30 September 2006

Wrong So Long

    Late Saturday morning and all's quiet as I begin writing this, save for the sounds of Van Morrison and the late Lonnie Donegan tearing through a barroom-rousing version of "Frankie and Johnny."  So maybe it's not quiet, per se, but uneventful, but who's to bother parsing particulars at this hour of the day?  The tune in question is a traditional that's been covered by every musician and his (or her) great uncle Percy over the years, including Elvis, Hank Snow and Sam Cooke, and most recently by Lindsay Lohan in Robert Altman's Prairie Home Companion.  The Morrison/Donegan version, though, is a barn-burner, thanks largely to Chris Barber's trombone work and Donegan's increasingly ferocious vocals.  It alternately shuffles, wails, kicks, soars and flails, all in the best ways.  It's the sort of song that would have gotten ME dancing with full ham (yes, Heaven forfend), once upon a jaundice moon.  It's also one of those songs that on its lonely own makes buying the original album worthwhile.  Okay, probably not for those of you that esteem hip-hop as music, but chances are that if you do you wouldn't be reading this youngish curmudgeon's excuse for webspace in the first place. 

Stephen Fry by Matthew Bandusch    In other matters, there are two pieces in the NYT to check out.  One is the review of Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled, which sounds like a Must-Buy.  Fry's always a delight, and I imagine, based on the account from the review, that his book might be the sort of thing I'd have assigned to a poetry course had I the opportunity.  (And alas, too late for RK to do so and order a few extra desk copies.  )  Fry's one of those few figures who possesses-- and exudes--- "a mixture of gravity and waggery,"  to use Christopher Smart's wonderful phrase, so I suspect he'd be a great--- Darwin forgive me--- poetry home companion.  This reminds me that I used to use an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?  as a preface to the study of comedy, the first part of said episode you can view by clicking here.  Ask not how I did it.  I remember now only that I did, several times.  It had something to do with the panoply of comedic devices and conventions, especially in terms of what those familiar with the Commedia dell'Arte would call the pazzi ("bag of tricks," if I remember correctly, which I confess I may not anymore).  I'm sure I did it with nearly-equal parts gravity and waggery.  Successfully or not remains another matter entirely.

    The other article of note is this one by Robert Harris, identifying an eerie historical parallelism that should raise contemporary concern.  Many of us have been prattling on about such unsettling symmetries for some time, but to little or no avail except among those already comfortably encamped among the critical, the contrary and occasionally the just-plain cranky.  I'll leave this as it stands, though.  You can infer for yourselves the estuary/Ostiary puns the Not-So-Good Doc would normally have bothered to make. 

    On a last matter, I have had reinforced to me recently that I am surely The Worst Person To See A Movie With.  Watching Lucky Number Slevin on DVD, I found myself catching on to the movie's supposed secret very, very, very early on, and not because of any particular genius on my part.  (As most of you are aware, I have no genius of which to speak.)  It was, however, one of those instances by which the film provided a subtle wink to its viewers to clue them into where it was really going, but which most viewers probably did not catch, even if the filmic wink was as bold--- dare I say "naked?"--- as it could have been.  Simple setup for those who have not seen the film, which I do suggest, because it's better than you might expect: after a prefatory vignette involving the explanation of "the Kansas City Shuffle," a general but elaborate act of misdirection, we're introduced to the movie's hero (the largely vapid Josh Hartnett), clad only in a towel before things start to unfold.  He then spends the next several minutes, including being transported to another building, so clad.  We're led to believe this is a case of mistaken identity, and Hartnett's near-nudity a device of mere comedy, which it partially is.  But, no--- the movie's too clever, and I realized quickly I was being winked at, as the movie gave me a fair chance to catch in on its game before it played it, or, more precisely, identified its genre after 70-or-80 minutes of misdirection.  Have I made it clear yet?  If not, and you haven't seen the movie yet, read no further. 

    (Last chance-- get out now if you don't want to know.)

Towel or Not Towel    The Bruce Willis prologue sets up a story of people murdered, and implies it's all merely a distractionary tale.  Of course, it's not.  It sets up, instead, the backdrop for revenge-tragedy, or rather (these being genre-mixing days) revenge dramedy.  So when we are introduced to the conspicuously naked, or near-naked, Slevin it should be a sign.  His protestations aside, the film's attempts at misdirection immediately caught, his nudity or nearness to it, is The Giant Wink (TM).  I laughed out loud at this.  Lit geeks will appreciate the correspondence with the naked washings-up of Odysseus (first in Nausikaa, then later in his account to the Ithakan swineherd in Book XIV) and, more dubiously, Hamlet after his pirate-rescue ("you shall know I am set naked on your kingdom" [almost always in 4.7]).  Coming together yet?

    It's the trope of the mythical naked--- read in: natural--- man, the avenging force that returns with nothing but himself, that's in Slevin thoroughly joked-through.  The return of the natural man, is always revealed after the hero has proven his capacity for subterfuge (i.e., assuming an unnatural identity, like putting on antic disposition, or concealing his identity, as Odysseus does most famously in his battle with the Kyklopes in Book IX).  The nemetic justicer arrives, apparently and usually of his own construction, as the naked man alit with nothing but his purpose, and of course he inevitably succeeds, wreaking, or rather capital-D delivering, vengeance.  But as soon as I saw Hartnett-cum-Slevin facing Morgan Freeman in his towel (his rag in a bundle, a la Fitzgerald's translation?), I was in on the game.  Everything else was just filling the context, as with The Usual Suspects.  There, btw, the tip-off, was Kevin Spacey's description of his piss, after we had seen the only ostensibly objective view of the crime scene in its preface. 

    The Giant Wink:  Movies that know they're being smart can never resist tempting you to catch onto them.  They're like high-minded murderers daring the perfect crime.  They either leave clues cheekily, or they leave one more clue than they intended to leave.  I'm willing to believe Slevin meant to that clue; it's aware enough to have done so intentionally.  And while it's not a great movie, it's definitely a better one than I expected it would be, and creditable for its cleverness beyond itself.  Good on it.

    Argh, I've rambled, perhaps too much like the movie I just explained earnestly trying to show how clever I am.  (Key word: earnestly.)  Too much gravity?  Too much waggery?  Or just a brain too much Fryed?  Northrop or Stephen, take your pick.

    It has now taken me so bloody-f0rking long to write this entry that "Frankie and Johnny" has come back up on the playlist.  Oh, this brain o' mine, and it's been doin' me wrong so long.... Now where is that skiffle accompaniment when I need it? 

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