Lists, Screening Room

The Long, Lonely Walk: Hallways in Horror Films

“The hallway is my sleep,” writes poet Rafael Campo. Hallways are simultaneously prosaic and oneiric. Hallways are all about perspective. Jean-Paul Sartre thought modern existence contained a “labyrinth of hallways, doors, and stairways that lead nowhere.” We believe -- structurally, metaphorically -- that all hallways end. Hallways were not meant for standing, but we adorn them with images. Li-Young Lee’s lines “The photographs whispered to each other / from their frames in the hallway” capture the sense of this place. I grew up in a ranch house defined by its long central hallway. My bedroom and the living room were on opposite ends of the hall. The New Jersey of my youth was a land of bottleneck traffic, creatively corrupt politicians, and suburbs lined with video rental stores. Whippany, my hometown, was graced with a Movie Van that delivered VHS tapes to doorsteps. The van was a suburban cinephile’s dream, but it didn’t have every horror movie I wanted. After I exhausted the late-night timer recordings on my VCR, I began borrowing obscure titles from older friends. I covered my eyes during The Beyond, a particularly gruesome Italian film set in Louisiana. When the movie ended and I turned off the television, I froze. I realized what scared me the most: that long walk down the silent hallway back to my bedroom. My brothers had moved out. My sister was home from college, but was on the phone in her room. My parents had gone to sleep after trying to convince me that I should do the same. I did what any kid with an overactive imagination would: I sprinted down the hallway, shut my door, and dove into bed. When I built up enough nerve to actually finish all of the horror movies I rented or borrowed, it became obvious that hallway scenes are an essential element of American and international horror films. Hallways are tight, narrow, walled, made for transit -- and yet sometimes our most sensitive moments are out in the hall, doors closed behind us. Hallways are places for tense encounters, confusion, and fear. Here are eight essential hallways from horror films. 1. The Shining (1980) Young Danny Torrence spends much of the film riding his Big Wheel through the hallways of the Overlook Hotel. His hypnotic travels reinforce the idea of the hotel as maze and labyrinth. A ball rolls along the carpet to Danny, and he looks up, allowing Stanley Kubrick to use the hallway structure as readymade perspective. During the first quarter of the film, viewers are introduced to the layout and grounds of the Overlook as if they were to be also hired as caretakers. Kubrick’s methodical method establishes expectations and curiosities. In our homes, hallways are spaces shared with those we know well; in hotels, hallways are tight byways, places where we share space with strangers. Jack is a stranger to his wife and son, and possibly to himself -- his Vermont teaching backstory is blurry in Kubrick’s treatment. He appears to have been birthed at this hotel, naughty from the start (he is casually reading an issue of Playgirl while waiting to meet with the hotel’s manager). Early in the film, he spends much time in the hotel lobby -- typing gibberish for hours, throwing a tennis ball at the wall, starring into a model of the hedge maze -- but as the film progresses, Jack is more confined to tight spaces: the Gold Room bathroom, the storeroom, and the hotel’s many hallways. Dick Hallorann’s long, slow walk seems to get longer and slower with each viewing of the film. The Shining continues past its final reel: a hallway without end. 2. Black Christmas (1974) The film’s anonymous killer hides in the attic of a sorority house, so he must descend through the upstairs hallway. Near the end of the film, Jess Bradford is alone in the big house, worried as much about the prank-calling killer as she is about her overbearing boyfriend -- who is enraged about her decision to get an abortion. Director Bob Clark, who would revisit this holiday in a lighter fashion within A Christmas Story, plays with hallways and tunnels throughout the film. The police attempt to trace the obscene calls made to the sorority, and the narrative cuts to a technician at the phone company trying to find the origin as he moves through hallways of sound. 3. The House of the Devil (2009) Viewers of horror films from the '80s remember the convoluted music interludes that preface the real horror. Think Silent Night, Deadly Night for the right amount of camp. Ti West’s film is a litany of horror homages, but his two-minute dance interlude is quite effective. College student Samantha Hughes spends the night house-sitting for strange owners. An ill, elderly family member rests upstairs, behind a closed door. Bored, Samantha pops a cassette of The Fixx into her Walkman, puts on her headphones, and rocks her way around the house. The song stops when she knocks over a vase in the upstairs hallway. In a later scene that nods to Rosemary’s Baby, Samantha walks down the hallway, knife in hand. She is not prepared for what happens next. 4. The Exorcist (1974) Regan MacNeil is sick, and her mother is desperate. She soon enlists the Catholic Church via nearby Georgetown University, where some Jesuits still dabble in that old-time ritual of exorcism. Father Damien Karras, perhaps the most haunted priest to ever appear on film, battles the demon that inhabits Regan. Beaten by the guilt of not caring for his ill mother, Karras limps his way through early attempts to banish the demon. William Friedkin holds Karras’s pause for a heavy moment. He stands between the domestic world and the supernatural world; are not bedrooms our most mystical spaces -- where we love and sleep? 5. Halloween (1978) I have always found John Carpenter’s film to be so perfectly suburban -- violence and mayhem in one house, silence and peace next door. Exhausted Laurie Strode has stabbed somnambulant killer Michael Myers in the neck. She tells the children she’s been babysitting to get help, and then do -- they run out the front door, their screams piercing the suburban silence. Moments later, as Laurie rests in the hallway’s doorframe, Myers rises. A blank-faced Lazarus, Myers is the perfect villain for horror in the home. 6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) In the climactic scene, the film’s title character finds that a hidden door in her closet leads to a hallway. Rosemary enters, and immediately faces a painting of a burning church. Rosemary's subsequent walk is funereal: her body has been drugged, her heart has been wounded, and her child has been taken. As in Halloween, the threshold between hallway and room becomes a place of union, but the effect is somehow opposite. The satanists in the room first appear banal, urban, engaged in a cocktail chatter, while the hallway Rosemary exited was the infernal place. Parley Ann Boswell sees Roman Polanski's work in this film as influential for Kubrick in The Shining: the long hallway “provides a sort of birth canal.” Rosemary is, at the least, reborn to a clearer sense of sight when she exits the hallway. 7. Suspiria (1977) Dario Argento’s film mixes pulsating images, almost impossible colors, and an overwhelming score by Goblin to create a psychotropic Black Mass. American dancer Suzy Bannion attends a ballet academy in Freiburg. After leaving practice, Suzy walks down a hallway. She encounters a strange woman and a child who put a spell on her. Hallways are transformative throughout the film. A red glow paints Suzy as she hopes to discover the evil secret within the school’s labyrinthine corridors. 8. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) The only place that might contain more charged memories than our childhood home is our high school. Nancy Thompson wakes in class to see the animated corpse of her friend Tina sitting next to her. A student in the front of the room drones lines from Hamlet, the class rapt. Nancy follows Tina’s blood trail to the hallway. It is best to end with a film about nightmares, because that is how we sometimes encounter hallways. We wake from a bad dream and rub our eyes. Unable to sleep, we walk down the hall, and though we know there is nothing to be afraid of, our fingers trail along the wall, hope for comfort in the dark.
Screening Room

The Unwritten Profile: On The End Of The Tour

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to The End of the Tour, the new film about a five-day interview between the writer David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, is that I finally started reading Wallace again. I hadn’t read him since his death in 2008, which hit harder than I expected, considering I had never read his greatest work, Infinite Jest. I feel the need to confess this up front, because The End of the Tour revolves around Infinite Jest; it’s the book that Wallace is promoting on his tour, it’s the book that Lipsky reveres with a mixtures of envy and gratitude, and it’s the book that Jason Segal, the actor who plays David Foster Wallace, read in solitude in a cabin in “the California boonies” in order to prepare for the role. My excuse for never having read Infinite Jest is that I was in college when it was first published, too busy making my way through classic mammoth novels to have time for contemporary ones. And then, by the time I graduated from college, Wallace’s books, especially Infinite Jest, had been so thoroughly colonized by ardent fans and critics that it no longer seemed like much fun to read Wallace. In other words, he got canonized. But before he was famous—or maybe, it’s better to say, before I knew he was famous—there was a two-year period when Wallace seemed to speak only to me via my parent’s magazine subscriptions and the public library. No one I knew read Wallace, my older sister didn’t read him, and my parents, astonishingly, didn’t even like him—they thought his prose was too self-conscious. So, he was mine. My secret portal to a new way of thinking and writing about the world, a way of thinking and writing that was infected by cable television, by email, and by the then-nascent internet, “the Web”. Wallace was the future. It made sense that my baby boomer parents couldn’t receive the message and that no one in my boondock town had heard of him. In retrospect, my proprietary feelings toward Wallace make me laugh because it doesn’t take a great critical mind to notice that, hey, this guy can really write! It’s also funny because Wallace is one of those writers that everyone feels connected to in a secret, special way. That’s one definition of literary genius, that ability to get into people’s head, to make them believe that they aren’t even reading, that they’re somehow thinking the sentences. Lipsky describes Wallace’s literary gift as “casual and gigantic; he’d captured everybody’s brain voice.” The End of the Tour is based on Lipsky’s 2010 Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a book that is basically a transcript of Lipsky’s interviews with Wallace at the end of his 1996 Infinite Jest book tour. I read it after watching The End of the Tour, curious to see how closely the film followed it, and was pleasantly surprised to find that almost all the dialogue was taken from the book. That said, the book is subtler than the movie (as books generally are), shaggier, funnier, less plot-driven, and less manipulative. Still, I loved the movie. It brought me straight back to my late teens, and to the beginning of certain literary dreams. It also brought me back to the late nineties, which is another way of saying that there is no way I can be even remotely objective about a film that begins with strains of R.E.M.’s “Strange Currencies”, a song so deeply stored in my memory banks that it inevitably dislodges the emotion-soaked memories surrounding it. If End of the Tour is actually a good movie, and not just a nostalgia trip for thirtysomethings like me, it’s good because it’s a road movie, and the cracked-open car windows let air and views of the open road into scenes that might otherwise be too cramped and talky. Because of bad weather, Lipsky and Wallace’s flights are cancelled, and they must drive the last leg of Wallace’s book tour. It’s an inconvenience that ends up being fortuitous for Lipsky, who observes that the interview only worked because of “the Henry Ford road trip equation: two men will become comfortable if they have to drive any distance in excess of 40 miles.” There’s something dreamy about a car trip, with the scenery whooshing by, with music playing, cigarettes burning (it’s the nineties, remember). Lipsky allows himself to get wistful in his introduction to Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: When I think of this trip, I see David and me in the front seat of the car. It’s nighttime. It smells like chewing tobacco, soda, and smoke. The window is letting in a leak of cold air. R.E.M. is playing. The wheels are making their slightly sleepy sound of tape being stripped cleanly and endlessly of a long wall. On the other hand, we seem not to be moving at all, and the conversation is the best one I’ve ever had. It seems doubtful that this was one of Wallace’s all-time favorite conversations. Lipsky interviews him at the end of a hugely successful book tour, a moment that Lipsky imagines as joyful and triumphant. But Wallace is fretful and self-conscious. He’s between projects, rarely a comfortable place for a writer, and he’s made even more uncomfortable by his growing awareness of his fame. He knows he needs to protect himself against this new genius-writer persona, otherwise he’ll lose the almost childish sense of privacy it took to write Infinite Jest. At the same time, if there’s a public persona happening, he wants a hand in shaping it. Wallace’s simplest defense is to deny that he is famous, or that he even cares about fame, one that Lipsky tries to tear down throughout his interview. He wants Wallace to cop to his ambition, both because (presumably) he wants some good quotes for his profile, but also because Lipsky is a novelist, too. He can’t help being curious about, and more than a little jealous of Wallace’s success. But instead of getting satisfying descriptions of the pleasures of literary fame, Lipksy gets quotes like this (excerpted from Lipsky’s book, not the screenplay): I follow the crap. But I struggle much harder against the temptation to follow the crap. And I follow it from more of a distance—and yeah, I have some sort of idea of it. But have some compassion. I mean, I’ve already told you that, like, I gotta be very careful about how much of this stuff I take inside. Because I go home, and I spend a month getting this manuscript ready [his 1997 essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again]. And then I got to start working on something else. And the realer this shit is to me, and the more I think about it—and, of course, you’re holding the tape recorder so that I will end up reading what I’ve said in this article. That will feed the self-consciousness loop. The irony is that Lipsky never ended up writing the piece that Wallace was so worried about reading. According to Lipsky, his editor changed his mind. This was a relief: “I tried to write, and kept imagining David reading it, and seeing through it, through me, and spotting some questionable stuff on the X-ray.” It seems important to me that Lipsky never wrote the profile, although the film doesn’t bother to mention it. If Lipsky had written the profile, he would have been forced to look at that “questionable stuff on the X-ray” and make a diagnosis. He probably would have had to cut all the Lipsky out of the interview, all the projections, all the posturing, all the angst, and figure out what story he wanted to tell about Wallace. But Lipsky couldn’t bring himself to do that, and so the material remains raw and unfiltered. It’s not clear what Lipsky is looking for when he presses Wallace, again and again, for a detailed report of what is feels like to be—what? Famous? Critically beloved? Quasi-canonized? A genius? The writer of Infinite Jest? The film tends to simplify the dynamic between the two men, with points of jealous conflict that don’t appear in Lipsky’s book. Jealousy is certainly an ingredient in Lipsky’s interview questions (and one he acknowledges in his preface) but the even simpler truth is that Lipsky was a young reporter without a lot of experience. Wallace was the first writer he ever interviewed. Jason Segal is already getting a lot of praise for his convincing portrayal of Wallace, but for me, Jesse Eisenberg’s interpretation of David Lipsky was more revealing. His performance reminded me of the thrill of reading Wallace as a teenager, of the way, when you finished his essays and stories, you felt smarter, more analytical, more curious, more observant. At the very least, you’d learned a new word or two. And you wanted to use those words in a sentence, immediately! In The End of Tour, you see Lipsky imitating Wallace without even meaning to, picking up his pronunciation of certain words, his mannerisms, his jokes, and even trying his chewing tobacco (he spits it out immediately). There’s a great moment when Lipsky and Wallace are smoking cigarettes in the car with two of Wallace’s friends. The windows are cracked to let the smoke out but cold air is whooshing in, causing Lipsky to announce, gleefully, “we’re on a hypothermia smoking tour!” One of Wallace’s friends comments that it “sounds like something Dave would say”. She says it without any particular malice; it’s as if this has happened before, with Dave’s new friends. I recognized myself in that scene, and I recognized the generation of writers who continue to live and wrestle with his legacy.
Screening Room

Four Uneasy Pieces: How Detroit Moved Beyond Ruin Porn

Not so long ago, Detroit tended to enter the popular imagination through one of three routes: pictures in coffee-table books, in art galleries, or on the Internet. You’ve seen those ubiquitous images of the city’s decline that fall under the banner of “ruin porn” -- such default spectacles as the gutted Michigan Central Station and Packard plant, along with artfully sagging houses, abandoned offices carpeted with lovely moss, picturesque trees sprouting out of piles of discarded textbooks, once-lordly theaters full of parked cars, grassy pampas where proud neighborhoods once stood. The vanguard of ruin porn were such books as The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, Detroit Disassembled by Andrew Moore, and American Ruins by Camilo J. Vergara, which centered on Detroit but included Camden, N.J., Gary, Ind., and other poster children for urban blight. In addition to these glossy books, there have been a fair number of gassy ones, such as last year’s A Violent Embrace: Art and Aesthetics After Representation by Renée C. Hoogland, who yammers about “presentness” and “instantiations of the phenomenon of pictoriality as such.” Out of this post-grad gas, Hoogland does manage to produce at least one clear insight about why Detroit ruin porn is so potent and so ubiquitous: It seems safe to say, however, that it is not so much the stories of Detroit, but its images, the visual imprint of its ruins, the horrifying pictures of its material disintegration, that form the most abiding impression of the city today, not only in the United States but around the world. Sad to say, she’s right. The facile visual shorthand of ruin porn has eclipsed nuanced narrative as a way of telling the complex story of Detroit. It doesn’t help that much of the verbal narrative has been journalism written by reporters who dropped in to do a story, then left. This drive-by posse didn’t do the city many favors. There has recently been a flowering of very fine books about Detroit -- by Mark Binelli, Charlie LeDuff, Anna Clark, and others -- but, as Hoogland pointed out, they don’t have the crack-pipe appeal of ruin porn’s fetishistic images. The absolute nadir of ruin porn has to be a video from 2013, the Detroit segment of the Tracing Skylines sponsored by Red Bull. In this segment, freestyle skiers do stunts in, around and on top of abandoned buildings in Detroit. Sometimes these young white bros pause to fret about the presence of “sketchy crackhead” (i.e., black) characters lurking near their video shoot. They might steal our expensive cameras and ski gear! White boys cavorting in the bombed-out remains of America’s blackest city -- it’s sickening and obscene. John Gallagher, the insightful reporter and architecture critic for the Detroit Free Press, rightly lumped such works together as “those dreary celebrations of ruins that came into vogue a few years ago.” Now, with the same astonishing swiftness that the city emerged from bankruptcy, Detroit has begun to go beyond ruin porn and take a different route to the popular imagination: movie screens. As Detroit native Mark Binelli has written, “Detroit’s brand has become authenticity.” Authenticity is one thing you cannot fake, and it may be the one thing filmmakers crave above tax breaks (which have been generous in Michigan but are now under severe political pressure by the Republican-controlled state legislature). The recent burst of movies shot in Detroit do not merely use the city as a backdrop to establish authenticity; they use the city as a character, as a crucial part of each movie’s atmosphere. There are many Detroits, but the one that’s making its way onto movie screens today is dark and moody. These movies don’t focus on the cheap thrill of photogenic ruins; they focus on the far deeper beauty that dwells in the shadows. Here are just four of the many recent movies that show how the Motor City moved beyond ruin porn to become an unlikely movie star: 1. Only Lovers Left Alive In 2013, Jim Jarmusch came out with a vampire/hipster mash-up set in Detroit and Tangier, featuring a pair of too-cool-for-school vampires named Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). He’s holed up in a gloomy mansion in Detroit’s once-opulent Brush Park, with his expensive guitars and vinyl record collection and a growing sense of despair at the folly of the human race; she’s at their second home in Tangier, reading Miguel de Cervantes and David Foster Wallace when she’s not copping super-pure blood from Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who’s still bummed, after all these centuries, that he didn’t get credit for writing the Bard’s stuff. You begin to get the idea that this movie isn’t about vampires so much as it’s about connoisseurs who have a heightened appreciation for art, music, and literature that surpasses that of mere mortals, who they deride as “zombies.” Which is to say it’s about people who, like Jim Jarmusch, are hip. Since Adam and Eve are vampires, the movie takes place entirely after dark. On blood-gathering missions, they drive through Detroit’s abandoned nighttime streets, occasionally passing a lone police car. The eeriness is nearly physical. The lovers do visit a ruin porn staple, the Michigan Theater, but the city doesn’t provide scenery so much as it provides atmosphere, a sense of limitless dread. When there’s nothing out there, anything is possible, and most of it is bad. 2. Buzzard The sublimely repulsive Joshua Burge plays small-time scam artist Marty Jackitansky in the title role of Joel Potrykus’s second movie, released last year. On one level it’s a paean to the slacker way of life: the poster reads “He’d stand up to the man if he wasn’t too lazy to get off the f*cking couch.” Actually, Marty does get off the couch. He works a shit temp job in a bank, which enables him to order expensive office supplies with company funds so he can exchange them for cash. He closes and reopens bank accounts to collect premiums. It’s a thing of horrific beauty to watch him lying in hotel bed slurping up a plate of room-service spaghetti. What he’s doing is noble, in its way: he’s living off the leavings of the consumer economy. When he swipes a pile of refund checks and signs them over to himself, Marty is forced to flee to the anonymity and relative safety of big bad dangerous Detroit. It’s the perfect place for a man to hit bottom and/or disappear. One of my favorite shots is when Marty scuffles along a sidewalk, a metal fence separating him from a vast platter of grass that used to be a bustling neighborhood. In the distance, the Motor City Casino shimmers in the sunshine. The shot captures the movie’s claim: the true villains here are the political and economic systems that brought Marty so low while promising, cynically and futilely, that casinos surrounded by prairies would be the salvation of a Detroit. 3. It Follows This sleeper indie hit makes clever use of that legendary DMZ known as 8 Mile Road, the northern city limit that separates largely black Detroit from its largely white suburbs. To the north of the DMZ, a hot teenage girl named Jay (Maika Monroe) is fending off her lovelorn pal Paul (Keir Gilchrist) while pursuing hunky Hugh (Jake Weary). When Hugh takes Jay into Detroit for a Motor City staple -- sex in the back seat of his car outside an abandoned factory -- he chloroforms her instead of offering a post-coitus cigarette. She wakes up in her underthings, tied to a chair in an abandoned factory, while Hugh spells it out: he has just given her some kind of virus and she will be pursued by slow-moving, deadly zombies until she passes on the virus by having sex with someone else. This isn’t your garden-variety STD; this is an STP, a Sexually Transmitted Possession. It Follows taps into the familiar suburban fear of the inner city. When the kids cross 8 Mile, there are suddenly a lot of boarded-up buildings, crappy cars, and black people, plus hookers hawking their wares outside abandoned buildings. They visit the abandoned house where Hugh is squatting. But then the movie cleverly upends the old narrative by making the suburbs the truly scary side of the DMZ, with their zombies only Jay can see, their generic architecture and cars, their twinned sense of anomie and dread. When the kids flee to a remote lake house up north, it gets even worse. You can’t run away because It follows, just like all the problems that resulted when politicians and corporations eviscerated Detroit and left it for dead. 4. Lost River Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut is uneven, to put it kindly, but it makes magnificent use of Detroit’s architecture and open spaces. Detroit stands in for the titular city, which gets its name from a reservoir that swallowed towns -- a watery metaphor for what happened to Detroit. Bones (Iain De Caestecker) is one of Lost River’s holdouts, a scavenger for salable copper. As one of his last neighbors, Rat (Saoirse Ronan), packs up and gets ready to flee, he tells Bones, “I don’t wanna leave here, but I wanna live. Get out of here while you can.” Like the grittiest Detroiters, Bones isn’t budging. Neither is his mother, Billy (Christina Hendricks), even though she has fallen behind on a predatory mortgage loan and is in danger of losing her home to foreclosure. In desperation she takes a job at a Federico Fellini-esque burlesque house. Bones, meanwhile, is determined to find out what’s under the surface of the reservoir, which, in a nice post-apocalyptic touch, has the tops of streetlights poking through its surface. Like the other movies on this list, Lost River is a sort of warped horror movie that uses the physical landscape of Detroit to establish a sense of abandonment and an atmosphere of menace and dread. It’s also a parable about late capitalism and globalization. What sets Lost River apart is its portrait of a family of die-hards who are determined to save their home -- their city -- because its theirs, and they love it, and it’s all they’ve got. Does this make them stubborn, stupid, or noble? You’ll never get an answer by looking at ruin porn. You need to go to Detroit and meet the people, the ones who stuck it out and the ones who have recently arrived. They’ll tell you the truth: there’s something in Detroit that will never die. Or as the late great Detroit poet Philip Levine put it, Detroiters are people who endure, “since that is the only choice we have.”
Screening Room

The Implications of Artificial Intelligence: On Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’

I thought of Shirley Jackson’s short story "The Lottery" as I watched the opening sequence of Ex Machina, a new film by Alex Garland. Caleb, played Domhnall Gleeson, peers into his computer in a techy looking office. He receives a message that he has won a lottery. As text messages pour in to congratulate him and co-workers clap his back, a look settles onto his face. Just as the opening of "The Lottery" glorifies our pastoral past too perfectly with flowers, “blossoming profusely,” Caleb, lit by the glow of his screen, seems to question. In a post-Edward Snowden world where our identities are tracked and online movements are monitored, is there such thing as random selection? After his win, Caleb is flown by helicopter to a remote spot in the mountains and told to follow the river, which isn’t easy with a rolling suitcase. He finds the house of the CEO Nathan, played by a perfectly hollow-about-the-eyes Oscar Isaac, and is asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Nathan’s house is actually a high tech research facility and Caleb has been brought in to conduct a test of a machine’s intelligence ability to pass as human, a Turing test. The rest film is structured around Caleb’s testing of Nathan’s artificial intelligence, Ava. Ava, in a subtle performance by Alicia Vikander, is visibly robotic, though parts of her have soft, perfect skin. Her arms, legs, and waist show her mechanics, shaped curves hug her breasts and bum. When I first saw her, with my tongue in cheek I thought: Ah, a female character reduced to the important parts. And in this kind of reaction lies the cleverness of this film. It plays out as a test of theory of mind, or "awareness of mind" as the film calls it -- the ability to understand your own beliefs, intents, and desires, but also to understand that someone else has a different set of the same. Robin Dunbar, a British evolutionary psychologist who specializes in primate behavior, studies how we hold several people’s intentions in our minds at the same time. In his book, Lucy to Language, he uses the example of Othello, that the plot requires audiences to understand, “that Iago intends that Othello imagines that Desdemona is in love with Cassio.” William Shakespeare requires the audience to understand four levels of mental representation. He raises it to a fifth level when, “Iago is able to persuade Othello that Cassio reciprocates Desdemona’s feelings.” To Dunbar, that is how Shakespeare weaves a narrative spell. Ex Machina works on a similar level. Without spoiling the plot, the fun of the film lies in that Nathan intends that Caleb imagines that Ava is or is not feeling about Caleb, who may or may not believe Nathan. Kyoko, Nathan’s servant becomes involved, the plot gets another twist. Dunbar makes an interesting point about writing. Most of us can follow to the fifth level of intention and enjoy a good story. However, far fewer have the ability to compose an interesting tale because the fifth level is most people’s natural limit. The ability to work at the sixth level, what makes a really interesting story, is rare. Shakespeare was able to, “intend that the audience believes...” Garland also successfully works a level higher and this is where the film soars. In taking and subverting current ideas about gender, sci fi, and the thriller genre, he gives us a sharp tweak and delivers a film about theory of mind that is deliciously hard to read. Garland is author of The Beach, a novel that defined the darker side of backpacking in the 1990s and later became a movie staring Leonardo di Caprio. His next novel, The Tesserat, was called “taut, nervous and often bloody,” by The New York Times and was an early sign of his willingness to play with structure. He wrote the script for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the screen. As an Ishiguro fan, I asked Garland about adapting Never Let Me Go. He was able to form an accurate belief about my intentions and said he felt “an acute sense of duty." He had moments where he wondered why he could not just leave it as a novel, but, as with any project he works on, “it’s not a calculation, it’s a compulsion. You do it because you have to.” With Ex Machina, Garland wrote the script and directed the film as well. At first he said it was a bigger step to go from novelist to screen writer, whereas moving from writing to directing felt smaller. The more we talked, however, the more Garland came around to seeing his work in novels and on the screen as very similar: “You start with a blank page. You engage the imagination. The problems of how it hangs together are the same.” Like the best short stories, Ex Machina is sparse, taut, and precise. Every word of dialogue has weight and each shot has a purpose. As with Jackson's "The Lottery," the film ultimately shows the power of thinking about what we are doing and why. While the action in Ex Machina  shifts in sharp pivots, many of the scenes play out almost as if they are on the page with Caleb and Nathan debating the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence. In other words, it’s fascinating.
Screening Room

Winter Is Coming: How HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Is Going off Book and Breaking All the Rules

All readers have seen literary works they adore adapted for the screen, cataloging, scoffing, cringing, and wondering at changes to the original narrative -- or, if lucky, delighting in them. No readers, though, have had the experience that devotees of A Game of Thrones, or more specifically, of George R.R. Martin's in-progress suite of novels A Song of Ice and Fire, are about to. The upcoming season of HBO's Game of Thrones will reportedly push past Martin's fifth and most recent book, extending numerous plotlines beyond where readers last left their heroes. The series will continue to do so until it concludes, presumably reaching its denouement long before Martin can publish the two remaining novels he plans. Fansites are abuzz with virtual hand-wringing about this, their anxiety different from the usual panic about a screen version's faithfulness. Game of Thrones is about to go where no adaptation has gone before, into the realm of the unpublished source, adapting books that do not yet exist, that will become available later­ -- thus undercutting the very premise of adaptation. Anyone fatigued with Game of Thrones, the socio-technological phenomenon -- most illegal downloads! most on-line videos of viewers watching characters die! -- may find their interest piqued by the show's challenge to modern assumptions about adaptation and the idea of canon. Our notions of original and adaptation logically privilege chronology. We call the first published version of a narrative the original and consider the versions that follow adaptations -- less definitive, and somewhat degraded. We make exceptions, of course: William Shakespeare's plays are adaptations, but their stature is elevated by his genius and cultural context. (For Shakespeare's time, indeed, notions of originality and adaptation would have made no sense.) We are also used to privileging print above screen, but chronology seems to takes precedence: nobody gives a darn that Graham Greene's screenplay and subsequent novella of The Third Man call (absurdly) for the hero to get the girl at the end, because nobody saw his screenplay before the film came out; the novella also arrived afterwards. These principles lurking in our thoughts, we usually watch screen adaptations of our favorite books with a kind of dual consciousness, what adaptation theorist Linda Hutcheon calls (with a nod to Mikhail Bakhtin) "an ongoing dialogical process," and "an intertextual pleasure that...some call elitist and others enriching." That is, we watch adaptations and enjoy comparing them to the source, perhaps thinking That's not what happens in the book or I caught that in-joke. The adaptations I have in mind here are neither the inspired by kind, nor the let's focus on two minor characters instead of Hamlet kind. Productions like Game of Thrones are predicated on a large degree of faithfulness. Sure, the series has deviated and bastardized -- every season moves further afield of the books -- but it does so largely in order to keep protagonists in the foreground and Martin's structure intact. Until now. The producers, to whom Martin has revealed his plans for the conclusion of his books, have announced that henceforth the adaptation will diverge significantly. Naturally, they have not announced how much, or starting when, or with which plotlines and character arcs, and that's where this gets interesting. Devoted readers' "intertextual pleasure" will be tempered with uncertainty, as they may find themselves thinking: That's not what happens in the books -- yet! or I don't know any more about this than my idiot friend here does. The commentariat has expressed concern about spoilers for the books, but the fact is, no one will know when the show is revealing Martin's plot and when it is telling a different story. As a corollary, when readers finally receive Martin's sixth and seventh novels, they may be discomfited by literary narratives contradicting the screen version. This reversed chronology of print to screen destabilizes categories of original and adaptation. Yes, the next three seasons of Game of Thrones will still spring from Martin's fictional world, but when the series becomes first to portray developments beyond the books' chronology, when its narrative unfolds in dialogue not with a prior text but only with fan speculation, labeling it an adaptation will seem wrong. What if Martin revises his plot under the influence of the show? (Will anyone know that he has not?) Which then becomes original, and which adaptation? The conceptual binary is inadequate. Similarly disrupted by the particularities of Game of Thrones is the notion of canon, the designation of certain texts as authentic at the expense of others. The term dates to the early Christians, who felt the need to legitimate the real gospel created by the right people under divine guidance, as opposed to apocryphal spin-offs. Our current idea of canonicity derives from this sense of a unified and godlike authority. Its 20th-century paradigm is perhaps the case of Sherlock Holmes: when Arthur Conan Doyle, tired of churning out detective stories, killed off the beloved sleuth in 1893, readers filled the void with fan fiction and biographies, even after Conan Doyle bowed to pressure and resuscitated -- and copyrighted -- the character in 1903. The preponderance of Sherlockiana was termed non-canonical by the literary industry, despite much fan dissent. It is an example that highlights canonicity's deference to the powers of the creator, authorial intention combined with intellectual property law and the marketplace. In recent years, the deployment of canonicity has resurged as technology has exponentially expanded the dissemination of texts. It is especially present in the context of science-fiction and fantasy, genres that are set in fictional realms, worlds subsequently used in adaptations and continuations, whether licensed (such as recent novels depicting Isaac Aasimov's Foundation world, or commercial video games, role-playing games, etc., based on film and book franchises) or unlicensed (fan fiction, costumed play). The idea of canon helps those who care maintain clear divisions between what really happened in that universe, according to its creator(s), and what is some loser's version of what could have happened. Of course, there are disturbances in the force: the Star Wars films re-edited and revised by creator George Lucas in the 1990s have been anointed by their creator as canon. But so many enthusiasts publicly denounce Lucas's rewriting of specific moments -- such as when Han Solo is fired upon by Greedo first, and only then shoots back -- that the significance of canon diminishes. Lucas's reaction has been to make the revisions the only versions commercially available and claim that the original reels are ruined. The canon, it turns out, is auteur theory beholden to intellectual property rights and to estates covering their assets, but may be challenged by audiences voting with their mouse-clicks and wallets. Game of Thrones makes all this clearer, even as it offers the possibility of a less monolithic sense of canon. It may be, years from now, that the novels will be seen as canon, that audiences will instinctively defer to Martin's vision. But Martin himself, by inviting the show creators to deviate from his plot, has opened up the possibility that two versions can exist on equal terms. Then, as now, more people will have seen the series, and seen it first, than will have read the books. Someday it may be considered as canonical as the second of the two Adam and Eve stories in the Old Testament.
Screening Room

The Civil Rights Movement Finally Gets Its Hollywood Close-Up

[caption id="attachment_73820" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Stephen Somerstein. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to 25,000 civil rights marchers in Montgomery, 1965.[/caption] For more than half a century, the struggle for civil rights in America has provided a volcano of inspiration for all sorts of writers. The flow of words started with eyewitness reports from the front lines of the battlefield -- Montgomery, Little Rock, Greensboro, Nashville, Anniston, Jackson, Birmingham, Selma -- written by some brave and dedicated journalists, black and white. It soon grew into a river of books – memoirs, biographies, reportage, histories, autobiographies. Eventually filmmakers followed the lead of these writers, and their labors, both documentaries and features, have finally stepped into the spotlight with this year’s Best Picture Oscar nomination for Selma, the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in the bloody Selma-to-Montgomery march that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Win or lose on Oscar night, Selma has already performed a valuable service. Along with critical kudos and box office success, it has inspired loud dismay that its black lead actor, David Oyelowo, and its black director, Ava DuVernay, were snubbed by the Oscars -- and, beyond that, that there are no persons of color in the Best Actor, Best Actress, or Best Director categories. For good measure, loyalists of President Lyndon B. Johnson have howled that Selma paints him, unfairly, as a reluctant advocate of the Voting Rights Act. While this storm has been fascinating to watch -- or infuriating, depending on your point of view -- it should not come as a surprise. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is, after all, still very much a boy’s club -- make that a white boy’s club or, better yet, an old white boy’s club. The Academy is more than 90 percent white, men outnumber women three to one, and the members’ average age is 63. The five movies in the Best Adapted Screenplay category are a telling reflection of this club’s makeup: each one is a portrait of an extraordinary gentleman -- a civil rights leader, a sniper, a mathematician, a cosmologist, and a drummer. Not a woman in the pack. The uproar over this year’s monochromatic and heavily masculine Oscar nominations threatens to obscure an important fact: Selma may be an artistic astonishment, but it did not come out of nowhere; it is the climax of a cinematic crescendo that has been building for years. The civil rights movement’s long journey to Oscar recognition began in the 1970s, when Ernest J. Gaines’s novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman inspired a TV movie of the same name, the story of a remarkable woman who was born into slavery and lived to 110, long enough to join the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The movie, starring Cicely Tyson, was a breakthrough for American television, putting civil rights activists front and center and treating them with sympathy and respect. (Feature films were by then slightly more accommodating to black characters, especially if they were played by Sidney Poitier.) The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was followed by King, a TV mini-series based on the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton’s decorated 14-hour documentary of the civil rights movement. Such movies about the movement set a high standard, one that many later filmmakers would fail to meet. A prime example of such a failure -- and a prelude to this year’s dust-up over the immaculate whiteness of various Oscar categories -- was the director Alan Parker’s 1988 feature film, Mississippi Burning, which received seven Oscar nominations but little love from black critics or audiences. The movie focuses on a pair of mismatched white FBI agents -- one played by Gene Hackman as a gruff former Mississippi sheriff, the other by Willem Dafoe as a gung-ho young Yankee -- who are sent in to solve the disappearance of three civil rights workers during the Freedom Summer of 1964. The two agents spar at first but eventually work together and close the case. In addition to pushing the black characters deep into the shade -- a source of much anger at the time -- Mississippi Burning posits that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was a protector of civil rights activists. Nothing was further from the truth, as Selma points out, and as Brent Staples noted in The New York Times shortly after Mississippi Burning was released. “The Hoover FBI was not, as Mr. Parker suggests, made up of jaunty, sympathetic types, who bit their nails bloody over civil rights deaths,” Staples wrote. “Hoover was decidedly hostile to such investigations, thought the movement was a Communist conspiracy and went after civil rights violations so slowly that he often came near openly defying the President and Attorney General.” Parker has defended casting two white actors in the lead roles because, as a simple matter of fact, there were no black FBI agents in 1964. But conspicuously absent from the movie, as Staples, noted, were dedicated black activists who were in Mississippi at the time, including Robert Moses, John Lewis, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Movies about the civil rights movement -- the successful ones-- have tended to follow one of two strategies. They focus either on the well-known leaders or on the faceless foot soldiers -- or, for lack of better terms, on the “big” people or the “little” people. In the former category are movies about King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, James Meredith, and the Tuskegee Airmen; in the latter category are movies about the students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, the students who sat in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, the Freedom Riders, the participants in Freedom Summer, the journalists who covered these events, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also known as SNCC and pronounced Snick, including Robert Moses, Diane Nash, and James Bevel. Among its many virtues is the way Selma deftly straddles this line, putting King at center stage but surrounding him with supporters and antagonists, both black and white, both famous and unknown. The movie even dramatizes the often-overlooked fact that King faced opposition from within the movement, as when disgruntled SNCC students accuse him of selling out for refusing to lead the way across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on the second of three tries, the so-called “Turnaround Tuesday” that followed horrific “Bloody Sunday.” [caption id="attachment_73827" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Stephen Somerstein. Marchers on the way to Montgomery as families watch from their porches, 1965.[/caption] One filmmaker who has built a stellar career making documentaries about the movement’s “little” people is Stanley Nelson, who has produced vivid portraits of unsung journalists (The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, 1999); a teenage murder victim (The Murder of Emmett Till, 2003); courageous barrier breakers (Freedom Riders, 2010); and the fateful summer of 1964 (Freedom Summer, 2014). “I’m interested in the people behind the big figures,” Nelson said by telephone from Park City, Utah, where his new documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution, was having its premier at the Sundance Film Festival. “We learn about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Rosa Parks in school. But what would motivate somebody who lives in Selma to become a part of the march to Montgomery? That’s what interests me -- the people behind the scenes.” Another fascinating glimpse of the people behind the scenes is on display now at the New York Historical Society, in a show called “Freedom Journey 1965.” It consists of photographs, mostly black and white, taken by a New York college student named Stephen Somerstein, who walked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery and chronicled the marchers, spectators, and police he encountered along the way. The show is a knockout. We see the “big” people -- King, Joan Baez, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte -- and, better yet, we also see the “little people,” including black women on porches with their babies, white hecklers, rapt families watching from the side of the road, and many of the 25,000 people who get swept up in the euphoric spirit of the march. (For more photo-documentation of this and other civil rights marches, see Dan Budnik’s splendid book, Marching to the Freedom Dream.) Nelson has high praise for Selma. He says he was especially impressed by the way Oyelowo “channeled” King -- as opposed to the way Jamie Foxx “imitated” Ray Charles in Ray. Nelson found the portrayal of an ambivalent LBJ “brilliant,” and he was delighted that DuVernay brought out the internecine friction between King and SNCC. In the end, the filmmaker in Nelson sees virtues in Selma that have as much to do with craft as with race. The movie, he says, “has shown that you can make a film that looks good on a fairly limited budget. And it has shown that if you make a good film, people will come.” In this contentious Oscar season, that may be the most uplifting news of all. Image Credit: The New York Historical Society.
Screening Room

Rejoice! A Hollywood Screenwriter Read a Novel Last Year!

Last year, as we noted here, the source material in the Oscar category for Best Adapted Screenplay was immaculately fiction-free. All five screenwriters looked elsewhere for inspiration -- to memoirs, investigative journalism, reportage, and, weirdly, to an earlier screenplay which, under the arcane rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, qualifies as “previously published or produced material.” I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: that last nomination was a little too inside-baseball for me. But don’t forget, we’re dealing with Hollywood here. Before last year’s Oscar went to John Ridley for his adaptation of Solomon North’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave, I suggested that the writers of adapted screenplays needed to start mixing a little fiction into their reading diets. In 2014, I’m happy to report, they did. A very little. A grand total of one of this year’s five finalists for Best Adapted Screenplay drew on a work of fiction. It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 1998, all five Best Adapted Screenplay nominees were inspired by novels. (The statue that year went to Bill Condon for Gods and Monsters, based on Christopher Bram’s novel, Father of Frankenstein.) Through the years, the scripts of Oscar-winning movies have been based on novels by a gaudy galaxy of literary talents, including Jane Austen, Colette, Jules Verne, Henry Fielding, J.R.R. Tolkien, Sinclair Lewis, Harper Lee, E.M. Forster, Robert Penn Warren, Larry McMurtry, Mario Puzo, Ken Kesey, Michael Ondaatje, and Cormac McCarthy. But the novel is now in retreat -- and not only in Hollywood -- as screenwriters and moviegoers turn their gaze to movies based on established franchises, comic books, graphic novels, musicals, non-fiction books and magazine articles, TV shows, memoirs, and biographies. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or particularly new, about such source material. Screenwriters have been adapting scripts from comic books at least since 1930, and filmmakers have always favored a “true” story (or, better, yet something “based on a true story”) over fictional stories. That’s because “true” stories are easier to write, make, and sell. I would argue that they’re also less likely to amaze than stories that come from a gifted novelist’s imagination. So I say fiction lovers should rejoice that this year Hollywood is paying homage to something -- to anything -- produced by a novelist. It doesn’t happen every day (or, obviously, every year), and it’s becoming increasingly rare as Hollywood continues to play it safe while trying to connect with an audience that’s less and less likely to read serious fiction. This year’s finalists for Best Adapted Screenplay are: Inherent Vice The writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson based his script on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name. Purists could argue that Anderson has settled for Pynchon Lite instead of the heavy goods (Gravity’s Rainbow, say, or V., or even Mason & Dixon). Let’s not quibble. Anderson has streamlined Pynchon’s novel while remaining true to its spirit, which is the essence of a successful adaptation. We get a fine facsimile of Pynchon’s wake-and-bake private eye, Doc Sportello, played with zest by Joaquin Phoenix in sandals and sizzling muttonchops. Doc’s search for a missing real-estate developer takes him through a post-Helter Skelter L.A. labyrinth of surfers, hustlers, dopers, and other less benign parties. It may be Pynchon Lite, but I’ll take it any day over Toy Story 13. American Sniper “I couldn’t give a fuck about the Iraqis,” Chris Kyle wrote in American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History (with ghostwriters Jim DeFelice and Scott McEwan). “I hate the damn savages.” The screenwriter Jason Hall captured Kyle’s machismo and his Manichean worldview in his screenplay for American Sniper, which found the ideal director in Clint Eastwood, no stranger to the notion that evil is at large in the world and it’s the duty of good men to use any means, including deadly force, to crush it. Kyle claimed to have killed more than 250 people during four tours of duty as a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq (160 are confirmed), and he was not inclined to apologize for his work -- or even ponder its moral ambiguities. Neither was Eastwood. Kyle was shot dead at a Texas gun range by a fellow veteran in 2013. American Sniper has taken in $250 million so far at the box office, and it has further divided a country already deeply divided over our forever wars. Michael Moore hated the movie; Sarah Palin loved it. The Imitation Game The screenplay for The Imitation Game is the least faithful to its source material of this year’s nominees -- and therefore probably a lock to take home the Oscar. Graham Moore’s script was adapted from Alan Turing: The Enigma, a biography of the brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing, written by the brilliant British mathematician and gay rights activist Andrew Hodges. In telling the story of Turing’s heroic work breaking World War II German codes, Moore and director Morten Tyldum have gone the predictable Hollywood route, turning Turing into an ur-nerd, which he was not, and making him dapper, which he was not. (Turing, according to Hodges, was eccentric but likeable, and a bit of a slob.) But this is Hollywood, and so Turing, as played by the mesmerizing Benedict Cumberbatch (who is up for a Best Actor Oscar), is turned into a cartoon: he’s the heroic gay misfit struggling against an uptight homophobic society. The movie ends on this note: “After a year of government-mandated hormonal therapy, Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954.” There is, however, no conclusive evidence that Turing committed suicide, and much ongoing speculation that he died accidentally, or even was murdered. But this is Hollywood, where complexity must never get in the way of a good cartoon. The Theory of Everything Stephen Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, wrote a queasy memoir about the joys and trials of being married to an award-winning cosmologist who suffers from debilitating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. That book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, became the basis for Anthony McCarten’s screenplay for The Theory of Everything, which tells the story of the couple getting married, raising three children, separating, marrying other partners, and somehow remaining close through it all. Felicity Jones, who got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Jane, told an interviewer, “That’s why I love Jane and Stephen, because they seem like very English, uptight, repressed people from afar. But as you get closer, they’re these extraordinary bohemians, these people who have adapted and changed and lived a very unusual life.” Whiplash Last year the controversy was over Before Midnight, writer-director Richard Linklater’s third installment in the ongoing romance of another pair of extraordinary bohemians. The screenplay, written by Linklater and his stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, qualified as adapted because it was based on the earlier screenplays. This year the controversy belongs to Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, which tells the story of an aspiring drummer and his fanatical, abusive teacher. Back in 2013, in an effort to raise money for the project, Chazelle showed an 18-minute segment of the unfinished film at Sundance, where it won the prize for Best Short Film. The prize attracted money, and last year the completed, 107-minute feature won the Grand Prize at Sundance. The Writers Guild of America designated the script “original;” but based on its metamorphosis from short to feature, the Academy placed in the “adapted” category. Call the screenplay what you will, this shoestring movie, shot in just 19 days, has been nominated for a stunning five Oscars, including Best Picture. If you’re fond of Cinderella stories, this one’s for you. Which brings us back to novels and screenplays. Four of this year’s eight nominees for Best Picture are based on adapted screenplays. The only adapted screenplay that didn’t also get the nod for Best Picture was the one based on -- you guessed it -- a novel by Thomas Pynchon. Image Credit: Flickr/Prayitno
Screening Room

One Long Country Song: What Friday Night Lights Taught Me About Storytelling

1. I recently re-watched the first season of Friday Night Lights—for fun, but also to see how it held up, eight years after it first aired, and probably at least a decade after it was first conceived of and written. I had actually never seen the pilot or the first six episodes because, initially, Friday Night Lights was my husband’s show, something he watched by himself. I now love the show so much that it’s hard to believe there was a time when I wasn’t interested in it, but I remember thinking that it didn’t seem like the kind of show I would like. I don’t enjoy watching football and I don’t usually enjoy watching teenage actors—or, rather, I don’t enjoy watching actors in their early twenties impersonate teenagers. I was also resistant to Friday Night Lights because it is set in a conservative, rural area that reminded me of where I went to high school. Like a lot of people who move to New York City, I came here to get away from small town life. The strange thing about watching Friday Night Lights again is that I think the fiction I’ve been writing for the past few years was inspired by it. I’ve joked with friends about this line of influence but I didn’t quite believe it until I re-watched the show and saw how much I’d borrowed. I know we’re living in the golden age of so-called novelistic TV, but I still think of books as being in conversation with other books, not with nighttime soap operas. However, when I look back over the past five years, I can see that my stories were very much in conversation with a TV show whose characters became so real to me it was as if they were living lives parallel to my own. I watched Friday Night Lights in real time, as it aired. I wonder if it would have been as much of an influence if I had “binged-watched” all five seasons back-to-back in one or two months’ time. Instead, the show stretched out over the course of five years, 2006-2011, which for me were years when I had to throw out most of the fiction I wrote. They were years when I was trying to “find my voice”—that cringe-inducing expression that is nevertheless a fair description of what I was looking for as I tried to decide what I would write and how I would write about it. During these years, my primary search technique was to read as many different authors as possible and to write a certain number of words per day. At night I watched television to relax. I might have given up on this whole process if I had not finally published a short story in 2008, the year I turned thirty. The story was set in my hometown, a location I had always resisted using, but which I felt compelled to revisit. That compulsion, I am quite sure, was due to Friday Night Lights. The show helped me to see my hometown in a new light—but not a nostalgic one. I did not watch Friday Night Lights to relive my glorious high school years, and certainly not to relive the glory of high school football. But one of the interesting things about Friday Night Lights, and something that struck me as I re-watched it, is that for a drama about high school students and football, there are very few scenes set in school or on the football field. Instead, the show is more interested in the personal lives of its players—the families they come from, the romances that enmesh them, the houses they live in and the things they do for fun. It’s a show that is very interested in family life in all its varieties. There are a lot of single parents in Friday Night Lights and a lot of unmarried couples, too. It’s a show where families are makeshift, where older brothers and grandmothers can stand in for absent fathers, where teenage girls have to mother themselves and sometimes their boyfriends, too. Watching Friday Night Lights, you realize how conservative other shows are in their portrayal of American families[1]. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how or why something inspires you, but I think Friday Night Lights got me thinking about the adults I’d grown up with, adults whose personal lives I’d never fully imagined because I was a kid, living my kid-life. I began to look back on my childhood in a different way, to think less about how I lived and more about how other people lived. Maybe this recalibration is just part of growing up and leaving one’s self-centered twenties, and maybe it would have happened anyway, without the nudge of Friday Night Lights, but the show did seem to stir up old memories. It was fascinating to think again of families I’d babysat for, to reexamine their houses, their professions, their cars, their clothes. I began to think about my teachers and mentors, my coaches, and my friends’ parents. Many of them were in their thirties (my age) when I knew them. I wondered: What were their lives really like? What were their secret dramas? What would I ask them if I could go back in time? 2. In 2009, I finished a novel but could not find an agent to represent it. In retrospect, I can see that it was an apprentice novel, and that even though it had narrative cohesion, it couldn’t really stand on its own. It didn’t have the spark of life. It was set in New York City, where I have lived for the past thirteen years, but when I started that novel, I had only five years under my belt, and was still utterly infatuated with Manhattan and its delusional vibrations, an energy Zadie Smith recently described as a “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness.” My novel reflected some of that energy. The characters lived in their own melodramatic reality, and even though that was kind of the point—these characters were in their twenties—the book had an airless feeling. The setting wasn’t real enough. A few years after I had finished it (and finally given up on it), I met a novelist who had moved to the South after years in the Midwest. I told him I had tried to write about New York but couldn’t, and he said he’d had the same problem in the South. He said he thought it took about ten years to be able to write about a particular place—much longer than any writer wants to admit. How long does it take to write about where you grew up? In my case, that took about ten years, too—ten years away. In the wake of my failed first novel—I saw it as failed then, now I see it as a necessary step—I decided to focus on a series of short stories set in the various “small” places my family had lived. This was partly to do with the success of my first short story, which had been set in my hometown, but also because of Dillon, the fictional Texas town where Friday Night Lights is set. Dillon, a small, unglamorous, rural Texas town, is something like the small, unglamorous towns I grew up in. For years, I had operated under the assumption that the places I knew best were not very interesting. This was due to my own insecurities and also to my intense love of all things New York City. But, my infatuation with the city began to wane around 2008. That was the year the financial markets crashed—a situation I couldn’t help thinking of when I read Smith’s phrase, “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness.” It was the year I started to think about failure, really think about it. I was three years into an ill-fitting secretarial job at a Wall Street law firm, a job that I knew would only become more ill-fitting as the recession unspooled. New York did not seem like a good place to fail. In fact, it seemed like a place where I was not allowed to even speak or think of the possibility of failure. One of the things I like about Dillon is that it welcomes failures; in fact it embraces them. Growing up in small towns, I always felt there was something bullying about this love of failure, and that there was within it a not-so-hidden class resentment, a desire to keep everyone on the same level, even if that meant everything was mediocre. I do think that sentiment exists, but I also think there is a humanity to small places, an acknowledgement that people need space in their lives to enjoy what they have, for as long as it may last—a space outside of accomplishment. A space outside of self-improvement. A space to have emotions that might not be “productive.” A space to have emotions, period. Many critics have focused on the intense emotionality of Friday Night Lights, the way it aims to make you cry in every episode. My husband and I always joke that we are in need of tissues as soon as the theme music cuts in—usually after a short, three-minute scene where someone acts their guts out and delivers a major plot twist. I always find myself thinking, these people live such big lives in such a small place! But then when I think about what feels “big” about their lives I realize that the plot points (save for a few bizarre episodes in Season 2) are quite ordinary. No one on Friday Night Lights has a secret identity. No one is working for the mafia or hunting terrorists. No one is cooking meth in order to pay for cancer treatments. No one even gets cancer in Dillon! Instead, they’re drinking too much. They’re sleeping around. They’re saying stupid things and trying to make extra money in a variety of stupid ways. They’re founding Christian rock bands and trying out for quad rugby teams. They’re perusing real estate listings and filling out insurance forms[2]. They’re buying cars and driving cars and fixing cars. Someone is always waiting for a ride. Someone is always heartbroken. Someone is always broke. Friday Night Lights is one long country song. Anyone can relate. The truth is that Friday Night Lights actually had a lot of trouble finding its audience, or at least one large enough for network television. But the people who love Friday Night Lights are passionate about it. They love the characters[3], and they love them in a particular way. People swoon over Coach Taylor and they really swoon over Tami Taylor, but what they really, really swoon over is the relationship between Coach and Tami, not only the particular chemistry between the actors who play these characters (Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton), but the way their marriage is portrayed, quotidian scene by quotidian scene. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn described it as one of “the finest representations of middle-class marriage in popular culture.” I’m not always sure what people mean when they refer to something as middle-class but one definition of middle-class life is one where both parents work, but not so much that they can’t have dinner together. In Friday Night Lights, you often see Coach and Tami having dinner together. You see them cooking it and cleaning it up, too. You see them going out and staying in, running late and running errands. You see them joking and flirting, arguing and making up. You see them discussing their jobs, their daughter, their worries. You see two people who are not just in love but who genuinely like spending a lot of time together. The Taylor’s marriage holds the show together plot-wise, and also in terms of tone. Friday Night Lights is about the bonds between people, and in particular, the way that people in small towns have unusual access to one another’s personal lives. When you live in a small town, it’s possible to run into your daughter’s boyfriend buying condoms in the drug store, to clean up broken glass in the home of a student you advise, or to obtain a pregnancy test from the mother of your husband’s star running back. These things all happened to Tami Taylor, and they didn’t seem far-fetched, even the last one, a late-in-life pregnancy that seemed designed to lure in new viewers. (Coach and Tami’s second daughter was born in between seasons 1 and 2 and had almost no bearing on the rest of the show.) It helps that the actors on the show can pull off even the most saccharine dialogue, but the real trick is the way the show makes you want to watch the characters interact in different combinations. You know they all know each other, and furthermore, you know what they know (and don’t know) about each other, so you can’t wait to see how that plays out in their interactions. It’s dramatic irony on a very small scale. It’s the lifeblood of domestic fiction. 3. In a 2011 Grantland interview, Don DeLillo was asked what sporting event he would choose to dramatize if he were going to undertake another novel on the scale of Underworld set in post-Cold War America. (As opposed to Underworld, which was set during the Cold War era.) With his usual prescience, DeLillo answered: “To portray America over the past twenty years or so, I would think immediately of football, probably the Super Bowl in its sumptuous suggestion of a national death wish.” It has been disconcerting to re-watch the first season of Friday Night Lights in light of debates about football’s culture of violence. The recent domestic abuse scandals hadn't yet made headlines when I watched the majority of the episodes, but I often thought of the long-simmering arguments about whether or not football is too dangerous to be played. It is, to say the least, a heated argument. On the one hand, there is Steve Almond’s new book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, which details his own football fandom and disillusionment as he comes to terms with how badly the sport treats its players as well as the values it represents. (I have not yet read Almond’s book but apparently there is within it a critique of Friday Night Lights.) On the other side of the debate, there’s Jonathan Chait defending the sport in New York Magazine, arguing that his boyhood years playing football were unforgettably exciting, and that the sport allows young men to channel their anger in healthy and productive ways. In his view, the debate over football’s potential dangers is a classic red-state/blue-state conflict, “a safety-reform movement mutating into a culture war, where one part of America rises in visceral, often-uncomprehending revulsion against the values and mores of another.” Then we have President Obama, attempting to split the difference, as always, in a New Yorker profile, conceding that he would never allow his son to play the game but that he enjoys watching it. I can’t help wondering how Friday Night Lights would have chosen to address these issues if it were airing today. (Actually, maybe a better question: Would Friday Night Lights even make it onto the air today?) You could argue that the show deals with the sport’s potential for life-altering injury in its very first episode, when Dillon’s star quarterback, Jason Street, tackles another player so aggressively that he damages his own spinal column. The injury paralyzes Jason Street for life, and for the rest of the first season, we follow him as he undergoes his rehabilitation. That’s the reality of football, the show seems to say—except that the characters never say that. They treat Jason Street’s injury as something freakish, even surprising. When Jason Street’s parents file a lawsuit against Coach Taylor and the school, they are portrayed as desperate and a touch villainous. On my second viewing of Friday Night Lights, I had trouble with the football scenes and especially the lawsuit. The question of whether or not Coach had taught Jason Street appropriate tackling techniques is brushed over as a kind of pesky lawyer’s question, but I wanted it to be taken more seriously. At the very least, I wanted Coach to be guiltier about what had happened. He doesn’t seem to suffer much remorse or rethink his training methods. Every time I watched Coach give a pep talk or advise a player, I could only really think of poor Jason Street, sitting in his hospital bed, having to relearn how to grip a fork. Later in the season, Jason Street returns to the field as part of the coaching staff, so he’s literally on the sidelines in his wheelchair, a reminder to everyone of how dangerous the sport is. It’s bizarre, and darkly ironic—but it’s not intended that way. Instead, we’re meant to see Street’s coaching position as a point of resolution; we’re supposed to be glad he’s found a way to integrate football back into his life, despite the fact that he has been maimed by it. But how self-aware does a television show (or a novel?) have to be to say something meaningful about the era it portrays? One thing that makes television an interesting medium is that the writers have to work quickly to absorb changing cultural attitudes into their narratives. In an apt literary metaphor, Emily Nussbaum recently described network TV shows as “the rough draft that doubles as the polished product.” A network series can’t afford to be dated and yet there is no way to digest what is happening quickly enough. The writers of Friday Night Lights were surely seeing newspaper headlines linking head injuries in football to depression, suicide, and Alzheimer’s disease. But they were stuck in Dillon, writing about a community that is defined by its love of football. And yet, I wonder if Friday Night Lights would have worked so well as a drama if it didn’t have that unacknowledged darkness at its center. Even if it wasn’t intentional, the show’s secret relationship to self-destruction (alcoholism is a persistent plot point) says a lot about the era in which it was aired. As DeLillo put it so well, the aughts were a decade when there was within America “a sumptuous suggestion of a national death wish.” I wrote that phrase down when I first read it (it has the same moodiness of Zadie Smith’s “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness”) and afterwards noticed many sumptuous suggestions of death wishes, from the expensive wars we’ve wages overseas, to our Gilded Age-gap between rich and poor, to our elaborate resistance to universal healthcare. 4. Before I get too political, let me return to fiction, which, unless you are a satirist, is hard to shape around political ideals. Friday Night Lights is above all things, not a satire. It takes its characters and their problems very seriously and treats them with a sincerity that is rare on network television. It doesn’t make fun of its characters for coming from a small place[4] or, more crucially, for not wanting to leave a small place. Many of the writers I admire most—Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, and Stephanie Vaughn, to name a few that come to mind immediately—share this deep sincerity, this interest in characters who may not be worldly, but who live in the world and who love it. As much as I love satire, (and I do, despite evidence to the contrary in this essay), I am never going to write it. A good friend recently confessed that she gave up trying to make jokes years ago because, “Even though I laugh a lot, I am not a funny person.” And we both laughed, because there’s something funny about being ashamed about not being able to joke about everything. But, in an age when comedians earn multi-million dollar book deals, an earnest temperament can make you feel irrelevant. Sometimes I think Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novels registered as something new simply because he takes his life seriously and doesn’t caveat his long-winded existential musings with “So, this is a first-world problem, but…” It’s funny to me that it took a network television show to remind me that I could write in a straightforward way, that I don’t need to shock or be elusive, and that I don’t need to impress anyone with my cleverness or my prose-style. All I have to do is to write about the people and places that mean the most to me. Almost all the short stories I wrote during my years of watching Friday Night Lights were published, even the ones I thought of as too ordinary. In the meantime, I’ve been working on a novel. I showed a draft to my husband this summer and one of the first things he said when he was finished reading was, “this would make a great television show.” If he’d said that about my first novel I might have been annoyed. But now I consider it a high compliment. [1] In terms of depictions of family life, an interesting point of comparison is the nighttime drama Parenthood, which premiered in 2010, and whose showrunner is Jason Katims, who was also a producer of Friday Night Lights. Parenthood has the same tear-jerking-deep-down-everyone’s-doing-the-best-they-can-vibe as Friday Night Lights and uses some of the same actors, but its vision of American family life borders on fantastical. As much as I want to believe in the sunny world of Parenthood, I don’t know anyone who hangs out with their extended family as much as the Bravermans do. [2] I was taken aback when I realized that the cliffhanger of the first season of Friday Night Lights is how Coach will handle a long-distance relationship after Coach takes a new job. I can’t think of another drama in which such a low-stakes plot point would be considered exciting enough to hook in viewers for the next season. [3] While I was writing this essay, I met an adorable dog named Tim Riggins, and I saw a pet adoption flyer for a beautiful cat named Lyla Garrity. [4] Despite the warmth and sweetness of shows like The Office and Parks & Rec, their small-town settings are an ongoing joke.
Screening Room

Please, Oh Please: On Madam Secretary and the Ladies of TV    

1. The NBC Wednesday night lineup ad shows Debra Messing Mariska Hargitay, and Sophia Bush, side by side, sultry-eyed and pointing guns at the camera.   Lady cops, badasses all, and with great hair. There’s been much ado lately about powerful women on TV. Between Shonda Rimes's Olivia Pope and her newest creation, defense lawyer Annalise Keating -- both described as “authority figures with sharp minds and potent libidos” -- along with Homeland’s Carrie Matheson, Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen, and The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, a golden age of women protagonists seems to be upon us. Or is it? I’m a little concerned, frankly. True, we’re seeing a lot of women characters in high-powered jobs. And a decided feature in the current formula is that they are all extremely good at their jobs. But TV writers and showrunners also seem to be acting out the debate -- launched full-force in 2012 with Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” -- around women, work, and family. When I look at these so-called powerful women on TV, I see a kind of Rorschach for audiences around two questions: Is this a woman whose life you’d actually want? And: Is this a woman whose life reflects any reality you know? 2. I had high hopes for Madam Secretary that the writing would be smart, the show would take on complex issues of the day, and that, yes, the portrayal of a woman in high office would be engaging. Téa Leoni is terrific and winning in the role of Secretary of State Elizabeth “Bess” McCord; on this most reviewers agree (not to mention the crack ensemble cast). She’s simultaneously intense and calm, assertive and disarming, sarcastic and sincere. You trust her, and you want her to succeed. She’s sexy in a sloppy, earthy sort of way, isn’t above or below using her feminine charms strategically; and in this particular way, she is nowhere near a Hilary Clinton knock-off: she is a different girlish-boyish animal altogether, of a younger generation who didn’t have to “act like a man, dress like a man” quite so strictly in order to rise and succeed. Like Alicia Florrick, she has natural instincts for the soft power/hard power one-two punch. She’s also, unlike Hilary (public Hilary, anyway), quite funny. But in the first two episodes, I’ve had the woeful “Oh, please” reaction to a few of the show’s story elements, all of which have to do with the “having it all” trope. Bess’s husband Henry (Tim Daly) is hunky, brainy, solicitous, maternal, and utterly content (and of course he’s never had as much as a dalliance with a short-skirted co-ed). Bess initiates hand-wringing bedtime talk about not having as much sex as they used to; he assures her, silly girl, that it’s all fine. When their eldest daughter quits college because she can’t handle being the daughter of a public figure, Bess says to her go-between husband, “I just wish she had come to me.” Ick! Argh! Oh, please! She is the Secretary of State: please tell me that a woman with such grave and innumerable daily responsibilities for ensuring peace and human rights around the globe isn’t whining about “only” having once-a-week-sex with her absurdly perfect husband and the fact that she can’t be available, in the midst of a Benghazi-like debacle, to hear her spoiled daughter (“I have to get a job? But I was going to finish my novel!”) complain about her mother being too famous and her father being too supportive. Those portrayals of Secretary McCord’s personal life are unworthy of her; the writers are not doing Bess, or Leoni, justice. Creator Barbara Hall told Politico that a driving question behind the creation of the character was, “How do you deal with the president of the United States in the morning and the president of the PTA in the evening?”  Herein lies the folly. The idea that leaders at the highest levels -- that anyone who’s chosen a profession requiring commitment beyond the pale, necessarily and rightly so -- can be a “normal” parent, is goofy. The disconnect is between the writers and their own character: I don’t see Bess McCord entertaining such notions or expectations. She’s a realist, and a grownup, and can tell the difference between what matters and what doesn’t. I see her recognizing priorities in any given moment, having sex when she wants it and not worrying when she doesn’t, entreating her children to rise to the challenge -- to neither be, nor expect to be, like everyone else. 3. It seems to me that Barbara Hall, and the proponents of the “have it all” camp, are perpetrating something analogous to what Naomi Wolf did with her book Vagina -- wherein she claims that women are not truly happy or whole if they are not having regular orgasms of the highest order. In response to the book, The New Yorker’s Judith Thurman said, brilliantly and hilariously: I would like to take issue with the idea that we should all have a happy vagina...It’s nice to have a happy vagina, I would hope everybody could have a happy vagina, but there are many times in a woman’s life where hey, she doesn’t have a happy vagina. And if you make her think that this is the goal, that she should be devoting her energies instead of to getting her PhD, or getting a better job or taking care of whatever it is… she needs to have a happy vagina.  She may not be able to have a happy vagina.  There are all kinds of people who are not in line immediately for a happy vagina. If Bess McCord does not have a hunky, happy husband, and if she is not attentive to/worried about frequency of sex, and if she is not skipping out of meetings in which terrorist attacks are being prevented in order to listen to her children talk about their day...then surely she is not truly fulfilled, nor doing her job(s) well. If the PTA is not as important to her as POTUS or ISIS, then she is not a model powerful woman. Me, I want my Secretary of State to be clear that, for as long as her job description includes tending to ISIS, then tending to ISIS is more important than the PTA. 4. Inherent in Thurman’s response is a worldview I happen to share: energies must be devoted selectively. We are only human, and there is only so much energy and so much devotion. Devotion, by its nature, has obsessive, singularly focused qualities. Multiple devotions compete. The idea that such competition can be eradicated from human experience -- in real life, or on TV -- strikes me as misguided, a YA version of adult life. There is a cost to excellence; else it be other than excellence. I’ll say something surely controversial: I think one can do right by one’s family and be exceptionally accomplished in high leadership, or art, or service; but I don’t think one can be truly great at both. I think we’d all be a bit more relaxed if we accepted, and stopped judging, this truth. Instead, Hall considers portrayals of more troubled figures -- characters whose professional devotion creates friction and/or specific sacrifices in their personal lives -- as “dark,” and has veered away from that toward, in her words, something more “entertaining,” and idealistic. These darker characters include compelling, if not always likable, characters like Claire Underwood from House of Cards, who decides not to have children because of her husband’s ambitions and their shared appetite for power; as well as Carrie Matheson, who deals with mental illness, alcoholism, sex-as-self-medication, and a disconnect with the idea of a “balanced life.” Perhaps also Peggy Olsen, who continually excels professionally while her love life fails and her family disapproves. I think of Sarah Linden from The Killing, who is obsessed with finding Rosie Larsen’s murderer, at the expense of devoted attention to her own son, and I think of Kima Greggs from The Wire, who’s much more interested in serous police work than the baby her partner has just given birth to. Even elegant Alicia Florrick has made choices: her kids and her career, but no happy vagina for her. I think, finally, of Leo McGarry, Chief of Staff on The West Wing, who -- in response to his wife’s desperate plea, “It’s not more important than your marriage!” -- declares, full-throated, Yes, yes it is: right now, while I’m doing it, it’s more important than my marriage. I think also of more farcical portrayals of powerful, talented women -- Selina Meyer in Veep and Laura Diamond in The Mysteries of Laura, who could give a shit about being perfect wives or mothers. It’s not that they don’t give a shit at all, but throwing off the perfectionism is what strikes me as a refreshing and more truthful brand of new feminism. Jill Lepore said it best: I think that’s so complicated for women...but I think it’s actually been a really pernicious part of the current climate of political consultancy. Political consultants are clearly advising women candidates left and right: Tell the story of how you took very good care of your children. You must tell that story, again and again and again. I think it’s really dangerous. I think it really diminishes and impoverishes the range of experiences that people running for office can have...It has a kind of traplike quality for women politicians that all smart women politicians are quite aware of, and I think it’s important to think about the consequences of it. We’re in an age of very good TV. Even network shows, I think, have leeway to be entertaining and complex and illuminating. Yes, yes it is: right now, what I’m doing is more important than a corny, conventional version of family happiness. Tell the truth, Madam Secretary; tell it slant if you have to, and with a sly wisdom, since you’ve shown in every other context so far that that’s your talent. If your husband bristles, if your kids get pissed, then let’s see how you handle that. How about, A great mom is sometimes not around, her vagina goes off duty, and she’s doing really important stuff. How about a new model, instead of a precious, poll-tested one. So, my Rorschach response: Bess McCord, in her current incarnation, is not living the life that I would want, because it reflects fantasy archteype more than reality. There is nothing real or true, or even interesting, about being Great at Everything, and that imposition both flattens and disempowers an otherwise appealing character. I’m all for a golden age; I’m not sure we’re there yet.
Screening Room

A Comic Feast: Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy

“To read a good comedy,” wrote William Hazlitt, is to keep the best company in the world, where the best things are said...” Said in the voices of Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, and Hugh Grant, Hazlitt might have added, had he lived to see The Trip to Italy, the latest collaboration between director Michael Winterbottom and the comic team of Steven Coogan and Rob Brydon. In The Trip to Italy and its precursor, The Trip (both originally shot as BBC mini-series), Coogan and Brydon play fictionalized versions of themselves, doing impressions, riffing and sparring with each other as they drive around the Lake District or Italy. They are on assignment for the Observer, which in each case has enlisted them to write a series of amateur restaurant reviews. Proceeding from such a wonderfully slight premise -- comedy, like dough, is best not overworked -- the pair set off on a well-fed pilgrimage to poetic shrines (Wordsworth and Coleridge’s in the first, Byron and Shelley’s Mediterranean haunts here). Balancing out the high culture are lengthy discussions of pop stars and loving recitations from Hollywood films. Despite their apparent casualness, the two films reveal a chiastic structure that reverses the men’s personal and professional fortunes. In the first, Coogan reluctantly invites Brydon on the trip he had originally planned to take with his girlfriend, mulls moving to Hollywood to film a project, and ends up moping around his austere London apartment. By contrast, we last see Brydon eating a homemade meal with his adoring wife, whom he promises never to leave for more than three days again. In the sequel, Brydon invites Coogan on the trip, auditions for his own Hollywood part as a mob accountant in a Michael Mann film (which irritates and baffles Coogan in equal measure), and is in no particular rush to return to his wife after conducting an affair with a younger woman. Coogan, meanwhile, has just had his American series Pathological cancelled and seems ready to leave Hollywood and rededicate himself to fatherhood. The men are friends, even if their relationship is often marked by needling, jealousy, frustration, hostility, exhaustion, and indifference. (When Brydon mentions his wife’s name at the beginning of the movie, Coogan has no idea who he’s talking about.) Coogan is the more saturnine of the two, harboring largely unrealized dreams of Hollywood dramatic success, and reading Byron in bed at night. The antic Brydon, who rents a Mini Cooper for the journey just to give himself an occasion to quote Michael Caine from The Italian Job, is always ready to slip into an inspired bit or impression, from Richard Burton to Gore Vidal. He soldiers on throughout, determined to combat his companion’s glumness and belittlements with incessant, exhausting cheer. When Coogan does occasionally lighten up, often in the midst of the multi-course meals that are ostensibly their reason for being together, the two embark on inspired flights of fancy in which the full splendor of their comic romance becomes momentarily visible. In The Trip To Italy, it’s on full display in an extended gag about a cowed assistant director asking Tom Hardy’s Bane and Christian Bale’s Batman from The Dark Knight Rises to enunciate and receiving profane, garbled replies. In The Trip, the best moment comes when they spoof the pre-fight battle speeches of historical epics: “Gentlemen, to bed, for tomorrow we rise at dawn.” By the end, Coogan’s blustery liege and Brydon’s obsequious aide-de-camp have pushed back the departure to 9:30ish, which allows for a quick continental breakfast and warm-up run. We then witness them engaged in a perfectly unmotivated a cappella scat session, a wordless duet as fun as the oratorical comedy that precedes it. But beneath the laughs, of which there are many, The Trip to Italy is an anxious comedy supremely anxious about comedy itself. In a previous collaboration with the pair, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Winterbottom expressed similar anxiety. Like the unruly autobiographical tale on which it is based, the film struggles to take shape, prompting the director and writers to ponder why they are taking a year out of their lives to make it. “Because it’s funny,” is one answer. When the director is asked, “Is that all?”, he replies: “Isn’t that enough?” It isn’t necessarily enough for Coogan, who in the course of insulting “inferior talents” like Brydon worries whether he as a comedian will be remembered as Byron and Shelley are. It is no wonder that Coogan has in his arsenal Hamlet’s “Alas, Poor Yorick!” speech, which he delivers to a blanching Brydon in a Neapolitan, skull-filled crypt: Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? A momentary chap-fallen Brydon is, in a first, left speechless. The Trip to Italy frets over much else besides the artistic importance of its comedic genre. The movie is anxious about sequels, of which it is one; anxious about male friendships (evidenced by some puerile gay jokes); anxious about aging and mortality, as seen in the lingering shots of Pompeii, Naples’s Cimiterio delle Fontanelle, and Shelley’s grave; anxious about morality, particularly about which transgressions cannot be laughed off; and finally anxious about comic masks, whether it is ever possible for a comedian to confront the “brutal reality” of life: “Behind every pithy, vaguely amusing little joke is a cry for help,” Coogan says in a mock-eulogy of Brydon at Bolton Abbey in The Trip. Coogan is of course just as unwilling to confront said reality. While Brydon’s compulsion to recite poetry in one of his celebrity imitation voices is a source of great frustration to his more serious companion, who sees in his friend’s comic deflation of high art a frustrating evasion, Coogan’s self-deluded view of himself as a Byronic figure -- Brydon suggests his friend write a “Childe Steve’s Pilgrimage” -- is a version of the same evasive impulse. What Henri Bergson said about the comic artist applies to both men: However interested a dramatist may be in the comic features of human nature, he will hardly go, I imagine, to the extent of trying to discover his own. Besides, he would not find them, for we are never ridiculous except in some point that remains hidden from our own consciousness. To wit: When the two comics pause to examine a petrified Pompeian corpse preserved in a glass bier, Coogan’s bathetic musings on death are in a way as deflective as Brydon’s decision to break out his famed “small man trapped in a box” voice and discuss footwear with the sandaled ancient. Masks come in different styles. Once or twice these masks come off -- to an extent. After a riotous lunch late in the film, Brydon, who has demonstrated little guilt for his infidelity, comes clean about the affair to Emma, Coogan’s pregnant assistant. Still laughing from Brydon’s humorous confession -- delivered in his Hugh Grant voice -- she demurs when asked for her advice, explaining that a hormonal pregnant woman might not be the best person to ask. Her lingering smile is one of the most ambivalent moments in the film, laughter and disappointment at war on her face. She can’t bring herself to deliver a moral judgment to the comic mask that delights her even as it reveals an unpalatable truth; the film slyly counts on the same from viewers. I’m not suggesting that one needs adopt a sententious stance on adultery, only that by tarnishing Brydon’s goofy, family-man image, the film demonstrates the powerful sense of complicity created by laughter. The Trip to Italy is more than just funny -- though that would be enough. It is a sneakily moral tale about historical figures (Byron, Casanova) renowned for their amorality; a capacious comedy about two rather narrow, inflexible characters; and a vivacious lark so haunted by death that by the final credits the title has acquired a newly metaphysical import. Each comedian, masked though he may be, knows exactly where the trip is ultimately headed.