Friday Flotsam: Software Problems and Jabberwock

1. Missed last week, obviously. Oh, well.

2. For work-related reasons I ended up reviewing many of Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (yes, I’m serious. No, it’s not as interesting as you’d think). In the process I noticed for the first time (or perhaps I had noticed before and suppressed the memory) that the Jabberwock has a waistcoat. And socks.

Also please get it straight that it’s Jabberwock: ‘Jabberwocky’ is the name of the poem

Felt that needed to be pointed out.

3. One cannot become great out of fear, or in order to rub someone’s nose in it. Greatness cannot spring from petty motives.

4. Begun the first steps in actual work, and I’ve discovered something. In the book Clean Code, Robert Martin (Uncle Bob) describes the ‘vicious cycle’ of software development. A company sets upon a certain stoftware platform. Software advances rapidly, so before long it becomes necessary to upgrade it. But the upgrade has to be able to integrate with the earlier system, since that is where the existing information is being kept. Moreover, upgrading takes a lot of time, since we’re dealing with an extremely complicated and delicate machine, and the system has to be completely functional throughout the process otherwise the company loses business.

So by the time the system is updated, the update is already out of date, the already-complicated system has become immensely more complicated, and probably numerous bugs have been introduced that have to be hunted down and corrected.

5. What all this amounts to is that software creates a lot of bloat: you need people on hand to continually maintain and upgrade the system just to keep things functional. It would be as if a law-firm had to keep a staff of scribes on hand to continually re-write all the law-books and hunt up typos. This doesn’t create value (since the system that results is immediately obsolete and in any case has no application outside the company), it only prevents the loss of value that naturally occurs.

This is a flaw in the digital revolution that I don’t think is noticed enough: it creates a natural instability couple with dependency, resulting in an enormous amount of busywork.

6. By the way, if any of you happen to run a company, I have some advice: open-floor plans are one of those things that sound good on paper and make for great sound bites (“we believe in collaboration and teamwork blah, blah, blah”), but are just infuriating to actually experience. People walking by every minute of every day, hovering around your chair because they have to talk to your neighbor, loud conversations going on two feet away that you have no share or interest in. Endless distractions, disruptions, and anxiety, all for the sake of not having to poke your head around a corner to talk to someone, or send an instant message (which we do most of the time anyway).

Not to mention that, frankly, I’m deeply skeptical that my or any one else’s input is so perfectly and unfailingly valuable that all else should be sacrificed to allow it unimpeded scope for expression. Especially when that input is frazzled and distracted by all of the above.

7. Recently had to change my password on a particular service following an apparent security breach. Thoughts upon creating the new one: “Guess that, you bastards.”

UPDATE: If ‘Jabber-Walk’ isn’t the name of a dance, it should be.

Flotsam: Various and Sundry Life Things and the Mario Movie

1. I’m beginning to settle in at last as the final few necessary tasks and purchases are being wrapped up. Having a new apartment is like having a giant toy; there are all sorts of things you can do with it and you can’t wait to get the chance to play with it.

2. Internet is up at last, though I have it on a kill switch (via the simple expedient of plugging the router into a power strip) so I can turn it off it becomes too much of a distraction.

On that note, I’m working out a schedule for myself to hopefully improve my (frankly appallingly slow) output. So far setting up has kept on interrupting, but even so I’ve found an uptick in production. Amazing what sitting down and just doing the damn work can accomplish.

3. Part of my schedule is anticipated to include Saturday movie nights (don’t like watching movies during the week, since they eat up so much time), and last night it was Megamind. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but that’s another film I’ve been meaning to do an essay on, since it ranks high on my list of underappreciated gems. It’s an example of the best kind of satire: the kind that provides the genuine thrills and particular joys of the genre it’s spoofing, even as it uses the material for comedy (The Princess Bride and Galaxy Quest are other examples of this sort of thing). In this case it pokes fun at comic book superhero tropes while also providing some excellent comic-book-style action / adventure heroics.

It’s also almost infinitely quotable: “Warming up? The Sun is ‘warming up‘?!”

4. The voice cast was announced for the upcoming ‘Super Mario Brothers’ animated movie (entrusted to Blue Sky of all people), and no one seems particularly happy about it. I like Chris Pratt, but him as Mario? I don’t know about that. And last time I checked, Charles Martinet was alive and well. Granted you might not want the high-pitched Mario voice for a whole film, but I happen to know that Mr. Martinet can do many voices (e.g. he was one of the dragons in Skyrim): all he has to do is tone it down a bit.

I really don’t understand why studios do this (it also bugged me when Roger Craig Smith was replaced by Ben Schwartz for Sonic. Schwartz was fine in the role, but it’s annoying nonetheless). Or rather, I understand, but it makes no sense from a fans’ perspective. Studios figure that mainstream audiences will want to see familiar names in the credits, not the relatively obscure voice actors of the games. Filmmakers, and especially studio people, are notoriously out of touch and so don’t realize that the days of star-driven films are largely in the past. No one is going to go see Super Mario Brothers to hear Chris Pratt and Jack Black: they’re going to go see it to see the Mario Brothers (assuming it looks tolerable from the trailers). Keeping Charles Martinet in the title roles would have been a surefire way to garner immediate fan support, which I think is frankly a lot more valuable these days than star power, especially for an animated film.

I still hope the film is good, and I’m not judging it yet, but this isn’t a good sign. Please, please at least be better than the live action film. That should not be a challenge.

(Though for my part, all will be forgiven if they give John Leguizamo and Samantha Mathis cameos. Or if they bring Lance Hendrikson back as the king / chancellor of the Mushroom Kingdom. Come on, people: he never turns down a paycheck!).

5. By the way, I suspect the above is the reason why My Little Pony: The Movie jettisoned most of that show’s fantastic supporting cast in favor of a bunch of new characters with celebrity voice actors. They probably would have re-cast the Mane Six if they thought they could get away with it (“Starring Scarlett Johanson as Twilight Sparkle”).

6. Also, regarding the Mario movie: Dwayne Johnson should have been Donkey Kong. How does one fail to see that?

Flotsam: Councils of the Church and On Underestimating God

1. Moving on Tuesday, so most my time is taken up in packing. Fortunately, I’ve been doing it in increments for months, so there isn’t a whole lot left to be done. Mostly it’s a matter of deciding how to pack up the delicates and deciding what will be needed between now and then.

2. I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on the Church councils on the way to and from work, which is also a handy little summary of Church history (and, consequently, the history of the west). It’s fascinating and, oddly enough, comforting. Yeah, things are bad now, but things have been bad before, and people survived.

Not only survived, but thrived. At the same time as the corruption, petty power plays, and rampant stupidity was operating in the highest levels of the Church, there were also great Saints pursuing piety and working to save souls. The trick, it seems to me, is to focus on your own duty and make sure that, whatever may be said of the rest of Christendom, your own little patch of the kingdom is doing its job.

3. A rather interesting thought: the lecturer on the above happened to touch on Limbo, the section of Hell where those who die in Original Sin, but without grievous personal sins (e.g. infants, the just pagans, etc.) dwell. He commented that when most people describe Heaven – “a place of total happiness, where you meet all the dead and are content forever” – they are actually describing Limbo. The Beatific Vision – that is, Heaven proper – is something quite beyond that.

The way I think of it is that what God wants to do is not simply to make us perfect men, but something well beyond manhood. The Saints are, in the most literal sense, super human: something that is human and more. Which means they are not just happier than those in limbo, but happier in a way and to a degree that a simple human being could not conceive.

4. To take an analogy I think I’ve used before, it’s the difference between the happiness of a dog and the happiness of a human being. Dogs can be thoroughly happy in their doggish way, but the particular happiness of intellect, art, human love, and piety, and so on is simply beyond them. They can just sort of scrape the surface of it through their interactions with human beings, but they can’t go any further.

A saintly life in this world is like being the dog of a good and happy family: we experience the full doggish life, but also touch on something greater that we could never have gotten on our own and cannot fully experience or understand. Becoming a saint would be akin to a dog becoming fully human (except without the evil side of human nature: so, like a St. Bernard becoming the St. Bernard or something).

5. The short version is that, even while acknowledging that God will always be far beyond any conception we have of Him, we have an inveterate habit of vastly underestimating Him.

“That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him” is not hyperbole.

6. Anyway, I recommend that series on the councils. You can find the whole playlist linked below (it’s especially useful for getting a grasp on the Catholic-Eastern Orthodox issue, though further reading is necessary before I’d feel safe really wading into that).

Flotsam

1. I am continually amazed, not just at how stupid, incompetent, and immoral our current societal elites really are, but also at the fact that so many of us continue to take them seriously. “Dr. Fauci says so-and-so.” Okay, and why do you care what that careerist moron says, exactly?

To say “I heard it on the news” is as much to say “I have the word of ignorant liars who hate me.”

2. If I were to take a stab at guessing why this habit of thinking that someone being featured on TV must be reliable, I would say it’s mostly an application of the ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ principle. We naturally tend to accept an explanation simply because it is an explanation, or a description simply because it is a description in lieu of simply admitting ignorance. If we are going to think of a thing at all, we have to think of it from a certain perspective and with certain names and forms attached to the mass of sensory data we receive to give it some kind of structure. But most people aren’t in a position to know what is going on at the national level, or lack the education, time, or interest to hunt down such information as they could find in order to discern the necessary forms. So any explanation whatever is accepted simply because it provides a structure to the unstructured, and we would much rather have that than be in the dark.

The fact is, though, that for most of us in most cases the answer to ‘what’s going on in the world?’ is “I don’t know.” This is one reason why subsidiarity is so important: baring extreme or very specific circumstances, local concerns are really all the matter or have an capacity to affect the people of a given town or community, so of course they should have as much authority to manage them as possible.

3. Okay, enough gloomy thoughts of current events. I’ve actually found myself growing a good deal more sanguine about world events lately, simply because the people in charge at the moment are so stupid, so desperate, and their ideas so contrary to reality that a crash seems to me inevitable. The only question is how violent it’ll be when it comes.

Wait, that was supposed to be the not-gloomy entry, wasn’t it? Oops.

4. From a co-worker: “If Stackoverflow crashes, half the world would lose their jobs.”

(Really have to be in IT to get it)

5. Interesting fact: I’m reading Herodotus’s History at the moment (short version: all cultures are different and most people are horrible). At one point he recounts how the king of Egypt wished to know the extent of ‘Libya’ (what the H-Man called Africa), so he sent out a crew of Phoenician sailors to circumnavigate it. And, as a matter of fact, they did it! It took them three years, stopping at planting time wherever they were, growing food, and then resuming after the harvest. Herodotus mentions a report, which he himself does not believe, that during their voyage they saw the sun on their right hand side, traveling South-Southwest. As a matter of fact, this little detail more or less proves the story true, since traveling into the Southern Hemisphere, the sun would appear on the right hand side going Southwest or West: something that sailors of Herodotus’s time and place would not have considered or made up as part of their story. So, men circumnavigated Africa in the time of Ancient Greece. Cool!

6. Another Herodotus anecdote: King Cambyses, son of Cyrus the Great, was, according to H, an absolute psychopath. At one point he asked one of his chief servants what the people were saying about him. The man diplomatically said “O king, they admire you in all things, except that they consider you are a little too free with the drink.” At which point Cambyses became furious and said, “Oh, they say I’m mad with drink, do they? That I’m a lunatic? I’ll show them!” So he picked up a bow and arrow and shot the servant’s son (who happened to be standing a little ways off) through the heart and proudly declared “Could a madman have made that shot?”

Needless to say, this wasn’t quite as convincing an illustration of his sanity as he probably expected it to be.

7. And I’ll take the liberty of parasiting off of David Stewart again:

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: Slumming It

1. For one reason or another (none reflecting well on me), this is Sunday flotsam. And Sunday flotsam on the Feast of the Assumption at that, yet I currently have nothing edifying to say about Our Lady.

2. So instead, I’m just going to slum it and drop a few of my favorite riffs from Mst3k and Rifftrax: ones the I’ve found myself referencing or quoting most often or that seem to contain a bit of hidden practical wisdom, or are just plain funny.

3. On Raising the Stakes:
Movie Character: “They say it could blow up the universe.”
Tom Servo: “Or worse!”
-Epsiode 3:18 Fugitive Alien II

4. Where the Blame Lies:
(Discussing with a teacher how one of his high school basketball players is illiterate)
Coach: “If he can’t read, how’d he get through school?”
Mike: “That would mean we absolutely su…oh.”
-Reading: Who Needs It?

5. Best Laid Plans…
Soldier: “The electrical shocks don’t seem to bother Gamera at all!”
Tom Servo: “Hm, and I was counting very heavy on them….”
-Episode 3:02 Gamera

6. Practicality:
Mike: “My lunchbox can withstand a nuclear blast.”
-Episode 8:22 Overdrawn at the Memory Bank

7. Goes Without Saying, Really
Sheriff: “How long would it take you to get to Springdale?”
Deputy: “Maybe an hour, maybe less.”
Crow: “Longer if I die.”
-Episode 3:13 Earth vs. the Spider

8. Call it What it Is
Tommy: “Trumpy! you can do magic!”
Crow: “It’s called ‘Evil’, kid.”
-Episode 3:03 Pod People

9. Good Advice:
Customer: “I’ll remember you if you just…”
Bill: “Do your ****ing job.”
Customer: “…remember me.”
Bill: “And do your ****ing job.”
Remember Me

10. Embarrassing
Mike: “We have got to get organized! We should not be losing to grasshoppers, people!”
-Episode 5:17 The Beginning of the End

11. Logic
Kevin (as Lupita): “Did Daddy really think he was going to find a job at 4am on Christmas morning?”
Santa Claus

12. Humble Beginnings
(Upon seeing Clint Eastwood’s first onscreen film role)
Crow: “Ah, this guy’s bad. This was his first and only film.”
-Episode 8:01 Revenge of the Creature

Flotsam: Fitting Final Lines

To every actor there comes a final performance.

Most of the time, for such is the nature of the beast, they’re pretty prosaic affairs, often obscure, coming and going with little fanfare.

But sometimes it happens that a prominent performer gets to end his film career on a high note, ending his final performance with a line that feels like a fitting capstone to his career: a send off worthy of the actor who delivers it. Here are presented a few notable examples:

1. Pedro Armendariz in From Russia With Love

Pedro Armendáriz in From Russia with Love (1963)

“I have had a particularly fascinating life, would you like to hear about it?…You would?!”

The great character actor Pedro Armendariz only lived to be 51 years old, but he has well over a hundred credits on IMDb. He was a regular with John Ford, as well as one of Mexico’s most prestigious performers, and a frequent collaborator with John Wayne.

Alas, it was the latter that resulted in his death. He was one of the many actors in The Conqueror who ended up contracting cancer from the radioactive set (the location in Utah where the film was shot had previously been used as a nuclear test site. Not only did the film shoot at the site, but truckloads of contaminated sand was shipped back to Hollywood for studio shooting).

Armendariz’s final role turned out to be the second James Bond film, From Russia With Love, where he plays Bond’s Turkish contact, Kerim Bey, a former circus strongman turned businessman with a small army of sons (all roughly the same age). Bey is still one of the most memorable of Bond’s many allies, largely thanks to Armendariz’s effortlessly masterful performance.

Near the climax of the film, aboard the Orient Express, Kerim and Bond capture an enemy agent and Kerim volunteers to stand watch over him. The scene ends with him sitting down with the above line, promising to spend the rest of the voyage detailing his ‘particularly fascinating life’. Unfortunately, both men are subsequently eliminated by Robert Shaw’s Red Grant.

In any case, Mr. Armendariz certainly had a ‘particularly fascinating life’.

2. Sir Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

“May this new century be yours, son, as the old one was mine.”

Sir Sean Connery, of course, needs no introduction as one of the premier actors of his generation. His final live action performance (he also did some voice work before his death, including reprising the role of James Bond one last time in the video game adaptation of From Russia with Love) was in the unfortunately pretty poor The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Despite the film’s poor script, the actors are mostly first-rate, and Sir Sean gives a suitably strong final performance in a role with more than a touch of an autobiographical tone as H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, now grown old and weary, his adventuring days long behind him. In the end, Quatermain is mortally wounded in battle with Professor Moriarty and dies giving the above blessing to Tom Sawyer, who has become a surrogate son to him.

Whatever else might be said of the film, Sir Sean’s final line is surely a suitable farewell from one of the master actors of his time as he gives his final bow on the screen.

3. Raul Julia in Street Fighter

Raul Julia in Street Fighter (1994)

“You still refuse to accept my God-hood? Keep your own God! In fact, this might be a good time to pray to Him! For I beheld Satan as he fell from Heaven! LIKE LIGHTNING!!”

I spoke about Mr. Julia’s final performance at length in my Street Fighter review, so there’s not much more to add, except to note how fitting his final proclamation is for a great actor ending his career in a blaze of hamtastic glory.

4. Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Spencer Tracy in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

“Well, Tillie, when the hell are we gonna get some dinner?”

Spencer Tracy was one of those golden age actors whose talent goes without saying. He exuded warmth, intelligence, and fatherly command on screen, and he was equally capable of being wildly funny in an easy-going, eye-of-the-storm kind of way.

His last film, done while he was terminally ill, was Stanley Kramer’s race-based dramedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where Tracy stars alongside frequently leading lady (and off-screen romantic partner) Katherine Hepburn as two racially tolerant parents who are nevertheless a little blindsided upon learning that their daughter is engaged to Sydney Poitier.

I haven’t seen the film recently enough to comment on its quality, but with such a director and three such performers (not to mention the great Cecil Kellaway as their priest), I think it’s safe to say it can’t be too bad. But in any case, Tracy’s final line, closing out a long speech giving his full support to the young people, is remarkably fitting for a man who so excelled as the American paterfamilias.

5. Orson Welles in The Transformers: The Movie

'Transformers 5' May Feature Unicron - Nerd & Tie Podcast ...
Orson Welles in Moonlighting (1985)

“Destiny…You cannot destroy…my destiny!”

What a remarkable figure was Orson Welles. He was an absolute master at radio, film, and stage, as both an actor and a director. He created what is widely regarded as one of the best American films ever made as a passion project before he was thirty, and ever after found his career endlessly hampered by studio interference, so that despite giving some of the best performances of the American movie screen, he never was able to make what he might have of his vast artistic talent.

For his final role, he, in his own words “played a big toy who attacks a bunch of smaller toys”. Whatever he thought of the role of Unicron, the planet-sized, planet-eating dark god of the Transformer universe (and whatever else could be said of the film), he certainly gave a performance worthy of the name of Orson Welles, speaking with all the command that an all-powerful evil being can be expected to posses. Every line that comes out of Unicron feels impactful, like a god speaking, yet with a touch of careless humor that makes him feel all the more commanding (“Your bargaining posture is highly dubious”).

In the end, Unicron is destroyed by the power of the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, and as he’s torn apart from the inside out, he delivers that final, defiant line. In a way, it rather feels like Welles himself casting his final gauntlet at the Hollywood that hounded and tore at him all his life: at the end of the day, no matter what, they still couldn’t take away what he had achieved.

6. John Wayne in The Shootist

John Wayne in The Shootist (1976)

“Mister, this is my birthday. Gimme the best in the house.”

In his swanswong, The Shootist, John Wayne (who had recently been through treatment for cancer and would soon be claimed by the disease) plays John Bernard Brooks, an aging gunfighter dying of prostrate cancer. Rather than suffer a long, lingering death pestered by glory seekers who will not let his rest in peace, he decides to go out in a final blaze of glory by challenging three of his enemies to a final fight in a saloon. As he sits down at the bar, he gives the above order and enjoys one final drink before the fight begins.

For perhaps the greatest movie star of all time, a man whose name is practically synonymous with the western, there surely can be no more fitting line than to go into a saloon and order the best in the house. Nothing less than the best for the Duke.

7. James Stewart in An American Tail: Fivel Goes West

James Stewart and Phillip Glasser in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)
James Stewart

“Just remember, Fivel; one man’s sunset is another man’s dawn. I don’t know what’s out there, beyond those hills. But if you ride yonder – head up, eyes steady, heart open – I think one day you’ll find that you’re the hero you’ve been looking for.”

You know, there’s something rather tragic about the fact that what may be the single finest American film actor of all time ended his career playing ‘Wylie Burp’ in the sequel to An American Tale. But regardless, the final scene where he looks out at the sunset and gives the above speech to little Fivel is a remarkably fitting curtain call for the legendary Jimmy Stewart.

Friday Flotsam: Mostly Alice

1. This week, as a much-needed relaxation (and to help with a ‘Batman’ fan-fiction I was writing), I revisited the Alice books. I’d almost forgotten how delightful they are. Just a wonderful romp of satirical nonsense, done in that delightful Victorian way. They’re also one of the best examples of capturing the feel of a dream that I’ve encountered: everything is linked through a kind of illogical logic, the environment and the people change depending on what the protagonist is thinking about, seemingly simple tasks simply will not come off, there’s a lot of repetition, and so on.

And ultimately, they’re just wonderfully charming, light fare. Alice doesn’t have a grand plan or goal she’s working towards, there’s no plot to speak of, and the characters for the most part just come and go as the story wants them. The story is just a means to go to weird places and talk to strange people and hear ridiculous things. They’re a creative writing teacher’s worst nightmare.

2. Reading them, I remembered what I’d heard and seen of Tim Burton’s…ah, versions of them from a few years back (I don’t think I can call them ‘adaptations’). Full disclosure; I haven’t seen the films, but I have seen clips and ‘run-throughs’ of them, so I have a pretty good idea of at least the plot. Burton’s Alice re-imagines it as a Narnia-like epic fantasy, where the now-adult Alice gets cast as a hero of legend destined to slay the Jabberwock(y) and defeat the Red Queen to free Wonderland from tyranny, with lots of feminist talking points and ‘oh, weren’t the Victorians just horrible to women?’ stuff (it then ends with Alice becoming a ship captain or something).

So you have things like the Mad Hatter nobly advocating a cause, the Dormouse swinging a sword around, Tweedledee and Tweedledum going to war, the Chesire Cat getting a big heroic moment, and so on, all in world with politics and magic rules and armies and battles and stuff. Gag.

Honestly, that all just makes me rather sad. One of the crowning examples of pure imagination in the English canon and all these morons can think to do with it is ‘epic fantasy, prophecies, girl power’. What a pathetic bore! You call it Alice in Wonderland, but you’ve made it ‘generic fantasy plot no. 2’.

This is the same thing I noticed re-watching 101 Dalmations: movies today feel much more ‘samey’ than movies of the past did. There’s a lot more formula, a lot more of forcing things into familiar plot beats and an ever-decreasing cycle of themes (“Be yourself.” “Girl power”. “Prejudice is bad.” “Our ancestors sucked”, Etc.). I doubt whether any studio today – least of all Disney – would be capable of adapting a story like Alice in Wonderland in any recognizable way.

Trouble is, I think this trickles down even into independent writers, where we’re nervous about creating things that don’t fit the ‘rules’. At least, I know I catch myself feeling like that. Because, of course, we want people to read what we write and like it, and so we get nervous about ‘well, will they read it if it doesn’t do this, that, and the other?’

It’s important to keep the free-breeze of ages flowing through our minds by frequently reading old books and watching old movies, just to remind ourselves of what we can become and how many more ‘options’ there are than we’re usually told.

3. There’s a song by the band Cruxshadows (whom I highly recommend, by the way) called Eye of the Storm that touches on this in the lyrics:

               “The pages of our history
               Are written by the hand
               With eyes and ears and prejudice
               Too far removed to understand.”

               “And so the heroes of the ages
               Are stripped of honesty and love
               To make them seem less noble
               And hide what we can become.”

4. Uncle Walt didn’t need to force a cliché plot onto things to make a classic adaptation. That film was, like the book, just a whimsical journey, where the point was going from place to place meeting crazy and weird characters and enjoying the ride (though to be fair, he wanted to have more of a plot than they ended up with, e.g. including the knight from Looking Glass as a heroic companion to Alice, and he didn’t really like the movie very much. But he at least had the sense not to force the issue in that case).

5. I think my favorite thing about the Disney adaptation, by the way, is just Alice herself. She’s trying to be sensible and polite, but is surrounded by lunatics and sometimes reacts accordingly (I love the bit at the trial when the Hatter and the March Hare start singing again and she just buries her face in her hands in exasperation). See, when you have one character who is more sensible, intelligent, and mature than everyone else, the thing to do is to make sure no one takes her seriously or pays the least attention to her, because that’s funny. 

The only sane girl in her natural state

I also like how, well, uncomfortable Wonderland is; the backgrounds are mostly dead black, everything is kind of shadowy, even with the bright colors, and the characters are all a little threatening and unpredictable. It’s fun to watch, but not really the kind of place you’d want to visit, which keeps you invested in Alice’s adventures. She’s a very likable character, and just about anything might happen to her at any time.

“There goes Bill!”
“Poor Bill…”

Flotsam: Miscellaneous

1. My cold of two weeks ago came back with a vengeance this week. Never quite bad enough to keep me away from work (certainly not while I’m still on probation time before my PTO becomes available), but more than bad enough to make the experience quite miserable. Hence why this is a non-specific Flotsam. So, for today I’m just going to toss off some miscellaneous thoughts that I’m too tired to flesh out much.

2. It is sometimes said that you shouldn’t trust primary sources in historical inquiry since they will be biased. Instead, you should trust the professional historian, who is trained to sift through these biases. Indeed, the primary sources are biased. So is the professional historian.

The difference is that the historical bias of the primary source is itself a part of that same history. The bias of the historian is not.

3. Do you notice that there is what you might call an ‘assumed culture’ at work in today’s world? Anything made for general public consumption that doesn’t originate from a source with an otherwise strongly marked character makes the same references and presumes the same values: you’ve seen Star Wars and Game of Thrones. You vote democrat. You’re non-religious. You’re into, or at least familiar with certain pop stars, and so on. It’s like there’s a giant mutual-aid society, in which a web of entertainers, politicians, businessmen, and so on give each other shout-outs and kudos.

I find this kind of boring, even when they reference things I like. It also begins to give that kind of ‘unman’ feel, like there’s no actual personality behind the references, but something trying to ape a personality.

(See, that’s an example: when was the last time you heard a Space Trilogy reference in anything made for the general public?)

4. There’s also the thing where people will cheer when someone mentions an officially protected demographic. Basically a way of signalling “I’m a good person!” or “I am offering the right obeisance!”

5. Oh, speaking of which, I remember during the (mercifully brief) ‘Diversity, Inclusion, Equity’ portion of the onboarding process, they talked about how ‘we’ve found that diversity isn’t just race, religion, sex, and so on, but things like what school you went to, what neighborhood you grew up it, what your experiences are.’

In other words, diversity is supposedly the startling insight that companies employ individuals. This amazing fact requires an entire department and continual training to understand, and we presume that you, the employees, will need to be constantly reminded of this.

I also love that ‘we’ve found’ (or it might have even been ‘experts have discovered’, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt): apparently, the idea that people can be distinguished by things apart from officially designated categories came as a blinding insight.

6. I notice that a lot of moderns have an idea about nature that goes something like this: that the ideal of nature is balance, of all things working together in harmony to allow all to thrive.

If you want to see how much nature values ‘balance’, try introducing a species into a new environment and see how nature deals with it. Nine times out of ten, what happens is either a). the new species gets quickly wiped out by the existing species or b). the new species utterly dominates the ecosystem and wipes out many of the existing species (rats are especially gifted at doing this).

See, nature isn’t about balance: nature is about every species and almost every individual trying to get as much as it possibly can. In other words, nature isn’t harmony: it’s warfare. The ‘balance’ is an illusion created by the fact that the species withing a given ecosystem have all reached a point of more or less stalemate. The moment any species has a real advantage, it rides it as far as it can, happily wiping out everything else around it even if this means dooming itself in the long term.

(Someone might say that introducing rats to isolated islands isn’t natural because humans do it. Well, one, that doesn’t change the fact that rats still act according to nature, and two, the result would be the same whether the rats got there on ships or floating on driftwood).

Nature doesn’t care about balance: nature cares about survival, and not even long-term survival.

7. “Your counterexamples don’t really prove your point so much as they prove you don’t understand mine.”

One of those things that passes through the mind a lot, but which takes a while to catch and articulate.

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?”