FILM REVIEW: The Lego Movie

From "The Lego Movie"

by Adam Davis

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” has been used at least since 1860. A hundred and fifty-four years later — and after being the moral of a great many works of literature and cinema, especially children’s and family cinema — the phrase might seem cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. For example, The Lego Movie seemed destined by its very nature to be a one-joke film; a feature-length toy commercial passing itself off as a low-quality comedy where all the jokes essentially amounted to “ha, these people are minifigures and their world is made of Lego, isn’t that silly?” (for those not in the know, “minifigure is the Lego Group’s term for the small plastic people that come with sets of Lego pieces). That’s not to say that such jokes aren’t present, that they aren’t funny, or that the Lego Group isn’t capitalizing of the film’s success, but the film has more to offer for 90 minutes than just a single joke and constant marketing.

[Image at the top of this post: Emmet — a minifigure character.]

Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is one of the many generic construction worker minifigures who populate Bricksburg, a city made entirely of Lego bricks. Bricksburg is quickly established as a highly conformist dystopia (everyone buys the same overpriced coffee (over $30), watches the same dopey tv sitcom (“Where Are My Pants”) and listens to the same catchy pop song (“Everything Is Awesome”) where the general public never question their tyrannical leader President Business (Will Ferrell). Conformist even by Bricksburg’s standards and viewed by his co-workers as completely generic, Emmet is lonely and friendless until he discovers a mysterious Lego brick called the “Piece Of Resistance”

Suddenly, a woman named Wyldstyle comes into his life and mistakes him for a prophesized figure called “The Chosen.” The wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freemen) claims that whoever finds the Piece Of Resistance is The Chosen; the most talented, important, and interesting person in existence and the person who can help the “Master Builders” free the Lego universe from President Business, so Wyldstyle quickly recruits the bewildered Emmet into the resistance.

The Master Builders, it turns out, are minifigures capable of disassembling the Lego bricks of anything around them and reassembling them into everything else. Aside from Wyldstyle and Vitrivius, the other Master Builders all seem to be characters that the Lego Group really has made minifigures of (i.e. almost every family friendly character you can think of), including Gandalf, Dumbledore, Milhouse, Shakespeare, the 2002 NBA All-Stars, an Abraham Lincoln with a rocket-powered chair, and various assorted DC comics superheroes. These individuals prove much less pivotal to the film than trailers might have viewers believe, and our heroes are unable to count on them for help. Thus it’s up to Emmet, Wyldstyle, Vitruvius, Batman (Will Arnett), a cheery unicorn named Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie), a pirate with a robot body named Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), and someone simply named “80s Space Guy” (Charlie Day) to travel other worlds made of Lego bricks on a quest to attach the Piece Of Resistance to Lord Business’ super weapon “the kragle” (a tube of crazy glue) before he uses it to glue everyone in place forever.

With the enormous success of Disney films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, other major studios jumped back into animation in 1990s. Initially it was animation of the 2d hand-drawn variety – including all but one of the films created by the short-lived division Warner Brothers Feature Animation – whether it was drawn using pencil and paper or computer software. With the rise Pixar, many other studios quickly switched to over to 3d computer animation and found great success there, but WBFA’s one attempt at a film with 3d animated characters (Looney Tunes: Back In Action) bombed and forced the division’s closure.

Since then, WB’s animated output has consisted of tv shows (almost all about Looney Tunes or characters WB has acquired) and direct-to-video Scooby-Doo and Tom and Jerry films. Then, last year, they created an animation “think tank” to develop ideas for animated films to be written in-house and animated by outside studios. In the meantime, the Lego Group has produced films for the small screen (both the TV and direct-to-video markets) since 2001, generally based on licensed properties (such as Monty Python And The Holy Grail In Lego and Lego Marvel Superheroes: Maximum Overload) but sometimes on in-house creations instead (such as the Clutch Powers and Bionicle franchises). Lego Movie is a good return to theatrical animation for Warner Brothers and a good theatrical debut for Lego, and we should be grateful to both of those companies and co-producers Lin Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and Vertigo Entertaiment for bringing it to the screen.

The computer animation by Animal Logic (a company also responsible for the animation of other cg films like Legend Of The Guardians: Owls of Ga’Hoole and the visual effects for a diverse array of live-action titles including The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Great Gatsby) looks fantastic. The plastic texture of the characters and their world look much more believable than in cheaper Lego productions, and the cgi blends seamlessly with the stop-motion that’s purportedly in there at certain points (at all times, the characters are deliberately animated to move in the jerky fashion one would expect from a completely stop-motion animated Lego film). The voice work imbues life into these characters, particularly Chris Pratt’s likeably enthusiastic portrayal of Emmet, Will Arnett’s amusingly over-the-top grim voice for Batman, Morgan Freemen combining his authoritative voice with a dry delivery of blunt lines for a hilarious Vitruvius and Liam Nesson’s deep voice giving threatening dialogue delivery for President Business’ henchmen Bad Cop. The writing mixes parody of standard fantasy stories about a “chosen one” who will save the world with some genuinely sweet and moving character drama (such as Emmet’s sad desperation to feel special) that creates a more unique tone that a pure parody or drama would have (even if it does skew towards more comedy than drama because, well, it’s a Lego movie). The comedy is childlike without being childish, which is infectious and a big part of the fun of watching the film.

Is it possible the film is getting more praise than it otherwise would because critics and parents went in with understandably low expectations? Certainly. Is it a perfect story? Not quite. Characters like Wyldstyle and Vitruvius don’t leave as strong an impression as they should, and a plot twist near the end becomes a tad bit confusing if you think about it too hard. Nevertheless, there is a great deal more good than bad here, and anyone who is a child or hasn’t abandoned their inner child and can still enjoy goofy family films should have a blast watching this.

The Ryder ● March 2014

The Correspondence Club Of Bloomington

CCofB

◆ by Hannah Waltz

Addison Rogers assumes his station beside an open briefcase stuffed to the brim with postcards, festive stationary, stamps, and writing utensils. A makeshift mailbox labeled “Correspondence Club of Bloomington” sits among the post supplies, announcing the Club’s business. Twice a week Rogers sets up shop in a downtown café—today he’s at Soma—encouraging customers to write a bit of snail mail. A man at a nearby table asks him what he’s doing. Rogers makes his pitch.

Picture 2

Addison Rogers

“This is a correspondence club,” he says. “I’m just trying to get people to write more.” Rogers’ motives are clear and simple, but to what end? Although it’s still getting its wheels turning, the Correspondence Club of Bloomington celebrates snail mail and the underappreciated tangibility of a handwritten letter. “There are people who have said that I’m trying to revive this dying thing, but I don’t think it’s dying. I think it continues. It’s still really cool having something in your hand that someone else had in theirs.”

The Club is held on Tuesdays at different locations where Rogers invites customers to pop a squat and write a postcard or two. In last meeting of 2013, the Club sent 35 pieces of mail into the postal current, reaching a new record for one session.

“I’ve got about 10 to 15 regulars. It’s been mostly friends so far but I’ve also managed to get a few strangers to sit down and write,” says Rogers. The Club has no regular attendance rules or membership requirements—it’s virtually obligation free. That being said, Rogers does encourage his “members” to make writing and sending snail mail a habitual activity. “I’ve been calling them members. There’s actually a debate as to what makes a member of the Club. I say you’re a member if you drop something in the box.” No hidden fees (except stamps). No cheesy t-shirts. Just written word, from one human to another.

The first “official” meeting in September of 2013 doubled as both a launch party and as a collective birthday gift. “I’d been wanting to do this for years,” says Rogers. “I just kept talking about it, and my friends said they would be into it. So this year I decided it was a good way to mark my birthday, September third. So I said ‘Don’t get me anything for my birthday, just come participate in the Club.’”

Jessika Griffin, friend of Rogers and frequenter of the Club, has never been in the habit of writing or sending things via snail mail, until now. “The only time I ever wrote to anyone was when I was at summer camp, and my mom sent me stationery.” says Griffin.

CCofB CCofB

But Rogers proffers the CCB as a more personalized option for reaching out than what has become the preferred way to communicate, i.e. email. Or Facebook message. Or even Skyping. Alternatively, the Correspondence Club takes the technology-free, time-consuming approach in an almost nostalgic fashion. No, it’s not the most efficient way to correspond; in fact, it’s fairly antiquated. While most participants have shown their fervent support for the Club, Rogers has also encountered those who see his efforts as fruitless. A man at Soma quips that “we already write more than we want to.” Given the age of technology and convenience in which we find ourselves, this less-than-enthusiastic attitude isn’t surprising. Yet it seems to yield more pleasure to both the writer and the recipient of a letter or postcard than, say, an email written in generic Times New Roman.

“I get a nice little zing and a smile when I open my mailbox and see my name handwritten by someone I know and that cares enough to write,” says Rogers. “I don’t disparage people who don’t write. It takes a moment and there are a few steps to the process. But I hope with the Correspondence Club I can show people that the reward far surpasses the effort.”

A mailman walks into Soma, just minutes after we begin the interview, and a chuckling Rogers waves off his arrival as coincidence, but he’s also sipping from a mug that sports the United States Postal Service emblem. They greet each other and Rogers updates him on the goings-on of the Club–two men of similar trades in a small town talking shop. “He’s even given me a couple of tricks to get people writing,” says Rogers. “He sends comics to his nephews in installments, and, if they want the second half to see what happens, they have to send him a letter back.”

Rogers’ own history with the U.S. Postal Service kicked off with his family’s monthly subscription to Radio AHHS, a music magazine for kids. During his childhood he always looked forward to the issue’s delivery straight to his mailbox, an excitement that inspired him to begin a correspondence of handwritten letters to a cousin. “She lived in Arizona and we kept in touch that way. Now she’s like, ‘We wrote each other?’ But it meant a lot to me.”

In a sense, the Club keeps alive Rogers’ childhood affinity for postcards—his briefcase threatens to overflow with them. Having eventually matured into a pretty hefty assemblage, Rogers estimates that about a third of his current stock was acquired in his younger years. “I always collected postcards, I don’t know why,” says Rogers. “They’re just everywhere, or at least they used to be. They aren’t as readily available as they once were.” These days Rogers is in the habit of buying postcards anywhere he can find them. Salvation Army and the Opportunity House are among his favorite places to scavenge. “In the two months before I started the Club, I decided I’d start collecting stationary. It gives me a good excuse to pick up stuff from [the Opportunity House],” says Rogers.

This past October, Rogers promoted the Chicago-based South Side Letter Writing Club’s initiative called “31 Postcards in 31 Days” to encourage Bloomingtonians to hang out and write postcards at his selected locales. “I found this collection with old photos of Indiana from the 1950s that I really wanted people to use. I think people like to write on postcards that are local.”

Other projects around the world feed into to this snail mail movement that Rogers is supporting. For example, an enterprise similar to the Correspondence Club called Postcrossing specifically facilitates postcard exchanges all around the world from one participant to another random participant. A Google search for “pen pals” provides hundreds of sites in which aspiring pen pals can exchange addresses, even internationally. Clearly Rogers is not alone in his efforts to encourage old-fashioned, handwritten correspondence, no matter how thwarting the Internet may be.

Another week, another CCB meeting, another venue. This week Rogers sets up shop at a booth in the Owlery. His briefcase and plastic red lunchbox advertise his stationery while he waits for people to come write, dressed to the nines in a corduroy blazer, even sporting a pocket square. The waiters come and go, allowing him to do his thing for a couple of hours. Friends and strangers alike pick out stationery from the briefcase or a postcard out of his lunchbox, then deposit them into his mailbox for Rogers to feed into the U.S. mail. The convenience and ease of this seemingly archaic process and Rogers’ jolly personality keep people interested and supportive of his project.

For members who cannot recall any addresses offhand, Rogers has compiled a list of addresses volunteered by willing recipients, to which members can choose to send something in hopes of starting a dialogue with a stranger. Why not send a card to an unknown addressee? “It’s been awesome getting addresses of random people,” says Griffin. “In fact, I just sent something to a stranger.” Rogers nods his head in agreement. “Even if you don’t know who you’re receiving it from, it’s just nice to receive something, that’s not junk mail or a bill.”

In 2011 Rogers signed up for a Redditgifts account and has since been sending and receiving small gifts and letters from other users around the world. “It started with a Secret Santa exchange as far as I can tell, and that’s how I got involved,” says Rogers of Redditgifts. “I technically am a Guinness World Record holder through that first exchange I participated in. They set a record that year for the biggest secret Santa exchange to have happened.”

Rogers continued participating in Redditgifts and developed a steady habit of sending packages and letters in the mail. He has also received some cool international knickknacks in his own mailbox. “So far I’ve gotten gifts from China, Singapore, and Canada,” says Rogers. “I got something called a chapthe from Singapore, which the person described as an Asian hackysack with feathers.”

Rogers’ involvement in Redditgifts prompted him to advertise the Club on the Reddit Penpals page, which wound up yielding several international mailing addresses that Club members can choose. The Club recently hit the one hundred mark: one hundred pieces of mail, both letters and postcards, have been sent from Bloomington to recipients all over the country and several internationally to countries including England and Lithuania.

When he’s not running the Correspondence Club or working at Plan Nine Film Emporium, Rogers is all about music. He and his brother Lewis form the Bloomington-based band Busman’s Holiday, Rogers on the drums, his brother on guitar. They tag-teamed the songwriting process and have played as a duo for the past three years, but in the past the band often performed with accompanying guests. The brothers celebrated ten years of playing together in 2013. Generally the band avoids playing at too many bars; instead they prefer the “DYI scene” at house shows and art spaces. “At one point we were selling the band’s merch out of a suitcase too,” says Rogers. “We would sell cassette tapes and trading cards from Salvation Army and say ‘Even if you don’t like our music, we’re still offering tapes and trading cards!’” Busman’s Holiday will release a new album, A Long Goodbye, in April through the Indianapolis record label Joyful Noise.

Quite the versatile musician, Rogers traveled overseas in 2011 on Jens Lekman’s tour, a Swedish musician signed on Secretly Canadian. During this time he drummed and sang with Lekman for two weeks in the U.S. followed by two more weeks in Europe. No surprise, Rogers collected many postcards in his time abroad, which are now up for grabs in his lunchbox.

While munching on a bowl of french fries and buffalo sauce, Rogers reflects on his personal goals for the Club. “I just want people to write more often and more consistently. Mail is a very personal way to communicate. You feel charmed when you find a piece of mail sent from someone you know. At the very least, your grandmother would love to hear from you. Club members have consistently given their best to their grandmas,” says Rogers. “Oh, and there’s half-price pitchers at the Runcible Spoon on Sunday nights, so don’t drunk-dial. Write a postcard instead. It’s a great way to show people that you’re thinking of them. We should hold on to a piece of this fantastic culture.”

When and Where?

The Club is held twice on Tuesday and Thursday: the afternoon session runs from 2 to 4 p.m., and the late session runs from 8 to 10 p.m., at a variety of locations. The CCB meets at the Rainbow Bakery on the first Tuesday of the month, Soma on the second Tuesday, the Runcible Spoon on the third; on the fourth Tuesday of the month the Correspondence Club could be almost anywhere. The first Sunday night of the month, meetings are held at the Runcible Spoon at 7 p.m. About that fourth Tuesday: the best way to keep current with the Club is on Facebook. The page is public; you can check it without having a fb profile.

Sidebar: Top 5 Pop Songs About Letters

  • The Boxtops The Letter
  • Fats Waller & BillyWilliams I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter
  • The Marvelettes Please Mr. Postman
  • Stevie Wonder Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)
  • The Zombies Care of Cell 44
  • Honorable mention: Allan Sherman Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah

The Ryder ◆ February 2014

 

 

 

 

 

The Man And Me

Clockwork 50

The Various Lives of Anthony Burgess ● by Brandon Cook

Back in October, David Bowie published his 100 Must Reads in what The Guardian referred to as “the next chapter… in the well-known David Bowie story.” Is it really that well known? The glam rocker-cum-Space Oddity, cum-Ziggy Stardust-cum neoclassicist-cum “best-dressed Briton in history isn’t exactly basic textbook material. No one thought to mention this, nor why anyone still cared about finding out about it, but the narrative was the same everywhere: rockers can read.

This is evidently surprise enough to merit Big News, although what exactly was read is little more than the stuff of middle-aged book club frequenters. Bowie’s list — although graciously deficient from the bourgeois literature touted from many journalistic and celebrity top reads — held a ranking that surprised no one. There are trending or trended novels by Junot Diaz and Ian McEwan, histories, and lots of books about music.

Reading through the list, I discovered two entries that startled me. These were A Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers, both by Anthony Burgess. One of these is somewhat unknown in the Western canon while the other is relished today, although less for literary merit than for the fact that it was made into an explicit film in which Stanley Kubrick gets away with showing full nudity in the early 70s.

Book Cover

This inclusion of Burgess is not groundbreaking. It’s quite inevitable. Most of us have probably read A Clockwork Orange and reacted with similar blends of shock or praise or confusion. Fewer of us have returned to the novel and laughed out loud, or shaken out heads in silent disbelief that a writer can pack Russian and Beethoven and gang rape and quips paraphrased from James Joyce’s Ulysses into a novel less than three hundred pages long. Even fewer of us realize that Burgess needed only three weeks and thousands of cigarettes to pound out those less-than-three-hundred pages. None of us, having known or experienced any of the above, walk away from Clockwork without an opinion.

I like to pride myself as a cut away from the crowd when I confess to not only being the reader described above, but a reader so obsessed with the name Burgess that any mention of the former makes me go weak in the knees. Hence my being startled in seeing the name next to Bowie’s. I imagine that many readers experience a similar phenomenon when they have been married to a writer as long as I have been married to Burgess.

Burgess

Burgess

But I am not so coy that I cannot admit my love as the fan boy obsession it really is. The almost daily studies I’ve done for nearly a decade are as involved as reading critical approaches to Burgess’s modernism, to as light as briefing articles about his opinions on the Eurovision song contest. I confess a paranoid difficulty in making an opinion for which I have not first consulted the author. Nothing yielding in Burgess’s books or articles, I take an uncomfortable stab at originality and remain dissatisfied with the result for days. In the event of a successful find, I quote the writer feverishly — it was him who taught me useless words like “confabulation,” “concaptian,” “Manichean”—and revel in this brand of surrogate intellectualism.

Like the squirt of ketchup applied to a basket of fries, Burgess has become my necessary mental condiment.

Out of the context of his books or articles, Burgess’s name flashed on something as insignificant as a celebrity reading list guarantees me of the writer’s immortality. People do not take these things lightly. It also insures my own sanity as one of the few who still clings to a writer most other readers see as homely, elitist, pedantic, dry, old-fashioned, unforgivably British.

Burgess would have objected. He most certainly was not British. The British people were educated in Cambridge and Oxford and lived their lives in Burberry and London. He was from Manchester, and his people were salt-of-the-earth Mancunians. Their ancestors had scraped off a living in the cotton mills that pockmark the city; had drank their pints and smoked their cigarettes in its ugly pubs, and dammit but wouldn’t their children do the same. But Burgess was proud to call Manchester his home — so proud that after completing his military service in 1946 he turned tail and never returned.

On a stormy Friday night in October, I puddle-hopped from Dublin to Manchester airport for a weekend pilgrimage. My destination was the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, a impressive name that conjures visions of a collegiate estate where academics drink tumblers of Bombay Sapphire and discuss in Nadsat the merits of Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh. The Foundation is relatively new but it boasts an impressive online blog and a superbly narrated podcast that can only be faulted for having produced only episodes. Having contacted the institute weeks before to arrange my visit at the private reading library, I considered myself something of a guest of honor.

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation is not a collegiate estate. If you walk down Manchester’s central Oxford Road, take the narrow side street advised to you by your hostel receptionist, pass beneath the overpass, hug the path next to the rusted fence, and continue straight ahead until you see the decommissioned smokestacks in the distance, you may pass a smallish building on your left whose squareness and eye-popping red resemble a Lego castle you engineered in your youth. You may wonder if this is really the place that boasts the scholarship of one of the twentieth century’s cleverest intellectuals and most celebrated man-of-letters and then you will see the inscription on the building’s glass façade:

Literature is not easy but without Literature we are lost.

Greetings do not get more ominous than this. Hell might as well have employed Burgess to write the “abandon all hope.” The words are filled with typical Burgessisms: ironic understatement — “not easy” must be how Burgess described his output of two thousand words, every day for thirty-three years; “lost” is probably shorthand for “royally fucked” — ; snappy brevity; a theme of intellect-as-hero.
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Like Dante, I paused only to admire the words before I stepped inside. Or tried to. Ten minutes past closing time and the door was still locked. I waited until someone on the inside opened the door for me, looking apologetic but confused. The Foundation didn’t usually get visitors so early, he told me.

It is a cliche to say that stepping into the building was like stepping into another world. Nevertheless, I pardon myself for having used it. This was Burgess’s world. Like a reminder of the city he abandoned, the grey, cold, Manchester morning seethed agains the windows—inside, the wallpaper was the burnt-orange color of an Asiatic sunset. There were books in five languages stacked in shelves on one wall, a bar on the other styling a beer called (what else?) “Earthly Powers,” and a Steinway I could just make out in the room adjacent.

It was all here — Burgess’s polylingual erudition, his career as an expatriate in the colorful Asian Pacific, his lifelong passion for music, his vice of good alcohol matched only by his vice for cigarettes (matched only by his vice for sex). And in the as-yet waking hours of the morning, despite the promises of the man who had let me inside that someone would be there to help me, it was utterly bare. “To be left alone is the most precious thing one can ask of the modern world,” I would have been reminded.

Seldom would the writer have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of his own advice. After his war career, Burgess took a job supervising youngsters at an English grammar school. Never the kind of teacher to hold a job, he held several: supervising sports, teaching literature, and organizing drama productions, as well as submitting occasional articles to a local newspaper. But England was weighing on him and he was growing depressed. His nights were spent getting drunk on cheap cider and filling out other teaching applications.

Once, he received a letter informing him that he had been accepted into the British Colonial Service as a teacher in Malaya. This confused Burgess. He could not recall applying for the British Colonial Service as a teacher in Malaya. He wired back: I did not apply for this position. The British Colonial Service replied: You are expected to fulfill the position. Burgess again: Oh no I won’t. The British Colonial Service: Oh yes you will.

Burgess concluded later that he was most certainly drunk when he submitted his application. As is so often the case in his life, the sheer chance of the incident, its humor and outrageousness seem to be scenes that only the writer could have written. Reality, it seems, is always the ultimate fiction. But that didn’t stop Burgess from trying to rival his reality by dramatizing the events of his life for his novels and later for his autobiography. Authenticity is a problem with the author only if you really do care about the truth, which more often than not you don’t. Burgess was a compulsive liar with a writing problem.

Still he must have simmered on the inside knowing that he would never produce a character as original as those that life threw at him. And life threw a lot at him: drinking companions in the form of William Burroughs; a cuckolder in the form of a whining Dylan Thomas; the transvestitic, Malayan servant Yusef — Mohammad in his novel Time For a Tiger — who fell desperately in love with Burgess and then tried to slip him a love potion when his advances weren’t returned.

Malaya also threw what is typically seen as the defining moment of Burgess’s carreer. 1958 saw the writer teaching in Brunei. He was dehydrated from the heat and from excessive drinking, stressed by problems with the wife, and generally irritable: a transvestitic Malayan servant, whose advances hadn’t been returned, was suing the author for libel, despite the fact that the servant was illiterate and couldn’t actually read the offending text. According to Burgess, this was all ample reason to lie down on the floor and close his eyes in frustration.

The authorities and the doctors said something different. They said  ‘collapse.’ They said ‘inoperable brain tumor.’ They said ‘one year to live.’ Burgess, who later revealed that he never really believed this sentence, was nevertheless spooked enough to do something with that one year. Teaching was out of the question — who would contract the dying professor? — as was travel. It was too expensive, and he was going to have a widow who needed providing. What he needed was not a gala or a send-off, but a means of support. Writing was hardly the natural answer yet it fit the criteria. Besides, Burgess had already had early success publishing novels. A stash of books could produce enough royalties to suit his wife, if he produced one, say, every month. Sixty-thousand words for a mid-sized novel was two thousand words a day, every day.
There wasn’t a moment to lose.

The Burgess reading room was like a bomb-proof miniature of the Library of Alexandria. More realistically, it was a basement garage stuffed with the kinds of odd crap people tend to amass over the years. Needless to say, the difference between the Burgess reading room and your garage was that this was not odd crap. This was a wall filled with hundreds of critics’ copies Burgess had reviewed to pay for his gin and to fill the pages of the Manchester Guardian and the Sunday Observer. There was a section containing James Joyce in most European languages and editions of Ulysses dating back to the 1930s; another wall crammed with hundreds of vinyl records of mostly classical music, but also the occasional Beatles record.

Miscellaneous pieces were in helpless abundance: in the corner a harpsichord which I attempted to play; on a table, a jar containing hundreds of old matchbooks. “There is a sense, however, in keeping a bowl of such trophies,” Kenneth Toomey muses in Earthly Powers, “there are addresses and telephone numbers there, as well as a palpable record of travel helpful to an old man’s memory.” Let it be known that Toomey was speaking about these matches.

I set my notebook down on one of the desks, and an inventory of memorabilia I had requested was delivered to me by the museum’s amateur curator — a lovely woman with quick eyes who had taken the position because she needed a job. Aside from A Clockwork Orange, she hadn’t known anything about Burgess before she started.

Perhaps she wouldn’t have taken the job had she known just how massive a sorting Burgess would prove. Those who explore Burgess in any depth are usually bowled over by the sheer amount of stuff  he managed to produce: thirty-three novels, two autobiographies, four biographies, several texts on linguistics, numerous translations, countless reviews (the majority of which remain untranslated from the Italian), and most impressive, a host of musical compositions including several symphonies, now lost.

Perhaps this is a surprise to some. Burgess always considered himself more composer than writer—his artistic career began not with a bang but with the sexy harmonics of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune which he first heard when he was a youngster and which reduced him to tears. He was a determined composer ever since.

A determined composer but, alas, not a very good one. On scratchy cassette reels, we listened to bizarre concertos for harmonica and recorder; fanfares that might have come out of the rubbish piles of Stravinsky or Schönberg’s worst; piano works that quickly got tired of and changed out of their themes the way a girl changes clothes. Some of it was vaguely impressionistic — and here I detected quotes of Debussy — but if it was the stuff of dreams those dreams were troubled and anxious, and filled with visions of lewd sex and violence.

And it was gorgeous. Gorgeous, from the skittish melodies and the atonal exercises and the squeaking repetitions of a recorder solo, because it couldn’t have come from anyone other than Burgess. At its most delightful, Burgess’s work makes no apologies for being bad.

Nor does it ever need to apologize for being rude, for this is what one gets himself into no matter what volume of Burgess he chooses. “I myself am a sort of high-class prostitute,” the author chirped. This would account for why he was never one to shy away from private details even when they weren’t, strictly speaking, necessary to scholarship. His biography of James Joyce, for example, is liable to carry on with an analysis of the language of Finnegan’s Wake and its use of polysyllables to mimic the currents of flowing water before reminding us that oh, and by the way, did you know that Nora Barnacle publicly masturbated Joyce on their first date? On the other hand, you probably won’t find a more bookish, unsexy analysis of Marilyn Monroe anywhere else.

No one ever told the scholar he had to play it safe.

Someone might have told him to at least play it legal, but we can be thankful that if they ever did, Burgess wasn’t listening.

Following the diagnosis of his ‘brain tumor,’ Burgess had managed to produce nearly seven novels. It was suggested to him that in the interests of not flooding the market he should take up a pen name. Joseph Kell was born. Years after the tumor was supposed to have killed him and Burgess, still alive to the disappointment of some, took up a book reviewing position with the Yorkshire Post, Joseph Kell remained a practicing author. A prodigious practicing author, actually, with a new book entitled Inside Mr. Enderby that was to be the first in a trilogy, later quartet.

In 1963, Enderby and a host of other books arrived on Burgess’s doorstep for their fortnightly reviews. The author picked up the Enderby volume from his doorstep, frowning in confusion, before it occurred to him that, ah yes, his publisher was playing a joke on him. Kell and Burgess and Enderby: all caricatures, to a degree, of the real man Anthony, all under the same review, all in the same paper. It was a joke that he wanted apart of.

And so Burgess wrote the review, and the Yorkshire Post published it. “This is, in many ways, a dirty book,” it read. “It is full of bowel blasts and flatulent borborygums, emetic meals… and halitosis. It may make some people sick, and those of my readers with tender stomachs are advised to let it alone.”

Hardly flattering stuff. Burgess was probably pleased with the rather ruthless self-critique. He was probably less pleased when someone at the Post got whiff of the fact that Burgess the reviewer and Kell the author were one and the same. Burgess might have contacted his editor: I was under the impression this was all in good fun.

His editor might have replied: No one was laughing. Burgess again: Oh yes they were. The editor: Oh no they weren’t.

A stuffy, self-important article about the incident confirmed the editor’s opinion. “Pluralistic reviewing is unfortunately also known in those papers and journals which cloak their reviewer’s names in anonymity. But writing revews of one’s own work is not common….” Burgess was promptly canned. The fuddy-duddies won the day.

Need it be said that it was Burgess who won the war? Later, he might have even looked upon his canning as a blessing in disguise meant to boost him out of the world of journalism and into the career of a professional writer.

I hesitate, however, to label Burgess as just the professional writer. “I am a writer, a critic, and a Shakespeare-lover,” he said. This is telling. One cannot forget that Burgess was a great writer on and, occasionally, of literature, but that he was better still at enjoying it and enabling others to enjoy it as well. I label myself as one of those others who came to literature by virtue of Burgess’s guiding hand. It was that hand that I held through Joyce’s Dublin, the same hand that pushed me confidently towards T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Marlowe. It is the guidance of that hand that I remember even now, having long since accepted Burgess’s tenet that art and learning are ends unto themselves, and having determined to uphold the preservation of art for art’s sake.

That hand was big — literally, as I witnessed from the cast replica held in the museum — and figuratively, for it had to hold all the small hands of his disciples. It was with joy that I met some of these flipping through the telegrams and fan-mail Burgess preserved throughout his life.

The range of these correspondences is breathtaking and an article even as rambling as this is too small a space to feature half of what I read: postcards from Angela Carter and Graham Greene; well wishes from Stanley Kubrick; an eerie one-liner from Thomas Pynchon; a veritable letter bomb from Hunter S. Thompson. These were fun.

The fan-mail was astonishing.

Next to the famous names of the Burgess’s contacts, these people were strikingly real. A German student, at odds with his professor over the interpretation of A Clockwork Orange, implored the author for aid: “my success in the English Subject and so my whole school career depends on your answer (I know this sounds very dramatic but unfortunately it is true).” Burgess cleared the confusion and responded heart-fully: “My time is not precious and I have not been wasting it in reading your kind letter.” A different kind of mail, an essay on the Orange from a thirteen-year-old girl, takes to Burgess’s language more readily than it does English: “Alex who is 15 goes around at night with his four droogs crasting and tolshocking (sic) lewdies who they might see there.”

How many of us figure into the days of those we worship? How many of us ever get to see our presence known in the eyes of those that mean the most to us? I imagine most of us, if we factor as presences at all, flash in and out of these lives like faulty light bulbs. I wonder sometimes if this is the paradox of showing devotion, that it interrupts attention but does not move or direct it.

In a lifelong battle against his lungs, Burgess finally won when he destroyed them completely on November 22, 1993. “Each man kills the thing he loves;” but there was nothing about his health that the writer loved. In his youth he was frail and colorblind; in middle-age he was frail and colorblind and probably dyspeptic: a fighting image, if not incarnation, of his poet Enderby.

Still, I cannot help but imagine how the writer would have got on today barring that he had failed to smoke himself out. He’d still be writing, not out of love but out of obsessive-compulsion. He’d dismiss modern music (shopgirl pop), modern film (civilization’s last death rattle) and modern politicians (utilitarian philistines). He’d praise sexual liberality but couldn’t the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show afford a passacaglia or a fantasy impromptu instead of the usual lump of electric muddle?

And I wonder what I would say to Burgess if given the chance. Why did you become a writer? What advice would you offer the younger generation of writers? How the hell did you manage two thousand words a day?

I don’t think so. I’ve read enough Burgess to know what answers the public writer can give me. Ten years ago these answers were my stimulants; now they bore me. The process of worshiping the writer is the process of dissolving the writer until he loses his unimpeachable wonder and becomes, by another miracle, just a man: a man you can love because you can see yourself becoming him later. I’d probably ask Burgess how he avoided paying income tax when he was living abroad.

We spent eight hours in the book vault before emerging for tea. By tea, I mean a pint of IPA and a brownie the size of a hand, or “rooker” in Nadsat. These were indulgences won by hard labor. I had excavated seventy years of art and articles that still hadn’t ever been green-lighted for publication. My fingers bore the smell old carbon copies and telegrams and, dare I say it, a whiff of the writer’s old cigarette smoke?

Taking out my book of notes and beginning to read at my table, I was interrupted by the soft intonation of an accent somewhere near the bar. I confess no good ear for detecting accents, but this was a voice that sounded familiar; I could detect its polish and articulation so very like Burgess’s own, and there was a seductively patrician quality to it: the sort of thing Americans love when they hear a British accent.

I walked to the bar and took a stab at guessing: are you the one I hear narrating the Anthony Burgess Podcast? Indeed, he was the one. I am not ashamed to admit that I gushed — did he know how good those podcasts were? How I listened to each episode twice, three times? How good it was, for the love of Burgess, to know there were other serious devotees out there in the great wide world?

My companion did not know; I probably embarrassed him by bringing it all so gushingly to his attention. I was thanked effusively for my support and told that, yes, it was rather a shame so few people knew about Burgess. The word, nevertheless, was getting out. Books were being published; experts were being consulted; lives would be changed. David Bowie had made a small endorsement. People would have no choice but to see in time.

But all that time could go to the devil for what I cared. For now, I relished the exclusivity. We, who saw this man for his invaluable, intellectual worth where others only deigned to see a dirty book, were but the chosen few. Burgess was ours; he belonged to the world, but it was we few who owned him. We few; we happy few; we band of Burgessians.

[Brandon Cook wishes to thank the International Anthony Burgess Foundation for its support in the writing of this article. He encourages anyone brave enough to holiday in Manchester to visit the Foundation.]

The Ryder ● February 2014

Fixing History

Oppenheimer

Joshua Oppenheimer Screens His Groundbreaking The Act of Killing at IU Cinema ● by Brandon Walsh

War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner, so I can make my own definition.

—Adi Zulkadry

How much of history is fixed, and how can we fix it? Joshua Oppenheimer approaches these questions in The Act of Killing, a frightening up-earthing of one of the largest killings in human history, retold by the men who committed the acts.

[Image atop this post: Director Joshua Oppenheimer.]

Following an attempted 1965 military coup, newly appointed Indonesian dictator Suharto responded with the massacre of at least 500,000 people labeled as communists. Political dissidents, union leaders, landless farmers, intellectuals, ethnic Chinese, and teachers, among others associated with the opposing party, were targeted and killed by the Pancasila Youth party, the Indonesian paramilitary assembled by Suharto. The U.S. government financially backed the insurgents, providing the resources (including weapons) to complete hit lists of identified targets.

Suharto elicited the help of local gangsters known for selling movie tickets on the black market, using the theaters as the base for their operations. These “movie theatre gangsters” were further motivated by a recent boycott of American films; the head of the Motion Picture Association of Indonesia was believed to be a CIA operative attempting to overthrow President Sukarno. Capitalizing on the gangsters’ love of American movies, they were authorized by Suharto to kill, effectively eradicating the grassroots base of the Indonesian left for generations.

Forty-five years later, the gangsters who carried out these killings survive, celebrated in their country as war heroes, happy and open to discuss their glory days. This is where The Act of Killing begins.

The film, a product of five years and 1200 hours of shooting, follows Anwar Congo, a flamboyant character who has an affinity for the films of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and most of all, John Wayne. Anwar recalls leaving the movies, dancing across the street to the building where they would use killing methods learned from American films. As he gleefully reminisces about his youth, Anwar and his accomplices create more elaborate reenactments, further showing their love for Hollywood spectacle. The result is a documentary that leaves its audience equally puzzled and horrified.

From "The Act of Killing"

Anwar Congo Dances The Cha Cha

Three years before filming, Oppenheimer found that while he was able to freely speak with the perpetrators of the crimes, the Indonesian military would intervene when he attempted to interview the surviving victims. At first defeated, he was encouraged by the local survivors to continue filming the killers. Oppenheimer speaks of the local support for exposing the genocide, “We need a film that exposes for Indonesians themselves … the nature of the regime in which they’re living, things that they already know, but have been too afraid to say … so that we can now articulate them without fear.”

This articulation comes from Anwar himself, hoping that he will leave his legacy by creating the film (especially for his grandchildren, with whom he’s shown watching the footage). Anwar succeeds, but not in the manner he intends. In a breathtaking scene, Anwar’s neighbor tells the story of how as a young boy he found his stepfather murdered, was forced to bury his body, and was soon disenfranchised to a slum where he had to teach himself to read and write. The men at the table, implicitly responsible for his strife, are forced to uncomfortably listen.

From "The Act of Killing"

Congo And His Grandchildren

In this way the film meditates on acting, action, and the human performance of violence. Early in the film, Anwar demonstrates on a rooftop how he killed over a thousand people. Moments later, he dances the cha-cha. As Anwar’s relives more of his past, the staging of his reenactments become more fantasized, a projection of his tortured dreams. When describing his pain, one of Anwar’s fellow executioners consoles him, dismissing the guilt he feels over the killings as a neurological disorder.

The film questions what impact the truth has now, generations removed from the killings. One reenactment involves an elaborate burning of a village, using dozens of extras. When one of the killers yells to cut the scene, he tries in vain to comfort a crying child, explaining that what she sees is not real. To an audience knowledgeable of the reality, this moment is especially chilling. Adi, a member of the death squad, questions the possible outcome of the film “succeeding,” saying, “Not everything true should be made public…. It’s not a problem for us. It’s a problem for history.”

In one of the final scenes, Anwar revisits the roof where he killed (afraid his white pants he was wearing before weren’t intimidating enough). Instead of laughing and dancing the cha-cha, he doubles over in disgust, attempting to vomit.

The Act of Killing approaches powerful and unpunished men, allowing them to put themselves on trial through the creative interpretation of their own memories. The act of watching the film is a surreal, painfully therapeutic experience, a piece that holds oppressors accountable and is equipped to recalibrate a national consciousness.

Joshua Oppenheimer will be present for the IU Cinema’s screening of The Act of Killing on Thursday, March 6, at 7:00pm. He will discuss the film and accept audience questions. He will lead a lecture earlier in the day at 3:00pm. The event is sponsored by Union Board Films and the IU Cinema.

[Brandon Walsh is an undergraduate senior studying and producing films at Indiana University.]

The Ryder ● February 2014

Photo Caption: Indonesian gangster Anwar Congo (left) dances the cha-cha on a roof where he killed over a thousand people in 1965 (Drafthouse Films)

Photo Caption: Congo watches the staged reenactments of his killings with his two grandchildren (Drafthouse Films)

Photo Caption: Director Joshua Oppenheimer (photo credit: metro.us)

Peter Bogdanovich

Bogdanovich

In the Vanguard of the New Hollywood ● by Craig J. Clark

In the lead-up to legendary film producer/director Roger Corman’s visit to Indiana University in April, the IU Cinema is presenting a series of double features by some of the more successful graduates of what is known colloquially as the “Corman School” of filmmaking. Their ranks include such luminaries as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, John Sayles, and James Cameron, but the first one to really make a big name for himself in Hollywood was Peter Bogdanovich, who was eager to move from writing about films to making his own when he went to work for Corman in the mid-’60s.

Bogdanovich’s first job was as production assistant on 1966’s The Wild Angels, which found him filling a number of roles (including getting thrown into a melee with the actors playing bikers — and the bikers playing at being actors) and impressing Corman enough to earn him the opportunity to direct his first feature. Corman had just two stipulations: Bogdanovich had to use footage from Corman’s 1963 film The Terror, and he only had Boris Karloff for two days since that’s all the work the star owed Corman on an old contract. Bogdanovich quickly developed a story with his wife Polly Platt (with an uncredited assist from iconoclast director Samuel Fuller) about an aging horror movie actor named Byron Orlok who is retiring because the kinds of films he’s known for (like The Terror) no longer scare audiences. As a counterpoint, they also followed a disturbed young man named Bobby Thompson, patterned after Charles Whitman, who methodically gathers a cache of firearms — and it’s not so he can go deer hunting on the weekends. The result, 1968’s Targets, remains one of the best “calling cards” Hollywood has ever been presented with.

“I know they will get me, but there will be more killing before I die.”

The first half of Targets is a slow build as Orlok shirks off his responsibilities, alienating studio executives, his lovely assistant, and hot young director Sammy Michaels (played by Bogdanovich), who has written “a hell of a picture” for him. Meanwhile, Bobby (Tim O’Kelly) buys a high-powered rifle, drives past the refinery where he’s going to set up shop the next day, and spends a seemingly normal evening with his family. (When he gets home, there’s a commercial about the late-night movie on TV, which just so happens to be Anatomy of a Murder.) At one point, he goes to a shooting range with his domineering father and even gets the old man in his sights, but Bobby loses his nerve and gets dressed down for his lapse. No wonder he waits until the next day, when his father is at work, to start his killing spree, gunning down his wife and mother, as well as the grocery boy who picked a bad time to make a delivery.

Karloff & Bogdanovich

Boris Karloff and Bogdanovich on the set of Targets.

At about the same time Bobby is cleaning up his mess, Orlok and Sammy, who stayed up late drinking together, regain consciousness and Orlok reluctantly agrees to make the drive-in appearance. This is followed by one of the most harrowing sequences in the film. In broad daylight, Bobby climbs up to the top of a tower by the highway, lays out all of his rifles and handguns, and calmly starts shooting at the cars driving past. It’s only after police arrive on the scene that he flees, winding up at the drive-in theater, where he lays low waiting for it to get dark. Then, while The Terror unspools and Orlok waits to go on, Bobby begins firing at the gathered crowd, thus confronting the outmoded horror star with real-life terror. It’s a chilling climax no matter how prepared you think you may be for it. Bobby’s last line, after he’s subdued, is “Hardly ever missed, did I?”

“Won’t be much to do in town with the picture show closed.”

After the twin assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., audiences weren’t prepared to embrace Targets when it was first released in 1968, but it went on to win a cult audience and the attention of Bogdanovich’s would-be peers. Some of the latter were Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Stephen Blauner, whose BBS Productions bankrolled his 1971 follow-up The Last Picture Show, which probably would have taken home Best Picture that year if it hadn’t been for The French Connection. Based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, who collaborated on the screenplay with Bogdanovich, the film is best seen in its director’s cut (included in Criterion’s America Lost and Found: The BBS Story set), which adds some shading to its depiction of a small North Texas town in decline.

Shepherd & Bogndanovich

With Shepherd On The Set Of The Last Picture Show

The Last Picture Show is the kind of film that changes depending on how old one is when they see it. If you’re college-age or younger, you’re more likely to relate to the characters played by Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd and Randy Quaid. As you get older, though, identifying with the characters played by Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan and Clu Gulager will give you a much different perspective on the events in the film. Then there’s Ben Johnson’s turn as Sam the Lion (a powerful performance that earned him a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), who so thoroughly embodies the soul of Anarene, Texas, that a great deal of its life and vitality dies out along with him.

“I think a slight mistake has been made somewhere.”

How much enjoyment one gets out of 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? is almost entirely dependent on how much leeway you’re willing to give Bogdanovich to recreate a style of comedy that was already several decades out of date when he decided to take a swing at it. A romantic screwball comedy that’s chock full of door-slamming, suitcase-swapping, and identity-assuming, it pairs up Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand as, respectively, a nebbishy musicologist in San Francisco for a conference and the born troublemaker who gloms onto him and refuses to let go. As exasperating as this is for the absent-minded O’Neal, it’s even more distressing for his high-strung fiancée (Madeline Kahn, making a whopper of a screen debut), who quickly finds herself displaced by the wily Streisand.

In the interest of making things as confusing as possible, screenwriters Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton (working from a story by Bogdanovich) toss four identical plaid overnight cases into the mix that two sets of people are after for different reasons. (It all starts with one, though, which contains top-secret government documents that whistle-blower Michael Murphy plans to leak to the press. Sound familiar?) There’s also the intense competition for a $20,000 grant being awarded by young philanthropist Austin Pendleton, which O’Neal’s unscrupulous rival Kenneth Mars aims to steal out from under him, and Randy Quaid returns from The Last Picture Show as a fellow musicologist watching from the sidelines. As one might expect, the whole shebang culminates in a madcap chase up and down the hills of San Francisco that goes on for quite a while and lands everyone concerned in court, where everything finally gets sorted out. To hear O’Neal tell it, though, it’s just as convoluted as it ever was.

“Just because a man meets a woman in a barroom don’t mean he’s your pa.”

The roll Bogdanovich got on with The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc? (still his biggest commercial success) continued with 1973’s Paper Moon, his second black-and-white period piece. Set in the Midwest during the Great Depression, it stars Ryan O’Neal as a Bible-peddling con man who’s saddled with a nine-year-old girl who may or may not be his daughter (played by Tatum O’Neal, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her troubles) when he drops by her mother’s funeral to pay his respects. His first instinct is to get her out of his hair by putting her on a train, but she has other ideas. Furthermore, she proves to be right invaluable when she inserts herself into his con, which targets the recently widowed.

Something of a chip off the old block (if, in fact, she is a chip off his block), Tatum is so great with figures that she knows exactly how much money they have at any given moment. She also knows exactly what to do when voluptuous dancer Madeline Kahn joins them on the road and is an immediate drain on their bankroll. Together with Kahn’s teenage maid (the wonderfully deadpan P.J. Johnson), Tatum hatches a devious scheme that succeeds in getting rid of Kahn, but there’s no returning to business as usual for the maybe-father-and-daughter team.

From "Paper Moon"

Tatum & Ryan O’Neal In Paper Moon

Like What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon was photographed by László Kovács, who manages to make Depression-era Kansas look almost inviting. It was also Bogdanovich’s last film to have the benefit of Polly Platt’s impeccable production design work since they were divorced by the time it was released. Platt’s touch was definitely missed when he moved on to his adaptation of Henry James’s Daisy Miller the following year with his then-muse Cybill Shepherd in the leading role, but that, as they say, is a story for another time.

[Paper Moon and Targets will be screened at the IU Cinema on Saturday, March 15. Other double features in the “Hollywood Rebels: The Art and Legacy of Roger Corman” series include Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Corman’s The Terror (which Coppola worked on without credit) on Saturday, March 8, and Joe Dante’s Matinee and Piranha on Saturday, March 29.]

The Ryder ● February 2014

Boomers Manifesto

Killing Floor

● by Ray Zdonek

I’m a baby boomer and I’m proud of it. For years I’ve been waiting to have someone write something positive about us, actually, ever since Tom Brokaw immortalized our predecessors in his best-selling The Greatest Generation, a book about that generation that grew up during the Great Depression and fought World War II. Yes, I’m on Medicare now and was quite surprised to find out that the Greatest Generation built a health plan for elders with gaps in it, such that I have to pay considerably more for a “gap” policy and a prescription plan than I do for Medicare itself. Worse, I have to buy these policies from private, profit-seeking insurance corporations. Why nobody is interested in correcting Medicare and removing the gap is totally beyond me. To get a halfway decent rate I had to join AARP, and so I receive that organization’s magazine every month, which often has helpful and informative articles; so when I saw an article advertised on the cover of the December 2013 issue called How the Boomers Changed America, I thought perhaps I had found a kindred spirit in the author, political writer and humorist P.J. O’Rourke. But, all he gave us credit for was being great consumers and in making our wars a little shorter in length. Well, Mr. O’Rourke, I beg to differ.

While the baby boomers may not be “great,” I maintain that we have been good for America, and in fact essential, if we are to save the planet from ecological disaster and/or socio-political totalitarianism. But wait…, I have proof! In fact, let me count the ways.

We could start anywhere, but let’s start with the basics — that is, health. In the 1950’s healthy, natural food and fitness were the purview of California health gurus like Jack LaLanne and some select athletes. Remember, baseball stars were doing ads for Lucky Strikes in Life magazine during this period. Knowledge of herbals existed only in certain Native American cultures and in America’s big-city Chinatowns. We discovered them, including the most notorious herb of all — marijuana, the scourge of a liquor industry that fought it tooth and nail. Now, with our encouragement, the society-at-large is starting to learn the herb’s medicinal qualities and put them to good use. If recreational consumption makes a person a little less competitive, combative, selfish, and stressed from overwork, I say that’s a good thing. Mindfulness meditation presents us with the same goals. Be here now — less is more. As for fitness, like a lot of my generation including Forrest Gump, I started running; for me it was in 1981 at the height of the jogging craze, and I continued on for thirty-plus years. That running explosion was us, too. And the mountain bikes, of course. We practically invented marathons and iron man competitions.

Take social interaction. We were the Jimi Hendrix generation, and racism was totally uncool with us. We white kids weren’t threatened by the blacks anymore, at least not without having a good reason. No, we began to see, especially working-class boomers like myself, how much we had in common with black Americans. This racial tableau played out against the backdrop of the carnage of the Vietnam War, which caused most of us to look left, rather than right, in the political arena. What else for a generation of idealists? I’m sure there were many among the World War II generation’s power elite that bitterly regretted educating so many of us, but the damage had indeed been done. We were living together out of wedlock and experimenting in communal living situations, black and white, rich and poor. By the time of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, the cat was already out of the bag. Egged on by Beat Generation pioneers like Allen Ginsberg, whom I started reading in junior high, we blasted the rigid conformity of the 1950’s: the dress codes and hypocritical churchgoing, the red-baiting and wife-beating, the segregation and disdain for minorities of all sorts. Primarily, we questioned authority, and many of us protested the war machine in Washington as well, saying we were not okay with the conformity, violence, complacency, and hypocrisy of Western Civilization in the  1950’s — we wanted to make the world a better place. And we knew it was possible. Nixon’s tapes reveal that the young protestors demonstrating outside the White House did, in fact, have an impact on the President. Who knows how many lives were saved, both American and Vietnamese, by those kids in the street? No, the World War II generation said that we spit on the soldiers coming back from the War, as they got off the plane. Except, that never happened — not once has it ever been documented.

It was probably inevitable that we boomers would explore spiritual dimensions, as well as political and social ones, especially after the introduction of psychotropic drugs like pot and LSD. What the World War II generation saw as hedonism and escapism was really more seeking than anything else, seeking to discover the essence of ourselves and our place in the universe. Yeah, and maybe even learning something about the meaning of life. We embraced the natural world, and enjoyed echoing earlier, simpler times with our grooming and dress. Some traditions, especially exotic ones, interested us, like Native American belief systems and Hinduism. Others directed those same energies into atheistic political groups instead, but always with the goals of peace and economic justice. Maybe they used the words “mind” or “heart”, instead of “soul”, but who’s to say they’re not the same thing.

The reconnection with nature is the crucial thing. Whether it’s mountain-biking for fun or getting arrested on a Greenpeace ship, the baby-boomers got it when it came to the natural world. The first Earth Day was in 1970, after all. We may be too far down the climate change road by now to prevent massive disruption to food supplies, water, and other resources, but if we survive, if we prevail, it will be in no small part the result of the boomers’ basic love of the earth, how we blew the whistle on the polluters and the exploiters, and how we taught our children to follow in our footsteps. Without us, all power today would likely be produced by coal and atomic fuel.

I’m not saying some of my generation didn’t sell out and go in with the World War II camp. Money talks — bullshit walks. Weekend hippies! I say. My friends haven’t changed too much, except for the wrinkles. They’re kind of on the left — by that, I mean they’d rather go to prison than vote for a Republican; they’re for things like Medicare for All, voting rights, a woman’s right to choose, living wage legislation — stuff like that. I think I have a lot of friends.

All in all, it’s been a grand ride so far. I wouldn’t choose any other time to live my life, even if I could. To those generations that have followed ours, I say sorry you missed it, for it was a special time of hope and courage, struggling for light, as we were, under the shadow of the Bomb. But it’s not too late for you to start your own fire, your own revolution; the challenges are great, and you are sorely needed. Just take a long look over that wall of mediocrity and despair, and boldly choose your path. Make history, sure — how could you not? But make it with intelligence and always with compassion.

[Ray Zdonek is a Bloomington poet and novelist. His most recent publication is The Killing Floor, from Amazon Kindle Books.]

The Ryder ● February 2014

Michael Swidler

Gabby Douglas

The IU grad produced The Gabby Douglas Story ● by James Stout

She was the young girl who kept our eyes glued to the screen during the 2012 Summer Olympics.  This month her life story premiered on the Lifetime channel. The Gabby Douglas Story depicts the experiences that led her to become the first African-American gymnast in Olympic history to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions. Sydney Mikayla portrays Gabby as a child and Imani Hakim from Everybody Hates Chris portrays her as an Olympic athlete.

Michael Swidler is an IU grad and a co-producer on the film. While in Bloomington he organized film festivals and directed and worked on many short films as well as radio and web-formatted television. After graduation he moved to LA, interned a few different places before taking a spot at Braun Entertainment Group as a development executive and assistant. James Stout spoke with him for The Ryder.

[Image atop this post: The real Gabby Douglas.]

James Stout: Was The Gabby Douglas story always intended as a made-for-television film?

Michael Swidler: The made-for-television film medium is getting a resurgence; it might be the best medium for this story. Although when I watch it now and see how good it is, I think “Man, if only we had made this a feature you know? But I think as far as getting a movie made and getting a movie made fast — we wanted this to be made relatively quickly — it takes on the average about eight years to get a feature film made. This film was a pretty quick turnover, a little over a year.

Stout: What are you working on now?

Swidler: We’ve got some great projects lined up for both the small screen and the big screen. I’ve been with the company for three years and this is the first project we’ve gotten going although we’ve had a couple of close calls, but it’s kind of how the business goes. We have projects that have been in development for seven years. We have projects that we have the rights to, like remake rights to a horror classic which we’ve been trying to make for over 30 years.

Stout: How has your experience at IU helped in your professional career?

Swidler: I think for me at Indiana, we didn’t have a film major which was okay. You know it allowed me to have four years to discover what it is I wanted to do, and it forced me to be patient and go through all the trial and errors of trying to be a business student and then being in Telecom, and then going from there as far as what aspect of telecommunications and the media I wanted to work in. It taught me that in four years you can truly figure out if you focus hard and you work hard towards it and you experience things, internships, jobs and all that stuff that goes into a four year period you can accomplish, and that is figuring out what the heck you want to do with your life. I’ve been out here in LA just over four years and, I am very thankful that I got the job that I got and that I’ve been able to experience what I’ve been able to experience.

Stout: What was it that made you want to work in the film industry?

Swidler: You know I’ve always been kind of a salesman — it’s always been my strength is being able to sell someone a scoop of ice-cream or a Cajun Étouffée over a bed of rice or a burger and fries. I’ve always been into movies.  It’s always been my escape. Some people read books. Some people start families. For me film represents a great temporary escape from reality at a not very expensive price. It’s story time. I like to sell people on stories.

The Ryder ● February 2014

Cinema Substitute

From "Eternal Sunshine..."

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Her ◆ by Brandon Walsh

With romantic drama driving so many mainstream Hollywood plots, it’s surprising that few care to chart the sordid trajectory of many romantic relationships. Audiences today generally know what they’re getting into when the terms “romantic comedy” and “romantic drama” appear, and the associations tend to be negative. I’d venture to say most Hollywood films are uncomfortable resolving heartbreak without a clearly defined material payoff, which usually comes in the form of sex with Jennifer Aniston.

Then there are films like Spike Jonze’s Her and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — two longitudinal studies of passionate males falling in and out of love in a near-future where technology romantically intervenes in ways both liberating and self-destructive.

In Her, Theodore Twombly falls in love with his operating system named Samantha, a sentient being with complex human emotions. Charlie Kaufman’s tightly scripted Eternal Sunshine questions whether it’s possible for Joel Barish to erase all memories, painful and joyous, of an extended relationship with a woman named Clementine using a fantasy version of electroshock therapy.

From "Her"

Theodore Twombly installs his OS (Samantha) in Her

Her follows a real relationship with fervent wit and sincerity, less concerned with science fiction formalism. Eternal Sunshine’s frantic structure tells a love story in reverse, beginning with heartbreak, rehashed arguments and lingering unhappiness, and traveling back through the moments of unbridled joy that come with the early stages of love. In Her, similar moments with his ex-wife torture Theodore, to the point that he purchases Samantha, a comfortable alternative to what has brought him unspeakable heartbreak.

The films implicitly comment on an age where many of us connect with one another through media, to the point that minor plot changes could ground the films in a realm of uncomfortable reality. The shock therapy of Eternal Sunshine could be replaced with deleting one’s online presence, a blinding to images and words loaded with personal and potentially romantic meaning. Samantha in Her could be replaced with a meaningful online bond with another, not having met in-person and facing the challenges at a vague distance. The more we become involved in the input of our own identity, the more technology challenges our standard measurements for intimacy.

The insatiable desire for companionship runs though the films, a quality unidentifiable as it is silently corrosive to the heart. In Her, Amy Adam’s character describes love as “a form of socially accepted insanity.” Gondry’s entire film plays with the idea of love as the result of brain damage. Yet, these jokes intend to describe the cultivation of romantic love as an intensely spontaneous, subjective human experience that can’t be replicated (as Samantha does) or easily defined (what I see as the defined and marketed intention of most romantic comedies). Theodore speaks with Samatha about the strangers he encounters throughout the day, saying, “I imagine how deeply they’ve fallen in love, or how much heartbreak they’ve been through.” It’s with this outward empathy that we’re able to care for Theodore, in a way audiences can feel distanced from Kaufman’s inward-thinking hero, one of the film’s two thoroughly-defined characters.

[Photo atop this post: Joel Barish’s memories of Clementine are erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.]

Both films hope to remind us to absolve the past in order to make new and meaningful relationships. When Joel and Clem fear they will face the same frustrations over again, they simply say, “Okay.” Likewise, Theodore is unable to escape the memory of his ex-wife. He writes to her, “I just want you to know that there’ll be a piece of you in me always.” Eternal Sunshine and Her portray relationships as a predictable affair, a story we’re bound to repeat, but are equipped to face their anxieties with honesty and compassion.

[Brandon Walsh is an undergraduate senior studying and producing film at Indiana University.]

The Ryder • February 2014

King Lear: Once Upon A Time In Britain

Woronicz

◆ by Tom Shafer

[IU Theatre’s resident dramaturg speaks with guest artist Henry Woronicz (pictured above) about his experience, past and present, with Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy.]

When one reads a brief introductory summary of the plot, the play almost seems like a fairy tale.  Shakespeare based King Lear upon his earlier drama, The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella, published in 1605. In fact, late-19th century folklorists noted the parallels between King Leir’s Cordelia and Cinderella, which they classify, folklorically, as Type 501, “The Persecuted Heroine.”

Sooo, Once Upon a Time….

Lear, the King of Britain, having decided to retire, stages a kind of popularity contest among his three daughters: “How much to you love me?” he asks. Gonerill declares her deep love and admiration, and is awarded a portion of the kingdom. Regan, the next daughter to answer, tells him, “I love you as much as Gonerill, but more,” and is granted her portion.

King Lear turns to his youngest daughter, Cordelia, who says only “I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less.” He erupts into rage and disinherits Cordelia, giving over her “share” of the country to Regan and Gonerill.

Appalled at Cordelia’s treatment, the Earl of Kent strongly objects and asks Lear to reconsider. For his troubles, he is banished from the kingdom. With his Fool and retinue of one hundred knights, Lear takes his retirement, planning to spend his time enjoying the perquisites of power and basking in the love professed by Gonerill and Regan.

Things do not go as planned, and Lear finds himself tolerated rather than revered. The unfortunate king is stripped of almost all his company: cursing both Gonerill and Regan, he finds himself abandoned on the heath, accompanied only by the disguised Kent and the wise Fool. A storm is coming up, and Lear, now as homeless as the poorest of his subjects, is sent into the rain and wind and madness.

King Lear is a rare Shakepearean tragedy with a double plot. Paralleling the story of “Lear and His Daughters” is that of the “Earl of Gloucester and His Two Sons,” the elder Edgar and the younger bastard Edmond. Edmond convinces Gloucester that Edgar plans to commit patricide, which results in Edgar’s exile into the very same heath (and storm) now occupied by Lear, the Fool, and Kent.

Tom Shafer: Why do you think Edgar is the hardest role in [King Lear]?

Henry Woronicz: Why do I think Edgar’s the hardest role in the play? Because half of what he says people don’t understand. He’s got all of that flibbertigibbet stuff. Half of what he says is kind of feigned madness. In Shakespearean times or terms or playwriting, he goes off into these cultural references that are from the thirteenth century. So it’s a tough one, he spends a lot of his character time in disguise. I think it’s a very tricky role, very difficult role. The part of King Lear, I think, is pretty straightforward.

TS: Is [Lear] mentally unstable from the start? Is he a foolish egomaniac? I guess the question is, here, before the rehearsals start: have you laid out a path for the character, or are you going to wait to see what happens?

HW: My general work method is to wait somewhat to see what happens. I’m certainly familiar with the play; I’ve been in it four times.

TS: Oh, have you done [the role of] Lear? 

HW: This is my first Lear. I’m a little young for Lear, you see. The tradition is that you always get a couple under your belt while you can still play it. I think you’ve outlined the two major tracks that you have to choose from: he’s either just a mean, cantankerous S.O.B. from the beginning, which he partly is, but it’s always seemed to me, from the text, that there’s something going on inside him already. His daughters mention that, that he’s become forgetful. And there’s that lovely scene, right after he left Goneril in a huff, and he and the Fool are on the road, and he seems to be talking about Cordelia when he says, “I did her wrong.” He doesn’t really reference who the ‘her’ is, but you get some sense of that. And the Fool is trying to kind of coax him a little bit into smiling and maybe learning something about what he’s going through, and Lear also says at that point, “Let me not be mad, let me not be mad. Keep me in my right mind, I would not be mad.” I think that’s always been a significant moment for me because it seems to be fairly early on in the play, and he has an awareness that something is slipping in his mind. Something’s slipping. I think that’s kind of there from the beginning.

TS: And it’s fearful. I mean, you have to search for that sense of desperation.

HW: Yeah, exactly. But I think those are the two big choices for the Lear track in the beginning. And Lear, like a lot of the major tragic characters, then becomes reactive: things happen to him, and the drama becomes: “How does he respond?” And we watch an elderly man who was used to living his life in a certain way with certain expectations, we watch him fall apart and lose his mind, then come back together. I was reading an interview recently with Frank Langella, who was getting ready to do his first Lear…he said he’s always avoided the role. He’s never felt that interested in it, because the take was always “this is about the guy who falls apart.” But he’s now come to look at it as “the guy who finds his way back from falling apart.” I think that’s certainly part of the story.

[King Lear, directed by Fontaine Syer, opens on February 28th at the Ruth N. Halls Theatre with set design by M.F.A Chris Rhoton, costumes by M.F.A Julia Whalen, and lighting by M.F.A Lee Burckes.]

The Ryder ◆ February 2014

RetroRyder: Bloomington Katmandu

Bloomington Katmandu

Home Is Where the Art Is ◆ by Filiz Cicek

[A blast from the past from the pages of The Ryder.]

Some of us never leave the place we are born. Some of us are forced to leave; some of us leave by choice for a place far away; and some of us are permanent, post-modern cultural nomads.

Local, international, exiled and nomadic artists were asked to choose or create art representing what they call “home“ for BloomingtonKatmandu, which will take place on May 28th at the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center. The show is meant to reflect the impermanency and the mobility of the 21st century’s ever-changing geographical, emotional, and physical borders that we humans cross daily.

The Dalai Lama smiles at oppression with compassion; being exiled from Tibet by China in 1959 freed him to claim the world as his home.. The self-proclaimed “simple Buddhist monk” goes home daily when he says his mantras. He acts as a politician, cultural warrior, and ambassador of peace. He even champions women’s rights in a Tibetan Buddhist way. And he is terribly worried that Tibetan culture might disappear. For when in exile, Tibetan culture is his home. At a meeting in May 2010, he said he wants to turn the TMBCC (founded by his late brother, Thubten Norbu) into a university where Tibetan history and language can be kept alive, along with other cultures and languages.

Art is my home, and like many transnational artists, I consider myself a post-modern nomad. I don’t have an art factory like Andy Warhol; wherever I go, there I am, artist within.

Like countless others before me, I’ve chosen to journey away from my native land of the Caucuses Mountains to make a new home in what I lovingly refer to as “the cornfields.” As a feminist artist who is no fan of organized religion—and has in fact been critical of its treatment of women in my artistic and scholarly work—I set out to take secular art to the temple with intentions of paying homage and subverting and transforming.  I have been living at the TMBCC the past eight months, researching and preparing. Combining the nomadic Buddhist monk’s mobile thangka tradition together with Bulgarian artist Christo’s temporary large-scale environmental works, an exhibition of prints, paintings and photographs will be displayed on long cloths hanging from the library ceiling as temporary walls and borders. Different aesthetic traditions from distant lands will be hence fused.

It was an artist from the rice fields who help inspire the exhibit’s theme. Prianka Rayamajhi’’s journey to home photos of Katmandu-Nepal express how it feels to be neither here nor there, a familiar theme for immigrants and their children. Another migrant artist, Svetlana Rakic from Serbian Bosnia, has tackled this very topic in her recent exhibit in Berlin, Here and There. Here is both Bosnia and Bloomington, where she now lives. There is former Yugoslavia. Like her passport, the country where she grew up has expired, so to speak, with the political winds of change, deconstructed and destroyed by war. It only exists in Rakic’s memory, but it flows through her art.

She now lives in bosoms of nature and paints houses and trees, branches and roots. Long, thick, strong red roots, which are determined to reach across the ocean for the nourishment from her native land. And big yellow branches, joyful with sunshine. Rakic says, “Trees can grow anywhere….Home is not a geographical location, but rather a place that could be anywhere, a place in which we feel at home.” Her work reflects “the flow of life from here to there” and the symbolic merging of unity of the two.

As the proverb goes, when two hearts fuse as one, a barn will be their love palace. Prince Siddharta left his palace and made himself at home under the Boddhi tree. For Virgina Woolf as well, nature was a temple. Dale Enochs will erect a lovers’ statue mimicking one of the stupas. Prayer wheels will host number 5 and 7. Vinicius Bertons Brazilian street signs will be spread throughout the grounds. Una Winterman’s photograph of her old Kentucky home is both haunting and grounding. For her traveling family, it is a place of reference, she explains, even if it no longer exists. Weather permitting, Sarah Flint will sing by the creek, with Russell Rabwork’s eco-art as her background. Salaam will take stage under the big oak tree. In the library, Japan-born James Nakagawa will superimpose archetypal architecture from different continents. Jeffrey Wolin then will showcase a collaborative piece with his son, re-visiting all the places he has lived, with the use of Google map and narrative. We humans cross continents daily, through the Internet, Facebook and Twitter. We topple real-life dictatorships and create cyber-communities.

Then there are those artists who never left home: David Ebbinghouse will create a temporary yurt from fallen branches, paying homage to nomads from Nanook of the North to the Mongolians. Those who came from other states to call Bloomington home—Amy Brier, Diane Knoll, Hannah Shuler and Shu Mei Chen—will dwell outside by the pond and the temple with their sand in time and porcelains by the pond.

Paintings, sculptures, installation and music will come to a close with poetry and dance.

Whether in one‘s native land, chosen home, or one of exile, home is increasingly more of a state of mind in the 21st century. We create and escape into multiple identities on any given day. A human identity, spiritual identity, professional identity, gender identity, paternal and maternal identity and so on.  It is through these identities that we exercise compassion and fascism. Home is then where we feel safe. We store those moments in our memory; they change color and texture in time.

Home is then where we feel safe. It is the dandelion wine made with friends, the smell of lover’s shirt, a mother’s lap to a child. Home is in the soap bottle from a night in hotel room. Home is a wedding ring on a soldier in Afghanistan. It is a favorite song to a Moroccan living in French Banlio. A kimono to a Japanese American.   It is a headstone among Cypress trees for Nazim Hikmet, a poet in exile in a small Anatolian village. A grave for Sarah Baartman at the foot of a South African hill, where the air is cool and the sun doesn’t burn. It is a valley full of flowers to a bee. The snow capped mountains for the pumas and the lions.  Home is where our heart beats, free. We all are born with that feeling. Home is within.

[Filiz Cicek is a Turkish-Georgian-born American artist and organizer of Women Exposed. Her work has been exhibited in major galleries and museums in Istanbul, New York, California, Chicago, and the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. She also teaches a Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Culture class at IU. After meeting the Dalai Lama in May 2010, Cicek created BloomingtonKatmandu.]

The Ryder ◆ April 2013

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