My 2014 in Film


Another year is coming to an end, and with it another slate of new film releases. As I did last year, I came up with my own (necessarily incomplete) list: not necessarily the “best” of the year, but my favorite movies and other pop culture among those I was able to catch in the last twelve months. And unlike last year, I’m including a list of some non-2014 movies I caught up with for the first time.

I didn’t keep a list of movies I watched (other than the list I kept during October), but perhaps I should have, as this was a big year for me to catch up on movies. Keeping a list is not a passive act, however: with list-making comes the desire to add to the list, to see it grow. For my rather meager reading this year, that’s a good thing, but if I had kept track of movies I watched I might have tried to watch even more than I did, and felt as drained as I did after my October marathon. Still, lists are great for looking back at what you did, watched, or read over the year: January seems awfully long ago when I look back at what I was doing then.

I saw sixteen 2014 releases, either in the theater or at home. There are several I still haven’t seen, such as Interstellar and The Babadook, that I expect to respond to when I catch up with them, but here are my top three favorites so far:


3. The Grand Budapest Hotel. I’m a sucker for writer/director Wes Anderson’s carefully-curated style, and I was particularly receptive to this multi-layered story, set in the fictional Alpine nation of Zubrowka. I had a Czech composition professor who always bristled at the term “Eastern Europe,” and liked to point out that Prague is actually to the West of Vienna; it was hard not to think of him, and of a summer trip to Prague, when watching this. Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, Anderson gets the sense of being at the crossroads of East and West, of being somewhere off the map, and of “small” countries’ determination to hold onto their idiosyncrasies in the face of empire, be it political or cultural. In addition, the majority of the film is set in the early 1930s, the anxious period of fascist uprisings that would inevitably lead to war and sweep away the old world that the titular hotel and its dapper concierge (Ralph Fiennes) represent. The juxtaposition of a farcical caper with looming historical tragedy gives the standard Andersonian business a more directly political edge than usual, and is a good fit with the sadness that is often just under the surface of Anderson’s whimsy.


2. Whiplash. Between this film, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, and Grand Piano, which Chazelle wrote, I think I have a favorite new filmmaker. Whiplash’s story of an ambitious student drummer (Miles Teller) and the punishing, even sadistic treatment he receives at the hands of his jazz band director (J. K. Simmons) examines the personal price of artistic ambition in a way that is more brutally honest (emphasis on “brutally”) than most films about budding artists and their mentors usually are. In fact, while the plot has the twists and turns of a taut thriller, the tantrums, self-laceration, and even the explosions of violence in the film don’t seem that exaggerated, bringing to mind both certain high-strung individuals I’ve known as a musician, and the hazing scandals that have afflicted some high-profile college bands in recent years. It also manages to leave the ultimate question—is it all worth it?—up to the audience to decide. The film makes a fitting and devastating postscript to the series of films about bands and inspirational music teachers I wrote about this fall; Mister Holland’s Opus, it ain’t.


1. The Lego Movie. Sure, it’s a film for kids—a feature-length toy commercial, even. But even after repeated viewing, it’s a stunning technical and aesthetic achievement that has something meaningful to say about the creative process and relationships. Honestly, I could just look at the billowing ocean of Lego bricks for hours; the fact that the characters are so vibrant is a bonus, and a testament to the writing and direction of Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The notion that each of the main Master Builder characters represent a creative type (or a single facet of a creative mind) is an easy leap to make (it could be a Buzzfeed quiz: “Which Lego Master Builder are you?”), but I’ll be darned if I don’t relate to Uni-Kitty’s desperate attempts to stay positive in the face of disaster, or Wyldstyle’s—that is, Lucy’s—repeated reinventions and desire to be “edgy.” The beautiful thing about the story is how it brings together and values the contributions of all kinds of personalities, even while recognizing that everyone has flaws. It’s a great example of something I’ve long felt: that broadly-drawn characters, even cartoons, can still have feelings, and it makes The Lego Movie one of the most humane films of the year.

Honorable Mention: I was charmed by the Swedish import We Are the Best!, as low-key in its depiction of three middle school girls who form a punk band as Whiplash was intense. Directed by Lukas Moodysson, We Are the Best! is mostly slice-of-life, drawing much of its comedy from the contrast between the girls’ bravado and their meager talent, but it never makes them the butt of the joke. Rather, it’s the clueless adults who don’t know what to make of the trio, whether it’s one girl’s dad trying to join their “jam session” on the clarinet, or the manager of the activity center where they rehearse underestimating the lead guitarist (the only one of the three who can actually play).

This was also a good year for blockbuster entertainments: although I chose not to rank more than four movies, I enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as Gareth Edwards’ revival of Godzilla. I was late seeing Godzilla, so I had already heard that the big lizard doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but it was almost comical how Edwards contrived to keep him off screen, hidden behind smoke, buildings, or even closing doors. I can’t help but feel that some of the complaints were driven by viewers who hadn’t seen the original Toho films, which also often kept the monsters off screen for the majority of their running times. If anything, my biggest complaint was an over-reliance on coincidence to keep star Aaron Taylor-Johnson at the center of the action, but, you know, movies.

Other highlights


Some of the best movies I saw this year were older ones; first-time non-2014 movies that I loved include (in no particular order) Nothing Lasts Forever, TerrorVision, A Town Called Panic, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Haunted Palace, Matinee, Gang Busters, The Visitor, Eraserhead, Strike Up the Band, Drumline, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Thoroughly Modern Millie.

I’m also glad I had the opportunity to see The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in a beautiful 4k restoration last October; as someone who didn’t enjoy horror films as a kid, I never thought I would go out of my way to see this film, but I knew I would regret it if I passed up the opportunity. I took the precaution of inviting a horror-savvy friend to go with me so I wouldn’t chicken out, but it turned out he hadn’t seen it either! As so often happens, it wasn’t nearly as scary as I had built up in my mind. Suspenseful? Yes. Graphic? Very. Horrifying? Sure. But after decades of imitators, I realized that in a way I had already seen it, by way of the influence that trickled down through the numerous slasher movies that followed. The next day, I heard chainsaws running all day, as my neighbors were cutting down a tree; it didn’t freak me out, but it tickled me to imagine that they were extending my TCSM experience beyond the theater, like Disney Imagineers.



The worst 2014 release I saw this year was Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which was both mean-spirited and tried way too hard to be edgy; it felt very much like a throwback to Dreamworks’ snarky, post-Shrek output, and I am mystified by the middling-to-positive reviews it received. Even my kids didn’t seem to enjoy it that much, and quickly forgot about it.

First-time non-2014 films that didn’t do much for me included Radar Men From the Moon, the 1961 Babes in Toyland (which had Ray Bolger and not much else), the 1960 13 Ghosts (with Margaret Hamilton—maybe a retrospective of Wizard of Oz cast members’ careers is in order), and Demons, which started out really promising but lost me about halfway through. The most ridiculous movies I saw this year include the 1952 Bloodhounds of Broadway, Shanghai Surprise, and Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, although I’m probably forgetting some.

Thanks for reading and watching along with me this year. I hope you’ll return in 2015!

My 2014 in Books

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not usually one to keep a list of everything I read or watch, but in 2014 I kept a list of books I had read, in part because I was conscious that I wasn’t reading as much as I used to. Although the number this year is relatively small, I’d say the mixture of non-fiction and genre fiction is fairly typical of my reading in the last few years. The list includes some graphic novels and collections of comics, but not single comic book issues (which I’ve also fallen way behind on). It’s also influenced by subjects I was writing about; however, it only includes books I read from cover to cover, not those I dipped into for reference. Finally, all but one was a first-time read, although I had read parts of some of them in the past.


Batman: Odyssey, Neal Adams
King City, Brandon Graham

The Look of the Old West, William Foster-Harris

Inventing Kindergarten, Norman Brosterman
Great American Folklore, Kemp P. Battle

The Old Patagonian Express, Paul Theroux
The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut

Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial, Alan G. Barbour
Misery, Stephen King

The Lost Worlds of Power Vol. 0, ed. Philip J. Reed

Showcase Presents The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights, various

The American Book of the Dead, Stephen Billias (reread)

The Bloodhounds of Broadway, Damon Runyon
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Jacques Tardi

Showcase Presents Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew, various
All The Wrong Questions: “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”, Lemony Snicket
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

The Lost Worlds of Power, ed. Philip J. Reed
All the Wrong Questions: “When Did You See Her Last?”, Lemony Snicket
Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie, Chris Nashawaty

Much of my thinking on what I read this year has already been included in the articles to which they are linked, and since most of what I read was published before 2014 and is in a diverse range of genres, ranking them seems pointless. I am struck, however, by how long ago some of the books I read in the spring seem to me; I might not have remembered that I read them this year at all without this list, instead consigning them to a hazy, indistinct “past,” even though I enjoyed many of them. To tell the truth, even September seems a long time ago from this vantage point. Such is the telescoping effect of the end-of-year holidays, I guess.

It strikes me, however, that I began and ended my year with two very different books that explored the rush of unbridled creativity in different formats. (Sorry, Batman: Odyssey, I don’t mean you, although you were memorable in many ways.) Brandon Graham’s King City is a graphic novel set in the futuristic metropolis of the title; its central character is a young man returning to his old stomping grounds after training with a mysterious group that uses multi-talented cats as weapons (yes, it is quite strange, but that description doesn’t even scratch the surface). In Graham’s notes (which I am paraphrasing, as I borrowed the book from the library and don’t have it in front of me), he said that King City‘s plot was guided by his desire to only draw things that were exciting to him: to not bore himself. Such an impulse could have led to disaster, but tied to a strong sense of craft, it makes for an immersive, invigorating read, with its weaponized cats, ultra-violent gangs, sexy girls, and graffiti-filled urban vistas that are part Moebius and part Mad magazine.


At the other end (and just finished today, in fact) was Chris Nashawaty’s pictorial/oral history of influential director/producer Roger Corman’s career, from his days cranking out cheapies for the drive-in market to his nurturing of young (and affordable) talent, to his eventual recognition as a Hollywood elder statesman. The book includes reminiscences from such graduates of “Corman University” as Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and James Cameron, to name only a few. I was somewhat familiar with Corman’s career and working methods, and of course many of his films; Corman, and “mavericks” like him, continue to inspire because of their perseverance and determination to create in the face of low budgets, limited time, and (in many cases) lack of prestige. Corman and his crew made a virtue of such limitations, but the many anecdotes about making films show the value of committing to do one’s best work, whether on a pointed political statement like The Intruder or on the many monster, biker, and women-in-prison movies that Corman made on an assembly-line basis.

Tomorrow, I look back on the movies I watched this year.

My 2014 in Television


I didn’t watch a lot of television this year. Oh, I logged plenty of screen time, but I was mostly watching movies rather than TV series. Other than Community’s fifth season (which I wrote about last spring), most of what I did watch was animated, since I watch with my kids, and since I’m not exactly allergic to cartoons myself.

The new series I found most exhilarating this year was Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, the animated brainchild of Justin Roiland and Community creator Dan Harmon. (It technically began in December of 2013, but the majority of it came out this year.) Rick and Morty starts with a hoary premise—mad scientist Rick Sanchez takes his fourteen-year-old grandson Morty (both voiced by Roiland) on a series of wild adventures, getting them both into and out of jams with his inventions—and then turns it inside out. Rick isn’t just eccentric, he’s seriously damaged, and the show, while comedic, doesn’t shy away from the dangers he exposes Morty and his family to, and doesn’t simply set the reset button at the end of each episode. In just its first short season (eleven episodes), one of Rick’s schemes permanently transforms the world into a monster-filled wasteland, and the only solution is for Rick and Morty to relocate to a parallel universe in which their counterparts have conveniently died, taking their places. (No, this isn’t one I watch with my kids.)


That points to another of the show’s strengths: like Futurama before it, Rick and Morty assumes that viewers have seen Back to the Future, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Zardoz, The Fly, and the many other shows that are winkingly alluded to, and there’s a minimum of hand-holding. It’s the twenty-first century, and the audience doesn’t need to have genetic modification, virtual reality, or (for that matter) the dangers of unintended consequences explained in long-winded detail. That leaves more time to develop characters (mainly the rest of Morty’s family: sad-sack dad Jerry and frustrated mom Beth, and overlooked big sister Summer) and fill the run-time with off-the-wall humor.

I can’t think of anything I laughed at harder this year than the episode “Rixty Minutes,” in which Rick’s modification of the TV cable box allows the family to view programming from infinite parallel universes (including glimpses of the lives Jerry and Beth could have had if they hadn’t stayed together). The combination of rapid-fire absurdity and referential gags most closely resembles Community’s Season Two episode “Paradigms of Human Memory,” and like that episode, “Rixty Minutes” puts the insanity of its plot in the service of its characters, up to a surprisingly poignant climax.


On the non-series front, 2014 was a year in which special events, already making a comeback in recent years, continued to gain ground as networks look for (non-sports-related) ways to keep viewers tuned in at the time of broadcast instead of time-shifting. Even the mini-series, that prestige format of the 1980s, is coming back into vogue (ABC’s upcoming Galavant is definitely on my radar for 2015). I’ve already written at length about Over the Garden Wall, Cartoon Network’s five-night mini-series that aired in November; suffice it to say that upon rewatching it, I still found it greatly enjoyable, and were I to rank it with my favorite films of the year, it would at least be in the top five.


There were some other specials that grabbed my attention this year, as well: I’d like to highlight Lil Bub’s Special Special, which aired on Animal Planet way back in February. At a slight half hour, this celebration of the eponymous cat was as instantly disposable as the cute animal videos and memes of which the special is an extension, but the whole thing (held together by human costars Amy Sedaris and Andrew W. K.) had such a light touch (and just enough self-awareness) that I was charmed by it. It hasn’t been rerun to my knowledge, but it has a permanent home on my DVR (and you can watch it here).


Finally, there were the usual crop of Christmas specials. I could quibble with Doctor Who’s “Last Christmas,” leaning as it does on the revived Who staple of monsters that you can’t look away from, or that you can’t remember, or that (in this case) you can’t even think about without them coming for you. And I’m not as taken by the chemistry of leads Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as some are. However, my personal bar for the annual Doctor Who Christmas special is set pretty low, and as long as it doesn’t involve David Tennant being carried aloft by robotic angels, I’m willing to cut it some slack.

To be fair, “Last Christmas” was actually pretty good, in both spinning out an intriguing menace and lampshading its similarities to both Alien and The Thing, as well as casting Nick Frost as a snarky but ultimately benevolent Santa Claus and making it work. The special is part of a long tradition of Christmas films and stories examining the nature of faith and belief, with Santa as a safely secular football. If Santa Claus weren’t so widely regarded as a fiction for children, would Christmas stories still demand that we believe in him unconditionally? Entertainment that aspires to mainstream appeal can no longer preach with such certainty about Jesus or any other religious figure, but such arguments can be broached in the language of fantasy. Like most such stories, “Last Christmas” ends ambiguously (in more ways than one: a comment I read online accurately described it as “Doctor Who does Inception”), but it is clear on the power of faith, with Santa described as a “dream sent to save us,” a nice summary of the value of both fiction and religious parable.


2003’s Elf is similarly engaged with convincing the unbelieving, with Santa (Ed Asner) stating explicitly that belief, not confirmation, is the source of his power: “If I were seen, all would be lost!” As Jesus told his apostle “Doubting” Thomas, “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” This year’s Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas, based on the film and the Broadway musical that sprang from it, isn’t quite so explicit, but finds a middle ground between the movie and the Rankin/Bass productions that inspired its story of a human orphan raised by elves at the North Pole. I mentioned this special on Christmas Eve, pointing out that it wasn’t as good as the original movie, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the stylish, handmade production—the stop-motion figures resemble Rocky & Bullwinkle‘s characters brought to 3-D life—and charming score (by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin). Mostly, I enjoyed it when it wasn’t directly imitating the movie, as the comparison is unflattering to the special; like many shows with familiar subject matter, it was more approachable when doing its own thing.

Tomorrow, look for my thoughts on the books I read in 2014.

A Merry Christmas to All

. . . or, A Visit From Saint Nicholas


Well, I didn’t mean to take three weeks off from posting; I hope you’ve all been able to get along without me. In my absence from Medleyana, I’ve been writing and revising some fiction, as well as participating in the family and church activities that come with the season. As soon as anything comes of those projects, readers here will be the first to know it. I will also have a post on my favorite films and other pop culture of the year soon, but I’m still trying to squeeze a few things in before I make a definitive list. And to make up for my absence, I’ve arranged to have Santa Claus himself, Saint Nicholas, drop by to greet all my loyal readers!

In the mean time, I wish you all a happy, peaceful, and safe Christmas, and a prosperous New Year. And for my readers who don’t celebrate Christmas, I wish you a joyous holiday season! I hope you get what you’re wishing for, be it a set of chimes or a collection of holiday-themed novelty songs.


When I was a kid, this was the time of year for television holiday specials: classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, of course, but also specials tied into newspaper comic strips like Garfield, Ziggy, For Better or for Worse, and . . . Doonesbury? Thanks to nostalgic Gen-Xers on the Internet and the magic of YouTube, those not-so-classic specials have gotten some renewed attention in recent years, but there are still gaps: for example, I’m still sure that I saw a Doonesbury Christmas special in the early 1980s that wasn’t the award-winning A Doonesbury Special from 1977, but I can find nothing about it. Can anyone help me out?

I like the fact that prime-time animated Christmas specials have made a comeback in recent years, even if I’m not always that excited about them (sorry, Prep & Landing: your shtick is just too similar to The Santa Clause). This year’s Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas, while cute, didn’t really hit the heights of the 2003 feature film on which it is based, and even the beloved Toy Story franchise only left me lukewarm with its latest installment, Toy Story That Time Forgot. Well, they can’t all be classics.

Speaking of a classic, let’s check in on the titular star of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and see how he’s dealing with the pressures of fame:


Hmm. Oh. I see. It just goes to show: the holidays are rough on a lot of people. Let’s give the Grinch some space; we’ll check back on him later. But wait! Is that the merry sound of jingle bells I hear? Is Santa here?


Oh. . . . No, it’s just the False Santa from Elf, stirring up trouble. (NB: So there are two movies that combine Will Ferrell and Lego cities; I don’t know what that means, but I think Internet Law requires there to be a mash-up now, right?)


While we wait, how about some visuals to get into the Christmas spirit? What could be more festive than the 1954 film White Christmas?


So, this is . . . a pageant? A Living Nativity? I don’t see any snow.

Moving on, maybe Santa is here?


Oh, not quite. But what about those classic Rankin/Bass specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Surely, there must be plenty of iconic Christmas characters we can while away a cold Christmas Eve with? Like these guys:


And let’s not forget:


And then there’s The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold; nothing says “Christmas” like leprechauns:


And what are the leprechauns staring at, Spielberg-style? Is it Santa?


Nice try. But wait! I think I hear him: it’s Santa, tapping at our windowpane! How festive!


Let’s let him in! What’s that, Santa? Okay, we can hug. I mean, sure, why not?


Wait! Aagh! No! Is there no end to these False Santas?


Well, to be fair, the real Santa Claus is very busy this time of year; but I bet you’ll never complain about your office Secret Santa again! Anyway, it’s not too soon to start dreaming about next Christmas! Season’s Greetings!


Adages, Aphorisms, and Analects

“One machine may do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” –Elbert Hubbard

According to conventional wisdom, newspapers are in a fix because instead of reading them, everyone is getting their news from the Internet. One attempt to make the newspaper experience more interactive is the “Opinion Line,” a section of the editorial page made up of short, anonymous comments provided by readers who send them in or (ironically enough) leave their comments on the newspaper’s website. No longer is the writer required to lick a stamp or even sign their name to have their view printed, and the Opinion Line often becomes a partisan tug-of-war, full of snide put-downs of the Other Side.

There are many to reasons to be dismayed by the comments of the Opinion Line, but one that never fails to vex me is reading a joke or aphorism that has already gone around Facebook or Twitter days or weeks before, and is more than likely already played out, gone from original to viral to cliché, with the Opinion Line—a paper Twitter feed for the elderly and out of touch—as the final, senescent stage of its life cycle.


Memes have always been around, even in the pre-Internet days when pictures, signs, and jokes would circulate like chain letters in offices and schools. Classics like the mouse flipping off a hawk, its outlines fuzzy through multiple generations of photocopying, or signage reading, “I can only make one person happy per day; today isn’t your day, and tomorrow isn’t looking so good either,” were ubiquitous, a lingua franca of the workplace, a passive-aggressive way of saying, “You don’t have to be crazy to work here . . . but it helps!” Although the passing around of in-jokes has largely migrated to the electronic ether, first through the e-mail forwards that you likely still receive from a few older friends or relatives, and then to Facebook and Twitter, such slogans can still be seen on coffee mugs and other gift items in actual physical space. Memes will find a way.


I was reminded of those old photocopied proto-memes when I uncovered a copy of Baxter Lane’s Scrapbook of Famous Quips & Quotes that I had purchased as a kid. The contents of this 64-page booklet are exactly what the title promises: a collection of pithy sayings, some attributed and some anonymous, on such universal subjects as work, marriage, and politics (the latter without much of a partisan edge beyond “How about those clowns in Congress?”). Although Famous Quips & Quotes is slim, it was of a piece with the dictionaries, trivia collections, and other miscellanies I could spend hours flipping through as a young reader. Along with such classics of browsing as The Guinness Book of World Records and Tom Burnam’s immortal Dictionary of Misinformation, collections of aphorisms were a favorite pastime. You just never knew what tidbit you might find, and many of the sayings and factoids I read back then have stuck with me.


Such collections are still published, of course, including standbys like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. In fact, the Baxter Lane Company is still in business, at least according to the online Yellow Pages: they don’t appear to have a web site of their own. Good for them. Located in Amarillo, Texas, Baxter Lane is listed as a “souvenir” or “gift shop” business: I’m sure I picked up my copy of Famous Quips & Quotes at a Stuckey’s or Nickerson Farms, and I could probably still find a Baxter Lane edition at my local Cracker Barrel. The back cover of the booklet even has “FROM” and “TO” address spaces and a square for third class postage, so you can send it in the mail as a postcard. “IT ISN’T NECESSARY BUT YOU CAN SEAL HERE WITH SCOTCH OR GUMMED TAPE IF YOU WANT TO,” reads a helpful caption along the edge.


“You can make the people follow the Way, but you can’t make them understand it.” –Confucius

In looking for online traces of Baxter Lane, I uncovered evidence of other booklets they have published over the years: many are cookbooks, but collections of aphorisms and folk wisdom are prominent (including a second volume of Famous Quips & Quotes). One of them, Honorable Confucius Says by Herb Walker, was published in 1977; also 64 pages in length, it is said to contain “authentic Confucianisms as well as words of wisdom from other sources,” so it is, in other words, probably not too different in character from Famous Quips & Quotes.

Needless to say, almost any clever-sounding or cryptic aphorism you could think of has been or could be attributed to the Chinese sage K’ung Fu-Tzu; some of them, such as the famous curse “May you live in interesting times,” are as recent as the twentieth century. That’s not even mentioning the many uses of Confucius to set up a pun or dirty joke (there’s a lot more where this one came from), a tradition predating the Internet:


Jokes aside, Confucius and his sayings are the subject of The Analects, a volume I discovered a little later in life but recognized immediately as a more sophisticated example of the browsable collections I had grown up with, comparable in its significance to the Biblical Book of Proverbs, a similarly deep collection of teachings and sayings. In the words of scholar and translator Lin Yutang,

The Analects is generally regarded as the Confucian Bible, being a miscellaneous, unclassified and unedited collection of the remarks of Confucius on various occasions, mostly without any suggestion as to the circumstances in which the remarks were made, and certainly torn from their context. (Yutang, The Wisdom of Confucius)

Given my tastes, how could I resist such a collection? The lack of context was both a pro and a con: the book is easy to dip into, but there are many head-scratchers. For every clear and simple lesson, there is another tangled in history or symbolic meaning. On the subject of context, Yutang continues:

It is illuminating, for instance, to read in the Analects the remark by Confucius that “I have never seen people attracted by virtuous scholars as they are by beautiful women,” and then to learn from Szema Ch’ien that he made this remark after he had paraded the streets of Wei in a carriage with a beautiful queen, and found the people looked at the queen but did not look at him. The text of the Analects itself does not mention the circumstance, and actually puts it in the form of a more abstract remark: “I haven’t yet seen people who love virtue as they love beauty.”

That is a favorite example of mine, not because it deflates Confucius, but because it humanizes him; it teaches us something about vanity, although perhaps not the lesson Confucius thought he was imparting.

A little healthy skepticism isn’t a bad thing when reading such sayings. The best aphorisms provoke thought; memes substitute for it and are deployed to shut down arguments. One of the worst offenders in this regard is the “Condescending Willy Wonka” meme, its popularity based on Wonka’s well-known views in favor of Second Amendment rights:


Or wait, was Wonka in favor of gun control?


Like Confucius, Willy Wonka is now merely a vessel, a mouthpiece for whatever views we choose to attribute to him. The only difference is the speed at which memes can be generated.