liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
liz_marcs
liz_marcs

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Africa and Strage Personnas

I've been watching Michael Palin's Sahara this week, thanks to Netflix.

All I can say is: Duuuuude, why wasn't this available when I started writing Facing the Heart in Darkness?


Although, as a side note, I was thrilled to see how much I did get right, thanks to Palin's book of the same name, the Lonely Planet travel guides, CIA World Factbook, National Geographic's Africa Website and DVDs, a few online travel diaries of West Africa, BBC articles on West Africa, humanitarian groups specializing in human trafficking and sex trade (a lot of information about Gao came from these groups and the BBC), as well as numerous other references.

Although I admit that my all-time bestest (and longest) research session focused on whether or not Mali has the death penalty. It does, but it operates like the death penalty in New Hampshire. It's on the books, but there's a moratorium on carrying it out on what few people have gotten it.

Actually, according to Amnesty International, the National Assembly of Mali is voting to abolish the death penalty even as I write.

It took me 2 hours to find that original bit of information for a freakin' throw-away line. *headdesk*

There are a few things that aren't precisely correct about Mali, such as the overwhelming presence of sheep and that Bamako is slightly more chaotic than I had been lead to believe.

The Fetish Market in Bamako, the feel of Djenné on market day, descriptions of Djenné and the surrounding countryside, the brief referenes to the Bandigara Escarpment and the Dogons, the cultural obsession with meals and inviting guests to dig in...thank heavens, it's actually a lot closer to what's actually there than I even dared hope based on Palin's slightly less romantic (as opposed to National Geographic's) look at the area.

*passes out from relief*

I'll never be able to write an Africander like someone who's actually seen the countries in question (paging speakr2customrs...who does awesome Africander), but overall I didn't do too badly on the travelogue bits of the story.

I admit that I'll never feel 100% comfortable writing Africander, but I'm not sure if it's because I'm too worried about getting something wrong and insulting someone by accident or if it's because I'm afraid of oversimplifying something to the point of it being dead wrong.

Of course, it could be because writing about something I know nothing about is a hell of a lot of work. At least half the labor was in the research before I could even write the first word. It's rewarding on the one hand, because you learn something new and a lot of false preconceptions are exploded. On the other hand, I have to be this picky about research in my RL job. There are days that double-checking things for fanfiction is more than more poor head can take.


Although I'm not sure which is worse: Writing about an area which you know nothing about and where you're completely unfamiliar with the local culture; or writing about an area with which you are intimately familiar, like in the case of Dancing Behind the Spider Gates.

In the first instance when you've got zero knowledge about an area, sometimes you have to tell yourself to stop the research, gloss over the holes in your knowledge, and word things carefully so your ignorance doesn't show too badly or at least in a way that insults people who know better.

In the second instance when you've got intimate knowledge about an area, you realize that you might have to compromise on some things you know are true because those facts aren't important to the story in question. If you like being close to correct it can sometimes grate.

Anyway, ummmm, patting myself on the back isn't the purpose of the post.

I was struck by something very funny while watching Sahara. Or should I say, I was struck funny by the whole idea that in my head that I thought I had a pretty firm idea of Michael Palin's public personna...unfortunately, it's his Monty Python personna.


The funny thing is that this isn't the first time I've been struck by the differences in public personna in a former member of Monty Python and how those same people portray themselves today.

I admit that I haven't seen a lot of Palin's travelogs, which is odd since I'm an enthusiastic armchair traveler. I have, however, seen every history doc that Terry Jones has done, because I'm a freakin' history geek.

When I saw his first history doc, The Crusades, I wasn't entirely sure what I expected. Monty Python Terry Jones, I suppose. What I saw was history lover Terry Jones, a completely different personna that completely threw me at first.

That's not to say that Jones wasn't witty and engaging, because he very much was. But there was something slightly more serious than expected. To be sure, Terry Jones who does history docs is probably no more real than Terry Jones the comedian, but the personnas are very distinct and very separate. That's not to say that I didn't see some overlap, like the little silly asides that he tosses out during the docs, but by and large, they could appear to be two different people (albiet...dear heavens, is it really approximately 20 years apart?)

I'm struck by the same thing with Michael Palin in Sahara. He's a witty and engaging guide and his personna as the eager the traveler exploring new horizons is probably no more real than Monty Python Michael Palin. And yes, there is some overlap, when Palin jokes about his "love" for sheep after noting how many of them were in his immediate vicinity. Yet, he, too, seems to be two different personnas, especially if you watch the behind-the-scenes home movies that are extras on the DVD set.

It's a foolish observation, I know. Intellectually, you know that all of the Pythoners employed personnas and attitudes that weren't just specific to how they made their living as part of that troupe, but also of a very specific time and place in British pop culture.

So, too, in their documentaries that they've hosted/produced/written/been involved with, they are employing very different personnas, the kind of personnas that allow you to enjoy them as well as take them and their chosen subject matter seriously.

Yet I still find it striking just the same.

The best example of this phenominon that comes to mind — and it just so happens that it's Palin and Jones working together again — is on one of the extras for Special Edition of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The pair of them visit all the filming locations that were used in the movie.

They not only talked about what they filmed and how they filmed at the various locations, they also got in some travelogue (Palin's thing) and history (Jones's thing), and talked about how things had changed and been preserved. There was more in-your-face joking around in this short doc than the generally dry wit they employ in their more modern works, all mixed up with their present personnas. It was a lot like: "Monty Python as adults."

I just find it to be a rather interesting thing to see, especially since I've seen the whole span of their careers. The evolution of Jones and Palin has been fascinating to watch. I admit, that when I saw Monty Python's Flying Circus back in the day when I was a kid, neither one of them were my favorite performers (that was John Cleese and Eric Idle).

Yet, they've retroactively become my favorites, because I find their more current works so wonderfully fascinating and have come to appreciate the intelligence and work they put into their present incarnations.
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