Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

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‘Unfortunately, Wakanda Will Have to Continue Not to Exist after Black Panther as Well’

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But Black Panther is not a standalone movie, nor an origin story in the traditional sense. Its narrative is disciplined not just by its embedding in ‘real history’ but in a fictional franchise history whose long-term planning is said to extend to the 2030s, if not beyond. We can see the reactionary effects of this disciplining in both temporal directions. The nonexistence of Wakanda ‘up to now’, its refusal to participate in global events, even in the face of the slave trade and European colonization, actually becomes a plot point in the film: the motivation for Killmonger’s anger and the root of his radical politics. And unfortunately – because of the narrative requirements of franchise time – Wakanda will have to continue not to exist after Black Panther as well. A world with an unhidden Wakanda would very soon look almost nothing like our world – Wakandan emergence would be as seismic in its own way as major cities being destroyed by aliens, lifted thousands of feet into the air by killer robots, and smashed to bits by monstrous green Hulks. What Wakanda would actually mean to the globe – materially, technologically, economically, philosophically, spiritually – would be so radical as to permanently sever the connection between ‘there’ and ‘here’ on which the eternal present of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is based.

My short essay on Black Panther and the limits of its politics in the face of the larger MCU franchise is up at Frieze!

Written by gerrycanavan

February 28, 2018 at 9:06 am

White Male Critic Asks Why If Wonder Woman Is Really So Great Why Didn’t She Prevent the Holocaust

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As I mentioned on Twitter earlier this morning, the hype turns out to be right: Wonder Woman is really pretty good, especially by the poor standards of the DC Cinematic Universe. DC would be absolutely crazy not to use Wonder Woman as the model for production going forward rather than Batman v. Superman or (god forbid) Suicide Squad; it’s the only one in the DCCU that has been remotely successful from either a political or artistic point of view. (A Twitter friend even suggested that this might be (another) way the film might replicate Captain America, beyond the obvious, templating future entries in the shared universe and becoming the new franchise anchor after a somewhat slow start.) It gives me hope that Wonder Woman (and, soon, Batgirl) can show DC there’s real money in female-oriented superheroes.

I’ll admit I did have some trouble with how obviously the film was cloning Captain America, and I don’t think this is mere pushing-up-your-glasses nerdery: World War II, and the Holocaust especially, hangs over the film in a really direct way, I think, and not only because of Gal Gadot’s Jewish ancestry and its place in the strange debate over whether or not this Wonder Woman qualifies as a woman of color. WWI vs WWII is not a situation where you can just change the dates and tell the same sort of triumphalist story; WWI is simply a very different sort of moment, and a WWI narrative mandates a sort of bitter aftertaste even at its most triumphant.

At least since Star Wars SF and fantasy trilogies have tended to follow a particular template:

  1. optimism
  2. disillusionment
  3. recuperation

The historical existence of World War II is the original and ultimate dark, gritty sequel, a nightmare that like so many filmic sequels was made possible by the conditions of victory of the first one. The choice to set Wonder Woman during WWI thus makes both WWII and WW2 its necessary extension, a situation the film itself even nods at by having its poison-gas-themed villainous Dr. Poison spared by Diana and escape at the end (presumably to help develop Zyklon-B somewhere down the line). Our foreknowledge of the Holocaust — and Wonder Woman’s own retrospective knowledge of it in the film’s unexpectedly quiet frame narrative — haunts the film’s apparently victorious climax, telling us immediately that there is something off or incomplete about her apparent defeat of the God of War: that in some way it was deceptive or incomplete, perhaps, or potentially that her seemingly liberatory victory over Ares only made things worse. The obligatory Empire-Strikes-Back dark turn of Wonder Woman 2 is built into the historical logic of the film’s WWI setting from the jump — and similarly makes any sort of final recuperative turn in WW3/WW3 somewhat hard to imagine. (Perhaps a temporarily pacifistic Diana Price using the spy look from the 1970s comic stops nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis? I’m just spitballing.)

Another Twitter friend had an idea for WW2 I thought was great, and wrote this longer post more or less entirely to popularize: a Wonder Woman film that sidesteps the stale supercharged-Nazi-demons angle in favor of street-level resistance in a Warsaw ghetto:

Depowered or in some other way hamstrung by the Spear of Destiny, perhaps, but still needing to make a difference where she can… In the same way that some MCU movies can be political thrillers and others can be heist movies, Wonder Woman 2 could be and should be a Holocaust film. Knowing nothing about screenwriting and caring nothing about money, I really think that’s the way to go.

Science Fiction Film and Television 9.3: “STAR TREK at 50”!

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Science Fiction Film and Television 9.3: “Star Trek at 50″ is out just in time for the anniversary year. Here’s a table of contents:

Star Trek at 50, or, Star Trek beyond Star Trek
Gerry Canavan

Transmedia space battles: reference materials and miniatures wargames in 1970s Star Trek fandom
Bob Rehak

The inertia of tradition in Star Trek: case studies in neglected corners of the ‘canon’
Adam Kotsko

Star Trek, global capitalism and immaterial labour
Dan Hassler-Forest

To boldly grow up: navigating female adolescence in Star Trek and Lost in Space
Zara T. Wilkinson

‘A friendship that will define you both’: Star Trek and the devolution of American masculinity
Bridget Kies

‘And yet, everything we do is usually based on the English’: sailing the mare incognitum of Star Trek’s transatlantic double consciousness with Horatio Hornblower
Stefan Rabitsch

A generic correspondence: Sturgeon–Roddenberry letters on sf, sex, sales and Star Trek
Andrew Hageman

‘It’s just us now’: nostalgia and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Benjamin J. Robertson

Plus reviews of Stephen Universe by Brittany Pladek and book reviews from Sean Matharoo and Josh Pearson…

Check it out!

Written by gerrycanavan

December 16, 2016 at 12:44 pm

Reading and Teaching Harry Potter after THE CURSED CHILD (No Spoilers, Just a Few Instant Reactions)

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Zoey slept in this morning, so I was able to read the entirety of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on my Kindle app under the covers, racing both an iPad battery that was very rapidly heading to zero and a four-year-old whose every tiny twitch and movement suggested the end of my project was drawing near. I think it’s good. It’s definitely strange. As a revisionary work, it throws some very odd wrinkles into the interior logic of the Harry Potter universe, and as a result I suspect it will always have a sort of quasi-authorative, even apocryphal status within the canon, even beyond what one would have suspected because of the unusual circumstances of its multi-author composition and its form as a play rather than a novel or even a film. It never feels quite real, never feels like the actual future of these people and these circumstances; it’s a tie-in book, oxymoronically authoritative fan fiction. Still, there are a few things here worth lingering on, and it’ll start a lot of conversations.

I know I’ve read the thing almost comically early, so perhaps I’ll do a follow-up post in a week or so with some actual spoiler-laden analysis about the events of the plot. But what struck me most as I was reading The Cursed Child is how directly it resonates with the way I’ve been teaching the series in my literature courses the last two years (a pedagogical focus undoubtedly driven by the fact that I’m a parent now myself). Like many other things in life, the original Harry Potter books look rather different after one becomes a parent, and living inside the franchise again I’ve really come to see it as in large part as a frustrated rumination on bad parents, and on bad fathers in particular.

The class I teach Harry Potter in is a foundations course for English majors, but the theme is “Magic and Literature”; we spend the last half on children’s literature and the last full month on Harry Potter, first talking about the franchise as a whole (with some exceptions, they nearly all know it by heart) and then (re-)reading the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, together. I choose Order of the Phoenix deliberately: the first three books are all still a little childish, and the fourth is mostly so until the shocking events at the end, which (after Cursed Child) now looks even more like the fulcrum of the entire series. (A surprisingly high number of students in the current college-age cohort had younger siblings who were initially not allowed to read past book three, and only came back to the series later, if at all, after a year or more break.) The sixth and seventh books are really plot-driven, almost to the exclusion of the world-building; you can’t really read one without reading both, and at that point you’re completely excluding any students who don’t already know the series extremely well. But the fifth book is in the sweet spot: it’s adult, in a way the earlier ones aren’t, and it opens up on the larger, darker Wizarding World while still being a stand-alone adventure. It’s also, perhaps it goes without saying, my personal favorite of the five, and I think the actual best writing of all seven — and it brings up some fascinating issues about the Wizarding World and its internal politics that aren’t really developed anywhere else.

We spend two weeks on Phoenix, and afterwards we talk a little bit about the epilogue to the last book, which (as every child knows) flashes forward nineteen years to the day Harry Potter’s second son, Albus Severus, goes to Hogwarts. We need the epilogue in the class because, in my teaching, it’s the culmination of the various explorations of bad parenting that structure Phoenix.

The discussion for the first day inevitably focuses on the scene with Molly Weasley (chapter nine, “The Woes of Mrs. Weasley”). Mrs. Weasley is a fascinating character from the perspective of the Harry-Potter-rereader-as-a-parent, as she is one of only a handful of genuinely “good” parents anywhere in the series: good in the sense that she sees her children (and Harry) as pearls beyond price and simply wants to love, nurture, and protect them, rather than instrumentalize them either in the service of her own ego (as with, say, Lucius Malfoy) or in the service of some larger, supposedly greater cause (as with Dumbledore).

(The character most like Molly in the series is, weirdly, Narcissa Malfoy, as my students in the first iteration of the class pointed out to me: Narcissa is the version of Molly who doesn’t take the word of the men for an answer and who is therefore able to get what she wants and protect her child at any cost, the Higher Cause be damned. That’s a not-insignificant plot detail for reading The Cursed Child.)

In chapter nine of The Order of the Phoenix we see Molly Weasley get excoriated by every other member of the original Order of the Phoenix for being weak, and being unwilling to see that war has come to the children (especially Harry, who is 15) and that they now must grow up and be soldiers instead. Molly says no, leave them out of it, they’re children, and gets shouted down. (In case we miss the point, Molly is then humiliated by the narrative by being unable to defeat a boogeyman parademon that the children had been taught to defeat with a simple spell two years before.) The remainder of the book and really the series as a whole is an exercise in further proving that Molly and those who think like her, like Hermione, are wrong (even though from a strict plot perspective Molly is in fact completely right and if the children had done nothing but just be kids everything in Book Five would have turned out fine). But within the logic of the original series it’s Molly who has to change; she only gets her redemptive moment in Book Seven when she is finally able to reconcile love to violence when she tells Bellatrix Lestrange “Not my daughter, you bitch” before murdering her.

Dumbledore explains at the end of Book Five that, in fact, his problem is that he loves Harry too much, and has been unwilling to fully weaponize him as the circumstances demand, treating him too much like a child — but now he will, reluctantly and with regret, bring Harry completely into the fold as his full lieutenant. (It’s only in Book Seven that we find out Dumbledore is still lying to Harry, even here, and that Dumbledore has always known he was raising Harry for the slaughter; even Snape, who himself has barely any conscience or pity, is horrified when he finds this out.) Both years teaching the course I’ve said at the end of the first day that my overall take on Dumbledore is that he seems to be a brilliant general, a middling-to-poor teacher, and an absolutely terrible father; no one agrees with me on day one, but by the end of the full lesson about half the class or more does. Dumbledore, like Gandalf, and like the Doctor, and like Obi-Wan, and like any other number of mentor wizards in the history of science fiction and fantasy we could name, abuses his protege and everyone else as his instrument in the name of a higher, nobler purpose — and if that’s painful, if that hurts, well, please know he’s sorry, it’s only because he loves you so very much.

The Dumbledore pseudo-apology scene that comes at the end of Book Five is important enough, central enough to the Potter mythos that it plays out again with one of Dumbledore’s portraits in The Cursed Child — only this time, Harry gets to talk back, and this time Dumbledore turns out to be definitely and definitively wrong.

This is why the books always needed the nineteen-years-later epilogue, despite all the many reasons it was a tremendously bad idea compositionally: what we see in the epilogue is that while Harry continues to admire the many men around him who seek to deploy him as their child-soldier, and even names his two sons after his four bad dads (James, who at least was bad mostly because he was dead; Sirius; Severus Snape; and Albus Dumbledore), he actually parents them like Molly Weasley. In the scene Albus is scared that he’ll be sorted into Slytherin, and wants reassurance from his dad that it won’t happen:

“Albus Severus,” Harry said quietly, so that nobody but Ginny could hear, and she was tactful enough to pretend to be waving to Rose, who was now on the train, “you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.”

“But just say — ”

“– then Slytherin House will have gained an excellent student, won’t it? It doesn’t matter to us, Al. But if if it matters to you, you’ll be able to choose Gryffindor over Slytherin. The Sorting Hat takes your choice into account.”

“Really?”

“It did for me,” said Harry.

He had never told any of this children that before, and he saw the wonder in Albus’s face when he said it.

The punchline of the whole Hogwarts adventure, in my reading, is that Harry’s reward is that he gets to be a father, and/but that he isn’t a father like Dumbledore, Sirius, or Lucius. He just loves his kid unconditionally, whoever he is or isn’t, no matter what, forever.

The play’s retelling of the Deathly Hallows epilogue in Act I, Scene II truncates this scene crucially by eliminating the bolded dialogue. (I haven’t seen it performed so I can’t be sure how it plays on stage, but the stage directions don’t indicate any special reaction from Albus to this information either.) It has to retcon out Harry’s choice to love his children like Molly and Narcissa so that he can spend the play learning that lesson instead. So instead of Harry the Good Dad, we spend most of The Cursed Child with Harry as actually a pretty bad one, who fundamentally misunderstands his role in his son’s life, so at the end he can reform and be returned to the place where the original epilogue had always left him anyway.

In that sense, I suppose, the plot of The Cursed Child writ large is itself a little bit like the bubble timeline of any classic time-travel story, existing temporarily to dissipate in the face of reconciliation with the place we already were all along. But that reconciliation is an interesting thing; even reconciled, we can’t read the earlier books in quite the same way, because after The Cursed Child even Rowling won’t let Dumbledore off his hook. The story The Cursed Child tells in the foreground is ultimately the one the Harry Potter series was always telling in the background: how easy it is to be a bad parent, and how easy it would be to be a good one, if only you were stronger.

‘The Discovered Country’

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My review of Star Trek Beyond (and audition for the writers room of Star Trek: Discovery) is up now at LARB: The Discovered Country. Check it out! Let me know what you think here or there or at the other place!

Written by gerrycanavan

July 29, 2016 at 2:12 pm

Tolkien, THE FORCE AWAKENS, and the Sadness of Expanded Universes

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(some spoilers near the end of the post, though I try to be vague)

Not long after completing The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien briefly began work on a sequel called The New Shadow, set 100 to 150 years later during the reign of Aragorn’s son Eldarion. (The main link between the two stories is the minor character Beregond, the noble but disgraced soldier of Gondor whose son, Borlas, would have been a major character in The New Shadow.) The New Shadow reveals that the eucatastrophic fairy-tale ending of The Return of the King was extremely short-lived; with the Elves and the Wizards gone from Middle-earth, the Dwarves moving underground, and the Hobbits now isolated in what amounts to an enclave in the Shire, Men are quickly falling back into their old bad habits. In fact the Men of Gondor already seem to have forgotten much of the details of the War of the Ring, even though it remains in living memory: they seem not to remember, or take seriously, the fact that they once strode with gods and angels in a war against pure evil, and were victorious. Instead, children play at being Orcs for fun; the death of Elessar has been an occasion for political striving and reactionary plots; and even something like a secret death cult of devil-worshipping rebels seems to be spreading through the elites of Gondor.

Tolkien wrote 13 pages of it.

He later wrote:

I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.

Instead, Tolkien turned his attention back to the imaginative project that had more or less defined his life: The Silmarillion, begun between 1914 and 1917, which he tinkered with on and off until his death in 1973. The Silmarillion has always marked, I think, the grey line between being a casual Tolkien fan and becoming a Tolkien enthusiast — a path that then leads one even further into Christopher Tolkien’s twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth and the discovery of Tolkien’s own very elaborate (and somewhat fannish) self-commentary on his legendarium alongside many multiple alternate drafts of the narratives that form the barely glimpsed mythological background of The Lord of the Rings. 

The Silmarillion is nominally a prequel — ostensibly it is the Elvish legends that Bilbo translated and appended to the Red Book while he was retired in Rivendell — but the published version of the book includes a two-page summary of the War of the Ring that culminates in a brief, New-Shadow-style glimpse past Aragorn’s reign. We are reminded of the sapling of the White Tree that Aragorn and Gandalf find in the mountains near Gondor, which Aragorn plants in Minas Tirith as a symbol of his reign, and told that “while it still grew there the Elder Days were not wholly forgotten in the hearts of the Kings.” While it still grew there — which is to say, it doesn’t grow there anymore.

I don’t know that I would call this material “sinister,” but I taught The Silmarillion this semester after having tried and failed to read it as a child, and I think it would certainly be fair to call it “depressing.” What looks, in The Lord of the Rings, like a fairy-tale about how good and decent folk are able to do the impossible and defeat evil (with just a little bit of help from the divine, here and there) becomes in The Silmarillion and The New Shadow and Tolkien’s pseudo-theological commentary only the briefest, most temporary respite from a nightmare history in which things always turn out wrong, millennia after millennia after millennia. In fact Arda, the planet on which the continent of Middle-earth rests, is a cursed and fallen place, infused with evil and wickedness at its material core, and the only thing to do is raze the place and start over, as Eru Ilúvatar will at long last at the very end of time. To study Tolkien beyond Lord of the Rings is to come to a keen understanding of how tragic this history actually is, how Return of the King looks like a happy ending mostly because that’s where Tolkien (quite deliberately and self-consciously) decided to stop writing. But the Fourth Age was no better than the Third, and likely quite worse, and on and on through the degenerative millennia that bring us to the end of the Sixth Age and the beginning of the Seventh with the fall of the Third Reich and the development of the atom bomb.

I’ve been thinking about The New Shadow since it became clear that The Force Awakens would be borrowing from the Expanded Universe the notion that the Battle of Endor at the end of Return of the Jedi did not mark a full or permanent victory for the Rebel Alliance. The Force Awakens is The New Shadow, sinister and depressing, except they decided to go ahead and do it anyway. I joked in the link post earlier this morning that you can tell who read the EU novels and who didn’t based on whether your reaction to The Force Awakens is sadness — but the events of The Force Awakens, as sad as they are, are really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how horribly Luke, Leia, and Han are punished in the EU novels, over and over, as everything they attempt to build turns to ash and the galaxy repeatedly falls into chaos, war, and catastrophe. In the farthest reaches of the EU universe, the Star Wars Legacy comics, set around 140 years or so after the Battle of Yavin, Luke’s descendent Cade Skywalker wanders a Galaxy that is again in war, as it always is, with a resurgent Empire again ruled by Sith masters — and when one casts oneself into the mists of time in the other direction (in material like the Knights of the Old Republic games, set thousands of years before A New Hope) one finds more or less the same basic story of genocidal total war playing out there too. Star Wars has always been, in the EU at least, a universe more or less without hope, that only looked hopeful to casual fans because they were looking too closely at just a very slender part of it.

This is why, while I can certainly understand the impulse to complain about The Force Awakens as derivative, I really think this is more repetition with a difference than mere or base or stupid repetition. One Death Star is a horror; two Death Stars and one Starkiller Base and whatever horrific murder innovation the First Order will come up with for Episode 9 is something more like the inexorable logic of history, grinding us all to dust. Likewise, it’s true that The Force Awakens hits many of the same story beats as the Original Trilogy, but almost always in ways that are worse: the death of Obi-Wan was sad but mysterious, suggestive of a world beyond death which the Jedi could access, while the death of The Force Awakens‘s version of Obi-Wan is not only brutally material but visceral, and permanent, as far as we have any reason to believe right now. The loss of Alderaan is sad, but the loss of what appears to be the entire institutional apparatus of the resurgent Republic is unthinkably devastating; aside from the loss of life it would take decades for the Galaxy to recover from such an event, even if they weren’t having to fight off the First Order while doing it. The film is extremely vague about the relationship between the Republic and “the Resistance,” but it appears to be a proxy guerrilla war against the First Order fought inside their own territory, secretly funded by the Republic — and prosecuted by Leia, Akbar, Nien Nunb, and all our heroes from the first movies, whose lives are now revealed as permanently deformed by a forever war they can never put down or escape. (If you want to ask me where Lando is, I think he said “good enough” after Endor and walked away, and that sort of makes me hope they never find him, never drag him back into it.) It’s horrible to lose a parent to addiction, or to mental illness, or to ordinary everyday cruelty, however you want to allegorize Vader’s betrayal of his children — but how much worse would it be to lose a child to it, how much worse would such a thing taint every aspect of your life and poison all your joy.

That Star Wars implies a world of sorrow belied by the spectacle of Jedi‘s happy ending isn’t a surprise to me — I told you, I read the EU books — but I can see why it’s a surprise to someone whose last memory of these people is smiles, a fireworks display, hugs, and a picnic. Return of the Jedi never asked us what we thought would happen when those people woke up the next morning and the Empire still had 90% of its guns, ships, territory, generals, and soldiers, ready to descend into vicious, scorched-earth fanaticism as they slid into defeat; it just wasn’t that kind of story. The Force Awakens is that kind of story, and I find that interesting enough to be excited about 8 and 9, to see where they try to take this story now that it turns out fairy-tales aren’t real and that deeply entrenched totalitarian systems don’t have exhaust ports, trench runs, or single points of failure. So I think the emerging critical consensus that The Force Awakens infantilizes its audience by re-presenting us with the same images we all saw as children is actually deeply wrong: The Force Awakens condemns Luke, Leia, and Han to actually live inside history, rather than transcend it, and it condemns us too.

Watching THE FORCE AWAKENS as the Father of a Three-and-a-Half-Year-Old Girl (No Spoilers)

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There’s still plenty of weird plot holes in the movie to complain about — and, of course, call no trilogy happy until it is concluded — and the man simply doesn’t get Star Trek at a basic and fundamental level — but J.J. Abrams achieves something in a sequence of shots near the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens that I hope I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. My daughter is three and a half right now, and she’s still piecing together the world. We’ve raised her, somewhat accidentally, without much concept of gender; it’s only recently that she’s even come to really understand that some people are boys and other people are girls. And it’s broken my heart a bit, as this process has come into focus for her, to see her recognize that nearly all the protagonists in nearly all the stories she loves are boys. She sometimes announces, as we play, that she gets to be the boy — by which she means that she gets to be the hero, the star. I’m the boy, daddy; you’re the dragon. I’m the boy, daddy; you’re the witch.

And as I watched this one particular, truly perfect scene, at the climax of The Force Awakens, I really felt like I could see the whole thing through her eyes, and imagined the moment she watches it a few months or years from now and how it might undo a bit of the toxic lessons she’s already started to learn about boys and girls. I cried. I’m crying now, just writing about it. And however else The Force Awakens is received and whatever its reputation winds up being, however badly 8 and 9 screw it all up (or don’t), Abrams has given little girls like mine a tremendous and very special gift. That bit lives forever, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ll write a longer and more spoiler-y post once more people have seen it, I think, but for now I wanted to say just that much.

Written by gerrycanavan

December 17, 2015 at 11:12 pm

Lesser Whedonia 2: Age of Corporate Directives

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LATER-THAT-NIGHT UPDATE: I hadn’t realized when I wrote this how strongly it was influenced by the great review of Captain America 2 that Ryan Vu wrote for us for Science Fiction Film and Television, but reflecting on it a few hours later I really see Ryan’s review as the clear precursor to this. Look for his review in a few months! It’s really smart.

In my five-sentence Avengers review from a few years ago I wrote:

Of course I deeply enjoyed The Avengers, but my sense is it’ll be up to The Avengers 2: Avengers Reveng’d! to salvage the series from the scrapheap of Lesser Whedona. … Though certainly funny and engaging, and on occasion very clever, The Avengers is more or less superheroes completely by-the-numbers, almost entirely lacking in the deconstructive self-awareness that characterizes more artistically ambitious Whedon creations like Buffy, Firefly, and especially Cabin in the Woods and the too-neglected Dollhouse. The film has zero critical purchase on its genre, and precious little Whedonesque irony about itself.

In short, The Avengers is what Buffy would have been, if it were only fight scenes and quips.

Age of Ultron, like The Avengers before it, is fine, though if anything the film actually doubles down on the hollowed-out anti-cinema of the first film: it’s even fightier and much, much quippier, with very little heart (the paltry attempts at character development are exhaustively cloying) and excruciatingly little self-awareness about the genre it is participating in (it really pales in comparison to Captain America 2 on that front, as you knew it would).

A film like this seems to me to defy either aesthetic or political response. What is there to say about it that it isn’t already screaming at maximum volume? Even the film itself can barely muster the energy to care about its own setup or execution, breezing over the only character choice that has any genuine stakes (the initial creation of Ultron) in the span of five or so minutes (and then assiduously refusing to return to it under any circumstances).

The only really interesting thing about the film, to me, is its metatextual participation involving the endless shifting around of pieces in the MCU for a climax that will never arrive. When I watch Age of Ultron my major critical response is in trying to reverse engineer the corporate directives that Whedon was handed when he started to break out this story, and then trying to imagine other ways he might have tried to move the pieces into the proper places instead. What else could he have gotten away with? What did they make him rewrite or reshoot? What was allowed, and what was forbidden?

Of course this is always fantasy franchise-running, but we can be certain that the #1 directive here was “clear the decks.” The primary point of this film is to get rid of characters who won’t appear in the franchise until the next Avengers film at the end of “Phase 3.” In this sense Age of Ultron culminates “Phase 2,” like The Avengers culminates “Phase 1,” but here the climax is more like a toilet flushing than a fireworks spectacular. The central narrative concern here is to remove the blockage of investment in characters played by too-expensive actors so a new crop of rather less famous stars can run through their own four- or five-picture contracts in due course.

What else, besides that? I’d wager Whedon was given orders to soften the surface anti-Americanism of Winter Soldier, perhaps combined with a stick-a-thumb-in-DC’s-eye directive to “do something that will force reviewers compare this movie favorably to the ending of Man of Steel whether they want to or not.” Other than that: Give us some action figures? Make sure you leave some narrative gaps for the video games and the tie-in comics and Agents of SHIELD to play with later? Make sure that you complete the narrative return-to-origin so utterly that, even within the terms of your own diegetic universe, it’s as if the film never happened at all? There’s really hardly anything here, as (again!) perfectly enjoyable it is for the two hours it is on the screen.

It seems to me that Age of Ultron exemplifies a new type of narrative in this kind of media. First we had the franchise film; then we had the prequel trilogy; now every film is a prequel to a film that hasn’t been written yet, a film that will itself merely set the table for the fantasy of still another sequel or series or reboot or tie-in down the line. The real climax, the real pleasure, is permanently deferred, always another greenlight away.

To me a film like Age of Ultron invites speculation about Marvel/Disney’s thirty-year-plan to the exclusion of all other criticism or critique. We need a new theory of artistic creation to explain how films get made in this mode. It isn’t auteurism, it isn’t even really in the hands of individuals at all: it’s a kind of automatic, autonomous process using the combination and recombination of preexisting building blocks, almost on the order of an algorithm, or an artificial intelligence. We have this intellectual property that we think we can monetize more aggressively than we’re monetizing it currently; we have these and those prior narrative elements; now, JARVIS, build me a story.

Notes Towards a Miss Reading of Kimmy Schmidt

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Seeing this review of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt at the Los Angeles Review of Books has inspired me to finally write up some somewhat idiosyncratic thoughts I’ve had about the series that I haven’t seen reflected anywhere else. (And thanks to the people who have indulged me about this on Twitter, especially @millicentsomer and @evankindley.) I definitely agree with the reviewer that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a “woman out of time” story, but I really think the interpretive emphasis on “Unfrozen Middle Schooler from the 1990s” should be on “middle schooler” rather than “from the 1990s.” My take is that the 1990s nostalgia is largely driven by the Millennial audience the show is pitching itself at — it’s an engine for jokes but not really the center of the project. “Unfrozen Middle Schooler,” in contrast, is the actual heart of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, at least the way I want to read it as a feminist work.

One of the things I talked about with Lili and Evan on Twitter was whether Kimmy’s abduction is taken seriously as an event or if the bunker is taken seriously as an actual lived environment. Having completed the series now, I still don’t think so: I think “the bunker” essentially functions in the series like being in a coma, or being shot with a Grow-Up Beam, or making a wish to be Big. It’s a magic spell to get Kimmy from middle school to adulthood without having to go through high school and college, which is the source of her power in the series, from her refusal of the usual rules of society to her love of backpacks and bright, mismatched clothing. You can see this utopian imaginary working really clearly in the incredibly infectious theme song, where the removal of the girls from the bunker and a closeup on Kimmy’s ecstatic childlike grin over the lyrics “Unbreakable! They alive, damnit! It’s a miracle!” quickly gives way to a montage of nostalgic, home-video-style images of childhood (and specifically girlhood), which express the same unvarnished joy but also absolute self-confidence (thumb’s up), total mastery of their environment (the dancing, the hula hooping, the monkey bars), and maximum resilience in the face of adversity (the baby plopping down face first).

We return to the in-universe “autotune the news” frame only once during this thirty-second sequence, to be told that “females are strong as hell” — the clear implication to me being that we ought to draw an interpretive connection between the claim of female power and childhood, specifically, girlhood: before sex, before even puberty, before the male gaze, before pervert teachers and abusive boyfriends and quasi-consensual sexual encounters and ubiquitous street harassment and the too-familiar host of other abuses inflicted upon women from the moment they enter young adulthood. What the magic spell of the bunker allows Kimmy to do is pass over the moment in which girls are forcibly conscripted into becoming “women” (somewhat or entirely against their will) and emerge instead as an adult who has not internalized our society’s misogyny or its mean, psychosexual aggressivity. So much of what is delightful about Kimmy is precisely the fact that she has retained the aspirations, expectations, confidence, and general affect of a precocious middle-schooler without having had to temper or diminish herself through unhappy experiences with patriarchy. If the show has a moral or utopian message for women, it’s Let’s all go back to thinking about ourselves the way we did before society told us we were worthless, and it’s a pretty damn good one.

We’ve been working with children’s stories a lot in my “magic as literature” course this semester, and one of the oppositions we’ve really been focusing on (especially as we’ve studied Disney, and Frozen, recently) is the opposition between what mythographers call “the girl’s tragedy” and what we’ve been calling instead the utopia of childhood or (here more directly) the utopia of girlhood. The girl’s tragedy is the female answer to “the hero’s journey,” but the narrative doesn’t work the same way: instead of the boy hero who sets out from home, masters the outside world, slays the dragon, and then returns home to become king, the girl’s tragedy is a story about being ripped from safety and forced to accommodate oneself to the whims of adult men, particularly their sexual urges. The happy ending for the girl’s tragedy — the happiest one available — is that she accepts her role as wife and mother and gives birth to a male son who will then inaugurate the next cycle of heroism; girls and women who refuse to play the proper role are typically cast out of the realm of the human altogether, turned into animals or plants or stars or foam. The utopia of childhood describes those comparatively rare stories that are exceptions, where the girls are neither forced to become mothers nor punished, but allowed to remain what they were without transformation by instead bending the adult world to their will (as in Brave, or Moonrise Kingdom, or arguably Frozen, though in most of these the girl-heroes seem only to buying themselves time rather than enacting a full and permanent transformation of their circumstances).

Of course the utopia of childhood can itself be deeply retrograde, and is frequently misogynistic in its way — we spent a lot of time on “The Problem of Susan” in the Narnia books precisely so we didn’t fall too in love with the impossible fantasy of never growing up (when in the end we all have to). Nor can we safely imagine childhood in such uncomplicatedly rosy terms, both because childhood can also be a time of fierce frustration, competition, and intense pain even when it is not actively shattered through the cruelty and abuse of adults. But all the same there is something undeniably appealing about the idea of returning to a childhood that is both happy and which never gives way to something else, a desire that structures so much of our culture (particularly the middle-class culture of “good parenting”) that it really almost goes without saying. And in the case of Kimmy Schmidt‘s feminist politics of course the idea is not that women find some fantastical way to literally de-age themselves so much as they look to their younger, effortlessly capable and supremely confident selves as inspiration in the present.

There’s one more thing to say about Kimmy Schmidt, which is again about the abduction and the bunker, which would seem to be a rather large problem for my reading of the series. Isn’t Kimmy’s entire situation itself a literalized girl’s tragedy, insofar as she is abducted as a child and put into radical seclusion, all the while being fed obscenely misogynistic lies by a woman-hating male adult? Well, yes! The question of Kimmy’s abduction, and the horrific sexual violence it inevitably implies if thought about too much, is a pretty thorny one for the series: fixated on too much, it threatens to derail any potential for comedy in the show at all. (UPDATE: Someone just sent me Emily Nussbaum’s review, which talks a lot about this issue.) The series cleverly solves the problem by opening the door just a crack — “yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker” — and then simply leaving it there. Something happened — perhaps, as Evan suggested in what has become my headcanon, it was all between the girls and not involving the preacher at all — but it hasn’t changed Kimmy, or defeated her. And she emerges from Hell neither pregnant with the monster’s baby, nor transformed into a weeping plant or into sea-foam, but just as unflappable and unbreakable as she was when she went in.

And in any event the treatment of the bunker doesn’t really work the way the ten-second summary of the setup would suggest. The presence of the preacher is actually a further occasion for Kimmy to refuse to internalize her sexist training, precisely because it is now located within a single, odious man against whom she can fight. The button at the end of the first episode demonstrates precisely this: Kimmy proves he is lying to them, he says he’s going to break her someday, and she replies no, he never will. It’s easy to see why, in contrast to the microaggressions and little indignities — alongside the very big ones — that make up girls’ training to be women in our society, which is constantly delivered by parents and siblings and friends and trusted authority figures and widely celebrated mass culture texts, Kimmy’s more direct training in misogyny at the hands of the Reverend never really takes. In the bunker she had an obvious enemy, someone she could tell she was feeding her poison, and so she could reject it. It’s actually outside the bunker where the true brainwashing takes place, which is all the more insidious because it seems like education, like help, like love.

Guiltpiercer

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I wanted to Storify my back-and-forth with my friend Aaron Bady (and a few other people, but mostly him) on the question of guilt and complicity in liberal politics, which was prompted by his Texas Stands With Gaza post and ultimately looped around, as all things must, to Snowpiercer.

Aaron is right that I’m using Snowpiercer (along with Pacific Rim, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and some other recent Anthropocene science fictions) in a piece of academic writing I’m working on, so I’ll hold off on doing a full reading of the film here for now. But I think the film actually figures this debate we’re having in a pretty direct way. The people on the train are all “guilty” and “complicit” with the Snowpiercer system, albeit in different ways and to different degrees; like any necropolitical survivor, they are all alive while/because someone else has died. Even on the level of character development, much of the movement of the film is directed towards making Chris Evans’s character Curtis feel as though he is worthy of great things despite the guilt he carries with him; characters frequently say this to him explicitly, even, most notably, the character he once tried to eat as a baby and who he later abandons in the name of the larger mission! In fact this guilt, in properly liberal terms, is indistinguishable from his worthiness to lead, with the final act of the film culminating in Curtis being offered the position of the Wizard of Snowpiercer. The Curtis plot in the film is more or less a familiar liberal drama about coming to terms with your own guilty complicity in the system, a process which as if by baptismal magic thereby makes you worthy to run the whole thing as if you’d never been guilty or complicit in the first place.

Aaron’s reading on the film insists that this is the only trajectory open to us, even as he repeatedly turns to Kang-ho Song’s Namgoong as the voice of alterity, rejecting his plan as nonviable. Namgoong knows the train is a horror and knows the train is doomed by its own entropic breakdown, rejects guilt or complicity as a frame, and instead works to blow open the doors and escape. (And this is the position Curtis ultimately settles into as well, having finally hit an encounter of guilt which he can’t autoredeem his way out of in the form of the children in the engine.) Here then we see one version of the Canavan position: guilt is a way of becoming re-trapped, linked back into the atrocity engine, while refusing to identify with the system and its terms opens up the horizon of the future. Neither Namgoong nor Curtis survive the derailment of the train (“there is hope, infinite hope, but not for us”), but their protégés do, and in the final shot of the film see a live polar bear moving outside the train, indicating that life of some kind persists outside the train and that therefore there is something like hope after all.

Now, Aaron rejects all of this — “it’s too cold out there! they have no skills or supplies! that polar bear will probably just eat them!” — and of course he’s right to do so on the level of cold realism; like most such apocalyptic scenarios, the situation is too far gone to allow any sort of genuine renewal. (I always think of the way the Matrix sequels had to confront this, ultimately having the heroic rebels make a truce with the monsters they were supposed to slay because the world is too far gone to actually free anyone anymore.) But this is where Aaron’s flattening of Jameson’s theory of utopia hurts him a bit — because the kernel of the Jamesonian reading of the film is not to imagine it as a practical alternative to the present so much as to figure the ongoing exist alternative in an era that, at every turn, loudly insists there isn’t one.

For it is the very principle of the radical break as such, its possibility, which is reinforced by the Utopian form, which insists that its radical difference is possible and that a break is necessary. The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things will be like after the break. (Archaeologies 232)

Snowpiercer, it seems to me, is pretty plainly about this effort of the imagination; neither the setup nor the climax is really amenable to any sort of realistic analysis about the practicalities of the situation. It’s preposterous from start to finish. The point of the film is to disrupt our guilty comfort and our comforting guilt about a system we all know is terrible (“those crooked fuckers”) but think we can’t oppose, only picket and sigh about and be more beautiful than (“oh, we guilty sinners, oh this fallen world”). So of course the film is an allegory after all; what it figures isn’t the actual situation of capitalism but the hopeless prospects for people who can’t see any way to stop the train, other than a crash, and who perhaps for that very reason have come to believe they’re the ones who are driving it.

Wes Anderson Movies Power Ranking 2014

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1. Rushmore (1998)
2. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
3. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
4. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
5. “Hotel Chevalier” & The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
7. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
8. Bottle Rocket (1996)

In general I would say that Anderson’s career seems to me to be divided between two clear periods: films about failed genius (Bottle Rocket through Darjeelingand about fairy-tale genius (Fantastic through Hotel.) That is: in the first period we find characters whose attempts to realize their creative potential are hamstrung by their inability to move past sadness, with the arc of the movie generally allowing them to expiate that sadness and move on (Max finds love and can write again; Royal’s children forgive him; Zissou grieves; the brothers literally abandon the baggage they’ve been carrying around the entire film). But the films of the second period, unlike the first, are dominated by characters who cannot lose: Mr. Fox is temporarily troubled but ultimately unflappable, always fantastic; Suzy and Sam are able to bend the unforgiving adult world to the service of their love; M. Gustave’s poise, control, and total mastery over social convention never fail him except in the face of maximum fascism in the moment of his heroic death. The all-pervading sadness of the first films persists in the fairy tale films, but only in the background, in the side characters who threaten to, but never quite, take over the main narrative: F. Murray Abraham’s adult Zero; The Bishops and Captain Sharp; Fox’s less-than-fantastic son. My gloss on Anderson’s recent “fairy tale” films is that they feel, generally, like the stories the characters from the “failed genius” period attempted, but failed, to craft about themselves. Moonrise Kingdom feels very strongly like one of Max’s or Margot’s plays; the story the Reader reads of the Author’s recounting of Zero’s telling of M. Gustave’s life feels like a cut from one of the films from the heroic era of Zissou Society, and is quite literally the lie Royal gets engraved on his tombstone: “Died tragically rescuing his [friend] from the wreckage of a [country sinking into fascism].” The ironic cruel-optimism gap between potential and reality that dominated the early films, that crucial space of failure, is strongly pushed off center stage in the later ones — and I think that’s why, while I love them all, I think the later ones are generally a bit worse.

But I wonder if The Grand Budapest Hotel won’t improve a bit, in my estimation, upon subsequent viewings; while a strong sense of entropic breakdown runs throughout the setting, especially in the subtle architectural sublime of the Budapest itself as it falls into ruin, the anti-climatic “shock” of the abrupt ending permanently hurls us out of the fairy tale back to a world structured by failure and loss. Unlike Fox and Moonrise, which never deviate from the inner logic of a children’s story, The Grand Budapest Hotel can really only be viewed that way once. When M. Gustave’s magic finally fails at the end of the film, as it always had to, the fairy tale dispells and only the elegy is left; we’re actually left at the end of Hotel in a world darker and sadder than any found in the earlier films, a world where we seem to have neither the compensations of art nor friendship, where grief never fades, where the intricately constructed dollhouse becomes instead a tomb.

Bad Fans, Good Fans, and Some Quick Thoughts on ‘Breaking Bad’

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I gave a presentation this weekend at the Reception Studies Society conference on the figure of the “fan-villain”—what Emily Nussbaum in a widely circulated blog post at the New Yorker recently called the Bad Fan. The Bad Fan is that figure whose investment in the text is excessive, or inappropriate, or misplaced, who takes up the text in ways that go beyond or are counter to the idealized “Good Fan” of the author’s intentions, critical consensus, and/or common sense. What I was interested in at the conference were the ways texts and creators seek to talk back to the Bad Fan, most typically by including the Bad Fan within the text either through paraphrase, parody, or (most characteristically, I think) through personification as an actual character within the fictional universe—and further I was interested in this extent to which this talking back is typically quite hostile. But today I’m interested in the other side of that binary.

To back up: Breaking Bad fandom—as is common in the capital-Q Quality TV genre more generally—appears divided between critically sophisticated Good Fans who recognize the show’s nuanced, complicated, and quite emotionally fraught deconstruction of privilege through (again as with most Quality TV shows) its central protagonist, the White Male in Crisis, and the naïve, unsophisticated Bad Fans who take all this in entirely uncritically and who love the show precisely because they think “Walt Is A Badass.” Nussbaum’s recent writings have pointed to the show’s attempts to speak back to the Bad Fan, not simply in Anna Gunn / Skyler White’s recent op-ed in the New York Times decrying the sexism of this portion of the show’s fanbase, and not only through Walt’s bitter and ugly parodying of the #TeamWalt discourse in “Ozymandias,” but through the addition of the creepy sinister character of Todd, who idolizes Walt in a way that seems both increasingly familiar (as the marking of the Bad Fan) and increasingly horrifying.

As may already be evident, I think this imagined division between “Good Fans” and “Bad Fans” is simultaneously useful and potentially deeply misleading, as we can see from Internet insta-reactions to last night’s “FeLiNa,” the final episode of the series. Here we find the Good Fan feeling flattered and pandered to, particularly in the scene in which Walt “confesses” to Skyler that he ultimately become a druglord because he enjoyed it, because it made him feel alive. “Finally,” the Good Fan sighed, “Walt tells Skyler THE TRUTH!” But in fact this scene is almost directly parallel to the phone call scene, in which Walt the consummate schemer deploys partial truths and well-timed emotional outbursts in order to manipulate those around him. This is about controlling his legacy, about telling Skyler (and the Good Fans) a version of what she wants to hear so that she is (and we are) willing to go along with him on his redemption arc.

A point of critical consensus around “FeLiNa” is that it is characterized by a truly remarkable amount of catharsis and narrative closure, dotting every i and crossing every t. But that catharsis, I think, has to come undone the longer we think about the show; what isn’t being talked about much yet is the complexity and the falseness of the redemption narrative, precisely because both the Good Fans and the Bad Fans alike are happy to buy into it all. This cycle of gaslighting apology, followed by grand-gesture redemptive act, followed by an inevitable slide back to form, is part and parcel of how a person like Walter White abuses those around him; the events of “FeLiNa” only seems to offer narrative closure because this time events have conspired to finally kill Walt at the high moment of the abuse-apology cycle. (He knows his cancer is back, and/so he plans to commit suicide-by-Nazi or suicide-by-Jesse at the camp after achieving “redemption.”) In the spirit of Žižek’s reading of the emergency-exit “happy endings” of Titanic and Avatar, we might perversely imagine the version of the end of the series in which this doesn’t hold: Walt’s cancer has never returned, he does not catch a bullet in the massacre, he lives, and is thereby forced to continue to live in the world and take genuine, not fantasy, responsibility for his actions. How long does his turning over a new leaf last, without the miracle of certain death to propel him forward for a mere eighteen hours, give or take?

As Malcolm Harris succinctly put it in response to some of my tweets:

We can see the Heisenberg-Walt at work even in the moment of Skyler scene; “finally, THE TRUTH,” yes, but also a calculated attempt to set the conditions of her last memories of him in terms that are favorable to Walt. “In the end,” she may have thought, and many Internet commentators actually wrote, “the ‘real Walt’ came back.” And again, maybe, partially; but all the same the legacy money won’t go to her, and her life remains utterly destroyed. Meanwhile his final act is an intricate staging of his own death so that he will receive full credit both for killing the white supremacists and for cooking the blue meth, credit even for the “better than ever” batches he didn’t cook—to again set the terms of reality not in fidelity to truth or to what is best for other people but simply in accordance with the way he prefers things, which as always is having it both ways. Walt’s true chemical genius has always been in controlling the reactions of the people around him, in how easily he gets others (and us) to play along. We Good Fans turn out to be just as happy to be lied to, we just want a different sort of lie.

Written by gerrycanavan

September 30, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Five-Sentence Review: ‘The Avengers’ as Lesser Whedona

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Of course I deeply enjoyed The Avengers, but my sense is it’ll be up to The Avengers 2: Avengers Reveng’d! to salvage the series from the scrapheap of Lesser Whedona. Could there be any better confirmation of the kneejerk elitist sensibilities of Internet nerddom than to have this film be Joss’s first genuine mainstream success? Though certainly funny and engaging, and on occasion very clever, The Avengers is more or less superheroes completely by-the-numbers, almost entirely lacking in the deconstructive self-awareness that characterizes more artistically ambitious Whedon creations like Buffy, Firefly, and especially Cabin in the Woods and the too-neglected Dollhouse. The film has zero critical purchase on its genre, and precious little Whedonesque irony about itself.

In short, The Avengers is what Buffy would have been, if it were only fight scenes and quips.

‘Tomorrowland’

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Spoilers!

As I was hashing out on Twitter this afternoon (1, 2, 3, 4) I feel as though last night’s Mad Men was a fine ending to a truly superb season that challenged the best seasons of The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. I think I may be bucking the Internet consensus on this; here’s a representative negative take from Amanda Marcotte:

The main problem with the episode is that it, frankly, sucked. Besides the abortion cop-out,* it wasn’t even really the plot or the ideas or the character development. At the end of the day, it was the pacing and the scripting, which were lazy and anvilicious. Matthew Weiner admits they just finished the episode on Wednesday, and I think that’s all you need to know about why it didn’t work. The editing was all off—the fact that they got home from California and were in his apartment in a quick cut was confusing, and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how long they’d been back in New York. I realize they were trying to speed things up to capture the idea of a whirlwind courtship, but they failed. It’s not like the team behind “Mad Men” can’t do a swift and dirty episode. The end of last season was amazing. But this was just confusing.

Putting “the abortion cop-out” aside—which honestly didn’t bother me in the slightest—it seems to me that the actual point of the episode was precisely to capture the idea of a whirlwind courtship, as opposed to the actual thing. Don and Megan are plainly not a good match; she’s too young for him and he knows almost nothing about her except that (unlike poor Dr. Faye) she won’t ever challenge him to be more than he currently is. She’s pretty and good with the children, and he really is a person who likes “the beginnings of things,” so he went and proposed on a whim. (“The writing I most enjoy, is the writing where I can see myself in the man who is, with good reason, wrecking his life.” For the wrong take on this, see Ezra Klein.)

It’s obvious that Don’s fooling himself, and we’ve already seen from Roger how this story ends. But it’s next season that we see this self-delusion come undone; the point of this episode was to show the falseness of all this, how easy we can backslide and how hard it is to genuinely change, and how seductive lies can be when we want to believe them.

So I find it’s not a sloppy episode, or lazy, or anvilicious; it’s just that its narrative presentation is very closely linked to Don’s selfish, self-deluded perspective. But the writers leave more than enough (in Henry’s rant, in the Peggy and Joan scene, in the very idea of Roger Sterling, in the final shot) to puncture that balloon. Heather Havrilesky at Salon writes:

At the start of the episode, Don asks Faye, “Will you at least put me out of my misery before you go?” Don would choose death, or an absence of feeling, over the excruciating pain of seeing himself clearly, over the constant struggle of “trying to be a person like the rest of us.” Since Faye won’t allow him to shut off from his life, to power down and drift through the world like a handsome ghost, he chooses Megan instead. At the end, Don has found his new winning story, his new heroic role, his new, patently false proclamation of victory. The central identity parable of “Mad Men,” which seemed like a simple act of deception in the first few seasons, has deepened into something richer and more ominous. Don Draper reflects the American compulsion to sidestep the hard work of living a flawed but authentic life for the empty illusion of perfection, as shiny and skin-deep as an advertisement that promises the impossible.

I realized earlier this evening that the episode puts this together quite nicely using a visual metaphor of sleep. At the beginning of the episode—in its very first shot—Don claims to have a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach but he is able, quite literally, to sleep at night.

When Faye awakens him, he is self-effacing and charming, and they have an adult conversation, face-to-face as equals, about how he might do the tough work of making peace with his past so he can have a future.

At the end of the episode, he has Megan asleep on his chest. No conversation of equals is possible here—and for the second time in the episode, we find Don can no longer sleep.

As the “Theme from Groundhog Day” begins to play, a tracking shot towards the window makes it clear: bathed in darkness, he’s already turning away from Megan, already looking for the door.

Written by gerrycanavan

October 19, 2010 at 12:19 am

How ‘Lost’ Teaches Us to Grieve It

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The spectacle is the ruling order’s nonstop discourse about itself, its never-ending monologue of self-praise, its self-portrait at the stage of totalitarian domination of all aspects of life.
—Guy Debord

I caught a bit of a break in assigning Guy Debord in my “Watching Television” class the day after the Lost finale extravaganza, which I’d asked my students to watch “for as long as they could stand.” (Many of them made it all the way from Lost: The Final Journey through the episode itself before petering out sometime during Jimmy Kimmel. That’s over six hours. I count myself among them.)

Debord’s well-known argument in The Society of the Spectacle is that our inner lives are increasingly structured and monetized by corporate interests; “the society of the spectacle” pushes out real life, as it was once authentically lived, in favor of imagistic simulacra fed to us by mass media. The result is deep alienation not only from each other but from our ourselves, from our own wants and desires. As Debord puts it:

The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender “lonely crowds.” With ever-increasing concreteness the spectacle recreates its own presuppositions….

In the spectacle, a part of the world presents itself to the world and is superior to it. The spectacle is simply the common language of this separation. Spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other. The spectacle thus reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness.

I knew when I originally constructed the syllabus that Lost: The Final Journey would be a nearly perfect example of spectacle’s “never-ending monologue of self-praise,” and in this respect it certainly didn’t disappoint; think only of the frequent ad bumpers that showed viewers’ love letters to Lost being read by characters on the show:

The language here is intense emotional commitment; in both cases the rhetoric of romance is used, and it’s clear that for at least a certain segment of the audience the relationship with Lost surpasses any one might have with other people. (You may not have friends or real human relationships, but you have do TV.) More precisely, this is how ABC wants us to think about viewership; this is the model of fandom-as-devotion it presents to us to follow. (Who knows, after all, if Marcia S. or Chelz W. are even real people.)

Where Lost brings people together, we are shown, it is only to share in the transcendent experience of watching the show; we see this at the start of the Jimmy Kimmel special after the show, in which we see Kimmel’s audience’s tears as they finish their shared “journey” at their own Lost “viewing party”:

This was the level of self-praise I anticipated when I saw there’d be a special, which is why I assigned the Debord. Where I caught my break was in the strange self-reflexive turn the narrative content of the show took in its final hours, which now turn out to have been an extended celebration of Lost itself all along. In the trope of the flashes-sideways, we find our heroes (living lives where they never visited the Island) experiencing climactic epiphanies in which they suddenly remember key moments from the series:

Hurley and Libby, Sayid and Shannon, Sawyer and Juliet, Kate and Aaron, Charlie and Claire, and on and on—this precise epiphanic sequence, down to the quick cuts, overwrought music, serene gaze, and gasping tears, is repeated over and over, at least once for every major character on the series. Surpassing the self-indulgent self-reference of even the Seinfeld finale, but without the irony, the plot of the final season has been a literal recapitulation of the viewers’ own vicarious participation in the series all along, with the major characters’ entire narrative arcs transformed into tiny testaments to the greatness of the series itself. In this way the division between the audience and its protagonists is made to erode: these characters are on a quest to remember their adventures as we, their audience, have been watching them all along—and in the happy moments when their quest for revelation is achieved we get to glimpse again the show’s iconic sequences, naturally seeing them not from the characters’ visual perspective but from our own. The series reproduces itself in tribute to itself.

And in case we missed how we were supposed to feel about all this, Christian Shepherd makes the point as explicit as he can in the series’s final monologue, a moment that is visually framed as a religious funeral, with contextually appropriate dialogue about “remembering” and “letting go.” Consider what he says at approximately 3:10 in the linked clip:

Ostensibly speaking to Jack, but really speaking to us, just a few degrees away from looking directly at the camera, Christian sagely, hypnotically intones: “The most important part of your life was the time you spent with these people.”

Who could ever doubt it?