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Film review: Danton outgrosses Robespierre

Preface: As I've said, oldie writing will be dusted off and plunked blogside (at least at first; new stuff should gradually overtake i...

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Choose sides! Choose sides! (Iraq 2003)

Another oldie-essay, written in 2003 about the time the U.S. military was reaching Baghdad. The Globe and Mail Book section at the time had a regular feature called "Three for Thought" wherein freelance writers would recommend three books on a subject. Margaret Atwood had already done a war-related piece, but I found it a bit tepid, and her three books academic and uninspiring, so I set myself the task of cobbling together something a bit more galvanic. Something to commemorate great war-literature. Something to get my moribund writing career restarted.

The following was what I (typically) wasted too much time composing. I mailed in and waited. Nada. Not even a "sorry but it doesn't meet our needs" letter. Well, what the hell. One for the alumni of Hard Knocks College. But it may still have some residual relevance as an Iran conflict looms, so here it is:

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(Once again, gotta find the lamentable thing. Hey, I'm beyond embarrassment...)

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Question for Robbie Robertson

So, if you are a devotee of the Basement Tapes, and are following my Dylan-Shakespeare thing (you are, right?--closely, minutely and obsessively, right?) perhaps this question may have occurred to you too: when Dylan on the "Crash on the Levee" sings:

"Swamp's gonna rise, no boat's gonna row,
You can train on down to William's Point..."

...is Robbie Robertson behind him aware that they are doing a Shakespeare mash-up? (or "surrealization" as I called it). Or is he just thinking, "Well, well, another screwball Dylan tune, pass the doob... man!... hee hee!"

One tantalizing bit of evidence on the Tapes album indicates Robertson is thinking SOMETHING about the screwiness, else why would he sing, on his own song "Yazoo Street Scandal":

"Sweet William said, with a drunken head,
If I had a boat, I'd help you float..."

Unless you argue that the entire album is just 100% surreal nonsense with an Americana flavor (a tenable thesis, I must admit, with a rueful chuckle) Robertson must be either a) aware that Dylan is reconfiguring Hamlet, or b) groping at Dylan's meaning and riffing around with it. Offhand I'd guess Robertson DOESN'T see the Hamlet connection, but I bet he is smart enough to be puzzling about incongruities like:

"King for king, queen for queen,
Gonna be the meanest flood anybody's seen..."


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Sept 30 footnote: FINALLY scouted the lyrics online; here are two results:



Man oh man oh man.

I know how altogether RIDICULOUS it is to even ATTEMPT an analysis of these wacky lyrics, but let's try to reduce the murk just a little. First comes determining just what the lyrics ARE. Note the disagreements between the two transcripts (e.g. I dibs "Eliza" rather than "Delilah") and, heck even where the two sources agree I'm inclined to raise question-flags. For example, is it really "widow"??--my ears have heard "winner" all these decades, and "winner" gives a nice Civil-War flavor to the nasty laugh at Cotton King. On the other hand, this is mighty intuitive, and anything but conclusive.

Now look at the line that BOTH obviously struggle to hear: "Think what you want/"Take once for all" respectively. After about 10 listens each to the Basement Tapes version and the Big Pink outtake (very similar) I'd say the actual line is "Cain't want the war" but I'll admit that the vocals are strained and I'm groping. Nor is the context much help.

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(just a little more to wrap up this inconclusive turkey...)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Journalese. Again. Laughter permitted.

In the wake of my Lougheed eulogy, where I smirk slightly at the Edmonton Sun for calling our exalted late premier "a driving force" behind the Canadian Constitution's notwithstanding clause (LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE NOTWITHSTANDING CLAUSE!!!) and the tangential question of exactly how many driving forces (of the Lougheedian thrusting variety) produced our monumental legal technicality, I pick up today's Globe and Mail, and here on B1 of the Business section is an article on "The oil sands' day of reckoning" (da dum!) (c'mon Gropers and Flailers, you can call them "tar sands"--no hard feelings) displaying a similar rhetorical flourish and the same murkiness of the quantitative: "...at the Joslyn project 90 minutes northwest of Fort McMurray, French giant Total SA is clearing the way for a new $8-billion mine that is a major backbone of the next chapter in the oil sands."

Okay, exactly how MANY backbones (major or minor) does Alberta's bitumonstrosity have?? Or, um, would it be "the next chapter" that has one of those major backbones? I'm so confuzzled...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Shakespeare's poem "The Phoenix and the Turtle(dove)"

Where to start this? Maybe with my 2005 Shadowplay review:


As noted there, the portion of the review devoted to this mysterious Shakespeare poem was deliberately left groping, tentative and incomplete, even incorrect in a few spots--due to my stubborn determination to show how a critic works (fumblingly when the job is demanding).

My hope at the time was to spark a debate on the poem (whose deeper meaning, in any case, was but a small part of Lady Asquith's book and her Catholic argument) whereupon I would launch into the battle-fray my troops of evidence held in reserve. Alas, nothing of the sort happened. I merely scared and/or appalled the editor who commissioned the review, and it never saw day. Again, no reaction whatsoever greeted the review's subsequent appearance on Facebook, or its enbalming (twice) here on the blog.

Still, the poem remains an enigma, and my oversize ego demands an airing for my stillborn theory that "The Phoenix and the Turtle" is a slam at both Protestant and Catholic, a theory deserving either validation or refutation. I've had it up to HERE ***chops flattened hand across forehead*** with the damn Shakespeare-world, where scholars lurch around like retarded sleepwalkers determining nothing much at all, except that their bloated brains are filled with far too much post-structuralism and other pompous theory.

The case of Melvyn Levental's excellent "Cressida at the Tailhook Convention" being totally ignored since 1997 (maybe changing now in 2015?) is my favorite abomination to drag before an audience in this regard (and I've done so once or twice on Twitter, with predictable non-results). Levental's article comes very close to solving the problem-play Troilus and Cressida, and yet although the play is frequently an object of study, and there are other scholars who concur at least partly with Levental's argument vindicating Lady Cressida (as being NOT a slut; another gang of scholars, including Lady Asquith, insistently insists she is).

Neither side has addressed Levental's reasoning or its implications. Hello? There must be at least a hundred Shakespeare specialists in the English faculties of the Western world, including at least three who have edited new editions of Troilus and Cressida since Leventhal's piece appeared in the Shakespeare Newsletter--what in hell have they been doing for 15 years besides mumbling semi-intelligibly about Foucault and Derrida??!

(Pause for your blogger to blow off a little steam-pressure)

So the question that has dogged me for seven years is: how, how, HOW does one penetrate the moribund minds of the assembled professors? (and all the ordinary folks who are routinely dosed with Shakespeare, nearly always with the pedantic assistance of these same Fluellens). More than once I've tweeted another heresy of mine--that Prince Hamlet is a vicious schmuck and Shakespeare designed him thus--only to get zero response. Well, maybe everyone is too busy staring stupidly at all the bang-pow in Hollywood's latest action flick (Judge Dredd? Resident Evil?) And maybe the best way to make my simple solutions to Shakespeare HEARD is to raise a comparable media-ruckus, eh? (and yes, I know "simple solutions" has a comic double-meaning; do YOU know why the simple lunkhead Ajax is one of the heroes of Troilus and Cressida?--hey, unless you follow my Twitter feed, you encountered this pro-Ajax heresy here first!)

And, um, since it was a print-media journalist who inadvertently provided the clue that "the sole Arabian tree" in "The Phoenix and the Turtle" is in fact the frankincense tree, let's start with just print-media exposure. The broadcast folks with their cameras and microphones can scramble comically to catch up...

***To be continued, as usual. Still lining up my ducks***

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Peter Lougheed, poetically

My sense of humor is acting up again as I read the Edmonton Sun obit-editorial: "Lougheed left lasting legacy."

Okay, this might be Semantics 101, but "lasting legacy" is a redundancy, right? If it doesn't last, you can hardly call it a legacy, right? A short-lived legacy would be ridiculous, right?

To put it plainly, the headline (like many a headline) is pure poetics, as much as would be, say, "Peter packed a pipeline of high-priced petroleum." Moreover, let me suggest that any enduring Lougheed imprint, including the 41 years of solid Tory majorities in Alberta, has proved somewhat thin and evaporative so far.

On the radio yesterday, they played a clip where Lougheed himself stated he thought his biggest bequeathal was the Canadian Constitution. But even if Lougheed was the sole architect of its ultimate-fudge, Great Canadian Compromise "notwithstanding clause" (largely a sop to Quebec, which largely snubbed it; the exuberant Sun editorialist says "Lougheed was a driving force behind the formula"--okay, how MANY driving-forces exactly conjured up that cute legalism??) you could hardly call our vaunted uberlaw a shining monument upon the planet (although I've encountered at least one rhapsodic attempt in that direction, citing the world's rookie democrats, who allegedly prefer it to the stale-dated U.S. Constitution. Amid such hosannas, dare I suggest that our constitution is just a blob of plasticine to be shaped by over-eager judges?)

Both the Sun and the radio station also mentioned Lougheed's heroic attempts to diversify Alberta's economy. Alas, neither source bothered to support the assertion with statistics, which probably show our economy growing more oil-centred than ever during his 1971 to 1985 reign and subsequently, as various attempts to "green" our energy hit the cost-wall (e.g. ethanol and the current drought in the U.S.) Alas, fossil fuels remain the cheapest way to power humanity's somewhat comic hurrying and scurrying, and this massive economic fact steam-rollered Alberta as much as anybody, Lougheed or no Lougheed.

By happenstance I know a large corporate furniture-maker of the Lougheed era, who along with other Alberta manufacturers met with the Premier back in the day, to talk about some sort of support for secondary industry, and who came away notably bitter at getting nothing worth mentioning (the furniture corporation eventually went under). Admittedly this is anecdotal evidence, and maybe we should all be harumphing about bootstraps, but really, if you are going to say Lougheed did anything about diversifying the economy aside from uttering platitudes, please provide some evidence in that direction. Or get a speechwriter to pump up the iconography with Lougheed's role in our triumphant agricultural switch from wheat to canola or something.

To tell the truth, it is difficult to find ANYTHING to say about Lougheed beyond his personal charm (although I suspect a certain Mr. Sindlinger may chip away at even that). There was plenty of evidence of that charisma yesterday--Albertans phoning in to the radio shows to hymn Lougheed's photographic memory of them and their kids, etc. By coincidence I even snagged a broadcast-media guy in my taxi, with a story of himself and his cameraman attending some political event back in the Lougheed era, and the cameraman getting into the long receiving-line twice to shake hands with Lougheed. The second time the cameraman arrived, Lougheed said "Hey, I already shook your hand!" or something like that. Quite funny, but my passenger was clearly won over by the encounter.

Heck, I could probably add my own story: the 100th-anniversary dinner for alumni of the University of Alberta student newspaper the Gateway, less than two years ago. Lougheed was Sports Editor on the Gateway circa 1950, and was arguably the most illustrious graduate of our esteemed rag (even ahead of blink-and-miss-him Prime Minister Joe Clark) and had plenty of excuses for not going to the soiree, starting with the triviality of our student publication and finishing with age and infirmity (he and an accompanying ex-cabinet minister rather shocked me with their appearance, but I'm getting rather worn around the edges myself, so maybe I shouldn't talk).

But there amid all us freaks and non-entities (hey!--there's the shaggy cartoonist who draws Bob the Angry Flower!)  Lougheed gamely appeared, and made a passable speech about the importance of education, and ways of financing upgrades to Highway 63, and a few other things. Our late-70s/early-80s contingent (one of whom was even then helping compile a potted-obituary for Lougheed for a major daily) sat very close to the ex-Premier's head-table, and I furtively watched him, hoping he didn't recognize me, nor recall that I once wrote a slashing column in the Gateway on his lousy English, and then compounded the offense by reducing it to a joke later when he was being touted for the federal Conservative leadership (check also my dismantling of Barbara Amiel in the latter column. Ah, the fun times of yore). I had to restrain the urge to go over and apologize, muttering something like ""Hey, all politicians have lousy English, it was nothing personal, guy." He would undoubtedly have accepted that with his usual patrician grace and aplomb, no?

Even Don Iveson, current member of Edmonton City Council, who introduced Lougheed to the assembled alumni, intimating gingerly that he (Iveson) had some differences of ideological nicety, seemed rather abashed by Lougheed's presence--matching the across-the-board tributes that have poured forth since Thursday, which clearly transcend mere speaking-well-of-the-dead. Just what Lougheed represented, however, remains a bit of an enigma. Maybe it was primarily the banal fights over Alberta's oil wealth, which, although Lougheed probably lost (cue: indignation over NEP) he at least fought the good fight. Or maybe he earned a stalemate: maybe some of Alberta's natural-resources "lottery ticket" is still Alberta's thanks to him; maybe the Trans-Canada Gimmes didn't get it all.

And he had a tall-in-the-saddle yet modest style (much ballyhooed by the effusive Rex Murphy in today's National Post) which not only impressed people like my father (also born in 1928) but got him plastered onto the cover of Saturday Night as the iconic face on our Rockies. What more could a legend want? Actual notable accomplishments maybe? I recall my razor-sharp journalism teacher shrugging off Lougheed as "a Mannix man" (a comment that baffled me at the time; what did the TV show have to do with Lougheed, I naively wondered) but this was 1973, very early in Lougheed's career.

The implication, I now suppose, was that Lougheed was just a corporate lubricant, a mere business tool--criticisms common enough from leftward. Perhaps his eminence was even a mere optical illusion produced by high oil prices, as our Gateway editorial cartoonist Gerard Kennedy ("Pasken") later suggested. Aside from building Alberta's economy to some degree (I'd argue other business leaders deserve as much or more credit, as do OPEC gougers) what did Lougheed REALLY DO? Racking my brain for anything, I find... not much.

I recall from somewhere that his first act as premier in 1971 was to repeal the Socreds' eugenics/sterilization legislation, which shows some intelligence and gumption, but I'd be hard-pressed to find a second instance as admirable. Today's Globe and Mail obituary cites 20 pieces of legislation that Lougheed's PCs introduced even in opposition, but neglects to state whether they were passed, or even what the 20 bills specifically or generally dealt with. Nor was Lougheed very leaderly when the Keegstra affair erupted (although commenting on a case before the courts is rarely a good idea). Nor did he tamp down western separatists with any special alacrity. But maybe he was just coolly and passively acknowledging the deep Zen truth that all things must pass. Who knows...

Aside from that? Well, I have an excuse for resuscting "Kubla Pete"--a poem named after him and published in the Gateway. Actually, despite the title it was more about certain high-octane leftists in the Students Union than about Lougheed.

But, punchline: in the dirty business of politics Lougheed maybe did emerge (thrusting!) (sorry) a bit cleaner than most. Maybe his relative cleanliness was due to nothing more than a certain cool, lawyerly dignity of his. Still, having that quality of character reminds us how scarce a commodity it is in politics anywhere.

As to the gang of professors who named him the best Canadian Premier of the last 40 years--ha ha! But really--what (besides unintentional comedy) did you expect from professors?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

We need culture... WHY exactly?

Dedicated readers of this blog (I'm joking of course) may recall, a few posts ago, my sneering at the almighty dollar-standard that bestrides the arts, my snorting at the media coverage that treats culture as just another economic activity, needing continued growth, providing important jobs, yadda yadda, etc.

Obviously my sarcasm needs to be cranked up a notch or four because, lo and behold, here is more of the same in the Globe and Mail Sept. 4 under the headline "Canada must refuel for cultural creativity."

Yep, you could recycle this cliche endlessly, and you do... you do...

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Been Down So Long, it Looks Like Newspapers to Me

I'm driving into the mall parking-lot a little after 3 a.m. when I see the drunk stumbling along ahead of me. I slow down to avoid approaching him, then turn right, to the spot under the parkade where the crew is milling about, arranging and loading..

*ongoing as usual*

Cyberspace Oddity; Holes in the Holy

It wasn't really necessary, but I googled "Shakespeare and Christianity" and was amused to see the first entry arguing for a connection, the second against this, the third by Aldous Huxley (!) and Wikipedia hemming and hawing at fourth. Not that I can add much to the general conclusions, despite my finding a great heap of previously undetected Christian references in Shakespeare, particularly in Troilus and Cressida (a 1609 play containing a most curious allusion to a "creative addition" to the 1611 King James Bible, among other Christian things). No, Shakespeare's religion, like his politics, remains an enigma to unriddle.

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But of course I had to check the Aldous Huxley, and I'm happy to say it jives with my impression of Shakespeare as deeply steeped in a sense of religiosity, often expressed via the Christianity that was his milieu (and what do you bet it was precisely this religious feeling that captured Bob Dylan?) Nevertheless, I must quibble with one of Huxley's examples, the report of Falstaff's death by Mistress Quickly, from Henry V. As Huxley quotes it:

HOSTESS: Nay, sure, he's not in hell: he's in Arthur's bosom, if ever man went to Arthur's bosom. 'A made a finer end, and went away, an it had been any christom child; 'a parted ev'n just between twelve and one, ev'n at the turning o' th' tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers, and smile upon his fingers' ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and 'a babbled of green fields. "How now, Sir John!" quoth I, "what, man! be o'good cheer." So 'a cried out "God, God, God!" three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him 'a should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.

This has two errors: first it isn't a plural "fingers' ends" but a singular "finger's end" as the 1623 Folio has it; no trivial matter, for it (and Abraham's/Arthur's bosom) mark an allusion to the biblical story of Lazarus and Dives, an allusion that greatly clarifies the parallel relationship between Falstaff and King Henry, and ultimately condemns King Henry. But that is a longer story with much additional evidence.
   The second error is not quite so serious, indeed it's merely a repeat of the standard (for three centuries) emendation of the Folio's clearly incorrect "his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a table of green fields" (sic) to the intelligible "babbled of green fields." Again, however, the "table" marks a biblical allusion, and it can be retained by recreating the correct text as "and 'a talked of a table of green fields" (my reconstruction, ahem!)
   But maybe the most important thing here is truly masterful way Shakespeare accentuates pathos with a touch of humor. A great soul indeed.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

So far ahead of his time he's lurking in ours

It's a pretty rare day I don't think about H. L. Mencken at least ten times.

And here is Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen, Sept 3, starting a column on presidential aspirant Mr. Romney by citing the "dour" satirist of yore. Dour??
   And yet, I've heard Mencken called "bilious" too, an even more tone-deaf assessment. Is this the same Mencken who publicly regretted not calling his second and third volumes of memoirs Happy Days II and Happy Days III to match the first title? (yes, LONG before the TV show, you ahistoric moron). Is this the 67-year-old summing up his life at an age when bitterness is almost automatic, who states:

(Chrestomathy quote: "I have little call to join the race of viewers-with-alarm" etc./approx.... damn but I hate research... and of course my copy of the Mencken Chrestomathy  has disappeared into the office uber-mess...)

(Yep, another teaser for an item for sale. Sorry! Stay tuned!)  =]