Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Ren Faire and Stimpy

One time, when I was very young, I was with my mother visiting friends in a bayside town called Pacific Grove, a tiny 'burb basically a block away from Monterey. My mother bequeathed my supervision to the punked-out granddaughter of the family friends in order to give the adults time to drink and cuss, I guess. This granddaughter, whom I partly feared (for her looks) and admired (for her brazen threat to society), was old enough by this visit to have acquired a driver's license and a vehicle.

In an evening that will be remembered for the rest of my life, it all started when she told me that we would be going into Monterey, to "make fun of weird people." Part of this odyssey (and it was, for I desperately desired to return home) had us end up in a smarmy coffee shop, punctuated in the middle by a roaring fireplace.

"Do you want anything?" my chauffer of frightening nightly excursions asked.
"Do they have any soda?" I asked, the fear making my voice tremble.
"This is a coffee shop, jackass. I can get you a water."
"I'm good, thank you."

This conversation was a pretty good indication of the timbre of the evening, as well as every other point of contact I've had with her. I noticed a gathering of shadowy figures around the tall brick fireplace (which, in retrospect, wasn't really roaring as much as it was simply, um, burning). The throng was composed of lanky individuals in black garments, the men wearing frilly shirts and long-tailed coats with unusually large buckles on them. The females wore shape-bending dresses that accentuated the pleasures of a pinched bosom, crushed ribs, and fish-netted legs occasionally hidden beneath a cascade of fabric resembling that of a jellyfish's underparts. All of these darkly associating people seemed to be borrowing from the Communist color palette, but substituting the less popular yellow for black or violet. My guide to Monterey's underworld noticed my staring at the slowly moving group of people, and asked me if I'd like to visit them. I answered promptly, negatively.

“Did they come from a party?” I wondered aloud, at which my bringer of unwanted knowledge laughed.

No, I was told they were actually playing a game. Or, more appropriately, a role-playing game. I chuckled and wondered how it could have even been a game, since they weren’t even doing anything.

“What they’re doing,” I was told, “is living as their vampire characters.”

I nodded my head, though I still didn’t understand. Little did I know Vampire: The Masquerade was a place where ugly people with aspirations of acting greatness go. And when I say ugly, it’s out of kindness, for the people that play that game go out of their way to look pallid, sickly, and gaunt.

As I’ve grown, I’ve almost come to understand why those people do things like that (I actually know a few of them). It’s similar to the urges I have felt to escape from adulthood and social civility. It’s a desire to remain a kid, to live and be lost in your imagination; to continue hope that there lies a future you want instead of one you inherit, one that you have to step into.

Last weekend, for the first time in my life, I went to San Luis Obispo’s yearly Renaissance Festival. This has been an event I’ve heard about for years, as I have known many people who have been involved in its presentation (and post-presentation lechery). It has always intrigued me, more when I was younger and learned that vendors sold swords and other nerdy boy-stuff there, and now to see what level of historical accuracy they are trying to uphold.

The place: the fictional village of Donnybrook.

The year: 400 years ago (which would be 1605. The “Renaissance” in England is also called the “Elizabethan Era”, and she died in 1603. So, one could argue that the Renaissance in England had been reduced to a slow sizzle by 1605, but I’m not going to be a stickler for those kinds of details—it's just a natural result of counting time, and I got to see lots of sunburned boobs).

The patrons: Dan Bethel and his girlfriend, Nicole, the former of which was attending the festivities on the hunt for historical accuracy, the latter of which had been to many Ren Faires in the past and acted as the guide for the afternoon.

Even though I was looking for historical acuteness, the lovely ladies at the ticket kiosk brought me relief when they allowed me to use my credit card. Admittedly, it was an archaic method of swiping carbon paper over the card face, so I guess it was historical enough for my book.

I was pleased upon entering. Right off the bat, a row of busty wenches had been lined up, and modern day wanderers were being pulled aside to toss small objects into one of the ladies’ cleft of cleavage. It was, I must say, very awesome.

And it continued for a while, seeing not only blurry peasants, but knights (of the British and French variety) and nobles walking around carrying on conversations if not in accent, then in the content of the times. The bag was nicely mixed between the pretty and the painfully decrepit—but those were the times and it was nice to see that they weren’t sugarcoating anything.

We stopped for a bit to watch a dude with some very clever parrots, and as I stood there the truth began to seep through, via sights and sounds. I realized that this was no more an attempt to educate and replicate history as it was for Dungeons & Dragons fans to walk around and show off their startling levels of nerd.

It started with little things, modern conveniences that most of us wouldn’t notice or, if we had, wouldn’t have bothered mentioning since it made life easier for the individual. And why not, right? Everybody should have a chance at dressing up like a fool.

Then I started seeing more of it—people in time appropriate clothing but carrying a samurai sword—a katana, properly—which isn’t time inappropriate, I guess, just locale. Peasants in Birkenstocks, sunglasses, denim jeans, phone numbers on signs—the atrocities never ended. In all honesty, I don’t know how much tattooing and facial piercing was going on back then, either. But I can stand to be corrected. It just seemed that most of these people got their historical references from Xena: Warrior Princess or Hercules: the Legendary Journeys (great shows, no doubt, and great for the mythology…but complete fantasy on the whole).

The pinnacle came at the joust, where I gathered most of the documentation I needed against the historical aspects of the Faire. A peasant with a digital watch, for example; a bonny wench taking digital photographs for posterity, as well. It boggled me how out in the open these people were with their insolence toward history. But the worst came in the form of a humble squire, employed to attend on the jousters, whose job it was to set up the various games and armor the competitors as they prepared for combat. But this gentleman yielded to all his desires, not necessarily uncharacteristic of a bitter squire of the day, I guess. But he became the loudmouth who made the whole thing a sham, screaming modernity-laced comments such as: “Sexual harassment in the workplace! You all saw it!” and “Get the old man a wheelchair if he can’t ride!” or something like that. It was very distracting…and annoying.

For me, it spiraled out of control from there and I nearly lost my footing on academic reality. Flashbacks of vampires in a very dark coffee shop in Monterey filled my head and all I wanted was to get away, to end the odyssey with a prophecy from goofy old Teiresias and a good slaughter of some haughty suitors. A meltdown was kept in check, however, by Nicole’s presence and the eventual teaming up with fellow friends and roommates, Eben and Jessica, whom we followed as Eben documented the latent markings of sexual games lurking within the Renaissance Faire.

By the time we left I was okay, if not a little sunburned. I had to realize that this event was a place to make money and have some fun—a small-scale amusement park with wenches instead of sweet rides.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Nostalgia Works Its Magic

Bewitched came in second place behind Batman Begins ("Why was Batman so scary?" I heard a child ask after watching) in its opening weekend, proof positive that men in pointy headgear always beat out an emaciated Aussie and her hopelessly mugging sidekick. But it still came in second place, and not a far second at that.

For those of you who don't know me too well, I have worked at the same movie theater (minus 370 days) for 5 years. I'm by no means overly proud of this accomplishment, in fact I'm downright shamed by it (watching the years tick by), but I've become so integrated in its operations that I've noted interesting things that the outside world does when it comes to see movies. I've seen picketers outside of the Harry Potter movies (opening weekend only), I've seen hordes of children being led in by their pastor to see The Passion of the Christ, and I've seen husbands and wives take their entire families (children and grandparents included) to see cinematic masterpieces such as House of 1,000 Corpses, Dawn of the Dead (the remake), and Hannibal. I wish I could apologize to them, if anything, for how bad Hannibal was. But let's focus on Harry Potter.

The debate by Christian fundamentalists around the world has been well documented by now, and I'll try not to go too far into it. The problem is that I can see their point, and would agree with it if it weren't totally unfounded. They fear the "ever-imminent" domination of pagan religions (witchcraft or wicca, in this case) over the once all-powerful Judeo-Christian denomination of worldly religions.

I find a couple problems with their offensive strategy--first, I had no idea that witchcraft on the level of explosive spells and reality-bending theatrics presented as wizardry in the J.K. Rowling's books was on the rise around the world. I would have thought that we would have heard more instances on the news about people being ballooned and found floating above their neighborhoods after being cited as UFOs, or whiny fat kids suddenly being found with curly pig's tails coming out of their rear ends. I also haven't heard of a recent flooding of flightpaths above major cities with gangs of kids on airbound brooms delighting in the fact that they're halting the transitory needs of "muggles" through their insolence. I wasn't aware that this was even a burgeoning problem much less the rampant threat that many consider it to be.

Secondly, that the opposition to the Boy Who Survived is openly acknowledging witchcraft to be a threat to traditional Christian values cheapens the very values they're defending. Why? Up until the whole Harry Potter controversy I don't think there were very many people (and there probably still aren't many) who thought of Wicca as a viable and valid religion. The Christian tirade against pagan beliefs only strengthens pagan practices in the eyes of everybody looking on who never gave them a second glance before.

Christians believe (as it may very well be true, I'm not here to make this assertion) that their god is the one and only god, all others are false and not real, being merely constructs of the imagination (insert biblical notation). If that's true, and for the moment let's assume that it is, then why do they fear Harry Potter and Wicca if we are positive and confident in the existence of the one and only God? I guess it has to do with that "worshipping of false idols"-thing (insert biblical notation here). Why do they fear Wicca? If they know that any other religion is not real, and therefore is no threat, the worst that can happen is that (hopefully) people will recognize their folly and go, "Woah, I hope nobody saw me doing that!"and go back to the "true" religion. It shouldn't be that difficult to show those who've strayed from the narrow path the true way. No harm, no foul, right? Is this wiccan offensive just an empty threat, then? Or is it some bizarre paradox of the fundamentalist war on everything?

Keep your children away from Harry Potter, for he is a tousle-haired Devil-worshipper.

It's kind of a "Don't respond to Billy's tantrums, you'll just encourage him" mentality that the Christian militia seems to be missing.

Anyway, with the wild success of Bewitched this weekend I was surprised to see absolutely no throngs of people surrounding our box office with tall signs with scribbled stick figures of Samantha being burned at the stake. Where were the concerned housewives that cared deeply about their children's souls? I believe I saw a good chunk of them taking their kids to see the film, that's where.

The fate of Wicca-Christian relations lies in the hands of nostalgia, I think, for that is why we see no opposition to Bewitched. If these parents had been raised with Harry Potter they would be first in line to buy tickets for the upcoming movie (the rhymingly titled Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). How much difference is there between the two, anyway? Both must hide their powers from the greater non-magical world, only letting those very close to them in on how much pull they have on the forces of the natural world. I might be reaching, but I think the parallel could be made.

So, there you go. Harry Potter, a boy who's life is chronicled with strong storytelling and compelling characterization, living in a world full of literary innuendo that would indubitably drive the most curious young reader to the classics of Ancient cultures and learn not only about the history and mythology that made the cultures of the world, but also about modern society and its downfalls and successes, will lead all of today's youth from the path of Christianity to the world of witchcraft. But Bewitched's Samantha, whose open and ready manipulation of the people and objects around her, with no remorse shown for its consequences, provides nothing but comfort for the viewer who looks forward to seeing Darrin falling down again because of her wiles. Good times, good times. Just wholesome, family entertainment.