Monday, December 27, 2010

The Defunnystration of Blog

Tell me if you think this is funny:

In 1988, the vice presidential candidates for the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively, were Senator Dan Quayle and Senator Lloyd Bentsen.  They had a famously contentious debate which is best remembered for Senator Bentsen's zinger, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

That same year, heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, then in his salad days, got into an altercation with another boxer . . . in the street.  The other guy, Mitch Green, had actually gone a respectable 10 rounds in an official fight with Tyson a couple of years earlier.  They encountered each other outside of a clothing store in Harlem, and the fistfight ensued.

Soon after that, David Letterman, then still on the comedy program he founded, Late Night, said (and I'll have to quote from more than two-decade-old memory here): "Boy, the election is really heating up.  Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen got into a fistfight outside a clothing store in Harlem."

The audience fell apart laughing.  Watching at home, I did too.

So, tell me, did you find that funny?

Eh, probably not.  I had to set up the entire world for you beforehand.  Letterman's joke was what is called a "topical reference."  And once the topic was no longer current, there went the humor.

Comedy is difficult to do well.  That's why the top comics in the world command huge salaries.

The perishability of topical humor is one more way we can observe the weirdness of humor.

Why do we hominids laugh at anything?

Isaac Asimov's 1956 science fiction story Jokester posited that humor was an experiment by a godlike alien intelligence.  Once the story's main character has discovered that truth, humor vanishes from the human race.  To be replaced (ominously) by something else.

(By the way, I was hoping that I would be performing an intellectual service to my readers by bringing this Asimov story back from obscurity.  But then I discovered that references to it are all over the internet!  The story hit a chord among all who ever read it, apparently.  R.I.P., Dr. A.  Your ideas live forever.)

The defunnystration of topical humor gives us a clue as to why something was funny in the first place.

The David Letterman joke was funny because it juxtaposed two politicians trading television-friendly one-liners from behind separate podiums with two professional boxers getting into a viscious tussle without a referee or any rules of any kind.

It stopped being funny because the two incidents being juxtaposed stopped being juxtaposable.  As the Mike Tyson/Mitch Green street fight faded from memory, and as Dan Quayle became a memorably inept vice president, it was no longer possible to put the two incidents together without the exhaustive, two paragraph explanation I provided at the start of this blog.

We can visualize humor as a meshing of two separate gears.  In order to work, the gears must be close enough to each other for their teeth to touch.

So, for the person who desires to create comedy that will live on forever, the thing to do is create a joke whose separate pieces will never move far enough away from each other to stop meshing.

Is that even possible?  (If anyone has an example of a certain joke which has consistently been considered funny for several centuries, I would love to hear it in the comments section below.)

Well, consider it from another angle; does humorlessness increase permanency?

Millions of people consider the Christian Holy Bible to be an enduring, eternal document.  And, as the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously said, "The total absence of humour from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature."

(How tough is it to be funny?  Consider that my best attempt in this post was a Christ-awful pun on "The Defenestration of Prague.")

(If you have evidence of any factual inaccuracies in this article, please post that information in the comments section.  I will be happy to make any needed corrections.)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Did Arthur Conan Doyle Write a Classic, or Simply Live It?

There are some childhood pleasures that turn out to embarrass one as an adult.  21 Jump Street comes to mind.  (Yeah, I watched it. I don't think anyone else has ever admitted to it, though.)  It made Johnny Depp famous, I guess, but it also paired him with . . . Peter DeLuise?!

Turning to books, I recall the Hardy Boys mysteries I read, wondering if I can get the moments of my life back.  They were poorly written (or at least written in poverty, as The Washington Post's Gene Weingarten discovered in this long but fascinating article).

Not so with the Sherlock Holmes stories.  They were great when I was a kid, and great (maybe better) as an adult.  Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was an excellent writer.

He damn well should have been.  He'd been practicing all of his life!

I discovered that a few months ago when I got a book called Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters (edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley).  It is a collection of Doyle's letters from the age of eight in 1867 until 10 years before his death.  It was published in 2007.  I got a marked-down hardcover on one of my remainder bin searches at a chain store.

And I'm glad I did.  I believe these collected letters may represent the best work Conan Doyle ever did.  He aspired to great literature.  I think the letters attain it.  They:

  • Allow the reader to time travel back to a different world.  If you want to know what the mind of a famous Victorian was like, you'll never get closer than this.
  • Give a sense of the fragility of life.  We witness in "real time," the forming of a man's values and the changing of his personality over the course of a long lifetime.
His writing skill from an early age was admirable.  There is a multi-flavored pleasure that comes from reading something that shows: skill in and of itself; the attitudes of the time period; and the concerns that a person has in different stages of life.  Consider these excerpts:

  • In 1869, at age 10, to his mother from boarding school:  "I have bad news to tell you two poor boys have died at Stonyhurst within the last 3 weeks from getting croup. to my great delight 50 new books have been bought for the library." (All punctuation as in original letter.)
  • In 1882, at age 22, to his mother, on his work as a cruise ship's surgeon: "Just a line to say that I have turned up all safe, after having had the African fever, been nearly eaten by a shark, and as a finale the [cruise ship] Mayumba going on fire between Madeira and England, so that at one time it looked like taking to our [life] boats and making for Lisbon.  However we got it out, and here we are safe and sound."  No doubt that set his mother's mind at ease!  It shows that the stiff-upper-lipped Victorian was not a stereotyped notion, but a way people really lived and acted.
  • In 1885, at age 26, in describing one of his novels to his sister Lottie, and his hopes for it: "The book abounds in exciting scenes, murder and sudden death--in fact, I would need a private graveyard to plant all my characters in.  If I can make any sort of success with it it would give me fresh heart--though in any case we shall not be cast down."  (Gotta love the desire for commercial success, along with the self-pep-talk that ends with invoking the royal we!  To top it all off, the novel is The Firm of Girdlestone, which he later acknowledged to be a poor first effort.)

As edited and presented, there are faults: 
  • Confusion in when Conan Doyle's voice ends and the editorial voice begins.  There are (very useful) editorial transitions between letters, in which the editors set up the scene for the next letter, but they are in the same typeface as the letters themselves, with only a bit of blank space to mark the transition.  This would have been easy to fix.
  • There are a few baffling references that go unexplained, the most prosaic of which deals with money.  In some letters, Conan Doyle talks about his money with notation such as "(pound sign)2/5/0."  As an American, I'm lost.  I figure the leftmost stuff is the largest amount, but beyond that?  Maybe a little glossary, guys?

However, on the whole, the three editors did an admirable job. 
  • In several cases, they find passages from his fiction (including the Sherlock Holmes stories) which appear to have been directly taken from episodes in his life.  (These are set off in gray shading.  So they do know how to do transitions when they want to!)
  • They juxtapose Conan Doyle's accounts of certain events from his own memoir Memories and Adventures, against those which appear in the raw letters themselves, sometimes finding contradictions.  Heh, heh.

It must be said that the letters benefit from Conan Doyle's extremely eventful outward life, not just his writing skill.  Whereas many famous writers' personal lives were distinguished only by their sad personal slides into depravity or the gutter (Edgar Allan Poe marrying his 13-year-old cousin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge becoming a drug addict, etcetera), Conan Doyle traveled the world, volunteered as a physician in the Boer War (after he was already famous), and ran for political office twice.

The juiciest bit about his personal life is the long-known fact of his "platonic friendship" with the woman who became his second wife, during the years that his first wife was an invalid due to the tuberculosis which finally killed her.

But the slack in the narrative as we reach the end, paradoxically, is one of the things that makes it literature, perhaps great literature.

Conan Doyle's accumulating eccentricities and diminishing powers of judgment show the arc of life, from youthful learning, to mature accomplishment to . . . sadly . . . unwise, gullible senescence.

He brings us (the readers) along with him for so long.  But when he turns obscure and weird, as in his embrace of Spiritualism, we find ourselves observing him rather than identifying with him.  (At least I did.)

If great literature makes us appreciate life, then I think this might be Conan Doyle's best book.  As we trace a man's (real) life from early youth to adolescence, marriage, fatherhood, widowhood, death of child, and diminishment into old age, we get a sobering, but worthwhile, take on the brevity of life.

It actually made a difference in my life.  Because after seeing his mental breakdown after the deaths of his younger brother and his son, and how he poured his energies into silly, forgotten projects (did you know he wrote a novel in which Professor Edward Challenger, the character from The Lost World, embraces Spiritualism?  Ugh!) I made a vow.

It may not come to anything.  But I have decided I am going to steel myself to the challenges of age.  I promised myself that I will hew to the best part of Conan Doyle's example (his hard work, his discipline, his goals, his love of his family) and learn an object lesson from the worst choices he made.

So yes, I will call Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, a classic.  It really has changed the way I think about life.

(If you have evidence of any factual inaccuracies in this article, please post that information in the comments section.  I will be happy to make any needed corrections.)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

George A. Romero Really, Really MEANS It: The Politics of THE CRAZIES

[Beware. Spoilers for those who have not seen either The Crazies (1973) or The Crazies (2010).]

Writing about a liberal filmmaker born in America who moved to Canada, what better way to start than to quote from a conservative novelist who was born in Russia but moved to America?

Ayn Rand said, “My personal life is a postscript to my novels. It consists of the sentence, 'And I mean it.'” Her novels were very, very political.

And so are George A. Romero's films. The man whose freshman work, Night of the Living Dead (1968)created the modern concept of the zombie (previously, it had been a helpless, passive slave to another person's will, rather than an aggressive flesh-eating beast), has never been shy about putting what he believes in his films.

And therein lies a paradox that is interesting to contemplate.

Romero, who is hugely influential stylistically, has had almost no influence thematically.  That is, those who are directly influenced by his aesthetic qualities are the ones who are least likely to have something to say.

I shall narrow my focus. Instead of the endlessly sifted-over zombie pictures, let's look at his The Crazies (1973) and its recent remake, also called The Crazies (2010), which was done by . . . some other people.

The original film, despite its (as always, for GAR*) low, low budget, had a stylistic influence on a generation of films. How many movies and TV shows have you seen where faceless soldiers in gas masks and biowarfare suits round up and kill the innocent townsfolk? It was done in several X-Files episodes, in tons of movies, and in video games.

Romero created the film image of the Faceless, Occupying, Biowarfare-suited Soldier Attacking Civilians (FOBSAC)**, just as surely as he created the flesh-eating zombie attack.

And, remarkably, GAR created the FOBSAC on a budget that almost makes you want to start a telethon for him. (Honey-voiced Announcer: "Would you like to help feed George A. Romero? Please call this number below. Only $2 a day can buy him a soundstage...")

How low is the budget of The Crazies?  Well . . .
  • The FOBSACs carry civilian carbines chambered for pistol-sized rounds, rather than the M-16s the actual army was using by that point. (I'll guess the carbines were probably donated by one of the extras.)
  • A helicopter is “shot down” by having it fly behind a hill and then showing a separate shot of a modest gasoline flare-up.
  • The actors, except for cult film star Lynn Lowry, appeared in little else of note; this was back in the days when Pennsylvania-based Romero was still using actors who could be gotten inside the Pittsburgh area code.
To top it all off, it flopped at the box office due to poor distribution. 

Its cult was built slowly, year by year, as people who enjoyed his zombie pictures sought it out.  The advent of VHS made it more easily available to a new generation.  (That was where I first saw it.)

This wonderfully pulpy trailer for the original shows both the film's anti-Establishment edge and its cheesiness.

So why did this film have so much influence, so much power? Well, I think it boils down to the overriding sincerity of GAR's vision. Love or hate his politics, he believes, man. And those beliefs were never on display more so than in The Crazies.

The Crazies (1973): An Angry Film

After a bioweapon is accidentally released in tiny Evans City, Pennsylvania (played by Evans City, Pennsylvania; GAR used the real town, the real town's name, and the real townspeople as extras), the military comes in to "contain" the situation. 

In Washington, a group of WASPish, sneering officials in suits and ties debate what to do, showing no concern for the townspeople.  An effeminate general peels an orange as he takes part in the discussion.  They are perfectly okay with setting off an atomic bomb to sterilize the area.  The President of the United States, seen in a closed circuit video link with the officials, also shows no concern for the American citizens (and the soldiers) who will be killed.

A series of scenes and characters create a world in which even those who point the guns and give the orders feel that they are puppets in a rigged system:

The Army colonel in charge of the operation is a black man; his race, revealed when he takes off a biosuit in his first scene, causes the town sheriff to exclaim aloud in disgust.

The colonel himself fears (rightly) that he and the others will be sacrificed if it is expedient to the highers-up in Washington.

The main heroic couple that we follow are a fireman and his pregnant girlfriend, a nurse.  They are not living a conventional, middle-class life.

The fireman is a former Green Beret who served in Vietnam, and his buddy and fellow fireman is also a Vietnam vet.  The buddy tells another member of their refugee group, "We was in, man.  The Army ain't nobody's friend."

The Crazies (2010):  A Thrill Ride

By contrast, The Crazies (2010), didn't have a single conviction in its lushly shot, CGI-laden, big-budgeted head.  The movie (which I enjoyed) takes place in fictitious Ogden Marsh, Iowa. 

Why Iowa?  I have a very bad suspicion about that.  Methinks a group of producers in Hollywood were brainstorming a salt-of-the-earth location, and someone said, "I-o-wa!  You know, flyover country!  You heard of it?"  And another producer said, "Yeah, I heard of it, but I thought the name was pronounced 'O-hi-o.'"  After the confusion was sorted out, that was where they chose.

Just my suspicion.

Director Breck Eisner also did the Matthew McConaughey vehicle Sahara.  Hey, I enjoyed that one too.  But Eisner, as a director, has nothing to say.

In contrast to the fireman and pregnant girlfriend, we have the town sheriff as the upright hero, plus his wife, a doctor.  These people are the Establishment with a capital E.

The military people who take over the town are never really seen up close, except for a frightened soldier who is taken captive by the refugee townsfolk, and a sourpussed official who is trapped by our heroes when his SUV flips over.  There is no equivalent to the Washington D.C.-set scenes of the original.

Make a few changes to the script and the production, and the sheriff and his friends could easily be running from a vampire outbreak or perhaps Jason Vorhees. (Speaking of Jason, see my mention of the respective movie posters, below).

The makers of The Crazies (2010) are simply not angry about the way the world is.

This trailer for the remake shows the 2010 film's slickness, as well as its blandness.

Even the posters for the respective films show their differences!

In The Crazies (1973), the tagline is “WHY ARE THE GOOD PEOPLE DYING?” The image shows people fleeing from FOBSACs.

The Crazies (2010) has the non-political horror slogan, “FEAR THY NEIGHBOR”. The image is that of a pitchfork (dripping blood, of course) being used by one of the infected townsfolk; it could have come from a slasher movie.

And so it has been with GAR's other films when remade.  In Dawn of the Dead (2004) directed by Zack Snyder, there is none of the cultural commentary of the original film.  Like Breck Eisner after him, Snyder went on to do other lightweight films such as 300 and Watchmen.  (The latter film's grotesque candy-colored CGI version of the Vietnam war would never have been filmed by Romero, no matter what budget he had access to.)

And in the numerous films merely influenced by Romero, it is an influence of style rather than substance.  Most young horror filmmakers simply do not seem to have any conviction beyond making you jump out of your seat, or lose your lunch.

One final thought:  although I argue that Romero's political beliefs animate (or re-animate, nyuk, nyuk) his films, I am not implying that simply having a political commitment equals great art:
  • Imagine a really, really bad movie, book, or song that happens to take the same attitude you have about the environment, foreign affairs, or global warming. You know you've had that experience.
  • End of argument.

I would appreciate any informed comments (which are moderated). If anyone points out any factual errors I have made, I will happily alter this post.

*GAR: Initials of George A. Romero.  Also, the moaning sound a shuffling zombie makes.

**FOBSAC:  Yeah, I just coined the term.  Make something of it, bub.