Monday, February 25, 2008

(Don't) Cover Me

So I was thinking about doing an entry for "B" songs on my Ipod and what with the return of American Idol and all I got to thinking about how much it would suck if someone did a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

For the most part I don't have as strong feelings about music as I do about film, but I do think there are some works that are so strongly identified with certain artists that I just think that they should not be covered. I once saw the Kingston Trio in concert and the lead singer reported a story (perhaps apocryphal, but who cares?) that someone suggested to Frank Sinatra that he do a cover of "Scotch and Soda" and when Sinatra demurred and was asked why he wouldn't want to cover the song gave a response roughly equivalent to saying he Bob Shay had made song his own and he would have to be an idiot to try to top him.

We have a concept in athletics--retiring a number. It's not the same as the Hall of Fame. Rather, it means that out of respect for the accomplishments of a player (or his contributions to the team) the team will not let someone else play with that number. Major League baseball has even universally retired one number--42--in honor of Jackie Robinson.

So, what songs would you "retire" if you could? That is, if you could wave a magic wand and make it so that five songs would never be covered by a different artist, which five would you choose?

After thinking about it, here would be five I might place a "no cover" charge on:

1) "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen. Legend had it that former president Ronald Reagan wanted to use it as a campaign song until Springsteen objected. The song is simultaneously a celebration of America and a critique of it. I wouldn't trust just anyone to not try to coopt it for a less bilateral purpose.

2) "Imagine" by John Lennon. I'm not even a Lennon (or Beatles) fanatic, but given his contributions to music and his untimely death, I think Lennon has earned the right to have his signature song untouched by subsequent karaoke shills.

3) "Cats in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin. Chapin played many benefits for world hunger. I suppose, were he alive, he would be happy if his songs could continue to raise money for the "least of these." He said once in his liner notes that he played one night for himself and the next night for the other guy. Until we can say the same, I don't think we should try to benefit ourselves from his songs.

4) "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2. Okay, I get as annoyed by U2dolatry as the next guy, but why on earth would anyone try to cover this song?

5) "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash. This is a hard call because Cash covered his fair share of songs near the end, sometimes putting his signature on someone else's work ("Hurt") sometimes sounding himself like he was doing a bad cover ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"). I just think, like with Chapin, this song is associated with him for a reason beyond the fact that he sang it.

I don't say these are the best songs or even my favorites, but they are ones that I would hope would not be covered. I'm sure they all have been and will be some day, but I hope whoever does fails miserably.

American Gangster (Mini-) Rant

There is a scene early in Ridley Scott's film in which Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) and his partner uncover a cool million dollars in unmarked cash. Roberts' partner argues that to turn in this money is to become pariahs in the department, that crooked cops don't trust cops that would voucher that much money.

It is a scene of the "tell don't show" variety, and it annoyed me, at least a little.

The scene immediately cuts to the two detectives with the pile of money on the precinct table, counting it out. A window separates them from the rest of the squad, and we can see from the sullen expressions that the reaction of the squad is pretty much what Roberts' partner said it would be.

This seemed a little heavy handed to me, but the tradition of setting up a scene so that we know exactly how we are supposed to interpret the behavior is a staple of Hollywood. So, I'm still at this point only feeling mildly as though I'm being condescended to by the film.

In walks the detectives' lieutenant. Why, he wants to know, are they counting the money out in the open where everyone can see it? Let's just underline the point of this whole scene for those who were out for popcorn in the car scene or are oblivious to the body language of his colleagues. Now I'm starting to feel like the film just doesn't trust its viewers to pay attention.

Roberts and his partner voucher the money and walk through the squad room. Over the hostile rumblings of the other officers present, we hear one observer say (in what sounds like a dub), "Fucking boy scout."

Oh, I get it now. They are mad at him for vouchering the money. I was getting this vibe that something was being communicated about his working relationships through this scene, but it wasn't until the end that I truly understood the point. [Unlike the film, I'm trusting my audience to know how to read my tone.]

My friend and former colleague once told a class we were team teaching to treat exclamation points in writing as if one inherited 100 of them at birth and after one had used them all, they were gone forever. I think implicit in this instruction is the understanding that if one exclamation point isn't going to carry the day, two certainly won't. The second actually weakens the first, making us wonder if the writer doth protest too much.

When the exclamation points or underlining are narrative rather than literal, I call it being led around by the nose by the director or screenwriter. Don't think, such films argue, only assimilate and process the film's thematic sound bites.

Scott is a talented filmmaker with a visual eye and a restrained touch, at least early in his career. Films like The Duellists and Blade Runner have pointed and particular ideological and thematic ponts of view that the films--in their totality--are designed to underscore. But they also have contemplative space, room to breathe and think. American Gangster reads more like a police procedural, more interested in the plot mechanics than the insight into the human condition that the plot might reveal. Characters like D'Hubert and Deckard are fascinating precisely because they are not just "boy scouts" and thus the conflicts between them and their respective antagonists are once which interest us because of what they reveal to us and not just because of a marginal rooting interest in the outcome. Can we really say the same about the characters in G.I. Jane, Gladiator, or American Gangster? Is there anything we learn about the main characters in these films that cannot be encapsulated and underscored in any three minutes of film?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Here's a Blogging Practice I Could Do Without...

Most people who know me know that I think online "handles" are pretty silly. I much prefer something that identifies me than some cute name that creates an online persona. I've known people who go to more or less trouble to create pseudonyms with the excuse that they didn't want scrubbers to find their name and send them spam. Um...okay.

Still, I've made my peace with handles, as silly as I think they are.

What I could do without, though, is bloggers who refer to spouses or children with names derivate of their handles. You know, your blog name is "All Things Ken" and you refer to your spouse as "Mrs. All Things" or "Broken Stove" and you refer to your spouse as "Mrs. Stove" or in the above examples, if you have kids as "the junior Things" or "the stovelings" or some other such nonsense. I think one notable sports column that has the title of "Mail Bag" actually uses the title "Mrs. Bag," but perhaps I'm just remembering that wrong.

Okay, here's a tip for all the bloggers out there. If your personal life is such that you feel you want to share with a couple million Internet users what movie you saw last night or what coffee "Mrs. Crucnhycon Film Fan" bought at Trader Joe's last night, then you are not exactly protecting her privacy by not letting me know her name is _____________. This isn't cute or hip (in my opinion), it's just coy. It comes across as suggesting (in most cases wrongly) that your Internet persona is a big deal and like Cher, Bono, Prince, or whoever, that your handle is so well known that people tend to (and should) think of your persona as more important and more real (at least to you) than your actual identity. It also suggests that your spouse and/or family are not merely extensions of you (offensive in its own right) but extensions of your persona, people's whose function it is in life to play a guest starring role in the script of your life that you will never sell to Paramount.

And that's just sad...

Especially for Mrs. Getabloglife.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Emma (63-65) -- She hoped now they might become friends again.

One of the major structural devices of Emma--indeed the gasoline that powers the engine of the plot forward--is the discrepancy between the protagonist's sense of reality and the pesky facts of the world around her that keep refusing to conform to her expectations and judgments. Structurally, Emma is more a novel about what doesn't happen than what does; there is an attempt to match Harriet with Elton that leads nowhere, a flirtation with Frank Churchill that similarly yields no results (for Emma or her friend), and a long climactic wait for Knightley to confirm Harriet's feelings that proves to be needlessly grounded in Emma's misinterpretation of his actions.

When played for laughs, Emma's repeated ability to get things wrong while confident that she has nearly flawless, penetrating insight usually leads only to her own will being thwarted and relatively inconsequential collateral damage. If played primarily for laughs, this characteristic might be the foundation for a comic romp--it might have been a chick version of Tom Jones.

Emma is, though, primarily a novel of character, not of plot, and if it is made of many small, even trifling incidents, it nevertheless manages to paint a picture of a complex young woman in the minutest detail.

Chapter Twelve begins with a one of these scene-setting incidents that is not particularly necessary to the the plot of the chapter but that reveals details about the character that are going to be significant later on. The visit to Hartflield of John and Isabella requires an invitation to dinner of Mr. Knightley, and the chapter begins with a passage containing little plot but which provides a lot of insight into character:

Mr. Knightley was to dine with them--rather against the inclination of Mr. Woodhouse, who did not like that any one should share with him in Isabella's first day. Emma's sense of right however had decided it; and besides the consideration of what was due to each brother, she had particular pleasure, from the circumstance of late disagreement between Mr. Knightley and herself, in procuring him the proper invitation. (64)
Emma is a little embarrassed at her argument, and she really misses her friend, so she uses a social obligation as a means of trying to pave the way to a renewed intimacy. On the surface this may seem passive-aggressive, perhaps even duplicitous. It does show, however, Emma's ability and willingness to subordinate her own feelings of anger or embarrassment to the duties of social propriety. (In doing so, it foreshadows her response to the drunken Elton in the carriage of which we shall have much to say at the proper time.) How many of us, in Emma's situation, would do the exact inverse and let the argument be a pretext for avoiding the duty? Yes, we might point out that the duty is hardly onerous here--Knightley's presence at dinner might be a welcome relief given the delicate and difficult diplomacy Emma was called upon to practice in the last chapter. Emma's father, however, wants Isabella to himself, and so it would be quite easy to let this duty slide and even have a pretext for avoiding an unpleasant moment.

Emma, we are told, had "particular pleasure" in securing an invite. If we were to stop and ask why she feels such pleasure, we might begin to wonder about Emma's feelings for Knightley. That she wants and values his good opinion is clear enough. That she is especially pleased at the opportunity to demonstrate her ability to secure a "proper" invitation suggests she is especially solicitous of his good opinion of her propriety, the very point on which a closer examination of her conduct towards Harriet and Robert Martin might give her some unease.

There are two (at least) opposing forces at work in Emma. One wants to avoid the subject of their argument altogether, the other wants to find some way to justify her behavior (to herself or him) so that she can once again be in his good graces. The psychological word for what Emma is doing here is "projection," and I think we are meant to understand her description of what Knightley will never do as her desire to avoid such actions herself:

She hoped they might now become friends again. She thought it was time to make up. Making-up indeed would not do. She certainly had not been in the wrong, and he would never own that he had. Concession must be out of the question; but it was time to appear to forget that they had quarelled; and she hoped it might rather assist the restoration of friendship, that when he came into the room had one of the children with her--the youngest, a nice little girl about eith months old, who was not making her first visit to Hartfield, and very happy to be danced about in her aunt's arms. (64)

Okay, so lets set the stage for Knightley's entrance. Emma's plan is to pretend the argument never happened. She hopes to avoid the subject of disagreement altogether because she knows "he" will not admit he is in the wrong. She arranges to have her niece in her arms both to shield her from any attempts he might make to broach the subject (Knightley being too much the gentleman to argue in front of the children) and to give a neutral focus to and topic of discussion.

And it works. As Austen says, "It did assist" (64). Knightley moves from "grave looks" and "short questions" to talk in "the usual way" to taking the child "with all the unceremoniousness of perfect amity" (64).

Given her plan comes off without a hitch and results in exactly what she wants (a restoration fo the friendship with no recurrence of the source of conflict), why does Emma, at the point of success, scuttle her plan and bring the topic about?

Emma felt they were friends again; and the conviction giving her at first great satisfaction, and then a little sauciness, she could not help saying, as he was admiring the baby,

"What a comfort it is, that we think alike about our nephews and nieces. As to men and women our opinions are sometimes very different..." (64)
What follows is a short exchange in which Knightley gently reasserts that Emma was in the wrong and that his age gives him an advantage over her in certain matters. It is Knightley then who brings the matter to a close with:

"I still have the advantage of you by sixteen years' experience, and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child. Come, my dear Emma, let us be friends and say no more about it. Tell your aunt, little Emma, that she ought to set you a better example than to be renewing old grievances, and that if she were not wrong before, she is now." (64)
Emma rushes to agree with this statement. Strange how when we are trying not to apologize over one thing we are often quick to apologize over something else, perhaps in hopes that doing so will help us avoid the former. Even here, though, Emma cannot let the matter rest and expresses an idle hope that Robert Martin's feelings of disappointment are not too strong. Knightley, however, will not sacrifice a third party to smooth a disagreement and confirms that he is.

So Emma gets what she wants--twice. A return to normalcy and an agreement to forget the matter without her having to admit wrong. But if that were really what she wanted, she should have been content with having it the first time, and so Austen keys in the attentive reader that Emma's deeper desires may be hidden even from herself. She may want something more than being "friends" again.

What is that something?

A chance to justify herself, perhaps. One last opportunity to make her case to one who she feels has forgotten but not changed his judgment. And...I keep going back to this, I think she wants his good opinion and not just his friendship. This would explain why she is so anxious to agree with him when he mentions she is wrong for renewing the quarrel (she really wants to agree with his judgment) and why, even then she tries to win some measure of good opinion by inquiring after Robert Martin's feelings.

I might even argue that this inquiry after Robert Martin's feelings could be sincere and evidence some growth in her. That is to say she is now, as a result of her conflict with Knightley, thinking of something and someone that was beneath her notice before the conflict. This is another way in which Emma is very human. She is even willing to alter her behavior and attitude moving forward, an alteration that implicitly affirms the initial posture was in need of a corrective, but cannot bring herself to say she was wrong.

At least not yet.

The real test of how unwilling she is to admit she is wrong will come when she has incontrovertible evidence. At those moments in the text, the disconnect between Emma's assumptions and reality is a shock to the system, but as hard as she will fight to cling to her interpretation of events, she is not a revisionist personal historian.

[For more close readings of Emma, please click on the labels to this post below.]

Friday, February 15, 2008

Northern Illinois University

Cindy and I are both graduates of NIU. She got her MFA from the university, while I earned an M.A. and Ph.D. during our stay in DeKalb. Ten years ago today I had successfully defended my dissertation and was awaiting a May graduation, still lecturing as a TA in one of the mass lecture sections of the sort where the gunman opened fired. I've walked by Cole Hall many times.

This sort of tangential connection to a place in the news is of course in no way comparable to what the people who undergo the actual tragedy experience, but it does bring it home in a way that is quite real.

My prayers and thoughts go out to the NIU community and the city of DeKalb.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Joan Bedinger

I received news this week that my former high school drama teacher, Joan Bedinger passed away this week. There is a memorial service in Fairfax, Virginia this Saturday.

If any of my blog readers are former W.T. Woodson people, feel free to e-mail me for directions. I understand there will be a memorial gathering this summer, too, for people who are unable to travel to the memorial service this weekend.

Joan was a creative and unique woman who managed to helped her students excel. She helped forge and create a (sub) community within the high school that provided a sense of belonging and participation during those tumultuous high-school years. While teaching students who were living a period of their lives in which emotions were like roller coasters, Joan managed to be both empathetic and a force of stability. She was the first teacher I ever counted a friend, and I recall going to her house at least once to watch the Redskins--a passion we both shared.

One conversation that I remember making an impression on me was when we were talking about athletes "hanging on" and she chided me (gently) for not realizing how hard it can be to give up something that has been a part of your life for so long. Without making too fine a point of it, she also related the conversation to a mutual acquaintance and helped me see that person in a new light.

Joan gave out an annual award for outstanding achievement in drama once a year to a graduating senior, and I was honored to receive that recognition in 1984. She chose me as her assistant director for the play "Barnum" that year, and I always appreciated that she was willing to delegate responsibility to students who were ready to take it.

I kept an informal correspondence with her for many years after high school, but it became harder as our circles grew apart and she had new students to nurture and teach. The last time I saw her was at a movie theater in Fairfax where she was screening the film "Chocolat" with an acquaintance. She had since retired from Woodson but was doing some community theater because it was her passion.

One thing I learned under Joan's tutelage was the importance of trying to take people as you find them and let them be who and what they are. I was newly religious in that phase of my life, and I sometimes found it odd to be hanging out with a bunch of drama freaks led by a chain-smoking, no-nonsense woman who praised students for expanding their horizons, taking risks on stage, and capturing and living in the "moment" (one of her favorite words).

I had several breakthrough moments as a performer in her classes--playing a heroin addict going through withdrawal in a play whose name I now forget1; playing a fiercely independent blind man who had to learn to let his guard down just a little in Butterflies are Free; learning to use my budding writing talent to capture emotional truths without hiding behind my intellectual ability.

When I graduated from Woodson in the spring of 1984, I was seriously thinking of majoring in drama in college. By the time I arrived at Mary Washington in autumn, I had turned a corner and realized almost completely on my own that drama had been something for that phase of my life but was not a career goal. (Believe it or not, I realized even at age 18, that I longed for a career in which I could be mutually supportive of my colleagues and friends and not always be in competition for the same roles. While all jobs have some competition for promotion, the dividing and isolating power of that competition seemed especially prevalent in drama, and I sensed that my desire to make connections and be supportive would consume me and exhaust me if I devoted myself to a field where so many people needed that and could not reciprocate.) Nevertheless the things I learned from Joan's classes would serve me well in education. Teaching has elements of performance in it, and the confidence one learns from performing is a crucial skill necessary for public speaking, presentations, and preparation.

If, as Azar Nafisi said in Reading Lolita in Tehran, to leave a place is to learn to mourn for the person you once were while you were there, to mourn a person so strongly attached in your memory to a particular time and place in your life is to remember the role that another had in helping the person you once were become the person you now are. One can say truthfully of everyone one meets, "I would not be the same person I am today if I had not met her" for every moment and relationship leaves a mark on your soul. Some marks are deeper than others and some, while not as deep, are counted precious for other reasons. I'm a better person for having been taught by Joan, and that's saying a lot.

1 (Later edit). I believe the title was A Hatful of Rain.

"A" on my Ipod

Because I'm a hopelessly derivative person and have seen other people post on their blogs or columns the "what's in your Ipod" question, I figured that the alphabetical arrangement was as interesting way as any to talk about the music of the moment.

I have twenty-six songs beginning with the letter "A" in my music library. I will try to bullet my (current) three favorites for each letter:

All Out of Love--Air Supply
All Revved Up (With No Place to Go)--Meatloaf
All Right--Amy Grant
All Right Now--[Live]--Queen & Paul Rogers
All the Way to Kingdom Come--Rich Mullins
All You Zombies--The Hooters
Allentown--Billy Joel
Ally Ally Oxen Free--The Kingston Trio
Along Comes a Woman--Chicago
Amazon--The Nylons
America--Simon & Garfunkel
And She Was--Talking Heads
And So It Goes--Billy Joel
And We Danced--The Hooters
Angie--The Rolling Stones
*Another Day--Sting
Another One Bites the Dust--Queen
*Anthem--Leonard Cohen
Any Way You Want It--Journey
Anybody Seen My Baby--The Rolling Stones
*Apeman--The Kinks
*Are You Out There?--Dar Williams
Ask the Lonely--Journey
Atlantic City--Bruce Springsteen
Autumn Almanac--The Kinks

#3 Tie ("Apeman"/"Another Day")
I sometime use the Sting song in class to talk about if certain styles or genres lend themselves to certain content/subject matter. I'm always struck in a cognitive dissonance sort of way by the irresistible dance beat of "Another Day" in conjunction with its almost suicidally depressing lyrics. But maybe that's the point. The Kinks' song has a goofy cheerfulness to it that belies its message.

#2 "Anthem"
When I heard a cover of this while watching the DVD Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, I turned to Cindy and Todd and said, "I hope every artist who has ever written a crappy, derivative CCM song is forced to listen to "Anthem" some day and at least has the decency to feel ashamed."

#1 "Are You Out There?"

I really like Dar Williams's lyrics. Her songs remind me of Paul Simon's lyrics at times, but with a bit more probing spiritual quality. (Yet not openly underscored like CCM.) I didn't like the album this was off of as much as My Better Self, but the song is terrific at expressing the sense of connectedness one longs for at a certain point in life while hinting (perhaps) that that longing is itself a symbol of another, deeper one.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Paratextually Lost

I've never written about the television show Lost for the same reason I've never written about Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I tend to think of both as being competently made, entertaining diversions to watch while grading papers or chowing down. Plus fans of the former tend to speak in the rapturous, mystical tones I'm only barely able to put up with when they come from devotees of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Wire. "In truth," I hear the French voice in my heading telling all the metaphoric dauphins, "it is a most"

But Lost did something really interesting the other week (I just saw it on DVR). It reran the final episode of the previous season and played little scrolling or pop-up messages on the bottom of the screen explaining the scenes to new viewers or instructing old viewers on how to interpret the scenes. It was sort of like MTV's Pop-Up Video only not played for laughs or trivia.

Anyway, this interested me because when I was in graduate school I was fascinated by Gerard Genette's Paratexts: Threshold's of Interpretation. This book/essay really made me think about our easy assumptions of what a "text" is and how it is experienced, particularly if we've been weaned on the New Critics and have some idea of a text as a Platonic, unchanging, ideal thing that is only represented by any particular printed copy of it. Are the glosses to "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" part of the text? The author's introduction to Leaves of Grass? The dedication in David Elginbrod (which is referenced by the narrator in the primary text)? What about C.S. Lewis's afterword that is included in some editions (but not all) of Till We Have Faces?

Almost two years ago I wrote a paper on the director commentary of the film Dead Man Walking (for an anthology on that work that may someday still see the light of day). I mentioned that I am tempted to see director's cuts of films, and commentary tracks as sorts of paratexts--elements of the work that are often considered outside the work but are used to mediate the work and are sometimes included with the work itself. I noticed in surfing today that this book applies many of the same concepts to film trailers.

Now the interesting thing about the Lost episode, to me, is that it further blurs the line between text and paratext. It is hard for me to look at these comments as revisions, but I think it is important to point out that unlike a film DVD this commentary was not on a separate track that could be turned off or on. (Some pop-up comments included references to other episodes or even to extra-textual writings: "This is not the first time we've seen Jack pull people from wreckage"; "We can't see what is in the story, but speculation is that it is the report that somebody died"; "Easter Egg: The sign on the funeral home can be anagrammed to say 'Flash Forward.'")

Part of the reason for these little epitextual comments seems unquestionably to get new viewers up to speed by filling them in on episodes they missed. Another is to take the place of the Victorian narrator that everyone born after 1920 appears to hate so much--the one that renders explicitly the themes and questions the attentive viewer most likely picked up on: "Say who do you suppose is in that coffin? And why is Jack so distraught even though he says it is neither 'friend' nor 'family'?" But another part seems to me to point the regular/viewer outside the text, and in so doing acknowledging that things like message boards, discussion boards, etc. are no longer just thought of as commentary on the text but an integral part of the experience. Television has experimented with episodes or modes of presentation before that force viewers beyond a self-contained episode to something outside of the text. There have been, for example "cross-over" episodes where, as in comic books, someone had to go to a different text to get the conclusion of or key information about a plot in a totally different narrative. When Bart Simpson wrote on the chalkboard "This is not a clue. Or is it?" he was making reference not just to the mystery within the text but to the contest outside of it. My point is, by airing the comments with the episode, ABC gives them the stamp of text. They themselves become clues to the authors' intention(s) by acknowledging ways and places where the authors put clues or instructing readers on the sorts of questions or reactions they are supposed to have to the text proper. One can do this in a commentary or critical article or interview, but the reader/viewer always has the option of eschewing or avoiding such interpretive instructions when they are outside the text. When they become epitexts or peritexts (paratexts packaged with the text), they become impossible to avoid and thus become part of the text and not just a comment on it.

It will be interesting when ABC releases the DVD collection of the current season of Lost to see whether or not the paratext episode is viewed as simply a repeat of the episode from season three or as a different text. (Not interesting enough to actually buy the DVDs, but interesting enough to raise my curiosity.)

Oh, and for the record, I can never be too excited about Lost as a postmodern metaphor or as a mystery, because I quite frankly don't believe that there will ever be consistent, satisfying narrative resolution. It's like the X-Files meets the final half season of Felicity. At some point, there become so many unresolved threads and mysteries that the authors can't remember them all, much less convince me that they have an intentional end in mind from the beginning. But I enjoy it as an experiment in form even if I find the results of that experiment less gratifying than its fans.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Persepolis (2007) Redux


I saw Persepolis for the second time today. After first seeing the film at last year's Toronto Film Festival, I wrote this rave review for Jeffrey Overstreet's site, Looking Closer. Later, not surprisingly, it topped my list of favorite films of 2007.

Revisiting a film that affected you so strongly and positively is always a risky proposition, but Persepolis stood up to a second viewing for me. Rather than being one of those films where rewatching simply reminded me in a nostalgic way of how much I enjoyed it the first time, Persepolis gave me new insights and fostered deeper appreciation as I began to notice more (and more complex) connections and themes than I had at first glance.

I had remembered Marjane's briefly mentioned renewed friendship with a childhood friend who was now in a wheelchair as the result of war, but I hadn't quite gotten around to linking it in my mind to an earlier conversation in which Marjane's father talks a neighbor's son out of going to war himself or a family relative talking about no longer having a foot because it was the focus of his captor's tortures. The causes and agents of these two men's sufferings are different, yet the effect of juxtaposing them makes us ask how much difference that would make to the the broken man. (Not that the film embraces moral relativism or moral equivalence. Marjane in Vienna balks at her peer's nihilism precisely because she refuses to say her uncle suffered and died for nothing and can't quite bring herself to believe that choosing to suffer for your beliefs is not somehow different than being forced to suffer to support someone else's--which in turn contextualizes her grandmother's emphasis on personal integrity and moral indignation when Marjane causes an innocent bystander to suffer by falsely reporting him to the police in order to get out of a jam herself.)

I had previously mentioned an imaginary conversation between Marjane, Karl Marx, and God as one that had an ecumenical flavor and portrayed God in a sympathetic light--caring more for the individual's hurts and her ideological purity. What I was reminded of in a second viewing is that after some early appearances God had been largely absent from Marjane's imaginative life since the child Marjane had ordered him to go away in a fit of grief upon learning about her uncle's death. Or that the child Marjane who wanted to be a prophet had a creed she recited for her grandmother that said mostly that people should be good, the innocent should not suffer, the poor should be attended. It is not God that abandons Marjane but Marjane who gradually grows away from her child-like, innate moral sense of God, replacing it with a more ideological conception of Him and with political idols that falsely promise to address the injustices she so painfully accuses God of ignoring. Alienated, depressed, contemplating (perhaps actually attempting) suicide, Marjane reconnects with her childhood image of God and now her conceptions about who cares have been reversed as the almighty raises one skeptical eyebrow in the face of Marx's relentless and vacuous rambling about keeping up the struggle.

I thought about small moments in the film that fit together and comment on one another. Marjane tells about hearing how in the latter days of the Iran-Iraq war, Tehran endured twenty consecutive days of bombing. It was almost, she suggests, as though they were attempting to wipe it off the map. That failed attempt imbues two later moments with meaning. When Marjane's father pays a fine to get her out of the police station, he recalls how he and Marjane's mother walked through the city hand in hand. "This same city," he says, sweeping his arms across the vista of Tehran. Only it is no longer the same city. The Tehran of his memory and of her mother's, is irretrievably lost, replaced by a hollow shell of what it once was. When Marjane relates the death of her grandmother at the end of the film, that death has poignancy not just because of the personal relationship she had with Marjane but because it is the beginning of the end of the generation that remembers Tehran as it once was.

This theme of remembrance of things past is actually pretty pervasive in the film, more so than I first realized. It is clear from Satrapi's comments about the film, for instance on The Colbert Report, that it was and is important to her to present Iranians to the rest of the world as human beings rather than stereotypes. But it was equally clear to me on a second viewing that there is a mournful quality to the film that extends beyond self-pity or sorrow for personal connections and opportunities that are lost. When Marjane visits the Caspian Sea and then the prison where her uncle died before leaving Iran, I could not help but think of A Promise to the Dead, and Ariel Dorfman's similar attempts to describe how strong a pull a place can have on us and how heavy is the burden of having to be a voice for those who cannot speak themselves.

There are scads of little moments in Persepolis that give it an authenticity and complexity one rarely finds in commercial, narrative films. These moments are made all the more powerful because the film trusts the audience to think about what it sees and doesn't have to triply underline all its points. Marjane's mother sheds a tear of rage while driving when forced to endure the first misogynist insult by a stranger on the street, not merely because of what it is but because she knows it is the first of many surrenders to come. A forger of passport's takes in a female refugee with no other explanation than that she has nowhere else to go. Marjane ironically opines that she survived a revolution but was nearly killed by a broken heart from a banal love affair. There's even a wonderful little exchange when a police car with a bullhorn orders Marjane to stop running in the street because it causes her behind to sway in an obscene manner. Says a fed-up Marjane, "Then don't look at my ass!"

This last example may not have an exact mirror moment, but it does juxtapose nicely with Marjane's college protest after being lectured on the importance of modesty by immodest men for the umpteenth time. It is the ability (perhaps the necessity) of swallowing big indignities but drawing the line at some petty injustice that helps me identify with Marjane on a human level in spite of cultural differences. "How dare you lie to us!" she yells at a teacher. Spin is annoying in any circumstances, but when the spin negates or denies the imprisonment, torture, and deaths of thousands it becomes something more than annoying. It becomes immoral. [And in the spirit of letting people make their own connections, I will let people contemplate for themselves whether there are any comparable examples of world leaders lying to their citizens to justify actions or decisions that contributed to the deaths of thousands.]

Since I've no doubt offended 98% of the people who might possibly read my blog, let me take the last paragraph to go for the last 2% by saying that if any one film suffers in comparison to Persepolis it would have to be Ratatouille, which would otherwise be a shoo-in for that award that begins with a capital "O." Oh, it will probably win any way just because so many more people will have seen it than Persepolis. And don't get me wrong, it's a fine film. Quite frankly, it may have surpassed The Rescuers Down Under as my favorite film ever that features a talking rodent. Maybe next week somebody can explain to me how Horton Hears a Who is a greater artistic achievement than The Man Who Planted Trees, or why we need a separate category in said awards for animated films. A good film is a good film, period. Ratatouille is a good film, but Persepolis is a freaking masterpiece. Rataouille benefits from being compared to other films in a genre (I use the term very loosely) that normally gives us Shrek and Surf's Up. Persepolis, the graphic novel, is already being included in some college textbooks as a canonical work of literature, and Persepolis the film is a worthy and important adaptation of it. If pointing that out makes me an indie or foreign film snob, so be it.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Incomprehensible Spam

So, I was cleaning out the spam folder for my e-mail today, and I noted a number of spammers guaranteeing that I would be a bigger d--- in two weeks than I am today if I just buy their product.

Why anyone would want to buy something guaranteed to turn them into a big d---, I don't know.