Saturday, December 24, 2005

Happy Cone Day! (My Dog is a Dog)

My dog is a cone-head.

This wasn’t my dream for him. This wasn’t what I planned when he was a pup. My dog, in dog years, is seventy years old, but he thinks he’s a puppy. No—I think he thinks he’s a puppy. Yes—I constantly endow my dog with a wondrous web of thoughts and feelings. He’s Shakespeare without a pen. He’s Beethoven without a piano. He’s a liberal progressive pacifist—no, no, no! Why can’t I seem to remember this one fixed fact: my dog is dog.

My dog is a con-artist.

You don’t believe me? It’s all in my head, you say. But you haven’t seen how he droops before me (after rolling his body joyfully in poo) and lowers his sober shoulders in a poignant posture of remorse, and then, when I turn away, he smirks—oh, yes, I spy him peripherally!—my own dog smirks at my gross gullibility.

My dog is a therapist.

When I cry (yes, I do cry), my dog nuzzles my hand and licks my fingers. No, it’s not the salt he craves—or the praise he receives once he’s cheered me—or the treat he enjoys afterwards. It’s just his natural humanity—strike that!—natural sensitivity. He listens to my grievances and nods sympathetically (or else, nods off). Well, he comforts me. Shall we leave it at that?

My dog makes me a champion (or Don Quixote).

When the wind whistles at my window, my dog hides behind me, pressing his cold nose between my bare ankles. So when this very same wind starts knocking at the door, I find myself rising with ire. How dare you breeze by like this! How dare you terrorize my dog with your blustery manner and careless ways!

I used to love a tempestuous gust. Stormy nights were romantic, once upon a time. But now I shake my fist (figuratively, er, most of the time) at this flighty foe.

My dog is mine.

Of course, he forgets. Occasionally. Often. He runs off with those too-friendly dog-walkers. Despite everything I’ve told him about nice-people! And he ends up lolling on a porch a few houses down. He collapses there with laughing eyes, as if that house is His Home; that neighbor, His Master.

“You’re Mine,” I tell him when I retrieve him.

He humors me with a contrite expression. But he’ll go again, his brightened eyes tell me, and again, and again, because…

My dog is a dog. He belongs to no one.

Monday, December 19, 2005

What do I want for Christmas? Only a Mountain. With you there.

"If you're going to give me coal for Christmas," my brother tells me, "I prefer the bituminous variety." (Hmmm, wonder which variety Bush favors?) Then bro asks: "What do you want this year?"

I dodge this question. I rarely want anything small, manageable, gift-wrap-able.

As kids, we used to flip feverishly through the hefty Sears-Roebuck catalogue with our greedy, little fingers, circling toy after toy. (Hey, Mom, I'm still waiting for that slick, red sled, by the way!)

'Course we never got any of that crap. But we fell under the spell of desire. I started to long for toys that promised hours of happiness - and more! I might become that pretty, smiling girl in the photo. If only I had that doll.

But we're wiser now. Well, we pretend to be. We make-believe those ads for the latest whatamacallit doohickey isn't making our current thingamabob seem archaic, obsolete.

'Cause we don't want to fall behind the times, do we? And upgrading our systems has nearly become analogous with upgrading our very selves (as if we are the machines in need of the new and improved part).

But this holiday season (without any technological purchase at all), there's a gift that has the power to put us ahead of our times.

Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's adaptation of a short story by Annie Proulx, has been classified as "O" (Morally Offensive) by the USCCB (US Conference of Catholic Bishops) despite reviewing the film as a serious contemplation of loneliness and connection.

So...what do I want for Christmas?

A vote for the "moral value" of social justice and a large turn-out of voters.

Cast your ballot at the box office.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Shoo, Mr. Chippendale, Shoo!

At a friend’s bachelorette party, a blond, bronze Chippendale offered me a lap dance.

I was sitting at the bar, several paces behind the general audience and hullabaloo, but my very presence at the club seemed to suggest that I secretly coveted a lap dance.

I smiled politely at the blond and pointed to my friend. “I’m here for her, not myself.”

It could be said that I came to Chippendales with a critical eye. As an artist, I can’t help but evaluate the staged skits and sing-a-longs.

The production numbers were cheesy and predictable, yes, with unimaginative choreography, but I don’t mind cheesy predictability, if it’s born out of a joyous energy.

What surprised me was the overall sloppiness of the performances. Did no one else notice that the pacing was off, the dancers weren’t in sync, the singers had forgotten the lyrics to the songs (or never learned the words in the first place). Did anybody care?

The performers appeared bored or detached. What might have been a silly romp or fun diversion came across as joyless and robotic. Despite a hyped-up energy, they seemed only to be going through the motions.

Just like this blond, bronze boy who returned (a second time) to bestow a lap dance upon me.

It wasn’t clear if he just refused to accept my earlier refusal, or if he didn’t even remember our previous encounter. If he was a robot, would he recognize a human?

I declined again, shaking my head firmly, and now, he appeared aggravated, as if I wasn’t playing my part. As he attempted to persuade me to participate, there was an unpleasant aggression in his manner, and I wondered (and doubted) if men have this kind of trouble from women in topless bars.

“Come on,” he spat, “Come on.”

The absurdity of the situation was not lost on me, but other than resorting to violence and kicking him in the groin, I wasn’t clear on how to get through to him. I retired to the restroom for respite, and when I reemerged, I was able to sit in peace for a while.

Until he approached a third time. It was my friend who rescued me. “Tell him you’re broke,” she whispered in my ear.

“Got no money!” I shouted over the music.

Just like magic, this blond, bronze lap-dancer disappeared.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Go Ahead, Doctor, Make My Day

“If you bleed to death,” said the soft-spoken nurse, “the hospital won’t be held responsible.”

Dad, who had been pacing his hospital room like a caged animal, appeared unaffected by her statement.

Dad came of age under the influence of John Wayne. He and Clint Eastwood are the same age. He has watched men bleed to death beneath the gleam of a simulated Western sun. That is heroic.

There is nothing heroic about wearing this flimsy bathrobe and waiting inside this sterile room for test results that had been promised hours before.

Yesterday, Dad came here in excruciating pain, and after enduring tests, he was asked to stay overnight with the promise of results in the morning. He submitted (reluctantly), but today, the promised results were delayed and ultimately, inconclusive. His blood was too thin, but the doctor wasn't sure why.

“I’m not retired,” Dad informed the nurse impatiently.

Dad hires himself out as a handyman. At the moment, he’s renovating a Villa with a December deadline.

“I have work to do,” he insisted emphatically.

Do you think because I am old and frail that I have nothing better to do? Do you think because my hair is white and sparse and my face spotted and wrinkled that time has ceased to matter to me?

When Dad was requested to stay a second night, he threw on his clothes.

“I’m out of here!” he shouted to anybody who might care.

“You’ll have to sign yourself out,” said the nurse impassively, “You’ll have to sign that you left against our instructions.”

Fine. Just show me where to sign. Dad held out a pen.

On the sidelines, sitting against the wall, Mom played the woman in Dad’s Western. She was the damsel who looks on anxiously as two gunfighters have a showdown. Now, she rose: “Are you sure?”

“This place is a jail." A jail he was determined to escape. No man should be denied liberty without just cause.

As he started to sign, the nurse spoke quietly, “If you leave prematurely, your insurance probably won’t cover the costs of the previous tests.”

This gave Dad pause. This was a hitch. Bleeding to death might seem valiant. But falling into debt was another matter altogether. There was little dignity in debt.

“How much do you think it’ll cost?” he asked, and Mom seized this opportunity. “Thousands,” she breathed, “Thousands, I’m sure.”

Freedom feels so close; right within reach.

Dad wants to die with his boots on, not hospital slippers. But slowly, he sits back onto the bed. Tonight, he’ll be confined again. He’ll dream of escape, praying jail-break comes before death.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

I’m in Love (Again!): Jane Eyre, the Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

Yes, you’ve reached the backward boonies of belated reviews. Five years after its rise and fall on Broadway (2000), I offer a brief response to this musical’s cast recording.

No, I haven’t been ruminating over my reaction for five years. (Though, if you know me, that’s not improbable.) As it happens, I only recently discovered the existence of this musical.

My first impression of Jane Eyre, The Musical was not all favorable. James Barbour (as Edward Rochester) seemed to possess far too sweet a voice for such a tormented man. Marla Schaffel (as Jane Eyre) seemed to gasp between her ardent words.

Yes, this love affair of mine had a bumpy start. Partly due to the fact that I was sitting in the passenger seat during a 20-hour car ride. I had collected several Broadway recordings for the journey, and this one, eventually, stole my heart.

Why, you ask?

First, let me confess that, sometimes, on a dark eve, I hear Jane’s voice calling to me. She’s a contradictory but passionate soul whose words strike right through the years between us.

And here, she sings:

Well, women feel as men do
We must engage our minds and souls
Let us, like our brothers
Let our worth define our roles

Breaking custom and convention
Let tradition give way
For we all need our liberty
For sweet liberty we pray

While I might have liked the lyrics to press deeper, darker, I was pleased that this recording captures the humor of Charlotte Bronte's novel (Rochester as the Gypsy, as a playful tease).

Some musicals grow tired with repeated listening, but this one, improved on me. Maria Schaffel paints Jane’s portrait painfully and beautifully, and James Barbour won me over with his lovely and tender voice. In the end, I was stirred by Jane Eyre’s search for self-worth, meaning, and faith.

Yes, it felt right to have Jane speak to me this way.

[The Info: Jane Eyre the Musical (2000), Music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, Book by John Caird, Based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte]

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pride & Prejudice Publicity: Gender, Glamour, Sex

Joe Wright (Director of P&P 2005) noted that he heard the 1940 P&P film referred to as the "Olivier version" and 1996 P&P mini-series referred to as the "Firth version." So he wanted his 2005 adaptation to be regarded as the “Knightley” version; the woman's point of view.*

In looking at the publicity stills, it’s easy to see his point. On the 1996 mini-series cover, Darcy looms large while the 2005 photo focuses on Elizabeth. I’ve believed this is partly due to the fact that both Firth and Knightley are more famous in the US than their co-stars.** (Note: both photos put Darcy at the center, looking out at "us").

So should I take these photos more seriously? Does emphasizing the male over the female (and vice versa) tell us about the audience each P&P adaptation hopes to attract?

The 2005 photo is sensual. Knightley appears both glamorous and natural, like a modern model, and MacFadyen looks like a rugged farmer. Wouldn’t he fit perfectly on a cover of Lady Chatterley's Lover?

On the 1996 cover, Firth appears the proud aristocrat. Sex is suggested by the bed Ehle sits on; by her (distractingly) pushed-up breasts.

So (in odd juxtaposition with Wright’s desire to show the woman’s point of view) is the sexy, youthful Knightley appealing more to men, to teens? Is the staid but dashing Firth attracting a more intellectual crowd (particularly women who have read the novel)?

On the 1980 BBC cover above (Elizabeth Garvie/David Rintoul), Darcy is barely seen at all. Elizabeth/Garvie looks meek, modest, unglamorous. No sex appeal here. It seems impossible to believe she belongs to the same world as Knightley.

On the 1940 cover above (Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier), Elizabeth and Darcy share the stage, but she has the upper hand. Darcy is the picture of galantry. Jane Austen is not being marketed here, but Hollywood-style glamour.


* Wright’s Interview with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate.

** One of my favorite examples of marketing the better-known actor instead of the story-lead is the DVD cover of Jane Eyre (1983). When looking at the picture below, I expect the film to be called "Edward Rochester"?

Wolfboy thinks that this cover alone (if the book was unknown) might suggest that Jane Eyre is a story about a transsexual.

The original video cover above, however, featured Jane (Zelah Clarke) & Edward (Timothy Dalton of James Bond fame) equally. The pose is loving and tender.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Film: Pride & Prejudice 2005 (I’m not proud. I’m just misunderstood.)

(Photo of MacFadyen as Darcy): Alas, poor Darcy is so "bewitched" by love that he saunters across the countryside without dressing properly! (Or does Director Joe Wright just delight in giving us the "thrill" of glimpsing MacFadyen's chest hair?)

If you don't have preconceived notions about P&P, you may easily enjoy this fiercely romantic film.

However, since I ventured to the theatre with my own pride and prejudices concerning Jane Austen's novel, I find myself greatly perplexed by this 2005 adaptation.

While there is much to praise, I believe the film leaves too much of Jane Austen's comedy behind on the bookshelf.

Where is Her Pride?

Instead of a strong sense of pride or prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett (played by Keira Knightley) exudes a fidgety giddiness with bursts of giggles and bouts of eye-rolling. She might even be mistaken for one of her restless and immature younger sisters. Ultimately, this Elizabeth/Lizzy displays more melodrama than sharp wit; becoming a trembling and gasping virgin at a mere glimpse of Darcy's coattails.

Unfortunately - not only does she appear besotted with Darcy, but also, with herself. Why? Because Director Joe Wright is seemingly smitten with Knightley’s elfish appearance, and too often, the film lens catches her staring at herself in the mirror. She becomes the picture of a pining heroine - better suited for a gothic romance than a romantic comedy. Not once could I forget she is Keira Knightley. The camera, perhaps, would not let me. (Ah, for goodness sake, will somebody please give this gal a bite to eat!)

Where is His Prejudice?

The (ever-sexy) Matthew MacFadyen's depiction of Darcy seems to imply that our hero is not proud at all, but merely misunderstood. His self-conscious manner suggests a shy and brooding man who cannot cope with small-talk or simple conventions - not a proud snob.

In his first proposal, MacFadyen demonstrates more urgent desperation than condescending arrogance. His Darcy, soaking in rain, seems infused with spontaneous passion. So much so that the two lovers break into heated shouting (and out of character). A close-up shot suggests that a kiss would settle all between them; put them out of their hormonal misery.

Without the intense pride and prejudice, the story becomes one of confused misunderstanding, not a journey of self-revelation and subsequent transformation.

Who are these Strangers?

The essential character of Wickham (played by Rupert Friend) is strangely kicked into the sidelines. Although his influence over Elizabeth is instrumental to the plot, Wickham is given obscenely little screen time. We are asked to believe he is charming and persuasive – rather than to witness it ourselves.

I usually depend upon dear Bingley to be reliably agreeable and cheerfully unassuming, but here (played by Simon Woods), he comes across as goofy, even clownish (aided by his fluff of bright, red hair), as if he is a second "Collins," rather than an appealing suitor to sweet Jane.

Collins, himself, played by Tom Hollander, seems downright eerie at the start, and later, appears to portray a tragic and vulnerable social misfit rather than a man who is comically oblivious to the feelings of others. As a result, any mockery of him feels mean-spirited.

Women to Watch!

P&P '05 offers several standout performances. Compared to previous characterizations, I immensely enjoyed Brenda Blethyn’s robust portrayal of Mrs. Bennett. She balances comic self-centeredness with a keen desperation for her daughters’ futures. In her performance, comedy and drama blend comfortably.

In addition, the portrayal of Charlotte Lucas is excellent. Charlotte’s short speech about settling for marriage with Collins is one of the more poignant moments in the movie.

Also noteworthy, Rosamund Pike manages to create a sweet Jane who isn't prim or sugary.

Leaving the Parlor, Leaving the Genre?

P&P '05 is visually striking and stimulating. Images of crowded ballrooms as well as the Bennett household offer a gritty (even dirty) realism that is not often seen in (more staged) adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels.

However, the desire to escape the confinements of the parlor is indulged too far for my liking. Darcy’s first proposal is set in stormy rain (leaning the film, once again, too heavily toward gothic). The director, I suspect, hopes for more drama, but the drama, Dear Director, is in the dialogue, not the atmosphere.

Jane Austens' P&P is not an atmospheric novel. No unexpected midnight guests, no sudden bolts of lightning. Yet, this director seems to strive to transform Jane Austen's "Comedy of Manners" into a "Gothic Romance."

Or is he indulging our fast-paced society, short attention spans, need for instant gratification and youth-driven market? Is any adaptaption of P&P completely blind to the contemporary audience it seeks to engage?

Elizabeth Bennett as Cinderella?

The final sequence between Lizzy and Darcy has such a corny fairy-tale quality to it that this audience member wonders when Darcy became Prince Charming?

I've long-believed that the strong and sensible nature of Jane Austen's Lizzy will allow her to create a content life for herself regardless of marriage, but regrettably, this Lizzy’s happiness seems to be inextricably tied-up in becoming Mrs. Darcy.

Watch it? Definitely.

Watch it for Brenda Blethyn’s moving and funny Mrs. Bennett (and Donald Sutherland’s touching Mr. Bennett). Watch it for the brief but impressive appearance by brilliant Judi Dench. Watch it for sexy MacFadyen’s portrayal of Mr. Rochester – ooops! I mean, Mr. Darcy! Watch it for sheer romantic and escapist fantasy. Watch it because, despite its faults, the film is superior to most general cinema offerings.

...assuming, of course, you can forebear the clichés of lovers set against sunsets/sunrises, rain-drenched, and yes, wandering about in improper attire!

Recommended Reading

Mercy's review of Pride & Prejudice and Holly's prd & prjdc.