Thursday, June 29, 2006

Those Who Can...

"Don't listen to what your teachers tell ya, you know. Don't pay attention. Just, just see what they look like and that's how you'll know what life is really gonna be like."
-Woody Allen (as Cliff Stern in Crimes and Misdemeanors)

I think back to all the episodes in my own schooling that shoulder this advice. In no particular order:

My fifth grade teacher Mr Kittrell commented to the class that my father was a psychologist. I corrected him very simply "He's a psychiatrist." To which he replied "Same thing," flipping his hand dismissively.

My sixth grade teacher Miss Ball was teaching us about facts and opinions. I labeled the following statement as fact: Chocolate is my favorite flavour of ice cream. She marked it wrong explaining herself by saying "because it isn't everyone's favourite flavor..."

When I was in the 5th grade Mrs Olson (who taught English in the high school) told me that Laura Ingalls Wilder's books were fiction because there was no tape recorder there to verify each quote. "What about the Bible?" I asked (I attended a parochial school) . She answered "Well we'd have to go to the original Hebrew or Greek to find the source - but we do have it."

My freshman English teacher Mrs Perez explaining the difference between tragedies and comedies: "Tragedies tend to be sad and comedies are not necessarily funny, but they're more about entertaining." I asked her "Aren't comedies more about a story that goes from chaos to order while tragedies go from order to chaos?" She smiled and said that wasn't necessary for the class to worry about.

One teacher (mentioned already above) insisted on pronouncing the name of naturalist John Muir as if it rhymed with "fire." I pointed out the book's pronunciation key - /myoor/ - but he was unconvinced. In fact he believed this proved his point.

And of course I'm absolutely sure that several of my former students have similar stories about me. I can remember some of my own mistakes and moments of faulty confidence. I once spat out a comment about a a young pantaloon in The Taming of the Shrew. One student had to point out that in fact a pantaloon is by definition old. I'm sure I responded dismissively.

And I never even did my students the favor of caring enough to look good for class.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion

I've only been a fan of Garrison Keillor since 1993. I got a late start. But when I drove off to college without a radio in my car I needed something to play in my walkman to pass the time. I found some Lake Wobegon tapes unopened (still in the cellophane) sitting in the closet next to my mother's never used cow-shaped cream dispenser. Apparently she was unwilling to indulge in Middle America camp. Always the daring one I grabbed them to see what all the fuss was about (I left the cream dispenser there). Keillor's heavy breathy baritone combined with the folk-guitar hymn interludes kept me rapt for the entire drive as I left home.

The stories were perfect for either driving or falling asleep. The tension created by the backward tug of nostalgia and the forward thrust of adventure was perfect for either a drowsy or restless spirit. I started to hear cynicism in the stories. It was about a completely typical unreal place. The rebellious in the town were the most naive. The most settled were the most open minded. The most sheltered were the most capable. The most religious were the most realistic.

The story of a priest and a minister lamenting the silliness of their parishioners was a personal favorite.

That same year I beheld the ultimate legitimization of Keillor. A Simpsons parody. After a story about Badger Falls the Keilloresque raconteur's voice so bores and frustrates the family that Homer pounds on the television blaming it for the lack of entertainment "Stupid TV! Be more funny!"

Likewise many have blamed the tinniness of radio for limiting Keillor's cultural importance. His novels are amusing at best. He does better with the essay. The elegiac epic Lake Wobegon Days (I don't call it a novel) reads more like a grand dissociative patchwork of historical essay, short story and indulgent memoir. His greatest consistency away from the modulated frequencies of his Prairie Home Companion has come on the glossy pages of the literary magazines that gave him his start - most notably The New Yorker.

And so readers have never known what to count on from him. Least of all would they have expected his recent movie collaboration with Robert Altman. Especially those fans who have seen him and so understand why he works away from the camera. I didn't know what to expect even though I've seen him perform his show twice - once in Ann Arbor, Michigan and once in West Lafayette, Indiana. I wanted to see how he'd represent his show as a fictional event - and for a seeing audience a little larger and much more diverse than a Big Ten town.

The movie was fun. The pacing and style were familiar and comforting. I laughed at the jokes which were composed and organized much like his usual. Dusty and Lefty put some welcome dirt on the stage in good performances by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. Lindsay Lohan plays an easy role well. Lily Tomlin acts snitty and isn't given much more to do. Too bad because I'm sure she could. Kevin Kline is fine as Guy Noir. I'm willing to admit that Keillor's voice has inhabited that character long enough to keep me from being impartial.

And at the extremes we have Virginia Madsen and Meryl Streep. I'm not sure why Madsen's character is necessary. Her angelic glow and serene consuetude grow tiresome early. She does little other than glide around easily. Perhaps Keillor is frustrated with his audience assuming everything he does is non-fiction. Without the peripatetic angel on screen some might believe the movie is a completely true account. Her presence brings in the chimeric. Pity. His work has never needed it before. In this case it is a shoestring contribution to the plot.

But Streep is good. really really good. A heavier adjective would sully her chaste and readable performance. Her accent is of an exact rhythm and timbre. She sings beautifully. She is the anchor of humour tragedy and familiarity that every Altman film needs to pivot on as it swirls around from scene to scene.

In the end I found myself most happy with one major decision regarding the eventline. The story courteously elides the news from Lake Wobegon. To include it would turn the entire movie into a vehicle for the popular segment. To sidestep it allows the process to have a point. To introduce a smaller narrative might encourage us to hold the frame to a same standard of unfolding and resolution. As is, the big unanswered question at the end of the movie is a gimmick that can humanely be disregarded (but almost everyone will get caught up in the "which one do you think it was?" game).

If you haven't liked Keillor up to now you can safely assume this movie is not for you. Like anyone talking about himself - if you don't know him his stories will likely be tiresome. If you know and like him - his stories need no plot.

Linkin' Nebraska

I had better come up with a new post to supplant the lame title of this entry.

But I am going to provide some links and some of them are to friends in/from Lincoln, NE, so it's not a gratuitous line. Here in no intentionally meaningful order:

Buffy's Log: Buppy's Log
My wife is intelligent funny observant eloquent and prolific. This web log is the proof (or evidence). These essays are carefully written and assiduously edited. She is never convinced that her writing is good enough and for all that she is blessed with writing that is fascinating early in the process and sparkles ever more as she polishes it. My favorite line from her essays: "pish and other poods."

Buffy's Myspace page:
She is now addicted. Just a little while ago she had about 6 friends on here. Her competitive side will make sure her space is the hub of all others.

Daniel's Log: Herman's Honeytown
My friend Daniel lives in Lincoln and has been contributing to his log for nigh on a year. His thoughts are illuminating and his language is clear. It makes his writing fun to read. He is one of the least arrogant people I know who can come across as one of the most if you don't realize how genuine he is being. He's hard to describe - as are all good students of life.

Casey's Log: A Voyage Thither . . .
I share an office with this gentleman and everytime he asks a question I wish I could answer it: though I rarely can. His web log is full of insight and curiosity. I recommend it. How can you not appreciate someone who enjoys a civil disagreement so graciously.

Seth Ellis' Homepage:
I met Mr Ellis several years ago in North Dakota: a quick meeting which i'm sure he's forgotten. In subsequent conversations with friends I learned more of his relevance to folk music and lutherie. His pictures and comments make me want to build guitars. And his use of the word enantiodromia led me on a tangential search that revealed some fascinating writings with ideas that I want to investigate even further - just to see if they even make sense.

James Reeder's Homepage:
This sight has been in my links list for a while now. In case you've been wondering - James is my cousin who has been working with photography since we were young fellows. And since then his snapshot skill has become a visual virtuosity.

Friday, June 16, 2006

My Left-behind Doll

I recently saw this old toy of mine at my parents house. He's been through a lot since those days when I would hold his waist and do the sound of rushing water (shhHHUUuuu...) while running around the house looking for bullets that needed to be shot at an impermeable chest.

Now in his cripplage and disuse he only reminds me of the things I used to think about him when I was 4 years old:

How can I get my hair to do that forehead curl thing? (next to Larry Hagman on I dream of genie I thought Superman had the best hair.)

Why does he need underwear both inside and outside his suit?

He's looking healthy now. he was so fat back in the 50s.

I think he's worth at least 7 million. (but the Steve Austin doll did have an eye-piece and skin that rolled off his arm and accessories like a powerup tent and the 1970s equivalent of USB cables.

Apparently at some point I also thought he'd be much more comfortable getting out of that tacky jumpsuit - I'm not sure if it's more homoerotic to like him in the suit or out of it.

Then when i saw the movie with Christopher Reeve my life gained a new quest: finding out what the "S" on his chest stands for. Because he had it when he was on Krypton and he wasn't Superman then. I refuse to admit that this was a continuity error. And it seems cheap to say that they all had letters on their chest and he just happened to get the one that would one day work well for his new name. But then it's also just as cheap to imagine that way out on Krypton they had a battery of symbols that just happened to coincide with Latinate typography. It's just like the difficulty all science fiction has with changing paradigms of communication or society. All speech sounds are English speech sounds (only the more dangerous species are allowed to use sounds different from ours [clicks and other implosives, voiced gutturals, laryngealization (or creaky voice)]) all accents of native speakers are either British or American and the more resonant voices are the more trustworthy. Perhaps the most resonant villain is Darth Vader - but his resonance is falsely produced.

But for now I'll just grant that Superman is such a hero precisely because of this nexus of appropriate characteristics. He's the guy who can help us that we want to help us. He'll do the job the way we want it done - with the style we like to see in action. With a mid-American accent wearing the two pigments on our flag.

It's the power of bigoted nationalism.

You can only sing our national anthem if you can sing it in our (unofficial) national language.