Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rush: Rush (1974)

At this point it’s obvious: it’s all about fraternities.

Which wasn’t apparent at the time, because in my whole life, I’ve only had one brush with fraternities.

Friday night we’d spent on a Dr. Pepper bender, scouring dungeons looking for troglodytes. I was the Dungeon Master, which meant I was the guy who got to improvise reality for the other guys. Without knowing anything about fighting or spelunking, economics or metrics, ecology or meteorology, history, myth, or least of all sex, I got to devise and referee brawls, tunnelings, lootings, surveyings, huntings, stormings, origins, interventions, wenchings, and sundry other meleés. I got to be the man-at-arms, the troglodyte, the hoarder, the architect, the prey, the thunder god, Clio, Alpha, Omega, and all manner of whores. I loved it, and I make no apology for it now.

But we’d had enough of that on Friday night – enough Dr. Pepper, donuts, Doritos, and ELP albums – and Saturday after waking up midafternoon we felt like doing something different. It was April of our senior year in high school.

By this point we all knew where we were going to college. I was heading to a little-known liberal-arts college with an identity crisis, run by the state but with a private name. The rest of the guys, though, were going to Enormous State University.

Somebody, having already had a college visitation weekend as part of the recruitment process, having already thereby gotten drunk once on college beer, suggested we drive down to Collegeville, where ESU is located, and see if we could crash a frat party.

A frat party. This was the late ‘80s and we were American males, so of course Animal House was the ne plus ultra of what we imagined college life to be. A Natty Boh bender, scouring dorm rooms looking for trollops. Let’s go, dude.

So we piled into the green and black Pinto one of the guys had borrowed for the weekend, his parents’ second car, and we made the requisite rear-ending jokes, and set out down Route 301 for Collegeville. We listened to the radio until we got tired of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Cinderella, and then we popped in Led Zeppelin II. When that finished it was Led Zeppelin III, and we hit College Ville around the time they were taking their hats off to (Roy) Harper.

Now what? Start driving around looking for houses with Greek letters on them and mannequins flying out windows, of course.

The guy riding shotgun put in Momentary Lapse Of Reason and while the driver started making aimless turns in and out of main drags and campus lanes and leafy streets the rest of us picked up our old argument about whether this was really Floyd.

The question was never settled, because just as we turned onto a particularly promising looking street and were slowing down to see if we could see magic glyphs over the doors, somebody in a passing car stopped and yelled to us.

“Wanna buy a pizza?” It was a delivery guy, sign on the top of his car and everything. I looked around, and back on the corner was a pizza place. The guy had just left. “Give it to you for ten bucks, a large with everything. I don’t wanna drive all the way across campus.”

Well, it was past dinner time. And this – this was wild, man. Somebody wasn’t going to get their pizza. The delivery guy was pulling a fast one. And look – there’s a Phi over that door! And a Tau over that one! This is it, boys, Frat Row!

We pooled our bills, bought the pizza, pulled over, ate it, washed it down with the Big Gulps we’d been nursing all the way down the highway. It was good pizza. College pizza. Illicit pizza.

And that was the closest we got to fraternity life that night. We drove up and down Frat Row, but: nothing. Just big whitewashed houses with neatly manicured lawns and polite lights in the windows. Greek letters in trinities, sure, but no broken windows, no beer bottles on the driveways, no coeds hanging out of second story windows, no togas. No Isley Brothers. We heard what I would later come to know as Bob Marley’s Legend playing from more than one bedroom window, but always at a moderate volume. Everything looked safe, self-contained, and utterly suburban.

I had then, and have now, no doubt there was debauchery going on somewhere behind those doors. But it wasn’t to be had by us.

We parked and wandered around campus for a while; the ESU bound among us were also interested, it turned out, in learning the layout of the school before arriving there for good in the fall. There’s the library, there’s the chem building, there are some dorms. We tried to get into one and drop in on somebody’s visitation weekend host, but no dice. I’m sure he was partying.

We had fun, to be sure. I mean, we always had fun together. Endless stupid jokes and music talk. We just didn’t make it into any parties. No wenching for us this night. We spent a couple of hours in Collegeville, then on the way out of town stopped at a Little Tavern for a couple of bags of burgers, and then it was home to see if we could catch something raunchy and unscrambled on Cinemax.

I think one or two of the guys actually pledged when they got to ESU the next fall, but truth be told I hardly saw any of them again after that summer. And my school didn’t have frats. So that was the closest I ever got. Pizza.

Which is not to say I never learned about brotherhood at school. Or freedom and equality, for that matter.

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 10: Haunted

I can’t believe I didn’t see it before, but Dollhouse has a way of making you see what it wants you to see when it wants you to see it.

It’s Frankenstein, circa 2009. It’s mad scientists (love how they’ve added spooky flashes of light to Topher’s laboratory skullduggery) messing around with the very forces of life itself. It’s assembling people from fragments of former people. It’s stealing the fire of the gods. It’s crossing the ultimate line.

But of course in 2009 that line is hardly there anymore, right? It’s already scientifically possible for rich people to pay poor people to supply them with replacement organs or rented wombs, and before long it’ll be possible to grow human beings for the express purpose of harvesting pieces from them, stem cells or mature body parts. Right? We know all this. The technology’s there, or almost there, and like the talking head in Episode 6 said, if the technology’s there, somebody’s going to use it. Always have before.

So despite Adelle’s assurances, once it becomes known that the Dollhouse can offer immortality to the wealthy, the wealthy are going to take advantage of it. Suddenly you can imagine a new kind of slavery, a new kind of predatory capitalism in which the rich capture young virile bodies and dispose of the minds, in which youth itself is a tradable commodity.

This is, I submit, new territory for Joss Whedon. It’s not fantasy, it’s not space opera: it’s science fiction of the most serious and thought-provoking ilk. It’s taking a look around and asking, where is this leading us?

No place good, certainly. Because the real moral problem with the Dollhouse is not that the people who design and run it are monstrous – Victor Frankenstein had the best of intentions. It’s not even that the place is catering to a very select group of wealthy sociopaths. It’s that nobody is capable of resisting the temptations the technology provides.

This episode is very clear about that. Look at Ballard’s reaction when faced with an attractive woman who is offering herself up to him in absolute submission. He knows she’s not real. He knows she has no free will. He knows that she represents everything he’s dedicated his life to fighting. And he can’t resist. It turns him on. Excellent direction, by the way: the way the camera lingers on his face for that agonizing moment as you see him losing control, losing his soul. And later, in the shower, knowing he can never wash out the stain on his conscience. He’s no different from the clients he hunts. (Nice writing too in setting this up for us in Episode 6: delayed payoff, very nice.)

And look at the spectacle Topher makes of himself with his “diagnostic.” Sure he’s cute with his ideal girlfriend, and sure his ideals are harmless, if pathetic (video games and junk food: no sex, please, we’re nerdish). But how often has he ridiculed the dolls? He better than anybody knows what they are, how fundamentally empty they are, but he’s not immune to the primal urges they appeal to – the urges that kind of power appeals to. He’s no different from Warren in Buffy.

And he’s no different from Adelle, who knows Topher has to be allowed this indulgence, just as she indulged herself with “Roger,” and just as in fact she indulges herself with her friend Margaret. The point is, when this technology is available, it will be used in the most exploitative, creepy ways humans can imagine: if you build it, they (the exploiters, the creeps) will come.

So when Adelle says they’re not in the business of offering eternal life, that this was an exception, we don’t believe her. She may believe it herself – Victor Frankenstein didn’t think he was creating a monster – but we know she’s wrong.

Welcome to a brave new world.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Warner's archive and contextualizing masterpieces

On Slate, Mark Harris has an interesting article about a new program Warners has where they're making available obscure old movies for made-to-order DVDs. Here's Harris's argument as to why this is valuable:

For movie lovers, this is heaven. Anybody can adequately take the measure of a century of film by leapfrogging across decades, countries, and genres from one masterpiece to another, and this is pretty much how we all do it, Netflixing our way through the Criterion Collection (great, but not for American movies) or checking off Oscar nominees from decades past (great, but only as a barometer of what people thought was great at the time). But movie history is also written in what happened between the great movies—in the ambitious and the mundane, the half-hearted and the forgotten, the unjustly overlooked and the justly dismissed.
I've been of this opinion for a very long time. I assemble a large collection of British Invasion also-rans, not because I'm tired of the Beatles and the Stones, but because listening to Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Dave Clark Five, Sounds Incorporated, the Swinging Blue Jeans, and all the rest helps me appreciate the Beatles and the Stones more. If all we know is the masterpieces, it's hard to know why they're masterpieces; to know why something succeeds, it helps to know how it could have failed, and so you have to study failure, too (not that I consider any of those groups failures - but that's another issue).

How to bring this into a classroom, though? As a sometime teacher of literature, this is the question I'm naturally led to, and I don't know the answer. Is it okay to assign crappy books next to the great ones, so students can learn to tell the difference? I'd like to try someday.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bob Dylan on Stevie Wonder

From the new installment of the Bill Flanagan interview with Bob Dylan on the Huffington Post, the following exchange:

BF: Certain singers show up in "it's All Good." Neil Young and Alicia Keys have popped up on your recent albums. Do you think all your musician friends are going to be looking for shout-outs now? Once you start down that road how do you get out of it?

BD: Well these people are archetypes, too. They might not think of themselves like that, but they are. They represent an idea.

BF: Could you write a song about anybody?

BD: Well I bet you could, yeah.

BF: How would you get Stevie Wonder into a song?

BD: When Stevie Wonder recorded "Blowin' in the Wind"/ I was playin' cards/ I was drinkin' gin/

I want to hear the rest of that song. That's a brilliant couplet. Dylan describing what it felt like to be hailed as the Voice of His Generation, everybody looking at him like to a saint or a prophet, when he knew very well he had vices, that he was a risky proposition, and/or that at age 25 he'd already lost the youthful innocence that had allowed him to write such a song (Wonder's cover was released in 1966, and we all know what Dylan was writing and singing and doing in 1966). That's what I hear in that line.

(On the other hand, it could be random flippancy. You never know with Bob. But it would still be a brilliant couplet, I say.)