A Mutant Origin Story

mutieI’m near the younger end of my cousins. I have four cousins younger than me, and twelve that are older, so when I was a kid and we went back to Louisiana to visit them, I was almost always one of the youngest ones there. So sometimes, while my parents talked with their siblings, I ended up doing not-entirely-age-appropriate stuff to entertain myself. Like when I was seven or eight and ended up in my cousin Daniel’s bedroom digging through his X-Men and Spider-Man comics and reading them. I didn’t know anything about the X-Men canon. It was in the middle of Chris Claremont’s epic run on the series, and a lot of it went over my head, but a lot of it settled in my subconscious, and planted seeds in my memory. I certainly learned the names of Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, and Jean Grey. When Fox started airing the X-Men animated show in 1992, I was all over that shit like white on rice. The universe became clearer, and I started reading X-Men comics more regularly (but still pretty piecemeal, since I didn’t have access to a comic book shop) and assembling the universe in my head. The X-Men and the Evil Brotherhood of Mutants. Sentinels. Senator Kelly. William Stryker.

(Note: It was a mystery to me what X-Men story I had read first, because all I had was a memory of a single panel: of Nightcrawler lying unconscious and bleeding from his ears while the other X-Men stand over him in concern and a vague understanding of mutants as an oppressed minority rather than a crew of superheroes. It wasn’t until recently that I read God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and realized that that was the comic I had read decades earlier at my cousin’s).

Early on in the Fox series, there’s a plotline in which two scientists discover a “cure” for mutantism. I forget how the X-Men find out about it, but they do, and their reactions all fit their personalities and personal histories. Wolverine immediately sees it as a tool to eliminate mutants’ powers and neutralize the perceived threat of mutantkind; Rogue, not so much. As one of the mutants whose powers are both an ability and a curse, Rogue (as well as Beast) tend to be the most ambivalent about their mutations, and tempted by the idea of a cure. Peaceful, optimistic Charles Xavier disagrees with the very premise. “Don’t say ‘cure,’ Moira. Being a mutant isn’t a disease. It’s something you’re born with,” he tells Moira McTaggert, one of the scientists. (This is the same plot line that Joss Whedon would handle for his run writing the Astonishing X-Men comics in 2005). It is, basically, the neurodiversity argument, only written in 1992 for a grade school-level audience.

I think it’s this storyline (and others like it), rather the ones that deal with a planet in danger or intergalactic space war, that drew me to the X-Men. Pretty early on, I picked up on threads that I translated into the X-Men being code for people with disabilities. One of the earliest questions that I remember being asked about my sister (besides “What’s wrong with her?” and “What’s it like having a sister with Down’s?”) had to do with whether I would change her if I could. Magically suck the extra chromosome out of every single one of her body’s cells. I don’t remember how young I was when I first heard about the high abortion rates for fetuses with Down’s, but it’s been in my head since at least middle school. And even though I never witnessed people being cruel to my sister, I did witness neurotypical classmates of mine being cruel to disabled kids at my school, and being mocking in general of anyone in special ed or remedial classes. It became really easy, in my head, to equate “Do mutants have the right to exist?” and “Do people with disabilities have the right to exist?” To see “retard” and “mutie” as linguistic cousins. The fear and hostility that mutants experience when they interact with regular Homo sapiens sometimes feels familiar when I hear people talk about people with disabilities. The parallel ran so deep in my head that I was honestly surprised when I got to high school and college and started talking about the X-Men with other people and realized that for them, the parallel was between straight people and queer people, or white people and people of color. That there might be many parallels had honestly never occurred to me, so deep and solid was my understanding that “mutant” was code for “disabled.” (This was before I read Chris Claremont’s statement that for him, mutants could stand in for any outsider population. In the introduction to the trade paperback version of God Loves, Man Kills, Claremont says, “Mutants in the Marvel Universe have always stood as a metaphor for the underclass, the outsiders; they represent the ultimate minority.”)

It crystallized slowly for me, over the course of years. Not all–or even most–storylines have to do with mutaphobia, after all. The X-Men fight against Magneto and fight against the Shi’ar (and fight with the Shi’ar), and there’s the Phoenix Saga and numerous interpersonal dramas and secondary mutations and all that. To read the X-Men is to get to know them from the inside first, their individual histories, their powers, how they feel about those powers, their flaws and foibles, their courage and tenacity, their creativity at solving (or blasting through) problems. You know the X-Men as individuals, make friends with them, and as the stories pile up it slips your mind that the rest of the comic universe world doesn’t see them as individuals, but as a blanket population. You don’t always have to be aware of the fact that a small but significant percentage of the non-mutant population hates mutants, fears them, and wants them dead.

I came to knowledge of my sister’s disability in much the same way. I was three–almost four–when she was born, so I didn’t have any concept of what Down syndrome was. She was just an eating, pooping, crying (and eventually giggling) machine. Your basic human baby. By the end of elementary school (when she would’ve been around seven and me around eleven), I had a pretty good handle on the definition of Down syndrome, but I had an even better knowledge of my sister. I knew how much she loved Barbie and Full House and that cheese was a fundamental dietary building block. I knew her love and her smiles and her stubbornness. I knew how much she was distressed by bees (and flies that might be bees) and automatic garage doors and anybody crying. I knew her. It’s hard to put all that aside and look at my sister from an outsider’s point of view and remember that there’s people who think that my sister is a waste of space. That she’s stupid. That she’s a burden on society and/or my family and that she shouldn’t exist. And there’s people out there who don’t think those things, but who are happy to tell me such things over the Internet because they know it’ll get to me.

I truly believe my sister is a gifted person, though not in the academic way that most people think of when they label kids “gifted.” Her gifts are of a more abstract sort: a deep and instinctive knowledge of chesed, of loving-kindness, of human joy. But the same genetic error that gave her those gifts also gets in the way, too. Gets in the way of her desire to live independently and have more friends. Gets in the way of my family’s desire that she live with economic stability and a reasonable amount of personal safety. Would she welcome the chance for a cure? I honestly don’t know. Like Rogue, her extra chromosome is both a gift and a curse. She can do many amazing things, but also misses out on a lot of opportunities that are easily available to “normals.”

It wasn’t until much, much later that I realized the other parallel. The angry one.

Because people with disabilities get abused at disturbingly, shockingly, unacceptably high rates in modern America. And every time I see it, in the news or wherever, it makes the muscles in my arms harden, and I stop breathing, and start looking for something to hit. Of course there’s never anything to hit. In those moments, though, I wish I was the mutant Pyro, so I could literally set the world on fire. In Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, when Dr. Rao announces a cure for the “mutant disease” on television, Wolverine’s claws come out and he can’t retract them. “She called us a disease. Do you know how that feels?” he says.

Yeah, Logan. I think I do, at least a little bit.

I would set the whole world on fire. I understand Magneto’s fury in the face of human intolerance and bigotry, and why he’s given up on humans and on Charles Xavier’s idealism. Xavier wants to teach people tolerance and compassion, but that is the long fucking way around the problem, and in the meantime people are straight up fucking dying and why do I have to talk to you about not calling people retards when those same people are getting murdered? I don’t have time for that bullshit. It would be so much easier, so much more satisfying, to just throw cars at people and silence them.

When it was my own sister that got hurt, it didn’t feel like enough. Her getting hurt by somebody else felt like the end point of a long chain of dealing with the stupidity and apathy of “normals” and the inevitable vulnerability and invisibility that disabled people experience because of it. There had been decades of people asking, in so many words, “Why does your sister exist?” And then someone came along and decided that she existed to be his victim. He picked a vulnerable, invisible person, and he did it on purpose, because he knew he could get away with it. He thought she wouldn’t fight back. And he was largely right, because how do you teach somebody to defend herself when her default setting is that everyone is her friend?

And that is when I understand the anger that allows Magneto to channel enough power to lift an entire football stadium into the air.

That is when I understand the Scarlet Witch’s anger and desperation when she says, “No more mutants.”

That is when I understand Pyro throwing fireballs, because that’s what I would do, that’s what I wanted to do, to set the whole fucking world on fire for leaving my sister helpless and invisible and vulnerable to somebody who decided to hurt her.

I want to incinerate the world. I want claws like Wolverine’s. Because that’s the biggest thing that X-Men in the Marvel Universe have going for them, that’s their trump card. They can do astonishing things. Uncanny things. Amazing things. They can save the world when no one else can. And that’s a really good argument in favor of their right to exist. When all else fails, when morals and ethics and human compassion fails, mutant usefulness is still there. My sister, and people like her, aren’t stupendous. They aren’t awe-inspiring. They do not astonish, unless you’re willing to examine something quieter and more subtle than telekinesis. Given the chance, much as I like to imagine myself as one of Xavier’s noble X-Men, I’m probably closer to one of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. More interested in defending, in fighting, than explaining. At least where my sister is concerned. Because it makes me so, so angry, the way this world treats the most vulnerable people in it.

But there’s this: I think Magneto feels very alone. At least, on days when I want to blow up the world, that’s how I feel: like nobody cares about this–either not enough or not at all–except me. And if their apathy was neutral, it wouldn’t matter. But apathy isn’t neutral. In the vacuum of apathy, people like my sister get hurt. They die. They’re left all alone. And that is when I have to go for a walk and calm down until I can hear the Charles Xavier voice in my head again. The one that insists that normal humans are worth teaching. The one that believes that humans and mutants can co-exist. The one who would never commit genocide, even though he has the mental power to make everyone’s brains ooze out of their earholes. I remind myself that I’m not alone. That there’s a lot of people–and not just in my family, either–who love my sister, who want to help her, and who are helping her.

My sister loves me. And I love her. She never gives up trying to do anything you ask her to do. There is nothing on this earth that could shake her faith in me. And maybe that makes me selfish, to want to keep that. Almost certainly it is. No more selfish than keeping her around because she’s the only one powerful enough to fight the Brood, but hey. We haven’t had much luck with convincing the world that the ability to love is enough of a utility to exist in a capitalistic society.

Sometimes I think about Ian McKellan (who is, as far as I’m concerned, Magneto’s alter ego) and the fact that, despite dealing with homophobia on a personal and professional level his whole life, he has not himself turned into a supervillian. The fact that, in spite of all they’ve been put through, oppressed minorities in this country (whether it’s disabled folks, LGBTQ folks, mentally ill folks, people of color, etc etc) have, without exception, never turned into evil supervillians. (I know I’m generalizing here, but keep in mind that this is what I tell myself in order to not let my heart get eaten by a murderous rage that burns with the heat of a thousand suns and cut me some slack.) Sure, there’s warlords in Africa and drug cartels in Mexico and Kim Jung-un in North Korea, and they cause enormous amounts of heartache and human damage, but they’re not exactly on the world-endangering level of Dr. Doom or the Red Skull. From a power and world domination standpoint, Barack Obama is the closest thing we have to a supervillain. Maybe Donald Trump. From the oppressed minority contingent, we don’t get Magneto. We get Martin Luther King, Jr.; a human of intelligence and courage that we certainly did not ask for, let alone deserve, but are so fortunate to have had in our midst. We get Helen Keller and Harvey Milk and Nelson Mandela. Bayard Rustin and Vincent Harding and Temple Grandin. Artists like Toni Morrison, Leslie Feinberg, Maya Angelou, Jeremy Brett. We get the beautiful people that I know from the progressive/leftist/anarchist organizing community in Denver, who have taught me about putting love into action and validating and standing up for yourself and others. We get community groups like the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement and the AIDS Quilt and the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. And that’s just in this past century. The world is full of thousands and thousands of heroes that we don’t deserve, and often don’t recognize while we have them among us. And that is the truly amazing, awe-inspiring, human superpower: The fact that, in the face of oppression and systematic violence and apathy, more often than not, humans choose to love and hope. They default to trying to teach other humans to be better. The fact that we have as many heroes as we do should send us all to our knees.

Thousands of Charles Xaviers walking among us, disguised as regular people. I like that.

The Best That I Can Do.

bartcrying.jpg I don’t know if you watch The Simpsons, but there’s an episode from either the first or second season where Bart is in danger of failing the 4th grade. He has to pass a history test, or he won’t go on to 5th grade (irony being, of course, that Bart has continued on in the 4th grade for the past 25 years). And for once, he studies as hard as he can—actually falls asleep over his books—but only gets a 59/100. Mrs. Krabappel drops the graded test on his desk, and what is one of the sadder moments in all of Simpsons history, his face crumples, and he puts his head down on his desk and starts to sob.

“But Bart,” says Mrs. Krabappel, “I’d think you would be used to failing by now.”

“You don’t understand,” cries Bart, banging his head on his desk, “I tried this time. I mean, I really tried. This is the best that I can do!” And in that moment, the audience understands. Of course Bart is a troublemaker. Of course he doesn’t try. It’s so much easier to not try—it’s so much easier to handle that kind of failure—than it is to try, and not be able to do it. In the first, you may have suspicions, but you can tell yourself that of course you failed, because you didn’t try. In the second, there’s no way to protect yourself. There’s nothing to say besides this is the best that I can do. And it’s not good enough. And you have to look at your real self, not your potential self, not the self you want to be. You have to look at the self that couldn’t get it done.

I know how Bart feels, though I come at it from the other direction. I don’t remember my parents ever telling me to do well in school. I never got rewards for good grades, or even very effusive praise. It was accepted and expected that I would do well. My parents knew I was smart enough. I knew I was smart enough. So we never discussed whether I would do well. And I never really learned how to handle it when things were academically hard, because it never was (and when it was, even when I was a little kid, I knew the difference between trying and failing and not applying myself).

One of the worst things about failing at Columbia was that my ability to fulfill that expectation completely disintegrated in spite of my intelligence, not my lack of it. I was, and am, smart enough to do the academic work at Columbia. I can do the work. But it all fell to pieces anyway. My ability to think critically collapsed. My ability to read something and then recall what I’d read crumbled. My ability to assimilate information from multiple sources floundered. My ability to remember things—even completely simple things like buying food—deflated.

I choked. That’s all there is to it.

The first and most obvious sign was probably the lens essay assignment. I knew the assignment. I know what my teacher wanted. I knew I had a decent idea, the topics I wanted to address, and where I wanted the essay to end up.

And I could.
Not.
Make.
It.
Happen.

It wasn’t writer’s block. Writer’s block is when you don’t know what to do, don’t know what to write. Writer’s block is when you’re out of ideas.

What do you call it when you’re full of ideas, but all that comes out on the page is a muddle?

Usually I can at least write something, and if it’s crap, I can clean it up later. This time, I could not.

Writing is the one thing I can do. The one thing I can do, the one thing I’ve always been able to do, and do well, and now I couldn’t. I stared at my computer screen. Spread my rough draft out over a table in the library and just stared at it. I muddled with it all night. I couldn’t get it clear in my head and because of that, I could never get it clear on the page. Never before had I really understood what David McCullough had said: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” When your thinking processes break down entirely, of course you can’t write a paper on historical revisionism and photographs of lynchings.

The paper was due in twelve hours. I couldn’t start over. I couldn’t hand in this thing that wasn’t even a rough draft. And so I stared. And I fumbled. And I cried.

I cried more later, talking to my teacher, trying to explain why my essay sucked so much, and tell him that I knew it sucked, and that I was really sorry, that I wasn’t just turning in something sucky just to finish an assignment and get a grade, but that I really, truly did not know what had happened.

It was the best that I could do. And it was nowhere near good enough.

My teacher did an extraordinary and compassionate thing. He gave me an extension—all the way to the end of the semester. He worked with me on that essay. And I finished it, and even I knew it was good. (You can read the whole thing here—trigger warning for graphic images and disturbing content.) Not the best ever, maybe, but I said what I’d set out to say, and figured out some stuff about myself in the process. And by contrast, the second essay I did for that class, in spite of being longer and more complex, came stupidly easy (and it looks like I never posted that here. I should fix that).

That wasn’t the end of me falling to pieces. And while I had this one teacher who was willing to work with me, nobody else was. To be fair, I wasn’t willing to ask. I mean, what do you say? What previous experience could I draw upon that could have taught me what to do? And what professor at an Ivy League university is prepared to hold hands with an undergrad who should be old enough to handle her shit even though she has a sad?

I don’t know what I could have done different. I did my best, and it wasn’t enough. And it wasn’t something I could just push through. I know my dad just wanted me to ride it out and survive it and get it done so it wouldn’t feel like I’d wasted two years, without truly understanding just how bad it had gotten, inside my head.

I don’t really have a conclusion or universal truth to acknowledge. Sometimes you fail, that’s all. Sometimes you fail.

The Problem(s) With Clue

clueposter.jpgOne of my favorite movies of all time is Clue. I think it’s hilarious and clever and I’ve seen it Idontknowhowmany times. I first saw it as a kid, too young to get most of the jokes, but my brother (who’s four years older) watched it at home one day and I happened to see most of it. I quote it a lot. Often around people who haven’t seen it themselves. I’m sure this makes conversation with me interesting.

That said, as I’ve gotten older, and more stuff about it makes sense, there’s still some things that don’t work for me. That I can’t resolve. So, here I am. I’m currently watching the movie, waiting for the incongruous stuff to happen.

Do I really have to clarify a spoiler alert for a movie that was released twenty years ago?

Clue is based on the premise of six strangers getting together for a dinner party. They have been invited to dinner and assembled together for reasons of which they know nothing. There’s also the butler, the maid, the cook, the 7th guest Mr. Boddy, and various and sundry random people who show up throughout the movie, but since most of them die pretty quickly, you don’t need to know any more about them.

So first of all, Small Tim Curry, you are so cute and British in your tuxedo. Also, I gotta say, when I was 8, the running gag with the dog poo amused me a lot. On the other hand, the total perviness of Christopher Lloyd’s character went right over my head.

Professor Plum (not yet outed as a total perv) picks up Miss Scarlet on his way to dinner, her car having broken down. They are following their written directions when Professor Plum catches sight of the house for the first time and stops the car.

=D
THUNDERCLAP!

Back at the house, the guests all arrive, Wadsworth brings them all into the dining room to get to know each other, and it turns out there’s one extra chair.

Random aside: I didn’t realize until like last year that Col. Mustard and Leon, Roseanne’s boss in the old sitcom Roseanne, are the same person.

Col. Mustard: Is this place for you?
Wadsworth: Not me, sir, I am merely a humble butler.
Col. Mustard: What exactly do you do?
Wadsworth: I buttle, sir.

That might be my favorite line of the whole movie.

Okay, so, all the guests have arrived, are brought to the dining room, start to get to know each other.

This guy has nothing to hide. Clearly.
Totally not hiding anything!
I’ve admitted nothing. Just avoiding a scandal.

Dinner is interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Boddy, who you can tell is sinister because of the music that accompanies his entrance.

And here we have my first niggling issue. As is ultimately revealed, Mr. Boddy and his butler have switched places—that is, Wadsworth is the mastermind, and Mr. Boddy is the patsy. How did Wadsworth (who is actually Mr. Boddy) convince Mr. Boddy (actually the butler) to take on the identity of someone who would, upon being revealed, be an almost immediate target for violence (if not murder)? Surely the butler knew he was looking at a fight, and possibly bodily harm, masquerading as a blackmailer? Whose idea were the weapons, the butler’s or Wadsworth’s? Did the butler actually think that the distribution of weapons would keep him safe? Who wrote on the envelope that Wadsworth opens? Was it Wadsworth, writing to himself to throw off the trail? What was the actual plan here?

After dinner (which takes like four minutes), Wadsworth brings them all to the study and tells them why he’s brought them here: They are all being blackmailed. What follows is a systematic and comical outing of each of the dinner guests and their dirty secret. Halfway through the scene, Wadsworth admits that he’s tape recording the conversation (thus rather freaking everyone out, since avoiding a scandal and/or jailtime is why they’re paying blackmail in the first place).

Wadsworth: Professor Plum, you were once a professor of psychiatry specializing in helping paranoid and homicidal lunatics suffering from delusions of grandeur.
Prof. Plum: Yes, but now I work for the United Nations.
Wadsworth: So your work has not changed.

Yes. I am merely transcribing jokes that I find funny. Deal with it.

Point of order: Mr. Green says that “tape recordings are not admissible evidence.” Maybe they weren’t in 1985 (when the movie was made), or in the 1950s (when the movie is set), but tape recordings certainly are admissible evidence now, provided that all the voices present on the recording can be identified with certainty.

Mr. Boddy now introduces a twist of his own, and Wadsworth’s plan starts to go off the rails, though I honestly don’t know by how much. He gives each guest a weapon, wrapped in purple ribbon. I wonder if he knows which weapons are going to which guests? Or is he just handing the weapons out randomly? This is probably another thing I’m not supposed to be thinking about.

Okay, so. Each guest has a weapon. Mr. Boddy suggests that somebody use their weapon to kill Wadsworth, turning off the lights for murdering privacy (like it can be done anonymously when each guest has a different weapon? I guess the guests with bludgeoning instruments have plausible deniability, but it’s not like Mrs. White can strangle Mr. Boddy and then claim somebody else did it). Wadsworth, incredibly, did not see this coming. Lights go off. Thunk, chunk, groan, gunfire, shattering, screaming noise, lights come back on.

clue_mrspeacock_screamglass
Screaming noise.

Several of the people in this room are thinking remarkably quickly. Mr. Boddy is on the floor, playing dead (as we find out later). Professor Plum bends over to check on him, and though Mr. Boddy is clearly alive, Plum thinks fast and doesn’t give away the sham (why? So he can have a clear shot at him later?). Mr. Boddy and Professor Plum aren’t coordinating their actions, so it’s pretty remarkable to me that they engage in precisely the same course of action to achieve (I’m assuming) very different ends.  I guess Professor Plum doesn’t see the point in outing Mr. Boddy as still alive, since at that point Mr. Boddy will say, “Yeah, and you’re the one who tried to shoot me.  Ass.”

Screaming noise.

Immediately after this (and after pulling a screaming Yvette from the billiard room), the guests find that the cook has been murdered, carry her body back to the study, and realize that Mr. Boddy’s body has disappeared while they were in the kitchen. Scarlet uncovers the negatives that incriminate Col. Mustard, and it occurs to me here that Scarlet and Yvette know each other, but unlike Yvette and Mrs. White, this mutual acquaintanceship isn’t acknowledged at by either person. Just another instance of people behaving in a way that is either prearranged, baffling, or thinking really fast and trusting the other person to play along.

And now, as Mrs. Peacock enters the bathroom, Mr. Boddy staggers out. At this point, from a narrative perspective, it’s random and threatening (because we don’t know that Mr. Boddy was playing dead in the study). Mr. Boddy’s dead, but he definitely didn’t just fall out of the toilet he’d been stuffed in; he’s stalking towards Mrs. Peacock. From a later perspective, why did Wadsworth and/or Yvette and/or Professor Plum (because those were the people missing in the kitchen when they found the cook) stuff him in the toilet? How’d they get him in there? Did they really think that nobody would need to use the bathroom all night? How did they know Mr. Boddy needed to be bashed over the head again? Did they see him get up?

Mr. Green has blood on his hands? This is never explained. And how did the candlestick get over the door?

And here we have the line which is not my favorite, but is probably the one I quote most:

I’M SHOUTING, I’M SHOUTING, I’M SHOUT–

Okay, so.  We bring Mr. Boddy back to the study again.  We bring the cook to the study.

Wait, what?

The group starts trying to figure out how might have killed Mr. Boddy, and Wadsworth suggests locking up all the weapons so that the homicidal maniac that’s somewhere in the group can’t kill anybody (people don’t kill people! Lead pipes kill people!). He goes to put the key to the cupboard in his pocket, which freaks out the rest of the guests, so he suggests throwing the key out the front door so nobody can get to it. Brilliant! That’ll do it!  But there’s somebody at the door.

The motorist! Who has been invited by Wadsworth, and has presumably been given a story about his car breaking down and needing to use the phone (what did Wadsworth tell the guy the real game was?). No idea on whether the Motorist has been told that his old boss will be there, but either way, neither of them give even a flicker of recognition. Also, the Motorist’s cover story is thorough enough to attract a cop to his abandoned vehicle (but not to Scarlet’s abandoned vehicle?). This is pretty much repeated for each visitor: visitor arrives and knows enough to not admit that they know anybody at the party. The guest who knows the random arrival also never admits they know the arrival (so that they might have the chance to kill them). Presumably, the two murders that have taken place up to this point have derailed whatever Wadsworth’s original plan was. But he was hoping for his accomplices to get murdered, right? So is he genuinely unnerved at their arrival (since they can further derail things if they discover the bodies, instead of getting murdered as planned), or is he just locking them into separate rooms to isolate them so that they’re vulnerable to attack?  I should just stop thinking about this, because I am confused.

They split up into pairs to search the house, and at this point, pretty much everybody starts slipping away from their partner to murder somebody. The first to go is the motorist, who is got to by way of a secret passage into the lounge (how does Col. Mustard know about the secret passage, again?). Mustard and Scarlet find the secret passage and “find” the body, and Scarlet genuinely freaks out, while Mustard, presumably, fakes it. They’re yelling and pounding on the door, everyone comes running, Yvette shoots the door and the chandelier, and the World War II veteran pleads with the rest of the guests that he “can’t take any more scares.” I guess he might have PTSD, but still. Come on dude. You were in a war. Get it together.

And the doorbell rings again! It is a police officer. And Mr. Green, who moments ago “had nothing to hide,” suddenly has things to hide and slams the door in the cop’s face.  He inexplicably remains in this “must not tell the cop about the bodies even though the cop is the MOST APPROPRIATE PERSON TO TELL” for the rest of this sequence. The cop presumably recognizes Scarlet, but neither of them say anything (again with people recognizing people, or knowing that something fishy is going on, and yet not announcing it to the group).

The house phone rings, and the cop answers it. It’s J. Edgar Hoover. This is strange. One of the guests is undercover (either Wadsworth or Mr. Green, depending on the ending). This surveillance operation is important enough to get J. Edgar Hoover involved, but for some reason Mr. Hoover thinks it’s appropriate to totally blow his employee’s cover by straight up calling the house and introducing himself. What? J. Edgar Hoover, I am disappoint. You should know more about paranoia and surveillance than this. And most undercover operations fall apart once something like a murder happens, because a cop can’t commit crimes or let certain kinds of crime be committed if they are in the vicinity. So there’s an undercover operative that just lets murder after murder happen? What?

And now Mr. Green shows the cop around, still not taking advantage of the opportunity to get the fucking cops involved, and we find ourselves in one of the funniest and yet totally squeakiest sequences of the movie: making out with corpses. That’s right folks. WHAT IS GOING ON HERE.

WHAT.

I just want to emphasize that with most movies, I would be annoyed by the plot holes by now, but in Clue, I’m not. I’m loving the hell out of this. Better than most movies (I think it’s the pace, either of the movie itself or of the dialogue, which is rapid), Clue sets up falling dominos of ridiculousness that compound into….well, six dead bodies for one thing, but until I start actually looking for plot holes, at no time do I start yelling at the characters to simply take the sensible way out like I do with most slapstick comedies. The characters are so completely not in control of events that I actually kind of buy them letting the situation get out of hand. You have to wonder how long it would have gone on for had the cops not shown up when they did, because none of the characters show the slightest success towards actually altering the course of the evening. They spend all their time exhibiting coping mechanisms and directing courses of action that make no difference (like searching the house for someone who isn’t there). Oh, and killing each other.

Cop: You’re too late, I’ve seen it all.
Wadsworth: You have? …I can explain everything!
Cop: You don’t have to.
Wadsworth: I don’t?
Cop: Don’t worry, there’s nothing illegal about any of this!
Wadsworth: Are you sure?
Cop: Of course! This is America!
Wadsworth: I see.
Cop: It’s a free country, don’t you know that?
Wadsworth: I didn’t know it was that free.
Mr. Green: *maniacally nervous smile*

Also, sometimes Wadsworth is really good at coming up with lies off the cuff (“Yes sir, it was the chandelier. Fell down, almost killed us. Would you like to step this way?”) and sometimes he’s totally shitty at it. (“Yes, you could use the phone in the—noo. You could use the one in the st—no. Would you please wait in the, um, the, um, the lounge?” NO THAT DOESN’T SOUND SUSPICIOUS AT ALL, WADSWORTH.  YOU ARE TOTALLY NOT HIDING ANYTHING.)

Not hiding anything.

Search of house resumes, someone throws the switch to turn off the house’s electricity, and now we’re at the movie’s biggest WTF moment for me. Yvette sneaks downstairs, into a darkened room, and is murdered. What?

Murderer (whispering): Shut the door. Did anyone recognize you?
Yvette: They must have. And not just my face. They know every inch of my body. And they’re not the only ones.
Murderer: *throws a noose around Yvette’s neck*
Yvette: IT’S YOU! *dies*

WHAT THE HELL. Okay, first of all, how did Yvette set up a clandestine meeting with anyone in the house? If she set up a meeting, how the a third party find out about it and get to the meeting instead (Yvette was surprised when she saw who she was talking to, after all). Okay, so maybe Yvette slipped downstairs hoping simply to meet somebody that she needed to have a private word with, but hadn’t actually set up a time and place to meet anyone. That’s more likely. (And it’s likely that she was looking for her employer, Miss Scarlet, since she went to the ground floor, where Scarlet was searching with Mustard.) But then she creeps into a dark room and is TOTALLY UNSURPRISED to hear a voice talking to her. But then why does it sound like Yvette and the murderer are resuming a conversation that they’ve previously started? “They must have, and not just my face.”? Seriously? What does that even mean? Also, Yvette, what happened to your French accent? Apparently you were faking it, but why? If people recognized you (and it seems clear that at least three guests knew Yvette prior to this evening), why did they not call you out on your ridiculous new accent when they first walked in the door? WHY IS EVERYONE PRETENDING TO NOT KNOW EACH OTHER.

Also, three murders happen in like the space of a minute, and nobody sees anyone else in the hallway. The cop dies even though him getting hit over the head is never actually shown, just the menacing lead pipe.

AND WHERE DID THE GLOVES COME FROM. EVERYONE’S WEARING GLOVES WHEN THEY KILL PEOPLE. WHERE DID THEY FIND THEM.

“Dada da da da da! I, am, your singing telegram!” *gunshot* *door slam*. That sequence CRACKED ME UP when I was a pre-teen. I may or may not have been a slightly demented child.

singingtelegram

 

Oh, Wadsworth in the shower. Heeheehee. I enjoy that little sequence too.

So, Wadsworth runs downstairs and turns on the lights, and the characters all reassemble in the hall. We can take a moment to tell where they’re coming from: Wadsworth is standing in the cellar door, where the circuit box is. Mrs. White and Mr. Green are coming downstairs (Mr. Green coming from the attic, Mrs. White apparently having booked it back upstairs after killing Yvette.) Miss Scarlet is at the far end of the hall where the bathroom and the kitchen are. Col. Mustard comes out of the door at the foot of the stairs, which I think is the dining room. Professor Plum and Mrs. Peacock both emerge from the cellar. They find the bodies of the cop and Yvette.

Mr. Green: Two murders.
Prof. Plum: Neither of them shot. I thought I heard a gun.
Everyone: So did I.
Scarlet: I thought I heard the front door slam.
Mustard: Oh God. The murderer must have run out.

KNFKLJNSDFKLJANSFKJLANFKLJAN YOU GUYS LEFT THE FRONT DOOR UNLOCKED?!

So they open the front door, and find the singing telegram girl.

Wadsworth: Three murders.
Mr. Green: Six, altogether.
Wadsworth: This is getting serious.

Aaaaand they just close the front door, leaving the dead girl on the porch. Hilarious.

Wadsworth: Very well, I know who did it.
Everyone: YOU DO?!
Wadsworth: And furthermore, I will tell you how it was all done.

And now we’re to the best part of the movie. THE BEST PART. I seriously love Tim Curry so fucking much because most of the remaining half hour is Tim Curry monologuing/reenacting the entire preceding hour at top speed. Which I won’t try to summarize or quote because it wouldn’t translate. And the three endings. “That’s how it could have happened. But how about this?” Lulz.

Aaaaaaand then there’s this:

 

He explains that none of the random arrivals at the door were random, that all the murder victims were accomplices in Mr. Boddy’s blackmail. “It wasn’t luck [that the Motorist arrived]. I invited him!” “You did?!” YOU DID?!? WHY DID YOU PRETEND TO BE SURPRISED? WHY DID HE PRETEND TO BE STRANDED? WHAT WAS THE PLAN THAT WAS SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN?!?!

Also I do not notice Professor Plum taking off his bow tie. When did that happen?

Wadsworth’s friends own this house? This is one class-transcending butler. Except he’s not actually the butler, I keep forgetting. But he was willing to stack the bodies in the cellar? How is that a good method of body disposal?

“Why should the police come? Nobody’s called them.” Wait, what? You lied about that? Why? Why did you tell everyone the cops were coming when they aren’t? What were you hoping would happen? Did you really hope that everyone would just kill each other if you got them all in the same house and set them on a time limit? I DO NOT UNDERSTAND ABOUT LYING ABOUT THE POLICE. I feel like the whole movie is a plot of Wadsworth’s that got derailed, and part of that plan was lying about the police, but I don’t understand what lying about the police (but yet gathering evidence for them, as the tape recording of the conversation shows) was supposed to get him. And why would people start killing other people if they think the cops are on the way?

In the “Wadsworth is the evil genius” ending, everything goes exactly according to his plan, I think. Somehow the ideas of “everything going according to plan” and “everything in the master plan going horribly awry” peacefully co-exist in this movie.

Luckily, the actual, third ending makes the most sense.  Mr. Green turning out to be an FBI agent is genuinely surprising and satisfying, except for the whole “That phone call from J. Edgar Hoover was for me” line. Seriously? Again, J. Edgar Hoover, why are you TRYING to blow your operative’s cover? “I’m going to go home and sleep with my wife!” Wink wink.

By all standards, Clue should not work as a movie. There’s plot holes galore. It’s based on a board game. It’s silly and ridiculous. It’s a comedy about murder, and it’s not even a dark comedy. But…it works. All the actors play their parts with such earnestness–and the comedic timing is down to a fine art–that you never stop to think to yourself, “What is this shittery?” Which is the mark of a good story, really.  The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

Sherlock & Me (orig. posted Oct. 18, 2010)

“Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox & Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box with my name, John H. Watson, M.D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid.  It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious problems which Mr. Sherlock Holmes had at various times to examine…”

    –The Problem of Thor Bridge     

    (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

 

I think when I was in high school, we read the “Speckled Band” in class, and other than that my impressions of Holmes and Watson were the usual cultural constants of deerstalker cap, meerschaum pipe, late middle aged proper Victorians.  Hounds and speckled bands and Bohemian scandals.  That’s about it.

My grandfather, who was a professor of biology, loved Sherlock Holmes.  He was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars for over 40 years, he had this leather bound set that I remember from my grandparents’ house in New Orleans.  My grandfather died when I was in middle school, and because he was in New Orleans and I was in Littleton, I wouldn’t say I knew him well.  I know these things: his name was Dr. Walter G. Moore.  He always read the newspaper, cover to cover, in the morning, reacting to the stories with quiet exclamations like “Oh, mercy,” and “Hoo hah!”  (I’ve never heard anyone else say “Hooha!”, but it was a general all-purpose exclamation of surprise or dismay.)  He was quiet and didn’t talk much.  I don’t remember us ever having a drawn out conversation.  But I used to sit at his feet and play with toys while he read a book or the paper, in perfect co-existence with each other.  He was a gentle soul.  He loved all six of his children and treated them with respect (as evidenced, I think, by the fact that all of his children turned around and treated all of their own children with love and respect that, as I grow older, I realize I’m lucky to have received).  He was handy around the house.  He loved dogs and jazz music.  He loved my grandmother.

My family lucked out in the aftermath of Katrina.  We lost no family members.  By far the biggest blow was the loss of my grandparents’ house and the 65 years worth of family history embedded there.  It took my aunts and uncles several months to go through all the refuse, pulling out what they could to salvage, and when they were done, the remnants of my grandparents’ lives together could fit into a 10’x10′ storage unit.  For my grandmother’s 90th birthday, we all gathered in New Orleans, and one of the things we did was split up all the stuff (my grandmother didn’t want the vast majority of it, or thought it was time to let it go.  She’s been living with one of my aunts since the storm).  Except for the big double bed, none of it was monetarily valuable.  (And as an aside, I have to say, that six kids, 14 grandkids, and an assortment of in-laws could split up what amounts to an inheritance with not a single squabble is, I think, a tribute to the kind of parents my grandparents were.)

Things I got: A couple of the specimen bottles my grandfather used to use to collect water samples from the bayous.  One of my grandmother’s window ornaments.  The cuckoo clock.  And about twenty years’ worth of The Baker Street Journals, which is a quarterly newsletter devoted to all things Sherlock.

Sherlock fans are notoriously obsessive.  Entire books have been written trying to figure out what order the stories in the canon go in, and how many wives Watson had.  Trying to uncover details of cases that Watson never wrote about.  Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper.  Holmes and Irene Adler.  Floor plans of the Baker Street rooms.  And on and on and on.  One hundred years hasn’t exhausted their need to know more, hasn’t filled in all the gaps.  I think Holmes appealed to my grandfather’s precise, scientific mind.  Almost a year ago, I also received some money from the sale of my grandmother’s house–she sold it to the Road Home Initiative and split the money up amongst her children and grandchildren.  I was going to use it to go to Europe, something I’ve wanted to do for awhile.  Instead, I was stupid, and ended up having to use it to pay off credit cards.  Which is such a waste and disrespect of what my grandmother gave to me, and I’m fucking ashamed of myself for it.  Thankfully, I do better with literary inheritances.

But in order to appreciate these quarterly journals, I have to be conversant in the stories.  So I started reading the stories, and discovered that I knew Holmes pretty well, but I didn’t know Watson at all.  And as I read them over and over, paradoxically, Watson is the reason I read them.  Not Holmes.  As I think about it now, I think Watson has a lot in common with my grandfather.

I read Holmes because it is, in a very real way, my grandfather’s legacy to me.  It may be the only thing I share with him.  Reading these stories connects me not only to Victorian England, but to mid-century New Orleans, and a smart, quiet man living his life the best way he knew how.

One of Watson’s stories starts out with the statement that, “Somewhere in the vaults of the bank Cox & Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch box with my name, John H. Watson MD, Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid.  It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious cases which Mr. Sherlock Holmes had at various times to examine.”  This battered tin dispatch box is one of the more enduring pieces of Holmesian folklore, and many Holmes pastiches or fan fic purport to have been found in the mythical tin box.

The idea of this tin box has great allure for me.  I received my inheritance out of the wreckage of a wooden house, in the wake of realizing just how fragile and temporary our lives and possessions are.  To see 65 years of your family’s history blown apart like it that is incredibly jarring.  For me, to think that somewhere there is a battered tin dispatch box, waiting patiently, containing all this history…it’s like having an anchor to hold on to that keeps the chaos at bay.  To think that somewhere there’s a little pocket of time that I can slip through and find Holmes and Watson smoking pipes and putting their feet up by the fire…who wouldn’t want that?  Who wouldn’t want to feel like these things can last forever?

It’s fiction, of course.  Of all the millions and millions of dinosaurs, we only have a few hundred skeletons left to tell us that they ruled the earth.  Of the many millions of humans who have walked the earth, we know details of a far few.  Not even a fraction of 1%–most people live and die and are entirely forgotten within two or three generations.  And so many of those we only have by accident–we wouldn’t know anything of Plato or Aristotle if their libraries hadn’t been looted by the Romans, brought back to Rome, and somehow found their way into the possession of (I think) Cicero, who read the books and was so taken by them that he started writing about them himself and getting other people interested.  The Gospel of Q was discovered in an ancient Egyptian trash heap.  The Dead Sea Scrolls were forgotten in clay pots in a cave.  How many ancient works of wisdom were burned for fuel?  How many secrets were lost because the people who knew them were murdered, or just didn’t have kids to pass them on to?  How many sunk to the bottom of the ocean, or just decayed?  Humankind has forgotten far more than we can ever comprehend.  And yet we tell ourselves that we can know all there is to know about the past, if we just keep looking.

What would an archeologist conclude about my family, digging through that 10×10 storage unit?

Arthur Conan Doyle is aware of the transiency of life, of course.  One of Watson’s unwritten cases concerns “the strange case of James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.”  But in Holmes, everything leaves a trace, everything has a reason, and if only you can both see and observe you can puzzle it out.  Chaos has no place in Holmes.  Giant fuck-off storms that destroy entire swaths of landscape and lives have no place.  Not even Jack the Ripper has a place in Holmes, and he actually existed.  You could write the history of humanity as that of a species fighting off encroaching chaos with all that they can, and in Holmes, the fight has been won.  Holmes survived Hurricane Katrina when most of the rest of my grandmother’s house died.  How can I not hold on to all of that, with all that I can?  What else can I learn from my grandfather’s inheritance?

So, other than my generally obsessive personality, I think that’s why Holmes has such pull for me, why I’m so defensive of him.  He’s what my grandfather left me.  More than God, Holmes convinces me that everything in the world happens for a reason, and that chaos is not chaos, but merely our inability to perceive pattern.

I hope he’s right.