Saturday, February 7, 2015

Neglected Gem #71 – Babe: Pig in the City

Those who went to Babe: Pig in the City in 1998 – George Miller’s sequel to his great 1995 Babe – to see another naturalist’s adventure set on the Hoggett farm had their expectations upended. Miller and his co-writers, Judy Morris and Mark Lamprell, clearly had no interest in repeating the achievement of the first film. Though Pig in the City begins with a farm-wide celebration of Babe’s sheep-herding triumphs, within the first few minutes Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) is confined to his bed in a cast and a neck brace following a nasty fall down a well – a consequence of a miscalculation on Babe’s part about how best to help “the boss.” Then the bank threatens to foreclose on his property and Hoggett’s beloved pig-faced wife Esmé (Magda Szubanski) hatches a plan to enter Babe in a fair, which requires an international plane trip, and takes Babe away from all of his farm companions, the familiar supporting cast of the first Babe (as well as, of course, Hoggett himself). Mrs. Hoggett’s scheme is set off course when a drug-sniffing customs hound at the airport decides to show off for Babe’s benefit and gets the boss’s wife detained for dope smuggling; by the time customs clears her she and Babe have missed their connections. With no imminent flight available to return them home, they trudge over to the only hotel in the vicinity that welcomes pets. But circumstances conspire to separate Esmé and Babe. First their suitcase and then Babe himself are kidnapped by a family of chimps on the floor below – and one solemn, laconic orangutan, their Uncle Thelonius. They perform with the concierge’s Uncle Fugly Floom (Mickey Rooney, in a wondrous, absurdist Keatonesque cameo), a dilapidated vaudevillian who’s been reduced to entertaining in the children’s wards of hospitals. Then Esmé gets into more trouble with the law (don’t ask). Like Babe’s stint in Fugly’s act, it’s only temporary. But the separation is enough to throw Babe into the cold city of Metropolis, where animals who have been set loose by their humans are as likely to starve as not, and where the prevailing spirit is – if you’ll forgive me – dog eat dog.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Love and Libido: Showtime's The Affair

Fiona Apple’s ”Container” is as disturbing as any theme song ever heard over the opening credits of each episode in a TV series. In this case, it’s the musical coda for The Affair, the first season of which ran from October through December last year on the Showtime cable network. With a big dose of Celtic doom, the nominally simple yet anguished a cappella melody sets the mood for a complex drama about adultery. Apart from politics and religion, arguably there is no greater hypocrisy in many countries than when it comes to the subject of carnal pleasure. In terms of words and images, sex was just sex until the concept of pornography first surfaced during the Victorian era with England’s Obscene Publications Act of 1857. Never mind that prehistoric cave paintings depicted copulation up the ying-yang. And don’t even get me started about erotica in ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indian and Japanese cultures! The specific draw of in flagrante delicto – which Hank Williams so aptly defined in 1952 as “Your Cheatin’ Heart” – must be powerful. More than half of all married couples in America are apparently unfaithful. That was even true when Mom and Dad slept in separated twin beds on mid-20th-century sitcoms. A society that holds monogamy up as an admirable virtue is a society probably fooling itself.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Canajan Boys

Last summer we were walking downtown in Charlottetown, my wife, my brother-in-law, his wife, and daughter. Just a block from Province House. It was evening, we’d been out for dinner, and to see Anne of Green Gables. We had parked on a side street and were returning to our car, when alongside the church beside which we were parked we saw, to our amazement, a fox. Not just any fox, but a black fox. None of us were ready, with a camera (or phone) so we didn’t get a picture…but all five of us gasped and said, “Look! A black fox!” A man was walking down the road towards us and he declared, “You must be tourists… we see them every day.” Oh sure…I know it’s officially called a ‘silver’ fox, and that they put money in the pockets of poor Islanders for years (and now it’s not politically correct to even suggest that there might be a market for fox pelts…) but, in 1939, 10% of the population of PEI kept foxes. Now the little critters run wild on the main street

Why all this talk about foxes? It’s because Michael Wrycraft’s lovely cover design for Jon Brooks’ new CD features a very distinguished looking fox, not a silver fox… a red one. And this one is not in a city, he’s roaming free in The Smiling & Beautiful Countryside. Brooks is a powerful singer-songwriter who has been well known for his political songs. Songs like “Fort McMurray,” “Hudson Girl,” “Son of Hamas” and “Cage Fighter” (all from 2012’s Delicate Cages CD) dealt with issues as wide ranging as the Alberta tar sands, Quebec language laws, Palestinian suicide bombers, and a mixed martial arts fighter who had been a Bosnian child soldier. The new album, which takes its title from a Sherlock Holmes quote, is something quite different. It’s a collection of murder ballads. Not Ozark murder ballads handed down from generation to generation, but Canadian murder ballads that Brooks has written. Gore, sex, killing, necrophilia: name your poison and it’s here. I saw Brooks play “Delia’s Gone,” another murder ballad, at a Johnny Cash Tribute Show a year or so ago and it gave me a clue as to what this CD would be like. Wrycraft told me then that Brooks wanted to “piss people off” with his new album. This might do it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Looking for Clues: Three New Mysteries by Alan Bradley,Thomas Perry and Becky Masterman

Fans of Canadian writer Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels – and I freely confess I am one of them – will remember that at the end of The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the sixth in the series, 11-year-old heroine Flavia – poison aficionado, investigator extraordinaire – discovered that her late mother and her very much alive Aunt Felicity, were members of a shadowy group of secret agents known as the Nide. And furthermore, that she, Flavia, was destined to join them. To further this end, Flavia is sent – is “banished” for her sins, she feels – to Toronto, to enroll in Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, the private school her mother attended as a girl. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Delacorte), Bradley’s seventh Flavia novel, chronicles our precocious preteen protagonist’s adventures in Canada. And you know there will be adventures. Sure enough, on Flavia’s first day at Miss Bodycote’s, a wrapped and mummified body falls out of the chimney into her room, ending up right at her feet. (Flavia has long demonstrated a world-class aptitude for finding dead bodies.) The Toronto police take charge of the body, of course, but that doesn’t stop Flavia from pursuing the identity of the victim and, of course, the murderer. And while she’s at it, she also looks into the ghost said to haunt Miss Bodycote’s and the rumours about girls disappearing over the years. Of course, she must also attend classes – including, much to her delight, a chemistry course taught by a woman acquitted of murder by poison – negotiate girls-boarding-school culture, investigate the school’s staff, and, not incidentally, deal with her training in the tradecraft of spying. It’s a charming jumble of clues, false trails and surprises, all narrated in Flavia’s droll, amusing voice. If I have a cavil, it’s that I miss the village of Bishop’s Lacey and its many delightful characters, the rambling, crumbling de Luce mansion Buckshaw, Flavia’s wicked older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, faithful family retainers Dogger and Mrs. Mullet, and even Flavia’s sturdy, reliable bicycle, Gladys. So frankly, I was delighted to find that, after solving the many mysteries of Miss Bodycote’s (no spoiler), Flavia is headed back to England.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Nerd's Work Is Never Done – Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie & The Legend of The Atari Burial

The Atari dig in Alamogordo, New Mexico, April 2014.

In 1983, Atari, Inc   the reigning monarch of the global video gaming market at the time   buried over 700,000 of its popular Atari 2600 game cartridges and consoles in a New Mexico landfill. This was the final act of a company which would shut its doors shortly afterward and fade into pop culture history, thanks to a massive industry blowout now known as the North American Video Game Crash of 1983. The one game which could be said to have caused this collapse was Atari's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a tie-in product based on the Steven Spielberg movie.

But how could a single title tank an entire home console empire? The answer is that due to negotiations to secure the film rights taking far longer than anticipated, Howard Scott Warshaw, the game's programmer and lead designer, was given only five weeks to complete the game for release in the 1982 Christmas season leading to one of the biggest commercial failures in video game history and a title that is frequently cited as one of the worst video games ever released: a cryptic, ugly, and incomprehensible adaptation of a beloved children's film. Burying the hundreds of thousands of worthless, unsold cartridges left over must have seemed like an excellent idea.

But the veracity surrounding the details of the story became unclear with time, and soon few were sure whether or not the infamous Atari burial ever actually took place. Investigations by fans of gaming history produced inconclusive results, and the story soon took on the spectre of an urban legend. Who really knows what lies out there in the New Mexico desert? This mystery resulted in existing copies of the game more than tripling their original value, collectors becoming desperate to own such a rare piece of gaming history even one so sordid as E.T..

Monday, February 2, 2015

Flesh and Soul: A Life of Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams at his desk in 1948. (Photo: W Eugene Smith/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

John Lahr’s biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which came out from W.W. Norton late last year, evolved in a curious fashion. In 1995 a San Francisco theatrical producer named Lyle Leverich with no other books to his credit published a very fine first volume of a Williams bio called Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams that took the playwright’s story up through the triumphant Broadway opening of The Glass Menagerie in 1945. Lahr had an odd connection to Leverich’s book in a number of ways. Maria St. Just, Williams’ infamously possessive and tyrannical literary executor, had attempted to frighten Leverich off by asking Lahr to write an authorized biography (which he refused to do). Then, ironically, it was Lahr whose help Leverich and his publisher asked in getting St. Just off his back, after she had succeeded in holding up the publication of his book for five years, and Lahr ended up writing a profile on her in The New Yorker. Eventually Tom saw the light of day, but Leverich died four years later, before completing the second part of his project. He and Lahr had become friends, and he had asked Lahr if he would finish the biography if he proved unable to; he went so far as to put that request in his will. That’s how Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh came into being, nearly two decades later. Lahr claims in the preface that it didn’t turn out to be part two of Leverich’s bio but its own stand-alone bio. But though the writers’ styles and approaches are understandably different, there’s so little overlap in the stories they tell that effectively they are indeed two halves of a deeply engrossing story, and readers who want to learn as much as they can about Williams’ life and career are advised to read them back to back. (Each runs roughly 600 pages.)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Impossible Belonging: Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular

Writer Sayed Kashua (Photo courtesy of Die Welt)

The world of fiction is replete with novels about ‘identity’: sometimes it is about gender, sometimes about the place of a character in a family, or city, or even time period. In other texts the character is concerned with their religious, ethnic, or national identity. All such books point to the fact that our identity is fluid. How we define ourselves, and what content we give to those definitions, changes throughout our lives and is often very (if not wholly) dependent upon the situations in which we find ourselves and to which we must respond. Not only does our ‘identity’ change over time, but we contain multiple identities at any given moment – we dress, speak, and respond to other people differently depending on the context, we consider certain behaviors appropriate in one context and not in another… and this is not a demonstration of our hypocrisy (which would assume that there is some stable identity to which we are being unfaithful) but a demonstration of our multiplicity. Fictional works that focus on identity illuminate the extent to which we human beings, for all of our vaunted uniqueness, are rarely ever the ‘same’ person for two moments in a row.  Sayed Kashua’s most recent novel, Second Personal Singular (published in Hebrew by Keter Books as Guf sheni yaḥid in 2010, and in English by Grove Press in 2012), charts the permutations of his characters identities in a unique context, and with a unique style, that is all the author's own.