High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Saturday, June 19, 2004

Mr. Grumpy & the Leatherettes

Just over fifteen years ago I spent a couple of nights on the monstrously ugly and comfortable couch in front of the television in our basement. I was watching, with rapt attention, a miniseries based on Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. It starred Pierce Brosnan, which goes a long, long way toward explaining the rapt attention. The rest of the dusty road to explanation is taken up by the fact that I was born a whore for fiction that prominently featured Getting the Fuck Out of Here.

I was also painting my nails at the time. Electric Berry. My brain is freakish and retains many, many useless facts (up to and including the "first dance" songs at my sisters' weddings as I discovered last weeknt), but I admit that the name of the color is not so much etched on my brain as it is contained in a dreadful piece by yours truly that appeared in my High School's literary magazine. A copy of the deceptively named "Serendipity" is, even now, skulking somewhere in my guest room where it could have attacked my recent house guests at any time.

I was duped into writing it by my favorite English teacher who had been duped into being the faculty advisor for said magazine that year. Maria High's silver portals may have beckoned. Her gleaming cross may have pointed the way, but there was, apparently, no beckoning to or pointing the way for those with any literary talent, whatever, because poor Mrs. H was reduced to pressing her honors English students into child labor.

She had previously required us to turn in something like 25 poems written in the style of our choice from a selection of suggested short formats. The essay assignment came later and was, as I recall, quite vague. Initially, I had turned in an abstract saying that I was going to write a defense of the pig wrongly accused of murder in Graham Greene's "A Shocking Accident." My friend L stole this idea instead and wrote a first-person self-defense for Mrs. O'Leary's cow.

I, as usual, left it until the very last minute and realized that just at the moment that I really wanted to devote my entire attention to Pierce's budding romance with Princess Aouda, I had this damnably vague thing to knock off. So I wrote about the futility of as big a goober as I trying to do something as dainty and girly as paint her nails.

It's a prophetic piece in many ways, the most obvious being that I suck at pretensions to girlyness, I don't enjoy pretensions to girlyness, and I should just back away slowly from all items marketed in the direction of my putative gender. But a more disturbing aspect of its delphic goodness is that it is clearly the larval form of my writing style.

I'm no Calvinist, but looking at this thing (well, I'm not looking at it at the moment, but believe me, every bulky contour is cringe-inducingly familiar), it's quite clear that I was predestined to be textually rococco. The sentences are positively encrusted, both literally with word after word after word and metaphorically with borrowed styles. We were reading Swift, Pepys, Donne, and Joyce at the time, and all my old friends are there. Someone who loves "Araby" as much as I do really ought not to have abused it so soundly.

The only thing that I seem to have shaken (well, I THINK I've shaken it) is a strange formality (I suppose that could be a residual Pepys infection) to it all that, funnily enough, is strongly reminiscent of the way my little brother writes---like even thank you notes and stuff, he sounds like a particularly uptight Austen character.

I remember after I turned it in, Mrs. H asked me for a title and I couldn't come up with anything. I can at least deny that "Never Nice Nails" is something that I wouldn't have written as a morula. But even when she asked me for a title, her nefarious purposes never registered. It was dreadful to open that magazine and see a dozen or so of my poems in there, but that was nothing to the horror of seeing that essay immortalized.

However, believe it or not, this is not an entry about the big black hole in my brain where art and talent of any kind are supposed to be, it's about Around the World in 80 Days, which I just got back from seeing.

Amazingly, I see the New York Times has given it a largely positive review. It seems like the kind of harmless, silly thing they'd normally vent a bowelful of spleen at, but for once, they seem to have gotten it overall. This version is not Verne's story. No version ever adapted for film or TV has been Verne's story, because like so much of Verne (and I ain't knockin' him), the story is much bigger than he was.

Quirkily, the NYT review gives a vaguely smug (hey, go with your core competencies) Luddite reading of the film, lauding the sillyness of machines and the importance of Fogg's humanization to the realization of his dream. And, of course, that's at least one bit Verne must have had in mind. After all, it's a flaw in Fogg's calculations that hand him the victory.

But what was the most fun in this version for me was the completely over-the-top jabs at the crusty dead white guy world of Britain at the top of its Imperialist game (required-by-law appearances by good Queen Vicky notwithstanding). Lord Kelvin of "I'm Lord Kelvin and the world is 100,000 years old because I said so" fame is Fogg's main antagonist, with Kitchener, Salisbury, and Rhodes as his self-satisified cronies, crying "Thank God we own India."

Yes, it's got a silly jaunt through China, but it's ultimately necessary for the big Ninja battle. I am firmly and without exception pro-Ninja battle. Particularly when the Ninja battle has Sammo Hung. The world needs now Sammo Sweet Sammo. Trust me on this. In an homage to the '56 Niven version, they've continued the tradition of the cameos and they work. Even Rob Schneider's.

The theatre was pretty empty, which doesn't bode well for it, but it was a great deal of fun. Not even the creepy David Bowie theme song or The Governator's Shepherd book hair could detract from it.

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