Friday, August 31, 2012

Queen CharIotte's back -- in not-so-basic black

Now that we’ve gotten used to the notion of a mixed-race president, can we accept the idea that our city is named for a mixed-race queen? I ask that question with President Obama preparing to speak uptown and Ken Aptekar’s painting “Charlotte’s Charlotte” hanging a few blocks away, on the fourth floor of the Mint Museum of Art.

Aptekar deconstructed Allan Ramsay’s 1772 coronation portrait at the Randolph Road Mint and based his six panels on interviews with local residents and the queen’s genealogy. Says a wall text: “She was of “North African, Portuguese and German descent.”

I'd already heard about that from Mario Valdes, a researcher who works for "PBS Frontline." He sent me Queen Charlotte's genealogical chart with appropriate annotations; though nobody has portraits of all the members, I don't doubt that various ethnic strains met in her. (He's sort of a specialist in this field: He also told me about St. Moritz, the soldier/protector of the Holy Roman Empire -- and a third-century African who, he says, inspired the 3-D video game "Spear of Destiny.")

And no doubt, someone will need to deny her link, many generations before, to a family of Moorish blood (as in “Othello”). But should we?

Scientists tell us we’re all descended from a woman in the Rift Valley of East Africa. So 400,000 generations ago, we all had a black ancestor. Classifying us – even Obama or the queen – as any one thing seems pointless, except in terms of meeting a quota.

The sixth of Aptekar’s panels depicts the queen as a pink-skinned European, a woman who might once have been called a “mulatto” because of some African blood, and a character of ambiguous shades. The text reads “Yours Mine Ours,” Aptekar’s way of saying she belongs to all of us.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Charlotte's coolest new magazine

"Speak Up" has burst onto the Charlotte media scene with handsome graphics printed on heavy paper, an easy-to-read layout, appealing articles -- about religion, music, little-known local resources, immigration -- and a scan code for more online content. Its goal, says the contents page, is to create jobs and give hope. And it's about...the needy.

I've seen folks hand out weekly newspapers on street corners in New York and Toronto, earning money for themselves by selling similar (and flimsier) publications. This is the first time I've seen a magazine-quality publication tackle similar issues. I read its 32 pages literally from cover to cover.

I ran across it in the 7th Street Public Market while waiting for a drink at Not Just Coffee. The distribution box asked for a $3 donation, which would go to the woman responsible for it. (She bought copies for $1 and sells them for $3, or whatever you care to give above that.)

The cover shot, a picture of a woman climbing avidly down into a dumpster, caught my eye. In that article, "Dumpster Diving for Awareness (and dinner)," writer Kaitlyn Tokay explained why she has spent the last year -- by choice -- gathering and eating the majority of her food from among the things stores throw away. I was hooked.

The topic made me wonder if the stories would be downbeat, sanctimonious or asking for donations. They weren't. I learned about artist David Alan Goldberg and musician Denison Witmer, Buskapalooza organizer April Denee, a soccer World Cup for homeless players and urban pioneers who started the Free Store in Charlotte with the motto "Give what you want, take what you need."

All the articles were connected to life on the street or among the poor in some matter-of-fact way, but they were diverse and never maudlin. (Go to to see what I'm talking about.) They reminded me that, even in a crowded and diverse media market like this one, there's always room for a smart niche publication.

And I am going to find out what's up with that Free Store when the smoke from the DNC clears....

Monday, August 27, 2012

Read blog comments? Hell, no!

Someone recently asked me whether I looked at readers' comments below my blog. Answer: Never. Here's a little secret: I bet many people at this newspaper and others feel the same way.

Before anyone posts a response telling me how elitist I am, let me add that I write back politely and with interest to everyone who sends me an e-mail to ask a question, disagree with an opinion or present an alternative point of view. But back when I DID read blog comments faithfully, the vast majority seemed to be generated by folks who fell into three categories:

1) People who have an agenda, read one trigger word (such as "schools" or "Islam") and then deliver the same diatribe, regardless of what the rest of the blog says.

2) People who "disagree" by being boorish and advancing no contrary argument. When I wrote a piece saying I thought Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" would make a better national anthem than "The Star-Spangled Banner," responders called me a Communist -- yes, people still use that as an insult -- and suggested that, if I didn't like living in America, I could go somewhere else. I hadn't said anything about disliking America; in fact, I had suggested a song that showed why I APPRECIATE America. But you can't reason with idiots.

3) People who post comments that have nothing to do with what I've written. I wrote another entry explaining how we ought to separate the artist and the art, using Mel Gibson (who seems to be a jerk but certainly has skills as an actor-director) as an example. One reader, totally missing the point, went on about why Mel Gibson should never be allowed to work again in Hollywood -- or, perhaps, on Earth.

Many of these comments are anonymous, aptly enough: Even the posters don't want to be known for who they are. I'm sure intelligent responses get posted from time to time, too. But looking for those often seems to be like looking for a diamond ring in a dumpster.

Friday, August 24, 2012

God doesn't love ugly (but He'll allow it)

The word "amateur" means "one who loves something." But as we know, love can kill.

The latest proof can be found here, in which Time magazine recounts what happened when an amateur painter attempted to restore a 19th-century church fresco in Borja, Spain:

"Ecce Homo," the title of the painting by Elias Garcia Martinez, means "Behold man." (It's a picture of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns, so it's Christ as man.) It had faded over nearly two centuries on the wall of Santuario de la Misericordia, so Cecilia Gimenez touched it up. The final product resembles, as a Time writer remarked, "A hairy monkey wearing a baggy velvet suit and sporting what seems to be a rolled-up carpet for an arm."

Now, this might represent her true vision of mankind: Perhaps we are all beasts, especially without God's benediction. But I suspect it's simply the result of ill-advised affection for a painting she had come to admire. So what morals can we draw from this incident?

The oft-heard phrase, "Aaaahhh, my grandmother could paint something better than this!" is rarely accurate. 

Reverence and talent don't go together. (The priest reportedly gave her permission.) The song "God Doesn't Love Ugly" may be true, but the Lord isn't going to prevent even a devout woman from wreaking havoc.

Maybe the final conclusion we should draw is not just that this retiree should never have touched the painting -- which is obvious -- but that she acted from a good heart. We like to say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Defacing a fresco doesn't lead to damnation, but that's a proverb we ought to keep in mind.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

From beyond the grave...Charlotte Rep!

E-mails tell me two former managing directors of the defunct Charlotte Repertory Theatre both have big projects underway, one in Boone and one in New York City. Lovers of drama, take note.

Keith Martin, who helmed the Rep during the "Angels in America" fracas of the 1990s, now teaches theater at Appalachian State University and will oversee the larger and nearer of these endeavors: a tribute to semi-native son Romulus Linney, born in Philadelphia but raised in Boone and Tennessee. "Romulus Linney: From Page to Stage" celebrates the mountain region's cultural heritage through Linney's literature, poetry and plays.

It has already begun with the processing of Linney's papers, which have been turned over to the university, and it continues with community talks and an art exhibit. But the big public deal comes Sept. 20-21, with panels, readings, a tribute to Linney and theater master classes by Tony nominees Kathleen Chalfant ("Angels in America") and the playwright's daughter, Laura Linney ("Time Stands Still"). You'll learn more by searching for events at

Meanwhile, Martin's 2001 successor at the Rep has been busy. Matt Olin has been overseeing two newborns: daughter Mirabelle, born June 12, and "The Other Place," a play by Sharr White born last year at MCC Theatre in New York. It's an 80-minute psychological thriller in one act; Emmy-winner Laurie Metcalf earned terrific reviews as a drug-industry businesswoman who unravels emotionally.

Now Manhattan Theatre Club will bring the show, which Olin conceived and developed, to Broadway. Previews start in December, and the official opening is set for January 10, with Metcalf starring again and Tony-winner Joe Mantello ("Wicked") directing again. You'll find details at

Meanwhile, longtime Rep artistic director Steve Umberger continues to produce and direct plays at N.C. Shakespeare Festival in High Point (aka N.C. Shakes) and its offshoot, Festival Stage of Winston-Salem. Though there's no life left in the Rep, its component parts have flown out of town to do good work elsewhere

Monday, August 20, 2012

The curse of 'Diner'

I just read that Daniel Stern is playing The Old Man, the father of teenaged Ralphie, in the sequel to "A Christmas Story." That's wrong for an infinite number of reasons -- the phrase "teenaged Ralphie" is enough -- but hearing about "A Christmas Story 2" made me think about the curse of "Diner," working as strongly as ever on the 30th anniversary of that great film.

The movie put debut director Barry Levinson on the map; he earned an Oscar-nomination for his original screenplay about Baltimore guys in 1959 who don't understand themselves, their women or the world. It provided high-profile roles for Stern, Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg, Mickey Rourke, Tim Daly, Paul Reiser and Ellen Barkin.

Yet 30 years later, they barely register on Hollywood's radar. Some got lost in the wasteland of TV sitcoms. Other burned themselves out or acted like prima donnas, burning directors out. Bacon became best known as the guy in "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," a game that showed how prolific he was, but he has had one significant film role in the last nine years: the Nazi maniac in the "X-Men" prequel.

Levinson himself had a terrific decade from 1982 through 1991: he won an Oscar for directing "Rain Man," was nominated for writing "Avalon" and was nominated for directing and producing "Bugsy." Then came the excruciating "Toys," the dumb "Jimmy Hollywood," the pulpy "Disclosure" and a career littered with the likes of "Bandits" and "What Just Happened." His next project, "The Bay" (about an ecological disaster in Maryland), isn't likely to give him a boost at 70.

All of these folks still work steadily somewhere, of course. Nobody has ended up on Skid Row or requires our pity. But they remind us that the people we thought we'd become when we were 25 or 30 are seldom the ones we see in the mirror three decades later.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Now YOU control the multiplex

Have you heard about Tugg? I hadn't, until a filmmaker e-mailed me to tell me about "It's a Girl," a documentary getting a new kind of release around America through this web-based site.

Tugg ( works this way: You pick a film from the library of movies registered with the site. (Or you can register your own choice.) You can personalize your event by adding short films, setting up a Q&A with the director or inviting a guest speaker. You select a time and date at a venue affiliated with the site -- which, in our area, means theaters runs by Regal or AMC -- and set ticket prices.

You post on Tugg, embedding a trailer and poster, and use social media to get out the word. If you promote the film hard, ensuring that enough tickets are pre-sold to cover the cost, you don't end up paying a screening fee. Presto! You're an exhibitor.

This gives small movies with no distributor a chance to be seen, and "It's a Girl" is a perfect example. It's a tough documentary about a topic that needs to be discussed: Every year, millions of girls in China and India are murdered, abandoned or aborted because parents want sons. (Get details at

A look at Tugg indicates that small indies are in demand: "Craigslist Joe" is on tap for Miami, while Lynwood, Va., is about to see "Fat Kid Rules the World." But the site's library also includes the likes of "The Artist," "The King's Speech" and "Blue Valentine."

There's already a Tugg entry lined up in Charlotte for August 30: "Iron Sky," whose tagline reads: "The Reich Strikes Back." (Now that's an evil empire.) The Back Alley Film Series slated it for a screening at AMC Carolina Pavilion, and enough seats have been sold to guarantee the showing.

I like this idea enormously -- Tugg, that is, not "Iron Sky." (I haven't seen it.) Video on demand has become commonplace, but movies on demand -- shown on the big screen, to the communal audience they're supposed to have -- is a new idea, and a great example of democracy at work.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The artist who makes China tremble

I’ve just seen my favorite documentary of the year: “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” which opens in Charlotte Friday. How can you resist a movie about an artist who helped design the stadium used for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 – the one known as “The Bird’s Nest” – and then posted an Internet photo of himself giving it the bird, middle finger proudly extended?

What happened to turn respect to disgust? The May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. Many schools collapsed, but the government would neither take responsibility for shoddy construction nor even account for all the dead children. Suddenly the artist turned into an activist.

He designed a vast, multicolored banner made up of 9,000 school backpacks, to hang outside an exhibit in Germany; the backpacks formed Chinese characters that read, “She lived happily for seven years in this world,” a comment by the mother of a dead schoolgirl. (That exhibit, titled “Ai Weiwei: So Sorry,” gave the film its title.) He and other volunteers put names and birthdates together for a tribute to the dead, a white memorial that suggests the black stone lists of names on Maya Lin’s Vietnam War monument in Washington.

And, not surprisingly, he became one of those public figures the Chinese government harasses for “incitement to subversion of state power,” an offense so vague it can apply to anything from a public protest to a critical blog post. The tipping point may have been a video in which Ai and many others looked directly at the camera and repeated “---- you, motherland.” He has always been a documentarian himself (the Internet Movie Data Base credits him with nine films as a director) and he knew how to prick Chinese officials’ pride.

They knew how to kick back, of course. While Ai was en route to testify at a fellow dissident’s trial, police detained him long enough to keep him out of the courtroom and hit him in the head hard enough to send him to the hospital. He was encouraged by officials to build a vast new studio in Beijing as part of an artists’ colony, then told it was illegal and saw it destroyed. In 2011, he disappeared for 81 days; authorities then released him without trial, claiming he owed $2.3 million in back taxes.

Ai, who turned 55 this year, looks like a Chinese Luciano Pavarotti: jovial but guarded, tall and big-bellied, scraggly-bearded and balding. He was dissident material from the beginning, at least potentially: He served five years in a Maoist “re-education camp” with his father, Ai Qing, a poet who was punished for 19 years for the crime of speaking his mind. But the government didn’t make Ai Weiwei’s life miserable until he asked questions about human rights abuses four years ago. (He was forbidden to blog, so he turned to Twitter. He’s at, mostly in Chinese.)

Watching the movie, you have to marvel at the obstinacy and paranoia of Chinese officials: They can never admit wrongdoing, intentional or otherwise, because that would suggest a flaw in the political facade. Their suppression of him reminds us that kings and dictators have feared truth-tellers for centuries; execution, excommunication or exile await those who question fearful, rigid authority figures.

The film made me grateful to be in America, where artists of every stripe – brilliant or stupid, humble or outspoken, optimistic or despondent – can state their points of view freely. And it made me grateful that a few artists in a place like China risk their liberty to speak truth to power. Like water against a boulder, they’ll need a long time to wear their target down. But someday, perhaps....

Monday, August 13, 2012

Some art should be destroyed

I went to the Mint Museum this weekend to check out "Passage: Waterway," one of my favorite outdoor sculptures in Mecklenburg County. It's going to be torn down Thursday, almost exactly a year after it was installed on the front lawn at 2730 Randolph Rd.

I get the idea. Sculptor Tetsunori Kawana meant to show the natural cycle of life: The Madake bamboo had aged from a supple green to a stiff yellowish gray over 12 months, and the annealed metal wire holding it together had weathered along with it. Kawana was born in Japan the same year we dropped two atomic bombs on that country, so he knows about the impermanence of icons.

But I'll miss the sculpture, which I've walked through multiple times. It vaguely suggests life itself n a number of ways: The spiral shape can get you thinking about a DNA helix, a maze, even the wooden supports beneath an old-fashioned roller coaster. (Now that I approach 60, I have aged out of those, too.) I even enjoyed the signs beside it, explaining the "dos" and "don'ts" of dealing with the sculpture: "Please do not eat the bamboo (like a panda bear)."

But maybe some art ought to be impermanent. I first encountered this idea almost 20 years ago, at Spoleto Festival U.S.A. Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in northern India were constructing a large, intricately patterned mandala of sand, dribbling colored grains out of cake-decorating machinery.

They explained that the mandala would be finished by the end of the festival, then washed into the Cooper River. My eyes bugged in disbelief. A monk explained that Buddhism teaches us not to be too attached to things of this world, even things of beauty we have made. A natural cycle of creation and destruction is always at work; it may take a couple of weeks in the case of a flower or a couple of millennia in the case of a mural, but all things pass away. We have to let them go.

So I said goodbye to "Waterway" Saturday, deciding at last that it reminded me of the fortress the good guys erected to repel bandits in "The Seven Samurai." It went up to serve its purpose; it did its job; it can be taken down again. And I noticed green plants, paler than the grass around them at the sculpture's base, thrusting themselves skyward to start another natural cycle.

"Ars longa, vita brevis," said the Latin teacher at my high school: "Art is long, life short." But neither lasts forever.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Movies make us stupid

As I walked out of "The Bourne Legacy" to give a comment to the Universal Studios monitor -- all critics have to do that -- a fellow walked by and pointed a finger at us. "Never mind what HE says," he interjected with a small grin. "It had lots of action. Three stars!" I hadn't opened my mouth, yet he assumed I'd say something negative. That told me he knew the movie wasn't good, but the free screening had passed the time pleasantly for him.

I thought about this stranger on my way home. There HAD been plenty of action, much of it badly shot. It was blurry, choppy, sometimes incoherent and often nonsensical. (A man on a speeding motorcycle leaps onto the back of an enemy on a speeding motorcycle, who flails at him -- and the bike doesn't change  course at all.) So the stranger's enjoyment didn't come from the skill with which the sequences were done: He simply liked watching bullets fly and cars careen, however drab the characters may have been and however shallow the story remained.

The marginally better "Total Recall" remake has the same qualities: It sets up a patchy story quickly, sketches characters who remain mere outlines the rest of the way, then devolves into scene after scene of mayhem. It's as if the producer told the writers, "Guys, you're allowed to use only 2,000 words total, and the time spent on human interaction can't exceed 30 minutes." The director shot the quiet scenes for the beginning of the picture and thought, "Uh-oh! I've used up all the words! Better start killing people."

Christopher Nolan can blend crisply defined action scenes with complicated situations and fleshed-out characterizations. But most directors can't, and Hollywood has realized they don't have to: People will pay fairly large sums of money for second-rate goods. Moviegoers are like people at an all-you-can-eat seafood bar: They don't mind if the lobster is bland and lukewarm, as long as they can eat a mountain of it.

This is a mind-deadening cycle. Studios say, "Why take the trouble to make great movies? Audiences don't seem to care or even notice." Moviegoers may grumble a bit but hand over their money, because they don't know better or aren't willing to stay home until they get something better. As they receive less for their dough, they begin to expect less: "Well, this is how movies are nowadays." The films have been dumbed down -- but so has the audience.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Nobody's too big to fail

But 26 years ago, I thought Marvin Hamlisch was.

He'd already had a Broadway hit with "They're Playing Our Song," shared a Pulitzer Prize and won a Tony for the groundbreaking "A Chorus Line" and collected three Oscars in one night for "The Sting" and "The Way We Were." (He had also written "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" for Leslie Gore -- briefly, when I was 10, my favorite song.)

Now he was composing a new musical with Howard Ashman, the witty lyricist from "Little Shop of Horrors." (Ashman's great Disney collaborations with Alan Menken were ahead of him.) They'd chosen to adapt "Smile," a satire of the beauty-pageant world that had gotten strong reviews as a movie in 1975. Future "Little Mermaid" star Jodi Benson had the leading role, and Rock Hill's own William Ivey Long (who had recently won the first of many Tonys for "Nine") did the glittering costumes.

I bought an orchestra seat weeks in advance for the second day of the Broadway run, before reviews were posted, and enjoyed the show. The songs, I thought, were especially strong. But the critics were brutal. Despite its strong advance sale, "Smile" closed six weeks later.

Hamlisch went on to win his "EGOT," as people call the Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony cycle. (He's one of only 11 people to do that competitively. Only two have also won a Pulitzer: Hamlisch and composer Richard Rodgers.)

But his career was never the same. Between "Smile" and his death this week, he never again wrote a musical that could run for six months. He never again wrote or adapted a score for a hit movie. He ended up as a musical director for tours by Barbra Streisand and Linda Ronstadt and conducted pops concerts for symphony orchestras.

His death reminded me once more how fickle show business can be. One of the hottest musical figures of the 1970s hit a couple of rough patches in the 1980s, and boom! He was old news. Maybe his confidence failed. Maybe his talent had reached its limits anyhow. Either way, he was all but gone. So I'll say R.I.P. here to a man forgotten before his time.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Mel Gibson, kicked again

You may have noticed that Mel Gibson's latest film went directly to DVD and video on demand. More likely, you didn't, which is my point: For the first time in more than 30 years, Gibson couldn't get a theatrical release for a movie in which he starred.

Early reviews for "Get the Gringo" were favorable: Gibson's apparently in "Payback" mode, as a career criminal who learns to survive in a Mexican prison with the help of a 10-year-old boy, then takes revenge on his enemies. (I haven't seen the film.) Yet no American distributor would touch it.

Gibson's anti-Semitic babble has made movie executives (many of whom are Jewish) justifiably irate. His problems with alcoholism and women, which I would guess to be related, have hurt his public image. Christians embraced him eight years ago when he directed "The Passion of the Christ," but that support has eroded over time. Thus, "Gringo" stayed in cinematic jail.

So here's my question: If Mel Gibson has made a hash of his personal life, can we separate the artist and his art?

Spiritual depth, personal decency and a benign outlook don't necessarily lead to good art: The world is full of pleasant composers, painters, writers and filmmakers who do second-rate work year after year. And monsters sometimes produce masterpieces, or we wouldn't be listening to the operas of Wagner or appreciating the paintings of Picasso.

Every audience member can vote with his feet: My dad, still disgusted by Jane Fonda's behavior during the Vietnam War, has never rented or attended one of her movies for 45 years. I have a friend now who feels the same way about Gibson; she hasn't seen anything he's made since "Signs." Both of them have missed some worthwhile motion pictures.

But a critic needs to distinguish between the worker and the work. Four years ago, Marion Cotillard made idiotic remarks about the "real" reason the World Trade Center was destroyed and doubted that astronauts walked on the moon. (She later took the WTC comments back.) Did she still deserve the Oscar for playing Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose"? Yes. Did she do a good job in "The Dark Knight Rises" this summer? Yes.

I have no idea whether "Get the Gringo" sizzles or stinks. But I'd have reviewed it with an open mind -- or so I hope -- if distribution companies hadn't decided to slap Gibson down.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The United States of Amnesia

That's what Gore Vidal called this country when I interviewed him seven years ago. He was about to turn 80, and though he distrusted mass media as much as ever -- Vidal preferred to do interviews via fax, so he couldn't be misquoted and had copies of his replies -- he agreed to chat about a new play that was going to get a staged reading at Duke University: "On the March to the Sea."

It was a drama about a Southern opportunist (played by Charles Durning) who christened a palatial new home and sent his sons off to the Civil War; when Union troops commandeered his estate, the man had to choose between loyalty to his friends and the Confederacy or the preservation of his wealth and estate. (Michael Learned and Chris Noth co-starred.)

Vidal, who died this week, often wrote books about history, whether in the fifth century before Christ ("Creation") or the New Deal ("The Golden Age"). He was equally fascinated by politics; his grandfather was Oklahoma's first senator, his mother married Jacqueline Kennedy's stepfather -- Vidal and JFK were close friends -- and Vidal ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1960. The two interests dovetailed in this play about "our own Trojan War," as he called it. (His grandmother came from Charleston, so he was especially interested in Southern history.)

The title of this blog refers to his disgust and sadness at Americans' short attention span, feeble collective memory and unwillingness to confront ugly truths. (He'd have been cynically amused, though not surprised, by the recent North Carolina legislation forbidding anyone but government agencies to release scientific data about the rise in sea level.)

Vidal experienced a spate of popularity in the current election year with a Broadway revival of "The Best Man," a stinging attack on rabid right-wingers and feeble left-wing intellectuals during a political primary campaign. The show had been revived not long before he and I spoke; when I asked about it, he said, "The sad thing was that the same jokes got the same laughs after 40 years. It's still topical." Sometimes, even the most acidulous cynics don't want to be proven right.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gael force Edgar Allan Poe

I'm one-sixteenth Scottish, which I suspect would make people willing to lift a mug with me at the Scottish Games but means I have zero knowledge of Gaelic. Yet I enjoyed "An Cridhe Cabaireach," a re-telling of E.A. Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" in that language.

Technically, it's three re-tellings, all by Gardner-Webb University's Jim Lawrence, who now lives in Asheville. He'd been studying that language online with Canadian actor Angus MacLeod, who plays a madman who murders his master and then confesses to the police in the 24-minute film.

Professor Lawrence told the story through 600 video stills and a green screen, editing the action into a kind of surreal animation. He presents it in Gaelic only, Gaelic with English subtitles, and an English narration with Gaelic subtitles. (The last relies on the reedy speaking voice of GWU prof Joseph Webb, who plays the silent old man in the film and isn't a sufficiently disturbing narrator.)

Lawrence directed this short to find a use for the new language he'd learned. Yet because he's a filmmaker, the movie (available on makes us re-think a classic. We're used to hearing Poe's narrator say creepy things in our own tongue, but the mellifluously exotic Gaelic forces us to re-absorb the story visually.

The film, which begins and ends in an asylum, has a picture-book quality (if anyone makes picture books about a butler who stabs someone, cuts him up and buries him beneath the parlor floor). The police are empty uniforms that stroll in and sip tea, suggesting they're figments of the narrator's imagination. Maybe the crime was never detected; maybe, if he's mad, he never committed it at all. The impressionistic quality of the movie opens it up to multiple interpretations.

Reading the Gaelic subtitles, I found almost no point of contact with Poe's English text. (Most of us probably know this story and don't need narration at all, of course.). But it was a pleasure to re-evaluate a story that has scared me since elementary school.