Friday, May 28, 2004

Protestant vs. Catholic - A Report From The Aesthetic Trenches

I pinched this bit of Left Behind dialogue from a terrific Slate piece by Steven Waldman highlighting the similarities between the evangelical pot-boilers, and the Harry Potter series. The scene: a romantic shoulder-rub.

"You're tense," she said.

"Aren’t you?"

"Relax, love. Messiah is coming."

This little exchange bids me run in so many rhapsodic directions, I tremble at the first step. It's corny, wooden and unbelievable enough to shatter whatever fictive dream Jerry B. Jenkins is able to conjure - provided you're not of the fold. If, however, you have invested some time and spiritual energy among the North American evangelical flock, the dialogue is sure to provoke a spectrum of emotion, because, in fact, it’s all too believable. "Relax. Messiah is coming," pretty much sums up an ethos that compels people to re-elect Bush, purchase multiple Hummers, and erect houses of worship using an architectural aesthetic as spiritually inspired as the neighborhood Costco building.

The political motivation is troubling enough - trash the planet with all due haste so children we've saved from abortion will live to see Messiah return - but evangelical attempts at art criticism really get under my skin. During a recent visit with my parents, I reached for the coffee-table copy of Christianity Today and perused its contents. The cover story dealt with the runaway success of artist Thomas Kinkade ("The Painter of Light"). The magazine respectfully allowed Kinkade to define his aesthetic in his own words, before gently concluding that, while extremely popular, the man's art was perhaps a touch too bright. After seven pages of treating this Titan of Kitsch with kid-gloves, the editors devoted a sidebar to several other artists - self-professed born-again Christians all - attempting a more nuanced aesthetic, including a woman who seemed to be stuck in a bit of a "dark" period. In the span of three paragraphs, the critic acknowledged biblical examples of despair and lament (hey, there's even a book or two devoted to the subject), before putting his foot down and suggesting there was room, perhaps, for her to include just a little light.

Too much, too little ... "Relax. Messiah is coming.”

Well, that’s fine for bumper-stickers, T-shirts, and cheerful apocalyptic pulp, but lousy for content. Waldman treats Left Behind with a generosity it probably doesn’t deserve, but he yields some delicious results. He concludes that the chief difference in perspective between the writers of LB/HP is not Christian/Pagan, but Protestant/Catholic. If that's so, then I have to admit I'm increasingly drawn to Catholicism.

Here's another quote I've been mulling over, drawn from a slightly deeper well:

"We must cling to a God who approves of blasphemy because he hates Jehovah and Nobodaddy and Zeus ... all the other kings of terrors and tyrants of the soul. To a God who appreciates obscenity because he looks not into the secret of our hearts, but into the hearts of our secrets, and knows that our bloodfilled guts and cocking guts are the real battlefield..."

That's from the journals of Northrop Frye. And while the man was unabashedly Protestant, I'd say the artistic possibilities he provokes with this cry are Catholic – positively Catholic.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Meanwhile, back at the non-Disney, CGI-Animated Railway Headquarters...

It does get frustrating, raising girls in this "Ophelia-sensitive" society and repeating mantras like, "Most real princesses aren't especially happy with their lives," while dutifully bowing to their regal birthday wishes, coughing up the lucre for the latest Fairy-Tale Barbie. Kids don't often fall for their parents' words of wisdom. Repeat them often enough, and the kids will parrot you, then snatch the toy vixen, and scamper to the next room where they'll re-enact the same damn happily-ever-after scenario - again, and again, and again.

But of course that's the scenario they're exposed to, ad nauseum. Inject alternatives where you can, but this tedious story-line has been Disney's gold-laying goose, one they've been careful to feed and groom for over 50 years, and Disney cannot be dodged. I hope I'm not the only grown-up who's sick of it. But just in case I am alone, I'm encouraging every one of my parent-friends to take their kids to Shrek 2. Actually, I'm encouraging everyone to see it, regardless of their parental status. It's fun, it's irreverent, and it's sensible. Disney, take note.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

"Home On The Range" - Will Disney Really Lose The Animation Ranch?

For Mother’s Day, I dropped the missus off at the spa, and took the girls to see Disney's Home On The Range. They seemed to enjoy it: they laughed a couple of times, and asked to stay for the closing credits because they liked the music. I noticed, though, that they'd polished off the popcorn - a first. Back in the car, I asked them what they thought.

"Pretty good."

You liked it?


What was your favorite part?

"Well," said the youngest, "it's hard to say."

Who was your favorite character?

"The big cow. I forget her name."

I thought about this answer for a bit, then asked, "Is there anything about the movie you enjoy remembering?"

The oldest piped up: "It's kind of a hard movie to remember, Dad."

Michael Eisner's target audience has spoken: Home On The Range is forgettable. It's also a mess. Disney hasn't churned out an animated feature so hopeless since The Aristocats, and those of us who were around for that debacle thought we were witnessing the final nail in Disney Studio's coffin. Now Eisner has announced Home is Disney's final cel-animation feature. In other words, parents of young children should brace themselves for a glut of CGI features, held together with the same wheezy plotlines and forced yuks we were exposed to in Brother Bear, Treasure Planet, and ...uh... those other movies I forget.

Returning to Home, even the look of it kept me at arm’s length. I enjoyed the neon color-schemes of the various landscapes (replete with the squiffy "black-light" effects at sundown), but my pleasure ended there. I can't imagine how you'd make compelling characters out of cows, and apparently neither could Disney. Even the humans were an off-putting bunch - blatant (and shabby) knock-offs of Disney’s distant competitors: Hanna-Barbera (with the George Jetson ski-slope noses) and Warner Brothers (huge mustachioed galoots resembling "Yield" signs). At an absolute minimum, you can usually rely on Disney artists to serve up a curvaceous dish or two, but even here the movie disappoints: besides the cows, the only female we get is a dumpling-shaped spinster.

The film made me really, really pine for Lilo & Stitch - Disney's only anti-Disney animated feature. Besides the story, which is a winner, we have superb artistry in every frame. Lilo & Stitch introduced the neon palette (nice), and populated Hawaii with fabulous otherworldly creatures, who somehow don't seem out-of-place next to the humans. The human managerie includes the standard moppet (Lilo, whose anti-social behavior is anything but Disney-issue), a muscular heavy ("Bubbles"), and a pallid/sunburned Sysiphus whose efforts at eating ice-cream are continually foiled. As for eye-candy, we have Lilo's older sister, Nani, and her erstwhile boyfriend David, both drawn in a fashion that eschews the usual willow-waist proportions in favor of a style suggestive of Crumb: articulate muscularity in the shoulders and lower body (feet, calves, and derriere - rowgh!). Better still, they're characters - people you actually care for.

I wish Disney would keep their animation studio open. They built their reputation in film there, and it would be a shame if they didn't at least attempt to keep that reputation intact - even if a Lilo & Stitch only comes every dozen films, or so.

Other recent Disney Delights: The Emperor's New Groove gets funnier with each successive viewing; and Tarzan is also a winner.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The Surf Is (Usually) Mightier Than The Pen

It's my first day at Apollo Elementary, named in honor not of the god but, like so much else in (Florida), the space program. Seen from a surfboard a few years later, the match-like flame of a rocket pulsing upward into the sky from Cape Canaveral will be as banal as a rainbow, remarkable at best for how unremarkable it has become. - On A Wave, Thad Ziolkowski.

How's that for surfer perspective? He's sitting on a board in the ocean, thinking the guy being shot into orbit is banal! Yes, Thad Ziolkowski's surf memoir, On A Wave, is the real deal. He successfully evokes an adolescence which is endured, possibly even salvaged, by surfing. He comes of age in all the expected ways, and his final farewell to surfing is heart-rending and realistic: surfing has served its purpose, but can take him no further into maturity. By book's end, he intimates with a gentle gravitas just how painful his adulthood becomes - a stunning evolutionary leap in surfer prose.

Most surfer prose is the literary equivalent of The Endless Summer - not much depth in those waters, I'm afraid. It started with Frederick Kohner's Gidget - arguably one of the first (and better) "young adult" novels - and pretty much drowned in the depths of oblivion after that.

Until Kem Nunn took hold of it.

I am among the legion of Kem Nunn fans whose appreciation of his first novel, Tapping The Source, goes way beyond...well..."appreciation". I manage to re-read it every year, and every year I manage to enjoy it. That's damning praise for the writer, unfortunately. He's published three books since, and they've all received praise from the professionals, but I doubt their combined sales have netted him the same income or interest that Tapping has. It's possible the other titles have even scored him one or two appreciative letters, but judging from the sort of ground-level praise you see on Amazon, I'm guessing Tapping The Source is still generating a steady stream of fan-mail.

That's because, with Tapping The Source, Nunn got the mix exactly right - deep fried noir-nutrition, with a magical blend of 11 herbs & spices. It has a plot (kewl!) involving a sexually and religiously confused loser (named "Ike"!) hopelessly adrift in late adolescence. A stranger rides into Ike's desert village, and delivers ominous word about his missing sister, and before you can say "Wipeout" Ike finds himself in Huntington Beach, California - completely in over his head among bikers, drug addicts, porno film-makers, a dark cult of some kind - and surfers. By novel's end, the best that can be said about Ike is, he's learned to surf.

My summary makes Nunn's efforts look like camp, but Nunn treats it all with plain-spoken earnestness. He deals directly with the horrible questions that adolescence brings. 1) Are you a loser? (Yes) 2) Sexuality: "Are you," to quote Jimi, "experience?" (Weeeeell...) 3) Is the world a threatening place? (And how!) 4) So ... can you surf?

Coming-of-age narratives all require an element of transgression: to become an adult, to win the heart of the princess, your first step is to break the law. Ike learns how to transgress, and even develops a bit of an appetite for it. It's when he discovers how much he's endangered the lives of people he cares for that he begins to demonstrate maturity. Conversely, Huntington Beach seems mired in corruption until Ike shows up. As he is transformed, his change seems to provoke transformation in others around him - not always to his benefit.

I think Tapping The Source is the best surf-narrative there is. It's been called "Surf Noir", which it is, but it's chiefly a coming-of-age tale (a very violent one at that), and anything beyond that is weight the vehicle cannot bear. Nunn took a stab at it, though, 13 years later with The Dogs Of Winter, employing many of the same elements, but mixing it up a bit with mid-life issues. Dogs begins promisingly, but spins apart by the end: you get the feeling that surfing can't hope to buoy the larger complexities that come with adulthood.

No, it's best to just forget that stuff for the moment. Catch a wave, and you're sitting on top of the world.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

The Atlantic Monthly - "Not Dead Yet"?

Every five years or so, I subscribe to The Atlantic Monthly. My current subscription is just about to expire, and not a moment too soon - less clutter in my mailbox. When managing editor Michael Kelly died in Iraq last year, I was mildly surprised to read in his various obituaries that he had infused new life into the magazine. You could have fooled me. Under his direction The Atlantic seemed to be a repository for the idle musings of columnists more gainfully employed elsewhere: Christopher Hitchens flung his most militant spittle in the pages of Vanity Fair, then took a deep breath and capitalized on his post as The Atlantic's "Contributing Editor" by penning lengthy appreciations of Waugh and Proust (the latter, we're informed, is still best read en francaise); P.J. O'Rourke's sniggering social commentary transferred easily from the unread-pages of Rolling Stone to the unread-pages of The Atlantic; and while Thomas Mallon steered The New York Times Book Review to unleash a controversial broadside against Margaret Atwood's Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin, he chose a different tack for The Atlantic when he sang the praises of Robert Stone's predictable hyper-literate-hero-in-midlife-crisis tome, Bay of Souls.

One year after Kelly's death, the magazine is still heavy with bilge. I have here the May issue, and if we flip past 40 pages of Howell Raines wringing his hands over his truncated tenure at The New York Times, we can feast upon Christopher Hitchens' appraisal of W. Somerset Maugham (!) and glean critical gold from Thomas Mallon's siftings through "the lost world of Booth Tarkington"....

But wait! Just as The Dead Collector begins his toll and reaches for my Blue Box, I am stunned to see that the June issue includes fiction by crime-writer Dennis Lehane! Genre writing - a story where something happens - in The Atlantic! Could this signify the welcome winds of change?

An enjoyable interview with Lehane regarding his story, Until Gwen, is viewable here.

As For Michael Kelly, Let Me Say This About That

I am compelled to add that while I won't miss Michael Kelly's Atlantic, I do miss his voice. I often disagreed with his analysis, and frequently winced at the schoolyard tone of his editorial taunts, but one thing was very clear from his writing for The Atlantic: the man had an exceedingly, dare I say, sensitive moral centre to his being. It's truly unfortunate we are deprived of his witness to the events in Iraq - and in Washington, for that matter.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Surfing the Mid-Life Tsunami

During my 21st summer, I bought a motorcycle and rode the highways of North America with a friend. We sped to the west coast, took our time winding down to California, then picked up the pace again going through the American heartland back to Manitoba. It created a definite physical memory, but what I probably enjoyed most, at the time, was being a member of the fraternity. You never lacked for conversation or companionship on the road.

This pleasure had its limits, however. Our last day on the road, we had breakfast at a Denny's in Bismark, ND. We were joined by two middle-aged bikers, returning to Kansas after touring Alaska. We covered the usual topics: comparing different aspects of performance between bike brands, the varying levels of highway patrol law enforcement from state to state, weather patterns, etc. By this point in our trip, this was all unremarkable stuff; we'd had exchanges like this with similar strangers every day for the last three weeks. My friend and I wanted to get home. We were sick of the travel, the food, and especially each other.
Also: the rain.
I noticed another middle-aged fella a few booths down from us, craning to hear our conversation. He was with his wife and kids, and finally left them to sit with us. "You guys," he said, almost breathless, "what's it like, doing a road trip on motorcycle?"

"It's definitely something," said one of the guys from Alaska. "I seen things you never come across back where I hale from. Like this moose, for instance ..."

"But what does it feel like," implored Mr. Wife-and-Kids. "Is it, like, this tremendous feeling of freedom?"

I took a long look at the family he'd just left. I didn't have the capacity to give the kids much thought, but compared to many I'd seen they were well-behaved. They were all of the age (under 10) where they felt no shame expressing genuine affection for their father. As for the mother, the woman was undeniably beautiful. And she was a woman. Why would any guy with so much as half a brain leave her company for our sorry lot?

Is it, like, this tremendous feeling of freedom?

The question comes to mind nearly twenty years later, as I pick up Thad Ziolkowski's surfing memoir, On A Wave — the latest acquisition in my growing library of surfer prose. I'm only 60 pages into it, so we'll see if it lives up to its potential, but so far he's delivering the goods. I open the book, start reading, and in seconds I'm no longer a land-locked 40-year-old man, devoted husband and father of two. I'm an adolescent, surfing the Florida coast. And it's, like, this tremendous feeling of freedom!

So, quelle surprise: mid-life brings out yearnings for the unattainable, chief among them the wish to relive your adolescence as a knowledgeable and (marginally more) confident adult. Well it ain't gonna happen. And I'm not going to surf — Michael Blowhard's frank appraisal of taking surfing lessons in mid-life quickly dissuaded me of any such impulse. And the prospect of abandoning my wife and kids to chat up the surfers I encounter at Half-Moon Bay or Santa Cruz is downright laughable. I know full well where the better conversation lies.

When I think back to our self-invited table-guest (to what depths did that poor slob finally descend?), I realize I simply can't be bothered to embarrass myself with such abandon. The pleasant alternative to all that grief is, I think, following my grandfather's example by purchasing a wind-surfer for my modest Ontario-based lifestyle, and constraining myself to the vicarious pleasures of surfer prose.

Of course, most surfer prose is, like most surfer music, dreadful. But amid all the dross of predictable, cliche-ridden piffle exists some genuine gold. More on that later...