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January 02, 2004

What I Did Over My Christmas Vacation...


So how was your vacation? As for me and my brood, what we didn't do was go to Vegas as we had once planned; I'm gambling-challenged and on my diet I can't eat or drink, and that's about all there is to do there. Oh, I forgot, I also hate Vegas shows. If I get forced to shell out huge bucks to take the family to one more Cirque du Soliel extravaganza, I'm going to run amok and bump off a few of those Eastern European slave laborers they call performers. I'd love to read an economic expose of that outfit--what a scam they've got going!

So we ended up hanging out around the house. Or at least we would have except...we're putting in some wood floors. I've wanted to do this since I moved in six years ago. Gratifying as it is, the demolition of the old floors has been incredibly dusty and noisy. So we've actually ended up hanging out at the local mall, some motels and at my in-laws. As a consequence of all this moving around with kids out of school, I ended up seeing the new Peter Pan movie twice.

Actually, to my surprise, it's not that bad. Very nicely photographed. The visual effects aren't aiming at literal realism but at a rather more stylized aesthetic. I don't quite get why they have the same actor playing Captain Hook and Mr. Darling, except that both of those characters are supposed to show the ugly side of adulthood, I guess.

The story is, of course, a potential psycho-sexual minefield. Odd how J.M.Barrie managed to get the whole world to buy into this weird fantasy, all built around a fear of adult sexuality! Peter and Wendy in this version are right on the cusp of puberty, which is of course far older than they are in the play and novel. If I were a paid reviewer, I guess I'd go back through the play and the novel ("Peter and Wendy") and try to sort out exactly what choices are getting made by the filmmakers--and why. (Whatever else they're doing, the line in the trailers about trying to 'respect' the work of J. M. Barrie is, of course, Hollywood nonsense--there's all sorts of fiddling around with the original text and its meanings going on in this movie.) However, since I'm merely a paying customer, I find it all too murky to bother with.

Actually, what the story made me realize is that someone should point out how much more audacious pop culture storytelling is than high culture literature. Okay, I guess I'll do it myself. Pop culture storytelling is far more audacious than...oh, well, you get the picture.

In popular culture, semi-conscious metaphors for sex, repression and death just bubble up to the surface. In contrast, the metaphors and imagery of high literature are really quite tame. I mean, Kafka works over one little metamorphosis for a whole short story, and it's a pretty transparent metaphor at that. Poor little Gregor Samsa!

Meanwhile, Robert Louis Stevenson is stirring up a witches brew with Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde; so is Bram Stoker with Dracula; so is Lewis Carol with Alice in Wonderland; so is Poe with the House of Usher. (Is this just an English-language thing? Are there such pop-cult stories in French literature?) I suppose the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm should be included; they hardly sentimentalize childhood. Does it ever make you wonder if modern high-cult literature is just too darn conscious of itself for its own good?

Historically, high-cult literature doesn't seem to have labored under the same terrible burden of self-consciousness that has been draped over 'serious' writing during the past century. The Greek tragedians could focus their formidable intelligence on stagecraft and poetry; for zany metaphors, they could rely on the audacity of their religious tradition. Even when we get to Shakespeare, he seemed to have approached writing in a rather different manner than modern 'serious' authors. Don't you ever wonder exactly how 'hip' to his own subtexts Shakespeare really was? He wrote very, very quickly (or so I understand.) Maybe he just put his head down, paid attention to cranking out the iambic pentameters and let the stories rip.

Gosh, it must be hard work being a modern 'serious' author!



posted by Friedrich at January 2, 2004


I love this post. I'm not sure Barrie and Carroll were QUITE so unaware as Shakespeare may or may not have been of their own underlying message: I beleive Peter and Alice were relatives or neighborhood children and I believe both authors had some odd sexual history of their own, including their feelings for the real Peter and Alice.

However, I do think you might be onto something; while these authors put forth that childhood can be an odd and unsentimental (and even scary) place, the do NOT imply that it should be otherwise. I think we might have gotten all screwed up as a culture thinking that someone else had it "better", or it should be "better", rather than using that fact to take comfort in the choices we've made. I blame "Leave It to Beaver" and "My Three Sons" (I mean, how can you tell a story about three children who've lost their mother at a young age and have that NEVER be an issue for any of them?) If that world is real, then how could you not want to live in it? But how real is it? I think Alice's trip down the rabbit hole might actually be more real!

Posted by: annette on January 2, 2004 2:10 PM

P.S. or at least they never imply that childhood ever really IS otherwise, whether it should be or not.

Posted by: annette on January 2, 2004 2:24 PM

Fun speculations about popular fiction, which I think you're absolutely right about. Seems to be one of the characteristics of high-cult fiction (at least of the modernist-and-beyond variety) that they try to make self-consciousness into a virtue, as though overthinking things is a plus. Hey, maybe it's not a virtue.

One of the things I amuse myself with when I look at contempo lit fiction is to ask, OK, what's the idea of this story or book? What's the angle? Almost in a pitching-it-to-a-producer way. It's a fun exercise. Almost all popular fiction at least can be said to have an idea, if not an inspired one. But lit fiction? Well, her father's dying, and the general ruination is a metaphor for post-imperial America ... I mean, there's usually no (or next to no, or a really lousy) idea in the traditional story sense there.

But after all, literature doesn't tell stories. It can't; it mustn't! Modern life and art history makes stories impossible! Instead, they write.

Funny how snobbish the lit people can be about such elements as story, plot, suspense, hooks, etc. It's all so, so ... vulgar, I suppose. (Yes it is, and that's why we like it.) I can enjoy a good modernist prose poem myself, but there aren't many that are terrific, and past a certain length I think any work of prose fiction starts to need, from a practical standpoint, some kind of story to keep a reader going. Why not make it a good one? No, the lit people go on with their epiphanies and revelations ... Some years back, it seemed like every lit short story or novel built to a revelation of incest. Incest as metaphor for modern American life. Apparently no thought given to whether the building-to-a-revelation-of-incest storyline was a good, let alone a fresh, one.

A reader is going to read some "story" into any piece of fiction writing that's past a certain length anyway, just as viewers are going to read imagery into abstract art. I've run across Actual Real Science Research that indicates that this isn't just a function of being brainwashed by Western capitalism, it's a universal tendency all humans share. And since it seems to be part of the organism, why fight it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 2, 2004 2:24 PM

The Peter Pan vs. Wendy distinction shows up throughout animation: ideally, males don't mature, don't take on family responsibilities (that's why there are all those nephews and wards rather than sons in cartoons), while females' biological clocks are ticking, causing them to marry the prince and live happily ever after.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on January 2, 2004 3:48 PM

"Historically, high-cult literature doesn't seem to have labored under the same terrible burden of self-consciousness that has been draped over 'serious' writing during the past century. "

The high-cult stuff of the past is really the best of the past's popular culture. When it came out, it came out alongside the usual crap that popular culture puts out. And then people kept coming back to a few of the best bits, and gradually forgot the rest. And we here in the present forget that the past crap ever existed, since all we see from the past is the best it produced.

That's how serious classics get made. Trying to create a "serious classic" or "high-cult literature" in present time is an exercise in futility. Real serious classics are pop culture, only better than everything else in pop culture, and gets recognized as such only after the rest of it fades away.

"P.S. or at least they never imply that childhood ever really IS otherwise, whether it should be or not."

Posted by: Ken on January 2, 2004 3:53 PM

Ken -- I'm with you 99% of the way and think your point about how it's not us but the ages that decide what's classic is an important one.

But if I can be pedantic and indulge one nit-picky quibble: not all art originates as popular art, and not everything from the past that we consider high-cult today began life as popular art. Shakespeare and Mozart, sure. But there have always been arts made for the aristocracy (which is what "high art" once meant), just as there have always been arts made for (and often by) the common people (which is what "popular art" is probably best understood to mean). Court painters, court poets, silversmiths, etc -- all were creating "high art" (whether or not it was any good, and whether or not it's lasted.) And both high and popular art have left behind a lot of classics -- though, as you point out, much of the popular art from the past that has endured is now considered to be high art. FWIW, these days, "high art" is often taken to mean "art that you probably need something of an education to be able to enjoy." Which is the real, if confusing, reason why someone like Dickens is now often thought to belong to the realm of high art. He was the Spielberg of his day, but nowadays most people won't encounter him outside of school -- thus he's become high art. On the other hand, Lady Murasaki's great Japanese novel "The Tale of Genji"? Written by a court lady for perusal by other members of the court. High art when it was produced, and high art today too.

As I say, pls forgive the nit-picking ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 2, 2004 4:44 PM

Re: Having the same actor for Captain Hook/Mr. Darling--I don't know whether the play was generally staged that way or not, but in Disney's original animated film the delightful Hans Conried voiced both parts.

Does anybody but me remember The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T with Conried as the evil piano instructor Dr. Terwhillicker?

Posted by: Will Duquette on January 2, 2004 11:24 PM


I never saw The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, but having seen the Disney version of Peter Pan repeatedly with all three of my kids, I must say that I've always treasured Hans Conried's performance as Captain Hook--a magnificent piece of scenery-chewing. Maybe it's something about how actors are trained today, but I sort of doubt that many actors of today could even ascend to such verbal heights.

Another comment on the film, "Peter Pan"--I suspect that the Disney version is perhaps more important to this film than either the play or the novel--so much for its proclaimed fidelity to J. M. Barrie's 'vision'!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 3, 2004 1:50 AM

The thing that struck me about Peter Pan was that it played off a tension between Reality and Fantasy. Neverland is apparently a generic British boys' adventure stories book from the early 20th Century that Wendy has been reading to her brothers, brought to life in a dream. I don't know from psychosexual, but it does seem Wendy's problem is having to leave the Fantasy of Childhood behind and enter the Reality of Growing Up, and the possibility is left open that the adventures with Peter Pan in Neverland are all simply Wendy's dream brought on by the conflict. (Or maybe I'm just remembering the Disney movie, which did hedge on that point, while I think Barrie's play was more definite that it was all real. Disney's recent sequel, Return to Neverland, is also more definite about the reality, with a touching scene of the grown-up Wendy encountering the still a boy Peter Pan again after many years. I was also pleased that Wendy's daughter was named Jane in the sequel, which was exactly what Barrie named Wendy's daughter at the end of his original version.)

What really bothered me, though, is that if the conflict is between Fantasy and Reality, why is a humanly intelligent dog serving as the family nursemaid on the Reality side of the equation? (Answer: Barrie stuck in one whimsical element too many for the story's own good.)

Posted by: Dwight Decker on January 3, 2004 2:30 PM

I believe in the Barrie original, the grown up Wendy does indeed meet the still-a-boy Peter when he comes to take her children to Neverland.

The grown Wendy asks, "Peter, can I come?"

And Peter said, "No, you're too OLD!" She's crushed.

And Barrie said "And it will ever be thus, as long as little boys remain charming and adventurous---and heartless."

Posted by: annette on January 3, 2004 7:11 PM

In most stage productions of Peter Pan, the same actor who plays John Darling also plays Captain Hook. This tradition dates from the first performances of Barrie's play, though I don't know if it's specifically mentioned in the script.

There is a beautiful 1925 silent film of Peter Pan, which I think far superior to the current release. If you haven't seen it yet, do so at your first opportunity. It's one of a very few great British silents. (It has long been my contention that Never-Never Land is a sort of British schoolboy's conception of America -- where pirates roam the coast, Indians run amok, and nobody ever has to grow up.)

As for the Disney film, it completely misses Barrie's delicate whimsy, and tries to fill the resulting void with slapstick and low comedy. Similar problems with tone sank the studio's Alice in Wonderland three years earlier; fortunately, Barrie's play proved somewhat more amenable to a Disney treatment. It almost works -- but the 1925 film is still best.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 4, 2004 12:56 AM

Tim - Oh my God! You're right. How come you are the first to notice this: "Never-Never Land is a sort of British schoolboy's conception of America -- where pirates roam the coast, Indians run amok, and nobody ever has to grow up."

Ah, another torture for my lim... British friends!

Posted by: j.c. on January 5, 2004 10:30 AM

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