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.