Wednesday, October 28, 2009

HALLOWEEN 2009- Dracula vs. Frankenstein

There are really two classic monsters- Dracula and Frankenstein. They both touch primal urges in humanity and make those things into archetypal horrors. They bookended the 19th century and spoke to themes that would dominate the 20th. They both were novels that made their authors famous. One was written by a first time author who penned an immediate success while the other was from an established writer and took years to find its audience, And despite superficial similarities it would be harder to find two more different characters or novels. I read both novels when I was in the fifth grade and was immediately taken at what a classic subject for the compare and contrast essays we were writing at the time.

When he wrote Dracula Bram Stoker was an established writer who was also manager of the Lyceum Theater in London. It was published in 1897 during the early days of what would become an increasingly mainstream literary genre- the fantastic. But it wasn’t immediately popular, perhaps being overshadowed by other such novels. Jules Verne had been publishing primeval science fiction for decades and H. G. Wells The Invisible Man was published the same year as Stoker’s magnum opus, while Wells classics The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds were published two years before and one year afterward respectively. Yet the novel was unique enough that it was able to survive until a new artform- movies- would make Dracula known to almost everyone.

Critics were mostly favorable to Stoker’s work. The novel is beautifully written in a epistolary style that immediately brings the reader into the heads of the main characters. This style also makes the story seem more immediate than a first or third person narrative since you never know if a particular character will survive past the story’s end. Stoker spends the first part of the novel building suspense and setting the stage. Jonathan Harker’s trip to Castle Dracul, where he meets the count and his three undead brides, is classic gothic horror. A modern man on a business trip that goes horribly wrong yet is exotically erotic and mysterious. The latter half picks up the pace and delves into themes of science vs. mysticism, the threat of the barbarian invasions into the newly industrial world, the changing roles of women, and the uses of modern technology (a telephone call plays an important role in one scene).

Stoker did years of research for the novel. Modern myth has connected the character with Vlad the Second (Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Tepes- pronounced “tepish”, with the accent on the first sylable) but there is evidence that even if this historical character was the basis for Count Dracula, which is likely, Stoker had little actual information about the historical person. Still, his research filled the novel with real places and their mythology and served to ground the character in a sort of verisimilitude.

But Dracula probably wouldn’t have become so memorable simply because of its structure or historical grounding. Stoker’s prose was a big part of the novel. Much gothic horror to this day owes a debt to his lyrical and evocative writing. It is a truly pleasing read and every page drips with atmosphere.

Dracula wasn’t the first vampire novel, but it was the one that all such novels, before and after, would be measured against.

Unlike the assiduous research that Stoker would do for Dracula, Mary Shelley (nee Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) was a nineteen-year-old girl who wrote Frankenstein almost on a dare. The story of the genesis of the novel is almost as famous as the novel itself but some latter day myths have arisen. Mary was basically raised by her father because her mother died not long after her birth, and grew up with an unusual education for a woman at the beginning of the 19th century- seeing such radical thinkers as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Aaron Burr entertained in her home during her formative years. She was widely traveled and took up with poet Percy Bisshe Shelley while he was still married to his first wife. On a summer trip to Geneva, Switzerland in 1816, before their marriage but after the birth of their first child, they found the weather unusually cold due to the eruption of Mount Tambora (1816 is often referred to as the year without a summer) and had to stay inside rather than enjoying normal lakeside summer pastimes. Their additional company consisted of Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori. The result of such educated company and plenty of indoor time was numerous high-minded discussions. One of which turned to the new experiments of Luigi Galvani into animal electricity, or animism.

Galvani had recently caused dismembered frog’s legs to jump by the application of an electric charge. The combination of this line of though and its implications, along with other late-night conversations on the writing of horror fiction, was the genesis of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. On of the myths that has grown around this story is that the group had seen a presentation of Karl Kapek’s play, R.U.R.. and that had spurred Shelley’s creative muse, but even passing research shows that Kapek’s influential work (it’s credited for coining the word “robot”) wasn’t presented until almost a century later. Nevertheless, Shelley was obviously influenced by the new advances of science over mysticism and from that she wrote a novel that has been as influential for our time as any of Shakespeare’s plays.

Comparing the actual novel to the popular zeitgeist of it is enlightening. Shelley was able to tap into themes that would resonate into our world of biotechnology and computer science as well, if not better, than William Gibson would be able to prefigure global corporations, world wide computer networks, and economic feudalism that would occur a mere twenty-five years later. In the book, Victor Frankenstein is a dedicated experimenter trying to unlock the mystery of death- surely the ultimate goal of medical science that we still ascribe to. Unfortunately, as the subtitle The Modern Prometheus foreshadows, he is brought low by his quest to control powers over life and death that only the Gods have dominion over. Isaac Asimov talked at length about the influence of Frankenstein in this aspect. He said that his own novels about robots, which remain the most influential in the realm of artificial intelligence and may go down in history for all time as the most influential with the advent of Honda’s ASIMO robot, were a direct response to both Shelley’s and Kapek’s dour visions of the consequences of making a humaniform intelligence that is both more powerful and smarter than humanity. Shelley was not unkind to the experimenter trying to expand the boundaries of both technology and human longevity. Her Victor Frankenstein is not so much the ‘mad scientist’ of popular wisdom but instead himself a victim of trying to control forces beyond the purview of man. Asimov tried to balance this with his three laws of robotics but latter day movies such as THE TERMINATOR and THE MATRIX show that humans have an unrelenting fear that they may be sowing the seeds of their own destruction in their endless pursuit of technological advancement. Indeed, an entire philosophy had grown up in the computer science community that the next evolutionary step in the history of earth may not be biological, but rather the successor of mankind may be of his own devising.

But as a novel, aside from the themes of unintended consequences and scientific hubris, Frankenstein is not well written. The plot is better than one would know from the movie adaptations that have been made. Most of those give short shrift to Victor Frankenstein’s attempt to do right by his creation and the climactic destruction of his creature and himself in the wastes of the Arctic. But Shelly’s writing is clumsy and the structure of the novel is amateurish. Almost nothing happens as the stage is set for the first four chapters and then in the fifth chapter Victor gathers his implements of life around him and re-animates his creature. For the rest of the novel the reader is constantly presented with poor prose and bad staging. Yet the novel’s themes of the modern Prometheus and the misunderstood monster continue to resonate.

At first glance it would seem that we are obsessed with vampires. They have become our alter egos in a society fixated on youth, beauty, and sex. No longer an undead creature that inspires horror and dread, the vampire has become hero, a creature to be envied, completely selfish, living forever by night in a world of sexual conquest. Not even the real life horror of AIDS is enough to squelch our love of what the vampire has come to represent. There are even groups of people who have taken vampirism as a lifestyle choice. But while twenty-somethings may be having veneers put on their teeth to accentuate their canines you don’t see anyone having bolts surgically implanted into their necks. Nobody wants to be an ugly, misunderstood giant that is hated by people in spite of his gentle soul. But the Frankenstein myth remains frightening in a way that Mary Shelley could never have imagined. We no longer fear reanimated dead flesh but the idea that our technology may be the end of us is more real than ever. The Frankenstein monster has become biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and robots and the likelihood that such technologies might cause the end of our civilization or even our species is far greater than the readers of 1818 could have ever imagined.

SCIENCE- Lightning Strikes Twice

Here’s an amazing statistic: of all the people killed by being struck by lightning in the United States between 1995 and 2008, 82% were men! Now, while men have more iron containing molecules in both size and density (men have higher average values of both hemoglobin- the molecule that contains iron and carries oxygen in the blood- and hematocrit- the amount of iron bearing protein per unit volume of blood- in addition to having more blood in total) that’s not the reason they get struck by lightning more often. (And, yes, for those of you paying attention, the reason blood is red is because it’s rusty. The iron in blood combines with oxygen to form iron-oxide. In other words- rust! That’s also why venous blood is blue, the color you think of regular, non-rusty metals as being. It has been deprived of oxygen for use in the cells that blood feeds.) No. The reason most men are struck by lightening by such a wide margin is the same reason they drive fast cars and try to make a lot of money.

And that reason is to get laid.

It seems that the genetic imperative for women is safety. This allows them to care for offspring, since they have a greater reproductive imperative to live so that they can see their children reach adulthood. Children which they have invested nine months in gestation before they are even born. Men, OTOH, have a genetic imperative to impregnate as many mates as possible, so they are far more invested in attracting mates. And that involves impressing women with their bravery. Ergo, men are far more likely to stay out in a little inclement weather rather than show cowardice by running for cover. Thus, they get struck by lightning far more often while pursuing pastimes such as golfing, fishing, and other pursuits where they wave a stick in the air during lightening storms.

Thus men get struck by lightning in a whopping over 4 to 1 ratio to women.

Think about that the next time you are about to bitch that your male co-worker makes more money than you do.

Source- Popular Science, October 2009 issue.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


A quick personal note before launching into a longer, more Halloween-appropriate article.

Sometimes the only way you can know where you’ve been is to get to the end of a journey and turn around. Relationships are often like that. And relationships, like everything else in the universe, are of finite duration. There’s a song I particularly like that was written by Cardew Robinson and Roger Whittaker called The First Hello, The Last Goodbye. The lyrics go:

They say when you gain a lover
You begin to lose a friend
That the end of the beginning’s
The beginning of the end
They say the moment that you’re born
Is when you start to die
And the first time that we said hello
Began our last goodbye

We know each summer’s coming
Means the winter’s waiting there
And gold would not be precious
If we all had gold to spare
You only know how low is low
The first time that you fly
And the first time that we said hello
Began our last goodbye

If I could live forever
It is certain I would never know
Another single second so sublime
At the moment of our meeting
When our hands first touched in greeting
How I wanted to hold back the hands of time

When they begin the overture
They start to end the show
When you said: I’ll never leave you
Then I knew that you would go
The sound of all our laughter
Is now echoed in a sigh
And the first time that we said hello
Began our last goodbye

Yesterday I had to tell the woman who is and forever will be the love of my life that I was divorcing her. It isn’t because I don’t love her. I’m as crazy in love with her as I’ve ever been. But there comes a time when you have to give up. I truly believe that the opposite of love isn’t hate. Love and hate sit too close together. No, the opposite of love is fear. Love is brave enough to be vulnerable, giving for the sheer joy of pleasing, intoxicating as any narcotic, consuming like a fire. Fear is protective, greedy, sober. Love is expansive while fear turns inward. Love throws caution to the wind. Fear is caution when none is needed. Love can be the most painful thing in life. Fear avoids pain at all cost.

I’m not going to go into the specifics of my relationship. But looking back at it as I am now from the end, I do have a graphic representation that pretty much explains why I have to finally give up in spite of all the love I have for her.

No matter how much Charlie Brown loves the idea that Lucy is eventually going to do the right thing, sooner or later he’s going to give up. You can only be lied to so many times.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog reprise

The Return of Dr. Horrible

I’ve been remiss on the blog at not mentioning the Emmys, or more especially a particular segment of the Emmys. I’ve mentioned Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog here previously. I have to say that my fondness for this little 45 minute musical has only grown in the intervening months. In fact, I’d have to say that it’s probably my favorite thing that I’ve found on the net this year. The songs are catchy and well sung. The performances are spot on. The humor is truly funny (not the sad clown antics of Will Ferrel, the retarded man-child humor of Adam Sandler, or the Charlie Brown shtick of Ben Stiller) and grows naturally out of character and situation. And it makes fun of a few things I hold dear- geek culture* and silly romanticism. If you haven’t seen it yet- Shame On You! Go to the previous link and watch it right now. You’ll be glad you did. And if you have but you missed the Emmys, here is the funniest thing in a very entertaining broadcast (for an awards show).

(For those not in the know, I’ll explain a couple of the geekier jokes. (Hey, explaining the obvious is what this blog is all about!) Fill(Capt. Hammer)ion’s comment about CSI: Miami is because he’s currently starring in a show on another network at the same time. It’s titled Castle and I can’t comment on it because I haven’t seen it. Dr. Horrible actually won the Emmy for “Outstanding Special Class - Short-format Live-Action Entertainment Programs” whatever-the-hell-that-means. (It also won a People’s Choice Award.) “Athletic yet luminous hosts” is NPH (figure it out, couch monkey) referring to himself, the host of the Emmys. And at least two (I don’t know how many you actually see on the net) of the pauses for buffering were in the actual Emmys telecast (it was a joke, see?).

Whedon (apologies for spelling it wrong all over the first post on the subject) has said there will be a sequel and that there might even be a movie. I can only hope, since it’s the best thing he or any of the cast has ever done as far as I’m concerned.

*I had a conversation about the terms “geek” and “nerd” with a good friend a few years ago and realized that even though they have become synonymous in common parlance the actual meanings have somehow reversed. I attribute this to the movie REVENGE OF THE NERDS for some reason that I can’t back up. For the record. Geek is the term for a social outcast with antisocial habits. It comes from carnival geeks who were known for biting the heads off chickens in sideshows. Nerd is a term for someone who is also a social outcast but shows unusual single-minded expertise in science or technology. It was actually invented by Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, in his book “If I Ran the Zoo” published in 1950.

Where else can you get such an encyclopedic knowledge of useless facts? I may not be able to remember my own phone number if asked, but if I’ve read it in a book thirty years ago I’ll never forget it.

POLITICS- The Public Option is Dead; Long Live the Public Option

The Public Option is dead. And the Democrats killed it. Even though it was their idea.

The Democrats have a real problem. In the wake of their recent actions on health care- the destruction of the public option, the protection of the insurance industry by mandates and giving government sanction to the disavowal of claims, and their collusion with big Pharma to make sure their profit margins are protected- this problem is becoming a catastrophe. Simply put, democrats aren’t morons. Republicans have solved this problem by expunging anyone with an IQ higher than their age from their voting block. As a result they can depend on their constituents to do things like support paying bonus money to banking industry thieves in spite of their having decimated both the retirement accounts and the value of the homes of those very supporters. They can expect their voters to riot against a president trying to give them health care because it’s too expensive after spending a decade defending massive spending on insane wars and cutting taxes on the people who profit from the economy most. They can somehow convince their mostly fundamentalist Christian followers that government torture, the very method used to kill their savior, is something to support and glorify while at the same time convincing them that taking care of the common good and including the poorest members of that society- something that very savior espoused at length- is the height of evil.

If only the Democrats could have enlisted the dumbest people in the country to their side first!

But unfortunately they didn’t. And unfortunately they took power and decided that they could continue with business as usual, the exact same business the Republicans are engaged with, of selling our government to the wealthy and powerful. I guess they thought that the people who elected them were exactly as blind to their own expectations and best interests as the Republican supporters at the tea parties. They thought that their supporters wouldn’t notice that, in spite of having a majority and then a supermajority, they weren’t really interested in passing the very legislation they had run on. (Hey, the Republicans have been running on things like prayer in schools and criminalization of abortion for decades without having anyone realize they never did squat about either.) They thought that their members would be willing to accept piss poor legislation that didn’t fix anything but instead only solidified the status quo rather than losing to the ‘other side’. (After all, the Republicans had called gutting industry air pollution mandates the “Clean Skies Initiative” and passed huge health care giveaways to big Pharma, in spite of their small government talk, as the Medicare Drug Benefit.) Ah yes. The shuck and jive that the Republicans had sold for years was the way they thought they’d deal with health care, blaming the other side for everything while they screwed their own supporters deeper and harder then ever, and that nobody would notice that their calls for bipartisanship were merely a plea for the Republicans to bail them out of having to do what they had said.

But unfortunately for the Democrats, their supporters aren’t brainless nitwits who are motivated by the same kind of fervor that allows sports fans to support teams in their home towns in spite of decades of disappointment. Their supporters aren’t religious zealots who have abandoned reason in favor of the same understanding of the natural world as desert dwellers 4000 years ago. The majority of citizens who elected the Democrats those few short months ago aren’t committed to the party and it’s current members the way Southern bigots are committed to hating the fags, blacks, and uppity women they feel the other party is comprised of. No, the democrats won because so many Americans were tired of being lied to while their democratic government acted as if they had been appointed by the Plutocrats who were making campaign contributions.

We aren’t any less tired of it now, Democrats. And we aren’t going to support you no matter how badly you serve our interests. Too bad.

The current state of the two parties are like the Pepsi Challenge- choose between two worthless products that are bad for your health and will take your teeth if you let them.

MOVIES- Pauline Kael

In case you aren’t a student of film history, Pauline Kael was one of the most influential critics of film in its history. She came on the scene just as film was entering a period as the dominant American art form, writing for bastions of American literary tradition such as McCalls, The New Republic, and The New Yorker magazine. She attempted to bring film criticism to the level of criticism of literature or art- a scholarly examination of a creator’s attempt to create art that was complexly satisfying. In fact, she lost her job at McCalls for panning the saccharine THE SOUND OF MUSIC as the high fructose corn syrup that it was long before the chemical sweetener had become a staple of the American diet. She would inspire latter day critics such as Roger Ebert that film criticism might actually elevate the art form, and was no doubt an influence on Gary Groth when he founded The Comics Journal to do the same thing to a new medium that he loved.

I’ve been reading abridged versions of Pauline Kael’s movie reviews for the last two nights and I have to say that, in spite of her historical importance, based solely on her writing, she makes a good example of why film critics are considered both superfluous and irritating more often than enlightening. Getting past the New Yorker’s wildly pretentious style (and even though she was criticized for being ‘too lowbrow’ for the magazine- how times have changed!), her reviews of movies that have stood the test of time are rooted deeply in the periods of her life when she was in touch with the zeitgeist- the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s. But as she grows older she gets more and more out of step with the culture and thus the art of movies until one has to wonder if she’s just an anachronism that has burned out on cinema, or an old woman who was a bitch to start with and has grown crabbier and crabbier with age. Perhaps the point of no return was Renata Alder’s review of her compilation of reviews When the Lights Go Down in which it was said that her work after the 1960’s contained "nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility," In typical faux revolutionary obsequence to fallen idols, derided this twenty years later. Obviously without looking at the reviews in question.

The straw that broke the camel’s back (and drove me to write this) was a phrase in her review of John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982): “Carpenter seems indifferent to whether we can tell the characters apart; he apparently just wants us to watch the apocalyptic devastation.” It seems almost impossible to believe that someone who spent their life watching and writing about movies could make such a completely oblivious statement. It’s almost like she wrote the review without seeing the movie.

The other thing that leaps out about Kael’s reviews is that there are damn few movies she likes. It’s the writing of a deeply cynical person, and that’s coming from someone who usually considers cynicism a virtue. Not so much in this case. Reading her reviews makes one think of music criticism written by someone who’s tone deaf or reading literary critique by someone who had their love of books quashed by spending too many years studying them in college. She sees sarcasm where none was intended. And she sometime misses the entire point of a movie. The irony is that she’s a caricature of movie critics herself. She decries bad writing while her writing is clumsy to the point of being almost indecipherable. She faults directors while exhibiting almost no narrative flow in her own prose. She, for fuck’s sake, can’t tell that John Carpenter spent almost the first hour of THE THING trying to establish the characters before the real monster shenanigans started! Yet she calls the 1951 version “wonderfully well staged” and “naturalistic”. Yeah. James Arness, Sheriff Matt Dillon for over twenty years on the television show GUNSMOKE dressed as a giant space potato is “naturalistic”.

Putting all that aside, there are movie insights here. Kael spent her life living in Hollywood and writing about movies, and obviously has an excellent education in literary criticism. She rightly intuits that The World According to Garp is about mutilation rather than sex (either the act or the gender). Instead of fawning over the scope of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns she comments that the director can’t do anything else- even scenes shot in small 19th century hotel rooms look cavernous, as if they were cathedrals (something parodied, whether knowingly or unconsciously in the first indoor scenes of Tarentino’s GLORIOUS BASTERDS). She acknowledges that the main cinematic idea in George Lucas’ STAR WARS was pace rather than special effects. She spots Mel Brooks YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN as being far more coherent than BLAZING SADDLES and thus Brooks’ best comedy. (And I’ll give her props for at least realizing that David Lynch’s movie ERASERHEAD is about a man’s sexual history, something many people who see the admittedly obtuse movie often miss). True, she did champion some movies that later were understood to be seminal- Altman’s NASHVILLE and MASH and Walter Hills THE WARRIORS, but truthfully I have to say that after reading a couple hundred reviews I was left with almost no new ideas about the movies she reviewed or movies in general.

There are basically two kinds of movie reviewers: those who simply recommend a movie because they liked it or didn’t (unfortunately most, your friends included), and those who attempt to illuminate a creator’s vision by expanding on themes and uncovering connections not obviously apparent. The former are usually disdained by the very people they write for as being unnecessary and irritating, since their readers are trying to decide what movie to see and probably already have a pretty good idea what they think they’ll like. And because their reviews are padded by plot summaries and rarely contain more than passing reference to what the movie actually has to offer since they are hobbled by not being able to discuss anything that might actually be interesting in the movie for fear of giving it away- the SPOILER ALERT syndrome. The latter are best read after having actually seen the movie. Like literary criticism, they are a discussion of a work, not a recommendation of it. Plot summaries have no place in this kind of reviewing, if you are unfamiliar with the work then the review probably won’t mean anything to you. The two are as different as telling a friend to go to a movie and having a conversation with a friend just after you’ve seen a movie together. Kael falls firmly into the second category, but falls with such a splat that one wonders if her impact was due more to her magazine’s importance that her own.