Mourning for Phil Hartman

Phil Hartman was born today, so I thought it an appropriate day to re-post the post below:

* * *

When Phil Hartman was killed, I had no idea who he was. My knowledge of celebrities is rather piecemeal. For instance, I could tell you about Warhol's Udo Kier, but I didn't, for the longest time, have a clue who Jennifer Lopez was. Except she dated Ben Affleck, and I didn't know who he was either.

So Phil Hartman was killed, and I thought it was sad, but that's about all.

Then, about two years later, I got into the habit of watching Newsradio during my lunch hour. A half-hour of chuckles really sets you up for the rest of the day, and I love the kind of straight-man comedy that Dave Foley pulls off. And is anyone more adorable than Stephen Root? He's one of those actors who makes me laugh simply by showing up on the screen. Actually, that entire cast was great. Led, of course, by the marvelous Phil Hartman. Except that the name didn't register right away.

And then one day I was watching Kiki's Delivery Service and what do you know, the cat's voice is Phil Hartman's. And suddenly I realized this is the guy. And I went into mourning. Seriously. Maybe that doesn't strike many people as odd, but I don't usually get bowled over by celebrity mishaps. When Princess Diana died, my main thought was, "Well, she won't be in the news that much anymore" (I was wrong). But Phil Hartman's death was a real blow. I started thinking about the animation voices he might have done, sitcoms he could have been in. It was a real wrench.

Anyway, if you haven't seen Newsradio in a while, and you want to put on a black armband and laugh yourself sick over the great Phil Hartman, the Complete Series is out on DVD. Here's a representative clip from"Smoking":

Plotting the Small Stuff: What Bones Does Right

The latter seasons of Bones are not as classic as the initial seasons. However, Bones does one thing absolutely right throughout all its seasons, up to the final one (this year).

One problem that stalks later seasons of many shows is the need to CHANGE, SHOCK, DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT! I address some of the reasons for that panic here. Generally speaking, it can lead to over-the-top soap opera ridiculousness that makes one pine for the "simple" days when the show was still unself-conscious and fun.

Bones had this problem (the Pelant sub-plot, for instance). However, it kept its stand-alone episodes fresh by doing what good comedians do: making a plot point out of something simple:

So, in one episode, Bones and Booth debate their daughter's birthday party. In another: the tooth fairy. Or whether or not their daughter bit someone. Or how they feel about their daughter selling cars (I LOVE how this episode ends: kudos, Brennan 😇).

What is so fascinating is how interesting these sub-sub-sub-subplots can be. I actually want to find out if Angela's show runs.
Bones uses iconic images to sell ability early on. The
amazing art created by the young cancer patient is
Van Gogh's Wheat Fields with flowers added.
TANGENT: I do get annoyed at how the Bones' production crew solves Angela's artistic "genius." All her art is derived from famous iconic images that the viewer may or may not recognize--like the stairs from Psycho; I don't think the idea is that Angela is derivative; rather, we are supposed to have this "oh, that's good!" reaction because subconsciously, we recognize the iconic nature of her photos/paintings. It still bugs me--why can't they use someone's actual art? After all, "Castle" writes his own stuff. You can even get his books from the library! Nick from Family Ties got his own art.
Returning to the point (making plot out of life) the less sub-sub-sub and more-plot of Hodgins in the wheelchair is strikingly well-written and gives T.J. Thyne, a respectable actor in his own right, a chance to shine his non-sweet-natured-Hodgins side (aside from being a jerk during the last 1/3rd of Season 11, Hodgins is possibly the best husband on all television).

The ability to make interesting the ordinary, normal, unfortunately sad plus happy everyday is a true gift. The Bones' writers get close to capturing slice-of-life, an admirable ability!

Lovable Character Actor: Tim Wylton, Mark Benton, and Alan Rachins

Three actors who encapsulate lovableness are Tim Wylton, Mark Benton, and Alan Rachins.

Tim Wylton plays Mr. Gardiner in the BBC Pride & Prejudice series with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. His character is level-headed, friendly, non-groveling yet also non-presumptuous. Alongside the marvelous Joanna David, Wylton endows Mr. Gardiner with so much warmth and friendliness, they perfectly match the book Gardiners. Of course, Darcy would love these folks! Wouldn't anyone?!

In Poirot's "How Does My Garden Grow," Wylton plays a drunk yet still more lovable (and far more confused) man than his murderous wife.

In As Time Goes By, he plays the simple though occasionally canny Lol Ferris. As Lionel and Jean remark (in sum), it isn't pleasant to think of someone as pudgy and sweet and Winnie-the-Poohish as Lol getting beat up.

Mark Benton also shows up in an episode of As Time Goes By. I enjoy him as Martin Pond in Barbara where he plays the title character's son-in-law. He is also the thoughtful member of the chorus in Topsy-Turvy who suggests approaching "Mr. Gilbert" on behalf of Richard Temple, the actor who plays the Mikado (played in the movie by the remarkable Timothy Spall). Mark Benton's father-in-law on Barbara, Sam Kelly, ALSO shows up in Topsy-Turvy as the Savoy's amusing stage manager.

Like all these actors, Mark Benton has excellent comedic timing--and an utterly non-threatening demeanor.

Alan Rachins is the American on the list. He tends to play more bad guys than the others, including, even, a murderer on Diagnosis Murder. However, even as a bad guy he exudes a soothing presence. His threats are delivered in a kindly voice, which makes trusting him a non-brainer.

As Dharma's dad on Dharma & Greg, he is lovableness squared (and makes a good foil to grumpy Mitchell Ryan and Susan Sullivan).

Naturally, all these actors are working actors with a long list of credits in a variety of genres. Including Stargate SG-1!

U is for Updale

For U, I read Johnny Swanson by Eleanor Updale, the author of the Montmorency novels.

Updale has the remarkable ability to create characters--in this case Johnny and Montmorency--who are not entirely sympathetic yet engage the empathy of the reader. The first 1/2 of Johnny Swanson presents the background of a possible grifter. Understandable if not entirely likable.

*Spoilers*

With the mother's arrest, however, the novel changes considerably in tone and purpose. It's a fast read, and Updale does a fantastic job capturing the time period (England between the two World Wars). She also is quite willing to showcase the seamy, unpleasant side of human nature. Unfortunately, this makes the sudden and considerable niceness of the characters in the conclusion a tad unrealistic. My experience--and my reading of cognitive dissonance--is that people tend to stick more closely to their opinions when disproved, not less.

Cardiff Police 1930
It seems far more likely to me that the police in Johnny's hometown would continue to insist on the rightness of their arrest than to instantly accept the version propounded by Johnny and the Welsh police, no matter how accurate. They might even be a tad irritated with Johnny for showing them up and respond by accusing him of hiding information (even though they were the ones that wouldn't listen--hey, human beings aren't consistent!).

Consequently, I felt a little uncomfortable with the resolution. It seemed so entirely unlikely based on the prior half of Updale's novel.

I do highly recommend Updale in general, especially the Montmorency novels.

Nero Wolfe Redux

Nero refusing to leave his orchids.
When I first started Votaries over a decade ago, I split up my topics into separate blogs. The below post was originally posted with other posts about television (this was in the days before the "labels" feature).

Nero Wolfe

One of the great things about Timothy Hutton's Nero Wolfe [and the original Nero Wolfe, for that matter] is the morality of Nero Wolfe. It takes a bit of getting used to since it seems, on the surface, almost brutal.

On one occasion ["Prisoner's Base"], a woman comes to Nero Wolfe's brownstone. She wants to stay--in the same way she might stay at a fancy hotel (only safer). Wolfe rejects her proposition. Her attorney has offered Wolfe $10,000 to find her. But since she came to him of her own accord, he informs her that he will either (1) allow her to stay if she pays him an appropriate retainer ($10,000) or (2) give her 24 hours to run, and then follow her in order to obtain the $10,000.

She decides on (2) and is killed within 3 hours of leaving the brownstone. Wolfe sees no need to investigate: he is not responsible, has no client, and is peripherally involved. Archie disagrees and gets himself in trouble. Wolfe ends up resolving the case on Archie's behalf.

In an age still very much affected by chivalric impulses, Wolfe's proposition to the soon-to-be-murdered young woman seems callous (so it strikes Archie), but the more Nero Wolfe you watch [read], the more you realize that this hard self-interest is intrinsically honorable.

Debra Monk, a regular "player" on the show
In a later episode, Wolfe deliberately withholds evidence, to his own inconvenience, because the murder victim wished the evidence withheld, and he feels her (self-interested) choice (which got her killed) should be honored. The same episode contains one of my favorite pieces of Wolfe dialog. Speaking to his client, played by the marvelous Debra Monk, he states, "I agree with you that had you broken your promise [and told the police about the cylinder], Miss Gunther would not have been killed--but it was she who asked for the promise, so the responsibility is hers." 

Wolfe will take on clients and then release himself when a conflict of interest arises; in other words, he is not the type of detective to defend his clients out of personal liking no matter what; the one time he does defend a client despite lack of funds--a gardener--he does it because he wants the man to take care of his orchids, which the gardener can't do in jail.
Nero comforting Fritz

Wolfe will also defend a client for no money if he believes that he has an obligation (as he does with Fritz in "Poison a la Carte").

Likewise, he will withhold information from the police if he feels the information is not their business, yet he will respect a city ordinance not to enter his own study, simply because it is the law. He walks a fine line between deliberately subordinating justice to gain his own ends and satisfying justice to gain his own ends. And he never drifts off the line.

It is, overall, a consistent study of behavior that reflects, from what I have read and been told, Rex Stout's depiction of Wolfe in the books. The television series' plots (which are performed by the same "players") are simply a stylish backdrop against which Nero Wolfe and Archie argue over cases. Chaykin and Hutton pull this off (with more than adequate support from a stellar cast, including the marvelous Conrad Dunn) through rapid-fire dialog and fascinating reaction shots, but the complexity of Wolfe's integrity is the meat that the audience waits for. Without that underlying gritty hardheadedness, the show would be a more than adequate period piece but nothing more. It is the producers' willingness to keep Wolfe unpretty, unsympathetic and unsentimental that makes the show work. For 2 seasons at least!

The Echo in Forster's A Passage to India

In A Passage to India, while Miss Quested recovers from her reckless flight from the caves before the trial, she discusses her experience with Mrs Moore:
 "There is this echo that I keep on hearing."
 "Oh, what of the echo?" asked Mrs Moore, paying attention to her for the first time.
 "I can't get rid of it."
 "I don't suppose you ever will."
 Ronny had emphasized to his mother that Adela would arrive in a morbid state, yet she was being positively malicious.
 "Mrs. Moore, what is this echo?"
 "Don't you know?"
 "No---what is it? Oh, do say! I felt you would be able to explain it . . . this will comfort me so . . ."
 "If you don't know, you don't know; I can't tell you."
The echo is a trope in the book and is used with not so subtle artistry in the film. It is one of those things that English majors like myself love to speculate over. Here is my theory:

The echo is the gap between what our primitive selves desire and what the civilized trappings of society supply. To put this in Freudian terms, it is the gap between the id and the superego that the ego struggles over.

In the film, Lean replaces the car accident with Miss Quested
encountering Hindu statues of loving couples--as I
mentioned: not so subtle.
David Lean leans (ha ha) towards the sexual part of this equation and it underlies Forster's far more subtle ("cryptic" says one reviewer) definition. Miss Quested agrees to marry Ronny after their near accident with an animal--one of their passengers claims it was a ghost; either way, it is a force from the dark, primitive side of nature. Miss Quested enters the cave pondering with all the capacity of her frontal lobe if she truly loves Ronny. The novel's penultimate accusation arises from what she experiences, alone, in the cave--the echo arrives with it, only exorcised or mostly exorcised when Miss Quested is wholly honest with herself in court. Irritated by so much posturing over a tepid accusation, Mrs Moore exclaims fitfully, "Love in a church, love in a cave, as if there is the least difference."

All the difference in the world, Forster might have said, even though Mrs Moore is speaking--to a degree--for him.

Marabar Caves, based on the Barabar Caves (inset)
Forster includes more than lust in his primitive equation: he includes imagination as well as the fear of death (Lean alludes to both). The primitive self isn't simply the self that wants and pines for another; it is also the restless self that dreams of irrationalities (can those two things ever be untwined?). Miss Quested comes to India full of expectations and desires about the place and Ronny that come not only from her active imagination--the part that schemes and plans--but from her buried imagination, the part of her human self that yearns towards certain images and outcomes.

Miss Quested is practical, confident, self-analytical, honest, but she lacks the basic understanding--at least at the beginning of the novel--of that crazy poet from New England, Emily Dickinson: "But never met this Fellow/Attended or alone/Without a tighter Breathing/And Zero at the Bone."

"It's like dogs," says a character in Agatha Christie, defending the atavistic reaction of her child-self; "they know death and throw back their heads and howl."

These are responses that bypass reason and go right for the amygdala. Likewise, we can hope and dream for half-acknowledged things that reality can never give us because our primitive self propels us towards them.

The echo begins as early as Aziz and Mrs. Moore's meeting
in the mosque.
In the dissatisfaction between what we whine for and what we actually get lives the echo. And a great deal of fiction.

Which means, of course, civilization. Forster is no rebel--he isn't extolling the dismantling of civilization for the sake of the primitive whine. After all, as Agatha Christie would have acknowledged, children often remember things wrong. Basing day-to-day functioning on dreams and fantasies is hardly productive, especially since these are the types of desires and fantasies that are not wholly worked out in our frontal lobes (evolutionary psychologists spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what these desires and fantasies are). Societies function due to the civilized trappings we create. Do we create them to stave off the dark--the unexplained and uncanny? To control it? To master it?

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Forster seemed to think that the point was not to rip everything down and start over or even to run out and challenge the norms. He seemed to approach the issue with a little bit of fatalism and a little bit of optimism. Achievement occurs when one finds and makes a space for oneself that one can live with.

The letter to Miss Quested
In the movie, Lean gives Fielding the indirect line (Aziz is quoting him), "Stella [his wife] believes the evil of the Marabar has been wiped out." But in the book, the line from Stella stands without the insertion of "evil." Wiping out "the Marabar" doesn't refer to the false accusation. It refers to the characters having moved into spaces where that particular echo no longer haunts them. But that doesn't mean the spaces they have moved into don't have their own faint echoes.

Facebook is a Culture

Like any culture, Facebook has a language or lexicon of its own. That is, Facebook rather more, perhaps, than other cultures, is immersed in customs regarding communication. These customs refer to more than institutionalized markers (the thumbs-up, heart, or faces under each link); they include the types of information communicated, the rhetorical devices employed, the assumptions regarding response . . .

At the most basic level, the cultural communication of Facebook is NOT conversation.

For someone like myself, whose cultural and customized rhetoric is embedded in oral communication, this makes Facebook almost foreign territory. I should be clear: I am not saying that conversation is the only way to communicate. Nor am I saying that I am a conversational genius. I am saying that my communication "intelligence"--the devices I recognize or use when I interact with others--focus on the interrogatories, pauses, and building of conversation: You say something; I answer it; you respond; I concede something; you demur; I return to a prior point and elucidate.

This is not how Facebook operates. Neither, however, is it how blogs operate. Despite their modern "setting," blogs utilize classic written rhetorical devices. Blogging is not that different from essay writing, from formal to informal, from persuasive to analytical to informational.

Facebook is neither conversation nor essay writing. It relies on comment rather than exchange or organized argument. The comments are personal and entirely contextual--that is, they rely on an original picture or thought or post which then entails response--yet at the same time entirely non-contextual: response is sometimes determined by prior responses but only occasionally relies on them. Comments are often exchanged but rarely build towards an "end." No "conclusion" is anticipated.

It would be easy (and wrong) at this point for me to argue that Facebook is "shallow." In truth, it is no more or less shallow than any type of communal communication. It may not be quite like "shooting the breeze" with a good friend. But then, few things are. Neither is it the equivalent of the letter writing culture one sees among Romantic poets in the nineteenth century. That communication had its own customs and devices and produced its own mixture of profundity and chattiness.

Learning that conversational techniques don't work on Facebook--and recognizing that I am unlikely to learn Facebook customs (I'm not on Facebook nearly often enough to make that likely)--doesn't make Facebook "bad." From my perspective, while it makes Facebook something of a closed book, it also makes it rather fascinating.

Facebook is less than 15 years old. And yet look how, in that time, it has already created a sense of self or culture! Although the framework is imposed and some restrictions apply, the interpersonal culture is almost entirely a "grounds up" endeavor. Expectations, traditions, and uses are produced day by day by individuals. And yet, a common culture emerges, despite outliers.

From an anthropological perspective, Facebook proves how quickly people adjust to new cultural requirements. It also backs up the idea that culture is not something imposed from without. However much we might balk at our culture's restrictions, they are an interweave of multiple personal interactions and choices, not something we can blame on "the man."

Not even Mark Zuckerberg.

T is for Taylor and 1950s Literature

For a T author, I read All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor nee Sarah Brenner. I may have read this book--or had it read to me--when I was younger. If so, I didn't remember, so the experience was fresh.

Overall, I recommend it despite the beginning and the end.

The first two chapters reminded me of those "wholesome" books which revolve around a child's bad behaviors; each naughty behavior is  successfully corrected by the end of a chapter ("And then Ruthie learned to be kind to others!"). These types of books were likely not as prevalent in the 1950s as we tend to think they were.  Nevertheless, their existence explains the post-1950 explosion of darker children's books, such as the Goosebumps series and ultimately the Lemony Snicket volumes (in which the narrator matter-of-factly informs us that "all those nice things that happen to those children in those other books are not going to happen here").

The last chapter of All-of-a-Kind Family, a family of five daughters, wraps up with the birth of the family's first son.

I have nothing against the event itself, and if it had happened halfway through the book, I would have welcomed it as a delightful next chapter in this slice-of-life narrative. One of my favorite children's series is about the Melendys, a family comprised of two girls and, eventually, three boys. And I get a huge kick out of the Anastasia books, which include the birth of Anastasia's baby brother Sam.

But All-of-a-Kind Family resolves with the birth of the baby boy: the reader experiences pages of  adventures and day-to-day activities in a family of girls. Hmmm, thank goodness it's paid off with the birth of a male heir.

Not exactly the most elevating message for young female readers in 1951.

The middle of the book is what makes All-of-a-Kind Family a decent and worthwhile read. A family of children doing childhood stuff is mildly interesting (The Betsy-Tacy books are oddly engaging for being so entirely about nothing--my first writing experiments at 7/8 were Betsy-Tacy wannabes). A family of little girls in early twentieth century New York City is quite interesting. A family of little Jewish girls in early twentieth century New York City is fascinating.

Aside from the first two chapters and the last, the book revolves around Jewish holidays. It definitely falls into the slice-of-life genre (there's an unobtrusive subplot of Charlie and the library lady). It is similar to those pinnacles of day-to-day youthfulness, The Betsy-Tacy series and the Katy series (which latter was voted one of the most popular for young teen girls in 1995; it's hard to find now). Readers enjoy each holiday not through lecture, as a history lesson, but through the thoughts and behavior and enjoyment of the family.

Sometimes a little bit of drama ensues, as when the girls get scarlet fever. Overall, the book reminded me of the street sequences in The Jazz Singer (some of the most remarkably filmed sequences in any movie). Welcome to 1912 in Jewish New York City: enjoy!



Book to Movie: A Passage to India

Aziz, Godbole, Miss Quested
*Slight Spoilers* (I read the book and saw the movie for the first time this summer--there may be others like me out there!)

Passage to India (1984) is a faithful rendition of the book. It also proves, in passing, that Alec Guinness (as Professor Godbole) never fails a part (one is not supposed to think this--one is supposed to dislike Guinness in the part, but I find dictatorial Ivory Tower "film" analysts irritating, and I think what I think).

Actually, the entire cast is impressive. Plus, they are faithful to the book's characters.

As I mention in previous posts, I don't necessarily view faithfulness to the book as a requirement. More than anything I want the scriptwriter/director (both David Lean in this case) to admire the original text, to care about it, to want to make it work.

In this case, the care and admiration truly begins with the cast:
Victor Banerjee is so perfect as Aziz, I exclaimed on the fact several times during the film: sweet and carefree until the trial knocks him for a loop; extroverted; somewhat guileless; eager to please. Banerjee was 38 when he played Aziz and appears younger. Banerjee's ageless aura makes plausible Aziz's willingness to reclaim his former self at the end of the movie.

Dame Peggy Ashcroft gives Mrs Moore exactly the right combination of free-spiritedness, exhaustion at the follies of humankind, and generosity. She isn't an activist--she could/would never have taken on Dr. Fielding's efforts to help Aziz. But she effortlessly highlights why so many people, from Aziz to Miss Quested, adore her, honoring even the evocation of her name. She is a saint--without being saintlike (not an easy characterization to achieve: Forster based her on a beloved aunt).

Judy Davis as Miss Quested. Based on the picture on the DVD cover, I was a little worried about Judy Davis. Miss Quested is a level-headed, down-to-earth and not beautiful woman. The point of her not being beautiful is not that she is plain but that the trial centers on her gender and her Britishness, not her looks. It also highlights her integrity. Like Elizabeth from Pride & Prejudice, she isn't seeking marriage and/or approval for the sake of marriage and approval. She also isn't being sought after. She is a free agent who acts according to her own reasons. Consequently, the reader (and the viewer) come to believe that Mr. Fielding is right to protect her at the end.

Judy Davis is, frankly, quite lovely. But like Joan Fontaine, she pulls off the girl-next-door look. And she has this stunning husky voice that sells her later testimony. Since the movie is hers (the book belongs to several voices), she is slightly more sympathetic than in the book.

Aziz and Fielding
James Fox as Fielding explained James Wilby (Maurice) to me. There is a definite bromance in A Passage to India, the novel,  between Aziz and Fielding. It is (slightly) toned down in the movie. I thought it would be removed entirely, but David Lean appears to have found it utterly non-threatening (until the final scene, which is unhappily not as sweet and sincere as in the book) to making his point. James Fox is blond, lanky, and refreshingly non-politically-correct in his sincere desire to help Aziz. Three years later when Merchant Ivory went looking for Maurice, it couldn't have found a closer correspondence to James Fox than in the younger James Wilby. Both castings may have been a fluke (as claimed); both were brilliant.

Nigel Havers as Heaslop is the only character who is somewhat unlike his book version. When Forster took against the pompous nabobs of his own class, he really took against them (as he admitted wryly; after all, he was one). Book Heaslop is so chauvinistic, dictatorial, full of himself and his "right" to behave like a condescending Empire builder, it is unimaginable why Miss Quested wouldn't have drop-kicked him off the field of her heart back in England. Heaslop is the type of "good old public school boy" in India that Kipling--who supported the Empire--loathed; Heaslop is also the reason one starts to side with political correctness after too much exposure to the type.

Nigel Havers is more clueless than obnoxious, making the engagement slightly more comprehensible. 
Another aspect of the movie that shows Lean's appreciation of the book is his reliance on the echo--What does the echo mean? More in a later post . . .

The Great Boyfriend: Nick

One of my favorite television boyfriends is Mallory's boyfriend Nick on Family Ties.

Nick is Mallory's modern artist boyfriend. His art is as dreadful and as good as a budding modern artist's would be; that is, the producers actually bothered to create real pieces for Nick that occasionally are quite legitimately artistic.

He is introduced as a biker and does in fact ride a motorcycle. He apparently dropped out of high school (although the implication is that he got to a certain age and was kicked out without graduating--he later gets his GED). He has no desire to go to college, and Alex (P. Keaton) worries about his ability to support a goldfish, let alone Mallory, in the future.

Mallory, Nick, and his art
Since Mallory is as ambitious as Alex in her own way, planning to open a series of boutiques and even, later, start her own line of business clothing for women, I don't think Alex needs to worry. Nick will make a GREAT house-husband/stay-at-home dad (with the part-time job of teaching after-school arts/crafts at the Y).

What makes Nick such a great boyfriend is that he is utterly supportive of Mallory, even encouraging her to go to college despite the possible distance it may put between them. He is an intuitive thinker, which gives him a kind of objectivity--he doesn't do things or agree to things unless they are good ideas. He is politely guileless, an adorable combination: after the first aborted family dinner, he returns to apologize to the Keaton parents for leaving and to state emphatically that he wants to date Mallory. He is emotionally intelligent, taking his loss in the art contest with mature acceptance. And despite or perhaps because of the "Hey!"s, he is a fairly decent conversationalist--although Alex insists that Nick and Mallory are the equivalent of cave-man and cave-woman, both are quite adept at exchanging views/working things out (Gottman's criteria--not "listening" so much as devising mutual practicable strategies). 
The Keaton parents realizing they were more like Nick
when they were younger than they want to admit.

And Nick is truly tolerant--more tolerant (and more unconventional) than the Keaton parents, a fact that is played on throughout the show. He accepts people as they are, all the way from Alex to the Keaton parents, even if what they are is being not entirely cool with him.

He enters the show in Season 4 and stays the remaining seasons. He was a brilliant addition, providing occasional tension, humor, and a foil to the not-as-bohemian-as-they-thought middle-class Keaton family.

Disney Villains Falling Off Things

I suppose it is less traumatic than shooting or strangling or eating someone: Disney villains always seem to "die" (we don't actually see the corpses) by falling off of things.
 
Snow White's Witch
Apparently, this movie--the first full-length Disney which owes a debt to European illustrators like Gustave Dore--terrified full-grown adults, especially the final sequences. The classic exemplar of pride and vanity, the witch falls off a cliff. Since a big rock falls after her, her death is pretty much assured. (The watching vultures are very happy.)

Scar
Simba returns to reclaim his pride! And Scar falls off a cliff. I believe the hyenas then get him. Actually, Simba leaving Scar to the hyenas may not be excessively noble, but it is a fairly accurate depiction of lion behavior. People who like to feel all warm and fuzzy about the sweetness of nature should watch National Geographic episodes about real animals in the wild. Lions will  leave each other to starve and be eaten by hyenas. There's no such thing as a "clean" death.

Gaston
In the 1946 Beauty & the Beast, Avenant (the Gaston
character) turns into a Beast at the end.
In both the animated and live-action versions, Gaston causes himself to fall off a tower when he recklessly attacks the Beast. I honestly thought they might leave him alive this time around. I mean, come on, this is Luke Evans (I just rewatched him in The Hobbit, where he is amazing) and he wasn't sooo bad in the beginning at the movie. Why couldn't he be redeemed (like, eh hem, the Beast)?

I actually thought the writers were going to go that route, but . . . no. Of course, we don't see the broken, damaged corpse, so maybe . . .

There are more recklessly-footed Disney villains! But you get the idea.

Why I'm Not Anti-Disney

Although I will criticize Disney, I am not in fact an enemy of Disney.

Here's why:
1. There is no need to choose only Disney:

The idea that Disney is an overwhelming presence in the lives of children/American culture is similar to an idea that I encountered in my master's programs: "underprivileged" (i.e. poor) people are at the mercy of television commercials.

Except all the "poor" ("poor" in America is an extremely relative term) people I've met barely watch television. The argument appears to be mostly a matter of  transference--a bunch of beleaguered, overly educated middle-class folks insisting that everybody else is as obsessed with the media as they are.

I grew up in a house without a television (well, sort of--check out Eugene's "TV Wars"). I also grew up with Disney records, the Wonderful World of Disney (at my friends' houses) and going to see Disney movies. Plus Perrault, Andrew Lang, Cricket Magazine, Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Beatrix Potter, many many many picture books, and a scary set of Grimm fairy tales (which I never read).

Yes, there are parents who only give their kids Disney but is the alternative truly better? No nothing at all? Should children only read literal, legalistic, non-creative, non-fictional tomes? Only watch approved social documentaries or "fiction" that teaches a lesson? (I know parents who would say, "Yes." Scary people.)

Truthfully, one can have it all.

2. Criticism of Disney brings together the left and the right--rhetorically speaking--which is an unpleasant combination.

As social observers before me have remarked, there is a weird combo-pack between the political left and religious right. Complaining that Disney is sexist, for instance, brings together parents who would never be caught near each other at a political rally. Complaining about porn brings together many of the same people: those who want all that salacious nonsense to stop right now! Alongside those who want all that horrible patriarchal, sexist, backwards-thinking to stop right now!

In both cases, "control" is the password.  Underlying it all is fear of non-literal language, which leads me to...

3. People should set aside their fear of communication when dealing with art (and everything else). 

Much of my personal disillusionment regarding the modern world is not the worries of either liberalism or conservatism. It's how people use the fear of language to try to get their way (on both the left and the right). That is, although I get disgusted by the rhetoric itself, I also get disgusted by the "DID YOU HEAR WHAT THE OTHER SIDE SAID!" overreaction to rhetoric. Everybody just calm down!
More than anything, I get irritated with the underlying assumption--which nobody ever challenges (okay, I did here)--that we are the victims of communication (language and images), our environments, rather than free agents.

Decision-making studies indicate that people make choices for reasons that have almost nothing to do with how  other people think they are supposed to react. Advertising, for example, is notoriously problematic. There's a reason advertising firms get paid so much to discover so little about how people actually buy. We are not in fact victims of Hollywood insidiousness or socio-geo-politico brainwashing. (I remembered the above commercial but not what company it was for.)

Cultures do have their own realities--and perpetuate themselves according to their own time frames. But never make the mistake of thinking that there weren't people in, say, the 1500s, who weren't asking some of the same questions we do. Maybe those questions didn't use the same rhetoric or have the same cultural significance or catch people's attention in the same way: other worries came to the fore. But that doesn't mean nobody thinks anything until some institution says so. People were thinking Protestant thoughts before Martin Luther came along.

Language and images reflect us--they do not control us. For some people, this entails a greater degree of responsibility than they wish to accept (see porn debates).  But is denying one's agency really going to help anyone?
All this is to say, I can appreciate--even if I don't totally support--a parent who decides, "I'm going to monitor what my child watches." I can truly admire parents who deliberately expand what their child consumes. But I cannot agree with or admire those parents who decide that "this thing" is bad and destructive--therefore the whole structure should come crashing down for everyone and how dare anyone think otherwise, you corrupted and corrupting individuals!

Personally, I think Disney sometimes produces garbage. I also think Disney sometimes produces darn good stuff (see Tangled). It is artistry, which means that sometimes it will be great; sometimes not. Artistry also means it is going to reflect our wants and needs as well as the wants and needs and imaginations of its artists. That's what art does.

And living in a world with art is good.

Poirot Movies (David Suchet): Part 3

Appointment with Death

Although the script takes liberties, creating new murderers (from extant characters), I didn't mind so much. For one, this particular story varies considerably between the book version and Christie's own play. For another, the new murderers make sense, given the victim.

The only issue I have is, What is Tim Curry doing in this movie? His part is fairly irrelevant. I can only imagine that he offered, and the Poirot people couldn't turn him down. I mean, would you turn down Tim Curry?

But he is the type of actor who needs to be cast completely correctly and then used completely correctly. He wasn't here.

Murder on the Orient Express

I was somewhat worried about this one. How can any version top the 1974 Albert Finney version? I think Suchet is as good a Poirot--better in some ways. But the 1974 movie is itself a tour de force.

The clever Poirot writers solved the problem by examining the plot from a completely new direction: Are the conspirators justified? This question haunts the narrative, and Poirot is the right character to contemplate it. The result is a rather dark movie, but one that still keeps mostly to the plot.

I will be seeing and reviewing Kenneth Branagh's version, coming out November 2017!

Hallowe'en Party

A surprisingly good production with perfect casting of the Judith and Miranda characters (played by Amelia Bullmore and Mary Higgins). I also enjoyed seeing Zoe Wannamaker again. She has great acerbic delivery.

However, the movie does indicate how/why movies develop completely different tones/auras from their books; it occurs when the movie script fails to take context into account.

The movie stars the remarkable Julian Rhind-Tutt
In the book Halloween Party, there are a number of deaths. They have mostly occurred in the past; there's an almost unreal quality about them (which is part of the ambiance). By constantly showing us the dead bodies, the movie becomes . . . kind of silly. It's one thing to have a cozy village mystery with a couple of deaths; it's another to have a cozy village mystery with people dropping like flies. It's the freaking Black Plague! It is also the reason I had to stop watching Midsomer Murders. I adore John Nettles, but the writers were killing off so many people per episode, there wasn't anyone left to blame or investigate or even care.

The Clocks & Three-Act Tragedy

The 1997 Pale Horse does a great job placing Christie's
story in the era that she wrote it!
I combine my review of these because they are fairly boring books yet fairly respectable movies. The Clocks movie does highlight one of the flaws of the Poirot movies: in an effort  to remain chronologically consistent with the series, the later books are not set in the 1950s and 1960s but in the 1940s. This is very sad since Christie did a great job "modernizing" her novel settings. Miss Marple and Poirot had to adjust (with some success) to a rapidly changing culture. Great fun!

But The Clocks movie, instead of being placed in the 1960s, is placed pre-WWII, creating a bewildering change in tone from the book.

Still, the Colin and Sheila characters are done well. And the basic plot is kept which impressed me. One huge change is made to one particular character, but I'm guessing the script-writers went, "That's WAY too much of a coincidence" and left it out. I don't fault them. 

Three-Act Tragedy is extremely well-done. It is much better than the 1980's version which is so boring, I've never seen it all the way through because I fall asleep, and I am NOT the kind of person who falls asleep watching movies. So Suchet's version is a vast improvement. And Martin Shaw does a magnificent job. Still, although it is not as boring as the 1980's version, it is not that interesting either. I'm not sure why. I think the problem lies in the original plot rather than the script.

FINAL FILMS

Elephants Can Remember: Not bad. Not all that memorable either. A little creepy. Zoe Wannamaker is wonderful again.

The Big Four: Weird book. Weird movie.

Dead Man's Folly: Quite well done. I am also fond of the Peter Ustinov 1986 version. This was Suchet's last job as Poirot. (Curtain, naturally, was aired last.)

The Labours of Hercules: Horrible. But then I thought from the beginning that this book should have been done as a series of 12 one-hour episodes. Suchet claims in his autobiography that the BBC started making movies because "American" audiences preferred them to the shorter episodes. Not me! I far far far preferred the shorter episodes (still do) and suspect that the movies were simply easier to produce/defend. Frankly, only a few of the movies measure up to the craftsmanship and quality of any single 1-hour episode. I would have loved to see 12 more such episodes.

Curtain: The movie is actually more satisfying than the book (to which it remains accurate overall). In the book, we never "see" the confession--we only hear about it, leading one to hope that Poirot wasn't going nuts towards the end of his life.

The movie is beautifully, lovingly done. Touching to see Suchet and Fraser together again. Perfect tone. A tour de force. And sad farewell.

Poirot Movies (David Suchet): Part 2

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: Not bad. The first-person voice-over differs from the book for obvious reasons. It kind of works. Basic plot points are retained. All in all, an okay production.

Lord Edgware Dies: Extremely well-done. Helen Grace as Jane Wilkinson does a superb job. Plot, murderer, and aura are all retained. The best movie since The ABC Murders.

Evil Under the Sun: Okay movie, but the femme fatale isn't done correctly. I'm not sure the writers understood Christie's character. She's supposed to be THE woman that women-love-to-hate, the bad girl who breaks up marriages except . . . strip away the glamour, and she's actually rather pitiable. For a better rendering of this character type, check out the series episode "Triangle at Rhodes." The movie does use the theme music in a compelling way.

Murder in Mesopotamia: I think I would like this movie more if it wasn't one of my favorite books. The book is told entirely from the nurse's point of view, and the nurse has a distinct voice and perspective. She makes the book live. The movie, however, is told all from Poirot's point of view. I understand this on one level; the writers have to use the guy who is being show-cased. But it is still a disappointment. That said, the movie is worth watching. It keeps the main plot points and the aura.

Five Little Pigs: This is one of the best of the later movies. It is the most artistic of the films and effectively captures a nostalgic aura that works well with the plot. It keeps the plotting of the book as Poirot questions each "pig" in turn. There is a subtle change regarding the Philip Blake character (played by the superb Toby Stephens). However, the change actually makes sense and doesn't play havoc with Christie's text. The actor who plays Amyas Crale isn't how I see Amyas Crale physically, but he captures the character.

Sad Cypress: Overall, the plot is well-rendered. However, a major change between the book and movie tells me the writers missed the point. I discuss that change more in my post "Thoughts on Agatha Christie and Literature".

Death on the Nile: Better than the 1978 version. Plus the 2004 version has JJ Feild! It's such a sad movie, I rarely rewatch it. Plus none of the movies has my favorite line. When Jacqueline is speaking to Poirot at the end of the book, she says, "I followed a bad star," and then she mocks a line given earlier in the book: "That bad star, that bad star fall down." When I read Death on the Nile as a teenager, that line captured the essence of Jacqueline's character for me. [Update: Boy, the plot of this book is utterly ridiculous. No wonder the movies are always soap operas. By the end, so many people have died on the boat, I start thinking of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, my go-to novel for "so many bad things have happened, I've stopped believing in the plot." ]

The Hollow: Quite good. Like with Death on the Nile, it is missing some good lines from the book. Otherwise, the characters and the plot are skillfully handled. Unlike with Murder in Mesopotamia, the main female character is given equal time with Suchet, which is absolutely correct.

The Mystery of the Blue Train: Not bad although I'm not as familiar with this book as the others. There is a romance change that I dislike (this becomes more common in the later movies).

Cards on the Table: Great book. So-so movie. A number of fundamentals are needlessly changed (this also becomes more common in the later movies). The motive for the murder is changed but not the murderer. It kind of works.

Actually, I think the movie would be a dud if it wasn't for the awesome Zoe Wannamaker. She plays Mrs. Oliver; she doesn't look like Mrs. Oliver, but she captures her character exactly (and it's Zoe Wannamaker!). Alexander Siddig makes an appearance as Mr. Shaitana and does a great job (he also reminds you how tall he is; in Deep Space Nine, he is one over-6-foot man among many over-6-foot people--except for Nana Visitor).

After the Funeral: One of my favorite movies though substantial changes are made to Susannah and George's characters. I like the changes, and I don't think they undermine anything. The clever motive and clever murderer are retained, and the clever murderer is done exactly right (by a very good actor).

Taken at the Flood: Surprisingly well-rendered. This is one of Christie's scary psycho pieces, and Elliot Cowan as David Hunter, the psycho, is chillingly good. By the way, this movie captures Christie's ideas of emotional (and sexual) enthrallment (see my comments about Sad Cypress). A romance change is made that I regret, but I can understand why the writers did it.

Mrs. McGinty's Dead: Well-rendered. This movie also retains very funny dialog from the book. One is the argument between Mrs. Oliver and Robin about the adaptation of her books to plays (Agatha Christie used Mrs. Oliver to spout off about writing); the other is Poirot's line to a suspect: "It is amazing to me that you could be hanged because you do not pay enough attention to the things people say to you!"

Cat Among the Pigeons: I admit this is one book I would be tempted to play with if I were the scriptwriters. I have this entire subplot involving Adam and Julia . . .  However, in terms of faithfulness to Christie's vision, the movie is pretty good. The plot and murderer's identity are retained but not, I think, the aura. The removal of one character kind of destroys the original feel. Also, although Harriet Walter does a magnificent job as Miss Bulstrode, I'm not sure she is the Miss Bulstrode of the book, but it is Harriet Walter so ... okay.

Third Girl: Tremendous disappointment! The movie destroys the book. The book is extremely well-plotted and very clever; the resulting movie-mess is just that: a mess. Things happen for no good reason. The new motives are slender and convoluted. The double-identity (a Christie special) is disregarded. Mrs. Oliver is misused. Doctor Stillingfleet, a very important character, is discarded. The entire ambiance as well as the book's time period have been thrown out. Jemima Rooper, whom I quite like, is completely wrong for the part of Norma. The movie is a huge wreck.

I can only assume the recent Miss Marple people took over. Please, if you don't admire Christie enough to reread her books several times, savoring her plots and characters and recognizing her for the incredible craftswoman she was . . . if you are arrogant and blind enough to think you can "improve" on her plots, stop producing Christie movies!