Saturday, January 25, 2014

Lingo mutato

OK, kids. Let's talk about talk. Here's a random meditation on language. A brick through the stained glass windows of the Temple of Good English is included free of charge.

So what the hell am I talking about when I talk about talk? Funny you should ask.

Human language is a fascinating case of self-organizing information. It’s software. It’s code. Human beings absorb that code as infants in a heuristic process nobody really understands. But with every baby, the Tower of Babel happens in reverse. “Want dink” becomes “I want drink” becomes “I want a drink.” Baby see, baby do. Parents speak, baby imitates, baby gets better and better. That feedback loop writes and rewrites the syntactical code in the kid's brain -- the real grammar running the endless stream of chatter. Humans don’t learn this code as a formal system. The stuff we learn in grammar books -- verbs, nouns, past participles -- isn't the real code. It's descriptive, after the fact, a rough guess, and usually wrong.

Tell that to a Grammar Nazi and they'll burn you at the stake. Or stab you to death with a red pen.

Grammar Nazis assume that the rules of English grammar came down from heaven like the Ten Commandments on Moses’ tablets. Nah. The truth is the rules of English grammar were written by Grammar Nazis. I'll tell you what happened. And I'm not making this shit up.

In the 1700s, social climbing Englishmen wanted to speak and write“good” English. To meet this demand, various Grub Street scribblers cranked out how-to pamphlets as fast as they could scribble. What did they put in those pamphlets? Rules, of course. Rules for good English. Since rules for good English didn't exist yet, they made them up. This forced the scribblers to scratch their noggins and do some hard thinking. So, erm, what is good English, anyway? Gotta figure that out before you make up the rules. How? Dear Christ, in London alone, the chatter of Marylebone is unintelligible to the good people of Knight's Bridge. But hang on ...What about Latin? Why ... It's positively bursting with rules. And they're the best rules! Latin, as everybody knows, is the perfect language. QED: English grammar should be nailed to the Procrustean bed of Latin grammar. And the scribblers scribbled away.

Today, their bogus rules live on in the dead letter of grammar text books. (The ones the Grammar Nazis worship.) Verbs should agree in case and number with nouns. (Despite the fact that this would be news to Shakespeare.) Split infinitives are bad. (Despite the fact that English is a transformational language, not an inflectional language.) So,“To boldly go where no man has gone before” is bad English. “To go boldly where no man has gone before” is good English. Like bloody hell it is.

That's not to bash "good" English. The blemishes of a few spurious rules don't spoil her shining beauty. But it's the beauty of a self-consistent style, not a transcendent absolute that came down from the sky. (And let's not deny the snobbery. The best people speak good English. It was born from social climbing. Let's be nice and sparkling clear.) Hey, I can dig William F. Buckley and his verbal virtuosity. Hell, I can imitate William F. Buckley. Good stuff, fun to play around with. But "good" English isn't the only good English. I can dig Sam Elliott's Western patois, too. Or Chris Rock going to town. That's good stuff, too.

If somebody says, “He ain’t got none” or “I’m fixing to bust” that’s not bad English – it’s a different dialect of English. “Good” English is just another code. One of many. It’s nice to know the code. But, if you’re a writer, comedian, actor or creator, it’s nice to know all kinds of codes. A sneer gets in the way. You have to keep your ears open.

Because everything's changing. Language is a river. Like the man said, you can't swim in the same river twice. Good Modern English is bad Middle English. Good Middle English is lousy Old English. French, Italian and Spanish are all bad Latin. Languages mutate. That’s what languages do. The code isn’t fixed. Its rules* are written in air, not stone. English too, baby. It's changing so fast now, you can actually see it happening ...

Watch "like" dance on the grave of "as."
Witness the subjunctive tense turn to dust. “If I were King of the Forest.” Kiss it goodbye. The distinction between “such” and “like”…? Ancient history.  

Like the shop window in The Time Machine, change ripples before our eyes.

And the river flows on.
*For laughs, look up a “Correct English” guide from the early 1900s. You’d be amazed at all the rules you’re breaking.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

You guys always bring me the very best violence

Imagine a world. A world without violence. Now, imagine that world in the multiplex. Movies where nobody gets hurt...

Hell, I don't wanna imagine that. I like violence. Not the real stuff. And certainly not directed at me. Violence of the make-believe variety. On the sinny, O my brothers. The red, red krovvy on the silver screen in all its glory, like. Righty-right.

Drama is about conflict. People fight each other with words, fists, knives, swords, guns, whatever they’ve got. Bloody drama is real. Bloodless drama is bland.

Blood is a color in the filmmaker’s paintbox. I don’t want to take it away. Violence in movies isn’t bad. It's reporting. This just in! Humans hurt each other. It's what we do on this planet. It's a war between good and evil. We're all in it whether we like it or not. This fight is obvious in crime movies and war movies, though clearly not confined to these genres. We vicariously throw ourselves into that fight, and identify with characters who don’t always win. (This includes the good, the bad and the ugly.) We feel it when the Operative stabs Mr. Universe in Serenity. We feel it when a mother unintentionally cuts her son’s throat at the end of Grifters. We wince when the Sheriff is whipped to death in High Plains Drifter. So it goes.

There’s a right way to use the bloody color. And a wrong way. Wrong doesn't equal graphic. Some violence should be graphic. When someone gets stabbed, shot or pistol-whipped, ugliness is honesty. I don’t want clean deaths.  An honest filmmaker shows the actual consequences. Like that pressure wave killing the bomb-handler at the start of The Hurt Locker. Or the petty thugs beating Billy Batts to an unrecognizable pulp in Goodfellas to the tune of Donovan's "Down Below the Ocean." It ain't pretty. But it's true.

OK. So what's the right way to put violence on the screen? Is it graphic? isn't the test. Is it tasteful? isn't the test. The real test is the empathy test. Are you feeling for the characters, digging on their suffering, or just plain cold?

The empathy test implies certain rules ...
 Rule #1. Don’t make cruelty fun. That’s not saying, “Don’t show cruelty on film.” That’s saying, “Cruelty should never be entertainment.” Which is what makes movies like Saw, Texas Chainsaw 4D, etc. so repugnant. (And arty crap by Lars Van Triers and his ilk.)
Rule #2: Every death should matter. Don’t throw characters away like garbage.
Rule #3: Show the consequences of violence.
Every rule has exceptions. (A Clockwork Orange is an ultraviolent joyride because that’s what it’s like in a sociopath’s head. Alex doesn’t empathize with his victims, yes?) 
That’s a critical judgment, natch. Mine.

But it strikes me how much weaker some great movies would be with the violence scrubbed out. That scene in Cape Fear where Max Caddy drowns the cop and says, "Shhh, shhh" like he's putting a child to sleep. The eye-gouging scene in Blade Runner. Babe's stabbing in Marathon Man.

The brutality shows us the stakes. The war we're in is no abstraction. I don't want the casualties to be off-screen.

I'm talking about cinematic artists of course. Kubrick, Frears, Whedon -- and Quentin Tarantino, damnit. I don't want to take the bloody color out of their paintboxes. If the Uwe Bolls and John Lussenhops of the world get to paint with that color, that's the price.

Despite what you may have been told, nobody ever killed somebody because they saw a bad movie.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Aesthetic crap

Every artist is an art critic. (I.e., you look at your own stuff and say (A) It’s good. (B) It sucks.) God help me, I’m an artist. Hey, I ain’t saying I’m good. But that’s what I am. Some line of code in my DNA says I exist to make words and images that rock. If I’m not doing that, my hardwired teleological imperative says I suck.
So. Thus. Achtung.
At an early age, I discovered how much fun it was smearing paint on paper and making stuff. Solar systems, whatever. My world and welcome to it.
Zen? You want to talk about Zen?
I know what it is, kids. I know that feeling of letting my hand go free and perfectly capturing the line of a face. Shit! I did that? Yeah! I did! And I wasn’t even trying. Now …
Wait for it.
I wanna do it again!
But. If you trace the spontaneous creation. It ain’t spontaneous anymore.
If you try to repeat the magic.
You kill it.
To the rational mind, this mystic art shit is just plain irrational. The rational mind wants systems, formulas and repeatable results. The rational mind says, “Dance, monkey! Dance!” The inner monkey that creates all the good stuff says, “Fuck you.”
And, here, at last, we come to the punk aesthetic.
You can’t be slick and real at the same time.
I wish I could make it more profound than that.
But that’s pretty much all there is.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Face in the Crowd

A handful of movies captured the shock of the new when TV was, in fact, new. “A Face in the Crowd” is one of them. Never seen it before; am seeing it tonight. Screenplay, directing, cinematography, acting, editing, and the ideas behind it all. Wow. Andy Griffith’s performance as the wannabe Hillbilly Hitler is most amazing of all. It’s the role of a lifetime. Today, we remember him as lovable Sherriff Andy Taylor. Here, he’s just as lovable. The same aw shucks grin and sparkling eyes. But his just folks persona hides a dark heart. Griffith nailed the character's contradiction; the seduction of persona; the seduction of your own BS. Without the energy he brought to the part, the movie would’ve been a flat, high-minded allegory. Griffith made it real – because the man, in fact, had charisma. He never hit this level again. But for a level this high? Once in a lifetime, really, is enough.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Things I hated in 2013

The sequester.
The word “sequester.”
The debt ceiling.
The fiscal cliff.
The government shutdown.
Miley Cyrus’ tongue.
Any sentence with the words “Kardashian” or “Kanye West” in it.
Governor Rick Scott’s shiny bald head and reptilian eyes.
The !@#$ word “selfie.”
Sentences that start with “so” for no reason.
No more "Breaking Bad" episodes.