Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christians Lose Their Compass

Weeks before the film adaptation of the Phillip Pullman book The Golden Compass was scheduled to open, Christian groups began plastering newspapers and in-boxes with dire warnings of a hidden anti-Christian agenda. Editorials began appearing in newspapers encouraging boycotts and Fox News picked up the drum beat, dovetailing as it did neatly into their War Against The War On Christmas. Before the film even opened, the controversy drifted into schools and libraries, with a flurry of challenges against the books and some groups organizing boycotts against Scholastic, the books' publishing company.

As the book series was actually published almost a decade ago, and has been in print and popular ever since, this outrage at Scholastic seems pointless at best and more honestly a transparent publicity stunt. It makes about as much sense as a lawsuit against Adobe Garamond, a typeface based on the sixteenth-century type designs of Claude Garamond, redrawn by Robert Slimbach in 1989 and used, shamelessly, on every page of the series. Now, in case you've allowed your attention to drift from what is happening in literary cinema, the Vatican came out again on Wednesday to condemn the film one more time, dubbing it "godless and hopeless".

I'm strongly reminded, in a "Alice Through the Looking Glass" way, to the kerfuffle that surrounded The Chronicles of Narnia two years ago. In that case, Christian groups still buzzed off The Passion of the Christ trumpeted the film as proof of Christianity's triumph over godless Hollywood while the average parent wondered if they could take their kid to see it without enrolling in Vacation Bible School. In this case, Christian groups, perhaps still agitated over Apocolypto, issue blanket condemnation while the average parent wonders if they can take their kid to see the film without turning them into Nietzschean nihilists. This confusion isn't necessarily helped by a new flurry of articles from theoretically "open minded" but still "concerned" parents who think the books are "great" but perhaps not safe for children, like this confusing confection from Slate in which the author simultaneously states a desire to protect her children from the darkness in Philip Pullman's trilogy while reminiscing over her childhood infatuation with the Gothic incest classic Flowers in the Attic.

In the face of this gathering storm, I decided to do something radical: read, or in my case re-read, all three books of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It's the books after all which are truly inspiring the angst, with some groups agitating that the film is in fact an atheist plot to trick parents into buying the books for their children. I had read the series before, as they came out starting in 1994 but I decided I couldn't rely only on my decade old memories of the story. Re-reading the tale, particularly with my mind on the brewing storm, was fascinating and enlightening. It re-established the books in my mind as true classic literature, not just children's literature, but literature, and heightened my awareness of the hysteria that has enslaved this nation when it comes to religion. In these books, Pullman raises issues which, as Americans and residents of a free democracy, we should be embracing, such as the importance of free will and the danger of religious oligarchy. The free will championed in these books is not irresponsible "the heart wants what it wants and damn the consequences" free will, but the challenging painful sort of free will that allow us to choose the hard path because we know it's right.

Phillip Pullman has been writing literature for children and teens since the 1970s. He is beloved in his native country of Great Britain and has even received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) from the Queen. Pullman specializes in adventure tales full of dire situations and cliffhanger endings, and often reads as if Dickens and Kipling got together to create a rip roaring yarn. The Golden Compass trilogy shares many qualities with Pullman’s earlier work. Pullman clearly likes and respects children. His youthful protagonists are neither cutesy moppets or miniature adults, but convincing young people. Adults in his world are human and flawed and often behave in disappointing ways. One of the myths of “children’s literature” is that it portrays, or at least ought to portray, a world somehow simpler than the real one. Pullman respects his young readers too much to offer them this illusion of simplicity, and his popularity reflects their appreciation for it. Pullman's appreciation for the dark and challenging comes out as early as the opening of The Golden Compass which includes a quote from John Milton's Paradise Lost. In fact, the collective title of the series, His Dark Materials, is taken from Paradise Lost, a 17th Century poem and cannon of Western Literature about a battle between the forces of heaven and hell.

The stories feature Lyra, an orphan raised by the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford. One quickly realizes that, although there are some familiar touchstones in this tale, Lyra inhabits a world that is not ours. In fact, every person in this world has something called a daemon, an external projection of their soul which takes the form of an animal. Children's daemons change form at whim, but as a person ages and reaches adulthood, their daemon becomes "fixed" into a permanent form.

Lyra sets to rescue her friend Roger, who has been kidnapped by a mysterious group known as The Gobblers. The Gobblers turn out to be part of The Magisterium, an all powerful religious oligarchy which controls Lyra's world. The Gobblers are part of a secret group whose investigations into a mysterious substance called Dust involve cruel experimentation on children. Lyra's adventure involves gypsies and witches and armored bears and a mysterious instrument which tells the truth to those who know how to read it. It also becomes clear that Lyra is being used as a pawn between two powerful people, her Uncle Asriel and the wicked and beautiful Mrs. Coulter.

In book 2, The Subtle Knife, Lyra escapes into another world through a tear that was created at the end of Book 1. In this world, she meets a young man named Will and together they discover that the universe is full of many different worlds, and tears in the fabric of those worlds are starting to cause a great threat to the universe. Meanwhile, The Magisterium hunts Lyra and her Uncle Asriel foments a war which, he hopes, will destroy the power of The Magisterium. In the last book, The Amber Spyglass, the battle is joined by many more, including angels. Lyra's hunt for her friend Roger takes her, Odysseus like, to the underworld and back, each step along the way giving her another tool to battle against forces attempting to manipulate both her fate and that of the universe.

The story told in the His Dark Material's Trilogy is complicated, and not just in regards to theology. Much of the story revolves around the discovery and study of the substance called "Dust", an elementary particle which seems to be attracted to beings with souls. There is also liberal exploration of the "many worlds" school of quantum mechanics, which argues that "whenever numerous viable possibilities exist, the world splits into many worlds, one world for each different possibility (in this context, the term "worlds" refers to what most people call "universes")." Obviously that sounds like something straight out of science fiction, but it is in fact a serious branch of study in quantum mechanics. In fact, Pullman weaves these challenging scientific concepts into his work so seamlessly, as a parent I might be more concerned that I'd be confronted with complicated questions about elementary particle physics than about the existence of God.

The truth is that Pullman never once in the three books says that there is no God. Nor, as has been erroneously interpreted, does he portray the killing or the death of God. In the story that unfolds in the last two books, there are two fallen angels who have placed themselves in the position of God. It is specifically stated that neither of these beings is God or the Creator of the Universe. They are "false prophets" who have set themselves up as the ultimate power and wish to enslave mankind using various tools including The Magisterium.

This is what interests me the most about the hysteria, particularly from the Catholic Church (aside from the fact that clearly most of the people complaining haven't read the books). Yes, Pullman creates a fictitious evil religious oligarchy in The Magisterium. Similarities to the structure of the Catholic Church, as well as the Anglican Church with which the British Pullman is perhaps more familiar, are fairly obvious, although not nearly nefarious as some would have you believe. When the Catholic Church complained about the DaVinci Code, it was silly but vaguely understandable. The Catholic Church was the named villain in that story. In this case, the Catholic Church has not had the kind of influence wielded by The Magisterium in well over 500 years.

So is the Catholic Church unhappy of being reminded that, at one time, they were an all powerful political and social machine that used its power for evil purposes? History is there. The Church does not deny the Inquisition, or the Crusades, or killing Gallileo, or any of the unpleasantness that pop up when you're a 2000 year organization. One of the things I've always kind of appreciated about the Catholic Church is its ability, at least at a distance of many hundreds of years, to say "Oops, our bad! Jews didn't kill Jesus and fish on Friday is A-OK!" It is the Church's flexibility, rather than its rigidity that's kept it going when many dozens of empires have risen and fallen. I usually feel that if one is secure in the quality of one's product, one need not fear criticism. When the Catholic Church spends time and resources trying to discredit Hollywood fantasies like DaVinci Code or Golden Compass while, at the same time, evicting nuns onto the street to pay for their child abuse crimes, they reveal how dangerously out whack their priorities are.

As for the rest of Christendom, the current hysteria being generated by Christian organizations over Pullman’s work really highlights the commensurate skill with which these groups have embraced the politics of victim-hood. When you live in a society which embeds the concept of free will and “the pursuit of happiness” in its very constitution, victimization is one of the few hammers which successfully get people to listen. In a “Live and Let Live” society, the fastest way to interfere with people’s lives is convince them they’re actually interfering with you. Everywhere, an evil “they” are assaulting Christians. “They” forbid children to ask Jesus for help on their spelling test. “They” are attempting murder God in His sleep by removing Him from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Now here comes a book that advocates teaching children about the responsible exercise of free will. It also suggests that religion should be kept separate from both government and science. All of these are ideas that these groups have been actively agitating against for several years now, wielding the argument that your free will, secular government and unhampered scientific inquiry is ruining their day. Nothing about the books promotes atheism or hopelessness. The books are overflowing with an awe of the beauty and wonder of the universe, as well as an acknowledgment that there is much about the universe that surpasses human ability to comprehend. But, it is true that the author, Phillip Pullman has admitted that he is an atheist. Yes, it's true! He admitted it in public! It's safe to say that atheism, like socialized medicine, is not viewed with the same hysteria and scorn in Pullman's home country as it is here in the U.S., but for most of the people agitating against the film, this admission is enough to condemn him and his work, even if his work was an impassioned support of Christianity's beneficence.

I think some of what upsets these groups so much about someone like Phillip Pullman is that he’s mastered their game and is using it against them. He’s an atheist who believes that his rights and values are under attack. He resents children’s books which cloak Christian theology within fantastic tales. This to him is sinister, or troubling at the very least. As amazing as the His Dark Material's trilogy is, there are no new ideas expressed in them that have not been contemplated within philosophical and religious circles for thousands of years. Pullman is not forging new ground. Lyra's journey is clearly inspired by everything from Greek myth to Joseph Campbell whose work The Hero With A Thousand Faces was direct inspiration for the Star Wars mythology, a fiction which Christian groups have embraced.

As for the movie, well, it's not nearly as elegant as Pullman's exquisite books. Pullman's refusal to simplify things for a young audience may have gained a huge following in book form, but Hollywood isn't there yet. It's a fine adventure film though with a plucky female protagonist. I'd take my children, and I'd let them read the books. If it came up, I'd embrace the opportunity to talk to them about God and the universe and what I think about such heady things, and encourage them to come up with their own opinions about the same things. I wouldn't be surprised though, if they were much more interested in discussing armored polar bears.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Some Enchanted Hitman: A Completely Random Film Festival

Having this last weekend entirely to myself allowed me to do one of my most favorite things: go see a couple of movies whose only similarity is my desire to see them. No perusing film reviews to find early Oscar favorites. No subtitles! No spinach! No moms with cancer! My needs are few and simple: entertain me. Feed me candy and nachos. Points are taken away for anything that “really makes you think”, as in “This really makes you think about the plight of the barn swallow/Iraq/state of spirituality in modern culture.”

First up to bat was Enchanted, the latest Disney ex machina about a princess looking for her happily ever after whilst being pursued by a wicked witch with a ‘b’. A couple of days before Enchanted opened, my brother sent me an agitated email pointing out that Enchanted had a Rotten Tomato rating of 100%. “What is the world coming to?” he wanted to know. He sulked eloquently: “[This movie] answers the question we’ve all been wondering. What would happen if Doctor McDreamy were a lawyer in New York instead of a doctor in Seattle?”

I attempted to gently point out to him that it’s a Disney movie and he, a man in his early 30s with no children and no propensity for cross-dressing or singing show tunes, is not really the audience. We both agreed though that the scene of James Marsden being run over by bicycles looked HI-larious!

The truth is, Enchanted is charming, though hardly Disney’s best. Giselle, who lives in an animated fairy tale world in a mushroom house waiting for her prince, finds herself banished to New York City by the evil Queen who is not interested in sacrificing her throne to her son’s new love. So, you have a sweet naïve beauty with cartoon notions of love wandering the streets of New York City, singing to the rats and cockroaches. Through the course of her journey she is also being chased by her handsome if vacant cartoon-esque prince, her chatty pet chipmunk and eventually of course the evil queen and her minion. Along the way she meets Lawyer McDreamy, a divorce attorney with a cynical view of happily ever after, and Lawyer McDreamy’s sweet young daughter who dreams of fairy princesses.

New York is probably the one city on earth dazed refugees from planet family animation could wander unmolested, which is both a strength and a weakness of the film. On the one hand, you can accept that people would stare but then instantly forget the crazy dude in tights trying to wrestle a city bus. On the other, it’s really hard to imagine a single dad allowing a clearly insane if sweet young lady into his apartment in the middle of the night, no matter how much his daughter insists that she’s “really a princess”. But the song and dance number in Central Park is frankly hysterical and one of those scenes, like those with the sewer workers who keep encountering lost cartoon land refugees, which show the writers knew New York as well as they knew Disneyland.

Personally, I found Giselle’s options of Happily Ever After guys pretty underwhelming. If I awoke to find I had to choose between James “Milquetoast” Marsden and Patrick “I don’t care how McDreamy you insist he is he’ll always be the geek from Meatballs III to me” Dempsy, Disney might find they had their first lesbian princess on their hands.

Strangely disappointing too is Susan Sarandon as the Evil Queen. Whether it’s the cartoon/reality-vision transformation, or a costume that wears her rather than the other way around, she just does not have the riveting malicious menace that crowns the best of Disney’s evils. Maleficent, Cruella DeVille or Ursula she ain’t, although clearly she raided their closet.

But, as I had to remind my brother, we are not the intended audience for Enchanted. And, I must give Disney credit for dreaming up yet another means of recycling their catalog and selling us the exact same product over and over again. They’re like some kind of mythical creature, the Scarlett O’Hara of animation. After the human race is gone, and there’s nothing but cockroaches left, Disney will still be here too, re-editing all their old footage to make heroes of the cockroaches, and keep on selling the dream.

Which brings us to part 2 of our entertainment extravaganza, Hitman. Here is what I knew about Hitman before I went to it: . That’s about all you need to know. I found out watching the opening credits that it’s based on a video game. Video games are kind of a black hole in my pop culture knowledge. Before I saw that, I think I’d assumed it was based on a graphic novel, but six of one. Why this was obviously “based on” something as opposed to the fully organic creation of a studio, I do not know, but look, already we are thinking far far too much.

So, there’s this guy. Over halfway into the movie we find out that (spoiler alert) his name is “47”. Yeah, that’s right. Agent 47. Not 46. Not 99. 47. I hope I haven’t spoiled too much for you. This guy was raised, along with a lot of other orphings, by a vaguely Catholic Church-like organization, to be a master assassin. And if you’re wondering why the Catholic Church would need to raise an army of assassins I only offer why not? I mean, the Buddhists have a whole genre of kung-fu warriors, right? I mean, I think they’re Buddhists, but look, already we are thinking far far too much.

So all of the assassins by this organization shave their heads and have barcodes tattooed on the back of them. By their baldness and their barcodes shall you recognize them. It kind of makes them stick out a little bit, actually. They also are very natty dressers, dark suits and what not. If I were going to raise an army of assassins, I think I would train them to look like actuaries, or maybe plumbers, but that wouldn’t be very photogenic, and these assassins are very very very photogenic, especially 47.

There’s enough of a plot in Hitman that I actually found myself asking questions. Like, what is the goal of this assassin orphanage organization? Do they have a political agenda, or is it money for hire thing? Granted, the Catholic Church has had longstanding issues with Russia that would make repeatedly killing their president tempting, but maybe it’s just a fundraiser, like selling poinsettias at Christmas. It’s just…oh gosh…look what I did there. I was thinking.

There are no problems with the movie Hitman that cannot be solved by checking your brain at the door. Seriously, it’s got just about everything you need, with the explosions and the shootings and five-on-one close quarters combat and hookers in danger and cast members of Lost moonlighting as Russian drug dealers and a really really really photogenic hero named 47. I enjoyed it so much, I actually considered playing the game, but only if I don’t have to think too much.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Can't two men in caftans have a wizard duel without it being gay?

Sometimes my topics come to me very clearly, practically written in fact, but other times, they buzz around like irritating gnats, difficult to ignore but impossible to catch. I feel compelled to put something down, but the who what when where whys are all jumbled up. I can only start at the beginning and hope I end up somewhere worthwhile by the end.

So, Friday, I went to see The Jane Austin Book Club with a friend. It was a cute film based on a cute book. It has a little more going for it than one might imagine, but it's fluff, moderately nutritious fluff. It's a story about a book club formed in response to the crisis of one of the members, whose husband leaves her for another woman. The members work their way through the Austin oeuvre and through their lives and in the end, there's some happily ever after business and some satisfactory for now business, with couples coming together and what not. In the film this is reflected with the obligatory montage of happy couples, which includes a shot of the token lesbian couple in bed. I was into the movie, I was enjoying myself, when suddenly, accompanying the truly benign sight of two attractive young women chastely cuddling, the woman next to me hisses, yes, literally hisses "Disgusting". The woman next to her concurs, adding a "Gross" for good measure.

I was stunned, apoplectic with stunned-ness, actually. My first instinct was to dump my bucket of popcorn on her, except that I didn't have any. At least, it's fun to imagine that I would have. Truth is, I didn't know what to do. I wanted to tell the little old lady off, but tell her what? "You are a nasty bigot lady!" Clearly she knows, and does not much mind. I know that plenty of people are nasty bigots in private but apparently my naivety knows no bounds, because I thought we were past the day when people thought it was OK to say stuff like that in public.

The next day, I went to see Spamalot with some friends. Spamalot, a musical based on the Monty Python oeuvre, is not a shining beacon of political correctness or high culture. It won my approval early in Act I by devoting an entire song to ridiculing Andrew Lloyd Weber. Later in the show (spoiler alert!) when the knight who turns out to be gay marries the charming prince he rescued from a tower, he offers the line "Just think, a thousand years from now, this will still be really controversial". I took that as my answer from the universe regarding the nasty biddy at the movies. That plus the fact that I can talk about this woman in public and call her a nasty biddy and she'll never know. Ha ha! You've been DISSED in the blogosphere, bigot beeyatch!

Then I came home, turned on my computer, and learned that Dumbledore is gay. Now, this should be the perfect end to my essay. World coming full circle. There may be nasty biddies at the movies in Tacoma, but they're dissed on Broadway and one of the world's most beloved children's fictional characters is gay. The world moves forward.

Except I must confess, this Dumbledore news? It has bummed me out. OK, not the news itself I guess. I don't find the revelation shocking or surprising or disappointing. It neither adds nor detracts to my appreciation of one of the most wonderful characters ever created. Oddly, I am reminded of the moment when my mother sat me down, in all grave seriousness, to tell me as gently as she could that my favorite aunt was gay. The atmosphere was so charged, my mom was clearly braced for me to flip out or weep or do something. But for me I just thought oh, yes. Now that you mention it, of course she is. It wasn't "Ah-HAH! That explains everything!" I hadn't spent any time before then wondering if she was gay. But when my Mom told me, it made sense, and I was happy to know that my aunt was happy, and relieved that it wasn't something awful, like "your aunt is dying" or "despite our best efforts, your aunt has joined the Republican party".

So why am I bummed about the outing of Dumbledore? This morning when my clock radio alarm went off, they were playing a montage of Dumbledore lines from the movies intercut with Jack McFarlane lines from Will and Grace. "It's not our abilities that make us who we are but our choices" intercut with "when two men fall in love and are greased up like pigs at a spring fair..." Dumbledore's future seems disappointingly clear to me. He will become a standing punchline for Jay Leno jokes. He will grace the cover of The Advocate. His likeness will become a fixture at gay pride parades. Parents will sit their children down to have grave and gentle conversations about their favorite fictional character.

And all along the way those things about Dumbledore that make him so special: his hard earned wisdom; his compassion for even the worst the world has to offer; his obstinate confidence that right will out; his greatness and his imperfection. What will become of these?

The truly frustrating thing about bigotry is its reductive nature. It takes the wonderful complexity that is a human being and reduces it to a single caricature. The woman at the movie theater who upset me so much sat through the same movie I did. She watched the same characters struggle and evolve, but in the end, at least in regards to the character of Allegra, she couldn't or wouldn't bring herself to see the person behind what she'd labeled a perversion. Unfortunately, the same can be said for whatever the opposite of bigotry is. That force that drives The Advocate to out dead people and movie stars who've decided that they'd rather not share who they share their beds with. It's all two sides of the same coin, taking a single characteristic of a person and transforming it into everything worth knowing about that person.

The re-reading of Potter-verse has already begun, with close analysis of every Dumbledore related word. Close attention is being paid to the relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, the wizard young Dumbledore first befriended but eventually defeated, which J.K. Rowling recently characterized in a speech as a romantic attachment. When I first read about Dumbledore's attachment to Gridelwald, the passionate charge in the relationship was clearly there. Rowling isn't a subtle writer. Yet I was also so clearly reminded of incidents in my own life where I formed an overwhelming attachment with another person. There's nothing so amazing as experiencing a "meeting of the minds", when you meet someone who "gets you".

There's a movie called Heavenly Creatures which portrays this circumstance so clearly, and also portrays how this kind of intense, passionate teenage friendship can go completely, horribly wrong. I had a patron complain about this movie once, and when I say complain I mean this person was completely beside themselves, they were so upset by this movie which was, they insisted, clearly advocating for teens to kill their parents. Unfortunately for the person who wanted the film removed from the system, I was enthralled by the movie. I actually considered sending them a thank you note for suggesting I watch it.

Now, I've never murdered any of my parents, nor faced a former friend in a wizard duel, but I related to both these stories, because I've been young and felt alienated and discovered a friend who felt the same sort of alienation at the same time. Even though I'm an actual grown up now, I can still feel exhilaration when I read or view a work of art that captures a universal human experience so beautifully. And my question to J.K. Rowling, or my concern or my confusion or whatever it is that's making this gnat buzz around me, is "Are you telling me that I got it wrong?" I thought I was reading about a universal human experience, something that Rowling is generally damn good at capturing. Was it in fact a "gay" experience? In labeling Dumbledore gay does Rowling wish to expand my understanding of him, or narrow it? I believe that Rowling means for it to expand. In a perfect, wonderful world, it does expand. Certainly learning that my aunt was gay expanded my understanding and appreciation of her life.

Perhaps my distress is that I know it's not a perfect world. This missive has come full circle, but in the wrong direction. We're back to the nasty biddy at the movie theater, and the clumsy activists at The Advocate, who think it's more important to label something GAY than to recognize a universal experience. It's a world of Jay Leno punchlines, and stupid sound clip montages on the radio. It's a world which, now given permission, will do it's damnedest to reduce the character of Dumbledore into a caricature in rainbow robes.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Television's Merciless Onslaught-The Season So Far

Sometime in early September, as the networks ramped up their endless promotions of the new TV season, I found myself experiencing a new sensation regarding TV: the feeling of dread. I wasn't dreading the new shows per se, and I looked forward to the return of old favorites, but when, oh God, when am I supposed to watch them all?

Lately my television viewing has been transformed. The sudden ease with which my DVR records entire seasons of TV at the push of a button. The advent of interesting TV series on cable stations. The knowledge that no matter what I'm watching, I'm likely missing whatever will be the topic of water cooler discussion tomorrow at work. The new Lost/24/Desperate Housewives inspired trend of serialized cliffhanger shows. The fact that I can go away for a week and return to find my DVR stacked with 80 hours of TV which now, suddenly, rather than being fun entertainment, is more shit I need to catch up on or be lost for the rest of the season. It's all a bit overwhelming, actually.

This feeling was only intensified when I received new TV season themed issue of Entertainment Weekly which kindly included a handy calendar grid showing a person exactly what to watch and what to record to watch later. I watch a lot of TV. I really do. But I don't know that I have four hours a night to devote to never missing anything. There are dishes to be washed and yoga classes to take. I'd like to think that television complements my life, rather than supplants it. I know, crazy talk. What am I becoming? One of those "my TV only gets PBS" wackos

(Didn't watch Ken Burns' The War, by the way. Miss South Carolina told me how it ends, with the US, Japan & Germany kicking commie Russian & Chinese a**, and Ronald Regan tearing down the Berlin Wall with his bare hands after George Bush drove tanks through Tiananmen Square.)

So it was with trepidation that I approached the new offerings. My new viewing rota had to include room for my old favorites; namely, How I Met Your Mother and Ugly Betty, with occasional visits to NCIS, CSI:NY and Chris Noth episodes of L&O:CI. Although I'm not against serial dramas on principal, I was wary to include anything in the lineup that would crash my house of cards if I missed a single episode. I continue my general ban on reality television that doesn't star Tim Gunn, or prime time game shows. (Yes, I am smarter than a 5th grader. No, I don't wish to dance with any former cast members of Saved By The Bell.) For a show to be added to my permanent roster, it must have decent entertainment value, which can be determined by a simple formula:

EV= (Plot+Humor+Suspense)Enjoyment/Time+Emotional Investment. Here are some of the early returns.

Damages - (FX Tuesday) Like a shady law firm, Damages tricked its way onto my lineup. It started airing in August, confounding me into thinking it would be over before the regular season began. Now I'm hooked like a cheap lawyer to an ambulance. Damn you Glenn Close! The music for the opening credits involves a growling voice singing just two lines: "Little lamb" and "When I get through with you, there wont be anything left." As a viewer please note, this will be your only warning.

The show operates very effectively in a flashback format, unspooling the tale of Ellen Parsons, a newly minted lawyer who finds herself tempted into working for Hewes & Associates, led by the indomitable Patty Hewes, aka Glenn Close. But I'm already getting ahead of myself. The first scene of the entire series is a beautiful woman, who we come to learn is Ellen Parsons, stumbling bloody and terrified down a busy Manhattan street. Each episode scatters more puzzle pieces on the table, gradually assembling a story of how this bright penny of a lass stumbled into the web of Glenn Close and her adversary Arthur Frobisher, played with gleeful amoral zest by Ted Danson, and ultimately ended up in prison for the brutal murder of her fiance. In this respect, the series reminds me a great deal of the French film Irreversible, a brutal film, not for the faint of heart, which begins with a horrifying murder and rape and then continues backwards to reveal how the principal characters ended up in such a wretched place.

I have not been this entertained by the tale of a young lawyer led astray by an evil boss since The Devil's Advocate; a film in which the Glenn Close role was played by Al Pacino who was actually playing Satan. Glenn Close is perfectly, richly, wickedly, manipulatively eeeevil in this show (for her first act, she orders a bloody hit on the puppy of a nervous witness). If I had to bet on Al Pacino's Satan, Esq vs Close's Patty Hewes, I'd flee the country.

EV= (100+100+100)100/100+100 = 150

Torchwood - (BBC-America Saturday) As a fan of science fiction it is true that I admire Battlestar Galactica for the gravity (no pun intended) it has brought to the genre, with the politics and moral quandaries and philosophical musings on the nature of human suffering and what all. But sometimes you know, you just want to see an alien resembling a man in a gorilla suit and a diving helmet get blown to smithereens. It's also true that since the advent of the endless series Doctor Who, the Brits have really cornered the market on science fiction with a big side order of cheese. Now we have Torchwood, a series not only inspired by but actually spun off from Doctor Who, which very enthusiastically brings the cheese, along with the aliens and the sex and, although it has not been seen yet, sex with aliens and possibly even sex with cheese.

Torchwood, as it is introduced to us in the opening credits, is an organization "outside the government, beyond the police. Tracking down alien life on Earth, arming the human race for the future." Torchwood is led by this guy, otherwise known as 'that guy who always plays Americans on BBC ', whose name for the purposes of this program is Captain Jack Harkness. Depending on what press release or episode you see, Captain Jack (aka Will Get You High Tonight) is a 50 zillion year old time traveler from the future, a former American World War I (or is it II? I didn't watch Ken Burns so I don't know) commander mysteriously become immortal or a hot blooded omnisexual Lothario with an attractive person of either gender in every intergalactic port. Our eyes into this amazing organization is Gwen Cooper, a Cardiff Wales police officer who wrong place/wrong times herself onto the Torchwood team by helping them uncover a murderer amongst one of their own.

Torchwood itself is a secret lab/base, located under the fountain of the Cardiff opera house, which despite having no government or police support has a very respectable armory and fleet of black cars. The plots are beyond ridiculous, as they should be, only occasionally making any kind of sense.

There was the episode where Torchwood's inexplicably non-Asian majordomo named Ianto attempts to revive his half automated girlfriend in the secret basement of the secret base, causing a great deal of hell to break loose when it turns out that she's actually the False Maria robot escaped from Metropolis. Also, she's murderous, crazy, and wants to turn the world into an army of cyber-bots. Ianto has to kill her and it's all very sad, tears all around, except of course from Jack, who does not truck much with emotionalism. Unlike his alter-ego Doctor Who, careening through the universe with a devil-may-care, "isn't this all just the neatest" attitude, Jack is more of a "shoot 'em all and sort out the pieces later" type.

One of the fun things about Torchwood is its attitude about sex, which is to say characters in Torchwood seem to have sex and enjoy it without the requisite emotional breakdown or plot collision required by other television shows. Well, except for Ianto. That robot girlfriend thing didn't end well for him. In the pilot episode, Torchwood member Owen surreptitiously borrows some alien technology, cleverly disguised as an Old Spice bottle, which makes one totally irresistible. Leaving a bar with a young woman upon whom he has unleashed this power, they are approached by her enraged boyfriend ready to pummel Owen into a pulp. When angry boyfriend gets close enough to Owen's Alien Old Spice however, he shoves his girlfriend aside and begins snogging Owen himself. Owen then cheerfully hails a cab for the three of them. In the end, absolutely nothing horrible happens to Owen for using Alien Old Spice to manipulate a threesome, and why should it? I'm sure the aliens have excellent condom technology as well.


Journeyman-(NBC Monday) I had ulterior motives for watching Journeyman. I'll just state these up front. I'm very fond of Kevin McKidd. Have been ever since he played the naive friend in Trainspotting whose want of a girl led him to drug addiction and want of a kitten led him to death. Since then I've been a firm believer that what the world needs more of is Kevin. The plot of Journeyman also resembles very closely the plot of one of my favorite books of all time, The Time Traveler's Wife. In both, a man discovers that he is capable of time travel or, more accurate, incapable of not time traveling. He has no control over when it happens or where/when he may end up, and his family is stuck dealing with the consequences of his unpredictable schedule.

There's some mystery in the background of Journeyman's main character, Dan Vasser, which may or may not be influencing what is happening to him. He was engaged to a woman who died and who, it now appears, is also stuck in a time travel loop. Although he is now happily married with a son, there's a suggestion that after his fiancee died, Dan went off the rails into drug addiction.

This adds an interesting level of complexity to Dan's situation. When he suddenly starts disappearing for days at a time, then returning with tales of time travel, his wife and boss are, perhaps obviously, more inclined to believe he's off the wagon. His brother, a San Francisco cop, is also not inclined to be sympathetic, whether because of his no-nonsense cop demeanor or the fact that Dan stole and married his girlfriend is not entirely clear.

To the show's benefit, Journeyman plays Dan's predicament totally straight, leaving the viewers in frustrated sympathy not only with Dan but with his wife and friends. After all, if your ex-addict husband disappeared for a week, insisting he was off time traveling against his will, you'd be tempted to stage an intervention too.


Big Bang Theory - (CBS Monday) The only reason I found myself watching The Big Bang Theory is due to its lead in, How I Met Your Mother (Still suited up. Still legen- wait for it -dary), which I imagine is no suprise to CBS. But that's not why I'm still watching (I have been known to turn off the TV when there's nothing on I want to see...fer reals). The story of two unrepentent physics nerds whose lives are upturned by a sweet, pretty Cheesecake Factory waitress moving in next door is actually kind of endearing.

Johnny Galeki plays Leonard, the more normal of the two nerds, if by the word "normal" you mean the one that recognizes there's another world beyond quarks and Halo which he finds himself intrigued by. Jim Parsons plays the more unrepentantly geekish of the two, Sheldon; a man who organizes his breakfast cereal by fiber content, and who sneaks into the new neighbor's apartment to organize her kitchen. Both are funny, although Sheldon really makes the show, providing a wry Greek chorus to Leonard's attempts to charm the cheesecake waitress.

If there's a weakness in Big Bang Theory, it's the character of said waitress Penny. Although pleasant enough, that's really all she is so far. Pretty and pleasant. Watching Leonard struggle for her affections, I can't help but feel that maybe he could do better. CBS undercut Penny's appeal even further by introducing the always awesome Sara Gilbert as Leonard's lab partner, a pairing I see as being far more entertaining for both Leonard and the audience.


Bionic Woman - (NBC Wednesday) There's a sad truth that most creators of action series featuring righteous babes must reckon with. Except for the obvious exception, none of them are Joss Whedon. This leads us to the sad truth that Whedon-ites themselves must face, which is that he has ruined us. We want it all. We want the action and the suspense and the funny and the smart and the timely and the poignant all wrapped up with a kick ass bow. We know it exists. We've seen the promised land. So, when a series with the pedigree and fanfare accompanying The Bionic Woman arises, we approach it with wistful anticipation. It won't be Whedon-tastic of course, but others, like J.J. Abrams, have certainly done admirable jobs with the premise of a beautiful young woman who can kick your a** seven ways til Sunday.

Bionic Woman arrives with a promising pedigree. It shares a producer, David Eick, with Battlestar Galactica, a show I've expressed an embarrassing amount of admiration for in the past. The connection between the shows is evident, from the mournful Enya does heavy metal soundtrack to the presence of some familiar BSG faces, notably Katee Sakoff as Sarah Corvus, the first and now hopping mad Bionic Woman. Unfortunately it turns out that the gallows humor and general gravity that works so well for BSG completely sucks the air out of Bionic Woman.

Jamie Summers awakes from a car accident to discover her boyfriend has bionicized her, sans her consent, and she is now the property of the Berkut Group, "a private clandestine group dedicated to stopping rogue organizations from ending civilization as we know it." This statement is offered, gravely, by Jamie's new boss Jonas Bledsoe, played by Miguel Ferrer as an irascible hard ass with a secret heart of gold. I can imagine the conversation between Ferrar and his agent: "So, you're the boss, an irascible hard ass with a secret heart of gold." "Gee, I don't know. Sounds like a stretch. I don't know if I can...oh wait, that's what I do. OK, fine." He does pretty well with the role considering he has to deliver lines like "Sarah Corvus will break through a wall to get what she wants. Just make sure you're not the wall." Then, just in case you missed the profundity there, the next shot is one of Sarah Corvus doing punching practice on a cheap hotel wall.

Jamie's pre-bionic life includes the guardianship of a younger sister who has a name but might as well be called Bait. Jamie is being stalked by Sarah Corvus, the first, now malfunctioning, Bionic Babe, who ended up on the wrong side of the Berkut Group when she massacred fourteen of their men. Sarah thinks that Jamie is the key to repairing her malfunctioning self, and pops up occasionally with grave demands like "I need you to meet me at the sulfur plant." I was so hoping that "the sulfur plant" would turn out to be kin to Roger Ebert's famous "spark and steam plant", which produces nothing but sparks and steam, a process which apparently requires a large supply of very heavy chains hanging from the ceiling. Unfortunately, it just looked like a gravel pit.

Jamie and Sarah take turns spying on each other, having heartfelt conversations about the meaning of being Bionical and beating the crap out of each other. We know that Jamie is good and Sarah is bad because Jamie's bionics make her eye glow green, while Sarah's make hers glow red. Absolutely no one in this show appears to be having any kind of good time. I know I'm not.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Auntie Kati's Advice To The Stars

At times the news of the world becomes so much more entertaining than anything happening on screen, I find I must put away my critic's hat and pull out my advice apron, solving all the world's problems one coffee klatch at a time.

Dear Republicans in America (Or, as I like to call you, The Gay Fantasia on National Themes),

Well, I think it’s time you woke up and smelled the poppers. The problem isn’t that many prominent members of your party happen to be gay. It’s that they’re SO BAD AT IT. The Mark Foley business was pretty much a disaster, finding out that the legislator in charge of taking care of the pages was in fact using the pages as a kind of informal dating service. Now not one but two significant advisors to your Presidential nominees have been caught soliciting sex in public bathrooms. The President of the National Young Republicans was caught forcing his unwanted affections on a sleeping roommate. Then there’s that awkward business with the GOP strategist in Florida who was killed in what might be a gay love triangle, or simply a gay line with unfortunate collateral damage.

In each of these cases it's pretty clear that the problems are not "gay" problems but plain old manners problems. Regardless of your orientation, it's poor manners to induce your young employees to do drugs and have sex with you. It's poor manners to solicit for any kind of sex in public places. It's poor manners to try and have sex with a vague aquaintance who happens to be asleep. It's definately poor manners to kill people.

But you Republicans have got yourselves in such a tizzy over the gayness, you apparently don't know the difference between "gay" and "rude", which is why I think it's imperative the Republican Party immediately institute an Etiquette of Homosexuality Bootcamp. Like teaching kids that the only acceptable approach to sex is to never have it, forcing your fledgling homos out into the world with no education or guidance only leads to this kind of embarrassment and tragedy. First on the agenda: Washed-up, drug-addled 80s pop star George Michael is not an acceptable role model, nor should he be counted on for sound dating advice.

Special message to Larry Craig: Dear Mr. Craig, You are a ‘mo. Everyone knows you are a ‘mo. By this point, even your wife knows you are a ‘mo. Most people figured it out in 1987 when you issued a public statement denying your ‘mo-ness, even though no one had accused you of it. (In poker parlance, this is what’s known as “a tell”.) So do us all a favor and come out already. I know this is scary seeing as you’re from Idaho and all, but just think of the inspiration you could be! You could be Grand Marshal of the Pocatello Gay Pride Day Parade! On the other hand, if you insist on hiding this truth even from your own self, as you seem determined to do, please remove yourself from the public eye. I refer you to the surprisingly relevant story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. You may be prepared to live in denial, but you can’t expect everyone around you to ignore the obvious.

Dear Britney Spears,

It’s really kind of amazing what you’ve accomplished recently. In a matter of months you’ve transformed your ex-husband K-Fed from a washed up white trash home boy to Father of the Year, just by being you! Clearly you’re not alone in riding the drugs and alcohol career spin cycle, but unlike Li-Lo, The Paris, Nicole Richie or Paula Abdul, you have two children.

In addition, unlike most of the aforementioned, you show no signs of trying to break out of your downward spiral. In fact, you’re looking more and more like a certain dead drug addled former model by the day, and I don’t mean Marilyn Monroe. You’ve got the thousand mile stare and bags you could mule kilos in under your eyes. John Stewart’s prediction of you doing porn within five years now seems really optimistic. Honestly it seems only a matter of time before you’re found dead in a pile of coke with gallons jugs of methadone in your fridge.

Plenty of people have told you to stop, so instead of lecturing you on the dangers of drug abuse let me offer you a little enlightenment instead. When you finally lose your babies in court, or have them seized during that ill planned attempt at emigrating to London you’re cooking up (read all about it in OK!, but your secret is safe with me), look around. The place that you will be is what is known as “rock bottom”. At that point, you will have a choice between lying down in the grave you’ve been digging yourself, or to start the difficult process of climbing out of it. I hope you choose the latter, not so much for the sake of the music industry, but definitely for the sake of your kids.

Dear Owen Wilson,

Dude? Dude! Dude.

Even now you are soooo much cooler than Matthew McConaughey it’s not even funny, and in Hollywood, cooler than Matthew McConaughey=Everything to Live For.

No joke.

Stay Butterscotch, Stallion Boy!

Dear Evan Rachel Woods,

I admit, after Thirteen, I had high hopes for you. You reminded me a lot of the actress Sarah Polley who, granted, sets a high bar. She’s an awesome actress and now, at age 26, just directed a major motion picture. You’re barely 20, so I wasn’t expecting you to direct anything yet, but I was looking forward to whatever you chose to use your major league talent on next.

Imagine all of our surprise to find you used it to film yourself having sex with your boyfriend Marilyn Manson (only 18 years your senior), which you guys then released as a “music video”. Ok, granted, you’ve taken a proactive step which others like Paris Hilton weren’t smart enough to do. Don’t wait ‘til someone leaks that stuff, package and release it yourself and cut out the middle man. Savvy!

Yes, I get that you were “acting”, but theoretically so are porn stars. They’re “acting” like they’re having sex in private when in fact they’re having sex in front of millions! You were acting like you were having sex in a rain storm of blood, when in fact I’ll be it was that fake Hollywood blood stuff they make with food coloring and Karo syrup.

I also get that you luuuurrrrrve Marilyn and the video shows your love as the beautiful, artistic, blood soaked thing it apparently is. And I get that Marilyn “gets” you and lets you be you and you’re soul mates and everything. You would not be a 20 year old female if you did not feel that way about your man. Granted, your man is a 38 year old with the emotional maturity of a 12 year old, or perhaps an oversexed 6 year old, who explained to anyone who would listen that he left his miserable, evil ex-wife for you because you don’t mind if he stays up all night. Upon this is what sound relationships are founded? You don’t enforce bedtime? But I digress.

I do worry about you, and the other starlets of your generation. You’re coming of age in this really weird time, where magazines do cover articles about young starlets' 18th birthdays, counting down the minutes ‘til they’re “legal”. It’s really quite creepy. It would be a shame to see you neglect your talent for acting because your boyfriend convinces you that your real talent is public nudity. You might have made that video thinking you wanted to show the world how beautiful and pure your love is, but unfortunately most of the world will now only think, hey, that chick does not mind doing it on camera. I notice on IMDB that your STARmeter is down 40%, and it looks like your HSX stock is dropping too. As drops your trou, so drop your numbers. Coincidence?

Special note to all the starlets out there everywhere: For Heaven's sake would you put on some underwear please? Seriously, you are making all the grandmothers in heaven cry. Everytime one of you is photographed with your cootchie hanging out, Jesus has to kill a puppy. This must stop! For the sake of Jesus, grandmas and puppies everywhere, it must stop!!!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What's In A Name - The Bourne Finale

The Bourne Supremacy had a perfect closing scene; Jason Bourne limping away from a Russian housing project after trying to make some kind of amends to the daughter of the first people he ever killed. Unfortunately, or perhaps inevitably, the film makers felt it was necessary to tack on another scene, in which Bourne calls in to Pam Landy, the CIA agent who seems to be on his side, for some banter and to drop the bon mot "Get some rest Pam, you look tired."

This was cool and edgy and proved that he could see her from wherever he was calling and oooooo that's the way Bourne is: everywhere and nowhere all at once. It's not that it was a bad scene, and it did set up some very specific possibilities for the third movie, but there was something just so perfect about that scene in Russia. Bourne is alone and on the move, but to where, and why? He may have accomplished the immediate task he set for himself, but his journey is not nearly done.

The Bourne Ultimatum does something awesome which won me over the instant the film began. It begins at the natural end of the 2nd film, with Jason Bourne limping through the cold Russian streets. The plot of this film, in fact, takes place almost entirely between that moment and the phone call at the end of Supremacy. It's a great choice since it immediately toys with audience assumption of how this is all going to go down. Landy gives Bourne his real name in that phone call so an easy guess going in is that Ultimatum will be all about how, now that Bourne knows his name, he'll go in search of his roots and perhaps join the family grocery business, assuming the powers that be let him. Instead, the film is all about that name, and Jason finding his way back to it.

During the press tour for The Bourne Ultimatum a question began circulating about who would win in a fight: Jason Bourne or James Bond. Setting aside the logical fallacies of the question (they're both fictional characters, set in different eras, blah blah blah) as a fan of both Bourne and Bond I do find it an interesting conundrum. Here are two characters who are highly trained secret operatives revered for their stylish violence and abilities to extricate themselves from impossible situations.

James Bond is really more of a superhero than a convincing spy, like a Bruce Wayne who knows how to have a good time. He's an effective but high maintenance errand man. He goes where he's sent, he gets the nuclear bomb diffused, he fights with henchmen, to the death if necessary in order to get that secret formula. There's no question that James Bond can be lethal, but somehow he always finds room in his suitcase for a really nice suit and time in his schedule for Pussy Galore.

Bourne is a mess. He's a down on his luck amnesiac with limited people skills. His battle is personal, because his use as a tool has expired. There are no suits in Jason Bourne's world, not for him or any of the operatives sent to kill him. They cultivate the look of the down and out backpacker. They spend their down time in dingy flats and hotel rooms waiting for the anonymous text message sending them to their next assassination. They do not spend their down time playing cards in Biarritz.

The operatives in Bourne's world are not much about name recognition either, or names period. If anything, names are a liability. The last thing anyone wants is a famous secret agent, which is how Jason Bourne finds himself in trouble in the first place. He wakes up with amnesia and asks the logical next question. What's my name? In the process of trying to answer that question, he goes from being a reliable "asset" to a dangerous loose cannon who is, god forbid, making his own decisions. In this case the answer to "What's in a name?" is everything.

"Bring the asset online," announces a CIA operations officer. What he means is "tell the field agent to kill" but it is said so matter-of-factly it somehow transcends euphemism. To call someone by name is to acknowledge their humanity. Certainly it's easier for everyone involved to "bring the asset online" then to "tell Omar to kill Nicky please". The desk lackeys might get squeamish.

As for the asset, a name just gets in the way there too. If you want to create a person willing to carry out any order without question, a key requirement is to disconnect them from outside influence. Even for the most ethically challenged organization, it would be a tall order to eliminate every single person who ever knew a person named, say, David Webb. So you destroy David Webb instead, and replace him with a blank canvas, awaiting instruction. Inconvenient demands from sources like the payroll department require that you call them something, but it hardly matters what. If the agency responsible for training them could get away with calling them all John Doe, they probably would.

As Jason gradually unearths pieces of the puzzle of himself, much effort is put in by powers that be to convince Jason Bourne that he was always a willing participant in the creation of the monster they made him. Although they do go so far as to prove that he signed up to be erased and replaced with a killing machine called Jason Bourne, they never prove that they lived up to their end of the bargain.

It seems logical to me that there's an inherent promise between an organization that demands, or programs, total fealty and those that agree to give it. If you want blind loyalty, you're promising that your vision is clear enough for both of you. If you train a person to kill for you unquestioningly, based on, say, the argument that the protection of our nation from threats is more important than the soul you're asking them to sacrifice, you're promising that you wont use them to kill the pizza delivery guy for fucking up your order. If an organization, or a nation, wants unquestioning loyalty, it behooves them not to give questionable orders.

I'm not saying it's a reasonable arrangement. Given human nature, it seems doomed to failure. But this is the rationale provided by the organization that created Jason Bourne. "Who is it?" Jason asks the first time he is ordered to execute someone. "It doesn't matter," he's told. The person has been deemed a threat to the nation. The person is dangerous and deserves to die because we say so. To question orders is to question the inherent rightness of your country and its cause. When the black bag is pulled off the head of Jason's first kill, the kid does look an awful lot like the pizza delivery boy though.

"Look what they make us give," a dying agent says to Bourne in the first film. Although the agency which created them both has demanded they become enemies, death reveals they are soul mates. In the final film, it is Bourne who utters these words, asking the agent about to kill him if he even knows why he's been sent. It's not just Jason Bourne who is the hero of The Bourne Ultimatum, but all of the anonymous agents, dutifully destroying their own identities and souls so that men in suits in glass office buildings can keep their twisted secrets safe from each other.

The Bourne Ultimatum ends the same way The Bourne Identity began; a body floating in the water. I've heard many people say that the end seems to suggest even more sequels to follow, but I don't agree. As cool as the Bourne movies are, and as much as I've enjoyed them, they were always and ultimately about one man's search for his identity. The wet guy in the first movie had no clue who he was or how he got there, but the man who drifts away at the end of Ultimatum knows, finally, who he is and where he's going. As tempting as it is to imagine future sequels and their names (I'm rather fond of The Bourne Catastrophe), continuing the story from this point would transform the character into a comic book hero, instead of the interesting complex mess of a person we've come to appreciate.

That said, now that I've seen The Bourne Ultimatum, I believe I have an answer to the question of who would win in a fight. Jason Bourne could kill James Bond using nothing but a tea towel and a phone book. He would use the vodka from Bond's martini to sterilize his wounds, and limp away, there being no sexy woman in a Ferrari to pick him up.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Men I Have Loved

"I had a boyfriend throughout undergraduate school-a beautiful blond haired man with Paul Newman blue eyes. My boyfriend was all I could ask for...but the relationship crashed and burned when I had a brief affair with a movie star who was making a film in East St. Louis, Illinois."

-Dr. Pepper Schwartz in Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years (a dating guide for mature women)

Finding the right relationship can be frought with challenges, particularly as one, ahem, matures. That is why it's important to "do inventory" from time to time, and reflect upon those relationships that have brought you where you are today. In Prime: Adventures on Sex, Love and the Sensual Years, Dr. Pepper Schwartz bravely lays bare her history, inspiring me to do the same.

Men I Have Loved

Andy GibbBegins: During a talent show at my elementary school, one of the older girls (a 5th grader) does a jazz dance number to “Shadow Dancing”. Although I am only 8 years old, it is clear that Gibb is singing only to me. Inspired, I begin listening to American Top 40 and watching American Bandstand.

Ends: Approximately one month later when the film Grease is released in theaters and I am given the Grease soundtrack album for my birthday. I do not fall out of love with him as much as forget him entirely. Rest of world soon follows.

Significance: Begins my lifelong love affair with vapid dance music.

William Shatner – Begins: Stepmother’s collection of science fiction paperbacks lead me to pay closer attention to this Star Trek television program. I am immediately drawn to dashing, gilded captain and his propensity for torn shirts. In the space of one summer I watch every Star Trek episode in existence, and comb local used bookstores for Star Trek related paperbacks.

Ends: Combination of first Star Trek movie and advent of TJ Hooker force me to accept that William Shatner is an old man, one who I have no interest in seeing without shirt.

Significance: Begins my lifelong love affair with science fiction. Sets stage for brief future flings with Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes (at different times of course) and ultimately Nathan Fillion who earns coveted “Spaceship Captain for Life” designation.

Stephen Collins – Begins: Steals my crush away from William Shatner in first Star Trek movie. Crush immediately tested when his character bites it at the end of the movie. Dilemma over how to create a satisfying relationship with someone who is dead soon solved with advent of TV show Tales of the Gold Monkey, wherein Collins plays a swashbuckly pilot before World War II.

Ends: Tales of the Gold Monkey is cancelled. I mostly forget about Collins until he reappears 15 years later as minister with seven children in 7th Heaven. I breathe great sigh of relief at my close escape.

Significance: Begins life long weakness for conventionally cute blonds.

Harrison Ford – Begins: Approximately 20 minutes into The Empire Strikes Back, when Han Solo ventures out into the frozen wastes to save Luke. Flowers into full force passion the following year in first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, reinforced by surreptitious viewing of the very Rated R Bladerunner.

Ends: Upon reading in a Seventeen magazine article that Ford is older than my father. I struggle to convince myself the age difference does not matter, experiencing brief rekindling of affection during film Witness. His Caesar haircut in Presumed Innocent is the final nail in our relationship’s coffin.

Significance: First, although by no means last, instance of my affections evaporating when I realize object of said affections reminds me of my Dad.

C. Thomas Howell - Begins: Upon viewing The Outsiders, my heart is overwhelmed by the young tough but sensitive Ponyboy. Although The Outsiders is known for launching the careers of such luminaries as Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe and Ralph Maccio, I only have eyes for C., even going so far as to fight with my cousin over a picture of him in Teen Beat magazine which happens to be on the other side of a Michael Jackson picture and therefore sacrosanct to my cousin. Our romance blossoms through his next three films, Tank, Grandview U.S.A, and Red Dawn, a film that earns my enmity for killing off my true love.

Ends: Howell becomes the first, last and only man to whom I ever write a fan letter, a letter which he does not return, despite the fact that his career soon enters what will be a 20 year dry spell in which I suspect he had plenty of spare time.

Significance: Begins life long weakness for sensitive guys who never write or call.

Mark Harmon - Begins: People Magazine names Harmon The Sexiest Man Alive and I am forced to agree. I begin sneaking up past bedtime to watch St. Elsewhere behind the backs of my parents. Existential crisis caused when Harmon is brought on as Cybil Shepard's love interest on Moonlighting, forcing me to choose between Mark and Bruce Willis. Unlike Cybil, I choose Mark. That summer the movie Summer School is on cable. I watch it approximately 597 times.

Ends: Harmon marries Pam Dawber, a woman whose work on Mork & Mindy has earned her my respect and admiration. Although I am not invited to the wedding, our relationship does not so much end as evolve onto a higher plane. I still check in with Mark from time to time on NCIS, just to see how he's doing.

Significance: His role in The Deliberate Stranger teaches me that behind every evil sociopathic serial killer, there's a brilliant beautiful actor dying to get out. No pun intended.

Russel Crowe - Begins: Although his character is obviously evil, I am drawn to see the truly crappy film Virtuosity based on a glimpse of his serial killer character SID 6.7 in the ads. His performance does not save the film, but a seed is planted which blooms into full extravagant flower upon viewing of L.A. Confidential. His performance as Bud in Confidential, wherein he plays a very tough, potentially violent, but sweet and sensitive detective who might as well be wearing a sign that says "Redeem Me", is as irresistible as catnip. I tell my best friend that Crowe is the sort of man who has Trouble written all over him, with the dangerous power to cause intelligent women to forget themselves enough that they suddenly find themselves waking up in a rusty trailer in the middle of the Australian Outback wondering what the hell happened to their life.

Ends: A few months after making this observation to my friend, Meg Ryan wakes up in a rusty trailer in the middle of the Australian Outback to find her husband and career missing.
Significance: Despite a brief backsliding romance with Colin Farrell (I like the Irishmen, what can I say?) I realize that bad boys just aren't as entertaining as they used to be.

Anthony Head - Begins: I read an article in American Libraries about a TV show that features a librarian character. Intrigued, I tune in to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and am immediately and passionately smitten with Mr. Giles. He's incredibly smart and has the ability to decapitate a vampire without mussing his tie, a characteristic in a romantic partner for which it had never occurred to me to look before.

Ends: Buffy is canceled. BBC America starts running a sitcom featuring Head called Manchild, which is like Sex and the City for middle aged British men. I don't laugh.

Significance: Although I like them smart and/or with accents, ultimately confirms that I have less than no patience for the male midlife crises.

Jake Gyllenhall - Begins: Enchanted by his performances in Donny Darko and The Good Girl, I dub him my "baby crush", which continues through The Day After Tomorrow, which I go to see on its opening weekend.

Ends: Ultimately, I am too weirded out by my attraction to someone young enough to be my son, assuming I had him when I was 11 years old. Any residual romantic inclinations eradicated by moustache he sports in last half of Brokeback Mountain.

Significance: Although I realize that I am too damn old for this, it occurs to me that perhaps my experiences could be valuable as a teaching tool for others. It's never too late to start bragging about past relationships with celebrities, especially if it will help vulnerable women feel worse about their chances at happiness.

Dr. Kati, The Love Librarian

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Harry Potter and the End

Cultural practice suggests that I should open this with a Spoiler Alert, or an assurance that there are no Spoilers, a Spoiler Lack of Alert if you will. Spoiler Alerts are a somewhat useful tool which, like so many things, we’ve managed to take to asinine extremes. I’m not interested in telling you so much about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that you won’t want to read it, but how do I know what you will find too much information? This is a review, not a play by play. Personally, I don’t read reviews of things I’m really anticipating, so if I were me, I wouldn’t read this. Well, I’d read it NOW, because I’ve finished the book, but if you’re still worrying about spoilers, what are you doing here? Go read the book already! Shoo!

It’s hard when you write about Harry Potter not to get swept away into the phenomenon of it, rather than the story. The phenomenon part is wacky. The 17 billion articles about it (of which the world does not need one more but is getting anyway) are wacky. Lead stories on the national news about a fantasy fiction novel are wacky. Treating plot points like secrets vital to national security is wacky. Setting up help lines to offer support and counseling to kids potentially devastated by the end of a book series is wacky.

I went to Florida last weekend, which meant lots of time spent on planes and in airports. Not surprisingly, Harry Potter was everywhere and, in particular, I noticed it being read by lots of men in the publishing industry's most coveted demographic: 18 to 30. Men aged 18 to 30 are like the Holy Grail to booksellers. The industry waffles between shrugging them off with "eh, they don't read" to desperate attempts to woo them. This is how we end up with such unfortunate marketing decisions as "Lad Lit", perhaps because the industry wasn't brave enough to dub it the obvious choice of "Dick Lit", a decision which only proves how out of it they are trying to reach this mysterious tribe. When publishers find a book that even young adult males will stand in line for, it's perhaps understandable that they would lose their heads and go, well, a little wacky.

It’s nice to discover then that the book itself is very fine. It is fine both in and of itself as an adventure, and it is a fine and noble end to the series. Rowling faced some real challenges with this book. She had to wrap up six books worth of details and unanswered questions, encase those answers in a plot that was new and fresh enough to stand on its own, and provide an ending which was both honest to what had come before and also a satisfactory reward to those who have stuck with the series for ten years. In short, she had to nail the dismount.

It’s a long story, the longest of the series so far, and the journey it takes us upon is a winding one. Harry is on his own now, no longer protected by the spell that kept him safe as a child. Before his death, Dumbledore charged Harry with a task which he must now complete with few solid clues or tools with which to do so. Hogwarts is no longer a safe haven for him, or for anyone really, now that Severus Snape is Headmaster. The ministry has been completely infiltrated by Death Eaters. Things are generally crappy.

In each book, Harry’s universe has gradually expanded from Hogwarts to include more and more of the wizard-ing world. In this seventh book, with Hogwarts closed to him, there is now only the wide cold dangerous world. The absence of Hogwarts in Hallows is palpable, emphasising how much of this series has been informed by the school. In previous adventures, long periods of time would pass while Harry and his friends figured out whatever was bedeviling them, while the school itself propelled the narrative forward. Rowling could throw in exams or Quiddich or Hogsmead or detention or Hagrid's latest monster to provide an entertaining detour which allowed the kids time but still moved the plot in the right direction.

In Deathly Hallows, because Harry is on the run, living in hiding while he tries to unravel the last task with which Dumbledore charged him, Rowling must rely on the characters’ choices, luck and the occasional narrative coincidence to propel the plot forward. It’s up to the reader to decide if this is a weakness or not. More than one person has mentioned to me a feeling of the plot dragging in the middle section of the book. After some reflection (and, I admit, reading the book twice) I think Rowling captures the real frustration of what it means to live on the run with nothing but your wits about you. Sometimes it’s about dangerous escapes and sometimes it’s about mind-numbing tedium. As a reader you may think you’re frustrated, but you’ve got nothing on the characters.

As with all her books, Rowling adds new layers of magic and mystery the trio must navigate to discover what they need. There’s plenty of daring-do and skin of the teeth escapes, but there’s emotional complexity as well. A recurring theme, in the series and prominently in this book, is the problem with heroes. Inevitably, one learns that one’s heroes are flawed, sometimes deeply so. Sometimes their motives are questionable, or not in our own best interest. Sometimes people we love lie to us, or fail to tell us the truth, and their reasons for it are lousy. Sometimes people we care about do shitty things, and all we can do is watch.

Although few of us have ever found ourselves the target of a dark wizard, one of the things that has made Harry Potter so appealing is that his struggle to grow up, to become the man he needs to be, is the same as everyone’s struggle. Everyone has learned things about a hero or mentor we really didn’t want to know. Everyone has had to decide if the plans others have for us are or ought to be the same plan we have for ourselves. Throughout the series, Dumbledore in particular has emphasized to Harry the importance of Harry exercizing his own free will; that he decide for himself what he should do. Dumbledore seemed to mean it in relation to Voldemort, but now it is Dumbledore himself whose motives are called into question. In Deathly Hallows, Harry is forced to wonder whether he is, truly, "Dumbledore's man, through and through".

Rowling brings back all of our favorite characters and allows each their own moment to shine, even some of the secondary characters we may not have noticed how integral they’ve become, like Dean Thomas or Seamus Finnigan. Fans of Neville and Luna will not be disappointed. Most importantly, Ron and Hermione are both given their necessary due, particularly Ron who, on his own challenging journey to manhood, has to make his own choice about a hero named Harry.

Rowling has never stinted on allegories and the same is true here. Any similarities to rising fascist states, Big Brother and the Nazis you may have noticed in other books is clearly intentional. The ante is upped now as “Mudbloods” are openly prosecuted and “blood purity” becomes the new mantra. We get to see not only the overt evil of Death Eaters in power, but the covert evil, the true banality of evil in "get along go along" bureaucrats who relish in new power opportunities, a la Dolores Umbridge, or are just too afraid to do anything else, a la Percy Weasley.

The book isn’t perfect. There’s a tangled maze of plot involving wands and wandlore which I had to read twice to fully understand. Upon second reading, it did make sense, but there are times when it feels like a playbook might be in order. Rowling does herself no favors by naming two new key characters involved in this serpentine plot Grindelwald and Gregorovich. Perhaps she thought it poetic symmetry, but mostly it’s confusing.

Rowling promised losses in the book, and she delivers those losses, many of them quite painful. Unfortunately the impact of some of those losses is lost in her pell-mell dash to conclusion. Two of them in particular are disposed of so quickly if you skipped a sentence you’d miss their demise. The result is almost disrespectful, as if their deaths were thrown in for shock rather than emotional impact. The characters she so lovingly crafted deserved much better.

Ultimately though, the book is immensely satisfying, particularly in the final resolution of the mystery of Severus Snape. Voldemort has always been the looming evil on the horizon, but Snape has been Harry’s daily enemy for six years now. Some kind of denouement between the two of them is inevitable and necessary. When it finally comes it is perhaps the most gratifying part of the entire story. It resonates back through the entire series, revealing layers of emotional complexity only hinted at before.

Now it’s time to say good-bye to the denizens of Harry Potter’s world, and the parting is sweet sorrow. J.K. Rowling has created something wonderful in this series, and now she nails the dismount. One of my colleagues said to me yesterday how lucky we are to be in the group of people who got to watch this tale unfold from its beginning. It’s true we’ve had a front row seat on the making of a phenomenon. But I believe that Harry Potter is not going anywhere. After the hysteria and media saturation has faded away, we will be left with a classic adventure which can proudly join the Narnia books, the Wrinkle in Time series, even the Lord of the Rings trilogy as stories new generations will discover with love and joy, over and over again.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the Unbearable Weight of Expectation

It’s a scary time for Harry Potter lovers. Like die hard fans in the days before the big game, we wait in nervous anticipation. We long for the day to arrive, but find ourselves in fear of the unknown outcome. Conversations, arguments and even betting fill the blogosphere, attempting to predict what may be, though it is completely out of our control. These discussions offer the illusion that we are somehow participating in the end, rather than just waiting for it, but they also help mask the biggest fear of all. Not that the book ends in tragedy, but the fear that we may be utterly disappointed, Phantom Menace style. For six books Rowling has managed to keep the magic going. In our hearts of heart we pray, “Please Lord may she not crap out on the seventh.”

I find myself in a difficult place with Harry Potter. As a librarian, particularly as one responsible for buying the stuff one finds on the shelves, I have an ingrained skepticism of The Phenomenon; books that rocket into the stratosphere of popularity, boosted less by quality than by marketing juggernauts. And Harry Potter is a marketing juggernaut. It’s become a carefully crafted cash cow with every kind of officially licensed swag to go with. When it finally goes on sale it will be available at every grocery store, gas station, and Costco™. If you are inclined to be suspicious of anything with a billion dollar marketing budget, than Harry Potter is custom made to make you cranky.

But, as a reader, I love Harry Potter. I have loved the books ever since I opened one up ten years ago and first read about The Dursleys of number four Privet Drive in a town called Little Whinging, and their nephew, one Harry Potter, who was required to sleep in the closet under the stairs, along with the spiders. I’ve followed his tumultuous path to adulthood and, as with any kid who grows up before ones eyes, I’ve become invested in the outcome. I’d like to see him grow to adulthood and find a satisfying career, possibly as an auror, or even the future headmaster of Hogwarts. I’d like to see his friends Ron and Hermione get sorted, have a few frizzy red headed children over whom they argue constantly.

There are those that fume at the popularity of Harry Potter among adults, insisting that it is a sign of the infantilization of culture or the decline in educational standards or merely a harbinger of the end times. I prefer to think that the story’s popularity among people of all ages harkens back to a time where tales were told to amaze an audience, regardless of age or station. Dickens was not imagining an audience of nine year olds when he wrote Oliver Twist, originally published as a serial in the daily newspaper. Mark Twain was not thinking of generations of fifth graders searching for test answers when he wrote Huck Fin. Neither Kipling nor Stevenson sat down to write “kids books”, and literature is a better place for their results.

Of course, there are perils that remain, for readers and for Harry. There’s a chance that our boy may not make it. Perhaps he will lose so much in the attempt that any victory over the forces of darkness are hollow. Though there are many heartbreaking possibilities, it’s hard to imagine what Rowling could do with the story which would be a genuine disappointment. She’s proven that she pulls no punches, and accepts that life often has more bitter than sweet. A total victory over the power of darkness without any collateral damage would be lame, but unlikely. Suddenly transforming the last half of the book into a dry lecture on the obsolescence of God would suck (Phillip Pullman, I’m talking to you sir!). If Harry Potter fans are lucky, then the biggest disappointment we will experience this month will be the latest film installment, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, which is, truly, the first real let down in a film series that has thus far ranged from fine to extraordinary.

It’s true that the makers of this film had a lot to overcome. Phoenix is the darkest and most emotionally complex of the novels adapted so far. It also follows on the heels of the two best films of the series so far. The films peaked with Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkeban, a fast paced thriller which still gives us much of Rowling’s emotional complexity. The heart of the story, an elaborate maze involving time travel, shape shifters and the horrifying Dementors remains fully intact. Room is made for lovely details expanding our appreciation of the magical world, including the Knight Bus and more details of Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. Time is given to expand our appreciation of two of Rowling’s best adult characters, Remus Lupin and Sirius Black.

Goblet of Fire jettisons most of the emotional complexity of the book but in exchange gives us a rip roaring, non-stop adventure film, which still manages to convey the heartbreak of the first profound tragedy of the series, the death of Cedric Diggory, as well as the true, creepy, thrilling horror of the rise of Voldemort. I tend to be an apologist for film adaptations of novels, defending against charges that “they changed the books”. Books and film are completely different media, and they do different things well. Inevitably in a film adaptation some complexity of plot will be lost, some characters dropped or telescoped together. Goblet of Fire is an example of doing this well but somehow Order of the Phoenix has managed to eliminate not only the emotional complexity, but most of the action as well.

When I think about some of the material they had to work with (The headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, infested with dark magic; The Ministry of Magic; Mr Weasley’s near death and recovery at St. Mungo’s Hospital; The horrible, wretched, evil Dolores Umbridge; Harry’s teenage arrogance and rage; The Hall of Mysteries; Harry learning that even when the world’s most evil wizard is after you, it is still the people who love you the most who can cause you the most pain; Harry ignoring his friends warnings and, as a result, getting them seriously injured and his uncle killed.) the dark, bland, simplistic story they’ve presented on screen is, well, it’s a shame.

My mother asked me yesterday what my prediction is for the final Harry Potter and I told her honestly that I did not have one. I’m not the sort of person who reads the last page of the book before I start. Even if I could guess the end exactly, I’d like to experience it from first page to last unburdened by my own expectations. This is impossible of course, but I like to try.

If I have a hope it is that, when I arrive Friday evening to pick up my copy (yes, I am one of those people who will be there at the stroke of midnight), what awaits all of us is piles of books each as thick as the New York yellow pages. I hope the last book is longer than War and Peace (1400 pages), or at least as long as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (750 pages). I do want to know the end, but it’d be nice if it took a good long while to get there. I know I will read the first half to three quarters like a woman possessed, at which point I will start turning the pages with mixture of anticipation and sadness, knowing that the closer I get to the answer, the closer I am to The End.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Meandering Through History

I decided late yesterday afternoon that I was in the mood to celebrate my July 4th with a hamburger and some fries from the diner next door. Alas, the diner next door was closed for the holiday as was the gyro stand up the street and all of the other diner joints in the neighborhood. The only place that ended up being open was a British pub where I enjoyed a Ruben sandwich and a Caesar salad, neither burgers nor fries being on the menu. I was in the company of a small motley group of lost 4th of July souls many of whom were participating in the pub’s contest to win a trip to Ireland by finishing a bottle of Jamesons, or trying the bartender’s experimental cocktails. I’m not sure how many other countries would offer you the opportunity to celebrate Independence Day in the former enemy’s bar, but God Bless America for the right and the privilege.

If I sound blasé about celebrating the greatest of holidays in the greatest of nations it’s because I am, alas. I always have lame excuses for not making 4th plans. This year the combination of its midweek placement and my being out of town last week led me to argue that it ‘snuck up on me’, but the truth is it’s always something. Traffic…mumble mumble…Noise…mumble mumble…Too Hot…Too Loud…Too Wet…I have to stay home to keep my cats from freaking out. Really, it’s pathetic. “Wicked anti-patriotic girl!” you may cry, but in that I must protest you are wrong.

The truth is when it comes to July 4th celebrations I peaked early. 1976. New York City. Watching the tall ships roll in on the Hudson from the roof of my aunt’s Riverside Drive apartment building. I had my own official Statue of Liberty silver glitter crown. Now you’re asking me to fight the traffic (or walk for heaven’s sake!) to Ruston Way for the Movin’ 96.5 FM Rockin’ Tacoma 4th? Yeah, I don’t think so. There are pedicures to be given, and cats to calm. Call me in 2076.

Last week I was in Washington D.C. for a conference. One day my friend Elise and I headed off to Monticello to visit the homestead of Thomas Jefferson. I actually caught myself contemplating some items in the gift shop thinking “This would look great on my new bookshelves,” as if I somehow needed new things to fill them. As if I don’t already own so many books, tchotkes and decorative detritus to fill a home full of bookshelves. There is more than ample crap in my home to fill these new bookshelves already, but I did give in and buy a small globe, about the size of a baseball. It’s a globe of the world as it was understood in 1745. It’s a fantastic world where Florida is a tiny nubbin poking off the coast of Amerique Sel De Something I can’t read, Cuba is a huge island the size of itself and, interestingly enough, the missing part of Florida, and the Amazon river slashes across Amerique Meridion bisecting it almost in two with a beautiful thick perfectly straight wide blue line; an aqua superhighway running, to its surprise I imagine, direct from Brazil to Ecuador with nary a bend.

There are, unfortunately, no menacing spots on the map claiming “Here be dragons”, but the northwest corner of what we know as North America does just kind of drift off into an amorphous whiteness like, we know something is up there, but it’s too damn cold to go figure out what. I like to think there’s hopefulness in that vaguery that says “We still haven’t given up on that whole Northwest Passage thing.” If we don’t draw any land in, we can still believe there’s a bitchin navigable river up there, just like the fantasy Amazon, a clear blue line custom made for floating shiny rafts of goods and services. Reality’s a bitch of a task mistress, but that’s what I like about early mapmaking, reality interpreted by a bunch of dreamy guys with sketch pads and the accountants who bankrolled them.

Monticello is an interesting place to visit. We’re awful fond of our founding fathers, we Amerique Sel De Whatevers, and not without reason. They achieved something amazing, often despite themselves. We learn in school the shiny version of them and their foibles, denying them the complexity that humanity gives us all. We can’t deny the fact that Jefferson was an aristocratic southern gentleman farmer who owned slaves, but we are taught that he struggled with this. He treated his slaves well, we’re taught, practically not even like slaves at all. He allowed them to be educated, to learn marketable skills and, of course we are told, he freed them when he died.

This was brought home to me even today as I watched, for the many-eth time, the musical 1776 on Turner Classic Movies. I like 1776, it’s great entertainment. If you haven’t seen it, then it helps to know that it is, yes, a musical about those blistering summer days in Philadelphia as the Continental Congress struggled to create what came to be our Declaration of Independence. In all musicals there must be some underlying quandary, in this case the moral struggle over slavery. Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration pretty clearly lays the groundwork for freeing slaves. The southern delegates are having none of it. There are some rousing arguments and sobering musical interludes and TJ states profoundly that he has decided to free his slaves. Ultimately the passage about slavery is stricken, the sad, but in the language of the musical somehow necessary, compromise upon which our country began its gangly first steps. The slaves had to take one for the team, with the promise we’d make it up to them later.

I don't know how much of this is or isn't accurate. Truth is I don’t know enough detailed knowledge of the history of the time to know the ins and outs of what was put in and removed from the Declaration. What I do know from my recent visit to Monticello is that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. He inherited…inhereted …a hundred or so on his 21st birthday, and then inherited a bunch more when he got married. These were the starting gifts to a young American aristocrat, a matching set of people. They slaved for his farm as field hands, craftsmen, laborers and livestock managers. They worked in the kitchens and in the house. He took some of his slaves with him to France specifically to learn French cooking, and when they returned turned his southern kitchen into a French culinary institute. (Random Librarian Factette: Jefferson introduced the Waffle to we Ameriques Sel De Whatevers, God bless his foody soul)

Jefferson allowed his son to teach slaves who were interested in learning how to read and do maths, but he didn’t run around inflicting education on them all. I suppose Jefferson did treat his slaves well comparatively speaking, but taking a gander at the tiny shack which housed families of 13 or more or listening to the tour guide comment on the two set of clothes per year and one blanket every three years…three years…doesn’t really allow any illusion that these men were somehow treated like union employees.

When TJ died, he set a small number, something like 6 or 9, free. The rest of his hundred or so slaves were sold…sold…to pay off the large debts of his estate. I’m not offering this information up as a condemnation of Thomas Jefferson as much as a reality check. We love our founding fathers we do. We carry big old crushes on these supermen of yore who had a wacky notion and brought it to fruition and then in perhaps their wackiest decision, left it for us to steer. But the truth is they were men, geniuses of their time, but also men blinded by those same times to many of the truths we now hold self evident. This is the truth about American history, and what I love about it. When we teach our children whitewashed versions of history, we deny them the ability to be truly impressed and proud at what fallible beings, not gods, have created. When people talk as if the Founding Fathers created some perfect thing which we’ve only been fucking up ever since, it’s an offense to what they, and we, truly managed to accomplish.

According to Robert Osborne in his introduction to 1776, the director showed the completed film to Nixon before it was released. Nixon suggested, in that way Presidents have of suggesting things that magically get done, that the director remove a musical number called “Cool Cool Considerate Men”. It’s a great song and though the director did apparently cave at the time, it’s now been magically restored. To the Right…Ever to the Right…Never to the Left…Always to the Right.” It’s pretty catchy and in its own unnerving way communicating a sentiment which appears to be as American as those crazy liberals agitating for capital “I” Independence. I get a little freaked out to think what the current administration might have done, given the same opportunity for advance edits. Probably stamp the whole thing “Treated As Secret”, or at the very least make the director pixilate Philadelphia.

One interesting thing that came up on both our tour of Monticello and after was that of the Hemmings family. Our tour guides were pretty straight forward about the fact that the Hemmings slave family held important roles running Jefferson’s various enterprises and that one of the daughters, Sally Hemmings, bore Jefferson at least one child, probably more. When I brought this up later my sister-in-law said that she had gone to Monticello several years ago, before the TJ foundation had been forced by DNA evidence to own up to the truth that had been staring everyone in the face for two hundred years: Jefferson was a busy founding father and was, in this case at least, colorblind in fulfilling his fathering obligations. It makes me giggle trying to imagine the stiff proper southern ladies who lead the tours desperately trying to shut down any of these distressing rumors being flung at them by their tours. In this I can only hope science did them a service, DNA allowing them to fling off their pinchy toed shoes of respectability and finally slip on the comfy Birkenstocks of wacky family truth.

Speaking of wacky family truth, one of the fun parts of having new books shelves is that I can finally put out assorted family photos I’ve gathered over the years. I’ve put out my high school graduation photo in a delusional attempt to convince someone, anyone, to gasp at how little I’ve changed in 20 years. I’m still waiting. There’s a nice set of pictures of me and my mother taken at approximately the same age. We look like the same person, only the black and white of my Mom’s photo giving a hint of weird time travel going on. Otherwise, seriously, it does look like the same little girl in two different pictures. There are some pictures of my parents as children, and a really neat picture of my Granny. She’s standing outside holding a baby, my mother, flanked a group of small children one of whom is one of my aunts. My Granny looks young, so very young. She’s wearing saddle shoes for heaven’s sake, and there’s a breeze blowing back her skirt and hair. It’s very Steinbeckian, but in a good way.

I finally put out a picture today I’ve gone back and forth on. It’s a snapshot of my parent’s wedding in a pretty round frame. It’s very much a document of its time. It looks like it belongs hanging on a wall in the background of That 70s Show, or some more square version of That 70s Show, where the kids actually did go down to the basement to do their homework. Well, duh, obviously it belongs hanging in the Brady House. This is the wedding picture Mike and Carol Brady should have had, clearly.

I like the picture because it does have a, I hesitate to use the overused word “retro” quality to it, and of course I like it because it’s my parents, or rather it was my parents 38 years ago. My hesitation comes from the fact that the marriage it is depicting is over in a way that exceeds the word “over”. Both the people prominently figured in the picture went their separate ways less than ten years after this picture was taken. They’ve both been married to their respective spouses at least 3 times longer than they were to each other. Those second marriages, and the additional parents they added to my life equation, were each in their own ways as or more significant to me personally. I mean, I actually attended both of those weddings.

My mother is wearing a dress she made herself which eventually ended up in my dress up box. I just finished reading this article about the Trash The Dress movement in which women get post-wedding pictures done of the bride wearing “the dress” while swimming or horseback riding or gardening or rolling around in dirt or attacking the dress with scissors. There’s a lot of sociological blah blah about what this symbolizes and how this is no more wasteful than paying to put the dress in hyperthermetically sealed storage for future posterity, and all I can think is, yeah, but both of those are a HELL of a lot more wasteful than just putting it in your kid’s dress up box. I had a lot of fun playing in, with and around that dress, which did get trashed in the process, but I can tell you looking at it in its prime that I’m grateful my mother did not somehow “save” the dress so that I might wear it someday. What happens in the 60s needs to stay in the 60s, and that’s all I have to say about that.

This snapshot is a document, an uneasy document, of that day and all the days to follow for that young hopeful but can I say kindly clueless couple. There is only one smile in this picture, although there are at least ten people in view; the smile on the face of my mother. It’s not a smile I recognize from the woman whose smile is more familiar to me than my own, not the least because it has become my own. It’s not a fake smile. It’s not a jolly smile that takes up her whole face. It’s kind of a small, quiet smile behind which I can read nothing. Hope? Relief? Confidence? Terror? Anything I could guess I’d be projecting what I know about the end of the story, and would therefore be totally wrong.

My Dad, god bless him, looks as pleased and smug as any man in a powder blue tuxedo has a right to. He also does, I must confess, look exactly like my brother David, which means I must now officially excuse myself from any and all versions of the argument between David and my Mom that tend to go like this: “Yes you do.” “No I don’t!” “You SO do!” “I SO do not!” This is the curse of the child. There are moments in your life when you do, in fact, appear exactly like one of your parents during a particular moment in their lives. Like everything, these moments are transitional and do not last, but parents have that elephantine memory that will not allow us to forget that one day in the kitchen when I was three a photograph of me was taken that proves my doppelganger lived in a nursery school photo from the 1940s. All I’m saying, Dave, is that I suggest you avoid powder blue tuxedos.

But where are the other smiles in this picture? Those of the happy families and acquaintances itching to hit the cake and lemonade in the narthex? The only two people in the picture who look like they’ve been at a wedding are my parents. The rest of the scene feels vaguely funereal, like the witnesses know they’ve been party to the end of something, rather than the beginning. Their unease was off by eight years and two children, of whom I am both rather quite fond, so I’m glad that no one did that made-for-tv moment of interrupting the ceremony to ask if the couple is, in fact, quite completely off their rockers to believe this is a good idea.

But perhaps I'm just projecting what I know to be true now on history more ancient than I. I place emotions and intentions on faces I know, but without knowing anything about them then. Maybe everyone not looking at my parents walk by was distracted by the best man’s shiny shiny shoes. Perhaps my grandpa had offered one of his patented Deep Thought homilies which still had them all pondering what really did happen at that wacky water into wine party. It’s a mystery, lost to the ages.

I’m keeping the picture out because, as odd as I’ve made it sound, it makes me happy. My parents are walking out of a church hand and hand into a future which, it turns out, was my future, and my brother’s future, even if it wasn’t so much their future. Pretending it didn’t happen doesn’t improve history. It just makes for empty shelves.