Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Cultural Vandalism

Is the new Hallmark production of Gulliver’s Travels an act of cultural vandalism? Not literally. After all, not a single copy of the book is burned. But if this is the only Gulliver people are exposed to—and to many it will be—those people will not get anything like what Jonathan Swift intended. Were Jonathan Swift alive, Hallmark could be sued for moral rights violations and they'd lose. That's a good way to think before starting a project using someone else's ideas.

Swift’s masterpiece is an extraordinary vision of humanity. Through his hero, Gulliver, he travels to places that make him feel big, small, shat on and… human. The little people in Lilleput are small in every way. Petty and stupid, they fight, the big-enders and little- enders, interminable wars of annihilation over which end of their soft-boiled eggs are opened at the breakfast table. Sounds a bit like us.

I forget most of the rest: it’s been years since I read it. The TV show reminded me of a few things and, on the bright side, it made me want to read it again.

This gift to mankind has been shat on, like Gulligan under the boughs beneath the vulgar yahoos, and Danson, Steenbergen and especially two great actors, Peter O’Toole and Edward Fox, ought to be thoroughly ashamed. Some "Creative Person" got the bright idea to put the focus on "the star:" Gulliver, played by Ted Danson, whose acting is just plain bad. He portrays Gulliver as insane. All his travels were made up. Weeeeel. Yeeeaaah! Of course Swift made up Gulliver! Naturally, the lands he visited were imaginary: that's called fiction. His purpose was to talk about humankind and our, often awful, relations with each other. The travels of his imaginary character to imaginary lands is his method. But these people treat imagination as a disease and anyone who has a moment that Hallmark couldn’t turn into one of its anodyne cards is suspect.

I can sure see why Hallmark would produce this shit—and I mean shit. It’s so bad that O’Toole, always profound, seems as little as his Lilliputian character. He’s in character, of course, while commenting on the character simultaneously, as many, if not all great actors do. Informing the character sheds light on it. Our light completes the character. It becomes three dimensional through this act of psychic triangulation. Most actors do this very subtly, like Hopkins in "The Remains of the Day." Others, like Nicholson, in most things in the last twenty years, play the two parts pretty broadly apart. Nicholson actually plays on the relationship of his two points and with us too: with him it’s all cat’s cradle and he, chuckling away, holds all the strings. Great fun, as is O’Toole. But something here is lacking. He is shouting into a megaphone (as great as ever) and all one senses is a hollow shell standing under him.

That’s because it is. Look up "anodyne" and there ought to be the word "Hallmark" as a synonym. Harmless, bland, inoffensive: Hallmark is the doll who can’t pee because she has no genitals: it is the norm, the average, the person of no distinction. Hallmark’s hallmark is to have no hallmark. I never suspected that such people despise those who have imagination quite so much. Suddenly, Pound’s "Disney against the metaphysicals" stands out in bold type. Or Einstein’s "Men of genius always will be violently opposed by mediocre minds."

Indeed, anyone, to this mediocre type, who has an answer to any question other than "a)" or "b)" is suspect. Who more distinctive then that a man who journeys to the darker places of the human soul and shines his little flashlight to illuminate what can be found there?

Hence the act of vandalism. The Taliban destroyed the Buddhas in Afghanistan, the Palestinians the oldest synagogue in the wortd at Jericho, the barbarians the great statuary of the Classical age and these things are obviously vandalism. Hallmark endeavours to protect us from foreign foes by undermining our own culture; the one that feeds and sustains them. And us.

Please buy a copy of Gulliver’s Travels wherever you live, and read it. Or order it online. I like to use
ABE Books. I own no stock in the company and they aren’t paying me for the plug. How could they? As far as I know, no one reads this stuff.

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