Monday, April 26, 2004

Birthday post; Automobile angst; Singin' in the Rain

I have been away from the Meridian for a while, so I thought I'd steal some time away from grading that I should be doing to catch up a bit.
My birthday was yesterday; I am now 42 years old.  Livejournal keeps stats on the ages of their users and the percentage of bloggers each age comprises.  As might be suspected, those in their late teens and early 20s comprise the majority of bloggers, at least on this service (perhaps because there's no charge; perhaps because people that age feel they have lives interesting and varied enough to merit being blogged about; perhaps both).  People my age are in the decided minority.  Maybe most people my age are "too busy living life" (read: we have work to do) to worry about chronicling snippets of it.  I don't know.  I certainly have plenty to do, but I also have the occasional thought that I need to get out in some form or fashion so I can practice thinking every once in a while.  Also, I'd rather do it in this fashion so as to engage in dialogue with those who feel what I've written is worthy of comment (thanks, by the way, to those who've responded to my previous entry).  The traditional journal has a romantic appeal, but I have found that I need to have dialogue; I don't do the lonely-unread-writer-in-his-garret bit very well.
Anyway: my birthday.  The Significant Other and I began celebrating on Saturday, actually, when her family took me out to supper and, as presents, gave me a new phone (the "ON" button on my old one occasionally refused to turn the handset on) and a gift card to Barnes & Noble.  That was nice of them, but . . . I fear I was feeling my age that night; something about the evening and their company didn't set well.  So, the S.O. and I squabbled on the way to her place; I just left her there, and I went to drown my sorrows at the bookstore, buying The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker, Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, by John Gregory Brown, and Vanishing Point, by David Markson.  I've heard of Baker, but I've not read anything by him; and the Brown I'd seen years before and thought it would work well in the book.  Only the Markson is something of a known quantity to me: I've taught his most highly-regarded novel, Wittgenstein's Mistress, which really IS unlike anything else out there, and I also have his Reader's Block.  Both deal with time, memory, art (broadly defined)--specifically the question of representation.  They are metafictions, but the meta- part arises out of his characters' introspection rather than any textual tricks: they are writers watching themselves as they write and commenting on that process even as they advance, sort of, their narratives.  Not just cool, but Markson is also a master of the comedic non sequitor.  In other words: his characters are just as self-conscious as Henry James can be in his journals, but they are much much funnier in their mental bumbling about.
Sunday.  Birthday.  And I'm driving about, and my car, which has been making very ominous-sounding front-end noises for a little while, decides to make said noises louder.  I cannot ignore it any longer.  Of course: THE only auto shop that can do this sort of stuff that's open on Sundays is . . . Pep Boys.  Wherever I have lived, I have found that the employees in the Pep Boys shops I have patronized (in, now, three states that do not border on each other), when I have slit their wrists, have molasses in their veins.  They move at about the same speed as do snakes or frogs dug out of river banks in January.  True story: Once, while they were putting in an alternator for my car (6 hours, and I was coming down with what turned out to be the flu), another man waited 3 HOURS to have them put a new set of tires on his car.  The tires were in stock;  there was nothing wrong with his wheels.  3 HOURS for a job that would have taken a little too long at 1 hour.  Their reputation precedes them, too: I kept having trouble with the alternator that they put in, so I took it to another shop, and I told the fellow there that I had been taking it to "one of your competitors" but that they were very slow; he immediately said, "Oh--Pep Boys."  So, then, I had no reason to think that the Pep Boys here would be any different, and they didn't disappoint: 4 hours for a 2-hour brake job.  Some of that delay, though, wasn't quite their fault; the shoes for my car that they had in stock actually didn't fit.  The factory had mis-packed the part.  Anyway, they also found other things wrong with the car that are due to its advancing years (it's a 1993 Corolla with 220,000 miles on it) that I just don't have the money to get fixed but which I'll need to as soon as possible.  The front-end noise remains, but I had to choose: fix the front-end noise but risk losing my brakes completely (the master cylinder was not working right and I had no brakes at all in the rear) or get the brakes done and risk having my wheels fall off.  I don't know whether I chose right.  They are an honest shop--the one factor that mitigates their culture of slowness.  And man, do those brakes work now.
Just one other birthday note: in today's mail, I received a flyer asking me if I wanted to be a subject for research having to do with prostate cancer.  I'm not old enough.  Yet.  But still.  It's like They KNOW.
Larry lent me a bunch of movies last week: To Have and Have Not (Lauren Bacall is sexier than any 19-year-old has a right to be); The Shawshank Redemption (certainly not a BAD film, but so many people had told me how great it was that perhaps I had expectations that were too high for it.  But Morgan Freeman is indeed excellent in it); Lost in Translation (Bill Murray is a revelation in it; as someone once said of Gary Cooper, it's like you can read what he's thinking); and Singin' in the Rain.  I want to talk about Singin' because it was such a revelation to me, for reasons implied in the subject for this entry.
I should say from the outset that I don't like musicals as a rule, though I'll make exceptions for Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story.  In those, all the songs are grand; in the others that I've seen, there'll be a couple of good songs but lots of dross and the flimsy plot whose sole function is to get us from song to song.  But I wanted to see Singin' only because I remember Gene Kelly fondly from his appearance on The Muppet Show, when he reprised his performance of the title song.  Since then, I've seen clips of that scene (who hasn't?), so when I found out Larry owned it, I thought, What the hey?  I knew absolutely nothing else about it, so, aside from some dancing, I didn't know what to expect.The other thing that musicals do that really annoys me is that they try so hard, via their plots, to achieve some sort of narrative verisimilitude.  But musicals will fail when they veer away from their true function as an artform: providing pure escapism.  Consider the story of Jud in Oklahoma!, for example.  The fascinating thing about Singin' in the Rain, though, is that its plot has to do with the creation of verisimilitude, via the move from silent films to "talkies" and then, in the case of Singin''s film-within-a-film, its transformation into a musical and the dubbing of voices to mask the voices of those silent actors whose speaking voices weren't suited to the talkies.  It achieves ITS verisimilitude, then, by being so open about its artifices.  "This is true," we say, "because it is showing us it is false."  Singin' is still escapism, but of a Derridian sort.
One last thing about this film's genesis: Just as its plot revolves around the rewriting of a silent into a musical, so also does Singin' itself exist so as to provide a vehicle for some of Arthur Freed's songs that had been used in earlier films.  So, then, intentionally or not, the making of the film-within-the-film is a kind of allegory of Singin' itself. 
Add to all that the decided Surrealism of the long "Gotta Dance" sequence (the dance sequence between Kelly and Cyd Charisse (where she's wearing a scarf that appears to be 50' feet long) was filmed on a huge, horizonless set inspired by Dali), Donald O'Connor's astounding dancing in the "Make 'em Laugh" scene, and Gene Kelly's equally amazing dancing throughout, and this film, if approached with an open mind, will blow your mind. I know: It's VERY easy to poke fun at tap-dancing and this sort of stuff generally, and I've done so on occasion in the past; but when it's done as skilfully AND as artistically as it is here, you can see why people kept trying to do it.
But I still don't like musicals, as a rule.

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