Friday, October 3, 2014

Stop Winking at Me: On Involution and Art

I have not been able to finish the latest season of Arrested Development.

Still reading? Good. Maybe you agree with me. I want to talk a little bit about television, movies, and books that evoke an eye-roll. Writer Glen Weldon, in his role as panelist for NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, speaks on involution in art; he defines it as "turning in on itself. Going up its own butt—its own narrative butt." "Self confidence becomes self regard," he says, listing Joyce as the clearest literary example. I took an entire class on Joyce at one point, and outside Dubliners, I can't stand the man. Anything that seems too into itself makes my skin crawl.

For that Joyce course, my final paper was twelve pages on one single chapter from Ulysses: Nausicaa. And I have to say, by the end I did want to write twelve pages on every chapter in the book, but come one now, really? That's the only way for me to understand what's going on? David Foster Wallace once wrote that reading should be hard work, and I agree, for the most part... balance in life and all that (I'll let you know when I get past the second chapter of Infinite Jest).

Perhaps this has to do with the years I've spent studying creative writing. Conceit existed through my undergrad, in the way all fledgling writers think themselves kings of craft and creativity, but by graduation most of us had simmered down a bit. I had moved from fiction to nonfiction in the understanding that studying and writing the truth might allow me to one day support myself. In that shift I also came to realize how infinitely more complicated the world of nonfiction is than fiction and poetry (of course that's not necessarily true, but it's where my passion lies, so I'm right). By the time I finished grad school, I wasn't sure many writers were capable of humility. One semester, half the program took a course on "The Sublime" and it was all anyone could talk about. This was around the time I just wanted to squeal about the upcoming Avengers movie. My effervescent joy was met with many an arched eyebrow and upturned nose. In my final year I took a Rushdie class. Here's a bit of advice: Shakespeare is the only writer allowed to have his own class. If anyone tells you otherwise, be very, very sure you love the work before signing up. Rushdie, like Joyce, is very excited by how clever they can be.



No. Please, stop. You've ruined it.
So, what instances of this do we see in film and television? For one, Arrested Development, season 4, ruined just about every wonderful joke they had. Someone threw subtlety out the window along the way and everything became a reference to the previous seasons. I gave up around the point JOB was to marry Ann under the gigantic "Her?" altar. The best part of Arrested was how quiet the running gags could be, you might miss them even after multiple viewings. I also argue the shifting perspective messed with the tone, but that's neither here nor there.

This is why I am terrified of someone reviving Firefly. Leave it alone. It's perfect, and the premature cancellation evokes a longing that adds to the magic. And that magic cannot be recreated.

The 9th Doctor is not impressed
My absolute favorite show has has even fallen prey to this involution. That 50th Anniversary Doctor Who special was so far up its own ass, I wasn't sure I'd ever find my way out. There was so much self-referential fan service in that episode, the whole thing lost sight of itself. How dare they empty the emotion from David Tennant's final line, "I don't want to go." Thank God Peter Capaldi showed up to take care of things. For a show about traveling through time and space, I sure need it to be down to earth... See what I did there?

Why write about this now, you ask?

Could this show take itself more seriously?
You must know, deep down, what has driven me here. Gotham. I sat through the series premiere. No more. Though I do feel obliged to watch the second episode for this writing, there's no way I'd stand it. Now, Gotham is only at fault in its decision to follow Nolan's work to its inevitable end. Nolan is a director I find so excited by his own genius that he nearly ruined Batman. They're trying their hardest to ruin Batman, but Batman will outlast. Batman is stronger than shoddy writers and directors. At this point, I should know to stick to graphic novels and video games wherever Batman is concerned. Those mediums allow for a requisite brutality impossible in television and blockbuster cinema. Gotham is just one big easter-egg hunt as far as I can tell.

Inception is a movie that literally collapses in on itself. There is no reason for three Hobbit movies; I'm looking at you, made-up orcs, Radagast, and foreshadowing. All I wanted was a treasure hunt. I mean, imagine if Guillermo del Toro directed the thing with Ron Perlman as Beorn. It would have been more fun than farcical.

The Avengers knew what it was, and succeeded. It did, at times, try a bit hard to be that which it was, like a caricature of itself. Some of its -ness could have been reigned in by the likes of Mark Ruffalo's subdued performance as Bruce Banner, but that excess exhibited by snarky, ostentatious dialogue was corrected in subsequent Marvel films. It's still there in the banter between Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson in Winter Soldier, and everything about Guardians of the Galaxy, but refined, dialed-in.

Not too long ago, a friend asked me, "Do you think True Detective is funny, or is that just me being a sick bastard? I mean, nihilism is just so cute."
"Occasionally, yeah," I said, " it goes way over the top at times."
He said, "Gotta love excessive earnestness. More people need to read and watch Oscar Wilde."

What's on your list? If I'm in the wrong mood, even Game of Thrones becomes ridiculous, and I love that show. Where do you draw the line? When is it too much?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Lets Go on an Adventure

It's important to test the bounds of the universe's ability to conspire in the favor of those who dream. This time last year, I had graduated from the University of Montana's Master's program with a degree in writing and found adjunct work teaching composition at an East Coast community college. But my family missed Missoula, having moved east to be closer to our respective families. The only "logical" course of action at that point, was to find Missoula-East. Enter: Asheville, NC.


He's saying, "All will work out, young man."
I packed my car, reserved a week's stay at Sweet Peas Hostel, and, thanks to a too-deep belief in Dumbledore's mantra, "Help will come to those at Hogwarts to those who ask for it," or "those who deserve it," I figured starting a life and family in a new city and state would work out just fine. There is magic in the world, right? And I have an advanced degree, right? 

I found a home for my spouse and two year-old son at the end of that first week, then brought them down and furnished the place. We started making a home. Thank you Ikea. 

***

The Ikea-furnished home makes me nostalgic for Germany, where I lived for a time during high school in a flat largely filled with that Swedish design. Sure, the stuff is all new, and... cost efficient, but it makes me feel at home. It still feels European. I remember days and days with my mother, brother, and sister walking the showroom maze "testing" every couch while Ma and Sis measured kitchen cabinets into eternity.

I miss how German refrigerators are just slightly smaller than those in America. I miss the market sensibility of grocery shopping, and walkable world.

This is the life I dream of creating through famers' markets and intent. Almost every writer I've met has the same dream of some variation of crunchy commune, living small, composting, and recycling. Sometimes I feel cliché, but I'M unique, my idea has European flair and a creekside sauna. Yes, you will want to visit. There will be fly fishing; there will be kayaks.

***

First, lets pay the bills. I've always been secretly interested in Georgia Lass' job at "Happy Time Temporary Services" from Dead Like Me, so I'll be headed there Monday morning.

I'd also be more than happy to receive suggestions for blogs, webpages, news outlets, etc. that pay for freelance work. Who knows someone at NPR that can get me writing for Monkey See, the Pop Culture blog?



There will, at least, be more blogging present on this site, after a quiet summer of big moves and change, lets amp up the frequency and talk about some television.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Just Let Yourself Enjoy Spider-Man 2: A Review/Essay on This Film's Successes Within the Context of its Genre


The movie is fun. It's fun! Can't we just let it be fun? There's a fine line in analyzing pop-culture between respecting the Art of the thing, whatever it is, and remembering the inherent levity of flashy, explody, building-smashy entertainment. I mean, I've seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier twice, and I still don't quite understand what happened.

Spider-Man has always been the super hero I identified with most. Sure, I wanted adamantium claws and the corresponding facial hair, but how useful would that really be? And if I'm honest with myself, I'm no Logan. Despite the fact that spiders creep the heck out of me, Spider-Man is a champion of the bookish-folk. He's a goof—always joking, to himself, for the most part, and wiry. He teaches us to laugh at ourselves, laugh at the small stuff, and laugh at the big stuff. Spider-Man is the little guy, which is why I think it makes an odd sense that he's separated (at Sony) from the rest of the Marvel group (Disney).

So, since this new Spider-Man movie has come out, reviews have been popping up all over the place, like here for Forbes (by Mark Hughes, who I think nails it), here for Wired, here for NYT and here's the ever-surly Christopher Orr's take, for The Atlantic. And I suggest you give all of them a look, they'll teach you a lot about how movie reviews are supposed to sound. The best way I can describe it is like trying to describe something while standing very, very far away. Like, you had the thing in your hands, but then hid it and ran a mile before stopping to talk about it... maybe this piece will sound the same. I wonder why critics seem, by and large, so crotchety. If I keep writing about movies, will I end up the same way? If I am crotchety while using clever, review-y jargon, does that make it better? Granted, I got pretty crabby about Terrence Malick, twice, but in a fun, funny way, right? So that makes me better, yes...

But yeah, there were a few things that this movie got me thinking about. 1) I will always be a little grumpy about the fact that every super hero movie is not rated 'R', and, by recognizing that, be okay with it, 2) The claustrophobia of villainy in superhero movies (does it ever work? How (not)?), and 3) a spoiler-laden end beat on how some bold choices made by this movie in the third act might be changing the stakes for this film genre. You know what? Scratch that. I won't go beyond saying "I think some bold choices made by the filmmakers change the stakes for this film genre."

It doesn't even have to be the thirteen-year-old in us that enjoys this film. There is a little boy in the movie who is saved by Spidey (and doesn't go bonkers, like the villain) and shows up again later to face-off against a baddie while we wait for Spider-Man to get there. That's the kid. That's the kid going to see this movie, not guys in their late twenties like me who still want to swing from rooftops and climb buildings and hear Spider-Man let loose an "Oh Shit!" whenever he's about to get clocked. This movie does a fine job in audience recognition. They know it's a kids movie, but also have to try and make the rest of us love it as well. It's hard to do! I suggest anyone in college, or (especially) beyond, use their imagination when watching this movie. Fill in the blanks. For me, Spider-Man says, "Shit!" a whole lot. I think that's what the "Spidey-Sense" is, so I make the switch in my brain.

Moving on. Be warned, I get a bit more specific concerning the plot here. The wretched Spider-Man 3 had three villains, and so does this. It seems a common consensus that the last thirty minutes of The Dark Knight were a bit of a stretch, like Nolan should have just let Two-Face kill a couple cops then disappear until the next movie, where could have by then organized his own crime syndicate. The Avengers was equally crowded, though more by heroes than Villains. Yes, Whedon new what he was doing, but since he let the audience watch the heroes battle each other, which is what everyone wanted, Loki felt more like a nuisance than actual threat. But back to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and how this claustrophobia of villainy is an inherent part of comic-book adaptations, especially Spider-Man.

Let's face it. All of these movies, however original the screenplay, are adaptations of graphic novels, and just as adaptations of traditional novels must play by their source material's rules, so must this genre. reviewers have derided the "Tangled Mess of Plotlines," how "utterly wasted Giamatti" was as Rhino bookending the film, and how Osborn's Green Goblin was shoehorned into the final act. Sure, Harry Osborn was an empty device used to move plot; he was absolutely no match for Spider-Man, and also detracted from the weight of Electro's place as super villain. But this is the world of Spider-Man, and comics. There's always something going on. Someone, somewhere is doing something they shouldn't and the hero has to stop them.  Think of the Arkham games, especially Arkham City. Batman has to, in the span of one night, take down virtually every single villain he's ever known. This is the nature of pretty much every superhero universe. Marc Webb did with Rhino what Christopher Nolan should have with Two-Face, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, was fun, shiny, sufficiently acrobatic and sentimental, all while delivering a movie appropriate for children that appeals to adults.

Final Note: Shout out to "Paranoia," the Electro theme. It kicks so much ass, and even manages to complicate and develop the character. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Graham Norton, Jimmy Fallon, and the Ethics of Interviewing

Graham Norton is a UK chat show host with the simplest of formats. The show opens with the host among his audience, giving the week's guest list by somehow parodying what the actors are there to promote, then moves to a quick monologue before bringing out the guests—all of the guests, together. The celebrities sit side-by-side on a long, bright-red sofa in front of a coffee table on which rest their preferred alcoholic beverages. And then they chat, that's it. Here's a short bit guaranteed to make you smile:



There's a lot going on in this clip: the conversational atmosphere, interpersonal banter, and self-deprecating humor on both Norton and Stone's part. Graham Norton, knows exactly what his show is, as evidenced by his flamboyant outfits and over-saturated stage decoration. He does not have the budget to bring The Spice Girls on, and the bit wouldn't have been so explosive or endearing had the actress actually met the singers. This is the core of contemporary talk show television, the point is to make actors so endearing that viewers go to see their work (See: Jennifer Lawrence's antics and Kristen Bell's sloth fanaticism). I am not the intended demographic for Hunger Games films, but I've seen them. I can use my girlfriend as an excuse, but really I think I'm just supportive of Lawrence's career.

Television, especially chat shows, bring humility to these larger-than-life personalities, and if they're drinking, as the viewers at home likely are, it feels even more like these people are guests in our living room. "You're drinking wine? On a talk show?" said Emma Stone, as Jamie Foxx and Andrew Garfield sip red wine. It's also curious to see which guests order water, who has wine or beer, or, like Russell Crowe, Tweet's their obscure drink requirements.

I mean, who wouldn't like to spend an evening with Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, and Chris O'Dowd. By treating the interview(s) like a conversation, Norton amps the candor exponentially, and the audience is allowed a virtually uncensored hour of genuine laughter and play. The more relaxed response to swearing helps this as well. Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, and James McAvoy will appear this friday. I am more than excited.

If Graham Norton had to have an American counterpart, it would have to be Jimmy Fallon, who offers up an equal measure of candor and laughter on his nightly broadcast. Of course, the format couldn't be more different. Fallon seems to pull from his sketch-show SNL work to play what seem like a series of parlor games. Here's a look, but beware, these clips have a rabbit-hole quality to them. Soon you'll wonder where the hours went. Let's stick with Ms. Stone, as I'll be writing on the new Spider-Man soon enough:



It's cute! Whenever I see Fallon, I think of NPR's Linda Holmes' post to Monkey See on his exit from Late Night for The Tonight Show. Holmes writes, "I didn't know... that Jimmy Fallon even had an animating principal, let alone know that it would turn out to be joy, which is the animating principle of entirely too little of popular culture." Other bits from Late Night include Tom Cruise and Edward Norton smashing eggs over their heads in "Egg Roulette," and guests like Ryan Reynolds or Hugh Jackman facing Fallon in "Water War," where, as you imagine, the card game is given higher stakes. The losers get a glass of water to the face.

Fallon shapes the conversations we're having, even giving humility to outlandish characters like Miley Cyrus with the a cappella "We Can't Stop" featuring The Roots. I, for one, was much less dismissive of the young singer after seeing her with established musicians such as The Roots. This small bit complicated the conversations surrounding Cyrus; the heart in that clip removed much of the cartoonishness audiences perceived after her shift in persona.



These are examples of interviewing and media promotion at its height, which only makes the artifice of its evil twin more apparent. I'm speaking of the rapid-fire interviews that take place in darkened rooms with the film's poster as a backdrop. The journalists are mostly from websites and blogs, feel amateurish, and never have more than a minute or two with the actors. Here's an example of what I'm talking about, but beware, once you see what's about to happen, you'll have to close the video. You'll feel so bad for everyone involved, and the embarrassment and empathy will overwhelm. I, for one, cannot watch the whole thing.

In those darkened-room interviews, it's apparent that this is part of the actor's contract, and that, as part of their press tour, they need to sit in a room and have 50 two-minute interviews in quick succession. It reminds me of seeing fans getting pictures with their idols during convention photo-ops—the fans wait in interminably long lines for half a moment with the Doctor Who cast before they're shuffled off for the next random, eager fan. Then again, I should be so lucky as to ever feel my hand cramp after signing hundreds of books.

It's an issue of credibility and respect. Fallon and Norton have it, the aspiring journalists do not. The dark-room, internet journalists try to stand out, so their questions lack humanity. They are overeager, contrasting the actors' visible fatigue. But the press passes these interviews hold gives them a license for acting over-familiar, and it needs to stop.

The dichotomy I present involves the battle for Joy, Humanity, and Authenticity over forcing professionals to jump through contractually induced hoops. Can we not raise the bar a bit?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Sort of Prayer on Truth and Magic

My thumbs' knuckles fit into the corners of my eyes, the tips touch and fingered palms create parenthesis, or antlers, resting upon my nose's bridge. I think of The Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth, which makes me laugh despite myself. The first metacarpal bone on each side seems to cradle my eyelids like a puzzle of composure setting into place.

Am I rubbing my eyes, dazed and waking? Is it a prayer, or meditation? Perhaps I attempt to hush, for moments at a time, the disquiet--the to-do lists and sorrows and failures in the lifelong quest for wisdom and betterment.

In elementary school I pressed the heel of each palm against my eyelids, keeping pressure to make vivid the clouds, bursts and shadowy geometrics dancing in the dark. I counted to thirty, at least, before releasing to see the shapes linger in light, infiltrating the waking world.
That is, until a teacher asked, "Are you okay?" In front of an entire class. 
"Yeah, fine," I said, as if confused by her concern. I doubt I knew the word hallucination at that point, unless some D.A.R.E. lecture brought it up. I was just playing a game with my imagination, like finding animals and dragons in sunny, afternoon clouds between recitations of multiplication tables. 

So I've been thinking about magic lately, and the very human need to believe. Maybe somewhere inside I know that nothing is ever as elegant as I'd like, that all those books and movies portraying worlds of adventure and import are fictions we use to hide the tedium of everyday. But is any of it real? Is Art giving us unrealistic expectations for Beauty, Love, Elegance, Truth, Or Meaning? All those capital-lettered keywords we chase about and map onto our lives. Because everyone should have their own romantic comedy, right? Joan Didion once wrote, "We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."

I can't help but chase magic and call it nonfiction. I write down little stories and look for thematic import. Is Meaning there already, waiting for discovery? Or am I just watching shadows run from the light?

In any case, my knuckles fit well along the bones of my skull.