Tag Archives: culture

Transference

 

DVD-Video_bottom-side

Two years after buying a recordable DVD player, one year after the threats from my wife got serious, I begin transferring the home movies of my children from VHS tapes to DVDs.  I know I’m still at least one platform behind, but any digital form is better than one that can be destroyed by light, air, and time.

Because they’re analogue, I need to play them in real time to copy them.  And as I do, I watch them, and I realize that the last time I watched them was the last time I transferred them, from camcorder cassettes to VHS.  Their entire existence rests on converting them from one obsolete medium to the next.  

As I watch, I see my young self and young wife, recent parents and, far more seriously, recent homebuyers.  I see my oldest son, now a teenager, as a baby, then a toddler, then an older brother to his new baby brother.  And I think, Ah, so young, so cute.  The kids, too.  The tapes from twelve to eight years ago show a new family in a small, snowbound Minnesota house, each of us swaddled and layered in Fleet Farm sweat clothes, the new baby in so many layers that he’s a Midwest Matryoshka.  All laughing and smiling, just joy, spinning, dancing.  Nine years, four houses, and three states elapse in two hours, and our daughter, now five, is born. 

Yet looking at these people on TV, I realize that I don’t remember the times this way. What I remember is the stress and mess, the lack of money, the ever-present question: what’s going to happen?  Not unlike now, but then even more so.   I never liked recording the movies, never feigned love or expertise manning the camera.  I always felt that parents who spent their time with a lens in front of their eyes were blocking their view of their children, already anticipating the minute when that very moment would turn to nostalgia: Ah, look at us. We were so happy fifteen minutes ago. 

But it has not been fifteen minutes. It has been fifteen years, and I can see not just how fresh but how fragile the moments were. I’m glad I didn’t film too much, the Warren Report of our lives, the volumes Proust would have filmed if he’d lived in the Midwest and owned a camera.  But I’m grateful that I have something, a few compressed flashes beyond the faded reel of my own mottled memory, and that these videos are more luminous and numinous than my mental VHS’s translucent haze.  I wish that I could transfer the images in my head to a newer platform as well, and as the last tape cuts to static, I close my eyes and imagine how today will look to the future me of the next transference, how I’ll look at the deteriorating self that I now see entering middle age, and instead I marvel at how young and thin, how thick the hair, how joyous the moments, since I have recorded proof that they will not last.

 

Time: less than an hour. Lost track.

This was published in the 2013 issue of Maryville University’s literary magazine, Magnolia.

Hourman update: despite two posts this month, still on hiatus.  Thanks for hanging in there.

–Jesse Kavadlo

 

 

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No Fun

“Anhedonia”: the original title of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, a motif in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, a word I felt immediately. Literally, it means “without pleasure” (an + hēdon), and it expresses something like the inability to enjoy things.  According to experts, it’s associated with clinical depression, depressive disorder, endogenous depression, and major depressive episodes.   I don’t feel depressed, or in denial about depression. I would even say that I am a happy person, give or take some seasonal affective disorder and how well I avoid cable news. But I frequently question why so many people find certain things pleasurable when I can’t. Pleasure, joy, amusement: these terms are obvious in the abstract—by definition, everyone likes “fun”—but they’re problematic in the particulars. Especially for me. 

Technically, I don’t have anhedonia, since it’s associated with a loss of pleasure in things that one used to take pleasure in, and there’s too much that I never enjoyed in the first place. No Code Red Mountain Dew, KFC Double Down, Cool Ranch anything. No “Two and a Half Men,” “[Anything] with the Stars,” “Bridalplasty.” No “Hey, Soul Sister,” “Tik Tok,” the double down of “Glee”’s cast singing “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Maybe these are easy targets. Maybe I’m elitist. Maybe my age is showing. But everyone else seems to like them, and I like other popular entertainment, and I would never have liked them, even as a kid. Especially as kid. On the contrary, I like to think I’ve grown remarkably tolerant and mellow.

I can’t listen to a human voice on the radio unless it’s singing. Without Autotune.  Or has a British accent on NPR.  I can’t tolerate movies featuring talking dogs, especially if they depict real dogs in digitized lip synch. I have never watched a game of professional baseball on television except long enough to change the channel.  I have never participated in any competitive sport, spending every high school phys ed class sitting in the bleachers talking to Tommy about Metallica. Mr. Arbuse didn’t care because I was wearing my gym uniform, as I’ve chronicled before. I now exercise only so that I may eat more ice cream. I have never sent a successful text message.  I prefer not to talk on the phone. I don’t really like to drive. When I finally took my kids to Disney World, they—and my wife—loved every second of our eleven-hour days in the park. As I carried the backpack of water, extra clothes, and a camera while occasionally pushing the stroller through the crowds, I endured only by picturing soldiers, waist-deep in the quagmire, rain sheeting down in cacophonous chime on their helmets, under threat of enemy fire, fifty pounds of gear on their backs, arms straining to keep their guns above their heads. Later I felt sheepish, and guilty, about comparing my three days in Disney, the Happiest Place on Earth, with War, which Is, according to trusted sources, Hell. But it got me through the week.   

At the risk of sounding like a personal ad, I like to play with my kids in a green, sunny park that doesn’t charge admission. I like complicated foods with simple, pronounceable ingredients. But I also like every breakfast cereal. I like to watch TV if the shows involve any two or more of the following: conspiracies, plot twists, glorification of dubious ethical behavior, foul language expressed in creative combinations, good-looking supernatural creatures.  I like abrasive music by brutal musicians.  I read as much as I can, preferably great, depressing novels where the main characters die. But I also like every magazine, and science for non-scientists, and superhero comics, where no one who dies ever stays dead. I eat pints and pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream but refuse all lesser brands. I can’t eat breakfast.  I like to play the blues on the guitar.  I love doing anything, or nothing, with my wife. I look forward to going to work. I write, not because I like to, but because I like to read what I wrote. 

Did not stay dead

Not dead.

Dead? No. And no.

I don’t, in the end, have anhedonia, even if there’s much that I can’t—or that I refuse—to take pleasure in. With literature, writing, and the blues, it feels good to feel bad. Or maybe more people should feel bad for feeling good. Or perhaps the measure of life should not be pleasure at all—anhedonia’s lack, or its linguistic opposite, hedonism, where enough is not enough. More than “fun,” yet another thing to have, perhaps we can instead substitute “contented,” something to be.  And I am. 

At least sometimes.  

Time: I wrote this a little over a year ago for my college literary journal and felt like revisiting and revising if for the blog.  I wrote one or two a year for the last eight years, and these short personal essays at the time usually also took a little over an hour.  They were, in retrospect, proto-blog entries.

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A Cultural History of Spider-Man’s Web Shooters

Just point ‘n’ shoot!

As much as I love superheroes, I can’t say that the new Amazing Spider-Man movie needs to exist.  First, as long as it was being remade, time to drop the hyphen—just “Spiderman.”  It’s cleaner.  Second, the movie reminded me of seeing a high school play: “Aw!  So cute! They’re doing Spider-Man!” When Sally Fields showed up as Aunt May, I thought, “Aw! There’s Sally Fields pretending to be Aunt May!”  And then when Martin Sheen showed up as Uncle Ben, I thought,” Aw! There’s Martin Sheen! I love that guy!” before quickly remembering that he’s a dead man walking, to be gunned down before the second act ended so Peter could learn his lesson about power and responsibility.  This must have been how medieval audiences reacted to seeing Jesus-Christ show up in the passion plays: “I can’t believe he’s gonna  get killed AGAIN.”

But crucially, the movie revises, updates, and, for many fans, corrects what turned out to be a huge comic controversy of the 2002 Spider-Man.

Namely, the mechanical, wrist-worn webshooters (single word, no hyphen) are back. The organic vs. factory debate deepens.

This is a BFD.  When Spider-Man (hyphen for historical accuracy) debuted in 1962, bitten by a radioactive spider, proportionate strength and speed etc etc etc, he invented the synthetic webbing and pressure-sensitive webshooters himself:

 

Peter Parker as misfit, scientist, and genius is crucial to the early stories.  It’s not enough to get spider powers.  Much of his early success as a hero stems from the use of his pre-bite intellect and his own diligence and hard work, as opposed to mere accident: “So they laughed at me for being a bookworm, eh? Well, only a science major could have created a device like this!” And so his identification with his audience of bookworms is complete.  Spider-Man, as Stan Lee, in his usual overwrought, avuncular, carnival barker voice, introduced him earlier, is a hero like… You!  So he needs to have something comic readers can pride themselves in having; Spiderman is about smarts and perseverance, not just a lab accident. Later comics elaborated upon the original idea:

But while 1962 Peter Parker, as a non-sidekick, picked-on teen,  was unlike any of the other superheroes of that time—more like, of course, a stereotypical comics reader—he was also very much like most of the other 1960s heroes who believed in Better Living Through Chemistry.  Sputnik had been launched a few years earlier, the Space Race was on, kids began working with their chemistry sets in their rooms, and comics followed, whether to embrace the post-war American dream or just because the hero/scientist opened up new character and narrative possibilities.  Until that point, THE SCIENTISTS HAD ALL BEEN BAD GUYS!   Suddenly, Professor X (who had to open his own school to receive tenure, apparently) , bald and in a wheelchair just a Superman’s first supervillian Ultra-Humanite (hyphen?), looking like Lex Luthor, was leading the X-Men! Reed Richards took the Fantastic Four into space, then into crime-fighting! Bruce Banner started off as a nuclear gamma physicist before going green as Hulk. Over at DC, the Flash’s Barry Allen—usually thought of as ushering in the Silver Age—was reimagined as a police scientist; the new Green Lantern was test pilot/astronaut proxy Hal Jordan, whose power ring (two words) got a science fiction makeover from the previous incarnation’s magic origin. Spiderman’s invention put him in the center of the new wave of super science police.  

Forward forty years later for the first big film, though, for a changed world. The idea that teenaged Peter Parker could invent the webs himself suddenly didn’t seem realistic.  The dream that the brilliant kid his bedroom could do what millions of dollars in government and industrial research and development couldn’t? Ridiculous.  Just as important, the early 2000s saw a sudden upswing of anti-technology cultural forces—technophobia brought to the surface by Y2K, a wave of anti-factory farming, the Fight Club-style anger at the techno-corporate world, left-wing distrust of surveillance and electronic voting machines, and right-wing fears of a technologically driven New World Order. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had devoted all of two panels for Peter to invent the webshooters. Could a multimillion dollar movie really be that casual and still be credible?  So the webs became a part of Spiderman’s new powers, his body generating them organically, leaving the film open to hundreds of snarky commentators noting that spiders don’t fashion webs from, um, that part of their anatomy. Taken together, we see a nice example of Samuel Coleridge’s famous dictum about suspension of disbelief: audiences could suspend disbelief long enough to imagine that a bite from a radioactive  genetically altered[i]  spider could spontaneously generate natural webshooters , but not that Peter Parker could have invented the ‘shooters himself—broke, without a lab,  and alone in his Queens bedroom.  The dream of technological progress was over.

My hands are making what?

But only for a decade. Today, Andrew Garfield, playing Tobey Maguire playing Peter Parker, indeed invents his webshooters again, like Kennedy’s in the White House and it’s 1962.  Yet unlike Classic Peter, he doesn’t quite invent them by himself. While it’s all a little hazy (damn you, montage!), what Nu Peter seems to do is closer to what contemporary techies get.  Instead of opening his chemistry set, he draws from preexisting technologies—some prefab Oscorp tensile-strength web fluid here, some, um, other mechanical movie-looking parts and gears and awesome LEDs and stuff that looks like machinery there.  2002 was too soon to imagine the day when every kid would not just own a smart phone—as Peter plays games on his phone to kill time while waiting for the Lizard to emerge in the sewer—but that more than a few teens would also be savvy enough to jailbreak them, invent their own apps, and create original graphic art, digital music, and code, alone in their rooms.  The basement chemistry sets of the early 1960s have given way to the new tech mythos of Steve Jobs in his garage, not inventing the computer but rather remaking and improving it based on previous iterations of the same ideas that Xerox and IBM used but somehow didn’t really get.  C. 2012 Peter’s genius isn’t that he invents the webbing and webshooter a la 1962, but rather that he recognizes that the technology for them already exists, and he makes them work together.   Only a science major post-millennial could have created a device like this.  We love technology again, but in a remix, mashup, sampling, collage kinda way.

So it’s fitting that, in the Tobey Maguire version, Natural-webbing Spidey fights techno-corporate Green Goblin/Norman Osborne, who relies on the worst of tech R&D: metal mask and body armor, disintegration grenades, and deadly projectiles; in Spiderman II, Doctor Octopus recalls the 1940s and 50s Scientist Gone Wrong, becoming a crazed metal-armed cyborg, while again Natural-webbing Spidey has to set him right and destroy the dangerous incursion of technology into the human realm. Lots of other fantasy movies of the early 2000s shared this pro-natural, anti-tech spirit: The Lord of the Rings pits the sylvan elves and pastoral hobbits against Sauromon’s metal hammers, metal towers, bio-engineered monsters, and willful destruction of trees.  In those Harry Potter movies, technology is shunted aside entirely, unable to coexist with magic at all.  In Phantom Menace, those stupid Jar Jar-looking aliens use natural weapons… ah, I can’t even continue; I hate that movie so much.[ii]  

Yes, the Lizard is a bit of a retread of Doc Ock, in that he’s a scientist whose attempt to do good results in the potential destruction of New York again, his mind altered by a biotech-transformation.  But when Dr. Connors emerges transformed into the Lizard, he sheds his lab coat and his humanity, symbolically and visually the worst kind of natural—slimy, scaly, swampy, primitive, lizard brained.  New Tech Spidey is web savvy (har har) and smart, using his—and Gwen Stacey’s—head to configure a quickie technological solution to New York City’s new alligators in the sewer problem.  OK, technology may have created the problem, but, unlike earlier incarnations of superheroism, technology can also solve it. Call it Web 2.0.

So when the techno-pendulum swings back, expect to see some other new version of the webshooters for the inevitable 2022 reboot.  And when we do, will someone please get Uncle Ben a bullet-proof vest this time?

Or the cynical explanation: you can’t sell organic webshooter toys.

Time: 90 minutes. Over, but this piece is pretty long, and I even spent at least 10 minutes cutting tangents. Plus I managed not to make any Marc Webb (!!!) puns.  It’s also funny that my conclusion—2000s Spider-Tobey is natural and fights techno-bad guys, while 2012 Spider-Garfield is technological  and fights a natural bad guy—came to me in my sleep two nights ago. Call me 24-Hour Man. 


[i] The radioactivity concomitant with the early ‘60s Cold War was replaced by new wishes and fears of genetic modification for the 2000s. But that, Dear Reader, is the subject for another exciting post! Excelsior!

[ii] Irony alert: these seemingly anti-technology movies could not have existed without their recent advances in digital technology.  

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Of Course The World Needs an Analysis of Regular Show

Family Portrait

For the past week, my five year old daughter has only watched Regular Show. I can see why my older boys, 13 and 10, who introduced it to her, like it: it revolves around two best buds, a bluejay named Mordecai and a raccoon named Rigby, although their being animals has nothing to do with the show (the bird doesn’t even fly), even if I’m sure that’s a big part of its appeal for kids. This promo, featuring human actors decked out as Mordecai and Rigby, winds up emphasizing that point and gives a few examples of the show’s shenanigans:

Mordecai and Rigby are fluffy Bartlebys, always preferring Not To:  slacking off, playing videogames, watching TV, and eating pizza and tacos, even as they’re supposed to be working at a park managed by a talking gumball machine, Benson, along with an albino gorilla[i] groundskeeper, Skips, a macrocephalic manchild geezer named Pops who technically runs the park for his ancient moon-headed father, a pudgy green creep named Muscle Man (who I assumed was named “Musselman,” like the applesauce, but the name is a joke), and Muscle Man’s friend, the personality-less High Five Ghost, who looks just as his name suggests.

At first, the show looks like yet another example of  People from Diverse Categories Thrown into an Unlikely Situation who then Realize that they have A Lot in Common, or “PDCTUSRALC,”  as I suggested two weeks ago of The Avengers. But the faux diversity is a façade—no one behaves any differently based on his species or whatever you want to call a talking gumball machine.  Notice the gender-specific “his” pronoun. The show is distinctly male, with the exception of occasional minor characters Margaret (a robin?) and Eileen (a mole? I consulted the expert, my daughter: “She’s half person, half beaver”) as female foils for M & R. 

While the menagerie suggests that the title “Regular Show,” like Muscle Man’s name, is meant to be ironic (Cartoon Network’s tagline: “Regular Show. It’s anything but,” in the sense of normal), it is regular in the word’s sense of “uniform procedure” or “periodic.”  Nearly every episode follows the same pattern: some prosaic game—Rock Paper Scissors, jinx, cards, stick hockey, bowling—yields some wacky supernatural non sequitur—a monster appearing in the sky to devour the game’s prize, a mirror-image Rigby monster conjured to break the jinx, a warlock who sucks the whole park into his fannypack, an underground Fight Club-like stick hockey den, a wager with Death, who, appropriately, looks and sounds like Lemmy from Motorhead, but better looking. 

Death

Death warmed over

Yet everything always works out: Mordecai and Rigby break the Rock Paper Scissors tie just in time; they break the jinx just in time; Benson turns out to be a stick hockey samurai just in time; Skips comes through in some way, usually solemnly intoning, “I’ve seen this before.”[ii]  You could easily play Regular Show Bingo, or maybe a Regular Show drinking game.  

So on second look, it feels like another genre: the Best Bros who are Both Dumb but One is Noticeably Dumber than the Other (“BBBDONDO” for short).  These duos spend most of the show screwing up and the last minute fixing it.  It’s a grand comic tradition emblemized by, of course, the movie Dumb and Dumber, but it includes laureates such as Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Ralph and Ed, Fred and Barney, Beavis and Butthead, SpongeBob and Patrick, and The Man with the Yellow Hat and Curious George.  Acceptable Variations: Three Stooges (all dumb, but Moe is slightly less dumb) and Bill and Ted or Jay and Silent Bob (you could make a case for either being dumber). 

But mostly, the real dynamic is a kind of fairy tale family—fairy tale not because of the talking animals or the show’s regular supernatural plot twists, but because of the lack of mothers.  Like Peter Pan, the characters on Regular Show are a band of lost boys; like the spiritual song, they feel like motherless children.  Yet although Mordecai and Rigby seem like teens in this parentless limbo, their size and maturity difference (Mordecai, for example, is interested in Margaret, but Rigby isn’t into Eileen, although that could be because he can’t identify her species) suggests something more like siblings. And despite Skips’s and Pops’s old age, it is Benson, the gumball machine, who turns out to be the show’s surrogate father.  Benson spends most of every episode threatening, and then exploding at, the duo—you can add “GET BACK TO WORK!,” “[anything]…OR YOU’RE FIRED!,” and “UNBELIEVABLE!” to the bingo card/drinking game.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that I find myself relating far more to hapless Benson than to punky M or R.  His behavior is typical Bad Dad, what we may think or feel but struggle against saying.  On the episode Broken Cart, Rigby finally asks, “Benson, why do you hate us so much?”  Surprised and chastened, Benson answers, “I don’t hate you guys. I just hate some of the things you do.” 

Benson loses his marbels

Sorry, not you, Mordechai

Of course, when the boys inevitably screw up, in this case, taking a videogame break when they’re desperate to return the cart before the warranty expires that day, Benson, as usual, totally loses it:  “WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO LEARN THAT YOUR ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES?”  On Think Positive, he can’t lose it, under threat of being fired himself, and we get to see the helplessness, the impotence, behind his threats and anger.  Mordecai and Rigby will never, of course, learn that actions have consequences.  That would mean growing up, which would be the end of the show.  But ideally, talking gumball machines and park-eating vortexes to the contrary, this distinction is the biggest difference between Regular Show’s parental lessons and real life. 

Funnily enough, Regular Show seems to know its true audience.  That car seat safety public service announcement may have a quirky Portlandia feel to it, and the diaper rash ointment has the indie band sounding name Baby Anti-Monkey Butt.  But that doesn’t mean that these ads, like nearly all the ads on Regular Show, aren’t geared squarely toward parents.  

I thought I was watching along with my kids. It turns out that they were watching it along with me.

Time: 65 minutes.  I wasn’t really planning on writing about Regular Show, but it’s literally all my girl—and therefore, I—watched this week, so it’s burned into my brain.    Truth is, I feel a little funny going from Angels in America to Regular Show.


[i] After botching a few JFGI details of Adventure Time a few months (the creator’s name, a Jungian archetype), I figured I better look up Regular Show online first.  So: Wikipedia refers to Skips as a Yeti, but I much prefer to think of him as an albino gorilla. I didn’t bother the check what Eileen was.

[ii] Mark Hamill—Luke Skywalker–does Skips’s voice.  Hamill is a brilliant voice actor, here and elsewhere. Future blog: people who are famous for the wrong thing. Suggestions welcome in Comments.

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Avengers Resemble…

Seven strangers with nothing in common, except each other

The Avengers is not really a superhero movie.

You’d be forgiven for being confused. You must have been focused on the costumes, powers, special effects, and, um, I guess the superheroes.  And OK, a plot summary makes it sound a lot like a superhero movie: a godlike megalomaniac in a ridiculous helmet obtains a magical object with an awesome name (the Tesseract! Because the hexadecachoron must have been busy), teams up with illegal aliens from another dimension, and tries to Take Over the World, or at least trash Manhattan by means of enormous metallic fantail shrimp, which I think I made the mistake of ordering once. Only The Avengers can stop him!  But will they be able to set aside their differences in time?

Do you like my hat?
No, I do not like that hat. Goodbye.

This last question is the one that occupies most of the film’s nearly two and a half hour running time, before the final act devolves into the humdrum Epic Battle for the Fate of the World that has served as the resolution to every sci fi and fantasy movie for decades.  And it’s the one that makes The Avengers less of a superhero movie than a story of People from Diverse Categories Thrown into an Unlikely Situation who then Realize that they have A Lot in Common, or “PDCTUSRALC.”  You know what, let’s skip the acronym on this one.     

The genre has a great literary pedigree, going at least back to Boccaccio’s Decameron (if the Tesseract weren’t available, then Loki could have stolen The Decameron!) in the 14th century, before getting its English makeover in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a few decades later.  The Decameron featured ten assorted people stuck with each other after trying to escape the Black Death; Canterbury Tales involved a long pilgrimage to the shrine in Canterbury.  But Chaucer really invented the notion that circumstances could bring together a set of unlikely travel companions as characters—a knight and squire;  a merchant, miller, reeve, and cook; a prioress, friar, pardoner, and summoner; the uncategorizable Wife of Bath, and many others, including, it seems, a fictionalized version of Chaucer himself.  The brilliance comes from the schisms and frictions created when people from different social types are forced into confines and conversation with one another. 

The genre then takes off in different directions as we move to America in the 20th century.  Characters telling their own stories in their own styles gets lost, but pilgrimages or enclosed spaces making strange companions flourished.  On the one hand, you’ve got John Ford’s 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach, which finds the 1880s version of the pilgrimage in its title, throwing together a framed outlaw (John Wayne!), a prostitute (with a heart of gold, natch), an ambivalent sheriff, a drunk doctor, an uppercrust wife of an officer (with a secret!), a banker (with a secret!), a Confederate gambler (with a…  ah, you know), and a few others.  That they’re being menaced with massacre by Geronimo is less of a problem than their own internal conflicts within the coach.  On the other hand, you have The Lord of the Rings, another quest that brings together unlikely travel companions and proves that hobbits and men, and even elves and dwarves, could learn to get along.  Star Wars and the many other adventure stories pitting knights (Jedi or not), hotheads, princesses, mentors, and aliens against one another seem indebted equally to Chaucer, Ford, and Tolkien.

There’s of course Gilligan’s Island, with its assorted cast, although why the Howells are on the boat is one of the island’s many mysteries, considering that they could have bought and sold a fleet of Minnows.

And there’s that other island replete with mysteries, from Lost, where, in our modern version of the pilgrimage or the stagecoach, an airplane crash brings together the straight man, the hothead, the druggie, and the bad girl, along with novel additions: a pregnant woman, a prepubescent boy, a paraplegic (as we would discover), a couple that speaks no English (or so we thought), an older (interracial) couple, semi-incestuous step-siblings, an ex-Republican Guard Iraqi torturer, an obese bilingual schizophrenic (although supernatural explanations would supersede psychological ones), and many more. 

Yet even Lost seemed modeled on another updated version of the Canterbury Tales: reality television, with its cast-to-clash archetypes.  And even then, shows like The Real World—for me, the original reality premise from which all the others borrowed–seems less real than a copy of a movie that was supposed to be based on real life: The Breakfast Club. 

Avengers Assembly!

Here’s the poster’s tagline:

They were five total strangers, with nothing in common, meeting for the first time. A brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse. Before the day was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls. And touched each other in a way they never dreamed possible.

So think of Avengers as the Canterbury Tales, with awesome weapons.  Or Stagecoach, but on that awesome SHIELD flying aircraft carrier.  Or The Breakfast Superheroes:

 They were six strangers, with nothing in common.  A billionaire genius philanthropist.  A recluse with anger management problems.  A gorgeous spy with a secret.  An exchange student who excels at the hammer throw.  An ROTC supersoldier who still knows what it’s like to be picked on. And Samuel L Jackson with an eyepatch.[i]  Before it was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls.

And saved the world.

Time: 65 minutes.

Also, for no reason, Baby Seal Avengers!


[i] Although I deeply regret that Jackson/Fury never gets to say, “Avengers assemble, motherfuckers!”

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Maurice Sendak, I’ll Eat You Up I Love You So

Even more than Dr Seuss’s verbal prestidigitations and Arnold Lobel’s elegies and ironies, I love Maurice Sendak’s simple words and striking pictures.  And so, the day after his death, I’d like to address what made so many of his stories so brilliant, effective, and scary: he understood and concretized every child’s worst fear. It is primal and simple.

It is being eaten.

And so the main motif of Where the Wild Things Are is food—the meal that Max would make of his mother (an idle threat), the meal the wild things would make of Max (highly plausible, given the reiteration of terrible teeth and claws), and the return to safety at the end, where the reward is supper–not the never-seen parent–waiting, still hot. And more importantly, supper is not Max.  My kids and I had many conversations about what was in that bowl, and the way the final image violates the first commandment of Children’s Lit: Thou shalt end with the main character going to sleep, not eating, or the parents will suffer another round of “I’m hungry.”

Max’s reward for returning? Food. Pierre’s punishment for not caring? Being food–eaten by the lion, a far more effective surrogate parent than Pierre’s real mother or father, who helplessly, impotently rail against Pierre’s apathy, whereas the lion provides what in today’s parenting jargon is known as natural consequences.  You don’t care if I eat you? Fine, I’ll eat you. And behold, suddenly, Pierre has a deathbed conversion!  Even with its allusions to early Christianity’s punishment, Daniel, and Jonah, the lion’s swallowing of Pierre seems more Greco-Roman, more Goya, and more Freud than Judeo-Christian.

Maurice Sendak

And who can forget Mickey, of In the Night Kitchen fame, put in the oven by triplicate cooks with matching Hitler mustaches?  The book raised eyebrows for its full frontal, um, Mickey, but its Holocaustic humor still seems beneath the radar.  A children’s book in the form of a comic decades before Diary of a Wimpy kid cashed in, In the Night Kitchen still strikes me as Sendak’s most dream-like and most nightmarish, the continued and sustained childhood fear that all of those seemingly loving culinary parental nicknames—Sugar, Honeycakes, Sweetie-pie, or, in the case of my daughter, Smooshy Cookie and, later, Pickles—are not metonyms at all but veiled threats.  I’ll eat you up I love you so. As Mickey’s parents slumber unknowingly, Mickey is, to switch from Jewish fear to Christian theology, being transfigured into food.  That he turns out to solve the mystery of why we have cake every morning, or that Pierre survives the lion’s belly, or that Max’s supper is waiting for him, still hot, are the feel-good endings that prolong the benevolent mysteries of childhood.

But the sustained conflict throughout—to eat, to be eaten, to escape, or abandon, the ovens, bellies, and faraway lands–encompasses the real, primordial wishes and fears of childhood. And while Sendak rendered the dread of being eaten by the ones you love literal, parents and adults can still understand and recognize  the possibility, even likelihood, of feeling consumed by those closest to you.

Time: 35 sad minutes.

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(Ad) (Bad) (Cad) (Clad) (Gad*) (Lad) (Plaid) (Sad) Mad Men

Warning: check for elevator before stepping in.

Sometimes, TV is literature. Mad Men certainly is.

More than almost anything on the bestseller list, Mad Men lends itself perfectly to literary analysis—certainly the ol’ reliable high school English quinquepartite of Plot, Character, Symbolism, Theme, and Setting. Mad Men’s premise could have been a simple soap opera—the same boring story of a handsome man who is more than he appears, and his affairs, in every sense of the word. But instead, Mad Men has consistently, in the mantra of every fiction writing workshop ever, excelled in showing more than telling, using ambiguity, implication, narrative structure, and design to draw the viewer in, to force us to read closely. And for me what makes Mad Men great is that, like the best novels and poems, it evokes multiple, simultaneous feelings. The problems, and the pleasures, arise when these feelings seem to contradict each other, creating a frisson, a sense of ambivalence.

Jon Hamm’s acting can seem repetitive, as this Youtube montage nicely and funnily demonstrates:

But I think the clips also show the opposite: the “What?”s are distinct and surprisingly diverse, in different takes conveying interest, surprise, incredulity, annoyance, distress, anger, reluctance, dismissal, inquiry, dejection, or disbelief.

Even more complexly, look at Don’s facial expressions during the opening episode of Season 5, as his second wife Meghan dances Zou Bisou Bisou in front of him and his colleagues, during a birthday party that everyone except Meghan understood that he didn’t want.

In this scene alone, which went viral immediately after the show aired, we see, and ourselves feel, Don’s ambivalence: the complexity that protocol demands a happy and flattered husband—going by Roger Sterling’s and Youtube viewers’ comments, the obvious response—while at the same time, he is trying and almost but not quite succeeding in not looking mortified. Don wants people to see him as the active seducer, and he is visibly uncomfortable being made into the passive spectator—that is, in some ways, feminine object of seduction. Yet at the same time, as returning viewers know, behind closed doors, he likes pain and humiliation, being made the object. (Warning: link is steamy.) So: Don likes but is embarrassed by the dance because Meghan has confused Don’s ironclad distinction between public and private. And I wonder if viewers feel something like that also: the dance is funny but genuine, goofy and embarrassing but sexy, a gift from a woman who seems not to know her new husband at all but may in fact know him better than he knows himself. She  doesn’t care what other people think—and doesn’t want Don to, either. But he still does. Whew.

And to get all this, viewers need to remember and piece together dialogue and images from previous episodes, often previous seasons, in order to understand what we’re seeing now. If anything, this season has, like the best novels, married the form of the story with the content, so that, in one of the more overt examples, a recent episode centering upon Roger Sterling’s LSD trip is narrated out of chronological order, making the viewer feel the slight sense of something askew from the very beginning before realizing that the chronology itself is trippy.

Yet I think Mad Men’s setting has been its initial attraction. And the era—in Season 1, about 1960; by now, in Season 5, 1966, the year the Beatles’ Revolver was released—like everything else in the show, evokes mixed reactions from the viewer. On the one hand, it’s easy for us in our enlightened presentism to respond badly to the raging yet casual sexism, lazy knee-jerk racism, and stifling cultural ignorance. One of the best gags this season was the simple display of rampant smoking at the benefit for the American Cancer Society. On the other hand, it sure looks glorious, and I did not find myself disgusted by the constant drinking as much as nostalgic for it, despite that I never got to experience it (although I’ve found myself drinking more cocktails since I became a fan). Why else launch a whole Banana Republic Mad Men line?

Not pictured: cigarette, drink, mistress, real identity.

Or entice viewers with a Mad Men Yourself feature? The opening page asks you to choose “Suit” or “Skirt,” another example where the line between reality and synecdoche is blurred.

This is me on Mad Men. Vest and coffee are accurate. Face and hair less so.

And this cultural moment, 1960-1965, remains under-recognized. For Gen Xers and after, the 1960s has been synonymous with one year: 1969. Yet on Mad Men, we get to see that the supposedly radical moment, when the stodgy grey flannel suit ‘50s tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, didn’t happen overnight, or over a year. The way most of the characters on Mad Men understand their tumultuous time is the same way that we still do today—through the media, through the same images that the ad men traffic in themselves. For most of the characters, the seemingly transformational impact of riots, mass murders, or wars overseas comes to them through television, newspapers, and radio, background chatter, subtext that seeps its way into the text itself, not the times a changin’ as much as a perceived anomaly. As Roger asks, in typical Mad Men dramatic irony, “When are things going to go back to normal?”

In the end, the show has managed to balance social realism with literary symbolism, which is usually the big turnoff for the average reader. (From many of my students’ course evaluations: “Does EVERYTHING have to mean something?” I wonder what they mean by that?) “Don Draper” is a seemingly innocuous, believable name, yet it is also the perfect symbolic, literary name for a character who has assumed the name and identity—even, self-referentially, this exact name—of another man. “Don,” as a noun, means a man of great importance; as a verb, to put on or dress in. A “draper” is a merchant who sells cloth; “drape” means cover, hand, arrange, or adorn. As viewers come to understand, “Don” dons Don and sells yarns, as he assumes and covers his original name and identity, Dick Whitman. And like his literary namesake Walt, Draper Whitman very well contradicts himself. He contains multitudes. And through Mad Men, we get to hear America singing.

* Gad: to move restlessly or aimlessly from one place to another: to gad about.

Time: OK, eighty minutes. Next time I SWEAR to keep it to an hour.

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Live Music; or, the Song in the Age of Digital Reproduction, an Essay in Eight Tracks

 

Track 1: This is me, around 1991. I still had long hair in my dreams for years after I cut it.

Track 2: Eight years, age 15 to 23, I could only imagine music, being a Famous Rock Star. It’s hard to say how many hours a day or days a week I practiced, because it was never work.  Even then, I loved that English used to the word “play” for an instrument, because that’s what I felt I was doing. But it was as much as I could: a few hours a day, not including at least six hours a week of band practice, not including at least two shows a month, not including going to other bands’ gigs twice a week.  I held down a job (record store) and earned easy A’s in school, but I lived music.

Track 3: And then, suddenly, I didn’t.  I spent the next decade learning to be a reader, writer, teacher, husband, and father.  For years, I didn’t even have a guitar. No one knew who I used to be, who, in some sense, I really was.  Music was the secret identity I left behind.  It was too hard to be everything.  Like the mopey tween calendar montage in Twilight: Breaking Dawn, or the mopey tween sun rising and falling montage in Beastly (I need to lay off the mopey tween monsters), time passed.

And as time was passing, something interesting happened, almost behind my back: music went digital.

Track 4: I am no vinyl purist. I’ve always preferred electric to acoustic. Unlike the fans who booed electric Dylan in 1965, if my favorite heavy rock band showed up with acoustic guitars, I’d boo them. (I’m looking at you, Nirvana.) Thank God the unplugged fad of the 90s is over. I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more, either.

Yet I can see why the folkies didn’t feel that electric music was authentic. The electric guitar puts more steps between the player’s fingers and the listener’s ear.  Not just the vibrations of the string, but the pickup, the signal, the wire, the amplification, and the distortion—sweet, dirty, deliberate distortion—of the signal. The electric sound of the guitar’s amplification is then further captured electronically by microphones, processed even further into the analogue of reel to reel tape, then mastered onto vinyl.  So many steps in the process of producing and reproducing the sound, each step, for the purist, one further away from the original.  Not the reel but the real.

But going electric and going digital are not the same. Something about listening to all music in MP3 format seems different, the final step that remasters once more, finally and irrevocably converting the analogue sound into binary computer code, Dylan’s plaintive wail (is there any other kind?) and guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s rich squeals into a cold series of ones and zeros, compressed, then uncompressed.  Look, overall, I love the iPod, love having 6332 songs made portable, love the slightly junky, slightly tinny, slightly robotic tone, love the intrusive insertion of the earbuds jacked directly into your brain, rather than warmly, maternally enveloping  your ears like the admittedly superior hi-fi earmuffs of yesteryear. (Yes, I know you can still get them. No, I never see anyone wearing them.) But I don’t mistake what I’m hearing.  Not music exactly, but an excellent simulation: “I’m not the song, but I play one on an iPod.”

Track 5: Walter Benjamin, from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936): “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.…  By making many reproductions it [the technique of reproduction] substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”   The part that messes with people today is that Benjamin, a Marxist when the word still meant something, saw this AS A GOOD THING. The destruction of the aura could only benefit the masses.  With the artwork’s aura destroyed, the work’s hegemonic power, not artistic power, its elevated class and economic status, would disappear, since the same picture would be available to all.  Technology, and ultimately “the capitalistic mode of production,” could “create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.”   Yet that is not what has happened to art in the time since Benjamin wrote his essay.  Instead, the more frequently a work of art is reproduced, the more expensive and more coveted the original becomes.  Look at yesterday’s New York Times article on the subject of rich, famous art—including Munch’s Scream, mentioned in last week’s entry, now likely to “fetch” (Times’ word choice)  $150-200 MILLION.  That’s some puppy.  But music is an altogether different animal. It wasn’t records or tapes that finally destroyed music’s aura, but digital reproduction.  Music, in every sense of the term, now is free.  

 Bad joke. Sorry.

SIDE B

Track 6: Jean Baudrillard, from Simulation and Simulacra:

“Such would be the successive phases of the image:

it is the reflection of a profound reality;”

[me: i.e.,  acoustic guitar string]

it masks and denatures a profound reality;

[electric guitar string -->pickup --> amplifier]

it masks the absence of a profound reality;

[electric guitar string  --> pickup --> amplifier --> analogue recording]

it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.”

[electric guitar string --> pickup --> amplifier --> analogue recording --> converted to digital recording]

Track 7: But I started to listen to music again, and play.  A few years of noodling, riffing, realizing that the hours of play had hardened into neural muscle memory and that there was no remediation needed.  My first real foray back into playing came when I bought a new amplifier last year, a Fender G DEC 3. Not to get all ad-speak with Walter Benjamin in the room, but it’s a clever idea: build MP3 backing tracks right into the amp and loop them to simulate playing with musicians. 

As an actual amplifier by itself it doesn’t sound that great.  In fact, it sounds exactly like a digital simulation of an electric guitar amplifier. But with the simulated tracks, the simulated sound is perfect. And as recorded by my digital camera, and uploaded onto my laptop, and linked to the world wide intermesh, and fed through your speakers, who can tell?

Electric guitar string –>pickup –> digital amplifier –> digital recording –> my laptop –> internet –> your laptop

  But because it’s digital, we could reproduce it a thousand times, a million more times, and it would sound just like the original.  Benjamin missed his prediction for art, but foresaw the future of music.

Track 8: Then, not long after I got the amp, I started playing again, for real, with actual people.  And it’s not like playing with simulated tracks at all.  I could hardly eat before or after each rehearsal, and when we were done I left wracked with stomach pain. I thought it was the stress of singing after a long hiatus, the churn of old pipes and machinery, or even nerves.

But later, I realized I recognized and remembered that pain.

It was called excitement.

Same guy, same guitar, one haircut, 21 years later

Jesse Kavadlo

Time: Over again, which is becoming the new norm. Eighty minutes, not including making the amp video just for this occasion. Time to go back in time to 60 minutes.

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Listening to Barack Obama on Shuffle

 

In the 1989, as an impressionable Poli-sci major about to defect to English, I was blown away that Václav Havel, playwright, poet and protester, could become Václav Havel, President—as it turns out, last president—of Czechoslovakia.  Naturally, I thought: Never in America.  And ten years later, when professional wrestler and professional lunatic Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota—a year before I actually moved to the state under his governance—naturally, I thought: Only in America. 

Yet after reading Dreams of My Father, I can’t help but think of Barack Obama as a writer first and a politician second, a man of letters, one of us who made good, real good.  And while I like the book’s merging of memoir with manifesto, of a personal identity crisis with a national one, much of my admiration comes from the way Obama himself reads it.  Mode and code shifting, voices, rhythms, accents reflecting Nairobi to Chicago, multiple inflections: the man knows how to tell a story.  Obtuse teleprompter jokes on the one hand and overblown praise on the other both aside, Obama’s verbal dexterity is best reflected in writing, and his reading of his own writing, rather than off the cuff comments or speechwriter’s words.  Obama—Barack, as I keep wanting to call him after listening—exhibits the consummate writer’s power to ponder, picture, revise, and reflect[i].  

I don’t have many audiobooks, but I couldn’t help getting Barack Obama’s DoMF during the 2008 campaign.  Yet a funny thing happened: I seldom listen to it linearly or chronologically. Like many iPod People, I mostly listen on shuffle. 

Ah shuffle.    

Does any word better reflect contemporary sensibilities toward music? The word the kids love and, therefore, lovingly abuse, is “random,” but I’m a bigger proponent of using “shuffle,” or “on shuffle” as slang for unlikely, juxtaposed, or unexpected.  [Using old man voice] Back in my day, we used to argue about what kind of music was the best, although not as bad as the previous decade’s “Disco sucks” wars or the decade before that seeing Bob Dylan booed by his own fans for going electric.  But now, ask a college student what kind of music she prefers and prepare to be bored: a gamut of responses ranging widely from “I like a lot of kinds of music” to “I like all kinds of music” to [puts on breathy haughty voice] “My musical tastes are… eclectic.” In other words, the musical genre that they like is called Shuffle.

But I digress.  Taking up six discs and 108 tracks, Dreams of My Father inevitably pops up occasionally, mixed in with my tunes.  And I always ponder the significance of the juxtapositions between Obama and the songs that precede and follow.  So as an experiment I decided to hit Shuffle and, for the first time, keep track.

Exhibit A—Track: “The first thing to remember” (page 35)

Summary: Lolo, Barack’s stepfather, sees young B with a lump on his head from an unfair fight with an older boy and teaches him to box.  Lesson: male bonding mixed with self-defense in an hostile, alien environment of Jakarta.  

Before: Ramones, Locket Love

Sample lyric: Hang on a little bit longer
Hang on you’re a goner

After: Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone

Sample lyric: How does it feel ?
How does it feel ?
To be without a home ?
Like a complete unknown ?
Like a rolling stone ?

Commentary: Clearly, The Ramones set the tone of perseverance and the budding paternalism and commonalities, aside from funny names, between Barack and Lolo. But then Dylan throws a curve, as he always does, by reinforcing the literal and metaphorical unmooring Barack copes with throughout the whole book, even as he exposes the secret hubris one must feel to be the subject of any attention: a fight, a song, especially one’s own book.

 Exhibit B—Track: Preface  (pg. vii)

Summary: Obama describes his surprising victory in the Senate race and the mixed public responses, one of which was the reissue of this book.  Obama finds that his feelings are still similar, but the world’s context after 9/11, and from Clinton to Bush, is now very different.  Lesson: things change, for better and worse.

Before: Yngwie Malmsteen, You Don’t Remember, I’ll Never Forget

Sample lyric: It was you, it was me,
And we would last forever.
Any fool could see, that we were
Meant to be

After: Ratt, Givin’ Yourself Away

Sample lyric:

It’s there in every move you make
You can’t hide your heartache away
Hey, it’s somethin’ you don’t have to say
It’s written in the tears on your face
I see through the part that you play

Commentary: The book is all about memory, what Barack can’t help but remember in spite of the pain. Or maybe he remembers precisely because of it.  But concern with memory and forgetting aside, Malmsteen’s lyrics basically suck, so let me focus on what people take from his music: the virtuoso guitar playing.  Obama’s writing, however,  is not the equivalent at all: his vocabulary and syntax are complex and engaging but not, I don’t think, showboating or technical. The Preface concludes with a touching encomium to Barack’s mother, who died of cancer just after the book was published, lending the book a sense of emotional urgency that Malmsteen’s solos don’t really strive for.  Yet, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, the Ratt lyrics bring the emotion directly to the surface, even as they allude to one other point Obama makes in the preface: that some of the book’s material is less politically expedient on the national stage but that he refutes none of it.

Exhibit C—Track: “One day as I sat down at my computer” (136)

Summary: Barack hears from a long lost half-sister who wants to visit. But she cancels when her brother—and, really, his, too, although he does not know him—has been killed in a motorcycle accident. Lesson: Things get better and worse.

Before: Miles Davis, My Funny Valentine

Sample lyric:

My funny valentine, sweet comic valentine

You make me smile with my heart

Your looks are laughable, un-photographable

Yet you’re my favorite work of art

After: Black Sabbath, TV Crimes

Sample lyric:

One day in the life of the lonely
Another day on the round about
What do they need
Somebody to love

Commentary: Of course, Davis’s 15-minute live version is instrumental, so there’s less irony in Barack’s tragic loss and estrangement and the lyrics’ goofy celebration of imperfection.  Instead, Davis’s version is plaintive, piercing, and painful, a perfect set up for the book’s distant but real bereavement.  Meanwhile, Black Sabbath’s song is precisely the opposite: a particularly hard rocker, dissonant even for them, with raging, screaming vocals by Ronnie James Dio, even as they lyrics point out the loneliness endemic to modern society that we try and fail to quell though media.  Dio’s, and Obama’s, pain requires human connection that, in both tracks, remains thwarted.

Exhibit D—“I awoke to the sound” (pg. 87)

Summary: Chronologically earlier than “One day as I sat down at my computer…,” this section recounts Barack’s grandparents fighting because, he discovers, his grandmother is upset that a black panhandler asked for money, and his grandfather is upset at her unconscious racism. This is the “Obama threw his grandmother under the bus” section that conservatives like to point to.  Lesson: Critics miss the point: that the people we love and who love us are capable of contradiction and complexity, that racism is often unconscious, impersonal, and systemic,  and that having a black grandchild is not an automatic inoculation against bias.  

Before: Black Sabbath, Neon Knights

After: The Ramones, Ramona

Weird! Black Sabbath and The Ramones twice each.  But I spent too much time on this already, and my hour is out so I need to wrap this entry up right now.

Supposedly, iPod customers have long wondered about the secret logarithms that determine the obvious sentience behind Shuffle. They are certain that it’s not random at all. It’s hard to argue with, given the possible relationships that emerge, even though it’s not, of course, that a pattern emerges or that there’s intelligent design. Rather we, as humans and listeners, invariably create those patterns.  

History and politics have patterns, too, even if the truth is that the cosmic iPod of Life is also on constant shuffle, so that one decade’s wrestler in the State House can lead into another decade’s writer in the White House. We like shuffle because life is on shuffle, and I can’t help but see the track sequences as another great example of life’s, and maybe even America’s, many great eclecticisms.

Time: 80 minutes (!), not including listening to all those tracks, although I tried to write and listen at the same time when I could.

Jesse Kavadlo

 


[i] Unlike yr humble Hourman, who writes fast and sloppy and edits faster and sloppier.  Look for a six-month anniversary entry in a few weeks on what I’ve learned from blogging.  

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Warning: Contains Spoilers

 Spoiler: When someone reveals a previously unknown aspect of something which you likely would have rather learned on your own.

*discussions of art media such as video games, movies, etc. especially vulnerable.

It turns out that my wife (who blogs about food here) has not been reading Hourman. She is worried that I have given away the end of The Hunger Games, which has been collecting dust on her nightstand for two weeks.

Yet is it really possible to give away the end of The Hunger Games?  Once you read the back cover, or see a commercial for the movie, or have any idea what it’s about (hunger; also, games; possibly vice versa), and once you know that it’s part of a trilogy (see: inside cover) it seems impossible to give too much away, since it’s highly unlikely that Katniss can possibly be killed in the book.  What do you think this is [Spoiler alert!], Game of Thrones?

But thanks to the Internet, we live in a perpetual No Spoiler culture, where the worst thing a website, blog, critic, or writer can do is reveal an important plot detail or, God forbid, the ending.

The issue, for me, is twofold.

First, time does not exist online.  Not in the timesuck sense of murdering an hour on Facebook or, for me, looking longingly at lovely Les Pauls on Ebay, but rather in the contextless void of cyberspace, where all people, living or dead, and all music and video simultaneously coexist. Abba to Zappa, Beatles and Bach and Beck, are all just keywords, timeless—in the not necessarily classic sense. 

Music doesn’t have spoilers, though.  Yet with movies, there is no longer a statute of limitations for how long someone is supposed to wait before you’re Allowed to Talk about Fight Club, since it will always be brand new, eternally, online, to someone, somewhere.  In other words, online writing, in its perpetual present, is expected to maintain the rhetoric of old media newspaper movie reviews, which essentially summarize the premise, or roughly the first act of a movie, with a little subjective commentary about whether the reader should see the movie or not, preferably with 1-5 stars as an EZ guideline.

This is very different from critical writing, college writing, and academic writing, where the presumed audience is someone who has (likely) read the book or seen the film in question and is interested in analysis, not a recommendation—and who already knows the twists and details.  ‘Cause the thing is, I need to be able to discuss the work in its entirety to discuss it at all.  The difference between The Lion King and Hamlet is the difference between the wayward Prince reclaiming his betrothed and kingdom, vs. everybody dying horribly.  Possibly also: singing animals and fart jokes.

But this ethos contradicts the internet rule of No Spoilers, as seen here by one Amazon.com review, about—surprise!—a collection of critical essays on Fight Club:

 This review is from: You Do Not Talk About Fight Club: I Am Jack’s Completely Unauthorized Essay Collection (Smart Pop series) (Paperback)

I love Fight Club in both book and movie form and I love the fact that the story makes you think. So picking this book up seemed like a must for any Fight Club/Chuck Palahniuk fan.

I’m only two essays into it and my interest is already losing traction. The first essay was painfully overwritten considering the context of the book and the audience who will probably be reading it. If you don’t have your dictionary and a good understanding of philosophy both basic and advanced, you’ll probably struggle through it hoping the book gets better as I did (it does). Long, complex sentence structures, insane words and hybrid words I recognized but didn’t know the meaning of and philosophy references that I had never heard before all conspired to ruin this first essay for me rather quickly.

Another major complaint I have–again with the first essay since I’ve only read two so far–is that there is no spoiler alert at the start of the essay. Well let me just warn you now, the first contributing essay will ruin a good majority of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels if you haven’t already read them. The author goes off endlessly and in detail about his theories on Chuck’s other books, describing in detail certain aspects of the story and the book’s overall outcome. So annoying trying to skip over stuff that seemed spoiler in nature. I haven’t read Chuck’s other books yet and now I don’t need to; the surprise is ruined.

The “first essay” in question was written by me.  And I didn’t realize the possibility that what I was writing was “spoiler in nature.” I thought I was writing about books.

Leaving aside that this reviewer thinks it’s a problem to read an essay that uses words and philosophical references that he has “never heard of before” (JFGI, kid), I turn to the second issue: the No Spoiler fetish overemphasizes the importance of plot. 

OK, maybe in fairness to my Amazon detractor, with a Chuck Palahniuk or an M. Night Shyamalan or a Quentin Tarantino—people who traffic specifically in the twist ending—you don’t want to know that at the end of Fight Club oirjrnjnriwbecbwqhjbediuwrenrfnewroin. Or at the end of The Sixth Sense it turns out that Bruce Willis’s character wfnwenfrewijgtmhoiweb, or at the end of Unbreakable, Bruce Willis’s character learns that lkjsfrohjdeoifhqwiuewqnbe, or at the chronological end but narrative middle of Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis’s character oiewhfiunewicnbewfndekjwncen. These movies, like Bruce Willis, have been out for decades. 

At what point is it safe to declare a Spoiler moratorium? 

The thing is, there are many, many reasons to read or watch a story aside from the stuff that happens.  If anything, Palahniuk’s, Shymalan’s, and Tarantino’s best work transcend plot entirely and enter into the much more interesting realms of style, voice, and narrative structure, aspects of storytelling that, like sweet, sweet honey, naturally resist spoilage.  If all anyone wants is plot summary, go read Cliff’s Notes.  Or if that’s too long, the Cliff’s Notes of Cliff’s Notes, Wikipedia.  If someone likes an author, even the most egregious spoilers shouldn’t actually ruin (the word used twice in the review) much of anything.      

I’m a fun guy, so, let’s play mold to film’s gentle bread and spoil some endings, shall we?

Harry Potter series: the good guys win

Lord of the Rings: good guys win

Star Wars: good guys win

Titanic: boat sinks

Now, maybe this is too glib. After all, I suppose it’s the particular details of the plot, not the overall trajectory or ending, that rankles the Spoiler-sports (Alternate names for people who want to stop spoilers: the Refrigerators? The Tupperwares? Or are these just terrible band names?).  For example, in Titanic, it’s not the boat, it’s that [Spoiler alert, despite that it’s the second highest grossing movie of all time] Jack dies; in Harry Potter [Spoiler alert, even though it’s the bestselling book series and third highest grossing movie of all time], the epilogue flashes forward to a future where Harry and Ginny are sending their bully magnet-named son Albus Severus to Hogwarts; in LoTR [Spoiler alert, even though—ah forget it], Frodo destroys the ring but is altered by the experience and can’t go back home; in The Empire Strikes Back [oh no he di’n’t], Luke is revealed to be Darth Vader’s son. 

Once Target shirts have spoilers, the secret's out

I’ll go one further: I don’t like surprises.  Let’s hear two cheers for spoilers.  Once you’re free from the filmic tyranny of What’s Going to Happen?!?, you can actually sit back and enjoy the show. 

As everyone knows, “spoil” can mean ruin.

But it also means “indulge.”

Time: 55 minutes  

 Jesse Kavadlo

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