December 29, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild got a lot of attention last year, including an Oscar nomination for its young star, Quvenzhan√© Wallis. For those who haven't seen it, it's the story of a young girl and her father who live in a insular, poor community in the Louisiana bayou called the Bathtub and how they fare when a destructive storm hits their community. After viewing it last night, I made my way online to read reviews and eventually to cultural critic bell hooks's harsh critique of the movie.

bell hooks is one of those thinkers who gets blasted a lot, like Camille Paglia. And like Camille Paglia (whom hooks loathes), she's someone whose legitimate insights can be obscured by her goofier statements. I've only read one book of essays by hooks, but I remember feeling really moved and convicted by her intense jeremiad against consumerism and middle-class indulgence and then equally baffled by her assertion that she drives an expensive car without guilt.

hooks was horrified by Beasts of the Southern Wild. She sees it as (1) eroticizing the children in the movie, (2) naturalizing violence and poverty, and (3) perpetuating the myth of the strong black female (for her a racist stereotype that implies that abuse and oppression don't damage their victims).

Of all of these charges, I find (1) the most baffling. Yes, the movie has shots of the girl Hushpuppy from behind, but not in any obsessive or exclusive way. She's just climbing around on little hills, being a kid, in a handful of shots. There's a later scene in which four girls from the Bathtub go to a local brothel for help and end up being coddled by the prostitutes, even slow dancing with them. bell hooks finds the scene sexual and threatening, but the film clearly portrays it as a kind of mothering; these are tender gestures that the girls, starved for nurturing, soak up like sponges. Hushpuppy, picked up by one woman and held in her arm while she sways, states as much, saying she can count on two fingers the number of times she's been picked up in her life.

hooks conflates this issue with the flashbacks of Hushpuppy's mother, whom her father, Wink, is describing to Hushpuppy and who is visually portrayed in shadows and mostly from behind. This is clearly an erotic view, but he is, after all, describing what is for him a powerful moment in his life, when Hushpuppy was conceived. To see his desire for the mother as patriarchal or reductionist is, well, reductionist, since desire is a normal part of romantic attraction and is a legitimate ingredient in many of the most powerful moments in anyone's life. It's also worth noting that the film is deliberately obscuring the identity of the mother, which feeds into a focus on her body rather than her face.

A more legitimate criticism is (2), the naturalizing of poverty and violence. The residents of the Bathtub live in squalor, drink a lot, and are occasionally (but not usually) violent. Early in the film, Wink smacks Hushpuppy in the face when she questions him showing up in a hospital gown after several days' absence. Hushpuppy is sometimes scared, often at least startled by her father's erratic outbursts. What hooks seems to ignore is that the film itself is saying this. hooks sees herself as reading between the lines, seeing what the movie is trying to hide. Though it's true that viewers sometimes romanticize images of poverty (something that can't always be helped by the filmmakers), the movie itself is perfectly clear about how horrible many of the facts of Hushpuppy's existence are.

Maybe what hooks finds objectionable is that Hushpuppy's existence is not seen as only horrible. One of the elements of the movie's greatness is that it is such a complex, full portrayal of this community. The kids are hungry and ill-clothed. They are unshielded from adult affairs. They are cowed by the adults around them. But they are also cared for by the adults around them, taught by those adults, toughened up by them. The community is above all resistant to absorption by the outside world, an attitude that is both destructive and, by the end of the movie, somewhat understandable. Hushpuppy's father is a source of occasional fear and wariness, but also a source of fun, care, and love. He teaches her to fish, plays around with her, takes her everywhere, tries to prepare her for the trying times ahead.

This feeds in to hooks's other main objection: (3) how the movie perpetuates the myth of the strong black woman. I'm sympathetic to the view that this stereotype can be used to minimize abuse and oppression, to imply that black women are undamaged by these destructive forces, maybe even born to endure them. Point taken. But as with all portrayals of specific demographics (based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), the point is not to eliminate all representations that might coincide with a stereotype but to widen the range of representations so that nonstereotypical traits are equally included. We don't want girls to be represented only as princesses in need of rescue. We want them to be heroes, we want them to rescue, or to be quiet or straightforward or whatever . . . all the things that girls can be. But that doesn't mean the princess narrative should disappear from our culture entirely; it should rather be just one among many representations. Likewise with gay stereotypes. We don't want every gay man in film and TV to be a flouncy queen—the fun, bitchy best friend. But we don't want to never see another Jack McFarland, do we?

So it seems short-sighted to me to demand that a young black girl can never star in a story of endurance and overcoming adversity. What a shame that would be, especially when we're talking about a role like Hushpuppy, which Quvenzhan√© Wallis plays with such naturalness and variety. She's never just tough or defiant. She's scared, joyful, kid-like, worried, stubborn—all of the things that are so often missing from kids in film, who tend to be overly self-assured and precocious.

Actually, Beasts of the Southern Wild reminded me most of another movie about a child who interacts with an imaginative world in order to face the difficulties of life: Where the Wild Things Are. Hushpuppy often reverts in her mind to a story that her schoolteacher told about beasts of the northern wild, boar-like aurochs who were a terror to all around them and whose remains were preserved through the ice age. Hushpuppy is threatened by them (as they represent both the encroaching forces of the storm and the loss of autonomy by "dry land" do-gooders). But she also identifies with them as fierce wild creatures able to dominate their milieu.

Getting in touch with their primal rage—and strength.

Child against nature:

Facing down their fears (with Snow White for good measure):

The story of a child gathering strength in the face of adversity is universal. It belongs to all children.

December 24, 2013

American Hustle


Tone is the holy grail of art. You can have decades of singers sounding like Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy, and suddenly Louis Armstrong comes along and bam: Vocals now sound, feel, a way they never have before. You can try to pin adjectives to tone (Macdonald and Eddy's tone is maybe careful, balanced, and cool, and Armstrong's unpredictable, warm, and colloquial) but individual words can't fully convey the feeling and mindset conveyed in tone.

(Light spoilers ahead.)

David O. Russell's American Hustle is great for so many reasons, but perhaps most of all for its tone. A lot of films combine comedy and drama and deal in the same tropes: the intricate con job; the gung-ho guy who's in over his head; the stylish editing. But not many are this funny while feeling this tragic. The whole cast is superb, but I give special credit to Jennifer Lawrence. She's a riot, but she plays the character from her own headspace, never as just comic relief.

And the ending felt really, really sad, especially considering it's based on true events. A lot of movies of this type end with the smart guys winning and the players getting their comeuppance. But American Hustle is different. Enormous energy has been put into trying to achieve something worthy, even if those trying to achieve it are flawed. And after all that passion and effort spent, the good or relatively harmless are punished while the evil get away scot free. And you end up feeling like this is probably what most of life is, most of what all pursuit of justice is: Enormous expenditures for paltry gains.

December 23, 2013

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

"You're welcome!" (American Hustle)

When the Oscar-worthy movies start coming out!!

December 16, 2013

How's This for a First Line?

"Marley was dead: to begin with."

(Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol")

December 13, 2013

Antihero? Walt Sucks, Jax Rocks


Convalescing with a fractured arm this week, I finally caught up with the series Sons of Anarchy, which I've been intending to watch for approximately the last four years. I was ready to confess to my own hypocrisy in loving Jax Teller and some of the other characters, despite the fact that they are mostly worse than Breaking Bad's Walter White, whom I loathe. But here's the thing: Jax and the other bikers are straightforward about who they are. They don't deceive and set up the people closest to them. They don't wage psychological warfare with the people they claim to love. And although both series have a fairy-tale aspect to them, with the scripts manipulating events just so so that the antiheroes escape the worst moral approbation, Jax is at least legitimately likable as he is. I hated even the original, "good" Walter White, who was a hypocrite to his alleged friends, secretly despised his brother-in-law, and brought exactly nothing to the lives of those around him. You don't have to be an ATF agent or pharma millionaire to be a worthwhile human being and to win the admiration of those around you, but that's what Walter White believes. Wanker.

P.S.: I'm only through season 1.
P.P.S.: How awesome is Katey Sagal?
P.P.P.S.: How awesome is the ENTIRE CAST??

December 7, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club


What a movie. This story of the early days of AIDS and one Texas redneck's startled entrance into the ranks of the afflicted is lit up by Matthew McConaughey's portrayal of protagonist Ron Woodruff. McConaughey reminded me of Daniel Day-Lewis's as Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father, another movie based on a true story

The great thing about these roles is that the actors portray their characters' transformation over time. To create just one really full personality onscreen is something hardly any performance achieves. To create two—the early personality and the personality transformed by events—and have the second feel like a realistic evolution of the first . . .  it's amazing. Especially without the aid of a-ha moments, melodramatic turning points, or confrontations. In these movies there are no single events that flip the character; no charged arguments that end with the protagonist speechless, realizing in one fell swoop the errors of his ways; no intimate tete-a-tete in which the character confesses how wrong he has been. It's just that person—that very specific, particular personality—living and being changed by life, day in and day out. Fantastic.

Another thing the movies have in common: super bad (but period-appropriate) hair. We'll see if the styling team gets an Oscar alongside McConaughey.

December 2, 2013


Elan Gale's note war with a lady on his flight was all over Twitter, with fans gleeful over his nasty takedowns of the annoying complainer. Here's my question: Would he have written "your lazy ass" and "eat my dick" if the complainer was a large, fit, black male rather than a middle-age woman?

December 1, 2013

This Way Up

Animated film is one of my favorite art forms. "This Way Up" by Smith & Foulkes is perfection.

November 24, 2013

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Just as good as the first movie, and impressively seamless with it even though Francis Lawrence replaced Gary Ross as director. What works:

—It has Moments. Like what follows when Gale is flogged. And the supposed wedding dress reveal. And when Katniss has a clear shot of Finnick.

—It has funny lines. Just enough and well placed.

—Jennifer Lawrence has more to do emotionally, and she nails it all.

—Peeta inches up the hotness scale from the last movie.

The flops of Beautiful Creatures and City of Bones show that it's not so easy to make these YA series work as movies. I'm so glad this series does. We'll see how Divergent does in March.

November 21, 2013

George Eliot

Just imagine whole novels made up of lines like this:

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”  

“A friend is one to whom one may pour out the contents of one's heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that gentle hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”  

“The difficult task of knowing another soul is not for young gentlemen whose consciousness is chiefly made up of their own wishes.”  

“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”  

“For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self.”

“It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses, we must plant more roses.”  

November 16, 2013

"I'm Getting Married Tomorrow!" and Other Artistic Abominations


Russell Brand brought his Messiah Complex tour to DC a few months ago, and I splurged on tickets for me and my brother (for his birthday). I rarely go to the theater because of the expense, but I adore Russell Brand. His writings and stand-up are everything I love: sharp, funny, and content-ful. The ratio of content to form is generous; he packs more insight and cleverness into a paragraph than most writers do in a whole essay.

The night started out great. The stage had four hanging banners, each depicting a revered moral figure: Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus, Malcolm X, and Che Guevara. And Brand began to weave a carefully designed portrait about why each one is revered, what he relates to in each, and yet how problematic each of these lives was (in ways that all of our lives are problematic). It was brilliant.

And then the heckling began. At first I couldn't hear any of it, but Brand was addressing two men in different parts of the audience, getting the lighting team to turn a spotlight on one and threatening to throw out another. This sounds awkward, but it wasn't a big deal because Brand was so clear about it.

Then the women started, and that's where things fell apart. I don't know if Brand is just more sympathetic to women or whether what they said was less offensive, but his response was more equivocal. A woman in the first row of the balcony stood up and starting yelling, "Where's the feminine energy??!!" over and over again. Seriously, yelling at the top of her lungs. Brand was gentle: "It's okay, luv. We'll get to that. You're all right." Then she would calm down for a while, and then 15 minutes later stand up and start yelling again. At one point security came to get her, and Brand gallantly saved her. "It's okay. She can stay. You're all right, luv, aren't you?" However, she didn't seem to appreciate this gallantry and started yelling again 15 minutes later. He even tried to assure her that he agreed with her, telling her that he addresses "female energy" later in the show.

Then another woman started in. She kept yelling "I'm getting married tomorrow!" Not in the disturbing, regimental way the female-energy yeller did; more casual and random, trying to be funny. Again, Brand tries to address it comically, saying, "What do you want me to tell you?? I've only been married once and it wasn't a success."

By this time we're about halfway through the performance (or so I estimated), but things have gotten way, way bogged down. Comedy depends on timing and delivery, and the poor guy could hardly get a sentence out without someone interrupting. He juggled it as well as could be expected, but eventually it started to abrade the fabric of his performance. His rhythm began to slip. A punch line to joke or set-up would come a full 5 minutes after it was intended to. And when he did get to his riff on the beauty of female energy, it felt old and sad, like the air had been taken out of the tires. We left early because it got too painful. Most of the audience clearly disliked the heckling, but there was no stopping it. 

Here's the thing: Stand-up comedy is theater. It's an actor on stage performing a script and involves everything that traditional theater does: physicality, line delivery, structure, timing.  And when heckling starts, the play is stopped and the audience is forced to watch a different play: the one that the drunk or disturbed or just rude heckler wants to perform. This heckler is not smart or funny or theatrical; otherwise he would have his own one-man show. So he seizes the stage from someone who has earned that spotlight. And instead of hearing a riveting riff on history and psychology the audience is forced to hear the heckler's script. Which is something like "I'm getting married tomorrow!"

If someone stood up in the middle of Jude Law's Hamlet and yelled this, they'd be out the door. The venue's security would have come and taken them out. No one would expect Jude Law to deal with the heckler from the stage, to placate them or put them down with just the right touch, all the while not breaking character, fielding jabs from multiple audience members and tossing them back in perfect Elizabethan English, and delivering Hamlet's soliloquy in two- and three-line bursts in between. But this is tolerated in stand-up.

The industry attitude needs to change. It has to begin with the recognition that stand-up is art. The best stand-up can be profound and even beautiful. It's work that someone spent months honing with care and pride, something they poured themselves into. Venues should announce at the beginning of performances that heckling isn't tolerated and hecklers will be immediately removed; the performer shouldn't shoulder the responsibility. This gives the performer freedom, denies the hecklers a reward for their behavior, and, most important, ensures that the people who invested scarce funds in an artistic experience actually get to experience what they came for. As it is, I doubt I'd ever go see Russell Brand again in concert, and that's a shame.

October 31, 2013

Art Appreciation

Most kids computer games have basic, blobular, Care Bears-type graphics. So I was delighted to buy Build-a-Lot Fairy Tales yesterday and see the beautiful children's picture book-type graphics in it. It's really one of the loveliest games I've ever seen.

October 30, 2013

George Eliot's Simile Starpower

Like the other great 19th-century realists, George Eliot excels at rendering the subtle bits of thought and emotion flitting through her characters' head. What further distinguishes her is how she analogizes these in memorable images: 

Of Sir James's idea of masculine superiority, which would triumph over any unpleasantnesses that his future wife might bring to their marriage:

"Sir James might not have originated this estimate; but a kind Providence furnishes the limpest personality with a little gunk or starch in the form of tradition."

Of Dorothea's tendency to overlook Casaubon's emotional failings:

"His efforts at exact courtesy and formal tenderness had no defect for her. She filled up all the blanks with unmanifested perfections, interpreting him as she interpreted the works of Providence, and accounting for seeming discords by her own deafness to the higher harmonies."

The rector dismissing the idea that he could influence Mr. Brooke to oppose Dorothea's marriage to Casaubon:

"It would be nonsensical to expect that I could convince Brooke, and make him act accordingly. Brooke is a very good fellow, but pulpy; he will run into any mould, but he won't keep shape."

The neighbors' assessment of Casaubon:

"He has got no good red blood in his body," said Sir James.
"No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass and it was all semi-colons and parentheses," said Mrs. Cadwaller.

And finally, in a lovely meta-statement, on Casaubon's surprise that marriage did not bring him happiness:

"Poor Mr. Casaubon had imagined that his long studious bachelorhood had stored up for him a compound interest of enjoyment, and that large drafts on his affections would not fail to be honored; for we all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them."

October 27, 2013

Middlemarch Mayhem


Hard to get through a novel of this length when you're highlighting every other paragraph.

October 22, 2013

The Loss of Autumn

Fall always makes me think of the song "Every Season" by Nichole Nordeman. It's one of my favorite sad songs, though it's a song of hope too. Thinking of a friend today who experienced a loss, we can only take comfort in the inevitability of loss and the hope for renewal one day.

Every Season, by Nichole Nordeman

Every evening sky, an invitation
To trace the patterned stars
And early in July, a celebration
For freedom that is ours
And I notice You in children’s games
In those who watch them from the shade
Every drop of sun is full of fun and wonder
You are summer

And even when the trees have just surrendered
To the harvest time
Forfeiting their leaves in late September
And sending us inside
Still I notice You when change begins
And I am braced for colder winds
I will offer thanks for what has been and was to come
You are autumn

And everything in time and under heaven
Finally falls asleep
Wrapped in blankets white, all creation
Shivers underneath
And still I notice you when branches crack
And in my breath on frosted glass
Even now in death, You open doors for life to enter
You are winter

And everything that’s new has bravely surfaced
Teaching us to breathe
What was frozen through is newly purposed
Turning all things green
So it is with You and how You make me new
With every season’s change
And so it will be as You are re-creating me
Summer, autumn, winter, spring

October 21, 2013

Allure Win

I had the privilege of traveling to beautiful Iceland this past week.

October 15, 2013

Allure Fail

A channel called WealthTV recently popped up on our cable menu. Among its many awful shows is a travel show called "Travel in Style," which features luxury hotels from around the world. The production is super cheesy: The narrator talks in a stilted manner with a touch of Stephen Hawking. The video is subpar. And the whole thing conveys a horrible sense of insulation and privilege. But Jay likes to watch it because he likes travel shows.

The episode we watched last night was on a safari outfit in Botswana. As with other episodes, the narration emphasizes how truly happy the natives are to serve you. The viewers are reassured time and again that, sincerely, the employees' only interest is in making you happy. The Botswana episode showed the wealthy young couple being driven around in a Jeep and making a stop at a little building where the local residents sing them traditional songs. They are actually called something like "these happy, simple people."

But my favorite part of the show was when they were describing the rooms at this safari hotel. After showing several luxurious features, they show a woman paddling around in a small pool, like an oversized Jacuzzi attached to her room. The narration explains: "And after a long day, you can slip into the plunge pool and look out over the hippopotamus-infested marshland."

October 10, 2013

Today's Bout: Miley vs. Britney

Considering the long history of young women writhing around sexually in music videos and live performances, it's hard to understand the outcry against Miley Cyrus for her VMA performance with Robin Thicke. A lot has been said about the double standard, how Miley was perceived as demeaning herself but Robin wasn't. But that's just business as usual, men's sexuality being accepted and women's being judged.

What perplexed me was why this performance, as opposed to all the other sexual choreography by female performers over the years, was seen as particularly degrading for the artist. So much so that, the day after, talking heads of every stripe, from CNN anchors to late night commentators to Nigel Lithgoe (from So You Think You Can Dance) made reference to it as a sad, desperate act of a sad, desperate girl. More recently Sinead O'Connor wrote a worried open letter to Miley, allegedly a motherly warning but in reality a public dressing-down in which she says Miley "prostitutes" herself.

Every one of these criticisms may have a basis in reality. I tend to think not, but it's a complex thing. Rather my issue is why these criticisms erupted with such ferocity for this performance and not others. The so, so many others that are equally explicit and sexual. Even performances that were talked about for their daring, like Madonna's infamous crawl across the VMA stage in a bride's dress all those years ago, were scolded for their bad taste or nefarious influence on the young, not because they expressed a fundamental desperation or psychological sickness on the part of the performer. No one said, "Oh, poor Madonna. What's happening to her?" Or "Oh, Britney; why do you feel you have to prance around half-naked with a python? It's so sad." (The sadness of her later breakdown is another thing.)

I think those earlier performances were celebrated rather than tut-tutted over because they made sense in our culture: They were women being sexy. Britney's nearly-nude python performance is justly famous because it was so incredibly sexy, almost an archetypal performance of a certain highly valued sexiness. Her hair is beautifully blond and long. Her makeup is dewy and alluring. Her body is perfect and displayed in a way that communicates an accepted ideal of exotic eroticism, wearing a skimpy jungle bikini adorned with gold jewelry. And her manner is what we associate with sexiness: coyly curved body, come hither eyes, looking up smokily through thick lashes.

Miley's performance, on the other hand, was something entirely, entirely different. She wore a nude one-piece, crazy makeup, and punk hair. She jumped around like a cheetah, with hard angles, bent limbs, no sinuous snake she. She sticks her tongue out—not in a slow luscious lick around her lips but like a wild animal or frat boy.

Maybe here's what was so disturbing to the world about Miley's performance: She was sexual, but not sexy. She was displaying her body, but not performing a striptease. Her hair was wound up in little pig-buns, like a cross between Bjork and Princess Leia, not flowing in long locks. Her energy was wild and free, not alluring and sensual. And that left us wondering: Why the hell is she doing this if she's not going to be sexy? It just makes no sense. There must be something wrong with her.

The word that comes up a lot with Miley's performance is "misguided." As if her performance were a an attempt gone wrong at "guiding" herself toward Britney-style popularity. But what if that python perfection is not her goal? After all, Britney's attainment of nubile goddess-hood didn't serve her very well in the long run. Yes, Miley could go other ways: dressing conservatively, swaying gently as she sings. But that's not her; why should that be her only choice?

There are other odd aspects to the Miley bashing as well. She is criticized for appropriating black culture, which makes absolutely no sense to me in an American pop culture that is so, so widely based on black culture. Almost the whole of pop music is rooted in African American inflection and vocalizing, and nearly every pop performer (God knows Robin Thicke) is steeped in those traditions. Twerking isn't that different from the grinding women have been doing at clubs (and wedding and bar mitzvahs) for years. And she's seen as trying to prove that she's not Hannah Montana anymore, when I'm sure she is way past that. It's us who can't get past it.

Miley is actually just being herself at 20. But we can't seem to make sense of what that is: someone who could be a Britney if she tried but keeps not being it. 

October 6, 2013


Must highly recommend Alain de Botton's blog:

September 26, 2013

Walter White Is Just a Huge Tool

Trying to be a good little culture vulture, I recently watched seasons 1 and 2 of Breaking Bad and a bit of season 3. But when I got to the season 3 ep where Walter goes to Skylar's office to confront her boss (with whom she's started an affair), I couldn't take it any more. I could not watch one more hour of this asshat and his passive-aggressive asshattery.

Walter White is a terrible character. I don't mean "a complex mix of good and evil, deeply layered and conflicted." I mean terrible. The stylishness of the show—its great cinematography and direction—plus the soap opera nature of its plotting threaten to obscure just how big a jerk he is.

Let's take his marriage. In the first two seasons, his wife Skylar knows he's up to something. He disappears for hours or days. She catches him in lies big and small. She realizes he has a second, secret cell phone. He occasionally turns aggressive and hostile to her and others. She does the right thing: asks him to please tell her what's going on.  Over and over. And over and over he dismisses her, makes up outlandish stories, acts the rational husband to her paranoid wife-ishness.

I'm a fan of the advice columnist Carolyn Hax, and Carolyn Hax says one of the most destructive things one person can do to another is to vitiate their inner voice. Wives and girlfriends write to her about suspicions that their partner is having an affair, which the partner denies with either eyerolling or anger, turning the tables with "I can't believe you're accusing me of this." The wife becomes the bad guy, the one on the defensive. Carolyn always directs the letter writers to their inner voice: "You don't trust this person. Face that fact." Sometimes the letter writer will later have found out that the guy was indeed having an affair and feels ruined by the months of denial.

Having someone attempt, over a long period of time, to discredit your inner voice, your instincts, your perception of reality . . .  it's one of the worst things someone can do to another. It's the heart of abuse, what allows abuse to continue. It's why Carolyn doesn't recommend that people harass an abused woman about leaving or try to talk someone out of a relationship that looks to be bad news. They should ask questions and make their support clear, but never tell them that they don't know what they're doing or that they need to ignore their feelings and simply do what others are telling them. This, Carolyn points out, is exactly the message of the abuser: you're stupid and can't trust yourself.

Walter replays this scenario over and over with Skylar. And what's worse, he drags others into his power play. After he finally admits that he's making meth and she tells him to leave and stay away from their children, he moves back into the home and dares her to take action. Their teenage son Walt Jr. is a clueless observer, angry at his mother's coldness and rage toward the calm and patient Walt Sr. "This isn't your mother's fault," he'll say, his sweetness in the face of her hostility giving lie to his own protestations. When she calls the police in an attempt to oust him from the house, they come upon him with an apron on, feeding their baby daughter while watching the pasta pot, the picture of good suburban fatherhood. All the while secretly telling the world: she's crazy, she's crazy, she's crazy.

And if this seems like the only way out, it's not. He could sit down with his son and say, "Listen, I've done something really terrible. I can't tell you what it is, but trust me, your mother has very good reason for her feelings. But despite this terrible thing I did, I want to try to rebuild our trust." That's a far different thing than what Walt Sr. does, and the only moral response.

Then there's his role as a teacher. He's a high school chemistry teacher who hooks up with a past student, the fumbling Jesse, to make meth. We admire Walter's competence, his seriousness, his bad-ass way with chemicals, which allows him to make bombs on the fly and improvise when they run out of gas in the desert. We are meant to understand that Walter is one of those teachers, slightly dowdy but dedicated, whom students remember with affection. Long into their new relationship as meth producers, Jesse continues to call him "Mr. White," a nod to Jesse's essential boyishness and innocence as well as Walter's essential goodness.

But the reality is that Walter is terrible to Jesse. Right from the start, he shows not one bit of compassion or patience or affection for this lost kid. He yells at him when he makes mistakes, treats him like scum that he's forced to deal with, won't give an inch of warmth in the face of Jesse's stabs at friendliness or schoolboy nostalgia. In one episode Walter and Jesse watch a demented drug lord murder one of his underlings, the two of them united in horror at what they're seeing. And the next episode Walter is in his face, telling him to do the same.

At moments like this, Walter reveals a cold-hearted cruelty that we are supposed to be able to reconcile with his basic decency and love of family. This dichotomy is crucial to the series. We are supposed to understand Walter as a complex, deeply flawed character of the type that peppers American culture and is generally so fascinating. We are meant to respect his knowledge of science, this competency a newish trope in nerd culture that asserts that the people who have skills really will inherit the earth. And there may be in Walter's character a bit of vicarious thrill for all of us bland, office-job-holding suburbanites: we may look harmless, but there's a lion just beneath the surface. Push us too hard, and you'll see. You'll see.

But there's a fine line between complexity and contradiction. Not every incongruity of a fictional character can be reconciled by appealing to human complexity. At some point, you can't claim to love your family and then manipulate them. You can't lie to them and put them in the sights of Mexican drug cartels. You can't be brutal to your teenage student and then be the soul of understanding to your teenage son.

This is particularly true with Walter's refrain that he's making meth for the good of his family. He has chemotherapy bills, true, but he also has many ways of paying for his chemotherapy that don't involve meth cooking. But these other ways involve taking charity, a notion that seems to make Walter psychotic. When his son sets up a donation site online, the camera shows Walter's eyes becoming more furious with every $10 donation that appears: he wants credit for providing for his family. When his former business partners offer to pay for chemo outright, he politely declines, all the while raging that he was cut out of the business right as it took off, making the others multimillionaires and leaving him a lowly public school teacher. Did he ever approach his former partners about fair compensation? Did he ever talk to a lawyer? There are responses to such a situation that lie between being a doormat and being a psycho.

The nature of Walter's socioeconomic status is another tripping stone for the series. He split from his business partners ten or fifteen years before, but there's no indication that Walter has come to grips with what happened. He's angry that his friends ended up rich, as if no time has passed. Perhaps he could have faced his own mistake in leaving the company. Perhaps he could have decided he has a legitimate claim to some of the company's profit and sued for compensation. Man up, buddy. Tell your friends you want money not out of charity but because you are owed it.

At the very least he could embrace the life he has with gusto and appreciation.  The series wants us to perceive his life as (initially) homey and sweet and yet somehow sad: the lighting is always dim inside their home, and he and Skylar always look a little dumpy. But if these design and costume choices are supposed to reflect how Walter and Skylar feel about their life, I'm not sympathetic. He has a nice home, a good job, and a wife who doesn't work. Grow up; millions of people live, literally, in garbage piles. 

I understand the show's popularity. Not only is it well made but it appeals to something primitive in us: our desire to have the ability to dominate our circumstances. Movies like American Beauty and Falling Down celebrate the conformist who rebels and is revealed to be a formidable force of nature. Breaking Bad represents the absolute worst take on this theme because Walter White finds his strength, his manhood even, not in virtues like endurance and honesty but in rage and violent daring. That's not what even an antihero looks like.

September 16, 2013

Jon's Take

My friend Jon responded to my Red Dead Redemption post, and below is part of his response. Although I don't think the save and skinning mechanisms function in the way he rightly defends (allowing the player to choose when to pause the action or participate in restful sequences, like the campfire that pops up occasionally in RDR, is a better choice), it's a great defense of rhythm in storytelling:

* * *

For those with the time to invest in a good game, bookending a play session with mundane events can have a grounding effect on the player, much like cracking open a book and thumbing to the bookmark, or closing the book and setting the bookmark and putting it back in its place.  While these actions may be repetitive, they can be purposeful and even artful.  Consider TV: Aside form the traditional action-packed intro-sequence with theme song, and the outro-sequence with credits, a serialized art form can employ things that get you in the mood for the upcoming show.  Specifically, consider Mr. Rogers returning home, and changing into his "around the house" clothes and singing to the audience.  It's the same every time, but it's a pace-setting technique that allows the viewer to bring to mind all the feelings and thoughts they had the last time. 

It's only the most puerile games that needlessly suffer from the desire to keep everything at 11 the whole time.  If you're going to have good action beats, you have to have good slow moments in between.  If you made a movie full of jump-scares and gunfights, with no heart and no feeling to it, you're unable to reach the same kind of tone that I think Rockstar was looking for in RDR.  So, while the written word avoids repetition, look to other mediums to see its power.  Imagine the Latin Mass where every 15 weeks everything needs to be replaced.  Picture Babylon 5 without "It was the dawn of the third age of mankind."  So, while some repetitive elements can get in the way of the enjoyment of a game, or merely pad out the length of the game, I wouldn't say that an option to manually save with in-game metaphors is a storytelling problem.  On the contrary, it's a storytelling element that suffers from pacing/timing elements.  If it were the *only* way to save, I would partially agree that some better editing of that sequence could improve it, but it's these tiny slice-of-life elements that elevate the medium beyond that of mere words on a page. 

Reading the same paragraph detailing a repetitive sequence, at the start of every chapter would be frustrating.  You'd zone out after the first sentence.  But as part of much longer experience you're controlling and participating in, as a bookend to your experience for the day, repetitive sequences can reinforce, or allow for the computer to load things in the background (think of criticizing stage hands for moving scenery between scenes - just to pad out a play's runtime!), and allow for the player to make a mental note of what they're going to do the "next day."  Will they advance the Main Plot, go for some side missions, gamble, break in some horses, achievement-hunt, or see how long they can evade the long arm of the law?  These brief respites are intermissions that allow the audience to take an account of what has happened and what may yet happen.  Only in a game, the audience pulls triple duty as director and actor.  Also, save points are typically action/conflict free, and allow a small oasis from the chaos of the rest of the world.  Even for the grizzled, conflicted protagonist, living on the fringe of society, even he has a place to hang his hat, at least for a moment, free from the cares of his world. 

So while we can argue the execution of such scenes, including the ability of the player to skip them, I think they hold weight as a storytelling device within the context of their medium. 

September 15, 2013

Red Dead's Storytelling Problem

I know people love Red Dead Redemption, and I understand why, from a character point of view. But, among my (granted, limited) experience of video games, it's one of the most annoying to play minute by minute because doing very common actions (saving the game, skinning an animal) takes forever. You've killed an animal and go to skin it? In some games you'd click one button and be done in literally a second; but in RDR, you click that button and then have to watch a mini-play, complete with dialogue and sound effects. EVERY TIME. And you can only save the game while camping or sleeping in one of your properties. How tired am I of entering the saloon, crossing the crowd-filled floor, up two flights of stairs, down two hallways, and finally into my room before I can save?

It's as if you were reading a novel, and every time the main character did anything outside the house, you had to read that he got his keys, went to the closet, put on his coat, opened the door, went to his car, started the engine, and pressed the gas. If the text describing that were really well written and evocative, you'd enjoy it the first time. The fiftieth? Not so much.

September 11, 2013

Daughter of Smoke and Bone


I adore this series by Laini Taylor. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the first installment, and I just finished the second book, Days of Blood and Starlight. The third and final volume comes out this fall. I'm amazed by the perfection of the plotting, how deeply engaging it is, and the fine literary details. It's become my favorite fantasy world aside by from the incomparable Middle Earth and Narnia.