Leonard Nimoy

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Leonard Nimoy died today, February 27, 2015. His is the second celebrity death I've encountered where I have really felt the loss (I mourned Phil Hartman several years after he died).

I'm not the type of person who takes flowers to celebrity graves, but for Nimoy I might be tempted. It has been such a pleasure all these years to admire an actor not only for his work (which is technically enough) but also for his character. I'm sure he had flaws. To my knowledge, he always handled himself with gentlemanly panache, articulate thoughtfulness, and honorable fair-dealing.

On my Facebook page, I also pay tribute to DeForest Kelley. DeForest Kelley's death kind of passed me by in 1999. Should Shatner go while I still have this blog, I will likely return and update this post. I don't mean to dismiss James Doohan who died in 2005 or that marvelous lady Majel Barrett, who died in 2008. But the three are the three that expanded my imaginative universe.

Leonard Nimoy--Spock--will always be the linchpin.

Black & White Done Right

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"Monster Movie"--B&W done right!
Usually when a television show wants to pay tribute to classic television/movies, it films its episode in color, then switches the palette in the same way people "art-ify" their photos on Photoshop (I'm sure the process is slightly more technical but the end product is the same).

The end product is something that looks like it was filmed in color, then switched to black & white on Photoshop. It looks, in other words, one-dimensional, flat, boring, and pretentiously arty.

The episode "Monster Movie" from Supernatural, Season 4, however, is done right!

(1) Black and white are used as colors! The boys' suits aren't simply black; they are shiny, slippery black. The white blouses and bowties and dresses aren't simply white; they are crisply white: they shine.

(2) Shadows are considered. The opening shot pans across rooftops where attic windows send stretching shadows across the shingles at an angle.

Shadows--and therefore light sources--are continually taken into account. Consequently, even the darkest scenes aren't overly dark. I compare this to X-Files. The season 6 episode "Triangle" is not shot precisely in black & white but it is shot far far far too dark (Joss Whedon had the same problem with the last season of Angel). Sure, guys, it looks great, but I can't see what is happening, so who cares? (Since I love the plot and dialog of "Triangle," I pretend I care.)

"Monster Movie" avoids this problem. Despite dark, night-time settings, the scenes never feel claustrophobic and/or unviewable.

And he has a coupon!
(3) "Monster Movie" uses B&W settings as well as B&W lighting to not only present delightful imagery but to tell the story. In one of the episode's best scenes, Dracula stalks through his suburban house to answer the door (and get his pizza). The sharp contrast between his black cloak and the white, paneled (utterly ordinary) closet doors is hilarious--it communicates the character's disconnect while making a joke: it has a point. (It isn't simply "cool" because it is B&W; it is "cool" because of the way the B&W is done.)

Black and white as colors, the use of intelligent light sources plus clever settings (both classic and non-classic)--not to mention the use of shapes, grays, and DEPTH--all combine to make this one of the best B&W creations I've seen since, well, the days of Arsenic & Old Lace.

N is for Not Much! (Plus Thoughts on Readership, History, and Individual Choice)

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I assumed that "X" would provide me with the fewest authors. I never anticipated that my "N" list would be so short!

Nabokov, Vladimir: I have never read Lolita though I did read a fascinating book about it.

Norton, Andre: Andre Norton is a fantasy writer that I desperately, desperately wanted to love as I teen. There were just so many of her books in the library! Fall in love with one: a whole world awaits.

Alas, I tried--then tried again--and again. Unfortunately, Norton's books don't grab me. However--

Norton is an excellent example of the ultimate failure of literary criticism: liking has little to do with judging. 

Far too many times, critics insist, "If I don't like something personally, it must be because it is no good." Reasoning from the personal to the general is a survival mechanism. It is also unreliable.

Yet we humans remain perfect little Victorians, insisting that today, right now, in us, is the objective best of times and worst of times; in the latter case, we become subject, as Eugene states, to "the near-universal idea, especially beloved on the academic left, that there existed a point in [the past] when All Was Good"
The fascinating mural from Criminal Minds that contains
overlapping elements of a single person's life.

One Summer by Bill Bryson captures the reality: dig into history at any one point in time--1927, 1803, 321 B.C.E.--and thousand of events begin to crowd themselves onto the stage of one's brain. Prohibition, Babe Ruth, Mount Rushmore, Herbert Hoover, Mississippi Floods, President Coleridge, Lindbergh, Al Capone. Murder cases. Political rallies. Political backstabbing. Boxers. Random people sitting on flagpoles. Model A Fords. Eventually, there's too much. Even Bill Bryson can't handle it all.

Did I mention Mount Rushmore?

Humans (not just historians) smooth it all out, highlight the important stuff, slide names into biographies, and move on. How else could we cope with life's complications? (It is unfortunate that the result of this necessary leveling is a belief that "life really was like that.")

Back to literary criticism:

Likewise, although a case can be made for a book being "good" or "bad" (and I am advocate of making the case)--the unreliable habits of readers indicate how little that literary criticism matters in people's personal lives. On Amazon, beloved popular series almost all have 4/5 stars (A-). That doesn't mean readers will find the series in a bookstore. And on IMDB, over time, everything eventually rates a "B" (with a few outliers on either side), no matter how popular (or personally beloved).

One of my favorite books growing up.
The book has 14 other fans on Amazon.
It is also out of print.
There are plenty of books that I love that other people happen to love too. There are also plenty of books that I love without any expectation that they will be beloved by anyone else. Along the same lines, Andre Norton isn't my cup of tea. If you follow the above link, you will find that she is plenty of other people's. Good for her!

As far as literary enjoyment is concerned, "taste" rather than "good" or "bad" seems to determine not what lasts (gets streamlined) but what matters in everyday life. In one of his tomes,
Stephen Pinker argues that evolutionary psychology (examining the rise and fall of civilizations from a macro point of view) explains a great deal and would appear to wipe out the need for free will. But he argues (I am paraphrasing), isn't it better for us in our day to day lives to behave as if free-will exists?

I would add--because, after all, that's what going to happen anyway. 

In the day to day, people make choices--career choices, marriage choices, housing choices, pet choices, reading choices, viewing choices--that belong to them alone. Hence everything--from literature to civilizations--remains messy. Until enough time has passed--the rough edges get smoothed out, and the important events (or books) rise to the surface: the macro appears.

But thinking that we know the macro while we are living in the micro--that's where the little Victorian in all of us insists on taking a nosedive into the void.

Better to make the best choices you can, live by the moral code you've selected, and read what you want. The macro will take care of itself. 

The Pointlessness of Alarming Statistics

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Am I the only one who hates those "every 10 seconds" statistics?

Take this one: according to several websites, child abuse is reported every 10 seconds, resulting in approximately 3 million reports of child abuse a year.

That sounds terrible--and I certainly won't dispute that child abuse is an awful thing.

Here are the problems:

(1) "Every 10 seconds" creates an unbalanced impression about people and society.

According to Census.gov, there are approximately 56 to 73 million children in the United States (the latter number includes adolescents). Assuming every single report of child abuse addresses a single, separate child (which is doubtful), then 4% to 6% of children in the United States are reportedly abused in a single year (this number does not include verified abuse).

Any amount is troubling, of course. But the hyperbolic, hysterical "every 10 seconds" doesn't invite rational consideration. Instead, it sounds, well, hyperbolic and hysterical--and therefore, far more likely to be ignored, even when accepted by believers, simply because the idea is unfathomable and outrageous. 

Here's another one: every 11 seconds, a healthy pet is put down, a total of 2.7 million a year. I agree that 2.7 million unnecessary deaths is disgusting; many times, the healthy pet is the victim of ignorance, indifference, and vanity (stupid people who wanted a "cute liddle dog," then got tired of its barking ways and dropped it off at a kill-shelter).

And yet--according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are 144 million cats and dogs as pets in the United States. 2.7 equals 2% of overall ownership (less, in fact, since 2.7 refers to ALL pets, not just cats and dogs).

People who throw away their pets still make me mad but my main reaction to that statistic was WOW! It appears that most Americans are surprisingly responsible pet owners, just as they also appear to be reasonably dutiful parents.

(2) "Every 10 seconds" is false. 

Well-meaning doomsdayers reason from the base statistic (2.7 million healthy animals killed per year) to create the "every 10 seconds" argument.

But "every 10 seconds" is literally impossible.

State and city offices aren't open at night. And most shelters are open even less. Excluding Alaska and Hawaii and assuming that most government offices close at 5 p.m. and open at 8 a.m, then "nothing" at all is happening between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. EST. (If one takes Hawaii and Alaska into consideration, this means that "nothing" is happening between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. EST.)

This may seem like quibbling, but "SOMETHING alarming happens every 10 seconds"  is a something, even an alarming something, without context. If the report or death truly happened, then the reality of when it was filed/took place should matter. (The child abuse statistic is often presented as if the reports were the same as the actual abuse--this is disingenuous, which is a nicer way of saying that it's a lie. Abuse can take place between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., but in order to understand the statistic, the report and the event being reported should not be conflated.)

The straight statistic--3.3 million reports/2.7 million deaths--is a non-emotional fact. Wording that statistic as a report or death every 10 minutes is deliberately provocative, loaded even, yet ultimately less truthful than the straight fact. Since day-to-day life does not, in fact, work like a Road Runner Acme device ("It's time for another alarming event!"), the claim eventually becomes meaningless.

3) A number with "every 10 seconds" attached isn't useful. 

It is far more useful to find out, say, how many children live in Maine (approximately 210 thousand)--and worry about what's happening to them. Abandoning "alarming" national statistics for local knowledge (Are reports more likely to come from neighbors? family members? the child? teachers? Are reports more prevalent in certain seasons? Areas? What types of abuse are reported? Are such reports dependable? Why or why not? What is the best reporting method? What can be done to help?) will also go much further in helping people actually combat the problem.

Hysteria might make people feel relevant and in-tune with social problems--it doesn't actually accomplish anything and its attendant sense of horror ("Oh my goodness; that's so awful!) often prevents people from going any further--the horror is deemed to be enough ("I felt bad today--good for me").

Voices of Commonsense: Mrs. Christie and Mrs. Bradstreet

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The ebullient Mrs. Bantry asking to look at the Rudds'
bathrooms--because frankly that's the kind of
thing people really care about.
I recently finished Laura Thompson's biography of Agatha Christie. Although too long in places (Thompson tackles anything that was ever said about Christie, good and bad), Thompson's analysis, especially of Christie's work, is insightful.

Better than any biographer I've encountered, she pinpoints that Christie the mystery writer is not simply a puzzle-maker. Clever plots would not explain why the books remain on library shelves--why they are read and reread.

While acknowledging that Christie's plots are often implausible (so many of Christie's murders would fall to pieces if a normal person walked in at the wrong moment rather than a character who  attempts blackmail, only to be killed off three chapters later), she points out that human nature lies at the center of all Christie's books:
When she is working at her best . . . the satisfaction of the solution is intense and profound,  because it solves the puzzle and resolves the human dynamic . . . These characters may not be deep, but they are there: vivid as a splash of color (my emphasis).
Christie's Poirot defends the surly Frank
because he, Poirot, is "not concerned with
nations . . . [but with] the lives of private
individuals."
Perhaps not everyone could become a murderer, as Poirot and other Christie detectives claim, but everyone does carry a share of jealousy, lust, rage, hope, greed, love, and desperation in their natures. The humanness of Christie's characters rings true. She understands what makes people tick.

Thompson touches on another aspect of Christie's writing that I consider fundamental: her views of people and institutions are grounded in commonsense. Although she comprehends human nature writ large, she tackles it through individuals writ small, precisely because trying to figure things out by principle (how society and people ought to behave) is a waste of time. There is little to gain from trying to remake the world; there is also little to gain from protesting the functional trappings and institutions of civilized society. Christie was no party member; she was also no rebel.

In many ways, I consider Christie another Anne Bradstreet. Anne Bradstreet was a Puritan woman, the daughter of Thomas Dudley, the Puritan leader of Massachusetts Bay Colony. She was a gifted poet, luckily encouraged by both husband and father to publish her pieces. She was also close friends with intellectual (male) Puritan leaders: she was able--despite her time-consuming roles as wife and mother--to read, explore, and discuss everything from Pilgrim's Progress to Milton and the latest political discourse. Yet she made sure to emphasize and defend her traditional roles in letters and forwards.

From one viewpoint, Bradstreet would appear to be the quintessential upholder of the status quo--she was no Anne Hutchinson (whom Bradstreet knew), challenging Puritan leaders, then stepping even further over the line to defend her individuality. From a modern perspective, it is easy to see Anne Hutchinson as "advanced" while representing Anne Bradstreet as bowing to male authority, the exigencies of her age.

And yet Bradstreet got her poems published, poems that still live in anthologies today. Bradstreet, not Hutchinson (and more than Rowlandson), left a legacy of female thought, reminding us that Puritan women lived and loved and pondered and struggled, even if they weren't making intentional waves. Bradstreet reminds us that well-behaved women make history, especially if they are clever and tough and understand their society all the way from its supposed shallowness to its profound heights.

Like Christie, Bradstreet trend a line between idealism and conventionality. It is on that line, in that space, that reality resides.

Here they are, reflecting on everyday life:

From Christie:
 "Does one really care about being comfortable?" David asked scornfully.
 "There are times," said Midge, "when I feel I don't care about anything else."
 "The pampered attitude to life," said David. "If you were a worker--"
Midge interrupted him.
 "I am a worker. That's just why being comfortable is so attractive. Box beds, down pillows, early morning tea softly deposited  beside the bed--a porcelain bath with lashings of hot water--and delicious bath salts. The kind of easy chair you really sink into--"
 Midge paused in her catalogue.
 "The workers," said David, "should have all these things."
 But he was a little doubtful about the softly deposited early morning tea which sounded impossibly sybaritic for an earnestly organized world.
 "I couldn't agree with you more," said Midge heartily.
                               --from The Hollow
From Bradstreet:
My head, my heart, mine eyes, my life, nay, more,
My joy, my magazine of earthly store,
If two be one, as surely thou and I,
How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lie?
So many steps, head from the heart to sever,
If but a neck, soon should we be together.
I like the Earth this season, mourn in black,
My Sun is gone so far in's zodiac,
Whom whilst I 'joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt,
His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn;
Return; return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living pictures of their father's face.
O strange effect! now thou art southward gone,
I weary grow the tedious day so long;
But when thou northward to me shalt return,
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest.
Where ever, ever stay, and go not thence,
Till nature's sad decree shall call thee hence;
Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,
I here, thou there, yet but both one.
                             --from A Letter to Her [Absent] Husband

Stargate, Season 9, Episodes 9-14

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Not a Season 9 image but a great image of Don S. Davis.
I'm happy to say that not all Stargate, Season 9's episodes are a loss--the villain doesn't improve but ways of dealing with the villain do.

Episode 9: Prototype

This is a straightforward plot that keeps the Goa'uld in the running as potential bad guys (and isn't that how life usually works? nothing every goes away forever) though I was disappointed that Khalek didn't turn out to be an ambiguous villain who could help humans fight the Ori. Considering episode 14 below the writers may be attempting to kill off all Goa'uld characters, which would be a mistake!

Episode 10 & 11: The Fourth Horseman, Parts 1&2

This is an Ori episode, which means dull politics and dull acquiescence. How likely is it really that a Jaffa leader would completely accept Ori theology or that anyone would believe that he had? People just don't switch world views that fast. It would be far more likely that the Jaffa would return to believing in Goa'uld gods than get embroiled in Ancient stuff (which is very Terran).

Like all Stargate scripts, the two parts are well-written. The problem is the uncomplicated either/or reaction of entire planets to the Ori. As Joe points out, sentience is usually accompanied by disagreement. Hey, just look at the religions, causes, and political parties on our planet!

Regarding the rest of the episode, Orlin's reapparance (as a teen) is nicely used: the Sam-Orlin plot is one of the two parter's best storylines. I continue to enjoy Ben Browder's Jack-like insouciance. He has taken over the Jack part of the Jack-Daniel repartee with panache. It is always nice to see Don Davis again (he died later than I had realized--in 2008). 

Last but not least: the one good thing about the Ori is that their storyline puts context to the Ascended (Alterans)'s non-interferance policy.

Classic murder mystery ending--Tuvok as the detective.
Episode 12: Collateral Damage

Very nice episode that reminds me of one of my favorite episodes from Star Trek: Voyager, "Ex Post Facto,"  where Tuvok investigates a murder supposedly committed by Tom Paris.  There's a nice twist that I saw coming, but I never mind seeing twists coming--I still enjoy them! (I would never have seen The Sixth Sense seven or eight times if I didn't.)

Episode 13: Ripple Effect

Another nice episode with a classic sci-fi motif: parallel universes. I love how putting 2+ Carters in a room results in instant scientific breakthroughs! There's also a great Star Trek reference about having "beards" in an "evil universe." And a couple of pleasant guest appearances.

Ba'al in paisley--and he pulls it off!
Episode 14: Stronghold

Jaffa politics. Mitchell's subplot is interesting--his friend is one of those actors who show up all over television: Bones, Numb3rs, Whedon's Much Ado, CSI. Yup, he has one of those careers!

Ba'al is back--in pastel--I love his clothes! (And I hope someone got him into a sarcophagus. Pity to lose one of Stargate's more interesting villains.) 

More to follow . . .

For the Fans: I Like Jackson’s Trilogy, Part II

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The final movie captures Bilbo's inner struggles.
Ultimately, the movies are an excellent showcase for Martin Freeman. Throughout the trilogy, Jackson delivers Bilbo's scenes with surprising accuracy (adaptations do involve change!). He is in the movies as much as he is in the book.

Bilbo’s presence in the book ebbs and flows. Tolkien's prose is smooth and unselfconscious: he doesn’t call attention to his own textual strategies. Because so much of the action is delivered through Bilbo’s eyes (Bilbo saw that the dwarfs had . . . ), the reader is left with the impression that Bilbo is doing more than he does in fact do. Many of the chapters use the third person plural almost exclusively: Bilbo and the dwarfs. They . . . Thorin and company . . .

Every place in the book where Bilbo rises to the fore in action, not just voice, appears in the movies. These instances may appear less because, well, more is more. But Jackson never forgets his protagonist. Not only are Bilbo’s scenes rendered, they are often “strictly rendered”: Bilbo and Gollum 's scene is transferred practically verbatim from book to film.*

It would be interesting to see a "book" version of the trilogy, one cut to just Bilbo's scenes (or those that affect him directly). Since all of them are there, the resulting movie might hold together surprisingly well. But then, of course, all the "more" would be gone! I am personally hoping that Jackson puts out a director's cut that expands the trilogy by several hours. My one complaint about Five Armies is that it ends too abruptly--I think Jackson was responding to criticisms that Return of the King had too many endings. Me? I want three or four endings!**

Returning to Bilbo, one major difference between the book and the trilogy is that we don’t hear Bilbo’s inner voice in those scenes where he rises to the fore—which one does with the book. I wonder if Jackson considered (and obviously discarded) a voice-over by Bilbo. If so, I imagine he found no need for it once he watched Martin Freeman on film.

Freeman’s physical acting makes a voice-over unnecessary. In the scene where Bilbo rescues the dwarfs from the Elf King's prison, Freeman conveys Bilbo’s exasperation and sudden confusion (“I forgot to get a barrel for me!”) through physical movement: the tilt of a chin, the hunch of a shoulder, the rise of a foot. But then film is—and should be—about what one sees, not what one hears.

So if you are tired of reading all the negative commentary online (and believe me, there’s plenty of it out there!), rest assured: at least one person loves the book and the trilogy!

--Slight Spoiler--

*In Five Armies, Bilbo’s decision to keep the Arkenstone, then pass it on to Thorin’s enemies plays as large a part as I had hoped it would. Despite the rapid sequence of events—Jackson is tackling multiple storylines at once—the movie conveys the difficulty and pain of Bilbo's decision (in fact, more time is spent on Bilbo making the decision than on carrying it out). The confrontation between Thorin and Bilbo at the gate after Thorin discovers Bilbo's "betrayal" is powerful although I favor the final scene between Bilbo and Thorin as heartbreakingly "true": both Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman deliver their characters' lines from the end of the book with gentle pathos and, in Martin Freeman's case, a boldly different interpretation: masterful performances by both actors.

**Interestingly enough, Five Armies is far more self-consciously thematic than the Return of the King. LOTR is message or platitude-oriented: it is always darkest before the dawn; never give up; despair is the worst sin; the smallest person can change the course of history. Five Armies, however, ends with an uneasy peace (as does the book)--a difficult plot to platitudize.

The Mithril coat plus a discussion of values.
In many ways, Five Armies plays the same role in its trilogy as Two Towers except that Five Armies comes at the end of the quest cycle rather than the middle (hence the need for more endings). In a way, Jackson's decision to keep to the book here may have worked against the overall trilogy. I expected a more deliberate bridge of The Hobbit to LOTR; I surmise that Jackson pulled back to satisfy those who accuse him of "marketing" the movies and trying to capitalize off his success with LOTR. (This is a truly weird criticism: of course, Jackson is trying to make money off both trilogies! That's his job. Somebody has to pay WETA--the folks there can't work for free. Most readers don't have several million dollars floating around  with which to mount their own interpretations of Tolkien. Thank goodness somebody does!).

To solve the problem of Five Armies, Jackson threads it with a classic motif: by their fruits you shall know them - or - people show what they care about by what they argue, fight, and die for. Consequently, Thorin's speech to Bilbo at the end is not only a part of the book that had to be included (how I felt going in) but the capstone of a not-too-overly-didactic theme.

For the Fans: I Like Jackson’s Trilogy, Part I

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The banishment of Sauron to Mordor: a scene
referenced in The Hobbit and LOTR, fully 
explored in Jackson's latest trilogy.
Considering how much money Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy has made by now, there are regrettably few people with whom I can share my love of the movies. So to any fans who might read this post, this is for you. (If you want to discourse on how awful it is, there are other websites!)

I like this movie--and Jackson's!
(I prefer "and's" to "or's.")
I recently reread the book (second time in a year; fifth or sixth time in my life so far) and was struck all over again by Tolkien’s plotting and perspective. The book is lighter in tone than the trilogy but not quite as light as criticisms of the trilogy often imply. If you are in search of that particular interpretation, I recommend the delightful Rankin production—it is a faithful adaptation, tightly plotted, with great songs!

Although aimed at children, the book itself is filled with dark edges. Nothing in the book reaches the sheer exhausting terror and despair of the Mordor chapters in The Lord of the Rings. However, even as a kid, I recognized the unusual anti-hero elements, not to mention the dramatic and shattering chain of events that led up to the destruction of Laketown and the final battle. The book is also remarkably political, a factor that Jackson captures well. Thorin’s fear that the mountain will be overrun by hoarders is justified. At the same time, the people of Laketown have rights to the treasure. The Elf King’s claim, though less meritorious (in the book and in the movie), still carries weight. Tolkien handles the resulting conflict with a deftness that belies its complexity—but the complexity is there.

Likewise, the lightness of Tolkien’s touch is not intended to disguise the greed, anger, fear, and self-interest of many characters. The Elf King is indeed "less wise and more dangerous [than the elves at Rivendell]."  Likewise, the Master possesses a cunning mind (as Baldrick would say). His conman-like assessment of Thorin & Company (it takes one to imagine one) permeates those chapters as they permeate the film, more than validating Jackson’s interpretation of Laketown politics. In fact (speaking of Baldrick), Jackson intelligently gives the Laketown scenes a Monty-Python/Blackadder feel and humor that is somewhat atypical for his films but perfect for the venue (and Stephen Fry). These scenes are very English.

Speaking of Laketown, Jackson is often criticized for adding to/expanding on so much of the book’s material. Since nothing is eliminated, my response here is the same as Frasier’s:

“If less is more, imagine how much more more will be!”

That’s how I feel about the trilogy: Give me The Hobbit plus all the stuff referred to in The Hobbit and LOTR plus Tolkien’s extra material plus the invented stuff Jackson decided to throw in. I’ll take it all!*

Adaptations of a book to film can take several routes: the slideshow or strict rendering (boring), the interpretation (more interesting), the other viewpoint (fascinating), the make-a-place-for-myself (problematic but possibly insightful), and the “all we used was the title” (pointless). For instance, Howl’s Moving Castle is an interpretation and a make-a-place-for-myself, not a strict rendering. Yet nothing is lost. Hey, it’s Miyazaki!

LOTR, which I greatly enjoy, is an interpretation. With The Hobbit trilogy, Jackson gave himself permission to combine interpretation with other viewpoint (The Hobbit inside Tolkien’s larger universe) plus make-myself-a-place.

He had fun! And I am very grateful.

*Even Legolas’s superhuman abilities don’t bother me. In fact, I enjoy the barrel scene as one of Jackson’s few “less is more” action sequences. I’d rather watch a Spiderman leaping on people’s heads for five minutes than people mashing each other with swords for twenty. (Best action scene ever made: John McClane blowing up the building in Die Hard: no muss, no fuss, and it lasts about a minute.)

Good Feminism: The Closer

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Brenda and Sharon Raydor
The most fascinating aspect of feminism on The Closer is that Brenda, the lead, doesn't perceive herself in those terms but the writers do (and are aware of the dichotomy).

Brenda sees everyone from murderers to herself in terms of individuality. In Season 6, she informs Captain Raydor that the feminist movements has given her the right to make her own choices--she doesn't have to pursue the highest position to prove something to other women; she can follow her own inclinations.

Although she bows to Captain Raydor's arguments to run for Chief of Police, she retains her individual remove, ultimately scuppering her chances at the job by a justified (but politically problematic) shooting. "You should have let me take the shot," a frustrated Flynn tells her. Brenda shrugs. She either forgot about the political ramifications (focusing only on the case) or deliberately acted against them. Either way, she did what she wanted. 

Ultimately, politics don't interest Brenda. To Captain Taylor in Season 1, she states:
Captain Taylor, I suppose I should apologize to you for not having been born in Los Angeles, but, having seen your work up close now for several months, I can honestly say that, try as I might, I can't think of *any* fair and reasonable system on Earth where I wouldn't outrank you. There, I hope that clears everything up. Well, excuse me, I mean, uh, I have to go. Thank you very much. Thank you.
Brenda doesn't care that Taylor is black or that she is a woman. She would outrank him on the merits, pure and simple.

On the other hand, the writers underscore Brenda's ability to solve cases and get confessions as a feminine trait. Like the women in Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers," Brenda notices "trifles" (to borrow the original title from Glaspell) because she is a woman. Her femininity and experience of womanhood keep her  open to clues and information that men would dismiss or simply not notice.

She would make Miss Marple proud!

Brenda et al.
In fact, The Closer is a suitable heir to the Golden Age mysteries of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. The good feminism (to which Sayers would have laid claim quicker than Christie) of both writers is the sheer, unrepentant individuality of the female protagonist. Both Sayers and Christie, however different in personality, supported the right of women to live life on their terms as women, not in bondage to a system, whether that system is patriarchy OR political feminism.

In a similar fashion, Brenda might use her feminine wiles to flirt with Pope and bamboozle male authority figures, but she does it because she can, not because Women (capital letter) are supposed to. Or not.

Short is Sexy

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For reasons that I don't fully understand (I confess to being nonplussed by most appearance-based criticisms), short men are supposedly less attractive than tall men.

Balderdash!

Here are some (comparatively) short men (i.e. not the supposedly preferable 6') who are sweet, sexy, and smoldering:

Seamus Deaver: With Seamus Deaver, height is completely relative. His co-star Nathan Fillion (6'-1/2" with the strapping build of an oil-rig worker) tends to make everyone on Castle's set look short.

Not only is Seamus Deaver a gifted actor and a handsome man, like Martin Freeman (next), he has mobile features that alter his appearance every few seconds. Even a change in hairstyle can alter his persona. It is very cool to watch.

The incomparable Martin Freeman (5'6"). I can't say enough good things!! I never get tired of watching him.

The ever so sexy (and charming) Michael Emerson (at 5'8") with his wife Carrie Preston (5'4"). Aren't they adorable?!

Interestingly enough, in Person of Interest, Michael Emerson's character is the more romantic of the two male leads. He often plays Cyrano to Reese's Christian. He is also more likely to try to save a marriage while Reese is content to give guns to both spouses and let them figure things out for themselves.

David Suchet (5'7") with the kindest eyes in the entire world. He was Poirot for over two decades and did the part proud. Suchet captured Poirot's Monk-like finickiness as well as his fundamental toughness. His eyes are extraordinarily expressive and can get quite flinty when Poirot is displeased.

As for Monk, the warm adorable Tony Shalhoub is 5'10" while the sexiest man in the world, Ted Levine, is 5'11". (And yes, I am absolutely serious about that last statement. Levine comes very close to embodying the attributes of sexiness and adorableness; however, that award goes to the last actor on this list.)

For short and bald (another common criticism), there is the smoldering Luca Zingaretti (approximately 5'9" -5'10" if compared against Cesare Bocci), playing Montalbano. Like with the last actor on the list, I also really like Montalbano's coat.

Another striking and commanding bald man, Patrick Stewart is also 5'10".

And the best of the best, the gorgeous Peter Falk at 5'6". Doesn't he just make you go weak at the knees?

(Thus endeth my post with its abundance of superlative adverbs, but this post deserved them!)

























Michael Rooker: Hard to Classify

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In the episode "Disturbed," Season 5 of Numb3rs, Colby and Liz Warner have the following exchange:
Colby: Hey,what's that movie with Al Pacino-- he's a cop, and he ends up sleeping with Ellen Barkin, and then it turns out that her ex-husband was the killer?
Liz: Sea of Love.
Colby: No,that wasn't it.
Liz: Yeah, it is. Seen it, like, five times.
Colby: You a big Pacino fan?
Liz: No. Michael Rooker fan. He was Henry in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Colby: Oh, yeah, that guy. That guy's always the killer.
Liz: No, he's not. You ever seen The Replacement Killers? He was the cop.
This exchange is apparently a reference to Michael Rooker appearing in Numb3rs' unaired pilot as Don Eppes' partner. At the time that I watched this episode, however, I had no idea who he was. Then, I saw him in Psych.

And then in Chuck.

And finally, I figured out that Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy was Michael Rooker:

So now I'm a fan too.

M is for More

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Eikon Bible Art
I covered a number of Ms in "Mc is for Magic" and "M is for Mystery Writers (specifically Marsh)". Here are the rest . . .
 
Mann, Thomas. Thomas Mann wrote Joseph and His Brothers and Joseph in Egypt, both of which I attempted to read when I was younger. I am a huge fan of the story of Joseph from the Old Testament in all its formats. I was introduced to the story as art when one of my brothers brought home a recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. This was back in the 70s, so I couldn't say which version it was. I don't think it was the original (performed in a boys' school), but it was pretty close. I was . . . enamored, is the only appropriate word. I memorized all the songs and sang them (probably tonelessly--these days I only sing in the shower or car) constantly as I wandered about the house. I have since experienced several live versions of the musical (including an excellent local stage company's production) plus multiple movie versions, musical and otherwise.  I quite like the New Media Bible/Genesis Project version, which is unfortunately, difficult to get these days.

One of the best stories ever told!

McCullough, Colleen: I read Tim. I dismissed Thorn Birds. And I greatly disliked the premise of her Austen tribute.

Medeiros, Theresa is a romance writer whose books I occasionally read. Her romances fall directly between character-based and world-based--all about the romantic leads (which I prefer) or all about the world in which they live, including their co-workers, pets, family friends, cousins, and neighbors, etc. etc. etc. (which I don't much care for), so choosing a book is something of a gamble.

I quite like the Patrick Stewart version of Moby Dick--
that's Ted Levine in the middle! 
Melville, Herman. I have read some of Moby Dick! I gave up around the middle. However, I admire the book and use the chapter "The Whiteness of the Whale" in my folklore class (after which, I say, "Aren't you glad I don't make you read the whole thing?")

Meyer, Stephanie. I read a chapter of the first Twilight book. Bella bored me, so I gave up. Having said that, I have nothing against Meyer or the series. I love to see writers make money!

Michaels, Barbara is the alter-ego for Barbara Mertz who also writes as Elizabeth Peters! I have read books under all "MPM" pseudonyms. The Barbara Michaels'  books are suspense/romance. I quite like them. I quite like Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series as well, but I haven't kept up with it (there are only so many unending series that I can keep up with--right now, my focus is Cherryh's Foreigner series--I recently finished Book 15).

Milan, Courtney is romance writer whose books are somewhat difficult to track down (in libraries). I greatly enjoyed her series starting with Unveiled. Romance writers tend to excel at male or female characters; Milan does a satisfactory job bringing the Turner Brothers to life. The female characters are less distinct although I enjoyed Miranda Darling of Unraveled.

Miller, Arthur. He is a great playwright. And The Crucible makes a great point. It isn't historically accurate, which happens to bug me. Still, it deserves its accolades

Mitchell, Margaret. I read Gone With the Wind in 10th or 11th grade. It was one of my first introductions to literary snobbery.

I wafted between two or three "cliques" in high school. One group of friends read Judy Blume stuff, including teen romance paperbacks. The other group read stuff like On Walden Pond. When I brought out my 1000-page tome of Gone with the Wind, the Walden Pond group responded with raised  brows and pursed mouths (seriously--there is nothing so solemn and prudish and miserable as a bunch of literary snobs). I read the book anyway.

In general, I was largely saved from literary snobbery in high school and college by utter bemusement: Why would I limit my reading material based on what others read? I truly didn't understand why anybody would do such a self-destructive thing.

Montgomery, L.M. is best known for her Anne novels. Like Louisa May Alcott, Montgomery also wrote ghost/suspense stories. They are quite good!
 
Mortimer, John: The Rumpole stories are delightful. The series starring Leo McKern even more so!


All Good Actors are Hams

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In the Supernatural second season episode "Tall Tales," the two brothers investigate a college campus. Unable to explain the resident phenomenon (or their own bickering), they call on their father's friend for help. Each brother takes turns explaining what has happened. Suffering from cabin fever and spiritual malaise, they exaggerate each other's faults. In Sam's version, Dean is portrayed as a boorish oaf. In Dean's version, Sam is portrayed as a prissy, overemotional "pansy."

This is reasonably funny and reasonably true-to-life since the faults the brothers pick on are the kinds of things that brothers might in fact pick on (and reflect both brothers' personalities).

What makes it hilarious is that the actors don't flinch at hamming up their character's faults.

With utter unself-consciousness, Jensen Ackles (as the oaf) stuffs twenty or more nuts into his mouth while Jared Padalecki (as the overly emotional empathizer) hugs a bewildered student for being a "trooper" and "too precious for this world." Of course the whole thing devolves into a fight over the equivalent of car keys (it's a money clip).

The jokes go beyond the actors and the "insider" momentum of Season 2. One doesn't have to know who the characters are (though it helps) to enjoy their physical comedy. For reasons best explored by humor researchers, watching a man overstuff his mouth and then try to talk makes a person laugh. (Really: I haven't laughed this hard since Buffy.)

At this point (I've just starting watching Supernatural), I decided that I not only enjoy the well-plotted (and deceptively simple) episodes:  I like the actors as well.

Every good actor should be willing to ham it up. It can't be easy since, as the gentlemanly Leonard Nimoy points out, actors must be willing to protect their characters. But hey, even Spock giggled at the whales (of course, knowing when to be serious and when to giggle is an art in itself; Tom Hanks never seems to make mistakes here--he always picks the best film to showcase his talents--but many actors do).

When it is time for ham, it is time for ham. Shakespeare understood this. In her murder mysteries, Josephine Tey argues that actors should never allow their personal lives to spill over into the performance; it makes the audience uncomfortable. Of course, Tey hadn't seen reality television. But her point is valid. A self-conscious actor stops living in the moment and starts watching him or herself, which shatters the suspension of disbelief; the story--and the audience--flounder. Robert Downey, Jr. may always act Robert Downey, Jr. but he is acting. He is being Sherlock or Tony for the sake of being Sherlock or Tony. 

To put it another way, he is having fun! In a discussion of The Desolation of Smaug, Benedict Cumberbatch ruminates on the freedom of motion capture. It might not seem like acting yet the play-like, unself-conscious nature of the exercise can make it more like a true "act" than presenting oneself to the cameras. (Instead, the cameras come to the actor.)

I acted in high school (and a little in college: my English Department put on some plays), and I utilize some of that experience as a teacher, drawing on energy to present a topic for its own sake without thinking about myself. However, I could never quite reach that point of complete submersion (which is why I considered playwriting over playacting).

The best actors make it about the part. Being able to ham it up is the test.

Jane Eyre Revisited: Here I Go Again!

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Inspired by Joe, I am rewatching Jane Eyre films, starting with Jane Eyre (1944), starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. I provide my latest review followed by my earlier one (I will be writing the 2014/2015 reviews before rereading the 2005 ones--after all, my opinions might change!) 

December 2014

Joan Fontaine is more an Austen heroine than a Bronte one. She took on Jane Eyre at the age of 27 and exhibits all the confident maturity of, well, a 27-year-old woman. (She would make an excellent Elinor!) She comes off as didactic and well-meaning rather than smitten and raw.

This is more problematic than it sounds. Fontaine's Eyre lacks mischievousness--in a later version, when commanded by Rochester to entertain him at the piano, Jane plays an overly performed tune, knowing it will irritate Rochester (similar to playing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" or singing Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" for an American Idol audition). Later film Janes--and for that matter book Jane--enjoy deliberately poking the bear.

1944 Jane, however, is more into "taming" the beast than provoking him. She endures Rochester's bullying not only passively but sympathetically ("oh, the poor man"). Consequently, she becomes a pitiable figure rather than an intrinsically tough one. Instead of studying Rochester objectively with eyes hooded, she seems to look past him to what he represents (husband material). Book Rochester would HATE that. 

On multiple occasions, the movie informs its audience that Jane loves and admires Rochester; unfortunately, without the repartee--the arguing!--of other versions (and the book), that "fact" must be taken entirely on faith. Are they truly good friends? Eh . . . 

Peggy Ann Garner
Actually, 1944 is a better version than my criticism implies. Orson Welles clearly comprehended his character (even if Fontaine didn't "get" hers) and delivers Rochester's best lines with deep-throated eloquence. I love his clothes. I like his dog!


The movie is beautifully filmed and impressively fast-paced. An adaptation of Jane Eyre takes anywhere from 2 to 4+ hours. 96 minutes--without the loss of anything of great importance--is impressive. (The one flaw, as mentioned above, is that the audience doesn't get to see Jane and Rochester's relationship grow.)

Amanda Root
As for casting Jane Eyre, the child Jane Eyre, played by Peggy Ann Garner, is exactly right. For black & white, Margaret Sullavan (if the film had been made 10 years earlier) would have made a fantastic Jane. (More recently, Amanda Root even at 32--when she did Persuasion--could have captured the essence of Jane.)

June 2005

The Orson Welles' version (1944) is naturally definitive, mostly because Orson Welles is Rochester. My biggest problem with this version is Joan Fontaine. She looks so thoroughly like the nice-girl-next-door, I never fully believe in her character's persona: a somewhat eccentric, 18-year-old whose passionate otherworldiness will attract Rochester despite his good intentions. While Orson Welles is growling and beetling his brows and running about in gorgeous (and well-fitted) dressing gowns, I keep expecting Joan Fontaine to say, "Oh, and when did you want your washing done, honey?"

[I still mostly agree with my 2005 review although I think that Welles sells his role through sheer genius rather than in being exactly "right". He succeeds because (1) he uses his dialog to provide depth to the Jane-Rochester relationship; (2) oh my, that voice!] 

Evil Computers: But They Don't Act That Way In Real Life

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McClane and a lighter: how low-tech!
Eugene recently reflected on the overuse of the "mainframe plot" (networked computers about to take over the world). As part of my Christmas traditions, I recently rewatched Die Hard, the original, and was impressed all over again by how a non-computer plot can keep an audience on the edge of its seats.

This year, I managed to see Die Hard on the big screen for the first time (part of a cult classic series in a nearby movie theater). The theater was about 2/3rds full, which is impressive for a non-new release! The audience audibly gasped when McClane limped into the bathroom, his feet full of glass shards--even though we'd all seen the movie more than once and one guy even knew the name of the novel on which the movie was based (there was a trivia game beforehand).

In other words, it is McClane's physical and mental endurance plus Alan Rickman's urbane villainy that holds the movie together, not some amorphous, omniscient big bad.

Low-tech tension.
And I must say that Alan Rickman holds up impressively well. Bruce Willis does, of course, but that's because Bruce Willis has been acting John McClane for years. Unfortunately, villains from older movies often come across as hokey as the dialog references to VHS (that got people chuckling). Yet Alan Rickman is still as scary and suave and deadpan now as then.

While contemplating the impressiveness of Die Hard's non-computer plot and Eugene's post about the lack of plausible motivations (what could the computers possibly want?), I decided that part of the problem with "mainframe plots" is the "nothing ever ever glitches" syndrome.

For example, in response to Eugene's post, Dan comments on Live Free or Die Hard: "There is a state of emergency in DC and yet a large semi-truck housing the bad guys' command center is driving around unmolested (and again are not the roads congested?)." I view Live Free or Die Hard as pure fun fantasy (that plane!), but I think Dan has pinpointed a big problem with the mechanics of "mainframe plots."

It's a problem that also occurs in murder mysteries. In Dial M for Murder, the character, Mark Halliday, a mystery writer, restates the problem in writing terms:
Margot Mary Wendice: Do you really believe in the perfect murder?
Mark Halliday: Mmm, yes, absolutely. On paper, that is. And I think I could, uh, plan one better than most people; but I doubt if I could carry it out.
Tony Wendice: Oh? Why not?
Mark Halliday: Well, because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to; and in real life they don't... always.
Tony Wendice: Hmm.
Mark Halliday: No, I'm afraid my murders would be something like my bridge: I'd make some stupid mistake and never realize it until I found everybody was looking at me.
I complain in my comment to Eugene's post about Bones, Season 8. In general, I think that season's episodes are well-written. However, I dislike Pelant, the season's villain (who luckily only shows up for 3 or 4 episodes) since he is "one of those 'bad for the sake of being bad' villains," more interested in getting attention than in his own self-interest. I consider this boring.

He is also a computer mastermind who uses the computer to do everything. I consider this implausible.

I don't mind when Root and Finch do fantastic things with computers in Person of Interest because the show is built on the premise that The Machine is (1) possible; (2) partially sentient. Of course the people who created and understand it would be masterminds!

I also don't mind because within the structure of the show (I finished Season 2, haven't yet started Season 3), the machine and its creator are still fallible.

What amazes me with Pelant is that he uses the computer to move people around, get people out of jail, get people moved into different facilities, get evidence planted, blah, blah, blah and nothing ever goes wrong with his plans.

Superman can type really fast; that doesn't mean that the computer can handle his speed. There's a great line in Stargate SG-1 where super-speed Carter
complains, "I’m writing a book on wormhole physics but this damn computer isn’t fast enough. When the buffers are full I have to wait for it to catch up!" In the video, she complains that she is stuck on a glacier with "Macgyver," and even he can't rescue them!

Pelant's masterminding also doesn't take into account that people do not always do what the computer says

Believe me--I can't tell you the number of times my students have failed a quiz, print or on-line, because they did not read the instructions.

At one point, Pelant creates a second identity for himself--voila, he is now an Egyptian citizen, and that government comes to get him out of U.S. jail.

But governments are slow. And bureaucrats play games. And higher-ups like to throw their weight around. Isn't it far more likely that the request to release Pelant would end up in a crazy, swampish quagmire of red tape as convoluted as this metaphor? Isn't it more likely that Bureaucrat 1 would decide to trade favors with Bureaucrat 2, and Pelant would languish in some extradition hole for months on end?

In the NCIS episode "Broken Bird," the Afghani ambassador feels compelled to take seriously the accusation against Ducky for war crimes. While sitting in the Afghani embassy, Ziva quietly points out to Gibbs that the man is in a difficult position. He doesn't want to be responsible for creating tension between the United States and Afghanistan, but he can't ignore the issue. He is waiting to make the call home, which gives Gibbs time to play a "I'll give you information for a favor" game with Trent.

All this is far, far, far more likely than that Cause A will automatically lead to Effect B.

"Did you know?" Finch to The Machine. He didn't check!
I haven't even addressed the following in detail: computers break; many computers--especially those in government (healthcare.gov, anyone?)--are slow, unwieldy, and stupidly programmed; nothing is instantaneous, not even Amazon's sales or PayPal (there is a process): stuff has to be downloaded; someone has to look at the stuff; someone has to print it out or forward it to the correct authorities. In addition, information on-line can be corrupted by viruses or the computer crashing; it can be hacked, which means the information is often double-checked against eyewitnesses and/or written information; information on-line can also be wrong because it was wrongly entered in the first place. AND, ultimately, people have to turn the machine on, i.e. check it, to get the information at all.

All the stuff that drives us responsible, everyday citizens crazy when dealing with, say, healthcare.gov is all the stuff that keeps even Finch grounded (and Finch's occasional inability to see the human side of a problem is part of his personality, charm, and inner conflict).

I'll take the clever but fallible villain/hero any day over the computer masterminds who never, never mess up.

Bring back Han Gruber!

Chicago in the Movies (and One Television Show)

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Possibly the best proposal scene of all romantic comedies!
A surprising number of my favorite films take place in Chicago:

I recently rewatched While You Were Sleeping. It utilizes the same core concept as The Proposal, another Sandra Bullock film, which I watched for the first time on DVD this fall. The Proposal is a cute film; however, While You Were Sleeping is better, and I figured--after watching The Proposal--that I might as well go back to the source.

The similarity: in both cases, Sandra Bullock's character pretends to be engaged to a man whose family takes her into their hearts. The man, or his brother, subsequently realizes that she is the best thing that ever happened to him and proposes.

Sweet, cute, and with Bullock in the heroine's role, surprisingly believable (by romance movie standards). Bill Pullman is 10 years older than Bullock and Reynolds is 12 years younger but Bullock pulls off the role of vulnerable ingenue in both cases while the heroes convince us that they are utterly smitten (personally, I prefer Pullman, simply because I think Pullman as a romantic hero was totally underused in his youth).

Besides, with While You Were Sleeping, you get all those great Chicago landscapes and references!

The same is true in The Lakehouse, one of Keanu Reeves best romantic movies (in general, Reeves should stick to action). It helps that he is paired with his Speed partner, Bullock! The Lakehouse is a sweet romantic comedy, reminiscent in tone more of You've Got Mail than Sleepless in Seattle (I  greatly prefer the former to the latter).

Gerard and team members
The Fugitive is one of my favorite action films (not as great as Die Hard, of course, but pretty far up there). It was my introduction to Tommy Lee Jones, who steals the movie, not to mention to the city of Chicago! Although The Lakehouse uses the imagery of Chicago to bring the romantic leads together, any beautiful city would have done. The Fugitive relies on Chicago to supply the clues and solve the mystery:
Marshal Henry: I may be crazy but that train sounds like an el.
Cosmo Renfro: St Louis doesn't have an elevated train. Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard: How do you know it's an elevated train?
Marshal Stevens: I think he's right. I lived under an el for 20 years.
Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard: Then you can explain the difference in the sound of an elevated train as opposed to a train that's running along the ground. You must have ears like a eagle: play that back; I wanna hear the sound of an elevated train.
And for a Chicago-based television show, check out Due South. I own all seasons of Due South and adore them all (I also wish more 90's shows were as readily available). Paul Gross plays the Mountie straight man, Benton Fraser. David Marciano excels as his first partner, and Callum Keith Rennie shines as his second partner:
Fraser: I first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of my father and, for reasons which don't need exploring at this juncture, I have remained, attached as liaison to the Canadian consulate. [Later, Fraser adds the line, "A story that takes exactly 2 hours to tell," referring to the pilot.]
Delightful show--with the perfect setting!

If I had to live away from the ocean, Chicago would be my go-to choice--even with all that snow!