Saturday, January 23, 2010

Spoileriffic Movie Review: Bedazzled

I recently watched the original Bedazzled, as you may have guessed from yesterday's post. (Hyperlinked to help those of you too lazy to scroll down.) Bedazzled is one of those Hollywood movies that have been through a remake when there was no obvious reason for doing a remake in the first place. And, like many of my generation, I saw the Brenden Fraser version before I saw Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's version. It pains me to say this, since I actually have a soft spot for Fraser, but comparing the two is less like apples and oranges and more like apples and apples made out of wax. (That's the review in a nutshell, by the way. You can stick around for the history lesson, or scroll down to the movie clips, as you see fit.)

Of course, the original movie itself is an adaptation of a story that can be traced back to at least the 17th century; it's a twist on the Faust formula, whereby the protagonist sells his soul to the devil in exchange for his heart's desire. In Christopher Marlowe's original play, Faustus sold his soul in the name of knowledge, with the idea that there is actually a trace of nobility in seeking the last bits of forbidden knowledge that God denied Man. The irony of the play was that once he receives this knowledge, Faustus uses it only for the simplest, lowest purposes: to attract women from the annals of history, and to play cheap pranks on his neighbors. And since he's subsequently damned for it, the moral seems to be that eternal salvation is worth not knowing a thing or two.

The other historically significant version of the Faust play is Goethe's version, composed over his lifetime in the 19th century. The play starts off in the same manner, but Faust quickly falls in love with Gretchen, his simple neighbor. The purity of his love for her eventually overcomes his desire for knowledge and power, and he is, in the end, saved and goes to heaven. (At least, I think that's how it turns out. I read it for a class half a decade ago, and sort of started skimming around page 300, so...) The difference in plot reflects a difference in culture. Marlowe's version was a case of heavenly salvation versus earthly temptation; Goethee's version was true love triumphing over all. Guess which version Hollywood went with?

Actually, I'm skipping ahead slightly, because there was one more important narrative work that informs both Bedazzled: the 1092 short story by William Jacobs, "The Monkey's Paw." In both the Faust versions I named, the Mephisto/devil character plays it straight--he gives Faust exactly what he asks for. But after "Monkey's Paw," (which has its own roots in the genies of Middle Eastern mythology)any deal with the devil involves some sort of ironic outcome. I'm not sure why this irony is so appealing; it could be a product of capitalist satisfaction that no one gets a free pass. Or maybe it's a postmodern appreciation of being able to see the twist coming, on a meta level. Or maybe it's a growing recognition on the importance of words in a verbal contract.

Anyway, from that long digression, you can probably pick out the key plot. A dweeb character (Elliot Richards in the Fraser, Stanley Moon in the Cook-Moore) with a dull life has a boring job, and the only shining hope in it is the presence of the girl he can't bring himself to approach. His despair reaches a peak moment, and the devil appears in front of him and offers him a deal: seven wishes to get the girl of his dreams, and in return, the devil gets his soul. From the beginning, then, teh goal is not knowledge, but true love; the end of Goethe has no become the beginning of the story. Each wish goes awry in a comical fashion, and the protagonist quickly finds himself at the end of his wishes no closer to his goal, but he manages to get out of the eternal damnation thing in the end, and maybe find some happiness. Both versions, then, follow the same plot. So why is the original so superior? Well, the devil's in the details.

I could do an individual wish-by-wish comparison, which would highlight the differences between the two films soon enough. But I'd rather do a detailed comparison of three other elements: setting, character, and ending. First, setting. Stanley is a short order cook, and his Beloved is a waitress. This is not important to the plot. Elliot, however, works at a nameless desk job. He is virtually unnoticed by everyone except three coworkers he can't bring himself to stand up to. I'd argue that the change was pretty deliberate; at the time of film's 2000 release, we were at the height of Dilbert's popularity, and the previous year had seen the release of the cult-classic company worker film, Office Space. The office was (and maybe is) a quick short-hand for hell. While Stanley's life is clearly dreary, it is dreary because he doesn't have the one thing he wants most; Elliot's life is miserable on every level.

That, I think, leads directly into the main difference of the films: one is a solo act, and one is a buddy-comedy. In the original Bedazzled, the devil is a character as fully fleshed as Stanley, if not more so; Peter Cook's role as Satan and his rapport with Stanley absolutely makes the film. In the later version, the Devil is played by Elizabeth Hurley. She provides the sweltering sex appeal that, in the original, was provided by the love interest, there played by Raquel Welsh. Hurley has essentially two appealing qualities: her aforementioned sweltering, and her ability to sound British. Beyond that, she doesn't really bring a lot to the role. She torments Elliot, smirks when he fails, and smolders quietly (and often not so quietly) in the background.

Cook's Satan (who, by the way, prefers to be called George Spiggott) is an infinitely more interesting character. You see, he's not really happy with the way things turned out. Via God's punishment, he's compelled to play petty pranks on the human race, rather than do anything useful with his power (much like Marlowe's Faust). He tears the bottoms out of shopping bags, and convinces pigeons to poop on people's heads. He has to do it all himself, because his help is terrible; all he has are the seven deadly sins. Envy just glares at him, Sloth sleeps all day, and Anger picks fights. But, as he confides in Stanley, he has a plan. Centuries ago, he made a deal with God: if he can corrupt one billion souls, then Earth has reached a terminal point where people are so rotten they don't need him any more. And then, he says, happily, he can go back to Heaven. There's been a lot of portrayals of the Devil as a superficially suave character that snaps at some point, and you see the diabolical underneath. In Cook's Devil, there is diabolical; it's superficiality all the way down. He's generally ashamed of his work, and really wishes he could grant Stanley a good wish, but his hands are tied.

That, I'd argue, is the chief difference between the two movies. Fraser's Bedazzled is a fairly straightforward, one character against the world; everyone else is a backdrop for Fraser's character to reach his emotional epiphany, such as it is. The Cook-Moore version, the bond between the two characters adds an extra level to a fairly straightforward story. It harkens back to the original material--the Faust/Mephisto relationship is one of the most interesting parts, especially in Goethe's version. The buddy-dynamic also informs the difference in the two films' endings. I actually think that the Fraser version has a superior ending for the dweeb character. Elliott uses his last wish to make his Beloved happy, and gets his soul back for making a selfless wish, which is actually stereotypical Hollywood drivel. But the better part of the ending is that Elliott gets up the courage to ask out his Beloved--and is turned down, because she has a boyfriend. He mopes a little, then moves on, and meets a new girl entirely when someone new moves in next door. End film. I like that Elliott explicitly did NOT get the character he was obsessed with; with such a level of obsession, they never would have had a healthy relationship to begin with. And it caters better to the point of the film: it's not about Elliott and the girl, who was woefully underdeveloped, but about Elliott learning to rely on himself.

The original film's ending, in comparison, is bizarre. Stanley asks out the waitress, and it turns out she's busy that night--so he'll try again another night. That ends his part. But what, I hear you ask, happens to Satan? Well, the devil reaches his mark of a billion souls early, and decides that he doesn't need Stanley's soul. So he gives it back, and hops upstairs to Heaven. Once there, he brags to God that he not only won, but did an act of goodness. He brags about the look on Stanley's face. God points out that he did it not out of goodness, but for the personal satisfaction of seeing Stanley's response. The devil shrugs, and agrees to go back to Earth, ask for soul back, and then return it, without the satisfaction this time. But Stanley destroys the contract before the devil gets to him, and when he tries to get back to heaven, he learns God locked the door behind him. Enraged for the first time ever in the film, the Devil vows to continue ruining the Earth, and making it so bad no one ever gets to heaven again. Which is fair enough; it's practically a super-villain origin story in that it firmly establishes Satan's motivation for being evil for evil's sake. The really theologically troubling part is that all through his vowing speech and through the first half of the credits, God is laughing mockingly. It's pretty terrifying, actually. And something of an odd way to end a comedy.

Final note: I'd recommend the original Bedazzled over the later version. Not for the superior plot, or the better characters, which it certainly has, but for the rapport between Stanley and Satan. Whether they're discussing death bed repentance, entertaining God, or scamming old ladies, the straight back-and-forth is what makes the movie. Satan's not just the guy who takes your soul; he's your best friend.

And now, as promised, clips. Here's the 2000 version:

And the original:

Honestly, I think those two clips may show the difference between them better than any amount of words. (I hope you scrolled to the bottom first. You may have saved yourself some time.)

Later Days.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday Quotation: The movie's basically a buddy comedy, where one of the buddies is Satan

"In the words of Marcel Proust - and this applies to any woman in the world - if you can stay up and listen with a fair degree of attention to whatever garbage, no matter how stupid it is, that they're coming out with, 'til ten minutes past four in the morning ..... you're in!" ---The Devil, from the original Bedazzled
See, my problem is that I get really sleepy around the 3 am mark. I suppose another problem would be that I'm taking dating advice from Satan.

Later Days.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Applied Media Theory

I was walking home from the convenience store today, having refreshed my supply of Twizzlers, when I walked by a girl with her iPod, singing loudly. Some people find this kind of public display annoying; I am not one of them. In my mind, it's an activity roughly analogous to the people who do inappropriate things inside their car, forgetting that people can see them. In both cases, technology provides an imaginary private space. There's some difference; a car provides a physical space as well, what with the whole metal and wheels and so forth. And the method of piercing is different; you hear the singing walker, but you see the motorist who decided to spend the time at the red light examining the content of his left nostril.
You might tell from the comparison that I'm a little more tolerant of the former act than the latter. This would be true--largely because I vastly prefer walking to driving, and I'm a fairly vocal singing perambulator myself. But there's a level of unconscious pleasure to it that I really like as well. Singing along to a song no one else can hear signals a sort of joie de vivre that I could support (and practice, when the mood hits me). I'm not saying that I'd like everyone to burst into Broadway showtunes whenever they leave the house (although with a bit of coordination, that would be awesome), but every now and then, it's nice to hear.

That said, people that blast their music over the speakers of their car are still assholes.

As a coda, when *I* walk down the street singing Avril Lavigne tunes, I receive somewhat fewer smiles and more raised eyebrows. Marshall McLuhan was right; the medium is the message.

Later Days.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I'm sitting in on a course looking at new media genres this term, and this week, we're looking at the email. I think the course itself is fascinating, as it really puts into perspective how many new forms of communication technology has provided over the past century or two. A telephone conversation is different from a face-to-face conversation is different from a Skype conversation. The convention for replying to an email is not the convention for replying to a letter. A show produced for online broadcast is not the same as a TV show. A podcast is not a radio show. And so on and so forth. And the studying these forms lead to new social understandings and opportunities. After all, this blog wouldn't exist if I hadn't signed up for a course a year back. For the class on email, we've been assigned the task of finding email how-to guides, and it's been illuminating to how much further the email genre can be broken down. There's guides for business emails, guides for friendly emails (and I love that society is in such a place that there are people who require a formula to write to a friend), and even guides for blind date emails.

But what about the other, neglected email genres? I envision a world where we will one day provide guides for the lesser known categories:
stalker-mail: Because on the Internet, you're always 300 feet away.

drunken email: All the fun of the drunken phone call, with the added bonus of delayed anxiety.

break-up email: "I think we should see other people. Let me know when you get this."

...okay, that's all I could think of. This is why I'm not writing a comedy blog. I'm not here to amuse you, dammit.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Quotations: Desktop Icons, on the other hand, are gadabout playboys

“Computer programs are human—in fact, computer programs seem to be white, heterosexual, and chaste.” --Scott Bukatman on the movie TRON.

Monday, January 11, 2010

One is the Looniest Number

In my life, I've had a wide variety of living arrangements. I've lived in shared dorms, shared apartments, shared houses, and, for the last year or so, alone. Except, for the past little while, it hasn't been so alone. In October, my parents came and stayed. (For a month. While I was studying for my comp exam. And coerced me to go on weekend trips to Toronto. While I was studying for my comp exam. And planned trips to New York. While I was studying for my comp exam. Sigh. PS. Thanks for the free printer. Love, your ingrate son.) At the end of October, I got a roommate, so I was cohabiting for November. And in December, I went back to Saskatchewan and lived with my brother for a month. (He loved that.) So I essentially had three months where I could be guaranteed a conversation with someone, at some point, during the day.

And then I come back here. No parents, no brother, and the roommate's moved out. And suddenly there's no one to talk to but the television my upstairs neighbor leaves on after he goes to work every day. On an early season of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon gets in a conversation with another character (Actually, it's woman who played the lawyer from Law and Order, playing here a lesbian businesswoman that Jack set up on a blind date with Liz in his mistaken notion that Liz was also a lesbian. That's not strictly relevant to the matter at hand, but I thought it important to establish my 30 Rock IQ.)about living alone. Specifically, they ponder the question: if I slip in the tub and die, how long will it be until someone finds my body? Of course, it would be needlessly morbid to speculate on my own deathtime slippage factor. Let's just say there hopefully won't be any milk in the fridge.

Fatal accidents aside, there are, of course, advantages to living alone. The problem is, it's hard to tell most of them from disadvantages. Example: pants are optional. Showers are optional. 24 hour Arrested Development marathons can be started at 3:00 am. Dishes and laundry can be done when convenient. (Though to save on detergent, it is cost-effective to wear/use every dish/piece of clothing at least twice before washing.) Cereal can be an anytime meal.

And so on and so forth. It's a slippery slope into madness and social degeneration that ends in writing Star Trek fan fiction fan fiction. ("Mild-mannered George Georgeson cracked his knuckles and began typing the climactic conclusion of his seventeen part epic on the flora of Vulcan. There came a knock on the door. 'Pizza delivery!' 'But I didn't order any pizza,' mused the portly protagonist...")
The solution? Maybe I need a cat. Because who ever heard of a crazy shut-in who keeps cats?

Later Days.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Friday Quotations

"who would trust a chart that looks like a video game?"
--Edward R. Tufte, Envisioning Information

Thursday, January 7, 2010

More Content, but Less Filling

I was standing before a university vending machine today, pondering which confection I should purchase with my $1.70. Yes, $1.70. It's an outrage, at that price. Why, when I saw that expense, I seriously considered going back downstairs, packing up my books from the computer lab, bringing them back upstairs to my office, grabbing my coat, walking to the nearest convenience store and... yeah, way too much work to save a quarter.

So anyway, I was standing before a university vending machine today, pondering which confection I should purchase with my $1.70. The choices were considered with great care. I ruled out gum; too pedestrian. Chips, while a fine choice, delivered just enough salt and grease to furnish a craving for more. But what else? An Oh Henry? Too nutty. A Crunch bar? Too thin. A Turkish Delight? Not unless you're in Narnia. Then my eyes came to rest on item F2: Chewy Everlasting Gobstoppers. My moral outrage knew no bounds.

The chewy franchise is fairly simple, conceptually: you take something traditionally crunchy, and make it chewy instead. I quite enjoy chewy Runts. I'm even fond of chewy Nerds, though in practice what you actually get is chewy, almost-gum, given the size and quantity of Nerds in an average pack. But Chewy Everlasting Gobstoppers? It was an aperitive oxymoron. The gobstoppers derive their name from the Roald Dahl's series of Books to Terrify and Scar Children, specifically from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory book. Willy I'm-Making-These-Five-Kids-Compete-for-a-Chance-to-Come-Live-With-Me Wonka developed them with the notion that they could be sucked on indefinitely. The real-life brand, like so many Wonka products, is not quite so accommodating. But, being from the jawbreaker family of candy, they do last a long time. Making them chewy removes their chief appeal. They're certainly not jaw breakers any longer. Can they still be gobstoppers? The philosophical, philological, and physiological question before us: can they, in fact, stop a gob?

I pondered this question for a few minutes, and bought a Cookies and Cream bar.
The End.

Later Days.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The 200th-ish post

So I was going to do a big summary thing on the 200th post, but by the time I realized I was close to it, I had already passed it, and wound up doing a Friday Quotation instead. Then I thought I'd do it on Christmas, but at Christmas, I was too busy with, well, Christmas. Then I was going to blog in the New Year, but my New Years Eve was spent with Lego Batman, Jack Kerouac,and Reno 911. (Yes, I realize I have weird New Years habits. It's a TRADITION, okay?) Since I missed all of those lovely milestones, let's do it all in one. I was looking at previous milestones, and they all seem to feature a desire for change. This is good. A desire for change propels people out of ruts, it advances civilizations, and it wins presidencies. But sometimes it feels like we spend so much time making resolutions for change, we--or at least I--forget that what's here is pretty damn good too. To add to the list of missed Milestones, just think of this as a return to Turkey Day, as I recall some of the things I'm grateful for:
I'm grateful for my friends, both in Ontario, and in Saskatchewan, and around the world. They're great people and my life is richer for having them in it.
I'm grateful for my family. For my parents, who are wonderful and supportive, even when that support meant letting me move thousands of kilometers away. For my brothers; I can't think of two people whom I could be more different from, yet more alike.
I'm grateful for our cat, Penelope, who is walking across this keyboard as I type. And as she bites at my hands, I remind myself that that's her way of saying "I love you." (It's also her way of saying "I'm bored," "Feed me," and "Time to play!" She gets a lot of mileage out of a limited vocabulary.)
I'm grateful for the past month, and the opportunity to let things unwind after the living stress that was comp.
And despite that stress and sort of because of it, I'm grateful to be in a time and place where I can pursue the things I love and (for now at least) make a living doing so.
I'm grateful for the opportunity to teach; it lets me work off my excess-pomposity.
I'm grateful to live in Canada, which is a pretty good deal, considering the alternatives.
I'm grateful for having had the chance to pursue two opposite, but compelling subjects in my academic career.
I'm grateful I live in a world where people like Italo Calvino and Terry Pratchett share their ideas and I get to spend my time talking about it.
I'm grateful I have a space to be grateful in.
I'm grateful that each and every year of my life, since my first year of Grad School, at least, has been better and richer than the year before it.
Welcome to 2010. Come in and stay a while.

Later Days.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Friday Quotation

"There's the raccoon in his fog, there the man to his fireside, and both are lonesome for God."
--Jack Kerouac, Big Sur