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Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Music & Television & education & technology 13 Feb 2014 08:38 am

Stomping out all signs of fun

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If you’re a kid who’s ever been told that texting will rot your brain or pop music is immoral or video games are turning you into a zombie, you need to read “Bad for You.”

If you’re a parent, teacher, minister or some other well-meaning adult who’s ever told kids that texting will rot their brains or pop music is immoral or video games are turning them into zombies, you need to read “Bad for You.”

Subtitled “Exposing the War on Fun,” the book, by Kevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham, looks at popular fads and new technologies throughout history and exposes some depressing similarities in the way some people respond.

For instance, the book quotes one sarcastic critic as saying that, as a result of a popular new form of entertainment, “There is now very little danger that Americans will resort to the vice of thinking.” Is he referring to heavy metal music? Xbox One? The Flappy Bird app? None of the above. Writing in the 1920s, he was expressing concerns over radio and, separately, “incredibly frightful” jazz music.

One by one, Pyle and Cunningham examine hiccups in the social psyche down through the centuries, including printing presses (a pundit in 1494 noted that paper was less permanent than parchment), telephones (which allow children talk to undesirables against their parents’ wishes), Elvis Presley (derided as “deplorable” by that paragon of virtue, Frank Sinatra), Dungeons and Dragons (believed to cause an increased risk of suicide), and Harry Potter books (feared by some to promote witchcraft).

Text-messaging is examined in depth. As a teacher who believed that goofy abbreviations and jargon used in “text speak” would somehow worm their way into students’ more formal writing, I was abashed to learn how wrong I was. According to some researchers, kids who use “textisms” often have a better understanding of spelling and grammar — and larger vocabularies, to boot.

Rather than being corrupted by “IMHO” and “ICYMI” (google ‘em), kids can easily “code switch” between different registers of language — in this case, between informal text messages and more formal school essays.

To which I can only say: OMG.

But it’s not until the end of the book that Pyle and Cunningham really win me over. In a chapter called “Bad for You: Thinking,” they examine American schools. The section covers the history of education in the U.S. and how schools were influenced by the efficiency movement or “factory model” popular during the Industrial Revolution.

One result of this model is the discovery that workers are more productive with periodic breaks, which led to the idea of recess in public schools. Today, however, recess is under fire as a waste of time, eliminated or reduced in 40 percent of American schools to allow children more time to prepare for standardized tests.

Also cut in favor of standardized-test prep is access to the arts, history, and music.

Standardized testing, which measures convergent thinking (the ability to select one correct answer), is practically a relic in today’s high-tech world. What is needed, experts argue, is more emphasis on divergent thinking (the ability to find more than one answer or solution to a problem), something that can be aided by the very activities being trimmed from the school day — including recess.

“Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun” is written for kids but can be just as rewarding for adults. A word of warning: It’s laid out like a comic book, another form of fun that has come under fire in the past. In the first chapter, the authors look at the hysteria over comic books in the 1940s and ’50s, when a U.S. Senate subcommittee was convened to study their insidious effects and comics were burned by concerned parents.

As a comics-obsessed kid in grade school, I can remember teachers who wrinkled their noses at my preferred choice of literature, immune to my belief, even then, that comics were teaching me more vocabulary and reading skills than anything in their classrooms.

I don’t remember if my teachers ever told me that comics were rotting my brain, immoral, or turning me into a zombie. If they did, I wish that Pyle and Cunningham’s “Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun!” had been around to set them straight.

Chris Schillig, who is still a self-diagnosed comic-book addict, can be reached at

chris.schillig@yahoo or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Feb. 13, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Media & Television 30 Jan 2014 11:39 pm

Stop the world — it’s football

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Based on the media explosion last Thursday, I knew one of two things had happened: either the world ended or the Browns hired a new head coach.

Thankfully for the world — and for ratings of Cleveland-area TV stations — it was the latter. The only reason I checked the newsbreak at all was to see if Browns management had decided to hire my wife.

A few days before, she’d thrown her hat into the ring by announcing she could probably be as effective a head coach for the franchise as anybody else. I don’t know if that’s technically true, but it feels right.

This is the point at which I have to admit how woefully ignorant I am of all aspects of football. I don’t know how many players belong on the field, the names of positions beyond quarterback, or any rules for scoring.

About all I comprehend is that it’s a game where people behave counter to their instincts. In the real world, when big, burly men descend upon you with an intent to tackle, hurt and maim, you sprint the other way. In football, you run toward the danger.

I played football once at recess when I was around 10. Somebody threw me the ball, yelled “Run!” and I did — in the opposite direction. I was never asked to play again.

I’ve probably watched fewer than a dozen games of professional football in my life, and those only when I am sandwiched between well-meaning relatives on musty basement sofas who assume, as many people do, that everybody born with a Y chromosome must automatically love the sport.

Even the Super Bowl I watch with only one eye, and not because I lost the other one in a horrifying childhood Three Stooges imitation, either. I basically don’t care, halftime wardrobe malfunctions notwithstanding. Is watching the Super Bowl for the commercials the same as reading Playboy for the articles?

These days, my indifference toward the sport is augmented by the squeamish knowledge of how repeated head trauma affects many players later in life. Where are the millions of screaming fans when a former player struggles to remember his grandchildren’s names, is led to the bathroom by a devoted spouse, or dies decades too early? Even passionate football fans may feel a little like Romans, cheering while Christians are fed to lions.

Incidentally, I don’t begrudge anybody a hobby or a passion. I have enough of them myself. But I don’t automatically assume that others share it. I’ve never forced somebody to read a Batman comic book and then rolled my eyes and questioned their sanity when they didn’t like it. But something similar to that happens whenever I admit I don’t follow football.

That said, I have no idea who the former Browns coach was or who the new coach is. I saw some soundbites of the newbie saying all the usual things: So glad to be part of this tradition … building on what’s come before … looking forward to the season … yadda yadda yadda.

He sounds like a nice guy. I imagine he’s slightly more qualified than my wife, at least on paper. Still, she has some innovative ideas, like modifying the uniforms to orange, brown and pink; using the eeny, meeny, miny, moe method to decide who plays what position; and changing Super Bowl rings for each team member (the woman aims high) to Pandora charms.

I don’t know, frankly, if the new guy can measure up to such out-of-the-box thinking. The good news is that she’ll have another chance next year, when odds are that management will lower the axe again and a new round of interviews will begin.

Maybe by then, fans will be ready for players in fuschia helmets. If that happens, we’ll know the world really has ended.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Jan. 30, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Television 24 Jan 2014 09:36 am

Forgotten figures of pop

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Did you know there was once a fourth Rice Krispies elf?

His name was Pow! (exclamation point mandatory) and he joined Snap! Crackle! and Pop! for two television commercials in the 1950s. In a recent article for Smithsonian.com, a Kellogg’s spokesman explains to writer K. Annabelle Smith that Pow! was never intended to be an ongoing character, but rather a guest-elf of sorts.

This minor deity in the animated pitchmen pantheon got me thinking about other erased or marginal characters in long-running concerns, whether they were TV shows or comic books or commercials.

Does anybody remember:

Castor Oyl — brother to Olive, the string-beaned girlfriend of Popeye the Sailor. When most of us think of Popeye, we imagine the classic cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s. But Popeye made his first appearance in the “Thimble Theatre” comic strip in 1929, after the strip had been in existence for 10 years with Castor as the main character.

These days, Castor is a pop-culture relic, although he did have a role in the “Popeye” movie starring Robin Williams and, more recently, appeared in new Popeye comic book adventures. Yet I doubt most people could identify him today. (Visit my blog, http://blogs.dixcdn.com/leftofcybercenter/ for a visual.)

John Doggett and Monica Reyes — These two characters replaced FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on seasons eight and nine of “The X-Files,” also known as “X-Files: The Seasons Nobody Talks About.” Played by Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish, respectively, Doggett and Reyes faded into obscurity when Duchovny and Anderson returned for the series’ swan song and two successful films. Patrick’s biggest claim to cinematic fame remains his portrayal of the T-1000 Terminator that bedeviled Ah-nold in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

Mycroft Holmes — the older, smarter, fatter and lazier brother of Sherlock Holmes. Writer Arthur Conan Doyle used or mentioned him only a handful of times in four novels and 56 short stories about the famous detective. He is said to exert great influence over decisions of state, but otherwise just sits around the Diogenes Club, smoking and eating. There are worse ways to live, I suppose.

Chuck Cunningham — Ritchie’s older brother on “Happy Days.” At some point in the second season, he was written out of the series, never to return, and the Cunninghams went from having three kids to only two. His disappearance has even inspired a term, “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome,” used for any characters unceremoniously erased from continuity.

Uncle O’Grimacey — In the world of McDonald’s advertising, O’Grimacey is the uncle of Grimace, the purple, milkshake-loving companion of Ronald. Unlike his nephew, O’Grimacey is green, befitting his role as head huckster for Shamrock Shakes. He last appeared in the mid-1980s and has presumably retired to a small cottage in Ireland.

An Internet search for “McDonald’s characters” will reveal dozens of oddities, such as the Griddler, Iam Hungry and CosMc, an alien who spoke in surfer lingo. I believe all the McDonald’s characters, with the exception of the head clown, have been quietly phased out, relics of a more innocent time when it was acceptable to use cartoon characters to coax children to eat fattening, processed foods.

Word has it the McDonaldland gang rode off into the sunset on the back of Joe Camel, guided by the Budweiser frogs.

Let’s hope they all say hello to Pop!, Chuck, Castor and all the other retirees in the Forgotten Hallows Retirement Center out in Obscuria, Oregon.

Send any other obscure

pop-culture characters to

chris.schillig@yahoo.com or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Jan. 23, 2014, in The Alliance Review.


Commentary & Media & Television 28 Dec 2013 12:36 am

Quacking duck

It’s slightly out of date after today’s reinstatement of Phil Robertson, but here’s my column for the week.

So, a big, furry guy from “Duck Dynasty” made some controversial comments and got himself suspended from his TV show, and now people are taking sides.

Yawn.

I have never seen an episode of “Duck Dynasty.” Until about a month ago, I had no idea it was even a live-action TV show. When people talked about it, I assumed they were referring to a Disney cartoon with Uncle Scrooge, Donald and his three nephews.

My consciousness was raised (or lowered) one day when I was walking through Walmart and saw the bearded Ducks, all of whom look like refugees from a Grateful Dead concert, staring out at me from a rack of T-shirts.

Further enlightenment came when one of my adult students showed me a copy of the “Duck Dynasty” Christmas CD. I haven’t heard it, but I imagine it’s on par with the offerings of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, both of whom traded on their success in a television franchise of an earlier decade to record albums that range from pedestrian to horrific.

All of which means that I wasn’t really too impacted one way or another when Phil Robertson (I had to look up his name), the leader of the Duck flock, expressed his disapproval of homosexuality and his belief that blacks were happy in the Jim Crow south. Nor was I too surprised when A&E, the network that airs the show, suspended him indefinitely. Now his family is saying the show can’t go on without him, which means that a program I’ve never watched, starring people that I don’t care one whit about, may end.

I repeat: Yawn.

Some people are saying that Robertson’s freedom of speech has been impinged, which is, of course, hogwash. He wasn’t censored by the government. Nobody told him he couldn’t speak his mind. His network merely chose not to associate itself with his opinions and severed the relationship, either temporarily or permanently. Freedom of speech does not equate with freedom from consequences.

The cynic in me wonders if this whole incident isn’t playing out in a predetermined way to benefit both A&E and Robertson. After all, you couldn’t buy the publicity both sides received over the last week or so. Given the manipulative formula of reality TV, where episodes are edited to magnify conflict and create heroes and villains, is it such a stretch to ponder how much of this “controversy” is scripted?

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Robertson apologizes, not for his comments (which appeal to a conservative demographic and are, therefore, valuable) but for the strident and blunt way he presented them; and then if A&E reinstates him, along with some tepid mea culpa of its own. When the show returns, even more viewers will tune in to see what Robertson says next. If it’s a ploy, it’s a brilliant one.

(I’m writing this on Saturday, so if all this comes to pass before my column sees print, I’m quitting my day job and going to work for the Psychic Hotline.)

Really, though, why do so many Americans care so much what celebrities think? Just because somebody’s job involves having a camera pointed at them for a significant amount of time each week doesn’t make his opinions more informed and important than the nation’s working class stiffs.

What Robertson has to say about gays, blacks and religion is merely one person’s opinion. He’s entitled to it, of course, just as others are entitled to share their views. It’s a free country, after all.

Now when Donald Duck or Scrooge McDuck speak up about gay rights or racial equality, I’ll pay more attention. That’s the only duck dynasty that interests me.

Originally published Dec. 26, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Media & Television 05 Dec 2013 10:06 pm

Will the Circle be unbroken?

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If George Orwell had written “1984″ in the age of social media, it might look a lot like Dave Eggers’s “The Circle.”

Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece imagines a world where the government strips away citizens’ most basic rights, including the right to privacy. Life in Oceania is presided over by Big Brother and the Party, who rewrite history in the Ministry of Truth and punish the innocent along with the guilty in the Ministry of Love. Opinions that run counter to the official party line are labeled “thoughtcrime,” the worst sin committed against the government.

Orwell used his fertile and far-ranging imagination to good effect in “1984,” satirizing the tendency of power-mad bureaucrats to seize and hold office by any means necessary, including the modification of language. Newspeak, the language of the English Socialist Party in the novel, is a diabolical marvel, its creation predating such euphemisms as “economically distressed” to describe the poor, “downsizing” for firing, and “collateral damage” for civilian deaths in military operations.

Yet not even Orwell could imagine a society where citizens would give up their rights to privacy as we do so freely and regularly in the 21st century. That’s where Eggers and “The Circle” come in.

In this novel, the Circle is a Google-like monstrosity of a search-engine company that begins to make its presence felt in other aspects of society. Its California campus is a model of efficiency and modernity, with employees urged to stay after work to participate in “optional” enrichment activities, all of which are shared via social networking with the great unwashed beyond its walls.

The book’s protagonist is Mae Holland, a modern stand-in for Winston Smith of “1984″ fame. Unlike Winston, who hates his job in the Ministry of Truth, Mae is overjoyed to work at the Circle, where her job is to provide mostly prescripted answers to customer questions in exchange for positive feedback on satisfaction surveys. Her rise through the Circle is meteoric, especially after she agrees to become “transparent,” allowing every waking hour of her life to be streamed instantaneously on the Internet.

Meanwhile, the Circle continues to better life for all of mankind by consolidating information and increasing surveillance. A program called TruYou requires proof of identify before posting online, eliminating trolls. Elected officials go transparent, curbing backdoor deals and lobbyist influence. Electronic bracelets record and transfer medical information in real time. A system is introduced to compel democratic participation, outsourcing voter registration to the Circle and locking up people’s keyboards until they cast ballots.

“Everyone should have a right to know everything and should have the tools to know everything,” a senior Circle official informs Mae, who becomes a willing acolyte.

This brusque dismissal of privacy may jar readers over a certain age, but will be all too familiar to those who live significant percentages of their lives in the digital domain. Anytime it appears Eggers exaggerates this aspect of the Circle’s influence, one need only ponder the direction of modern society.

We live in a world where people post pictures of their Thanksgiving dinner plates, blurt their most intimate business loudly into cellphones while in line, watch instant video of shoppers bludgeoning one another in Walmart, and Google the names of our children’s boyfriends or girlfriends.

Mae’s blurry-eyed attempts to increase her Circle rank by online participation will strike a chord with anybody who checks a cellphone in the middle of the night. We fret over the number of friends we’ve amassed or lost on Facebook and feel insignificant when co-workers have more Twitter followers. We ponder what it “means” when a friend ignores our email and happily give up personal information to spurious software designers who track our locations and buying habits and then sell this information to third parties who use it to clutter our inboxes with spam.

We are, in short, faced with the same quandaries as Mae, and we often reach the same conclusion: that small invasions of our private lives are more than balanced by the benefits of technology.

If “The Circle” has a flaw, it’s that Eggers doesn’t have characters argue passionately enough for the value of life offline or, at the very least, for moderation. The few characters who do attempt to live off the grid come to bad ends, just as those who rebel against the government are squashed by it in “1984.”

But in the latter, it’s still obvious that Orwell is taking a stand against totalitarianism. In “The Circle,” this stand is less obvious. Indeed, given our love of and reliance on various online tools, Eggers might have underestimated the persuasiveness of the Circle’s argument. I know any number of people who would embrace the sort of dystopia he envisions in the book, finding loss of individualism a small price to pay for “improving” the world, even when it costs a few lives.

Truth be told, the first thing I wanted to do when I finished the book was tweet about it. The Circle may be closing faster than we know.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschillig at Twitter

Originally published Dec. 5, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Media & Television 07 Dec 2012 07:45 am

Apocalypse now?

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The end is coming too late to do me any good.

According to wackadoodles on the Internet, the world will cease this Dec. 21 in fulfillment of a Mayan prophecy older than Calgon’s ancient Chinese secret for white shirts. These fun-loving folks believe — or pretend to believe — that the rogue Planet X (or Nibiru or Eris) is waiting for this date to gobsmack our own planet, ending life as we know it — and beating that other impending doomsday scenario, the Fiscal Cliff, by a good two weeks.

When I hear references to Planet X, I can’t help but think of the scene in “Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century,” where Porky, the “eager young space cadet,” shows Daffy Duck that finding the mysterious Planet X is as easy as following planets A, B, C, etc. (all helpfully marked with gigantic white letters visible from space) to their inevitable conclusion.

The inevitable conclusion for any thinking person is that, if a real-life Planet X existed, astronomers surely would have spotted it decades ago, unless it’s playing hide-and-go-seek behind the moon (I hate when it does that), holding off until the winter solstice to jump out and smash into us.

Intentionally malicious planets, like crazy ex’s, are really hard to predict, after all.

Anyway, the end of the world on Dec. 21 is too late for me because, by then, my personal world already will have been disrupted by Planet Xmas. In case the world doesn’t stop spinning, all my gifts will be purchased (and in case it does, I will have purchased them all on credit); the tree will be trimmed; and my wife’s 1,327 gingerbread decorations will be lugged from the attic by her carthorse husband and installed in locations strategically selected to cause toe-stubbing and one-legged hopping and cursing in the dark.

I’ve already promised some of my classes that if the world ends, I will bring them doughnuts the next day; and if it doesn’t, they owe me some sweets on Dec. 22. Some have reminded me that we aren’t in school Dec. 22, anyway, which is another reason why I hope next apocalypse comes earlier in the year. Preferably a Wednesday. Monday is bad enough without armageddon to contend with, Tuesday is just Monday with slightly less angst, Thursday is too close to the weekend, and everybody knows that Americans don’t do anything extra on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. No, Wednesday would be best, maybe right after lunch.

And, really, ending the world just before Christmas is pretty rotten. By Dec. 21, most of us will have suffered through the worst parts of the holiday — which includes, musically, “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” and those dogs that bark “Jingle Bells”; cinematically, Jim Carrey’s turn as the Grinch; and literarily (?), dozens of not-so-clever parodies of “The Night Before Christmas” and those silly family update letters stuffed in Christmas cards — and will be ready for the highlight of the holiday: one brief day of rest before we take back all the junk that other people gave us, tear down decorations and get ready for Valentine’s Day.

No, ending the world on Dec. 21 is notoriously bad planning. I’d like to give those ancient Mayans a piece of my mind, but I have something more important to worry about: It turns out that the world’s supply of Alludium Phosdex, the shaving cream atom, is alarmingly low.

Where’s Duck Dodgers when you need him?

Chris Schillig’s wife, Holly, wants the world to know that she figured out how to light the prelit Christmas tree this year just before Chris threw the darn thing out the door. You can reach the holiday grump at chris.schillig@yahoo.com

or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published on Dec. 6, 2012, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Media & Music & Television 05 Apr 2012 08:50 pm

Play that air banjo

I shocked my wife recently by performing the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme song from memory.

This included a passable vocal rendition of the Earl Scruggs banjo solo. Scruggs was in the public eye last week because he died, an extreme way to trend on Twitter, but effective if you’re willing to sacrifice.

Anyway, I summoned my best bass to imitate singer Jerry Scoggins and launched into “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” which spent 20 weeks on the country charts in 1962, six years before I was born. “Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed,” it begins, and takes the audience (in this case, my long-suffering spouse, desperately rolling over in bed to ignore the lunatic lying next to her, who was belting out lyrics and playing the air banjo — my air guitar’s in the shop for repairs — with reckless abandon) through the rags-to-riches tale of food-shooting, oil-finding Clampett, who moves his family from the hinterlands to swank Beverly Hills. Chances are good you’re singing it now — “bubbling crude,” “black gold” “Texas tea” and all.

For a guy who just last week wrote about how his memory for names is shot, I’m happy to report my recall for ephemeral nonsense is as strong as ever. In addition to “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme, I can rattle off principal actors in “Leave It To Beaver” (Barbara Billingsley, Hugh Beaumont, Tony Dow, “and Jerry Mathers as The Beaver”); the number of consecutive issues that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby collaborated on the Fantastic Four (102), and the names of all 10 Led Zeppelin studio albums (to be fair, the first is self-titled, two and three are Roman numerals, and the fourth is runic shapes that are loosely transcribed as “ZOSO”).

Yet ask me what I had for dinner last night or how many years I’ve been married (my pat answer to the latter, “All of them,” doesn’t play well) and I’m at a complete loss.

We live in the golden age of pop culture because virtually everything is available to us — in print, on disk or online. Want to read “Gulliver of Mars,” the book that inspired Edgar Rice Burroughs to create John Carter, which inspired Disney Studios to make the biggest bomb in its history? Twenty years ago, you had to haunt used-book stores or order sight unseen through the mail. Today, it’s free online.

Around 1987, I took a movie appreciation class where the biggest problem was how to watch any movies. A few students had VCRs in their dorm rooms, but almost nobody had pre-recorded videos. We begged and borrowed movies — not necessarily good movies — just to have something. I ended up working with a group to analyze special effects in “Alien,” not because we particularly liked it, but because it was the only movie we had.

Today, that’s as alien to younger film fans as the title character was to those crew members who watched it pop out of a man’s chest.

Want to relive “King Kong,” “Casablanca,” “Double Indemnity,” or other Hollywood hits? You no longer have to stay up until 2 a.m. and receive a fuzzy signal through a rabbit-ear antenna from some station in Outer Mongolia, only to doze off five minutes before the movie starts and wake up as the final credits roll. Chances are good the movie is available for purchase, rental or loan on DVD, Blu-Ray or instant download to scratch the cinematic itch on your schedule.

The same holds true for music, poetry, drama, art — you name it, you can likely find it.

Today, the hardest part of pop culture is making time to enjoy everything that interests you. Or maybe it’s finding a way to step out of its path and connect with the real world outside your door and not the one on the omnipresent screen in front of you.

In previous generations, people like Jed Clampett knew dozens of ways to catch food, mix roots and herbs, and live off the land. Today, people like me know dozens of tunes and trivia about characters like Jed Clampett.

I guess that’s progress, as long as the banjo you’re hearing is the theme from “The Beverly Hillbillies” and not “Deliverance.”

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally printed in The Alliance Review on April 5, 2012.

Movies & Television 25 Jan 2011 12:42 am

Re-imagining Macbeth

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One day after watching Patrick Stewart play the lead in this newly released Macbeth on DVD, and I can’t get the adaptation out of my head.

While remaining mostly true to the Bard’s language, everything else about this brilliantly re-imagined version of the Scottish Play is brand new. Director Rupert Goold drags the tragedy out of the distant past and into some cryptic, World War II-era hospital netherworld, with the Wyrd Sisters serving as nurses who are as likely to kill their patients as save them. (More likely, actually.)

Stewart is brilliant as Macbeth, and Kate Fleetwood seductively evil as his “fiend-like queen.”  Half the fun is watching how the familiar parts of the play — the dagger of the mind, the witches’ cauldron scenes, the forest coming to Dunsinane — are given a fresh coat of paint. Despite being Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, this lasts 180 minutes, the runtime bloated with shocking imagery and avant garde camera angles. Nevertheless, the lines themselves are perfectly clear, and when things get too gory, all one needs to do is close the eyes to experience the grandeur of Shakespeare’s language.

A few caveats: The Porter, the only piece of comic relief in the original, is here made cutting edge and dangerous. Following a scene where he urinates in a sink (which Macbeth later uses to wash his hands) and mimics sodomizing a little girl, he pops up like Rambo in the closing scenes, fighting alongside Stewart with a belt of bullets slung over his shoulder. The climax itself is too action-movie like for my tastes, although the shot of Lord and Lady Macbeth descending to hitherto unreachable depths of their underworld home via elevator is the perfect closing scene. Call it a suitable coda to this dark exploration of ambition unchecked by morality.

The DVD has no extras, but purchase does support the Public Broadcasting Service, always a plus.

Books & Commentary & Movies & Music & Television 20 Dec 2010 10:33 pm

It’s Not Christmas Until …

… I hear “Father Christmas” by the Kinks ….

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… read the classic Carl Barks’ comic-book story “Christmas for Shacktown” …

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… hear Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore in their rendition of A Christmas Carol from the golden age of radio …

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… read, see, or listen to some version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (with the exception of the rotten live-action movie from a few years back) …

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… listen to one (or all) of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas CDs (but the original, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, is still the best) …

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… and of course watch movies It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and Holiday Inn, but I’m too tired to dig up images to go along with them.

Anybody else have any favorites?

Comic books & Television 02 Nov 2010 10:18 pm

The Walking Dead

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I made time to watch The Walking Dead tonight. “Uneven” is the word that first comes to mind.

The 90-minute debut of Robert Kirkman’s zombie survivalist comic book on national television managed to mix some character development among its gore, but even the direction of the great Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist) couldn’t overcome the familiarity of the primary threat. Yes, they’re zombies, and we all know the rules: They’re creepy and they’re drooling, they feast on human (and horse) flesh, and they’re susceptible to blows to the head. Nothing in The Walking Dead contradicts these rules or adds to the genre in any substantial way.

It’s up to the characters, then, to carry the episode, and this they mostly do. The human element — the angst, the survival instinct, the weird bedfellows that are the result of the zombie apocalypse — is well represented here, although our primary protagonist, lawman Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is rather bland and one-note. An overlong opening sequence shows us Grimes waking up in the hospital after a gunshot injury to learn that the world has undergone an infestation of zombies. A similar expository scene was handled much better in 28 Days Later.

The Walking Dead shows enough promise to bring me back next week, and it reminds me that I need to catch up with Kirkman’s comic book. I read the first volume and enjoyed it, but for some reason, I never proceeded beyond that point. A giant compendium of issues 1-48 might be the way to go here, and maybe my time would be better spent on that than on the television series.

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