Thursday, April 24, 2008

I Suppose It Was Inevitable

Yesterday's date (April 23) is, according to tradition, Shakespeare's birthday.

The headline at the Powys County Times?

It's going to be a Bard Day's Night.

Friday, April 18, 2008

I Can't Help It

The Pope is visiting the U.S.

Whenever I see him:

I think of him:

Friday, April 11, 2008

A New Renaissance, Part II

Some months ago I posted on the efforts of the entertainment industry to raise the cultural literacy of the American public by making films and TV series based on classical history and literature: Rome, Troy, 300.

But I now realize that the industrial-entertainment complex's educational efforts are actually far more pervasive and subtle than even I could have imagined. A couple of weeks ago I watched a popular film, hoping for just a few laughs: what I got instead was a brilliant re-working of traditional literary themes and devices for the new millennium.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen: any teen who's seen Harold and Kumar go to White Castle is going to find world lit. class a breeze. I don't know why some critic hasn't pointed out the links between the literary canon and popular film before: Greek scholars have long known that the working title of The Iliad was Dude, Where's my Chariot?

Harold and Kumar go to White Castle
has all the characteristics of a traditional epic. You might think a quest for White Castle burgers is unworthy of the genre, but no epic hero is really after anything that grand. Odysseus is just trying to get home for god's sake. * Don't get me started on The Iliad--the hero, Achilles, spends a lot of it sulking in his tent. Spoiled brat. And the Táin Bó Cúalnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the Celtic world's great contribution to the epic tradition, is about stealing livestock.

No, Harold and Kumar are actually an improvement on traditional epic heroes--they're smart enough to know where they live, they can control their tempers, and they're honest enough to pay for their beef fair and square.
Now, according to the good people at the National Endowment for the Humanities, the characteristics of an epic hero and his quest are the following:

1) Hero is possessed of supernatural abilities or qualities.
2) Hero has a quest.
3) Hero is tested.
4) Presence of numerous mythical beings, including magical animals, to aid the hero in his quest.
5) Hero's travels take him to a world normal humans are barred from entering.
6) Hero nearly gives up.
7) Resurrection.
8) Hero attains his quest.

First let me address an issue I know some people will bring up. In the traditional epic there's one hero. The fact that Harold and Kumar has two heroes is simply part of the re-imagining of the heroic tradition for our time. We're a culture that likes duos. Batman and Robin. Holmes and Watson. So it's gotta be Harold and Kumar.

1) Supernatural abilities: Our heroes really show what they're made of later in the film, but we do learn very early on that Kumar knows how to score amazingly good pot. A little later we learn that Harold can write financial analyses while stoned.

2) The quest: Get White Castle burgers. Duh.

3) Our heroes are tested in numerous ways:
Harold gets thrown in jail and his car is stolen by Neil Patrick Harris. They are both attacked by a raccoon and humiliated by racists.

4) Aided by mythical beings and magical animals: They are helped by a vaguely cyclopean tow-truck driver and get a cheetah stoned and ride it through the wilds of New Jersey.**

4) Aided by mythical beings and magical animals: They are helped by a vaguely cyclopean tow-truck driver and get a cheetah stoned and ride it through the wilds of New Jersey.**

4) Aided by mythical beings and magical animals: They are helped by a vaguely cyclopean tow-truck driver and get a cheetah stoned and ride it through the wilds of New Jersey.**

5) Our heroes enter a world inaccessible to normal humans: Harold and Kumar pretend to be surgeons in the hopes of scoring medical marijuana and end up being called into an operating room to save a gun-shot man's life. Which they do! It's not a descent into the underworld--but hey, it's something most of the people I know will never do.

6) Harold wants to give up.

7) Kumar psychologically resurrects Harold with an inspiring paean to hamburgers.

And then, as if we didn't have enough literary devices and archtypes already, after Harold and Kumar get to White Castle they realize they're out of money. Just when all seems lost, Neil Patrick Harris appears out of nowhere and pays for their order:

Deus ex machina!

Who needs a liberal arts education when we've got Hollywood?***

*In some of the earliest written versions of The Odyssey, Book Seven, traditionally called "Odysseus at the Court of Alcinous," is actually entitled "If You Lived Here, You'd be Home by Now."

Okay, it's not exactly magical--but a cheetah that'll smoke pot with you, how cool is that?

***And in less than two weeks a probing exploration of human rights violations will hit theaters:
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. Movie studios. Is there anything they can't do?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Americans: We Know No Limits

Do you know what I love about my country? We don't rest on our laurels. Was it enough to invent the airplane? No, we went to the moon. Were we content with having some of the world's best doctors? No--we also made them the most expensive. We're in a national recession, but are we going to stop it at our borders? No, we're going to share it.

Our refusal to limit ourselves doesn't go just for technology, health care or economic fiascoes. No, it goes for irrational behavior as well. A few years ago many of us were enraged with France for not supporting Washington's decision to invade Iraq--as if the French ever agreed with anybody on anything. Last year a banner that said BONG HiTS 4 JESUS was the subject of a Supreme Court hearing.

Well, that was some time ago. We seem to have forgiven the French, especially since they've elected a President who's anxious to succeed Tony Blair as Bush's lapdog--although the rest of the French (typically) don't agree with this. And nobody's mentioned BONG HiTS 4 Jesus in a long time.

We've moved on. To vodka labels.

Yes, vodka labels. For its Mexican marketing campaign, Absolut Vodka ran ads showing a pre-1848 map of Mexico--when what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Texas were still part of the country--with the caption "In an Absolut World."

Americans for Legal Immigration President William Gheen called for a boycott of Absolut, saying the ad was an endorsement of a reconquest of the Southwestern U.S.: "Absolut vodka is trying to sell liquor to Mexicans that aspire to control the Southwest United States." One blogger wrote that he poured his Absolut down the sink.

Another blogger called Absolut "traitors." Which I find a little odd, given the company's Swedish.

As usual, I'm baffled. What are people so upset about?

"Absolut vodka is trying to sell liquor to Mexicans that aspire to control the Southwest United States."

Seriously: if my country faces invasion by foreign enemies, I want them to be drunk--much easier to deal with.

I'm also baffled as to why Absolut thought this ad campaign was a good idea. A spokesperson for Vin & Spirit (Absolut Vodka's parent company), said the idea was to market the Vodka with "a Mexican sensibility," evoking "a time which the population of Mexico may feel was more ideal."

I doubt that most Mexicans would consider the nineteenth century "ideal," given it was a time of social and political chaos. And if I were selling a product to Mexicans, I don't think I would want them to associate it with the loss of half their national territory.

In any case, Vin & Spirit has apologized and pulled the ad. However, William Gheen and his compadres do not appear to be appeased: at time of writing the Boycott Absolut website is still up.

Or maybe Gheen and his compatriots are simply expecting Vin & Spirit to outrage them again soon.

After all, the company has been bought by the French.

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