Saturday, October 14, 2017

happy and unhappy families in art

Watching a "This Is Us," I come to a realization: the big difference between scripted drama and unscripted (reality shows, daytime talk shows, all that) hinges on a false but compelling observation by Tolstoy.

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Scripted drama still adheres to this. ("This Is Us" does so with just the right recipe of grandeur and detail and tenderness and severity.) Time after time, we're presented with people who are lovable but flawed and whose flaws create the germ of the drama, always threatening to capsize things and sometimes succeeding.

Reality TV, though, has shattered this cozy illusion. We now know that Tolstoy had it wrong (in a way, if you squint): unhappy people and families are leadenly, stultifyingly, numbingly alike. Happy people and families are quirky, odd, a delicious blast in their uniqueness.

Monday, October 9, 2017

the metonymy of attraction

I had a funny conversation recently. Try it on yourself.

It was not about politics, but rather about the metonymic nature of attraction. (I've talked about this before, from the opposite direction.) My observation was that, if you dislike someone, you dislike how they look (and their stupid striped shirt too); if you love someone, you love how they look (and their cool striped shirt).

They try to get at this in the movies by frumping up the girl at the beginning and then dolling her up by the end as the guy begins to see what's good in her. (Of course, she's played by a glamorous actress.) But that's a kind of distrust of the audience. Better is the strategy of "Lost," which picked unlikely actors and then gazed at them up close as you the audience fell in love with them, with the result that you had the most compelling-looking ensemble cast there's ever been.

If you've spent years scoffing at Donald Trump, and a good solid year or more hating him, then you might not be *able* to see that he's a handsome guy. He is, and was, both in his younger years and now.

Similarly, if you've spent your entire adult life hating Hillary Clinton, then you might not be *able* to see that she's an attractive woman. In her younger years and now as well. She's got that Washington charisma — you can't get far in politics without it.

One friend said, "nope, he's an ugly man. Nasty." Another said, "Hillary? I don't see it. " Sure enough. You know who they voted for.

One of the greatest things you can do as a human is to remove the tinted glasses.

Thursday, October 5, 2017


This afternoon, a comment by a friend got me to watching "Frozen" in its entirety for only the second time. I'm sitting here undone by a superbly-told story. Once again, Disney, when they're on their game, taps into the mythos like no one can.

Again and again, they get it right: the way people can deceive and be deceived; the relationship of law (the parents' solution to Elsa) to love (Anna's solution), the use of gloves as metaphor for covering the true person. As Dennis Whittaker points out, aside from Elsa's gloved or bare hands, it's also how you know that the gloved prince is not to be believed. Only the touch of skin is truth.

The most arresting song, Elsa's stunning Byronic paean to Milton's Satan, is exposed in retrospect for the selfish ode that it is by a sister whose other-directedness winds up in a spectacular sacrifice.

The theme of fear is woven masterfully into the story from its first moments until the climax, when the visionary John's words "perfect love casteth out fear" become visual and musical and dramatic reality. What follows is an indelible image of the world being made over, a Northern New Jerusalem where brotherhood and sisterhood are finally possible, all our curses now tamed into powers.

The final musical motif, sounding as the camera retreats into the sky — should I spoil it by telling you? no! — is an affirmation of the film's highest principle.

Monday, October 2, 2017

today's etymology

Today's etymology:

Khwarezm: a region of central Asia.

Khwarizmi: a surname indicating origin there. (Like someone whose last name is Aleman probably came from a Spanish-speaking family that had immigrated from Germany)

Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi: a dude. Not just any dude; he was a mathemetician.

al-Khwarizmi: his 'last name,' again. Say it a few times.

Algoritmi: his Latin name. (Dudes went by their Latin names because Latin was the lingua ... uh, Latina.)

algorithm: the multi-step formula named after him