I Get a Sidekick Out of You

Debate

I’m going to interrupt the Sticks and Stones posts for a friendly debate with writer Olivia Rutigliano, whose ranking of 45 detective sidekicks in CrimeReads has stirred some online response this week. I consider anyone who CAN rank 45 sidekicks to be a spirit- cousin of the highest order. I just want to reply to her, to try to respond Creatively to her Creative look at a lot of other people’s Creativity. Detective stories have been my jam for a long time. Also, I’ve been grading final papers all week in an apartment where I spend 22 hours a day, so here this is.

I agreed with, or was at least charmed by, some of her choices. Some provided recommendations for new characters to explore, so Huzzah. Some I was neutral about, or slightly above neutral: I don’t care about Batman’s Robin that much, but Burt Ward rescues Great Danes, so yeah, on the list is fine. And then some of her choices made me want to lean in and do that gesture Holmes is doing in Sidney Paget’s drawing up there.

So here are major points I feel like making, and it’s MY blog, in no particular order.

Yes, Dr. Watson should be #1. He defined the character of the sidekick. But Poe’s Dupin’s Nameless Narrator, who came first, was the creation of the detective sidekick. The Origin, the Source, the Big Bang. He should be #2. Don’t piss off Poe or Poe people. We have some odd ideas in our heads.

I’ve seen a lot of good-natured backlash over Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin being #31, and rightly so. He is #3, for all time. Not my opinion, a Fact. There is no other narrator, no other voice, no other character but my #1 and #2 who should be above him, and there never will be. Don’t bother to argue because you are wrong.

I love that Dr. David Q. Dawson made her list. For the deprived, he is the sidekick to Basil of Baker Street in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective, a film far superior to the exciting-as-a-saltine book it’s based on. One of the best ideas in children’s literature that falls flat the minute the plot begins. But the film is delightful, and Vincent Price plays the villain. O.R.’s words are one of my favorite descriptions of a sidekick ever: “clearly smart…but he mostly stands around scratching his head and looking cuddly.” Perfectly good job description for a human sidekick as well as a mouse in a waistcoat.

If Indiana Jones’s Sullah is on the list, then James West’s Artemus Gordon should be on the list. Their being partners may disqualify Arty as a sidekick, but I don’t care. If Dragnet’s Bill Gannon is on the list, then where is Steve Keller?? I mean,  are you kidding? (That I despise Jack Webb and everything he did has no bearing on this comment. None.) Streets of San Francisco simply wins.

O.R., I agree that DS Hathaway’s hair can leave something to be desired. But you are aware that Laurence Fox comes from an acting dynasty so large and powerful they may have their own country? If you get extradition papers…I’m just saying.

S.S. Van Dine??? How can you be an iconic sidekick when a) you never speak  b) your detective only speaks to you in his apartment c) no other character acknowledges your presence? The greatest non-entity in the genre. If he’s here representing that era and Inspector Queen is not, then there’s a problem. Ellery‘s father took on the role of supportive Watson AND annoyed cop dealing with private detective. He’s double to Van Dine’s zero.

Psst…#45, DS Bacchus, is what she says: immature, sexist, corruptible. But I want to stand up for the writers and actor, because O.R.’s take on him is a little shallow, in an Archie Goodwin at #31 kind of way. Bacchus can read the emotional atmosphere in a room in direct, intuitive ways that George Gently, who is rigidly principled and dogmatically focused, cannot. It makes them complementary, and it will make him a good cop when he grows the hell up. There’s a reason Gently doesn’t think he’s wasting his time. The bloke is often irritating, but I don’t want the Creativity here underrated.

I want, finally, to put in a vote for Margot Lane, the sidekick and romantic partner of The Shadow on the old radio series. She was the only one who knew her fellow Lamont Cranston’s secret identity. Thus Margot had to be the Full-Spectrum Sidekick. If some action needed narrating, she had to freak out in fear and shriek to him about what was happening. (It was radio.) If cops needed fetching, she had to go embarrassingly jelly- kneed at mysterious footsteps overhead and scram. But who got the injured Shadow to the poisoned water tower, driving at NASCAR speeds in the snowy darkness? Margot. And who infiltrated the cannibal cult, pretending to be their evil leader, with only a cloak over her own clothes to disguise her, just because The Shadow needed it done? Yup. Now THAT is a sidekick. You go, Girl.

Thanks for your work, O.R. I’ve really enjoyed reading and writing about the best characters in the Greatest Genre There Is. I welcome more conversation from anyone! And if you want to grade some papers…

 

 

Unrest

Unrest

An intelligent-looking, attractive young woman goes upstairs in her home. She looks fine, but she crawls up on her hands and knees without even the energy for bodily rhythm.  Watching her feels like a terrible invasion of someone’s vulnerability, but she’s the filmmaker responsible for the scene, Jennifer Brea. Her documentary is called Unrest.

Shown at film festivals and on PBS stations, it’s available online and on Netflix.

Brea has ME, the worst illness you may not know about, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Perhaps triggered by a virus, it’s chronic: inflamed brain, immunodeficiency, impaired cognitive function, a screwed-up nervous system, a screwed-up every system. A dire inability to make physical effort, if it can be made at all, without disabling consequences. It’s not understood, and there’s no reliable treatment. Some don’t believe it’s real.

One of the photographed faces you can glimpse in the film is my cousin’s.

But this post is about Brea’s Creativity, not her illness. Her film is bold, even harsh, in its depiction of people with ME, while being very tender to them, and offering portraits of full human beings. The illness controls everything, but they are still far more than their ME. Although she cannot see this topic from the outside, being literally dragged down by it herself, her Vision as a film artist stands firm.

There is startling Creativity in how folks articulate the bizarre experience of losing their lives while still being alive to witness the loss, to paraphrase one person. It’s also in the ways they fill the empty space where their lives used to be. A short walk in nature becomes a pilgrimage, or floating in a pool becomes an act of poetry and freedom.

They speak and make posters for rallies and sing and write as they can, as acts of resistance and education, as well as of creativity. Brea sometimes treats ME almost as a realm of possibility, and that’s brave Art.  And while they do, they’re always afraid of losing even more, of collapsing in a public place as she does, of having their lives depend on medical personnel who don’t believe in or can’t care for their sick bodies.

Brea’s film mixes shocking information with moments of hope and certainly of love. It’s a balanced film meal: you may not want to swallow it, but you can digest it.

Unrest‘s ability to pull viewers into the experience of folks with ME may revolt you. It’s not easy. But your heart might open and shift along a new fault line, and make you glad it did. That’s the hard part of engaging with other people’s Creativity, or even with our own. But we do it, don’t we?

The image that doesn’t leave me is of a body that looks full of youth and sinewy strength, moving upstairs like a hundred-year-old tortoise. It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t make visual sense, like medieval peasants in movies who all have perfect white teeth. Even after many years, my cousin’s illness still surprises me, throws me, with its endless shifting surrealism. Some days the clock tells time, and some days it hangs limply over a branch in ways I struggle to process.  She’ll like the Dali metaphor, I think, because she’s a person who studied and loves and used to work in art. She may never visit a museum again, but I hope she will with all my heart.

Talk about being a CPT: Jennifer Brea got this film made, and I recommend it as one tough, compassionate act of Creativity.

Please visit https://www.unrest.film/.