Thursday, June 30, 2005
Missing Her and wishing She were here?"
(Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, "She," originally performed by The Monkees)
"Midnight, on the water
I saw the Ocean's daughter...."
(Jeff Lynne, "I Can't Get It Out of My Head," from the Electric Light Orchesta album Eldorado)
Maybe it is because of what happened exactly a month ago (She still hasn't emailed or IMed me) or because of the anthology of poems I checked out from work, but today my mind is on the folklore motif in which a mortal man becomes entangled with an elf maiden or fairy princess. The tales about such encounters tend to vary. Sometimes the tales end happily. The fellow goes away to live with the fairy maiden in Faerie for the rest of his days or only for a specified amount of time (usually seven years). Other times the tales end unhappily. The man violates some taboo that the fairy maiden has set for him and winds up unable to return to Faerie or he winds up dead. Other times the fairy maiden simply destroys the mortal. Regardless, the motif of the fairy mistress or fairy bride is a common one.
Modern day fairy lore developed largely out of both Germanic and Celtic mythology. In Germanic mythology we find the elves, called in Old Norse the Álfar and in Old English the Ylfe. Among the ancient Germanic peoples the elves were hardly mere fairy folk, but for all extents and purposes minor gods. In Old Norse literature they are sometimes named together with the major gods, the phrase "the Æsir and Álfar" appearing in some of the Eddic poems. In the Old English charm "Against a Sudden Stitch" the elves are also mentioned in proximity to the major gods. Indeed, sacrifices were even offered to the elves. In ancient Scandinavia the Álfablót was held once year, at which offerings were given to them. While sacrifices were made to the elves in hopes of receiving their blessings, it seems that they also had their dark side as well. Scandinavian, English, and Continental sources credit them with causing diseases, usually through elfshot (the tiny arrows fired by the elves). Off the top of my head I can recall no sources dating from the time when the ancient Germanic peoples were still heathen or shortly after they were converted to Christianity in which an elf took a mortal as a lover. Regardless, it is possible that such tales existed. The Huldufolk of Icelandic and Scandinavian folk tales would seem to be a degenerated form of the elves of ancient myth, and there are tales in which the Huldufolk do seduce mortals. Similarly, in medieval English folk tales, as will be seen below, the elves do ocassionally take mortals as lovers.
Among the Irish, the fairy folk (known as the Sidhe) are identified with the Túathe dé Danann, the major gods worshipped by the Irish when they were still pagan. Unlike the Germanic peoples, there are some tales which could date back to the days before the Irish were converted in which one of the Sidhe seduced a mortal. One such story concerns Oisin, the bard of the Fianna (the legendary band of warriors led by Finn MacCumhail). One day Oisin saw a woman riding over the western sea on a white horse. She introduced herself as Niamh and told Oisin that she loved him. She wanted him to go with her to Tir na n' Og, the Land of Eternal Youth, where they would spend their days together. Oisin consented and so he went with her to Tir na n' Og. There he was happier than he ever had been. He loved Niamh and in Tir na n' Og he did not age nor suffer from diseases. Many, many years later (perhaps 100, perhaps 1000), however, he wished to visit Ireland again. Niamh begged him not to go, but when he would not relent, she gave him her blessing. She told him, however, that he must never dismount from the white horse (the one she had ridden to Ireland) or he would never see Tir na n' Og again. Oisin journeyed to Ireland on the white horse, all the while careful not to leave the horse's back. There came one day, however, when he did leave the horse's back. Either he thought he saw the stone trough of the Fianna and got off to inspect it, or he tried to help some men lift a stone and slipped off the horse. Regardless, the moment Oisin hit the earth, he aged in a matter of seconds. Oisin became an old man, half blind and infirm. He died not long after.
Oisin was not the only Celtic hero who met his doom after an encounter with an otherworldly maiden. Those familiar with the Arthurian cycle will know that no less than Merlin himself did so. According to the legends, Merlin became infatuated with the otherworldly maiden variously called Niniune, Nyneune, Viviane, or Vivian, often identified with the Lady of the Lake. Eventually she would beguile him in the forrest of Broceliande and imprison him there. Of course, not every character in the Arthurian mythos who encountered an otherwordly maiden met a bitter end. The story of Arthur's steward, Sir Launfal, is told in the 12th century French lay Launval, in Thomas Chestre's Middle English lay Sir Launfal, and other sources. Launfal had the misfortune of being disliked by Queen Guenevere. Because of this, he left King Arthur's court. Unfortunately, things did not improve for him. He was so generous to the poor that eventually he had given away all his money and lived in poverty. Fortunately, he eventually encountered a fairy lady, called in some sources Tryamour. Tryamour had noted his generosity and desired such a knight to serve her. Launfal consented to do so and Tryamour swore him to secrecy. She also restored his wealth. After winning a tournament, King Arthur called for Launfal to once more serve as his steward. It was perhaps a bad decision on Launfal's part that he chose to return to Arthur. At a dance Guenevere insulted Launfal and he forgot his oath to Tryamour. He boasted of being in the service of a fairy princess. Having violated his oath, he lost his wealth. Worse yet, even Arthur was angry with him. Perceval and Gawain swore to help Launfal and went forth to find Tryamour so she could save him. Eventually Tryamour showed up at King Arthur's court, where she put Guenevere to shame. She then took Launfal to Fairyland, where he spent the rest of his days.
The story of Sir Launfal resembles the tale of the Bretonic knight Graelent to a great degree. In both stories, the knights are sworn to secrecy by a fairy princess. In both they violate their oaths and reveal the existence of their fairy princesses. And in both does the fairy princess eventually save them and take them to Faerie. Such happy endings are not unusual. And in not every tale does the hero remain in the realm of the fairies. In the medieval ballad "True Thomas,." Thomas the Rhymer gets to visit Elfland and yet return to Scotland. Thomas the Rhymer, also known as Thomas of Erceldoune, was a legendary, 13th century Scottish figure who was known for his gift of prophecy. He could be found uner the Eildon Tree, from where he would give people his wisdom. In "True Thomas," he encounters the queen of Elfland, who wishes him to serve her there for seven years. Thomas consents and journeys with her to Elfland. There she tries to give him an apple from one of the trees from Elfland; however, Thomas knows that if a mortal eats anything from Elfland, then he or she won't be able to return to the mortal world. Thomas refuses the apple and returns to Scotland after his seven years of service are over.
Such a happy ending was not in store for the Knight of Stauftenberg of German legend. He had the misfortune to encounter a nymph of the Rhine, with whom he fell hopelessly in love. She got from him an oath of eternal loyalty, so that he could never love any other. Through the coming months he remained faithful to her. Finally, he won a tournament in which the winner would receive the hand of the Emperor's daughter in marriage. The Knight told the Emperor of his oath to the nymph, but the Emperor told him such an oath with an "unholy" being could be dissolved by the Archbishop with no consequences. The archbishop dissolved the oath and the knight forgot about his Rhine nymph. At the feast of the wedding between the knight and the Emperor's daughter, however, the knight was overtaken by horror. He rushed from the hall into the woods. Three days later he was found dead there.
Such stories did not end with the Middle Ages. Many of the older stories would be retold by modern poets. John Keats would create his own tale in the poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." In the poem a knight tells how he encountered a "faery's child" who seduced him. The two made love and as they slept on the moss, he had a most terrible dream. He dreamt of "pale kings, and princes too...pale warriors, death pale...," who warned him that "La belle Dame sans merci" had him in thrall. He awakened to find his elven maiden gone. Afterward he sojourned on the hill, apparently heart broken and awaiting her return, and as wasted as the "pale kings" of which he dreamt.
The motif of the mortal man who falls in love with an otherworldly maiden is less common in modern literature and song, although it does still appear from time to time. In The Lord of the Rings Aragorn loves the elf maiden Arwen. Eventually, she will forsake her immortality to marry him (sort of a reverse of the legends, an elf going to live with a mortal in his world). In WeaveWorld by Clive Barker Cal Moody falls in love with Suzanna, a woman is part mortal, part Seerkind. Eventually their meeting would lead to Cal experiencing the world of the Seerkind. In the song "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things," by the Cowsills, the hero falls in love with the mysterious "flower girl," who appears with the rain and disappears when it is over. In "I Can't Get It Out of My Head," by the Electric Light Orchestra, the singer finds himself obsessed with the "Ocean's daughter." Even "Hotel California," by The Eagles, can be considered a variant on the theme. Our hero is welcomed to the hotel by a beautiful woman, only the Hotel California proves to be a nightmarish place rather than the paradise that Faerie is usually described as being.
Given the number of these tales in which an otherworldly maiden leads to a man's destruction, some might view these tales as arising out of misogyny. I disagree. First, for every tale in which a fairy maiden sees a man to his doom, there is one in which there is a happy ending. Launfal and Graelent both spend their days with their lady loves in Fairyland. Second, there are also many tales in which a mortal woman is seduced by a supernatural being and comes to a bitter end, or nearly so. The Greek myths are filled with instances in which one of the gods falls in love with a mortal woman, the woman usually suffering for it. In the medieval tale of Sir Orfeo, Orfeo must go to Faerie to rescue his beloved, who fell under the spell of a fairy lord. Indeed, perhaps the best known encounter between a mortal and a supernatural being is "Little Riding Hood (and before some of you protest that the Wolf is not a supernatural being, consider this--how many wolves have you encountered can talk and masquerade as one's grandmother?)." Given that many tales feature a mortal woman seduced by a supernarual male, it would seem that they are more a warning of becoming involved with supernatural entities than an attack on women. Third, in many of the tales in which the hero comes to a bitter end, it is often through his own doing. He violates some taboo or oath. Oisin stepped off the horse. The Knight of Staufenberg broke his troth with the nymph. In such cases, the mortal man is obviously at fault.
Rather than misogyny, I think these myths and tales are actually a metaphor for the process of falling in love. Every man who has fallen in love views his ladylove as something more than she is. Though she might appear a normal woman to others, for the man who loves her she is an elvan maiden, a fairy princess, a goddess, a being from out of the ordinary. These tales portray the consequences of falling in love with such extraordinary beings. Sometimes the ending is happy. The hero spends the rest of his days with the fairy maiden in Fairyland, perhaps a metaphor for when love goes well--men and women marry and live happily ever after. Other times, either through his own doing or that of his lover, the hero is destroyed. This is a metaphor for love gone bad--either the man or the woman is untrue in some way and it leads to dire consequences. With regards to the tales of fairy maidens seducing mortal men, Greek gods seducing mortal women, and so on, I think that they express the hopes and fears people have with regards to love. Love is a force which can make one ecstatically happy or make one terribly unhappy. It can create or destroy one depending upon how his or her situation unfolds. Indeed, I must confess that I know all too well the dangers of elven princesses...
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
The concept behind Ender's Game is deceptively simple. Twice before an alien species simply referred to as "the buggers (we have no idea what they call themselves)" have attacked Earth and nearly wiped mankind out. To insure human survival, the government then started breeding strategic and tatical geniuses. The most promising of these geniuses is young Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a prodigy on whom the government has pinned all its hopes for saving us from the next "bugger" invasion. Like many of these young geniuses, Ender is sent to the Battle School, a space station in the asteroid belt where they are trained for battle. There much of the training takes the form of games, whether video games as we know them or mock battles between the cadets (for lack of a better term). As the most promising of the world's prodigies, Ender is expected to save the world from the next bugger invasion.
Ender's Game follows Ender through his training and the changes it brings to his life. Indeed, much of the novel is told through Ender's eyes. It is perhaps the most character driven science fiction novel I have read in a long, long time. The character of Ender is wonderfully realised, as we see him grow from a somewhat pathetic little boy, pushed around by his older brother and even other classmates, to a somewhat stronger, if not yet confident, young cadet. In fact, Orson Scott Card seems to have a gift for creating realistic characters, as there is no character in the book who is not three dimensional. Every one of the characters has his or her own motivations, his or her own agenda, his or her own unique personality. The plot is almost entirely propelled by the demands of the characters and not the other way around.
Orson Scott Card has also created a world that could conceivably exist if aliens did attempt to invade the earth twice over. Through snatches of dialogue here and there, we learn the current political state of the world and what shape the world is in now. He outlines the training that prospective military commanders receive very well and that training is realistically conceived given the circumstances of the world. The technology is very realistic as well and some of it will seem downright familiar. There are games remniscent of our own video role playing games we have today, not to mention the "nets," which would seem to correspond to the World Wide Web. First printed in 1985, Card seems to have taken the existing technology at the time and followed it to its logical conclusion.
If Orson Scott Card has one weakness, at least in Ender's Game, it is that it is sometimes hard to keep track of who is saying what. Often in the novel there will be long sequences of dialogue in which the reader is only given a few indicators as to who is speaking at any given time. This can be annoying at times, although it is a minor quibble on my part. The book's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.
Ender's Game is definitely not your father's sci-fi novel. Through the tale of a young boy being trained to be the saviour of the world, Card makes some very acute observations about the nature of military thinking, the necessity of hardships in learning, and various other aspects of the human condition. Although its basic premise is simple (young boy training to be military commnder), Ender's Game is a novel with a fully realised and realistic world where characters have their own agendas and where they are the focus, not the science or technology. Anyone who enjoys sci-fi where characters are the primary concern should enjoy Ender's Game.
Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Space: 1999 grew out of the Andersons' first live action series, an alien invasion show called UFO. Ratings dropped off for that series in America during its first and only season, leading to its cancellation. Despite the failure of UFO to win the hearts of viewers, Lord Lew Grade believed that another sci-fi series could be a hit. He then contacted Gerry and Sylvia Anderson about creating another science fiction show. Financing was provided by ITC (Incorporated Television Company) and the Italian network RAI. The Andersons already had a script for a pilot called Zero-G. Their first script consultant, George Bellak, reworked this script into The Void Ahead--this would eventually become the pilot episode "Breakaway." In the process, however, Gerry Anderson and Bellak found themselves constantly at odds. Eventually, Bellak was fired. Christopher Penfold took over as script consultant. He appointed American writer Johnny Byrne as story editor.
From the outset it was decided that Space: 1999 would be designed to appeal to Americans. American actors Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (both from the popular series Mission: Impossible) were cast in the lead roles of Commander John Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell respectively. American writers, such as Johnny Byrne and Art Wallace, were brought onboard the project. Even many of the series' directors were American, such as Lee H. Katzin. The goal was for the Americans to provide an American viewpoint, thus insuring that the show would be poplular in the United States.
As to the show's budget, Space: 1999 would be the most expensive series of its sort ever produced up to that time. Its average episode cost $300,000. Indeed, the episode "War Games" was for a time the most expensive single episode ever produced for a TV series. In terms of producton, Space: 1999 got only the very best. Brian Johnson provided the show's special effects. Johnson had provided FX for many of the Hammer films, inlcuding Phanton of the Opera, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and Moon Zero Two. He was also an effects assistant on 2001: a Space Odyssey and did FX for The Dirty Dozen and A Clockwork Orange. With regards to television, he had worked on several of the Andersons' series (Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds are Go among them). Eventually he would do the special effects for Alien, Aliens, Legend, and other big budget sci-fi/fantasy movies of the Eighties. The sets looked functonal and realistic in a way that those on Star Trek and even Star Trek: the Next Generation never did.
Unfortunately, for a time it appeared that all of this could have been for naught. American sales were necessary to the survival of Space: 1999 and none of the American networks (at the time, NBC, CBS, and ABC) had expressed interest in the series. Fortunately, ITC arrived at the novel approach of selling Space: 1999 directly to American TV stations through syndication. ITC then launched what could have been the most extensive advertising campaign to sell a series to local television stations in the United States. ITC salesmen went forth armed with a print of the pilot episode "Breakaway" and an extensive brochure on the series. The campaign worked. Space: 1999 was sold to 155 markets in the United States. Some of these stations even aired it in primetime pre-empting network shows. Ultimately, Space: 1999 would reach 96% of all American homes with television.
The campaign to sell Space: 1999 to stations was followed by a campaign to sell it to the American viewing public. Special screenings were shown across the United States in September 1975. Martin Landau and Barbara Bain made a tour of various American cities, where they screened the series for the press and answered questions. TV stations were provided with some of the slickest commercials ever made to promote a TV show. The commercials were shown fairly often, at least on KRCG and the other Missouri stations that aired the show. With the amount of promotion given the series, it should be no surprise that it was initially a hit. Space: 1990 did very well in many markets across the United States. Its ratings were fairly high for a syndicated series at the beginning.
Unfortunately, the show did produce many critics, particularly in the science fiction community. Perhaps the most obvious criticism was that its concept was preposterous. Even someone with the tiniest bit of knowledge of science would know that the moon could not be blasted out of its orbit around the earth to go hurling through space at speeds faster than light. Various pundits in the sci-fi community also levelled charges that the shaky science of Space: 1999 did not end with the unbelievable basis for the show. They pointed out that in the series sound travelled in a vacuum (in reality it doesn't) and parsec was being used as a measurement of velocity rather than a measurement of distance. More serious criticisms of the series emerged from both those within and without the sci-fi community. Perhaps the most common was that its lead characters were wooden, little more than the stock characters found in any poorly done sci-fi movie. Another criticism was that the scripts were poorly written. Many derided the scripts for lacking humour or even good pacing.
Whether because of the show's various crtics or because the novelty of the series simply wore off, Space: 1999 faltered in the ratings as its first season wore on. For that reason it was decided that changes would be made with the second season. American producer Fred Freiberger was brought in to retool the series. Among the changes Freiberger made was the introduction of two new characters. One was Security Chief Tony Verdeschi. The other was Maya, an alien from the planet Psychon who was capable of changing her shape. Freiberger dismissed some of the original cast. Barry Morse (who played local science expert Professor Bergman) would leave due to a salary dispute. Main Mission, which had served as the nerve centre for Moonbase Alpha, was replaced by the new Command Centre. New uniforms were also provided to the crew. Perhaps the biggest change was in the emphasis of the episodes. Where the show once explored metaphysics and the human equation, it was now a straight forward adventure series. Indeed, it became much lighter in tone. Whereas once the Alphans were constantly seeking a way home, now they seemed content to battle the latest aliens to menace them.
The changes won over none of the show's original critics, who simply charged that the new episodes were simply mediocre adventure stories. What was worse, even the show's original, most ardent supporters were not pleased. Nearly everyone pointed out the obvious lapses in continuity. Tony Verdeschi had never appeared in the first season and had never even been referred to. No explanation was given for Professor Bergman no longer being on Alpha. How did they get the material for new uniforms in the middle of deep space? And how did they get the material to build the new Command Centre? With the second season even some of the show's biggest fans stopped watching it. It should be no surprise that it fell drastically in the ratings. As a result, syndication sales in America for a proposed third season were much lower than hand been hoped for. For that reason, Space: 1999 ended with its third season.
Since that time very little has been seen of Space: 1999. The show's reruns continued for a time in syndication. I think KRCG here in mid-Missouri may have shown it until 1980. Unfortunately, ITC decided to cull various episodes for release as telefilms, some of which were shown in theatres overseas. Destination: Moonbase Alpha was essentially a re-editing of the two part episode from the second season "Bringers of Wonder." Alien Attack combined "Breakaway" with "War Games." Journey Through the Black Sun blended "Collision Course" with "Black Sun."Finally, Cosmic Princess combined "The Metamorph (the episode that introduced Maya)" with "Space Warp." These episodes were pulled from the syndication package, reducing the series' to a 40 episode run and making it less attractive to TV stations. This could largely explain why it hasn't been seen much in the United States since the Eighties.
Although largely off the air here in the United States, Space: 1999 has maintained a base of loyal fans. In many countries it has even developed a cult following. Eventually episodes would be released on VHS and still later on DVD. This might seem strange for a show that had come heavily under fire from critics in its initial run. As I see it, however, while the series was not well received on its debut, Space: 1999 was not at all a bad show. I think much of the criticism emerged from the fact that the critics were looking at Space: 1999 as a science fiction series. From that point of view, the idea of the moon careening out of orbit at hyperlight speeds is totally unbelievable. It is my thought, however, that the series was not a science fiction series at all, but instead a fantasy series with the trappings of a sci-fi show. It must be pointed out that in its first season the show concentrated heavily on metaphysics and even questions about human existence--science simply wasn't a focus of the show. Keeping this in mind, many of the series' episodes become quite enjoyable. In fact, many of the episodes of Space: 1999 can even be considered good from this viewpoint. At least in its first season, there were episodes that made observations on human psychology, religious issues, social issues, and moral issues. In many ways, Space: 1999 could be considered a metaphor for human existence--being adrift in the cosmos with only ourselves to insure that we survive. As to the other common criticism levelled at Space: 1999, that its characters were dull and wooden, I have to disagree. Barry Morse gives a delightful performance as Professor Bergman, a man with a dry sense of humour who sometimes seems like he would be more at home in a Victorian laboratory. I also believe that Nick Tate did a very fine job as chief pilot Alan Carter, a strong willed man who always seemed on the edge of insubordination. As to Martin Landau, I think he was quite acceptable as Commander Koenig, a man on whose shoulders rest the survival of Alpha. Of the leads, I think only Barbara Bain gave less than stellar performances. Dr. Carter is either too stoic or too emotional depending on the circumstances.
I do have my own criticisms to level at Space: 1999, even though after seeing it again I must confess that I still like the show. With regards to the scripts, it seems to me that many of them would begin quite well only to descend into incomprehensible metaphysics at the end. Sometimes I think that they were trying too hard to be 2001: a Space Odyssey. Many of the secondary characters were also never allowed to develop. We never really learn much about data coordinator Sandra Benes or Main Mission Controller Paul Morrow. Of course, when it comes to the second season, I have to be more critical of Space: 1999. Even as a teenager I found it hard to forgive the lapses in continuity (Tony Verdeschi appears out of nowhere, new uniforms, Bergman disappears and no one notices). It seems to me that the scripts also declined drastically in quality--I think the accusation that many of the second season episodes were simply mediocre adventure stories is legitimate. In fact, it seems to me that most of the second season episodes can be summed up as "some monster or alien wants to kill the Alphans...." I suspect that the reason many of the second season scripts are not as good as those of the first season is the fact that Christopher Penfold and Johnny Byrne wrote a plurality of the first season scripts. It was these two writers who gave the show its flavour. They wrote far less for the second season, which could explain why many of its episodes were not up to par.
Many have blamed second season producer Fred Freiberger for the series' decline in quality in its second season, but I think one must be careful not to hold him too much to blame. Despite what many Star Trek fans believe, Freiberger was not a hack. In the case of Star Trek, it must be kept in mind that he was brought in at the last minute and never really had a chance to get a grasp of a series that, in truth, had been in decline since producer Gene Coon left. In truth, Freiberger was an experienced writer who had sold scripts to such series as Have Gun Will Travel and Bonanza He produced the best run of The Wild Wild West (it was on his watch that archvillain Dr. Miguelito Loveless was introduced). I rather suspect the reason he did not do well on Space: 1999 is simply that he was not compatible with the series. It seems to me his strongpoint was adventure (like The Wild Wild West) and Space: 1999 simply was not an adventure series.
Today I rather suspect that the general public has forgotten Space: 1999. In fact, I dare say most young people in the United States have probably never seen an episode of the series. Regardless, I do believe it has its place in television history. First, it was the first large scale genre series launched since Star Trek ended its original run. After a fashion, then, it can be considered a forerunner to other large scale genre shows, such as Star Trek: the Next Generation and Babylon 5. Second, it was the first major, original series with continuing characters to be widely syndicated since the Sixties. Space: 1999 can then be considered to have paved the way for other original series in syndication that prospered in the Eighties and Nineties (Star Trek: the Next Generation, Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, and so on).
Regardless of whether it is remembered and regardless of its shortcomings, Space: 1999 is still a show that I do enjoy very much. And it seems that I am not alone in this, as the show still has a following around the world. I am not sure that it could ever be termed a "classic." I am not sure that given its occasional flaws it can be considered necessarily a good show at times. But I must say that I have always found it entertaining.
Monday, June 27, 2005
Going by the poems, the songs, and the movies, one would think that summer is best season of them all. One would think that it was a time when the sun is shining and yet the weather is mild and the temperatures not too cool or not too hot. At least here in Missouri (and I would assume much of the Midwest, South, and Southwest as well), nothing could be further from the truth. Summer is hot, muggy, sweaty, and generally uncomfortable. If anything, it is the most unpleasant season of them all. I would rather deal with ten feet of snow and freezing temperatures in the winter than the heat and humidity of summer any day.
Of course, all of this begs to reason why summer is praised so often in poems, songs, and other media. It is hard to say, but I have to wonder if on the part of Americans it isn't something that was carried over from Great Britain and Europe. In Great Britain and Europe, for the most part summer is pleasant. Given that it almost never reaches 90 degrees in London, I can see how Chaucer and Shakespeare would have praised the season. Indeed, I rather suspect that memories of Yuletide in Britain and Europe could explain the snow and ice imagery used to celebrate the Yuletide here in the United States, used even in places like Missouri where snow in December is very, very rare. Quite simply, summer is nice in Britain and Europe, so that imagery was carried over to North America where summer isn't always so nice.
My other theory is that perhaps the poetry, songs, and so on that praise summer written here in America are simply being written by Yankees living where the season isn't quite so severe. The other day I saw where much of New England was experiencing temperatures in the fifties. Here it never drops into the fifties in late June. Indeed, in Missouri there are times (like now) that we are lucky if the low temperature is in the sixties! I dare say no Missourian has ever described summer livin' as easy or compared a beautiful woman to a summer's day... Not any sane Missourian anyhow...
At any rate, I am ready for September, that glorious month when the temperatures drop and the humidity is not so fierce, that beautiful month of soft sun and light breezes. It is that month when one can finally go outside without worrying about heat stroke, but at the same time one doesn't have to wear a coat or a jacket. Honestly, that is the time of year people should write songs about....
Sunday, June 26, 2005
At long last there is a movie that captures the Dark Knight as he originally appeared in the comic books and as he has appeared ever since the Seventies. That movie is Batman Begins. Batman Begins is the first movie to tell the origin of the Caped Crusader. While it does depart in some details from the origin as told in the comic books (which has never been excactly consistent over the years anyhow), the movie remains loyal to the spirit of that origin. Indeed, the scene in which Bruce Wayne's parents are murdered before his eyes is one of the most powerful in the movie, much more so than the portrayal of the same scene in 1989's Batman. As a result of his parent's murder, Bruce Wayne becomes a crusader obsessed with fighting crime, The Batman. Much of Batman Begins tells the story of how Wayne went from billionaire orphan to Caped Crusader.
It tells that story remarkably well. Like the two Spider-Man movies, in some ways Batman Begins is less about action than it is a character study. The script, by director Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, permits Bruce Wayne to develop as a character well before he even puts on the Batsuit. We see the murder of his parents and the effect it had on him. We see his early training under Ra's al Ghul. Indeed, Batman Begins is simply about a guy who dresses up as a bat and fights crime. It is an exploration of how one fictional character deals with the murder of his parents and the fact that his hometown has become a cesspool of crime.
Nolan and Goyer's strong script is assisted by some of the strongest performances to ever appear in a superhero movie. Christian Bale (probably best known for American Psycho) is perfectly cast as Bruce Wayne and Batman. He captures what so other many actors who have donned the cowl and cape have missed--the guilt, the anger, the lonliness, the desperation, and obsession that resulted from the murder of Wayne's parents. Bale's Wayne is eseentially a loner who must put on the masquerade of a billionaire playboy while dressing up in a costume to fight crime at night. For the most part the other perfromances match the high quality set by Christian Bale. Michale Caine is delightful as Alfred, a combination valet and father figure who permits Bruce his crusade on crime, all the while worrying about the boy he raised. Gary Oldman proves that he can play something beyond villains as he plays the only honest cop in Gotham City, Sgt. James Gordon (who will eventually become Police Commisioner, but not in this movie). As The Scarecrow, Cillian Murphy is perfectly cast. He is suitably creepy as the mad psychologist Jonathan Crane who had developed a fear toxin. Beyond Bale and Caine, Liam Neeson perhaps gives the best performance, that of the character who gives Wayne much of his early training. His is a complex character and he realises that character perfectly.
Of course, the well written script and great performances benefit greatly from Christopher Nolan's direction. Best known for Memento, Nolan is the first director to truly capture the feel of Batman comic books. Nearly every shot could well have been a panel from one of those comic books. Indeed, both the movie's direction and editing give it a very deliberate pace. Batman Begins does not drag, but at the same time it does not linger far too long on any given scene.
Even in the film's look, it evokes the comic books. Batman's costume has never looked better. Not only does it look more realistic than the costumes from previous movies, but it also looks more like the one from the comic books. As to Gotham City itself, it looks like New York City (which Gotham pretty much is, no matter what current DC Comics continuity might have to say...) after a long bout of economic hardship. This is an old city that has aged poorly, its glistening skyscrapers standing not too far away from drab slums. It is a city where one can realistically expect crime to be rampant. It is also a city where one could expect a crimefighter dressed in cowl and cape to take it upon himself to fight that crime.
I must admit that Batman Begins is now my favourite superhero movie, although that is not to say that I don't have two problems with the film. The first is that left what I have always thought to be one of the pivotal scenes in Batman's origin as told in the comic books, the scene in which Bruce Wayne decides to take on the guise of a bat to fight crime. The famous speech that begins "Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot..." are among the most powerful to ever appear in a comic book panel. The second is that The Scarecrow does not appear nearly enough. He has always been one of my favourite villains to battle Batman. He is certainly one of the most interesting. That, in my humble opinion, that he does not get nearly enough screen time is made all the more lamentable due to Murphy's excellent portrayal of the mad psychiatrist. I can only hope that he appears in one of the sequels.
And I do hope that there are sequels, particularly if Christopher Nolan can return as director and David Goyer as his partner in screenwriting. An accurate portrayal of the Dark Knight has long been overdue on the big screen. For that matter, a superhero movie with this kind of depth (beyond the Spider-Man films) has been long overdue as well. Batman Begins is a unique film which allows a superhero and the characters in his life to actually develop in the way that real people do. Anyone who loves Batman, superheroes, or simpy well done movies should definitely go see Batman Begins.
Friday, June 24, 2005
Midsummer's Day was Tuesday, so I thought I might discuss a summertime song. That song is "Sumer Is Icumen In," also known as "The Cuccu Song." Here are the lyrics in Middle English and modern English (my translation):
Sumer is icumen in;
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed, and bloweth med,
And springeth the wude nu,
Ewe bleteeth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, well singest thu, cuccu:
Ne swike thu naver nu;
Sing cuccu, now sing cuccu,
Sing cuccu, sing cuccu nu!
Summer is a'coming in;
Loud sing cuckoo!
Seed grows, and meadow blows,
and the wood spring new.
Ewe bleets after lamb,
Cow lows after calf;
Bullock leaps, buck hides,
Merry sing cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing cuckoo:
Don't you ever stop now;
Sing cuckoo, now, sing cuckoo,
Sing cuckoo, sing cuckoo, now!
"Sumer Is Icumen In" is thought by some to be the oldest surviving song in the English language. Some scholars date it to as early as 1250 CE. We have many poems from the Old English period (Beowulf and "Deor" among them), but no songs (not unless many of the poems we had were set to music, which I doubt--Old English poems don't seem to lend themsevles to singing...). As to my thoughts on the matter, it seems unlikely to me that the Anglo-Saxons had no songs as we know them; it is simply a case that they were not written down. I rather suspect that songs similar to "Sumer Is Icumen In" could have existed in some form even before the Norman Invasion, maybe even "Sumer Is Icumen In" itself. True, some of the words ("verteth" for instance) date only to Middle English, but then the lyrics of songs can change dramatically over time and even from region to region. Just look at the ballad "Barbara Allan." In 1932, Arthur Kyle Davis Jr. did a study of the folk songs of Virginia and found 92 versions of "Barbara Allan" alone!
Of course, I guess some people might have to question what "Sumer Is Icumen In" has to do with pop culture, which is the raison d'etre of this blog. Didn't pop culture arise with the advent of newspapers, magazines, books, and other mass media? Well, in my opinion, no. Mass culture (the culture generated by mass media) did, but not pop culture. The way I see it, pop culture being short for popular culture and the word popular in its most basic sense meaning "of the people," pop culture would include anything that has been widely accepted by the people (that is, it is "popular"). "Sumer Is Icumen In," having long been a popular song is then part of pop culture. Beyond which, it appears in at least one movie (The Wicker Man) and one telefilm (Sarah Plain and Tall) that I know of.
As to "Sumer Is Icumen In" itself, I can only think that medieval England (or modern England for that matter) has a lot milder summers than Missouri has. Otherwise "Sumer Is Icumen In" would not be nearly so happy....
Thursday, June 23, 2005
In fact, aside from "Oh, Pretty Woman," I think he probably was best known for his ballads. "In Dreams," "Running Scared," and "Only the Lonely" are probably more famous than his straight rock tunes, such as "Mean Woman Blues" and "Dream Baby." As to his most successful ballad, that would be probably be "Crying." In 1961 it went to #2 on the Billboard pop charts. While "Running Scared" would go to #1, over the years it has not been played nearly as often as "Crying." It certainly has not ben remade as often! In fact, I am guessing that aside from "Oh, Pretty Woman," "Crying" is his most famous song.
What I find remarkable about "Crying" is that nowhere in the song are "tears" or "teardrops" mentioned. It simply does not refer to the physical act of shedding tears at all, something which sets it apart from other, similar songs about crying. At any rate, right now it describes how I feel. Here it is, in RealAudio:
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
I suppose the most obvious place to begin is the noticeable omissions on the list. Of all these, perhaps none is greater than "Every time you hear a bell ring, it means that some angel's just got his wings," from It's a Wonderful Life. This quote has had a much greater impact on pop culture than many of the quotes on the list. Indeed, anyone hearing it automatically knows what movie it is from and many can quote it verbatim. Indeed, there are many quotes that have had a huge impact on pop culture, much more than some of the lines that made the list, that were noticeably absent: "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain ... the ... Great ... er ... Oz has spoken," from The Wizard of Ox; "No, I am your father," from Star Wars Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back; "I am Spartacus," from Spartacus; "Klaatu barada nikto," from The Day the Earth Stood Still (also used to comic effect in Army of Darkness....); and "We belong dead," from The Bride of Frankenstein (one of the great lines from one of the greatest climaxes in cinematic history).
Beyond these quotes, there are others that, while they may not have had a huge impact on pop culture, are simply great quotes. I can think of three from Singin' in the Rain alone. The first two are lines uttered by vain movie star Lina Lamont, "People"? I ain't "people." I am a--'a shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament,'" and "What do they think I am, dumb or something? Why I make more money than Calvin Coolidge put together." The third is a classic exchange between star Don Lockwood and his friend Cosmo Brown regarding Lina. Don says, "What's the matter with that girl? Can't she take a gentle hint?" Cosmo replies, "Well haven't ya heard? She's irresistible. She told me so herself. " Speaking of Gene Kelly movies, I think that "That's, uh, quite a dress you almost have on," uttered by Jerry Mulligan would have been a good candidate for the list as well. Other lines that, in my humble opinion, would have been great candidates for the list would be: "No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way," from Who Framed Roger Rabbit; "They're not gonna catch us. We're on a mission from God," from The Blues Brothers; "That's the way it crumbles... cookie-wise," from The Apartment; "I am not an animal! I am a human being," from The Elephant Man; and "Use the Force, Luke," from Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope.
While there were many lines that I thought should have made the list, there were many I thought should not have. The most glaring example of this for me came in at #98, "Nobody puts Baby in a corner," from Dirty Dancing. Quite frankly, even in the context of the movie it never quite made sense to me. And while it was often quoted in the Eighties, I don't think "I feel the need...the need for speed" from Top Gun deserved to be on the list either. I have very fond memories of Caddyshack (it seemed to me to be one of the funnier films from the Eighties), but I don't think the lines uttered by Bill Murray as the greenskeeper while he fantasises about winning a golf tournament necessarily deserved to be on the list. I have always absolutely loved the movie Annie Hall, but I am not sure that Annie's "La-dee-da, la-dee-da," should have made the list either. Truth to tell, I have seen Annie Hall many times (once even in the theatre) and I can think of many more memorable lines from that film. The same holds true for "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti," from The Silence of the Lambs. It is not even the best line in the movie, which I would give to either "I do wish we could chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner," or Hannibal's utterance of the name, "Clarice (which still sends chills up my spine)." Somehow "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti" came in at #21.
Beyond the movie quotes that should have made the list and the ones that should not have, there were those lines that should have ranked much higher than they did. "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too," from The Wizard of Oz, came in at only #99, even though it is one of the most quoted movie lines of all time. It should have made the top 25. Abbot and Costello's legendary "Who's on first" only came in at #91. It should have come in much higher. Both of James Bond's classic lines, quoted by millions of young men since 1962, ranked much lower than they should have. "A martini. Shaken, not stirred" only came in at #90. It should have made the top 50 at least. The immortal line "Bond, James Bond." only came in at #22. It should have made the top 10. Another pop culture icon, Dr. Frankenstein, also saw his classic line ranked far too low. Surely "It's alive! It's alive!" should have been ranked in the top ten. It only came in at #49. At least that is better than where the classic line regarding the death of King Kong from the orignal movie ranked. "It was beauty killed the beast," one of the greatest lines in the history of movies, only came in at #84. It should have been ranked in the top ten. The immortal lines "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you," from The Graduate, also ranked lower than they should have. They came in at only #63, even lower than "Plastics," from the same movie (at #42). "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me..." should have been in the top 25. Of course, Casablanca, which boasts more great lines than any movie in film history, fared about as well as The Graduate. It did boast more lines than any other movie, but with one exception, all of its lines were ranked lower than they should have. Indeed, its highest ranking quote was "Here's lookin' at you, kid," at #5--never mind that this is not even the best line in the movie! "Louis, I think this is beginning of a beautiful friendship" only came in at #20; it should have been in the top 15. "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By,'" only made #28. It should have made the top 20. "Round up the usual suspects" only ranked at #32. Of all the quotes from Casablanca, it should have ranked the highest. It should have in the top five. The same is true of "We'll always have Paris," which came in at #43! The classsic, "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine," came in even lower, at #67. It should have have been in the top thirty!
Of course, while there were lines that should have ranked higher, there were also lines that should have ranked lower. I think this holds true for "I coulda been a contender," from On the Waterfront. While I've no doubt it deserves to be in the top twenty five, I think ranking it at #3 may be a little too high (does the average person even remember what movie the line comes from?). While I think there can be no arguing that "Love means never having to say you're sorry" had a huge impact when Love Story was released, I think that impact has diminished considerably since the movie was released 35 years ago. Besides which, in my humble opinion and speaking from experience, it is one of the most stupid lines in the history of movies (Love means always having to say you're sorry...). It should have ranked much lower than #13. While "Show me the money" from Jerry McGuire is a great line that has had a big impact on pop culture, I think it may have been ranked too high at #25, although I could see it making the top 50. "Say, 'Hello,' to my little friend,"from the 1983 version of Scarface is a great line, but I think at #61 it may have been ranked too high. I could see it better being ranked at #80 or so. One thing I do have to say for AFI. There is no doubt in my mind that "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," uttered by Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, deserves to be #1. After what Rhett had gone through with Scarlett, who can blame Rhett for those immortal words?
Over all, I cannot say I am wholly unhappy with AFI's list of 100 movie quotes, although I am obviously not entirely happy with it either. It seems obvious to me that it could have been much better, particularly given the obvious omissions, the lines that should not have made the list at all (Dirty Dancing? What were they thinking?!), and the lines that should have ranked differently than they did. For another (and in many ways, better) list of 100 great movie quotes, folks might want to look at one published at Filmsite.Com. It was originally published in the August 2000 issue of Premiere Magazine.
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Of course, one of the most common practices was for theatres to be named for the people who owned them. The Loews theatre chain (which once owned an interest in MGM) was named for its founder, Marcus Loew. Perhaps the most famous example of a theatre naemd for its owner was Grauman's Chinese Theatre (indeed, I remember the protest over the name being changed to "Mann's" after Ted Mann purchased the theatre--it is now named Grauman's again...). I seem to recall that at one time many theatres in the Midwest were named Sosna because they were part of a chain owned by a man of that name; at one point in its history, the State Theatre in Moberly was named "the Sosna State."
The practice of naming theatres for the inidviduals or corporations who owned them is the reason so many older theatres bear the names of famous Hollywood Studios--"Paramount," "Fox," "RKO," and so on. Until 1948 when the Supreme Court ruled that the major studios could not own or operate cinemas, nearly all of the major Hollywood studios ran their own theatre chains. Naturally, the theatres were usually named for the studios who owned them. Although now a stage theatre, The Fox Theatre in St. Louis began as a cinema in 20th Century Fox's theatre chain. It was reportedly one of the most lavish and largest cinemas west of the Mississippi. There is a fine example of an old Paramount Theatre in Abilene, TX.
Interestingly, there is one instance in which a theatre was named for its owner and the name proved so popular that theatres throughout the United States adopted the name for their own. Samuel L. Rothaphel was a theatre entepreneur whose nickname was "Roxy."Among other theatres, he founded Radio City Music Hall. In New York City in 1927 he opened what was one of the most exquisite cinemas ever, if not the most exquisite cinema of all time. Named "the Roxy," it could seat nearly 6000 people.It was not long before many other theatre owners across America named their theatres "the Roxy," wishng to associate themselves with the famous Roxy of New York City and its finery. One of those theatres bearing the name was the one in Huntsville, Missouri
The wish of theatre owners to associate themselves with ostentatiousness and finery is probably also why many theatres bore the name Ritz. The word ritz means "ostentatious display of elegance, fanfare, ostentation." The name Ritz ultimately comes from Cesar Ritz, a Swiss hosteller who owned a chain of ostentatous hotels known for their finery in the 19th century. The desire on the part of theatre owners to associate their cinemas with the better things in life may also be why there were so many theatres named "the Palace," "the Princess," and "the Royal."
As might be expected, many cinemas took their name from the theatre (as in the stage). It is for that reason that many theatres were named "Rialto." Rialto is a word for "a theatrical district" or "a market." The word comes from the name of an island in Venice, Rialto, where the market (and presumably the theatres as well) was located. In Salisbury (Missouri, not England) there is a theatre called the "Lyric," as there are many other places. On the surface, the word lyric would have more to do with music or poetry, but among the various senses of lyric is "Of, relating to, or being musical drama, especially opera." Indeed, it must be pointed out that in ancient Greece (as in Shakespeare's time as well), poetry and even music played a large part in drama.
The common theatre name Orpheum also has its roots in both ancient Greek theatre and Vaudeville. The name ultimately comes from the Greek hero Orpheus, whose poetry and songs were so compelling that they even impressed the gods. The word Orpheum more or less means "place of Orpheus." In the 1890 there was an Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. By 1899 its owner, Morris Meyerfeld, would become partners with Martn Beck, who had worked with the Schiller Vaudeville Company. Beck aquired theatres from California to Chicago over the years, the entire chain bearing the name "Orpehum." Eventually the Orpheum circuit of theatres would merge with the equally powerful Keith-Albee circuit of theatres to become KAO (Keith-Albee-Orpheum). Many of the theatres retained the "Orpheum" name. Still later, in 1929, KAO would merge with Joseph Kennedy's studio Film Booking Office to become RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures. Many theatres named "the Orpheum" once belonged to RKO, while others simply adopted the name for themselves.
Here I must point out that cinema names from Greek or Roman history were by no means unusual. There were cinemas named "the Coliseum," for the famous arena in ancient Rome where gladitorial combat took place. There were also many theatres named "the Hippodrome." The word hippodrome is used of "a place for horse races." In specific, it referred to places in ancient Rome where chariot and horse racing was held. It ultimately stems from ancient Greek hippos "horse" and dromos "race course."
One group of cinema names which always puzzled me were those related to precious stones jewels, and trinkets--names like "Bijou," "Gem" and "Jewel." Apparently, the names of these theatres go back in theatre history. The name "Bijou" ultimately stems from the word bijou, which means "a small, exquisitely wrought trinket." I cannot be absolutely certain, but I think the practice of naming theatres "Bijou" may stem from the Bijou Theatre in Paignton, England, a small theatre in the late 19th century. Although a small theatre, it gained a good deal of fame and even had the honour of being the first theatre where The Pirates of Penzance was ever performed. I have no idea, however, as to why they called it "the Bijou (the fact that it was small and ornate perhaps?)." As to the name Gem, I am not absolutely sure why it came to be applied to theatres. There was a Gem Theatre in Deadwood, North Dakota dating from the 1870s. The theatre, like Deadwood itself, was fairly famous in the late 19th century, so I can only figure that many theatre owners named their own theatres for the one in Deadwood.
The practice of naming cinemas after famous stage theatres may also be seen in the use of the name "the Regent" that so many cinemas bore. I rather suspect that such theatres were named for the Regent Music Hall which operated in London on Regent Street from 1861 to 1879.
In some ways I think theatre owners and theatre chains have lost their touch when it comes to choosing names for theatres. It seems to me that these days, rather than giving a theatre a fanciful name such as "the Bijou" or "th Regent," a theatre chain is more likely to name a theare for the chain and the number of screens it has. For instance, a theatre might be named "the Dickinson Five." At best a theatre might be named for the chain that owns it and the street on which it is located, an example being the "Hollywood Stadium" in Columbia (owned by Hollwood Theatres and located on Stadium Drive). I don't know if the theatre chains and theatre owners have simply grown lazy or lost their imagination, but the names of theatres just don't capture my fancy the way names like "the Roxy," "the Lyric," "the Regent," and so on. I can only hope they return to the good, old fashioned names of the early to mid-Twentieth century.
Monday, June 20, 2005
In 1981, Mueller, guitarist Dan Murphy, and drummer Dave Pirner founded Loud Fast Rules in Minneanpolis, MN. Within three years the group would become known as Soul Asylum. They would also release their first album, Say What You Will, Clarence...Karl Sold the Truck, on the small, local label Twin/Tone Records. Throughout the Eighties the group maintained a cult following and was a favourite on college radio. By 1989 they would sign to A&M records. Despite being on a major label for the first time, neither 1989's Hang Time nor 1990's And the Horse They Rode In On gained much attention. By 1992 they would be on another major label, this time Columbia Records. It was there that their fortunes changed with 1992's Grave Dancer's Union. The album prdouced three hit singles, "Somebody to Shove," "Black Gold," and "Runaway Train." Their following album, 1995's Let Your Dim Light Shine would not do quite as well as Grave Dancer's Union, although the single "Misery" made the top twenty. Regardless, Soul Asylum has kept its loyal following to this day. In fact, Mueller, Murphy, and Pirner had been working on a new Soul Asylum album earlier this year.
I have always loved Soul Asylum. In the late Eighties and early Nineties they had a truly unique sound. They weren't alternative, nor were they heavy metal. I suppose the best classification for them would be hard rock. In my opinion they produced some of the best music of the Nineties. Their lyrics were always witty and often humourous. And they covered an array of topics, from the loneliness of old age ("Somebody to Shove") to masochistic melodramatics ("Misery").
I am then truly saddened to hear of Karl Mueller's death. His bass was a central part of Soul Asylum's hard rock sound. He was also more than a talented musician. Reportedly, he had no pretence about him--he never played the rock star. And though he ultimately lost the battle against cancer, from everything I have heard he fought it with a strength few have. As both a remarkable man and a remarkable musican, then, his passing is truly saddening.
Sunday, June 19, 2005
Unfortunately, I think to some degree that in American society today the importance of the father is being trivialised. Indeed, one can see this to some degree in American pop culture. It is true that the inept father has been a stock character in many sitcoms. Certainly the dad on Hazel (or anyone else n that show except for Hazel the housekeeper...), Herman Munster, and Homer Simpson are far from being the sharpest tools in the shed. But it seems to me the image of the inept father has moved from being a stock character to an outright stereotype of the common male.This is particularly true of many commercials. I seem to recall a series of particularly offensive J. C. Penny commercials in which kids under the supervision of the clueless father would be destroying their house while their mother is out shopping. The message behind those commercials was clear to me--the typical father is too stupid to take care of his own children! Sears has run very similar commercials in which father simply seem incapable of taking care of children. A recent Verizon DSL commercial was nearly as offensive as the J. C. Penny ads. In the commercial a father, who apparently knows nothing of the Internet, is trying to help his daughter research her homework online. Finally the mother tells the father to go walk their dog. The daughter looks downright relieved. And then there are those Hardees commercials with the tagline, "Without Hardees, some men would starve..."
Beyond the commercials, it seems to me that sitcoms featuring inept fathers have become much, much more common. In fact, most of the current crop of CBS sitcoms feature fathers who are nearly as clueless as old Herman Munster was: Everybody Loves Raymond,. Still Standing, and Listen Up all feature fathers who are none too bright. Of course, CBS is not the only network which features bumbling fathers. On ABC the fathers of My Wife and Kids and According to Jim are just as stupid. It seems to me that in the world of TV sitcoms, there are far fewer fathers like Andy Taylor or Ward Cleaver and far more fathers like Herman Munster or Homer Simpson, a situation which hardly reflects reality.
In my humble opinion what these commercials ignore is the importance of a father, or at least a father figure, in the lives of children, particularly boys. In her book The War Against Boys, Christina Hoff Sommers points out that it most often boys who grow up without fathers who have problems later in life. Indeed, 70 percent of all prison inmates grew up without fathers, as did 60 percent of all rapists and 72 percent of all murderers who committed their crime while still teenagers. Children without fathers are more likely to be treated for behavioural or emotional problems, successfully commit suicide while still teenagers, be suspended from school, and drop out of school. From those statistics, it seems to me that fathers are central to the development of a child's moral compass and a firm foundation in morality and ethics. Without a father, it seems to me that it is less likely for a child to be properly socialised.
Here I want to stress that I am not condemning single mothers. I have known many single mothers who have done a fine job of raising their children. My sister did an admirable job of raising my nephew (who is now a police officer). I also know a very lovely blonde who has done a very good job of raising her children, all of who are very bright and very well behaved. Not every child who grows up in a household where a father is absent or not around very often is going to become a criminal or becme mentally unbalanced. That having been said, as my sister admits, raising a son without his father being around much is not easy by any stretch of the imagination.
I must also speak in defence of televison. While there have been many very offensive commercials the past several years, there are those that show fathers in a positive light. Gerber has a wonderful ad which features a father feeding his baby son. The two of them are obviously enjoying their time together. The past few years Jiff changed their slogan to "Choosey moms, and dads, choose Jiff." Along with the change in slogan, they have a very nice commercial in which a father and daughter bond over peanut butter sandwiches. As to TV Shows, there are still many intelligent fathers to be found on them. While he has his faults, Hank Hill on King of the Hill is often the most level headed character on that show. The fathers on such dramas as Seventh Heaven, Everwood, and Smallville are also intelligent, stable characters. Fortunately, not every father featured on American television is a total boob. I can only hope that other commercials and TV shows follow these fine examples and realise that not all men are incompetent when it comes to raising a family.
Indeed, I can speak from experience. While I am biased, I feel that my father was wonderful. In terms of sense of humour and the way he dealt out punishment, he reminds me a lot of Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show (must be a Southern thing...). He was very strict when it came to discipline, but always fair and even handed. He was not the sort of person who could not admit when he was wrong. He was also one of the most loving and kindest men I knew. Whenever my brother or I were sick, it was often he who took the role as chief caregiver. He was also one of the hardest working men I ever knew. He never failed to provide for our family, despite the fact that farming can often be a very risky business. He was hardly stupid, bumbling, or incompetent. To this day I still miss him, particularly on this of all days.
Friday, June 17, 2005
Of course, Shakespeare was not the only playwright to have an impact on the English language. The word robot does not come from any science fiction novel, but from the stage. Karl Capek coined the word for the mechanical servants in his play R.U.R. ("Rossum's Universal Robots"), which debuted in 1920. He took the word from Czech robota "forced labour." The word fedora for the popular soft brimmed, centre creased hat also has its origins in drama. It comes from the play Fedora by Victorien Sardou, which opened in 1882. The "Fedora" of the title was a crossdressing woman (originally played by Sarah Bernhardt) who wore hats of that sort. The idea of "bluebird of happiness" stems from the 1909 play l'Oiseau bleu (literally "The Blue Bird" by Maurice Maeterlinck. Of course, the name Peter Pan from J. M. Barrie's famous play of the same name (1904) has been used for men who won't grow up for literally decades now.
Among the playwrights to have the biggest impact on the English language was George Bernard Shaw. Although the name "Pygmalion" goes back to Greek mythology (Pygmalion being a sculptor who made a statue that came to life), it was Shaw who popularised it as a term for someone who reshapes another individual completely when he used it for the title of his play Pygmalion (the basis for the musical My Fair Lady). Shaw may have also been the first person to use the word outcry to mean "public protest." The word had been in the English language since at least 1382, but its original sense was "an act of crying out loud." In 1911 Shaw used it in what is now its most popular sense, that of "public protest" or "public indignation."Among the words which Shaw coined were Bardolatry (for those who worship William Shakespeare a bit too much), Comstockery (for activities of overzealous moral watchdogs, after
Anthony Comstock, founder of New York Society for the Suppression of Vice), and sardoodledom (for plays which depend overly much on a melodramatic plot, after the aforementioned Victorien Sardou).
Perhaps Shaw's biggest contribution to the English language was the word "superman." In 1903 Shaw needed to translate the German word Übermensch for his play Man and Superman. Contrary to popular belief, the word Übermensch was not coined by Nietzsche. It was first used by Hermann Rab, provincial of Saxony, in 1527. It would later be used by both Goethe and Herder. That having been said, Nietzsche certainly popularised the word in his work Thus Spake Zarathustra. There he used it for a theoretical man who would exist beyond all human morality and ethics. Previously Übermensch had been translated into English as both overman and beyond-man, but neither word caught on. It would take George Bernhard Shaw to create a translation of the word that would be popularly adopted. Of course, it would not be long before Nietzsche's idea of a man who existed beyond all human morailty would be lost and the word superman would refer to a man of superhuman capacties. As a result, writer Siegel and artist Joe Shuster would use the word as the name of their new hero in the early Thirties. Once their "Superman" was published in 1938, it would simply make the use of the word "superman" as a term for a supherhuman man even more popular.
Here I must point out that, contrary to popular belief, the word superhero does not appear to have come from the name of Clark Kent's alterego, Superman. In the article "The Roots of the Superman," published in Comic Book Marketplace volume 2 issue #63, September/October 1998, Will Murray points out that the word superhero was used even before Superman saw publication! The word was apparently first used in magazine Street and Smith's radio ads for their upcoming radio show based on popular pulp hero Doc Savage in February 1934. From there it came to be used in Street and Smith's print ads for Doc Savage, The Shadow, and Bill Barnes. Of course, there can be no doubt that the publication of Superman popularised the term superhero. It was being used of the mystery men of comic books as early as 1941 (in an article in Atlantic Monthly by Lowell Thomas. By 1942 it was being used in the comic books themselves. In Star-Spangled Comics #7, April 1942, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby refer to their character The Guardian as a "superhero.").
Here it might be a good time to point out the impact that comic strips have had on the English language. Indeed, this has been the case from almost the beginning. In the 1890s competition heated up between the major newspapers in America, particularly those published by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The two of them fought to attract more subscribers with sensationalised stories, more photographs, and, of course, comic strips. Among the most popular strips of the time was The Yellow Kid, created by R.F. Outcault, and first published by Pulitzer in the New York World. Very soon Hearst and Pulitzer would be locked in a struggle over the rights for The Yellow Kid. The name of the comic strip soon gave rise to the phrase "yellow journalism" for senationalised news coverage. Another comic strip that would first be published in the New York World would also have an impact on the English language. Keeping Up With the Joneses was the creation of Arthur R. "Pop" Momand and made its debut in 1916. By the Twenties it would be syndicated throughout the United States. While the comic strip has long since been forgotten, the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" has remained in the English langauge in reference to trying to compete with one's neighbours.
Another comic strip which would contribute to the English language was The Timid Soul, also published in the New York World. The Timid Soul was a single panel strip created by H. T. Webster and debuted in 1924. It centred on Caspar Milquetoast, perhaps the most timid character to ever exist in any medium. Webster himself described Caspar as as "the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick." The comic strip proved very popular. Collections of its reprints were regularly published in the mid-twentieth century. It even almost made it as a TV series. A pilot for a Timid Soul series aired on the DuMont network in 1949. The comic strip itself would run until 1953. Perhaps no greater testament to its success is the adoption of Caspar's last name, milquetoast, for any overly timid or overly shy person in the English language. It was first used as such in the mid-1930s!
Of course, when it comes to comic strips, perhaps none has had the impact on the English language which E. C. Segar's Thimble Theatre (featuring Popeye) has had. The word jeep owes at least part of its existence to Segar. In 1936 a character called Eugene the Jeep made his debut in Thimble Theatre. In 1939 the United States Army took bids for the development of a new military vehicle. Willys won the bidding, although Ford built the actual vehicles from their design. Ford marked the vehicles "G.P." for "General Purpose." Military personnel pronounced the abbreviation "jeep," perhaps after Eugene. The word goon apparently existed before Segar used the word, although he certainly popularised it. It could well be an abbreviated form of gooney, "fool, simpleton," which goes back to the 16th century. After the introduction of Alice the Goon in the pages of Thimble Theatre, however, the word became much more popular. In fact, it is after her appearance that the word is used of the thugs hired by companies to break up strikes. Segar did not coin the word wimp either, but he may well have had an influence on its popularity. It appeared in 1920, apparently derived from whimper. Its rise in popularity could be do to J. Wellington Wimpy, one of the major characters in Thimble Theatre (the one who would glady pay one Tuesday for a hamburger today).
Popeye is not the only hero whose comic strip has had an impact on the English language; so too has Superman's comic books. Bizarro was originally the name of a grotesque duplicate of Superman, first appearing in Superboy #68, November 1958. Bizarro would prove popular enough to make many return appearances in the various Superman titles. Eventually, there would be a whole Bizarro world, where many things were the opposite of what they were on Earth. The term bizarro has then come to describe something strange or unusual, or just the opposite of how it should be. There can be little doubt that much of this use has been popularised by the TV show Seinfeld (always known for its Superman references). Kryptonite, the fictional, crystalline element which is Superman's weakness, first appeared on the radio show The Adventures of Superman and later in the comic books. It has entered common usage as a term for anyone's weakness. Even more strangely, it is also part of modern London rhyming slang as a word for "web site!"
Of course, when it comes to comic strips having an impact on the English language, perhaps no one can match Rube Goldberg's achievement. A cartoonist know for drawing bizarre devices and strange machines, his very name, Rube Goldberg entered the English language as a word referring to any complicated and impractical device!
As might be expected, books have had their influence on the English language as well. The word gargantuan, meaning anything huge, stems from the book Gargantua by Rabelais (1534), which featured a giant of that name. The word utopia was coined by Sir Thomas More for his fictional perfect society in his book Utopia, published in th 15th century. Another place and another book would provide us with the word Ruritanian, referring to any romantic or exciting place. Ruritania was the setting for Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (1896) and many of his other novels. The not quite so utopian world portrayed in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962) would also provide the English language with new words. Droog refers to "young thug" or "gang member." Ultraviolence refers to violence of an extreme sort. George Orwell's 1984 also gave us new words. The phrase Big Brother, used of any repressive and overly obtrusive authority, made its first appearance there. It also introduced the word newspeak, used in the novel of the artificially created language of the state, it now refers to any warping of the English language for propaganda purposes. Even Orwell's name itself would lend a new word to the English language. Orwellian refers to totalitarian states of the sort in 1984. On a more upbeat note, the use of the name Pollyanna for someone who is overly opitmistic stems from the novel of the same name, written by Eleanor Porter in 1914.
Strangely enough, while comic strips and books have had an impact on the English language, it seems to me that television and movies really haven't had nearly as much. In fact, it seems to me that for the most part television and movies don't coin new words as much as popularise ones that already exist. The perfect example of this is The Simpson. Homer's exclaimation "D'oh!" is commonly thought to have originated with the show. In truth, it predates the show by many years. In fact, Matt Groening and Dan Castanella both say that they derived the word from character actor James Finlayson, who appeared in many Laurel and Hardy shorts. He would use the word "d-o-o-o-h" rather than more extreme exclamations then unacceptable to America's movie censors. It would later be used by British comedian Peter Glaze on the BBC programme Crackerjack. Of course, there can be little doubt that Homer's use of the word greatly increased its popularity. The same is true of the phrases "ay carumba" and "Don't have a cow," which existed prior to the debut of The Simpsons, but were popularised by the show. Even "Eat my shorts," often credited to Bart Simpson, predates the show. It is used by Judd Nelson's character in The Breakfast Club in the Eighties.
The phrase "jump the shark," referring to the point at which a TV show becomes unviewable, is an interesting case in that it stems from both television and the World Wide Web. In an episode of Happy Days, aired September 20, 1977, Fonzie jumped a shark while water skiing; however, it would be years before the phrase would enter the language. In 1985, while he was in college, webmaster Jon Hein's roommate, Sean J. Connelly, coined the phrase "jump the shark" in reference to the point when a show has gone totally down hill. Naturally, when Hein launched his website devoted to examining when good shows go bad on December 24, 1987, he called the website "Jump the Shark.". From there it entered common usage.
Indeed, it seems tome that the British have had more success with words and phrases coming from television shows than America has. The slang term "dreaded lurgy" for a severe but undefined ailment comes from The Goon Show of both radio and television. And, of course, the use of the word spam for unwanted email is well known. Originating in the MUDs of the Eighties as a term for such things as flooding a computer with data, it would eventually come to be used as it is today for junk email. Its origins go back to a Monty Python's Flying Circus skit in which Vikings in a diner drown out everything else with a song about Spam.
It seems to me that it is rare that new words stem from movies. The word vamp as applied to a seductive woman may have first appeared in the movie A Fool There Was (1915), although it could well have appeared in the play upon which the movie was based first. Joseph Keller coined the phrase catch-22 with the title of his 1961, although it only became popular after the 1970 movie based on the novel was released. In the book, catch-22 is the situation whereby the novel's hero, a bomber pilot, can only be relieved from duty if he is insane, but if he asks to be released from duty, then that prove he is indeed sane and must continue flying. A catch-22 is then a situation from which there is no real escape.The phrase "to make a federal case out of (something)" was first used in the 1959 movie Anatomy of a Murder. The word pixilated, meaning someone who is a bit off in the head, was only found in New England dialects until it appeared in the movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936, after which it saw widespread use. The word paparazzi for photographers who go to extreme lengths to take pictures of celebrities comes from the character Paparazzo in La Dolce Vita. For that matter, it is through that movie that the phrase "la dolce vita (in Italian, literally "the sweet life")" entered the English language.
Nearly as often it seems to me that it is the actors themselves than the movies who provide new words for the English language. Mae West lent her name to a sort of life jacket. Humphrey Bogart's last name would come to be used in the Sixties drug culture as a term for refusing to pass a marijuana joint (basically, keeping the joint hanging in one's mouth as Bogie did with his cigarettes). Bogart has since come to refer to other forms of hoarding as well. To this day Valentino can be used of any good looking man who is popular with women. Chaplinesque describes the sort of down and out everymen that Charlie Chaplin played in his films.
Over the centuries, popular culture has added many words to the English language and even modified the uses of some words. Given the number of media outlets today (books, comic books, comic strips, movies, television, the World Wide Web, and so on), it seems to me that this phenomenon could actually increase in coming years. Indeed, I rather suspect that there will be more new words emerging than ever before.
Thursday, June 16, 2005
Howard Pyle was born in 1853 in Wilmington, Delaware. His Quaker parents had hoped that he would grow up to attend college and sent him to the Friend's School in Wilmington. Contrary to their hopes, Howard seemed more interested in reading books and drawing. Recognising where her son's strengths lay, Howard's mother encouraged him to study art and introduced him to such books as Ritson's Robin Hood ballads, Robinson Crusoe, and Arabian Nights At age 16 he would begin three years of study under Belgian artist Van der Weilen in Philadephia.
His studies ended, Pyle set about becoming a professional illustrator, setting up his own studio in Wilmington. He sold his first illustration to Scribner's Monthly in 1876, the same year that would see him move to New York City. Pyle did not see enough work from Scribner's, so he also began contributing illustrations to St. Nicholas Magazine (a popular children's magazine that ran from 1873 to 1939). By 1877 Pyle would find work with Harper's Weekly, one of the top magazines of the day. His first work for Harper's, an illustration entitled "A Wreck in the Offing," was published in a double page spread of the March 9, 1878 issue of that magazine. As an illustrator, Pyle soon found many wanting his services. He would eventually be published in many of the major American magazines of the era, including The Century Magazine, Collier's Weekly, Harper's Weekly, Ladies Home Journal, and St. Nicholas Magazine. Pyle also illustrated books, including The Story of Siegfried (1882) by James Baldwin, The The Story of the Golden Age by James Baldwin (1917), and an edition of Lord Tennyson's Lady of Shallot (1881). As might be expected, he also illustrated his own stories and books.
Today it might be hard to understand why Pyle was so great as an illustrator and so revolutionary for his time. The reason for this is simply that Pyle completely changed the art of book and magazine illustration, to the point that we still see his influence today. As cartoonist A. B. Frost pointed out in 1890, before Howard Pyle illustrations for adventure books looked as if they had been staged, with posed "actors" and "prop scenery." According to Frost, Pyle was "...an artist who changed the way the world looked at illustration and the way illustration looked to the world." Indeed, none of Pyle's illustrations look staged, but looked as if Pyle had caputred an actual event. His illustrations could tell stories in and of themselves. And they were often very emotive, portraying everything from utmost sorrow to utter happiness. His illustrations featured bold lines and briliant colors never seen before. While many of his contemporaries' work does not stand up today, Pyle's works look as timeless as when they were first published. No less than Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, "Do you know an American magazine called Harper's Monthly? There are things in it which strike me dumb with admiration, including sketches of a Quaker town in the olden days by Howard Pyle." If one wishes to doubt Van Gogh himself, take a look at Pyle's painting "Marooned" from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates:
Arguably, Howard Pyle was the greatest illustrator of the 19th century, and for many that would be enough, but Howard Pyle was also a writer. He contributed his first story, a fairy tale, to St. Nicholas Magazine in 1877. While Pyle would continue to write children's stories all his life, being published not only in St. Nicholas Magazine but in Harper's Young People as well, his best known works would be in the field of boy's adventure books. In 1883 his book The The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire was published. It has remained in print ever since. Pyle would follow the success of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood with other books in the same general vein. Otto of the Silver Hand (1888) followed the son of a robber baron in medieval Germany as he becomes embroiled in a blood feud. Men of Iron, a Romance of Chivalry (1892) followed a squire through knighthood. Pyle's masterpiece in the genre would be his epic retelling of the legends of King Arthur: The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903), The Story of the Champions of the Round Table (1905), The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions (1907), and The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur (1910). His book of pirate stories, Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, was published postumously in 1921. Pyle also wrote a novel length fairy tale, The Garden Behind the Moon (1895) and his children's stories were collected into anthologies during his lifetime.
It always seemed to me that Howard Pyle was born to write boy's adventure novels. His style was crisp and to the point, with very little in the way of needless words. One thing that sets them apart from many boy's adventure novels of the same era is the depth of his characters. They always had fully developed personalities and often complex motivations. His writing tended to be fairly intense at times and often quite visual. It is no surprise that many of his works have remained in print, as they seem in many ways to be timeless in both content and style.
Of course, Pyle was a teacher as well as a writer and artist. Pyle spent two years in New York before returning to Wilmington. In 1900 he founded the Howard Pyle School of Art in Wilmington. Later Pyle would found the Brandywine School and Artists Colony in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, establishing a whole new school of painting known sometimes as "magic realism." Among his students over the years were N. C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, and Harvey Dunn. Over his lifetime it is estimated that Pyle taught around 110 painters.
Howard Pyle was a rare sort of man who only comes along in a great while. He was cut of the same cloth as Gene Kelly, Will Eisner, and other men who possess multiple talents. And like many such men, he revolutionised the fields in which he worked. Illustration would never be the same once Howard Pyle took it up as a profession. Similarly, his many of his boy's adventure books are still in print and would influence writers to come. Indeed, they could well be seen as a predecessor to modern day pulp fiction. While many may not recognise his name, they no doubt recognise his illustrations and many of the title of many of his books.