Ask The A.V. Club - August 1, 2008
You Read This Question, And Decide To Respond
I have a quick question on which I thought you might have some interesting opinions. Has anything of any merit (especially in longer formats) ever been successfully written in the 2nd person? Does this conceit have any value at all? By the way, I am assuming that prehistoric roleplaying games and Choose Your Own Adventures don't count, but I'm willing to be proven wrong.
You (the plural, not the singular)
Keith Phipps tells you what's what:
You decide you want to read some stories written in second person. You don't know where to turn. The A.V. Club takes a long time to answer your question, so you turn to the Wikipedia entry on Second Person Narrative. It's short. And like your question, it prominently references roleplaying games and the Choose Your Own Adventure series. It references the scarcity of second-person narratives and provides an excerpt from what's probably the most famous second-person novel of the last few decades, Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney.
You wonder why. Is it that narrative is, on some base level, a rooted-in-the-campfire experience of someone telling someone else "this happened"? Is there something fundamentally awkward about being told what "you" feel when nobody can judge what you feel better than, well, you? Is it that short-circuiting this reaction is a tough trick to pull off, one that few authors have tried, much less succeeded in accomplishing? You look at the books on your shelf and realize there are none that use this voice. You look at the list and remember that you love Invisible Cities and always meant to read Italo Calvino's If On A Winter Night A Traveler. You open a new browser window and order it online.
Bonus!: Real-life abandoned A.V Club Inventory:
We Be Reading: Memorable Novels Told In The First-Person Plural
1. The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
2. Then We Came To The End, Joshua Ferris
3. Um Isn't the opening chapter of Madame Bovary in this voice?
4. This list isn't going to work, is it?
A Textbook Case
About a year ago I started watching movies like crazy. Since then, I've noticed that I watch movies differently—in much the same ways that I learned to read literature. What I'd love to do is follow a sort of "syllabus" of film, especially if there were some sort of guidance on what to notice, what to think about, the context of various cinematic choices, and so on. Unfortunately, I'm not a student anymore, so taking an "Intro To Film" class isn't an option. I've looked around a bit on Amazon but can't find much in the way of a thinking person's guide to film as an art. Do you have any recommendations for where to start, what books to read, what websites to peruse?
Noel Murray remembers when he used to read books:
Arianne, as a critic, my first inclination is to urge you to scour used-book stores (and sites) for collections of criticism by some of the writers who've helped shape the way people think about the medium: James Agee, Pauline Kael, Robert Warshow and the like. But I don't think any of those critics' compendiums will give you the kind of organized syllabus you're looking for. Two exceptions: Danny Peary's out-of-print (but fairly easy to find) Guide For The Film Fanatic, and Roger Ebert's two volumes of The Great Movies. Ebert gets a lot of flack for his populism, and for the way he finds something positive to say about movies that other critics and film buffs can't stand, but he's spent his whole career championing the absolute best of American and foreign cinema (both mainstream and arthouse), and the 200 essays in the two Great Movies books offer a concise, readable history and analysis of films that every cineaste should see. As for Peary's Film Fanatic, it offers snappy opinions and appreciations of more than 1,500 films, divided into a number of different categories. Peary offers a kind of alternative canon, taking into account cult movies and disreputable Hollywood fare, and his book is a good "next step" for movie buffs who've already seen the acknowledged classics.
There are also a number of textbooks and academic studies out there if you really want to recreate your college experiences. One that I was assigned to read in college—and which helped me get a better sense of how open to analysis cinema can be—is Robert Kolker's A Cinema Of Loneliness, which evaluates the films and career arcs of several of the '60s and '70s Hollywood brats. The book has been revised a few times—in the most recent edition, Kolker drops Francis Ford Coppola and adds Oliver Stone—but in each version, Kolker considers how the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman fit into the culture of their times and the state of the art. At the least, typing "Robert Kolker A Cinema Of Loneliness" into Amazon's search engine (or the engine of any online bookseller) should generate a number of recommendations. Books like Robin Wood's Hollywood From Vietnam To Reagan And Beyond, Carol J. Clover's Men, Women And Chain Saws: Gender In The Modern Horror Film, and even Joe Bob Briggs' Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History! all serve up provocative opinions and great suggestions for further viewing.
As for websites, there are quite a few go-to sites for intelligent discussion of film, including two of my favorites: The House Next Door (thehousenextdooronline.com) and the newly created The Auteurs' Notebook (theauteurs.com). But you only had to bookmark or RSS one site, make it GreenCine Daily (daily.greencine.com), where David Hudson compiles links to the smartest, liveliest reviews of what's touring the arthouses right now. Follow those links every day, and you'll find a lot you disagree with and a lot you didn't already know—just like a typical day in class.
The Magical Fruit
Recently me and some friends were talking about an old cartoon where the three characters are so poor and hungry that all they have is one bean, and they split it into three pieces and share it. (I think this actually came from a political discussion about world hunger and poverty.)
We couldn't remember what cartoon it was from. It may have been Tom and Jerry or some Warner Brothers cartoon. Do any of you remember this one and know which characters were splitting that bean?
Tasha Robinson let you go, she didn't know you'd stolen her beans:
Personally, I first saw that particular visual joke in "Mickey And The Beanstalk," a half-hour 1947 short released as half the "feature" Fun And Fancy Free. The cartoon re-told the classic "Jack And The Beanstalk" fairy tale, but with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy sharing Jack duties. In this version of the story, they all live in a happy valley appropriately called Happy Valley, because the magical singing golden harp that lives up in the nearby Disney castle keeps everyone singing an irritatingly chipper song. Then the giant from the clouds steals the harp, and Happy Valley turns to a "dismal desert" in which nothing will grow. Which is why Mickey and his buddies wind up with nothing to eat but slices of bread so thin that they're transparent, plus a single bean, which Mickey carefully slices up as though it were a roast. (Start at around the 1:25 marker if you just want to cut to the chase on the bean-eating thing.)
That said, given that it's a fairly generic joke, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that other cartoon-makers had picked up on it over the years in one way or another, so you may be remembering a different version. For instance, a 1975 Tom and Jerry cartoon called "Beanstalk Buddies" reportedly also features the title characters starving, with only a single bean to split between them; when they try to cut it in half, it falls off the plate and slips through a crack in the floor. Later, it grows into a giant vine and then it's off to "Jack And The Beanstalk" land again.
Speaking of different versions, I chose to use this particular YouTube version of "Mickey And The Beanstalk" because it had the clearest visuals and it skipped over the irritating harp sing-along at the beginning of the short. (And also because I liked the way it was hyperbolically and inaccurately labeled "Scariest Scene In Film History EVER!!") But I really hate the stupid-accent narration by DuckTales featured character Ludwig Van Drake, apparently introduced for this particular DVD version.
Fortunately, YouTube also has other versions, and it's fun to compare them for tone and content. There's the original Fun And Fancy Free version, narrated by Edgar Bergen as himself and as various other voices, including old favorite Charlie McCarthy:
And then there's the 1963 TV version, narrated with a sort of glum sweetness by dulcet-voiced Disney favorite Sterling Holloway, perhaps best known as the voice of Winnie The Pooh:
Note that some of the jokes are peculiar to the time, the place, and the specific narrator, but others get recycled almost verbatim from decade to decade to decade. Like the grim, over-the-top gag about a large group of hungry people with only a small amount of food to share, some ideas are reasonably timeless.
And once again, it's time for questions we couldn't answer, and think maybe you could. Let us know at email@example.com.
Okay, this is gonna be really vague, but I'm hoping it rings a bell with someone. I remember watching something on TV many years ago (probably late '70s or early '80s, but it may not have been produced then). In this movie/show, a man and woman are in bed when you see some ne'er-do-wells outside their bedroom window. Next thing you know you see a harpoon sticking out of the man's back and the woman starts screaming before she is taken away by those men. That's all I remember, but c'mon, it was a fucking HARPOON! I'd be forever appreciative if you could figure out what this was.
There are two books I've been trying to find. The first is a children's book that I remember from visiting relatives in Wisconsin when I was a kid. It was a story about a boy who is cast out of his rightful kingdom by an evil relative (an uncle? sent on some kind of a doomed quest? I'm not quite sure). As he wanders, he runs across characters with special powers who are trapped in various ways, and he helps them out of their predicaments. I remember he drives a bear away from a beehive, and the swarm of bees turns into a rotund man in a striped shirt who thanks him. I want to say the number of friends was something like seven (which would fit the general fairy-tale nature of the story), but I'm not sure. They each join him on his journey after he "saves" them. He eventually returns home and his evil relative sets him a series of impossible tasks that he must do to regain his kingdom, which his friends successfully help him to pass. One character who can turn into fire uses his power to "eat" a huge banquet in a limited amount of time by simply burning it up. (I remember the illustration showing the fire and the smoke rising off the plates quite well—the friend's limbs stretched out as flames to reach practically everything). The bee character attacks the uncle's guards as a swarm when he threatens to go back on his promise to return the throne. I wish I could remember more about the other friends, as I'm sure that would narrow this down considerably, but that's all I got.
The second book I saw much more recently. It was a non-fiction, first-person account of a Japanese man who had been extremely successful in the corporate world, but then dropped out of it to support himself doing many small jobs, most of which involved some kind of manual (and menial) labor. He came across as a kind of "Japanese Thoreau." I remember that the book had won some kind of award for the quality of its English translation.
I read a short sci-fi story when I was about 14 (1977). It was about a man hunting in some (American?) woods who came across an alien robot who was collecting life forms to take back to its planet. The robot chased the man, who tried several clever but ultimately futile tricks to elude it. However, the robot had a parameter in its programming that meant it would only capture creatures whose weight fell between two values, and by running through the woods for so long, the man lost enough weight to no longer be of interest to the robot. Any ideas?
When I was a couple years old (c. 1964), I was exposed to a broadcast involving a bunch of folks (teenagers?) trapped in an old, dark house, being picked off one by one by some bulky mummy-type thing that dragged them off into hidden passages and the like. In the end, our hero is the only one to make it out of the creaky mansion alive, but is blocked from exiting the grounds by some ghoul-thing perched atop the gate gnawing on something. Not sure if it was some anthology TV show like Thriller or an actual movie, but in over 40 years of being a horror hound, I haven't the slightest clue what the damned thing was from.
I still remember being horribly creeped out by a film that showed a young person—a child, a boy, as I recall—facing the camera in a close-up shot against a blank white background and using his fingertip to drag his eye around his face. I saw this film no later than 1972. I can't have been older than 6. I asked my mother what the matter with this person was, and she said something about his having taken very bad drugs. Any ideas?
Next week: ATAVC takes another week off. In the meantime, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.