Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Chap: A new favorite thing for the aspiring man of gentility

It never ceases to astound me what variety mankind is capable of; case in point: the wry, sly Chap magazine, dedicated to being a proper fellow.

As a bi-monthly British magazine, The Chap celebrates “that increasingly marginalised and discredited species of Englishman — the gentleman. The Chap believes that a society without courteous behaviour and proper headwear is a society on the brink of moral and sartorial collapse.”

It’s the “proper headwear” that should tell you exactly what kind of monocle through which The Chap views its world. “Chief chap” Gustav Temple refers to their philosophy as “anarcho-dandyism.” Suggesting that if you’re doffing your hat to a lady in 1950, you may be a dandy — but if you do it in 2009, you’re practically an anarchist. What ho indeed.

What makes a chap? Consider a few bullets from the Chap Manifesto:

1. THOU SHALT ALWAYS WEAR TWEED. No other fabric says so defiantly: I am a man of panache, savoir-faire and devil-may-care, and I will not be served Continental lager beer under any circumstances.

2 THOU SHALT NEVER NOT SMOKE. Health and Safety “executives” and jobsworth medical practitioners keep trying to convince us that smoking is bad for the lungs/heart/skin/eyebrows, but we all know that smoking a bent apple billiard full of rich Cavendish tobacco raises one’s general sense of well-being to levels unimaginable by the aforementioned spoilsports.

And consider this saged advice on “de nimes,” or denim as we less chap-like might say:

4 THOU SHALT NEVER, EVER, WEAR PANTALOONS DE NIMES. When you have progressed beyond fondling girls in the back seats of cinemas, you can stop wearing jeans. Wear fabrics appropriate to your age, and, who knows, you might even get a quick fumble in your box at the opera.

Quite so. It’s this sort of pragmatism that led the magazine’s annual sporting event, the Chap Olympiad, to a sponsorship by Hendrick’s gin in 2006 and 2007. A typical Olympiad features events like the Martini Relay (in which teams must concoct the perfect dry martini “with the enormous handicap of having no butler to assist them”) and the Tug of Hair, a tug-of-war enacted on a man’s moustache (proper for its waxing if not its length: 20 feet). The YouTube videos are the modern update of Monty Python’s “Upper Class Twit of the Year” skit — still, the Olympiad is fact more absurd because it is more realistic.

It isn’t all sport and stiff upper lips for the British gentlemen, by the way. As rule No. 4 of the manifesto suggests, being a gentlemanly chap doesn’t preclude a bit of bawdy business when appropriate. Take for example this ribald photo essay from a recent Chap, “Britches and Hoes”:

"Come along Tiffany, these tobacco plants, juniper berries and truffles won't plant themselves!"

If you were expecting a bit more skin, you may be more of a bloke than a chap, and perhaps you should start your own magazine accordingly.

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Censoring librarians: In defense of two outraged Kentucky pepperpots

It makes for an excellent story: A conservative prig gets his or her undies in a twist about someone’s artistic expression, then makes a ruckus to get it banned. This ancient blood sport inspires stories such as the recent “Pirate Radio,” (where Kenneth Branagh tries to ban rock ‘n’ roll from the radio), and the BBC docudrama, “Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story” (about the British anti-smut crusader who had a corncob of moral superiority up her rectitude).

Joining the ranks this autumn: a pair of library workers in Kentucky who noticed some naughty, naughty pictures in the graphic novel League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier and conspired to keep it out of the hands of an 11-year-old girl. In their small protest, these two ladies  have decided to take on Alan Moore, one of the most influential voices in pop culture. It makes for an interesting battle, and an even better visual reference:

I’ve read Black Dossier. It is most definitely peppered with naughty, no question. It’s filled with other stuff, too: enough literary references to make an English major weep, and scathing criticism of society and popular culture. In other words, this ain’t exactly your perverted uncle’s stack of well-thumbed Juggs.

And even though, as a good liberal thought-thinker, I abhor censorship the way nature abhors a vacuum, I actually have a kind word to say about those kerfuffled little ladies in that Kentucky library.

First, some context.

What is this damnable book?

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series is written by the scary-smart (and also, possibly, just plain scary) British author Alan Moore, most famous for the graphic novel Watchmen, which Time magazine named one of the “100 Best Novels, 1923-present.”

In League, Moore imagines the characters of popular fiction living together in a shared universe of pulp adventure. The original volume teamed Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll, among others, into a team of crime-solving spies. It is the comic that single-handedly brought me out of my 20-year abstinence from comics. (More on that in a future post; but seriously, I can’t believe what a brilliantly told story this was.)

Even the cover requires annotations.

The original League; this motley crew finally convinced me that comics weren't as crummy and childish as I had remembered from my youth. Not by a long shot.

Each page, drawn with sketchy cross-hatching by Kevin O’Neill, is so densely layered with literary- and pop-culture-infused allusions, that culture scholar Jess Nevins has made an entire secondary career by annotating every panel.

Run-L.E.G., featuring Rev. Run Murray and Jam-Master QIn volume 3, Black Dossier, the titular League includes Orlando (Virginia Woolf’s gender-flipping immortal), Mina Murray (Dracula) and great white hunter Allan Quatermain (H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines). Between the three of them, they get up to some rather randy business as they investigate a government dossier chock full of information about League members. The dossier itself is a character: Whole chunks of the book are actually sections of the dossier, sometimes printed on different stock, or made to seem like pages torn from a novel with hand-written notes in the margins.

A section about former Leaguer Fanny Hill, for example, is printed on thick, creamy linen paper:

fann

One of the tamer images from the Fanny Hill section. Note the Lilliputians in the lower left, gettin' busy.

The original Fanny Hill first appeared in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (John Cleland, 1748), which is considered the first prose pornography. But in Alan Moore’s hands, Fanny becomes an adventurer who sleeps with some of the most important figures in literature. In the image above, she spends an evening with Lemuel Gulliver (of Gulliver’s Travels) at the Admiral Benbow tavern (Treasure Island). Whenever Moore focuses on a particular book or genre, he writes with an uncanny imitation of the original’s style. In Fanny’s case, that means double entendre and artfully disguised prurience. Describing the scene above, for example, Moore has Fanny report: “(Gulliver) also demonstrated a device from science-crazed Laputa, to invigorate the tired skin, that I found endlessly delightful.”

Elsewhere, Moore lampoons George Orwell’s 1984 using a so-called “Tijuana bible,” the tiny pornographic comics from the ’20s and ’30s. (Wikipedia describes them pretty well, without showing so much as an errant nipple). In Orwell’s book about totalitarian rule, a government organization called Pornosec “produced booklets in sealed packets with titles like Spanking Stories or One Night in a Girls’ School, to be bought furtively by proletarian youths who were under the impression that they were buying something illegal.” Sure enough, Moore takes this line of reference from 1984 and creates one of his own Pornosec booklets in Black Dossier, right down to the cheap newsprint paper and the nonstandard 4″ x 6″ size of a typical Tijuana bible:

In 1984, even illict sex is compulsory.

The skinny little pamphlet, bound inside the regular shelf-sized hardcover. Note that the surrounding prose story is a dead-on imitation of a Keruoac-style beat novel, "The Crazy Wide Forever."

Was it doubleplusgood for you, baby?In the image at left (shrunken for your sensibilities, but totally clickable) , expressionless humans slave away on the assembly line even during a bizarre public coupling. Since this 8-page pamphlet parodies Orwellian propaganda, the offending male is apprehended by the last panel and subjected to a 1984-style “rat box.” The female salutes the arresting officers, who tell her in classic Orwellian, “Doubleplusgood work, informant Jane.”

Is it pornography? Well, sorta. This image is about as graphic as Black Dossier gets; the rest of the book is dotted with cartoon breasts and a full-frontal glimpse here or there. On the whole, it falls well short of obscenity. Properly defining obscenity in legal terms would require a team of law clerks communing with the ghosts of Supreme Court Justices Past — but the  common thread in the argument, provided by Justice William Brennan in 1957, is that for something to be obscene it must be “utterly without redeeming social importance.” Good luck proving that in any book written by Moore, one of the keenest social commentators since Tom Wolfe.

However you classify it, the cartoony sex in Black Dossier isn’t nearly as arousing as it is kinda boring.

So what did the librarians do?

Sharon Cook (on the left in the photo at top) had worked for four years in the Jessamine County Public Library in Nicholasville, Ky. (Neither she nor her co-conspirator Beth Boisvert hold library-science degrees, and the Lexington Herald-Leader calls them “library employees.”) When Cook first saw Black Dossier — shelved not in the juvenile section, but in an adult graphic novel section — she was appalled that children could easily mistake it for one of the other more mainstream and kid-appealing comics in the same section. So in fall of 2008, she checked it out. And renewed it, over and over, keeping it out of circulation.

This went on until Sept. 21, 2009, when an 11-year-old went to check the book out. No library policies forbade the girl from checking out the book; the onus is on parents to monitor children’s library use. As per standard procedure, the girl was put on a waiting list for the checked-out book — and when Cook attempted to renew the book, the system denied her.

After consulting with fellow employee Boisvert, the two of them removed the hold the patron had put on the book, so Cook could continue to check it out. Two days later they were fired.

So far, this is pretty cut-and-dried: Library employees object to material in a book, and conspire to keep it out of the hands of a person who has a right to read it. Case closed.

But something from the Herald-Leader story by reporter Amy Wilson surprised me:

Cook says she consulted with a manager at the library at almost every step in her decision-making process about the graphic novel. She says when it first came to her attention, “someone suggested we spill a cup of tea on it. Instead I checked it out.”

Well, I’ll be damned. It seems we always hear of how course society has become, how civility is dead, how discourse has been dumbed to the lowest common denominator. And for a moment there, that almost proved true when some junior Savanarola at the Jessamine County Library suggested they destroy an objectionable book. But Cook ignored that suggestion, and simply checked the book out.

She didn’t burn it; she borrowed it.

I’ve mentioned that I hate censorship, and I agree that Cook and Boisvert committed a terminal offense when they interfered with the patron’s hold on the book. But I hope everyone who has a stake in this debate takes the time to acknowledge that Cook’s first solution was nonviolent, respectful of property, and little more than honest-to-gosh civil disobedience.

We love civil disobedience in this country — the nonviolence of a Walgreen’s lunch counter sit-in or the stubborn insistence against moving to the back of the bus. Cook saw a book that crossed the limits of her morality, and instead of destroying it, she simply gamed the system to keep it out of circulation.

I don’t agree with Cook, but she’s won a measure of my respect nonetheless. And she should have the respect of every other book-reading, idea-loving, free-thinking philosopher for showing that just because a book can incite angry thought, it doesn’t have to incite angry action.

Sincere thanks, Ms. Cook. I wish you swift success in finding new employment soon. Just not in a library.

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Sound the claxon! ANOTHER Nautilus movie room surfaces

OK, OK … breeeeeathe, Drew.

Back in August I got all giggly and giddy when I found a home movie theater designed to look like Nemo’s Nautilus. I know! I feel the same way!

Yarr, I know there be a squid attacking the hull, but there still be 20 minutes left in "Marley & Me."

If you thought that was the catfish’s meow, then prepare to submerge, because today I found another one! Oh, come on! Check it:

Yes, I might watch lots of fish on this thing, too.

I think it's pretty generous to invite five others into this sanctuary.

I'll bet the speakers really are steam powered!

The designer is a model-building artist named David Goldberg, who says in his bio that in 1976 he saw Star Wars and “had what he calls ‘a religious experience.'” Boy, did he ever answer the call. That’s his Emmy in the first picture for his model work on “Earth 2.” Which was a great damn show — but not near as great as this room, I gotta say. Ooh, look, here’s one of his replica props from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea:

Take that, Dr. Grordbort!

All this jibber-jabber about the Nautilus comes at a funny time, since I’m working on a post about Nemo, his fellow fictional adventurers, and two little old ladies in Kentucky who have a real beef with them. Stay tuned.

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Consider my Titans Clashed

Oh my. I’ve already gotten giddy about the Clash of the Titans remake, so I’m not sad at all to place my peepers on the first trailer.

What have you done with your hair? I *love* it.

Not only does this trailer include iconic scenes from the original like a tiptoe through Medusa’s tulips, and battles with giant (I mean giant) scorpions, but it’s been updated with the full Zack Snyder treatment: slow-mo leaping, gritty action set pieces, and a blistering heavy metal soundtrack.

Some people will cry blasphemy that Titans will be poured into the mold left behind by 300. I for one have no earthly problem with that at all. When I need charming stop-motion, the original will be there to comfort me. But for now: Bring on the digital swords, sandals, and Slayer solos.

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‘Then We Came to the End’: Why an office farce deserved to be a National Book Award finalist

At first glance, it looks like a clown at a bris.

The National Book Awards typically celebrate weighty and serious tomes about lives in reflection, marriages on the rocks, tragedies from which we must recover. Then, in 2007, along comes Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.

Who let Steve Carrell and the cast of “The Office” into the clubhouse?

EndThen We Came to the End is an office comedy set in an advertising agency. In it, first-time author Ferris attacks inane corporate kabuki with absurdism as fierce as anything dished out by Catch-22. And though it looks out of place amid its fellow National Book Award nominees (including the eventual winner, the Vietnam War epic Tree of Smoke), End earns its spot with some lively writing, deft observations of small moments, and something doleful beneath the yuks about how we humans face life’s futilities.

We liked him at first, very early on. Then one day Karen Woo says, “I don’t like Joe Pope,” and she gives us her reasons. She goes on and on about it for close to a half hour, a very spirited rant, until finally we had to excuse ourselves so we could get back to work. After that there was no doubt in anyone’s mind how Karen Woo felt about Joe Pope, and more than a few people agreed that she had a legitmate gripe — that if in fact the situation was as Karen reported it, Joe was not a likeable person at all. It’s tough to say now what that gripe actually was. Let’s see here … trying to remember … nope, not coming. Half the time we couldn’t remember three hours ago. Our memory in that place was not unlike that of a goldfish. Goldfish who took a trip every night in a small clear bag of water and then returned in the morning to their bowl.

You’ll notice that Ferris writes in the first-person plural. “We” do everything in this book, and at first this seems an arbitrary writer’s indulgence. But not only does the comedic rhythm of it start to grow on you, but Ferris offers up the world’s best justification for it in the back of his book (in my copy, at least): “Companies tend to refer to themselves in the first-person plural — in annual reports, corporate brochures, within meetings and internal memos … In Then We Came to the End, you see just who this “we” really is — a collection of messy human beings — stripped  of their glossy finish and eternal corporate optimism.”

And it really works. Ferris, who spent some time in an ad agency himself, captures the ridiculous minutiae in a workaday routine, such as this passage where gossipy gadfly Benny (there’s one in every office) makes a performance of telling a gaggle of co-workers his latest salacious tidbit:

We talked among ourselves until he returned. “Okay,” he said, coming into the room with a full mug and a trailing odor of stale coffee grounds. He sat down and the delicately webbed seat sank for him a little more than it did for the rest of us. He squared himself to his desk and said, “So who did I see this morning parked right outside the building but — what?” He stopped midsentence. He had something — “Where?” It was on the other cheek — we hoped to god he’d find it fast. He wiped his whiskerless face and looked down. “Doughnut glaze,” he said.

There were doughnuts? Benny’s story would have to wait for those of us wanting doughnuts. Those of us who’d already eaten, or who were watching their weight, or Amber Ludwig, who had just split open a brown banana and was already halfway through it, filling Benny’s office with its singular musk — we sat tight.

Ferris’ crew of misfits and misanthropes slumps through a business slowdown, worried about layoffs and looking busy. Their sole project is a pro bono campaign, the only criteria of which is that it makes breast cancer patients laugh. It’s a vague assignment, which motivates them only vaguely. As their paranoia mounts and their productivity falls, Ferris switches gears mid-book to focus on just one of the “we.” Lynn, the domineering firm partner overseeing these chuckleheads, has a completely illogical meltdown as she faces medical treatment for her own breast cancer. (Oh! See, it really does deserve a National Book nomination after all.)

The book builds a surprising tension as the wee little lives inside the cubicle spill over into each other’s personal space. After a surprising snap from a major character, the office is left shaken and changed. But even so, those same wee little lives find a way of succumbing to the inescapable gravitational pull of the corporate grouse. It’s just so easy to bitch about things, isn’t it?:

The rest of us would have liked some time off. They only gave us that Friday afternoon, which we took gladly, but we, too, suffered from stress and all sorts of disorders and would have liked more than an afternoon. Some of us said Friday afternoon, wow, behold the generosity. But others tried to see it from their perspective. If they didn’t win new business, they were screwed. And who did they screw when they got screwed? You betcha.

As someone who didn’t really care for Catch-22 (I eagerly await your letter bombs and charges of blasphemy), I found Then We Came to the End to be a true and trenchant view of life’s absurdity, equal parts silly and insightful. Maybe that’s because I know nothing about the irrationality of the foxhole, but everything about the irrationality of the cubicle.

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What Mark Twain said about adjectives

I don’t mean to pick on any journalist for writing a bad sentence. God knows I’m aware of the pressure of the newsroom deadline, and what acts of contortion must be performed before an inky metal plate can roll across a sheet of newsprint.

And I don’t mean to single out the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones who is, most days, an enjoyable and readable theater critic.

But for all who write, or read, or like words, or use words, or are in some small way familiar with words, this lead sentence from yesterday’s “On the Town” section is a doozy that cannot be allowed to pass unhooted at:

Shorn of its massive set, its $450 tickets and its overwhelming Broadway hubris, the national touring version of Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” now plays like a moderately amusing wing-and-drop entertainment with a few choice chunks of red comedic meat for loyal Brooks fans who are willing to indulge a strangely chilly show that’s cheerfully unwilling to uproot itself from down-and-dirty gags rooted in much-admired parts of the human anatomy.

I’ve colored the adverbs and adjectives red for you. By my reckoning, 27 of that sentence’s 74 words are descriptors. Let alone the appalling length for a lead sentence (…any sentence!),  giving a third of the real estate to adjectives and adverbs is just plain not-so-very good. It doesn’t take the wisdom of Mark Twain (who said “When you catch an adjective, kill it!”) to know that any writer who bangs out a sentence like this is going to wake up the next day and see that sentence and feel regret. Like, hangover-after-the-society-ball regret.

It’s enough to leave a reader feeling:

Of course, the problem at the other extreme is not using language at all.

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Three-word review of the 2009 TV premiere of ‘V’

Vaudeville in vain.

V_is_for_vaguely_interesting

Captions don't count: "V" has everything a boy could want, including smooth CG, slick visual designs and nerd-worthy actors such as Elizabeth Mitchell and Alan Tudyk. But heavy-handed plotting and weak dialog kept me at a distance the entire time. Man, this story was *rushed* -- humans were taking tours of alien ships inside the first 15 minutes --so the plot-first pacing left no room for subtlety or surprise or intrigue. Every emotion, every action is sitting right there on the surface to be consumed in order, not to be teased out or hinted at. Helping the spoonfuls go down are lines of dialog so thick with exposition they rolled my eyes off the screen and back into my head. I'll watch these first four episodes, but the needle on my thrill-o-meter is hovering no higher than "hayride."

Nerds, let us not forget the wonders of 1983. Back then, this was the pinnacle of rad:

v-is-for-viguana

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