Die Hard and Topsy-Turvy: Part II

The first similarity between the two movies is that both don't lose focus of the core story.

The second similarity is that both movies are devoted to "show don't tell."

Die Hard obviously already has a leg up here, being an action movies. Action movies, by default, are reckoned to focus more on show than tell. Still, even in comparison to later Die Hards, the movie is commendably free of forcing ideas or character development onto the viewer. Alan Rickman's character is never diagnosed; he simply is. Likewise, while Powell eventually explains his demotion (why he is driving around in a squad car answering routine calls) to McClane, the character's essential personality is already well-established. Likewise, although McClane's wife knocking over his picture proves a lucky plot point, it is also entirely within character.

In addition, all the bad guys have distinct personalities without anyone ever pointing this out.

Likewise, Topsy-Turvy is entirely free of editorial comments. The most basic comment is that Sullivan without Gilbert (and Gilbert without Sullivan) were never as good as their supporters might have claimed. (The two men themselves were well-aware of their "joined at the hip" success.) In the movie--and on the CD--this is made apparent through the music. Nobody ever says, "Boy, Sullivan, your 'Broken Cord' sure is popular, but it in no way compares to any of The Mikado's music," mostly because, at the time, nobody believed this. "Broken Cord" was a hugely popular Victorian song--and one of Sullivan's sole efforts that made him immensely wealthy.

Leigh doesn't forget that Victorians loved "Broken Cord"--and he does it justice. However, on the CD, in what I can only assume is a fit of mischievousness, the lovely and well-sung "Broken Cord" is placed directly before the boisterous final The Mikado chorus. "Broken Cord" is soothing and sweet. "The Finale" takes the roof of the top of your head. What needs to be said?

Two Scenes

In Die Hard, a great "show don't tell" scene occurs when the FBI helicopter gets blown up. "Well," says Powell's captain, "We're gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess."

At this point, the captain has demonstrated exasperation with Powell, who tells him off; exasperation with McClane, who tells him off, yet all of his exasperation is in keeping with his fundamental personality of dry irritation. So he gets one of the most memorable lines in the film--because he is the character who would say it.

In Topsy-Turvy, one of my favorite "show don't tell" scenes occurs when Helen Lenoir (Carte's assistant) sits down with Gilbert and Sullivan to try to work out their differences. I love this scene for many reasons. One is that Helen Lenoir really did assist Carte to this extent--this is not Leigh imposing a feminist interpretation on to the past (he consistently avoids imposing modern attitudes onto the script). She and Carte would marry three years after the triumphant The Mikado, after which rather than retiring into Victorian wifeliness, she would continue to help run (and eventually run entirely) the D'Oyley Carte Opera Company.

In the scene, Gilbert and Sullivan are at odds; Gilbert is producing the same type of plot/lyrics as ever; Sullivan is sick of them and feels pressured by his friends to do something "serious." Both men are contracted to the D'Oyley Carte Opera Company to write more operas together. D'Oyley Carte, a smooth operator in his own right, has tried speaking to both of them, specifically Sullivan. Now he turns the matter over to Lenoir who takes his desk while Carte sits on a nearby couch. Both Gilbert and Sullivan are present. Lenoir speaks bluntly yet diplomatically to both of them. She lays out the problem. Nobody will give in:
Gilbert: Every theatrical performance is a contrivance by its very nature.
Sullivan: Yes, but this piece consists entirely of an artificial and implausible situation.
Gilbert: If you wish to write a Grand Opera about a prostitute, dying of consumption in a garret, I suggest you contact Mr. Ibsen in Oslo. I am sure he will be able to furnish you with something suitably dull.
Carte is upset at the "offense" to Lenoir "(Gilbert mentioning prostitutes). Gilbert apologizes. Lenoir waves away the "offense" as immaterial. She's a businesswoman. She wants a resolution. There is no resolution. Everyone very politely bids each other adieu, Gilbert and Sullivan collecting their hats.

It is an amazing scene because it digs to the root of the two men's disagreement, yet remains absolutely civil. It is fierce conflict clothed in dialog, all of which is conveyed without misstep by the involved parties.

Show me, don't tell me--I can fill in the rest.

Die Hard and Topsy-Turvy: Part 1

If Die Hard is the best action movie ever (which it is), Topsy-Turvy is the best historical drama ever.

It may seem odd to compare such content-different movies, but they share three remarkable similarities (other than both being rated "R"):

1. Both movies focus on a single story.

Die Hard is about a guy who rescues a building from terrorist-like bank robbers. Topsy-Turvy is about two guys who put on a comic opera, specifically The Mikado.

Neither movie loses sight of its central concept and both are nearly seamless in delivering that main concept/idea despite other stuff impinging on the plot: husband and wife having marital troubles, artisans wanting more money per performance,  composer wishing to write a grand opera, fellow cop scarred by shooting an unarmed civilian.

Topsy-Turvy is especially impressive here. Topsy-Turvy is about as meta as a historical drama can get without breaking the fourth wall. It is a modern director telling the biography of a historical composer and librettist while having said historical personages put on a nineteenth-century version of a nineteenth-century-created comic opera using modern actors and actresses who are playing real personages as well as characters.

So Martin Savage is playing Grossmith playing an admiral, a sorcerer, and a Japanese executioner (amongst other roles).

On top of all the meta, Mike Leigh is also exploring Gilbert's and Sullivan's personal lives, the technological advances of the nineteenth century, class in the nineteenth century, the life of the actor/actress, how to rehearse lines, and the running of the Savoy Theatre.

Leigh directing actors whose characters are directed by
Jim Broadbent as Gilbert.
Movies that attempt to do story-in-a-wider-context often collapse under their own weight OR skimp on everything, producing a "huh" reaction from the viewer. Invictus, which I quite like, just fails to convey the life-of-Nelson-Mandela-through-the-eyes-of-rugby (but is fun to watch anyway). The Imitation Game partly succeeds at World War II-(or computers? or being gay?)-through-Turing's-experience but loses sight of its thesis (note the question marks) at about the 2/3rds mark (but is worth watching for the sake of Cumberbatch).

And yet Topsy-Turvy, like Die Hard, never loses sight of its objective. Topsy-Turvy goes every so slightly wobbly maybe twice but  its wobbliness is barely noticeable. Like in Die Hard, the ultimate point is never sacrificed to more alluring possibilities like scandal or domestic troubles or news reporting, however much those things touch on the plot. Getting The Mikado produced from the initial inspiration to the final achievement (or getting the hostages rescued and the bad guys stopped) is the point, and the point never faileth.

Robots the Way They Shouldn't Be: The Black Hole and Other Sci-Fi Creations

V.I.N.C.E.N.T. from The Black Hole
The Black Hole is a strange movie. I suppose it was Disney's answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. I watched it in pretty much the same way--or rather, I non-watched it in pretty much the same way. It was on . . . while I was somewhere in my apartment cleaning, cooking, and feeding my cats.

I'm not going to review it because that would be unfair--to me, since I'd have to actually real-watch the film first.

But I do want to issue a complaint. What is up with non-humanoid looking robots? There are SOOOO boring.

Okay, Hal isn't so much but then Hal is more of a horror concept than a character. What I fail to find even slightly interesting are clunky robots like Vincent (The Black Hole) or Number 5 (Short Circuit) or Robby the Robot. Roddy McDowell all by himself would have been more interesting in the first case. And the second two are far from cuddly (and highly irritating). 

What makes Vincent from The Black Hole doubly odd is that for its time period, the other special effects of the movie are fairly impressive. Even a sci-fi film today would deserve praise for The Black Hole's bridge. (Take note, George Lucas--not every vista has to look two-dimensional.)

So why use such a clunky protagonist like Vincent--especially with the cutsey eyes? Look at him next to the comparatively sleeker robots: aren't they about two billion times more interesting?

The one major exception (with a few minor ones) is, of course, R2D2. This is because R2D2 and C-3PO (a humanoid robot) operate together as a joke. R2D2 is the straight man to C-3PO's antics. The visual IS the joke.

The same is true of Wall-e: he provides a visual joke.

The problem with the boring robots listed above is that they are supposed to be characters, not simply visual puns. They are expected to provide humorous moments, but no more or less than the human characters. Ultimately, the audience is supposed to take them seriously. There is a very, very good reason to choose a Data over a Robby the Robot when you want someone who can deliver both humor and seriousness without engendering a rolling of eyes.

Asimov was right. Asimov is always right.
Asimov's Giskard

What Genre Paperbacks Can Teach Us About All Literature

1. From the outside, everything looks the same. But it isn't.

"It's all the same" is the kind of statement one isn't supposed to admit to thinking about "literary" works--or anything posh, such as classical music. In my master's program, I got into an argument with a professor who insisted that country music isn't very deep; it all sounds the same and tackles the same topics. I pointed out that to the uninitiated, all classical music seems pretty much the same (which is why the 1812 Overture stands out).

Violins, anyone? Waltzes?

"You're just saying that because you like country music," he teased to which I was able to honestly reply, "No, actually, I don't."

I don't. I simply don't assume that genres that don't interest me--like rap--are not as open to differentiation as genres that do interest me.

The more I read within a genre that interests me--like mysteries or romances--the more differences I find from the quality of writing to the types of plots and settings; there are books with themes; books with strong characters; books that work; books that could work if they got a little editing; horrible books; funny books; clever books, etc. etc. etc. 

The same is true of hoity-toity stuff--only, we don't always admit it.

2. It isn't the premise; it's the treatment.

A "cozy" is not by definition, bad literature. Nor is a superhero graphic novel. The premise, all by itself, does not determine whether something is good or bad.

For example, the premise, "A priest falls in love" can be trite and stupid (Thorn Birds); it can rather delightfully sweet (The Monk Downstairs); it can be gently humorous (episode of Bless Me Father); it can be tragic (Hillerman mystery); it can be weird Jane Austen-time period semi-porn Gothic (The Monk), etc. etc. etc.

3. Without humor, nothing works.

But the treatment that makes the biggest difference is humor.

When I say humor, I don't mean that a story has to be full of jokes or that it has to fulfill a British Monty-Python fetish. I'm fairly sure, even though I've only read 1/3rd of it, that War & Peace meets my criteria.

By humor, I mean, that at some level, the writer appears to know that people can be kind of ridiculous. Within a genre, a bad work can be bad for any number of reasons (poor writing, poor plot, poor characterizations); all bad works within that genre lack humor. They indulge in over-seriousness, which over-seriousness seems to be caused by thinking that it is totally normal for people to wallow in their own self-absorption.

There's a great part in Screwtape Letters where Screwtape warns his nephew, Wormwood about pushing his "patient" too far. Screwtape wants Wormwood to tempt his "patient" into pride, even if that entails being prideful about being humble. However, there is an inherent danger in thinking "By jove, I'm being humble!" The patient might reach the point where he rolls his eyes and goes to bed.

Any piece of literature worries me if I sense that the writer thinks I shouldn't roll my eyes and go to bed.*  Which is why Tess of the D'Urbervilles is truly awful. And why Charles Dickens' work, for all its attendant awfulness, isn't so much. It's a fairly subtle distinction which is far more obvious in genre work but applies equally to so-called Great Works.

*What I'm trying to define here is rather difficult since after all, all writers want their readers to get invested. Another way to define the issue is that I get worried if I think that the writer's ability to write a story or create a character has bled over into the writer's belief that people really are as completely simple OR as precisely complex OR as exactly morbid OR as totally sweet OR as fundamentally pessimistic as the writer has decided that they are. I want the writer to indicate--even if I can't define how the writer has done so--that people may be way more than the writer has managed to capture.

Along the same lines, when I teach argument/persuasion, I instruct my students that even if they don't tackle ALL the opposition's arguments, they need to indicate that they are aware that the topic is more complex that what they have chosen to tackle in four to five pages. I don't expect them to tackle everything. I just want them not to protest that they "know it all" (because protesting that they "know it all" will actually make their argument weaker).

Back to fiction: I have no problem with character "types" (go, genre literature!) since often authors who use types KNOW they are using types and why. It is the "literary" authors who get bogged down into believing, "I have fully defined the human experience!"

Perhaps, what I really mean with my third point is that I expect writers to be humble. Genre authors are kept humble by their chosen profession. Literary authors, unfortunately, can be bamboozled by Screwtape and Wormtongue.

I Like MY Lyrics Better

A few years ago, a summer game show ran that focused on the fact that people don't know the lyrics to songs--but think they do. The hilarity circled around HOW people messed up the lyrics, like singing "Comea comea comea Charming a long" rather than "Karma karma karma karma karma chameleon."

Regarding the classic Meatloaf song, "I Would Do Anything for Love," I was convinced for years that the female vocalist's lyrics included the phrase, "Will you (Can you) cauterize my life? I'm so sick of black & white."

Let me be clear: My lyrics make NO sense!

Especially when one considers the line that follows.

The real line, of course, is, "Will you (Can you) colorize my life? I'm so sick of black & white," which naturally makes a billion times more sense.

But I quite like "cauterize." One cauterizes a wound to stop bleeding and prevent infection. As an idiom, "cauterize" often refers to ending (wiping out) one part of life and moving on to another. I thought it fit perfectly into what the female vocalist is requesting--Will you take me away from my current life? Will you help me change?

Of course, he responds, but I will never change.

E is for Engaging Enright

The Krush drawings are perfect for these books!
Elizabeth Enright was one of my favorite authors when I was growing up. I still consider her one of the best.

Enright wrote Newbery Award Winning Thimble Summer and Newbery runner-up Gone-Away Lake. Both are good (as is Return to Gone-Away). However, my favorite Enright books were and are The Melendy Series: The Saturdays, Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two.

Enright created real, funny, normal, not extra good, not extra bad children in the days when children's writers were still producing sweet-faced kiddies who said, "Yes, sir!" and did their chores.

The Melendys do their chores--only, one never feels that they are doing them to be GOOD; they do them because doing chores is part of life. They also find secret hiding places, cut off all their hair, decide one summer morning to build a dam in the nearby stream, mistakenly allow a can of tomatoes to explode, get bitten by mosquitoes, make friends with an older lady despite thinking she is kind of strange, march off to a circus without permission (then get lost coming home), get lost on a mountain (the father's story), find an arrowhead, sleep in a cupola (something I always, always, always wanted to do after reading Four-Story Mistake), and so on and so forth.

In fact, more than any other books of my childhood, The Melendy Series captures the slice-of-life that Eugene describes on his blog with the same sense of nostalgia and loss (but not loss in a sad or horrific way). Although there are some dramatic moments, especially concerning Mark (Then There Were Five), the drama never descends into melodrama. Nobody is getting scarred-for-life (not even Mark, who could be), not because the characters lack depth but because getting scarred-for-life is less interesting (surprisingly enough) than organizing a fete, locating a glowing mushroom, and collecting scrap.

The Melendys were a constant of my childhood (I can't count how many times I reread the books). I never idolized them; I simply thought, "Oh, these people make sense." Which is a lovely feeling to have.

Mystery Spoofs

As long as there have been mysteries . . .

Murder By Death, screenplay by Neil Simon, is a well-crafted and amusing sendup of mystery tropes from the manufactured thunder and lighting to the disappearing dining room (so much more efficient than secret passages!). Peter Falk as Sam Spade-Columbo-Falk impersonator outshines himself although my favorite line occurs when Maggie Smith, as Dora Charleston (think Nora Charles), responds to Elsa Lanchaster's down-to-earth Miss Marbles with the non sequitur, "Oh, I like her." (The video provides another priceless Maggie Smith moment.)

Clue: Clue is clearly the illicit stepchild of Murder by Death. It is not as tightly written nor as well-acted as its inspiration. For good or for bad, it delivers a far more spoof-y feel, closer to the joyful ridiculousness of Airplane ("Don't call me Shirley") than to straight comedy. Like many films associated with Leslie Nielsen, Airplane utilizes the throw-enough-jokes-on-the-page-hey!-some-will-stick approach. Clue sadly doesn't have Leslie Nielsen but it does have the same hyperactive feel. And some of the jokes do stick! The most memorable scene of Clue is when the characters wander collectively from room to room staring blankly at the accumulating dead bodies.

On the literature front, Agatha Christie spoofed fictional detectives in her Tommy and Tuppence short stories; Partners in Crime uses the conceit that every crime that Tommy and Tuppence solve bears resemblance to the style of crime utilized by a (then) famous mystery author. And yes, Christie even spoofed Poirot's little gray cells!

The problem is that in order to get the joke one has to be familiar with the detectives; unfortunately, due to the passage of time, the only detective Christie adequately spoofs is her own! Nobody remembers the others. Partners in Crime is one of Christie's rarely reprinted anthologies.

It is much easier--and much more reliable--to spoof the motifs of the mystery or whodunit: the locked manor house, the mastermind of multiple disguises, the cobwebbed room, the longwinded revelation, the "butler did it" syndrome. The most basic rule of satire is If the audience doesn't know what you are spoofing, they won't get the joke.

Unless, the writing accounts for audience ignorance.

My favorite example of a mystery spoof that doesn't rely too much on audience knowledge is Frasier's "Ham Radio." Frasier persuades the radio station where he works to put on an old-time radio mystery. Being Frasier, he starts to micromanage everybody. Consequently, when the performance goes live, craziness ensues, including Niles (Frasier's brother) killing off the twelve characters that Frasier is forcing him to voice by "shooting" them (popping balloons).  As listener Marty exclaims, "I don't remember these programs being so goofy!"

"Ham Radio" is the perfect spoof because it is funny on different levels. The characters are funny. The regular jokes are funny. The mystery spoof jokes are funny. AND the references to old-time radio programs are funny. A later episode, "Out with Dad" is funny for a similar reason. One doesn't have to know anything about opera to find the pay-offs hilarious, but it is a nice bonus if you do.

The Ridiculousness of Demagogues

Star Trek, for all its occasional simplicity, tackles
the problems and complexities of collectivism
far more insightfully than Anthem.
Below is a repost of a past review. Regarding America's current political choices, it seemed apropos (note: it's the elitism that bugs me--why do politicians always think they have to "educate" the populace to understand that they aren't utter toads?).

Several years ago, I reviewed Anthem by Ayn Rand on Amazon. Anthem is one of the few books in the world that I utterly loathe. Generally speaking, I can almost always find something good to say about any book, such as, "Hey, someone wrote this! It took time! And effort! Good for him or her!"

But Anthem is just trash.

A commenter challenged my contention that the book is (1) anti-individualistic and (2) chauvinistic: "You've completely missed the entire point of this book, perhaps because you went into it with a bias, not being a fan of Rand."

Here is my response:

I'm afraid I did understand the book; that's the problem.

Ayn Rand's fundamental philosophy is not one that I actually disagree with: collectivism is the ultimate evil. (Hey, I watch my Star Trek!) And the main character does make exactly the argument that you [the commenter] state: "[N]o masters and no slaves. Equals."

Unfortunately, accompanying Ayn Rand's philosophy is a shovel-full of elitism, namely the belief that a few must convince the many: "In those days, there were a few among men, a few of clear sight and clean soul, who refused to surrender that word."
Excellent spoof of political elitism from Coupling:
Sally: Come the revolution.
Patrick: What revolution? You guys are in power!
We're the revolution now.You're the evil empire.
Howard: Yes! Like Star Wars!
And Patrick and me are the Rebel Alliance!
Sally: No! You're not the goodies!
We're the goodies. We're lefties! We're always goodies!
Patrick: (Darth Vader Voice): No, Sally,
you are the establishment!

The narrator obviously places himself in the "few" category and not just the I'm-one-of-the-few-who-needs-to-share-what-I-know category, but the I'm-one-of-the-few-who-needs-to-get-everyone-else-to-be-like-me category.

At one point the narrator states the following:
The Saint of the pyre had seen the future when he chose me as his heir, as the heir of all the saints and all the martyrs who came before him and who died for the same cause, for the same word, no matter what name they gave to their cause and their truth.
An heir to Saints and martyrs with causes is how the guy sees himself. The continual use of "me" and "I" throughout the final chapters is NOT symbolic: he does not perceive himself as a messenger of truth but as a leader to whom others will be called:
They will follow me and I shall lead them to my fortress.

My chosen friends . . .

And the day will come when I shall break the chains of the earth, and raze the cities of the enslaved, and my home will become the capital of a world where each man will be free to exist for his own sake.
If the narrator truly believes that "a man must be free of his brothers," why isn't he encouraging his so-called friends to scatter, to create individual homes or capitals and lives? Why do they have to help HIM? Is it possible that the guy likes being in charge? Or is it possible that collectives, i.e. armies, have their good points?

I'm afraid I think the narrator likes being in charge. The book ends with "we," but it isn't the "we" of the corrupt city; it is the NARRATOR'S "we":
"The word [ego] which will not die, should we all perish in battle."
It really makes one wonder what would happen to any of these so-called chosen friends, if any of them happened to say one day, "Hey, by the way, *I* think collectivism has its points" or "*I* don't really want to fight in a battle. Can I just leave?" I don't for a moment believe that the narrator would respond to such blatant individualism with any degree of kindliness or understanding.

Individual Sean Bean isn't kowtowing to a self-described
leader. He's reading a book.
As for the implicit chauvinism, the narrator calls the "Golden One" to himself. Then he talks *at* her. She doesn't argue with him or question him or provide her own ideas. She doesn't do anything except say, "I love you." Then he names her. Then she gets pregnant with HIS child--not THEIR child ("our child") or, good grief, even HER child but HIS child ("my child").

I'm willing to allow that the book may have some good points (I concede my bias). And an argument could be made that a religious uprising led by a fanatic IS the pathway to individuality.

But the text says what it says.

The movie Equilibrium--though flawed--handles this whole problem better although even Equilibrium rests on the idea of a necessary elite. I guess democracy truly is a totally radical idea.

British Actor, Multiple Genres: Anthony Head

Head is one of those lucky actors
who looks increasingly good
with age. 
British actors seem to belong to a relatively small group (compared to American actors at least), whose members transition without difficulty between stage, television, and movies. Consequently, it is not all that unusual to see, say, Judi Dench in, well, just about every genre of film/television/stage out there.

Regarding television, it seems that every British actor must appear in (1) a costume drama; (2) a detective show (usually Agatha Christie but not automatically); (3) a Dr. Who episode; and (4) an American show either as a guest or a regular.

Anthony Head fits these requirements!

(1) Costume Drama: It hardly seems fair to start with costume drama since this is the one genre in which Head does not excel. He appeared as Sir Walter Elliot in 2007's Persuasion. Granted, 2007's Persuasion is already somewhat strange what with Borg Queen Alice Krige playing Lady Russell. However, Alice Krige is capable of subtlety; Head isn't so much. He portrays Sir Walter as a villainous jerk rather than as a vaguely self-centered, vain man.

To be fair, Head himself would likely tell you that he is much better at scenery-chewing and/or comedic parts.

From Dr. Who
(2) Detective Show: Before Persuasion, Head appeared as an amoral hoity-toity art connoisseur in New Tricks, Season 2. Think Giles from Buffy but with fewer morals and more snobbery. One gets the impression that unlike in Persuasion, where he seems rather ill-at-ease, Head totally enjoyed himself on New Tricks. In New Tricks, he could transform Giles into a smooth-talking slime ball. With Austen, understated complexity is called for (to be fair, again, many actors find Austen a tough hurdle).

(3) Head continues with upperclass sliminess as the purely evil headmaster in Dr. Who's "School Reunion." (Head's facility for "correct" BBC English may be why he got cast as Sir Walter. As James Marsters would tell you, Head's real accent is closer to Spike's than to Giles's, and Spike's accent suffered slightly when Marsters was removed from Head's daily influence.)

(4) And naturally, of course, Head is the magnificent Giles in the American show Buffy. Head excels at comedy, and he captures the wry, tender, slightly sardonic, father-figure librarian with panache and ease. He also manages to convey an undercurrent of danger or unpredictability within the character. Giles is Buffy's rock, yet one is never entirely sure exactly which direction he will jump.

And Head is willing to be silly, a quality I admire in actors (see notes on Supernatural's heroes). So in Buffy, his character eats candy and regresses to his teen years, turns into an animal-thing (as they would say on Star Trek), wears a silly hat, etc. etc. etc. And he never portrays any discomfort or sense of self-consciousness. Kudos!


D is for Devilish Dahl

I must confess--I have extremely fond memories of Roald Dahl, but they all have more to do with his impact on popular culture than the books themselves.

I have read various Dahl books, including his autobiography, Boy, plus several of his short stories. Creepy probably best sums up my overall reaction.

David Battley in the 1971 Willy Wonka
But most of my Dahl intake has been movies. Growing up, my friend Jen (whom I've known since I was five) and I would get together and watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). We are both pastry and chocolate lovers, and these girls' nights in were almost always accompanied by making something delicious and chocolatey.

Then the creepy (but not in a delightful or ironic or cute way) Johnny Depp version came out, and I went off Willy Wonka for awhile.

I recently rewatched the 1971 movie with Gene Wilder and  boy, that's a good movie! Sometimes, as we age, the movies we adored as youngsters don't live up to our recollection, but the original movie is well-plotted, well-acted, and legitimately funny in a Monty-Python kind of way.

In fact, I know there is no connection, but I wouldn't be terribly surprised if someone told me that Dahl wrote for Monty-Python--he's that kind of author.

As well as Willy Wonka (1971), I quite enjoy The Witches with the remarkable Anjelica Huston. She takes the eponymous part by storm, and the movie ends in a less than distressing way (with Dahl, you can never be too sure).

I also associate Dahl with Quentin Blake (although other people have illustrated Dahl, and Blake has illustrated other people's stuff). I'm a big fan of Quentin Blake. I enjoy illustrations that appear to effortlessly capture a range of emotions with impressionistic verve.

And Then There Were None: Which Ending is Better? Part II

1965 Ten Little Indians: I quite like this version!
*Spoilers*

As mentioned in the previous post, the end of the play version of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None leaves two of the characters alive: Vera Claythorne and Philip Lombard. In addition, they are proved relatively guiltless of their supposed crimes: if I remember correctly, Vera's "crime" turns out to have been a legitimate accident, and Philip is standing in for someone else.

While I admire the miniseries, I prefer this ending for two reasons:

1) Watching people survive is visually more interesting than watching everybody die.

One reason I probably don't take to horror beyond Supernatural and X-Files (low level horror) is that I find dropping bodies rather tedious. By the time one reaches the middle of And Then There Were None, the end result is a foregone conclusion. Visually, one is going to get a lot more corpses.

The miniseries pulls this off through the virtuoso performances of the cast members. Watching Toby Stephens lose it is, in fact, interesting. And based on the many, many images posted on the web, watching Aidan Turner walk around without a shirt on is also very interesting.

In all seriousness, the cast sells the drama from Charles Dance's gentlemanly quips to The Bletchley Circle's Anna Maxwell Martin's guilt-ridden demeanor. To use the book ending, one must have such a cast.

Absent a collection of unsettlingly good actors, plot becomes the only retreat, a dramatic truth that Christie understood. She was a talented playwright with an instinctive understanding that what works on paper doesn't necessarily work on stage. On paper, the intellectual a-ha (oh, THAT character was the murderer) is enough. Visually--not so much.

Paying off the viewers' anticipation with a visual treat--you thought they were going to die: voila! they didn't--works. It's the kind of twist that can be easily overused (take note, action and mystery movies), yet provides great satisfaction when handled properly.

2) The play version has a fascinating theme.

The theme of the book and of the miniseries is that dark truths underscore civilized behavior. The play retains this theme to an extent, but the survival of Philip and Vera throws a new issue into the mix.

Through Philip and Vera, Christie tackles a problem that underscores most murder mysteries. It is best summed up by Mark in Dial M for Murder:
Margot 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.

Agatha Christie created paper perfect murders and knew it. Her murders depend on people not strolling into lounges at inopportune moments or saying, "Hey, didn't I see you last year in . . . " or obstinately refusing to do the murderer's bidding (go fetch a coat, go fetch a doctor, go fetch a priest, allowing the murderer to clean up the crime scene).

I sometimes entertain myself by imagining how a Christie murder could be prevented--some of them are remarkably easy to sabotage. In Death on the Nile, all anyone has to do is not leave Simon alone in the parlor.

Pierre's surprise at learning that Poirot will be on the 
train. From 1974's Murder on the Orient Express,  
another film with a remarkable cast. 
Christie knew this--minor characters are often killed off precisely because they wander into murder scenes at the wrong moment. More than that, she demonstrates a commonsensical appreciation of the tendency of human nature to act according to plan right up until it totally doesn't.  The timetable for the murder in Murder on the Orient Express shifts when Poirot ends up on the train. The murderer's plan to frame another person in The A.B.C. Murders is thwarted by an avid domino player. In The Body in the Library, a suspect unwittingly shifts attention to the true victim through a drunken act.

In reality, the murderer's plan in And Then There Were None to kill off his victims in accordance with the nursery rhyme (Ten little ______ [soldiers/Indians/etc.] went out to dine/One choked his little self and then there were nine) would fall flat: some of the ten victims would refuse the invitation; at least one of his victims would attempt to cobble together a makeshift boat or decamp to the other end of the island. The skipper would decide to return early despite being instructed not to. Someone would send up flares. The coast guard would pop by . . .

In addition to all his unreliable victims, the murderer could be wrong in the first place, the twist that Christie utilizes. He could misidentify a tragedy as a murder as he does with Vera. He could fail to anticipate that one of his potential victims, Philip, already committed suicide (Philip's best friend takes his place out of curiosity). People are fallible, and there are truly no such things as masterminds.

In the current climate of far too many MASTERMINDS and ULTIMATE BAD GUYS on television, I find it refreshing to remember what the Queen of Mysteries herself knew: Sometimes, the bad guys just get it wrong.

And Then There Were None: Which Ending is Better? Part I

*Spoilers.*

The 2015 miniseries Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None is quite astonishing. It uses the book ending rather than the play ending (Christie wrote both).

Generally speaking, I prefer the play ending for reasons that I will list in the next post. But I have to extend kudos to the 2015 miniseries for pulling off the book ending with plausible panache.

In the book, everyone dies. It is the perfect master-plan, carried out to perfection by the murderer. Vera Claythorne and Philip Lombard, the final victims, die when Vera kills him, then hangs herself. As the murderer states, The police will arrive to find ten dead bodies and no answer to how it all happened.

Still from Endless Night
If anything, the book proves that Christie was capable of a high level of horror/suspense. She accomplishes a similar sense of dread in Endless Night and in the unsettling novel Ordeal By Innocence. Both these books have been translated into superb movies, the first starring Hayley Mills and  Hywel Bennett, the second starring Donald Sutherland. Both movies closely follow their books and scupper the ridiculous notion that Christie had no appreciation or understanding of the dark side of life/literature.

For the play version of And Then There Were None, Christie altered the ending. The viewers learn that Vera and Philip are guiltless of the murderer's accusations (the murderer is killing off people who got away with crimes) and work together to outlive the murderer.

Vera Respectable
As stated above, the 2015 miniseries retains the book ending and for a depressing ending with no redeemable features, it holds up surprisingly well. One reason is the stellar company: Aidan Turner, Miranda Richardson, Sam Neill, Charles Dance, Toby Stephens . . .  Every character is perfectly cast. Maeve Dermondy as Vera delivers a masterful performance as the bad girl who pretends to be a good girl who is far more ruthless, far more of a survivalist, than any of the other characters except possibly Philip (Aidan Turner). And even he can't match her in the end. (Dermondy's portrayal of Vera's final desperate and self-serving bargaining with the murderer hopefully has won her some awards.)

Vera Less Respectable
The island setting is perfect (how I always imagined it!), and the time period carries a relevance that other versions fall to capture. It is 1938, immediately before World War II (the book was actually published in 1939). The world of civilized tea and deferential servants and "right" attitudes is about to be blow to smithereens. Vera exemplifies a veneer that time would have stripped away in any case. Philip, as the ruthless mercenary, proves the only likable character, not because he hasn't done bad things but because he willingly sees beyond not only Vera's front but his own as well. He is one of two characters to fully admit to his crimes without justifying himself. Unlike the first character, his admittance is the result of full understanding and acceptance: he knows who he is and what he has done. Within a few months, he would have made an excellent commando.

Lombard's ruthlessness is only slightly
undercut by the utterly charming
tendency of Aidan Turner's hair to
curl at the slightest hint of humidity.
The island strips away the veneer of the supposed cozy village that Christie is so often accused of creating* at the same time that it strips away the veneer of the characters' roles--there is a kind of pitying relentlessness in Christie's treatment. She maintains that these "victims" have done truly bad things yet they are not--with the exception of the mastermind--crazy or even particularly evil. Their motivations regarding the original crimes were human, petty, unintentioned (in some cases), deliberate (in others), occasionally the result of carelessness or indifference. They are real, relatable. People.

And they are executed nonetheless.

To be continued . . .

* Personally, I don't mind "cozies," but I get tired of people so fundamentally misreading Christie's books. 

You Can Never Go Home Again: Supernatural, Season 10

Supernatural does create great ambiguous villains!
Somewhere around season five or six, many series start to go off the rails (some earlier, some later). This is especially true of my preferred viewing: seasons comprised of single-story episodes (mostly murder mystery shows). As Agatha Christie admits through her self-portrait, Mrs. Oliver, there are only so many ways to kill a character. Eventually, a writer runs of ideas.

When writers run out of ideas, they retreat to (1) the rubbish bin; (2) the soap opera approach.

Arthur Conan Doyle went to the rubbish bin when the public more or less forced him to continue producing Sherlock Holmes stories. Later Holmes stores are not nearly as well-written--or plotted--as earlier ones. In one of his last, he relies on the body-hidden-beneath-another-in-a-coffin device, a chestnut so established that The Mentalist parodies it in Season 3. (Speaking of parodies . . .)

I don't hold the "rubbish bin" against writers. They must continue to produce! The difficulty of maintaining a high standard (while continually producing usable plots) is one reason I admire Star Trek: The Next Generation so much. As with many shows, the last three seasons' episodes do not demonstrate the same caliber as earlier seasons', and there are a few rubbishy episodes, but the standard never falls too far: the episodes continue to deliver single stories with decent narrative arcs, and the finale is magnificent.

All in all, I prefer the struggle to maintain a high writing standard over solution 2: the collapse into soap opera material. I get immensely tired of shows forcing PROBLEMS, ANGST, LOVE TRIANGLES onto their characters simply so the writers will have something to write about.

There is a third solution.

The third solution is to say, "Who cares if we repeat ourselves? Earlier viewers won't care. And later viewers haven't necessarily seen our earlier episodes. We can do whatever we want."

I admire this third solution--to a point. For one, it keeps the show focused on what the viewers came to love about it in the first place. For another, it enables the writers to stick to one-story-per-episode. For a third, it prevents an excess of soap opera-ness. So it works.

Right until it doesn't.

Buckmaster and Rhodes
Supernatural, Season 10, is a great example of the problem of repeating prior material. The season is, in many ways, a return to classic Supernatural. The brothers are back on the road handling demons and whatnot while one brother decides to lie and sacrifice for the sake of another. We get the army/werewolf/vampire episode with newcomer Cole; we get the parody episode with the musical students (great ending scene: see above); we get the Agatha Christie episode with the possibly murderous butler; we get the Thelma and Louise episode with very funny Briana Buckmaster; we get a fairy tale episode (with young Dean); we get to see Timothy Omundson again, which is always a treat. Hey, we even get to see Bobby!

Generally speaking, the season is classic and lovely--with a fantastic surprise cameo in "Fan Fiction"--so what's the prob?

Well, there isn't one, really, except for all the places where there is.

For (albeit hot) men in their mid-thirties (and nearing forty), the same plot of sacrifice-while-lying begins to pale. It is not that thirty-three and thirty-eight-year-old men don't do this. And it isn't that families don't repeat the same patterns. But television isn't reality. And Supernatural is supposed to be a story. And at some point in a story--a classic one at least--people should learn from the past.

Sam and Dean's mistakes in Seasons 1-5 make sense taking into account the brothers' knowledge, age, and experience at that time. Unfortunately, after awhile, Dean's initial complaint--made, I believe, in Season 3--that his family needs to stop making the same stupid bargains with bad guys . . . turns into the viewers' complaint. Yes, yes, guys, that would be nice.

The Supernatural writers seem aware of this problem, which may explain the Castiel and Crowley story-lines in Season 10. They are, luckily, interesting and well-written. Regarding Crowley, not since Faith in Buffy have I seen a bad guy's downward spiral based so tightly and realistically on feeling "left out" of the gang.

Yet these storylines are filler. The Dean/Sam arc isn't substantial enough to excuse much more writing than it gets. Sam is going to find a solution NO MATTER WHAT! Dean will be DISAPPOINTED when he finds out that Sam WENT BEHIND HIS BACK. Dean will argue his LACK OF WORTH! Sam will ARGUE BACK. Dean will CHOOSE HIS BROTHER OVER DEATH (quite literally). And . . . we've been here before.

To be fair, it's still better than soap opera. To be doubly fair, Sam's end-of-the-season argument with Dean is substantially more interesting than saying, "Well, you're my brother--so of course, I will save you." He actually gets caught up--to a minor degree--in the argument of what constitutes "goodness." Dean is good because of how Dean reacts to things, because of Dean's intentions. It's a middle ground position between Dean's argument (we are good because of what we do) and some of the seasons' earlier arguments (you should be saved not because you are good but because you are my brother).

But there isn't enough there (that hasn't been said before--and better). Since the new big bad appears interesting--I haven't yet seen Season 11--I would personally have timed its arrival for somewhere around episode 18 in Season 10. This would have solved the lack of an arc, cutting down on the far too familiar sight of Sam and/or Dean angstifying about the other's welfare.

Their mutual worries remain endearing but the truth is, one can never go home again--not completely. Repeating the earlier seasons isn't a bad idea. But something sometime somewhere has to change.

C is for Carroll and Cultural Convergence

Tenniel is largely responsible for
creating such memorable icons.
My mother read to me until I was in junior high school. Eventually, I started finishing the books on my own, and the custom waned; however, before then, we made our way through Frances Hodgson Burnett's novels, E. Nesbit's, The Lord of the Rings, Narnia series . . .

When it came time for Alice in Wonderland, my mother turned the reading aloud duty over to my father. A fan of the books, he read me Alice in Wonderland plus Alice Through the Looking Glass. He could recite several of Carroll's poems and together we performed "You Are Old, Father William" at a church talent show (I took the part of the questioner).

In many ways, Alice in Wonderland occupies the same place in the English landscape that The Wizard of Oz occupies in the American landscape, a cultural phenomenon that has infiltrated television, books, radio, and everyday conversation (and other cultures!). Both texts crop up in my folklore course when I discuss how ideas don't remain locked in categories: high culture with high culture, low culture with low culture, verbal culture and written culture in discrete categories. In reality, ideas move, blend, alter, get taken up in commercials, thread their way through people's lives from deliberate performances to everyday conversation.
Richard III squashed together with
a band, solo number, and vampires
--which was really, you know,
very Shakespeare!

The following are examples from a handout I use in my folklore course. I recently used it in a Composition course to discuss cultural literacy--it isn't that everyone must "get" the same references but that "getting" the same references creates cultural convergence (I was present during the first example).

Meeting where a member of the meeting brought gingerbread men for a snack. What movie are they quoting?

Meeting member 1: Not my buttons
Meeting member 2: Not my gumdrop buttons.
Meeting member 3: They ARE gumdrop buttons.
Meeting member 4: Do you know the Muffin Man?
**********************************
The Matrix: What's the movie/book reference?

Morpheus: This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
**********************************
 Castle: What's the movie/book reference?
Beckett: [The body is] melting.
Castle: Maybe we should be looking for ruby slippers.
Beckett: Yeah, while you're at it, why don't you look for some flying monkeys? Maybe they left [the body] here.
**********************************
In more mystery shows than I can count: What literary hero says the famous underlined statement?

"You will not apply my precept," he said, shaking his head. "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"
**********************************
 Star Trek: First Contact: What classic is Captain Picard quoting? (This book is often quoted by Star Trek heroes and villains.)

Captain Picard: And he piled upon the whale's white hump, the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it.
**********************************
CSI: What American poet is Grissom quoting?

Grissom: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore . . . Quoth the Raven, only this and nothing more. **********************************
House: What great hero is Wilson referencing?

House: Why do you think the world will end in chaos and destruction if you're not there to save it?
Dr. Wilson: Because when my parents put me in the rocket and sent me here, they said, "James, you will grow to manhood under a yellow sun."
**********************************
From Mythbusters: What playwright is the narrator parodying? (It isn’t who you think!)

Narrator: Hell hath no fury like a ninja fan scorned.

Lizzie Borden in Context

Check out the adverb "frightfully."
Joseph Conforti's insightful and delightfully wry book Lizzie Borden on Trial answers several questions I have long had about the Lizzie Borden case:

Why did so many newspapers support Lizzie while one of her hometown newspapers did not?

Despite what Lizzie supporters--and Bill James--may try to tell you, there was a decent case against Lizzie for the murders. Conforti does not tackle Lizzie's guilt or innocence; he is more interested in context. His objective relation of events consequently carries more weight than popular books which attempt to solve the case. As a subjective reader of popular texts, I have long considered Lizzie guilty of the murders (although I would agree that proving her guilt absolutely is somewhat problematic; where's Gil Grissom when you need him?).

I could be wrong. My point is that Americans love a good murder mystery and they love crazy killers! So why was Lizzie defended by newspapers like The New York Times? Nowadays, the pundits would be climbing all over each other to speculate as to Lizzie's extreme innocence AND extreme guilt (see JonBenet Ramsey case). Why were the newspapers outside of Fall River so consistent in their defense of a middle-class, Protestant, Yankee, Victorian lady?

According to Conforti, I've answered my own question. Lizzie's class and gender--the perception of how a middle-class, Protestant, Yankee, Victorian lady was supposed to behave--largely protected her with the jury. After all, if a middle-class, Protestant, Yankee, Victorian lady could go off the rails and murder the head of a household (alongside his second wife), who amongst the owners of American's newspapers would be safe!?

The local newspaper was operated and written by non-Yankees, the Irish, who had a political investment in gaining precedence over their Yankee neighbors. And had no very high opinion of said neighbors who controlled (though that control was fading) the city's major industries.

Why wasn't Bridget Sullivan, the maid, accused of the murders?

Apparently, she was suspected. And there was little affection between her and the Borden sisters, who insisted on calling Bridget "Maggie" after their previous servant (a standard if distasteful practice). Bridget clearly preferred the Borden dad and stepmom (whom Lizzie loathed) both of whom called Bridget by her real name.

Yet Lizzie never accused Bridget. In fact, it is evident that Lizzie told exactly as much truth as she needed to and no more: her class and gender, she believed, would protect her (Lizzie was right).

Despite Lizzie's silence regarding Bridget, I have always pondered why she didn't come under more suspicion, not because I believe her guilty (I don't) but because she was Irish, a member of the lower working class, an immigrant of ambiguous status. The Irish got blamed for so much. Why not this?

Turns out, Fall River had immigrants of even lower status than the Irish. The first scapegoats weren't the Irish but the Portuguese. Bridget herself initially blamed a Portuguese worker for the murders.

And the case was investigated by Irish cops.

As mentioned above, Joseph Conforti is not concerned with innocence or guilt as much as with the social underpinnings of the event. He recommends the following article by Cara W. Robertson, "Representing Miss Lizzie: Cultural Convictions in the Trial of Lizzie Borden." I double that recommendation. It is fascinating.
I refer to this ballet, Fall River Legend in a paper
that I wrote for the ANES program.
Yes, there really is a ballet about Lizzie.

Speaking as someone who IS concerned with Lizzie Borden's guilt or innocence, after reading Conforti's objective analysis, I am impressed--all over again--by my entirely subjective feeling that the police and the establishment would not have proceeded at all if Fall River had not felt very, very strongly that Lizzie was in fact, to borrow a non-academic term, super-guilty.

Of course, because people feel strongly does not mean they should find a member of their society guilty (and Lizzie was acquitted). But Lizzie being brought to trial supports what Victoria Lincoln argues: Fall River believed Lizzie was guilty across class lines; the establishment knew more than it said yet closed ranks around Lizzie; the Borden family situation was such that no one was really all that surprised by the possibility of Lizzie as a murderess--despite what was proclaimed out loud.

FYI: Joseph Conforti was one of my professors in the American & New England Studies program at USM although my paper on Lizzie Borden was written for a different professor, Professor Ryden. Professor Conforti was my advisor on my thesis. One of the best writing/research courses I took as a college student (B.A. and M.A.) I took from him.

B is for (Scary) Frank L. Baum

I feel positively un-American writing this but I don't really care for The Wizard of Oz.

I am NOT arguing that the book is bad or that the movie isn't a classic (it is). I'm talking about "taste" here, not literary judgment.

For this post, I reread The Wizard of Oz (last time, I was much younger) and . . . I still don't care for it. I was able to appreciate its cleverness, its tight prose, its constant action, its internal logic. I was also able to appreciate why Baum, preceding C.S. Lewis and Tolkien's admittance to American culture by several decades, would be heralded as the creator of the first fully realized fantasy world (Lewis and Tolkien were preceded by many but the arrival of their books on American soil jump-started the fantasy/sci-fi-for-adults resurgence that still influences readers today).

I can even see myself taking a few more Oz books out of the library. But I won't be starting a collection--or buying them for youngsters.

I'm not so much scared of the flying monkeys.

It's the creepy things that Dorothy and her companions encounter beforehand. Shoot, it's the ultra-creepy Tin Man's story (not included in the movie, I believe) about how he became a Tin Man because he kept chopping off parts of his body--that's what sends an unpleasant shiver up my spine.

Not to forget, animals in the book are constantly being throttled, decapitated, and mashed up--the massacres would remind me of Grimm (real Grimm) stories except the violence in Grimm has some kind of horror movie logic behind it and Grimm tales were told to adults as much as to children (they were the original slasher films). But Baum was writing to kids and he's so . . . cheerful about all this destruction!

To clarify, again, I am speaking entirely personally. I don't propose banning The Wizard of Oz. The truth is, a lot of kids love decapitations. And poop jokes. And poop jokes WITH decapitations.

I was just never one of them.


Having said all the above, The Wizard of Oz movie is a GREAT introduction to the classic image/concept of the witch. Margaret Hamilton takes the part by storm (ha ha) and more than deserves the accolades poured on her since. In fact, the casting choices collectively were inspired (see above).