Friday, January 20, 2012

It Don't Get Better Than Etta

Miss Jamesetta Hawkins 1938 - 2012

One of the very best there ever was. She wrote this.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Desert Island Ding-Dongs

Imagine you know you are going to be stranded on a desert island, and can take with you the following to make your stay more bearable: eight musical records, one book, and one luxury item.

This is the premise of the world’s second longest running radio programme, the BBC’s Desert Island Discs (the oldest is The Grand Old Opry). It started in 1925 and its guests tend to be the Commonwealth’s good and great. That is to say, folks who occupy interesting positions of prestige or authority in politics, the arts and sciences. Ordinary people will not have heard of most of them. However, because it has become an institution, being invited to make your selection is considered an essential step in having earned one’s place in culture, much like an unofficial prize. To reflect its distinctly British tenor, castaways are automatically given The Complete Works of Shakespeare (assuming, naturally, that one could not survive without it, and presumably to cut down its appearance as a choice), and not to offend one’s gods, The Bible or a religious text of their choosing.

What’s eminently interesting about Desert Island Discs, and what has contributed to its longevity, is the public’s curiosity about the choices such luminaries make. They are allowed to speak to their selections on the show, which makes it a delicious form of interview, in that one is permitted an insight into the person via their selections. It also encourages self-reflection: what choices would you make, and why? What do your choices say about you? How would they be interpreted by the public at large?

You can find the entirety of the show’s catalogue of guests and the choices they have made on the Desert Island Disc’s Website, and on Wikipedia. (Links below.)

When looked at as a whole, interesting patterns emerge. Some are curiously amusing: how come two people decided to double up on their Bibles by making it their book of choice (in addition to the one already there)? How come nine people saw the need to bring various works by Shakespeare, even though everything he ever wrote is waiting for them?

Sadly, you cannot search the database by genre — you can’t discern what the ratio of fiction and non-fiction is. I’d be interested in seeing what percentage of guests pick texts that are clearly designed for self-improvement, making use of their confinement in a productive manner. Some combine the luxury item with a book to this end: a piano is the most requested item, and some people also bring a guide to playing it. Many people use the time to keep family members close, choosing photo albums. No-one chooses porn, though one would presume it crosses the minds of many. (Kama Sutra, zero selections.)

What irks me the most, however, is that 43 people have chosen Tolstoy’s War and Peace as the one book they will bring with them for succor. Of all the texts ever published, they pick this? War and Peace is famous for two things: being extraordinarily long (over 1,500 pages in most editions), and as one of the books most cited as something people claim to have read, but actually have not. This is due to its assumed prestige; Tolstoy is a brilliant writer, sure — but isn’t having an ambition to read War and Peace (or being able to say one has) really about one’s literary ego? Is this because it’s a long book, and therefore suggests an enviable stamina for reading? Or because its theme is so large and Important with a capital I? If you are interested in the topic, why not bring Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War? Or Sun Tzu’s The Art of War? (Zero selections.)

This leads me to think that those making Tolstoy their choice merely want to be occupied, picking the longest text they can think of, to kill time. Waiting until you literally have nothing else to read doesn't particularly recommend it as a bucket-list book. This might have been cute the first time it was selected, but it isn’t now, and besides, there are far more really long books available now than there were in 1925. Besides, you’re not going to impress anyone by being able to claim you read War and Peace after an extended stint as a castaway on a desert island. Assuming you return to society, it’s enough to say you survived the ordeal (or even that you were on the radio show).

Because everybody’s choices are so easily searchable, it is very easy to see what has already been chosen, so that should you be plucked from obscurity to share your list with the world, you can check it in advance for originality. I sure would. 123 people, for example, beat me to the punch by choosing a dictionary (though only one chose an encyclopedia). You can search the database by work, author, or castaway. I made the mistake of looking up George Clooney, who was a guest in 2003 (mostly because I am a girl who falls for this sort of thing). His musical selections are eclectic and reveal a touch of the clown he so ably displays in his comedic turns on stage and on film in his choice of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” — by William Shatner. Haw haw. And (really, George? Really?)War and Peace.

What would you choose? List them in the comments section below!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Friday, January 13, 2012

Brass In Pocket — The Half-Penny: A Love Story

When my brothers and I were released every day by the North London gulag that was our secondary school, my mother stopped off at a neighborhood convenience store, not in our neighborhood, for after-school treats. I know that the English don’t use the term “convenience store,” a distinctly North American type of shop selling a little of everything one might need at the drop of a hat, right around the corner, at often inflated prices, for the convenience of not having to drive to the supermarket. But that’s what it was.

Convenience stores are heralded by their lurid display of brightly lit advertising and a window full of the kind of knick-knacks imported from China that always stupefy you to think that anyone, at any time in human history, would have decided were a good idea to make and which could find a customer. I’m talking cartoonish bloodhounds dressed up like Elvis, flags emblazoned with the logo of the US World Cup soccer team, lava lamps, and things of that nature.

Typical Tuck Shop
They are not the same as the traditional “corner store,” though they appear to serve a similar purpose. For one thing, corner stores are literally on corners, meaning they legitimately cover the territory encompassing four whole blocks. There are no more corner stores, because they specialized in selling cabbages, candy and comics — their walls lined with bug tubs of penny sweets sold to youngsters in a paper twist. What killed the corner store wasn’t the supermarket, but the demise of childhood. Children stopped being allowed to run down to the corner store to pick up some milk for Mum, or spend their pocket money on nothing but sugar. Corner store purveyors will probably blame the supermarkets though. As do the butchers, the bakers, and the candlestick makers.

The store my mother frequented was conveniently located on a street with ample parking, run by an Indian family who were particularly fond of adding a half-pence to the price of every single thing they sold. So much for the government’s argument that the half-penny prevented costs from going up. This was back when inflation hadn’t yet killed off the half-pence, the smallest coin of the realm. The way they sang out the total in their not-quite-assimilated accents, always ending with “…and a half pence, please” is one of the most distinct sound memories I have from my childhood, notable because like so much of that aural landscape, it is now defunct.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we stopped going to that store when the half-penny was retired from use at the end of 1984. Suddenly, hearing that a chocolate bar cost a figure inevitably ending in “nine” fell flat on the ear. Currency has a music — it jingles and jangles in the pocket or coin purse, or clinks onto a counter with a weight signaling its worth. The language of money is musical too, as numismatists will attest. Europe lost more than individual currencies when it adopted the Euro; it lost the Franc, the Centime, the Lira, the Drachma, the Deutsche Mark, lovely words all. When decimilization laid waste to the quaint, ancient, and inexplicable old sterling, we lost shillings and florins and farthings and sixpences and guineas and half-crowns and thr’p’ny bits too. We kept the word “quid,” even if we lost the green rustle of paper money emblazoned with Sir Isaac Newton on it, replaced by the solid, thick and heavy pound coin, which doesn’t have the same ring.

Along with a change in currency came a change in vocabulary and pronunciation. The old English ha’penny — a half pence — which had been on the tips of people’s tongues for 700 years, vanished overnight. So too, went the poetic “penny ha’penny” (1 1/2d). Only foreigners use the word “pence”; natives simply reduce it to “p.” The half-penny suffered a metallurgic demotion in keeping with its new lowly status as a worthless bit of loose change — where once it was stamped of silver, and then bronze, it was now reduced to brass. Even the word “brass” implies something distasteful, old-fashioned, or regimental.

The half-penny had a short life, as coins go. Introduced in 1971 as part of that great shift to decimalization, it was designed to preserve gaps in value by more accurately representing costs in New Pence. A great irony is that it preserved the now redundant fraction half in a world where a half was now 0.5. (One can only imagine the discussion at the Royal Mint: in order to facilitate the adoption of the new decimal money, let's introduce a coin whose denomination is a fraction! That won't confuse anyone!) After everyone got used to the new money, there was no need for it except as a handy fundraising tool — drives to collect as many half-pennies as possible were popular among youth organizations because people were so happy to get rid of them, and their value only really amounted to anything meaningful in large volume. The truth is they weren’t very convenient at all. For those who set store by lucky numbers, the half-penny was the unluckiest of them all, its run lasting only 13 years.

The advent and loss of the half-penny also signaled a larger change in the way we think of numbers. The denomination ½ sits proudly wearing its crown on the coin’s reverse, to remind us that during its circulation the imperial measurement system was still alive and well. It may only be a fraction, but it required a working knowledge of mathematics that was used to thinking of the world in parts of a whole that was still measured according to conceptual and symbolic models, rather than pure arithmetic. Feet and inches, pounds and ounces, stones and gills and drams and miles and eighths and sixteenths — to calculate with a crown on your head meant having to visualize fractions in ways that today’s students no longer learn as a matter of practical application. One of the agonies of my education was in the endless drills we were subjected to converting fractions to decimals and back — it all seemed so pointless. In the end it was; the metric system won out with its easy but unimaginative points and zeros.

All this seems a lifetime ago, though it has only been 28 years since we last felt that tiny disc between our fingers, leaving its brassy, metallic aroma on our skin. Even the Queen looks young on the obverse, though she wasn’t, even then. She’s looking East, as if gazing at what her family’s Empire had been, looking perhaps for the sun to once again rise and never set on countries bearing her face on their currency. The galleon lends the humble coin and all who pass it a reminder that Britannia ruled the waves. The portraits stamped on coins have always been profiles, only half a head. You can’t buy sweets by the penny any more, only by the pre-wrapped pack, which, though you get more, is only half as satisfying. You never could buy anything that just cost half a penny to begin with. Nothing has a price on it either, just a bar code keyed to whatever that week’s sale is. Prices fluctuate. Purchases, like so many things made in a factory, flow along a conveyor belt before being scanned and sheathed in plastic.

At the Indian store, our chocolate bars and rolls of Polos and Spangles and bags of Hula Hoops and Jelly Babies were rung up on a cash register, its keys counting numbers like a typewriter talking the language of commerce, each sentence ending with a tap on the ½ key, shiny with use, the print having long ago been rubbed away. We fished for our half-pennies and handed them over, the brass glinting in the afternoon sun.

We should all be so lucky to be touched so much that we shine. Even when our days are numbered. That’s love.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Little Sippin' Whiskey

A beautiful song with a delicious guitar riff in the chorus from Whiskey Myers (no relation). Check out the quiet dude playing slide to the right.

Why American Graffiti is the Greatest Film Ever Made Reason #1

The Scene Where Richard Dreyfuss Goes For A Ride With His Ex

This movie is not just about teenagers coming of age in 1962. It centers around the existential plight of Curt Henderson, who has cold feet about departing for college in the morning. He understands that leaving his town will change his life; that he will never be able to come back and see it the same way again; he is already nostalgic for a history that is still the present. Therefore, like all good heroes who set out on a quest, he is presented with a “vision” to chase to determine if he is ready.

His comes in the form of the Blonde in a Thunderbird (Suzanne Summers), a woman only he can see (no-one else catches a glimpse of her or appears to care). In fact, the first words he utters when he sees her are “I just saw a vision.” She whispers “I love you” to him at a stop light and he decides he is in love and must find her at all costs. At various points in the movie he is told her identity — she is either the wife of a jewelry salesman or a hooker — but he cannot accept either of these possibilities, believing she is destined for him. At the end of the film he has DJ Wolfman Jack play a request for her to call him at a payphone. She does, saying she can meet him tomorrow night, but that is too late; he says he is leaving town in the morning, and she hangs up on him. This scene clearly shows us that he has made up his mind to leave, therefore bringing the story’s conflict to a conclusion, and he therefore has to abandon his dream of meeting her.

This is just as well, because she is not real. She represents all that he hopes to cling to and find by staying in his hometown, but just like her, it is an ephemeral future whose reality is as fleeting as her ghostly presence disappearing down one side street after another. Never mind, because her work is done: she and the vehicle were one, serving their purpose as a means by which he could come to a decision to abandon his fears and leap into a real future aboard an airplane. 

It is important, then, that he mirrors the actions of his fantasy in real life, and this he does by hitching a ride with an ex-girlfriend with whom there are still sparks. She, admittedly is going “nowhere” and acts as a grounding presence reminding him that his goal was to become a Presidential Aide and shake hands with John Kennedy. The way she says it is notable in that it is almost a sneer; she makes fun of his quaint ambition as if it is too ideal and far-fetched for him to achieve. He shrugs it off by saying he’s grown up now, suggesting such things are the stuff of childhood, but still, it irks him that a hometown girl (she is rather plain in contrast to the Blonde) could see so little potential in him. It provokes a moment of sexual tension whereby he suggests they settle the score in the backseat, an offer she accepts. But even though they kiss, it is clear he has moved on; it would not do for him to stay attached to a girl who holds him to such limits. It is in the car that he first starts to see the wisdom of going away. This vehicle, as opposed to the gleaming Thunderbird, is a red rag-top Beetle with only one working headlight. This is no accident. It is literally half a car, and thus represents his being on the fence about leaving. One light is on; the other is off.

When he gets himself thrown out of the car by its pissed off driver, he is deposited on the corner and thus at a loose end. Naturally he sees the Thunderbird pass through an intersection up the block, so chases it. He runs out into the street, but she is gone, and he is left standing there in the crossroads while cars blow past. Having risked his life by running heedlessly into traffic to chase his vision, he remains standing there in harm’s way because he has nothing left to lose. The camera pulls back and shoots him from waist-height like a voyeur. This is the scene I’m talking about.

Like a puppet whose strings have been cut, Curt stands there all akimbo, hands ineffectually trying to guide and stop traffic. But he is not in control; he does not have the authority — he is just a boy standing in the street who doesn’t know if he’s coming or going. Inevitably, his hands find their way into his pockets and he shuffles off, having lost his prize. The strains of Wolfman Jack’s rich, gruff voice echo over the soundtrack, indicting (at least to the audience) that Curt’s answer lies down his Yellow Brick Road. Sure enough, it is only by speaking over the airwaves through an intercessor that Curt will be able to connect with his phantom lover.

The difference between good movies and great ones are scenes like this. Sure, they are not as obviously entertaining or showy as others, but they bear the heaviest narrative load, and speak to an audience willing and able to read between the lines. When watching a film, for the most part the camera is merely the means by which you can view the action. Occasionally though, it acts as a pair of binoculars held up to the viewer’s eyes through which we are invited to see something in much more detail. This is just such a scene. By pulling the camera down low, we are placed between the cars at wheel-level; we become a car on that road he’s on, anonymously rolling past like any other. At that height we are spying on him in his isolation; if we were any taller, he’d spot us and he wouldn’t be alone. And at that moment, he is all alone. He’s been abandoned by his real ex-girlfriend who represents his past, and his visionary girlfriend, whom he cannot possibly grasp. It’s not the most subtle of allusions, having your character literally stand at a crossroads during a figurative crossroads, but it does the trick, makes its point and like the cars, moves on.

LEGO proposal

Gentlemen: take note. This guy just raised the bar.

The Adventures of Tintin: A Must-See

Because I am a European, I was raised on Tintin. Americans, in general, haven’t a clue who Tintin is and could care less. This makes for an interesting scenario regarding Spielberg’s latest blockbuster, The Adventures of Tintin: will his name and the massive promo campaign actually bring American into the theatre to see what all the fuss is about? 

Critics have fallen on either side of the fence on this one — purists unable to acknowledge any alteration in Hergé’s original vision and style, especially that from the page to the screen — and those who think the transition has been made admirably, preserving the heart of the story and characters in CGI.

I have to admit, I too was a skeptic; I didn’t really want to hear Tintin’s voice or see him move around in anything other than cartoon frames. But I saw it today, and have come to two conclusions: this film is great not because it handles Hergé’s legacy well, but simply because it is a great film — and because gawdammit, the three-dimensional, walking talking Tintin has been done really really well.

For one thing, the film does not follow the books’ plot to the letter. It combines and embellishes, but in a way that makes sense to the plot and is tremendously entertaining. Tintin and Haddock are genuinely funny, and there are enough nods to the Tintin genre and inside audio / visual jokes to satisfy any Tintinophile. While the action sequences are mostly reminiscent of the first Indiana Jones movie, with pretty much impossible feats of human endurance and flexibility (not to mention not being nicked even once by a thousand bullets), the animation is truly breathtaking. These figures have delicate down on their skin; the right muscles move when they speak; you can even see the insides of their mouths. Importantly, they also resemble their graphic counterparts very closely. Haddock’s evil first mate, Alan, is immediately recognizable; less so but just as accurate is the pickpocket from The Secret of the Unicorn. It is a delight to see Hergé himself in the opening sequence, in a cameo as a street artist who produces his classic portrait of Tintin known the world over. Other characters stay true to form, too; Bianca Castafiore, who cannot get a name right, calls Sakharine “Mr. Sugar Additive.” That’s funny.

I’ve taught Tintin books in my literature and writing classes for years, and anyone who has taken a scholarly interest in Tintin would have spent time thinking about the role Haddock’s alcoholism plays in the books, as well as his pathos as a comic sidekick. Both are played up full volume here, the booze adding to the plot in a way some might find a little too much for young children to appreciate.

As for the speech, Tintin is definitely an English boy, and Haddock a Scot. Ain’t nobody Belgian here. But there aren’t any Americans so that’s a plus.

If you’re unfamiliar with Tintin, go see this movie. You might find yourself seduced into wanting to find out more. If you’re already a Tintin fan, go see this movie. You’ll fall in love with him all over again.