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Author’s Note: six years ago now, I posted an article on my old site (teachertrenches.blogspot.com) about the connections between the film Field of Dreams and the J. D. Salinger novel Catcher in the Rye.  And since the movie came out twenty-five years ago this summer, I thought I would re-post it.  Hey, who’s not a fan of re-cycling, right?

By the way, my wife Sheri now has a sister blog, Hearing God’s Whisper.  She just started it, but she already has some really great content. I’m really proud of her. You can access it here.   

Finally, just today, I have a piece running on an awesome site called LikeTotally80s. The article celebrates the song “The End of the Innocence,” which– like Field of Dreams– came out in the summer 1989.   You can check out the piece here

* Whew *… OK, enjoy…

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

So what does Field of Dreams, a 1989 film about spectral baseball players in an Iowa cornfield have to do with The Catcher in the Rye, a classic novel about a depressed 1950s teenager wandering through New York? I’m glad you asked!

First off, the most obvious connection: for the three of you out there in Internet-land who may not know this,…

  • Field of Dreams, the film, is based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella.
  • In the film Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella goes to Boston to find a reclusive novelist named Terrence Mann.
  • In the novel Shoeless Joe, Ray Kinsella goes to New Hampshire to find a reclusive novelist named J. D. Salinger.

That’s right: Terrence Mann is loosely-based on J. D. Salinger. And I say “loosely-based,” because Salinger is not a large, black man with a voice that sounds suspiciously like Mufasa. But like Terrence Mann, both the real-life J. D. Salinger and the character J. D. Salinger from the novel Shoeless Joe are hermits who stopped writing (or at least, stopped publishing their writing) at the peaks of their careers.

Incidentally, you really can’t teach Catcher without talking about Salinger’s biography; over the years, it seems more people are more interested in what Salinger hasn’t written in the past forty years than anything he’s ever has actually written. (You can find out more on Salinger’s perculiar reclusiveness in the documentary, J. D. Salinger Does Not Want to Talk.) And the Terrence Mann character provides a way to segue into Salinger’s infamous reclusiveness.

Beyond the Mann-Salinger connection, the film shares some thematic connections withCatcher. You can find the real biggie in Terrence Mann’s famous climactic speech. (Come on: You know the words– say it along with us!)

“People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.

People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

The whole speech, and especially the parts I italicized, is about the biggest dream of them all: regaining childhood innocence. And Ray’s field makes that impossibility possible. That’s why those thousands of cars show up at the end: to get back to a time when there were no mortgages, no gambling scandals, no fallen heroes. That’s childhood, essentially.

Holden desperately wants a place like Ray’s field. He wants to be the “catcher in the rye,” the guardian who keeps kids from losing their innocence, from falling from grace. He knows it can’t happen in real life, but he wants it anyway. (Of course, a place like Ray’s field can happen in the movies– an artform which Holden claims to hate. If Holden actually saw Field of Dreams, he’d probably dismiss it as being “corny” or “phony.” Or at least, he’d say those things, but who knows what he’d really feel deep down? )

Holden’s desire to be a “catcher in the rye” relates to his fundamental fear of change. This seems odd to say, since he has been to four different high schools, but Holden can’t deal with change and flux. This relates to one of the most important and most overlooked symbol in the book, for my money– just as significant as the “catcher in the rye” symbol: the “big glass cases,” which Holden talks about at the end of Chapter 16.

Holden marvels at how the “big glass cases” you find at museums preserve things: they keep objects and moments frozen in time. “Certain things they should stay the way they are,” Holden says. “You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”

Holden could probably really use a place like Ray’s ballfield, a place where time stands still, where the flux of life is held in stasis. Basically, the Iowa ballfield is the equivalent of Holden’s “big glass case.”

Of course, if Holden heard a voice telling him to build a baseball field, he would never do it. For one thing, building the field takes work; Holden won’t even pick up the phone to call Jane Gallagher. In addition, Holden, despite all his posturing, is too concerned with what everyone else thinks about him. (Remember, in the movie, all the locals think Ray Kinsella’s crazy, the “biggest horse’s ass in three counties.”)

Finally, Holden is too self-absorbed to do something to help someone else. And that’s really what the building of the field was for Ray. Just like he said to Shoeless Joe near the end of the film, “I never once asked what’s in it for me.” And his selflessness allowed Ray to realize his dream of playing catch with his dad. Holden’s a lot of things, but you’d never really call him selfless.

There are other smaller connections too (Allie’s baseball mitt with the poems on it, the name “Richard Kinsella” appears in Catcher), but the connections I detailed above get to the heart of both texts. Showing the movie in conjunction with the novel highlights the themes in both texts; plus, it’s an excuse to show a timeless classic in class. And maybe, if you get “meta” with me for a moment, that timelessness can be a connection in itself.

Serendipity time: this past weekend, I was watching the Red Sox-Orioles game, and Kevin Costner was in the booth with Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy. (Some of Field of Dreams, remember, was shot at Fenway.) And Costner was saying that, while making millions at the box office is nice, he’s more interested in making movies that stand tghe test of time. (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the general gist of it.)

Well, he may not have passed the “test of time” with Dragonfly, but he definitely did with Field of Dreams. The film has aged well– so well, in fact, that it doesn’t age. And in that sense, the film Field of Dreams is like the “field of dreams” it showcases. Maybe Holden’s idea of the “big glass case” is not so impossible after all.

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SuperbowlSince today is the Super Bowl, and since football is the only pro-sports organization (to my knowledge)  that has a team named after a work of literature– i.e. the Baltimore Ravens, named after the Edgar Allan Poe poem– we thought we could re-post our “football in literature” quiz form last year… with a few additions. (We had fifteen questions last year, but now, we’ve added five more, plus a bonus.)

Feel free to bring these questions to whatever party you’re attending this evening and quiz your friends during one of the game’s slower moments.  And yes, we recognize it will have to be a pretty lame party if you have to resort to asking literary questions.  (I know we made that same joke last year.)

  1. What American novel features a neighbor named Roberta (formerly Robert) Muldoon, a transsexual former tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles?
  2. In William Faulkner’s The Hamlet, a young schoolteacher named Labove plays college football to pay for his education, even though he’s not crazy about the game.  (Labove sends home cleats to the members of his family who can’t afford shoes, which is very sweet; on the other hand, he also falls in love with an eleven-year-old girl named Eula– definitely not sweet.)  For what university does Labove play football?
  3. In Death of a Salesman, what is the name of Willy Loman’s oldest son, the star football player who never graduated from high school?
  4. And where was this character supposed to go to college?  (He threw into the furnace his sneakers imprinted with the name of the school.)
  5. What novel takes place during World War II at the Devon School, where students invent a game named blitzball, a combination of rugby and football?
  6. This young-adult novel which features a character named Darry, the captain of his high school’s football team who could have gone to college on a football scholarship; however, after the death of his parents,  he gave up on his dream to take care of his brothers, one of whom is named Ponyboy. What is this novel?
  7. Who is the narrator of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a Native American ex-football player who now pretends to be a deaf-mute?
  8. Which Tennessee Williams play features a former professional football player named Brick, whose possible romantic feelings for his former teammate Skipper may be the source of his current alcoholism?
  9.  What is the name of the H.G. Bissinger non-fiction book about the Permian High School football team (from Odessa, Texas), which was the basis of a movie (2004) and a TV show (2006-2011)?
  10. In the 1986 novel and the 1994 film version of Forrest Gump, Forrest earns a scholarship to play football for what university?  (Big Hint: In 2002, Winston Groom– the author of the novel Forrest Gump— wrote a book about this school’s football program, entitled The Crimson Tide.)
  11. I am an American author who played high school football and, during World War I, drove an ambulance in Italy for the American Red Cross.   I later drew on these experiences when I created Nick Adams, a former football player and World War I soldier, who is the protagonist of more than twenty short stories.   Who am I?
  12.  “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.  When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football again were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.” These two sentences begin which beloved American novel?
  13.  The film Stand By Me features John Cusack as Dennis, a star high school football player whose death haunts his younger brother Gordie.  On what Stephen King short story is Stand By Me based?
  14. What 1999 coming-of-age young adult novel features an introverted narrator named Charlie and a closeted gay football player named Patrick?
  15.  On the Road author Jack Kerouac had a scholarship to play football for an Ivy League university, but after cracking his tibia and squabbling constantly with the coach over his lack of playing time, he dropped out of college completely.  Which university was it—Brown, Columbia, or Princeton?
  16. In The Great Gatsby, what is the name of Daisy’s husband, “one of the most powerful ends that ever played football” at Yale?
  17. I am the sixteen-year-old male narrator of a great American novel.  My story begins as I am standing all alone on Thomsen Hill, next to a Revolutionary War cannon, as my school Pencey Prep’s football team plays Saxon Hall.  I am just about the only one not at the game—except for the kid who lives next door to me, an acne-ridden senior named Ackley.  Who am I?
  18. What little-known (and rightly so) 1986 Robin Williams/ Kurt Russell film about a man who wants to replay an ill-fated football from high school takes its title from the first line of a Dickens novel?  (The question is asking for the name of the movie.)
  19. Which Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, famous for his “Rabbit” novels, has written a short story called “In Football Season”?
  20.  Which Robert Cormier young adult novel opens with high school freshman named Jerry Renault throwing up after trying out for the football team?Universoi
  21. BONUS:
    1. As a follow-up to Question #8, about the Tennessee Williams play:  what was the name of Brick and Skipper’s team? (Hint: it’s fictional.)

Answers

  1. John Irving’s The World According to Garp
  2. University of Mississippi (Ole Miss)
  3. Biff Loman
  4. University of Virginia
  5. A Separate Peace
  6. The Outsiders
  7. Chief Bromden
  8. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  9. Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream
  10. University of Alabama
  11. Ernest Hemingway
  12. To Kill a Mockingbird
  13. “The Body”
  14. Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  15. Columbia
  16. Tom Buchanan
  17. Holden Caulfield
  18. The Best of Times
  19. John Updike
  20. The Chocolate War
  21. BONUS: Dixie Stars

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General Zod“Kneel before Zod!”

That’s General Zod’s timeless line from 1980’s Superman II, the one line that escaped the film and, like a criminal from the Phantom Zone, has invaded the pop-culture lexicon. What makes the line work (other than Terrence Stamp’s total ownership of the role) is this play on “Zod”/ “God.”  Superman, of course, will never kneel before Zod… because he answers to a Higher Power.

Now, we all know Supe doesn’t belong to any specific church or order.  He wears a big “S,”, not a crucifix or a Star of David. He’s a secular hero, not a sacred one.  On the other hand… well, consider the following:

In 1988, back when Superman was a spry fifty-year-old (as opposed to the just-as-spry seventy-five-year-old he is today), writer Gary Engle published a piece entitled, “What Makes Superman So Darned American?” Nifty title, for an equally nifty essay, chock full of intriguing insights– about the significance of flight, about Clark Kent’s “American heartland” values, about Superman’s status as an intergalactic immigrant.

But Engle’s most fascinating point (for me, anyway) is his observation that Superman, ultimately, is more than a bird, more than a plane, even more than America’s-greatest-hero-bordering-on-patron-saint.  Superman is, in fact, an angel.

 Engle uses a little etymology to make his case. As any Fan of Steel knows, Superman’s name on his home planet of Krypton is Kal-El.  What’s not as well known is that his name was originally Kal-L, but writer George Lowther modified the name in 1942, in his novel The Adventures of Superman, the first novelization of a comic book. (Lowther also changed the names of Superman’s birth parents, from Jor-L and Lora, to the now-canonized Jor-El and Lara.)

Why is this simple change, from “L” to “El,” significant?  As Gary Engle points out in his “So Darned American” essay, the suffix “-el” in Hebrew means “-of God.”  He mentions many Old Testament names that end with “-el,” including Ishmael, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Samuel.

Engle then points out that many angels also have names that end in “-el,” including Raphael, Uriel, Gabriel and Michael, (My obsession with Paradise Lost really came in handy when I read that, as Milton includes all of those angels and more: Abdiel, for example, is the angel who initially joined the rebel angels but then re-joined the good guys. What’s interesting to me is the name “Lucifer,” Satan’s name before he fell from grace; just the fact that Lucifer does not have a name ending in “el” suggests that, even when he was in heaven, he is somehow different from the rest of the angels.)

A quick Wikipedia search confirms Engle’s assertion about the many members of the heavenly host who have names ending in “-el,” from Ariel to Zadkiel. Even Azrael was the name of a wicked angel long before he was Gargamel’s cat in The Smurfs. (Noticing that the the word “angel” itself ends in “-el,” I did some sleuthing; it turns out the word derives from the Greek “angelos,” meaning “messenger, one who announces.”)

But it’s not just his Kryptonian name, sayeth Engle, that reinforces this idea that Superman is an angel; his uniform also contributes to the whole seraphic package, especially his cape.  Engle notes that Superman’s cape doesn’t have a clasp of any kind but is almost a part of him; the cape “hangs, when he stands at ease, in a line that doesn’t so much drape his shoulders as stand apart from them and echo their curve, like an angel’s wings.”

Initially, I didn’t necessarily buy this aspect of Engle’s argument.   The “Kal-El” thing was convincing, but the “cape as angel’s wings” thing? Less so.   But then I stumbled upon the following painting:

Archangel Michael 2
It’s Italian painter Guido Reni’s “Erzengel Michael” and it was painted in 1636, approximately 300 years before the birth of Superman. But check out what Michael is wearing: a skin-tight blue tunic with some sort of red capey-thing behind him.  Look familiar?  Here’s another painting
Archangel Michael pic
It’s Luca Giordano’s “Archangel Michael Overthrows the Rebel Angels,” painted in 1660.  Once again, Michael is wearing a red-and-blue costume reminiscent of the earlier picture and in anticipation of Superman’s costume.  (For what it’s worth: although Engle doesn’t say anything about these paintings in his “So Darned American” essay, he does call the archangel Michael “the one perhaps most like Superman.”)

Were the creators of Superman, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, fans of Italian art or otherwise influenced by these paintings when conjuring up their hero?  Probably not.  But the similarities in the costumes does make you wonder.

Superman can be compared to other religious icons. For example, some say Superman is like Moses. (Baby Supe’s escape from Krypton just before it explodes parallels the story of the infant Moses, whose mother placed him in a basket and sent floating in a river to escape the slaughter of the children.)  Others compare Superman to Jesus Himself. (Both come from the heavens by their fathers to help save the world.)  Me, I like the idea of Superman as a guardian angel, one who fights for justice, who looks out for the oppressed, and who never, ever kneels before Zod.

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So, the new film version of The Great Gatsby just opened.  And Mark is currently teaching Fitzgerald’s novel in his AP class.  And this is a blog devoted to fiction. Sounds like a readymade excuse for a Great Gatsby post!  (Or two!  Or three!)  And what better place to start than the title?

Now, we mentioned this in a previous post (but don’t click back just yet!  We’re having a quiz in a moment!), but it bears repeating:  Fitzgerald was no fan of the title The Great Gatsby. “The title is only fair,” he is credited with saying, “rather bad than good.”  Instead, Fitzgerald has a bunch of other titles he was considering.  Try to guess which of the following were actual possible titles for The Great Gatsby:Gatsby Logo 1

  1. On the Road to West Egg
  2. First Impressions
  3. Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night
  4. The High-Bouncing Lover
  5. Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires
  6. They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen
  7.  Under the Red, White, and Blue
  8. They Who Got Shot

Of those winners listed above, only 1, 4, 5, and 7 were actual titles Fitzgerald considered for Gatsby.  As for the others: First Impressions was a possible title for Pride and Prejudice; though it would fit Fitzgerlad’s Manhattan, Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night was title of the article upon which the film Saturday Night Fever was based;  They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen (also fitting for Gatsby) was a working title for Valley of the Dolls; and They Who Got Shot was a possible title for (wait for it) Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Incidentally, as a title for Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald was especially partial to either Trimalchio or Trimalchio in West Egg– with “Trimalchio” being the name of a character in the Roman novel The Satyricon. Now, Trimalchio is a wealthy man who throws extravagant parties, so the name does fit the character Gatsby.  The problem, of course, is that maybe 3.7% of the populace knows that.

(I’m reminded of that anecdote Nabokov wrote in the foreword to his memoir Speak, Memory; apparently, Nabokov wanted to call it Speak, Mnemosyne, after the Greek goddess of memory, but his editor warned him that “little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce.”  Good advice, there.)

And why didn’t Fitzgerald like The Great Gatsby as a title?  Apparently, he had a problem with the “great” part.  As he explpained to his editor, Max Perkins: “There is no emphasis, even ironically, on his greatness or lack of it.”  (Ummm… really, F. Scott?  “No emphasis” on Gatsby’s greatness?  Did you actually read your novel?)

Ultimately, Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda, along with his editor, talked Fitzgerald into The Great Gatsby. And for that, I feel I can speak on behalf of millions of readers when I say, “*Whew!*”  Honestly, do you think ANYONE in 2013 would be dressing up in flapper costunes to see the premier of a movie called Trimalchio?  Or On the Road to West Egg?

Just goes to show that sometimes artists really don’t know what’s best for their own works of art.  I mean… High-Bouncing Lover?  For real???

While we’re on the subject, here are some other great stories about titles…

  • In addition to the bizarre They Who Got Shot, Ernest Hemingway had at least thirty other working titles for A Farewell to Arms, including the following: The World’s Room; World Enough and Time; The Italian Journey; The Italian Prodigal; Love Is a Fervent Fire, Kindled without Desire; Disorder and Early Sorrow; Death Once Dead; If You Must Love; A World to See; A Patriot’s Progress; The Carnal Education; The Grand Tour; The Sentimental Education of Frederic Henry and (the most curious of all) I Have Committed Fornication But That Was in Another Country, and Besides the Wench Is Dead.
  • Great story about the movie Field of Dreams: the film, which features former baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson, was based on W. P. Kinsella’s book Shoeless Joe.  Test audiences, however, thought the title was misleading; they thought the film was going to be a movie about a homeless person.  The studio suggested Field of Dreams.  Luckily, author Kinsella didn’t mind, since his publisher originally came up with Shoeless Joe.  The title Kinsella had wanted: Dream Field.
  • Many artists have mined the works of Shakespeare for titles. Macbeth inspired William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury), Kurt Vonnegut (Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow) and Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes). Aldous Huxley found a Brave New World in The Tempest.  Sting named his second solo album Nothing Like The Sun after Sonnet 130. And one of Leo Tolstoy’s working titles for War and Peace was All’s Well That Ends Well.
  • On a related note, Star Trek writers really seem to love the Bard: Star Trek VI was subtitled The Undiscovered Country (from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech); “Dagger of the Mind” and “All Our Yesterdays” (Macbeth) and “Thine Own Self” (Hamlet) are all names of Star Trek episodes.
  • Any frustrated Sporcle enthusiast now knows that, in Britain, the first Harry Potter book is entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone— which author J.K. Rowling prefers to the Americanized Sorcerer’s Stone. But did you know the sixth book was supposed to be called Harry Potter and the High-Bouncing Wizard?    Kidding!

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Wizard of OzMake no mistake: he—or she—had a brain, all right.

Unlike a certain singing scarecrow, whoever initially found the parallels between Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the film The Wizard of Oz definitely did not have a head full o’ stuffing.  Only an intellectual wizard, after all, could notice that “The Great Gig in the Sky” plays when Dorothy’s house flies in the tornado.  Or that the cash register sound at the start of “Money” is synchronized to the exact moment the movie turns from black-and-white to Technicolor.  Or that Dorothy’s listening for the Tin Man’s heart coincides with the sound of a heartbeat on the album.

It’s all very fascinating.  Provocative.  And completely impossible.  I mean, come on: are we really supposed to believe the guys from Pink Floyd were watching Wizard of Oz while recording the album? Not likely.

This isn’t a knock on the anonymous wizard (or wizards) who originally noticed the similarities.  Far from it: making these connections is a creative act in itself.  And does it matter whether or not Pink Floyd intended to connect its album to Wizard of Oz?  I don’t see why it should.  When an author puts something out into the world, he or she gives up a degree of control.   The audience takes it from there.

Of course, I can’t give props to the folks interpreting the text without acknowledging the greatness of the text itself.  If The Wizard of Oz wasn’t so rich, so paradoxical, so chock full of themes and iconic characters, could those anonymous folks have made so many connections?

That’s not to take anything away from Dark Side of the Moon, which is a trippily complicated text in itself.  I’m just saying that if you take a text as complex as Wizard of Oz and juxtapose it with an equally complex text (such as Dark Side of the Moon, or hundreds of other texts), you’re bound to find some connections.

I actually have an example of my own, regarding the similarities between The Wizard of Oz and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  In case you never read The Sound and the Fury (or, as in my case, you read it but had pretty much had no earthly idea what was going on), the novel focuses on a promiscuous Southern woman named Caddy Compson and her three brothers: Benjy, who is mentally handicapped; Quentin, whose incestuous obsession with Caddy contributes to his suicide; and Jason, who is… just mean.  (There is also a plot in there, apparently… but I don’t think I was ever smart enough to figure it out.)

I took a Faulkner seminar in college, and in one of my papers, I made the case (only half-jokingly) that Faulkner borrowed liberally from L. Frank Baum’s original Wizard of Oz novel (published in 1900) for The Sound and the Fury (published in 1929). Caddy, Faulkner’s centerpiece character, is obviously Dorothy; Benjy matches up the brainless Scarecrow; Quentin—or Quen-Tin—is Tin Man; and Jason, the gruff yet easily frightened “king” of the Compson household, is the Cowardly Lion.

I went on to talk about how both texts involve the idea of dreams vs. reality, with Benjy’s stream-of-consciousness narration being particularly dream-like, in that he tends to collapse past and present events into one.  Admiitedly, a bit of a stretch.

Years later, as a high school teacher, I came up with a better Oz-connection; this time, I didn’t connect Oz to a text but to American history.  On some level, I was inspired by Henry Littlefield’s “The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism,” which spelled out the allegorical aspects of Baum’s novel: The Scarecrow is the supposedly ignorant American farmer; the Tin-Man is the industrial worker who toils so hard for so long, he actually becomes a machine himself; the Cowardly Lion is (believe it or not) William Jennings Bryan; the Wizard is any president who doesn’t have the power to give the people what they need; and Dorothy is Everyman (or Everywoman), trying to muddle his/ her way through.

Now… did Baum intend any of this?  Henry Littlefield seems to think so, and he makes an extremely compelling case why. But again, does Baum’s intention even matter?  Littlefield’s reading is an interesting intellectual exercise, one that gives us a new way of looking at a classic text.  That’s enough for me. (I should note: Littlefield was also a high school teacher… just saying.)

My interpretation goes in a different direction than Littlefield’s.   Most significantly, I’m interpreting the 1939 film version, not the novel.  I start with the song “Over the Rainbow,” the lyrics of which were written by a gentleman named Yip Harberg.  A businessman who lost everything in the Great Depression, Harberg went to Hollywood and became a songwriter.   His work on Wizard of Oz won him an Academy Award.  Talk about an American success story (which is sort of curious to say, since he was a committed socialist).

Now, two things you need to know about “Over the Rainbow.”  First: the rainbow symbol does not appear in Baum’s novel; it was used in the film to help reinforce the innovative use of Technicolor.  (That’s why they changed Dorothy’s magic slippers, silver in the book, to ruby red.)  Secondly: Yip Harberg is the son of Russian immigrants, who emigrated to the United States before Harberg was born.

Though not an immigrant himself, is it possible that Harberg was telling the story of his immigrant parents in the song “Over the Rainbow”?  Check out some of the lyrics:

* “There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby”…
* “Dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”…
* “Where troubles melt like lemondrops”…

Aren’t those exactly—I mean, EXACTLY—the kinds of things that someone a hundred years ago, living in Eastern Europe, would say about America?

With that as a foundation, I suggest that the entire 1939 Wizard of Oz film can be seen as an allegory for the American immigrant experience of the early 20th century.   The black-and-white Kansas portion represents their life back home, where they wistfully think about this mythical new world, America—a place where the streets are literally paved with gold. (That’s the yellow brick road.)  Filled with this hope that their daring dreams really will come true, they arrive at the new country, draped in their new home’s colors. (Dorothy, remembers, wears a blue and white dress and ruby-red shoes.)

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for many of these immigrants to realize that this wonderful new place is not what it’s cracked up to be; like the Wizard itself, the new world is an illusion.  And soon, these same wide-eyed immigrants, who risked everything to come to America, face a hard truth: “There’s no place like home.”

Granted, the interpretation needs some work.  I admittedly have some holes to fill. (Who’s the Scarecrow?  What about the Flying Monkeys?)   But it does offer a new perspective, doesn’t it, on a century-old tale?

To me, it all comes back to the text, L. Frank Baum’s original vision.  What started in 1900 as merely America’s greatest fairy tale has had so many lives, so many incarnations—from the 1939 film to The Wiz in the 1970s to Wicked in the 2000s and now to the new film, Oz, The Great and Powerful.  Why has it had such a long shelf-life?

Answer: because Baum is not like his wizard.  He’s the real deal.  He had brains and heart and courage. His vision was rich and deep, great and powerful.  And the lesson all writers can learn from him, I think, is this: the more you put into a text, the more someone else can get out of it.

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bosom buddiesI recently re-read Twelfth Night, after a twenty-year hiatus. And I have to say: that play is kray-kray. Oh, it’s fun and light-hearted, and it has some important things to say about gender and identity.  It’s just not the most realistic depiction of life you’ll ever seen.

For the uninitiated, here’s the basic plot:  Viola is caught up in a storm at sea and washes up on the shores of a strange land called Illyria.  For reasons that defy logic, she decides to disguise herself as a man in order to work as a servant for the duke, the lovesick Orsino.  Donning a new name (Cesario) and an apparently extremely convincing costume, Viola becomes fast-friends with Duke Orsino, who asks her (him) to speak on his behalf to the lovely Olivia, who has sworn off men for seven years.   As it turns out, though, Olivia’s man-fast lasts considerably shorter; she immediately falls in love with Cesario/ Viola—who, conveniently enough, has a secret crush on Orsino.

Things get even nuttier later when Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, presumed dead, also washes up in Illyria, totally unaware that his sister is not only alive and living in this same city (what are the odds, right?), but has been basically masquerading around as him for three months.  So Sebastian is confused why all these strangers seem to know him… but not so confused that he declines the marriage proposal of Olivia (whom Sebastian has just met).   Despite these complications, all’s well that ends well: Viola and Sebastian reunite, and Viola and Orsino get married (even though, just moments before, Orsino considered her to be his male servant).

Yeah, so… a little light on the realism, that Twelfth Night.  I’m not saying that’s not a bad thing. It’s just a fact.  Even Shakespeare himself recognized this: in Act III, the character Fabian says, in a moment of inspired self-reflexivity, “If this were play’d upon a stage right now, I’d condemn it as an improbable fiction.”

Improbable or not, though, it’s a great play, one worthy of analysis and discussion.  I have twelve observations/ discoveries about Twelfth Night.  Here are the first six:

(1) As far as Shakespearean titles go, the name Twelfth Night is pretty nonsensical.  It refers to the Feast of the Epiphany, the last night of the Christmas season—but that never comes up in the play. Instead, scholars have surmised that the play was first performed on the “twelfth night”—hence, the name.  I wonder why more current-day screenwriters don’t try something similar.  It would clear up a few things….

“Hey, you want to see that new movie February 18th?”
“Sure.  When’s it coming out?”
“Duh!”

(2) Speaking of titles, Twelfth Night is the only Shakespeare play with a subtitle (What You Will), which could refer to three things:

(a) The audience (as if Shakespeare, acknowledging the role the theater-goers have in the creative process, is conceding, “You folks will do with this play what you will.”  Or maybe he’s saying, “I know I’m taking a walk on the wacky side with this one, but hey, I think it’s cool. So, say whatever you want. I gotta be me.”);

(b) The playwright’s own name (Has there ever been a writer more infatuated with his own name than Master Shakespeare?); and

(c) Ahem… a certain part of the male anatomy.  (I’m serious:  “will” is bawdy Elizabethan slang—and Shakespeare sure does enjoy some bawdy slang!  Of course, since this play involves a woman dressing as a man, maybe the punning especially works here.)

(3) Twelfth Night is one of four—count ‘em: four—Shakespearean plays involving shipwrecks, the other three being Comedy of Errors, The Tempest, and Pericles.  And who can blame Will for going to the shipwreck well so often?  After all, a shipwreck is dramatic, visually compelling.  Thus, when The Tempest opens with a storm at sea, we are immediately thrown into a tense and chaotic scene.

Similarly, in Twelfth Night—actually, it’s not similar at all; the storm happens off-stage, in-between the first two scenes of Act I.  Missed opportunity, I think—as do others; from what I’ve read, some Twelfth Night directors have flip-flopped scenes 1 and 2, which means the play begins with Viola, the main protagonist.  (Of course, that means Orsino’s famous line “If music be the food of love, play on” no longer opens the play, which causes some purists to cry foul.  Eh, can’t win ‘em all…)

(4) For my money, a whole play based on cross-dressing smacks of genius on Shakespeare’s part.  Remember: back in the day, male actors played the female parts.  So, in the case of Twelfth Night, you have a male actor playing the part of a woman playing the part of a man.  How convolutedly cool is that?

(5) And yet, despite its coolness… the whole reason behind the cross-dressing is a little contrived.  So, let me get this straight: disguising herself as a boy is the ONLY way Viola can get a job in Illyria?  Yeah, yeah, I get that she knows absolutely nobody, and she needs food and shelter and all that.  And yeah, yeah, she first thought of going to Olivia’s first, only to be told that she wasn’t seeing anyone (due to that whole “mourning-for-seven-years” thing).  But you’re telling me there is not a single other person living in Illyria who could lend her a hand?  Or that she’s so desperate that cross-dressing is her only option?  And where did Viola get all these men’s clothes, anyway?

I’m reminded of Bosom Buddies, that early-80’s sitcom starring Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari as two wicked cheap guys who dressed in drag so they could live in an inexpensive apartment for women.  So the two can’t afford to pay rent but they can buy an entire new wardrobe of women’s clothing?  (Incidentally, you know the whole double-meaning of the title Bosom Buddies?  That they’re best friends but they’re also dressing up as women, which means they have fake bosoms?  I literally JUST figured that out last year, a whole thirty years after the fact. Man, either the pun is that subtle or I’m that slow.)

(6) Speaking of sitcoms… Twelfth Night showcases Shakespeare’s susceptibility to Chuck Cunningham Syndrome (CCS).  And who is Chuck Cunningham, you ask?  Why, he’s an original character of Happy Days, of course—the college-aged, basketball-playing older brother of Richie and Joanie Cunningham, the eldest child of Howard and Marion Cunningham.  Chuck appeared sporadically on Happy Days during Seasons 1 and 2, then in Season 3, he went upstairs… and never emerged again.   The writers just dropped him.

Well, three-hundred-and-fifty years before Joanie loved Chachi, some Shakespearean characters experienced the same disappearing act.  And some pretty major characters at that. Where did Benvolio go after Act III of Romeo and Juliet?  What about the Fool in King Lear?  What happened to him? In Macbeth, Fleance fled and never came back.  Same with Donalbain.

Twelfth Night may be one of the most egregious examples of Shakespeare’s CCS.  In Scene 2, Viola is talking to a character known only as Captain, presumably the captain of the ship that just sank.   The Captain not only tells Viola about Orsino and Olivia (he’s either known them or had heard about them previously), but he’s the one Viola enlists in her scheme to disguise herself as a man.  “Conceal me what I am,” she says to the Captain, “and be my aid” (I.ii.54).

In fact, the Captain is the only person Viola knows on Illyria and the only person who knows her secret.  So that seems pretty important, no?  Apparently not.  After Act I, he disappears from world literature forever.  Seems like an oversight– which I have to admit, I enjoy.  Sort of refreshing when the greatest playwright of all time screws up, isn’t it?

Part II of Twelfth Night Observations… coming soon (providing, of course, I don’t come down with Chuck Cunningham Syndrome…)

 

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Even as an English teacher, I have a hard time describing tone. Is it an attitude?  Is it atmosphere? How is it different from mood?  All very technical.  I wouldn’t even call tone a “you-know-it-when-you-see-it” kind of a thing.  In fact, I think you know it better when you don’t see it.

That said, I didn’t “see” a consistent tone in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  Oh, over the course a two hours and forty-five minutes,  I saw a bunch of other things—a lot of exploding blood packets, for example (hard to take, with memories of the Sandy Hill school shooting still fresh in our collective minds), and a bunch of characters, both white and black, throwing around the N-word.  (Hey, I get it’s a period piece, and I accept that’s how people talked in 1858, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.)

That stuff didn’t thrill me, but after talking about it with my colleagues, I realize I mostly have a beef with the film’s muddled tone. Here’s what I mean: to me, this overly long film is really two films in one. And apparently, I’m not far off with this:  according to the December 21st Entertainment Weekly, Tarantino and producer Harvey Weinstein had actually considered giving the film the Kill Bill treatment by cutting it into two.

As it stands, Django Part I is basically a pre-Civil War buddy movie, detailing the madcap adventures of Dr. King Schultz (the always mesmerizing Christopher Waltz) and Django (the capable though somewhat less mesmerizing Jamie Foxx).  Dr. Schultz is a dentist-turned-bounty hunter charged with bringing in criminals “dead or alive”; despite the fact that he conveniently overlooks the “alive” part, Dr. Schultz is likeable and strangely honorable.  He also hates slavery, and early in the film, Schultz frees Django and then enlists him to be his partner in the bounty hunting business.

I like Django Part I a lot.  Sure, it has some dark, unsavory moments (it’s not a Pixar movie, after all), but overall, it has a certain lightness to it. There’s humor (including an amusing Jonah Hill cameo).  There’s the touching friendship between Schultz and Django, which to me is the best part of the movie.  Heck, there’s even Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” on the soundtrack.  You don’t get much bouncier than that!

Then comes Django Part II, which introduces us to an insane and merciless slave-owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).  Mr. Candie owns Django’s wife, Broomhilda, and so Schultz and Django undertake a covert mission to rescue her.  A great concept , for sure, and Django Part II does have some compelling moments.  (DiCiaprio particularly shines, especially when delivering a captivating speech involving a skull—a wild, profane twist on Hamlet’s “poor Yorick” meditation.)

The problem, though, has to do with the drastic shift in tone between Part I and Part II: basically, when Candie shows up, out goes Jim Croce, to be replaced with extended scenes of slaves fist-fighting to the death, extended scenes of slaves being fed to dogs, and hyper-extended of people getting shot up.  These scenes were so extended, in fact, that I started to wonder if Tarantino was critiquing the violence or exploiting it.

Hey, I’m not saying that a little tonal inconsistency is a bad thing.  Shakespeare has some funny moments in his tragedies and some sad undertones in his comedies.  Judd Apatow can write raunchy comedic scenes with the best of ‘em, but all of his movies have a heart as well.  That’s not what’s going on in Django Unchained, which abruptly changes into a completely different movie for the last hour-and-a-half.

The thing is, Tarantino is even inconsistent with his inconsistencies.  Near the end (and this doesn’t spoil anything, I hope), Django shoots Candie’s sister, Lara Lee, and she literally goes flying off the screen.  Obviously, this is played for laughs– which is fine, except that this came after a long, bloody, graphic, non-laughable shoot-‘em-up.  I don’t know if you can have both.

Ultimately, because of the schizophrenic tone, I think there’s a “whole not as great as the sum of its parts” thing going on with Django Unchained.  It’s not a bad movie; in fact, if they cut down on some of the really gruesome scenes, it’s a combination two potentially good movies.   Just not one great movie. (Or should I say “djust not one great movie”?)

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