Wednesday, March 21, 2007


If you'd like to listen to a podcast of me chatting about the Library's DVD collection, click here.

Monday, March 19, 2007

300 Spartans VS The Modern Media-cracy

300, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, which was inspired by Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield, tells the tale of Leonidas, King of Sparta, who led 300 Spartan soldiers against the theretofore undefeated Persian army. At great cost the Persians won the battle, but ultimately lost the war, creating a turning point in world history. The movie has received mixed reviews both from people who wish to dismiss it as a video game brought to life and those who would like to wrest from it a modern political allegory.

Blah, blah, history, politics, blah! This movie kicks ass! It is entertainment of the highest order. By the time the first battle scene started, I was grinning ear to ear. I have not been as genuinely and joyfully entertained by an action flick since they shot up the marble lobby in The Matrix. When the movie ended, it is only because I am a grown mature adult that I did not bounce up and down in my chair and cry Again! Again!

“So how do you explain all the crappy reviews?” my brother asked me, based on my breathless adulation of the film. “I really have no idea,” was the best I could come up with.

The number of sources who are trying hard to drag modern politics into the film of a 2500 years past battle is growing. When it was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, Germans booed the film and walked out. The New York Times and Newsweek have both come out decrying the racist and politically insensitive subject matter. Now the President of Iran has joined in, declaring the film an American act of war on Iranian Culture.

Since 18 of the top 25 grossing films in Germany last year were from the Beast known as Hollywood, it’s hard to take German disdain seriously. Maybe they were late for a Leni Riefenstahl retrospective. As for the President of Iran, taking him seriously presumes that he is actually speaking to us. He’s not talking to us. He’s talking to the same group of people they got to riot over drawings of Mohammed in a Norwegian newspaper six months after they were originally published. They never saw those drawings. They’re never going to see 300. I doubt Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has seen it.

To the U.S. media-cracy, I can only offer this one thought: How arrogant are you? Seriously, how arrogant and self centered do you have to be to see American history reflected in every story? There’s a whole lot of human history, most of which has taken place totally without influence of the United States. In fact, it’s only been about sixty or seventy years that the rest of the world felt it was necessary to even invite us to the table.

Cinematographically speaking, the film is an artful combination of live action and computer animation, using the same techniques as critically lauded Sin City. Color is layered upon black and white images, creating something vibrant and unearthly, like something transmitted from Hades itself.

Adding to this effect is the main character, King Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler. Leonidas looks like a relief of the ideal Greek man rendered on an ancient Grecian urn, but then his handsome face will transformed into a mask of glaring eyes and gnashing teeth. The effect is unsettling and great for reminding us that Spartan culture was hardly a utopian one. Boys were taken from home at the age of 7 and beaten into soldiers. As we all learned in the story of Oedipus, weak infants were left on a mountainside to die. Spartans may be the heroes of this film, but that does not make them excellent role models, and the film does not whitewash this fact.

Butler is definitely an actor to watch. By that I mean he is definitely an actor I like to watch. I’d like to watch him chew gum, or tie his shoes. I first became aware of him in a sweet movie called Dear Frankie, which could not be more different than 300. He is, unfortunately, best known for playing the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, a movie I tried, unsuccessfully, to watch just because it had him in it. My opinion of Phantom was really expressed best by SNL: “Phantom of the Opera is the best musical ever about a burn victim who rapes an opera singer.”  

Leonidas leads an army of 300 soldiers who are, among other things, r-r-r-r-r-r-ripped like Jesus. That’s 600 pecs and at least 1800 ab muscles for those of you who are counting, of whom I am not one, of course. That would be objectification, and wrong. The soldiers wear leather BVDs, red capes and gladiator sandals; an outfit that is totally practical for fighting and not even remotely gay.

The film has taken flack for being homophobic, in part because the Persian God King Xerxes is portrayed as being aggressively androgynous. While hardly historically accurate, the decision to portray him that way is a legitimate artistic choice. Ancient gods often had androgynous or hermaphroditic qualities, and the character definitely amps up the fantastical quality of the story.

Along with some really amazing action scenes, there is a secondary plot dealing with the politics going on back in Sparta. Leonidas and his wife, the unfortunately (yet historically accurate) named Queen Gorgo have a surprisingly complex relationship for a battle movie. I actually found myself wondering if they were overdoing the Grrrrrl Power bit while watching the movie, but then I looked it up when I got home. Apparently women in Sparta were unusually powerful compared to their contemporaries elsewhere. When the men are away at war all the time, someone has to keep things running.

Oh dear, there I go again with the history. For a wild action movie, they did include a remarkable amount of historically accurate detail, but it would be silly to call this history. In fact, one element of the story is the idea of storytellers sitting around a campfire, spinning a yarn that is intended to inform, inspire, and entertain, with emphasis on the latter two.  The story of King Leonidas and his band of Spartan soldiers has been told and retold untold thousands of times since the battle occurred, because it’s a great story. It makes me sad to imagine we've become unable to just appreciate a good yarn.  300 certainly creates a fantastic vision which does the tale justice.  I encourage you to leave your politics in the car, buy an extra large bag of popcorn and enjoy it.      

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Higher Power of Scrotums-Book Drives Librarians Nuts!!

As a music and film librarian, kids books are not my area of expertise. Lately, however, controversy has gripped the Library World over a kids book, and like the wreck of a clown car, it’s been impossible to look away. This particular controversy is about the use of a word. A word which, in the opinion of some, utterly negates any value of the story. Although the book, The Higher Power of Lucky, impressed the Newbery Award Committee enough to honor it, this word is making it impossible for some librarians to read the book aloud, to recommend it to children, even to carry it in their collections.

The word is “scrotum”.

The first I heard of this was a column in Publisher’s Weekly discussing the fact that certain library listservs were aflame with this nightmare. I had to re-read the article several times to confirm that the controversy is, in fact, about the actual word “scrotum”, and not the use of some other euphemism for the word scrotum more often found on made-for-cable series about cowboys or gangsters. Alas, the controversy really is about the word “scrotum”.

“Because of that one word,” said a school librarian, “I would not be able to read that book aloud.” Some complained that the use of the word was totally unnecessary. Some implied that there were many other choices the author could have used instead.

I like contemplating this plethora of words the author could have used instead of scrotum, which is the anatomically accurate name for a specific body part. None come to mind that are not on that aforementioned list of premium cable euphemisms guaranteed to get your average ten year old mouth washed out with soap.

Armchair editing like this drives me bonkers. “The author ought to have used this word instead of that word.” “The author used a word that was “unnecessary””, as if the selection of words, specific words in a specific order, is not the very definition of what it means to be an author. It’s like saying it was unnecessary for Picasso to use so much blue paint. It’s ridiculous to argue that an author used a word, any word, “unnecessarily”. They used the words that they used.

Under normal circumstances, it might have been years, possibly never, before I got around to reading this year’s Newbery Award winner, but fortunately controversy made reading it a vital necessity. One does not have to go far into The Higher Power of Lucky to find the word. It’s right there, on page one. Our heroine overhears a dramatic story about a man whose dog was bit on the scrotum by a rattlesnake.

If I’d thought the controversy was silly before, reading the context elevated it to positively asinine. We’re not even talking about a human scrotum, but a canine one, similar to any one of the millions presently on display in living rooms, yards and parks across the country. I had assumed based on the level of hysteria that the scrotum was perhaps doing something vaguely offensive or scatological, instead of valiantly withstanding the attack of a rattler. Considering the average dog’s propensity for doing embarrassing things to their privates, usually in public, this particular scrotum is positively heroic.

If the “controversy” had stopped with the Publisher’s Weekly bit, it would have been easily shrugged off. Unfortunately, what with all the concern over troop surges and military hospital failures and where oh God where on Your Green Earth shall Anna Nicole be buried, it was apparently a slow news week, and the scrotum controversy went national. The New York Times and Newsweek both picked up the story, leading to an explosion in scrotal related newspaper stories.

Many of the articles, like the original PW one, failed to mention the fact that the scrotum in question belonged to a dog. The New York Times article did have one woman insisting that this was yet another example of the “Howard Stern” effect on our country, where people just use nasty words for no reason but to upset good decent people. Comments like this always reveal more about the commenter than the commentated (like maybe they haven't read the book) , but what bothered me more was the thought that the people who actually wrote the articles had not read the book. How else to explain the inclusion of quotes like “you won't find men's genitalia in quality literature” without any kind of fact based alternative perspective? Either the reporters hadn’t read the book (which isn’t that long people) or else the reporters were more interested in la scandale than the truth, and we know that never happens.

For most librarians I know, this sort of thing is just embarrassing, like having a family argument broadcast on America’s Funniest Home Videos. Most librarians are not horrified by the word scrotum. Most librarians have had to clean much worse graffiti off of walls, books and furniture. Most librarians have larger concerns, like the threat of local, state and federal legislators conspiring to keep us from offering any kind of useful computer services to our patrons, but that’s a rant for another day.

In the midst of this controversy, a children’s book catalog was accidentally delivered to my inbox. The back cover promoted several cheerful looking kids books, including one which instantly grabbed my attention. I hurried over to the librarian in charge of buying children’s materials and begged her to add it to the collection. It's called Let’s Look at Animal Bottoms, and features a full color display of several elephant behinds on the cover.

Times like these I realize it’s probably for the best that I never became a Children’s Librarian. I feel I’m lacking some inherent diplomacy necessary to navigate the rocky shoals of children’s lit. My impulse to a scandal like the one over The Higher Power of Lucky is to organize an All Animal Bottoms story time, featuring classic stories like The Truth About Poop and Walter the Farting Dog. No doubt the Library would have some cranky parents on their hands, but I tell you what, if it were up to the kids, it would be a smash hit.