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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Random access memory

First thing:  I have the following dream two or three times a year without fail.  It is a Recurring Dream.

I am in a play.  But I have absolutely no idea what my lines are.  Not a clue, not a single line.  It is opening night, and I can’t understand how I got through rehearsals.  Were there any rehearsals?  I don’t remember any rehearsals.  All I remember is that I was given my copy of the script, and I meant to study it, but I kept putting it off and putting it off, and now here it is opening night.  I figure (and this happens every single time) that I can bluff my way through if I simply leave copies of the play lying around on the stage.  Since we’re usually talking about things like Hedda Gabler or The Importance of Being Earnest, it’s not inconceivable that there might be a table or a desk or something on which an open book will not look too terribly out of place, and if I can just manage to hover around one or two tables or desks for the duration of the play, I might be all right.

In the dream, I usually remember (since this is a Recurring Dream) that this has happened before and that I just have to hide the script on stage the way I did last time.

I think the implications of this dream are obvious enough.

Second thing: for a couple of years—oh, say 1997 to 2000 or so, Jamie would occasionally say in a singsong voice, apropos of nothing, “make a pie, make an eye.” Queries as to the origin of this phrase were fruitless; Jamie’s language skills weren’t yet good enough to allow him to explain.  Janet, Nick and I eventually settled for believing that it had something to do with a little routine Jamie had worked out with my mother during one of their visits.  My mother denied it, but we settled on this interpretation anyway, just for the hell of it.

A couple of years after we moved to Pennsylvania, Nick and I stumbled on the source.  For some reason (probably a bout of nostalgia for his younger days), Jamie was watching his videotape of Elmo Saves Christmas, a C-list Sesame Street project that none of us (save for Jamie) had ever managed to stomach for more than five or six minutes at a time.  The premise is awful enough: Elmo, whose voice causes irreparable hearing loss after more than ten minutes’ exposure, wishes that it could be Christmas every day.  He gets his wish, and the result is a horror: all the businesses on Sesame Street are closed, the carolers lose their voices, the Snuffleupagus is off in Cincinnati and does not return (OK, that’s a plus).  But if you stay with the narrative long enough, you will see something genuinely terrifying: the Easter Bunny, realizing that there is no more future in shelling for Easter, has renamed himself the Christmas Bunny. And the Christmas Bunny is played by Harvey Fierstein with maniacal glee. In a giant bunny suit, mind you. The Fierstein Bunny then launches into a song about all the things you can do with an Easter Christmas Egg, and at one point insists, against all available evidence, that “you can make a pie with it/ you can make an eye with it,” holding the egg up to one eye.

It is among the strangest things I have ever seen.

And, as Nick pointed out the other night during our New Year’s Eve dinner at one of State College’s two good restaurants, the strangeness of the spectacle, combined with Mr. Fierstein’s distinctively unmelodious singing voice, distracts one from the overwhelming fact that there is actually nothing you can do with an Easter egg, let alone make a pie or an eye of it.

For sheer WTF weirdness, it is many furlongs beyond the infamous crooner-meets-the-space-alien duet of Bing Crosby and David Bowie.  It may be the single weirdest thing ever done in connection with Christmas, not excluding the Elton John Band locking their arms and kicking up their heels Rockette-style at the end of the video for the incomprehensible “Step Into Christmas.” In fact, to find Sheer WTF Weird analogies we would have to go to Donnie Darko or Twin Peaks.  If you can imagine Harvey Fierstein in a giant bunny suit, standing in the dead of night on the green of a local golf course. . . .

Which reminds me, since today is random access memory day.  A friend and I were talking the other day about the Weirdest Things We Had Ever Seen on Television, and I said, without hesitation, the first appearance of the backwards-talking dwarf in the red room on Twin Peaks.  Seven minutes of Eraserhead-quality surrealism, right there in your living room. 

Not an unusual answer, I know.  On the contrary, a pretty obvious choice—and I watch so little TV that I’m not an ideal interlocutor on the subject.  But I’ll throw in this little observation anyway: I still have my old tapes of Twin Peaks from sixteen years ago, back when we figured out how to set the VCR for that deadly Saturday night time slot.  And while some of Twin Peaks holds up amazingly well (especially the inspired casting!  Peggy Lipton and Clarence Williams III from The Mod Squad! Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn from West Side Story!  Piper Laurie as Catherine!  Don Davis as Major Briggs!) and some of it looks cheesy and some of it looks just as campy as it did first time around, the thing that always got me, way back when, was the tonal and almost tactile difference between Twin Peaks and everything else on television.  Compared to Twin Peaks, ordinary television just seemed flat and tinny and insubstantial—in other words, kinda like television. Twin Peaks, even at its worst, seemed to have a visual depth that violated the representational protocols of TV.  And if you don’t believe me, get your hands on one of those old videocasettes; for obvious reasons, the DVDs won’t do it.  You have to see Twin Peaks with the commercial breaks for Cepacol and Tide and the new 1991 Civic. That, I thought, was what made the show so surreal—the twisted David Lynch version of Peyton Place next to television as usual.  I especially loved watching college football on Saturdays and seeing promos for Twin Peaks pop up here and there; on one especially memorable occasion, ABC’s Keith Jackson, who had been calling football games since the days when the Harvard-Yale matchup mattered, had to do the “stay tuned for Twin Peaks” bit, and when he was through, his color commentator asked, “Keith, have you ever seen that show?” After two long seconds of dead air, Keith replied, “nope.” Then there were four more seconds of dead air.  It was great.

Now if only I could remember my damn lines.

Posted by Michael on 01/03 at 12:28 PM
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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

In memory of the funky president

Welcome to 2007 and the special “last throes” edition of this blog!  Today we’re looking back over the events of the past week and mourning the passing of President Gerald Ford.  Ford took office after the scandal of Watergategate, which was not only named after a famous hotel but set in motion a series of far more serious Presidential scandals, such as Filegate, Travelgate and of course the queen of them all, Monicagate.  But from the first moments of his brief tenure in the White House, Ford set about restoring Americans’ faith in government with a series of groundbreaking hits such as “(Get Up I Feel Like I Gotta) Whip Inflation Now,” “Cheney Don’t Make No Mess,” and of course “Funky President (People It’s Bad).” Watching the memorials for Ford last week, I found myself strangely moved by their evocation of a time before rank partisanship and outrageous nut-flexin’ overtook Washington, when Republicans and Democrats could work together as friends and white people welcomed Black Power accompanied by serious musicianship—before Democrats poisoned the well by forcing Republicans to drive people like Ford and Rockefeller from positions of power in the GOP, before the R&B charts got so nasty and confrontational and full of songs that are hard to sing.

Not many people know that Ford was actually born in Barnwell, South Carolina, under another name, Leslie Lynch King Joseph Brown, Jr.  His father left the family not long thereafter; Ford did not meet him again until he was released from a juvenile detention center and began work at a Greek restaurant.  After touring the South with the Famous Flames and playing football at the University of Michigan, Ford was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican.  In his later life, he often said of his time in Washington that although he was widely known as the hardest workin’ man in the House, he had no real ambition to become the Godfather of Soul, hoping simply to become Speaker of the House if his party ever regained the majority.  Ironically, although Ford remained a Republican all his life, his enthusiastic embrace and eventual pardon of Richard Nixon cost him much of his support in the black community.

I especially liked this bit from the CNN obituary:

Allies and opponents alike remember Ford as a gentle, gracious man, nothing like the bumbler familiar to us from Chevy Chase’s portrayals on “Saturday Night Live.” “He was actually a brilliant and innovative dancer,” noted distinguished statesman Tom DeLay.  “And what stamina!  I remember when they put that cape on his shoulders, he looked so exhausted I thought they were going to have to carry him off the stage.  And then he stripped it right off and started singing and doing the splits and everything, just as fresh as a daisy!  Whooooo-eee!  That man was truly Mister Dynamite!” Deeply divisive former president Jimmy Carter agreed, saying that Gerald Ford “frequently rose above politics by emphasizing the need to get on the good foot and dance ‘til you feel better.”

I personally believe that by the late summer of 1974, when he took office, Ford’s best work was behind him.  Still, his increasingly staccato vocals, in which his shouts and exhortations, like Jimmy Nolan’s “scratch” guitar, became primarily a rhythm instrument, helped pave the way for rap and hip-hop; and of course his “Our Long Funky Drummin’ Nightmare is Over” has since become one of the most-sampled speeches in the history of American oratory.  Most of all, though, he will be remembered as the president who got us through the exceptionally bleak period of Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun,” the Carpenters’ “Top of the World,” and Olivia Newton-John’s “If You Love Me, Let Me Know.” We had to get over that crap before we went under!  For Ford’s calm demeanor and funkalicious footwork, the nation will always be grateful.

Posted by Michael on 01/02 at 11:37 AM
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