The Artists That Keep Producing Great Work: The Beatles

Hitchcock didn't. 

The Beatles did. 

What's the difference? Despite the gap in age, the acclaim, pressures, and--considering the processes involved--output are equatable.

In truth, I think Hitchcock is more the norm. (Even the Beatles broke up, which was entirely natural.) Artists get tired of their shtick. They want to try something different. They move on to a different medium. They put their energies into something non-art related. Directors and actors and music groups rise and fall not just in popularity but in production.

Nevertheless, the success of the Beatles raises the issue--why were they able to keep going for so long as a group and with such incredible, noteworthy output? 

I recently read a book A Day in the Life by Mark Hertsgaard that examines the Beatles' music from the point of view of artistry. The writer does a fine job exploring the power of collaboration. The success of the Beatles, he argues, did not hinge on one single artist. Even though McCartney and Lennon wrote most of the songs and were arguably the leaders of the group, the presence of all members during all phases of production was not unusual and the contributions of all members was not slight. It was the energy or aura or creative input of the entire group that made them produce as they did.

What is equally astonishing is that every one of them had a strong career after the break-up, including Ringo (who often gets unnecessarily mocked). The charisma, hard work, and creative perspective of the individual members allowed them to excel in quite distinct ways later, which backs the collaboration argument. Hertsgaard proposes, fascinatingly enough, that Ringo replaced Pete Best as much for this elusive collaborative potential as for anything else. Ringo fit. He appeared to have a future. He was attractive as an artist. The others recognized in him a kindred spirit.

So why couldn't Hitchcock remake himself like these young men? 

Well, for one, by the time he hit Torn Curtain, he was 67 years old, and yes, age does slow people down.

But I think there is another reason: Hitchcock fell victim to the intelligentsia. He began to believe in his own legacy before his legacy was complete. 

The Beatles didn't. The most striking characteristic that I noted in Hertsgaard's analysis of the group was "irreverence."

Now, I don't mean "rebellion." Oh, they were fighting The Man! That's why they were so good! Their irreverence went deeper than that. They were willing to challenge not just The Man, they were willing to challenge the ideologies of the "avant-garde." They were even willing to challenge their own legacy, their own phenomenon. They challenged their manager, even though they liked him. They challenged fans, even though they knew they depended on them. They challenged intellectuals who wanted to cozen up to them. They knew better. They were Liverpool Boys at heart and forever.

Hertsgaard writes, "[P]recisely because the Beatles didn't know what they didn't know, they would suggest innovations that never would have occurred to better-trained but more conventionally minded colleagues." But you know, to the Beatles, conventional wasn't so bad either. They knew that they wanted to make money, for instance. 

One of the sorrows of John Lennon's assassination and George Harrison's death from cancer is that they may have ended up who-knows-where. There's no strict or known trajectory that can be assigned to artists who are willing to knock down even the sacred cows of their artistic "set." 

Video: "Eight Days a Week" is not considered the greatest of the Beatles' hits and the Beatles themselves reportedly didn't think much of it. I use it here because (1) I love it; (2) it showcases the incredible talent of these boys even when doing a "simple" rock song, which songs they never entirely fell out of love with; (3) it showcases the phenomenon that they walked away from by their 3rd album. Considering their age, that shows remarkable will-power and belief in their own abilities. 

And belief in their own abilities is a trait they share with Hitchcock.

Children's Picture Books: M is for Mirthful and (Unfortunately) Mindless Criticism

Mercer Mayer is one of my favorite illustrators/writers. 

The truth is some of his works cross the line into overly cutesy--but I still adore the easy conveyance of emotion from deadpan amusement to irritation to uncertainty. 

In fact, the "Boy, Dog, Frog" series doesn't even include text. The stories are conveyed entirely through set pieces per page. The joie de vivre embedded in each scene is reminiscent of Calvin & Hobbes. In fact, in many ways, Mercer Mayer created early Calvin & Hobbes. The adventurous boy is accompanied by alert, communicative, and opinionated animals.

There's a Nightmare in My Closet is also a classic, capturing a fundamental childhood worry (I checked my closets before going to bed; I then jumped from the middle of the floor to my bed because as Mercer Mayer also tackled, There's an Alligator Under My Bed).  

I didn't realize until I looked up Mayer's bibliography on Wikipedia that There's a Nightmare was compared, negatively, to Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are

This is so stupid, it makes my brain hurt. The two books tackle a similar issue: children at bedtime; monsters in the offing. But they are not the same at all, not even thematically. There's a Nightmare in My Closet is Monsters, Inc. Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is actually closer to Harold and the Purple Crayon, a wild ride where the child breaks all the rules. The first book is domestic. The second is more like the Pevensie kids stepping into the painting.

There's no need to compare the books negatively (as if they are both trying to do the same thing and one failed). I never did as a kid, and it never occurred to me to compare them as an adult.  

The older I get, the more I think that the default for the human brain is comparisons based on lack of context. We seem to need to make comparisons in order to survive. But those comparisons are so often based on narrowing in on one word/clause/detail/trope/phrase and then insisting that the word/clause/detail/trope/phrase is everything about a story/novel/movie/post/event. But the entirety of the thing deserves to be appraised for what it is, not for some single "a-ha!" recognition. 

This tendency could explain why teaching summaries (pinpoint the overall gist of a passage) is the most difficult skill I teach in English Composition.*

*And in other classes and, unfortunately, for more than research. I am struck quite often by an attitude whereby students want single answers that can be easily found/pinpointed because they are already embedded in texts (words/phrases/details), a reluctance to move beyond a label or multiple choice option to ponder a problem and form an answer that may involve taking a position while also acknowledging complications. 

And yes, okay, that last part is not easy. It's the resistance that becomes more and more puzzling to me. But then, it is so much easier to find that "one wrong or right thing."

Human nature? A quality of the time period?  Is "opinion without context" taking over the planet or has it always been with us--and now it's simply noisier? 

Troubles of Biographers: F is for Forster and Fraud

Problem: What do biographers do when they encounter a fact that contradicts the biography's "story"? 

Hopefully, they will be honest. 

Sometimes, they are not. 

Biography: Moffat, Wendy. The Unrecorded History. Straus and Giroux, 2010.

Moffat's biography The Unrecorded History is technically well-written. The problem is not the writing. The problem is that Moffat slides all available evidence into a single pattern. The result is a Forster who is neither as complex nor as interesting as the Forster revealed through P.N. Furbank's biography.

Moffat focuses on Forsters' relationships. Among the many relationships that she details, she presents two--with Mohammed and with Bob Buckingham--as absolutes. She more often than not "tells" the relationship story without "showing" quotes from either journals or letters. She is the equivalent of the good girlfriend who defends her best friend's relationships, even when he isn't so sure of them himself.

With Mohammed, she cannot withhold a slightly critical voice--but that is entirely due to Forster himself. Forster worried about the gap between him and his "lover" in terms of race, class, and philosophy. He was never sure if he was taking advantage or being taken advantage of. He also worried that he and Mohammed did not perceive "relationship" in the same light.

Moffat ignores these doubts, downplaying them whenever they rise to the fore. After Mohammed's death, Forster wrote out their history together. He was typically self-analytical and unswervingly truthful. In one of the most shearingly honest pieces ever written by a human being (other than C.S. Lewis), Forster writes to the dead Mohammed:

I wish I could distinguish more clearly between us, but it was always difficult, and now you are not here to correct me when I think of you not as you are but [as] I should like to think you . . . I am professionally a writer and want to pay you this last honour, although there is much that you will not understand, and some things that you will not agree with . . .

I could not find this letter in Moffat's biography. Whenever Forster questions his relationship with Mohammed, she argues that he is a man tortured by doubts, not a man reflecting honestly on a rather odd affair. While reading Moffat's account of Forster-Mohammed's relationship, I could never shake the uneasy impression that Forster made the entire thing up. Yet while reading Forster's letter (in Furbank's biography), Forster's very doubts led me to conclude, "Yes, this happened. It was real." It is Forster's astringent, self-aware voice that convinced me. In Moffat's hands, Forster turns into someone far more clueless about himself than every person connected with Forster understood him to be. 

Moffat extends this same interpretation of Forster to his relationship with Bob Buckingham. She wants to sell the story that Bob Buckingham and Forster were (1) lovers; (2) the love of each other's lives. 

Forster was consistently cagey about Bob Buckingham, who would have had far more to lose than Mohammed if Forster had played out a romance in public (or through letters). Moffat works hard to maintain that the relationship was a great romance because . . . I'm not sure why. I have a feeling that the reason is connected to Moffat's desire to see Forster more as an angsty Heathcliff than an objective Darcy. Or to her need to sell Forster as a man thwarted by society's rules when, in fact, he was the beneficiary of his social class--and knew it. (Forster wasn't the type of man to turn life's imperfections into his raison d'etre and he tended to avoid, or to sternly remonstrate with, people who did.) 

Bob Buckingham was a cop who was bisexual or open to any experience that would improve his lot in life or a warm-hearted, physical guy who never thought of himself as Forster's gay partner despite the equivalent of locker-room high jinks. He did marry after meeting Forster and by all accounts had a robust physical relationship with his wife. Although one of Forster's friends attempted to sabotage the Forster-Buckingham relationship by informing the wife, May, that Forster was undermining her marriage (by taking Bob about with him so much), the attempt went nowhere, mostly because May's attitude was that Bob hanging out with another man was better than Bob hanging out with another woman.

In his typically scrupulous manner, Furbank suggests that there may have been no ongoing physical relationship at all. Furbank is not being prissy or inhibited or homophobic. He is honest and non-judgmental about Forster's homosexuality as well as Forster's various relationships throughout his biography's 585 pages. He presents the option because he is a honest historian who cannot ignore the accumulated evidence, the lack of evidence, and Forster's personality.

And the evidence is that no one knows exactly what the relationship was between Forster and Bob Buckingham. Forster was highly self-analytical but also capable, as he admits, at creating scenarios that he wished to be true. He presented himself and Bob as partners to his Bohemian friends but so elliptically that one is left with the impression that Forster wanted his friends to believe that Bob and he were lovers, not that they actually were. (Or, rather, he wanted his friends to believe whatever they wanted to believe without Forster having to say anything at all, which seems most likely.)

Forster had the wonderful capacity to immerse
himself in experiences without judgment--
yet he was a shrewd judge of people and
events: not the kind of man to be conned.

When presented with outside evidence--Forster's wry self-analysis, for instance--that contradicts her pattern, Moffat fudges, even going so far as to cover up material that might undermine her narrative. 

At one point, she commits what I consider to be biographical fraud. 

When Forster had his first stroke and confessed his feelings to Bob Buckingham, Bob was shocked and denied (1) that he knew Forster was gay; (2) that he and Forster were lovers. Unlike Furbank (who deals with this event upfront), Moffat moves Bob's declaration to a side note at a later period of time, implying that Bob did not make such denials until AFTER Forster's death

But in fact, Bob made this denial several years earlier; six years later, he and his wife would care for Forster during his final days. Yet Moffat accuses both husband and wife of covering up the truth--so much so that they come across as low-life grifters out for Forster's money and prestige. (Even if the information wasn't learned until after Forster's death, Moffat's treatment of the event is deliberately misleading. There is a distinct lack of "transparency," which is a researcher's best friend and keeps the researcher honest: what exactly is the information's origin and context? Moffat uses a strict chronology when it suits her purpose. When it doesn't, she obfuscates.) 

Those who knew and met the Buckinghams  including Furbank, found the possibility of their deliberately lying to protect themselves highly unlikely. From all accounts, including Forster's willingness to befriend the Buckinghams, they were honest, intelligent, unsophisticated people. Bob especially took things at face value. His wife May was more discerning though more likely to worry about Forster's increasing forgetfulness than his sexual orientation. 

Based on Forster's droll assessment of himself and his various relationships, intimate and not, I rather think that he and Bob Buckingham did exchange some physical intimacies, the type that a highly physical good-old-boy like Buckingham would never define to himself as "gay" since he did not seem to think that he was. (A reality ignored in Moffat's biography is that people are far more varied in their responses to sex and sexual identity than a label. She also ignores that social expectations/attitudes towards male "bonding" have changed in the last fifty to sixty years; even the language has changed from "friendship" to "homosocial" to "bromance.")

Forster sitting next to May Buckingham

When Forster met Bob Buckingham, he was older, wiser, tired, happy with his circle of friends, happy to have a "consort" of sorts to take around with him when he visited his Bohemian friends (who strike me as far more naive than Buckingham's wife) and may have decided, "Hey, I'm a middle-class Englishman with no desire to be a rebel and a lessening sex drive. This works for me!"

And it did. The Buckinghams invited Forster into their home, and most of Forster's friends accepted the Buckinghams as "good sorts". The Buckinghams cared for Forster through various illnesses and broken bones. May Buckingham specifically was an extremely good friend to Forster. He was godfather to the Buckinghams' son; when the young man died, May and Forster consoled each other. One gets the impression that Forster preferred this middle-middle-class family to his Bohemian and upper-middle-class friends. At heart, the guy really liked the middle-class life, even as he critiqued it.

Forster fell in love; Masood didn't; they remained friends. By
his own assessment, this was one of Forster's most important
relationships--every relationship mattered to him.

There are ways to reconcile or at least explain the perspectives of all those involved. I attempted one reconciliation above. Moffat never tries to do this or allow for it--hers is a-one-size-fits-all pattern. If Forster stated something that fits the pattern, she accepts and reports it; if he later qualified or contradicted previous statements (as humans are wont to do), she ignores or downplays his equivocation. Her treatment extends past Forster to his friends: If what you're saying agrees with Forster having notable, dramatic so-called "real" romances, you must be speaking the truth. If you doubt or question those romances, you must be afraid of speaking out.

The problem is not that Moffat is selling Forster as a gay man. He was. And it informed his life and perspective, as Furbank makes clear. The problem is that she doesn't accept that relationships are more complex than one-winner-takes-all. As mentioned above, after a few chapters with Moffat's book, I felt like I was reading a high school confessional: My best friend luved this guy in high school, and that friend was soooo into him, so it MUST have been, like, the biggest romance of the century.

People live on continuums, not absolutes.

Moffat wrote her biography based on "new" material. I imagine she went into the endeavor believing she would find fresh "proof" of her version of events. She didn't. Sayers wrote an entire mystery about this problem. Gaudy Night is based on the back-story of a young researcher who is unwilling to give up his erroneous theory and ends up getting fired and later dying. He leaves behind a vengeful wife, contemptuous of the entire academic establishment. In this case, I side with the academics. However, I acknowledge: the pressure to stay with one's original idea must be tremendous. 

The result of not giving up that original idea, however, is sad. In the long-run, Moffat misses out on the objective, idealistic, sensitive, friendly, self-knowing, and wry E. M. Forster that others understood him to be--in and out of his intimate relationships.

If you are interested in Forster, I highly recommend Furbank's biography instead. 

Furbank, P.N. E.M. Forster: A Life. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

The Remarkable Alex Jennings: Duke of Windsor

It took me a bit to get into The Crown. I was impressed by the casting, but the first episodes seemed very slow. 

They are impressively accurate with some, necessary, over-dramatizing in parts--at least in the first season. 

What impressed me the most, other than John Lithgow as the canny Churchill, was Alex Jennings as the Duke of Windsor. 

Alex Jennings shows up all over British television--and in movies. I've seen him in mysteries, historical dramas. He plays Prince Charles in The Queen. And he plays not a dissimilar character as the Duke of Windsor in The Crown.

Except somewhat more complex. Jennings as the Duke of Windsor is arrogant, caustic, obnoxious, desperate to be loved and accepted, a kind of weird early fashion-media-conscious Kardashian, petty, cruel, perceptive, obstinate, devoted to cognitive dissonance, wistful. 

Elizabeth II's coronation is possibly the best episode I've seen so far. Watching from his villa with his wife and friends, the Duke narrates parts of the coronation. Some of his pettiness shines through when he explains why Elizabeth's anointing isn't shown on TV:

Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose when you can have poetry? Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. But wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil, and hey, presto, what do you have? A goddess.

Lia Williams as Simpson

And then one realizes that he is talking about himself as well. He never reached his coronation. He knows--possibly better than he will ever admit--how ordinary he is. He knows that he was never transformed. 

"And to think you turned all that down," a guest says. "A chance to be a god."

"I turned it down for something greater still," he responds. 

He appears to truly mean what he says as he and his wife exchange fond glances. 

"For love," she translates.

Except then we, the audience, immediately see Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, reluctantly kneel to his wife in a show of support that he chaffed at having to make. And the question, What constitutes true love and sacrifice? arises. 

The Duke of Windsor is our translator because he alone of everyone still alive understands what Elizabeth is taking on, the duty or iconic symbol that nearly crushed him and did crush his brother. 

The end of the episode shows the Duke of Windsor playing the bagpipes. As bagpipes often do, the sound is mournful, nearly a dirge. 

Is he mourning that he abdicated before his coronation? Or is he mourning the weight that only he and his dead brother can understand, the weight that he saw descend that day on his niece, a young woman who believes absolutely in the anointing and the mantle she bears?

Is he mourning what he gave up or mourning what he caused? Or is he mourning the entire system that he both loathes and desires? 

It is a magnificent performance on Jennings' part. 

The weight of the crown.


Lessons from Fan Fiction: How Useful Star Trek Is In Creating Satire

There's Galaxy Quest, of course, though that is part spoof/part tribute. 

To be more particular, Star Trek is useful for elucidating current issues. In one of the more heavy-handed episodes of  The Original Series, fighting members of a planet come onboard. One is portrayed as passionate yet willing to bully others through incendiary rhetoric. The other is portrayed as a kind of Javert character (they are both played by strong actors). The issue? One member of the race is dark on the one side, light on the other and vice versa.

The message is--well, just try to duck it! (you can't). But the end where the two arrive at their planet to find it utterly destroy...yet are still willing to keep fighting...carries a depth of pathos that is relatively unusual for Star Trek (though not for the 3rd season). 

The point is: sci-fi allows such issues to be explored in a way that political commentary--so busy focusing on the rhetoric and "us versus them" competition--sometimes misses. 

In my Voyager fan-fic, I have a coterie of self-righteous complainers, led by Crewmembers Piyus and Malise. They aren't consistent in their complaints since they use the rhetoric of so-called diversity to complain about, well, everything: people who are too diverse; people who aren't diverse enough; people who don't behave how they ought; people who get supposedly special privileges; people who don't give them what they want/expect. The complainers disguise bullying with proclamations of sensitivity.

Here's an excerpt I wrote (with its own element of heavy-handedness). Ben, one member of a couple that Piyus and Malise and their clique have taken to bullying, recently got married (Ben is his human name): 

Crewmember Piyus approached Ben in the Mess Hall.

“I understand you got married. Congratulations, I guess. But you know, there’s so much ignorance about other crewmembers’ rituals and customs, you really should have invited more people.”

“It was a private ceremony,” Ben said.

“But people can never learn about others unless they have more opportunities—”

“I don’t consider my marriage an educational opportunity.”

Crewmember Malise, who was listening in, said contemptuously, “So much for Starfleet openness.”

Ben set down his fork.

"I think that Starfleet’s education can be useful. I was taken from Gemine when I was under six years old. I didn’t know anything about my planet or its customs—I had nothing more than a few vague memories and some lullabies. Starfleet helped me learn more.” 
He met Malise's eyes steadily. “But I agree that Starfleet training isn’t quite the same as indoctrination. It can’t force understanding. It’s a resource. To benefit from it, a person already needs generosity of spirit, a desire to accept rather than belittle. It’s easy to use IDIC language to bully others rather than to let them be.”

“Here, here,” another crewmember, Quin, said while Malise grumbled about IDIC being "Vulcan parochialism" and Piyus looked abashed.

Malise and Piyus, I found, were bad guys I loved to hate--and spoof. I also realized how shallow so-called progressive arguments can be. I mean, I knew that anyway... 

But when you go to write the arguments (and try to rely on logic rather than labels in order to create strong antagonists), it is hard to defend the incessant name-calling and constant interference. I also discovered how easily such rhetoric can be used to justify any position or viewpoint. The arguers profess to be in favor of recognizing others' differences. In the end, they come across as more preoccupied with a high school-like desire to have all the "cool people" be "just like us." 

Here are Piyus and Malise again, complaining to Captain Janeway. Note how what really bothers Malise is that he doesn't have the type of relationship he wants. I think a lot of supposedly inclusive arguments come down to this fundamental human flaw (call it "original sin" or "the natural man"): I don't have the life that I should have had; I will be destructive until I get it. 

Crewmember Piyus began, “We realize that Starfleet is committed to distinctiveness. We all are. It is unfortunate when distinctiveness is used to justify damaging behavior.”

“Such as?” Captain Janeway said levelly. 
“There is the issue with the clone—”

“Clone? You mean Crewmember Allec.”

"There is the Anthro and Teuran.”

“Also Voyager crewmembers. I suggest you use their names.”

“Teurans have been keeping Anthros in captivity for generations.”

“That matter had not been resolved when Voyager left the Alpha Quadrant. I can assure you that proper protocols are being followed. I've received no complaints from the actual crewmembers. What else?” Captain Janeway said before Piyus could argue that nobody other than Piyus and her cohorts were capable of even voicing complaints.
If she only knew.

Not that it would matter if she did. In Piyus and Malise's minds, a failure to agree with them obviously represented undue subservience to Starfleet. Consequently, only their complaints mattered.

Piyus said, “The Gemine are—dating, I guess they call it. There’s even talk of marriage.”

“I understand that this is entirely acceptable behavior for their species. It is how they mate and reproduce.” 
Malise broke in, “And if this was the Alpha Quadrant, of course we would all go about our own business. But on a ship as small as Voyager, denigrating behaviors that promote power imbalances, gender absolutism, and advocacy of the status quo should be avoided.”

“And their relationship promotes all these things because—?”

Malise was practically seething. Captain Janeway eyed him like he was a bristling bug.

He said, “It is offensive how Starfleet encourages duo-couple power expression. Out of phobia and stigma towards experimentation, Starfleet encourages unnatural and exploitative bonds. All for the sake of so-called individualism.”

“That sounds like an excuse to force others to behave as you wish. That isn’t going to happen, Crewmember Malise. Others do not exist for your gratification.”

Malise sat back with an offended air. “I am not the only one who finds current so-called pairings on this ship toxic. Others have told me how unhappy they are—”

He was likely referring to his coterie of five or six crewmembers. They huddled in corners and egged each other on. Captain Janeway turned her gaze on Piyus, who was clinging to “I'm so sad when others are unhappy--and I'm sure I'm part of the problem” self-congratulation.
Piyus said, “Captain, we want Voyager to remain a community as much as you—not break apart like the Varro. Shouldn’t a community have common values and ethics?”

“Common morality, you mean? Let's not split hairs. The common morality with this crew is respect for other customs and rituals. I will grant that not all customs and rituals are easily understood. I will also grant that Federation protocol often takes precedence over those customs—we don’t allow Klingon crewmembers to duel each other when they come on-board Federation ships, for instance. Outside of those protocols, Starfleet is not going to violate basic individual—individual—rights because of your personal feelings of offense. You are dismissed.”

I think Janeway would make these arguments. Throughout the series, she promotes Federation protocols (think Western civilization) but she also works to promote the individual, including Seven, the Doctor, Neelix, Chakotay's cultural beliefs, and so on. 

Unfortunately, I also think Voyager would suffer these types of complainers--it is one of the dangers of the closed environment. Consider that Shackleton was reluctant to award all members of the Antarctica expedition. There was that one guy who just wouldn't shut up... (The other crew-members persuaded Shackleton to change his mind.)

But the temptation to dump that one guy on a planet/ice flow must be great!--especially when the relentless complaints are negative and unproductive as opposed to useful and constructive. Does the mindset add or detract? 

This is a Terrible School

Anyone who watches lots of crime shows knows that "Hudson University" is a depraved place of higher education, offering up skullduggery, murder, theft...

Hudson University is where Nicole Wallace begins her encounters with Detective Goren. In Blue Bloods, the authorities at Hudson University "lose" evidence regarding a possible rape on campus rather than contacting the police, all to protect the college's reputation. 

A suspect in Castle's "In Plane Sight" is enrolled at Hudson University. He isn't the villain at least.

Hudson University is a simply terrible place to go to school! (Though it does have a great name--kudos to the writer who invented it.)

According to Brennan, after she encounters numerous dumb college students who behave stupidly regarding non-safe sex, "Atlantic State University" in Bones may be a contender for terrible place to send one's kid.  

Best Non-Revenge Scene

In The Closer, Season 6, Flynn is attacked. Consequently, the squad goes through his files to discover who, out of the many people Flynn has arrested, might wish Flynn dead. 

Coming across one such suspect, Flynn admits that when the man was found guilty in court for one crime, Flynn vowed to spend the rest of his life proving that the man committed another, more heinous crime!

!!

The squad looks at Flynn. So, did you? 

Flynn shrugs. "Other stuff came up," he says. 

I love this, and it reminds me of a passage in one of C.J. Cherryh's novels where the protagonist discovers that "sleep" in hyperspace has even more ameliorating effects than sleep in everyday life. He comes out of hyperspace with a calmer attitude, aspects of his life placed in proportion. Some things simply aren't as important any more, including grudges. Like with Flynn, time and rest inexorably moved him on.

This is why (fallen) angels are inherently more prideful than humans. They never sleep--they never take a break. 

And this is why, too, mortality is a gift.

Lessons from Fan Fiction & Star Trek: The Motion Picture: There's Nothing There

Over the summer, I decided to watch (most) of the original Star Trek films (okay, I skipped VI--sorry, Shatner).

I started with The Motion Picture. I saw it years ago and remembered it as sort of a waste of time, but hey, sometimes, my memory plays tricks on me.

It didn't.

That is one incredibly boring film.

The major problem, of course, is that it is trying so hard to be 2001 and what became Dune (which went through several hands before 1984), it doesn't settle for being its fun, campy self. I've mentioned elsewhere that I'm a big fan of work in a genre/franchise being the best it can be in that genre/franchise. Frankly, 2001 is boring too, but it's good boring--that is, it does what it is supposed to do as itself (I can't speak for Dune since the book and the movies enter Highlander territory, as in they have followers--okay, I try to here).

The second problem is that Star Trek, like many sci-fi franchises (though not as much as Star Wars), invites a celebration of that universe. And The Motion Picture just doesn't do that. Again, it is trying so hard to be "the type of movies that people are currently watching," it fails to have fun. The costumes are boring. The ship is boring. The many, many shots of the ship going places or people approaching the ship or people approaching the entity or characters watching all this happen are boring.

Ultimately, there's nothing there.

When I tried to give my TOS fan-fiction characters things to do during The Motion Picture mission, I couldn't come up with much. I finally put one of my characters to work performing autopsies on the officers who get killed in the transporter accident--uh, I guess the tissue got rebeamed to the Enterprise (not technically, but I had to give the folks in the medical bay some work as opposed to them staring at the instruments in awe: Look at the color scheme!).

In comparison, my characters had TONS to do in Wrath of Khan: investigating possible sabotage of the Genesis Project, search and rescue attempts, triage, duties on the bridge.

Here's the third problem with The Motion Picture: the plot. It is based around a classic Star Trek/sci-fi trope (object in space has supposedly mysterious origins and a mission of death) but the problem seems almost entirely disconnected from the characters. The plot relies instead on unnecessary complications to lend the trope profundity it doesn't deserve (see "The Ultimate Computer" for a better rendering of the trope).
 
In comparison, the plot of Wrath of Khan is quite simple, being neither strained nor complex. One could even argue that it is less complex than The Motion Picture. Guy known to the crew wants revenge. He quotes great lines from the nineteenth century while starships behave like sea ships from the nineteenth century  (with the additional three-dimensional stuff, so I guess Das Boot crept in there). Crafty maneuvers. Heroic sacrifices. Hey, where's Ioan Gruffudd!?

Despite its deceptive simplicity, Wrath of Khan--unlike The Motion Picture--is fully invested in its universe. My characters had things to do because Starfleet and its friends and enemies were no longer observers but participants.

Thank you, Nicholas Meyer.

The lesson: stories do best when they are written by people who love the genre/series/franchise/world AS CREATIVE FANS, not as star-struck overly awed sycophants. --I added the last phrase based on comments :)

Pop Haircuts and Dune

In both Dunes (1984 and 2000), the young Atreides has a mop of dark hair in Part I. This is supposed to signify that Paul is young and boyish and not ready for the big scary world yet. In Dune 2000, Paul Atreides goes all David Bowie punk in Part II. The haircut seems to signify a kind of ultrasensitive state of mysticism. Monks just shave their heads; science fiction gurus from spice-eating planets suddenly obtain massive quantities of gel for liberal use.

Of the two movies, Dune 2000 seems more accurate (it's been awhile since I've read the book so I can't remember details) but less in tune with the book's feel. For all its many flaws (and grotesqueness), 1984 Dune carries a flavor of vastness, otherworldliness. There's something to be said, I suppose, for not having everything spelled out completely. Dune 2000's biggest plus is William Hurt, whom I like, mostly for his quality of understatement. I could almost believe that the guy was a threat to the Emperor-- almost. In fact, the story of Dune holds together fairly well (and is surprisingly simple once shorn of background noise: ousted prince retakes his kingdom: very Campbellesque).

Still, I wasn't terribly impressed with Dune 2000, and I disliked the precocious child (Paul's sister, end of movie). I'm not a big fan of solutions that use precocious children and yes, that means I never cared much for Wesley from Star Trek (although I never loathed him as much as other people). I started reading a book in the middle of watching Dune 2000 and frankly, I'm not sure it mattered what I missed. Heroes run around in the desert. Scene cuts to the sneering Baron. Heroes run around in the desert some more. And I think the problem, really, is that haircut. Because it stopped mattering to me at some point that this guy was Mr. Cooler than Cool.

Ironically, I never believed in 1984 Paul because he went on looking boyish and charming with his carefully hair-blown dos. But at least he stayed human. Paul 2000 with his "I'm so in touch with all that space out there, I have to look like it" couldn't sustain my interest, which is vital if one wants to care (at all) whether the Baron gets Dune or not.

The point being, that for a film to work, the audience has to be invested in the outcome. And if you stop caring about the protagonists or, as happened to me with Titanic, start rooting for the antagonists, the film has failed. (Unless you get into the history of the thing and start watching the movie for flaws, which is also what happened with Titanic.)

***

I wrote this post in 2005. I have no idea if I would feel differently if I went back and reread the book, then rewatched the movies. I might wait for next year--the next Dune movie is scheduled for release in October 2021. Paul is being played by Timothee Chalamet, so I'm already a little impressed (he seems to have the right look; he is also an immensely talented young man in his own right).

Picture Books: L is for Light & Libertarian or The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf & Robert Lawson

Munro Leaf wrote the story. Robert Lawson illustrated the text. 

The combination is what I believe all illustrated picture books should be--an artistic work where text and image together convey an overmastering impression. 

It's a delightfully simple and funny story. But the purpose of this post is not to extol the art of illustration & text (which deserves to be extolled) but to return to the issue of what children actually get out of picture books. 

I encountered The Story of Ferdinand growing up. I have no idea if the book is meant to be a deeply profound, thought-provoking lesson about the virtues of pacifism. 

If it is, it failed to make that impression on my young mind. 

That is, I never read the book and thought, "Diversity!" or "Peace!" 

I do now because it is hard for a Humanities-trained brain to ignore possible subtext. (And the book was published in 1936.) Nevertheless, even now what primarily strikes me is the individuals in literature. Ferdinand is an individual bull with an individual idiosyncrasy and individual outcome. 

That is, Ferdinand is Rocky Horror Picture Show, not Rent

On this blog, I use Rocky Horror Picture Show to represent people who go their own, unique, outside-the-box way and don't care what other people think. 

Rent is all about the socially superior (in the "woke" sense) clique that insists that everyone else ought to love them (otherwise, they will burn the island down because other people are sooo awful). 

The pleasure of Ferdinand is that he just doesn't care what others think. 

To be absolutely honest, in my youth, I think I just thought Ferdinand was cute. 


Troubles of Biographers: E is for Ethelred and Unendearing

Problem: What if the subject of the biography is unlikable? 

I argue that all writers fall in love with their subjects--they get invested, they learned about their biographees' deeply complicated natures. It's inevitable that they will desire (at the very least) to explain those deeply-complicated natures in full. 

Unfortunately, a writer's affection doesn't make a biographee any more likable to the reader. I tried to read a biography about Benedict Arnold and came away unfairly annoyed with the author. I felt the same way about Typhoid Mary although I stuck it out to the end of that book. It wasn't that the biographers didn't do a good job--in both cases, they did. But their need to be fair to their subjects left a bad taste in my mouth. 

Oh, come on, Arnold Benedict betrayed George Washington! 

Oh, come on, Mary Mallon went to work in a hospital after she was told she might carry a disease! 

Biography: Abels, Richard. Æthelred the Unready: The Failed King. Lane, 2018.

I decided to choose a subject who has a terrible reputation but about whom I had no prior opinion or much knowledge: Ethelred the Unready. 

His name is usually spelled like this: Æthelred.

But he is listed as Ethelred in the card catalog and even came up without the "E" on my library account. Ah, those pesky Old English letters! 

Æthelred began his reign under dicey circumstance although, considering his age at the time (eleven), he was likely not responsible: the murder of his older brother. The murder was likely carried out by his mother (older brother's stepmother) or at least with her agreement. The older brother, King Edward, was by all accounts a rather lousy, petulant king. 

Æthelred was better except...

He allowed England to be taken over by the Danes. (Technically, Swein took over, then Æthelred returned, then Æthelred died, then Edmund "Ironsides," his son, fought Cnut but was forced into a treaty and ultimately died, leaving Cnut in charge.)

Did Æthelred have any choice? Would England have fallen to the Danes anyway? It's hard to say: hindsight is, after all, 20/20. 

Would any king have behaved differently when faced with incipient invasion? It's also hard to say. Abels points out that Æthelred didn't always lead his fighters in battle as a king of that era was expected to do. Abels also points out that "the Chronicler [historian during the events], looking for a morally satisfying explanation for the English defeat, interpreted the military failures and errors by Æthelred's commanders as acts of treachery" (48). 

Abels argues on the one hand that few Anglo-Saxon kings had the kind of centralized control that we associate with modern governments (which would have made a concerted military action more possible and more potentially successful). On the other hand, Abels states, "Æthelred's posthumous byname [Unready] is not completely unfair" (88). Æthelred did make mistakes, namely with the counselors he appointed and trusted--a result of becoming king too young perhaps? ("He was not the best judge of character," states Abels (106) rather ruefully.) And he may have gone along with multiple judicial murders. And he had to scramble to defend against invasion.

Abels emphasizes that although the ealdormen and thegns invited Æthelred back to the kingdom when the first Danish victor, Swein, died, they did it with surprising reluctance considering the time period and a king's godly consecration.   

So Æthelred's second-in-commands weren't exactly gung-ho when it came to defending Æthelred's kingly rights. And some of them were obvious traitors. And some of them were heavily despised by Æthelred's subjects. 

Interestingly enough, in one case where an untrustworthy member of the aristocracy traded sides, the Danes first rewarded him, then executed him since a traitor to one king may betray another. Benedict Arnold was treated with equal contempt by the British (though not executed). They were loathe to protect him at the cost of Major Andre, who was an idiot but at least one of theirs who was doing his duty. Arnold was a slime ball.

Also interestingly, in both cases, the world was upending. Historians who lived during the medieval era seem far more miffed about Æthelred than the later Norman invasion. Because marauding invaders from the North were worse than well-armed Latin-influenced invaders from that place that became France? Because the two invasions were seen as connected? (All these invaders are considered a variation of "Viking" by historians.) Or, rather, because when the world upended once, it was expected to do so again? (50 years separate the reign of Cnut from 1066.)

King Arthur mythology arises from a similar upending five hundred years earlier: when the Romans left Britain to inevitable invasion by Anglo-Saxons. 

But King Arthur was perceived as noble and heroic: he went down fighting in a hopeless cause. 

Æthelred wasn't perceived the same way at all. 

Æthelred is a useful scapegoat or "winter king" (political figure who can be literally or symbolically destroyed to "save the crops") since in medieval England, the king was supposed to be appointed by God. If God decides to destroy the kingdom anyway, well...

But then the deeply atavistic part of humans that loves symbolic acts has never gone away. As Abels says succinctly, "If Æthelred had died in AD 1000, history would have remembered him more kindly" (105). 

Abels' book is a worthy read though it would be a tad easier to follow if the writer could have used Fred, Bob, and Jane rather than Æthelred, Æthelwold, Æthelwine, Ælfthryth, Æthelflaed, Ælfheah. 

However, Abels really knows his material, and he does one thing impressively right: he doesn't pad his narrative. I would argue that about 90% of books about Shakespeare are one chapter on Shakespeare and twenty chapters on the time period. Abels stays focused. His topic is Æthelred; that's what he writes about.

When Writers Let Down Their Characters

Alan Shore's soap-boxing on Boston Legal gets tedious. Other than the (far more interesting) episodes where he defends murderers, he is often designated to be the "ranter" about contemporary issues in episode after episode. 

Most of the time, I tune it out. There are well-written exceptions, such as when Alan is arguing in favor of the right to die and loses his cool since he is thinking about Denny (who has Alzheimer's). Another is when Alan uses his fast-talking patter to convince a private school to accept a bright female student who doesn't smile as expected. 

The Supreme Court episode, however, was a huge let-down. 

James Spader is no mean actor. Before going before the justices, he conveys Alan's nervousness, his shock that he is being asked to speak before such an august body. He is a ranter, a patter-master, the guy who relies on shock and awe and personal story-telling to convince the jury. Now he has to make a judicious argument about law. 

It was an excellent opportunity to give Alan another side, to show that he has the pure unadulterated strength of will that one sees in characters like Mary McDonnell as Captain Raydor, or the more interesting possibility, to show that he is out of his depth and knows it. 

But no--the writers just gave him another very long rant that I fast-forwarded through because it was so entirely shallow and silly, like junior high students calling each other names. Oh, look, I made fun of a chief justice, ya ya ya.   

Here's what interested me more than the stupid speech:

I didn't hold it against the character.  

When Without a Trace was on, I loathed the Anthony LaPaglia character. Loathed him. And no amount of good writing or poor writing would have made any difference. 

On the other hand, I've always thought it was grossly unfair to accuse Worf of being a bad security officer when it was clearly the writers' fault that he kept missing the bad guys who beamed onto the bridge. Why blame Worf for lousy writing? 

I think the difference comes down to nothing more or less profound that a visceral reaction. 

It isn't (necessarily) the actor. Turns out I kind of like Anthony LaPaglia as long as he is being Daphne's brother. And I like Emma Watson even though I thought she was terribly badly cast as Beauty. 

The visceral reaction is whether or not I like the character. Anthony LaPaglia's character in Without a Trace has this hang-dog attitude that puts my back up. But even though I disagree with 60% of Alan Shore's politics, he is so ready to go fishing with Denny rather than blather on and on--and so willing to see himself as a kind of clown--I forgive him nearly everything.

And Worf is, well, Worf!

In any case, my reaction explains why characters can survive on their own--Sherlock survived even Conan Doyle's duds.

Picture Books: K is for Kate's Favorites

When I was growing up, I adored Steven Kellogg's The Island of the Skog

A large part of my enchantment was the wealth of detail--the signs on the wall, for instance. Part of it was the smooth link between image and illustration, which I count as one of the markers of a "good" picture book (both in terms of readability and artistic merit). 

I confess, as a kid, I barely noticed the enlightened message at the end. 

But I loved the joyfulness of the final images. Rereading it, I was captivated by how little background Kellogg gives--no explanatory notes. Here's Jenny. Here's Bouncer and his crew. Here's the problem. No apologies for not providing a twenty-page summary of their ancestry, childhoods, and previous adventures. Great storytelling!

I'm guessing that I also liked seeing small beings survive in large, human worlds. Another favorite series from my childhood is The Littles. 

Snowy Day by Ezra John Keats is an another favorite. It effortlessly and beautifully captures the thrill of "Snow Days," a thrill that I still have even while the adult-part of my brain is grumbling about all the shoveling work. 

Since I am posting this in December--winter weather is on its way!--I must also mention another picture book, Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton. It wasn't necessarily a favorite when I was growing up, but it evokes deep nostalgia from me now. 



Memorable Moment: Favorite Christian Clemenson Moment

I rather adore Christian Clemenson, who guest starred in many 1990s shows such as Lois & Clark. And I'm fairly certain he did Diagnosis Murder (didn't everybody?*). One of those long-term character actors, he's all over television. (*Actually, it was Matlock.)

I always wondered why he didn't have a full-time slot on a show. Consequently, I was utterly delighted to discover that he earned an ongoing slot on Boston Legal, playing the brilliant, socially challenged Jerry Espenson. 

Here is my favorite scene with Christian Clemenson on Boston Legal. In terms of the ability to make me feel good, it rivals Dwayne Johnson as Maui.

No context:

 

 Context:

 

Memorable Moment: Great Love Bug Scene

Okay--some of the race scenes are hilarious too.
This summer, I watched Love Bug, mostly because I was on a Dean Jones kick. (Lovely, lovely man.)

It was not all that different from Ford v. Ferrari, only with a single protagonist. And I kind of lost interest during the racing, just like with Ford v. Ferrari.

It is still a very fun film. The scene where Herbie smashes the crap out of a Lamborghini?

Unbelievably hilarious! Stop the video at 2:24 and laugh yourself sick (the clip gets more serious after that).

Troubles of Biographers: D is for Daring Douglass

In the previous post, I ask the question, So when is an autobiography/biography, even one about documented horrific events, not a modern survivor memoir? 

My answer: When it is written for a definite purpose by a genius with a passion for clear writing or about said genius by someone with a passion for clear writing. 

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life in Autobiographies. Library of America, 1994, pp. 1-102.

Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Simon & Schuster,  2018, pp. 1-155.

The most initially striking aspect of Douglass' Narrative is its lyrical tone of objectivity. The opening pages present the sense or image of a child watching, watching, watching. Douglass relates moments of his youth, specifically of brutality on the Lloyd plantation, with nearly forensic detail. Blight argues that Douglass was well-aware that his description of these events would be questioned though "almost all the basics...can be verified." They couldn't at the time due to the state of slavery itself. Douglass employs his remarkable memory to a purpose, to recall as accurately as possible events of his time in slavery. 

His objectivity extends to a masterful summation of the personalities around him. He delivers at one point a breakdown of an overseer's character that indicates a natural understanding of human psychology. Every person, from friends to masters, is an individual to be studied. 

Douglass also shows a remarkable ability to delineate the complexity of relationships between masters and slaves, which often sound dysfunctionally parental (and were literally parental in some cases). When Douglass went to Baltimore, he was cared for by a woman who had never owned slaves before. Her initial natural instinct to treat him as any child in her care gave way to the exigencies of the slave-master relationship, resulting in a different attitude. "Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me," states the young adult Frederick Douglass in an awe-inspiring and merciful comprehension of complex human behavior (40). 

I should note--as many modern people do (some in support, some not)--that the most injurious quality of slavery to Douglass is its literal control, not its abstract meaning. Douglass had plenty of actual aggressions to deal with, namely (in Baltimore) his master taking away the money that he earned.

In a fascinating passage in Narrative, Douglass compares
what he believed about the North based on Southern
claims to the experienced reality of New Bedford. 
The objective, self-analytical voice is operating full-force.
Douglass focuses as much, if not more, on his rise out of slavery. As Blight points out, Douglass refashioned his narrative many times--without the essentials being lost--as he tried to discover who he was absent a dictator's label. Certain elements remained stable. One, quite touchingly, is that although Douglass fashioned himself to a degree as a self-made man, he allowed for an element of luck or chance or Providence: 
From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me though the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise. (36)

Douglass places the greatest emphasis on learning to read. His mistress in Baltimore began to teach him, then stopped at the command of her husband. Yet from the husband's  argument--he connected slavery to ignorance--Douglass learned the importance of the skill and set out to master it.

Douglass also credits the friendship of mostly Irish boys in Baltimore whom he encountered during his time there. He remembered them throughout his life. They easily befriended Douglass and found the state of slavery obnoxious by default. In one of the most delightful passages in his biography, Blight declares, "[The boys'] words convinced [Douglass] that young boys were natural abolitionists" (42). 

It is not that the darkness--the cruelties of the past and lingering fears and present unfairnesses--departs. Douglass's principal aim in Narrative is to propound the wrongness of slavery. As Blight points out, Douglass knew how to make slavery's horrors relatable to an audience that had never experienced  or seen them directly. Douglass focused on family and demonstrated a willingness to let the reader gaze on someone other than himself (Blight argues otherwise, feeling that Douglass always takes center-stage--but my comparison here is to survivor memoirs not biographies). At one point, he eulogizes his grandmother, painting a picture of abandonment and rejection despite her hard work and sacrifices. 

Neither Douglass nor Blight allow us to forget that however comparatively better Douglass's life was in Baltimore, he did not have the basic freedoms that would allow him to easily unleash his great intelligence, perception, energy, and resolve (the fact, for instance, that he had to be returned "home" for valuation when his master died). Yet the portrayal--that Blight in a very modern way often tries to temper with context--of a great man climbing after the light of freedom pervades Douglass's autobiography. 

He also, as Blight acknowledges, utilizes caustic wit and sharp humor to strong effect. At the end of Narrative, Douglass rushes to assure his readers that he is not opposed to Christianity. He wasn't. But his claim is almost immediately challenged as he unleashes "A Parody" of Southern and Northern ministers who supported slavery. The poem is savage, pointed, blistering.

The tone is the furthest thing from angsty. When Douglass states that in comparison to the "corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land," he loves the "pure, peaceable and impartial Christianity of Christ" (97, my emphasis), one believes that he truly welcomes and endorses impartiality as a positive virtue.   

This is a true survivor memoir--not the type referenced in the previous post. The child grew into a man whose anger took the form of forceful and passionate rhetoric. One also believes that through the man's writing and public presentations, that youth is still watching, watching, watching. 

Douglass is naturally worth reading. Even by modern standards, his nineteenth century beautiful prose is fresh and straightforward. I also recommend Blight. The biography flows easily; I found the first 150 pages a remarkably fast read. Blight has the gift of keeping his biography moving forward with new material without getting bogged down by too much detail. He also avoids the mind-numbing and irritating tendency for biographers to simply restate everything the biographee already wrote. Blight is offering context, perspective, analysis, and verification. He offers this new material without overwhelming the tale itself.