Your RDA of Irony


Thinking that there should be more to my life than watching reruns of “Scrubs”, my wife coaxed me into attending a community art festival.  In fact, we knew several of the artists, one of whom has a wonderful talent as a caricaturist.  Yes, she sketched me.  I was disappointed that she did not detect my resemblance to Jude Law.  The artist also ignored my suggestions of portraying me with epaulets and on horseback; where is Jean-Louis David when you need him?

No, the caricature reveals a man of a sly and wry character, someone whom you would want to cast as Fagin in your next summer stock production of “Oliver.”  Remember that the musical transformed Fagin into an endearing rogue, not the grotesque villain whom Dickens described.

Perhaps I am mindful of my physical proximity to Fagin (the result of 4000 years of inbreeding) because I just saw Roman Polanski’s film of “Oliver Twist.”  Polanski adheres to the Dickensian perspective and even augments the bleakness.  If we don’t see Queen Victoria beat starving orphans, it probably was a last-minute deletion in editing.  Polanski’s vision is a damning sociological study of 19th century England.  Amidst the horrors of the workhouses and the urban squalor, there are no choreographed frolics or charming ballads.  This sure ain’t the musical, but it is not quite Dickens either. 

Dickens detested society’s hypocrisy, callousness and injustice, but he did like people and he relished their foibles.  He was quite the caricaturist himself.  Dickens’ main characters, being afflicted with normality, are usually his least interesting.  What can we say about Oliver Twist except that he is a nice boy with miserable luck?  (In fact, of Dickens’ main characters only Ebenezer Scrooge and Sydney Carton are genuinely interesting; evidently, there are advantages to being a miserable curmudgeon or an alcoholic wastrel.)

But Dicken’s secondary characters are wonderful: impossible, ridiculous and often endearing for their absurdity.  They are the ones we remember.  Think of the Artful Dodger, the urchin-thief aspiring to be a gentleman.  Perhaps, after his deportation to an unspecified but obvious territory the Dodger might have become the Lord Mayor of Sydney.  (He certainly had the credentials for politics.)  Think of Noah Claypool–the preening apprentice mortician, the Casanova of scullery maids  and the overreaching bully who gets beaten up by the much smaller Oliver.  And think of Mr. Bumble, the pompous, petty-larcenous bureaucrat, and most martyred of henpecked husbands.  When confronted with his crimes, he defends his own failings with a memorable explanation:  “the law is a bachelor.” 

Unfortunately, Polanski has removed all the fun from “Oliver Twist.”  It’s all “dark, satanic mills.”  A much better–truer–version is David Lean’s film, which appears on TCM about once a month. 

But I might have wished Alec Guinness’ prosthetic nose to have been slightly smaller than Mount Sinai.  Even my Fagin look is more flattering than that. 

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