Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Blog's the Thing

Today is not the birthday of Laurence Olivier ,but it is possibly the birthday of the guy who created the skull he's holding. Scholars argue whether April 23, 1564 is William Shakespeare's real birth date (there is a record of his baptismal on April 26th), but the world is quite sure that Earth's greatest author left this brave new world on this date in 1616. So if it's not his birthday, it's his death day. Votive candles should still be lit.

My first recollection of Shakespeare was in sixth grade, when Miss Waugh became so exasperated with my classroom whispering she reared back and threw a paperback copy of The Bard's shortest play, "Comedy of Errors," straight at my head. Corporal punishment was still the law of the landscape back then in Wisconsin, which no doubt was the reason why Ed Gein left school early. That got me thinking, how amazing old age is that a sixty-five year-old woman could still throw a three fingered splitter. I was to learn that had she hit me with Shakespeare's longest play, "Hamlet," I would today be Yorick himself, rather than an emaciated wannabe lookalike.

A friend asked me once whether there was a way of using animation to teach children at an early age the beauty of Shakespeare. He thought because I was in kids programming, everything I touched was educational in content. I must have looked like Big Bird that day or had sesame seeds caught in my teeth. The closest I came to anything educational was spelling X-Men with a capital X.

But the question haunted me, because at that moment I didn't have any girlfriends that did. Google Shakespeare with animation and you get dozens of sites where three hour plus plays are squeezed into 24-minute loopy truncations. While much of the animation is steps above the 70's Saturday morning cliche, the largest obstacle remained: Some of the world's greatest tales were so watered down that Classic Illustrated Comics read like St Augustine.

The Master's works were filleted to such a blistering degree that the Hamlet soliloquy, for instance, "To be or not to be, that is the question..." became "To be" and we're out of here. Things were so crudely edited that Romeo was left talking to himself under the balcony, the "Taming of the Shrew" morphed into a pigmy mouse, Falstaff resembled a spokesperson for Jenny Craig, and the trio of MacBeth witches became one Weird Sister with a multiple personality disorder. The Bard deserved better. A new method to introduce kids to the man who invented being human was required.

Nine years and hundreds of thousands of words later, scores of broken ideas, busted concepts, burnt out laptops, and too much taste testing of Absolut, Popov, Ketel One, Smirnoff, and Vox, I'd come up with one clean possibility of using animation without hopefully the crack of doom or the dogs of war crashing down upon me.

Over time, I will lay out the ideas that didn't make it, concepts too limiting, not clever enough, too stupid, or really really too stupid. Eventually I will post the one I think works the best. Some have already read my proposal, their facial expressions forcing me to wonder whether I've given them the Piers Plowman Middle English version. I'll take that as a positive sign.

I would post one short idea now, except I am already late to see Oliver Sacks at UCLA.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

To Forget is Golden: The Ludlow Effect

We live in a society where history is re-versioned in real time and memory is as malleable as blown confetti. I was an American history major, so at an early age I became aware of this country's tendency to collectively forget its thirty-car pile-ups and focus instead on the clear stretch of highway ahead. Why waste the energy filling out messy police reports? In fact, why bother sticking around at all? Promise like some drunk lurching from one roadhouse to the next to never ever take that curve again at such a high speed; when appropriate, genuflect to God several times; and then move forward. This way we could forever maintain that vision of America as that shining house on a hill and not a ramshackle lean-to in need of an Orkin pest man.

We exalt the Alamo, but we breath the air of Levittown. We love sameness: Same political mistakes; same justifications and mumbling 1984 doublespeak obfuscations; same obtuse reasons given to slide into illegal wars; same maligning and marginalizing critics; same illegal behaviors to safeguard the nation; same apologists contorting historical documents for their own narrow ends. Same, same, same and same.

Take torture, for instance. The greatness of 24/7 "news" is the magical ability of network bookers to find someone who can justify any political position no matter how heinous. Many torture defenders, for instance, apparently changed their majors from sanity to attend Washington D.C's newest campus: the Torquemada Chiropractic College of Ouch.

I thought we had a War Crimes Act; I thought we signed the Geneva Convention; I thought we hung a bunch of monsters after WWII to set legal precedents about a nation's conduct during wartime. We even jailed German jurists who helped to codify the actions of the Nazis. Weren't these now the rules of the game?

The memos are fairly depraved and show a total contempt for the U.S. Constitution and rule of law, but it's cool lawyer-speak providing the CIA with legal cover to engage in torture. No doubt Bernhard Losener and Franz Albrecht Medicus were kind men, loved their wives and did not beat their dogs but these two government jurists helped to legislate the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. You think Hitler (born on April 20th as well) wanted to skim law books himself? He was too busy burning them.

I hope John Yoo and Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury and all the rest of the S & M crowd at Justice are disbarred and or impeached, so they can go off and write their jail. If President Obama believes this issue is a tempest in a teapot and we should move forward, then I would advise him to remember what he was doing during those years he presumably was teaching something called Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago.

The Ludlow Massacre took place on April 20th 1914 in Ludlow Colorado. Other than academics and socially aware individuals, few people today know of the existence of this event. In a way it set a precedent for 20th Century American forgetfulness. A number of books catalogue the sequence leading up to the deaths of the 66 men, women and children who were cut to pieces by machine gun fire or burned to death by the Colorado National Guard and private security forces during the coal miner strikes of that year. The cost of such adventurism was financed by the Rockefeller family which owned the mines at the time. After some government hearings and some bad press coverage for the Rockefeller clan, the incident disappeared, soon to be replaced by Europe's attempt to wipe itself out.

Sixty-six people died and America moved on. No one was ever charged. Four students fell dead at Kent State. No one was convicted of their killings. In My Lai, 300-500 unarmed Vietnamese were slaughtered. William Calley spent about four months in jail; but by then much of the nation had already moved onwards. I bring up Wounded Knee (although it was 14 years before Ludlow), where some 300 unarmed men, women and children of the Lakota Nation were shot dead by the 7th Cavalry, but that's so far back in our history we might as well be talking about the Middle Ages. Anyway, the Army had to redress the Custer mistake 1875 and it did. At least the Army makes a habit of not forgetting.

A cancer never packs its bags, doff its hats, and heads off down the road by itself. Left untreated, it sticks around until dying along with the host. It's like that malignant brother-in-law who comes to visit with a cheap bag of groceries promising to only stay in the basement until he's back on his feet. The problem is not with the brother-in-law, who acts as expected, but the mistake of letting him settle in in the first place.

John Dean called Watergate "A cancer on the Presidency". The torture memos and the philosophy spawned from them are far "worse than Watergate." The office of the Presidency needs several high colonics after the last eight years of swaggering Bush crap. A normal cleansing will no longer do. The precedence of torture by the American government is a particular bit of fecal matter that has metastasized beyond the intestinal walls of the body politic. It now rests squarely around our very heart, a stench not soon to go away.