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Polytropos Grammar Corner

. . . in which we answer reader mail! This one comes from a particularly esteemed reader:

Dear Nate,

I write because your 83 year old grandfather needs some help.

My high school teacher of English (and president of the Wisconsin English Teachers Assocation WETA) was a harsh taskmaster. She insisted that no one would get a passing grade in her class until they could distinguish the correct use of “I” and “me”, “we” and “us”, and similar pronouns. She claimed that any intelligent person, which she hoped we would become, would know the difference between a subject, an object, or what followed a preposition, and would thus use the proper pronoun.

So I have almost a visceral reaction when I hear what I believed correct for 81 years (I learned the above at home even before I went to high school) to be misspoken. I cringe when I hear a preacher proclaim that “you and me need God’s forgiveness.” Why should I believe the truth of someone who speaks in error? Hearing a successful CEO observe that “it’s been a good year for my partner and I” I say to myself “He’s rich, but he’s dumb” or “he must not have taken an evening English course when he immigrated to the States.” To be honest, this is one part of my life where I am extremely intolerant.

Imagine then my consternation when occasionally I read in your blog expressions like “it was preferable to Suanna and I”. This is my grandson Nate who writes this?! Nate: college English instructor, blogger who incisively critiques movies and novels, perceptively records the growth of his daughter, and politically echoes the New York Times slant on national affairs.

Help me. Is this the “new English” like the “new Morality”? Must I abandon my deeply held conviction about what is right and wrong? Shall I, at age 83, change my whole outlook on my mother tongue? Me needs some guidance. Me thinks you can help I. That doesn’t sound right. I need some guidance. I think you can help me.

Still searching for wisdom . . . grandpa Pekelder

Have no fear! While it is true that there _is_ a New English, different in many respects from the one taught in your grade school days, that is only because, like all living languages, English is in a constant state of evolution and change. Some of the changes are welcome, others (curse you, “Great Vowel Shift”:!) less so, but nearly all of them inevitable. However, to the best of my knowledge, confusing pronouns in the way you describe is still an _error_, pure and simple.

The fault is mine, and mine alone. But I think it’s important that we identify the nature of the fault: sloppy editing, pure and simple. When it comes to writing, ‘sloppy editing’ is a sin pretty far down on the heinousness spectrum — certainly not so heinous as ‘a clunky, artlessly constructed sentence’ and a very far cry from ‘a poor or even deliberately misleading idea’. Your critique is incisive except insofar as it associates a grammatical error with a character flaw.

One other quibble: the editors of the New York Times chose to cave to political pressure and sit for years on a tremendously important story highlighting the abuse of executive power. I have precious little interest in echoing their “slant,” whatever that might be.

Last Night’s Dream

It’s kind of late and I really ought to be getting to bed, but the thing is, I’ve been invited to Madonna’s wedding. It’s happening in town, after all, so why not go? But instead I end up just hanging around and watching the wedding on the E! entertainment network. As it’s wrapping up on TV I realize that I could still go to the reception — it is _Madonna’s_ wedding, after all, so it’s bound to be swank, with lots of famous people and great food. But isn’t it a little weasely to crash the reception when you’ve skipped the wedding? Nevertheless, I go. I’m delighted to run into a friend outside the building who’s doing the exact same thing, so we slip in together.

But the reception is a terrible disappointment. Madonna has married an Ubuntu tribesman[1] and they are sitting on thrones at the head of the hall. On a whim at the last second Madonna has decided that she wants every single guest to be presented to her and introduced. The line is _incredibly_ long, and the presentations are taking forever. My friend and I can see the open bar and the table stacked high with the most glorious hors d’ouevres imaginable, but with a sinking feeling I realize that it will be dawn before I get through the line and am finally able to partake. And anyway, I have breakfast plans. What a bummer.

fn1. In waking life I realize full well that Ubuntu is a word, not a tribe. But this was a dream. This is the only part of the dream that I know where it comes from — I read “this”: just before going to bed.

Bring It!

Big props to “Ed”: for starting a webcomic, appearing informally (so far) as entries on his blog. He’s done seven so far and I’m already hooked. Right out of the gate he seems to have found his voice for it; the subject matter is autobiographical in that perfect way that lends authenticity but isn’t at all self-absorbed. The drawing is rough around the edges, but the more I look at it the more I find that expression or gesture or bit of composition that is just exactly what it should be. Encourage him in this endeavor, and you can say that you were there when it all started.

King Kong

It’s just not fair. You know the type of guy. He’s big and he’s strong, he’s blustery—he’s actually kind of a jerk. He’s the prototypical alpha male and is always engaging in chest-pounding types of behavior. Going through life, he leaves a destructive swath all around him. He takes a downright possessive attitude towards the woman he’s interested in, and treats her pretty badly for the most part. But what does he have to do to keep her hooked? Once in a while, just show a sense of humor, or a touch of sadness, some hint of Hidden Depths. Never mind that most of them time he’s totally shallow. He always seems to get the girl.

Damn ape.

King Kong is a big, big movie. It’s long. It has really big monsters, and big action, big shots, big emotion. We’re accustomed these days to action/adventure movies with a certain measure of ironic detachment. Not here. Peter Jackson wants to have you at the edge of your seat, or sitting back with your mouth gaping. Sometimes he wants you to laugh, or to cry. But he never ever wants you to snigger.

I saw the original King Kong for the first time only a couple of years ago, actually, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the lion’s share of the movie tells the story of the rescuers’ danger-defying venture into the heart of dinosaur-ridden Skull Island. So too with this version—dinosaurs, more dinosaurs, giant crocs, and an insect pit that had me writhing in my seat the whole time. Here we can see Jackson’s roots as a low-budget director of quirky horror films. It’s one long thrill ride, with sequences that just keep going and going and going—most of the time this is a very good thing. Kong versus not one, not two, but three Tyrannosaurs is the highlight of the film, though the Brontosaur stampede did go on a little long.

Kong himself is Gollum II—a digital construction overlaying an actual actor’s face, with a result that is way more convincing than you’d think. Only after the movie was over did it occur to me that at no point during the movie did the CGI-ed-ness of Kong bother me. Like Gollum, he blended into the scenes almost perfectly. Plus, here, he’s the best actor in the film, closely followed by Naomi Watts, neither of whom have a whole lot of actual dialogue with each other. It would have been such an easy, obvious mistake to have Ann Hathaway speaking to Kong, if only to let the audience know what she was thinking. But, as with the big ape, Watts has to do everything, absolutely everything, with facial expressions. And she pulls it off.

One great failing: there’s a moment when Kong is up at the top of the Empire State, dying, and Ann is there staring into his eyes, and the soaring music of the score falls off and we’re left with a single female voice, high and keening. It’s a moment of high emotion, but it falls flat because we have heard that voice before. It was used to tremendous effect a number of times throughout the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those moments had a lot going for them: the beautiful voice, occuring in the context of the choral work throughout the score, was meant as a reflection of the sad, ethereal voices of the Elves. There’s no such obvious connection here, and besides, it’s a rehash.

There’s lots else that’s reminiscent of LOTR, in terms of score and sound but especially the visual stuff—the swooping cameras and timely slo-mos and long close-ups. Is all of this Jackson’s unique voice, variations of which we’ll continue to see in future films? Or is he recycling all his idioms from his Tolkien work here when he should have been trying for something new—especially seeing as this is pulp and not high fantasy? Hard to say—the LOTR movies cast a long shadow and make it tricky to evaluate other stuff independently.

If the un-crowdedness of the theater I was in on a Friday night is any indication, King Kong isn’t going to do particularly well at the box office, especially considering its budget. This is too bad insofar as it might reduce Jackson’s cachet in Hollywood and thus the likelihood that he’ll get to do The Hobbit someday. On the other hand, it may be time for him to take a step back and do another indy feature, something more along the lines of the superb Heavenly Creatures. And—having just googled around a bit—he appears to be poised to do just that (scroll down to the ‘film version’ section).

Word Needed

We need a word for the feeling of frustration, impatience, and impotence that sets in when everyone else has seen the movie / read the book / experienced the experience, but you haven’t yet, and so you’re forced to put off reading and/or engaging in the discussion until you have also seen the movie / read the book / experienced the experience. It’s a feeling that’s accentuated when you’re determined to avoid spoilers prior to engaging with the whatever-it-is yourself.

So, yeah, Narnia. I’ll get there eventually.

UPDATE: Many suggestions in the comments. I cannot choose among them.

The Tin Man

Is “The Tin Man”: a podcast? I guess so. You can subscribe to it like a podcast, and it’s released in serialized form. But you could just as easily download the mp3s off of Matt Sahr’s “website”: If you think of a podcast as being analogous to a typical blog, where the entries are spontaneous and rough around the edges, then _The Tin Man_ is nothing at all like a podcast. It’s a polished audio drama. It has more in common with the radio dramas of the 30s and 40s than anything else — though I doubt any of those Golden Age serials featured a debate between the Tin Man and the Scarecrow that slid abruptly into a satirical commercial for Monsanto.

Yes, this is a “Matt Sahr”: production, and like “his play”: from a couple years ago, _The Tin Man_ is a surrealist, absurdist romp full of philosophical flim-flammery, riffing this time on themes of consumerism and intellectual property. The story, such as it is, follows the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, Dorothy et al on their familiar path, though here it is rife with diversions, and the diversions are what it’s really all about. The extended bar joke that comprises Episode 7 is not to be missed. In fact I’ve found the whole thing rather a treat. Three aspects stand out:

* The stellar production values. It’s just Matt and his computer with a good microphone and some decent sound-editing software. But of course that’s enough. When I say it’s an “audio drama” I mean that it isn’t just a guy talking into a microphone, but a fully polished affair with background music, sound cues, and effects. It is largely a one-man show but the voice-masking used to allow Matt to play different roles is not gimmicky in the slightest. And of course there’s . . .

* . . . the music of Steve Putt, including an entire song in one episode but all manner of guitar licks and other tidbits spicing things up throughout. Very good stuff.

* The Tin Man and the Scarecrow dialogues. If you didn’t know you would never guess that that’s one person doing those two voices, sounding for all the world like a naturally performed scene. Two Guys Talkin’ is Matt’s specialty, dramatically speaking. There’s a long parade of duos engaging in philosophical repartee throughout his work. But it’s not a rut — there’s something fresh each time. It’s just his thing.

Catching up on all the existing episodes will take you about an hour, and then you can be notified as new ones arrive — whether through your podcasting software of choice, or just through email. What are you waiting for?


Don’t be scared by all the blue! You’re still at the right blog. I’ve upgraded to Movable Type 3.2 and also went with their (much improved) new templates. Still to come: settling on a new stylesheet and, someday, tweaking it and/or doing one of my own. Also, of course, re-inserting the blogroll.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Time was, the premiere of a new Harry Potter movie wouldn’t have interested me in the slightest. Blame Christopher Columbus, whose pedestrian, slavish adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a bitter disappointment. I didn’t bother to watch the second movie—also directed by Columbus—while it was in the theaters, but instead caught it on DVD months later. And regretted having done so, afterwards.

Such was my disappointment with the series that I wasn’t overly concerned about when I saw the third movie. Sure, it had a different—and promising—director (Alfonso Cuaron), but the franchise as a whole seemed doomed. When I finally did see it it was in a theater full of crying babies. And it was great. Saw it again, minus the distractions, twice, and rued the fact that Cuaron wouldn’t be directing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Mike Newell has a middling track record: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin, Mona Lisa Smile, many others you haven’t heard of. No huge embarrassments in the list, but nothing to suggest he was an inspired choice to carry on the newly-invigorated Potter line.

But the convention wisdom is Goblet of Fire: best Potter movie yet. True? Yeah. Cuaron did a little more with arty visuals. He also made a more self-contained film, with a coming-of-age story arc and plenty of clever elemental imagery. By contrast, Goblet is very much a middle part in a serialized story—those who haven’t read the book, or at the very least seen the previous movies, will be hard pressed to keep track of the myriad characters and plot developments. But by not worrying overmuch about the uninitiated, the film is able to hit the ground running and pack in a surprising amount of the 734-page book on which it’s based. If anything, it tries to do too much—there are a number of clipped scenes whose whole point seems to be to give a nod to an important element in the book so as not to piss off the fans. And yet the fans inevitably will be pissed off—at the absence of Sirius Black except as a face in a fireplace, at the liberties taken in imagining Voldemort’s appearance, at other things as well, no doubt.

But overall, this movie wins. By compressing so much of the early stuff, which was horrendously overwritten in the book, the Death Eater attack on the World Quidditch Cup has the impact it’s meant to, and sets the dark tone for all that will follow. Might have been my imagination, but it seems like the color palette for this film was a little darker than the previous ones. It’s all leading up to that moment when Harry and Cedric suddenly find themselves in the graveyard, and the bottom falls out of our world. And Newell nails it. Every single frame. Not that I was worried—by that point in the movie I had every confidence that those key scenes would not disappoint.

In terms of what got left in and what got left out, it’s clear that Steven Kloves (the screenwriter for all the films thus far, good and bad, which as far as I’m concerned is an object lesson for the influence of the director on the final version of a script) is taking the long view, and setting up for plot developments in the movies to come. We start getting that slightly darker view of the Ministry of Magic. (Don’t think I didn’t notice the juxtaposition of mechanistic imagery associated with the Ministry versus the woodsy, fire-and-hearth imagery of Hogwarts. Nice touch.) Even though his part in this film is minor, we still touch on those important plot points concerning Snape, whose importance is going to increase dramatically. Might have just been my imagination, but I thought I could see Alan Rickman’s acting start subtly moving from playful caricature into something a little more supple in anticipation of the future demands of his role.

Other favorite parts:

The fight with the dragon. Loved the way it crawled along the towers of Hogwarts like some vampiric bat.

The love drama, and Harry & Ron’s complete and utter ignorance as to its subtleties. One’s sympathy is with Hermione, naturally, but mine was also with Ron because that was me in school, dang it! I was that obtuse until . . . hmm, well, at the least the third year of marriage.

The fact that the rookery was covered in bird poop.

Final notes:

What are they going to do with the actors? Emma Watson will be OK for at least another movie, but every time Daniel Radcliffe insisted that he was 14 years old I could feel my suspension of disbelief fraying at the seams. Finding new actors would suck, but they really don’t want to run into a situation like in Karate Kid III where they had to hide Ralph Maccio’s paunch. I’m somewhat embarassed to remember that.

And for the guys—good news! Clemence Poesy, who plays Fleur de la Couer, is 23 years old. So it’s OK to feel that way.