Friday, October 14, 2005

The Coolest Thing Ever

“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage – to know who we are and where we came from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.” –Alex Haley

My last name is “Pace.” This sounds very English, which makes sense as the Paces in my past came from England. But it is not from an English word. “Pace” is the Italian word for “Peace,” and actually should be pronounced “Pah-chey" or perhaps "Pacey." It was an occasional Italian surname. What happened there? Who up and left what had been their family’s sun-stained home for countless generations and went forever to a cold, lonely, rainy place where everyone talked funny and had pasty white skin?

Echoing Mr. Haley, I feel I almost need to know who left and why, though it will probably be impossible to find out, for that branch of the family tree fades into dust and obscurity around the year 1600. I have a last name that represents me and is a part of who I am. And I don’t know how I got it. I feel that my understanding of myself is incomplete.

This is all lead-in to "The Coolest Thing Ever (TM)" at least this week's The Coolest Thing Ever. I happened to be reading about the Domesday Book, which was probably the first census or survey ever conducted in the English speaking world. It catalogued thousands of towns, assets, and family names across England in the year 1085.

Well, as I happened to be reading about the Book, I also happened to notice that there are online resources cataloging its contents. I did a search for "Pace," and came up with something! In Warwickshire at the time was a town named "Newbold Pacey." Newbold apparently means new house or manor, while of course Pacey is not an English word, old or modern. It must come from the same place my name did: Italy. The town's name was "New Pace House."

As rare as my surname should have been in England back then, this is certainly a long shot. There were doubtless lots of other "Pacey" people in Italy, and nothing was keeping them from up and moving to England, too.

But it is a tantalizing clue - a whisper out of the dust of the past that might help me find out where my name came from.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Sophisticated deconstruction or noisy incoherence?

Pressed for time and short on inspiration, I am pasting in something I wrote to a friend some time ago.

Hearing that a skinny Japanaman named Agata was as good a guitarist as well-known guitar "virtuosi" like Wes Boreland, Tom Morello, and Buckethead combined, I downloaded an album by a Japanese band he is a member of, named Melt Banana.

They are certainly unlike anything anybody around here listens to. "Noise rock" is a label I see attached to them. Their songs have no meaning that I can discern, and their titles and lyrics are confusing mishmashes of English phrases (the best I heard was "Chain-shot to have some fun" off the album Cell-Scape) cadged from a dictionary for suitability of sound to a Japanese ear, and then screamed by the tiny, crazy, singing chick. So even if the lyrics were deciphered they wouldn’t be intelligible; they merely play another part next to the bass, guitar and drums.

I normally can't abide songs with no meaning, but that opprobrium usually applies to songs that TRY to have meaning and clearly don't. These artists aren't cynical sell-outs foisting off pre-packaged musical pabulum designed to exploit the latest trends, they are very indie-hip, dare I say avant-garde artists. I don't think I've ever before applied the phrase "avant garde artist" to someone and meant it as a compliment.

So the music has no meaning, no function, but it has a surfeit of form. They aren't pathetic garage-band jam-session recorders. Their music is calculated, extremely so.

I am genuinely astounded that I enjoy this stuff as much as I do. The shapes and colors of the noise are basically divorced from any relevant meaning, image, or idea. It's simply fun to listen to.

It is so fast. The bass and drums set a tempo, I don't know, of 300 beats per minute? Five every second? It is something to hear.

The guitarist Agata is as good as described. Not knowing the difference between good guitar work and bad, I can merely reflect on how unlike a guitar are all the noises his instrument produces. And how consistent the iterations of very odd-sounding riffs are - I would have to imagine that the squeals and howls he has to do over and over are difficult to make with any amount of consistency.

With one or two exceptions, everyone I have played their songs for hated the experience. Give it a listen yourself, if you are brave enough. A fine example of Japanoise:

Enter and then click on “Eye and Ear.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Anger, arrogance, and creativity

I have often been mystified by the poverty of good LDS fiction I see in the marketplace in my day. This has occupied my mind as I have considered writing a novel for a Mormon audience. How can a people so full of talent, creativity, and surpassing love of God and men have so little capacity in this creative genre?

It is said by thoughtful and reliable sources that within the breast of any comedian, funny man, affable joker, or inveterate prankster beats a heart full of anger and discontent. Some are crusaders and freedom fighters who fight against injustice with mockery and pith, while others find themselves unable to cope with the unpleasantness of life unless they make light of it all.

This is a common thread in many forms of creativity. For most any writer with a passion for expression and a desire to be heard, there has to be a reason to do it. Something must drive them to create. Writing is an exercise in arrogance: if I do not flatter myself with the thought that I have something to say about which others are ignorant, why should I bother with the effort?

George Orwell said this about writing: “When I sit down to write a book…I write it because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

I feel like Mr. Orwell. I would leave the simpler faith-promoting stories for those who know how to assuage readers with pleasant and rather unenlightening affirmations – not because that isn’t difficult in its own right, but rather because if I tried to write without saying anything I wouldn’t be able to write at all.

These empty affirmers that feed the market with works that will change few hearts and enlighten few minds – they are not really writers. Orwell elsewhere says, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.” By this measure they certainly aren’t writers and I certainly am. Their vanity does not require of them anything grand or surpassing; they do not selfishly care to be the first or best to do anything, and if they are lazy it is a beneficent, productive laziness indeed. That is far better than my dyspeptic, bilious failure.

Is there something for me to say to the LDS fiction audience? What is there to change? What is there to fight against? What challenges need issuing forth? We believe our doctrine is perfect, and the organization of our church (if not our culture) improvable only by God. There is little to establish about divine order or the nature of man, and no unrealistic hope or gloomy pessimism to rectify.

So we are reduced to nit-picking. To issue forth challenges against viewing R-rated movies and the blight of internet pornography, but such is standard General-Conference-fare (and research into such stories would be uncomfortably difficult). It would be an affirmation, made better only by a rather more frank portrayal of wayward Saints than I think the marketplace is used to.

I am a Mormon, faithfully believing and perhaps slightly more devout than average. I have much I would dream of saying to the world (fantastic stories of hope and betrayal; the virtue of forgiveness in a world that cries for vengeance; the blessing of unconditional love when it is least expected; long love letters to the planet earth and its beauty being a proof of the existence of God). I would say that and more.

But I imagine I have nothing my fellow Saints should want to hear. Is it because I would be preaching to the choir? I suppose filling books with lessons from Sunday School is not a sure-fire best-seller recipe. And anyway, so many know so much more than I about unconditional love, faith, hope, reverence, or forgiveness.

I am reminded of a thought by Orson Scott Card about stories – they tell us how to be human. By this measure storytelling for the pleasure of Mormons is exceedingly difficult indeed, for we already have a surfeit of such instruction about the true nature of humanity, its origin and destiny. And I am certainly not one that could improve upon it.

I thought to write for Mormons because I fancied it an easier task taking on a provincial literary backwater than would be going up against the likes of Orwell and Card. I have had it backwards. The world, dark and ignorant and desperate to have light shine on it, could be much easier.

I have new respect for the LDS fiction “writers.”

Monday, October 03, 2005

Look at me! I made technology!

I finally put my fears behind me and installed a hit counter on my blog. It was easier than I thought it would be, but involved inserting a baffling package of undecipherable code into a much larger, equally undecipherable mess of html code. Now my counter appears there at the bottom of the blog.

I feel like the doctor in the Fantastic Voyage, having to take great care to inject the miniaturized submarine into the patient properly. Get it just a bit wrong and they're stuck in the femur or nose hairs or somewhere even worse.

I flirted with the idea of setting the starting total visitor value to something like 1,000,000,000,000. Like the blog's gotten a lot of visitors but not really, for it would soon read, "1,000,000,000,213." Pretty obvious what my game is, but for added verisimilitude I could put up some some congratulatory emails from Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan, praising me having my one trillionth unique visitor before either of them even get close to a billion.

But I thought, should heaven forefend a lot of people actually visit this blog, I'd probably rather their number not be trivialized thusly. So, as in politics, every vote counts!

But, as in Illinois and Florida politics, some count more than others. If you want yours to count more, please, leave a comment if anything strikes you as thought-provoking. Or the opposite.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Esprit de "Corpse"

SPOILER WARNING! I will be discussing crucial plot points of the showy mediocrity known as "Corpse Bride." If you have any desire to view this lame film, best come back after doing so.

After loving the sweet and whimsical darkness of "Nightmare Before Christmas," I was excited for the release of the new Tim Burton Clay-cgi-mation picture. Burton is not one to held prisoner by outdated notions of life and death (not the way he is to the happy, vacant conventions of American cinema anyway - but more on that later).

The movie was disappointing. Not funny, no memorable tunes, not really worth watching at all.

One of the film's main Burtonisms is that life is like a boring black-and-white film, while death is like living in New Orleans. This paradigm impressed many reviewers, though none I read thought to point out the curious, unintentional irony that hurricane Katrina brings to the matter. At one point the dead come to the world of the living, bringing the party with them and really livening the place up. This does create a bit of a poignant moment, for rather than terrorizing the living, the event joins together loved ones long separated by death and intervening years. For the dead remain quite themselves, and though their flesh has dissipated, their spirits still burn bright within the vacant confines of their skulls and they yearn for their dearly un-departed as much as they are yearned for.

And the moment provides a happy inversion for those who put their love, faith, and trust in others: The characters who suffered the harshest loss and sorrow in days past find themselves the happiest at seeing the dead, while those who have never invested any love in another soul are merely frightened.

Still, I am quite disappointed that none of these fun-loving dead thought to make a jape of shambling around moaning "brainnnnnssss." Ah, missed opportunities.

The whole thing sounds like a real flight of fancy, I am sorry to say that it wasn't. Perhaps Mormon sensibilities are a hedge against enjoyment of Burton's vision. Our own contrast of the lone and dreary world compared to the nonstop party of Celestial glory keeps a "the dead have all the fun" paradigm from seeming terribly creative.

As I am wont to do when disappointed by a film, I imagined how I might have done it better. As Victor prepares to marry the dead woman while the living fiancee prepares to marry a money-hungry killer, I thought the film's denouement would be set up with the living bride crashing the dead wedding as a newly minted corpse, murdered by her new husband on their wedding night. Wouldn't it be a pickle! And such a shift in circumstance - for then Victor would love two dead women, and would then really have to choose between the dull, comfortable familiarity of life and the women he loves. Immortality and polygamy become unerringly bound together.

That's not how it went, more's the pity. For, though the evil seldom win out in cinema, all too often do they do so in real life. In this film there was the opportunity to show that even when evil triumphs over good, they cannot do anything of lasting consequence to the good and innocent. Death would put them beyond the power of greed and avarice.

But it's not that kind of movie. Burton is not faithful to his storytelling paradigm, choosing instead for a very cheerful, very American conclusion where some eternal rule not previously mentioned allows the corpse bride to de-complicate the love triangle by changing into...butterflies...I guess, who wing off into the whiteness of elevated eternal life. We must take for granted that this is an improvement for the corpse bride, though how will she play the piano anymore?

Burton also takes for granted the rules of the world he's created. When the dead carry off the newly-deceased murderer Count, he kicks and screams in horror. Why? He's dead too, what can they do to him. A fate worse than death? It would have to be, I suppose. Or something even worse than that.

At the end, the happy couple goes back to their wretched world, to be married and mousily beholden to their wretched relatives. The whole thing's quite pointless. So much could have been said about the trials and misery of mortality, and a thin morality tale about repressed Victorians taking all the fun out of life is a rather saccharine substitute. I think Burton has it backwards. The dead have very little to worry about, being dead and all. Nothing stops them from filling their existence with carefree trivialities. It takes a particular kind of courage to live life cheerfully, risking pain and regret all the while.

(And anyway, the best statement that could ever be made about being dead was already made, by the dead man Arnold J. Rimmer on the television program Red Dwarf: " like going on holiday with a group of Germans.")

(I know "Esprit de corpse" is the most dull, unpunniest pun ever - switching the final word from one language to another isn't such a creative leap - so don't bother bringing it up.)