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By yon bonnie banks, and by yon bonnie braes: Starz’s daring OUTLANDER

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First of all, I must admit that I have never read any of the books in the Diana Gabaldon Outlander series, so any reviews I write will be based strictly on the Starz adaptation, and no comparison with the books will be attempted. There are always fans of the books who don’t like the series and vice versa, as HBO’s TrueBlood, adapted from Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire novels demonstrate. I watched that series without ever reading the books, and given that the first novel in the Outlander series weighs in at a hefty 800+ pages, I don’t think I’ll be able to finish it before the series continues. From the first episode, however, I have to say that Starz is taking an incredibly bold and daring step for a premium channel: making a series that seems devoted primarily, if not entirely, to female viewers.

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I have to say that I find the entire concept of Outlander interesting, especially since I wasn’t aware until recently that so many Romance novels included time-travel (would that be fantasy or science fiction?) in their themes. Since I’m familiar with the tremendously well written and interesting Lesson series by Jennifer Connors, I was happy to give Outlander a hearty go.

In the Connors’ series, the romance-mocking heroine time-travels at the end of each novel — once she and the hero of the book in question have fallen in love and married or otherwise joined their lives together — only to find herself in a completely different time period facing yet another hero which requires her wit and adaptability, and tests her courage, independence, and modern 21st century feminism. From the photos released by Starz, it looks like Outlander will only be set in two periods: post-war 1945 and 1740s, but both locales seem to be the same, the Scottish Highlands.

Still, given that Claire is a nurse during the war with recognized skills, and given her droll sense of humor whenever she seemingly playfully mocks her husband Frank’s interest in his own geneology, Claire seemed the right kind of heroine to make a time-travel romance fascinating, especially since the novel is sometimes listed as an historical drama, and I like history.

The premise is simple enough, and the voice-over of the opening of the first episode was compelling:

People disappear all the time. Ask any policeman. Better yet, ask a journalist. Disappearances are bread-and-butter to journalists. Young girls run away from home. Young children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives reach the end of their tether and take the grocery money and a taxi to the station. International financiers change their names and vanish into the smoke of imported cigars. Many of the lost will be found eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually.

(This is from the Starz Tie-in version of the novel, and may have been added since the original book doesn’t appear to have this “prologue”.)

Claire and her husband Frank, separated for at least five years because of the War, have gone on a “second honeymoon” to the Scottish Highlands to “reconnect” (and so Frank can research his direct ancestor John “Black Jack” Randall, a politically protected British military leader who attempted to quell Scottish uprisings: Tobias Menzies plays both Frank, in 1945, and Black Jack, in the 1740s).

Both readers and reviewers have commented on the “hot sex” in Outlander. Not having read the books, I cannot speak to their content, but I’m afraid I saw no “hot sex” in the opening episode, though Claire constantly claims that “Sex was our bridge back to one another… As long as we had that, I had faith that everything would work out.” Though there was the obligatory complete nudity for Caitriona Balfe but not for any of the males, I didn’t find the bedroom scenes between Frank and Claire even mildly erotic. And Claire’s voice-over made them seem forced. One shouldn’t have to tell viewers they’re watching an erotic scene: they should know that.

In fact, the scene when the couple visits the ancient, abandoned castle and Claire sits on a table, spreading her legs slightly with a “come hither” look to her husband Frank was more erotic than any of the full-nudity-for-her/shirt-off-for-him scenes. When Tobias Menzies, who has a very sexy voice, by the way, as Frank, put his hand up his wife’s dress, between her legs, and matter-of-factly commented, “Why, Mrs. Randall, you seem to have left your undergarments at home,” before kneeling before her… that was erotic.

But it disturbs me that Claire doesn’t seem to take Frank’s interests seriously, especially as he investigates his own family history in the Highlands or tells her some of the history of the places they’re visiting. She almost seems to mock him at times — I thought I even caught some eye-rolling on her part — so I began to wonder why exactly they had to “reconnect” after the War. I wondered if the reason they needed to “reconnect” had to do with something other than their only seeing each other 10 days in the past five years.

In any event, I pushed those faint disturbances aside as I continued watching the episode. The scene where Frank and Claire spy on the women re-enacting an ancient Druid rite at a Henge of stones was exotic and lyrical. The choreography and music were haunting and effective. In this scene, as in the opening, Claire’s voice-over also worked well: “I had a feeling I didn’t belong there.”

Unfortunately, it was also at that moment, I knew my boyfriend would never be watching Outlander with me. The Henge dance was basically a lovely and haunting Celtic ballet, and as much as I liked it and found it moving, I knew that had he been there to see it, that’s the time he would’ve picked up a book and started reading. (Like the Emperor Franz Josef in Milos Forman’s Amadeus, who “doesn’t like ballet in his opera,” my boyfriend doesn’t like “ballet” in anything, but especially not in historical dramas, which he loves.)

Yes, Starz is being very daring, attempting to make a series for a predominantly female audience. But I’m female, and I find that kind of gender-specific genre drama rather dull. Still, I have my fingers crossed. The series is based on a set of best-selling novels, and how could more than “25 million readers” be wrong?

When Claire returns to the Henge, ostensibly to gather a flower, and touches the center stone, she is inexplicably transported back in time to the same place, circa 1740s. When she regains consciousness, she is in the past, confronting both Black Jack, whom she first mistakes for her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies in a dual role), and a small group of Scottish Highlanders, among them Jamie (Sam Heughan). As the prettiest person in the series, the only male in the past with relatively short hair and virtually no beard, I quickly gathered that he will become Claire’s love interest and/or conflict in the past.

In fact, virtually all the images available for Outlander involve Claire and Jamie, or Claire and the 1740s Scots, not even the British Black Jack, so I assume that will be the focus of the show. I’ve heard that it’s historically accurate and well-researched, and I hope that’s true because I love a good historical drama, like Starz’s Spartacus where, though we know little about the major real-life players, a brilliant drama was constructed around the basic facts of their lives.

Caitriona Balfe as Claire & Tobias Menzies as husband Frank (L), Sam Heughan as Jaime and Balfe as transported Claire (R)

Caitriona Balfe as Claire & Tobias Menzies as husband Frank (L), Sam Heughan as Jamie and Balfe as transported Claire (R)

There were many things I liked about the first episode of Outlander. Frank is an interesting, intelligent, smart, complex man. Claire was a nurse, and a competent enough one that, in the War scene, I thought she was a doctor and almost whooped for joy. Still, she knows enough to help the wounded Jamie after she’s time-transported to the past, and she has a nice cursing vocabulary on her: one that astonishes the Scots, who claim they’ve never heard a woman talk like her before. I like that in a woman.

Claire seems also more sensitive to the energy of the Henge — the earth, the Universe, whatever — than her husband Frank. After the dance, he, too, touches the center stone, but then starts jotting notes in his little tablet. (She touches it later, when she returns alone, and is jolted out of her present life into the past.) She’s not afraid to speak her mind, even when surrounded by male strangers who look quite the ruffians. She uses her medical knowledge to gain their trust. When she uses the historical knowledge about British ambushes that she gained from Frank, she earns a bit of trust from the Scots but also makes them wary. They suspect she may be a spy. She quickly learns when to be “seen and not heard.”

The foreshadowing in the series is subtle but effective. Frank tells her he kept drawing the lines of her palm during the War — he doesn’t know why — then the Reverend’s wife or housekeeper reads Claire’s palm and comments that the lines are unusual, connecting the two scenes. I hope the lines of her palm, which are repeatedly described as unusual or memorable, will have something to do with her survival in the past as well as with her return to the present. Or at least with the Henge stones and why she was transported when she touched them, but Frank wasn’t when he did. I’ll just have to wait and see, as will anyone who’s not read the novels.

Claire’s not the typical romance novel heroine in terms of her looks, and I admire that. These days, it seems almost obligatory that the heroine have raven hair, green eyes, and a buxom figure, no matter where or when the novel’s set, and it’s refreshing to have a dark-haired, dark-eyed actress, with a sometimes pout but an otherwise ordinary face, and quite a thin body (too thin, in my humble opinion) playing the lead role. Caitriona’s Claire is tall, feisty, and pouty. I like those qualities so far. She’s smart and takes command whenever there’s a situation that requires her knowledge or skills to save someone or to prevent slaughter. I like that, too. Most of the men, including her husband Frank, seem taciturn so far, while she’s the articulate one. I really like that, and just hope it doesn’t become a cliché — with all the men being sort of brutish, brainless hulks with only nice bodies and good fighting skills.

The Scots are protective of her — they prevent her being raped by Black Jack, and the clan leader won’t condone “rape” when the men suggest “testing” to see if she’s a whore; then the man who saved her from Black Jack ventures his opinion that she’s “no whore.” Even though, curiously, the Scots don’t question her anachronistic hairstyle, dress, shoes, jewelry, or (slight) makeup; and even though they fear she may be a British spy, they still defend her honor and her body. And they instantly obey her whenever she goes into her “Nurse” role, so they accept, without question, that she has more knowledge of some things than they, simply from the tone of her voice. That makes me like the male characters so far.

Alas, however, I won’t be able to share Outlander with my boyfriend. Despite the fact that rifles and pistols, swords and knives, running and chasing, shooting and potential violence abounds, he’s declined to watch any of the repeat showings. He said he “read what it was about” in the description. That is not a good sign. I attempted to tell him some of the things that happened in the premiere episode. He looked blank and more than mildly bored. It doesn’t look like he’ll even give Outlander a chance. He wouldn’t even watch the Outlander trailer.

That’s quite a risk for Starz, doing a show that seems aimed primarily at a female audience, because many females, like me and all my educated, career-women friends, don’t necessarily like gender-specific fiction. I like all kinds of fiction, as do they. I like history. And I wouldn’t like to see Outlander degenerate into a formulaic romance where a woman who, for some unspecified reason, has fallen out of love with her husband, whom I found to be the most intellectually and physically attractive man in the show, to fall in love with a man from the past just because he’s pretty and brawny and rides a horse and has a Scottish accent and speaks Gaelic.

If you missed the first episode last Saturday, and haven’t caught any of the reruns, Starz has it available on its website free of charge: you don’t have to be a Starz subscriber to watch the premiere episode of Outlander. It airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET.

Meanwhile, I’m keeping my fingers crossed, and hoping Outlander, despite some of my misgivings from the first episode, becomes more of a Starz Spartacus historical drama than a Lifetime femme-in-jep movie of the week.

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On Screensavers & Equality of the Sexes

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I’ve always had screensavers on my computer, and not just the ones provided by Microsoft or Apple. I like to put up an image of my favorite heartthrob of the moment. It gives me something pleasant to view while I’m thinking about how to write, edit, or revise something. I never thought much about it until the day my boyfriend, who uses my computer occasionally to check his business email, accidentally clicked on my account, and saw this:

Christopher Walken

Christopher Walken

“Why do you have Christopher Walken on your computer screen?” he said.

“Because I put him there. You must be in my account.”

Since this happened after I had just made the change from a PC to a Mac, my boyfriend didn’t know how to get into his own account. I showed him. He looked at me.

“You have Christopher,” he said, “and I have that?”

Apple's Mountain Lion

Apple’s Mountain Lion

“I thought you liked animals,” I said, trying not to sound defensive.

“Why can’t I have a cool picture?” he said, pouting ever so slightly.

“Of Christopher Walken?”

He narrowed his eyes.

“I think, that if you can have a photo of Christopher Walken as your screensaver,” he said, arms over his chest, “I should be able to have someone I find attractive as my screensaver.”

“Fair enough. Which gorgeous woman would you like to have?”

“Angelina Jolie, Rosanna Arquette, Uma Thurman…”

“All of them?” I said.

“Can’t you rotate them?”

I was starting to see visions of every gorgeous woman in Hollywood floating across his screen, with him requesting new photos each time he “fell in love” with someone new.

“If you get multiple women,” I said, hoping to discourage him somewhat in order to reduce my work looking for photos, “then I get multiple men.”

“Agreed.”

So, I immediately found another photo for my screensaver.

Clive Owen

Clive Owen

The next time my boyfriend accidentally clicked onto my account instead of his own, I heard him exclaim, all the way from my office, “Clive? Now you have Clive? And he’s not even all the way dressed?”

“You have three women as screensavers.”

“You have Clive in a sleeveless body-shirt.”

I sighed.

“And now you want…”

“Lucy,” he said, meaning his then-current love: Lucy Lawless as Lucretia in Starz’s Spartacus.

Lucy Lawless as Lucretia in SPARTACUS

Lucy Lawless as Lucretia in SPARTACUS

He was happy with that screensaver until he fell in love with Viva Bianca, who played Ilythia in the show.

Lucy Lawless as Lucretia & Viva Bianca as Ilythia in SPARTACUS

Lucy Lawless as Lucretia & Viva Bianca as Ilythia in SPARTACUS

He actually didn’t fall madly in love with Viva until she did a nude scene. Well, she wasn’t completely nude. I believe she was wearing earrings. That’s the screensaver he wanted. I told him I couldn’t find it. He was most severely disappointed.

Until the next time he checked his email and discovered that I’d put the photo of Viva as Ilythia, nude, up as his screensaver.

He ran into the room where I was, hugged me, and said I was the “best girlfriend in the whole entire world.”

Hey, if that’s all it takes.

He hasn’t asked me to change screensavers since. Though Spartacus is over except for reruns, which he watches faithfully, he’s still in love with Viva as Ilythia.

Which is fine with me. After all, I still have Clive.

And I’m currently looking at Timothy Dalton as he appeared in Penny Dreadful. Since male celebrities are rarely nude, or even have their entire shirts off, or are dressed as Romans to show off their fine legs, I figure I get to have as many gorgeous men as I want as my screensavers. It’s only fair. Besides, it is my computer.

Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray in Showtime's PENNY DREADFUL

Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray in Showtime’s PENNY DREADFUL

The only problem I’ve found with this equality of the sexes and screensavers is taking your computer in for repair. At Apple, when I was picking it up, my boyfriend had to accompany me because I have a 27″ screen and cannot carry it myself. He came along to put it in the backseat of my Jeep. When the Apple employees turned on the computer to show me it was fixed, Clive’s photo came up.

They looked at Clive, at my boyfriend, at Clive, at my boyfriend.

“We assume this isn’t you,” said one of the boys.

“That was before I needed glasses,” said my boyfriend, without missing a beat.

“Let’s make sure his account works,” said the other Apple employee, switching accounts before I even remembered what my boyfriend’s screensaver was.

Both young men stood there, transfixed, eyes wide, mouths hanging open.

“Whoa,” one whispered.

“Sorry,” I said. “I forgot she was on there.”

“Fair’s fair,” said my boyfriend.

The two Apple boys looked at him.

“My girlfriend would kill me if I had a picture like that as my screensaver,” said one.

“You have the greatest girlfriend in the world,” said the other, without, however, looking away from the screen.

“Who is that?” said the man sitting on the stool in the Apple store at the Genius Bar next to me, staring at my computer screen.

“Ilythia from Spartacus,” said the young man on the opposite side of him, gazing longingly at the screen.

Boys will be boys, I thought to myself.

Just then, an Apple manager came out of the back, passed the computer, and, basically, squealed as he held up a notebook over the front of my computer.

“Customers should take down their screensavers before they bring them in for repair,” he said, passing by as quickly as he could.

The two Apple boys and the two Apple customers all looked over at my boyfriend.

“You are so lucky,” they said, glancing only cursorily at me.

Just then, the manager passed behind them again, screeching like a wounded rabbit, holding up his notebook to the side of his head, begging them to “please turn that computer off.” The Apple boys proceeded to do as he’d requested.

“Don’t let your manager see the picture of Clive,” said my boyfriend. “He might fall in love.”

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How We Know the Dancer from the Dance

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O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

William Butler Yeats
“Among School Children”

Martha Graham by Max Waldman 1976 ©

Those two beautiful lines at the start of this post conclude William Butler Yeats’ intense recollection of his own childhood and life as he walks “Among School Children,” and when I first read the poem in school and asked, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” the less than illustrious professor said, almost snarling at my apparent stupidity, “We can’t. Why do you think he wrote that?”

I wondered at the professor’s lack of insight, thinking that, once again, I would be left to my own devices to discover why the poet had written that line as a question, not as a statement.

Since I was used to having my interpretations of literature mocked by classmates and teachers alike, or to having the teachers simply stare at me in bewildered dismay when I asked questions or gave my thoughts on the art, I wasn’t too upset by the professor’s attitude.

Disappointed, but not too surprised or upset. I’d thought college was to be a great place of learning and independent thinking: instead, it seemed to be very much like high school, which bored me unimaginably.

Mikhail Baryshnikov by Max Waldman 1976 ©

So, away I went, ceaselessly pondering how one does, indeed, know the dancer from the dance. It didn’t take me too long to figure it out. Being a great lover of the ballet, and fan of both Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, I already had two dancers and their dances to consider. The answer soon came to me: We know the dancer from the dance only when both dancers perform the same dance: then we can determine the dancer’s skill, interpretation, and talent from the steps of the dance itself.

Rudolph Nureyev by Richard Avedon 1962 ©

Then something else struck me. Every day, virtually all of us compare dancers and their dance. Not Nureyev and Baryshnikov necessarily, but the “dancers” that we see in our everyday lives.

When the starting quarterback is injured and the backup quarterback comes in to finish the game, his playing skills are immediately and punishingly compared to the “original”: sometimes the backup quarterback dances the dance so well, he achieves his own fame. Usually, there’s a reason he’s the backup quarterback, and even if he performs well for a few games, his dance usually falters eventually.

The same thing happened in the 2012 NFL football season with the professional referees, who were on strike and were replaced by amateurs. Everyone, from the players to the fans to the announcers, bemoaned the dreadful incompetence of the substitute referees. They were simply unable to dance the complex professional dance, and all cheered the return of the real dancers.

Natalia Makarova, by Max Waldman 1976 ©

Each time a remake of a film is made, we analyze how the latest actor did the role when placed beside those who came before him. How many times has Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice been made, and how many times has each actor’s performance been analyzed in terms of previous ones?

In addition to her dance as Lizzie in Pride & Prejudice, Keira Knightley danced in the remake of Anna Karenina (at least 18 film versions have been made, starring everyone from Greta Garbo to Vivien Leigh, and seven television adaptations), and many viewers compare each new Anna Karenina’s dance to those that came before, as this montage shows.

Meryl Streep, originally trained as an operatic singer, out-danced the original singers in ABBA when she performed “The Winner Takes it All” (in one take) for Mama Mia, stunning the writers of the song with her dance.

Each actor who dances the role of Batman is compared to all those before him; Heath Ledger’s dance of Joker from the Batman franchise is considered the epitome of that particular dance.

Each performer who dances the role of James Bond is compared to Sean Connery’s signature dance. Dickens’ Christmas Carol has been danced countless times, on stage, for television, and for film, and each dancer’s dance is unique. For Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, Gary Oldman wins my vote for his dance of this role, and not for the special effects. For Herman Melville’s famous Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick, Gregory Peck, though a fine dancer, was simply too young when he danced that role, so Patrick Stewart’s interpretation of that dance is incomparably better.

Each history/biography of Custer and his Battle at the Little BigHorn is analyzed not so much for its own value as for how well the dancer interprets this dance compared to all the Custer histories and biographies that are already available. The same is true for those who dance the histories of Marie Antoinette, Julius Caesar, Spartacus, Napoleon, King Henry VIII or any of his six wives.

In short, in all sorts of “theaters,” we compare the dancers and the dance in order to determine who performs a particular dance best.

Mikhail Baryshnikov

Surprisingly, almost 40 years after that first professor said, “you can’t tell the dancer from the dance,” a song brought me around to this speculation again: Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” one of the best “break-up” songs ever written.

Originally written and performed by Goyte, a Belgian-Australian musician/singer/songwriter named Wouter De Backer (Goyte, pronounced “Go-tee-ay,” is derived from the French “Gauthier,” the French equivalent of “Walter” or “Wouter”). Goyte’s song “Somebody That I Used to Know,” featuring Kimbra, has not only been awarded “Single of the Year” (ARIA Awards 2011) but has been danced, seriously and in parody, by many others.

I first became aware of Goyte’s song from Walk off the Earth’s cover of “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Their dance, revolving around all five of them playing the same instrument at the same time while singing the song, has received almost 140 million hits and won them an appearance (performance) on “Ellen.”

(The female singer of Walk off the Earth said it took them 26 takes to get this dance right for the Tube’s video, since any time any one of them made a faux pas, they had to start over from the beginning: they performed it live on “Ellen” flawlessly.)

Then came The Waffle Stompers’  dance of Walk off the Earth’s cover dance of Goyte’s original dance, this time involving a ukelele and a guy doing the girl’s part. Yes, a dance of a dance of a dance. Convoluted, amusing, or fascinating? You decide.

Other amateur dancers quickly arose, filling the Tube with their dances of “Somebody That I used to Know.” Some are mildly entertaining, some rather dull, some simply uninspired, some quite clever. Matthias Harris does it a capella. Even old-fashioned computers joined this dance (I first saw this version on Guy Bergstrom’s Red Pen of Doom). Incredible talent went into this version of the dance but, while it left me intellectually impressed, it didn’t move me emotionally.

Red Pen of Doom also introduced me to the Star Wars parody of the song, which is a bit different because the dancer does the same steps as Goyte in his original video, and merely changes the words which accompany the dance. Though entertaining if you’re a Star Wars or George Lucas fan, and can get all the allusions, I found the dance itself is uninspiring.

But between the time I first posted this blog (2012) and when I updated it (2017), a Minions version of Goyte’s song had appeared.

Of course, one parody leads to another, as one cover does to another, as each dancer tries to out-dance the original dancer, Goyte. So, we not only compare each dancer who does the same dance in order to “know the dancer from the dance”, but many of us try the dance ourselves.

I know which version of Goyte’s dance I prefer, and which dancer I believe dances “Somebody that I used to Know” best. But SadieDoggie and our Gang of Seven Rescue Cats wouldn’t let me finish this blog until I included their favorite version of the dance: (Dogtye, featuring Katra).

What say you, my Lovelies? Any dances that you prefer be performed by a particular dancer? Let me know in comments.

updated Aug 2017

 

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