July 30, 2010

....and All the Men and Women Merely Players

Due to a random, unexpected and delightfully quirky amalgamation of circumstances, I had the opportunity to be involved in a very special project last weekend.  My brother the filmmaker doesn’t often ask for my input in his projects, so when he does I never say “no”.  Besides, the last time he asked for help I got to be involved in this and really, who wouldn’t come back to offer assistance after a project like that?

Filmmaking is a media which, despite my personal link to it, I hadn’t put a great deal of thought into.  Since we’ve already been over my abhorrent taste in movies, one can see why I’ve always viewed film as either Hollywood fluff of artsier than thou.  It’s not real art.  It doesn’t take real talent.  All you need to be involved in film is a bit of luck and a body to rival Kate Moss.  Film is the beautiful peoples’ playground, look the right way and you can be anything.

While that may still hold true for film actors (I’m sorry, I don’t have much respect for people who claim to be ACTORS without putting in the grunt work), boy was I wrong about the filmmaking process.

Moreover, the entire day got me thinking a great deal about live entertainment and theatre.  During the season, my brother the filmmaker works at Blood Manor, New York City’s premier haunted attraction.  As you can imagine, when you work at a haunted house you get to meet a wide and varied cast of characters.  Our film was about one of these characters.  As part of the film, we sat in on the veterans’ casting call and were allowed an exclusive tour of the manor (which, by the way, is pretty awesome and ridiculously scary- if you happen to be in New York around Halloween time you should definitely check it out).

Sitting in the one air-conditioned space of the giant Chelsea loft that is Blood Manor, I couldn’t help but be distracted from my duties as Script Supervisor and think about what was going on around me.  I was caught by several things.  The first was the terminology being thrown around.  The Blood Manor experience was consistently referred to as “the show”.  At first my inner snob began to raise her hackles, “Show?” She demanded, “This isn’t a show.  A show implies a stage, a show implies a script, a show implies rehearsal and pre-planning and training!” 

“But wait,” replied the inner scholarly advocate, “What about an improv show?  You can’t say that the pit  doesn’t produce shows!”

“…okay,” the snob conceded, “I take back the script.  But the Pit does rehearse!”

Then I started listening to the actors talk amongst themselves.  Despite a great dearth of actor pre-prep time at the manor, they definitely rehearsed.  All year, these people were thinking, pondering, coming up with ideas.  They would find pieces in second-hand shops and use that to add to a “routine” built over the course of the year.  They would think about how to scare someone while walking home from the subway.  These may not be fully trained Thespians, but they were definitely artists.

“Alright,” said the snob, “How about a stage?”

“Oh ho, my friend, remember what was written above the doors of Shakespeare’s globe; ‘totus mundus agit histrionum’; ‘all the world’s a stage’.”

Yes, I couldn’t see how this little ditty applied more pressingly to anything than it applied here.  Each area of the haunted house is referred to as “an environment”.  Each environment is cast with several characters native to that environment.  Thus, the stage is the house itself. 

My internal notion of theatre was suddenly shaken.  What does it really take to create theatre?  Can theatre be spontaneous?  Even though this house didn’t have the regular trappings of theatre, there is no doubt in my mind that what occurs here is a performance.  If you don’t need a stage, and you don’t need a script, what do you need to create theatre?

Luckily, Glynne Wickham has done some thinking about this as well.  In his book The Medieval Theatre, he recognizes five basic elements which create (at the most fundamental level) a theatrical event, “…the existence of a theatre, that is a stage and auditorium to contain it… imitation of actions in sequence, that is, a story line… some means of identifying person and place, costumes and setting… both actors and audience” (36).  Aforementioned haunted house, however, challenges Wickham’s idea ever further.  Without a clear story line, does this still fit the bill? 

Certainly there are stories inside the house as each environment depicts some snatch of a tale.  You enter a parlor, there are eviscerated bodies on the table and gore-soaked diners sitting at it.  Your mind, while frightened, also immediately begins to form concepts about the room.  This is the middle, there was a beginning, there will be an end.  Perhaps one of the actors then turns to you and says “We do this every Thursday at Ruth’s house.”  Suddenly now you have context.  The characters become more firmly defined.  You have a time period, it’s likely a Thursday night.  You even have a name, Ruth.  A story begins to take shape.

I suppose this is the difference between “theatre” and “a performance”.  “A performance” could fulfill one or many of Wickham’s requirements, but “theatre” must satisfy all of them. 

The snob shut her mouth and settled into the couch, clearly looking for another loophole in the argument.  The advocate took a sip of her chardonnay and smiled contentedly.  A truce, if precarious, had been reached.  At least for now.

Wickham, Glynne. The Medieval Theatre. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974.

As a note, I am leaving on vacation today.  I will be outside of internet contact for two weeks so there won’t be any updates here, but don’t think I’ve forgotten about you.  I will return mid-August with stories of exploits which I may or may not share depending on their poignancy and pertinence.

Have a good couple of weeks!

July 28, 2010

Hobgoblins of the Optics

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have my peripheral vision back.

Due to some medical issues that I won’t discuss at any great length on the internet, I had been barred from my contacts for nearly two months. 

It seems like a small thing.  Wear your glasses, all will be fine.  Besides the obvious lifestyle tweaks that had to occur (lack of peripheral vision, having to remember to remove them before showering, etc.) there was something else that nagged at the back of my mind as I donned the rims every morning.

I haven’t worn glasses full time since middle school.  Middle school, those years before children knew how to behave like people and not feral beasts.  Middle school, when the social pecking order was still being established and so the ones on the bottom got pecked until they bled.  Middle school, all the hormones and no slip of the maturity.  I did not have a good time in middle school.

It was hardly the best of times and it may have very well been the worst of times.  A time before I had grown into any notion of self-confidence and was awkwardly bumbling my way around trying to find my place amongst the nerds and geeks knowing that someday I could proudly wear their banner and decree at the lop of my lungs, “Lo, I too am a dork!  So take that world, I don’t care what you think!”

Putting those glasses on again was an admission that that person was still part of me.  I don’t want to get into a deep psychoanalysis of loving every bit of yourself at the moment, suffice to say it was a little scary to face my inner childhood demons.

Then I started looking around me and I realized something.  I think the first hints of this occurred to me at a dinner with my friends/colleagues when I looked around the table and realized that I was the only one there not wearing glasses.  I started to pay more attention to the glasses-wearing ratio in my daily life.  At the theater?  Nobody wears glasses.  At the ballroom dance studio?  No glasses there.  At the archive?  No glasses.  In the graduate classroom?  Just about everyone.

Are glasses part and parcel of what it takes to be smart?  Or are they so ingrained in our notion of a geek that if you happen to be a geek and happen to wear glasses you hang onto them to complete the picture?  Are glasses a huge plus for geek cred? 

Thinking of things this way made the glasses better.  I owned the glasses.  I rocked the glasses.  The glasses became part of my image.  I began to think of them like a mini-PhD, “Since I wear glasses, I MUST know what I’m talking about!”  They also allotted for a plethora of dramatic gesturing at key points in conversation.  Here’s a few you may like to try (if they’re not part of your repertoire already):

*The Old Snatch and Scrub: Take your glasses off.  Examine them in the light.  Decide they are too dirty to wear and clean them on your shirt.  As you are doing this, do not break eye contact with the person you are conversing with.  Put your glasses back on.

*The Librarian Tilt: As you go to read something, tilt your glasses further down your nose and peer over them.  It gives the illusion of greater concentration.

*The Urkel Push: with one finger, push your glasses back up the bridge of your nose.  This one should be used sparingly as it may otherwise come off as uuber geeky.

*The Rupert Giles Too-English-To-Watch Flare: Remove your glasses and gesticulate with them in one hand for no particular reason.  May be combined with the Snatch and Scrub for added drama.  Extra geek points if you are actually English.

While I am happy to have my contacts back, I am also ecstatic to try some of these moves when school starts again.  I’ll let you know how it affects my GPA.

July 26, 2010

It is (it is) a glorious thing to be a Pirate King

I had a plethora of things to blog about this past week but none of them are going to make it into this post. Instead, I wish to issue an apology.

I apologize profusely to anyone who was on line behind me at the Dana Library Computer lab this morning. Moreover, I apologize to the poor computer technician who was stuck with a jammed printer not once but twice due to my stack of printing making the entire operation explode. To be fair, I have a feeling the technical malfunctions had more to do with the printer duplex being bad than my Jubilee-like Mutant powers.

Today, I took the dive and invested a great deal of time into creating something pivotal to my continual perseverance and eventual conquest over the Master’s Reading Exam List. Flash back to about a year ago when I first encountered the list. As my eyes scanned down the page I was struck by a sudden lightheadedness, a dizzy sensation compounded by the gravity of the situation at hand. “Good god,” I thought, “this is a lot of stuff to read.” After the brief I-wasn’t-an-English-major-in-undergrad heart attack passed, I realized something else. “Good god, this is a lot of stuff to buy.”

The rising cost of living has demanded many things from the poor graduate student. Amongst these things is a sad truth; we very rarely have money for spare books. I know that the books on the Master’s Reading Exam list aren’t exactly “spare books”, they are required reading for my degree.  For all intents and purposes, they qualify as course books. I need them. I can’t do without them. The fate of my diploma rests in their hands.

I know, I know, my mother said it too. “But Danielle, you could just go to the library and borrow these books for free!” Well, no not really. If I am going to retain any of the information in these books, if I am going to read them critically, if I am going to have anything to say about them when all has been said and done, I need to write all over them. Word to the wise English major: get over your phobia of marking up texts as soon as humanly possible. Glossing a text makes it yours and moreover allows you to process what you are reading as you are reading it. It gives you the ability to interact with the reading thus making the reading experience into a conversation rather than a one-way entertainment situation. So no, I can’t just borrow them from the library. I need my own copies.

Luckily, there is a fabulous resource for this sort of thing. A wonderful magical place where information is freely and plentifully available. A place where texts abound in all sorts of scholarly and non-scholarly forms. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the internet has revolutionized text acquisition.

After several hours of googling, copying, pasting, printing, causing printer jams and binding the resulting spoils into adorable binders organized by time period, I now own at least two thirds of the Master's Reading Exam list.

Part of me feels guilty. Like this stack of papers is ill-gotten goods. Piratical booty which required a parrot and an eye patch to acquire. I am not joking when I say that the resulting pile from my marathon printing session was at least a ream and a half worth of paper (printed double-sided by the way… oi vey…). Then I realized: this printing isn’t free, it’s part of my tuition. I paid for this in my semester bill. This isn’t piracy, this is smart business practices. I’m not stealing, I’m simply making the most of my hard-earned loan money.

So, I’m sorry lab guy. I’m sorry adorable undergrad who only wanted to print a draft of her summer research paper. I’m sorry whomever has to re-stock the paper (I cleaned out at least two drawers worth in two different R2D2-sized printers). But my wallet just couldn’t handle the MRE list without this.

July 20, 2010

Litany Against Fear

Last week, in a monumental coup against the Common Reading Exam List, I finished not one but two books.  You’ve already heard what I have to say about Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  Book number two was the vastly different Mrs. Dalloway.

This may make me a horrible human being (and moreover a horrible woman literati), but I had never before read anything by Virginia Woolf.  In fact, the only reason I have a passing acquaintance with her is due to my close acquaintanceship with a Woolf scholar whom I met during my sojourn in Dublin.  She loved Virginia Woolf.  She ate Virginia Woolf for breakfast, lunch, comps and dinner.  I have always respected said friend, so I knew there must be something to dear Ginny… just not anything that I had ever chosen to delve for before.  It was a classic case of “Meh, I’ll read it later”.

When “later” finally caught up to me and I had finished succumbing to Woolf’s siren song, I must say I am left aswirl with half-formed notions which even now as I try to articulate them elude my grasp.  Nebulous thoughts and concepts, amorphous ideas, nothing concrete or solid.

I attribute this partially to the style of Woolf’s writing.  The best impression I have of Mrs. Dalloway’s writing can be summarized by the infamous first words of Finnegan’s Wake, “riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”.  Woolf’s writing flows, perhaps not as freely as Joyce’s notoriously contemptuous bane of English majors everywhere, but still meandering itself down the progression of human thought.  Since the events of Mrs. Dalloway happen entirely inside the characters’ heads, one way or another, they are written to reflect this.  This freely flowing thoughtful writing, rather than capturing and holding my attention, encouraged it to wander as well.  There were several re-readings involved in the completion of this book.

I enjoyed it.  Immensely.  Let me start by saying that.  But that being said, I’m left with the age-old adage.  You know, the thing that academics are never supposed to say.  Those baneful words that expose one’s intellectual underbelly to the hungry dogs of snobbish competition and arrogance. 

I don’t get it.

No really, I don’t get it.  Why is this book a classic?  Why is it on my reading list?  What was I supposed to take from this book over anything else that Woolf wrote (or really anything else written in the history of literature)?  Like I have already said, it was a delightful little read, but if you asked me to write a paper on it I feel as though I have nothing new or interesting to add to the Burkean Parlor of intellectual thought surrounding this book.

So I did what any self-respecting scholar would do in my situation: I googled it.  I read the wikipedia article.  I even stooped so low as to peruse the cliff notes in hopes that a succinct summary of what I had read would help me to see some gem of scholarly thought that I had previously missed.

And I am just as stumped as I was twenty minutes ago.  I see the major themes; Woolf’s points about mental illness and its treatment, feminism and homosexuality; but I really (still) have nothing to say about them in relation to this book that wasn’t said in aforementioned wikipedia article.

So naturally what comes to my mind now is a question about scholarship in general.  I am certain that, at some point in their scholarly careers, everyone has felt this way about something.  But articulating that in any form is so strictly taboo that most intellects would rather pretend they have something to say than admit that they would much prefer to listen to other peoples’ incites.  My question is this: is there one work of literature, some book somewhere, a classic of the English language, that everyone feels this way about but is too embarrassed to admit?

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Why is the playground of intellectual thinking so riddled with bullies that any sign of weakness makes one ready to tear apart one’s fellows rather than help to mend their brokenness?  Are we all so afraid that our brains don’t measure up to whatever standard we have silently communally agreed upon that human weakness makes us dithering idiots rather than human?  Yes, our job as scholars is to challenge each other in pursuit of some greater understanding, but does that mean we have to step on heads to advance our own careers?

Forgive me for being pessimistic, and perhaps this is all a reaction to my own feelings as an outsider in any English department.  I’m an actor/scholar.  That’s who I am, that’s what I’m trained to do.  I feel lucky to be considered a peer here in my English program because frankly I don’t consider myself one.  My knowledge of classics, theory and literature in general pales in comparison to most of my fellows.  However, I do know several peripheral areas of the field very very well.  That knowledge has served me in more ways than I can tell, but most importantly has given me the ability to make my way through English literature classes as an outsider welcomed into the inner ring.  As I look around me, I see friends, I see intellectual equals, but I do not see peers.  Our fields, though similar, diverge at several important junctures.  This divergence allows me to walk with my classmates along their paths for a time, but will inevitably send us to opposite ends of a great body of intellectual knowledge.

So as an inside outsider, let me say this: the fear of being wrong in a Graduate classroom is so stifling that it cuts off conversation before anyone has a chance to speak.  This shared fear is thus the mind-killer and we would all do well to recite Frank Herbert’s infamous passage to ourselves a few times before class.  Maybe then we could dispense with the trappings and posing of intellect and get to what really matters.

July 18, 2010

A Person's a Person no matter how small?

I am always the first to admit that my taste in movies is abysmal.  Frankly, I don’t plug myself into a screen to be shown something deep or earth-shaking.  If I want my sense of the world challenged, if I want to see real talent, if I want anything other than sugary commercialized feel-good cheeriness, I go see a play.  As a result, I am horribly behind in my acquaintance with classic movies of any genre.  In addition, I am not a huge fan of horror movies.  To be absolutely frank, they scare me.  I don’t like to be scared.  So I avoid seeing them.

It is no small surprise, therefore, that I had not seen Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi staple Alien until just last night.  Another gem of a film on my “to-watch” list for aforementioned sci-fi class in the fall (see my entry on Avatar). 

One thing that occurred to me as I sat down with my brother the film-maker for the viewing experience is how much our culture tends to envelope and dilute classics.  Watching a classic or pioneer film for the first time is very much like seeing Hamlet for the first time.  There are pieces of the film that, despite your previous lack of exposure to it, you nonetheless know simply because they have been repeated, spoofed, and paraphrased in other films, your life, and the lives of those around you.  It’s like déjà vu, there’s a familiarity to culturally appropriated classics that makes seeing them like seeing an old friend for the first time in ten years; there are things you know about them that you didn’t know (or remember) you knew about them.  Watching the chest buster pop out of Kane was very much like hearing the “to be or not to be” speech.  You know the sequence and you can nearly repeat the words and/or actions with the actors (though perhaps with a few comical additions… in my version the alien busts into a high-energy rendition of “Hello My Baby” complete with top hat and cane  just as usually I have trouble seeing the infamous Hamlet speech without picturing an irate Mel Brooks a la 1:59).

Aforementioned brother reminded us frequently during the movie viewing that “this wasn’t a stereotype when they did it”.  How many times have you heard that in reference to Shakespeare?  How many times has a high schooler seen Romeo and Juliet before they actually see Romeo and Juliet?  This movie, just as most of the canon, was groundbreaking.  This was where it started.  It is difficult to maintain fresh eyes throughout the viewing of this movie and, just as I personally contended upon my first encounter with the bard, it seems like a load of strung-together clichés and outdated special effects.

Once I allowed myself to suspend this disbelief, I had to face the reality of what I was seeing.  Here is a film obsessed with the idea of humanity.  To me, it is a movie which explores the depths of the word.  What does it mean to be human?  When to we cease being human?  Who is entitled to human rights and compassion over regulatory rules and proprietary means?  When must a leader treat her crew like people and when must she treat them like hazards to herself and themselves?

The first manifestation we see of this is in the scene when Dallas and Lambert bring back a wounded Kane from their little excursion on the alien planet.  Kane has a face-hugger on him which, unbeknownst to the crew at the time, is laying eggs in his chest.  Ripley, acting officer upon the ships, reminds Dallas of quarantine regulations.  Since something has happened, all three of them must wait outside the airlock of the ship for a period of time.  Dallas and Lambert beg to be let in, saying that Kane’s only hope of survival is to get the thing off of his face.

Here, of course, is the classic first mistake which causes the downfall of the crew and precipitates the true action of the movie.  Ash acts against regulations and against Ripley’s orders and lets his crewmates inside the ship.

This single action, Ash’s refusal to obey orders and protocol, sets the plot in motion.  If the entire crew had listened to Ripley, the outcome of the movie would have changed drastically.  Kane wouldn’t have been any more or less dead in the end, and everyone else would have been significantly more safe (and by that I mean there would have been hope for survivors other than Ripley).  Was Ripley’s order humanitarian?  No.  Was it for the greater good?  Yes.  This decision precipitated a debate amongst myself and my fellow movie watchers; what would you have done?  Your commanding officers orders you not to, clearly someone’s life hangs in the balance, not knowing what is about to happen (or even knowing what is about to happen), what would your course of action have been?

The general consensus amongst us was that it would have depended who was outside.  Someone I don’t care for?  Someone who I could care less about?  Someone I love?  These human emotions effect human decisions, and this (I think) is key to Alien’s continuing appeal as movie.

The big reveal of the movie is that Ash is an android with special secret orders from the company who hired the crew.  These orders are to return with whatever alien life-form he can find, all other objectives being secondary to this objective, and that the crew is expendable.  This adds a few more facets to the movie’s concept of humanity.  It first and foremost begs the question can a robot be human?  Without a doubt in the case mentioned above Ash’ actions (though motivated by a force deeper than compassion) were more humanitarian than Ripley’s.  If something wears our face, can think for itself and act upon these thoughts, does that make it human?

And what about the “human” employers of this crew?  How human can they be if they sent a group of individuals into space on what was essentially viewed as a suicide mission to reach an end important only to them?

One of the movie’s taglines is “sometimes the scariest things come from within”.  Clearly this is a reference to the chest-buster and the fact that the alien was actually “birthed” by one of the crew members.  This “birth” coupled with the tagline creates an anxiety about evil within the human.  What are we capable of?  What is growing within us that we may or may not know about?  Have we, as a species, allowed this to grow there just as Dallas and Ash allowed the alien onto the ship?  Are we clueless that it’s there just as Kane is clueless about his little friend until it bursts through his chest at dinner?  What is this seed inside ourselves that can spawn so great an evil?

To me, the tagline is also a nod to aforementioned explored evils within humanity.  The word “within” creates a binary; us and them.  Without an “us”, there is no “within” to come from.  Alien complicates that binary, forcing us to re-examine our qualifications for joining the softball team of the human race.

July 12, 2010

The More you Know...

Today, friends, I take a much-needed break from rambling incessantly about teenaged vampires. This may be because my shame finally caught up with me, but I will choose instead to lend it to the fact that I have succeeded in diving back into the Common Reading Exam List.

This past weekend, I got through the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I will admit first and foremost that I don’t have a great deal to say about this book. To me, it is a landmark piece about a time in history that is now not much more than painful memories and curling yellowed paper. Slavery was horrendous, of that there is no doubt. This book must have gone a long way towards proving that to individuals of the time and perhaps even individuals of a generation or two after the time. However, to me, modern liberal-minded girl that I am, it just is. I don’t feel more intellectually enlightened having read it (though I ate through it like it was a pound of chocolates… except without that bloated guilty feeling afterwards).

I suppose I should at least try to say something scholarly and insightful about it despite my current difficulty with thinking DEEP THOUGHTS. A few things did strike me. The first of which being that Douglass’ most salient simile for slavery was to piracy; the hard-won fruits of an honest man’s labor are then heartlessly and cruelly taken from him so that the thief may prosper. The pirate image stuck with me and has left me really pondering it. Doubtlessly, this simile is a romantic notion, but perhaps that judgment is simply my modern mind projecting anachronisms onto a dated piece. Still, I can’t help but imagine that Douglass was a man to whom pirates were all but myth. What I mean by this is that Douglass would never have met a pirate, even if they were perhaps more common in his world than in ours. To him, pirates (though very much real), were fictional characters and figures in stories told by his fellows rather than day-to-day realities.

Douglass was a highly trained caulker and worked on shipyards for many years, both before and after his emancipation. This nautical-centric life he led may also lend insight as to the curious choice in analogies. Perhaps putting things in terms of the sea came more naturally to him as this was how he lived his life. Perhaps the shipmen around him were so full of such analogies and stories as to pepper his speech and mind with images of the ocean. Perhaps this notion of the formation and source of Douglass’ choice in imagery is as romantic as the imagery itself.

A second thing which was prevalent to me throughout the narrative was the dichotomy between men and beasts. A “good slave” is essentially a man turned into a beast; a savage, someone whose sole focus is work, someone who has been stripped of any higher notion of hope for his life. Most importantly lacking from these beast-men is education. In a curious and fortuitous amalgamation of circumstances and ingenuity, Douglass was able to learn to read and write while still a slave. This knowledge, one comes to understand, is what drove him forward in his pursuit of freedom. With it, he could not ignore what was around him: that he was a man and thereby should be subject to the same freedoms as any other man. After all, he was capable of higher reasoning. Clearly there was no difference between him and the white street urchins so pivotal to his ersatz education. Despite this, Douglass himself admits several times that he wished he could return to ignorance. Once enlightened, there was no way for him to forget these lessons and thereby no way for him to be satisfied until he had attained absolute freedom.

“Knowledge is power”, certainly, and to me Douglass’ realization stands as a powerful statement about the importance of higher education. While something as simple as literacy could empower Douglass to understand his own innate worth as a human being, in modern times an individual must stretch further to find this empowerment. When my parents graduated from college, they could begin careers with merely undergraduate degrees. The fact that they chose not to speaks towards the values of my family, but that is besides the point. As the job market becomes increasingly competitive, education as a whole becomes devalued. In these times, it is well near impossible to get a high-paying career-type job without a Graduate Degree. Certain fields do bend and/or break this rule, and there will always be exceptions for extraordinary talent, but as a general rule getting one’s foot in the door increases with ease in direct proportion to the number of degrees one can list at the top of one’s resume.

While higher education is certainly vital for job-hunting, it is equally vital to the improvement of the human spirit. In school, we do not simply learn about books and formulas, we are also working towards the ultimate goal of expanding (and growing into) our potential as human beings. If literacy could unlock this for Douglass, think of the compounded factor of less fundamental knowledge on the human psyche. We learn about the world and we learn about ourselves. As the world devalues our education as it stands, we must counter with greater degrees of education to expand our worth and potential.

….as I read through this it sounds like a public service announcement. Coming from someone who does teach college and hopes to continue doing so in the future, it also sounds like a desperate plea to keep myself in a job. While I can’t deny the validity of either of these thoughts, I will also ask you to consider more deeply the value of your own education. What did college teach you? Okay, fine, what did it actually teach you? I can nearly guarantee that what you really learned had little to do with what the piece of paper on your wall tells you that you learned.

July 9, 2010

Society for the Promotion of Ethical Treatment of Vampires

In my last entry, I briefly tackled the warm fuzziness which marks Meyers’ vampires as utterly distinct from the vampiric genre.  I would like to take some time to unpack this notion at greater length, so for today’s Twilight-themed essay we’re going to continue the discussion of sparkly vampires.
Picking up from where we left off, the sparkly vampire introduces a newer, softer vampire into the literary world.  A more socially acceptable vampire.  A vampire you can take home to mom and pop.  The Meyers vampire is a Mormon vampire, and this is reflected in many aspects of the Twilight story.
Sparkly vampires come in packs; families.  Large families.  The Cullens, for instance, are a family of eight by the end of the series.  Sparkly vampires also seem to be pre-destined to find one eternal soul mate.  This individual is a person the sparkly vampire cannot live without, a partner.  The sparkly vampire is incomplete without this partner, tragically flawed in some way until this partner arrives to complete him (or her).   In the case of all mentioned partnerships within the Twilight universe, this partner is a member of the opposite sex.  No Gay Mormon Vampires.  These vampires have values, they recognize the sanctity of marriage and the importance of family despite their inability to bear children, a factor that comes into play greatly in Eclipse as well as Breaking Dawn.
As a semi-related notion, I would like to add that the incessantly strong anti-abortion message present in Breaking Dawn really offends my sensibilities as a reader as well as a member of society.  By the time Breaking Dawn was released, the world (and one would presume the author) had some inkling of the scope of the Twilight phenomenon.  This was a series widely popular amongst impressionable age groups.  Including political messages in such a series is bad form and simply distasteful.  We have already established that Twilight is popular in part due to its appeal as a role-playing fantasy.  Suddenly, the title character of the series (the individual from whose mind the reader experiences almost all action of the story) begins spouting extreme views about highly controversial political matter garbed in the guise of storytelling.  Against the counsel of her doctor, husband, friends and family, Bella refuses to abort a fetus which is killing her.  To make matters worse, once the baby is born she is the pride and joy of everyone she meets.  Take that, all of you who told me to abort it.  Look what you would have been missing out on!  I’m not going to argue either side of the abortion debate here (this isn’t the time or place for it), but I am going to say that propaganda has no place in a children’s book.  Especially a children’s book as widely read as Twilight is.  /end public service announcement.
And now we return to our discussion of the sparkly vampire.  The sparkly vampire is a vampire who wears his heart on his sleeve, or more specifically in his eyes.  In Meyers’ world, the type of blood which a vampire drinks (human or animal) determines the color of his eyes.  There are no gray areas for the sparkly vampire; evil vamps have red eyes, good vamps have amber eyes.  A vampire has either made the choice to be “ethical” (and thereby good), or is a blood-sucking lunatic.  It is not until late in the series that we are introduced to red-eyed vampires who have any semblance of sanity.  By removing gray areas, the vampiric genre becomes simplified.  Part of what makes vampires so unique as literary figures is their innate grayness.  A vampire cannot be entirely good simply due to his cardinal attribute: he drinks blood.  He kills things to survive.  The sparkly vampire defies this convention, as really one of Meyers’ vegetarian vamps is no worse than a human who eats meat.  Kill an animal; lead the ethical life.  The sparkly vampire’s ability to walk entirely in the light (both literally and metaphorically) lends to his overall acceptability.  He is hardly different from you or I.
The sparkly vampire is not a creature of blood.  Never in the Twilight series are we actually presented with a vampire in the act of feeding.  It is something taken care of off-screen, something unsightly and thereby hidden.  In the vampire mythos, blood is generally a stand-in for sexual acts.  An interchange of body fluids combined with the vampiric act of appearing before a victim when she is alone in her bed at night constitutes a literary euphemism.  In Twilight, the actual sexual acts (as well as the euphemistic ones) are kept entirely away from the eyes of the reader.  Even the euphemism is euphemized; more frequently is the vampiric imbibing of blood referred to as “hunting” over “feeding”.  Moreover, this cardinal unpleasantness of vampiric nature is made palatable by its absence.  We know the vampires drink blood, but as the adage goes, “out of sight, out of mind”.  Have you ever seen fan art of Edward Cullen bent over the jugular of a profusely bleeding antelope?
In fact, most of the violence of the Twilight saga is kept offscreen.  One of the largest fights in the series, the great culminating battle of Eclipse involving the Cullens, the La Push werewolf pack and Victoria’s newborn army, is only vaguely described to the reader second-hand via Edward’s mind-reading abilities.  Violence, like sex, is too unsightly for the sparkly vampire.
The sparkly vampire has also been defanged.  Among all the wonders that Bella notices about her eternal “family”, she never once describes their teeth.  The sparkly vampire, a beautiful creature undoubtedly, has thus lost his bite.
Perhaps this distancing from common vampiric mythos is part of what has enraged hard-core vampire fans so much about the Twilight series.  Teenaged girls may go gaga over Edward, but Edward isn’t a traditional vampire.  He is a popular icon, an idealized and softened version of a beast created from the shadows.  

July 6, 2010

Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend

Alright, that’s it, I’ve had it.

After years of reading, watching, and being utterly horrified at the current popular trends in literature, after wondering what had gotten into the minds of young people and middle-aged-soccer moms, after enough time grumbling and mulling from the shadows; I have made a decision.

I am weighing in on the Twilight debate.

This is going to take more than one blog entry.  I’m sorry, I really am, but I just cannot allow this to continue without putting my two cents into the universe.  I can promise you a few things: this will be as unbiased as I can possibly make it, as interesting as I can possibly make it, and as entertaining as I can possibly make it.

Before I begin, let me clear up a few cardinal facts and set a few rules about this exploit.  Yes, I have read the Twilight series.  Yes, I have seen the movies.  No, I don’t pay any attention to the tabloids and I have no idea what Robert Pattinson does in his spare time (be that Kristin Stewart or Taylor Lautner…).  I am going to try my best to write this as much as possible without giving you my direct opinion about the franchise in hopes that perhaps the arguments will be more academically persuasive (you know, as academically persuasive as you can be about Mormon vampires).

On that somber note, let us begin.

How about we start with the big question that has been plaguing troubled minds of the vampirically inclined: why is it that people like this series so bloody much?  You can’t deny it, people either love Twilight or hate Twilight.  There is no in between.  I would argue that Twilight apathy is simply a lack of exposure; find someone who says that they could take or leave Twilight and then sit him down and make him read it and/or watch it.  Then ask him again.  I nearly guarantee that his answer will prove different.

First and foremost, I would like to say this.  I think that little video is a good base point for this conversation.  Yes, it’s true, horribly true, horribly and vividly true.  But what this guy says is true of a great deal of other stories as well.  Any escapist reality written for women pretty much follows this same formula, especially if the story is written in first person PoV.  Honestly, the best example I have (and the closest to the Twilight style) is a romance novel.  Take Karen Marie Moning’s The Immortal Highlander (yes, her name is Moning… she writes romance novels… this is hilarious).  Same PoV, same he-man + superman + Jesus = male lead formula, same story of frustrating and semi-requited lust/love between gawky mundane and perfect immortal.  Bing, bang, boom, you have a female fantasy.

So what makes Twilight different?

Well, vampires.  Vampires are the epitome of all things teenager.  I mean really, a creature that is beautiful, powerful, emotastically different from everyone else, secret, self-loathing, utterly sexual, and eternal.  Anyone who has ever thought “nobody will ever understand me”, anyone who has ever wished bloody revenge upon her enemies, anyone who has ever wanted something more than the mundane humdrum life of a normal person is prey (literally and metaphorically) to the vampire.  The world of the vampire is the world of intrigue, darkness, passion, lust and extremes.  It is a world of misunderstood good guys and hauntingly lovely bad guys.  It is a world of creatures who have a concrete reason to hate themselves, despite any good they may do.

When you become a vampire, your gangly awkwardness is transformed into perfect beauty and primal ferocity.  Your financial troubles vanish, your boundaries disappear.  So what if a small case of sunlight or stake-through-the-heart kills you?

Never before Meyers have vampires been so accessible.  Read Anne Rice or Laurell K. Hamilton and you are a black-eyeliner-wearing goth freak.  There is an edge to these other vampires, and the stories surrounding them are darker, more violent, more intensely sexual.  Meyers’ vampires are… well... Mormon.  They are still dangerous, but for the most part their hard edges become soft.  In Meyers’ world there are no mangled corpses, no people going crazy, anything too intense for polite company is kept almost entirely offscreen.  Yes, there is the requisite blood and sex, but it’s more alluded to than directly addressed.

Meyers’ vampires are fuzzy vampires.  They civilized, more human than monster (even the evil ones).  I mean ferchrissakes they SPARKLE.  No longer are they banished to the night, the darkness of dungeons and crypts, but they become even more beautiful and perfect in the daylight.  Their stories may be slightly disturbing, but never freakish.  If anything, the disturbing back-stories go towards highlighting human traits over monstrous ones.  This creates a vampire story that is accessible to younger audiences, and moreover is acceptable to the parents of said younger audiences.

The Urban Fantasy genre is seductive.  It allows stories to enter the mundane world, causing lines between what is real and what is imagined to blur nearly past any visible recognition.  Rather than a mirror up to nature, the fantasy becomes nature.  Meyers’ use of this genre to tell her stories contributes to its nature as a role-playing fantasy.  These stories become possible because they are so deeply rooted in a world that we already know and live in.  Rather than take us through history, as Rice does, or take us to a slightly tweaked contemporary world, as Hamilton does, Meyers sets her stories in the all-too-mundane world.  Aforementioned teenager, already feeling awkward and out of place, is able to believe herself into Meyers’ story because it so closely mirrors her own life. 

Moreover, the Cinderella story, time and again, is a magic vacuum.  I don’t care what the feminists say; every individual of the female persuasion is (to some extent) waiting for her prince charming.  An extra dimension of allure is added to the Prince Charming when he sparkles (literally). 

Everyone wants to be desired.  How many industries make millions of dollars trying to augment a person’s desirability, especially to the opposite sex?  Here is a story of a girl (or “shell” as my friends at The Oatmeal and Epipheo Studios so aptly contend) who is so desirable that supernatural creatures start wars over her.  This seemingly average person, someone who anyone could be, is the epitome of desire.  As a result, the readers want to be her.  Since the readers want to be her, they will buy her.  In any form they can.

So that’s my addition to the popularity debate.  Tune in next time for another Twilight-themed discussion, though I promise it will be as painless as this one was.

July 1, 2010

You Can't Take it With You

This summer has been a touch busy for me.

I won’t bore you with all the personal details, but suffice to say what was looking like a long summer of nothing suddenly and magically turned into “oh god oh god where did I put my head, I think I left it at my other job.”

One of the three jobs I am working this summer is as an archival assistant.  Here is a classic example of being in the right place at the right time.  I am not an archivist.  I am not a library scientist.  I am an English major (so at least I know how to use a library) and I do work at a theatre.  When said theatre realized that it had an upcoming project which involved books, they looked at me and I said “sure, why not?”

For anyone who has some romanticized notion about archives, what they are, how they are useful and how they are made, you are only partially correct.  Yes, my job does involve a sort of Indiana Jones style treasure hunt through the bowels of the New Jersey Institute of Technology looking for material about, around or related to Jim Wise (google him, I dare you, there’s just about nothing on this guy... he wrote the mildly successful Off-Broadway spoof musical Dames at Sea and apparently was also heir to the Wise potato chip fortune… whoda thunk?).  My job also involves a lot of dust, heavy lifting, phone calls to random administrative offices in an attempt to be allowed access to material, fruitless google searches, unreturned e-mails, tail-chasing meetings and iced coffee. 

Here’s the bottom line.  My job is to take a roomful of random stuff which once belonged to this dead guy and make some sense of it.  We have little to no information on the dead guy, almost everyone who knew the dead guy is now either also dead or no longer working for the university, and the stuff is piled precariously in no particular order on an unfinished floor of a building somewhere on the university campus.  We are only half certain that this floor has air conditioning (if it does, the climate control is absolutely unreliable).

All I can say is the work may be boring, tedious and infuriating at some times, but it is also fascinating.

Like you, I had never really heard of this man before working on the project.  I had some idea that my theatre was named after him, I saw his picture hanging in the hallway, but I couldn’t have told you much more about him.  What perhaps is the most exciting piece about it is the knowledge that, at the end of this road, I may be a leading expert in the field of Jim Wise.  There is almost no web presence for the man, there certainly isn’t any academic or biographic material written upon him, these are things that we are creating as we go.  In the creation, we are educating ourselves.  Once we have the programs, sheet music, sets, props, video interviews, personal effects, and overall piles of junk catalogued, inventoried and understood to some level, we will know more about Jim Wise than perhaps anyone else still alive.

It almost makes me want to write a paper on him.  Almost.

And yet… I feel as though what we are doing is, in some ways, a violation.  I mean, really, would you want a random graduate student digging through the junk they pull out of your office after you die?  How about cataloguing that junk and setting it on display for the world to see?  What if we find something in that pile of stuff that we just don’t want to know?  Is it our responsibility to tell people, or to keep the secret secret and protect the integrity of the man who signed our paychecks before gracefully pushing up roses?  And if he were better known (or more consequential in the grand scheme of things), would these questions matter more or less?

I’ll let you know if and when this all becomes relevant.  For now, all I can say is: word to the wise (as per usual, pun thoroughly intended): if you don’t want aforementioned random graduate students making these decisions about your own personal items, don’t leave an endowment large enough for your own theatre to any university.  And especially don’t write any influential pieces of music, drama, art or scholarship.