Dog's Dinner

"You're not loved because you're lovable, you're lovable 'cause you're loved."

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Silly Rabbit

A few days ago I rented Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and tonight I finally got around to watching it. I had heard from generally reputable sources (the great Small Man himself, and Alec Guinness in his diary-memoir My Name Escapes Me, among others) that W&G were wonderful, but after about ten minutes of The Curse I was about ready to turn it off, unable to stomach the repulsive faces (of the humans; the animals are all right, and the vegetables highly attractive), the insistently perky mock-heroic music, and the fact that the dog doesn’t talk— where’s the fun in that? But something made me change my mind and decide to stick it out—perhaps the philosophical conceit of the mind manipulation machine (was unaware that it would figure as the locus of another riff on the beloved Theme of The Double—it’s introduced more as a Clockwork Orange Ludovico Treatment / Chinese Stop Smoking Tea type thing). It turned out to be watchable, if not so lovable, though I came to savour the wise dog’s sad silence—a sort of tragic Jeeves, and anyway the least ugly of the bunch.
It was good to watch a week after watching the Fredric March / Rouben Mamoulian (1932, Pre-Code porno-comic bizarro) and Spencer Tracy / Victor Fleming (1941, respectably disappointing) Jekyll & Hyde films, and especially the wonderful Bugs Bunny short "Hyde and Hare" (included on the same DVD), for me funnier and better-made than the Were-Rabbit.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Broad beans and blueberries

Blueberries are just about the only food, or thing in general, I can think of that I still love just as much and in the same way as I did when I was a small child. Maybe spaghetti, or Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, but I’ve acquired more sophisticated (though not snobbish, at least compared to Continental friends’) ideas about how spaghetti sauce should be made, and even about preparing the noodles themselves; and though I’m capable of enjoying NxNW perhaps even more than in boyhood, because more richly, provided I take my time and space the screenings out properly, it will never again make me tremble or laugh like the first time. So blueberries, as the enduring popularity of the bland anti-dramatic children’s book Blueberries for Sal testifies, are the only pleasure that maintain the same intensity and purity, whether eaten by themselves or with milk in a bowl of corn flakes.

Broad beans, on the other hand, constitute a new pleasure for me. I tasted them for the first time about a week ago. Broad beans look a bit like lima beans and for a while last year, when I first began to hear and learn about broad beans (called bob in Polish, with a slash over the o, which means you pronounce it “boob,” in the nominative case that is, fortunately in the other six cases the slash disappears and the o becomes a long o as in rodeo), I thought they were lima beans, but broad beans, or boobs, are in fact thicker and rounder, and have a little protrusion at one end, almost comparable to a nipple in fact, that I don’t think lima beans do. (Here any parallel with mammary glands ends and would best be swiftly forgotten in order to avoid a Peebee Shelley type nightmare.) They also have a skin that loosens when boiled; you bite the skin to open it and then suck the inner bean out and eat it, tossing the skin in the bin-- unless you want to eat it, but many people derive an addictive satisfaction from the ritual just described. Either way broad beans are delicious, though unfortunately the flavor is not as rich as the aroma from the boiling pot.

Two great gifts of Mother Nature, one tart, dark and explosive, the other light, tantalizing and tightly packed, both in season just now in Poland—when you’re surrounded by little Mom&Pop vegetable stands as I am, you can’t help following the seasons in a way I never did before. I guess technically my enjoyment of blueberries has changed since the great big bulbous blueberries I grew up with, lighter in color on the outside, are hard to find in Poland—they call them “American blueberries,” and their size is of course popularly attributed to laboratory skullduggery … I’ve actually come to prefer the smaller, darker ones myself. But that’s a mere detail. As Shakey said, the ripeness is all.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

It Ain't Necessarily So

I'm deeply annoyed with whoever it is at Slate magazine who keeps changing the presentation mode back and forth, but more troubling still is the relative paucity in recent months of interesting political articles (particularly depressing is Hitchens's tight-leash attack-dog triviality). On the cultural front, however, I was charmed by this review of a new book on the prescriptive vs. descriptive debate in language. As I mellow with age and continue teaching English in Poland I tend increasingly toward a more descriptive stance, and I found this article embracing my old bete noir(linked to at the bottom of the other) quite persuasive in its way. There is something about this kind of unblinking confrontation with contradiction (explored in a different context in Slate's ongoing series of non-cynical, open-minded interrogations of scripture) that I find very refreshing-- it reminds me in a way of the psychoanalytic notion, which I first encountered in this book, that in Freudian/Kohutian terms, a statement such as "I don't like" means the same thing as "I like," a notion easily scoffed at, to be sure, as nihilistic egghead tomfoolery, but one which I nonetheless consider to be often true. The elasticity of language is not to be underestimated. For example, a friend and former co-worker of mine, an internationally renowned guest speaker in the world of recovery fellowships, made a speech wherein he asked, with his inimitable delivery, why his audience found him in good health and spirits, looking twenty years his junior, and not paralyzed/dead/bed-ridden/decrepit after decades of abusing alcohol and intravenous drugs? "Because," he pauses, "if justice was just, then that should be so." When I first listened to the tape I heard this as a mistake and thought... "Well, with his charisma he can get away with it, after all, his point is understandable." The point being that God tempers justice with mercy. But when I thought about it some more, I realized that it not only makes perfect sense but belongs to a venerable tradition in English literature, from Shakespeare to Swinburne, in which writers (and speakers) problematize the tension between nouns and adjectives. More importantly, as the government was forced to acknowledge a few years back after having rashly christened the Afghan campaign Operation Infinite Justice, divine justice, which monotheist believers describe as infinite, is not something that humanity can fathom, let alone enforce, hence If divine justice was, or were, just, i.e. comprehensible in the narrow human sense, then perhaps my friend would have been laid low years ago by the arithmetic of self-destruction. But as God's justice is tempered (sometimes) with mercy and grace, he lives on to spread his message of temperance.

In any case, it is good to part with absolutism, in whatever sphere, and always healing, as we can hear in Dylan's "My Back Pages" and see in the later writings of Calvino.
P.S. In the article on "literally," when he used "scan" to mean "skim" as an example of multivalence, I was reminded of those old Two-Minute Mysteries (by Don Sobol of Encylopedia Brown fame), in one of which Dr. Haledjian based a charge of murder on his absolutist prescriptivist interpretation of "scan." Sobol was never one for ambiguity.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Notes on a Polish Henry IV

Two months ago I finally achieved my oft-thwarted ambition of over a decade: to see a Shakespeare play done in a Slavic language, to wit, Henry IV, Part 1, in Polish, here in Gliwice (part of the Gliwice Theatre Festival which has taken place every May for the past 17 years-- this production was performed by a group of travelling players from Warsaw, all professional actors, some familiar to most of the audience, but not me, from TV). The dream was not exactly realized as conceived: I had to re-read the play in English before going to see it as it's not one I know well-- I read and enjoyed it once in school, in 10th or 12th grade, and saw it before that when I was 13 and my older brother Geoff had a small part in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production, at which time I was too young to appreciate its many charms. Whereas the original plan was to see one of the 4 big tragedies, or Romeo, Caesar, Twelfth Night or Midsummer, all of which I've seen numerous English-speaking productions of and most of which I've even acted in at some point. And in its genesis the plan involved seeing Shakespeare in Russian. In November or December 1994 I actually had (very cheap) tickets in hand for Romeo & Juliet or possibly Othello in St. Petersburg, but Geoff, visiting from Moscow, resisted the Shakespearean temptation and we went instead to a dinner with his colleagues from Dixon & Co. I've since seen the magnificent Russian films of Hamlet and Lear by Kosintsev and a few moments of Bondarchuk's Othello and bits of an old Russian film of Twelfth Night on TV, not to mention Kurosawa's Ran and Throne of Blood (though I barely remember the latter, which Peter Brook called "perhaps the only true masterpiece inspired by Shakespeare, but it cannot properly be considered Shakespeare because it doesn't use the text"). But that's just not the same as seeing a piece of live theatre; on screen, the language of cinema takes over. I wanted to see a foreign audience electrified by Shakespeare's poetry but in their native tongue. So last spring I tried to get other family members and friends to join me for Hamlet in Krakow, but that didn't work out either. So my first (I hope of many) Slavic Shakespeare turned out to be Polish Henry IV, which is I think one of the most prosaic (in the literal sense that much of the text, i.e. all of Falstaff, is in prose). And in fact the verse of e.g. King Henry seemed to be translated for the most part as prose, and gems like "Faith, I ran when I saw others run" and the pithy, creepy "I do, I will" (Hal as Henry IV/V on banishing Falstaff) became the banal "I ran because everybody was running" and "You're to be banished, and that's that." But such losses were not felt too deeply given the tremendous vitality of the production, here is what I remember two months later: a "rehearsal" production with the actors sitting in chairs in a circle with scripts in hand while not engaged in a scene, in modern and casual dress except for the crown on the King's head and a sinister black trenchcoat and homburg hat for the scheming Worcester, with the characters of Westmoreland, Blunt and other courtiers, as well as various servitors and peripheral characters at the Boar's Head, represented by sock puppets mainly operated by two different actresses, the better to emphasize their vapid sycophancy, a device which at first, owing largely to the cynical sing-song caricaturing of the voices (something like the dreadful Mr. Rogers puppet segments as directed by Oliver Stone, if you can imagine that), I found too clever by half, but which bothered me less as I got used to it and its use became less frequent, the play dominated increasingly by in this case an electrifying, if purely comic, Hotspur, a bearded, slightly too old but charming Prince Hal, and a Falstaff also not quite rough enough around the edges but excellent and moving-- I shed a tear at his "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world," and almost shed another at "The inside of a church!" The climactic duel between Hotspur and Hal was done as an elegant screwball dance, veering from waltz to tango, the ultimate laying-bare of the device, including Hotspur asking for a prompt at one point. The King was well done as the dyspeptic, gangsterly figure he is. The two actresses also won my heart with definitive portrayals of Ladies Percy and Mortimer, both aggressively physical, one preening and bitchy, the other shamanic. Overall, the combination of athleticism, work-in-progress playfulness and experiment, and a true ensemble spirit (I think the actor playing Sir John, that is Fat Jack, or Jasiu (YA-shoo) as they call him, was the only one who played just a single role) were inspiring and delightful, the whole thing bristling with integrity and sharpness, but I'm still waiting to consummate my desire for the Kierkegaardian repetition that will be Shakespearean tragedy, on stage, in Polish.