It's Not Just the Acting: It's Rapport--Gordon-Levitt and Taylor Thomas

While re-watching classic sitcoms, I began to wonder, Why was Jonathan Taylor Thomas on Home Improvement so good?

It wasn't simply that he was "cute" (though he was). And it wasn't simply that he was a better actor than the other two "sons." He was--but Home Improvement didn't depend on the child actors; it depended entirely on the excellent Tim Allen. The other adult leads were more than capable of carrying the jokes when necessary.

Jonathan Taylor Thomas excelled for the same reason that Joseph Gordan-Levitt excelled in 3rd Rock from the Sun, where he played a much larger role as Tommy than Thomas did as Randy. In fact, it is rather stunning to watch 3rd Rock and realize how much the cast and scriptwriters trusted a 15-year-old (playing a 13-year-old) to carry a large portion of the show. He does it practically effortlessly.

One reason is skill. The second is emotional rapport.

Emotional rapport in acting is kind of like sexual chemistry but it goes beyond that. It doesn't necessarily token great friendship (a fact that scandal magazines seem to entirely misunderstand--when articles proclaim that the Golden Girls Fought On Set! what they mean is that White, Arthur, McClanahan and Getty weren't planning vacations together and sometimes got terse with each other off camera; on most shows most of the time, most actors are professionals and behave professionally: it's a job after all).

Emotional rapport refers to the ease with which actors play off each other. It also refers to being able to match each other's energy. Even at the age of 10, Jonathan Taylor Thomas "got" Tim Allen. Thomas knew how to feed lines to Allen and act off Allen's lines in return. Some of the early out-takes between Allen and Thomas are hilarious to watch since they clarify this point: as the actual oldest of the three child actors, Thomas understood intellectually and intuitively when something was funny, why it was funny, and how to react. 

Likewise, Gordan-Levitt's utter unself-consciousness on 3rd Rock matches the utter unself-consciousness of Lithgow, Johnston, Stewart, and Curtin. If he had behaved out of sync with the others--portraying unease in the role of old-fogey-stuck-in-a-teen-body-with-no-fixed-gender-re:-behavior, the clueless-alien-family vibe would have been lost.

Sometimes, it isn't the "great" actors that producers want but the actors who can play well with others. It makes a difference to the art and the impact/feel of the final production.

C.S. Lewis, Susan, and the Chauvinism of Male Critics

As Lewis well knew, mid-twentieth
century England could force adults into
molds that eschewed the jubilant, idio-
syncratic, and quirky--Susan let it happen.
It is somewhat popular to criticize C.S. Lewis for his portrayal of Susan in the last book of the Narnia series. In The Last Battle, Susan is described as having forgotten Narnia, scorning reminders of it as of a kiddie game she used to play with her brothers and sisters while at the same time blathering on about lipstick and nylons.

Some literary critics will justify this passage by pointing out that Lewis doesn't actually condemn Susan for eternity--that's why she's not in the railway accident. She's going through a "phase." Others more angrily castigate Lewis for condemning Susan for becoming sexually mature. These are the critics that buy into the Hollywood rather than the BBC version of Shadowlands (in reality, C.S. Lewis was a sexually mature, earthy man).

Among those who castigate C.S. Lewis for his treatment of Susan, male critics seem to rise to the fore. Women critics, like myself, generally seem to have a better idea what C.S. Lewis was saying.

In sum, C.S. Lewis understood women better than his male critics. 

This is not to say that part of Lewis wasn't being an old fuddy-duddy. But taking the lipstick and nylons out of context is to take them out of context, which is exactly Lewis's point.

Here's Reality 101 for women: lipstick and nylons are accoutrements to maturity, not the point of it.

Contrast Susan with the Lauren Bacall chutzpah of Aravis
As one female critic points out, unlike many female
characters in mid-twentieth century literature,
all of Lewis's make great superheroes--even Susan!
As Paglia points out with fierce truthfulness: whether a woman wants it to happen or not, her body will mature. The menarche waits in the wings with no regard for mental readiness or long-term goals. Perhaps men don't understand this since maturity for them seems to boil down to whether or not they can put out a fire at X paces. For women, the body's steady maturity towards a single aim is inevitable and real. When I taught a class of 14-to-18-year-olds (same students over 4 years), the young women become steadily more and more emotionally and psychologically mature as the years went by; at 14, they were rather silly (like Susan still is as a young adult). At 18, they had come to grips with their physical natures and were beginning to develop healthy pragmatism and empathy as well as intellectual and social goals that embraced their full personalities.

The boys were . . . all over the map is putting it mildly. One day, I felt like I was dealing with 30-year-olds; the next, I felt like I was hollering exasperatingly at 10-year-olds.

As Paglia points out, women can't hide from nature's goal (Have babies!). The mature woman learns to deal with this; Paglia also argues that the mature woman learns how to deal with men, which may involve flirting (lipstick and nylons) or clever detente or something else entirely. Whatever it is, lipstick & nylons are not the goal; they are tools--weapons perhaps--and can be useful. To mistake them for the point is to fall back into the mentality that a woman's greatest strength is her ornamental qualities. It is also to mistake byproducts for substance--a framework for understanding women that is as shallow as tissue paper.
Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis: Spouses/Partners

Maturity, as Paglia and Lewis understand it, is the ability to handle/maneuver through the world. Part of that handling process may be to put on big sister's shoes and big sister's makeup. The immature woman, however, never realizes that more is required. She dresses up, mocks her past rather than embracing her funny eager preteen self, does the equivalent--in so many words--of putting out the fire at X paces. But the hutzpah, heart and mind, is missing. And because she has no grit, when the going gets tough, she flees to Big Daddy.

Some men prefer this type of woman. Kudos to C.S. Lewis that he didn't.

Three Versions of Murder with Mirrors

One of the pleasures of books to movies is seeing how various producers interpret a single work.

Agatha Christie's They Do It With Mirrors (Murder With Mirrors in the U.S.) is not one of my favorites. It has an utterly depressing ending, for one thing. However, the below three versions each borrow from separate aspects of the book to produce uniquely nuanced works, proving that interpretation is an endless pursuit.

BBC They Do It With Mirrors: Joan Hickson is excellently cast, of course, alongside other notables, such as Joss Ackland and Jean Simmons. The movie is the saddest of the three (although at least the scriptwriters didn't kill off nearly as many people as Christie is wont to do). One thing I appreciate about the movie is the emphasis on the three older woman--Miss Marple and the two sisters--and their youth together in Paris. This is entirely in keeping with Christie's tone.

The Helen Hayes version (1985) is fun, mostly because it is so well-cast. Bette Davis plays Louise. Leo Kern plays the detective! Tim Roth plays a troubled young man. John Woodvine even shows up (briefly). Helen Hayes, naturally, plays Miss Marple.

I am quite fond of Helen Hayes--I think she makes a great Miss Marple (much better than Margaret Rutherford or Lansbury--don't get me wrong: Angela Lansbury is wonderful as almost anybody but Miss Marple she ain't). And the movie is quite faithful to the book. The murderer is the least sympathetic of the three versions. But the Wally-Gina relationship is the most accurate (although I do enjoy the utter taciturnity of Joan Hickson's Wally; in all versions, he's an American from the West).

Unfortunately, like many of the 1980 "modernized" Christie-TV-movies, it drags on a bit. (Some of these movies are horrible and some of them are fantastic: Sparkling Cyanide with Anthony Andrews is one of the best Christies I've ever seen. And it "modernized" surprising well--apparently, politicians always behave badly.)

The French version, "Jeux de Glaces" from Les Petits Meurtres d'Agatha Christie is quite faithful to the original except in one glaring particular. *Spoilers* One of the points I love about the original is that Carrie Louise is not in fact as clueless as everyone claims. When she states that her husband is not in any real danger from Edgar, she is right! Once Miss Marple realizes that Carrie-Louise is remarkably astute about people, she is able to put all the pieces together to solve the case.

Despite the change to the Carrie Louise character, the French version is delightful as an introduction to the ever-so-1950's-stylish-and-debonair-and-caustic Detective Laurence and the utterly delightful and hilarious Alice Avril. I'm still not sure if they are potential lovers or not (the age difference is considerable). Like Mulder and Scully, it hardly matters. They are so much fun to watch!

Marlene as the resident Marilyn Monroe completes the picture.

Why I Feel Sorry for Bill Cosby

After posting about Michael Tucci, I discovered that there are non-substantiated claims of sexual harassment that may or may not include him.

And that got me thinking about Bill Cosby.

I hate to write this, but I accept that Bill Cosby did enough of the awful things attributed to him (though not all of them) that it is difficult for me to listen to his old stand-up (I always enjoyed his old stand-up comedy routines--"Buck Buck," "Ninth Street Bridge"--more than his newer routines and even The Cosby Show). Maybe one day I'll be able to go back and listen to them without immediate association to the recent fall-out. But I doubt it.

And yet, despite not greatly contending many of the allegations (although I recognize that no criminal case has yet been resolved), I find the whole thing incredibly distasteful, including the rescinding of Cosby's honorary degrees.

It isn't because I think men (or women) should get away with drugging people, threatening people, or demanding sexual favors. Yeah, that's just wrong. Rather, there's a mob mentality about the whole thing that sends shivers down the spine. There's a vague French Revolution Reign of Terror/Salem Witch Trial vibe where one begins to wonder if throwing out haphazard accusations--against someone like Michael Tucci, for example--has become a kind of game or exercise in control.

The victims--and I do believe there are victims of sexual harassment/abuse in our culture; I don't believe every accusation is a scam, etc. etc.--begin to lose my pity as their desire to burn down the castle and lynch the bad man grows. Maybe the Beast truly did do bad things; does that mean that looting treasures and smashing furniture is okay?

When an 80-year-old blind man is continually forced to undergo civil and criminal procedures, I lose my taste for blood (if I ever had it). I begin to wonder what kind of culture we live in that would do that.

And yet, I support dozens of Law & Order episodes where criminals are brought to justice years later (I've always enjoyed a good cold case), including the episode where the skeevy doctor is punished because he was dumb enough to brag about his untouchability on the news.

By the end of the trial, my
sympathies had veered
entirely towards Jackson.
The point is not that I have an answer. I don't. In a perfect utopia run by a wise and benevolent kindly somebody or other, I think I would like to see the man punished in a quiet, non-intrusive fashion that doesn't involve public pillorying and snowballing accusations. But we don't live in that world, and the current democratic adversarial system is truly better than many other systems (check out history for terrible alternatives, such as the Star Chamber).

Still, I think there is an alert embedded here--not only to people bringing sexual harassment charges (which I think they are right to do; like Paglia, I think these matters should be settled in the courts, not by academic tribunals or other such forums) but a warning against people like Kenneth Starr and people who get mouth-foaming angry about pedophiles:

No matter how unjustified, pity will rightly or wrongly eventually swerve towards the perceived underdog, whomever that underdog might be.

Funny Guy: Michael Tucci

Michael Tucci is hilarious.

Michael Tucci played Norman Briggs, the fussy hospital administrator, on Diagnosis Murder from 1993-1997. It made sense for him to leave after Season 4. Dr. Sloan no longer needed a foil to his antics. And the show couldn't really handle TWO master comedians.

Tucci is a master comedian, one of those actors who has never been entirely appreciated, mostly because he has been entirely willing to follow his own career wishes rather than the "path to stardom" (he teaches as well as accepting occasional Broadway and television gigs--he has a very nice voice).

I first encountered him on Diagnosis Murder, then recognized him when watching the much earlier Barney Miller, where he played the occasional low-level criminal. (I mostly hate Grease, so I wouldn't have recognized him from Grease (1978), in which he played Sonny.)

Tucci has perfect timing. He also has the gift for hyperbole that comic "bad guys" require in order to avoid being too uncomfortably slimy. As Briggs in shouting mode, he is more adorable than awful. (On Barney Miller, George Murdock as Detective Scanlon, Internal Affairs, accomplishes a similar feat although he runs closer to the line--his over-the-top monologues about the nature of human imperfection keep him funny rather than so-awful-I-must-shut-off-the-TV.)

Tucci is yet another working actor who deserves kudos for a fine career--that is still in action

What Is It With Vampires En Masse?

Vampires are one of those tropes that cross borders. In Western culture, there is a disconcerting gap between the original (artistically-speaking) vampire, Dracula, and his descendants.

Dracula is a loner. It is implied in the novel--and stated outright in Saberhagen's tribute--that he is literally sui generis, arising like Aphrodite from the water without even a god's juice to help the process along. He came into being by sheer willpower. And he's alone (the villagers, wolves, and weird vampire ladies don't count).

Nosferatu is even more of a loner.
This is a vital element to the original novel's plot. Dracula--like his lesser known literary ancestors--is a solitary threat against the bulwark of society, specifically English/Western society. In Dracula, society wins. In Edgar Allan Poe's "Ligeia," the consumption-ridden vampire wins when the narrator is driven to the brink of despair. In either case, the vampire is all about being isolated. And bringing others into isolation with him (or her).

Joss Whedon uses this approach, to a degree, with Angel and Spike. They are loners who
occasionally invade others' lives (extrovert Spike moreso than introvert Angel) but their quests, even at the end of Angel, must be faced alone. They are Jedi Knights, not generals.

Like Luke's Han Solo et al, Buffy's scooby-gang begins as a collection of odd-balls, who could break off to do their own thing at any moment. Angel's scooby-gang also starts out small.

Look at all those people! Another show I don't watch.
And yet, the vampires and the scooby-gangs of nearly every current vampire television show and novel series belong to extensive, mafia (yakuza) like tribal situations with sires and "children" and so on and so forth. It's the Master's clique from Buffy, only above ground and way more riven by internal debates

This is likely the reason that I can never get into vampire literature, despite being a fan of Dracula, Buffy, and Angel. I don't find ongoing mafia/yakuza politics all that fascinating. And by the time I hit volume 3 of such a series, I'm rather tired of having to remember all the names.

Bring back the loners!

W is for Wrightson, Book Collecting, and Australian Fantasy

Patricia Wrightson's An Older Kind of Magic is one of those books that I read as a kid, then couldn't find again for years. I remembered it with great fondness, rather like The Great and Terrible Quest. Unfortunately but not atypically, I couldn't remember the author.

I scoured published book lists (fantasy and science-fiction for teenagers, etc.) and then Amazon. (Googling is far less wieldy a research tool than often imagined--it is a search engine par excellence, but it can only produce what it can produce; in addition, it takes effort and imagination to whittle down a search--ohmygosh, 248,000 hits!--to manageable proportions.) At some point, I learned Wrightson's name, then forget it again.

Lo and behold, to my delight, I rediscovered the book in a local library!

The story is magical realism at its best--honest fantasy mixed almost seamlessly into everyday life. It is droll and even slightly (very slightly) dark (fantasy noir).

Its Australian setting was utterly unique for me as a kid--and still stands out. Not only does Wrightson explore downtown Sydney and its Botanical Gardens with non-heavy exposition, she utilizes Australia-specific fantasy creatures.

Wrightson makes a fascinating point in her final notes--a point echoed in New England folklore. When the English arrived in Australia, they attempted to bring with them the sprites and fairies and imps of English folklore. These beings didn't take. Likewise, when the English arrived in
The edition I read as a teen.
New England, they weren't able to fully transfer over the trooping fairies of the English countryside. Apparently, "fairies" (using the term generically) are location-centered.

Consequently, Wrightson went to Aboriginal folklore to produce her Pot-Koorok, Nyol, and Bitarrs. They are kin to their British cousins--as well as  Native American serpents, giants, and little people--but unique to those shores.

Other Australasia teenage/children authors who produce this type of seamless magical realism:
  • Margaret Mahy (New Zealand): The Tricksters, The Changeover
  • Joan Phipson (Australia): The Watcher in the Garden 
    Of course, the New Zealanders still pay tribute to their European ties.


Romance and Vampires as an Act of Melodramatic Rebellion

The book Victorian Melodrama in the Twenty-First Century: Jane Eyre, Twilight, and the Mode of Excess in Popular Girl Culture by Katie Kapurch makes a Radway-type argument: "women's" literature carries within it a form of rebellion, specifically rebellion against conservative or patriarchal norms.

I debate this argument, not because it doesn't contain the seeds of truth but because I believe the "rebellion" is more thorough and comprehensive: teenage fans of the above series/books are rebelling as much against "progressive" expectations as against conservative ones. That is, although they are questioning whether it is a good idea to date a domineering man, they are also questioning why they have to be "good" girls who love academics, excel in the sciences, and pursue ambitious careers in order to be suitable female role models to future generations. Why can't they focus on what really interests them: dating?

Kapurch allows that teenage girls are reacting as much to the double-speak of postfeminism--be sexy and be liberated--as to patriarchal norms, but she still seems to accept the (acceptable) conclusion that they are moving towards progressive ends when they read melodramatic literature. I don't. I think some teen girls truly want to have babies at 16--not liberated sex--and I think that's kind of dumb. I also think it is possible that when they take pleasure in the pairing of violence and sex, they aren't critiquing it; they are interested in it. That is, I think it is entirely possibly that they are being "reactionary" in their reading choices.

And why shouldn't they be? Since literature reflects needs, rather than creating them, worrying that Twilight will produce girls who run out and marry at 18 is not only condescending to girls and women (no one ever assumes that adventure stories are automatically going to produce boys who leave home at sixteen, go to war, join gangs, or participate in government conspiracies), it also rather misses the point (hormones, hormones, hormones).

However, I do admire Kapurch for making the point that teenage female rebellion (whatever that rebellion is against) is as much an act as an ideology--moreso, in many ways.

She compares readers of Twilight to Beatlemania in the 1960s, pointing out that it was as much the act of enthrallment--getting to scream at celebrities--as the celebrities themselves. Extreme Twilight fans in the series' heyday were as prone to forming discussion groups--perhaps even moreso--as the fans of any particular rock group and far moreso than the fans of classical literature. The melodrama gave them something to act on.

Reading Kapurch's introduction reminded me of Reading Lolita in Tehran in which the author, Nafisi, explains why reading Jane Austen would be considered subversive in Iran in the 1980s to 1990s . It wasn't the story. The writing itself presented a form of democracy--multiple voices existing in proximity to each other without the author attempting to curtail them. The act of reading and the act of writing were inherently democratic.

It also reminded me of the amusing clip from Inside Out in which Sadness shows the first glimmering of non-apathy when she spots the angsty vampires in Riley's head. Angst becomes an act.

And finally, it made me think of Frozen. Contemporary analysis aside, perhaps "to act" *is* the ultimate purpose: I get to dress up in cool clothes and belt out a song at the top of my voice.

Ultimately, melodrama is fun.

Art in Graphic Novels

An odd criticism I occasionally encounter regarding a manga volume is "the art is bad because it is incomplete--sketchy." This is in reference to art that is impressionistic or neo-expressionistic.

I have seen quite a lot of manga art that I didn't care for. But the reason had nothing to do with the style being bad. It had everything to do with personal taste.

That is, there are certain styles of art I don't care for--like cubism, for example--but that does not mean that cubism is an inherently bad style. It isn't. I can admire Guernica even if I have zero desire to hang it in my house.

When I read this type of criticism in reviews, I start thinking that Paglia has a point: not training students in art makes them witless.

Here's a run-down of styles/schools of art (barely scratching the surface): Impressionism, Fauvism, Pop Art, Pre-Raphaelites, Realism, Surrealism, Italian Renaissance, Northern Renaissance, folk, Primitivism, Gothic . . .

Graphic artists are either trained in all these styles or know about them, either by education or simply by mucking about (I don't know what it's called but . . . ). Good graphic artists remind me of the best essay writers I teach: they don't tell me, "This is how I write. You'll just have to accept it." They say, "Oh, okay, I'll give that technique a try and see what happens." Playing with words and organization--style--fascinates them.  They might decide that the technique doesn't work for them, but they aren't closed off to what it might do for them.

Yes, manga styles are more complex than this :)
Graphic artists develop their own styles as do writers but that development isn't the result of operating in a vacuum (I go into a country field, throw up the arms, and let the muse speak to me!). It is a result of being part of a community.* I can disagree with a writing style--such as stream-of-consciousness--and develop my own because I know what that style is.

One can only wish that readers had the same background and respect for art.

*Interestingly enough, the latest research on so-called genius/invention backs up the idea of inventor+community. Contrary to old-fashioned stereotypes, people like Einstein do not function sans colleagues. Madame Curie, for instance, was part of a much greater community of scientists (including her husband, of course). They wrote letters to each other, refined ideas, tried different approaches . . . 

Same thing re: Silicon Valley, where the participants not only got inspired through collaboration but blatantly stole from each other as well.

V is for Vivian Vande Velde and Rumplestiltskin

Vivian Vande Velde writes mostly YA literature, mostly of the fantasy variety. One of my favorite stories is her Rumplestiltskin tale, "Straw Into Gold" which I originally read in Tales from the Brothers Grimm and Sisters Weird.  Vande Velde later compiled this and other stories all based around Rumplestiltskin into The Rumplestiltskin Problem (she created a similar collection around the tale of Little Red Riding Hood: Cloaked in Red). When I wrote Tales of a Quest, I based it loosely on Vande Velde's approach.

Although Tales of the Quest includes linking character commentary and Vande Velde's short story collection does not, she does begin the slim tome with an explanation of all that is wrong with the original tale: Why didn't the miller use his daughter to produce gold for him? Why would the daughter want to marry a king who threatened to kill her? Okay, maybe she had no choice. But why not ask Rumplestiltskin for some other type of help?

When I went to write my own Rumplestiltskin tale, originally published in Space & Time magazine, republished in Tales of the Quest, I made Rumplestiltskin a threat--it's one of my few horror stories. I also tried to bring up the economic problem of throwing too much gold at a problem (see below): inflation, anyone?

We lovers of fantasy love to play around with fantasy--I think writers are always drawn, to an extent, to world and stories that could, possibly, be manipulated for their own ends: I'll sit here and carefully unravel and reweave my little bit of the tale: no, no, I'm not in the way; keep doing your thing.

Diving Down the Rabbit Hole: Trying to Counter Birth Order Theory

Trying to convince people that birth order theory is not legitimate science is rather like trying to convince people that astrology is not real science--or, for that matter, that global warming is more problematic than true believers will countenance. All those missing correlations are swept away by the force of the theory. 

The problem with birth order theory is how much it depends on people finding the correlations they expect to find. I often encourage students to avoid writing about birth order theory simply because they make the same mistake as Sulloway: they locate and label a personality trait within a famous person, then assume that the famous person must be a firstborn, middle, or later-born child, often without even bothering to Google search if they are correct.

Only occasionally have I had a student admit, Wow, the research doesn't justify any conclusions at all!

Most birth order theory comes down to interpretation: how existing behavior fits people's expectations. Take, for example, an event that never occurred in my own family: a parent gifting a teen with a car. When the event occurs to the firstborn, the interpretation is that the parents are applauding the oldest child's maturity and good work habits; to the middle child, trying to making up for lack of attention; to the youngest child, spoiling.

But the act is the same.

In 2015, Julia M. Rohrer, Boris Egloff, and Stefan C. Schmukle from the University of Leipzig and Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz performed a lengthy investigation of birth order and its possible ties to personality. They used longitudinal data from a Great Britain study, data from an extensive study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and data from a German survey of households that started in 1997. They relied on within-family and independent assessments (within-family assessments tend to depend on "existing beliefs and stereotypes as well as contrast effects"--that is, people within families tend to define themselves by how they are like and different from each other using the rhetoric at hand). The researchers also made within-family and between family assessments. For IQ, they used self-referencing and outside testings.

They discovered that the only measurable, consistent difference in birth order is IQ testing--and even that is negligible. Older siblings tend to test higher than younger. Don't get too cocky, older siblings! Not only is the difference minor, Rohrer, Egloff, and Schmukle reference outside studies that postulate that (1) "older siblings profit intellectually from being 'teachers' to younger siblings"; (2) later-born children are prone to "slightly underestimating [their intelligence] and firstborn children slightly overestimating their actual cognitive abilities." There is an odd but consistent correlation between how intelligent people believe themselves to be and how well they test.

Other than IQ testing, the study found that "birth order position had no significant effect on extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness or conscientiousness." The study divided the fifth of the Big Five personality traits--openness--into IQ (see above) and imagination. They found that birth order had no effect on imagination. 

The tone of the study is extraordinarily dry, only dropping into wryness towards the very end: "Brief self-report measures are also generally sensitive to detecting birth-order effects when such effects indeed exist."

In other words, within a family, family members will notice if a particular family member is good with puzzles or adept at getting along at parties or quick to spot humor in a situation. The same family is quick to discern how this relates to the person's position, or niche, within the family and to provide an interpretation: i.e. so-and-so gets along well at parties because he or she got more attention from our parents. Voila! Birth order theory is true!

However, the study's conclusion is unequivocal, if staid:  

"The central prediction of the Family Niche Theory with regard to personality could not be confirmed by our analyses . . . to conclude, birth order position seems to have only a small impact on who we become."

For those of you who are gnashing your teeth, I do have an alternative suggestion, having to do with families as blueprints--post coming at a much later date . . . 

Two Problems with Biographies: E.M. Forster Under Scrutiny

Two biographies/analyses of E.M. Forster indicate the problems with biographies.

The first, A Great Unrecorded History by Wendy Moffat, is selective to the point of occasionally, uncomfortably, being less than upfront. As a reviewer on Amazon caustically but perceptively points out,  "[W]hy, if Moffat is emphasizing the all-encompassing Sexuality Motif in her rendering of Forster's life, did she not explore the obvious?"

In other words, why is Moffat only emphasizing certain material, when so much more was available to her? And why does she fail to address potential issues? There are multiple places where Moffat should--but does not--stand back and say, "But of course, there's another side to the events in Egypt . . .  Readers may wonder why the Buckinghams maintained a different version of events. . . " and even, "But of course, Forster himself had differing reactions to his experiences." 

Forster was obviously something of a romantic idealist with a strong self-critical streak as well as a critical eye. He seems to have swayed between the version of his life that he wanted to be true and the version of his life that he accepted, in his droll way, as more likely. Moffat appears to prefer the romantic, idealistic version. Yet Forster often refutes this version of his own life--as any self-analytical person might do, dissecting, down the road, the version that seemed comfortable at the time. Moffat, however, accepts only the version that supports her thesis, often summarizing material rather than allowing quotes to speak for themselves: the quotes provide a far more complex reading. 

From a researcher's point of view, the biography not only fails to prove its thesis, it fails to noticeably or subtly address the opposition's objections. Ignoring the obvious and/or refusing to address the obvious indicates, as the above reviewer maintains, an agenda.

Having allowed for an agenda, I suggest that all biographers run the risk of "falling in love with" the subject. After all, getting to know someone so intimately is bound to encourage an attachment. I get this person. I know him or her.

So pedestal-creation (he was perfectly miserable! he was perfectly happy!) makes for an interesting but not all-encompassing or trustworthy biography.

On the other hand, the literary analysis--the biography portion follows the lecture chapters--of Frank Kermode's Concerning E.M. Forster seems to suffer from an opposite tendency, one  I encountered in my master's program. While studying critical analysis of popular culture, I came across scholars who desperately wanted to talk about popular culture, who actually liked it, but were far too embarrassed to be matter-of-fact and open about their liking.

Apparently, Forster is one of those "great" writers whom the academic establishment is vaguely embarrassed about--"great" but not as "great" as D.H. Lawrence or Henry James.

Kermode is not blind to this perspective and even seems to steady himself for the inevitable criticism (unlike Moffat, he is eminently aware of what outsiders might say) but the apologetic tone irritated me after awhile. In a passage about Aspects of the Novel, Kermode states the following:
[Forster discussed story and plot] simply and memorably, perhaps too memorably . . . The book was a big success though of a genre in which Forster might not have expected success. And that is good cause for congratulations: it was good that he, so skeptical about the value of all criticism, should test the opinion as a practitioner. Yet it remains possible to complain that in a book on such a subject he ought, perhaps, to have looked about him rather more . . .
I'm not making this up: in a single short paragraph in a lecture about Forster, Kermode qualifies any positive statement about Forster four times. I had to read Aspects of the Novel (for the first time) myself to realize how good it actually is and to appreciate that Forster crafted his lectures as carefully as he crafted his novels. Kermode seems to wish that Forster had used Aspects to create a list of "people I have read and approved of," but this type of list is precisely what makes so much literary analysis--and so many Hollywood biographies--so tiresome; Hollywood biographies focus on "all the people I know and approve of," but the result is an equally dull jockeying for status and position.

Kermode returns several times to this lack of position-jockeying in Forster--why didn't he?!--rather than accepting that Forster had darn good reasons, as a darn good analyst and writer, to limit his examples in Aspects of a Novel. He was defending claims, not soothing literary egos.

I accept that Kermode sort of admired Forster, but his analysis left me with the opposite impression. Although he seems to have liked A Room with a View, the bulk of his analysis reads as coming from a man deeply uncomfortable with his subject-matter. Since I am entirely capable of making up my own mind about Forster, I prefer reading material by someone who likes him (as he actually was) and his writing (as it actually is). Lionel Trilling, maybe?

The two issues--lack of critique; abundance of apology--may be inevitable to any biographer. When they can be solved, the result is impressive: the subject is objectively but not unfairly explored--the biographer is willing to question while still ultimately taking the subject's side.

It can be done! It is admittedly less than easy.
The successful biography

Titanic Movies

Re-post from 2013:

April 14, 1912, 11:40 p.m., the Titanic hit an iceberg.

April 15, 1912, 2:20 a.m., the Titanic sank.

Every decade since . . . someone produces a movie about the Titanic.

Actually, that's putting it mildly. Movies about the Titanic are like chick-flick movies: so many and yet . . . how can they ever really end differently?

RedLetterMedia reviews James Cameron's version. Below are a few more (as well as James Cameron's Titanic), starting with the latest television miniseries:

Titanic (2012)
Steven Waddington as Lightoller
This miniseries came out in 2012. It got almost no press. I only learned about it because I recently rewatched The Last of the Mohicans, and I wanted to know what became of Steven Waddington. What became of him is he ended up in a miniseries based on the Titanic; he plays pretty much the same character as in The Last of the Mohicans: the reliable, honorable Britisher (with a few flaws).

The miniseries has an interesting construction--each episode (there are 4) takes us back to the first day of sailing; each time we follow a different series of stories that overlap with stories already told or stories being continued. The most interesting story in my mind is the relationship between a ladies' maid and gentleman's valet. It's a sort of The Remains of the Day--on the ocean.
Two servants with an interesting story
This brings us to the main problem with these types of miniseries; they are soap operas on water. The events could take place just about anywhere: an island (with a mad man); a snow-bound villa at the top of the Swiss Alps (with a mad man); a boat floating down the Nile (with a couple of killers).

Okay, those are all Agatha Christie settings, but the same rules apply: dysfunctional people struck suddenly by tragedy--in this case, a boat that can't float.

Like with all of these miniseries, the writers utilize classic narrative requirements (problem, rising action) . . . right up until the boat actually sinks at which point, they are faced with a conundrum: pay off the narratives or allow for the randomness of tragedy?

The writers inevitably opt for randomness, possibly because they are afraid that if they don't, they will be accused of sugarcoating a terrible event. But such randomness plays havoc with everything else the writers have written. (And the truth is, most people's problems don't get instantly "solved" by a cataclysmic disaster.)

I do have to give kudos to this miniseries for maintaining its theme: the cruelty and pointlessness of the British class system. The theme is maintained at the expense of the facts (the 3rd class passengers were NOT locked below; no distinctions were made between members of various classes while the officers were loading the lifeboats--they simply wanted people to get off the Titanic). However, there are some fairly insightful scenes, such as the servants' dinner in which the servants are as snobbish about rank, if not more-so, than the actual aristocracy. 

And the movie ends with an image of classless solidarity--the survivors are marked not by their status but by their survival.

Other points of accuracy (or lack thereof): Captain Smith is portrayed surprisingly accurately. Murdoch's reputation is restored. Lightoller is portrayed as something of a flirt, which he really wasn't, but since he and his wife are now dead, I don't suppose anyone minds much.

Captain Rostron
My biggest complaint is that not a single story-line refers to or portrays the wireless operators. We see the stokers, the waiters, the servants of the passengers, and the servants for the passengers (as well as the servants for the servants). But not the wireless operators. I was flabbergasted. It's kind of like showing a movie about D-Day and just kind of leaving out references to Ultra. Or the RAF. I mean, huh?

The miniseries I would really like to see next: the Carpathia's response to the Titanic with Captain Rostron as the well-deserved hero!
James Cameron's Titanic (1997)
This is the movie that got me interested in the Titanic. I knew the Titanic sank, but I knew nothing else until I watched the movie when it came out in the theaters.
David Warner as Billy Zane's Go-To-Guy
And I was hooked!
I didn't care for the love story, especially since most of the time, I was rooting for Billy Zane and David Warner, but I was enthralled by the sinking: was it accurate? not accurate? what really happened?

Answer: the ship is nearly 100% accurate.

Everything else is about -10% accurate (my problem isn't with the inaccuracies per se; very few "historical" films are entirely accurate; my problem is with glaring and boring inaccuracies that are also stupid and vaguely dishonest--see below).

So inaccurate in some cases that Twentieth Century Fox ended up apologizing to the Town of Dalbeattie for slandering Commander Murdoch's good name: he did NOT shoot any 3rd class passengers (the few 3rd class passengers who found their way to the upper decks were not kept off the lifeboats); he certainly did NOT shoot himself (no guns were fired at all, only flares). Like a good British officer, he went down with the ship. Since Cameron blithely merged various officers' behavior, I can't help but ask, Why didn't Cameron change Murdoch's name?

Still, the movie got me hooked on Titanic, so I suppose it did its job.
National Geographic Video: Secrets of the Titanic 
This documentary tells the story of Bob Ballard et al. finding the Titanic. It is interesting but not quite as much fun as some of Ballard's other ocean treks, such as his exploration of the Lusitania. He is so darn reverent about the Titanic! I don't know if I'm a realist, a pragmatist or cold-blooded, but I have trouble thinking of a disintegrating hunk of metal on the bottom of the ocean floor as anything more or less than a disintegrating hunk of metal. Very cool. But not endowed with any more properties or meaning than its material self. (If I were to show reverence to the drowned passengers, I'd much rather go to Halifax than down in a submersible--but then I get terribly seasick on the open ocean.)
A Night to Remember, based on the book (1958)
This movie is quite good but rather impersonal. There's about fifteen minutes of intro and then the ship starts sinking. It is the most accurate movie out there and does a great job showcasing the brave, efficient, and reliable Commander Lightoller.

Unfortunately, the movie's impersonal accuracy makes it more like a documentary than a story, yet a documentary without the benefit of Ballard's discovery: the ship broke in two as it sank. Interestingly enough, there were passengers who thought the ship might have broken in two as it went down; however, the bulk of the survivors thought it went down in one piece, so that's what the movie shows. See this very cool CGI rendering to see how the Titanic did go down.
S.O.S. Titanic (1979)
This TV movie provides the pleasant surprise of Helen Mirren. David Warner shows up (again or, rather, first since this movie came out several years before Cameron's) as Lawrence Beesley, a passenger. In fact, the movie is mostly told from the passengers' points of view which is good because the crew's points of view contain far more inaccuracies.

Unfortunately, the stories don't hold together. Eventually, well, the ship sinks, so the movie ends.
One neat thing this TV movie does do is remember the 2nd class passengers--which is a first. Ha Ha.
Titanic with Barbara Stanwyck (1953)
Stanwyck plays an American woman who marries a pompous English man, then decides (18 years later) that her children are growing up to be prigs, so she has to take them back to Michigan or Minnesota (some place cold) to restore them to wholesome goodness. Her husband, played by the marvelously urbane Clifton Webb, follows her on board.

Eventually, the ship sinks and the husband proves that he is a pukka sahib when he goes down with the ship belting "Nearer My God to Thee" with all the other male passengers.

I recently re-watched this movie. The first half is actually pretty good; the characters are inaccurate but engaging. And the information about the missing binoculars and the iceberg telegrams is reasonably correct. Clifton Webb has great dialog and delivery; Barbara Stanwyck gives a stunning performance, and the marvelous Thelma Ritter (from Rear Window) shows up.
However, the second half of the movie is completely spoiled by the most annoying air raid siren noise in the world. Imagine listening to nails on blackboards for nearly 30 minutes. It makes the movie almost unbearable. And it's pointless. There was no air raid noise on the boat. Since the movie attempted verisimilitude with the telegrams, why give up the pretense for an unnecessary sound that makes the movie almost unwatchable? It's very odd. 
Titanic starring George C. Scott and Tim Curry (1996)
This TV movie is completely awful. It is fairly well-written: the passenger stories have continuity and the scenery is well-done. The accurate bits are REALLY accurate, indicating that there may have been an "expert" on the set who insisted on inserting accurate information at various places.

Still, it's horrible. The passengers are thoroughly unpleasant from two ex-lovers who take the opportunity to commit adultery to a villain/rapist played with excellent but unwatchable sleaziness by Tim Curry. I kept hoping Billy Zane would show up and start shooting people.

When Did Plinkett Become a Snob?

Plinkett reviews Titanic. He does a more than impressive job of explaining--in his crass, monotone way--why the movie is a better big picture/epic film than Lucas's Star Wars I, II, and III: Cameron knows how to put together an action flick! I came away from Plinkett's review with a slightly better appreciation for why the film did so well.

Plinkett then does an equally impressive job explaining why people like me hate the film: the dialog is wooden; the characters are simplistic (rich people=bad; poor people=good!).

He mostly ignores the extreme historical inaccuracies, like Murdoch shooting himself, concentrating instead on the accuracy of the ship and praising Cameron for at least bothering to work hard on the film and create actual models and special effects. However, at the very end, he inserts a 1-minute clip about what "really" happened on the Titanic, complete with a U.F.O. It is very funny and underscores his main point that the film is a love story, not a historical-action movie.

The only thing that bothered me about the review was the cliche-ending argument that people-liked-this-film-because-it-was-aimed-at-dumb-people.

Possibly the best movie ever made--
it was popular enough.
RedLetterMedia--well, Plinkett, really--has always struck me as something of a populist. He does such a stellar and hilarious job in the Star Wars reviews (and in various Star Trek reviews) explaining the attraction of popular culture. At the beginning of the Titanic review, he does a fairly decent job explaining the populist elements that make that movie attractive.

This explanation didn't need to be harped on--except he does. His reasoning is the same reasoning I get from people who think that I'm supposed to prefer Twin Peaks to, say, Columbo because Twin Peaks is "artsy" and "challenging" and "outside-the-box." It's very tiresome.

I prefer Columbo, and I have an IQ higher than 100.

Yes, Plinkett is right: many people don't go to movies to be intellectually challenged, but that isn't because--as Plinkett implies--because they are mass-culture zombie drones who prefer shopping at Walmart and going to Applebees because they can't think for themselves. Enjoying Titanic, shopping at Walmart, and eating at Applebees may be the favorite choices of many people--that's okay! These people usually find enough challenges in their work or their schooling or their home lives. They don't expect their entertainment to satisfy them in the same way that entertainment-buffs do.

And I like this!
Like me (an entertainment-buff), they expect different experiences from different things. I kind of hate Titanic but I did see it about 5 times in the theater because I got fascinated by the (inaccurate) history (I'd sit on the edge of my seat, armed with my latest set of factoids, waiting for the ship and the iceberg to collide). When it comes to popular movies, I happen to like Tangled and Toy Story. I also like The Man Who Never Was. I also like Moonstruck. I also watch stuff by Hayao Miyazaki. And sometimes even European foreign films, like Bread & Tulips.

When I go to see the equivalent of Titanic, I may or may not like it, but I expect it to be what it is: a fun, populist story. Sure, I've avoided Avatar as much as a person can avoid a movie. But I know outside-the-box thinkers who loved it. And I really enjoy, and occasionally rewatch, Jurassic Park as well as the first Pirates of the Caribbean; I adore Jackson's Tolkien series.
I rewatch all seasons of the Golden
Girls once a year. Oh no! Another
popular thing I like--oh, the shame!

When I go to McDonalds, I want McDonalds, not steak sirloin. Cause steak sirloin would be weird. I like Hershey's chocolate bars despite knowing that by "real" chocolate standards, they are the essence of average.

By the way, I've eaten at Applebees. And Lobster Shack. And fancy hoity-toity restaurants. And Mom and Pop places. And Indian food at home. And I shop at Walmart. And local stores. And Bullmoose (dangerous place for the wallet).

Plinkett makes the same mistake at the end of the Titanic review as Cameron does with his Titanic characters: all people of a certain class/genre fit into one category, or people-who-like-this-average-movie=dumb=like-all-this-other-dumb-average-stuff-too-all-the-time.

Since it is Plinkett, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and suppose that maybe his anti-populist attitude was on purpose. But he doesn't undermine his snooty attitude with a joke (like usual). So I'm afraid he has revealed himself as more snob than populist.

Too bad.