Friday, July 27, 2007

HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS, AND ALL THIS PRECIOUS BRITISH NONSENSE

My lovely wife, like so many others around the world, became obsessed last weekend with reading all 759 pages of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows before anyone of her friends let loose with revealing tidbits or she saw any spoilers on the Internet. Despite all the activities around our house during the weekend, she managed to finish the book by Monday, a pretty amazing feat from my perspective when it takes me a week or more to plow through a 250-page novel. I admired her dedication to the cult of Potter, but I have never understood it.

Ever since this whole phenomenon started, I’ve had countless people stare at me aghast when I proclaim that I haven’t read any of the Potter books. I suppose because I’m into some other nerdy things like Star Trek and comic books, people assume that I would be climbing right on the back of the Potter buckboard, but in fact, I have a real aversion to what I would call British Preciousness. You know, all the cute and fuzzy fantasy characters with their goofy names and their quaint powers which come into play at just the right time so the writer can easily pull the character’s butt out of the fire without thinking of a plausible solution.

As an adolescent, I had the same visceral disgust for all the quaint and cute fantasy elements of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Whenever someone started talking about gnomes and elves and magic rings and started throwing around cuddly names like Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, I just shuttered. Back then, people also assumed that I would lap up this otherworldly crap, but I had no interest and was annoyed with those who tried to convince me that I should like it. I was a science fiction person, and although some people are into both, I saw a real difference in speculating about our own future and delving into a completely made up world that never did and never will exist.

First of all, I can’t relate to it. If I have to train myself to understand who all the creatures are and what all their powers are, then figure out how their fantasy world is laid out and where they’re going, you’ve already lost me. I don’t want to do that much homework. Let’s at least deal with real humans. I know what they look like and what their not-so-special powers are.

I thought I had left such nonsense in the 80s with Boy George and docksiders, but along came Harry Potter and the return of precious fantasy goobledegook. It doesn’t help that obliging Potter cultists try to explain all of the ins and outs of Potter’s world to me. “You see, Blunderbutt can fart questions out his ass, but Harry had his sense of smell taken away by Soursox the cat, so he couldn’t answer Blunderbutt, but then Proctoplesse used his driller of doom…” At this point, I’m thinking about whether or not Jonathon Ogden’s toe will be healed by the time of the Raven’s season opener.

I thought perhaps watching the movies would make it easier to get into the Potter spirit. After all, a movie only requires that I sit and watch and listen. Little did I know how difficult such tasks would be. Now, I’ve sat through the most boring, putrid, insipid, and mind-bending movies ever filmed. I have tremendous endurance when it comes to annoying cinema. And to be fair, the Potter films are all well-made, big-budget epics with strong casts. Nevertheless, when those wizardly rugrats start rattling off ensorcelled exposition on spinning staircases while the wall hangings go about their ghostly gabbing, I feel like I’ve shown up at the wrong party and somebody’s spiked my drink. I keep wishing I can catch the next flying train back to London and see if James Bond is doing something cool.

Don’t get me wrong, if you are into it, that’s perfectly fine. I’ve certainly given up trying to explain to my wife why The Band Wagon is the greatest movie musical ever made or why Kurt Vonnegut was an amazing writer. I’m clearly in the minority with this Harry Potter thing anyway. I’m just glad that the last book is finally out and I won’t have to be subjected to anymore hype…at least until the next movie comes out or J.K. Rowlings assaults us with another phonebook-sized tome of British Preciousness.

Friday, July 20, 2007

HAWAII FIVE-O

DVDs have become a wonderful way to relive childhood memories. As my lovely wife and I work our way through season one of Hawaii Five-O, it’s as if my life is flashing before my eyes, in a pop culture sort of way. For about 30 years, this show followed me from pre-schooler to working drone, and my admiration for it grew steadily along the way.

Hawaii Five-O was one of those television juggernauts, much like Law & Order is today. Beginning in 1968, the show ran for 12 seasons, holding a steady and loyal audience through the 70s. My grandmother was one of its devoted fans since it provided the kind of detective stories she loved. Just like Perry Mason and Burke’s Law before, Hawaii Five-O showed dedicated professionals piecing together clues in a methodical way until they found their perpetrator. There was really no mystery for the audience, since we usually knew whodunit before the catchy opening credit sequence began. The joy of the show was watching Steve McGarrett, Danny "Danno" Williams, Chin Ho Kelly, and Kono put together the clues and zero in on the criminal before he or she flies the coop (or the island as the case may be).

A typical episode went something like this: A creepy, sweaty villain commits a crime. Cue snazzy opening credits sequence featuring waves, hula dancers, and Jack Lord’s hair. McGarrett and the team show up at the scene of the crime and scope the place. McGarrett simmers with controlled contempt for the villain, then sends Danno out on some useless fact-finding mission; e.g., “Locate every person on the island who purchased a grape soda in the last 48 hours.” Ever the faithful bottom, Danno rushes off with a clip board. Chin Ho goes out and talks to the Chinese locals and Kono tails somebody. Meanwhile, the villain commits another crime in an even more heinous and sweaty way. McGarrett gets pissed and pounds his desk. The guys rush in and rattle off a bunch of factoids which McGarrett writes on his chalkboard. They all puzzle and stew until Che comes up from the crime lab and lays out the whole case based on fingerprints and carpet fibers. The gang rushes over to the villain’s clapboard house just as he’s about to commit another crime. They pull their .38 Specials on the sweaty bad guy and McGarrett utters the immortal line, “Book ‘em, Danno.” Big wave crashes and the music swells. The end.

Once in awhile, they would shake things up by doing an episode with Chinese superspy, Wo Fat. He was McGarrett’s arch enemy and, like Sherlock Holmes’s Moriarty, the one villain who always eluded him. I can’t say I shared my grandmother’s enthusiasm for the show while it was in its original run. Jack Lord seemed way too square for me. I preferred cool, maverick cops like Baretta and Starsky & Hutch. I thought Five-O was dull and stilted. In fact, everyone in my family couldn’t understand grandmom’s fascination for the show. We often joked about it. My grandfather, who was forced to watch every episode, just thought it was a bunch of noise and violence. He would often joke with us, “Well, I have to go home now and clean the blood out from under the TV.”

In the summer of '79, while my family was having a cook-out in honor of my grandfather’s birthday, my Aunt Kay was reading an article from the newspaper about changes they were making to Hawaii Five-O to help its flagging ratings. I was shocked. I didn’t know the show was still on the air. The article described how Danno and the boys had been replaced by younger, hipper detectives including one female cop. My grandmother seemed confident that the show would remain successful, but I was TV-savvy enough to know that any major overhaul to a series meant the end was near. That was the last season of Hawaii Five-O.

A few years later, my parents had divorced and my mom and I ended up moving into a house two doors down from my grandparents. Hawaii Five-O was shown every day at 4 p.m. in Baltimore, and since I was usually home from classes by that time, I started watching it. I became fascinated by the exotic locale, comfortable with the predictable formula, and admiring of the detectives' earnest pursuit of justice. One summer, when my grandfather was in England visiting relatives and my grandmother wasn’t up for the trip, I spent many an afternoon watching the show with her. It was the only bonding experience I ever had with my grandmother. We found something we both liked. I became obsessed with Hawaii Five-O. Then it disappeared from my local stations.

I had nearly forgotten about the show until The Family Channel decided to air the reruns during the summer of 1997. I was overcome with excitement and annoyed my co-workers to no end with my constant prattling about how great the show was. Every night at 9 o’clock, I was parked in front of the TV watching Hawaii Five-O for that entire summer. Then, once again, it abruptly disappeared. In January of 1998, Jack Lord died. I was genuinely saddened. I announced the news to my co-workers, one of whom replied, “Yeah, I hear they’re holding Wo Fat for questioning.”

Five years ago, Dreamworks announced that they were going to produce a movie version of the crime drama, but like any Dreamworks project that doesn’t have the work “Shrek” in it, they never got it off the ground. I’m still hoping to see that crashing wave on the big screen, with an updated version of the theme song blaring in surround sound. Just don’t do anything stupid like cast Ben Affleck as McGarrett.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE OATERS?

I was born right when Hollywood’s western fetish was reaching its orgiastic climax. Most of the westerns which dominated television during the 50s and early 60s were losing audience and quietly going to cancellationland. The diehards, like Bonanza and Gunsmoke, lingered into the 70s, but most were pushed out for hard-bitten crime dramas and spy thrillers. The same was true for movies, where the only westerns that could generate decent box-office were helmed by the cowboy icon John Wayne or stylized to present an alternative view of the West like the Sergio Leone films.

I past through the vapor trail of this fading phenomenon, playing Cowboys ‘n Indians with my friends as a virtual reflex, a boyhood tradition past down from my older brother and, quite likely, my father before him. I doubt, however, that I shared their enthusiasm for the milieu. My aunt and uncle owned a horse farm when I was young, so I did have first-hand experience with saddling horses, riding horses, and even cleaning out their stalls. Still didn’t make me a cowboy at heart. The closest I came to feeling like a western hero was when my dad got me a Lone Ranger outfit for my seventh birthday. What a thrill to wear the white hat and strap that silver cap-gun to my hip. Oh yeah, and inhaling the smoke from the barrel after the gun was fired (actually, it was a nasty little high which usually nauseated me. Don’t try this at home, kids).

My earliest western memory is watching The Lone Ranger cartoon in the late 60s. Clearly, The Wild, Wild West was the inspiration for this animated take on the radio show character since the art style reflects the look of TWWW’s opening credit sequences. Also, this Lone Ranger couldn’t be bothered with mundane issues like stagecoach robbers and cattle rustlers, instead taking on magical sorceresses, aliens, and villains in submarines. Even then, animators knew it would take more than the usual western clich├ęs to hold the interests of early Gen-Xers.

I still could enjoy some of the fast-paced half-hour western shows from the 50s which were aired in syndication, like The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, and The Cisco Kid. I especially enjoyed The Cisco Kid, although it was a bit of a challenge to catch it since it aired in my hometown at 6 a.m. on Saturday mornings. I would struggle to pull myself out of bed, sneak down to the living room, and turn the t.v. on at a barely audible volume so as not to disturb my family. There was something irresistible about the show, however. Duncan Reynaldo as The Kid and Leo Carillo as Pancho made an amiable pair, and the stories were lightning fast, perfect for my equally fleeting attention span.

By the time I was 11, our local independent station, WBFF-TV Channel 45, started airing what amounted to an old-fashioned Saturday afternoon at the movies. Between 1 and 4 p.m. every Saturday, they would show a chapter from a cliffhanger, a short subject like Laurel & Hardy, and a western. For about two or three years in the mid-70s, I was given a crash course in early horse operas. I have to say I preferred Roy Rogers over all the rest. He had a certain sincere quality and humble demeanor that defined what an American hero should be. Most of the others, like William Boyd or Randolph Scott, had that tough talking, wise guy thing which always rubbed me the wrong way. Sometimes it felt like the good guy was ruder than the villain. Not so with Roy Rogers. He was always soft spoken, earnest, and polite, even when he was pointing a six-shooter at a cattle rustler’s abdomen. As for Gene Autry, give me a break. He looked like the pharmacist from the corner drugstore.

Aside from a revival of The Lone Ranger cartoon in the early 80s, the western motif faded from the childhood lexicon of fantasy. By then, Star Wars had taken hold of everyone’s imagination. Of course, Han Solo and the border town of Mos Eisley borrowed heavily from the iconic western images. More recently, the t.v. show Firefly and its movie sequel Serenity mixed an obvious cocktail of science fiction and western, but it never grew beyond a cult audience. Perhaps the overarching western theme, that of total freedom in a wide open land where an individual enforces his own brand of justice and forges his own destiny, is just a little too hard to swallow in our overcrowded, constantly connected, hi-def, Big Brother world. Forty years ago, people could still dream of returning to that simpler time. Maybe now it’s just too far gone to even contemplate.