Monday, April 21, 2008

Trapped In the Closet

My curiosity finally got the best of me and I was able to find the time to rent R. Kelly's Trapped In the Closet. The rampant homophobia and midgetphobia, as well as stereotypes of overweight white women, that ran through the piece were exactly what was to be expected from a man who gets his thrills by pissing on underage girls.

Still, I found these twenty-two chapters worth of epic saga appealing. R. Kelly has taken on the role of the minstrel. I don't mean to say that he is rehashing Dust Bowl era minstrelsy such as black face. He is working in an older tradition, a bardic one that stretches back through Chaucer and Homer. His rhymed and sung narrative is cheesy, stupid, and self-absorbed, but something about it makes it an achievement that it is hard to turn away from.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Blazing Saddles

Well, I finally saw Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles for the first time since I had a real conscience. I may have watched parts of it out of curiosity over the years, but I remembered what I had seen quite differently. My overall impression was that it was hopelessly racist against so many different types of people. No group comes out of this unscathed, though whites are the least obviously stereotyped. This may be because I'm not accustomed to searching out white stereotypes, though. Needless to say, I was offended by various times by portrayals of Hispanics, Arabs, Native Americans, Jews, etc. The movie did have, potentially, two saving graces however.

The first was its wonderfully post-modern ending where Bart and the Waco Kid are riding through Hollywood and decide to go catch the ending of Blazing Saddles. Once they begin watching the movie, they themselves as characters are even more hyperaware of themselves as artifice than usual. My favorite touch was that on screen, the Waco Kid is eating movie theatre popcorn even as his doubled character is watching him from the confines of a movie theatre seat.

The other saving grace arose from the plot. While it is racist against everyone, it does save itself a little bit in regards to African-Americans by having Bart be a brilliant hero who thinks outside the box. This allows the film to create a situation where the whites who are stereotyped as racist (with a couple exceptions) are made into complete idiots. This allows Hedley Lamarr, the head-honcho of the jerks, to instruct his gang of criminals to "do that voodoo that you do so well." The line is of course stolen from Cole Porter, but what makes the line brilliant, and the movie's second saving grace, is that Hedley Lamarr, who abhors non-WASPs, is invoking a traditionally black, pagan belief system in order to cheer on his motley crew.

Monday, April 7, 2008


I get to share my birthday with some pretty kickass people. Billie Holiday, post-modernist Donald Barthelme, Romantic poet William Wordsworth, Will Keith Kellogg (who was a trusting enough capitalist that he let Mr. Post steal his recipe before patenting it himself), Ravi Shankar, Francis Ford Coppola, Janis Ian . . . hell, even James Garner is pretty cool. Before some late-career features that proved a little light, he was the badass gambler I got my middle name from (Bret Maverick); not a bad compendium of folks at all. Definitely enough to overshadow John Hall's contribution to the world.

If it wasn't completely obvious, I love music, and so I got to thinking today about The Beatles' song "Birthday" and its strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths are all obvious. It has a great guitar riff and some shredding vocals. Sir Paul gives it a real workout. Its weaknesses all stem from it being a birthday song.

Let's start at the beginning (a very good place to start). The joy of birthdays is their exclusivity; it is the one holiday of the year that is meant to celebrate you -- your own special day. The openings lines of "Birthday" are "you say it's your birthday. / Well, it's my birthday too, yeah." No one wants to hear that on their birthday. Who is going to come to your birthday party if they have the option of punch and cake with your parents or jammin' to the Venus and Mars rock show in London? Your own siblings would sneak out to go to Paul's party. I mean, maybe Matthew and Gunnar Nelson love this song, but unless you're a twin, sharing your birthday sounds like a nightmare.

Then you get a verse where Paul wants you to dance and take a ch-ch-ch-chance. That's great. I love to dance. But then at the end of the verse, Paul gives this gut-wrenching scream where he sounds like a mad scientist caught in a bear trap. It's a little scary. Bill Nye can come to my party, but Gargamel can stay home.

Still, Ringo keeps the beat rockin'. And, if today is your birthday, I'm glad it's your birthday. Happy birthday to you.