Once again, someone has realized that putting male superheroes in the same positions as women reveals how ridiculous and sexually reductive those poses are in the first place. We’ve been here before, and recently. And we’ve seen it in the superhero-themed Victoria’s Secret fashion show, which had a number of outfits that were actually less revealing and more practical than the outfits comics artists give female heroes who have to do things other than walk down runways in them. But sometimes I wonder if practicality, dignity, and logic are beside the point here. It’s hard to think of another art form that’s so impervious to the idea that women exist for something other than male enjoyment.
The word is grim: Credit Suisse revised its forecasts, and instead of expecting cable television subscriptions to increase by 250,000 next year, they’re now predicting that the number of subscribers will fall by 200,000. And it’s not just that families are cutting the cord because it’s expensive. The number will go down because of a larger cultural shift, younger consumers who have decided that cable isn’t worth the money at all and are declining to subscribe in the first place, so they won’t replace older ones who are exiting the subscriber universe. That should be a much scarier proposition for the cable industry, but it’s an intriguing one for networks.
I remain pretty convinced that even if it takes a very long time to unbundle cable, and even if a bunch of networks die in the process, a move towards a more flexible (if not entirely a la carte) multi-platform system is inevitable. The idea that choice is paying for precisely what you want, rather than getting an enormous number of things — some of which you want and some of which you’d gladly see die in a fire — for your money seems pretty well-entrenched in the music industry now, and has always been the case for books. If I were HBO, I’d be pondering a subscription option for HBO GO only: I’m pretty sure I’d pay the $9-odd dollars I pay for my HBO package now for HBO GO only if I didn’t have cable.
For networks that don’t have the same premium branding as HBO or Showtime baked into their business model, and thus would have more difficulty attracting a core of subscribers used to paying for them separately, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. I can see something like Bravo making the jump to premium-lite status not because the content is astonishingly good but because the brand is so clearly defined. And I wonder if other networks will retrench their content offerings to try to keep the subscribers they have, or innovate to try to bring resistent cord-nevers into the fold. It’d be easier to do the former, but for the survival of the industry, much more important to innovate with everything to do the latter.
I’ve mentioned that I’m on a hardcore Living Single kick (TVOne really needs to have a marathon so I won’t run through my DVR backlog every night), and it struck me that one of the reasons I love the show, in addition to its specificity on race and its Friends-without-the-dopiness vibe, is that Khadijah James reminds me a lot of Leslie Knope.
First, there’s their collective hyper-competence — and exasperation when other people aren’t as committed as they are or up to their exacting standards. I’ve always appreciated the way that Leslie’s collective enthusiasm spills over to her friends and colleagues, turning Ann Perkins from a concerned citizen into a committed government employee (even if she was super-bossy about that final transition); inspiring everyone to reach for new heights to honor Lil’ Sebastian; convincing Ron to save her job even though on principal he’d love to see enthusiastic people like her get out of government and to see government wither away behind them. She gets so much pleasure out of work done right that she’s genuinely uncomfortable when someone like Ann isn’t as excited for or anxious about a job interview as Leslie herself is, and she can’t resist jollying along someone as terminally apathetic as April. Leslie is the rare television character who runs the constant risk of being annoying, but because she’s enthusiastic, rather than wacky. And she redeems herself by painting a vision so compelling everyone else wants to go along with it. She’s the rare female television character her show doesn’t feel the need to humiliate or cut down in any way. Leslie is allowed to be Wonder Woman. Or Diaphina. Take your pick.
Khadijah’s less strange than Leslie — the entire universe of Living Single is more realistic and less hyper-real in the Parks and Recreation. But it’s cool to see her conquer the challenges of publishing (and it’s a nostalgic look back at the industry as it was more than a decade ago). In one episode, she’s working on a corruption story (Living Single has really nice, smart roots in local government with Max’s side gig as city councilwoman) when her parent company forces her to hire an arrogant but brilliant reporter who wants the story for himself. She puts up with him turning in notes to her on candy wrappers, rolling into the office late, and generally mouthing off to her employees, but when he concocts a complicated scheme to get himself arrested to get close to a key source, she shuts him down and reports the story herself. When a rival magazine starts ripping off Flavor, there’s a great screwball sequence of Khadijah getting in trouble for taking down literally every flyer the competitor’s posted in New York City — she only got busted when she stole an absolutely enormous sign and lugged it all the way home. Khadijah’s more stressed than Leslie, but she also has to hustle harder than her Pawnee counterpart, who’s had several seasons of making governing look effortless. And again, the show walks a fine line between showing those struggles and cutting her down to size: an episode where she seeks therapy is genuinely touching and funny.
Leslie and Khadijah are also not the most conventionally attractive women in the casts of the shows they’re on, but both shows are committed to the idea that they’re almost irresistibly sexy and romantically successful. It might have been easy to treat Leslie as Ann’s nerdier best friend in matters of the heart, but Leslie’s love life seems somewhat more successful than Ann’s does. And people tend to single her out as unusually attractive, whether it’s Jerry taking her as an accidental muse or Jean-Ralphio thanking his lucky stars he’s finally gotten a chance with her. Similarly, Khadijah could have ended up second fiddle to the romantic travails of Barbie-pretty Regine or skinnier Max (I appreciate the way she’s essentially a black female Jughead). Instead, men can’t resist her. Her reportorial rival at the Village Voice courts her even as she hustles past him to a blockbuster story. Grant Hill falls for her — and when she breaks his heart, Alonzo Mourning says he’d love to date her but hears she has a reputation for loving and leaving them. It’s just profoundly refreshing to have these shows see these very attractive, interesting women as they are, instead of assigning them pathetic places in the warped hierarchy that is Hollywood attractiveness. And it’s kind of depressing that across the media, female characters this complete and this undefeated are so rare.
In what appears to be a pattern of concern-trolling by players’ representatives in European soccer, the chief of the Italian players’ union, Damiano Tommasi, has advised against gay players coming out of the closet on the grounds that it would violate the sanctity of the locker room:
Homosexuality is still a taboo in football in the sense that there is a different kind of cohabitation to other professions. Expressing your personal sexuality is difficult in every professional environment and even more so for a footballer who shares a changing room with his team-mates, and hence also his intimacy with others. In our world it could cause embarrassment. In a sport in which you get undressed it could cause an extra difficulty in cohabitation. In other professions such as journalists or bank employees, this doesn’t happen.For them it’s easier to express themselves. But from a personal point of view, I think you can live without showing your own tendencies or you can do so in a discreet manner.
Let’s be clear: this isn’t about protecting gay players from having to feel strange and different. This is about protecting straight players from having to face their anxieties — and find out they might be false. This is about the false idea that locker rooms are already sexually neutral zones, because when it’s heterosexuality, it’s neutral and doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable, but if the specter of gayness creeps in everything is confused and weird and overwhelming. This is about the deeply illogical idea that if someone behaved in a dignified and professional fashion while they were in the closet, that they’ll suddenly become a sexual harasser upon coming out, an event that usually accords with people wanting to reassure their friends and family and coworkers that everything about them is still essentially the same.
This is the same kind of false expression of concern that happened back in August when Philipp Lahm, who captains the German national team, warned in his published autobiography that if gay players came out, they would be harassed into suicide. His only evidence for this, of course, as my colleague Zack Ford pointed out, was a teammate who killed himself over the fear that he would be arrested for sexual assault. And even if he’d had an actual example, this would be an argument about straight homophobes, not gay people living their lives openly and honestly.
In a way, this is a victory for gay people. There are no legitimate objections about the threat gay people pose to straight society. So homophobes have to find convoluted ways to pretend they care about the well-being of gay people instead. But it’s still kind of depressing.
Just a reminder, for next week, we’ll be watching Oz Season 2, Episode 3; Season 3, Episode 7; Season 4, Episode 4. The show is available through HBO GO.
So it turns out that Last Dance is about a party boy who finds his purpose working in the appeals office for a Southern state government, falls in love with a murderer played by Sharon Stone, and after she’s executed, takes an Annie Lennox-scored trip to the Taj Mahal in her memory and as a way to express that he’s finally really, seriously at peace with himself. In other words, it’s a pretty terrible movie, chock-full of sassy black death row inmates who call Stone’s sweet former-addict killer “girl” a lot, a weak-sauce and sentimental discussion of racial and economic disparities in the death penalty, and a lot of thick-accented callous Southern stereotypes. But it does a couple of things that I think are interesting, even if I don’t think it does them particularly well.
First is the way it addresses lingering discomfort with executing women. Sam, the head of the appeals office, treats feminism as if it’s a joke that women have played on themselves, suggesting that executions of women are up because of the “Women’s lobby. They all want equal treatment in the eyes of the law.” Rick, the young attorney who’s come to work for Sam while he figures out what he wants to do with his life, expresses bewilderment that a woman could commit the crime Cindy’s guilty of, bludgeoning two wealthy young people to death — Sam tells him, “Most of the time when a woman kills, it’s a crime of passion.” Later, the pompous, tough-on-crime governor informs Rick that “Her sex made no difference to her victims. It makes no difference to us under our legal system.” These are platitudes and stereotypes, but there’s a real issue here about how gender plays into our expectations about violent behavior, and our willingness to exert violence against women in the name of the state. If crimes against women, particularly white women, inspire moral outrage, violent crimes committed by women also challenge our conceptions of gendered behavior.
Second, there’s the question of how race and class interact in the death penalty, which is mostly addressed when Rick, told to stay away from Cindy’s case, visits a black inmate who’s earned a law degree and written a best-seller about his moral evolution on death row. He predicts, accurately as it turns out, that the narrative of his transformation will earn him a reprieve that Cindy is denied. “What’s the smart money saying? Who’s going to live, me or the white girl?” he asks Rick. “They will be diminished by my death because I represent everything they love and admire. How are they going to kill a man who’s been on the New York Times best-seller list?” I don’t know that it’s true that politicians are less afraid to appear classist than they are to appear racist, especially when it comes to black men and crime, but against, it’s an interesting proposition, one the movie floats and lets gets away before it can explore it further.
Running around New Haven art museums today, so no links roundup. But you can thank the members of the Yale Political Union for this:
The latest Annenberg study of women’s representation behind and in front of the camera in the movies in 2009 is out, and the results remain depressing: women have just 32.8 percent of speaking roles in the movies the study examined (the same percentage as in 2008 and up from 29.9 in 2007), and just 21.6 percent of producers (up from 19.1 percent in 2008 and 20.5 percent in 2007), 13.5 percent of movie writers (down from 13.6 in 2008 but up from 11.2 in 2007), and 3.6 percent of directors are women (down from 8 percent in 2009 and up from 2.7 in 2007). If women are involved as writers on a movie, the percentage of female characters in that film jumps from 29.8 percent of characters to 40 percent of characters, and if women are directing, the percentage of female characters rises from 32.2 percent of the speaking cast to 47.7 percent of the characters. Putting women in a position to tell stories changes the kinds of stories that get told, and our failure at the former guarantees our failure at the latter. The gains we’re making are small, and they don’t appear to be particularly durable from year to year.
A couple of data points, or the absence thereof, stood out at me. I’d actually be interested to see an analysis of non-speaking roles as well as speaking ones. If women had a majority of non-speaking roles, it might reinforce the idea that women in the movies are passive or merely eye-candy. Are there are a lot of women in the background of scenes where men are speaking, whether they’re presented as sexually available or part of the landscape? Do movies with female stars put women in the frame in passive roles instead of putting men there? If the percentages of speaking and non-speaking roles for women are roughly equal, it might just be that Hollywood is more comfortable telling stories about men or in male settings. Those problems are interrelated, but they aren’t precisely identical.
Second, one statistic that’s gone down is the percentage of female characters who are described as attractive within the movie, from 18.5 percent in 2007, to 15.1 percent in 2008, to 10.9 in 2009. During this same time, the percentage of female characters who are depicted partially unclothed has ticked up 1.8 percent, and the number of women portrayed in relationships has gone up 6.9 percent, which may mean that audiences don’t need to be told that yes, in fact, yet another pneumatic starlet is a good-lookin’ woman. But interestingly in 2009, the attractiveness of just 2.5 percent of male characters was remarked on during the course of a movie. Could it be? Could attractiveness be a more important indicator for women than it is for men? Could it be that we just sort of take for granted that a broad range of men are considered attractive, whereas it’s a requirement that the sexiness of women, particularly those who don’t fall in a narrow mold, be constantly reaffirmed?
And finally, it’s fascinating and deeply weird to me that just 16.83 percent of movies have casts that are balanced between men and women, up from 15.1 percent in 2008 and 11.88 in 2007. I get that some subjects, like war movies, are likely to be weighted toward heavily male casts. But for movies set in the civilian world, it’s not like the majority of women work at ladymags, or all-female PR firms, and it’s not like the majority of men work in all-male investment banking or management consulting shops. Even if they do, men and women tend to have friends, neighbors, and relatives of the opposite sex. We don’t divide our cities and towns into cloisters, and that’s the source of so many of our joys and torments, our consolations and stumbles towards the light. It’s odd that our movies try to separate us from each other, except in pursuit of sex and love.
I will admit to being somewhat dorkily excited for Tony Scott’s upcoming Narco Sub, a movie about the battle between efforts by drug cartels to use primitive semi-submersibles to get cocaine into the United States and U.S. law enforcement agents’ effort to stop them, despite the fact that it seems inevitable that Denzel Washington will get cast as a badass DEA agent, that things will blow up rather flagrantly, and that it will probably be terrible. But even though Scott won’t actually take this path, the Narco Sub story is the kind of action movie that could be adapted to be unpredictable and challenging.
In real life, the hero of the fight (which honestly is a mix of action-packed and pretty goofy) against drug trafficking via home-made submarines is Sandra Brooks, the Navy’s Deputy Director of Intelligence and Security and Chief of Innovation and Technology, who started a program to go after “unconventional targets operating in the maritime environment.” As she said when she won a major award for public service in 2010, her first score was nicknamed Big Foot because her colleagues thought it was a myth — and they caught 9.2 tons of contraband along with the semi-sub. You could upset all kinds of movie conventions by making the Narco Sub hero a woman (and a lesbian — Brooks is gay, which shakes up the action-romance narrative nicely), and in the best tradition of Spooks, someone who figures things out from an office rather than parachuting in to a dumpy submarine to punch drug traffickers in the schnoz. They’ll never do it, of course. But I would watch the hell out of that movie, or anything else that acknowledges that there’s more than one way to beat the bad guys, and more than one kind of person capable of doing it.
As one is wont to do over the holidays, I found myself watching some episodes of Friends, a show I caught only sporadically when it was airing the first time around, with my family. I found myself particularly struck by the episode where Ross gets anxious over the possibility that a new girlfriend will turn out to be a lesbian because she’s hanging out with Susan, his lesbian ex-wife Carol’s partner. At the time, I found the scenario sort of grating: it’s irritating to watch straight guys angst over whether the supply of women who are sexually available to them will dwindle.
But the more I thought about it, the more I think the episode is a smart illustration of the ways in which closeting and lack of familiarity with gay people are bad for heterosexuals as well as for gay people themselves. Because Ross’s main experience with coming out has been with someone who didn’t figure out she was gay until after they were married, it’s not totally illogical that he’s anxious about it happening again. And I think it’s fair to acknowledge that damage done to straight partners in those situations, even if the impact is worse for people who are denying their true selves and the full range of experience that comes with it. This is not purely the stuff of fiction, or the ’50s, as evidenced by the column last week in the New York Times about an academic couple who stayed together for appearances and, as they told themselves, for their children. And the fact that Ross doesn’t appear to know very much about gay people — including the fact that having a very close lesbian friend doesn’t mean you’re going to spontaneously flip your sexual orientation — heightens his anxiety. It’s not a perfect episode, but it’s a nice little fable about the need for familiarity to dispel fear.
Lost in the ongoing kerfuffle over whether Chelsea Clinton is qualified to report human interest segments for NBC News, and whether her hiring represents a conflict of interest for the network, seems to be a quality question: is the very private daughter of the man who was president more than a decade ago actually a draw for anyone? I kind of get the Meghan McCain thing as entertainment, if not as news — she’s got a well-cultivated personality, she’s built a following on social media; at the USA Network-The Moth storytelling event I went to earlier this fall, she comported herself with a winning degree of sophistication and self-deprecation. But I don’t know that anyone tunes in to MSNBC for her.
And it’s even more bewildering to think that people would tune in for Chelsea Clinton. One of the more admirable things the Clintons ever did as parents was to fight hard to protect Chelsea’s privacy, especially at a time when Bill’s behavior was inviting withering media scrutiny. As an adult, she kept to that pattern, working a series of bland private sector jobs and venturing out only to campaign for her mother in 2008. I looked at some of her wedding pictures (Hillary rocked a really awesome caftan in the days beforehand) in a cursory way. But the same preservation of her privacy and stringent avoidance of public life or public service that don’t make her a particularly qualified journalist don’t make her a particularly interesting person either. I have no idea what Chelsea Clinton’s unique lens on the world is, and nothing about the deal with NBC has made it seem like I should really care. I say this not to be callous, but to suggest it’s puzzling that the network would pursue a hire that invites disapproval without a clear upside.
I’m a bit late to David Haglund’s piece suggesting that ambition is ruining television, but I don’t think he’s entirely right about that. And I don’t think Erik Kain’s suggestion that it’s just a matter of quality writing is quite on the mark either (though no matter what kind of show you’re doing, writing matters).
It’s not that wanting to tell big, sweeping societal stories is a problem. It’s that prestige television has tended to be ambitious in the same way, collectively convinced that the best way to tell those stories and to get us to feel like morally sophisticated consumers is to get us to identify with anti-heroes (and they’re almost all men) and to test our tolerance even when their behavior becomes repulsive and unjustifiable. There are so many cable shows that do this, and it’s been proven so critically and commercially successful that going down that route is no longer really a sign of ambition, but of calculation. I tend to be bored with Boardwalk Empire‘s grand machinations, but I’m fascinated by its side trips into domestic dramas: I’d watch a show re-centered around Angela and Margaret. I’ll get excited when someone lays down a new marker, when they make us identify with a wholly different kind of character. Ambition is as much about innovation and perspective as about size. And venality or outright evil aren’t the only innovative sources of American stories.
It’s really impossible to say enough good things about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s revitalized and reopened Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia, an astonishingly rich journey through the centuries and a cornucopia of artistic influences and achievements. I spent three hours at the exhibit, a meandering walk around a central courtyard, full of screens and deep chairs that let you better examine gorgeous manuscripts, before Thanksgiving. And I came away from it with a powerful sense not just that I’d seen something beautiful, but that the exhibit provides a striking sense of the long arc of history.
The galleries are a reminder that constraints can be a help, rather than a hindrance, in the production of astonishing art. It’s unfortunate that so much of the contemporary discussion around Islam and art ends up involving things like prohibitions on depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (a trend that some Muslims have exacerbated by reacting to free speech with violence), rather than the alternative ways Muslim artists have found to depict the divine. One of the things that struck me most strongly was the way that artists, in forms ranging from pottery, to weaving, to stone-carving, to competitions to create enormous, tiny, and innovative versions of the Koran, bring language to life. This isn’t just a matter of illuminating manuscripts. The language itself is alive, and stunning. In some pieces, the words literally grow into plant life on the page. In others, they spin off into geometry, languidly circling the rim of a bowl or packed tight into woven patterns. The signature of Suleyman the Magnificent isn’t just some colonial-style assertion of will through flourishes and scale: it’s gilded with the weight of his authority. Taken together, the galleries are a stunning testament to the sense that language carries divine power with it.
The show also provides an astonishing sense of scale — and of impermanence. It’s exciting to see the Chinese influence on Syrian Islamic figurative art, and to get a sense that the world was a more connected place than we imagine it to be in a book of constellations with deities who look more Chinese than Persian or Turkish. Similarly, there are beautiful pieces by Iraqi potters who were mashing up Chinese stoneware traditions and Islamic calligraphy. But as big, and as far-reaching as the Muslim-ruled world was, it didn’t last as a coherent whole: the juxtapositions of influences and assimilated styles are striking precisely because they seem out of such a distant past. The show includes a style of carpet known as Bellini Carpets not because that’s the name of the artist who made them, but because the Venetian painter Giovani Bellini painted his 16th-century Madonnas standing on carpets with their distinctive keyholes: Christianity takes Islam’s place on the world stage even in art history.
But it’s a useful reminder not to assume that any dominant power will persevere. Madonnas striding across Persian carpets may seem like a revelation in a couple of centuries, rather than the norm. As they present old art in a fresh and exciting new way, the revitalized galleries accomplish a rare trifecta, giving us a sense of and context for “what is past, or passing, or to come.”
I wouldn’t normally do this, but this post is spoileriffic for The Magician King in a way that reveals the essential conflict of the book if you haven’t read it. So ABANDON ALL HOPE OF STAYING SPOILER-FREE YE WHO ENTER HERE.
I want to come back to our conversations about class in The Magicians and The Magician King. But I wanted to discuss something else first. Namely, the way the violent sexual assault Julia experiences at the hands of a god she and her friends summoned by accident, and the sexual degradation she suffers in the course of her magical self-education acts as the engine of Quentin’s moral awakening.
I actually think that one scene in the novel before the ritual to summon the god does a nice job of separating out genuine sexual desire from sexual performance that’s expected of you. We know that in the course of her desperate quest for magical knowledge, Julia’s resorted to sex repeatedly if asking nicely won’t do, and that her main relationship with one of the first hedge witches she meets is cemented more by need than by genuine desire. So it’s genuinely moving when Julia finally sleeps with one of her friends from the chatroom for depressed geniuses that he’s helped her hold it together and finds out that sex can be physically and emotionally rewarding, that it opens her up to confidences from her partner, a greater understanding of him and herself: “She didn’t think she’d ever done it just because she wanted to before. It felt good. No, it felt fantastic. This was the way it was supposed to work…she felt pleasantly fleshly. She was mind and body both, for once.” It’s a forceful assertion of the idea that even if you lose your sexual way, that you can find it again, that pleasure is not rendered forever inaccessible by trauma.
Which makes it frustrating when the book takes back that premise. Granted, getting raped by a deity does seem like it would be of a different magnitude, and the scene of Julia’s rape (which for my money, is more detailed and disturbing than anything that happens in A Song of Ice and Fire) is sensitively, if disturbingly, observed — apologies for the very long blockquote:
My friend Elana Levin forwarded me the results of a writing contest with a noble goal — “bringing women’s and human rights values into mainstream culture” — and a weird way of going about achieving it:
How often have you been enjoying a book, movie, play, or TV episode…when all of a sudden things take a turn for the sexist, misogynist, needlessly violent, or worse? Have you ever wished you could jump into a story, shout at the characters, grab the pen (or keyboard) of the writer, and make it turn out the way you think it should?
Now you can! Breakthrough presents #Rewrite the Ending, our Bell Bajao campaign’s first-ever fiction (re)writing competition. Your job: take a work of fiction – a novel, movie, epic myth, opera, poem, TV episode, short story, play, or anything else that inspires you (or makes you nuts) – and rewrite the ending to erase the sexism, highlight human rights, and win yourself some great prizes.
Part of my issue here is that I’m just not that fond of the idea that art should exist to serve fans’ desires, however noble they may be. I’m fine with creators hiding Easter eggs for readers and watchers, and I think it can be totally appropriate to acknowledge common fan conceptions about a work or fan campaigns on on a work’s behalf. But that’s an entirely different thing from bending the curve of your plot or the conception of your characters in a direction that fans will find most satisfying. If that was the main obligation of artists, we’d have awfully homogenous storytelling — all couples would get together immediately, no one would ever die, and much more page and screen time would be dedicated to angsty hookups. Artists have a right to the facts of their characters and to carry out their visions of them within their own work. Art, as with life, is in part about not getting everything you want, and with reconciling yourself to that fact.
But more to the point, I don’t really want sexism to disappear from fiction, and I certainly don’t think we get to a point where the default in our culture is less misogynist by going back and redacting sexist (or racist, etc.) plot points and characters from our fiction. First, making sexism and the other isms visible is absolutely critical to getting something done about them. Not everyone is going to read about Robert Baratheon’s sexual assaults on his wife and go out and join Take Back the Night, but art can show people who don’t experience sexism directly the costs it exacts on the people who do. And it can put behavior in contexts that make clear how ugly it is: sexual harassment or domestic violence may seem like a series of isolated incidents or a slow grind when it happens in real life, but condense a pattern of escalating behavior into two hours or 400 pages, filter out the filler, and it may be harder to deny. Wishing that sexism was gone doesn’t make it so in art or in life.
And second, fiction ought to be a place that we can confront things that would be dangerous to us if we encountered them in real life, and where people get to make best-case arguments for positions we would hate to see carried to their logical conclusions if they had the force of law or norm. I don’t like the Twilight books, but if they’re the best argument in favor of women focusing exclusively on marriage and family, than I am more than happy to wade aggressively into that debate. I think Tucker Max is pretty gross, but if I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is the best manifesto a bro can hope for, it’s a useful sorting mechanism between people who have warped values and priorities and those who don’t. The answer here is not to hope that Bella Cullen throws off her vampire husband and gets a PhD in English literature, but to provide powerful and compelling alternatives. To get all Saul Bellow in this joint, “There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Does that mean we’ll suffer major bewildering culture fails along the way? Absolutely. But the real way to win is to join the battle of ideas, not to change the conditions in which it’s fought.
Unsurprisingly the results of the contest aren’t actually that funny, or that much of a narrative challenge to the works they’re critiquing. Yes, it’s creepy to do sexual things to people who aren’t conscious, but give me an actual rewrite of Sleeping Beauty over a lecture. Snow White in armor is a better rebuke to Snow White in the glass coffin than Snow White the lit professor. The Giving Tree telling off the boy isn’t nearly as weird and spiky a rewrite as Amy Winfrey’s “The Muffin Tree,” in which the tree poisons its ungrateful beneficiary.
The bridge is yours.
-The story behind your Eames chair. Or the Eames chair you window shop at Design Within Reach.
-A great interview with Margin Call director J.C. Chandor.
-The end of video game censorship.
-Anyone in for a documentary club on PBS’ American Primetime special?
Hugo, Marin Scorsese’s wonderfully humane adaptation of a young adult novel, may be one of the most moving films I’ve been to all year. Like Pixar masterpiece Ratatouille, Hugo is a movie about the recovery of the lost self through aesthetic experience. But it’s also a powerful testament to the need for meaningful work, something that resonated with me in particular in this moment.
“I figures if the whole world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part,” Hugo, the titular orphan and clock-keeper, tells his new friend Isabelle (who should play Valentine Wiggin to Asa Butterfield’s Ender in the upocoming Ender’s Game movie so these two immensely talented young people can work together again) as he shows her around the massive timepieces of Paris’s central train station. “I had to be here for a reason.” Work, whether it’s keeping the people who run the train station’s businesses on schedule, repairing the fiendishly complicated automaton his late father rescued from a museum storeroom, or finding a way to puzzle out the rigid station toy shop proprietor, give meaning to a boy who has been abandoned by a drunken uncle and the accident that claimed his father. “I don’t understand why my father died, why he left me alone,” Hugo cries to the station master, who wants to ship Hugo off to the same orphanage that raised him. “This is my only chance. To work.”
We may not face the same dire circumstances as orphans in the pause between the World Wars — or filmmakers who have fallen out of vogue and been reduced to clever tinkering. But that doesn’t mean that the desire for work that is spiritually as well as materially sustaining is the stuff of fairy tales. One of the least attractive aspects of the calls, whether from Republican candidates or University of Pennsylvania students, for Occupy protestors to just get a job is that they assume that bread is not just available, but sufficient, and that roses are a part of the equation if not just for the 1 percent, for a smaller part of society. It may be right that in a readjusting economy controlled by increasingly larger companies, there are simply fewer deeply meaningful jobs available. Not everyone is going to work in a creative industry, or fight for the disadvantaged in court, or run a thriving small business that operates like a genuine family rather than a corporate facsimile of one. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t want to do work that feels in some way meaningful, and that they believe themselves not just qualified for but suited to. And even if economic reality is harsh, you’re not a flake to want those things and to strive for that sense of meaning. It may ultimately be easier to bridge financial gaps than emotional ones. But in Hugo, even the harsh station master finds there’s more pleasure in exercising discretion than there is in blind enforcement of the rules.
Dear Herman Cain,
Next time you want to make an animated movie to speed us quickly through some complicated ideas:
You might consider hiring someone who’s actually visually clever, like the folks behind the Tale of the Three Brothers:
Or the introduction to Hellboy 2:
That, or having a narrative that actually holds up under scrutiny and has a direct relationship to real American problems. Those tend to pan out better in the long term than Sim City ripoffs and Pokemon soundtracks.
In two delightful pieces of news, Kathryn Hahn is rebounding from the cancellation of Free Agents by signing up to star as Leslie’s City Council opponent on Parks and Recreation, and Louis C.K. is will reprise his role as Leslie’s ex-boyfriend Sergeant Dave Sanderson. These strike me as good developments in this slightly sentimental season for two reasons.
First, Leslie deserves a real race. One of the joys of Parks and Recreation is Leslie’s hyper-competence, but it’s become a little bit too effortless as she’s conquered everything from the Pit to Joan’s Gotcha Dancers. It’s time for Leslie to stretch, and to stretch over something other than a boy. Running for office is the dream of her life, and it should be a heroic quest, not just another one-off episode. And after avoiding the mechanics of the campaign, I’m excited to see the mechanics of the race kick into play, to see Chris write speeches for Leslie in a West Wing nod, to see Tom to find his purpose not as an entertainment mogul but as a different kind of public servant. And I want to see Leslie face a realistic obstacle, rather than an entirely ridiculous one.
Second, I think it’ll be intriguing to see Leslie at least temporarily reunited with a boyfriend who gave her the option of coming with him when she moved, but who left anyway when she said no. Is this whole season going to be a refutation of the idea that you have to make tough choices in order to achieve your dreams? Or will Dave be a counterpoint, someone who looks back on Leslie fondly but is certain in his decision?
I’m running up north today and tomorrow to speak at my alma mater and to hit up the British in India exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art. Posting will continue at the usual rate, but if I’m a tad pokey answering email, that’s why, and my apologies.
This post contains spoilers for the Nov. 20 and Nov. 27 episodes of Boardwalk Empire.
I apologize for the delay in writing last week’s recap, but in a sense I’m glad I get to consider both of these episodes, in their predictability and very strong moments together. I also appreciate a chance to highlight Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent essay on Boardwalk Empire‘s misplaced priorities when it comes to gender, privileging fairly conventional if convoluted gangster stories over the richer domestic dramas that the show mostly uses as pretty window dressing.
Working backwards, I agree with him that Angela’s death at the hands of Manny Horvitz, who has arrived in Atlantic City intending to kill Jimmy and shoots Louise, stealing a clandestine night with Angela, instead, was emotionally striking. Manny’s shock, and his recovery via the intensely cold like, “Your husband did this to you,” was one of the more precisely-executed emotional moments of the season. And yet, I’m disgruntled by the decision on two levels. First, it’s the equivalent of J.K. Rowling killing Remus and Tonks in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a moment when a piece of art needs some deaths to winnow the cast and illustrate emotional costs, but its creators don’t have the guts to lower a truly devastating blow on the audience by killing a main character. Second, there’s something really distasteful about the show’s regression to the norms of the past, where gay relationships inevitably end in death. It’s of a piece, I suppose, with the show’s generally punitive attitude towards sex. But I resent both the specific decision to kill off Angela and with her, one of the show’s legitimately interesting avenues of social exploration, and the general decision to default to killing the depressed lesbian.
The decision to have one of Margaret’s daughters struck down by polio seems to come from a similarly vengeful place. Whether she needs to confess that she’s sheltering with the man who murdered the father of her children, or that she’s betraying Nucky, Margaret clearly believes her sin is responsible for her misfortune. But at least that plotline gives rise to a more interesting speculation: in living with Nucky, has Margaret lost not just the health of one child, but the moral direction of another? Teddy plays a cruel joke on her when he pretends he’s stricken, too, and earns himself a slapping for it, while a weeping Margaret tells Nucky, “God help me, but he has his father’s cruelty,” only to have Nucky insist that he just wants attention, and knowing that his sister’s hospitalized “isn’t the same as understanding” the true magnitude of what’s befallen his family. But on their father-son trip to New York, Nucky realizes that something deeper than genetics or the loneliness of a little boy may be at play when Teddy reveals that he witnessed Nucky burn his own father’s house down, a poisonous revelation that ends with a deceptively sweet, “Don’t worry, Dad. I won’t tell.” Maybe Teddy’s just a child. But maybe in Nucky’s house, he’s learned that secrets are powerful, that there is something to be earned by keeping them.