Beach Blanket Bingo

Looking for a brief holiday from total seriousness? Scott McLemee checks into some good destinations for a mental vacation.

May 23, 2007

Entertainment is in the eye of the beholder. Consider the case of what are usually called “beach novels” -- bulky sagas of lust, money, and adventure, page-turning epics of escapism that are (it’s said) addictive. I’ve never been able to work up the appetite to read one, even while bored on vacation in a seafront town. Clive James characterized the dialogue of one such novelist as resembling “an argument between two not-very-bright drunks.”

Which might be fun to witness in real life, actually, depending on the subject of the dispute. But reading the transcript seems like an invitation to a bad headache.

Diversion doesn’t have to be mind-numbing, let alone painful. With the end of the semester at hand, then, a few recommendations of recent books and DVDs that are smarter than your average bar fight -- and more entertaining.

The two dozen or so contributors to When I Was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School managed to wear the entire range of unfortunate hair styles available throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. This collection -- edited by John McNally, who spent last semester as a visiting writer at Columbia College Chicago -- is one of the less solemn works of “creative nonfiction” (as the term of art now has it) currently available. Published by the Free Press, it is available in both paperback and e-book formats.

Most of the mortified authors are novelists and poets, ranging in age from their early 30s through their late 40s. It’s not that their memoirs are devoted to mullets or feathering, as such. But the stories they have to tell are all about the pressure to fit in, to be cool -- failure to do so bringing various penalties, as you may recall. There, on the cusp of adulthood, one has the first opportunity to create a new self. And hair is where it tends to happen first. Sex, religion, and first-job experiences also have their place.

With the benefit of hindsight, of course, the whole effort can seem embarrassing. The essays in When I Was a Loser are all about the different grades of self-consciousness and awkwardness. A few are lushly overwritten (adolescence is a purple thing) and one or two seem more than a little fictionalized. But most have the feel of authentically remembered humiliation, now rendered bearable by time and the cultivation of talent.

Several are well-known, including Dean Bakopoulos, whose novel Please Don't Come Back from the Moon was named by The New York Times as one of the notable books of 2005, and the prominent literary blogger Maud Newton. In the spirit of full disclosure, it bears mentioning that Maud is a friend, and her essay "Confessions of a Cradle Robber" (revealing the dark shame of having once been a fourteen year-old girl with a boyfriend who was twelve) was the first thing I read. My other favorite piece here was "How to Kill the Boy that Nobody Likes" by Will Clarke, a novelist who recalls being the most despised kid in junior high -- one nicknamed "The Will-tard" for his admittedly peculiar comportment. Clarke's rise to the status and celebrity of Student Council treasurer is a tribute to the power of a very silly 1970s paperback about the secret techniques of subliminal advertising. The author's name didn't ring a bell when I picked the book up, but it certainly will in the future.

Adolescence isn’t just for teenagers any more. "Twitch City," an absurdist sitcom that premiered on Canadian television in 1998, offers one of the funniest portraits around of someone determined to avoid the demands of adult life.It ran through 13 episodes before the show ended in 2000. The recent DVD release doesn’t provide many features. Still, it’s good to have the whole series available to those of us who weren’t part of its original cult following.

Its central character, Curtis (played by Don McKellar), is a man in his 20s who spends nearly every waking hour watching television. Among his few distractions from distraction is the effort to sublet more and more of his grungy apartment to anyone who can help him make the rent. His girlfriend Hope (played by the luminous Molly Parker) works at a variety of low-paying jobs. She can never quite figure out why she’s attracted to someone not just utterly lacking in ambition but unwilling even to leave the couch.

Part of the pleasure of "Twitch City" comes from seeing just how many stories can be generated around such a constrained, even claustrophobic premise. It is minimalist without being repetitive, and plausible, somehow, in spite of being preposterous.

When a chain of odd circumstances makes Curtis a media celebrity, he is visited by a woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) claiming to be a graduate student in semiotics. She interviews him about his habits and outlook, and he delivers an analysis of the aesthetics of “Gilligan’s Island” that is a real tour de force -- a great moment of meta-TV. "Twitch City" is set in a neighborhood of Toronto, which occasionally made me wonder what Marshall McLuhan (who taught at U of T) would have made of it.

Another product of Canada worth a look is "Slings and Arrows," an ensemble comedy/drama that just finished its third and final season on the Sundance Channel. The first two (each consisting of six one-hour episodes) are now available on DVD.

Set at a repertory theater best known for its Shakespeare productions, "Slings and Arrows" is in some ways a show about trying to keep viable routines from turning into a rut of mediocrity. The theater’s regular audience is aging. It buys its season tickets out of force of habit, mostly. But box office sales aren’t what they could be, and it’s hard to find corporate sponsors who won’t try to meddle with how the place is run. And in any case, the troupe’s creative spark has diminished over time.

Revitalization isn’t impossible, but it takes some doing. Each season tracks the production of a different Shakespeare play ( Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear) with a keen eye and ear for the way the artistic director and the actors work out the staging. At the same time, plenty of drama and farce takes place behind the scenes.

People who have worked in theater tell me that the situations and backstage dynamics in "Slings and Arrows” are absolutely typical of professional productions. As much as I enjoyed the first season, it was hard to believe that the second would be anything beyond a repetition -- reducing success to a formula. But those misgivings were completely off track. The third season carried things to a natural close.

Nowadays there are sessions at the Modern Language Association meeting devoted to the great German literary theorist Walter Benjamin, whose selected writings have appeared in English in four hefty volumes from Harvard University Press. But if the man himself showed up and wandered the corridors, I doubt he would survive the usual quick and dismissive nametag-check. After all, he wrote mostly for magazines and newspapers. He’d be wearing the wrong kind of nametag to be worth anybody’s time.

Whether or not Howard Hampton is actually the reincarnation of Walter Benjamin, they have the same extraterritorial position vis-a-vis academic criticism. (Hampton writes for The Village Voice, Film Comment, and The Boston Globe, among other endnote-free zones.) And now they share the same publisher, with the recent appearance of Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses (Harvard University Press).

Drawn from 15 years’ worth of running commentary on film, music (mostly rock), and books, Hampton’s selected essays transcend “mere reviewing” (as it’s called) to become examples of a fully engaged critical intelligence responding to the mass-media surround. Some of the best pieces are compact but sweeping analyses of changes in sensibility, amounting to miniature works of cultural history.

One example is “Reification Blues: The Persistence of the Seventies,” which listens to how the pop soundtrack of that decade left its mark on later music despite (or maybe because of) artists’ best efforts to forget it. Another case is “Whatever You Desire: Movieland and Pornotopia” -- an analysis of how mainstream Hollywood and pornography have shaped one another over the years, whether through mimicry or rejection of one another’s examples.

The curse of a lot of pop-culture commentary is its tendency to move too quickly toward big sociocultural statements -- ignoring questions of form and texture, instead using the film, album, etc., as pretext for generalized pontifications. That’s not a problem with Born in Flames. It’s a book that helps you pay attention, even to the nuances of Elvis’s performance in "Viva Las Vegas." Perhaps especially to the nuances of Elvis’s performance in "Viva Las Vegas"....

"It's an alternate universe governed by sheer whim," writes Hampton about the King's cinematic ouevre, "untouched by any sense of the outside world." Sounds like the perfect vacation spot.


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