Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My Baggage At The Grand Budapest Hotel

I had off work today because of Passover, and my wife only had a half day at her school.  This meant that with the girls at day care, we would actually be able to go out on a date by ourselves.  We saw a matinee of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which we both enjoyed.

My enjoyment was bittersweet, however.  The historical Central European setting reminded me that I had once studied German history (and European history more broadly) for well over a decade.  I developed a real love of the lesser known period of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and while the film takes place in the early 1930s, the main characters (Zero and M. Gustave) both long to return to the world before the Great War.  That sense of having been ripped away from a more comfortable world feels very real to me.

In recent years my bitterness towards my time in academia has infected my feelings towards my former field of study.  I read a lot of American history these days, and little European history, mostly because it reminds me that my dream of being a scholar of nineteenth-century Germany ended in disaster.  I teach mostly American history at my school, and I'm just fine with that.  I've dreaded ever having to talk about my dissertation ever again, and find myself feeling actual loathing towards it.

Watching The Grand Budapest Hotel reminded me that I still do truly love Central European history and literature.  (When I heard that the film had been inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, I knew I had to see it.)  I've written some book reviews on my field in recent years, and each time I felt my mind working in familiar and happy ways.  Despite those positive experiences, I haven't been able to stop transferring my bitter anger towards my old profession towards what I used to study.  I really and truly would like to continue some of my old research (I've got a long-completed journal article gathering dust), hopefully I can unburden my baggage and allow myself to enjoy something that once gave me such pleasure.  The film is in many ways about holding onto what's good in the past when life and fate conspire against us, I think I can gather some inspiration from that.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Notes On A Trip To Branch Brook Park

Spring has finally sprung here in New Jersey, which meant I spent a lot of this weekend with my daughters outdoors.  On Saturday my wife and I decided to take them to Branch Brook Park, a massive, beautiful landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in Newark that juts into neighboring Belleville.  We were married in nearby St. Lucy's church and had our wedding photos taken in the park, so it was a sentimental journey of sorts.  Although the park has lost some of its glory over the years (I remember the photographer having to get a stray condom in the grass out of the shot,) it's still a wonderful place, and still draws plenty of people.  We walked our giddy daughters along its path, saying hi to the other strollers and enjoying an island of fresh air in north Jersey's tangle of expressways and traffic.

Instead of taking the Garden State Parkway to Branch Brook, we decided to explore the backroads through South Orange, Orange, and East Orange.  (Northern New Jersey is a bewildering patchwork of towns akin to the Holy Roman Empire.)  I began to notice that these towns, like Branch Brook Park itself, were the product of the period between 1890 and 1930.  I began to feel sentimental because that also happened to be the heyday of my rural Nebraska homeland before its long slow decline.  The architecture of these towns too reminded me of my hometown: elegant yet tidy.  There were flourishes, cornices, and bits of whimsy among the brickwork that modernism later killed in favor of sterility.

The industrial growth of the time was cruel and sometimes horrific in its inequalities, but at least it left behind some nice things.  Enough of a public-minded spirit existed to build something like Branch Brook Park in the first place.  If such land was up for grabs these days I am sure it would be turned into a subdivision, corporate office park, or a line of strip malls.  Many of the old buildings in impoverished East Orange have fallen into disrepair, but beneath it all their lovely bones live on, and the city still has its gorgeous city hall it can be proud of.

We live today in a new Gilded Age, one of ridiculous wealth next to grinding poverty.  However, public-mindedness has not persisted, and public institutions are under increasing attack, especially schools.  The new wealthy do not build elegantly, but in a vulgar and ostentatious fashion.  Our era is alarming in it frivolousness and impermanence.  When we are dead and gone there will be little built in our time left around.  I'm still willing to bet that Branch Brook Park will still be there, though.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Track of the Week: Depeche Mode, "Enjoy The Silence"

Every now and then I make an effort to dig up beloved music from my past that for some reason or another I haven't listened to for awhile.  Recently I gave Depeche Mode's 1990 classic Violator a spin, the second CD that I ever bought.

I was particularly struck by "Enjoy the Silence," the song that got me to buy the album in the first place.  Back in 1990, there wasn't a whole lot of good music on the Top 40.  Sure, there were some classic hip-hop records, but to hear that music I had to rush home from school to catch the tail end of Yo!  MTV Raps.  Because of the local Musicland's draconian enforcement of the parental warning labels requiring ID proof that the purchaser was 18 years of age, many of those records were out of reach for me.  (Thank goodness for a friend who dubbed his copy of Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet onto a blank tape for me.)

Rap music was where it was at for me, and I was one of the few people in rural Nebraska to be listening to Eric B and Rakim on a daily basis.  In the early summer of 1990 I spent many a lazy afternoon glued to the MTV tube, and in between forgettable crud like Poison's "Unskinny Bop" and faddish hits like MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This" I would see the video for Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence."  Its synthesizer and reverb guitar sound would soon be made obsolete by the coming of grunge a year later, but in June of 1990 it was a cooler, more artistic form of pop music than Billy Idol singing "Rock the Cradle of Love."

As a shy and retiring fourteen year old I appreciated the song's basic message, that words are inherently hurtful, and silence a blessing.  Today the lyrics of the song seem a little-heavy handed to my cynical, hard-bitten early middle-aged ears, but the atmospherics of its electro-soundscape still intrigues me.  Depeche Mode was never a true pop band, nor an underground darling, either.  However, on this song they managed to find an irresistable pop hook, something that gave an isolated kid on rural kid a small bit of pleasure in an ocean of cultural refuse.  I loved the song so much that I bought it on cassingle even though I already had the CD.  It was like a secret message in a bottle sent to my lonely rural island, and a reminder today that as much I love music now, it can never truly mean as much for me as it meant back then.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A List of Memorable VHS Boxes

While I was writing my last post on my old video store, I got to thinking about the long-dead practice of shelf-scanning.  Sometimes I'd go into the store not knowing what I wanted, or what I did want was checked out.  That meant scanning the shelves for something to watch, an activity that I never stopped enjoying.  Some of those VHS boxes were so memorable that I can recall them today, even though I did never get around to seeing the films themselves.  In most cases these were B-movies that needed a flashy image to get noticed.  Here's my list, feel free to add your own in the comments.

Silent Night, Deadly Night, 1984

As a child the thought of an axe-murdering Santa really disturbed me, but I could not stop looking at this box.

Joysticks, 1983
1981's Porky's spawned a whole genre of "boob comedies" in the early to mid-80s that were perfect for the home video market, especially for those who wanted some titillation and cheap laughs but not hardcore pornography.  The young me was simultaneously thrilled and scared by this box, which was raunchier than most in the boob comedy genre.

The Empire Strikes Back, 1980
I never had to rent this film because I taped it off of TV during its first ever broadcast and then wore that tape thin.  However, I just loved this cover, with the romantic embrace of Han and Leia.  The human element of the Star Wars was never more evident.

National Lampoon's Vacation, 1983
Remember when Chevy Chase was cool?  It was a long time ago, and this was him at his coolest, as far as I was concerned as a kid.  The Star Wars parody of the image on the front was perhaps the first time that I "got" a pop culture reference.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch, 1982
This flick is legendarily bad, and doesn't even feature death-machine Mike Myers.  I've never seen it, but as a kid I found the silhouetted trick or treaters to be especially eerie.

Friday the 13th Part III, 1982
I've always hated slasher flicks (they're usually dehumanizing, misogynistic, and sexually regressive), but many of their VHS boxes intrigued me.  For some reason the image of the bloody blade sticking through the shower curtain, which in retrospect looks tacky, always stuck in my head.  (I guess the movie was in 3-D, so the blade coming out was part of the whole 3-D effects of the film.)

The Pirate Movie, 1982
Here's another legendarily bad movie, this one starring teen idols Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins on the downslope of their careers.  As a kid I was much confused by the combination of the Jolly Roger with naked youth.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ode To A Video Store

I've spent a lot of time lately thinking about much the landscape of daily life has changed in the last decade of digital disruption.  It's been especially strange to see the destruction of Blockbuster, the behemoth that destroyed local video stores back in the 1990s.  As late as 2004 it looked to bestride the earth like a Colossus forevermore, now it's gone.  I refuse to weep a tear for that wretched chain, with its philistine insistence on fullscreen movies, censorship, and strong-arm late fee collections.  However, I do mourn the local video store, mostly because I have been lucky to enjoy some truly great ones in my life.  My favorite, That's Rentertainment in Champaign-Urbana, thankfully still stands.  Sadly, Video Kingdom, my cinematic lifeline in my isolated small Nebraska hometown, still sells electronic equipment, but no longer rents movies.

Its fate was intimately tied to the mall where it was located, a mall that might as well have tumbleweeds blowing through it nowadays.  Back when I was growing up it echoed with laughter and the sound of kettle corn popping at Karmelkorn in the Food Court.  You could spot Video Kingdom at the mall because it had one of those huge knight in armor mock-ups standing out front.  I was going there so long ago that I can remember a time when the boxes on the shelves had two colors of tags in the back that you'd take to get your tape at the counter: blue for VHS and yellow for beta.  The tape did not come home in the shiny video box (remember, those tapes cost a king's ransom back then), but in a brown container in the bland color style so beloved in America circa 1984.  (My family bought a brown 1984 Chevy conversion van, so it's a color I knew well back then.)

Although there was a rival video store opened across town shortly later, Video Kingdom would still always be hopping.  In a town with few entertainment options, it was an embarrassment of riches.  I also wonder nowadays if its proprietor was a film buff, because I was able to get my hands on lots of things that were fairly obscure, and which never would have come to the threeplex at the mall theater.  (Not only did it only show the most mainstream fare, it often took weeks or even months for movies to show up there.  I am little ashamed to admit that I drove thirty miles to see Forrest Gump with friends in another town in 1994.)  By the time I reached high school I religiously watched Siskel and Ebert, and read magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone.  I would often hear and read rave reviews of films that did not come within 100 miles of where I lived.  Without fail, I could find them at Video Kingdom.

Because of Video Kingdom I was able to rent Reservoir Dogs, the first contemporary film I'd seen that suggested something wildly different from the narrow limits of mainstream Hollywood.  I was able to see Do The Right Thing, perhaps the first film I watched that really forced me to think about how life was lived outside of the confines of my Nebraska homeland.  Video Kingdom stocked Short Cuts, a movie that began my lifelong love of Robert Altman.  One weekend my parents were out of town, and instead of throwing a party (no one would have come, anyway) I rented Taxi Driver, a film I knew would be so gritty and violent that I dare not see it in my parents' presence.  It both thoroughly shocked and excited me in ways I didn't know movies could do.  My best friend and I watched Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now! avidly, my friend going so far as to tape some of the audio track on cassette and play it in his car's tape deck.  I was a social outcast and a bit of a weirdo in high school, but having access to these films made me feel special and smart, like someone who was in on something that other people could not possible understand.  Without that video store, I would not have had such a comforting past-time, nor would my love of cinema be so well-developed today.

Of course, if I was a teenager in my hometown today I wouldn't need a video store to give me access to these things.  Netflix has pretty much any movie you could ever want.  It would have made my process of discovery easier, but by being easier, much cheaper and less thrilling.  At a time when I needed to believe that my being a misfit was actually a sign that I had transcended my surroundings, the local video store gave me hope.  For that I owe it my eternal gratitude.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Loaded Meaning Of My Grad School Newsletter

It's been almost three years since I have left academia, and my happiness with my current life is so total that I rarely, if ever, feel bad about being gone from it.  However, there are strange, mundane events that have the capacity to trigger regret and bitterness in ways that I just can't seem to control.  One such event happened yesterday, when my mail contained the quarterly newsletter/magazine (it's way too glossy to be a newsletter) from my old grad program.  I was initially going to toss it aside, but for some reason started flipping through it, and I was powerless to stop the tide of ill-feeling washing over me.

I generally actually have very positive feelings about my time in grad school.  I made an amazing group of friends, learned a lot, broadened my mind, and lived in a place with plenty to do which also happened to be livable on a TA's salary.  There was even some sweetness to match the bitter taste in my mouth when I flipped the pages of the newsletter.  It was good to see the familiar faces of the professors, and sad to read the obituary of a prof whose classes I never took but knew well because he was just an all-around good person.

All the same, I could not get over the fact that I was holding in my hands a clear erasure of reality and the lived experience of so many people so close to me.  Turning newsletter's glossy pages you'd never guess that so many of the department's graduates are suffering so badly right now.  I don't begrudge my old department their need to promote themselves, and of course they want to project an image of success.  However, that newsletter was a vivd reminder that my grad program, like so many others, sent scores of its graduates straight into the maw of our Moloch-like academic job market, only to be quickly forgotten about if they ended up quitting the life or mired in contingent hell.

Everyone back there remembers the success stories, the students who have gone on to good jobs and impressive institutions.  Nobody remembers the failure stories, despite their mounting number.  One article focused on this year's crop of incoming graduate students, and as I looked at their faces, I wondered what they were being told about their chances, and whether my experience and those of so many other of my fellow graduates had simply been erased.  I get the feeling that such willful forgetting is happening in a lot of graduate programs, which will no doubt reap another bitter harvest in the years to come.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Revisiting the Fantasy Films of the Early 1980s

Tonight I finally got around to watching the first of the new Hobbit flicks.  (Parenthood made seeing it in the theater last year a non-starter.)  It got me thinking about how robust the fantasy genre has been since the first Lord of the Rings films came out in 2001, after years of being B-grade straight to video fodder.  If you would have told someone in 1994 that twenty years later that big-budget adaptations of works by Tolkien and George RR Martin had been made into hugely successful films in the case of the former and an acclaimed and popular television show in the latter case, they would have thought you were nuts.  This has been part of a general nerding of American popular culture, where comic book-inspired films have joined fantasy in the multiplexes and computers are cool, not geeky.  It has not always been thus, of course.  A few years ago on my old blog I discussed how there had been an attempt to bring fantasy mainstream in the early 1980s, and speculated as to why it didn't take at that time.  Here's what I had to say:


Looking back on it, I'm struck at the number of fantasy films released during the early 1980s. Here's but a cursory list: Dragonslayer, Krull, Beastmaster, Excalibur, The Dark Crystal, Heavy Metal (I count it as fantasy, at least), and the genre's cream, Conan the Barbarian. I didn't notice at the time, since I was starting to get into D&D and was reading fantasy novels (particularly the Dragonlance series) in the mid-to-late eighties, it all seemed so natural for these movies to be crowding the shelves at the video store. (Perhaps this proliferation of these films even helped spark my interest in the games and books.)

How to explain this sudden spurt in sword and sorcery? Part of it might come from the growing popularity of role playing games at the time, as Dungeons and Dragons burst onto the scene in the 70s. (Hollywood always wants to jump onto the latest trend picked up by The Kids.) Some of it, I think, grew out of the counter-culture's embrace of Tolkien, and the general New Age interest in magic and paganism. Most of all, however, the new spate of fantasy films was enabled by the massive success of the Star Wars films. Although it could technically by classified as "science fiction," the Star Wars saga derives its true power from its inherently mythic nature. The Force is a kind of magic, Obi Wan a Merlin, the lightsaber a sword from the stone etc. (I'm not saying anything Joseph Campbell hasn't said before.)

George Lucas thus inadvertantly paved the way for a slew of films featuring magic, sword wielding mythic heroes, and quests. The death of New Hollywood and its cinematic realism along with the heretofore unimaginable success of films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars made Hollywood see big bucks in escapism. Funnily enough, this meant that formerly B movie genres like fantasy and sci-fi finally got made with real budgets.

The burst in fantasy films would be short-lived, however. I blame it on the failures of 1984's Conan the Destroyer and 1985's Red Sonja, which made it hard for Hollywood to keep pouring dollars into what had long been considered a low-end genre. In fact, I can't think of a major fantasy film hit between 1982's Conan the Barbarian and 2001's Fellowship of the Ring. (And no, Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time doesn't count.) The original Highlander is about the only thing that comes close, and the highly hyped Willow didn't live up to expectations.

It's hard to say what the fantasy films of the early eighties say about their time, or at least a lot harder than interpreting slasher and post-apocalyptic. I would say that fantasy worlds are always past worlds, even if they are in another world, like Middle Earth. They are roughly medieval, bereft of gunpowder and modern technology, and most importantly, still enchanted. Because these settings are the bedrock of the genre, fantasy expresses a deep seated ambivalence about modernity. (This, by the way, is why Luke Sykwalker must destroy the technological terror of the Death Star not with his targeting computer, but with his "feelings.") Just as post-apocalyptic movies exhibited a pessimism about the future, fantasy displays a disenchantment with the present. As the economy recovered and faith in the nation revived in the mid-80s (as can be seen in films from Top Gun to Red Dawn), the retreat to an imagined past offered by fantasy became less attractive. The deeper meaning of fantasy and its ambivalence towards the present might explain (beyond the film's obvious quality) how The Fellowship of the Ring became the first cinematic sensation after 9/11.