Wednesday, April 22, 2015

I Don't Want to Muppet on this Planet Any More

The Muppets are going reality.

And, if Entertainment Weekly is to be believed, more “adult.”

By reality, they mean “mockumentary,” meaning we don’t really get to see them doing their skits with beloved actors, just the in-between crapola they “go through” as they attempt to get a new show on the air. They don’t define what they mean by adult. But the mind reels and then shoots down to the phrase: “How low can we go?”

Read, and weep for your childhood, here.

The Muppets return to prime time with a contemporary, documentary-style show that—for the first time ever—will explore the Muppets’ personal lives and relationships, both at home and at work, as well as romances, break-ups, achievements, disappointments, wants and desires; a more adult Muppet show, for kids of all ages.

The show could do so much – and who cares if it got compared to the original show? I did the same thing to Muppets Tonight, and I was wrong. Muppets Tonight did what The Muppet Show did just as well, keeping what worked with the old show while bringing in enough new to keep it fresh. Haven’t we mockumentaried the world to death by now? That’s the best they can come up with for a Muppets reboot?

You know, here’s an idea for something fresh the Muppets could do: A variety show. We haven’t seen a good one on television since Carol Burnett and company left. And, since, well, The Muppet Show. We’ve had a lot of mockumentaries lately. A lot of behind the scenes stuff. It’s not original.

Get guest stars and let them have fun. Do you think Peter Sellers had fun doing this? I think he did. And we, the audience, lapped it up.

Good ideas here for the reboot. Except for the last one. Which is where the reboot is going. Yuck.

What would have been wrong with, you know, just bringing The Muppets back? Does everything need a grittier, edgier feel these days? It was already a show for kids of all ages.

Darn Books Keep Educating Me

Reading Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory” is like going to a friend’s house and taking a peek into the medicine cabinet: Some things look familiar, but there’s a lot of stuff in there you don’t recognize.

Fussell’s premise is an interesting one: That English writers and poets steeped in romanticism turned many of romanticism’s tropes on their heads as they communicated their experiences of trench warfare. It’s a fascinating topic to study, and certainly one worthy of research – JRR Tolkien wasn’t shy in making known how his experiences during World War I helped him shape the narrative of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Silmarillion.

It’s obvious on first reading, however, that to better understand Fussell’s premise, I’ll have to do a lot of reading of the authors he writes about in order to come to my own conclusions (and then to read other contemporaries to see if, as critics claim, Fussell cherry-picked those who fit the premise he writes about).

So back to that medicine chest metaphor: You always want to peek into that chest, but you don’t dare mess with the unfamiliar there unless you’ve done your research. Fussell’s book is one of those medicine chest books, one that makes you do a lot more reading in order to understand what you saw at first glance.

Here are a few of the authors I want to check out, and why:

Liddell Hart: “The German use of gas – soon to be imitated by the British – was thought an atrocity by the ignorant, who did not know that, as Liddell Hart points out, gas is ‘the least inhumane of modern weapons.’ Its bad press was the result of its novelty. It was novel and therefore labelled an atrocity by a world which condones abuses but detests innovations”

William Ratcliffe: “[B]y the time the war began, sunrise and sunset had become fully freighted with implicit aesthetic and moral meaning. When a participant in the war wants an ironic effect, a conventional way to achieve one is simply to juxtapose a sunrise or sunset with the unlovely physical details of the war that man has made. This is the method of 2nd Lieutenant William Ratcliffe, destined to be killed on July 1, 1916. He writes his parents in June: ‘Everywhere the work of God is spoiled by the hand of man. One looks at a sunset and for a moment thinks that that at least is unsophisticated, but an aeroplane flies across, and puff! puff! and the whole scene is spoilt by clouds of shrapnel smoke.’”

T.S. Eliot: “Dawn has never recovered from what the Great War did to it. Writing four years after the Armistice, Eliot accumulates the new, modern associations of dawn: cold, the death of multitudes, insensate marching in file, battle, and corpses too shallowly interred:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short an infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. . . .
There I saw one I knew and stopped him, crying: ‘Stetson!
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?’”

The more I read Fussell and the authors he quotes, the more I think I’m a romanticist as I write. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The world, I think, needs more romanticists. So this one’s going to get better educated.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Interesting Tesseract . . .

So what’s the lesson here – aside from the obvious: Author Madeline L’Engle and her granddaughter’s preservations of previous drafts providing us a time tesseract into the revisions of “A Wrinkle in Time?”

The Wall Street Journal offers us a peek (a rather limited peek, assuredly, as there are likely more revisions and more drafts floating around out there) into L’Engle’s revision of the Newberry Award-winning book.

Jennifer Maloney writes:

Many readers, then and now, have understood the book’s dark planet Camazotz—a regimented place in which mothers in unison call their children in for dinner—to represent the Soviet Union. But the passage discovered by L’Engle’s granddaughter presents a more nuanced worldview.

In it, Meg has just made a narrow escape from Camazotz. As Meg’s father massages her limbs, which are frozen from a jarring trip through space and time, she asks: “But Father, how did the Black Thing—how did it capture Camazotz?” Her father proceeds to lay out the political philosophy behind the book in much starker terms than are apparent in the final version.

He says that yes, totalitarianism can lead to this kind of evil. (The author calls out examples by name, including Hitler, Mussolini and Khrushchev.) But it can also happen in a democracy that places too much value on security, Mr. Murry says. “Security is a most seductive thing,” he tells his daughter. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the greatest evil there is.”

Coming from a Mormon standpoint, I can say L’Engle’s thoughts in the cut passage mirror very closely the concepts on security and the evils thereof in Satan’s “plan,” offered as a counter to the one proposed by Jesus Christ in the Council of Heaven, in which we exchanged the security of returning to God’s presence for the moral agency of making the choice ourselves.

Maloney continues:

Ms. Voiklis said she wanted readers to know the book wasn’t a simple allegory of communism. Instead, it’s about the risk of any country—including a democracy—placing too much value on security. The tension between safety and personal freedom is an idea that resonates in today’s politics.
“It’s normal to be afraid,” said Ms. Voiklis, who manages her late grandmother’s estate full-time in New York. “But you can’t let the fear control your decisions. Otherwise, you risk becoming like Camazotz.”

Ars Technical says scholars who looked at the passage agreed that the book was strengthened by leaving the passages out. I’m not so sure. Perhaps it is a bit too preachy – the preachiness might be safer left in the mind of the reader than in the words of the author. But I’m convinced the passages on wanting to exchange security for anything else are still powerful.

The WSJ notes there is no hint as to why the passages were cut – whether they were curt by L’Engle or by her publisher. So the tesseract only takes us so far. . .

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Developing the Mythology . . .

This is the tale, as the magpies tell it.

When the sun rose on the last day, He Who Notes the Sparrow’s Fall wished for music.

There were many willing to sing.

The meadowlarks sang in round, their tunes braiding the air with the thistles, the soil with the sky.
The hawks and eagles sang, their shrieks and burbles like water tumbling over sharp rocks in a mountain stream.

Came too the telephone birds, the killdeer, the yoo-hoo birds. Each group sang and He Who Notes the Sparrow’s Fall closed his eyes to listen to each song, sighing, smiling, never singing along though he knew the tunes by heart because he wanted to hear the others sing.

Then she came.

She, his sister. Where she walked the marigolds sprouted and when she sang tulips sprang from the ground, drawn in the same electric frisson that caused feathers and fur to stand on end. And when she sang, the song was so beautiful the stars drew closer to hear and he sang along, never overshadowing her voice but always in tune, swaying willow branches to match the cottonwood fluff floating over the water.

Many, more shy, more modest, listened form holes, form branches, from deep within or from bare perches where they could feel the sunlight and the music and the breeze.

From them, too, he coaxed songs, laughing as a school of fish spat bubbles out of the water, pattering patterns to imitate the fall of rain, the splash of raccoons fishing, the tumble of fall leaves on still water. He listened solemnly as a family of skunks chanted their song of root and earth.

“Each,” you see, “has a song. And each song deserves to be heard.”

“But which is more beautiful,” his sister asked.

He frowned slightly. “I cannot esteem one over the other. All are equal in my ears.”

“Surely, brother, there must be one here whose voice you cherish above others,” she said.

“No,” he said. “Not one.”

The sunlight flickered on her face, as if briefly eclipsed.

“But I have not heard all,” he said. He glanced at his sister, pulled a strand of hair away from her face. Where the shadow persisted.

“Not jealous?” he asked, smiling at her. “Not jealous, one who sings so fair?”

“No,” she said shortly, looking away from his smiling face. “We have been told there is no room for jealousy.” She smiled, but the shadow still clouded her face. “Only joy.”

“Some know its opposite,” He said.

Again he called for song, and many who had sung before and many whose voices had been still joined. And she sang again and when she sang the shadow left her face and all once again felt the warmth of the sun and smelt the flowers and the grass and the soil and the fur and feathers and laughter.

Then the magpies came.

Those with keener ears first heard their voices, high, low, reedy and rounded. As they heard they ceased their own songs, for to hear magpies in chorus is to feel the sun on the skin and have its warmth while the cold snow bites and the fresh rain falls into puddles and streams for swimming where the weeds tickle and the sunlight sparkles and the twigs bounce and the leaves and flowers follow the light and the water flows over the rocks like caressing hands.

Those with keener eyes saw them: Broad, square wings with feathers the colors of sunrise and sky and sunset over the deepest forest.

They lighted on a bare branch thrust out of a leaning cottonwood one by one and, as the branch swayed under their weight, they sang. They sang and the sun and clouds marched overhead to a purple twilight where even the crickets chirped silently so as not to drown out the magpies’ song.
He Who Notes the Sparrow’s Fall lay in the bole of a twisted willow root, hands behind his head, eyes closed, listening.

The magpies finished their song and bowed their heads to the man in the willow roots.

“Almost,” he said idly, eyes still closed as the crickets slowly took it upon themselves to fill the night, “Almost could I say these are my favorites.”

“I see,” said his sister. And left in a gentle clap of thunder.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

And Another Thing . . .

No one writes like Douglas Adams.

In fact, after the first few books, not even Douglas Adams writes like Douglas Adams – the penchant for silly gets in the way of an actual storyline and, well, you’ve got Dickensian characters without the underlying story.

Same kind a goes for Eoin Colfer’s Hitchhiker’s attempt, “And Another Thing,” which, while it has a brief struggle with a story about the nature of gods and worship and such, doesn’t seem to get past the novelty of parading Adams’ characters (“Look! It’s Eccentrica Gallumbits!” Now it’s Ford Prefect! Whee!”) to get to an actual story.

So in that vein, Colfer has succeeded in writing the perfect Hitchhiker’s book, because they’ve always been light on plot, but this one seems lighter than most.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide itself (the device and company, not necessarily the books) hasn’t aged well. What seemed magical at the beginning  -- a portable device that offers the froody history of everything in the universe – now boils down to the worst of Wikipedia where you see [citation needed] more than anything else.

Colfer’s take is rather depressing – nobody in this book is happy, with the exception of those infamous Ameglian Major cows, who want to shove themselves down everyone’s throats at the nearest possible occasion. Sign of the times, I suppose. You can’t write space opera these days without everyone being so utterly depressed about everything. Why concentrate on the glorious vastness of the universe when the universe inside our own skulls is such a miserable, wretched place, right? I’m tired of science fiction and fantasy like that. I don’t mind brooding – but a whole novel of brooding? No thank you.

Yes, this book is dull. Dull re-destruction of Earth ad infinitum as Earth exists in so many dimensions . . . Vogons questioning their Vogonness (see? Even the Vogons are depressed in this one). And Arthur is there WITHOUT HIS DRESSING GOWN and SANS TOWEL.

I sound old. I must pause to adjust the onion on my belt.