This Day in Death

12.31.13: James Avery, Television’s “Uncle Phil” – DEAD!

Filed under: Uncategorized —James @ 5:33 pm January 3, 2014

JAMES_AVERYUncle Phil has long been a key square in my patchwork quilt of television father figures, right between Archie Bunker and Inspector Gadget. I was kinda on the fence about including that last one, but by the time I’d reconsidered his square was already landlocked.

 

Actor James Avery, or Rick Ross if you’re super racist and bad at Google image searches, has died from complications related to heart surgery. Avery is probably best know for portraying Uncle Phil on television’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in the 90s. You know, it’s long been my pet theory that the character of Will Smith actually suffered a traumatic head injury during the street fight that supposedly resulted in his being sent to Bel-Air. As far as I’m concerned, Smith actually fell into a coma, and the entire series was simply a manifestation of his fractured psyche attempting to reassemble itself.

You see, jarring trauma had left Smith imagining himself in a landscape diametrically opposed to everything he’d ever known in terms of culture, class, income level, and even geography. He now lives in a west coast “mansion,” which is in actuality a complex psychological structure, a nest, to allow Smith some manner of protection from the onslaught of his upcoming trials. In this new lifestyle he sees what he can become if he can slay his personal demons and escape the poverty-stricken hell that he was born into.

Each of the “children” that he now lives with represent an aspect of Smith’s psyche, forcing him to confront all of the most difficult internal struggles of a young man growing up in the ghetto; “Hilary” is Smith at his most vain and sexually manipulative. “Little Nicky” is his childishness, his inability to focus his talents personified. “Ashley” is his rebellious naivete, a noble urge to reject societal norms that largely lacks the contextual nuance necessary to understand said urge. “Carlton” represents the intellectual gifts that Smith has forced himself to conceal in order to better fulfill the stereotype of the ignorant thug he had played into to survive on the streets of Philly. The key giveaway here comes at the end of the pilot episode, when we see Will, believing he is unobserved in his “mansion” (i.e. his psyche’s defense mechanism), display a seemingly uncharacteristic knowledge of classical music.

Avery, as “Uncle Phil,” fulfills an ambitious triple function; Firstly, he represents a grounding agent for Smith. “Phil” is clearly a stand-in for Smith’s hometown of Philadelphia, a huge, looming presence in the boy’s life. His relationship with “Uncle Philadelphia” (seemingly a laughably obvious portmanteau for the viewer to infer, lazily spoonfed to us by the normally subtle writing staff, but the delicate truth of this will be explained later) is one of tension and conflict, but ultimately love and respect. Secondly, in his “uncle,” Smith sees his own journey complete. That is, to be born of little means but remain resolute and eventually conquer the oppressive forces in his life. Finally, “Phil” is a father figure, a stand-in for Smith’s own absent biological father, his mind’s desperate attempt to pull together some sort of paternal influence to guide him through his trials.

“Jazz” represents the allure to return to his old lifestyle of ignorance and low ambition. Simultaneously, we see in “Jazz” the most explicit dichotomy of the two worlds that Smith is torn between. This is why Smith rarely objects to “Uncle Phil” ejecting him from the “mansion”; He recognizes that “Jazz” does not deserve the sanctuary, and is instead a disease that will destroy everything he is working towards.

“Geoffrey” the butler can be viewed as Smith’s fear of becoming an “Uncle Tom” if he abandons his street life, which is a common fear among those he has grown up with. However, with time, Smith comes to understand that “Geoffrey” has lived an admirable life and is well-respected and loved by the family he serves. The revelation serves to signify Smith’s gradual understanding of the misleading cultural traps he has fallen prey to all his young life. The boy begins to recognize the shades of grey that make up the real world.

“Aunt Viv” is largely unrealized as a character, seemingly the show’s rare misstep in characterization. In truth, she is underdeveloped because Smith already has a healthy relationship with his biological mother and has no reason to construct a surrogate one. She mainly exists to add authenticity and a sense of a fully-formed “nuclear family” to Smith’s delusions.

At “Bel-Air Academy,” Smith regularly puts his new skills to the test, confronting prejudice, temptation, vice, and judgement. It is less a “school” and more a “training ground.” However, to most inner-city youths, there is no distinction between the two. Truly masterful.

Over the course of his ordeal, Smith’s mind tries to convey to him some limited information about the truth of what he’s dealing with by hinting that he is surrounded by metaphorical constructs. It does this by giving these constructs obvious names that reveal their significance and reach beyond the level of coincidence, such as “Banks,” “Butler,” and “Phil.” Furthermore, Smith should be able to sense that his life has been broken down episodically, with major developments usually fitting neatly into a three-act structure spread over 22 minutes of relevant interactions.

If Smith can successfully rise above his own existential shackles he will be rebuilt, renewed, cleaned, truly “fresh” and deserving of the “mansion” he has found himself in. Smith can become a fully-realized individual, a model of human achievement rising from a wasteland of ash and ruin. However, to our national despair, our hero never fulfills his journey: The unmentioned change in actors portraying both “Aunt Viv” and “Little Nicky” (as well as the inexplicable age jumps of several characters throughout the series) are, sadly, the result of Smith’s mind failing to keep together the narrative strands it has developed, a sign that his journey is taking too long and the structure is collapsing around him. Smith’s brain continues to deteriorate as the episodes begin to take on slightly more bizarre or metatextural aspects, but through it all the boy remains oblivious to the truth, lost in delusion even as he strives to overcome the challenges that have become all too real to him after so much time inside his own psyche.

Yes, it’s true that Smith, the psychological construct, eventually makes the right decisions. He has doubtlessly grown. But not quickly enough. After six years his mind has become lost in its own labyrinth of plot and character, unable to wake from the coma it no longer realizes it’s trapped inside. The end of the series is bittersweet: Smith, in his mind, will lead a full life, never suspecting the truth about himself. But the rest of us are left devastated, with a cautionary tale about the always-ticking clock that hangs above us all like an albatross ringing in our ears, begging us to break free of our oppressions while we still have that divine luxury.

Avery was also the voice of Shredder on the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, which was a show about turtles who had been mutated and then became martial arts masters in their teenage years. That’s a dumb idea.


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9.10.12: CIA Operative Edwin P. Wilson – DEAD!

Filed under: Dead —James @ 9:49 am September 25, 2012

I don’t care what anyone says, that was the worst Menudo lineup ever.

 

Former CIA operative and business tycoon (the best kind of tycoon) Edwin P. Wilson has died as a result of complications suffered from heart valve replacement surgery. Wilson was convicted of selling arms and explosives to Libya, which is apparently illegal. Look, if you fat cats in Washington don’t want regular joes like me and Edwin here trafficking deadly weapons to the Middle East then maybe you should make a list of which countries we can sell them to and post it somewhere where we all look, like next to the sink or something. We’re not psychic.

His preferred habitat was a hall of mirrors. His business empire existed as a cover for espionage, but it also made him a lot of money. He had the advantage of being able to call the Internal Revenue Service and use national security jargon to get the details on a potential customer. And if the I.R.S. questioned his own tax filings, he terminated the discussion by saying he was a C.I.A. operative on a covert mission.

That’s also a good way to get out of speeding tickets or pot busts. And if that doesn’t work you can always challenge a cop to a best-of-three game of Rock Paper Scissors and he legally has to agree to it. It’s all in my new book, Stuff the High School Students I Hang Out with Swear Totally Works. Those kids are alright.

 

Source: NY Times

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