RSS Feed

Category Archives: TV & Movies

Beware the Enthymeme!

Posted on

It's bad enough to debate complex issues in slogans, but even worse when the slogans so cheerfully lie.

In Florida, as in many states, there are a variety of license plate designs for car owners to choose from. I always think that these, like bumper stickers, are a strange way to express oneself, though I’ve been known to slap a bumper sticker on my car now and then. Last presidential election cycle, I had two Obama stickers stolen off my car, and I have a long-term one that says, “Please don’t breed or buy while shelter pets die. Opt to adopt.” Other than one time when a friend at first thought it protested the breeding of humans and was an insult to his parenthood, that one has been uncontroversial. At least as far as I know. And I guess that’s the joy of broadcasting one’s opinions this way. Unless you meet up with a crazy person who will bash into your vehicle, you are safe from argument.

One of the popular license plates around here is a yellow one with red crayon-like boy and girl figures that imply they were drawn by a child and that says “Choose Life.”

It might be an okay message if it really meant what it says. Of course, most of those who sport this license plate don’t actually mean that. What they mean is that they would rather force every pregnant woman to bring any pregnancy to term. What they mean is not “choose life,” but “choose to support laws and organizations that offer no choice to women.” And, as this Slate article reports, “the legislation in most states [that have these plates] expressly provides that any program offering referrals or even discussing the option of abortion is barred from funding.” In other words, these plates support lack of choice, not a choice.

There is an odd way in which the language gets twisted like this. Of course, progressives and liberals do it too, but what I notice lately is the way that Republicans and right-wingers do this all the freaking time. No doubt, we are gearing up for a maelstrom of misused language in this coming election season.

What I also notice is that progressives have a hard time correcting these misuses of language. I guess they don’t want to be accused of nit-picking about semantics or something like that. But the use of language is one of the most important things we can pay attention to. This is one of the things that rhetorical analysis is good for, and it pains me that so many can get through high school and freshman comp and even four or more years of college and still not be able to understand the manipulations of language to which they are subject on a daily basis.

I will never forget one of my early teaching experiences, when I was laboring as a freshman-composition TA at Penn State during the fall of 1991. At the same time, playing out in the media, were the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill, who had worked as his assistant some years earlier, arrived on the scene with her testimony about Thomas sexually harassing her.

Hill’s testimony lasted only a few hours, but the discussion of it went on for weeks and months, even years. The issue even resurfaced in 2010, when Clarence Thomas’s wife called Anita Hill and suggested she should apologize.

In spite of the fact that Hill subjected herself to a polygraph test that indicated her testimony was honest, whereas Thomas refused a polygraph, and in spite of another woman’s affidavit that she had received similar treatment, Hill’s testimony was vehemently called into question. And one of the prime reasons people gave for their disbelief was that Hill had continued to work for Thomas rather than quitting her job, had in fact even worked for him at a second position after the time during which she said he harassed her. This line of discussion had been begun during her Senate testimony when Republican senators Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch strove quite clearly to discredit her. (The entire hearings are available via C-Span. About half-way through Day 1, Part 3, Specter grills her about why she continued to work for Thomas).

This discussion nagged at me and nagged at me. Finally one day when I was set to teach the enthymeme, I realized why. Dully, I had been writing a traditional enthymeme lesson (that had been provided to us new TAs) on the chalkboard:

Johnathan lives in Japan.
Johnathan speaks Japanese.

And then out to the side the missing link: People who live in Japan speak Japanese.

In a fit of inspiration, I erased it and wrote instead:

Anita Hill claims she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas.
She’s probably lying.

“How many of you agree with this?” I asked. More than half the class raised their hands, most of the men and a few of the women.

For the next half hour, we explored the possible unstated assumptions behind the conclusion. The students eventually had to admit that the basic assumption they were making was that women should always put their “purity” above their careers. Certainly, that was the assumption that the all-male panel of senators who had grilled Hill clearly made. If this were not true, there might be a host of other priorities that Hill would put before quitting her job to escape Thomas’s advances and inappropriate comments.

Once we teased these assumptions out into the open, there were very few students (maybe only one) in the class who agreed with the statement that women should always put their “purity” over their career advancement. Most of them found themselves confronted with an assumption they didn’t agree with but that they had allowed to underpin their opinions on a matter of national importance.

A few of the young women in class began to make the connection to their own experience. “Oh, yeah,” one said, “I have a manager who is so offensive—he always stares at us waitresses too much and puts his hands on us whenever he can—but I haven’t quit my job! We all just ignore him. And it’s a nothing job.” Every female in the class could cite at least one instance of sexual harassment that she had let slide. We agreed that none of us would quit a job over it unless there was actual threat of rape or a high level of severity and directness in the harassment, but that this did not erase the fact of the harassment. It was a daily part of our collective lives.

By the end of class, because they could understand why Anita Hill might have stayed in her job in spite of harassment, they no longer deemed her a liar. I will never forget their mouths hanging open in disbelief at what they had been duped into repeating from the media to friends and family members. They rushed off after class to correct themselves. Thomas, of course, had already been approved as a Supreme Court justice.

I wonder about this kind of thing in the media. It seems to me that both the “neutral” media and the progressive factions do too little to correct this kind of blatantly stupid and unsupported claim. They do too little to monitor the use of language in blatantly deceptive ways. Some, including, of course, FOX News, are notorious for participating in this kind of ridiculous bias themselves (several examples here and one here that’s particularly about twisting of language). Lately, even our senators and representatives have felt free to make utterly false and ridiculous claims, and later to say they didn’t mean them as factual or to insist on defending their mischaracterizations. Only in these most blatant of examples are they called out on it.

For instance, in response to an email I sent to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s ridiculous decision to sign off on establishment of a new (unneeded) state university in Florida, I received a reply containing this statement: “Governor Scott’s top priority this legislative session was adding $1.06 billion in new funding for K-12 education.” First, nothing in Scott’s email responded to the subject I had addressed. And second, this is bull. Scott has been ballyhooing his great increase in state funding for K-12 education this year, after he cut $1.3 billion last year. A few reporters note toward the end of their articles that Scott’s budget doesn’t even replace what he has previously cut, but the headlines mostly remain that he is raising the budget. (Notice that this blogger put a more accurate headline on the same article published with an innocuous-sounding headline in the Palm Coast Observer. But, hey, at least the reporter mentions the facts.)

I believe that these twisted uses of language are one of the reasons why our society has become so divided and discussions so disharmonious. I think that we need to do all we can every time we hear these false uses of language to stop them in their tracks, even if it means making conversation halting. The fact is that it’s one thing to disagree about the substance of things and another for someone to lie in order to exaggerate our disagreements.

There are many examples, but I have gone on long enough. Today’s exhortation, again in support of so many friends who are ending long semesters of teaching freshman comp (and other courses that attempt to teach critical thinking), is: REMEMBER THE ENTHYMEME! Talk about the enthymeme. Pick apart the enthymeme.

How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?

Posted on

I’m in a mood today where I am feeling angry about the rich getting richer. I’m not poor, so I can stand it and live on. But it makes me wonder why it is that some wealthy people (like Bruce Springsteen) and some middle-class people (like me) feel for the poor and wish for more evening out of income and opportunities, whereas others just get greedy.

I encounter this profiteering greed mostly through the arena of healthcare. I don’t have high-brow tastes—I don’t spend a lot of money on cars, or clothes, or jewelry, or furs (god forbid), or expensive vacations, or fancy wine, or recreational drugs, or makeovers, or the many other vanities that I’m not even aware of. I spend money on my health. I’ve been doing a lot of that especially over the past five years, as I’ve encountered several issues with my health.

To me, most of the time, it doesn’t seem as though it’s the physicians who are greedy. They may make a better living than I do, but they mostly seem still fundamentally upper middle-class in spite of (or because of) their BMWs in the parking lot.

But the corporate entities with which I deal make me crazy. Recent examples:

* Today I was told by Florida Hospital that I have to pre-pay more than $400 for a colonoscopy scheduled for next week. (It’s my first ever, and is enough to dread by itself.) My insurer told me that, no, a routine preventive procedure is covered at 100%. We (together) called the hospital back and were told that they charge for a diagnostic rather than routine procedure, even though the latter is what the doctor ordered. “Just in case,” the drone said, “they find something wrong.” So they are charging in advance for a service that I may or may not need and that the doctor didn’t order. How can that be?

Ultimately, of course, they will refund my money. But it will be in their coffers for six to eight weeks or more.

* I mentioned on Monday that my insulin pump company holds me hostage. Every time a pump goes bad, they send me an emergency loaner. But if I don’t buy my next permanent pump from them, they will charge me $3600 for 90 days’ use of the loaner. The pump itself is barely worth that much, as they send old, reconditioned ones.

They also constantly try to force me to sign up for automatic supplies deliveries and billing. But diabetes is not a condition where you take one pill every day for a stable dosage. No, use of insulin varies, and so use of supplies varies. I don’t want to get a new order until I need one. The customer service has become so problematic, however, that it now often takes more than a month between when I order supplies and when they arrive. Several times I have run completely out of supplies and had to call for an emergency overnight order. How can it be that I can get a book or a pair of shoes or some obscure piece of computer gear in two days, but it takes a month or more for vital, life-sustaining medical supplies?

* A few years ago, I was told by a dentist at Greenberg Dental that I needed a crown and perhaps a root canal. Both of these are procedures that my dental insurance was supposed to cover completely. But suddenly Greenberg told me that only their general dentists were in the insurance plan, whereas that those who do the root canals were not. So, I was forced to either pay for the root canal myself or find another dentist who would do it and then send me back to Greenberg for the crown, leaving several days in between when I’d have to walk around with a hole in my tooth. I did the latter, and it was then that Greenberg started adding on charges to the crown. First, they said it was a lab charge, but when I called my insurance, I was told no such charge was allowed. It took several days for Greenberg to back down. “We bill them this way all the time,” I was told. “People always pay it.” Not me. Eventually they took the false charge off the bill, but then they added another. This went back and forth while I had a hole in my tooth. Finally, I settled on a $30 overcharge for an item that had never been listed on any of the earlier estimates. It became clear to me that there was collusion between the health insurance company and Greenberg.

These stories are boring. Sorry. They accumulate and accumulate in my life. Even though they are boring, they make me angrier and angrier every time I encounter such practices.

Our health care system is just fucked up, plain and simple.

Even if you believe that profit is the best incentive for good medical care (I don’t but even if you do), the problem is that you can never talk to anyone who makes decisions. You get customer service representatives who spout platitudes, who tell you “that’s our policy” or “that’s just the way it is.” There is never anything they can do to change it. And there is never any use appealing to a sense of right and wrong or a sense of decency.

These people are paid to insulate the people at the top who are reaping all the financial benefit of these predatory and unethical practices. Every time I think of them, I think of Michael Moore. Michael Moore has his flaws, but, by god, he was right to go for the executives in Roger and Me and in Sicko. But notice that he could get at far fewer of them by the time of Sicko. (Roger and Me was released in 1989 and Sicko in 2007.) The wealthy protect themselves from the rest of us so effectively nowadays that there’s seemingly little we can ever do to affect their unconscionable greed.

And healthcare is just not like other, non-vital services and goods. Shopping is impossible or at least very inconvenient, if not dangerous.

I will encourage my gastroenterologist to establish a relationship with a testing center that has more responsible and fair billing practices, and to move his tests away from Florida Hospital. I will raise hell on the phone with the corporate shills at the front line of “customer service” just on the off-chance that, like politicians’ offices, they keep track of “customer reactions.”

It doesn’t seem like enough. I languish today in my inability to change the practices of an industry that affects my life all too much.

You can watch Sicko in its entirety here if you haven’t seen it already: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/sicko/.

But at least watch the trailer to remind yourself that things have not improved since Moore made Sicko. In fact, the profiteering continues to rise, and the healthcare industry continues to use unethical practices that make it look less profitable than it is.

How do people get so corrupt? Why do our laws no longer protect us, the people, but only the powers that be? We live in dangerous, dangerous times.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock

Posted on

In my last post, I mentioned that some things change, but that sometimes and in some ways they don’t change enough. This made me think about, among other things, the nature of time and progress. I believe that one reason why humans have such a desire for progress (as exhibited, for instance, in the exaggerated claims that some people make about cures and longevity and silver bullets of all kinds) is that we hope that our time spent passing through life will make a difference.

We all live, we all die, and we desire some meaning in the pattern, some difference from the ordinary in our own passage.

I can’t wait to see Christian Marclay’s film The Clock. Am I wishing away my time? I don’t know, but I do know that even just reading about this film has made me more conscious about saying that “I can’t wait” for something.

The Clock is a 24-hour pastiche of clips from movies (and a few TV shows), synchronized to an actual 24-hour time period and shown according to the clock. If the show time is 4:00 p.m., the movie starts at 4:00 p.m. It reminds its viewers of the time they are spending watching a film.

It is tied to so many of the themes I’m interested in:

* the nature of pastiche and re-use and when that’s a good thing instead of plagiarism
* the conventions of art and the subversion of those conventions
* the nature of time-wasting, and how often we waste our time with falsity (Alain de Botton comments here.)
* the fluctuation of emotions and how different moods rely on each other for existence
* the meaning of originality (This New Yorker article discusses Marclay’s method of using interns to find relevant film clips, but the responsibility he took for editing the 24-hour film out of those clips.)

So far, The Clock has only been shown in a few art galleries and museums. It has not come to Orlando. But one thing that fascinates me is the idea that the film could play continuously in a movie theater and that one might drop in every now and then to spend an hour or two or four or six, as the New York Times reports has happened at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery. I know my own physiology would not allow me to watch it for 24 hours straight, and so I think about how I might experience it. One person online even suggested that it would be great to have it streaming into one’s mobile device as a perpetual clock.

Oops. I’m late. I meant to post precisely at 12:04 to coordinate with the excerpt above. But time is a formidable mistress to please. I even like thinking about what it means that my timing is so often imprecise. The Clock has me floating more aware in the medium of time. And I haven’t even seen it yet. I look forward.

Learning to Cry

A few months ago, I shared the viral You Tube video of the woman crying about cats on a dating site. It was a spoof, of course, but it made me wonder how many such videos there are out there. And since my latest post focused on a topic partially related to teenagers, I thought I’d share today what I found when I looked.

This is both hilarious and a little scary, especially, I imagine, if you are a parent of a teenager. Because what I found was a lot of teenagers teaching other teenagers to fake cry. Many of them are aspiring actors and actresses, but many also mention fooling their parents or other adults.

There are dozens of these videos on You Tube alone, almost all of them featuring young people. I featured two that I thought were particularly funny—the goofy boy and the sulky, manipulative girl. But look at more for full effect.

* This girl wins the prize for the fastest fake crying.

* This one recommends the chemical method.

* This one notes that her method is superior since you don’t need any Vicks.

* This fellow recommends exercising the “muscle in your tear duct” so that “even a grown man can cry.”

* The music here gives a yoga feel to crying.

* And this little girl wins the prize for the youngest I could find. She has a really hard time faking, but she is determined.

Because most of these efforts come out of the acting world, there is an underlying ongoing debate about method acting (“think about something sad”) and practical aesthetics or theatrical acting (“exercise the muscle in your tear ducts” and “hold your eyes open til tears build up” or “push” or even “rub Vicks Vap-o-Rub under your eyes”).

Since the goal of most actors, whether method or otherwise, is to create authentic feeling in their audiences, this week I’m going to contemplate the relationship between artifice and authenticity. They are not simple opposites. At least not for everybody.

The Will to Happiness is Contra-indicated


Dear Readers,

In my continuing attempt to try new things, I present to you today a guest blog post. A while back, my friend and colleague John King (also one of my most faithful readers and commentators on the blog) emailed me separately a longer series of thoughts he’d had in response to one of my posts. Casually, I said that I should make him a guest blogger, and, lo and behold, he then sent me this erudite little essay.

Don’t worry. I’m not abandoning my responsibilities. The discipline has been too good for me. But I’m hoping to post maybe one guest blog a month to bring more variety to the contemplations here. So here’s to a spirit of experimentation. Let me know what you think.

L

* * *

The Will to Happiness is Contra-indicated

by John King

I am not certain that, as an ad for The Secret proclaims, Shakespeare actually knew “the Secret,” but I am quite sure P. T. Barnum knew the secret behind “the Secret.”

“Smile and the world is yours,” Henry Miller writes in Black Spring. “Smile through the death rattle—it makes it easier for those you leave behind. Smile, damn you! The smile that never comes off!

The Will to Happiness, a.k.a. Positivism, is a willful disengagement with the real world, a form of denial, of censorship. This is precisely the sort of thinking that led the Bush administration to scoff at “the reality-based community” as it planned its war in Iraq. Death toll of the Iraq War: 162,000. This fact would be shameful, if reality is a meaningful entity. But the mainstream media machine, including the mainstream punditry, has never reported the actual death-toll, treating this essential statistic like a psychological tar baby.

This is an affirmation of the unexamined life.

Phobias about negativity, about depression, bad news, agita, and strife, are based on a fear of psychic vampirism, that others will drain you of your vitality, your confidence, your mental health. Schopenhauer believed that the boundaries between others and ourselves is illusory, and in moments of moral clarity, heroes see how contiguous we are with humanity, and behave accordingly. But it takes a profoundly strong person to acknowledge this truth, and there is not always something such a person can do to help others, relieve them of certain brutalities and cruelties of existence.

“Can the world be as sad as it seems?” asks the narrator of Throbbing Gristle’s “The Old Man Smiled.” Marlow loses his mind and his humanity when he sees enslaved Africans in Heart of Darkness. His racism and inability to cope with his experiences begins there and then.

The world of business is systematically skewed towards simplicity and optimism in its communication. According to Kitty O. Locker’s Business and Administrative Communication, business writing should exhibit something called “you-attitude,” a focus only on the immediate concerns of the recipient of a message, without burdening the recipient with any of the sender’s extraneous concerns. And all messages should also feature positive emphasis, whenever possible. On The Simpsons, Mr. Burns re-labels a nuclear meltdown at his power plant as an “un-requested fission surplus.”

The opposite of the Will to Happiness, what we might call Romantic melancholia, is of course also ridiculously out of touch with reality. Shakespeare mocked that self-indulgent impulse in 1602, in Twelfth Night, in the character of Count Orsino, who pleads “If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.” (This is, incidentally, more or less how I feel when I hear nearly anything by Abba.) Unfortunately, unlike Shakespeare, Goethe wasn’t kidding about the Romantic sorrows of young Werther, and today’s goth kids lack the sense not to stew in their own weltschmerz as an actual lifestyle choice.

According to the early twentieth century philosopher Henri Bergson, the most primal laughter is a manifestation of the incongruous knowledge that our minds exist in something like a pure mode of being, godlike, but our minds are, nonetheless, attached to a body that is destined to fail, to decay, to die. This is the foundation of Samuel Beckett’s entire literary and dramatic career. This is the foundation, too, of the mythos of Beckett’s beloved idol, Buster Keaton: the expressive consciousness of his face, juxtaposed with the improbable feats of his body as he strives to contend with the gross, sublime physicality of the world. This philosophy is also the core of the dark, ranting comedy apparatus of Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer.

I often find myself drawn to the honesty of cartoons, a genre in which the content is considered culturally debased, and so can afford more satirical gravity than what supposed grown-ups watch. (An inexpensive observation: The Simpsons offers profoundly more reality than Undercover Boss.)

No cartoon I know of has more to say about this subject than that 1990s counter-culture classic, Ren and Stimpy, in particular an episode called “Stimpy’s Invention.” It depicts the terror of the Will to Happiness in a way similar to Henry Miller in Black Spring, but far more disturbingly, in Bergsonian terms. Stimpy, the ever-optimistic and cheerful orange cat, is wracked with empathetic sorrow when his companion, Ren the chihuahua, is not happy. So he builds a helmet that alters Ren’s brainwaves that force Ren’s mind into a happy state. The helmet that never comes off! The pressure of the Will to Happiness escalates.

Ultimately, the ability to voice discontent, pain, and sadness is cathartic. To silence such speech is to deny who and what we are, to deny even the possibility of knowing who and what we are, and so it diminishes who and what we can be.

John King is a creative writer, literary scholar, and journalist. His creative writing has appeared in Turnrow, Palooka, Gargoyle, Pearl, and Painted Bride Quarterly Annual, and is forthcoming from The Newer York. He regularly reviews books for The Literary Review and theater for Shakespeare Bulletin, and is a contributor to Celebrations magazine. He is currently serving as a composition sherpa at the University of Central Florida. His most recent works, a short-short story called “Perfection” and an essay called “The Muse of Florida,” will appear in the new book 15 Views of Orlando.

The Sweet Hereafter

Today’s post commemorates Mychael Danna‘s soundtrack music, but also the film it was written for, The Sweet Hereafter, directed by Atom Egoyan, and the novel of the same name by Russell Banks. The novel and the movie, though distinct, both illuminate the aftermath of a tragic accident of a school bus and how it changes the people of a small town.

This is as wintry a tune as can be, and, though we don’t have much in the way of cold weather in Florida, I know that many are going about new semesters at school (or just another work week) in the snow or chilly rain or snappish air today. May this song make us all take a moment to remember to be careful in all our rushing around.

All of us, no matter the weather, suffer the blame game. We give it and we receive it from others and ourselves. At times designating responsibility is perfectly appropriate, but often the anger that goes along with blame masks the emotion that’s more at root and more genuine: sorrow. That old human condition is as tough as it is beautiful.

Here’s the trailer for and review of the film, and a brief interview with Russell Banks about his inspiration for the novel. And here’s an auto playlist for Mychael Danna in case you have more time for peaceful, interesting music in your day or evening.

There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

Lately, I’ve been pretty far from my original subject matter of crying. It’s been important for me to explore other kinds of genuine emotional expression, and I’ve enjoyed my thought travels in that regard. Last night, however, simply by accident, I ended up watching the HBO documentary film There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane. It’s a truly tragic story that you may remember from original news reports after July 26, 2009, when Diane Schuler drove the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway, causing a horrible traffic accident. She killed herself, her daughter, her three nieces, and the three men in the vehicle her van hit head-on, and injured her son, who was the only survivor in those two vehicles.

The case is indeed one that has no sure answers: There is no denying that Diane Schuler had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19 with more undigested alcohol in her stomach. Her blood also contained THC, indicating that she’d been smoking marijuana. Her family—and the documentary—make the argument fairly convincingly that this was completely unlike her, in fact, unbelievable. Both she and one of her nieces had called her brother from the road and said that something was wrong, that she wasn’t feeling well, and she had stopped, apparently sober, to try to buy some pain relievers that the convenience store didn’t carry. They believe that she must have had some other kind of health emergency first—likely a stroke caused by an abscessed tooth. But her autopsy supposedly ruled that out even before the toxicology results came out.

Watching this film is hard, and there is no uplifting ending, so it made me think not only about suffering but about narrative, and the attractions and pitfalls of nonfiction. It’s instructive to compare the documentary, even with its clear sympathy for Diane Schuler, to the fictionalized version in Law & Order’s episode “Doped.” In that version, the police end up proving that its fictional driver had been doped with alcohol in a smoothie provided by someone else and with propofol, an anesthesia drug, in her asthma inhaler. It turns out that one of her colleagues at a large pharmaceutical company has drugged her because she intends to blow the whistle on a bad product.

The fictional TV show is very straightforwardly satisfying: the mother ends up being entirely faultless, her husband it turns out did know her well in his insistence that she didn’t drink, the bad guys are identified and punished, there is a clear explanation for why these terrible events occurred. At the end of the story, we may have sorrow, but we don’t have any questions. They’ve all been answered.

Of course, that is a TV tradition more than it is a habit of great fiction. And most great fiction leaves us with many unanswered questions. Most great fiction is more like nonfiction than TV episodes are. I need only mention Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Think of anything that William Faulkner wrote, especially that ending of Absalom! Absalom! wherein Quentin protests that he doesn’t hate the South and we are left with the same question he is—what his relationship with the South really is and will be. Great fiction doesn’t try to erase the mystery that comprises actual human experience for the sake of a tidy story.

Yet it is true that one of the great difficulties of writing creative nonfiction is that life doesn’t always follow clear paths. The debate in the Schuler case goes back and forth: Are the people who have lost people (Schuler’s brother and his wife, the families of the men killed in the other car) simply looking for a way to file this event in the “explained” file so they can move on? Are they too eager to condemn? Or are her husband and another sister-in-law in denial about what she was capable of? Lawsuits and counter-suits are being filed, and that’s tragic in itself. The whole question of how and why people respond so variously to one event floats in the air as unanswered as the cause of the accident.

For me, when a woman who is not generally much of a drinker and only smokes pot to get to sleep at night is determined to have been smashed and totally stoned at midday with a carful of children she loved, it’s easy to believe that something else was going on. There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane demonstrates that she was a woman who might very well be reluctant to ask for help if she was ill and might think that she could just tough it out until she got home. She had been self-medicating her insomnia for years, and she might have self-medicated herself to death if she were in pain.

Having had that extremely painful hemorrhagic stroke in 2011, I can imagine it. I rode the bicycle a mile and a half home with my head pounding as though being repeatedly hit with a nail gun. I didn’t know what else to do, though I had a cell phone and my husband could have called for help. I am very glad that I was not driving a car at the time, and I am a person not averse to medical help, so I can imagine a person like Diane Schuler trying to ignore her situation and carry on.

Having also had more than one serious medical situation that has no clear explanation, I can also believe that something happened to Diane Schuler that her autopsy didn’t detect. If they can’t always get to the bottom of things when you’re alive to tell the tale, it seems to me that with someone dead, there is a lot that’s easily missed in the body. Once the toxicology report came in, there was no interest or motivation in pursuing anything else. Those who wanted one had an explanation, and it was that Schuler was an irresponsible drunk, in spite of all the evidence of her life to the contrary. In some ways that seems to me like a fictionalizing tendency, or I should say, an oversimplifyingly fictional one just as much as the wholesome-mother version on Law & Order.

That doesn’t mean that I am satisfied by There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane. It starts out with the same optimistic tone of any whodunit. But by the end its insistence on the unknowability of what happened is appealing at an intellectual level, but devastating at an emotional one. It’s the kind of movie where you don’t know quite what to do with yourself when it’s over. I myself remain unsure whether that’s a flaw in the writing and arranging of the documentary or whether it’s realistic and good. It might feel just a little too much like life. But I know I won’t forget it.