Category Archives: what I’m watching

Four Years Later

Slightly less than four years ago, a countdown started. Perhaps it was obscured at points by speculations about the twenty-fifth amendment, or the spectre of impeachment and removal—or, well, really, any number of possible eventualities—but ultimately for those of us horrified by the election of Donald J. Trump, Election Day 2020 was a cognitive terminus, that point at which America’s national nightmare would either end or be validated anew. And given that the latter was, and is, more or less unthinkable—an existential crisis of both political and spiritual dimensions—this coming Tuesday is a day of reckoning. To repurpose a line from Good Omens, November 3, 2020 has been throbbing in the collective brain like a migraine.

With less than a week to go, I’ve been oscillating between zen-like calm and apocalyptic agitation. On one hand, I’ve been watching Trump unspooling in real time with all of the schadenfreude you would expect; every time he pleads, whines, or drops yet another increasingly absurd lie (did you know that California is forcing its citizens to wear a “special” mask that you cannot take off, and have to eat through? Or that Trump recently ended a 400-year war between Serbia and Kosovo?), I get calmer, seeing in his behaviour his realization that he’s going to lose. But then I read news pieces about the gun-wielding militias declaring their intentions to take to the streets if Trump loses; about the ongoing efforts by Republicans to suppress the vote; about the near-certainty that, if Republican legal challenges to a Biden victory make it to the Supreme Court, the facts of the case won’t matter all that much to Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

This all makes me feel, as Bilbo Baggins would say, somewhat thin and stretched, like too little butter spread over too much toast.

And I don’t even live in the U.S.

In the autumn of 2016, I was teaching a second-year course titled “Critical Approaches to Popular Culture.” The Department of English had recently absorbed the Communications Studies program; pop culture was (is) one of the required courses for the major. I’d taught pop culture years before, twice, when I was in the latter stages of my PhD at Western, so it was lovely to return to it. For one of the course’s units, I focused on recent sitcoms that articulated diverse, feminist sensibilities: we looked at episodes of Archer, Master of None, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Parks and Recreation. A former student of mine from about six or seven years earlier, who had gone on to do a masters in English and another in gender studies, and was at the time a journalist and feminist activist, was a massive fan of Parks and Recreation, and identified strongly with the series’ main character Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler). The connection my former student has with Leslie was and is an obvious one: she is blonde, passionate, unremittingly (sometimes exhaustingly) enthusiastic, and devoted to feminism and the possibilities of local government to do good. Early in the semester, I emailed her and asked if she’d like to do a guest lecture on feminism and Parks and Recreation. She emailed me back almost immediately, asking (possibly jokingly) if she should do it in character as Leslie Knope.

The way things had fallen out in my scheduling, her guest lecture would take place the Thursday after the 2016 election. This was not by design, but I was delighted by the serendipity of it: the idea that I would have this extraordinary former student coming in to deliver a lecture on the character of Leslie Knope—who, in the show, idolized Hillary Clinton—two days after what most of us assumed would have been the election of the first woman president of the United States.

Well. We know how that worked out.

It was a huge boon to me that I did not teach on Wednesdays that term. Normally I would have gone up to the office anyway, but that day—which was, as I recall, appropriately grey and rainy—I instead stayed home and sat at my desk in my pyjamas, trying to work through my thoughts. I read dozens of news articles online. I wrote a blog post. And I tried to come to terms with the fact that the United States had actually elected Donald Trump.

The next day, I introduced my former student in my pop culture class, and, not unpredictably, she knocked her guest lecture out of the park. She was amazing, her lecture was amazing, and I can still congratulate myself on my decision to invite her. But there was also the uneasy sense of whistling past the graveyard, as it were: Parks and Recreation, which had by that point ended its run, was wreathed in the spirit of the Obama years. Real political figures made not-infrequent cameos as the series went on, both Democrat and Republican, conveying a sense of comity consonant with Obama’s (frequently frustrated) inclination to want to reach across the aisle (such as in the episode where Cory Booker and Orrin Hatch tell Leslie that they share a passion for Polynesian folk music, and perform together in a band named “Across the Isle”). And of course there was the running joke of Leslie’s conviction that Joe Biden is the sexiest man alive:

(Somehow, Leslie’s admonition to the Secret Service that Biden is “precious cargo” is a little more poignant in the present moment).

In the days leading up to the 2020 election, I’ve been rewatching Parks and Recreation. On one hand, the show is not unlike The West Wing as an imaginative salve for the present moment; but where Aaron Sorkin’s drama offers a liberal fantasia in which people work and argue in good faith (mostly), Parks is somewhat more on point insofar as it hews to a more realistic premise: people are terrible. All Leslie Knope wants to do is improve people’s lives, and not infrequently suffers unforeseen effects of liberal statist interventionism.

One such case occurs when the town’s sole video rental store, which hosts weekly screenings of film classics, is about to go out of business, as every other video rental store in the world has. The store’s proprietor, a pretentious film snob played by Jason Schwartzman who refuses to stock popular movies, does not help himself by being, well, a pretentious film snob who refuses to stock popular movies. Leslie secures him a grant from the city council, making him promise to overhaul his stock with more popular selections—which he does in fact do, but goes to the other extreme and turns his store into a porn emporium. Business then booms, but not even remotely in the way Leslie Knope had intended.

Such mishaps aside, the series chronicles the ways in which Leslie’s earnest and idealistic faith in government batters against the apathy, indifference, and hostility of the citizens she so wants to help. But for all of their awfulness, the people of Leslie Knope’s Pawnee aren’t hateful; they do not actively wish harm on others. Rewatching the series right now, I can’t ignore the simple fact that a stubborn forty percent of Americans support a defiantly hateful man, whom they love not for his principles but for his enemies—for how much pain he can inflict and how much cruelty he can practice.

That same semester in 2016, I taught a fourth-year seminar I titled “Revenge of the Genres.” The premise of the course was to look at texts and authors that transcended popular genres, or else used them in metaphorical or critical ways: we did Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, Colson Whitehead’s zombie apocalypse novel Zone One, Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home, among others … and we ended the class with Hamilton. Even more than Parks and Recreation, Hamilton feels like a relic of the Obama years—not least because its conception, staging, and extraordinary success unfolded over Obama’s presidency, and indeed received its first audience in 2009 for the title song at the White House.

One of our points of discussion in class was how to read Hamilton not just post-Obama, but in the new age of Trump. By the time we started on it in class, we were a few weeks past the election; there was a sort of cosmic irony in examining a musical about a man whose co-creation of the Electoral College was undertaken to prevent the rise of a populist demagogue to the presidency.

There was also the leaden feeling that the play’s optimism and faith in the American experiment had been definitively belied by Trump’s election. As much as I love Hamilton, my one misgiving about it has always been the conviction that part of its popularity—aside from simply being an astonishingly good play—proceeded from the fact that it gave white liberals permission to celebrate the origin story of the United States without caveats. I mean, let’s be honest—the story of the United States’ founding is a pretty compelling one to start with. As a Canadian kid who grew up watching Schoolhouse Rock, I was frequently envious, because my own country lacked a revolutionary beginning and such colourful characters as Hamilton, Jefferson, and Franklin. But of course, as one ages and learns more, the broader contours of that history become tainted by the ugly facts of slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples. The story remains compelling, but the more honest we are about the actual history, the more those caveats are going to inflect it.

Hence, a hip-hop musical written by a man of Puerto Rican heritage—whose first musical, In The Heights, was about life in an Hispanic neighbourhood in New York—which not only unapologetically celebrates “the ten dollar founding father” and the “American experiment,” but also casts predominantly Black and brown performers to play the roles of the white Founders, gives permission to white milquetoast liberals like myself to set aside the caveats for two and a half hours and enjoy America’s origin story set to virtuosic music.

And lest that sound cynical, I should hasten to add that it’s not merely about the permission structure—it’s also the hope it inspires.

Hope also feels a little like a relic of the Obama years, but I can’t let myself think that. I’m wound up pretty tightly at the moment, but I do think that there are reasons to hope. I always tell my studies in my American Lit classes that America is an idea. As one obscure Irish poet put it, it’s possibly the best idea the world ever had, but it has never been properly realized. The power of that idea, however, is what fuels Hamilton, what made The West Wing a hit TV show, and why Leslie Knope is an endearing character. The problem at the heart of Trumpism, as with all nativist populism, is that it has divorced the idea of America from its mythos. The America of MAGA is inert: an unchanging bundle of resentment stuck somewhere in an imaginary past. The idea of America, by contrast, is dynamic and hopeful; it is generous and open. It is also what Joe Biden has been articulating throughout his campaign. Precious cargo, indeed.

See everybody on the other side.

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Filed under maunderings, The Trump Era, what I'm watching

Lovecraft Country, “Sundown”

lovecraft country

As I started to say in my previous post, Lovecraft Country, among other things—perhaps above other things—isn’t just an extended engagement with the fraught legacy of H.P. Lovecraft, but deploys that legacy as an extended metaphor for the even more fraught legacy of race in America. And though I refer here to the novel by Matt Ruff, the first episode of HBO’s adaptation, “Sundown,” is very much on the same page.

Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) is a young Black man from the South Side of Chicago; a veteran of the Korean War; a son whose relationship to his father Montrose (Michael K. Williams) is fraught to the point of estrangement; and a lover of pulp science fiction and fantasy. The opening sequence of “Sundown” is at once a flashback to his time in Korea, and a dream  wrought by Edgar Rice Burroughs and other pulp authors, starting with visceral black-and-white hand-to-hand combat with North Korean soldiers, and moving into a technicolour attack by flying saucers, alien tripods á là H.G. Welles, and Lovecraftian, batlike monsters. The Cthulhu-esque tentacular beast confronting Atticus is suddenly split down the middle in a spume of green slime by none other than Jackie Robinson.

And then Atticus wakes up, on a bus taking him north, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars resting on his chest.

Atticus—or “Tic,” as others call him—comprises the central conceit of Lovecraft Country: a young Black man who knows as well as anybody the brutal realities of Jim Crow America; who served as a combat soldier in Korea, but doesn’t accrue any respect or gratitude for that from whites; but who is an enthusiastic reader of pulp fiction, in spite of the fact that those stories not only have little to say about him, but what they do have to say is racist and demeaning. Even the older Black woman with whom he ends up walking down a country road after their bus blows out doesn’t have much use for his choice of reading—pointing out to him that John Carter, the hero of Burroughs’ Mars novels, was a Confederate officer, and thus doesn’t deserve Atticus’ sympathies. Later, after Atticus makes it home to Chicago, he tells his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) that his father Montrose had tried to cure him of his pulp addiction by making him memorize a certain piece of doggerel by H.P. Lovecraft. (I won’t cite the vile title of the poem or quote it—typing “Lovecraft on the creation” into Google will take you to it if you’re that curious—but the most euphemistic way to summarize it is to say it suggests the gods saw a gap in creation between man and beast, and filled that gap by creating Black people). When the woman he met on the bus points out that John Carter doesn’t get to be an “ex-Confederate,” because “he fought for slavery. You don’t get to put an ‘ex’ in front of that,” Atticus replies that, “Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish them, and overlook their flaws.”

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Coming as it does in the first minutes of the first episode, this assertion initially felt like a lame, mealy-mouthed defense, and Atticus doesn’t really speak the line with much conviction—it feels as though, more than anything, he’s trying to convince himself. “The flaws are still there,” the woman points out. “Yeah, they are,” Atticus concedes. On reflection, however—and on re-watching the episode—it strikes me that Atticus’ words, here at the outset, articulate a key theme of the series. For one thing, it becomes obvious that he’s talking as much about his father as about his beloved pulp stories—over the course of “Sundown,” we learn that his father Montrose is an abusive alcoholic who was himself abused by his father, but also that he loved Atticus deeply, even if he couldn’t express it—and that his loathing of Atticus’ pulp fiction addiction was of a piece with his rage at Atticus’ enlistment. Why give yourself over to these people who hate you? Why read fiction that extols whiteness and vilifies blackness? Why fight for a nation that makes you a second-class citizen?

While Atticus is an admirably nuanced and well-realized character in the novel—and Jonathan Majors’ performance so far promises to be extraordinary—he is also Lovecraft Country’s central conceit; that is to say, his love of fiction that doesn’t love him back, but which nevertheless resonates with him, is a poignant metaphor for the contradictions of the American Experiment. “In the beginning was not only the word,” wrote Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, “but its contradiction.” That contradiction is baked into the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, slave-owner. Black scholars and thinkers, from Frederick Douglass to Ellison to Toni Morrison, have long pointed out this contradiction between the promise of America and its practice, and demanded that the promise be fulfilled.

[It was at this moment in the drafting of this post that I abandoned the laptop and worked longhand, as I usually do when trying to work through ideas that aren’t easily gelling; I filled a few pages of a legal pad with several attempts to speak to the larger issues concerning race that have been brought to the fore in the past few months, and how Lovecraft Country bears on them. I have chosen discretion over valour, however, because (1) I want to get this post done in a relatively timely manner, and am loath to articulate thoughts on such topics not fully baked; and (2) I don’t want this post to be Tolstoy-length. Suffice to say, TL;DR: the timing of Lovecraft Country airing now is serendipitous, not least because we just saw the historic nomination of Kamala Harris as the VP candidate.]

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Aunjanue Ellis as Hippolyta and Courtney B. Vance as George Freeman.

“Sundown” does an admirable job of establishing the world of the story and introducing its main characters: in addition to Atticus as his uncle George, there’s George’s wife Hippolyta, and their daughter Diana, who has her own genre obsession—she draws comics featuring heroic characters. George and Hippolyta publish The Safe Negro Travel Guide, which lists towns, restaurants, and hotels that are Black-friendly. And if that publication sounds familiar, well, that’s because it’s based on the historical Green Book, which, as it happens, had its own movie not long ago. Writing for NPR, Glen Weldon lists the similarities and differences between the movie and the series:

Here is a list of things that the HBO series Lovecraft Country, premiering Sunday, August 16th, has in common with the 2018 film Green Book:

  1. Setting: Jim Crow-era America
  2. Acting: Subtle, nuanced performances (Viggo Mortensen’s dese-and-dose Green Book gangster notwithstanding).
  3. Subject: Story features a road trip involving a travel guidebook written to inform Black people where they can safely eat and stay. (Green Book: Entire film; Lovecraft Country: Opening episodes only.)

And here is a brief, incomplete list of the things that Lovecraft Country prominently features that Green Book emphatically does not:

1. A story centered on the lives of Black characters.
2. Black characters with agency, absent any White Savior narrative.
3. Shoggoths.

The second list is key: though Matt Ruff, author of Lovecraft Country, is white, he scrupulously avoids injecting white characters into the story to act as saviours. Indeed, Atticus’ name is a wry nod to the longtime liberal custom of telling nominally anti-racist stories in which victimized Black characters are saved through the intervention of a virtuous white protagonist—the veritable archetype for this character being Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, immortalized in Gregory Peck’s performance in the film adaptation. Green Book was only one of the most recent examples of this tendency, mercifully eschewed by Lovecraft Country.

But to get back to the characters: we also meet Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), who ends up hitting the road with Atticus and George as they go looking for Atticus’ missing father. And we also briefly encounter Letitia’s older sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), who doesn’t figure much into this episode, but, assuming the series remains faithful to the novel, will have a more significant role later.

We do not, unfortunately, meet Atticus’ father Montrose, but I’m fairly sure he’ll show up in episode two (Omar comin’!).

At issue in this episode, and in the series more generally, is Atticus’ genealogy: he has returned home from Florida, where he’s been living since his discharge from the army, because of a letter from his father. Montrose wrote to say he’d discovered something about Atticus’ late mother’s ancestry, which was somehow related to a Massachusetts town called Ardham. Atticus, with understandable perplexity, initially reads as “Arkham” until George corrects him. One way or another, however, as Atticus observes, their search is going to take them deep into “Lovecraft country”—both literally, in terms of the New England countryside in which Lovecraft set much of his fiction; and figuratively, insofar as they encounter the virulent, violent racism of a sheriff who informs them that Devon County—in which Ardham is supposedly located—is a “sundown country,” meaning that unless they can remove themselves beyond its borders by sundown, the sheriff will hang them.

Sundown towns were distressingly common, and were actually quite prevalent throughout the northern states. The consequences might not be as extreme as lynching—though that was not unheard of—but would certainly be violent. Hence the need for a motorists’ guide that would inform Black travelers about which such towns to avoid (one criticism leveled at Green Book is that it elides the fact that the north was actually worse for sundown towns, and that New Jersey—tacitly depicted in the film as friendly territory—was particularly inhospitable, and that Viggo Mortensen’s character, the driver hired to chauffeur Mahershala Ali for his concert tour, only starts to consult the titular green book once they enter the south).

Sundown thus obtains a dual sense of dread—the real-world, historical threat it posed Blacks in such locales, as well as the horror-story fear of the dark that comes with night. For it is when Atticus, Letitia, and George have made their way into Devon County that these two threats intersect. While stopped in the middle of a forest as they vainly search for a road that will take them to Ardham, they find themselves confronted by Sheriff Eustace Hunt, who informs them of Devon County’s unwritten sundown law. Though they manage to cross the county line with seconds to spare, they are then stopped by more police. Sheriff Eustace, it seemed, called ahead. They are taken into the forest, forced to lie prone on their bellies, and accused of a string of burglaries while the cops hold shotguns to their heads. And then …

Well, then is when “Lovecraft country” becomes actually Lovecraftian, as they are all attacked by the aforementioned Shoggoths. Shoggoths, for those unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s fiction, are monstrous, amoebic blobs, dotted with many eyes. Or, as described in At the Mountains of Madness:

It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.

The shoggoths of Lovecraft Country aren’t quite so blob-like as they are huge, hound-like beasts with round mouths forested with teeth, and quivering slimy skin with the consistency and complexion of dead fish. They do, however, have many eyes.

shoggoth

True to its pulp roots, Lovecraft Country doesn’t aim for subtlety in its metaphors—though to be fair, neither does much of the horror genre. Monsters are always representations of the most prevalent fears and anxieties in the cultural imaginary at a given moment. And people are often the worst monsters, even when there are actual monsters present to offer comparison. Lovecraft Country is about the monstrosity of racism, so when Sheriff Eustace, having been bitten by a Shoggoth, starts to transform into one, the point hits home quite plainly.

The presence of Shoggoths—or, perhaps more accurately, the suggested analogy between their beasts and the malevolent blobs of Lovecraft’s imagining—might also be read as a subtle dig at Lovecraft. In At the Mountains of Madness, the Miskatonic University exploratory team of scientists finds in Antarctica an ancient city of “cyclopean” proportions (one of Lovecraft’s favourite adjectives, meaning enormous). The city had been built by the Old Ones, ancient god-like alien creatures (like Cthulhu) who predated human existence on Earth. The shoggoths were created as a slave race to serve them, but ultimately rose up against their masters and destroyed them. Though the series is mostly faithful to the novel, some of the names have been changed: Atticus’ surname in the series is Freeman (with all of the significance that obtains), but in the novel it’s Turner—an allusion to Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. Also, when looking for news of his father, Atticus goes to the bar that was his habitual haunt—which is named Denmark Vesey’s Bar. Denmark Vesey was a free Black man who was executed in 1822 on the charge of planning a slave rebellion.

It takes “Sundown” some time before the supernatural elements intrude—we’re four-fifths of the way in when the Shoggoths appear—but the narrative and thematic build makes it worth the wait. Perhaps the most poignant sequence is a montage of our three heroes driving from the Midwest to Massachusetts—a montage scored not to music, but by a speech delivered by writer James Baldwin in 1965 at Cambridge University. The speech was Baldwin’s rebuttal to William F. Buckley in a debate over the proposition “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” It is worth watching in its entirety, or else reading the transcript.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baldwin won the debate resoundingly.

As we hear Baldwin’s eloquent and mellifluous words, we see images of Atticus, Letitia, and George at various points in their road trip, and we see images of a segregated America. At key moments, the mise-en-scène precisely echoes photographs by Gordon Parks, a Black photographer who, among other subjects, chronicled segregation in Jim Crow America.

gordon parks

On the left: Gordon Parks’ photography. On the right: stills from Lovecraft Country.

One of the most infuriating moments comes when, as they’re paused at a gas station, a skinny white boy mocks Atticus—who is eating a banana—by making monkey noises. Atticus looks threatening for a moment, but Letitia holds him back. Atticus settles for throwing the banana peel in the asshole’s face, which only evokes more laughter from him and his friends—secure in their societally sanctioned safety, in spite of the fact that the impressively muscled, combat veteran Atticus could likely snap the boy in two with no great effort.

As they pull away from the station, we see a billboard advertising Aunt Jemima across the street.

aunt jemima

I think I’ll end this post here, not because I’ve run out of things to say, but because I could go on and on. The ending of the episode sets us up for the next one, so I’ll talk about that some time next week.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on here.

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Some preliminary thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft before I post about Lovecraft Country

lovecraft countryI’ve taught the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft twice now: first in a second-year introduction to science fiction and fantasy, in which I paired up “classic” texts with more contemporary ones (Lovecraft I counterpoised with short fiction by China Miéville), and more extensively in a fourth-year seminar I called “The American Weird.” In the latter, we spent three weeks of a twelve-week semester looking specifically at Lovecraft’s short fiction, as well as his novella At the Mountains of Madness. And then we looked at authors who have been influenced by Lovecraft (Stephen King, for example), or who more specifically engage critically with Lovecraft’s tropes, preoccupations, and, importantly, his racism. One of the latter texts was a novella by Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom, which is a retelling of Lovecraft’s hella racist story (even for him) “The Horror at Red Hook,” from the perspective of a Black protagonist.

One of the other texts in the latter category was Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country.

Lovecraft Country NovelLovecraft Country was easily a class favourite—which was something of a relief, as it was easily my favourite, and indeed one of the reasons I’d conceived of the course in the first place. So when HBO announced that Jordan Peele would be producing a series based on the novel, I was about as excited as I’d been ten years ago about Game of Thrones. The fact that one of the main characters was slated to be played by Michael K. Williams, aka Omar from The Wire, was just icing on the cake.

And after what seemed an interminable interlude, the series premiered this week.

I’m mulling whether I want to do episode-by-episode posts, á là my GoT posts with Nikki (except sans Nikki, unless she wants in). This may or may not happen. But I cannot let the first episode go by without airing my thoughts.

However … I won’t be talking about the first episode in this post. I’d originally thought I should have a brief little primer on H.P. Lovecraft, so as to better get into what Lovecraft Country is doing.

But, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I don’t do brief. And so I’ll be doing a second post in a day or two on the episode—this one is a more in-depth discussion of Lovecraft than I’d intended.

lovecraft

Lovecraft, it needs to be said, is something of an odd literary figure, insofar as he was an objectively terrible writer, both in terms of his prose and his storytelling, who ended up exerting an outsized influence on horror and its overlapping genres of science fiction and fantasy. When I said as much in my SF/F survey class, one student protested, saying he didn’t think there was anything particularly bad about Lovecraft’s prose. “Well, try this,” I suggested. “When you go home, read some of his sentences out loud, and we’ll revisit this next class.” Sure enough, next class the student sheepishly admitted that , when reading Lovecraft’s sentences aloud, he could not get past how wordy and awkward and clunky so many of them are.

Lugubrious is the word I would use, and pretentious in the manner of someone who wants to demonstrate a large vocabulary without really knowing how. Take, for example, the opening sentence of At the Mountains of Madness: “I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why.” While not one of his more egregious constructions—I’ll get to one of those in a moment—it is typical of Lovecraft’s typically forced cadences. “I am forced into speech” is precisely the kind of phrasing that earns my students an “awk.” in the margins, indicating that, while not technically incorrect grammatically, is still quite awkward and should be rethought. “Regrettably, circumstances compel me to speak, “ or “I must, reluctantly, speak up,” would be improvements, but not great ones; better to start with the reason why the narrator is “forced,” with something like, “The refusal of my fellow scientists to listen to me has left my no choice but to speak up.” Again, not elegant, but clearer: “men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why” is a little confusing, as the “why” is too vague—and also, how often are we likely to follow someone’s advice when we don’t know why we should?

Perhaps this seems nitpicky, and it is, but such phrasing and sentence structure is pervasive throughout Lovecraft’s corpus. The opening sentence of Mountains is more or less inoffensive, but then the second paragraph gives us this behemoth:

In the end I rely on the judgment and standing of the few scientific leaders who have, on the one hand, insufficient independence of thought to weigh my data on its own hideously convincing merits or in the light of certain primordial and highly baffling myth-cycles, and on the other hand, sufficient influence to deter the exploring world in general from my rash and overambitious programme in the region of those mountains of madness.

Woof. I won’t parse all that—that would take too long, and I have other old gods to fry—but perhaps you get a sense of Lovecraft’s prose, and why readers with a low threshold for bad writing wouldn’t get more than a few sentences into his fiction before tossing it aside and writing Lovecraft off as merely a “pulp” writer.

Well, to be fair, he was a pulp writer, one of the many whose often lurid stories were published in cheap paperbacks and magazines; but out of that milieu came a handful of authors who gave us some persistent and enduring—albeit deeply problematic—characters and stories. Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian, and with him a strain of proto-fantasy that resisted gentrification by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Edgar Rice Burroughs—whom Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) is reading at the start of Lovecraft Country—wrote all the John Carter of Mars novels, as well as numerous other SF works, but also created Tarzan. And though he was not in quite the same milieu, Englishman H. Rider Haggard invented the archaeological adventure story with novels like King Solomon’s Mines and She, without which we would not have Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider.

And then there’s Lovecraft, who despite his poor writing and shaky storytelling, profoundly influenced a generation of horror novelists and filmmakers. Unlike Howard and Burroughs, he did not have any memorable characters (unless you count the old god Cthulhu, but more on that below). What is so compelling about Lovecraft? His “mythos”—which imagined a malevolent universe populated by old gods and monsters that exist beyond the capacity of science and reason to comprehend them; much of his fiction is preoccupied with what happens when we mere mortals accidentally stumble into their ken. Spoiler alert: it never goes well for we mortals, who, if we’re lucky, are merely killed; the unlucky go mad, and the unluckiest somehow keep our minds but live with the crushing existential dread of knowing a cosmic truth that haunts us. Or as Lovecraft puts it at the start of “The Call of Cthulhu”:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

The “Cthulhu” in question is the old god that became central to Lovecraft’s mythos, to the point that it is now called the “Cthulhu Mythos.” It is a hideous, enormous tentacular horror that stalked the earth in its pre-pre-prehistorical days, but now lies slumbering beneath the earth. Its dreams infect the sensitive and give them visions of madness, or on occasion drive them actually mad. And, as chronicled in the story “The Call of Cthulhu,” sometimes tectonic events will drive his lair above the sea’s surface—at which point, eldritch hijinks ensue.

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(If you want a rather hilarious rundown of Cthulhu &co.’s origin story, read Neil Gaiman’s “I, Cthulhu,” in which the old god in question recounts his tale in a fireside chat).

Lovecraft, a native New Englander, was deeply influenced by his home’s geography and its history. The vast majority of his fiction is based in, or connected to, a constellation of fictional small towns in Massachusetts—the principal one being Arkham, which houses Miskatonic University, with which many of his protagonists are affiliated. Beyond providing its geography, Lovecraft’s mythos is rooted in the region’s theocratic history: as has been discussed by a significant number of scholars, Lovecraft’s fiction is deeply influenced by the fire-and-brimstone Calvinism of New England’s Puritan settlers, in which humans are characterized as pitiful insects before God, whose only worth is to grovel before his greatness in the vain hope that he might grant salvation. The Cthulhu Mythos articulates this sort of Puritan self-abnegation, but without the hope of salvation—Lovecraft was a militant atheist, and took from the Puritan legacy mortals’ meaninglessness, without the hope.

Those unfamiliar with Lovecraft but steeped in the DC comics universe (though honestly I can’t imagine there are many of you in that particular Venn diagram) probably heard a bell go off at the name “Arkham.” Because, yes—the notorious Arkham Asylum of Batman and other Gotham-related tales is an overt reference to Lovecraft. The giant squid Ozymandias uses to destroy New York at the end of Watchmen is a nod to Cthulhu. The shape-shifting alien of The Thing is totally Lovecraftian. The xenomorph of the Alien franchise owes its existence to Lovecraft’s legacy. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is more indebted to Lovecraft than to Bram Stoker–its spinoff Angel perhaps even more so. As does, as I have written at some length, The Cabin in the Woods. And, well, I wouldn’t necessarily say Stephen King wouldn’t have a career without Lovecraft—but it would have been a very different career. To take just one example, It is probably the most Lovecraftian story there has been outside Lovecraft himself.

I could go on, but you probably get the point. Nobody will ever laud Lovecraft for his art, which is fair, but like a handful of his pulp compatriots, he has created compelling tropes that have lodged themselves in our collective imagination. But also like those of Burroughs and Howard and Haggard, they are deeply problematic. Conan the Barbarian is a veritable distillation of masculine characteristics that in the present moment we call toxic; H. Rider Haggard both traded on and furthered colonialist, racist representations of Africa and Africans as barbaric and hypersexualized; Burroughs did the same with Tarzan. In an early scene of “Sundown,” the first episode of Lovecraft Country, Atticus walks down a country road with an older Black woman after their bus had suffered a breakdown, and they were refused a ride in the pickup truck that came for them. When she asks him about the book he’s been reading, Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, Atticus describes the travails of its hero John Carter. “Wait,” she interrupts him. “He’s a Confederate officer?” “Ex-confederate,” Atticus corrects her, but she’s having none of it. “He fought for slavery,” she says. “You don’t get to put an ‘ex’ in front of that.”

It’s a brief exchange, but a sharp one, and part of the point of Lovecraft Country is to interrogate Lovecraft’s legacy and influence—for, as I mentioned at the start of this post, Lovecraft was a virulent racist, and that racism informed his writing. China Miéville puts it quite well in his introduction to the Modern Library edition of At the Mountains of Madness:

Lovecraft was notoriously not only an elitist and a reactionary, but a bilious and lifelong racist. His idiot and disgraceful pronouncements on racial themes range from pompous pseudoscience—“The Negro is fundamentally the biologically inferior of all White and even Mongolian races”—to monstrous endorsements—“[Hitler’s] vision is … romantic and immature … yet that cannot blind us to the honest rightness of the man’s basic urge … I know he’s a clown, but by God, I like the boy!” This was written before the Holocaust, but Hitler’s attitudes were no secret, and the terrible threat he represented was stressed by many. (Lovecraft’s letter was written some months after Hitler had become chancellor). So while Lovecraft is here not overtly supporting genocide, he is hardly off the hook.

As Miéville notes, one of the common defenses offered of Lovecraft’s racism and anti-Semitism is that, well, that was what things were like at that time. As one of my students said, “It was the 1920s and 30s. Everyone was racist then.” To which I responded, well, no. There were actively antiracist white people then, and there were racists, but then there were also RACISTS—the lower-case group being people who did not question the overt societal ethos of white supremacy, and thought that Hitler fellow perfectly dreadful, but did not otherwise give it much thought; and then the latter, which were the Lovecrafts of the world—people actively and vocally championing white supremacy and superiority, opining at length on the inferiority of darker-skinned peoples, who saw in Hitler a brave and honest truth-teller, and who—like Lovecraft—endorsed eugenics and phrenology. So, no … Lovecraft was not merely “of his time” where his racial animus was concerned; he was in the vanguard.

(That being said, I get a bit squirrelly in making this distinction, because part of the cognitive dissonance of our present moment has proceeded from the tacit assumption that only all-caps racism is truly pernicious, or for that matter is the only real racism—that if you’re not hurling the N-word at Black people, or burning crosses, or otherwise behaving like every southern sheriff in every Hollywood movie about racism, then the charge is unfair. And when we’ve come to associate the terms “racism” and “racist” with those extreme behaviours, it makes it difficult for white people to make an honest reckoning with systemic racism and our complicity in it).

Lovecraft is thus an interesting figure to consider in our present moment of racial and historical reckoning, when such literal edifices as statues and monuments memorializing figures and events associated with slavery and institutional racism are being brought down. It’s easy enough to endorse the removal of Confederate monuments; it gets more complicated when the legacies and histories of the people memorialized are themselves more complicated. Does the authoring of the Declaration of Independence give slave-owning Thomas Jefferson a pass? Does Winston Churchill’s leadership during WWII outweigh his lethal policies in India?

Lovecraft had his own moment of statuary removal several years ago. Since 1975, the World Fantasy Award—along with such SF/F awards as the Hugo and Nebula— has been one of the most prestigious honours in the world of genre fiction. The very first awards were bestowed at the World Fantasy Convention, held in 1975 in HP Lovecraft’s home city of Providence, Rhode Island. In Lovecraft’s honour, the statuette was a stylized, elongated bust of his face—and so it remained for the next four decades.

As SF/F has become less and less the near-exclusive territory of white male authors, and grown to include more diverse writership and readership, the predictable backlashes have occurred—not least of which being the campaign by the so-called “Sad Puppies,” who were up in arms that the Hugo Awards were too woke and were eschewing “real” SF/F in favour of novels and stories written by social justice warriors. (If you want to read my rant about it at the time, click here). This was also the time of Gamergate, and—well, I don’t want to rehash that bit of asshattery, so of you’re unfamiliar, Google it. In this same time frame, there was a lot of pressure to retire the Lovecraft statuette. Authors of colour who had been awarded the “Howard,” as it is called (H.P. stands for Howard Philips) pointed out what a tainted honour it was to be lauded for their work with the visage of a man who considered them less than human.

And so the Howard was retired, and a new trophy was created, with all of the predictable hue and cry from those who, anticipating the protests about Confederate statues, called the retirement of the Howard an erasure of history—and an erasure of Lovecraft’s work.

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Myself, I prefer the new trophy, and I reject the suggestion that the change is an erasure of any kind. It strikes me that what gets lost in the polarized debate about monuments and legacies and who we should memorialize is the overwhelming value of the debate itself. At the end of the day, whether or not the statue comes down, or whether or not a literary trophy gets a makeover, is at least a little bit beside the point: what I find encouraging in these moments is that arguments that have largely been had on the fringes have become more central. Do I think statues of Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill should be torn down? Actually, no—I do not. But I do think their histories and legacies need closer interrogation, and the tacit hagiography that attaches to them needs dispelling.

The same goes for those authors whose works resonate still today. Those influences are still powerful. But how we choose to be influenced, or how we critically approach the nature of that influence, is something else entirely. I’m seeing a lot of that in my current research with how fantasy as a genre is transforming what was, in its origins, a deeply conservative, reactionary, and religious sensibility, into a far more secular, humanist, and progressive one.

Not least of which are novels like Lovecraft Country, and its current adaptation on HBO.

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Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Viewing, Guilty Pleasure Edition—The Last Ship

Sometimes post-apocalyptic narratives begin with a slightly gimmicky hook, that tends to follow a formula: what if the end of the world came when [person/people] were [doing something] in [unique location]. Perhaps my favourite example of this is the BBC zombie apocalypse mini-series Dead Set, in which the survivors of the undead pandemic are the contestants on Big Brother—sealed in their closed set, they are initially oblivious to the carnage happening beyond their walls.

Now, I might have more to say about Dead Set in a future post, as I consider it one of the finest examples of the zombie genre, and it is an extremely smart and trenchant critique of celebrity culture. But that is not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about a television series that is perhaps the most flagrantly jingoistic apologia for the American military I have ever seen, the most emotionally manipulative paean to honour and duty since A Few Good Men, and the most overt recruitment ad for the Navy since Top Gun: the series The Last Ship.

last-shipReader, I loved it. And I am very conflicted about that fact, given that it genuinely is little more than five seasons worth of U.S. Navy propaganda. Hence the designation “guilty pleasure” in my title, in spite of the fact that I have long believed one should not ever feel guilty about the reading and viewing in which you take pleasure.

(Unless it’s Twilight. Because seriously, fuck that shit).

To plug in the variables in my above formula, The Last Ship’s premise is that the end of the world in the form of a virulent strain of flu comes when the sailors and soldiers on the missile destroyer U.S.S. Nathan James are on a four-month radio-silence mission in the Arctic. Unbeknownst to the captain and crew, the scientists whom they’ve been transporting have been tasked with finding the “primordial strain” of a virus that is tearing through the Middle East. The mission the ship is on is little more than a cover for the scientists’ work. The captain and crew have no idea, because radio silence, that the United States has, in the four months since they put to sea, been savaged by the illness. They only realize that something is hinky when they’re attacked by Russians intent on kidnapping the lead doctor and taking her samples. What follows is a battle sequence that fetishizes the kind of high-tech violence a top-of-the-line missile destroyer can unleash, and which sets the tone for the way the series will unfold.

You get the idea.

To be clear, the Russian attack, and the subsequent revelation of the doctors’ true mission and the truth about the global pandemic unfolds in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode. Whatever the series’ flaws, economy in storytelling is not one of them, except for the requisite sequence that seems to happen in every episode when throbbing, sad music plays over a montage of (a) sailors mourning the death of a comrade, (b) the captain looking tormented by the difficult choices he has had to make, (c) stoic sailors and soldiers carrying on in their duties in spite of the difficulty/pain/trauma, or (d) quite often, all of the above. The captain is played by Eric Dane (aka McSteamy from Grey’s Anatomy), and his second-in-command by Adam Baldwin (aka Jayne from Firefly, aka Mr. Gamergate, aka another reason I’m conflicted about the series), and they are all about honour, naval tradition, and square-jawed stoicism in the face of adversity.

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What’s interesting about The Last Ship in the broader context of pandemic/post-apocalyptic narratives is that it’s something of an outlier: the more common tendency is to depict societal institutions failing and collapsing when confronted with catastrophe. The brilliant pilot episode of The Walking Dead memorably depicts military barricades littered with corpses, and tanks and armoured vehicles sitting forlorn and empty, having proved useless in the face of the onslaught of the undead. World War Z shares in a very slight degree with The Last Ship a faith in military ingenuity, but that only happens after the U.S. Army fails spectacularly to stem the zombie tide, and is only efficacious when it learns to reinvent itself. The Last Ship, by contrast, presents the Navy as it is as the bulwark against chaos, not only in its aforementioned fetishization of advanced weaponry, but in its valorization of longstanding naval tradition. The very stubborn refusal to change or compromise is explicitly framed as a virtue, which, indeed, is in keeping with naval tradition more generally (in the U.S. military, the Navy tends to be the most conservative branch, resistant to change; by contrast, the Marines, who rely on the Navy for their budget and equipment, tend to be the most improvisational, as they traditionally have always had to do more with less).

Over its five seasons, The Last Ship indulges in increasingly more ludicrous plot arcs, but in its early stages comprises some pretty decent, taut storytelling (aside from the aforementioned portentous montages), and speaks to some of the issues I’ve raised in recent posts about narratives dealing with the aftermath of catastrophe and the rebuilding of society. The idea of America persists (because of course it does) in The Last Ship, but is at various points tenuous—the Nathan James returns home with a vaccine and a cure for the virus (because of course it does), but also has to contend with the breakdown of governance and the difficulty of re-establishing a republic after the descent into Hobbesian chaos. The series features the kind of regional fracturing I mentioned in my last post, with regional governors being initially amenable to a central government and the swearing-in of a president (á là Designated Survivor, the sole surviving member of the presidential line of succession is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development), only to later become more obstreperous and unwilling to accept presidential authority, culminating in a conspiracy to (successfully) assassinate the president, and (unsuccessfully) eliminate the federal government and wall off the regional authorities from one another.

And what is the glue that finally holds the battered nation together? Duty and honour, as our naval heroes remind their army comrades—who have come under the command of the conspirators—what their oath to the Constitution entails.

I may have rolled my eyes a little at that part. But I was also enthusiastically eating my (figurative) popcorn.

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Isolated Thoughts: The Exquisite Agony of Watching The Plot Against America

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Plot Against America, both the novel and the mini-series.

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One of the most affecting scenes in HBO’s mini-series The Plot Against America, adapted by David Simon (The Wire, Treme) from the novel by Philip Roth, is also one of the most painful to watch. It comes at the end of the second episode, as the Levins, a Jewish family in the Weeqhahic neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey, sit around the radio listening to the general election returns of 1940. Having successfully gained the Republican nomination, Charles Lindbergh—hero aviator, isolationist, avowed anti-Semite, and Nazi sympathizer—is, against all expectations, defeating the incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It is an agonizing moment of narrative inevitability. We know Lindbergh will win, of course, as that is the basic premise of the story. But as the crackling voice on the radio calls states for Lindbergh, we see the incredulity on the face of father Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) and his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan). Up until this point, the impossibility of a Lindbergh victory has been a point of faith for Herman. Bess had her doubts, but took comfort in Herman’s certainty. Now, as the reality of a Lindbergh presidency sinks in, incredulity turns to fear.

It is a beautifully crafted bit of televisual art, and utterly painful to watch on three levels. First is the level of story, as we empathize with the fear and confusion of the Levins. Second is the level of history, as the moment punctures the safety and comfort of a certain idea of America and introduces into the Levin’s living room the dread and threat we normally associate with such households in 1930s Europe. And third is on the level of memory: it is impossible to watch this scene, as is by design, without remembering the same sense of incredulity and despair that came with watching Donald Trump eke out a victory in a handful of key states.

David Simon had first been approached about adapting Plot in 2013, but was preoccupied with other projects. After November 2016, however, a story about a barnstorming celebrity with racist views and sympathy for dictators winning an unlikely presidential election suddenly had new and frighteningly immediate relevance.

 

The Prophetic Plot

I first read Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America when it first came out in 2004. I was at that point on something of a year-long Philip Roth reading binge, having neglected his fiction prior to then, but realizing that if I meant to fashion myself as an academic specializing in 20th Century American literature, especially postwar fiction, then not having read any Roth comprised a significant lacuna in my reading (for those less familiar with Roth and his prolific output, I just counted: I have read eighteen Roth novels, which means I have left eleven works in his corpus unread).

plot against americaPlot is an alternative history imagining a United States in which Charles Lindbergh runs for the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, and proceeds, against all odds and expectations, to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the general election. Lindbergh does so by exploiting his celebrity, which was at the time considerable; his campaign essentially comprises him flying from city to city and town to town in his iconic airplane, landing to cheering crowds who are often (at first) simply excited to see the national hero as opposed to being enthusiastic about his message. Lindbergh then delivers a short, rousing stump speech before climbing back in the cockpit and flying to his next campaign stop. He adopts the isolationist rhetoric of the day—“America First”—of which he was historically an enthusiastic proponent, and frames the electoral choice in stark terms of a vote for Lindbergh or a vote for war. Following his surprising victory, Lindbergh reverses all of FDR’s policies giving aid and support to Great Britain, and establishes America’s neutrality in no uncertain terms—all while making his admiration for Hitler and the Third Reich obvious, with a surprise diplomatic visit to Germany and hosting Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at a state dinner. And unsurprisingly, Lindbergh’s friendliness with the Nazis gives license for American racism and anti-Semitism to flourish.

When Plot first came out, it was at the height—or, if you like, the nadir—of George W. Bush’s tenure as president, little more than a month before his reelection. Common wisdom at the time was that the novel allegorized the Bush Administration’s divisive politics, the post-9/11 rollback of civil liberties, and the ramped-up racism against Muslims. Roth himself always denied in interviews that there was anything in his novel specifically attacking Bush et al, and many reviewers and critics assumed her was just being coy.

Personally, I was never sure. Plot always felt to me like Roth being Roth, offering a thought experiment not meant as allegory so much as broader historical critique. You could see Rumsfeld and Cheney in the novel’s pages if you squinted hard enough, but it was never a perfect fit.

And then twelve years later when Trump was elected, everybody realized: The Plot Against America wasn’t a political allegory. It was a goddammed prophecy.

 

American Inevitability

I’ve taught The Plot Against America three times now. The first time was seven or eight years ago, and I was frustrated that my students seemed more or less indifferent to the novel. Nobody much wanted to engage with it, or had much to say in class discussion, and the energy in the room when we covered it was pretty flat. It was disappointing, as it always is when you teach a text you love and your students aren’t on board; but I chalked it up to the general lack of historical knowledge that has inevitably led to at least one rant in every class I teach to read more history!

Then after Trump was elected, I made the attempt two more times, thinking that of course the relevance of the novel to the present moment would inspire a more energized reaction among my students. But no—the same flat response. A colleague of mine has also attempted to teach Plot in his first-year classes, and has experienced a similar lack of interest.

My sense has always been that my students’ lack of deeper familiarity with the history in which the novel is steeped dilutes their interest in the obvious parallels to Trump and the present moment. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I wonder if the real issue is not a failure to educate recent generations about World War Two, but rather the overwhelming success of the American mythology machine. By which I mean: in the American popular imagination, as it has been primarily conditioned by Hollywood, the United States was always already the defiant enemy of Nazis and fascism. The ambivalence—and indeed, outright hostility—that a large proportion of U.S. had in the late 1930s to getting involved in another European war, while not lost to history, has been effectively erased by very nearly every single representation of World War Two to emerge from the American culture industry; so too has the fact that there was a not-insignificant number of Americans actively sympathetic to the Third Reich who advocated for an alliance with Hitler. In February of 1939, the German American Bund—an explicitly pro-Nazi organization founded in 1936—held a rally at Madison Square Gardens in New York City attended by 22,000 people. It was an event destined to go down the postwar memory hole (of everybody but historians), but it was resurrected in a seven-minute 2017 documentary titled A Night at the Garden. The film short is comprised entirely of archival footage from the event.

Notably, the HBO adaptation of The Plot Against America used an almost identical backdrop in Madison Square Gardens for the scene in which Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf—played with sublime, arrogant obliviousness by John Turturro—endorses Lindbergh for president.

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All that’s missing from Plot’s set design is the swastikas that were present in the historical rally (and by “missing,” I mean deliberately omitted for obvious reasons).

Night at the Garden

I’ll come back to this scene in Plot momentarily. Otherwise, the point I’m trying to make is that the lack of enthusiasm for the novel when I have taught it (always allowing for the fact that a given number of students will always dislike some of the assigned reading, no matter how genuinely awesome it is) almost certainly has something to do with this particular lacuna in the popular imagination of WWII. A good friend of mine once observed that Stephen Spielberg realized early in his career that Nazis make the best villains—something that I laughed at in the moment, but which stuck with me afterward. Why do Nazis make the best villains? Because the storyteller has to expend no effort to explain why they’re villains. They are, to use Northrop Frye’s repurposed geometry, overdetermined. But the corollary of that in American popular culture has always been that they are thus the necessary antithesis of Americanness, and ergo that the United States was only ever the emphatic and unequivocal enemy of the Third Reich.

In spite of the fact that Roth’s novel, with its evocation of the isolationist sentiments and de rigueur anti-Semitism of the 1930s, works hard to disrupt the prevailing popular mythology, The Plot Against America nevertheless very weirdly reinscribes certain elements of that mythology. Not in terms of content, but narrative: for all of the virtuosity of the novel, the ending always felt to me like a bit of deus ex machina. To wit: in 1942, as things in the U.S. start to devolve toward more overt fascism, Lindbergh’s plane is lost on a return flight from Kentucky to D.C. Chaos momentarily ensues, and the newly elevated Vice President Burton Wheeler—historically, someone with even greater authoritarian tendencies than Lindbergh—seizes control of the government. But when the bereaved First Lady makes an impassioned plea on the radio for Congress to remove Wheeler, instate the next person in the line of succession, and legislate a special general election for November, 1942, order is restored. Roosevelt regains the presidency; when he reverses Lindbergh’s policy of neutrality, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor … and the history we know reasserts itself, albeit a year or so later. TL;DR, the Allies are victorious and the 20th century proceeds in familiar fashion.

While I’ve always been ambivalent about the tidy way Roth ties up what was otherwise a shattering alternative history, I also cannot deny how comforting it was to get the train back on the tracks after such a dislocating narrative experience—but then again, that comfort highlights the broader problem. That problem being that, ultimately, the novel presents an American flirtation with fascism as an historical aberration, a blip on destiny’s timeline: one emerges from the novel with the sense of American democracy’s historical inevitability intact. On reflection, this sense of inevitability perhaps gives the lie to the early interpretations of Plot as a trenchant critique of the Bush Administration, given that the neoconservative ethos informing Bush et al—and which led directly to the war in Iraq—was rooted in precisely this sensibility, the conviction that American-style, market-driven liberal democracy was the logical end-point of cultural and societal evolution, and that all it would take to bring it to the troubled Middle East was depose a dictator and say “you’re a democracy now!” to the grateful locals.

Well, we saw how that went.

To be fair to Roth, at the time when Plot was published, even as it was becoming evident that the Iraq War was turning into a quagmire, the sense of American inevitability was still difficult to escape—and indeed, four years later it would underwrite much of the rhetoric employed by Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency. I should clarify here that this formulation of “American inevitability” is more or less synonymous with the concept of American Exceptionalism, given that the latter tends to be constituted within a sense of destiny—codified over a century and a half ago in the Monroe Doctrine as “Manifest Destiny,” and after the collapse of the Soviet Union by Francis Fukuyama as “the end of history” in his book of that name—not “end” as in apocalypse, but culmination. The neoconservative ethos cited above found its intellectual armature in Fukuyama’s political philosophy, which in The End of History was the perfect distillation of post-Cold War American triumphalism that characterized the U.S. as, in Bill Clinton’s phrasing, “the one indispensable nation.”

I have, these past three years, read more than one think-piece arguing that our current mess is at least partially due to the complacency of those post-Cold War years, when liberal democracy was considered so inevitable that little attention was paid to the growing illiberal tendencies of nations like Russia or Brazil. It is difficult not to see some of that complacency at work in the fact that even as historically astute a novel as The Plot Against America ultimately hews to a tacit assumption of American inevitability.

As David Simon has said in interviews about his adaptation, however, that assumption is one that is more or less impossible to make in the present moment.

 

Killing Snakes

(Just as an aside, I think I might have to do a separate post that would just be a review of Plot. Given that this post has turned into more of a political-historical consideration of the novel and the series, I’m giving short shrift to the adaptation’s virtuosity. It is a genuinely brilliant piece of televisual art, possibly the best work David Simon has done since The Wire. The evocation of 1940s New Jersey is gorgeously rendered, the writing is subtle and nuanced, and the performances are bravura—Winona Ryder continues her career’s impressive second act, portraying the shallow and needy Aunt Evelyn, older sister to Bess Levin; John Turturro is at his smarmy best as the arrogant Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who becomes a useful idiot for the Lindbergh campaign and then administration; Morgan Spector is heartbreaking as Herman, who watches all his bedrock beliefs about America exposed as illusory. But the heart of the series is Zoe Kazan as Bess, who does more with her facial expressions alone than most actors could do with a monologue. But hopefully I’ll have more to say about all that in a future post).

If a sense of American inevitability was still pervasive in 2004, and was perhaps somewhat bolstered by the Obama presidency’s unabashed embrace of American Exceptionalism (most perfectly distilled in Obama’s repeated assertion that “in no other country is my story possible”), Trump’s election and the years since have disabused us of the notion. David Simon has never been guilty of the starry-eyed vision of the U.S. informing, say, The West Wing or Hamilton. Indeed, in all of his television work, starting with Homicide: Life on the Street, through The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme, Show Me A Hero, and, most recently, The Deuce, has always been about depicting the dark side of the American Dream: the parallel and intersecting interests of the drug trade with licit American life in The Wire, for example, or the evolution of pornography into an economic juggernaut in the 1970s in The Deuce.

The consistent theme in his work has been how apathy and going along to get along corrupt institutions and leave them vulnerable to motivated and unscrupulous greed and graft. Which is not, as he says in practically every interview with him I’ve seen or read, an excuse to give up. The title of his blog, The Audacity of Despair, really kind of says it all: it’s an ironic nod to Obama’s soaring rhetoric, but not as cynical as it might seem at first glance. It contains a challenge to fight on:

[W]e were trying to figure out what the slogan was for the show, the tagline. We were struggling with it. Some things were too dead-on for the political moment, and some things weren’t on enough, and I came up with something my father said at every Passover Seder of my memory. If you opened his copy of the Haggadah, he would have it written in. And he said it: “Freedom can never be completely won, but it can be lost.” Then he would explain that, and in the explanation, I came to understand citizenship. What he would say is, self-governance is really hard. Churchill, no great liberal, nonetheless said that democracy was the worst form of government until you considered all the alternatives. It’s never perfect, it’s never perfected. There’s always someone who’s not being delivered the same promise of freedom as everyone else. There are some freedoms that get betrayed and have to be rescued. The work is never done. We will never get to the point of being able to dust off our hands and say, “Well, there it is, we finished our republic.”

Every day, you’ve gotta get up and kill snakes. Every fucking day. The day you think you’re done and you stop, or you assume that the freedoms there on the page are going to exist regardless of who’s in office, that’s the day you begin to lose it. The only way to self-govern is to say, “This is unwieldy, this is complicated, this requires perseverance, and tomorrow’s going to be the same as today.” It can often seem impossible. But what’s certain is that if you don’t do the work, you’ll lose it.

The enemy of democratic freedom, in other words—or, one of the big ones, at any rate—is complacency. In this respect, The Plot Against America is an almost uncannily perfect vehicle for Simon’s sensibility, as it offers source material specifically about how easily democracy as an institution can be corrupted by pre-existing prejudices and hatreds that need only official permission to transform from systemic to overt. In the first episode, the Levins drive to an upscale neighbourhood to look at houses—Herman has been offered a promotion that will necessitate moving. But Bess is nervous about leaving their majority-Jewish neighbourhood, and sees the suspicious glances from prospective neighbours to which Herman is oblivious. But the culminating moment, which convinces Herman to turn down the promotion and stay put, comes as they drive past a German-style beer garden where members of the Bund carouse and glare at the Jewish family as they drive past.

It is a moment that is at once eerily reminiscent of the faux-idyllic scene in Cabaret in which a Hitler Youth member sings “The Future Belongs to Me,” but also anticipates the fear and threat of the moment in the final episode when Herman watches a hooded Klansman pass in front of his car.

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The seeds, in other words, of fascistic anti-Semitism are firmly planted at the outset; but what brings the more moderate swath of the population, who might not want Jews moving into their neighbourhood but would be horrified to be accused of anti-Semitism, to vote for an avowed anti-Semite? Lindbergh’s celebrity is one factor, as is his promise to avoid war. But more effective is to flatter those people’s sensibilities, which is why one of the most interesting (and repulsive and infuriating) characters is Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. Bengelsdorf, in an oily admixture of self-importance, opportunism, and oblivious arrogance, becomes an enthusiastic apologist for Lindbergh. In a crucial moment shortly before the general election, he endorses Lindbergh at the aforementioned rally that visually echoes A Night at the Garden:

It is worth dwelling on Alvin’s words in this scene, as it is one of the points in Plot that most obviously resonates with the present moment:

HERMAN: Does any of you think one single Jew is going to go out and vote for this anti-Semite because of that stupid lying speech? What does he think he’s doing?
ALVIN: Koshering Lindbergh!
HERMAN: Koshering what?
ALVIN: They didn’t get him up there to talk to Jews! They didn’t buy him off for that. He’s up there talking to the goyim! He’s givin’ all the good Christian folks of this country their personal rabbi’s permission to vote for Lindy, and not to think themselves Nazis, or anti-Semites.

It was a source of some genuine bafflement to a handful of pundits when, at the most recent State of the Union, Donald Trump highlighted a handful of African-Americans. It has become a standard bit of political theatre at the SOTU for the president to point to specific guests in the audiences as exemplars of American virtue; that he would pack his deck with African-Americans seemed to some a transparent, but futile, bid for Black votes (especially futile considering the juxtaposition with giving Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom). But as some more astute observers pointed out, it had nothing to do with courting Black voters. It was rather a gesture aimed at white suburban voters, especially white women, who find Trump’s blatant racism distasteful but will vote for him if provided with a fig leaf. They need an excuse to vote for him, a subtlety almost certainly lost on Trump but not on his enablers.

What Philip Roth’s alternative history articulates is that hatred and authoritarian populism are easily roused with the right permission structure. What the novel papers over in its too-easy return to familiar history is that Pandora’s Box is not so easily closed: those forces unleashed by Lindbergh won’t be contained, any more than those to which Trump has given oxygen. My principal misgiving about Joe Biden’s candidacy from the start was not about his age or proclivity for gaffes, but that he campaigned on the premise that Trump is an aberration, and Biden’s election would return everything to normal.

There is no more prelapsarian “normal,” something Roth’s novel misses. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, David Simon had misgivings about the ending of The Plot Against America, which he tentatively brought to Philip Roth:

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have the courage to walk in and go, “This is what I’m going to do.” I pointed out where I thought we might have some problems with the ending and I asked him if he had any ideas. He went to that portion of the book, reread that page and a half two or three times. He kept going back and forth, and I was sitting across the coffee table from him, this great man of literature. The TV hack and the great man of literature. He’s rereading his work and he’s frowning and I’m waiting. It felt like an hour and a half, but it was probably about four minutes, and he closed the book and said, “It’s your problem now.”

Simon says he took this as tacit permission to change things. Unfortunately, that was the last time he was able to speak with Roth: the author died not too long after that meeting.

For the most part, the adaptation stays very true to the original. The major structural change is that the series has multiple perspectives, whereas the novel is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of a nine-year-old Philip Roth (for those unfamiliar with Roth’s fiction, deploying a quasi-fictional version of himself as the main character and narrator is something he has done in multiple novels; I can’t fault Simon for changing the family name to Levin, given that he’s already taken on the task of adapting the work of one of America’s preeminent novelists—depicting a nine-year-old Philip Roth would be a bridge too far for me, too). Because of this, the series can directly depict narrative sequences that, in the novel, come to us secondhand from Philip.

The most significant change Simon made, however, comes at the end. History as we know it does not reassert itself—instead, we end on election night, with Roosevelt’s election in question. The now-familiar image of Herman Levin sitting beside the radio is preceded by a montage scored to Frank Sinatra’s 1945 “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me),” a song specifically commissioned in 1945 to combat ant-Semitism:

What is America to me
A name, a map, or a flag I see
A certain word, democracy
What is America to me
The house I live in
A plot of earth, the street
The grocer and the butcher
Or the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That’s America to me

While Sinatra croons, we end the series with images of people being denied at the polls, of ballots being stolen and burned, and, in one case, a voting machine being carted away. “What’s wrong with it?” someone calls, and is curtly told, “It’s broken.” The voters featured in the sequence are predominantly African-American, or blue-collar Italian or Jewish, those most likely to vote for FDR. It’s an ending that works, much more than the original would have, in this present moment. The genius of Roth’s novel is to dredge up a history that the United States goes out of its way to forget, i.e. the profound ambivalence to getting involved in what many dismissed as “a Jewish war,” and tease out of that an entirely plausible alternative; its failure is to reassure the reader that this alternative would be easily quashed, suggesting the inevitability of the American 20th century as discussed above. Where Simon’s adaptation ends is with the reminder that the fascist sympathies excited by Lindbergh would not go gently into that good night, any more than Trump-inspired nativists will disappear if he’s voted out in November.

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Filed under Isolated Thoughts, television, Trump, what I'm watching

Of zombies and rabbits

Warning: spoilers ahead for Watership Down and The Walking Dead.

Watership Down

I have done a lot of thinking and writing about zombie apocalypse and what I’ve been calling (in my as-yet unfinished scholarly articles on the topic) the “spectre of catastrophe.” So imagine my surprise when, after watching a recently-dropped limited-series show on Netflix last night, I had a weird revelation.

Much zombie apocalypse, but most especially The Walking Dead, is essentially based on Watership Down. Or, rather, not based on Richard Adams’ 1972 novel about rabbits—but the uncannily similar tropes and themes are somewhat illuminating.

This past weekend, my girlfriend and I watched all four episodes of the Netflix-BBC co-production, and quite loved it. The one major downside to this version is that the animation is quite terrible, and makes it very difficult at points to differentiate between the characters. On the upside, voice-cast is truly staggering: James McAvoy as the reluctant leader Hazel, Nicholas Hoult as the runty Fiver, whose oracular visions prompt them to flee their warren at the outset, Gemma Atterton as Clover, Olivia Colman as Strawberry, and a host of others like Daniel Kaluuya, Gemma Chan, Tom Wilkinson, Rosamund Pike, Mackenzie Crook, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (aka Simon Adebisi from Oz), and Ben Kingsley as the menacing General Woundwort. But for me the standouts were John Boyega as Bigwig, a bruiser  who has to learn subtlety, and, in one of my favourite bits of voice-casting ever, Peter Capaldi as the caustic and sarcastic seagull Keehar.

I read Watership Down when I was in high school and loved it; but I am also of the generation of children who were absolutely traumatized by the 1979 film, which doubled down on the violence and death in the novel to create an animated spectacle that I think was burned indelibly on my young cerebral cortex (even doing a Google image search made me tremble somewhat). My experience in this regard is not uncommon, given the number of parents who thought, “Oh, a cute film about bunnies,” little knowing the horror they were about to visit on their children.

watership down 1979watership down 1979 - 2

The 2018 iteration retains the novel’s sensibilities with regards to the precarious existence of prey animals, but dials back the violent visuals. It still builds tension extremely well: we are never not aware of how vulnerable the rabbits are all the time, and indeed the prologue to the first episode relates the rabbits’ creation mythology in which the sun god Frith punishes them—the earth’s original animals—for their proliferation by introducing a host of predators to cull their numbers.

So basically, they live in a word where everything wants to eat them—dogs, foxes, cats, owls, hawks, and, of course, people … and when people don’t want to eat them, they want to domesticate them and put them in cages as pets. More pernicious, however, is humanity’s rapacious need for land, which is what drives Hazel and Fiver and their small band of believers from their warren to start with. Fiver has visions of death and destruction that baffle him, but which we recognize as backhoes callously digging up the land for the construction of a new subdivision with no regard for the society of animals living below. Hazel and his tiny band of followers get out, and later on hear of the destruction from the warren’s sole survivor.

watership down 2018

But … what does this have to do with zombie apocalypse, you ask? Good question, though I will draw your attention to my above observation that everything out in the world wants to eat these rabbits. Leaving the safety of their warren and its environs, Hazel et al are exposed and endangered, and every step they take into the unknown world is one that could end suddenly with claws and teeth.

What’s important to keep in mind about Watership Down—and what I’d either forgotten in the intervening years, or (more likely) never grasped to begin with—is that it is essentially a dystopian story. It’s about the violent and capricious destruction of a society and the harrowing journey to find a new safe haven. And for all of the monsters populating that landscape, the greatest danger posed to our main characters is other rabbits—just as, in your average zombie film, the true threat isn’t from the dead but from the living.

Over its eight and a half seasons, The Walking Dead has driven this particular theme home … again and again and again. And again. My biggest beef with the storytelling in TWD is that it hasn’t done much to break from the narrative formula of zombie films: which is to say, the panic and flight following the initial outbreak, fighting one’s way through the undead hordes to sanctuary, respite within that sanctuary for a time (whether it be a mall, a military compound, a pub, or Bill Murray’s house, as in Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland, respectively), until something happens that forces you to leave and once again brave the world without. TWD reiterated this narrative season after season, always with a new safe haven (Herschel’s farm, the prison, Woodbury, Terminus, Alexandria) and a newer, badder big bad to contend with (the dead themselves, their own weaknesses and infighting, the Governor, the Wolves, cannibals, and of course Negan).*

All of which leapt to mind as I watched Watership Down. Hazel and his small band encounter two other rabbit warrens, each of which offers a chillingly dystopic vision. In the first, all of the rabbits are well-fed and welcoming, and our heroes gorge themselves on a massive pile of lettuce and leafy greens and carrots deposited nearby. It seems too good to be true, and of course it is—though only the clairvoyant Fiver sees as much, and refuses to join his fellows at the feast. Bigwig threatens Fiver, warning him not to spoil this for the others, but when he marches off in anger he finds himself caught in a wire snare—because that’s the deal at this warren, they get to live comfortable and well-fed lives, in exchange for one of their number being taken on a regular basis for the local farmer’s pot. And this has become the ethos of the warren: they reject the usual stories told by the rabbit bards that celebrate speed and cunning, instead offering sermons on the virtues of gratitude and complacency, and not questioning generosity that keeps them well-fed.

Dystopian visions of complacency range from the Lotus-Eaters of The Odyssey to Aldous Huxley’s self-medicating society in Brave New World. The devil’s bargain Richard Adams introduces in Watership Down allegorizes more explicitly the dangers of trading freedom for comfort. While there is no obvious correlative in zombie apocalypse narratives, I did think of the Terminus episodes of TWD. Desperate to find safe haven and suffering from hunger and thirst, Rick Grimes et al follow signs leading to a settlement calling itself “Terminus,” which promise safety and comfort and welcome. The promise proves to be merely a lure by which the people of Terminus draw in the unwary and proceed to kill and eat them, trading their humanity for safety and plenty (the first thing some of Grimes’ people encounter is a wholesome-looking women presiding over a grill heaped with meat).

TWD-Terminus

Ewwww.

Aside from Bigwig’s close encounter with the snare, the rabbits make their escape without much difficulty, and are joined by Strawberry (Olivia Colman), who tells them that no one in the warren makes friends because they know they might lose them to the snare. At the same time they are eager to welcome newcomers to the warren, as greater numbers lessen the chances of being taken next.

More terrifying, and more actively threatening, is the second warren—an authoritarian regime called “Efafra,” overseen by General Woundwort, in which most of the rabbits—largely females—are essentially held captive in terrified thrall to a quasi-military hierarchy sustained by Woundwort’s chosen “captains,” thuggish rabbits who take pleasure in tormenting the others. Their cruelty is its own reward, as they revel in their authority and privileges. The parallels between Woundwort and Negan, and Efafra and the Sanctuary are fairly obvious, but that likely has mostly to do with the ways in which both stories show how despotic societies are sustained by a cult of personality surrounding the leader, his willing subordinates chosen for their own talent for cruelty, and a cowed populace. Of all the threats faced by Hazel et al, greater than an entire ecosystem seemingly mobilized to snack on them is the threat of other rabbits in thrall to violence. Holly, the lone survivor of the original warren, tells one of Woundwort’s captains that he lacks “animality”—that what Efafra has done is emulate humans, and in doing so, has given up what we might call a basic rabbit-sense.

Not, perhaps, the subtlest of messages, but one that resonates strongly in a world where humans are depicted as thoughtlessly destructive, and the Efafran rabbits are genocidal, determined to exterminate any neighbouring warrens that might compete for resources. As stated above, I was struck by the critical mass of voice talent recruited for this remake, which poses the question of why remake Watership Down in the present moment (aside from Netflix’s voracious need for more and more content, of course)? There are, I have to imagine, many answers, not the least of which is the pressing need to reassess our relationship to the natural world, coupled with the apocalyptic preoccupations of so much popular culture. Richard Adams wrote Watership Down at the dawn of the environmental movement in a moment that saw the first celebration of Earth Day and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. All of the themes baked into the narrative have, sadly, only become more acute and immediate in the intervening half-century. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when a recent retelling of Adams’ story resonates with the various other catastrophic narratives I’ve been writing about.

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*To the show’s credit, it has broken this cycle since settling in Alexandria and making contact with the various other settlements in the area. Since the defeat of Negan and the Saviours this past season, TWD has opened the possibility of a more nuanced and open-ended narrative evolution.

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Slayage

So it’s been three days of Slayage, with one day left to go, and the experience has been amazing. There’s something pretty singular about attending an academic conference where everyone is intimately familiar with the core texts. Normally, the conference experience, while often rewarding, tends to have a lot of papers and presentations that are quite simply mind-numbingly boring. Not because they’re banal or poorly written/presented (though there are those), but because the balance of what people are writing on is pretty far out of your wheelhouse, or so extremely specialized that it simply has no relevance to you. Which is not to say such papers cannot be valuable–I have learned a great deal from papers on topics I never would have read were they not on a panel I was attending–just that in many cases, you find yourself playing catch-up, trying to grasp the substance of a topic with which you are unfamiliar.

The flip side of this unfamiliarity is the need, in writing your own conference paper, to include a certain amount of exposition: you need to be cognizant of the people in the room who know nothing about your topic.

But at a conference like Slayage, everyone knows everything. This is so incredibly liberating: while writing an early draft of my paper, I suddenly realized “Wait … I don’t need to outline the main plot points of The Cabin in the Woods … everyone there will have seen it!” And in some cases, know it far better than me, in spite of the fact that I watched it at least ten times through in preparing my paper.

As an aside: the building in which many of the presentations have been scheduled has an elevator that dings when its doors close … and that ding is pretty much identical to the elevators in Cabin just before they unleash ALL THE MONSTERS. I swear to you, after multiple viewings of this film, when I heard that ding the first time I nearly wet myself.

Ahem. Anyway, the point is that it’s a pretty remarkable experience to be in the company of many, many very intelligent people who are all nerding out about the same set of texts in an extremely intelligent manner. It’s what I imagine conferences must be like for James Joyce or Milton scholars, only less antagonistic. The closest I’ve come to an argument with anyone here was politely disagreeing with someone who thought that Lovecraft was just a throwaway gesture in The Cabin in the Woods.

Speaking of … I will post again tomorrow with pictures and a fuller discussion of the conference, but for now, as promised, here is my conference paper in full. Replete with many slides, because I went to the Linda Hutcheon School of Conference Presentations, which dictates that you must distract you audience from your paper’s flaws with pretty pictures.

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My paper today emerges from a broader research project that looks at a handful of contemporary fantasists who employ this genre rooted in magic and the supernatural—and which in such defining texts as The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia Chronicles is overtly religious—to articulate a specifically secular and humanist world-view. I am looking at, among others, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Richard K. Morgan, and Lev Grossman … and to this lineup, Joss Whedon is an obvious addition. What I’m arguing today is that, in The Cabin in the Woods, Whedon proceeds from an identifiably Lovecraftian mythos, rewriting it to stage a confrontation between the absolute unreason of Lovecraftian gods and the instrumental rationality of technocratic conspiracy—and in that confrontation critiquing instrumentality of both hues and asserting a humanist argument that is consonant with almost all his previous and subsequent work.

Before I start, three quick caveats: first, I don’t mention Drew Goddard. Whedon and Goddard collaborated on The Cabin in the Woods, but I just talk about Whedon here—so when you hear me say “Whedon” in relation to Cabin, please imagine “and Goddard” following in parentheses. Second, I’m using the terms science, technology, empiricism, reason, and rationality more or less interchangeably to mean “instrumental reason.” I just didn’t want to have to say “instrumental reason” repeatedly. And finally, my definition of humanism here is, by design, very loose; one of the blue-sky goals of this research is to reclaim the concept of humanism from the arid positivism of the New Atheists, and recuperate it from its savaging during the ascendancy of poststructuralism. It’s early days yet, however, so my conception of the humanism I want to champion is still evolving.

There is a video on YouTube of Joss Whedon delivering a speech upon accepting the Harvard Humanist Society’s Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism. His speech is classic Whedon: a mix of disarmingly irreverent humour and passionate advocacy, culminating in his assertion that “Faith in God means believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. We are the true believers;” true believers who, he continues, are perfectly able to “codify our moral structure, without the sky bully looking down on us telling us what to do.” What stood out for me when I first watched this speech was the apparent contradiction of Whedon’s avowed atheism and that fact that the television series that made his reputation and career is not only lousy with sky bullies, but effectively predicated on the existence of a supernatural order that includes the Christian god (and, as we learn in season six, heaven). Far from being a contradiction, however, this tension is exemplary of how in Buffy the Vampire Slayer—and just about everything else he has created—Whedon consistently pits human and humanist agency against a seemingly omniscient, omnipresent collective, both of the supernatural variety (Wolfram and Hart, the First Evil), and the technocratic (the Alliance in Firefly, the Rossum Corporation in Dollhouse).

The Cabin in the Woods is thus an interesting example, insofar as it juxtaposes the malevolent mystical collective and the conspiratorial, technocratic one. At first blush the film appears to be a retread of elements from season four of Buffy—the massive underground military operation with a paddock full of supernatural monsters, which ultimately escape with dire consequences—except that where the Initiative attempts to weaponize the supernatural, the Technicians of Cabin are in abject submission to it, employing their hyper-advanced technology in the name of carrying out a primeval blood sacrifice. To frame it more abstractly, the film merges the genres of Lovecraftian horror with that of late-twentieth century conspiracy theory.

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Top: The Initiative, Buffy season four. Bottom: The Technicians’ bunker in The Cabin in the Woods

To address the Lovecraftian dimension first: Stephen King once famously characterized H.P. Lovecraft as twentieth-century horror’s “dark and baroque prince.” China Mieville, while granting the spirit of this praise, amends it slightly to account for “the canonical nature of Lovecraft’s texts, the awed scholasticism with which his followers discuss his cosmology, and the endless recursion of his ideas and his aesthetics by the faithful” (xi). Rather than being horror’s prince, Mieville says, Lovecraft is “horror’s pope.”

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Considering Lovecraft’s vehement and vitriolic atheism, it is dubious whether he would have appreciated that moniker; on the other hand, despite his atheism, Lovecraft’s fiction articulates a mythos that is heir to the American religious visionary tradition. As Edward Ingebretsen observes, “Lovecraft writes in the traditional cadences of religious discourses” (133) that are particularly reminiscent of such fire-and-brimstone sermons as Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which notoriously centers on the image of God dangling Man by the ankles over the fires of Hell. Repeatedly, Lovecraft posits a vast and ineffable cosmos populated by godlike beings beyond the ken of humanity. He opens his story “The Call of Cthulhu,” arguably the defining text of his mythos, with the following cheerful observation:

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A key element I’ll be returning to here is the assertion of science’s absolute limitation, its helplessness in the face of those black seas of infinity. All it can serve to do is reveal to us the truly horrifying nature of existence, at which point our choices are madness or the rejection of the empiricism that brought us to this traumatizing revelation. Lovecraft’s fiction stages accidental encounters between individuals and these “horrifying vistas,” which are not the abyss of the infinite itself, but its symbolic manifestation in such Old Gods as Dagon or Cthulhu. Human existence in Lovecraft’s work is a thin scrim of ignorance in time and space, microbially insignificant next to the Old Gods.

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This figuration of vast and nigh-infinite power is essentially religious in nature—or would be but for Lovecraft’s nihilistic inversion, which situates humanity not as the focus, product, or creation of the divine, but rather as utterly incidental to it: fire and brimstone without the chance of personal salvation. Indeed, in his book The Roots of Horror in the Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Barton Levi St. Armand observes that Lovecraft articulates a bone-deep Calvinism, with its “close-reasoning logic and unyielding determinism” but without Calvinism’s “metaphysical superstructure”—or in other words, the suffering and torment of the sinner’s life without the ultimate meaning attached to either salvation or damnation.“What we are left with in Lovecraft,” he asserts, “is thus a full-fledged cosmic consciousness, without any overt religious dimension … It is, in turn, the breaking of these natural laws of time and space that produces the sublime emotions of cosmic terror that characterizes his tales” (31-32). And whatever congress his characters do have with Cthulhu or any of the other Old Gods, the result is madness unto death—or, as in the case of the story “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” a monstrous transformation that itself comprises metaphorical madness. As Ingebretsen observes, Lovecraft adopts but distorts the American visionary tradition as represented by the Mathers or Jonathan Edwards,for if “Edwards implied that cosmic terror resulted from the too-attentive love of deity, Lovecraft situates terror in the indifference of [the] malignity of the cosmos” (118). China Mieville makes a similar argument, stating that Lovecraft does in fact see “the awesome as immanent in the quotidian” just as any religiously devout individual might, but for him and his characters “there is little ecstasy there: his is a bad numinous” (xiii).

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It is not difficult to discern a distinctly Lovecraftian mythos in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the idea that humanity is adrift among multiple planes of existence, most of which are populated by demonic forces that, if they think of humanity at all, think of it as a tasty snack; and an unbroken slayer lineage that goes back to Neolithic times, which was itself first created to defend humanity from the demons that pre-existed them. This mythos was expanded as the series progressed, explored more fully in later seasons and in Angel (never more pointedly perhaps than in the death of Fred at the hands of the Old God Illyria, whose contempt for humanity and her characterization of them as “the muck at [my] feet” and “the ooze that eats itself” strongly echoes Lovecraft’s assertion of humanity’s infinitesimal insignificance). The Cabin in the Woods alludes to Lovecraft’s mythos even more overtly: humanity is at the mercy of the Ancient Ones, gods who (like Cthulhu) slumber beneath the earth, known only to the small set of secret societies that worship them.

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Illyria.

Cabin is no mere Lovecraft knockoff, however: Whedon deploys the Lovecraftian frame in an almost Miltonic manner, which is to say that it functions as a key to all mythologies, with seemingly every single horror movie trope both encompassed within, and indeed the product of, this broader mythos.

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“They’re like something from a nightmare,” says new recruit Truman as he looks on their panoptical surveillance screens at the Buckners, the zombified pain-worshipping backwoods idiots whom Dana has inadvertently summoned. “They’re something nightmares are from,” Wendy Lin corrects him gently. “Everything in our stable is a remnant of the old world. Courtesy of … you-know-who.” Wendy’s statement echoes the way in which Lovecraft’s Old Gods—specifically Cthulhu in “The Call of Cthulhu”—inflect and infect the dreams of humanity. In Lovecraft’s mythos, the Old Gods incite madness and ecstatic worship even in their sleep, giving rise to “Cthulhu cults” in the backwaters of the world, whose devotees are described as an “indescribable horde of human abnormality” (152).

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In The Cabin in the Woods, Lovecraft shares the stage however with the familiar (and it seems, at times, inescapable) trope of conspiracy. The Technicians play the role of the top-secret agency with omniscient surveillance capabilities and the seemingly infallible ability to manipulate and control unwitting victims. Situating them as adjunct to the Ancient Ones provides the film with a dual layer of critique: first and most obviously of the horror genre itself; but in juxtaposing the trope of conspiracy with that of an ancient, malevolent supernatural power, it at once draws out and negates conspiracy’s own principal symbolic force, which is the suggestion of divine or godlike powers.

To a certain extent, conspiracy as a trope has always functioned as a form of perverse theism, but that dimension became increasingly striking in the second half of the twentieth century. Don DeLillo, America’s veritable godfather of conspiracy and paranoia calls it “the new faith” (28). Scott Sanders similarly declares, “God is the original conspiracy theory,” and goes on to say that the conspiratorial world is one “governed by shadowy figures whose powers approach omniscience and omnipotence” (177). In Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud characterizes religion as essentially conspiracist in origin, comparing the figure the paranoiac to primitive societies who ascribe to their god-king persecutory powers of weather and plague; he makes an identical argument in Psychopathology of Everyday Life. And sociologist Karl Popper suggests that “the conspiracy theory of society” is simply the displacement of “a belief in gods whose whims and wills rule everything” onto the whims and wills of powerful organizations:

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Hence, conspiracy narratives themselves frequently have something of the bad numinous at their center, manifesting symbolically as the suggestion of continuity between the technological present and a magical past—which functions more broadly to rewrite history as conspiracy, with the present-day conspirators heir to their ancient predecessors. Or to quote Fredric Jameson from The Geopolitical Aesthetic, the symbolic force of conspiracy narratives “draws not on the advanced or futuristic technology of the contemporary media so much as from their endowment with an archaic past” (17).

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And here is where I want to go back to Lovecraft’s implied characterization of the numinous and science as different in kind rather than degree. Much fantasy, especially urban fantasy, either implicitly or explicitly depicts science and magic as on a continuum: in a variation on the old adage that a sufficiently advanced technology must appear as magic, the implication is that technology has the capacity to explain and replicate magic. Season four of Buffy is essentially an extended meditation on this principle.

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Angel approaches it from a slightly different perspective, with our growing knowledge of Wolfram and Hart’s inner workings: the “legalization” (if you like) of the supernatural functions similarly to rationalize and domesticate the numinous. (My favourite depiction of this is the change in season five’s opening credits, in which the musical punctuation changes from the image of badass Angel kicking in a door to harassed Angel snapping shut a legal brief).

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It is here that The Cabin in the Woods offers a subtle but substantive shift: the film appears to establish this same continuum between the empirical and supernatural, which would be doubly consonant with the trope of conspiracy as a form of displaced theism. The shift however is that the Technicians’ “archaic past” is not continuous with divine power but adjacent to it. The conspiracy evolved as subsidiary: as already mentioned, it is explicitly established as being in the service of an extant (albeit secret) theism. There is no hint of the Initiative here aside from cosmetic similarities. The Technicians do not attempt to domesticate their stable of monsters or weaponize them. The climactic slaughter that unfolds when Marty “purges” the system is superficially similar to what ultimately happens to the Initiative; but while the Initiative’s demise is an obvious allegory for the dangers of hubristically pursuing weapons technology, Marty quite literally unleashes hell.

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The significance of The Cabin in the Woods’ shift from portraying science and magic as continuous, to this absolute disjunction between them, is not to allegorize the incommensurability between instrumental reason and the numinous, but to ironically collapse them into the same imaginative space, to show reason’s thralldom to unreason not as unnatural but somehow inevitable. If the film allegorizes anything, it is that dimension of the dialectic of Enlightenment that points to how instrumental reason taken to an extreme—in effect, becoming a religion in and of itself—produces the madness of unreason. The French Revolution devolves into the Terror, exclusionary understandings of humanism facilitate race theory and slavery, the Nazis’ dictatorial technocracy produces the Holocaust, blind pursuit of quantum physics gives us Hiroshima. Perhaps it seems odd, and even perhaps offensive, to discuss a parodic genre film in these terms, but I would argue that among the many, many reasons to love the work of Joss Whedon, one of the most prominent is the fundamental antipathy and suspicion that animates all he does: antipathy to and suspicion of instrumentality, of autocratic intervention, of the collective’s need to impose its will on the village.

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The Cabin in the Woods does not end happily, but it ends with an inescapably humanist cri de coeur: Marty and Dana being literally satanic (see, there’s Joss being Miltonic again) as they declare non servium, and assert what agency they have in the face of the forces arrayed against them. The obvious argument against my claim here is that “um … they kind of killed the whole world with their petulance, there.” But I would suggest that the film’s overarching thesis is that it wasn’t Marty and Dana that brought doom—it was the ossification of instrumental reason in the service of madness. Whedon may employ Lovecraft as a foundational basis for much of his work, but he invariably asserts this elementally humanist defiance in its face, and says to both technocracy and religion “a plague on both your houses.”

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WORKS CITED

DeLillo, Don. “American Blood.” Rolling Stone 8 Dec. 1983: 21-28, 74.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Trans A.A. Brill. New York: Moffat, Yard, &co. 1918.

—. Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Trans. A. A. Brill. London: Ernest Benn, 1948.

Ingebretsen, Edward. Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

Jameson, Fredric. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1992.

Lovecraft, H.P. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Ed. S.T. Joshi. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Mieville, China. “Introduction.” At the Mountains of Madness. New York: Modern Library, 2005. xi-xxv.

Popper, Karl R. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Routledge, 1963.

Sanders, Scott. “Pynchon’s Paranoid History.” Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon. Eds. George Levine and David Leverenz. Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1976. 139-59.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. The Roots of Horror in the Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. New York: Dragon Press, 1977.

 

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Breaking Rand: Walter White as (Failed) Objectivist

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
John Rogers

Warning: spoilers for all five seasons of Breaking Bad, and mild spoilers for The Sopranos and The Wire.

The other day I saw the following meme posted in Facebook:

breaking bad canada

What I love about this isn’t just the smug Canadian schadenfreude (though I do love that, make no mistake), but the way in which this meme symbolically encapsulates the quasi-canard about the difference between Canadians and Americans. (I say “quasi” because it’s not all fiction, but I’ll get to that below). As anyone who watches Breaking Bad knows, the crisis point that comes in the very first episode is that Walter White—ostensibly mild and meek teacher of high school chemistry—receives a dire prognosis of lung cancer and, knowing that his insurance will not cover his treatments, chooses to put his expertise as a chemist to use cooking methamphetamine. Five seasons later as the show enters its endgame, Walt has long ago discarded his initial intention to make just enough cash to leave his family comfortable when he dies, and has instead risen the pinnacle of the drug world as “Heisenberg.”

What the meme highlights is that, in a context with nationally-funded health care, Breaking Bad loses its most crucial plot point, the catalyst that sends Walt on his lucrative and self-destructive path. In the early days when we were all still naïve about Walt’s character and imagined him as a nice guy forced into dire straits by American health care policy (or the lack thereof), Breaking Bad was often characterized as a trenchant critique of same. Such a reading wasn’t hurt by the fact that season two aired from March-May 2009, when the initial debates about Obamacare were in the works, and season three was just getting under way when it was passed in March 2010. And it should be said that such a reading of the show isn’t wrong by any means—just that, as we head into the final stretch, the series has proved rather more nuanced and complex.

The corollary argument to the Breaking Bad Canada meme is that, whatever his ultimate faults and crimes, Walter White would never have rediscovered ambition, excellence, and accomplishment in the Canadian system—he would have received his treatment, gone on being meek and ineffectual, a shell of a man who had traded off his original chance for wealth and power in exchange (as he tells Jesse) for a few months’ rent. He would never have learned—or relearned—personal power. He would never have risen to the top of his chosen profession, and likely would have simply been consumed by his cancer and died without ever having achieved greatness.

I call this the Ayn Rand argument.

Increasingly as I have watched the series I have come to see Walt as an ambivalent critique of Randian, and by extension, libertarian philosophy. Ambivalent for several reasons: one, however appalling Walt’s actions and behaviours have been, there remains that kernel of sympathy for him (and for many, much more than a kernel—the fact that there are legions of fans who hate Skyler because they see her as a shrew and a killjoy is at once awful and unsurprising); two, because the facts of Walt’s original dire circumstances and his health-care straitjacket are unavoidable; three, because Breaking Bad is not simplistic or straightforward in its various critiques. Like The Wire, it is a show that (to use David Simon’s phrasing) “builds toward argument.” Unlike The Wire, it is far less rooted in systemic issues and far more in character; and four, in the end Walt is himself a deeply ambivalent figure who ultimately fails (he says, hoping this argument isn’t obviated by the final episodes) as a Randian protagonist. In the end, he cannot divest himself of those personal attachments—in his case, family—that Rand repeatedly argued were impediments to greatness. The only true morality, she argued, was selfishness—and that such qualities as charity, love, generosity, spirituality, and so forth, were emphatically immoral.

My overarching argument here, then, is that Breaking Bad is among other things a wonderfully complex and shrewd critique of a broader philosophy and mindset that has enthralled a significant American constituency since … well, I want to say Reagan, but in truth it has always been around. Ayn Rand is merely a good lightning-rod for this discussion, as her novels and other writings tend to distill the go-it-alone spirit to its most absurd extremes.

My discussion proceeds in two sections: first, considering Walter White in the context of the other anti-heroes of prestige television (especially Tony Soprano); and second, looking at the Randian elements and political implications of the series.

Bear with me, I’ve been working on this one for a while.

 

A Different Species of Anti-Hero

I wrote a blog post last summer about Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama The Newsroom in the context of the other key shows in what I suppose we now call “prestige television.” To sum up: I basically observed that most of these shows, such as The Sopranos, Oz, Deadwood, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy, and so forth, reversed a long tradition in television drama insofar as they were not aspirational. That is to say, they focused on working-class, uneducated but extremely intelligent characters whose lifestyles and livings were largely based in illegality. This is in marked contrast to the legions of hospital and medical procedurals, legal dramas, and other situations and contexts that valorized education and professions that required education. From the start, television has tended to eschew working-class characters and contexts, with the handful of shows like The Honeymooners, All in the Family or King of Queens functioning as the exceptions that proved the rule. Even police procedurals tended to follow suit: for every gritty street-smart drama like NYPD Blue or Hill Street Blues, there are many shows like C.S.I., as well as any number of cop shows featuring unusually expensively-dressed and expensively-wheeled detectives (Miami Vice, anyone?).

So this shift is notable, especially considering that these new prestige shows have as a significant portion of their audiences the intelligentsia: those highly-educated and affluent people who might well have been the focus of traditional television dramas have delighted to the shrewd but unlettered machinations of Tony Soprano. Precisely why there has been this shift is uncertain, but aspirational shows like The Newsroom or Mad Men are the exceptions (though it does beg the question about just how aspirational a figure Don Draper is).

At any rate, I don’t want to rehash my original discussion. I just raise it because it occurred to me recently that Breaking Bad, while superficially possessing many of the elements and qualities of other prestige shows about illegal endeavours, is actually doing something very different—something subtly and yet crucially different, which, I want to argue, is the root of its brilliance.

Vince Gilligan famously pitched Breaking Bad as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.” That description, which seems to get quoted any time anyone writes about Breaking Bad (guilty), is wonderfully compelling and woefully inadequate, as all good synopses of complex narratives are. It was a description that held up well for the first stretch of the series but has increasingly become less than satisfactory. We have come to realize that Walter White is not a good man forced by circumstances into a series of soul-destroying choices and actions, but rather a prideful, cruel, and arrogant man who has found circumstances in which these elements of his nature can emerge and indeed flourish. He always was Scarface; his “Mr. Chips” persona was something he only reluctantly adopted.

This reversal is at the heart of Breaking Bad’s particular genius, and it is part of what sets Walter White apart from the other anti-heroes of prestige television. Had Walter come to the meth trade as a good man, honestly and genuinely exploiting his talents as a chemist (or, well, as honestly as one can in the production of illegal narcotics), we might have expected to see him become somewhat more like Tony Soprano. But he is utterly unlike Tony: he is austere where Tony is sensual and hedonistic, focused and rigid where Tony is opportunistic and improvisational, uncompromising where Tony is pragmatic. As I suggested in my previously-mentioned blog post, much of the television shows in the vein of The Sopranos are very much about the negotiation of power—they are, as Tony might say, about business, and in business, it’s all in the game (to quote another show).

Power is obviously a crucial trope in Breaking Bad, but in a significantly different manner. When, halfway through season five, Jesse Pinkman tries to convince Walt to agree to sell their hijacked methylamine, he quotes back the numbers Walt had crunched in the first season—the amount he needed to earn to provide for his family when he died of the cancer ravaging his system. At the beginning, it was three quarters of a million dollars … but as the series went on, the actual dollar value of Walt’s meth cooking became less and less significant to him. What became more important was being the best—which was why his lab assistant Gale was a threat.

(Can we have a parenthetical celebration of the actor who played Gale, David Constabile? I have seen this guy now in countless shows, and he is never anything but amazing in a quiet and competent way. Wire-heads will know him as the unctuous managing editor of the Baltimore Sun, Thomas Klebanow. Klebanow tracks well enough with the nebbish Gale, but Constabile proved he could play menacing and dangerous in the first two seasons of Damages, in which he played a corrupt cop moonlighting as a fixer and hitman).

Gale was a threat because he was a chemist almost as good as Walt, and in practical terms that meant he could potentially figure out how to replicate Walt’s formula and make Walt redundant. But as Kira Bolonik points out in an excellent article about Breaking Bad’s use of poetry generally (and Walt Whitman specifically), where Gale quotes Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” to disparage the pedantry of the lecture hall and celebrate the creativity and “magic” of the laboratory, “Walt loves being a teacher—his ego is ravenous for the applause—so he winds up swapping out Gale for the less competent Jesse, his old student and partner.” Indeed, Bolonik’s observation raises a crucial point about Walt, whose fraught relationship with Jesse Pinkman comprises one of the show’s key thematic arcs. They begin as the irascible teacher and slacker student; Walt is constantly resentful of his reliance on Jesse, and the resentment makes itself known in a steady stream of condescension, high-handedness, and outright bullying. But as the show progresses, Jesse goes from being a hapless meth head and clown to becoming the show’s moral compass. For Walt, Jesse’s presence becomes ever more important as he develops a fatherly affection—but as Bolonik points out, Jesse is more critical to Walt as audience to his brilliance. The early resentment at his reliance on Jesse becomes a different kind of resentment—a resentment born of jealousy—when Mike takes Jesse under his wing and attempts to wean him away from what he sees (rightly) as Walt’s pernicious influence.

To return to my early comparison between Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, the laconic and surly Mike Ehrmantraut could well be read as the representative figure from Tony’s world—and indeed, he would fit in well among Tony’s crew (or in the Baltimore police department). So, for that matter, would Gus Fring: both of them are businessmen in the mold of Tony Soprano, Al Swearingen, or Stringer Bell, and both of them have an instinctive distrust of Walter White … a fact that baffles Walt to no end, and deepens his resentment when Jesse starts to admire Mike. Walt’s attempts to connect with Mike are pathetic and would be comic if they weren’t played with such deliberate humourlessness. Mike’s rant at Walt early in season five, castigating him for screwing up the good thing they had going with Gus, epitomizes this conflict: as Mike points out, Walt couldn’t be satisfied with keeping his head down and working, and in the process earning far more than the initial sum he had entered the meth business to make. Somewhere along the line it became about pride, probably exacerbated by the fact that he received no thanks or praise from his new employers for his genius—just the goad of being given a lab “assistant” whose job was to make him obsolete.

It is this prideful need for praise and greatness that make both Gus and Mike leery of Walt, for they know too well it makes him erratic and unpredictable. Over its six seasons, The Sopranos was littered with the corpses of those who let personal pride and ambition interfere with Tony’s earnings—and indeed, most of Tony’s biggest crises arose when he let his own pride and petty hatreds interfere with his business. But perhaps the best analog that comes to mind is this wonderful three minutes from The Wire:

In his own, much more understated way, Avon Barksdale has a bit of Walt to him—as does his successor Marlo Stanfield—insofar as he becomes less concerned about making money than he does with having his “name ring out.” And later in the series when Marlo is warned that “prisons and graveyards, full of boys who wore the crown,” he retorts, “But they wore it.” Wearing the crown, and being seen wearing it, is the driving force for Marlo and Avon … as it becomes for Walt. Marlo’s later angry declaration that “My name is my name” finds an echo in the now notorious scene from season five of Breaking Bad:

As Shakespeare himself was fond of pointing out however, crowns are ephemeral—hence the preoccupation with the name, which is supposed to become the legacy.  One of the trailers for the final stretch of Breaking Bad, however, offers a poetic dismissal of this sentiment: it features a montage of familiar New Mexico landscapes while Walter White recites Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.”

The poem, a classic commentary on the hubris of power and empire, is eminently appropriate to Breaking Bad, especially after Walt’s speech to Jesse in the penultimate episode of season five’s first half:

The second half of season five has thus far changed this particular game: the apogee of Walt’s empire-building comes with the “say my name” scene (and the subsequent montage of him earning obscene amounts of money, with his meth spreading out far beyond New Mexico). But he has apparently relinquished his desire for empire, and given it up; the drama of the home stretch looks like it will be about the battle of wills between Walt and Hank.

That being said, that battle of wills is a direct result of Walt’s previous ambitions. Indeed, the shift in tone in the second half of season five is perhaps the most contrived plot turn Breaking Bad has offered—Walt’s sudden change of heart, his willingness to give up his empire and return to his family, all of these elements are believable but sudden after his bravura display of arrogance.

The Failed Randian Hero

Of a piece with this last clip is the bit where Walt rebukes Jesse for willingly walking away from his chance for greatness: “Jesse, this—what we do? Being the best at something? It’s a very rare thing. You don’t just toss something like that away. You want to squander that potential? Your potential? Why? To do what?” On one hand his anger at Jesse is yet another lie he tells himself, believing that he is helping Jesse realize his potential, rather than needing him around as audience to his brilliance and justification for his choices. On another hand, this self-image as being “the best” has long since displaced his need and desire for money. Walt’s obsession with product purity becomes a powerful metaphor for ideological purity. His disparagement of Jesse for giving up the opportunity to be the absolute best at something (or, more accurately, be in the best’s august presence), for instead wallowing in the morass of his conscience, resonates with Ayn Rand’s two most famous heroes, John Galt and Howard Roark—though more, perhaps with the latter, for The Fountainhead is less concerned with economic power (as Atlas Shrugged is) than with the purity and excellence of one’s craft. For Roark it is architecture; for Walt, chemistry. But in both novels, as in Breaking Bad, the protagonists seek to practice their art without the interference of lesser, weaker minds whose resentment in the face of greatness leads them to want to tear it down and domesticate it. Rand’s novels are fables of individual brilliance besieged by collective mediocrity, and both possess a certain petulant nihilism: Howard Roark blows up his masterpiece rather than allow it to be compromised, and Atlas Shrugs is basically the story of the uber-wealthy leaving the world to rack and ruin in retaliation for “socialist” policies.

In a host of ways, Walter White is nine-tenths of the perfect Ayn Rand protagonist. His initial story arc, or what we are able to glean, starts out with the ruin of a man: a high school teacher whose students contemptuously ignore him, and whose teaching salary is so paltry he is reduced to working a second job at a local car wash. To make matters worse, his brother-in-law Hank is initially presented as a bellicose, ultra-masculine man with an ultra-masculine job in the DEA. Despite the fact that Hank also works a public sector job, his salary is apparently enough to afford him and his wife a far larger and more attractive house than the one Walt shares with his wife and son. Hank clearly pities Walt, and just as clearly sees him (and treats him) as something less than a man.

Walt, it seems clear, is someone who has long been victimized because he plays by society’s written and unwritten rules and has allowed himself to be trod upon. Early on, we learn that he had been in on the ground floor of a new company while still in college, one that has since become worth billions, and which he sold his stake in because he was newly married and had a baby on the way (though the reasons why he sold become murkier as the series goes on)—again, ostensibly doing the responsible thing and playing by the rules.

It is his emergence from this cowed and put-upon bubble that forms the show’s Randian subtext. His transformation from meek Walter to drug kingpin Heisenberg sees him embracing the attitudes and behaviour that Rand’s “objectivism” celebrate: he is arrogant and uncompromising, driven by a singular pursuit of excellence and perfection, and perfectly willing to flout laws both governmental and social. When he first meets Gale and asks him how he got into the meth business, Gale replies that he is by temperament a libertarian, and he doesn’t think the government has any right to tell people what they can and cannot put in their bodies. “Consenting adults want what they want,” he says. “At least with me they’re getting exactly what they pay for.”

But Gale’s political sensibility is more anti-establishment than it is Randian (more Rand Paul than Ayn Rand, if you like), far more interested in personal exploration than personal accomplishment, something made evident in his vaguely artistic journal and his personality more generally. To again quote Bolonik, he is “a sensual, sentient, self-admitted nerd, a vegan with a passion for Italian music and horticulture, and who prides himself on his elaborate vacuum reflux/distillation system that brews the perfect cup of coffee.” Gale is self-effacing to a fault, and has no apparent desire to do more than futz about in a lab and play with chemical equations, which, so long as he makes his quotas, makes him a far more amenable master chef for Gus Fring than Walt’s demanding arrogance.

(Fring himself is a fascinating paradox of a character, the massively powerful kingpin who manages to be veritably invisible. He is the consummate businessman, and would probably make Stringer Bell rabidly jealous of the scope and reach of his empire. As already mentioned, someone like Walt is anathema to the way he does business. It is against his better judgment that he makes Walt his head meth cook, and he pays for it with suddenly increased visibility, as Walt’s blue meth makes the appearance and circulation of the product much easier for law enforcement to track. Also, Walt ends up killing him … so, y’know, doubly a poor choice).

Walt remains however a flawed Randian character because he clings to those initial reasons for getting into the meth business to begin with—namely, his wife and son. The Randian purist argues that family, friendships, romantic relationships, and love itself more broadly are impediments to success. Whereas Walt’s refusal to let Skyler and Walt Jr. (sorry, Flynn) go has provided one of the show’s most troubling conflicts. As stated above, there is a not-insignificant portion of Breaking Bad’s viewership that delights in Walt’s escalating badassery and has come to hate Skyler for spoiling the fun. This constituency of viewers has founded a handful of websites and Facebook pages, as well as numerous discussion threads in fan forums. They have been vocal enough and virulent enough that the hatred has spilled over from vilifying Skyler to attacking Anna Gunn, the actress portraying her. It has gotten bad enough that Gunn recently authored a bewildered op-ed in The New York Times asking “Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or ‘stand by her man’? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?” Vince Gilligan himself dismissed the Skyler-haters with contempt: “People are griping about Skyler White being too much of a killjoy to her meth-cooking, murdering husband? She’s telling him not to be a murderer and a guy who cooks drugs for kids. How could you have a problem with that?”

How indeed? This is still just an embryonic thought for me, but it strikes me that this fan reaction gets to the heart of Breaking Bad’s broader critique. Are the haters really angry with Skyler, or are they more frustrated with Walt for not cutting her loose? She certainly gives him ample opportunities to do so from the moment she discovers his criminal activities. Also, it is possible the irritation comes from the fact that Walt effectively flouts the expectation of genre. I would suggest this is especially the case if we consider Scarface: Tony Montana ends up alone but magnificently unrepentant in his mansion as his enemies close in on him. At this point it remains to be seen how Breaking Bad will end, though a similar catastrophic climax is presumably not out of the question. Certainly, I would have to assume that such a finale would please the fans of Badass Heisenberg.

Skyler is to my mind however the show’s most pivotal character. Even more than Jesse Pinkman, she represents something like a badly magnetized moral compass. Jesse is there to say “But … but …” at whatever the most egregious transgression has been, and to wear his guilty conscience on his sleeve while Walt buries his own (if he has one: I think there’s a decent case to be made for Walt’s sociopathic tendencies). Skyler, conversely, presents a much more complex, much more fraught study. She is both victim and accomplice, hostage and negotiator, and by the most recent episodes has had little choice but to embrace her complicity. But of course she does so at huge personal cost. Walt essentially put her in a no-win situation, in which her only options were turning him in, which at the start would have left her destitute and would have devastated her son; after a certain amount of time, she was culpable. She could have fled, but would have had to leave her son behind. What she ended up doing was at once the best and worst compromise. Unlike Walt, she and Jesse suffer genuine emotional trauma from the whole sordid mess; unlike Jesse, Skyler was one of Walt’s principal reasons for doing everything he did to start with. Jesse always had the option of telling Walt to fuck off; that option was never available to Skyler, or at least not to the same extent as it was for Jesse. As a result, Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg was unavoidably, irredeemably toxic. The cancer with which he was diagnosed in episode one became an elaborate metaphor for the disease that metastasized in the family unit he set out to save.

I’ve cited Shelley and Whitman—how about Wilde?

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

To reiterate my point, Walt’s flaw from a Randian perspective is his refusal to divest himself of emotional ties, and instead of Scarface’s meteoric rise and spectacular fall, he agrees in the end to abandon meth and return to his family. The second half of season five (so far) has seen the apogee of Heisenberg and a tentative reconciliation with Skyler—though the latter is a fragile thing, and has entailed Skyler’s final, irrevocable complicity with Walt. I think it is safe to say that Breaking Bad will not end well for anyone involved, and therein lies the rub. The easy divestment of familial and social ties in the name of personal accomplishment is a myth, and in the end I suspect Walt will indeed have killed the things he loves.

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Summer Miscellany

As always, it feels as though the Labour Day weekend has ambushed me. Somehow the summer has slipped past and I find myself staring at the date in the lower right corner of my laptop screen incredulously.

The end of summer is always a bittersweet time—bitter because, as the Starks say, winter is coming; because I look at my list of things I meant to accomplish and get depressed at just how few things are checked off—but sweet because Labour Day is, for me, New Year’s Eve. I remember walking up the hill at University College at UWO on the first day of classes in the first year of my PhD, reflecting in amazement that that day marked my twenty-second straight first day of school.

That was sixteen years ago … and the unbroken streak continues.

I’ve always loved the first weeks of the school year, even when, from grades nine to twelve, I hated school. I was always optimistic though: something about the crispness of autumnal air, the blank potential of new notebooks and pens, and seeing people whom you had (mostly) not seen since classes ended the previous spring. It wasn’t until my final year of high school that things started to work for me, when I realized (1) what I was good at, and (2) what I loved. Then university started, and I’ve never looked back. And now I still love the first weeks of school.

It occurred to me I should started including periodic round-ups on this blog. All summer long I have been reading, and as per my habit, it’s been all over the map. I’ve also been watching a lot of amazing stuff. Any one of these books or shows could have a post all to itself, but if I did that, I’d never get anything done. So here’s a brief recap of some of my summer reading and watching highlights.

death in summerBenjamin Black, A Death in Summer. Benjamin Black is the nom de plume of novelist John Banville, an identity he takes when he wants to slum it in the world of genre fiction. A Death in Summer is his fourth mystery novel (of six) starring Quirke—a middle-aged consulting pathologist who works at the Dublin morgue. As the novels progress, Quirke keeps getting embroiled in mysteries and comes to have a wary friendship with a detective named Hackett. By this fourth novel, they have become quite the double act. Quirke is a large, shambling man who was an orphan for a time at a corrupt orphanage, until he was adopted into a well-to-do Dublin family. In the present of the novels—1950s Dublin—he is a vaguely depressive widower with a laundry-list of self-destructive tendencies centered on alcohol and women (and a tendency to get caught up in murder mysteries, which isn’t always healthy for him). The novels are at once great fun and deeply depressing. They are a wonderful antidote to the tendency to romanticize Ireland as a quasi-magical land of poets and singers—Quirke’s Dublin is a grimy, parochial city, small in every sense of the word, caught up in petty moralizing and under the thumb of an autocratic Church. And because Benjamin Black is really John Banville, they are beautifully written and resist genre fiction’s formulaic tendencies. Every time I read one, I can’t help but wish the BBC would turn them into a series of TV movies—ideally, starring Liam Neeson as Quirke and Stephen Rea as Hackett.

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Orange is the New Black. At some stage I will post at greater length on this beautiful, compelling, and addictive show. I’m currently working on a short essay on Oz for a collection, and I think an exploration of the similarities and differences between these two prison dramas would be useful. Mostly the differences: Orange is a much gentler, more soulful show, more concerned with the individual stories of the many and varied women in the prison, and far less concerned (but by no means unconcerned) with the negotiations of power in a closed environment. As much as I love prestige television, it bothers me that most of the shows I watch comprise something of a boys’ club. Orange represents a significant step toward redressing that imbalance. There’s still a long way to go … but the success of this amazing series is heartening.

the-newsroom-season-2-willThe Newsroom. Speaking of boys’ clubs … Last summer I posted on the first season of Aaron Sorkin’s newest drama, echoing the complaints and criticisms the show very much deserved. It was pedantic, preachy, sententious; the female characters were caricatures; like The West Wing, The Newsroom was liberal wish fulfillment—unlike The West Wing, it was entirely lacking in nuance. This season? Well, it’s still far from perfect, but it’s obvious that Sorkin has heard his critics. It has (mercifully) abandoned its civilizing mission, and instead is actually giving us some tightly written drama. Some of it feels contrived, but it’s a damn sight better than what came before, and Sorkin is giving the women on the show something to do besides being foils for the men.

Jonathan Franzen, Farther Away. Franzen is, in my opinion, a brilliant novelist—but whenever I read his essays, I have to wonder if perhaps that is where his true talent lies. He has wonderfully lucid prose and a very engaging conversational style. Farther Away is a collection of occasional essays, reviews, and articles, many of which have to do with Franzen’s songbird obsession: to call him an avid birdwatcher is to understate the case egregiously, and it’s a testament to his writing that a hobby I find otherwise utterly uninteresting and pointless he makes fascinating. But the true soul of this book lies in his series of essays dealing with his friendship with David Foster Wallace, and coming to grips with his suicide.

David Rakoff, Fraud. I came late to the David Rakoff bandwagon—too late to properly appreciate him when he was still alive. He died a year ago, and I only really became aware of his work when I listened to a The American Life dedicated to his memory. I recognized his voice from previous episodes of This American Life, but had not been aware of him as an accomplished essayist. I read his other two collections Don’t Get Too Comfortable and Half Empty in short order after that, but resisted reading Fraud—which was his first—because I enjoyed the others so much, I wanted to save it. But I finally broke down early this summer. Rakoff’s writing is impossibly, enviably eloquent, his humour wonderfully cynical and caustic, and his observations laser-like in the way they dissect his topics. He is sort of like David Sedaris for adults.

tv-broadchurch-david-tennant-olivia-colman_1Broadchurch. What a wonderful surprise this understated British mini-series has been. The story of the murder of an eleven-year-old boy in a sleepy seaside tourist town, Broadchurch does what the British have been doing brilliantly since Dame Agatha first put pen to paper. The real drama is less about the murder itself than how the delicate skein of lies and secrets cobwebbing everyone’s everyday lives comes undone. As Hercule Poirot says in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, everyone has secrets. Broadchurch follows the classic murder-mystery playbook so subtly and deftly that when something shocking happens, the impact feels greater by a magnitude. David Tennant is wonderful as the savant-like arsehole with secrets of his own, brought in to head up the investigation; but the real triumph is Olivia Colman, who plays his long-suffering partner and subordinate, who had expected the promotion that Tennant swooped in and received in her stead. It is also a delight to see David Bradley’s late-career renaissance. You might remember him from such roles as Argus Filch in the Harry Potter films, but he also had a wonderfully crusty turn as Walder Frey on Game of Thrones. And he shows up as a conspiracy crank in Simon Pegg’s latest. Speaking of …

the-worlds-end-pub632The World’s End. I haven’t seen many movies this summer, mainly because this summer has been a veritable wasteland for film. Which was why it was lovely to go see the third film of the so-called Cornetto Trilogy. The World’s End is better than Hot Fuzz and not as good as Shaun of the Dead, but it is a highly entertaining film for anyone who (1) has a fondness for British pubs and ale, (2) came of age in the late 80s and/or early 90s, and (3) likes Simon Pegg’s particular brand of genre-based parodic comedy. Well, I scored the trifecta there. Simon Pegg’s character Gary King wheedles and cajoles his college buddies to return to their old town and recreate a failed epic pub crawl—twelve pubs culminating in “The World’s End,” the final stop they never made it to the first go-around. Except that early on they discover that the town has been taken over by robots impersonating the townsfolk in anticipation of an alien invasion. It’s basically The Stepford Wives meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except British and increasingly, howlingly drunk, all to an awesomely retro soundtrack (The Soupdragons, Pulp, Sisters of Mercy, Blur, The Housemartins? Yes, please).

Ocean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane_US_CoverNeil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The praise this slim book—really more a novella than novel—received felt excessive. This was the summer, I think, when people suddenly realized who Neil Gaiman was and were elbowing each other to get to the front of the bandwagon … while those of us who read Sandman in high school and have Good Omens in hardcover put on our thick-rimmed glasses and said “Oh, I read him before he was cool.” I did not come across a single review of this novel(la) that wasn’t slavishly complimentary. That kind of unanimity among critics is rare, and usually goes in the other direction (such as last summer’s unjustly snide and sneering reviews of The Casual Vacancy). That being said, I can’t say I disagree: I loved The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Not as much as I loved American Gods or Good Omens, but I was really impressed. Much of Gaiman’s oeuvre is lost on me, because I don’t care for children’s literature; The Graveyard Book, The Wolves in the Walls and Coraline, among others, all of which have received critical acclaim, are not books I have or will be likely to read. That being said, watching the following blurb makes me curious about his newest children’s book, Fortunately, the Milk … Perhaps it would make a nice Christmas gift for my niece and nephew.

Breaking Bad. It’s the endgame now … the first three episodes of the final stretch have successively ratcheted up the stakes and the tension. I don’t think viewers have been this obsessed about how it all ends since Lost. As I have said, I have a Breaking Bad post I’ve been working on for way too long now, so I’ll reserve further comment for it. breaking-bad-se

So … there’s my roundup. Stay tuned for upcoming posts about Breaking Bad and the law of diminishing returns in American politics, as well as updates from my classes as they happen. Happy New Year, everyone!

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Pacific Rim, or I Want the Sequel to be Set on the Grand Banks

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Giant robots know they’re cool.

Spoilers ahead.

I went to see Pacific Rim on opening night, and I’m happy to report that it was pretty much everything I’d hoped for. I enjoyed it thoroughly; what follows isn’t so much a review as a consideration of those elements that could have really benefited from closer attention to detail. Ultimately, the balance of my complaints are all concerned with narrative and story … because visually and viscerally, this film was awesome. And I mean that in the truest sense of the word.

Because really, all you need to know about Pacific Rim is that it’s giant robots fighting sea monsters. Like snakes on a plane or a sharknado, it’s a pretty unbeatable concept. It’s also a concept that, without knowing context, you’d be entirely forgiven for assuming was a Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer joint.

Except that as everyone who hasn’t been living in a cave in Nepal for the past year knows, Pacific Rim was the brainchild of Guillermo de Toro. And while his vitae does include a few less-than-stellar forays (Hellboy II, Blade II), he also gave the world Pan’s Labyrinth—which means he could also give us a shot-for-shot remake of Heaven’s Gate starring Gilbert Gottfried and Lindsay Lohan, and he’d still be forgiven. He is not unlike Ridley Scott in this respect, who gets a lifetime pass for having directed Alien and Blade Runner … but where Scott seems determined to stretch our patience to the breaking point, de Toro’s films are never irredeemable.

But de Toro is akin to Ridley Scott in another way, in that he is first and foremost a visual and not a narrative artist—and like Scott, his best work tends to happen when he marries his visual talents to an excellent script. And as much as I enjoyed Pacific Rim—and I really did enjoy it because, hello, giant robots versus sea monsters!—he was not working from anything resembling a good script for this one. We had an inkling of this from the very first trailer when Idris Elba declares “Tonight, we are cancelling the apocalypse!” Even the magnificent Elba, who has more gravitas in his little finger than a small town’s worth of motivational speakers, can’t make the line work. Cancelling the apocalypse? Really? They couldn’t come up with a better phrasing? (It does make we want to see Idris Elba play Henry V, if for no other reason than to see him deliver a well-written troops-rallying speech.) So the dialogue is mostly forgettable, and there are plot holes you could drive one of those giant robots through. But I will get to those presently.

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By now, most people know the premise, whether you’re interested in seeing the film or not: sometime in the near future, humanity comes under attack from giant, Godzilla-like alien sea monsters—which become known as “kaiju,” the Japanese word for “beast”—who enter our world through a dimensional rift in the floor of the Pacific ocean. In order to fight back, the nations of the world pool resources to build “jaegars” (German for hunter), giant robots operated by pilots who merge mentally with the machine. And here we come to a crucial pivot-point, as we learn that these mechanical monsters are simply too much for a single pilot’s neurons to deal with. The solution is to have two pilots, who mentally link with one another in a mind-meld called “the Drift.” In the Drift, they share thoughts and memories, and essentially inhabit each other’s minds. So no secrets from your co-pilot.

The film begins with all this narrated by Raleigh Becket, a hotshot jaegar pilot played by Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy fame. He and his brother Yancy operated an American jaegar called Gypsy Danger … until they were defeated by a kaiju and Yancy was killed. This was the first of a series of defeats the kaiju inflict on the jaegar program as they grow and evolve into bigger and more efficient killers, until the giant robots are in full retreat everywhere and the politicians have decided to abandon the program in favour of building a giant wall.

Yes, a giant wall. Bear with me. This all comes to pass five years after Raleigh loses his brother, and though the jaegar program is still alive, it is only barely so, and the remaining pilots and crews are gearing up for a final assault on the dimensional rift. Idris Elba plays the man in command of it all, with the unlikely name of Stacker Pentacost (yes, the names get a wee bit ridiculous), and he tracks down Raleigh to where the former pilot is a construction worker building the Alaskan section of the wall. After a hilariously abbreviated discussion in which Pentacost convinces Raleigh to overcome his trauma and grief (which really almost comes down to “Hey, come and fight for me again.” “Can’t. Too traumatized.” “Come on.” “Oh, all right.”), Raleigh returns with Pentacost to Hong Kong. There we meet Mako Mori (which I think is Latin for “blue shark of death”), a young Japanese woman who (it turns out) has been Stacker Pentacost’s ward since he saved her from a kaiju attack. She has also been trained as a pilot, and very obviously wants to be teamed up with Raleigh. Which of course, in spite of Pentacost’s reluctance, she is. (“Let me pilot with him!” “No, you’re too inexperienced.” “But everyone else sucks!” “Oh, all right. Go on, then.”)

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However, the first time they enter the Drift together, Mako is caught up in her memories and loses control, almost launching her jaegar’s weapons while still docked.

OK, that’s all I’ll say on the plot, aside from the fact that the ultimate mission is to close the rift by dropping a thermonuclear bomb into it, which of course they succeed in doing (after a fashion). Peace and democracy reign again.

Did I mention I really enjoyed this film? I just want to reiterate that because I can feel myself getting snarky. It was visually stunning, and all the fight sequences were brilliantly done. Del Toro brings a kind of brutal intimacy to the clashes while still emphasizing their massive scale. And because it can’t be emphasized enough: there is something deeply satisfying in watching a giant robot punch a sea monster.

That being said, here are a handful of plot holes that bugged me before I move on to a more careful critique:

  • As the title suggests, the kaiju threat is indeed specific to the Pacific Rim. All of the sites attacked are coastal cities in this area. So … living as I do in Atlantic Canada, I wouldn’t have to worry about giant sea monsters so much? What does the rest of the world think? And what if you lived in, say, Saskatchewan? The speed and urgency of the film, and the attitude of its characters, communicate apocalyptic immediacy. Presumably, seeing as how the kaiju are evolving and emerging at a geometric rate, they would soon be making inroads into the middle of continents and spreading beyond the Pacific … but that is still just a possibility at the end of Pacific Rim when Tony Stark flies the nuke through the dimensional portal Raleigh Beckett blows up the portal. What does the rest of the world think about what’s happening?
  • On a similar note, why are there still densely populated cities on the coasts? Who thought that was a good idea?
  • The co-pilot selection process seems entirely limited to having prospective candidates fight Raleigh Beckett, further evidence that proficiency at martial arts makes you qualified for anything.
  • Mako is the only one who can match his mad kung fu skills, and ergo is a suitable co-pilot. Um, what? If you’re trying to match people for mind-melding compatibility, wouldn’t there be a series of in-depth, you know, psychological and/or neurological tests?
  • By the same token, wouldn’t they have at least one dry run where they enter the Drift together in a safe space, i.e. one in which someone freaking out isn’t connected to a huge nuclear-powered weapon?
  • If these pilots are in fact mind-melding, why are they constantly talking to each other? There’s a lot of one pilot ordering the other to “arm the plasma cannon!” and things like that. Wouldn’t that be unnecessary if you’re sharing thoughts?

It can be frustrating when SF films introduce a potentially very cool, very intriguing speculative concept whose implications pose significant philosophical questions, and then neglect to follow through on it at all. To be fair, there are occasions of pedantry and excessive exposition—I’m thinking most specifically of The Architect from The Matrix Reloaded here—but more often than not it is treated as incidental to the main story. Even when, as in the case of the Drift, it is in fact a central premise.

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I think Alyssa Rosenberg puts her finger on it when she argues that this should have been two films. We begin in media res, with a pretty quick background—monsters emerge from a dimensional rift, start attacking cities, and then for a time are successfully repulsed by the jaegers. Until they evolve and start defeating the jaegers, the first instance of which is the battle in which Raleigh loses his brother.

While I appreciate the narrative economy, it occurs to me that there is a huge missed opportunity here. The story of how the monsters appear and humanity figures out how to fight back would have made for a great film, with huge dramatic potential—especially in the early days as the jaegers were first developed and the bugs in the Drift worked out. There would be, on has to assume, a significant human toll in working through the technology and evolving it to the point where it’s effective (there is a brief gesture toward this with Stacker Pentacost, who still suffers the ill effects of his time piloting the early jaegers). You could have ended the first film with the battle where Raleigh loses his brother, and spent a good chunk of the second film showing how the jaegers were losing and the strife that emerges amongst the partner nations.

Above all, the characters and their development would not have received such short shrift. The key device in this film is this mind-melding technology: as mentioned above, the Drift is potentially brilliant SF material, as it adds a very human dimension to the giant robot trope, making piloting jaegers not just a fundamentally cooperative exercise, but one that necessitates the subordination of the self to that of the team. There has been a lot of talk about the influence on del Toro of everything from Godzilla movies to mecha anime to Voltron to even The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers; I have to wonder however if the story was not at least in part influenced by Joe Haldeman’s novel Forever Peace. In it, the western world in the future maintains its colonial holdings and fights its short wars with robotic soldier-drones operated remotely by individuals plugged in to a collective consciousness (the novel is, among other things, totally prescient about drone warfare). Linked in together, the soldiers share thoughts, memories, loves, hates, and so forth—there are no secrets. And as it turns out, staying connected with others for too long leads to some interesting side effects (which I won’t spoil—read the book!).

Del Toro’s jaegers seem to operate on a similar premise, albeit not remotely—the pilots are inside the robot’s “head.” And in Forever Peace, though the operators are mentally linked, each pilots their own robot. The implications of a single unit being piloted simultaneously by two linked individuals is a fantastic speculative device, as it carries all sorts of questions about how differing, contrasting, conflicting, or competing personalities and impulses can work together in unity.

Unfortunately, aside from some very truncated gestures toward these questions, the film effectively ignores them and instead gives us a very familiar pilot / co-pilot dynamic in all the jaegar cockpits we see. Yes, we see the pilots move in unison as they walk, we see them punch and strike in tandem as they fight the kaiju, but there is otherwise very little sense of them having actually merged consciousness. They speak individually, carry out separate actions in the cockpit, shout encouragement at each other. As mentioned above, why would you even need to speak? Yes, they sometimes have to speak on the radio with command, but how uncanny, then, to have had them speak in perfect unison?

On top of all this is the obvious fact of asymmetrical power relationships between the pilots depicted: though Mako is ostensibly the best match for Raleigh, she is obviously his subordinate in every way. The other jaegar team of significance are the Australians, who are father and son and possess the same experienced elder / brash youth dynamic. Perhaps this is the best sort of pairing, as their respective strengths complement each other? That would have been a brilliant point to explore.

(The other two teams have very little to do: a Russian man and women with weird hair who look like villains from a 70s Bond film, and Chinese triplets—who are in fact indistinguishable, which raises a whole host of disturbing racial and ethnic overtones I don’t want to get into right now. Suffice to say neither of the other teams have much to do before they are kaiju kibble).

Perhaps this all seems like me totally overthinking what is essentially just a big, shiny summer blockbuster—perhaps I should just enjoy the film without nitpicking? Perhaps … except that, as I’ve repeated several times, I did enjoy the film. I loved it, as a matter of fact. Which is why these problems make me grind my teeth in frustration so much. The film is good, and the ideas behind it (while borrowing from just about every SF monster trope in existence) are intriguing. Believe me when I say I never spared a thought about the philosophical implications of Transformers.

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