The Bard’s Best? Nope…

Shakespeare bracket
To help celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death (April 23) and 452nd of his birth (also April 23), the website Mashable has put together a “battle” for the “Best Shakespeare Play Ever.” It’s done up as a sort of sports playoff grid (a tournament bracket), broken into four categories.

Four? That’s right. Even though the First Folio was only divided into three categories, Mashable added their own:

The plays are organized into four quadrants based on the four genres of plays Shakespeare commonly wrote: comedies, histories, tragedies and weird magic stuff. (Okay, we may have made up that last category in order to get to four, but you know the type: the plays with ghosts, witches, gods, etc.)

So right off, you know this is more game than academia. And, you protest, there are 36 plays in the First Folio, plus a couple of others added since. This game only has 32. What about the rest?

Where are the The Two Gentlemen of Verona? It’s consider the Bard’s very first play.  Or The Merry Wives of Windsor – arguably one of the Bard’s most popular plays, possibly commissioned by Queen Elizabeth herself. It has Falstaff in it! How can any play with Falstaff be left out?

And the chart mentions Henry IV, but doesn’t specify which part (1 or 2 – part 2 is more Falstaff than part 1). Both are self-contained. Same with Henry VI: it has three parts, each a separate play, but which one is not specified. Part 1 is not well considered, and may be Shakespeare’s weakest effort.

The chart mentions Pericles – which was not included in the First Folio (FF). But it ignores The Two Noble Kinsmen, which was also not in the FF, but has since been accepted as a Shakespeare work (with Fletcher).

Then there’s the pairing of plays: odd at best, it strikes me as cobbled together by someone who hasn’t actually read the plays he or she has coupled, someone who doesn’t appreciate the differences and distinctions between the styles, categories and stories.

For example, Romeo and Juliet play off against Timon of Athens. Both were grouped in the FF as tragedies, but aside from that, any similarity ends. R&J was written around 1595, ToA was written a decade later, a collaboration with Middleton. R&J is a story about a young couple and the feud between their Italian families. ToA is about a rich,Greek misanthrope who discovers the infidelity of his friends, with no love interest in the play. They are completely mismatched.

Henry V is paired with King John. H5 is one of the Bard’s great plays, rich with stirring speeches, action, tension and drama. KJ is written entirely in verse (the only other such play is Richard II) and is mostly about court intrigues. H5 has been performed many times and Kenneth Branagh made a stirring movie of it in 1989 and it was included in the 2012 Hollow Crown series (great news! Hollow Crown 2 is coming soon…).
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Who By Fire

I’ve been reading a biography of Leonard Cohen, recently: the 2012 I’m Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons. It’s an interesting journey through the life and thoughts of an exquisite artist who is, by nature, somewhat reclusive and stays out of the spotlight, but is deeply dedicated to his art.

I don’t normally read “star” bios or autobiographies – frankly they often seem contrived and the lives portrayed, no matter how gussied up in prose, merely shallow. Most of them I categorize as “who cares?” books.

Even those musicians I respect and admire have little to keep me turning pages. I struggled with Keith Richards’ autobio and never finished it. In Eric Clapton’s bio I got through a mere chapter. I read the two-volume bio of Elvis, but it took months to complete. I have read a few Beatles’ bios, mostly because they were such a huge influence on me when I was young. Most of these books, however, bore me with their similarities and unbridled adulation.

But not this one. I was glued to it (as much as I can be glued to any one book when I’m always reading a dozen at a time).

Cohen interests me for many reasons. First, he’s Canadian and that colours his work and his life for me in ways an American or British artist cannot. Not many Canadian writers or musicians garner the praise and awards he has.

Second, he was first a poet and novelist before a songwriter, and I have an appreciation – bordering on worship – of both talents in others. I read his poems and books when I was a sales rep for McClelland and Stewart, in the mid-70s, and even met him once at a party thrown for M&S authors. I still have several of his books in my library.

Third, he eschewed the glamour and glitter that permeates most stars’ lives and lived plainly, simply and austerely. I respect people who do not feel the need to wear their money on their sleeve. He makes himself known by his literary and musical achievements, not by his bling.

Fourth, he studied and practiced Buddhism for many years, and was even ordained a Buddhist monk – a dedication and effort I can only admire from afar; my dabblings in Buddhism seem like a splash through a rain puddle in comparison. Yet the grandson of a respected rabbi also retained his Jewish faith and culture.

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Why I Still Watch M*A*S*H

Harry MorganThe news of Harry Morgan’s death at 96, back in 2011, saddened me. I’m at the age when it seems far too many icons of my youth are dying off. Not from some misspent life or accident; from old age. And the process accelerates as I age. I now understand why my grandparents and then parents read the newspaper obituaries. I haven’t quite succumbed to that, but I’m sure the day will come.

No, I’m not being morbid. Or maudlin. I have, I believe, a healthy attitude towards death. Death moves me, sometimes fascinates me (as our collective attitude towards it fascinates me), but it doesn’t frighten me. But when someone dies, it’s a row of dominoes that tumble. We’re all connected, even if only through the TV screen.

Morgan played Colonel Sherman Potter in the latter part of the long-running TV series, M*A*S*H. he brought to the show a maturity and a softer wit. I recall watching him as a harder character in the 1960s’ crime show, Dragnet. I preferred Colonel Potter.

I was reminded of his death only last week, through a Facebook re-post on the anniversary of his passing. That got me thinking about the show, about the era in which it was made, and how it affected me then and later. I dug out my DVDs so I could start watching the series again. (Susan struggles to watch Columbo, a contemporary show from that age that I recently acquired, but loves M*A*S*H).

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Is This Your Bar of Soap?

Firesign Theater

This is side five. Follow in your book and repeat after me as we learn three new words in Turkish:
Towel.
Bath.
Border.

So begins Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, from the first album released by the Firesign Theater, in 1968 (on later albums spelled as Theatre). Everything in it is a misdirection, a sidestep, a pun, an unexpected segue, a joke-within-a-joke, an opening to another place you hadn’t expected to be led to.

May I see your passport please?

Yes, I have it right here. (sounds of busy airport terminal in background)

Uhum. Uhum. Uhum. Look at this. This photograph doesn’t look a bit like you, now, does it sir?

Well, it’s an old picture.

Mmh, mmh. Precisely.

Is there, uh, anything wrong?

Oh no, no, no, no. Would you mind waiting over there, please? Just… leave your bags.

But my passport…

Next please.

Who can forget that journey into the surreal that starts with these words? It’s dark, it’s zany, it’s deep. Very Firesign. Within a few moments they have created a world, and an Orwellian world at that, a world that draws you in.

If you’ve never heard it, then listen to this little snippet:

I had one of those moments, recently, when writing an email to someone, an acquaintance, when a line from the FST just popped into my head. That happens with song lyrics, at times, but less frequency for FST lines than it used to. But it still does; lines that just float to the surface unbidden. Dr. Benway. Nick Danger. Ralph Spoilsport. Antelope Freeway, one half mile…

I just tossed it in, a throwaway in my letter. And to my surprise, in his response, he noted he recognized the source. So there are still some of us left out there who remember.

That sent me scampering through my library to look for The Big Book of Plays, the scripts of the first few FST albums, a book which I once owned. Apparently not any longer. Lent to someone, I suppose, years ago, and it was never returned.

I spent some time looking to buy another online only to discover it has been reprinted with another FST book under the title Marching to Shibboleth.

Of course, I had to order a copy.

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The Last Case of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes. Iconic detective, 93 years old. Tending his bees in bucolic self-exile near the Dover coast. Mycroft gone. Watson gone. Mrs. Hudson gone. Even the band of villains and criminals who made him who he was are gone. All he has left are his memories and his bees. And his memories are failing.

It’s 1947 and the countryside still bears the visible scars of the recent war. Holmes (Ian McKellen) has just returned from a trip to Japan to see a mysterious contact who promises a rare, native plant will help him with his senility. In England, Holmes raises bees to harvest the royal jelly, then touted as a miracle cure, but so far it hasn’t worked. He travels to the far side of the planet to find another cure, but instead is confronted again with his past. A past he cannot clearly recall.

Holmes returns from Japan to tackle his final case: wresting the truth of his last case from the vault of his own brain. It’s a story made famous through Watson’s tale, itself turned into a popular movie in the 1930s (and you get a brief view of that film, with Holmes in the audience smiling wryly at his fictional self onscreen…. the fictional character watching another fictionalization).

This isn’t a film about a new case, or even about an old case with new evidence. It’s about Holmes trying to tell the truth about a case long since solved and almost forgotten. To tell the truth about a case that touched his heart, not just his brain.

Tell it to whom? To himself.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0G1lIBgk4PA] Continue reading “The Last Case of Sherlock Holmes”

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Shakespeare Changed Everything

Nat Post reviewI have been reading an entertaining little book called How Shakespeare Changed Everything, which, as the title suggests, is about the pervasive influence the Bard has had on pretty much everything in our lives ever since he started putting quill to paper.

Stephen Marche’s book was described in the NatPost as a, “sprightly, erudite sampling of Shakespeare’s influence on absolutely everything.” Reviewer Robert Cushman isn’t always that laudatory about all of Marche’s claims, however. He concludes the book is full of,

…rash generalizations balanced by elegant insights. Rightly, he links Shakespeare’s frankness about sex to our own; wrongly, he asserts that all love poetry before Shakespearean had been Petrarchan idealism. In fact, Shakespeare’s cheerful obscenity is also typical of his fellow playwrights, of his near-contemporary John Donne, and even of a gentle sonneteering predecessor like Sir Thomas Wyatt. And besides, the Shakespeare sonnet he actually quotes (“the expense of spirit in a waste of shame”), though certainly frank, is anything but celebratory. On the other hand, he can cut to the heart of what makes Shakespeare supreme: his “preternatural ability to match the sound of a word to its sense”; that “no one produces characters with more individuality of language than Shakespeare”; that he “violates the idea that life can be fully understood.”

Well, don’t let either the criticism or the possibility of hyperbolic claims deter you. It’s a fun book that anyone – not just Shakespeare scholars – can read and enjoy. And like most books about the Bard, it adds to the growing corpus of ideas and opinions about Shakespeare’s influence and impact.

Whether you agree with Marche’s or Cushman’s assessment, no one can argue that Shakespeare didn’t influence – and continues to influence – the world.

His longevity is remarkable. None of his contemporaries get more than mild interest today, and few if any are the subject of books, university courses or lectures. I don’t know of anyone who reads Fletcher or Middleton or even Jonson for pleasure these days, but many – myself included – still read Shakespeare for the simple enjoyment of it.

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Rethinking John Carter

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FekiAVioSg]

After recently going through the first five of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11 Barsoom books, I decided to give the 2012 Disney film, John Carter, another viewing. This two-hour-eleven-minute film bombed at the box office, and when I first saw it, I was deeply disappointed. But on reflection after a second viewing, it isn’t all that bad. It’s not great, but it deserves a better rating than it received, and it wears well in a second viewing.

It isn’t quite the Barsoom I grew up with, true, but it borrows heavily from Burroughs, enough to make it a close cousin in many parts. It’s the parts where the writers went off to play mix-and-match with other scifi franchises and stories where it’s actually weakest. That’s where the storyline unravels, but not so much it falls apart.

And, of course, no film or TV series can ever live up to the books, if for no other reason than that no matter how spectacular, no film cannot live up to imagination. Reading always wins, hands down, regardless of the film’s budget.

I initially saw John Carter through my own lens as a lifelong fan of ERB, who had grown up reading and rereading Burroughs’ tales and still has a substantial library of his novels on my bookshelves. That’s a mixed blessing, because while it allowed me to immediately understand the story, setting and the characters, it made me overly sensitive to that context. I compared the actual novels and the plots to the film from a purist perspective and found them wanting.

I should have been looking at the film more as a tribute, set in the Barsoomian universe, rather than a strict retelling. The film plays homage to the first two Barsoom novels, but also takes many liberties, conflating plots and characters and adding extraneous non-Burroughs elements. I didn’t like these additions at first, but now I understand better what the writers and director were trying to achieve by enhancing the drama.

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National Poetry Month

National Poetry MonthApril is National Poetry Month in Canada. I don’t know if this gets widespread acknowledgement much less appreciation among the public and in the schools, but it should.

Poetry is an important part of our cultural lives, although it seems to me our collective passion for it has waned over the past few decades. I blame MTV, video games, rap music, Stephen Harper and cuts to education budgets. And maybe the phase of the moon. Whatever the cause, we seem to have less poetry in our lives, in our souls than we did in the past.

Okay, I don’t know why we don’t seem to have such a national passion for poetry as we once have, nor why we don’t value our poets as much as we once did, but I have my suspicions that it stems from our current popular culture, although the precise mechanism eludes me. Can observance of this event help rekindle our passion for poetry? Maybe – if anyone aside from the poets takes up the torch to publicize it.

According to Poets.ca:

Established in Canada in April 1998 by the League of Canadian Poets (LCP), National Poetry Month (NPM) brings together schools, publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, and poets from across the country to celebrate poetry and its vital place in Canada’s culture. The year 2015 marks the 17th anniversary of National Poetry Month in Canada.

This year we are encouraging poets and hosts to explore and savour the theme of Food and Poetry… we want to investigate the ways in which “food is personal, political, sensual and powerful”.

There’s also a Mayor’s Poetry Challenge,

Begun in 2012, the Challenge is an annual initiative through which municipal councils across Canada open their Council meetings with a reading from a local poet. The aim is for local communities to celebrate poetry, writing, small presses and the contribution of poets and all writers to the rich cultural life in our country.

I don’t recall reading about this when I was on council, nor can I recall anyone in office locally taking up the challenge. Which may not be because no one cares – it may simply be under-promoted. So I’ve sent it to our Mayor and hope she takes it on. Maybe it will spread.
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47 Ronin Reviewed

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8cKdDkkIYY]
This week, after watching the 2013 film, 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves, I had to wonder why Hollywood felt it necessary to take a powerful story, a great historical drama, and mess with it. And, of course, why they would put Keanu Reeves into a film about 18th century Japanese samurai. Or, for that matter, into any film.

I’m not an actor, so my appreciation of their talents is only as an outsider. But Reeves seems to be pretty much a one-dimensional character. It worked in the Matrix, albeit less so in the sequels, but in films like the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, he was awful. (the 1951 original remains so much better…). His breadth of emotional expression seems very limited: his face always shows an angry bewilderment.

Perhaps that flatness was thought well-suited to the stoicism expected of samurai culture. And in part it does work in the scenes of fighting and warrior bonding, but then there’s the whole love scene thing and he just doesn’t come across as the romantic lead when required.

Reeves plays a half-breed, a role not fully explained (why did the director, Carl Rinsch require a Western lead in a story that is purely Japanese?). Nor is the whole isolated-Japan-no-contact political situation fleshed out (which didn’t really alter until the Meijin era, almost two centuries later), which might explain somewhat better why Reeve’s character was shunned by the samurai (and that whole sold-into-slavery gladiator thing was a very odd inclusion, especially since slavery was banned in Japan in 1590).

The film didn’t score well at Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB. It scores much lower than the black-and-white 1941 film of the same name by Kurosawa.

But to be fair, what critics like and what the public likes are often at odds with one another. And personally, I am often entertained by films that critics panned. And 47 Ronin entertained me, despite my reservations about Reeves and the Hollywood accouterments. It’s a fun film, but it could have been a great film.

Hollywood hasn’t learned that colour, action and special effects can’t make up for good storytelling, solid acting, well-written dialogue and effective directing.

This film has some of that – aside from Reeves, the acting is good, albeit straight-jacketed by the emotionally restrained period. Just not quite enough to make it a great film. The story is confused; context isn’t clear and it seems to dart around without purpose at times. The special effects detracted me (as they often do in Hollywood films) from the story.

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Falling Skies: Aliens as Metaphor

Falling SkiesWe watched the last of Season Two of the Falling Skies series last night. After a bit of research this morning, I learned I have two more seasons to watch and a fifth season has been scheduled. Something to look forward to. I wasn’t sure about how it would turn out, but the series has matured nicely, although one can’t say that about its politics.

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s about American reaction to an alien invasion – one could say it is a drawn-out remake of War of the Worlds. The aliens, of course, have more advanced weaponry and technology and aim at world domination. And enslavement of the human race along the way. Falling Skies spices up the mix with a rich back story about the aliens I won’t spoil here. But at least by the end of Season Two, there’s no indication that anyone else on the planet has survived and formed a resistance. It’s solely an American underground.  One bridles at that.

My first impression was that it was Walking Dead with aliens instead of zombies. I personally didn’t care much for the Walking Dead series and didn’t manage to watch even the whole first season. But, as a scifi buff, Falling Skies caught and held my attention.*

The ostensible premise is straight out of H.G. Wells: high-tech aliens invade, destroy much of the planet’s civilization and infrastructure, and pockets of humans fight back. But there’s more to it.

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The Theology of The Fly

The Fly CollectionWhile watching the 1958 film of The Fly last night, I was struck by its similarities to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein. And in the similarity of the underpinning morality of both.

I recently picked up the DVD collection with all three movies (The Fly, Return of The Fly and Curse of the Fly, plus a collection of special features).*

I saw the original film back in the late 1950s at the drive-in with my parents, and I’ve seen it on TV since, but not for many years. It’s not quite the “terror topping supershock thrill sensation” promised on the box (a term lifted from ads for The Return of The Fly and similar films).**

Still, it’s a good, classic example of the genre. As I watched it last night, I was struck by several things in the movie I had not considered before.

First is the role of Vincent Price. Known for his serio-comic roles in horror films – mostly B-films – he was usually cast as the villain, often some sort of mad scientist character. In The Fly, he plays a dramatic, sympathetic role, not the sort of person one expects of Price. Not villainous at all; a very understated character. helped no doubt by a literate script written by James Clavell (later novelist of Shogun and Noble House fame).

Second is that the film was shot in colour, which was not common for low-budget films (the sequel was shot in B&W) but the sets and props were minimal (the basement lab is more a metaphor for mad scientist than an actually believable laboratory). It looks more like the set from Father Knows Best than a monster film.

Third is the aforementioned similarities with Shelley’s Frankenstein (the original novel, not the subsequent films, which, with rare exception, veer significantly from the book’s plot – but again to be fair, the film script of The Fly changed the plot of the original short story).

In both, the moral of the story is that messing around with Nature (aka God) is wrong and ends in tragedy. In both, the creatures have a strong sense of morality. In the novel the creature (Shelley never names him) develops his views and behaviour from observing humans; in The Fly is it the essential humanity still maintained within Andre, the human-turned-fly. In both, they make a decision “for the best” or the greater good that involves their own death (suicide, although in Shelley’s story the creature only vows his own death; the act is not described, thus allowing us to wonder if he carried it out).

That ending is quite different from the usual monster film in which the creature is overcome by villagers, loyal friends, the police, a priest, a doctor or some other figure (or group) that represents authority, orthodoxy and the community (you can see in monster films the metaphor of the stranger or outsider a la Camus or Kafka, versus the status quo – The Wild One with a bug’s head).

The Fly also features an assisted suicide, which makes it relevant to the debate going on today about that issue. Plus it has a mercy murder – or is it? Is the fly with the human head a human? – which raises the question or euthanasia in another light. The short story also has a suicide. All big, moral and ethical issues.

Both stories make us question our values. Are the creatures worth our sympathy, or at least empathy? Or simply horror and disgust? Do they have a soul? Are they to be hated (the Frankenstein Complex that despises the artificial results of scientific experiment) or pitied? Helped or destroyed? Do they reason or are they simply animals? And is it right to experiment on animals?

And how does our perspective on the fictional characters relate to our perspective in the real world – towards animals, insects, other humans (especially those with physical or developmental challenges)? Shelley’s creature is a walking, talking human – but is treated like an animal to be hunted and destroyed. The Fly creature is a human-insect meld, unable to speak but capable of writing, that in the end must also be destroyed. Although why either needs to die is never made clear – they certainly don’t pose a threat to humanity, although they may to individuals. There’s no justice for monsters, no due process.

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Fifty Years Ago

In mid-August, 1964, a modest-budget, British black-and-white comedy movie hit the theatres. And instantly exploded to being the most popular film of the year. It was the Richard Lester flick, A Hard Day’s Night, starring the young Beatles in their debut on the silver screen. It was a paradigm changer in so many ways.
Hard Day's Night

It was a madcap, faux-autobiographical/mockumentary story – a style of filmmaking not previously seen on the big screen – punctuated by the Beatles’ music, including several new songs not yet released on vinyl. They would soon be, though and the soundtrack album would rise to number four on the charts.

The whole thing cost about $500,000 to make, but netted $12 million. Professor Witney Seibold writes:

The film is most certainly a classic, not only capturing the energy and obsession and youthful humor of the band members themselves, but also displaying a new kind of New Wave filmmaking that was part musical, part comedy, and part documentary. A Hard Day’s Night is a great film… perhaps the best rock film ever made.

But of course the biggest result was to introduce the world to Beatlemania, then still a nascent movement about to become a cultural tsunami. If anyone before the film was unsure what it meant, what all the excitement was about, who these guys were, they didn’t have any uncertainty after watching it. The film not only showed the world what Beatlemania was,, it swept up everyone in its wake and drew us unprotesting into the madcap movement.

People in the audience laughed and wept and screamed along with the audience in the film. Teens in the USA, in Canada and elsewhere were united in a virtual onscreen world with the British teens shown in the movie. It internationalized us.

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The Three Stooges

CurlyI bought a DVD set called The Ultimate Three Stooges this weekend.* I was rather surprised that even 20 DVDs could not contain all of the film work the trio (more on that, below) put together in their long career. But it does contain the core – and the very best – of their work, including several rare and forgotten early pieces.

I’m delighted to have it – before this set I only had a scattered collection of pieces, but nothing this comprehensive.

I grew up in the 1950s watching the Three Stooges in B&W on a TV that showed a test pattern early in the morning and late at night. TV channels didn’t run 24/7: they started and ended at specific hours. I developed an affection for them from back then.

Mostly TV showed re-runs of shorts from the 30s and 40s. My parents fretted over my brother and I watching them; they were considered too violent for children. It was the era of growing awareness of how media affected children. I didn’t see the Stooges as much more violent than the other series we watched – Tarzan, Wagon Train, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dragnet, The Naked City, The Untouchables, the Twilight Zone, Combat, Rawhide, The Outer Limits, Ernie Kovacs, Dragnet…

Of course unlike today, there was no graphic violence. And sex? None at all (TV couples were usually shown having separate beds if not separate bedrooms!)

At the summer drive-in we watched films like The Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Them, Village of the Damned, One Million BC, Dracula and others. The Three Stooges seemed so innocent, so mild to us kids, in comparison to some of these films. Yet they have stuck with me all these years. Continue reading “The Three Stooges”

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