22 July 2017

Baby Driver: Sound and Silence

The second time I saw Edgar Wright’s wonderfully fun, fast, iconic take on the heist film genre, I noticed how surprisingly much of BABY DRIVER does not have music under it.   Several pivotal scenes, notably some flirty business between young getaway car driver Baby (Ansel Elgort)  and Debora (Lily James), the impossibly cute and charming waitress in Bo’s Diner (where, we learn, Baby’s mother worked while struggling to be a singer), play without backing by the songs that ingeniously drive so much of the rest of the film.   Instead of music, those diner scenes give us the adoring visuals of young love: huge closeups of the would-be lovers’ faces.  

The thing is, after seeing this glorious mix of music and movement the first time, you’d swear that one well-chosen musical number after another played continuously throughout it.  I was tempted to write, after one viewing, that the film is essentially a 113-minute music video.  Indeed, that catches a slice of the spirit of BABY DRIVER, which saw an early version of its life in a 2003 music video of British band Mint Royale’s “Blue Song.”  In that video, played mostly for laughs, we see a distinctly British getaway car driver jiving to his song, his car idling, waiting in a parking garage while his passengers are off making hay.  The unseen heist is timed to the song, and the driver enjoys clacking the windshield wipers and the sun visor to the beat while he’s waiting.  At one point an overhead pigeon flings a slimy one on the car’s hood.  Or bonnet. Sorry, mates.

The main idea of this very simply-photographed video is beautifully recast into the opening sequence of BABY DRIVER.  An across-the-street shot of a classic Atlanta bank building is eclipsed by red bumper and fender and big black wheel of a Subaru rolling in to block it. A hand holds an iPod up against the car’s steering wheel, thumb hits PLAY.  Pairs of percussive chords play as we see each of the car’s occupants.  A young man in sunglasses and white Apple earbuds sits in the driver’s seat, while three passengers, all in black, all in shades, wait their cue.  On the young driver’s signal the robbers open doors and hit the street. . .and Baby, the driver, continues listening—and variously jiving to—his music.  The music is loud over the soundtrack, and it is driven, rhythmic, chaotic, at times funny.   The tune Baby has chosen is “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.  

We are hearing it loud because Baby is hearing it loud.  He drums on the steering wheel and on the car door, plays sweeping air violin, clacks windshield wipers and at one moment perfectly lip-syncs to the singer’s mock-announcer tones: “Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen!  Right now I got to tell you about. . .the Fabulous. . .most groovy. . .Bellbottoms!” We see as he sees scenes of gunfire and mayhem through the bank windows across the street.   The music cranks up as the action cranks up.  The three, hauling weapons and huge duffel bags, explode from the building, cross the street and into the car as Baby revs it into tire-squealing action with a growing phalanx of cop cars never far behind.

What follows is one of the film’s justly-praised driving scenes, this one just preceding the opening credits sequence.  It all unrolls to the continued assault of “Bellbottoms,” which has now amped up to become high-octane sonic frenzied craziness.  Much has been made of the film’s thrilling, palpable stunt driving, done with real cars on real streets and highways.  There is not a speck of computer fakery to be seen, we are told.

So, in that first scene we have the model for much of the film:  Baby’s music, heard in headphones or over the car radio, becomes the soundtrack to some pretty terrific driving and action as the gang flees the scene(s) of the crime(s).  Sometimes it feels more choreographed, sometimes less:  in a few scenes the gunfire erupts in rhythm to the music.  Some writers have even called this movie a musical.  

Watching the film a second time boosted my appreciation for Edgar Wright’s discrimination and restraint in how he does use music, however.   In that very first robbery/getaway scene the timing of action to music is a bit looser, played down compared to some later scenes. It is not like the characters’ footfalls as they cross the street sync to the music. Not yet. But the cutting of shots and most of the action does.  If this quality of very tightly matching specific actions to music locked the whole film, if it looked the same throughout, it would become annoying quite quickly, it seems to me.  And so, Wright structures the scenes to the music, but in different ways and to different degrees as the film’s action develops.

And of course many types of music are used to paint different moods, sometimes undercutting the action, sometimes pumping it up.  An ill-fated visit to an arms dealer unfolds to “Tequila.”  One of the heists devolves to a footrace to the weird manic yodeling and screaming guitars of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus (1971).  At a significant moment, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas sing that there is “Nowhere to run, baby, nowhere to hide," perfectly synced to the passing white lines on a nighttime highway. One of the planning meetings sees Doc (Kevin Spacey) explaining the next job while Baby is playing prodigious air piano to Dave Brubeck.  After the car-crushing scene (more on this later), when Baby is feeling the call of freedom from this life of crime and driving, he luxuriates, right there in the junkyard, to the Commodores singing “Easy.”  His “killer track,” the one he can always come back to:  Queen’s “Brighton Rock.” There is 60s soul and r&b, alternative rock, some familiar tunes, some unfamiliar ones, different cuts of some.  The soundtrack adroitly uses some 30+ songs in all. Deep analysis of the use of music in BABY DRIVER is a ripe subject.

If this use of music was just a mechanical exercise, however, the film might be fun, but would forever be filed under “music video.”  

But it is much more than that.

We start to feel a little depth when we hear the reason Baby is so often plugged into his headphones.  He needs to listen to music, we are told, to drown out the tinnitus he was cursed with after a childhood car accident. (“He has a hum in the drum,” abbreviates Doc, the criminal mastermind behind each heist.) Ah, that might explain the driving habit as well.  When we further learn that his mother and father were killed in that accident things get a little deeper.  Add to it that his mother was a singer who worked at times at Bo’s Diner where he hangs out and meets waitress Debora, and a few more threads fall into place.

BABY DRIVER is archetypal and iconic, following the plot and even the look of many heist films.  It will remind you of a bunch of different movies at different times.  It is a movie that is proud of its forebears, and one that honors them in its story, its characters and its look.  I kept thinking of RONIN, John Frankenheimer’s glorious 1998 crime adventure, featuring practical, on-the-street driving sequences even more impressive than those in BABY DRIVER.

(And I loved Wright’s nod to the film’s worthy grandsire, another coming-of-age-in-crime film laced with terrific music. Baby eventually gets a pizza delivery job. The outfit he drives for: Goodfellas Pizza.) 

So, you could say that there is nothing new here. But what’s new is the style, with most scenes looking and feeling and sounding as they do because we are getting them through Baby’s consciousness and through his music.

At its heart, BABY DRIVER is a coming-of-age-in-a-life-of-crime story, and it knows it.  The hard men and woman that he drives to the next job look, act, think, talk, and dress differently than Baby.  If they ever were angels, they now are distinctly fallen angels.  Baby has yet to fall, and this movie is the story of his heading, perhaps reluctantly, in that direction.  His foster father, Joe, knows it only too well, and after seeing Baby stash some more loot underneath the floorboards, tells him “You don’t belong in that world.”  The line comes back again, near the end of the film, when, after one irrevocable act, Baby says to Debora, “You don’t belong in this world.”

It was a pleasure to see a film with such a tightly-wound screenplay in terms of plot and the intricate way music drives it.  The dialogue is delightfully sharp, clever, and expressive of character.  It crackles with bad guy talk.

Early on after the first bank job, the crew meets for payment and for planning.  Griff, played by Jon Bernthal, is extra-curious about this odd duck, Baby, who clearly doesn’t fit.  He states the film’s major plot movement in a couple of lines:  “You can’t be in crime without being a little criminal,”  and, later, a prediction: “One of these days, Baby, you’re gonna get blood on your hands.”

Some of the better lines are spoken by Jamie Foxx as Bats, whose craziness keeps the rest of the crew on edge.  When they are still sniping suspiciously at Baby and someone asks if he has “mental problems,” Bats makes it clear, “I’m the one got mental problems in the crew.  Position taken.”  Bats states his philosophy with a warning in the car while holding a gun on Baby: “In this business, the moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.”

Kevin Spacey as Doc, the brains of the outfit who plans and explains each heist, gets his share of good lines, too.  His dialogue, spoken always calmly and without attitude, often harshly underlines his control over the group, and especially of Baby.  After one botched job, Doc and Baby talk in the parking garage.  Baby has finally paid off his many years’ debt to Doc, and feels he is free of the whole business now.  As an unsubtle hint of how connected he still is, Doc gestures over to a nearby car.  “You need to sunset that ride.”  In the car’s trunk we see the bloody corpse of one of the crew from the recent job that nearly went wrong.   But there is a disconnect in our minds:  this guy, JD, was not killed during the job.  Without Doc saying it, the pieces fall into place:  he himself killed JD, for leaving his shotgun behind at the crime scene.  The next scene depicts what it means to “sunset that ride”:   Baby watches the car, JD’s final resting place, being crushed into a cube at the scrapyard.  That simple line, “you need to sunset that ride,”  was not a request but an order, reminding Baby who he still works for, with the dead man in the trunk graphically demonstrating the results of running afoul of Doc.

In case we’re not clear on it, Doc has a little discussion with Baby when he asks him to come back for another job.  They talk outside the fancy restaurant where Baby has taken Debora with his first paycheck from Goodfellas Pizza.  Baby does not want to do the job, but Doc has other plans.  He delivers this line to Baby in an offhanded manner, not even looking at him, never raising his voice: “Now I don’t think I need give you the speech about what happens when you say no, how I could break your legs and kill everyone you love, because you already know that, don’t you?”  Just a simple question, simply stated.  The epitome of Doc. And it is chilling.  He goes on, “So what’s it gonna be:  behind the wheel or in a wheelchair?”

There is a lovely little bit early on, where a simple exchange between Bats and Doc shows exactly who these characters are and how they each feel about Baby:

Bats: Well, ain’t ya’ll cute?
Doc: (proudly, paternalistically):  That’s my Baby!
Bats: Fuck your Baby!

Though BABY DRIVER is deftly laced with music, each scene orchestrated around a song or songs, its very structure hangs on its silences, too.  In fact, the film often counterpoints images or plot elements of sound and silence, of hearing vs. deafness.  There is Baby’s tinnitus, which in a way drives the whole film.   His foster father, Joe, is deaf, communicating with Baby by sign. But Joe shatters stereotypes of deafness by being one of the sharpest characters in the film.  He understands Baby as no one else does: with perfect clarity.  In a touching scene where Baby drops Joe off at an Assisted Living facility for his own protection, Baby speaks a message into a voice recorder for his caregivers, telling them who he is and lovingly voicing a list of things he likes, including peanut butter spread all the way to the edges.  Sound and silence.  At a couple of moments, once from a gun fired right next to his head, Baby temporarily loses his hearing, and the soundtrack becomes a world of muffled sound.  Baby is riding in a car with Debora, but can barely hear, until he puts his hand on the car speaker.  Then, loud and beautifully, he hears the song that’s playing:  it is his mother’s rendition of “Easy,” the song that for Baby means freedom.


BABY DRIVER is a film about the many ways we use music sometimes to fill, sometimes to enhance, our silences.

21 February 2016

Opera: Black Caesar




"I will now turn aside and see this great sight. . ."

For Moses it was the Burning Bush. For me earlier tonight, it was the Esquire Theatre's midnight showing of BLACK CAESAR, an amazing, brutal, and yes, operatic Blaxploitation film starring Fred Williamson.

The film, from 1973, is a straight-up gangster film played out with black characters. It depicts the rise to power of the 1950s shoeshine boy, Tommy Gibbs (Williamson), who finally becomes the big boss up in Harlem. Astonishingly, it prefigures Denzel Washington in AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007), the lineaments of the plot being similar. Some scenes  echo The Godfather, which came out the previous year. But even more I found myself thinking of the classic gangster pictures of the 1930s. I later read that, indeed, the film is a remake of 1931's LITTLE CAESAR. Oooooh, of course!

The film is awash with extremely red blood, full of violence and brutality, often with pumped-up racial stereotypes and liberal use of the now-proscribed 'n'-word. Irony and raw emotionalism team together to deliver punches that are normally the soup of grand opera. Witness the scene where Tommy, now the fabulously wealthy mob boss, drives his estranged father out to the skeleton wreck of the tenement in which Tommy lived as a boy with his mother, while the father was absent. In a tense scene played out there, Tommy holds a gun on the old man while the two trade barbs about the tragedy that was Tommy's childhood.

SPOILER ALERT.  

But most impressive is the film's setup and the climax that follows from it. At the beginning, Tommy is ostensibly making his living as a shoeshine boy on the streets of Harlem. We see that even at that young age he is assisting the local mob and corrupt cops. When he goes to deliver a cash payment to the worst of these white racist cops, the cop, McKinney, beats him senseless with his billy club, breaking Tommy's leg in the process.

After much mayhem and Tommy's rise to Black Godfather status, he finally gives the bad cop his comeuppance. In a gloriously over-the-top scene, he thrashes the cop with his old shoeshine box, then brutally blacks the cop's face with shoe polish, making him sing "Mammy. . .Alabammy!" while he clubs him to death with said shoeshine box!  

Now THAT'S opera!  

19 February 2013

"Once Upon a Time in the South"


 Quentin Tarantino's outrageous, audacious slave narrative, "Django Unchained," does not at any point tread lightly.  It stomps, it romps, it blusters, it brutalizes unblushingly; it is raucous, irreverent, low, hilarious; it lies, it steals, it cheats, it manipulates; it swaggers before your eyes for 2 hours and 45 minutes, and, finally, it explodes.

It does not tip-toe or pussyfoot through the minefield of early 21st century racial politics.  It throws a bomb in and comes striding through the wreckage. 

The film has sparked controversy from both sides and from the middle and from all other quarters.  Intelligent people pour vitriol on it and on Tarantino for being racist, here, for instance.  Filmmaker Spike Lee very publicly and very loudly declared, "I can't speak on it 'cause I'm not gonna see it," continuing, "All I'm going to say is that it's disrespectful to my ancestors."  And you don't have to look far to find huge praise of the film, from American and foreign critics, and from the film's own stars.  Then there's wildman auteur Tarantino's own words about his work, best featured in a series of interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The Root.

This constellation of controversy must be euphonious music to Mr. Tarantino's ears.  The man lives on controversy.

I'm not going to review the film aside from saying that I loved it.  You can find any number of excellent reviews of it at Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.   

Django Unchained uses the style and the tropes of classic spaghetti Westerns to tell a story about slavery in the American south.  From the credits onward it looks and feels like a Sergio Leone Western, but in terms of story, it is distinctly a Southern. Tarantino has taken all of the stories and images about slavery, from Uncle Tom's Cabin and slave narratives all the way up to Roots and beyond and thrown them all into the big double-boiler of his brain and come out with this wild and oddly satisfying epic revenge fantasyDjango Unchained is to this horrific and despicable episode of American history what  Inglourious Basterds was to The Holocaust.

There is certainly much historical untruth in the film.  But it should be clear that the film is not about the historical truth of slavery, but about what we've said and thought about slavery over the years, how we've mythologized itDjango Unchained views slavery not through the history books or passed-down family stories, but by reading Uncle Tom's Cabin in a funhouse mirror.

Tarantino gives us a huge hint what he is doing right at the beginning of the film.  We see a bleak sphaghetti-Western landscape.  As the credits unfold, we focus on a line of shackled slaves trudging through that bleakness.  A huge yellow title comes on the screen: "1858."  A beat later it is followed by another: "Two Years Before the Civil War."

Hah!  I laughed out loud when I saw this.  (I have to admit I was the only one in the sizable audience who did.) 

I have read at least one critic who decried this "mistake."  This critic clearly missed the point, Quentin's big signpost right at the film's opening, saying, "Hey, people, this story is not set in the real world!!"

That's what we have here.  If you read the excellent interviews with the director in The Root, you know that nothing in this film is an accident. Every scene, every image, every character was deliberately thought-out and considered and re-thought.  So, people, that bizarrely anachronistic title right at the beginning is saying in big letters "I am an unreliable narrator!" and "We are entering a strange world now, not our own!"

It is, very simply, the beginning of a fairy tale.  Such stories from all around the world traditionally begin with a line that is meant to transport the reader into a realm other than the everyday.  These vary from funny to nonsensical to enchanting.  Just a few:

Estonian: "Behind seven lands and seas there lived a. . ."

Russian: "In some kingdom, in some land. . ."

Hungarian: "Once there was, where there wasn't, there was a..."

Afrikaans:  "One day, a long time ago. . ."

More recently:  "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . ."

Mostly, this has come down to us through the work of the Brothers Grimm as "Once upon a time. . ."  

What Tarantino gives us at the opening of his latest film is nothing less than "Once upon a time, somewhere in the South..."
 

27 January 2013

Some Things That Made Me Laugh When I Was a Kid

Come back with me to this luxuriantly tree-filled township of clapboard houses in northern New Jersey.  Here, in the 1960s, you'll find a little boy: me.  I'm growing up in one of those white houses with my two brothers and my parents, listening to WABC on my transistor radio, walking to school down Van Houten Avenue under those towering oaks, or riding my quirky but cool little green bike with the red banana seat, stingray handle bars, and red rubber tires. 

I'm thinking tonight about a handful of  things that made that little boy laugh.

There were many many such things of course.  I was a fairly sunny kid, willing to laugh a lot.  I even got in trouble in school--ignominiously transferred into a different 2nd grade class!-- for the dreadful infraction of "being silly."  So why am I focusing on just these few jokes and a couple things I saw on TV?    No telling why these particular kernels have shaken out of the rusty sieve that is my 55-year-old brain. 

But here's a reconstruction of how this short list percolated up in my noggin.  Something I read at work recently referenced Napoleon, and that shook loose a ridiculous absurdist joke that I made up when I was 12 years old.  I will call it The Napoleon Joke.  So crazy and nonsensical was The Napoleon Joke that it was hardly a joke at all, but it was uniquely my own.  I loved it.  And I realized that it would make a good gateway into a blog about my little-kid sense of humor.  

Next thing to pop into my mind was the very first joke I ever made up, of which I was very proud. I didn't make up many jokes.

But there were also a few jokes I heard that so tickled me that I had to make them my own.  A couple of these dropped into the pool of my consciousnessOne I remember came from a book and the other I heard from some comedian on one of the many variety shows that were on TV in my 1960s childhood. 

Now my brain was chugging along on the topic of my childhood sense of humor.

I loved those jokes I made up, and the ones I made my own.  I would tell them over and over again, and it didn't matter that no one else ever found them as funny as I did.  No one ever could, but that made them all the more special to me.  It made them all the more mine.  I knew they were brilliant and funny and clever, and I was absolutely faithful to them.  They were like precious secrets, and I cherished them.

Along the same lines, though not jokes, there were a couple of names I came up with for prized possessions.  I'll include them here, too.

But let's start with a couple of things I saw on TV.  


Two Funny TV Things.

Blaze Glory (1969) - This was a short film Western spoof done in the pixilation format.  Pixilation (as opposed to pixelation) is a stop-motion animation technique where, instead of puppets or clay figures, human actors are made to 'move' artificially, photographed one frame at a time and moved slightly between frames.  Blaze Glory was a white-faced Western hero wearing an enormously tall old-style cowboy hat.  All the action of the gang of villains, the stagecoach robbery, and the heroics of ultra-clean-cut Blaze himself was done sans horses and even sans stagecoach.  My brother Roger and I, and our friend Chris, found this screamingly funny, seeing the gang gallop--legs wide apart, scooting at impossible speed--across the landscape holding the invisible reins of their invisible horses!  (Minus the pixilation, this idea was used hilariously a few years later in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) The stagecoach was a wooden platform with seats for the passengers which seemingly slid down the dusty roads.  The film aired on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.  Another bit that sent us into little-kid hysterics comes at the end of the film when, leaving town, Blaze doffs his gigantically tall hat to the townspeople. Underneath the tall hat is an equally tall head of red hair, prefiguring The Coneheads.  The film can be seen on YouTube, here. (If you watch it, keep it in small, not full-screen, format.  The atrocious picture quality looks much better that way!) Still pretty funny in parts, but the real hilarity of the pixilation is now an artifact of the past, submerged in the tsunami of stop-motion animation of the 1970s, including the computer-aided miracles of the Star Wars series.  I have to admit, I still find Blaze Glory funny, but I no longer writhe helplessly on the floor over it!

Jason and the Argonauts (1963):  The Skeleton BattleRemember this classic sword-and-sandals Greek-type adventure film where, at the end, the King of Colchis strews the teeth of the Hydra on the ground and up rise the Children of the Hydra's Teeth?!  Right out of the ground, an army of skeletons to battle Jason and his warriors!  Ten-year-old me and my brother Roger convulse with cackling laughter at the sight of these flimsy bone creatures stumping around, swinging swords, grinning their skull grins.  The high point of hilarity comes when one of the Greeks lops off the skull-head of one of the fighting skeletons!  This was so funny in a way that I can no longer fathom that I know it must have some deep psychological underpinnings.  Or was there something about stop-motion animation itself that mercilessly cracked up 10-year-old me?  Whatever it was, I've since found I wasn't alone in this:  at least one other friend, Ron, found this scene ridiculously funny. The skeleton battle still looks really good, though, animated by that genius Ray Harryhausen.  Unfortunately, there are only truncated versions of the scene at YouTube, some missing the original soundtrack

A Couple Jokes I Liked.

Old Cowhand - This is just a little riff on the old Johnny Mercer novelty song, "I'm an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)."  The joke assumes that you and your listeners are familiar with this song.  It strikes me that, while most people in the 1960s--and certainly most little kids--would know at least the beginning line that is also the song's title, that might not be true today!

This is a sight gag.  It was one tiny bit in some TV comedian's routine, but it stuck with me.

Here's what you do:
1.  Hold your fisted hand up next to your head in the attitude of a sock puppet.
2.  Sing the first line of the song:  "I'm an old cowhand. . ."
3.  Instead of going on with the next line, make a long, somewhat plaintive "Moooo!"  as you raise and lower your "cow hand" fist by the wrist.
4.  Enjoy the chuckles or gales of laughter from your audience (or else the polite, puzzled looks!)

(By the way, until I looked it up I didn't know anything about the 1936 Johnny Mercer song.  The tune was just one of those pieces of popular culture from my parents' time that collected in my little-kid head.  The song was made popular by Bing Crosby, and his fun, swinging version can be heard here.)

Wing Three Times - Another sight-gag joke that involves making a fist.  

This one I think I read in a book.  Let's get right to it:

1.  This joke requires a prop.  It is best to make the prop right in front of your audience.  (Your audience, by the way, is one person.  Others might be watching, but you are pulling the gag on one person.) Fold a piece of paper into a strip a couple of inches wide and maybe 6 to 8 inches long.  The resulting strip should be stiff.  Fold a small section at each end of the strip down.  (The exact size of this prop depends on the size of your audience's hand.) 
2.  Tell your audience to make a fist and hold the fist with fingernails down and back of the hand up, parallel to the floor.
3.  Place the paper strip across the fist, with the two folded ends hanging down.
4.  Tell your victim to "Say the word 'wing' three times."
5.  They say:  "Wing.  Wing.  Wing."
6.  You pick up the strip and hold it up to the side of your head and say, "Hewwo?" (That's "Hello" in your best Elmer Fudd voice!)

This is still a delightfully dumb, funny joke.  I wonder if modern telecommunications technology is undercutting its impact, though, since it depends on the old-time image of a handset-type telephone.  It is weird to think that for many young people, such a standard telephone would only be seen in old movies or period pieces.

Interlude:  A Couple of Names.

I had a couple of prized items in my kidhood that I gave names to.  These names were not supposed to be funny, just perfectly appropriate.  By naming them I made them mine in a way that only I understood fully.  It's ironic that now the names come out humorously to an adult's ear:

My throwing knife - My father's one-car garage was awash with a flotsam and jetsam of old tools, washed up from his many years as a dedicated do-it-yourselfer and genius mechanic.  Somewhere on or around the grease-imbued workbench or in one of the many toolboxes I found a knife.  This was not a jack knife, but rather a smallish straight-handled dagger-like implement.  I took it and made it my own.  It was the perfect knife for throwing at one of our big oak trees in the front yard.  It would stick once every 15 or 20 throws.  I named the knife Corpuscle.  I knew that "corpse" was just short for "corpuscle," and that they both meant the same thing, so I found this name wickedly appropriate.  Our big oaks were ringed with green ground cover plants that had a funny name of their own:  pachysandra.  Well, one time I was out there throwing Corpuscle at the oak.  As usual, he fell down into the pachysandra.  But this one time, I looked and looked for Corpuscle. . .and never found him again.  To me, this rings like a line from Greek tragedy:  Corpuscle fell in the pachysandra and was never heard from again!

My lamby-pie - I knew distinctly that I was "too old" to have a stuffed lamb, especially one that I gave a precious name to.  I was a boy of 10, maybe 11 years.  Way too old for a cute, nubbly-napped lamby-pie. . .and partly for that very reason, I had one.  I was kind of daring my parents, especially my father, to say something about it, to take it away from me by force, perhaps.  They never did.  I brought this treasure on a family vacation one time, I recall.  The small, cute stuffed lamb needed an appropriately cute name, so I called it Kindling.  I knew that the "kind" in "kindergarten" had to do with little children, so I took it and put a cute, diminutive ending on it:  Kindling.  I'd like to report that Kindling came to some hugely symbolic ending as did Corpuscle. . .but I don't remember what happened to it.

My Jokes.

Here are a couple of jokes I made up.  They pretty well express my absurdist sense of humor.

My first joke came to me while sitting at my desk in maybe third grade.  That would make me eight years old or so.  This is strictly a sitting-in-your-desk-in-school joke.  That is certainly the best place to "pull this gag."  And you have to have someone sitting in front of you.  This doesn't work for the first kid in the row. 

Here's what you do:  you tap the kid in front of you on the shoulder.  That kid turns around.  You are now looking obliviously about, as if you did not tap your schoolmate.  Suddenly you look at the kid and say, "I didn't tap you!"

Get it?!  Get it!?  Ha ha!! Yes, that's the joke. . .the ENTIRE JOKE!!  I admit, it doesn't read that well on paper, but just try it on the kid in front of you.  You'll love it!  

The Napoleon Joke - This "joke" came to me in a dream when I was twelve.  I told it originally to my brother Roger and our friend Chris.  The three of us had a singing group together, called The Punxutawney Pluckers.  We made up parody, Mad Magazine-like versions of songs.   

That has nothing to do with the "joke," really, except to say that the "joke" relies completely on performance.  To get it right, you have to really throw yourself into the "answer" part of this simple catechism:

Q:  What did Napoleon say after the Battle of Britain?
A:  BOWM!!!

(silence.)

(more silence.)

(. . .)

Yes, friends, that's my famous Napoleon Joke.  That answer part, by the way, is pronounced like the German word for tree:  Baum.  It strikes me that there are no easily-findable English words that rhyme with it.  But basically it should come out loud and boisterously, like a giant kettle drum rebounding after being hit violently.  So again, that's the sound as in 'bound,' but with an 'M' at the end.  

This is important.

How do I feel about this "joke" now?  Well, as I write this, I have a smile on my face.  It still amuses me.  it's hard to say why.

I put "joke" in quotes very deliberately, because The Napoleon Joke (which never had a name before this blog) is obviously something other than a standard joke.  It has the question/answer format of many jokes.  But that's about it.  

I still like it because it is absurd from the word go.  It is absurd even before you get to the "joke's" non-answer answer.   The question itself is absurd.  

So, to get really pretentious with The Napoleon Joke (and I often think that I am nothing if not pretentious) let's call it a zen koan.

There, I said it.  I didn't really want to say it, but your puzzled looks tore it out of me.  I won't repeat it.

In Conclusion, kinda.

Finally, let me say that writing this blogpiece has been an interesting kind of confessional journey for me.  Putting these things down on paper ("paper" - hah!  Get it?  "Paper"?!) has been a process of looking at them again and redefining them.  They are mostly, let's face it, dumb jokes.  That I found them shriekingly funny at a young age shows something about childhood, or about my childhood specifically. I'll leave it up to you to decide what it shows.

Or maybe the lesson is something about why I no longer laugh like a madman watching those skeletons swing their swords, or don't regularly tap people on the back and then say "I didn't tap you."

But no matter how I may feel, think, or react to these things now, I'm happy to report that I can still feel that 10-year-old boy inside me, telling and retelling these hilarious jokes, taking pride in the names he made up for his prize possessions, laughing like a wild baboon at these movie scenes!