The Ten Percent – Pay Attention to the Open Sky
“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
As you know, this column is devoted to the tiny slice of what isn’t crud. Here, Ensley F. Guffey and I discuss examples of films, comics, television, and so on that don’t deserve to be thrown on the ash heap of history, for while Sturgeon was right in thinking that most things are forgettable and disposable, some things transcend their brief time on the air, in print, and – every now and then – on earth.
If you have ever been so hooked on a television show that you wanted to know more, if you ever caught yourself surfing fan websites to find out why a certain piece of music was used over the closing credits, if you ever thought that television could be more than casual entertainment, and if you have ever thought that in this age of Mad Men, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, (among others), that TV should no longer be called the “boob tube,” take a moment to thank David Lavery, who passed away suddenly on August 30.
David insisted that television – at its best – was worthy of serious study. While television studies is still an emerging field, well, so was film studies forty years ago. It took dedicated, passionate scholars toiling away without much notice and doggedly building a body of superb work to remove the stigma of “only entertainment” from film. David was one of a handful of people putting that same rigor and encyclopedic knowledge into television. He was invited around the world to present his ideas and insights at conferences. While his contributions to the field of television studies are incalculable, I think the human legacy he leaves behind is more important.
David originally trained as an English scholar before he turned his attention to the critical study of popular culture. Over the course of his thirty-year-plus career, he chaired an astonishing number of dissertations and theses. He wrote and edited a bookshelf of books, on topics ranging from the creative process to British philosopher Owen Barfield to Lost. And, along with his wife Joyce, he raised two incredible human beings, who are currently raising the next generation of incredible human beings. His wit was legendary and his praise could make you stop questioning your own abilities, at least for a little while. He loved language, especially the way words could mix meanings and work on multiple levels – and he wasn’t above the groan-worthy pun, either. (See the title of his blog for an example.)
At his memorial, student after student recalled his generosity – he was known for jumping on ideas and then saying, “You ought to write about that!” He felt the security of tenure placed upon him an obligation to champion his students. Far from being the stereotypical grumpy professor who closely guarded his materials out of Gollum-like fear that someone else might steal an idea, David was known for cheerfully sharing quotes (he kept notebooks full of epigrams, just in case the right occasion came along), research suggestions, and entire books. He was about as far from being a stuffed shirt as it is possible to be.
I know all of this because I knew David. He showed faith in me when I was pretty certain that I was an impostor. See, I don’t have a Ph.D. (in horribleness or anything else). I picked up my knowledge of film and television (mostly) on the street, rather than in formal classrooms. David, along with a number of other, equally generous scholars, was my textbook. I may have been a diamond in the rough when I first met David in 2006, but he never made me feel like an untutored lout. His criticism was always wrapped around the desire to make me a better writer and I like to think his time on me was well placed.
At his memorial – which is a story in itself, involving as it did an atheist, a rabbi, and Sufi poetry – I was in too much shock to cry. How was it possible that I was in a David-less world? That I’d never again lean into one of his one-armed side hugs? That he’d never again slyly tell an ever-so-slightly dirty joke and delight in his audience’s reaction? Gorram it, this just wasn’t right! He was supposed to be teaching a course on Game of Thrones this semester.
His family did a very David thing at the reception – they took several cartons of books from his office and encouraged all of us to take a few as mementoes. I may have been a little greedy, but I think David would have appreciated me putting aside my usual Southern reserve because, hey, free books! And they do make me feel that he’s maybe a little closer. The service included a handout of the lyrics to Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer,” which now has different, deeper meaning for me than before (The title of this post is a lyric from that song, by the way.)
Also, David’s first book was called Late for the Sky, which is also the title of Jackson Browne’s third album (“For a Dancer” is also on the same album.) I don’t believe in coincidences at that level.
A good man is gone, which is always an occasion worthy of stopping the world for at least a brief moment. So go watch some good TV. And – if you’re so inclined – raise a glass to a man gone too soon, who would have enjoyed watching it with you.
He is most definitely part of the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.