Flotsam: Various Writing Observations

1. A few observations on different works:

2. When Uncle Walt adapted Alice in Wonderland, he and his writers ended up giving it a bit more of a plot than the book had. Not much, but a little. And if you notice, the plot they gave it was pretty much lifted directly from The Wizard of Oz: an imaginative girl living what seems to be a dull life wishes for something different and is whisked away to a world of magic and strangeness where she incurs the enmity of an authoritative female antagonist and soon comes to wish for nothing more than to return home. In the end she wakes up to find it was all a dream, leaving her with new appreciation for the mundane world she wanted to leave.

But the interesting point is the one big difference between the two: Dorothy doesn’t only have to deal with the Wicked Witch of the West and the general strangeness of Oz. She also gets to enjoy the friendship and help of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, as well as the protection and guidance of Glinda, and even the avuncular kindness of the wizard.

In contrast, Alice doesn’t get anything of the kind. No one in Wonderland is Alice’s friend. There is precisely one character in the film who is consistently helpful to her, and that’s the doorknob. And all he can do is give her some information. Everyone else is, at best, barely aware of her presence and at worst actively malicious toward her (interestingly enough, the doorknob is the only character in the film that wasn’t in the books).

(Meanwhile in the books, the only character who might count is the White Knight from the second book, who is at least consistently kind and helpful to her, even though he’s pretty hapless himself and she spends most of their time together trying to help him stay on his horse).

For me, this is one of the things that makes the story unique and compelling: that it doesn’t sentimentalize or cheat with Alice’s dreams. They’re weird, chaotic, and ephemeral full of mad people, with all that implies.

3. Again, I haven’t seen the film, but from what I can tell this is one of the things that really bugs me about the Tim Burton version: the Mad Hatter is not Alice’s best friend. The inhabitants of Wonderland are not her childhood playmates happy to have her back. They don’t care about her. This isn’t Narnia or even Oz: this is a world of madness and nonsense.

4. To switch gears (so to speak), I’ve also found myself revisiting Transformers: Beast Wars, at least as far as reading about it and re-watching some clips. Really, as I recall, that was a surprisingly well-written show, where the writers actually thought through the implications and consequences of the events of the story.

For instance, in that incarnation Megatron is played as being a dangerous radical / terrorist with no official standing in the Predicon hierarchy. He had a grand scheme that he’s trying to put into action, but one that is both an extremely long shot and spectacularly dangerous and potentially destructive (to the point where he himself holds off on carrying it through until he gets backed into a corner because it’s that risky).

Now, no one in his right mind would follow someone like that, right? Right. And almost no one in his right mind does. Megatron’s troops are, to a man, either a). intensely stupid, b). looking to betray him for their own ends, c). completely insane, or d). some combination of the above.

He has precisely one competent, rational, and reliable lieutenant – Dinobot – who is later revealed to have joined him for personal reasons…and who almost immediately defects once it seems those reasons no longer apply.

5. This actually achieves a number of things. In the first place, it helps to establish Megatron’s position in this world: for all his arrogance, he isn’t important or high-ranking, he’s a loose cannon following his own agenda. In the second, it allows him to consistently lose his engagements without undermining him as a villain, since however clever and dangerous he is, he has to entrust the execution of his plans to either the idiot, the lunatic, the traitor, or the lunatic-traitor. Finally, it actually makes him a much more imposing villain, since it gives him scope to demonstrate his cunning without pitting him directly against the heroes. So he’ll do things like work the fact that his minions are plotting against him into his own plans, allowing him to turn their treason to his own benefit. Or another episode has Terrorsaur successfully usurp Megatron’s place and throw him in the brig…whereupon Megatron reveals he programmed an override into the cells to let him escape whenever he wants and proceeds to let Terrorsaur lead the Predacons in battle to let them see how incompetent he really is.

The structure of the show also answers the question “why does he keep people around the he knows would betray him the first chance they get?” Because he only has four or five minions and simply can’t afford to lose any of them unless it’s absolutely necessary.

6. Something else I noticed this week: I really like Princess Peach as a character. I mean, she’s just such a delightfully nice character, so pleasant to be around, but also with a bit of an undefinable edge to her (and this isn’t a new thing, either: she was adventuring all the way back in Super Mario Bros. 2 and then again in Super Mario RPG). She’s a perfectly sweet, wonderfully feminine character, but all the while she’s got an underlying pluck and courage that comes out every now and then, all the more amusing for its rareness.

I especially like in the first Paper Mario game where she’ll periodically sneak around Bowser’s castle to try to spy out information that’ll be useful to Mario. That, it seems to me, is exactly what a character like her would do in that situation and gets her involved in a more elegant way than just have her trying to take on Bowser herself (though that can be fun too). I also love how she insists that her closet full of identical pink dresses are ‘all unique and all very fashionable.’

This is something we almost never get these days: a thoroughly and emphatically feminine character who is positively portrayed and allowed to remain so throughout.

Flotsam: Mostly Batman

1. I’ve been re-watching some of Batman: The Animated Series lately, reminding myself of just how good it really was. Those gorgeous black-paper backgrounds, that wonderful Fleischer-style animation (the creators said they wanted it to look as though it had been made in the 1940s. I think they succeeded both in look and feel), those striking musical scores (I want to say they made a new one for each episode, certainly a new motif for each character), and of course the wonderful stories and stellar voice acting: Kevin Conroy at Batman. Mark Hamill as the Joker (I’ll admit, I almost associate him more with that role than with that sci-fi movie). Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred. Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon. Roddy McDowall as the Mad Hatter. Adrienne Barbeau as Catwoman. Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze. Paul Williams as the Penguin. Ron Perlman as Clayface. David Warner as Ra’s Al Ghul. John Glover as the Riddler. Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. Not to mention one-shot roles from the likes of Tim Curry (who was originally slated to play the Joker, but was considered ‘too scary’, which…given Hamill’s performance makes one wonder), Thomas F. Wilson, Dick Miller, Bill Mumy, John Rhys-Davies, Harry Hamlin, and of course Adam West. As the saying goes, I’d watch a cast like that read a phone book (at one point, that’s pretty close to what happens).

2. Watching the episodes, though, I was struck by how different this is from what has become the usual Batman fare, and even from the subsequent direction the character took in future shows ostensibly set in the same universe (New Batman Adventures, Justice League, etc). The stories here tend to be much more subdued and down-to-earth: ordinary crime stories and dramas (e.g. one episode has a ruthless tycoon planning to stage a gas explosion to clear out a neighborhood he wants to develop). Batman doesn’t always deal with supervillains, and even when he does the villains are themselves a bit more low-key than in other versions. Like, you’ll see scenes at Arkham where Joker, Poison Ivy, Mad Hatter, and Scarecrow are just hanging out in the lounge playing chess or watching TV while a couple of guards stand watch, occasionally intervening to break up a petty squabble. In other words, they’re…actual mental patients! A more contemporary Batman story would have all four under Hannibal-Lecter-style maximum security restraints and still murdering guards left and right.

3. The show also emphasizes Batman’s status as a detective. He spends most of the episodes following up clues and interrogating suspects (one of my favorite scenes has him interrogating a germaphobic gangster in a hospital storeroom full of viral samples: “Hm, crimson fever. Nasty way to go…”), or else trying to escape a death trap. Nor is he an infallible fighter: he’s skilled and quick, but he has to work at it to take down even normal thugs, and the show emphasizes that he’s always in danger during the action scenes (this despite the fact that most of the bad guys have an aim that would make a Stormtrooper blush).

(He’s also a lot more…well, normal. He’s less relentlessly grim, in and out of costume, than he would become, expressing fear, shock, and even amusement at times, cracking jokes with Alfred, and so on. BTAS Bruce is much more well-adjusted than later DCAU Bruce. And that’s kind of saying a lot).

Frankly, I like this a lot better than the idea that Batman’s the greatest fighter in the world (along with being the greatest everything else). I much prefer him being an extremely skilled, but still limited human being whose abilities are all tailored to his mission in life (very much like Sherlock Holmes), but which inevitably come up short sometimes, forcing him to think outside the box. I really don’t like when Batman simply pulls some obscure new skill out of his utility belt whenever it comes up, or when he’s played as being so supremely cunning that he can defeat anyone with prep time.

The big example of this sort of thing for me came in an episode of Justice League (a show I really like, by the way), where they’re dealing with a plot in some small Eastern European / western Asian nation. Batman confronts a guard, who taunts him that he can’t understand a word he’s saying anyway. Batman answers in the same language, proving himself to be fluent in it. See, that’s the sort of thing that bugs me: he would have had no reason to learn that language, it never would have come up but for this one incident. But he’s Batman, so of course he has any skill he needs because it makes him ‘cool.’

(Ironically enough, this means I have the same problem with some versions of Batman that most other people have with Superman: that’s he’s too infallible and over-stocked with abilities).

Me, I much prefer the ‘Animated Series’ style to the character. It feels to me like BTAS exists in a kind of separate, parallel world to the rest of the DCAU: a world where there isn’t a Superman or Themyscira or Green Lanter Corps, just a city full of broken, twisted human beings, some of whom have, through mad science run amok, gained powers beyond the ordinary, and where there is a hint of the supernatural, but where for the most part it’s simply all-too human heroes and criminals fighting over the lives of the ordinary citizens.

Again, I like the DCAU as a whole, and of course I love Superman, but it has a different flavor, and overall I think I like Batman best when he exists apart from ‘all that’ (it also lets me imagine that there’s a version where things turned out happier for everyone involved than Batman Beyond indicates. Among other things, I want Dick and Barbara to end up together. And no version of Batgirl should have a romance with Batman: that’s just wrong on multiple levels. But now I’m getting on even more of a tangent…).

Short version is that, as I see it, there are two versions: ‘pure’ Batman and ‘Justice League’ Batman. For my money, as far as Batman’s concerned, I prefer the former (simple way to distinguish: in ‘Pure’ version, Dick ends up with Barbara. In ‘Justice League’ version, he ends up with Starfire. Easy!).

4. On another note, still going through training at my new job. It’s much more enjoyable now that it’s getting more relevant to my actual position (still a lot of training to go, though).

That said, the on boarding process at a large corporation these days feels a lot like this to me:

“There’s no escape, but then, who would wanna leave?”

Saturday Surfeit: Collective Natures

1. Obviously missed yesterday. Not anything serious, just sort of got distracted.

2. One of the great mistakes of modern thought, it seems to me, is in the dichotomy of collectivism vs. individualism. See, the trouble is that thinking in either term misses key facts about human nature and the nature of things in general. The problem with the Libertarian / Classical Liberal notion of the ‘Sovereign Individual’ (or one of the problems) is that part of being an individual human being is being in relationship to other human beings. If nothing else, every man must have a mother and a father to whom he necessarily stands in a subordinate relationship. An individual man implies family and society, just as an arm implies a body. To conceive of each individual as sovereign and independent of every other individual outside of personal choice is, therefore, false to what it means to be an individual.

At the same time, of course, the notion that the collective subsumes the individual to the point where any one may be sacrificed for the whole is equally false. The collective – the society, community, state, etc. is a collective of individuals. So if the individual is nothing, then the collective is nothing. A million zeroes is zero.

The actual reality is that the two aren’t in competition: a man is most a man when he is part of a family and a community, and a community is healthiest when it is composed of fully-realized individuals.

Basically, you can’t have radical individualism because an individual necessarily implies a community.

3. On a related note: when I hear feminists and the like saying things such as “Men are not used to being instructed by women,” I think “That is literally the very first experience that every man has in life.”

As noted last week, the liberal tradition is weirdly blind to generational and familial factors.

4. See, this is an important point to get clear about reality in general. Everything we encounter this world is both itself a collection of lower natures and an individual nature itself and part of a higher collection. Part of a thing’s nature, part of it’s being what it is, is its relation to other things. But any given nature is not simply reducible to its composite natures, nor are the composite natures consumed in the higher nature.

Take a car for instance. It is a collection of metal, rubber, glass, etc. in a certain relationship, though it is not simply metal, rubber, etc., but only those things arranged in a certain way to a certain end. Forming a car does not eliminate or consume the component parts: the metal is as much metal as ever, as is the glass, rubber, and so on. They all still fully operate according to their own nature. But when they operate in a certain relation, you have the higher and more complex nature of a car. If that relation ever breaks down, then you simply have a pile of metal etc. that functions as such.

5. As alluded to in my Godzilla vs. Kong thoughts, when a given order is disrupted, what results is not so much chaos as a reversion to a more fundamental order. If the nature of a car is disrupted, the more fundamental nature of metal, glass, rubber, and so on comes to the fore. If human society is disrupted, the more fundamental order of individual human beings and families trying to survive comes to the fore. So on it goes down into ever more fundamental nature, until we lose sight of it.

6. Bit of heavy and possibly ill-connected philosophizing up there. Here’s a Poirot episode for the Saturday Entertainment (the best part of which is Poirot getting stung):

The Green Hornet

The Green Hornet was one of the top classic radio pulp heroes, along with the Lone Ranger (from the same author -Fran Striker – and whom the Hornet was descended from) and the king of all pulps, the Shadow.

By day he’s newspaper magnate Britt Reid (back when that was a more respectable occupation than being a vigilante). When he discovers evidence of organized crime that the police cannot crack, he ventures forth as the masked Green Hornet, together with his faithful assistant Kato and armed with their various advanced gadgets – including a weapons-laden car called ‘Black Beauty’ – to prey on the criminal underworld.

Both the civilized world and the underworld believe the Hornet to be a dangerous criminal himself, which of course is what allows him to get close to the various gangsters and crooks that he takes down. Usually this involves bullying his way into the scheme and demanding a large chunk of the profit, then trapping them when they inevitably attempt a double cross. Ironically, of course, this aids in his dangerous reputation, as the crooks all know that those who mess with the Hornet end up in jail or dead.

Though the Hornet, like Batman and unlike the Shadow, typically doesn’t try to kill his opponents. Rather than a normal firearm he uses a gun that sprays a green knockout gas, though he also carries ‘the Hornet Sting’; a powerful energy weapon for blasting through barriers. And at least in the show, he doesn’t have a hard and fast rule against killing, he simply prefers to let the crooks be arrested.

My current TV diet largely consists of episodes of the 1960s television adaptation, which sadly lasted only one season. I don’t yet know the character well enough to say how faithful an adaptation this is, though it seems to adhere pretty close to what I know of the character: the gas gun, the criminal alias and newspaper magnate day job, the Black Beauty, and so on.

In any case, I think it’s great fun: a solid bit of pulpy adventure from a time where such things were largely falling out of fashion. Unlike the contemporary Batman show (which the Green Hornet had a crossover with at one point), this one mostly plays it straight as a crime-based adventure series. There’s frequent death and danger, and though the criminals often employ science-fiction conceits – subliminal messaging, advanced prototype weapons, etc. – these are nevertheless fairly restrained. Like, the MacGuffin of the first episode is a completely silent, flashless gun. Impossible, but not ridiculous like, say, the Penguin’s various umbrella-based weaponry (not hating on the Batman show, by the way, just drawing distinctions).

(I also like how the Hornet’s theme music is a variation of Flight of the Bumblebee)

Of course, the main reason people still remember this show is because Kato is here played by a very young actor named Bruce Lee (!!!!) in his first major role. This fact so overshadows everything else that it is Lee and not Van Williams (who plays the Hornet) who is on the cover the DVD (which declares “Bruce Lee is Kato in the Green Hornet”), and the show was even renamed ‘The Kato Show’ when screened in Asian markets.

It is a little surreal seeing a legendary, world-class talent like Lee in what is after all a rather humble adventure show like this, though everyone has to start somewhere. Lee certainly makes the most of his role by stealing the entire show every time he goes into action with blindly-fast moves and startling grace as he effortlessly destroys thug after thug. Or he doesn’t even have to be beating people up: one episode has him simply grab a reluctant witness by the shirt, but you’re still awed by just how fast he is.

This was the show the not only introduced American audiences to Lee, but also helped to popularize to Asian martial arts as such and demonstrate how effective and visually impressive they could be on screen, setting the stage for the martial-arts film boom of the next decade as well as Lee’s own mythic career (it also marked a permanent change in the Kato character, who had not previously been depicted as a martial arts master. After this, it became all-but unthinkable for him to be anything else).

(To be clear, Asian martial arts were featured before and had been long-since introduced to American culture – e.g. Barney’s Judo instructor featured in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show – but I don’t believe they had ever been shown to this level on a mainstream show before).

Incidentally, this was also where Lee learned the film business. He had done small parts before, but this was his first major role and he was paired with industry veteran Van Williams (with whom he became very good friends), who would give him tips on acting on how the business was run.

I watched an interview with Van Williams (who passed away in 2016) where he related the following story. Lee was, of course, very touchy about how his action scenes were filmed, since he took his fighting very seriously and wanted it to be shown to the best effect. So early on he would frequently argue with the stunt director about how the scenes should be done, and even tried to demand that he be allowed to direct his own fight scenes. Eventually they got the idea to give in and let him do a scene, just to show him what he was asking for. So Lee directed the scene, and then Williams and the stunt director got special permission to let him view the dailies (ordinarily actors are never allowed to see the dailies, otherwise they’d be wanting to do scenes over and over or critiquing their own performances non-stop). So they ‘snuck’ Lee into room and sat down to watch the scene.

It was a total train wreck; the lighting was off, the perspective was completely wrong (Lee hadn’t realized how much the two-dimensional film compresses depth perception), Lee himself wasn’t even visible, and so on. Everyone started laughing, and poor Lee was begging to be allowed to sneak out. So he went back to his trailer, took two hours to calm down, then went to the stunt director and humbly admitted he had no idea what he was doing and asked to learn.

That’s how Bruce Lee, future director of Way of the Dragon, learned how to shoot a movie.

For today’s viewing pleasure, I present the first episode of The Green Hornet (the entire series is currently available for free on YouTube)

PS A final bit of Hornet trivia. In the two movie serials from 1940, Kato was played by none other than Keye Luke: then-current ‘number one son’ to Charlie Chan in about a dozen films, later Master Po of Kung Fu and the mysterious shop owner of Gremlins. Mr. Luke, for those who don’t know, was an extremely prolific character actor with well over 200 credits to his name…including a role in a later episode of The Green Hornet.

San Francisco International

On Saturdays I like to offer some form of entertainment. Sometimes it’s my own fiction, other times it’s bringing attention to something that I think is worth your time.

For today, I’m offering one of my favorite episodes of one of my favorite shows: Mystery Science Theater 3000, episode 614: San Francisco International. This, I think, is a fairly decent ‘introductory’ episode to MST3k: the movie is a lame TV pilot from 1970 (it actually went to series and ran for one season, though with a slightly different cast), cheesy, but not unwatchable, especially compared with some of the other films that appeared on the show.

The premise of the show is that it’s a melodrama about the trials and adventures of the workers at San Francisco International Airport. Think of it as a 70s disaster movie…with no disaster. I guess I can see something like this working, but you’d have to really try at it, get some very strong writers and charismatic actors. Or play it as a workplace comedy perhaps. Otherwise it’s just watching other people doing their jobs with a patently forced emergency every week. Like, the first regular episode of the series involved a military shipment of poison gas, and the next involved a general who might be assassinated. How would you keep this up for even one season without audiences either laughing over how disaster prone this airport is or else resolving never to fly again? And remember, this was filmed at the real San Francisco International Airport. I wonder who signed off on that idea? “We’ll do a show that depicts us having a deadly crisis every week: that’ll bring in the customers!”

On second thought, they should have had that guy as a character on the show. Though maybe that’s who the Pernell Roberts character is meant to be: the guy who does dramatic publicity stunts to try to draw attention to airport issues. I’m guessing his real-world counterpart didn’t keep his job for long.

That said, I actually enjoy the movie quite a bit. It’s unoffensive and there are some engaging scenes, mostly involving the effortlessly in charge Clu Gulager as the airport security chief. Both the thieves’ plot and Gulager’s ploy against them are genuinely clever. And as the guys point out, there are a *ton* of veteran character actors and TV mainstays in this thing: Pernell Roberts, Clu Gulager, Van Johnson(!), Walter Brooke, Tab Hunter, Dana Eclar, Nancy Malone, and so on (amusingly enough, this contributes to the ’70s Disaster Movie’ air, since those were usually stuffed with major stars. Here it’s stuffed with TV and character actors). Overall, the film goes down pretty easily: the kind of thing you might turn on as background noise while you’re doing something else.

It brings out some excellent riffing from Mike and the bots throughout (“Jeez, ever since Vatican II, you guys…”), though the best comes in the finale, where a sequence involving a troubled kid stealing a plane elicits some gaspingly-funny riffs (“The faces of those you’ve wronged will be showing up on your left”).

Enjoy

“The Rebel”

I know the actor Nick Adams (who died tragically young, much like his friend and co-star James Dean) from the Toho films he did in the 1960s: Frankenstein Conquers the World and Invasion of Astro Monster. He was the first notable western actor in the Godzilla franchise (and, perhaps not coincidentally, was part of the series’ first, and for a long time only on-screen kiss) and I retain very fond memories of his roles to this day, though I didn’t know much else about him apart from his tragic death of a drug overdose at the age of 36.

Only today I learned that he was the star of a TV show called The Rebel about an ex-Confederate soldier and budding writer named Johnny Yuma wandering the west (the theme song is sung by none other than Johnny Cash). Upon watching an episode – Johnny at Appomattox – I was struck by not only how good it was, but more so by the realization that I had never known just how good an actor Mr. Adams really was. He could project emotion with startling power, especially as he didn’t over play his roles or rant and rave to get his point across. Oh, he shouts and growls and so on, but it seems to all come from inside; more like he’s holding back than overdoing it.

This particular story has him flashing back to the last day of the war: the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. He was an angry, bitter young man, unwilling to admit that the war was lost (“we sore we would fight until we were all dead and then come back and fight as ghosts”), imagining his beloved General Lee being humiliated before the rough Yankee, Grant. In a rage, he determines to assassinate Grant to ensure the war goes on.

As a result, Johnny gets to witness the famous interview between the two great men, changing his perspective on both his enemy and war in general. It’s a moving depiction of one of the seminal moments in American history.

Said moment is one of those in which all talk of influences and societal forces fade away and history unmistakably turns on individual personalities. Had any other man been in either place during that meeting, American history would have been very different. The fact that both Grant and Lee were men of honor; merciful and generous in victory on the one hand and humble and gracious in defeat on the other, prevented the war from dragging on indefinitely.

In any case, Adams gives a powerful performance, mostly without dialogue, of an ordinary soldier catching a life-changing glimpse at history being made.

I’m definitely going to recommend this show: from the two episodes I’ve seen, it’s an intelligent, thoughtful, emotionally powerful show (and the pilot includes a supporting role by the one and only John Carradine) anchored by an extremely talented actor.

It’s one of the many tragedies of Hollywood that Nick Adams never quite had the career he ought to have, but at least we still have works like The Rebel to look back on and admire.

Nick Adams in The Rebel (1959)

The Paper Chase

Prominent among my most recent television diet has been the show The Paper Chase, a four-season drama that ran from 1978 to 1986 (the show was cancelled after the first season due to low ratings – which is what happens when you schedule it opposite Happy Days: the Fonz brooked no challengers – but revived a few years later on another network for three more). It was based on a 1973 film (which I have not yet seen) based on a novel by John Jay Obsborn about his experiences at Harvard Law School.

The premise of all three is essentially the same; an ambitious law student named James Hart comes to Harvard, where he runs up against the school’s most formidable teacher: Professor Kingsfield, Kingsfield is a crushingly brilliant, unyielding teacher of contract law who uses merciless application of the Socratic method to train his students. “You teach yourselves the law,” he informs them. “But I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and if you survive, you leave thinking like a lawyer.” We follow Hart (who idolizes Kingsfield) as he struggles to survive and grow under Kingsfield’s stern instruction, with the help of a small group of friends with whom he forms a study group.

So far I’ve seen most of the first season (one episode I couldn’t find, a few I skipped) and part of the second. The main appeal of the show, undoubtedly, is Professor Kingsfield himself, played to perfection by the late John Houseman, who reprises his role from the film. Houseman as Kingsfield represents one of those rare marriages of actor and role where the idea of anyone else in the part is simply absurd (similar to Columbo), which is all the more impressive as the film was his first major film performance. He had been a partner to Orson Welles, a stage performer, and had trained many actors in his day (the director actually claimed that Houseman was the Kingsfield of acting), but had never had a real film role. He won a richly-deserved Academy Award for his performance back when that actually meant something.

As I say, Kingsfield is a riveting figure. As conceived in the show, he isn’t just a brilliant teacher, but a legitimate Great Man of the old school. We’re told that he’s contributed significantly to the understanding of American Law, and one episode revolves around him being considered for the Supreme Court. When it’s pointed out that he’s nearly eighty years old, someone comments, “four or five years of Kingsfield on the bench is worth another man’s fifty.” More importantly, Kingsfield is shown to have both an iron will and principles of adamant, to the point where there’s a whole episode of Hart trying to figure out an old case where it looks like he might have made an ethical compromise, because he simply can’t believe the man would do that.

One of my favorite moments thus far has Kingsfield confronting a younger professor who has come to confess that he plagiarized an article for the Law Review. After laying out his excuses, the man nervously concludes with, “we’ve all done these things.”

“No,” Kingsfield answers. “We have not.”

(Earlier Kingsfield rebuked the man for televising one of his classes, saying that the law was not meant to be a show and that, however he disguised it, it was nothing but a tribute to his own ego).

There’s another bit at an old New York hotel where, in a rare moment of openness, Kingsfield talks to Hart about the great statesmen under whose portraits they stand, saying that they represent a now all-but extinct breed of lawyers for whom principle and law were paramount rather than fame and commercial success. No one says it, but we’re left in no doubt that Kingsfield himself is one of that breed.

A ‘great’ man may in this case imply a ‘good’ man, but don’t think for a moment that it implies a ‘nice’ man. Kingsfield is often a downright terrifying figure; a man who tolerates no nonsense and who is perfectly willing to verbally tear his students to shreds if they fail to perform. He rarely raises his voice beyond the firm ‘auditorium’ level he customarily uses, but his biting sarcasm, rhetorical skills, overwhelming genius, and iron focus produces more devastating results than bellowing ever could. A large part of the fun of the series is just watching his razor-sharp tongue go to work. “Speak up, Mister Hart! Fill this room with your intelligence.”

Meanwhile, he maintains an intentional distance from his students, affecting not even to recognize them outside the classroom. There are even (not unbelievable) reports that he’s driven students to madness and suicide over his career (an intriguing and thus-far never explained element in the first season is “the Screamer:” a male voice in the dorms that periodically just starts screaming out of nowhere. It’s rumored to be the ghost of a former student of Kingsfield. I really like those kinds of ‘might be supernatural, might not, and we’re not going to tell you’ elements in otherwise down-to-earth stories).

And yet, the show is at pains to show that Kingsfield is not merely sadistic; there is a method to his malevolence. By enforcing rigorous, unyielding standards and forcing students to perform or suffer he not only prepares them for the experience of the courtroom but forces them to understand the law and its principles instead of simply regurgitating what they’ve read. The final episode of the first season revolves around Kingsfield setting his students a seemingly-impossible assignment whose solution, it turns out, forces them to delve into the very roots of the idea of law.

Moreover, the show at least gives us periodic assurances that, aloofness aside, Kingsfield does indeed care for his students’ well being and, though he won’t cheapen his instructions for their sake, he does want what is best for them and wishes them well.

The plots of the episodes, when they don’t revolve around Kingsfield, tend to be rather standard, though generally well-written and not too boring. There was one episode of the first season, for instance, that featured Hart’s activist female friend becoming enamored with an imprisoned political agitator which did a remarkably good job of depicting both the myopia and hypocrisy of her immature, ‘idealistic’ perspective (without making her unsympathetic) and the workings of a manipulative personality. To be honest, I can’t really picture an equivalent episode on modern show ending with the soulful activist turning out to be a sociopath and the unsmiling prison guards turning out to be in the right. Another one about affirmative action actually made a point of deconstructing the Black student’s anger through some decent storytelling symbolism. Nothing brilliant, but at least the writers clearly gave the matter some thought rather than coming down with a, “this is what you should think about this issue” finality. Likewise an episode about a student in a wheelchair had him using his disability to manipulate his friends, not exactly intentionally, but almost without thinking about it. I also appreciate that there is some moral awareness going on, as when Hart’s friend discovers his father has been acting dishonestly, and though he’s disgusted by it, he can’t bring himself to actually expose him. So, there is thought and nuance that went into the writing of the show, even apart from Kingsfield.

At times the show deviates hard into melodrama, especially with Hart’s many girlfriends, most of whom carry some kind of extra dramatic baggage (e.g. one episode revolves around him dating a mobster’s daughter). Also, the supporting cast makes some odd shifts; losing two major characters between the first and second season is understandable, though having one the study-group (prominently featured in the opening credits) essentially disappear for most the first season, including an episode focusing on a one-shot character in his exact situation, before being dramatically written out entirely all but screams backstage drama. As always, of course, the episodes vary greatly in quality, though as suggested by all I’ve said they’re generally above-average fair.

But Kingsfield is what makes the show, and it’s at its best when the stories revolve around him. Honestly, this is one of the most successful efforts I’ve seen on screen to create a fictional Great Man who legitimately seems like the real deal. The show would be worth watching even if the rest of it were only mediocre just for the sake of observing a master actor bringing such a figure to life.

John Houseman in The Paper Chase (1973)

Bishop Sheen on the Three Confessions

Broadcasted 1957: Ven. Bishop Fulton Sheen traces the course of human sentiment through three great ‘Confessions:’ those of St. Augustine, of Abelard, and of Jean-Jacque Rousseau:

 

Money quote: “Jean-Jacque, therefore, gave birth to an entirely new concept of how to handle a conflict: namely, give way to it and call it right.”

Celebrating 30 Years of Mystery Science Theater 3000

By an interesting coincidence, I am exactly as old as one my favorite shows: Mystery Science Theater 3000. This show has had a huge influence on me, particularly when it comes to developing my sense of humor and appreciation for the obscurer side of the entertainment world. Now, as the show turns thirty years old, I explore a little bit of why it was so important at The Federalist:

Part of it is, of course, simply the humor; a group of very talented, very funny people reacting to some of the strangest and poorest films ever made. The Best Brains developed a distinct style of comedy, blending encyclopedic knowledge of cultural and entertainment subjects with clever wordplay and precision timing. They generally didn’t simply override the film, but carefully matched the gags to the events on screen, so what was said and what was happening came together to form the complete joke.

As the letters the cast used to read at the end of each episode demonstrated, the show made many, many people happy, and gave countless viewers a smile when they needed it most. That alone is worthy of commendation. But the show probably wouldn’t have found the audience it has if it weren’t for another factor: the jokes are not just funny, they’re often extremely smart, playing on cultural reference points that most of the audience won’t even get, but those who do will laugh twice as hard.

This doesn’t just appeal to the viewers. It also serves as a kind of cultural time capsule. Part of the MST3k “formula” was the writers’ vast knowledge of cultural and entertainment subjects. Since each episode was so long—about 90 minutes—each probably averaged well more than 100 individual jokes. These ranged over nearly every subject imaginable, from history and religion to politics and pop culture.

Thus, in a single episode, we could have references to “Gilligan’s Island,” Oktoberfest, the Clarence Thomas hearings, Batman, the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, the Vietnam War, “The Great Race,” the Nuremberg Trials, the Nativity, “Twin Peaks,” and Jimmy Durante. Very few viewers would get all the esoteric references on a first viewing, and many would be inspired to seek out the reference. So the attentive MST3k viewer would find himself exposed to a whole host of cultural, entertainment, and historical touchstones that he might never have known of otherwise. To watch a single MST3k episode is to receive a crash course in American culture of the 1990s.

Read the rest here.

Apu and Charlie Chan Syndrome

I’m long since finished with ‘The Simpsons’ outside of the occasional re-run, but I had to comment on this.

Apparently, the show has decided to drop the venerable character of Apu in the face of ‘controversy’ over his ‘blatantly racist’ portrayal. Said ‘racist portrayal’, as far as I can tell, amounts to that he has a ‘stereotypical Indian’ accent and works in a convenience store.

This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, but why is it that a certain segment of commentators seem to regard any non-White character with an accent to be a racist caricature, regardless of how the character is actually portrayed? I remember back when I watched ‘The Nostalgia Critic’ he did this all the time; like calling Fisher Stevens’ character in the ‘Short Circuit’ movies a racist stereotype because he…had an accent, I guess? Despite the fact that he’s portrayed as a perfectly decent human being and even takes over the role of human protagonist in the sequel.

I remember back in my corporate days we were forced to watch a video on ‘diversity,’ wherein we were shown a talk by an Asian gentleman who started off speaking with a very thick accent, then abruptly dropped it for a Midwestern-style voice. The idea, apparently, was that it was racist for us to assume he would speak with an accent. I pointed out that we only assumed that because he was in fact speaking with an accent.

Really, do the people who complain about this think that no one speaks with thick accents? Or do they think that finding accents funny is somehow ‘racist’? Because it’s not like anyone laughs at British, German, French, Italian, Texan, Minnesotan, or New York accents, right?

Isn’t considering a thick accent an ‘offensive stereotype’ insulting to people who actually talk that way? Doesn’t it imply that there is something wrong with them, if the portrayal of such an accent is taken as an insult?

As for Apu, the people behind this ‘controversy’ apparently missed the fact that part of the joke of his character is that he’s ridiculously overqualified for his job, possessing a genius IQ and a prestigious degree from an Indian university. The satire is that he’s stuck working behind a check-out counter because he’s Indian despite being qualified for much higher-paid work, but he still has an obsessive work-ethic. In other words, they’re complaining about the very stereotype he’s designed to make fun of.

There’s also the fact that he’s no more ridiculous than any other character on The Simpsons and much less than some. Again, he has a genius IQ, a killer work ethic, is a crack-shot, maintains a lush roof-top garden, and is personal friends with Paul McCartney. He’s cleans up at a bachelor auction and is as respected a member of the community as anyone (which, given the community in question, isn’t saying much).

This is what I call ‘Charlie Chan Syndrome’; where a character is assumed to be a racist caricature because of superficial qualities such as having a thick accent, regardless of what the character actually does (named after the ‘Charlie Chan’ film series, which featured an intelligent,  courteous, and professionally respected Chinese-American detective traveling the world and outsmarting predominantly white opponents, yet are often described as ‘racist’ somehow). This apparently only applies if the character is non-European. Thus a wise, polite, somewhat funny Chinese detective with a thick accent is racist; a wise, polite, somewhat funny Belgian detective with a thick accent is not.

This is a point we today often miss; how a character is objectively written, what he does and says and how he interacts with the story, is what determines what the character is, not what may or may not be going on in the world when the character was written. Charlie Chan is not a racist caricature because his race is never (at least in the films I’ve seen) portrayed as making him in any way inferior to those around him. The fact that he is played by a Swede and has a thick Chinese accent is irrelevant to that point. Likewise, the fact that Apu was written and voiced by a white man is irrelevant to the question of how he is portrayed on the show (you can legitimately ask why someone was cast and not someone else, or what the motives of the writers were, and so on, but that is a separate issue from what actually is portrayed on screen).

Anyway, The Simpsons has long outstayed its welcome, and as far as I can tell has been on a downward spiral for a while, but if they’re going to start rolling over and giving in to this kind of controversy, their end cannot be far off. More concerning is simply the fact that this kind of nonsense is actually taken seriously in our society.