Five For The Gipper

Tags: Koschei the Deathless; Dudley Manlove; the Gipper; eat your heart out, Edmund Morris.

We talked about the Reagan years in one of my classes this week. That’s all the excuse I need, really, to recycle this post of mine from the week Reagan died (and I got my PhD): the Ronald Reagan alternate history film festival. (Oh, and speaking of deceased American icons: did you hear about Captain America?)

Ooga Booga!

The Ronald Reagan Alternate History Film Festival
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Fighting the Urge to Channel Burton Cummings

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

I’m sorry, Mike, but everybody gets at least one dejected post-election post.

I am not surprised by the outcome. This is pretty much exactly what I’ve been expecting since Howard Dean screamed in Iowa, if not before. Which is not to say “I told you so”, because a) who needs that shit? and b) I tried to make a point of not telling anyone so. But no, I’m not surprised by the outcome.

I am surprised by how much it hurt. At some point in the last four years, without really realizing it, I must have started thinking of the United States as my country too. At some point, American politics became my own deal, and not just a zany Hollywood blockbuster action spectacle mounted for my wry amusement. “To the thinking man, life is a comedy; to the feeling man, life is a tragedy.” I envy my fellow Canadians back home that cozy Hudson’s Bay blanket of ironic detachment I misplaced somewhere along the way.

Yesterday was our weekly luncheon with various fellows of the Academy. Of course, we talked about the election. I note in retrospect that all the Academy postdocs (who are smart liberal 30-year-olds) were, at noon yesterday, pretty optimistic for a Kerry victory, thanks to exit polls and Zogby and ” promised!” But all the Academy fellows (who are smart liberal 80-year-olds) were decidedly not. There’s something to be learned there.

Ah, well. We find solace where we can: The long view (a historian’s best friend), silly role-playing games, and John Harvard’s tonight at 6pm. Be there!

Edit: God bless Jim Carroll, who just made me feel a little better. And I changed the wording above because it sounded like I wasn’t Canadian any more. I still am. More than ever.


France part Dinkum: Professor, what’s another name for pirate treasure?

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

Parlez-Moi, with Sol

“Professor, what’s another name for pirate treasure?”
“Well, I think it’s booty… booty… booty… That’s what it is!”

My Ontario high school French held up tolerably well in France. I was able to ask for directions, order in restaurants, and politely inform one stupid American woman in the airport that “19.08” was not the price of the sandwich she wanted to buy (“Nineteen DOLLARS for a SANDWICH? Is that REAL dollars or FRENCH dollars?”) but the day’s date. (The real price was clearly marked in LARGE BLOCK LETTERS.) Oh, and when Pitou ruined the picnic by stealing Mama’s poulet, I was all set.

I was thrown a curve, however, by our little Lonely Planet phrase book. Like any English to French phrase book, it listed words and phrases in English, in French, and then in a phonetic approximation of the French pronunciation. Simple enough, right? But any time we used the book we were met with uncomprehending stares.

It was bouteille, the French word for “bottle,” that finally tipped us off. I knew thought it was pronounced “boo-tye,” the second syllable sounding like “Thai” or “tie,” with a little bit of an “ayee” at the end if you’re feeling frisky. But Lonely Planet gave the pronunciation as “boo-tay.” I felt just a little funny calling for bootay in a fancy restaurant.

[Edit: Note schooling me on French pronunciation in comments below. Grumble grumble big shot Manitobans think they’re so great…]

What I’d forgotten when I bought the book was that Lonely Planet is an Australian company. The phonetics were written for Aussie accents. “Boo-tay,” rhymes with “g’day,” actually is a pretty good approximation of bouteille. Once we’d cracked that Rosetta Stone (and when I say “we”, I mean “Lisa”), we could see that the whole phrasebook was like that: ‘ay’ for ‘aye’ and ‘r’s on the end of everything except the few places they belonged: “ler” for le, “der” for de, “zher per” for je peux. So the book wasn’t worthless to us, but we did have to channel Crocodile Dundee while reading it, a tricky bit of cognitive processing that led me to walk into more than a few lamp posts and open manholes.


France part Trois: Royale With Cheese

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

a.k.a. Ook Ook, the Lip Cancer Chimp

We got back nearly two weeks ago, so the statute of limitations must surely have expired on these France posts. They’re not very popular, either: not only have comments been light, but I’ve been un-Friended by at least one reader after each one. But, as I’m posting these as much for my own memory as for the general amusement, I’m going to stubbornly continue.

We stayed for much of our time in Paris in Montmartre, the semi-seedy, semi-arty district of the city that’s home to the Moulin Rouge. Montmartre is very cool, picturesque and funky with steep hills and narrow streets. (We had the most amazing chocolate desserts ever made in the history of the universe at a little bar / café there called A Zebra in Montmartre.) The movie Amelie was set there (the neighborhood, not the bar), and that gives you a good idea of the vibe. Except that when filming, the director of Amelie scrubbed every sidewalk and wall and alley clean to give it that sparkly magical realism glow. So picture the movie Amelie under a thin layer of dog shit—that’s Montmartre.

More specifically, we stayed in Place Pigalle. Pigalle has been a sex district since at least the days of the Moulin Rouge, a century ago. (When I mentioned Pigalle to my Dad, who was in Europe with the RCAF in the sixties, he said, “Oh, you mean ‘Pig Alley’!” a little too quickly.) But it doesn’t exactly look like a Toulouse-Latrec painting anymore. Our hotel was dwarfed by giant neon signs on either side flashing ‘SEXODROME’ and ‘LIVE GIRLS PEEP SHOW.’

French smut is so cheerful and up-front, isn’t it? No euphemistic names like “Adult Entertainment” or “Gentleman’s Club” here. (The two places you still hear the word “gentleman” in modern English: on strip clubs and when cops talk to the media about particularly loathsome criminals.) OK, “Sexodrome” sounds a little like an unappetizing Cronenberg film, but I do appreciate its directness. Likewise “Club Supersex,” the name of a Montreal strip bar that every adult male in Boston seems to have heard of. It is interesting, though, that all the signs in Place Pigalle are in English: LIVE GIRLS, PEEP SHOW, and so on. Is this because the clientele are English-speaking tourists, or has English somehow become the international language of smut? I’m reminded that while the English call syphilis “the French disease,” the French, of course, call syphilis “the English disease.” (In Montreal, those signs would of course say LES LIVE GIRLS and LE PEEP SHOW, in deference to Bill 101 and the delicate sensibilities of the Quebecois.)

But if the neighborhood was a bit declassé, our hotel was deluxe. Everything was covered with crushed velvet in purple or crimson. Every wall and every door was upholstered with pillows. Every door knob and light fixture and toilet brush was encrusted with “gold” and “jewels.” In the lobby and the restaurant, they piped in throbbing Euro techno. Grey-haired Scottish ladies tried to make conversation at breakfast as George Michael moaned over a bass track from a German leather club. Our TV was a flat screen, but with a huge and ornate gold “frame” around it as if it was a Renaissance painting—the kind of flat-screen TV that Marie Antoinette might have had. In fact, the whole place had a gorgeous, ridiculous, oversexed Marie-Antoinette-just-before-the-Revolution vibe to it. Let them eat erotic cake!

Best of all, the hotel rooms had names instead of numbers. On the first few floors, these were the names of classically romantic French figures: Renoir, Monet, George Sand, Edith Piaf. But by our floor, they may have been running out: there was the Maurice Chevalier room, then the “John Lenon” [sic] room, then the Madonna room, the Naomi Campbell room, and finally our room: Cindy Crawford.

Cindy Crawford? Sure, I appreciated her Diet Pepsi commercial during puberty, but is she really a timeless icon of romance? But the hotel staff seemed to think they were doing us a great favor by putting us in the Cindy suite. Whenever anyone on the staff heard what room we were in—at the front desk, at breakfast—they would give us a grin and a knowing wink: Ah, la Crawford! Oui, oui! C’est magnifique! At one point I asked the desk clerk for my room key by number rather than name, but he knew the name without checking: “Oh, Cindy Crawford, n’est-ce pas?” What could I do but give him my best “yes, we’re both men of the world, say no more, squire, say no more” smile? And he handed over the room key (avec Cindy’s picture on it, mole and everything), with an honest-to-god French “ONH ONH ONHHHH!”

It was such a perfect moment. I can’t believe they actually say that. It was kind of like it would be to have an Englishman say “Stiff upper lip, wot wot?” to you. Or if you met an American who spontaneously threw his ten-gallon hat in the air, shot it with his Colt, and hollered “yeeeee-haw!”

One of these things is not like the others. Well, maybe two.


France part Deux: Damn, it feels good to be a Buddha.

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

This is, in fact, the original Mona Lisa. Yes, I was surprised too.

Besides eating and drinking, what do you do in Paris? Well, museums. Mostly art museums, cause that’s L’s thing. I wouldn’t go to many art museums without her encouragement, but she’s a great person to see them with, offering a funny and idiosyncratic little art appreciation course with each trip. “The Bayeux Tapestry is not actually a tapestry, Rob, it is an embroidery,” she says, apropos of nothing, saying “Rob” like Coach McGurk says “Melissa”, in a tone of voice that shames me deeply for ever having thought such a thing. Even though, on reflection, I’m pretty sure I never thought about it one way or the other. And even though we aren’t even looking at the Bayeux Tapestry when she says it, or any tapestry at all, in fact.

So here’s the big museum roundup.

Musée d’Orsay
We almost didn’t go here, only changing our mind because it was raining while we walked by, and it ended up being my second favorite of all the museums we hit. (My first favorite gets its own journal entry, still to come. If you know me and you know Paris and you know geek culture you might be able to guess what it is.) I love the space, a huge and gorgeous Belle Epoque railway station, and I like much of the art better than what’s at the Louvre, though it is funny that all the great Impressionists are stowed away up in the attic to leave acres of room for the pompous and unremarkable nineteenth-century stuff on the main floors. Show me the Monet, I say! (Yeah, L didn’t laugh at that one either.)

The Louvre
Still, you have to do the big gruelling monster museum. It’s the House on the Rock of Paris! And I think we did it pretty smart, going in the evening, and dining in the slanting sun on the surprisingly secluded little balcony restaurant that overlooks the Tuileries and the big, um, Louvre-place-thing, while the throngs dwindled a little.

Forty hectares of paintings, what can I say? I like the Vermeers. I like the Rubens (“Mama Mia, I was-a master of-a form and-a lighting! Why-a you remember me only for-a fat chicks?” —Ruben, as quoted by <lj calamityjon>). I like the Winged Victory of Samothrace. We make our pilgrimage to the Mona Lisa. Lining up for half a mile to see a picture you’ve seen elsewhere a thousand times before is a funny experience, inspiring all sorts of high-toned meditations on the signifier and the signified, the image and the thing and the image of the thing, yadda yadda yadda. What magic property does the painting itself have that makes seeing the Mona Lisa here different then seeing it on, say, a T-shirt or airbrushed on a van? Or seeing the Mona Lisa on all the signs throughout the Louvre that direct you to the actual Mona Lisa? I’ll spare you said meditations (“Is it art just because we hang it on a wall? … is it garbage just because you threw it in the garbage? … hey, wanna make that dog smoke weed?”) but I couldn’t help notice that the very next thing you see after the Mona Lisa is a pair of giant paintings (by Giovanni Pannini) of rooms filled with paintings of other famous buildings and works of art. Paintings within paintings, man! There’s got to be some kind of commentary on the relationship between things and images. But, as Seinfeld‘s Elaine asked the New Yorker‘s cartoon editor, “What… is… the comment?” Well, I’m not quite clever enough to figure that out. Maybe just: “Ha ha, hope you enjoyed standing in line, suckers.” But a trip to France wouldn’t be complete without some heady theoretical jibber jabber, would it?

Musée Picasso
An entire museum devoted to Picasso seems like a swell idea at first. In the fifth room you’re digging it—”Pink Period? Sweet. Blue Period? Cool. Cubism? Bring it on, Pablo.” But by the tenth room or the seventeenth, you start to get a little queasy from all the non-Euclidean geometry and floppy elongated ladies. Couldn’t we have just one velvet Elvis to regain our equilibrium? Maybe a unicorn or a crying clown? And by the thirtieth room—the guy went through more periods than Gordie Howe! (wakka wakka wakka)—your visual cortex is so screwed up it’s hard to even walk in a straight line.

There was an experiment once where the nefarious “They” put goggles on people that made them see everything upside down. For days the subjects stumbled around bumping into things, but eventually, their brain flipped their field of vision so the world seemed right-side up again. Then, when the goggles were removed, everything was upside-down again for the same period of time. (That moment when the goggles came off and the world flipped upside-down must have been fun for the subject, huh? Gotta love the days before ethics boards for scientific research.) Anyway, that’s what the Picasso Museum does to you. By the end, you’ve been staring through Picasso’s eyes for so long, you’re frantically checking your wife to make sure her eyes are still properly placed on her face. Or worse yet, you’re afraid to check. We sat in the Jardin du Luxembourg for a long time after that, breathing in the blessed straight lines and right angles.

Musée Guimet
The Guimet is a museum of Asian art and artifacts that has, apparently, the best collection of Tibetan paintings and sculpture in the West, if not the world. So with L fresh out of Vacation Buddhist Camp, of course we were going there. Tibetan paintings are great because: a) they’re intricate and brightly colored, b) they’re full of multi-limbed, multi-headed gods and beasties, and c) every single one of them is having sex. With all the limbs and heads and all, it’s not always obvious that’s what they’re doing, but trust me, they are. It’s practically hentai. The gods are, like I say, depicted as huge, brightly colored, multi-limbed behemoths, and then there’s always a little consort, or two, or eleven, just sort of stuck on somewhere, arching their backs in what I can only hope is pleasure.

I’m not sure just what religious message all these sex paintings are supposed to import. (The audio guide at the museum broaches the subject very delicately, in a plummy BBC accent: “These paintings encourage you to meditate on the union of opposites.” Like I needed any encouragement to meditate on that.) Quite possibly, the message is just, “Damn, it feels good to be Vishnu.” And in some cases, “Damn, it feels good to be the Buddha.” Ain’t it the truth, brother.