Books: Law School for Everyone, An Inspector Calls, August: Osage County
Law School for Everyone by Edward J. Cheng et al [audiocourse]
This is the perhaps-overpromisingly-titled 2017 Teaching Company audiocourse that provides a bird's-eye view of the United States legal system.
Of course, that bird's-eye view is from about a million miles up, skipping past mountains of information that's kept law students pulling miserable all-nighters to memorize — but that's about the right level of detail for the layman. It splits into four sections — litigation, criminal law, civil procedure, and tort law — with a different lecturer for each section.
And, as a layman, I could follow each lecture for a while, and then it would start going further into the weeds than I could follow. But I still found it useful to get the broad strokes of each section — even just knowing what 'tort law' is (basically, "people suing each other") is handy. But on a more general level, this was a good course in seeing how lawyers think about things.
Seeing, for instance, the precision with which they'll argue about definitions. If you have ever deployed the slippery-slope argument of "what if they just arrested everybody who did anything vaguely like <x>", know that there are multiple legal tomes detailing the exhaustive case-law precedent for the federal court's three-pronged definition of <x> and exactly when it is justiciable.
And it also helped to learn general legal concepts, like, say the level of proof required in various situations. For instance, in a criminal case you might have to prove something "beyond a reasonable doubt". But I'd never quite realized that that's just one level on a whole ladder of possibilities. You wouldn't have to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt to get a warrant, for example. Sometimes you just need a "preponderance of evidence", which is basically "50.1% of the evidence points to 'yes'". And when deciding whether to dismiss a lawsuit, the court apparently assumes that everything alleged by the plaintiff is true, which I think I understand, but it's still kind of insane.
The lecturers vary in quality, which is really just a fancy way of saying the third lecturer kinda sucks. It's hard to define the difference between "giving a lecture" and "reading an essay aloud", but I know it when I hear it, and section three was definitely the latter. It didn't help that the subject matter — civil procedure, with what felt like heavy emphasis on deciding whose jurisdiction prevails in convoluted, multi-state legal entanglements.
But the other three sections were spot-on and engaging. The trials section included frequent references to the George Zimmerman case and the O. J. Simpson trial, making the legal points under discussion feel relevant and riveting. The criminal law section started with a freaking cannibalism case and basically dared you to change the channel. And the tort section made a funny refrain out of "Now, because this is torts..." He'd describe some mundane scenario, invoke the "because this is torts" phrase, and you'd realize that, because this resulted in a landmark tort case, something must have gone terribly and convolutedly wrong.
This was a fascinating listen. I'm glad nothing like this existed when I was a teenager, because it might have tempted me to study law, which would have likely made for an unhappy adulthood.
An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestly
This is the 1945 English drama about a detective who interrogates a family about a recent suicide. It is one of a number of plays I'm reading as I continue to co-direct The Well-Made Play for the Hideout Theatre.
I'm kind of delighted by how simple the play's structure is. The year is 1912, and the Birling family is having a delightful dinner celebrating their daughter's engagement. And inspector calls and tells them he needs to interview them about a girl in town who had just killed herself. Then he interviews each family member in turn, revealing how each one, in sequence, had mistreated this same girl, making her circumstances more and more dire, until she couldn't take it any more. The inspector leaves, leaving the family to stew in their guilt, recriminate each other, and wonder if he even was who he said he was.
It makes for a satisfying little "reverse whodunit", with the inspector teasing apart the family's lies, revealing their surprising connections to the dead girl, and generally showing us what awful people the Birlings really are.
As a sidebar: you notice how twitter eggs always complain about how blockbuster movies take diversity-related issues and "shove them down their throat?" (Always with that phrasing. Odd.) Oh-ho-ho, little bot-nazis, let me tell you about Western theater in the 30s and 40s. Gather round, ye sneering, radicalized incels, and hearken unto the story of Clifford Odets. Seriously, unless you've had the hero of the play face the audience and deliver you, personally, a long speech about the undeniable virtues of socialism, then no, you don't know what "having beliefs shoved down your throat" even *is*.
But I digress. An Inspector Calls does a bit of this, with the Inspector being a sort of audience surrogate, voicing our contempt for the vicious, idle rich. But the play does a good job conveying its critique of capitalism just by showing us this family, and showing us how poorly and disposably they treat the lower classes, and showing how they aren't even constructed to feel guilt about that mistreatment. And society is, outside of suicidal shopgirls and supernatural-ish inspectors, too broken to call them out on their bad behavior.
Yup, no modern relevance there at all.
In a "morality play" sort of way, it's satisfying to watch the Birlings get their unlikely comeuppance, and intriguing to watch the Birlings puzzle out, afterwards, what exactly happened to them and who this 'inspector' really was.
As a play, it's kind of an odd read. It has the sort of stage directions that don't trust the actors to do their job. Some actions, like hiding a particular photograph from a particular family member at key points, are essential to the plot, but other actions just feel nitpicky and micromanaging. ("Go stand over here for these three lines.") And there's a bizarre profusion of "wrylies", the screenwriter term for "parenthetical adverbs" — like starting a line of dialog with "sadly" or "happily" or (thus the name) "wryly". You put them in when you don't trust the actor to read a line sensibly. I wonder if it was more customary at the time to write like that — but then again, none of the other plays I've read from the 40s were this constrictive.
And that's pretty much all there is to it. The mysterious inspector churns through each family member, gets them to confess to their petty, mean-spirited, and hurtful crimes, and vanishes into the night. The play sets itself that simple goal, and it accomplishes it ably.
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
This is the 2007 Tracy Letts play about a large, scattered family that gathers at their family home in Oklahoma when the patriarch goes missing. It won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is one of a number of plays I'm reading as I continue to co-direct The Well-Made Play for the Hideout Theatre.
August: Osage County feels like the most extreme example of a genre that doesn't quite exist. The genre is Southern, follows large families, gives them lots of secrets, and sets them off into shout-y, tearful confrontations. One can imagine a whole genre of plays following these tropes to a greater or lesser degree, while August: Osage County is the only one that patiently dialed the knob up to eleven for every single one of them.
It isn't just Southern, it is a mountain of precise observations of white Southern families. It's the middle of the summer in the small town of Pawhuska Oklahoma. There are arguments about green-bean casserole. There is a cousin who's named "Little Charles" even though he's thirty-seven years old. And so on. And it isn't just a large family, it's a sprawling, three-generation mess. I had to draw up a family tree on a sheet of paper so that I could follow everything — and even then, at least one of the secrets the characters revealed required emending my neat tree with loopy dotted lines. And it isn't just one secret — nearly every character in the story has a secret. Often they have more than one. And there isn't just one screaming match between long-antagonized family members — no, the last act is pretty much relentless, paint-peeling blowouts.
None of this is a complaint about the play — instead, it makes for compelling viewing. You can sense that if you just rotated it a few degrees, it would turn into a laughable parody of itself, but the play treads carefully. It doubles down on making the characters as realistic and relatable as possible, to keep the eventual histrionics surprisingly grounded. And structurally it's just mind-boggling, with story threads neatly interleaved, both through time and around the compartmentalized house onstage.
In a way, it reminds me of Gone Home, with its drafty old house and multiple generations of awkward, interleaving secrets.
Also, having previously read Proof and The Humans, I'm starting to fill out a mental bingo card of "modern well-made play tropes":
* Appearance of an (effectively) dead character: ✓
* Elderly character who can't speak coherently: ✓
* Fraught sibling conversations about elder care: ✓
* Hopeless parent-child misunderstanding: ✓
If we assume "Giant Old House" is the free square in the center, that might be enough to win. I suppose modern theater is centering, predictably, on the concerns of older white folks (mostly dudes) who are getting on in years.
It's still a great read, and an exciting story. And there is always one track of your brain that's just in awe of how neatly Mr. Letts (who acted in Lady Bird, btw) constructs his dense, dense story. Well worth your valuable time.
(Side note: this was the first book I check out via the Austin Public Library's "Overdrive" system. It works amazingly well.)
This is the 2016 action superhero comedy that stars Ryan Reynolds as a mercenary who is given superpowers via a crazy medical experiment, and who then seeks revenge against the bad guys who ran said experiments.
Hmm. That plot description seems really weird, now that I write it out like that. And I guess that speaks to how little Deadpool is about its plot. Yes, there's a conspiracy about creating supersoldiers in some lab and then Wade gets some bizarre skin condition and then the X-Men are there but only like two of them and... somehow his girlfriend gets kidnapped?
The storytelling plays a bit like an improv show where everybody's drunk.
But again, Deadpool is not about the plot. If anything, it's about tone. Nominally, it's about the tone of "making fun of superhero movies". True to the source material (where comics Deadpool knows he's in a comic book), movie Deadpool knows he's in a movie. And so he gently needles at it, wondering who plays Professor X in this universe, directing the camera operator, and so on.
And the plot is there as a clothesline. And on the clothesline, they hang the usual action sequences. There's nothing really inventive to them, beyond the exploding heads they can include because of the hard-R. It's all competently done, but I still find myself patiently waiting for the CGI to stop punching the other CGI so we can get back to the actual story.
The main thing they hang on the clothesline is jokes. And they hit the jokes with an almost Airplane! level of determination — the sort of Z-A-Z "more is more" formula, where if this joke doesn't work, don't worry, five more are following it, surely one of them will get a laugh. And most of the jokes are funny — the long stretch of just finding increasingly bizarre ways to describe how ugly Wade looks post-superhero-experiment is really impressive.
But the real surprise for me — and bear with me on this part, 'cos things get a little loopy — is how the hard R rating kind of lets Deadpool off the hook. Let me explain. Yes, they take full advantage of the hard R. People get shot in the head. F bombs are detonated. There's a long, cutesy montage of Wade and Vanessa having sex in various positions. And it's like, with that in place, they have nothing to prove any more.
And so a lot of performative masculinity kinda goes out the window.
If you consider your average PG/PG-13 superhero flick, there's always a kind of anxiety lurking just under the surface. They all read as a little bit afraid that you'll find them silly or weak. So they overcompensate, focusing on looking badass, being emotionally distant and cool, using desolate-looking settings, etc. It's like we're back in 1985 and the movie is desperately afraid somebody's gonna call it "gay".
Meanwhile, here's Deadpool getting all of its 'badass action' bona fides by including nudity, sex, and (again) lots of people getting shot in the head. And after they've written that check, there's kind of a sigh of relief, and they can do whatever they want. They can make Wade's favorite album Make It Big by Wham!, and have him be very particular about the exclamation point. They can have Wade get lost in a quandary about whether it's more sexist to go after the female henchmen or *not* to go after the female henchmen. All of this is not to say that Deadpool is 'woke' or anything. It's still about a bunch of white dudes, it still nearly fridges its love interest, and it's still got a bunch of jokes you'd associate with teenage boys playing FPSes.
Also, when a movie doesn't have to prove it's a srs movie about a srs man, it makes room for... I'd call it 'the humor of delight'. We can put humor on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is, like, David Spade in a 90s sitcom: all sardonic put-downs. (See also: Dennis Miller in an 80s "Weekend Update".) It's all about how you're unimpressed with stuff, and you have the perfect bon mot to express how unimpressed you are. And then at the other end is, well, most improv. Improv training is largely getting you to lose your inner 90s-David-Spade and choose to be delighted in the story elements around you. And there is a lot of humor and joy to be found in a protag who is just really, really excited about everything they encounter.
That said, this sort of runs afoul of grimdark, srs-bsns superhero stories, so you don't really see it in that genre (notable exception: Thor Ragnarok). Instead, you get Iron Man, who's cut more from the 90s-sitcom school of putdowns, or you get the DC cinematic universe, where they banished humor outright. But again, Deadpool pays its "toughness" quota with copious sex and violence, and that leaves us able to make Wade able to be really happy about stuff. He is super excited to lead off an overpass into a massive battle royale. He learns Negasonic Teenage Warhead's name, and stops everything to opine on how awesome it is. Even his default mode of sarcasm is spun with a cheery energy that doesn't feel entirely put-on — on some level, Deadpool is just really, really happy to be Deadpool.
In fact, I'm vaguely terrified of what Deadpool would be like without this unselfconscious glee. Without it, you're left with a wayyyy-overpowered cishet white dude being smugly snarky at everybody in between bouts of self-indulgent ultraviolence, which sounds like some godawful incel self-insert fanfic. The tone is vital for inviting the audience into the story, instead of Deadpool just going on about how superior he is, with the movie agreeing with him.
But instead, Deadpool is fun. Yes, it's slight, and its villains are ciphers even by MCU standards, and the plot crumbles under a moment's serious thought, but it's fun. And it's good to see the superhero genre maturing to the point that movies like this can crop up.
For next week: on TV, I'm alternating season one of Brooklyn Nine-Nine with season one of Mister Robot. (How's that for tonal whiplash?) I just finished reading The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, Sydney Padua's delightful comic fantasia on the invention of the world's first computer, and have moved on to The Final Days, the Woodward and Bernstein book about the end/collapse of the Nixon presidency. And I've played through the first "season" of Life Is Strange, a video game about a high-school student in the Pacific Northwest who discovers she can reverse time.
 My favorite example featured a gentleman trying to board a train who dropped a package of fireworks that exploded, knocking over a pile of equipment on the train station and injuring a passerby, leaving some very puzzled lawyers to work out exactly who could get sued and for what. Torts!
 ... ergo, if you find yourself wanting to add a wryly, you should probably rewrite the line so the actor *has* to read it like you want them to.
 Add your own joke about Rob Liefeld here.
 Sidenote: are most people who cosplay as Deadpool kind of insufferable? It seems like they'd miss out on this aspect of the tone and just be insufferable.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none