Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I've Got a Role for Megan Fox

So, I just completed an eighteen-month test of endurance. What constituted that test, you ask? Well . . . [drumroll, please] it was spent reading James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales--all five of them. What prompted me to attempt such an insane undertaking, you ask? I answer: I have no idea whatsoever.

Okay, I might be slightly lying. There are actually a few different backstories leading up to my momentous decision to wade through what is truly some of the worst prose in the history of American letters, but I'll only provide you with one of them. It goes thusly:

I was assigned The Pioneers in college in a survey of American Romanticism. I was deeply stressed at the time, as I was attempting to produce my senior thesis on The Waste Land during that very semester. At the time, I found Cooper's prose impenetrable--more so that Eliot's, actually. I had no idea who the characters were, why they all had something, like, three different names, and, moreover, how such a novel could be considered "classic." Couldn't we, maybe, read all of Walden or something?

In any case, I shamefully put down the book, and then spent the next two weeks or so hiding in the back of the class so as to dodge questions about Natty Bumppo's conservationist ethics, or the differences between the socially constructed world and the natural world, or why it's not a good idea to hunt geese with a canon (all questions that could have been answered by reading Walden, I might add), and I moved on with my life. Until, that is, I decided that I should begin the lifelong process of making amends to all of my previous teachers who assigned me books that, for whatever reason, I did not read. Having now gone all Reverend Dimmesdale on myself with the other four books in the LS series, none of which I was ever assigned, I consider my obligations to former English teachers everywhere fulfilled.

So what's the point of today's posting? Well, it's because I've finally determined why I loathe Cooper so, so much. In simple terms, it's because he's the Michael Bay of American Letters. He absolutely cannot construct a linear plot that contains dynamic--and interesting!--characters or that develops according to any notion of logic, or realism. Take, for instance, the interminable closing sequence of The Deeslayer when The Deerslayer (what facility with language Cooper has!), is tied to a tree, and all of the enemy Indians come out, one-by-one, to throw things at him--tomahawks, knives, rifles, etc. Hawkeye, as he's also named, never flinches--the very epitome of American (masculine) fortitude. One of these Indians, a young scamp named the Bounding Boy, enters the fray like "a hound, or a goat, at play," his "elastic" limbs all aflutter. Something happens after this. I think he almost hurts Hawkeye when he throws his tomahawk at him, which greatly upsets the rest of the tribe because, you see, the point of this whole exercise isn't to kill The Deerslayer, even though the point of taking him captive in the first place is to kill The Deerslayer to make up for when he killed an Indian at the beginning of the book. No, we won't get caught up in those particular lapses in logic. Rather, we'll just focus on this one: a hound or a goat?!?!? Really, Coop, you couldn't determine whether or not this particular youth was one or the other? It must be, I can only surmise, because the Bounding Boy transforms, his limbs as elastic as Bumblebee's. (Hey, Bumblebee, Bounding Boy! Now we know where Bay gets his inspiration! One more reason to dismiss Cooper!)

Bay, as we know, masks his paper-thin plots (and I being generous here: "Oh, no! The machine is buried in the pyramid! If they turn it on, it will destroy the sun! Not on my watch!") between all manner of studio wizardry and, of course, explosions. (To be fair, I thought he did a wonderful job sending himself up in this commercial, for which I'm sure he was awesomely paid.) Cooper does the same. The Last of the Mohicans, the bloodiest of the five installments and the one that is basically an action novel, is so convoluted and poorly paced that's it's impossible to determine who is doing what to whom. Save for the scene where the Indian, who probably has three irrelevant names, bashes the young baby's head against a rock, the whole novel takes place behind a leafy barricade, which I know is supposed to represent the visual difficulties of woodland warfare, but which is really just a byproduct of Cooper not being able to describe anything accurately, him getting all confused about whether or not hounds are goats and such.

More significantly, though, The Deerslayer, the installment written last--at a point, presumably, where Cooper would have been a bit more skilled with the quill--is supposed to conclude with an apocalyptic battle for the ages, one where Hawkeye is rescued, and the longstanding tensions between the Delawares and the Hurons are established, so as to justify, retroactively, the existence of the next two-three (chronological) volumes in the series. Instead, just as the rifles are about to be fired, and the blood is about to be spilled, Cooper jumps ship, merely telling us--not showing us!--that "the scene that succeeded (the apocalyptic battle) was one of those, of which so many have occurred in our own times, in which neither age nor sex forms an exemption to the lot of savage warfare." This violation of the most basic rule of creative writing--show, don't tell--is akin to swinging on the first pitch of a new pitcher, not looking both ways before crossing the street, casting Rob Schneider in one of your films. In short, it's a mistake of intergalactic proportions, that has gotten Cooper banned from any literature class I'll ever teach.

Still, at the end of The Deerslayer, we're left with poor Judith Hutter, her love unrequited, The Deerslayer committing his life to a marriage with nature. Since Cooper can't really figure out what to do with any of his characters--except of course when he finally kills off Natty in The Prairie--Judith aimlessly wanders the landscape, no one knowing what really happened to her and her unparalleled beauty. Considered in those terms, she is a bit like the esteemed Megan Fox, ejected from what is becoming one of the most overblown, nonsensical movie series in recent memory. Maybe bringing the two together--Fox as Hutter, Optimus Prime as Natty--would resolve all of these problems. At the very least, I'd be willing to teach that awesome depiction of The Leatherstocking Tales.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

So You Think You Can Judge?

By my humble estimations, America, and every other place in the world with access to American cable television, is about six or seven seasons too many into So You Think You Can Dance, a show that, we're always assured, is the most popular dance show on television. That there are enough dance shows on television to merit such a comparison still mystifies me, but I'll save that rant for another day.

Anyhoo, last night's audition episode aired footage of deaf dancer Jarrell Robinson's performance for Dance's esteemed . . . [wait for it!] JUDGES! After completing what appeared to be a perfect performance, Robinson, of course, had to subject himself to the assessment of the panel of "experts" convened to determine whether or not FOX would be flying him to Vegas. Watch the following clip to see the whole thing play out before your very eyes:

Now, before I continue, I know that I should just simply ignore spectacles like the one above. That mainstream American television has yet to figure out how to represent the disabled should no longer shock me. Nevertheless, last night's commentary on Robinson's audition was one of those WTF moments that I just could not let go, and here's why:

Setting aside Adam Shankman's awful, enormously condescending description of Robinson as "incredibly special" and "inspiring," and completely forgetting Stacey Tookey's deer-in-the-headlights-how-do-I-diplomatically-remind-this-guy-that-he-can't-hear-the-music-? blather (gotta' love that "vocabulary of your steps" comment--pun anyone?), we are left with saintly Nigel Lythgoe's fair and balanced commentary to lead us: "How do you feel the music? Is it through the vibrations?"

Deep, deep sigh.

Robinson responded diplomatically, emphasizing the force of the bass and the way that the low end vibrations help guide his dance steps. I smiled at this response because, from a technical standpoint, it was precisely the way that a dancer should respond. Also, I couldn't help but chuckle at the difference between Robinson's answer and what mine would have been. Below is what I would have said:

"Yes, dear Nigel. I feel the music through the vibrations, much like you do. Or did you not know that you too feel music through vibrations." I probably would have spiced up the response a bit with a few choice expletives, but I don't want to offend my legions of readers . . . just yet.

Again, we're talking mainstream television, so this kind of aggressive ignorance to, well, the functioning of the human body should not be surprising. (It should be noted here that given the recent Sarah Palin-Seth McFarlane dustup, I'm not entertaining tired, simplistic arguments about FOX being all conservative and corporate--though I would grant you that SYTYCD is a conservative show.) Regardless, what mystifies me is why shows like Dance continue to trot out people with disabilities only to kick them off in favor of tweeny-looking contestants who ramble on and on about all manner of tragedy--dead mothers, estranged fathers, lost dogs--and about how they have only one shot to make it, of course, on this bloated television show. Granted, many of these contestants get cut, too, but I still can't help but wonder what kind of catharsis Dance is supposed to be peddling.

Moreover, I know that Robinson was supposed to have appeared to be cut in the name of objectivity: His dancing, disability aside, wasn't right for the competition, as Nigel kindly put it. Again, though, we need to be generous here, because we are never really told why his dancing wasn't right for the competition. Also, dancing, as this show configures it, is an entirely visual medium. There's no singing, and there's little talking, so in many ways, Robinson was not at all disabled in that context. In fact, given all of the godforsaken finger spelling that the contestants do when Cat Deeley encourages viewers to call in to vote, Robinson, as someone fluent in sign language, would have been better than everyone else. Maybe that's why he was cut?

FOX palyed a similar "objectivity" card a few years back when The Big Toe band, fronted by Mark Goffeney (a bass player born without arms), was cut from the short-lived reality show The Next Great American Band because their music lacked hooks, as judge Ian Dickson noted after "closing his eyes" during the performance. Again, the basic premise here is that if the able-bodied limit their senses, attempting to block out the context that reveals the performers as disabled, then some form objective judgement should reign. (It's funny, though, how when I close my eyes during the music of The Clark Brothers/Sons of Sylvia, the show's winner, I can't hear any hooks, either.)

In Robinson's case, though, that gesture toward objectivity is utterly wrongheaded because the fact remains that all of us experience music though vibrations. Robinson's disability had nothing to do with anything last night, yet he remained, in the judges' eyes, "special," "inspirational," and "unfit for a dancing competition in which he feels the music better than the other competitors." If only his pet cat had been run over on the way to the audition.

I'll grant FOX credit for at least attempting to air programming that represents the disabled more regularly than many other mainstream television networks. But, as we know, they have missed the point over and over again. At best, the network is deploying poster-child like representations; at worst, the network is just clunky and is scared of "taking risks"--which is most likely the case.

And so as I sign off for the day, I'll leave all of you--and especially Nigel--the following clip of Mogwai playing "Mogwai Fear Satan" live. FF to around the 6:45 mark to feel the deafening vibrations. Punctured eardrums have never vibrated so gloriously.