Monday, August 26, 2013

The Trilogy's End

Here be spoilers for Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End.

There’s a particularly deft trick that Nick Frost pulls in Shaun of the Dead. Frost plays Ed, the best friend of Simon Pegg’s titular Shaun. Shaun, as a character, is caught in a kind of limbo between his adolescence and his adulthood, with Ed stuck firmly in that same adolescence, and the central conflict for Shaun is whether he can make the jump into adulthood and leave all the old stuff behind, or at least incorporate it in such a way that it’s not disrupting his relationship with his girlfriend Liz. There have been a lot of comedies exploring this kind of delayed manhood/extended adolescence, particularly from Judd Apatow, all three movies in the Cornetto trilogy are linked by this exploration of that same theme (the other two Cornetto movies being Hot Fuzz and The World’s End; Front and Pegg star in all three and share writing duties with their director, Edgar Wright).

If you have your fingers on the wrong keys, Shaun becomes Sgayb.
I didn’t notice it the first time I saw the movie, but I rewatched it recently in anticipation of the US release of The World’s End, and once you see it, it’s a little like the Fed Ex arrow. Nick Frost, in playing Ed, is being asked to do something that looks very simple but is actually quite difficult, and that is this: Ed must simultaneously be a huge fuck-up and a believable best friend to Shaun. We have to simultaneously understand Liz’s frustration with Shaun for his unwillingness to move on past this friendship and everything it represents while, at the same time, seeing the value in what it is that Ed brings to Shaun’s life. Many movies of this stripe end with the message, either explicit or im-, that the solution to the problem of delayed manhood is to suck it up, “put away childish things,” and get on with “adulthood.” Shaun of the Dead, by contrast - and all three films, I think - poses this not necessarily as a binary teenager/adult divide, but as a lifelong negotiation. And so Nick Frost can’t just be an unbearable boor or the best of all best friends; he has to be both, or else the movie seems to come down on one side or the other.

This is, of course, the essence of good drama. Good drama isn’t supposed to be prescriptive, but to show you the whole picture and let you make your own decisions based on your own experiences. This is the point of so-called ‘three-dimensional’ characters. However, a whole lot of pop culture doesn’t adhere to this principle, and so it’s refreshing to find it in a rom-zom-com.

Once you’ve seen this particular Fed Ex arrow you can’t unsee it. It’s all over the trilogy. Bill Nighy’s Phillip, Shaun’s stepfather, is another good example. To Shaun, he’s the step-dad he hates, but his concerns are largely the same as Liz’s, and Shaun can be dismissive of Phillip in a way he can’t quite be dismissive of Liz. Later in the movie, after Shaun has done a little growing up, we see the other side of Phillip, the side that desperately wanted the best for his step-son, but could never quite communicate properly (moments later, of course, he becomes a zombie and tries to eat everyone). It’s in the writing, a little, but it’s mostly on Bill Nighy’s shoulders to really embody the whole thing, and Nighy, of course, pulls it off masterfully. Again, it’s nothing you wouldn’t expect from an actor, but it’s much more than I feel like we’ve come to expect from actors in comedies. What has always set the Wright/Pegg/Frost oeuvre from the rest of the pack is that the emotional core is so strong, and for a movie’s emotional core to work you need good writing and good performances, which the movies have in spades.

Punch. That. Shit.
Hot Fuzz approaches the man/boy divide from a different direction. Pegg’s Nicholas Angel is seemingly the polar opposite of Shaun, a man who has his shit together to an almost pathological degree. Frost plays Danny, and when you think about these movies at a remove, what you might remember is that Danny, again, plays the best friend to Simon’s leading man, and elide Ed with Danny. But they’re actually quite different; where Ed is abrasive, Danny has a puppy-dog charm that helps ingratiate him to Nick in spite of himself. Danny, like Shaun from the first movie, has to grow up, but Nick, on the opposite end, has to grow down, as it were. Nick loses his girlfriend in the opening scenes of the movie because he’s so dedicated to excellence at his job as a cop, and, through his relentless professionalism and prigishness, he risks alienating his co-workers in the charming country town he’s banished to, as well as ruining his friendship with Danny.

Hot Fuzz is an interesting outlier when the three movies are looked at as a whole; Shaun and The World’s End are much more of a piece with each other than either are with Fuzz. The zombie and alien invader genre’s are more closely aligned than either are with Fuzz’s buddy cop parody. Fuzz is the longest of the three, with two quite long, relatively action-free, acts that set up act three’s long burst of glorious action movie carnage, whereas Shaun and End start up the action a little sooner, in addition to being twenty-to-thirty minutes shorter. And Fuzz features the only biological father of the trilogy, and he turns out to be one of the main villains of the piece.

The male role models for the Cornetto characters are interesting to look at if you’re reading the movies as an extended meditation on manhood  Shaun’s father died while he was young, and his relationship with his step-father was poor. Nick Angel’s inspiration to become a cop was his uncle, who was later arrested for selling drugs, while Danny’s father, also a police officer, turns out to be behind the murders that are happening all over town. Gary doesn’t mention his father at all, to my recollection, while his friends have their own problems as fathers (Andy’s wife left him three weeks before the action, taking the kids; Steven is divorced; Peter works under his father at a car dealership and has a strained, avoidant relationship with his family; and Oliver has no family at all). I don’t know that I’d extrapolate some kind of larger point about society from this; I think it’s a natural side-effect of the fact that the movies, by-and-large, are exploring relationships between peers. (Mothers don’t get off easily in these movies; Shaun literally shoots his mother in the head just as she becomes a zombie, while Danny’s mother died before the movie starts. Gary lies about his mother dying throughout the movie until he’s caught out on it, and the epilogue narration reveals that she dies for real).

The World’s End reverses the Shaun dynamic in a different way. You could read Pegg’s Gary as a version of Shaun who went the other way, but he’s more properly a dark version of Ed, just as Frost’s Andy is a Shaun who’s left his younger days far behind. Pegg’s performance is done on a knife’s edge; he's unabashedly awful, fucking up on a larger and larger scope throughout the movie, and fucked up himself in proportion. It’s by far the bleakest Cornetto, both figuratively and, as it enters its second act and the sun sets, literally dark. In this it mirror’s Shaun, the action of which takes place mostly over one single day and reaches its climax at night (Hot Fuzz, by contrast, stages its climactic fight during the day). The movies, as well as grappling with adulthood vs. adolescence and male friendships, are about conformity and the disadvantages of same, and part of the reason Hot Fuzz feels like such an outlier is that it grapples with the theme of conformity in greater proportion than the other two. But it’s of a piece with Shaun in that, in both movies, the protagonists find some kind of balance between the selves they were and the selves they need to be.

Potentially telling that I couldn't find a World's End picture with Gary and Andy
There’s no such balance in The World’s End, at least not for Gary. Peter and Oliver don’t make it out, of course, but Oliver’s blank basically picks up where the real one left off, and Peter’s blank becomes a better father. (Peter is a heartbreaking case; his pain and vulnerability make it clear that Gary isn’t the only one who had unfinished business in Newton Haven, and I wish that he’d found a way to heal outside of what the movie offered him.) Steven ends up reuniting with his childhood crush, in a delightful inversion of how a movie of this stripe might normally play out, while Andy gets a bit of closure on his ruined friendship with Gary.

But Gary...I want desperately to believe that there’s healing for someone as broken as Gary. The old saw about high school being the best time of your life is a little depressing to anyone who’s had a fulfilling life outside of high school, and anyone who’s listened closely to Springsteen’s “Glory Days” knows full well how bleak the song really is, with its protagonists sad preoccupation with times that are long past. Pegg fully embodies the sadness of someone whose best days really are more than twenty long years ago; at first there are chuckles, then it seems kind of pathetic, and then, near the end, the raw, bleeding sadness of Gary is exposed to the light.

I can’t think about it, not fully. I have to think around it, at oblique angles. I have to glance at it in mirrors. There’s a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, Night Watch, which is saved from being the most depressing book you’ve ever read almost entirely by word choice and humor; strip that out and the bleakness becomes unbearable. The World’s End has that same quality; there is a darkness at its center, a yawning emotional abyss. There’s an interview I read recently with the three creators, where Frost made the point that the conflict between Gary and Andy carries more weight for fans of the trilogy because they’ve watched the friendship between Pegg and Frost’s characters through two movies already. This metatextual element makes it all the more painful because its not hard to read what Gary’s become as a consequence of losing his teenage friendships. All five of the main characters carry pain from their childhoods, but only Gary’s was so fundamentally deep, so twisted around with his addictions to alcohol and heroin and his anarchic spirit that it completely stunted him. You desperately want for the Pegg/Frost friendship to mend the character’s hurts, and the movie never quite gives you that comfort.

It does offer a kind of peace for Gary, a kind of moving on, even though it damns a whole lot of people. I’ll have to see it again to fully sort out how I feel about it; it’s meant to be triumphant, and it’s certainly audacious, but in its own way it’s orders of magnitude darker than Shaun’s ending, which was pretty dark in its own way. That’s been the way with the Cornettos, though; they’ve always been great at balancing the light and the dark in ways that make the latter much more bearable. Which is, in its own way, its own deft trick.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Gay Marrying Through a Cosmic Void

In my most-recent CFR article, I touch on an idea that I want to expand, because I’ve been feeling its truth. The idea is that intolerance, in whatever form you want to name, can grow in the mind like weeds. It’s a difficult concept, because often bigotry is broken down on a binary level; you’re either racist or you aren’t, you’re for or against gay marriage, you treat women equally or you don’t.

I’ve shared an anecdote here before, about losing interest in a book based on the race and gender of the protagonist, despite considering myself an enlightened, open-minded, tolerant individual. It’s time to share another one, shamefully more recent, but important, I think.

A good friend of mine, who for the sake of this post we’ll call Bdurdendee Hnurf, is getting married soon (in two months! Holy shit!). Bdurdendee happens to be a homosexual gentleman, and he is marrying another homosexual gentleman, making this an example of society-destroying gay marriage. Bdurdendee, was angry for a long time when I first knew him, possibly (although perhaps not wholly; I’m not attempting psychoanalysis here, but simply relating my observations) due to the fact that he was closeted for a fair amount of time. Once he came out to his friends he was a good deal happier, and once he met his partner he seems happier still.

All this is prologue to something that happened in my head the other day. I had asked Bdurdendee a couple of wedding-related questions, and he had responded, and then at some point a few minutes afterward, heading downstairs to brood fruitlessly in front of my cupboard (not literally, I had apples), I realized that for some reason I wasn’t quite comfortable with thinking of the whole endeavor as a wedding.

I was a little less surprised that a self-described enlightened, open-minded, tolerant might have a thought of this nature, because, as I said in the aforementioned article, I’ve had this kind of weirdness sprout in my mind before. It wasn’t even hard for me to figure out where this mental reticence came from and it’s actually not a bad reason, as reasons to think stupid bullshit go. The reason is simple: I grew up in an era where you didn’t see a lot of LGBT-people, pop culturally or otherwise. I’ve not been to many weddings in my lifetime, but the ones I have been to have been in what the anti-gay culture warriors might refer to as a traditional configuration (or, rather, how they might refer to it if they were firmly committed to conducting all their discourse as if they were Data from TNG). For me there’s a visual to the whole thing, and up to this point the visual has been a dude in a suit and a lady in a white dress and about thirty to sixty minutes of talking until the whole thing is over and I can eat awkwardly as close to a corner as I can manage, waiting for the bride and groom to get around to the cake so that I can grab a piece like the carb-craving monster that I am.

As we grow and change and learn more about the world we encounter definitions we have to change, based on new information. If we grow up somewhere with no pine trees and then Christmas rolls around, suddenly we have to change how we think about trees. So, too, if we’ve grown up with little-to-no cultural emphasis on dudes and ladies pairing up contra-Noah’s-Ark-style, we have to suddenly change how we think about weddings. And I can kind of understand the mind-set that has trouble with that, because the world basically sucks a lot and things are tough all over and it’s real easy and comforting to dig in your heels and say, “Nuh uh, marriage is between a man and a woman (because if it isn’t then suddenly I am exposed to the uncertainty of the universe and the sure knowledge that we will all one day perish, and that we are on one orb of many, hurtling through the cosmic void at speeds incomprehensible to my human brain; clamping down hard on this one thing is the only way I can maintain the illusion of control over a fate I have no role in determining).”

I understand it, but of course we have an obligation to overcome these feelings and rewrite our mental definitions. The world is changing constantly; technologically, culturally, ecologically. Bdurdendee Hnurf is getting married; it will be a wedding. I don’t even feel comfortable prepending ‘gay’ onto those. Two people are coming together and pledging their lives to each other, and this time they both happen to be dudes. For now, yes, there might be a little bit of a societal double-take as we all get used to the idea, but in the long run I would think we’re aiming for a world where it’s not one class of people being allowed to take part in another class of people’s ritual, but one ritual, shared amongst everyone.

Even if your name is Bdurdendee Hnurf.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Chris Broussard's Non-Apology: Plenty of Mea, Not Enough Culpa

Most of America took note of Jason Collins’ revelation of his own homosexuality yesterday, done through a letter submitted to Sports Illustrated; indeed, given the prominence of organized athletics in the lives of many, and the recent strides taken towards greater equality for LGBT citizens, it seemed predestined to occupy the zeitgeist. I read about it at work, where I am isolated, partly by choice and partly by thick concrete, from access to social media, but I was relieved to read early indications online about support for Collins. My own reaction was positive; I am neither a basketball fan nor a gay man, but I believe it’s better for the world in general if everyone is allowed and encouraged to live life in the way that makes them happiest. If Jason Collins wants to a) play professional basketball and also b) bone down on dudes, dealing with hard picks on the field and hard pricks off, there’s no earthly reason that anyone should have cause to object.

Which is, I suppose, why Chris Broussard of ESPN came up with a heavenly one. "I'm a Christian. I don't agree with homosexuality. I think it's a sin, as I think all sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman is.... If you're openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be ... that's walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ,” said Broussard.

What’s astonishing about this is the self-obsession. Broussard read (or had read to him; he calls himself a Christian and yet seemingly shows no understanding of the doctrines of love and forgiveness preached by Jeezo in said document, leading me to believe he may not actually be literate) Collins’ letter, with all its pathos and paid, its descriptions of how Collins life in the closet and denial of his true self had caused him hardship, how momentous he knew his coming out was and would be, and how much freer and happier he felt while taking those first steps, as he came out to family and friends, all of whom showed him overwhelming support, and what Broussard came away with was, “I don’t like or understand gay people.”

The majority has always contextualized minority experiences in terms of their own lives instead of actually listening to them. My favorite examples of this are Dances With Wolves and the spiritual sequel Dances With Wolves In Space, where what’s important is not the lived experience of the natives but their acceptance of the noble white guys who come to live among them. Broussard does the same thing here. Collins makes it quite clear that his being queer is part of who he is, yes, but that what’s of primary importance to him, what he takes the most pride in, is that he’s a professional basketball player, in every sense of the word. He even says, in the letter in question, “I celebrate being an African-American and the hardships of the past that still resonate today. But I don't let my race define me any more than I want my sexual orientation to. I don't want to be labeled, and I can't let someone else's label define me,” whereupon Broussard instantly attempted to label him. There is, yes, a reasonable expectation that Collins’ orientation is going to take center court for a little while, but what Collins said, in as clear and as eloquent terms as he possibly could, was that he was ‘also’ gay, not ‘only’ gay; the Broussard, and the Broussards of the world, Collins is now ‘only’ gay. Even if you take Broussard's comment as a comment primarily against premarital sex and not homosexuality there's still the matter of his narrow-minded view of homosexuals as slaves to their libidos, concerned only about sex (and if this is truly his concern, why is he taking issue only with Collins and not every other single player in the NBA? Answer: it's not truly his concern).

Broussard rightly faced a backlash for his remarks, and so issued the following non-apology today: “"Today on OTL, as part of a larger, wide-ranging discussion on today's news, I offered my personal opinion as it relates to Christianity, a point of view that I have expressed publicly before. I realize that some people disagree with my opinion and I accept and respect that. As has been the case in the past, my beliefs have not and will not impact my ability to report on the NBA. I believe Jason Collins displayed bravery with his announcement today and I have no objection to him or anyone else playing in the NBA." You have no objection? No shit.

Science fiction writer and clear thinker John Scalzi, recently wrote an article on his blog about public apologies which I think is pretty on-the-money, and Broussard’s mea sorta culpa fails most of the guidelines Scalzi sets forth. Its not even really an apology on its face; Broussard pretty much just says, “Yeah, I said I hate gays, you should know I hate gays because I’ve said that before. Don’t worry, though, he can still play ball if he wants and I see no problem with continuing to report on the NBA while not-secretly hating gays.” Scalzi: “An apology is directed toward other people, but is something you do for yourself. Which is to say, the reason to apologize is not because other people expect it from you (although they may), but because you expect it from yourself — it is part of your personal character to own up to the wrongs you have done to others.” Broussard clearly expects nothing from himself but the continued sense of smug moral self-satisfaction that he gets while sniping at those he considers lesser than him, and his apology reflects this.

Collins’ coming out was going to be hard, yes, but it was going to be hard because of men like Broussard, because those with privilege have lived their lives hearing without listening and spent their energy contextualizing the world in terms of their own petty fears and prejudices. The argument against homophobia, against racism, and against intolerance has always been to clearly see and hear the oppressed, to hear and be moved by their stories and their humanity, to humble yourself to the vastness of human experience and to step from the safety of your own beliefs, walking amongst the unfamiliar and embracing strangeness. I’m not calling on Broussard to resign, or be fired; I’m calling on him to open his eyes. Collins, through his letter, revealed himself to be a man of character, a brave man, worthy of respect. Broussard’s attempt to diminish Collins has only diminished himself, but that doesn’t have to be all of who he is; just as Collins is not ‘only’ gay, so to is Broussard not ‘only’ a bigot.

Give a real apology, Chris. Look outside yourself and join us out here in the world. It’s a brighter place.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sherlock, mad bombers, and the way forward

This afternoon explosions wounded and killed a number of people at the Boston Marathon, prompting me to continue to write about Sherlock. This will make sense, I promise (as much as these glimpses into my brain ever do).

My other post on Sherlock was largely about Irene Adler, but I did touch on what I believe to be a flaw in the first two seasons of Sherlock, which is its outsized emphasis on Jim Moriarty, Sherlock’s incarnation of Professor Moriarty. My beef with the character in that post was, to briefly sum up, that he was basically everywhere. If you know the canon, his presence hangs over the first episode, because of the admittedly wonderful misdirect midway through the episode. Watson receives calls and texts from someone named ‘M’ who tells him not to get involved with Holmes. Eventually he is picked up on the street by a car with a woman who reveals little information. He’s taken to an empty warehouse, where he meets someone who fits the archetype of Moriarty perfectly; he is posh, upper-class, clearly intelligent, dresses well, and even has a cane.

When you’re watching an adaptation and you know the source material, there’s often something in the back of your head that’s comparing what you’re seeing to the source, and also something that’s picking out every new element you see and running it through a database of references back to the original. ‘M’ is very obviously set up to tweak that sense, but as I said, it turns out to be a brilliant misdirect, because ‘M’ is Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, warning Watson off for far less sinister reasons than he might have if he actually had been Moriarty. This gives us a thrill, but it also plants this thought: “If he’s not Moriarty, who is?” It sets us up for the reveal at the end of the episode, where the murderer reveals he was approached by Moriarty and was compensated by him for every murder he committed. The first season was filmed out of sequence, with the initial 60-minute pilot that formed the basis of the first episode completely re-worked and filmed last; the finale, where Moriarty is revealed and squares off against Holmes, was filmed first.

If you know that, it makes complete sense that references to him would be seeded into the first two episodes, because Andrew Scott’s Jim Moriarty is an astonishing creation. My comparison in the other post to Batman and the Joker was purposeful, because Scott’s Moriarty has a similar psychopathic quality to him; at times playful and other times violently aggressive, and all the while capable of great violence. He is like no other Moriarty I’ve ever seen.

The finale of season two, “The Reichenbach Fall,” features Moriarty at his height, perpetrating a series of public crimes that get him arrested and put on trial. His plan, however, is to publicly embarrass and discredit Holmes, which is accomplishes quite adeptly, establishing Holmes as a fraud by befriending a reporter (who Holmes insults early in the episode) and establishing himself as an actor hired by Holmes to play the part of “Moriarty.” By the end of the episode, Holmes has met Moriarty on a rooftop and is faced with an ultimatum. Leap from the top of the building, or assassins will kill everyone close to Holmes. By this point Holmes is on the run from the police and discredited in the press (Watson’s blog and subsequent media coverage have, over the course of the season, made him a sensation) and seemingly has nothing left to lose. He briefly rallies when he realizes that as long as Moriarty is alive there’s a way to prove he isn’t a fraud; Moriarty’s response is to shoot himself in the head. Holmes is left, seemingly, with no way out; he calls Watson and confesses that he is a fraud (a confession that we know is a lie, by the way; this is not a Christopher Nolan film where we’re shown flashbacks that reveal Holmes has been faking it the entire time) and leaps from the rooftop, seemingly killed by the impact.

He isn’t, of course. The last shot of the season, after Watson has mourned at Holmes’ grave, is that of Holmes, standing hidden, watching, and clearly alive. So there’s that. His reputation has been destroyed and most of his relationships damaged. Moriarty hasn’t quite won, but neither has he lost. He set out to ruin Holmes and he largely succeeded, and here’s where I start to have problems with Sherlock and with the overarching Moriarty story the series decided to tell with its first two seasons.

The ultimate message here seems to be, “if someone decides to ruin your life, they will, and there’s basically nothing you can do about it.” Which is an entirely understandable subtext from anything created after 9/11, or Aurora, or Newtown, or Boston. Looked at in a certain light these tragedies all have in common the idea that things were normal, and then, suddenly, they weren’t, forever. It’s easy to draw a line from Adam Lanza or James Holmes to Moriarty, to reduce them down to their one monstrous act and extrapolate from that a giddy imp who sows chaos wherever he wants, ruining lives haphazardly, destroying whatever he touches. Its absolutely tempting, but it leaves the viewer with nothing but fear; it offers no way forward, nothing but nihilism and the nothing that if someone decided to ruin your life, they will, and there’s basically nothing you can do about it.

There is always a way forward. Wounds heal, the pain of loss eases. Property can be rebuilt, possessions can be replaced. The capacity of humanity to weather adversity is limitless.

I am exaggerating my case slightly, because of the day; Sherlock not as bleak as it could be (it's not as bleak as, for example, anything Neil LaBute ever wrote, given that seeing or reading LaBute is like staring into the mouth of God as he screams, "FUCK YOU," for 90 minutes). I am also not begging my escapism for a moral lifeline; I am not coming down the mountain with Sherlock etched on one stone tablet and The Wire on the other, living my life according to fiction, holding a mirror up to the mirror held up to nature, eating and choking on my own tail. I know the way forward (short version: embrace peace in your hearts, you fuckholes), and I think it's only responsible for art and artists to do the same.

So as much as I love Sherlock as a series, I'm uncomfortable with the way it ends, for the moment. We have at least six more episodes on the way, and Andrew Scott has mostly confirmed that his character is dead; this means nothing in television, of course, because as soon as someone has a good story, back Moriarty will come, springing down the lane with a mad grin and a bomb in his coat pocket. But for now I'm very much looking forward to seeing Alanon Bumbershoot portray Holmes as he shines his intellect into the dark corners of the world. Perhaps when season three commences, he will show us the way back.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sherlock and the war within

I always feel a bit villainous about nitpicking things that I love. It's always done with the best of intentions ("if only they'd done this it would be so much better (for me personally)")  but it still feels a bit churlish. If something is mostly okay, and has a few brilliant, perfect moments, isn't that enough? For some, probably, but if you haven't noticed by now that I compulsively over think things, let me state clearly that I can't help but dwell on those 'if only's' until they burst forth from their gestation in my brain into blog-post form. So, before I dig too hard into the picking of nits, let me establish up-front that I love the BBC version of Sherlock, with everything that word entails, from the initial infatuation to the deep-respect and the forgiveness of faults.

The show has much to recommend it, from the impeccable performance of the preposterously-named Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character to the even more impressive work done by Martin Freeman as his Watson, from the brilliant innovations in incorporating the modern world in all its text-messaging, computer-saturated glory to the sweeping, epic scores. All of the brilliance of the things the show gets right far eclipse its flaws, but it is the flaws I dwell on. And all of that brilliance and all of the flaws appear in starkest detail in my favorite episode of the show's six episode run, "A Scandal in Belgravia."

The episode's name is a nod to the original Doyle story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," and if you're familiar with the original stories, you might guess that this would be the Irene Adler episode. And you would be right! Adler, for the uninitiated, is regarded as one of the pivotal figures in the Holmes canon; despite only appearing in the one story her appearance in any adaptation is an inevitability. The story features a few good examples of Holmesian intellect, the most notable being the ruse he uses to enter Adler's lodgings and the means by which he ascertains the location of the incriminating photograph Holmes has been hired to pursue. However, the story is notable not for this but for the fact that Adler outwits him. Holmes, after learning the location of the photograph, plans to leave and return with his client (the king of Bohemia, no less, who fears that the photograph will be used to blackmail him after his upcoming nuptials to a woman who is not Adler) and secure it then. However, Adler sees through the ruse, disguises herself and follows him home, then flees the country with the photograph, leaving a letter explaining herself and promising never to use the photograph for purposes of blackmail, as the king so feared. Hereafter, according to Watson, Adler was, to Holmes, always the woman, and to readers, she was the woman who beat him at his own game.

No subsequent adaptation has really done her justice; I haven't seen A Game of Shadows, the second outing by Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes, but by all accounts it does her no favors. And, unfortunately, Sherlock is no different. The basic set-up and motivation is similar, although the one potentially being blackmailed is English rather than Bohemian royalty (and a lady rather than a gentleman). However, Adler is not a former opera singer, as in the original story, but a professional dominatrix, known professionally as, "The Woman." Many of the show's nods to Holmesian canon are moderately subtle, but this one is a screaming red klaxon. What's more, it's unnecessary, because Holmes refers to her as 'the woman' later in the episode and so we get the nod anyway, now undermined by the repetition. It is not the only thing undermined in the episode.

The trap that a number of Adler adaptations seem to fall into is making Adler into a love interest to Holmes, with various degrees of one-sidedness depending on to what degree that particular Holmes is socially inept and emotionless. It makes her dependent on Holmes, in a way, whereas in the original story Adler had no particular interest in Holmes other than as someone who could potentially do her harm; she flees the country with her husband, who she marries mid-way through the story. Holmes has little respect for women in the original stories much of the time, although to be fair he has little respect for most everyone, and there are problematic elements in the way Adler is portrayed even there (her initial description from the king of Bohemia, for example, contains the line, "You do not know her, but she has a soul of steel. She has the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men."). Yet the Adler of the original is independent in a way that no Adler since has been able to really claim.

I understand the impulse to translate that independence into some sort of non-traditional occupation, which is how we get Adler-as-sex-worker. I don't even really have a problem with that in principle, although it does go against the spirit of the original. The only crime Bohemia-Adler had committed was the threat of blackmail against a powerful former lover who had wronged her; she felt, quite correctly, that she would not be safe against someone of such stature without the insurance of the photograph and the threat of ruin its revelation might bring. Belgravia-Adler is a blackmailer many times over, having access to secrets that go far beyond marital infidelities and into the realm of national security. Worse yet, she reveals near the climax of the episode that she really had no understanding of how to use the information she had until she was told by someone else. So much for independence.

It is in that 'someone else' that we come to one of the structural flaws that plagues the entirety of the first two seasons of Sherlock, and that is the obsession with Jim Moriarty. If Adler is one inevitability of a Holmes adaptation Moriarty is the other. I quite understand the notion of killing the author, and so I'm not going to go into a tiresome multi-paragraph dissection of the fact that Doyle's intention with Moriarty was not to provide some overarching raison d'etre for his most popular character but to kill him off so that Doyle could focus on what he felt was more important work writing historical fiction (entirely believable if you remember the multi-chapter diversion into early American history that interrupted "The Sign of Four."). What matters is not intention but what's actually on the page, and the idea of someone of fearsome intellect devoted as wholly to crime as Holmes himself is devoted to detectoring is compelling. So I get why Moriarty is always introduced. The problem with this, and unfortunately I can't find the blog post that convinced me of this, is that Moriarty is boring. Yes, even when he's conceived, as he is in Sherlock, as the Joker to Sherlock's Batman, he is deadly boring.

The lure of the Sherlock Holmes stories is not seeing Holmes face off against brilliant master criminals. The thrill is in seeing him navigate the messy, chaotic ordinariness of crime, untangling the web of motivations of ordinary people driven to do horrible things. The thesis of the blog post that is lost somewhere on the internet was that every time Moriarty comes out, normal motivations are thrown to the wind and we become locked in a cat-and-mouse game where two smart people try to outsmart each other while everyone else runs around and looks baffled. The criminals are as important in a good mystery story as the protagonist; we can be driven to hate them or to sympathize with them, to yearn for them to be brought to justice or to be exonerated, or to escape as Adler did. With Moriarty all we can hope for is that he be caught and either thrown over the falls or be put back in the Baker Street Asylum, where he sits until he feels like escaping and tormenting his arch-enemy again. There is never any ambiguity about it; he is the yin to Holmes' yang, and so we yearn for his internment.

Sherlock doesn't seem to be aware of this problem, because Moriarty is involved in every single episode of the series run. In the pilot he's the man behind the main villain, paying him off for every murder he commits. In the second episode, he gave the villain the information they needed, and kills them off to ensure his existence isn't revealed. He then reveals his existence in the third episode, "The Final Problem," where he confronts Holmes and Watson at the end of the episode, revealing himself to be both brilliant and out of his gourd. The episode ends in a cliffhanger, with Holmes and Watson on the verge of being murdered by hidden snipers. The fifth episode, an execrable adaptation of, "The Hound of the Baskervilles," features Moriarty at the end being released from prison (with no indication of how he got there), and the sixth is a rough adaptation of, "The Final Problem," and the problem seems to be that all the story beats from the fatal confrontation between Moriarty and Holmes were used up in the episode that bears that name, leading so some of them being rehashed; it works, but mostly in spite of itself.

Which leaves us backtracking to the fourth episode, where Moriarty is the one who knew what to do with the information Adler was trying to get out of Holmes. She had been given a code from one of her clients and needed Holmes to decipher it (because she is a poor witless woman). The code is an airline seat allocation number to a flight that British Intelligence knows is going to be targeted by terrorists; they know this because they've broken the terrorist's codes. However, they don't want to indicate that they know this, so they fill the plane with cadavers, planning to have it take off and be blown up with no casualties, ensuring they can continue to receive intelligence from the terrorists without them being the wiser. Adler's womanly brain cannot possibly conceive of any use for this information beyond feeding it to Moriarty who, it is presumed, tells the terrorists (because he is bad), leaving the British and American intelligence agencies involved with nothing for all their efforts.

The beat is marginally the same; Adler beats Holmes at his own game. And yet, because it's yet another move in the long game of chess between Holmes and Moriarty (a game that we know ends with both men knocking over their own kings), her role is sad and diminished, moreso when Holmes finally cracks the code on her cell phone to gain access to all the blackmail information she's been hiding away. So Holmes doesn't really lose, and Adler doesn't really win; in fact, she begs him not to unlock the phone, since doing so would deprive her of the protection she needs. The information she was keeping is the only thing keeping her enemies from killing her. A woman, serving one man, begging another for her life. Hardly the picture of independence.

And yet I can't deny the perfection of the scene where he finally, after trying time after time to figure out what code she could possibly be using for her cell phone, figures it out; never has punching in four characters been so dramatic. Nor can I deny the final scene, the denouement; the fade to black, the silence, the moan, oh, the moan, which we have been trained to react to all this time, an indication of her become an indication of him. Forgetting, and forgiving, that a narrative about a brilliant, insubordinate woman has now narrowed to a damsel-in-distress scenario.

"When I say!"

I love this episode, more than nearly any other episode of television I can name, more than most movies I've seen (and at 90 minutes an episode of Sherlock is only a budget increase away from being a movie as it stands). Everything I wrote above is true and yet none of it matters. I cannot watch the end without crying; I cannot listen to Irene Adler's theme without doing the same. I would change so much, if I had the power, but I wonder how much I would also destroy if I made those changes. The episode is problematic, yes, but it works, and so the burgeoning feminist in me butts up against the artist, the one who says, "let it be, because it sings."

The episode, and the show, is flawed, but in interesting ways. It's on NetFlix, if you haven't seen it. Its virtues outweigh its mistakes, in the end, even if those mistakes are worth noting so that they aren't repeated.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Empathy Don't Come For Free

Around mid-January, when I was in the grip of a literal month long illness (a cold that evolved, Pokémon-style, into a horrible cough and sinus infection), I, for whatever reason, bought the discography of U.K. garage/hip-hop artist The Streets, né Mike Skinner, and then proceeded to listen to the whole thing in the worst way possible, which was in a giant playlist that for whatever reason was arranged by album track number. In other words, the first tracks of each album would play, then the second, then the third, etc.

As a technique for immersing yourself in one dude's voice it has a lot to recommend it, but the thing about each of The Street's albums is (I learned later, doing things the proper way, i.e. listening to each album separately at work) that each one has its own character. We may now be living in the era of the single, where the other nine tracks on the album aren't nearly as important as the one that's going to get the radio play, but Skinner didn't play like that. Original Pirate Material is minimalistic, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living and Everything is Borrowed are like the Dark and Light sides of the Force, one brutal, knife-edged lightning and rage and the other subtle and positive while leaving almost no impression in the mind, and Computer and Blues harnesses everything Skinner had learned through the previous four albums and creates a deft picture of the modern world while managing an elegiac tone befitting his retirement from The Streets project. Each album is of a piece, and almost demands a certain mindset (I still have trouble listening to Hardest outside of the goofy, aggro-yet-sweet relationship post-mortem "When You Wasn't Famous,"). And none of these albums suffers more from not being listened to continuously, beginning to end, than the second album, A Grand Don't Come For Free.

My first exposure to concept albums was Dream Theater's Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, a title that certainly doesn't sound like it belongs on this blog. Metropolis is an epic of love, lust, betrayal, addiction, murder, past lives, reincarnation and spirituality, with majestic rock instrumentation to match its subject matter. It's an album I can listen to on loop over and over (outside of "Through Her Eyes," a song which can be forgiven its existence only if looked at as a chance for the band to take a break during concerts, and "The Dance of Eternity," a technically impressive instrumental number that I mainly enjoy for about thirty seconds of hilarious, out-of-nowhere old-timey piano).

Grand, as a concept album, is as small-scale as Metropolis is large for much of its length. It follows a young man through his days as a youth in England (possibly Brixton, where Skinner moved from Birmingham, although I don't believe the location is ever specified). I don't know to what degree the album is auto-biographical. At one point Skinner, as the main character, makes reference to having to pick up his epilepsy medication, and Skinner himself suffers from epilepsy; in addition, I believe someone refers to him as Mike at one point. Skinner renders the day-to-day of the character so well it feels real, so whether the album was keenly observed or felt is immaterial except to someone like me, a story archeologist always searching for origins and hidden connections and sucking the marrow (and fun) out of the bones.

Grand starts with the protagonist losing the titular grand, a thousand quid (about $1,500 US), which he had saved with the intention of putting in the bank. He finds this out at the end of a long, deeply shitty day, where nothing goes right, each verse beginning with an iteration of what he has yet to do and what's already gone wrong ("So I failed at the DVD, couldn't withdraw any money/but I still had to call mum, get the savings, and then hurry,"). Also his TV breaks, which actually becomes important later.

From there he meets a girl named Simone, hits it off with her, tries to win some money betting on football (and is prevented from losing his shirt by happenstance) and goes to a nightclub, where he takes ecstasy and thinks he sees Simone kissing his friend Dan, with whom she works. He's, "fucked and he don't care," so he makes nothing of it, and soon he moves in with Simone.

After an argument where she kicks him out, he goes on holiday, tries to impress a girl and then immediately regrets it the next day when he realizes he wants to be with Simone. If you read the previous paragraph you probably have an idea that this ends badly, and indeed it does; he finds out from his friend Scott that Simone has been cheating on him with Dan (Scott knew about this but didn't say anything because he didn't want to betray either friendship). Simone breaks up with Mike, and we come to the last track on the album, "Empty Cans."

The first time through it, listening to it in the midst of all the other track tens from the complete discography, I skipped ahead after a few minutes, and that's because it's really two similar songs in one. In the first, Mike is sitting alone in his apartment, feeling sorry for himself. Scott reaches out to try and make things right and Mike tells him to, "fuck right off chap," then finds a TV repairman in the phone book to finally try and get his TV fixed. The guy comes, takes the TV away, and then comes back later, saying he's found something in the back of the TV. Mike immediately assumes that the repairman is trying to him up for more money and gets in an argument that turns physical and ends with the repairman wrestling Mike to the ground, bashing his head into his fridge, and then running out of the apartment shouting. The chorus for this part of the song is, "No one gives a crap about Mike that's why I'm acting nasty/You know what you can do with your life introduce it up your jacksie," and once he went into that for the second time I thought, "what a miserable piece of shit," and skipped to the next track.

Context is, of course, everything, and when you listen to the tracks from the album like I did you have no idea that they're all of a piece, that they're sketching a life and a character and leading him to this moment; not the moment where he's sitting drinking beer on his settee with a bashed-up head, but the moment where Scott texts him. If I had waited just a few more seconds, I would have heard the song reset itself back to the beginning, where Mike is once again bemoaning his fate, surrounded by empty cans, feeling sorry for himself and like no one has his back. However, the second time around, he doesn't tell Scott to fuck off, but accepts his apology and says he can fix the TV as payment, to which Scott agrees. Scott comes over, starts rooting around in the back of the TV, and then discovers something that fell in the back of it, which turns out to be, amazingly enough, the thousand quid from the beginning that Mike thought was lost (or that, in darker moments, his friends had stolen).

This is a nice bit of symmetry, but it actually isn't what, in my mind, the album was building to, although it is an amazing moment. The important bit is after, and here I'll quote the song extensively:

"... i realized that it is true;
No-ones really there fighting for you in the last garrison.
No-one except yourself that is, no-one except you.
You are the one who's got your back 'til the last deeds done.
Scott can't have my back til the absolute end,
Coz hes got to look out for what over his horizon.
He's gotta to make sure he's not lonely, not broke.
It's enough to worry about keeping his own head above."
Initially this looks cynical and borderline narcissistic, especially if you only take the first part into account, but I don't see it that way. Mike has, to this point, been self-pitying and self-centered, viewing many of his problems as caused, if not by his "mates," then at least by their inaction; if only they would 'have his back' he wouldn't be in the position he's in, wouldn't have lost the grand, wouldn't have lost Simone, none of it. What this realization is is that no one has it out for them as much as they have their own lives and problems. "It's enough to worry about keeping his own head above."

Most people agree that empathy is a positive force, that having an understanding of others and what they're going through can help everyone tremendously as we all make our way through this world; that it's easier to stand together than alone, that loving your neighbor as yourself is something to strive for. But you don't often hear songs showing how you get there from zero; more often you get things like, "Imagine," which, however much you agree with the sentiment, is not likely to be a song that changes anyone's mind. Either you agree or you don't; Lennon isn't walking you down a path so much as he's throwing down a gauntlet, since, "imagine there's no heaven," is already distasteful enough to some people that they're simply not going to hear what comes next, much less understand it.

Skinner takes, with the back half of, "Empty Cans," and the album as a whole, that first step towards a larger understanding of the world. The protagonist goes from demanding that the world help him, and shouting that if you're not with him you're against him, to realizing that he has to help himself, and from there it's not hard to imagine that he could one day come to the realization that he has the ability to help others. Even better, he isn't preaching, or telling; he's showing, in the manner of all great storytellers, showing the dark, fenced-in world of a Mike that rejects friendship and then showing the flip side and letting us feel which one is better through the music (I like to imagine that the Mike from the first part of, "Empty Cans," is the Mike that went on to write The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, while the Mike from Earth-2 wrote Everything is Borrowed. I'm not sure if Computer and Blues required some sort of Crisis on Infinite Streets). In a way, even though I was exposed to the album and the last track in particular in the worst way, I'm glad I did it the way I did, because the moment of impact was that much stronger for me when I finally realized what Skinner was doing. It may not be as epic or bombastic as Metropolis, but in its own way it's no less philosophical, or as brilliant, and in its own way it may be the more insightful of the two. Not that anyone's counting.

This is dedicated, in my own small, strange way, to Roger Ebert, who passed away today at the age of 70. Ebert was many things, but to me, he was someone who showed that examining the things that we love can be valuable. He was not critic as destroyer, but critic as enthusiastic participant, trying (and succeeding) to explain just what about the movies he was seeing had affected him, and trying to share those things he loved with the world. Thank you, Roger.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

My new favorite movie: Kung Fu Panda

"Yeah, I stayed. I stayed because every time you threw a brick at my head or said I smelled it hurt, but it could never hurt more than it did every day of my life just being me. I stayed because I thought if anyone could change me, could make me not me, it was you, the greatest kung fu teacher in all of China."

You might confuse this for dialogue from some self-confessional mumblecore indie dramedy, but for those last few words, but no, this is, in fact, from Kung Fu Panda, a movie that is ostensibly for children.

When Americans say, "kung fu," we're talking about martial arts, usually referring to China's equivalent of our B-westerns, movies cranked out by the dozens and mostly seen here with grainy, low-quality film stock and awful dubbing. However, "kung fu," means, for the Chinese, human achievement or self-improvement. You could talk about someone's sword fighting kung fu, but also their calligraphy kung fu, or, for that matter, their animation kung fu. ("Wu shu" is martial arts, if you're not talking about a specific school of martial arts, such as Wing Chun, the form popularized by Bruce Lee before he invented Jeet Kune Do.) The film features a good deal of well-animated martial arts, but it also trades heavily in that more accurate definition. And when you're talking about self improvement, you have to go to dark places, because you have to look at your weaknesses and your failures honestly.

Po, the titular panda, hates himself. He never comes out and says, "I hate myself," but it's not hard to read between the lines. He says, in so many words, "every day that I wake up as myself is worse than having a brick thrown at my head." That's a heartbreaking sentiment, and the movie doesn't shy away from that moment, because Po's teacher, Master Shifu, is just as lost as his pupil. Shifu has spent the majority of the movie trying to drum Po out of his kung fu training, convinced that the tubby panda is worthless as a student of martial arts. Now, with Master Oogway, Shifu's own master, having disappeared in a burst of cherry blossoms and Tai Lung, the villain of the piece, on his way to the valley, bent on taking the secrets of the movie's MacGuffin, the Dragon Scroll, for himself, Shifu has no choice but to believe in Po, as Oogway did.

"Believe in yourself," is one of those hoary old cliches that pops up in young adult (and old adult) literature. For good reason! I'm not shitting on that message; it's a beautiful message. It's also like an old cassette tape that's been played so many times that it's just a bunch of unintelligible squeaks and scratches. (Do we still know what cassette tapes are, here on the Internet?) When it comes up in most stories it's almost impossible to process on its face, so unable are we to make it new. And yet.

Shifu doesn't have an answer for Po in the scene above, because this isn't a movie that's just about Po and his improvement. It's also about Shifu, who is not incredibly wise in the way of his own master, but who is an incredible teacher of martial arts. Shifu is fallible; the action of the plot is driven by his failures in training Tai Lung, his old student. He doesn't always have the answers. He is, in his own way, lost. Po asks, desperately, what they're going to do, and Shifu answers, "I don't know! I don't know."

Tai Lung is a terrifying villain. The scene where he breaks out of prison is exhilarating, in a way, because no matter what his captors throw at him, he adapts, overcoming every obstacle thrown in his way. He is presented as unstoppable, reinforced by his next fight scene with Po's idols, the Furious Five. Tai Lung defeats them as well, handily, sending them back to the monastery in order to instill panic. Later, he takes on Shifu in possibly the darkest scene in the movie, a vicious fight that ends with Tai Lung victorious and on the verge of murdering his former mentor. Every time Tai Lung is met with violence he wins, because he is more dedicated to destruction than anyone he fights. In other words, whenever anyone tries to fight Tai Lung as Tai Lung, as a force of destruction, they fail.

The goal of kung fu is not to be someone else. The goal of kung fu is to be a better you.

Po's battle with Tai Lung is brightly colored and fun not because Kung Fu Panda is a kid's movie, but because Po himself is a fun, friendly guy. He wins the Furious Five over not by being the best at kung fu but by making them laugh and cooking for them; in other words, by being himself. The Tai Lung fight repeats maneuvers used earlier in the film, except now that Po has undergone his training montage with Shifu (who realizes that the way to motivate his student is with food), he's the one in control.

The Dragon Scroll is blank, but reflective; the secret is that there is no secret. If it were just blank, that would be one thing; in fact, it would be kind of shitty. And when Po finds it out, he does think it's shitty. He leaves the temple to evacuate the valley, meeting up with his father (who is a goose, and voiced by James Hong, who also voices the head of the Sun On Yee triad in the GTA-clone Sleeping Dogs, an eclectic pairing if ever there was one), who tells him the secret of his special noodles; nothing. There is no secret ingredient.

Tai Lung defeats Po, initially, and takes the Dragon Scroll for himself. He unfurls it and looks. The camera is over the shoulder as he says he sees nothing. And we see his own face, reflected in the scroll. Tai Lung can defeat any warrior who comes his way, but he has sunk into a pit of anger and rage because he cannot even see himself. He looks at his own face and sees nothing. Po, when he speaks to his father and takes a second look at the scroll, sees himself.

There is no secret ingredient. There is no solution outside of yourself, no peace, no success, no satisfaction. This doesn't mean these things don't exist; it means that they're not found in a Dragon Scroll, or a secret ingredient, or even the act of apprenticeship to an acclaimed teacher. Po's study under Master Shifu doesn't produce results simply because Shifu is a good teacher, but because Po became a good student. Po's fight with Tai Lung is ultimately successful, even after Tai Lung takes the scroll, because Tai Lung's victory condition was meaningless, and because Po has embraced his own strengths. Shifu is successful as a teacher because he learns to trust his student; just as Po has his own journey to make before he can be as skilled as the Furious Five, so Shifu has his own realizations and improvements, his own kung fu, to go through before he can be Oogway. And neither of them will truly be these things; Po will never be Tigress, or Mantis, or Viper or Monkey or Crane. Shifu will never be Oogway. They will be themselves, every morning, and as long as they don't give up, they will awaken a better Po, a better Shifu. This is the message of my new favorite movie, Kung Fu Panda, a movie that shows us what happens when we believe in ourselves.