Saturday, August 31, 2013

Sherlock Series 3

I am doing that "I really want to blog but I don't know what to blog about!" thing again! Because I feel like my posts have to be about one thing, not like a million little things, like how I like found a book called True Crime: An American Anthology on the shelves of said library while I was like looking for something else (Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French), and how this felt, for a second, before I came to my senses, like like the wrong way to find a book! (Midnight in Peking was recommended on Rookie, which is the normal way for me now I guess?) And how Georgia and I hiked 3 days' worth of the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway this past Saturday through Monday and I read Ender's Game (which was Loren's 9th grade summer reading) by headlamp in our tent both nights, and how I don't think I can ever post about it because when something moves and excites me that much, to prevent overexcitement, I have to pretend that it doesn't exist. In other news, I am definitely NOT going to Blue Jasmine in 18 minutes. I don't even know that Woody Allen's latest has been hailed as his best in years, and I'm not at all curious about what those who are hailing it as such thought of To Rome With Love, which I absolutely loved haven't seen and never am going to see, either. So, in the interest of this being a one-thing post, it's going to be a post about Sherlock series 3. Which, incidentally, I have been pretending isn't happening for months, which has worked surprisingly well, given how thoroughly overexcited I am about it. I haven't watched the BBC teaser, and I've avoided the Setlock tag on Tumblr. For the most part. With the exception of this photoset of bearded Anderson and salt-and-pepper-haired Lestrade having coffee on set... which looks great paired with these two tweets...

...and that photo of Amanda Abbington standing next to Sherlock, who has a bloody nose, which I hope to God he got from John, who I hope to God will be pissed as hell at Sherlock when he comes back, and the fact that they showed a scene from episode two at Comic Con in which John asks Sherlock to be his best man... this is the problem with telling yourself that there isn't going to be a third season because then when you admit that there is you start reading panel recaps and watching videos of Sherlock marching with the Queen's Guard and getting updates from the Sherlock forum on TV Without Pity emailed to you every day...

...wherein you learn that they apparently filmed scenes in Sherlock's mind palace. And that there a bunch of pictures on Tumblr of "a shoot in a pizzeria that seem to make no sense. (First John is in the pizzeria looking at Sherlock on the outside. Then Sherlock is in the pizzeria alone. Then John seems to be in the pizzeria alone. John is drinking coffee. John is drinking wine. John is not wearing a ring. HELP!)" HELP INDEED. If, that is, any of this is real, which it clearly isn't, because there is no Sherlock series 3 and there never is going to be either*.

*I'm pretty sure they don't want crowds of fans there while they're filming? So I kind of feel weird about posting that video?

8:38 AM
that day...
Yeah okay Sue Vertue released a statement back in April saying that "the majority of fans and indeed ourselves would REALLY appreciate it" if people didn't post pictures/spoilers/shooting locations... Blech now I  feel weird about posting that video... or would if anybody read this...

But if there was. I would want the first episode to go something like this:

Three years have passed, and John's fine*. He's out for drinks after work with friends from the hospital where he works, having fun! And being fine! The kind of fine that you're so sure you are and maybe just afraid enough that you aren't that you kind of want to test yourself. John's tested himself before, kind of. He had tea with Mrs. Hudson, at 221 Baker Street, that one time. He doesn't turn off the telly anymore, when they start talking about local crimes. He even watched a segment, just a few weeks ago, about someone who stole a bunch of computers from a nonprofit support center for sexual assault survivors and returned them a week later with a note that said "We HAD NO IDEA what we were takeing Here your stuff back we hope that you guys can continue to Make a Difference in peoples live God Bless." Boring, really. Not like the one he saw, kind of by accident, in the doctor's lounge last week, about the man who abducted a woman from her hotel room without being seen by security cameras. For weeks, the police were mystified—until a private detective got ahold of the security camera footage and concluded, after watching it, over and over for days, that it had to have been the tall black man who the cameras captured exchanging words in the elevator with the victim at 3 in the morning, and again exiting the elevator about two hours later, pulling a wheeled suitcase behind him. The suitcase looked like a carry-on, one that could fit in the overhead compartment of an airplane—that's why the detective hadn't noticed it at first. But the man was 6'4'', and weighed what looked like 300 pounds. His size made the suitcase look small. By comparing it to a bar that ran around the inside of the elevator, he concluded that it was, in fact, big enough for a body—and seeing, as the man exited, the suitcase's wheels catch, just for a second, in the space between the elevator and the first floor, seeing the man turn to tug it free, that it was heavy enough to be holding one. John, sitting in the florescent light of the lounge, forgotten styrofoam cup of vending machine coffee in his hand, let himself imagine, just for a minute, Sherlock sitting in the darkened living room of 221B, illuminated only by the computer screen, watching the tapes over and over, his eyes widening, mouth falling open in a triumphant "Ahhhh" as the wheels of the suitcase caught. (Yeah I have no idea how to make up crimes...)

*The fact that he starts seeing his therapist again when Sherlock dies is a super good sign! 

It's the three-year anniversary of Sherlock's death in three days, and John's surprised by how okay he is. As long as the anesthesiologist—sitting across from him at the table, drinking a strawberry daquiri—doesn't start talking about it. She's kind of a true crime nut, and she must have read all about Sherlock: all the tabloid articles, every one of Kitty Riley's exposés. John's grateful, actually, for how few people seem to remember them—he almost never hears Sherlock mentioned anymore, and since he grew the mustache he doesn't get recognized as much*—but the anesthesiologist probably read John's blog—before it started getting thousands of hits a day—and she almost definitely knows who he is. To his relief, she hasn't said anything. She's never mentioned Sherlock, at least not in his hearing. She is, though, talking animatedly about the detective who solved what the newscaster that day in the doctor's lounge referred to as The Case of the Vanishing Blonde, and how he's apparently been hired to work on a case that's been cold for twenty years and it's one of the really weird ones, one that would've been right up Sherlock's alley. John takes a big gulp of beer, feeling a little sick. Everybody starts speculating at once. "If anyone can solve it, he can." "But twenty years? Come on—that's like Arctic Circle-level cold." "Who else would have noticed that he had to tug the suitcase?" John opens his mouth, annoyed, to say "I know who, and he's solved colder"—do people really have such short memories?—but just as quickly shuts it again, takes another big gulp of beer, and listens in silence until they change the subject. But the first thing he does when he gets back to his flat, a little drunk, a little defiant, a little exhilarated, is Google the case. How many times have I seen Sherlock do this? How hard can it be?

*hahahaha God... I do wonder what the shelf life of a story like Sherlock's would/will be? Especially because it's not a mystery; everybody just thinks he was exposed as a fraud and committed suicide, right? Would people recognize Confirmed Bachelor John Watson after all the publicity? And, most importantly, how long are Steven Moffat etc. going to let him keep the mustache?

So John starts trying to solve the case—just casually, at first, to see if he remembers anything from all those running-around-London days and sleepless Baker Street nights, but he quickly becomes so obsessed that the three-year anniversary of Sherlock's death comes and goes and he doesn't even notice. He's staying up late, distracted at work, and the last time he saw Mary he said that he'd call her, but he keeps forgetting; the coffee table on his flat is strewn with photos, notes—an interview with the victim from her university newspaper soon after she enrolled at age 16; the schedule of a conference she organized three years later on critical care nursing; a writeup about her appointment as director of nursing at a local hospital. "She was supposed to supervise a human resources class that morning," her husband told reporters after her death. "And she didn't see the point of them, and she was talking about skiving off, but she never would have. That's Sherri for you. That's why when I called the hospital and they said she didn't show up..." John visits the street where Sherri and her husband lived. He tracks down and interviews neighbors, colleagues. He's on the phone with the victim's father when Mary calls. "Mary, I'm sorry," he says, "I've got someone on the other line, can you hold on just one sec—" and puts her on hold before she can reply. He asks Sherri's father about her husband's ex-girlfriend, the one he'd been told visited Sherri at the hospital a few weeks before she died. "Oh, now you people show an interest?" he says. "I told you this twenty years ago, didn't I? I said, have you checked out Sherri's husband's ex-girlfriend? The lady cop?"

When John finally gets off the phone, Mary's long since hung up. He calls her back, but it goes straight to voicemail, and then he has to get on the tube, and he's just getting off, checking to see how much service he has in the station, about to try again, when he sees Sherlock.

It isn't him, of course. It isn't even a man; just a statuesque woman with dark, upswept hair and a navy blue coat. John smiles weakly when she catches him staring. The man he sees two days later turning a corner near his flat isn't Sherlock either; it's a tall man who just happens to have the collar of his navy blue trench coat turned up against the cold. We've been through this before, remember? John tells himself furiously. You didn't see him in the graveyard that time and you're not seeing him now. But then he takes the train all the way to Lewisham to ask the director of human resources at Sherri's hospital if he could just describe the woman who visited Sherri at work that one time—the one that upset her so much that she called her father from work, crying—and he gives John a funny look and says "Well I told your partner everything yesterday, didn't I?" and John says "We're just trying to be as thorough as we can," because if Sherlock taught him anything, it was how to get people to assume that you were the police, and then "Hold on—my partner?"

"Yeah, the bloke who was here yesterday, asking about Sherri? Told him everything I remember. Just like I told the officers who came round asking the exact same questions twenty years ago. Don't any of you people talk to each other?"

"The woman who visited Sherry at the hospital? They asked you about that twenty years ago?" John says, a little disappointed; he'd thought he was on to something.

"Matter of fact, they didn't," the man says thoughtfully. "Your partner did, though. Should've talked to him, at least; could've saved yourself the trip!"

"Yeah, well," John says. "Like I said, thorough as we can. It's an, um, new method we're trying out. Working well, actually. We're finding that these followups really jog people's memories... Would you mind just describing her for me again?"

John finishes the interview and makes it all the way out the door without asking, but turns just as the man, grumbling something about gross incompetence, makes to close the door. "My, um. Partner," he says. "What did you say he looked like?"

"You'd know, wouldn't you?" the man says incredulously. "Tall, dark hair? Broody-looking? Bit rude? Is this part of your new method too?"

"Just common sense. All kinds of, um, reporters around, pretending to be the police. You should ask for some identification next time," John says sternly, and leaves.

He goes straight to Mary's flat, stopping only to buy a really expensive, really heavy, really ugly bouquet at the only florist's he can find that's still open at 9 PM.

Something like this, idk... Or like a standing "sympathy spray" that's supposed to be for a funeral because that's the only thing the florist has left and/or John's just really bad at buying flowers... (And Mary teases him mercilessly about it but of course doesn't throw it away for weeks and then John gets to tease her about keeping it for way too long...)
She opens the door and bursts out laughing. "Mary, I'm so sorry," he says from behind it. "How can I make it up to you?" "You can start," she says, "by throwing that hideous thing in the bin and taking me out to dinner." So he does. And he vows from that night forward to never even think about the stupid case again.

But here's the thing. Moriarty's henchmen have noticed him. They left him alone after Sherlock died when it became clear that he had no interest in trying to solve another case, but he's blundered into something that was bigger than he knew. How Moriarty's henchmen are connected to a twenty-year-old (American, I might add) cold case (that was solved in like 2010! Which is what that Vanity Fair piece is about!) I don't know; I told you I had no idea how to make up crimes! (There are actually still unsolved aspects to that case though; there was evidence missing from Sherri's case file and nobody knows why... but the LAPD is suspected of having covered for the policewoman—John's ex-girlfriend—who killed her... just go read the piece!)

Here's the thing. According to that Collider Comic Con writeup, "Everybody [on the panel] was keen to point out that while the mystery of Sherlock’s fall will be solved 'that’s just an answer,' and it is really the emotional impact of John and Sherlock’s reunion that will have the greatest effect on viewers." Which is what I've been saying all along. (When I literally talk to myself in the car on the way to work about this, which I um, do, and there are voice memos to prove it.) John's doing well. He's been forced to become self-sufficient for the first time since re-entering civilian life; he has friends, a job, an LTR with Mary, and he values those things, and he's afraid that falling back in with Sherlock will devalue them, but he also knows that no matter how happy he is, life post-Sherlock will never be as awesome as life with him. And at first I was like wait isn't that depressing? But then I realized that. As the Film Crit HULK put it in his latest post, Conan Doyle's stories work because of Watson; he's the "prism of normalcy" through which we view Holmes—but in the same way that, without Watson, Holmes is inaccessible, without Holmes Watson is... boring. We aren't privy to those three years during which Sherlock is "dead" because much as we love him, nobody wants to read about just him. He's an audience surrogate; he's us, and when he meets Sherlock he enters the world of fiction, which is so much more exciting than our lives—and when Sherlock "dies," he has to go back to the real world, whether he likes it or not—a world that, tellingly, Doyle never wrote about. And in my version of events, Watson is happy in that world—but never as happy as he was with Sherlock. Just as we, his readers, will never be satisfied by reading about just Watson. 

So when Sherlock returns, Watson's pissed as hell. He's angry at Sherlock for lying to him, but also at his own adrenaline addiction, and his desire to give up his hard-earned independence and move back into 221B. But he can't stay angry forever, because of course he eventually does. Move back in. (Does he? In the books, he doesn't live with Sherlock forever. But in the books, Sherlock secretly buys his practice from him to get him to move back to Baker Street, so.) But I want him to move back in, or at least reconcile with Sherlock, on his own terms. Instead of, as a poster on TWOP put it, pre-Reichenbach "where you like, when you like" John, the John that would get Sherlock's phone out of his own shirt pocket for him, I want him to assert himself, to say no to Sherlock sometimes, and their teamwork to suffer because of it. But at the same time, working together again will make them realize, at the end of the day, how incredibly happy they are to be reunited.

So that's what I'd write. But here's the thing. There's those Tweets about Anderson and Lestrade. There's that video of Sherlock marching with the guards... There's John's mustache, and John getting married, and John asking Sherlock to be his best man... There's the mind palace, maybe, and a bonfire, and a bloody nose, and Amanda Abbington, and Charles Augustus Milverton... I used to wonder whether the cliffhanger plus the two years between seasons will have heightened people's expectations so much that the new season won't be able to help but disappoint... but  the like five pictures and 28 seconds of footage from the set have assured me that that's the least of my worries. The greatest? See overexcitement, above. ♥

Monday, August 19, 2013

American Horror Story as Presentist TV

Have had a shitty couple of days and, for the first time in a long time, wanted to use TV as a means of escape. The last time I can remember doing this is the end of my sophomore year of Bard, during a breakup, when I was experiencing these... searing waves of sickness in my stomach. They took away my appetite; the only things I wanted to eat were Barbara's Jalapeno Cheese Puffs and Kraft Easy Mac, which I did while tearing through the first season of Downton Abbey, then four seasons of 30 Rock in two or three weeks. I only ever liked 30 Rock, and not that much; I loved Downton Abbey—but more than that, I was grateful to both of them. They were the only things that made me feel better.

It isn't nearly as bad this time—like 75% of the reason I'm upset is that the manager of my department called me into her office to ask me to stop texting while I'm on the clock—well, and to (very gently and kindly) tell me off for drawing a bunch of angry doodles on the lasers of a dental school reunion book that I was supposed to be proofreading—and, to be honest, because the doodles weren't even my ~~best work—but I was feeling way shittier about it than I have about anything in recently, so I decided to watch some TV to escape. My first instinct was Chasing Ice, which I have been wanting to see for months and which I found on Netflix Instant when I was scrolling through "Documentaries" not even looking for it—which might be the best thing that can happen—BUT I had three more episodes to go of American Horror Story season 1 and I can't start one thing before I've finished another. Although I am reading both Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff* and Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc** right now, so apparently I can. Anyway, there I was—well, here I am, I'm in the middle of episode 10 ("Smoldering Children") right now—wanting to escape, watching probably the worst thing to escape into.

*because of the Film Crit HULK
**because of Orange is the New Black!

This isn't because AHS is a show in which people are stabbed, shot, cut in half, hit in the face with shovels, doused in gasoline and burned alive, and drowned in bathtubs and apple-bobbing buckets; in which pregnant women eat raw calves' brains, laudanum-addicted doctors sew deer's hooves onto the wrists of their dismembered babies, and ghosts shove pokers up gay mens' asses during staged murder-suicides... Write down every such incident on a piece of paper, pick three at random, and you could build an episode around them that's as coherent as any on the actual show; it sometimes feels like this is exactly what the writers are doing. And it's this—not the content, but the way it's arranged—that makes the show almost impossible to escape into.

In the first chapter of Present Shock, "Narrative Collapse," media theorist Douglas Rushkoff says that the TV shows Friends, Seinfeld, and Two and a Half Men (among many others) are characterized by their "utter lack of traditional narrative goals." For Rushkoff, traditional narratives work based on the story mechanics identified by Aristotle in the 4th century BC. In Biblical stories, information and morals were conveyed by contrasting two characters or nations with one another (Rushkoff 19). Stories with linear arcs, however, "like a breath or lovemaking... have a rise and a satisfying fall; a beginning, a middle, and an end." "The traditional linear story," Rushkoff writes, "works by creating a character we can identify with, putting that character in danger, and then allowing him or her to discover a way out. According to Rushkoff, this way of structuring stories—that of Joseph Campbell's The Heroic Journey—"worked perfectly for conveying values of almost any kind to the captivated audience."
For if we have followed the protagonist into danger, followed him up the incline plane of tension into a state of great suspense and anxiety, we will be willing to accept whatever solution he is offered to get out*... The higher into tension we have gone, the more dependent we are on the storyteller for a way out. That's why he can plug in whatever value, idea, or moral he chooses. (Rushkoff 20)
*What this made me think of as I was typing it is torture on 24 (which I've read about but never actually seen).

Rushkoff writes that the invention of the TV remote fundamentally changed the way we relate to such narratives. It allowed us an alternative to being captivated by whatever we were watching (the word entertained literally means "held within")—instead of having to physically get up to change the channel every time, we could break a show or ad's hold on us simply by pressing a button. "Deconstructed in this fashion," Rushkoff says, "television loses its abilities to tell stories over time"—which leads to shows like Beavis and Butt-head, The Simpsons, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Lost, and Heroes—all of which, Rushkoff says, don't even try to.

The "new challenge" for the writers of such shows, according to Rushkoff, is "to generate the sense of captivity, as well as the sensations and insights, of traditional narrative—but to do so without the luxury of a traditional storyline. So they come up with characters who simply wake up in a situation and have to figure out who they are or what the heck is going on around them" (Rushkoff 31). On Lost, "[s]olving the mystery of the island and their relationship to it is not a journey through evidence but a 'making sense' of the world in the moment." Both Lost and Heroes, he says, "are less about what will happen next, or how the story will end, than about figuring out what is actually going on right now" (Rushkoff 32).

Enter American Horror Story. AHS has no plot to speak of. The Harmon family—Ben, a psychiatrist; Vivien, a former cellist; and their 17-year-old daughter Violet—move into a [style of house in where Los Angeles], and weird shit starts happening. And that's basically it.

The show could be a mystery, because it's full of questions. Who's dead? Who's alive? Can the dead injure or kill each other? Can they kill the living? Can they leave the property? Do you have to die on the property in order to haunt it? These questions are about, as Rushkoff puts it, characters "figur[ing] out who they are or what the heck is going on around them." Answering these questions, though, isn't what propels the plot—as on, say, Broadchurch (which I watched last week) (and loved). "Who killed Laura Palmer/Rosie Larsen/Danny Latimer?" "Where is Tui, and who's the father of her baby?" These questions drive Twin Peaks, The Killing, Broadchurch, and Top of the Lake*, and everyone in those shows is asking them. American Horror Story's questions barely present themselves as such; they're hardly ever articulated aloud. No character knows enough about how their world works to even ask them; nor does AHS stretch the process of answering them into any kind of arc. Take, for example, "Is Violet dead?" Our first hint that the answer is "yes" appears in the beginning of 1.10, "Smoldering Children," in the form of a blowfly infestation, and the clues build up from there: Tate murders the exterminator, implying that he's hidden a body in the crawlspace, and insists that Violet slit her wrists to avoid boarding school and be with him forever. (Which implies that she's alive, I guess?) I would say this all "culminates" in the discovery of Violet's body, complete with blowfly-filled mouth—but this doesn't feel like a reveal, maybe because we aren't even equipped to wonder whether or not Violet's alive until minutes before we're about to find out. Later in "Smoldering Children," we find out that she's in fact been dead for four episodes. "Violet: dead or alive?" could have been a throughline between episodes 6 and 10, but by 10, I'd forgotten that she even overdosed.

*Also last week, I watched the first season of The Fall, which isn't engineered around such a question, at least not for the viewer; we know who the killer is from the first episode, and spend half of our time with him.

The characters on AHS are figuring out the rules of their world, or solutions to the show's mysteries, but like I said, this process isn't really the plot of the show—and the rules, when they are revealed, aren't clearly articulated, or seem arbitrary. If you die on the property, you return as a ghost. Ghosts can reveal themselves or not; apparently, they can also change their appearance: Nora Montgomery, the original owner's wife, has an exit wound in the back of her head, and Nursing Student #2 drips with the bathwater she was drowned in, but Moira looks as she did in life moments before she was shot, or like an older version of herself, with one milky-blue blind eye (herself if she'd survived?). Hayden and the Black Dahlia both present as their sexy, pre-murdered selves. (Rule #387: If you were a hot woman, you get to stay that way? And you also get hornier?) Some ghosts know they're dead; some remember their deaths; some do not.

Not only are the rules inconsistent, but, as I've said, once revealed they don't come to drive the plot, just as neither our nor the characters' uncertainty about them did. The zombies in World War Z have several clearly defined characteristics—they swarm, they're fast, and they're very sensitive to noise. This last becomes relevant when several characters must sneak through the zombie-infested wing of a WHO research lab in total silence; this world's rules shape the stories told within it. On American Horror Story, learning that, for example, the rule that the dead can "kill" each other—as Hayden demonstrates on Travis, Constance's boyfriend—or that they can only be seen if they want to be, doesn't change the way either they or the living behave. Not only are rules inconsistent, backstories change constantly. First, Larry tells Ben that the house drove him to set his family and himself on fire; then we learn that it was actually his wife, after finding out about his and Constance's affair, which doesn't explain his burns; still later we're shown that Tate doused Larry with gasoline and set him alight. This doesn't deepen our understanding of the characters involved, nor does it set any events in motion. Each version of Larry's story has equal weight; they're presented, in the order they were pulled out of the hat, as a strangely impotent "truth," devoid of impact and meaning to characters and viewer alike.

AHS creates numerous opportunities for longer arcs like the mystery of Violet's, which it casually—I might even say defiantly, were it not done as such a seeming afterthought—squanders. Stories that could be long narrative arcs (Violet's death; Mr. Escandarian's plan to buy and tear down the house, leaving its ghosts homeless; Violet's plot to banish Chad and Pat) are introduced and eliminated in a single episodes. Motives that have actually been at play all along—it was Tate's "mommy issues" that led him to kill Chad and Patrick when it looked like they weren't going to adopt a baby, and to rape Vivien, wearing the rubber suit—are revealed as an afterthought. When Nora Montgomery finally gets her baby—an event that's been half-heartedly presented as the endgame of the show—she's exasperated by the baby's crying, and observes tiredly to Vivien that she was probably never meant to be a mother. Stories are told out of order: Chad and Pat decorate for Halloween; rubber-suited man appears to drown Chad in an apple-bobbing bucket; Chad buys the rubber suit only to be rejected by Pat, Tate drags the still living Chad down to the basement, then stages his "suicide." The order in which these events are presented seems as arbitrary as the house's rules.

None of the above are necessarily bad things. Rules are inconsistent; backstories change; stories are told in seemingly random order; opportunities for long narrative arcs are offhandedly squandered—but the show isn't trying to be a traditional linear story. So what is it trying to do? How does it hold my attention? People being stabbed, shot, cut in half, hit in the face with shovels? Seen through Douglas Rushkoff's lens, these incidents look like Ryan Murphy's way of trying to hook the remote-holding viewer: shocking, attention-getting moments that exist out of time. These moments aren't why I watch the show, though (on Netflix, I might add, with no remote—but with like six other tabs open, I guess...). Murphy has created a place in which I want to spend time. I was just talking to Jeremy about this last night—how, though J.K. Rowling has said she didn't edit Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix as much as she'd like to have, that's exactly why it was my favorite book. I would have read about Harry clipping his toenails and whether wizarding toenail clippers had some way of stopping the nails from flying everywhere or of collecting them when you were finished. I just wanted to spend as much time at Hogwarts as possible.

And that's kind of how I feel about AHS. For all its gore, Murphy has created a strangely endearing world. Moira and Constance stand in a second-floor window, looking ruefully out; Chad, Moira, and the rest of the ghosts walk resignedly back to the house the morning after Halloween. "I feel like I'm doomed for all eternity to be trapped in an unhappy, adulterous relationship, working on this goddamn house which will never be just the way I want it," Chad complains. "You are," Moira says.

My favorite scenes are the ones like this where the ghosts interact, often commenting on their situation; Violet, Tate, Chad and Patrick arguing in the baby's room, in a manner that's both vicious and half-hearted—Chad warns Violet that her twin siblings' birth "might get ugly... Were you a C-section? Is there an existing zipper we might use?"; Chad comments resentfully to Tate that "Maybe you should've taken a few minutes to get to know me before sticking a fireplace poker up my ass." I started this post by comparing AHS, via Rushkoff, to Heroes and Lost, but maybe it's more like The Real World, another show that Rushkoff mentions, in which "a group of good-looking eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds and [are put] in an apartment together with dozens of cameras rolling twenty-four hours a day. Any moment is as potentially significant as any other. It's up to the editors to construct something like narrative, after the fact." Replace "eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds" with "ghosts"—24 of them—half of whom have killed the other half—including bickering, adulterous couples, school shooters, and horny maids—and... yeah, that sounds about right.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Orange is the New Black Books

I finished the first season of Orange is the New Black yesterday. What else have I been doing? And by "doing" I mean reading/watching because reading/watching is basically my life. I started a journal entry about this the other day—August 3, 2013: "Starting to feel a little scared that I care about what happens in my books more than actual life"—partly prompted by opening Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott at random and seeing "You want to avoid at all costs drawing your characters on those that already exist in other works of fiction. You must learn about people from people, not from what you read. Your reading should confirm what you've observed in the world" and partly because we went to Jenness Beach on Saturday and instead of swimming or bodyboarding or the bouncy frisbee ball thing Dad and Wynn were doing I spent 4 1/2 hours lying on my stomach reading How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti from start to finish. I've been thinking a lot about things like this. Should I approach reading/watching as work, homework, apprenticeship, fun, or all three? How much time per day "should" I spend watching/reading? If I were a published writer, or even writing regularly, would that time feel more legitimate? Why is it that although I'm doing exactly what I fantasized about for months before graduating—namely living at home, working part time, and reading all the time—and even though Lena Dunham lived with her parents til she was 27 and even though if Frances Ha/Greta Gerwig's Fresh Air interview is any guide I have at least 5 years til I have to even start becoming a real person I feel like life's too good, there's too much money in my bank account, I have too few expenses, I'm not suffering enough.

Speaking of like actual suffering? I finished the first season of Orange is the New Black yesterday. And loved how much the inmates read. In a July 11th 2013 interview with the LA Times, the real Piper says that in Danbury Correctional, where she was incarcerated,
[Books] were complete lifelines. They were the only legitimate forms of escape. I actually avoided the TV rooms because they’ll suck you into some weird places. There was no prison library in Danbury. We just had informal book shelves, but it’s very interesting what books are popular. Serial romances and mysteries, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton.  There’s the whole genre of street fiction—“Dutch,” “The Coldest Winter Ever.” Ann Patchett is big. 
“Random Family” [by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc] was hugely popular at Danbury. There were these dog-eared copies that kept getting passed around. There were some women who were reading, and they were like, "This is my life," and there were other women who were from middle-class backgrounds who were like, "This book is explaining where we are."
Books are a recurring presence on the show. Piper reads Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn ("My coffee was almost warm, by book was almost good"); her friends send her Pride and Prejudice and Emma. When Healy tells Taystee during their WAC meeting that the Fed's not going to "subsidize erotica" by ordering 50 Shades of Grey for the library, Piper offers to lend out her copy. Red reads Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters by Meredith Zeitlin and This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. A guard reads Night Shift by Stephen King. Alex reads The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls—and has a copy of The Tao of Poo on her bookshelf!

I was going to say that on this show books are more shown than talked about: Piper walks into Alex's cube and finds her sitting on her bed reading City of Thieves by David Benioff or Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall; Nicky finds her lying on her back on the library floor with Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle. But books are talked about a lot too. When an inmate wants to check out Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Taystee says "Wait, shortie, you want a book to read or a step stool? 'Cause I tell you right now, you ain't steppin' on the Goblet of Fire. Don't be fuckin' with Harry Potter. Now, you could step up on Ulysses. Everyone says it's so genius, but I call it bullshit. No one wants to go through all that ramblin'. Ain't nobody got time for that." Piper nerds out over books and poems a lot. Trying to terrify a juvenile out of further delinquency, Piper tells her that, if she's incarcerated, "I'm gonna do to you what spring does to the cherry trees, but in a prison way"; when Tricia sees a box of books she's just received and asks "Anything sexy in there?", Piper replies "Um, I might have some Nicholson Baker"; when Taystee comments "Like Oprah says, 'The road less travelled...'" during a game of Scrabble, she goes on a hilariously eager literary analytical rant:

(Originally here)
(I relate so hard to this scene. Piper's so proud of her idea—which she probably like debuted in a class discussion at Smith and forgot about it til now?—and I love the contrast between her bleak conclusion and the look of triumph on her face.)

OINTB is a show where being well-read is valued. I think my favorite book-related line is when Alex says about Piper, "Larry, my heart is with you. She's hot. She's read everything." And for someone who's having a kind of constant low-level crisis about whether I read too much, that kind of thing is incredibly validating. And not just because I, um, might be gay for Alex. And Nicky. (And Nicky and Alex OTP oh my god.)

There's a list of books seen and referenced in the show over at Piper Kerman's Amazon wish list is here; for more on what her fellow inmates were ~actually reading, there's a list of "Top 10 Books at Danbury Federal" at

(Books of OINTB calls Piper "the new Rory Gilmore"; if this is reminding you of just how validating Gilmore Girls was, the LA Times links to the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge. It's OINTB: 24; Gilmore Girls like 250 so far! But Gilmore Girls ~was seven six seasons.)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Avengers Take Two

I watched The Avengers last night for the first time since I saw in in theaters, what, a year ago? And realized that when I saw it in theaters I like basically didn't get it. I don't think I'd seen any of Joss Whedon's work then—and (The Cabin in the Woods, Firefly, Much Ado) haven't seen much since—because the more I (think I'm going to) love something the less likely I am to (start/)finish it, which is why I stopped watching Star Trek TOS 2/3 of the way through the 1st season and may never start again—but before seeing the Avengers again I wouldn't have said being unfamiliar with his work mattered.

Which apparently it did. The first time I saw it, all the lines—lines that this time I found delightfully funny—lines like "There's only one God, ma'am, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that" which just. Last summer, I think I heard what (I thought) they were trying to be—clever, funny, self-aware—and didn't experience them as those things. This is exactly the problem I had with Anansi Boys, which I basically hate-read this past weekend: all I could see was either Neil Gaiman trying to make me believe something, and the thing I was supposed to believe (Spider is cool, for example), but I never actually believed it. Never felt it. And feeling it is what brings something to life, makes it more than itself—basically creates the effect Vladimir Nabokov's theory about which got Edward Jay Epstein a job as his assistant. Um. As described in Epstein's "An A From Nabokov" in the NYRB Nabokov gave his 1954 Cornell "European Literature of the 19th Century" class—in which Epstein was enrolled—a pop quiz consisting of a single essay question: "Describe the train station in which Anna met Vronsky." At first, Epstein was
stymied by this question because, having not yet read the book, I did not know how Tolstoy had portrayed the station. But I did recall the station shown in the 1948 movie starring Vivien Leigh. Having something of an eidetic memory, I was able to visualize a vulnerable-looking Leigh in her black dress wandering through the station, and, to fill the exam book, I described in great detail everything shown in the movie, from a bearded vendor hawking tea in a potbellied copper samovar to two white doves practically nesting overhead. Only after the exam did I learn that many of the details I described from the movie were not in the book. Evidently, the director Julien Duvivier had had ideas of his own. Consequently, when Nabokov asked “seat 121” to report to his office after class, I fully expected to be failed, or even thrown out of Dirty Lit.
What I had not taken into account was Nabokov’s theory that great novelists create pictures in the minds of their readers that go far beyond what they describe in the words in their books. In any case, since I was presumably the only one taking the exam to confirm his theory by describing what was not in the book, and since he apparently had no idea of Duvivier’s film, he not only gave me the numerical equivalent of an A, but offered me a one-day-a-week job as an “auxiliary course assistant.”
Which means he was paid $10 a week to see every new movie shown at Ithaca's four theaters and summarize them for Nabokov, who only had time for one a week, so he could decide what to see, but anyway! I've noticed this "far beyond" effect several times lately: in Lloyd Alexander's The Black Cauldron, for example, which Loren Wynn Dad and I are reading at bedtime, all of us probably for the 5th or 6th time. Alexander introduces two... okay. Two characters—Adaon son of Taliesin and Prince Ellidyr son of Pen-Llarcau—each of whom are given what amounts to like thirty? Forty sentences tops—and who are nonetheless fully, flawlessly realized. They're so alive that rereading the book I'm amazed how little time each is given: Ellidyr disappears for about a third of the book, and Adaon dies on page 81. In my mind/memory they become more than themselves.

I noticed this re-watching The Avengers last night—replace Adaon with Loki and sentences with scenes—but that isn't what I quoted Epstein's essay to say. It's not just that Alexander's characters come alive—it's that they do so despite—well, surely because of—his masterful brevity. And my point about the Avengers wasn't that the same happens with Loki, if it even does—and I'm perfectly willing to believe this is just about Tom Hiddleston/Tom Hiddleston's hair/Tom Hiddleston's hair in the Thor 2 trailer because help me Jesus. My point...

...what was my point...

My POINT was. That, on re-watching, the lines... were still funny, still clever, still self-aware, but this time they worked. They came alive. They made me laugh. They even made me almost cry. Twice.


About the self-awareness. I know this is Joss Whedon's thing—to question/deconstruct/"pull apart" everything he does as he does it—as he says Shakespeare was doing with the romantic comedy as he was writing the first one ever in Much Ado About Nothing—but what amazes me about the Avengers is how he structures the entire plot around this.

As they assemble, the characters are constantly pulling each other apart. Steve and Tony's back-and-forths—"Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away and what are you?"/"Everything special about you came out of a bottle"—get at the heart of not just who they are but who they're afraid they are. Loki's "play" aboard the Helicarrier is, basically, what they're all too busy doing to notice he's doing it, which is analyzing their weaknesses—Banner's anger, Natasha's guilt about her past—in order to turn them against each other, which of course culminates in the Hulk and Thor pummeling each other in an airplane hangar as Loki makes his escape. And, of course, all this pulling apart... what makes it so thoroughly satisfying when they finally come together. (That's one of the times I almost cried.)

It's not just the Avengers' acute perceptions of each other that helps them succeed, though—in fact, that's why they almost fail. They succeed when they become self-aware. As in Loki is a full-tilt diva. He wants flowers, he wants parades, he wants a monument built in the skies with his name plastered...

(Son of a bitch.)
But also as in they succeed because Banner becomes self-aware. I didn't realize until this viewing just how important he is. The Avengers are all kind of loners and egomaniacs and really messed up, but he's the freak even the freaks are afraid of, and he's kind of an enigma, and they turn all their analytical—or experimental, in Tony's case!—energy into trying to figure him out. (Tony: "You really have got a lid on it, haven't you? What's your secret?") The Avengers analyze each other, and Loki analyzes them, but Banner is kind of a mystery: the most unpredictable, the hardest to pin down.

In the end, though, it all comes down to Banner's understanding of himself. Tony may ask what his secret is, but—in a moment that I watched like over and over last night—it's Banner himself who reveals it. ("Dr. Banner, now might be a really good time for you to get angry." / "That's my secret, Captain. I'm always angry." / AHHHHH) With the help of the Avengers, he harnesses this self-knowledge to control "the other guy," which is absolutely crucial: if the rest of the Avengers had to fight him and Loki, they wouldn't have had a chance. The most isolated member of the team becomes the most essential—due in part to the very quality Joss Whedon's been honing for his entire career and that is on such... rich display in this movie. That is this movie.


I kinda started this post to simply celebrate the fact that because it's so self-aware—in dialogue, and plot, and in every other joke—Tony calling Hawkeye "Legolas," Tony calling Loki "Reindeer Games," Tony calling Thor "Shakespeare in the park"—it could end up undercutting itself, but it never does. Everyone remains majestic, or imposing, or charming, or however they like to think of themselves, while still being what they know they are, aka big monuments in the sky with their names plastered all over them. Not only that, the movie manages to pull off moments of pure sincerity—the look on Thor's face when Loki traps him in the Hulk cage; the look on Tony's face when Piper doesn't pick up the phone; Colson's death.

And luckily, on second viewing, I was able to appreciate all of it.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Spiral. Star Trek Fan Fiction. I Don't Know.

Did like nothing this weekend but watch Spiral. Well, also went to Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, which was so much fun, and which I walked out of feeling just... happy. Helped by the fact that I went with Loren who loves Firefly. There were like maybe eight other people in the theater and we definitely laughed the most/loudest which I was like proud of? I don't know why because a lot of our laughing was just at like... the sight of Nathan Fillion. (And Nathan Fillion's performance, which was hilarious.)

I think I'm going again tonight and taking Mum. Is this a Much Ado About Nothing post now? What do I have to say about it other than that, as I already said, I walked out feeling... purely happy, which is kind of a change from how I feel when I watch Spiral, which like I already said is what I've spent like the past three days doing, and which makes me feel mostly stressed. And when it makes me happy it's like... the end of season two when they find Samy alive in the trunk of the car and I start like uncontrollably crying with relief. Spiral makes me happy pretty often, too, but a lot of the time that's just because—see also Nathan Fillion, above—of Judge Roban making faces like this

 and Prosecutor Machard who doesn't need to make ANY face 

"What, are you still here?"
and Pierre who doesn't either.

"I'm here to give you back my card."
These aren't even good lines but lemme tell ya. It's not about the lines with these two.
I mean come on.

These may not even be the best screenshots of Pierre because if I started pausing the show to take screenshots of Pierre I might literally never stop. I don't even care about Pierre as a character that much, it's just. Grégory Fitoussi's face. Personally, I'm more attracted to like. Judge Roban. I'm serious. And Commissioner Bremont, which also serious, but less embarrassedly so. (Kind of embarrassed about the fact that the scene in Episode 9 in which he is smoking a cigarette while talking to Laure led to me sitting in my car at 9:30 last night smoking. And again in the car on the way to work this morning. I smoke often enough to always have a pack handy but infrequently enough to take like four months to get through said pack. Aka not twice in less than twelve hours. Guess that just tells you how attracted I am to Commissioner Bremont? Or something? Good God.) But in terms of like. Pure handsomeness. Which as I explained to Mum just the other day (in reference to, you guessed it, Grégory Fitoussi) for me is just like a type, one of many, and not necessarily the one I'm most attracted to...

I mean look at him. He's too handsome to be attracted to. He is not of this earth. Okay.

First, I definitely watch Spiral from the first of Film Crit HULK's four levels, or maybe the second. If, on the first level, we watch movies and shows in a naïve, childlike state, with what he calls an "easy state of emotional transference" (in other words, we experience them as if they're real)—and if the second level is inhabited by people who've watched enough movies to "grow up" and move beyond the first level and yet, like an addict, continue to chase its emotional highs... I flatter myself that I'm in the third level, people who—to paraphrase—not only approach entertainment analytically, but understand that this can be as "powerful, stimulating, and emotionally affecting" as a level one experience. In other words, as I put it in a half-finished piece of Kirk/Spock Star Trek (meant to be TOS, but they kind of act more AOS*) fan fiction that I wrote, "Spock took notes most of the time, and when Kirk grumbled that why couldn't he just enjoy things without analyzing them said 'Analyzing things is how I enjoy them.'"** 

In other words, I'm (my) Spock. I may not be like an ~expert at it~ yet but I do want to understand how things work—largely because I want to learn how to make them. But I also, not gonna lie, love that level one experience, and that's what I have when I watch Spiral. Maybe because it's French, maybe because I haven't seen the actors in anything else, maybe because it's just so well made, but I have absolutely no sense of it as a made thing. At the same time, I'm trying to move to level three with it, because I want to understand how it's so good that its goodness prevents me from wanting to understand how it's so good

And I'm getting there. Sort of. Part of the almost unbearable tension of the third season—which is about, among like five million other things, a serial killer who mutilates his victims with a scalpel—is that in the first few episodes Laure and her team apprehend two possible suspects, both of whom turn out to have alibis, so by the time they arrest the third, Ronaldo Fuentes, you're already predisposed to think they're wrong again. And they have no evidence against him. Basically their only "proof" that he did this (sorry, ugh, I'm sorry)

Episode 1
is this

Episode 3
which he had in his apartment, and which is a poster of "Blooming Roses" (1930) by Salvador Dalí. By episode six (of 12) they're forced to release him. By like episode eight it's clear that he's guilty, but what I'm trying to say is that for like more than half the season neither the police nor the viewer know this for sure. And here's the thing. "Who's the killer" is as much a literary analytical question as it is a literal one—that is to say, it exists on two separate "planes," Laure's and the viewer's—and the occupants of those planes arrive at an answer in different ways. Laure is absolutely convinced that Fuentes is guilty, saying she "saw it in his eyes" and pursuing him even after she's taken off the case. Eventually, she finds a garage full of breasts floating in formaldehyde belonging to Ronaldo, which establishes his guilt. However. I—I have to resist saying "we," because I could just be unusually thick—as a viewer, unlike Laure, thought he might be innocent for like 6 episodes, and was convinced otherwise not by the garage, but by the amount of screen time given Ronaldo (and his sister/mother, and her husband, and a guy who saw him like cutting off a dog's balls or something with a scalpel) by the show. If Laure was wrong, that time would be wasted, so she had to be right.

My point, I guess, is that Laure experiences the events of the show on HULK's first level—on something even lower than the first level!—because for her they're real. I was experiencing the show on the first level, and, not knowing whether Fuentes was guilty, the primary emotion being transferred was stress, and the stress basically forced me into the third level, or at least out of the first. Laure could spend weeks of her life pursuing Ronaldo and be wrong. Spiral couldn't spend six episodes "watching" her do this if she wasn't right.

I have this half-developed theory that detective work = literary analysis (and that literature majors would make good lawyers, but that's mostly because I want to be like a non-corrupt version of Josephine Karlsson). Both the law and literary analysis involve evidence, and arguments, and sometimes both are about not verifiable truth (a confession? A cell phone video? An author's letters?) but the better of two (or more) arguments. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, like a literature student, has read about uncountable numbers of cases to help him solve his own. He's done his homework. HULK says that to get to level three, you just have to watch more movies, aka do yours. I've allotted like the next three years of my life to "watch more movies"—although in my case it's technically "read more books," because I want to be a writer—but I kinda want to be a screenwriter, don't know. You can also, it seems, allow the intensity of your level one experience to push you, almost self-protectively, into level three. My uncle Steve said recently that this very intensity is why he doesn't like watching movies, and that he reads summaries so that he knows what's going to happen—so that he knows, for instance, that Ronaldo Fuentes is in fact the killer. Which is, instead of escaping level one by transcending it, diluting its emotional effects so that you can stay there more comfortably.


I had more I wanted to say about this show. I wanted to make a list of just—like, especially compared to a show like The Killing, in which just ugh, 1/3 of a thing happened per season—how perhaps on paper excessively much is happening in this third season, because like. Ronaldo Fuentes. Niko's prostitution ring. Vlad, whoever he is. Gilou wanting to leave Laure's team. Gilou accidentally shooting that drug dealer in the lung. Laure basically having a breakdown. Laure protecting Gilou. Laure sabotaging Gilou. Laure/Bremont. Laure vs. Bremont. Judge Roban's mother. Judge Roban and Villedieu. Judge Roban and his ~~~gf. Arnaud, the intern de merde. Machard vs. Pierre. Pierre and Josephine. Pierre/Josephine? Josephine's money problems. Pierre and Danny. Pierre/Danny? (There was a ~reason he smelled Pierre's shirt like that, right?) And like you can break it down into three storylines—Pierre and Josephine's new firm, Judge Roban and Villedieu, Laure's team and Ronaldo—but you don't realize that every seemingly far-ranging thing falls into one or more of those fairly narrow categories, or even falls across them—Josephine defends Ronaldo, Arnaud is blackmailed by the mayor of Villedieu—until it's already fallen. I wanted to write about how, especially in season two, everything bad that could possibly happen, happens. I wanted to link to this video of Matt Stone and Trey Parker explaining "but/so" vs. "and then" storytelling to an NYU scriptwriting class and talk about how brilliantly "but/so" Spiral is. But that's another post. As is my like "Reasons Why I Love Laure Berthaud" post. As are like 600 more pictures of Grégory Fitoussi's face.

*Because, in all honesty, my entire... and oh my god this is going to ruin it, but my entire Star Trek fan fic writing style is, um, heavily influenced by Your First Time Should Be Special, which is AOS and which a) I've read like fifteen times and b) is the only Star Trek fan fic I've ever read. 

*and one of Spock's favorite things to do was point out inaccuracies in the holomercials about science that Kirk sometimes watched to try to understand what in the hell Spock was talking about and one time he found Spock sitting at his computer with the dictionary cartridge inserted and Spock got called to the bridge before he could remove it and when Kirk next turned on his computer there, right on the screen, was the word "empathy" and its definition and Kirk imagined Spock sitting there, forehead wrinkling almost imperceptibly, lips maybe moving as he read the words—"the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes of others"—and was forcibly reminded of the times, early on, when they'd fight and Kirk would say something about how that made him feel and Spock would just look at him like he was waiting for Kirk to continue, like what he'd just said had been a prelude to what he was actually going to say and then all of a sudden Spock had started saying, enunciating carefully, "I understand how you feel," which had freaked Kirk out way more than the blank/expectant stares, and he'd ignored it the first few times but then once when he'd been really mad had yelled "No you DON'T" and Spock opened his mouth to argue but then just closed it again like he knew Kirk was right. 

A few days later Kirk was in Spock's quarters looking for a copy of a journal he wanted to borrow and found a pamphlet entitled "I Feel You: A Field Guide to Successful Communication" on Spock's desk, under a stack of heavily annotated science journals and sure enough, there was "I understand how you feel" under the Listening section and seeing it there—with a little pink flag marking the page—made Kirk feel guilty and protective and something else all at once. Spock stops saying he understands how Kirk feels. And then the next time they fight Kirk yells something like "Why are you standing there staring at me like that it makes me feel like you can't even hear me" and Spock looks at him and says gravely "When I stare at you it makes you feel like I cannot hear you" and Kirk goes "YES, thank you, that's exactly what I—" and then he goes "WAIT."

Spock just stands there, waiting. Kirk narrows his eyes at him. 

"You got that from that communication pamphlet, didn't you," he says accusatorially. 

"How do you know about that pamphlet," Spock says.

"I saw it on your desk when I was looking for that Vulcan Science Academy Quarterly that you were telling me about last week," Kirk says, a little abashed, and then, defensively, "Where did you get that thing anyway?"

"Dr. McCoy's office," Spock says.

"What!" Kirk yells. "What did you—you didn't tell him it was because of—you know? Did you?"

Spock rolls his eyes. (It makes Kirk want to point gleefully at him and say HA, you do do that, but he's pretty sure if he calls too much attention to it Spock will stop doing it and he definitely doesn't want that.) "No," Spock says, speaking in the rapid and very precise way that means he's pissed. "I did not tell him that it was because I am in a secret romantic relationship with you and given that this is my first such relationship with a human I have no standard against which to compare it and given that the relationship is secret there is no one I can ask. I did not tell Dr. McCoy this because it is not the reason I took the pamphlet from his office. I did so because the above statement, minus its "secret" and "romantic" components, is applicable to every single member of this crew who is not Vulcan, which is approximately 423 people. And furthermore I would like to inform you that repeating what they have just said back to them to demonstrate that I am listening has worked on several members of the crew so far and if it is not effective on you that only serves to strengthen my hypothesis that you are the most confusing person I have ever met."

"I'm confusing?" Kirk says. "And who exactly have you been practicing this on?"

"That warp core engineer from Deltron V," Spock says without hesitating. "Dr. McCoy's assistant, the one with the hair that I like. Yeoman—"

"Oh my god, stop, STOP," Kirk says. "You were supposed to say no one, Jim, no one but you, it's only ever all been for you—"

"It has only ever all been for—" Spock says, like he's testing out the words.

"Well now you're only saying that because I told you to say it," Kirk says. "You have to do it spontaneously."

"I can be spontaneous," Spock says. "In fact, might I suggest—"

"NO," Kirk says. "That may have worked last week, but it is NOT going to work again. I know what you're up to, and frankly I am very surprised that Dr. McCoy keeps instructional pamphlets in his office that tell you how to do that."

"I did not learn that from an instructional pamphlet," Spock says with dignity. "As you may well remember, there was a certain amount of trial and error involved."

That's it. This is a Star Trek fan fiction blog.

I would say I'm embarrassed to have posted that publicly but truth be told I've been looking for an excuse to do so since I started this blog. If you thought that was the reason I wrote this whole post you'd be wrong. But not that wrong.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Death and David Foster Wallace's "Danger" in Game of Thrones

This is a post about Game of Thrones, a show I have a hard time ~analyzing. I always just end up with extensive character studies of Jaime* or like half-finished Jaime-centric fan fiction** when I try. The first part of this post is sort of about why I can't analyze the show; the second part is analysis of it. Part 1 is how deaths are presented, and Part 2 is the fact that they're presented at all. There might be a Part 3 that's just like... predictions about Jaime's storyline in Winds of Winter. Pictures of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Who knows. ~Anything could happen.

* "He understands how hard his world makes it to be a good person" etc.

** "I killed him," Jaime said flatly. "Make no mistake. I stabbed him in the back. Rossart, too—not in the back, in the belly—but nobody seems to remember Rossart. Why the back? Aerys was standing at the foot of the Throne when I approached him, blade bared. He knew what I intended, I'm sure. He turned, grasping for the arms of the Throne to pull himself up, and the malevolent thing sliced the fingers of his right hand half off. Do you know, I rather think it was helping me?" Pod's face was pale. Good. Jaime gave him a twisted smile. "Not that I needed it. My sword slid in easily. When I gave it a twist I could feel it grating against his spine." 

Part 1

Game of Thrones is violent. I like this. Why do I like it? Why was I ~gladdened by the sight of Jaime's half-healed stump? (Just Googled "Jaime Lannister stump" looking for a picture of Qyburn tending to it in Episode 7 so you could be gladdened too but couldn't find one and I'm p sure I won't take the time to look for the scene in the episode itself so yeah thank me for that) Why was I was hoping they'd show Grey Wind's head sewn to Robb Stark's body; and why, when they did, did I watch the scene at least three times? Why am I not bothered by how how bloodthirsty the show makes me? Is "why" even the right question to ask?

I wondered how far they'd go with the Red Wedding, but in terms of what from the books we would and wouldn't get to see—Catelyn's throat getting cut, for instance. I couldn't have wondered "Will they show Talisa's pregnant belly being stabbed with a dagger sixteen times" because I couldn't have imagined the show would surpass itself like that, both in invention and execution—and I'm not sure I don't mean "surpass" in a good way. Emotionally, I experience this show on the first of the Film Crit HULK's four levels—which he wrote about in response to the Red Wedding episode!—in that when it comes to GoT I have what he calls "an easy sense of transference"; I watch it and "can't help but feel like it's real." I don't, though, dislike things that make me feel bad, as he says level one consumers tend to do. On the contrary. Talisa's death sickened me (it, at least, I didn't watch more than once). I sobbed. I was far more shocked and drained by that scene than I expected to be, but I... admired, even commended them for going there, and for taking me, emotionally, so wholly along with them.

In the same vein, have a whole paragraph I could write about how I not only like the (female) nudity but experience it as if I'm its target audience—as a straight ~guy might, whatever that means? I think, though, I'll just leave it at: I feel like not only do I watch the show from the HULK's first level, but I think I experience it as intended, in that both the way it presents its "explicit content" and the way I consume it are completely unabashed. Which is also what makes it hard to step back and say wait—what is intended here? Is it anything more than an essentially pornographic experience? Will trying to answer that question make my basically reveling in violence and misogyny more or less okay? And if I want to avoid pronouncing it "okay" or "not," what kind of questions should I ask instead?

Part 2

The above was about the explicitness of GoT's deaths, and how I sort of revel in them, and how if I'm bothered by anything, it's not that, but the fact that I'm not bothered by that. And I'm not even bothered by that! I don't know. But my real reason for writing this post isn't the deaths' goriness; it's the fact that they take place at all. 

I'm fascinated by how suspense is created—by why when Kirk, in "The Galileo Seven," strands Spock and co. on Taurus II, even though I know that the nature of the show absolutely guarantees their survival, I am literally SCREAMING "TURN AROUND, TURN AROUND, TURN AROUND" at the screen. And by why—even though Raleigh's fate at the end of Pacific Rim was technically uncertain—as his escape pod shot toward the breach, then as Mako swam toward it, I felt no tension whatsoever. That tension, it would seem, has absolutely nothing to do with what you know or don't know is going to happen. It's all craft. (And figuring out what the craft is is a whole other post/lifetime entirely.)

In "The Galileo Seven," there's tension, but, as David Foster Wallace might argue, no true danger. In his 1988 essay "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young," he writes about what I would argue Pacific Rim (as opposed to, say, TOS) could have had: a feeling of danger created by the (technical) possibility of death.
Try to recall the last time you saw the "hero" die within his drama's narrative frame. It's very rarely done anymore. Entertainment professionals have apparently done research: audiences find the deaths of those with whom they identify a downer, and are less apt to watch dramas in which danger is creatively connected to the death that makes danger dangerous. The natural consequence is that today's dramatic heroes tend to be "immortal" within the frame that makes them heroes and objects of identification... I claim that the fact that we are strongly encouraged to identify with characters for whom death is not a significant creative possibility has real costs. We the audience, and individual you over there and me right here, lose any sense of eschatology, thus of teleology, and live in a moment that is, paradoxically, both emptied of intrinsic meaning or end and quite literally eternal. If we're the only animals who know in advance that we're going to die, we're also probably the only animals who would submit so cheerfully to the sustained denial of this undeniable truth. The danger is that, as entertainment's denials of the truth get even more seductive, we will eventually forget what they're denials of. This is scary. Because it seems transparent to me that, if we forget how to die, we're going to forget how to live.
If there's one thing you can't accuse GoT/ASOIAF of, it's helping us forget how to die. Martin is great at creating a sense of danger. It's because of the relentless brutality of the world—people being maimed, skinned, emasculated, anally gang raped, having their faces chewed off, etc. everywhere you turn (and this is a brutality that the show actually amps up****)—but it's also because, with Ned's decapitation, he connected all that danger with the ever-present possibility of what makes it dangerous, AKA death.

Now, the Film Crit HULK argues that Ned's death is pretty much all the books have going for them:
For me, these same exact tactics... still work. Sort of. At this point, after abandoning Feast for Crows about 3/4 of the way through, the only characters I'm invested in are—well, sort of Cersei, but primarily Jaime and Brienne, even after Brienne's (and Jaime's!) practically unforgivable FFC chapters, and I won't get into why because the investment is partly about loving them (again: extensive character studies of Jaime, Jaime-centric fan fiction). Not only are two characters I love now in a situation where the both entrenched and evolving ideas about honor that are so central to both their characters are finally going to be put to the test (!!!!) but. When this happens, one of them may have to kill the other, and knowing Martin—and the credibility he earned, way back when, with that one shocking, electrifying death—it's perfectly possible that they will. The thing is, though—that wouldn't matter if I didn't care about them. Martin may be good at danger, but Jaime proves that he can be (even if he isn't consistently) good at character too. And that's just as essential to danger as the possibility of death.

"Real" danger, aka danger "creatively connected" to death. Tension, or the feeling of danger with no possibility of death. The possibility of death, but no feeling of danger. It seems to come down to craft (in TOS' case), the stones to kill major characters (in Martin's) and the skills to make you care about them first (in both). This was, in the vein of "How to Write Sci Fi According to Star Trek," supposed to be "How To Write Fantasy According to GoT"—and now I've a list of three things to have, but not how to get them. Well, as far as #3 goes, an Extensive Character Analysis of Jaime is clearly in order. But that's a separate post. For now...

*** Talisa; Ros; Theon's almost-rape (both times?); Selyse's fetus collection; Varys' castrator with his mouth sewn shut—I was constantly amazed this season by how much farther than Martin they felt they needed to go

Part 3

Told you anything could happen.