Playing to Type
Image: Wikimedia Commons

When we see Tom Hanks in a film, we think of him as a decent, honest everyman in part because we’ve seen him play decent, honest everymen in many other movies. Casting directors choose him in part for this reason — they know that the audience has established a sense of his persona from previous films, and that this affects their perception of him. We all know this; actors are hired deliberately to elicit these effects.

But a movie is fiction, and enjoying it requires restricting our attention to the fictional world in which it takes place. As experienced moviegoers, if we see the hero dangling from a cliff early in the film, we know that he’ll survive, but we repress this knowledge in order to enjoy the suspense that the filmmakers intend. We put our knowledge of movie lore on hold.

But isn’t this precisely the same sort of movie lore that we use when we let a star’s persona fill out the character he or she is playing?

“Why is it appropriate to put our knowledge of star personae to work when watching a movie, but not our knowledge of how popular plots go 99.9% of the time?” asks CUNY philosopher Noël Carroll. “Why is access to one kind of movie lore legitimate and access to the other kind not?”

(Noël Carroll, “The Problem With Movie Stars,” in his Minerva’s Night Out, 2013.)

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Dance has a distinctive place among the performing arts. Dancers don’t “cause” a dance in the same way that musical instruments cause music. Rather, dancers are the dance — their movements instantiate it.

“You can’t describe a dance without talking about the dancer,” wrote American choreographer Merce Cunningham. “You can’t describe a dance that hasn’t been seen, and the way of seeing it has everything to do with the dancers.” A work of dance might be recorded abstractly in notation, but it’s the performance that realizes it; you can’t really encounter a dance without seeing it performed.

With that in mind, suppose that The Nutcracker is performed simultaneously in two different cities. If a dance work is fully realized only in performance, then can we really say that Performance A presents the same artwork as Performance B? If not, then what is The Nutcracker?

A related puzzle: Does a dance work last forever? It certainly has a beginning in time; does it have an end, if, say, it’s forgotten? Our species will one day become extinct — when that happens, will The Nutcracker cease to exist?

(Jenny Bunker, et al., Thinking Through Dance, 2013; Graham McFee, The Philosophical Aesthetics of Dance, 2011.)

The Mozart of the Sea

Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900) earned fame throughout Russia for his astonishingly realistic seascapes, which capture the expressive quality of ocean waters, and in particular the play of sunlight and moonlight on surging waves. More than half of the artist’s 6,000 canvases are devoted to his fascination with moving water.

Remarkably, these were painted from memory, far from the sea. “We can perfectly well understand that when he painted The Ninth Wave or The Wreck, he had no need to watch the ever-shifting colour and movement of the great waters as he worked, for these pictures are poems in which the artist has concentrated an amplitude of observation and experience,” wrote Rosa Newmarch in 1917. “We realize that their impressive, haunting grandeur is no more spontaneous than the impressiveness of many a great sonnet; they are rather the aftermath of his passion for the sea.”

His successes made him equally popular among the people and among his fellow artists. Ivan Kramskoi wrote, “Aivazovsky is — no matter who says what — a star of first magnitude, and not only in our [country], but also in history of art in general.” And the saying “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush” was used in Russia to describe anything ineffably lovely.

Wikimedia Commons has a collection of his seascapes.

Payment in Kind

During a stickup, bank robbers order tellers to keep their hands up so they can’t defend themselves or the customers. In 1921 San Francisco inventor Harry McGrath offered this solution: The teller wears a loaded pistol under his arm, with a wire running down his coat sleeve to his palm. Now when his arms are raised he can still fire the gun.

The patent says nothing about aiming, but “in order to make the gun perfectly safe, a blank cartridge can be placed in the magazine to be fired first, followed by a ball cartridge.”

I don’t know whether McGrath himself was a bank teller. I hope not.

“The Frogs and Tumblers”

A puzzle by Henry Dudeney. Frogs sit on eight of these 64 tumblers so that no two occupy the same row, column, or diagonal. “The puzzle is this. Three of the frogs are supposed to jump from their present position to three vacant glasses, so that in their new relative positions still no two frogs shall be in a line. What are the jumps made?” The frogs may not exchange positions; each must jump to a glass that was not previously occupied.

(“But surely there must be scores of solutions?” “I shall be very glad if you can find them. I only know of one — or rather two, counting a reversal, which occurs in consequence of the position being symmetrical.”)

Click for Answer

Podcast Episode 361: A Fight Over Nutmeg

In 1616, British officer Nathaniel Courthope was sent to a tiny island in the East Indies to contest a Dutch monopoly on nutmeg. He and his men would spend four years battling sickness, starvation, and enemy attacks to defend the island’s bounty. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Courthope’s stand and its surprising impact in world history.

We’ll also meet a Serbian hermit and puzzle over an unusual business strategy.

See full show notes …


In honor of Halloween, here’s the first horror film, Georges Méliès’ The Haunted Castle. Originally released in 1896, the year before Dracula was published, it had been thought to be lost until 1988, when a copy was discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive.

Though it’s full of horrific trappings, in general Méliès intended it to amuse and astonish rather than to shock. The filmmaker himself appears as Mephistopheles, and the woman conjured from the cauldron is Jehanne d’Alcy, who would become his second wife.


Excerpts from the notebooks of English belletrist Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947):

Two impressions remaining, after a life of scientific research:

1. The inexhaustible oddity of nature.
2. The capacity of the human system for recovery.

— J.B.S. Haldane

“With people like you, love only means one thing.”
“No, it means twenty things: but it doesn’t mean nineteen.”

— Arnold Bennett’s Journal

“I simply ignored an axiom.” — Einstein, on Relativity

“Nowhere probably is there more true feeling, and nowhere worse taste, than in a churchyard.” — Benjamin Jowett

Happiness, only a by-product.

The fine flower of stupidity blossoms in the attempt to appear less stupid.

Boy, wanting to be a “retired business man.”

“Stand on the Right — and let others pass you.” — Directions on an Underground Escalator

“My sad conviction is that people can only agree about what they’re not really interested in.” — Bertrand Russell, New Statesman, 1 July 1939

The doctrine of omnipotence means that life is a sham fight with evil.

“All men wish to have truth on their side: but few to be on the side of truth.” — Archbishop Richard Whately

“Half-knowledge is very communicable; not so knowledge.” — Mary Coleridge

“Mastery often passes for egotism.” — Goethe