Screening Room

V: Lizard Aliens as a Social Reminder

1. The revamped V (for those who don’t tune in: V stands for Visitors) on ABC has me completely hooked. Crazy but true, I DVR Giada De Laurentiis cooking shows in the same click as human-munching reptile aliens. And I’ve got my husband addicted too. He’s been away in Salt Lake City since the show’s March return. During the commercial breaks, we dial each other like high school kids. Me: “The kid just got lizard licked!” Hubs: “Whatever, that’s a hot alien. I’d let her lick me.” Me: “That’s her candy coating. Underneath she’s got snake eyes.” Hubs: “Still, she’s hot.” Me: “You’re despicable. Don’t you have any human pride?” These are the not-so-adult conversations between us. I grew up in a sci-fi loving home courtesy of my dad who’s a product of the Final Frontier generation—Shatner and Nimoy and the Lost in Space Robot. A child of the 80s, I was suckled on Star Wars and Quantum Leap. However, as I grew into adulthood, I became something of a sci-fi snob, rolling my eyes and shaking my head at laser beams and the Galactica crew heroics. I acquiesced to my dad’s 24/7 Sci-Fi Channel whenever I visited home, but beyond that my interest in extraterrestrials and spaceships was nonexistent. Until now. Like I said, I’m completely bewitched. Some of this could be blamed on my aforementioned childhood. The original V miniseries aired in 1983. I watched it, snuggled beside my dad who attempted to cover my eyes during the “bad parts.” To this day, my mom denies this memory—because she would never, never have allowed such a thing. And maybe so, but obviously she wasn’t invited to the daddy-daughter sci-fi party. I distinctly remember burying my face in my dad’s arm when Diana (the V leader) expanded her jaw and swallowed a guinea pig whole. My dad yelled, “Dadburnit, she’s a snake!” (Note: This is probably the basis of my fear of snakes, lizards, frogs and turtles.) It was terrifying! Yet even then, I was completely captivated. There was something about the miniseries that transcended the average “Beam me up, Scotty.” Despite the lizard thing, it was intellectual and deeply affecting. So it comes as no surprise it was inspired by Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. A novel chronicling fascism in the United States. According to television lore, the director-producer Kenneth Johnson wrote an adaptation of the book entitled Storm Warnings in 1982. NBC executives rejected it. Too heavy for average American viewers who were lining up at the box office for films like Tron and E.T. So they dumbed it down: made the American fascists into man-eating reptilian humanoids, and the show premiered to rave reviews on May 3, 1983. Johnson later explained that the series was intended to be a political thriller and a Nazi allegory. From the Swastika-like emblems on the Visitor’s uniforms and the “Friends of the Visitors” youth movement to the mass broadcasting of messages mimicking Nazi radio propaganda. Humans in the show were forced to choose sides: collaborate with the occupying forces or join underground resistance movements, like the Fifth Column. While the brunt of Nazi persecution was targeted at Jews, the Visitors attacked anyone opposed to their dogma. Their infiltration of human society begins as a subterfuge but eventually transitions to a full-fledged military coup d’etat. The original series went so far as to incorporate a Holocaust survivor, the grandfather of Daniel Bernstein, who duly noted history’s repetition. V ran roughly three hours and twenty minutes and was so successful in the ratings that the 1984 sequel V: The Final Battle was produced, supposedly to conclude the saga. But viewers couldn’t let go and the network wouldn’t pass up capitalizing on its popularity. V: The Series ran from 1984 to 1985 without Johnson as director. He left during The Final Battle after a disagreement with NBC executives on how the story should progress. 2. Twenty-seven years later, the story is as fresh as it was in 1983. As fresh as it was in 1935. Let’s face it—fascism still scares the hell out of us. The idea of social interventionism to promote the state’s interests is terrifying. Social indoctrination by way of state-regulated education and media propaganda makes our skin crawl. Eugenics for the purpose of social hygiene is monstrous. Discrimination based on culture, gender and sexuality is a nasty battle we fight daily. A hunger for expansionist imperialism, ideologically and physically, lingers on. Turn on the nightly news, tune into reality, and notes of Lewis’s novel and Johnson’s script continue to echo. This may be exactly why V has seen such popularity with the 2010 audience. We live in a world where history repeats itself; where old ideas cloak themselves in various contemporary skins and pretty packages for each budding generation. The series continues to strike a chord because in a non-didactic way, it reminds us that the catastrophes of our past are but a handful of forgetful seasons away. 3. Currently on the show, V spaceships loom over all the major cities. Anna (the 2010 V leader) promises peace, opens cure-all health centers and introduces advances in technology that surpass anything the world has ever seen. Using mass media, she seeks to indoctrinate a devoted following of humans involved in her Peace Ambassadors program. From the outside, the arrival of the V’s looks rosy, but beneath is a diabolical agenda to take over the Earth. The updated series has been hit by a tidal wave of controversy. Rumor has it that it’s an allegorical representation of President Barack Obama’s administration. Many critics have pointed out the subtextual nods. In her review for The Washington Post, Lisa de Moraes noted that the series debuted on the first anniversary of Obama’s election, and that carefully embedded catchphrases like “hope”, “change”, and “universal health care” are frequently used by the Visitors. Glenn Garvin of the Chicago Tribune wrote that the show was a “rousing sci-fi space opera about alien invaders bent on the conquest (and digestion) of all humanity, it's also a barbed commentary on Obamamania that will infuriate the president's supporters and delight his detractors.” Additionally, critical bloggers were quick to point out lines that hold an uncanny resemblance to quotes by Obama staff members. In one episode about a natural disaster that the V’s intervene to solve, Anna tells a news reporter, “There’s tragedy every day, all over your world—so many opportunities to help.” Likewise, Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is quoted as saying, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste… it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” At the 2009 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour session for V, the three producers Scott Peters, Jace Hall and Jeffrey Bell discussed the controversy. Peters explained, “Listen, I think that shows are open to interpretation. People bring subjective thoughts to it. And if you want to ascribe those words to the Visitors or to whatever is going on in our society, that's sort of up to the viewer, but there's no particular agenda to hone in on those specific things.” Bell followed up, “We are talking about the metaphors and allegories here, and at a certain level, I just want to remind people it's a show about spaceships on ABC at 8 p.m.” Peters went on to clarify: The show is about the dangerous side of blind devotion. “ What happens when you don't ask questions about the things you believe in?” he said. “And I think that can be applied across the board whether you are talking about a political issue or a religious issue or a relationship issue, any number of things.” Alien spaceships making us pause in our prime time television consumption and (gasp!) think? Wouldn’t that be revolutionary! The producers' comments may not lay the Obama controversy to rest, but we could use a little social reminder these days—even if it comes as science-fictionalized reptile aliens masked in hot human form plotting world conquest and mankind annihilation. Like the namesake characters, there’s more than meets the eye in V.
Screening Room

Navigating the Turbulence of “Up in the Air”

The following contains a spoiler.  If you have not seen the film Up in the Air but intend to, consider bookmarking this piece for later. Your comments, post-film-viewing, will be most welcome. If you don’t plan to see it, read on; there is enough plot summary here to ground you (so to speak). 1. The buzz about Up in the Air (based on the novel by Walter Kirn) -- the latest George Clooney vehicle, directed by Jason Reitman, nominated for six Oscars, and winner of the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay -- is, in my opinion, well-deserved.  Consistently, I was told by friends who’d seen it (and who knew me well enough to recognize this as a selling point) that it was “dark.”  A few times, I was told (even better) that it was “unexpectedly dark.”  The latter description refers to perhaps the most buzz-worthy element of the film, namely its soul-stabbing twist, which occurs toward the end of the film and about which, as far as I can tell, not much has been written; and for obvious reasons: the professional reviewer is obliged to stay clear of spoilers. Two weeks past Oscar-mania, I am thinking perhaps we are now in a relatively safe zone to delve in to this aspect of Up in the Air.  And there is much to delve into.  If you ascribe to the notion that, more than anything, great art disturbs, Reitman has indeed crafted something lasting.  For me, the notorious twist was both dark and unexpected, it burrowed and bothered more than the other grim happenings of the film – it effected both resonance and residue, and well after the viewing. 2. Meet Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a “termination specialist” and sometimes motivational speaker, based in Omaha.  His company is contracted by larger companies to execute downsizing, presumably because firing long-time employees requires special skill, but mostly because employers would rather keep their (manicured) hands from the messy business. The time period is now; or, say, nine months ago. “It is one of the worst times on record for America,” the slithery boss Craig (played by the delectable Jason Bateman) says. “This is our moment.”  Ryan flies around the country (322 flying days last year), descending upon an endless string of beige-carpeted corporate compounds, sitting through miserable meeting after miserable meeting.  But, he’s good at it.  “We are here to ferry wounded souls across the river of dread to a point where hope is dimly visible,” he says to his young sidekick Natalie (Anna Kendrick), to whom he is showing the ropes, “then stop the boat, shove them in the water, and make them swim.” What Ryan really likes about his job is the peripatetic lifestyle; home is in airports and in business class.  Home is an efficiently-packed rolling carry-on, “club” status at restaurants and rent-a-cars, mastering the art of passing through security seamlessly. Home is moving quickly, and, by extension, not getting entangled, physically or emotionally, with those pesky humans.  Home, for Ryan, is also generic and abstract.  “You’re awfully isolated, the way you live,” his sister says, in a voice tinged with the sarcasm of stating the obvious.  “Isolated?  I’m surrounded,” Ryan says.  The line vibrates with double-meaning – surrounded as in warmly embraced, or surrounded as in put your hands in the air? Ryan's mentoring of Natalie is no detour into altruism. Natalie is a whip smart, pointy-featured and pointy-voiced Cornell grad who has proposed the revolutionizing of Ryan’s business by migrating all terminations to video-conferencing.  “All for the price of a T-1 line,” she says, crisp and smug in her sensible suit and navy pumps, a playing-grown-up outfit for a 23 year-old who looks 17.  With his precious m.o. threatened, Ryan goes straight to the boss with his complaints that young Natalie may know the science but knows nothing of the art of their business; and consequently wins himself a mentee for the road. You can see where this is going.  Ryan and Natalie clash and spar, but in an often humorous and endearing way.  Natalie is a couplehood enthusiast and sneers at Ryan’s commitment-aversion. Ryan is a seasoned in-person terminator who better understands the nuances of human fragility than know-it-all Natalie. Both characters have huge blind spots. They become intimate in that impersonal, colleagues-on-a-business-trip way, they teach each other things, sort of; they grow on each other.  And Kendrick masterfully portrays Natalie as a young woman so tightly wound and bound to her generation’s hyper-competence and control-freakiness that we actually believe she is on this whirlwind travel tour with George Clooney without a hint of sexual attraction between them.  “I don’t even think of him that way,” she says on the phone to her beau. “He’s old.” 3. Enter beautiful, sexually-carnivorous Alex (Vera Farmiga), another cavalier corporate traveler, whom Ryan meets at an airport bar– “I am the woman you don’t have to worry about,” she says. “Just think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.”  Periodic hotel-room romps ensue.  Natalie and Alex first meet – in a corporate hotel, of course, where Ryan and Alex have planned another rendez-vous – just as Natalie has received news, by text message, that her boyfriend wants to “C other people.”  She is crushed, all her plans upended (she’d followed said boyfriend to Omaha in hopes of a marriage proposal).  "I just don't want to settle," she says to Ryan and Alex, in a brilliant triangle scene where Natalie pours out her sweetly ridiculous hopes and dreams to the jaded (yet compassionate) old fogeys.  And here begins the emotional vulnerability segment of the film – where tough exteriors begin to crack and soften all around, and everyone starts to have a pretty good time. So good, in fact, that we begin to think that Ryan and Alex may be heading for something special, that both may let down their guards and fulfill the conventions of domestic monogamy after all.  Natalie thinks so, too, and is horrified – her own deeply held desires to be mated to a handsome, monosyllabically-named, outdoorsy-on-the-weekends “co-pilot” at stake here – when Ryan begs off.  “How does it not even cross your mind that you might want to have a future with someone?  Don’t you think it’s worth giving her [Alex] a chance…at something real?  This woman comes along and somehow runs the gauntlet of your ridiculous life choice and comes out on the other end smiling, just so you can call her ‘casual’?... You’re a 12 year-old.”  Idealistic Natalie collapses her own desires and identity into Alex’s, defending her as more than a theoretical feminist forebear, almost like an actual mother figure.  The spirit of the rant is familiar:  We are women, and we deserve your eternal love and devotion, you commitment-phobe pigs. And so, as Ryan begins to poke his toes, and then ultimately his whole head and heart, out from his “cocoon of self-banishment,” as Natalie puts it; when he does his 180-turn, his I-was-in-the-neighborhood romantic pivot (which triggered in me an “oh, please, not the epiphanic changed-by-a-woman scene” dread); we are even more flabbergasted to find Alex at the front door of her Chicago brownstone, in Lands End pullover and fleece clogs, with her rascally boys running up the stairs behind her.  “Who’s at the door, honey?” the faceless male voice says (definitely a monosyllabically-named voice, though; likely outdoorsy).  “No one,” she says, closing the door as Ryan backs away, his devastation and ours conflating in a guttural swirl.  “Just someone’s who’s lost.” Ugh.  No fucking way. I did not see it coming.  Ryan and Alex had been to Ryan’s sister’s wedding together in Wisconsin.  He’d shown her his high school classroom, the basketball team photos, the makeout stairwell.  They held hands when the bride and groom kissed.  They danced to cheesy wedding-band music.  “She’s a little too perfect, isn’t she?” I murmured to my viewing partner, who’d seen the movie previously.  “Hang on,” he said. And still.  Didn’t see it coming. Maybe it’s Natalie’s impassioned women-united defense that so expertly throws us off the scent.  At any rate, the film – which I’d been enjoying thus far as yet another showcase for George’s sharp and appealing Georgeness, well-matched by lead female actresses who “popped” in all their scenes – suddenly became, for me… All. About. These women. 4. Yes, as some have written, the film is an acute period piece; a sweeping, of-the-moment snapshot of near-depression middle America.  It is also, on some level, Reitman’s love letter to the nuclear family unit, being a new(ish) husband and father himself.  Perhaps I am meant to walk away from Up in the Air feeling mostly the chill of jobless despair, as manifest in the news delivered by Craig-the-boss that one of the people Natalie recently fired killed herself by jumping off a bridge. Or, maybe there is primarily a feel-good message to carry away, a plug for monogamous commitment/companionship and the cultivation of a meaningful home life – what Ryan has made a mission of avoiding but his sister Julie and new brother-in-law Jim embrace (to the tune of a cozy folk music soundtrack).  The doubling of these differently-pitched resonances in fact speaks to the strengths of a film that is decidedly about many things at once. But while the employment-loss theme sparks our sober compassion, and the family togetherness theme tickles our romanticism, Alex’s Jeckyl and Hyde routine works at our minds and our emotions in a subtler, more complex way; the resonance there is progressive, it moves in stages – from shock, to outrage, to a more internalized discomfort, to quiet consideration, to… grief?  Who IS this Alex?  Is she supposed to be ME?  Or, for male viewers, is she MY wife? 5. With the hard hit of the twist, Natalie and Alex lock in as archetypes of women of two different generations. I found this discomfiting, as neither’s prospects for “something real” seems especially promising.  Alex’s remorselessness is chilling; in her subsequent phone conversation with Ryan, it is clear that in her own eyes she has done no wrong.  In fact, it is Ryan who should have known better, who read it wrong, who treaded outside his bounds.  “That’s my family.  That’s my real life,” she says.  “You are an escape...a parenthesis.”  She digs her heels in even further: “I’m a grown-up,” she states, by which she means, the way I’m operating is the way the adults do it. Grow up, and get on board.  On my second viewing, I looked for signs of regret or sorrow, for ambivalence in Alex’s response. I didn’t find any.  She is a mother lion, survival of the fittest, baby is something I could imagine her saying, and meaning.  In reflecting on her character, I couldn’t help but play out the hypothetical scene between her and Natalie, upon Natalie’s learning of the deception.  Ouch.  Ouch for Natalie, but also ouch for us; because we wouldn’t even be able to completely sympathize with Natalie, whose naivete about love and marriage seems almost as hopeless as Alex’s self-justifying fatalism. In the DVD commentary, Jason Reitman talks about how Alex and Natalie are intended to be the same woman at different times in her life; in other words, Alex is who Natalie will be in 15 years.  The plot darkens.  Reitman also talks about writing certain scenes in consultation with his wife (and mentions his wife a few times during the commentary), which implies his efforts to empathize with the female conundrum, of career/family/romance clashing irreconcilably – the “identity crisis,” as Reitman puts it.  But his sensitive-male approach manifests ultimately in a zero-sum role swap, where Clooney’s Ryan shows confusion, desire, and vulnerability, and Farmiga’s Alex taps her metaphorical foot impatiently, waiting for Ryan to clue in to the simple solution of compartmentalization -- i.e. the standby of the archetypical philandering male.  As a mother, Alex must ascribe to something like a “what they don’t know won’t hurt them” philosophy, which I don’t feel in a position to judge, but somehow disturbs me nonetheless. Does this reversal work?  Does it ring true?  Is Alex a valid contemporary archetype?  Her nonchalance is what stays with me, a filmy residue I can't quite wash off.  This is how we do it, this is what modern girls do, is what her character seems to declare on behalf of women in her station.  I can’t help but wonder if this mirror-swap structure is less a true depiction of our cultural moment, our confusion re: the dance of the genders; and more a well-meaning male writer-director’s projected fears about where we are headed in this respect. To Mr. Reitman I say: I am one woman who hopes otherwise.  To my mind it has never been the hope or intention of progressive womanism for modern women to “become men” or to use traditionally male power tactics retributively. I think, I hope, we want more.  We want better, fuller, deeper.  Like Natalie, we don’t want to settle.
Screening Room

Tiny and Strange: Reinterpreting Alice

Several years ago a friend of a friend of mine received free tickets to a new production of The Taming of The Shrew in Washington D.C. and made the unfortunate decision of bringing me along. I grew dismayed as the play progressed, believing that it was perhaps impossible to try to reinterpret a play so rife with misogyny. I've listened to the many reasons people have provided for why this play is actually a critique of patriarchy, how the final scene is so obviously repellent that it is impossible for anyone, least of all Shakespeare, to be condoning these values. In researching others opinions, I found a review of Conall Morrison's 2008 version of this play for The Royal Shakespeare Company by Peter Lathan, who stated “In our modern political correctness we tend to think that Shrew was a play about keeping women in their place, just as we relate Merchant (the companion piece to Shrew in the RSC Theatre Royal season) to anti-Semitism, but that, perhaps, says more about contemporary preoccupations than it does about Shakespeare, for certainly Conall Morrison's Shrew is more about status than misogyny.” In my mind, the fact that some people today do still find women and minority rights to be mere “contemporary preoccupations” rather than actual human rights issues, makes the issue of lauding or critiquing a new interpretation of an old play especially slippery. Generally speaking, new versions of older literary works strive to do one of two things: exalt the original author's story, or else try to save it from the weight of its own history. I have always been particularly confused by some feminists' desire to reignite old stories with female characters or else reinvent female characters from days yore. We have so few new stories that delve into current female experience, that taking the time to further empower these older works seems to actually reinforce the notion that literature is a man's world, and that the most women can do is amend these staple stories, rather than writing new works of their own. Tim Burton's new version of Alice in Wonderland is in some ways a feminist dream. It contains a screenplay written by a woman, Linda Woolverton, who strives to provide her audience with a self-actualized Alice, an Alice who is a warrior, rather than a princess. In this new chapter, Alice is 19 years old and at the mercy of a decidedly anti-feminist Victorian age, in which her main option in life is marrying an unimaginative bore of a Duke who, his mother warns Alice, has “digestive issues.” Rather than heed the sage advice of her mother, Alice does not don a corset, but rather begins chasing a real life rabbit she seems to remember from her dreams. She falls deep down the rabbit hole where she ends up in “Underland”, welcomed by several talking animals, all of whom want her to be the champion who fights the terrifying Jabberwocky and, in doing so, defeat the evil Red Queen. Perhaps on its own this would actually be a fantastically good story. The problem is, it bares little or no relation to the actual text of Alice in Wonderland, which is not a fantasy or action-adventure novel, but a small and clever little book, filled with imaginative puzzles, rhymes, word games and mathematical problems, much more akin to a female version of The Phantom Tollbooth or Harold and The Purple Crayon than Star Wars or Lord of The Rings. The original Alice was neither a princess nor a warrior; she was a little girl. The book is actually refreshingly free of gender stereotypes. Alice is portrayed as smart and imaginative, filled with wonder at the world around her, but the focus is never so much on Alice per say, as it is on the world itself. In some ways, the wonderful thing about Alice in Wonderland is that it provided girls with a story which centered around their perspective of a fantasy world, but could ultimately be relatable to a little boy as well. By drawing more attention to the gender norms of Victorian England, Woolverton actually creates issues of sexism which never existed in the original edition. This decision by Woolverton and Burton is a shame for a variety of reasons. First, because there is nothing interesting or controversial about showing that Victorian women were dealt a tough hand, and as such, there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason to force this particular trope onto this particular story. Second, it is reductionist. Why is it we have to see a woman play the role of a classic warrior in order to view her story as important enough to necessitate a big blockbuster movie? Lastly, it simply obscures the small joys that come from reading the original work. Many of Tim Burton's films effectively capture the bizarre and otherworldly language of childhood; Alice in contrast seems like a composite of typical CGI images, chase scenes and the requisite action sequences that pop out of the screen, but fail to leave any sense of haunting after the credits roll on. In the end, I find myself yearning for visions of female agency which are neither critiques of a patriarchal past, nor visions of an equally patriarchal future, wherein women are only valued if they are seen as tough and warrior like as their male predecessors. Perhaps Carroll's original story worked because it wasn't about what it meant to be a woman at all. Instead, it was about a particular girl and her particularly curious adventures into a world of nonsense so unique there still hasn't been a film version which has really done it justice.
Screening Room

The Best Picture Wins Best Picture

The Oscars, for as long as I can remember watching them, have been a tangle of thorns. The bramble invariably bears fruit, but the berries are often difficult to reach, or worse yet, unripe. Last year’s Slumdog Millionaire was not the worst movie to win Best Picture—let us not forget Crash, Return of the King, and Million Dollar Baby, just to name three from this decade—but it was still green: a simple film in the basest sense, one that glanced at big themes like poverty and class warfare, but refused, ultimately, to scrutinize them. As I wrote in a review of a much better film last year (Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre): Slumdog was a financial success for the same reason that it was an artistic failure: it skimmed, both cinematographically and emotionally, over its subjects. It purported to be about class struggle in India, and the requisite horrors of poverty. But instead it was a shiny, loud, and clean fairytale. Slumdog overcame tragedy, but the adversity dramatized was so disingenuous that the triumph seemed saccharine at worst, and shallow at best. A lot of people, though, must have seen Boyle’s allegory as fresh and optimistic, and the film rode that sentiment to the Oscars. The Best Picture award, expanded this year to ten nominees, seemed at first like an ecumenical gesture on the part of the Academy. I loved the idea that more small films, hypothetically, would get to stand beside the studio epics. And though The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man made the cut, so did Avatar, District 9 and The Blind Side, suggesting to me that the dilution of the category was more a wink and a nod to thoughtful filmmakers than a sincere unification with them. Where was A Single Man? Where was Antichrist? Why was Up nominated for Best Picture and Best Animated Feature? The Hurt Locker is another sort of film. It follows the fate of three soldiers in Iraq charged with disarming IEDs in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) replaces Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) after Thompson is killed in the line of duty. James is as unconcerned with danger as James Bond is with venereal disease, and he approaches his work with the spiritual calm of a man raking a rock garden. What is immediately evident watching The Hurt Locker is that the film is existential rather than polemical. The soldiers aren’t interested in why they’re in country. The other men on James’ team—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are concerned only with surviving until they leave. James, on the other hand, seems captivated by his work and pursues it with the Platonic conviction that all labor is ethically sound if done excellently. Along with The Messenger, which I reviewed for The Millions, I saw The Hurt Locker as a testament to what “popular” cinema should strive to be. Just because I love Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and feel that, stylistically and ethically, it’s one of the most important films of the decade, doesn’t mean I expect it to ever find a broad American audience (it’s in black and white, for one, and for another, the actors speak German). The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, combined with the suspense of more traditional action fare (say, The Bourne Identity) the moral quandaries of Dr. Strangelove and the chauvinistic camaraderie of The Decline of the American Empire, all without delivering a simple message. In The Hurt Locker, war is both despicable and intoxicating. Some soldiers can’t wait to get home, and others dread leaving the battlefield. And yet it was popular amongst servicemen and critics alike. Emily Colette Wilkinson, who commented on my review “The Holy Trinity: Three Iraq War Films Define a New Apolitical Aesthetic,” wrote that her sister in Afghanistan loved The Hurt Locker. “It seems to have really connected with soldiers.” All of this is to say that, from a commercial and an artistic perspective, The Hurt Locker was a revelatory example of the kind of film that could be made near Hollywood, if not exactly inside it. If it were to beat out Avatar, somehow, the Academy Awards were no longer a circle-jerk (as a friend of mine so quaintly put it), but, if briefly, a coronation ceremony for some damned fine art. Before the show began, I was convinced that Avatar would win, though in retrospect that conviction came from the fact that everyone else seemed convinced it would. I have friends who enjoyed it, and I even lunched with two acquaintances a month back who thought it was not only the best film of the season, but perhaps the greatest achievement in cinematographic history. But, as my roommate Ty (who was born around the time Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s hitting record and was named, somewhat ironically, after the great, morally bankrupt Cobb) put it, to paraphrase, the Avatar champions were confusing spectacle with good storytelling. Avatar was a miracle if you saw it stoned in 3-D IMAX and ignored the performances and the dialogue, but a disaster if you paid attention to the actors and the lines they delivered. A technological marvel does not a best picture make, one could say. Avatar deserved every special effects award it got nominated for. But how, phenomena aside, can a film that garners no writing or acting nods possibly be an appropriate candidate for Best Picture? Fundamentally, shouldn’t a great film be an amalgamation of writing, acting, photography, and direction? The Hurt Locker was nominated, in addition to sound editing and mixing, for acting, writing, photography, and directing, as well as for the overall product. Avatar, on the other hand, was up for sound, special effects, cinematography, and directing, but received no acknowledgments whatsoever for its screenplay or the actors—digitally rendered or otherwise—who brought those stale lines to half life. This polemic (for what else could you call my assault on James Cameron?) may seem a little cruel in the wake of the awards. Avatar, as it turns out, lost to The Hurt Locker on all the narrative fronts, and some of the technical ones, too. It won for best special effects, cinematography, and art direction, but The Hurt Locker won Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Perhaps I’m in shock still, and expect to read in a few days that all of Kathryn Bigelow’s accolades got rescinded and heaped upon the Na’vi. But I think my unrest, or at least my disbelief in The Hurt Locker’s success, is grounded in my fear that the 82nd Academy Awards were an anomaly rather than the birth of a trend. Last night’s ceremony was, undoubtedly, an unprecedented victory for small films. The Hurt Locker cost $14 million to make, and Avatar $2 billion, if I’m misremembering my figures correctly. And James Cameron doesn’t lose many contests he’s expecting to win, especially to his ex-wife. My hope, in the end, is that the incessant hype around Avatar didn’t simply annoy voters until they voted against it, out of nothing more than spite. My dream is that the republic of Hollywood, in its lovely dresses and tailored tuxedos, realized that a poor story poorly told papered over with handsome colors  and textures is still nothing more than a poor story. Avatar has revolutionized, one suspects, the way big movies will get made in the future. But it did nothing to illuminate the human condition. The Hurt Locker, though, will haunt moviegoers long after Cameron’s virtual camera technology is commonplace on Monday Night Football broadcasts. Avatar is the new technological benchmark—which means it’s transient. Eventually something will surpass it. The Hurt Locker, conversely, like any true work of art, is permanent.
Screening Room

The Audience, The Accused: Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon

In both the original and the American remake of Funny Games, Michael Haneke, always the gracious host, invites us to the theater for what has become known as torture porn, only to scold us for showing up, for enjoying ourselves, and for eating all the popcorn. The film, in which two teenaged boys wreak havoc upon a married couple and their son, unfolds like any other house-invasion story, until a “surprising” moment reminds us of our roles as voyeurs: the film rewinds. The joke is on us. That type of irony isn’t ingratiating, specifically to us Americans, unapologetic consumers of mass-entertainment, who don’t like it when a man atop a high horse comes across the Atlantic to lecture us about our viewing habits, in our own theaters and in our own homes, especially if the messenger speaks in a foreign tongue and looks like a white-bearded wizard. This is the knock on Haneke, a gifted artist with the visual chops of Bresson and Tarkovsky, but at heart a film-theorist and cultural-critic. Fair enough. Even in films less devoted to a critique of cinema, Cache and Code Unknown, for example, there seems to be a misplacement of artistic intentions. The problem lies not in how Haneke forces us to question, to examine, and to reexamine what we see, but in his insistence on reminding us that he’s a serious artist and by nature a contrarian: Do you see? Do you see how my films are different than Hollywood films? Fortunately, The White Ribbon, the Austrian director’s first German-language film since the original Funny Games, allows Haneke to marry his masterful style with a subtler point of the finger. The best evidence of this is the film’s nomination in the best foreign film category at the upcoming Academy Awards. Already the winner of the Golden Globe, the film should win the Oscar, which considering Haneke’s anti-Hollywood stance, may surprise some viewers. A whodunit set in a German village before the outset of WWI, the film turns what looks to be innocent and routine into something ominous and unsettling. Take the opening, a routine establishing shot of a figure riding his horse, from the distance, toward an unmoving camera. There is no cut, and the shot’s duration makes us uneasy as we watch the rider’s long approach. Finally, the horse trips on an unseen wire tied between two trees. The figure, a doctor, falls, breaks a shoulder, and the horse, as we see later, dies and is dragged off. That puts in motion a series of incidents that grow in number along with the members of the accused. Haneke takes great care to make us suspicious of everyone. The story you are about to see, the unnamed narrator tells us, may or may not be hearsay. And it’s not until later when we learn the narrator’s identity, a minor and subtle choice which again makes us question his honesty, if only briefly. The mouthpiece fits the mold of the unreliable narrator, though his job as the visiting schoolteacher marks him with outsider status. The question is: should we trust him? We ask that question of most characters. Through repetition, the predominance of faces fills the air with suspicion. Everyone, from children to adults, deserves a look-over. And as the incidents accrue, what seemed liked an innocent prank begins a chain of events that may or may not be connected: a destroyed cabbage patch, a murder or a suicide, the beating of a boy or two, a barn burning. At first, the causal links seem simple. The trip wire is the work of children. The destruction of a cabbage patch is the act of farmer’s loyal and angry son who is avenging the death of his mother caused by a baron’s malfeasance. When the villagers find the baron’s son beaten, common sense would lead you to the farmer’s son, but he has an airtight alibi. And when the farmer is found dead, who did it? Did he hang himself in shame? Did his son kill him? Was it the baron or a crony? And who burned the baron’s barn? And so on. The complexity of the plot—the multiple causes for every effect—leads to purposeful dead-ends. At every turn, Haneke plays with our expectations made numb by heavy doses of Hollywood's methods: employing causal logic, identifying with characters, and finding motivations for their actions. Even when he does offer clear causes and effects—he shows us the culprit(s) in action—our inability to form an obvious link between these and other events only reinforces the notion that nothing is as simple as it seems. The same goes for the characters. We want to damn the pastor who coldly receives his son holding a wounded bird, but in a subsequent scene, the pastor fights back tears as the son offers his beloved bird as solace. The effect here is there is no ideological getaway car. A local problem, you say? The limited visual style slowly expands to include shots of the landscape beyond the village. We can’t blame this on small village ignorance. Could we say it’s the effect of a bad social structure? Well, the baron is a somewhat sympathetic character: his son is beaten, and his wife finds a lover when she flees with the kids to Italy. The film, thankfully, deflates our ideological muscles. What Haneke does is transform an allegorical tale about the rise of fascism into a profound look into human nature. We see, or better yet, we experience how silence has destructive consequences. Because the film expands from the individual to the local to the global (with the news of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination), the silence, the real villain here, isn’t custom to a specific time and place. Left with a spool of loose ends, all of us, even the innocent, are made accomplices. We too are sitting on our hands when the sound drops to silence. The wrongdoer(s) could be anyone or everyone.
Annals of Japery, Screening Room

Happily Ever After: Husband and Wife discuss “The Bachelor”

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We at The Millions appreciate good criticism for its own sake, whether it be about The Paris Review or soccer commentators, Orhan Pamuk or Beyonce Knowles.  In that spirit, we present this dialogue--inspired in part by Slate's TV Club--about one of this season's most fascinating television shows, The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love. Edan Lepucki and Patrick Brown are not only regular contributors to The Millions, they are also married.  They watch the show together, and they started this dialogue via email a few weeks ago.  Neither can wait for tonight's season finale. Edan: We started watching The Bachelor on Hulu two episodes after it began (it took us a single night to catch up). Although you originally expressed displeasure at the thought of watching the season, you quickly became invested in Bachelor Jake and the throngs of ladies (most of them blonde--oh how my people embarrass themselves again and again!) who adore him.  It's strange, because, although the show is fairly boring, with its drawn-out rose ceremonies and its empty-platitude-strewn confessionals, as soon as an episode ends, I begin salivating for the next.  I must be drawn to the show because it's so inane and heinous.  I suppose I enjoy being incensed by 23-year-old women who feel their lives are empty and meaningless because they haven't found "Prince Charming."   Do you think there are people out there who watch this show without judgment?  Is there an audience for whom The Bachelor is neither a farce nor a tragedy? I know a married couple who watched the show religiously, and even place bets on who would be the last woman standing.  Is The Bachelor a narrative for smug married people (ahem)?  Or is it more for smug single people, who would rather remain unattached than degrade themselves on national television?  What, do you think, is the appeal of this show? Patrick:  It's true, I wasn't too excited by the prospect of watching The Bachelor again after a couple years off.  The last one I remember before "On the Wings of Love" was "An Officer and A Gentlemen."  The bachelor that year was a captain or a lieutenant or something in the Navy.  He was the most boring person I've ever encountered, either in real life or through my television.  All he did was work out.  That was it.  He was like The Situation on a battleship.  I think he married a personal trainer, too, if I remember correctly.  Anyway, that guy turned me away from the show for a while. But surprisingly, I'm enjoying this season.  Whether it's the bachelor himself -- Jake (Pilot Jake, as I call him) -- or the women, this season is genuinely entertaining.  To answer your question, there's no doubt that there are plenty of people who enjoy the show "unironically" or however you want to put it.  And I think, on some level, I enjoy it this way.  I love the drama of it.  I like to see people put it on the line.  Whether you believe these people can really feel something in just a few weeks or not, I do think they feel a profound disappointment when they're dumped.  I've seen women crying so hard they were hyperventilating.  That's good TV. I think the reason the show resonates with so many people is several fold.  Mainly, I think people crave repetition, and The Bachelor is highly repetitive, which Adorno claims reassures us against death.  This is why good pop songs have a tried and true structure (also, incidentally, why a song like "Pink Moon" is unsettling, because it turns itself upside down and doesn't follow that typical structure).  Everything about The Bachelor -- the sensationally stagey rose ceremonies (My favorite part is when the guy stares at the pictures of the remaining girls, thinking longingly about which ones will make it to the next round), the way they all keep saying the same key phrases ("I felt a connection," "I'm not sure she's here for the right reasons," etc.), the way even the characters know the sequence of the show ("Next week is hometowns, and I don't take that lightly") -- it's all there to reassure us that we're still alive and everything is moving along as it should.  I think this is especially powerful in that it deals with marriage, so not only is it "We won't die," but rather "We won't die alone."  That's powerful, whether you enjoy it ironically or sincerely or whatever. I also think that people love to judge one another's relationships.  How many conversations have you had in your life that were about how wrong two people were for each other?  A lot, right?  Well, this is that on a national scale.  Of course, whenever you're judging a relationship, I think you're always insinuating that one part of the couple is wrong or poorly matched to the other.  There's an implicit (or, sometimes direct) suggestion that one of the people is inferior.  I think we see that with Vienna, who comes off as fake, desperate, cloying, etc.  My question to you is why does she illicit those responses from us?  Is she not successfully playing the role we've assigned her?  What is it about Vienna (and others of her ilk who have come before) that makes everyone hate her?  If Jake really thinks she's the bee's knees, who are we to judge? Edan: Well said, Husband!  Regarding this idea of repetition, one of the things that bothers me most about the show, and which I also depend on and anticipate each time a new episode begins, is the use of overly familiar and vague language.  As you've pointed out, the contestants from season to season use the same key phrases (if another person refers to the process as "the journey" I'm going to throw up), and Jake repeatedly describes the women he likes in the same bland terms.  For instance, in the last episode we watched, where he and three of the women go to St Lucia, he kept saying, in confessional, "She's amazing"--and he was referring to a different woman each time!  The women, too, aren't able to tell us why they actually like Jake, other than to say stuff like, "He's the kind of guy I've always dreamed of," or, the most meaningless of phrases, "He's perfect."  In many ways, the rhetoric of the confessionals is a fiction writing teacher's nightmare: all telling, cliched language, absent of specificity and individualized, perspective-driven emotion. But I wonder, is that the comfort of the show?  And is that the comfort of the marriage narrative?  I wonder if the scenic action on the show--the scenes we see of Vienna and Jake making out on the deck of a pirate ship, for instance--is meant to suggest the spontaneity of a romantic relationship, while the voice-overs and direct addresses to the viewer, emphasize the comfort, the familiarity, of that same relationship.  A fantasy of marriage, in other words, one perfectly counterbalanced by risk and safety. It's funny you should should bring up Vienna, the show's villain.  She's been demonized on the tabloids and the other contestants disliked her. You say she's fake, cloying, and so on--but, you know what?  I love her!  This has been my favorite season of "The Bachelor" because Jake, for all his washboard ab dullness, has made some surprising choices.  Yes, he got rid of your favorite hot girl, Gia (Lord, is that crush getting tiresome), but he kept her for much longer than either of us expected.  And Vienna continues to hang on, and online gossip says she is the ultimate winner.  She's not the prettiest, she's got terrible extensions, and her relationship with her father (she's a self-described "Daddy's Girl" ) is questionable.  Vienna subverts our expectations.  The villain is not meant to win this kind of show!  Nobody is supposed to want a villainous wife!  What do you make of Jake's choice to keep her on the show?  And how do you compare her to sweet and wholesome Tenley, the woman of "values" with the I-was-molested-as-a-child porn star voice? Patrick: Vienna's father uttered one of the truly remarkable phrases in recent TV history, when he said (and I'm paraphrasing here):  "You want a good wife?  She'll be a good wife.  You come home, your house will be clean, your kids will be raised right."  It's perfectly acceptable to want a marriage where only one spouse has to work (you could point out how unlikely this is on a pilot's salary, but that might poke some unwanted holes in the narrative), but coming from her father, it seems wrong, somehow.  Like that's all she has to offer.  Vienna seems to represent a certain kind of person in America.  I think the fact that you (and some of the other women on the show) see her bad dye job and her unsubtle tan, and what they really see is a clue about class, right?  She just seems lower class than some of the other girls (like Ali, who has a plum first-world job tending the cloud at Facebook).  That seems significant to me, since the show is pretty much an aspirational narrative.  We forget that the origins of The Bachelor aren't that far from the sordid Fox shows like Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?  A previous bachelor was heir to the Firestone tire fortune, and a major part of his narrative was that he had a ton of money and would make some lucky girl into a real life princess.  Another Bachelor was titled nobility somewhere (they filmed that season in a castle, in case the fairy tale element wasn't obvious enough).  I think that's what America sees in Vienna.  They have dyed hair and spray tans.  Many of them want the sort of rigidly defined gender roles that Vienna's dad described.  And if Vienna can win, it means they can be the princess (in a standard middle-class fantasy life in suburban Dallas). Speaking of Ali, when we were watching the episode in which she had to choose between keeping her job and staying on the show, you remarked that it was the typical "Man or career: you can't have both," dilemma that women have been confronted with for years.  In a way, this season's final four encapsulates the show's reactionary sexual politics quite nicely.  Of the final four, Ali had to choose between her job and her love life, Gia was too sexy, maybe, to get a husband, leaving the slightly lower-class woman who the man could dominate economically, and Tenley, the juvenile one, who he could dominate psychologically and physically.  Or maybe I'm just a cynic.  Tenley seems like a bland religious type (there's one in every season, though, like the villain, they don't often make it to the finals).  Jake's connection with her is all about "values," which I think means that they don't think gay people should get married (though that's never explicitly addressed).  She's juvenile, in a creepy sort of way.  My question to you is why does The Bachelor -- a show with a largely female audience -- continue to enforce these sexist stereotypes of what a women can (and in some cases, should) be?  Why can't sexy Gia be a wife (or villainous Vienna)?  Why does Ali have to choose between her man and her career?  And if we can agree that the show does reinforce some retrograde ideas about gender, why do so many women enjoy it?  Is it a self-loathing thing? Edan: You write, "And if Vienna can win, it means they can be the princess (in a standard middle-class fantasy life)." You may have a point, but how do you read the public's vilification of her, then?  Most people (not me!) don't want her to win.  They don't believe she's worthy of Jake, worthy of the life he would provide for her. So if she doesn't deserve to be the princess, do they?  Does her vilification mean we don't believe the classes are as porous as we've been taught?  Or perhaps this season of The Bachelor proves that love (or at least sexual attraction) conquers all, and that Jake--Mr. Values, Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Stable, Mr. Right--will choose the former Hooters waitress over the classy Christian woman simply because he likes her better. This seems to return the show to its purported roots: a narrative of two people finding one another and discovering an undeniable connection despite a series of obstacles.  So why the outrage? Fans of Ali protest that picking Vienna wouldn't be a wise choice, but that brings me back to the question of marriage, and what it means in our cultural imagination.  How is choosing Vienna unwise?  Cannot one's wife be a bratty 23-year-old? Perhaps that's what Jake wants in the end: a fun girl to take care of.  Maybe "dominate economically" is the official term, I don't know.  When Jake asked Vienna how she imagined marriage, she said she expected it to be like they were kids, just so in love, doing what they pleased, kissing all the time.  This definition of marriage must be devalued in the eyes of the viewers.  I agree that her vision is a little narrow, but, then again, it's not a totally inaccurate depiction of marriage, or ours, at least.  But is there only one definition of marriage?  I marvel at how many woman on the show have mentioned "the fairy tale" narrative--as if that were the only one, and as if, as if!, this were a plausible reality.  Never do these women point out that the fairy tale ends with the wedding. It's funny that you think Jake kicked Gia to the curb because she's too sexy. That's definitely your biased interpretation; I'm not so sure Gia is as sexy as you keep exclaiming.  I actually think she was kicked off because she's from New York City, and still lives there. Jake was intimidated, perhaps turned off by, her cosmopolitan lifestyle. In the narrative in Jake's mind, one can date a New Yorker, can revel in the Carrie Bradshaw fantasy of it, but that woman isn't wife material.  On the show, his explicit reason for dumping her was that she "didn't open up" as much as he needed her to. Every season, we see this conflict; the game requires the women profess their love, but strategically: not too early, and not too late.  Perhaps this is one of the appeals of the show: it mirrors the dating life, if that mirror were in a fun house.  Maybe the fantasy of The Bachelor isn't that woman will revert to these outdated  gender roles that you speak of, but that there are single men out there who want to get married and have children.  They're ready for the commitment, and, on top of that, they require a woman to speak her heart.  Usually, it's women who are asking this of men, not the other way around.  Perhaps, here, this reversal of roles, is what gets the female viewership off.  Maybe they're turned on by the anti-Old School story that The Bachelor perpetuates. Patrick: You're probably correct that I'm inventing the "Gia's too sexy" narrative, in part because the women on the show aren't sexualized (at least not in the context of hypersexualized contemporary American culture).  On this show, it's the man who is sexualized.  It's Jake who soaps his abs for the camera.  Even the scenes where the women are in bikinis are pretty tame.  It's clearly a show for women, and I'm not supposed to be thinking about who is the sexiest, only who is the best mate, the most fitting for Jake.  It's another reason Jake is a bit of a rogue, as far as Bachelors go -- he's probably going to choose Vienna, and a part of the equation has to be her sexuality.  As for the New York angle, there's certainly some validity to that, though Jake was pretty comfortable with Ali, who lived in San Francisco.  I think it was also that Gia was ethnically a New Yorker -- she had an accent, etc. -- while Ali was suitably blond and "All American." In the end, I think the show succeeds because it holds different appeal for different people.  For those in a committed relationship, they can mock the people proclaiming to have fallen in love after just a few hours together.  Those who are still looking for a partner can feel a bit of envy, and more than a touch of escapism.  My issues with the show remain its cliched portrayal of love as the result of some sort of checklist.  Does your partner:  look good, enjoy the outdoors, drive a truck, proclaim to want kids, have a Golden Retriever and believe in traditional marriage?  Then it must be love!  Maybe this season has been so enjoyable because it has, to some small degree, subverted this idea. Nobody can put their finger on why Jake likes Vienna precisely because she doesn't conform to that checklist.  (Does your partner have a bad dye job, a strange ex-marriage and a 401K from her days as a Hooters waitress?  Then you're in love!)  This version of the show, early on at least, had a bit of spontaneity to it, something earlier seasons have lacked. Of course, if Jake picks Tenley tonight, then everything I just said is moot. He'll have chosen the same kind of goodie-goodie they always pick.  Most people, I think, would be happy with that, but I think I'm coming around to your opinion, that choosing Vienna is the more interesting way to go.  I wouldn't want to be married to her, but who can say what's in Pilot Jake's heart? Edan: Amen to that.  Can't wait to see what happens tonight. When I was a kid, my vision of marriage was eating dinner in front of the television with a handsome and witty man who'd read The Dialectic of Enlightenment.  Dreams do come true.
Screening Room, Staff Picks

Father, Son, and Silver Screen: David Gilmour’s The Film Club

With the Oscars just around the corner, here's a wonderfully curious memoir of a father, his son, and their shared love of film. A few years ago, Canadian novelist and occasional CBC arts commentator David Gilmour was faced with a family crisis. His teenage son Jesse was struggling with school and with life. A deal was struck. Gilmour would let his son leave school on condition that they watch three films together, at home, each and every week. Running the gamut from classics to popcorn, these films - or more accurately, the shared experience of watching them together - prompted discussion where there had been no discussion and generated inspiration to fill a void. The Film Club is David Gilmour's memoir of this period in his life. Written with a novelist's attention to detail and a film buff's ear for dialogue, this is a gripping tale of a father and son and the desperate desire to get a loved one's life back on track, to inspire and be inspired by.
Screening Room

Brodsky’s Cat: Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s A Room and a Half

“What is a cat but a reduced lion?”  So muses the fictionalized Joseph Brodsky character in Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s whimsical and inventive film, A Room and a Half.  The film is a mesh of genres – bio-documentary, animated fairy tale, imagined fiction, non-fictional re-enactment; in other words, a distinctly contemporary approach (fragmentary, liberal in its notion of “facts,” unconcerned with delineations between objective and subjective) to discovering the “truth” of a man’s life and essence. The cat in question is both real and imagined, remembered and created.  Brodsky did have a pet cat as a child growing up in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) – and Khrzhanovsky would have us believe that Brodsky’s first poems may have been channeled through a cheeky chain-smoking cartoon cat of the boy Joseph’s daydreams.  At one point in the film, the pet cat becomes a more literal surrogate for Brodsky; his mother Masva (played by the wonderful Alisa Freindlich) speaks to the cat as if her now-exiled son were inhabiting its consciousness. How does a poet become a poet?  When does he know?  What drives his lyric impulse, of what is his soul made?  Such are the common questions posed in biographical works about artists; A Room and a Half explores them in delightfully uncommon ways. Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky was born in 1940, a little over a year before the siege of Leningrad.  His father was a photographer in the Soviet Navy and retired when Brodsky was still a young boy; thus Brodsky, an only child, enjoyed the loving attentions of both parents.  He began writing poetry when he was 17 and was soon lauded by Anna Akhmatova as a gifted lyric voice.  In 1964, he was sentenced to five years in exile in northern Russia at hard labor for "social parasitism.”  He served one year of that term, until the sentence was commuted in 1965, following protests by prominent Soviet and foreign literary figures.  In 1972, he was forced into exile abroad; after brief stays in Vienna and London, he moved to the United States, where he became naturalized in 1977.  Among many other awards and honors, Brodsky received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and was U.S. Poet Laureate in 1991.  His essays on art and politics won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and he translated the metaphysical English poets, as well as the work of Czeslaw Milosz, into Russian – despite the fact that most of his own work has appeared only in the West.  Brodsky died of a heart attack in 1996, at age 56, having never again seen his parents nor returned to Russia despite ceaseless efforts to gain permission for his parents’ leave and/or for him to visit. It is no surprise that a central theme of Khrzhanovsky’s Brodsky story is return: an elder Brodsky - let’s say a fictional 57 – travels by ship to his native St. Petersburg.  En route, he remembers, narrates, imagines.  Animated cats, crows, and other winged figures (Khrzhanovsky is primarily known as a master animator) populate the screen, i.e. Brodsky’s memory and imagination.  In one of the film’s most memorable visual moments, young Joseph, who has just witnessed the selling off of the family piano (likely more of a confiscation than a sale, the first ominous signs of Jewish removal from Leningrad), imagines all the musical instruments of the city staging a kind of inspired/conspired escape, floating high above the monumental structures of history and politics, and reuniting to form a heavenly orchestra in the sky. In Khrzhanovsky’s version of Brodsky’s childhood Leningrad, there is dancing and music, silliness and sex, poet-cats and ice-skating crows.  A childhood is a childhood, he seems to suggest, Stalin or no Stalin.  In one scene, young Joseph mock-meows through choir rehearsal while a sizable bust of Stalin is being carried to the next room.  The two student couriers falter, the bust crashes to the ground; the students follow suit, bowing down to their fractured great leader.  Joseph, meanwhile, sneeks peaks at his choir mistress’s ample cleavage and panty lines. Russian absurdist comedy in all its glory, you might say; a genius for foreground/background reversals. But it’s not all fun and games; Khrzhanovsky tethers his alternating vaudevillian stage show/nostalgic fever-dream to fragments of Brodsky’s own essays, poems, and drawings, which, along with the conceit of the trip home to St. Petersburg and a general sense of chronology, creates a just-enough through-line for the viewer.  In the movement between real and imagined and back again, there is a sense of searching and longing, casting and reeling; a poetic interest in the elusiveness of knowledge. The film’s essential Russianness may be found in its embrace of nostalgia.  A Room and a Half not only allows for the fictional Brodsky’s particular nostalgia, but seems to suggest it as the indispensable poetic impulse.  For what is nostalgia but the memorializing of loss?  In my favorite animated sequence, the two crows – spiritual avatars for Brodsky’s parents – sit wrapped in one another’s affectionate wings, mesmerized by the graceful pair figure skaters (possibly Olympic/World Champions Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, who defected to Switzerland in 1979) performing on television. (Brodsky’s father is also shown a few times watching the same skating sequence on the television in their Leningrad apartment.) In a later scene, Brodsky phones his mother from the US, and he asks her to remind him of the lyrics of an old Russian folk song.  She begins to sing; Brodsky’s father, then the neighbors, join in; and by the end of the rousing chorus, mother Brodsky is overwhelmed - seemingly hollowed-out - by a sadness much greater than her original feeling of missing her son.  The contrast between the sweet crow scene and this one is clear; Brodsky’s parents and their generation have lost their children, their jobs, their homes; but also they have lost Russia – the glorious vibrancy and elegance of their culture. It fascinates me that Khrzhanovsky, a 69 year-old Russian native, would explore Brodsky’s life in such mild, domesticated tones.  A reduced lion, indeed.  Even the actor who plays the elder Brodsky, Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy, has none of the real Brodsky’s pointed features but rather more soft, bulbous ones.  In the end, A Room and a Half reminds us that we are each, first and last, someone’s son or daughter.  A great literary figure like Brodsky came from somewhere; he was a son of Russia (expelled), of Sasha and Masva Brodsky (beloved).  His poetry did not reach Russia, and his mother (in the film) claims that “We never really understood your poetry, you know.”  It was this lack of understanding that made young Brodsky crave solitude and rebellion as a youth, to flee the "nest."  But "then one day a man realizes that the nest is gone,” ruminates the Brodsky voiceover. “The people who gave him life are dead. He realizes that the only real thing in his life was that nest.” When the lights came up on A Room and a Half, I was left with a feeling of both sadness and elation.  Art and solitude, exile and loss.  The enlivening fantasy of return.  Loss rendered as both epically tragic and as everyday as it comes.  We remember, but we never recover.  A Room and a Half is an artfully-realized remembrance – ultimately a journey into the dream-reality of loss that has shaped both poet and filmmaker, and, the film suggests, anyone who has ever longed for home. A Room and a Half is playing at Film Forum in New York City through Feb. 2. [Image credit: Film Forum]
Screening Room

Circular Dread: The Narrative Pleasures of Damages

The opening scene of Vertigo is one of the most spectacular in film: across a series of San Francisco rooftops, the city and bay glittering in the background, a cop and a detective chase a criminal—until the detective slips and the cop falls to his death. Hanging from a ledge that seems certain to rip away, Jimmy Stewart eyes the twisted body below him, and the movie’s narrative is set. Will Stewart’s acrophobic sleuth conquer his vertigo as he trails a possessed woman who’ll also take a plunge? We watch to find out, even though the film’s dominant image—and theme—has already been revealed. I thought of Vertigo, Hitchcock’s masterwork, as I watched the latest episode of Damages, the FX series starring Glenn Close that returned for its third season this Monday. Nominally a legal drama, the show’s serpentine plotting and titrated flashes of violence make it a first-rate thriller, and Close plays her quasi-villain to the hilt. As Patty Hewes, an attorney more ruthless and brilliant than any before seen on TV, she projects ambiguity at every moment. It’s impossible to know what her role in the plot is, a tension only heightened by Damages’ “flash forwards,” which depict each season’s brutal denouement from the outset. This season’s premiere showed Tate Donovan’s character, Patty’s right-hand man, in a body bag, while six months earlier he’d become a named partner at her firm. The image of his death is returned to again and again, as the temporal gap starts to close. This back-and-forth dynamic is nothing new—it’s the classic whodunit structure, and the show’s creators have credited the Greek tragedies as an inspiration—but as Vertigo did back in 1958, Damages makes the conceit an integral part of its effect. As compelling as Close is (she towers over her incipient awards rival Julianna Margulies, whose attorney character on CBS’s The Good Wife would be chewed up by Patty in court), the show’s obsessive, almost fetishistic circling is what keeps me watching. It heightens the suspense, yes, but it also viscerally expresses the main characters’ central emotion: a constant, uncertain dread. As a narrative tactic, the flash forward enacts a perfect mimesis for the viewer. It’s an impressively artful technique at a time when TV still hews to conventional (read: boring) three-act plots, with conclusions that are all too predictable. Shows that neatly wrap up at the end of every episode have a better shot at maintaining ratings both seasonally and year to year, since missing an episode doesn’t matter. In its first year, viewership for Damages fell from roughly 3.7 million to around 1.4, where it perilously remains. A new ABC series this fall, FlashForward, in which an earthquake-like event gives everyone in the world a glimpse of their lives six months hence, experienced a similar decline and may now be canceled. (The show is based on a 1999 science-fiction novel of the same name, a genre that has the future-present duality at its core.) Even Lost, a one-time juggernaut that also features flash forwards, kicks off its sixth and final season next week. But plenty of shows have complicated plots that reward consistent viewing, especially premium fare like HBO’s Big Love (which, in its fourth season, continues to mesmerize). And many have earned the honorific “literary,” or “novelistic,” like the incomparable The Wire. It’s also true that Damages is not quite in their league, given its tendency for outright melodrama and writing that could be sharper across the board. This season’s Madoff-inspired story arc already seems tired, despite the presence of Lily Tomlin and Martin Short as the family’s respective matriarch and lawyer. (And what else can possibly be said about Patty’s relationship with Ellen, her protégé-turned-nemesis? Rose O’Byrne is still wooden in the perpetually fuzzy role—the show might be better off without her.) But by employing the flash forward, Damages is innovating in a way these other shows haven’t, in a medium that’s traditionally an also-ran in trends of any kind. Eleven years after Vertigo was released, Robert Coover published his remarkable story collection Pricksongs & Descants, including the celebrated piece “The Babysitter.” In it, a period of about two hours is dissected into various characters’ perspectives and moments that go in and out of linear sequence. (The 1995 film adaptation starring Alicia Silverstone notably flattened out this bumpy chronological terrain.) By the end, the story—ostensibly about a young woman who’s raped while the couple she’s babysitting for are at a dinner party—is beside the point, smothered in a pile-up of implausible, outlandish details. Coover’s point is to show the narrative sleight of hand at work—a literary tradition we may take for granted now but which Damages brought to TV.
Notable Articles, Screening Room

Nobody Wants to Go Home: A Unified Theory of Reality TV

I. In the 1990s, a scourge swept across the world of entertainment.  It threatened the livelihoods of those in the creative industry and presented a world where the average person, dwelling in obscurity, could be plucked from the masses and made a star.  It was equal parts thrilling and horrifying.  No, I'm not talking about the internet, I'm talking about its cultural predecessor, reality television.  Reality TV was supposed to devour television.  It was going to make writers and actors irrelevant, and single-handedly lower the national reading level by two full grades.  Reality television became shorthand for stupidity and quickly found a place as a scapegoat for one side or another of the culture war.  These shows, with their cameras hidden and seen, were Orwellian nightmares come to life, Jean Beaudrillard essays in pixelated form.  They were the beginning of the end of the world.  Except that they weren't.  They didn't really do any of the things they were feared to do.  And yet, though their overall presence on the airwaves is a fraction what it was at their peak, their influence remains enormous. We can say this now, from our perch in the shiny new decade.  We've largely moved on to other fascinations, other distractions.  We're scapegoating Twilight now, and we're all terrified of the internet. Or we're terrified of Twilight and scapegoating the internet.  Paris Hilton has moved on to Twitter.  We've all moved on to Twitter.  But it wasn't too long ago when none of this seemed possible.  It was a time before Lost, before The Wire, before the end.  It was the glory days of reality television, and it all started on a cable network that had hours to fill, and little money with which to fill them. II. MTV wanted to make a soap opera.  Like all the new cable networks, they had to fill the hours.  America, it turned out, had an insatiable appetite for television, and the new cable networks were struggling to keep up.  Some of them turned to re-runs of programs that had been modest hits in their original network incarnations -- the My Two Dads and Eight Is Enoughs of the world -- while others made cut-rate game shows and aired Just One of the Guys four times a day. MTV had tried a few different things to kill time -- most notably, a twenty-year experiment in which they showed music videos in their entirety  -- but had finally settled on a strategy of appealing to youth culture:  the eternal fountain of disposable income.  MTV's dilemma, however, was that, while it recognized that a soap opera would likely be popular and would round out its lineup of oversexed game shows and quasi-journalistic news programs, they lacked the funds to produce such a show.  Their solution was brilliant -- they'd simply make a show without actors or writers -- two of the most expensive parts of any decent soap opera. The result was The Real World, whose premise was neatly summed up in its introductory statement:  "This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start being real."  That I can remember this sentence, awkward though it may be, with greater ease than I can The Pledge of Allegiance is testament to the incredible success of The Real World.  Not only is it the longest running program in MTV's history (the network recently renewed the program for a 26th season), it created an entire category of programming and influenced some of the most successful shows on television today. III. The first two seasons of The Real World contain the seeds of all reality television, as well some elements that would find their way into today's most successful scripted programming.  At first glance, the first season of The Real World appears to be a collection of random, diverse twenty-somethings thrown together in Manhattan.  A closer look reveals that all of the cast members, from model/actor wannabe Eric Nies to writer/journalist Kevin Powell, aspired to a career in entertainment or the arts.  The casting logic of the show was fairly simple:  find some young people willing to try this experiment in exchange for some exposure.  In this way, the cast member's situation wasn't unlike that of today's bloggers and vloggers -- they worked for free in exchange for an audience, presumably with the hope that the experience would translate into a career.  For some it did; for others, not so much. The first season of The Real World relied heavily on the pressures of their various careers for dramatic tension.  We saw the characters balancing the time commitments of practice, rehearsal and performance with their newfound quasi-family unit back at the loft, a situation the young audience for the show could begin to appreciate.  This balancing act -- with help from some racial tension -- blew up infamously when Kevin missed a group dinner meeting and was threatened with expulsion from the loft and the show.  In the end, Kevin remained, but one could see that this episode, easily the most dramatic of the season, would not be an isolated incident in future iterations of the show. Season two of The Real World is, arguably, the single most important season of any TV show of the last twenty years.  It is one of those watershed moments that happens once or twice a generation.  The first season of The Sopranos was such a moment.  The third season of Mad Men, one could argue, was another. The second season of The Real World is so important because it revealed the flaws in the show's premise and, more importantly, several ways to work around those flaws.  It provided, in a way, the template for all of the major reality TV shows to follow, though one could be forgiven for not realizing it at the time. The second season took roughly the same premise as the first and moved it to Los Angeles, where it played up the aspirational angle a little bit more.  Again we saw characters who desired fame and success -- singer Tami, comedian David, country singer Jon -- and again there was a healthy dollop of racial and sexual tension.  This volatile mix exploded mid-season when David "assaulted" Tami, pulling a blanket off of her after she repeatedly asked him not to, revealing her in her underwear.  For this crime -- something kids at camp do every summer -- David was forced out of the house and off the show entirely. Several aspects of the controversy are worth noting.  Firstly, the incident initially appeared to be a joke.  While the house was somewhat divided over how serious it was (from where I stand, it's pretty clear that David was trying to be funny and, maybe, a little bit flirty), the general consensus, at first blush, was that it wasn't a big deal.  It was only after the issue was rehashed several times in the confessional that each person seemed to realize it as a moment of great import.  One could almost see each cast member realizing that this made great drama as the issue built and built. In the end, the producers cited Tami's request for safety and removed David. Secondly, it's no coincidence that the two characters at the heart of the major strife in seasons one and two were both black men.  The Real World aimed to be a microcosm of American society, and at least in this respect, it succeeded.  Black men would find themselves vilified and ostracized for much of the show's run. While the house may have been split on David's departure, the audience ate it up.  Removing him from the show turned out to be the single most interesting thing to happen that season.  This speaks to both how dramatic the confrontation and aftermath were as well as to how boring the rest of the show was.  No character signified the stagnation of season two more than country singer Jon, who spent nearly every minute of his screentime watching television and drinking Kool-Aid.  The producers' disgust with Jon must've been intense.  How does one build an aspirational story arc around someone who refuses to do much of anything? If season two hinted at the potential that overt conflict might play on the program, season three confirmed it.  When the noxious Puck refused to play nice with his fellow cast members, particularly the saintly AIDS patient Pedro Zamora, he found himself voted out of the house by popular decree.   Here, long before the phrase "voted off the island" became a popular idiom, we see the template that reality shows would use for years to come.  If people tune in to find out if someone might get booted off the show, what if you kicked someone off every episode? Additionally, season three marks one of the last seasons the cast members would be left to their own devices (Season four's setting in London was interesting enough to generate drama on its own).  In subsequent seasons, Real Worlders would be asked to do a variety of tasks, including working with children (a disastrous idea, considering that alcohol was fast becoming a vital component of every RW season) to running a tanning salon (okay, spray tanning salon, but still).  The shows may not have lacked for drama, but they needed a scaffolding to hang that drama on, and it would have to come from outside the house. IV. It is difficult to remember how revolutionary that first season of The Real World felt.  Here were people, attractive people, yes, but regular folks (something that would become less and less the case as the seasons wore on) living their lives.  The emotion on the show seemed real.  When characters fought, the scenes became simultaneously difficult to watch and irresistible.  There was an untamed, unpredictable quality to these scenes that made them compelling.  Something might happen; this was the "real world" after all.  (The producers should be given some credit for simply getting out of the way.  One has to imagine the network wasn't pleased when the season one cast decided to de facto endorse presidential candidate Jerry Brown by painting the number for his donation hotline on the wall of their loft, and yet they allowed it.) In addition to its unpredictability, the show was a voyeur's dream.  These people were fascinating!  Watching them do the most basic things -- eat a bowl of cereal or prepare for bed -- felt illicit, like we were privileged to something special and unique.  Nobody, it turns out, ate a bowl of cereal exactly like you did. And when they revealed something unique about themselves -- such as Heather B.'s infatuation with NBA all star Larry Johnson ("Larry Johnson is so fine!") -- it was revelatory.  Reality TV almost certainly created the now ubiquitous straw man argument "Why do I care what you ate for breakfast today?"  That this question is raised about so much that happens online is no coincidence.  It's certainly possible that our 90s diet of reality TV validated our own solipsism, which bore fruit during the latter half of the 2000s, when web 2.0 made it possible for us to share our own lives with the world. Whatever the case, the initial infatuation with "reality" didn't last.  A few things broke the spell.  For one thing, The Real World started to seem less and less real.  Cast members knew the experiences of previous Real Worlders, lending the entire show a meta quality that it previously lacked.  The first episode of every Real World season now consists mostly of people waiting to discover exactly how awesome the house will be.  They also know that each season involves a trip to some fun, exotic locale, and they anticipate these trips, discussing where they might go. This acknowledgment of the conceit is present in any long-running reality show.  It can't be that the women of The Bachelor all came up with the phrase "here for the right reasons" on their own, can it?  Rather they learned that phrase through watching previous seasons of the show, just as the girls of America's Next Top Model learned to scream "Tyra Mail!" every time the show's producers drop off one of their cryptic missives.  In fact, the dialogue of the shows is often so codified as to seem scripted.  They may not have employed a writer to produce such gems as "Nobody wants to go home," and "I'm not here to make friends," but the result is the same. For these programs, built around elaborate elimination rituals and repetition of formulas, this self-awareness is both inevitable and even desirable -- if someone follows the show enough to know its every twist and turn, to be able to trace the patterns of the show, then the show must have truly reached a place of importance.  It's affirming for the product to be emulated in this manner.  And when that emulation includes asserting, repeatedly "This is real, okay?", all the better. For other shows, the effect is less desirable.  Certainly The Hills struggled to maintain its veneer of "reality."  It was difficult to convince the audience that Lauren Conrad was living anything resembling a normal life, even by the bizarre standards of an affluent LA party girl, when she was simultaneously the Teen Vogue covergirl and an intern at the magazine.  It's no wonder that the show's "characters" seem to burn out after a few seasons.  It can be difficult to keep up the illusion. At some point, even the people on The Real World began to seem less real.  Gone were the mildly overweight, the slightly odd looking.  Each cast began more and more to resemble an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.  The show lost its ties to the artistic world (always tenuous at best) and became primarily about clubbing and hot-tubbing.  It ceased to be a mirror into the everyday lives of its characters and became more the document of a long vacation. The shift in focus from reality to fantasy isn't unique to The Real World.  Reality TV is no longer about reality, not the world that any of us live in, anyway (if it ever was).  Most reality TV shows are just game shows containing reality TV elements.  Survivor, Big Brother, The Biggest Loser, America's Next Top Model, and The Bachelor are all long game shows in which the contestants play for a prize much larger than anything they might have won on The Price is Right (Indeed, on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, they compete for a spouse). No game show has made more of The Real World's great revelation than American Idol has:  that being real is all well and good, but what people really want is blood (metaphorically speaking).  Idol was among the first shows to take the next step of involving the audience in the fate of its cast members, upping the ante just that much in the process.  In fact, the show makes entire episodes out of the elimination ceremonies. The only non-game show reality shows left are about people who were most decidedly unreal.  Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that we only wanted to watch people do nothing if we'd already watched them do something.  Today, the only reality shows that simply follow people around in their daily lives are celebrity-based shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians (Featuring Kim Kardashian, a celebrity famous for appearing in the 2000s version of a reality show, the internet sex tape).  The lone exceptions to this rule are what might be called "anthropological shows," programs that aim to show us a life we will never lead.  Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives of Wherever, The Hills, and the myriad shows about bizarre families are exemplar of this.  Equal parts curiosity and incredulity attract viewers to these shows.  Reality TV has ceased to try to show us normalcy, perhaps because it no longer needs to. Around the time The Real World drifted into the land of fantasy, the internet emerged from its awkward adolescence to become a platform for personal expression that made anyone who so desired into a kind of quasi-reality TV character.  One could write an online journal (they called them blogs) or video themselves doing... well, anything.  With that kind of capability, reality TV was free to explore the less commonplace aspects of modern existence.  Occasionally, the mundane still has the power to amuse -- think about the craze created around The Situation's summertime Jersey Shore regimen of G.T.L. (Gym, Tan, Laundry) -- but it's not like it was.  For a few years there, watching people's lives was all we really wanted to do. V. Reality TV still has a massive footprint on television, but all but the biggest hits have moved back to cable, where they help fill the endless hours.  That isn't to say that reality TV's influence isn't felt in a variety of programs.   The confessional, perhaps The Real World's most important innovation, plays a key role in a new breed of sitcom.  The casts of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and several other shows often sit alone in a room and confess their thoughts to the camera in a direct address.  These shows revel in the mundane, appropriating the reality of The Real World and adding to it the perfection of scripted drama.  They bring back some of the imperfections of the early days of reality TV. It's difficult to say exactly why we retreated from reality television.  My own theory is that the watershed moment was the 9/11 terror attacks, a media event that was just a little too real.  After we'd seen that, reality was dead, so to speak.  We needed something other than ourselves, bigger than ourselves.  HBO had already begun the counterrevolution, airing The Sopranos in 1999, and continuing with Six Feet Under before finally reaching its apex with The Wire.  These were long-form narratives the likes of which a television audience had never seen.  Where television had seemed hopelessly shallow a few years earlier, suddenly it was entering a golden age.  Soon the networks were following suit, bringing out a series of expensive, indulgently fantastic dramas, most notably Lost, Heroes and 24. It might seem like a stretch to call the late surge of "quality" scripted dramas a direct reaction to the glut of reality TV that permeated the networks in the late 90s, but it appears to be the case.  Television moves in a somewhat cyclical manner, with each new generation proclaiming the death of the sitcom.  Perhaps each subsequent generation will proclaim the death of reality TV. If they do, they will be wrong, as the reality shows are proving as durable and adaptable as the sitcom, and it's no surprise that MTV leads the pack in innovation.  Just when it looks like The Real World is running on fumes, The Hills emerges from the ashes of Laguna Beach to become a phenomenon.  As The Hills wanes and Lauren Conrad decamps the more lucrative world of young adult fiction, Jersey Shore arrives, tanned and fist pumping its way into the zeitgeist.  In the world of reality, Ecclesiastes was right:  "There is no new thing under the sun." [Image credits: MTV]