Thursday, 20 December 2012

Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (a review)

"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all."
- William Shakespeare

As I've said before, and I'm sure I'll say again, I get nervous when it comes time to review the classics.  Who am I to doubt or impugn the works of the late, the great, the canonized and the deified juggernauts of literature? I don't even have a master's degree in English... but I do have an MLIS, which at the very least qualifies me as an avid consumer and promoter of books, if not a suitable judge of their character and quality. But that aside, I still find it hard to offer criticism to works which have not only stood the test of time, but have found their way into our collective consciousness to the point that themes of these works have become the tropes and memes of everyday life and contemporary entertainment.

And today, the case in point for all of this is Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Even if you have not actively sat down and read this novel, you already know the story.  A young man, in the bloom and vigor of his youth, sits for a portrait.  The beautiful result moves him not to delight but despair, and he makes the now cliched "deal with the devil" that the portrait shall age in his place.  A lifetime of debauchery follows, with the painting baring the scars and wrinkles of the man's misdeeds.  And of course, all ends tragically.

This story has been adapted, appropriated and otherwise borrowed from so much for other books and films that it is a very well-known theme.  As a result, I went into Wilde's work already knowing what would happen and how it would end*.  I don't have this problem with most of the books I decide to review.  Consequently, I'm going to set aside any criticism about the premise of the story (which obviously has been good enough to be repeated so often), and focus instead on some of the other elements of the work such as the character development and pacing.

* As a side note: I find it strange and somewhat hilarious that my strongest exposure to this story prior the reading the novel was Brian De Palma's film The Phantom of the Paradise, which crosses the stories of Dorian Gray, The Phantom of the Opera and the legendary tale of Faust.  It's a very strange B-movie with a great soundtrack courtesy of Paul Williams, I recommend it.

Damn fine show-tunes.

First of all, this book is so very, very reflective of Oscar Wilde and his fate.  Dorian Gray is the consummate dandy (a term which I feel is almost impossible to describe Wilde without employing), enjoying a life of relaxing hobbies, socializing, and focusing incessantly on physical appearance.  Scandal and gossip abound for both Wilde and his fictional counterpart.  And while The Picture of Dorian Gray was written before Wilde's imprisonment and exile, it seems quite prophetic in all these regards.  The difference being that Dorian Gray falls from grace in a much less catastrophic fashion, maintaining his unholy outward appearance while his moral structure and social life slowly begin to crumble.  

Oscar, King of the Dandies.

Interesting parallels between author and character aside, the character of Dorian Gray is quite the tabula rasa at the beginning of the story.  He's a vacuous pretty-boy with not a care in the world, until he is introduced to Harry (Lord Henry). Harry is not only a corrupting factor in Gray's life, but is very nearly the devil himself.  It is Harry who whispers the seeds of malcontent in Gray's ear and plants the initial buds of doubt.  It is Harry who introduces Gray to a lifestyle heavy with temptation and sin.  Without Harry, Gray would not have struck his unholy bargain that the painting would age in his stead.  And while Harry seems to do none of these things out of malice, his impact on Dorian Gray is as undeniable as if it he had been purposefully leading him astray.  As a realistic story, the devil is never directly portrayed or communicated with when Gray makes his fateful trade, but Harry seems to suit the role just a bit too well for it to be coincidental.

Generally speaking, the pacing in The Picture of Dorian Grey is a bit unusual.  The first segments of time pass very slowly, until Dorian Gray takes interest in the actress Sibyl.  From there the pacing picks up a bit, until the reader is slammed against the truly bizarre chapter which details the contents of the book which Gray is given by Harry.  And while this strange chapter seems to demarcate the two halves of the story, I found it's long-winded, overly descriptive passages to be pretty much unreadable.  I ended up skipping long sections of the chapter (which was over 50 pages long in my version).  Following this chapter we move several years ahead, and pacing resumes a somewhat regular flow.  While I appreciated the impact and need to go into detail about Dorian Gray's first act of cruelty (that against Sibyl), I felt that this section of the novel could have been a bit shorter in order that the reader be moved into the action a bit more quickly.  The first chapters are a bit dry and I hope that not too many readers have given up on this novel too soon because of that.

Dorian Gray himself is both frustrating and relateable.  While part of me wanted to shake him for being a classically-trained asshole for good parts of the book, another part of me wanted to see him redeemed, repentant, and relieved of his curse.  These mixed feelings are the sign of true character development.  When Gray's vengeful stalker is killed, it is both a breath of relief and a moment of annoyance that Gray had escaped punishment for his crimes yet again.  Being able to elicit such strong reactions in the reader is a true sign of a great writer, which Wilde doubtlessly was.

Wilde, like his character Dorian Gray, was also subject to a tragic end, one very much unsuitable for someone with such a creative, provocative writing style and imagination.  And while his works are few, I've enjoyed this one immensely, and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fiction and wants to read one of the great common themes of literature couched in a rich cast of characters.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (and Ladies) - best Christmas albums from the dearly departed

I’m more than just a little bit of a fan of Christmas music.  People always bitch about hearing it on the radio (starting in November, 99.3 has it 24/7!), in the stores, and pretty much everywhere you go.  I am not one of these people who complain.  In fact, I am probably the one in the background who has it cranked up to 11.  I have more than 700 Christmas songs on my lappy, playing on infinite loop for the entirety of December.  This includes all the soundtracks to the classic stop-motion, muppet and traditional Christmas cartoons.  It also includes all of the beautiful religious songs, and while religious I am not, these are by far the best and most beautiful of the Christmas tunes, and I love them.  Christmas music amps up my already profound Christmas fervor to ridiculous levels which suggest that someone let the ADHD kid eat all the candy canes.


Anyway, rather than simply doing a list of my favorite CD’s, I’d like to do a bit of a tribute to some of the beautiful voices that have left us, but remain immortalized in their wonderful Christmas albums.   I’ve picked four very different works from four different genres – opera, folk, country and jazz.  However different they are from each other, I would consider them all to be canonical Christmas CD’s, and complete must-haves for any Christmas music fan.

Also, you have to know that music was better “back then”, and this is just a fact (don’t make me whip out Sinatra vs. Bieber on you). 

So here we go.

Christmas With Mario Lanza

The original album was produced in 1956, and is probably my single favorite Christmas album EVER.  Mario Lanza was an absolutely peerless tenor (along with being a total babe!), and this album shows his virtuosity and powerful voice at its best.  Unfortunately, Mario Lanza’s troubles were as great as his talents and he left the world far too soon at the age of only 38.  It’s very difficult to pick a favorite song from this album, but I very much enjoy seeing the multiple sides of Lanza’s talent.  On O Holy Night we get to hear Lanza using the full might, power, and volume of his incredible voice.  And then there are very soft and tender moments, like on The Virgin’s Slumber Song which is just so melodic and beautiful that it brings tears my eyes when I hear it.  This is just an amazing album from an amazing artist, with not a bad song on it.  Even if you aren’t a fan of opera, your Christmas album collection is really not complete without this work.

The Very Best of Burl Ives Christmas

While this compilation was put together in 1999, Ives recorded most of the songs found on this album in the 1960’s.  Ives was a prolific Christmas music singer, with several albums of Christmas music to his name during his lifetime, and several re-compilations after his death.  Ives’ folk sound suits so many of these Christmas songs perfectly.  And while he is known for Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Holly Jolly Christmas which he sang in his role as Sam the snowman in the stop motion Christmas special, there are so many better songs by Ives on this compilation.  I’m particularly fond of his rendition of What Child is This, a Christmas song that seems not to be recorded very widely, but that Ives does an absolutely great job with.  While I have three Burl Ives Christmas CDs in my collection, if you are only going to pick one from the bunch, make it this collection for a good overall feel for Ives’ work and sound. 

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Classics - Gene Autry

I don’t usually dig country music at all.  And because it’s Christmas I’ll refrain from lambasting the genre all together (for now).  The tracks found on this CD were recorded in the late 40’s to early 50’s, and while there have been many other Gene Autry compilations created, this is the easiest one to obtain.  My favorite song has to be If it Doesn’t Snow on Christmas Day, I remember hearing this one as a child and I think that’s where my fondness for this album is rooted.  It’s a very fun song, told from a child’s perspective.  While Autry’s voice and ample twang cannot really be categorized as beautiful, it is certainly a unique sound which is instantly recognizable.  Even if like me you aren’t a country fan, this one makes a great addition to the collection purely for Autry’s unique sound and unusual take on some of the classics.

Ella Wishes you a Swinging Christmas

Great album, freaky cover.  Not sure what’s going on there with the trippy oil-slick unicorn...  anyway, this album from the lovely Ella Fitzgerald was originally released in 1960. As it's a jazz/swing album, obviously there's been a bit of liberty taken with the interpretation of some of the classics.  And while some of the songs are quirky to the point of near ridiculousness, the album has an absolutely fabulous version of Sleigh Ride which is irresistibly toe-tapping.  Fitzgerald’s amazing vocal range gets a pretty good workout on most of the tracks, if you can find a copy of this one I’d highly recommend adding it to your collection. 

Until next time. :)

Monday, 10 December 2012

Rankin-Bass' "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town", the World War II allegory

As my friends know, I am someone who very rarely gets sick.  I chalk  this up to a healthy diet, occasional exercise, and that fact that I am in the so-called "prime of my life".  But, despite having a usually gold-plated and well-functioning immune system, I spent the last few days housebound with the flu and bored out of my mind.  Since basic housework would induce a coughing fit, I decided to go the route of least resistance and watched lots of awful daytime television, and several Christmas cartoons.

Christmas cartoons are a distinctive entity of their own within the world of animation.  For one reason or another, the standard rules that govern quality in animation, voice acting, and production seem not to apply.  And the general populace doesn't seem to care.  Classic Christmas cartoons made prior to 1980 seem to be above scrutiny because we have attached so many warm and fuzzy holiday memories to their otherwise shabby facades.   Without the sentiment, most of these cartoons would have been relegated to obscurity long ago.  And the kings of this shabby chic holiday fare have got to be Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr.

It's all business when it comes to puppets.

Rankin-Bass is in your childhood, and probably still permeates your adult life whether you remember their shows, and whether you liked them or not.  Along with their bevvy of stop-motion Christmas specials, they also had a wealth of conventional cartoon productions including The Last Unicorn, The Hobbit and Thundercats. And while I could wax poetic for an entire post about Rankin-Bass and their prolific cartoonery (BTW, these two are still alive and STILL involved in animation!), I am focusing today on one particular stop-motion Christmas piece that has a bit more to it than just a simple children's tale.

This weekend I watched Santa Claus is Comin' To Town, a Rankin-Bass jem from 1970.  This one shows up on TV less frequently than Rudolph and Frosty, but is one of Rankin-Bass' better efforts in many regards.  My sister and I noticed something about this movie years ago when we were still in our teens.  The choice of ethnicities for the various characters seems to be particularly deliberate, to the end that the story actually becomes a World War II allegory, albeit one told from an American perspective.  Raising several characters as examples, I would like to suggest that Rankin-Bass not only did this on purpose, but that the hidden allegorical side of this movie makes it all the more clever, insightful and meaningful.

Burgermeister Meisterburger is clearly a Nazi.  And it's not only the German accent.  He is the lederhosen-wearing totalitarian dictator of Sombertown.  The fascist Burgermeister is introduced as an uncaring figure who persecutes the town's children (the Jews) by taking away all of their possessions and expecting them to do nothing but menial labour.  His immediate answer to the problems posed by Kris and allies is to incarcerate them. 

What is bizarre within the context of the WWII allegory is that the Burgermeister's sidekick Grimsby is British.  While Italian may have been more suitable in the context of the war, I took this choice of accent to reflect the British appeasement policies towards the Nazis leading up to the war.  Grimsby smiles and nods without any reflection regarding whether or not he agrees with the Burgermeister's policies on a personal level.

And then there is the hero, Kris Kringle, who is clearly representing the Americans.  He comes onto the scene after the persecution has already begun, and using his seemingly unending resources to attempt to intervene in the situation and remedy it.  And in the end, of course he saves the day, as goes the ending of every American-made war movie, ever.

How does he do it?  Elf slave labour (AKA conscription!).

The WWII undertones are a great reason why this movie is a real Rankin-Bass winner.  But the true soft spot in my heart is always a good sing-along song.  And so I leave you with the best of the bunch from this one, the duet between Kris (Mickey Rooney) and the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn):

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Temp-ting fate... or, 'tis the season to be sessional (a rant).

I try to talk about work as little as possible in my blog.  This is simply because I like having a job and I am not very cleverly disguised, and many of my coworkers are (or are possibly) reading my blog too.  And I wouldn't want to write anything that would (A) cause them chagrin or (B) cause my online life to become a problem.  Because I am one of those people who very much feels that it's not particularly healthy to be a two-headed monster when it comes to your work versus home life personalities.

Left is all business.  Right likes to get loaded and run amok.

I much prefer to just be myself, rather than be someone different at work from at home.  As a result, I think my coworkers would call me quirky (or maybe that's too polite... maybe more like brash and tactless, whatever).  But hopefully still keep a good professional opinion of me.  And because it isn't particularly professional to bitch about one's workplace/boss/job/etc., I try not to.

BUT.  Today I feel like I need to say something specifically on the subject of temporary employment.  As my friends know (and now all of you know too), I am a temp.  I'm not supposed to call it that, as we have a fancy term that is supposed to make me feel better about the fact that I get laid off every year for anywhere from three months to forever.   Now in this economy I know I am supposed to simply be grateful for the fact that I do have an amazing, well-paying job that I generally like.  And generally, I am pretty happy.  But as every other temp out there knows, there is always that niggling, incessant hum in the back of your brain that quietly reminds you day-in and day-out that YOU COULD LOSE YOUR JOB AT ANY MOMENT AND THEN YOU WOULD BE TOTALLY SCREWED.  And there's nothing I've found (because drinking isn't the solution to life's problems) that shuts this reminder off.  Even when things are going perfectly well it's still there because you never know if the contract is going to end on time or if it gets extended or if they'll have you back for another go round pending budget approval, etc.

But everyone else who's not temp seems to have forgotten what it is like to be temp, if they ever were in the first place.  Because to them we are exactly the same.  Except for the part about not having control over my own life because of minimal health benefits, no chance of having kids in the near future due to the lack of maternity/parental leave, no vacation, no sick days and no guarantee that I won't be destitute in six months time.

Being a temp causes a deep, unsettling paranoia.

A recent survey of my grad school classmates found that only TWO PEOPLE from my class of about forty had permanent, full-time employment.  So much for re-training for a more-employable career (face-palm).  Which means I am surrounded by thirty-eight of my temp brethren (and some unemployed too).  Which would be great, were it not for the fact that we are all probably plotting ways to murder each other to get one of the very few jobs in our chosen field that is permanent.

Because there's no honour among the tenuously employed.