Simple Gifts, the Christmas Truce, and Benjamin Bowmaneer

simple-gifts-christmas-truce-benjamin-bowmaneerThat good old Christmas depression has lifted, or at least there’s a break in the clouds for me, so I’m trying to get in the spirit by sharing some Christmas items.

Simple Gifts is the name of a Christmas special developed by PBS circa 1977. It features six animated vignettes all tied together around the theme of Christmas. Prized by those who know it, it seems all the more valuable for having largely disappeared. Great animation, fine art, and it deals with themes which are eternal, as well as events etched in the collective consciousness of generations. But let’s lead into it with bits & bobs about Benjamin Bowmaneer…

British folk artist Kate Rusby, in her 2016 release Life in a Paper Boat, begins with that very song:

It’s an old English ballad sometimes classified as “Roud #1514.”

Have you heard how the wars began,
Benjamin Bowmaneer?
Have you heard how the wars began?
Castors away!
Have you heard how the wars began
When England fought to a man?
And the proud tailor rode prancing away.

The song can be taken as an ironic commentary on the transformation from peacetime to wartime, when many a peaceable tradesman might suddenly find himself called to be a soldier. Kate Rusby’s version sounds surprisingly modern; but let’s see how that same ballad was used to introduce a remarkable vignette on the subject of the Christmas Truce of December 25th, 1914, as recounted by Captain Sir Edmund Hulse:

The way the music was edited to create a counterpoint between English and German Christmas carols is fantastic, and contributes much to the expressive power of the vignette. (Compare this scene from Casablanca depicting dueling anthems.)

Eliza Carthy does a simple piano-and-voice version of “Benjamin Bowmaneer”:

Haunting, but perhaps a bit gloomy for Christmas. More cheerful is the song whose name mayhaps inspired the title of the PBS special: “Simple Gifts,” here sung by Judy Collins (from her 1970 album Whales & Nighingales):

It’s a traditional Shaker song from 1848, later popularized by composer Aaron Copland in his 1944 orchestral suite Appalachian Spring, here performed by a local band known as The New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein (We wish them well!):

Of the animated shorts comprising Simple Gifts, the one perhaps best remembered and garnering the most praise is “No Room at the Inn.” Created by R.O. Blechman (who also produced the special), and faithfully inked by fellow animator Ed Smith, it remains for me a high watermark in hand-drawn animation, due to its simplicity and power:

I cannot say enough about this piece, which is such an eloquent, wordless retelling of the Nativity story, with totally excellent music by Arnold Black using early instruments. If the omnipresent A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) humorously bemoans the commercialization of the birth of Jesus, “No Room at the Inn” does so poignantly, with a richer set of observations about the human condition and the eternal themes surrounding the Nativity. We see King Herod troubled by the light which steals into his bed chamber and cannot be shut out:

herod-troubled-by-the-star-of-bethlehemHe arises in anger and dispatches his army to slay every male infant in Bethlehem, in the vain hope that doing so will preserve his own corrupt reign. Blechman portrays the commercial hostelers as two-faced, bending to whatever cause will line their pockets. When Bethlehem is abuzz with pilgrims, they put up signs welcoming pilgrims. When Herod’s army invades, they welcome the soldiers with equal gusto. To see a sign saying “Nativity Town” lying in a burning heap is a sad commentary on the fickleness of human affection for Avataric beings. Truly, “You are now leaving Bethlehem” (wonderful anachronism!).

nativity-town-you-are-now-leaving-bethlehemAs Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus flee into Egypt, they carry practically nothing with them and are confronted with a familiar phenomenon: The road they travel is solitary, but is lined on either side with hotels welcoming rich merchants.

mary-and-joseph-flight-into-egypt“No Room at the Inn” is drawn in a minimal style and contains no dialogue, yet it’s one of the most moving tellings of the Nativity tale I’ve ever seen. In one sense it’s the epitome of modern art, with the theme reduced to bare essentials (like Picasso’s successive drawings of a bull). Yet, the music by Arnold Black adds tremendous warmth, hopefulness, a sense of walking onward through adversity, and some sadness or wistfulness.

There’s also a connection with the world of Charlie Brown, because when hostelers rudely refuse Joseph, their voices are represented by discordant brass, not unlike the peevish teacher in Peanuts cartoons, played by a muted or “wah-wah” trombone.

“No Room at the Inn” has remained close to my heart since I first saw it 35 years ago because it captures essential spiritual truths in a simple but powerful way, and is an exquisite artistic creation which spans great distances between the ancient and modern worlds. In that sense, it’s a distant cousin of Steve Reich’s Tehillim, whose hallelujahs seem to come dancing and echoing to us from a corridor in time which is thousands of years wide:

Not Christmas music, but no less joyful than Handel’s Messiah for being sung in Hebrew. These different examples of ancient and modern art remind me of the immortal words of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy:

Never see anything with your mind’s eye. See everything with your heart’s eye. Then you will see that everything is beautiful. Art is meant for man’s understanding. It is meant for man’s blending with the inner life’s inner ecstasy.

–Sri Chinmoy

This is Michael Howard wishing you (in the words of Colleen Dewhurst): “a Christmas of simple gifts, richly bestowed and warmly received.” Special thanks to those who have helped me survive a difficult year through their kindness.

kate-rusby-minibag-blue


Sidebar: The Christmas Truce of 1914

The Christmas Truce has come to be regarded as iconic, perhaps because it offers hope for peace and underscores the arbitrariness of the circumstances which turn brother against brother. The Truce has been explored in productions both documentary and dramatic because, in the middle of a war, peace broke out.

The Truce was re-eneacted in the 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War, but the scene is not very effective because it quickly degenerates into drinking, smoking, and idle chitchat. More inspiring is this clip from the 1996 mini-series The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century:

In December 2014, the UK’s Sainsbury’s supermarket chain produced a 3:40 advert which also re-enacts the Christmas Truce:

Another version (courtesy Gogglebox) shows the reactions of selected British viewers:

An editorial in The Guardian by Ally Fogg decries the ad as “a dangerous and disrespectful masterpiece,” but it clearly touched the hearts of some viewers, and is considered a stroke of marketing genius, having gone viral on YouTube.

For more on the Christmas Truce, see this archived links page. There are a number of songs about the Truce, with some lyrics collected here. Part of Cormac MacConnell’s “A Silent Night, Christmas 1915” goes:

Oh silent night, no cannons roar,
A king is born of peace for ever more.
All’s calm, all’s bright,
All brothers hand in hand,
And that young soldier sings
And the sound of peace still rings,
Though the captains and the kings build no man’s land.

Here’s the full song sung by his brother Mickey MacConnell:

As for “Benjamin Bowmaneer,” according to the band Colcannon (which also does a version), the song appears “in the Penguin Book of English Folksongs — the old, and now rare, edition edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.E. Lloyd.”

Trivia: Does Arnold Black’s music for “No Room at the Inn” remind you of anything? At times, it reminds me of “Up, Up and Away” — the part that goes “Would you like to ride, in my beautiful balloon?” And as folk tunes go, “Benjamin Bowmaneer” somewhat resembles “Spanish Lady.”

For Further Reading/Viewing

“The Gutsy Scribbling of R.O. Blechman”
http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/06/the-gutsy-scribbling-of-ro-blechman/259096/

R.O. Blechman CBS Christmas Message (1966)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUWMjUjit_U

“Jesus is Born–in a world of many faiths”
https://ethicsandspirituality.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/jesus-is-born-world-of-many-faiths/

Brother Jesus by Sri Chinmoy
http://www.srichinmoylibrary.com/BJ

bethlehem-star-animated* * *

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An Indian In Japan

sri-chinmoy-100-metre-dash

Sri Chinmoy in Japan (right-click to enlarge)

The rich culture of Japan was explored by Indian spiritual master Sri Chinmoy during his numerous visits there. As a runner, in 1993 he participated in the World Veterans’ Championships in Miyazaki.

Video by Kedarvideo, Switzerland*

I am a sentimentalist at heart, and so really cherish this home movie style footage of Sri Chinmoy at the 1993 World Veterans’ Championships held in Miyazaki, Japan. Sri Chinmoy was 62 at the time, and his running form is still wonderful to behold, as is his good nature and ability to immediately get along with a group of strangers of many nationalities.

Due to knee problems, Sri Chinmoy had shifted his athletic attention from running to weightlifting about a decade earlier. This allowed him to concentrate more on upper body strength, with less daily wear and tear on the knees. But in keeping with his philosophy of challenging impossibility, in 1993 he was inspired to attend the World Veterans’ Championships and give his all to the 100-metre dash.

Watching him compete is a joyful experience slightly tinged with sadness for me. It reminds me of how much he suffered in order to inspire others, bring them joy, and offer a living lesson in determination. You can see that after sprinting, when he returns to a walking gait, he’s limping slightly.

I’m also reminded of a still image I captured from a 2001 video. It shows a moment where Sri Chinmoy is rising from a seated position. The occasion as a whole is a joyful one, but you can see the sadness in one close disciple’s eyes as she identifies with Sri Chinmoy’s physical suffering.

Sri Chinmoy in Cambodia, 2001. On a boat trip with disciples, he is seated drawing soul-birds with a green marker, but experiences some pain on rising. He is 70 years old. From a video by Niriha Datta.

Sri Chinmoy in Cambodia, 2001. On a boat trip with disciples, he is seated drawing soul-birds with a green marker, but experiences some pain on rising. He is 70 years old. From a video by Niriha Datta.

People sometimes wonder why I defend Sri Chinmoy so vigorously from those who, after his death, have tried to dismiss or discredit him. One reason is that I know how much he willingly suffered and took on the sufferings of others in order to bring joy to those who had known little true joy. He was many things to many people, including real hope for the hopeless. I would rather remember his smiling countenance:

Sri Chinmoy with the USA team in Miyazaki, 1993.

Sri Chinmoy with the USA team in Miyazaki, 1993.

Finishing up the 100-metre dash

Finishing up the 100-metre dash

A broad smile after finishing

A broad smile after finishing

The Miyazaki footage strikes me as wonderfully Japanese in that you see many different cross-sections of Japanese society represented. There’s an overarching spirit of good cheer, without any sense that the disparate cultural elements would clash — from taiko drummers to kimono dancers to a western-style marching band. The opening ceremonies were clearly modeled after the Olympics, with a sense of pageantry and ritual that’s also very Japanese.

Fireworks at the World Veterans' Championships in Miyazaki.

Fireworks at the World Veterans’ Championships in Miyazaki.

Pageantry predominates at the opening of the games.

Pageantry predominates at the opening of the games.

Some very young children seem slightly bewildered by it all. Unlike the adults, they weren't supplied with sun hats.

Some young children seem slightly bewildered by it all. Unlike the adults, they weren’t supplied with sun hats.

Ms. Ranjana Ghose, Director of the Jharna-Kala Art Foundation, participates in the ceremony and also runs.

Ms. Ranjana Ghose, Director of the Jharna-Kala Art Foundation, participates in the ceremony and also runs.

Sri Chinmoy was a man of diverse talents and capacities. While in Miyazaki, he gave a series of four of his legendary Peace Concerts on four consecutive days.

October 1993: Sri Chinmoy plays the flute at a Peace Concert in Miyazaki, Japan. Courtesy http://srichinmoyphoto.com/

October 1993: Sri Chinmoy plays the flute at a Peace Concert in Miyazaki, Japan. Courtesy http://srichinmoyphoto.com/

It boggles the mind to switch gears and take in the multifarious activities which he pursued as a reflection of an enlightened consciousness. Fortunately, the heart is much vaster than the mind. The heart of intuition, the heart of empathy can clasp him far more easily than the mind can grasp him.

Sri Chinmoy returned to Japan on a number of occasions. He was an accomplished visual artist, and as I note in “Put a Bird on It! Part Two,” he was in Kamakura in July 2006. Shortly before his 75th birthday, 75 of his acrylics on paper were exhibited at the Kōtoku-in Buddhist Temple.

Sri Chinmoy in Kamakura, July 2006.

Sri Chinmoy in Kamakura, July 2006.

Kamakura is the home of the Great Buddha, or Daibatsu. Nearly four decades earlier, on his first trip to Japan in 1969, Sri Chinmoy wrote:

To Kamakura

Kamakura! You in the Buddha
Are his Reality’s Face.
Kamakura! You with the Buddha
Are his Divinity’s Grace.
Kamakura! The Buddha’s Life for you
Is the limitless consolation
Of descending mankind.
Kamakura! Your life for the Buddha
Is the boundless promise
Of ascending mankind.

Sri Chinmoy emerged from the Hindu Yoga tradition, but had a universal outlook which allowed him to be of service to seekers of many different faiths. His book of plays Siddhartha Becomes The Buddha, as well as his focus on meditation, have endeared him to many a Buddhist seeker. Here Sri Chinmoy performs some of his songs honouring the Buddha, as well as the traditional “Buddham Saranam Gacchami” or “Three Vows”:

Listening to Sri Chinmoy’s soulful chanting, we are connected with an ancient tradition, still living and unbroken for thousands of years. The song “Nidra Bihin Buddha Debata” translates roughly as:

Borobudur, lap of the deep peace of the Buddha
Where divinity is present
Coming here, completely silent all the world’s waters.

Comparing Borobudur and Kamakura — two places of Buddhist pilgrimage — Sri Chinmoy writes:

Borobudur is the Buddha in the process of blossoming. Kamakura is the Buddha who has already blossomed. Borobudur has simplicity in purity and purity in simplicity. Kamakura has silence in power and power in silence. Both are totally different.

An unending thank you to Sri Chinmoy, and a big thank you to the videographers and webmasters who have worked tirelessly to chronicle his amazing life.

*Most images based on screenshots of the video by Kedarvideo, Switzerland.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Other Items of Interest

Hiya Bhasha Group performs “E Shubha Pranate E Buddha”

Listen to the full album on Radio Sri Chinmoy.

hiya-bhasha-buddham-sharanam-gacchami-3

Challenging Impossibility: Challenging the Oscars
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-juddery/challenging-impossibility_b_1788390.html

Sri Chinmoy’s Sporting Career
http://www.srichinmoycentre.org/sri_chinmoy/sri_chinmoy_sports

Sri Chinmoy: 1998 Interview on Weightlifting
http://www.srichinmoylibrary.com/mjw-2


Sidebar: Sri Chinmoy — “My Japanese Companion”

In 1979, Sri Chinmoy was still an avid runner who delighted in running and would travel great distances to enter marathons. Later, when he could no longer run due to a right knee injury, he would often speed walk. He filled book after book with reminiscences about running. This is the Run and Become, Become and Run series. Part 2 includes anecdotes from his visit to Greece to run in the Pheidippides Marathon, which he completed with a time of 5:39:41 at age 48.

My Japanese Companion

My first evening in Greece I went out to run. It seems that taxi drivers and car owners there are insane, especially at night. How badly they drive!

At every moment you are at their mercy, even in the park. I don’t know how, but they manage to drive right into the park itself. There is no street or anything; far from it. But they drive right into the park, and so speedily. Then they leave their cars there while they go to a party or some place. And we are trying to run there!

Inside the park an old Japanese man — very short, very skinny — started following me as I was running. I thought I was shorter than the shortest, but he was practically at my shoulder. And he was very old.

With such affection, such affection, he started running with me. Then we started talking. He told me all about his running experiences. I was very happy.

He was about 70 years old and he said he had come all the way from Japan for the marathon.

He was staying at the same hotel that I was. There were quite a few Japanese staying there. They all had come to run.

The following day also we ran together. I always make complaints about my strides, but his strides were shorter than mine. I ran two miles with him, very slowly.

I saw him once more after the marathon. He took seven hours and fifteen or twenty minutes. He was so delighted that he had completed it. Who would not be proud of him!

–Sri Chinmoy, 7 October 1979


Book Cover Project

Here are the book covers for this post, courtesy Sri Chinmoy Libary:

sri-chinmoy-my-salutation-to-japansri-chinmoy-siddhartha-becomes-the-buddhasri-chinmoy-the-world-experience-tree-climber-part-6sri-chinmoy-run-and-become-part-2

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No, Cuco No!

Why Latino children are scared of Donald Trump, plus another Sophie Maletsky video.

In Trials of Apartment Living, I talked about things like abusive landords and plumbers who never show — though as you would expect, I also digressed into things Whovian, Scottish, and Sockpuppetrian. (Now there’s a Scrabble word for ya…)

I’m blessed to live in a building with few bugs, and I don’t leave food or crumbs around, so they should have to fast if ever they became visitors. Still, with a long, hot, humid, endless summer, some were bound to crawl out of the woodwork. I found myself having to spray repeatedly until Old Man Winter finally arrived and the bugs hitched rides to Florida or wherever they get to.

But at the height of summer I would spray in the early morning, then go out for a few hours so as not to inhale the fumes. Still, on returning I wondered if I was not in fact fumigating myself, while the bugs put out their lawn chairs and sipped piña coladas. So I can definitely relate to the sentiment expressed by songwriter and children’s entertainer Sophie Maletsky of Sophie’s World when she sings:

Brava! Now, I’m not sure how much Ms. Maletsky knows about the Spanish language. (Maybe she knows more than she lets on.) The cockroach is la cucaracha, but there is another entity known as El Cuco:

You don’t really need to grok Spanish to know that El Cuco is one scary dude. In a 2011 piece on “Scary Latino Myths,” Grace Bastidas writes:

Disobedient kids all over Latin America have always feared El Cuco. The mystery boogeyman is a dark, shapeless monster that appears out of nowhere to kidnap and eat children that don’t obey their parents. There’s even a classic rhyme that warns the kiddies that El Cuco will eat them if they don’t fall asleep early. He’s mom and dad’s best ally!

At least, he was mom and dad’s best ally. Writing more recently in The New York Times, Héctor Tobar pointed out the connection between such scary legends and Latino children’s fears of Donald Trump:

Now we can add a new boogeyman to the repertoire of scary Latino bedtime stories. His name is The Donald. Ever since he began his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination with a vicious screed against Mexican immigrants, Donald J. Trump has become a figure of dread and comic-book meanness to the Latino community. He’s a villain in a flaccid pompadour, spewing threats and insults that have filtered down into the bosom of many a Latino family, to be heard by children gathered by the television set or at the dinner table. … Mr. Trump’s campaign speaks to a child’s greatest fear: the possibility that he might be separated from his parents.

donald-trump-el-cucoSo what’s the differencia between la cucaracha and El Cuco? The first scares you for a minute, the second might scare you for a lifetime or an Age of Man.

I won’t obsessively ransack every line of Sophie Maletsky’s song for political significance, but it’s easy to picture Michelle Obama singing the part that goes:

I don’t mind if you live outside,
But please don’t come into my House;
It makes me feel all icky inside,
And it scares me much more than a mouse. (Eek!)

No, cuco, no!
No, cuco, no!
No, cuco, no!
Cuco, cuco no.

Sophie Maletsky is a woman of many talents who can also teach you how to make a panda purse out of ingredients you might find lying around the set of The Sopranos, like black duct tape. But I think her tender refrain of “No, cuco, no!” will make a lasting contribution to political discourse in the era of Trump. It’s easy to picture Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi joining hands and singing a few choruses of “No, cuco, no!” when asked to privatize Medicare, deregulate Wall Steet, allow fracking in Central Park, or make Taiwan the 51st state. (I like Taiwan, but it would be impractical.)

Based on the original melody, I think I could add a couple of verses to this already excellent ditty:

Mr. Trump, I was oh so wrong
To think you were just a goober,
Filling our minds with hate,
And playing the fake news tuber.

Now you are in our House
With all your infernal relations;
You’ve proven that you’re the King
Of pestilent infestations!

No, cuco, no!
No, cuco, no!
No, cuco, no!
Cuco, cuco no.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. (Seriously, don’t blame anyone but me for this.)


For Further Reading

“No One Ever Told Me That Grief Felt So Like Fear” on The Impractical Cogitator blog

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We’re Going on a Bear Hunt!

Children’s entertainers, performance artists, or simply lunatics?

Just before my winter hibernation, while foraging through YouTube looking for raw material for one of my mashups, I stumbled on these two vids:

Thank you to the New South Wales Centre for that inspiring presentation. 😉

Anyway, these videos do raise the conundrum posed in the subhead. On the one hand, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a children’s story by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, first published in 1989. So there’s that. On the other hand, when performing it these artists seem to let loose their natural craziness and touch on aspects of the human condition as well as political realities.

I suppose the spiritual lesson is that some people go on the spiritual quest with a pollyannish attitude, assuming that nothing could possibly go wrong. Then, when they realize they’ll have to pass through various difficulties and that their nature will be tested, they end up running back to their bedrooms and throwing the covers over their heads! (I am not immune to this phenomenon.)

The political lesson is that just when you’re thinking “Oh no! They couldn’t possibly elect so-and-so,” suddenly you come face-to-face with a big orange bear and find that it’ll be living in your big white house for at least four years. The scream let out by Sophie in the first vid says it all…

Sophie Maletsky channels the collective liberal scream

Sophie Maletsky channels the collective liberal scream

Compare for reference The Scream, by Edvard Munch:

the-scream-by-edvard-munchMore scariness for children: Count Floyd

Count Floyd (played by actor Joe Flaherty) was a regular character on the old SCTV comedy series which aired in the 1980s. I suppose he’s funny on his own, but it helps to know that at one time in America, in small towns with only one TV station, the same guy who was the newsreader was also required to do double duty hosting the Saturday kiddie show, which typically ran a B-movie of the monster variety (such as Invasion of the Bee Girls, which was hardly suitable for children).

So if there’s a sad, desperate quality to Count Floyd, it’s because he’s really a reserved newsreader forced to make a spectacle of himself by dressing in a black cape and pretending that the incredibly bad movies they send him (or sometimes fail to deliver) would actually scare a child.

count-floyd-06

Count Floyd (Joe Flaherty), b. 1941

Such frightful multitasking was required even in large markets like New York, where John Zacherle (R.I.P.) came to ply his trade as a combination progressive DJ, weatherman, and “cool ghoul.” Not an unwilling conscript, Zacherle made a name for himself by combining horror, sardonic humour, and rock music, as in the 1958 novelty song “Dinner With Drac,” whose most memorable verse goes:

For dessert there was batwing confetti,
And the veins of a mummy named Betty;
I first frowned upon it,
But put ketchup on it;
It tasted very much like spaghetti!

John Zacherle, 1918-2016

John Zacherle, 1918-2016

Presaging the Donald Trump phenom, Zacherle actually ran for president in 1960, under the banner of Transylvania’s People’s Party. According to this New York Times obit, one of his gags was pretending to give lessons in conversational Transylvanian. (“The skull of my aunt is on the table.”)

Though less frightening than Nixon, he failed to garner the same popular support evinced by more recent political bloodsuckers whose names now drip from the headlines. By the way, has anyone checked Kellyanne Conway’s hotel room for vials of B-Negative? I’d also check the bedpost for bite marks. (There’s got to be a joke in here somewhere about lawyers who “pound the table.”)

Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway vamps it up a notch for her interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo. Lucrezia Borgia ring obscured by comfy chair.

Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway vamps it up a notch for her interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo. Lucrezia Borgia ring obscured by comfy chair.

For more on Zacherle, Count Floyd, and other purveyors of televisual horror, see fellow blogger The Impractical Cogitator here. Note that kiddie horror shows migrated to late night TV and were watched by adults. This helped pave the way for a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000, which has elements of a children’s puppet show, but where most of the obscure references are aimed squarely at adults:

(Any problems with video, reload page or try dropbox link.)

Children also watched the show and sent in drawings of Joel and the bots,

mst3k-kid-drawings_v05c

but I doubt many kids knew enough about the film version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to glom onto the whole Richard Burton thing. Adults, on the other hand, were soiling their Underoos listening to a dead-on Burton impression interspersed with references to Gamera turtle — the main character in the dodgy Japanese monster flick being screened that week (MST3K Episode 312, Gamera vs. Guiron).

mst3k-joel-and-bots-watch-gameraConclusion

So are the characters in question children’s entertainers, performance artists, or simply lunatics? The answer is D. all of the above! Particularly in the case of Zacherle, he no doubt had his schtick, but like comedian Andy Kaufmann perhaps needed to be a bit crazy to fully embrace and manifest it. This could easily lead us to a discussion of actors, artists, and sanity. I’m reminded of Werner Herzog’s documentary My Best Fiend, about the notoriously mercurial Klaus Kinski. Also Richard Curtis’s sensitive portrayal of Van Gogh in the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor.”

But perhaps it’s best to go out on a comedic note. After all, the marriage of horror and comedy gives us the comedy villain. The late Douglas Adams was a master at writing such, like the Vogons who torture their victims by reading them bad poetry. (I always credit my mentors!) Douglas also wrote for Doctor Who, his first effort being “The Pirate Planet,” where Bruce Purchase and Tom Baker vie to see who can take it furthest over the top. Memorable quote: “Douglas had a strange relationship with parrots…”

(Any problems with video, reload page or try dropbox link.)

But one of the most entertaining essays on the comedy villain comes from an earlier epoch of Doctor Who, from the William Hartnell era:

(Any problems with video, reload page or try dropbox link.)

Kinda makes you wonder whether Donald Trump has dodgy feetTake all those illegal aliens to the security kitchen, or I shall be forced to have Kellyanne Conway throw flowers menacingly on the floor. Or would flowers simply wilt in her hand, as with Beatrice in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”?


Oooh kids, it’s gonna be scary!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

More TV/Movie Trivia

The Count Floyd skit (embedded earlier) showcases a “scary” movie called Whispers of the Wolf, which is actually a parody of Ingmar Bergman films like Cries and Whispers and Hour of the Wolf. It apes many of the cinematic devices found in actual Bergman films. See also SCTV’s Rome, Italian Style, which successfully parodies a number of stylish Italian films from the 60s and 70s, including The Tenth Victim.

The “Rappacini’s Daughter” clip is from a 1980 television production starring Kristoffer Tabori and Kathleen Beller. Beller often played an innocent, and the contrast is striking here between her innocent nature and poisonous touch. In 1987, she snagged a role in Bronx Zoo, a TV series which was arguably the prototype for Boston Public.

Beller played Mary Caitlin Callahan (her parents should only plotz!), a vegetarian, non-smoking art teacher who rides a motorcycle, but still struggles with her Catholic roots. It was one of her more sensitive roles, and Beller herself said it surpassed 90% of her feature film roles. Despite being married to Thomas Dolby, she clearly wasn’t “blinding them with science.” The science teacher was Victor Ginelli, played by Peter Hobbs. After Ginelli died, gym teacher Gus Butterfield (played by Mykelti Williamson) took over his classes.

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