Thursday, December 22, 2016

Excerpts from A Christmas Carol (2016)


 
I.

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that – believe me! The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Trump signed it. And, depending quite heavily on whether the bank was foreign or domestic, Trump’s name was good upon ‘change, for anything he chose to put his tiny little hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing absolutely tremendous and really terrific can come of the story I am going to relate.

Oh! But he was an itsy-bitsy-fisted hand at the grindstone, Trump! A squeezing, wrenching, pussy-grabbing, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as Sharper Image, back in the 80s, when that company was really something let me tell you; self-Tweeting, and solitary as an oyster. Some kind of possibly-sentient Orange Julius was on his head, and on his eyebrows. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

Once upon a time – of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve – old Trump sat busy in his golden tower. It was cold bleak, biting weather: foggy withal, and he could hear the people in the court outside go protesting up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones, shouting “Not my President!” and a bunch of other stuff he couldn’t possibly actually hear, given the insulating effect of living in solid gold rooms, but the knowledge of them nonetheless stirred his ire.

At length the hour of shutting up the golden Tower arrives. With an ill-will Trump dismounted from his very expensive golden chair/throne/obnoxiously open critique of the excesses of capitalism, and addressed the expectant clerk , Bob Crachit.

“You’ll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?” said Trump.

“If quite convenient, Mr. Trump.”

“Fuck convenient,” said Trump. “If I docked your pay for wasting my time with this Christmas nonsense, the government’d sue me. Luckily, I’ll be the government soon. So we’ll just see about this day-off business, going forward.”

Crachit smiled, faintly.
 

II.

“You are fettered,” said Trump, who didn’t actually know what the word ‘fettered’ meant, and didn’t care that he didn’t know, because books are for eggheads and learning is for losers. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

“Don’t go in for chains, myself,” replied Trump. “Not my thing. I do know a guy who could do it for you in gold, though. Very classy.”

“Would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have labored on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” asked Trump. “I don’t see any chain around me. Who sent you? The Washington Post? Bezos is in trouble, come January. What’s your business here?”

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands . “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

“This is all very sad,” said Trump. “Very uninteresting.”

``You will be haunted,'' proclaimed the Ghost, ``by Three Spirits. Without their visits,'' said the Ghost, ``you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One.''

“One is very bad for me. I’m scheduled to meet Kanye again at one. Call my secretary and speak to her about setting up an appointment. I’m very busy right now.”
 

III.

When Trump awoke, it was so dark, that looking out of bed, he could scarcely distinguish the transparent window from the opaque walls of his chamber. The curtains of his bed were drawn aside, I tell you, by a hand; and Trump, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them. At the spirit’s appearance Trump turned white as a sheet, which but for a moment gave him the aspect of his enthusiastic booster, David Duke.

``Who, and what are you?'' Trump demanded.

``I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.''

“I don’t do the past,” said Trump. “Very unrewarding.”

“Learning from the past prevents one from repeating it,” intoned the spirit.

“Very. Unrewarding.” emphasized Trump.

Despite his many protestations, the Ghost of Christmas Past spirited old Trump away to revisit his past actions, returning him to his godawfully gaudy quarters as if in the blink of an eye.

“And now you see the ways in which your actions – your greed and your selfishness – have harmed others, Donald.” The Ghost of Christmas Past turned its infinitely sad and knowing eyes to Trump.

“Those were some very good deals,” said Trump.
 

IV.

“And now you see the ways in which your actions – your greed and your selfishness – have harmed others, Donald.” The Ghost of Christmas Present turned its wise and shining eyes to Trump.

“Those were some very good deals,” said Trump.
 

V.

Silently, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come raised its boney finger and pointed at old Trump. The grim darkness that filled its dread hood was the color of unquestionable judgment; its pitiless gaze oppressed the comfortable and comforted the oppressed.

“Those were some very good deals,” said Trump.
 

VI.

Outside it was Christmas morning. The bells of St. Patrick’s cathedral rang out their song of peace on earth, good will toward men. Trump lay abed, smart phone in his teensy weensy hands, furiously tweeting.

Ghost of Christmas Past: Very bad! No regrets! Will sue!

Ghost of Christmas Present: Failing, just like NYTimes! I will make Christmas great again! Believe me!

Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: Very unattractive! Will ignore!

Trump was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who totally died, he gave not a second thought. He stayed as fair-weather a friend, as pitiless a master, and as amoral a man, as the city which has always hated him ever knew – or any other city, town, or borough, in the world. Some people laughed to see the lack of alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them. He had no further intercourse with Spirits, because they were too busy afterward seeing to his incipient chains; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to use Christmas like the soulless, opportunistic, unrepentant huckster he truly was. May that never be said of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One.

…We’re going to need it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Good Place (S1; eps 1 & 2)


 
The Good Place: Everything is Fine & Flying (Season 1; Episodes 1 & 2)
Being a review and a wonky, lighthearted analysis of the first two episodes of Network television’s first philosophical sitcom.

"A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes, because of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but only because of its volition, that is, it is good in itself..."
- Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals


Michael Schur is not fucking around.

In creating The Good Place, Schur - also the co-creator of Parks & Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine - has crafted the first TV comedy that's actively interested in, and engaged with, philosophy and ethics. Based on the evidence of its first two self-identified "chapters" that stuff isn't just pretentious window dressing, it's the reason for the show. In the first two chapters of The Good Place you will read or hear the names Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger, and Parfit. You will be presented with several snippets of moral thinking, and several overt, thorny, unanswered ethical questions. You will, if you're a total amateur Philosophy-skimmer like me, be really impressed by the ways that The Good Place incorporates all of this into its fabric.

...You will also laugh as you watch a panicked Ted Danson kick a dog into the sun, and then, in total kindness, offer to do it again. You will see a weirdly hilarious number of clowns. There are inexplicable giraffes, and a lot of wickedly good one-liners and gags. The Good Place is Michael Schur cashing in on success and goodwill to make something genuinely odd and personal and funny and earnest and smart and dark around the edges; there's more going on here than meets the eye, and I mean that on a couple of levels.

You can watch the first two chapters of The Good Place right now, for free, but in the event you’ve already watched it, or just don’t feel like it at the moment, here's the show in a nutshell: We join Eleanor (Kristen Bell) as she is welcomed to the good place - a purported heaven reserved exclusively for the very, very best of humanity, run by Michael, an apparent divine representative played by Ted Danson (sure, why not). It's a charmingly eccentric place that's a benign-seeming riff on The Prisoner's famous Village. In the good place you are given everything you desire, and for all intents it seems like any number of other pleasantly reassuring depictions of the afterlife (see: Defending Your Life's Judgment City). There's just one catch: Eleanor doesn't belong there. Thanks to some apparent bureaucratic screw-up, Bell's Eleanor - a terrible person - has taken the place of a woman who DOES belong there. Understandably unwilling to call attention to this mistake given what she learns about the place where she’s supposed to have gone, Eleanor sets out to stay in the good place by attempting to become a "good" person. Hilarity, and a heaping helping of intriguing ambiguity, swiftly follow.

What does it mean to be "good"? Is "goodness" defined by the actions we perform? By what we say? By the thoughts we have? Is "goodness" something we can learn? Something we can fake? Does the alignment of "good" thought and "good" action matter? If you perform good acts for bad reasons, does that matter? Bad acts for good reasons?

These sorts of questions are at the heart of The Good Place, and to the show's immense credit, the answers to those questions do not appear clear-cut in any way, shape, or form. That's where the philosophy and ethics come in. Chidi, Eleanor's roommate/purported soulmate in the good place, is an ethics professor. It's through him that the thinkers I've listed above are introduced.
 
 
 
 
Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, which rears its head more than once, is a historically-seismic work of moral philosophy, with its goal being the development of a clearer understanding of moral understanding. Kant advances several general principles, including the idea that actions may be considered “moral” only when they are “pure,” motivated by “duty,” and unmotivated by reasons such as greed, self-aggrandizement, or desire, and that an action’s morality should be judged by the motive of the actor, and not by the result of the action (an assertion that, interestingly, would seem to be entirely contrary to the good place’s moral “scoring system”). Kant asserts that moral “law” must consist of a general formula that can be applied in any situation, exclusive of specific circumstances, and regardless of consequences. This idea of a “moral formula” is reinforced by another of the philosophers who are namechecked on the show.

That would be Derek Parfit, a living, modern-day philosopher similarly concerned with morality. Parfit initially found Kant irritating, and felt that the Kantian idea of autonomy was overvalued, but as he grew older he came to believe that “Kant was the greatest moral philosopher since the ancient Greeks.” He also felt that the clash of ideas between Kantians, with their absolute emphasis on “duty” and disregard of consequence, the Consequentialists, with their absolute emphasis on bringing about as much exterior “good” as possible and disregard of “duty” (which is, on the surface, the moral position of Ted Danson’s Michael and the good place), and the Contractualists, with their absolute belief in consent – absolute principles to which no one could reasonably object. Parfit’s recent book, On What Matters, postulates that there are “true answers to moral questions, just as there are to mathematical ones. Humans can perceive these truths, through a combination of intuition and critical reasoning, but they remain true whether humans perceive them or not.” Parfit’s book is, essentially, an attempt to find the point of union between the three moral camps I’ve just (badly) described, to “prove” that morality matters objectively, beyond subjective motivators and human desires.

John Stuart Mill also seems to get a shout-out, with the word "utilitarianism" scrawled on Chidi's blackboard. Mill’s Utilitarianism is an essay written to advance another moral theory: that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to product the reverse of happiness.” Mill’s assertion that happiness (basically, pleasure, without pain) is the only basis of morality, runs counter to the assertions of Kant and Parfit, and underlines just how difficult it is to arrive at any sort of objective moral consensus.

…And Aristotle is Aristotle, man. As Eleanor quips, inanely, but also not-incorrectly, "he's the best one" (Aristotle’s name derives from the Greek word “Aristoteles,” which translated to “the best purpose,” or “the best aim”). Famously the teacher of Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s work in the field of ethics involved the practical, as opposed to the theoretical – on “becoming” good and “doing” good, as opposed to  “knowing” good for its own sake. He asserted that acting in accordance with one’s own nature, and realizing one’s own full potential, will result in doing good and feeling contentment. As with Mill, Aristotle asserted that happiness was the ultimate goal, with self-realization, awareness of your own nature, and the realization of your potential, was the best way to achieve that goal. 
 
 
 
The inclusion of these philosophers firmly reinforce The Good Place’s chief thematic concerns. The seeming outlier in this assortment of dead, old, brainy dudes is Martin Heidegger, whose On the Way to Language is concerned with the origins, nature, and significance of language (what he calls “the house of Being”) and communication, and with how language acts as signs and symbols that convey (or don't convey) agreed-upon meaning. There is of course a moral dimension to Heidegger’s book, but it’s inclusion is also an iiiiiinteresting choice from a narrative POV. After all, when Bell introduces a seemingly-new "language" into the good place - namely selfish behavior and negative words - she alters the good place's very fabric. She changes its signs and symbols, and with it, the good place’s "meaning." And about that "meaning"...

 
"What happens in the other place? ...Don’t worry about it!"
-Michael


The Good Place is very charming, and clever-funny. It's also positively terrifying. Lurking among the show's brightly cheerful setting and numerous frozen yogurt kiosks is a monstrous fact, casually and pointedly glossed over: you and I and everyone we know do not "deserve" to go to the good place. We're all headed for the other place, like it or not - because you don't just have to be a good person to live in the good place, you have to be a FANTASTIC person (according to very specific criteria). To enter the good place, your actions on earth need to have promoted a maximal amount of external good in the world around you. Fall short, and you’re headed to The Bad Place.

The Bad Place - impliedly hell, though I wonder - isn't just a place where awful, unrepentant people go to suffer for their sins. It's the place where 90-something percent of everyone goes when they die (to suffer in awful ways, if you believe the brief "audio clip" that Janet, the show's sentient Siri equivalent, plays for us. I don't know that I do). That's horrifying. It damns nearly all of us. Did you spend your life contributing indelibly to mankind's knowledge of the universe? Good for you! You're headed to The Bad Place! Were you the founder of modern nursing, thus saving the lives of countless generations? Off to The Bad Place with you (literally – we’re told that Florence Nightingale didn’t make the cut, though “it was very close”)! Was your life spent being nice and thoughtful toward your fellow human beings, praying every day, and tithing on Sundays? Tough shit! You're still headed to The Bad Place!

Meanwhile, a small sliver of humanity is flying, and eating anything they want, and living in individually-designed homes, with access to anything that they desire, 24 hours a day, fully aware that everyone who didn't donate both their kidneys to a total stranger is suffering horribly for all eternity.

...Does that sound like a "Good Place"? Because I wonder.

In between the shiny facades and the quirky, smiling faces and the neato activities (whee! Flying!) there is real ambiguity to the "goodness" of the good place, and the show hints at that fact in ways both large and small. There is, of course, the ethical monstrousness of sending billions of people to a literal and/or figurative lake of fire for having scored a B+ or lower on an undisclosed "goodness" exam they never knew they were taking (and the ways in which that monstrousness dovetails neatly into the ways in which world religions teach analogous doctrines has the potential to really rile up the one million moms crowd).
 
 
 
There's also the fact that in the good place everyone's soul mate is their apparent opposite (so far, at least). Kristen Bell's Eleanor is unethical and immoral; her soulmate, Chidi, is an ethics professor. Eleanor's neighbor, Tahani, is a gabby, humblebragging socialite; her soulmate, Jianyu, is a silent monk. Even the "fun guys" that Bell meets in the good place are visual opposites - one is a buttoned-down preppy-type, the other looks like a burly, bearded outdoorsman. It's too early in the show's run to make any pronouncements, but this arrangement, and the way it's being played, suggest that soulmates in the good place are perhaps selected in order to help teach people something about themselves and potentially make them better people. Here's the question: If they've made it into heaven, why are they being "improved" further, and in ways which appear to target their specific foibles? Maybe that's what heaven is, in The Good Place - a place where we continue to improve and learn from those who are different from us. That's a really sweet thought, actually. But it also helps to highlight a fundamentally important question: Are the people in the good place really "good" people?

It's hard to say because, like, what IS "good" anyway, maaaaan? Schur's show makes it clear that the sky-high standard for admittance into the good place is good ACTION; Ted Danson's Michael explains it as the sum of the actions a person takes that then have positive effects on the world at large. But good ACTION doesn't necessarily = good person, as philosophers, ethicists, and religious types have long observed. Many traditions maintain that good action without good thought is flawed. Some, like certain sects of Christianity, argue that actions are essentially meaningless from a salvation standpoint, and that your only guarantee of same is to adopt Jesus into your heart - an exercise in valuing their version of "good thought" to the total exclusion of good action.

It's also hard to say because all we've seen so far of the people residing in the good place are the faces they've presented IN the good place. They certainly seem like good people. We're told they're good people. However, we don't know how Chidi or Tahani lived their lives on earth, and it's very possible that when we get glimpses of their past we're going to discover that things in the good place are much less straightforward than initially presented. When Eleanor receives a handwritten note at the end of chapter two, we're clearly meant to think that the message "you don't belong here" means what she think it means – namely, that it was intended for her. But again, I wonder. Is Eleanor the only one in the good place “by mistake”? The only one hiding who she “really” is?
 
…Sure it is.
It's too soon to know where Schur's show is going with any of this. It is very possible that I have drastically overthought a half-hour NBC sitcom, and that the rules for this world simply are what they are, decided on for entirely comedic/different reasons - but I don't think that's what's happening here. After all, this is a show from the man who seeded an episode of Parks and Recreation with subtle references to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. The first two "chapters" of The Good Place suggest that what we're seeing is a purposeful attempt to grapple with what being "good" means/should mean; with ethics and morality and life itself. With good jokes. And big heart.

That's wonderful.

What happens, do you think, when an ethics professor examines the ethics of a purposefully exclusionary afterlife? What happens when these people start to examine where they are, who they are, and why they were picked? I've got some theories (some very specific, very interesting theories), but I'll wait to share those in more detail as the show develops. As for what happens when a smart, big-hearted network TV comedy engages with difficult, slippery ethical/moral/philosophical questions? I have no real idea - but I can't wait to find out.

PS: all hail Doug Forcett!


 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Stranger Things & The Art of Withholding: A Solidly Engaging Tale with a Naggingly Spare Mythology

 
 
CHAPTER ONE

A Short Description of, and NON-SPOILERY Review of, Stranger Things,
A New-ish Netflix Series.


"If you've ever loved Stephen King, or John Carpenter, or 70s/80s Spielberg, or maybe just 80s music, then Stranger Things is liable to be up your alley!"
 
You've probably heard or read some version of that somewhere by now, and it's not untrue.

Stranger Things is steeped in the 80’s in a lot of ways, but that’s never the real narrative focus of the show. The show isn't about the 80’s, it just inhabits that decade (very enjoyably/evocatively, for this viewer). Those of you who didn't live through the 80’s, or who didn't very much like the 80’s, will still get intelligent, dark, self-contained-but-potentially-expansive sci-fi/horror with a hefty helping of humor and heart. Sounds pretty good, right? How about this: It's also winningly sincere throughout, which feels rare, and not faux- or painfully sincere, which feels rarer.

Stranger Things is a good time in general, regardless of your feelings about The Greed Decade, is what I'm saying. What's the show about? I'm so glad you asked!

Young Will Byers has gone missing, throwing the quiet town of Hawkins, Indiana into disarray. His mother - single, close to the poverty line, already frayed at the edges - draws the attention and sympathy of local police Chief Hopper, a self-destructive, short-tempered, and deeply damaged man who is similarly barely keeping it together.

At the same time a strange young girl, marked like a lab animal, furtively scurries into town pursued by sinister men and women from a government facility on the edge of town. She's given a place to hide by Will Byers's best friends, three squabbling, tight-knit nerds, who find that she's connected to Will's disappearance.

Meanwhile, the older sister of one of the boys has just started dating a popular guy, and this subplot initially feels both extraneous and dull - like a lesser John Hughes effort inelegantly jammed into the proceedings - until that narrative thread refutes audience expectation and veers neatly sideways into the main storyline.

That's the basic setup for Stranger Things, and it's all I'd want to know about the plot before I saw it, other than "Was it any good?"

Yes!
 
 

Stranger Things is remarkably assured, which is doubly surprising given that its creators/directors/writers, the Duffer brothers, aren't well-seasoned veterans. The scripts are tight, the dialogue natural overall, the direction and cinematography impressively moody, atmospheric, and cinematic*. The show cares about its characters to an admirable degree. And the actors are all pretty great**.
* Stranger Things marks the first time I have ever thought “Shawn Levy is talented!” That’s not meant to be mean, but nothing Levy has involved himself in before this has ever struck me as anything other than “vaguely passable family fare.”


**Depending on who you are you may or may not enjoy Matthew Modine's performance. Yes, MATTHEW MODINE is in this. You may also find yourself taken with, or cold toward, Winona Ryder. I think she's admirably solid, if a little too young for the role, but your mileage may vary.
Was Stranger Things "Great"?

I dunno!

…No?

…Maybe? What do you think?

My conception of "Great" may be (probably is) wildly different from yours. Devin Faraci of Birth.Movies.Death didn’t like the show at all. Kyle Pinion of GeekRex and Comics Beat was cool on it as a whole. People are unique and individual pop culture-absorbing snowflakes. For me, what matters is that Stranger Things is a solidly entertaining way to spend time in front of your facescreen of choice, as should already be evident*.

*With some (spoilery) reservations. I’ll discuss those below.

That's that, newbies. Go hence, and view the show. Or do not. Or just do what I do and watch two episodes to see if it hooks you. So endeth the non-spoilery section of this piece. Those of you who've already seen the show, this next section is all for you. HERE BE SPOILERS. Don't read what follows unless you've seen the show or don't care about being spoiled. Cool? Cool.

 

 
CHAPTER TWO

Spoiler Things, Or, The Art of Withholding


Let’s talk a little turkey.

There’s a lot to like about Stranger Things, from its solid casting and its smart and referential scripts/direction, to its murky, evocative atmosphere and its grounded performances. But most interesting to me is the show's desire/willingness to keep its mysteries mysterious. By refusing to offer up much in the way of detail about its own mythology the show deploys one of fiction’s oldest, most potent tools and riskiest high-wire acts: the art of withholding.

All fiction practices that particular art on some level. When someone refers to a book as a “page-turner,” we know they’re saying that they needed to know what happened next – were in fact compelled to discover what happened next – and they’re often saying it precisely because the author has been carefully or instinctively withholding character or plot information from the readers in order to help propel them through the narrative via their own curiosity. Cliffhangers – in print, on TV, and on the silver screen – are prime examples of the art of withholding. They can send their audience into fits of bliss over the possibilities presented (see: "we're gonna have to take the boy," in the Season One finale of LOST), or send their audience into fits of (frankly embarrassing) rage (see: The finale of last season’s The Walking Dead). When withholding on a “story-mythology” level is done well it’s maybe the most effective trick that a fiction can pull on me. In fact, almost all of my favorite television shows are on some level exercises in story-mythology withholding: LOST, Twin Peaks, Buffy/Angel, The Lost Room*.
*Have you never heard of The Lost Room? Do you like TV shows like the ones I just listed? Then trust me: plunk down money for the DVD, which you can buy here. When you're done watching you can read my thoughts on it, right here. And you can follow two of its creators, Paul Workman and Christopher Leone, by clicking their names.


Stranger Things understands the power of story-mythology withholding; Shawn Levy and the Duffer brothers know that creepy and mysterious things are often creepier and more mysterious when they're unexplained. The show’s main issue in this regard lies in the highly subjective way that withholding is received by the audience: how much is not enough? How much is too much? The show arguably gives us juuuust enough in the way of explanation about the background details of its world in order for the audience to make sense of what's happening. It withholds enough from us so that the Upside Down and its petal-faced, murderous inhabitant(s?)*, Matthew Modine and Eleven, the bio-organic "gateway" between dimensions, the purpose(s) of the Department of Energy - all remain compellingly and/or frustratingly inexplicable.

I say frustrating, because this kind of plot/mythos-related withholding either works or it doesn't. Whether it does or does not depends, in part, on your personal preferences, and on the manner in which that withholding is handled.

* Is there just the one monster inhabiting the Upside Down? Or are there several? This detail was genuinely confusing to me. The Duffer Brothers have said in interviews that there is one monster, and so that would appear to close out the question. But it really only opens up more questions. If there’s just the one monster, then why are there eggs in the Upside Down? Why is the petal-faced monster doing…whatever its doing to Will Byers and to poor, poor Barb if not to breed other monster-babies? Why does it seem as though Petal-Face loses a foot in the Byers house, but seems to have both his feet later on?


For this viewer, Stranger Things practices the art of withholding well enough, but ultimately not as well as it could or should have. The possibility of another season, in which some more of the show’s background mythos is exposed and explored, alleviates potential disappointment, but all in all, what Stranger Things ultimately accomplishes via withholding is (1) to make its tale a “page-turner” (success!) while (2) leaving this particular audience member somewhat deflated due to a suspicion of hollowness at the show mythology’s core (sadness!).
 
 
 

The Upside Down itself is strikingly, hauntingly realized, and as a supernatural setting it’s fairly spectacular. It’s also literally empty: a negative image of the “real” world, devoid of people or animals or even multiple large predators. It appears to be populated solely by one petal-faced monster, a couple of tentacle things, an egg, and some dead bodies. We learn absolutely nothing about the Upside Down over the course of the season except that it’s another dimension. On the one hand, this is great. Our lack of knowledge lends the place – which is wonderfully brought to life in large part via practical effects-work – a feeling of genuine otherworldliness. On the other hand, the particular WAY in which the Duffers withhold any information on the Upside Down feels as though it might be because they just made up a space for their monster, and didn’t think the rest through.  

Take LOST, as example. On a very general, overall level, that show was always careful to suggest a history behind its mysteries. When Locke or Jack stumbled onto some secret station or ancient ruin viewers would notice a wealth of detail seeded into the show that gave the sense of these eerie, otherworldly locations having a story behind them. That sense of history made every mystery (well, almost every mystery) that much more compelling. Stranger Things doesn’t do that. It’s a defensible choice, no doubt, but it’s also, subjectively, a choice that leaves me feeling cooler than I’d like.
This, far more than any pop cultural anachronism, is my biggest issue with the show. I don't care about the relative likelihood of whether a teenager in the specific year that the show is set in would listen to a specific song, nor what that says about the creative motivations of the show or the "cred" of its makers. That topic is, to be frank, utterly uninteresting; nitpickery at its most aggravating and useless. It's clear that the Duffers love all this stuff, and that they're enjoying including it. Why does it matter whether Jonathan would have an Evil Dead poster in his room?
It doesn't. Not to this guy. What matters is whether the Upside Down and all its  has any meaning, utility, or purpose, other than as a well-dressed set.

It’s possible to craft some thoughts on the Stranger Things mythology, but it’s not very satisfying because there’s so little to it so far. What’s the egg? Is it where the monster comes from? Or is it a source of food for the monster? Is the Upside Down a literal other dimension? Is it more of a collective/universal mindscape, with the Demogorgon acting as the literalization of a predatory subconscious? Do the slugs that Will was made to ingest act like Alien larva and use humans as hosts? Or do they transform humans into monsters? Maybe most naggingly: has the monster always been able to pass into the “real” world? Because it seems to be able to do so at whim. So what’s the point/purpose of the portal that Eleven inadvertently creates? How does a second one appear in the woods? ANSWER MEEEEEE.

 


…However, very much in its favor, Stranger Things is clearly less interested in telling a story about secret programs and the Upside Down than it is in telling a story about the people who unwittingly encounter those things. For all of the show’s copious reference points/homages/blatant thefts, that's really the show’s most genuinely, enjoyably King-ish/Spielberg-ian quality: it tells a believably grounded story about small town people encountering the unknown using archetypical characters that are also, somehow, gently subversive in how those archetypes end up feeling dimensional, human and real in pleasantly interesting ways. The characters outweigh my suspicion of hollowness at the show’s center. It’s thanks to them, and to a few very well-chosen story-beats, that I can write the sort of positive review I posted in “Chapter One.”

Two character examples that serve to illustrate the whole:

(1)   Nestled inside Stranger Things is a mini-John Hughes-ian tale which at first feels depressingly extraneous, then snaps into focus when it veers sharply into the main storyline. Convention and archetype dictate that preppy rich kid Steve be revealed as shallow/antagonistic toward poor (literally/figuratively), misunderstood Jonathan, alienating Nancy and helping to reveal to her that Jonathan is a sweet soul who should totally, like, be her boyfriend, The show feints in that direction, but then takes a different, more interesting path. Jonathan is shown as sweet, yes, but also sort of creepy (shades of American Beauty). Steve is revealed to be genuinely good-hearted. We expect Nancy to end the show paired with Jonathan, but instead she’s shown snuggling up to Steve, who rejects his stereotypically snide former friends. It’s not a startling or a groundbreaking storytelling, but it does gently subvert expectation in surprising and enjoyable ways. The show enjoys doing this with its characters – letting them be more rounded, in big and little ways, than they might otherwise be in a story of this kind. To wit:

(2)   Minor characters like Mr. Frank the science teacher are given small, sharp splashes of definition in their relatively brief screen time, making them a little more than just the murder victims or exposition-delivery mechanisms that they typically are. The show takes a few moments to show Mr. Frank relaxing at home while watching a very appropriate John Carpenter flick alongside his Asian girlfriend*. We’re used to seeing “science teacher” characters in these sorts of stories as asexual blanks, and for a minute, we’re given the sense that Mr. Frank has an actual life we’re not privy to - even if the story being told still relegates the character to an expositional role. Touches like this one turn what could be rote into something more specific and personal.

*Had this show been made in the 80s, Mr. Frank would very likely not have had an Asian girlfriend.

Stranger Things has an interest in, and empathy for, the vast majority of its characters. That interest and empathy are, I’d argue, the reason for the show’s success. Yes, people online can be annoying in their effusive praise for the show, and yes, it’s true that the show’s genre elements are all sourced from elsewhere. But the characters matter, and the show’s writers/directors/producers/actors clearly care about those characters in a refreshingly unironic way.
 
 
 
 
Along with the characters, it’s specifically the show’s willingness to eschew Happy Endings that makes it feel like more than just an exercise in enjoyable references and nostalgia. The show’s final scene, in which Will Byers coughs up a slug-thing and watches the bathroom around him transform into the Upside Down for an eerie moment, before returning to “our” world, and to his family, carrying the secret of that moment inside of him, is quietly devastating. It’s also the moment that ultimately sells me on the show as a whole. My disappointment with the lack of depth in the show’s mythology is finally countered, very nicely, by the sense of disquiet and foreboding that those images leave in my mind. Will may be back, but he’s changed in some way, and there’s Something Terrible lurking around him still. If Stranger Things never gets a second season, the show’s final moments serve as an appropriately haunting and unresolved ending.
 

CHAPTER THREE

Should It Stay or Should It Go?

As of this writing, Stranger Things has not been renewed for a second season. I find it extremely difficult to believe that a renewal is not forthcoming, given the sheer amount of love that the show has received online from critics and audiences. Even if the actual viewing numbers for the show as a whole are average by Netflix’ standards, the show is clearly becoming one of “those” properties for which fans develop deep (and sometimes, to be honest, extremely annoying) affection, and those fans are helping to expand Netflix’s brand in ways that aren’t quantifiable via viewing metrics. The show’s potential is borne out in the way it’s taken off across the internet as a meme-source, a fan-art accelerant, a think-piece generator (hello!), and a source of growing grumbling from certain sectors that Stranger Things doesn’t live up to the hype, that all the fan affection is extremely tiresome, that if people were REAL fans they would watch some other thing, etc. etc. etc.

I would guess that Netflix will announce a second season for the show by the end of the year, and that they are waiting (a) on the initial hype/excitement cycle to die down (a renewal will reignite interest in the show and draw more viewers; do it too soon and you’d deaden that effect); (b) for the conclusion of Finn Wolfhard’s filming time on Andy Muschetti’s upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s IT (they need Mike Wheeler!); (c) on the boring-but-necessary work of negotiating, drawing up, and executing the necessary agreements and contracts; and possibly (d) for people to get a little disinterested/distracted - at which point they’ll begin secretly filming to capture the kids before they age any further, and THEN announce a second season.  

So, let’s assume for the moment that Stranger Things will return and that The Duffer Brothers, who have gone vaguely on record to talk about their season two ideas, will be allowed to pursue those ideas. Where does the show go next?

We know that the story will likely pick up at least one year after the events of the first season. We now know that the Duffers have a show bible containing a LOT more information on the Upside Down and its monstrous inhabitant/s (hooray!). We know that the Duffers are interested in exploring how the events of season one have affected their cast – not only Will Byers, who is decidedly NOT okay, but everyone else who was exposed to the apparent toxicity of the Upside Down. We know that Chief Hopper has developed some kind of relationship, whether voluntary or coerced, with the mysterious folks at the Department of Energy. We know that Eleven vanished, but isn’t dead, and might just be skulking around in the woods or might be a monster now. Or something*.


*Your thoughts, theories and ideas are encouraged. Post them below, or send them to me on twitter: @M_Morse


What we don’t know is where the Duffers will take any of those developments – in large part because (as I’ve harped on to increasingly diminished returns) we don’t know anything of real worth about the show’s mythology. Will Stranger Things expand its mythos and deepen its mysteries? Will it reveal itself as handsome and loaded with charms, but ultimately not as satisfying as it could have been? We’ll just have to see whether Netflix does the right thing and renews the show for a second season.

Netflix: Do you cast a protective spell, or roll for a fireball?  

Monday, August 22, 2016

Suicide Squad: Less a Review and More of a Bittersweet Reverie




So. I finally got around to seeing Suicide Squad. I'm an avid comics fan and I see most of these adaptations in the theater, but even I took my time with this one given (1) how thoroughly and completely the film was trashed, critically, and more importantly (because they trashed Batman v Superman as well, but I really liked that one, warts and all): (2) my indifference to the version of the Suicide Squad that Warner Brothers chose to bring to the screen.
I've got some thoughts. Specifically: this could've been a muuuuuuuuuch better film if they'd just taken some time to ask themselves some good, honest questions about the sort of film they were making. I was genuinely enthusiastic about Batman v Superman earlier this year, based in part off its gonzo, mythic vibe and the strange, but definitely bold and ultimately defensible, decision-making at the script stage. I felt no such enthusiasm leaving the theater after Suicide Squad. Say what you will about BvS: that movie has the courage of its convictions, and a fair amount on its mind. Those who disliked it can still, I think, acknowledge that. Batman v Superman is an inarguably divisive movie, but there’s enough grist there that two people can have a fun and interesting conversation about their perspectives on the film. Suicide Squad is dumber, nastier, and far less interesting. It's a ramshackle, paper-thin tale (barely) held together by multiple editing teams and some surprisingly solid performances.

It didn't have to be that way.

According to reports, director David Ayers had six weeks to hammer out his script and get things rolling. Is that true? I have no idea, but a feeling of being crunched for time is palpably obvious in the final product. Had Ayers been given the time he needed and, ideally, a writing partner in order to do a few more drafts, we could have had a solid and genuinely interesting film with Suicide Squad, instead of the half-baked-if-well-intentioned, two-hour movie trailer that we got. How might Ayers and Warner Brothers have done this? I'm so glad you hypothetically asked!


1. Jettison June Moon

Enchantress is a nifty special effect, and Cara Delevingne is a surprisingly natural screen presence, but June and her creepy looking alter ego are in the wrong film. Their story doesn't belong in this movie. In fact, none of this magical stuff does, so buhbye Katana as well.*

*I don't know why Katana is in the film at all. There's no reason she should be. She does absolutely nothing worthwhile.

For one, Amanda Waller’s Task Force X is absurdly outmatched during the course of the film’s runtime, and by all rights they should have been incinerated and/or transformed into cheap-looking, disposable monster-people, like, multiple times. But let’s set aside the real issue of threat-scale here for a moment (that’s the focus of fix #2, directly below), and focus on why utilizing Enchantress as the film’s villainess otherwise works against the film on at least two levels:

A. It's at odds with the reason we've all shown up to see a Suicide Squad movie. Namely: moral ambiguity and murky alliances. Nothing about a magical otherworldly threat that will Destroy Everything is ambiguous or murky. It's self-evidently in everyone's self-interest to band together and fight.* Whether the Squad will get along well enough to defeat Gozer is never, ever in doubt. Ever. And that’s a massive mistake, right out of the gate. In order for Suicide Squad to work at all you need to lean hard into the concept, and that can’t be done (well, or effectively) unless you’re actively playing with the Squad’s loyalty and commitment throughout the film. When, in the film’s climax, Enchantress offers Deadshot et al the opportunity to join her, that offer is laughable and pointless.

*Self-evident to everyone but poor Slipknot/Adam Beach, who may as well have "Appointed cannon-fodder" stamped on his furrowed, useless brow.

B. June Moon going rogue and becoming a threat undermines Waller's credibility and authority out of the gate and doesn’t do what the film clearly wants it to do, which is to show Waller as someone who will do whatever she feels is necessary to maintain security and increase her own power while also justifying the decision to give her that power. Waller's competence and control are prematurely undermined in Suicide Squad, and they shouldn't be - not yet. For strict reasons of creating compelling drama Waller deserves an introductory film where she's on top throughout. She should be DC's negative image of Nick Fury - competent and scarily ruthless and (most importantly) undeniably effective. Having the main threat be of Waller's making right now, in the very first film, decapitates a lot of future dramatic opportunities for the sake of ill-judged expedience AND robs us of the chance to see Viola Davis in total steely control for the entire film. We want to see that. We NEED to see that. Not just because it'd be a pleasure to watch (and it would be: Viola Davis is perfectly cast), but because Waller needs to convince the audience and her superiors that this team/series is needed. We are not convinced. Neither should the military types who are in charge of initially greenlighting, then continuing, the Task Force X program be convinced. Based on the events of this film Waller should never be allowed near a position of power again.

To make a truly effective introductory Suicide Squad movie you need to introduce a threat that isn't of Walker's own making; one that isn't absurdly powerful, one that doesn’t so easily bind a group of psychotics and/or felons together into a team…and one that doesn't create sky portal thingies (no more sky portals. Ever. We’re done. Moratorium called. Ixnay on the y skay ortals pay).

Tl;dr: Bye, June!

So, if Warner Brothers shouldn’t use ancient demoness/goddesses as their villain, who should they use? That brings us to fix #2.

2. Thematically tie the film to the larger universe by having the Squad go after the arms dealer who supplied Lex's weaponry in Superman v Batman, and thus create an appropriate, realistic threat-level for Task Force X

This both furthers the inter-film synergy Warner Brothers is attempting AND furthers the drama in Suicide Squad without burdening the film by making it carry a lot of unnecessary DCEU baggage. Bear with me a moment as I outline two of the most obvious ways that Warner Brothers could have accomplished:

A. Make the arms dealer in question someone like Morgan Edge; leader of DC Comics' arms-dealing Intergang organization (feel free to rename them if “Intergang” is just too comic booky for your tastes). Intergang deals in specialized advanced weaponry, and they’re intimately connected with DC’s Darkseid/New Gods characters without there being any need to overtly explain anything about that connection in their initial appearance. Make Intergang the ones behind the bullets that Lois investigated during Batman v Superman. Reveal that they've been introducing arms to the market that are beyond anything seen on earth. Just where those arms come from can be left unsolved/unsaid  - though fans of DC will know that it flows from Apokolips, home of Darkseid, who was hinted at heavily in BvS and will be provide threats aplenty for Justice League.

An organization like that provides limitless cannon fodder without invoking any sky portals (and if concerns about killing off too many humans is a problem, introduce robotic/engineered “foot soliders” for Task Force X to primarily battle). To make the stakes less impersonal, establish that the prime physical threat of the film is someone like The Toyman - a classic Superman villain and also-ran. He's suitably B-list, quirky, and in the vein of what Ayers and WB are clearly aiming for: a left-of-center, Mountain Dew-ish form of EXXXTREME. * He’s a member of Intergang now. Congrats, Toyman (or whoever you’d prefer to fill the “lead henchman” role).

*I don't take issue with that, in the abstract. Ayers' tone and the film's actors/characters all hit a trashily enjoyable note in SS; it's the story that fails them. Using someone like Toyman seems to fit that note, but feel free to substitute in your own b-list villain.
The above scenario is all you need to build a credible and FAR more interesting threat for Suicide Squad: Waller tasks the Squad with shutting down Intergang's Midway City operations. Chaos ensues.

But let’s say that the above – basically The Raid, with supervillains – isn’t to your corporate executive tastes. Let’s say that, instead, you want to ensure your film has a massive opening. Let’s say you want The Joker in this movie (and, if you’re a WB executive, you very clearly want The Joker in all your films). Just go with option B, which is even simpler and more streamlined:

B. Have the Squad, including Harley Quinn, tasked with bringing in The Joker alive. Introduce as well a lower-level baddie whom Task Force X can get more physical with. Chaos ensues. That’s it. Simple. Direct. Full of opportunities for bad behavior, ethical murkiness, and double-crosses. You can even use the film to get Joker into Arkham Asylum for Affleck's solo Batman movie.

Either level of threat is right for the sort of team that Ayers assembled for his film. They present human-scale challenges and open the door to ethical issues and temptation. Can they be bought? Turned? How willing are they to back each other if the threat isn't Utter Global Annihilation? How much more dangerous are these characters to each other?

That's the stuff that interests me about a Suicide Squad movie, and they’re the only arguable bases to make a movie about them. Without any of that, Suicide Squad is a lot of teenage attitude looking for something to rebel against.



3. Shake The Audience Up A Little

Have the Squad (A) kill Morgan Edge (to be replaced, if desired, by Bruno Mannheim as head of Intergang in a future DCEU film), or (B) capture Joker, and defeat Toyman/lower-level baddie, bringing Toyman/LLB into custody. Give the Squad a celebratory moment/moment of reflection. Then undercut that moment completely and reveal that Waller has signed Toyman/LLB to Task Force X. This immediately destroys any celebration/reflection, reinforces Waller’s determination to do whatever it takes/bend or break rules/not care about anyone’s feelings, and doesn’t undermine her capableness in the process.

Have Squad members betray the Squad, or seem like they will. Have them act unpredictably and unwisely. Have some fun with the audience or don't make this sort of film.



4. Re The Joker: No f*cking tattoos or grillwork.

Leto is fine in the role. He's got eerily dead eyes and an appreciably homicidal air about him. All the ornamentation just distracts.  It's not daring. It's just "Joker with a lot of shit on his face." Leto got a ton of terrible press for this film, and by all accounts he sounds like a nightmare to work with, but again: he’s fine in the role dramatically, not some unmitigated disaster. In his next appearance just have him ditch the Lil' Wayne accoutrements and be the chilly blank he's meant to be; a Thin White Duke of Chaos. Don't even bother commenting on it. Of course Joker changes his appearance.


...That's that. Just change the entire film, retroactively. No big whoop*.


*Ha.

Keep the characters the same. Keep the casting the same. Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Jay Hernandez…even Jai “Boring Blank” Courtney: they’re all pretty great in the film. Let them inhabit a better film with a more stripped down, "realistic" milieu that does not feature ancient goddesses or sky portals or metal teeth. Let the characters be genuinely dangerous and unpredictable. Let them be a Suicide Squad in more than just name only. That's a film I'd consider worth watching. You could do all those things and also secure a PG-13. You'd make a much better film in the process, on top of having what looks like a total ball while making it.