If you have an iPhone or an iPad, and you like political news and exceedingly dorky writing about Star Wars (which you probably do because come on, you’re reading this), you should totally get our new app! Our awesome development team has been working on this for a while, and because I know the mobile site can be a little finicky, I think you’ll find this a considerable improvement. It’s not quite candy, but Happy Halloween!
The history of Meredith’s enrollment and the riots that ensued on a campus that still openly celebrated the Confederacy is one that goes under-taught in history books across the South, and the story of the all-white Ole Miss football team that conquered the Southeastern Conference that fall is one that doesn’t get remembered much by SEC football fans outside Oxford. But ESPN’s Wright Thompson, a Mississippi native, and documentary director Fritz Mitchell captured both stories beautifully — and addressed the past, present, and future of racial relations in Mississippi and at its flagship university — in “Ghosts of Ole Miss,” a documentary in ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, last night.
The hour-long film weaves through the history of Mississippi segregation and racism, and the pride Ole Miss fans take in the school’s football program, up until Meredith’s enrollment, when riots that remain a sore spot for the campus and the community erupted. Football played a role both in exacerbating and alleviating the warfare that took place on the Ole Miss campus. It was at halftime of a football game between Ole Miss and Kentucky that a Nuremberg-like rally broke out when Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett fed off a frenzied, rebel flag-waving crowd and ultimately reneged on a secret deal he had made with the Kennedy brothers to allow Meredith to enroll. It was a football player, Buck Randall, who saw the carnage of the original riots and attempted, to no avail, to stop them. And it was football that both acted as a point of pride for ashamed Mississippians — “We’ve got to show the world that we’re not all bad,” head coach Johnny Vaught told the team before a game against Houston — and highlighted the lack of true equality afforded Meredith, who couldn’t attend football games because of safety concerns.
Despite the connection, though, football and the 1962 Ole Miss team are a mere proxy for the overall story of self-exploration undertaken by Thompson, who wrote in an introductory piece yesterday that he hoped the lesson of “Ghosts of Ole Miss” would be that people from outside Mississippi would see how far it has come, while people from inside Mississippi would see how far the state had to go. Perhaps to an outsider, that seems a convenient narrative, a wishing away of the South’s racist past with a “yes, but” tale of how Mississippi has changed. But as a “southerner” (I’m a native Kentuckian, southern to some, not as much to others) whose native state has its own seminal racial moments in college sports, Thompson’s inner struggle with the history of his home state and its home school felt familiar. It is a struggle felt by anyone who is proud to be where they’re from but who has waded into our history, anyone who has resisted Southern tradition and conformity on racial issues or any other. It is a struggle felt by anyone who is constantly reminded by the inside world that we want to change too fast and by the outside world that we are not changing fast enough.
That struggle is apparent today on the Ole Miss campus, where the Confederate flags are gone but the Confederate statues remain; where the school has abandoned Colonel Reb but still uses the “Rebels” nickname that was spawned by the students who left to join the Confederate army in 1862; where students elected a black student body president this year but the band still plays “Dixie,” the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy, during football games.
Those are conflicts Thompson addresses, and they are complicated. There are moments of reflection from players from the 1962 team (“I’m appalled that we treated another human being that way,” one admits. “You sit by, and you wonder why.”) and there are moments of introspection about the present from Thompson himself. “I like ‘Dixie’ too,” he says near the end of the film, “even as I know how it must sound to black Mississippians. It’s hard to reconcile these thoughts.”
But you can feel the pain of truth in Thompson’s narration as he says it: it may be hard to reconcile those thoughts, but to continue, we must. “There are questions Mississippians won’t ask because we’re not prepared to hear the answer,” Thompson says. And as much as his story is about Mississippi, it is really about us all. Without those answers and the exploration it takes to find them, from Mississippians, Southerners, and Americans in general, it will always be impossible to reconcile the ghosts of our past with the promises of our future.
This post discusses plot points from the October 30 episode of Sons of Anarchy.
“What you going to do, prez?” Nero asks Jax towards the end of last night’s episode of Sons of Anarchy. “You going to beat the shit out of your mom? Ain’t that been done enough by your family?” It’s telling that, even though Nero hasn’t known Gemma and her family very long, he can already see the toxic dynamics embedded in it even more clearly than the Teller-Morrows can. One of the best things in this flawed season of Sons has been the presence of Nero and Damon Pope, men who are more competent at violence and corruption than SAMCRO is, but who also have much more clearly articulated values outside of their criminal activities. As the Teller-Morrows have become increasingly contemptible and incompetent, Nero and Pope serve to illustrate the gap between who Jax Teller is and who he might have been.
Pope, in this episode, represents the value of patience and the danger of impulsiveness. “Five years from now, this will be affordable housing. Multi-family units. Retail. Park. MARC Station,” Pope tells Jax meditatively when they meet at the rail yard. “Where do they put your bronze statue?” Jax asks him sarcastically. “Somewhere they can’t chop the hands off,” Pope tells him. Their immediate conversation is Jax’s belief that Pope targeted him for assassination, but of course Jax is both wrong about that, and missing Pope’s larger point. SAMCRO’s protected Charming from outside harm for years, but it’s rarely done much to build the town up. Jax sees Jacob Hale’s Charming Heights project as a tool rather than as a potential legacy. And even when he looks to tools, he misidentifies them. “What was I supposed to think?” Jax asks of the hit. “That someone wants you dead and hired a black guy to do it,” Pope tells him patiently. “Unemployment’s crushing the hood. Brothers need work.” If Jax wants to not just survive, but thrive, he needs to develop the ability to see around corners when right now, he can barely see what’s in front of him.
If Pope represents the possibility of becoming a criminal mastermind, Nero’s begging Jax to consider an exit strategy. “You got a beautiful wife, you got two healthy kids, you need to accelerate the end game,” he tells the younger man. “Get away from this shit that’s trying to kill you.” But Gemma and Jax may be too deeply enmeshed in their family culture to start living a new way, and making a living by new means. As Clay put it to Juice, after learning the secret of his parentage, “Everybody at that table’s done something that puts them outside the Reaper. Self-disclosure kills the group.” That’s not just a rule for the club. Gemma and Clay have long hid the secrets of John’s death from Jax, and as they’ve been revealed bit by bit, those half-truths have given the family gangrene. They’re like a patient that can’t bear to give a limb up as lost, and risk dying as a result.
The bridge is yours.
-If you are a journalist, seriously, how are you complaining about someone quoting your public tweets, much less threatening to sue?
-The entertainment industry starts work again post-Sandy.
-Bryan Singer is coming back to X-Men.
-I’ll be curious to see if Disney continues with the long-planned Star Wars TV show.
-For a dose of happy, re-watch Pixar’s La Luna:
You guys, I’m pretty sure we don’t need John McClane to beat the Russians because we already won the goddamn Cold War:
I get the nostalgia factor on this. But I’m increasingly exhausted by the fact that our inability to get over the idea of Russia as the Evil Empire and our rush to obtain Chinese and Middle Eastern co-production means that our action movies are totally stagnant and unable to think creatively about current geopolitical tensions, and as a result, to come up with new formulas for our movie conflicts. There are times it feels like that old chestnut James Bond is the only franchise that’s been able to think about non-state actors with any amount of creativity, whether in Tomorrow Never Dies or Casino Royale. Even the X-Men stuck with discrimination metaphors rather than bring in the geopolitics of Genosha or Wakanda via Storm. I love Saint Basil’s Cathedral. But I sort of wish that one of these days the movies would decide to leave it exploded for a while and move on to some other landscapes, and some other fears.
As I was reading through the coverage of the announcement that Star Wars Episode VII will be arriving in movie theaters in 2015, I clicked on over to my friend Alex Knapp’s post on the subject on Forbes. And then I lowered my head slowly and repeatedly to my desk. It’s not that I think Alex’s ideas for storylines for a new trilogy are bad ones—they definitely aren’t. But it was that the post fell prey to a symptom I’m finding more and more deadly in criticism these days: the idea that we should just hand the keys to all pop culture over to Joss Whedon and sit back and enjoy the ride.
It’s not that I dislike Whedon, or many of the products he’s given us over the years. But I think there’s something disturbing about the idea that Joss Whedon is good at everything, or that the things that Joss Whedon is excellent at are necessarily the best things that our mass culture can do. It’s a homogenizing impulse—I shudder to think of a world with one dominant action movie sensibility, especially one that particular. And it ignores the fact that for all of Whedon’s strengths, he has weaknesses, a number of which would be particularly tricky for a revitalized Star Wars franchise.
It’s worth remembering, for example, that Whedon’s main accomplishment is revitalizing and critiquing the horror genre, and that he’s actually weak when it comes to one of the most important components of truly transcendent action filmmaking. He often seems relatively indifferent to actual action sequences. The fights in Buffy and Angel (which I’m working my way through now) are almost deliberately indifferent and schlocky in a way that robs tension from them. Matchups may be exciting because of their outcomes, like Buffy sending Angel to Hell, but not because of any clash of styles, or often, any real sense that the outcome itself is at stake. Dollhouse was more attuned to standard-issue training montages than any particular difference in style. Like Buffy, River Tam’s fight scenes in Firefly and Serenity are plausible because of things we’ve told that have been done to her, and she wins because that’s integral to the story’s needs. We don’t see the decisions or things other than the generic martial arts skills she has, that give her an advantage and let her think her way out of corners, because she’s never really in any. If anything, I’d say Whedon has an interest in the artificiality of action sequences, which lends itself to valid critiques of genre conventions, but not always to fight choreography that stands on its own.
The action sequences in The Avengers are somewhat more distinctive than his previous batting average, are mostly better because they involve the Hulk, a fighter who can be used with particular wit and violence, or amusing team-ups of fighters, rather than because Whedon got much better at choreographing actual duels. I shudder to think what Whedon would do with a lightsaber duel—why not at least call in a wuxia action choreographer, given the potential of the Force to shape duels, like Yuen Woo-ping, who did the amazing fights in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon?
Then, there’s Whedon’s witty banter addiction and his approach to sexuality, both of which I think are strengths for him almost all the time, in part because he has a smart sense of scenarios where they fit, among them group dynamics or emotional situations that need to be deescalated. Whedon’s characters often use references or wit to defuse situations or to distance themselves from difficult emotions. I love Buffy telling Angel “I’m cookie dough. I’m not done baking. I’m not finished becoming who ever the hell it is I’m gonna turn out to be. I make it through this, and the next thing, and the next thing, and maybe one day, I turn around and realize I’m ready. I’m cookies. And then, you know, if I want someone to eat m- or enjoy warm, delicious, cookie me, then that’s fine. That’ll be then. When I’m done.” But that’s not remotely the same thing as Han Solo leaning in to tell Princess Leia “I’m nice men.” The line is an abstraction, but to totally different effect. The menu of movies available to us needs both cuteness and sensuality, lines that deflect and others than pull characters closer to greater intimacy.
The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff joked yesterday that he and I are the only people interested in the independent television movement and the problems surrounding finding a successful business model for it that doesn’t include distribution over established networks. But the report he filed from the New York Television Festival is indispensable for anyone who cares about connecting up genuinely fresh voices, ideas, and faces with the audience we believe is hungry for them but isn’t finding them, or isn’t paying for them. Todd explains why it’s been so much harder to find that business model in independent television than in independent film:
No one has quite figured out the independent TV business model just yet—a problem even Grey will admit exists. Attending NYTVF feels a bit like how I imagine attending Sundance in the mid-’80s must have felt: There’s a whole bunch of valuable product that could attract an audience if given a chance, but no one’s yet sure how to make money from that product. It was Sex, Lies, And Videotape that helped Sundance break through into the mainstream consciousness, and I’m not sure that independent TV has found its Steven Soderbergh yet. And even considering that factor, there’s the fact that running a TV show is a vastly different undertaking from directing a film. An independent film can be released to theaters, where it will hopefully recoup its budget. An independent TV pilot will ideally lead to a larger series, and that would mean a substantial investment of network funds to keep the show going, while an independent film is, ultimately, a much smaller investment of cash. Until a show as self-evidently good as Sex, Lies, And Videotape breaks through, independent TV may remain a curiosity too costly for networks to indulge in.
I’d note that in certain ways, independent film in recent years has also been gaining access to alternative distribution methods that audiences are already using. You have to find your way to an independent movie theater, but it isn’t a totally different experience from going to the multiplex. Same with ordering independent movies on demand: indies like Margin Call and Bachelorette have gone to VOD sometimes without even going to theaters and done fine there because audiences are so familiar with the experience of ordering movies. But indie television hasn’t broken in there, because that would mean striking details with cable carriers, which is no small task of its own for producers who, and would probably be something the networks would frown on, however little competition the indies would provide. Right now, indie television isn’t getting access either networks like PBS or even bigger distribution networks like Netflix and Hulu, which would be obvious outlets for them. However easy it is to distribute on the web or through YouTube, it still requires determined consumers who are already used to looking for content outside normal channels to find those shows.
That, of course, comes second to the issue of just producing enough material independently to actually constitute a television season, much less a television episode. Todd explains, for both reasons of creativity and resources, that most shows at the festival just aren’t coming up with even a full episode’s worth of material, though the best shows, like Husbands, are coming close. He’s right it’s going to take a big breakthrough show that becomes a massive hit despite the distributional challenges—and then it’s going to take people working out the rather more complicated business infrastructure to provide the huge, long-term support indie television makers are going to need to keep turning out product.
In the rare bit of news that could blow Hurricane Sandy off the map, Disney announced today that it had purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion—and announced that the company will debut Star War Episode VII in 2015. “It’s now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers,” George Lucas said in the official announcement of the transaction, in what is a substantial understatement, given the creative quality of the prequels. “I’ve always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me, and I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime.”
While this opens up a new chapter in the cinematic development of the Star Wars universe, that doesn’t mean Disney will be flying off into uncharted territory. The Star Wars Expanded Universe includes a huge number of licensed books (not to mention video games, comic books, graphic novels, and animated television series) that lay out the story of the franchise’s main characters, and in some cases, their distant descendants. Given that Disney will need to woo legions of long-term fans who love the larger Star Wars universe and were burned to greater or lesser extents by the awfulness of the prequels, and will certainly want to keep monetizing the expanded universe, I expect they’ll preserve that continuity. The question is just which stories they decide to use as source material. Here are five options:
1. Heir To The Empire: One of the most venerable entries in the Expanded Universe, this series of three novels, also known as the Thrawn trilogy, explore one of the most fascinating problems left behind in the wake of the battle of Yavin: how do you clean up a counterinsurgency that includes highly trained admirals with considerable industrial resources and military hardware at their disposal, not to mention a Dark Jedi? Chock-full of military strategy, major roles for all the core characters, and a romantic foil for Luke Skywalker who isn’t secretly his sister—the awesome former Imperial agent Mara Jade—Heir to the Empire is probably the strongest contender for Episode VII, and Episodes VIII and IX to follow—that is, if you want to stick with the original characters.
2. X-Wing: Rogue Squadron: That said, the smartest thing for this new franchise to do would be to move beyond the core cast Luke and Leia Skywalker and Han Solo. The actors who played them are too old to reprise their roles in storylines set relatively soon after the events of Return of the Jedi, and too iconic to be replaced. But there are a lot of terrific other stories set in the Star Wars universe, and for my money, the best is Michael Stackpole’s X-Wing quartet, which involves Wedge Antilles, a minor character who survived both Death Star runs, setting up a new commando squad of flying aces. The franchise introduced Corran Horn, a Corellian Security Force veteran (basically, a Star Wars cop), who joins the squadron and learns more about his family history, and the forces that make him such a remarkable pilot. It also featured Ysanne Isard, one of the great villains of the Expanded Universe era, a former Imperial agent who seizes control of Coruscant, the Imperial capital planet, and then when she risks losing control of it, wages a biological war on non-human species that can only be fought with an extremely expensive cartelized medicine. It’s still an Imperial-New Republic showdown, but in foregrounding commando skills, conflicts between humans and non-humans, smugglers, and trade wars, the Rogue Squadron books explored strikingly new dynamics and made the Star Wars universe a much richer, more thoughtful place.
3. Yuuzhan Vong: If you want to throw out the conflict between the New Republic and the Empire—by this point in the Expanded Universe a breakaway state called the Imperial Remnant—Disney could tell the long-arc story of the Yuuzhan Vong invasion of the galaxy. A wacky conquering species that worships pain, views mechanical technology as an abomination, and terraforms planets to their needs, the Yuuzhan Vong unites the New Republic and the Empire, explores all sorts of complex new dynamics in the Force, and gets seriously violent and crazy. This franchise could be an amazing match for a monster-builder like Guillermo del Toro or an innovator like District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. But it’s probably too far out of the core Star Wars brand for this to happen.
4. Legacy of the Force: The most conservative choice, but probably also the most sensible one, is probably for Disney to skip forward a generation. This franchise explores the rise of Han and Leia’s twins, Jacen and Jaina Solo, as powerful Jedi Knights in their own right, and stages a very different kind of deadly familial showdown as Jacen’s arrogance leads him to the Dark Side, and Jaina rises as the Sword of the Jedi, the greatest warrior of the order. There are big romances, explorations of Han Solo’s home planet, Corellia, the tragic death of Luke Skywalker’s wife, Mara Jade, and lots of other collective drama. I wouldn’t mind a Legacy of the Force series. But it would be giving away a lot of potential to truly develop the world George Lucas built, with much greater nuance than he lent to the prequels.
5. Indie Star Wars: There is a lot of delightfully weird stuff in the Expanded Universe, including The Courtship of Princess Leia, in which Han finally tries to get it together to put a ring on it, but not without kidnapping, incredibly awful attempts at cooking, and a bunch of Force-sensitive witches with pet Rancors; Children of the Jedi, which literally involves Luke Skywalker having ghost sex; Truce at Bakura, which involves soul-stealing aliens invading the fragile New Republic; and superweapon stories like The Crystal Star and Showdown at Centerpoint. I think, however, we’re safe from an adaptation of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which was written before the big Luke and Leia reveal, and reads as disturbingly sexual in retrospect.
Yesterday, word came out that NBC, which already renewed Up All Night in the face of low ratings and overhauled the family sitcom’s core premise, will put the the single-camera comedy on hiatus again and bring it back as a multi-camera show taped in front of a live studio audience. I wish I thought that would help. When it debuted last fall, Up All Night, which was created by a woman, had a high proportion of female writers, and was a smart take on fathers staying home to raise children, was one of the shows I wanted most to turn out to be wonderful. But every step of the way, Up All Night‘s doubled down on its worst elements rather than recognizing what its strengths are. The number of cameras doesn’t seem to be at the heart of where Up All Night‘s gone wrong.
There’s no question that family sitcoms can be popular even when the families they put on screen are richer, and cooler, and better-looking than our own. But the charm of a show like Modern Family, when it works, is that it emphasizes that no matter how gorgeous Jay and Gloria’s house is, no matter how little Phil’s real estate business seems to have been impacted by the recession, their emotional and familial problems (if not their financial ones) seemed rather similar to our own. Up All Night, by contrast, took a family that already wasn’t much like our own, from Reagan’s job in the entertainment business, to their sprawling, gorgeous California home, and made them seem even less relateable.
Increasingly, Reagan and Chris seem more like irritating hipster archetypes than actual people. One of the running jokes on the show has been their irritation with a squarer neighbor couple, Gene and Terry, who had a child around the same time that they did. I can see how Gene and Terry’s enthusiasm could seem grating, complicating Reagan and Chris’s attempts to retain their pre-baby identity as a cool couple. But that cool-couple posturing actually comes across as a great deal more irritating than anything Gene and Terry get up to, and disproportionately mean, as a result. It’s one thing to show your main characters having the kind of night out on the town Regan and Chris regularly enjoyed before they had Amy. It’s quite another, as in one recent example, to watch Reagan make an utter fool of herself trying to seem cool at a coffee shop full of younger consumers. New Girl recently pulled off a joke like this beautifully in an episode where Schmidt fell all over himself trying to impress his new hipster neighbors, but the show balanced it by making the kids themselves as ludicrous as Schmidt’s posturing. But in Up All Night, Reagan just came across as ridiculous and desperate. More and more, I’m finding myself not sympathetic to Reagan and Chris but repulsed by their pettiness.
That’s part in parcel with an odd tonal decision the show’s made in the wake of the decision to cancel Ava’s talk show at the beginning of the first season. I initially praised that move because it seemed like an attempt to deescalate the show’s slightly more hyperreal elements and to focus clearly on what Up All Night does best: getting at the pleasure and anxiety that comes with accepting that being a parent is the most important part of your identity. Instead, the show subbed in Chris’ brother as comic relief rather than Ava’s shows, and in having Chris go back to work, albeit as a contractor, jettisoned the most interesting perspective Up All Night had to offer: what it means for a man to experience the same loss of identity and expectation that he’ll live his whole life through his child that women are excepted to accept without complaint every day. That was genuinely novel and often movingly executed (unlike the crude approach of network-mate Guys With Kids), letting Will Arnett be something other than the crazy-eyed nut he’s so often pigeonholed as.
I miss that show, and Jason Lee, marvelously down-to-earth as Ava’s boyfriend. Up All Night seems to assume that his work as a contractor was the interesting bit of his character, rather than his essential decency, his flashes of temper and frustration with Ava’s ridiculousness. That’s the kind of character you could build a show around, using a regular guy perspective to humanize characters who live their lives at a greater distance from the average American experience. And when Reagan was working on Ava’s show, she filled that role herself. Up All Night has opted to do the reverse, having rarified people treat everyday life as if it’s hard or distastefully uncool. And it’ll have trouble when it goes in front of a live audience if the viewers are laughing at Chris and Reagan instead of with them.
The bridge is yours.
-U.K. broadcasters are trying to break the time boundaries for adult content and cursing.
-Not making spinoffs about annoying supporting characters who are tolerable only in limited doses seems like a reasonable strategy.
-I’d be pretty excited to see this movie.
-Shakeups at Apple.
-Not so much with the “Wicca good, and love the earth and women power and I’ll be over here”:
Blogger Molly McIsaac has a post up about her experiences cosplaying as superheroines at San Diego Comic Con and elsewhere, and what it feels like to discover that people—including those who later ask you to pose for them—have been taking pictures of your rear end and trading them on the internet that’s helped me clarify some of my thinking about sexual harassment at conventions. Specifically, these paragraphs stood out to me:
Several people have tried to make this argument to me: If you didn’t want people photographing your butt, you shouldn’t wear the costumes that you wear.
FUCK. THAT. That’s like telling women not to wear short skirts if she doesn’t want to be raped. These characters are drawn in very little clothing due to art direction and wanting to make sales – and I love them and want to portray them despite what they are drawn wearing. I don’t want to be burka Wonder Woman – I want to be Wonder Woman in all her sexy hot pants glory.
We as a geek community have some of the most rampant sexism and misogyny I have ever seen. Women in cosplay are treated as pieces of meat, on display to satisfy a man’s fantasy of that character. We are without personality or interests, and there’s no way people will believe that we actually know ANYTHING about the character we’re dressed up as (especially if we are hot). I don’t know the reasons for this – I have theories, but that’s for another time entirely. But the behavior I have witnessed over the years is abysmal. And it’s not okay.
For some people, like McIsaac, cosplaying may be about claiming the sexual and physical power of the character she’s portraying. For some people, the fact that a character is sexually appealing or wears revealing clothes may be a secondary impact. But whether cosplaying is a sexual act or not, engaging sexually with someone still requires their consent. They’re a person, not an image, with the right to set their own terms of your interaction with them. And taking pictures of someone’s ass, specifically, rather than of their whole costume from the front, is a sexual act. The fact that folks are doing so furtively, attempting to avoid an interaction that might lead to their being denied permission for their actions, suggests that they’re pretty aware they’re doing so without consent. And if you know you’re sneaking around, and also want to be a decent person, that should probably make you think. As she puts it, cosplay is not a permission slip. There isn’t a lower level of scrutiny for people who take furtive shots of a woman’s behind at a convention or while she’s at school. A creepshot is still a creepshot, no matter where it’s taken and what a woman is wearing.
There was something supremely strange yesterday about the spectacle of CNN’s chief business correspondent, Ali Velshi, standing outside in Atlantic City and getting battered by the rain from Hurricane Sandy. It’s odd enough that news networks drop all other subjects, foreign and domestic, when a big storm bears down on the U.S. (not that such storms shouldn’t be covered). But there’s something particularly strange about the decision to focus on on-the-ground reporters, rather than on reporting on actual disaster management, most of the decisions about which are made inside government and non-profit offices, rather than at the edge of bodies of water. And it’s particularly strange that we’ve focused on making reporters take risks that carry with them very little possible information reward.
There wasn’t much information that Velshi was communicating that he couldn’t have conveyed from inside the building: it’s not as if he couldn’t have told CNN viewers that the streets were flooded without standing in the street with water lapping over his boots and the wind tearing at his clothes, or that power in Atlantic City had gone out. For much of his time on air, Velshi wasn’t actually verbally communicating information and observations at all: he was just the focus of shots showing him being buffeted by gusts of wind. The point of having him out in the storm was to show him being vulnerable to it, despite the fact that all government officials, in-studio anchors, and people with any damn sense agree that you should not actually venture out into a hurricane at risk to yourself and the people who may have to come rescue you. I understand that there’s an extent to which storm reporting is a visual medium, but the same image repeated over and over again doesn’t actually convey new information. And showing Velshi talking about events, like the reported flooding of the New York Stock Exchange, that he couldn’t possibly have been party to or been able to verify or deny, in the storm is a weird form of novelty reporting. He was out there because it’s nerve-wracking and exciting to see him out there, not because it furthered CNN’s reporting in a substantial way for him to be there.
There are enough reasons journalists have to consider whether or not to take serious risks that are absolutely necessary for them to incur in order to get information that wouldn’t be available otherwise. It wouldn’t be remotely amusing for us to watch Lara Logan experience sexual assault in Egypt or Anthony Shadid die of an asthma attack in Syria, even though those scenes might have given more precise context on the stories they were covering than people standing around in raincoats possibly could about the specifics of a hurricane. So there’s something deeply strange about the idea that we treat seeing Velshi and his colleagues out in the storm as if they’re entertainment or information, that there’s this competitive streak about which correspondents stay out longest, when we could maybe get substantive information about relief efforts or available resources instead. Or as my friend Katie Welsh tweeted, “Dear CNN, If your reporter has to HOLD ON TO A TREE, we DO NOT WANT TO WATCH THEM OUT THERE.”
Last week, I wrote about what a catharsis Tina Fey’s slam on “grey-faced men with $2 haircuts” was, a reminder that what’s been going on in our national political discourse around women’s reproductive is not a serious, equitable exchange of ideas, but a sustained and bogus attack, and that it’s okay to feel an impolite level of frustration. For the same reason, I found this video from the This Is Personal campaign of the National Women’s Law Center pretty delightful:
While to be a joke, schtick has to be funny, the best jokes are genuinely revealing. The idea that a politician thinks that women’s bodies prevent them from ever getting pregnant when they’re raped has horrible implications for policy-making, but considered neutrally—or through a medieval gate-keeping metaphor—it’s genuinely, awfully hilarious and tells us an enormous amount about the people who believe these things. And while humor can be a great way to broach issues that it would be impossible to talk about head-on otherwise (see: C.K., Louis), this video is a necessary reminder that humor’s power to reveal the truth can also be one of the fastest ways to marginalize truly absurd ideas, rather than giving them space to be taken seriously.
The debate over whether genre fiction can ever count as literature is back, this time in the form of an essay from Arthur Krystal at the New Yorker. I don’t much agree with the piece, because I think it’s totally ludicrous to say that “Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals. Why say otherwise?” when environments of stress, grief, or transitions between old worlds and new ones are precisely those that expose the reasons that reasons cannot know. But I actually think it’s a great example of the dodge people like Krystal perform to justify treating genre as lesser than an amorphously-defined “literature.” He writes:
The science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, announced that literature “is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.” Is that so? A novel by definition is “written art”? You know, I wrote a novel once, and I’m pretty sure that Le Guin would change her mind if she read it…
What I’m trying to say is that “genre” is not a bad word, although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply “commercial.” Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us. If this sounds condescending, so be it. Commercial novels, in general, whether they’re thrillers or romance or science fiction, employ language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious. Which is not to say that some literary novels, as more than a few readers pointed out to me, do not contain a surfeit of decorative description, elaborate psychologizing, and gleams of self-conscious irony. To which I say: so what?
What he’s doing here is clever: essentially, Krystal is holding genre responsible for the worst stuff written in its name, while literature doesn’t have to be responsible for, say, romance novels, or Nicholas Sparks weepies. Genre is determined to be genre because it includes certain kinds of plots or takes place in certain kinds of settings. Literature is a determination of quality. Treating them as if they’re similar categories for sorting out novels, film, or television is a brilliant dodge on the part of people who don’t want to recognize that genre fiction can be literature. Why they’re resistant to that recognition is the really interesting question.
In the absence of actual, non-Sandy news today, the conversation has turned to whether the approaching hurricane will end up influencing the presidential election, and if so, in which direction. I can’t pretend to any insight into whether Sandy will hurt Obama, help Romney, or what impact losing a day or two of early voting will have on either campaign. But this conversation did get me thinking about something that’s always bothered me about post-apocalyptic fiction: why there are so few central governments playing major roles after huge disasters.
I understand that it’s narratively quite exciting to explore landscapes that are anarchic, the psyches of men like the Governor in The Walking Dead who rise up and assume dictatorial control over small communities, or the group decision-making of a place like Haven, the refuge in Justin Cronin’s vampire novel, The Passage, that’s struck a terrible bargain to stay alive. The post-apocalypse is an opportunity for ordinary men and women to test themselves, and to have opportunities to become heroes, to take up arms and reveal their inner badasses, to stand up for decency and civilization in the absence of other structures supporting those values. We like watching Rick Grimes rise to the occasion, to be surprised by Amy Wolgast’s survival and what it means about the resilience of little girls, be they enhanced with vampiric powers or no.
But in apocalyptic scenarios, established governments have enormous advantages, both in beating back whatever dreadful things are coming down the transom, and in consolidating communities after the worst dies down. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which has really settled in as one of my favorite movies of the past couple of years, is a terrific example of this: as a dreadful, flu-like illness spreads across the globe, individual government employees who go out into the field are vulnerable, but the bureaucracy takes great care to preserve the health and well-being of its core leadership. They get vaccines first. The chain of command both restores order and helps make citizens dependent on the government. People who are frightened for their lives may raid pharmacies and loot their neighbors’ houses, but they’re not exactly likely to storm National Guard barricades of the highways, and they may protest the order in which vaccines are distributed, but they’re unlikely to totally jeopardize vaccine production or their chances of getting their own treatment, much less their chance of being defended against a terrible and rising tide. The Passage at least has a nod to that—the surviving colony is founded by FEMA—but like most post-apocalyptic stories, it skips over the question of how the central government fell in the first place. It’s too bad that most stories try to get away from national, or even local, governments survive or fall as fast as possible. There’s a lot of interesting storytelling to be done about what it takes to lead in crisis, what it takes to resist the temptation to seize dictatorial power, what it means to fail, and what happens when bureaucrats who have been invisible for much of their careers suddenly become the people who stand between a wider population and disaster.
When National Hockey League owners presented a proposal two weeks ago that would have ended their lockout of players, the NHL Players Association spent two days crafting serious counter-offers and ultimately returned to the table with three proposals of their own. According to NHLPA head Don Fehr, it took the league all of 10 minutes to reject all three proposals.
According to Fehr, the players offered to split so-called “hockey-related revenue” evenly between the players and owners — exactly what owners asked for, even if the players sought to do it gradually over a few years instead of immediately as the owners wanted. The one sticking point for players, though, was that the reduction in their share of revenue (from 57 percent) not lead to salary rollbacks, or reductions in the pay they receive under already-negotiated contracts. As Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson made clear in a blog post yesterday, though, the owners aren’t having it:
The concept that the owners are trying to dismantle existing contracts that they in good faith offered, signed, and committed to is appalling, unprofessional, and disgraceful. I negotiated my own contract, without an agent, with the confidence and belief that the owner offering me that contract operated by the same convictions and principals as I do.
That players are willing to budge on every issue except for the preservation of existing contracts, which the owners obviously had a hand in negotiating and signing, seems a perfectly reasonable position. What isn’t reasonable is that owners weren’t willing to entertain such a proposal for longer than 10 minutes.
Throughout negotiations, players have given ground. They offered to begin the season without a collective bargaining agreement and negotiate a new one as the season wore on, preserving the games for the fans, salaries for themselves, and revenues for owners. They responded to owners’ offers with counter-proposals that included significant concessions.
The owners, meanwhile, offered a series of laughable deals they knew would be rejected last summer. They locked out the players this fall. And they finally presented their most serious, if flawed, offer two weeks ago in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion. They rejected the players’ counter-proposals out of hand, and they have since refused to meet to further negotiations.
The result is that the league has now canceled all games through November 30, and the Winter Classic, the NHL’s most prized regular season event, is now on the chopping block. With serious negotiations, some semblance of a hockey season can be saved. If the owners continue down this path, though, the second full-season cancellation since 2005 seems far more likely.
The bridge is yours.
-Making Talking Book.
-Could corruption risks slow international film co-production and shooting abroad?
-Mrs. Coach has words for Mitt Romney.
-Weird NASA history: the agency once held a beauty pageant.
-The latest edition of A Movie And An Argument With Alyssa and Swin:
Last week, science fiction novelist John Scalzi, who’s written a series of posts about feminism, misogyny, and privilege that have gone into justly wide circulation, published his latest, a thank-you note from a fictional rapist to conservative politicians who have worked to create an environment that gives women less control and rapists more potential access to and power over their victims. It’s not my favorite of this series of posts, but the piece provoked an interesting reaction from Kristin McFarland, a former newspaperwoman working on her first novel. McFarland has a couple of interlinked points here. First, there’s the idea that prominent male genre writers who get credit for their feminism also often subject their female characters to a lot of violence, some of it sexual, a la Joss Whedon. But she spends more time on the idea that male writers should do more to promote the writing and testimony of women on the subject of sexual assault, and that it’s disappointing that posts like Scalzi’s take off while posts by women on similar topics are treated as a dime a dozen. She explains:
Scalzi, Rothfuss, and Whedon are—right now—wealthy(ish) white men writing about problems only women face. They are exhibiting the male control they castigate by fighting our fight. I’m not ungrateful, but I’m frustrated that the strongest plays in the feminist fight are coming from men… and even these men don’t seem interested in what women have to say.
They’re taking away our right to fight the good fight.
When women write these posts, they’re quietly applauded, loudly criticized, or just ignored as regurgitating feminist vitriol. So when men like Scalzi step up to the plate, we praise them high and low, and the merits of their argument ring across the internet.
All because they have the lucky position of being a privileged white man writing on behalf of women.
I agree that it’s frustrating that writing by women on the subject of sexual assault, and the way the impact of being attacked can continue long after a rape is over, can disappear into a chorus of woe and frustration. And I do think that these posts by Scalzi and others go wide both as a result of the audiences they’ve already established, and because it’s still rare to hear prominent men prioritize misogyny and sexual assault on the menu of issues they care about. In some cases, men may need to hear about these issues from other men. I would be delighted to live in a world where men trusted women and didn’t treat our concerns like second-order needs, and we didn’t need prominent male allies to validate that sexual assault, abortion access, and privacy are important issues. But as long as we do, I’d rather have Scalzi and company in the conversation than not. And I’d note that while pregnancy as a result of rape may be a terrible event particular to cis women, I don’t think that rape is an issue that only women face. Men are sexual assault victims, too, and the taboo around discussing those assaults is in some ways even more profound for men than it is for women.
But one thing that I’d be interested to hear more of from Scalzi and others who are speaking up about the impact of sexual assault on women, misogyny, policies that make it more difficult to recover your life after the former, and politicians who exhibit the latter, is how sexual assault has impacted their lives as men who haven’t been direct victims. The primary impact of any sexual assault is, of course, on the person who is the subject of an attack. But assaults on and harassment of women create an environment that affects men of good will, too, whether they’re trying to help survivors in their lives, or simply living and loving in a world where their actions are interpreted by dreadful experiences women have had with other men. Rape culture is precisely that: a prevailing environment that all of us have to navigate. That kind of conversation (separate, of course, from the cringe-inducing idea that rape is bad because it inconveniences men by making women oversensitive and sexually unavailable) is one we’re lacking.
It’s why I’ve always liked Third Eye Blind’s “Wounded,” a strikingly articulate attempt by a narrator to reckon with the shape of his relationship with a good friend and sometime partner after she is assaulted. “The guy who put his hands on you / has got nothing to do with me,” the song starts, but the point is, of course he does. The attitudes and ideas in the song aren’t perfect, but it’s so rare to hear a song written by a man grapple with a sense of responsibility and powerlessness after a woman is assaulted, to hear him want her back, telling her “you never come around and you know we miss you,” but know that the decision to return to his life has to be hers:
More of that kind of conversation, please.
It’s not as if Issa Rae doesn’t have a lot on her plate, in between her web-based sitcom, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and the show she recently sold to ABC with Shonda Rhimes’ help, about a female cohost on an internet talk radio show. But in the midst of all this activity, she’s launched a new series, The Michelle Obama Diaries, which features Michelle Obama translating her own thoughts and throwing the kind of shade Luther offers up for President Obama in Key & Peele‘s Anger Translator skits:
The Anger Translator sketch works because it suggests something sort of naughty and delicious about the president that we’d like to be true rather than that we actually believe to be true. It’s fun for the same reason seeing President Obama punch back in a debate is fun: it makes us feel like he’s as angry and as frustrated as we are, that he’s as disgusted by the volume of crazy and lies lofted in his direction.
The Michelle Obama Diaries, on the other hand, plays into an idea we believe to be true of FLOTUS, that she’s tart and awesome and sexy. And instead of providing a wishful sense of escape from the limitations of the man and the role, the series gives us a sense of access to that side of her. This first episode isn’t as sharp as the Anger Translator schtick yet, in part because the idea that Michelle and Barack have sex, for example, doesn’t actually feel like much of a slap back at a stupid or vicious misperception of the couple, or a confirmation of something we’d wish to be true but don’t really believe to be the case. I would, on the other hand, watch the hell out of a First Ladies of Washington, DC show from Rae along the lines of the brilliant Real Housewives of Civil Rights parody from a while back:
I bet the brunches between Hillary and Michelle would make an epic arc to the first season.
This post discusses plot points from the October 28 episode of Homeland.
“How about a movie?” Finn Walden asks Dana Brody as they arrange their first date in this week’s episode of Homeland. “Once Upon a Time in America is playing in Dupont Circle…He’s an Italian director who specializes in wide-screen agony.” That’s pretty lofty taste for a high school student, even the son of the Vice President, but it’s no mistake that Henry Brommell, who wrote this episode, put a movie full of assumed identities and betrayals in Finn’s mouth. This is a craft episode of television, full of cultural allusions and subtle parallels, as Carrie breaks down Brody and builds him back up into a potential double agent.
I’ve loved the introduction of Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend, wisely underacting opposite Claire Danes) as a sardonic foil to Carrie who speaks in pop culture koans and is willing to employ violence that she isn’t. All the interrogation scenes in this episode are just beautifully written, but Peter’s confrontation with Brody started with a blunt and useful delineation of where power lies in the room—and of how this scene would be different from the exchanges we’re used to seeing on television. “I’m a United States Congressman. You can’t just kidnap me and shackle me in the fucking floor,” Brody insisted. “Actually, we can. Thanks to your colleagues we have fairly broad powers,” Peter reminded him. “I want a lawyer,” Brody insisted. “Well, life is full of disappointments,” Peter told him.
I think this episode of Homeland may end up being interpreted as pro-torture, given Peter’s calm use of much of the latitude awarded to him—it’s telling that the CIA has a medical team on hand to treat Brody’s hand immediately. But it’s telling that Peter’s stabbing of Brody’s hand, his spitting rage, are almost immediately revealed to be an act. “Every good cop needs a bad cop,” Peter tells Saul, and it’s true. It’s the emotional connection Carrie has with Brody that allows her to break down the central lie he repeats first to Peter and then to her, that he wasn’t wearing the vest. But for that to work, Brody had to be goaded to feel his connection with Carrie, and Carrie had to believe that her expertise was being underestimated and her emotional connection to Brody treated like it was evidence of her hysteria.
Carrie’s interrogation may seem emotional at first blush, but with the benefit of watching the episode a couple of times, it’s impressive how systemic it is. Carrie beings by evoking Brody’s guilt at the sin both of condemning her and not loving her quite enough. She gives him water, a kindness. She reminds him of their shared damage from the war. She delineates the difference between him and Abu Nazir. And she reminds him that he’s still worthy of love, and of doing the things that make someone worthy of the love of a daughter, or a lover, or a wife. “It was hearing Dana’s voice that changed your mind, wasn’t it?” Carrie asks him. “She asked you to come home, and you did. Why? Maybe because, maybe because you finally understood that killing yourself and ruining Dana’s life wouldn’t bring Issa back. Maybe because you knew then how much you loved your own child. Maybe you were just sick of death. That’s the Brody I’m talking to. That’s the Brody that knows the difference between warfare and terrorism. That’s the Brody I met up in that cabin.” If you doubt her intentionality, even for a moment, it’s so striking that she moves from the finale piece in her emotional portrait, “That’s the Brody I fell in love with,” to the question “What is Abu Nazir’s plan?” From that moment forward, Brody tells her the truth, about Roya, about the vest, about the fact that there is a coming plan. A blade through the hand produces resistance. But love is undeniable. The question that hangs over the episode is whether the latter could have done its work without the former.