This sounds too loopy to possibly be true, but Cary Elwes is apparently making as his first outing as a director the story of Elvis’ request to President Nixon to be given status as a special agent in the War on Drugs. This is great. The War on Drugs is harmful and costly in a way that should be taken seriously. But that doesn’t mean all art about it has to be extremely grave or dark and gritty. It’s also ridiculous, and making it an object of ridicule, in combination with those moral and practical indictments, can help undermine its authority and make it a thing of the past. One of the most devastating indictments of Richard Nixon is, after all, the sublime and underrated Dick. Danny Huston, who will be playing Nixon in this movie, should take notes:
By Kate Linnea Welsh
On this week’s episode of The Good Wife, deals with the devil are everywhere and people are wagering things they may not actually have. In a nice note of continuity, the plane crash mentioned by Eli and Diane last week is back as the case of the week this week, and it brings Celeste back into things: She’s representing the families of the crew members who died in the crash, while Diane is representing the families of the passengers. (I do wish the show had an explanation for why Lockhart/Gardner folks are suddenly running into Celeste all the time, other than that they now have Lisa Edelstein under contract.) Diane and Celeste’s case is based on the testimony of a whistle-blower who says that the manufacturer knew a piece of the plane was faulty, but the whistle-blower kills himself before he can testify. Celeste continues her wicked witch routine by pointing out that this could actually be a good thing – it means they can use his taped deposition and not have to worry about cross-examination. That evidence ends up not being enough, though, so they have to find another person who was at the meeting at which the manufacturer discussed the faulty equipment…
And that person is, coincidentally enough, Lockhart/Gardner’s old client Colin Sweeney, the creepy wife-killer who is now in jail for involuntary manslaughter. I get that they wanted to bring Sweeney back – he’s a compelling character – but this connection was so coincidental that it really just seemed random, and made the case of the week itself even more incidental to the show than it usually is. (But then the fact that all the characters are connected in unexpected ways is one of the underlying premises of the show, so maybe it’s not so odd after all.) Sweeney wants a get-out-of-jail-free card in exchange for his testimony, and this brings us right back to Peter, Cary, Imani, and the new ethical standards at the State’s Attorney’s office. But it’s still hard to separate actual ethics from appearances: a substantial amount of Peter’s concern about the issue stems from the way it will make him look if he releases Sweeney. They compromise: Sweeney testifies and wears a wire to get evidence against a white supremacist he knows in prison, and they let him out. None of the specifics of the cases really matter this week; instead, the show is back to one of its favorite themes: Where’s the happy medium between naive idealism and cynical pragmatism? How much collateral damage is allowed? How many deals with the devil can you make before you have to stop claiming to be on the side of the angels?
Ferny Reyes is blogging his experience teaching at a charter school in Texas, and has what I think is a valuable post on the challenges of teaching cultural literacy, along with reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic:
What does it mean to prepare a student for college? At our campus, we talk openly about college-readiness as our standard. Our students should be ready to academic handle the rigors of collegiate life, particularly since a large minority of our students will be attending selective or highly-selective universities. Equally important, however, is preparing them for the culture shock that many collegiate environments will be for them, particularly the further away they get from the city of Houston.
A couple of quick anecdotes will suffice: only 6 of my 125 students have seen any Star Wars movie. Only one had seen the Godfather. The concept of ‘philosophy’ is completely foreign to them. Even the game of baseball is a mystery to most them (taking my students to a baseball game is an experience I’ll be recounting another time).
These are not dumb students. Most of them are hard working, quick-witted and sharp. They are held to more rigorous standards that I and many of my fellow Yale alumni were held during high school. However, the gaps in certain cultural knowledge is extreme. This matters. Knowledge of baseball, the Godfather and Star Wars may seem trivial, but they are symptoms of a much larger conundrum: the inability to gather the tokens of a privileged culture they will have to enter in college and in larger American life…
I cannot, in good conscience, pretend that their cultural experiences will be valued for all that they are worth and that they won’t be judged for not having those markers of cultural knowledge.
I read E.D. Hirsch, who Reyes cites, in high school, and while I find the basic idea of a common set of cultural knowledge we could use to talk to each other across race, class, gender, and generational lines compelling, I’ve always been turned off by Hirsch’s antipathy to multiculturalism. If cultural literacy is just about getting people of color to absorb white and dudely classics, and white and dudely rock, and white and dudely nerd artifacts, it’s of limited utility in a world where the U.S. may be majority minority by 2050. If white folks aren’t going to be a majority in America, maybe the canon should include some Tejano music, some Garcia Marquez, and some foundational hip-hop:
The problem is who really gets to define the canon. It’s a monster of a task. Should works be included on a strictly proportional basis that can shift overtime? Based on longevity with some acknowledgment that the relative disempowerment of women, people of color, and gay artists and thinkers have been historically disenfranchised? Have some formula that lets scholarly opinion and popular taste, both of which can evolve over time, each pick some works? And how much should educational institutions be responsible for teaching popular rather than foundational works (if you accept that there’s a difference between them)?
It may not have been an official part of my curriculum, but as someone who grew up with more knowledge of folk music and feminist YA fantasy novels than genuine popular culture, I’ve always been grateful to the teachers who showed me Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, chunks of The Simpsons, and Listen To Me, the first movie I ever appreciated for being so bad it was great. All those teachers gave me both concrete knowledge that helped me to do better in school, but they also provided me with conversational tools that served me well later. There are lots of kinds of assimilation. And the people who determine what counts as mass culture, whether it’s high or low, aren’t always going to be the same.
This post contains spoilers through the October 23 episode of The Walking Dead.
I wrote in the Atlantic last week that I thought the most frightening thing about The Walking Dead wasn’t necessarily the zombies themselves, but the obstacle they present to things that ought to be normal and routine. That was certainly the case last night, where the two biggest risks are ones that wouldn’t have been a problem in the apocalypse: T-Dog’s infected cut and the possibility that Carl won’t survive surgery.
T-Dog gets most directly at the irony of it all. “Wouldn’t that be the thing,” he tells Dale as they wait by the RV for the rest of the group to return from hunting for Sophia. “The world gone to hell. The dead rose up to eat the living. Theodore Duggs get done in by a cut on his arm.” This is what’s really scary about living through a zombie apocalypse. What if you safeguard your humanity, and it turns out not to matter in the slightest because your humanity isn’t of any use to you? Rick may be willing to give all the blood in the world, but in the absence of anesthetics or a proper surgical theater, it may not save his son, and it may weaken him to a point of extreme danger.
Because I spend a lot of time overanalyzing things, I tend to grade on a bit of a curve for pop culture I can just purely enjoy, like Revenge (though even there I get some sweet, sweet class warfare politics) or Once Upon a Time, ABC’s frothy fairy tale, which debuted last night. I’m a sucker for fractured fairy tales — I once won a Girl Scout writing contest by revising Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to make Snow White a union organizer and her evil stepmother a majority shareholder in a mining corporation.
But the show also got me thinking about a funny little holdover, the persistence of shows about magic set in small towns. In Once Upon a Time, Emma leaves the city where she’s working as a bail bondswoman and finds an eerily perfect little town in Maine that happens to be populated (perhaps entirely? We don’t know yet.) by amnesiac fairy tale characters. In Eastwick, the short-lived 2009 ABC adaptation of John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, magic turns another small New England town upside down. Grimm, NBC’s supernatural cop show, which premieres this weekend, is set in Portland, and while that’s not exactly a small town, the show is shot to make it seem like it’s taking place on the edge of the frontier, with cases that take its paranormal detective into the woods. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which eventually expanded in scope over the years, started in a Southern California version of a New England small town, a community that looped between school, home, and the Bronze, a closed little world.
It’s not really surprising that this is the case. We actually had witch trials in New England in the early years of our country’s history: the fear of and fascination with magic, as well as anxieties about how easy it is for misconceptions to set in and take over small communities, is part of our founding story. When characters live at the edge of what you consider the known or civilized world, maybe it’s easier to believe that there are things beyond the canon accepted human knowledge than it is to believe such things surrounded by the calming omnipresence of civilization in the city. And if you want magic to be something that disrupts the lives of a wide swath of characters rather than be the secret knowledge that binds together a small group of people, a small town is a more reasonable setting. But the presence of magic in small towns is an interesting photo-negative commentary on the idea that they’re a repository of values and a guarantor of safety. You may leave a set of contemporary, human-created concerns behind if you flee to the suburbs and beyond. But you may find a whole new set of concerns if you venture into — or close to — the woods.
The bridge is yours.
-I do love the Whedonverse, but Joss’s Much Ado About Nothing will have to be something crazy special to beat Kenneth Branagh’s.
-Was Google Reader really that important as a social network?
-Fictional characters Occupy Wall Street.
-In praise of soaps.
-Please, please, let’s not have a Watchmen 2.
Over at Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams thinks that Hollywood actors are overpaid, that the focus on their compensation makes it easier for studios to cut jobs at the lower end of the spectrum, and that it’s time to Occupy Hollywood:
The great recession is not Johnny Depp’s fault. Johnny Depp did not decimate your 401K and your children’s college savings plans. He did not foreclose your home. He did not take away your health insurance when you got laid off. He did not start charging you new monthly banking fees while awarding himself a hefty bonus. All the guy’s ever done is dress like a pirate and entertain people…To pay for the stars, studios have gutted the number of movies they make by 20 percent. And while Depp earns enough to buy himself a small planet, Jack Sparrow’s home at Disney is laying off hundreds of employees. This is the same studio whose sense of proportion is so out of whack that it prides itself on sticking to a $215 million budget for a remake of “The Lone Ranger,” starring, of course, Johnny Depp. In a harrowingly grandiose statement of out-of-touchness, Jerry Bruckheimer told the Hollywood Reporter this week, “For the smaller scenes [we] laid off the extras, the effects people, the makeup people … We bunched together scenes with Tonto and the Lone Ranger, so we had a much smaller crew. We saved about $10 million just by doing that.” Wait, that’s how you saved money? Laying off effects people?
I think there’s essentially no question that the link between big stars and the actual revenue they produce for studios is fuzzy — but also that figuring out a fair compensation system would be devilishly difficult given that fuzziness. If Inception makes $826 million, is it really so wildly irrational for Leonardo DiCaprio to make $50 million after cutting a deal that gave him a share of the profits on a movie that was considered risky? There’s been buzz for years over whether the star system is broken, but I think A.O. Scott put it well in a Q&A this summer when he said that “Bankability is not what it used to be, partly because movies are not what they used to be. I don’t mean that they’re not as good (in some ways they’re better) but rather that television has eroded movies’ monopoly on talent and prestige.”
Then, there’s the question of layoffs and cost-cutting. I honestly think actors are the wrong target here — they have some power, but Depp has a fixed fee that’s written into the budget, and it’s Bruckheimer who’s the person at the top signing off on the cuts that will lower costs and free up more profits to the studio they both work for. The question isn’t necessarily how to communicate to studios that we value actors less — it’s to show that we value everyone else involved in the production of a movie more. The best model for doing this is probably the Whedonverse — one of the cool things about moderating Jane Espenson’s panel at Comic Con was seeing persistent fans come out for someone who has never been in front of the camera but who have followed her from project to project — but even that’s of limited utility. Her web series Husbands is very funny and ripe for a newlyweds sitcom, but being in the Whedon club doesn’t mean that you automatically get on TV* (or as Whedon’s own experience suggests, that you get to stay there).
But that’s not comprehensive, either. I have no idea how to get consumers broadly invested in the works of, say, effects studios, much less individual artists, or makeup artists, or extras, or even if we should. The dude who played that enigmatic zombie in the first season of The Walking Dead was pretty awesome, and there are scenes that will play as incoherently if they’re depopulated, then the contribution of extras maybe reasonably clear to the careful observer. But I have a hard time believing that these things matter that much to mass consumers. It may not be attractive for studios to make these calculations and to get away with them, but I don’t think it’s exceptionally shocking that they make these decisions either.
To the extent that we should Occupy Hollywood, if we’re interested in substantial change to Hollywood’s default settings, I think Williams’ solution that we stay home is the wrong one. Instead, it makes sense to be smarter consumers. Spend your money on good movies, with smaller budgets. Take some risks with your $10-$15 instead of settling for a bland default that you know will be fine but not spectacular (the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, for all the expense and hype, still just netted an average CinemaScore). Holler about the good things that you find that you think others won’t. Since you’re here, I’m assuming you’re doing that already. And since you’re here, I assume you’re doing all of those things already. So keep it up. It’s a common impulse to suggest that we resist culture by walking away from it for a while (or even forever). But it’s more fun, if sometimes more frustrating, to keep some skin in the game.
*I am hopeful that Husbands will find a home now that the first season, which is essentially a pilot, is out. Fingers crossed.
If you know Oded Fehr, it’s probably from his turns in broad, goofy action franchises like The Mummy and Resident Evil, or Charmed, where he had a long-running stint as a super-evil demon. But I started watching Sleeper Cell over the weekend (and for everyone who recommended it in the context of my love for Homeland, thanks! It’s really good.) and was pleasantly surprised to see him pop up as Farik, an Islamic terrorist who’s chosen as his cover membership in a deeply immersive Los Angeles synagogue.
It’s not the first time that Fehr, an Israeli-born actor who did army service and worked security for El Al while he lived in Germany, has played Muslim or a militant. In The Mummy, he’s the leader of a millennia-old Muslim cavalry who guards an abandoned Egyptian city. His character’s meant to be South American in the Resident Evil movies, and he’s spent time as part of an anti-government militia. I’ve only ever seen him play Israeli once, in Covert Affairs, where he’s a Mossad agent in one of the only roles that takes serious advantage of his ridiculous handsomeness — as Farik, he’s magnetic, but not particularly sexual.
So what does it all mean? His set of roles is a testament to the limitations of racial profiling and typing. And it turns out that militance and hyper-competence feel similar no matter the cause they’re employed in. We might be a little nervous about an insanely gifted Mossad agent, but we still have permission to think his lethality is sexy and handy in an emergency. But I sort of doubt, based on what I’ve seen so far, we’re going to see Farik stuck in a hotel room with a leggy blonde. It wouldn’t make sense for the plot, and it’s hard to imagine that audience for Sleeper Cell, which is already getting pushed hard on sympathizing with some people with very unsympathetic plans, would be willing to go there. We can see another two other members of the cell having sex, but the legitimate member has to appear ugly and violent during the encounter. Only the FBI plan’s allowed to have sex that looks erotic. We can sexualize unattractive people if their unattractiveness is in service of our own interests.
This post contains spoilers through the October 23 episode of Boardwalk Empire.
This episode confirmed a suspicion I’ve had about Boardwalk Empire, which is that the parts of the show I’m most interested in aren’t the main conflict. I suppose I care that Nucky doesn’t go to jail, but I’m vastly more interested in Chalky, Angela, Margaret, and the state of Richard’s soul than I am in the blood feud between Nucky, his brother, and the son he’s cast out of his kingdom, as if Satan faced his own rebellion. There’s some interesting stuff about masculinity and the manifest corruption of the Harding administration going on in Nucky’s storyline, but I feel like the show doesn’t have exceptionally developed ideas about these things: rather than sifting through subtext to divine larger ideas, all I have to analyze is the show’s surface.
And surface becomes quite literally important in this episode when, after a melancholy suicide attempt thwarted by the appearance of man’s best friend, Richard comes back to himself by scalping a disappointed investor for Jimmy. His sitting for Angela was one of the best parts of the last episode, and there’s something lovely and sad about seeing him leaf through his scrap-book, a wistful reminder of a life Richard has decided is impossible for him. But there’s a lot of telling here, rather than showing. Some of it’s by necessity: flashing back to Richard’s past would have complicated an already overstuffed show. But I wish the show had found a way to do more than to have us watch Richard watching other things, that it didn’t need to be quite so obvious in its juxtapositions. We already know that Richard doesn’t see himself like Angela does, and that even she doesn’t see him as his old self: putting the two portraits side by side just reminds us of something we already know instead of giving us new information. The show is capable of doing better. In a nice exchange towards the end of the episode, Jimmy tells Angela “Nobody’s hungry. Nobody’s scared. What else is there?” “There’s got to be something. Hasn’t there?” Angela tells Jimmy. There’s a real tragedy here: Richard understands that something better than the man Angela is pledged to, but he isn’t physically whole in a way that Jimmy is. Neither man is complete enough for her, but only one man realizes it.
Showtime didn’t get out Homeland screeners to critics this week, and I’m trying to find a way to watch the episode, because I thought I had Showtime, and it turns out I don’t and the show isn’t offered through iTunes. Cable packages: they’re complicated! (And we all know what assuming does.) In any case, use this as an open thread for the show if you watched it, and I’ll try to get back with some analysis as soon as I can get my hands on it.