Saturday, December 13, 2014

Bill Towner: Electrician and Adventurer

 House II: The Second Story is not a good movie.  At all.

Even remembering that it wasn't a good movie it was still less of a good movie than I remembered it being.

And yet, it's built on a kernel of fun that shines through the total lack of living up to it.

Probably the absolute best part, even beating the main characters adopting a pterodactyl, is Bill Towner, Electrician and Adventurer.

The house in question isn't terribly interested in things like space, time, and logical continuity.  As such, it has some electrical problems.

Before main-character's fiance leaves him because it's-not-what-it looks-like, she called an electrician.  Bill Towner.

Main character, Jesse, has no time for an electrician because an object of immense magical power has been stolen and thus plot.  Bill is totally oblivious to Jesse wanting him gone and merely assures Jesse that once he's left alone with the problem he'll be totally out of Jesse's way.

He's bumbling, odd, and seems like an annoyance added to the movie to pad out its lack of plot.

Fast forward a bit.  Jesse and his best friend have armed themselves with swords and are trying to find out where whoever stole the Mcguffin went.  When Bill tries to get their attention the startled sidekick slashes blindly with the sword and, if Bill hadn't quickly blocked it with his hammer, bill would have been severely injured or even killed.

Bill is completely unfazed by the sword that was swung at him, says that he thinks he's found the problem and insists, even after Jesse tries to convince Bill to leave and come back the next day, that they take a look.

They go in and find a giant hole Bill has made in the wall.
"Well, there it is.  Looks like you got some kind of alternate universe in there or somethin'," Bill explains.
Oh, and Bill is played by Cliff from Cheers.

Main character and sidekick head in, over his objections:
"Uh, I don't know you guys, look: that's an alternate dimension in there or somethin' and uh..."

and when it's clear they're going anyway Bill follows:
"Well, hold on a second will you? I've been through this kind of thing before." *goes to his box of tools* "Don't touch anything till I get there." *pulls out a sword he keeps hidden in the box under a false bottom* "Looks like you're gonna need the help of a professional."
Bill gives Jesse a flashlight and, without comment, sets up a spool of thread so that they'll be able to follow it back out again.

When they reach the sword fight at the end of the labyrinth Bill is the only one who is even moderately competent.  The others are useless, he's awesome.  And he makes good use of an ordinary hammer as a parrying weapon in the hand that isn't holding the sword.

Bill holds off the bad guys, his string is the only way the good guys are able to find their way back.  (This isn't because they knew they could rely on it, by the way, they didn't realize it was there.)  His parting comment is:
"Don't worry about me. I gotta get home; it's my kid's little league night."
And, if you've ever seen a character like Bill before (think Ardeth from the movie The Mummy) you know that when the main characters do make it back out Bill is already there waiting for them.  He was starting to get a little worried about them, in fact.

He's just finishing packing up his tools when they come out, he gives Jesse his card (Bill Towner Electrician and Adventurer) in case Jesse ever needs his help again, and then walks right out of the movie.

Unfortunately he mars his otherwise wonderful character by doing the annoying, "You don't understand English so I'm going to speak English to you loudly and slowly as if that will somehow make you understand," thing.

He does it to the love interest who probably hits sexism bingo.  She's exotic, a prize to be won, a damsel in distress, an assumed-virgin, and she never speaks a single word.  And that's just for a start.  I said it wasn't a good movie.

But back to Bill.  The problems with the movie could fill volumes --the sexism and racism are just the start-- and I don't want to fill volumes, I want to talk about the character that is Bill.


We don't actually know if he's a good electrician or not; we know he's not a smooth electrician, but we don't really get a sense of whether or not, at the end of the day, he fixes the problems well.

Based on his talent with sword fighting we can surmise that part of the reason that he's less than ideal at his first profession (his card says "Electrician" first and has pictures of light bulbs on it) is that he spends a lot more time practicing his second one (Adventurer.)

He has a family.  We don't know anything about it beyond the fact that he's damn well going to make it to his kid's little league night, but he's got a kid and it's important to him to be there for said kid and bad guys with swords in another dimension he found in a hole in a wall when trying to find the source of electrical problems are not going to stop him from attending his kid's little league.

Which brings me to what seems to be the heart of Bill's character:

He's someone who has strange adventures that require keeping a sword in his toolbox, but he's also leading a normal life.  He seems to have achieved balance.  Being an electrician is apparently paying the bills, he's able to be their for his kid, and the fact that impossible other worldly events work their way into his life doesn't perturb him in the least.

Bill is totally lacking in any kind of angst.

His life, for whatever reason, includes finding other worlds hidden inside walls and needing to sword fight, and he just rolls with it and makes it work.


I think we need more characters like Bill and we them to be more central.  The movie would have been much better if it were about the electrician who needs to carry a (hidden) sword.  Then again the movie would have been much better if [any number of things.]

We have stories where ordinary people have extraordinary adventures and the adventures are set apart from their lives*, we have stories about people who have incredible difficulty living normal lives while facing extraordinary things, but we don't really have stories of people who are able to integrate the extraordinary (there's an entire alternate universe inside your wall) with the ordinary (I need to get back in time for little league) without angsting over it.

Which seems even more odd when you consider that wish fulfillment (I can do ALL THE THINGS) is a big part of a lot of the kinds of fiction where such characters could show up.


Do note that there is absolutely nothing about Bill's character that requires he be male.  When I say we need more characters like him I'm talking about non-male ones as well.


* We go to Narnia.  We come back.  Never shall our earth lives and Narnian lives intersect.  (Except if it allows us to be mean to Susan.)


  1. Completely agree about this type of character. And I think woman ones are great...sometimes there is a character like that who's someone's grandmother, it seems like...

    Bill reminds me a bit of Harry Tuttle from Brazil. I think Tuttle is a workman serious about his craft, which means he needs to defy the government, who do not prioritize quality HVAC work... (possibly he has a card that says "Rogue Heating Engineer"? I haven't watched it in a while...) Not a nice person, helpful only insofar as doing his thing may improve your life. No kid. Played by Robert DeNiro, so perhaps we can imagine in a different world he would be someone more like Captain Shakespeare?

  2. I suspect that part of the problem is the Campbellian monomyth, which (particularly post Star Wars) has been such a huge influence on writers of anything fantastic that it's now hard to get away from it. One of the key points there is that the hero has to leave normal life to go and do fantastic stuff, and then later come back to normal life on slightly different terms. The idea of someone who isn't doing a Hero's Journey but instead has a season ticket is a tough one to fit into this framework.

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  9. This post is freaking great.
    I am very amused by the electrician spam. Especially the one mentioning SG1. It's good to have an electrician to call for your malfunctioning Stargate.

    I said the thing about grandmothers and it makes me think a bit about Moana's grandmother. Definitely minimal angst about intense world-altering stuff. I guess it works better in a mentor character because they've had had time to develop perspective and balance. It reminds me a bit of Iroh, too...
    (Are characters like this kind of the opposite of Cabbage Guy, Scrat etc? Except if Cabbage Guy weren't basically and NPC, he could almost become someone like this and a little bit did. Like, yeah, for a long time this whole legends coming back to life and overthowing the order of the past century thing messed up my business, but I learned to roll with it and capitalize on my proximity to great events something something Cabbage Corp.)

    (Miracle Max isn't a person like this, but a similar character could be, I think.)

    I think sometimes you get characters who incorporate weirdness into their business, but it's often portrayed as something they deal with because they aren't successful enough in mundane terms. Sometimes knowing about the weirdness is the reason they're not successful and there's an idea that getting away from supernatural stuff is like criminals going legit.

    Also sometimes the hero's journey ends with an opportunity to become someone like Bill, but they often don't show that part. IDK why I can't think of any examples. It doesn't work with Agent L in Men in Black cuz she changed jobs instead of becoming Medical Examiner Division A (for Aliens, shhhh).

    For some reason it makes me think of the thing where a family law attorney had to negotiate custody and guardianship for a talking bird. An enterprising person could play up that experience and seek out more cases like that. And now I need some court shows about, like, custody of ghosts, tax law pertaining to pocket dimensions, magical waste management (dragon poop isn't hazardous waste, it's a special waste, like asbestos...) etc.

    It is a great strength of your superhero universe that it has room for so very many characters a bit like Bill.

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  11. Why does the hero always have to be a man? There are no representations of strong heroin women in the older movies. Its completely sexist. All of those older movies are filled with ideals of repressing women and filled with messages of sexism and rape towards women and racism. They should all be wiped from the history books, all copies should be forced to be turned in and destroyed. And it's not just movies this should happen to, also tv shows, books, magazines.. ect.. Our generation deserves better then to be dogged by you pigs and we should have to deal with it being shoved in our faces.

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