Monthly Archives: September 2013

September 30, 2013

Disney Canon #51: Winnie the Pooh (2011)


BROOM Given our project, this is a fascinating artifact. Don’t you think? It’s surprising that they made this movie and distributed it to theaters. Surprising for several reasons, some of which are critical and some of which are just historical. The effort to do honor to the old values and old properties of Disney, and the effort to make it up-to-date — which together were so dissonant and such a failure — felt indicative of where things are in 2011, culturally. When earlier movies made attempts to recapture “the old Disney,” I had the cynical sense that they just didn’t know how anymore. Now it’s like they so utterly don’t know how anymore that they’re very specifically doing an entirely different thing in its place.

ADAM [dubious ‘tude take] “O-kay…?”

BETH I think the choice of Zooey Deschanel to be the singer is indicative of the attitude they were taking toward this: “Let’s be twee! This is Winnie the Pooh, it’s inherently twee, so let’s play that angle! Christopher Robin is like the perfect hipster kid!”

BROOM Are you saying that about Christopher Robin’s portrayal, or the portrayal of his bedroom?

ADAM His bedroom was awfully steampunk.

BROOM It was like Zooey Deschanel album art.

BETH It was like the Wes Anderson version of Christopher Robin’s bedroom.

BROOM Where did we get this couch from?

BETH Room and Board.

BROOM It was like that.

BETH I don’t know how to take what you’re saying.

ADAM Well, I happen to have Zooey Deschanel right here… I haven’t thought of my meta-criticism yet, but can we talk about how dull it was?

BROOM Very dull.

BETH It was 53 intolerable minutes. Except for the Backson song on the chalkboard, which was obviously their “Pink Elephants” moment.

ADAM They were obviously bored, because they had these two — not just one, but two — flight-of-imagination fantasy sequences.

BETH Two Dumbo moments.

BROOM The second one was more like Alice in Wonderland.

ADAM That was obviously all that was getting them through the day. There were eight people credited for story in this movie. The original Winnie the Pooh movie was three different stories from the original books. This one was kind of a mashed-up version of two or three different stories, but they didn’t really fit together.

BROOM The thing with Eeyore’s tail is a story; the thing with them making a trap for something —

ADAM The heffalump.

BROOM — is a story. The idea of “The Backson” being something that got Christopher Robin, because he wrote “back soon,” is something.

ADAM The thing where they make tracks around a tree and then they get freaked out by them… I think that had been in the first movie already.


BROOM The movie was dull because it had no flair, no charm, and the animation was very pedestrian.

BETH The animation sucked. It was Saturday morning cartoon shit.

BROOM It looked like one of those straight-to-DVD movies. You know, like Sleeping Beauty 3: Beauty’s grandchildren are having trouble with their pets!

BETH That’s why it was hard to believe it was released in theaters.

BROOM It all felt like the straight-to-DVD production package. Which would make sense of it. Maybe that’s what it was produced to be, and then they decided “hey, let’s put this one in theaters.” I don’t know.

ADAM Did the first movie have all those typography-interaction jokes, too?

BETH I think it did.

BROOM In a much milder way.

ADAM It had a couple.

BROOM I thought the first Winnie the Pooh movie was okay, but Adam, you thought it was unacceptable. You complained that they had made Winnie-the-Pooh an asshole, that they had completely betrayed the charming childlike spirit of the originals. And I thought you were overstating it a bit. But here everything you said seemed to me true.

ADAM Actually, this time I thought the characters’ personalities were closer to what I recall from… I won’t say the books, but from the Saturday morning cartoons.

BROOM It was like the Saturday morning cartoons, in which the characters’ personalities were nothing like in the books.

ADAM Winnie-the-Pooh was sort of self-centered here, but he did still seem like the Winnie-the-Pooh of the books.

BROOM He was like Homer Simpson here! His honey dream was like Homer Simpson going to the land of chocolate.

BETH But don’t you think that Jim Cummings did a great impression of Sterling Holloway?

BROOM Yes! I was impressed.

BETH That was my favorite part: marveling at how well he did the voice.

BROOM I think he’s the same guy who did it in the 80s and 90s on the cartoon show. But all the other voices were terrible! I mean, Craig Ferguson as Owl was terrible, the Rabbit guy was terrible…

ADAM The Tigger guy was okay.


BROOM No. The original Tigger had a great voice!

ADAM I don’t know, I’d have to watch them side by side.

BROOM And I don’t think what you say about the characters was true at all. The strength of the first movie is its really rich character animation. Rabbit is kind of a Bert, kind of a curmudgeonly nerd, and Owl’s pomposity is real and internalized, it’s not just a thin veneer on an idiot. And Piglet is meek and honorable, he’s sort of like Linus, whereas here he was just, like, They Killed Kenny.

ADAM They all had pretty unappealing personalities, it’s true.

BROOM They didn’t really stick to character consistently, either. Why did we have to see Rabbit doing a bunch of ninja shit and everyone putting on helmets and doing a montage of military cliches? And Piglet doing Indiana Jones, or whatever that was…

BETH Yeah, it was Indiana Jones.

BROOM It’s this really offensive desperate grabbing at other stuff.

BETH I feel like that one was an in-joke, because it was very quick…

BROOM “In” for whom?

BETH For the animators. “We’re so bored that let’s put an Indiana Jones reference in this.”

BROOM Then they’re so lame! Did you guys sniff Chicken Little behind this at all? Because I did. I had that sense.

ADAM It wasn’t as bad as that.

BROOM No, it wasn’t, it was much better than Chicken Little, but I had that sense of nerd-world.

BETH I wasn’t thinking of it that way.

ADAM I mean, I see what you’re saying, now. Like, Chicken Little is Piglet.

BROOM This Piglet. If you asked, in 2011, what property Disney should make into their next movie, nobody would have said “they should make a Winnie the Pooh movie in the spirit of the 70s one.” It seems so completely not to fit with the times.

BETH I was thinking, what age of child would accept this?

ADAM This seemed to be for very little children.

BETH Very little, like three- or four-year-old kids.

ADAM It was so boring. And all of the gestures towards, like, “Cowabunga!” were not enough to make even six-year-olds want to watch this.

BROOM What age were we when we watched the Winnie the Pooh TV show? Seven or eight, right? You just accept stuff, on Saturday morning. I checked in with that part of my brain a couple times: “If I was just watching this while I ate cereal, would it be fine?” And the answer was: “… yeah, basically.” But here’s something that I wouldn’t have liked even if I was just eating cereal: Winnie-the-Pooh’s honey wet dream is gross and creepy. Like, honey is gross. That he eats it with a full fist has always been gross. It’s bright yellow, it’s putrid, and he sticks his fist into this opaque yellow honey and it goes all over his face, this has always been gross, and then they went and made a whole world of it.

ADAM It’s true.

BROOM And he swam in it. He would be drowning. It was awful.

ADAM And the physics didn’t work at all. He went into the pot and it oozed out, but then actually the level was like a foot below that.

BROOM Those psychedelic things — when I was a kid, it would be like, “wow, this is heady stuff… if everything was honey, how would you, like… sleep?” I’d start wondering “if he goes off that way, would he go forever? And it would still be honey?” That’s what a kid gets into, and in this scenario, the answers to all those questions were horrific. And the fact that Pooh was just reveling in all that horror shows how unsympathetic he is.

BETH I don’t agree with that!

ADAM I remember as a kid watching the Yellow Submarine movie — do you remember “Nowhere Man,” where they’re in that blank space?

BROOM Yes, that’s the epitome of what I’m talking about.

ADAM It actually did trouble me as a child.

BROOM I think it was supposed to, there. I feel like Winnie-the-Pooh’s real honey fantasy ought to have been him in his cozy house, surrounded by all the honey he wants, because he’s like a little British child who wants sweets. Not some kind of Yellow Submarine hallucination…

BETH That’s for the animators, again, because they wanted to play.

BROOM It’s just a wrong move. Like everything else here.

ADAM It all feels like the Finance department. Some business school graduate was like, “What properties haven’t been sufficiently monetized?” And then they were like, “Okay, I guess we can squeeze some more out of this.” And then the animators were like, “What?”

BROOM Well, that’s the purely cynical explanation. I was saying, I think there’s some other kind of thinking at work too, in, say, the Zooey Deschanel thing. “Hipsters really like the innocence of childhood. The innocence of childhood really appeals to people right now, it’s really in. But we have to put a little bit of Go the Fuck to Sleep edge on it.”

ADAM Peter Rabbit on a skateboard!

BROOM When the animation first kicked in and the music started, and it was clearly twee-ified — “Let’s Get Quirky!” or whatever that SNL skit is — I thought, “Oh, I see! Might this possibly work?” And then 20 seconds in I thought, “I don’t think it’s gonna work.” And then there were 54 minutes left.

BETH It’s sad that that was the second to last movie.

BROOM Well, they’ll go on! Life goes on.

BETH I know.

BROOM “It’s sad that this is the present day,” you could say.

ADAM This is Barack Obama’s America.

BETH We’ll have to address that in a wrap-up conversation.

ADAM I don’t know that this necessarily reflects just the degradation of the culture — though surely it does, to some extent — but also, it’s trying to work within this, like, wheezing tradition…

BROOM That’s what I’m saying about straight-to-DVD. If you went to visit Eddie, and they were like, “we bought him this stack of DVDs,” and it was like, The Legend of Tinkerbell

ADAM I’m sorry, you mean Tinkerbell: Pixie Hollow Games.

BROOM Very good, Adam! And whatever the others are: Lady and the Tramp 2, Lady and the Tramp 3, Oliver and More Company, whatever these things are. If you watched one, you’d think, “yeah, I kind of expected it to look like this.” Like a Saturday morning cartoon that goes on a little long, and is cheery, and has second-rate songs.

BETH And jokes.

BROOM And that’s what this was. It’s just that in this series, we keep saying, “this is what they’re making for kids now?” In fact they’re making all sorts of different crap for kids now.

ADAM Surely this had the lowest box office of any Disney animated movie in the last few years.

BROOM Nobody remembers this movie having happened.

BETH I don’t think they promoted it very much.

BROOM Not on the same scale. Basically, it’s strange that it’s on this list. It’s on a different scale.

BETH It doesn’t feel like it belongs.

BROOM And we’ve said that a couple other times. What are the other times?

ADAM Make Mine Music.

BROOM That’s right, in the 40s.

BETH There were 70s ones that felt out of place, too.

BROOM The first Winnie the Pooh, which was a compilation of shorts. And The Rescuers Down Under had that same feeling of “You didn’t really mean that, did you?”

ADAM Why are shorts so boring? If this had been three shorts I would have been even more annoyed.

BROOM Some shorts are good. All right, you want an answer? I think they appeal to a different kind of attention — more of a you’re-eating-cereal attention — which lasts for about eight minutes, happily. You think: “look at that! look at that! look at that!” And then after eight minutes, you think: “Why? Why is this still going on?” And a short can’t answer that question, because it wasn’t built to answer that question. And that’s what was so annoying about this script; that’s why there were all those story people working on it. They wanted to keep the feeling of episodic shorts, but to also have a long arc.

ADAM By which we mean that Pooh’s stomach has to disgustingly growl for 45 minutes.

BROOM Things that we liked: I liked that he sang a duet with his growling stomach.

BETH I did too. I was ready to be charmed based on that song.

BROOM I was already disturbed that the faces were so inexpressive, by the time that song kicked in. The first Winnie the Pooh has that sketchy, 101 Dalmatians look, where you see the pencil lines, and it has a real artistry to it. If Owl turns around and thinks, there’s a lot of cared-for character in every aspect of it. Here it had that dull, flat, spiritless quality. Rabbit was the only one with any skill to it, and then I saw it was done by Eric Goldberg. He’s one of the few names I know anymore; he’s been there a long time.

ADAM I like that Christopher Robin sounded like Kate Middleton’s sister.

BROOM You said something like “It’s Hermione!” That was how he sounded, like baby Daniel Radcliffe. “We found a kid who has a delightful English voice! And no acting skills!”

ADAM [horrible English accent]: “It’s so broad! Et was sewwww brawwwwd!” It didn’t sound like any English person that I’d ever met. It sounded like an English socialite who — you know those girls with the fascinators at the royal wedding? That’s how I imagine they talk.

BROOM Other things we liked?

ADAM …No. Nothin’.

BETH The beginning, I guess. When you said you liked how it looked already, at the very very beginning, I thought, “Yeah, this is nice.”

ADAM You liked that they got the original Pooh doll out of the Victoria & Albert museum?

BROOM They clearly didn’t.

ADAM They said they did.

BROOM The original Pooh doll looks like a ratty little thing, it doesn’t look like this Pooh at all.

BETH Can I say something I really didn’t like? When his stomach suddenly burst open and stuff started coming out! What was that??

BROOM It was disturbing. That’s an element in some of the stories that his fluff comes out and he needs more fluff, but for them to throw it in for just one second like that was like Alien.

BETH It was really upsetting to me.

ADAM Do we think this has any larger social implications than just “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”?

BROOM You know, we watched a lot of shitty cartoons as kids. We didn’t think twice about whether the center was holding. If we watched an episode of Gummi Bears now, we’d go: [deadpan] “Wow. I really hope those bad guys don’t get the Gummiberry juice to the castle.”

BETH This was better than Gummi Bears.

ADAM It’s true; I went back and watched some Different Strokes the last time I was at the Museum of Television and Radio. They were all really bad. I think the trouble is just when you work in an emaciated form.

BROOM Feature animation?

ADAM Well, Disney feature animation has all these constraints and baggage around it.

BROOM This didn’t really live up to any of those constraints.

ADAM I agree with you, but wouldn’t it have been better if they had just said, “We’re making Howl’s Moving Castle.” Or “We’re making the first Pixar movie,” which was not beholden to anything. And you can already sense now that the Pixar movies start to feel like they’re kind of straitjacketed by expectations. But that was not the case with the early ones.

BROOM Do you think that’s an artistic reality? Or just an reality imposed by the suits?

ADAM I think it’s a partially artistic, partially commercial reality.

BETH I think it’s self-imposed by the animators by what they see works, and what they get accolades for.

BROOM That’s what I thought was going on here. I thought this project had plenty of room, within it, for so much more artistry than they brought.

ADAM You need infusions of fresh blood from outside the form. Part of why Little Mermaid works and seemed like a rejuvenation is because it has this unabashed Broadway thing. And you’ll see that the next one has this unabashedly Pixar-y thing that makes it feel, you know, livelier.

BROOM Even though that is now a 20-year-old thing.

ADAM But it’s the high-low cross, in this case. Where Disney is the high and Pixar is the low.

BROOM I don’t think anyone sees it that way. I think it’s more like “I’m an Apple and I’m a PC.”

ADAM Fine, if you want. Old money, new money. But wouldn’t it be cool if they did a Disney movie that had, like, a Japanese anime infusion in it?

BROOM That was what Atlantis was supposed to be. That didn’t work.

ADAM Well, more stylishly than that. Like, someone who had actually seen a Japanese anime more than once.

BROOM Yes, I do.

ADAM Or what if they let, like, Chris Ware art direct a Disney movie?

BETH During the sequence of the Backson chalkboard animation, I thought, “You could just make a whole movie that looks like this. Maybe you should, because that would be more fun than what we’re watching. And who’s stopping you?” Maybe the suits. But maybe the artists too. It’s not even on the table.

BROOM I like what I’m hearing here. I’m always looking for how to be a better conservative, because they’re essentially conservative, but you’re saying “be radical.” And yeah, it would be great if they were radical.

ADAM Yeah. Some Mary Blair, some something. This just seemed like running on fumes.

BROOM Do you think it has to do with hiring practices? Because who was Mary Blair? Just some artist that they hired. It’s not like they were desperate for fresh blood; it was just part of who they had on staff. Now they hire these people who went to CalArts expressly to be able to do the thing. There truly was the sense of no ideas here, right?

ADAM and BETH Yes.

BROOM As a given. As the baseline. This is why we’re holding up Lilo and Stitch, which is, you know, okay.

ADAM Not that great.

BROOM But we were excited because it seemed like someone had an idea. Just putting watercolors in the background of that movie washed out your eyes: Ah! Something!

ADAM Yeah. I agree. This seemed like it had no possible non-corporate motivations.

BROOM Just a few days ago Beth and I watched, for my second time, the Wallace and Gromit feature-length movie, Curse of the Were-Rabbit. It’s cute. And in the making-of material, someone says that he admires the movie because, quote, “You can’t write charm.” Charm is about sensitivity to all these little touches, and to create something that runs on charm takes great care. And they had done that. I absolutely agree; that’s what makes those Wallace and Gromit movies work: they care about all the things that add up to charm. And that’s what Winnie the Pooh is supposed to be! And it was like they gave it to, you know, swine.

BETH The animators didn’t relate to that.

BROOM I thought the background artists did okay. In emulating the style of the original illustrations.

BETH It’s an easier task. Because you don’t have to draw character.

ADAM I think this was the writers’ fault, primarily.

BROOM I think the fault was spread around pretty evenly.

ADAM Why would you take it upon yourself to rewrite this material? It’s like, “More Alice! Let’s do more stuff with Alice!”

BROOM Alice Down Under! Alice in Space! Alice Planet!

[we read the New York Times review]

ADAM I imagine that if I had had to review Piglet’s Big Movie, I would have been similarly grateful for this.

BROOM It does give some perspective. All right, comparatively, this was a valiant effort to return to quality. But this is what I’m saying about classy conservatism. So sad that this is the classy version. Also, this mention of the jokes with the typography reminded me that I wanted to say: I didn’t like the payoff that they climbed out of the hole on the letters of the book. That joke doesn’t make sense within the scheme of the movie. It’s just stuff. It isn’t satisfying or meaningful or clever.

ADAM They totally forgot about the jump rope, by the way. You’re right, this is better than, like, The Cat in the Hat. You remember that?

BROOM The live-action one, with Mike Myers?

ADAM Yeah. It could be worse. It could clearly be worse.

BROOM Yes, all kinds of things can be worse than other things.

ADAM But the fact that this was bad even though they were trying to, you know —

BROOM First world problems, guys. First world problems.

BETH I have nothing else.

BROOM Here’s something important to say: one left. One left.

ADAM [drum roll sound]


September 27, 2013

Le Misanthrope (1666)

Molière (1622-1673) [born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin]
Le Misanthrope (1666)
translated by Richard Wilbur as The Misanthrope (1952–54)


490. That’s in the middle of Molière’s list, so I read the first work listed. Not sure why that’s the rule, but it is. The Misanthrope, and Bloom specifies the Richard Wilbur translation.

I bought this one. I thought this was something I would feel good about owning, and, in the moment, I liked the way it looked. Beth thinks the cover is tacky, what with the gradient and the fake signature and all, but those very things remind me of comfortable times (i.e. 1993).

I’ll begin by noting once again that plays are short. I can’t stress this enough. We’re not talking about a novel, here. We’re talking about an hour or two.

Richard Wilbur points out in his introduction that Molière’s plays are particularly self-sufficient as texts, such that “a mere reading-aloud of the lines, without any effort at performance, can provide a complete, if austere, experience of the work.” This was borne out. I read the play aloud with a partner (we even made a gentle “effort at performance”) and it charmed — right before our eyes, not just in some imagined theater.

Wilbur’s introduction also notes that maintaining rhymed verse in the translation seemed to him mandatory, essential to Molière’s wit and tone. I don’t know the original but I daresay he did an excellent job. The text is clear and graceful and all sorts of wit lands very nimbly.

We read it aloud with complete rhythmic fidelity to the meter — not robotically, but faithfully in a fluid way — which I found extremely congenial to the tongue and to the ear. And Wilbur’s point about its contribution to the wit is exactly right. The buoyancy made it all delectable.

Not for the first time, I couldn’t help but think: why aren’t Shakespeare’s plays performed this way?

Why are we so afraid of rhythmic speech? It’s something like the aversion to “Mickey-Mousing” in incidental music; there’s this idea out there that strong rhythm makes things tasteless or absurd. As though if the iambs bounce too much, it’s undignified – certainly undignified for, say, Shakespearean Tragedy. But isn’t that just a form of the classic embarrassment of the sensual? Shame at dancing, shame at music, shame at the flesh, shame at art itself? Dance is only absurd in a context of repressing the dance.

What’s so undignified about doggerel, really?

I think that somehow over time we’ve come to think of metered rhyme as something only fit for jest because we wrongly feel it best to try to set “real thought” apart and keep it separate from our art. As though to guard against a threat: that if mere pleasure were to get inside a thought, the senseless vigor would contaminate its rigor.

But obviously that isn’t true; it’s just what art’s supposed to do! The more you integrate the mind — the more the rational’s combined with stuff that stimulates the senses — the more acute experience is. The rational part only gains from someone having taken pains to render it in dancelike verse; it doesn’t make the logic worse, but rather gives it heft and bite, and at some level makes it right.

The dance conveys that thought is good, the joy of being understood, and this can only elevate the author’s sense, and give it weight. And that’s why we should hear the rhyme and feel the iambs keeping time, instead of merely glancing down and with a Harold Bloom-y frown commending Shakespeare’s “splendid song — but to perform it would be wrong.” The notion that in Shakespeare’s plays the rhyme and rhythm are just ways of flaunting discipline and skill — essentially a test of Will — and aren’t to be heard, per se, but only sensed in some vague way, while being willfully obscured by actors who feel reassured by pulling out that standard trick of alternating slow with quick, and taking stabs at “naturalism” by running roughshod through the rhythm — this notion makes no sense to me as anything but anxiety. And yet I know it’s very hard to find productions of The Bard performed in full iambic lilt, where Hamlet singsongs without guilt.

But someday I might see, I hope, a staging of The Misanthrope that honors all the rhymes, as we did, in which I think we succeeded. It wouldn’t be the same in prose, as Richard Wilbur clearly knows.

Or knew, rather.

That tired me out so I think I’m about done here.

The Misanthrope is about the impossibility of absolute sincerity and the grotesqueness of rampant insincerity. It brings up these issues swiftly and elegantly, gets a few laughs with them, sets up some light dramatic conflict with them, and then ends, setting the matter back down without undue moralizing. For this restraint I greatly admire it. The question of sincerity is for each of us to struggle with individually; there’s plenty bite enough in the fact that the philosophical questions are real and timeless (despite the “urbane” subject matter, this stuff is entirely as accessible today as it was in 1666). I found the work far more thought-provoking than I would have found some kind of lesson play on the same subject.

Well, for the duration anyway. Of course afterward I just went on to the next thing and stopped thinking about The Misanthrope. I guess if it had some kind of horrible catharsis and an overbearing moral, I would have been more inclined to wrestle with it in my mind for days afterward.

But that would have been my anxiety at work, clinging to the discomfort as it tried desperately to set right what can’t be set right. You can get people to think about your art by shoving something dismaying in their faces, but that’s the low road. So again, I admire this for going the high road. It comes from an unanxious milieu, a bewigged world of ephemeral grace and wit, and I feel not just soothed but heartened by that soft touch. “For the duration” is a perfectly natural and reasonable amount of time to think about something.

Like I said, plays are short.

I haven’t done excerpts for plays up until now, but why not. I think people like the excerpts. It makes this site a little less blatantly like me talking to myself about something nobody else actually knows about. (Except for Maddie, who so far continues to follow along. Oh, and in this case also except for my reading partner. Never mind, there are plenty of you who’ve read this. But here comes an excerpt anyway.)

This is the first passage that made me chuckle aloud. Alceste, our misanthrope, crusader against hypocrisy, has said that he will not hold back from frankly stating his beloved Celimene’s faults.

I see her charms and graces, which are many;
But as for faults, I’ve never noticed any.

I see them, Sir; and rather than ignore them,
I strenuously criticize her for them.
The more one loves, the more one should object
To every blemish, every least defect.
Were I this lady, I would soon get rid
Of lovers who approved of all I did,
And by their slack indulgence and applause
Endorsed my follies and excused my flaws.

If all hearts beat according to your measure,
The dawn of love would be the end of pleasure;
And love would find its perfect consummation
In ecstasies of rage and reprobation.

Love, as a rule, affects men otherwise,
And lovers rarely love to criticize.
They see their lady as a charming blur,
And find all things commendable in her.
If she has any blemish, fault, or shame,
They will redeem it by a pleasing name.
The pale-faced lady’s lily-white, perforce;
The swarthy one’s a sweet brunette, of course;
The spindly lady has a slender grace;
The fat one has a most majestic pace;
The plain one, with her dress in disarray,
They classify as beauté négligée;
The hulking one’s a goddess in their eyes,
The dwarf, a concentrate of Paradise;
The haughty lady has a noble mind;
The mean one’s witty, and the dull one’s kind;
The chatterbox has liveliness and verve,
The mute one has a virtuous reserve.
So lovers manage, in their passion’s cause,
To love their ladies even for their flaws.

As with the rest of the play, this is, like a good modern standup routine, not only funny but also resonant. Where should tact end? Who is really being mocked here? I laugh in part because I don’t know. Everyone equally, I’d like to think.

Anyway, good going, That’s-a more like it.

See below for the Maddie report, I hope.

September 18, 2013

The Playmaker (1987)

Thomas Keneally (b. 1935)
The Playmaker (1987)


2084: The Playmaker, the first-listed (though second-written) of two selections by the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, the other being his calling-card work, Schindler’s List (original Australian title Schindler’s Ark, 1982). Library copy of the American first edition, from the closed stacks.

This reading assignment happened to fall during a time when I’ve been actively trying to get my right and left brain to renegotiate some of their basic arrangements — a strange process and one still ongoing — and in trying to write it up I have found myself struggling to do justice to the essential bihemisphericity of my response. (This is my third attempt at writing this entry.) So this time we’re trying a new gimmick. Take it away, boys.

R: The Playmaker sounded dull and unpromising when I first read what it was (a fact-based novel about the staging of the first play ever performed in Australia, by penal colony prisoners in 1789) because I distrust historical fiction — it’s usually boring and misguided — and I especially distrust regional fiction. If you’re in a bookstore on Cape Cod and they’ve got a bunch of a locally-published mystery novels about Cape Cod (likely featuring cats and/or ghosts), you definitely don’t buy and read them. So ditto Australia, am I right?

But all the same, in my excitable innocent way, I harbored the hope that this would turn out to be some kind of hidden gem that I could recommend to people. The magic random wheel had spun me a modern but forgotten novel by a writer widely heard of but not widely read. Wouldn’t that be great, if it was great?

When the library called it up from the closed stacks (always a dramatic moment!), I felt like the jacket (as well as the dimensions, the heft of the book) was encouraging. It looked and felt appealingly like a book that was great in 1987 and then unfairly forgotten by cruel fashion. I had good times with library books of similar charisma in 1987; maybe this would offer suchlike good times! Look at that type design! Look at that weird, oh-so-book-cover-y bargain-basement-Magritte painting!

Even the interior offered coy charms: the title page is made to look like it’s printed on a curling theatrical poster, and then you turn the page and see the same poster again but now advertising the play to be performed by the prisoners. Then more novelty frontmatter: a “dramatis personae” and a list of “The Players” enumerating all of their crimes and sentences. Dull to read, admittedly. But I, R, can’t help but get excited about gimmickry. God help me I’d probably be reading Marisha Pessl or some shit if it wasn’t for the old ball-and-chain L. I love me some toys.

But there the toys ended, more or less. (Unless you count the weird two-page prologue(?) that follows, about which more later.) The novel proper started and suddenly it was exactly the book I feared, a boring and misguided historical novel about things I don’t care about, and one that failed to show me how or why to care about them.

Still, I reminded myself: I, R, am kind of timid and ignorant by nature and tend to have a sour-grapes response to everything foreign at first, until suddenly it seduces me. Lots of people love historical fiction. Maybe I just need to stick around and I’ll get drawn in by some kind of unforeseeable magic. Stories about staging plays are usually fun, after all.

But it wasn’t, and wasn’t, and wasn’t, and I truly had no interest in it other than holding it physically, and I had to force myself to go through with reading it. And then as I neared the end, I realized that I kind of had finally developed a faint but real interest in it.

It wasn’t that I found it appealing, exactly. It was sort of the thing I warned myself when reviewing a bad video game years ago on this site. I quote my younger self: “And yet, and yet, every game has its ‘thing going on.'”

This was a book, I’d been reading it, and at some point, the space within me where this book took place had been revisited often enough to have its own discernible flavor. I started to have spontaneous impressionistic thoughts about the subject matter. Huh, I thought, there is something sort of fascinating about the tenor of life in a young but established colony, after the immediate challenges of the elements and the natives are no longer overwhelmingly pressing, and people have to face the subtler challenge of fleshing out their sense of prosaic existence, of normalcy. The challenge not of living in some alien environment, per se, but of feeling that one lives there. I can relate to the troubling quiet of that problem.

“Hey,” I thought, “that’s basically the point of the book, I think! And here I was sort of musing on it – not dutifully, but organically and with a feeling of wonder! (Albeit mild!) So I guess at some level this book was working on me after all!” But only faintly. Still, to be honest, when it ended, my initial dismay had yielded to that old standby, benign indifference. I felt game: sure, why not.

All reading is sort of pleasurable, even reading something I don’t really care about at all. So sue me, I just like holding books and looking at the words and finding out what they say. Yes, of course, sometimes it’s a lot better than just that, but when it’s just that, who am I to complain? I’m R and life is just a bowl of cherries!

L: Well, that’s sweet and all but let’s be clear. This book is a godawful dud, awkward and tone-deaf and mismanaged every which-way. It is glaringly unworthy of inclusion in Harold Bloom’s list and is, I would say, the most thoroughly unrewarding of the 30-odd selections that “The Western Canon” has dished up for me. (Ezra Pound was a big drag too, but at least at the end I could say I read Ezra Pound, right? I read The Playmaker and all I got was this stupid T-shirt!)

The writing is such a dreadful performance of telling rather than showing that I often felt I was reading not a novel itself but someone’s rambling recounting of the events in a novel: “and then, and then.” Synopsis at 1:1 scale, the way an IMDB review might be written by an enthusiastic shut-in.

The author simply has no knack for prose. My sense was that he is probably a nice, enthusiastic, earnest person with a weak sense of humor and a weak sense of himself. At times I felt the uneasy embarrassment one feels in the presence of people entirely unqualified for their jobs. Even if one accepts “graceless delivery of information” as his style, the scheme of that delivery is itself often ill-calculated. The salient data for each lifeless character are re-stated over and over and over, as though assuming an amnesiac reader. The occasional clumsy gesture toward writerly panache, the shift from pure gray to bruisy gray-purple, only throws the vast flatness into relief. Bas-relief. I would characterize the style as “hopeless dullardry.”

Keneally’s skills and apparent interests all seem to lie at the earliest and most private phase of a writer’s work: the research, the synthesis of multiple historical sources, the devising of a framework for grafting personal observation and quasi-narrative onto pure documentary. (He’s written a long string of these histories-as-novels; I think it’s all he does. The latest one just came out while I was reading this.) And I’m comfortable granting him that there is something basically respectable in the bones of the work that undergirds the book.

But the failure of style is so utter and insurmountable that it’s not at all clear how to account for Harold Bloom’s having included this book on his list, even rashly, seeing as his entire raison d’etre is aesthetic snobbery. Possibilities are: 1) he never read it but liked the sound of what it was about; 2) he read or saw the play that another writer adapted from it, which has the reputation of being a sturdy and viable work, and assumed the novel was the same; and/or 3) he is friends with Keneally somehow. Or 4) he just screwed up completely and confused it with some other book. I mean, I guess I have to consider the possibility that 5) Bloom would dispute what I’ve said here about the style. But in the face of the evidence I find that very hard to sustain.

One of the major things the book wants to get across is that being in Australia, in 1789, was like being on the moon — unthinkably far away from the known world. He gets this across, characteristically, by stating it outright, in passing, hundreds of times. I will now gather his epithets for Australia starting at the beginning of the book (p. 25) until we all get sick of it.

p. 25: “this new penal planet”
p. 27: “this vast reach of the universe”
p. 30: “this new earth”
p. 34: “this outermost penal station in the universe”
p. 35: “this far-off commonwealth and prison”
p. 41: “this new penal commonwealth”
p. 52: “this strange reach of the universe”
p. 52: “a miraculous reach of earth”
p. 52: “the new planet”
p. 53: “this particular new world”

That’s enough. He keeps up this pace and this degree of variation until the outermost reach of this 352-page book.

Now for a real excerpt, and your chance to judge for yourself. Let’s see if I can find a paragraph or two that seems to encapsulate things, without digging unfairly hard for something bad.

Okay here’s what I picked, the start of Chapter 8. This is utterly characteristic, and, I feel, more than fair to Keneally because this is a scene with a basic and immediately comprehensible appeal: We’re witnessing the very first read-through of the play by the all-convict amateur cast. Sounds potentially good, right? You might well have expectations for the comic way this scene could go, Bad News Bears style. Or then again you might have expectations about more serious and dramatic things a scene like this could reveal. Nope. Neither. It’s not that kind of story (i.e. one that works). It’s “history”! In the sense of “high school history textbook”: a list of things that happened, grayscale with occasional spot color sidebars courtesy of Corbis Images.

Let’s just jump in here in the middle – I’m not going to explain who everyone is because if you had read the book up to this point you might still have trouble remembering anyway. Which is no doubt why he feels it necessary to name and explain who everyone is every time they are mentioned.

Ralph was soon depressed, though. He had gone to such lengths to cosset everyone’s sensitivity in the matter of having Nancy Turner the Perjurer as Melinda. But reading her lines she showed a shyness she had not exhibited as a lying witness in Davy Collins’s courthouse. “Welcome to town, cousin Silvia,” she mumbled. The happy and arrogantly artistic state the men’s performance had put him in now vanished. H.E. and Davy Collins would forgive him for using Nancy Turner the Perjurer if she were a dazzling Melinda. Those frightful Scots, Major Robbie Ross, H.E.’s deputy in government and commander of the Marine garrison, and his crony Jemmy Campbell, might even be appeased. But they would blame Ralph if Turner were poor, and their blame would be of the furious variety.

But his sweet, composed thief, Mary Brenham, saved the balance of his hopes by expanding before his eyes into Silvia, the way Arscott had expanded into Kite. It was the mystery again. It was the word made flesh. She took fire at the lines: “I need no salt for my stomach, no hartshorn for my head, nor wash for my complexion; I can gallop all the morning after the hunting horn and all the evening after a fiddle. In short, I can do everything with my father, but drink and shoot flying; and I am sure I can do everything my mother could, were I put to the trial.”

At “put to the trial,” she thrust her right thigh forward mannishly. It was sublime. Gardening could not match this, unless the turnips spoke back to you in the tongues of angels!

Huh? What the hell is this? Are you kidding me?

No. Nobody is kidding you. Not unless the turnips are speaking back to you in the tongues of comedians. Ho ho ho.

R: Shrug.

So, like I said, I was going to tell you about that two-page prologue.

Floating between the frontmatter and chapter one there’s this enigmatic, non-chronological, in media res prologue. It has no heading or anything to explain in what spirit it’s to be read. The main character of the book is Ralph, and the prologue starts with “First Ralph heard again how…” and then we have a sort of anecdote recounted, involving several other characters, but not Ralph. “First” before what? we wonder. Why is this scene special? we wonder. When will we understand? we wonder.

We understand on page 276, because the entire passage is repeated, but now completely in context, where it makes sense. Something is about to be told to Ralph by his ailing friend, but first Ralph hears again… this anecdote. A-ha! we think. Now what was enigmatic is meaningful. I have been drawn into the circle; I have met these characters and I understand the dynamics. I have earned this understanding and this familiarity, and now I comprehend the pall of pathos that hangs over this story. It all fits together. Things had all happened as they must. Fate. Something.

This came at around the point in the book where I was realizing that I was getting something out of it after all, and it fit nicely with that. I think I’d encountered this device of a premonitory repeated passage before, but usually in more fantastical writing. Here it took me by surprise and charmed me. It was pretty much one of my favorite things about reading this otherwise bland book.

Then later, when L was trying to find old reviews of the book online, we came across this. Pretty good punchline!

There’s probably some kind of lesson about art in there. super-fan “Maddie from Minnesota” contacted to our offices some time ago, asking humbly if she might be allowed to join the Western Canon Book Club of The Damned as a Junior Canonette. When this selection came up, I extended that opportunity to her, and, tragically, she took it. Upon completing The Playmaker she sent me some rather L-ish comments and invited me to include them in the entry proper, but I think it would better to let her express herself below. Especially now that she’s read all this text I just wrote.

Over to you, Maddie!