Best Line Ever

Most people can quote a line or two from a movie, novel, speech, advertisement, or other source that for some reason stuck in their head. For this article, we’ll look at some great lines from poems and songs. And to make sure we include Shakespeare’s plays, we’ll allow his blank verse since technically that’s poetry.

So what characteristics does a line need to be a candidate for a best line ever? After looking at a lot of great quotes, these things come to mind:

  • Memorable. If you can’t remember how the line goes, then it may not be all that great and you’ll probably soon forget about it no matter how witty or profound it is.
  • Relatively short. This is probably connected to the line’s memorability, but also forces it to be about only one thing.
  • More than just a phrase. So Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” doesn’t qualify, although the full line “To be, or not to be: that is the question” probably does.
  • Standalone. The line doesn’t require a setup or explanation.
  • Surprising, wry, or funny. The line functions almost like a short joke, with a punchline (or punch) at the end.

Let’s look at some example lines and see whether they meet these requirements.

“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”

This is from Shakespeare’s rom-com Much Ado About Nothing and is a line delivered by Beatrice at Benedick during their insult match. As in a modern rom-com, insults like this might be a hint that the two characters are secretly crazy about each other. One problem with this line is that it’s prose, not poetry, so technically it’s ineligible. Romeo and Juliet speak blank verse to each other, but in this play the lovers speak prose.

“Men were deceivers ever, / One foot in sea and one on shore, / To one thing constant never”

This is also from Much Ado, part of the song “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more” that presumably was sung in the earliest productions, although we no longer have the tune if so. It’s a little long, but memorable because of two things: the linking through rhyme of “ever” and “never,” which are opposite in meaning, and the image that the middle line summons of figures standing half in water, half on land, surely a perfect metaphor for indecisiveness. It reminds me of the lines in the old folk song, “House of the Rising Sun”: “Well it’s one foot on the platform / And the other foot on the train.”


“Now you’re telling me / You’re not nostalgic / Then give me another word for it”

This is from Joan Baez’s song “Diamonds and Rust.” That’s a terrific zinger at the end, but by itself that line probably isn’t enough and including the setup makes it a little clunky. But this song is just full of great lines, so maybe something else would work.


“Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe / And to love you”

This is from the song “The Air That I Breathe” by the Hollies, who probably couldn’t be accused of having a poetic bone in their body during their 60s heyday, and yet still found this early-70s gem, which really pings the best line meter. Note how it’s realistically conditional: sometimes, not always or forever. For those struggling to write about love in a song, this is how you do it. Just don’t spend almost two minutes getting to the chorus the way the Hollies do, risking a nomination for the E.B. Browning enumeration award.


So much for lines about relationships. How about some great lines about what Bob Dylan calls “life, and life only”?

“[Life] is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

This is from the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth. Is it odd that Shakespeare the actor and playwright has Macbeth, who has nothing to do with the stage, describe life as a play? It reminds me of the engineer narrator and his dentist in Günter Grass’s 1969 novel, Local Anaesthetic, who view the world in terms of their respective occupations. William Faulkner took the title of his 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury from these lines, as well as inspiration for the point of view of the novel’s first section, which is narrated by a mentally disabled man.

“Hope is the thing with feathers”

After the bleakness of Macbeth’s speech, this line from Emily Dickinson’s well-known poem sounds quite cheerful. Hope as a bird that survives even the storms of life feels like a fairly ordinary metaphor, but where Dickinson shines is how she describes ordinary things with such originality. Instead of beginning with “Hope is like a bird” or “Hope sings its little song,” as a lesser poet might, she starts out telling us that hope has feathers.

“I read the news today, oh boy”

This line that John Lennon sings in the Beatles’ song “A Day In The Life” is a good example of how they mixed plain-looking lyrics with sophisticated music, thus ensuring that this avant-garde song remained accessible to their fans.


And finally, some lines about the self.

“I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

That’s from the final part 52 of Walt Whitman’s long poem “Song of Myself.” This is typical of Whitman’s embrace of himself as rugged individual. Incidentally, “yawp” had been around in English for centuries, yet his use of it is fresh, perfectly suggesting the sound he wants us to hear.

“I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

That’s from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In contrast to Whitman’s point of view, Eliot’s lines sound very 20th century, the speaker anxious, maybe depressed, even if the rhyme makes you smile. Eliot was only a college student when he wrote the first draft of this poem, but his speaker sounds so much older.


© 10 Franks 2022

Can You Say Melisma?

An earlier article mentioned how stress is the primary way of emphasizing syllables in English poetry and forms the basis of poetic meter. And how music has other ways of bringing emphasis to parts of the lyrics, tools that are not available to the poet.

By the standards of poetry, song lyrics can look a little flat on the page, and sometimes they include clichéd phrases or unoriginal observations. But that’s because the lyrics weren’t written to be read like poetry, but to be sung.

For example, look at the first line of the chorus that supplies the title of Dolly Parton’s famous song:

      And I will always love you

You might not be very impressed by this as poetry. But banality of the words aside, when you hear it sung, the line is transformed into something almost profound. Here’s Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love You”:

Houston uses throughout this song a technique called “melisma,” where she changes the pitch of her voice on a single syllable, giving the quoted line an impact it would otherwise never have. You could also argue that in this case complicating the line lyrically would only detract from its sound when sung; here a simpler lyric is better.

Melisma has been around for a long time and it’s hard to find a song that doesn’t use this technique at all. That’s because it also serves as a way of lengthening the line to fit a musical phrase, providing flexibility both to the lyricist and the singer.

Here’s an example of a song without much melisma, something closer to a pure “syllabic” technique where each syllable gets its own pitch. This is the band Brass Against doing a cover of Alanis Morissette’s song, “Uninvited”:

Poetic stress often involves an increase in pitch on stressed syllables. With a poem in meter, the rise and fall of pitch is determined by where the “accents” fall within each word and the position of each syllable in the meter. It’s interesting to hear singing against the natural meter of the words, the way Sophia Urista does in this song, particularly with words like “unfortunate,” where the pitch increases with each syllable, which is not how the word would be sounded out in spoken English.

If you’re looking for an example of a song that mixes these various vocal techniques, listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop”:

Another thing to listen to is how the singing and instruments interact. Are the lyrics sung over the instrumental parts, or do the instruments pause or drop in volume when the singing begins? And what happens during pauses between sung phrases, does the music swell in volume there or change in some other way?

A good example of this interaction is the 60s song “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” by the Electric Prunes. As an exemplar of “psychedelic” music, this song features several odd sounds not often heard in pop music. For example, just before the first chorus, you’ll hear an oboe-like sound after each phrase. That this sound doesn’t appear until about the 45-second mark makes me think it was saved for emphasis because of the effect it creates, almost like an echo of or a comment on the phrase it follows:

Returning to the example of Led Zep’s “Misty Mountain Hop” from above, one of the most distinctive aspects of this song is its grinding, relentless guitars repeating the same few notes over and over. And yet the guitars usually fade into the background with the singing, either to keep the song from becoming monotonous or maybe so the lyrics remain intelligible. In either case this grind-sing-grind-sing-grind interplay creates a drama of its own, independent of the lyrics.

Each of us has a unique speaking voice, a combination of sounds and rhythms that usually reflect how and where we learned to speak, but can also be full of random things that don’t fit a predictable pattern.

Just as a speaking voice is the result of numerous influences, so too is a singing voice, sometimes even changing from song to song, perhaps to better fit the mood or music of a song or to imitate (or differentiate from) another singer who did the song.

Earlier articles cited example songs sung by Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty. To my ear, Dylan and Fogerty do not have singing voices that I would characterize as typical of where they grew up (northern Minnesota with Dylan and the San Francisco Bay Area with Fogerty). That suggests they altered their voices in some way, perhaps more than once. In both cases they seem to have created a voice that sounds like it’s from “someplace else.”

By that I mean they have incorporated bits of how various Americans sound. For example, contrast any of the Dylan songs cited in previous articles with his cover of the old American folk song, “House of the Rising Sun,” from his first album. Is he imitating his early idol, Woody Guthrie (from Oklahoma), or some old-time singer, or is he just a young singer still searching for his voice?


© 10 Franks 2022

Beyond Mondegreens

Pop song lyrics can provide good opportunities for improving your English, but they can also be confusing and hard to decipher. Part of that is because the language of a pop song is more like spoken English and recited poetry, fast and fleeting, than it is the English of essays and literature, designed to be studied at your own speed. In addition to mondegreens, here are some other things to look out for.

Borrowings from other languages

Like a magpie’s nest, English is full of things purloined from other languages, often changing the spelling or even the meaning over the years.

For example, even though English is a Germanic language, it has a lot of French in it. This witty song by the band Wet Leg says it all in the title: “Chaise Longue.” This term means the same, but isn’t pronounced the same, as “chaise lounge,” which is how most Americans would probably say it. Once you’ve heard this song, you won’t forget the more French-sounding pronunciation:


References

In an earlier article, Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” was cited as an example of a two-minute classic, but its lyrics also contain references that might be puzzling to non-Americans:

  • “red, white and blue” — the colors of the U.S. flag
  • “Hail to the Chief” — the song traditionally played when the U.S. President appears
  • “silver spoon in hand” — this likely refers to the expression “born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” meaning someone born into wealth and privilege, which leads perfectly into the song’s next line, “Lord, don’t they help themselves,” with its suggestion of greedy feeding
  • “star spangled eyes” — a reference to the U.S. national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”

Idioms

Creedence Clearwater Revival also did a cover of the Motown classic, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” first made famous in versions by Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye. So what does the title mean? Well, the song makes that pretty clear, but where did the expression come from? Perhaps the resemblance of 19th century telegraph wires to a grapevine or maybe to the strings used to train grapevines.

Here’s Creedence performing this song:


“Nonstandard” pronunciation or grammar

It’s long been common in folk and country music to employ pronunciation or grammar that could be considered “nonstandard” in written English or more formal contexts. There’s probably a variety of reasons for this practice. For spoken forms of English, it might be considered more natural or folksy. Or maybe it just sounds better to the ear, particularly when sung, and allows an easier transition between syllables.

As an example, here’s a line from Bob Dylan’s song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”:

      It ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe

In written English, you might word it like this:

      There isn’t any use in turning on your light, babe

Even if you’re unfamiliar with Dylan’s song, you can hear that something has been lost in the rewritten line. The hard opening vowel of “ain’t” creates a punchy, emphatic effect that the other forms it substitutes for don’t have. Same with the double negative: just in case you might have missed it the first time, here it is again: no. And dropping the trailing “g” in “turning” allows that word to be pronounced slightly faster.

Technically, Dylan’s line could be considered iambic pentameter with a feminine ending. The rewritten line is still iambic, but now it’s longer and starts to lose energy by the end.

Later in the same song we find this line:

      I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’ all the way down the road

In addition to the dropped “g” from “thinking” and “wondering,” there’s also a dropped syllable in the latter word. And then there’s the matter of the “a-” prefix added to the beginning of both verbs.

Again, this prefix is a fairly common spoken form, which serves to alter the meaning of verbs slightly. In this case, it suggests that the singer is spending some serious time pondering why he’s leaving. If you’re familiar with the musical Oklahoma! then you’ve already encountered examples of “a-verbing.”

Here’s Dylan singing this song:


Vagueness

Dylan is certainly not the only songwriter who can be vague and cryptic, but let’s use his lyrics as an example anyway. In his song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” we find these lines:

      When Ruthie says come see her
      In her honky-tonk lagoon
      Where I can watch her waltz for free
      ’Neath her Panamanian moon

What exactly is a “honky-tonk lagoon”? If you’re a native English speaker, when you hear “honky-tonk” you almost instinctively expect it to be followed by “saloon,” the full phrase meaning a cheap bar where music and dancing can be found. But instead the line ends in “lagoon.” Since this is a song that contains wordplay and humor, perhaps the substitution is just more of that, intended to throw the listener slightly off-balance.

Similarly, you wouldn’t associate the kind of dancing found in a honky-tonk with “waltz.” Again, is this just to upend the listener’s expectation?

And what’s a “Panamanian moon” if you’re not in Panama? Well, in this case the phrase sounds great on its own, with its alliterative m’s and n’s, and the third syllable of “Panamanian” almost rhymes with “moon.” Inside a bar, you wouldn’t be able to see the moon. So is the moon simply a stage-light, like for a singer or dancer? Or does it just go with the image of a lagoon, maybe one that’s languid and tropical?

Here’s Dylan singing this song:


© 10 Franks 2022

Two-Minute Classics

How do two-minute songs resemble sonnets and how are they different? Let me count the ways.

The main similarity is how short both are. Brevity and compression, that’s what you notice about both a short song and a sonnet. They can still tell a story, but it had better be a fairly short narrative, without a lot of extraneous details.

A traditional English or Shakespearean sonnet consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Typically that works out to around 115 words, give or take, something that can be recited in less than a minute. There’s only so much you can say in that number of words. Similarly, in a very short song, there’s only so many verses you can sing in two minutes.

An English sonnet is divided into three four-line sections or quatrains and a final two-line couplet. Each section is rhymed. Perhaps you can think of the three quatrains as three verses in a song.

One of the most famous sonnets in English is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. Here’s the opening quatrain:

      Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
      Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
      Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
      And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Note how lines 1 and 3 are rhymed and lines 2 and 4 are rhymed (or rather, they were; we no longer pronounce “temperate” and “date” as Shakespeare did more than four centuries ago).

Here’s the first verse of Bob Dylan’s version of the old English folk song, “Pretty Saro”:

      Down in some lone valley
      In a sad lonesome place
      Where the wild birds do all
      Their notes to increase

Note how short these lines are compared to the sonnet lines, with no more than six syllables per line versus the sonnet’s ten. That allows the song’s six verses to be sung in just over two minutes.

Here’s Bob Dylan singing “Pretty Saro”:

The distinctive feature of a sonnet that sets it apart from other poetic and song forms is its turn. This is the place where the poem changes direction or takes a different line of thought. Often this occurs at line 9, but the turn can also be delayed until the final couplet. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, the turn usually comes at the couplet, but in Sonnet 18 it seems to me that something is changing already in line 9:

      But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

The introductory “But” tells us that there’s more to the poem than just praise for the beloved who’s being addressed. And of course in the couplet we find out what that more is:

      So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
      So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

(If you find Shakespeare intimidating, a fun exercise is to summarize one of his sonnets in a single sentence as a way of coming to grips with it. Here’s my take on Sonnet 18: Your summer hotness won’t last, but this poem will. Quite a boast, eh?)

It’s certainly possible for any poem or song to have a turn, but that isn’t the norm. If the poem or song has a narrative, things generally move in a linear fashion from beginning to end. Or else the poem or song establishes a tone at the start that’s reinforced through repetition or example.

In “Pretty Saro,” “lone,” “sad” and “lonesome” in the first two lines hint at the song’s theme and nothing much disturbs this first impression, that the song will be kind of a lament. The last two lines of the song confirm that the singer and his love are separated by distance:

      But I dream of pretty Saro
      Wherever I go

Another example is “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Three verses and four choruses in barely two minutes. Each verse poetically describes how some people are more fortunate than others. But there’s no “Yes, but” moment in the song; its point is established in the first verse. That doesn’t make the rest of the song any less enjoyable, but it does illustrate how different a sonnet is from most poems and songs:

Sonnets don’t include refrains or really any kind of repetition. The shift required at the turn would make this difficult, plus there’s not much room for those things. But even a short song will usually have a chorus. In “Fortunate Son” the chorus is the most memorable thing about the song and you hear a variation of these lines four times:

      It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son
      It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no

Short songs even find room for brief instrumental stretches. “Fortunate Son” has a little guitar interlude after the second verse. And Dylan’s three-verse “All Along the Watchtower” features four short harmonica solos, yet still comes in at only two and half minutes (although without a chorus):

You could argue that Dylan’s song is short only because it stops just as it gets going. But that might be what many like about it: a thumbnail sketch of the world of an imaginary epic.

When Jimi Hendrix famously did this song, he added a long guitar solo, lengthening it to four minutes:

Perhaps we can think of guitar solos as equivalent to Whitmanesque poetry: open-ended, seemingly unstructured and improvised. Walt Whitman also wrote some great short poems, but when he turned his back on traditional meter and rhyme, he left the sonnet behind as well. For someone inclined to windiness, the sonnet must have seemed too constricting a form. The same with great guitarists: maybe they have more to say than two minutes would allow.


© 10 Franks 2022

Which Came First, the Verse or the Chorus?

A common song structure is to repeat the chorus after each verse. This used to be a fairly common practice in poetry too, although in poetry the verses are usually called stanzas and the chorus is called a refrain. Typically the verses tell the story of the song and the chorus summarizes or comments on that story. While each verse is different, the chorus usually stays the same, or is only minimally altered with each singing.

Often the chorus is the most memorable part of a song, what you remember long after you’ve forgotten the words or tune of the verses. So it seems sensible to wonder why the chorus doesn’t come first in some songs. And indeed, there are songs where it does.

An example of this alternate structure is Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which appeared on an album of his in 1965. However, a band called the Byrds released their version of the song shortly before Dylan’s version.

Perhaps one marker of a good song is if someone else can do a version that’s more memorable than the author’s. This song might serve as an example of that. In many people’s minds, the version of Dylan’s song that they think of first is the one by the Byrds.

Here’s a video of the Byrds performing their version. The chorus that opens the song begins with the famous line:

      Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me

Dylan’s version consists of five choruses and four verses, making it over five minutes long. Perhaps one of the reasons why we like the Byrds’ version is that they only sing two choruses and a single verse, in under three minutes. (Two to three minutes is kind of the sweet spot for pop song length.)

One of this video’s delights is the young woman dancing Zelig-like next to the stage, drifting in and out of frame, a reminder that Dylan reportedly liked the Byrds’ version because he realized you could dance to it, unlike his version, which is sung in a traditional folk style. Here he is at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival in what is probably one of his earliest performances of the song. No electric instruments or other musicians in this version, just acoustic guitar and harmonica:

What do the lines of this song mean and what is the song even about? Don’t feel bad if you find the lyrics to be kind of cryptic, that’s a common reaction to many of Dylan’s songs.

Here’s another example of a song where the chorus comes first, “Somebody Help Me,” written by the Jamaican reggae singer Jackie Edwards for the Spencer Davis Group, a British band of the 60s. The opening chorus consists mostly of repeating the song’s title, then we get the first verse:

      When I was just a little boy of seventeen,
      I had a girl, she was my queen.
      She didn’t love me like I loved her, now I know.
      Now I’m so lonesome on my own.

Technically, this could be considered the start of a poem in meter, with alternating lines of iambic hexameter and iambic tetrameter. Song lyrics often don’t exhibit this kind of metric regularity, primarily because they’re intended to be sung, not recited or read silently, and singing has additional ways of emphasizing syllables than just the stress that’s the basis of English poetic meter.

Here’s a video of the Spencer Davis Group performing this song in 1966 on the German TV show “Beat-Club.”

There’s a lot to like about this video. It’s hard not to smile at how young Steve Winwood looks while singing lyrics that are almost nostalgic. And at how informally the musicians are dressed compared to the relative formality of the Byrds’ 60s getup, and how some of the guys in both videos’ audiences are wearing ties.

This song is also a good candidate for a list of two-minute classics (get in, get out, in two minutes or thereabout). And unlike so much of the music performed on TV shows back then, this is a live performance, not a lip-synched simulation:

Are there poems where the refrain comes first? Yes, of course. An example that you might already be familiar with, “Lord Randall,” is an anonymous border ballad from the 17th century or earlier. This ballad can be either recited or sung, reflecting the historical closeness of poetry and song.

The first verse gives the form of each verse that follows, with lines one and two functioning as a kind of refrain. The last phrase of line three also repeats, along with line four in all but the last verse. In fact, this ballad is mostly repetition:

      “Oh where ha’e ye been, Lord Randall my son?
      O where ha’e ye been, my handsome young man?”
      “I ha’e been to the wild wood: mother, make my bed soon,
      For I’m weary wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.”

The last verse reveals that Lord Randall is dying. This ballad is also worth knowing because Dylan adopted its form for his 1963 song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” But in Dylan’s song, instead of a tragic revelation, we get an apocalyptic vision of the world. Each verse begins with a variation of the ballad’s question (and the only rhymed lines in otherwise unrhymed lyrics, something very rare with Dylan):

      Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
      Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?

And like “Lord Randall,” Dylan’s verses also repeat at the end:

      And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
      And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Here’s Dylan performing his song in 1975:


© 10 Franks 2022

Wonder Woman

Directed by Patty Jenkins; written by Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs, based on the character created by William Moulton Marston; released 2017.


The title character of this eponymous epic is never named. She is simply known as Diana. Only we, the viewers, know her as Wonder Woman. This allows the movie to remain slightly more serious than it would be otherwise. While nicely alliterative, “Wonder Woman” can sound a bit silly if you say it aloud too often. And in this movie that would have happened quite a few times. Since Diana is a comic book hero, she is headstrong, resolute and brave, plunging ahead while others hesitate. All they can do when she turns her back and hurls herself over a battlement is call out her name: Diana! Diana! Diana!

As if that would stop her. For Diana is an Amazon, of Greek myth fame. Well, almost famous — few stories about the Amazons survive. Aeschylus described the Amazons as a nation of men-hating warriors. Jason and his Argonauts wisely avoided doing battle with them. The Amazons were said to have fought against the Greeks in the Trojan War. Their chief city was Themiscyra, somewhere in the Caucasus. And they’re the daughters of Ares, the god of war. That much we know.

Sounds like a good back story, right? Well, maybe, except that isn’t the path the screenwriters followed, choosing instead to create their own ersatz mythology. In this retelling, Themiscyra is now an island paradise, hidden from the world like some tourist-free Santorini of the imagination. The Amazons are still warriors of a sort, fond of sparring and ancient weaponry, but they’re rather reluctant warriors, withdrawn from the world, almost isolationist. And Ares is now the sole surviving god, having offed the others in a primordial battle that we’re given as kind of a back story to the back story. Never mind that in the Iliad Zeus claims to be as powerful as all the other gods and goddesses combined, here he’s dead by Ares’ hand alone.

With his last breath Zeus designated the Amazons to be the protectors of his human creation, although it doesn’t sound like they’ve ever been very active in their assignment. This changes when American flyer Steve Trevor crashes off the island’s coast, WWI Germans in hot pursuit. Steve’s loyalty is to his mission and he’s anxious to leave the island. When he finally does, Diana accompanies him, intent on finding and defeating Ares and thus ending the war. And so at last we arrive at the basic conflict: Ares as opponent of humankind, Diana as our champion.

I would have settled for “Ares” as a symbolic menace, a shorthand term for the “darkness within,” as Diana calls it, or perhaps what Freud called Todestrieb, or death drive. But this being a comic book movie, Ares had to be something more, something tangible that Diana can battle. It’s easy to forget about this requirement since we’re not given any evidence of Ares’ physical existence for quite a while in a fairly long movie, only Diana’s OCD-like insistence that Ares is out there and that she must defeat him. When we finally do meet Ares, he turns out to be more Old Testament Satan than Greek god, and with an incoherent wish: to restore Earth to its pre-human state, sort of an Eden before the Fall, presumably with himself as the sole resident. Ah, if only this were the story of Diana leading the Amazons in a revolt against their own father, at least that would be something that might have made a bit of sense.

Brian O’Nolan, the secret identity of Irish novelist Flann O’Brien, once said that “The meanest bloody thing in hell made this world.” He might as well have been talking of World War I, the senseless slaughter of millions, the mud and misery, the seedbed of 20th century warfare and atrocities. Wonder Woman tries to give us this world, but by the time we get to the trenches of Flanders, the movie seems to sense that it’s been going on too long and that we’re impatient for the battle royal to begin — you know, to see Diana strut her stuff. Once the camera follows her up and out of a trench, that’s the last we see of trench warfare; it’s pretty much Diana in action from there on out.

But that’s not such a bad thing. Somehow out of all the comic book tropes, magic stirs at times in this movie. And make no mistake: there are a lot of tropes here, starting with Diana’s opening voice-over narrative and the resulting flashback to the story we’re about to see. Much of the credit for the magic goes to Gal Gadot, as Diana, and Chris Pine, as Steve Trevor. The character of Trevor has a lot of baggage to carry. If Diana sees this mess of a world as a kind of manmade hell, then Steve is her guide to the underworld (and to London, for the requisite fish-out-of-water scenes). He also functions as love interest and, in a throwback to World War II movies and comics, as the leader of a vaguely amusing ragtag bunch who lack only a nickname for the cliche to be complete (Dirty Dozen, Howling Commandos, etc.).

But Gadot is the real star here, even though the movie could easily have been titled Diana and Steve. In retrospect, casting Gadot must now seem rather obvious, but at the time the choice was surely inspired; the list of Gadot’s previous roles does not suggest that Diana would be a breakout part for her, that she would be so good in it. Much of this begins with Gadot’s voice, which has a slightly rough edge and at times comes out pitched rather low. And then there’s her accent.

Movies give us many of the sounds of world English, particularly the American accent in all its variety, the accents of Great Britain and Ireland, of course Australian and New Zealand, even the sounds of Caribbean and Nigerian English. Recall the various accents in a TV show like Lost, for example. Perhaps we haven’t heard as many Israeli actors in our entertainments and so Gadot’s accent comes across as unplaceable to our untrained ears. And of course that’s exactly what you want in a movie like this: something different, something intriguing, something a little exotic.

Sadly, the movie’s secondary characters are mostly forgettable or so oddly turned out that you might think they popped in from some other production. The pecking order of bad guys in action movies is pretty rigid. There’s the big bad, but the hero never takes him down until the very end. Before moving up the food chain, as it were, there’s always a couple-three henchmen or lieutenants to deal with first, often unremarkable villains of the second rank, typically sporting bad accents. In Wonder Woman, these hapless parts fall on the shoulders of the Germans, in the form of General Ludendorff and Doctor Maru.

It’s a movie truism that if Nazis did not exist, we would have to invent them. Ludendorff and Maru can’t be National Socialists since the party doesn’t yet exist, but they are certainly Nazi precursors, anticipating action movies set 20 years later. Ludendorff is all burning anger and ambition. Maru wears a mask over part of her face to hide what we suspect is a scar from a laboratory accident. She is a mad scientist and a sadist after all. You know these two conspirators are evil before they utter their first lines; you could pick them out of any lineup. In other words, it’s hard to take them seriously. (It’s a pity true evil isn’t so easily recognized. Eichmann sniffled and snuffled with a head cold during his Jerusalem trial, looking every bit a schlub and a nobody.)

Wonder Woman is not a great movie, but within its genre it’s a very good one. By comparison, many movies of this ilk will now begin to look juvenile and garish, if they don’t already. But can it be viewed with pleasure by those not steeped in comic book lore and convention? The movie certainly seems intent on fixing itself firmly within the DC firmament, as an early scene shows Diana receiving a delivery from a truck marked Wayne (as in Bruce Wayne). A more rewarding approach might have been to let Wonder Woman define and inhabit its own universe, without any regard to its place in the franchise.


© 10 Franks 2017

Columbus

Written and directed by Kogonada; released 2017.


What are we to make of this little movie, with its themes of family and work, set incongruously amidst splendid modernist architecture in the middle of America? Is there anything new here, anything to think about and remember, or is Columbus just another art-house film, lovingly crafted to be sure, but fated to drop into the cultural bitbucket, occasionally referenced but seldom viewed?

Jin (John Cho) has come to Columbus, Indiana, where his father has been stricken during a tour of the city’s architecture. Jin meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a local girl who lives with her mother, Maria (Michelle Forbes). Only two other characters are significant: Casey’s co-worker, Gabriel (Rory Culkin), and a friend of Jin’s father, Eleanor (Parker Posey). Each main character gets plenty of dialog and screen time, letting director Kogonada avoid the necessity of creating mere types.

Something is troubling these characters. You can see it on their faces in the frequent portrait shots the movie gives us. But what is it?

Freud said that work is critical to binding us to reality. Films often have difficulty showing ordinary day-to-day work and its role in people’s lives. In Columbus, all of the characters work and we see and hear quite a bit about their jobs. Jin is a translator of books; Casey and Gabriel work in a library; Maria works in a box factory; Eleanor appears to be some sort of agent. Casey also seems to function as a kind of caregiver for her mother, who looks chronically exhausted, perhaps from the life she has led, full of bad boyfriends and periodic drug abuse.

Maybe not uplifting or even satisfying work, but they all have pretty decent work compared to people in other times and places: no grubbing in the dirt, no foraging for food, no fight for survival; their lives have plenty of time for reflection and relaxation. And yet the malaise has not lifted.

Is this just a portrait of our times, the qualified unhappiness of so many in the modern era, the vague ache that cannot be located?

Much of the pleasure of Columbus is visual. Just as the camera gives us lovely portraits of the various characters, it also gives us beautifully framed shots of Columbus architecture. Shouldn’t this setting be a source of joy and wonder for its inhabitants? Undoubtedly it is for Casey, even therapeutic, but she tells Jin that most people in Columbus are unaware of their surroundings, residents of an architectural Eden who rarely lift their eyes to the heavens, as it were.

Columbus is also a very quiet movie; there are no car chases. Quite a few scenes are of Casey and Jin walking about the city, viewing architecture and talking. If a part of your brain has gone numb from years of on-screen explosions, crashes and screaming in the night, this movie could be the tonic you need.

I did find something odd about the sound in Columbus, though. Perhaps it was just the sound quality of a typical cineplex, but there were times when the dialog grew so soft I found it impossible to follow. Was this deliberate? Perhaps a hint at this possibility is given in a key scene, where Jin demands that Casey tell him in her own words what “moved” her about a building and, after a couple of false starts, she finally does. But we’re given her speech only as a shot behind glass, without sound, only her lips moving, as though the words themselves were beside the point.

We also get what look like identical shots of Jin’s father and, later, Jin, standing alone, back to the camera, contemplating the lush greenery behind one of the famous Columbus buildings. There’s also some discussion of the possibility that architecture can heal. Is this a prescription for the dark cloud that hangs over us, the heavy atmosphere that never completely lifts? That is, put down the smartphone and just gaze in complete silence at the beauty around us.

Much will undoubtedly be made of Richardson’s performance: her quiet, dead-on portrait of a Midwest girl trying to find her way into the future without parental guidance. In fact, Casey and Maria’s roles are reversed in many ways, with Casey playing the part of the concerned parent constantly checking up on a daughter’s whereabouts.

One scene that stands out in my mind is when Casey shows Jin the school she attended. It’s a building almost without architecture and could very well be the backside of a mall, but this place has meaning for her. After Jin falls asleep in the car, Casey suddenly cranks up the radio and begins to dance in the car’s headlights. Apparently this is how she deals with the frustration that has been building up inside her. Others might turn sullen and depressed, or violent and full of rage; Casey just dances wildly by herself in front of her old school.

Columbus certainly passed one of my tests in that I was still reliving it in my mind two days later. But what exactly is the takeaway of a movie like this? It doesn’t have a very satisfactory story arc since it doesn’t have much of a story. There’s some tension, but very little drama and nothing much really happens. Perhaps it should be viewed more like a beautiful painting or building rather than as a narrative work. What you retain is as much how the piece made you feel as what you learned from it.


© 10 Franks 2017

Coffee Prince

Also known as The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince, released in 2007.


Korean cross-dressing

Who, or what, is Coffee Prince?

Italicized, it’s a 17-part 2007 Korean romantic comedy with a splash of soap opera thrown in.

Unitalicized, Coffee Prince is both the name of the first (and only) coffee shop in a chain of that name and a way of thinking about one of the main characters, Choi Han Kyul, a sort of layabout / playboy whose grandmother has threatened to cut off his apartment and car if he doesn’t do something with himself, like go on match-making dates (he’s 29 and unmarried) and take over a run-down coffee shop that she owns.

Grandma is chairwoman of a company named Dong In Foods. Dad is president and there’s some unspecified bad blood between Han Kyul and his father. Han Kyul is a kind of crown prince, to be sure, but maybe an understandably reluctant one. Would you want to be groomed to take over Dong In Foods? Me neither.

There’s a cousin, Choi Han Sung, also a kind of prince, with a wonderful smile; he appears to be a successful music producer. And both guys are in love with the same woman, Han Yoo Joo, a beautiful artist who’s recently returned from a couple of years in New York.

If all this sounds boringly familiar, that’s because it is, up to a point.

But then there’s Go Eun Chan. She’s not from a prominent family like the others. Instead she’s basically the head of a household that includes her shopaholic mother and her younger sister, who’s still in school but dreams of becoming a pop star. Eun Chan also works like the devil as the breadwinner in the family and to pay her mother’s debts: she delivers milk at dawn by bicycle and snacks by day on a scooter, peels chestnuts, sews eyes on dolls, even instructs small children in Taekwondo.

Eun Chan is extraordinarily strong. Before either has met her, Han Kyul and Han Sung watch her carry a drunken patron out of a wine bar on her back while wearing high heels (a temporary job as a waitress). Han Kyul observes to his cousin with a smile, “A woman who performs feats of super strength!”

Eun Chan also has an extraordinary sense of smell. She can smell coffee or unwashed feet from far away, knows what you had hours earlier for breakfast, and can identify the type of coffee just by sniffing a handful of beans. After one impressive demonstration of her talent, she tells Han Kyul that her nickname is “Dog Nose.”

And she has an an enormous appetite for food and drink. She grabs from others’ plates in restaurants, snatches a scrap from an outdoor cafe table as she’s passing by, and piles up four triangular slices of pizza into a single slab so as not to waste any time devouring them. In one memorable scene, she handily defeats her sister’s loutish suitor in a noodle eating contest. A running joke in the series is that Han Kyul can’t drink, practically going comatose after one or two shots, whereas Eun Chan guzzles beer and soju with nary an ill effect.

The character of Eun Chan feels vaguely Dickensian — there’s the humble background, the exaggerated traits employed for comic effect, and the sense that you’re seeing something remarkable being created.

Eun Chan is also constantly being mistaken for a boy, or so we’re supposed to believe. As viewers, knowing that she is a she, this can be a little hard to do at times. It’s like trying to see Clark Kent the way the characters in the comics do. Don’t they see that without those nerd glasses he’s really Superman?

Han Sung first meets Eun Chan when she’s in her cocktail waitress getup, so he assumes she’s a woman, but Han Kyul only knows her from when she’s delivering food, wearing typical delivery guy garb of helmet, jeans and sneakers, so he assumes she’s a man. (It seems most delivery guys in Seoul are guys, even though girls are apparently paid less.)

Leaving aside that we can’t unsee Eun Chan as a woman, what’s the explanation in the story for how she can pass for a man? After revealing her secret to another woman, she explains “I don’t try to imitate.” A couple of times she has stood in front of a urinal as though peeing, but there’s no crotch grabbing or other outlandish “male” gestures. She lets everyone see what they believe and believe what they see.

This line of Eun Chan’s is probably also a good way of explaining the success of Eun-hye Yun in this role. She moves with a lanky gait that at one time might have been described as “tomboyish” but it’s just a hint, nothing more. The role of Eun Chan is a physical one and Eun-hye Yun moves naturally and athletically in it. But she doesn’t “imitate” a male actor.

Coffee Prince is romantic comedy because you know how it has to end up; it’s soap opera because it takes its time getting there (roughly 17 hours); but it’s fun because the character of Eun Chan is so much fun.

Random notes and and other things to look for

  • Korean male beauty. If you watch Korean TV series, you can’t help but get the feeling that a different standard of male beauty is at work here. Western audiences are comfortable thinking about leading men as ranging from “handsome” on one end of the spectrum to “cute” on the other, but we normally don’t talk about great beauty with male actors the way we do with female ones. Take a hard look at Choi Han Kyul, Choi Han Sung and particularly the Japanese-Korean waffle cook Noh Sun Ki and see if you can spot this distinction. And notice how there are more beautiful male characters in this series than there are beautiful female characters.
  • Coffee Prince spends a lot of time with issues related to gender identity. As a comedy, it’s limited in how far it can take this investigation, but it does seem to focus an awful lot on one question: What does it mean to develop feelings for a woman you think is a man? This helps drive the comedy, of course, but it certainly feels like there’s more to this question than just an extended joke.
  • There isn’t much sex or what might be termed “the erotic” in Coffee Prince. Again, this is a TV comedy, so that’s hardly surprising. However, there is one scene that deviates a bit from convention and presents something that might only be unintentionally erotic (it’s hard to tell). That’s a scene where we see Eun Chan getting dressed in the morning, binding her breasts, looking both vulnerable and determined at the same time. Actually, we’re shown this scene twice. The second time it’s intercut with shots of Han Kyul also getting dressed, while the soundtrack plays Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)”. If intentional, is it supposed to be erotic because we see a woman touching her body, or because we see a woman turning into a man? And then there’s the choice of song. A hint of things to come or just ironic commentary? There’s definitely something very odd about this scene.
  • The character of Eun Chan is presented with a certain amount of sentimentality. She has constant money worries, doesn’t have the opportunities that the affluent characters have, etc. Much of this is stock in trade for romantic comedy, but there are a few places where it reveals a great deal about the character. For example, Eun Chan mentions to Choi Han that he was the first person (man) that ever “dropped her home.” This line speaks volumes about what her life has been like so far: she lives at home, never attended university, has never dated, an uneventful existence consumed by work and duty to family. In another scene, Han Kyul and Eun Chan pretend to be gay lovers to scare off his would-be matchmaking date and Han Kyul plants a long kiss on Eun Chan. Later, Eun Chan complains bitterly that her “first kiss” wasn’t supposed to be like this. Now we see that she has a rich, if unfufilled, romantic imagination. But worse than unrequited love, perhaps, is getting what you want in a way that violates your imaginary world.
  • The role of America in these shows. For example, as a place to escape to for the well-off. Characters wearing U.S.-inspired T-shirts, eg, “MAKE LOVE NOT WAR” with a peace symbol.
  • Subtitles and translation. These things can be infinitely fascinating in any film and Coffee Prince does not disappoint. For example, a character says to another “You smell like a human being.” Is this a literal translation or an attempt at approximating a Korean idiom? Either way, this expression sounds just about perfect. There’s also a great deal of wordplay between Eun Chan and the other coffee shop employees, particularly involving names. Probably a lot gets lost in translation, but something still gets through, if only a great example of Korean coworker camaraderie.

© 10 Franks 2015

A Coffee in Berlin

Original title Oh Boy, written and directed by Jan Ole Gerster, released in 2012.


Brooder from another planet

(A recently received notice from our Dept. of Obscure Films)

At first glance, Jan Ole Gerster’s A Coffee in Berlin (2012) feels like a German version of Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), but it’s really not. Slacker is a linearly linked series of vignettes, whereas A Coffee is a more conventional film, a series of naturalistic (even novelistic) scenes from a day or two in the life of Berlin resident Niko Fischer, with most scenes separated by brief interludes as the camera pans over Berlin graffiti and streets.

Niko is a slacker, but a brooding one in a particularly German context. Supported by his father, who thinks Niko is studying law, Niko doesn’t do much of anything. In breaking up with his girlfriend, Niko tells her he has lots of things to do that day. He tells his father he’s spent the last two years “thinking”. But we don’t see much evidence of these activities.

Mostly Niko just wanders around Berlin. The joke in the title is that Niko can’t ever get a decent cup of coffee. Perhaps he does his thinking over coffee. Fortunately he does have a friend, part-time actor Matze, without whom, it would appear, not much would happen in Niko’s life.

A couple of scenes are notable, however, and worthy of discussion. Both involve the last days of the Third Reich. No doubt it’s difficult for a German filmmaker to avoid the subject, this being Berlin after all.

The first is on the set of a movie that an actor friend of Matze’s is in, as the lead in a movie about a German soldier and his wartime affair with a Jewish bookseller. Niko guesses correctly the “secret” of the affair (a child) and for a moment we get a glimmer of a different Niko, one who perhaps sees where the others do not that the movie being made is essentially melodrama. We even get to see the last scene of this movie as it’s filmed. It feels like an old movie, like something from the 40s, and for a moment it gives the sleepy outer movie a bit of life.

A film-within-a-film can sometimes feel like a gimmick in a dramatic film, but it fits nicely into this rather laid-back endeavor. And certainly this sort of device can cut through a lot of labored explication. Think of the play-within-a-play in Hamlet. This is Hamlet’s ingenious way of playing with Claudius’s head, letting him know in no uncertain terms that somebody is onto his murder of Hamlet’s father. But what is the function in the larger film of the filming that Niko observes? Niko is drawn away by a phone call and we immediately forget all about the film being made.

Later Niko meets an old drunk in a bar. The man experienced Krystalnacht as a child and he describes to Niko what he has undoubtedly been trying to deal with all his life: the realization that his only disappointment on the night in question was that he wouldn’t be able to ride his bike because of all the broken glass on the street and sidewalks. This confession presents a bit of a problem. Up until this point the film has stayed fairly constant in tone: ironic with some mild satire and humor. Are we now to accept this story as unironic and literally true?

Shot in black and white, A Coffee in Berlin is a mixed bag of Euro-weariness, culture-specific observations and interrupted attempts at storytelling. In the 90s this might have felt fresh, even exciting, but now it feels just a little tired.

One final note: There are references to various types of “subsidies” in this movie. Niko is subsidized by his father. The creator of a ridiculous bit of performance art / dance which Niko and Matze watch (apparently only Matze sees how funny it is) complains about subsidized art. The film’s credits suggest that even A Coffee in Berlin was subsidized. Not sure if there’s anything to be read into all this or not.


© 10 Franks 2015

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Henry David Thoreau (1849)


By way of introduction

So what book was dear Henry working on at Walden Pond? It sounds almost like a trick question along the lines of “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” The obvious answers (Walden, President Grant) are not exactly wrong, it’s just that there’s more to it than that. It seems Mrs. Grant is interred in Grant’s tomb as well. And while Thoreau was keeping the journal that would become Walden almost a decade later, he was also trying to shape an earlier journal into his first published book, an account of a river excursion he and his brother John took during the first weeks of September, 1839, in a boat they had built themselves at home in Concord, Massachusetts.

I say “weeks” to point out that the title is just a bit misleading. The boat portion of the trip did take seven days — five up and two down — but it’s a discontinuous “week,” with a couple more weeks of travel by foot in between before they headed home. Wisely, perhaps, Thoreau restricted the book largely to the water travel, although his choice of title does appear to have confused at least one publisher.

My used copy of A Week is from a “Limited Edition” published for Christmas 1966 by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, of all people. In this edition the designer of the book stuck an additional decorative page before each chapter, which Thoreau simply titled with the day of the week — this extra page specifies the day’s date, starting with Saturday, August 31, 1839 and ending with Friday, September 6. But this last date can’t be right since it omits the weeks of hiking. It made me think this edition was more an exercise in fine paper and eccentric typefaces, where the designer had not actually read the text. But still, even missing the original slip case, as mine does, this is an exotic, splendid-looking book, although perhaps intended more for display than for reading.

One other characteristic of this edition is worth mentioning: it’s not the complete book. A Week is a youthful book and Thoreau crammed it full of quotes, digressions, classical allusions, and possibly a little of just about everything he had ever read or thought about at Harvard or in the dozen years since. At times this just about buries the account of the river trip itself, although Thoreau is not himself without being Thoreau. Critics just hated this book when it was published in 1849 and modern readers may find some of his flights of fancy distracting or even mystifying. Some anthologies only include parts of this book; my edition removes “many irrelevant passages.” But that’s okay, I guess — Thoreau is still very readable even in excerpted form. If you need more, there’s always the complete book, either in an inexpensive printed edition or as a free electronic text from Project Gutenberg.

The journey

With a decent road atlas you can trace the brothers’ boat trip even today. And with a DeLorme or other more detailed atlas, you can find most of the place names Thoreau mentions, although a few of the Indian names are gone now.

Departing early in the afternoon on Saturday, August 31, the brothers rowed downstream and north on the Concord as far as Billerica, Massachusetts, where they camped.

By midday Sunday they reached the Merrimack near present-day Lowell, Massachusetts. They then rowed upstream on the Merrimack, continuing in a northerly direction until nearly dark, camping near Tyngsboro.

On Monday they entered New Hampshire and rowed to just past Nashua.

On Tuesday the weather must have been quite warm, or maybe the rowing was wearing out the boys, but they spent most of the afternoon resting on an island in the river adjacent to the village of Merrimack. In late afternoon they continued, reaching Bedford south of Manchester.

On Wednesday, they got as far as Hooksett, camping across the river from a landmark still known today as The Pinnacle.

Hooksett would prove to be as far as they got by boat. Thursday dawned with rain on their tent and anyway the last of the locks that their heavy boat required were only a few more miles upstream. So they took to foot travel, hiking through the rain as far as Concord, which they called New Concord to distinguish it from their hometown.

At this point Thoreau’s account grows vague and very abbreviated, but it sounds as though they followed the Merrimack to where it becomes the Pemigewasset near present-day Franklin, then continued along that river to where it peters out near Franconia Notch. But they didn’t stop there, it seems, reaching the Ammonoosuc River in northern New Hampshire and following it east and beyond to the summit of Agiocochook, called Mt. Washington today (elevation 6,288 feet). If true, this must have been a hell of a hike and it strikes me as odd that Thoreau doesn’t say much more about it than he does.

By the time they returned to their boat in Hooksett weeks later, autumn was in the air. But heading downstream now, they were able to reach the village of Merrimack that afternoon (a Thursday) and cover about 50 miles on Friday, arriving in Concord late in the evening.

The book

So where to begin? How about invoking the name of Thoreau’s deity and thank the Good Genius for Ralph Waldo Emerson, who encouraged Thoreau to keep a journal in the first place. Talk about your what-if scenarios and roads not taken. At 22, Thoreau was just a lad in 1839, but he was Emerson’s lad. No doubt he might have gone on to do something interesting without having known Emerson, but the Thoreau of our universe depends upon the intertwining of these two mens’ lives.

Still, the possibilities for speculation… What if Emerson had not moved to Concord in 1833? What if Emerson had not published Nature in 1836, a book which heavily influenced Thoreau? And what if Thoreau had built his hut on an island in the Merrimack River, as he contemplates in A Week, rather than at Walden Pond? But of course Walden Pond lay on land owned by Emerson — that guy again — and so we now have Life in the Woods rather than some latter-day Robinson Crusoe’s account of island life.

If Walden is life in the woods, then A Week is life on the river. But this book is not Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, published a quarter-century later. The river that runs past Twain’s hometown has a vastness and scale to it that the Concord and Merrimack lack. And while the Mississippi and Merrimack were both commercial rivers when these books were written, Thoreau’s is the more personal river, the one you might retire to. Populated not by paddlewheel steamers and professional gamblers, but by canal boats that sit low in the water and locksmen who double as philosophers and mathematicians. This is Transcendental New England, after all, not the avaricious gateway to the West.

A Week is full of fish and grasses and birds and water. It’s also full of showy erudition, colonial history, astute observations, and startling statements. Although not exactly a humorous book, it contains a great many things I found amusing. Who else but Thoreau would describe the least bittern as having a “dull, yellowish, greenish eye” and then surprise us, out of the blue it seems, with this statement: “Methinks my own soul must be a bright invisible green.” Who but Thoreau would digress on the differences between priests and physicians and say that “the one’s profession is a satire on the other’s and either’s success would be the other’s failure.” Or conclude a description of the Merrimack’s fall from its source in the White Mountains to its mouth on the Atlantic with this: “There are earth, air, fire, and water, — very well, this is water, and down it comes.”

On the basis of what Thoreau tells us, we have to conclude that a trip like this, taken for the pleasure of the journey and the discoveries made along the way, was not common in his day. One canal boatman they meet simply refuses to accept the brothers’ explanation of what they’ve been doing and why they’re inquiring about a certain island in the Merrimack, assuming their interest is only due to the island’s disputed ownership. And yet we get glimpses of two Huck Finn precursors who would very much like to leave their young lives behind and sail away with the brothers Thoreau. The first is a stone mason repairing one of the locks on the Merrimack. As he examines their outfit, Thoreau sees “many a distant cape and wooded shore reflected in his eye.” But alas the young man’s duty is to his chisel.

The second is “a little flaxen-headed boy, with some tradition, or small edition, of Robinson Crusoe in his head.” But alas he’s too young, although on their return trip the brothers do buy a melon from this young entrepreneur. Life in those days is about work, it seems, and travel, whether by canal boat or stage coach or, increasingly, by train, well, that’s about work too. Interestingly, one of Thoreau’s favorite words is “retired” and he uses it over a dozen times in A Week, although mostly in the somewhat archaic sense of “secluded” rather than our modern sense of “no longer employed.”

19th century gear

Provisions: packed, purchased, picked

  • Potatoes and melons from Thoreau brothers’ patch in Concord
  • Bread, sugar, cocoa, rice
  • Huckleberries, picked
  • Pigeon, caught and broiled
  • Squirrel, caught and skinned but “abandoned in disgust”
  • Milk and homemade bread, presumably purchased
  • Watermelon, purchased

Bedding

  • Cotton tent; boat mast doubled as tent pole
  • Buffalo skins for sleeping on, with blankets for covering

Clothing

Thoreau makes no mention of what they wore on the river, although one can’t help but think they were barefoot and bareheaded much of the time, like canal boatmen.

Packs

None. Although they weren’t weighed down by packs, the brothers did have to propel and worry about a 15-foot boat. In Walden, we find this:

“How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty…”

And yet where do they leave their gear to dry when they commence their foot journey? In a farmer’s corn-barn, of course.

Boat

  • 15 feet long x 3.5 feet at widest, painted green and blue
  • Two masts, sails
  • Two pairs of oars, several poles
  • Outfitted with wheels for rolling around waterfalls (not used)

Calendar quotes (best lines ever)

“Cold and damp, — are they not as rich an experience as warmth and dryness?”

“One half the world knows how the other half lives.”


© 10 Franks 2015