Friday, April 11, 2003

It's Vacation Time with My Stupid Dog!

(Disclaimer: This post is a joke. Any resemblance of the places I've mentioned in this post to American cities or regions, real or imagined, is purely coincidental. Another disclaimer: If you actually visit any of the places I mention below, don't blame me for what happens. I'm still hiding from that guy who thinks I broke up his second marriage, all because I mentioned this waterfall somewhere in the Washington Palouse ...)

Don't worry, gentle readers (both of you). My Stupid Dog and I are not going on vacation just yet. But I thought that now would be an interesting time to examine the latest trend in vacation planning. In case you're wondering, I'm referring to "Terror-Free Travel." (Warning: If you click that last link and don't have RealPlayer on your computer, the Internet pixies will be very, very angry.)

Rob Corddry of Comedy Central's The Daily Show hosted a segment yesterday on terror-free vacations in a code-orange world. There was a more serious article to much the same effect in USA Today last week, I think, but alas, I can't find it online. Anyway, the basic trick for a terror-free vacation is to go someplace so sucky and so far out of the way, that a terrorist would never think to bomb you there. And then, after you've spent a week being bored to death in the godforsaken middle of nowhere, you can return to your ordinary, American, terror-filled life, and thank your lucky stars you live someplace that's worth a suicide bombing or two.

But since we've learned that even a ratty husk of urban decay like Buffalo, NY can have its very own "sleeper" cell, it's getting harder to find spots in America that are just godawful enough to be classified terror-free.

Trust me and My Stupid Dog on this one. We can ease your troubled mind.

You see, on family vacations with urbiphobic relatives over more than a quarter of a century, I've explored just about every hole and hideout in this great nation that isn't connected to a major metropolis or a four-lane road. I've even visited places that you, gentle readers, would never dream of seeing -- unless, perhaps, you were running from the police, or trying to get the hell out of Dodge before the goddam Big One gets us all.

But fear not. These places are remote as a survivalist compound -- only without all those wacky trailers everywhere.

1. Harrison, Nebraska. Harrison isn't just the largest town in Sioux County -- it's the only town! With only a few hundred people and a humongous courthouse that could probably hold every one of them, this is a perfect spot to "get away from it all." Twenty miles to the south is Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, where you can look at some fossils (mostly replicas) as well as Lakota chief Red Cloud's personal effects (the real thing). Just remember that this is a federal facility, so you'll need to protect yourself accordingly if you go. For accomodations, there is a small cabin court just across the street from the county courthouse.

2. Whitestone Hill State Historic Site, near Merricourt, North Dakota. Ordinarily I wouldn't recommend North Dakota, with all those nukes and ABMs, but this place is so way-the-hell-out-there that you couldn't feel safer. Plus, if you keep a lookout on Whitestone Hill -- it's the one with the obelisk -- you can see just about anything coming for dozens of miles in all directions. The nearest town of any size (and I mean any size) is about seventy miles away; Merricourt is about six miles off, but it's a ghost town now. The only downside to spending your vacation here is that you might pick up some bad karma from the 1863 battle where US Army regulars slaughtered a few hundred Lakota by mistake. Oopsie.

3. Freedom, Oklahoma. What better way to show your patriotism than by vacationing in a town called Freedom? (Well, how about gouging your eyes with an American flag?) While traveling the desert byways of America, you can't help but wonder if towns like "Liberty," "Paradise" or "Wisdom" got their names because "Shitheap" and "Hellhole" were already taken. Still, Freedom OK is an ideal choice for that terror-free vacation -- how could it not be? -- and with a nice guest ranch and restaurant nearby, it's head and shoulders above the other destinations on this list. Best of all, Alabaster Caverns State Park is only six miles away, so if you feel like crawling into a hole in the ground, the folks there will be happy to oblige you.

Feeling safer, citizen? Remember, orange alerts and vague presentiments of doom need not hamper your plans for a fun, secure vacation! Good luck, Americans, and happy motoring!

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Tim's "Sight and Sound" Poll: Sunrise

This is Part V of an ongoing series. To read Part IV, click here.

In 1919, filmmakers started to suspect that a character's psychology could be delineated in visual terms. Two films -- one American, one German -- began cinema's journey into hidden realms of the human psyche.

For many scholars, D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms was the first film to use visual metaphor to convey unexpressed -- and, perhaps, unexpressable -- emotion. Based on a much inferior short story by Thomas Burke, it depicts the budding love affair between a disillusioned Chinese missionary and an abused waif from the London streets. But Griffith faced a major problem with Blossoms: Although the story turned largely on an interracial love affair, the film would have been far too controversial for American audiences if Richard Barthelmess's "Yellow Man" were actually to kiss Lillian Gish. Griffith's ingenious solution was to suggest repressed feelings -- especially those of his Chinese protagonist -- through visual imagery instead of active declaration. The soft-focus, chiaroscuro photography of the London streets (all built artificially, on a studio lot) and the extensive use of miniatures give this film a uniquely oneiric quality, as if, perhaps, everything were part of an extended opium dream. (They also helped Griffith to create this masterpiece on a fairly tight budget.)

Unusual photographic effects, artificial sets and an overall dreamlike quality are hallmarks of the German film as well. Robert Wiene's Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was conceived as an avant-garde production, so it's no surprise that, compared to Griffith's best work, Caligari feels stodgy, static and theatrical. Although the acting, editing and camerawork weren't groundbreaking, the cockeyed sets and nightmarish imagery certainly were. The film introduced a new, stylized vocabulary of cinematic expression. At the time it was known as "Caligarism," but today we simply call it German Expressionism.

In the 1920s, the two undisputed masters of this style were Fritz Lang (who was initially slated to direct Caligari) and F.W. Murnau. While many of Lang's silent films retained the forced histrionics of early cinema, Murnau coaxed remarkably subtle work from his actors. He made an international star of German stage actor Emil Jannings with two classic films: The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926). At the same time, Murnau sacrificed none of the heightened, dreamlike visuals that made him world-renowned.

Ironically, his masterpiece, which stands today as a definitive statement of German Expressionism, was made in America. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, released by William Fox in 1927, is often mentioned as the greatest silent film ever made. It even won a special citation for "Most Unique and Artistic Production" at the very first Academy Awards ceremony, the only film ever to receive this honor.

The story, adapted by Caligari co-writer Carl Mayer, is Victorian melodrama at its most sentimental. A simple farmer (George O'Brien), enticed by a beautiful woman from the city, is persuaded to drown his wife (Janet Gaynor, in an atrocious wig borrowed from the character of Gretchen in Faust). The farmer rows his wife out to the middle of the lake, but finds that he can't go through with the dirty deed. So instead of killing her, he follows her to the city, where the two gradually learn to love each other again. On the way back home, as the farmer rows his wife across the lake, a sudden storm capsizes their boat. The farmer believes that his beloved wife has really drowned, and is utterly inconsolable -- until she is found and returned to him, somewhat disheveled but otherwise safe and sound.

These primal, nearly universal emotions inspired Murnau to unparalleled visual experimentation. The "vacation montage" of trains and boats in the film's opening scene are merely a hint of extravagances to come. There is a famous tracking shot in which George O'Brien walks through a swamp; the shot makes a relatively small studio set seem as big as all outdoors. But the trolley car ride to the city required over a mile of railroad track to shoot, and the set for Murnau's bustling city -- an amalgam of Europe and America -- occupied several blocks. Everything about this film is elaborate, and the cinematography conveys the vastness of this studio-built world.

The enormous sets actually enhance the intimate drama between husband and wife. Although O'Brien and Gaynor deliver excellent performances (Gaynor won the first Best Actress Oscar for her work here), the film derives its emotional impact from the clever presentation of architectural space. The steep, pitched roofs of the rural village, the muddiness of the swamp where a man meets his illicit lover, the vast bustle of the city, the dreamlike conveyance of the trolley car, all contribute to our sense of what these characters feel at any given moment.

The camera expresses emotion, too, mostly through painterly lighting and special visual effects. When husband and wife, walking across a city street, become lost in their reverie, their surroundings transform from a cloudy city street to a sunny garden path. When husband and wife dine out, angels circle above their heads. In any other film, this visual emphasis would be so much overkill. In Sunrise it works, not only because the couple's emotions are equally outsized, but also because these grand emotions must be expressed nonverbally.

Sunrise is pure cinema; from start to finish, everything is conveyed through image. Even the minimal intertitles, with their deliberate hand-lettered look, convey mood and action in visual rather than textual terms. The most famous instance occurs when the woman from the city, in a classic "vamp" moment, suggests to the farmer that his wife could "get drowned." The word "drowned" slowly melts off the frame. There are other such moments, too: The gigantic lettering of "Come to the City!" suggests emotional abandon. In another title card, the coy withholding of a final line places us in a village gossip's conspiratorial frame of mind.

Visual "objective correlatives" -- which translate interior thoughts and emotions into metaphorical images that a camera-eye can "see" -- would be put to even greater use in what we call the "classic" Hollywood style. They became especially important when, as was the case with Broken Blossoms, filmmakers wanted to include lurid or forbidden themes in their work.

Most notably, German expressionism became a dominant stylistic influence on post-war B-movie thrillers (known today, rather anachronistically, as "film noir"). Using techniques that Wiene pioneered, but Lang and Murnau perfected, these B-movies hinted at passionate undercurrents which they could not show outright. But whether the emotions depicted onscreen were forbidden or sanctioned, Expressionism gave us the basic underpinnings of cinematic psychology. It showed us how to bring the hidden, verbal world of the self into the open, imagistic world of film.

For its ingenious portrayal of human interiority, I've included Sunrise on my ten-greatest list.

"Yet This Was Battle"

If the war in Iraq were a chess game, then coalition forces would have just check-mated the king. In Baghdad, jubilant citizens are toppling statues of Hussein (granted, with a little American help), and Iraqis are burning and beating icons of the tyrant. One group is pulling Saddam's iron head through the streets, and it looks as if anyone can get a chance to ride. Iraqi exiles -- who know the nature of tyranny better than any native-born American could -- are jubilantly parading down the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, blocking traffic and having a wild party.

There may be isolated firefights to come, even additional coalition and civilian casualties. But the war -- at least in the sense of a fight against an organized enemy force -- is over. I wonder if, in that sense, it could ever be said to have begun.

The title of this post comes from a Civil War poem by Herman Melville ("A Utilitarian View of the Monitor's Fight"), which I think is one of the best descriptions of modern (or postmodern) warfare ever written. It hasn't left my mind since the conflict began ... slightly less than three weeks ago. I've memorized the final stanza:

War shall yet be, and to the end;
But war-paint shows the streaks of weather;
War yet shall be; but warriors
Are now but operatives; War's made
Less grand than Peace,
And a singe runs through lace and feather.

Sondheim's Follies at the Signature Theatre

42nd Street meets Night of the Living Dead in a new production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies, running at Arlington's Signature Theatre through June 1. Right now, this is unquestionably the hot ticket for theater in the D.C. metro area. The entire scheduled run sold out weeks ago, and tickets for a three-week extension are going fast.

Perhaps that's because even theatergoers who don't like Sondheim can discover much to love in Follies. The overall show, featuring two bickering middle-aged couples, is arty and depressing. But the score features one gloriously memorable song after another, all inspired by the golden age of Broadway. Although Follies exists in at least three different versions (including one with an inappropriately happy ending), this production hews close to James Goldman's original, uncompromised 1971 book.

Follies was too big for Broadway thirty years ago. It played to full houses and covered its operating expenses from week to week, but could never recoup the backers' initial investment. The show finally closed at a substantial loss, and has not enjoyed a theatrical revival on Broadway since.

So the real question for the Signature Theatre production is how this grand musical -- with a cast of 35, an orchestra of 14, and at least one major scenery change -- will fit inside a tiny black-box theater in the middle of Shirlington. It's a tough, expensive challenge, but director Eric Schaeffer is more than up to it, with intelligent staging that suggests far more than it ever shows. A chorus of zombie showgirls, always on stage in one form or another (even during intermission and after final curtain), is far and away Schaeffer's eeriest and most inspired touch. Their ghastly appearance and costuming allow them to fade into the background, often in a disturbingly literal sense.

The enormous, colorful sets and lavish costumes of the 1971 original production were inspired by the abandoned-funhouse film style of Federico Fellini. In contrast, Signature Theater's set designer Lou Stancari seems to have been influenced by F.W. Murnau. Here the decrepit "Weissman Theater" is all jutting beams, sharp corners and skewed angles. Frequently blue-green lighting drains the very color from the characters' faces, as if everyone in the theater were transported into a black-and-white movie.

Given the sets and the lighting, it should come as no surprise that the performances are generally muted and mournful -- much less over-the-top and surrealistic than one usually expects of this show. This is an Expressionist Follies, full of Weimar damp and decay. In this new context, Sondheim's beautiful, brilliant songs become less a celebration of bygone days, and more a desperate cry for help. The musical is dead, American popular song is dead, all those singing-and-dancing showgirls are dead, and the only things we really have to look back on are grey ghosts of memory, still pacing out their old cues as if by rote.

Each middle-aged or elderly character in Follies has a younger counterpart, and in this production most of them match up nicely. Will Gartshore, as the young Buddy Plummer, bears a particularly uncanny vocal similarity to his older counterpart, and Sean McLaughlin as young Ben Stone shows considerable charisma in a limited role. All the performances are at least interesting, but I'll note a few standouts: Harry Winter, playing the middle-aged Buddy Plummer, delivers another astonishing performance. (His last role at Signature was as a doting rural father in the Schmidt/Jones musical 110 in the Shade, and I am now convinced that there's no older-male role he can't tackle.) The luminous Judy McLane, as ice queen Phyllis Stone, paradoxically gets the evening's hottest, sexiest dance number: a Michael-Kidd-meets-Bob-Fosse extravaganza set to "The Story of Lucy and Jessie."

By the heartbreaking finale, the audience was every bit as stupefied as those creepy chorus girls. That's a very good sign on the whole. Signature Theatre and Eric Schaeffer have proven that Follies is still a tremendously affecting piece of theater after all these years. More importantly, he's managed to show regional repertory companies how to stage this unwieldiest of Broadway musicals without completely breaking the bank.

If you want a ticket to see Follies, better get in line now. It's more than worth the wait.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Charles Portis, Apostate

It's more than a bit alarming when an author you've enjoyed on your own for years suddenly threatens to become fashionable, even hip. So you can imagine the trepidation I felt when I heard about the first issue of The Believer, a new magazine from the Dave Eggers / McSweeney's collective, and discovered via the website that way, way down on the articles list, some co-editor named Ed Park had decided to write about the novels of Charles Portis in an article called "Like Cormac McCarthy, but funny."

The lead is as follows: "Charles Portis wrote five novels, four of them classics, one of them True Grit. How come you've never heard of him?" Well, for one thing, if you're from Arkansas and at all interested in literature (as I am), you have heard of Portis. Apart from the occasional fiction or nonfiction piece in the Atlantic Monthly, he hasn't published anything since the novel Gringos, nearly twelve years ago. Arkansans still hail him as the best writer living in the state. (When Jack Butler taught at Hendrix College some years ago, he gave Portis a real run for his money. But ever since Butler moved out to Santa Fe, Portis has had no challengers.)

As it turns out, in Charlottesville, Virginia, you can't get The Believer, or even McSweeney's most of the time, because they don't make regular shipments out to the hinterlands. (Note to Eggers: If you really want an audience, you have to come to us, or at least meet us halfway.) So I have absolutely no idea what Park wrote. Here's what I think he should have written, and if he wants to take credit for it he's more than welcome:

Like most novelists worth reading, Charles Portis got his start in war and journalism. He's a Korean War veteran -- a "former Marine," because there's no such thing as an "ex-Marine." As a young man, Portis worked for newspapers in Fayetteville and Little Rock. As a slightly older man, he made it out of Arkansas and worked as the London bureau chief for the New York Herald-Tribune.

Since 1966, Portis has written five novels and a handful of short pieces for regional and national magazines. One of his novels, True Grit, was made into a movie starring John Wayne. (Wayne won an Oscar for his spot-on portrayal of bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn, but that, alas, is not enough to make the film worth seeing.)

Portis is the sort of writer who inspires cult followings, only in his case the cult consists mainly of other writers. Among them you may count Southern humorist Roy Blount Jr. and Esquire essayist Ron Rosenbaum. Members of the Portis cult are known to have long battles over which book is his best, or at least their favorite. Norwood and The Dog of the South -- both Southern-fried picaresques -- are the best-loved of the lot. True Grit, his most popular novel, is that rarest of birds: great literature that also succeeds as terrific genre fiction. There is a later novel that Portis describes as his "white comedy," Masters of Atlantis. Finally, his darkest book, Gringos.

Norwood (1966), True Grit (1968), Dog of the South (1979), Masters of Atlantis (1985), Gringos (1991), a few luminous prose pieces since then -- and there you have it. As you may have guessed, Portis is not a prolific author. His entire oeuvre could be read, cover to cover, in about a week.

I recommend taking longer, if only so that you can get the full impact of his prose. Here's a passage from the first few pages of Norwood: "Mr. Pratt had always enjoyed living on the edge of places or between places, even when he had a choice. He was an alcoholic auto mechanic. Before his death they had moved a lot, back and forth along U.S. highway 82 in the oil fields and cotton patches between Stamps, Arkansas, and Hooks, Texas. There was something Mr. Pratt dearly loved about that section of interstate concrete. They clung to its banks like river rats. Once, near Stamps, they lived in a house between a Tastee-Freez stand and a cinder-block holiness church. There had been a colorful poster on one side of the house that said ROYAL AMERICAN SHOWS OCT. 6-12 ARKANSAS LIVESTOCK EXPOSITION LITTLE ROCK. On the other side of the house somebody with a big brush and a can of Sherwin-Williams flat white had painted ACTS 2:38."

By now you may have guessed that reading Portis can be as unsettling -- and as funny -- as a full-immersion baptism. But the detached, deadpan tone in the face of disaster reminds me of Hemingway's "grace under fire" taken to its logical extreme. Yes, says Portis, life is often cruel. Sometimes shit happens and there's nothing you can do about it except have a good laugh. Perhaps I laugh with Portis to keep from crying, but God help me, I do laugh.

In the best tradition of American pessimism (Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, James, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ellison, and too many other authors to name), Portis's heroes all seek something that can never be found or kept. Norwood Pratt rides across the country to find an army buddy who owes him money. He locates the man, gets his seventy dollars back, and even picks up a girlfriend along the way, but it's an open question whether he gets what he's really looking for (or even what that thing might be). Mattie Ross of True Grit seeks her father's killer. Although she does get to enact revenge, she loses one eye, an arm, and all prospect of marriage in the process. Ray Midge of The Dog of the South looks all over Central America for his wife Norma. Still, when he brings her home, he cannot compel her to stay.

Portis's later heroes find themselves on ever grander vision quests, but with no greater success. Lamar Jimmerson of Masters of Atlantis founds a new-age sect called Gnomonism. The sect dies out along with its cosmic secrets, but the elderly devotees still manage to keep each other company in a desert compound of tiny trailers, all crammed to the gills with books and pamphlets from Gnomonism's glory days. Jimmy Burns of Gringos also seeks mystical knowledge and perhaps a healthy profit in the Mexican jungle, but in a bitter rebuke to transcendental optimism, he discovers a murderous hippie cult instead. Even so, there is room for a final, vengeful gesture of outraged humanity, in what many readers will find the most deeply disturbing climax in Portis's fiction to date.

So why haven't more of us heard about Charles Portis? Perhaps it's because his novels deny final satisfaction to not only their protagonists, but their readers as well. After all, we live in a postliterate society -- which means that everyone can read but nobody really wants to. So on those rare occasions when we actually sit down and crack a book, it's usually with the idea that a book will be "good for us," that it will educate us in some way that TV and the movies can't. Toni Morrison, for example, is a bestseller because she offers Americans of all races a window into the officially sanctioned "Black Experience." Deepak Chopra offers new-age enlightenment, a "Gnomonism" for our own time. J.K. Rowling amuses us with schoolboy tales of virtue and courage. The Left Behind series of novels comes with an evangelical-Christian imprimatur, and even John Grisham's potboilers offer greater understanding of the legal system's Byzantine complexity. In short, all of these books are based on the idea that there is a greater knowledge, even Truth, and that somehow (usually through more reading or study) we can access it.

Not only does Portis deny this idea, but his novels even suggest that the insight we seek from other books is all so much bunkum. All we can do in this world is take things more or less as we find them: the barren stretch of highway that a dying father mysteriously (or religiously?) clings to, the peculiar smells of a Trailways bus or a Mexican bar, the chaos and violence that seem to erupt out of nowhere, the transcendence we seek but can never find, and the minor, human compensations we come to accept in its stead.

The self-conscious themes, the self-righteous insights, and the self-absorbed gamesmanship we've come to expect from today's MFA-trained university novelists, are all absent here: Portis's novels are not designed to make you think you're a better person for having read them. Instead, these books demand that we see them as nothing but what they are: stories about other people. They are anti-theory in the best possible sense.

This rank apostasy may be just enough to keep Portis safely obscure, hidden from those believers who demand Truth from fiction. At least, I sort of hope that's the case.

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