Doubting the Bad Guy: What Flash, Season 1 Does Right

A typical--and arguably necessary--ploy in genre television episodes is for the good guys to instantly know whether or not they should trust a newbie.
In NCIS, Bellasario cut down on time by having Gibbs'
"gut" be an ongoing (and useful) plot device.

If the good guys are supposed to trust the ambiguous character, they never ask themselves the most basic questions, like, "Why are we accepting what this person tells us?" If the good guys are supposed to be only temporarily fooled, at least one of them will have a "feeling" that the ambiguous character is up to no good.

This instant-knowledge is arguably necessary since time is a factor: television characters don't have much longer than 50 minutes to figure out exactly how trustworthy a new character might be. Still, the instant-knowing gets a tad too convenient after awhile--and makes mincemeat of plot tension.

Flash, Season 1, handles the trust/mistrust of the ambiguous character, Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanaugh) quite well because the writers take their time, allowing the characters' reactions to develop organically. The at-least-one character-with-the-uneasy-feeling is Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), and his unease is believable and appropriate to his character. It doesn't feel tacked on; it is part of what makes him who he is.

Detective West, like many people in Central City, doesn't trust Harrison Wells, the man whose lab blew up, damaging the city. If not for Barry's condition, he would never have associated voluntarily  with Harrison Wells at all. He reluctantly but desperately hands Barry over to Wells' care. It turns out okay (at least, apparently) but West never loses his initial reservation.

So the mistrust is there from the beginning.

What keeps the mistrust from becoming "THE GOOD GUY ALREADY KNOWS!" syndrome is that West fights his distrust. Rather than growing into a state of distrust--the arc used for Caitlin, Barry, and Cisco--he starts with distrusts but tries to suppress it because he is a civilized, fair-minded man. For a civilized man, a "bad feeling" isn't enough, and West can't help but noticed that (1) Wells saved Barry's life; (2) Wells was cleared by a formal investigation yet eventually took personal responsibility for the events leading up to the lab explosion; (3) Wells apparently lost his wife, explaining why he moved to Central City; (4) Wells fights metahumans; (5) Wells has prevented Barry from making mistakes . . .

West occupies the interesting position of almost wanting to disprove his own doubt. Consequently, his verbal confrontations with Wells--before Wells' true identity is revealed--contain Die Hard-like tension. Nobody starts screaming; instead, both men are very tactful as they hint at the possibility of extreme suspicion. I half-expect them to start speaking with level, British accents: the ultimate sangfroid.

Stretching out the doubt can be quite effective--unless, of course, it becomes an endless lack of resolve.

Young Versions of Characters

Television and movies struggle with the younger-version-of-the-older-character. The struggle is the same one that haunts Beauty & the Beast: we get attached to the actual tone and sound and look of a beloved character. Replacing that tone and sound and look with someone else is going to disappoint.

There's only so much suspension of disbelief an audience can exercise.

Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Rascals" is a perfect example: the acting is high-grad across the board yet the belief that these kids are truly Captain Picard, Keiko O'Brien, Ro Laren, and Guinan proves something of a struggle.

With exceptions: Isis Carmen Jones is so magnificent as the young Whoopi Goldberg/Guinan, she should have won an award. On the other hand, David Birkin is a fine actor but he doesn't quite sound like Picard.

Of course, he couldn't muster up a baritone--that's the whole point of the episode. But "sounding like" is more than pitch (though that helps): it's cadence, speech patterns, body language, lilt, word choice, facial expressions. Without these, there is no recognition: "Ah, yes, here is the same person."

Likewise, on Stargate, Michael Welch IS the perfect replacement for Jake--who could possibly be better?--yet doesn't quite pull it off (though he comes close).

Aaron Pearl and Don S. Davis
Keep in mind that in both cases, the younger versions aren't the characters reverting in age but the characters remaining themselves whilst in younger bodies.

Perhaps it is easier to produce the younger-in-age versions. The younger version of General Hammond in Stargate's "1969" is so good, I always check to see if the two actors are related. They aren't. And yet!

Playing with time: Bea Arthur playing
her character's grandmother while
Lynnie Green plays her character and
Estelle Getty plays the 2nd generation.
I have the same reaction to Lynnie Green as the young Dorothy Zbornak. Are you sure she's not Bea Arthur's daughter?

Speaking of sons and daughters, in the NCIS episode "Broken Bird," W. Morgan Sheppard's character is seen as a young man in a series of black and white video clips that last about 3 minutes and mostly play in the background. The producers actually bothered to use Mark, his son, who is uncredited. I was mucho impressed.
The Sheppards

You Have to Laugh: Character Actor Patrick McKenna

Patrick McKenna is a talented Canadian actor/comedian. He appears on Stargate SG-1, playing the hapless but sweet Dr. Jay Felger alongside the equally funny and magnificent John Billingsley (the attached clip is classic; I also enjoy a scene from the same episode where Felger darts down an enemy ship's corridor by hugging the sides, spy style, while Billingsley's character strolls casually down the middle of the corridor behind him).

McKenna also shows up in a Due South episode, starring fellow Canadian Paul Gross, and naturally on the Red Green Show as Red Green's nephew, Harold.

Canadian television is . . . impossible to describe. It's like British television, only more cynical or laconic or something. And it's like American television, only . . . it's not.

The Red Green Show successfully crosses the American-Canadian border. Harold is the quintessential British-type canny dope with a dollop of Al from Home Improvement. He is utterly geeky and sometimes the butt of an episode's jokes, yet he is also often the character who call others on their impracticality, pointing out the extremely ridiculous nature of what they wish to attempt.

The below dialog is one of my favorite exchanges from the episode "Moving House." McKenna as Harold delivers the perfect combination of hysteria and pointed sarcasm. Note the "it's not a covered bridge anymore!" line.
RED GREEN: Well, the good news is, that old building is out of the way forever.

HAROLD GREEN: Beautiful, old, pioneer log cabin. I thought you guys were gonna save history, not make it! I can't believe you didn't call the phone company! When you move a building down the street, where it has telephone lines on both sides, you gotta call the phone company! Because what they do is they take down the phone lines, and once you're past, they put the lines back up.

RED GREEN: Well, we did half their job for them, then, didn't we?

HAROLD GREEN: Well, I'm glad I had that chimney to hold on to, at least. I got, like, telephone line burns all over my thighs. Oh, that's another thing, too. Yeah, you gotta phone the power company! What about the power lines?

RED GREEN: Well, no, that was bad.

HAROLD GREEN: Yeah, that was bad! That was real bad! I mean, what'd you-- [and] I suggested that you pre-measure all the bridges on your route to make sure they're all wide enough.

RED GREEN: Yeah, especially that covered bridge.

HAROLD GREEN: Yeah, that poor old covered bridge. Covered bridge that the Historical Society worked so hard to preserve. Well, it's not a covered bridge anymore, is it? Oh, just a bridge now! Bridge surrounded by lumber! You should have pre-measured! [Pause.] Or at least slowed down.

RED GREEN: Yeah. Oh, come on, Harold, we couldn't slow down, because once the power lines set the cabin on fire, we had to pretty much haul it. That's what I'm saying. And the irony there is that we couldn't call in an emergency because the phone lines were down, so we actually had to– we had to drive the fire to the fire station.

HAROLD GREEN: Yeah, poor old fire station. Fire station that the Historical Society worked so hard to preserve! Fire station stood there for a hundred years taking everything Mother Nature threw at it. Of course, that's not including, you know, a flaming log cabin coming at twice the speed limit!

RED GREEN: I know, I know. But, y'know, in fairness, for a fire station, it was pretty darned flammable. And you know, you know, full marks to Buzz Sherwood, who realized that the fire trucks were actually trapped inside the burning station. So what he did was he filled up his water bomber plane, and he dropped water right onto the fire.

HAROLD GREEN: Yeah, well, he tried.

RED GREEN: He tried, yeah.

HAROLD GREEN: He got the Baptist church. Poor old Baptist church! The one the Historical Society tried so hard to preserve!

RED GREEN: Yeah, that church didn't have a prayer.

HAROLD GREEN: Did you learn anything? Any--any little thing? Did you learn anything from all of this?!

RED GREEN: Well, I did, Harold. I think I learned what "ironic" means. Y'know, I never really got it before, but I think I'm there now.

* * *

HAROLD GREEN: Just a quick announcement from the Historical Society. Due to the fact of all the recent losses to the historical buildings in the area, seems the Historical Society will be no longer declaring buildings as historical sites. They'll just be labeling them targets as opposed to buildings.

What is the Narrative Need for Secrets? Thoughts on Merlin

For Arthur to find out about Merlin's magic, I think, again, it has to happen in a way that suggests that Arthur can think for himself. And I think, by accident, and without Merlin knowing, I think Arthur has to witness something or just have something click. So that he knows before Merlin knows that he knows. So that there's a time period where Arthur has to decide what to do.
--Bradley James (Arthur)
This is an absolutely brilliant idea! So why didn't it happen?

I only started watching Merlin, and generally, speaking, I like it. However, about the 2nd or 3rd disc of Season 1, I began to experience deja vu. So I did some research. I'm not sure that gratified is the word to use--it is terrible to be proved right when the right is so utterly disappointing:

Merlin was influenced/inspired by Smallville.

Which means that for no particularly good reason--except the inability of the writers and the mistaken belief that lack of knowledge pushes a narrative forward--the main characters will endlessly circle each other and the main issue for season after season after season.

The issue of "the characters must keep information hidden!" is similar to the problem of "the audience mustn't find out the identity of the big bad antagonist!" Both suffer from the insistence that the SECRET is of so much worth in its own right that revealing it will cause the narrative arc to fall to the ground. I suppose this is true when dealing with pedestrian writing. But it is far from the truth when the writing is strong.

Merlin using magic in Season 1 to help Arthur: how much
more interesting if Arthur guessed the source of his help,
yet decided not to confront Merlin until he understood
Merlin's intentions better. And how much more intelligent!
Revealing the secret early on can propel a narrative forward, producing interesting conflict and profound character development. Elias as a BIG BAD in Person of Interest (revealed a third of the way through Season 1) became far more interesting than anything that ever happened surrounding The Mentalist's Red John. And Sherlock's knowledge of his father's illegal acts re: getting Sherlock reinstated as a consultant to the NYPD solidifies Joan and Sherlock's knowledge of Morland's character.

There is an intelligent reason why Stoker's Dracula moved literally center-stage when the book became a play (and then a movie). In the book, he can hover in the wings, scaring the snot out of readers (Jonathan Harker's diary is some of the scariest stuff I've ever read--the rest of the book isn't so much). But in the play, he had to become the main character.

As Stephen King explains cogently in one of his non-fiction tomes, saving the scary big bad monster for the end works in novels because the audience can always imagine something darker and more troubling than what the text states. But in a movie (or television show), the monster that jumps out of the closet will inevitably be kind of ridiculous since it will never live up to the build-up. (Buffy's Season 5 episode "Fear Itself" plays cleverly on this inevitability.)

Likewise, the long-held secret becomes more and more pointless the longer it is held. In the excellent commentary for Finding Nemo, the writer explains why he removed the flashbacks. The secret of how Nemo's fin got damaged was never going to live up to the hour-long waiting period. Better to simply stick the information in the prologue.

A little tension in the friendship works well--as it does in 
Season 1 when Merlin's willingness to argue intrigues
Arthur as much as it irritates him; he was clearly bored 
out of his skull before Merlin came along.
Additionally problematic, characters who don't guess the narrative's secret become dumber and dumber for not tumbling to the obvious. How much more interesting (and smart) would it be for Arthur to have guessed Merlin's secret in Season 1. He could exercise a kind of deliberate not-knowing for another season, finally confronting Merlin with it in the 3rd. Consider how much further that would push the friendship and eventually solidify it. Consider the problems that could arise that both Merlin and Arthur would now be forced to handle separately, together, or at cross-purposes ("Why can't you . . .?" "This time you shouldn't . . ."). Consider how many Smallville-like pieces of dialog it would avoid. Consider how grateful the viewer would subsequently be.

Handling problems/secrets is always more interesting, narratively-speaking, than putting them off.

Camille Paglia's Free Women Free Men

Camille Paglia's Free Women Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism is a typically readable collection of chapters and essays spanning Paglia academic/public life from 1990 to the present (Paglia proves, as no one else does so well, that academic writing does not have to be indigestible). As an overview of her views, this is a great place to start! Readers may feel that they are being rather forcibly reminded of her seminal work Sexual Personae--but that is only because essays/articles/speeches appear back-to-back which in reality spanned years. (To be fair, Paglia may forcibly remind people of her seminal work within minutes of meeting them!)

The reader may also feel that Paglia is gleefully reliving her "glory days" in which she went head to head with some of the nastiest so-called feminists on record but that's because . . . she is! However, unlike the high schooler who can never break away from his or her "glory days" of football star/prom queen, Paglia is perfectly capable of tackling present-day issues. She occasionally come across as "oh, these kids these days," but I found that refreshing and real: as Paglia herself maintains, the wise older woman has a place in many societies. Stop trying to be 20, aging American women, and own your crone-dom.

Paglia, whom I encountered around the same time that I read All the Trouble in the World by P.J. O'Rourke and Kate Roiphe's The Morning After, has always represented for me a commonsense, grounded approach to the realities of being female. As Paglia declares (and I mention in my post about my mother's experience with the ERA), the face of 1980s feminism turned many young women--including myself--against feminism.  Paglia enabled me to find my way back, or at least to realize that my beliefs re: feminism could be more than what I'd heard and seen in the public arena: I could respect the tough feminism of my mother and grandmothers (that pioneer heritage!) while admiring expansive variations, such as lipstick feminism. I could be thankful for the modern era which widened my choices and freedoms without despising the great women of the past.

Despite my conservative upbringing--or perhaps because of it--and my own valued singleness, I could never conceive of supporting any ideology that despised sex, men, or the body. Like the Christian C.S. Lewis, I am a pagan at heart. Human nature is complicated! Families are complicated! People are complicated! Anything that avoids those realities or tries to blame them on a single system external to hormones and aging is seriously deficient.

In a footnote to my master's thesis, I stated, " If there is a place in this universe for a heterosexual, Mormon, Christian, non-Freudian, Anglo-Saxon version of Camille Paglia, I would happily take it."

While reading Free Women, Free Men, I remembered my statement. Is it truly possible to be the terribly bourgeois, terribly middle-class, morally conservative (albeit more politically libertarian than I was in my youth) Camille Paglia?

Not really. I am not edgy or psychologically-oriented enough to fill those shoes. However, there is a point of contact. Paglia, a pro-abortion advocate (a legal position I support on purely libertarian grounds since the woman "owns" the fetus), defends the pro-life position of my religion and others as having the moral high ground; she also admires and defends women who learn to maneuver within their societies. One of the first essays I read by Paglia extolled the mature behavior of a female tennis player with steely resolve. Paglia commended the woman's discipline, which she related back to the player's heterosexuality--by learning how to deal with men, she had learned how to master herself. I was grateful to Paglia for establishing an iconic image other than, on the one hand, the missish girl who is supposed to flirt and be pretty but not admit/own her own sexuality/earthiness and, on the other hand, the victimized girl whose lack of sexual commonsense leads her into remarkably stupid behavior.

I have gone on to admire conservative women who survive their cultures and make their marks from the inside. More than Anne Hutchinson, I admire Anne Bradstreet--that finesse of achieving one's goals WITHIN the orthodoxy rather than pouring scorn on the orthodoxy.

Well, except when the orthodoxy is comprised of lecturing, unappeasable, and joyless feminists: in that case, Paglia, scorn away!

The Voice

Sean Pertwee has possibly the most gorgeous voice in all of television and film.

I first encountered Sean Pertwee as Hugh Beringar in the Brother Cadfael Series (1st season). I fell in love and was incredibly disappointed when he disappeared from the following seasons. None of the later Hughs matched him in acting ability and appearance (Pertwee matched the book description of Hugh Beringar the closest).

Today, most Elementary fans will know him as Lestrade. However, before Lestrade, he appeared in Equilibrium as the voice of Father. He did not receive top billing, but I recognized his dulcet tones instantly whilst watching the movie:

I know that voice!

Pertwee does not have the crispest accent (think of the marvelous Martin Freeman) or the lovable Northern lilt of Gerard Butler and Sean Bean. As far as I can tell, he is pure BBC; he is also pure baritone gravel. His accent is stronger even than Hugh Laurie, in plummy Brit mode, and takes more concentration to follow than that of Jonny Lee Miller, who likely tones down his accent for us Americans. (Glenn Miller from Angel was accused of not being truly Irish; turns out that his fluctuating accent was due to his having to redo certain scenes in order to be understood; yep, sometimes those accents from across the pond can bedevil the Ma-Bell ear, even though it's all English.)

Whatever exactly Pertwee's accent is, the sound is pure honey and makes me go weak at the knees. The guy could be ordering anchovies--who cares?!

As it happens, that's his voice narrating the vastness of the universe. 

Beauty and the Beast (2017): It's the Beast (Not Belle)

Like in Jane Eyre, the male protagonist wears great coats.
The Beast makes this movie. Not Belle, unfortunately. Not this version anyway.

Casting Emma Watson as Belle is rather like casting Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre--she doesn't exude waif-like dreaminess. She exudes the kind of levelheaded commonsense that can handle Ron Weasley, a large manor house, and possibly the role of prime minister. (Keep in mind that Joan Fontaine could be perfectly cast--check out Rebecca.)

Levelheaded commonsense is not a bad characteristic for Belle to have; it simply doesn't fit the original Disney lyrics nor the 2017 movie's casting.

Which is a pity since the casting is otherwise excellent.

Luke Evans and Josh Gad as Gaston and LeFou are well-cast, well-acted, and hilarious. Luke Evans' Gaston doesn't initially come across as boorish so much as down-to-earth, perceptive, and even fun to hang out with. Why wouldn't this Belle be interested? If the village is as boring as she claims, he is the most interesting thing around.

Of course, his descent into villainy underscores the theme: as Gaston loses any remnants of good behavior, the Beast gains in good behavior (Jean Cocteau's solution of having the same actor play both Beast and Gaston/Avenant is thematically ideal--but way too confusing a visual for a Disney movie: this is the studio that split the wolf/prince roles in Into the Woods).

The voice casting is perfect: Thank you, Ewan McGregor! In fact, as in the animated version, the song "Be Our Guest" is a magnificent old-time musical number headed by strong singers who are willing to be total hams when required.

And Dan Stevens as the Beast is excellent. As in any good Beauty & the Beast version, we come to adore him. Dan Stevens not only has a great voice (even without the Beast "filter"), the makeup/CGI gives his face the same surprising mobility of the animated Beast. The added bonus here is that his prince self is recognizable as the Beast. (But yeah, it's still not the same--I get a kick out of Belle's line: "Have you ever thought about growing a beard?")

In fact . . . we get to know the Beast too well. Dan Stevens' interpretation of the Beast fits the original version and the personality of the original Belle. He is erudite, dry-witted, a romantic at heart, history-minded, interested in architecture, given to big-hearted gestures. 

Belle 2017 is . . . I have no idea. I guess she reads, but she doesn't seem to do it very often (and she behaves as if she is reading to escape her boring life, not because it mesmerizes her--real readers read to breath).

They don't fit.

Again, a practical, down-to-earth Belle would make an entertaining possibility--she and the Beast could discuss the stock market, debate Hayek and Keynes, ponder the Black Swan effect.

That's not what this movie was trying to do.

Perhaps the solution is to go back to animation: Moana produces a pragmatic dreamer as the utterly likable female protagonist (Auli'i Cravalho as Moana)--while Dwayne Johnson as Maui makes a carefree, rollicking Beast (who should never change).

Of course, there are few things in life that top a ship of coconut pirates. Seriously. Not anything really can top that. 

R is for Raskin

Ellen Raskin wrote the Newbery Award Winner, The Westing Game. The Westing Game is a great book and one that carries a special place in my heart.

As a youngster, I had difficulty reading on my own. The Westing Game was the second book I ever read to myself (the first was about a cat) where I got so lost in the narrative, I forgot about whether or not I was reading slowly.

That was the beginning of the beginning: the ability to read in lines at the post office, at the DMV, during traffic jams . . . and also during math class, while working as a receptionist, during church . . .

Again, The Westing Game is a great book. However, it isn't necessarily the most memorable Ellen Raskin book for me. I quite like two of her lesser known works:  
  • The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) 
  • The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues.
The latter is an art-related mystery with Encyclopedia Brown-like anecdotes (can you guess the answer to this problem?) threaded through with gentle pathos. Her female and male protagonists are similar to Turtle and hmmm-hmmm from The Westing Game (I'm not going to give him away!).

Great illustration from The Mysterious
Disappearance by the author
The Westing Game has been made into a television movie, Get a Clue! (which grasps the idea and sells a lesson but misses the complicated human relationships, the irony, and the essential characters of Turtle and hmmm-hmmm). The Tattooed Potato should be made into a television series.

The New Determinism: Genetics in Popular Culture

It is troubling, though not entirely surprising, to realize that not only was Thomas Jefferson less than willing to practice what he preached--an end to slavery--but that a fundamental part of his being believed that slavery was justified: that by their nature, blacks were inferior to whites. Less progressive. Less able to nobly advance.

And one shouldn't forget the long-held belief in English society that servants were  inherently inferior to their masters. When Pamela by Samuel Richardson reached Twilight-acclaim among its readers, its detractors hurried to point out that Pamela, bride of the squire, had been--gasp, gasp--a servant! Was it really possible, asked the detractors, for servants to have the sense of self ascribed by Richardson to his creation? Weren't servants . . . well . . . little better than cattle? Capable of speech certainly. But not capable of extensive thought.
The above examples have their roots in environmental determinism, the belief that a "character of a entire peoples is decisively determined by their geographical location." The link to slavery or servitude is that (1) due to their environment, such a people are conquerable; (2) once they are conquered, they "acquire a slavish personality unfit for life in freedom" and can never change back. Hence environment and lineage are linked, reflecting the underlying assumption that "the essence of a person is almost exclusively determined by his ancestry and far less or not at all by his own deeds and choices in life" (Isaac).

What astonishes me is not that these theories have fallen out of style--as well they should. What astonishes me is how rapidly human beings have switched the same rhetoric to the discussion of genetics.

Writers like Steven Pinker and Judith Rich Harris arguably needed to make the general populace aware of the impact of genetics and, more basically, the wiring of the human brain.  In The Blank Slate, Pinker argues against the idea that humans are born into the world as empty globs of clay--which parents, environment, and culture then mold into people. He uses the acquisition of language as the obvious flaw in the blank-slate theory: children are born with the ability to acquire language. They are not taught how to acquire it.

Developmentalists (advocates of nurture over nature) challenged (and still challenge) the impact of genetics/biology. At their most extreme, developmentalists in the 1950s and 1960s traced mental illnesses like autism and schizophrenia to parental behavior, specifically the "refrigerator mother." These arguments are no longer common currency, but the dependence on environment/nurture explanations remains.

As Harris illustrates in No Two Alike: "Many [developmentalists] had spent their entire professional lives doing research designed to show how parents mold their children's personalities. Not whether parents mold their children's personalities but how they do it. That parents have this power was something the developmentalists simply took for granted."

Harris goes on rather wryly, "Developmentalists are still plentiful but...over time they have become more modest in their claims and less strident in their denunciations."

It has taken literal decades for the role of genetics to be appreciated within mainstream and popular culture.

And yet the moment it became accepted . . .

About blacks, Jefferson argued:
They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites . . . In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when . . . unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.
If this makes your skin crawl, it should. What amazes me is when people who would turn from Jefferson's declarations in disgust spout something like the following:
That boy requires less sleep. Have you met his family? His father is exactly the same. It must be in the genes. After a hard day's labor, he will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight despite knowing he must be up at dawn. His brothers are just like him; they are also brave and adventuresome, so that must run in the family too. But this may be due to a want of forethought, which all the family has, and which prevents their seeing a danger till it's happened. When in danger, they do not exhibit the same coolness or steadiness as that other family down the block, but of course, that other family obviously has better genes. The first family isn't half as intelligent since they are disposed to sleep when unemployed like animals at rest. Regarding memory, reason, and imagination, in memory they are equal to that family down the block; in reason much inferior, as I doubt any one of them is capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid (no getting into Harvard for them!); and in imagination, they are dull, tasteless, and weird--but oh well, that's the genes they were born with.
Perhaps the reader would like to argue that because Jefferson's statement if about an entire race and
Henri-Baptiste Gregoire, the priest who disagreed
with Jefferson. As Ferling points out, "Many of
Jefferson's contemporaries...more zealously opposed
slavery . . .  [others] concluded that the perceived
character and habits of blacks were attributable to
the malicious environment of slavery, not to race"
(my emphasis).
the second statement is (only) about an entire family, the argument about the family is not rooted in determinism. Except Jefferson was perfectly willing to propound his argument despite his treatise being refuted by a French priest with a broader knowledge of the world than Jefferson. In other words, Jefferson was perfectly willingly to create a racial or geographical deterministic argument based on very little knowledge. How is that better than people with only a rough understanding of genetics--which is most of us-- declaring that they know why a person or a family are the way that they are?

In Culture Map, Erin Meyer tries to elucidate the differences between various cultures' management styles. Hers is a pragmatic and necessary exploration of environmental, cultural, and (perhaps) genetic differences. But Erin Meyer is not telling us why these differences exist. Although she makes a cursory and self-deprecating attempt in the forward, she admits that it is futile. She honestly doesn't know why. She honestly doesn't know how environment, culture, genetics--and hey, remember free will?!--come together. And she doesn't pretend to know what will happen in the future. She is not declaring that "this is so because . . . and hence will remain so." She is arguing, "This is so, so how does one deal with it?"

In other words: there is a tremendous difference between pointing out genetic puzzles and giving those puzzles meaning.

Deterministic rhetoric focuses on meaning. And the rhetoric surrounding that meaning is often dogmatic, self-sustaining, and relentless in its search for so-called related outcomes. (In No Two Alike, Judith Rich Harris points out with devastating specificity the problem with pinpointing actual correlations, not merely perceived correlations, within the social sciences.)

In response to all this determinism, yet another generation has to battle for the philosophy of free will and the individuality of the human soul. (Haven't we done this already?)

As a proponent of free will, I consider the meaning of deterministic rhetoric to be the following: determinism is a powerful lingual coping mechanism. And many people choose it as a way to cope. After all, even Locke didn't intend tabula rasa to become an excuse for Freud--it was suppose to free people, not lock them into pre-determined roles. And yet that's how it got used.

Whatever comfort it brings to the individual, determinism is not and never will be good science.
  • Ferling, John. Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Isaac, Benjamin. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity.  Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Harris, Judith Rich. No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality. W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Etymological Fun

Not a real Victorian card. (I hope that is obvious.)
I recently researched "belated" as in "belated birthday." I discovered that the term was not commonly used before the 20th century.

It did exist before the 20th century. In the 17th century, it meant "overtaken by darkness" which makes any such birthday sound like a post-apocalyptic event.

On the assumption that even the Victorians must have sent birthday cards late, I did some research.

1950s card.
And . . . as far as I could tell--no, they didn't.

The craze for "oops, I forgot" cards seems to have taken off in the 1950s, which dovetails with the increased use of the word "belated."

Real Victorian card
So I guess the Victorians figured a person was lucky to get a card, no matter when it arrived.

Wonder Woman (2017): Kate's Review

I liked it.

Here's why:

First, the cast is excellent. The names are not top-billing; they are top-tier. Across the board, the acting is solid.

Gal Gadot is magnificent. She has more of the Lynda Carter look than any female superhero in the movies or the comics. She's beautiful but not so overwhelming, she seems unapproachable. And she has an extra dose of vulnerability, making her relatable as well as approachable. To me, surprisingly enough, the most heart-aching part of the movie is when she crosses No Man's Land alone. Maybe it's my increasing age (the theater included me, a younger woman, two younger women and their boyfriends, and about four older couples) but it tore at my heart to see her thinking she could fix the world and the town with this single noble act. Three-quarters of the way across the field, she kneels to take a barrage of bullets. She can handle it; she's a goddess; she's not going to die. And yet, she's so (temporarily) alone, I teared up.

Chris Pine is a more than decent Steve Trevor and not at all boring (Lyle Waggoner makes me so sleepy, my brain stops working). This Steve Trevor is self-effacing, passionate yet surprisingly non-argumentative. His passion doesn't stem from a need to force others to his view but from inward conviction. So he's confident in his masculinity without being condescending or demanding. (See below for comments on the ending.)

Most importantly, from a writer's point of view, there's an actual internal and external problem. The story-line is surprisingly tidy. Me, I don't think that frills are necessary. A decent arc is all a movie, novel, or short story needs.

Wonder Woman's internal arc is fairly mild, but it is established early on, built on throughout the movie, and paid-off exactly as required. The external problem is also paid-off (see below). There are no radical twists here, and there don't need to be. Tell me a story. Make it a good one. Don't try to make it something it isn't.

I admit to being initially a tad disappointed that the story was taking place in the past. But I got over that disappointment fairly quickly. And it prepared me for later outcomes.

The fight sequences are notable and fun to watch--very Matrix-y, and I thought the use of the lasso as both truth enforcer AND weapon was quite effective.

The movie resolves some of the issues Mike refers to in his critique. Since this is an origin story, Wonder Woman figuring out her motive--what do I care about and why?--becomes the plot. After the origin story is finished, of course, she will need to find additional and more concrete reasons.

Having a god be her main rival makes sense but does move the villainy way beyond someone even like the Joker. And in all honesty, I am the kind of person who likes to watch superheroes do things like rescue kittens out of trees and move people to safety when a dam breaks. However, Wonder Woman as pure goddess is a nice treat.

It's 2017! So Wonder Woman touting female power through a sexy costume is okay, and I appreciated that her look was part culture/part practicality/part comfort. I also appreciated the movie's initial point that although the Amazonians won on the beach, guns utterly change the equation when it comes to warfare (take that, stupid Ewoks!). Finally, the lasso as only capable of producing the truth so far as the villain understands it (see below) is a cool problem that I think should always have been part of the Wonder Woman package (it allows for some great conflicts).

I'm afraid that future romance and relatability may still be struggles for Wonder Woman. But this movie succeeded at providing (what I understand to be) the classic story without apology.

*Spoilers--I Mean It--I Give Away the Ending--You've Been Warned* 

(1) Steve Trevor

I sighed a bit when I realized that Steve Trevor was going to sacrifice himself. Elsewhere I've written about how death can be a writing cop-out. However, in this case, it was fairly inevitable. Supposing that Steve Trevor bailed from the airplane at the last minute? And was rescued by the Amazonians and nursed back to health? He might live as long as Steve Rogers' Peggy Carter--but there's no guarantee; Pine gives Trevor that Kirk-like joie de vivre even in his own death. The guy lives on the edge. He was always going to die young.

In fact, he was always going to die. No matter what. Diana is going to lose him. No matter what. That's part of her heartache. That's why ultimately, she and Superman become a couple. Their human lovers die. Death is what happens when a person isn't immortal.

So I accepted his death.

From Mike: And while his sacrifice could be seen as a bit cliché, and as the man making the sacrifice in place of the woman, I saw it as Steve doing what he did throughout the film: seeing what Diana was capable of, and letting her do it while handling the stuff he could do. Diana had a god to fight, so of course Steve is going to take out the plane. Obviously he couldn’t swap places with her. 

(2) David Thewlis as Ares actually took me by surprise. Keep in mind, I was surprised by the end of The Sixth Sense, so it doesn't take much. (I thought the writers were going to pull a real switcheroo and make Ares a woman, such as Dr. Poison.)

He is kind of a side-note. As Mike mentions, he doesn't have the clearest of motivations. However, I appreciated his Loki-like persona and arguments. The movie is not a philosophical one by any means. But his argument to Diana caps off both the external and internal conflicts. I was especially impressed that he makes his case while wrapped in the lasso: he believes what he is saying. The serpent always speaks in half-truths.

We don't hear Diana's inner rebuttal, but we've seen enough to understand why she rejects Ares. She truly enjoys people--their oddities, their funniness, their differences. She likes not only Steve Trevor but Etta Candy, Charlie, Sameer, The Chief, the townspeople, babies, the person she thinks Sir Patrick to be. She is honestly invested in their troubles and in their ordinary enjoyments. Rejecting Ares may be a no-brainer but it's a definite choice, and she makes it willingly.

As an origin story, I'm not sure that I'd place Wonder Woman with Christian Bale's Batman Begins. But it deserves to be placed within the origin-story pantheon.

Ha ha. A little Greek humor there at the end.

Wonder Woman (2017): Mike's Review

A couple (or maybe a few) years ago, I wrote an article for Kate about the Flaws of Wonder Woman as a character. And in many regards I still stand by the points I made. However, I feel that I was struggling to simply state the main problem: that Wonder Woman, as she existed, did not work, and would not work without a major overhaul of some sort. And my concern about that happening came down to two things:

1. After a major overhaul, would she still be Wonder Woman?  
2. Would the fans accept these changes?

And the answer to both, it seems, is a qualified yes. Wonder Woman has recently been changed quite a bit, and people largely seem to be enjoying it.

DC comics continuity has become famous for being something of a patchwork quilt draped over a moving target. The writers and the publishers are continually taking things apart, stitching them back together, and rearranging things in order to appease and attract both new audiences and longtime fans. As a result, DC continuity has seen at least five “reboots” in the last thirty years (Crisis on Multiple Earths, Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis, Flashpoint/New 52, and Rebirth). And in the years since my original post, Wonder Woman has been “overhauled” or “retconned” (a comic term here meaning retro-active continuity) at least three times…. Or two. Again, it’s how you measure it.

The Strazinski reboot that I mention in the previous article attempted to address many of my original points… and was met with hatred and scorn. Then Flashpoint/New 52 happened, and Wonder Woman found herself almost back to normal; but with a few twists, which were met with critical acclaim. Most of these changes were seen in the new movie, which despite my, uh, tangent, is what I’m supposed to be talking about. The film has succeeded in taking both new and old elements of Wonder Woman and fusing them in a way that works. And the current comic version of Diana is not far off from the one we see in the film.

Batman v. Superman
For a movie review, I understand I’m putting forth a lot of background information, but I want readers to understand that I went into this movie with two overriding concerns. The first was that Wonder Woman has traditionally been a difficult character to do well; the second was that despite Wonder Woman’s appearance being the best single moment of Batman v Superman, that film was overwhelmingly terrible. Man of Steel, while not nearly as terrible, still severely misinterpreted Superman and demonstrated the filmmakers' complete misunderstanding of what makes the character tick. And while Suicide Squad was fun, its lack of interior logic or believable motivations, combined with shoehorned world building, did little to reassure me that DC and WB knew what they were doing with their fledgling universe.

Wonder Woman is the savior that DC/WB has been searching for. While far from a perfect film, it avoids many of the pitfalls of previous DCEU films, and sidesteps or merely ignores so many of the things that made Wonder Woman so difficult a character to write.

As a film, WW avoids the dark and heavy tones of the previous DC films, and largely ditches their
Due to her background, it never occurs to Diana not to trust
Etta with her sword.
dark, gloomy and CGI-riddled aesthetics. The film is bright and colorful, genuinely happy and funny at times, and surprisingly moving. Aside from the villains, the characters are well-written and acted, and their motivations are pure and clear. Despite all of this, Wonder Woman’s true success is its treatment of Diana as a character and a hero, and the film’s decision to address the “girl power” aspect by nearly ignoring it altogether. Diana has no chip on her shoulder about being a repressed woman. She’s not out to prove herself to anyone, and frankly wouldn’t even understand why a man might question her abilities. The film uses Diana’s background as strength. She isn’t bothered by sexism, because for her it doesn’t exist. And she’s often able to show her worth before it has a chance to reach her.

That the film is able to do this while still taking place in a time period of reduced woman’s rights is even more extraordinary. I never felt that the film was trying to teach me that woman were equal to men, or preach to me about the evils of sexism. Instead, the film, much like Diana, seemed unaware that these were issues at all. They merely went about the business of telling the story of a hero, gender be damned.

With the introduction of Steve Trevor and his romance with Diana, I was worried about how things would proceed. Diana is essentially this statuesque Greek goddess who comes very close to embodying the male fantasy--a naive virgin eager to learn about the world from the first man she meets. I was a little afraid the movie makers would feel compelled to make Steve the assertive one in the relationship, making Diana submissive, and then try to show this in some sort of love scene.

Their relationship, however, is refreshingly even. They fall in love with each other for their own reasons. Traditional Steve was always kind of a jerk, I felt, kind of cocky. But this Steve is kind and always in awe of Diana. Their eventual love scene is handled with more class and respect than I've seen in a movie in ages (i.e., they don't show it).

I really enjoyed how the film handled Steve Trevor. While he tried to protect Diana at first, he ends up kind of chasing her around trying to talk her out of stuff.... Just to end up watching her do it and then backing her up unconditionally.

There is also an action scene at the midpoint of the movie, in which Diana first fully reveals herself as Wonder Woman, which is hands-down phenomenal. Not only was it everything I wanted from a Wonder Woman movie, it was everything I wanted from a Captain America movie. Wonder Woman’s theme music, an electric guitar and drum driven jungle rock riff, makes an impression as the best superhero theme in decades, and helps drive the action scenes expertly.

As I mentioned, however, the film isn’t perfect. The use and quality of CGI in the film is glaringly inconsistent. While at times it seems to blend beautifully, at others it is so obvious and poorly done it nearly pulled me out of the film. Diana’s powers and abilities, as well as Ares’, were equally inconsistent and ill-defined. While Diana’s new origin as a demi-god is from the comics, her powers of reflecting lightening, making a shock wave, and stopping bullets with some sort of invisible force field are all original to the film, and make little sense when thought about. And while Wonder Woman can fly in the comics, I left the film still unsure if she learned to fly or not. While these powers don’t necessarily bother me, the lack of any explanation does.

After my first viewing, I honestly considered the possibility that Wonder Woman may be the best superhero film I’d seen. However, after some thought I realized I was simply so relieved that the film was decent, and that the character was presented in a way truthful to the spirit of the source material, that I was giving the film a little more credit than it was probably due. In the end, Wonder Woman is a decent, and maybe even great superhero movie. And it may have been the shot in the arm the DC movie universe needed. But the film’s real success is found in its treatment of the main character not as an empowered woman but as a hero and, despite her origins, a human being.

Coming Next: Kate's Review