Thursday, April 20, 2006

Couple of Random Language-Related Things

1. Bob Dylan, America's folk poet. I just noticed, for the first time, that in the great song "You Ain't Going Nowhere," Dylan sings a lyric about "Genghis Kahn and his brother Don," and to my delight he actually pronounces the name correctly: Jenghis Kahn. Cool. But I always notice that in my favorite song of his, "Lay Lady Lay," he sings "You can have your cake and eat it, too." Well, win some, lose some. It's a language peeve of mine; "you can have your cake and eat it, too" makes no sense. Of course you can. What you can't do is eat your cake and have it, too. There are a lot of dumbass, meaningless phrases in English (see also "I could care less").

2. My professor rightly excoriated me (anonymously) for writing the worst sentence of my life: "Drawing from the prison population opens up a resource of manpower that will benefit the war effort." Ouch. Where do I turn in my pen? And what the hell is a war effort? There's either a war or there isn't.

3. It's spring, and the lovely ladies on campus are wearing tight, short, low-cut clothes. Sometimes, I can hear myself evaluating them in my mind with the crudest phrases. A rather thin girl walked by me, and I thought: "No, she's icky thin." Then, a girl I had noticed twice earlier today, walked up in her jeans and black tank top. She has long, auburn, Lucy Pinder-like hair, large breasts, and though she's by no means fat, she has the most mouthwatering, sexy pot belly. Either she's pregnant, or her weight is distributed the same way post-pregnant Britney's is. And I heard in my mind: "Holy shit, that's the kind of dumpster slut daddy likes." Where the hell did those words come from?

4. So, where does someone end up eating when they're starving and have no good options available and have given up on life? Why, McDonald's, of course, where, as my dad never tires of saying, they fry the friendly flies. For the first time in my life, I decided to try a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. I don't know why; guess I'm sick of the Big & Tasty, and I was in the mood for something new (though not, apparently, too new). I'd always said that the cheese McDonald's uses is the lowest grade of goat cum that the FDA will still allow them to call cheese. And I see no reason to modify that opinion. But I was hungry as hell, so I ate the greasy fucker.

5. Hey, I won an award kind of! I came in second place for the Orville Baker Award, one of NIU's scholarships. I only won $250, but it's good for my ego to finish this well in what is essentially a contest. This was for the best paper submitted to an undergraduate English course this semester, so I've essentially written the department's second-best paper. It bears the exciting title "To See and Understand: The Purposes of Sight in Milton's Paradise Lost, Book III." I'm happy with it.

Depressing Cartoon News

Amid Amidi has posted a very interesting letter over at Cartoon Brew. This letter is written by an anonymous artist who has personal experience with Cartoon Network. He basically points out that showing live action programming is simply cheaper for the network (especially since they charge the same ad rates as they do for original programming, and especially during their Adult Swim lineup). Never thought about it, but there really is no national advertising for Cartoon Network, so they must not be making any money over there. Maybe.

Another bit of sad animation news: Disney will NOT be making Song of the South available on DVD in its Walt Disney Treasures line this year. Or ever, probably. Which means it's time to go back to buying bootleg DVD-Rs from eBay, if you still can. Bob Iger pussed out on it, saying: "Owing to the sensitivity that exists in our culture, balancing it with the desire to maybe increase our earnings a bit but never putting that in front of what we thought were our ethics and our integrity, we've made the decision not to re-release it." Of course, if Iger had integrity, he'd put it out to satisfy the animation enthusiasts and then admit that, yeah, it's pretty racist, but this is an artifact from another time and it was made by people who are pretty much all dead now. Jesus, the movie's 60 years old here. What do they think it's going to do to people? Gone with the Wind is pretty racist, I don't see anyone locking that up.

So, I guess Iger really is as spineless as Eisner was.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

SCARY MOVIE 4 (2006)
Yeah, but how much was I honestly expecting? Somehow, more than this. I've enjoyed the Scary Movie series since the beginning; I found the first two hilarious, and I adore Anna Faris and sexy, sexy Regina Hall, who are both very funny. But the reason the first two were so hilarious is because they stuck to a single focus. The first film was mainly a parody of Scream, with some nods to other slasher films. Scary Movie 2 was a spoof on haunted house movies. But once the Wayans Brothers left the series and the job was given to David Zucker, there was a noticeable downshift in quality. And the reason is this: the focus was widened far too much. There was serious talk for a while that Scary Movie 3 was going to be a parody of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Which is scary how? Instead, the settled on making it a horror parody. Then they added all that shit about Signs, which I guess was fine, since that movie scared the shit out of me when I saw it (one of the few which ever has). But The Matrix? Eight Mile? In this one, they ditch Charlie Sheen (who is surprisingly funny) for Craig Bierko doing a lame Tom Cruise impression by way of, as so many do, ripping off Bruce Campbell. And Craig Bierko is about as humorless as the real Tom Cruise, so all of the ham-fisted attempts at satire fall completely flat. They push most of the horror parody aside for two main targets: War of the Worlds and The Village. Which is a huge mistake; The Village is so bad and so ultimately plotless that there's no meat to make fun of it. It might sound like a really stupid criticism for a movie like this, but Scary Movie 4 just has no plot. The only really funny scene is the first one, with Dr. Phil doing a fairly decent job of making fun of himself. And why do they keep shoving Leslie Nielsen into these things? Is there anyone left alive, besides David Zucker, who actually thinks this guy is still funny? Maybe 26 years ago in Airplane!, but that's because he was parodying the serious characters he played in B movies. Now... And does it feel to anyone else like this serious is condescendingly pandering to the African-American audience? Wow, that's a lot of ranting. Well, at least I have my fantasies of Regina Hall to get me through the film... ** stars.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Programming Sucks

One thing I really hate is when a cable network starts to get a little popular, then makes a grab for the money by putting on original programming. For example, have you noticed the number of commercials on VH1 Classic lately? I mean, the interview segments are bad enough--I love Rob Zombie, but on VH1 Classic?--and they can't seem to distinguish between alternative and New Wave, but now there are commercials every couple of videos. Alright, I guess I understand that. But Game Show Network airing a reality show about Chuck "Big Plastic Head" Woolery? AMC editing their classic movies for family viewing, breaking for commercials, and showing almost no movies made before 1960? And SCI FI airing charlatan douchebag John Edwards ad nauseum while cancelling excellent SF like Farscape? Remember when Disney Channel used to actually show Disney cartoons and old Disney movies, instead of 90% tween girl programming? Fuck, what about MTV? Seen many music videos on Music Television lately?

Well, now the Cartoon Network has stepped off towards its final ruination. Remember how great Cartoon Network was when it started? Nothing but classic cartoons, with the occasional program about classic cartoons. And they did try to hold onto that, even as they started getting more and more original programming. Hey, that was cool, because America needs a good showcase for original animation; sure, they stopped showing offbeat short films in order to create more commercial shows, but they have given us the odd fun show--Teen Titans, Justice League Unlimited--and a couple of excellent cartoons--The Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. I was skeptical about Adult Swim, too, and it's mostly junk for stoners or anime geeks. I know everyone likes to point out that it helped revive Family Guy, but seriously, try showing something to stoned college kids eating Taco Bell at 3 a.m. and try getting them not to laugh. Still, Adult Swim has put out some truly funny programs, too--The Venture Brothers, Robot Chicken, Moral Orel, Harvey Birdman: Attorney-at-Law. Too bad they dumped any programming about the history of cartoons, and just try seeing any Looney Tunes on TV anymore (the scarcity makes those illogically-sequences DVDs more attractive), and when the hell was the last time Cartoon Network did June Bugs, their airing of nothing but Bugs Bunny cartoons through the month of June?

But now Cartoon Network has finally gone too far. It's bad enough that they've been showing live action kids' movies on the network. But airing reruns of Saved by the Bell? If Ted Turner wants to keep showing that stupid, stupid show, he should just keep it on TBS. Or he could chop the whole thing up for banjo picks, which is what it deserves. Isn't this a Cartoon network? Give me a fucking break...

So, we need a new cartoon channel and a new science fiction channel, in case anyone's thinking of investing in entertainment.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

An American Testament: Religious Implications in Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"

I don't know if anyone's interested or not, but I just thought I'd throw up this paper, which I feel is one of the better academic papers I've written. It got an "F" grade; my teacher accused me of plagiarising the whole thing, because I hadn't spoken up much in her terrible, badly-taught class. She decided to punish me by giving me the benefit of the doubt, but failing me for the course--maybe if the fucking bitch had made one original observation about anything but her own supposed greatness, I would've made more of an effort. Either way, I just won a literary award at my university for a similar paper, so fuck her.

The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most important American novels ever written. It documents one of the worst struggles the people of this country ever faced: the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. But through the use of Biblical language and Biblical symbolism, Steinbeck imbued his great work with a sense of something bigger and constant, something that manages to be both hopeful and dire. Through the use of key elements from the Old Testament--an exodus, a deluge, the ark, a plague--and the New Testament--the sacrifice of a Christ figure, a baptism, a communion, a manger of sorts--Steinbeck manages to take us through the development of the Bible: namely, the overthrow of an old, rigid system for the embracement of something new. In the Bible, Jesus rejected the Great Temple of Jerusalem and its rigid adherence to the laws of Moses in favor of the communal love of society as a whole; love over judgment. In Steinbeck, the migrant people reject the American economic system to find their own way, while the Joads specifically learn that self-interest must be sacrificed to work for the good of everyone, that "strength can be achieved through a selfless unity of the entire community" (Hunter 38).

The Grapes of Wrath is, essentially, an exodus story, one which carries the structure of the Biblical Exodus: captivity, journey, Promised Land. The migrants of the American Midwest, similar to the Hebrews of the Old Testament, lose their homes and must cross the desert to reach the Promised Land. In this case, the Exodus has been forced upon the migrants because over-farming and devaluation of agricultural goods have closed the farms. In some cases the ones who enforce the will of the landowners hate what they are doing, because "all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling" (Steinbeck 31). A system that forces tenant farmers off their land and strips them of nearly all they own is clearly one that does not work for America, but it continues to be perpetuated. This Exodus symbolism, however, is only one of many Biblical images that collide against one another; "Steinbeck is reflecting a broader background of which the exodus story is only a part," one in which New and Old Testament symbols run together in the American experience (Hunter 40).

The Joads are forced to sell off everything they can to crooked pawn brokers who take unfair advantage of their desperation (similar to the money lenders of the Great Temple in the Bible). Buying a truck, the twelve Joads fill it with their possessions and their hopes, and head west in search of the Promised Land; in this case, California, where workers are needed to pick grapes. According to this Biblical interpretation, the truck is Noah’s Ark, carrying all that remained of humanity across the waters of God’s flood. Here we have the Dust Bowl standing in for the Flood, but the land is still uninhabitable for the people. Furthering the symbolism, there are twelve Joads where, during the Exodus, there were twelve tribes of Israel.

The Joads, however, have invited a thirteenth to join them: former preacher Jim Casy. It is in him that we have our Christ figure (check Jim Casy’s initials), and through him that the twelve Joads also stand in for the twelve disciples of Christ. Casy, formerly a preacher of hell and damnation, has rejected the Church for a gentle understanding of humanity’s innate holiness. Soon after meeting Tom Joad, Casy explains his belief that "there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say" (Steinbeck 23). He feels that the human spirit is the Holy Spirit, and that love is more important than religion. Being among the people, for Casy, is more important than the lofty moral perch of his previous office, and it is often pointed out that Jesus, too, walked among sinners in order to understand them. Through the course of the novel, Casy is doing just that.

Jim Casy brings about the realizations of the Joad family and their larger mission in a world of trials. He emphasizes the need for community and advocates the rejection of past traditions. When Ma protests that salting the meat is work for women, Casy counters by saying, "It’s all work...they’s too much of it to split it up to men’s work and women’s work" (Steinbeck 107). The old gender-based divisions of labor must be forgotten. These ideas seem to reach Ma, whose behavior changes throughout their journey. As she takes over the role of head of the family from Pa Joad, she begins to care for others, too; she feeds some of the starving children at Weedpatch, and finally sums up towards the end of the novel that it "use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do" (Steinbeck 445). Casy’s ideas have taken root in her mind; she sees that people have to care for one another in the larger sense of the word.

The will of the family to survive is what drives the Joads as they face one hardship upon another. They are reduced in number as the story unfolds. Grampa Joad, who did not want to leave his home, dies soon after leaving; if there is a Biblical parallel here, it is certainly Lot’s Wife, who did not want to leave her home in Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back on it. At Grampa’s funeral, Tom quotes Lot’s Wife straight out of the Bible: "An’ Lot said unto them, O, not so, my Lord," to which Ma replies, "Don’t mean nothin’" (Steinbeck, 143). This verse is from Genesis 19:18. Casy, eschewing the Bible, says gracefully, "This here ol’ man jus’ lived a life an’ jus’ died out of it. I don’ know whether he was good or bad, but that don’t matter much. He was alive, an’ that’s what matters" (Steinbeck 144). Later, Noah leaves the family, Granma Joad dies, and Connie runs off. Finally, Casy is killed and Tom is forced to flee. The family appears to be unraveling, but the collective will of the family is what gives the Joads individual wills to survive.

Though Steinbeck asserts that companionship is essential to survival, the pastoral affirmations of the intercalary chapters (those not focused directly on the Joads themselves) seem to be myths, an idealization of something larger that has yet to be reached. Perhaps they are the goal that Casy is working towards, of mutual protection and communal love, of a world where "in the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage" (Steinbeck 349). After all, the journey is fraught with peril, and as the Hebrews in the Exodus, the Joads run into more and more people who refuse to help them: the gas station attendant who thinks they are begging, the people who keep them in the Hooverville camp where Casy is arrested, and the general anger of Californians they meet. Tom Joad observes that what they find in California "ain’t no lan’ of milk an’ honey like the preachers say. They’s a mean thing here. The folks here is scared of us people comin’ west; an’ so they got cops out tryin’ to scare us back" (Steinbeck 251). The migrants are unwelcome in the Promised Land, and those who fear having to give up what they have to help others try to drive them away with guns and terrorize them. The intercalary chapters are not meant to be real, but are instead meant to be directions on which direction the migrants should be working in, showing Steinbeck as "less a realist who portrays what is and more of a poet-philosopher who depicts what might be and what ought to be," as Jim Casy has done for the family (Heavilin 63, emphasis hers).

There are two important events in the novel that bring all of these Biblical feelings to a head. The first of these is the sacrifice of Jim Casy for the Joad family and, through them, for all of the migrants. Casy is taken away by authorities, as both Jesus and John the Baptist were, after taking the rap for hitting the guard in Hooverville. As they drive him off, "on his lips there was a faint smile and on his face a curious look of conquest" (Steinbeck 267). He knows his sacrifice will mean something for Tom and his family. This sacrifice gets Tom thinking about all of the things Casy has said about the collective good, and changes him from a man who could not be bothered to think about the future to a man who begins to ponder where his people, not only his family, are going. Previously, Jim Casy had been the Christ figure; like Christ, "he embarks upon a mission after a long period of meditation in the wilderness; he corrects the old ideas of religion and justice; he selflessly sacrifices himself for his cause, and when he dies he tells his persecutors, ‘You don’ know what you’re a’doin’" (Hunter 41). When strikebreakers kill Casy in the river, Tom avenges his murder and takes his place. The river is an important setting; just as John baptized Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, so Tom is now baptized through Casy’s death. Tom takes on his ideals and becomes the new Christ figure, both a messiah for the migrants and a prophet of the former preacher. Tom is baptized into Casy’s way of caring for others and decides he must affect change on a greater scale for the good of all.

Tom may have become a Christ figure by the end of his journey, but there are elements of Moses in his character as well. Like the Hebrew prophet, "he has killed a man and has been away for a time before rejoining his people and becoming their leader" (Hunter 40). And although this Moses did get to see the Promised Land, he is forced to leave it fairly soon afterwards. When Tom explains to Ma that he is leaving, he says that, "maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one," and asserts that if he is successful, "I’ll be around in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look" (Steinbeck 419). Tom has finally realized his calling: to put himself in the service of the collective good. Casy sacrificed himself for this ideal, and Tom has picked up the same challenge, walking off into the night with only his beliefs to protect him.

The second important event of the novel’s final chapters is the sudden rainstorm. This is a Biblical-scale deluge that cleanses the land of corruption, paving the way for spring when "tiny points of grass came through the earth, and in a few days the hills were pale green with the beginning of the year" (Steinbeck 435). But rather than leave us with such a cliched image of renewal, Steinbeck puts us in the midst of tragedy. Rose of Sharon, who has been pregnant this whole time, gives birth to a stillborn baby. It cannot be buried in the rain, so Uncle John puts the child in a box and sends him, Moses-like, down the rushing waters, saying "Go down an’ tell ‘em. Go down in the street an’ rot an’ tell ‘em that way. That’s the way you can talk...go on down now, an’ lay in the street. Maybe they’ll know then" (Steinbeck 448). In other words, go down, Moses. Like the prophet of the Bible, this dead child is sent to testify for the people killed and ruined by their rulers.

Steinbeck leaves us with a different image of renewal, one that is entirely breathtaking: Rose of Sharon suckling a starving man. With a quiet smile, she faces us like the Virgin Mary of the classical Pieta image. Like Mary, her child has been sacrificed for something larger, a message of man’s inhumanity, and she now represents the hope of humankind. And that this comes through Rose of Sharon, who has previously been the most selfish member of the family, dreaming about leaving them behind so that she can find a better life for herself and her now-absent husband Connie, makes this moment all the more stunning; the Joads have reached "the nadir [ . . . ] of their California experience [but] they have also reached a pinnacle of human awareness" which "gives their story mythic import" (Heavilin 64). The Joads have provided for us both maternal succor (first through Ma, now through Rose of Sharon) and a new testament of community (first through Jim Casy, now through Tom). It is important to note that Rose of Sharon seems to be staring at us, the reader, placing "the remainder of the story squarely in the hands of the reader. It also leaves a powerful closing image of human compassion – giving what little one has to save another" (Heavilin 59). This act also comes through Ma, whose silent communication with Rose of Sharon is instantly understood; Jim Casy’s teachings have grown in Ma, who no longer abides by traditional gender-based divisions of labor, and "Rose of Sharon’s sacrificial act represents the final breakdown of old attitudes" (Hunter 46).

This final moment in the novel is also the moment when all of the religious symbolism runs together, and "as the Joads hover in the one dry place in their world – a barn – the Bible’s three major symbols of a purified order are suggested: the Old Testament deluge, the New Testament stable, and the continuing ritual of communion." And though we know from the previous chapter that the rains will stop and spring will come, here "life is offered in a massive symbol of regeneration," and it is this image that gives us hope that the migrants have finally found their way (Hunter 47).

The use of religious imagery and tone in The Grapes of Wrath transports the novel "beyond realism to a mythic depiction of the human experience--particularly of the American identity in relationship to a land considered to be a new Eden" (Heavilin 63). There are elements from the Old Testament--the Exodus of the migrants, the Deluge, Tom Joad as Moses, the family truck standing in for the Ark, the Plague of the Dust Bowl--and elements from the New Testament--Jim Casy and Tom Joad as Christ figures, the Baptism of Tom, the Communion of Rose of Sharon--all running together in the American experience. Steinbeck, through this new American testament, fuses all of these symbols that, at first, "seem patternless, for they refer to widely separated sections of Biblical history. However, the frequency of allusion suggests the basic similarity between the plight of the Joads and that of the Hebrew people" (Hunter 40). But it goes deeper than that in the way that "the context shifts from a basically Old Testament one to a New Testament one;" in other words, the old ways of Moses and his law have been struck down in favor of the hopeful words of Jesus (Hunter 41). But the Biblical allusions are never forced here, and through the use of several narrative tones – sometimes Biblical, sometimes conversational, sometimes naturalistic – Steinbeck’s "background ideology becomes secularized and transcendentalized, but the direction of thought is still recognizable: a widening of concern" (Hunter 42). In the Bible, the Jews following the laws of Moses placed the afterlife highest in importance; Jesus wanted people to care more for the here and now, to make life better.

Works Cited:
Davis, Robert Con, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Grapes of Wrath. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982.
Heavilin, Barbara A. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Hunter, J. Paul. "Steinbeck’s Wine of Affirmation." Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Grapes of Wrath. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 1939.

Additional Works Consulted:
Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: Volume One, The Old Testament. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.
Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: Volume Two, The New Testament. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969.
The One Year Bible: New International Version. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986.
Steinbeck, John. Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath, 1938-1941. New York: Viking, 1989.
Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1983.