Theological Slapstick: The Good Place

I can’t recall who suggested I start watching The Good Place, which recently released its finale after four seasons.  I do remember being warned not to look up the show on Wikipedia or anything first; and that was good advice.  The series’ twists and turns are entirely unexpected and it would ruin the effect to know they were coming.  So, at the top of this post, I need to point out—

Here Be Spoilers!

The Slapstick Element

The Good Place opening sceneA TV series about the afterlife is, to the best of my recollection, a novel idea.  There’ve been shows that featured regular visitations from the afterlife, such as Topper or My Mother the Car.  But these were’t about the afterlife, any more than My Favorite Martian was about life on Mars.  They were about events here on earth when visitors from the afterlife intruded.  Those who know more than I about the history of TV may be able to provide other examples; but The Good Place’s approach is at least fairly rare.

The second unexpected thing about The Good Place is the transcendent silliness with which Michael Schur and the show’s other writers imbue the series.  Almost invariably, if something seems profound or weighty, there’s a pratfall (verbal or otherwise) waiting just around the corner.  Even when typical afterlife tropes are invoked, such as torture in hell, they are so exaggerated or understated that one can’t take them seriously.  The characters are also drawn very broadly, to the point of caricature—no one could be quite as perfectly airheaded as Jason, as status-conscious as Tahani, as indecisive as Chidi—except for Eleanor, who serves as our Everywoman hero.

The Good Place yogurt shopThis perpetual wackiness makes the show entertaining, but it also accomplishes some other things.  The silliness of the events and characters prevents us from taking the theology seriously.  It would be hard to present a serious visualization of heaven or hell in an era when there is no general consensus about such things.  But we can all laugh along with the notion that a heaven featuring a really, really great yogurt shop is a bit of a letdown—even if you like yogurt.  It’s hard to be offended or galvanized to argument when the theological features are clearly not meant seriously.

In the moments when the show actually does get serious, the surrounding wackiness also keeps it from getting preachy.  The levity of the overall atmosphere lends the genuinely moving moments a sort of innocent sincerity.  (A fan of G.K. Chesterton, of course, will find that sort of atmosphere immediately congenial.)

The Ending

I’ve seen some lively comments online on how the show ended.  Several people have said they hated to see it end.  It’s true that one is always reluctant to say goodbye to favorite characters and situations.  On the other hand, it’s better for a TV series to close before it’s worn out its original premise and goes into that long slow decline.  Exhaustion of the premises is especially likely to occur when the premise is as bizarre as that of The Good Place.  So I was kind of pleased to see the writers were bringing the show to an end after four good seasons.

Is it a good ending?  Dramatically, yes.  I’m content.  That’s the essential criterion for the show’s creator:  “there’s really only one goal ever for a show finale, in my mind, and that’s to make people who have been watching the show and invested time and energy and emotion in the show feel like it’s a good ending.”

However, the completed work does leave some questions hanging.  Appropriately enough, the leftover puzzles are big issues about the fundamental things.  I don’t mean that the show should have tried to deal with them:  it can best to leave some mystery.  However, it’s entertaining to look at what some of these holes were.  I present them, of course, from my point of view; those who approach the fundamental questions differently may see the gaps in somewhat different ways.

(Since I flew the spoiler alert above, I’m going to assume that anyone who makes it this far has a pretty good acquaintance with the series.)

First Cause

The more we find out about The Good Place’s underlying machinery of the afterlife, the more we may wonder:  Who put this madhouse in place to begin with?

Judge Gen

Nobody seems to be in charge of the whole shebang.  The demons who run the Bad Place don’t have complete power, or they’d have simply gone on happily torturing humans indefinitely.  The Good Place, apparently, is run by a committee of nonentities, who show up only once or twice, make some entirely ineffectual remarks, and flee at the first opportunity to abdicate their responsibilities.  Disputes between the two are resolved by Judge Gen, an irritable, easily distracted entity who seems annoyed by the whole business.

We never do find out who dreamed up the point system that’s used to evaluate human actions.  As Sam Adams’ article on Slate puts it, “Introducing a painless exit from the afterlife allowed The Good Place to punt on some of its biggest questions, like who created the universe (the highest-ranking figure we ever meet, the nearly omnipotent Judge Gen, still feels like she’s enforcing someone else’s rules) . . .”

As the setup comes to seem more and more arbitrary, an inquiring viewer is likely to become more and more perplexed about why this particular cockamamie system should exist, rather than any other.  (Much less “why there is anything at all,” the fundamental question of metaphysics.)

These are the kinds of questions addressed by the traditional “First Causearguments for the existence of God.  Why is there this universe rather than some other?  Why is there this universe rather than nothing?  Ordinarily we sail along day to day without bothering much about the matter.  But because The Good Place is showing us (in its own wacky way) the entities that ought to have the answers, the questions become hard to avoid.  Once the main characters get backstage, you might say, the God-shaped hole in the overall system becomes more and more evident.

A related issue appears when at one point the judge proposes to wipe the slate clean and start over—annihilate all humans who have ever lived and start the new system from scratch.  I found myself wondering, what is the judge trying to accomplish?  What are her motives?  If the idea is to find a better way to deal with the ongoing human population, that’s fairly clear.  But if she’s going to eliminate the humans and start something different, why go to the trouble?  Is there some sort of cosmological imperative that there be a human race, or a life-and-afterlife system?  We don’t have any idea what her motives might be, because we have no earthly (or unearthly) idea why the existing framework is there in the first place.

Unintended Consequences

Carbon footprint graphicOne of the most interesting moral speculations in the show turns up when the main characters are trying to figure out why no humans for centuries have succeeded in qualifying for the Good Place.  The reason, it’s suggested, is that the modern world is so complex that an ordinary human can’t know all the consequences of an action.  If I buy a Coke, I have to consider not only the effect on my budget and my waistline, but also the bottle’s carbon footprint, whether it was produced using child labor or unfair business practices, and so forth.  Every choice is laden with unknowable results—and apparently these are mostly bad, bringing people’s point scores down.

It’s an interesting idea, with at least superficial plausibility.  The modern world is more complex than our pre-technological world, and maybe it’s just grown beyond our ability to manage.  Today we are constantly being told that it’s our obligation to take into account all sorts of remote consequences, becoming so scrupulous that the slightest decision is weighted with ponderous political and moral consequences.

This argument itself is based on some significant moral assumptions.  For instance, it takes for granted that actions are to be evaluated on their results—“consequentialism,” of which the most popular form is utilitarianism.  That’s not the only possibility.  Chidi, for instance, apparently embraces a “deontological” or rule-based ethics.  And then there’s the Aristotelian virtue-based ethics.  What actually drives the main characters’ decisions in the end seems to be the worth or importance of persons, which has something in common with Kant’s deontological ethics (every person must be treated as an end in itself) or, more directly, personalism.

One might also wonder whether the problem of unforeseen consequences is really unique to modernity.  Life has always been complex, and actions have always had ramifications stretching out far beyond what we can anticipate.  It does seem plausible, though, that in a highly interconnected world (“the world is getting smaller”), the effects of a given cause propagate faster and further.

Good Place cast, inquiringThere’s an additional complexity in the The Good Place’s point system insofar as it uses these remote results to judge the person who is acting.  There’s a difference between judging the results and judging the agent.  Traditional axiological (good-based) or consequentialist theories of ethics would not normally hold us responsible for consequences we can’t reasonably foresee.  If someone does something terrible (or, for that matter, something heroic) we take into account the pressures that person was under, which may include their history and experiences; the limits of their knowledge; the effects of outside conditions like drugs or alcohol; and many other factors that might diminish (or enhance) responsibility.

None of this seems to be considered in the point system with which The Good Place begins.  And no wonder:  the point system is presented from the beginning as a caricature of real moral judgment, an oversimplified and somewhat unfair scheme.  But the “new system” we’re given at the end doesn’t really solve that problem either.  Giving the poor humans many lifetimes to become better people is kind, perhaps, but how does it take degrees of responsibility into account (much less resolve the issue of unpredictable consequences)?

Eternity and the Good Life

The driving force of the series’ last episodes is the notion that an eternity of pleasure is itself intolerable.  We get bored, and, we’re told, the tedium gradually degrades our faculties, so that the esteemed philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria shows up as a shallow airhead (“Patty”), to the main characters’ dismay.  The series’ answer is that the system must provide the opportunity to end this eternal lassitude at a chosen time—“die the real death,” as Zelazny might have put it.  The option of ending it all somehow removes the tedium of eternal pleasure and allows us to enjoy the Good Place until we walk through the final door.

The idea of eternity as a bore presents a valid question.  It isn’t a question restricted to the afterlife, either; it points back to the classic philosophical issue of what is a good life for human beings.  The good life, in the classical ancient or medieval sense, isn’t just the absence of wrongdoing or the ability to score arbitrary points; it embodies the idea of a life that is worth living.

For this reason, it’s worth taking a closer look at what The Good Place has to say about the good life.  From the perspective of that question, the show’s final solution looks a bit superficial.  Sam Adams, again, says:  “The idea that going through the door would simply allow a person’s energy to rejoin the universe—as Eleanor took the fateful step, she dissolved into otherworldly fireflies that wafted down to Earth—felt more like New Age goop than moral philosophy, or maybe just a midway point between Immanuel Kant and Dan Brown.”

It’s true that “[t]he way to love anything is to realise that it might be lost,” as Chesterton says (Tremendous Trifles (1909), ch. 7).  But the idea of loving something is curiously muted in The Good Place.  The Good Place as we see it in the show does look boring, but that may be because the writers built it that way.  The focus on simple pleasures like milkshakes lends itself to this—an eternity of sitting placidly and drinking even the best milkshake would be a bore.  With admirable consistency, the screenwriters do apply the same argument to other goods like learning and reading.  But it’s not quite as clear that something like learning is as inherently limited as ordinary (and genuinely good) gustatory pleasures.

Baby kicking its legsEven with respect to the simpler pleasures, The Good Place doesn’t take into account the possibility that becoming bored is a a human weakness—a physiological or psychological failure to continue appreciating something that remains worthwhile in itself.  That weakness isn’t necessarily incurable.  Chesterton remarks:

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy.  A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.  Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. . . .  It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.  (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Image 1959), ch. IV, p. 60)

The one factor in the depiction of the Good Place that seems to be understated, oddly enough, is love and friendship—relationships.  The show does make something of personal interactions, mainly in the two romantic relationships, Eleanor and Chidi and Jason and Janet.  But none of the four main characters becomes involved with any other interesting people—despite the plethora of historical figures that might be called on.  (As we noted above, the interesting Hypatia has been deliberately dumbed down for the episode to make a point.)

Steven Curtis Chapman, from The Great Adventure music videoOutside the central four, together with Michael and Janet, there’s no sense of camaraderie or community.  We do not see the potentially unlimited constellations of True Companions—just the one cluster of main characters.  And of course the one big relationship is missing:  that God-shaped hole.  In traditional Christian thinking, at least, God is infinite, and our relationship with God is one time can never exhaust.  Because The Good Place adroitly sidesteps the whole question of divinity, that line of solution to the problem of eternity can’t be explored.

Moreover, the show cheats a little when it suggests that a final dissolution is the real end.  At least one character uses the conventional phrase “moving on”—which undermines that notion of finality.  And what one commentator refers to as “a complete and unknowable end” isn’t quite what we actually get.

For a while, it seems as if Michael Schur is no more prepared to answer existence’s ultimate question than anybody else. But when it’s Eleanor’s turn, the camera doesn’t cut away. Instead, it pans up to the sky above her, a group of ethereal lights floating up into the frame, suggesting that this is what the person that was Eleanor Shellstrop has become. . . . . What that gorgeous final scene suggests is that the best possible reward would be the ability to continue to touch the lives of those we left behind . . .  (Rolling Stone)

Even the series’ best attempt at agnosticism about the good life seems to recede before a sense of good action as in some sense eternal.

The Good Place cast portraitConclusion

The Good Place has been a great show, and I’ve enjoyed it throughout.  Simply giving us an opportunity to think about such matters as these is way beyond what most TV series achieve.  And to do it in a way that’s consistently entertaining is the cherry on the top of the frozen yogurt.

Hallmark and the Small Business

Running a bit behind here.  It’s been a busy couple of weeks.  But at least I’m getting this out in time for Christmas . . .

Countless Christmases

Countdown to Christmas logoI believe this is my fourth year of following the Hallmark channels’ gallery of Christmas romance movies (“Countdown to Christmas”).  Not that it’s humanly possible to see them all.  I believe Hallmark is introducing twenty-three new films this year; and that doesn’t take into account the similar plenitude of programs from the nine previous years of “Countdown.”  In this torrent of trysts, it would be easy for the more traditional fare to get lost entirely, from White Christmas to Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (the truly canonical video version of that story, I’m convinced).

And Hallmark is only the bellwether of an entire subgenre.  Netflix has its own array of seasonal video, so similar to the Hallmarks that you’d mistake one for the other if the branding were absent.  Subscribe to Amazon Prime instead of Netflix?  You can still find plenty of holiday fare, whether traditional flicks or newer Amazon productions.

The trend may be reaching some kind of limit.  The plots are starting to recur faster and faster.  Of course, that repetition makes these movies ripe for satire.  My children pointed me to a Christmas movie script allegedly written by a computer (“Someone Made a Bot Watch 1,000 Hours of Hallmark Christmas Movies and Write a Script”; here’s the original tweet from Keaton Patti).  I doubt this was really a bot at work; it’s too funny.

In any case, it turns out these plot generators are spawning as fast as the movies themselves.  For example, just at the top of my search results I found samples from WrongHands, E! Online, and The Odyssey Online.  Lots of articles remark on the phenomenon.  For example, here’s NPR’s snark-fest on the 2019 Christmas romance crop, Hallmark and otherwise.

Among other things, this mass of Christmas cheer does make the field a useful laboratory for looking at some tropes and storytelling points.  One could probably do a statistically valid survey with this large a universe of data.  Here, I’m just going to focus on one favorite trope:  the small business (or, as NPR labels it, the “adorable small business”).

Small Businesses Are Adorable

The Christmas Ornament coverSmall businesses, especially family businesses, frequently play a role in genre romance movies.  For example, in A Christmas Melody (2015), the heroine has just lost her clothing boutique and spends time in a cozy local coffee shop.  We also go from one small business to another in The Christmas Ornament (2013), where the heroine has been trying to keep her late husband’s bike shop open, but discovers her real passion is baking cookies (courtesy of a new romantic interest who has a Christmas tree shop).  The female lead in The Christmas Secret  (2014) has just been fired from her job, but gets a new one in a local bakery.  (There are a lot of bakers in these tales.  Christmas is cookie season.)

Sometimes the issue is the temptation to “sell out.”  For example, in Let It Snow (2013), the female lead is an executive assigned to overhaul a newly acquired family business, Snow Valley Lodge, into a modernized hipster paradise.  She sees the error of her ways, of course.

The trope isn’t confined to Christmas, or to Hallmark.  For instance, Coffee Shop (2014) gives us a shop that’s an important gathering place in the community, but financially troubled; her former boyfriend wants to bail her out by selling the property to a mall developer.

The sellout motif reaches a sort of reductio ad absurdum in this year’s Hallmark feature Merry and Bright.  Our heroine Cate is doing a good job of running her grandmother’s candy cane company, but candy canes aren’t as big a deal as they used to be.  The romantic interest, a “corporate recovery consultant,” proposes gaining a venture capitalist’s support by expanding the business into other Christmasy candy—chocolates and such.  That’s such a logical idea that it seemed this story would avoid the trope.  But no:  as she’s poised to sign the contract, Cate stops and declares that her grandmother founded a candy cane business, nothing else, and Cate’s determined to stick with it.

I sat there open-mouthed (since I had no chocolates to eat, alas) at the notion that manufacturing candy canes was virtuous, but expanding into chocolates was some kind of betrayal.  The resolution, in which Cate succeeds by interesting an investor in candy canes with new and innovative flavors, failed to convince me that her scruples made any kind of sense.

A Houston Press article from last year snarks up the trope:  “Oh, and every little book store or bakery or community theater can be turned into a resounding success with a little love.”

Variations

On the other hand, we do see some aversions of the trope.  A couple of examples from this year’s batch:

In Picture a Perfect Christmas, our heroine is a photographer who travels all around the world for her work.  She arrives in a small town for the holidays to look after her aging grandmother, and falls for a local guy.  But it’s kind of a relief to find that neither of them has to give up their careers, or found a small business.  It appears she can go right on globe-trotting and picture-taking; she’s just going to come home periodically to a new base of operations.  In fact, the guy and his semi-adopted nephew are going to join her on her next shoot, in Switzerland, a very sensible plan.  It’s kind of refreshing.

Tree bagging from Christmas Under the Stars

Christmas Under the Stars

The male main character in Christmas Under the Stars is fired abruptly (at Christmas!) from his soulless investment banking job, and ends up working in a little local Christmas tree lot that’s going to be razed for development.  He and the female main character save the lot from the bulldozer, as well as solving everyone’s other problems.  But the hero doesn’t become a career Christmas tree salesman; he goes back into finance—only this time it’s in a non-soulless company that specializes in ethical investing.  So an endearing and Christmasy local business is involved, but it isn’t the ultimate destination of either of the main characters.

The Purpose of a Business

What is it that these cute home-town businesses are supposed to have that makes them so adorable?

We have a widespread sense that a small operation is more likely to have integrity than a larger enterprise:  less likely to sell out, more dedicated to its original mission.  We tend to feel that a small business will have less discontinuity between its ostensible purposes—making coffee, selling books, offering Christmas trees—and the way it treats people in practice, along with the necessary purpose of making money.

The Incredibles (2004) shows a comically exaggerated version of this divide.  Bob Parr works for an insurance company, which is theoretically established to help its customers in times of difficulty.  Instead, the institution is so dedicated to denying customer claims that Bob practically has to use guerilla tactics to get a claim honored.  For someone with the heart of a superhero—a “helping profession” if there ever was one—this stultifying job is a pecular kind of hell.

To be sure, a business aims to make money, or it won’t last long.  But those who begin it, or join it, generally do so because they aspire to make an excellent product, or provide a useful service.  Not many lines of business are pure scams.  The trouble is that as the operation gets bigger and older, it seems often to develop a single-minded devotion to making more and more money, even at the expense of the excellence of the product or service.  A small enterprise, by contrast, where the owner may come into daily contact with the persons being served, is less likely to be seduced by that particular temptation.  It’s easier to keep focus on a product that pleases and benefits people—like cookies.

It's A Wonderful Life housewarming sceneAn older Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), lives on that contrast.  The quirky and adorable Bailey Building and Loan helps people acquire their own homes, though it’s not as profitable as Mr. Potter’s cruel cost-cutting firm.

This idealization of small firms is easy for the cynic to sneer at.  Big business is the way of the world, sloppy sentiment aside.  But storytellers are tapping into a genuine issue here.

The Stumbling-Blocks of Largeness

We’re generally told that bigness allows for economies of scale that reduce prices and improve services.  To take an example at random, this article by Ken Doctor (12/6/19) states as obvious (even in a critique of mergers) that “McDonald’s can make burgers a lot more efficiently than mom-and-pop joints in every town can.”  But this truism needs closer examination.

First, not enough attention is paid to diseconomies of scale.  For example, mergers can result in ill-assorted pieces that don’t really work together, offsetting gains that might be achieved by volume discounts.  I’m acquainted with one large company, for example, that is still producing separate reports and maintaining separate books for a subsidiary it absorbed at least ten years ago.

A more direct issue with largeness is that as an organization grows, it seem to require more and more generalized policies and inflexible rules.  A firm of twenty-five people can make room for individualized exceptions; an organization of ten thousand, not so much.  The principle seems to hold true in any kind or organization, whether it’s a private business, a nonprofit, a government, or even a church.  Universal rules aren’t all bad; they can be a necessary bulwark against personal discrimination.  But as the system grows, we have more and more the sense of dealing with mindless machinery, rather than on a person-to-person basis.

Google Dragonfly graphicIt seems a company often starts with enthusiasm about a cool product; but as it grows, the bean-counters take over, and that original spark recedes in favor of merely finding ways to pump up the quarterly reports.  Google, for example, may (sadly) be in the process of making this transition.  The company started out with the innocent motto “Don’t be evil”; it’s now  in trouble for helping China with its totalitarian surveillance state via “Project Dragonfly” (though it seems to have backed away from that project as of July).  It may be significant that Google’s founders have just departed—perhaps signaling the end of that original enthusiasm for making things better.

Mergers and Their Discontents

In addition, as a business gets bigger, it tends to crowd out competitors; and an exclusive concentration on increased profits without a corresponding attention to fairness and decency gives rise to a deliberate drive for monopoly, or oligopoly (market power exercised by a few firms rather than only one).

As fewer and larger firms amass market power, the lack of competition results in higher prices, as well as worse customer service.  If the combination actually reduces costs, none of the benefits actually flow through to the customer.  In my field (telecommunications), I can think of no examples where a merger actually resulted in lower prices for consumers.  And it’s hard to think of any where customer service improved as a result; normally, customer service gets worse.  For an example from another field, the airlines, consider this aggrieved customer’s horror story.

A less obvious disadvantage is that mergers can result in a loss of institutional memory.  A merger frequently seeks to cut costs by dropping redundant staff.  Aside from the minor difficulty of people’s losing their jobs (which seems a common anxiety at Christmastime, right back to Scrooge’s threat to Cratchit about “losing your situation”), this means the people who knew the history may be gone.  More than once I’ve run into a company that can’t find records of what its own pre-merger components did in the past.

You might say that the legal version of the Hallmark preference for smallness is antitrust law, which is designed to keep large entities from abusing their market power in some of the ways mentioned above.  Some contemporary examples of how the antitrust laws are not currently being enforced can be found in a recent article (12/19/19) by Steven Pearlstein.

Bigness is not necessarily bad.  But problems such as these are the characteristic flaws of the large organization, against which one must constantly be on guard.  In the way that a particular profession may have its “occupational hazards”—say, the temptation of lawyers to fall into a barren legalism—an entity may, simply by its scale, be vulnerable to typical failure modes.  The sentimental attachment to small entities is not simply nostalgia; there’s something to it.

The Appeal of the Small Business

We know some of the disadvantages of the small business:  for instance, the local shops in the Hallmark romances are frequently on the verge of failing—reflecting, along with the narrative demand of drama, their more limited resources and hence vulnerability to problems, such as a business downturn.  But what are the advantages such stories play on?

The Christmas List posterFamiliarity.  The direct contact between businesspeople and customers allows for personal relationships.  We see it with George Bailey, making kind-hearted adjustments in payment schedules to help individual customers (a practice for which the hard-charging Potter rakes him over the coals).  An older Christmas romance, The Christmas List (1997), apparently not from Hallmark but fitting the mold, features a perfume saleswoman who know how to figure out the perfect scent for a customer—an unusual sort of personal connection, but a helpful one for the buyer.  If I recall correctly, the proprietor in Coffee Shop had a similar talent for determining the perfect drink for someone.  You can’t give that kind of personal attention when you’re a faceless cog in a call center working from a fixed script.

To be sure, it’s possible to have this sort of personal relationship in a large organization.  A number of the pharmacists at my local CVS, where I show up every couple of weeks for prescriptions, actually know my name.  But on the whole, the further away management is from the actual customers, the easier it is for them to regard customers solely in terms of ARPU—“average revenue per unit.”

Community.  Thus, there’s a certain warmth and welcome—classic Christmas themes—to the bar “where everybody knows your name.”  The local shop can actually engender a close-knit community (the current term seems to be “found family”) capable of mutual support and reassurance.  That was a theme in Coffee Shop; it was also at work in another recent non-Christmas romantic comedy, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (Abbi Waxman, 2019).

Tales of the Long Bow coverConcreteness.  While the intellect has its joys, there’s a particular satisfaction in making something with our hands:  a tangible product whose excellence can seen and felt by anyone.  The types of small businesses featured in the Christmas romances—bakeries, bookshops, farms—do this a lot.  By contrast, a large business often seems to end up dealing in abstractions.  Chapter Five of G.K. Chesterton’s Tales of the Long Bow (1924) contrasts the small farmer who actually raises pigs with the wheeler-dealer who merely trades in them.  You can read the passage here, though you really need the whole book to fully appreciate the force of Chesterton’s point.

One of the key developments in Pretty Woman (1990) is Edward’s transformation from a soulless transactional businessman to someone who can put his assets and expertise behind what is, in effect, a family business.  Initially, his method is to swoop in, acquire a company, split it up and sell off the pieces at a profit—like a stolen car at a “chop shop,” as Vivian pungently observes (see under “Not So Different” at the TV Tropes entry).  But he gets to know the father-and-son owners of the current target and their pride in building ships for the Navy.  And as Vivian softens his heart, Edward changes his mind:  he’s going to support them in building ships for a good cause.  He’s going to make something, not just move money around.

Putting ourselves into our work.  Along with the pride in building something concrete goes the sense that we’re contributing to the good in the world.  The work both expresses oneself and leaves something tangible behind.  Small-town construction company owner Jamie Houghton, in Christmas List (Hallmark 2016, not to be confused with “The Christmas List” above), at 1:47, speaks of “…creating something that means something to you—leaving a bit of yourself in the world.”  The satisfaction of this kind of work is something the Hallmarks are trying to bring back to our attention.  You can put yourself into work for a large organization, too, if the organization allows that much individuality; but it’s harder, for the reasons noted above.

These virtues are so out of fashion that they have an antique feel to us today.  That in itself makes them especially useful for a Christmas story.  As Hallmark incessantly tells us, Christmas looks backward—to traditions, to memories, to childhood.  Ultimately, of course, it looks back two thousand years to the original Christmas.

Small Businesses Help the Plot Thicken

Because of the features we’ve discussed above, the heroine’s bakery or bookshop can serve as a linchpin for the plot.  A financial crisis or other threat to the business, or a decision about how what road it’ll take in the future, gives the characters something to be concerned about.  How each person responds shows their real character.  The heroine’s unsatisfactory current or ex-boyfriend, for example, shows his true colors by endorsing the sellout   He has completely failed to understand the heroine, and thus disqualified himself.  Or the true romantic interest may take off in a similar big-business direction, leading to tension or a temporary rupture between the main characters; but he can change his mind and thus prove he’s really on her wavelength after all.

You've Got Mail, bookshop scene

You’ve Got Mail

There’s an interesting semi-aversion (outside the Hallmark orbit) in You’ve Got Mail (1998).  It’s Tom Hanks’ large bookstore that threatens Meg Ryan’s lovable community bookshop, “The Shop Around the Corner.”  In the end she loses the bookshop; the economic forces at hand are too great.  But as she wanders through Hanks’ larger establishment, she seems to come to terms with it, in a way.  The big-box store can also be a place where children encounter beloved books and people can congregate.  Maybe if the story had taken place at Christmastime, the ending would have been different . . .

Smallness and Christmas

It’s not exactly a new departure, even in economic circles, to observe that “small is beautiful.”  And, as we’ve seen, there are some significant reasons to value smallness and be careful about unlimited growth, even in economic circles.  But it makes sense that this motif keeps turning up in stories that appeal to our homelier sentiments too.

It’s also fitting that the trope comes up so frequently in Christmas stories.  Christmas, in itself, represents the triumph of the small over the large.  One poor couple, without even a home or an inn to have their baby, are ranged against Herod and all his soldiers, and behind them, the Roman Empire.  Yet the child has outlasted them all.  In the Christmas story we see the divine and universal focused down to an intensely personal scene.  Every other small personal triumph can find a home there—even a romance.

At Christmastime, prizing the small may be a cliché – but it’s no accident.

That Thing You Do!

I recently acquired a new disc of the movie That Thing You Do! (1996), since my copy had gone missing.  The new copy turned out to include an extended edition, with considerable new material (148 minutes, vs. 108 for the theatrical version).  The new version lent additional interest to rewatching a favorite story.

Why It Works So Well

That Thing You Do posterI would say That Thing You Do! (“TTYD”) is an archetypal story about a band—it’s the title photo for the TV Tropes topic Music Stories—except it isn’t quite typical, which is one of the movie’s virtues.

TTYD is basically the story of a “one-hit wonder,” a band that has a single major success with a song but never scores again.  That theme is lampshaded by the fact that the band itself is (eventually) named the “Wonders.”  In the summer of 1964, a college-age rock-and-roll group recruits Guy Patterson to sit in on drums for a college talent show, since their original drummer has broken his arm.  The group briefly rehearses their song, an original by guitarist Jimmy Mattingly, the eponymous “That Thing You Do.”  When they perform the song at the talent show, the audience loves it.  The Wonders proceed to get better gigs; make a recording of the number, which begins to get radio airplay; and are noticed by a promoter, setting them on the road to short-lived stardom.

Part of the fun is simply to absorb the ‘60s music culture, which is lovingly re-created—not the high lives of major stars, but the everyday business of performing.  Tom Hanks, who eventually takes over as their manager, guides them through the nitty-gritty of publicity gimmicks (he hands Guy a pair of dark glasses to make him distinctive) tours, beach movies, screaming fans, and the like.  The amiable cynicism and pragmatism of Hanks’ character grounds the story and makes sure it never spins off into the kind of melodrama all too characteristic of the Music Stories genre.

The Wonders at Talent show performing That Thing You DoTo me, the most enjoyable part of the movie is where we see a song coming together—a moment I always find exciting.  At the talent show, Guy, who hasn’t played in public in a while, is nervous and starts the song faster than they’d played it at rehearsal.  Jimmy, miffed at having his creation tampered with, frantically tries to tell him to slow it down.  But the faster beat works:  kids in the audience start to dance, and the band itself realizes that the song is going over better than in Jimmy’s original mournful, draggy form.  While Jimmy is still fuming at the end—“It’s a ballad!”—they can’t deny the livelier version is a rousing success.

Music and Lyrics, Alex and Sophie with notebookI always love seeing something like this:  a musical piece when it finally gells, when the fusion of the musicians’ talents works to make the underlying soul of the song shine through.  Music and Lyrics (2007), for example, works the same kind of magic, though spread out over a longer period than a single performance.  It’s rare when we get a chance to see the creative process actually at work, right there in front of us.  It’s one thing to see the final end product performed, but to be in on the formation of what becomes a first-rate work is both inspiring and exciting—even when it’s half-accidental and serendipitous, as here; or maybe because that spark jumps forth unpredictably.

Faye and bassist dash into storeThis sense of creative vitality is reinforced by the general high spirits of the characters—that effervescent sense of something new and wonderful.  When their song first gets played on the local radio station, the band members and Faye, Jimmy’s girlfriend, go madly dashing around the town, alerting each other that they’re on the air, dancing around the appliance store where Guy works and turning up the radio full blast.  While the effervescence wanes over the course of the story as the business of music becomes more mundane, we never quite forget that boundless enthusiasm with which the group started out.

Not Your Average Music Story

The typical movie about a band or other performing group tends to follow the same pattern as a certain type of sports story.  (That is, for imaginary bands:  biopics about real groups don’t necessarily track that pattern, bring constrained by history.)  A group of young underdogs gets together, challenges the stuck-up ruling clique, engages in something like a “battle of the bands,” and emerges with a satisfying victory.

Bandslam posterDifferent shows may ring different changes on that model, but there tends to be some competitive moment that brings the story to a well-defined climax.  Take, for example, Pitch Perfect 1 and 2 (2012 and 2015—I haven’t seen the third installment), featuring a motley a cappella group.  School of Rock (2003), with Jack Black and a mob of precocious grade-schoolers, ends with a Battle of the Bands competition.  The obscure but surprisingly good Bandslam (2009) is named for a band competition the scrappy underdogs are determined to win.  (In that film we also get a sense of a song coming together for the first time, at about 1:10.)  If we move to dance rather than singing, there’s the competition at the end of Shall We Dance (2004).  A cheerleading competition caps off Bring It On (2000).  Et cetera . . .

But TTYD is not that kind of story.  The only real competition involved is the talent show at the very beginning.  Rather than moving to a victorious climax, TTYD traces the whole arc of a one-hit wonder band, from humble origins, to a degree of national celebrity, to disintegration under the pull of the band members’ conflicting interests.  At the end of TTYD, the Wonders actually break up, with one joining the military, another running off for a Vegas marriage, Jimmy quitting in a huff due to “creative differences,” and the band in breach of contract (though Tom Hanks’ character placidly informs Guy that “nobody’s going to jail”).  A band that ends in a breakup doesn’t exactly follow the trope.

Yet the story isn’t a downer either.  There are some strong secondary plotlines running through the movie.  One is Guy’s devotion to jazz music (an infallible sign of artistic integrity for a character in a film).  During the Wonders’ peak period of success, he gets a chance to meet, and then jam with, his idol, jazz pianist Del Paxton.  It’s clear that Guy, at least, is going to have the chance to pursue his dreams.  Indeed, the American Graffiti­-style epilogue tells us that each of the four original band members went on to a reasonably satisfactory career (though not necessarily in music).

Faye and Guy, from That Thing You DoMoreover, there’s a well-drawn romance that also runs throughout.  Faye is supposedly Jimmy’s girlfriend, but he’s too wrapped up in his musical ambitions to pay any real attention to her.  Meanwhile, Guy, whose former girl has dumped him for a handsome dentist, is the one who looks out for Faye, makes sure she’s included in the group’s travels, and takes care of her when she’s ill.  It’s positively endearing when they finally get together at the end—and the epilogue describes them as founding a music conservatory together.  The successful resolutions of these ancillary plots offsets the somewhat tragic arc of the main storyline and leaves us feeling good about the characters’ fates, despite the meteoric rise and fall of the group.

The Music

The songs we hear were written specifically for the movie—but you’d never know it.  The songwriters, who include Tom Hanks, Adam Schlesinger, Rick Elias, Scott Rogness, Mike Piccirillo, Gary Goetzman and Howard Shore, pull off an amazing simulation of early 1960 styles.  Even aside from the title piece, they give us dead-on compositions in the style of the Ray Conniff-type pop chorale (“Lovin’ You Lots and Lots”), the solo chanteuse (“My World is Over”), the girl group (“Hold My Hand, Hold My Heart”), the pseudo-Beatles crowd-pleaser (“Little Wild One”), and more.  To my mind, a successful imitation or pastiche of someone else’s style is a noteworthy artistic achievement; the music here lends an authentic-sounding ’60s air to the film.

The title song is an even more remarkable accomplishment.  In the first place, it sounds exactly right to have been a hit around 1964.  In the second place, it’s so good (IMHO) that it holds up even through the dozen or so times we necessarily hear it, in whole or in part, during the movie.  “That Thing You Do” is still on my playlists; it’s irresistibly catchy.

Chords for That Thing You Do (partial)How did Hanks and company pull that off?   For one thing, while the instrumentation and overall sound puts it squarely in the ’60s, the song is not the four-chord masterpiece one might expect.  The chord progressions are more sophisticated than those of the average rock-and-roll song of the period.  Even the brief instrumental introduction uses the chords I – IVm (E to A minor), which is hardly typical—at least if, like me, you have your roots firmly planted in the folk/rock tradition.  There’s more substance to the music than you’d think.

Then there’s the fact that the song never does tell us exactly what is “that thing you do”—what makes the girl so irresistible.  We know she does it, we know the singer can’t live without it, we know he can’t stand her doing it with “someone new”; but we don’t get anything specific.  It’s one of those fruitful ambiguities, where leaving something to the imagination is better than being too  definite.  The listener can picture their own charming trait or mannerism to fill in the gap.  The song keeps one guessing.

Finally, the curious contrast between the rather moody, discontented lyrics of a breakup song (“It’s a ballad!”) and the bright, up-tempo sound and dance beat creates another kind of tension that continues to make “That Thing You Do” more interesting than the unsophisticated setting would suggest.  That contrast, in a way, reflects the tone of the whole story.  There’s lots of enthusiasm, but it burns out; we do get a happy ending, but not the kind of easy victory as in the battle-of-the-bands stories.

Extended Cuts and Deleted Scenes

As the movie’s Wikipedia article indicates, the longer “extended” version fills out the story in several ways.  We get more of Guy’s backstory:  for instance, he’s old enough to have been in the Army, which may explain why he’s more mature than the other boys in the band.  We see more of his relationship with his original girlfriend Tina, and how that relationship unravels (freeing him to link up with Faye).  Other relationships are also followed up in more detail, as with the bass player and one of the girl-group “Chantrellines.”  At the end, it’s clear that Guy gets a new job as a radio DJ on the West Coast, which puts him in a better position (with a steady job) to marry Faye, and also puts him on track for a musical career.

The Wonders, Beatles-styleHowever, none of these elaborations of the basic storyline are really necessary.  The theatrical version of the movie does fine without them.  The extra time for these digressions does alter the pace of the story:  my impression on viewing the extended version was that the experience was slower and more leisurely than with the original, shorter version.  The shorter cut’s brisk pace seemed to better express the bewildering swiftness of the Wonders’ sudden success and equally sudden collapse.  In that respect, I’m inclined to think that in the future, I’ll stick to the original version.  Conciseness can be a virtue.

This parallels my usual reaction to the deleted scenes we often find in a DVD release.  When I go back and watch the deleted scenes, I can see what they add, and why the original plan for the story would have included them; yet in every case I can recall, I could also see the reason they were deleted—I agreed, in the end, that the extra scenes were better cut from the final product.

It may be that the theatrical version of a movie is generally preferable to the extended “director’s cut” (though I haven’t canvassed enough examples to draw that broad conclusion with any confidence).  The exception—naturally—is the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings movies, where the original source material is simply so huge that even three two-hour movies couldn’t do it justice.  I’ll always prefer to watch the longer version of LotR, and still lament that it’s too short.

But for TTYD, I’ll recommend the tighter theatrical version—not to mention the soundtrack album.

Changing the Past – Or Avenging It

Introduction

Avengers Endgame posterI set out to do an analytical essay on Three Theories of Time Travel—until I realized that Larry Niven’s astute and entertaining brief article “The Theory and Practice of Time Travel” (1971) had already covered those theories pretty well.  (You can find that article in Niven’s All the Myriad Ways, and a couple other locations.)  So I decided instead to comment on how they’re used in Avengers:  Endgame, which seems to invoke at least two and possibly three different theories.

Maybe I’d have been better off sticking with the original plan; this post has turned out to be considerably longer than I’d planned.

Endgame came out on April 26, 2019, and was released on disc August 13, so it’s still new enough at this writing that I should issue a

Spoiler Alert!

I’m not going to address the mechanics of how one might travel into the past—whether via Tipler machines, or wormholes, or simply thinking oneself into the past à la Jack Finney.  (Endgame manages it via what the movies refer to as the “Quantum Realm,” which is completely incoherent in one way but rather fascinating in another—a side issue I won’t go into here.)  I’m interested in what happens if you let causality turn back on itself.  I can think of three main ways of handling the question of changing the past.  Each has its pros and cons, from a storytelling point of view.

“Make It Didn’t Happen”

First, let’s suppose we can change the past (and, by extension, the present and future).  The idea arises because we often wish we could go back and undo something—either our own actions, or the broader course of history.  Niven observes, “When a child prays, ‘Please, God, make it didn’t happen,’ he is inventing time travel in its essence.”  He goes on to note, “The prime purpose of time travel is to change the past; and the prime danger is that the Traveler might change the past.”  These twin aspects of the idea generate plot tensions and conflicts immediately, on both a personal and a historical scale, so it’s not surprising they’re so popular.

Back to the Future posterThe most familiar example, of course, is Back to the Future (1985-1990).  In the three movies, Zemeckis played several variations on the idea of making history come out differently.  The cultural reference is so well-known that Marvel was able to riff off it for a comic moment in Endgame.  Scott Lang, the young and relatively naïve Ant-Man, says they’ll be okay if they obey the ‘rules of time travel’ (at about 0:35).  Tony Stark, the all-round genius of the Marvel movies, derides Scott for having gotten his “rules” from BTTF, and proceeds to shoot the notion down as hopelessly unscientific.

And Tony’s right, in the sense that building a theory of time travel purely on the assumptions made in fictional stories is silly.  We don’t know what would happen if it were possible to change the past; we haven’t done it.  That would make time travel really dangerous if it could be attempted in real life.  On the other hand, that same lack of knowledge leaves a wide field open for the fiction writer.  We can make whatever assumptions we like, as long as they’re consistent.  We can imagine that you can only go back in time a certain distance, at a certain geographical location, as in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile (1981-84).  We can imagine that the transition requires vast energies, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Technical Error” (1950).  Or we can invoke the imaginary “Pym particles” of Ant-Man lore and time-travel at will.

This first theory of time travel generates the paradoxes we know and love.  We have the “grandfather paradox,” in which an effect removes its own cause.  (I go back in time and kill my grandfather.)  We have what Wikipedia calls the “ontological paradox,” in which an effect becomes its own cause.  (I go back but my grandfather fails to show up, so I marry my grandmother instead and name my son after my dad…)  I talked about these a bit in a 2016 post on the TV series Timeless.

One thing that’s not always obvious is that the idea of changing the past requires a second time dimension.  There’s the familiar one that’s typically represented by a “timeline,” a one-dimensional line ordering events from past to future.  But if someone changes the past, then the old line has to be replaced by a new one:  imagine a second timeline lying next to the first.  Every time a change is made, another timeline gets added.  The set of lines forms a plane, extending through a second dimension, in which each new timeline happens after (in some Pickwickian sense) the last.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t make any sense to say that we’d changed history.  Marty can’t rejoice in having “fixed” his family unless the new timeline succeeds the first, just as events along the timeline succeed each other.  Hence, a second time dimension, to accommodate the sequence of timelines.  (This may, or may not, be related to what TV Tropes calls “San Dimas Time,” a reference from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

As a narrative device, the chance to change the past creates suspense.  But it only works if you don’t look too closely.  The author has to stage-manage things carefully so that changes of all sorts don’t start happening in all directions, and this means that time travel must be rare.  If we imagine a period of hundreds or thousands of years, during which people invent time machines every so often and start changing the past, it would become impossible to make sense of what was happening.  Different changes, each with their rippling “butterfly effects,” would take place, one after another—or even at the same, er, time.  (I tried playing around with that idea in an as-yet-unpublished story called Getting to Gettysburg.)  So I’m skeptical about stories based on letting time travel become routine, as in “Time Patrol” scenarios or Asimov’s The End of Eternity.

Avengers Disassemble

Does Endgame, after all Tony’s disclaimers, involve changing the past?  Maybe not; but it’s hard to see how the story can avoid it.

Thanos with Infinity GauntletThe screenwriters chose to set themselves an interesting dilemma that makes the simple time-travel solution (go back and kill Thanos) unusable.  When the time-travel possibility arises, five years have passed since the Snap, in which Thanos killed off half the people in the universe.  Life has gone on.  Tony and Pepper, for example, have an adorable little girl.  But eliminating the Snap would also eliminate Tony’s little daughter Morgan, along with everything else that’s happened since.  That’s unacceptable (at least to Tony).  So the Avengers are not trying to avert the Snap; instead, they want to bring back, in the present time, all those who disintegrated.

The reason they have to go into the past is to retrieve the six Infinity Stones, which Thanos destroyed after the Snap.  The Avengers will need to use the Stones for a Snap of their own to bring back all the people Thanos destroyed.  But in order to avoid changing the past, they will have to put the Stones back in their earlier times after they’ve been used.  This is a clever idea, but it’s going to be really tricky to execute in practice, as we’ll discuss below.

It’s Already Happened

Meanwhile, the business of a second time dimension may make us start to wonder about the whole idea of changing the past.  Maybe we’ve forgotten to take into account the integrity of the original time dimension.  After all, if something happened in the past, it has already happened.  The effects of past events should be baked into the present that follows from them.  If I go back to 1800 and leave a hidden time capsule, let’s say, I should be able to dig it up in 2019.  You might say that the change I wish to make has already taken place.

Kate and Leopold posterBut it follows that if I can find the evidence in the present, then I know the event occurred in the past.  (That’s what “evidence” means.)  If I find the time capsule, I know that it was buried.  This may allow me to predict or “retrodict” my future changes to the past on the basis of what’s known now. If I find the time capsule, I know I’m going to bury it—or someone else will.  A key scene in Kate and Leopold (2001) relies on just such a discovery about a future event that changes the past.  (Have we mixed up the tenses enough yet?)  Bill and Ted makes even more comically inventive use of this aspect.

But on this theory, the event in the past isn’t really a change.  It was always that way.  The time capsule persisted through all the intervening time.  You can’t change the past, because your change is already included in the past we know and thus embedded in the present.  As Niven puts it, “any attempt on the part of a time traveler to change the past has already been made, and is a part of the past.”

This approach deprives us of the fun of changing history, but I rather like it.  It ensures the timeline remains consistent with itself.  In fact, one version of this postulate is referred to as the “Novikov self-consistency principle,” named for Russian physicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov.  We avoid grandfather paradoxes:  we already know I didn’t succeed in traveling into the past and killing my grandfather, because here I am.  If I try, something will go wrong.  On the other hand, ontological paradoxes are still allowed, as in Heinlein’s classic novella By His Bootstraps (1941).  In fact, I tend to think of this as ‘Heinlein’s theory of time travel,’ because he used it extensively—not only in Bootstraps and the even more baffling  “—All You Zombies—” (1959), but also in the delightful The Door Into Summer (1957).  Of course, Heinlein’s by no means the only writer using a Novikov-type theory.

One reason I like this type of time travel story is that everything fits neatly together, like a puzzle.  The fun of the story is in seeing how they’ll fit.  In that sense, the enjoyment of you-already-changed-the-past stories resembles that of the Greek tragedies, in which an oracular pronouncement tells what’s going to happen, and the story shows how it happens.  No matter how Oedipus tries to avoid the awful future foretold, he can’t.  The efforts to avoid the predicted outcome may themselves produce it.

In such a tragedy, where time travel isn’t involved (except to the extent the oracle itself is future information acting on the past), the Greek tragedy tends to suggest that the outcome is determined by some kind of Fate, whether we like it or not.  (Niven puts this view under the heading of “determinism.”)  But the Novikov-type theory can also be seen as compatible with free will.  Even actions freely taken, once they are complete, become part of the fabric of history, not subject to further change afterwards—except to the extent that backward causation via time travel is possible, which alters the whole meaning of “afterwards.”

The Door Into Summer, coverA subclass of these stories assumes that the time continuum somehow defends itself against change.  It may automatically “self-heal” to swallow up minor changes, or all changes:  Edison doesn’t invent the light bulb, but someone else does.  Or the time stream may simply be designed so that with “fail-safes” that prevent catastrophic causality failures.  At the end of The Door Into Summer, the engineer hero seems to be speculating in this direction:  if time travel could be used commercially, he thinks,

it will be because the Builder designed the universe that way.  He gave us eyes, two hands, a brain; anything we do with them can’t be a paradox.  He doesn’t need busybodies to “enforce” His laws; they enforce themselves.  (p. 158)

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverIn a modern context, God seems to take over the role of Fate—not by predetermining everything, but by designing the system (i.e., the universe) so nothing can go fatally wrong with causality.  Something similar, I think, lies behind the way the time travel “net” portal functions in Connie Willis’s time travel stories.  If allowing something through the net would create a paradox, the net simply won’t open—which leads to some tortuous reasoning by the characters as to what is keeping the net from openingaat  a particular moment.  Something like Providence seems to be at work.  The only causal loops allowed are what we might call ‘virtuous loops’—those that work out right.

What makes this confusing is that we’re used to analyzing causality by looking at the conditions preceding the effect.  Here, we don’t see the ‘virtuous loop’ conditions being set at any particular point in time.  The conditions have to apply to the continuum as a whole—from outside it, in effect.

You Can’t Avenge the Future

When Tony initially declares Scott’s proposed “time heist” impossible, the remaining Avengers bring in Bruce Banner as a substitute scientific resource.  Banner (who now combines his own brain with the Hulk’s body) does make a nod to the fact that his scientific expertise is primarily in biology, not physics, but the story remains basically true to the comic-book idea that a scientific genius is a genius in every science.  At about 0:59, Banner says something that sounds rather like the Novikov principle we’ve been discussing:  if you kill someone in the past, that doesn’t erase their later selves.  Apparently causality doesn’t propagate down the world lines of already-existing characters to wipe them out when their original causes go away.  On this theory, Marty wouldn’t have had to worry about disappearing even if he couldn’t get his parents back together.

On the other hand, Bruce doesn’t seem to be saying you can’t kill the person in the past; he seems to be saying that if you did kill them, it wouldn’t make any difference.  This may have more to do with what TV Tropes calls “ontological inertia” (see here, but also here).  Bruce’s approach seems to allow for wild inconsistency in the timeline, because I can be alive in 2019 even after being killed in 1971.

The simplest answer may be to conclude that Bruce wasn’t a very good physicist; maybe Tony silently corrected Bruce’s theory when Tony finally did agree to join the party.

Branching Timelines

At some point in SF history, people realized that the whole paradox thing could be avoided by introducing a third theory, the notion of multiple branching timelines.  Niven’s phrase is “multiple time tracks.”  If you change the past, the original future going forward from that point remains unchanged, but a new future comes into existence, branching off to take into account the change.  (The character making the change always seem to end up in the new branch, not the old.)  We can have our cake and eat it too:  one version of me devours the cake, but another, equally real, version of me prudently saves the cake for later.

The multiple-timeline approach gains some headway from the general popularity of alternate-history stories, and some plausibility from the fact that physicists take seriously the suggested “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.  It appears to solve the problem of time paradoxes.  However, it runs very close to an assumption that would make it impossible to tell a good story at all.

Stories are about action and choice.  A mere recounting of a series of experiences that happen to someone wouldn’t be much of a story (which is one reason the ending of 2001:  A Space Odyssey is so weak).  James Michener’s introduction to the novel Hawaii (1959), which describes the geological formation of the islands, is only part of a story because it lays the groundwork for what the characters later say and do.

All the Myriad Ways coverIf every possible alternative branched off a new timeline whenever there were options, there would be no point in making a choice, because whichever choice I made, another version of me would make the opposite choice.  Niven captures the problem exactly:

. . . did you ever sweat over a decision?  Think about one that really gave you trouble, because you knew that what you did would affect you for the rest of your life.  Now imagine that for every way you could have jumped, one of you in one universe did jump that way.

Now don’t you feel silly?  Sweating over something so trivial, when you were going to take all the choices anyway.  And if you think that’s silly, consider that one of you still can’t decide . . .  (p. 117)

The title story in All the Myriad Ways explores exactly that issue—what would happen if people really started to believe that all alternatives were equally real.

But suppose we assume that every choice doesn’t spawn alternate universes—just the changes caused by time travel, by backward causality.  That doesn’t destroy all narrative in the way just described.  It just ruins the story you’re trying to tell.  The main characters move heaven and earth to get into the past and make the necessary change.  They succeed!  Whew.  Victory.  —Except that in another universe, the original one, they didn’t succeed.  Somewhere, the sad failures who are Marty McFly’s parents still languish by the TV.  That’s not a really satisfying conclusion.

Alternating Avengers

The multiple-timeline approach certainly comes up in Endgame.  What I can’t make out is whether it prevails in the end, or is averted.

Ancient One and Banner with timeline simulationAt about 1:24 in the movie, Bruce Banner is having a tense conversation with the Ancient One (Dr. Strange’s mentor) about the plan to return the stones to their original places in time.  The idea is that if he takes the Time Stone from the Ancient One at (let’s say) 1:03:12 p.m. on January 31, 2010, and eventually Steve Rogers returns it to her at 1:03:13 p.m. on January 31, 2010, there won’t be a need for a branch to form.  History continues on as it had always been.  (Steve describes his mission concisely at 2:43 in the movie:  “I know.  Clip all the branches.”)  Thus, the timeline of the movie, in which Thanos Snapped half the universe away, and five years later the assembled Avengers brought them back and did away with Thanos, remains the one-and-only timeline.  There’s a helpful description of this procedure in an article from July 2019 (which is also full of spoilers, by the way).

If we leave aside how hard it would have been to put things back exactly as they were, given the butterfly effect—not all the Stone retrievals were as simple as Bruce’s—does this work?  Did the screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) come up with a way to manage the dizzying time loops and still save the story?

I’m still not quite sure.  One glaring plot hole, as various people have pointed out, is that we have to account for Thanos himself.  In order to give us a great battle at the end (and what a battle it is!), the movie has Thanos in pre-Snap 2014 discover what’s going to happen and time-travel forward to 2019, where he’s ultimately disintegrated by the Avengers.  He never returns to 2014.  That seems to mean that the disappearance of Thanos did create a branch, since if he vanished from 2014 and never came back, the Snap would never have occurred.

At least that reduces us to two timelines, the one we see in the movie and another where Thanos does not continue to exist after 2014.  And, interestingly enough, the Avengers’ actions saved both of those timelines from the Snap.  The people who lived through the movie timeline experienced the Snap, but the lost people were eventually returned.  Meanwhile, in the new alternate timeline, Thanos never came back, he never got the Infinity Stones, and the Snap never occurred.  That’s not such a bad (dual) ending.

I don’t know.  All these causal loops produce a kind of shell game in which I’m not quite sure how things came out.  Nonetheless, it’s a great movie, if you like the Marvel characters at all.  If you haven’t seen it, you shouldn’t have been reading this (but maybe the circuitous account above will be helpful).  If you have—see it again!  Just don’t try to go back to April to catch the premiere a second time; who knows what that would do to the space-time continuum.

Higher, Further, Faster: Captain Marvel

Wild Loyalty

Captain Marvel poster with mottoI saw Captain Marvel twice in the first ten days of its March 8, 2019, U.S. release.  So, yeah, I liked the movie.  We had big hopes for this one—the first Marvel movie with a female lead, trailing DC’s Wonder Woman (2017) by a little less than two years.  I’d say those hopes were borne out.

But my reaction was even stronger than that.

Back in 1977, when I first saw the original Star Wars (A New Hope), I remember sitting around the next day and wishing I were back there again.  Not in the universe of the movie, which is dangerous and in many places rather unpleasant; but in the story.  Something about the overall effect of it, the ambiance, the mood or attitude, fired me with a kind of instant nostalgia for something I’d just seen.  A curious feeling.

Maybe that could be explained by the fact that I was young(er) and (more) impressionable at that time.  But the day after I saw Captain Marvel, here I was again with this goofy fanboy reaction.  It’s a kind of wild loyalty to a new discovery.  You want to tell people about it, you put up the wallpaper on your computer desktop, you hunt up the soundtrack.  And this at my supposedly-mature age.

So I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why I find this movie so engaging.  Since at this writing CM is still in theaters, I’m going to avoid spoilers; this post should be as safe as any current movie review or the trailers.  If you haven’t seen the flick yet, I will say this:  There are two “stinger” scenes, just as you expect from a Marvel movie these days, one in the middle of the credits and one at the very end.  And be sure to pay attention to the Marvel logo that appears just before the movie starts:  it’s an “aww” moment for longtime fans.

New and Improved

Due to their long-running serial nature, and the reluctance of publishers ever to give up on a profitable property, comic-book characters tend to stick around indefinitely and, as a result, are prone to what TV Tropes calls Continuity Snarl.  Their backstory gets more and more complicated, retconned, and re-adapted, until it becomes hopelessly incoherent.  One of the virtues of the movie versions is that the writers have a chance to start from scratch and use only the elements they choose to build a new iteration of the character.

Captain Marvel’s background is even more complex than usual.  There have been five or six different versions of a “Captain Marvel” character (not even counting the Fawcett/DC “Captain Marvel,” now known for copyright reasons as “Shazam,” who has his own movie coming out shortly).  That’s in addition to several iterations of “Ms. Marvel,” sometimes with the same person switching from one title to the other.  A summary of this history can be found at Comics Alliance; and this Wikipedia page has a quick rundown of the various versions.

Captain Marvel (Marvel Super-Heroes) coverMarvel Comics’ original Captain Marvel was a rather boring and angsty agent of the interstellar empire of the Kree (who look exactly like humans) named Mar-Vell, a young white-haired guy in an unimpressive green-and-white uniform.  (Those who’ve seen the movie will note a distant connection here.)  Mar-Vell is sent to Earth to find out what the heck is going on with these humans, after the Fantastic Four trounced a supposedly invincible Kree Sentry and then Ronan the Accuser.

In the early comics, Marvel couldn’t figure out what to do with Mar-Vell.  He engaged in slugfests with a number of established Marvel characters and suffered through a weepy romantic triangle.  After about ten issues (Captain Marvel #11), the writers had an apparently godlike being named Zo give him new powers, after which he continued to do nothing much of interest.  In issue #16, the Kree’s Supreme Intelligence changed his powers yet again and tossed him into an alternate universe called the Negative Zone, where he floats around until he periodically switches bodies with perennial Marvel kid sidekick Rick Jones, in a manner uncannily similar to that of the DC Shazam character (and also Jack Kirby’s Infinity Man, but that’s another story).

Comics scene, Mar-Vell & distressed CarolCarol Danvers—the Captain Marvel of the movie (played perfectly by Brie Larson)—also appeared in this early era, but not yet as a superhero.  She had a responsible position as security head at Cape Canaveral, but frequently she served as a mere damsel in distress, and as one of Mar-Vell’s two romantic interests. Altogether, not much promising material in this original incarnation of Captain Marvel.

Now, I haven’t followed comics closely for many a year (one can’t read everything), so I wasn’t there for the renaissance of this character in the form we see in the movie.  But as I understand it, the movie’s version dates only from 2012, when the character was rebooted by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick.

In other words, this isn’t a cinematic presentation of an iconic character like Spider-Man, Captain America, or Thor.  Here, the screenwriters elected to throw out a lot of the excess baggage of fifty years’ worth of comics.  It was the right choice.

Higher, Further, Faster

In a 2012 interview with Wired, DeConnick said:  “My pitch was Carol Danvers as Chuck Yeager.”  And that begins to explain why I love this character.  She had me at “Chuck Yeager.”

Sam Shepard with Chuck Yeager

Sam Shepard (left), playing Chuck Yeager, with Yeager himself (right)

One of my all-time favorite movies, The Right Stuff (1983), Philip Kaufman’s fact-based history of the NASA Mercury program, spends a lot of time with Yeager.  Tom Wolfe, the author of the book on which the movie was based, considered Yeager the archetype of the test pilots from whose ranks the Mercury astronauts were drawn.  Although Yeager himself never went into space, he exemplified the cool, confident, no-nonsense pilot who could take on any challenge and surmount it through a combination of superb competence and a fearless can-do attitude.  The pilot with the “right stuff” has a certain contempt for the rules, along with all other limitations, and always takes danger lightly, preferably with cool wisecracks.

This version of Carol Danvers starts out as a test pilot, with exactly that intrepid attitude.  The movie isn’t shy about making the comparison.  Carol passes through a Blockbuster Video store (the movie is set in 1995) and pauses to glance at a copy of The Right Stuff.  We get a scene set at Pancho’s, the pilots’ bar that figures largely in that earlier movie.  And we have a cat named Goose—a sly reference to Tom Cruise’s best friend in Top Gun, another movie about hot pilots (fighter pilots rather than test pilots).  Carol embodies this insouciant, reckless competence.  With another pilot, she exchanges a sort of catchphrase or motto—“Higher, further, faster”—from the title of one of DeConnick’s Captain Marvel comic sequences.  It captures the test pilot ideal neatly.

Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame trailerThese references put Carol immediately into the category of daredevil pilots—a maverick, like Tom Cruise’s lead character in Top Gun.  It’s a very engaging attitude (and I mean Attitude, with a capital A).  You don’t have to see the movie to get a sense of this.  Check out this Avengers:  Endgame trailer at about 2:10.  That little crooked smile . . . As Thor says:  “I like this one.”

Marvel and Wonder

Comparison with Wonder Woman is inevitable—and, I think, instructive.  These are both great movies with excellent main characters.  But those characters play out differently.

Wonder Woman, vambraces crossedDiana is invincible; she always has been.  She may have taken some knocks being trained by the Amazons, but she’s pretty much untouchable by anything humans have got.  She takes on the Greek god Ares as an equal.  There, to be sure, the contrast I’m trying to make falters a bit, because she’s outmatched by Ares until intense emotional strain—the loss of a loved one—causes her to claim her full power.  And at that point she really is invincible.  It’s glorious to see a woman who needs to fear nothing, splendid in her power, with a heart guiding that power to fight for the right.

When she enters the world of normal humans, Diana brings a kind of intelligent innocence.  She learns difficult lessons about the complications of the human world, but that never really deflects her from her sense of justice (along with love or compassion).  That’s what’s so great about her.

Carol, on the other hand, has to earn her power.  She doesn’t start out as an Amazon.  First she must acquire her supernormal abilities; and then she has to learn how to use them under challenging circumstances (as celebrated in this Tor article).  Carol also comes face to face with the complexities of the world—but not initially from a position of power.  She has more of a character development arc than Diana does.

Both heroes are a joy to see, coming into their power.  But Captain Marvel is more vulnerable, emotionally if not physically.  Despite the cool test-pilot attitude, the emotion that runs beneath is both her challenge and her strength.  It’s easier to sympathize with her.

Distinctive Valor

There’s more in CM to admire.  The star-spanning plot awakens that sense of wonder, of vast scope and open possibilities, that is science fiction’s strong point.  But the real key, I think, remains in the character of the heroine.

Captain Marvel, defiant with glowThe motif of desperate heroism isn’t unique; on the contrary.  Naturally our heroes are always fighting against great odds.  But some stories are better that others at evoking that undaunted resistance to overwhelming opposition.  This is one of them.  In Larson’s brilliant portrayal, we see Carol’s stubborn courage, her indomitable resolve—and always with that particular mischievous touch that comes with the test-pilot package.

To me, specifically feminine valor is especially poignant.  And when you add that devil-may-care “right stuff” attitude, it’s irresistible.  When Eowyn faces down the undead Lord of the Nazgûl at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, I empathize with her defiant stand even more than with Aragorn’s or Frodo’s.  Then add to this the reckless abandon with which Carol takes on her foes.  She fights with flair.  She takes the fight almost lightly in a sense, as if danger and peril hardly matter.  Yet at the same time she never pulls per punches, much less gives up.  It’s this, I think, that excites my wholehearted admiration.

That’s my take on it so far.  There are a lot of other fascinating angles to CM, but they’d involve spoilers.  Maybe another time . . .