French Stewart: Great Character Actor, Great Performer

I adore French Stewart. He plays Harry, the dimwitted brother in 3rd Rock From the Sun
--who also happens to be a canny dope. One of my all-time, no holds barred, favorite scenes comes from the Season 2 finale of 3rd Rock--in which French Stewart performs a Broadway-like number.

He shows up in The Closer as "Gary Doesn't Lie!"--the real estate broker who is constantly trying to finagle Brenda into buying or selling a house.

And he was in Stargate (1994), which means I'll love him forever.

French Stewart has great verbal comedic timing but, perhaps more importantly, he has excellent physical comedic timing. He is one of those gifted actors who is actually a joy to watch even with the sound off. In 3rd Rock, he is correctly designated as the alien who knows how to dance, having instinctive rhythm. This ability continues to show up in The Closer where Gary's frenetic attempts to dissuade or persuade Brenda fit excellently with her own unpredictable energy.

Y is for Yolen: Dragons Belong to Sci-Fi, Not Just Fantasy

This is the cover I grew up with.
For Y, I went back to an oldie but goodie: Jane Yolen's Dragon's Blood, the first in her Pit Dragon Series.

Yolen is an extraordinarily prolific writer for YAs and kids. She is also the editor of multiple fantasy anthologies. And I'm not even going to try to list her awards.

I chose Dragon's Blood because I remembered reading it years ago. This is not always the case with writers whose works I haven't collected. I remember The Narnia Chronicles because I've read them so often (I had to put myself on a 10-year recess after I collected the 1970 paperbacks through Goodwill and Amazon). But Yolen, while not a writer I read much of, is a writer I am always aware of. And Dragon's Blood evidently made enough of an impact that I remembered not the plot, which I had entirely forgotten, but the experience of reading it.

This is the edition I read recently.
It holds up remarkably well. In fact, if one wants to make a movie about dragons . . . I guess Dreamworks came along and made the decent How to Train Your Dragon, yet for dragon lovers (see comments on G is for Gannett), Dragon's Blood should have been a no-brainer as a film. Not only does it have a sympathetic hero and non-stop action, it has sociological and character complexity as well.

Of course, lovers of McCaffreys' Dragonriders of Pern would likely say the same. What interests me is that Yolen--possibly inspired by McCaffrey but certainly not possessed by her--both set their series on other worlds. How to Train Your Dragon doesn't, though it might as well be another world, bearing absolutely no resemblance to the Viking world I had to research for "Grave's Bride."
Pern illustration

Dragons seem so imminently  earthly, so much a part of human folklore, creating another world seems unnecessary. 

Except McCaffrey's and Yolen's other-worlds-with-dragons don't jar. Dragons may belong here, but they thrive better elsewhere. They also seem, rather like Patrick Stewart, to cross without discord between genres. Unlike other supernatural legendary beings, dragons do belong to space, not only to sword & sorcery.

Forster as Role Model

Forster is an interesting example of an author whose work I only tepidly admire but for whom I feel a great liking.

So often it seems to be the other way around!

Forster is someone I probably wouldn't get along with in real life--he was a tad too highbrow--yet someone I easily understand. The product of the British upper middle-class, he was not exactly snobbish, not exactly intellectual, not exactly Bohemian, and definitely not a "good old boy." He went his own way without fanfare, so much so that even the Bohemian set failed to really "get" Forster. He was no rebel yet far more tolerant than I am of insipid philosophizing: he found D.H. Lawrence interesting if vaguely irritating, stating at one point that a book of Lawrence's was "the queerest product of subconsciousness that I have yet struck--he has not a glimmering from first to last of what he's up to."

Yet at the same time, he warns readers in Aspects of the Novel to avoid "resenting or mocking [Lawrence because then the writer's] treasure disappears as surely as if we started obeying him." I confess to being less kind to Lawrence, yet I admire Forster for reminding me to judge a book not by an outside official standard but by what the author is attempting to achieve (in this regard, Forster reminds me of C.S. Lewis's Experiment in Criticism although I've found no evidence that the two men met and cannot imagine they would have gotten along--though I could be wrong). 

I don't know if Forster would have liked Blackadder, but
he seemed to share many of his attitudes.
Forster's approach to politics was not dissimilar to his literary attitudes. He was able to stand outside any event, including his own self, and analyze it objectively even as he reacted to it with great sensitivity ("sensitivity" here means an eye for detail as well as tremendous compassion--many friends and acquaintances of Forster thought him the kindest soul they had ever met; it also refers to easily hurt feelings, the last of which Forster would wryly admit to). During WWI, he served more than competently as a searcher through the Red Cross (so well that he was promoted), yet he refused to report for military service, not because he was a conscientious objector (he admitted he wasn't) but because he had no desire to involve himself in what he considered a pointless war and he certainly couldn't fight. The "good old boys" of the British army were stymied. Forster pulled strings and was utterly unapologetic about doing so. The "good old boys" gave up trying to figure him out.

This is Forster: not lacking in moral beliefs but holding such moral beliefs that refuse to be categorized; consequently, he was sometimes perceived (on both sides of any issue) as lacking in commitment, even though he turned out to be invariably right about the pointlessness of running after a particular cause or banner. Yet even when right, he never saw himself as any kind of leader.

I mention his wryness. Forster's humor is entirely understated. He isn't precisely sarcastic and he isn't ironic in the manic style of Monty Python. In fact, he isn't truly ironic at all. He is, that blessed English word, droll. And not constantly droll or witty like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Forster's drollness is just there--quietly buried in gentle, analytical, friendly, occasionally quaint, descriptive sentences.

So at the beginning of Aspects of the Novel, whilst distinguishing between story (something happens; then another thing happens; then another thing) and plot, he writes (about story):
It is immensely old--goes back to neolithic times, perhaps to paleolithic. Neanderthal man listened to stories, if one may judge by the shape of his skull. The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping around the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or the woolly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him.
The final line slides in there without any preparation. I read past it for another three lines before I started laughing my head off. 

Likewise, in a letter regarding Thomas Hardy, Forster reports how Hardy showed him the graves of all his cats. "How is it, Mr. Hardy," Forster asked, "that so many of your cats have been run over? Is the railway near?" When Hardy replied that it wasn't; he didn't understand the number of mowed down cats himself and in any case, these weren't all of his cats, Forster ended the letter by commenting that he had difficulty not laughing, "it was so like one of Hardy's novels or poems."
Dog Culture

What draws me to Forster is not any particular biographical note or even a desire to imitate him.
Rather, I admire his reluctance to perform the tribal rituals of a particular clique or group or faction. And I like his steady refusal to see this as some kind of failure (though I haven't quite achieved that last yet). Forster's position is rather like always being the odd one out in high school, even moreso since it extended--with Forster--to literature, art, religion, politics, nations, relationships, and theories about life. Forster tried hard (and mostly failed) at being atheistic. Still, I utterly understand his quiet dismissal of people insisting that he THINK or BE a certain way. He is tremendously comforting to the individual who wishes to be neither follower nor leader, rebel nor patriot, conformist nor non-conformist.

And he seems to have enjoyed life far more than many of his contemporaries.

IQ Means . . . IQ (Nothing More)

In a previous post, I discussed researchers using IQ testing to explore the impact of birth order on personality. The researchers discovered no impact, mostly because they could discover no measurable differences regarding the Big Five Personality Traits: Openness, Conscientious, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism.

In the interests of due diligence, they split Openness into IQ and Creativity.

IQ was the only factor that produced any quantifiable differences--though those differences were negligible. The researchers of the study were less than enthusiastic about this result. And here's why:

IQ as a determiner of anything except IQ has long been disputed. It has no definitive link to grades or any type of career/academic success. A recent study concluded, for instance, that "achieving good grades depends on many factors other than IQ, such as 'persistence, interest in school, and willingness to study.'"

Researchers have also discovered that context is a huge determinant in how well people do in certain areas--for instance, they found that women who could do math quickly and easily in a store in regards to a sales item had trouble doing that same math in a testing situation. Likewise, they found drug dealers could process complex math--outside of the classroom--with little difficulty. "Street smarts" is a real thing.

This is compounded by the fact that IQ changes--within cultures, with age as well as with an increase in skill-sets. It is not the "now you have it/you're a genius" factor imagined by IQ advocates in the mid-twentieth century. Genius actually doesn't work that way.

Unfortunately, often times, the assumption that IQ equals high performance creates its own self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e. students who test high receive more attention and access to resources and consequently, increase their abilities/skills. But the true impact was likely the attention and the resources, not the initial IQ score.

Even that last statement, however, is debatable. Me--I'm a maverick. I think outcome/performance is all about free-will. That is, nearly all studies that try to ground personality/long-rang results in genetic inheritance or in environmental impact inevitably come up empty: there is a failure of direct correlation, an inability to show that A definitively led to B, which is probably the reason that sociology drives hard scientists crazy.

Quantum Leap: Great Moments 1

The local library recently purchased all the seasons of Quantum Leap. I was able to rewatch favorite episodes, including some of my favorite scenes.

I'm a big fan of small moments in episodes.  Nearly all my favorites in Quantum Leap involve specific exchanges between Sam and Al. Here are a few:

"Honeymoon Express"--At one point, Sam realizes that should funding for the project be cut off, he will lose contact with Al. Al has been trying to get Sam to understand this possibility but is unwilling to put the problem too bluntly.  From the audience's perspective, realization comes to Sam through the window of a door. It is heart-wrenching. (And is achieved, I should add, without any gooey music; it's all about the acting and the camera.)

I also enjoy this episode because Al appears in his admiral uniform.

"Thou Shalt Not . . ."--Al helps Sam dance the hora at a bat mitzvah. It is quite an impressive bit of choreography since Al (Dean Stockwell) has to dance in a circle in front of Sam (Scott Bakula). It is also quite lovely to watch.

"Jimmy"--Al delivers a pained speech (possibly one of the scenes that won him a Golden Globe for this season) regarding his sister who died in a mental institution:
"When I was old enough, I went back there for her, but it was too late. She was gone, Sam! Pneumonia they said. How does a 16-year-old girl die from pneumonia in 1953, Sam?"
One of the smartest aspects of Quantum Leap is how Al and Sam get to know each other better, partly due to Sam's "Swiss cheese" memory but also due to Al and Sam moving from business partners to friends. There were things about Al that Sam did not know before; in order to help Sam survive and to help others, the somewhat cagey Al discloses more information about himself (Al's extroversion is something of an "act").

To be continued . . .

The Popularity of All Creatures Great and Small

Another repost from an older blog. Although I seldom check the popularity of a post, ignoring what I think of as the "Facebook" side of Blogger, I recently took a look. Over the years, this post has collected several thousand "hits." Yup, the story about a vet in Yorkshire wins again!

Here it is on Votaries--with pictures. My views haven't materially changed since I wrote it although I haven't rewatched the show recently. I do highly recommend it.

I included the original comments, which prove a little factoid about the Internet, and one of many reasons it is pointless to rest one's sense of approval on Internet feedback (and why it is also dangerous to post raunchy photos online "just for friends"). I received proportionally one comment per 575 "hits." Considering the number of blogs I've visited myself without leaving a calling card--and that a marketing course I once attended claimed that responses to mailers are typically 1 out of 100--I wouldn't be surprised if less than 2% of traffic was a norm across the board. The Internet is good for many, many things--the process of socialization is not one of them.

The Many Seasons of All Creatures

Yes, that is also a Dr. Who!
The series All Creatures Great and Small is lovely. I'm on season 4 at this point, and I should say first that it is well-worth watching all of them. Unfortunately, the quality goes downhill with each subsequent season. So be prepared.

In his commentary, Peter Davison (Tristan) remarks that this reduction in quality was partly because the writers ran out of story ideas. (James Herriot actually had the same problem with his books). The series' creators had no idea the series would become so popular so instead of stringing out the James-Helen romance and saving some ideas for later, they stuck every incident from the first few books into the first season. Result: they had to invent and reuse a lot of material. Peter Davison makes a wry remark about his character, who is supposed to be a flirt, getting older and older while the "bright, young things" were getting younger and younger. Tristan starts out as an eccentric (a "debauched choirboy") but ends up rather dull. In the 4th season, the writers created Calum Buchanan to supply the eccentricity that Tristan supplied in the first two seasons. Unfortunately, Calum makes Tristan and Siegfried look like old fogies. It's kind of sad, although I suppose it reflects real-life.

The utterly sexy Robert Hardy
The writers also toned down Robert Hardy's character in the later seasons, which I consider a mistake. They did it because the real Siegfried, who by all accounts was quite the outrageous personality, expressed some disapproval. Hardy, who knew the real Siegfried, had based his interpretation of the character on that knowledge and had already softened Siegfried's rather manic personality. But he was told to take it down even further. It's a pity since--as James Herriot's son, Jim, points out in his excellent biography of his father--the crazy Siegfried was most people's favorite character. I love Robert Hardy! (For those of you who want to place him, he is Sir John Middleton in Sense & Sensibility; he plays the minister with the pin-striped robe in Harry Potter.) He's one of those British actors who pops up all over the place.

Perfectly cast Christopher Timothy
In the 4th season, Carol Drinkwater got tired to playing Helen and left. I think her replacement looks much more like a Yorkshire Downs' wife; Carol Drinkwater always looked like she was about to fly off to the Riviera, which she did! (Well, France.) The spark between Helen and James is missing with the replacement, however. (Gossip central: Carol Drinkwater and Christopher Timothy had an affair in real life).

Christopher Timothy doesn't change at all. He was perfectly cast, and James Herriot himself thought Timothy portrayed his personality the best (out of all the TV shows being made at the time). Timothy manages to capture that laid-back, good-humored, yet somewhat tense personality that made it possible for Herriot to get along with the Farnons but gave him ulcers later in life. (He also had extremely poor money sense.)

The worst thing about the later seasons (although the 4th season isn't so bad) is that the producers decided to overlay every scene with totally sappy music. I can't decide if it is an 80s thing or a director thing. I think it is kind of an 80s-director thing. Scenes which are not played as maudlin come across as maudlin and in some cases, the sappy, trilling music is so loud, it drowns out the rather good dialog. I wish very much that when the company had released the series on DVD, it had fixed the music, but maybe that wasn't possible. (Heaven help us if people actually like it; it's pretty horrible.)

All that said, I still recommend the series: all of it. All the seasons are sweet (with and without the music), fun, very relaxing and you learn an awful lot about vetting in the 1930s to 1950s.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Good post, thanks. Just started watching the first series having gotten a dvd of it from the library - though did see plenty of it back in the day . . . The Yorkshire air must have done them good as the main actors - the men anyway - all still in the land of the living.

3:53 PM
Blogger luckygibbo said...
I must disagree with you re. the decline of the series (as it progressed)> I have been a huge fan for many years and found all the series of equal merit. However, thank you for your post and always take the opportunity to revisit the show many times (as I have)
Cheers, Dave
7:41 AM
Blogger mswindsor said...
Sorry, I'm in total disagreement...loved the entire series from the original broadcasting to DVD watching. Not only is it a fine series, it has come to be a representation of a way of life that is virtually gone now. Great show!
9:04 PM
Blogger Catracks said...
The music does get a bit annoying in Season 4, I miss Carol Drinkwater because I did imagine Helen/Joan to be a bit of a knockout and not so (sorry) hausfrau. They should have left Siegfried's character alone and matured Tristan.

What bothers me most of all is the repeat of old stories with new characters or different animals (the Gypsy Myatt?). I think I've read the books about 20 times over the years and could tell them myself. Even if they used up Alf Wight's stories, they could have either asked for more or created fresh ones. Somehow I missed their time in the RAF and the birth of the kids. Maybe Youtube skipped a bunch?) I'm still on series 4, but I hope we get the trip to Istanbul and Russia.
10:59 AM

X is for Xu (Ru Xu)

Yes, I found an "X" children's author!

Ru Xu wrote NewsPrints, a graphic novel published by Scholastic that takes place in a steampunk universe. The plot revolves around the boy Crow (Blue, the girl-dressed-as-a-boy, is the protagonist) and what exactly he is.

The art is not my favorite type of graphic art but not my least favorite either. My least favorite graphic novel art is overblow, rounded characters: it's like looking at chibii ALL THE TIME (it's a fine line: the art of Identity Crisis by Meltzer and Morales I like; the art of The New 52: Earth 2 I kinda can't stand).

NewsPrint reminds me of Superman: All Seasons, an Art Deco-like style reminiscent of classic comics; it shows up in the work of other contemporary illustrators, such as Brett Helquist (whose work on the Lemony Snicket novels is beyond perfect).

The plot of NewsPrint is unsurprising sci-fi* but well-rendered, and I checked at least twice while reading to see if a second volume has come out. Unlike so much of my reading, this book was published this year! So I assume another volume is in the works. 

*It falls into sci-fi rather than fantasy since it relies on scientific/machine explanations. More Verne than Wells but still within the genre.

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.