October 17, 2007

Emmerich’s Complaint

Without literature, I think I’d go nuts. You’d see me at the public library, toting around some piece of Samsonite I’d found in a dumpster, running my yellow fingernails through my yellow beard, muttering to myself how I need to let the cats out, how no one else cares, no one else cares about the cats, that’s why it’s all up to me, because I’m the only one who will remember to let them out.

The cause of my insanity would, of course, be my family. These people are insufferable. And, of course, I mean that in the nicest possible way.

But seriously, Freud’s patients were more well-adjusted than these people. If there was a method to the madness, I think I could get by. But nothing they do makes any sense.

On one hand, I’m the Perfect Boy. (Yes, Boy; in these people’s eyes, I’ll always be ten-years-old.) I am smart and funny; I have perfect manners. Every distant cousin and nephew is found to be a total loser because they can’t—no matter how many sports they letter in, no matter how many Ivy League colleges they get accepted to, no matter how many Nobel awards they receive—they just can’t compete with me. I am Donny, the greatest son/grandson/nephew since Jesus Christ himself. Of course, even Jesus didn’t have my good looks. “Do you know who you look like Donny? That actor, what’s his name? George Clooney, that’s it. I saw him on the TV the other day, and I said to myself, I said, that’s Donny, that’s our Donny.” (For the record, I don’t look like George Clooney; aside from being white and having black hair, I don’t look anything like him. I honestly don’t know where they get this stuff.)

But when I’m not God Incarnate, I’m the World’s Biggest Schmuck. How a boy can go from being the Exemplar for All of Humanity to the World’s Biggest Schmuck is beyond me, but somehow it happens. One moment, I’m being worshipped (if their living room was bigger, I swear bulls would be sacrificed in my honor)—the next, I’m being told that I need to be more sociable, that I need to be more affectionate, that I need to be more sensitive to my wife, that I need to be more considerate of others, that I need to call my grandma more and travel more and like dogs more and relax more and smile more and enjoy life more…and on and on it goes and I begin to feel like I’m on trial at Neuremberg.

In this way, I do think that I know how Jesus Christ felt. One minute, the wedding party runs out of alcohol, so his mother brings him before the father of the bride and proudly declares that her son, her son, is going to turn water into wine. The next minute, ol’ mom is telling Jesus that he’s meshuggina, that he needs to stop teaching all this gibberish and come inside and get a good night’s rest.

Literature reminds me that I’m not supposed to take my family seriously. And, when you get down to it, that’s my problem: I actually believe what they say—half the time, I think I can walk on water (this causes major problems in my marriage, believe me), while the other half I walk around with more guilt than Lady Macbeth.

So that’s where literature comes in. Last weekend, I read Portnoy’s Complaint and realized that my suffering is not unique. I realized that it’s okay for me not to like my family (love, yes, but like—ha!). I realized that my desire to run away from these people, to get as far away as I can and not return every one of the eight hundred phone messages they leave for me every week—I realized that this desire—which, by the way, I first felt just minutes after leaving the womb—I realized that this desire is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s natural!

October 11, 2007

Movie Review: 'Across the Universe'

The trailer for Across the Universe is one of the most captivating I’ve seen in a long time. During those two minutes, in which “Girl” is played in the background—you know “Girl”, right?: “Is there anybody going to listen to my story / All about the girl who came to stay?”—during those two minutes, I was not only convinced that I would love the movie, but I was convinced that it would make me a better person, that it would forever change my life.

Sadly, Across the Universe didn’t even change my afternoon. Overall, it’s an enjoyable film—but it could’ve been—it should’ve been—so much more.

The plot is cliché and often feels like it’s been cut-and-pasted from Forest Gump. But I could have lived with that. And the much-talked-about visual effects often feel amateurish, though I did like it when the strawberries—from “Strawberry Fields”—start bursting into blood. And the drug sequence is boring, reminding me of the hallucination from Disney’s Dumbo. And the “funny parts” really aren’t that funny: the scene in which everyone gets stoned and goes barhopping to the tune of “With a Little Help from My Friends” is reminiscent of a Happy Days’ rerun. But I could have lived with all that, too.

The problem with the film is that much of its music falls flat. Needless to say, the Beatles are amazing. Just as Alfred North Whitehead said that philosophy began with Plato and that everything since has been a mere footnote, in the same way we could say that rock’n’roll, good rock’n’roll, began with the Beatles (the post-1964 Beatles, of course) and that everything since has in some sense merely been a response to them.

Not only is Beatles’ music timeless, but Beatles’ remakes are sometimes better than the originals: the I Am Sam soundtrack proves this: Sara McLachlan’s “Blackbird,” Eddie Vedder’s “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” Aimee Mann and Michael Penn’s “Two Of Us”—there’s just so many great songs here. Many of the remakes in Across the Universe, however, are mediocre. Evan Rachel Wood, though an amazing actress, is not an exceptional vocalist. And some of the movie’s tunes—Bono’s “I Am the Walrus” comes to mind—are just too weird to enjoy.

One thing the movie does well is make us realize that many Beatles’ tunes aren’t as simple and happy as we’ve always thought. As Roger Ebert writes, “When Prudence sings ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’…I realized how wrong I was to ever think that was a happy song. It’s not happy if it’s a hand you are never, never, never going to hold.”

That said, however, there is a hope and buoyancy to the original music that these remakes miss. The beauty of the Beatles lay in their ability to use their voices and instruments to elevate this world; they didn’t imitate reality but urged reality to imitate them. The versions in this film, by contrast, are echoes of the human soul: not angels singing down to men, but a bunch of sad sacks, all who studied Schopenhauer in college no doubt, sitting around a bar, sharing stories from their own dreary lives.

Maybe it’s my fault; maybe my expectations were too high. We can’t hope for two Moulin Rouges in the same decade, can we? In any case, Across the Universe, despite its flaws, is often beautiful and touching and is probably better than anything else playing in theaters right now. If I had to assign it a letter grade, I’d give it a solid B, but with the same admonishment that a teacher gives a prodigy who failed to exert much effort: “What can I say, this is good, very good, but from you, from you, I expected so much more."

October 6, 2007

The Pledge of Allegiance

More proof that interesting things rarely happen in Colorado: the lead story in the papers this past week was a group of Boulder high school students demanding that their school discontinue its daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge, these students claim, violates the separation of church and state.

Like the students, I feel uneasy about the Pledge of Allegiance—but for different reasons. The problem, I feel, is not with the “under God” part, but rather the “I pledge allegiance” part.

A pledge is a solemn promise, a vow. Therefore, one should be careful to whom he pledges his allegiance. One’s god seems like a worthy candidate. But the flag of the United States of America?

I have no problem pledging my allegiance to the United States insofar as the United States adheres to God’s law. Of course, when we say the Pledge of Allegiance, we don’t make such delineations; rather, we promise our unconditional loyalty.

I’m reminded of former Denver Nuggets’ star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who back in 1996 refused to stand during the national anthem before games. His reasoning was that the American flag was a “symbol of oppression” and that the U.S. had a long “history of tyranny.” When you look at the history of this country—beginning with the government’s treatment of Native Americans and then blacks and other minorities and then the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then…—well, I can see Abdul-Rauf’s point.