Sunday, March 27, 2011

Singing Together in the Boundless Night (Rusty Schweickart; Dave Matthews; Robert Randolph)

Rusty Schweickart came back from the Apollo 9 mission in 1969 with a profoundly altered sense of relationship with our planet. As he later wrote about circling Earth every 90 minutes (click here for more):

"And the contrast between that bright blue and white Christmas tree ornament and the black sky, that infinite universe, really comes through, and the size of it, the significance of it. It is so small and so fragile and such a precious little spot in the universe that you can block it out with your thumb. And you realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you - all love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you've changed, that there's something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was."

So what do we do on our tiny island in the midst of the endless sea?

We sing and we dance, like Tolkien's elves under the stars, like the inhabitants of Le Guin's Earthsea every New Year. Together, weaving from our individual solitudes a chorus to defy the night, bonding ourselves to ourselves with inimitable rhythms.

Like this (with thanks to the Dave Matthews Band, and to Robert Randolph & The Family Band respectively):

Sunday, March 20, 2011

H.P. Lovecraft and the Language of Nuclear Meltdown

Lovecraft's prose is empurpled, histrionic, so over the top that it is therefore perfect for capturing what he sought to capture: the immensities of time and space (especially as compared to our fragile and foreshortened human vistas), the menace of unknowable things lurking in deep places, the folly of dabbling in arcana beyond our ken, the indifference of the universe to the fate of humankind.

The lobster & canary were reminded of how apposite Lovecraftian prose can be while reading the newspaper this Sunday morning. The lead story in the "Week in Review" section of the New York Times is "Lessons from Chernobyl for Japan" by Ellen Barry. (Click here for the full story.) Of course, I am not saying that Ms. Barry has consciously adopted Lovecraftian language to describe the ongoing travails of Chernobyl; she may never have read Lovecraft, for all we know. The point is that some events defy our sense of scale and mock our ability to respond, pushing us to linguistic extremes in our attempts to describe-- with Beckett perhaps representing the absurdist, stripped-down end of the spectrum, and Lovecraft the fevered, rococo opposite. And just as Beckett's mode is part of our linguistic armory-- even for writers who may have never read End Game-- Lovecraft's idiom is likewise a part of our shared toolkit.

From one of the first paragraphs in Barry's report:

"Water cannot be allowed to touch the thing that is deep inside the reactor: about 200 tons of melted nuclear fuel and debris, which burned through the floor and hardened, in one spot, into the shape of an elephant’s foot. This mass remains so highly radioactive that scientists cannot approach it."

These lines could be straight out of "The Dunwich Horror," The Shadow out of Time, or At the Mountains of Madness.

Making this passage all the more eldritch (to use a word so favored by the Gentleman from Providence), the workers at Chernobyl call the structure enveloping the reactor "the sarcophagus."

As Barry notes, a nuclear meltdown "is a problem that does not exist on a human time frame." We are here confronting the mind-breaking trajectories Lovecraft laid out in, for instance, "The Whisperer in Darkness" and "The Color out of Space."

Barry evokes the eerie emptiness of the deserted bedroom community for Chernobyl's workers:

"... wallpaper has slipped down under its own weight and paint has peeled away from apartment walls in fat curls. Ice glazes the interiors. On a residential street, where Soviet housing blocks tower in every direction, it is quiet enough to hear the sound of individual leaves brushing against branches.

The wild world is gradually pressing its way in...[...] ...wild boars and foxes had begun to take shelter in the abandoned city..."

Echoes here of Lovecraft's decaying town of Innsmouth, with a deformed secret at its core, and of other ruins populating his work.

So there dwells a monstrous mass within its hastily erected tomb at Chernobyl, and we face a similar entombment possibly at Fukushima. Like the inhuman Cthulhu dreaming in his stone house, a force manifesting on planes outside those humans readily grasp. Cthulhu, central figure of the Lovecraftian Mythos, whose half-life dwarfs our understanding. As Lovecraft put it, in one of his most famous lines:

"That is not dead which can eternal lie.

And with strange aeons even death may die."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Interstitial Arts Foundation "March Madness"; The Witches of Lublin (Ellen Kushner, Tovah Feldshuh, Neil Gaiman)

First, the lobster and the canary thank all of you who sent comments about last week's posting (on fairy tales, film, and income inequality). Besides the three comments posted here, we received sixteen equally positive and insightful notes from readers via e-mail...making the post the most widely commented upon in our history. Special thanks to Terry Weyna and Chris Nakashima Brown for blogging and/or tweeting about the post.

Meanwhile, the canary is tweeting and the lobster is making whatever sounds lobsters make about two really exciting events:

"MARCH MADNESS"---no, not that one, but the one over at the Interstitial Arts Foundation (disclosure: I am an IAF working group member). Every day this month the IAF is posting a review, or an interview, or other commentary on Things Interstitial. Click here to check out some of the smartest discussion on the Web about art that crosses, erases, ignores or just plain confounds genre boundaries. (How do you spell "unclassifiable" in Klingon? in Sindarin?).

There you will find, inter alia, Erin Underwood's review of the Indy Convergence, and her interview with Nicole Kornher-Stace (whose poetry I have praised here at L & C), Mike Allen on "jubilant irreverence" (an interview with Brian Counihan, founder of the Marginal Arts Festival), and Ellen Kushner commenting on Michael Swanwick's discussion of T.H. White.

Speaking of Ellen Kushner, the other event L & C highlights over this morning's coffee is the audio drama The Witches of Lublin. Co-written by Kushner, with Elizabeth Schwartz and Yale Strom, with music by Strom, and directed & produced by Sue Zizza, The Witches of Lublin is a 59-minute story based (per their website) "on Jewish women's lives in eighteenth century Europe, klezmer music, and feminist history, with a healthy dose of magical realism thrown in." What a wonderful brew!

Click here
for details.

It gets even better: Tovah Feldshuh and Neil Gaiman have roles in the production. Oh lovely, sings the canary; lobster claps claws. The Witches is available for airing, starting in April-- just in time for Passover.

Can't hardly wait.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Who's Been Eating My Porridge?; or, Growing Income Inequality and the Resurgence of Fantasy in Film

Fairy tale remakes, the old gods resurrected, the fabulistic and super-heroical in many shades and sizes have dominated American cinema since c. 1990, at least in terms of audience size and revenues. Hollywood has found that updating the oldest stories and mining the Marvel and DC universes (themselves populated by updates of the oldest stories) are far more lucrative than producing the realistic dramas and satires that led their offerings in the late '60s and throughout the '70s.

Check out here the top hundred all-time grossing films in the U.S.A. Here are The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, soul searching by Spiderman and by Batman, spaceships and dragons in Avatar (having your science fiction and your fantasy all in one go), The Lion King, various scherzi from Pixar, the adventures of Indiana Jones, the bravado of Iron Man, The Matrix series ("how deep does the rabbit hole go?"), Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and his friends growing up to face Voldemort, Twilight, the capers of Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon, slow-motion whimsy in Kung Fu Panda....and on and on, with the Hollywood A List on all sides of the cameras and computers, the highest production values, the fattest budgets.

The last time Hollywood invested this heavily in fantasy was in the 1930s and early '40s, when The Wizard of Oz and Disney's Sleeping Beauty, Fantasia and Snow White hit the screens.

Why then, and why now? The violence and illicit romance/sex of fairy tales surely appeal to audiences, but we can (and do) get massive dollops of those things from other genres as well. I suggest that the answer lies rather in the deeper thrust of the old stories, which typically celebrates the feisty underdog and offers a chance for the oppressed and marginalized to turn the tables on their superiors. The plucky tailor vanquishes the ogre and wins the princess, the goose-girl or cinder-lass reveals her innate worth, the bones of the murdered call out from the fir-tree to accuse their murderer...

Hence the thirst for such stories during the Great Depression and now during the Great Recession. Not just because the average American feels economically insecure but because he and she perceives that a few others do not seem to be suffering much or at all, that those few appear to be elevating themselves above the rest of the citizenry. And, in fact, since 1980 income has gone disproportionately to a very few, creating the largest inequality in wealth in the U.S.A. since the 1920's. (*)

As Louis Brandeis said in 1941: "We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both." For the descendants of serfs and slaves, the sons and daughters of peasants and laborers who suffered a near-infinite variety of peonage and servitude, a defiant alarm is ringing, a challenge to any nascent aristocracy. In truth, we side with the hobbits-- to be left alone with a pint of ale by the fire-- and do not really want the return of the king.

The dance scene that ends the first Shrek movie epitomizes the will to overcome the fear of losing our democracy. To the tune of "I'm a Believer," a motley assortment of fairy tale figures dance in unison, a wildly diverse, rag-tag group (some not logical allies otherwise), the huddled masses, the little people...celebrating the overthrow of the grotesque, venal overlord. "Sure, we're plebes who live in a swamp, lack manners and grace, and like our humor rude and rough, but we will control our own fate, thank you very much." (**)

"I'm a believer," says the lobster. "Bring me my seven-league boots," chirps the canary. "We just found a magical bean..."

(*) For data and documentation on the rise in income and wealth inequality in the U.S.A., click here for work by University of California-Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez (especially his summary "Striking It Richer," and his studies with Thomas Piketty); click here for analysis by Daniel Weinberg (U.S. Census Bureau); click here for study by Gary Burtless (Brookings); and click here for Timothy Noah's series in Slate. More generally, Paul Krugman and Janet Yellen have written persuasively on the topic.

(**) Another favorite-- both of mine and of audiences-- is Johnny Depp's "futterwacken" dance in Alice. Note also the portrayal of the Red Queen; the film lingers long on her depravity, on her utter disregard for her subjects, her complete selfishness and lack of compassion. "Bring me a pig!" she cries, from her rapacious red lips in her oversized bobble-head...