Friday, March 05, 2010

Diastematics, Unite!

Is Johnny Depp insulting the gap toothed, or what? The actor, who has a fixation on teeth for his different celluloid personas but no discernible gap (the highly revered distinction diagnosed as diastema), chose to define his character as the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's new "Alice in Wonderland" with a gap between his front teeth. Does he think this is a sign of madness? According to the authoritative Wikipedia, from once upon a time a gap between the teeth has been associated, particularly in women, with insatiable lust. Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century wrote about the lusty "gap-toothed wife of Bath." In Nigeria, diastemata are occasionally regarded as being exceptionally attractive mostly among the western regions, and in France they are called "dents du bonheur" ("lucky teeth"). In northern parts of India people with a gap between the front teeth are thought to be very lucky in life.

I've uncovered another possible reason for Depp's gap. Vanessa Paradis, French actress and singer and the mother of Depp's two children, is a noted gap-toothed celebrity. Perhaps he did it to honor her. There are many famous gap tooths, from David Letterman's and Madonna's to Eddie Murphy's and Elton John's. Burton's Mad Hatter is a lovable as well as loony character under layers of special effects that give Depp eyes of gold as well as the gap in his teeth. For his characterization of Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, Depp choose a few gold teeth for his mouth, and patterned his mannerisms after the moves of Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards. Imitation, as they say, is a sincere form of flattery.

Being diastematic myself (see photo below for a look at my gap), one of my early heroes was Alfred E. Neuman from Mad Magzine (another association with madness since you wouldn't consider Alfie to be lustful). Editor Harvey Kurtzman spotted the image on a postcard pinned to the office bulletin board of another editor who described it as "a face that didn't have a care in the world, except mischief." Neuman appeared in the magazine in the mid-1950's over the phrase, "What, me worry?" Now I can think of him as a Bodhisattva. The original of the gap-tooth face borrowed by Kurtzman for his magazine is lost in the mists of time. I've seen versions from the 1920s and the 1890s. The most famous gap-toothed face in the 1960s belonged to British comedian Terry-Thomas. With a silly double-barreled stage name, he played a number of over-the-top upper-class cads and bounders. His films included "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" as well as string of British comedies that were never easily understood by Americans. When I was living in London from 1964-66 and working for a TV journal, I was given the assignment to interview him. We had the opportunities to compare gaps and as I recall mine was bigger. Terry-Thomas's dental diastema provided the basis for the naming of a widening of the scapholunate space ("Terry-Thomas sign") in a traumatic wrist injury. Famous gap-toothed women include Lauren Hutton, Cleopatra, Sandra Day O'Connor, not to mention Condoleezza Rice. Director Les Blank made a documentary film about them in the 1980s.

Burton's depiction of Lewis Carroll's fantasy is an overwhelming visual treat and a twisted departure from the standard story. As an older Alice revisiting an earlier dream (nightmare?), Mia Wasikowska has little to do. Fortunately she previously showed her considerable acting skills in the first season of the excellent TV series abut psychotherapy, "In Treatment." Here she's little more than a backdrop for spectacular special effects, chief among them the hydrocephalic forehead of Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen. She far outshines the good White Queen, her sister, played by the wispy Anne Hathaway who seems as puzzled as Mia about what to do. Roger Ebert in his online review writes that the original books seemed "creepy and rather distasteful" to him as a young reader. "Alice," he concludes "plays better as an adult hallucination, which is how Burton rather brilliantly interprets." Burton's Underland, says Ebert, is a "perturbing place where the inhabitants exist for little apparent reason other than to be peculiar and obnoxious. Do they reproduce? Most species seem to have only one member, as if nature quit while she was ahead." Manohla Dargis in the New York Times calls the film "dark and sometimes grim," and says Burton's Alice is mostly a foil for Depp who "brings his own brand of cinematic crazy to the tea party. With his Kabuki-white face, the character seems to have been calculated to invoke Heath Ledger's Joker." No mention of the gap. Perhaps she didn't mind it.

Nan and I enjoyed the spectacle of Burton's "Alice" at the opening night screening in Bangkok, a full day or more before moviegoers in American and Europe had the chance to see what the fuss was all about. Once again, I found the plastic 3-D glasses clunky and awkward. While an improvement over the old paper ones, I think they darken the film considerably (you only have to remove them to see this). As with "Avatar," after a few minutes you forget that there is anything special with 3-D and enjoy being occasionally startled by a special effect (like when the Red Queen hits a hedgehog into the audience with her flamingo mallet). Maybe it's my aging ears, but I found the dialogue weak and unclear while the rumbles and bangs to accompany the numerous effects were loud and even overpowering. I tried not very successfully to explain to Nan the history of the stories about Wonderland by mathematician and photographer Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll was his pen name) which were designed to enchant a prepubescent Alice Liddell (photo here taken in 1858 when she was six). There are no pictures of Dodgson smiling so I cannot tell if he has a gap tooth. Even old Walt Disney apparently found the appeal of the stories puzzling.

Speaking of Roger Ebert, there is a very moving article in Esquire by Chris Jones about his struggle with the throat cancer that took away his voice several years ago. Ebert has been a film critic with the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967 and is best known for the entertaining TV program he co-hosted for 27 years with Gene Siskel in which the two movie fans debated the latest releases, often in friendly disagreement. When Siskel died of cancer in 1999, Ebert was joined by Richard Roeper. But after an operation in 2006 he could no longer speak. He continues to write about film prolifically, however, and several days he ago he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to demonstrate a new computer activated voice that sounds remarkably like his old speaking voice. A company in Scotland input hours of Ebert's voice from his TV program to create a computer-assisted vocal program.

School's out for summer! Last Wednesday was the final class for the second term of the school year, and after an examination next week my students will be on holiday until the end of May. This is called the "summer vacation" in Thailand because April is the hottest month. All of the monks had freshly shaved heads because of Wan Phra, the full moon day last Sunday which was also Makha Bucha, the Buddhist holiday that celebrates the Buddha's sermon to 1,250 newly ordained monks nine months after his enlightenment. For their weekly presentation, I asked them to talk about what they were going to do after school let out (using present continuous and "going to" for future intentions was the lesson). Many were traveling to different monasteries where they were going to teach (infinitive of purpose) the Dhamma to newly ordained novice monks. I told them that Nan and I would be traveling to Krabi by overnight bus during the week of Songkran in April where we planned to swim and go snorkeling (and get wet during the water festival's street battles).

I'm suffering withdrawal following the end of the winter Olympics in Vancouver. Each morning I got up before dawn and turned on the TV to watch coverage on ESPN from Canada. Aside from curling, which reminded me too much of men (and women) staring at goats, I found most of the events, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies, riveting. The high point was the women's figure skating final won by Yu-Na Kim (or is it Kim Yu-Na?), in a breathtakingly beautiful and technically awesome performance on ice. I even found myself rooting for the Koreans, our neighbors to the north now, during the speed skating events. ESPN's coverage was refreshingly free of the jingoistic chauvinism even Americans complained about from NBC. In Asia, since Thailand sent no athletes (where was the Jamaican bobsled team this year?), the competition seemed more about ability that nationality. Sure, America got the most medals but not the most gold (that honor went to Canada followed by Germany). It was interesting to see the different ways that standings were calculated (most gold or most medals) by different sources. The downhill and snowboard competitions were unbelievable. How can anyone do that? It was wonderful to see the snow as I sat here in Bangkok bathed in air conditioned coolness, and by the final ceremonies I felt quite proud that I was half Canadian (mom was born in Winnipeg). Now Nan is lobbying for a trip to Korean during the next winter season. She wants to sample the snow for herself.

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