Monthly Archives: December 2011

A (Belated) Merry Krampus

Not Santa

Outside my bedroom window, flickering like a cheap motel sign, sits my neighbor’s neon Santa, silently signing “Ho,” “Ho Ho,” “Ho Ho Ho,” each flash adding another “Ho” like it’s a new idea or something.  The image of Santa—Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas—reigns supreme from November to January, or, in Winona, MN, from late August to January. 

But what about Krampus?  Apparently, Krampus—who, like Santa, goes by many names—was once, more benignly, Santa’s sidekick, “a devil-like figure who drove away evil spirits during the Christian holiday season.”  But more often, he was Santa’s bad cop.  Santa rewarded the good children with presents, while Krampus whipped and punished the bad ones—or, in a calculated bit of symmetry, Santa carried presents in his sack, while Krampus carried an empty sack, not to steal presents a la The Grinch but rather to carry off bad children for his supper. 

I never heard of Krampus until two days ago.  And I don’t celebrate Christmas, so I don’t have a horse in this race anyway.  But I’ve been thinking about Krampus.  (I also had a dream about him, but my stomach hurt when I went to bed, so I suspect it was my unconscious telegraphing the word “cramps.”)   I’m concerned about what seems to be the disappearance of Krampus.  Santa has come to dominate the season with a red, velvet fist, the sole survivor of a symbolic vanishing twin syndrome.  But  Santa’s ascendancy seems directly tied to the overall criticisms of saccharine sanctimony and crass commercialism endemic to the season. 

Now, I’m not advocating an American Krampus renaissance, or a full on Krampus parade as in Graz, Austria, below (warning: scary!)

Too many of the images are startling or sadistic, a few border on pedophilia, and a handful are all three:

Wrong for so many reasons

Clearly, adults should not terrorize their children into petrified obedience.  When I posted a Krampus link on Facebook yesterday, two friends, Abbie and Johannes —not surprisingly, of Eastern European and Austrian origin, respectively—had indeed heard of Krampus, and they felt their childhood shivers return at the sight of him.  But the appropriate comparison for me is to Andrew Delbanco’s book  and idea of “the Death of Satan”: not the need to sow fear, as much as the metaphorical need to embody, rather than rationalize or ironize, the very idea of evil. Delbanco worries that the death of Satan—or, I’ll add, his Christmas collector’s edition, Krampus—is a kind of death of metaphor itself, and that convincing the world that he is gone—whether through secular humanism’s intellectual embarrassment or Christian fundamentalism’s demonizing of others rather than looking inward to find evil—would indeed be Satan’s greatest trick of all.  Ridding the world of Krampus does not purge the world of what he represents.  As that other great Pagan-derived holiday, Halloween, shows, great good can come from receiving, and even identifying with, the bad.

But mostly, I fear that without Krampus, the yang to his yin, the bitter to his sweet, Santa Claus has had to be both the good cop and the bad cop in one:

“He knows when you are sleeping,

He knows when you’re awake

He knows if you’ve been bad or good…”

Does any verse strike more fear in the hearts of American children?  Do we want Santa to embody Foucault’s Panopticon, the totalitarian, police state?  When one figure embodies both reward and punishment, carrots and sticks, it does not just effect the death of Satan.  It also produces a kind of death of Santa, just a little.   Ho ho ho. 

Time: a cool 35 minutes.  Call me Half-hour Man today.

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VH1’s Metal Fatigue

A typical '80s metal image

In 1985, when I loved heavy metal, the only time I could hear it on the radio was once a week at midnight on Metal Shop ( “M-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-metal shop”), and the only place to watch the videos were the UHF station U68 and the occasional clip in Friday Night Videos.  Both late at night.  This was all pre-cable in Brooklyn, New York, and obviously pre-DVR.  To hear new metal, I’d often chance a record based on the cover alone.  I first heard Metallica that way, which remains my major coup. Savatage, not so much.   Yet now, far, far past the point when I need it, everything on VH1 is coming up metal: Metal Mania, That Metal Show, the million-part documentary Metal Evolution, the preponderance of Iron Maiden and Metallica and miscellaneous metal movies, and Megadeth et al Behind the Music episodes. 

It’s all too much, too late.

Nevertheless, I’m watching it, and more often than not I’m surprised by what I’m seeing, despite my vague, dream-like glimpses of memories of having seen them before.  The majority of the 1980s metal videos, it turns out, featured futuristic apocalyptic Road Warrior sets—sometimes, oddly enough, accompanied by laser guns and flying saucers; at other times, also oddly enough, accompanied by faux-Renaissance Faire swords and scepters—where the only remnants of the present-day to survive are guitars and, apparently, Aquanet.  Crucially, most videos also feature some kind of bondage, chains, cages, or imprisonment scenario, usually with the band itself incarcerated, although sometimes hot chicks in strategically ripped clothing are, apparently, detained for questioning as well.  The best worst example is Queensryche’s “Queen of the Reich” video, which gets everything right.  Which is to say everything wrong.  “LOL” has become a cliché, but just try not to laugh out loud.

I get the end of the world angle.  This was the ’80s, with the endgame of the Cold War (which of course we didn’t know at the time), The Day After and the trauma dramas on TV, Mad Max and War Games at the movies, the official red carpet entrance of crack, AIDS, eating disorders, and drive-by shootings into the public lexicon and consciousness.  The videos?  Mere trickle down dystopia.  Metal was anti-authority, and no civilization just meant no rules and less clothing.  Let college rock feel fine about the end of the world as we know it; to metal bands and fans, it was fuckin’ awesome.

But this bondage business nags me. Dokken’s Breakin’ the Chains (above image) pretty much sums it up, but Def Leppard’s quasi-crucifixion in Foolin’, The Scorpions’ cages and containers in Rock You Like a Hurricane, Quiet Riot’s and Megadeth’s straightjackets and padded cells, Metallica’s electric chairs and hospital beds, and too many more to name: everyone is trapped, confined, restricted, or in somebody else’s power.  I suppose it’s the oldest and most reliable story in existence, the Master Plot of master plots: tension, release; rising action, climax; loss, regain; conflict, resolution.  But the song does not remain the same.  The images—the chains—do.  Yes, they all break free by the end of the clip.  But first they need to be tied up or tied down. 

I guess there were some now-obvious but at the time (to me) unconscious fetishes at work, but the emotional metaphors trump the sexual ones.  In retrospect, there is the inescapable sense of the inescapable, despite that they—we—were white, and straight, and male, and socially unconstrained, irresponsible in the best sense, and at the height of youth, strength, and beauty.  Yet in the metal videos, all anyone felt were the metal restraints; all they saw were the bars of their metal cages.

The images seem funny and maybe ironic now, even though I felt and identified with the music at the time in a visceral, animal way.  And I’d say that they were funny, except for commercials that punctuate them as they air on VH1 now: a steady stream of Technicolor desperation, ad after ad for credit checks, mortgage and bankruptcy help, baldness cures and hair restoration, and something ominously called the PosTVac, which aims to restore losses of, um, other kinds. 

Popular culture to the contrary, the world didn’t end in the 1980s after all, as it turned out.  For metal fans, something much worse happened: it went on.   And life had much heavier things in store.  If you thought you were in chains and cages then, twenty plus years later, you’ve got another thing coming.

But I get to watch all the metal I want now.

Time: fifty-five goddamn depressing minutes. 

Coming soon:  Darwin, Hegel, Francis Fukiyama, PBS, Ken Burns, and Ozzy Osborne: welcome to the unlikely mash-up that is the documentary Metal Evolution.

UPDATE 2/8/12: Read the Metal Evolution post: VH1’s Metal Evolution as Interpreted by Theorists other than Charles Darwin

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No Gym Lockers to Narnia

Lev Grossman during our Skype session. Forget the wizards of Hogwarts–he’s the Wizard of Oz.

High school gym had a lot of rules.  Mr. Arbuse, his apt name a neologism of roast beef and cruelty, began every term with his stump speech:

“Dis is gym. Yuh cut, yuh fail.”    

“If yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

“If yuh not in yuh spot when I call yuh name, yuh late; yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

“If yuh not wearing yuh yuniform, counts as yuh not in yuh spot.  If yuh not in yuh spot when I call yuh name, yuh late.  Yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

And so on.  Scary, but, in fact, manageable, a series of reductions and equivalencies.  And Mr. Arbuse had no rules about actual participation in sports.  So I passed, even though I spent all year sitting in the bleachers talking about Metallica with Tommy Cassidy.

Cut (no pun intended) for a moment to the end of one of my own classes, twenty-five years later and two weeks ago.  Titled “Secret Worlds: Fantasy Novels and their Fans,” the class reads Peter Pan, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and The Magicians by Lev Grossman, with watching the movies The Wizard of Oz, Coroline, and Pan’s Labyrinth.  The books and movies serve as springboards and metaphors for first-year students’ own entrance into a new, unfamiliar place.  There’s magic, of course, but the books mostly revolve around life as students understand it: new schools, powerful friendships, dealing with authority figures, and rites of passage.

This year, when I met him at a St. Louis reading for his new novel, The Magician King, Lev Grossman graciously and generously offered to have a Skype session with my class.  And my students—both last year and this year—had very strong reactions to The Magicians, especially reading it last in sequence.

If you haven’t read The Magicians, you should.  Critics frequently resort to Hollywood high concept mash-ups to describe it: Slate called it “Hogwarts-goes-to-Harvard”; the Village Voice called it “Less Than Zero plus Harry Potter.”  They’re right, but they also both acknowledge that novel is more than that.  Magic in Harry Potter doesn’t actually affect the world much: Mrs. Weasely has self-washing dishes, wands can kill by pointing and shooting, and newspapers have moving images, as though we Muggles have to do without such extravagancies (“You mean the dishes wash—BY THEMSELVES?”  “You mean you have the power to kill from a distance WITH A SMALL HANDHELD OBJECT?” etc).  But JK Rowling never really asks how magic—how the power for words to affect the world in immediate, literal, physical, palpable ways—would affect our inner and outer worlds and force us to ask hard questions in the absence of fairy-tale morality and the face of real-life ambiguity.  Grossman does.  I’d call it Magical Realism if that term didn’t already mean something else entirely. 

And in our session, Lev Grossman was terrific, explaining (for what couldn’t be for the first or even tenth time) his relationship to the Narnia books, his initial motives and even doubts about the novel, and his recent meeting with Neil Gaiman, giving the impression that our course authors must loll away the afternoons over parchment and butterbeer.    

For all his great and funny responses, though, two stand out.  First, when asked about how he felt about an upsetting and unexpected development late in the novel (no spoilers—this is the Internet, after all), Grossman reveled that he himself didn’t quite understand what he had written when he wrote it, and that unlike other parts of the book, that section came quickly and without immediate introspection.  At other points, Grossman similarly demurred, suggesting that his intentions weren’t entirely clear even to himself at the time, and that even now he’s still coming to understand exactly what he wrote .

This admission—which one student brought up later as a revelation—flies in the face of what many students are taught about books and their writers.  Authors are not watchmakers; they don’t work in precise, mechanical ways and therefore don’t always have definitive answers about their books, or even their own motivations. 

Yet the Mr. Arbuses of English have drilled into too many students that reading is a set of equivalences, a scavenger hunt for Symbols—or clues, keys, secrets, decoding the correct combination to open the gym locker of Authorial Truth.  All stories become a series of equal signs: yuh cut, yuh fail.  If yuh don’t see that duh green light in Duh Great Gatsby is hope fur duh American dream, it counts as a cut; yuh cut, yuh fail.  If yuh don’t see dat duh white whale is an unobtainable goal, counts as not seein’ duh green light, counts as a cut, yuh cut, yuh fail.

In response to his recent blog post about advice for college writers, I asked Grossman what he would tell college readers.  And his reply: he wants them to enjoy reading.  Reading for school can take the fun out of it.  And he’s right.  The two responses—authors don’t have all the answers; enjoy reading—are intertwined: students hunting for the right answers and author’s intentions will detract from the one thing I do think authors intend: for readers to take pleasure in the reading experience.  I worry that English classes instill Arbuse-ive values: that learning to read and write well and critically become versions of good behavior, sitting still, in uniform.  Despite the convention of including a map in the inside cover of these secret worlds novels (The Magicians is no exception), Lucy Pevensie and Harry Potter have no roadmaps, no keys, and no immediate agendas to save the new world.   Even Dorothy Gale doesn’t really understand where the Yellow Brick Road will take her until much later.  When Lucy emerges from the wardrobe, Harry from his closet, Dorothy from her transported house, and The Magicians’ Quentin from ,well, Brooklyn, their worlds are bigger, not reduced.  (OK, Alice [of Wonderland fame] does have a key, and Lyra does have a compass, but that’s for another entry).  Quentin keeps looking for his purpose, his destiny, his Quest.  But there isn’t one—not exactly, or at least not that he’s aware of as he’s experiencing it.  At these moments, he’s less a character in a story and more of a person—and an adult.

Overall, students loved the talk and loved The Magicians, which I say in agreement with Grossman is very important to me. I don’t teach books that I don’t also love.   Last year, one student was absolutely convinced that the Narnia-like books within The Magicians, called Fillory, and their imagined author, “Christopher Plover” (a quasi-JM Barrie more than CS Lewis), were real, declaring as evidence that she had, in fact, read them as a child. Googling (now acceptable as a gerund) only made matters worse, thanks to Viking/Penguin’s websites for the imaginary land and the equally imagined author.

It’s a testimony to how richly and deeply the Fillory lore runs through the books, and it made me appreciate that Grossman chose to write The Magicians INSTEAD of Fillory books.  Despite any waxing about timelessness, Peter Pan and the Narnia books—and, already, Harry Potter—are really products of their time. Part of the point of The Magicians seems to be that you can’t go home again—not to your parents, and even to your stories.  It’ something that college students learn too well, especially now, with their first winter break upon them.  Showing up, in the right uniform, in the right place, on time—good enough for Mr. Arbuse—is really only the beginning.  You also have to find your own answers—to your own questions.    Literature, like life, is better than that. 

Gym is not.


Time: Geez, I sat down and was interrupted at least six times for this one. I’m willing to call it an hour.

Coming soon: The only false note I detect in The Magicians is Quentin’s last name, “Coldwater.”  More on why.   

UPDATE 2/6/12: Here’s that blog on Quentin’s name:

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Our Zombies, Ourselves



This is me on zombie

“Peak oil”:  the point at which the world’s oil supplies go into irreversible decline (from Financial Times Lexicon ) 

I’m not expert enough to decide if peak oil is simply a depressing fact or a myth needing to be debunked.   But I will say this: we may have reached the point of Peak Zombie. 

“The Walking Dead” on TV; Zone One by Colson Whitehead and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in books; The New York Times dividing the world into figurative zombies and vampires, as though Myers-Briggs can now add a Z/V to its inventory of personality dichotomies. 

At the movies, beyond the Final Destinations and the 28 Days and the multiple reanimated George Romeros, even a movie like Contagion is a quasi-zombie movie sans actual zombies, Pirates of the Caribbean a de facto zombie movie even if the thing you remember is Johnny Depp’s larf an’ teef.  You’ll be relieved to know that there is a Zombie Movie Database, so you can look up, say, Klown Kamp Massacre, to say nothing of the thousands of other zombie websites, including this one, that I used to zombify myself (apparently it’s a transitive verb) for the swell pic above.

Exhilarating, yes, but there’s a dark side: we’re in desperate danger, not from zombies, or in running from zombies, but from running out of zombies. Too many years of drilling already-limited and well-mined material must lead to irreversible decline. 

So why zombies, and why now?  There’s not a single answer. In fact, I believe that zombies have overrun the cultural landscape because all of the explanations have infected and colluded with each other, creating the conditions for the perfect storm of zombies.

Consumerism: This was Romero’s earliest hobbyhorse, with his mall zombies interchangeable with its usual clientele, later perfectly depicted in Shawn’s, of Shawn of the Dead, inability to tell the difference between the zombies and his usual  neighbors (“She’s so drunk!”).  Zombies are like holiday shoppers: thoughtless, impulsive, unselfconscious malcontents driven by the basest instinct to do nothing but seek the next object of consumption.  It’s hard to question one’s own consumption, but easy to pick on zombie’s fixes.  Certainly Zombieland presents the post-apocalyptic world as one in which the survivors can raid any car or house—or just trash a souvenir shop—because, well, there’s no on left, so why not?

Globalization’s literal and metaphorical infectiousness: Look at the recurring zombie motifs: pandemics, undocumented movements of people across quarantines and borders, the possibility of infiltration by the dangerously infected or affected: zombies are a perfect proxy for the fear of insecure boundaries of every kind.  (I wrote about this in much greater detail here.) Compare zombies to Frankenstein’s monster.  As a reanimated corpse, F’s M was a proto-zombie, but badder:  seven feet tall, intelligent, super strong, super agile, impervious to bullets, frost, and fire.  (Go read your Shelley and stop Whale watching if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)  But F’s M wasn’t CONTAGIOUS!  His whole hangup was that he was the only one of his kind. Zombies don’t have that hangup.  They don’t have any hangups.

Technology: Back in the day, zombies were created by magic. But for a few decades they’ve been formed by radioactivity and viruses, especially scientifically engineered viruses and bio-weapons.  And the solutions tend to be old school and low tech: baseball bats, bludgeons, and medieval style-weaponry.  Many movies—and World War Z and Zombie Survival Guide—specifically suggest that hand to head weapons are more effective than guns and projectiles.  How many times have you tried to solve your tech problem by whacking something—and it worked? 

Apocalypse: 2000, 2001, 2012: the end has been near for some time now.  And who better to bring about the end than zombies?  But each version in its own way allows us to rehearse the end one more time, so if or when it ever arrives, we’re better prepared.  Scared of the end of the world?  Anyone who doesn’t know how to respond to the apocalypse has no one but himself to blame at this point.  You’ve had practice. You’ve been warned.

Political and racial polarization: People who don’t think and just merge with the hordes are considered zombies.  Unfortunately, it’s only people who are opposite one’s own political preference that confers the brainless, conformist zombie label.  For conservatives, it’s Obama Zombies; for liberals, it’s Republican Zombie Defense online game (apparently removed).  Anyone who doesn’t agree with you must be a zombie. The Obama Zombie label, though, seems to have been far more used, possibly thanks to its assonance and consonance. But it also has an undertone of racism—the word and concept were Haitian, derived from Africa, which is why the old Bela Legosi movie was White Zombie. Until then, the assumption was that zombies were black—another latent fear of globalization, porous borders, and those different from one’s self.  Max Brooks nods to this origin in World War Z, and Romero has always been interested in the relationships between zombies and race as well.


If you add the last five reasons up, you get this:

 Permission for violence: in film after film and game after game, you see an unambiguous, unmitigated invitation to unself-conscious carnage.  There’s no diplomatic solution, no treaties, no peaceful protest possible.  There’s no Occupy Zombieland movement.  There are only blows to the head or else your brains are eaten.  Zombies may be dead, but unlike Frankenstein’s monster, they’re beyond sympathy, and unlike vampires, no one actually wants to be one.  Ever. 

Which leads us to the last factor:

Twilight ruined vampires for a while.  So zombies it is.  So if being a vampire means being all emo and sparkly and not getting to do anything cool and spending the rest of your life in high school and the best part is like climbing trees or playing baseball—crap you can do without being dead—then maybe we don’t want to be vampires anymore anyway.  And part of the allure of the monster is its Otherness, the ways in which it simultaneously both is and isn’t like a person.  But once the vampire becomes the object of conscious and able-to-be-consummated desire, it loses its taboo allure.  But as of right now at least, no teenage girl fantasizes about marrying a zombie.  Zombies, unlike the Cullens, remain Other, but an Other so close to the original as to be terrifying rather than potentially enticing, the Uncanny Valley of Monsters.

Of course I could be wrong.  I would have thought we’d reached Peak Zombie in 2006.   In his book Understanding Movies, Louis Giannetti says that all film genres begin with a primitive stage, move into a classical stage, see a revisionist stage, and end in a parodic stage.  It seems clear enough that White Zombie is primitive; Dawn of the Dead is classical; I Am Legend, with Will Smith and Hollywood production values, is revisionist; and Shawn of the Dead is parodic. Yet here we are, with zombies more popular than ever.  

But all that could change.  Or if we have not reached peak zombie, it’s because we have yet to see the Twilight-ization of the zombie genre; striving to see, and love, what remains human in the zombie is still relatively untapped (unless you count the end of Shaun of the Dead).  The one place I’ve seen an attempt to humanize the zombie is the trailer for the video game “Dead Island,” which is more emotionally affective than a trailer for a zombie video game has any right to be [warning: graphic violence]:

Notice how, through its Memento-esque backwards chronology, we see a chilling reminder, one that even a taut, literary thriller like Zone One is afraid to depict: that if we see ourselves in zombies, it is because we are already always potential zombies, and zombies are already us.  Perhaps, then, zombies offer a sustainable, renewable resource, and though the era of the zombie may peak and then ebb, it will not run out after all. 

So sleep well, knowing that zombies may be around for a long time to come.  

Time: 90 minutes!  Gaa. Fourth entry and I’ve already broken my rule.  I did waste 10 minutes looking for, reading, adding, and deleting links about peak oil, though.  Then another 10 minutes to zombify my picture.  It also took me about 10 minutes to remember which video game trailer I wanted.  So it’s sort of an hour.  The funny thing is, this was supposed to be a review of Whitehead’s Zone One. Another time.

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Con and Pro Wrestling


Last Saturday, I saw wrestling.  Not in an arena, or a gymnasium.  In a run-down urban St. Louis building that reminded me of my 1970s-era Brooklyn elementary school cafeteria, or maybe a pre-latte and pilates YMCA, the kind of place that holds Bingo—and, between bouts, it does.  Yet inexplicably, incongruously, the old room holds a wrestling ring in the middle of the old slab flooring, surrounded by metal folding chairs that just cried out to be used as a bludgeon and oblong tables older than I am.  So no, not—fffphuh!—college wrestling.  The real kind, with eye gouging, spandex speedos with knee-high tights, and pre-politically correct racial stereotyping.  Call it amateur professional wrestling. 

Now, I’m no snob and no prude and no stranger to the squared circle.  My man Roland “The Body” Barthes was grappling with wrestling’s semiotics back in 1957. God help me, I saw Randy “Macho Man” Savage marry Miss Elizabeth in Madison Square Garden in 1988, wrestling’s late-Cretaceous when big, balding men hulked across the cultural landscape, endorsing Slim Jims and appearing in mainstream music videos until finally driven to near extinction by the collective comet of suicides and sex scandals and steroid hearings and movies starring Mickey Rourke.  Reptilian wrestling just couldn’t compete with the lithe and mammalian cunning of mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting.   

Yet its saurian vestiges live on in the margins.  It’s been decades since I’ve seen a wrestling match even on TV, so I was excited and interested.  And when the match started—a huge self-reported Texan against a flamboyantly dressed long-haired Latino (I shit you not)—I was surprised by how fake it looked.

Now, I realize that this is not exactly breaking news.  Jesse Ventura has crippled journalists for saying less.  Yet the fakery was faking indisputable.  The punches were inept and inches off their mark, accompanied by obvious footstomps to sweeten the sound.   The laws of physics prevent the men from reversing and running after bouncing off the ropes unless they were playing along, and a single booted kick from a man that size would hospitalize anyone, to say nothing of the dozen administered in as many seconds.  I laughed at its violent pantomime.  Barthes writes that “There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre,” and in a sense he’s right. I don’t mess with the Roland.  But this seemed more farce than falsehood.

Bear with me for a moment.  One of my favorite sequences in all of children’s literature is the scene in Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” when “That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.”  It’s the imaginative transition, where one thing slowly but almost imperceptibly becomes another even as we watch it happen, becoming that which we wish, and fear, most.  Max’s punishment and loss of power in his child’s fantasy are transmogrified into a world without walls, and, soon, the Wild Things, looking more like grotesque Old World aunts and uncles than monsters proper, crown him king, the power as inverted as the room’s insides and outsides.  


This transformation is the best comparison I can think of for what happened during the next wrestling match.  By the end, I was smiling not because it was imaginary, but because, like Max’s place where the wild things are, it had become real before my eyes, almost one panel at a time.  I was smiling now for real, too, with, not at, the match, seeing the spectacle, the sadistic ballet (unless all ballet is sadistic ballet) less as a bout than a fun, homoerotic, testosterone tango.  And in the Trash Can of my mind, one I long thought Emptied, language emerged intact, and I felt it on my lips: a summersault dual flip: suplex, I felt myself whisper.  Where did that come from?  Running directly into a Rockettes-style kick: big boot.  A theatrical slap across the chest: knife edge.  A rolled, squatted pin: small packageTurnbuckle.  LariatClothesline.  Who am I?

But of course, after a few more matches—the thing went on for hours—the magic wore off and the novelty wore out.  Like Max, I went to where the wild things are, but then it was enough, and I was more than ready to render the words dormant for another few decades, to return to the mundane walls of my former life, where my supper was still waiting for me.  And it was still hot.

Reader, I microwaved it.

Time:  50 minutes

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It’s the Essay on It’s the Muppet Movie about it’s the Muppet Show


The Muppets have become a forgotten relic of The Fabric Age, a pre-pixel, pre-Pixar tactile Cambrian of singing, animal-shaped socks.  But with a big cast reunion, smart musical numbers, and special guest stars, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the rest can win back the hearts of their old fans, and their fans’ children, in an era of crass humor and street savvy that the sincere Muppets have always eschewed.

That would be great, of course, if I were writing, I don’t know, an Entertainment Weekly (?) piece about the Muppets’ attempted comeback with their new movie, The Muppets.  But what I’m describing is, in fact, the very plot of that very movie.  The story OF The Muppets and the story IN the Muppets, in other words, are exactly the same.  And I’m not sure how I feel about that much self-referentiality. Art Spiegelman just released a making-of-and-what-he’s-done-since version of Maus called Metamaus; maybe this version of the Muppet movie should have been called Meta-Muppets.  Adding to the meta was the pre-movie announcement not to talk on cellphones, featuring the Muppets in a movie theater audience apparently waiting to see the very movie that they’re about the star in, about the return to Hollywood fame of the Muppets.

But it’s not just the meta that surprised me about the movie—it was also the maudlin.  Yes, the bits, gags, and songs were awesome—I’m still singing “Am I a Man or a Muppet?” to myself (and I’m not sure, personally, what the answer is; Flight of the Conchords’s Brett McKenzie, who wrote the music, is still obsessed with masculinity, a la “I need a small man’s wetsuit”).  But the exposition—that is, the plot details of getting the old group back together, renovating the old theater, learning the old acts, ___ing the old ___—everything between and setting up the set pieces—was nostalgic in the most depressing sense. 

And the other plot vehicle that drove the Muppets’ meta-reunion was the most bizarre love triangle of the year, including that even-more maudlin movie about the consumptive girl who must choose between the centenarian sparkly vampire and the Native American werewolf’s abs.  Here, Jason Segal’s Gary is essentially forced to choose between Walter, the Muppet brother whom he cares for, and his long-time girlfriend, Amy Adams’s Mary.  She wants Gary to be there for her, but, in an unintentional but unmistakable metaphor for caring for a family member with a severe disability, he’s always shunting Mary aside to make sure that Walter is OK. 

OK, so maybe I’m a jerk for pissing all over a great children’s movie, unlike, say the preview for Alvin and the Chipmunks VIII (or whatever), which made me want to firk out my eyeballs with a melon baller.  So the important thing is this: in forgetting the Muppet’s maudlin meta, I’m guilty of the same nostalgia that The Muppets traffic in, since I blocked out that the Muppets have ALWAYS been meta, and they’ve ALWAYS been maudlin. 

The golden age 1970s Muppet Show was never a Muppet Show; its tagline was “It’s the Muppet Show,” predating It’s Gary Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show by being a Muppet show about the making of The Muppet Show, a kind googly-eyed 30 Rock (unless 30 Rock is itself a googly-eyed 30 Rock).  Kermit spent most of his time backstage, on the phone, and arguing with his cast and crew.  Special guest stars appeared in the sketches but also, weirdly enough for a children’s show, making demands from their dressing room.  Those old hecklers made it clear that they were watching the same show that the audience at home was, rather than that they were part of the show itself.  The only way The Muppet Show could have been more transparent would be for them to display the puppeteers, a la Julie Traynor’s Lion King.  But they didn’t need to go that far; when they pulled back the opening curtain, it was already clear that they weren’t hiding the man pulling the strings.     

And I also forgot how sad Kermit was, how fraught and fragile, how dysfunctional his inter-species, gender-role inverted relationship with Miss Piggy.  There was It’s Not Easy Being Green, of course, even though Kermit’s brand of melancholy seemed particularly white.  And at least that song ended positively: “But green’s the color of spring/ And green can be cool and friendly-like.”  No, it’s Rainbow Connection, a song so wistful, so elegiac, so full of unrequited yearning, that it’s beyond redemption:

Why are there so many songs about rainbows
and what’s on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
and rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.
I know they’re wrong, wait and see.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

Who said that every wish would be heard
and answered when wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that and someone believed it.
Look what it’s done so far.

The end of the movie, with its roaring crowds and post-credit Deus ex Machina, may finally cure Kermit’s melancholy.  But I doubt it, and, I suppose, it wouldn’t be The Muppets without it.  So even if the movie is critical of current movies’ obsession with being hip and ironic, The Muppets, seeming sincerity to the contrary, still have a lock on modern mind’s twin concerns: consciousness, and conscience.  Not bad for a talking sock.

Of course, this means that I appreciate the Muppets on a much deeper level than you do.

 Time: 60 minutes. Close call.

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Why Hourman?

Two of my favorite contemporary books, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in the character within a character The Watcherwoman, use clocks and time as a central motif of mortality.  I can’t go a week without another clock-as-metaphor contender—for example, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  But go back further in time and meet Hourman, an obscure superhero created in 1940 and occasionally brought back as a supporting member of various super teams.  He was a scientist (see also: Flash, Iron Man, Spider-man, Mr. Fantastic, Ant-Man, et al) who invents a miracle drug (named, um, Miraclo; see also: Captain America, Cloak and Dagger, Luke Cage, ad infinitum) and, of course, tests it on himself (see: Dr. Jekyll, Beast), presumably to avoid the IRB paperwork.  The drug grants boring entry-level standard with the vehicle superpowers (super strength, super speed, super endurance), but—here’s the twist—only for one hour. 

The Hour-Man!

A few things interest me about this character. First, his powers are essentially framed as a deficiency—the super lasts only an hour, unlike Superman, who’s always super, rather than against regular people, to whom it’s an hour more super than they’ll ever get [said in sassy tone].  The other thing, though, is his decision to go with the name Hourman, which seems pretty stupid for a scientist.  He’s essentially advertising his weakness: “Hark ye, villains of the world! Just wait it out; I’ve only got a good hour in me,” as if  Superman called himself Kryptonite Man (the name a villain would later take pretty much just to screw with Superman’s psyche).  Later writers would also turn Hourman into a Miraclo junkie, kill him off, bring him back, reboot him, and make him time travel (last one: fair enough with the name), same as everyone else in Hollywood.

Think of how different Hourman is from Sixty Minute Man, from the 1951 song.  The names are nearly identical, but whereas Hourman has powers for ONLY an hour, 60 Minute Man has powers prowess for a WHOLE HOUR!  

There’ll be fifteen minutes of kissin’

Then you’ll holler “Please don’t stop” (Don’t stop!)

There’ll be fifteen minutes of teasin’

Fifteen minutes of squeezin’

And fifteen minutes of blowin’ my top

I’m still amazed at how explicit the song is for its time.  Also, how awesome.  But taken together, Hourman and Sixty Minute Man  present a nicely double sided pair and image—an hour is on the one hand never enough, but it can be, um, a fine, long time as well.  And so that’s my operative image for the page.  

I’ll be writing about popular culture—books, movies, music, and television—for no more than one-hour sittings, and I’ll try to keep track of the time.  Writing this blog for me is really an experiment in process, like the freewriting exercises created and espoused by writers like Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg.  Except my goal isn’t words on the page as much as expressing a particular idea for a particular amount of time.  The point of my hour is not to force me to produce, although it’s that too, but also to force me to stop.  Writing time is like dog years—you sit down to spend ten minutes tweaking and realize that seventy minutes have gone by.  For something that I’d write for publication, I could spend an hour on a page, or a sometimes rewriting or re-punctuating a sentence. Hell, I’ve spent an hour just rereading something I’ve written without making any changes at all.  So that hour is both a self imposed limitation as well as an endurance test.  And when I take less than an hour, which I hope to for this entry and maybe others, I’ll indicate the time at the end.

So maybe you won’t turn into an addict, or holler don’t stop, but maybe you’ll return for another episode.

Time: 40 minutes, not including getting the basics of the blog formatting down. That took forever.

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