Caryn and I watched an old movie on cable TV recently that left us traumatized for days. Ironically, the movie was trying to be a light-hearted and whimsical children's musical. It was written by Dr. Seuss in 1953. The movie left us traumatized because it was so very, very bad.
I'm talking about the legendary but little-watched 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, a live action film about a boy who hates his piano teacher. This was the only movie Dr. Seuss ever tried to make, and it went over so badly with audiences in 1953 that he never tried again, and the movie nearly disappeared from view. It was almost crazy and psychedelic enough to gain a second life as a midnight cult flick, but it's too excruciatingly boring for the midnight circuit. It's hard to watch without wincing ... often.
5000 Fingers doesn't start out too badly: a sweet kid is suffering through a piano lesson in an antique parlor (this setting must recall Theodor Seuss Geisel's own childhood in Springfield, Massachusetts). The boy falls asleep and has a bad dream in which he's persecuted by his nasty piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker, who is also scheming to marry the kid's widowed mother. In this dream, the kid wears a glove on the top of his beanie, is chased by weird chubby thugs in brightly colored suits who resemble proto-Oompa-Loompas, dodges a pair of roller-skating old men sharing a common beard, and is forced to participate in a 500-kid piano performance on a swirling 5000 key piano.
I assure you that I just made the movie sound better than it is.
The news that the remains of England's King Richard III have been positively identified in a car park in Leicester is a big deal for historians. It's an even bigger deal for Shakespeareans.
A great Shakespeare character has been found! Richard III was one of the playwright's most infamous villains, along with Iago and Edmund. The ancient rivalries between the House of Lancaster and the House of York are long forgotten, but the historical King Richard's reputation has been completely sealed: he is the smarmy, sarcastic hunchback who hisses "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York" to open his eponymous play. For centuries, Richard III has been one of the major Voldemorts of the popular imagination.
I considered going dark today to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (along with Boing Boing, Reddit and Wikipedia), but I decided not to for two reasons. First, I don't think little sites like Litkicks will make much impact at all by going dark. You've got to be pretty huge to pull something like this off effectively. Second, my favorite President has already signaled that he will veto the bad bill, so I'll save my protest for the next good cause. And here are some literary links, many of which seem to revolve around the classics:
1. We were with her a quarter of an hour before Eliz. & Louisa, hot from Mrs Baskerville's Shop, walked in; -- they were soon followed by the Carriage, & another five minutes brought Mr Moore himself, just returned from his morn'g ride. Well! -- & what do I think of Mr Moore? -- I will not pretend in one meeting to dislike him, whatever Mary may say; but I can honestly assure her that I saw nothing in him to admire. -- His manners, as you have always said, are gentlemanlike -- but by no means winning. Most of the letters in the new collection by the genius of Steventon, England, Jane Austen, are not this juicy, but the mundanity of the writer's daily routine is also valuable to read about, and the sickness-to-death letters towards the end are quietly, tragically moving. Jane Austen's Letters, the Fourth Edition, edited by Deirdre Le Faye.
2. James Franco, who was pretty good as Allen Ginsberg in Howl, has made another film based on the life of a 20th Century poet: The Broken Tower, about Hart Crane. Slate isn't impressed, but I'll give it a chance.
3. Ezra Pound's daughter Mary De Rachewitz is trying to make sense of her father's fascist past while protesting an Italian neo-fascist party that has attempted to adopt his name.
"Literary Kicks," says the guy where I pick up my mail, looking at my address on a package. "What is it, sneakers?"
"Books," I say to him. "Books. I'd probably make a lot more money if it was sneakers."
With that said, here are the latest literary links, for your edification and enjoyment:
1. Novelist and critic Walter Kirn, who has suddenly begun live-blogging the Bible, ponders the Tower of Babel.
2. Alan Cumming will star in a one-man performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth.
3. Check out The Books They Gave Me: A Tumblr for images of books given by former lovers. No, I'm not going to make a Herman Cain joke.
CHEREA: He was too fond of bad poetry.
LUCIUS: That’s typical ...
CHEREA: Of his age, perhaps, but not of his rank. An emperor with artistic and intellectual inclinations is a contradiction in terms.
LUCIUS: We've had one or two, of course. But there’s misfits in every family. The others had the sense to remain good bureaucrats.
When I watch the shaky camera-phone videos of Col. Qaddafi's violent death that made the rounds last week, I think of Albert Camus's play Caligula. First performed in 1941 in Angers, France (as Camus was writing The Stranger), the historical play presents the legendary Roman emperor as a Dionysian monster, a prisoner of his own charisma and success.
Many historical dramas (for instance, Shakespeare's) emphasize the struggle for power. Camus's Caligula presents a dictator who has achieved complete power, who has reduced every single one of his fellow countrymen to submissive disgrace. With nobody able to challenge or destroy him, his only remaining goal can be to destroy himself.
The play presents Caligula's last days, after the death of his lover and sister has cast him into a final existential swoon. Bored and sickened by the insipid timidity of the senators who surround him, he gathers a council to torture the members for sport. He forces a senator to hand over his beloved wife, and proclaims idly to the group that they will all be killed in order to "reform our economic system":
I often hear people complain about "dirty hippies". Well, cleanliness is a virtue. But I've never understood why anybody would hate hippies. Is it that their exuberance is embarrassing? I like hippies, and I also like several writers identified with the post-Beat/hippie literary tradition of the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom are still active (or being remembered) today.
1. Johnny Depp is the star of a new film based on Hunter S. Thompson's novel of sin and excitement in Puerto Rico, The Rum Diary. Haven't seen it yet, but early indications are encouraging.
2. The late-career writings of the once-acclaimed novelist Ken Kesey were scant and unimpressive, but I recently wondered if this only indicated that Kesey had lost interest in the book format, and if there might be more substance to Kesey's later collectivist theatrical experiments than is commonly thought. Mike Egan's new book Ken Kesey and Storytelling as Collaborative Ritual asks the same question, examining group works like the play Twister with a Jungian point of a view and a fresh eye.
3. Karen Lillis has written a memoir, Bagging the Beats at Midnight, about her years as a bookseller at the endangered St. Mark's Bookshop (which remains one of the best places in New York City, and I hope it will never go away). Bagging the Beats includes chapters with titles like "Susan Sontag Wants The Manager & Richard Hell Wants the Bathroom Key".
Alchemy, schizophrenia, witchcraft, and religious fanaticism, all leavened with a knowing wink of humor, Inferno, by Swedish author August Strindberg is an early example of the “unreliable narrator” literary device, in which the reader learns that the storyteller is seeing things from a distorted perspective. It is also deliciously macabre, if you like that sort of thing.
The Inferno is far from Strindberg’s most famous work. In 1879, he became famous in Northern Europe with the publication of what is often described as the first modern Swedish novel, The Red Room. Set in Stockholm, The Red Room is a satire dealing with compromise and corruption in politics, journalism, and business in general. Strindberg wrote over 60 plays and is probably best known for his 1888 play Miss Julie, which told a tale of power and sex within high and low social classes. Other plays include The Father, Creditors, and The Ghost Sonata. He was also an essayist, a painter (two of his friends were Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin), and based on at least one photograph, a guitarist.
When life gets dreary, there's always Gilbert and Sullivan. This British duo's creative track record is almost as impressive as that of the Beatles, who took over the world in similar fashion three-quarters of a century later. They left us three masterpieces: HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, and a giant body of lesser-known excellent work that somehow never drops too low in quality (though it does drop, sometimes, in accessibility).
Accessibility is often an issue with Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas, which were written wholly with contemporary interests and sensibilities in mind. As with Shakespeare or James Joyce (also from the British isles, interestingly), when you enjoy a Gilbert and Sullivan work you can't ever feel confident that you're getting more than half the jokes. Both Gilbert's lyrics and Sullivan's melodies contain intricate layers of ironic reference to the hot topics of their day. Even though you can appreciate Pirates or Mikado just for the bouncy tunes and funny plots, you can appreciate them a lot more if you put some effort into decoding their cultural context.
A link on Terry Teachout's blog to a super-rare full-length kinescope recording of The Fantasticks from 1964 brought back lots of memories for me, and not just ancient ones, because I've seen this great Off-Broadway musical at least eight times, most recently only a few years ago with my kids. It's a musical comedy about two young lovers whose fathers pretend to be in a bitter feud (they secretly like each other a lot) so their children will want to rebel against them and marry. The ruse works, until the young lovers find out they'd been set up, at which point a whole lot of romantic confusion and angst ensues, followed by a happy ending. The moony overtones of the story are nicely undercut by a deliberately frothy, self-consciously aesthetic staging: there is a character known as the Mute; sets and props are minimal; the orchestra consists of a piano, a small drum kit and a full-size harp.
I saw the play most often at the Sullivan Street Theater in Greenwich Village, New York City, where it ran for four decades. The 1964 kinescope now viewable for the first time is an abbreviated version shown only once on Television. Cut to an hour, the show omits a few characters and at least two songs "It Depends On What You Pay" and "This Plum Is Too Ripe". Still, I watched the whole thing with joy and appreciation, especially relishing the chance to see the two great comic stars Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway harmonize as the two fathers (Lahr was the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz and Holloway was Doolitle in My Fair Lady).
1. Okay, enough of that French stuff. A recent link on Books Inq. reminded me of one of the funniest books I've ever read, the neat, smoothly vicious British satire from 1888 and 1889 called Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith.
Diary, originally published as a serial in Punch Magazine, is the fictional record of a humble but optimistic middle-class man who keeps house in the suburbs north of London. The parody of his provincial mind has a sharp, bitter sense that may remind you of P. G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward, the Marx Brothers or Monty Python (it predates all of them). This excellent article about the book from the Dabbler draws an original analogy between the character of young Lupin Pooter, the rebellious son of our respectable diary-keeping hero, and the later character of Jimmy Porter, the Angry Young Man invented by John Osborne.
It's easy to draw connections from Charles Pooter. When I read Diary I always think of the beautiful songs Ray Davies wrote for the Kinks. The character that emerges from many of these Kinks songs is Pooter:
I like my football on a Saturday
Roast beef on Sunday -- all right!