Non-Comparative Money Arguments in Hollywood

One type of article that really bugs me is "Women actors get paid less than male actors in Hollywood!"

There is a minuscule truth to this argument. Do I think, for instance, that Cote de Pablo should have been  paid more by CBS for her work on NCIS?

Yes, actually, I do. I thought it was appallingly short-sighted of CBS not to pay her more. NCIS attracts both male and female viewers, and female viewers across the board liked her. Sexy, killing tomboys are a hit! (In fact, Cote de Pablo's salary was so low, I wonder if she simply didn't care that much.)

The problem with "women actors get paid less than male actors" is not that higher salaries aren't nice but that the argument (1) doesn't take producer thinking into account; (2) doesn't take comparative salaries into account.

Hollywood producers are all about saving money. Caring so much about money (versus art) is kind of soul-destroying--and thank goodness Michelangelo's pope didn't seem to have that particular problem!--but it is a producer's job. Which means--producers are never going to pay actors and actresses what they should get; rather, they are not going to pay them what they don't have to pay them.

NCIS can survive with Ziva. Personally, I doubt it survived well--I stopped watching it several seasons ago. But it can survive. It can, eh, sort of survive without Michael Weatherly.

It cannot survive without Mark Harmon.

So Cote de Pabo earned $125,000 an episode (when she left). Michael Weatherly earned approximately $250,000 an episode (when he left), and Mark Harmon earns $525,000 an episode.

In my Murder Mystery course, as many male
students as female students will write about Hargitay's
Olivia Benson. Like Ziva, Benson is a tough, sexy
tomboy who inspires both genders. Female viewers
specifically often get tired of too sexy-to-be-real
female heroines; giving such heroines tomboy
makes qualities them more relatable to women.
As I say, de Pablo's wages were too low. She was earning the same as Pauley Perrette and frankly, was a more integral part to the show.

However, keep in mind that Friends' co-stars (male and female) negotiated their contracts together and were earning $1 million per episode in the final seasons (a decade before Cote de Pablo left NCIS). Also keep in mind that Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloniper both earned $400,000 per episode on Law & Order: SVU.

Nobody on NCIS earns as much as the Friends' co-stars and nobody on NCIS except Harmon has ever earned as much as Hargitay and Meloniper.

The studio will pay what the studio can bear. And if it can dump the actor/actress and pay someone less, it will.

The other point has already been addressed but I'll re-emphasize it here:

Comparative statements are pointless. 

Sure, in fairness world, Kate Mulgrew would earn as much as a starship captain as Patrick Stewart on their respective Star Treks. But that's a terrible comparison because The Next Generation was massively more popular and earned massively more money (for ALL its co-stars) than Voyager. I like Voyager, and I like Mulgrew. But my personal likes and dislikes make no difference to what Hollywood determines people should and can be paid.

The smile of a man who says, "I earn way
more money than you!"
In tangent-ville, I happen to think that Stewart is a better actor than, well, everybody on Star Trek, but truthfully, acting ability isn't on the table here. What's on the table is what a single show--not Hollywood generally--can handle. 

Kyra Sedgwick deservedly earned $350,000 per episode on The Closer (over $250,000/episode more than Mulgrew). She was the lead. The show was a cable success. The money was there. And she's a decent actress if that matters (which it only kinda does).

But there would be no point in comparing her salary to salaries of actors and actresses on a popular network show. Or to Mark Harmon.

Because, really, in the end, nobody should be comparing themselves to Mark Harmon.


Rusty Beck and Wesley Crusher

"I only have about 50,000 viewers," Rusty argues in a Season 5 episode of Major Crimes, "and for some reason, a lot of them really dislike me."

It sounds like an inside joke. If it is--if Graham Patrick Martin is one of those characters that viewers love to hate (FYI: I like him)--he bears a remarkable similarity to Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher.

In both cases, a teenage boy is adopted into an adult world: a Major Crimes Squad/a starship. In both cases, the boy is older than his years. In Rusty's case, his experience on the streets has given him a belligerent, yet adult (though not mature) comprehension of the world. In Wesley's case, his supposed genius (which gets watered down in later seasons) justifies allowing him on the bridge (since Star Trek: TNG isn't about Wesley, his genius is eventually transformed into him being very, very bright; otherwise, he would be called upon to solve every problem!).

Both teenage boys are boyishly cute. I personally find Graham Patrick Martin more interesting to watch than Wil Wheaton (who grew a burly beard after Star Trek but willingly spoofs his youth on Big Bang Theory). Graham Patrick Martin is also--my apologies to Wil Wheaton--a somewhat better actor. His exchanges with M.A.S.H. graduate, G.W. Bailey (I can't believe how long it took me to figure that connection out!) are downright amusing. Still, Martin is so youthful looking that I assumed for several seasons that he was the same age as his character.

Rusty walking away from his drug-addled mother.
Despite their innate abilities (Wil Wheaton is a decent enough actor in his own right), both young men are used in their respective dramas as troubled youths who bear up to trials with stoicism and slightly hurt expressions--as opposed to rampaging rebellion (although Martin is given more opportunities to yell at people). That is, in both cases, the writing and direction--as much as the acting--provide the audience with reasons to dump scorn on the characters.

To put it another way, audiences have a tough time being asked to sympathize with distressed teens.

Although I was never fond of Wesley Crusher, I
never hated him or confused him with the actor!
I was very happy that Sheldon was made a Wesley
Crusher fan (albeit a disappointed one).
I'm sorry to say that I was one of those who didn't see the point of Wesley Crusher although I can appreciate some of his episodes at this later date. I've never had much trouble with Rusty since his purpose on Major Crimes has always been so clear (The Closer was about marriage and fitting into; Major Crimes is about parenting and making a place for oneself). Also, Rusty is allowed a greater range than Wesley, as in Rusty is allowed to sarcastically provoke people.

So maybe I should amend my statement to "Audiences have a tough time being asked to sympathize with distressed teens, especially teens who are supposed to be geniuses and who fulfill the role of whiner rather than rebel."

In real life, I think most people would prefer to have Wesley as their kid followed by Rusty (despite the whole "street" background). And yet, when it comes to drama, we seem to prefer teens who are sarcastic and rule-breaking (that is, teens who in reality cost their parents a great deal of money and anxiety).

I wonder if adult audiences in American culture feel that they are already being asked to sympathize too much with teens ("teenager" as a stage in life is a relatively new development in human civilization). So much angst in our culture over teen problems and teen crises and teen fears and teen angst!

Provenza (Bailey) and Raydor (McDonnell)
Maybe, too, we remember our own teenage years reluctantly. Who wants to relive them? Perhaps sweet, distressed teens on television provoke an atavistic urge to slap around the teenage mindset. Do the Rustys and the Wesleys become "whipping boys," scapegoats for society's annoyance with teen problems?

Wil Wheaton left Star Trek: TNG at the end of year four. James Duff has kept Rusty on Major Crimes by changing his raison d'etre (this is the best approach--see my notes on Stargate). The focus is no longer on his filial relationship with Sharon Raydor (played by the incredibly talented Mary McDonnell) but on his relationship with Gus. He also isn't expected to carry the show, something Mary McDonnell and G.W. Bailey are well-able to do by themselves.

The Dumbness of Doomsdaying: One Person's Story

Cute film about a nuclear bunker.
I missed the political conventions this summer (in prior presidential elections, I posted commentary on the Democratic and Republican National Conventions). I wasn't sorry. As I told a good friend, "I pretty much knew the type of thing I was going to hear from both candidates, and I didn't want to hear it."

I have an immeasurable distaste for what I call, for lack of a better word, doomsdaying: the rhetoric that insists that the end of the world is coming (in some form) if one doesn't act today ("He'll destroy America!" "No, she'll destroy America!"). I discuss specific devices embedded in that rhetoric in a different post. The purpose of this post is to place my distaste in context.

I grew up at the end of the Cold War, living out most of my teen years in the 1980s. I encountered folks who were absolutely convinced--as convinced as anyone I've encountered recently--that the end of the world was right around the corner.

Not "a decade away" or "five years away" or "sometime this century" but Tomorrow! Tomorrow the Nuclear Holocaust will arrive! Tomorrow we will need to run to the safety of our homemade bunkers! Tomorrow we will need to protect our families and our wheat with rifles! 

Oddly enough, this was years after Khrushchev banged his shoe on the table at the U.N., the Cuban Missile Crisis threw the nation into a dither, and even more years after Stalin murdered a large portion of his populace. The Soviet Union was far less of a threat than at any time since World War II.

Some analyst somewhere once postulated that people become more concerned about events, even advocates of those events, when the time of crisis is over--that is, a populace will begin to hark back to what it's "lost" when it's lost it. Nobody started to complain about prayer in school until a large percentage of the population lost interest in the subject.

To a huge extent, this theory explains the tail end of the Cold War.

In the Numb3rs episode "Dirty Bomb," Charlies explains
how far-reaching the potential bomb could be: a city
block; the radiation would have greater impact, though not
beyond the city limits. It is a bad scenario, and the bomb is
a small one, but the math is still more scientific than
80's scares which argued that one bomb would destroy
the planet. Even nuclear weapons have  limitations.
In my post on rhetoric, I mention that my parents were hardly the types to succumb to the argument, "I got a 'D' in math because I'm so scared of the bombs!" I never even considered being so ridiculous. But outside my home I was often informed by conservatives and liberals that the end of the world was coming (it rather depended on whether they blamed the USSR or Reagan). If I looked skeptical, I was accused--as I sometimes am now by political doomsdayers--of hiding my head in the sand.

My personality already tended towards skepticism, but the 1980's reinforced a strong dislike not only of doomsdaying but of the con-artist techniques that accompany it. I am as susceptible as the next person to a hard luck story, but I have been surprisingly well-fortified throughout my life against threats of imminent lifestyle collapse by insistent salespeople; it isn't that I can't be talked into buying a dumb car; it's that I can't be talked into it by people who try to tell me that my life is doomed if I don't. 
YOU MUST DECIDE NOW--OTHERWISE THE WORLD WILL END!

YOU MUST READ THIS LITERATURE THAT I'M PROVIDING BY MY PET EXPERTS WHO COULDN'T POSSIBLY BE BIASED BECAUSE OTHER TOP EXPERTS AGREE WITH THEM--OTHERWISE THE WORLD WILL END!

HOW CAN YOU DENY THAT _______________ (fill in the blank) IS TRYING TO DESTROY AMERICA?! IF YOU DON'T AGREE, YOU'RE CONTRIBUTING TO THE END OF THE WORLD!
I'm a huge advocate of a free press--I simply don't appreciate having a decision forced down my throat by bandwagon news. This is the main reason I refuse to sign petitions thrust at me by badgering people in public places (on top of which, allowing petitioners and spouses of candidates at voting areas on Election Day gets my blood boiling; it's the one day of the year when I think "secret" as in "personal, private, unimpeded, me-on-my-little-island, non-socializing, secret ballot" should be respected).

The types of studies I trust--when it comes to politics, religion, sociology, psychology, the hard sciences, and the end of the world--usually begin with statements like, "After five years of collecting data and comparing it against our prior study done ten years ago, we discovered . . . " and end with statements like, "Although we discovered that X, Y, and Z are important factors for consideration, the financial costs would entail . . ."

This is one reason I almost always end up getting upset in policy meetings. It isn't that stuff doesn't need to be discussed. It's that the conclusion "Hey, I guess we don't have to do anything" so rarely occurs. Suggesting, "I don't think we have the manpower or the time-frame to do that, so let's not" is treated as callous. SOMETHING MUST BE DONE! EVEN IF IT IS DONE INEFFICIENTLY! I have posted elsewhere about why this type of thinking  is problematic.

To end with an example: I recently questioned the extra building of windmills due to the imminent danger of a cyber-attack. I lived through the imminent danger of nuclear holocaust without freaking out unduly. I figure I can live through another threat without too much nuttiness.

Die Hard 4 has fun with an unrealistic cyber-attack.
"Not too must nuttiness" means questioning (1) whether a cyber-attack would even work; (2) whether building windmills might not be the equivalent of spending millions of unnecessary money on unnecessary nuclear bunkers.

No amount of threatening doom is going to force me to change my pace on this topic. I would need to see multiple long-term studies (20+ years), taking dead birds, noise pollution, financial costs, and actual tangible benefits into account--the kind of studies that don't contain a hint of "THE END! THE END!" no matter what the recommendations or opinions of the writers (these types of writers do exist--they have agendas, but they aren't doomsdayers, so whatever conclusions they come to, they never couch them in threats: see Cool It by Bjorn Somborg about judging environmental measures on their economic feasibility).

In the meantime, sure, the cyber-attack may occur. The Federal Government could also take away people's right to bear toothpicks--evil Hollywood could start sending Barney the Dinosaur into our homes with porn under his arm--Red States could drive their trucks in Blue States and force the populace to watch religious videos--all the hard-working immigrants who go to school and get good grades could take over the country, which sounds like an excellent plan to me!

Whatever happens, I'll enjoy my life so much more if I don't climb on-board the fear. And I'll retain my pride. My version of the world could be wrong, but it's a version I can live with.
If you're keen on spending eternity buried alive with a group so
narcissistic they think outliving humanity is a good idea, I'd rather
melt with the masses and get it over with, wouldn't you?

Character Actor: Michael Gross

Love Gross's raised eyebrow!
Michael Gross is best known as the father on Family Ties. He guest stars regularly on various shows (have I mentioned how much I love working actors!?), such as Law & Order (sometimes without his beard which is terribly disconcerting).

In a vote for TV Father, Michael Gross would come near the top of my list. One major reason is that as Steven Keaton, he comes across as a person in his own right rather than as a role. He is an individual, then he is a husband & father.

This construction of Keaton-as-person rather than as role is likely because Family Ties was originally intended to be about the parents--until Michael J. Fox showed up on-screen, of course. However, the original configuration means that the show is remarkably well-balanced in terms of acting and comedic ability. Michael Gross is no slouch when it comes to wry commentary.

Michael David Wright as college-age
Steven Keaton is pitch perfect.
In addition, his husband/father persona is devoted, sincere, kindly, sardonic, occasionally obsessed with a project or a game (such as Scrabble), a tad jealous of his wife's outside interests, admittedly given to ponderous discourse, diffident, and ultimately a man who always wanted to be a husband and father more than a great protestor (as the flashback episodes make clear).

Likewise, his oldest son is ultimately more interested in people than devoted to a conviction (money): Alex P. Keaton would likely end up in a job that combines both people and money (which is why Spin City makes so much sense).

I must mention, Michael Gross has an exceptionally fine singing voice. Check out episodes "Architect's Apprentice" and Lady Sings the Blues" to hear that honey baritone.

J. Edgar: The Odd Biopic

Tolson-Hoover, Real Life
J. Edgar is an odd movie.

In J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood attempts to do the same thing that he did in Invictus (where it kind of works): tell the story of a complex personage through the unwinding of a single event.

I'm in favor of this type of storytelling--but in order for it to work, the single event needs to be the right single event.

Generally speaking (the movie does have flaws), Invictus succeeds because the event, rugby, is able to showcase Nelson Mandela's character through the eyes of ordinary citizens. The point of view is uneven, but the viewer does come away with a strong feel for Mandela's character (as interpreted by Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman).

J. Edgar's script approaches Hoover in the same way--except this time, the event is told from Hoover's perspective. It is not meant to be accurate; it is meant to highlight that Hoover was boastful, intelligent, devoted, prejudiced, dictatorial, hard-hitting, paranoid, and self-aggrandizing.

The problem is, the event is The Lindbergh Case.

As someone who has studied The Lindbergh Case, I found the dramatization of those events quite fascinating, even if told (inaccurately) from Hoover's point of view. The problem is not that the Lindbergh Case is not fascinating; the problem is that discussing Hoover without focusing on Communism is rather like forgetting to mention that Nelson Mandela is black.

The main "case" of Hoover's existence, especially from his own perspective, was the fight against Communism.

The movie starts out in a tantalizing way--with the bombings that led to the Palmer Raids. I agree that if one is to understand Hoover, one should start by acknowledging that he grew up during a time of great unrest in the United States. Terrorism was a real and constant part of life in the early 1900s (and dynamite can do a tremendous amount of damage).

PM: The head of MI5? A Russian agent? How much did
he tell the Soviets?
DG (see above): That hardly matters. I mean, what with
Burgess, McLean, Philby, Blake and Fuchs and the
Krogers, one more didn't make much difference.
It is also helpful to understand that there were far more Communist spies in the Federal Government during the 1950s and 1960s than anyone wanted to admit (a state of affairs equally true in Britain and hilariously spoofed in Yes, Prime Minister--see above). Hoover knew this. He knew it because of illegal wiretaps. But his knowledge created a story in his mind that grew out of proportion to the reality. When his agents attempted to report that a group wasn't Communist in nature--and posed about as much threat to the United States as conspiring jellyfish--Hoover wouldn't listen. To please the boss, one had to report THREATS!

At one point in the movie, we are shown Hoover's prejudice--as he dictates the blackmail letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. (another agent likely composed and sent the letter at Hoover's instigation), yet the viewer is given zero context. Hoover is revealed to be prejudiced (which he was) but not fearful of King as a Communist agitator (which he and the Kennedys both mistakenly believed King to be).

Hoover and Communism is the fascinating story that could have been told.

Only it wasn't.

The movie does do several things right: (1) Judi Dench as Hoover's mom captures her toughness and her idolizing of Hoover (yup, yet again, Judi Dench proves that she really can do anything); (2) Leonardo DiCaprio does a fantastic job capturing not only Hoover's rigidity but his need for approval. The cagey wiretapping and so-called blackmailing become a strange form of socialization. He doesn't simply get "great men" to bow (voluntarily) to his whims (they wanted Hoover's information); he forces them to recognize him as more than a bumptious guy (or pretend to).

Tolson-Hoover from the film: No one comes right out
and says, "This is what we are arguing about."
(3) The Hoover-Tolson relationship is finely written and portrayed. Impressively, it retains the ambiguity that credible Hoover historians, such as Athan Theoharis, attach to that relationship. As Marc Aronson points out while summarizing research on Hoover, most credible historians believe that Hoover did not have (homo)sexual relations with anyone (nor did he dance on tables in bars while cross-dressing). Those rumors were deliberately spread about at a time when they were less salacious than damaging (and sometimes by people who were trying to get at men near Hoover, not Hoover himself).

However, any historian of Hoover ends us addressing his unclear sexuality. Aronson argues that Hoover likely didn't have a clue about himself and would certainly never have tried to have a clue (this is the interpretation used in the movie).

So one does come away from the film with some sense of Hoover--I reread and read a few Hoover books as a result--but the absence of a serious discussion of WHY America felt threatened by Communism (even told from the point of view of an clever, paranoid fearmonger) creates a blind spot in the movie that is hard not to hold against it.

G is for Gannett: Girls and Dragons

I didn't remember the books' plots. I did, however,
remember the dragon's appearance! In some ways,
this series' illustrations ARE what are remembered.
I'm standing in class. Yet another student is trying to convince me to watch Game of Thrones. Because they know I read and write fantasy and because they know I am a passionate devotee of movies like The Princess Bride, many of my students assume that I will adore Game of Thrones.

I dislike serials in general (being forced to watch from week to week), silly politics, and supremely inaccurate history (a little inaccuracy is okay), so I've resisted falling down that particular rabbit hole.

The student can't believe it.

"Game of Thrones has dragons," she says in the type of voice Alex P. Keaton would use to say, "There's money on the sidewalk."

I may not want to watch Game of Thrones, but I understand the passion for dragons. When I was young, I read the dragon books by Ruth Stiles Gannett, the series that begins with My Father's Dragon.

I loved the books, but at this late date, I remembered nothing about them, so I reread the first (there are three). They are shaggy dog/adventure stories. In the first book, Elmer doesn't rescue the dragon until the very end! The later books involve the dragon more.

A few years after I read Gannett's books for the first time, the dinosaur craze hit. I confess, I never felt the same way about dinosaurs as I did about dragons, but I wonder if the passion runs along similar lines. One doesn't have to memorize so many names with dragons as with dinosaurs (Hadrosaurus, Saurolophus, etc. etc.). But both dinosaurs and dragons are big, possibly dangerous, fantastical yet still recognizably "real."

In other words, dinosaurs and dragons are like HUGE pets that won't eat your legs off. I mean, really, they would, but we can pretend that they wouldn't.

Holidays in America: Part III

Ignore the irritating Margaret O'Brien--
this is a great holiday scene!
Holidays got considerably less boring for children over a period of approximately fifty to seventy years, from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. They plateaued at this stage in the mid-1950s and have remained there (sort of) ever since.

The problem with holidays for adults is the rowdiness (see Part I). When immigrants returned holidays to their pre-Puritan state (see Part II), that included all the drunken debauchery, which caused social concern. (Again, this wasn't cute drunken debauchery; this was smashing-windows drunken debauchery.)

About the same time, Victorians and Edwardians were capitalizing on the image and concept of the innocent child. Reforms to remove children from factories and place them in schools were on the rise. Corporal punishment would remain a controversy for years to come but the idea that whipping and birching were unacceptable teaching approaches was also on the rise (see Bronson Alcott).
Everyone in our family was SuperDog at some point.

In a sense, the Victorians created childhood as a stage of life. Children were no longer littler, dumber adults. They were different from adults. Turns out, the Victorians were right: children are physiologically different from adults. The creation of childhood as a stage had some unfortunate consequences--such as reducing fairy tales to "children's literature"--but medically-speaking, it was inevitable.

In Victorian America, getting rid of holiday debauchery became linked to promoting childhood. Possibly the best example of this is the Judy Garland musical film Meet Me In St. Louis (see above) in which during Halloween, the children are extended the remarkable freedom to start unsupervised bonfires in the middle of the street and go trick-or-treating by themselves.

This is more or less the childhood that *I* had--before the ridiculous razor-and-poison scares of the 1970s and 1980s (all razor-and-poison Halloween threats can be traced back to family members; there is NO record of an evil Norman-Bates-and-his-mother neighbor deliberately poisoning innocent liddle kiddies).

Childhood as a stage has become more restrictive. But the same impulse--the holiday is about children, not adults--remains.

Sort of.

Halloween parties for adults were common at the turn of the twentieth century. At the turn of the twenty-first century, they came back into style. Occasionally, my students will dress up for class at Halloween, and I've done it myself. Costumes for adults are no longer considered "childish" in the way they would have been a few decades earlier.

Part of this change from adults' holiday to children's holiday to everybody's holiday--with Halloween specifically--was the growth in the 1970s and 1980s of haunted and decorated houses (in response to the so-called scares): think of the Home Improvement episodes, one every season, involving Halloween scares, parties, and rituals.

A number of other holidays have mellowed to allow adults to have some fun. Children aren't the only ones who need breaks and change. Although adults often complain about the commercialization of holidays--and I can relate since whether or not I send out Christmas cards is entirely a matter of how much money I earned that fall--some type of cycle out of and back to routine is necessary. C.S. Lewis naturally said it best:
[God] balances the love of change [in humans] by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of a immemorial theme. He gives them in His Church a spiritual year; they change from a fast to a feast, but it is the same feast as before.  --from The Screwtape Letters

Reflections on the Role of StoryTelling in A Person's Life with Examples Culled from Popular Culture and Personal Incidents as Experienced by a Twentieth-Century-Born Individual

Nature versus Nurture
I was going for a nineteenth-century title.

I usually prefer to pontificate in the context of pop culture. But I am getting ready to teach an Interpersonal Communications course (which I've taught before). Since I in no way consider myself an expert communicator, I usually focus on either discussing more philosophical questions (like in this post) or hammering home the course's main point: Communication is complicated! Be kind!

Kate's Theory about Stories and the Self

In my Interpersonal Communications class, we discuss what goes into creating personality. Fifty years ago, nurture was the rage (Freud, post-Freud); about 10 years ago, nature was the rage (the latter has morphed lately into a more complex view that includes evolutionary biology/anthropology, not merely genes).

My view, the older and older I get, is that it comes down to the stories people decide to tell themselves about themselves (from the available material)--that to a large extent, Freud was wrong: it isn't the unconscious that influences the self; it is the created self that influences the self.

The story of the self is created in three ways: (1) cherry-picking evidence; (2) making comparisons; (3) constructing interpretations.

(1) Cherry-picking evidence

Cherry-picking evidence sounds awful, but it is in fact necessary and natural to human survival. We are inundated with experiences, flooded with sensory information, overwhelmed with faces, names, locations, memories, and choices. Brain Games and other lite-anthropology fare point out that humans have a remarkable ability to shut out information. This is what makes magic tricks (and pick-pocketing) possible. It is also what makes survival possible. Since we can't download "it" all, we're better off ignoring most of it.

Of course, there are negative side-effects, like "missing" vehicles we are not used to seeing in traffic (drivers literally don't see atypical vehicles). Often the eye as well as the mind has to be retrained.

Selecting or cherry-picking memories can also have negative side-effects. In one House episode, House "cures" a woman who has a photographic memory, only to realize that her photographic memory isn't responsible for her "only" remembering her worst memories; she chooses to do so. (Ah, I did bring in pop culture!)

The opposite of this would be Pollyanna-ism or, from Freud's point of view, denial. Either way, we don't select ALL memories when we create our stories; we select certain memories and discard others.

(2) Comparisons.

Again, this is a survival mechanism. We must compare in order to not get eaten by wolves.

Seriously.

In one class, I asked students about their assumptions regarding people. A student told me in all seriousness, "I don't make assumptions about people." I didn't contradict her, but I pointed out to the class that it is natural to make assumptions since we have to start from somewhere in order to learn. I assume that traffic will be bad around noon and five because whenever I'm driving around town at noon and five, it is. So I avoid driving in town around noon and five if I can.

Granted, assumptions about people are more problematic and should be rigorously questioned.  Knowing that we make assumptions can alert us to where our brains are. Lizzy assumed that Darcy was an arrogant jerk based on a few hours in his company; her experiences with him in other milieus led her to realize how much she had assumed in the first place (and how faulty those initial assumptions were).

Assumptions are embedded in comparisons--we have experiences which lead us to assume "truths" about people, so the next time we have an experience, we compare it against the experience we previously had ("The last time I was in a room with a big, scary, yelling dude, people called for security, so the next time I'm in a room with a big, scary, yelling dude, I'll leave.").

Unfortunately, comparisons, while unavoidable, always reach a point where they become downright demoralizing. And they become unhelpful when they preclude new information. If, for example, Lizzy continued to compare Darcy only against his previous behavior, she would fail to recognize that he is a good landowner and charmingly diffident when encountered on his own property. (Miss Bingley does make the comparison mistake, failing to recognize that Darcy's opinion of Lizzy has changed.)

Overall, I believe comparisons become unhelpful when they become non-constructive. Maybe I'm not enough of a Horatio Alger American but I've really never understood the comparison of rich to poor. I don't particularly want to live like most rich people, so why would I want their stuff?

It seems so much more constructive to be happy with what I have and (additionally) to be happy for what other people have. The only people that I am really jealous of are people who live in apartments overlooking Central Park, and they are so mindbogglingly wealthy, they might as well be aliens. Seriously. Aliens and space. Because sure, I would like to go to space, but I've never been even remotely jealous of someone who has--nope, not even Howard from Big Bang Theory.

(3) Interpretation. The same event can be interpreted multiple ways.

Interpretation is the most controversial of the three points. I could argue, for example, that being a woman in a culture that (still) contains many patriarchal institutions and mentalities has weakened me as a person. I could also argue that being a woman in this situation has made me tough.

Rimmer sees his life as a series of totally unfair events.
Linking self-esteem to action ("you are what you do") could make kids stronger; it could also make them unable to persevere when they fail. Helicopter parenting could make kids less independent; it could also give them a sense of "hey, what I do matters!" Interpretations don't  only change between individuals; they change between eras and historical periods.

Ultimately, it is the individual who interprets and creates his or her story (creating stories about other people's lives is fraught with problems). I can--and have--looked at events in my life from one exclusive perspective until something happened that shifted my viewpoint. I then tried interpreting those same events from an entirely new perspective ("Ooooh, that was a good thing, not a bad one"). Like many people, I often settle on a mixed interpretation.

The older I get, however, the more useful I find the positive interpretation. I'm not talking Pollyannism so much as a reasoned argument that the positive interpretation could be true. As an adjunct, I could argue, for instance, that the unreliability of the work, the resentful attitude of the administration, and the lack of funds IS what my job is all about. I could also argue that the variation of work, the growing availability/use of contract jobs in the academic world, and the pride I have at making a living under adverse conditions outweigh the negatives--and personally, I think they do!

Other adjuncts don't. Those adjuncts seem to me rather unhappy, sometimes downright bitter.

Here's my main point: the bitter state of mind is boring. Literally. When I fall into that state of mind, I get bored with myself. I'll suddenly think, "Wow, this is so dull. I'd rather be watching TV," so I do.
Turns out, Ace Rimmer--Rimmer's
charismatic, happy double--was
the one who was (unfairly) "held
back a year," not the original.

C.S. Lewis got it right--hell as a state of mind is an utter wasteland of monotony. He made it a bureaucracy. I would make it a business cocktail party. Either way, there are better things to do.

Regarding the stories, once formed, I'm not sure how prophetic they are--on the one hand, a negative story can create a downward spiral of self-reproach and self-denigration. On the other, the happiness experts (yes, there really are some!) argue that one's level of happiness remains fairly constant (within 6 months after a hugely positive or hugely negative event, people tend to return to their state of happiness before the event, whatever that state might have been).

I do believe that the story one creates can help make one's current situation bearable or non-bearable. It may not be prophetic but it certainly intertwines with the "norm." According to happiness experts, one's "norm" is determined by one's biological/hormonal baseline; meditation/prayer; and one's sense of accomplishment in the world. The last can be service; it can also be finding a career one likes and/or creating something for others to appreciate.

In other words,  referring to the last item, happiness in the now is about adding to the universe, even (I apologize for the sappiness) if that addition is a card or a smile or a silly joke.

Stories by definition are constructive, negative or not. Stories that formulate a positive out of a person's life are even better.

Holidays in America: Part II

What happened next to holidays in America is that the Dutch arrived! Or the Germans and Scots, depending on the holiday.

Just as German-born Prince Albert inspired Queen Victoria (and through her, the entire Victorian era) to put up Christmas trees and sing "O Tannebaum," likewise, German, Dutch, and Scottish immigrants inspired Americans to embrace their holiday spirits. A great deal of inspiration--for Christmas, specifically--came from the New York/Appalachian corridor from whence sprang Nast, the creator of the quintessential Santa Clause image, and his friend Clement Clarke Moore, the creator of "A Visit From St. Nicholas."

Apparently, the Puritans and Protestants who stayed in Europe had less absolutist notions about how holidays should be celebrated. Their arrival on American shores re-introduced the European influence back into the holiday mix.

What should be noted is that customs got re-introduced, not history. I have to prevent myself from grinding my teeth in frustration when websites or books try to claim that Halloween (for instance) finds its roots in Samhain.

Halloween is related to Samhain the same way modern-day medicine is related to bleeding with leeches. Yes, there is a connection in the sense that people calling themselves doctors once did that. But not really.

The problem with making these types of connections--similar to well-meaning Christmas-lovers trying to tell you that candy-canes came about because they represent shepherd's crooks, not because shops found them commercially successful--is cause and effect.

The well-meaners aren't arguing that the candy canes could represent a shepherd's crook--which is cute in an innocuously pointless way; rather they are arguing a chronological connection. And as with Samhain, that just ain't so.

The best way to explain almost any holiday is through the following process (1) there is a human and/or theological need to express something, such as fear or thanks or celebration; (2) a holiday arises out of that need; (3) a new holiday replaces the older one; (3) the original delivery of the holiday is completely lost--as in TOTALLY; (4) customs begin to accrue to the holiday like balloons sticking to static-y hair; (5) people begin to back-date customs to link them up to the (supposed) original version of the holiday.

(5) is what causes problems and gets people mad when you try to (pointlessly) argue with them. The accruing customs may be revivals of previous customs and even bear remarkable similarities to what we understand the original customs to have been but they are not the original customs (only updated).

Around Easter, people do stuff with eggs because eggs are related to springtime (new chicks, etc.) and because people say, "Hey, eggs represent new life!" But doing something with eggs doesn't mean that an egg-related custom is the outgrowth of the original custom that involved eggs--it simply means that eggs are useful in creating customs. And human ingenuity operates along similar lines between ages and cultures. 

At this point, I should mention that I don't get all cynical about this gap between the original customs and the current customs. Neither do I get upset about (3). I find it amusing but odd when people tell me breathlessly, "I bet you didn't know that Christmas replaced a pagan holiday!!"

Yeah, I did. And so?

This type of thing--one holiday replacing another--was happening long before Christians arose on the scene. Ancient Egypt performed several hundred years of non-Christian practices in which local gods rose in prominence to assume authority over other local gods and various customs got subsumed, replaced, and transformed by incoming immigrants, developing politics, and changing capitals.

It isn't all the different from what occurred when my parents got married. They each brought their own holiday customs to the table. They decided on an amalgam of those customs. So, for example, on Christmas Eve, we exchanged family gifts. On Christmas morning, we got our stockings after which we ate breakfast (sweet cereal!) after which we lined up and marched into the living room where the Santa Clause presents were stacked (the tree was in the dining room off of the living room).

Large-scale, this is how cultures operate--only not always as consciously or conscientiously.

Part III will follow next Friday . . . 

Holidays in America: Part 1

The story of Thanksgiving: classic or big lie?
Holidays in America generally underwent three stages:

1. They were boring.
2. They were less boring.
3. They were radically less boring (for children).

1. They were boring.

I'm not familiar with Native American customs re: holidays. I do know that the Puritans were not big fans of European/Christian holidays (and presumably nobody else's either). One of the things they threw overboard in their jaunts across the "pond" was holiday customs associated with Christmas, Easter, and what we now think of as Halloween.

The Puritans weren't simply being killjoys. In fact, many people who would eschew Puritan culture and beliefs would agree with their reasoning re: holidays. In England, most major holidays had become the equivalent of our New Year's Eve--with drinking and carousing and general, obnoxious heartiness. There was a commercial element (stronger in later centuries yet still present) whereby merchants made money off all the drinking and carousing and general, obnoxious heartiness.

The Puritans weren't the only ones who noticed and got annoyed--local governments were equally concerned. "Drinking," "carousing" and "heartiness" sound relatively benign until one adds in "soccer-fan-like hooliganism." Holidays had become actually dangerous.

If you are a bunch of Puritans trying to create a new, anti-high-church society, getting rid of holidays makes sense not only from a theological standpoint but from a civil order one.

Sarah Josepha Hale
Naturally, holidays crept back in. Although Thanksgiving for the Puritans was nothing like the story you may have learned in elementary school, days of thanksgiving were common long before Sarah Howe got her bloomers in a twist and started hounding Lincoln about making it a national holiday (specifically, the New England version).

Human nature being what it is, we need breaks from the daily grind. I find the Fall semester easier to handle than the Spring semester in terms of energy--it is a little under four months; it has nicely spaced holidays (Labor Day, Columbus Day, Halloween) with one large holiday (Thanksgiving), which still doesn't take up the whole week, ending with several large holidays, specifically Christmas.

The pace is perfect. The semester runs along at a jolly clip with enough "off" days to give students and teachers a "breather" but not too many "off" days to extend the semester too long. Plus there is enough common culture (specifically around Thanksgiving) for people to share stories and feel a common bond.

Even the pagan gods on Supernatural
enjoy the cultural trappings of modern Christmases!
Spring is difficult: it lasts forever; Spring break gets in the way; too many holidays occur at the beginning of the semester, not enough in the middle (March). The largest holidays are enormously important to individual groups; from an American cultural point of view, they not only don't supply a common currency, they don't have the commercial power of the Fall holidays. Easter, Passover, and occasionally Ramadan (which occurs in different seasons depending on the year) are far more religious in nature than most other holidays, making them difficult to commercialize and institutionalize.

Joseph Campbell once bemoaned the lack of a common "mythology" among Americans. I'm a fan of the effects of multiculturalism, one of which is a lack of a common "mythology." I'm also a fan of most separations of church & state (I don't support prayer in public school as a institutionalized feature, for example). But I do understand Campbell's unhappiness. In a secular culture, the Fall holidays focus more on common human conditions, such as harvesting and getting people through the dark days of the year, than on theological beliefs. Consequently, the Fall holidays create more unity as people transition from holiday to work to holiday again.

Common or not, that transition is necessary. And I love all holidays, so more will follow . . . !

Mythbusters' Lesson: Things Really Are As Good as They Can Be (For Now)

If you watch enough Mythbusters, a basic truth slowly emerges (or suddenly, if a big bang is involved): things are as good (for now) as humans can make them.

There's a good reason why people buy candles rather than making their own out of ear wax. There are very good reasons why gunpowder is still the option of choice when it comes to making bullets fly and why metal is still the best go-to substance for building stuff like cannons. There's an excellent reason why we don't try to burn our enemies with mirrors like ants.

In fact, there are many excellent reasons why solar power is not a useful alternative to more common forms of energy. People still use batteries because, hey, batteries are surprisingly useful. And gasoline is just about the best way to power anything out there that anyone can currently think of.

In the episode where Adam and Jamie try out different ways to power cars, Jamie remarks cynically but accurately that the only plausible alternative--used corn oil--would undergo similar regulations to gasoline and end up costing the same in the long run. The only way it would ever remain "cheap" would be if only a few people did it. An industry is an industry is an industry.

Me--I'm a maverick. I don't consider gasoline expensive. Twenty years ago, I spent $10 to fill up my little Dodge Colt. Now I spend $20 to fill up my little Toyota Yaris. In terms of comparative expenses, I'm spending almost exactly the same amount of my paycheck on gas now as I did then (and I drive more now).

Gas is still far, far, far, far, far cheaper than, say, horses. Horses are incredibly expensive to maintain--and talk about pollution! Horse dung doesn't just smell bad in some cute bucolic way. It contaminates sewer systems, spreads disease, etc. etc. etc.
I don't talk about sharks in this post: I just like the episode!

Truth is, Americans don't know how clean and uncontaminated they are.

Back to gasoline: I am also not worried that it is "running out!!!!" (Cue dramatic, scary music.) Things run out all the time, yet here we still are. There is no evil conspiracy keeping humans from running their generators on water. Neither is there any reason to doubt that new discoveries will occur in the future.

Every era believes that it has discovered all, figured out all, seen all, developed all. The Victorians did (no kidding) and see how wrong they were:

The technological revolution changed the world. It's easy to see it coming in hindsight but really, truly, nobody saw it coming beforehand. The same thing will happen again. It already has--how many people light their lamps with whale blubber? 

Family-Friendly M.A.S.H.

I'll get the usuals out of the way first:

1. M.A.S.H. seasons do become more and more anti-war (and preachy). The change was enabled by a fundamental shift in the underlying philosophy,  mostly due to Alan Alda. The initial philosophy, perfectly encapsulated by the impressive Larry Linville, was about jesting in the face of tragedy--how to handle cognitive dissonance. It's the same reason Shakespeare includes jesters in the middle of his tragedies.

The later philosophy was WAR IS BAD--IT UPSETS PEOPLE. If this seems kind of obvious, that's because . . . it is!

2. Larry Linville as Frank was genius. Unfortunately, as the actor himself recognized, he reached the point where he was no longer funny. When I watch M.A.S.H. from the beginning (as I did recently), I always reach a point (about Season 4) where I want him to simply die, he is just so tragically awful. If he had been allowed to change (like Howard of Big Bang Theory), he would have remained interesting and sitcom-usable. But Larry Linville was too good! The Franks of the world rarely change.

A cute "problem" episode: "Picture This"
3. The later episodes are mostly "problem" episodes, similar to episodes of Family Ties, Full House, etc. That is, they are based around a "family" that must solve a problem in order for everyone to be friends again (I am excepting the episodes that focus exclusively on pushing an anti-war message).

I don't much mind "problem" television. What is so interesting to me here is that although M.A.S.H.'s family-focus is obvious in the later seasons, it started much earlier than post-Radar.

By Season 2, for example, Trapper John is still playing around with nurses, but he talks about his children  more; Henry Blake makes *many more* references to his wife and even gets jealous of her supposed infidelity.

Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan also change from being the weird couple in camp because they are so kinky to being the hypocritical couple in camp *because* they are having an affair. Eventually, they become the dysfunctional couple.

Personally, I think the last was a mistake. In a Season 6 or 7 episode, Houlihan remarks to Hawkeye that she would like her future husband to be 10% him and 3% Frank Burns, which struck me as an insightful line. Despite Frank's awfulness overall, he--like Spike and Buffy--provides a decent counterpoint to Houlihan's toughness. They have similar goals and care about similar things. His honest sadness when she marries is one of Linville's most perceptive moments. 

From a popular culture standpoint, what fascinates me about M.A.S.H. is how the writers and producers began adjusting--almost immediately--to their audience's expectations and moral frameworks. It's a great example of why arguing that television creates culture (rather than reflecting it) misses the mark. We are not victims of television; we are its fodder and inspiration.

F is for Farley: Young Girls and Horses

Young girls are reputedly fascinated by horses. As a child, I sort of fell into this category and sort of didn't.

Why I Did

1. I read and reread Walter Farley's The Black Stallion. It was one of the first books I ever read to myself without stopping. I recently picked it up again and had the same experience. I then rewatched the Coppola movie which is nowhere near as fast-paced. However, I enjoyed it! The Coppola movie is not a true rendering of the book (although it follows the plot fairly closely) but more a nostalgic rendering of one's memory of the book--more on this later.

2. I took horseback riding lessons as a teen, thanks to my parents. My foray into jockey-dom didn't last, mostly because, well, they were lessons. I found riding around in a circle with the proper posture to be almost as dull as walking around in a circle with a book on my head. The most exciting event occurred when I lost control of my rather sedate horse (not on purpose) and went flying around the track. The trainers were mad; I was thrilled (but wisely didn't say so).

That's me in the blue pants.
About a year or so later, my parents and I were in Colorado and ended up taking a day-trip in the mountains on horses. No previous experience was required although since I had some, I used it. It was incredibly fun!! I've never enjoyed myself so much. I rode this huge animal with next to no control up and down trails that I am sure the horse had taken a million times before. Probably the most exciting thing for my horse was that in those days, I still weighed under 100 lbs. ("How's it going, Bert?" "Well, I got this flea on my back, but otherwise, no problems, Fred.")

So I enjoy riding horses though I haven't the discipline to do it seriously. 

Why I Didn't

1. I read no other horse books, not even Farley's many, many books (The Black Stallion Returns, The Black Stallion and Flame, The Black Stallion Goes to Vegas, The Black Stallion Does His Taxes--okay, I made up the last two). Many, many, many years later, I read the exhilarating Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, which I recommend. And I did read Black Beauty at some point: if Farley is the action-packed adventure horse story, Black Beauty is the look-at-all-that-scenery horse story. I barely remember it.

2. I collected zero My Little Pony trinkets.

In fact, I don't think I even had horse stuffed animals. My animal-of-choice as a child was cats: I had cat wallpaper, cat stuffed animals, cats in the house, and I read (and enjoyed) The Incredible Journey. However, despite the cat fetish (which I suppose never went away), I was never a fan of books exclusively about animals or even primarily about animals. I am human-centric when it comes to reading.

Back to The Black Stallion

Part of the wonder of The Black Stallion is the relationship between animal and human. What is so fascinating about this explanation is that the relationship is far less mystical in the book than anyone ever remembers. In fact, based on my oh, so extensive Wikipedia research, Farley himself appears to have endowed both the Black and Alec with a more mystical bond in later books.

In the initial book, the bond certainly exists--but there's a strong thread of pragmatism about how horses actually get trained. Alec gets thrown many more times than in the movie, and he never fully tames the Black, getting kicked by him at least once (in the movie, probably for safety reasons, the horse being used was a show American Stallion, Cass Ole, about whom people are constantly milling). Alec barely handles the Black on the racetrack (Farley does a thorough job expounding on the sheer stamina and upper body strength that a jockey needs to control a horse: Alec doesn't control the Black; he simply hangs on. In Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand argues, with reason, that jockeys are the strongest athletes in the world).

One of the most exciting vignettes
in the book and movie.
Moreover, in the book, Alec is a far more ordinary kid than he became later.  He loves his parents, including his not-dead dad. He's glad to be home. He goes back to school and invites his friends to come see his horse. He never questions using Black to win a race. The loner/man-fighting-for-a-horse's-soul qualities came later.

But the mystical relationship, particularly Alec's intuitive understanding of the Black IS the book's takeaway. Somehow. It was my takeaway long before I saw the movie. It was my memory of the book long after I read it. I was actually a little surprised reading it this time around.

Farley is the ultimate show don't tell writer and I think through sheer forceful imagery, he conveyed an idea/feeling that I doubt he was fully aware of until later.

In any case, the book has stood the test of time remarkably well. It is a stunning good read!

Die Hard and Topsy-Turvy: Part III, Writing Character

Immediate friends--which is also believable
The third reason that Die Hard and Topsy-Turvy are such fine films is that both films present characters who never stray outside their parts.

A difficulty that all narrative writers encounter is needing a character to do something at a certain moment in the story. If the thing-that-needs-to-be-done is not within the character's character, the thing-that-needs-to-be-done will ring false. Speaking as an editor, this entails informing the writer, "The action seems a tad contrived." Speaking as a writer, this entails gnashing of teeth as one laboriously works backwards to alter the character to fit the requirements.

The best outcome is when character and thing-that-needs-to-be-done mesh so smoothly, they seem inevitable--and the writer can brag, "Oh, yes, I always intended that to work!"

Die Hard and Topsy-Turvy both have characters that act exactly as they have been created to act. So--*spoilers*--when Gruber doesn't immediately shoot McClane at the end of the first movie (no, not the second), the non-shooting is not only a useful plot point, it is also entirely within Gruber's character. His reason for pausing isn't simply because he wishes--as Booth would say--to deliver his "rambling psycho-speech." The man is arrogant, not stupid. Neither is he the sort of man to act without considering all possibilities. He is wary of McClane, unsure what he will do next: maybe the guy has rigged himself to explode: who knows?! He has every reason to be wary based on McClane's (characteristic) behavior throughout the film. The confrontation is utterly natural.

The remarkable Shirley Henderson
Topsy-Turvy likewise delivers honest portraits of Gilbert, Sullivan, and the Savoy performers. There are so many examples, I'm hard pressed to limit myself to one: Miss Sixpence Please's bewilderment compared to her companions' amusement; the performers' entirely nineteenth century attitudes about current events; Shirley Henderson's coy shamefacedness as Leonora Braham; the excellent Lesley Manville as Gilbert's supportive, unshakable yet still pained wife.

One of the finest examples supports Christopher Hibbert's analysis of Gilbert and Sullivan. He points out that although Gilbert was known as an in-one's-face director, Sullivan could be equally demanding: he just went about his demands differently. But both men were perfectionists and both pushed performers to meet their exacting criteria. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner capture the main characters' styles:  Gilbert's loud, boisterous, rude, occasionally kind, larger-than-life persona (Broadbent) alongside Sullivan's more refined, soft-spoken, yet sardonic professionalism (Corduner).

Nobody mugs at the camera--with the one exception of Jim Broadbent in one shot. And he's Jim Broadbent, so he's allowed.
The delightful Jim Broadbent

Die Hard and Topsy-Turvy: Part II

The first similarity between the two movies is that both stay focused on 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 movie. 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.