30 April 2020

Love and the Law in a Terrific Tangle

A Stranger in Town is a competent B picture from MGM in 1943.

It starred Frank Morgan, best remembered as the title character in The Wizard of Oz. As Wikipedia says, a typical Morgan role was “a befuddled but good hearted middle-aged man.” In this case, his character spends much of the movie playing good-hearted and befuddled when in fact he’s a sharp and sometimes cranky Supreme Court judge on vacation in a small town.

The movie’s young couple was played by Richard Carlson, as the small-town lawyer, and Jean Rogers, as the justice’s prim clerk. Rogers had played Dale Arden in the Flash Gordon serials and was hoping for better roles at MGM. Carlson went on to star in Creature from the Black Lagoon before establishing himself in television as both actor and director. So all three principals are best known for their roles in fantastika.

It was refreshing to see a movie that reflected the New Deal belief that honest government was a good thing that people deserve. In real life, we’ve gone from the post-Reagan attitude that honest government was the best version of a bad thing that we could hope for to the current dismissal of good government being possible at all.

21 April 2020

The Strange Death of the Virus Vanguard!

On 20 April, the government of Singapore presented a new tool in the public-health armamentarium fighting the coronavirus epidemic: superheroes!

The Virus Vanguard team, created with the help of a large collective named Band of Doodlers, consisted of five heroes:
  • Dr Disinfector, who can spot, smell, and hear viruses and bacteria.
  • Fake News Buster, wielding his Mallet of Truth against false claims and fake news.
  • Circuit Breaker, a solar-powered robot mentally controlled by a young girl who volunteers at a nursing home.
  • Care-Leh Dee, pronounced “care lady,” who “uses empathy to absorb all negativity.”
  • MAWA Man, who Must Always Walk Alone, pushing people away with force beams.
A day later, the government took down the webpage and disavowed the team.

What happened? It looks like the saga began with a large collective named Band of Doodlers who do public art in a graffiti style.

On 7 April, on the Band of Doodlers’ Facebook page, an artist named Mas Shafreen presented the first proposal for the Covid Warriors, including Safe-Distancing Girl, Santizer Soze, Contact Tracer, Expressman, and the Nurse. They fought the evil King Corona. It looks like other artists and writers joined in the fun.

At some point, it appears, the government got involved. The heroes probably went through a committee process, emerging with a team that conformed to epidemiological priorities.

Once the Virus Vanguard was official, however, it became fair game for much more criticism than just a bunch of superheroes created by a friendly band of artists stuck at home with lots of time.

People complained that for the government to promote superheroes as thousands of people got sick and died was a waste of time and in poor taste.

Critics judged that not only were the characters derivative [duh!—they’re superheroes], but some of the artwork was clearly traced from others’ work.

But the most passionate criticism seems to have focused on MAWA Man. He’s of course supposed to embody the virtue of keeping two meters away from everyone. Mas Shafreen and his colleagues gave MAWA Man this tragic backstory: “a fanatical Manchester United fan who grew up in the 80s when Liverpool kept winning titles and he was constantly taunted by his two Liverpool fan brothers. This made him despise everything Liverpool including their motto You’ll Never Walk Alone (YNWA).”

Now that seems obviously satirical to me, but many football fans are passionate about their teams and their fight songs. Liverpool fans probably feel such slights even more keenly now that Man U has been on top for several years. Those fans, too, complained volubly about the Virus Vanguard and even started an online petition.

So the Singapore government took the webpage down, Mas Shafreen has apologized and even offered to leave the Band of Doodlers, and the world is bereft of the only Covid-19-fighting superheroes.

But wait! Now there’s a growing backlash against the backlash, supporting Band of Doodlers for its efforts.

07 April 2020

Reading the Monkey

In this time of pandemic throughout the Great Outside World, Prof. Dina Massachi and the International Wizard of Oz Club have organized a video reading of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

All the videos are on the Oz Club’s YouTube channel, as well as various Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds. Yesterday there was even a report on the project in Philadelphia keyed to local reader Ryan Bunch.

Other readers have included Baum’s granddaughter Gita Morena, novelist Gregory Maguire, biographer Michael Patrick Hearn, historian of feminism Sally Roesch Wagner, and many friends I’ve made through the Oz conventions.

Dina asked me to tackle Chapter 14, “The Winged Monkeys.” In this chapter Dorothy learns the secret of the Golden Cap she took from the Wicked Witch of the West—that it can summon the Winged Monkeys to fulfill her wish. She then hears the story of how those Winged Monkeys became enslaved to the cap.

A large part of the chapter consists of the King of the Winged Monkeys’ story from his grandfather’s day. There are other long flashbacks in the book, such as when the Tin Woodman and the Wizard explain how they ended up in the fixes where Dorothy found them. This flashback is unusual in going so far back to tell a story about characters we never see elsewhere in the book—or elsewhere in Baum’s other books, either.

All the characters in the chapter are matter-of-fact about the Monkeys being compelled to obey the owner of the Golden Cap. The present King of the Winged Monkeys expresses no resentment about the sorceress who enslaved them, or his grandfather who angered her, or the Wicked Witch for ordering them around. Dorothy never considers freeing the monkeys from slavery as she’s inadvertently freed the Munchkins and the Winkies.

Glinda the Good does free the Winged Monkeys at the end of the book, but then in the sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz, Baum describes them still as enslaved to the cap, so evidently that moment in his story hadn’t meant much to him. I doubt an author today could write so casually about slavery.

Reading Chapter 14 therefore presented a challenge. How to voice the King of the Winged Monkeys in a way that made him more than a docile servant by preserving the sense of mischief he acknowledges. Plus, that story of people we’d never meet again had to be interesting. In my telling, the king’s voice came out like a Bowery Boy.

Here’s the result for Chapter 14. Or you can start from the beginning in the great Kansas prairies.

06 April 2020

The Truth of True Grit

Charles Portis’s True Grit is a straightforward manhunt story elevated into a great American comic novel by the narrative voice.

The narrator is Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old determined to track down the man who killed her father and bring him to justice—at an affordable price. To do this she hires one-eyed deputy marshal Rooster Cogburn and forms an awkward alliance with Texas ranger LaBoeuf.

The very first paragraph ends with an accounting of the money Mattie’s father had on him when he was killed. Mattie knows that figure because she manages the business of the family farm. She speaks with the fiercest emotion when striking a financial bargain with horse traders, bounty hunters, and other men. At the end of the novel we learn that she’s grown up to run a private bank.

But Mattie Ross doesn’t want money for its sake, or for luxuries. She’s ready to endure privation and danger, defying the bounty hunters’ commands that she go home and leave the tracking to men. Money matters to Mattie because it’s how she measures fairness in the world, and fairness is her real concern.

Mattie is not out to make friends. She speaks bluntly and judgmentally to everyone she meets. She exasperates Cogburn and LaBoeuf until eventually they realize her integrity, and that they’re not getting rid of her. By the end of their trek, they risk their lives to save her. Then the three characters go their separate ways, never seeing each other again.

Others perceive the potential sexual tensions in a young girl traveling through unsettled territory with older men. LaBoeuf tells Mattie that he first thought she was pretty. But Mattie herself never shows any feel for sexual or romantic attractions. As an adult, she is a contented maiden lady.

I came to view the character of Mattie Ross through the lens of autism spectrum disorder, and I’m not the first to do so. Caroline Narby wrote such an interpretation for Bitchmedia. This Goodreads member named Stephanie did the same.

When Portis wrote True Grit in 1968, pretty much only psychiatrists knew about autism, and the syndrome was widely attributed to “refrigerator mothers” and other nonsense. The term “Asperger syndrome,” which seems to be the closest category to describe Mattie’s character, wasn’t coined until 1976. The recognition that some people with autism function well in certain fields, such as financial analysis, while having trouble with everyday social relations was well in the future.

But goldurnit if Mattie Ross doesn’t come off as one of the most incisive portraits of a character on the autism spectrum. While she looks for “true grit” in Cogburn, she demonstrates that integrity, drive, and unwillingness to compromise in herself.

There have been two movie versions of True Grit, the first made in 1969 when the book was still new. John Wayne played Rooster Cogburn as a semi-parodic version of his usual persona and won an Oscar for his troubles. However, writer Marguerite Roberts, director Henry Hathaway, and actress Kim Darby never seem to have a handle on Mattie Ross’s character, portraying her as a teenager with the stubbornness of a child.

In contrast, Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2010 version of True Grit is built around Mattie. The scene of the ferry crossing shows the difference: in the first movie, we arrive at the ferry with Cogburn and LaBoeuf and view Mattie’s crossing at a distance. In the second film, it’s the other way around.

Portis’s narrative voice and dialogue fit right into the Coens’ usual combination of high and low rhetoric. Hailee Steinfeld played Mattie with the right exasperating exactitude, her determination not childish but single-minded.

Parts of the first True Grit movie are entertaining, but the second is really good. And the novel is a masterpiece.

02 April 2020

A Picture Book for Patriots Day

A couple of years ago, I did a specialized editorial job for Disney’s publishing wing.

The company contacted me because of my research into the start of the Revolutionary War and asked me to fact-check a picture book on the topic.

Most Wanted: The Revolutionary Partnership of John Hancock and Samuel Adams is written by Sarah Jane Marsh and illustrated by Edward Fotheringham. Earlier, they collaborated on Thomas Paine and the Dangerous Word, also from Disney.

On the day after OzCon 2018, a bunch of attendees made plans to go to Disneyland. I expected to go with them until I suddenly realized I’d had my fill of company and wanted to decompress in a library with a manuscript and my history sources. So instead of giving money to the Disney Corporation, I spent the day earning money from it with this job.

Most Wanted was published this week, just in time for the pandemic cancellation of the reenactment of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, which provides the book’s climax. That was bad luck for Marsh and Fotheringham, I thought. But as I was preparing this blog post, I realized the book had gone through another big change recently.

Powell’s was now listing Most Wanted as a Little, Brown title. Same with the Paine book. I had to reassure myself that my little story about Disney was accurate.

Then I remembered that in February the Disney Corporation sold a thousand children’s titles to Hachette, parent company of Little, Brown. Hachette was already distributing for Disney, so the supply chain is intact (except for the retail end, of course). There’s a lot of editorial and marketing shuffling going on, though.

I hope Most Wanted comes through the turmoil unscathed, the way Samuel Adams and John Hancock made it out of Lexington and to the Second Continental Congress.