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Michael Collier’s Poem for the Season

October 30, 2014

michael_collier I don’t know what to say about Michael Collier‘s poetry. but I do know that if this particular poem belongs on our blog, today is the day.

Sinister, surreal, postmodern and  . . . conceptually funny. . . love it or hate it, that’s up to you!

Collier is the director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Maryland. He is also the poetry editorial consultant for Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

In his own words, “I think poetry does have this ability to help us deal with things that aren’t black and white and make our thinking more subtle.”

Wishing you a Happy Mischief Night (October 30th), Halloween (October 31st), All Saint’s Day (November 1st) and All Soul’s Day (November 2nd)!

All Souls

A few of us—Hillary Clinton, Vlad Dracula,
Oprah Winfrey, and Trotsky—peer through
the kitchen window at a raccoon perched
outside on a picnic table where it picks

over chips, veggies, olives, and a chunk of pâte.
Behind us others crowd the hallway, many more
dance in the living room. Trotsky fusses with the bloody
screwdriver puttied to her forehead.

Hillary Clinton, whose voice is the rumble
of a bowling ball, whose hands are hairy
to the third knuckle, lifts his rubber chin to announce,
“What a perfect mask it has!” While the Count

whistling through his plastic fangs says, “Oh,
and a nose like a chef.” Then one by one
the other masks join in: “Tail of a gambler,”
“a swashbuckler’s hips,” “feet of a cat burglar.”

Trotsky scratches herself beneath her skirt
and Hillary, whose lederhosen are so tight they form a codpiece,
wraps his legs around Trotsky’s leg and humps like a dog.
Dracula and Oprah, the married hosts, hold hands

and then let go. Meanwhile the raccoon squats on
the gherkins, extracts pimentos from olives, and sniffs
abandoned cups of beer. A ghoul in the living room
turns the music up and the house becomes a drum.

The windows buzz. “Who do you love? Who do you love?”
the singer sings. Our feathered arms, our stockinged legs.
The intricate paws, the filleting tongue.
We love what we are; we love what we’ve become.

                                                                     — Michael Collier

Michael Collier, “All Souls” from The Ledge. Copyright © 2000 by Michael Collier.
Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

American Film Humor in 25 Screenshots, Part 1

October 27, 2014

It seems to me that the timing is right for an unapologetically mercenary post that plays with both my innate passion for making lists and my desire for starting arguments. This means that this post will be more self-indulgent than usual. –how can that be?

Here is what I propose: a three-part series that argues not for the twenty-five most important American film comedies but, more specifically, the twenty-five most important  American film comedy scenes as represented by screenshots. By “important,” I mean “iconic,” “seminal,” “best,” “most hilarious,” “provocative,” or, in other words, “my favorites.” They should be yours, too.

I intend to start with 7 screenshots that indicate essential comedic moments in American film history in this the first of three posts on the topic. I hope to encourage others to chime in with their favorites by commenting on this post and, ideally, including links or files with the screenshots they suggests. I will follow in subsequent posts with the growing list.

For now, the images are not ranked or presented in any order other than my impulses as I think of them or run through my library of screenshots. In the end, I may try to rank them just for the hell of it.

Here are the first seven:

From Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In perhaps one of the most iconic moments in film comedy history, the Tramp is consumed by the industrial machine but continues to perform his job. It is a concise but cogent statement of class tensions and the perils of the “factory worker” caught in the cogs of industrialism. It is so iconic that one cannot talk about it without puns and symbolic flourishes. See above.

Chaplin in machine

The Tramp gets consumed by the machine

From Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. This first appearance of Clark Gable’s torso provides more than the titillation that such a statement implies. The scene is a remarkable and intricate power struggle between two formidable performers in a comedic gem. The scene, the film as a whole for that matter,  would go one to influence the romantic comedy formula to this day. If he had only tried a similar approach to Scarlett.

Shirtless Clark Cable

Shirtless Clark Cable

From the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers. This is a shot from the big finale scene wherein everybody gets on stage like the closing of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards show–lots of folks on the stage but with only a few who do anything worthwhile. In this case, that is fine because it is the Marx brothers who demand the attention in every scene. This scene demonstrates the wonderful comic interplay between the brothers but also mocks the pretensions of respectable society and the smug coziness of the officer’s advice to the subversive Harpo.

I Confess!

I Confess!

From Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. This panoramic shot of the big board and the big table captures a more elaborate scene that the other screenshots selected. It is meant to imply the entire sequence of the power brokers at work to save the world–or at least themselves. In short this shot cuts to the core of all American satire by implicating the inherent horror of a star chamber, no matter how comic.

The Big Board

The Big Board

From Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. This is the money shot–well, that sounds wrong. What I mean is that this shot has its own iconic status and provides the core symbol for both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the film. The triangulating power of Mrs. Robinson’s leg, and little big man Benjamin trying to keep up.

Are you trying to seduce me

From Harold Ramis’s Caddyshack. No apologies for this one. This shot is from arguably the most concise illustration of the American dream at work in the mind of an inherent loser. Yes, Cinderella is the most American of the European fairy tales. He is the working man dreaming of a Masters championship when all he will end up with is more work replacing the flowers he is destroying.

Cinderalla Out of Nowhere

From The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. This shot is a shot within a shot. The McDonnoughs try to record for posterity their new family portrait, complete with their freshly stolen child. “It’s about to pop, honey.” As we say in the business, this is funny.

Family Portrait

OK, then.

Please send suggestions for other essential screenshots via comments to this post.

The Problem with Unfocused Political Cartoons

October 23, 2014

One of the primary concerns of those who have fallen victim to the satire of political cartoonists is that there is no way to refute the allegations that the artist has suggested in the cartoon. It is why newspapers receive angry letters and cartoonists receive threats. That is also why riots erupted in the Middle East over the Danish Mohammad Cartoons which were published in September 2005 (the riots happened in 2006, so there were other dynamics at work as well). Cartoonist Steve Bell put it this way, “There is no comeback. It confirms me in my belief that since most of us lack the capacity to answer a cartoon with a counter-cartoon, the cartoon target’s frustration and sense of impotence may be what leads to implosion.” That is true most of the time. However, the unfocused cartoon is not impregnable by prosaic argument.
If a cartoonist cannot come up with an idea to specifically criticize or goes on a long weekend and must fulfill an obligation to his/her editors/syndicates, it is very likely that the resulting image will be so generalized that it can be plugged into any situation and impress only those who are staunchly opposed to the object of the criticism. Take the following recent cartoon by Bob Gorrell for example:

Bob Gorrell Incompetence

By Bob Gorrell – October 17, 2014

The “O” in “incompetence” is drawn like the symbol of the Barack Obama campaign. So, does the artist suggest that everything Obama does is incompetent? Does that extend to his golf game and basketball skills? Has he proved himself incompetent in all of his administrative duties? How far back does the artist suggest that his incompetence extends? Does it extend to the Benghazi incident? Does it extend to his ordering of the assassination of Osama bin Laden?

Read more…

The Truth and Consequences of Trivializing Humor

October 20, 2014

In a letter to Mary Fairbanks in 1869, Mark Twain referred to his “calling” to literature as a low one—humor. Authors Van Wyck Brooks, Bernard Devoto, and many others who came after have expended ink on Twain’s feelings of inferiority and desire to be taken seriously in the literary world. Twain is neither the first nor the last author/humorist to be labeled in this way—as if, somehow, humor can have no serious purpose. The “mere humorist” label has haunted many an author whose career has since exerted a lasting influence on American culture.

So, can we take the “mere” out of the “mere humorist” label, please?

Humorists have been combatting the labeling of their chosen vocation (a serious term, yes?) for generations. It seems that the world believes that humor has no place in a “serious” discussion. The two terms–serious and humor—come to most of the world as oppositions. And yet, humor can be deadly serious even as we are laughing fit to split. When we academically spend time and scholarly energy in an attempt to separate out the “serious” humorists from the “merely funny,” we trivialize and denigrate the very serious sociocultural work that humor has been doing for centuries to advocate and sometimes realize change. I would argue that the dichotomy itself is false, and ultimately neither useful nor germane. I would begin with a simple statement: All humor is subversive. Period. That being the case, such a dichotomy is a fraud that wastes valuable time that could be spent analyzing humor itself, how it works, and why it is such a necessary part of human lives.

For example, each year the Kennedy Center offers a Mark Twain Prize for Humor. The prize generates a great deal of controversy in Twain circles—those of us academics who study Twain’s life and work—as to whether or not that year’s winner is worthy of or as great a humorist as Mark Twain. In these arguments, we are perpetuating the dichotomy. Does being more or less like Twain make one more than a “mere” humorist? Or any less than a great one?

In 1773, Benjamin Franklin wrote “Rules by which a great Empire may be Reduced to a Small One.”  The piece is a humorous essay designed to mirror the Declaration of Independence in style and format as an ironic open letter to Americans. It comically reverses the actions of England against the colonies, supposing that these actions take place because England is weary of administering its grand empire, and thus takes all of the actions later to be published in the Declaration in order to reduce the empire into something more manageable. It predates the Declaration’s publication and paves the way for agreement among the colonies that Revolution is inevitable. In hindsight, Ben Franklin is considered one of America’s first great humorists (and most likely, one of the “serious” ones). I would agree; however, I would also contend that during his own time, he was revered and remembered more for his inventions, diplomacy, and clever almanacs, and may well have been considered a “mere” humorist who did serious work as his actual calling. And although his humorous writing may not have been his “serious” work, it paved the way for acceptance and support for the Declaration of Independence later, and eventually support locally for the Revolutionary War. Humorous poetry flew back and forth during the Revolutionary War supporting both sides of the conflict. The authors of these works certainly considered their writing as “serious” in that they hoped to influence the War in one way or another.

The Civil War had its own humorists, also covering both sides of the conflict. One such was David Ross Locke, an Ohio newspaperman who wrote under the pseudonym Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby. In addition to his comic articles on the War, he wrote and lectured on suffrage, secession, and slavery.

Read more…

Psycho! – Music and Manipulation in Hitchcock’s Great Comedy

October 16, 2014

psycho-hitchcock

Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating.  I was directing the viewers.  You might say I was playing them, like an organ. – Alfred Hitchcock

[Hitchcock] only finishes a picture 60%. I have to finish it for him. – Bernard Herrmann

It’s almost Halloween, and nothing says Halloween like Alfred Hitchcock. So let’s take a look at the music in Hitchcock’s great comedy, Psycho.

Maybe comedy is a bit of a stretch. But Hitchcock himself has long held that his low budget, black and white 1960 thriller, which literally invented the genre of slasher films, is a comedy.

I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called Psycho…The content was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke. I was horrified to find some people took it seriously.

What did Hitchcock mean by this exactly?  He was famous for his wry wit and it is possible the real joke was to later classify the film itself as a joke. But there is also a likely earnestness in his claim. Hitchcock elaborates that he envisioned Psycho as a thrill ride, akin to a “switchback railway,” or rollercoaster.

It was intended to make people scream and yell and so forth – but no more than screaming and yelling on a switchback railway…you mustn’t go too far because you do want them to get off the switchback railway, giggling with pleasure.

Audiences certainly enjoyed the roller coaster ride of the film, and continue to do so to this day, although perhaps not “giggling with pleasure” at its finish. Does this mean Hitchcock failed, went too far? Hardly. What separates Psycho from its countless imitators is precisely its darkness and heft, the superb performances from the entire ensemble, especially Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, and perhaps most importantly Bernard Herrmann’s musical score.

That’s not to say the film lacks the tongue-in-cheek quality Hitchcock intended. There are quite a few laughs in the film, mostly from the brilliant bit performances. Pat Hitchcock shines as Marion’s homely co-worker (“He was flirting with you. I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring.”) as does John Anderson as used car salesman “California Charlie” (“You can do anything you’ve a mind to. Being a woman you will.”) and Helen Wallace as the eccentric hardware store customer concerned with finding a humane insect poison (“They tell you what its ingredients are, and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world, but they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless. And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless.”). Even Norman balances his darkness with humorous bits of awkwardness, such as his incessant Kandy Korn nibbling.

Alfred Hitchcock was a celebrity as a personality as well as a director, and served as a perfect pitchman for his films. The marketing campaign for Psycho is almost as infamous as the film itself. It began with pre-production: Hitchcock bought up every copy of the novel on which the film was based so that the story would be as little known as possible, he had the actors sign confidentiality agreements before filming commenced, and he openly refused to allow Paramount to photograph the set. This anti-publicity served as ingenious publicity.

Hitchcock appreciated the shock value in killing off his star less than halfway into the picture, so he Read more…

Voter ID Laws and the Question of Political Satire

October 6, 2014
by

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Today is the last day to register to vote in Texas. Check your status and vote.

Originally posted on Humor in America:

Tracy Wuster

Most of the time, politics is a serious business.  People tend to take the government fairly seriously–our laws, our government, our rights.  True, traditionally Congress has been an object of fun, and politicians–from Abraham Lincoln to Sarah Palin–have been the butt of jokes.  But the importance of political humor–from parody to cartoons to satire–might best be seen as a reflection of how seriously people take politics.

In this highly political year, I have been very interested in questions of how political humor functions in American society.  Recently, I discussed the satire of the RNC and DNC conventions on the Daily Show.  Similarly, Self Deprecate’s contributions to our site and his site have tackled the current state of political humor.

One political issue that I have been increasingly concerned with this year is distinctly not funny: voter suppression.  While proponents of voter ID and other voting laws argue that…

View original 685 more words

Happy Birthday Wallace Stevens!

October 2, 2014
Wallace Stevens, 1879-1955

Wallace Stevens, 1879-1955

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.

– Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens was an enigma.  A Pulitzer Prize winning poet, he was also a conservative, Harvard-educated lawyer who worked, until his death in August of 1955, as an insurance company executive. This solid scion of business published his first collection of poetry, Harmonium, at the age of forty-four. His poems are dense, meditative and often full of quirky, obscure humor and playful language.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
    — Wallace Stevens

Metaphors of a Magnifico

Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.This is old song
That will not declare itself . . .Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are
Twenty men crossing a bridge
Into a village.That will not declare itself
Yet is certain as meaning . . .The boots of the men clump
On the boards of the bridge.
The first white wall of the village
Rises through fruit-trees.
Of what was it I was thinking?
So the meaning escapes.The first white wall of the village…
The fruit-trees…

       — Wallace Stevens
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