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 Christians 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 have common currency, they don't have the commercial power of the December 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Genre Paperbacks Can Teach Us About All Literature

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

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

Violins, anyone? Waltzes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Without humor, nothing works.

But the treatment that makes the biggest difference is humor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Like MY Lyrics Better

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

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

Let me be clear: My lyrics make NO sense!

Especially when one considers the line that follows.

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

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

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

E is for Engaging Enright

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mystery Spoofs

As long as there have been mysteries . . .

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

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

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

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

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

Unless, the writing accounts for audience ignorance.

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

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

The Ridiculousness of Demagogues

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

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

But Anthem is just trash.

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

Here is my response:

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

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

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

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

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

My chosen friends . . .

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

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

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

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

But the text says what it says.

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

British Actor, Multiple Genres: Anthony Head

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

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

Anthony Head fits these requirements!

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

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

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

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

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

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


D is for Devilish Dahl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) The play version has a fascinating theme.

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

Through Philip and Vera, Christie tackles a problem that underscores most murder mysteries. It is best summed up by Mark in Dial M for Murder:
Margot Wendice: Do you really believe in the perfect murder?
Mark Halliday: Mmm, yes, absolutely. On paper, that is. And I think I could, uh, plan one better than most people; but I doubt if I could carry it out.
Tony Wendice: Oh? Why not?
Mark Halliday: Well, because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to; and in real life they don't... always.
Tony Wendice: Hmm.
Mark Halliday: No, I'm afraid my murders would be something like my bridge: I'd make some stupid mistake and never realize it until I found everybody was looking at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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