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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Thursday (1/15/15) 2:54am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Fundamentals of Piano Practice, Gaudy Night
Movies:  Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles
TV:  <none>

Fundamentals of Piano Practice by Chuan C. Chang
This is a fairly lengthy and detailed book about how to practice the piano.  It includes a number of nontraditional methods.

I'm of two minds about this book.

On the one hand, one can glean a number of fascinating ideas from this text.  Many of them are the sort of facepalm-inducing ideas that seem perfectly obvious in retrospect, but which you had never thought of before.  Of course you should spend less time playing a piece all the way through and just drill the difficult parts in continuous cycles 'til you get tired.  And it makes perfect sense to memorize the piece while you're drilling the technique.  Things like that make me think that this guy is on to something.

On the other hand, a number of things in this book set off my internal 'crazy-detector'.  You might think that there is a very subtle difference between a book that has revolutionary ideas that will upend an entire field of study, and a book that *claims* to be revolutionary, but really only contains the harmless ravings of a well-intentioned eccentric.  But in fact, the differences are often very striking.  And as this book claims to be the basis for a revolution in piano pedagogy, I found myself reading it with the crazy-detector engaged.[1]

First off, revolutionary books rarely tell you how revolutionary they are.  In fact, many of them present their earth-shattering ideas almost apologetically, like Darwin carefully setting forth a compelling weight of evidence and reason in On the Origin of Species.  I think fully 20% of Fundamentals of Piano Practice is dedicated to talking up how amazing Fundamentals of Piano Practice is.

Secondly, when an author ventures far outside of their specialty, it registers on the crazy-detector.  When that author does so with perfect confidence, it pings the crazy-detector pretty hard.  (If a poet begins pedantically lecturing me about how quantum physics works, the crazy-detector pegs and I have to put the book down rather forcibly.)  When the author is in his vocational wheelhouse of materials science and physics, I'm on-board.  When he's in his adopted wheelhouse of piano instruction and technique, I'm still on-board.  When he ventures out to nutrition or psychology or futurism, then the crazy-detector starts spiking -- and when all the information is presented with perfect confidence, without any caveats of "this is not my area" or "our knowledge of this area is incomplete", it starts twitching like mad[2]

This 'out of one's element' tendency leads to adducing known-wrong theories as evidence.  There are countless allusions to "The Mozart Effect", the 90s theory that babies get smarter by listening to Mozart.  Wikipedia lists this theory as "controversial" -- in this context, "controversial" means that developmental psychiatrists think it's bunkum, and the publishers of the "Mozart effect" baby DVDs really, really want it to be true.  But in this book, it's averred as the gospel truth.

And finally, it rather desperately needs an editor, both to clean up a smattering of copy-editing issues and to organize the material better.  (This is a common problem with self-published books.)  Again, it twitches the crazy-detector.

But the thing is, none of this calls the material about how to practice the piano into question.  The fact is, all of that material is well beyond my areas of expertise, so I can't assess it one way or another.  It may be right; it may be wrong; but I have no way of knowing.  But seeing all these signs of crazy makes it suspect.

Regardless, it's all well beyond my capabilities with the piano.  The book's notion of the easiest possible classical piano pieces are pieces that I cannot play.  The book's notion of a minimal amount of practice time is about twice what I can spend.  And what the book seems to assume is the reader's goal -- being a proper concert pianist -- is well beyond my aims with the instrument.

That said, I'm glad I was exposed to its ideas.  It presents compelling logical arguments against using Hanon and Czerny, for example, and some of the book's simplest ideas about parallel sets and 'mental play' seem like even I could make use of them.  And it makes me wonder if piano pedagogy really is the hidebound, experiment-free field that Chang makes it out to be, or if that's just a massive straw-man argument.

It definitely makes me want to re-assess my usual, "do Hanon exercises and then play songs all the way through" approach to piano.  And that's a good thing, because lord knows that was getting me nowhere.

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
This is the classic British mystery novel where Harriet Vane, a British mystery novelist, investigates a campaign of anonymous harrassment at her alma mater.

Yes, I can practically see your eyeroll from here.  God, another trite, Mary-Sue-ish authorial self-insert.[3], where we get to hear a 1930s detective-fiction writer tell us how awesome she is for three hundred pages and then indulge her desire to make out with the detective she's invented, while simultaneously getting back at people who were mean to her at school.  Oy, oy, oy.

But the thing is, it's possible to create wonderful art with an authorial-self-insert.[4]  It doesn't *have* to be "let me tell you how blandly awesome and also pretty I am".  And in Gaudy Night, Sayers is going for something very different from that.  First, by playing everything so close to herself ("Shrewsbury College" is basically code for the author's own "Somerset College"), she can present the novel's world in dazzling detail.  We only see little moments of what it's like to be a working mystery novelist in the 1930s, but the bits we do get are absolutely fascinating, and ground Harriet Vane's life in absolute verisimilitude.  And the College itself is full of its own history, its strained relationships, and its odd little codes of behavior.

Beyond that, Sayers is willing to present herself (á clef) warts and all -- and not just trite, endearing, superficial flaws like Bella's "clumsiness" in the Twilight novels.  Harriet Vane is often bitter, or frightened, or catty, or full of self-doubt and self-recrimination, or completely nonplussed with confusion.  Watching her arrive at the school reunion, feeling uncomfortable with meeting friends she'd long drifted apart from, feeling welcome and a bit off-put by the old, familiar surroundings, dealing with the noise and hubbub -- eighty years later, this all still feels perfectly relatable.  Sayers knows herself very acutely, and deliberately avoids any sense of "la la la I'm so awesome".

There is also a "will they or won't they" plot between Harriet Vane and Sayers' most famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.  But even that tired trope is engaging, again, because Sayers is willing to play it out with detail and psychological realism.  There are no sitcom coincidences keeping these two apart, and no vague and arbitrary bickering.  The problem here is this: the two met in a previous novel, when Lord Peter proved Harriet Vane innocent after her fiancé was murdered.  And that is just a weird headspace to be in.  Add to that the huge class difference between the two, and Harriet feeling worried about losing her independence (in a society that very much wants her *not* to have that independence), and it just makes sense that she is very, very cautious.  It's not really about exploiting the "feels" as it is exploring her feelings as the two circle each other.

You'll note that I haven't started talking about the mystery yet.  You might from this conclude that this book isn't really *about* the mystery, and you would be right.  Some mystery novels (like The Mysterious Affair at Styles) are *about* the mystery, the puzzle, the clues and red herrings and careful, clever catechising from the amateur detective.  Gaudy Night is the other kind, where the mystery ties *into* what the book is about.  It feels like this is really a book about what it's like to be an educated, professional woman in 1930s England: how exciting the new possibilities feel, how frustrating the systemic sexism is, how confusing and conflicted you can feel when you're in a position that society hasn't really had before.  You watch how different women at the college tackle this, across generational boundaries (the dons and the graduates versus the students) and across class boundaries (the upper-class student body versus the lower-class servants).

And the mystery story, quietly and discreetly plugging along in the background, eventually zeroes in on this same theme.  The book is almost apologetic about that plotline, only bringing it up in fits and starts as the better part of a year goes by at the college.  In fact, it's quite a surprise when the novel finally gets around to the scene where the detective gathers all the suspects into a parlor, lectures them about how the evidence was gathered and assessed, and accuses the criminal: oh, right, this was a *mystery* novel.  So of course we have that scene.  But it becomes increasingly clear through the second half of the book that there is a single person conducting this campaign of harassment and increasing violence against the institution, and that person has a big problem with educated women in general.

I'll be honest -- the mystery is not terrifically engaging.  It doesn't seem to work with quite enough fair play for the audience to sort out the solution ahead of time.

But that's hardly a problem when the book has so much else to offer.

Pretty in Pink
This is John Hughes's follow-up to The Breakfast Club, about a quirky Chicago high-school girl who finds herself romantically pursued by three different guys.

The absolute worst time to watch Pretty in Pink is "right after you've seen The Breakfast Club".  The comparison does it no favors: where The Breakfast Club was grounded and real, Pretty in Pink is heightened and glossy.  Where The Breakfast Club had earnest, natural conversations, Pretty in Pink has polished, written-sounding dialog.  Where the characters in The Breakfast Club have heartbreaking, relatable problems, the central problem of Pretty in Pink is that a girl has to choose between a handsome rich guy who's nice to her and an ugly poor guy that's mean to her.[5]  And while The Breakfast Club has the muted tones and awkward, simple fashions that match my hazy memories of the decade, Pretty in Pink is what I call "movie 80s" -- the eye-burning extremes of fashion, style, and mise-en-scène that really only exist in (1) very commercial 80s films and (2) all period films set back then.[6]

Another way to put it: if The Breakfast Club correlates to Freaks and Geeks, then Pretty in Pink correlates to every glossy, superficial teen melodrama that Freaks and Geeks was reacting to.

The movie has some welcome moments where it just stops trying so hard: trying to be witty, trying to be fashionable, trying to be cool.  The scenes between Andie and her father, for example, are gold.  Jack is one of the few sympathetic adults in any of Hughes' teen movies, and their storyline -- coming to terms with how their departed mother never loved either of them -- is simple, and heartfelt, and honest.  And the scenes that develop the relationship between Andie and Blane turn down the "AC-TING!" knob a few notches, and show us something relatively un-mannered, something that feels more like how people talk to each other.

But I'm talking around the elephant in the room here, and that elephant is named "Duckie".

The biggest difference between watching this movie now and watching this movie when it came out is that popular culture has called out and described the "Nice Guy™" thing.  This is where a guy wants to have sex with a girl, befriends the girl, acts relentlessly self-sacrificing for her, never even hints "I want to have sex with you", and just assumes that all of his kindness will be repaid with sex in due time.  When the rejection comes along, the Nice Guy™ will usually feel embittered, and entitled, and sometimes will even lash out violently.

This behavior is not right on all sorts of levels.  Women are not vending machines that dispense sex after sufficient favors have been offered.  Putting on a show of over-the-top platonic friendship when what you really want is sex is dishonest and manipulative.  And the whinging entitlement, the sense that *anyone* 'owes you' sex, is creepy and disrespectful of other people's agency with their bodies.

Duckie is the patron saint of Nice Guys™.  So before, I might have thought, "Huh, there's something jerky about Ducky's behavior, but I can't quite put my finger on it."  Now, I watch it and I associate it with disturbed young men shooting up sorority houses.  Whereas before, I would have said, "He can't admit to her that he loves her.  That's sad and ineffectual," now I have to see it as actively deceptive.  Yes, admitting a crush is hard, but often it's the only moral thing to do, and the other way is wrong.

Finally, there's the central conflict of the movie, which is whether Blane and Andie can cross that rich-kid/poor-kid line.  I understand that that was a sharp division of cliques in high school, but I've moved in circles with at least somewhat mixed income levels for so long that it's hard to really grok it.  When Andie shouts to Blane, "I JUST DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW WHERE I LIVE!" it took me right out of the film -- partly because I thought, "Okay, she's not yet sure if you're a creepy stalker type or not, and so she's playing it safe.  Just respect that, Blane," but mainly because I couldn't intuitively 'get' the "Oh no, what if he finds out I'm poor?" sentiment.

And then Blane rejects her because he can't be seen with her.

Am I the only one here who sees the unintended moral lesson in this film as "sometimes it's okay to just not date *anybody*?"

It's frustrating.  By the time Pretty in Pink comes along, we're nearly at the end of Hughes's great teen movies.  Ferris Beuler's Day Off -- more of a whimsical, aspirational fantasy -- came out later that year.  Then the following year he wrote Some Kind of Wonderful, which is largely forgettable and largely forgotten.  And that was basically it.  It's sad to see him reach such a pinnacle with The Breakfast Club, and then fizzle out so badly with that film's spiritual successors.

I suppose you watch a movie like Pretty in Pink, and you realize how lucky we were to *get* The Breakfast Club.  I just wish I'd watched Pretty in Pink first, so I could have appreciated the better one all the more.

Sixteen Candles
This is John Hughes' 1984 teen movie about a girl who has to deal with her wacky family and crazy classmates while pursuing her longtime crush on her sixteenth birthday.

With Pretty in Pink, I felt disappointed.  With Sixteen Candles, I felt borderline betrayed.  When I watched The Breakfast Club, I felt like I was watching a repudiation of everything that was shallow and false about teen movies.  When the closing voiceover accuses Mr. Vernon of reducing these complicated, troubled teens to simple, easy-to-file "types", you can't help feeling like that speech is also directed at lesser movies.  With Hughes, I thought, there was somebody rebelling against the drivel.  There was somebody who cared about showing what being a teenager was actually *like*, and who had no time for facile caricatures or contemptuous one-liners or glitzy aspirational bullshit.

Now I'm realizing that, somehow, with The Breakfast Club, John Hughes was rebelling against the movies of... John Hughes.  Now, don't get me wrong, Good John peeks through in places in Pretty in Pink, when the movie takes a few deep breaths and lets its characters have an honest conversation.  But Bad John is there in spades, giving us strained, artificial antics and wearing, sitcommy characters.

Bad John is fully in charge of Sixteen Candles.  It's very sitcommy.  The nerds are clueless, one-note characters who are always wearing wacky electronics, y'know, like nerds do.  And the rich kids are breezy, drunken hedonists, barely capable of stringing a sentence together.  The jocks are troglodytes.  And so on.

The jokes are punctuated by funny sound effects.

And then there are two other aspects of the film that make it a hard, hard thing to watch.

First: racism!  The last time I saw Sixteen Candles was years and years ago, and I had a hazy memory that there was a character named "Long Duk Dong".  "But," I thought to myself, "surely it couldn't have been *that* racist."  And having seen the exquisite empathy and sensitivity he showed in The Breakfast Club, surely, I thought, surely John Hughes was using some superficial "wacky Asian" humor, but subtly subverting it.  Surely a filmmaker who identifies so strongly and heartbreakingly with outsiders wouldn't spend a movie pissing on foreign-exchange students -- the ultimate outsiders in any high school.

Then Long Duk Dong pops into frame, says "Wass a-happuneh, hot stuff?" and a gong sounds.  (Again: the jokes are punctuated by funny sound effects.)

I see only one fortunate thing about this awful, your-crazy-grandpa racism: it at least distracts from the other prejudices proudly on display in the story.  The Italian in-laws are as stereotypical as possible.  They're all vaguely associated with the Mob, you see.  Because that's what Italians do.  (The theme from The Godfather plays in the background as they eat dinner, because the jokes are punctuated by funny scoring, as well.)

[N.B. But apparently the in-laws are actually Greek?  I don't understand anything any more.]

I mean, jeez, the movie even makes fun of the girl who has to wear dental headgear.  Even better: that girl is played by Joan Cusack.  Who on god's green earth can be hateful to Joan Cusack?  What madness is this?

But anyway, let's return to the white, straight, able-bodied, middle-class Americans that are apparently acceptable to this film, and move on to the second hard-to-watch quality in Sixteen Candles.

This movie is rapey.  I was vaguely aware of this going *into* the film.  Towards the start of the movie, when Anthony Michael Hall shows up (as the nameless nerd), he almost immediately corners Sam in her school-bus seat, invades the hell out of her personal space, and ignores her repeated shouts to leave her the hell alone.  "Well, that's uncomfortable," I thought, "but maybe that's as bad as it gets."  And then later on, the two of them have an earnest conversation in a car in the shop classroom, and, after a moment of connection, he immediately jumps on her.  She tells him to stop, shoos him off, and then he does it again, climbing onto Ms. Ringwald like some kind of crazed little rape monkey.

"That's... um... that's really not cool," I thought, "but maybe that's as bad as it gets."

Then, towards the end of the movie, The Nerd is trusted with driving Jake's girflriend, a drunken cheerleader named Caroline, home.  And on the way there, Caroline passes out cold.  The Nerd turns to the camera.  "This is getting good," he says.

"NO!  NO IT'S NOT!" I shouted back at the screen.

And so we see The Nerd and his friends get together and take photos of Caroline while she's incapacitated.  And then the curtain of charity descends on the rest of the evening, as the rest of the events happen offscreen.  Then we find out that Caroline and The Nerd have sex while she was barely lucid.

For the sake of my own sanity, I've built a head-canon where both kids somehow sobered up long enough to have sex that was enthusiastic and consensual, but really: we all know what a stretch that is.  Because this movie, and the world it creates, think rape is pretty okay.  We're supposed to sympathize with the really rapey nerd.  Hell, Jake, the dreamy male lead, idly mentions that he could "violate her ten different ways if I wanted to", referring to his *unconscious* girlfriend, and nobody onscreen bats an eye.  Sam even reassures The Nerd that everything's okay after stopping him from jumping her.

I'm the first to admit that times change.  Whenever you make art, you're going to be blind to some of the cruelties you unknowingly inflict on people.  And whenever you look back on art with the benefit of hindsight, those cruelties will be painfully obvious.  I suppose I can feel smug, knowing that we're so much more refined now than we were in the 80s.  But I also feel uneasy, wondering what offenses we're blind to today.

Regardless of what all this awfulness says about the people making the movie, these problems make the movie hard to watch.  It's like if your racist grandpa telling you a story, and there's just no way to stop him.  "Yeah, an' we called him 'the Donger', 'cos he was, I dunno, Japanese or somethin'... anyway, did I tell you when I made whoopee with a drunken, passed-out cheerleader?"

And somehow, the very next year, John Hughes would come back as the humane auteur that made The Breakfast Club.  Where on earth did that guy *come* from?  I could barely see him in Sixteen Candles.  There is *one* sympathetic conversation between Sam and her father.  The Nerd gets a couple of good exchanges -- one where he lets his guard down with Sam, one where he advises Jake about romance -- in between all the forcible groping.  But by and large, this is just a sitcom sendup that betrays everything I love about Hughes' work.

And honestly, three films in, I start to suspect that *this* film, Sixteen Candles, is the true John Hughes.  Maybe The Breakfast Club was just a strange and beautiful outlier.

For next week: I'm watching season one of Cougar Town while exercising.  I'm currently reading The Shallows, and Lindsey and I are still listening to Welcome to Night Vale.  We've started watching season two of Community (which is amazing) and season one of Black Mirror (the first episode was okay).

[1] ... and the book was self-published.  Self-publication always engages the crazy-detector.
[2] Especially with regards to nutrition -- good lord, if ever there were a field that needed a blanket "there's a lot we don't know about this, and your mileage may vary", it's nutrition.
[3] I vaguely recall the quote about
Margery Allingham, who wrote a series of mysteries featuring Albert Campion: "She fell in love with Campion, and made rather an ass of both of them in the process."
[4] See also: Dante's Inferno.
[5] All credit goes to Master Pancake (then Mister Sinus) for this spot-on summary.
[6] Looking at you, Hot Tub Time Machine.

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[User Picture]
Date:Thursday (1/15/15) 8:59am
I finally was able to look up the passage from Gaudy Night I read for the wedding of my friends several years ago:

"He had not only refrained from offers of help and advice which she
might have resented; he had deliberately acknowledged that she had the
right to run her own risks. "Do be careful of yourself"; "I hate to
think of your being exposed to unpleasantness"; "If only I could be
there to protect you"; any such phrase would express the normal male
reaction. Not one man in ten thousand would say to the woman he loved,
or to any woman: "Disagreeableness and danger will not turn you back,
and God forbid they should." That was an admission of equality, and
she had not expected it from him. If he conceived of marriage along
those lines, then the whole problem would have to be reviewed in that
new light; but that seemed scarcely possible. To take such a line and
stick to it, he would have to be, not a man but a miracle."
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