Spielberg Should Make a Movie About Them

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 20, 2020

Most of our fiction when it’s not about romance or comedy is about heroes. Whether in books, television shows, movies, or video games we usually identify with a hero. Quite often the hero must confront conflict with violence, but generally the violence is over-the-top and the heroes’ abilities are unbelievable. Far too often fiction promotes the cult of the gun. But what about real heroes? Heroes are individuals who will sacrifice themselves for others. Why don’t we see more real life heroes in our fiction?

I just finished reading chapter 17 of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson about Allison and Elizabeth Stubbs Davis, two black anthropologists who were training in Germany when the Nazis came into power. This was 1933, and they decided to flee the fascists and go to Natchez, Mississippi to study class, caste, and race. Talk about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. This was the heart of the Jim Crow south well become the civil rights era and Freedom Riders. According to Wilkerson a black person was being lynched every four days. She also reported that Nazis had studied Jim Crow laws for inspiration on how to fashion their laws to oppress the Jews, and in some instances the Nazis thought the Americans went too far. By the way, I highly recommend Caste.

Allison and Elizabeth were part of a team, with white anthropologists Burleigh and Mary Gardner, but interestingly for the time, Allison was the team leader. Wilkerson’s book up till chapter 17 showed her readers just how dangerous it was for the two couples, especially for Allison and Elizabeth to work in the 1930s deep south. Their scientific undercover work meant taking potentially lethal risks day after day for years.

These scientists were real life heroes putting their lives on the line to make a better world for us. We need to see more movies about this kind of heroism. Are you brave enough to attempt anything like their quest? I certainly am not. In modern fiction the hero usually get to load up on weapons before confronting the enemy. Would you volunteer to spy on a hostile society with only Gandhi’s armament?

Their story would make a great movie. After reading this chapter I really wanted to know more about these four scientists, especially Allison and Elizabeth. However, I can’t find out much about them and their time in Mississippi. Allison went on to become the first black professor to get tenured at a predominantly white university (The University of Chicago, 1947). but with complications. David A. Varel wrote a whole book devoted to Allison Davis, The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought (2018).

According to Wilkerson the Davis and Gardner couples started their research earlier and stayed longer, but other anthropologists came after them, spent less time embedded in the culture, and published sooner. Davis and the Gardners published Deep South: A Study of Social Class and Color Caste in a Southern City (1941), but it was upstaged by Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937) by John Dollard and After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (1939) by Hortense Powdermaker. Dollard and Powdermaker gained the academic fame, and it’s why Wilkerson said in a New York Times interview that Deep South was the book she admired most that no one reads.

I’d love to read Deep South but finding a copy is turning out to be hard. It’s not in print at Amazon, and used copies run hundreds of dollars. I hope Wilkerson’s book inspires a reprinting, at least a Kindle edition. According to WorldCat it is available in some of my local university libraries, so I will try them. Still, I’d like to see their story on the big screen.

I know Hollywood distorts history badly, but while reading Wilkerson I could vaguely imagine the intense drama of their story, I’d like it visualized for me with all the vivid details movie makers can muster. I’m burned out on modern movies. I’m no longer hooked on their fantasy violence. I crave quiet realism. I understand our world and its history is full of violence, but surely it can’t be as much as our fiction implies. I’m tired of heroes with big guns. I’m tired of cartoon combat. I read the other day that the Wild West was never as violent as westerns, not even close. We need more movies about people who save the world without shooting it up because obviously too many people are thinking that’s what the world needs now the most.

JWH

Escaping into Artificial Realities

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 3, 2020

Is it possible to escape reality? We talk of escapist books, movies, and television shows, but aren’t they part of reality too? I’ve been a lifelong science fiction fan, and isn’t that another kind of escapism? Or is my reality one of music, books, movies, and television? Maybe art is artificial reality. Maybe we create art to fashion the reality we prefer over the reality we have? Or maybe we create art because we don’t want to face real reality?

Since I’ve retired I’ve retreated more and more into artificial realities inside my house rather than dealing with the reality outside my house. That’s even accelerated with the pandemic. Yesterday I started reading The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols for a nonfiction book club. Nichols reports on how the Dunning-Kruger effect has taken over society, and everyone wants to achieve political equality for their dumbass POV, no matter how uneducated and stupid that point of view turns out.

Evidently, not only do we seek to escape reality, but reject it too. I found Nichol’s introduction compelling and frightening. I think he’s right that everyone wants to reject experts, to reject science, and assume a view of reality based on their on their own personal narrative fallacy. I don’t know if I’ll find any hope by finishing this book, but it so depressed me that I retreated into The Wham of Sam a 1961 LP from Sammy Davis Jr. — leaping into a reality of an thrilling big orchestra, hip lyrics, and jazzy singing. Then I jumped further back into time, to 1957 to listen to Dream Street by Peggy Lee.

Her band was smaller, the music more relaxed, the mood more dreamy, and I found this reality an alluring call of Sirens. I spent most of the day researching stereo equipment to perfectly recreate that old sound. I want to arrange a room that’s perfect for music but I don’t want to mess with a lot of gear. In other words I want to escape the reality of wires, complicated equipment, or collecting LPs or CDs. I just want to stream high-definition music to great speakers. Right now I’m looking at a Bluesound Powernode 2i with some Kiptsph RP-5000F speakers.

The problem is I don’t have the perfect room for my new escape pod. My wife has the living room and I have the den (we each have our own favorite forms of escapism). The living room is better shaped for music, and I tried to get Susan to trade with me but she wouldn’t. The den is full of windows on three walls, so reality is glaringly obvious. She also didn’t like what I wanted to do to the living room, by covering the windows with soundproofing. Basically, I wanted my TV and stereo at one end, my bookcases on the side walls, and my La-Z-Boy in the middle of the room. It would be my spaceship for exploring artificial realities. But Susan nixed that idea. I thought about buying an extra house, but that would involve too much hassle with the real reality. I could rearrange my current man cave (library/office/extra room) but that would involve getting rid too much of my cherish crap.

I’ve also started noticing some correlations between my chosen escapist worlds. See if you recognize them.

There’s a clue if you compare these photos with the album covers. I have Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, but I spend nearly all my TV viewing watching DVDs of old TV shows. My favorite TV network would be MeTV if it wasn’t for all the damn commercials.

Yes, I’m stuck in the past. Currently, I’ve zeroed in on 1955-1975 for finding my escapist artificial realities. Most of the television shows, movies, music, and reading I like fit in that time span. The obvious thing to think is I’m being nostalgic, but I really didn’t watch those shows or listen to that music growing up. In fact, I hated Frank Sinatra type music, and shows like Perry Mason — those were escapes my parents preferred.

It’s not nostalgia but pleasantness I’m seeking. Modern shows are full of unpleasant aspects of reality. Modern shows have too many guns and killing. Hell, I’m even getting sick of Matt Dillon shooting so many people.

I haven’t completely rejected current reality. I watch the news, and read several articles a day about current events. I’m also reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson because I’m very worried about inequality. Black lives do matter. If we don’t solve injustice, corruption, inequality, and institutional racism, we won’t solve any of our other problems. We all need to work together. United we survive, divided we won’t.

Donald Trump is trying to make the 2020 election a referendum on law and order. He claims he’ll be the law and order president if elected. But why believe that, he’s been the break the laws and create disorder president since 2016. I believe 2020 will be a referendum on consensus. Do we want to work together as a united people and collectively solve our problems or not?

And that brings us back to the Tom Nichols book. If we can’t agree on the facts, if we can’t achieve a consensus view on objective reality, we’re all doomed to retreating into our subjective realities. I’m getting old, and I don’t think society will crumble before I die. It’s practical for me to hide out in the past listening to old music, watching old TV shows, and reading science fiction about futures that will never happen. I’m safe if I don’t live too long.

But if you’re younger than me, or have children, escaping reality is not an option. You better elect a president that has some experience. You better vote for people who will use experts. Vote for people who will work to solve problems for everyone and not pander to crazy folks Dunning-Kruger fantasies.

I’m all for equality, for equality of rights, of equality of economics, of equality of justice, but Nichols is right, we are not equal in knowledge. You wouldn’t want Joe Blow doing your brain surgery. So why elect politicians that know nothing about politics?

Nichols says Americans have rejected experts, and I think that’s true. We all want to think for ourselves, and that’s admirable, but unfortunately, we don’t all have the education and experience to make the right decisions. If Nichols is right about the trends he sees, my guess is there’s no hope for the future. But then I’m not an expert.

Science fiction is about speculating on extrapolations. Unless there’s a paradigm shift, unless there’s a big fucking positive Black Swan just around the corner, all my speculation sees is apocalyptic collapses in the future. Admiring Mary Tyler Moore in old TV shows and listening to Peggy Lee sing is merely enjoying myself on the Titanic while waiting for the iceberg.

We all know we’re heading toward an iceberg. We all know we could even do something. We all know there are people who know what to do. We just don’t want to listen to them.

JWH

Browsing My Bookshelves When My Favorite Used Bookstore is Closed

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 17, 2020

Since I can’t go book shopping, I’ve decided to browse my own bookshelves instead. I’m amazed by what interesting books I find there.

It’s been months since I’ve shopped at my favorite used bookstore, Second Editions. I use to visit it at least once a week. I certainly don’t need any more books, there are already thousands on my to be read pile. Over the years I’ve discovered that my reading habit is entirely separate from my book-buying habit. I love to read and I love to shop for books — I just don’t always read the books I buy.

The other day I browsed through my entire Audible.com library of 1426 audiobooks looking for all that contained short stories. Time and again I was amazed by what I owned that I hadn’t listened to yet (I can’t resist a good sale). Once again, I told myself I needed to stop buying new books and read or listen to what I already own. But I love going to Second Editions, the used bookstore run by our Friends of the Library.

I never know what I’ll find. Sometimes it’s an old book I’ve been hoping to find again, or it’s a book I never knew I wanted but had to buy, or it was a hardback copy of a book that just came out that I was thinking of paying full price — that’s how I got Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson for $5.

I’ve only got five six-shelf bookshelves to browse — but I’m overwhelmed by how many books I find that I want to read. Strangely, it’s 100%. Well, maybe not so strange. Because of my limited shelf space, I tend to donate books back to the Friends of the Library of those I’ve read or decided I’m not going to read. My self-imposed rule is I can’t own any more books than I have bookshelves. I’ve technically broken this rule because I’m currently allowing myself a legal loophole by shelving some books at the top of my clothes closet. Those three six-foot-wide shelves really do look like bookshelves. (But don’t tell my wife!)

Second Editions bookstore is closed for the duration of the pandemic. I know everyone is missing their favorite places to hang out, so I shouldn’t whine about missing mine. However, I do miss it. And browsing my own bookshelves looking through the books I often bought at Second Editions does help a little, but not much. It does help me empathize with young people who can’t resist gathering in public places during a pandemic.

I wonder if I pulled out a few books, and gave myself a twenty if the experience would feel more like visiting Second Editions? Maybe Susan could pretend to be the clerk at the cash register and we could chat a bit about books?

JWH

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 30, 2020

Anyone who loved Downton Abbey should also love the new miniseries Belgravia. Episodes are now appearing weekly on Epix. In the U.S. only three of the six episodes have been shown. However, after the second episode I was so anxious to know more I bought the audiobook of the novel Belgravia by Julian Fellowes and listened to it. I’m glad I did. The novel is beautifully written, feeling equal to reading Austen or Dickens. The first TV episodes follow the novel so closely that I imagine the rest will follow just as closely. I feel like I’ve watched the entire series with my ears, and now I will see it with my eyes.

The plot is deliciously tangled by those Victorian manners and customs I’ve previously encountered by reading 19th-century novels, but with a bit more grit, a good deal more sex, and from a darker perspective. The story follows two families sharing one tragedy, revealing class conflicts between those with aristocratic old wealth and social-climbing tradesmen with new money. Both primogeniture and men and women in service play an integral role in Belgravia. I’ve seldom encountered such a well-crafted plot — addictively complicated but not overly too much.

tamsin-greig-anne-trenchard

There’s one mystery that still intrigues me. Why does the original novel follow the miniseries so closely? It was published in 2016, years before the show. Did Julian Fellowes write the novel with a screenwriter’s skill? Did he work out the screenplay first and then wrote the novel?

I often get the feeling when reading some modern novels that their authors visualized them as movies in their heads. I don’t know if this is a good trend. I expect novels to offer content that could never be filmed. Novels are their own art form, not screenplays. And there are a few novelistic features in Belgravia the book. Even though the story moves as fast as a blockbuster movie, the third-person narrator does offer some backstory tidbits that’s not in the series. It also reveals some of the inner thoughts going on in the characters’ heads. I watched the first two episodes before reading the book, and I felt Tamsin Greig had already expressed those thoughts in her performance of Anne Trenchard, my favorite character.

I’m surprised Belgravia the miniseries didn’t appear on PBS Masterpiece, but then, it did get me to subscribe to Epix. I figure at $5.99 a month it will cost me at most $11.98 to watch the entire series — unless I get hooked on another Epix series. I already binge-watched a previous series, The War of the Worlds during a free 30-day free trial. If Epix can keep them coming I’ll keep letting them have $5.99 each month.

Epix

JWH

 

What Were The Harry Potter Books of Your Childhood?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The phenomenon of the Harry Potter books in recent years was quite astounding. It’s hard to comprehend one book series resonating with so many people. I’m sure every would-be author’s dream to be as successful as J. K. Rowling. And it must be significant to grow up in a cohort generation that has such a common touchstone. In the years to come, will remembering Harry Potter books bond that generation like my generation psychically shares Classic Rock? Looking back it’s amazing how much The Beatles brought us together.

In a way, I feel deprived that Baby Boomers don’t have a childhood book series that tie us together in the same way we remember television from the 1960s. Were there any wildly popular book series for kids in the 1950s and 1960s? I remember The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, but just how popular were they? And both of those series started in the 1930s. The first book series I discovered were the Oz books, but that was an oddity. The Oz books were a children’s fad in the first decades of the 20th-century.

The series that made the biggest impact on me were the twelve Heinlein juveniles. Over the years I’ve found plenty of other bookworms who discovered them too, but overall, we’re not a huge group. I also loved the Winston Science Fiction series, but it was never popular either, even though I sometimes meet fans of that series on Facebook. At most, in terms of reading, I’d say Baby Boomers shared a love of science fiction and fantasy.

Wikipedia has a list of children’s book series, but I just don’t see any that came out in the 1950s and 1960s that was even one percent as popular as the Harry Potter books. I guess the success of the Harry Potter books was a freak of pop culture in the same was The Beatles were. Such universal appeal evidently, is extremely rare.

However, is there a children’s book series that has stuck with you you’re whole life?

JWH