Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Dreaming of a Plan to Feed Myself on Batter, Possibly Plan 9

Hiding out from a crew of Mexican roofers, I spent the morning at the Bazaar Café working out the script for a burlesque review based on William Empson’s famous book. Tentative title: 7 Types of Ambiguity, Count ‘em 7. The idea is that the audience can never quite decide whether they can see anything or not. After that, inspired or perhaps maddened by the Mariachi music still reverberating in my ears, I came up with a project with even fewer commercial possibilities, a script idea for a SciFi channel Saturday night movie. Here’s the pitch:

A literal-minded but brilliant physicist decides to settle an old theoretical question by actually performing the Schrodinger’s cat experiment. In the set up, the inevitable other scientist, older and wiser, tries to explain that the experiment won’t settle anything whatever happens. You’ll just have a dead cat or a live cat on your hands. The younger man is contemptuous, implying that you can’t make omelets without breaking paradigms. Unfortunately a PETA activist catches wind of the project and attempts to forestall it by breaking into the lab. He gets past the security system successfully but drops the vial with the cat poison as he attempts to destroy the experimental set up. Dying in anguish in the arms of the scientist, who has rushed in a desperate attempt to save him, the zealot curses the experimenter and seals his doom by giving him the evil eye with an extremely evil looking eye, at once frosted over and bloodshot, presumably from the effects of the poison.

Of course the incident sets off a huge public debate about the ethics of the experiment, and the university where the scientist works forbids him to continue. The scandal only makes him more determined to proceed, though it eventually costs him his job. Since he doesn’t happen to own a castle, he rents a room in a seedy motel and enlists the help of an affirmative action student, a white kid from Atlanta named Floyd, who captures a mangy stray cat to serve as the experimental subject. The cat, by the way, is not a black cat but a gray Manx—no clichés here. There follows some business about the scientist’s fiancée, who is a law professor but for some reason always wears fuck-me shoes like every lady lawyer on television, none of whom have any fear of hammertoes.  

After the statutory minimum of heterosexual subplot, the fateful night arrives. In lieu of thunder and lightening, the scene is accompanied by the usual urban noises: police sirens, guys mansplaining something or other to their date or spouse in the adjoining rooms, gunshots that are probably from a TV show, etc. The unfortunate cat is put in the chamber along with a fresh vial (saucer?) of poison and a tiny sample of radioactive material connected to a switch so that there is a 50-50 chance that the cat will be poisoned. At this point, faithful to tradition, the lights dim even though the set up only requires a couple of AA batteries. After the appropriate interval, the doctor opens the apparatus, which the audience has realized by now is an old microwave oven in heavy makeup. You can’t see what the Doc sees, but his unhealthy excitement is obvious as he shrieks, “It’s alive? It’s alive?” while Floyd looks on with an uncomprehending smirk. Alive or not, which of course is the question of the day, the cat is certainly not quiet. It utters an unearthly scream, rather as if it were in heat, and leaps out of the device, badly scratching the scientist’s face as it bounds past him and out the door, but not before bouncing around the makeshift lab and trashing the place like a rock musician. The two rush outside to recapture the cat, but it’s made a clean get away. Good time for a commercial.

The next morning, the doctor wakes in the wrecked motel room like a guy with a hangover. His face is bandaged on one side; and you can see, although maybe he doesn’t realize it himself, that blood or some more dubious fluid has soaked through the dressing. He’s not doing so hot, and it doesn’t help when somebody starts pounding on the door. He’s almost relieved, if only for a moment, that it’s the cops and not the motel owner. It seems that the body of a hooker had been discovered in a nearby alley. The cops don’t think the scientist was involved—they’re just doing a routine canvass of the neighborhood—but looking over his shoulder at the lab equipment, they jump to the conclusion that they’ve stumbled across a meth lab. 

That afternoon, the action resumes at the police station where the fiancée is picking up the scientist after what we can only assume was a day of long and difficult explanations. The explanations aren’t over with, either, since the woman, who, incidentally, is still wearing high heels, is steamed. Her man keeps insisting that he made a great discovery, that the danger and embarrassment was worthwhile because, you see, it turns out that the quantum wave function can actually collapse half way. It isn’t just that the cat is both dead and alive while the experiment is in progress. It’s both dead and alive afterwards. Which, apparently, also accounts for its extremely bad mood. While the guy rambles on about all this, giving us an extended example of cable-channel physics, he’s getting more and more excited and also keeps pawing at his bandaged face. She’s not buying what he’s saying, but her anger is mixed with concern since it’s obvious he just isn’t right. She suggests he needs to forget about the cat and go to the hospital immediately. As she reaches over to touch him and he shrinks back, you realize that he’s pulled off the bandage. She recoils in horror from the ravaged eye which, naturally, is clouded over and bloodshot. The scientist collapses.

At the hospital, the doctors can’t decide what’s the matter with their patient. Some of them think it’s a rare form of cat scratch fever. Some of the assume that it’s the result of exposure to the poison meant for the cat. One older doctor even suspects classic hysteria, but that diagnosis is rejected since time travel is even less likely than quantum indeterminacy. The fiancée tries to explain the experiment, but they surely aren’t going to buy that story. Of course, it doesn’t help when they admit that whatever it is, it’s very serious and that their patient is hovering between life and death. They can’t spend too much time on this one case, though, because the city is in the midst of a sudden crime wave. Bodies are turning up all over the place, each shredded to ribbons; and street people, still alive but badly clawed, are staggering into the emergency room raving about a demon cat. 

The fiancée calls the scientists senior colleague begging for help. He’s the same sober old man who tried to warn him off doing the experiment in the first place. He agrees to look over the lab notes; and, in a brief interval of comic relief, interrogates Floyd, who obviously never understood what was going on, having only been accepted to a PhD program in the first place because there were so few white STEM students. Despite Floyd’s dubious help, he believes he has figured things out and goes to see the physicist in the hospital. The patient is now completely gorked out, or so it appears, so the conversation is actually a soliloquy featuring yet more SciFi explanations. “I was wrong about your theory. Too bad you can’t hear me confess how closed minded I was, etc.” While this is going on, the camera, but not the older man, notices that the patient, though hooked up to various drips and wires, is actually beginning to twitch. In fact, while the distinguished professor faces the other way and continues his lecture, his young colleague sits up in bed, tears off the leads and tubes, and very quietly rises up behind him. We don’t actually see what happens next. The camera pans down the deserted hallway outside while we hear ferocious mewing coming from behind the closed door.

The fiancée has been doing her own investigation and eventually returns to the motel room—apparently it was paid up for the whole week. She realizes somebody is there already and assumes it was the assistant. “Claude! Claude!” she calls out, having somehow gotten confused about Floyd’s name. No one answers; but she hears a scrabbling noise, which sounds like some one were pawing at sand. When she enters the room, she finds what’s left of Floyd lying around the room and turns towards the bathroom. We see by a convenient clock that it’s half past midnight, and then the shadow of an enormous cat looms up. The lady screams. Just then some one else enters the room. It’s the physicist, though in his undead state he’s a little hard to recognize. “Branes! Branes!” he cries, and that gets the attention of the cat, which springs on him from the darkness as the lady falls back in a swoon. Depending on the CGI budget, one is treated to a more or less memorable but definitely desperate battle as the adversaries wallow this way and tumble that employing every tooth and claw in the awfullest way you ever saw.

In the last scene, a dog-faced police lieutenant is trying to debrief the fiancée, but not getting very far with the almost catatonic woman. He tells his partner that the scientist was probably abducted by gang members in revenge for the trouble he had caused what with the cops all over the neighborhood investigating tales of cat attacks. “Either that or the two cats ate each other up, heh, heh.”   

I’m not sure if there’s enough here for a theatrical movie, but it’s not my fault if the cat didn’t have a long tale.

The Quest for the Historical Scrooge

In the Gospel according to Charles, Scrooge has a change of heart after he is visited by a ghost and three spirits. Recent research by the Ebenezer project indicates that he actually left the party because of political pressure. His Conservative critics pointed out that his famous questions—“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”—though intended as an expression of right thinking, actually implied the wealthy did in fact have responsibilities towards the poor. If he was going to support liberal programs like the Poor Laws, he was no better than a frog-loving Chartist and deserved to be primaried. Threatened with mid-term defeat, Scrooge made a strategic retreat into sentimentality and superstition.  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

“Reh, Reh, Reh” or Notes on Proto-Soupysalian

I have the habit of responding to something I hear on TV or the Internet by muttering “Reh, reh, reh” when what I hear is obviously copy, i.e., professionally scripted discourse that nobody stands behind and nobody believes, discourse written in purposive anonymity and designed* to be delivered in a voice at once suave and bland. No doubt I recognize this sort of thing so readily because I’ve written so much of it myself in my various vocational incarnations. ** Partly it’s just filler—there is so much air time and you have to say something—but it’s also a kind of ventriloquism, an attempt to impersonate commonsense in somebody’s interest. Ventriloquism originally meant speaking from the stomach (venter). In the case of the “Reh, reh, reh,” most of it obviously emanates from the belly of the beast, which partly accounts for my dyspepsia about it.  But it isn’t the fact that so much of what you hear everywhere is interested that gives commodified speech its unmistakable character.  Both those that read the script and the hired hands that compose it in the first place obviously resent the indignity of acting as purchased people. The flatness of so much of what you hear, its trademark insipidity, is a workplace protest on a par with spitting in the soup, except that the irritated waiter is mad at the customer while the performer on TV is asking for the audience for forgiveness and signaling a decent insincerity—I’m just making a living. Even Flo wants you to know that the dummy hasn’t lost all her self-respect. Well, maybe not Flo. Considering the probable size of her residuals, she may very well have learned to love Big Brother.

Of course, everybody understands all this very well—you hardly have to read complicated treatises on Late Capitalism*** to grasp the nature of a system in which everybody participates every day. I had intended to supply an explanation of the origins of “Reh, reh, reh.” It appears that the expression evolved from “O reh, o reh,” the one and only utterance of White Fang, a canine character who appeared regularly on the old Soupy Sales show. I say White Fang appeared but actually only his enormous paw appeared. You never actually saw the whole dog.  I’m told that White Fang’s voice was once a recording of the howl of the Hound of the Baskervilles, but the record got broken just before a show and “O reh, o reh” was the adlibbed substitute. Somehow “O reh, O reh,” gradually got transmogrified in my idiolect into “Reh, reh, reh,” which will probably scandalize the purists—there are still lots of people in my age group who instantly recognize the “O reh, o reh.” In my defense, let me point out that in practice the two expressions are related by chiasmus. Each time White Fang would say “O reh, o reh,” Soupy would interpret it differently. It could mean anything. Each time I hear copy, I interpret it as “Reh, reh, reh” because it means the same thing or the same non-thing or nothing.  
* If this paragraph were copy, I would have written “crafted” instead of “designed.”
** The Buddhists have a genre called Jakata tales, which consist of accounts of the previous lives of Gautama. How about Jakata tales about somebody who resolutely refuses enlightenment?
*** The “Late Capitalism” bit is probably an instance of copywriting on my part so I ought to “Reh, reh, reh” myself here. As I’ve written many times before, I don’t know if there is anything late about contemporary capitalism. It certainly isn’t “late” as in my late Uncle Jake. Only a prophet knows if the system is on its last legs or will go on till the sun cools off, and I agree with the rabbis that prophecy is for fools and children. There’s also the far from minor problem of whether it really makes sense to speak of capitalism as a system with so definitive an essence as to be something susceptible of old age and death. Which is not to deny that our economic system is changing, of course. For example, I find myself muttering “Reh, reh, reh” more and more, not only to the TV or the I pad, but under may breadth as I listen to twenty somethings pitch themselves to one another in the garden behind the coffee bar.