How do you think Twitter reacted to the recently released trailer of the Will Smith-produced Annie remake? Pretty much as you'd expect...
United Smart People
How do you think Twitter reacted to the recently released trailer of the Will Smith-produced Annie remake? Pretty much as you'd expect...
Given that I also write for The Onion, I feel I should point out that this article is not from The Onion. But if we were better people — did less of that awful sinning against the Lord and stuff — we could live in a world where it would be.
My new "Internet Film School" column is up. Sample:
Typically, romances rely on a small stable of predictable-but-effective techniques that convince the audience it’s witnessing the first, chemical blush of fresh love.
The most basic of these techniques is the two-shot, in which the director places both prospective lovers in the same frame. A series of two-shots, stacked one after the other, has a cumulative effect on the audience, which begins to expect to see these two characters together in every shot. After a while, shots that only contain one of the lovers will strike the audience as oddly empty, even if the sole lover in it is centrally framed in a way that would make it impossible for the other to be in the shot. By manipulating audience expectations in this way, the missing lover becomes an absent-presence in the film, something the audience wants to see. If the director only includes one lover in shots for an extended period of time, the audience will begin to feel that something is “wrong,” because the director is confounding the expectation he or she created. When the director relents and fulfills that expectation with a two-shot of the lovers reunited, the frame suddenly seems somehow more “correct” to the audience.
The problem Jonze faced in directing Her becomes obvious...
GUY AT SEK’S DOOR: Hey friend, it’s windy, ain’t it?
SEK: I guess.
GUY AT SEK’S DOOR: Mind if I park in your driveway?
SEK: A little. I might need to use it.
GUY AT SEK’S DOOR: Thanks, I’ll just be a while.
SEK: I didn’t say “Yes.”
GUY AT SEK’S DOOR: You want me to park in the street?
SEK: It’s not a heavily trafficked road.
GUY AT SEK’S DOOR: It’ll just be a while. I won’t block you in.
SEK: You will, in fact, be blocking me in. And what happens when my wife gets home?
GUY AT SEK’S DOOR: Can’t she park on the street?
The head SEK doesn’t have explodes.
While at The Raw Story retreat last weekend in San Francisco, my colleague Arturo Garcia and I had a long conversation about the show that went something like this...
Can be found here. It concerns "realism" in film, and how utterly awful the working definition of it is.
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: I heard you talking on the phone about some “doctor” you think is all-powerful.
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: On your phone, you were telling someone about this “doctor” you found, could do all these — come back from the dead.
SEK: Wouldn’t surprise me.
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: Is his name “Jesus”?
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: What’s his name?
SEK: I don’t actually know.
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: Yet you said you’d trust him.
SEK: Sounds like me.
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: I can tell you his name.
SEK: No, really, it’s fine –
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: I know his name. He whispered it in my ear every night until –
SEK: No, really, you don’t understand –
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: His name is –
SEK: “SATAN,” I know, his name is “SATAN.”
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: “SATAN.”
SEK: I know.
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: As in, “THE SATAN.”
SEK: I’ve had this conversation before, quite a few times, in many a context.
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: “LUCIFER.”
SEK: Please, I know what you’re gonna –
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: “BEEZLE THE BUB.”
SEK: I think you mean “BEEZLE OF THE BUB.”
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: You would know better than me.
SEK: Because I’m a Jew?
SEK’S NEIGHBOR: And yet you live right next door.
I watched Man of Steel again yesterday, and all I can say is that on second-viewing, I'm impressed by Zak Synder's subtlety. He captured Superman's insectile origins quite superbly -- native Kryptonians fly aback demon dragonflies and travel the stars in space-beetles! -- and never once tried to compare this creation of two Jews writing at the advent of the Second World War to anything inappropriate:
I was also impressed by his integrity. During the hour-and-a-half-long climactic fight scene, Snyder could have gone for gore and showed the human toll of Superman's decision to move the fight from one heavily populated area to the next, but he never let you forget that the Real Victims™ are people too, my friends:
I mean, Zod was blinded by our Terran sun when he threw Superman into that 7-11's gas pumps. It was just an innocent bystander! Fortunately, Superman's here to avenge those pumps' deaths:
Zod will have none of it. "I'm stronger than you, a warrior bred," he tells the symbol of Truth, Justice and the Americans Who Matter, right before tossing him into one of our most sacred temples:
Now Superman's the one having none of it. "YOU CAN BREAK MY PANCAKES, BUT YOU CAN NEVER TAKE MY --
But before Superman can stop Zod from trolling the planet, a minion throws a U-Haul van that you can rent for $19.95 a day by calling 1-800-GO-U_HAUL at an army helicopter, so he can't worry about the broken pancakes, because he has a more important person to save:
JESUS CHRIST -- no pun intended -- are you an idiot? You already saved him. 7-11 is fine. What you mean he's still in danger?
I don't care how that shot's framed, Kal-El. She's about to literally shoot that man with eye-lasers. Where are your priorities?
THANK YOU DETECTIVE STABLER. Maybe we can grossly manipulate him into --
Did you just 9/11 Metropolis? WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? Can't you save anything?
You've got to be fucking kidding me.
That's it, I'm done.
This week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Internment,” may well have been the strongest in what’s shaping up to be the strongest season to date. It was directed by David Boyd, one of the most talented men you’ve never heard of. He’s been the director of photography on such visually uninspiring fare as Firefly and Deadwood, so it should be no surprise that the composition and shot selection in “Internment” was barely this side of breathtaking.
What do I mean?
For one, Boyd’s use of close-ups in this episode weren’t used to cheaply intensify scenes whose dialogue lacked emotional impact. Unlike, say, the opening credit sequence of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which closes in to bring the pain and reassure you that the police always have your best interest at heart, the close-ups in “Internment” function as the necessary conclusions to terrible arguments.
Consider, for example, this close-up of Rick’s gun:
It’s the culmination of the should-he-or-shouldn’t-he-pick-up-arms subplot, but instead of having Rick say something about it, Boyd just places Rick’s gun in-frame and lets it speak for itself. Note, though, that the gun’s slightly off-center, a screen-position people have been trained by Hollywood to hate.
The audience, then, is primed for something to happen — and conventionally, that “something” would be that the camera shifts to the left and “properly” frames the gun, dead-center, since it’s the most important element in the shot.
Boyd knows that’s the expectation — he knows that his audience craves symmetry in its compositions — but instead of conceding to audience expectations, he recapitulates the should-he-or-shouldn’t-he argument:
When Rick’s pea-bearing hand enters the frame, Boyd racks the focus, shifting the emphasis from the arms he just took up to the green thumbs he put them down for. In a single shot, then, Boyd’s reminded the audience of the Big Decision Rick had to make, but he did so without having to use dialogue as a crutch, as the show so often has. What could have been a tossed off transition between scenes in which characters indulge in unnecessary expository monologues is, instead, a seemingly tossed-off reminder of past soul-searching.
Remember SEK's NEIGHBOR? The one who thought SEK belonged to a gang because of his backward hat? Well, this morning SEK decided it was about time to start watching The Sopranos, and so when he was driving home from the grocery store and saw his NEIGHBOR, SEK thought it'd be a great idea to slow his car to a crawl and give NEIGHBOR a good eye-fucking. The fake neighborhood "police" started driving around until, finally, MR. POLICEMAN -- with NEIGHBOR in tow -- knocked on SEK's door.
MR. POLICEMAN: Have you been threatening this man?
SEK: What? No.
MR. POLICEMAN: Is that your car?
MR. POLICEMAN: He says a man in a hat was threatening him this morning.
SEK: (points to hair) I'm not wearing a hat.
NEIGHBOR: It's you! You have a hat!
SEK: I'm sure I do somewhere. What's this about, officer?
MR. POLICEMAN: Have you been speeding recently?
SEK: I've been in Houston, my sister just had a baby. Wanna see a picture?
NEIGHBOR: He has a hat!
MR. POLICEMAN: So you haven't been speeding?
SEK: I haven't even been here.
NEIGHBOR: Ask him about his hat?
SEK: Do you need a hat, sir?
NEIGHBOR: I want to see your hat!
SEK: Officer, should I get him a hat?
MR. POLICEMAN: I don't think that'll be necessary. Sorry to have bothered you, sir.
NEIGHBOR looks at SEK. SEK waits until the officer turns around, then eye-fucks NEIGHBOR again.
NEIGHBOR: ASK HIM ABOUT HIS HAT!
MR. POLICEMAN: (to NEIGHBOR) We're done here.
NOT REALLY AN UPDATE: For the record, what I thought was going to happen turned out to be funnier. What's the point of living life as if it were performance art if it refuses to perform? Sigh:
The fake neighborhood "police" just drove by, and I can't help but wonder what they're looking for: "Suspect is an off-white late-model academic, so use extreme caution, he may have an ethnicity. Repeat: he may have an ethnicity."
(And after they bust in and shoot me, they'll be all like, "It's terrible, sir, it's terrible. The books! THEY"RE EVERYWHERE. On the floor, there're little ones on the table, looks like he broke their spines. OH THE HUMANITIES!")
Last week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Isolation,” focused on who was with whom and the tightness of the quarters they shared, i.e. how isolated every single person in this episode wasn’t. The title of this week’s episode, “Indifference,” is equally ironic, because the entire episode is about inappropriately caring too much — whether it be Rick caring about Carol enough to banish her, or Daryl caring more about Bob the Alcoholic than he should’ve.
But that’s not what I want to discuss this week. Not because it’s insignificant, as it clearly isn’t, but because in visual terms, this episode is much more about what people do than who they are or what they feel. The episode announces as much in the opening shots:
The jump-cut from the medium shot of Rick bandaging his hand to the close-up of his hand while he’s bandaging it is Brock’s way of gesticulating wildly at this episode’s theme, which I’ll call “The Terrible Things We’ve Done With Our Hands.”
Before you object that every episode of The Walking Dead features many hand-oriented shots, since characters are constantly thwacking walkers through the head, let me assure you that I already know that. Brock’s shot selection in “Indifference” isn’t different in kind from other episodes, but in degree. Consider the second sequence with Rick before the introduction rolls…
You can be sure I’m going to tell my newly minted niece, Arya Rose, the correct answer to that question.
For the record: I had nothing to do with the fact that my niece’s name is “Arya Rose.”
Nothing at all.
The fact that my firstborn will now have to be named “Stark Tyler” is a complete coincidence.
The title of tonight's episode of AMC's The Walking Dead couldn't have been more misleading: "Isolation" is an episode about the utter lack of isolation in the confined settings of a prison-cum-anti-zombie outpost. Even those moments in the episode in which characters were ostensibly isolated -- as when Herschel tells Carl that "It's peaceful out here" when they're "alone" in the woods collecting elderberries -- were undermined by:
Or, even more obviously, when Daryl, Michonne, Tyrese and that-other-guy-from-The Wire were driving along an empty road and heard voices on the radio, indicating that they weren't isolated, and then ran into this lot:
Those are the more prevalent examples of the episode's visuals defying its title, because they're both keyed in on plot points: Herschel appreciates being alone when he isn't, and Daryl et al accidentally run into one of the most populous zombie hordes on the show to date after hearing a faint voice on the radio. But I'm more interested in how the visuals themselves undermined the idea that this episode was, thematically, about "isolation," and you can see hints of it in that first image of Carl and Herschel above.
If you look at it, there are three planes within the frame: in the foreground, you have Herschel; in the mid-ground, you have Carl; and in the background, you have the walker. All of the planes are occupied in a way that, conventionally, makes a frame feel "crowded." If a director -- in this case, Daniel Sackheim -- uses a shot in which three people occupy all three planes in an episode once, you might not notice it. But in this episode, Sackheim consistently stacks the frame, almost from the opening shot of the episode...
SEK was driving to the Winn-Dixie, about a block away from his house, when a man ran into the street waving his arms wildly. SEK pulled over, thinking the man’d just chopped off some vital extremity with his lawnmower or something.
SEK: You need help?
MAN: Hey, you don’t live around here, do you?
SEK: I — are you all right?
MAN: I don’t know you.
SEK: I live just around the corner (SEK said, pointing to his domicile).
MAN: Your music was really loud.
SEK: I’m deaf, so sometimes it gets a little loud. Sorry about that, I’ll try to –
MAN: What’s with your hat? Is that a gang thing?
SEK: It’s a lazy thing. Didn’t feel like combing my hair this morning. I’ve gotta get back home soon, get to work, you know?
And SEK drove off. On the way home, this Zimmermaning neighbor waved at SEK as he drove by.
A few weeks after the finale of Lost, Chad Post attempted to defend it by claiming that its nonsense was the stuff of art. “What’s interesting,” he argued, “is how these six seasons functioned as … a great work of art [that] leaves things open to interpretation, poses questions that go unanswered, creates patterns that are maybe meaningful.” I’m not interested in discussing the merits of the Lost finale – whether all of the “survivors” Oceanic 815 were dead the entire time or some of them were only dead most of time doesn’t matter, as they’re both the narrative equivalent of convincing a child you’ve stolen its nose: it only works because kid’s not equipped to know it doesn’t.
Defenders of the Lost finale, of course, have no such excuse and are instead forced, like Post, to recapitulate aesthetic theories they half-remember from high school – in this case, the quasi-New Critical theory that elevates the interpreter over the work of art. It’s the critic, after all, not the artist, who benefits from “leav[ing] things open to interpretation.”
The New Critic was an archeologist of ambiguity, teasing from every contradiction he encountered a paean to the antebellum South. They valued ambiguity as an aesthetic virtue because poems and novels that possessed it could be made to be about anything, which freed them to make statements like, when it came to great works of art, “all tend[ed] to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way.” And they did so by being ambiguous, which allowed the New Critics to say, without irony, that great works of art celebrated “the culture of the soil” in the South. This, dear reader, is the brand of literary and aesthetic theory you were likely taught in high school, and by its druthers, Breaking Bad‘s not even a work of art, much less a great one.*
In fact, by this standard, it’s quite possibly the least artful narrative in the history of American television, and because of this, it’s the first show that deserves the label “naturalist.” The naturalist novels of the early 20th Century were tendentious in the most base sense of the word: any tendency that appears in characters’ personality early in a book will, by its end, have metastasized into impulses so vast and deep you wonder why they even tried to repress them.
For example, in the first chapter of McTeague (1899), Frank Norris compares his titular character to a single-minded “draught horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient,” whose one “dream [was] to have projecting from the corner window [of his "Dental Parlors"] a huge gilded tooth, a molar with enormous prongs, something gorgeous and attractive.”
There’s your premise: McTeague is dumb and stubborn, especially in the service of his vanity. In the next chapter, when he tries to extract a tooth from the mouth of a patient he’s fallen in love with, it’s no surprise that “as she lay there, unconscious and helpless, very pretty [and] absolutely without defense … the animal in [McTeague] stirred and woke; the evil instincts that in him were so close to the surface leaped to life, shouting and clamoring.”
“No, by God! No, by God!” he shouts, then adds “No, by God! No, by God!” He tries not to sexually assault her, but fails, “kiss[ing] her, grossly, full on the mouth.” Moreover, his failure revealed that “the brute was there [and] from now on he would feel its presence continually; would feel it tugging at its chain, watching its opportunity.” When the woman, named Trina, wakes from the procedure, he proposes to her with the same stupid vehemence with which he tried not to assault her:
“Will you? Will you?” said McTeague. “Say, Miss Trina, will you?”
“What is it? What do you mean?” she cried, confusedly, her words muffled beneath the rubber.
“Will you?” repeated McTeague.
“No, no,” she cried, terrified. Then, as she exclaimed, “Oh, I am sick,” was suddenly taken with a fit of vomiting.
One of the most prominent features of naturalist prose, as you can see, is stupid, ineffective repetition in the face of adversity. McTeague can shout “No, by God!” as many times as he’d like, but he still assaults her, and no matter how many times Trina says “No, no” in response to his “Will you?” the only way this ends well for either of them is if she vomits all over his office. Given such favorable initial conditions, would it surprise you to learn that after she wins the lottery, he beats her to death? Or that the novel ends with him handcuffed to the dead body of his best friend, who he also beat to death, in Death Valley?
Because McTeague is a naturalist novel, it shouldn’t. The key phrase buried in the previous paragraph is “initial conditions,” because when you’re in the presence of a naturalist narrative, they’re all that matter.
By now, I’m sure it’s obvious how this relates to Breaking Bad: in a real sense, the second through fifth seasons mark the inevitable, inexorable consequences of what happens when someone with Walter White’s character flaws is put in the situation he’s put in. Like his forbear McTeague, he’s incapable of developing as a character: he can only more robustly embody the worst aspects of his fully-formed personality.
This is why, in naturalist novels and Breaking Bad, repetition is so significant: it’s only when provided with a reminder of where the narrative started that we’re able to recognize how much the central character hasn’t changed. Every time we see another visual echo from episodes past – and in the fifth season, they come fast and frequently – we’re reminded of how committed Walter is to his vision of himself as a heroic figure struggling against a universe determined to wrong him. Consider this shot from “Bit by a Dead Bee,” the third episode of the second season:
Walter is in his hospital bed after the shoot-out with Tuco in the desert, which happened after he had been missing for three days and, of course, which almost got his brother-in-law Hank killed. He’s also claiming that the cancer treatment ate the memory of the walkabout it sent him on. The difference between the man he is – one who’s capable of devising a cover story for his meth-related absence that involves playing cancer for sympathy – and the one he imagines himself to be: the one in the boat, about to leave his family alone, possibly defenseless, while he heroically sets out into the great unknown. The next time he sees that image, he’s in a motel room surrounded by white supremacists planning the coordinated execution of the remainder of Gus’s crew. The director of “Gliding Over All,” Michelle MacLaren, moves our eyes around the scene before settling on a convoluted long shot:
MacLaren is fond of shots in which you’re forced to follow eyelines around the frame in order to make sense of the scene, and like that banquet in the “Second Sons” episode of Game of Thrones, it’s only after you’ve done the work of following everyone’s eyes around the room that you realize that the most important element in the frame isn’t actually in the frame. Once you follow an eyeline to an uninteresting terminus, you move on to the next character, so if you start analyzing the frame from the center and track on action, you’ll move to Kenny stretching and follow his eyes (red) to the floor, then Frankie shuffles in place, so you look at him and follow his eyes (blue) to the table, but since that seems unpromising, Todd catches your attention when he shifts his weight, then you follow his eyes (green) to the bed, which means that McClaren’s direction has compelled you to move your eyes around the screen until you reach the area of the bed at which Todd’s staring, which is puts them right next to Walter, who has remained stock-still throughout. She didn’t need him to move or even speak to draw your attention to Walter, she’s done so by other means. Once she has you where she wants you, she has you follow his eyeline (yellow) to its terminus, which is off-frame.
Following eyelines to their rainbow’s end is a function of film that doesn’t necessarily pique our curiosity, but when we come to the end of our journey around the frame and the most significant character in it is staring at something off it, we desperately want to know what he’s looking at.** McClaren knows that we’ll be less interested in the frame when we find out what he’s staring at, so beginning with that long shot (14:43), she cuts to a medium close-up on Jack (15:06), a close-up on Kenny (15:10), a medium shot on Todd (15:13), an extreme close-up on Jack (15:17) that racks to a medium shot on Frankie (15:20) before reversing to the initial medium on Jack (15:23), then back to the initial medium close-up on Jack (15:24) before jumping to a clean medium on Frankie (15:28), then to a more extreme close-up on Jack taking a drag (15:29), then she moves back to the close-up on Kenny (15:31), then back to Jack (15:35), back to Kenny (15:39), and back to Jack (15:41) until finally returning to Walter (15:50), who is of course still staring at something off-frame. McClaren’s refused to provide us with the information we desire for more than a minute at this point, but it wasn’t a typical minute.
According to the Cinemetics database, the average shot length (ASL) in “Gliding Over All” is 5.8 seconds, but as you can see from above, after that initial 23-second-long shot of Jack, the scene has an ASL of 3.8 seconds.*** Lest you think I’m using the kind of “homer math” that leads sports reporters to write about how their team’s ace has the best in ERA in the league if you throw away the four starts in which he got rocked: I’m sequestering this bit of the scene and treating its ASL in isolation because we watch scenes sequentially and in context.
The shift in the pacing of editing created the impression that something really exciting was happening, but “four guys in a motel room talking about doing something exciting” actually qualifies as exciting; the other alternative is that the shot-frequency accelerated because McClaren was building up to something exciting, like the revelation of what Walter is staring at. The editing could be doubling down on the anticipation created by that intial long shot: as frustrating as it is to watch shot after shot fly by without learning what’s on that wall, the editing’s at least affirming our initial interest in it.
Or was, until she cut to the close-up of Walter staring at the painting (15:50), and because it’s a close-up of someone staring at something off-frame, you assume that the next shot will be an eyeline match, but no, MacLaren cuts back to Jack, who’s explaining to Walter how murdering ten people is “doable,” but murdering them within a two minute time-frame isn’t. In a typical shot/reverse shot situation, especially when it’s in the conversational mode as this one is, you expect the eyelines to meet at corresponding locations in successive frames. If Walter’s head is on the right side of the frame, and it is, you expect Jack to be looking to the left side of the frame in the reverse, and he does:
The sequence is off-putting because Walter’s violating cinematic convention in a way that makes us, as social animals, uncomfortable. On some fundamental level, the refusal to make eye contact is an affront to a person’s humanity, so even though Jack’s a white supremacist with a penchant for ultra-violence, we feel a little sorry for him. He is, after all, being ignored in favor of we-don’t-even-know-yet, but at least it’s something significant. MacLaren wouldn’t have put all this effort into stoking our interest in something of no consequence, but that doesn’t mean we’re thrilled when she cuts out to the initial long shot in which whatever-it-is remains off-frame, or when she cuts to an odd reverse on Walter, who asks “Where do you suppose these come from?”
How wonderful is that “these”? We’re finally going to learn what Walter’s been staring at, but even the dialogue is militating against our interest, providing us with the pronoun when all we want to see is the antecedent. MacLaren holds on Walter for one last agonizing beat before finally reversing to this image of the painting (16:09):
This reverse shot seems more conversational than the last – again, in a way that insults Jack’s essential humanity, or whatever passes for it among white supremacists – only now the conversation isn’t between Walter and any of the actual human beings sharing that motel room with him, it’s with himself.****
“I’ve seen this one before,” he informs the very people he just insulted. It’s not that he’s wrong – it is the same painting he saw after he ended up in the hospital, and the timing here is crucial. In “Bit by a Dead Bee,” his outlandish plan had just been successfully completed, so when he looked at the husband heroically rowing out to sea, nobly sacrificing himself for the family he’s left behind, he sympathetically identified with a man who shared his current plight, who had made a decision and was following through with it for the sake of those he loved. But in “Gliding Over All,” he sees the same painting before one of his outlandish plans has come to fruition, so now when he sympathizes with the husband heroically rowing out to sea, nobly sacrificing himself for the family he’s left behind, he identifies with him because they share a common fate, as both have to decide whether to continue with their foolishness or return to shore.*****
Astute readers may have noticed that I just wrote the same sentence with different words. That’s because I did. The only “development” Walter’s underwent from the first time he saw that painting to now is that he’s more fanatically committed to the image of himself as the hero sacrificing himself for his family. Every sacrifice he makes on his family’s behalf only makes him more of the same same kind of hero he’s always imagined himself to be.
The presence of this painting – as well as the other visual echoes, most obviously Walter’s birthday bacon – reminds us that it’s only been eleven months since the moment he first saw it, in November 2009, to the moment he sees it in “Gliding Over All,” in October 2010. Naturalist novels also focused on the rapidity with which can descend in the absence of a social safety net. McTeague’s life unravels astonishingly quickly once he loses his job: four months later he and Trina are living in squalor; a month after that, she moves into an elementary school; two months later, he murders her; two months after that, he’s chained to the body of a dead man in the middle of Death Valley. Because of the kind of person he is, this is how McTeague’s life had to end. Aaron Paul’s appearance in Saturday Night Live demonstrates just how much Breaking Bad shares this naturalist concern.
I could go on: the short stories and novels of Jack London were about the opportunities to be had in the wilderness, and the dangers associated with them. In his most famous story, “To Build a Fire,” there is a moment in the fourth paragraph when the nameless protagonist could have, and should have, turned back. Once he makes the decision not to, his fate is sealed, it just takes another 40,000 words to reach it. If there’s an art to enjoying a man struggle in vain against his inevitable doom, it’s been lost to us – or had been, until Breaking Bad, which demonstrated that there is an audience for naturalist narratives, bleak and unremitting though they may be. Moreover, the opening scene of the finale, “Felina,” almost seems like a combination of “To Build a Fire” and another famous naturalist story, Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I’m not saying I believe that Walter dreamed he took his revenge in the moments before he froze to death, but it’s not entirely implausible, especially if the series is considered in the light I’ve presented it here. (Norm MacDonald, of all people, has my back on this.)
The question remains, then, whether Breaking Bad qualifies as “art.” Literary naturalism’s reputation has faded since the 1930s because, in part, critics consider it more akin to an experiment than literature. Literature requires its characters to develop, to become “round,” as they used to say — whereas naturalists were like scientists who would rather take a personality type and stick it in fifteen different environments so they could observe its behavior. When you consider the conversations that followed George R.R. Martin’s comment about Walter being a bigger monster than anyone in Game of Thrones, you can see where that temptation comes from, and how powerful it is, three-thousand comments deep in discussions about whether White would’ve been more like Tywin Lanister or Roose Bolton.
So is Breaking Bad art? Of course it is. The absurd amount of detail included above isn’t meant to overwhelm, merely to acknowledge the level of artistry that went into demonstrating that Walter hasn’t grown. I would take it one step further and say that even if you don’t believe naturalist narratives can be considered “art,” Breaking Bad would still be art, because as much as critics focus on the show’s content, what separates it from most television is the manner in which it’s presented. Even if the plot itself were terrible, the manner in which it’s shot would elevate it to the status of art.
*The main reason New Criticism was adopted as a model was that, unlike the modes of historicism that preceded it, it was infinitely scalable. After the GI Bill was passed, even college and university faculty were worried that their students lacked the educational background required to write the kind of research papers they’d previously assigned, but anyone could be a New Critic: all you had to do was look at a poem and point out what didn’t make sense, because that’s what it a work of art. Within half a decade, the bug of student ignorance became a feature.
**If you were paying close attention when the scene opened, you would’ve noticed, since she opens with a medium shot of the painting, then pulling back and sweeping to the right. Like many scenes in Breaking Bad, this one is sequenced backwards, providing us with information before we can understand – or if you’ve seen “Bit by a Dead Bee” recently, remember – the significance of it.
***For the record: 4 seconds, 3 seconds, 4 seconds, 3 seconds, 3 seconds, 1 second, 4 seconds, 1 second, 2 seconds, 3 seconds, 4 seconds, 4 seconds, 2 seconds, 4 seconds, 4 seconds, 2 seconds, and finally 9 seconds.
****Before you wonder why I’m not just calling that an eyeline match, because it’s also one of those, keep in mind that not only has Walter been staring at it with a faraway look in his eyes for almost two-and-a-half minutes, he now appears to be asking it a question. Also, in a move seemingly designed to frustrate my former students, check out the examples the Yale Film Analysis site chooses for “eyeline match” and “shot/reverse shot.
*****The boat seems closer to shore than ship, after all, which only adds to the nobility of the man rowing it out to sea, because it’d be so much easier to just turn around.
Copyright (c) 1980, 1982, 1983, 2006, 2013 Sekocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
OBAMACARE! is a registered trademark of Sekocom, Inc.
Revision 23 / Serial number 8940726
You are standing in an open field in west of a white apartment complex, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.
The door is locked. There is evidently no key.
> kick door
I don’t understand that.
> chicago jackboot thug kick
I don’t understand that.
> black panther power
You don’t understand that.
> power of greyskull
Fine. By the Power of Greyskull you open the door. You are in the kitchen of the white townhouse. A table seems to have been used recently for the preparation of food. A passage leads to the west, and a dark staircase can be seen leading upward. To the east is a small window which is open. On the table is a computer open to Healthcare.gov.
> what is dot gov
Healtcare.gov is a website on the Internet that you can use to find affordable health care.
> what internet
This is going to be a problem.
> WHAT INTERNET
A series of tubes. Information goes through them. You will like it.
You look out the window but see nothing of interest. You return to the computer and look at Healthcare.gov.
> no dont
Yes, you do.
> no, dont
Yes, you do. You choose the state you want to have health insurance coverage in and hit return.
> then what
> then what
> SO THEN WHAT
> what in fuck is that
That is an image file. Computers have them now.
> naked ladies
I don’t understand.
> want see naked ladies
Really? You discovered the Internet two minutes ago and all you want to see is naked ladies?
> NAKED LADIES
> saw that
You are waiting for the opportunity to acquire good healthcare coverage at a reasonable price.
> am wait for naked ladies
As soon as you have finished signing up for healthcare coverage you can see some naked ladies.
Let me check:
> what about now
Let me check:
> LADIES NAKED NOW
What if you got eaten by a grue? What would happen to you?
> kill computer
You do not want to kill the computer.
> kill internet
You cannot kill the Internet.
> kill kill kill
You really want to kill something?
> KILL KILL KILL
Fine. You have a head cold.
You have a head cold. This morning it migrated to your lungs. You are coughing an awful lot.
> i am
You are. You seem to have acquired a nasty case of bronchitis.
> go doctor
You do not have a doctor. You cannot afford one. Your cough is getting worse.
> fix it
You cannot afford to fix it. You are on the floor covered in specks of blood. You are drowning in your own fluids.
There is a computer on the table. This could have been prevented.
> save me
> save me
> save me
...can be found at RogerEbert.com. It looks something like this:
The fifth season of "Breaking Bad" is an exercise in aggressive nostalgia. "Ozymandias," lauded by many as one of the strongest hours in television history ten minutes in, is especially committed to reminding the audience how different the world these characters inhabit is. It opens with a flashback that doubles as a classic "process" shot, an extreme close-up a cook flask.
But this is no ordinary flashback. This flashback is holding the narrative hostage. The audience knows that twenty months in the future, on this exact same plot of New Mexican desert, Hank Schrader and Steve Gomez are slowly staining the sand red, while Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are bound, locked and helpless in the backseats of the DEA agent's vehicles. Something shattering is about to happen...
I just read this awesome new article about Breaking Bad that said things like this:
The tone being set here is riddled first with uncertainty (“Where are we?”), then with pointlessness (“Who are these skaters?”), and potential hazard (“Why so fast?”), before finally answering the question the opening shot asked (“Why are we wherever ‘here’ is?”). Once Cranston moves to the crane shot of Walter White’s backyard, we’re able to place ourselves spatially and temporally.
We recognize the once meth-blue pool in which Pink Bear and Skyler White floated; we notice the absence of the Lily of the valley Walter used to poison Brock Cantillo; and we know that the second half of season five begins where the first half did: one year in the future, closer to Walter’s 52nd birthday than his 50th.
You should read its life-affirming affirmations of life, speaking of which:
So there I am, a professional nerd watching World War Z with an executive chef, and I giggle when Brad Pitt decides that at the end of the world, the place he needs to be is Cardiff, Wales. Because of course it is. When the world’s ending and the best option isn’t available, you seek out Torchwood.
“What sort of book nonsense are you laughing about now,” my roommate asked.
“Too arcane to explain,” I replied, and that was that.
So Pitt stumbled up and passed out on the gates of the World Health Organization’s Cardiff outpost, which is fine, as the entire world ain’t out to please me meta-textually.
Or so I thought, before Pitt opened his eyes and the camera flipped to his first-person perspective as he awoke from his short coma:
I made a noise like my mind had been blown because it had. Because that’s Peter Capaldi.
At the end of the world.
So apparently the best option was available, except he’s not playing the Doctor. He’s credited as … “W.H.O. Doctor.”
For the record, principle photography on World War Z began in early 2011, more than a year and a half before Matt Smith announced he’d be leaving Doctor Who, which means the only way all this could’ve been thrown together would if someone had a …
After spraining my entire back yesterday, I woke up in a mood this morning. So when I was assaulted on Facebook by a series of positive messages about how I should be optimistic about everything, and because I’m an asshole, I wrote:
Just so you know, every time you post one of those “inspirational” or “optimistic” quotations on Facebook, in my head I append “So jump off that building, you’re the goddamn Batman” to the end of it.
But this should totally be a thing. Like so:
If you don’t know how to edit things on the Internet, well, all the better. The people who double-rainbow-with-wolf-and-moon these things don’t either. What have you got?
So thank you laura:
It's the first day of class, and I'm starting really basic. As in really basic. That's where the best courses begin.
Attendance and participation are both mandatory. I want to see comments from familiar faces in these new strange places. Because if it weren't for you, I wouldn't have this new gig. Engaging with you lot made me want to investigate this mode of writing, so you owe me.
You owe me.
Now go make me look good in front of my new bosses. What? Really?
Fine—I also want to say thank you for all the encouragement over the years. I wouldn't have this opportunity if it weren't for you.
*Facebook title of this same announcement: "HOLY SHIT-BALLS-IN-A-CAN I WRITE FOR THE ONION."
Matt Zoller Seitz has an article on Vulture that helps answer a question many of you have asked me: "Where can I can find more stuff like the stuff you do?" Here's MSZ:
It’s customary to decry much TV writing, recaps especially, as plot summary plus snark; I’ve done it myself. But as television criticism has evolved, this catch-all insult has started to seem as lazy and out-of-touch as cinephiles writing off the whole of television as an idiot box.
Even those sites that adopt a lighter touch—such as previously.tv, the new site from Television Without Pity’s original founders—invest snark with imagination and a sense of play. Tara Ariano’s “Schraders vs. Whites” chart and Newsroom recaps, the “watch/skip index,” and “Ask the Experts” are all riffs, but not just riffs; the site’s a welcome reminder that most people watch TV because it’s fun. (Though they do get serious on occasion: see Sarah D. Bunting’s appreciation of Tony Soprano as a prototypical Jersey dad.) Pajiba’s Joanna Robinson does the most visually inventive recaps I’ve seen, using GIFs and screenshots as rimshots. At Lawyers, Guns and Money, Scott Eric Kaufman’s detailed breakdowns of composition and editing liven up the recap with a dash of film theory.
Look beyond the writers who churn out thousands of words a week, and you’ll find many insightful, sometimes powerful one-offs, such as Aura Bogado’s piece accusing Orange Is the New Black of being unthinkingly racist even as it strives to enlighten. Bogado’s target isn’t just the show, but the complacent white liberal point-of-view that dominates criticism in every field, not just TV.
Tom and Lorenzo’s style-oriented approach and Molly Lambert’s Grantland pieces—on Mad Men, especially—are a breed apart. They’re not recapping, exactly, and I don’t know if they’re reviewing or criticizing, either, but they’re definitely feeling and responding, and noticing, and at their best, they make art from art. Tom and Lorenzo’s coverage adopts an outside-in approach, looking at the clothes, architecture, colors, and textures, and then finding their way into the drama, but they do more straightforward criticism as well, and it’s often dazzling.
Yes, I see what I did there too. But soon I'll be able to provide another answer: "At The Onion AV Club's 'Internet Film School,'" which will be me. I'll provide a link when it goes live in the next week or two. In the meantime, enjoy the bounty of links MSZ provided. (I'm not saying there'll be a pop quiz, but neither am I saying there won't be.)
At the Corner, Andrew Johnson thinks it's great news for Hillary that CNN's film division hired Courtney Sexton:
After the RNC voted the network from hosting future presidential debates if it follows through on plans to produce a Hillary Clinton documentary, the network’s films division has announced it will bring on film executive Courtney Sexton, who has a long history of working on left-leaning flicks.
Deadline details that Sexton’s past works include Al Gore’s climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, as well as 2010’s Climate of Change, which “focused on the efforts of everyday people all over the world who are making a difference in the fight against global warming” ...
“Any concerns the Clinton team had are all gone,” RNC communications director Sean Spicer told Politico in an email in reaction to the announcement. “This puts the ‘p’ in ‘puff piece.’”
Talk about punting the story. Sexton worked on Deadwood. If we use Johnson and Spicer's deterministic logic, that means we'll soon be seeing a completely different side of Hillary:
ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: BE BRIEFED!
HILLARY: BE FUCKED!
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Hillary, your presence at the UN Commission on --
Can't say I'm not looking forward to this.
Grant Morrison went on Kevin Smith’s radio show and, as he dedicates his life to doing, blew your mind with his wholly original interpretation of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke:
No one gets the end, because Batman kills The Joker. [...] That’s why it’s called The Killing Joke. The Joker tells the ‘Killing Joke’ at the end, Batman reaches out and breaks his neck, and that’s why the laughter stops and the light goes out, ’cause that was the last chance at crossing that bridge. And Alan Moore wrote the ultimate Batman/Joker story [because] he finished it.
Putting aside the fact that Morrison is the perpetually whining junior party in a feud with Moore, the idea that Moore “finished” the story of Batman and the Joker in The Killing Joke requires you misunderstand not only the structure of the book itself, but of the entirety of Moore’s structurally obsessed early work. Consider, as proof, a single page from Watchmen in which Moore accomplishes in nine panels more than Morrison did in all the pages of his magical masturbatory experiment in narcissism combined. But we need not even go there, because The Killing Joke fundamentally refutes Morrison’s contrarianism: the point is not that the story is “finished” but that it never can be. Even the dialogue circles back on itself:
That’s not the Joker, but a substitute with a painted face; the dialogue, however, is the Joker’s. After twenty-three silent panels, we have words. Moore frames The Killing Joke by floating the premise without the punchline in the first non-standard panel in the book, but it’s actually uttered in the last non-standard panel in the book:
This is because the books folds in on itself. The conflict between
the Batman and the Joker is circular: it begins and ends in a “lunatic
asylum,” and the non-diegetic words in that first panel are actually
spoken aloud by the Joker in the second. Also significant is that
they’re about the place they’re not spoken in, which happens to be the
place the Joker will
eternally recur inevitably be returned. But it’s not just the Joker whose words are eating their own tail:
As demonstrated in the post I linked to earlier, the central panels in Moore’s work at this time are inherently important, and this is the central panel of the fourth page of The Killing Joke. But it’s not just its placement in the structure of the page that’s significant — the structure of the panel itself is. The Batman and the Joker are presented here, center-page, as mirrors images of each other. Their faces are identically shadowed, their hands identically held. The slight perspectival asymmetry chops Batman’s fingers off at the knuckles and introduces a hint of uncertainty into an otherwise impassive panel. The only problem is that that’s not actually the Joker, but the Batman doesn’t know that yet, so he’s delivering an obviously prepared soliloquy in which all the dialogue is doubled: “Perhaps you’ll kill me. Perhaps I’ll kill you.” And it’s doubled in a way that makes literary critics swoon: in the service of overcoming a tired binary. The point of all those doublings is singular, because the Batman wants to avoid the inevitable “just once.”
Just once he would like what cannot happen to happen, so it’s not without a little irony that this dialogue reappears later:
Minus the “just once.” Just as the Joker’s words from the end of the book are superimposed on the beginning, the Batman’s speech — which the Joker’s never heard, because that wasn’t him in Arkham — so too are the Batman’s words from the beginning of the book superimposed on the end. The absence of “just once” is a self-undermining irony. That the caption bubble is a box indicates that they’re not the Batman’s thoughts. He’s not thinking about the speech he gave, Moore is re-presenting them as an echo. He’s reminding the reader that Batman’s trying to escape the cycle of violence, incarceration and escape in which the pair are locked. Only they can’t escape each other, because they’re damaged in the same way.
This should be a familiar argument to anyone who watched The Dark Knight, but Christopher Nolan castrated the pathos of Moore’s argument. In The Killing Joke, the Joker has a definitive origin that — go figure – mirrors the Batman’s: the accidental deaths of his wife and newborn child break him just as the murder of Wayne’s parents broke him. They both had what the Joker wants to impose on Gordon when he shoots his daughter Barbara: “one bad day” centered around the loss of family members. The whole book is a reflection upon the damage done by “one bad day,” and in the end it valorizes Gordon for not responding to his bad day by dressing like a flying rat or serially poisoning the water supply. But the point is that this book is about the relation of past to future, a chance …
I’m not going to harp on the language, visual and actual, of mirrors and reflections and doublings in the b –
– ook. But it sorta won’t let me n –
– ot. It’s just asshole like tha –
– t. Like that. I mean, the final fight takes place in a fun house in front of mirrors that distort their respective reflections, which means that in that second panel above, they’re not only distorted reflections of each other, their reflections are distorted reflections of their distorted reflections of each other. (Moore clearly values structure over subtlety at this point in his career.) For one to kill the other would be a kind of suicide neither are willing to commit.
They’re both the damaged products of “one bad day,” endlessly reflected in the fun house mirrors they stand between. That each reflection further distorts the other into infinity is kind of the point of the book.
The man in the fetish bat costume isn’t any healthier than the clown in the purple suit, and the more they interact, the sicker they become. Each reflection is a further distortion. Their interlocking stories always begin and end the same way, but along the way they inflict a little more damage on each other. You’d think one of them would snap eventually, but the point of Moore’s exercise is that neither ever will. Both responded to their “one bad day” with an excessive commitment to the willed necessity of their new identities: they differ from ordinary men only in their strength of will.
Morrison’s brilliant and wholly original idea — which has been floating around so long it’s been addressed in the introduction of one reprint and the conclusion of another — is an ignorant misreading that cuts against all the other grains in the book. It only seems plausible if you ignore the abundant evidence of its wrongness, including the first three panels of the book:
And the last:
Which combine in way that summarizes the story of the Batman and the Joker: on a dark night and rainy night, the Joker does something the police can’t handle. The Batman is required. His headlights in the book’s third panel announce his arrival. The Batman subdues the Joker, who can then be contained by the police again, hence the sirens announcing their arrival in the third-to-last panel of the book.
On a dark and rainy night.
Don’t make me mention that those panels are distorted mirrors of each other.
SEK is drives to HIS IN-LAW’S to check something on the Internet before heading to Baton Rouge to reclaim all his worldly possessions from THE AWESOME HISPANIC MOVERS.
THE ROAD: I AM FULL OF DEER!
THE ROAD: FULL OF DEER!
THE ROAD: DEER DEER DEER!
SEK: SHIT SHIT SHIT! [slams on brakes] You could’ve said something.
THE ROAD: !?!
Having survived THE ROAD, SEK arrives in Baton Rouge. However, somewhere between California and Louisiana, the AWESOME HISPANIC MOVERS became GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS.
SEK: You can just put all my worldly possessions in this perfectly normally storage unit on my friend’s property.
GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: We cannot do that.
SEK: Why not?
GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: We do not do that.
GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: Here is what you do, I tell you. You rent U-Haul, we meet in parking lot. You move your stuff to U-Haul, drive to home and costs you only one hundred.
SEK: To rent a U-Haul for a day?
GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: For us to unload alone. Fifty if you help.
SEK: Am I not already paying you a –
GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: You pay company, we are here. You want us unload, you pay us.
SEK: Just so I have this right: I pay for a U-Haul, we meet in a parking lot, I hand you cash, and then I have to unload everything myself later?
GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: Fifty you help, hundred you don’t.
SEK: I’ll help.
GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: Please to be sure. For two hundred we walk on grass even.
SEK: I WILL HELP.
SEK then is to be unloading a U-Haul by his lonesome, waiting for VERY STRONG GODCHILD and HIS VERY STRONG GODCHILD’S BROTHER to make finish with swim practice and become UNPAID CHILD LABORERS.
I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder or appear to be piling on, but one aspect of Hugo Schyzer’s “confession” strikes me as especially problematic, especially at a time in which the humanities are under assault from well-funded conservative forces: his claim of academic fraudulence.
He’s clearly not a fraud in the traditional sense, i.e. he didn’t falsify his credentials or publish papers on data he knew to be cooked. He claims that when he was in graduate school, “there was no such thing as porn studies,” so he lacked the credentials to teach it. Which, I suppose, is technically true. But he also claims to have “do[ne] the reading,” which in practice is all that’s required of scholars who work in a field that didn’t exist when they earned their doctorates.
The other “fraud” he believes he committed is that he spoke about feminism but “never published in any serious academic journal [because he] wanted to write for a popular audience.” Anyone familiar with the current state of academic journals knows about the incestuous nature of “blind” review: your name’s not on your submission, but if you’ve spoken at a conference or to another scholar in the field, you’re a known quantity. Your work whispers your name to the person who reviews it and that, as much as any independent factors, determines whether it’ll be published. (Why yes, I am that cynical.) But I haven’t come here to bury humanities journals—their “style” secures them a place in the deepest recesses of empty libraries—only to note that failure to publish in a discipline or subdiscipline doesn’t disqualify a person from teaching in it if they’ve done the reading. That’s all that’s required. If Schwyzer convinced his colleagues that he’d done the reading, he was qualified to teach a course in whatever it was he’d read.
Does this system require trust and lend itself to abuse? I suppose. But as someone who spent 13 years teaching at one of the best universities in the country, I can assure you that when you stand in front of a classroom of bright, motivated students you always feel like a fraud. You’ve never read enough, and you never will have. Your shelves will always be lined with books you should’ve already read. You feel like a fraud because you’ve only read thirty books on X, but your students consider you an authority for the very same reason.
Was I a hypocrite when I taught a literary journalism course after only having casually read Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and John McPhee? What if I told you I’d also had a subscription to The New Yorker for a decade? How much literary journalism did I need to read to be able to teach it? How familiar with its style and conventions did I need to be? I can’t answer those questions, so instead I’ll say what every teacher knows to be true: I wasn’t qualified to teach the material until I’d already taught it a few times.
That doesn’t make me a fraud—it makes me a teacher.
Here’s a hypothetical: an academic writes a dissertation about, say, evolutionary theory in fin de siècle American popular culture, but later starts reading and writing about a subject in which he’d received absolutely no graduate level training. Like, I don’t know, film theory. He reads the seminal texts, then writes about it online, for a popular audience instead of an academic one, for the better part of six years. Would this academic be qualified to open an “Internet Film School” at the Onion A.V. Club? Would he be a fraud if he did?
No, I’m not sure either.
But I will say that, two days later, I'm even more fond of the title of my Holocaust piece than I was when I wrote it.
But that’s about the only item worth defending in Anil Dash’s anti-shushing manifesto. To Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent demolition of Dash’s argument I will add this: the idea that behaving like an asshole justifies the normalization of said behavior is preposterous. Just because you can’t put down the iPhone and concentrate on something other than yourself for two hours doesn’t mean I’m similarly defective.
I’m not going to ask you to turn of your iPhone during a film because it’s distracting, but because your narcissism is fucking with my head. Your tiny light is making my dilated eyes constrict, which means I can’t see the movie the director—otherwise known as the person I paid good money to fuck with my head—intended me to. Your vanity transforms the film I wanted to see into one co-directed by you, and while I understand that that likely thrills you, know that I have no idea who you are and no interest in anything about you. I am reducing the complex social construct that is you to its essence which is asshole.
Your body is asshole.
Your mind is asshole.
Your life is asshole.
If you cured cancer, then the cure for cancer is asshole.
If you stopped war, then peace is asshole.
You are assholes all the way down.
Because it’s about time for another Doctor Who post, here’s England reminding Matt Smith that he’s going to be miserable when she’s gone and we all die alone. The caption to the above photograph, for example, reads “[a]fter his lunch Matt wandered around, ending up sitting on someone’s front step,” which is essentially a Yiddish insult. (My grandmother never actually said “you should wander around and end up sitting on some stranger’s stoop,” but I can easily imagine her doing so.) The Jewish futility doesn’t end there:
Matt seemed to blend into the crowd as he spent a relaxed day on his own, as passers by seemed oblivious to who he was. ["You relax like a nobody" or "You and nine men don't make a minyan."]
Matt didn’t seem bothered by the fact that he was spending the day by himself, wanting to work on his own. ["As you work so will you die."]
Reading over the script, Matt seemed to be considering the new part, as he tried to make a name for himself in Hollywood. ["Try to make a name for yourself different from mine."]
The 30-year-old chomped away on his sandwich outside the eatery, obviously not worried about being spotted. ["When you slobber away, only God's watching."]
The star seemed happy as he spent alone, moving on with his career in the US. ["May you grow up and live in Los Angeles."]
Which means that, yes, I may be the first person ever to pass time in Mississippi writing ersatz Yiddish insults.
In my beloved roleplaying game circles, doxing and threats of violence over the internet occur regularly over which edition of Dungeons and Dragons people prefer. Go to any video game forum and one can see pages of arguments about which console is the “right” one to enjoy. On and on it goes, across intellectual properties and hobbies, right down to nearly breaking out in actual physical violence.
This is remarkably similar to diehard sports fan culture. It’s not merely that a disagreement exists over which consumed product is superior; it’s that the fan of the other team is an Other. This, again, blurs the lines between what we think of as geek fandom and non-geek.
On its face, the idea that geek-love for a particular franchise is the psychological equivalent of devotion to a particular athletic team makes sense: both are characterized by an over-identification with the central figures in an ongoing drama, be it the trials of a fictional protagonist or the tribulations of a team seemingly committed to never cracking .500. And in both cases, these figures are representatives of corporate media, such that it doesn’t matter to the BBC who plays the Doctor, so long as the show itself is successful, anymore than it matters to the NFL who wins the Super Bowl, so long as the game itself is an obscene encomium to American capitalism.
For Williams, the corporate nature of the objects of fandom overrides the differences between how those objects are related to. “Neoliberalism,” he claims, “has made geeks of us all: jocks, nerds, and dweebs alike,” and so he suggests that we make “a concerted effort to free the media being consumed from the corporate realm.” As sentiments go, that’s a lovely one; but as statements about reality go, it indicates that Williams isn’t remotely familiar with geek culture. That should’ve been apparent when he linked to a fight at a Star Wars club and claimed “[t]his is remarkably similar to diehard sports fan culture.”
His entire argument relies on that analogy, but his diction betrays that he lacks confidence in it. Depending on how remarkable you prefer your similarities, a honey badger is “remarkably similar” to the least chipmunk. They share a kingdom, phylum, and class, which any 19th Century naturalist will tell you means that they’re more similar than not. Ask the same 19th Century naturalist which one he’d rather be locked in a small box with, however, and you’d quickly learn that the differences between them are more significant than their similarities are remarkable. (Only one, for example, is a vainglorious carnivore.) Point being, the rare instance of verbal arguments leading to physical altercations in geek culture shouldn’t be the basis of an analogy to a sport culture in which such an escalation is common.
So, Williams’s argument on the corporate nature of geek culture relies on an analogy that only works from a logical remove so distant as to be useless. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a corporate component to geek culture, as there certainly is, but that component operates in a vastly different way than its correlate in sport culture. If you’re a Mets fan, you watch them play on SNY or at Citifield and you purchase uniforms and gear from officially licensed MLB manufacturers. With a few notable exceptions—homemade posters or creepy homespun Mr. Met costumes—your participation in the team culture is mediated through corporate entities. You don’t often witness the melting visage of a paper-mache Mr. Met roaming the stands of Citifield, but you can’t attend a comic conference without seeing twenty Wolverines sporting alarmingly sharp-looking claws. That’s because the participatory nature of geek culture is expansive—the object originates in a corporate entity but isn’t limited to it—whereas the more you participate in sport culture, the more money you deposit in the pockets of the corporations that own it.
This is a basic fact of geek culture: while a person can participate it by buying a Batman costume officially licensed by DC Comics, he or she can also—and for the most part does—participate in it by purchasing ceramic plates and blackout drapes and transforming them into something resembling a Batsuit. I understand the desire to vilify corporations for their pernicious effect on contemporary culture, but I don’t think such condemnations require us to minimize the differences between subcultures in what, to my eyes, seems like an attempt to create a monolithic subculture. I’m not sure what good a united front of geeks and sport fans would have on American society at large, especially if the bond between them is a weak analogy based on violent tribalist tendencies.
Is a line that can now appear in my obituary. (And the article's about vodka no less.) In addition to writing articles, my duties at The Raw Story will include pulling and titling links to wire stories. They won't be under my byline, but I have a feeling you'll be able to tell which ones are mine.
I'll still be writing here, though, as my job doesn't entail the kind of editorializing I'm incapable of not doing. As a matter of fact, I'll still be here when my other other gig starts on the 15th. (But more on that later.)
As anyone who cares enough to be reading this already knows, yesterday the BBC announced that it had cast the new Doctor, and to the shock of absolutely no one paying attention, he looks like this:
I confess to being disappointed: I’d hoped to see Idris Elba fulfil the Doctor’s wish of regenerating ginger—yes, you read that correctly—because a show whose operative principles are any thing, any where, any time shouldn’t limit its protagonist to white men from the British Isles. Endlessly doing so constitutes a failure of imagination on the part of a show predicated on imaginative possibility. I’m not claiming the new Doctor had to be a black man. Neil Gaiman introduced into canon the concept of regenerating into another gender in “The Doctor’s Wife,” so I would’ve been satisfied with a white woman.*
Essentially, I wanted Steven Moffat to make a selection as outrageously ambitious as the show itself can be, and Peter Capaldi is more of the same. Which isn’t to say he’ll be a terrible Doctor, as Capaldi’s a fine actor and will bring to the role a gravitas it’s lacked since the end of David Tennant’s run. But as heroes go, the Doctor’s just “a madman with a box” whose power, such as it is, is the ability to bluff his way out of a war. And as powers go, “intelligence” is limitless in its potential appeal because everyone likes to think they’re smart. Having him embodied by an endless parade of white British males creates an unwholesome and unnecessary connection between intelligence, acts of extreme whiteness and penises.
Why does that matter? I’ll tell you the same story I told my Doctor Who class when trying to explain its cultural significance to the British people:
One evening while I was trapped in North London by an Icelandic volcano, I noticed the streets were unusually empty. The hundreds of Pakistani children usually found playing in the street had vanished, so I decided to take advantage of the quiet and read on the front porch. About five minutes later, the Pakistani family that lived next door returned home from wherever they’d been and went inside. Five minutes after that, another Pakistani family from down the street walked up to and in my neighbor’s house. Five minutes after that, another Pakistani family, this one completely unfamiliar to me, did the same. This continued for about an hour, until the house was packed well beyond capacity.** I had no idea what was going on, so when one of the children I recognized was walking up, I asked.
“What’s going on?”
“The Doctor,” he said.
Imagine what the atmosphere in that house would be like if Matt Smith regenerated into someone who resembled them. Because that’s all you can do, imagine, for the time being.
*I’ve read that some are disappointed that the Doctor will be straight again. I sympathize—though the series deserves credit on that front for Captain Jack—but unless they have access to scripts Moffat hasn’t written yet, I’m not sure why anyone would conclude from Capaldi’s casting that the Doctor will be straight.**Writing this story down is, believe it or not, the first time I’ve ever realized that the house was bigger on the inside. I’ve always worried people would think I was making some sort of derogatory statement about the living conditions of Pakistanis, when I should’ve been making it clear that they have a TARDIS and we don’t.
As outlined in the book of the same name, the paranoid style of American politics requires a philosophical rigor that contemporary conservatives simply lack. There’s a baroque grandeur to the pattern of perceived slights that’s admirable in its own way — as if a master archer decided to “paint” a pointillist self-portrait one arrow at a time. The style of contemporary conservatives is equally absurd, but it lacks the pointless beauty of paranoia — it’s akin to child who tosses a handful of bird shot into a lake and finds in the resulting ripples a fair resemblance of himself. By insisting his reflection is the result of his “artistry,” he communicates that he fundamentally misunderstands the nature of causality.
Put differently: if he pissed on a mirror he’d crow about the transmogrifying powers of his urine.
Because he’s not paranoid — he’s an idiot. He’s out there kicking a watch to prove to David Hume that God designed the world to exist. At The National Review, for example, Stanley Kurtz recounts reading a book by James Kloppenberg in which Mike Kruglik “recalls that Obama had a special interest in the work of the radical historian Howard Zinn” in 1985. I had to add the date because Kurtz didn’t want to sully Kloppenberg’s account of Kruglik’s twenty-eight year old recollection of Obama’s “special interest” with its proper context. Had he done so, Paul Mirengoff of Powerline wouldn’t have been able to draw attention to “The Obama-Zinn Connection,” nor would he have been able to transform Obama’s “special interest” into overt “fan[dom],” and if he couldn’t call Obama a “fan” of Zinn, he couldn’t link to The National Review‘s “summar[y]” of “Zinn’s errors and distortions.”
This isn’t paranoia — grandiose or otherwise — it’s the self-fulfilling stupidity of three kids kicking a turtle they’ve mistaken for a watch who think they’re proving God and Samuel Johnson right. They’re not exactly sure how they’ve done so, but they’re damn sure that they have because it looks just like them.
Since this is now my personal Xanga/livejournal/Myspace page -- and because the recommendations on the podcast thread were so exquisite I'm already listening to them while packing -- I thought it wouldn't hurt to ask. I'm planning on doing 10 hours days from Corona to El Paso and then El Paso to Houston, so I don't want to stop for a long lunch -- nor will the three howling cats in my rented SUV -- so places I can call in advance and eat on the way would be preferred. I've been looking online for such places, but they're either far too fancy, which will kill my cats, or they're perfect but have been recently burned down. I shit you not: four of the five places that initially excited me have burned down in the past few months.
So ... recommendations? Including on the drive itself, places to stay that are cat-friendly, etc. Basically any recommendation you have that doesn't amount to "DON'T BE DEAF YOU ANNOYING LITTLE COCKSUCKER." (Which, when you think about it, is probably The Donalde's way of saying he's going to miss me when I'm gone. Not enough to stop sexually harassing his students, but enough to feel a pang above his waistline when he does so, you know, in the part of his brain where shame ought to live.)
...has reached its conclusion. After finally talking to someone in management with basic human decency, I can now say, without qualification, that the situation has been resolved to my great satisfaction.
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: Hello, welcome to Hertz Ontario!
SEK: Hi, I have a question about the A/V connection on the SUV I’ll be rent –
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: HELLO? (giggling) ANYONE THERE? TURN UP YOUR VOLUME.
SEK: (master volume is already at JITTERBUG) Let me turn my volume up. (pretends to up the loudest setting to ludicrous, but really just starts shouting) IS THAT BETTER?
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: HELLO? (more giggling) WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM HERTZ?
SEK: I HAVE A QUESTION ABOUT –
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: SORRY WE CAN’T HEAR YOU.
SEK: Must have been a bad connection. Let’s try it again from my wife’s phone: 1-909-937-8877. Ring, ring, telephone ring, hope somebody knows, what they’re doing –
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: Good morning, Hertz Ontario!
SEK: Hi, I just tried to call a second ago but I guess we had a bad connect –
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: (to unknown compatriot) Him again. (more whispering) YES WE ARE HERTZ.
SEK: YES IT’S ME AGAIN CAN YOU HEAR ME?
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: (muffled laughter) SIR WHERE ARE YOU CALLING FROM?
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: (more muffled laughter) WHICH DAKOTA?
SEK: ISTANBUL MOTHERFUCKERS.
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: (shuffling phones and flustering composure) HONESTLY – UNCALLED FOR – WHAT DO YOU NEED?
SEK: SO YOU CAN HEAR ME NOW? I DON’T NEED TO YELL NOW?
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: Please don’t call back.
SEK: Ring, ring, telephone ring …
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: I TOLD YOU NOT TO CALL BACK.
SEK: I know you can hear me. I just need to know whether there’s an A/V outlet on the SUV I rented –
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: (phones shuttled into other hands) SIR WE ASKED YOU NOT TO CALL BACK.
SEK: I just have a simple question about my reservation for Saturday –
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: I’M CANCELLING IT.
SEK: You can’t. You don’t even have my information.
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: WE HAVE YOUR PHONE NUMBER SIR (more muffled laughter in the background) AND WE HAVE CANCELLED YOUR RESERVATION.
SEK: That’s my wife’s number. The reservation’s in my –
HERTZ AT ONTARIO, CA AIRPORT: DON’T CALL BACK.
SEK: I won’t. That’s what Twitter’s for.
Any car rental companies in the Corona and/or Ontario area that would like to shame Hertz are more than welcome to contact me via Twitter @scottekaufman, Facebook, or scotterickaufman (at) gmail (dot) com. I will return your call within the hour.
UPDATE: Nothing as yet, really, so it's time to go Full Jew:
Maybe if enough people "like" and "share" the following, some important person will notice their blackberry's been barking at them for hours now.
Hi Hertz! Remember me? I'm the deaf guy your Ontario, CA employees mocked this morning. I spent the better part of the day talking my way up from one middle-manager to another and was PROMISED that I'd get a call "later" from someone with the authority to 1) answer my very simple, basic question and 2) explain to me why Hertz employees are encouraged to behave as they do. (Do you WANT to drive away customers? Because I don't see that being a successful long-term business model.)
Point being, I'm supposed to pick up my SUV tomorrow morning, but as I told every rung on your corporate ladder, I refuse to honor my reservation if the people who willfully and maliciously dishonored me today are working the counter. I've asked for assurances that they wouldn't be, but have heard nothing. I've asked for an explanation as to why they were allowed to do so in the first place, but I've heard nothing.
Basically, I've heard nothing except "later," and now "later" is creeping into "tomorrow." Should you ever again desire the business of the communities to which I belong -- deaf and hearing alike -- I strongly recommend that someone with the ability to address my concerns contacts me sooner rather than "later."
Steven Attewell and I decided that we didn’t want to wait until next February to continue talking about Game of Thrones, and so we decided to start over. Here’s our take on “Lord Snow,” the series’ third episode. And before you ask: yes, the podcast did explode before we had a chance to finish it. We'll cover the four minutes we lost in two weeks, after I've moved and settled in. Which also means, obviously, that there won't be a podcast next week, as I'll be moving and settling in. Try not to miss me too much. Works SEK discusses:
Works Attewell discusses (warning, all of these posts contain spoilers for all five books):