My New Tattoo

Well, folks, here it is! It's been more than six years since I got a tattoo, and I decided that I knew what I wanted and no time like the present. It's the last two measures of Cole Porter's naughty 1927 hit "Let's Misbehave."

(My favorite lines: "They say that bears have love affairs and even camels / We're merely mammals / Let's misbehave!")

Interestingly, the pain wasn't nearly as bad as my others. I think having lived through 8 hours of drug-free labor pains that felt like I was going to die with each inhale might have something to do with it. And it's an open pattern, so no long digging fill-in.

The guy who did it is Ben at Icon in Murfreesboro. You can see the quality of his work, and he's a very nice young guy. I recommend him.



Rethinking My Fair Lady

In looking for some theater fun this summer, I auditioned for and was cast in a local production of My Fair Lady. Let me be plain: most musicals done by community theater groups are sexist (and often racist) drivel, and I sometimes cringe before, during, and after auditions. Once in the show, I go with the spirit of adventure, fun, and exhibitionism, but, as a feminist, I still do feel occasional moments of embarrassment or shame at being part of such status quo fare.

When I did Adelaide in Guys and Dolls in 2001, I relatively easily convinced myself that so much parody was going on that I need not worry. At worst, Adelaide is a “doll” of her time, strong and independent in spirit but desiring to be a married and “respectable” woman, too. And with a lead role and five songs in the show, I had a superb time with the entertaining cartoon that is Adelaide.

Last year I auditioned for South Pacific with great reservations. “Bali Hai” is a beautiful song, but reconciling myself to the racist mess that is Bloody Mary was not easy. When I auditioned and was asked by the director to heighten my sing-song pseudo-Asian accent, I cringed. That I did not get cast in the role was ultimately a blessing. Though I could find my way inside Bloody Mary to portray her as a woman working within the racist/sexist system of the U.S. military to do the best she could financially for herself and her daughter, I was glad not to have to deal with it (or convince the director to let me play it so). Yes, the show does deal overtly with bigotry enough to argue for tolerance, but the closest it gets is that the white woman’s white boyfriend had a former native lover (mother of his children). Our heroine need not sully herself by actually getting involved with a person of color. Heaven forbid! Just raise up the little colored young’uns. (I was offered the part of the Head Nurse, so that pleased my ego—but I ultimately decided I just didn’t want to be part of that show.)

Then, this summer, along comes My Fair Lady: the story of the flower “girl” who is molded by the stodgy professor into an upper-class lady. Even when he treats her shoddily, she ultimately comes back for more. Not exactly feminist fare. Nonetheless, I was cast as Mrs. Higgins, she who condemns her son’s coldness and cheers on Eliza Doolittle for helping her boy to truly feel something for someone else. Of course, that Henry turned out to be such a prick may be laid on his mother’s shoulders, especially if Freud has any say in our interpretation. Yet, I do enjoy several of my lines, including my quip that if I were Eliza I would not have thrown his slippers at him but the fire irons. I am playing the role with more than a touch of Aunt Agatha from the Jeeves and Wooster stories, and the accent is delightful fun.

Now, I have friends who suggest that we can read Eliza’s decision to return to Higgins differently (this ending, of course, differs from the original G.B. Shaw play, Pygmalion, in which Eliza leaves him and runs off to marry — and financially support – the upper-class twit Freddy). They read it as consensual kinkiness: the two of them like their dominant-submissive relationship the way it is.

But now some of my castmates and I have decided something else as we’ve watched the show unfold in rehearsal: Higgins is gay. A gay stereotype, to be sure, but stereotypes are what you get in the majority of musicals. He is deeply afraid of women, and Eliza figures this out and the two of them do their dance and Higgins realizes he need not even have sex with her but can just have her as a companion and convince himself he’s not gay. This leads to wondering what Eliza gets out of it. Respectability and someone to pay her bills, I guess, which ain’t hay. As she says, she’s always been able to get men to like her “in that way.” Higgins is something new…and a man of means.



Surely even public-bathroom sex with a total stranger is more genuine and culturally valuable than attempts to make gay people straight.


Big Gooey Lefty Crush on Mark Morford

My husband reads Discover Magazine. He can daily share cool science factoids and tell me what's happening in the science world. And he reads news online daily, too. Meanwhile, I watch The Daily Show sometimes and my magazine of choice is Entertainment Weekly. For one thing, the only time I usually read magazines is on the pot, and Discover is too techno-jargony to assist me in the act for which the pot is made. So it’s EW for me, and some Knights of the Dinner Table when it arrives each month to give me a regular nerd gamer fix. Perhaps I'd peruse more news if I brought my laptop into the bathroom with me, but I think not.

If I did have an internet hook-up in the john, I’d be reading Mark Morford. Though this SF Gate columnist has his moments of pretentious drivel and piggybacking on whatever’s going around the hip progressive chat circles, and his take on most issues is entirely predictable (often pretty much the same as mine), most of Morford’s columns are glorious exercises in venting against the ruination of this perhaps always-already ruined nation. Let me share a few quotes from recent columns.

From “Liberals Are So Intolerant!” (8/10/2005):

“I cannot tolerate an American president, ostensibly meant to be one of the most articulate and intellectually sophisticated leaders on the planet, mumbling his semicoherent support of the embarrassing nontheory of 'Intelligent Design,'
to the detriment of about 300 years of confirmed science and 10 million years of common sense to the point where America's armies of dumbed-down Ritalin-drunk children look at him and sigh and secretly wish they could have a future devoid of such imbecilic thought but who realize, deep down, they are merely another doomed and fraught generation who will face an increasingly steep uphill battle, who will actually have to fight for fact and intellectual growth and spiritual progress against a rising tide of ignorance and religious hegemony and sanitized revisionist textbooks that insult their understanding and sucker punch their sexuality and bleed their minds dry. […]
"Enough. Basta. Let's refashion the old, stagnant definition of tolerance and make it less about merely enduring, merely putting up with the existence of other narrow-minded beliefs no matter how devastating and embarrassing they obviously are to the nation's health.
"Rather, let's flip that sucker over and baste it with raw goat butter and sear it on the open flames of divine justice and bliss and intellectual fire and white-hot orgasm and burn it new.”

From “You Now Hate Chocolate Cake” (8/12/05):

“Yes, we are an obscenely obese nation, the fattest on Earth and only getting fatter and clearly we are still desperately hungry, insatiable, our appetite only growing and our butts only widening and our sense of true health and whole foods and the appreciation for our radiant flesh all dissipating like honey incense in an oil fire. We have now accepted this as indefatigable truth, the sad American way. But you have to ask, how the hell did this happen? And what, really, are we truly so hungry for? Why can we not get ourselves full?
"Look at it this way: A balanced and humane, sexually healthy, well-educated, spiritually empowered nation has no need to gorge itself on poisons, no need to bloat itself and add massive layers of enormous flabby cushioning (mental or physical) to its body in order to protect itself from the violence of the world and the shrill ignorance of its warmongering leaders and hey wait did I just begin to answer the question?”

Other recent entries, with fab titles and content to match, such as “Who Loves Creepy Megachurches?”, "Hideously Skinny White Girls," and “There’s Sex in My Violence!”, should help to tempt you over to enjoy the rude progressive articulateness that is Mr. Morford—or at least his columnist persona.

Caveat: I reserve the right to read something Morford wrote or writes in future and decide I hate his guts.


Poignant Potshot at the Prez

Dubya sez,

"I understand the anguish that some feel about the death that takes place."

So glad he understands. And thinks "long and hard" about others' grief and arguments about getting out of the incredible mess we've made of Iraq and tens of thousands of lost lives (1800+ American soldiers; 23500+ civilians) in order to reap its oil riches.

Remarkable that he chooses this wording: it seems to me a direct admission that he himself does not feel anguish--or much of anything at all. Just knows that "some" have feelings. Some suffer. But not Dubya. Nothing touches him: why feel anything at all but smugness, even when your popularity is in the dumpster? After all, so many will cozy right up again if oil prices just go down a tad or if he shuts up about social security. And, lest we forget, 45% recently polled still support this president.

Quick: somebody find me a half-full cup, I'm choking!


Inane Tests Are Taking Over the Web!

From the profound to the profane, from the portentous to the puerile, one conclusion we may deduce from the incredible number of available free online quizzes is that some people have too much damn time on their hands. (Of course, we might draw this same conclusion from the sheer number and type of entries in my two-week-old blog, yes?) Moreover, if you add the number and variety of free online tests + the number of people interested in taking them + the number of people interested in making them, the total says a great deal about overevolved human brains and our inability to know what the heck to do with our time. I suspect crossword puzzles, RPGs, square dancing, adultery, and war are also significant indicators of the same problem.

And now, a few random quizzes from various sites I’ve taken in order to write this blog entry, along with my scores and a snide comment or two:

Test: IQ Test
Score: 161 (“genius”)
Snide Comment: “Genius”? Clearly this test is too easy. But it's short -- and oh, how flattering.

Test: Belief-O-Matic (What's your religion?)
Score: Unitarian Universalism (100%), Secular Humanism (93%), Liberal Quakers (87%) – and both Reform and Orthodox Judaism (21%)
Snide Comment: Predictably, first answers for all questions are Judeo-Christian or other monotheisms, then pagan, then Buddhist type, then agnostic, then atheist. I like that you can weight answers for their importance to your beliefs after answering each question, though it’s a more taxing test than the others I took because of this. I got tangled a bit with questions that asked about abortion and homosexuality and the like – these aren’t spiritual matters for me but about human rights.

Test: Would You Have Been a Nazi?
Score: No, I would have left Germany, apparently.
Snide Comment: Let me off the hook too easily, though I like to think I’d have left Germany (especially given that I’m Jewish). Could raise consciousness in small ways just for the question about whether you believe your home nation engages in propaganda (answer is YES, dummies!)

Test: 3 Variable Funny Test (What kind of humor do you like?)
Score: The Wit (CLEAN / COMPLEX / DARK) -- with a long inane explanation
Snide Comment: Too many forced choices lead to misrepresentation and (like all these tests) oversimplification. I like that Bateman (who made this test and the Nazi test) comes up with theory on how humor works according to different trajectories, but you aren’t going to learn much about me if I have to decide which of the following I like best: "a well-planned and perfectly executed practical joke," "a clever and crushing comeback," or "a fart that you cut." Where’s the option for witty retort, a bit of slapstick humor, or a nice dirty joke? I do, however, think this test is worth taking just to see the picture of the kitty being chased by robot toys with the caption “Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten.”

Test: How Sexy Are You? (There are a billion of these all over the Internet.)
Score: “You are a Bad, Sexy Girl” (woo hoo!)
Snide Comment: I like that you get NINE options per question with this one. Still forced, but at least it’s short and you don’t have to choose between 3 equally irrelevant or inappropriate answers.

Test: What Breed of Dog Are You?
Score: Chihuahua (oh, thank you. how flattering.)
Snide Comment: Criteria are not clear to me at all with this one. Worse, to get your result, you have to sign in (with name, age, email, etc.) and click the right button to avoid signing up for other shit. Makes me want to bite ankles.

Test: The Political Compass
Score: -8.75 (Left of Gandhi); -6.97 (rather Libertarian).
Snide Comment: Sponsored, so I understand, by Libertarians, some questions are clearly skewed to lead you to a Libertarian answer.

Test: Which Zodiac Sign Would You Be Most Compatible With?
Score: Aries
Snide Comment: The lists of traits to consider (as preferences, peeves, etc.) is interesting, if (yes, again) superficial. But I'm not into astrology, so no clue why Aries was chosen for me. Actually, I was really looking for a "Guess Your Zodiac Sign" test, to see if I could check off traits and the quiz would guess my sign. Might do a bit for my cynicism regarding astrology...even though I find talking about signs fun (like these quizzes) on occasion.

Well, I didn't learn anything about myself I didn't know from all this, other than that I am apparently chihuahua-like. (I know my friend
Rick, formerly nicknamed the Psycho Chihuahua, is laughing at this additional evidence of our being twins separated at birth.)

Please feel free to take some of these tests and report your results or snide comments here…or recommend other tests you'd like me to waste my oh-so-precious time taking.


Have you seen Sylvia Scarlett?

Sylvia Scarlett is a 1935 disastrous gem of a movie. Directed by George Cukor, Hollywood’s only out gay studio director of the era, the film featured Katharine Hepburn in drag as young Sylvia/Sylvester Scarlett, a youth who follows her ne’er-do-well widowed father on an adventure in pulling small-time cons. To join him rather than be left behind, Sylvia becomes Sylvester, and a merry time is had by all, especially their newfound pal Jimmy Monkley (played with cockney fabulousness by Cary Grant). Merry, that is, until an alcoholic jealous fit leads to the death of Papa Henry Scarlett (rendered with morose charm by Wales’ own Edmund Gwenn, whom you should know as Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street, Captain Albert Wiles in Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, or 80-odd other character roles). But the comedy ending is rescued when our heroine/hero falls for the womanizing artist Michael Fane (giddily portrayed by a handsomely wavy-haired Brian Aherne). Fane finds “something queer” in young Master Scarlett, but likes the lad. When he learns that he is really a she, he is at first astonished by this “crowing hen,” this “freak of nature”; however, bewilderment soon turns to love. The film ends with Sylvia redonning boy’s garb and escaping to happiness on a train with Fane while the jilted Jimmy Monkley runs off with the entirely bitchy and spoiled former object of Fane’s affection, Lily.

What I most love about Sylvia Scarlett is, of course, its gender transgressiveness. There are countless superb moments, from Hepburn in drag to Fane’s “queer” line to Monkley telling the young person he thinks is a boy that they should bunk together because Sylvester will make a “proper little hot water bottle” to the scene in which Henry’s trollop of a girlfriend, the maid Maudie Tilt (deliciously overplayed by Dennie Moore) makes a pass at Sylvester (after drawing a Ronald Coleman moustache on him) and we actually see the kiss. Better, I would argue that the film goes even further. As I read it, the fey Fane cannot feign his own queer desires: it is obvious at film’s end that what he most loves about Sylvia is that she is also Sylvester.

It is not easy to find a copy of this box office super-flop. And it’s not without its clunky moments. But if you like camp and genderbending and can buy, rent, or borrow someone’s videotape (the DVD’s only out in England), you’ll be glad you did.


Is There Any Excuse for Enjoying The Andy Griffith Show?

When I was a kid and watched Cubs games on WGN in Chicago, they were almost always preceded or followed by an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, and it often popped up as the filler during mid-game rain delays. I remember so well my reaction just to hearing the opening whistled strains of the theme song and the view of Opie and his fishing pole walking beside his Pop: run to the tv and switch the channel before the show actually begins!!! It was a rather strange, gut kind of reaction, stronger than for other annoying sitcoms that might show up undesired on my screen. And it motivated me up out of my chair because we didn't have remotes in them days.

Now, I do remember a period when I felt similarly about The Three Stooges, but that changed over time and I grew to like them on occasion, especially when the shorts were interspersed with the Our Gang comedies for a Little Rascals/Three Stooges hour that I watched often after junior high/high school let out. But the loathing or anxiety or whatever it was about Andy Griffith continued long into adulthood, ending only after living in Tennessee for more than five years.

In retrospect, I know my reaction was certainly what the show seemed to represent, not the actual characters or plots. After all, I never watched the show, so immediate was my urge to get up and change the channel. The setting, I think, is what troubled me. A totally middle-class Jewish girl from the suburbs of Chicago with no connection to or interest in rural life -- and certainly nothing below the Mason-Dixon line -- The Andy Griffith Show was just hick and alien and thus for hick, alien people to watch.

Now, as someone who has been living in the South for the past 13+ years, I have come to groove on some aspects of the show, from the amazing precocious cuteness of Ron Howard's Opie to Don Knotts' superb performances to the creepy delight that is Floyd the Barber. It's fun to watch the endless rerun cycle of Andy's love affairs, from the blonde nurse whose name I forget to the sharp-minded Ellie (my favorite) to the milksop Helen Crump. And you gotta love the episodes centered on Ernest T. Bass as well as the Darling family. Superb campy comedy.

I will say I have mixed feelings about Otis Campbell. I love the actor. The humorous town drunk is not a character you're going to see much of anymore, not with the fond and tolerant way it's played on Andy Griffith. From the episode where he buys a car to the one where his brother (also a town drunk) comes to Mayberry to the one where he's given an award for his family heritage: the series can't seem to decide what to do with alcoholism, so it just ends each episode happily ever after with Otis feeling good about himself before he returns to bit part episodes where he's just walking into the cell full of pink elephants and having a lie-down, much to Barney's chagrin (and Andy's delight at Barney's chagrin).

I suppose my greatest pleasure in the series comes from the fact that my husband and I have developed a way of watching the show through pop psychology. We read Andy as an "enabler" (or rescuer). Andy keeps the status quo going beautifully in Mayberry, from the easy-going charm of it all to Otis's alcoholism to Barney's pathological overcompensation for pipsqueaky ineptitute. Episode after episode has Andy saving Barney's ass with a loving smile, excusing everything from his bungling to his powermongering and even trying to make him look more competent than he ever is. And Andy rescues and enables even when Barney's actions threaten Andy's livelihood or his very life. Given that, without a doubt, Barney is a pretty realistic and still-timely portrayal of those scary-ass small-town officers who thrive on treating others like crap to make themselves feel adequate all across this great nation of ours (wow, sounds like Dubya, don't it?), it can be downright painful to watch Andy keep puffing him up when he should remain deflated awhile...or forever.

But somehow it's addictive. The pleasure of knowing what will happen every episode, that everything will be "all right" in this safe little white Southern town... If I think too much about it, it's appalling. But just before bed it can put a ridiculous smile on my face that I shoud certainly not be admitting to.

All that said, I will say that the episodes where Aunt Bee gets a man and loses him over and over are just painful. Even worse are the later ones where she keeps ending up on television. You can mark the worst of it by the change from black-and-white to color.

Sadly, the show kept going far past its prime. Once Opie's going to school dances and we have to watch the likes of characters Howard Sprague and replacement deputy Warren Ferguson, I'm switching channels faster than when I was a kid. It's obvious what they should've done when Don Knotts quit the show: nip it in the bud!


So, what do you watch?

Television is a vast wasteland...blah blah blah. Yes, it is and we need not say much more than that sitcoms are and always have been basically pap and drivel and reality TV is exploitative and champions the suffering of others and glorifies its own hand-fashioned faux third-world poverty chic and crime drama is about artificially revitalizing ourselves from our psychic numbness and HBO is its own Tarrantinoland theme park and the soaps haven't changed much in 30 years and the "news" is an artificial construction that mostly just produces anxiety about things we cannot have any impact on or are so far distant from our daily lives that they just leave us even more numb so we just have to watch more original HBO series of swearing and violence and (bad) sex.

Nonetheless, I still watch TV. I have no intention of selling my TV or
killng it or throwing it away, even though I do share some of the glorious aims of folks like the TV Turn-off people and Adbusters and Jerry Mander and everyone who rightly talks about kids attention spans and the McDonaldization of our culture and how media violence affects us and how fat and lazy we all are.

I just use my TV strategically. First off, I use it as a screen for watching videos and DVDs. Second, I watch stuff with my son. In addition to the good-parent selections of Sesame Street and Between the Lions and occasional other educational type shows, we watch more than our fair share of kid-sized superhero stuff. I've written about that (mostly in terms of film) already, so let me just say we're seriously into Teen Titans at my house, and I do have to say I like that my son's favorite character is Raven, the moody girl with a demonic father. He's not crushed out on the cute and chipper alien chick Starfire, nor the macho Robin. He does like Cyborg, who shows some teen angst I enjoy now and then (and is another example of a black superhero on TV, so that's good), and Beastboy, who is a giant shapeshifting goofball. Yes, it's violent and full of all that's wrong with superheroism, but it's also well-drawn and witty. And gotta love Puffy Ami Yumi singing that oh-so-catchy theme song.

Our second favorite show is Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. Created by Craig McCracken, the same fella that made the annoying Powerpuff Girls, Foster's is about a foster home that takes in imaginary friends when the kids who imagined them grow up or don't want them anymore. That's just a damn sweet premise. All kinds of "hijinks" go on, but it's generally a sweet, goodhearted program, and the characters are all entirely loveable or bratty in just the same way your own kid is.

I do watch one or two adult shows. I kinda dig some of the Food Network shows for something relaxing, especially the uberlikeable Rachael Ray and the too-gross-for-America Iron Chef. Just how many times can you watch someone cook with fish eyeballs, shark fins, foie gras, or swallow's nest (made of delicious swallow spit!) without just saying enough! On other channels, my mom actually got me to watch something on Fox (no, not American Idol!). The show is House, and I recommend it for a break from the usual hospital drama fare. I used to watch Xena and Buffy weekly, but nothing of the sort since. Nothing at all.
[Note: My husband reminds me that we used to watch several shows regularly on the SciFi Channel a while back too, like First Wave and Farscape. It's not just lack of good shows that keep us from regular watching of much of anything; it's having a kid around who used to be able to be in the room and not notice what we were watching (at, say, age 2) but now sees all. We have friends who dig Smallville and I really don't even know what's on Sci Fi anymore.]

Right now, Comedy Central gets my top vote for a channel because it features the only show(s) I watch, even semi-regularly. Reno 911 is most excellent, as was The Dave Chapelle Show, and though I'm sick of it, South Park can be extremely witty and astute through (and despite) its immature grossness. The only truly good TV on the air, however, I am entirely convinced, is The Daily Show. It has its share of clunks and missed opportunities, poor interviews and trite ridicule, but it's the closest to Lefty TV we're gonna get in this corporate controlled climate full of rampant intolerance and imbecility, so I am just daily thankful for The Daily Show. (I like the occasional references to Yiddishkeit, too; thanks, Jon.)

Now it's your turn. What do you watch?


Creepy Christian Cumberland Caverns

My husband, son, and I went with some fabulous friends to Cumberland Caverns yesterday, "Tennessee's largest cavern" and a "U.S. National Landmark" in glorious McMinnville, Tennessee. The cave was incredibly cool, featuring amazing formations, evidence of an 1812 saltpeter mine, and cold clear pools with nothing but blind crawfish and the bacteria they subsist on living in them. Turning out the electric lights they've installed throughout makes you aware of just how big, empty, and dark caves can be, just how small is your own existence alongside the grandeur and intricate exquisiteness of Nature.

But the privately-owned Cumberland Caverns do not trust that you'll get this message on your own. Instead, tacky and clearly psychotic owner (whose name I cannot find published anywhere online but will fill in when I get a moment) decided to exploit and dump his religious beliefs on this grandeur via an underground "ballroom," complete with a 3/4 ton crystal chandelier he bought and stuck into the ceiling of a huge open chamber, and a wacky "sound and light show" called "God of the Mountain" that is suddenly announced when you're deep in the cave and happens after you've climbed 96 steps to the top of the mountain then a bunch down into the available seating. It is perhaps excess to analyze the details of this "original underground pageant of light and sound"; suffice it to say you hear some old recording of a black gospel retelling of the opening of the book of Genesis, then the wacky owner drops Jesus in as though he came right after Adam, and everything is piped through accompanied by lightbulbs of various colors at various points on the cave walls and ceiling areas to indicate God (a blue-green light patch on the righthand wall), the sun (cool white light overhead and before you), the "tiny stars" (blob of white light on right upper wall), Jesus (white light on column of rock), and humankind (white light on more columns of rock). Humankind's ambition is portrayed by red light on a little recessed area of rock as a special treat.

Now our guide did point out that we did not have to climb the steps and go down into the theater area if we did not want to. Instead, we could wait 25 MINUTES on a small bench in the middle of the cavern and he'd leave some lights on. But it did seem like a bait and switch to me. Cumberland Caverns is heavily advertised as a National Landmark, but it is not, I learned after asking, a part of the National Park Service. This natural treasure is owned by one guy, and that means he can do whatever he wants with his caverns, whether that is simulating an "Old Moonshine Still," adding props to help you recall the 1812 saltpeter mining operation in all its glory, afixing a huge and absurdly tacky 1950s chandelier into the ceiling (then adding red, white, and blue lightbulbs into it and doing a little "light show" to "The Blue Danube"), or offering a cartoonishly over-the-top Christian "pagaent of light and sound" once they've got you where they want you.

Our guide did also note there had been some legal trouble about this little evangelical show, but it's obvious that the bench placed for those who want to wait behind and the little disclaimer of a short "Christian light show" has been enough to quiet the ACLU or whoever was taking them on. I was pretty angry that we did not get notification of this religious attack BEFORE we paid our $12 per adult and $6 per child to go on our tour, but, to be fair, after reviewing the brochure you could get before walking in the door to the gift shop (complete with rebel flag mugs), I do see that it clearly announces that "'God of the Mountain,' an original underground pageant of light and sound is shown on every tour."

So, they've covered their asses well enough, and the show was so goofy as to be easier to read as satire than sincere, but I cannot help but share my husband's plaintive query: "Are there no secular spaces left in this country?"


5-Star "Review" of a Movie I Ain't Seen Yet: The Aristocrats

And now for something completely different...

I just read about The Aristocrats in the August 6 issue of Entertainment Weekly. I haven't seen the film, and I'm unlikely to until it's out on DVD because I just doubt any theater in Nashville is going to show a film that has comedians telling the dirtiest joke ever for 87 minutes.

It's a documentary of sorts, featuring clips of dozens of comedians telling their crudest versions of a joke called "The Aristocrats." The premise of the joke is that a guy walks into an agent's office and says "Have I got an act for you" and describes a "family" act that is as foul as the comedian telling the joke can make it. The punchline is when the agent asks what the act is called and the comedian says "The Aristocrats."

So, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette have taped folks from Andy Dick to Phyllis Diller and from Bob Saget to Whoopi Goldberg and from Jon Stewart to Gilbert Gottfried, all telling this amazing joke in their own "special" ways. Apparently, everything from scat to to fetus in the womb is covered, leaving critic Owen Glieberman to describe it as a film that shows us "how much the minds of comedians resemble those of serial killers, child molesters, and babies happily smearing their bassinet walls with poo." The joke itself emerges as a "bebop monologue of hideous kink" containing details "so gross and sadistic and perverted and horrific (not to mention criminal) that I would be hard-pressed to find euphemisms for most of them in this review. Incest, bodily excretions, rape, murder. They're all there, and all in good fun!"

Now I know full well that this film is going to offend and disgust me. There is no question that some of the comedians are sexist pigs who will use the opportunity to get out their misogyny. Am guessing the racism will be kept to a minimum, but am sure my gag reflex will be tested sorely. But I'm absolutely thrilled this film--like John Waters' recent return to his glory days A Dirty Shame--has been made.

Bless the First Fucking Amendment and those who keep it as close to in tact as we can in this political day and age! Such films, even when they annoy or offend me, help me in my anti-censorship heart and soul feel there is hope for this ol' nation yet!

View the trailer here and enjoy...even though it's an entirely PG-rated clip.

Movie Superheroes, Take II: The Best and Worst of PG

Given my son’s love of superheroes, shared by my husband and, to a lesser extent, me, I am happy to have something positive to say about one or two recent films. I was thrilled to see The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl ads, knowing that there was emphasis on both a boy and a girl superhero and that the film was rated PG not PG-13. I was not disappointed when I went to see the film, which was more creative than most superhero flicks, offering a fantasy scenario that had touches of Roald Dahl meets Narnia meets Tim Burton meets The Phantom Tollbooth…or something like that. Nothing radical or entirely unexpected but a good time for all watching a child learn that he has more power and self-confidence than he thinks. And though it strayed into gender stereotype (especially Sharkboy’s macho aggression and Lavagirl’s feminine insecurity), it did offer more than the typical fare for kidflicks and the superhero genre. (That both Sharkboy and Lavagirl are played by actors whose first names are the delightfully gender-neutral “Taylor” [Taylor Lautner and Taylor Dooly, respectively] is particularly nice.)

The film exemplifies the fact that Hollywood (in this case Columbia/Sony) can put out a superhero film for kids, including the excessive toy marketing, and have it work. I like that it’s directed by Richard Rodriguez, who showed that Hollywood can also do action-adventure for kids via the Spy Kids franchise, while also doing the ultraviolent Sin City for adults. If the same guy can differentiate between what’s appropriate for children and what’s not, and the same studio can differentiate, then let’s keep differentiating, ok?

Between Spy Kids and Sharkboy and Lavagirl (chronologically and conceptually), there is, of course, animation—or, rather, its turn-of-the-millennium replacement CGI. And The Incredibles did offer a child-friendly superhero flick, I suppose. Problem for me was that I hated it. Tons of positive reviews, glowing in fact, even from folks I expected to see at least a little critical insight from (yes, Lisa Schwarzbaum, I’m talking to you).
In a nutshell, I found the gender politics of the film positively reactionary. The character of Helen Parr goes from life as Elastigirl to wide-hipped superwife and Mom (able to carry laundry baskets throughout the film with amazing ease!) with barely a whimper. The lesson? Women can be superheroes too, but no biggie if they can’t anymore and have to just stay home and yell at the kids and Dad—who acts like just another whiny kid himself. And don’t give me that “It takes place in the 50s/60s” crap as a response to this critique: it’s an alternate universe that just looks like the Reagans came to stay permanently. And it could have been otherwise if all the damn creators hadn’t been the same middle-class whiteboys that wrote and directed the too-male Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Monsters, Incorporated. That no female toys get to go on the adventure in Toy Story and that no female character gets to be a scarer (or even an assistant!) in Monsters, Incorporated just can’t be stated loudly enough. And despite Ellen Degeneres’s delightful voicing, Dori the braindead fish in Finding Nemo just doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better about how women fare in Pixarland.

Now, if both Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible (Bob Parr) fared equally poorly in The Incredibles, I don’t suppose it’d be quite so hard to take. But oh no. As I read it, The Incredibles is basically the story of how post-Civil Rights/post-Second-wave Women’s Movement America has destroyed the white middle-class male. Poor giant-of-a-man Bob is crammed into a cubicle that is both literally and symbolically crushing him, just like his name (Parr).

Of course, there’s little trace of the effects of the movements that have apparently crushed him, as Mrs. Parr cheerfully yields all her power like a happy housewife stereotype from post-WWII USA (Rosie the Riveter becoming Stepford Wife without a pause at Gloria Steinemland). And the token Frozone and his never-seen but too-loudly-heard shrew of a wife just make plain that Black is still second-best and barely part of the neighborhood, let alone the American Superhero Dream.

Why is it so few people commented on this painfully obvious leap to the Right? And why didn’t director Brad Bird do better? Hell, The Iron Giant had some nice touches of military critique and a non-traditional family to boot.

Now, I do feel a bit reassured by the new superhero flick for kids: Sky High. Yes, it’s equally white and sexist but better in its cultural critique of America’s middle-class. It shows the typical horrors of high school in delightful Disney fashion, including popularity contests, nasty gym coaches, and lunchroom fiascos. It also has boys hold all the aggressive powers with girls as back-up (Layla and her make-things-grow power is femininity personified, chasing a boy who hasn’t a clue and doesn’t deserve her ever; Josie and her ability to fly…and nothing else). But, it does make fun of bad middle-class gendered parenting, as Mom delivers empathy and lectures to Dad, and Dad hands out an X-box to validate his son’s machismo after a fight. I like that Mr. and Mrs. Stronghold are lousy parents, obsessed with their own powers and being the best real estate salespeople they can be. They’re utterly clueless and the film doesn’t deny there’s something wrong here. Sadly, of course, everything turns out just fine in the end, so there’s no radical critique here. But it’s better than The Incredibles, at least. If I can’t have Leftist attack, at least this isn’t Rightwing mania.

Steven Strait as Warren Peace was my favorite hunky beefcake in the film. Between his flame-on powers and his utter gorgeousness, I couldn’t stop looking. What the heck was wrong with Layla that she preferred milktoast to spicy Tribe lead singer?! Again, that’s the whiteness factor kicking in that seems sadly so unavoidable in these flicks. Sigh. Guess I’ll go watch an episode of Static Shock and wait for the live-action version to come out one of these days.


Movie Superheroes, Part I: Targeting Tots

Because I have a six year-old who is into superheroes, I have to think a lot about superheroes. (Well, ok, I was thinking some about them anyway, including scholarly book chapters on Xena and Buffy and Tank Girl (oh my), not to mention work on Star Trek back in the '90s. But I got tired of doing work on superheroes and -heroines, only to find that my kid loves nothing more. We watch Teen Titans together on Cartoon Network, not to mention Static Shock, Kids Next Door, and just about anything else that shows someone with atonishing abilities doing something entirely beyond the scope of what any human being can do. I've come up with a theory about this that is not particularly profound. A la Lacan's mirror stage, children like to watch characters doing things that help them to imagine they are not the awkward, knee-bashing, head-bonking creatures they are. Never mind that we lose our bravery as we grow up, most of us taking fewer risks because we hope to avoid broken bones and those wicked bruises that seem to cover half of my child's body at any given time. We all like to see someone defying the laws of physics; like Bonnie and Clyde, we rejoice at the way they flout the rules and flaunt their abilities and obvious pleasure in doing so. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, of course, superheroes are generally "good guys (and gals)," so there's even more flaunting and less risky flouting. That they're also heavily individualistic and shore up capitalist/imperialist excess (separating the "good" corporate CEOs from the "bad" without ever questioning corporatism itself, for example) means they often emerge as totally Republican. Sometimes the red-white-and-bluishness of them is positively blinding. And then there's the violence inherent in the right-wing way we do the genre. No Gandhi-like solutions, superheroes bash their way to r/Rightness!

And that gets me back to my six year-old. There's only so much violence I'm going to let the little monkey watch. It's occasionally about nightmares (Doc Oc ripping people apart in an operating room in Spiderman II springs instantly to mind as something I did not let him see and wish I hadn't seen myself; Bruce Wayne's parents being shot at close range in Batman Begins would be another). More often, though, it's just the general punching, kicking, shooting, stabbing, crashing, and bashing that fills all these flicks, from Burton's 1989 Batman to Nolan's 2005 Batman Begins, and everything in between. Spiderman, Catwoman, Hulk, X-Men, Fantastic Four... The parade seems endless, and most of it, let's face it, is crap. Unoriginal, uninspiring, full of more special effects than plot or character or decent acting or creativity. Like our children, we like the films as fodder for self-delusion, escape into a world where we (via the superhero) more power and control than is at all possible and where problems can be solved by eliminating one "villain" rather than any social change, where we can watch someone deal with personal anguish (Batman) or social oppression (X-Men) yet emerge triumphant, time after time after predictable time.

Yet it's not our delusions as viewers I want to center my bile at right now. At the moment, what is really pissing me off is how these films are targeted at kids too young to see them. PG-13 means there's going to be some foul language (no biggie), some sexual situations (no complaint here), and some serious violence. We are currently a culture that loves violence so much we don't even seem to notice it as such. All you need to do is consider the recent insanity over the sex scene in Grand Theft Auto to see how totally and utterly fucked up we are. Sure, rob and cheat and kill people indiscriminately, but heaven forbid you should screw!

But fine. Hollywood has decided we want an endless string of mediocre superhero movies filled with CGI and violence. Whatever. And we're bored enough to fill the theaters. Sad, but I'll deal with it. Can we please, though, stop advertising them to kids who are too young to see them?! Every time another superhero film comes out, rated PG13, they start flooding all the fast food joints with toys and the department stores with lunchboxes and backpacks and more toys--all featuring the superhero of the hour. Hell, in 2004, they had Halloween costumes for toddlers to make them look like Halle Berry in Catwoman--more ridiculous than worthy of scorn, to be sure. But these toddler girls knew they wanted that costume when there's no way they saw the film! Or did they?

I know some parents are taking their little ones to see these films. The kids are begging to go, having seen a billion ads and a billion Happy Meal prizes and endless toys at the mall all covered with the superhero du jour. We're all exhausted from chasing and cleaning up after our little monsters, and a movie is often a great way to get them to just sit for a little while. So we're tempted, and I understand why we often give in. In a horrific twist of irony--or just a frustrating, guilt-inducing admission that some things the Right comes up with can be useful for the Left--my husband found a website that identifies, scene by scene, every bit of sex, nudity, swearing, and violence in every Hollywood film that comes out. It's called Kids-in-Mind, and I confess I use it to help me decide what is enough and what is too much when it comes to violence. (I ignore it on sex and often disagree with how it uses its dot ratings; I just read through its descriptions of every violent scene I'm going to encounter. It does act as a spoiler, but it is quite nicely detailed in letting me know if and when someone is going to get a head blown off or get hit by a beam that fries them alive.

I hate to sound like a party pooper or, worse yet, a cartoon Christian mom, but dammit, why do they include enough violence to make it inappropriate for my son to see the film, then advertise it to him endlessly? It's not like I don't fight the media for his little brain on a daily basis anyhow. This just adds one more level of annoyance to my day. "No, sweetie, we can't see that movie. Yes, I know he's on all those commercials and in your Burger King veggie burger Kid's Meal. It's because people get burned alive in the film, honey. Well, I don't know if they die, but they do fall out of a building as they burn, so probably yes, baby." Fortunately, after that description, he doesn't usually want to see it anyway.


Star Wars III: Interesting in Unexpected Ways, Yet Awful

Instead of writing a review, I'm reprinting below the abstract for a book chapter my husband and I are co-authoring (our first such venture). Enjoy.

Reading Femininity in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith

Many critics and fans praise the Star Wars films for their liberalism, particularly as they put forward the Jedi as representatives of an idealized democracy against the evils of imperialism and dictatorship. Whether in terms of character (e.g. Luke vs. Darth Vader in the first film), spiritual path (e.g. Light vs. Dark Side of the Force) or religious orders (e.g. Jedi vs. Sith), the films abound with fodder for structural analysis that aligns the battle of Good vs. Evil with U.S. conceptions of liberal vs. conservative, relative to the films’ respective eras. This is certainly true of the most recent film, Revenge of the Sith (2005), where we clearly side with the Jedi, the Light Side of the Force, Obi-Wan Kenobi, rebel Senators Padmé Amidala and Bail Organa and the ideals of participatory democracy over the Sith, the Dark Side, Senator Palpatine, and those who follow him.

We always know who the bad guys are in Star Wars, even when they struggle. That we are clearly aligned as viewers with liberalism in the third episode of the six-film series is (over) determined by our knowledge that Anakin will fall and become Darth Vader, the supreme villain of the first film (fourth episode). There is an easy invocation of an extreme dictatorship in Revenge of the Sith that will leave all but the most neo-Nazi of viewers identifying with the Jedi. However, today’s conservatives may not recognize the potential send-up of the current U.S. government in Senator-cum-Supreme Chancellor Palpatine and his mindless followers in the Senate and instead find themselves in alliance with the strong “Coalition of the Willing” that is the Jedi Council. Similarly, liberal critique often emerges in reference to the binary in the two sides of the Force. If we superimpose the opposition of Eastern vs. Western religion, we can find traditional Christian perspectives losing out to a western fantasy version of Buddhism or paganism, but the Light Side is arguably rigid and conservative itself.

Furthermore, there are other facets of the films’ reliance on binary oppositions worthy of analysis. Certainly, the pairing of Light vs. Dark as signifiers of Good vs. Evil has strong racial connotations that complicate simple liberal readings. Western history is rife with examples of and lessons in white supremacist use of skin color as determinant of cultural destiny. The dominance of white actors in all major roles throughout the six Star Wars films well illustrates the series’ reliance on the racist opposition of whiteness and blackness. The overt tokenism of Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrisian and Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu and the travesty that is Jar Jar Binks only make the films’ racist structure more plain.

At first glance, there appears far less to say about gender in the Star Wars films than race, religion, or political structures. Episodes four through six offer Princess Leia as a “plucky” heroine, arguably a liberal feminist representation. Today’s pop feminist terms, such as Postfeminist and/or Girl Power, well suit Leia, retroactively. She is a young, white woman of privileged class, concerned with beauty and the attention of men; yet she has an independent spirit and take-charge attitude. She is understandably often named the successor to Barbarella and precursor to Ripley (of the Alien film series), Buffy, and Xena.

In the first two episodes (films four and five) of Star Wars, Padmé comes across as remarkably similar to Leia. That the twenty-two years between production of episodes six and four have brought about significant cultural change for women (among other minoritized groups) does not impact the more recent films, though one might argue that they do take place, chronologically speaking, at an earlier time. Regardless of explanation, the transition from Leia to Padmé—like that of Lando Calrisian to Mace Windu—primarily serves to highlight the films’ emphasis on tokenism-as-liberalism.

In Revenge of the Sith, however, we argue that something far more complex happens in terms of gender than in any of the previous films. Most significantly for encouraging this complexity, the women of the film are silenced. The two unnamed female Jedi Council members never speak throughout the film, and both are killed quickly and easily. Moreover, Senator Amidala falls from a role of strategic importance in films one and two to a catalyst for Anakin’s shift to the Dark Side in episode three. As Anakin—the film’s only truly dynamic character—struggles with making sense of clashing worldviews, political turmoil, and personal growth; Padmé is reduced for most of the film to passive object, the doomed vessel of the heroes of the future, waiting in her luxurious rooms in luxurious hairstyles for Anakin to return, gazing out her enormous windows as the world—and the film—passes her by.

We find little more to say about Padmé as a character, and it is not a feminist critique of Padmé that drives this chapter. Instead, we wish to study the result of this silencing of women in Revenge of the Sith. When men dominate all aspects of the film and women are reduced to silence and undignified deaths, gender issues may emerge in unexpected places. Most centrally, we will argue that the silencing of women, combined with forced decisions about character and story arcs that must bring closure between episodes three and four, results in a displacement of “hysterical” and “monstrous” femininity onto the Dark Side of the Force and those connected with it.

In this chapter, we will use various theories of the feminine to explore the relatively subtle trajectories of gender in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. First, we will explore the links between the Dark Side and feminine essentialism. Only the Dark Side, we learn, can give/restore life; and those who embrace the Dark Side become irrational and destructive. We will reveal how these facets and others map onto cultural constructions of womanhood and the feminine. Second, we will consider the crafting of the Jedi through western misinterpretations/oversimplifications of Buddhism, resulting in a hypermasculine credo that eschews the feminine, including traits such as emotional connectedness and desire. Third, we will use Freudian conceptions of feminine identity (as inherently neurotic) in order to study the representation of Senator Palpatine and the Sith in the film. Of particular interest will be Freud’s conception of hysteria. Finally, we will consider Anakin’s character development via the concept of the “monstrous feminine,” paying particular attention to the scene that juxtaposes Padmé giving birth with the “Bride of Frankenstein”-like rebirth of Anakin as Darth Vader.

Batman Begins...to SUCK!

May I just please ask...who the hell decided, against all visible evidence, that Batman Begins is a "good" movie?

Yahoo movies reports that critics and fans averaged it at a B+.
With all the generosity in my heart, I could perhaps give it a C+.

First, what I liked. Some of the acting was good. Liam Neeson is a brilliant actor. He handled stiff and stupid dialogue like it was Shakespeare. I also liked Cillian Murphy's Dr. Crane/Scarecrow. The guy is absolutely fascinating to look at and listen to. He had a thousand times the charisma of Christian Bale, but I'll get to insulting Mr. Bale in a moment. Michael Caine had a great time using his own working-class accent and hamming it up as the ever-faithful yet never martyrish Alfred.

Some of the superhero stuff was fun. Who wouldn't want to fly like Batman in his uber-groovy cape made with the fab high-tech material that was invented but for some reason hidden away and left right there for Bruce to take from the totally rad lab run by the underdog token Morgan Freeman. Oops, sorry. This was supposed to be the good bits. How about this: I like the idea of having my own trained bat swarm.

On the neither-good-nor-bad but worthy of commentary side, let me note that the film was pretty interesting to me in its homage (intentional or not) to 1980s hypermasculinity. It's been some time since I've seen the formula played out. From the limited number and scope of female characters to the male bonding to the ultraviolence to the token black man, this film just brought back the Reagan era for me. (Not that I wanted to go back there, but the present with W. is its own horror flick.) Bruce's mom didn't even get to talk to him, while Dad (and Dad-surrogate Alfred) offered such delightfully macho boys-don't-cry tidbits as the slogan "Why do we fall? So that we learn to pick ourselves up." One joy in this is that because this is '05 and not '85, the lone Black man doesn't have to get killed (cf. Terminator): he gets to be CEO (oh thank you, rich white boy Bruce Wayne from whom all good things commence!).

You've had the wind-up, now the pitch: Batman Begins was just really truly awful, in almost every way. Bad pacing, bad editing, bad dialogue, overlong pointless unoriginal chase scene (no, the car wasn't THAT cool), and horrid, wretched, flat-affect un-acting by Christian Bale. We should blame the director here, especially if he had any hand in casting CB. That this dreck was from Christopher Nolan, whose Memento is a superb and original flick that made me think the man might be destined for auteur studies someday, left me feeling dazed and confused. When it was all over, I shook my head, thinking how much I liked Memento and wondering how a good director could do such crap work, and why no one seems to have noticed that Batman Beyond lacked originality, a good plot, or various other elements one usually deems praiseworthy in a film.

I know part of the problem is the subject matter. I'm simply over the whole superhero film genre. With the exception of the X-Men films which, while sexist and racist, were engaging, I've found the rest of the lot pretty dull and weak. (I'll write about the genre itself elsewhere, including all the PG-13 ratings that mean little kids can't see them while production companies use their images and hip appeal to advertise everything from bandaids to breakfast cereal, not to mention their repetitive, effects-heavy approach to everything from action scenes to costumes to sets.) And superhero comics can be particularly problematic to make into live-action because they try to combine true shock and pathos (little Bruce watching his parents get shot before his very eyes) with cartoonish gadgets and tricks (how exactly did he suddenly psychically bond with bats and why does the corn-starch-like cape material actually let him fly)?

I'll stop now, as I'm almost spent, but let me offer one final lamentation: it was really painful watching Rutger Hauer playing a boring old rich fart. Not saying the man could ever act, but he got to play neither villain nor even sidekick! And as an evil CEO, he wasn't even scary, just a minor greedy typical exec. who could have phoned it in.

In the end, I'll take Shark Boy and Lava Girl, thanks.

Tim Burton...'fess up!

I enjoyed Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The decision to develop the character of Willy Wonka was great, even if it is entirely at odds with the Roald Dahl original, which depicts Mr. Wonka as exactly "just [this] weird guy" that Tim Burton seems to need to rewrite (Entertainment Weekly 8 July 2005: p.25). I'm not disagreeing that it's great to have "a little bit of the flavor of why Wonka is the way he is," as Burton says (ibid.). However, Burton also says that what differentiates his film from the 1971 flick is that he went back the book and stayed closer to it. He also added that "a lot of people are huge fans of the movie and hold it in awe. I wasn't one of them." This is where I have to say a Great Big Bah! And it is this overkill on distancing himself and his production from the original film that is why I say Burton really let me--and all of us--down this time.

Again, I did enjoy the film very much. I love Johnny Depp in almost anything, but especially when he gets to play "out there" stuff like Edward Scissorhands and Captain Jack Sparrow. He's so delightful when he's playing someone who is mentally amiss yet HOT. And there's always that charming queerness about him, whatever he plays. The rewriting of the character (from book and original film) worked well. He was creepy and phobic about children, and I confess to having been sucked in by the lesson that he learns about the value of family (and how he sticks out even as he attempts to blend in). Christopher Lee as his psycho dentist dad was another excellent casting choice and character detail. Burning chocolate in the fireplace is just too damn funny, as was the nightmare headgear poor little Willy had to wear.

Furthermore, the new take on Beauregards (and the excellent casting of the wide-eyed Annasophia Robb as Violet and pop-eyed mother Missi Pile) was a brilliant update on the book and original film. And the casting of David Kelly as Grandpa Joe could not have been wiser. That man just oozes wit, charisma, and life. I have never forgotten his utterly brilliant comic performance as O'Reilly in the Fawlty Towers episode "The Builders" (1975). [I did not know he was in a Doctor Who episode in 1966 ("The Smugglers") until I visited that glorious font of trivia,
IMDB.] That he's still getting great parts at 76 is delightful (though he's looked older than that since he was 60, I think). In any case - such casting and characters helped to make the film a delight, as did the unbelievably adorable Freddie Highmore as Charlie (I liked him better here than I did in Finding Neverland, but perhaps that was about the character more than the actor).

But now I must complain. Mike Teavee was updated but did not, to my mind, emerge as a coherent character/stereotype. Was he a violent videogame addict or a nerd that knew exactly how TV works? The two did not go together for me at all. Watching him stamp on candy beachballs in that violent way was meant to be frightening, to be sure, but how did it go with videogame addiction or knowledge of the working of TV's? The original film version was far more cohesive.

A much bigger point of concern for me was the Oompa Loompas (OLs). I didn't like them one bit. Casting Deep Roy highlights the (neo-)colonial racism of the tribal dwarf cocoa addicts but does not emerge, as I read it anyhow, as either parody or critique. Making them apparent clones didn't work at all for me; again, I could not read it as critique ("they might as well all be the same guy, given how they're treated," for example) nor futuristic representation (Wonka doesn't claim they're clones, just tribesmen). That said, I don't think the Oompa Loompa's faired much better in the original Dahl novel. They were white- (not Caucasian but white-white) skinned, which I guess is meant as a flip in expectation and attempt not to be racist, but they're a primitive little tribe that agrees to servitude (arguably enslavement) because Big Rich King Wonka can whisk them away to live in a factory (do they not miss the SUN, for heaven's sake?) and eat all the chocolate their obsessed childlike little hearts' desire.

On a more superficial level, I hated the songs. They sucked. 'Nuff said.

But it's not trying to say one film was better or worse than the other that interests me, nor which one stuck closer to the original novel. It's the fact that Burton denies his indebtedness to the 1971 film, and he's being dishonest.

Try these comparisons, for just a few examples:

-In the Dahl novel, the children (except for Charlie) bring both parents.
-In the 1971 film, they bring one parent each.
-In the Burton film, they bring one parent each (though Violet and Mike Teavee do bring the parent of the opposite gender than in the original film).

-In the Dahl novel, there is no evidence to indicate the country of origin of the children beyond the plainly working-class Brit Bucket family. Veruca, for instance, is not depicted as identifiably British (her father uses the expression "fellers" when talking to the newspaper men and is in the peanut business: sounds like a crack at rich American businessmen with no class to me). And Augustus Gloop uses expressions like "This stuff is tee-riffic!" and "Oh boy" and "Fish me out!" Hardly German, eh?
-In the 1971 film, Veruca is British and Augustus is German.
-In the Burton film, Veruca is British and Augustus is German.

-The sets in both films looked remarkably similar, and Quentin Blake's charming squiggles in black and white do not necessitate that.

Again, it is not that Burton does not go back to the novel for a few more touches than did the 1971 film (Veruca in the squirrel/nut room, the big candy boat with oars instead of a paddle, Charlie having both father and mother, etc.). But, in the end, the film uses so much that the original film did that it is impossible to believe--entirely impossible--that Burton hasn't watched it at least a dozen times.

In the end, I enjoyed the new film (let's call it what it is: a remake) and I still enjoy the original. Johnny Depp's Willy took a bit more getting used to than Gene Wilder's, and at first I wondered if he would ruin the ensemble flick the way Jim Carrey ruined A Series of Unfortunate Events with his scenery-chewing haminess. But he didn't, and I do truly love the way Burton/Depp expanded on and made a coherent story for who Wonka is and why he is the way he is. Very creative and fun. But I still love Gene Wilder's cruel/kind Wonka (no closer really to the original book than Depp's). The way Wilder sings "Pure Imagination" makes me misty-eyed to this day, as it invokes our deep desire as adults not to be adults anymore but to live as eternal youths in a blissful wonderland of our imaginations, where everything is sweet and edible and, even if not entirely safe, is magical.

I'd like to finish on that note, but I'm talking mostly about Burton and not Wilder right now. I wish the man would be mensch enough to just admit he liked the original film, had some good ideas for updating/revising/expanding it, and that he copied one hell of a lot of the look and characterization from the original film so as not to alienate those who love the film or because he can't think of it any other way or because his backers told him not to make it too different--or whatever is the truth. For it's surely untrue that he made a truly original film.

WELCOME Welcome welcome....

Though I can already hear the echo of cyberspace, where no one can hear you blog, I'm doing this anyway. Until some paper wisely gives me a column for media critique, I shall log and blog here my reviews and responses to films and other media fare.

So welcome to the few and please feel free to respond to anything I post.


Elyce Rae Helford, PhD
Professor of English
Director of and Affiliate Faculty in Women's Studies
Middle Tennessee State University