One should never be killed by a stranger

Thursday, March 4th, 2021

In Glory Road, our hero faces another skilled swordsman — “an ugly cocky little man with a merry grin and the biggest nose west of Durante” — who does something he had heard of, never seen:

He retreated very fast, flipped his blade and changed hands.

A right-handed fencer hates to take on a southpaw; it throws everything out of balance, whereas a southpaw is used to the foibles of the right-handed majority — and this son of a witch was just as strong, just as skilled, with his left hand.

Goldman improved on the idea.

When the big-nosed fencer gets run through, he grasps the blade:

“No, no, my friend, please leave it there. It corks the wine, for a time. Your logic is sharp and touches my heart. Your name, sir?”

“Oscar of Gordon.”

“A good name. One should never be killed by a stranger. Tell me, Oscar of Gordon, have you seen Carcassonne?”

“No.”

“See it. Love a lass, kill a man, write a book, fly to the Moon — I have done all these.”

A sword never jams

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021

In Glory Road Robert Heinlein makes the case for his hero to carry a sword:

A properly balanced sword is the most versatile weapon for close quarters ever devised. Pistols and guns are all offense, no defense; close on him fast and a man with a gun can’t shoot, he has to stop you before you reach him. Close on a man carrying a blade and you’ll be spitted like a roast pigeon — unless you have a blade and can use it better than he can.

A sword never jams, never has to be reloaded, is always ready. Its worst shortcoming is that it takes great skill and patient, loving practice to gain that skill; it can’t be taught to raw recruits in weeks, nor even months.

Heinlein also reiterates S.L.A. Marshall’s famous point from Men Against Fire:

Do you know how many men in a platoon actually shoot in combat? Maybe six. More likely three. The rest freeze up.

Marshall infamously fabricated much of his research — but other sources do corroborate this.

Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger

Friday, February 26th, 2021

Ernest Shackleton famously ran this ad in the newspaper to recruit men for his Endurance expedition:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.

Only no one has ever found a copy of Shackleton’s ad, which was “reprinted” in The 100 Greatest Advertisements: 1852-1958 in 1949.

That apocryphal ad might have inspired Robert Heinlein to include this ad in Glory Road:

ARE YOU A COWARD? This is not for you. We badly need a brave man. He must be 23 to 25 years old, in perfect health, at least six feet tall, weigh about 190 pounds, fluent English with some French, proficient with all weapons, some knowledge of engineering and mathematics essential, willing to travel, no family or emotional ties, indomitably courageous and handsome of face and figure. Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger. You must apply in person, 17, rue Dante, Nice, 2me étage, appt. D.

That’s a real address, by the way:

Instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is

Wednesday, February 24th, 2021

Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road is chock-full of Heinlein-isms— plus dueling scars and methane-burning dragons — but one passage stands out for stating his theme outright:

I wanted a Roc’s egg. I wanted a harem loaded with lovely odalisques less than the dust beneath my chariot wheels, the rust that never stained my sword. I wanted raw red gold in nuggets the size of your fist and feed that lousy claim jumper to the huskies! I wanted to get up feeling brisk and go out and break some lances, then pick a likely wench for my droit du seigneur — I wanted to stand up to the Baron and dare him to touch my wench! I wanted to hear the purple water chuckling against the skin of the Nancy Lee in the cool of the morning watch and not another sound, nor any movement save the slow tilting of the wings of the albatross that had been pacing us the last thousand miles.

I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game’s afoot!” I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin.

I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be what they had promised me it was going to be—instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is.

The Roc is the giant bird from Arabian Nights. Odalisque is a word I don’t see often; it means concubine. The only reference to a Nancy Lee that I could find was to a comic song, The Wreck of the Nancy Lee:

I’ll tell you the tale of the Nancy Lee,
The ship that got shipwrecked at sea
The bravest man was Captain Brown,
‘Cause he played his ukulele as the ship went down.

Chorus:
All the crew was in despair,
Some rushed here and some rushed there,
But the Captain sat in the Captain’s chair,
And he played his ukulele as the ship went down.

The Captain said to Seaman Jones:
“You’d best put on your working clothes
While you stand and spray your hose
I can play me ukulele as the ship goes down.”

The owners signalled to the crew, saying:
“Do the best that you can do.
We’re only insured for half-a-crown,
We’ll be out of pocket if the ship goes down.”

The Captain’s wife was on board ship,
And he was very glad of it
But she could swim and she might not drown
So we tied her to the anchor as the ship went down.

The crow’s nest fell and killed the crow,
The starboard watch was two hours slow
But the Captain sang fal-oh-de-oh-doh
And he played his ukulele as the ship went down.

Barsoom is, of course, the fanciful Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories. Poictesme and its capital Storisende serve as the setting for James Branch Cabell‘s Biography of the Life of Manuel.

The Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin come from Huck Finn.

Prester John is the legendary Nestorian patriarch and king who was said to rule over a Christian nation lost amid the pagans and Muslims in the Orient.

Ulysses needs no introduction, but Tros of Samothrace was new to me:

The novel concerns the courageous adventures of the title character (a Greek from Samothrace) as he helps pre-Roman Britons fight the invading forces of Julius Caesar. Over the course of the novel, Tros travels from Britain to Spain, and finally the city of Rome itself.

The author, Talbot Mundy, dedicated Tros of Samothrace to his friend Rose Wilder Lane, who had funded its book publication, and Fritz Leiber was a fan.

Nobody knows where it comes from but it can’t be ignored

Monday, February 22nd, 2021

When I read a friend’s copy of Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road back in high school, only a couple things stuck with me: (1) dueling scars, and (2) methane-burning dragons. When I recently re-read it, it was chock-full of Heinlein-isms. Here’s what jumped out at me in the first few dozen pages:

It was an election year with the customary theme of anything you can do I can do better, to a background of beeping sputniks. I was twenty-one but couldn’t figure out which party to vote against.

I object to conscription the way a lobster objects to boiling water: it may be his finest hour but it’s not his choice.

Nevertheless I love my country. Yes, I do, despite propaganda all through school about how patriotism is obsolete. One of my great-grandfathers died at Gettysburg and my father made that long walk back from Inchon Reservoir, so I didn’t buy this new idea. I argued against it in class—until it got me a “D” in Social Studies, then I shut up and passed the course.

After you’ve spent years and years trying to knock the patriotism out of a boy, don’t expect him to cheer when he gets a notice reading: Greeting: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States—

Sure, they had Hitler and the Depression ahead of them. But they didn’t know that. We had Khrushchev and the H-bomb and we certainly did know. But we were not a “Lost Generation.” We were worse; we were the “Safe Generation.”

Oh, we talked beatnik jive and dug cool sounds in stereo and disagreed with Playboy’s poll of jazz musicians just as earnestly as if it mattered. We read Salinger and Kerouac and used language that shocked our parents and dressed (sometimes) in beatnik fashion. But we didn’t think that bongo drums and a beard compared with money in the bank. We weren’t rebels. We were as conformist as army worms. “Security” was our unspoken watchword.

Short of a pregnant wife with well-to-do parents the greatest security lay in being 4-F. Punctured eardrums were good but an allergy was best. One of my neighbors had a terrible asthma that lasted till his twenty-sixth birthday. No fake—he was allergic to draft boards.

More than half of my generation were “unfit for military service.”

I was no better off financially as my uncle-in-law was supporting a first wife—under California law much like being an Alabama field hand before the Civil War.

Ever been in Southeast Asia? It makes Florida look like a desert. Wherever you step it squishes. Instead of tractors they use water buffaloes. The bushes are filled with insects and natives who shoot at you. It wasn’t a war—not even a “Police Action.” We were “Military Advisers.” But a Military Adviser who has been dead four days in that heat smells the same way a corpse does in a real war.

I was promoted to corporal. I was promoted seven times. To corporal.

Military policy is like cancer: Nobody knows where it comes from but it can’t be ignored.

In Asia every cab driver speaks enough English to take you to the Red Light district and to shops where you buy “bargains.” But he is never able to find your dock or boat landing.

Do you know how much tax a bachelor pays on $140,000 in the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Fee? $103,000, that’s what he pays.

I wouldn’t be “cheating” Uncle Sugar; the USA had no more moral claim on that money (if I won) than I had on the Holy Roman Empire. What had Uncle Sugar done for me? He had clobbered my father’s life with two wars, one of which we weren’t allowed to win—and thereby made it tough for me to get through college quite aside from what a father may be worth in spiritual intangibles to his son (I didn’t know, I never would know!)—then he had grabbed me out of college and had sent me to fight another unWar and damned near killed me and lost me my sweet girlish laughter.

About then I made a horrible discovery. I didn’t want to go back to school, win, lose, or draw. I no longer gave a damn about three-car garages and swimming pools, nor any other status symbol or “security.” There was no security in this world and only damn fools and mice thought there could be.

Somewhere back in the jungle I had shucked off all ambition of that sort. I had been shot at too many times and had lost interest in supermarkets and exurban subdivisions and tonight is the PTA supper don’t forget dear you promised.

The head is mostly teeth

Saturday, February 20th, 2021

I recently mentioned that Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road introduced me to Germany’s tradition of fencing in order to earn a dueling scar. The other tidbit that stuck with me from this book was his science-fiction version of that fantasy staple, the dragon:

Of course these aren’t dragons. No, they are uglier. They are saurians, more like Tyrannosaurus rex than anything else — big hindquarters and heavy hind legs, heavy tail, and smaller front legs that they use either in walking or to grasp their prey. The head is mostly teeth. They are omnivores whereas I understand that T. rex ate only meat. This is no help; the dragons eat meat when they can get it, they prefer it. Furthermore, these not-so-fake dragons have evolved that charming trick of burning their own sewer gas. But no evolutionary quirk can be considered odd if you use the way octopi make love as a comparison.

[...]

“They don’t exactly breathe fire. That would kill them. They hold their breaths while flaming. It’s swamp gas — methane — from the digestive tract. It’s a controlled belch, with a hypergolic effect from an enzyme secreted between the first and second rows of teeth. The gas bursts into flame on the way out.”

[...]

There are only four places to put an arrow into a Nevian dragon; the rest is armored like a rhino only heavier. Those four are his mouth (when open), his eyes (a difficult shot; they are little and piggish), and that spot right under his tail where almost any animal is vulnerable.

[...]

The dragon was weaving its head back and forth and I was trying to weave the other way, so as not to be lined up if it turned on the flame — when suddenly I got my first blast of methane, whiffing it before it lighted, and retreated so fast that I backed into that baby I had stepped on before, went clear over it, landed on my shoulders and rolled, and that saved me.

I doubt I caught this the first time I read the book, but this time I immediately noted that methane is a colorless, odorless gas:

The familiar smell of natural gas as used in homes is achieved by the addition of an odorant, usually blends containing tert-butylthiol, as a safety measure.

I suspect someone caught this detail in one of his early drafts, because Heinlein addresses it:

The reason that I backed away in time was halitosis. It says here that “pure methane is a colorless, odorless gas.” This G.I.-tract methane wasn’t pure; it was so loaded with homemade ketones and aldehydes that it made an unlimed outhouse smell like Shalimar.

[...]

A proper dragon, with castles and captive princesses, has as much fire as it needs, like six-shooters in TV oaters. But these creatures fermented their own methane and couldn’t have too big a reserve tank nor under too high pressure — I hoped. If we could nag one into using all its ammo fast, there was bound to be a lag before it recharged.

I had heard the western genre referred to as horse opera before, but oater was new to me.

It has long been criticized as viewing adventure through an imperialist lens

Monday, February 8th, 2021

Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise is about to be updated to feel more inclusive and less racially insensitive:

The Jungle Cruise, with its ties to the park’s patriarch, is likely to be viewed with a more protective lens by the company’s vast fanbase. Yet the ride has also been one under near-constant evolution since its inception. Its early influences were Disney’s own nature documentaries and the 1951 film “The African Queen,” a favorite of early Disneyland designer Harper Goff.

Its initial conception as “The Jungle Rivers of the World” leaned slightly more educational than today’s more humor-driven take. The ride’s unsavory tribal depictions, largely inspired by images from Papua New Guinea, were added in the years after its opening. These vignettes essentially depict Indigenous people as tourist attraction, attackers or cannibals.

“Horrifyingly racist” is how one of Disney’s peers in the theme park design community, the Thinkwell Group, characterized various Jungle Cruise scenes in an essay published shortly after Disney announced the changes to Splash Mountain.

A spear-waving war party was added to the Jungle Cruise in 1957, as was the “Trader Sam” character, a dark-skinned man today outfitted in straw tribal wear. Disney tiki bars — one on each coast — are named for the character that traffics in stereotypes. He’ll trade you “two of his heads for one of yours.”

[...]

As silly and overly pun-filled as the Jungle Cruise may be, it has long been criticized as viewing adventure through an imperialist lens. Non-Americans are depicted as either subservient or savages. Although the ride is meant to be a collage of Asia, Africa and South America, human figures of the regions are presented as exotic, violent and dimwitted, humor that in the 1950s and 1960s was troublesome and today reeks of racism.

It is “horrifyingly racist” to depict the natives living in the jungle as savages. Or as hostile to the imperialist colonizers.

Cyberpunk came true

Thursday, February 4th, 2021

Cyberpunk no longer feels like “the future”, Noahpinion suggests, because the cyberpunk writers of the 80s were just too good at predicting the future:

Much of the stuff they imagined is now just the stuff you see in the news.

In 2021, the Russian government hacked much of the U.S. government and many U.S. companies. Remotely piloted drones are defeating human forces on the battlefield. A whistleblower who exposed government electronic surveillance programs communicates from his foreign exile by telepresence robot. Artificial intelligences beat the best humans at the most complex board games and trade in financial markets. Information warfare and espionage are just standard tools of politics now. Animated singers are sex symbols. Militaries train in virtual reality. Online currencies are worth hundreds of billions of dollars and are used in shadowy underground economies and cybercrime. Computer interfaces are being implanted into pigs’ brains. A blind man can now see thanks to synthetic corneas.

All of these elements are recognizable as staples of 1980s and 1990s cyberpunk science fiction, or close relatives thereof. The cyberpunks anticipated the future of technology to an almost eerie degree.

It’s All Hallow’s Eve

Saturday, October 31st, 2020

I’m still surprised by how much I’ve written about Halloween and horror over the years:

I don’t know what the first two were, but the third was for death

Friday, October 30th, 2020

I finally got around to reading the horror classic The Monkey’s Paw, arguably the trope codifier of the admonition to be careful what you wish for. (Some of us learned this lesson the hard way after receiving a magical wish while playing Dungeons and Dragons.)

In the story, old Mr. and Mrs. White and their adult son Herbert receive a visit from Sergeant-Major Morris, back from India after 21 years in the army:

“I’d like to go to India myself,” said the old man, just to look around a bit, you know.”

“Better where you are,” said the Sergeant-Major, shaking his head. He put down the empty glass and sighning softly, shook it again.

“I should like to see those old temples and fakirs and jugglers,” said the old man. “what was that that you started telling me the other day about a monkey’s paw or something, Morris?”

“Nothing.” said the soldier hastily. “Leastways, nothing worth hearing.”

“Monkey’s paw?” said Mrs. White curiously.

“Well, it’s just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps.” said the Sergeant-Major off-handedly.

His three listeners leaned forward eagerly. The visitor absent-mindedly put his empty glass to his lips and then set it down again. His host filled it for him again.

“To look at,” said the Sergeant-Major, fumbling in his pocket, “it’s just an ordinary little paw, dried to a mummy.”

He took something out of his pocket and proffered it. Mrs. White drew back with a grimace, but her son, taking it, examined it curiously.

“And what is there special about it?” inquired Mr. White as he took it from his son, and having examined it, placed it upon the table.

“It had a spell put on it by an old Fakir,” said the Sergeant-Major, “a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.”

His manners were so impressive that his hearers were conscious that their light laughter had jarred somewhat.

“Well, why don’t you have three, sir?” said Herbert White cleverly.

The soldier regarded him the way that middle age is wont to regard presumptuous youth.”I have,” he said quietly, and his blotchy face whitened.

“And did you really have the three wishes granted?” asked Mrs. White.

“I did,” said the sergeant-major, and his glass tapped against his strong teeth.

“And has anybody else wished?” persisted the old lady.

“The first man had his three wishes. Yes,” was the reply, “I don’t know what the first two were, but the third was for death. That’s how I got the paw.”

Read the whole thing. It’s short.

Its wrongness would so annoy him that he’d tear it all up

Sunday, September 20th, 2020

I haven’t read William Gibson’s Burning Chrome collection in decades, but I remember enjoying “Dogfight” — which I did not remember was co-written by Michael Swanwick:

One writer had control of the story for a month, during which he could write as much or as little as he wished. He do anything he wanted with it. Change the plot, change the characters, put things in and take things out. There were a couple of small details that Gibson took out that on the next pass I put back only to have him take them out, back and forth several times until at last Bill won. When you’re working with somebody good, this can be a very exciting process.

On one of those passes, I came to a section that could only be written by Gibson. Luckily, from my collaborations with Gardner Dozois, I knew what to do. With Gardner, I had only to write a bad imitation of his style and its wrongness would so annoy him that he’d tear it all up and, with enormous labor, write it the proper way. So I wrote a bad William Gibson pastiche and sent it back to him, confident he would redo it from top to bottom.

One month later, I got the story back, expanded, with not one word changed in the pastiche section. In the accompanying letter, Bill was effusive with praise for that section.

Oh crap. I knew that if I let that section go through unchanged, the deficiencies that Bill was blind to would be as obvious to the critics as they were to me. Only, because it was written in Bill’s voice (almost), blame for this would fall not on me but on him. And people would conclude that, whatever Bill had once had, he’d lost it.

So I spent much of that month laboring mightily to bring that section up to his standards. I succeeded, I believe, but oh man that was not fun.

(Hat tip to Travis Corcoran.)

Rarely are science fiction stories written by credentialed scientists

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

John C. Wright highly recommends The Hidden Truth by Hans G. Schantz:

It is a gem of a book, a rare find, combining a charming coming of age story, diamond-hard science fiction speculation, a conspiracy thriller, a touch of trenchant political commentary, and, uniquely, a challenge written into a science fiction book of the reigning scientific orthodoxy of the day.

Rarely are science fiction stories written by credentialed scientists. Even more rare is one that proposes a revolutionary theory that questions the historical and theoretical roots of the standard model of modern physics, and no other book does so in the context of an action thriller.

[...]

If you liked Heinlein style juveniles, with their young men learning lessons about personal responsibility and integrity of character, and seasoned with brief avuncular lectures on topics ranging from electromagnetic theory to economic reality, then you are likely to enjoy this book.

[...]

Rumor has it that the author, Hans Schantz, is hard at work on the final volume, A HELL OF AN ENGINEER, but a hefty amount of public interest, and some book sales of the first three in the series, might stoke the fires under this boiler, and give him the spirit needed to complete the work in a reasonable time.

Overperforming and underperforming, momentarily dazzling but ultimately deflating

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020

Sianne Ngai became the most influential literary theorist of her generation by becoming the professor of gimmicks:

The summer before she enrolled at Brown University, Sianne Ngai got a job as a waitress at a restaurant called the Magic Pan. “This was an era of Reagan and gourmet jelly beans,” she recalled. In a word, it was the ‘80s.

The Magic Pan was committed to satisfying a newly sophisticated American palate. The restaurant specialized in crepes — an exotic European product — at prices low enough for upwardly mobile middle-class families to feast on them.

What was “magic” about the Magic Pan was its method of preparing the crepes. The front of the restaurant was devoted to a piece of culinary theater. The cook on display would dip the bottom of a copper pan into crepe batter. She would then place the pan, upside down, over a flame. On the underside of the pan the crepe would cook to crispy perfection.

Wander into the back of the restaurant, however, and a less spectacular picture reveals itself. After the crepes had browned on the copper pans out front, they were taken to the kitchen and stored in refrigerators. To assemble an order, a staff member would scoop filling into a cold crepe, fold the pancake over, and microwave the dish. In front: warm light, rugs, copper pans. Backstage: pungent smells of broccoli and cheese, creamed seafood, and other fillings; the incessant hum of microwaves.

This now-defunct crepe restaurant dramatizes the structure of the gimmick: an object that is at once overperforming and underperforming, momentarily dazzling but ultimately deflating. Gimmicks, Ngai writes, are “overrated devices that strike us as working too little (labor-saving tricks), but also as working too hard (strained efforts to get our attention).” In the front, the Magic Pan featured ostentatious labor — working too hard — with the “magic” of those flipped copper pans. In the back, it relied on labor-saving techniques — working too little — with its microwaves and refrigerated food. And what is a crepe but an overrated pancake?

In Theory of the Gimmick (Harvard University Press, 2020), Ngai tracks the gimmick through a number of guises: stage props, wigs, stainless-steel banana slicers, temp agencies, fraudulent photographs, subprime loans, technological doodads, the novel of ideas. Across its many forms, the gimmick arouses our suspicion. When we say something is a gimmick, we mean it is overrated and deceptive, that you would have to be a sucker to fall for it. Yet gimmicks exert a strange hold on us. As with a magic show, we can enjoy the gimmick even while we know we are being tricked.

Ngai, a 48-year-old professor of English at the University of Chicago, has slowly been building a reputation as one of America’s most original and penetrating cultural theorists. She has done so by revitalizing the field of aesthetic theory. To some critics, this domain of philosophical inquiry has long seemed fusty and archaic, overly beholden to 18th-century debates. The categories of the sublime and the beautiful, as theorized by Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, continue to shape how we make sense of aesthetic experience.

Ngai’s contribution has been to take marginal, nonprestigious aesthetic categories, such as “cuteness,” and treat them with the same seriousness traditionally afforded to the sublime and the beautiful. In her debut book, Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005), she analyzed a set of “minor” negative emotions, including irritation, anxiety, envy, and paranoia. Ngai chose not to focus on the classic aesthetic emotions: states like sympathy, which offer the possibility of moral growth, or passions like terror and anger, which promise cathartic release. Instead, she studied weak, morally unattractive feelings associated with situations of powerlessness. “If Ugly Feelings is a bestiary of affects,” she wrote, “it is one filled with rats and possums rather than lions.”

In the same spirit, Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard University Press, 2012) named the “cute” (think Hello Kitty), the “interesting” (think conceptual art), and the “zany” (think Lucille Ball’s frenzied attempts to wrap chocolate or do ballet) the dominant aesthetic categories of late capitalism. “Cuteness” captures the mix of tenderness and aggression we feel for commodities — our desire for cute things to hug, squish, cuddle, fondle, crush, and dominate. The judgment that something is “interesting” conveys our hesitant and minimal responsiveness to novelty and change against a background of sameness. (Imagine a series of photographs of filing cabinets, and you will get a sense of this coolly rational aesthetic, which evokes processes of circulation and exchange.) The “zany,” seemingly fun but actually stressful, highlights the shifting boundaries between playing and laboring, work and nonwork, that characterize today’s emotionally strenuous service labor.

Our Aesthetic Categories made Ngai a star. “Once you see the relationship of aesthetics and late capitalism as Ngai wants you to see it,” the critic Merve Emre, an associate professor at Oxford University, has written, “you cannot unsee it.”

Excellent moviemaking, but risible history

Wednesday, July 1st, 2020

Three years ago Ed Realist noted that “Gone with the Wind is going through hard times right now.

If in a year or three it’s banished from TCM and movie revival houses and the AFI top 100 (much less the top 10 position it now holds), I won’t be surprised.

Gone with the Wind is not one of his favorite historical films — he considers it “excellent moviemaking, but risible history” — but he considers Mellie was one of the greatest feminist characters of all time. (I’d consider her a strong female character, but not a feminist.)

I’m not sure when I first realized that Melanie Wilkes, played by the great Olivia De Havilland, was the tremendous feminist model that others saw in Scarlett. I do know that from the first time I watched it to now, I preferred Melanie. Sometime in the 90s, though, I realized that she, not the tempestuous Scarlett, is the exemplar of a powerful female character. De Havilland’s Melanie is, in my view, one of the five great feminist movie roles of all time (the others: Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, Faye Dunaway in Network, Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.)

This came up because Olivia De Havilland just turned 104 years old!

Gone with the Wind is back on HBOMax, by the way. I’ve been meaning to listen to the audiobook.

At least Anne Frank got a book deal

Tuesday, June 30th, 2020

Pollyanna gets a bad rap, Lenore Skenazy argues:

Pollyanna movies have been made around the globe, despite the fact that her name long ago became shorthand for gratingly grateful. What I would call the “At least Anne Frank got a book deal!” outlook Pollyanna calls the “Glad Game,” a technique she was taught by her missionary dad when she was desperately hoping for a doll and received instead a pair of crutches. But at least she didn’t need the crutches, so — hooray!

I recently decided it was time to finally watch (and possibly learn from) Pollyanna. Steeling myself for a sap overload, I was shocked to discover the character was not a cloying goody-goody but actually sly, smart — and manipulative.

The basic plot: Parentless Pollyanna arrives in a small Vermont town to live with her rich and icy Aunt Polly. Pollyanna doesn’t mind the attic room — just look at that view! — and soon she’s out and about, meeting the locals. She chats with shut-in Mrs. Snow, who’s been poring over a casket catalog, and wealthy recluse Mr. Pendleton, who hates kids until Pollyanna pushes her way in and points out the rainbows his chandelier casts on the wall. Pretty soon they’re stringing a clothesline of crystals across the living room and rainbows dance everywhere — a hobby she brings to Mrs. Snow’s stuffy bedroom as well.

By doggedly refusing to treat these grumpy adults as anything other than fun-loving potential friends, they start to become exactly that. But how?

“Pollyanna is nice to the people you don’t want to be around and therefore makes them nice,” says Camilo Ortiz, associate professor of psychology at Long Island University. The sourpusses treated everyone as hateful. When along comes someone who doesn’t hate them and isn’t hateable, their circuits sputter. Either life is nasty, brutish, and short, or it isn’t. Unable to hold two opposing viewpoints at once, they dump their old one (life stinks) and embrace the new.

[...]

They may feel angry and aggrieved, but is life really that bad? Or is it just their ornery, self-pitying interpretation?

Pollyanna brings CBT to the town. And lately, some parents are bringing Pollyanna’s lesson into their homes. “I deliberately made my husband and daughter, who’s 13, watch it with me,” says author Alina Adams. “I was born in the Soviet Union and spent my first seven years there. Growing up, the attitude was ‘it could always be worse.’” Her Soviet upbringing made American life one big Glad Game for Adams.

[...]

Me? I’m a proud Pollyanna convert. You can play the sad game, the mad game, or the Glad Game. Only one is any fun.