Monday, January 11, 2010

Graphic History of the Book.

Not to be confused with a History of Graphic Books -- but until someone writes that, this is pretty neat:

The Evolution of the Book

Friday, November 6, 2009

FernGully: The Last Homophobic Rainforest.

My childhood lies in ruins around me.

I loved FernGully: the Last Rainforest as a kid, though if I'd realized they'd smashed two words together like that while keeping the capital letters I might have reconsidered. And so I thought it would be fun to give it another viewing tonight while the love of my life worked on his NaNoWriMo word count and I knit him a scarf like the good fiancée I am.

And yeah, the pushy environmentalism is still there, and and yeah, fairies, and I had forgotten all about the unfortunate Robin Williams turn as a rapping experiment-abused bat, but still. The biggest surprise -- and remember, we just had us an election where domestic partnerships were very much on the table -- FernGully hates teh gays.

No, I am not making this up, I swear.

Exhibit A: the swishy queen of a lizard voiced by Tone Loc, who threatens in (a distinctly techno-ish) song to eat our hot young douche of a protagonist. (Seriously, he is the prototypical early 1990s movie douche: distant, mildly abusive, easily cool, uses words like "tubular," the whole bit.) The song's lyrics include: "I just can't control this hunger / I just can't seem to cut it back." And do you know why he ends up not eating the hot young douche? "Any friend of a fairy is a friend of mine." I mean, come on.

Exhibit B: As a kid, my favorite part of the movie was the song Hexxus sings about being evil. The villain's songs in an animated movie are always great -- and if you don't believe me, consider Ursula, Scar, Rasputin, and Gaston. And it's just as great and big-bandy as I remember. And it occurred to me that Hexxus was voiced by someone whose name I knew. And then it turns out that somebody is Tim Curry, and he's gasping and writhing and splooging his essence all around.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? This number is right out of Rocky Horror. Our antienvironment villain who gets poisonous gunk all over everything is Dr. Frankenfurter.

At several times during his song, Hexxus eats himself. At one point he holds up a chainsaw that looks more like a cartoon penis since any cartoon penis outside of The Little Mermaid.

The movie was released in 1992 -- one year after Magic Johnson admitted he was HIV positive and Freddy Mercury died of AIDS. People were freaked out about AIDS, and rightly so, but very wrongly considered it a specifically gay problem.

Add to this the fact that our film's douchey hero and our really preternaturally stupid heroine essentially save the world with their douchey, stupid heterosexual attraction. Fertility is everything in this movie -- FernGully is basically one giant, teeming vagina (think of the name!) where nobody wears underwear -- and yeah, I suppose it makes sense that nonreproductive sexuality would constitute a threat. I mean, we all know nothing is gay in nature, right?

And maybe the homophobia comes about because FernGully obviously thinks women are magic. Sure, who can't make plants grow instantly just by cupping their palms over a seed? Whose hands don't glow blue when they want their significant others to share their powers of flight? Oh, that's right, everyone. And check out this screencap from the big romantic number. They swim through a long dark tunnel (!) and then kiss in the magical cavern on the other side, complete with giant boobs:

It would be easy to argue that this was a simple gender breakdown along familiar lines (nurturing female sexuality versus destructive male sexuality), were it not for the fact that we have a couple of heterosexual males firm in their defense of FernGully and its bass-ackwards inhabitants. But it's true this movie is also obsessed with the power of seeds and fertility. Representative quote: "All the magic of creation exists within a single tiny seed." This is first said as the elder female fairy hands over a magic glowing seed, while the other fairies fly around them, glowing green, but only from the waist down. At the end, it is echoed in the heroine's memory when she defeats Tim Curry by taking a seed from here:

And our heroine can only perform plant-growy-magic after she's fallen in love with the hero. No, hetero sex is just fine with FernGully.

Admittedly, that's Elton John playing over the end credits, so maybe I'm wrong about all this. But then, the soundtrack also features Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Sheena Easton, and Raffi. Tone Loc's number is written by Jimmy Buffett and Mr. Utley. The music's a big old mess, is what I'm saying.

Maybe it just bugs me that our idiot heroine ignores hot redheaded Christian Slater in favor of a blond condescending asshat who impresses the stupid, stupid fairies with his Walkman. God, fairies are morons.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Vox Humana

First-time karaoke singers almost always insist upon getting drunk before getting onstage. “Not until my umpteenth beer/cosmo/Jäger shot,” they will tell you in strident tones. It’s approximately the same reaction you would get if you invited them to poke an enraged bear with a short stick. Because in a way, even though it does not involve being mauled by a wild animal, to the first-timer karaoke feels physically dangerous.

Partly it’s because you know getting onstage means people will look at you. If a single person is looking at you, fine, because you can look right back at them. See how they like it. But when more than one person, when a crowd looks at you, and particularly when you are expected to justify that attention in some fashion -- looking becomes watching. And being watched is terrifying. You know that even if you look back at one of the people watching you, this still leaves two or ten or a hundred other people still un-looked-back-at. In essence, they see you but you do not see them. We are built so that this gives us the jeebies.

Alcohol supposedly gives us the bravery to face the jeebies head-on. Unfortunately, it also takes away things like motor control and lucidity of speech, both of which you tend to want more of onstage rather than less. To walk the liquid-courage-to-clumsiness tightrope is a balancing act.

But that first time really is kind of a bitch, and it seems overly demanding to expect people to go through it with wholly unassailed sobriety. If you’re anything like me, the first time you get up to sing karaoke your throat goes Sahara dry despite your quickly-downed, insisted-upon second beer just because it’s the least convenient thing to happen right before you are expected to put your voice through a microphone. The microphone does for voices what the microscope does for blood-borne diseases.

If you’re anything like me, you’re also concerned about not looking like a colossal squib of a human being in front of the brand-new older and wiser coworkers from your brand-new first-post-graduation job, even though these coworkers have gotten you into this mess in the first place (“It’s my birthday, Alicia, you have to sing something!”). You were careful to pick a song with a leisurely rhythm -- Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” -- where conveniently the nervous glaciation of your limbs could be mistaken for hip sangfroid. You know the secret to being before an audience is ignoring the audience (because you worry you are not one of those performers who can magically cradle an audience in the warm cozy palm of their hand).

And now they’re calling your name and you get up there and for one all-white second you go totally blank on how the song starts, and then the song does start and you remember it all again.

So you close your eyes, and you start to sing, and now that's your voice coming out of that speaker. And you want to actually be able to hear more of it against the background of the music, so you sing a little louder.

The swingy Motown rhythm is incredibly easy to slip into, and before you get to the first chorus you are starting to kind of have fun with the way you have to listen for timing and pitch and watch the words on the screen and make them mean something as you sing them and breathe at all the right times and make sure you’re not too loud or too soft or blowing those machine-gun puffs of air into the head of the microphone.

By the time you hit the wistful bridge of the song -- How well do I remember / the look that was in his eyes -- you have relaxed enough to really put some trumpet into your voice. You can also see your coworkers’ eyes all round with surprise because you’re not at all the kind of person they expect to have a trumpet in them even a little bit. You’re miles past the jeebies now, and you hoist open all the windows in your soul and close your eyes and belt out the big finish and all at once the song is over and the applause hits you and it flows in those open windows like a cool breeze on a hot day and you wonder what on earth you are going to sing next --

I know that there are people who never try it, or who make one attempt but remain unimpressed and unaddicted, like with cocaine. But for the rest of us, that first hit -- of karaoke, I mean -- worms its evil way into the marrow. Ultimately, that initial fear turns out to be not so much the fear of being looked at, but rather the fear of being seen through. All your faults and secrets are there with you on stage, and they feel terrifyingly visible. However, on a karaoke stage you are safe from too penetrating a gaze, since the song that you are singing is not really or not entirely yours. This is an important difference from, for example, open-mic night performances, where the singer is performing something they have labored to construct. With karaoke, you do not produce a song: you temporarily inhabit one. The songs in the book belong to everybody in the audience as well as the present singer. At least if you are a fraud at singing Aerosmith, you have some excuse.

Most of what the performer does onstage is to say at length to the audience: I love this song, don’t you? Because here is the real secret to karaoke: you must love something about your song. Love sincerely (Norah Jones) or abashedly (Hall & Oates) or defiantly (Pat Benatar). Love the way the melody feels in your throat, love the words you clothe in the breath from your lungs, love the way your whole body -- voice and heart and limbs -- becomes an instrument upon which your song is played. Love, if nothing else, the effect your song can have upon the listening crowd: give them something new, or better yet something that has slipped their mind, something they have forgotten they love too. Nothing buoys the heart like a cheering karaoke audience when the singer has picked a song they also love.

This is how karaoke destroys the loneliness of anonymity without foisting the burdens of specialness upon the singer. No matter how well someone sings, at the end of the song they are going to hand the microphone to somebody else. The normally rigid boundary between on- and offstage is here a permeable membrane, and the effect is a climate of approbation not unlike that of the grade school Christmas pageant, only with drinking and swears. Our cast: the heartbreakingly earnest middle-aged man singing 80’s soft rock love ballads, the reckless punk kid with a mohawk who secretly wants to be Billy Idol, the thirty-something woman who has spent most of her life trying conquer an inherent shyness, the college kids finally released from the horrors of midterm exams, the siren, the charmer, the would-be rapper, and the suave older gentleman who sings Sinatra as naturally as breathing. Performer and audience here are not fixed definitions, but roles that can be slipped into or out of as necessary.

This is why the audience will always clap: as long as the singer remains onstage for the length of the song, they have succeeded. We have not bought a ticket for this, and we do not expect training or talent, though we may be delighted by either. All that we require is an effort in good faith. Karaoke may be the world’s only form of art based on good intentions.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Lunatic Sleeps Again.

In an earlier post, I mused over the relationship between the moon landings and science fiction through the lens of the Futurama episode "The Series Has Landed." Remember? Yeah, that was fun.

Recently, Ted Gioia argued something similar, though he did it much more eloquently and using examples from Bradbury, Asimov, and Clarke rather than Groening. His point is that once the moon landing was achieved, the postcoital letdown of space travel's science proved equally detrimental to science fiction:
As space exploration disappeared from the front pages, sci-fi lost much of its glamour and most of its readers . . . With the conclusion of the Apollo program, NASA became just another government agency, more bureaucratic than heroic.

Gioia then compares science-fiction authors to stockbrokers -- no, really -- because both make predictions. I think this oversimplifies the difference between fact and fiction, especially since I'm not convinced science fiction authors are particularly concerned with being right about the future (though Gioia seems to think they are). When we watch Blade Runner or The Matrix or Minority Report or read Dune, which Gioia obviously holds in high opinion as hard science fiction from the Golden Age, we're not asking questions about the future so much as we're asking questions about the present. Our present, really -- ourselves. Science fiction then and now is really about what it means to be human: this is why it has aliens, for one thing, because they are ipso facto not human, and provide us an opportunity for defining what exactly human is.

I'm getting a little off-track . . . Another snippet from Gioia:
Science fiction is experiencing a bit of a
comeback these days, but the moon plays a
low profile in the renewal efforts.

Perhaps I would find this more convincing if the most recent science fiction film I've seen were not a little thing called Moon, starring Sam Rockwell and directed by Duncan Jones. It is deliberately low-budget, intensely psychological, and really, really good. (Seriously -- go see it!) Here the moon is no longer a fantasy, but an outpost, a cold colony of one trapped far from the warmth of civilization. And this suggests a new way for science fiction to treat the moon, a way more in line with the current dystopian trend in the genre.

Gioia's discussion of the collapsed lunar fantasy, it seems to me, has strong echoes of the way the exotic East (Arabia, China, Japan, India) has long been mythologized and fetishized in Western culture. The moon is feminine, it is the Earth's Other, it is passive and ocean-associated and romantic and there to be conquered by Western men. (No coincidence that in Moon deposits of Helium-3 are being imperialistically mined from the lunar surface for use powering the cities of Earth.) But plainly speaking, just as Orientalism has gone out of fashion, so we must find something new to do with the moon in our stories.

In fact, without giving too much away, what Moon seems to point to is the possible costs which underlie perfect ideas, whether it's endlessly cheap energy or your memories of a loving family back on Earth. A Fry-like sense of wonder and openness is necessary still -- it's the memory of that loving family that helps Sam Rockwell, um, do what he does (no specifics here) -- but the costs and consequences matter too.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Piccolo, Snipe, and Splits -- Oh My!

I thought it would be a simple thing to find a split of Veuve Clicquot yellow label champagne (Brut) on a Thursday afternoon. A split -- the bottle size that holds 350 mL as opposed to the regular bottle's 750 mL -- holds about two glasses, and is therefore just the right size of bottle which with to surprise the love of your life at the start of dinner, while still ensuring that he is able to drive you happily home at the end of the meal. With the regular size, you see, it ends up being one of those bowling-ball-for-the-wife-type gifts: "Here you are, honey, a whole bottle of champagne! But you're driving, so you only get one glass, and I'll have to drink the other three." No, a split was clearly the thing.

Nobody had one. I called boutique wine stores, grocery stores, boutique wine stores recommended by the sommeliers at the grocery stores -- nothing. I was verging on desperate when I remembered Mill Creek's Central Market and their killer wine selection.

They had one. I rejoiced. In fact, they not only had a split of brut, they had the next step up, the slightly sweeter demi-sec. So I bought that one.

And it got me thinking: where did all the half-bottles go? I used to see them everywhere, but now they only crop up every now and again and mostly during winery-located tastings. And where did they come from? Are they a product of the old economy's luxury and hedonism? Are people even buying their champagne in bulk now?

I went where I usually go when looking for basic history facts: Wikipedia. And -- holy crap! -- there is a disagreement. Either Wikipedia must be wrong, or everyone I've ever talked to about wine has let me persist in my ignorance about the definition of what a split is. According to the site, a split is .1875 mL, also known as a quarter bottle, a piccolo, a pony, or -- my favorite -- a snipe. Immediately I want to go to the snazziest restaurant in town and call out, "Garçon! A snipe of your finest champagne!" Then I will shoot my cuffs and polish my monocle on my cravat until it gleams.

But wait -- it gets better.

Once you get up to the double magnum (4 regular bottles) the list of wine bottle sizes reads like a list of begats from the Old Testament. A double magnum is also known as a Jeroboam, and then you move up: Rehoboam (6 bottles), Methuselah (8 bottles), Salmanazar (12 bottles). Balthazar, Nebachudnezzar, and Melchior (16, 20, and 24 bottles respectively). What -- says the kid who was raised Catholic -- no Gaspar? Poor unlucky third wise man. Thereafter the measures get weird, with Solomon (26 and 2/3 bottles), a sovereign (33 and 1/3 bottles, so presumably the sovereign in question is Jesus, the King of Kings, who died at 33, which makes me wonder if the sovereign is supposed to measure the amount of water Jesus turned to wine for his first miracle at the wedding at Cana -- see? raised Catholic). Last we have the primat (36 bottles) and the Melchizedek (40 bottles). Think about that: a bottle that holds 40 other bottles of wine.

You can buy a Melchizedek of Drappier champagne, but not, I think, on their website.

Don't even get me started on wine bottle colors and shapes -- that's a whole post in itself.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Lunatic Dreams

People don't yearn for the moon like we used to. An entire generation grew up dreaming crewcut dreams of countdowns and dusty craters, but although NASA TV still broadcasts launches, and thousands still line up in person to watch them (wouldn't you?), there is the sense that our reach is farther now, our gaze set on sizeable fellow planets like Mars and Jupiter rather than our own humble follower.

That said, if offered the chance to actually set foot on the moon, who wouldn't be tempted? Who wouldn't follow the example of Futurama's Philip J. Fry and babble a little when asked: "The moon? The moon moon?"

Thrilled, he counts down from ten, but they arrive before he reaches 8; poor hapless Fry counts hurriedly down to "blastoff" in an awed whisper, his eyes saucer-round, unwilling to forgo the ritual.

As this truncated countdown shows, this whole second episode ("The Series Has Landed") is concerned with the gap between our early twentieth-century belief in science/science fiction and our current conception of both as fraught with moral dangers -- a gap I will call either the Oppenheimer fissure ("I am become Death, destroyer of worlds") or, less probably, the Dick abyss (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). The Oppenheimer fissure is the point where we lose our sense of the endless potential and promise of science and science fiction after an encounter with the consequences. These consequences are important, to be sure -- but there is a balance to be struck between hope and despair, and it seems to me we are falling too far on the side of the latter.

Billy West, who voices Fry, is quoted in a TV Squad interview: "Here they are, they can go anywhere in the universe, and where do they go? The moon. Because in our heart of hearts, deep within our memory banks, the moon was the place to get to." When he arrives, he excitedly takes the predictable "one small step for [a] man," but finds "one giant line for admission." The moon has become a giant, cheesy amusement park for bored Earthlings who aren't even all that excited about visiting it. Attainment of the dream has collapsed the fantasy, even as the futuristic speed of the spaceship collapsed Fry's initial blastoff countdown. This moon is really no different from Earth. In fact, even the name Luna Park is taken from a chain of terrestrial amusement parks (one was famously located on Coney Island).

Something else significant has been lost: the thirtieth century no longer remembers the original history of man's landing on the moon. An educational ride shows robots inaccurately potraying early astronauts as Alice and Ralph from The Honeymooners, causing Fry to grumpily state that Ralph "was just using space travel as a metaphor for beating his wife." Fry is still in the pre-lapsarian state, where the moon is glamorous and alluring; he has not lost the memory of what the moon once meant.

The narrative is certainly satirical, but it does not aim for bitterness. The appearance of Craterface, Luna Park's mascot, indicates that we are operating in the well-worn territory of science fiction's history in visual media. Craterface is directly pulled from George Méliès' "A Trip to the Moon" (1902), a very early fantastical film with a fairly self-explanatory title. In the original source, a bottle-shaped spaceship carrying a load of comical umbrella-wielding astronomers crashes into the eye of the drippy cheese moon; here, a surly drunken robot shoves a mostly empty bottle of booze into the eye of the mascot who tries to confiscate it. If anyone could represent the modern desecration of outmoded ideals, it would be Bender -- and yet moments later, when a magnet temporarily scrambles his inhibition unit and Fry accuses him of acting "like some crazy folk singer," Bender turns a wistful gaze upward and sadly intones: "Yes. I guess a robot would have to be crazy to want to be a folk singer." Bender, a walking, talking, swearing, drinking machine, has dreams of his own. He is a product of science, but he is virtually human.

Spectatorship in this world implies sympathy: later in the episode, the Professor uses a telescope to watch Leela and Fry attempting to outrun the threatening edge of lunar nightfall. "I really ought to do something," he says, and although he then decides not to, seeing as how he's already in his pajamas, this reversal is clearly a failure, albeit a comical one. This scene follows an unsatisfying performance by a busted-down set of animatronic gophers who invite the angry, disappointed audience to "address all complaints to the Monsanto Corporation." The relationship between spectator and performer is meant to be mutually dependent, and neither personal nor corporate indifference rise to the occasion.

Ultimately the episode comes down on the side of wonder. Together, Leela and Fry have stumbled upon the original moon lander, which has been lost for centuries. Fry is ecstatic, but Leela chastises him: "Fry, look around. It's just a crummy plastic flag and a dead man's tracks in the dust." Reduced to its mere physical components, the moon is bleak indeed, and Fry's expression saddens as night falls.

As they take shelter in the lunar lander, Leela grumbles, "I still don't see what the big attraction is." Fry explains:
"The moon was like this awesome, romantic, mysterious thing, hanging up there in the sky where you could never reach it, no matter how much you wanted to. But you're right. Once you're actually here it's just a big dull rock. I guess I just wanted you to see it through my eyes, the way I used to."

Fry is a bubble easily burst, but his simple sincerity -- and I am using both senses of "simple" -- often has an eloquence that touches the listener, as now. As his head droops, Leela sees the Earth reflected in the curve of his helmet. This helmet is a screen that allows Leela a spectator's view of Fry's wistful yearnings: she can almost literally see what the moon looks like to him. She turns, and they both look out over that ubiquitous, endlessly fascinating image: the Earth hanging spherical in space while the moon stretches beneath. Earth has become moonlike now, and this somehow purifies the commercialization of the moon, and undoes the disillusionment that made the moon too like the Earth at the episode's beginning. When Leela softly admits that "It really is beautiful -- I don't know why I never noticed it before," it is not entirely clear whether she is speaking about the moon or the Earth.

I prefer to think it's both. Fry's idealistic enthusiasm has a tendency to lead to trouble (which is how they ended up in the lunar lander with precious little oxygen), but Leela's pragmatism needs a little romance to temper it. The moral quandaries necessarily raised by science and science fiction still should not eclipse all the promise of earlier, more optimistic ages.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Great Tennis Jewelry Mystery.

Here's the question: why do they call it a tennis bracelet?

This answer is simple: because women's champ Chris Evert was wearing one in 1987's U.S. Open; the bracelet's clasp broke and the match was halted until the jewelry was retrieved. And the world looked at that bracelet and went, "Neat." So all thin strings of in-line diamonds in a regular pattern became known as tennis bracelets. Fair enough.

The corollary: why do tennis players wear so much jewelry? Every time I come across matches on the teevee, the women are wearing earrings, necklaces, and so on. Seems to me -- a former basketball player -- that putting something expensive and fragile on an athlete in play is kind of, well, silly. Possibly dangerous. I even looked up the ITF dress code from 2006 (the only one I could find online) to see what it said about jewelry -- most unhelpfully, there was nothing.

I remain puzzled.