Gross Heart: Much to Love about Mump and Smoot

Canadian clowns, Mump and Smoot (with Thug), were in Whitehorse tonight in a revival of their first show together, Something.  I was led to believe it was going to be scary, or disturbing--but these were not scary clowns.  While there are some grotesque moments, there’s a charming show beneath the grossness.  It stems from the deep friendship between characters Mump and Smoot, developed more than twenty years ago by John Turner and Micheal Kennard.

On stage, there is a sense that Mump, a bit rule-bound and dictatorial, is trying to be a mentor to Smoot, or a father-figure.  Smoot, on the other hand, is young, innocent, full of whim, silly even, more uncontrollable–like a child.  His voice even sounds a bit like Elmo from Sesame Street, though he can easily scowl at the audience and berate them just as much as Mump.  But the two clowns cry together, miss each other, play together, and are true friends–even if they play doctor and (unintentionally) hurt each other.  It’s not Laurel and Hardy I think of but Abbot and Costello.  Or even George and Gracie.

Our audience was completely charmed by these two–and I laughed through the whole thing—there’s really only a few moments that you can stop laughing.  Sometimes you are laughing at what the clowns are doing to other members of the audience.  The Audience serves as the fourth member of the show, and completely unpredictable.  John and Mike, afterwards in the talkback, referred to what the Audience does at their shows, as “gifts.”  They don’t know how the audience will react, but they take whatever the audience does and uses it in the show.  This is why the show is different every night.  Sure there are several “acts” they go through–but the audience determines paths they will take in the act.

Yes, there are some grotesque moments, but comedy and the grotesque have often gone together.  Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein comes to mind as comedy exploring inside Horror.  We all still laugh–in fact fear makes us want to laugh all the more.  Movies that play with death, or that use a dead body as a running gag, or that find humor in zombies (see Sean of the Dead). Saturday Night Live’s spoof on Julia Child severing her own finger while doing a live cooking show–this is what they mean by grotesque, or even horror.  Mump and Smoot really don’t go beyond that barrier towards horror.  There is nothing so realistic that it makes you gag.  Thug, played by Candice, is perhaps the scariest of the three, and she doesn’t say a thing–which is why she’s kinda scary.  She’s completely unpredictable.

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“Where were you?”: God and Grace in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

It is a beautiful thing that the Yukon Film Society was able to bring us “Tree of Life” through their new Available Light Cinema incarnation at the Yukon Arts Centre once a month.  Even more amazing was the swiftness.  Whitehorse is not known as the place where new good films come quickly–but the YFS have almost bridged the gap between us and Seattle.  Tree of Life was handed the Palme D’Or in May, and we have it in September.  I’d say that was pretty darn fast. It shows again on Wednesday night, Sept 14 at the Yukon Arts Centre.

The Tree of Life is many things to many people.  The film doesn’t concern itself with a complicated, or even clear, narrative.  It has a simple one.  At the opening of the film, the death of brother/son sends the characters reeling.   What follows is a montage of scenes recalled from the mind of a surviving brother, now grown up (Sean Penn) as he tries to figure out what happened to “allow” this death in God’s great scheme of things.  The Tree of Life, for me, was a calling out, a plea, a requiem to God for our personal tragedies–asking many times of God, Where were you?  Why did you let this person die?  Was he a bad person?  The film is loosely tied together with scenes from a Texas childhood–a paradise of sorts–with a scary center, a frustrated musician father (Brad Pitt) who takes out his anger, at having to put away his music, on his three boys.

There’s a lot of whispering in this movie.  Be careful when you cough.  You’ll miss them.  Often the whispered pleas begin with “Father” or “Mother” or “You”— as the man, who speaks as the boy, tries to figure out whether he was more worthy of death than his brother.

God appears in this movie, but not as Christians typically think of him–he is a bit distant, but consistent with the book of Job.  There is the other “Where were you?” to consider:  the movie opens with an epigraph from Job, asking Job–in the voice of God–“where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?”  And there is stunning cinematography that takes a viewer from the beginnings of creation through to the moment the son is born.   Through this, the pleas and the questions cry out— “God, are you there?” plays over a volcanic planet being birthed.  The magnitude of the event of creation overshadows the magnitude of the personal tragedy.  It is almost as if Malick is answering for God: I was worried about much larger things.

But to make that the only statement Malick makes would be to miss his emphasis on the importance of love and forgiveness in the face of the cruelties of life and death.

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Mob Rules and the Art of the Team Movie— a review of X-Men: First Class

I saw X-Men: First Class last night.  It was a good, solid action movie with stunning special effects.  It moves and kept me interested.  It never had me on the edge of my seat.  It’s an origin story– it has to go through certain details to collect them all–but it doesn’t do it very interestingly, in my opinion.  It also has trouble with multiple characters, having a hard time giving them much development.  I thought the original X-Men did a better job at giving each character a moment.  While Wolverine, Rogue, Dr Jean Grey, et al have their moments to shine as characters pre-Xavier, we don’t have that in this movie.  Here, we barely know anything about Banshee, Beast, Raven, Angel, Darwin, Havoc.  They are more about what they can do than who they are–though they hint at something deeper.  In all, it’s a pretty good film, but not an amazing one.  Enjoy it as an action flick.

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There Are Stories You’ve Never Heard, Brilliantly Told: a review of The River

I went Saturday night to The River, a Nakai production, with Michael Greyeyes directing a play written by David Skelton, Judith Rudakoff and Joseph Tisiga.  To be frank, I wasn’t sure if I was interested in what I thought would be a sermon on homelessness.  I just didn’t want the guilt.  (And yes, I’m ashamed I actually said that—but I’m human and honest, and homelessness seems so much larger than I can comprehend–and I don’t know how to react “properly” or have any effect on the problem.  I suspect avoiding the issue is part of that problem–and yet, it’s the easiest thing to do.)

But local playwright David Skelton co-wrote the play, and I’m a huge fan of David and Nakai.  So I went.

I was blown away.   It wasn’t a sermon.  It wasn’t a guilt trip.  It was eye-opening, and it was riveting, and it was brilliant.  

For more of my review of The River at What’s Up Yukon

In a nutshell, brilliant writing, directing and acting take you into the vulnerable world of the homeless in Whitehorse.  Inspired by first person stories, collected by the writers through interviews over several years, that interviewing technique gives this play a realistic quality you won’t find in stories about homeless people.  You want to catch this play fast.  It’s here for a limited time, limited seating.  You won’t be disappointed.  I predict a long life for this play, and many, many performances across Canada.

(For more stunning photos of The River by photographer Richard Legner, visit this page.)

“…his cultivation of genuine menace…”: a review of “One Nation Under Gods” at Portal

Val Grimm, over at the Portal, gave me a good review for my short story, “One Nation Under Gods”!  Thanks, Val.  I’m always thrilled that there are people who will review short fiction, and anthologies.  Thank you, Val!  Val reviews the whole anthology, Tesseracts 14, story by story.  Here is his review of mine:

The author of “One Nation Under Gods”, Jerome Stueart, emigrated to Yukon from the States in 2007, and his former citizenship is evident in the themes and content of his story. I’m not biased in its favor because of my nationality, nor simply because its dark vision seems in concord with my fears. This story succeeds, in my eyes, because of his detailed worldbuilding, the realistic relationship between the narrator and his sister, and his cultivation of genuine menace, an evocation of the way people can be treated as things. In the world of this story (which in outlook and some tropes puts me a bit in mind of Steve Darnall and Alex Ross’ 1997 comic Uncle Sam) concepts like Freedom and Patriot are incarnate as deities, administered by priests and priestesses, and the Statue of Liberty herself is known to walk abroad. The history of the gods is the history of the country, and its people are required to memorize that catechism or pay with their lives in particularly grotesque ways; if a child fails the standardized test which is a mandated rite of passage, he or she is transformed into a public object, anything from a soda shop to a garbage can. Stueart skillfully incorporates the conflict between individuality and vested religious and political powers; the way those powers can intertwine and what that merging means; the clash between idealism or perception cultivated through propaganda and reality, between history as the study of people in power versus the study of the people’s past; and the transformation of people into instruments, people into numbers.—Val Grimm at the Portal.

TRON: Legacy needs a CLU, gets a “journey without a goal”

I wanted to like this movie.  I have such fond memories of the original TRON.  It was ahead of its time in many ways back then, and probably a little cheesy too…  It was wrapped up in religion a bit, which wasn’t bad— it gave programs a “culture,” a “faith.”  TRON: Legacy has kept up with the digital explosion in movies and taken it to grand heights, but it abandoned good writing and good characters along the way.  I found it hard not to roll my eyes, and even with such great visuals, found myself bored during the last quarter of the film.  How did they fumble such a beautiful opportunity?  I don’t know, but I have some ideas.  I offer these up for consideration.  I’m no Roger Ebert (but I’m a huge fan, Roger) but I think most critics have already agreed that the plot lacks something. The original TRON received 69% on the tomatometer from Rotten Tomatoes, the new Tron 49%.  Though, oddly the audience seems to like the second one more.  Critics agreed the light show and “glitter” are fun, and who can beat that soundtrack?  I loved the light show, the competitions, the music, but the plot is an epic fail.

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Is There No Wonder in Wonderland? A Review of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

What do you want when you get down the rabbit hole?  Burton begs this question in his version of Alice in Wonderland.  Folks will probably enjoy the visuals–they are delightful to watch.  But in this age of CGI, there’s not as much fanfare left for special effects.  It’s coming down quickly to who tells a good story, and I want to examine Burton’s story here.

What I like about the story of Alice in Burton’s Wonderland is that we get a detailed look at Alice’s life before the rabbit hole–especially her cloying debutante-shuffling world, where so little was expected from women, and so much was expected from their cooperation.  I like the summer dance on the lawn, the hordes who like to watch when she’s proposed to.  I like Alice.  I liked that narrative so much that I was expecting more of it when we got to Wonderland and it wasn’t there, not immediately anyway.    When I realized that Wonderland was reflecting her own re-vision of a forced duty, then it got more interesting–but that time in Wonderland feels off.

Two things happened when she got into Wonderland.  I got confused, and Wonderland was reduced to a strip of land between two kingdoms.  The premise of this movie is that Alice has been here before.  In fact, she has recurring nightmares throughout her childhood and young adulthood, and yet nothing in Wonderland sparks her memory?  Even a memory of the dream?  I don’t buy it.  If I was haunted by something, I would start recognizing people and things.  She acts like she’s never even SEEN the place.  Why doesn’t anyone try to jar her memory when they pull out the Calendria?  (When we do see her previous journey in montages it looks vaguely like the same plot…and boring)

This plot seems very focused on the end of the movie.   It’s like one big long foreshadowing.  She has to fight the Jabberwocky–everyone tells her this.  All the beautiful weird dialogue of Lewis Carroll is gone, pared away to focus on an ending that’s so inevitable we might as well have just skipped to the end.  All the characters are focussed on Alice.  This is so unlike Carroll’s version where everyone was focussed on themselves.  Alice was merely observant.  Here she does only what we expect her to do; she goes through the motions of the Eat Me/Drink Me sequence, a moment with the Mad Hatter, a second with the Cheshire cat.  She’s not even curious anymore.  Where’s Alice–Carroll’s Alice?  

Wonderland really takes on the rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, two queens that duked it out after Henry VIII died.  I didn’t buy the petty rivalry of sisters.  What’s there to fight over?  Two courts, fully intact.  The flashback involving the Jabberwocky smoking a White Queen party—well, there weren’t any consequences.  The White Queen had a new castle, attendants, and enough white to choke the Arctic.  I didn’t get the queens at all.  There’s no reason for them to be upset, and in fact, the White Queen seems devoid of any will to fight–she has to be saved.  Her court resembled the starchy-white English party Alice just left.  And we hated that.  

Remakes where characters revisit their original stories can be good.  Hook is an excellent version of the grown up Peter Pan visiting Never Never Land.  The script was brilliant.  Burton’s Wonderland has very little wonder left–even for the characters involved.  

Yes, Carroll’s original story is obtuse and playful–it isn’t easily figured out.  But Burton scrapped the multiplicity of places in Wonderland, the depth of odd characters, and Alice’s curiosity in favor of a plot.  If you’re going to put all your money on a plot, it better work.  This one is so muddly in the middle, I just waited for there to be a reason for Alice to do something….until we see her realize that everyone is telling her what to do–in both worlds, and then she goes and does something else.  But it’s not enough.  She hurries through the epilogue in the world’s longest/shortest “I need a moment to think.” 

I liked Burton’s rescuing of Alice’s real world experiences—though she doesn’t talk about them much in Wonderland any more.  I like the ending, I like the beginning, but her time in Wonderland plays like nobody wants to be distracted by wonder anymore–they want the big battle.  Carroll’s Wonderland was about the wandering, about the figuring things out, about the wonder— but this one had few choices for Alice, a lot of inevitably and no wonder.