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.
cschillig at Twitter
Originally published Dec. 5, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
Ah, the day after Thanksgiving, when Americans exchange leftover turkey and gratitude for shoulder pads and helmets.
You’ll need both if you’re venturing onto the retail gridiron, looking for the perfect gift for that special somebody on your list or, more likely, just scooping up whatever garbage big-box retailers are pushing this season.
Such is the mania for Black Friday shopping that many readers have likely been in the game already. If you’re one of those, you’re either relaxing during halftime — and perhaps plotting your second half strategy with the help of sales flyers in this very newspaper — or sidelined by injury. (A toe crushed by a cart wielded by an overzealous septuagenarian is the most common reason to find yourself on the shopping DL list.)
With the hope that it’s not too late, here are a few Left of Center tips to keep you safe and productive during the coming three-week orgy of American capitalism.
1. Always shop with a buddy. A wingman is the most necessary accoutrement to a successful foray into the retail jungle. This person should have some experience in hand-to-hand combat to repel hordes of angry mothers after you’ve grabbed the last Tickle Me Elmo and are making a run for the register.
Experience with nunchakus and throwing stars are also a plus, allowing the wingman to hurl your credit card with ninja accuracy straight for the scanner, the magnetic strip slitting your competitors’ throats as you skate across their blood toward the successful completion of your transaction.
2. Think small. Not in terms of your shopping list or budget — which should be as large as possible to help stimulate the economy and put more Americans back to work, hallelujah! — but in terms of your vehicle. A smaller car will allow you to wedge into spaces where larger vehicles cannot, like those diagonal lines on either side of handicapped parking spaces. Or, if you drive a Smart Car, into a bicycle rack.
Of course, small cars make it difficult to drag home too much loot, but since everybody wants iPads and iPhones this year anyway, ample trunk space hardly matters. Plus, some misguided soul will probably steal all your bags as you leave the store anyway.
3. Choose your weapons carefully. A shopping cart is your greatest ally, allowing you to mow through masses of zombie shoppers just like characters on “The Walking Dead.” But a squeaky, wobbly wheel will slow you down just enough to miss the blue-light special on tacky costume jewelry in Aisle 4 or get beaten to the punch on cheap, large-screen TVs imported from Mexico that will save you $50 but cost thousands of Americans their jobs.
You may also wish to arm yourself with smaller shopping baskets, which can be strapped to both feet using the twistie ties off bread bags or the belts off sweepers, allowing you to glide across icy parking lots like a latter-day Wayne Gretzky and shave precious seconds off your commute from Walmart to Target.
4. Come armed with air fresheners and earbuds. Both will be necessary when waiting in line with your fellow shoppers.
True story: Last year I stood in line behind a gentleman whose body had a difficult time assimilating all the turkey he had eaten the day before. Periodically, he would announce, “Better look out, I’m blowin ‘em out!” At first, I thought he was referencing a really good buy, but once the pungent aroma of stale turkey farts wafted my way, I knew it wasn’t bargains he was talking about.
The earbuds won’t do anything to quell the smell, but they will keep you isolated from other shoppers and their litany of aches, pains and funny-but-not-really stories about kids and significant others.
5. Wait until Cyber Monday and buy it all online. I like to support local businesses as much as the next guy, but let’s face it, clicking a few buttons, typing in your credit card number and waiting for somebody to deliver the goodies to your porch is a whole lot better for the environment and your mental health.
Plus, it’ll give you more time at home to spend with family, where the only fowl … er, foul odors will come not from strangers, but from people you know and love.
Then again, maybe there’s something to be said for Black Friday shopping after all.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published Nov. 29, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
Size matters in pop culture. Or maybe it just matters to me.
Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by stories that hinge on size differentials. People who shrink, monsters who dwarf skyscrapers, bugs the size of Cadillacs — give me any or all of the above and the odds that I will like the book, movie, poem, radio drama or synchronized swimming event where they appear, especially if the big things are juxtaposed against smaller ones.
Most kids like monsters, I think, but I always preferred the really tall ones. The Frankenstein monster is more appealing than Dracula because Boris Karloff, who plays the monster, is taller than Bela Lugosi, who plays the vampire. (Plus, Lugosi has that really thick accent and walks like he’s stuck in jelly. “I vaaaant to succck your bluuuud,” he says, inching along at the speed of your average tortoise, while toddlers crawl past and old men in wheelchairs lap him. Not much fear factor there.)
We all root for the underdog, which is why we all cheer for David and his slingshot against Goliath, and why “Rocky” kept spawning sequels until the sight of Sylvester Stallone without his shirt became too grotesque for even the most stalwart of moviegoers.
I just take the term “underdog” more literally than most, wanting to see the conflict reflected in extra inches, feet and yards. After all, who could be more underdog-like than people fighting giants, or characters shrinking to the size of dandelions and trying to avoid a size 10 shoe?
As a last hurrah to the carefree days of summer, when long afternoons afford time to ponder such trifles as the greatest stories about things that are bigger or smaller than normal, here are a few of my favorites:
Jack and the Beanstalk — The story that started it all for me. Little boy, magic beans, giant vegetation, big guys who live in the clouds, even — if memory serves — a singing harp. And you can’t top the suspense of Jack chopping down the beanstalk as the giant descends, screaming “Fee Fie Fo Fum!”
King Kong — Maybe my favorite movie — and movie monster — of all time. Big ape, big dinosaurs, little people running and screaming in terror. What’s not to like?
Godzilla — Everything from King Kong applies, but with the addition of nuclear weapons and radioactive breath. Plus, Godzilla has been better translated into other mediums than Kong. The 1970s Marvel Comics version is still my favorite comic-book series of all time. ‘Nuff said.
The Shrinking Man — Filmed as “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” this novel by the late, great Richard Matheson has the main character exposed to a mysterious mist that slowly reduces him in size, until he is living in his daughter’s dollhouse and fighting off a domesticated cat that is, proportionally, the size of a double-decker bus. If you’ve ever fantasized about shrinking to thimble size and dueling spiders in the basement (and who hasn’t?) this is the book/movie for you.
Jurassic Park — Again, you’ve got dinosaurs, plus the theme of humankind’s naïve belief that it can trump the natural order and Jeff Goldblum (in the movie) nattering on about chaos theory while an angry T. rex uses his colleagues as toothpicks. The sequels aren’t worth a tinker’s damn — or a tinker’s dam, depending on which etymological story you believe — but they do have big dinosaurs vs. little people, so they can’t be all bad.
(I really wanted to like Michael Crichton’s “Micro,” by the way, because he’s the author of “Jurassic Park” and it’s about shrinking people to microscopic size, but I couldn’t get into it. Too much pseudoscience, not enough screaming people. It’s no good if people don’t run around and scream.)
I could rattle off a whole slew of pop-culture references that fit the bill. Here are a few: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Gorgo, Reptilicus, Ant-Man, the Atom, Tarantula! (a movie so exciting that the exclamation point is part of the title), Tom Thumb, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Johnny Socko, Ultraman, munchkins, Yoda, Tom and Jerry, and Fantastic Voyage.
Pacific Rim — the best movie almost nobody saw this summer. Giant creatures crawling from a hole ripped in the space-time continuum in the Pacific Ocean? Check. Global chaos as said monsters attack? Check. Humans piloting giant robots in a last-ditch effort to save the world? Check. One of the coolest sci-fi/fantasy films since the original Star Wars? Check and mate.
So there you have it — incontrovertible evidence that the bigger they are, they harder we fall for them. Or that I do, anyway.
Originally published Aug. 22, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
Dear College of Cardinals:
I appreciate your interest in having me assume the mantle of pope in the wake of Benedict XVI’s resignation, but I must decline for the following reasons:
1. I’ve been racking my brains to come up with a “pope-ular” name with no success. Apparently I can’t keep Christopher, patron saint of travelers, because pontiffs must always adopt new names (I’m waiting for Pope Super Bowl XLVII, myself) and because church officials took away Christopher’s feast day when I was a baby, allegedly after they discovered he wasn’t a real man and instead was only a legend.
Now, many people refer to my quasi-legendary status already — my wife is fond of saying I’m a legend in my own mind — but it still smarts to know that the guy your parents named you after has been downgraded. This must be how the Planet Formerly Known as Pluto felt when it was relegated to a mere chunk of interstellar debris.
2. I still owe another year on my 2009 Dodge Journey and don’t want to trade it in for a more expensive Popemobile, even though I hear the Official Car of the 21st Century Papacy™ comes with heated leather seats and bulletproof glass. If you could somehow make it submersible, so I could drive underwater, and paint it black like the Batmobile, I might be willing to reconsider.
3. I would have to change my Twitter account. Granted, cschillig has fewer than 300 followers (and most of those are robots or institutions), but I’ve grown fond of it and wouldn’t want to swap for an official Vatican handle, even if it came with the promise of a million-plus followers.
Furthermore, I doubt the Holy See would be too understanding if Pope Schillig started tweeting about movies and comic books. “God bless Quentin Tarantino” would probably get me brought up on heresy charges at worst or grounded from the Popemobile at best
4. I don’t think I could jog very well in a shoulder-to-ankle vestment. Nuff said.
5. I would have to move to Rome and learn a new language, which would take time away from my graduate studies in Pig Latin.
6. I would have to talk to many people who disagree with my message. As a teacher in civilian life, you’d think I would be used to this, but I’m not. And swapping lessons from “no apostrophe in Presidents Day” and “avoid run-on sentences” to “no condoms in Africa,” “no meat on Fridays” and “no women priests” wouldn’t do much for my self-esteem.
7. The thought of carrying a big, ornate shepherd’s crook is tempting. There are a lot of people I’d like to smite in this world, believe me, but nobody takes you seriously when you smite without a big, ornate stick. (That’s why I’m not allowed back in Rite Aid.) Still, I’m afraid that if I had access to one regularly, I’d smite so many people that it would be scandalous.
8. The headgear. Man, the headgear. I mitre get made fun of when I’m out with the guys.
9. My marriage. I would have to get a divorce and an annulment to become pope, which wouldn’t make me very popular with family and friends. Plus, my wife would get half of everything, so you’d have to draw a line down the middle of Vatican City and give her 50 percent. Since VC is already the smallest sovereign nation, I don’t think its residents would appreciate having their living space divided in two, nor would they like seeing the Pope’s things thrown out a window or stacked on the curb. (If they even have curbs in Italy.)
Thanks again for the consideration. When the white smoke flies, I hope maybe you can make room for me in some other capacity. If the new pope needs a court jester or an official driver (especially for that Popemobile), keep me in mind.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published Feb. 21, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
Dan Slott, the writer of Spider-Man’s adventures, warned readers earlier in December to avoid the Internet on Dec. 26 until they’d read “Amazing Spider-Man No. 700,” which went on sale that day.
Something big was happening in the Marvel superhero’s world, and Slott didn’t want it spoiled by a careless headline or an overzealous fan. In November, fans learned that Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis — OK, one of his arch-nemeses — Doctor Octopus, had switched minds with Peter Parker, Spidey’s alter-ego. This left Parker’s consciousness trapped inside Doc Ock’s failing body while Ock went off and played Spider-Man, even kissing Parker’s former wife, who didn’t remember she had married Spider-Man because a demon erased her memories.
(I can hear you snickering. It’s no sillier than anything on “Glee” or an afternoon soap opera, so cut me some slack.)
Marvel Comics had been crowing about a further game-changer coming in issue 700, so I told myself to take Slott’s advice and not peek on any comic book websites until after I’d read the story.
But I forgot about Twitter. There I was in the middle of the Pittsburgh airport, waiting for my daughter’s flight to depart, carelessly scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw the headline from the Hollywood Reporter (spoiler alert for anybody who has not yet read the comic book): “Peter Parker Dies in ‘Amazing Spider-Man No. 700′ Comic.”
I lifted my head and, to quote Walt Whitman, sounded my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
I wasn’t angry that Parker had died, although plenty of fans were (Slott even received death threats). This is, after all, comics, where heroes pass all the time, only to return a month, a year, or even 10 years later, restored by some deus ex machina to full health. Superman and Captain America are two relatively recent examples of superheroes who have gone on to an everlasting reward — and received lots of media coverage along the way — only to find that it wasn’t as everlasting as they thought.
Peter Parker — the nebbish science major without friends, raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, whose life became only more complicated after a radioactive arachnid gave him all the powers of a spider — will be back, if for no other reason than Marvel needs the status quo restored in time for the next Spider-Man movie.
I can’t even say that news of Parker’s death was a complete surprise — although the mind-swapping with Doc Ock was a shocker — because by warning fans to go incommunicado on the day after Christmas, Slott was foreshadowing that something big was brewing, and death is the biggest brew (or brouhaha) of all.
No, I guess my barbaric yawp was because, in this interconnected world of ours, it’s difficult to be caught totally off-guard by a pop culture event, any pop-culture event. Once upon a time, the world was shocked to learn who killed J.R., but these days, the guilty party’s name would be all over Entertainment Tonight weeks ahead of the episode.
Darth Vader is really Luke Skywalker’s father? That blew my mind in 1980, but if it happened now, somebody would leak the script to TMZ, and we’d sit in theaters and wait for the exact moment when the paternal relationship is announced (1:51:18 in “The Empire Strikes Back,” if you care).
We live in the Golden Age of Pop Culture — or Geek Culture, if you prefer. Not only is an awesome array of contemporary entertainment (and a considerable amount of junk — Sturgeon’s Law still applies) available, but also a vast storehouse of past entertainment, more accessible than ever before.
Want to watch all six seasons of “I Love Lucy,” all nine seasons of “The X-Files” and every extant piece of concert footage from Led Zeppelin? Readily available. How about read the classic science-fiction novels of H.G. Wells or watch one of “The Thin Man” films from the 1940s? Hard copies or digital downloads exist for them all, some as close as your local library. Want to talk about any of the above plus tens of thousands more? Go online and start typing.
But this embarrassment of riches comes with a price: Rare is the book or movie or TV show that we watch “cold,” without spoiled plot points or preexisting opinions sullying the experience.
Just last week, in the middle of the comedy “This Is 40,” I sat horrified as a character gave away the ending to the television show “Lost.” I’ve watched only three of the six seasons. Now I’m not so sure I’ll finish.
Maybe I should be thankful. After all, the revelation saved me a lot of time. And maybe I should take a cue from eastern culture, where endings are less important than the paths characters take to get there.
Regardless, I sometimes wish I had Spider-Man’s powers, if only so I could web up my eyes and ears and avoid the next comic book spoiler — the one that explains how Peter Parker cheated death yet again.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published on Jan. 3, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
It didn’t take long — hours, really — before horror over last Friday’s school killings in Connecticut turned into a rush to judgment and reform.
Americans took to Facebook, Twitter and blogs first to express shock, sorrow and condolences, and, soon after, opinions about why the 20-year-old shooter decided to turn an elementary school into an abattoir.
Some blamed the news media for a supposed focus on violence and sensationalism, noting that networks are quick to swoop in and fixate on numbers — 20 dead children, seven dead adults, plus the shooter himself — and compare them to other school tragedies in Columbine, Virginia Tech and, closer to home, Chardon. By sharing body counts, goes this school of thought, the media has created a twisted Top 10 to which other sick individuals will aspire.
Others looked to the removal of prayer in the schools. Conservative radio host Bryan Fischer said that God turned his back on the children at Sandy Hook Elementary because America has kicked Him and His commandments out of public schools. The only way to regain God’s protection, he said, is for school boards to authorize the return of prayer, even in defiance of the Supreme Court.
Still other bloggers and posters blamed gun laws, with the left calling them too lax and the right calling them too strict. Legislators have been too focused on the economy and the looming fiscal cliff to worry overmuch about gun control, an issue that polarizes Americans. Some opined that if teachers were allowed to carry guns, they could better protect their students in such situations.
A few thoughts:
- The media does fixate on certain stories, sometimes to the point of distorting their significance. While the situation at Sandy Hook undoubtedly deserved coverage, the nonstop barrage may have obscured the fact that, statistically, schools are still one of the safest places for kids. By contrast, one of the most dangerous places, motor vehicles, receives scant coverage.
- Individual prayer has not been removed from public schools. Students are free to bow their heads for moments of silence or to organize prayer groups to meet before and after classes. Schools may not compel students to pray. And the thought of a God who would purposely turn his back on children because of any policy instituted by adults, as Fischer suggests, should be repulsive to people of all faiths.
- I may have my membership as a card-carrying liberal revoked for saying this, but stricter gun-control laws would not have stopped the Sandy Hook shooter, who murdered using guns owned legally by his mother. What will help in the future is a greater focus on gun safety and on the importance of keeping firearms locked away, with ammunition stored separately, and with keys hidden from all but the person who legally owns the weapons.
- Of course, this greatly detracts from the usefulness (if that’s the right word) of firearms in an emergency situation, since most home intruders will not wait for a gun owner to unlock a gun cabinet, load a weapon, take aim and fire, which is why firearms in the home create a false sense of security and likely aren’t practical or helpful.
- In the wake of 9/11, law-abiding Americans lost many freedoms because of well-intentioned but overzealous attempts to protect us from terrorism. The Patriot Act, parts of which were reauthorized, was too broad and too intrusive. We would be foolish to trample the Second Amendment to enact feel-good gun-control legislation that may not do anything to make Americans truly safer.
- I am a teacher and would never carry a gun in my classroom even if I were legally permitted. I’ve read too many studies that indicate fatalities are more likely when both parties have weapons. Just as important, the presence of a gun on my person would fly in the face of the message I try to instill in my students — that reason and thought trump violence.
- Mental-health services are always among the first to see a decrease in funding in tough economic times, yet the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses notes that one in 17 people in this country has schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder.
- Statistically, the mentally ill are no more likely to be violent than the rest of the population, but a small number who are denied medications and services could turn to violence — against themselves or others — as a coping mechanism. Better to shore up compassionate services to this underserved segment of society than waste time in a fruitless battle to change gun-control laws that would affect only law-abiding citizens.
The killings in Connecticut may be a wake-up call, but if they rouse us only to the same tired rhetoric, then the tragedy is even greater. After all, in 100 percent of violent scenarios, the weapon of choice is the human mind.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published on Dec. 20, 2012, in The Alliance Review.
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 email@example.com
or @cschillig on Twitter.
Originally published on Dec. 6, 2012, in The Alliance Review.
It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
— Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein”
The ghastly patchwork monster who haunts so many dreams is the inspired creation of 18-year-old Mary Shelley, who first published “Frankenstein” anonymously almost 200 years ago.
Little did she know that she was setting into motion a literary phenomenon that would serve as catalyst for countless imitations, adaptations and parodies in mediums known and unknown in her lifetime: stage plays and comic strips, musicals and models, television comedies and toys.
And, of course, movies. Lots and lots of movies, two of which will be shown as part of the Turner Classic Movies Event Series on Wednesday at Cinemark Tinseltown.
“‘Frankenstein’ has remained in print since 1818 because it is both a Gothic novel, which has never gone out of style, and because it is a novel of ideas that have become ever more relevant,” said David Thiele, assistant professor of English at the University of Mount Union. “It has the Gothic thrill of violating taboos and the charisma of a Satanic antihero in Dr. Frankenstein. It also has anxieties about the Scientific Revolution at its heart, anxieties about altering the natural order.”
Hollywood picked up on these thrills and anxieties early.
By the time Universal Studios filmed “Frankenstein” in 1931, the novel had already been adapted for the screen by no less a luminary than Thomas Edison, whose studio produced a silent version 21 years earlier.
Universal’s interpretation, however, under the control of visionary and eccentric director James Whale, established the benchmark for all future comparisons.
The adaptation keeps the basic kernel of Shelley’s tale, but adds plenty of ghastly flourishes. Young scientist Henry Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive) sequesters himself away from his loving fiancée (Mae Clarke) and university mentor (Edward Van Sloan) to conduct experiments of a most unethical — not to mention ghoulish — variety.
Not present in the original but prominent in the film are the hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), and a mountaintop laboratory that is the site of Victor’s greatest triumph — and failure.
The centerpiece of Universal’s Frankenstein is, of course, the Monster itself. Played to perfection by English actor Boris Karloff, the creature never utters a line, yet still evokes both sympathy and horror as a creature stitched together from graveyard parts.
Nearly hidden beneath heavy makeup and prosthetics designed by Jack Pierce, Karloff lets his eyes do the emoting. By the film’s final reel, when villagers set a windmill ablaze in an attempt to kill the creature, audiences feel a mingled sense of relief that he is gone and outrage that his creator, who abandoned him, finds a happier ending than he deserves.
The original “Frankenstein” was such a success that Universal went back to the well for a second drink, a decision far less automatic in 1935 than in Hollywood’s later, sequel-happy years.
“The Bride of Frankenstein” reunites Whale and most of the original cast for a bigger-budgeted production. In the second edition of “Universal Horrors,” the definitive account of the studio’s horror years, authors Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas note that Karloff was saddled with 62 pounds of costume and makeup for his encore performance as the creature.
At least he gets several lines of dialogue, which would be parodied decades later in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.”
Elsa Lanchester secures brief but pivotal roles in the sequel. She plays author Shelley in an opening prologue and, later, the titular Bride herself. Lanchester’s teased-up hair, herky-jerky movements and alley-cat hissing are highlights of a film that many critics believe outshines the first.
In the years that followed, the Frankenstein monster cheated death time and again to return in sequels that were never the equal of Universal’s first two films. Karloff would play the creature only once more, in 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein,” although he would appear as an evil scientist in “House of Frankenstein” (1944) and, years later, as the grandson of the original Frankenstein — the scientist, not the monster — in “Frankenstein 1970,” confusingly released in 1958.
Fans of classic horror who want to meet the great granddaddy of modern-day fright franchise stars such as Michael Myers (“Halloween”), Freddy Krueger (“Nightmare on Elm Street”) and Jason (“Friday the 13th”) have an opportunity to see both “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” on the big screen at Cinemark Tinseltown in North Canton in a unique double feature at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesday. Along with both films, the NCM/Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies and Universal-sponsored showings will feature a video introduction by TCM historian Robert Osborne.
For more information or to purchase tickets, see cinemark.com or fathomevents. com.
Originally published Oct. 17, 2012, in The Alliance Review.
The Quaker Oats guy has enrolled in the advertising equivalent of “The Biggest Loser.”
The venerable mascot with the distinctive blue hat and white, wavy hair has changed, his plumpness giving way to a more toned, svelte look. The modification is noticeable only if you’re looking for it or if, like me, you mistakenly drop two boxes of Quaker Oats products in your shopping cart at the same time. (As a bonus to online readers, I’ll include the side-by-side photo on The Review’s website. There you can also see, if you squint, two bottles of orange juice and a roll of paper towels joyriding in my cart. Ah, the fast-paced, super-sexy life of a newspaper columnist …)
Anyway, the slimming of “Larry” — I swear I’m not making this up, the Quaker Oats guy’s name is Larry, although “Otis” would have been more apropos — was the subject of an ABC News report a few months ago. It explained that the makers of Quaker Oats, in an attempt to appeal to more health-conscious consumers, gave an ad agency the go-ahead to drop Larry’s double-chin, shorten his hair slightly and airbrush away about five pounds. At 135 years old, we should all be so well preserved.
(”When my age you reach, look as good you will not,” Yoda says, making me long for a meeting between Larry and the 900-year-old Jedi master, with the former waving maybe a buggy whip and the latter brandishing his lightsaber. The smart money’s on Yoda.)
A few ironies exist in this artistic nip-and-tuck. Among them: Americans may be crazily health-conscious, imbibing record numbers of diet sodas and making reduced-fat foods vanish off the shelves quicker than drug charges off an OSU football player’s Alliance Police Department rap sheet, yet we are, as a nation, fatter than ever.
One-third of all Americans are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and just 62 percent of us walk for more than 10 minutes a week. The impact on health care costs is, if you’ll pardon the pun, immense, with the Bipartisan Policy Center warning that the battle of the bulge could eventually bankrupt the country. Even if that’s more than a little alarmist, it’s still cause for concern, and something to think about as we go back to the buffet for seconds and thirds, tickle the backs of our throats with feathers to clear the decks for dessert, wash it all down with diet sodas and dream of the day when we’ll look like the new-and-improved Larry, the Quaker Oats mascot.
A second irony is that Quaker Oats has been owned since 2001 by PepsiCo, whose other products include super-healthy Pepsi Cola, Frito-Lay potato chips and Cheetos. However the War of the Waistline plays out, Pepsi will stand victorious.
Maybe this mascot-facelift tactic could pay handsome dividends for other brands, too. I would personally feel more at ease with Kool-Aid Man if he would trim down from a two-quart pitcher to an eight-ounce glass. (He could also stop smashing through brick walls and scaring the bejesus out of little kids and their parents. Just sayin’.) Colonel Sanders would be more trustworthy without facial hair, and a collagen injection would smooth those wrinkles under his eyes and erase about 10 years. McDonald’s has already more or less eliminated Ronald, but less cake makeup and a more healthy facial tone would make me stop clowning around in the drive-thru line and buy more hamburgers.
Until then, I’ll have to content myself with my new best friend, Larry the Thinner. I don’t want to get too accustomed to him, however. If he’s like most Americans, the old, chubby Quaker will be back, just as soon as he succumbs to one too many bowls of oatmeal-flavored ice cream or something.
cschillig at Twitter
Originally published Aug. 16, 2012, in The Alliance Review.
Any student who has suffered through my class knows my policy on exclamation points: You get only two a year, so use them wisely.
Actually, the quantity and duration change every time I tell it, and savvy students — the ones who aren’t sleeping or glancing surreptitiously at cellphones every few minutes — sometimes call me out. “Didn’t you say last week that we get two exclamation points each quarter, Mr. S?” (Almost nobody can pronounce Schillig without making it sound like Austrian currency, so Mr. S is acceptable shorthand. Maybe I should change my name to Euro.)
Yes, it’s true I inform some students that they can use three exclamation points a year, some four. In a moment of unexpected largesse, I once offered up five, which is unbridled craziness.
The exact number doesn’t matter as much as the expectation that budding writers think of the exclamation point as an endangered species (something to be cherished) or a rich dessert (something to be enjoyed only occasionally). To throw in one more metaphor, if periods are common nails of the punctuation toolbox, then exclamation points are drywall screws — expensive, more difficult to use, and appropriate for only certain types of sentences and situations.
If a piece of information is so earthshaking that it will rattle the souls of all who read it, an exclamation point is warranted. “Martians Invade!” or “World Ends!” are such headlines. “Mary’s dating Tom again!” is not, in most cases — unless you’re Mary or Tom.
Short of impending, immediate violence — “I’ll kill you!” — most exclamation points are unnecessary. If you’ve written a piece well, the emotion is conveyed without the need for special punctuation, and readers are better served by deciding for themselves how much emotion a given statement deserves.
I also make it clear to students that no matter how many exclamation points I allow them, under no circumstances should the marks be used simultaneously. Even “World Ends!” doesn’t merit two exclamation points, because what do you do you write the next day? “World Returns!!”?
For the record, I must also acknowledge my own hypocrisy. While I am a card-carrying member of the Anti-Exclamation League, I am simultaneously and contradictorily a member of the slippery Emoticons Embracers Ltd. (EEL), which supports the use of smiley faces and sad faces created with punctuation. So recipients of my electronic messages are often besieged with or — but never or because I find noses to be a waste of perfectly good hyphens.
Now, granted, I never use emoticons in serious writing, where I want words alone to represent me. But email and texting are different: They’re kissing cousins to verbal communication, where audiences often derive meaning from a speaker’s facial expressions or hand gestures. Minus these, the well-placed smiley face does yeoman’s work. A reader may be offended by “You’re crazy,” but never by “You’re crazy :),” which excuses a multitude of linguistic sins.
In other words, I’m not going to risk an angry spouse by typing “What a stupid idea” in a text message when I can instead put, “What a stupid idea :)” and provide myself with an automatic JK defense, which is admissible in most courts.
(I’ve never had a chance to use it in writing, but I’m fascinated by the emoticon for Slash, the ex-guitar player of Guns N’ Roses, which looks like this: iiii];) and represents the guitarist’s signature hat and cigarette, but only if you cock your head like the RCA dog can you see it.)
Further examples of hypocrisy can be found in my hatred of all instant-message abbreviations, including LOL, B4N, IMHO, NSFW, YOLO and the above-mentioned JK.* None of these aids communication; they are shortcuts for lazy writers, an argument that could also be made for emoticons. Hence, the hypocrisy.
So to summarize my writing advice in reverse order: don’t use abbreviations, emoticons are OK unless you’re writing the Great American Novel or a formal paper, and go easy on the exclamation points, to the tune of about two a year (unless I’ve told you more at another time).
Otherwise, you will incur the wrath of an English teacher!!! Or at least one’s righteous indignation. Well, this one’s, anyway.
@cschillig on Twitter
*For the Internet illiterate, these are laugh out loud, ‘bye for now, in my honest opinion, not safe for work (an off-color joke, for example), you only live once and just kidding.
Originally published July 5, 2012, in The Alliance Review.