Posts from 12th September 2004

Sep 04

“More or less, a prophet”

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 131 views

“More or less, a prophet” — it’s not wrong or even weird of me to say that even though Oscar Wilde is one of my favorite writers I’m actually far more fascinated by him than his work. If I could master the paradox approach I would (and would probably drive all my friends crazy if I haven’t already), but I know I’ve got the shameless-if-mocking egotism down. And why not (he said preeningly).

Back in 1988 one of my high school gifts to myself was Richard Ellmann’s exhaustive biography, a book I still treasure and occasionally reread all the way through, though often I just dip into it here and there. This year, though, I’ve had opportunity to read two further books which I’m glad exist that give me a slightly broader picture of things. Earlier this year there was Douglas Murray’s Bosie, a long overdue portrait of the spoilt, complex character so ineluctably tied together with Wilde in the final years. It’s his description of Wilde I’m using as the headline here, and Murray finally fills out the more-complex and more-heartbreaking than imagined story of someone who fought any number of demons, personal and public and often horribly unnecessary, to his grave.

Meantime, from a few years back is Gary Schmidgall’s The Stranger Wilde, which I’ve just finished reading. It’s a personal project if ever there was one — he doesn’t engage in imagined dialogue with Wilde or anything (thankfully) but it balances out a study of Wilde as public and private and liminal figure, as imagined and reported and self-analyzed, with observations from nearly a hundred years later as to his situation, his milieu, his life and attendant glories and downfalls. As such it’s a good take on many subjects not usually found in the formal biographies — the amount of parody material he covers from Punch alone is a welcome joy, reproducing many cartoons and etchings — as well as filling in more details of his life, making, for instance, a good case for some sort of formal relationship between Wilde and the now obscure, then successful American playwright Clyde Fitch.

It’s also reflective of Schmidgall’s own heart-on-sleeve approach, however, embracing a more direct and sometimes fierce reaction against the world around him circa the early nineties and what it entailed for gay life. Intriguingly, Schmidgall himself never identifies directly as gay in this book — he does honor and dedicate the book to a deceased uncle of his who was — and while that might not seem important he certainly values and engages with questions of gay identity to a thorough degree. At one point he essentially breaks away from his analyses to indulge in a diatribe against the 1986 Bowers V. Hardwick Supreme Court case, overturned years after the book’s publication by Lawrence and Garner vs. State of Texas. Thus dated, it’s a telling reflection over a state of mind and place in time, and one is immediately tempted to wonder how this book would be written for this year, where the legal framework had changed but a newer hot-button issue can come to the fore. One suspects Schmidgall would feel the need to rewrite just a bit, finding something in Wilde’s work to tie to questions of gay marriage — but given Wilde’s own acerbic responses and discussions of marriage, it would have been a more loaded approach.

Perhaps the most forceful — if forced — vision/intrusion of Schmidgall onto the world of his subject is his at once delightful and curious digression into wondering what an ‘Oscar today’ would be like, portraying an aging, comfortable book reviewer who (now projecting a bit into a new decade) would have been a perfect guest for Oprah and her book club and Charlie Rose, witty and famous for being famous, and whose many observations on society, as Schmidgall takes almost extreme care to lay out, might be as applicable now as then. I understand the impulse — I often think the same thing about my own personal nineteenth-century literary lodestone (and, regrettably, Wilde-hater, though due to his work rather than himself, which is refreshing) Ambrose Bierce.

It’s not the only thing about the book, thankfully, and I think it’s a fine addendum to the Ellmann text, something that steers away from biography to create a collage portrait in words, from friends and enemies and more in between, at least from those who left any remembrances or commented along the way, a small slice of those people who would have known him. A good read that tells as much about the author as the subject — but then the author argues reasonably enough that such was the case with Wilde’s own works.

A place where nobody dares to go

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A place where nobody dares to go — showing The Apple to a friend the other night prompted a request to show Xanadu, and thus it was done. It has to be said that of the overblown disco movie troika (English-language, at least), consisting of said two films plus Can’t Stop the Music, Xanadu is the one that deserves the most beatings. They ALL deserve beatings, but Can’t Stop has an ensemble cast that is so wretchedly wrong that it’s right, which in combination with the script from bizarroworld — it wanted to date itself immediately, and did! — means merriment. And The Apple is The Apple. But why did Xanadu even get made?

Can’t Stop was NYC, The Apple was vague Euroworld, Xanadu was LA, and so very very poorly at that. Where something like Thank God It’s Friday actually had people going to an LA disco to, you know, dance, Xanadu was some sort of queasy nightmare where the titular club itself was a mere Macguffin, a beautiful old building (the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which went up in flames a decade later) that Gene Kelly (why, Gene, why, you really didn’t have to, you know) and Michael Beck, fresh from The Warriors and concluding his A-list career as such, pointlessly and stupidly decide to revive as some sort of modern club.

Oh god I HATE this plot, I realize, what a horrible horrible script — it’s allegedly based on Down to Earth with Rita Hayworth, but some things are remakes and other things are abortions that come to life. Kelly rises above all his material because you get the definite sense that he has immediately realized its limitations and therefore is going to do a perfectly professional job to demonstrate exactly how to come across when caught in a trap. But Beck is mere meat either petulant or stupefied, and Olivia Newton-John…look, in a world where Vanna White played Aphrodite, then fine, she’s a Greek muse, whatever, reinvention is a lovely thing. BUT FUCK YOU AND YOUR NOT-ACTING STARING EYES AND YOUR HORRIBLE BANTER AND WOODEN HORRIBLENESS. Sorry, had to vent.

The setpieces are what make this film ‘work’ as such, in that they’re so clunky and strange. Again, Can’t Stop had them but was openly trying to be a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical as such, and The Apple was nothing but a setpiece, thus the genius. Here, instead, they foist themselves on the watchers. Going and having champagne way up in the stalls at the Hollywood Bowl, fine, whatever. Immediately transforming into a Don Bluth-animated sequence, that’s when your head gets kicked in. The ELO song here isn’t so bad, in fact quite a few of the ELO songs here are pretty great, and Olivia scored three big hits from the soundtrack — title song, “Suddenly,” “Magic” — so watching the movie associated with them is a bit like those weird ‘videos’ they made for the Beatles and old Motown songs in the late eighties with nobodies prancing around library sets or the like. Except here the connections were intentional between visuals and audio, and they worked even less. So “Suddenly” plays and our romantic leads rollerskate around a studio with completely random theatrical sets put in place so that top musicians can get ‘atmosphere’ while recording, I dunno, The Long Run or something.

As the film progresses, though, the sheer proto-Daft Punk/U.S.E.ness of it all assumes a certain relevance — the film had already been addicted to airbrushed color-flashes and outlines and more besides, so when they finally start appearing in essentially every frame or near to it, as when Gene Kelly is told that he needs better clothes to look stylish (AT THE BUTT END OF THE SEVENTIES, GENE KELLY IS TOLD BY CHARACTERS WHO LOOK HORRIBLE THAT HE NEEDS BETTER CLOTHES TO LOOK STYLISH, why the hell didn’t they go all the way and have the characters say, “You know, your dancing sucks.”) and ends up in a pinball-machine set for his pains, or when Beck’s character goes to visit Olympus and Olympus is nothing but glowing neon bars and sparkling lights up above, okay, that I can deal with. Throw on “One More Time,” set in on an endless loop, heaven. Instead they give us a crap ballad for Olivia to warble and the camera spends three minutes tracking in on her via a slow close-up as she slightly moves around. *whimper* And then there’s the opening night of the club with the jugglers and the flight stewardesses and everyone skating around following Gene Kelly and chanting “Xanadu!” and the acrobats and the mimes and the country music sequence and the tiger-print outfits from Frederick’s of Hollywood and argh…it should be good but it isn’t. If Moulin Rouge didn’t work for you, don’t get anywhere near this.

Such a strange, sad movie. And the cult scares me. I suppose I do love this film, in that I can point to it and say, “At least I didn’t do that.”

DESTINY’S CHILD “Lose My Breath”

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“Lose My Breath”

I’m a bit surprised at the vehemence this song has inspired over on ILM. I’m not surprised that cosmic twin Dan Perry agrees with me, though — this is some great stuff. To be honest, after Beyonce’s dreary-as-hell album (that failure weighs so much more with me than whatever “Crazy in Love” can do, so rarely and completely has there been a divorce between a lead single and the larger release where it comes from), I had no expectations, and since I’ve never been a dyed-in-the-wool fan to begin with — DC work best for me as random surprise encounters than as reasons to live, I think — I really wasn’t aware that the putative reunion had in fact happened. But it has, and while the mp3 floating around sounds a touch murky at the start, it puts together exactly what I like about so much century-bridging and beyond r’n’b — space, beautiful beautiful space. Somewhere in-between and surrounding the drum march shuffle and the skating-on-top-of-the-mix string synths and of course the voices themselves is the space all of the three major elements either stand apart from or suddenly lose themselves into (check the various solo vocal bits on the third chorus and how they suddenly echo into a nowhere that wasn’t immediately apparently, not to mention the following break). It sounds simultaneously together and apart, not welded and not flying apart either, a different kind of tension.

And as for the charge about lack of melody, like I said over there, it’s no more or less so than something like Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” similarly march drum driven. Did a whole lot of people suddenly become Geir H.?

Up the Pacific Coast from San Diego to San Francisco by submarine

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Up the Pacific Coast from San Diego to San Francisco by submarine

It was travel but not one of the most scenic of routes, in that there wasn’t much to see. But back in 1979 my dad’s submarine the Pollack — as the history notes, he received the commission in April of the previous year and had participated in a couple of exercises — was due for an overhaul. Though based down in Point Loma in San Diego Bay, the best shipyard for it was up the coast in San Francisco Bay, specifically the Mare Island Naval Station, now since decommissioned. Mare Island was next to Vallejo, something of a backwater for the Bay, up in the northern reaches of the bay (Mare Island is actually the peninsula to the west). My two years there are somewhat dim in the memory and frankly I’m not all that sad about that, it made for an odd transition time in retrospect between 1979 and 1981 — a presidential election, the release of The Empire Strikes Back and very little sense that anything had really changed between the decades.

That’s another matter, though — what counts is, to quote the history of the ship, the Pollack was to due to receive “major SUBSAFE modifications, a new sonar system, and a new fire control system,” so up to Mare Island it went. Since there wasn’t anything major about this trip — took a total of three days or so, I believe — and since there wasn’t much in the way of necessary secrecy per se, my dad asked for and received permission to invite myself and his own dad on the ship for the trip. Three generations of Raggetts, and why not? We’re not a Naval family by tradition by any means — my dad was the only one who participated in the service in our history and I can’t sense any inclinations of it in the next generations yet — so this was less some sense of familial identification as a chance to see what one’s dad/son (strike where appropriate) did and where he worked during an actual voyage.

I was only eight so my memories are understandably furry, but good memories they are. I had something close to the run of the ship and everyone knew that both myself and my grandfather were on board, so I don’t think we caused any surprise to anyone — at least I hope not! I had already seen the sub a few times so this wasn’t a surprise to me per se, but getting to live there for a bit was very good fun. Definitely not for everyone, though. One or two sub films aside — The Hunt for Red October is one of the better ones — no sub film captures the sheer compactness of subs, which if you don’t suffer from claustrophobia is all right enough, and I don’t, and neither did anyone else (if they did, they wouldn’t be on the sub in the first place — Hyman Rickover was still in charge of the sub fleet as well, and you can bet that it was his way or no way at all. That means months at a time getting used to staircases that are essentially ladders, as well as ladders straight up, hallways that are metallic warrens, cots that are used in shifts as one person then another works while another sleeps, and of course no windows, ever.

But again, my grandpa and I had no worries about that — three days is three days and we made the most of it. I was alternating between reading books (no change there then), floating around the various crew areas, poking my nose briefly into the torpedo bay (not by myself, quite obviously), chatting with dad and grandpa (at one point, to my sheer surprise and delight — while still going ‘ew!’ — my grandpa revealed to me that he had dentures by taking them out), having lots of good meals (the sub service might not be giving you fresh food down below the waves but they feed you well nonetheless) and observing the command deck. There I was taught the importance of keeping the lights on red rather than white at night to help enforce a sense of the day, keeping things visible but preventing night blindness, and remembered once or twice quietly flicking my small flashlight to white, but only when nobody was looking.

One of the nights I discovered the sonar room, and the guys there were totally friendly and invited me in. It must have been a boring night for them after all — nothing to track, no Russian ships to shadow, then again who knows who was shadowing them in turn — and next thing I knew I was spending about an hour playing around with one of the sonar screens. They were mostly amused, I’m sure, and I just remember creating all sorts of crazy patterns and shapes and more with them, and I’m sure I enjoyed whatever sounds were made, though I can’t really remember those.

And of course besides all that I slept when needed, and thankfully no cot to share (minimal crew on board, I believe). The cots were built into the walls and were nooks of the sort that you hear about in Tokyo hotels, though not as art-designed. I did have a nice little light there for reading, though, so I wasn’t complaining at night.

I remember nothing about the start or the end of the trip — the last thing about it all was coming back to San Diego alone on a plane, rejoining my mom so that way she and my sister and I could get ready for the trip to Vallejo together (our quarters in Mare Island weren’t quite ready yet). And of course most people who know me and submarines think of a later sub visit when I was 11. But for me this was the best time on any of the Navy ships in my dad’s career, a trip done just because it could thanks to other plans.