundingly well.

We then follow David as an adult, where he goes to work for Mr. Wickfield and meets the obsequious Uriah Heep (Roland Young). He will also befriend Wickfield's daughter Agnes (Madge Evans), whom he loves like a sister, but marry the frivolous Dora (Maureen O'Sullivan). In the book, David works for Dora's father, but here he meets her at the ballet, and is aided by his school chum Steerforth, who is introduced in the film much later than the book.

Another plot line will involve Steerforth when he seduces David's childhood friend, Emily, and her uncle, Dan Peggotty (Lionel Barrymore) will search for her.

There's a lot of plot here, and much of the book is left out, but the cuts are judicious. I imagine a multi-episode miniseries covers everything, but Cukor keeps the pace brisk and the dialogue is rich.

Dickens is best known to modern audiences for his characters. We may not remember the plots of the books, but we remember characters like Fagin, The Artful Dodger, Mrs. Havisham, Madame Defarge, Ebenezer Scrooge, etc. David Copperfield has a number of vivid characters, but most notably Betsey Trotwood and Mr. Micawber, and both are given the appropriately larger than life performances they need. Oliver, a character actress of some renown but not great beauty, once answered why she played so many comedic roles with, "With a horse's face, what else could I play?"

The film is buoyed by Fields, though. He is able to play his usual persona without departing from the text, as if Dickens had anticipated him. Originally, the part was to have been played by Charles Laughton, who withdrew. Fields couldn't really do an English accent, so he did his usual drawl and it worked just fine. He was not allowed to ad lib, but the verbosity of the language suits him. For example, as he his arrested for debt: "Copperfield, you perceive before you, the shattered fragments of a temple once call Man. The blossom is blighted. The leaf is withered. The God of Day goes down upon the dreary scene. In short, I am forever floored."

Micawber is an optimist who never allows himself to get too down, and sees promise on the horizon. His worldview is summed up in a way that I think works for all of us: "Annual income, 20 pounds, annual expenditure 19 pounds, result: happiness. Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure, 21 pounds, result: misery."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Godfather

Forty years ago this month The Godfather was released. It had been delayed from a 1971 release, accounting for the unusual opening date (but back then there was less strategy in releasing films for optimal box office). Based on a best-selling book by Mario Puzo, the film quickly became a sensation. I remember a Bob Hope joke at the time: "I was in line for The Godfather and turned to the guy next to me and said, "This is a very long line," and the guy said, "I know, and I'm Marlon Brando."

The film became the highest-grossing film of all time up to that time, but, as the lore suggests, this was not a foregone conclusion. There is considerable material to read and see about how Francis Ford Coppola, the Young Turk hired to translate the material into a film, was almost fired. Coppola had directed four features before this massive one, the most prominent the musical Finian's Rainbow.

The resulting film has been, rightly so, in my opinion, been acclaimed one of the greatest films of all time. It scores a 100 on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, and is rated number 2 on IMDB (inexplicably behind The Shawshank Redemption). To prove, though, that the IMDB rating is meaningless, over 26,000 voters gave The Godfather a 1. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1972 (although Coppola did not win Best Director--Bob Fosse did for Cabaret). Marlon Brando won his second Best Actor Oscar, but, in a classic bit of Oscar history, sent a young actress named Maria Cruz, going by the name Sacheen Littlefeather and dressed like the Indian maiden from the Land O' Lakes butter box, to refuse the Oscar, in protest of the treatment of American Indians in Hollywood films.

I don't proclaim that I can have anything to say about The Godfather that hasn't been said before, other than what it means to me. I classify it as my second all-time favorite movie, though I don't believe I ever saw it in a theater. I did read the book in about seventh grade, and my father, who would go see movies I wasn't old enough for and then tell me the stories, regaled me with its greatness. Eventually I saw the film when it premiered on NBC in the fall of 1974 over two nights. I was transfixed, and have been ever since.

As a teenager, I was fascinated by the structure of the film and the kind of revenge drama that is contained therein. In many ways, the film follows the template of many genre types, from the gangster film to the Western to the Shakespearean tragedy to the Hatfields vs. the McCoys. It is elemental to see two or more opposing forces going to battle, in this case in a shadow world that is both above and below the law. There is also the internecine battles; the sense that no one can be trusted except family. Outsiders are treated with suspicion, and when the chips are down only your family can be relied on (of course, that will be stretched in The Godfather, Part II).

But Coppola's greatest achievement is taking the pulp novel and making it a commentary on the American dream. The opening line is "I believe in America," spoken by the aggrieved undertaker Bonasera, who, unable to find justice from the law in the assault on his daughter, seeks a different authority in Vito Corleone (Brando) to find satisfaction. The very success of Corleone, who we learn in the sequel came to America with nothing, but built an empire, is a twisted version of the American success story. As he says late in the film, "I work my whole life, I don't apologize, to take care of my family, and I refused to be a fool dancing on a string held by all those big shots."

But Vito is behind the times. The hinge of the plot is when Solozzo (Al Lettieri) comes to Corleone to finance his drug racket. Vito doesn't like the idea of narcotics. He believes that his criminal organization does just fine in the union and gambling rackets, providing those things for the common man that the Catholic church denies. But it's 1945, and his hot-headed son Sonny (James Caan) and level-headed adopted son and consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) realize that they must make the transition. But when Vito refuses Solozzo, the drug dealer strikes back, nearly having the Don assassinated and igniting a war.

It is here that the main character of The Godfather, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) emerges. Vito had hoped he would not get involved in the family business. He is a war hero and a straight arrow. But when he sees his father in danger, and since Solozzo sees him as a civilian, Michael realizes he can be the only one to exact vengeance. By the end of the film, he will have transformed into someone even more ruthless than his father.

Pacino was Coppola's choice, though the studio fought hard against it. And though Brando won Best Actor, it is really Pacino's show. Brando, giving a cagey performance, full of tics like stuffing cotton in his cheeks and playing with a stray cat that happened to be on the set in the opening scene, is a pleasure to watch, but Pacino gives the performance of a lifetime. I'll never forget the mixture of indignity and rage on his face after he is frisked by Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). Pacino knows that he will kill McCluskey shortly. Or the chilling scene at the end of the picture, when he confronts his brother-in-law, Carlo, who had set up Sonny for murder. Carlo lies to save his skin, but Pacino, in a blood-curdling tone, says, "Only, don't tell me you're innocent. Because it insults my intelligence and makes me very angry." He says this very calmly, but his intent is clear. It is unfortunate that the later Pacino would have probably shouted these lines, spittle flying.

Pacino, along with Caan and Duvall, were nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Not nominated were composer Nino Rota, as it was discovered that his score, famous today for it's haunting love theme, was not completely original. Also not nominated, in an absolute crime, was cinematographer Gordon Willis. The Cinematographer's branch always had it in for Willis, who was tabbed "The Prince of Darkness" for shooting many scenes in very low light. Justice later prevailed when he was awarded an honorary Oscar.

I, along with many other people, have a habit of stumbling upon the film while channel surfing (usually on AMC) and settling in to watch, even though we may own the film on DVD. We know the film so well that we can tell what's coming up, and like a favorite music album we wait for the good parts. There are so many scenes that are like this, as Coppola structured the movie like an opera, with elaborate set pieces springing up like arias. Many of the scenes begin with moments of calm or quiet--the tranquil dawn outside Woltz's mansion before he finds the horse's head in his bed; the sound of the baseball game on the radio before Sonny beats up Carlo; the moments before Sonny is gunned down at the tollbooth (also with a baseball game on the radio in the background); and, most famously, the baptism scene while simultaneously the heads of the five families are being assassinated (for my money, this scene is the greatest ever put on film).

If there's anything negative to be said about Coppola's direction in The Godfather is that his symbolism can approach heavy-handedness. Michael, as godfather to his sister Connie's baby (Sofia Coppola is the infant used in that scene) renouncing Satan and his works while at the same time eliminating his enemies could be seen as obvious. But instead of being heavy-handed, I find it to be viscerally exciting. For instance, using an orange as a symbol of death: When Vito is shot early in  the film, he is buying oranges, and when he dies, he has used an orange to make himself into a literal monster while playing with his grandson. While watching this time I noticed that Tessio, who will come to a bad end, handles an orange during the opening wedding scene. And has everybody noticed that when Luca Brasi meets with Tattaglia in the hotel bar, there are fish engraved on the door? Luca's end will be, of course, that he "sleeps with the fishes."

Except perhaps The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca, The Godfather has provided more lines of dialogue that have ingrained in popular culture than any other film. From "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse," to "It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business," and "Leave the gun, take the cannoli," The Godfather is like a cinematic dictionary of famous quotes. The phrase "Ba-da-bing" is said to have originated there, when Sonny describes to Michael how it is to shoot somebody in the head. There's even a recipe for tomato sauce, courtesy of Clemenza (Richard Castellano). One of my favorite lines is when Solozzo, thinking the Don is dead, is informed otherwise. "He's still alive! We put five bullets in him and he's still alive!" The most heartbreaking may be when Tessio (Abe Vigoda), discovered as a betrayer, realizes he's doomed. "Can you get me off the hook, Tom, for old time's sake?"

I've seen The Godfather probably 20 times, and in bits and pieces a lot more than that. It's one of the primary reasons the 1970s are seen by many as America's greatest decade of filmmaking, when box office wasn't yet a statistic kept in the daily papers and studios believed that making great films was the key to success. For a while, they were right.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Triple Crossing

Triple Crossing is a crime thriller by Sebastian Rotella, who clearly knows his stuff when it comes to borders. Two play prominent roles here: the one between the U.S. and Mexico, specifically at Tijuana, and the so-called Triple Border, a no-man's land where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet.

The novel uses two protagonists, and throughout the book the chapters alternate from two points of view. One is Valentine Pescatore, a U.S. Border Patrol agent who is young, impetuous, and just barely on the side of the law. The second is Mendez, a stoic, noble ex-journalist who has been tapped to head a government organization that looks into Mexican police corruption.

The two men are on the same side, but have a mutual distrust of each other. "Mendez had a visceral nationalistic aversion to Border Patrol agents. Although he did not work with The Patrol, from a distance they reminded him of a species he had come to loathe during his year among the gray skies and gray buildings of the University of Michigan: fraternity boys. They had struck him as crude, swaggering, well-off rednecks with a clannish mentality that reeked of racism and fascism."

Indeed, Rotella doesn't paint the Border Patrol with a very complimentary brush. In the opening chapter, Pescatore impulsively chases a suspect over the fence and into Tijuana, a definite no-no. To avoid charges, he works with a beautiful agent, Isabel Puente, who has him go undercover to bust a crooked agent named Garrison. Pescatore falls in love with Puente, and in a weak spot in the book she succumbs to his cowboy charms.

Mendez is looking to bring down a drug lord called Junior, who is the nephew of a senator, and is practically untouchable. Through a series of misadventures, Pescatore ends up in deep cover with Junior's gang, vouched for by a menacing but compassionate henchman called Buffalo. They all end up at the Triple Border, which Rotello describes thusly: "Pescatore saw signs in Portugese, Spanish, English, Asian languages, a warning about product piracy, a shingle that said ALI BABA AND CO. Women in Muslim veils passed a man arranging pornography on a rack. A contingent of shaven-headed Asian monks went by. They wore sandals and billowing brown robes; they seemed to float through the melee of buying and selling, loading and unloading, everyone jabbering into cell phones and radios."

Rotella's knowledge of the subject helps make up for the lack of storytelling. At a certain point I became weary of the usual depictions of drug kingpins and their minions, and Mendez, while an admirable character, seems a bit too good to be true. Occasionally, though, Rotella dazzles with bits of prose that seem out of left field: "The pianist was a senior citizen with a somewhat mildewed dignity. His backswept gray hair aspired to a Beethoven-like mane; he shook it occasionally for emphasis. His three-piece suit had a velvety sheen and looked no younger than him."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

21 Jump Street

They've just about reached the bottom of the barrel for making film franchises out of old TV shows, at least until we get Cop Rock: The Movie. I never watched a single episode of 21 Jump Street, and nobody I know has, except for my friend's sixteen-year-old daughter, who has a thing for Johnny Depp. So, the makers of this film, directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord, and screenwriters Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill, did the smart thing--they goofed on the show, instead of revered it.

We get a wink from the writers early on, when the police official who assigns two hapless rookies into an undercover program at a high school says that the police department has no good ideas, so they just keep recycling old ones. So 21 Jump Street, the movie version, is completely aware that it's a studio-bred cash grab, and satirizes it.

Our heroes are played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. They were high school classmates, though Hill was the nerd and Tatum the popular jock. For different reasons, they do not attend the prom, and there's a funny scene in which both of them sit on the school steps, crying.

A few years later they are both in the police academy, and form a friendship. But they are idiots, and it's not as glamorous as they'd hoped, as they draw bicycle duty at a park. They try to bust some bikers doing drugs, but Hill is manhandled by his perp (skinning his elbow), and Tatum forgets to read his suspect his Miranda warnings, a particular bugaboo for him.

Because they are youthful looking (this too is played as a joke, as Tatum doesn't look that young and everyone he meets thinks he looks way too old for high school), they are sent undercover to find the dealer and supplier of a dangerous new drug. They end up getting their assignments mixed up, so Hill ends up the popular kid and Tatum runs with the science nerds. Hill falls for a girl (Brie Larson), who is the girlfriend of the pusher (played by Dave Franco, who looks a lot like his brother James). But the case ultimately plays second fiddle to the dynamics of the deep cover, as each relives his high school experience from the other side of the fence.

I laughed a lot at 21 Jump Street, and that means something, as I am stingy with laughter in movies. Much of the humor comes from the attitude, as nothing about this film is meant to be realistic. Ice Cube appears as the stereotypical "angry black captain," and he addresses this by saying, "I'm a captain, I'm black, and sometimes I'm angry." The situations the officers go through are also amusing, such as when Hill has to audition for Peter Pan and Tatum has to do an oral report dressed as his favorite molecule. The Peter Pan bit leads to my favorite scene in the movie, when the boys chase the bad guys in a double-steering-wheeled driver's ed car while Hill is dressed as Peter Pan. The levels of absurdity are vast.

Though I enjoyed 21 Jump Street, I don't want to suggest this is some kind of classic. There are way too many dick jokes, which indicates laziness to me, and the ending, a routine shootout and chase (albeit involving stretch limos) is a let down after the zaniness of what has come before. But Hill is a pleasure to watch, and even Tatum, who after a disastrous turn on Saturday Night Live left me thinking he had zero comic timing, is used effectively.

I was also very glad to see that the tradition of actors who appeared on the original TV show grace the film with a cameo. Say no more.

My grade for 21 Jump Street: B.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

It is easy to see why the work of Belgian comic artist Herge appealed to Steven Spielberg--Tintin, the intrepid young journalist, accompanied by his faithful terrier Snowy, is an antecedent of Indiana Jones. In many way, The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg's first animated film, bears many resemblances to Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are clues, a buried treasure, and numerous high-speed chases and narrow escapes. What's missing is a sense of of ingeniousness. Tintin, ultimately, is sound and fury, signifying not much.

Things are off to a promising start. Instead of an origin story, we are thrust right into an adventure. Tintin, shopping at a bazaar, is attracted to the model of a ship. After he buys it, not one but two mysterious men try to buy it off of him. One of them is later murdered at his doorstep, and the ship is stolen. But not before a cylinder containing a mysterious scroll has ended up underneath his bureau.

From there Tintin is captured and taken aboard a ship bound for Morocco. He ends meeting and forming an alliance with Captain Haddock, a perpetually soused sea captain who is the last of the Haddocks, descendants of the ship that was the basis of the model, the Unicorn. It holds a treasure, and the descendant of the pirate who took it, Sakharin (Daniel Craig), is after the three scrolls that will lead to its location.

After about half of the movie I became a little fatigued, as there is so much movement and tumult that it starts to overwhelm the story. Tintin, unlike Indiana Jones, doesn't have much character development--at least we knew Indy was afraid of snakes. Most of the humor centers around the drunkenness of Haddock (voiced by Andy Serkis) and a little of that is plenty.

The film is the latest in motion capture animation, which has had limited success. I didn't see Polar Express, but I did see Beowulf, and some of the knock on the process is that the eyes of the characters are dead. There's less of that in Tintin, and at times the rendering was so realistic that I forgot I was watching animation.

The Adventures of Tintin wasn't a huge hit in North America, but it did earn over 300 million worldwide, so we can probably expect a sequel. If so, Spielberg should focus more on story and less on stunts. I'm all for movies of this kind, that recapture the feeling of old-time movie serials, but they have to be balanced by modern sensibility. That doesn't mean, though, an avalanche of CGI.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Continuing my look at the performers being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, I turn to Red Hot Chili Peppers. I certainly know of them, as many of their songs have punctured the bubble of popular culture around me and had considerable radio airplay, but I had never liked any of their songs well enough to buy their music. I did pick up a copy of their greatest hits, which I listened to several times this week.

My first reaction was that RHCP wasn't as I thought they were. They do have a reputation for being bad boys, with heroin addiction and performing in their underpants. Some of their lyrics would set Pat Robertson's hair on fire, such as "There's a devil in my dick and some demons in my semen."

But the cuts on the greatest hits CD, which was released in 2003, are far tamer than that. They present the front kind of like Eddie Haskell did to Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver. Most of Red Hot Chili Pepper's hits were ballads, and, dare I say, kind of pretty.

Of course they're not all that way. Their biggest hit was "Give It Away," which is here, and best represents their mixture of rock, funk and hip-hop. Also "Suck My Kiss" earns the album and explicit lyrics label, due to a dropping of the word motherfucker.

But the rest is guitar-strumming stuff, readily familiar to anyone who listened to rock in the '90s. The band formed in 1983, but didn't hit it huge until 1991 with the release of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which contained "Give It Away" and "Under the Bridge," a lovely song about loneliness and love for Los Angeles. My favorite is "Breaking the Girl."

The band would later release their biggest selling album in 1999, with Californication. The title track is again a ballad, with minor adjustment it could be played on a stool in a coffee house, and is ripe for parody with all the rhymes with "-ation":

Marry me girl be my fairy to the world
Be my very own constellation
A teenage bride with a baby inside
Getting high on information
And buy me a star on the boulevard
It's Californication

Though the lyrics stretch the rhyme scheme, it's a very effective song about alienation in Hollywood. Other delicate songs include "My Friends," "Otherside," and "Road Trippin'." The one cover is of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," not exactly rebellious.

The band has had many lineup changes through the years, though lead singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea have been in the group from the beginning. The guitarists have changed often; the original one was Hillel Slovak, who died of a heroin overdose. He was replaced by John Frusciante, who left after the band achieved success, and was replaced by Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, who only made one album with them. Frusciante, after going through his own drug problems, returned.

For most of their history, the drummer has been Chad Smith, but the original drummer was Cliff Martinez, who is now a well-respected film score composer. Smith, in the liner notes on the album, recalls David Bowie's dictum that a rock group in known for three things. Smith figures for RHCP they are: drugs, socks (the band has a habit of posing naked for pictures, except for white tube socks) and being "progenitors of funk-rock." I think he's pretty much nailed it.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Island of Dr. Moreau

One my literary projects this year is to read the science fiction novels of H.G. Wells. A few of them I've read before, but I hadn't read The Island of Dr. Moreau, published in 1896. It is a somewhat overly sensational but interesting commentary on the nature of man as an animal, and on the existence of God.

Wells called the book "an exercise in youthful blasphemy." Indeed, a devout believer could have problems with this big, which suggests that God the creator is not necessarily supernatural, but instead is relative.

The tale is told by a seaman, Pendrick, who survives a shipwreck. He's picked up by a passing boat, which contains a man named Montgomery, his beast-like assistant, and a menagerie of exotic animals. They are let off on a remote island, but the captain of the ship demands that Pendrick leave, too. Montgomery won't take him ashore, so Pendrick is stranded in a dinghy. Eventually Montgomery pities him and takes him ashore, where he meets Dr. Moreau, who is not pleased to host him, and tells him that ships only come by once a year.

"We are biologists here. This is a biological station--of a sort," Moreau tells Pendrick. Eventually he will see things that defy his notions of what man and animals are. Creatures that are humanoid, but bear unmistakable resemblances to animals. "There were three Swine-men and a Swine-woman, a mare-rhinoceros-creature, and several other females whose sources I did not ascertain. There were several wolf-creatures, a bear-bull, and a Saint-Bernard-man. I have already described the Ape-man, and there was a particularly hateful (and evil-smelling) old woman made of vixen and bear, whom I hated from the beginning."

Moreau explains that these are not men turned into animals, as Pendrick fears (he thinks he will be next) but animals turned into men, through vivisection. (This was a big cause at the time, as many more humane people sought to ban the scientific practice). The animals undergo severe pain, as Moreau tells Pendrick that without alteration, they will revert to their animal tendencies. "Through an open doorway beyond, in the dim light of the shadow, I saw something bound painfully upon a framework, scarred, red, and bandaged; and then blotting this out appeared the face of old Moreau, white and terrible."

Moreau keeps the animals in line by instilling in them a law, which includes not tasting blood, not walking on all fours, and not drinking like an animal. They can all speak English (I'm not sure how this is accomplished), and consider Moreau their creator, which he is, of course. But eventually a few "beast folk" go rogue, and Moreau is killed. Pendrick must improvise to save his skin: "'For a time you will not see him. He is--there,' I poined upward, 'where he can watch you. You cannot see him, but he can see you. Fear the Law!'" If that isn't a nice nutshell version of theism, I don't know what is. Pendrick later notes, "An animal may be ferocious and cunning enough, but it takes a real man to tell a lie."

The book has it's pulp aspects, including overly florid language, but touches on a lot of interesting subjects, such as what separates man from animal, and whether the notion of God is just a con to keep us all in line. Wells wasn't an out-and-out atheist (he was also, as I read about him, a supporter of eugenics and anti-Zionist, so he wasn't exactly a forward thinker in all respects) but he had his doubts, and The Island of Dr. Moreau expresses them vividly.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Zombies of Mora Tau

My Edward L. Cahn continues with a 1957 horror film, Zombies of Mora Tau, that was also known as The Dead That Walk.

Set in Africa, a young woman (Autumn Russell) returns to her great-grandmother's home. The old lady (Marjorie Eaton) maintains that a group of sailors, who died in a shipwreck, still walk the area--they are walking dead. One of them was the ship's captain, her husband. They guard the ship's hold, which contains a cask of diamonds. Numerous expeditions have attempted to find the diamonds, but the zombies have killed them all.

A new expedition, led by a captain (Joel Ashley), his wife (Allison Hayes), and a diver (Gregg Palmer), have arrived. Eaton shows them the graveyard, where all of the previous hunters have been buried. A group of fresh graves have been dug, awaiting their new occupiers. Hayes, who with her tight dresses and high heels didn't exactly dress for the occasion, falls into one of the graves. Foreshadowing!

The only thrills to speak of in this film is the somewhat creepy appearance of the zombies, who have super strength, move really slowly, and are afraid of fire. Why the living don't set fire to them, I don't know. The zombies can also walk underwater (they don't need to breathe, after all), and it's kind of neat to see them walking along the sea floor as Palmer, in his bulky diving suit, tries to open the safe in the ship's hold.

A note about Hayes, who made many B-films in the '50s, including the iconic title role in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. She died at the age of 46, crippled by mysterious illness. She learned that a calcium supplement was full of lead, and after her death the FDA banned its use.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Valley Forge

My ongoing George Washington tour continued yesterday. Faced with a spectacularly unseasonable day, I took about an hour's drive into Pennsylvania to the Valley Forge National Historic Park. I had been there many, many years ago (over 40) but had very little memory of it.

The site is different than most concerning the Revolutionary War, as it does not denote a battle. In the winter and spring of 1777-78, after the British took Philadelphia, Washington looked for a place to encamp for the winter. Valley Forge, named for an iron forge on the Schuylkill River, was an ideal spot, given it's elevation. Washington's men cut down trees and made thousands of log cabins, each 14 feet by 16 feet. That's roomy until you consider that 12 men were assigned to each cabin. There are a series of them that were rebuilt by historians to those specifications, and I stepped in one. Bunk beds were stacked three deep--I doubt I could roll over on one of the lower ones.

Washington Slept Here
The winter that year was epically harsh. Men lacked basic comforts like shoes. But Washington somehow managed to keep up morale. He had it a little nicer, his headquarters, pictured at left, was a three-bedroom home (100 pounds were paid to the owner for its use), but it must have been crowded, too, as over 20 people stayed in it.

Perhaps a hundred yards away were the cabins of Washington's personal guard, which exist today in the form of the Army's Third Infantry, which are entrusted with guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The only stop left on my proposed tour is the most ambitious--a trip to Mount Vernon, which would probably require an overnight stay. Perhaps I can accomplish that this summer.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Passion Play

T
The big movie news this week is that John Carter horribly unperformed, earning only 30 million in its opening weekend. How about a movie that cost 15 million, and earned less than $4,000? That's right, Passion Play earned three-thousand-six-hundred and sixty-nine dollars. Now that, ladies and gentleman, is a bomb.

It's not really that bad. It's not good, but it wasn't aggressively awful. Written and directed by Mitch Glazer (it was his debut; it's doubtful there will be a second), it's a kind of dopey story about a down-on-his-luck trumpet player (Mickey Rourke) who, after escaping being murdered in the Mexican desert, stumbles upon a carnival. One of the sideshow attractions is a beautiful girl with wings (Megan Fox). When Rourke realizes her wings are real, he convinces her to leave her evil boss (Rhys Ifans) and come with him.

But his motives are not pure. He was going to be murdered in the desert because he slept with a mob boss's wife. That boss is Bill Murray, playing the role as if he lost a bet. I've read about how tough it is to contact Bill Murray to get him to play a part--he doesn't have an agent--so I'm convinced the story of how he ended up doing this film is far more interesting than the film itself.

Rourke proposes that Murray partner with him so they can exploit Fox's freakishness and Murray will call off the vendetta. But by the time Murray sees her, Rourke has fallen in love with her. Murray takes her anyway, and Rourke must try to win her back.

The title, mystifying pretentious, might allude to Fox's being some sort of angel, but she's really just a girl that has to wear bulky clothing in public. After seeing Diner last week, I'm once again fascinated how Rourke went an almost complete physical reconstruction--even his voice is an octave or two lower. He takes this role seriously, but I think he was the only one.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

House of Holes

Nicholson Baker leads a double life in the literary world. He writes standard literary novels like The Anthologist, and even wrote a history of World War II. But he also writes gleefully smutty books, such as Vox and The Fermata, the latter being the best porno I've ever read that is sold right out there without a brown-paper wrapper. He has returned to raunch with House of Holes, which is in essence, a very long, very silly letter to Penthouse.

I've written loads of whacking material in my day, and Baker manages to come up with some similes that we would have found too much. For the male member, he uses "Lincoln Stiffens" and "Malcolm Gladwell," among others. For the female genitalia, I remember "slobbering kitty," and also the more prosaic "train station." There are also some lively euphemisms for semen: "But seeing a man squirt out into the air is much less exciting to me than the idea of a man shooting inside me and filling me up with wonderful hot streams of doodle-goo."

The titular House of Holes is a sort of Fantasy Island for sexual expression. People get there in mysterious ways, through some kind of hole, whether it's a golf hole, the back of a dryer in a laundromat, or their own urethra. I wasn't quite sure of the economics--men seem to pay exorbitant rates to be there, and frequently fall into debt, thus having to work off what they owe. There are also numerous detachable body parts. The novel starts with Shandee finding a detached arm in a rock quarry. The arm belongs to Dave, who told Lila, who runs the House of Holes, that he would give his right arm to have a bigger penis. The arm has a life of its own, and Shandee becomes quite fond of it, but travels to the House to find its owner.

There are also headless men, and swapped penises. I kept thinking of the King Missile song, "Detachable Penis." One woman has sex with a headless man, while another is in the Hall of Penises, which stick through glory holes. One woman has gone around the grounds stealing clitorises. "Shandee was moved. 'We must help you get your clit back,' she said, socking her fist. 'You can't just have that pleasure stolen from you. You have rights!'"

I'm not quite sure what Baker intended here. I like reading porn, so I had a fine time with this, although some of it was too weird even for me, such as when a woman is shrunk down and stuck in the tip of a man's urethra, and he must ejaculate to knock her loose. At times it plays like one long joke, such as when a woman called Luna gives foot jobs to two famous Russian composers: "'Yes, that is my cock,' said Alexander Borodin. 'It is very hard and very famous.' 'I see,' she said. 'It tickles a little. And you, Mr. Rimsky-Korsakov?'"

I don't think Baker is saying anything greater about sexuality, even with all the detachable body parts. He might be wistfully imagining a world where sex isn't such the holy thing it is now, where men can walk up to a women and say, politely, "I would like to watch you come," without getting slapped or having the police called. I would certainly like to live in that world. At times House of Holes can simply be taken at its lowest level: funny, well-written smut: "Everyone went quiet, watching Shandee to her strenuous double service. She pulled up on then slumped down on Glenn's rigid stonker, and she gave simultaneous attention to Dave's jaw-dropping mouthful of dickstick."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Friends With Kids

Out of boredom as much as anything else (I hadn't been to the cinema in almost three weeks) I decided to take a chance on Friends With Kids. I remember Jennifer Westfeldt's first feature, Kissing Jessica Stein, with mostly positive memories, though I couldn't tell you much about it now. I kind of feel the same way about Friends With Kids--mostly funny, occasionally annoying.

Westfeldt, who wrote and directed, also stars as a single woman whose best relationship is a platonic one with her college friend, Adam Scott. These relationships do exist--I have very good platonic friendships with women--but somehow in movies they seem to be inauthentic, as if the writer is bending over backwards to convince us of their possibility. Scott and Westfeldt have never been intimate, frequently citing they aren't sexually attracted to each other; Scott is too short, Westfeldt is too flat-chested.

Their best friends, two married couples (Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd, Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm), are parents of small children. This is portayed as some sort of ring of Dante's Inferno, as the kids' misbehavior makes their parents snap at each other like alligators. Scott and Westfeldt realize they want children, but don't want to end up hating each other like their friends. They have the bright idea to have a child together, but not live together as a couple.

This premise, sit-commish as it is, makes for some good scenes. The general disorder of a house with small children is handled well, especially with Rudolph and O'Dowd, who bicker as it if were sport. Hamm and Wiig are presented much darker, with Hamm, in a well-written and acted scene at a vacation ski cabin, drunkenly telling Scott what a foolish idea the whole thing is.

A few things could have made this film better. One is to have jettisoned the smarmy tone--the word "vagina," which has a newly found charm on network sit-coms, is thrown around so much here you could make a drinking game out of it. Do we really need that many jokes about a woman's postpartum, stretched-out vagina? Scott, a good actor, is a bit too piggish for Westfeldt's character to be that tolerant of him. In the climactic scene, he tells someone he's going to "fuck the shit" out of them. I'm dubious that a woman of any character would swoon at hearing that.

I also found Westfeldt to be a competent but bland actress. It might have been more a lively film if Rudolph or Wiig had played the central character. Taking the lead, while she also directs, seems like hubris.

The ending is predictable to anyone who has seen a movie. Our couple date other seemingly perfect people (she hooks up with Edward Burns, he with Megan Fox) but does anyone doubt they will be made jealous by these relationships? If this is predictable, at least it's generally pleasurable on the way there.

My grade for Friends With Kids: B-.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Beastie Boys

For those who may not have figured out, I'm Caucasian. You might say I'm an extreme Caucasian or, as one person once accused me, ethnocentric. It's true that I gravitate toward the art of my tribe--I grew up with grandparents who watched Lawrence Welk and Hee-Haw. When I first was into buying records they were almost exclusively by white artists--I think the only nonwhite face found in my collection was Stevie Wonder.

I'm not so bad now, but I'm certainly not what you would call diverse. For instance, until recently I had never bought a record that could remotely be classified as hip-hop. I've just never found the genre interesting, nor culturally relevant to me. So, of course, the first rap or hip-hop I've bought is by a white group, The Beastie Boys, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.

I was around when The Beastie Boys first hit it big with what was essentially a novelty song, "Fight for Your Right." The local rock station played it, but they didn't know how to regard it. It was kind of a more musical version of Cheech and Chong's bit, "Earache My Eye," and like the Warren Court, found new rights, such as the right to party. I had friends who were into them, delighting in their wordplay: "I've got a girlie in a castle and one in a Pagoda/You know I've got rhymes like Abe Vigoda." That's from "Posse in Effect," which, unfortunately, is not on the disc I picked up, Solid Gold Hits, but there's plenty on it to enjoy. To my surprise, I've taken this group too lightly.

As a general rule I don't dance, but there are songs here that make me want to move, especially "Body Movin'," a deliriously infectious rhythm. I also like "Brass Monkey," "Intergalactic," and "Hey Ladies." There is a lot of declaiming in these songs, but I am unable, perhaps because of my age or my squareness, to make out what they are saying. I did look up the lyrics to "Hey Ladies," and found this choice bit:

Hey ladies in the place I'm callin' out to ya
There never was a city kid truer and bluer
There's more to me than you'll ever know
And I've got more hits than Sadaharu Oh
Ton Thumb Tom Cushman or Tom Foolery
Date women on T.V. with the help of Chuck Woolery

Now, come on. To mention both Sadaharu Oh and Chuck Woolery in short order is some kind of genius.

I also enjoy the instrumentation of the cuts. There's some odd musical choices, such as what sounds like a rubber horn in "Brass Monkey," a cowbell in "Hey Ladies," and a flute in "Sure Shot." Then there's the rap tradition of sampling. Looking at the liner notes, I see that among those credited are Rachmaninoff, Moms Mabley, Jimmie Walker, and a physical fitness record. I also enjoy, in "Hey Ladies," the quote from Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz." Sweet, that was an under-rated band.

The Beastie Boys had always seemed like kind of a joke to me, three Jewish boys from Brooklyn performing black music. There was the tinge of Pat Boone about it. But I must admit they are more than that. To quote the beginning of "Fight for Your Right:" "Kick it!"

Saturday, March 10, 2012

David Copperfield

To commemorate the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Dickens, born in February, I took on the task of reading David Copperfield, the fourth of his books I've read (after Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations). I started the book in early February, but didn't finish until this week, as it something of a doorstop (although I read it on my Kindle, so I didn't have to lug it around and bind it with a rubber band).

The book was written in 1850, after being serialized in the few years before, and Dickens considered it his favorite: "Of all my books, I like this best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield."

As with many of Dickens' tales, David Copperfield is a bildungsroman, and concerning an unfortunate orphan. It is narrated by the title character, and begins with the well-known lines: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."

Thus we have a story that, however subtly, examines whether we live a life of destiny or of free will. Young David is posthumously sired, and his young mother soon marries a despicable fellow named Murdstone, who beats David like a mule. David fights back (by biting Murdstone's hand) and is sent to a school. In true Dickensian fashion, the school is full of men who delight in beating small children: "I heard that with the single exception of Mr. Creakle, Tungay considered the whole establishment, masters and boys, as his natural enemies, and that the only delight of his life was to be sour and malicious."

When a friend of mine posted about Dickens' 200th birthday, a friend of hers mentioned that she found there was too much child abuse in Dickens. I was taken aback--surely she must realize Dickens wasn't in favor of child abuse. In fact, he was ahead of his time in deploring the treatment of children as simply short adults. But I realize that the person didn't really think that--she was just too sensitive a soul to get through the harsh treatment that many of Dickens' characters endure, and David is in for his share. After his mother dies, Murdstone puts him to work (as Dickens himself did--this book is considered his most autobiographical).

He then runs away, and we come in for some harrowing chapters, where he must sell his clothes to eat. He is headed for Dover, where his great-aunt Betsey Trotwood lives. She had attended his birth, as David's father was a favorite of hers. But when it was revealed to her that the baby was a boy, she turned on her heel and walked out. But as David appears to her, disheveled, hungry and cold, she can't help but take him in. She later scolds Murdstone (and his deplorable sister Jane) in one of the book's best scenes.

All this is perhaps a quarter of the book, and the best part, and could have been a work unto itself. But we've got much more to come. Dickens introduces us to two of the most vivid characters in English literature: Mr. Micawber and Uriah Heep. Micawber, modeled after Dickens' father, is mellifluent and perpetually in debt. He meets Copperfield when the narrator is a boy, but they become lifelong friends. Micawber disappears from the book now and then, but always returns gratefully. Micawber never says anything in one word when he can use ten, such as when Copperfield asks of Mrs. Micawber and the children: "'She is tolerably convalescent. The twins no longer derive their sustenance from Nature's founts--in short," said Mr. Micawber, in of his burst of confidence, 'they are weaned--and Mrs. Micawber is, at present, my travelling companion. She will be rejoiced, Copperfield, to renew her acquaintance with one who has proved himself in all respects a worthy minister at the sacred altar of friendship.'"

Heep, whose name has become an eponym for obsequiousness (and the name of a '70s hard rock band), comes into Copperfield's life when our hero takes a job with Mr. Wickfield as a proctor. A lot of the business stuff I couldn't quite understand (such as what a proctor is), and I felt that Dickens frontloaded the enmity on Heep--we know he's bad because Copperfield tells us he is, such as when he learns that Heep has eyes on Wickfield's daughter, Agnes: "I believe I had a delirious idea of seizing the red-hot poker out of the fire, and running him through with it. It went from me with a shock, like a ball fired from a rifle: but the image of Agnes, outraged by so much as a thought of this red-headed animal's, remained in my mind when I looked at him, sitting all awry as if his mean soul gripped his body, and made me giddy."

We don't know the full extent of Heep's treachery until late in the book, when Micawber exposes him as a cheat and a forger. Until then we know he's bad because he's got red hair, but more because he constantly tells everyone he's "umble." Surely a person who describes themselves as humble is not.

Most of the book is composed in this manner--black and white, good and evil. Copperfield himself is pretty much a non-entity. We really don't know much of what he's about, other than that he's loyal to his friends. I find it interesting that he is referred to by several names: David, Trotwood (by his aunt) and Doady (by his wife, Dora). Micawber, Betsey Trotwood, his nurse Peggotty and her brother, Mr. Peggotty, and Tommy Traddles, Copperfield's school chum--all are good. Heep and the Murdstones, bad.

The only character that has any ambiguity is part of the other major plot thread of the book. Steerforth, another of Copperfield's schoolmates (who calls him by yet another name, Daisy). Steerforth defends Copperfield in school, and becomes his champion, yet Dickens shows talons beneath the nail polish. Steerforth gets a teacher fired, without stopping to think of the consequences. He will later enjoy visiting the Peggotty's, as if he were a tourist in their near poverty. But he will seduce their niece, Emily, whom Copperfield loved when they were children, and then cast her aside, her reputation ruined. Steerforth's end is one of the most moving parts of the book.

As for Copperfield's love life, after his childhood love of Emily, and his tortured brother/sister love for Agnes, he marries Dora Spenlow:  "All was over in a moment. I had fulfilled my destiny. I was a captive and a slave. I loved Dora Spenlow to distraction! She was more than a human to me. She was a Fairy, a Sylph, I don't know what she was--anything that no one ever saw, and everything that everybody ever wanted. I was swallowed up in an abyss of love in an instant. There was no pausing on the brink; no looking down, or looking back; I was gone, headlong, before I had sense to say a word to her."

Dora is similar to many women in Dickens, a kind of frail woman-child. She even asks that David call her a "child-wife," which surely must rankle some feminists. She can't be reasoned with: "I had wounded Dora's soft little heart, and she was not to be comforted. She was so pathetic in her sobbing and bewailing, that I felt as if I had said I don't know what to hurt her. I was obliged to hurry away; I was kept out late; and I felt all night such pangs of remorse as made me miserable. I had the conscience of an assassin, and was haunted by a vague sense of enormous wickedness."

In contrast, there is the evil Rosa Dartle, who is in love with Steerforth, but has been scarred by him, literally, when in childhood he threw a hammer at her. One can't escape the belief that Dickens viewed women in a patronizing, superficial way--if they were angelic and had curls of gold, they were child-like and adorable, dark and disfigured, they were dastardly.

I found some parts of David Copperfield incomprehensible--an entire subplot involving Copperfield's teacher Dr. Strong, his wife, and her cousin, could have been easily excised. But there's more than enough here to chew on, and the characters live beyond the page. There are also the usual brilliant passages of Dickens' prose: "Early in the morning, I sauntered through the dear old tranquil streets, and again mingled with the shadows of the venerable gateways and churches. The rooks were sailing about the cathedral towers; and the towers themselves, overlooking many a long unaltered mile of the rich country and its pleasant streams, were cutting the bright morning air, as if there were no such thing as change on earth."