Saturday, May 25, 2013

Extreme Housekeeping (And Other Signs of the Times)

What signs tell us about behavior and expectation....

On a recent visit with to a job site on the 405 widening project in the Sepulveda Pass, I came across an "extreme housekeeping" sign that made me think about the ways we use language and image to control behavior. (Normally these construction sites are not opening to the public; I was on a field trip sponsored by the Center for Land Use Interpretation.)

For the "housekeeping" sign, see below. First let's put some display options in context.

Sometimes a sign is so obvious, it doesn't need much --- if any --- language. Here's an ad from Sri Lanka. I think we all know what it is telling us to do.

This next sign also reveals its intentions very swiftly. It's odd and sad, yet clear. They offer a service to help a family prepare a deceased person for burial. This was taken in Ghana.

This next sign is very clear and rather mean. One wants to tell the Scrooge landlord, Aw, come on, have a heart. No ball games? That's just mean.

Other times, image and text may be a bit at odds. Have a look at this:

Is it just me, or does this dog seem nearly friendly? And it's sort of fox-like, rather than dog-like. Perhaps the sign should say, "Beware of the Foxes and the Fox-German Shepherd Hybrids."

This next sign seems rather redundant. It's from Boston and has red letters for extra emphasis. I appreciate the polite "Please," but wouldn't the snow and the lack of water keep me out of the pool anyway?

Some signs promise more they can deliver. I am not sure anybody can learn English without some homework and without a bit of grammar study. Of course, my students would be glad if I adopted this secret and magical pedagogy. Maybe for their sake, I should have signed up.

This sign in Reno seems contradictory. "CCW" refers to a conceal-and-carry weapon permit: that is to say, you can keep a .32 in your ankle holster and it's legal. This hotel says its private property rights trump your Second Amendment rights.

Some signs baffle me, or require a bit of translation, even when one is in London where they speak a somewhat legible version of English. This was in a pub in Pimlico.

"Mews" used to be the cages in which royalty kept raptors for the sport of falconry, though in the UK in can mean a short side street and the apartments therein. (Now the Royal Mews are where one goes to see the Queen's horses and carriages.) "Cobbles" means the stone driveway that this pub's open-air seating spills out onto. "Mew" can also be a cat-like moaning or meowing sound, perhaps the sound one makes when one has had too much to drink, fallen asleep on the cobbles, and woken up so sick you're barely able to whimper.

Here's another one that takes a minute to follow through to its full meaning. It's from Ghana.

We call the express highways in L.A. "freeways" not because they have so little traffic but because unlike back east, there are not many tolls. If there IS going to be a road tax, it only seems fair that we all pay equally. That means that zombies and the undead have to pay their highway tolls too, just like the rest of us. Read down a few lines on this sign to come to the appropriate fee for the mummy wagon.

"NB" refers to the now-little-known abbreviation, "Nota Bene," or in English, "note well the following detail; pay special attention to this footnote." It's a rather hyper-literate thing for a sign, since even the MLA doesn't tend to use this abbreviation anymore. Watch out for those mummies, though, in or out of their wagons.

Staying fit to combat the potential onslaught of the undead remains an important factor in modern life. There's extreme skiing, for example, or "crocking" (bungee jumping in Australia in which one lands in water inhabited by saltwater crocodiles, the ones famous for snacking on humans). New to me though is the sport listed below, described on a sign on the sign of a job-site trailer adjacent to the 405 Freeway.

Somehow it makes me think of vacuuming the stairs while simultaneously rappelling down from the skylight in a Ninja costume, or maybe using a jet pack and rollerblades to see how fast I can hose down the driveway. Whatever I do, I better do it well, since "Anything less is unacceptable!!: If I could somehow combine my concealed weapons, a wagon full of mummies, and some virus-laden coconut shoots, I would have the complete package. Of course, the sign itself might be as wide as a billboard. Time now to put on my crash helmet and get a blowtorch ready, to see what can be done about the weeds in the planter. After that, we'll see how the skateboard performs in the bathtub. If I cover the bottom with a scouring pad and lubricate it all with some scum-be-gone foam, I bet I can knock this thing out in under two minutes.

Kawabunga, as the surfers used to say.


The Antelope Valley College blog is curated by Charles Hood in Language Arts and does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees, the District itself, or Metropolitan Transit Authority, which is the organization behind the interminable freeway project on the Sepulveda Pass. Hood can be reached at

Monday, May 13, 2013

Who's the Greatest Great Gatsby?

Charles Hood and Scott Covell review the recent try at putting the novel on film

Charles Hood: We both were simultaneously looking forward to and yet dreading Mother's Day weekend this year, and it has nothing to do with our families. That's because this past weekend the F. Scott Fitzgerald estate got its last big push towards mega-royalties, when the Baz Luhrmann "Jazz Era on Acid" version of The Great Gatsby opened. Would the movie wreck the book or do it justice?

In terms of straight dollars, there's one winner right out the gate. This classic of American literature is still in copyright, and so the accountants must love it: not just whatever umpteen millions the production companies had to pay for movie rights, but now another generation of readers will be buying copies of the book. This has to be the single most profitable piece of Modernist literature of all, outselling Hemingway, Pound, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein. Only Picasso must be more valuable per square inch. A quick survey reveals that my household has a least four versions of Gatsby, separate from whatever I have in my office at AVC. My wife the lit major has two copies, I have a hard copy I can't find, and I have a Kindle version that I ordered once to fill up the hours on a cross-Atlantic flight a year ago.

Fitzgerald was living in L.A. when he died; his last house is under what is now the 101 Freeway, though his actual site of death was an apartment near Crescent Heights and Sunset. It's now a gated unit but before it was, Bill Vaughn and I once knocked on the door. Current occupants were not pleased to have yet more pilgrims. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack tied to alcoholism and maybe TB; he's buried near Washington D.C., and I have been there too, though this time without Bill Vaughn. Covell (unless he has misplaced it) has an acorn from the grave site, courtesy of me. All of the Fitzgerald work is worth knowing, if nothing else in order to counterbalance the cruel portrait of him in Hemingway's Moveable Feast. Why though has Gatsby been raised to top-tier status? Along with Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick, it ranks as one of the most perfect and enduring novels of the entire American canon.

Like most aspects of high art, from Beethoven to Plato, Gatsby may be better known for being famous than it is appreciated as a rich and deeply moving text. Indeed, I am not sure how many people read it still, but apparently enough people have heard of it that it merits high status as a cultural reference point. Publicity in advance of the movie's release has been ubiquitous. To take two examples (one highbrow, one lowbrow), Vanity Fair ran a squib to feature the clothing recently.

It's a well-lit shot, custom made for the magazine, with a brief narrative on the right about who made which of the costumes. (Brooks Brothers, in the case of the photo.) So for Vanity Fair, the movie is about style, look, elegance. It's not whether it lives up to the spirit of the book, but how the actors look, putting the bodies of the book out there in front of us.

Yet on the supermarket tabloid end of the scale, even the Globe has stepped up to cover the movie, and in this case, turned the interpretive framework into a high school prom queen contest. Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest Jay Gatsby of them all? This one uses a studio-supplied still, though that lines up nicely with stills from the previous movie versions.

So who IS the best actor for this? Why DOES the book endure? We turn now to another perspective, to look at this question in terms of what works, what doesn't work in the most recent movie adaptation.

Scott Covell: The Great Gatsby: Keep the New Versions Coming!

At the end of his scathing review of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (released this past Thursday midnight), The New Yorker critic Davis Denby suggests that --- like him --- “ young audiences”  may not care for this latest of four Hollywood adaptations of the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  He may be wrong about that (the film did a credible 51 mil the first week), and I certainly disagree with much of his review; however, he makes a great point when he states that perhaps the novel: “should be left in peace. The book is too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies” (79).  

Indeed, the glorious lyrical and impressionistic writing of Fitzgerald can only be captured through voiceovers and --- in the case of Luhrmann’s film --- rather surreal moments of spiraling letters all coalescing into beautiful Fitzgerald prose on the handwritten pages of Nick Carraway’s fevered journal written years later in a sanitarium. Still, lovers of The Great Gatsby (of which I am certainly one) or not, Luhrmann offers a visual feast that is at once chaotic, swirling and postmodern, and then switches gears with more profound and subtle film-making to allow the audience to sink deeply into the rekindled romance of Daisy Buchanan and our hero, Jay Gatsby.

Having taught the novel a zillion times, and now, especially after just completing an impossible-to-publish 300-page prequel/sequel of Fitzgerald’s greatest work which I titled Gatsby’s Revenge (copyright issues, dang it), I came to the film without great expectations but just sort of hoping to kick back and enjoy myself in the visuals, music, story, and the amazingly-CGI-realized New York City of 1922.  

I found the film very enjoyable and surprising, even with its obvious flaws. The already-legendary party scenes are wild and ravishing (though I still prefer Copolla’s 1974 lavish, vaster and historically-saner parties, music and dancing), the Valley of Ashes is wonderfully realized (though a bit over-crowded methinks), but it is the romance at the core of the Great American Novel that Luhrmann captures so well and makes this film worth viewing. This second part of the novel and film --- focused on this romance --- is carefully and magically crafted by Luhrmann, but it is the outstanding performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and English actor Carey Mulligan which mesmerize us. 

How good are these? Well they are so much more spell-binding than Redford and Farrow. I like Redford, but (like many others) personally, I dread Farrow’s performance in the 1974 version every time I show scenes from it when teaching the novel.  She just doesn't present quite the right look or feel for that role. In the present version, Mulligan is lovely, and she catches the sense of vulnerability so well necessary for the character. That's fine, but DiCaprio is the one who is close to brilliant. What a nuanced, multi-level engaging persona he brings to the legendary love-struck bootlegger of the Jazz Age, Jay (Gatz) Gatsby. 

I was wondering for months if DiCaprio would be able to summon forth that warm smile of Gatsby’s, and indeed he does, while also bringing an intensity that builds in a sort of angsted momentum right up to the penultimate violent argument with Tom Buchanan at the Ritz in New York City, which Denby believes is “the dramatic highlight of [Luhrmann’s] career.” 

I saw the film in Sherman Oaks with my wife, Lori, my best friend and colleague, Mark Hoffer, and my two teenage kids, and while we had some disagreement about the first half of the film (Lori and I generally liked the first half, while the rest of them gave that part a thumbs down), we agreed the second half is worth watching and brings out some of the best aspects of the novel nicely. 

Maybe that’s all we can hope for with film adaptations of our favorite works: does the film capture “the spirit” of the text (in the language of critic Louis Giannetti), and does it at least offer a selection of moments when you go: “Yeah, that’s it! Well done!” I don’t think there’s any doubt that Luhrmann’s version achieves both elements. 

Throughout the film Luhrmann offers us glimpses of that green light on Daisy’s dock, there swirling in some sort of mythic mist: forever beckoning to Gatsby, and to all of us, with its legendary  resonance as a metaphor for the riches and success waiting for those who quest for the quintessential vision of the American dream. Like that strangely mist-hidden green beacon we can perceive clearly on occasion throughout the film, there are a number of times we can ascertain through the unique fog of Luhrmann’s vision, the true essence and beauty of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. And for me, that’s enough.

Charles Hood: Thanks. I think Covell has got this exactly right. Being more impatient than Scott Covell, I saw the movie on Friday night at a sold-out showing in Westwood. My companions were lit major wife Abbey and the famous painter (and super great film buff) Don Bachardy. Bachardy's late partner was the novelist Christopher Ishwerood, through whom Bachardy knew well W.H. Auden and Tennessee Williams and other mid-20th century heavyweight writers. That is to say, Bachardy knew the people who knew Fitzgerald and company, and so his opinion counts double with me. (Once, when I asked Don if he had seen the big Kubrick show at LACMA, he said modestly, "Well, no, but when the Kubricks were in L.A. still, Chris and I saw a lot of them.")

And my group's vote? We agree with Covell, in that all of us defy the astoundingly long parade of critics who want to trash the Luhrmann version. It may not be a great movie or even at times a good one, but it's always trying to do interesting things and it has some absolutely amazing set-piece scenes. When Gatsby is on the second floor balcony of his two-tier bedroom (the bed lined up to face Daisy's house, across the water), he throws down a rainbow of silk shirts onto the bed. I hate to say that images do things that words can't, but this is a perfect instance of a moment having to be seen, not read about. The way they fall like burnt up angels or physical dreams, the lurid, lush, amazing Technicolor rush of it all, just has to be seen to be believed. (Sorry, I hate cliches, but in this case, it's really true.)

And the thing about any movie we dislike of a book we love (which for me, includes many of the early installments of the Harry Potter franchise), if you don't like the film version out now, just wait ten years. There will always be a remake down the line.

Until then, if you're ambivalent about whether to see it at all or not, the answer is yes, ignore the bad reviews on "Rotten Tomatoes." Just go. And if picking between regular format or 3D, go for 3D. If we're going to put frosting and sprinkles on top of our cotton candy, we may as well go all the way. As Vanity Fair said (in advance of the official release), "If Luhrmann has caught a whiff of the self-delusion in Gatsby's belief in 'the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us,' his excessive vision will have done Fitzgerald proud." And indeed it has, indeed it has.


The AVC Blog is curated by Language Arts teacher Charles Hood and does not represent the views of the District, the Board of Trustees, or the Fitzgerald estate. Hood can be reached at, and Covell at

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Triumph and Tragedy in Boston

John Toth provides a runner's perspective on recent events

Inside the LS1 building on campus, across from the Language Arts Division office, we have a glass display case that features news articles and cartoons and public announcements. One of the weekly features is an on-going series, "What I Have Been Reading," which allows a different faculty member each time to share what's on her or his nightstand.

The most recent addition to this series comes from English Department member John Toth, whose response was so thoughtful and poignant, that it merits repeating here.

As many on campus know, John is a very serious runner, and is working on a life goal of running a marathon in all 50 states. That's pretty cool --- I always was happy just to have been able to visit each of the U.S. states, let alone do something that sustained (and healthy).

Many on campus know him, but for those who don't, here's a recent picture.

He was kind enough to let me post his "What I Have Been Reading" essay not just in the display case (where it will be up about a week or so, until the next person rotates into the slot), but here, as well.

The rest of this comes from Mr. Toth:

On my first trip to Boston to run the marathon, I read 26 Miles to Boston by Michael Connelly, which chronicles the history of the marathon as well as author’s personal journey from the start in Hopkinton to the finish line on Boylston Street in Copley Square.  The tragedy during this year’s Boston Marathon brought the work to mind as well as my own experience in 2009 and 2011 and suggested both the elastic and fragile nature of memory.

2009 was an epic fail.  Overcooked the first half and stumbled through the last 13 miles.  I was the lone walker in a river of runners flowing past the Citgo sign, Fenway Park, and other iconic landmarks of the city.  Friends I was supposed to run with were half an hour in front of me crossing the finish line.  Memories of the entire trip are clouded by frustration and shame.

2011 provided redemption:  my fastest marathon time on a course without a significant drop in elevation.  Achieving that kind of success there made the accomplishment even more cherished. Boston is a relatively flat, yet challenging course.  The name Heartbreak Hill suggests the physical and emotional torment that many have encountered after the 20-mile mark. Perhaps even more indicative of my performance is my splits. A successful marathon is measured by even or negative splits--the ability to run the second half at the same pace or faster than the first despite the fatigue. My second half was only one second slower than the first—perhaps the closest I will ever come to reaching perfection.  

Despite my exhaustion, crossing the finish line was pure exhilaration, an unqualified triumph.  I wanted so desperately to capture that moment. I turned around to gaze down Boylston Street and the Boston skyline.  In my euphoric state, I imagined that the skyline would always be a reminder of a hard-fought personal victory.

However, the events of Patriots’ Day this year have caused my memory to take on the character of a palimpsest.  Superimposed on my memory is the image of the same view of Boylston Street that serves as a backdrop to explosions capable of throwing a runner to the ground.  My image of triumph shattered by violence, as the bodies of runners and cheering spectators were torn apart by nails bits and other insidious shrapnel.

My heart goes out to those who lost life and limb and suffered other physical injuries.  However, the psychic damage inflicted on all those involved by this act of terrorism should not be overlooked.   Instead of a day that will be remembered with unbridled joy, fear and horror will define their experience.         

For runners, a day that should be a memory of personal accomplishment will always be tarnished by tragedy.

Los Angeles Times

The Antelope College blog is curated by Charles Hood, English. He can be reached at Professor Toth may be reached at This blog does not reflect the official positions of the Board of Trustees or Antelope Valley College District.