If You Love Collecting Anything, You’ll Love Bathtubs Over Broadway

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 19, 2019

Steve Young was a comedy writer for the David Letterman Show. One of Young’s extra duties was finding oddball records that Dave could make fun of on the show. Because of this Young discovered an extremely rare kind of LP – musicals produced for corporate sales conventions. At first, these songs were the butt of jokes on the Letterman show but soon Young fell in love with the songs, lyrics, performances, and eventually the performers. Young began to passionately collect these records for himself. The history of his collecting, and how it led him to discover the history of the industrial musical is told in the award-winning documentary, Bathtubs Over Broadway, currently playing on Netflix and for rent at Amazon. It has a 100% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Last night I had friends over to watch a movie. I tried to get them to see Bathtubs Over Broadway. I’ve tried for weeks to get any of my movie watching buddies to see it with me. My friend Linda saw it at a film festival in Denver and told me it was wonderful. We ended up watching The Bookshop instead, hoping it would be one of those feel-good indy English flicks, but it wasn’t. So after Mike and Betsy left, I stayed up late watching Bathtubs Over Broadway by myself.

I do admit the title sounds awful, but to all my friends who wouldn’t watch this movie with me – HA! You don’t know what you missed.

Of course, maybe it’s just me. I thought Bathtubs Over Broadway was a heartwarming documentary about becoming a pop culture collector. But then I have a slight collecting habit myself. I love tracking down old science fiction anthologies, so I know the excitement of finding a rare item.

Steve Young said before he started collecting the industrial musicals he had no friends in his life other than family at home at coworkers at work. Once he started sleuthing these LPs he befriended other collectors – weird guys like himself. I also know the importance of finding someone else who shares an obscure interest in a microscope aspect of reality.

What’s most inspiring about Bathtubs Over Broadway was the length Steve would go to find these rare LPs. The heyday of industrial musicals was in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and Young discovered some of the composers and performers were still alive. At first, he contacted them hoping they’d have more records he could collect, but ended up making wonderful friends and learning a unique aspect of American history.

Bathtubs Over Broadway might sound kitschy and camp, and it is, but it’s also uplifting, moving, inspiring, educational, and enlightening.

Don’t let the title mislead you into missing it.

p.s.

In case you want to know more, Steve Young and Sport Murphy wrote a whole book on industrial musicals – Everything Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals. Follow this link to hear songs, see videos, and read more history after watching Bathtubs Over Broadway.

Everythings Coming Up Profits

JWH

The Elegance of Quiet Science Fiction Films

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 29, 2019

Advantageous (2015) is the kind of quiet science fiction film I love. It was directed by Jennifer Phang, who co-wrote it with Jacqueline Kim, the star of the film. Advantageous is currently streaming on Netflix and I have no memory of it ever coming to the theater (even though it has an 83% Rotten Tomatoes rating). I watched this movie with my friend Annie. She thought the show was only okay, but I loved it. But then my favorite science film is Gattaca. I prefer quiet science fiction movies without chases, explosions, and dazzling special effects. Annie prefers more action.

Advantageous is set in the near future where AI are taking jobs from people. Advantageous is about Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim) who is the spokesperson for a rejuvenation corporation who is being fired for looking too old. Gwen is desperate to get another job to keep paying for the expensive schooling for Jules (Samantha Kim), her daughter. In this future, the unspoken belief is its better to give jobs to men because if too many of them were unemployed it would cause civil unrest. Gwen feels Jules can only have a future if she has an elite education, and she’s willing to do anything give her daughter a future.

I don’t want to spoil the film, but let’s just say that Advantageous explores a number of popular current science fiction themes in written science fiction. The film is set in an unnamed city with a breathtaking skyline of ornate skyscrapers that are occasionally hit by terrorist explosions. The citizens of this future passively ignore these attacks as a powerful government deals with them without alarm. We are shown other flaws in this tomorrowland just as quietly. This is a utopian world that is beginning to reveal hairline cracks.

One requirement of enjoying quiet science fiction films is reading between subtle lines. It helps to be well-versed in written science fiction. Gwen is given a decision to make, a “Cold Equations” or “Think Like a Dinosaur” decision. If you don’t know these classic science fiction short stories you might not appreciate the impacts of her choice. The ideas in Advantageous have been explored in great detail in written science fiction. That makes me wonder if movie-only Sci-Fi fans will pick up on the finer points of this story.

Manohla Dargis over at the New York Times was less enthusiastic about the film than me:

Ms. Phang, who wrote the script with Ms. Kim, throws a lot into her movie — ideas about maternity, identity and technologies of the female body swirl alongside nods to the French New Wave — without always connecting the pieces. Eventually, a picture emerges that at times suggests a strange if alluring mash-up of “Stella Dallas” and Michel Foucault, with a smidgen of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” and a hint of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Ms. Phang has a way with spooky moods and interiors, and as a performer, Ms. Kim makes a fine accompanist, though she’s tamped down too much. It’s a kick to see how effectively Ms. Phang has created the future on a shoestring even if she hasn’t yet figured out how to turn all her smart ideas into a fully realized feature.

I thought Advantageous was fully realized. It set up all the science fictional speculation and then dealt with them in a satisfying way. It just didn’t cover everything explicitly, but quietly implied what we needed to know. Maybe that’s why this movie is an unknown gem. Too many filmgoers want action and obviousness. I watched the film last night and I’m already wanting to see it again. I’m sure there are little delights I’ve missed. Quiet films are perfect for meditation, they keep unfolding with additional viewing and contemplation.

JWH

 

Mindfulness Inside Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Probably most people picture mindfulness as the act of sitting on a beach crosslegged meditating on existence. The word mindfulness connotates an aesthetic living alone in the desert or on a high mountain monastery in Tibet. But it also applies to you washing the dishes, taking a crap, and even being fully aware while you’re reading a book or watching television.

BE HERE NOW is an important lesson of eastern philosophy. Our minds wander all over our distractions. Mindfulness is the ability to live fully in the moment being aware of what each sense is telling us and how we process it. One of the first things you should observe is there are more than five senses. Mindfulness is the ability to keep our model of reality in sync with reality. We are not little beings peering out our heads through sensory windows at reality. Our senses recreate a model of reality inside our head which our observer assumes and acts upon as if it was the objective reality. Subjective thoughts distort the flow of data from the external reality. Mindfulness is the skill of observing all of this happen.

Many of us spend a good portion of our day inside fiction. How can we be mindful when we’re lost in reading a novel, watching a television show, or out at the movies? We substitute our cognitive model of reality with a fictional model that someone else has created. We fool ourselves into believing we are someone else, being somewhere else, doing something else. Fiction by its very nature is anti-mindfulness.

Fiction is sometimes how we communicate our models of reality. Other times, fiction is intentional replacements for our model of reality meant to entertain or provide us temporary vacations from reality. When we’re inside fiction, we’re at least two dimensions away from the external reality. The only way to be truly mindful is to constantly recall our immediate place in reality, but that spoils the magical illusion of fiction.

Is it possible to be a bookworm and be mindful at the same time? Is it possible to be mindful while inside fiction? Especially when it requires forgetting who and where we are to fully experience a work of fiction.

While I’m at the movies watching Colette, I must juggle the sensation of seeing an illusion of 19th-century Paris while sitting in a dark room in Memphis, Tennessee. I must accept Keira Knightley pretending to fool me that she is Colette, a woman who spoke another language in another time and is long dead. This is when fiction is a tool for communicating what reality might have been like for another person. Being fully mindful of the experience requires observing my memories of history and knowledge of movie making as it reacts with experiencing the film in a darkened theater.

To be mindful in such a situation requires grasping the gestalt of a complex experience. That’s why people usually pick a quiet empty room to work at mindfulness. It’s much easier to observe our mental state of the moment when not much is going on. Being mindful inside fiction requires our observer watching a symphony of mental activity and understanding how it all works together.

Generally, we consume fiction to forget our observer. When I was listening to The Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky I was imaging being thousands of years in the future and many light years away. This new model of reality was generated by whispering words into my ear. I never completely forgot the input from my senses because I listened to the audiobook while eating breakfast or walking around the neighborhood.

I believe part of being mindful while inside fiction is to observe our psychological need for that particular kind of fiction at that moment and how I’m reacting to it. I want and get something much different watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel than when I watch Get Shorty. What I experience while reading Friday by Robert A. Heinlein is much different from what I experience reading Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber. The lack of mindfulness inside fiction lets us consume fiction in the same way we can eat a bag of potato chips without noticing that each chip was different.

If I don’t explore why my mind is entertained by stories of a 1959 housewife becoming a standup comic in New York City and a low-life thug wanting to become a movie producer in modern-day Nevada, then I’m not totally being here now.

The purpose of mindfulness is to be fully aware of who you are in the moment. So, it’s almost oxymoron to ask if we can practice mindfulness inside fiction because most people use fiction to escape who they are in the moment. But then, most people aren’t fully in the moment when they are getting dressed or even sitting in a lotus pose in front of a sunset. In the west, mindfulness is taught as a cure for the stress of living. We are told if we meditate five or ten minutes during the day it will help us handle the stress of the rest of the day. Of course, meditation is not mindfulness, but all too often they are confused as one.

One reason I’m bringing up the topic of mindfulness inside fiction is that I believe some types of fiction are polluting our minds. I have to wonder if all the violence in fiction isn’t programming our minds in subtle ways. Is there not a correlation between the mass consumption of violent fiction and the violence we’re seeing in everyday life? The other day I saw a short documentary on the history of the video game. In the 1950s video games were just blips on the screen. Today they almost look like movies. It startled me to see sequences from first-person shooters because I realized those video games were creating the same kind of scenes that mass shooters must see as they walk around blowing real people away.

I have to wonder if the rise of overblown emotional rhetoric we encounter in real life is not inspired by dramatic lines from characters in fiction. Everyday people can’t seem to express their feelings without putting them into harshest of words. Too many people can’t object to a philosophy without claiming they will kill the philosopher.

I  believe its time we extend moments of mindfulness beyond quiet empty rooms or restful respites in nature. We need to observe what fiction is doing to our minds, especially at the subconscious level. We need to be mindful why we seek fiction. We need to understand the purpose of fiction in our lives. We need to know why we turn our own lives off in favor of fictional lives. We need to know what our minds bring back from our fictional vacations.

When I first took computer courses back in 1971, I was taught an interesting acronym, GIGO. It stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. It meant if you put lousy code and data into a computer you’d get crap for output. I believe it also applies to fiction.

JWH

Guest Star – Susan Oliver

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 7, 2018

Life is indeed full of little pleasures. Nowadays, I love watching old television shows, and it’s another small delight I can add to my daily total when I can recognize a character actor from the past. The other night I watched an episode of Route 66 with Susan Oliver guest starring. (“Welcome to Amity“- 1961:s1:e29). I had seen her a number of times lately on other old shows, including a two-parter on The Fugitive. (“Never Wave Goodbye” –  1963:s1:e4-5).

Susan Oliver made a career out of guest starring. Back in the early days of television audiences had no problem with guest actors appearing as different characters, and were usually allowed to appear in the same series once a year. Oliver was so well-liked by audiences that she appeared annually in many popular television shows, each time as a different character. Yes, Susan Oliver was strikingly attractive but more important, she always struck me as a tortured soul which uniquely revealed itself in every character she played. I never knew why until an odd incidence of serendipity.

I can’t tell you the first time I saw Susan Oliver, but I can tell you the last time. It was Wednesday night, December 5, 2018 when I saw her in that episode of Route 66. I remembered her name and face but I didn’t know anything about her history. Normally, I would have gone on to watch another show and forgot all about her for the moment. If by accident in the future I again caught one of her guest appearances I would have had another little spark of pleasure if I recognized her and remembered the Route 66 episode.

But something weird happened. It almost felt like The Twilight Zone music played. I clicked the Home button on my Amazon Fire and went to my watchlist. I don’t know why, but my eye immediately caught The Green Girl, a documentary I thought was about Star Trek. That appealed to me. I hit play. Then I discovered the documentary was really about Susan Oliver. That was spooky and fun.

I had completely forgotten that Susan Oliver had played Vina in the first Star Trek pilot that Gene Roddenberry had made in 1964. The film from that pilot was reused in 1966 to make a two-part episode called “The Menagerie” (s1:e11-12). I had seen “The Menagerie” when it first premiered on November 17, 1966. Vina might be Susan Oliver’s most famous role, and thus the title of the documentary. At one point, Vina appeared as a fantasy to Capt. Pike (this was before Capt. Kirk) as a dancing green alien woman. Susan Oliver’s green woman was also shown in the closing credits of the first season of Star Trek, making her famous to Star Trek fandom. I had completely forgotten that until seeing the documentary.

I was eight days from being sixteen when I first saw that episode of Star Trek with Susan Oliver. I thought she was beautiful then, but I didn’t memorize her name at that time. By then I had probably seen her in several television shows. Oliver was never famous, never had her own TV series, or became a movie star, but she appeared in almost countless television shows starting in the 1950s. She’s now haunting me because I’m watching all those old TV shows again.

The Green Girl is a wonderful 2014 tribute to Susan Oliver that tells her life story, interviews her friends and fellow actors, and shows clips from dozens of her performances. The documentary also chronicled her exploits as a competitive pilot. Oliver flew across the Atlantic solo and came in second in a cross-country race. As she aged she tried writing and directing but was thwarted because she was a woman. The Green Girl provides both a moving story about an ambitious young woman breaking into movies and television back when I was growing up and also reminds those of us who grew up back then of all the television shows we loved so much.

The Green Girl

When I was young I used to be frustrated with older folks when they didn’t know my favorite pop culture icons. I couldn’t understand how they could be so clueless to current famous people. Now that I’m old, I’m clueless about the identities of current pop culture favorites, and I realize I should have been more forgiving of my elders. I also wish now that I had memorized far more people back then. I feel bad in 2018 that I hadn’t become a dedicated fan of Susan Oliver in the 1950s, memorizing her name and following her career until she died.

This is kind of weird, maybe even spooky too, but for some unfathomable reason, I’m drawn to my pop culture past. I do love modern TV. For example, I’m crazy about The Marvelous Mrs. Meisel. But I can’t tell you who plays Mrs. Meisel. I’m not even going to make the effort to look it up – I’d only forget it. Why aren’t I memorizing all the details of current pop culture? I don’t even try. I don’t even feel guilty for not knowing. But it is important to me to keep up with the trivia of the 1950s and 1960s. Why?

When Susan Oliver shows up in an old TV show it brings me a little pleasure. Recalling the character actors names in shows I haven’t seen for decades gives me a twinge of happiness. And it’s not like the present doesn’t also bring pleasure. I really, really love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It gives me great happiness. Much more than watching old favorite TV shows. Yet, I feel no need to memorize the names of its actors. Why?

It feels like I’m giving up on the present because I enjoy the past more. I’m not sure if that’s healthy, but then I don’t care either. I used to wonder why old guys wore orange plaid slacks with red paisley shirts. Now I know it’s because they are old and have an “I don’t give a shit” attitude about everything. (Although I’m quite thankful I don’t have the urge to wear plaid and paisley together. If I did, I would.) For some reason, it’s more important to remember trivia from the old days than it is to remember facts about the present.

If you feel that way, then I bet you’ll love watching The Green Girl.

JWH

 

What’s a Western?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Big Trail - 1930

Newsweek recently posted “The Best Western Movies of All Time, According to Critics and Audiences.” None of my all-time favorite westerns made the list. Some of my most favorites did, but they were few and far between. The editors created the list from Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores, which shifted the results toward recent films. It also includes many films I don’t consider westerns. But most of all, it lists films that use the western setting to create a pornography of violence rather than explore the original theme of violence in westerns.

Ever since The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch movie makers have been escalating the body counts in westerns until some modern films are sick distortions of the genre. The core theme of a western has always been killing is a solution to a moral problem. So, violence per se isn’t the issue. What I object to is using the western setting to create a Circus Maximus of deaths for those viewers who crave feasts of bloodshed.

What’s a western? No two people will agree, but I’m going to give you my definition. Westerns are my favorite movie genre. I greatly admire films that epitomizes the genre. Maybe I’m too hung up on form, but if you set out to write a sonnet, following the rules inspires the creativity.

For me, a western must be set in the America West during the 19th century, usually after the Mountain Man/Trapper era, which I consider its own genre, and before civilization, Christianity, industry, urbanization, and commercialization altered the natural west. The films The Big Trail and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid work as bookends to the era I’m talking about.

Westerns are about the settling of the land west of the Mississippi in the 1800’s. Generally, westerns are morality plays before Christianity and courts tamed the country. Conflicts in westerns are settled with guns rather than laws. Westerns usually deal with life before women, churches, and governments destroyed the freedom of the wilderness.

I prefer westerns that have some historical accuracy, but generally westerns are mythic, legendary, and fabled. Each decade retells the myths with the insights of their times, often rewriting the facts. One of my favorite books about westerns is West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (1993) by Jane Tompkins. Tompkins is a feminist who looks at book and movie westerns with great insights. Not everyone will agree with her but she analyzes westerns at a deeper level than most fans.

Winchester 73

Here is Newsweek’s list, but in reverse of their order. Bold means I’ve seen it. [Why it’s not a western in my opinion.] *=westerns I might put in my Top 50.

  1. The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) [set in the 1920s]
  2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
  3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) *
  4. No Country for Old Men (2007) [modern setting]
  5. High Noon (1952) *
  6. The Rider (2017) [modern setting]
  7. Unforgiven (1992) *
  8. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) *
  9. Hell or High Water (2016) [modern setting]
  10. Johnny Guitar (1954)
  11. Django Unchained (2012)
  12. True Grit (2010) *
  13. Sweet Country (2017)
  14. Brokeback Mountain (2005) [modern setting]
  15. For A Few Dollars More (1965)
  16. Hombre (1967)
  17. Lone Star (1996) [modern setting]
  18. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) *
  19. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
  20. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
  21. Blazing Saddles (1974) [comedy – a parody of westerns]
  22. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) [modern setting]
  23. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
  24. The Revenant (2015)  [mountain main era]
  25. Rango (2011) [cartoon, parody, modern setting]
  26. Dance with Wolves (1990) *
  27. Westworld (1973) [science fiction, modern setting]
  28. The Proposition (2005) [set in Australia]
  29. Slow West (2015)
  30. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
  31. The Beguiled (1971)
  32. Major Dundee (1965)
  33. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2010) [parody]
  34. Hud (1963) [modern setting]
  35. Shanghai Noon (2000) [comedy, parody]
  36. Open Range (2003) *
  37. The Hateful Eight (2015)
  38. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
  39. The Beguiled (2017)
  40. The Homesman (2014)
  41. Dead Man (1996)
  42. The Mask of Zorro (1998) [swashbuckler]
  43. Hostiles (2017)
  44. Appaloosa (2008) *
  45. The Horse Whisperer (1998) [modern setting]
  46. The Salvation (2014)
  47. Blackthorn (2011) [1908 Bolivia]
  48. Back to the Future Part III (1990) [science fiction, comedy, parody]
  49. In the Valley of Violence (2016)
  50. Tombstone (1993) *

There are some true comedy westerns, like Along Came Jones and Destry Rides Again but I feel comedies that parody westerns shouldn’t be considered part of the genre. One thing that bothers me about this list is the feeling that current moviegoers don’t actually love true westerns, especially the traditional classics. And it worries me that younger audiences have redefined the genre.

Great westerns are still made, such as Open Range and Appaloosa, so the genre isn’t dead. Unfortunately, even good stories like Godless overdo the violence. The west was violent, but it wasn’t over-the-top ridiculous like so many newer films.

For my list of favorite westerns, see “Collecting Great Westerns.”

Shane

JWH

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