January 4th, 2013

Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

Once upon an encyclopedia #2: Volume I, A to Bib

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition (1979)
Volume I: A to Bib

Okay, this is how the thing is going to work. I take a volume of the encyclopedia and I open it at random four or five times and then I pick the thing that catches my eye on the page at which the book falls open. And then (without reproducing the entries verbatim as such) I discuss the topics that came up in this wise.
In volume one, the A-Bib volume, here is what turned up for me.

(1) Agamemnon:

Oh, the Greek legends of my misspent youth! They all come alive for me all over again, all those familiar names leap out at me – Agamemnon and Menelaus, Clytemnestra, Helen, Orestes, Paris, Iphigenia, Troy and all the rest of that. I cut my teeth on these things. I do believe that partly my love for complex storylines, and my love for fantasy, was first nursed in the cradle of these Greek tales.

I remember a handsome book I had on Greek legends, a treasured thing, long lost now to the many moves that came between childhood and my now. That’s where it began. I have other books on the subject now (on mythology as a subject, actually – I have books on the myths and legends of everybody and everything, from the Greeks and Romans to the Norsemen, the Slavs, the Polynesians, the tribes of Southern and Western Africa, to the Chinese and Japanese and East Asian tales, you name it, I’ve got it. I’ve a library on the subject. I never grew out of the love of mythology.)

But, as I said, it was just a beginning. The father of the two mythical Greek kings was Atreus – and for those who are paying attention there are things that reach further into the future here. It was this name, this set of legends, that crossed my mind when I first met Paul Atreides of Dune. And there are many things that followed from THAT seminal read. You might say that I have been shaped by mythology every step of the way. Everything is connected.

But – and here we come against the fatal pleasures of the encyclopedia for the first time – did you know that Agamemnon is also the name of a minor planet? Below this sparse entry – the fact that this minor planet exists is more or less the entire extent of the thing – it says cryptically, “see Trojan Planets”. And now I am going to have to go and investigate those. If I have ever heard of them before then I have forgotten what I know, and I am now caught up in my other overwhelming love and interest, the cosmos, the planets, the stars. Who or what are the “Trojan” planets, and what relationship do they have with our own solar system which I thought I knew so well…?

And also, beyond all this, there is the classical play, one of the original “Greek tragedies” – and this entry is linked to something that just says, “textual analysis problems”. Inquiring minds want to know, now – what kind of problems? Did we run into translation difficulties? Or is the story itself problematic and questionable? The long hand of history reaches out and touches me and it is cool like Greek marble. And there is a LOT more to learn here. But that’s for me to pursue. Later.

(2) Amalasuntha:

Daughter of Theodoric the great of the Ostrogoths The Gothic Queen who plotted with Justinian of Byzantium, who tried to make her son into a Byzantine princeling inasmuch as that was possible under the circumstances, and was murdered for her pains. Odd, this, because it ties in dramatically to “Empress”, my own new historical fantasy epic which is STILL out there looking for a publisher and a home (hands up, if you want to read it… maybe some publisher will trip over this and realize what they’re missing.... [grin])

In my research for this novel, I did quite a bit of reading around Amalasuntha who was an interesting character herself. A Queen, a blood-royal woman who ruled in a society where male power and the ability to use a weapon with dispatch was prized far more than subtlety and elegance, she was a fish out of water in some ways, a woman out of her time. She might have been something far greater if she had been born in a different hour, to a different people. But in the end her own moment of history proved to be too heavy for her to hold up on her own and then it crushed her. I admired her spirit. And also, how many women of her era can you name who actually RULED SOMETHING? She was one of a very special handful of women who were strong enough to make their mark, to have their names remembered, even noted in encyclopedias much after their time. She may have lost her battles at the time that she lived, but she sure won the war of posterity. She is remembered. This is a big deal, really. Think about it.

(3) Armadillo:

Described in the encyclopedia as ”stout short legged animals with strong curved claws and pinkish brown scaled armour”. That was essentially all I knew of them – I was born in the quiet cultivated Eastern Europe where such things did not walk, and then lived in other parts of the world where armadillos were vanishingly rare.
But then I moved to Florida, and yes, indeedy, they had real armadillos there. I remember a car trip – there we were, my new husband and I, driving along an interstate highway, when I suddenly screeched for him to stop – and when, mystified, he did, by the side of the road, I spilled from the car and ran back a ways to take a closer look at something in the grass beside the highway. A dead armadillo. So sue me, it was the first “real” armadillo I had ever seen and I wanted a closer look – it was like someone had pointed out a dead dragon by the roadside, and I could no more have resisted it then. Later, during one of Florida’s extravagant downpours, we saw a live specimen whose burrow must have been flooded out by the torrential rains – he was turning tight panicked circles on a suburban lawn – “helpmehelpmehelpmehelpmehelpme” – but if I had not stopped to take a closer look at his dead brother, before, I would not have been able in THAT moment to point and say hey, look at that armadillo. Because now I knew what armadillos were. And there is just something amazing to see an encyclopedia entry turning into a dead-but-still-real specimen even if it was just a sad piece of roadkill and then coming to life (and begging for assistance) in front of your eyes. This is how the world works. You are EDUCATED, by reading, by seeing, by experience. There are times it is just GOOD to be alive.

(4) Bardo:

In Tibetan Buddhism, the intermediate stage between death and rebirth lasting up to 49 days. Paraphrasing the encyclopedia entry, the dying person immediately enters Chi-kha’I Bar-do (“transitional state of the moment of death”) where he remains for three to four days until he realizes that he is dead – don’t you just LOVE that? It takes people three or four days *to realize that they are dead*. This tickles my imagination instantly. But during this initial period, so the story goes, the newly-dead person is offered a glimpse, an intuition, of highest reality – and, if ready, if the life just departed from had been lived to the limit and the one newly dead had learned his life lessons well, the dearly departed can grasp this here and now and thus escape the wheel of rebirth, forever.

But it isn’t as easy as that, and most turn away in fear and ignorance and thus enter the second stage of Chos-hyid Bar-do (transitional state of the experiencing of reality”) – and here he encounters his own past, “first as figures of great beauty and power”, says the encyclopedia, and then, finally, “as terrifying monsters” – and then, fleeing from these demonic apparitions, he enters Srid-p’a Bar-Do (“transitional state of seeking rebirth”) where he precipitously chooses rebirth (I get a mental image of someone screaming “MOMMY!” and, um, getting answered…)

I love this. I love the complexity of this. When you die you don’t just DIE, you have a whole another existence, possibly attaining immortality but if you don’t then you get chased by angels and demons and finally you fall into the waiting body of a brand new person and you get to do it all again. It’s a world vision that is active and always changing, and somehow it beats the static Christian Heaven hands down. At least you get to DO something after you’re dead instead of sitting on clouds and preening your wings all day. There are so many stories here. So many. And my storytelling mind is already swirling with them…

(5) Beowulf:

Famous Old English poem, believed to be composed between 700 and 750 – and appeared in print for the first time in 1815. That in itself is a story that’s dismissed in a sentence but think about the tenacious life of this piece of storytelling. It survived for a thousand years and more just by being copied by hand, and retold as an oral tale – talk about immortality. The “print” part now seems like little more than an afterthought, really. The tale is probably familiar to many – the hall of Heorot, ravaged by the monster called Grendel who takes King Hrothgar’s warriors and eats them. Until the Hero comes, Beowulf, and says to the king, I will rid you of this menace. Beowulf slays Grendel, and then Grendel’s mother, and then all is well at least for a while. There is a second part of the poem which deals with the now ageing Beowulf’s dealing with a fire-breathing dragon and getting himself killed in the effort.

It’s an archetypal tale, and it’s been interpreted and reinterpreted any which way during its long and gloried existence, according to the mores and the philosophy of the culture and civilization doing the analyzing. You can read any number of derivative works, of commentary, of critique… and this particular encyclopedia entry endeared itself to me immediately with just one sentence – the phrase (as immortal in itself, in its own way, as any aspect of Beowulf ever was, which begins with, “The English critic J R R Tolkien…” HAH. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it.

Well. That will do for now. I’ll pick up the next volume when the moment moves me. Watch this space.
Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

Okay, then. "Les Mis" the movie.

First off, let me go off on a first class rant about a review that at first I thought was a joke (and am still not entirely conviced is not) - THIS one, here.

Some choice quotes, first.

Starting from the title - "There's still hope for people who love 'Les Mis' ".

There may be. But if you do, and if you still have any, stop reading right here. Because the rest...

Sez this "critic":
I want to render a public service. I want to suggest that even if you were deeply moved by “Les Mis,” you can still save your soul. I don’t think you are damned forever. Salvation awaits. I realize that we are not supposed to argue about taste. De gustibus non est disputandum, as some Latin fellow said.

Glad he starts off with this, you know. Because most of the rest of the thing is about how little taste everyone else (except himself) must have in order to show a smidge of liking for this thing that he is here to see.

And then he goes on,

I had never seen the show or heard the score; I came to the material fresh, without preconception, and throughout the entire hundred and fifty-seven minutes I sat cowering in my seat, lost in shame and chagrin.

(DUDE. You could have left.)

This movie is not just bad...It’s terrible; it’s dreadful. Overbearing, pretentious, madly repetitive. I was doubly embarrassed because all around me, in a very large theatre, people were sitting rapt, awed, absolutely silent, only to burst into applause after some of the numbers, and I couldn’t help wondering what in the world had happened to the taste of my countrymen—the Americans (Americans!) who created and loved almost all the greatest musicals ever made.

...AH. American exceptionalism, you know. Nothing good can come from a source that is not American (AMEIRCAN!) (You gotta love that parenthesis! The EXCLAMATION POINT! How could AMERICANS!!! ever love this thing! No Gershwin! No Sondheim! No Lerner and Loewe! No Cole Porter! NoRodgers and Hammerstein! Oh WOE!!!)

Didn’t any of my neighbors notice how absurdly gloomy and dolorous the story was? How the dominant blue-gray coloring was like a pall hanging over the material?

er, hello? Did the title not give it away? What were you expecting, the MGM dancing girls...?

... How the absence of dancing concentrated all the audience’s pleasure on the threadbare songs?

...um, apparently, yes...

How tiresome a reverse fashion show the movie provided in rags, carbuncles, gimpy legs, and bad teeth?

Er, did you notice the TIME PERIOD AND THE ERA AND THE SETTING of this thing? What exactly where you expecting? And if everyone had been rendered as the Beautiful People, you would probably have taken issue that they weren't rendered with verismilitude?

Hugh Jackman, as the aggrieved Jean Valjean, delivers his numbers in a quavering, quivering, stricken voice—Jackman doesn’t sing, he brays. Russell Crowe as Javert, his implacable pursuer, stands on parapets overlooking all of Paris and dolefully sings of his duty to the law.

This is the price they paid for making the movie. They cast stars. Who may or may not be the best SINGERS around. I'll give you that Crowe is not the best warbler on the planet - but he damn well makes up for it in the emotional intensity required for this part. And Jackman does REMARKABVLY well, given all the variables involved.

The young women, trembling like leaves in a storm, battered this way and that by men, never exercise much will or intelligence.

NOW I am getting not just cross, but really angry. He is blaming the helpless for being helpless in a situation and a time where they could not do anything at all to change things. If you were in Fantine's shoes you *had no choices*. Sorry, mate, but you just didn't. Even today's young women (yes! In AMERICA!!!) sometimes find themselves with choices taken away from them. How much more so the women from the back alleys of Paris a couple of centuries ago now? And you wxpected WHAT, exactly? For them to have invented feminism back then? And they are somehow to blame for not standing up to a class and gender divide - even when such an act would have been suicide in the circumstances?! Do you understand basic history and sociology, never MIND the theatre musical and its requirements?

Anne Hathaway, as Fantine, gets her teeth pulled, her hair chopped, and her body violated in a coffin box—a Joan of Arc who only suffers, a pure victim who never asserts herself.

As I was saying. This is the tragic figure in all of this. SHow me one moment where she had a choice. ONE. Oh, maybe she shouldn't have slept with Cosette's father in the first place. But who's to say she would have escaped her fate even so? Those were tough days and she had NOTHING. Yes, she offered up her hair, her teeth, her body. What would YOU do if it was you and you alone standing between life and death for one small child for whom you were responsible?

The music is juvenile stuff—tonic-dominant, without harmonic richness or surprise. Listen to any score by Richard Rodgers or Leonard Bernstein or Fritz Loewe if you want to hear genuine melodic invention.

Not to disparage the great musicals OF THE FIFITES, but are you really calling "Oklahoma" or even "Sound of Music" musically and thematically superior to "Les Mis"? All I can do is sit here and shake my head.

I was so upset by the banality of the music that I felt like hiring a hall and staging a nationalist rally. “My fellow-countrymen, we are the people of Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin! Cole Porter and George Gershwin, Frank Loesser and Burton Lane! We taught the world what popular melody was! What rhythmic inventiveness was! Let us unite to overthrow the banality of these French hacks!” (And the British hacks, too, for that matter.) Alas, the hall is filled with people weeping over “Les Mis.”

Okay, this is where I begin to think that you really ARE trying to be funny, Mr Critic. But probably not. THis is a fine arrogance at its best. The world neither began nor ended with Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. They had their place and if their music is what you like that's perfectly fine. But you have just disqualified yourself as a judge of anything that came after the second half of the twentieth century.

Is it sacrilege to point out that the Victor Hugo novel, stripped of its social detail and reduced to its melodramatic elements, no longer makes much sense? That the story doesn’t connect to our world (which may well be the reason for the show’s popularity)? Jean Valjean becomes a convict slave for nineteen years after stealing some bread for his sister’s child. He has done nothing wrong, yet he spends the rest of his life redeeming himself by committing one noble act after another, while Javert pursues him all over France. Wherever Valjean goes, Javert shows up; he’s everywhere at once, like the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” who was at least intended to be a fanciful creation.

um, dude...? it was a NOVEL. A work of FICTION. A work of lengthy NINETEENTH CENTURY fiction, at that, with all the drawbacks of the era - it could be pontificating and pompous with "message" at times. Okay? Are we clear on that? And no, they did not FAITHFULLY reporduce the thing in musical form. It could not be done. For a start, the Thenardiers were NOT comic relief in the original novel. Not by a long shot. And yes, the musical picked up the high points and wove a story around that. What's your beef?

Doesn’t Javert have anything else to do with his life? He seems less a relentless avatar of the law than merely daft—and a melodramatic contrivance. He doesn’t even have a streak of perversity—in his own stupid way, he’s meant to be noble, a man of conscience. Dare I suggest that the mutual obsession of Valjean and Javert is actually boring and morally insignificant? The relationship never develops; the two men never push beyond the surface of each other’s characters. And the implications of Jean Valjean’s complete innocence are dismaying. Suppose he had actually committed some sort of crime as a young man. Are we to infer that he wouldn’t be worth our tears if—like the rest of us—he were even slightly culpable? Saints do not make interesting heroes.

True, dat last. But Valjean is not a saint. And if you missed THAT you missed everything.

Every emotion in the movie is elemental. There’s no normal range, no offhand or incidental moments—it’s all injustice, love, heartbreak, cruelty, self-sacrifice, nobility, baseness.

Yes. The archetypes. What do you prefer? "Get me to the church on time"? THat was fun. It had its place. It is not, however, comparable to this material.

Which brings us to heart of the material’s appeal. As everyone knows, the stage show was a killer for girls between the ages of eight and about fourteen. If they have seen “Les Mis” and responded to it as young women, they remain loyal to the show—and to the emotions it evoked—forever.

...you JACKASS. I first saw "Les Mis" on stage in London when I was considerably older than one of the "girls from eight to fourteen" (how dismissive, how patronising can you GET?). I fell in love with it. So did a lot of other people whom I saw in that theatre. Very few of them were eight. Maybe a handful were fourteen. LOTS weren't female. Would you like to run that one by me again?

Revolution breaks out in “Les Mis.” What revolution? Against whom? In favor of what? It’s just revolution—the noble sacrifice of handsome, ardent boys taking on merciless power. The French military, those canaille, gun down the beautiful boys. It’s all so generic. The vagueness is insulting.

It's HISTORY, actually. And if you weren't so AMERICAN!!! you might even know some of that history. Honestly, just as the musical did not begin and end with Irving Berlin, world history does not begin and end with the crossing of the Potomac. Things that are not necessarily American matter to people out there. Dear God. How pathetically ignorant and arrogant can you get?

And then, the piece de resistance:

And now, the real point: our great musicals were something miraculous. They were a blessed artifice devoted to pleasure, to ease and movement, exultation in the human body, jokes and happy times, the giddiness of high hopes. Even the serious musicals, like “Carousel” and “West Side Story,” had their funny moments. (In fairness, there is comedy in “Les Mis,” in the form of the larcenous innkeepers played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, but they do the same damn pickpocket joke so many times that they hardly provide relief.) If you want emotion in a musical, please, if you’ve never seen it, catch the George Cukor version of “A Star is Born,” in which Judy Garland (John Lahr agrees with me on this) produces the single greatest moment in film-musical history. Late at night in a club, when she thinks no one is listening (while James Mason lurks in the shadows), she sings the Harold Arlen torch song “The Man That Got Away.” Overwhelming.

I... am speechless at this. Anyone who can literally compare something like "Carousel" to something like "Les Mis"... is... is... can someone please stop this guy from writing any critical opinions of anything else, like, ever, unless he is called on to review "Sesame Street". Or maybe he could offer his opinions on re-runs of fifties MGM musicals on TCM. Much more his speed.

The "doctor" who wrote the simpering stupid review offers two "cures" for "Les Mis". One of them is to watch the Astaire/Rogers movie "Top Hat instead. Or "Singin' in the Rain". He does not mention "Brigadoon" but I'm sure it's in there somewhere. "If you've never seen [these movies] before," the critic says (never seen them? Never seen something that has been around for fifty years? Really?), "they may open an entirely new path to pleasure. See them twice, and you will put aside the maudlin nonsense of "Les Mis" forever."

I have news for this idiot. I've seen Singin' in the Rain not once, not twice, but too many times to count. Love it. Can practically quote it. My pleasure in that in no way shape or form approximates what I feel for "Les Mis" (which I've now seen, counting the movie, eight times, and which, you arrogant coxscomb, I would go and see again in a heartbeat.)

The other "cure" is to turn to another adaptation of Victor Hugo, in the shape of "Rigoletto". He says:

The entire piece, which is almost an hour shorter than “Les Mis,” exhibits a conciseness, power, and lyrical invention that remains devastating on the tenth hearing.

Well, yes, IT'S VERDI. And I suppose being a "classic" it is beyond the reach of this critic's rapier "wit".

And now here's my take on the movie.

Yes, the stars cast in the main roles may not be SINGING stars. But they acquit themselves reasonably well, for all that. And yes, there is a preponderance of very close close-ups when people are singing which can get disconcerting at times - but they are doing this because they can, because this is a film adapatation of a stage show. In the theatre, in the theatres in which I saw the show, you would be lucky if you could tell who the character on stage was by their clothes, if you were sitting up in the cheap seats in the balcony, the "Gods", as it is known in the theatre parlance, which takes you so far away from the stage that you almost need opera glasses to see that something is going on at all - and yes, the music carried the pathos and the drama adn the emotions of the show, and you never saw these close-ups because they were impossible to see. Do they add something to the movie version? That's pretty much between you and the movie. I didn't find myself caring that much, to be honest.

And if you couldn't find enough raw emotion in here to weep at, Mr Critic, your soul is a shrivelled little raisin and you deserve to be stuck on a deserted island somewhere with just one faded copy of "Singin' in the Rain" for company.

I loved this book. I cried rivers over it, even if it WAS long and long-winded and overwrought in the best nineteenth-century literary fashion. And I also love this show. I love the music. "One More Day" has brought more people to their feet than any Porter or Gershwin ditty that you could name. They didn't sing those in the Capitol in Wisconsin when the people came thronging to protest injustice not so long ago - they sang "Do you year the people sing". Yes, from "Les Mis". A song that MATTERED> And to which they *all knew the words".

Mr Big Time New York Critic? You can't see past the end of your privileged American nose.

You will apparently NEVER hear the people sing. And you will certainly never ever be one of them. You're a sheep. If you have completely failed to understand, or care, it is better to keep your mouth shut (as they have said) and let people THINK that you are an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Still. As you say. Tastes differ.

Me, I will probably go back and see the movie again. If I ever get the chance to, you bet your last penny that I will go back into a theatre to see this on stage. And I know the words to that last song. I can hear the people sing. And I will sing with them.