Thursday, December 22, 2016
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
"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..."
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.
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 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).
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?
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
"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!"
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-
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?"
* 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.
*With some (spoilery) reservations. I’ll discuss those below.
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.
*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.
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?
Two character examples that serve to illustrate the whole:
*Your thoughts, theories and ideas are encouraged. Post them below, or send them to me on twitter: @M_Morse
Monday, August 22, 2016
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!
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
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.
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 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.
...That's that. Just change the entire film, retroactively. No big whoop*.
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.