Talky Tuesday: Let’s talk structure

Life in lockdown, now with broadband internet (long story) and always with Amazon Prime. Tonight’s viewing pleasure was the 2008 buddy stoner comedy Pineapple Express, and looking at it as a writer, I have to say that this thing is perfectly structured, at least going by the bullshit rules that the late and not lamented Syd Field tried to push on everyone.

In a way, it reinvents the screwball comedies of the 1930s as a modern road trip bromance, and all of the heavy lifting is done by its stars, Seth Rogen and James Franco, in a script written by Rogan and Evan Goldberg, and directed by David Gordon Green.

But what I’m really looking at here is the story structure, and it follows all of the beats, as Rogan’s character Dale plods through his life as a 25-year-old process server who’s dating an 18-year-old high school girl (yes, eww, despite what he says), only to one evening witness a murder committed by a drug kingpin and a dirty cop.

He runs to the only safe haven he can think of — the apartment of his pot dealer Saul — and thanks to a particular unique strain of pot that gives the film is title, the feces hit the rotary oscillator early on, and then everything escalates from there.

What’s great about this film is that it makes us really care about these two guys in the first act and then, exactly twenty-seven minutes in, pulls the rug out. For the next hour, it’s a game of out of the frying and into the fryer… then into a deeper fryer, and so on and so on in a beautiful Matryoshka trick of “How much worse can we make it for these dudes?”

Hint: End of Act II… it looks like all of Dale’s relationships have gone down the toilet, including his safety net Saul, and entirely because he happens to smoke pot. It goes surprisingly deep for a film that starts out looking like it’s just about a couple of lovable goofs who love to get stoned.

Bonus points: Corrupt Cop Lady and Kingpin mistakenly determine that Dale and Saul are evil masterminds who are dangerous that they make the Yakuza shit their kimonos. (Yes, the film only ever specifies that the Big Bad’s nemeses are “The Asians,” but casting and language hints strongly indicate Japanese.)

But, back to the film and its structure and story.

The end of Act II moments, in terms of the characters are absolutely heart-rending and devastating. This is when we realize how much Dale and Saul feel about each other.

And at the very end… Dale and Saul can and do kill for each other, and for all intents and purposes, this film isn’t an action/adventure flick. Rather, it’s a romance about two dudes. At the beginning, Saul is just some dude Dale buys his weed from. By the end, Saul is the bestie forever that Dale would and will die for.

Meanwhile, toss in the apparently invulnerable Red, who both accidentally rats out Saul and wants to be his bestie, and the real end-game of the film is a hetero-polyamorous gang bang, at least above the table, in a diner right out of Pulp Fiction.

Momentous Monday: Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director relocated to America in the 80s and who himself turns 82 in just under two weeks, is actually one of the most amazing and underrated directors of all time. The main reason for this is that once he came to America, he never abandoned his European sensibility, so while it looked like he was making genre movies, he was constantly perverting the genres.

Audiences just didn’t get it.

Then again, I think he’d been like that from the beginning. I have to say “I think,” because I didn’t hear of him until his 1980 film Spetters, and only after it finally made its way to America via the arthouse circuit. Even then, the only reason I deiced to see it was that it had sort of gay themes, three cute male leads and one hot female, and equal opportunity nudity.

I next ran across his amazing The Fourth Man, sort of a twisted next-generation Hitchcock thriller that did not disappoint and, again, involved a flawed and yet gay protagonist — keeping in mind that this was a straight director working in the 80s, and, again, while his gay male character flawed, so were his straight ones — and he was never not sympathetic to any of them.

I didn’t see his true brilliance until I saw Soldier of Orange, probably his most personal film because it dealt with the Dutch Resistance as the Nazis invaded — something Verhoeven experienced and survived as a child. This, along with his earlier films, are probably what helped make Rutger Hauer an international star, by the way, although he got noticed long before Verhoeven finally came to America and worked with him there.

That would be 1985’s Flesh + Blood, a medieval drama and not one of Verhoeven’s most memorably, not to mention that it feels a lot like Hauer’s very recent turn in Ladyhawke, with Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer.

But then Verhoeven got a whole lot better. Or, in other words, he dropped his Dutch sensibility on the series of big budget Hollywood films he proceeded to direct for the next fifteen years, lampooned the hell out of his adopted country, and subverted the hell out of genres.

So… here are six American Films by Verhoeven, some beloved by critics and some blasted, but all of them masterpieces in their own right.

Hint: There’s a common theme in all of them and… surprise… it’s been there all along in his other works. I’ll just start with his big American Blockbusters.

RoboCop (1987)

Verhoeven burst onto the scene big time with the way-over-the-top violence of this one, starting with officer Murphy having just about every bit of his body blown off graphically, and then including such best hits as Jose Ferrer’s character knee-capped before being blown up, a guy being shot in the nuts through a woman’s skirt, Eric Forman’s dad being stabbed in the neck, unfortunate ginger being toxic-wasted into a red stain on a speeding car and, finally, the big bad being fired, shot, and dumped out a window in, admittedly, one of the worst-animated doll-arm death-falls in all of cinema.

On the other hand… what Verhoeven meant and only a few people got was that this film was absolutely meant to be an over-the-top satire of American culture of the time. And it was all right there — this was the dawn of the Reagan Era, when public prisons were being privatized, police forces were being militarized, and loyalty to company meant everything. Ironic, then, that Verhoeven made his hero a man turned robot, since this was also during the rise of home computers. His hunch was that pure technology would defeat human evil, and he might have been right.

Total Recall (1990)

Forget the abysmal remake of this film. The original is pure gold, because it pretends to be a Schwarzenegger action flick — but it’s not. Sure, he’s the hero, but the brilliant thing about this film, and where it actually pays attention to its source in the works of Philip K. Dick is this: The entire “vacation” that Schwarzenegger’s character buys is, in fact… entirely fictional.

He gets what he pays for: “Blue Skies on Mars.” He is exactly who we see that he is at the beginning, he hasn’t changed at the end, and it has all been a fantasy vacation. Notable, he didn’t bring his wife along. In fact, in the dream, his wife is the villain’s consort, so make of that what you will. This flick is just another brick in the wall of what Verhoeven is getting at. And, then…

Basic Instinct (1992)

This film got a lot of flak at the time for making the villain a lesbian, or at least a bisexual woman, but that was also missing the point. Why was this character not actually the villain but, rather, the heroine? Flashforward…

Showgirls (1995)

And, once again, Verhoeven satirizes America so hard that no one gets it. In a lot of ways, Showgirls is the flipside to Basic Instinct, but look back. That’s his thing. He works in pairs. And this was the hardest he’d satirized anything until his next film… While, on the surface, the film seems to be all about the tits, in the end, it’s really about the power of women. After all, who makes it out alive finally?

Starship Troopers (1997)

If you take this film on face value, you’re not going to get it. But, really, it’s the logical extension of Verhoeven’s RoboCop world. You’re especially not going to get it if you’re a fan of the Heinlein works it’s based on, mostly because Heinlein was kind of a Libertarian douche, by which I mean “selfish child who thought he was better than everyone else,” q.v. Ayn Rand.

But, in American terms, Verhoeven was always an outsider, and this is one where he went for it. While pretending to go all-in for American jingoism and bullshit, he actually made an incredibly anti-war movie, and made it funny and biting satire at the same time.

Hollow Man (2000)

Forget the recent Invisible Man, a shallow attempt by Universal to become Disney. This film, twenty years ago, is the real deal. It basically is The Invisible Man, under a different title, casts a Hollywood heartthrob, and then Verhoeven lets him do everything that any toxic male asshole would do, given the power to be invisible. And naked. And both at the same time.

And this film happens to be the key to all of the others, because the thing that Verhoeven has been toying with and exposing all along, even back to his Dutch films, has been this: Toxic Masculinity. And there’s not even a question about that. Now, I haven’t seen any of his films post 2000 — Black Book, Tricked, Elle, and Benedetta — but I have seen enough of his works to think that it’s the whole toxic male thing he’s been railing against since the very beginning of his career.

And why shouldn’t he? After all, it’s what the Nazis used to ruin his childhood and his country, right?

Sunday Nibble #24: Queer as Folk

Recently, the British series Queer as Folk from 1999 popped up on Amazon Prime, and I had to give it a watch again. This is not to be confused with the American series, which ran from 2000 to 2005 and was inferior in every way, just like the American The Office was a pale and bloodless imitation of the amazing British version.

What? While the US has adapted more than a few British shows into American versions, they’ve only hit gold twice: All in the Family and Sanford and Son.

So, yeah… The American QAF sucked ass. The American The Office sucked ass. Fight me. Oh, crap, that’s right. The U.S. even tried to adapt Red Dwarf. And… no, thank you. And the U.S. version of The Prisoner equally sucked ass.

They can’t even do Australia right — the original Kath & Kim is brilliant. The American version, despite the presence of the amazingly talented and funny Molly Shannon, just fell flat. If you get a chance to see the original, do so. It is just as bust-your-side laughing hilarious as the best of Ab Fab. Oh, right — American tried to ruin that one, too, but it never got off the ground.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to the British version of Queer as Folk. Helmed by Russell T Davies, it is both deeply personal and universal and, hindsight is 2020, he made one of his characters a total Doctor Who nerd, six years before he himself went on to be the showrunner who brought New Who back in 2005.

Who is a running theme in the series, including a moment when the two leads list off all of the actors who had played the Doctor to date, ending with: “Paul McGann (pause) — he doesn’t count!” The sentiment at the time, but since changed as the 8th Doctor was brought into canon.

But I do digress…

I watched both series of the show when it first aired, and then hadn’t been back since. Watching it again now brings back those memories, but also reminds me how time and perspective change feelings about art.

At its core, QAF is about a trio of gay men in Manchester in the late 90s, when there’s a thriving gay life on Canal Street (although the sign has been graffitoed to omit the “C”) while the world outside of this Boys’ Town is still quite homophobic. We also meet their many friends, family, and lovers who are rather put-upon by two of the trio, to put it charitably.

Our trio are Stuart (Aidan Gillen), Vincent (Craig Kelly), and Nathan (Charlie Hunnam). In order, they are the insensitive, mindless whorebot, who only cares about his next conquest; the caring friend who tries to meet someone, tries to take care of everyone, and fails at both; and the underage twink who throws himself into a world he doesn’t understand, only to wind up too emotionally deep and over his head on his first real night out.

In other words, it’s a show that is complicated, deep, and truly edgy — as opposed to fake edgy.

So… when I first watched the show, I also happened to be in my slut-boy days, regularly cruising my local equivalent of (C)anal street and, somehow, managing to pull tail without even trying. No, seriously. The big irony was that I was too shy and insecure to approach anyone, but once I learned to give a long enough stare and smile, it was like I had a magnet in my pants. They came to me, I said yes, deal done.

Although, unlike Stuart, who railed a fifteen-year-old (of age in Britain) the youngest I ever went after I was twenty-five was nineteen, and, again, he asked first.

When I first watched the show, I thought, “Ah, okay. I relate to Stuart.” He’s the one who hooks up with everybody, has no attachments and, anyway, isn’t this show about him? Not that I found him attractive because, to me at that time, he just looked old.

Funny how Stuart later grew up to be Littlefinger and, meanwhile, Nathan grew up to be… a lot of people.

Watching again with the advantage of perspective and maturity, one thing is abundantly clear: Stuart is an absolute shit. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. His picking up Nathan in the first episode is the inciting incident for the whole series, but to Stuart it’s just a hump and dump. As he explains it when Nathan shows an interest in more, Stuart’s reply is, “Why? I’ve had you.”

The thing that really jumps out on a repeat viewing is that although Stuart is 29 and Nathan is 15, the teen is far more mature than the adult — not by much, but at least he manages to sometimes step out of his own self-centered bubble to think about someone else, and he is the direct catalyst for the denouement between the other two.

Vince is the heart of the piece, the one guy who does deserve love and happiness but can’t get out of his own way to achieve it. Partly, he’s stuck on Stuart, although their relationship will clearly never be anything but platonic. Also, he doesn’t believe that he’s worthy of anyone’s love. The punchline is that he’s more worthy of it than either Stuart or Nathan.

I’ll catch up on Series 2 shortly, although that one was a lot different than Series 1, at least in format. The first series consisted of eight half-hour episodes. The second and final series comprised two fifty minute episodes, so felt like a two-part movie, which is a shame. This world and these characters could have easily supported so much more.

The Saturday Morning Post: Prologue

Here’s a little teaser from “The Amateur’s Guide to Making Your Own Miracles,” and you get to read it here first. This is the prologue.

Since the work I’d been serializing here ended its last installment last week, I have to switch gears. I have other works to serialize. I just have to figure out which one to do next. Meanwhile, here’s the second piece I published on the site nearly three years ago. It’s the prologue to the book that was the original reason for starting this site, but even as I finished writing the first draft, life brought more complications — and those were the years before 2020! From here, you can follow the links through to the other chapters, if you’d like.

It’s Saturday morning of Labor Day Weekend, 2017, at around seven in the morning. I’m 6,500 feet up in the mountains just below Big Bear, a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles, and I am lost in the woods.

That isn’t a metaphor. Distracted by some deer running through the trees and my own thoughts, I have wandered off of the path and have no idea at the moment how to get back to camp.

Oddly enough, I’m not that concerned. The weather and the landscape here are beautiful, and the only sounds I can hear are nature, as the many birds and chipmunks living in the area are waking up and starting their daily struggles for survival.

I’m up here because I’ve come to an adult “summer camp,” which runs for the whole long weekend. We’re staying at an actual YMCA camp which is available because schools are back in session, so there are no more kids for the camp to rent to. We’re staying in cabins with bunks, although the braver ones have brought their own tents and are roughing it outside. Meanwhile, those with less bravery but more money are staying in their own RVs back up in the parking lot.

I’m not concerned about getting lost because I’ve just had a gigantic epiphany, but I have to rewind to the previous afternoon for a moment. When we had all arrived at the camp on Friday — a diverse assortment of men with ages ranging from late 30s to early 90s — the leader and organizer of the group greeted us and gave each of us a tiny gold safety pin.

They do this camp three times a year, although this was my first visit, and every camp begins with the same ritual but a different object — last time, it was a key, for example. The object comes with simple instructions. Paraphrasing wildly here, they are:

“This pin symbolizes this session of the camp, but its meaning will be unique to each one of you. Some of you may come up with what it means right away. Some of you may not. But the important part is that the meaning of this safety pin is yours alone, and it’s most likely that no two will be the same.

“And you never have to share the secret of that meaning with anyone else…”

Up with the sun, and before my sole bunkmate, I had wandered into the woods, seen the sheer beauty of nature and the pure power of running deer, got lost — and found my meaning of that safety pin.

I’ll share it with you eventually, but finding that meaning was the culmination of a journey that had begun exactly one year and one week earlier. But before I can tell you what I discovered in those woods, I have to tell you the other story first…

Read Chapter One.

Friday Free-for-All #21

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What is the most comfortable piece of clothing you own?

A lot of people might not consider it clothing, but I do, and the answer to the question is: the outfit my mother made for me.

That may be a bit euphemistic, but a lot of people, particularly Americans, freak out over the real answer. The most comfortable piece of clothing I own is my own skin.

I mean, for one thing, no matter where I go, I’m always wearing it, no matter how many other layers of crap I have to cover it up with. But, when I don’t need all that extra crap, it’s gone, and I suddenly feel my most calm and comfortable.

And when I’m around other people who feel the same way and we’re all wearing the same outfit, nothing could be more, well, comfortable.

Right now, I can hear the Americans clutch their pearls while people from most other continents just nod. (Not all of them, but I’m not going to call out anyone not from my culture.) Perhaps they’re labelling me a nudist right now with some disdain, but that misses the mark.

The better term is naturist, and it simply means someone who prefers to be nude when they can be, and outside if possible and permissible.

Here’s another clue-in for the uninitiated. In English, at least, there are two words: naked and nude. Essentially, they mean the same thing — without any clothing or covering. However, functionally, they are very different.

When someone is naked, they don’t want to be. There is a sense of shame and embarrassment in being naked, as if a person was stripped of their clothing and dignity.

Meanwhile, if someone is nude, it’s because they want to be, period. No shame, and no embarrassment. So, basically, I’m never naked, but often nude.

So why is “nudist” wrong? Mostly because textiles (people who prefer wearing clothes) conflate nude and naked, then assume that being in either state only implies one thing.

S-E-X.

And nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, my route to naturism happened in probably the least sexual ways possible. Number one, I was raised in a suburban, white, middle-class neighborhood — but throw on top of that a mother who was a lapsed Catholic who nonetheless never let go of the guilt and body shame.

Or, in other words, naked was nasty. And I remember many a time when she, my dad, and I would be watching some movie on cable in the den, and no matter how violent or gory something was, she didn’t bat an eyelid or make a move to shield young me from it.

But… flash a single bit normally hidden by someone’s “bathing suit area,” male or female, and she would cluck in disgust at my father, announce, “Oh, I didn’t know that this was one of those ‘nudie’ movies,” and he would change the channel while she reminded me that I had homework to do.

However, I grew up at the very ass-end of the era when P.E. in school was still associated with communal showers — in fact, I think I literally hit middle school a class year before it was phased out one year at a time.

To younger readers who might be boggling at the idea that yes, we all were expected to get nude together in the locker room and go shower, that ain’t nothing. Apparently, it wasn’t until about the 1970s that schools finally ended the practice of requiring swim classes and practice to be done in the nude.

Swimmers were segregated by sex, of course, but apparently this was a tradition rooted in history, and it went back to the 1920s. The only likely explanation is that once upon a time, swimsuits were made out of wool — this was before things like nylon and polyester — which meant that they shed fibers, took forever to dry out, and weren’t exactly that comfortable, either.

Apparently, girls were required to wear swimming costumes — not just for modesty, but also because of menstruation.

But to save schools the expense of doing all the boys’ laundry every day, not to mention wear and tear on the filters, they did away with the suits. And, again, this wasn’t that weird. It wasn’t until around the turn of the 20th century that bathing costumes even really existed, mostly because it wasn’t proper for women to go out into nature before that, and because boys and men didn’t need the formality.

Many decades later, it was still totally normal to get naked and take a shower in a locker room. And so, my first year in middle school and the first Friday of P.E. class came the day when we were finally required to do so.

By this point in my life, I’d only ever been naked around my parents, mostly at bath time and, to be honest, I think it had been a while by this point as well — certainly before I’d hit puberty, which actually got me early, in about fifth grade.

But there we were, and factor in the possible weird points of me also being around friends, some of whom I’d known for most of my life, some not quite as long.

But we’d been given the rules, so off my clothes went, and a funny thing happened as soon as I was nude and marching down the aisle between the benches to the showers.

I didn’t care. It didn’t bother me. It didn’t seem to bother my friends, either. The only thing that seemed to be going on was a strange and silent acknowledgement and admiration toward those few of us (myself included) who had already pubed out from those who hadn’t (most everyone else).

I think there was only one kid in our incoming class in the entire school who had refused and worn a swimsuit — and he was mercilessly mocked and teased for it.

Otherwise, I just felt like it was a secondary P.E. uniform, not unlike the school color shorts and T-shirts we wore out on the field. And I certainly wasn’t feeling anything sexual. Rather, what I was really feeling was this: “Wow. I bet my mom would freak out if she knew I didn’t really care about this.”

And, true to form, at dinner that night, she asked me about the whole thing — clearly, the school had been in touch with the parents to “warn” them about the Big Day, which was the first Friday of the semester.

“Did you have to… shower together today?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Were you embarrassed?” she asked.

My honest answer would have been, “Oh, fuck no. Why would I be?” But the way she’d asked it made me think I had to make her happy, so I lied and said, “A little.”

Once I’d gotten to high school, I only had to do the locker room thing for a semester, but then I joined marching band, which counted as physical education but also didn’t require any of the locker room stuff — boys changed into uniform in one of the music classrooms, girls in the other, and no need to showed because, “They can’t possibly get that stanky during a football game.”

Narrator: “Yes. They could.” But at least they dry cleaned them for us every week.

Still… middle school had knocked the shell off the walnut, as it were, and that was that.

One insight I can provide about being a naturist is this: far from being vulnerable without clothes on, it can actually make you stronger. I learned this firsthand when friends invited me to a clothing optional pool party at their place.

I happened to get there first and adhere to the dress code — and then everyone else who showed up turned out to be a fucking textile. So it was one naked man (me), and eight not-naked people. You know who felt uncomfortable during the whole thing? Hint: It wasn’t me.

And they didn’t feel uncomfortable because they were all looking at my dick because this happened to be a group of gay men. It also wasn’t because I had the most fantastic, ripped body at the party, because I didn’t. I was just average, and at least a few of them were actually really hot.

Nope. Quite simply it was because they did not feel comfortable in their own skins.

So in the dynamic of this situation, I wound up having all of the power because I had none of the fear or insecurity.

That’s because I was wearing an outfit I felt (and feel) totally comfortable in — and if you want to learn to do the same, well… Bea Arthur, bea naked.

Besides, if you’re still working from home and not via Zoom — why not?

Theatre Thursday: So much for stage fright

The one thing I miss most of all during these strange days, other than hanging out with friends, is being able to go on stage and perform. I know that it’s something that a lot of people wouldn’t miss because they’d never do it in the first place, but I’m feeling the loss, and so are my many actor and improviser friends.

Studies seem to show that the one thing people fear the most, beyond death and spiders, is public speaking… and I just don’t get it. Then again, I’m a performer. Put me on a stage, give me an audience, and I am on. And it doesn’t matter whether I have pre-planned words to speak, like doing a play or giving a speech, or whether I’m totally winging it by doing improv.

To me, an audience is an invitation to entertain.

On top of that, to me, the more the merrier. I’ll take an audience of hundreds over an audience of dozens or fewer any day. The energy of a large house is infectious, and whenever I’m with a cast that’s in front of a big crowd, we all can feel it in each other’s performances. The intensity level and connections between us all go way up.

And it’s not an ego thing. It’s not about “Oh, look at ussssss!” It’s the people on stage thinking, “Look at them.”

We can see and hear you out there, and speaking for myself, if I’m doing comedy, there’s nothing I appreciate more than hearing a good laugh. If I’m doing drama, then there’s nothing more satisfying than the silent intensity of dozens or hundreds of captive eyes and minds.

Every time I go onstage, I have to wonder why anyone would fear doing it. Because here’s a simple truth that performers just know but which muggles might miss: The people watching you in the audience are a lot more afraid than you are.

Why is this? Two reasons. The first is that the audience gets to sit in the dark and be anonymous, while the performer doesn’t. You’d think that this would put the performer on the spot, but it’s quite the opposite. In fact, being in the spotlight gives the performers all of the power — and if you’ve ever been in the house of a large professional theater with a name actor onstage when someone’s cell phone rings audibly, or people are taking pictures, you’re seen this power being used with a vengeance.

This touches on the other reason for the fear: That an audience member is going to wind up being forced to participate somehow — that’s been a hazard of modern theatre ever since Bertolt Brecht broke the fourth wall, if not even earlier. Audiences can get spooked when the actors notice them and interact with them.

I’ve seen it as an audience member most obviously when I went to a production of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, which is a piece of environmental theatre first created in the 90s that casts the audience as the wedding guests. (A modern example of the form: escape rooms.) The audience starts out just sitting in the chairs under the outdoor tent for the ceremony, which is not without its family drama, although this part plays out a little bit more like a traditional play.

It’s when everyone moves inside to the banquet hall for the reception that things get interesting. Well, at least the cast tries to make them so. The audience is seated at various tables, with one or more actors planted at each. Now, I have to assume that each table had a similar set-up facilitated by a different family member. At ours, the Tina’s mother came over to tell us that Tina’s ex had come to the wedding uninvited, but that was okay. He was fine as long as he didn’t drink, so she was putting him at our table and asked us to make sure that he didn’t.

I wound up sitting next to the actor, and I sure played my part, making sure to vanish his champagne and wine glasses before he could get to them, but not only was no one else playing along, they weren’t even interacting with him. Now, I’m sure the inevitable arc for that actor is to figure out how to get “smashed” no matter what, and the character gets really inappropriate later on, but nobody at my table was trying, and I’m sure it was true at others.

I finally got to the point of abandoning my table and chatting with anyone who seemed to be a player, and damn was that fascinating — not to mention that they seemed grateful as hell that somebody was interacting with the character they’d bothered to create. I learned all kinds of things about what was going on, family dirt, some of the Italian wedding traditions, and so forth.

That’s what you have to do as an audience member when you go to environmental theatre. That’s the contract! So if you’re not into it, don’t go see those kinds of shows.

On the other hand, I’ve seen it from an actor’s POV more than a few times, and in shows that were not necessarily advertised as environmental theatre, or were not even announced as happening beforehand. In those cases, I can understand the audience discomfort. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t fun to put them through it, at least in those situations.

Those situations have also been some of my favorite show memories, though. I was in a production of an Elaine May play, Adaptation, that posits life as a game show with a large ensemble cast. I think that only the host and star of the show-within-the-show played one character. The rest of us played a ton and our “offstage” was sitting in the audience, meaning that we had plenty of asides delivered directly to whomever we wound up sitting next to between scenes. Or, sometimes, we’d turn around and deliver the line to the people behind us or lean forward and deliver it to the people in front of us, which startled the hell out of them.

I also performed in a series of Flash Theatre performances done all over Los Angeles over the course of an entire year and staged by Playwrights Arena, and a lot of those involved interacting directly with our audience, which were a combination of people who knew about it beforehand and (mostly) whichever random folk were in the area when it happened. That is perhaps the most immediate and real fourth wall breaking because there was never a fourth wall in the first place. Or, rather, the audience is inside of it with the cast, even if everyone is outside, and a lot of the shows were. It’s the ultimate environmental theatre, staged with no warning and no invitation.

Even when the play wasn’t designed to break the fourth wall, a director’s staging can make it happen, and I had that experience in a production of Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real, where I basically played Mexican Jesus.

It’s one hot mess of a show that only ran sixty performances originally in 1955, when Williams was at the height of his powers, and I can say for certain that while it’s really fun for the actors to do, I felt sorry for every single audience we did it for. And I am really curious to see what Ethan Hawke manages with his planned film version of it. Maybe that medium will save it, maybe not.

But… our big fourth wall break came when the actress playing my mother (aka “Thinly Veiled Virgin M”) held the “dead” hero in her lap, Pietà style (while I was secretly getting a workout using my right arm to hold up his unsupported shoulders under the cover of the American flag he was draped in), and during her monologue, which was a good three or four minutes, every actor onstage except Mom and “dead” hero (there were 26 of us, I think) started by locking eyes with somebody in the audience house left and then, over the course of the speech, very, very slowly turning our heads, making eye contact with a different audience member and then a still different one, until, by the end of the speech, we were all looking house right.

Ideally, the turning of our heads should have been imperceptible, but our eye contact should have become obvious as soon as the target noticed. I should also mention that since I was down center sitting on the edge of the stage, the nearest audience member to me was about four feet away — and I was wearing some pretty intense black and silver makeup around my eyes, which made them really stand out.

Good times!

I’m glad to say that what I’m doing now — improv with ComedySportz L.A.’s Rec League — is designed to never make the audience uncomfortable, so that no one is forced to participate in any way. And that’s just as fun for us on stage, really, because the participation we get via suggestions and audience volunteers is sincere and enthusiastic. And if our outside audience happens to be too quiet or reticent during a show, we always have the Rec League members who aren’t playing that night as convenient plants who will take up the slack after a decent pause to allow for legitimate suggestions.

Yeah, I won’t lie. I definitely enjoyed those times when I got to screw with audiences. But I enjoy it just as much when we go out of our way to bring the audience onto our side by making them feel safe. I never have anything to be afraid of when I step on stage. I’d love to make our audiences realize that they don’t either.

Image by Image by Mohamed Hassan via Pixaby.

Wednesday Wonders: Kenneth Essex Edgeworth MC

Just over 140 years ago, an Irish astronomer, economist, and all-around jack of all trades you’ve never heard of known as Kenneth Essex Edgeworth was born.

You probably have heard of Gerard Kuiper, though, or at least the belt named after him. Since Kuiper was of Dutch descent, that first syllable is pronounced with a long I, so it’s not “Kooper.” The first syllable rhymes with kite. (If you’re an L.A. local, it’s exactly the same as Van Nuys, and for the same reasons that I won’t get into here, because they’re complicated.)

Anyway… Kuiper was about 25 years younger than Edgeworth, died just over a year after him in 1973, and wound up with his name on something that Edgeworth originally predicted and described.

Okay, sometimes it’s referred to as the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, attributing the discoverers slash theorists in the right order, but that’s generally mostly not the case, so that Kuiper really is kind of the Edison to Edgeworth’s Tesla.

But Edgeworth was ahead of his time in other ways. Only eight years after Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 and declared the eighth planet, Edgeworth was expressing his doubts, saying that it was too small to be a planet, and was probably a remnant of the bits and pieces that came together to create the solar system.

He was certainly vindicated on that one, and it was part of the same ideas which gave birth to what should be called the Edgeworth Belt, but which didn’t catch on until Kuiper got in on the act in the 1950s.

Maybe a big part of the problem was that Edgeworth was more of an armchair astronomer. While he published papers, he was a theorists and not an experimenter. Then again, Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist, not a practical one, and his theories changed the way we view the universe.

Edgeworth’s could have changed the way we view our solar system, and he also hypothesized what later became known as the Oort Cloud — named for another damn Dutch astronomer, Jan Oort, who once again came to the party long after Edgeworth proposed the idea.

When Edgeworth was a child, his family moved to the estate of his maternal uncle, who was an astronomer, and had an influence on young Kenneth. Later, the family would move to the estate of Edgeworth’s paternal grandfather, where he would develop engineering skills in his father’s workshop.

He went into the military, joining the Corps of Royal Engineers, and was posted to South Africa, where he served in the Second Boer War. His military career continued through World War I and beyond, and he retired in 1926.

However, between the Boer War and WW I, his uncle submitted his name for membership in the Royal Astronomical Society, and he was accepted for in 1903. By this point, he had already written papers on astronomy, since one of them was read at the meeting during which he was elected. He studied international economics during the Great Depression and wrote five books on the subject in the 1930s and 40s. He also published various papers on astronomy, covering subjects like the solar system, red dwarves, star formation, and redshift.

It was also at this time that he published his thoughts on Pluto, as well as the existence of both the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.

After he “retired,” he published a series of letters and papers, leading to his book The Earth, the Planets and the Stars: Their Birth and Evolution, which was published in 1961. He published his autobiography, Jack of all Trades: The Story of My Life, when he was 85, in 1965, and died in Dublin in 1972, at the age of 92.

His contributions to the Kuiper Belt and Oort cloud weren’t acknowledged until 1995, although he did have an asteroid named after him in 1978, 3487 Edgeworth. Yes, a comet would have been more appropriate, but those are only named after their discoverers, and after October 10, 1972, Kenneth Edgeworth wasn’t in a position to discover anything new.

But while he was around, damn what a life. And what an unsung hero. Proof yet again that, sometimes, the ideas that sound utterly crazy at the time turn out to be the truth.

I wonder which unsung geniuses we aren’t listening to now, but whose visions will be obvious in a generation or two.

Image: Kenneth Essex Edgeworth, year unknown. Public domain.

Talky Tuesday: More misused words

It can be a chore sometimes trying to convince people that spelling and grammar are important. And FSM knows I can be a hypocrite in that I roll my eyes and say, “Oh, hell no” every time someone laments the inability of people nowadays to write or read in cursive.

Then again, I really don’t see the point of cursive, especially not when we can do most things by keyboard. Although the flip-side of that advantage is that it lends itself to text speak and emojis — which is fine in the context of messaging, where it works. But if you’re attempting anything more formal, and that includes arguing about shit in social media, then for the moment you still want to go for the good spelling and grammar.

Why? Because to do otherwise really undercuts your argument. If you have sloppy grammar or bad spelling, it tells us one of two things, depending upon your attitude about it.

First, if you misspell or misuse words and don’t care, or spell them like you hear them instead of like they are (e.g. caught in the wild: “riddens” instead of “riddance”) then it tells us that you are intellectually lazy, so that means we don’t have to bother listening to anything you have to say, because you haven’t bothered to research it, you’re only parroting what you’ve been told, thank you and good night.

And if you misspell or misuse words because you just can’t remember the difference between things like your and you’re, that tells me that you really can’t retain easily learned information, and probably are not the best choice for trusting with anything complicated.

Hint: At those times when I’ve been in charge of hiring, cull trick number one was to dump any résumé with an unforced error in either of these areas. Note that this doesn’t include typos. For example, if I see “the” where you clearly meant “they,” that gets a bit of a pass. But if you mix up words or spell things wrong, then… b’bye.

That said, here are some more heinous abuses of the language that I’ve seen in the wild in just the last couple of weeks.

Raindeer instead of reindeer

I suppose this might make sense since these noble creatures are associated with Santa Claus and winter and a time when it might rain, except that reindeer and Santa are associated with the North Pole (or at least Finland and Lapland), so if they were being named because of the weather, they’d probably be snowdeer.

Not to mention that they’re more elk-like. But the whole idea of the “rein” in “reindeer” is that reins are things you put on animals to steer them.. The most famous example of reined animals are horses, although you can rein cattle. You don’t rein oxen, though, you yoke them, and they seem to figure it out from there.

Nobody puts Bambi in a yoke. Or reins. Or a corner. But as for those fabulous Lap cervidae with the fabulous antlers… better rein them in so that they can lead Santa’s sleigh.

Adieu instead of ado

Most often seen in a phrase like “with no further adieu (sic)…”

This is an interesting example of ignorance trying to appear more intelligent, since there’s the appropriation of a French word there — adieu, for good-bye, which is a cognate of the Spanish adios, both of which literally mean “to god!” And if you take them in the context of when and where they originated, they were basically saying, “Hope to see you again, but if you die of plague before that, which is really likely old friend, may you go to heaven.”

Whoa. Heavy. So saying “Much go to god” makes no sense at all. Instead, we have the early middle English word (thanks Willy Shakes) a-do, which takes that old Romance pronoun “a,” meaning motion toward, and sticks it on that definitely English verb “do,” which is such a powerful auxiliary verb in the language that it steps in for most translations of direct questions in romance languages.

“¿Hablas español?” “Do you speak Spanish?”

“¿Quién lo hagas?” “Who did it?”

 “¿Sabes qué hora es?” “Do you know what time it is?”

I guess the only trick here is to think of the “a” in the negative as “nothing more to,” and then naturally sticking it on the verb to do, dropping the to. Or, in other words, why not the phrase “With nothing more to do” or “No more to do before…”

With no further ado…

Per say instead of per se

This one is simply an example of never having seen the word in print and pushing English onto it. Except, if you’ve ever studied any Romance language or Latin, this form makes sense, because the pronoun “se” will immediately hit your eye as a thing that’s used to create the passive tense, at least in Spanish.

You’ve probably seen “Se habla español,” and what it means is “Spanish is spoken here.” Well, at least in English translation. A more literal translation that is not as English friendly would be something like “it is spoken, Spanish.”

As for “per” it’s a well-used word in English, and you see it in prices all the time. “How much are the lemons?” “It’s $1.25 per pound.”

In other words, “per” in English means “for” or “for each.” Pretty much the same as it means in Latin or, shift it to “por,” in Spanish.

Put the two together and, in Latin, it makes total sense: per se, for itself. In Spanish, not so much, and “por se” is not a thing. But the important thing on top of that is that “say” is not a word in Spanish, Latin, French, or Romanian.

Which brings us right back to the original and only translation. Something noted with “per se” is by, of, for, or in itself. So… “I’m not saying that all Romans will know this expression per se, but I think a lot of them will…”

Complimented instead of complemented

This one is not as hard as it might seem. Compliment means to say something nice about someone. Complement means to go together. So here’s the reminder: In order for you to get a compliment, I have to do it. Well, someone has to, but the point of the mnemonic is that compliment has an I in it. Complement doesn’t.

As for “complement,” it all goes together, as in the word has one O, two E’s, and no other vowels. Or you can think of the word complete, and remember that when one thing complements another, it completes it.

When in their adjectival forms, complimentary and complementary, you can remember which is which in pretty much the same way. As for the other meaning of complimentary — something received for free, like a hotel’s complimentary buffet — remember the I because it’s a gift.

Breaking instead of braking

The trick here is in the vowels. Well, sort of. If you’re talking about a car — or an auto or any vehicle stopped by gripping the wheels or other things — then the only vowel is an “a.” Ergo, the word is braking. Hit the brakes. Brake to a stop. Brake the car. Or… brake the automobile, which starts with A.

Now, you’d think that the name for a light-weight jacket often made of synthetic materials should then be a “windbraker” becase it stops the wind, but it’s not. It’s a windbreaker. Now why is it called that? If it’s because it breaks wind, that would be a really neat trick for a jacket to pull off, not to mention either amusing or alarming, depending upon your sense of humor. (Personally, I’d find it hilarious.)

The real answer is that Windbreaker® is a registered trademark of the company John Rissman & Son, so in reality we should really use the alternate name windcheater. However, Windbreaker is going the way of Kleenex and Xerox, both trademarks that have basically become generic in common usage.

Or, in other words, a lot of people probably ask for a Kleenex instead of a tissue, or use the Xerox machine even if it’s a Canon or Brother, and we all google stuff even if we’re using Bing — but, really, why would anyone be? What we don’t see are companies releasing things like “Billy Johnson’s kleenex” or “FlurfingtonCo xerox machine,” because those would still violate the law.

Oops. Let me put the brakes on that digression. The other word, “break,” basically means to divide, shatter, ruin, wreck, interrupt, or make something useless or incomplete. Break-up, prison break, break dishes, break the mold, break a record, and so on.

It can also mean to suddenly start something — break into a sweat, break into a run, break out in song — or to prepare something for use — break in the car.

One use that simultaneously interrupts one thing and starts another is going to be the key to remembering this spelling, and that’s breakfast. If you’ve never really thought about it, that word may seem weird, but let’s break it down (see what I did there?) so that we get break and fast.

Fun fact: the word is exactly the same in Spanish: desayunar, to breakfast, combines the verb ayunar, to fast, with the prefix des-, which means to remove. The noun form is desayuno. And yes, in English it is entirely possible to say, “Let us breakfast this morning” and use the word as a verb.

Now where did fasting come into it the equation? Simple. You haven’t eaten anything since before you went to bed the night before, which should have been at least eight hours ago. So when you have your morning meal, you are interrupting, or breaking, that fast. At the same time, this meal is the start of your day. So you get two interpretations of break for the price of one. And since you do it by eating, there you go. This version of the word that sounds like braking has “ea” in it. And you can’t eat or break without them.

Momentous Monday: Marbury vs. Madison

Two hundred and seventeen years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court made a very important decision, one that has resonated on down through the years, and one that is more important now than ever.

Basically, a little incoming executive fuckery attempted to block an approved appointment by the outgoing administration… or did it? Because the outgoing administration wasn’t so innocent either, and to top it off, the Supreme Court Justice who ruled in the case, John Marshall, had been Secretary of State to the President who was trying to pack the courts with justices favorable to his side in the last days before he had to turn over the reins to Thomas Jefferson.

Side note: For all of you Founders fans, read up a bit, and you’ll realize that if you’re progressive, then you’re on the side of Adams, not Jefferson.

Anyway, beyond the politics of all of the above, two things are notable. One is that Marshall actually ignored the fact that he was voting against his guy (Adams) in this case and voted for what was right. Second is that this case forever enshrined the idea that the Supreme Court could absolutely decide whether a law passed by Congress was Constitutional.

Hello, checks and balances, everyone.

But it seems to have passed out of fashion to understand this simple fact. Our Constitution set up three branches of government for one simple purpose: So that no one of them would become too powerful. That’s what checks and balances means.

The three branches are as follows:

Legislative, meaning both houses of Congress, whose job is to make laws.

Executive, meaning the President and Cabinet, and their job is to figure out how to enact the laws passed by the Legislature, or to say “Nope. We’re not passing that law.” (To which the Legislature, with a two thirds majority, can say, “Nu-uh, it’s passed. Suck it!)

Judicial, meaning the Supreme Court, and they get to decide whether a law follows the Constitution or not.

Oh yeah. All three branches are constrained by the Constitution. At least in theory. And getting back to the Legislative, there are two houses of Congress, which makes it wonky: The Senate and the House or Representatives.

These came out of what you can basically call White Privilege, i.e., “We really can only trust rich, old, white, land-owning dudes over 21 to do what’s best (for rich, old, white, land-owning dudes over 21), so the system was stacked from the top. The Reps in the house are based on the population of states, meaning that in the modern day places like California, Texas, and New York have the most Reps. However, the Senate is based on state, as in every state gets the same two Senators, so that California, with nearly 40 million people, gets the same number of Senators as Wyoming, with just over half a million people, and that is utter bullshit. Of course, this is the same nonsense that gave us the Electoral College, which really needs to be banished as well.

To keep it fair, we really need to banish the Senate, reapportion Congress based on an honest 2020 Census, and pack the Supreme Court to at least 17 Justices. Maybe even consider the concept of having two or more of those positions elected by the people instead of appointed by the President, and with the power of recall endowed, again, with the people..

Oh yeah. Because that’s the really big part that the whole “Systems of Checks and Balances” things ignores. The fourth branch of government.

Who is it? You may ask. Simple. It’s us. We the people, and our power to vote. We can’t do shit about the Supreme Court (yet, but see above), otherwise, the President and Congress are in our hands.

The Supreme Court Justice you may or may not have heard of, and who was equal parts hero and dick. 

Sunday nibble #23: Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?

Since I don’t subscribe to HBO, I wasn’t able to watch the TV series Watchmen when it first ran, despite everyone telling me it was the best thing ever. However, to honor the Juneteenth holiday, last weekend HBO allowed everyone to watch it for free, so binged the nine episodes, viewing three per day from Friday through Sunday.

I’ll get to my impressions of the show in a moment, but first, my history with Watchmen in general. I had heard of the graphic novel but had never read it until just before the film came out in 2009. In fact, I think I’d only ever read one graphic novel, which was a short one consisting of maybe two or three issues of a comic. A friend had sent it to me as a present, either birthday or Christmas, to encourage me to get into the genre, but it didn’t work.

Sure, I read comic books as a kid, but always leaned toward the so-called Bronze Age holdovers and wasn’t really into the New Age stuff, because they were just too gritty and dark for me.

Oh… there is a concept in comics of the format being divided up into at least four ages: Golden (1938-1950), Silver (1956-1970), Bronze (1970-1985), and New (1985-Present).

In a nutshell, the Golden Age is when all the classic super heroes were introduced, including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America. They were a cheap source of entertainment, especially during WW II, and it wasn’t uncommon for a single issue to sell a million copies.

Near the end of the war, though, tales of super heroes fade in popularity, replaced by genre comics — sci-fi, westerns, romance, etc. — but then Cold Age paranoia and prudishness intruded, linking comics to juvenile delinquency. To avoid government censorship, the industry created the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a self-regulating body similar to the movie industry’s MPAA.

The Golden age heroes started to return and the next generation began to appear — Spider-Man, Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man, and the X-Men. There’s also an emphasis on superhero teams, and this is when the Justice League is fully formed from its origins during the Golden Age. This is also when The Avengers appear.

Side-note: It’s why Captain America is the First Avenger even though Supes and Batman came first — they played for a different team.

While all of this is going on, underground comics, not subject to the CCA, are thriving, and their subject matter is strictly adult.

The Bronze Age comes about when the comics start tackling social issues of the day, underground comics have an influence, and supernatural and horror stories also become popular. The power of the CCA also fades and the rise of Star Wars leads to the comic industry following suit in merchandising tie-ins, toys, T-shirts, and more.

Frank Miller “reboots” the Golden and Silver Age heroes in dark and gritty versions, and then Alan Moore publishes Watchmen. Its first appearance was in 1985, in the 50th anniversary special of DC Spotlight, although the series itself ran twelve issues from September 1986 to October 1987, with the omnibus edition being published later that year.

This ushered in the New Age of comics, a big part of the reason being that Watchmen took all of comic history to date, turned the characters on their heads, imagined an alternate historical timeline, and then threw it together into something amazing.

In the original graphic novel, we meet several generations of “masked heroes,” beginning with The Minutemen in the 1930s. While they aren’t exactly the comic heroes we know, there are some analogies, but the first and most mysterious of them is Hooded Justice, who pops up in New York and takes down criminals until the 1950s.

After he refuses to reveal his true identity to the House Un-American Activities Committee, he disappears, later to be found floating face down in the Hudson River, claimed a suicide but assumed a homicide, depending upon whom you ask.

(This is all established in the graphic novel, by the way, so it’s not a spoiler to the series.)

There are other first generation heroes, like Captain Metropolis, Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Mothman, Silk Spectre I, and Nite Owl I, although only Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre and Nite Owl make it out alive to the next generation.

Round two, the Silver Age heroes, are Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Rorschach, and the Comedian although eventually masked heroes are outlawed, with only Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian staying semi-legal, but only because they go to work for the government.

By the way, Dr. Manhattan is the only one who actually has superpowers, acquired during an accident with a quantum physics experiment back in the 1950s.

Now I knew none of this because I’d never read the book, but then in 2008 I saw a trailer for the film Watchmen, and it blew me away. I think this is the final 2009 trailer, but they didn’t change much from one to the other. It’s worth the watch. Pun intended.

So I watched the trailer over and over online, intrigued by everything in it, and then ran out and bought a copy of the graphic novel, which I proceeded to binge-read over the next few days, using most of my lunch hour at work to down the next chapter.

Wow.

For one thing, it proved me wrong in thinking that “comic books” were not a literary form. Watchmen certainly was worthy of being a novel — in fact, the only graphic novel to be included in the Time Magazine top 100 novels list.

For another, it went beyond comics, and each chapter would include some sort of literary insert, like an excerpt from a made-up book, a fake newspaper clipping, a brochure, subversive literature, and so on.

Each insert would either shed new light on what had come before or set up breadcrumbs for what would follow, and it added a nice level of multiple narrative voices telling a story that may or may not be true.

I was not disappointed by the film version — unlike lots of fans of the book — although I did enough research to realize that skipping the two print spin-offs: Before Watchmen and The Doomsday Clock were probably a good idea, since they seemed to be nothing more than cash-grabs by DC Comics, with no involvement from Alan Moore. (Not that he’s involved in anything but the original book.)

So when I heard that HBO was making a mini-series, I was at first skeptical. I wondered whether they weren’t going to try to adapt the original again, in which case, why bother? And then, this trailer dropped.

Clearly, not an adaptation of the series, but a sequel, although it looked both amazing and confusing — none of the familiar heroes in sight, only one shot that might have been Nite Owl II’s vehicle Archie, but still plenty of masked heroes. And I couldn’t watch it without subscribing to HBO, but even this was not incentive enough.

Luckily, I managed to remain mostly spoiler-free (other than who Jeremy Irons was playing) for eight months, watched three episodes per day for three days and, just like with the graphic novel, all I can say is… wow.

The series managed to feel like the narrative structure of the book, tie in the first and second generation masked heroes and then bring in a third in the modern day, and then be about something even bigger than the original.

After all, the big fear when the graphic novel came out was the Cold War and the end of the world via nuclear holocaust. In fact, the whole point of that story is that one of the masked heroes takes it upon himself to avoid humanity’s annihilation by creating the perception of a new threat that exists outside the control of the USA or USSR.

Let’s just say that the new series has equally megalomaniacal characters, but also managed to hit upon humanity’s true, current existential threat a year before it popped into the forefront.

If you’re a fan of the graphic novel or movie, you won’t be disappointed by this one. If you have no prior experience of Watchmen, you won’t need it to enjoy the show but do yourself a favor if you feel like binging: read the graphic novel first, then watch the movie, then settle down and binge.

Oh yeah… after the freebie from HBO, the series is also now on Amazon Prime, and was recently released on DVD, so there’s that.