Sunday, June 28, 2009

wait for the movie

So I've already bragged about the fact that I own this book—

FIRST TIME IN PAPERBACK!

—but I decided it would be nice to share some of it with y'all (since it's out of print and going for $70 on Amazon.com). I'm going to try not to be too judgmental—trying real hard, Ringo—because God knows I'd whip off a crappy novelization in a week if there were a steady paycheck in it; let's just say that Richard Mueller's novelization is not a must-read—and leave it at that. No other negative comments. A positive outlook! Hooray for novelizations!

So:

1. Prolegomenously, how I came to own this book

I saw Ghostbusters* at a drive-in theater the summer it came out. Correction: I saw the first half of Ghostbusters at a drive-in theater. We had to leave—which because we were at a drive-in theater meant we had to drive away—because I got too scared by the terror dogs: I remember watching through the rear windshield as Rick Moranis cowered with his back to the glass wall of the Tavern on the Green. Anyway, sometime later (I guess it would have had to have been a year later, which may mean I'm misremembering, but we'll plow on), I found the Ghostbusters novelization on a rack at Shakespeare & Co. on West 81st Street, and when I tried to get my mother to buy it for me, I remember she said, "Well, I don't know if you're ready for it, [Shorty]: you got so scared by Pee-Wee's Big Adventure."

But I convinced her that reading the thing would not only be less scary than watching it but would also help me face and conquer my fears—baby steps, sorta—and so she bought it for me, and I am still excited! Yet another reason to be super positive about this extremely good book! [Painfully forced frozen smile.]

poker face


2. Adaptation

Deleted scenes

I think the people who write novelizations are usually—maybe always—basing what they write on the screenplay rather than the finished film, which means that there are often important differences between the book and the movie. Here's an excerpt from a scene that, by the time Ghostbusters hit theaters, had been transformed into a dream sequence in a montage (explains a lot, actually):

Stantz awoke to find himself face to face with the ghostly apparition [he and Zeddemore] had come to remove, his body paralyzed with fear. And yet, she was beautiful. It seemed impossible that anything so beautiful would harm him. Then why am I so afraid?
The apparition smiled and drifted slowly toward the end of the bed. If I hold still, Stantz thought, it'll go away and I can follow it. I was a fool to let down my guard. That won't happen again. He opened his eyes. The phantom woman had vanished. Well, that's the end of that, he decided, and started to rise...
His belt suddenly came undone.
The buttons on his pants began to open one by one.
He felt an electric sensation between his legs.
You know, he thought, maybe we've been going about this all wrong. Maybe some of these spirits are friendly...
Beneficial...
Fantastic...
He closed his eyes. I don't think we're going to find this one, he thought.

Winston had come up empty. If there was a ghost at Fort Detmerring, it was a real quiet one. I wonder how Ray's doing. He came around the end of a corridor and suddenly heard voices from behind a wooden door. And light inside, through the cracks. Ray?
"Hey, Stantz. You okay in there?"
"Later, man!"
Zeddemore shrugged. He's the boss. He must know what he's doing. He ambled off in search of a cigarette.

Busting makes me feel good.

Hey, sexy and hilarious! There's also a lot of stuff about the hilarious homeless duo Harlan Bojay and Robert Learned Coombs, who I gather were in the original screenplay (clip here, via this), and either way provide an invaluable added dimension:

"You would have to wonder why anyone would dump a marshmallow of that size right in the middle of the street."
Robert Learned Coombs scratched his chin shrewdly. "I wonder if there might not be a very large cup of hot chocolate somewhere in the area."
Harlan Bojay looked at his friend in admiration. "Robert, that's very good. That would definitely explain it."

blurry like memories


Taking a closer look

One thing that's great about reading a novel when you're already familiar with the movie is that you get such a richer understanding of the characters. Although it doesn't go into the question of how much money the characters are making, Ghostbusters the novelization does quench our thirst for back story and depth by giving us a paragraph—sometimes a few pages!—about each of our favorite characters. For example, Harlan Bojay "had once been a jockey, until, at the age of twenty-four, he had inexplicably gained forty-five pounds and four inches in height, which finished forever his dreams of winning the Triple Crown," and Robert Learned Coombs, "a taciturn Oklahoma Indian" who had dreams of being a singer, "had drive, ambition, daring, pizazz; everything in fact but a voice" (these facts may be best appreciated if you watch the clip). We also learn more about Ray Stantz—

"Of the three, he was the product of the most normal childhood, having been raised in Long Island by his doctor father and housewife mother. He had an older brother (Air Force officer in the Middle East) and a younger sister (journalist in California). Brother Carl was married, sister Jean was divorced. Carl was a Republican, Jean a Democrat. Carl had two sons in the Boy Scouts, Jean a daughter in ballet school. Carl drank heavily and was a Sustaining Member of the National Rifle Association, Jean was a feminist with two lovers, one of each sex. Carl and Jean did not speak to each other. And neither spoke to Ray..."

—Dana Barrett—

"Talk had been the major recreation in the Barrett household. Her father had been a railroad worker for the Boston and Maine, invalided off on a pension, which had to make do for his wife and three children. But somehow they always got by... There was seldom money for the movies, but Dana had new clothes each fall—not flashy but well made... Now Doug was a reporter for The Boston Globe and little Davey was playing center field for the San Diego Padres..."

—the mayor—

"Hizzoner had had an extremely successful term as mayor, and he was determined not to let it be spoiled by a few ghosts. Ghosts, fer crissake! I get along with Italians and blacks, with Poles and Irish, with Puerto Ricans and Chinese. My credibility is solid with big business and environmentalists, with Jews, Catholics, and Muslims, with liberals and conservatives. My visibility extends with impeccable clarity to the Carson show, the Letterman show, to Donahue and Griffin and Good Morning America. I've published a book, done cameos on Kate and Ali and Ryan's Hope. They're doing a play about my life. I've done a good job. So, what do I get? Ghosts."

—and, of course, Peter Venkman, and his past as a "carny barker":

Peter Venkman had been born on the lot of King City Attractions, in a tent, on a field, in Sedalia, Missouri. It was the last night of the week-long run and his birth had been exceptionally easy. His mother had been taking tickets. When the show had started she'd closed the booth, gone back to the dressing tent, and had Peter. His birth had been unattended, but his baptism had been a cause for celebration by everyone from his impresario father to the lowliest rigger.
The carny wintered in Iowa City, and Peter had attended the schools there, touring summers with the show throughout the Corn Belt states. He worked as a candy butcher, as a roustabout, as a painter and carpenter, but it was at the games of chance that he really excelled. Whatever Peter was running always pulled in the nightly top take and he became adept at judging people, knowing who would bite and who wouldn't, knowing who wouldn't squawk at a good-natured skinning and who came, with dreams in their eyes, expecting to lose but hoping to win. And somewhere along the way he learned the lesson that his father had been teaching him. You can take a sucker but don't break a dream. He watched nightly as the people played his games, and he saw those dreams. And when he could, he rewarded them. And one day he realized what the dreams were that had been growing in him.
"Dad, I wanna go to college."
His father had smiled. "Why, Peter? What do you want to do?"
And he confessed that he didn't know. His father had smiled again, then laughed softly. "You'll tell me when you find out? If you find out?"
It was a strange question, but Peter Venkman was used to strange questions on the carny. "I guess you'll be the first to know."
He watched the upper Sixties slide by outside the cab window. Well, I just may finally be finding out. I wish the old man had lived to see it.

That is just...positive thoughts, positive thoughts... It's just so right.

Enriched by his experiences.


The epigraphs

Every chapter begins with an epigraph. Yep. The opening scene in the library is introduced by a John Burroughs quotation: "How much there is in books that one does not want to know." The scene in which they examine the librarian gets one from Laurence Sterne: "There are worse occupations in this world than feeling a woman's pulse."

What Sterne had in mind.

Here—a gift from me to you—are all the epigraphs:

The business idea, and kicked out of Columbia: "Some people are so fond of ill luck that they run halfway to meet it." –Douglas Jerrold

Setting up the business: "The usual trade and commerce is cheating all round by consent." –Thomas Fuller

Zuul in the fridge: "God may still be in his heaven, but there is more than sufficient evidence that all is not right with the world." –Irwin Edman

Taking Ms. Barrett back to her apartment and checking her out: "Ghosts remind me of men's smart crack about women, you can't live with them and you can't live without them." –Eugene O'Neill

The hotel job: "It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them." –Emerson

Success: "Put a rogue in the spotlight and he will act like an honest man." –Napoleon I

Hiring Winston, arguing with Peck: "Beware of the man of one book." –Thomas Aquinas

Terror dogs: "If a sane dog fights a mad dog, it's the sane dog's ear that is bitten off." –Burmese proverb

Meet the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper: "The course of true love never did run smooth." –William Shakespeare‡

Peck shuts down the grid: "I hate all bungling like sin, but most of all bungling in state affairs, which produces nothing but mischief to thousands and millions." –Goethe

Ghosts overrun New York: "We learn geology the morning after the earthquake." –Emerson

Convincing the mayor: "That government is not best which best secures mere life and property—there is a more valuable thing—manhood." –Mark Twain

Busting a god: "Have the courage to face a difficulty lest it kick you harder than you bargained for." –Stanislaus I of Poland


Heady stuff!

Who ya gonna call?


3. Cleanin' up the town

As discussed earlier, Richard Mueller works to protect his readers from the profanity that moviegoers were unable to escape. Another good example is the way he handled a funny bit that I didn't get until rewatching the movie (for the 50th time or so) a couple of years ago:

It is funny in the movie, but of course totally inappropriate and toxic, when Winston Zeddemore (who is black) says to the mayor (who is white), "I have seen shit that would turn you white." In the novel, the line goes like this: "I have seen jazz that would boggle your mind!" Nicely done.

Let it not be said, though, that Mueller was indiscriminate in his efforts to correct the screenplay's vulgarity. Although he is careful to remove all foul language, he is not otherwise prudish about the content. For example, he leaves in the joke about getting the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man laid. In fact, he sort of sexes the thing up a bit—take a look:

  • Alice, the librarian, "had discovered a book of woodcuts depicting sexual positions and concepts she'd not dreamed existed. They were crude in comparison to better works of both the period and the subject, but they touched a chord deep in Alice Melvin."
  • As Dana Barrett approaches her building, "Robert Learned Coombs made an off-color remark about her legs," and "An old duffer out walking his schnauzer gazed at Dana and remembered how long it had been since it had been long."
  • Venkman "stood behind [Dana] in the elevator, gazing at the soft wisps of hair curling down over her neck, wondering what she'd be like" (emphasis mine).
  • Dana, thinking about the guy she's with when she runs into Venkman in Lincoln Center: "Dana suspected that his interest was not entirely musical. She did not entirely object. Though thin and ascetic, Wallance was a brilliant musician, and if he wished to take her to dinner and to try in his shy, otherworldly way to get her into bed, she had every intention of letting him make the attempt. She might even let him succeed. He was not precisely her type, but then no one was, and the experience might be refreshing. Woman cannot live by cello alone.
It takes a subtle and perceptive mind to see why adding these things is acceptable while the words shit and dickless must not be allowed, and that's only part of what makes Ghostbusters: The Supernatural Spectacular such a supernaturally spectacular novel.


4. Conclusion

One thing I will say about this book: I got it more than 20 years ago, and it smells TERRIFIC. God bless old paperbacks—and God bless the United States of America.

I love this town!



* Not Ghost Busters, no matter what goons & loons on the Internet say. That baloney comes from the fact that the title is split into two lines of text in the opening credits, without a hyphen, but it's written as one word everywhere else. Give it a rest already.

† I know you know who this is—I just want to emphasize it.

‡ I like this one.

two unrelated items [UPDATED]

  1. You ever get back to your Internet machine after a few days away and find it feels less like a reunion than like a relapse?
  2. The highly functional wino suggested, quite sagely for someone who can't reliably touch his forefingers together, that I put all my "Fuck This Ad" posts on a separate, specialized blog. Unfortunately, he also urges me to change the name, for strictly practical reasons: if fuck is part of the name, reportedly search engines might fuck me. However, to call the blog "F*** This Ad" would be plain hypocritical. Emily from Gentleman Caller suggested "Shut Your Ad," which I liked, and then I thought maybe "Shut Your Ad Hole" would be even better; the highly functional wino said that this name is "Terrible" and then followed that up with anti-Semitic tirade before passing out in his own filth. It occurs to me to ask you—in particular the beautiful specimens of human life who read this blog with any regularity—what you think. "Shut Your Ad Hole": good or bad?
BONUS ITEM: I am pleased to report that, at the time of posting, Googling "highly functional wino" yields results from Alt85 and only Alt85. That is something.

Unrelated: America needs Star Trek on its frozen waffles.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"If others have their will Anne hath a way."

Quick thought: Anne Hathaway is in Twelfth Night. I'm too lazy to look this up: have people been commenting on how funny that is?

I mean, I'm slow to speculate about how a long-dead writer might feel about any given thing, but I'll bet William Shakespeare would have been tickled—or at least would have found it let's say remarkable—that in the 21st century the role of Viola would be played in a major city by a cute young actress named Anne Hathaway. Don't you think he would have gotten a kick out of that?

Somebody go back in time and tell him.


initialism capitalization snafu

Some time ago I tried to figure out how one ought to capitalize initialisms. The New York Times has hit upon an interesting and surprising solution; unfortunately, it doesn't make any sense:


At first I thought that keeping it lowercase made a lot of sense, even though [especially because?] I've never seen it done that way and it doesn't show up that way in dictionaries. But then I remembered that the I "stands for" the pronoun I, which is, of course, always capitalized (outside of text messages and some e-mails...particularly e-mails written in 1996). While you could make an argument for I.o.u., i.o.u. just doesn't make sense.


[Another thing (which has no bearing on the capitalization question, really—hence the brackets) is that I.O.U., regardless of how you capitalize it, isn't a proper initialism because the U stands for you, which starts with a Y. (You could say that doesn't make any difference since you has a U in it, but since capitalization is the question, the first letter is pretty much all-important.) Not a problem is what might seem like a consistency issue: the fact that they capitalize "I.O.U." in the headline, we can attribute to headline/title capitalization rules.* And as much as I hate making something plural with an -'s, there's often no way around that when it comes to letters and initialisms, particularly when periods are involved. (In fact, I came this close to having to write, "as much as I hate making things plural with -'s's"—avoided it only by making things singular, yeesh.)]


* Not sure about that comma.

dodge that profanity



STUPID S**T

I remember seeing Police Academy on network TV, once, and being stunned by this amazing "cleaned-up" line of dialogue:

TACKLEBERRY (shouting): Drop that stereo before I blow your goshdarn knees off, eggroll!

And—maybe even more ridiculous—I once caught a second of Austin Powers on TV, and the change they made was not only idiotic but also completely ruined the joke—like, gutted it, devastated it:

AUSTIN: That's Dr. Evil's cat!
VANESSA: How can you tell?
AUSTIN (meaningfully): I never forget a kitty...cat.

Why even leave the dialogue in if that's where it's going to land?

Of course all this is very much related to what I complained about here—in fact I don't think I have much to add to what I've already said. Let me just quote Steven Pinker in an excellent New Republic article from 2007: "Many people feel that profanity is self-evidently corrupting, especially to the young. This claim is made despite the fact that everyone is familiar with the words, including most children, and that no one has ever spelled out how the mere hearing of a word could corrupt one's morals."


BOOKS ARE EVIL

This battle was more or less won in the field of literature (probably less because the field was so sophisticated than because Americans don't really read), but it was a battle: Norman Mailer had to write fug for fuck in The Naked and the Dead, and remember that people thought The Catcher in the Rye stood out as shockingly vulgar! Now we teach that book to children.

That's why I was particularly disappointed infuriated by what I found in this book a little while back:

Yes, I'm excited that I own it.

The Ghostbusters dialogue in the screenshot at the beginning of this post actually goes like this:

RAY: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by dickless here.
PECK: They caused an explosion!
MAYOR: Is this true?
VENKMAN: Yes, it's true. This man has no dick.
[Peck attacks Venkman, is dragged off.]
VENKMAN: Well, that's what I heard!

Brilliant. Hilarious. Our children must be protected from it.

Here's how the scene goes in the book:

Stantz rounded on Peck. "It was fine, just fine, until this jerk here shut down our power."
"Is this true?" the mayor asked. Venkman stepped forward.
"Yes, Your Honor. This man is a jerk."

Really? It's not O.K. to print what it is O.K. to film? Thank you, Mr. Mueller, for saving our city from Aykroyd & Ramis's filthy minds.

[More on this book soon, I think.]



** HI.

Why don't you like the Beatles?

Because it's devil music?

A friend of mine recently told me that she doesn't like the Beatles. Not that she doesn't particularly love them, or that she prefers the Rolling Stones, or that she only listens to obscure hardcore bands on cassette,* or that she doesn't listen to music with lyrics unless it's an opera—just she does not like the Beatles.

I am aware that this happens, and I am generally sympathetic to left-field, unanimity-bucking opinions. (For example, I'm inclined to think that anything as popular as The Wire, which seemingly everyone I know thinks is the best television program ever made, cannot possibly be good—even though I had the same reaction about the British Office and ended up loving it. In other words, the mere fact of an opinion's being a bit of a surprise makes me respect it at least a little, at least in theory.) However, I find this particular opinion difficult to accept—like when a friend of mine told me that Lolita was a good book even though it was badly written. (Huh?!)

Because they're vulgarians?

One direction I could go from here is to wonder (again) about whether there's such a thing as objective truth in art, whether Shakespeare would still be "good" if literally no living human being thought so—but I'm not going to go there, not today. Instead I would like to present a list of questions for people who do not like the Beatles. Please take them as unironic, nonsatirical, and not rhetorical: if you don't like the Beatles, I sincerely would like to know your answers to these questions...so that I can understand.

  1. Do you like music? [If no, ignore all the questions that follow.]
  2. How much music would you say that you listen to?
  3. Do you consider yourself a "musical person"?
  4. What music do you like?
  5. Do you like...The Rolling Stones? the Velvet Underground? Bob Dylan? the Beach Boys? the Kinks? the Mothers of Invention? Trout Mask Replica? The Residents? Prince?
  6. How do you find the music you listen to? (E.g., the radio, friends' recommendations, Pitchfork, your parents...)
  7. What is music for? I.e., what is the point of music? I.e., why do you listen to music?
  8. When was the last time you listened to the Beatles?
  9. When you think of the Beatles, what songs or albums come to mind?
  10. Are there some Beatles songs that you do like, or that you like better than the rest? (Like, do you hate Sgt. Pepper but kind of enjoy "I Want to Hold Your Hand," or "Helter Skelter," or "Ticket to Ride"?)
Just not into punk rock?

I'm serious when I say I ask these questions with all respect. Most of them are pretty much designed to help me figure out what it means that you don't like the Beatles—like, do you really not like the Beatles, or do you just not like the fact that everyone likes them?—or do you not like rock music?—and so on and so forth. (A girl I knew once said that she hated Amy's ice cream in Austin, Tex., but then revealed that she also hated ice cream; my feeling about that was that "Amy's has bad ice cream" is effectively a misleading statement coming from someone who thinks all ice cream is bad.)

Please comment on this post if you think you can help explain—and please be sure to answer question #4! I don't know what it is about me—perversity or pretentiousness or some actually admirable character trait—but if you hate the Beatles in a way that I'm not able to dismiss as irrelevant (that would be if you don't like music or if we have obviously incomaptible taste), I would love to get music recommendations from you. Horizons are made to be broadened.

Aw, shit, George ate your bird, didn't he? I'm sorry, I didn't know.


* Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust?

OCD...easy as 123, 123, 123, 123

A friend of mine who will go nameless (because he is now a respectable lawyer) once argued, in college, that when you flick a booger onto the floor, the booger disappears: upon hitting the ground, it simply ceases to exist. (I'm sorry, I got that wrong: he argued this not once but regularly, pretty much every time I complained about his flicking boogers onto the floor of my dorm room, which happened pretty much continually).

I thought of this again, in a new light, while using the Café Gitane restroom the other night. As someone who has largely but not completely overcome a kind of germ phobia, I am always disappointed to find myself in a bathroom with one of those hand dryers that blow hot air. My doctor friend confirmed my suspicion* that these hot-air jobbies are essentially unsanitary: he said that if you're concerned about germs you'd be better off not washing your hands at all than washing them and then using one of those things.

Here's what I like in a public restroom:

Hands-free flush technology!

The effects of my germ phobia are most distressing when they lead me to do things I am ashamed of (this is on top of the basic shame of being so neurotic to begin with). For example, I think it's lame to use a urinal and not to flush the toilet, but,†
  1. unless I can use a paper towel to flush the toilet, I'll want to be able to wash my hands afterwards; however,
  2. if there's no paper towel to flush the toilet, there likely won't be paper towel to open the door, which means I'd have to touch the doorknob after washing my hands, thus defeating the purpose of washing my hands; and, meanwhile,
  3. if I can't get and stay clean afterwards, I don't want to flush the toilet with any part of my body except my safely shod foot, but I almost always think it's inconsiderate to flush a toilet with my foot since other people are going to have to touch that (particularly since the sole of my shoe was necessarily just on the floor of a public restroom).
So how wonderful it is when the toilet flushes itself (or doesn't need to be flushed)!


Hands-free paper-towel–dispensing‡ technology!

Even when there is paper towel available, I have a few problems, mainly having to do with waste:
  1. Touching the faucet after washing my hands arguably defeats the purpose of washing my hands since somebody else touched that with shitty fingers; this means using paper towel to turn off the water, which means (a) wasting water and (b) wasting paper.
  2. Touching the lever to dispense paper towel also defeats the purpose of washing your hands, which means generally that I'll crank out some paper while washing my hands or before washing my hands, then use that paper to crank out some more paper: again, wasteful—and inconsiderate, in more or less the same way that it's inconsiderate to flush the urinal with your foot (see above).
So how wonderful it is when you can wave your hand and paper towel rolls itself out on its own for you!

[I also, predictably, am fond of restrooms where the door swings out without your having to turn a knob or, even better—as you find in certain airports and multiplex cinemas—restrooms that have hallways that make a few strategic turns, thereby obviating the need for any kind of doors at all!]

BUT...

...all this horseshit is predicated upon the assumption that my hands must be thoroughly washed after touching a toilet handle or a restroom doorknob—that to touch such a thing places me in some kind of danger.

And that's why I've gotten so much better about it. Once, in a bar, after having been forced to touch the doorknob of a restroom because there was no paper towel, I shook someone's hand goodbye, and for a second I felt guilty about contaminating my friend, but then I realized: wait a minute: most people don't worry about this shit, and I usually don't worry about shaking people's hands, so... As with my quarter-on-the-street and shit-eating stories (see "germ phobia" link above), this could have sent me in the Howard Hughes direction and put me off handshakes, but instead it made me realize that the only difference between the germs I got on my hand in the public restroom and the germs I was getting on my hands all the time in other contexts was my awareness of them.

Which brings us back to my respectable lawyer friend's booger theory.

[I remembered this as having been a law firm.]

So in what senses is it true or false that boogers disappear upon being flicked onto the ground? I, the one who worries about touching the faucet in a restroom, believed it was clear that the booger, being a physical object in the physical world, literally did not disappear but rather landed somewhere, and unless the rug or floor was cleaned, would remain there. This is indisputably accurate on a strictly factual level—but is it meaningfully or significantly true?

My friend obviously wasn't saying that the boogers literally ceased to be, at least not on that factual level on which I was responding. I knew that then, too. But I think I thought he was only joking. He was joking, surely, but he was also serious, and it seems to me now that, in a way, his joke was closer to reality than my literal, factual response. Here's why:

In what sense is it importantly false that boogers disappear when flicked on the floor? It's false because you might come upon that booger later—might step on it, most likely. But now is it likely that you'll come upon that booger later? No, probably not. And is it possible that you might come upon a booger on your floor even if your friend did not deliberately flick a booger onto your floor? Yes, probably yes.

So (totally apart from the question of whether it's a big deal if you step on a booger), we wind up with two proposed models for the booger reality:

  1. Boogers flicked onto the floor remain there and then might be stepped on.
  2. Boogers flicked onto the floor cease to be. Sometimes boogers appear on the floor to be stepped on.

Obviously #2 is silly. But is it meaningfully false? The causal connection has reality only insofar as we trace the booger, which we neither do nor, perhaps, even can do; as such, #2 is effectively true and may in fact be a more accurate description of reality as we experience it.

So then jump back to the germ topic. The fear is that if I touch this surface, I will be contaminated, and then I will get sick.§ But (a) you're going to get sick sometimes, and (b) if you did in fact get sick from touching some surface, as opposed to spending time with a very sick person, you probably aren't going to know for sure how you got sick. So I ask you: isn't it on some level true that (a) when you touch unsanitary surfaces, there are no consequences, and (b) sometimes you get sick?

I submit that, like fairies, dangerous germs exist on your hands only as long as you believe in them. If you get actual visible shit on your fingers, maybe go and have a nice soapy handwashing. Otherwise, don't worry about it. It's not so much that what you don't know can't hurt you as it is that you don't know everything and will sometimes get hurt; control is, more often than not, an illusion.

Ah, what are you gonna do?


* The funny thing about OCD or paranoia is that it does not necessarily make you see the world less clearly: it's less a question of clarity than one of perspective or focus. This means that someone irrationally afraid of contamination or germs might in fact be more rational about what is and is not clean even while (or as a result of) being way less rational about how much that is a reasonable cause for alarm.

† There's a comma after this but ONLY because what follows is a—what-do-you-call-it, my grammatical Achilles' heel is terminology—call it an aside. It's an adverbial clause, innit?

Highly Functional Wino, did I use that em-dash en-dash right? (Can you even tell where the em-dash en-dash is, with the Blogger font? I guess better no than "I can tell where it's supposed to be" because it's Wing-Ding bullshit.)

§ Actually, a sign of the irrationality of the phobia is that the "then I will get sick" part isn't actually part of it unless I'm trying to explain it: specific fears of illness are no part of the actual anxiety. This is telling.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

whatever works

Isn't George Costanza supposed to have been "the Larry David character" on Seinfeld? As amazing as this is—



—I would love even more to see Larry David doing it. Can you imagine? I can. I really can. And I want it.

fortune, cookie [UPDATED]

It's annoying that fortune cookies are very, very rarely actually fortune cookies: they're usually advice cookies, compliment cookies, aphorism cookies, or, most often, platitude cookies. (I've said all this before.) But this particular fortune (below), although still not properly a fortune, sort of made my day:


This is a claim that (1) is not total gibberish, (2) is not totally obvious and cliché—on the contrary, it's totally contentious!—and (3) is actually sort of fascinating. Makes me think of "Self-Reliance" by Emerson; suggests a more humanistic definition of wisdom (the idea of which often seems to take on a sort of crypto-authoritarian or at least superstitious quality); casts a different light upon the link (pointed out by Bloom) between psychoanalysis and the Judaeo–Christian religious tradition: the valuing of second chances...*

Once I was talking to someone about how you can never really know the difference between what you think and what you think you think—more to the point, can't know whether you want one thing but are scared of it or want the opposite but are scared of that, can't know what's want and what's fear—and he said he actually didn't think that was true, that generally we did know the answer if we were honest with ourselves. (I think his point may have been: that's what want is.)

Anyway, according to this cookie, "Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another": nature and wisdom are always in tune. This means that wisdom is not primarily about restraint, and if (as I'm inclined to do now) we treat wisdom as essentially inextricable from ethics, then it must not be that we do wrong when we listen to our base instincts, but rather that we do wrong when the signal comes out scrambled...maybe even when we don't trust ourselves enough.

Response to the cookie probably comes down, or can, to the question of whether human beings are fundamentally good or fundamentally evil. My short answer to that would be "neither"—although I do like to point out (more or less in response to the idea in The Brothers Karamazov that all would be permissible if God did not exist) that all moral value and all human goodness did, after all, come from and were, after all, cooked up by human beings. So that at least is a good sign.

"Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another." I'm not sure I believe it, but I like it, and I want to believe.



[ON THE OTHER HAND... Don't they probably mean nature in the sense of the world minus Homo sapiens? I haven't seen that M. Night Shyamalan movie where [SPOILER ALERT] the trees make everybody kill himself as a kind of reprisal for pollution, but you could read the fortune as saying, basically, "It is unwise to cross a plant." Also (more seriously), rather than linking nature and wisdom, they might still be viewing wisdom from a not at all humanistic place and treating it actually rather a lot like my joke example above, saying, "It is unwise to fight your nature." And that's a moderately interesting claim in itself, but not nearly as interesting, to me. So now we get into the question: does it matter what was meant? Oh, authorial intent, you tricky bird!]

* [UPDATE] What Bloom actually said—I just looked it up—was much more amazing than that: "Freud recognized sublimation as the highest human achievement, a recognition that allies him to Plato and to the entire moral traditions of both Judaism and Christianity."

juxtaposition

When people post news articles to their Fæcebook pages, generally they're given their choice of "thumbnail" photograph to go along with the post: because Fæcebook's computers don't necessarily know which picture is associated with which article, they take several from the same site and let users determine which one is appropriate. A reasonable-enough system—

—but hilarity ensues when people pick the wrong picture or, rather, don't bother to pick and unthinkingly go, instead, with whichever one comes up first. Last night I saw a particularly rewarding example of this phenomenon, and I'm posting a screenshot below:

The outrage is palpable.

Monday, June 22, 2009

magic, reality, isms

[You don't really want to read this one. I'm kickin' it old-school tonight, like it was summer 2008, pre-HFW.]

I am ambivalent toward the Stephen O'Connor story in the new New Yorker. Ambivalent doesn't mean "in the middle" or "neither here nor there": it means on both sides, both here and there. An ambidextrous person isn't middle-handed.

OK.

Of course, it's not even so much ambivalence as it is...polyvalence? multivalence? infinivalence? As with so many other things. I can see one side of something; I can see the other side. It's this charming endless back and forth that amounts, from a distance, to paralysis.

First off, I'm glad they're publishing something like this in The New Yorker: it's sad to feel, as Dave Eggers suggested in his introduction to maybe Forty Stories, that someone like Donald Barthelme wouldn't be published if he were starting today. Eggers said something depressing about Barthelme putting those styrofoam peanuts into boxes at a Mailbox Etc.; then he went on to say something more optimistic about how, no, great talent will always shine through. Then he wrote Away We Go, which is a terrible piece of shit.

So but yeah, I'm glad they published something weird like this. But then the fact that it's rare that they would puts so much pressure on it to be good. And is it even original? It's like, I've read Grendel, I've read Borges, I've read Barthelme, I've read Coover, I've seen Synecdoche, N.Y.—did I really need to read this story? Is the reason that they're publishing something so risky that it isn't risky, that it's actually quite depressingly safe? Or is the reason I think that that at first I'm like, "Ooh, stuff like this can get published," but then I remember, "Well, no, statistically speaking that's probably effectively not true: Stephen O'Connor probably just filled up the quota"? I.e., sour grapes? Or not sour grapes: depression in response to a view of reality of the sort that you only get when an illusion is dangled before you for a moment and then pulled back away? Never will you believe in magic less than if you rub a lamp and for a second it seems like a genie's actually coming out but then you realize it's some sort of marketing stunt: your belief in magic will probably be lower than it was before you started. Not that O'Connor's story is a cheap marketing stunt. Although, I don't know, maybe the point is that publishing a story like this in 2009 would be like putting a urinal on the wall or erasing a De Kooning, or writing a play in which some guys are waiting and waiting and waiting for somebody who never comes. Or worrying about God. But then maybe we should be worrying about God, in one sense or another.

Woody Allen said once in an interview that art is nothing but another kind of entertainment, just an entertainment for a particular sensibility that requires a certain level of subtlety or...I don't know. Point is, if you don't like Pynchon, for example, I have no problem with that, but if you suggest that I couldn't possibly like Pynchon either, or that I'm pretentious for liking Pynchon, or that I'm somehow oppressing you by liking Pynchon, then I think you're stupid or at least thoughtless and I don't like you: go fuck yourself. Point is (that last thing I said wasn't the point), what's the point of art? Why does this story have to be profoundly meaningful? Or is that it presents itself as profoundly meaningful? Or is that I just want it to be profoundly meaningful? Or is it that it feels like a representative of an unpopular literature that I enjoy and therefore there seems to be a lot riding on it, like an old-fashioned racist pinning his hopes on the white boxer or something. Boy, I just compared myself to a racist. I'm not sure what the word snob means: in college I was sure I wasn't, but now I wonder if I was confused about the meaning. (Other things I've passionately denied I am but then wondered whether I just had a narrow semantic viewpoint include: competitive, aggressive, religious.)

I enjoyed the story. I enjoyed and hated it. I would think, "Oh, see, now it's starting to get interesting," and then I would think, "I know this interesting, I've been here before," but then it would occur to me, "Am I just experiencing the story as it's meant to be experienced?" And so on and so forth.

SHORTY: Maybe the fact that it's got me thinking means it's successful.
SHORTY: This isn't an ad, Short Stuff. Besides which, you're not thinking about its content so much as you are about its...
SHORTY: Its what? Does it matter? If you're thinking about it, you're thinking about it.
SHORTY: Sure it matters. I think about a pimple. I think about dog shit if I step in it.
SHORTY: So the story is dog shit?
SHORTY: It is not. I'm just saying that the mere fact of thinking about it...
SHORTY: Look at the word count mount!
SHORTY: Oh, that's just stupid.

That dialogue didn't come out right.* But who cares?—when in the end we're all gonna die anyway. Maybe even soon! Did you see the thing in the news about how North Korea is going to nuke Hawaii? Or how we sent one of our destroyers after some North Korean ship because their ship was "of interest," and North Korea said, "If you intercept that ship, that means war?" Fun! Here's another thing I go back and forth and back and forth about: the fact that the North Korean government is batshit crazy. Does that make it more likely or less likely that they'll actually try to turn our cities into "seas of fire"?—or that they'll succeed if they do try? I'm inclined to view what they say as being propaganda intended more to impress North Koreans than to communicate any real information to the rest of the world. But what do I know? I don't know a goddamned thing, is what I know.

Is Stephen O'Connor writing for anyone in particular? Is the aim to edify? To entertain? To enrich? To challenge? To please? Or is he merely seeking money, fame, respect, credibility, validation, or something in that unhealthy vein? Or am I wrong to say that that's unhealthy? Is he an artist? Are most writers artists? Are most artists artists? Is it a good thing to be an artist? Is there any way to judge a career choice that isn't 100% personal? Is there any way to judge anything that isn't 100% personal?

And why am I putting these thoughts on the Internet? Back to that. Can you "blog" without ever asking the question, "Why blog?" As I've said before, I first started this shit in order to combat George McFly syndrome, to put my writing "out" instead of keeping it "in," without necessarily making sure first that what I was saying was "good" or "right." There's some value in that. And the fact that some people now actually read this thing maybe inhibits me in that regard. But then, of course, if this line of thinking is supposed to have anything to do with O'Connor's short story, the question is whether writing is fundamentally solipsistic or fundamentally...what, social? Public? Write for an audience, write for yourself, trust yourself, doubt yourself. What does it matter? Something hits, it doesn't hit, you get famous, you never publish a thing... Melville died a failure. Most of Kafka was published after he died. Dickinson lived in an attic eating bugs. William Shakespeare was technically, by Elizabethan medical standards, a giant, and he lived in a cave and wrote on boulders with human thighbones. Scholars believe that James Joyce was part chimpanzee. All the Beatles' songs were actually written by Ringo, who started out as John and Paul's babysitter, and then things got out of hand: an extremely generous and self-sacrificing man, Ringo. And I dreamt Björk: that shit would never actually happen. Where was she supposed to be from, Narnia? Iceland? Ah, the details are fading now. Freud thought there was a reason for why that happened, why you forget your dreams. I think it had something to do with the ABC of being, the truth's superb surprise, the vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X. Judgment Day. Every ancient religion has its own myth about the end of the world.

WINSTON: Shorty, has it ever occurred to you that the reason we've been so busy lately is that the dead have been rising from the grave?

[Pause.]

BRANDT: That did not occur to us, Winston.

[Shot of bridge, Cloverfield, James Bond, Klingon starship, whales, wooden puppets, donkeys, CGI monsters, we're back to CGI monsters, which means we're done.]

FIN


* I was going to say something about how its content is, after all, about a labyrinth—but then, ugh.

how bicyclists see the world

(click to enlarge)

Over 3,000 cyclists were hit by cars last year—and it's all the drivers' fault.

Right?

Instead of focusing on the significance of the statistics (e.g., 57% of bicyclists don't stop at red lights, 13% go the wrong way, 13% ride on the sidewalk), let's look exclusively at this ad.*

1. The car is turning the wrong way onto a one-way street.
2. Because the light on Lafayette is yellow, it would seem that the car was running a red light.

I do see cars running red lights—some times more flagrantly than others—but I see bicyclists running red lights continually, throughout the day, every day. And I'll see a car driving the wrong way on a one-way street maybe once every few years, and when that happens I'll stop and gape, but I'm not sure a day goes by when I don't see several bicyclists blithely coasting—or furiously racing—the wrong way (often ringing indignantly at pedestrians who step into the street in front of them with heads turned the other way because that's the direction from which traffic is supposed to be coming).

Let's focus on point #2, that yellow light, ignoring point #1 altogether for a moment (because it's so silly). You could argue that the yellow light has no significance because the picture is being taken some time after the actual accident, but (a) I think—especially given the surrealism of the bike lane's running up the hood of the car—that you'd be wrong, besides which, (b) they chose to include the traffic light and, if unconstrained by the instant of impact, could have shot that at any stage, red, yellow, or green, which means that the color of the traffic light is a choice—and that, in turn, would lead us to something even more telling:

Why did they choose to use a shot where the light is yellow? Well, let's look at their alternatives:

  • The light is green. In this case, the car would obviously be running a red light (not actually any more so than with the yellow light, but in a way that's probably more immediately noticeable and requiring a second's less thought), which would basically make this an ad about cars running red lights, or warning bicyclists that cars sometimes run red lights. In other words, the driver would be so clearly in the wrong that the ad wouldn't be so much about bicycle safety as about the Motorist Menace. They didn't do it this way because it wouldn't seem universal enough: any driver could just say, "Yeah, well, I don't run red lights, so this doesn't apply to me."
  • The light is red. In this case (the most realistic, let's note), the bike is obviously running a red light and therefore in the wrong. In fact (and this seems about right, too, given the content picture), it wouldn't even be an example of a bicyclist being hit by a motorist, but rather an example of a motorist being hit by a bike. They didn't do it this way because it would suggest (realistically, accurately) that many bicycle fatalities are the result of reckless and irresponsible bicycling.
They chose yellow because green or red would make it too clear whose fault this accident was. The point of the ad is, supposedly, "LOOK—see and be seen—and that will prevent accidents," but what it should be, and what in fact the muddled content ends up actually suggesting, is, instead, "RESPECT TRAFFIC LAWS—don't run red lights or go the wrong way down one-way streets—and odds are you won't hit anybody."

A friend of mine was recently railing against New York City bicyclists, saying how much he hates them, and I sympathized—because the prevailing attitude at least seems to be one that I find infuriating wherever it pops up,† the main axiom being, In any given conflict, we are in the right (this being an axiom, you understand, not even a bias or assumption). You get the sense that if a bike and a car get in an accident, the driver is automatically guilty: there is simply no way in which it could be the bicyclist's fault. Indeed, the very notion of a bicyclist's "fault" is paradoxical, nonsensical. There is a word for this kind of attitude: chauvinism.

That's why I felt that the ad above was so telling: subtract or analyze the strange and sort of extreme choices about how they set up the accident (to review, the car is running a red light and turning the wrong way onto a one-way street‡), and what you wind up with is a bicyclist's vision of the world, in which one's own actions and choices are above or maybe even outside responsible judgement, and cars exist only as insane and irrational monsters that pop out of nowhere, like the ones in a carnival's haunted house. If that's the way you think the roads work, no wonder you ride around like such a douchebag.




* I originally read this ad as being directed at drivers from a bicyclist's perspective, but it occurred to me that it's very possible I've got that all backwards and that the city is telling bicyclists to wake the fuck up. I'm not sure. I've decided to go forward with my original point, though, because—whether or not the makers of this ad actually do endorse it—the attitude I'm responding to is indisputably real and in need of a smackdown.

† I've detected it in: George W. Bush, undergraduate junk-feminists, hard-line Zionists, et al.

‡ Acting like a bike, in other words.

interesting e-mail from Fandango

For some reason this showed up in my spam folder!

Click to enlarge it:


I cry foul. How could a mix-up like this have occurred? Fandango is a lively folk and flamenco couple-dance! a respected and popular movie-ticket service! Is that not "trustworthy" enough for Gmail?! Just because a company has something to tell me about fellamtio, the system automatically labels the message as junk! If I hadn't happened to check before clearing the folder, just think of the powerful orgamss experience that would have been missed.

Shame on you, Google. Maybe if you had gotten it together to develop some effective means of big daddy enlargement, you wouldn't engage in such shamelessly anti-competitive practices.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

55 reasons why Back to the Future Part III is one of the worst sequels ever made

(or, Live-Blogging BTTF3—although this is even less an example of live-blogging than this was)

[Special thanks to Emily from Gentleman Caller for her contributions and feedback on this one.]

Let me begin by saying that I used to think that Back to the Future Part III was good. Then let me add that I was 12 years old when I formed this opinion. For years I heard people refer to Part III as the worst of the series. At first I couldn't believe it; then, after hearing the arguments against it, I eventually came around to the opinion that it was, sure, a little corny and, sure, a little cheesy, although of course it was still highly entertaining. The biggest shock for me upon rewatching it the other day, almost exactly a month ago—maybe even more than the shock of realizing just how bad it is—was that Back to the Future Part III is not entertaining. I waited long enough to write this that I decided I'd better watch it yet again, this time taking extensive notes, and let me just say that the only way I'm ever going to suffer through this piece of crap again is if I can comment on it throughout: annihilate it with irony.

So here goes: a pretty much faithfully chronological, VICIOUS ASSAULT upon what is—insofar as it takes a brilliant series and drives it into a truck full of manure—effectively a crime against humanity.


1. Back to the Future Part III has a great beginning, but really it's just the end of Back to the Future Part II, so you can't give this one credit for that. The first thing the third one does on its own is a way-too-slow, cloying opening-credit sequence in which a sentimental score tells us how much to love these characters, as Marty hauls an unconscious Doc into his old mansion (before it burned down and Doc had to live in his old garage in back of a...what is it, a McDonald's?)—and then, even worse, as they sleep with—aww!—their shoes drying by the fireplace and Marty's feet on the hoverboard and the dog sleeping too, slow pan around the room...

2. Which leads us to Part III's first great sin: the mistake of thinking that these characters are real people. I don't mean that in the most obvious fact–fiction sense: I'm of the Bloom school and might say, for example, that Hamlet is a real person. What I mean is that Doc and Marty are cartoon characters. Since the first movie doesn't demand too much humanity from them (leaning on a brilliant premise and story*) and the second movie is essentially a cartoon itself (leaning on awesome time-travely twists and turns), this was never a problem in the 1980s, but come 1990, the third movie decides it would be a great idea to give these characters some depth—and has a moronic idea of what "depth" comprises. More on that later, but let me just note that some people seem to think that there are only two settings on the Character scale, "complex" and "simple," when in fact there are way more settings in between, many of them having to do with phony complexity: not sentiment, but sentimentality.

3. Part of what makes Part II so great are the clever ways in which it avoids or, say, sublimates the traditional crappiness of sequels. A sequel, of course, is on one level just corporate sleight-of-hand, giving you the same movie again in different clothes; Part II does of course repeat a few key moments, but (a) even if that Hill Valley chase scene had been shot-for-shot identical, the replacement of the skateboard with the hoverboard excuses all, and (b) the fact that the characters return to the original movie is effectively an amazing commentary on the concept of the sequel and, again, pretty much excuses all. This brings us to Part III's second great sin: as if correcting for Part II's creativity, it's chock-full of classically crappy formulaic sequel bullshit. For example: When Doc realizes that Marty really has come back from the future, he (a) cartoonishly screams and trips on a hoverboard—O.K., a little dumb, but tolerable—and (b) redoes the whole scene from the first one in which he doesn't believe Marty, right down to slamming the door and opening it and sticking out his head and asking sarcastic questions...which in this movie is, unfortunately, nonsense. "It's a very interesting story, Future Boy," says Doc, "but there's just one little thing that doesn't make sense..." Would Doc disbelieve that Marty could possibly have returned (when a fucking time machine is involved)? Probably not. Would he revert to calling Marty "Future Boy," which originally he did because he didn't believe Marty was actually a time-traveler? No. Nonsense. That is faithful not to the characters, not to the plot, not to the reality of the story, but to the formula established by the original film: more marketing than storytelling. Infuriating.

4. Back to Sin #1 with its phony complexity, false humanity, and ridiculous characterization: "1885! Amazing! I actually end up as a blacksmith in the Old West." As I mentioned a while back, the worst part of Part II is the stuff that exists only to set up a bunch of baloney in Part III, and one such wad of wet baloney is this idea that Doc just loves the Old West. Is it consistent with his character? (What character?—might be a reasonable reply.) Doesn't even make any difference: one way or another, all this business is forced, a crappy, half-assed jab at retroactive character development. "You know, when I was a kid, I always wanted to be a cowboy..." Fine, Doc.

5. But now we come to Part III's third and arguably greatest sin: as so often happens in big-budget sci-fi films, making sense comes second or ceases to matter at all. This will come up a few times, but the first big example is this: In the letter he sent from the 19th century, Doc urges Marty (and his past–future† self) not to travel back in time to rescue him because "unnecessary time travel only risks further disruption of the space–time continuum." This isn't an enormous deal, but why would Doc, if he's worried about the space–time continuum, think it was O.K. for him to hang around in the Old West? He sets himself up as a blacksmith, providing services that otherwise would not have been provided or (maybe more of a problem) would have been provided by someone else; he involves himself as a citizen, offering to pick up schoolteachers and such; he occupies a house that surely would have been occupied by someone else... This is a small town in 1885: it's not like he's one of hundreds of anonymous citizens. How can he think that this is safe? Shouldn't he be saying, "Come back and get me, and be sure you come back as close to the moment of my actual arrival as possible so that I'll make as little impact as possible upon this incredibly malleable community"? "I'll be hiding in a cave"?

6. Copernicus (the dog) wearing a miner's helmet with a light on it: not funny.

7. Sin #1 again: The discussion of Jules Verne is hackneyed, phony back story that's really just an effort to establish some kind of connection that Doc can have with Clara later on. "My initials! Just like in Journey to the Center of the Earth!" We never saw this kind of shit from Doc in the first movie—and thank God for that: it would have been unbearable. The equivalent for Marty is all the "chicken" stuff—also forced, also totally subservient to a (not especially rewarding) "character arc," exclusively devoted to supporting a lame plot element that will happen later.

8. Marty can't read the word schematic?

9. The pacing is all wrong. Too much time is spent with them hanging out and talking: I have no problem with talky movies—I love me some pre-DreamWorks Allen K.—but this is all exposition and awkward "character development." During the scene in which they're hooking the DeLorean up to the back of Doc's truck, we zoom in for way too long, and it feels less like reality than like watching a play—Red, White & Blaine comes to mind.

Nothing ever happens in 1955.

10. And—honestly?—Copernicus is whimpering over Doc's grave? That's how they find out Doc's going to get (or I guess did get) shot by Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen: they go after the dog, who has found and will not leave Doc's gravestone. I guess maybe the dog smells something...but a 70-year-old grave? Would there really be anything there to smell? The implication is that the dog just sort of picked up on it, somehow, but is that consistent with the logic of this series? We're meant to accept that dogs have some kind of E.S.P.?

11. Meanwhile, they're hanging out in 1955, with no discussion or sense at all that they're still in the same world they were in in Part I and in Act III of Part II. Where are Biff, George, Lorraine? They're in the same town, for Christ's sake. It's the next day. This is Sin #3: the fact that they're still in the same Hill Valley they had to creep around so dramatically is forgotten because it isn't convenient to the plot. And that's that.

12. Doc doesn't get Marty's Clint Eastwood reference; Marty says, "That's right. You haven't heard of him yet." Look, Michael J. Fox is excellent in Back to the Future, but that is in competition with "We're big shots now, baby" (from Monkey Business, 1931), for Worst-Delivered Line Ever. To be fair, I'm not sure how you could deliver that line well.

13. Back to Sin #3 (not making sense):

[At a drive-in theater in 1955, Marty is about to drive the DeLorean to 1885 on a rescue mission; under the screen is a painting of charging Native Americans on horseback.]
MARTY: Wait a minute, Doc, if I drive straight towards the screen, I'm going to crash into those Indians!
DOC: Marty, you're not thinking fourth-dimensionally! You'll instantly be transported to 1885 and those Indians won't even be there!
MARTY (uneasily): Right...

O.K., so Marty has forgotten what a time machine does. The above dialogue is only there to set up the joke of the Native Americans who actually are there charging when he arrives in 1885...and/or to tell imbeciles or first-timers what in the world is going on. This happens again with the train-track bridge. But—seriously? Do we really have to sit back and suspend disbelief while Marty is like, "Wait a minute! Doc! Drive that car at 88 m.p.h. toward a wall? I don't want to hit a wall at 88 m.p.h.! Why would you even ask me to... Ohhh, right, right, it's a time machine. Sorry, I forgot what we were doing here, for a second."

14. And as for those Native Americans...how do we feel about the fact that they are in no way fazed by the sudden appearance (usually accompanied by a kind of explosion of light, no?) of a DeLorean? Marty's scared to see them, but they just keep riding forward, whooping, holding their hatchets over their heads—no surprise or concern or fear. The horses aren't spooked, either. Now, I don't want to cry racist—that's a serious charge to level—but isn't this just a little...awkward? Let's just say this is more what you'd expect from a 1955 western than a 1990 sci-fi/comedy.

15. The bear is neither funny nor scary...nor exciting...nor relevant to the plot.

16. Sin #2 (sequel bullshit): "Well, you're safe and sound here now at the McFly farm." In the first one, Marty wakes up in the dark with his mom taking care of him; he recognizes her voice but can't really see her, so when he says he had a terrible nightmare that he had gone back in time, she gets to say, "Well, you're safe and sound now, back in good old 1955," and—great scene. In the second one it's a bit more of a stretch—the line is, "Well, you're safe and sound now, back on the good old 27th floor"—but it still works because Marty is in an alternate 1985 and this is actually his mom, the age she's supposed to be, and she knows him, thinks he's her Marty. Put it this way: "good old 1955" makes sense because young Lorraine thinks of course Marty is from 1955, and "the good old 27th floor" makes sense because alternate Lorraine thinks of course Marty basically grew up in this apartment. But in the third one, the line makes no sense. They had to leave out "good old" because Maggie McFly doesn't know Marty, but (a) why would she even say "at the McFly farm," and (b) why even bother with the formula if it's not a good parallel? Oh, right: because the formula is worthwhile for its own sake, because storytelling is secondary to marketing. Ugh.

17. Oh, and here's a Sins #2 & 3 combo meal: why is Marty's great-great-grandmother on his father's side identical to his mother?

[SIDE NOTE: Subtle special effects—how does Seamus hand Marty a plate? They're both Michael J. Fox! The action is clearly there only to show off the effects. I don't get it! When he hands him the baby, Maggie crosses in front of them right at the moment of the hand-off: my guess is that the plate involved a wire and they couldn't do that with an infant?]

And you, Michael, are a formidable opponent. We'll be right back.

18. "So you're my great-grandfather, the first McFly born in America... And you peed on me." This is just such a throwaway scene, like, who cares if it's his great-grandfather? Getting to hold your ancestor as a tiny baby could be pretty amazing, but here it's really just a set-up for a pee joke. Compare this to the amazing situation in the first movie, that Marty may annihilate himself because his mom has a crush on him, or the great problem of the second one, that his family has gone all wrong (I'm referring to the alternate 1985 more than I am to the depressing 2015—but both, really). Here it's just like, "Hey, look, he has ancestors! Moving on..." The closest thing we get to any significance we can draw from it is the baloney about Seamus's (and the baby's) sense of connection to him—maybe the same extrasensory perception that Copernicus has? Really Back to the Future Part III is all about telepathy.

19. Ha ha! Marty stepped in horseshit! This is the caliber, folks.

[SIDE NOTE: It is cute that everyone calls him Clint Eastwood: that's a decent riff on the Calvin Klein joke in the first one (although not a step forward in any way, it's worth noting).]

20. The moonwalk bit is stupid because it doesn't make any sense...it's really nothing but a half-baked "guy from the future" bit. Just a bad joke, really—nothing too awful, just lame.

21. Marty is dragged behind Buford's horse and totally unharmed: he has one tear in the knee of his pants.

[SIDE NOTE: Doc's line about there being "no scientific rationale" for love is bullshit, exactly the sort of line scientist characters are always being given...but I can't really blame Part III for that one because it's not as bad as one line in the first one, probably the worst part of that whole movie: "Look! There's a rhythmic ceremonial ritual coming up." Doc Brown can't say dance?!]

[SIDE NOTE: This, too, I can't really blame Part III for because it's a larger time-travely problem that pervades the entire series. Old Doc doesn't know he's going to get shot by Buford until Marty tells him...but so then what about the young Doc in 1955 who does know because he's with Marty when they find the grave? Thirty years after sending Marty back to 1885 to rescue himself, he'll go to 2015, then back to the alternate 1985, then back to 1955...and won't he know, then, that he'll be struck by lightning and sent back to 1885? And won't he know that he'll be shot by Buford? Or will that whole thing go down differently, resulting in an infinite series of alternate time lines, alternate Docs, alternate Martys? As I said in a response to a comment on this post (maybe with this in mind), you could almost view the Back to the Future series as an educational video illustrating (through reductio ad absurdum) that time travel is a logical impossibility.]

22. This I have mixed feelings about: I kind of like that the challenge in this movie is to get the car to go fast enough, whereas in the last one speed wasn't a problem but they needed to generate 1.21 gigawatts of electricity to power the flux capacitor. On the other hand [Sin #2?], this is such a straight retread that you can't help but feel, again, that Part III is the "real" sequel in the traditional, less good sense of the word, and that Part II was a fluke or blip in the formula. (You might also make this argument about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade...but that's a whole other can of cobras.)

23. But, um...did they really think horses would get the car up to 88 mph? "It's no use, Marty! Even the fastest horse in the world won't ride more than 35, 40 mph!" O.K., but they didn't think of that before giving it a try? Oh, maybe six horses will do it. What, no? Huh. I would have thought that if one horse can run 40 mph, then six must be able to get the car up to like 240 mph...? No? Almost makes you think that scene's just in there because it's cute and will look good in the trailer and the press materials, and not because it makes any sense... Hmmm....

Unclear why this isn't working.

24. There is a fourth great sin, another overarching problem: this movie is BORING. It relies on Western cliché and Back to the Future–recognition to simulate narrative, but really the plot comes down to: (a) uh-oh, Doc is supposed to get shot, (b) we have to get the car to go fast, and (c) Doc is in love! Even ignoring the fact that the love story is worse than nothing, just set these three plot elements against the conflicts and concerns of the other movies and see how they wither in comparison. In the first movie, (a) Marty may cease to exist, (b) there's some suggestion (isn't there?) that Marty's erasure would result in a time paradox that could destroy the universe, (c) Biff is out to get Marty, (d) Marty needs to get his mom to fall in love with his dad, (e) Marty's mom wants to sleep with him, which is heavy all on its own, even without a & e...and we haven't even gotten yet to the title problem, that Marty is stranded in the past and needs to get back to 1985. In short, the plot of Back to the Future Part III is painfully slight, and the movie does a poor job making up for it.

25. The scene where they rescue Clara is extremely exciting. (Catch that sarcasm and see Sin #4, above.)

26. Sin #5 is the love story, which may be a subset of Sins #1 & 4 but is just so awful that I figure it deserves its own category. I'm sorry: I can't handle Christopher Lloyd as a romantic lead. He is just TOO MUCH of a cartoon character, and when he's romantic it's just creepy and gross. The music alone is nauseating, not to mention intelligence-insulting...overcompensating for the lack of genuine romantic appeal. Just so fake, so forced. That smile! There's not much I'd less rather watch than a love story featuring Doc Brown.

That lamebrained love-story idea could only be cooked up by a Toon.

27. Sin #2 (sequel BS): "Quick! Cover the DeLorean!" Déja vù. Again, the repeats in Back to the Future Part II are at least done cleverly, adding something. Here it's just so boring that the only level on which it could possibly be appreciated is recognition. It just feels obligatory. Boring, boring, boring.

28. Sin #5 (love story):
[Clara is showing Doc what's wrong with her telescope.]
CLARA: But if you turn it...the other way...
DOC [slowwwwly turning to face her]: Everything becomes...clear.
[Short Round vomits explosively.]

29. ZZ Top? Really?

30. Sin #5: the Doc and Clara love story...WHO CARES?? Look, I love Doc Brown, but, again, he's a cartoon character and doesn't bear too-careful scrutiny. You don't want to sit there staring at him for too long, watching him live his life. Cartoon characters when taken too seriously or looked at too closely become grotesque.



[SIDE NOTE: I like Marshall Strickland—not to be confused with Marshall Brickman—pretty well. (He's great in general in this series...and was Napoleon in Love & Death!) I know from somewhere—possibly the novelization?—that the reason the other guy is the one who comes to arrest Buford at the end is that Buford killed Strickland. Too dark?]

31. Sin #5: the horrible mask of a fake smile on Doc's face as he dances with Clara before Buford jabs the gun in his back. Shoot him, Buford, shoot him!

[SIDE NOTE:
MARTY: Hey, lighten up, jerk!
BUFORD (after looking around, confused): Mighty strong words, runt!
I like that.]

32.
MAGGIE: Sure'n I hope you're considerin' the future, Mr. Aestwood.
[exit Maggie]
MARTY (looking after her): I think about it all the time.

O.K., that's cute, but...in the first movie that sort of scene or dialogue made sense; in this one the future is hardly the issue: it's an escape movie, not a get-me-the-fuck-home movie. The whole back-to-the-future tension has been pretty much lost, and when we're reminded of it we're basically like, "Huh...? Oh... Oh, right!"

33. Marty playing with his gun in the mirror: "You talkin' to me?" Why? This scene never bothered me before because I hadn't actually seen the movies it was referencing (Taxi Driver, Dirty Harry). Now, knowing the reference, I also know that the reference is pretty cheesy.

34. An out-of-nowhere attempt to synthesize all that has been said so far: Basically the jump from Back to the Future to Part III is a jump into kids'-movie land. Part II is weird, weird, weird...and awesome. Part III is just Hollywood trash.

35. When Doc gets laid, he basically turns into a big douche.

36. Sin #2 (sequels)...and basically Sin #1 (humanity), too, because you can be sure they see this as some kind of "character development":

MARTY: Great Scott!
DOC: I know, this is heavy.

Cute? No. Stupid.

37. A preview of the unbearableness to come: Doc says, "The future isn't written. It can be changed. You know that. Anyone can make their future whatever they want it to be..." This schlock is bad in Terminator 2, and it's bad here. Forced, hackneyed, phony. Blecch.

Miles Dyson! She's gonna blow him away!

38. O.K., now we get to something in the Sin #3 (nonsense) category that I recognized was stupid even back when I thought the movie was pretty good overall. Doc is in love with Clara but has to abandon her because he and Marty have to go back to the future.

MARTY: Doc, listen... Maybe we... I don't know, maybe we could just take Clara with us.
DOC: To the future? As you reminded me, Marty, I'm a scientist, so I must be scientific about this. I cautioned you against disrupting the continuum for your own personal benefit; therefore I must do no less.

Yes, Doc, be scientific. What exactly would be wrong about taking Clara into the future? The real source of potential universe-destroying paradoxes is if someone alters her own past—e.g., if she prevents her parents from conceiving her—not if she changes the future (which arguably we do all the time without the help of time machines). So, to begin with, it's not at all clear what Doc is afraid of. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The bigger problem is: Clara was supposed to die! They already know that she was supposed to wind up at the bottom of Shonash Ravine, which was then supposed to be renamed Clayton Ravine (Clara's last name being Clayton). Rescuing her is not only the start of an insufferable love story, but also a major time-travel disaster, the equivalent of Marty's knocking George out of the path of the car in the first one. Clara is going to be a schoolteacher in a small town: she will be a major figure in the lives of presumably every child in Hill Valley, her presence will mean that some other teacher (probably a woman) who would have moved to Hill Valley will not, and who knows whose mother that teacher would have been, or what children Clara might produce? The most realistic, interesting, and (in a funny way) faithful time-travel storyline would be if Marty and Doc thought they had to kill Clara. The idea of bringing her to 1985 with them is not only not a problem—it's just about the only nonhomicidal solution to an otherwise enormous continuum-related catastrophe.

Yeah, she's nice. Too bad you've got to kill her.

39. The dramatic music when Clara thinks Doc is lying to her and gets mad at him would be more appropriate for something like, "We have to get out of here before the bad guys blows up the world but...OH NO, our evil stepmother is locking us in the basement and...and...she's going to throw the magical talking teddy bear INTO THE FURNACE, NOOOO!!!!!!" You listen to the soundtrack and you think, "Oh, wait...shit, am I supposed to care about this? Wait, rewind, maybe I missed something."

40. Heartbroken, Doc Brown suddenly has no scientific objections to telling everyone in Hall Valley all about the future. (This would make more sense if he were drunk, hint, hint...) Lucky for him nobody believes it.

41. Sin #3 (nonsense): Doc Brown gets to the saloon late at night, and the next morning, a little before 8 a.m., Marty shows up to get him and...huh...he's still there at the bar, still talking, and everyone is still there listening. Hm. Maybe I just didn't do the extensive historical research the Back to the Future team did, but in 1885 did people generally stay at the saloon all night long and well into the morning, wide awake and chatting and playing cards? What an interesting thing we've learned—thanks, Back to the Future!

42. Sin #3:

BARFLY: How much has he had?
BARTENDER: None, that's the first one! He hasn't touched it yet. He just likes to hold it...

Doc downs a shot of whisky, and the drink maybe—maybe—has enough time to make it down his throat and into his stomach before he loses consciousness like a switch being thrown, pitches forward, and falls flat on his face. Ludicrious. Not only that, but he requires the bartender's "wake-up juice," and even after that it takes him a while to recover, and he's left with a terrible headache... Is this even physiologically possible? No, it's a big cartoon. Why, though? Is it funny? Maybe if you're 10 years old.

Obviously Doc's being unconscious and then groggy adds suspense to the whole catching-the-train, evading-Buford storyline. My theory is that the real reason why the tiniest bit of alcohol knocks Doc out instantaneously is that in the original screenplay he went to the saloon and drank himself into a stupor after losing Clara—which is also why he was talking about the future—but then somebody at Universal was like, "Hey, this is a kid's movie:‡ you can't have Doc Brown drinking," so they decided to solve that screenwriting trainwreck with a "cute," "humorous" gag about how Doc "can't hold his liquor." Cowardice. Sloppiness. Idiocy.

43. When Doc is about to drink his drink, the bartender actually reaches out toward him and shouts, "Emmett, NO!!!" Huh? Why does he care so much? Why did he even pour that drink if he was that averse to the idea of Doc's drinking it? Preposterous, thoughtless, embarrassing.

44. Seamus McFly says, as he walks into the saloon before the big gunfight, "Something inside me told me I should be here. As if my future had something to do with it." Again with the dog-E.S.P.; it terrifies me to think that we're supposed to think this is profound. When Lorraine kisses Marty and says it's like kissing her brother, did the screenwriter think that some kind of eerie telepathy was required for that reaction? Please let's not let this idiocy travel back in time and ruin the first movie, too.

45. Why does Marty recover from his "chicken" psychosis? Because Seamus told him about his great-great-uncle? Quite a quick character overhaul...just goes to show that the whole conflict has no meaning beyond its being a narrative trick: half-assed, simplistic, and formulaic. It's like a checklist: conflict, character development...all in the silliest, most meaningless way.

46. I do like the line, "He's an asshole!"—but not only is the revelation a little fakey, but it actually ends up being irrelevant to the plot, too: he still ends up having to face Buford! So bravery is an issue. The character's supposed to learn it's not all about cowardice vs. bravery, and yet the story will still hinge on bravery: letting somebody shoot you, trusting he's going to hit you where you've hidden a metal plate...? This is a classic example of a movie trying to have its cake and eat it, too.§

47. "Excuse me, but was this man tall, with great big, brown, puppy-dog eyes and long, silvery, flowing hair?" Really? Really, Clara? Really, screenwriters? As Emily [see top of post] pointed out, it's as if the screenwriters were like, "O.K., she's supposed to love this guy, so what about him should stand out as lovable? Let's see... He has weird grey hair and crazy cartoonish eyes..."

48. Also, Marty hits Buford 3–4 times too many, including at least one big intense punch to the face while Buford is staggering around in a state of semiconsciousness. With triumphant music playing! What is it that Marty is supposed to have transcended here? It's certainly not a moral triumph: in the end it's like, YAY, the bad guy is getting the SHIT kicked out of him! (As opposed to the other times Biff winds up in manure, when inevitably he gets there on his own propulsion [driving into it while specificlally trying to run someone down], here Marty fucking THROWS him into it. A real hero...)


49. And this is the part that actually sort of shocked me, like I literally almost could not believe it. Sin #4: The train scene is boring! When I was watching last month I thought, well, at least the boring parts are over and now we can watch the exciting train scene. But WHO FUCKING CARES? Here are the things we need to worry about during this scene:

Will Clara make it in time?? WHO CARES? (And, again, in fact this would be a much higher-stakes thing if the plot made any sense and it were acknowledged that it's important that Clara not stay behind, teaching children and, in a smallish community, possibly making a huge difference a few generations down the line.) Will they successfully hijack the train?? Aw, WHO CARES? (That part goes on FOREVER, by the way, and includes a subset question: Will they fall off the train as they run along on top of its entire fucking length in order to get to the engine?)

Sample boring line: "Uncouple the cars from the tender!"

Now we have to wait while they slowly pull the train up behind the DeLorean and hook up a special thing so that it...oh, God, I can't even describe it, it's too boring. My point isn't that there has to be nonstop excitement, just that the one thing I thought was worthwhile about the train scene was that it was exciting, and instead it's all like, "Here are these special Narrative Suspense logs I've developed: they'll ignite in sequence, each time causing an explosion that will be exciting and make things more and more dangerous!" Except that the main thing they do is release this fucking colored smoke, so cartoonish, like are we watching a movie or are we on the Universal Studios ride?

Will Doc Brown be able to hear Clara?? WHO CARES? It just takes too damned long. Oh, she blew the whistle! O.K., so now, will Clara be able to walk out along the train to meet Doc?? Will she overcome her fear?? WHO CARES???

"Doc! The red log's about to blooooowwwwww!!!!"

That Clara is hanging by her dress and NOT swinging into the wheels is nonsense, but whatever. That Marty is able to "slip" Doc the hoverboard by dropping it out of the car at 88 m.p.h. and it winds up on Doc's feet is preposterous—which even the filmmakers seem to recognize, acknowledging it with Doc's look of surprise (that is if we can really attribute human emotion to this cartoon character) and Marty's triumphant, "YES! YES!"

50. Sin #5: Doc hovering away with Clara in his arms is...what's the opposite of "worth the price of admission"?

51. Did trains in the 1980s just keep going after they plowed through cars?

[SIDE NOTE: I hate Marty's pick-up truck. That's not Part III–specific, but... Well, I said it.]

[SIDE NOTE: Flea is called Needles. Also, he is terrifying.]

52. When he chooses not to race Needles, why does Marty go backwards instead of, like...I don't know...not going at all?

[SIDE NOTE: "You think I'm stupid enough to race that asshole?" I do kind of like—and I'm not being sarcastic here—that the moral of the series ends up being, "Instead of taking the bait when taunted or challenged, just call people asshole!"]

53. O.K.: even when I liked this movie, I never liked the fucking time-traveling train. This final scene is one of the most awkward, idiotic, embarrassing things ever filmed. First of all, nothing could be LESS cool than that fucking train. Second of all, "Marty, it runs on steam!" wouldn't be the first thing Doc said: he's talking to skeptics in the audience, not Marty. Third of all, "These are our boys: Jules...and Verne"—not cute. Fourth of all, they're all dressed like...well, I guess it's supposed to be 1800s–futuristic, a.k.a. "timeless," somehow, but instead it just looks like something you'd find at some not-fun exhibit at Disney World. Too many smiles, too many schlocky, unearned claims.

54. Worst dialogue in this movie, slash, any movie:

JENNIFER (whining): Dr. Brown? I brought this note back from the future, and...now it's erased!
DOC (jubilant): Of course it's erased!!!
[Jennifer and Marty exchange a look of highly justified confusion]
SHUE: But what does that mean?

Answer: it means the future's been changed, just like in the other movies (and, Marty, are you experiencing that same amnesia that screwed you up with "those Indians" and the train track?). But that's not the answer Doc gives. Zooming in on his insane, infuriating smile, with the music swelling in an attempt to hammer us over the head with the "magic" that isn't actually there, Doc says, "It means your future hasn't been written yet! No one's has! Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one—both of you!" And the soundtrack references "When You Wish Upon a Star."

O.K.? Are you with me? Have I convinced you, yet? Does this Tiny Tim bullshit do the trick for you? Back to the Future is not "magical." Back to the Future is not "inspirational." Back to the Future...

Ugh. I don't even want to talk about Back to the Future anymore. Doc, take your fucking brood and get the hell out of here.

55. So the train is going to...outer space? Another dimension? WHO...FUCKING...CARES. It's like a teaser for the lamest cartoon show ever made. Good riddance; thanks for ruining a great series.


...but wait! If we can somehow go back in time and prevent the DeLorean from being struck by lighting in its third trip to 1955, then Doc and Marty should be able to return safely to 1985 without the detour to the 19th century!

We've got to send you back, Marty: back...to Back to the Future Part II!





* How's this for a time-travel story idea: teenager goes back from the 1980s to the 1950s, runs into his parents, and endangers his very existence because he gets between his mom and dad, and his mom has the hots for him! Even just on a psychological level, that's brilliant; you kind of almost can't believe that this was a huge mainstream Hollywood hit.

† Both 30 years younger and 70 years in the future.

‡ Which had come, finally, sadly, to be true.

§ An expression I've never really understood. Why can't you have your cake and eat it, too? I mean, you can't eat it if you don't have it. I guess the idea is that you can't keep your cake around like a collector's item and also eat it. But who wants to keep a cake around? Isn't the point to eat it? It would make more sense as advice to, like, a big fish or insect: you can't keep your babies and eat them, too.