Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Light Side of the Farce

After my encounter with Seneca last week I was in need of some comic relief. Fortunately some was at hand in print and on stage.

**** ****
Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong

David Wong is the pen name of Jason Pargin, editor at Cracked. Several years ago Wong had unexpected success with his self-published cult paranormal/scifi novel John Dies at the End, which was made into a less successful cult movie in 2012. The novel had a sequel in much the same vein: This Book is Full of Spiders – Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It. Wong goes in a new direction with Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits. The newer book employs much more straightforward storytelling and abandons the paranormal, but Wong’s signature sense of humor remains.

In a not-too-distant future, Zoey Ashe lives in a trailer with an aromatic cat and a stripper mother. Zoey learns she is the sole heir to her absentee father, a billionaire entrepreneur in Tabula Ra$a. Tabula Ra$a is a new “anything goes” city in the Utah desert, built because Las Vegas is way too tame. Suddenly she is the target of live-streaming assassins with biological and mechanical enhancements who revel in their viewership count on social media. Her father’s former associates are allies of sorts, though she has no reason to trust them and their agendas. Zoey just wants to survive, which requires preventing an enhanced villain named Molech from making full acquisition and use of her father’s technical legacy. The live-streams of these events are immensely popular, which prompts new actors to enter the fray with their own webcams.

All the quirks and ills of modern society have blossomed into vastly more exaggerated versions in Wong’s future, with marvelous and darkly comedic effect.

Thumbs Up.

**** ****

A Comedy of Tenors

A friend of mine has season tickets to the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, and was kind enough to give me a call (thanks again, Carol) when one of the four seats on Saturday was vacant. The Paper Mill, with its good facilities and proximity to NYC, is known for high production values and for attracting good talent.

Old-fashioned farce has made a comeback in recent years. This is not just an American phenomenon. A recent Guardian article opines, “This atmosphere of absurdity in public life may be one reason why British theatre is currently so fascinated by farce.” Perhaps that is a reason on this side of the Atlantic, too. Perhaps also it is a way of escaping from the atmosphere of hostility in public life. Mistaken identities and slapstick on stage don’t require us to take sides, and so offer some relief from an all too argumentative world. While farce may not be high art, many of the highest artists have tried a hand at it, such as you-know-who, the author of The Comedy of Errors. It takes some chops for actors to pull it off. Credit is due when they succeed.

Written by Ken Ludwig, A Comedy of Tenors takes place in a 1930s Paris hotel on the evening of a major concert of tenors – initially three, but the number of performers rises and falls (sometimes to zero) in the hours before the concert much to the horror of the producer. There are vast misunderstandings with overheard conversations, professional jealousies, misinterpreted visuals, and (as you might expect from the title) mistaken identity. The identity mix-up is between the world famous tenor Tito and his near twin, an aspiring tenor named Beppo who is a bellhop at the hotel. Doors slam and faces are slapped as the misunderstandings multiply.

The cast includes John Treacy Egan as Tito, Judy Blazer as Tito's wife Maria, Jill Paice as Tito’s daughter Mimi, Ryan Silverman as Carlo (a young tenor and Mimi's lover), Michael Kostroff as the producer Saunders, Donna English as Russian opera star Racon, and David Josefsberg as Max. All of them handle their parts and notes well, and no one trips over the furniture who isn't supposed to.

OK, there’s nothing remotely deep about any of this, and were the seat not free it’s unlikely I would have sat in it. Nonetheless, I'm glad I went. As the knockabout fun the play is intended to be, Thumbs Up.

Trailer – A Comedy of Tenors

Monday, February 20, 2017

Polonius on the Tiber

My essay on essays a couple weeks ago prompted me to revisit a few essayists who have languished on my shelves. First up was the playwright, Roman statesman, Stoic philosopher, and pedagogue Seneca (1 BCE – 65 CE), who should not be judged too harshly for having had Nero as a student.

I occasionally (meaning every few years) revisit one or more of Seneca’s plays. The critical consensus regarding his tragedies has varied considerably over the centuries along with changing fashions. They are dark, gory, and melodramatic, which suits some eras better than others. I rather like them including Octavia, which he might or might not have written. Modern scholars tend to doubt his authorship of Octavia because its subject matter (Nero’s ill-treatment of his wife) would have been politically indiscreet to put it mildly; I consider this argument against his authorship persuasive but not definitive as he could have squirreled the play away to be published posthumously. As that may be, enough decades went by since I read any of his other writings for me to have forgotten any earlier opinion of them. Having revisited his essays at last, I now recall why I left them on my shelf untouched for so long. (Hume has proved a merrier re-read, amazingly enough, but perhaps more on that another time.)

As a rule, Stoic philosophers aren’t much fun. Their “do your duty” and “straighten up and fly right” admonitions tend to come off as trite and preachy. That doesn’t make them wrong, but it makes them unpleasant. Seneca is no exception. Shakespeare, who was familiar with the works of Seneca, surely had him in mind when he crafted the pompous platitudinous Polonius in Hamlet. As an example, in Consolation to Marcia Seneca “consoles” Marcia, whose son died at 14, by opining that the quality of life matters more than the quantity. He then reminds her that adults can be tempted to disgrace themselves, and now her son won’t have the chance to do that. He asks, “For how do you know it was in his interest to have a longer life, or if this death came as a benefit to him?” It’s hard not to want to bark back at him, “Oh, shut up!” In On the Tranquility of the Mind he tells us of the value of moderation. In On Mercy he tells us he’s for it. He’s against anger though (On Anger). Oh, (re: On Earthquakes) he tells us we can’t prevent earthquakes.

I’m not saying Nero was right to order Seneca to commit suicide. I’m just saying I understand.

Bill Murray as Polonius

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Playing with Embers

For the past decade if a person in a first world country cannot be found within an hour through internet search engines and social media it’s pretty certain he or she doesn’t want to be found. A handful of my friends and acquaintances endeavor to “stay under the radar” (almost always the phrase they use) by eschewing Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and their cousins on principle. I’m not entirely sure what the principle is, but they do. Yet every one of those few still can be found entirely online in a single sitting by any determined person checking phone records, property tax records, credit scores, and so on. It is still possible to hide in today’s digitally connected and surveilled world, but it takes more effort than most folks are willing to put into it. There has to be a very good reason, such as dodging the FBI, creditors, or stalkers.

An extraordinarily common Google search – widely acknowledged yet not much discussed – is for old flames. Especially one of them. You know the one. We all have that one: the proverbial “one who got away.” Well, almost all of us do: a very tiny percentage actually lifetime partnered with that special someone for well or ill (there’s no safe bet about which). But for most of us that early inamorata is (if still alive) out there somewhere. “Early” is the key, for our youthful romances are always the most intense. We are not yet jaded when they happen. If anything jades us, these youthful romances do. It’s not that we can’t be “fools for love” later. We often are, sometimes in spectacular fashion. But it’s still not the same. This is the primary reason young people are most often those depicted in romance fiction in literature and on screen. It is not just that youths are pretty – and let us acknowledge the obvious that youth is pretty – but that they are intense and so make for better drama.

Now that reconnecting with an old flame is easier than ever, so is encountering later-term drama. An expert in the field of rekindled romances – yes, there is such a thing – is Dr. Nancy Kalish. (See her website Kalish argues that these early connections really are special, and not just something to which we impart specialness later through nostalgia: “We used to marry when we were 17, 18, but nowadays there’s education, there’s other things we do first, and so we’re marrying later and we wind up with these lost loves—somebody who 100 years ago you would’ve married at 17.”

Back between 1993 and 1996 before the internet got a firm footing, Kalish surveyed 1001 people who had rekindled a romance with an old flame at least 5 years after it was broken off the first time. Many of those interviewed rekindled 20 years afterwards and one did so 75 years later. 71% called their reunions the most intense romantic experiences of their lives. Nearly all were happy about having done it. Today, the odds of rekindled romances being a success (i.e. both parties are happy about it) have dropped to scarcely more than 50%. Yet a solid majority of rekindlers still call the experience intense, even those who ultimately regarded it as a bad idea. “Rekindlers” in this context means those who reconnect romantically in person – not those who merely say “Hi” on Facebook. Many of the modern-day rekindlers undertook their searches casually, which likely accounts for the decline in successful outcomes since 1993. They didn’t initially search in earnest but found that one thing could lead to another. Many of the contemporary searchers, in fact, are married, with the obvious complications inherent in that circumstance.
Four decades later I'll
post no clearer pic

The large majority of people have no desire to be rekindlers. Most online searches for old flames do not involve any intent to rekindle anything – they are motivated simply by idle curiosity. Rekindlers are a large enough minority to be noteworthy, but they are still a minority. Most of us would rather keep “the one that got away” firmly in our past as no more than a special (and not always good) memory. As part of her ongoing research, Kalish in 2015 asked a broad group of non-rekindlers if they would want to reunite with their first loves if given a chance. Two-thirds checked the “no” box. More than a few wrote “Hell no!” in the margin. But, 30% said they would like to reunite if they could, including 30% of married responders. You probably know into which category you fall.

I’m solidly in “No” category as it happens. I know it would have been a disaster had we not broken up when we did. (Maybe not a worse disaster than what followed in life anyway, but we’re talking about the difference between metaphorical car crashes here.) But that it was best to end it permanently doesn’t make what went before the end less intense. Sometimes tis better to have loved and lost than to have loved and found.

Devil Doll – The One Who Got Away

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Essay Assay

In my senior year of high school my English teacher created an extraordinary amount of work for himself. On top of our other assignments every student in the class every single school day was required to turn in an essay of at least 500 words: “On my desk by 5 PM. That does NOT mean 5:01.” (500 words fill about two pages in double-space 12-point Courier – then the most common typewriter font and size.) He returned the corrected papers to us the next day, which was a bigger and drearier task for him than I credited at the time. There was value to the exercise. A year later, college essays were much easier to churn out than they otherwise would have been. Also, the need to come up with a topic five days per week taught that essays could be written about absolutely anything from the air one breathes to the chair upon which one sits. Writing short essays actually became a hard habit to break. All these decades later I’m still doing it and posting the results on this site – albeit weekly (more or less) rather than daily.

The essay is an odd literary mutt. It is nonfiction of a sort, yet not strictly factual. It is defined “by individual expression – by inquiry, by opinion, by wonder, by doubt.” The quote is from a preface to The Lost Origins of the Essay, a 700 page anthology edited by John D’Agata. An essay also is relatively short, though book-length collections of essays (e.g. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations) are commonplace. An essay can be read and digested at a single sitting. Anthologies always inspire the reader to second-guess the editor: i.e. “there should have been more of this and less of that and at least some of the other thing.” D’Agata’s book is no exception, but its strength is historical spread. The first entry is by Ziusudra of Sumer from 2700 BCE. The last by John Berger brings us to the dawn of the 21st century. In between we have many of the basics from Western literature (Seneca, Montaigne, Jonathan Swift, Virginia Woolf, et al.) and also a smattering from around the world (e.g. T’ao Ch’ien and Yoshida Kenko). The Lost Origins of the Essay is not a book to be finished in an evening. It is something on which to snack time and again, no more than a few nuggets at a sitting. At the end you still will be hungry. That’s a compliment.

All essays are of their time but the best of them transcend their time as well. Gore Vidal’s Matters of Fact and Fiction (a mix of reviews and general commentary), for example, speaks volumes about the 1970s but remains a relevant read in 2017 as well. Those of us who write essays rarely have the skill to achieve both timeliness and timelessness, but I recommend the exercise anyway. There are few better methods of organizing one’s own thoughts in a coherent and compendious way than to put them in an essay. So, while I never would have said it at the time, thanks Mr. Drew for all the homework.

Al Perkins & Betty Bibbs – Homework (1965)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Over ‘dale

Back in my childhood days when the amazingly restrictive CMA code of 1954 was in force, comic books were for kids. Adults sometimes read them, but they were ashamed of it and for good reason: they were for kids. By the time I had grown up, comics had too. Nowadays comics – and Young Adult novels for that matter – are sold overwhelmingly to adults and are written for them. Far from being ashamed or embarrassed, those adults flock to comic book conventions, often in full costume. Many of the old characters from the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s remain, but have been reinvented for a new age and an older readership. One of the oddest reinventions has been of the perennial teenager Archie Andrews, who started attending Riverdale High School in 1939.

The latest incarnation of Archie was timed to inform the new and strangely dark CW network television series Riverdale. The show is aimed at teens but might win older viewers, too. I will not be among them. I’m not averse to high school dramas in general despite my dotage, but the first (and for me likely the last) episode of this one didn’t appeal despite the unexpected storyline of Archie’s affair with a teacher and their possible witness to a murder. Nonetheless, I was curious to peek at the source material to see how the redhead and his friends had transformed in the decades since I last read of their adventures. Road to Riverdale (2017) looked like the best option: it contains the first issues of the rebooted titles Archie, Jughead, Betty & Veronica, Josie and the Pussycats, and Reggie and Me.

The classic Archie with whom I grew up already was an anachronism: his small town of Riverdale harkened to Andy Hardy’s Carvel Idaho of two decades earlier, which itself was social and demographic make-believe. Yet, to this 10-year-old reader the comic offered an idyllic vision of upcoming teen years when an unremarkable humdrum fellow such as Archie somehow could have two stunningly gorgeous young women vying for his affection while he faced no greater threat than an occasional prank by Reggie. Even as a kid, I “got” that the competition itself was the motivating factor for Betty and Veronica. Winning had to be more important than the prize itself: the uninspiring Archie. Nonetheless, this competition worked out for him. I was team Veronica, btw, even though I intuited that if Archie ended the competition by choosing he might lose both. This presumption wasn’t precocious worldly wisdom; it was just that obvious even to a 10-year-old.

In 2017 the characters are very much more layered, but there is continuity at the core. Archie is full of teen angst but he still isn’t interesting enough to deserve either Betty or Veronica. Jughead is far brighter and more insightful than in the past but is still lazy on principle unless motivated by comfort food: burgers, lasagna, milkshakes, etc. Betty is still a good girl though now she displays it through social activism, a temper, and an effective right hook. Veronica is still the classy self-centered rich girl whose unabashed “me first” instincts more often come off as refreshing than annoying. Reggie is still the troublemaker, though “psychopathic” is now an appropriate adjective. The Riverdale prom still counts as a big gig for Josie and the Pussycats though Val is now lead singer. For all of the characters, their troubles are far more troubling than in earlier incarnations – enough so that I don’t think modern-day 10-year-olds will aspire to have teen years like theirs. In fact, I doubt many will read the titles at all, though apparently sales are good to “young adults” and older.

The artwork in Road to Riverdale is suitable for a new century and new readership. The storytelling is likably weird with abundant violations of the “fourth wall.” Archie narrates his own story to the reader. Jughead and Reggie have their stories narrated by their respective pet dogs. All in all, it’s not a bad reboot – though really not for me anymore. I won’t be buying rebooted Archie #2. And yes, I’m still team Veronica.

Upshot: Not currently my genre, but Thumbs Up for what it is.

Trailer: Riverdale

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Crimson and Clover

even educated fleas do it
“No, man, I disagree. Ethics are just like these arbitrary rules invented by the ruling class to preserve their power.” “Maybe dude, but does any of it really matter? I mean, like what if our whole reality is like a subatomic particle in a giant flea on the back of an enormous dog in a hyperuniverse, you know?” Do you remember hearing (or perhaps participating in) conversations like that, possibly with funny smelling smoke adrift in the room? No? Then you went to a different college than I. Sometimes the discussions were coherent and sometimes not, but they were commonplace. These memories were stirred by a movie to which I’ll get momentarily.

This March is the 20th anniversary of the airing of the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a campy show that consistently ranks on lists (by Rolling Stone, Time, Empire, etc.) of the best TV series ever made. I might or might not comment further on the show in March, but, in order to have that option, in January I began rewatching from the beginning. As Buffy lasted seven seasons and there are limits to my binge-watching patience, a couple months head start was necessary. It barely will be enough.

During the years of the show (1997-2003) despite the grueling shooting schedule, Buffy star Sarah Michelle Gellar somehow managed to accommodate roles in a few movies including the deliciously wicked Cruel Intentions and the airy romantic comedy Simply Irresistible. One I had missed at the time and in the years since was Harvard Man (2001). So, I decided to take a break from Sarah with…well…Sarah.

For those who are philosophically inclined at all, the college years are a time when we – with or without mind-altering chemicals – are most likely to pontificate with our friends about the meaning of existence and the origins and value of ethics. I certainly did. James Toback, a former Harvard man who wrote and directed Harvard Man, clearly did as well. It is hard not to suspect that the protagonist Alan (Adrian Grenier) is his alter ego, though almost surely one who is luckier in romantic matters unless James was a very fortunate young man indeed: Alan beds both his very womanly philosophy professor (Joey Lauren Adams) and winsome mafia daughter Cindy (Sarah Michelle Gellar).

Trouble begins when Alan’s parents need $100,000 after a tornado destroys their home. Cindy offers the money if Alan, who is point guard for the Harvard basketball team, throws the Dartmouth game. Various questions of morality, legality, and existence are tossed about, and not just in regard to Alan or this one act. Alan’s actions bring in the FBI who are trying to find a way to get to Cindy’s father. It doesn’t help that Alan is brought in for questioning while under the influence of a massive dose of LSD.

The script has weaknesses. Events develop in a very improbable fashion (not impossible but improbable), but it’s not really about the events. It’s about the assessment of them. If the viewer can make allowances for those improbabilities and for a little fantasy fulfillment by the filmmaker, there is enough humor, clever dialogue, and nostalgia for that what’s-it-all-about time of life for a Thumbs Up.