Remembering and Rating Pop Culture

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 11, 2018

I began keeping a reading log back in 1983 where I record every book I finish reading. I wished I had started this log in the third grade when my mother read me Treasure Island. That was 1960, I was eight, and the first book I remember. The first book I read myself, was Down Periscope, but in an abridged version for kids. That was probably 1961. I figured I finished over a thousand books that I don’t remember between 1961 and 1983.

As you might guess, I’m hung-up on memory. Just remember, this blog is called Auxiliary Memory. My memory has never been great, and now it’s in obvious decline. My reading log has proved valuable on countless occasions and in many ways. Over the years I’ve often regretted not maintaining a movie log.

Recently I began a Pop Culture Log, where I record the short stories, essays, albums, TV shows, movies that I finish each day. In the sixties we had a phrase, you are what you eat. Well, I believe we are the pop culture we consume.

I keep my new pop culture log on a Google spreadsheet online. I now wish I had logged every pop culture work I consumed in my lifetime. Recording all my brain food takes a bit of effort, but is revealing. More and more when I tell my friends about shows or stories I enjoyed I can’t recall their titles. That’s very frustrating.

Aging and struggling with memory reveal details about my identity in those logs. In Westworld season 2 they show different approaches to creating artificial immortality. One method involves teaching an android all the memories and habits of a person until the android can’t be distinguished from the real person. Who we are, often comes from our attitudes towards the pop culture we’ve experienced in our lifetime. On Facebook, I see more and more groups formed around pop culture memories with tens of thousands of baby boomers participating in each. My identity can be partially defined by those groups I joined. (That’s why Facebook is so powerful to advertisers and political pollsters.)

Here’s a snippet of the last couple days. If I tried to record them from memory the day after tomorrow all of them would have been forgotten except maybe The Admirable Crichton. That’s the work that’s given me the most pleasure this week, but it would only take another couple days and I’d forget it too.

Pop Culture Log

 

I’ve tried to devise the most useful columns. I added a link column, something I don’t have on my reading log of books. That gives me actual details about the work, and is very educational, often expanding my reaction to the work.  Just collecting the entries for the spreadsheet helps me remember more.

My friend Janis recently gave me a box of vinyl LPs she had stored away at her father’s house for decades, mostly from the 1970s and early 1980s. I’ve been playing a couple each day. As you can see, I’ve rated them all three stars. But I wonder what I would have rated them back when they were new. Most stuff from decades ago seems kind of mediocre and blah, but I bet some of those albums sparkled when they first appeared. I know I liked some of them much better then than I do now.  I’ve decided to rate my current reaction rather than trying to discern absolute artistic quality, it’s context in history or its lasting value. The links do that. It would have been enlightening to see how my ratings changed over time.

Rating Systems

There’s all kind of rating systems. The classic school grade (A+ through F). The test score (0 – 100). The 10 scale (0 – 10). Various 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star ratings. I liked what Rocket Stack Rank uses, a 5-star system that’s less judgmental and more practical. I’ve amended their system for my use:

  • 1-star (*) – Technical flaws that annoy. Can’t finish.
  • 2-star (**) – Storytelling flaws ruin the flow. Can’t finish.
  • 3-star (***) – Average. Good. Competent. Even well done. Once is enough.
  • 4-star (****) – Will recommend to friends. Would reread/rewatch. Hope to remember probably won’t.
  • 5-star (*****) – Should win awards, be remembered, and become a classic. Would buy to have permanently. Would want to study and remember.

This system avoids judging art by objective criteria. A graph counting all the ratings should show 80% falling into the 3-star rating, 18% for 2-star or 4-star, and 2% for 1-star and 5-star. Because I only record what I finish, I shouldn’t be listing 1-star and 2-star titles.

The Admirable Crichton - 1957

Of the works rated above only the English film The Admirable Crichton (Paradise Lagoon in the U.S.) based on the J. M. Barrie play (he also wrote Peter Pan) is rated 4-stars. I gave it 4-stars because it’s one I’d recommend to my friends. It was so much fun that I’ve ordered two other film editions of the story, one a silent, Male and Female (1919) that stars Gloria Swanson directed by Cecille B. DeMille, and 1934 pre-Code screwball comedy starring Bing Crosby, We’re Not Dressing.

Rating a work is hard. Janis, who is also my TV watching buddy, and I, both greatly enjoy Glow, a show about lady wrestlers in the 1980s. It gets good reviews, and I know other people who like it too. However, the quality of streaming TV is so great compared to the older broadcast TV that it’s hard to say when a show is worthy of 4-stars. I would definitely say Breaking Bad, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Crown, Downton Abbey are 5-star shows. And I would say Anne with an E, Humans, FargoWestworld, The Duece are 4-star shows. But really good shows like Glow and Killing Eve aren’t in their class. A 3-star rating includes a lot of very entertaining shows because there’s really a great number of entertaining well-made shows. 3-stars doesn’t mean something isn’t very good. Well-made entertainment is very common today.

My concern is more about memory than artistic judgment. I want just enough information in my logs to trigger hidden memories. I’ve never been sure if bad memory is due to lost memories or poor memory retrieval. If I had kept logs of all the artistic works I consumed in my lifetime it would help me remember, but also it would also describe who I was, something I’m still learning myself.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Will the Real Charles Dickens, Please Stand Up?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 7, 2018

The other night I saw The Man Who Invented Christmas, a delightful film about how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. When it was over I asked myself: How much of it was true? I’ve read one short biography of Dickens in the past, Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley. So I knew some details in the movie were based on truth. But I doubted its facts fit history in the same way the screenwriter presented them.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

After watching the film, I read Mr. Dickens and His Carol, a novel by Samantha Silva. Silva spent fifteen years working on this story, originally written as a screenplay. Her novel featured a more complicated story than the film The Man Who Invented Christmas but invents and fictionalizes a great deal more. The movie is lighthearted and fun, focusing on Dickens’ economic problems and how they inspired him to write A Christmas Carol in a few weeks. The film shows Dickens being haunted by the imaginary characters he created, and I’m sure that’s how many readers picture writers discovering their characters.

Silva’s novel creates a made-up fantasy life for Dickens, that worked to explain the psychological needs that drove him to write A Christmas CarolMr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva does not even attempt to be historically accurate, creating a fantasy about writing a fantasy. Although her novel was entertaining enough to keep me reading, I was never sure if it was ethical just to make up a fictional alternate history for a real person. Isn’t it a kind of flattering libel? Isn’t it just cashing in on another writer’s fame? Dickens might have loved it, and he might not, but I believe he’d likely want a cut of the royalties.

The film had questionable points too. Over the last decade, I’ve noticed a growing number of novels and movies based on real lives. I find them both compelling and disturbing. I feel we need to ask hard questions about fictionalize biographies?

  • Should we expect biographical fiction to be essentially true?
  • Aren’t these writers just cashing in on famous names?
  • What responsibilities do historical fiction writers have for teaching history?
  • Should we assume all fictional history is just fun fantasy?
  • Is it fair to historical people to remember them as fantasy characters?
  • How do we verify the fictional facts?

With two competing fictional biographies covering the same event, I felt compelled to hunt down facts.

The film, The Man Who Invented Christmas is based on a non-fiction book, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford. This book covers recorded history. But should we assume since the movie is based on it, the movie will be historically accurate? Like novelists, screenwriters invent, and both are selling entertainment to make a buck. My guess is most of the movie is made up.

Now I needed real history to judge my fictional histories. I got out my unread copy of Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, a substantial biography. The Dickens I found here for 1843 was completely unlike to two fictional Dickens in 2018. Sure, some of its details were sprinkled in the two fictional stories but Tomalin’s black and white facts did not paint either colorful Dickens I saw in the film or novel. And each of the colorful Dickens is distinctly different too. For example, in one Dickens confides to his groom, and in another to a young maid. In one, his wife is part of the story, and in the other Dickens’ wife is conveniently shuttled off to Scotland. In each, we meet two different inspirations for Tiny Tim. In one, Dickens is the spendthrift, in the other, Dickens blames his wife.

I’d like to think when I read a historical novel or watch a historical film, I’m actually learning history. But whenever I read history books after imbibing a fictional version of the past, I’m always disappointed. Last year, both Dunkirk and The Crown felt very real historically, but were they? I haven’t read anything to verify them yet.

My memory of Dickens will always be historically corrupted by the visual Dickens of the film, played by a charming Dan Stevens (Matthew of Downton Abbey fame). Silva’s fantasy Dickens will always intrude when I reread Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Is either fair to the real Charles Dickens? Don’t I have a duty to study the recorded facts we have on Charles Dickens? Will the real Charles Dickens, please stand up? Or will we always create an endless parade of make-believe Charles Dickens?

I found both Inventing Scrooge by Carlo DeVito, a well-reviewed book on the specific subject, and the non-fiction book version of The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford, to be more digestible than the Tomalin biography for knowing how Dickens wrote his most famous story. Her biography was too large, complex, and detailed. I’m not ready for her graduate course just yet, but what I read was damn impressive.

I do want to know the real Charles Dickens. But I found comparing the two nonfiction books on the writing of A Christmas Carol to be revealing about the struggle to understand history. Nonfiction writers must speculate too, even if it’s just in the way they present their facts. When reading nonfiction we must also distrust what we read. We should always be skeptical.

I found the two fictionalize Dickens very entertaining. I don’t think they shouldn’t exist. However, I would say we should never enjoy a fictional account without balancing it with a nonfictional account. To answer my questions:

  • Never assume any fact in fiction is true.
  • Yes, writers are cashing in by using ready-made, well-known characters.
  • Novelists who write historical fiction should always produce an afterward that explain their research and delineate their speculation.
  • Assume all historical fiction is fun and we should get real history from nonfiction.
  • I bet most historical figures would be horrified and amused by how they are remembered. Many would be mad enough to sue if we time traveled them to the present. Which probably explains why so many want their letters and papers burned, or why they work so hard to preserve them.
  • The only way to verify fictional facts is to read multiple nonfictional sources. We can never know what historically happened. There are real people that I’ve read many biographies written about them, and I’d say four is the minimum to start getting a decent feeling for what they might have been like. And that’s only a might of.

Then, I saw another historical film, Mary Shelley (2017). Even though this was a bomb at the box office, I greatly admired it. I really wanted to believe it was true. My wife and I both enjoyed the movie thoroughly, and we didn’t fathom why it’s gotten such a low Rotten Tomato score of 36%.

I want to believe Mary Shelley accurately portrayed Mary Shelley because it shows her as a determined, strong-willed woman, that succeeds against a culture that wanted to crush her. If we love a story about history, we want it to be the truth, don’t we? The film makes me want to know more about the real creator of Frankenstein’s monster and the author of the first real science fiction novel. I guess that impulse is a credit to historical fiction.

Now I need to go read In Search of Mary Shelley, a new biography by Fiona Sampson.

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

Mary Shelley 2017

JWH

 

How Important is Screen Size to Television Watching?

by James Wallace Harris, Mondy, June 11, 2018

Some people love watching movies on their smartphone even though those film premiered on IMAX screens using Dolby Atmos speakers. Evidently, the essential quality of a film is in the storytelling. Television viewers used to watch widescreen Technicolor movies on nineteen inch black and white sets and still enjoyed them immensely.

So why should I worry about upgrading my TV to a larger screen and better sound?

Last night I watched a 1957 western, Night Passage, on a 56″ DLP television via a local over-the-air station called Grit TV. I had recorded it with my TiVo and it cut off the last few seconds. Luckily, I had a DVD copy to watch the ending. When I played the disc I was startled to discover this old western was in 2.35:1 widescreen and the color levels were completely different. When watching the over-the-air version, it didn’t feel like the aspect ratio of 4:3 of old TV pan and scan, because the frame was more rectangular. It had been cropped to be slightly widescreen in appearance.

Below is my way of faking what I’m talking about. I wish I could provide real screenshots, but this is close. I just cropped a widescreen scene with Brandon De Wilde and Jimmy Stewart to 400 x 300 pixels and converted it to black and white to imagine what 1950s TV might have been like (it would have been fuzzier). The second is a photo I found that feels more like the Grit TV version. I assume the third photo is the right aspect ratio.

Night-Passage-fake-4to3

Night Passage cropped

Night Passage widescreen

The thing is, I enjoyed the heck out of seeing this movie again. I especially enjoyed the beautiful scenery. The first time I watched this film was on a black and white television set — and I love it then too. I always remember it as a black and white movie even though it’s in color because of first seeing it on a black and white TV set. But when I looked at the DVD version, I felt like I had missed a significant portion of the film. The DVD widescreen view showed far more scenery, was much sharper and probably the color palette more accurate.

What artistic qualities do we miss from movies and television when we only focus on the storytelling? We could just read books instead if all we wanted was a story.

Would I have enjoyed the film more if I had watched the DVD from the beginning? I have dozens of my favorite westerns on DVD and Blu-ray, but quite often I watch them off of Grit TV. It’s just convenient.

I’ve been contemplating giving up the physical technology of CDs, DVDs, SACDs, and Blu-ray discs. 99% of the time I stream music or television. It would simplify my life if I got rid of all my discs.

I love the idea of minimalism, but what am I sacrificing by rejecting the higher resolution discs of my favorite movies, TV shows, and albums? For the most part, streaming music via Spotify isn’t that different from listening to CDs unless I’m concentrating. Streaming movies with Netflix and Amazon are almost as good as Blu-ray if I’m not concentrating.

Watching the DVD on my 56″ TV is probably as close as I can currently get to having seen Night Passage in the theater in 1957. That would be even truer if I had a larger television set. I assume the more I can recreate the cinematographer’s original vision, the more I can experience the original story to its fullest. But what are those extra dimensions beyond storytelling?

Visual and aural realism.

I was looking at TVs at Best Buy today, thinking I’d upgrade to a 65″ television. But my eyes loved the 75″ screens more, and I was blown away by an 83″ model. The bigger the screen, the more I felt like I was seeing reality. That’s also the difference between books and movies. Before movies, writers spent more words describing what readers would see. Such descriptions added realistic details. The better the author was at describing the world in details, the more readers felt like they were reading something based on truth.

Movies give verisimilitude to storytelling. The widescreen version of Night Passage made me feel Jimmy Stewart was actually in all those natural settings and not on a soundstage. When movies were black and white and had an unrealistic square aspect ratio, they were mostly filmed on sets and backlots. Those old films had a tinsel town feel. When we got Technicolor and widescreen, moviemakers went on locations around the world to give us more realism.

Would I experience art as more true-to-life if I built a home theater with a projector TV with a screen in the 100-120″ range? Probably. Is it needed? No. If I was watching a 4K nature documentary I’d certainly feel like I was there more than when watching a smaller set. It’s like when I play CDs and SACDs, I only hear the extra sound texture if I’m concentrating diligently.

It was when I watch a turtle swimming underwater on the largest sets a Best Buy that I noticed the details of the sand and plants it swam over. I then felt like I was there scuba diving. If I watched The Sweet Smell of Success, another 1957 film, I’d feel what it was like sitting in a glamorous smoky bar in New York City with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

If we watched Downton Abbey at an IMAX theater, the realism of the sets and costumes would be stunning compared to TV watching. Of course, when I tell my wife I want to get a giant screen television she thinks I’m crazy. Why spend so much more money when we already love our twelve-year-old 56″ television? Well, Susan isn’t a good judge of TV technology. She watches television while playing games on her laptop or using Facebook on her iPhone. She needs much less from a story to enjoy it.

The older I get the more I withdraw into my home. Our television set is the way we view the world and visual arts. Is it worth upgrading to 4K? If Night Passage was available on Blu-ray or 4K discs, should I buy them for that extra realism?

Should I give up over-the-air TV? MeTV shows old Perry Mason episodes cropped for modern widescreen TVs without any distortion. Perry never looked better. I tried to find a streaming version of Night Passage to compare, but it’s not available that way. Handmaid’s Tale is stunning to look at on a 56″ TV at 1080p, but what would it look like on a 75″ 4K set, or even projected to 120 inches?

Is wanting a humongous screen just crazy? I could give up all my high-resolution discs, and only live with convenient streaming on a modest 65″ television, but what would I be missing? I suppose someday streaming music and movies will have the same quality as discs and wall-size televisions will be affordable by all and we won’t have to worry about making such decisions.

JWH

 

 

 

Why We Need To Share

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 7, 2017

This morning while I was eating my breakfast I played “Your Top Songs 2017.” This is a playlist Spotify generated for me by collecting the songs I listened to most this year. If you subscribe to Spotify you can play the songs with this embedded player immediately below. For those who don’t, I’m going to embed some YouTube videos to try.

I played this music very loud while I ate and because it’s the music I love the most. It moves me in ways I can’t describe. And while this music pushed my emotional buttons I wished I had someone here to share it with. My friend Mike was my last pal who would listen to music with me, but his hearing has gone downhill so he no longer likes to share music. Getting old is sad. I worry that my hearing is going too.

The past year, more than ever, I realized that friendships are based on what we share. I think this is why Facebook is so popular. We post something we like and then see who else likes it. It’s always fun to find a video or cartoon that many friends love too. I guess it’s a kind of validation of our tastes. But I think it also allows us to feel we’re existing close to someone.

We all live in our heads, and no matter how physically close we get to another person we don’t feel that closeness unless we psychologically resonate. The easiest way to achieve this is to do something together with another person that shares our interests. For example, it’s far more enjoyable to go to a movie and both people love it than to go and only one person love the show.

I love the Bette Midler song above. I will relate to you more if you love it too. Now “Do You Want To Dance” is an easy song to like so I should find plenty of friends to share it. And “The Other Side” by Michael Nyman easily admired by most folks because it’s so pretty. But what about “Moanin'” by Charles Mingus. Mike and I connected on this song, but I don’t think I have another friend that shares this particular love.

Probably somewhere in the middle, I can find more people who will share “I’ll Play the Blues for You (Pts. 1 & 2)” by Albert King. Bette Midler’s song was pop music, so duh, that stands for popular music. Jazz is esoteric for most music fans, but blues has a decent following. I share a love of the blues with my sister Becky. I almost can’t play this Albert King song too loud.

Susan, my wife have a lot of songs we love together, but our playlists of favorite songs are very different. When we’re in the car we have to choose who’s songs get played. When a song she’s crazy about comes on and I don’t love it back Susan’s disappointed. The same is true when one of my favorites is playing and she finds it annoying.

Susan works out of town, so in the evenings I have different friends over to watch TV in the evening. Each friendship is a Venn diagram where we find what to watch in the intersection of interests. What’s really difficult is to have 3-4 people all trying to agree on a film to watch. It’s a very satisfying feeling when the pick makes four people happy.

However, there’s a range of television shows and movies I want to see that I can’t find a friend to share. This makes me feel lonelier. Even Janis, my main TV buddy goes to sleep on a many of the shows I’m most anxious to see. Generally, I have to watch westerns, documentaries, and old black and white movies from the 1930s and 1940s by myself.

Some of my most intense feelings come from songs, books, movies, and television shows. Often these deeply aesthetic pleasures come late at night when I’m alone. Listening to these songs this morning is generating intense emotions that I wish I could describe, but can’t. And I think that’s the key to why we want to share. We can’t describe what we feel so we at least hope to find someone to experience the same thing with us. Unfortunately, we can click the Like icon but we have no way of knowing if what our friends are feeling is the same thing we’re feeling.

Do any of these songs resonate with you?

JWH

‘Godless’ and the Western Movie Genre

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 5, 2017

I grew up back in the 1950s watching old westerns on TV. Even though I took up reading science fiction in the 1960s and have always identified myself as science fiction fan, my favorite movie genre is westerns. I’m rather finicky about my westerns too. Although the 1950s and 1960s were the heydays of television cowboy shows, I prefer the cinema westerns from Stagecoach (1939) to Ride the High Country (1962) era. Starting with films like A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Wild Bunch (1969) movie makers began to alter the genre. I liked these films, but they weren’t the same as the westerns I loved most and how I define the genre.

Too often today when they do make westerns, the level of violence is off the scale. We still get a quality western every few years. Open Range (2003), Appaloosa (2008), and True Grit (2010) are wonderful examples, even though their style has migrated away from how I define the classic western. But I find westerns like Quentin Tarantino’s two recent films grotesque insults to the genre. All too often, I just can’t watch the films called westerns today.

Godless - Alice Fletcher

Thus, I was both excited and a little worried when I first heard about Godless. I must say I enjoyed the series and raced through all seven episodes in days. However, I’m not sure what to make of it artistically, morally, and philosophically.

No work or critic can define a genre, but there are movies called westerns that completely distort what I consider to be the heart of the genre. Even during the 1950s, there were so-called westerns where characters rode horses and carried guns but their story’s soul belong to some other historical psyche.

Goddless Frank Griffin

As a kid, I grew up believing watching westerns taught me about American history. That made my black and white television screen a window to the past. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that every decade has a different view of the American West. How do you reconcile They Died With Their Boots On (1941) with Little Big Man (1970)? Godless (2017) gives us another view of 1888, but should we consider it insight into 1888 history, or just a thrill ride fantasy like West World (2016)?

Godless is full of horrendous violence with a hard-to-believe ending. I feel any good western should be true to the 19th-century even if it doesn’t chronicle historical events. I judge westerns by these criteria:

  • Do characters talk and act like their 1800s period counterpoints?
  • Do the costumes and sets look like the era they depict?
  • Could the plot have happened in the true west era?
  • Are the guns right for the period?
  • Is the level of violence appropriate for the times?
  • Is the story connected with history?
  • If the characters are based on real people how well are they portrayed?
  • Are there anachronisms in the sets, costumes, dialog, mannerisms, or plots?

Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) is an extreme character in Godless, especially since he thunders around the country with over thirty killers on horseback. But was Griffin more violent or crazy than William Quantrill or John Brown? Was the bizarre massacre of Creede, Colorado unrealistic when you think about Lawrence, Kansas of 1863? Also, Frank’s strange adoption by Mormons is based on the real Mountain Meadows massacre. (Although Frank looks too old to have fit the real timeline of history.)

My measuring rod for western violence is the gunfight at the O.K. Corral which took place in 1881. It was probably the most famous gunfight in the old west with nine combatants and three deaths. The most famous killing of the gangster era of the 1920s and 1930s involved seven deaths, and it was an execution and not a shootout. So when movies have their characters racking up huge body counts it moves away from being historical towards gun porn to thrill our prurient bloodlust.

Godless feels both realistic and unrealistic. I found it hard to believe Frank and his band of murderers traveled without pack horses and supplies. They looked kind of silly galloping across the land like a large anti-posse with one-armed Frank in the lead. It reminded me of Forty Guns when Barbara Stanwyck would lead 40 gunfighters on 40 horses faithfully riding behind her wherever she went. In both movies, the mass of riders looked silly, even overly melodramatic. Modern movies are always trying to out-do past movies. I’m surprised Frank did have 80 outriders. Maybe the makers of Godless hadn’t seen Forty Guns. The show would have been more realistic with just a dozen in Frank’s army. It certainly could have made the ending more realistic.

Overall I admired and enjoyed Godless. But the show kept bugging me with small distracting issues. Michelle Dockery had too many outfits for a poor woman living on an 1888 ranch, some of them much too fashionable. And she changed them too often. And even though I liked the idea of a town full of women fighting an army of outlaws, it seemed cartoonish. Their last stand reminded me of The Magnificent Seven, which is a western I love, but one that’s somewhat over-the-top. Godless goes way overboard. There were other small details that bothered me too, but mentioning them might give spoilers.

I wasn’t sure about the costumes. They seemed realistic at times, especially for the men. Westerns are always changing how the old west looked. Just compare True Grit (1969) to True Grit (2010). One reason I didn’t like 1960s TV westerns was everyone’s costumes seem too clean and store bought. I’ve always wondered if the wild west fashions of cowboy films of the 1920s and 1930s were more realistic because they were closer in time to the actual historical west. I keep looking for period photos for clues, but they are hard to come by.

1888 woman of the west

[Here is Mattie Lucas 1888 from Custer County, Nebraska.]

Finally, there’s the philosophical interpretation. Westerns are inherently about violence. Guns and gunfights are the solutions to western plot conflicts. I assume Frank and his gang represent evil and the citizens of La Belle represent goodness. But I’m curious how our politically divided country will see things. To liberals, Frank and his gang may remind them of gun nuts and mass shooters. Frank could be a stand-in for Wayne LaPierre and the NRA. To conservatives, Frank is a crazy Islamic fundamentalist with a gang of terrorists. They see La Belle as proof that people need to arm themselves. The film shows women with no gun training effectively using firearms to save themselves.

The love triangle between Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), and Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) was unsatisfying to me. But the one between Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever) and Callie Dunne (Tess Frazer) felt logical. So did the one between Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Louise Hobbs (Jessica Sula).

Godless - ranch

Law and the government are shown to be ineffective at protecting citizens in this story, as is in most westerns. Plus, the press is corrupt. A. T. Grigg (Jeremy Bobb) is the editor and reporter for the Santa Fe Daily Review and a publisher of fake news. Grigg reminds me of W. W. Beauchamp, the writer in Unforgiven (1992). I believe this is realistic though because newspapers back then printed pretty much what they felt like, and dime novelists invented the Wild West with tall tales.

Sean T. Collins over at AV Club has an episode-by-episode review of Godless, where he did a fair amount of nitpicking. I could see the faults he saw, but for the most part, they didn’t bother me. Collins gave most of the episodes a B or B-. I think I’d give the show a B+ overall. Godless isn’t Lonesome Dove, but it’s not far behind it as a western mini-series. I’d guess most fans would consider Lonesome Dove (1989) the gold standard of television westerns. I’d agree and also give Deadwood (2004-2006) an A+ too.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite westerns.

Recommended Reading

JWH

Blade Runner 2049 – The Evil of Heartless Sequels

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Normally I don’t write “reviews” of works I dislike. Why waste time on bad art, huh? I prefer to promote creative work I admire. However, in trying to understand why I disliked Blade Runner 2049 I asked myself, “What did I love about the original?” It came to me instantly – the voiceover. In that moment I realized Harrison’s Ford narration in the original film was the heart of the story. That insight also explained why Ridley Scott detested the voiceover. The narration must come from a human, and Scott wanted Deckard to be a replicant.

Blade Runner 2049-2

Before seeing Blade Runner 2049 I watched Blade Runner (final cut) with a friend. I explained the history of all the versions to her and offered to show her whichever one she wanted. She picked the final cut. Normally, I always rewatch the theatrical version, which is how I first saw the film back in 1982. Whenever I see one of the director’s cuts the viewing is always a letdown. They have the same sterile quality Blade Runner 2049 has.

Blade Runner 2049 is directed by Denis Villeneuve, with the story by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. However, it feels like a Ridley Scott baby. Scott has always argued that Rick Deckard was a replicant and Blade Runner 2049 vindicates that idea to the point that I think of this film as an expression of his ideas.

Back in 2008, I wrote “Is It Time To Remake Blade Runner?” which was really a plea to film Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as the story was written by Philip K. Dick. I believe the book deserves a truer conversion to film than Blade Runner. I can’t document this, but I believe Ridley Scott bragged that he hadn’t even read the novel when making the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the original theatrical version of Blade Runner, but I don’t consider it very PKD.

When the screenwriters changed androids to replicants something else got changed. In the book, androids are soulless creatures who look like humans but completely lack empathy. They are self-aware but are also psychopathic sociopaths. I believe PKD intended them to be symbolic of inhuman humans. Blade Runner is about artificial creatures that were meant to be soulless slaves that have accidentally evolved empathy. We’re supposed to feel for them. And I did with the Harrison Ford voiceover.

Without the voiceover, both films are just action flicks of heartless machines killing heartless machines. Why has Riddley Scott never understood the Romeo and Juliet beauty of having a love story between lovers from two opposing houses? In Blade Runner 2049 we are taken on a meaningless thrill ride where it’s impossible to tell human from replicant – and I really didn’t give a shit either. There are a few touching scenes in Blade Runner 2049, but they are so artificial as to cause existential angst. At times we feel for K, our replicant protagonist, but the scenes are so obviously manipulating us that it’s hard to genuinely care.

In Blade Runner 2049 it becomes obvious the real problem is our lack of understanding of replicants. They are called skin jobs. That implies they are machines covered in skin. But that’s not true. In both movies, they bleed. In Blade Runner 2049 they seem to be artificially produced biological creatures that can’t reproduce on their own, and the goal of the mad scientist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is to create a Nexus model that is self-replicating. But what’s the fucking point of that? Humans are self-replicating, and we have plenty of them.

Wallace wants a new process to produce less costly slaves. The government obviously backs him as long as replicants don’t act like real humans. However, we also learn replicants have secretly organized into a slave rebellion. But why secret? What good is a secret mass-movement? Isn’t it obvious that replicants aren’t soulless machines?  Do any moviegoers feel the replicants aren’t equal to people? That makes the whole point of the film a straw man argument. Truly pointless. It’s funny, but Jared Leto’s character is the most inhuman character in the film and he’s supposed to be human. Or will Ridley Scott pull another juvenile joke and claim everyone in this film was a replicant.

Our world is full of robotic slaves now. They don’t have consciousness. They don’t look human. They lack any kind of consciousness. A major theme of science fiction has always been about when robots become conscious. Generally, these science fictional robots are shown as looking human. I guess SF writers assume we can’t empathize with them if they don’t look like us. By the way, the film Her did a fantastic job of overcoming this problem.

We’ve always wanted to build robots that look like us, and that’s a problem. We want them to do our work, but we worry about robots becoming self-aware as us. If they do, we can’t keep them as slaves, and we fear they may become better than us. The TV show Humans is exploring this same topic. The trouble is Blade Runner 2049 adds absolutely nothing to this topic. The film only confuses the issues in its razzle-dazzle. It lacks both a heart and a brain. Almost every character is violent and action-oriented.

Blade Runner 2049

PKD’s original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn’t about action. His androids are conscious, self-aware beings that lack empathy. Rachel is alluring and beautiful, but a cold-blooded killer. Dick’s theme wasn’t robot suffrage. PKD believed the androids in his story deserved to be destroyed because without empathy they are evil, and in doing so infers that humans without empathy are evil too. PKD’s story wasn’t about killing androids but identifying inhuman humans.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is vastly more complicated than Blade Runner. If I could film it I would give it the look of 1959 films, because I believe PKD formative decades were the 1940s and 1950s. Its future setting would be very retro-future. It would have the Penfield mood organs and Mercerism. And the story would focus on philosophy and psychology rather than fights and shooting. The film must keep Iran, Deckard’s wife. And it needs the fake police station, having Deckard doubt himself, and eventually proving he’s human. And it needs the artificial religion of Mercerism.

Blade Runner leaves so many fascinating concepts out from the original novel. First off, Rick Deckard isn’t a tough-guy like Harrison Ford, but a married man trying to save his marriage. Their livelihood depended on the bounty from killing androids. The novel opens with their marital squabbling, and the use of mood organs. Mood organs are personal devices for controlling psychological states. People in this future use them to subtly control how they interact with other people, cope at home and work, and explore hundreds of emotional states. PKD uses this imaginary device to dissect human nature. The book is stuffed with observations about what it means to be human. Blade Runner uses none of that. PKD was obsessed with psychiatry, psychology and philosophy and his stories constantly explore those subjects. The Blade Runner movies only faintly hint at the issues PKD brought up in endless ways.

Blade Runner 2049 does not define humans or replicants. We can’t tell them apart. In fact, the evil scientist who creates the replicants acts like a heartless AI, and K, the Ryan Gossling character, who we know is a replicant, when left alone is humanly hung up on an AI girlfriend (who may be a future descendant of Alexa).

Blade Runner 2049 fails horribly if you need a human story. For moviegoers who love eye candy, violence, and a rollercoaster plot, you’ll probably be happy enough.

What’s evil is trying to make millions by making a movie that lacks heart, based on a novel that struggles to define our hearts. Seems kind of heartless, don’t you think?

Blade Runner 2049 is chock full of touchstone analogs from the original Blade Runner. That felt manipulative like Ridley Scott wanted to push our emotional buttons as if we were replicants. Did he expect us to emotionally resonate with air hoses being pulled out, yucky eyeballs, pianos, giant billboards animated with Japanese women, microscopic photo scanning machines, bicyclists riding in parallel formation, machines that measure artificial minds, old abandoned apartment buildings, drinking whiskey from squarish glasses, women dressed like 1970s hookers, giant pyramid-shaped buildings, flying cars, sentimental photographs, umbrellas and rain, and so on.

Everything in Blade Runner 2049 seems set-up for additional sequels, but like his Alien franchise, they will probably continue to abuse the original. I’ve gotten so I hate sequels to books and films. There are few exceptions, but for the most part, sequels feel like they are conning me for my money.

JWH

 

Why Do I Love Old Black and White TV Shows and Movies?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Normally I watch the latest hit TV shows, usually on Netflix, HBO, or Amazon Prime. Generally, I watch these shows with friends. I’ve gotten so I don’t like watching TV alone. However, when I do, it’s because I’m too tired to do anything else and it’s too early to go to bed. When I’m alone I’m drawn to old black and white television shows, movie westerns from the 1950s and old Hollywood movies from the 1930s. Why do I prefer black and white shows? Why do I save shows in color for when I’m with friends?

MeTV got me hooked on two old TV series this month, The Fugitive and The Outer Limits. Both shows premiered in 1963. As a kid, I discovered The Outer Limits when the first episode aired. It ran on Monday nights at 7 on ABC. My father loved The Fugitive which came out on Tuesdays on ABC at 10 pm. I watched it some back then but didn’t really care for it. I generally hated the TV my folks loved. I don’t know if that was rebellion or I was just too young for the content.

I have a hard time remembering my dad being home, but he loved TV, and he liked it best when us kids weren’t around. There was nothing on Tuesdays at 10 my sister Becky and I wanted to see, so we left him alone to watch The Fugitive in peace. A half-century later, I’m staying up late watching The Fugitive alone like he did. I wonder if that gives me any kind of psychic connection to how my father felt?

Fugitive

Becky and I were horrible TV hogs. We’d have huge shouting matches with our dad on Sunday nights during the 1966/67 season when we pleaded to watch The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and he fought to see Bonanza, his favorite western. I loved westerns too, but not Bonanza or The Virginian, my mother’s favorite cowboy show. Gunsmoke was my TV shoot-em-up. I don’t think Becky ever liked westerns, but I should ask her the next time she calls.

This year I’ve also bought the first seasons of Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Route 66, and Cheyenne. I bought the complete series of The Twilight Zone on Blu-ray and The Fugitive on DVD. I’m thinking about buying Perry Mason and Maverick.

Route 66

I used to hate Perry Mason, which was my mother’s all-time favorite TV show. She also loved to read the Perry Mason mysteries. But for some reason this year, I started watching them on MeTV. I liked that it was in black and white and sometimes featured street scenes of the early 1960s. That’s why I bought Route 66 because it was filmed on location, viewing 1963 America in contrasty black and white.

 

At the start of the 1963 TV season, we were living on Homestead Air Force Base. I started the seventh grade at Redlands Junior High in South Florida, when I was eleven. After a few weeks, we moved back to Hollywood, Florida, and I attended my second 7th-grade school, but I forgot its name. I thought it was Broward Junior High, but I can’t verify that on the internet. I was in class at that school when they announced over the PA that JFK had been shot. Three days later I turned twelve. After that, we moved to South Carolina, where I went to my third 7th-grade school, John F. Kennedy Junior High.

The Outer Limits

Memories of 1963 represent living in two states and three schools, and for some reason the 1963/64 television season also vividly sticks in my mind. I started regularly listening to rock music at the end of 1962 when I got an AM clock radio for Christmas. I became much more aware of the world around this time. It was during that time period I became a bookworm, rock & roll fan, addicted to the boob tube, and started going to the movie theater on my own.

High Barbaree

I remember watching TV since I was four or five, probably with the 1956/57 television season. My family didn’t get a color television set until 1965, so my first decade of TV was in glorious black and white. All my life I’ve loved old black and white movies from the 1930s and 1940s. I wonder if that’s because I spent my formative years viewing a B&W TV screen? My earliest memory of my father is waking up in the middle of the night when I was four, and walking out to the living room to find my dad watching an old movie on television. He let me stay up and watch it with him. This is my first memory of television and the first movie I ever remember seeing. I didn’t discover until years later it was High Barbaree (1947) with June Allyson and Van Johnson.

Why now? Why has my mind started craving old black and white TV shows again, ones from long ago? Is it just nostalgia? Is it a way of communing with my dead parents. And isn’t it odd that I’m not watching the shows I loved as a kid but prefer seeing the ones my parents watched when I wasn’t around?  I still can’t stand Bonanza or The Virginia. Both of those shows insult my sense of what a western should be.

The other night my friends and I watched The Solid Gold Cadilac and I found it immensely pleasurable it was in wide-screen black and white. I can only remember a couple wide-screen black and white films at the moment, The Apartment and The Big Trail, both of which I have on Blu-ray. It’s a shame B&W wide-screen didn’t catch on back in 1930.

Am I drawn to the black and white, or to the period content? I don’t know. I’m not sure I would like The Fugitive as much if it had been in color for its first three seasons. For some reason, I’ve never liked the remakes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits which were made in color. And the only horror movies I enjoy are the classics from the 1930s which were in black and white.

I wonder if nostalgia comes in black and white and modernity in technicolor? The 1950s were definitely a black and white decade to me, even though I have some personal photographs to prove it was indeed in color. I wonder if kids who have always lived with color TV ever think of the past in black and white? Were my formative years corrupted by black and white TV sets? Will children today remember the world in LCD/OLED imagery? How would my consciousness of the past be today if I had never seen a TV, movie or computer screen, or photograph of any kind? Would I even conceive of black and white?

The world does turn black and white in low light, or when you’ve had way too much to drink. But now that we preserve the past digitally in color, will that eventually eliminate an appreciation of viewing reality in grayscale?

JWH