I love Gatlinburg! Come at me.


People call it tacky, a tourist trap, garish, overrated, commercial, lowest common denominatory. And I will nod my head and say, “Yeah. So?” I love it that way. And I hope it never leaves us, no matter how many fires it endures.

“This is a roadside attraction,’ said Wednesday. ‘One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.’”

-Neil Gaiman, American Gods.

I’ve known it since I was young. We never really spent much time there. It was always a way into the park and a place to eat afterward, but never really our destination. My mother found Ober Gatlinburg’s ski resort to be overpriced for lessons which she wanted to offer me herself, although as an adult I’ve grown to appreciate that place’s slopes, terrain park and everything else more and more.

As for the rest of it, as a kid, I found the weird animatronics outside of a haunted attraction back then creepy and the other ones were just weird. The whole place generally surreal and foreign to me, with its airbrushed t-shirts and samurai swords. The aquarium though, which I encountered as a teenager, was beautiful, although not as original or unified an idea as the one in Chattanooga.

As an adult, I mock everything freely there in my head and to my girlfriend as I’ve walked by, especially on my last few visits. Tiny Gatlinburg Bible Museum with Arc of the Covenant? So that’s where they took it after that warehouse. Although that’s closed now, so I can’t make that joke anymore. Oh well. The World of Illusions? People don’t seem to like it, but at least it has Doc Brown with nipple clamps visible from outside.  Though, speaking of nipples, that exterior can’t compete with the one the Batman Forever Batmobile crashed into at Hollywood Star Cars, which apparently has cars from just about every blockbuster film ever. I should probably visit some time.

And while The Village features old world charm, it also features my lame attempts at making M. Night Shyamalan jokes.

“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would just be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.” -Neil Gaiman American Gods.

Oh, and then there’s all the places selling corn liquor in all kinds of flavors and with tasting counters like in California’s wine country, rather ingeniously called “moonshine” for the tourists, even though it’s legal. Real moonshine, of course, has no health standards and sometimes includes dead pickled squirrels. This stuff doesn’t. But it is fun to get wasted beneath the mountains and there’s plenty of sidewalk room for walking back to avoid any DUI problems.

The place lacks a certain variety even of the kind typically seen at some tourist traps. It’s low on dance clubs, for example, and most of the larger amusement parks and attractions like Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains themselves are beyond its borders. But it’s Gatlinburg. It’s my land of delightful craziness beneath the rolling mountains. And I wish it will continue.

“In the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog, and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.” -Neil Gaiman, American Gods.

To all the Asheville folks who put it down: I prefer it to Biltmore Village and its overpriced estate to be honest. Much of Gatlinburg is silly stuff for the masses. But it never pretended to be anything else. And at the end of the day, I’m one of those masses, even if I pretend to be so ironically. So have at me, elites. Let me drop the irony and say, I love Gatlinburg. With all due respect to Neil Gaiman, I don’t feel profoundly dissatisfied beneath it.

It is more than a tourist place though. It’s where people, including both natives and immigrants call home and earn a living. And I feel sad for its recent loss and the second, smaller recent fire.

On my last trip, I saw a damaged resort by a stream flowing out of the park. I stood to contemplate the wreckage, the bravery of the firefighters who led rescue efforts, and the tragedy of the 14 lives lost.

But hearing the spooky music from the nearby Gatlinburg Mysterious Mansion, I felt another thing. Hope. And pride. Keep going, mountain strong. A place of power.

“Yesterday is gone, gone, but tomorrow is forever.”—Dolly Parton, in a quote I’m sorry to say Chattanooga Times Free Press has already used, but at least I’m the first with Neil Gaiman. Probably.

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“Top Girls” at Clarence Brown Review


I am, last time I checked, not a woman.

So, whatever I have to say about women or women’s issues may be wrong, I suppose. Us guys have been notoriously unreliable about that kind of thing.

What I can say is that I liked “Top Girls” at the Clarence Brown Lab Theater. It’s my kind of play: distinctive, interesting characters, interesting twists, non-realistic symbolic elements– including  a dinner party with fantasy guests, a thought provoking nature.

But what is the play trying to say? Without giving too much away, the play, set during Thatcher’s rule in the U.K., is a feminist play criticizing other feminists.

It seems designed as a critique of capitalism generally, of getting ahead at the expense of others, even if you are a woman. Apart from the present day characters, that theme is most embodied by Isabella Bird, a woman who explored the world but expressed those travels through prejudiced lectures on other cultures’ inferiority.

I won’t give too much away about the plot, which seems to exist more for the characters to have something to do than anything. It lacks the craziness of “Cloud 9,” the other play by Caryl Churchill I’ve seen. But still, I found myself amazed at a play about a subject matter which could, theoretically, leave me cold, the soap opera-ish setup of a daughter bonding with her true mother, the debates about work v.s. family, which I’ve never faced — and make it enjoyable to watch, with all of the characters feeling, as played by their actresses interesting and enjoyable to watch, without making any of them clear heroes or villains.

The play has run its course. Next up on the Clarence Brown Schedule: “Around the World in Eighty Days,” a main stage show. A little less deep or is it? I will see.

The nature of “The Beast” and Kong Skull Island while we’re at it.


So, what did I think of the 2017 “Beauty and the Beast”?

First my actual review: It was enjoyable. I recommend it to people who liked the original cartoon and want to see different actors and designers take it on, allowing people to see it in live action. It’s a bit like seeing one of Disney’s stage plays or even any stage play with a different cast than you’ve seen before: a chance to revisit old friends doing something just a little, not a lot, different.

My problem, and I’ll admit, I got over it, is what the movie represents.

I don’t hate Disney or modern mass-produced pop-culture in general. Neither shouldn’t be the only thing that’s out there but neither is. There’s always stuff for other tastes if you know where to find it.

No, I’m talking about the movie’s problem, which also its greatest strength: It’s very much like the cartoon.

Sure they add some new songs, add extra scenes including backstories for some characters, use a somewhat different design to avoid anything too cartoony, but much of the dialogue, plot, characters costumes, etc. are exactly what you’ve probably seen bef0re. For the most part, it’s not a re-adaptation of an earlier version of the fairy tale. It’s a remake of their own. Nothing is too different.

“Certain as the sun/Rising in the east,” indeed.

Now that’s what people came to see. I’ll admit that the whole nostalgically etched-in-my-mind lines, moments and songs have a certain appeal to me because by this point they have to. But shouldn’t we want something different from what we’ve already seen?

It’s rather odd that right now one of the other less-successful blockbusters out there is Kong Skull Island, which I also enjoyed, deliberately avoids this problem in favor of keeping only the title character and setting while avoiding any direct analogue to the original’s iconic Empire State Building scene. Its most interesting character, played by John C. Reiley, d0es not correspond to anyone in the Peter Jackson movie and probably not in the original either (full disclosure: never saw the original). Kong Skull Island did, however, have everything I wanted in a big monster flick, with plenty of action scenes and monsters. If you want that, Kong Skull Island is for you.

As a side note, nowadays Disney is more original than they ever were at the height of their Renaissance, as people call the 1990s era. Would Renaissance era Disney have ever made a completely original (apart from some allusions) story about a police rabbit in a city of racist animals?

Somehow, and this is rather strange: Beauty and the Beast at first when I heard about it seemed a bit too soon. Which is downright weird because of how old it actually is.

What happened was that my family owned it and my sister, being a big fan 0f it, and I liked it too as I recall, in spite of it being considered a girls’ movie kinda ran it into the ground. But I haven’t seen it in ages. So that’s the backstory here. I assumed before seeing it the movie would come off as clichéd, then, when watching the movie, realized I hadn’t seen the older movie recently enough for it to come off that way.

I should hate those semen-scented Bradford pear trees


“Although it’s difficult to describe, the most accurate description of the Callery’s budding flowers would be something like a pungent whiff of freshly excreted semen. Sure, you could euphemize and say it smells like a wet, dirty mop dipped in floury fish guts, but isn’t that much more disgusting than likening it to a natural bodily fluid?”

Westworld.com.

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Among the earliest of my area’s spring flowers, the Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), just finished its little white explosions and started opening its leaves. My house’s lawn came with a row of them, and I’ve grown to like them, even though everybody hates them and I should too. I’m working on it.

Heck, I even like their little white explosions out on the edges of fields, although, again, I shouldn’t.

Probably the best source on the subject is this scholarly paper, although I’m just summarizing it here.

It’s an ornamental tree from Asia, popularly known as the “Bradford,” although the “Bradford” is just one of many cultivars (varieties created by grafting). It wowed Americans with its ability to stand up to droughts and disease. However, Bradfords split in half easily, so they’re really not as hardy as people thought.

All the varieties of  Calleryana we have are cultivars, meaning they have to be grafted and can’t self fertilize like other trees. However, different cultivars can cross pollinate, and the trees have gone wild.

Tennessee Invasive Plant Council considers it an invasive species, meaning that it pushes out native plants. My Dad, plant ecologist Dr. Larry Pounds agrees and told me some feral varieties can get pretty thorny.

I doubt, however, we’ll ever see the Great Smoky Mountains covered in white round trees that smell of semen however. Dad told me he hasn’t seen them growing in forests and it’s easy to see why. Like many ornamental trees, they don’t exactly tower. They stay at a pretty small size.

Review: Poodle Springs, Chandler and Hardboiled Detectives in general


Yes, I’m late getting on this bandwagon. Poodle Springs is  a 1950s novel, by Raymond Chandler finished in the 1990s by Robert B. Parker. And I liked it. That’s coming from someone who has read “Red Wind” and “Danger is my Business,” which I apologize for not reviewing on this blog. I confess I never read “The Long Goodbye” which would have been the better book to read before judging this one. I have also seen the movie version of “The Big Sleep.”

All of them feature a classic hardboiled private detective of a kind more familiar to my generation thr0ugh parodies, such as in “Calvin and Hobbes” than serious works. His name is Phillip Marlowe, a man frequently threatened but not above joking when threatened.

Parker, jumping into that same universe, one of threats, twists, witty descriptions of characters and the like, seems to be enjoying himself rather than just imitating Chandler’s style. I won’t give away too many plot spoilers in this post, possibly saving them for another one. Having Phillip be married to Linda, rather than single as in other novels gave Parker a chance to have Marlowe explain his own obsessions, making the novel a far more self-conscious study of hardboiled detective norms, which actually made it more accessible to a modern audience.

But what is that hardboiled genre? It involves a detective, but the mystery itself isn’t always something there for the reader to figure out, although sometimes it is. It doesn’t start out with the murder, usually, but rather some other kind of case and the murder(s) happen midway. The plot can get convoluted. Although it’s not action on the level of a modern blockbuster, a hardboiled detective usually gets plenty of threats too and is pretty decent at shooting at punching.

Chandler popularized, though he did not create the hardboiled detective genre, which he explained in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” an artistic manifesto as interesting as it flawed.

In it, he declared why he wanted to break free of the more genteel mystery style popularized by Agatha Christie, although he uses A.A. Milne’s work as his main example.

The manifesto’s effects were wonderful and defined a genre, but its premises make little sense. So rather than give spoilers about any of the above book, I will discuss that manifesto, a little bit here, possibly returning to it.

Right off the bat he makes a small mistake:

Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic.”

In reality, fiction runs the full gamut. There have always been people trying to write realistically, but there have also been people who intended to portray something bizarre and unlike reality. Some of the best fiction combines the two. In fact, Chandler’s world of a private eye taking on murders and surviving frequent threats on his life isn’t particularly realistic either to the average modern reader, even if it might be enjoyable. Reality contains implausible many things, however, and Chandler stories could happen, as, theoretically, could “Murder on the Orient Express,” which he picks on and which I have also read.

At a later point he almost contradicts himself: “There are no dull subjects, only dull minds,” he says at one point and yet earlier he says “The cool-headed constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing-board.” In other words, he seems to hold that science is a dull subject. And besides which, go ask Joseph Bell how to combine observance of people with observance of say, medicine and as a result inspire Sherlock Holmes, who, as a side note, Chandler faintly praises as a trailblazer for being the first to popularize detective writing. It’s hard but can be done.

But what he was getting at, and this is probably more important than his superficial and confused pronouncements was a desire to speak to his own time period with a style that broke free of what some authorities considered the “best” style, with a different style, that of his contemporary Hammett, which he took and made it his own, although I’ll admit, I have not read Hammett and do not know how much the two resemble each other.

Having a different style, rejecting the established “good” style and speaking to the concerns of your own times: That is a worthy goal.

 

 

 

‘The Busy Body’ at Clarence Brown


It’s the story of two women escaping arranged marriages through trickery on both their and their actually desired husbands’ part and the random man who gets involved because he doesn’t want to be out of the loop. “The Busy Body” manages to be farcical without getting as complicated as this type of comedy can get. Then again, I did have a guide to the different characters.

Susanna Centlivre wrote The Busy Body: A Comedy in 1709. It can be tricky for a novice, or even just a nonnative speaker to 18th century language to always get the flow of what’s going on. It worked because it was funny. The broadness, the silly characters, it often worked.

Yet this is a play of its time and funny to us now, perhaps because it’s separate from our everyday lives. It’s a play about the abuses of arranged marriage, something that was actually real at the time, even if it was played with exaggeration and ended with an ending typical of this type of comedies from ancient Greece onward.

The play’s moral seems all the more relevant to us, because we know how terrible that old system of women as pure property could be and how we can now see past it.

 

Robbins are a mystery?


People say they’re part of spring, but they were here in Loudon, Tennessee all winter. In fact, I saw them in flocks, their red breasts showing off against the darkening winter sky and the gray of their branches. They sat on branches and flew in clusters. Cornell Ornithology Lab, probably one of the best sources for birds said that’s typical behavior. These tree flocks can sometimes include a quarter million birds.

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The above photo was from near my home. The number only looks small here because I couldn’t get a crowd shot this pretty. Cornell says it can be up to a quarter million roosting in trees.

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See? Not quite as nice a picture.

They spend the fall and winter eating fruit. As a side note, too many honeysuckle berries can be like a drug for them.

Now I’ve begun to see them on the ground again, eating worms and insects. Soon, according to Cornell, they’ll leave their flocks, becoming territorial birds, mating, having children.

My main question has always been “Are these the same ones?”

Cornell’s answer: “Their patterns of movement are poorly understood.” So the winter roosting ones might be the same as the ones we see in the spring or they could be different.

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Odd how such a commonplace bird could be a mystery in any way. But here we are.