Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Spider-Man's Story

We’re not going to talk about the movie.

These columns are all about sharing the fun of stories. If you know Spider-Man through the movies, then you haven’t been let in on the fun.

Comic-book writer Stan Lee made his name by turning superheroes into people and showing their human side and their frailties. Of all the popular comic-book superheroes he had created, no one is more human and more fragile than Spider-Man.

While Superman was an all-powerful god who could turn back time, lift entire continents on his shoulders and could not die (until, just to keep the stories alive, he had to be given Kryptonite as a weakness), Spider-Man was the eternal underdog.

Peter Parker was a thin, wiry geek, whose parents were dead, and who had to live with his aunt and uncle. He was picked on at school by the bigger bullies, and his social life was pretty bleak. When he unexpectedly turned into Spider-Man, he suddenly became stronger than anyone else in school. Still, to keep his secret and his family safe, he let the bullies kick him around. The villains he was fighting at night haunted his mind, so much so that the girls thought he was a snob and shunned him. With only his aunt to support them, and her health being rocky, he was constantly worried about money.

When he did get dates, frequent dangers forced him to run off and be Spider-Man. Which meant that he kept standing up the girls he liked, disappearing in the middle of a date, or appearing to run away when faced with danger.

And when fighting the bad guys, he was, more often than not, outmatched by superheroes a lot more powerful than he was.

Spider-Man was the ultimate underdog, in real life and with the villains. But he had chutzpah and guts and a brain. He beat superior villains with a superior wit and a superior mind. He used his abilities as Spider-Man not to defeat the bad guys, but to keep out of harm’s way while he thought of a way to defeat the bad guys. And all that time, he cracked jokes.

Spider-Man was human, and every high-school kid wanted to be like him: The underdog that won the day, who proved smarter and funnier than the bullies; the guy who got kicked around in school but knew what no one else did, that deep inside he was a superhero and better than any of them.

Over the decades, two writers wrote Spider-Man the best because they understood him the best. The first was Stan Lee, who had created him, and the second was Chris Claremont, more famous for reinventing the X-Men and making them what they are today. (Again, nothing to do with the movies.)

Stan Lee initiated Underdog Man, and concentrated more on Peter Parker’s social dilemmas with girls, bullies, lack of money, and protecting his Aunt May. Spider-Man always interfered in Peter’s life.

Chris Claremont concentrated on Spider-Man’s heroic nature. One time, Claremont had Spider-Man chase an all-powerful, unstoppable living god, knowing he can’t win, knowing he’s fighting an unbeatable foe, knowing there was nothing he could do about it but ultimately die, but also knowing that there was no one else to do the job.

Another time, Claremont had Spider-Man kidnapped by an evil sorcerer from the dawn of humanity that he had defeated once before. Now, the sorcerer was back, more powerful than ever, and he was out for revenge. The sorcerer turned New York City into a barbaric nation, wiped everyone’s memories (including all the big superheroes like the Avengers or the X-men) and replaced their identities. Everyone’s memories, that is, but Spider-Man’s, whom he nailed to a cross and tortured.

While the other heroes, whose memories and identities were replaced, found their true heroic nature again, Spider-Man had to watch his friends fight each other and die, as he was being tortured by the sorcerer. And all that time, Spider-Man cracked jokes in the sorcerer’s ears.

Nothing Spider-Man said to anyone who was around mattered, since they all spoke a different language now thanks to the sorcerer's spell. Only the sorcerer understood him.

But it was Spider-Man who saved the day. Fighting the nails that had torn holes in his body, he managed to show the other heroes the sorcerer’s new source of power (a thing he had deduced while watching the events). He did that with his last breath, and then the sorcerer gestured and killed him.

The heroes, of course, saved the day, now that they had a way to defeat the sorcerer. And with his source of power gone, everything he had done, including everyone’s deaths, was now reversed.

Spider-Man is a hero because he overcomes adversity. Superman is not a hero, he’s just a god.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

'Weeds': Shifting Ground


Most people are used to some sort of stability. Some things in the world don’t change, ever. Gravity doesn’t change. If you jump up, you’ll always land. But there are also some elements in our lives that we take for granted, that we are certain they will always be there the way they are.

What happens when there is absolutely no stability? What happens when the ground itself, that thing people hold to be most solid and unshifting, keeps disappearing beneath your feet?

Loss of Stability Is a Feeling

Loss of stability is not only a set of circumstances. Loss of stability is also a feeling.

Don’t believe it? Try it out for yourselves, with a few examples from Weeds.

Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker) is a recently-widowed mother of two, whose husband unexpectedly died. To survive, she sells pot to the friendly and spoiled people of Agrestic, California. Stability has been taken from the entire family.

In the pilot episode, her older son’s girlfriend suddenly asks Nancy, “Can we have sex in your house?” Later on, when Nancy has a heart-to-heart conversation with the girlfriend, she finds out that she’s not a virgin. Only then to find out that her sixteen-year-old son isn’t, either. How does that make you feel?

At a certain point, Nancy no longer has any money. She can’t pay for the phone, can’t pay utilities, and can’t pay to get more drugs so that she can sell them and get more money. Her dealer agrees to give her more drugs, taking Nancy’s car as collateral. Nancy sells the drugs, but then Shane, her younger son, breaks his arm, and she has to pay for the hospital with the cash she’s just earned. She returns to the drug dealer, begging for more drugs. This time she is forced to leave something else, something more, and the chasm underneath her feet deepens. She leaves her wedding ring (from her deceased husband).

How does that make you feel?

Dissolution of Order

Nancy has no control over her life. Things happen to her, and she can’t really cope, she just stumbles on, trying to survive. Lack of stability leads to a total dissolution of order in her life (also a feeling).

When Nancy’s dead husband’s brother comes over, he has cyber-sex with her son’s teenage girlfriend, following which he gives the son advice on how to get the girlfriend into bed. Then the brother-in-law gets the younger kid in trouble by selling t-shirts in school that make fun of Christianity. He closes the deal by blackmailing Nancy into letting him stay when he finds out how she makes a living. All this in one episode.

Constantly Shifting Ground

Lack of stability is also shown by the constant shifting of ground we’d previously thought of as solid.

Out of nowhere, a plane accidentally drops bags and bags of Cola bottles on the roof of Celia’s (Nancy’s friend) house, right on her side of the bed. The husband wakes up, horrified, not understanding what’s happening: the ceiling’s missing, the room filled with exploding Cola bottles, and the other side of the bed is crushed.

Celia then walks into the room: “I have cancer.”

No Discipline

With the loss of order and stability, the ability to discipline or keep discipline flies out the door.

Nancy’s older son is caught doing ecstasy. The next morning, once he comes down, she reads him the riot act. But then he accuses her of being a hypocrite, and she finds out he knows she’s selling drugs. He storms off, basically telling her to stay out of his way till he’s old enough. How does that make you feel?

Another time, the older son says, as he heads out the door, “Mom, just to let you know, next year I’m dropping out of school and moving to New Jersey,” and exits. How does that make you feel?

Nancy can’t fix these things, she just keeps getting slammed with balls coming out of left field. And the feeling of eternally shifting ground continues.

Feeling of Impending Doom

Lack of stability also brings about the constant feeling that bad things are always around the corner. In fact, it becomes a given.

Watch how this feeling has seeped into the younger son’s psyche so much that he brings it up time and again in dinner conversation. When asked for a topic for conversation, he exclaims: “We could talk about bird flu! It’s gonna kill everybody!”

Later in that same dinner, he says, “There’s this kid in my school who always picks his nose, and he says that if you don’t pick your nose, that your boogers could back up and block your airway and you could die.”

Sure, it’s not true. But the feeling for the son is. Death is always so close.

Inability to Cope with Rejection

The constant lack of stability is also the reason Nancy’s sons can’t cope with rejection and can’t hear ‘no’.

The older son, who is faced with a breakup with his girlfriend, who is a year older than him and in a few months will move to an Ivy League school, thinks he found a way to be with her always: When they have sex, he first sticks pins in the condoms, hoping to get her pregnant. (Which he does, thus causing the earth to further shift under everyone’s feet.) How does that make you feel?

Talking About Our Feelings

Lack of stability is a feeling. Shifting ground is a feeling.

Weeds isn’t about breaking us out of our suburban, middle-class convictions. Breaking us out of our suburban, middle-class convictions gives us that same feeling of instability and shifting ground that the plot does.

Jenji Kohan, the creator and main writer of Weeds has these feelings all the time. When she writes these plots, she creates situations time and time again that bring about these feelings. With Weeds, Kohan makes us feel for a few seconds a week what she feels every day in her life. Weeds is about sharing feelings.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

JAG: Is Patriotism Wrong?

Is patriotism wrong? Is patriotism dark? Is it Neanderthal?

If we took a cold, detached look at it, then at first glance it would appear to be completely Neanderthal. The process behind it is the same process that has people rooting for their home teams and curse the other teams’ fans. Had the cursing fan not been born in this city but in another one, he would have cursed this team’s fans with just as much fervor and felt just as justified.

When we grow up, we feel the same towards our country, especially in war time. You root for your own country in a war. In fact, most people (when push comes to shove) would give their lives or their kids’ lives for their country. That is, after all, how a military force is created. Wars are usually against an evil country or an evil enemy (look at your country’s last seven wars, whichever country you come from, and check whether at least six out of seven were not against an evil enemy). But had you been born and brought up in one of the countries you or your parents or your grandparents were fighting, you or they would just as willingly have given your lives and your/their lives for that country, calling your current country evil.

Where is the logic? Where is the reason?

Adding flame to the fire, patriotism in art seems to run contrary to the subject of last week’s post. There I claimed that any good story has a conflict, that a conflict has two sides, and that the better the artist, the better he understands both sides. Supposedly, this puts the artist on the side that sees the enemy (whoever that might be in whatever war one is currently fighting) as equal and, perhaps, just as justified. What, then, of artists that tell stories with a conservative bent, that are pro-us, pro-army and perhaps even pro-war?

Two weeks ago, in a post about patriotism, we also saw that artists who deal with human nature (like actors, writers, and directors) often look at things we know well and ask “What is it? What is it really?” Well, then: What is patriotism? What is it really?

Let’s take JAG as an example. JAG was far from being a masterpiece of any genre, but it was fun and well-done and clearly had a conservative agenda as well as a patriotic one. So let’s ask the question: What is JAG’s patriotism all about? What is it really?

JAG comes from the house of Donald P. Bellisario, producer, creator, director, and writer of many things, most notably: Magnum P.I., Quantum Leap, and JAG. In all three shows, he was the one who wrote the most momentous and important episodes. Not coincidentally, he also wrote the best written ones. These days, he is also responsible for NCIS, but its stories do not come close to the Big Three’s.

In all three shows there is a heavy military bent. Magnum was a Vietnam vet, while the older Higgins, who kept the mansion, turned out to have been an honorable and brave soldier in the British military. Quantum Leap had Al, a Viet vet and prisoner of war, now an admiral. Al was a macho womanizer, but on the bigger issues, he was always a man of honor.

Magnum and Quantum Leap had a system that worked well for Bellisario: the younger man has the adventures, and the older, wiser, slightly ridiculous man was his companion. Bellisario broke that pattern in JAG, when he paired the young, good-looking JAG lawyer (ex-fighter pilot) with a young, good-looking JAG lawyer of the female persuasion. Where before it was manly camaraderie, now we had sexual tension.

Bellisario loves the army, and so do his characters. They love the army, love war stories, love heroism, and yet they are scarred by them. His heroes would sacrifice everything for what their country tells them to do. Magnum, for example, had to give up the woman he loved. JAG’s Harmon Rabb was haunted by his father’s disappearance during Vietnam after having been shot down. Harm was the only one who still thought his father might be alive somewhere.

This trauma shaped Harm’s life. In fact, the father complex appears again and again in Belissario’s stories. Harm chose his father’s profession (fighter pilot) even though it had led to the father's death and/or horrible life as an MIA, while the wife was left widowed and the son orphaned. In one episode, Harm’s fighter friend dies. When he comes to console the family (and to investigate the incident), the widow wants Harm to be kept away from her child. Already, the boy wants to be like his father. In fact, his father’s death only makes him want it more.

Wanting to be a soldier is an honorable thing in Bellisario’s world, and this is the only time I recall the choice was even questioned. And even then, the problem had at least two sides, both with merit.

Where Magnum was also a con-man, and Al was a relentless womanizer, Harmon Rabb was faultless. He was everything you imagine a hero to be. He always made the right choice, never faltered, was completely patriotic, followed his orders even when he disagreed with them. And yet...

Harm was a patriot and followed orders. At the same time, he was a hunter, and he hunted after the truth. When truth rarely happened to crash against his orders or his superiors, he opted for truth. Sometimes his superiors were corrupt. Sometimes they even sacrificed soldiers for their own petty purposes. When that happened, Harm flushed out the truth and restored honor to the U.S. Harm so loved. Truth roots out corruption. Truth, to Harm, is patriotism.

Truth, to Harm, is honorable as well. Being a soldier is an honorable thing. It is honorable to fight for one’s country. It is honorable to die for one’s country, even if the cause is not always clear. But honor - and the honor of being a soldier - transcends borders. Having honor has nothing to do with a country of origin, and honorable soldiers recognize honorable soldiers on the other side and salute them (sometimes before drawing guns on them).

In Bellisario’s world, real patriotism is honor and truth (values that are without borders).

Patriotism has its limits; honor and truth do not.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Why Are Most Artists Liberal?

Boy, it’s a weird coincidence that most artists are liberal, isn’t it?

Is There a Conspiracy?

Over history, most artists have been state-sponsored, which means that the less liberal the artists, the more they would have been welcome. Since most artists (like Shakespeare and MoliĆ©re) still found a way to get their liberal licks in, one can only assume that there weren’t any other really great conservative artists to be found.

Today, the driving force behind publishers and movie studios is money, not politics. One assumes that if a product was good enough, it would be published or produced nonetheless. Disney can attest to it, since even its Jewish executives supported Mel Gibson after his anti-Semitic ‘incident’, because they had to sell Apocalypto.

In fact, hundreds of conservative non-fiction books are being published today, some of which become best-sellers. So if there was a lot of really great conservative fiction, some percentage of it would have found its way to publication.

And yet it hasn’t.

It’s almost as if you have to be a liberal to be a good artist. But that can’t be true, can it?

Well, it can. And it is. Here’s why.

(One exception: Storytellers limits itself to the storytelling arts (movies, TV, theater, prose), as opposed to the other arts (sculpture, photography, painting, architecture, poetry, etc.) about which I know very little.)

Stories Are Liberal

Stories, by their nature, have some sort of conflict. Otherwise, they would be boring. Conflict, by its nature, has at least two sides. To be able to write these two sides well, the artist has to understand, deep inside, that both sides are equally human. The more he portrays the other side as human, the better the story. The less human the other side, the more flawed the story.

That puts artists on the humanistic side of most ideological battles throughout history: against racism (the other race is people, too), against slavery (slaves are people, too), for feminism (women are people, too), for the rights of children (children think and feel just like adults), against child labor, for gay rights (homosexuals are just as human), for the downtrodden, for the poor (they are just like us, only poor), against most wars (because the other side bleeds red, too, and mourns with the same pain), and against most religions (in particular, against the religions that claim its followers are ‘the chosen’ and those who are not will not get into heaven and/or are inferior in some way).

Oddly enough, this little rule does not necessarily put artists on the side of animal rights, since animals may be many things, but they are not human. This rule also does not put artists automatically on the green side of the debate. Earth, after all, is not a person and does not feel. What it takes for a person to fight for these issues when they were not popular isn’t really a ‘requirement’ for someone to be good storytelling artists.

Mark Twain in many of his stories and books shows us how slaves are just as human as you or I. In fact, he uses his stories to show his white readers that if they had been born with slightly worse luck, they would have been born slaves. And that they would have then acted just like slaves, too (and the fact that slaves acted like slaves made it easier for the white people to treat them as slaves).

SF author Jules Verne (1828-1905) was asked once why he doesn’t have more women characters. He answered that when his plot needs a romantic interest, he puts a woman in the story. As you can guess, if you’ve never read his books, his characters, both male and female, are cardboard cutouts. To take nothing from the many great things that he has done as an author, that little thing, that inability to understand human nature, made him a worse artist than he could have been. Had he been more liberal (not as a pose, but in truth), his books would have been even better.

Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee wrote in an introduction to one of their Rama II novels, that to write this book they had to understand women. And so they had sat down with their wives, had many long talks, and “now we understand women” (I quote from memory). Needless to say, anyone who says “now I understand women” doesn’t understand women. In addition, of course, anyone who does not understand women does not understand people. You would not be surprised, I suppose, to find that their characters in this book and in the others each of them had written were also cardboard cutouts. Again, not to take anything from Arthur C. Clarke’s great achievements (read his true classics, Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood’s End, and 2010), he would no doubt have been a better artist had his characters been more human.

Dickens wrote many books about the plight and hardships of children. One couldn’t read Oliver Twist, for example, without getting the feeling, deep inside, that children feel just the same as us adults and that many of the ways in which society treats children are unjust. Dickens’ women are just as human as his men. Even his most ridiculous characters (and there are plenty of those) are ridiculous in a human way and feel love and pain just as any of us do. In fact, they are ridiculous in the same way we are ridiculous.

We’ve previously examined how David E. Kelly uses our inherent racism to get this same point across.

In conclusion, then, you don’t have to be a liberal to be a good storyteller. But the better your story is, the more of a liberal you are. (Unfortunately for aspiring writers, that does not work the other way round: you cannot aspire to be liberal and hope that will make you a better artist.)

So, yes, most good artists are liberal. And it is not a coincidence.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Is 'The Daily Show' Patriotic?

“What Is It?

Actors and writers and directors have to understand human nature so that they may convey truths about it in their work. That forces them to often ask the question “What is it” about things which normal people don’t usually give a second thought to. What is it, they ask themselves, what is it really?

We’re going to take a look at patriotism this week and ask that question a couple of times.

Declaring Your Patriotism

A few weeks back, Bill Maher in his New Rules on Real Time, said: “You know, not to generalize, but the 29% of people who still support President Bush are the ones who love to pronounce themselves more patriotic than the rest of us. But just saying you're patriotic is like saying you have a big c**k. If you have to say it, chances are it's not true.”

Now, that’s funny, because it has a ring of truth to it. But is it really true? Are the people who are pronouncing their patriotism so loudly really the ones more likely to betray their country or to reveal secrets under torture faster than others? Probably not. There seem to be no indications that these people are either more likely or less likely to betray their country faster than anyone else who would be randomly chosen.

So the question is, since this behavior is everywhere, What is it? What is it really?

Imagine yourself arguing with a man who punctuates his argument with you with “I believe in the United States of America!”

What is that? That is a winning argument, because it has no counter-argument, and it puts the other side on the defensive, no matter what was being said. Notice that it is not a true argument, it is just a winning argument. It is not a fair argument, it is just a winning argument. A person who feels the need to resort to this sort of shtick, wants to win more than anything else. A person who resorts to this sort of argument wants to never be wrong.

And that’s the answer to the question. The people who resort to these arguments are people who want to feel safe in their rightness. They don’t want to think or to argue, they want to be considered right more than they want other things.

The Daily Show

The Daily Show: What is it?

What is it that The Daily Show actually does? Is it a left-wing mouthpiece or does it attack both sides equally and the Republicans simply happen to be in power? A revealing one-week ‘diary’ in Slate by Allison Silverman, one of The Daily Show’s writers, shows that The Daily Show’s writers look for the inherently illogical, for the absurd, and then they take that and make it more absurd and more illogical.

(Small detour: Note that she differentiates between jokes that get the audience laughing (which are funny) and jokes that get the audience clapping (which are not funny, the audience claps because it agrees). Now apply that to compare The Tonight Show to Letterman. Jay Leno gets a lot more laughs. Letterman gets a lot more claps. Letterman isn’t as funny as he was. People just want to feel that they’re included, that they ‘get it’, that they’re in the Letterman clique. Detour ends.)

So, taking an illogical argument or behavior and exaggerating it: What is that? It is in actuality an appeal for logic by showing that something is illogical.


When talking about the president’s refusing to have his aides testify under oath, Jon Stewart, interviewing correspondent John Oliver, says: “John, the president right now is suggesting that the only reason he’s doing this is to preserve his ability to get good council from his advisors.”

Oliver responds, “Look, Jon, if Karl Rove knew he’d one day be forced to testify under oath about advice he gave the president, he’d have to limit that advice to things that weren’t shameful, illegal, or spectacularly bone-headed.”

Do you see how they are making a logical point using humor?

Here’s another example:

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton went on The Daily Show. A day later, Stewart plays a bit of his tape back.

Bolton: “The president has a responsibility to be true to the people who voted for him and to put people in office who are sympathetic to his positions. Otherwise, what’s the point of having elections?”

Stewart: “Now, this is something I also didn’t realize about a democracy. The president is only the president of the people who voted for him.”

Stewart takes Bolton’s statement one step further, thus showing it as silly. He did not make it silly, he showed that it was already silly. He forces us to think better.

Moving on to the Gonzales scandal:

Stewart: “Meanwhile, returning to the Alberto Gonzales saga, he remains embroiled in the scandal over eight fired U.S. Attorneys, threatening to make him the first Hispanic Attorney General... to resign in disgrace. Of course, we know he’s not to blame.”

He then cuts to footage of Gonzales saying “... Was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on. That’s basically what I knew as the Attorney General.”

Back to Stewart: “Well, I guess Alberto Gonzales is the Attorney General kind of like the homeless guy is mayor of the park.”

Stewart took something unreasonable and exaggerated it to show how unreasonable it is. Stewart made a logical point.

However, it soon turns out that “Gonzales did, in fact, participate in a meeting concerning the firing of the attorneys, and signed off on them, according to statement released by the Justice Department. But I’m sure that he has an explanation for this rather enormous discrepancy.”

Cut to footage of Gonzales saying: “When I said on March 13th that I wasn’t involved, what I meant was that I have not been involved, was not involved in the deliberations. [...] I don’t recall being involved. Let me be more precise.”

Back to Stewart: “As the parent of a two-and-a-half-year-old, I routinely hear more convincing explanations of how feces got in my DVD player.”

The Daily Show not only takes on the absurd and makes us think, it also holds the politicians accountable for their lies (something that journalists should do and for some reason don’t). When Bush recently said that this new plan is working and what we should do is give it just a little more time, The Daily Show showed Bush a year before saying that the new plan is working and what we should do is give it just a little more time. Then it showed a video of Bush a year earlier saying the same thing, then another video from a year earlier, and so on, all the way back to the beginning of the war, where Bush says that the war has been won.

The Daily Show is holding the politicians accountable to their statements, thus protecting the people from those in power.

In the same way, when a politician makes a statement (something along the lines of “I never said” or “I never knew”) that contradicts an earlier statement, The Daily Show actually goes through the trouble of finding the conflicting statement and exposing the lie.

Is The Daily Show Patriotic?

Is what The Daily Show doing an act of sedition? If you act to improve, if you criticize to make things better, you act out of patriotism. History has shown that men in power who have not been held accountable for their mistakes tended to make bigger mistakes. So The Daily Show’s actions would seem to be a positive thing. Wanting this not to happen to your country would be a good thing.

On the other hand, if you use patriotism to stifle criticism, that brings us back to the original question: what you want to do is be understood to be right at the expense of everything else. It’s about you, not your country.

(When a government lies to the parents of a dead soldier, as the U.S. government did recently, trying to make his death more heroic, what is that? It is an act of a guilty conscience. It knows that it comes out looking badly, and so it would rather appear to be right at the expense of everything else like its soldiers or their honor.)

Exposing lies, exposing weaknesses of those in power, encouraging logical thinking, these are all acts of patriotism in a democratic country. Lying to the people, thinking that a power change would be a proof of weakness, thinking that thinking and/or changing one’s opinions is proof of weakness rather than intelligence, are all markers of the countries which the U.S. is fighting.

So let me ask you this: ‘Stay the course’, what is it?