"...[L]ife, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
I spent the Fourth of July on an urban hike, passing by some of Los Angeles' historical architecture. My friend, Ravi, and I made a loop that wound from our meeting place, Pershing Square, to the restored modern, mid-century John Ferraro (DWP) Building; to the new Grand Park; to the two-centuries-plus old Spanish and Anglo architecture of the Plaza at Olvera Street ("El Pueblo de Los Angeles," the oldest part of the city in fact); to Union Station, which was built in the 1930s, combining Mission Revival, Art Deco and Moderne elements; back down through Historic Downtown (bordering on the Jewelry District), where we took in some beautiful Art Deco buildings; and finally ended up where we started at the Square.
Along the way, we stopped briefly at Pico House, originally a hotel commissioned in the late 1860s by the last governor under Mexican rule, and Our Lady Queen of Angels La Placita, then had lunch at a Mexican cafe and made an impromptu walk-through of the Chinese American Museum.
In other words: it was the perfect way to celebrate what the United States is. You might even say Los Angeles itself is the perfect exemplar of American diversity.
Though it is not just the fact that we are a melting pot that makes us what we are. I have always been in love with the idea of America: that we were born as a modern experiment; that we were created to escape Old World hierarchies; that our Founders borrowed from the French thinkers of the Enlightenment and Locke's vision for the social contract in devising a form of Government; and that they, with negotiation, compromise and revision, had the foresight to understand its structure -- checks and balances, separation of powers, federalism -- was key to stability and longevity. What emerged was a political system where sweeping changes are difficult to accomplish top-down, but which left the space in the public sphere to accomplish bottom-up change. And we have changed, though it has never been easy. And certainly, there is still a long way to go. ...
So I tend to be reflective and nostalgic this time of year. It is a tradition I suppose, in a way. And as tradition begets tradition, one thing I try to do every year is watch a film or two which somehow capture the spirit of the holiday. There are so many great, great films out there which touch on themes that reflect our internalized ideas of "America," those which cut deeply into the American psyche. But on the weekend of this year's summer mini-break, I have chosen two.
One is a feel-good film cloaked in difficult circumstances and somber tone. Perhaps it is too earnest or even quaint, but I cannot watch the Pursuit of Happyness (2006) without bawling and that means a lot -- at least to me. Perhaps it is because Chris Gardner's (Will Smith) struggles to overcome the odds hit a little too close to the mark; as anyone who has faced adversity can tell us, sometimes it feels like a dark cloud is relentlessly, ominously present despite one's best efforts. But the answer for Gardner was to put his head down and work -- to go until he could not go any further. Of course, the film's comparisons with Horatio Alger's tales are obvious, but they are also trite. This portrayal is honest; it feels honest at its emotional core. It is beautifully acted -- Smith's performance is enhanced I imagine by the off-screen father-son chemistry with his son Jaden (who is also terrific). Sure, the emotional payoff is certain, but it is also, as the wonderful ratingsgal on WordPress would put it, "earned." And while the film does not address the institutional factors which are part of the equation of poverty and homelessness, I think they are implied; the subtext of certain scenes seems to touch on them without ever expressing them head-on. Nonetheless, the film is essentially about making good in spite of it all through hard work and personal choice, and it exposes a worldview that is benevolent towards capitalism -- that there is something ennobling about material success and accumulation. But the film is not just about the American Dream. In a scene that enscapsulates why this film is quintessentially American, Gardner finds himself annoyed at the misspelled "happyness" sign on the front of his son's preschool and muses (in Smith's voiceover narration):
It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking: How did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue. And maybe we can actually never have it, no matter what. How did he know that?
Whether happiness is attainable -- or attainable for everyone -- is question that, despite the happy ending, the film (to its credit) leaves us to ponder for ourselves.
Second on my list is, in a way, the perfect foil to The Pursuit of Happyness, as it is light in tone -- bubbly, comical -- but actually explores the darker side of early twentieth-century, small-town America ... and is more pessimistic about the American Dream. There have been a number of good films that have managed this (American Beauty comes to mind; though there the target is suburban American, not a bygone, idyllic small-town existence), but not in the musical/musical comedy genre. This is reason enough why The Music Man is simply a must this time of year. Adapted in 1962 from its Broadway eponym, the irony of Meredith Wilson's music and lyrics (and book) is perfectly showcased onscreen. Set in the summer of 1912, before, during and after Independence Day, the film bleeds red, white and blue -- literally and figuratively -- but it is the irony which saves it from being sickeningly corny. The songs Ya Got Trouble and Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little are probably the best examples of The Music Man's ability to tap into the deep-seated fears of our collective psyche (including xenophobic tendecies which still persist in many communities today), without taking itself too seriously. And in the end, we realize that perhaps our antihero (of sorts), confidence man Harold Hill (Robert Preston), is onto something when he tells us that there is power in perception and belief: though his ragtag marching band could not string five notes of a Sousa march together, the feeling of pride they evoke in themselves and others is real.
And if that is not a strong enough reason ... then who could pass up the opportunity to watch little Ronny Howard (before he grew up to play Henry Winkler's best friend and then become an Oscar-winning director), lisp out the words to Wells Fargo Wagon?
Not me, that's for sure.
"Because it is my name! ... I cannot have another in my life."
You know the old maxim: without your good name, you have nothing. Arthur Miller undoubtedly had this thought in mind when the wrote John Proctor's closing salvo in The Crucible. So it stands to reason that most people would be very cautious about putting it on the line. If only that were true.
My experience with online fandoms is very limited. In fact, the Downton fandom is the only one I have really engaged with; for a long time I lurked, content to be an observer, a bystander. I found fandom behavior fascinating, but when I became a blogger (who has blogged largely about Downton), I became more attuned to fandom politics.
Normally I would not devote a post to fandom behavior, but something happened very recently which clearly crossed a line and exceeded accepted bounds of etiquette and fair play. In many fandoms there are splits and factions which lead to heated exchanges, impolitic one-upmanship and grudges on both sides. The Downton fandom is no different. Yet there is an implicit understanding -- informed by shared standards of netiquette and fairness among all online communities -- that certain boundaries simply are not transgressed. Privacy and anonymity are important because, contrary to prevailing sentiment, a lot of people are careful about what they put out into the world and/or how much of themselves to reveal to perfect strangers.
When someone who is trusted by an original poster/blogger/microblogger (OP) reveals protected content to persons whom the OP deliberately excluded from seeing it, it is a problem. It is a violation of netiquette, that "honor code" to which we are all impliedly bound in online interactions. And that is precisely what happened in the Downton fandom over the weekend. Worse still: there is strong circumstantial evidence the person who did this deliberately acted as a "mole" to "spy" on persons who trusted her enough to bypass default security settings (i.e. to be privy to private, protected content). And the noble cause for which this was done? To stir the pot of idle fandom gossip.
If it seems like I am taking this a bit personally ... well, I guess I am. The person whose conduct I'm deeply disappointed in is someone I've interacted with and, though we may not see many fandom-related things eye-to-eye, I believed she was a trustworthy person. And when the incident came to light, I felt foolish for my belief. Even though it did not directly affect me, the incident rightfully upset the mutual friend(s)/acquaintance(s) whose privacy was breached -- person(s) with whom the instigator had no personal beef. I cannot think of any motivation for her actions, in fact, other than going after people because of whom they may or may not associate with in fandom.
I just wish this person had considered her actions beforehand. The fans/stans on my "side" of the fandom often get a bad rap for speaking their minds in a manner that some people do not like. But I do not think any of their followers have ever had cause to believe they were ratting them out or divulging private, protected content. The person who instigated this incident ought to think about that and the fact that, regardless of how nice her real-world friends and family may think her, online, she no longer is seen as someone who can be trusted. That is not how I would want to be perceived among people who used to respect me.
Fair or unfair, your reputation is everything.
"Austen wrote the first Darwinian novel ... [driven by] the gene in Mr. Darcy's breeches."
At the end of April I attended the Jane Austen Society of North America's (JASNA) annual spring event in Southern California. (Yes, I am that person ... on occasion.) Who was this year's guest of honor? Answer: Andrew Davies, the most prolific screenwriter of period adaptations of our time. Mr. Davies' attendance was a major coup for JASNA which, as one of the organizers emphasized, views Mr. Davies as a "rock star."
And with good reason. He did, after all, write the screenplay for what most Janeites consider to be the authoritative screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995 for ITV (its production marked the bicentennial of Austen's completion of her initial draft of the novel). He also went on to co-write the screenplay for the enormously successful Bridget Jones' Diary (2001), the film adaptation of Helen Fielding's novel about a thirty-something "singleton" in London, which is itself (partially) a reworking of Pride and Prejudice (the romantic lead, after all, shares a surname with Austen's hero ... and in the film was portrayed by none other than Colin Firth). Davies also wrote other Austen adaptations, Emma (ITV 1996), Sense & Sensibility (BBC 2008), Northanger Abbey (ITV 2007), not to mention adaptations of the works of several Victorian writers (Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, et al.) as well as original and contemporary material.
The highlight of his remarks at JASNA was, of course, discussion of his Austen adaptations, Pride and Prejudice in particular. It is in many's view (mine included) his finest achievement as a screenwriter. Davies spoke at length about his approach to adapting the novel for a miniseries. He said he wanted to write an updated, energetic script that stayed true to the spirit of the novel, rather than the letter of it (though I believe his screenplay is also one of the most faithful literary adaptations ever written). For him, despite the strict social conventions of the Regency period, at its core Pride and Prejudice is really more about desire than love: "The first half of the novel is driven by Darcy's desire for Elizabeth -- not his love for her -- in fact he doesn't even like her, but something about ... [the way she is] fascinates him." While most readers of the novel would concede that there is some invisible, driving force putting Darcy and Lizzy in each other's path (be it providence, fate, destiny), Davies' take on it is much simpler: it is the instinctual and primordial pull of biology leading the two of them to seek out their ideal mates.
Yet in spite of Davies' earthy candor about his inspiration for tackling Pride and Prejudice, the production is beautifully restrained and authentic to the period. Lizzy and Darcy sizzle (though I credit not only the writing, but also Simon Langton's direction and the onscreen chemistry between Firth and Jennifer Ehle in their portrayals of the iconic pair). That thread of desire felt throughout is largely communicated through subtext.
It is the subtlety, in fact, which distinguishes Pride and Prejudice from many of Davies' other projects, including other Austen adaptations. In an effort to tap into the latent sexual energies of the characters, Davies' more recent creative liberties have sometimes felt less organic to the narrative and the setting (e.g. Frederick Tilney's outright seduction of Isabella Thorpe in Davies' script for Northanger Abbey, an event which was not realized in the novel but suggested as a mere possibility).
The same is true for his adaptations set in later periods, at least as I observe it. The most recent example is Davies' treatment of romantic and/or sexual relationships in the Edwardian era in ITV's Mr. Selfridge (currently airing stateside on PBS), which he created and wrote (in collaboration with three other writers, including Lindy Woodhead who authored the biography, Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge, on which the series is based). Selfridge in this regard is actually a more cynical show than, say, Downton which is set in the same era (and is a series Davies has been mildly critical of, incidentally).
In trying to ferret out what set Pride and Prejudice apart from his other works, I considered whether Davies perhaps is less at ease with certain authors, genres or periods. This was, in part, my motivation I think when I asked him about the relative advantages and disadvantages of adapting fiction (like Austen's) versus nonfiction (like Woodhead's). After hearing his response to my question, however, I do not think he has a "type" in that sense. He acknowledged the creative freedom involved in a production like Selfridge (even while he joked that he often goes "prima donna" on ITV) because he is more concerned with bringing people and events from history to life rather than making sure he gives a classic literary text the treatment it deserves. But what I noted, overall, from his comments and demeanor was that clearly some books inspire more than others. He in fact tacitly admitted as much in his brief discussion of Sense and Sensibility, a novel for which he initially found it difficult to muster enthusiasm largely because he found the supposed hero(es) lacking in drive and/or passion (it is of course questionable whether Ferrars and Brandon are heroes; perhaps they are simply the objects of their respective heroines' affection). At least with respect to romance, it is clear to me that in his eyes Davies has not yet found Pride and Prejudice's equal ... among Austen or elsewhere.
"I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization."
The Grim Reaper has had a busy week, which heralded the death of iconic figures in politics (Margaret Thatcher), fashion (Lilly Pulitzer) and entertainment (Annette Funicello). And for those who love film and film criticism, many are most saddened by the loss of a great, Roger Ebert, who passed away last week at age 70 after a long battle with cancer.
The tributes to Ebert keep rolling in and deservedly so. His story is well known, from his modest beginnings in Urbana, Illinois, to his career at the Chicago Sun-Times, to his Pulitzer win in 1975, to his success as an author, to his almost biblical partnership with the late Gene Siskel, to his illness and courage in later years. Ebert lived his own version of the American Dream.
Yet he was first and foremost an ambassador of film and a champion of the medium's ability to transcend time and place. It is slightly ironic perhaps that in my mind, and arguably in the minds of many, the quintessential image of him that lives on is that of him circa 1980, portly and bookish, sat in an armchair in a pair of jeans and a beloved sweater, arguing with Siskel, his other half (a man who was both a nemesis and a brother to him), about a film he loved or hated. In a way, it is the very embodiment of upwardly-mobile, 1980s Americana. So I bestow on him a sobriquet apropos of the (Reagan) era: The Great Communicator.
And he was. A lifelong student of film, his knowledge of filmmaking, film history, film genres, film criticism was matched by only a handful of others, but he possessed the knack of discussing film in a way that was accessible to everyone. And he gave each film he saw a fair shake. He was no snob.
I often agreed with him. When it was good, he was as likely to champion a small, heartfelt film as he was a self-proclaimed masterpiece from one of the great auteurs in cinema. His review of Dogfight (1991) comes to mind. Written by Bob Comfort and directed by Nancy Savoca, the film starred River Phoenix and Lili Taylor as a pair of tentative young lovers on the eve of the Kennedy assassination. It is a small, modest film, but one I feel close to and I am very protective of it. Ebert saw in it -- and loved -- the same things I did: that it is a fragile love story about the great need for human connection; that it is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of war and the deep anxiety which pervaded the era; and that, ultimately, it is a story about life as a constant negotiation between gendered performance and authenticity, the latter attainable only when we discover and embrace empathy for another human being.
And beyond his persona as a critic, it was empathy that most defined who he was. Part of it I imagine was the generation to which he belonged -- a generation that came of age at the beginning of the 1960s (not unlike the protagonists of Dogfight). They were idealists and liberals in the best sense. This was the generation who believed in President Kennedy's vision for the Peace Corps, a generation who cared deeply about race relations, a generation who wanted to change the world (and to a large degree, they did) ... before the nation lost its innocence -- or the veneer of it anyway. Roger Ebert was a man of his time in this regard; he was a man on the right side of history.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than Siskel and Ebert's "Sneak Previews" broadcast on October 23, 1980, the famous and controversial "Women in Danger" episode. (The episode is largely out of circulation; however, it is available in its entirety in two parts on YouTube; for copyright reasons, however, I am not posting links here.) The pair took on the horror genre's slew of copycat slasher flicks which came out on nearly a weekly basis in the summer and fall months of 1979-1980, following the premiere of Halloween in 1978. Both critics were obviously disturbed by a number of films (and they put several examples on display during the broadcast) that demonstrated deeply misogynist attitudes. The fact that none of them were terribly well executed only reinforced their conviction that the eroticized violence they portrayed was cheap and cynical and reflected the deep antipathy towards the rise of women and the Second Women's Movement of the 1960s and 1970s among their target audience: white, middle-class men. Ebert was critical of the films' messaging, noting that the idea of "women as sport" was particularly dehumanizing.
Siskel and Ebert took great pains to underscore that it was not the concept of the horror film itself which they found objectionable. In fact, ironically, the film that kick-started the rash of slasher films they took to task, Halloween, is one they both liked because it was well made; it spoke to deeper, universal fears in our subconscious and it was always sympathetic towards its female protagonist, who was smart and resourceful (not a scantily-clad, vacant, sexual object or a woman who had to pay with her life for her independence). Nonetheless, they took heat for their scathing reviews of these films. And over the years, their remarks have become even less popular. One blogger even suggested that their objections stemmed from the strictures of conventional morality (or the new political conservatism of the era).
Nothing could be further from the truth, though I guess I should not be surprised at such misapprehensions; we live in a post-feminist world where boundaries long settled -- such as what constitutes "rape" -- are suddenly in flux again among certain segments of the population. Roger Ebert simply was a man who lived through the feminist movement and "got it." He respected women; he respected people in general and he always strove to see their humanity. In other words: he had empathy for those who struggled as he did with the human condition.
And he brought this empathy with him to every film he saw and communicated it in his work as only he could. He left the world a better place than he found it and he will be sorely missed.
"Relativity applies to physics, not ethics."
The Theory of Relativity was extremely influential on 20th Century Thought, but Albert Einstein himself was always clear that its applications extend to the physical world and our knowledge of it (math, science, logic, etc.). Yes, that is right: Einstein was no moral relativist.
And nor should we be. Thoroughgoing moral relativism is untenable under any ethical framework known to civilization, whether secular or religious ... Kant, Bentham, Mill, Spinoza, Marx, Aquinas, Augustine, Mohammed et al. -- all of them believed there were means to deciding right from wrong. To hold otherwise requires an acceptance of, say, Hitler's actions and worldview (to cite an extreme example). And I do not believe any of us are prepared to do that.
This means that all of us will draw a line in the sand at some point (hopefully at many) in our lives. Understanding and accepting this fact is a prerequisite to taking ownership of our ideas and the ways we express them and engage others in the process. Fiction is the literary exploration of the human condition. Like everything else -- such as what we say or how we act -- what we write or how we interpret others’ writing says something about us, our frame of reference, our sensibilities and our values. Neither writing nor interpretation is an amoral enterprise.
So what does this have to do with shipping a fictional couple or stanning a character? A lot actually. There seems to be a certain corner of the Downton fandom that wants everyone to embrace or validate their views, fantasies and writings. They want us all to acknowledge that their musings are just as worthy as anyone else's. The truth is, though, they are not.
When one chooses to stan a character like Richard Carlisle, and more importantly, ship the Mary/Richard pairing, she must understand why. If her position is that despite his flaws, Richard is no worse (or that he is better) than other characters in the universe, then I ask on what basis, in canon, can one draw that conclusion? This justification requires a belief that Richard is misunderstood, that deep down he is really a good guy or that it is the Crawleys whose conduct and values are appalling. (And I have seen apologies for Carlisle that touch on one or more of these elements.) Yet canon tells us the opposite. In canon, Richard wanted to buy his way into the aristocracy and he believed marrying the daughter of an earl would help him accomplish this goal (“I believe you could help me a lot”). Richard did whatever was necessary to ensure Mary would not derail his plans: threats, coercion, verbal and emotional abuse, physical intimidation, attempted bribery and blackmail. We also know he had a history of interacting with other people – particularly women – in a similar fashion. We know this because of his interactions with Lavinia concerning the Marconi scandal (and Richard’s manhandling of Lavinia served no other purpose dramatically but to presage his later behavior with Mary). It was only when the last of his efforts failed, Mary stood her ground (essentially calling his bluff) and her family stood with her that Richard admitted defeat and ran away with his tail between his legs. Even as he did so, he blamed her for the failure of the engagement and assured her nothing would “stay his hand from punishment.” True, he did not actually carry out his threats, but given that we were never shown any kindness or tenderness or genuine caring from him (i.e. a good act that had no ulterior motive behind it), is it more likely that the reason he did not publish is because he “loved” Mary or is it simply that it no longer served any purpose for him to do so?
One thing that I see a lot in the discussion over Carlisle and the Mary/Richard ship is this buzz phrase “moral ambiguity.” One tumblr poster made the point that many of us (myself included) like morally ambiguous characters and then went on to enumerate fictional examples from the world of television, suggesting that liking Richard Carlisle and the Mary/Richard pairing are no different. There are two problems with this line of reasoning and both of them are related to a fundamental misunderstanding of Downton and narrative structure in general.
Every universe has a moral logic and unlike almost every other well-received drama in our television landscape right now, Downton is not a morally ambiguous universe. Moral ambiguity is not in Downton’s “DNA” if you will. Downton is populated with characters who do their best to live up to a moral code (I am not saying that the characters are simple or one-dimensional; all the main characters, at least, are complex and flawed.) The characters’ values are sometimes at odds with one another, but all of the characters have strong beliefs about duty, honor, loyalty, charity, justice, etc. Breaking Bad and The Hour and Mad Men and Dexter and Game of Thrones operate under a different moral logic; their universes are entirely different, as are our expectations for the way the characters behave.
And in the Downton universe, when characters show up who do not fit this description (i.e. are not governed by a moral code), they are not treated and regarded as morally ambiguous: they are treated and regarded as villains. "Villain," of course, does not mean a character who is evil incarnate, but it does mean an antagonist whose aims and designs are contrary to those at the heart of the narrative and who creates mischief and conflict – at any cost, regardless of the “wrongness” of it -- for the central characters. At heart, a villain is a saboteur and Vera Bates and Richard Carlisle are prime examples. (And I would argue O’Brien is as well. Thomas is a more interesting case. If every rule has its exception, then Thomas is the exception; he is perhaps Downton’s only truly morally ambiguous character.) Richard Carlisle was introduced to the series for a limited purpose. He was introduced as a foil to Matthew and as an antagonist who drove the Mary/Matthew narrative. Period. This was his role.
And this brings me to the second problem mentioned above and that is, invariably, Richard stans who take the view that he is a morally ambiguous character misunderstand his place and importance in the narrative. They see him as a Byronic hero or, alternatively, an antihero. He is neither because in either case, it would require him to be at the center of the narrative and I cannot think of a clearer example of a character who is limited and peripheral. We simply do not have enough to draw from in canon to be able to say that he even could, in some alternative universe (AU), be a Byronic hero or antihero. In other words, this view of him is fanwanking plain and simple (and largely driven, I surmise, by a love of the actor Iain Glen and his work in other roles, particularly as Ser Jorah from Game of Thrones). It is why much of the Mary/Richard fan fiction out there, including early AUs, is essentially original fiction and not fan fiction at all.
Of course, arguably, there are those who see Richard as the villain he is and still stan him and ship the Mary/Richard pairing. Frankly, I think this is the more intellectually honest position, but ethically (yes, there is that word again) it is problematic. It is problematic because what “good” conduct or traits can one cite to counter the bad? It is problematic because it requires looking at a character who says to Mary, “you have given me the power to destroy you and don’t think I won’t use it,” and ratifying that conduct. It requires looking at every controlling, manipulative, abusive, unsavory act Richard has performed and saying “that’s okay with me” … and that is not okay. And to the extent that fan fiction authors tap into this villainy and romanticize or eroticize it – which is distinguishable from describing or portraying it – those authors deserve to be taken to task for it.
I feel it is necessary at this point to clarify that I am not addressing BDSM fantasy or the BDSM lifestyle. Neither has anything to do with what I am discussing here. In a very thoughtful post yesterday (which I encourage you to read), a well-known fandom blogger explained why a love for BDSM fantasy does not justify Richard’s treatment of Mary, either in canon or in Mary/Richard fan fiction (or at least those stories set post-2x06). I do not want to oversimplify her arguments (which I largely agree with), but the primary reason one has nothing to do with the other is that in a truly consensual BDSM encounter – even if the role-play is non-consensual – the sub always has the agency and freedom to walk away or call off the encounter and absolute trust that his or her partner will respect that decision (typically because the rules and parameters are set ahead of time). Even if the partners are acting out inequality for their mutual pleasure, there is in fact equality between them.
There is no scenario – if written in character—where this could be true for Mary/Richard. Had Mary wed him, she would be completely dependent on him financially. Her social standing would be entirely dependent on his. Her freedom to come and go as she pleases could be restricted should he choose. And because he would always “keep” her secret, she would be at his mercy. (And much of this remains true even in an S4 AU because of who Richard is.) Regardless of what might happen inside the bedroom, outside the bedroom, this is a relationship with subjugation at its core. Contrary to what some apologists try to claim, there could never be any “power games” where Mary holds emotional power over Richard because she would have no power of any kind in the relationship by any objective measure. (The proof of this is she stayed engaged to him in canon far longer than she wished to; if she had any emotional power – or thought she did – she would have walked away when it was clear they “would never be happy.”) In such a scenario, there could never truly be consent because Mary would be denied agency and choice in every facet of her life. That is not what BDSM practitioners embrace.
Please do not misunderstand me: in no way am I suggesting that Mary/Richard stans and authors are not entitled to their views or their expression of them. I am not advocating censorship. I defend their right to believe, say or publish whatever they want (within the bounds recognized by free speech principles). But nor does it mean their views are “equal" or "right" or "good." And if others find their views and writings objectionable, they are entitled – and even justified – in saying so.
This post was largely inspired by a vigorous exchange between Mary/Richard apologists and the co-blogger who runs the blog linked above, and I have seen people accuse the latter of “hate.” All I can say is I have read this exchange myself, and it in no way comes close to the definition of hate speech. Her arguments are not even in the same ballpark as “hate.” (As with so many charged words in our culture, "hate" has all but lost its meaning through overuse.) And if it makes her detractors uncomfortable to call a spade a spade, perhaps that is not a bad thing. After all, everything is not relative.
"Writers spend three years rearranging 26 letters of the alphabet. It's enough to make you lose your mind day by day."[Glee 4x15 Spoilers Ahead]
So said novelist and screenwriter, Richard Price.
I was thinking the other day that there does seem to be some significance attached to the span of three years in television of late. You probably know the drill already. ... A fresh, captivating show quickly becomes a cultural phenomenon. The cast consists of a mix of fresh faces and veteran performers, many of whom paid their dues on stage in memorable roles. The show turns out a terrific first season and a good, solid second season and then gives way to a subpar third season ... and beyond. The people attached to the project seem to lose their enthusiasm and want to move on to other things. And so on.
And I am not even talking about Downton.
(Or at least not exclusively.)
Thursday's episode of Glee, "Girls (and Boys) on Film" (4x15), marked something of a milestone for Fox's flagship show and the first successful television musical comedy of this era. The third performance of the evening was a decent cover of the Isley Brothers' 1959 hit, "Shout!" which marked Glee's 500th musical performance. It is a pretty impressive feat when you think about it: the cast managed to learn lyrics and choreography to 500 songs over 81 episodes spanning 3 1/2 seasons and did it, for the most part (with some notable exceptions), competently. Competent does not mean stellar, of course -- the number of performances that reach that caliber are few and far between on the show (and yes, the vocals are squeezed and Auto-Tuned and overproduced) -- but still ... it averages out to a little over six songs per episode and each episode is shot (roughly) over 8-10 days. There are 22 episodes per season -- that is a lot of work. (I hope Dan Stevens is taking note somewhere out there.) Say what you want about Glee, but no one can accuse the actors of being lazy. It is probably why, despite the show's problems over the last couple of seasons, the SAG continues to recognize the work of the actors every year while the show has lost its appeal to the Academy and to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA). The cast remains, in my opinion, the hardest working in television (it is a good thing most of them have the exuberance of youth to draw from).
Yet, unfortunately, hard work is not enough these days to carry the show. The episode in question is a prime example of what just does not work for Glee this season. This episode featured, as it must now, two separate universes in two separate locations loosely tied together, thematically, by "songs from the movies." (Though I suppose we might call the emotional theme of this episode, "spilling secrets.") The New York bunch, Rachel, Kurt and most recently, Santana, are holed up in their loft (yeah, right) with Kurt's new boyfriend from NYADA during a blizzard where they decide to pass the time watching Moulin Rouge (cue dream sequence with not-bad vocals from Darren Criss and Chris Colfer). Brody, Rachel's new whatever (it is a "modern" relationship with "no labels" ala SATC, you know) is suspiciously MIA. Santana does what she does best: snoops around and gets in everyone's face about it. She is convinced Kurt is still in love with Blaine, Brody is a drug dealer and something is seriously up with Rachel. ... Meanwhile, back at glee club headquarters in Lima, Finn tries to make amends for kissing Emma (what?!) by tracking her down after she stood Will up at the altar. The Marley, Jake, Ryder triangle continues to play out (yawn) with Marley fessing up to Jake about her own smooch with Ryder after a cheesy reenactment of the original fromage-heavy pottery scene from Ghost. (Musically, the cover of the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" was just okay.) And it is, apparently, time once again for the annual boys vs. girls mash-up competition, where the boys take on songs from two Tom Cruise flicks: "Old Time Rock and Roll" from Risky Business (replete with button-down shirts, bare legs, sunglasses and all) and "Danger Zone" from Top Gun. The girls' mash-up is a more successful rendition of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and "Material Girl" (though I do not believe the latter was in an actual film, the original video was, as we all recall, itself an homage to the movie adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). To cap it all off, Will tracks Emma down, getting his John Cusack moment from Say Anything (Peter Gabriel is hard to cover and I actually thought Matthew Morrison did a credible job with "In Your Eyes") and Marley stupidly confides in Kitty while Finn finally spills the beans to Will.
Glee is never short on plot, but for all the flurry of activity, I was bored. I have been bored for most of the last two seasons, and especially this one. The show now features a show within a show (Ryan Murphy's concession to Lea Michele and Chris Colfer for having his idea of a spinoff for them ixnayed), which outside of Shakespeare, is never a winning recipe. This two-show structure and the obvious two-location dilemma has produced an awkward, disjointed look and feel to every episode and makes establishing any kind of emotional continuity, or even investment, very difficult. When you add in other factors -- the addition of new characters who are not very well written and even less carefully portrayed (the caricatures of Kitty and Marley, case in point), the obvious waning enthusiasm of the creators/writers (who are now busy on other, newer projects, like American Horror Story) and the declining quality of the musical numbers which seem less relevant and organic to the narrative of each episode than ever before -- it is not surprising that early Glee enthusiasts like myself can hardly bother with the show any longer.
Glee has always been a show that is hard to define, but where that used to be a strength, it now works against it. In its first two seasons, Glee found a way of tapping into its emotional center and now it no longer seems to be able to do that. Does it even have an emotional center anymore? There are two brief scenes from "Girls (and Boys) on Film" that approach anything like true, honest emotion. The most successful is a one-on-one with Rachel and Santana on the couch of their apartment when Santana confronts Rachel about the stick from the pregnancy test she found after rummaging through the trash. Rachel is angry at first but Santana, in a rare moment of concern that is not tinged with mockery, does not back off and Rachel finally breaks down in what amounts to a wordless confession after carrying her secret for what must have been weeks. The second scene, almost as affecting, involves Adam, Kurt's new boyfriend, confronting Kurt about his unresolved feelings for Blaine. Kurt, obviously struggling with his emotions, confesses that he wishes -- desperately -- he could move on and get over Blaine. (Heh, watching the scene almost felt like watching Matthew and Lavinia from Downton S2.) So 5-6 minutes out of approximately 45 are worth watching ... those numbers are not great.
Inevitably, thinking all this over invoked comparisons with other shows out there right now -- well, one in particular (though what does not make me think of Downton these days?). For two shows that could not be more different in theme, setting, tone, style, etc., there are remarkable similarities between their trajectories. (And some of you may be curious to learn that Glee is among the American shows of recent years that Julian Fellowes really admires.) Both turned out freshman seasons that were, in my opinion, unmatched by what was out there at the time (and the fact that they were able to do this on major networks -- in Glee's case, Fox, and in Downton's, ITV, is even more impressive). Both were set up, initially, with a natural three-season arc in mind. For Glee, it was organic to the story because many of the cast had to graduate after three years, so the question of what to do with them (and the Glee universe generally) was always one at the back of everyone's mind. For Downton, it was a boundary imposed by Fellowes when he first conceived of the idea, probably more as a projection of what he might expect from a period drama on a major network in Britain (and the "America" factor I do not believe was seriously in play in anyone's mind at the time). So the time frame was less integral to the story itself than was Glee's (other than the fact that Fellowes wanted three distinct series covering the "late Edwardian summer," The Great War and the early interwar period). ... Both shows were more successful than they could have imagined. Glee obviously has capitalized, commercially, on its success to a greater extent than Downton has (Downton at least did not spawn a reality show, thank God, and has foregone the terrible merchandising and product placement campaigns ... though it is inspiring runway trends, most notably in Ralph Lauren's Fall 2012 collection). But in both cases, the push for more from a commercial standpoint has run up against the show's development artistically (though both appear to have enough goodwill to carry them, ratings wise, for awhile longer). Downton has suffered from cast restlessness resulting in three key departures (one major), while Glee's primary problem, creatively speaking, is Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's proclivity to spread themselves too thin (I wonder what Ian Brennan really thinks about this ... heh, I guess there are more Stevens out there than we would like to think, though at least Murphy and Falchuk have not actually abandoned Glee). And in both cases, the solution de riguer appears to be introducing even more characters -- which the audience has little investment or interest in -- and subplots into an already crowded ensemble which is juggling too many storylines as is.
And then the comparison begs another question about the life span of television shows at large: Is it even reasonable to expect a show to continue (or continue with its soul intact, anyway) past three seasons, more or less? Mad Men has done it (along with a handful of others, like 30 Rock and, arguably, Breaking Bad); several years ago, The Sopranos and SATC managed it. But most recently, it seems that we are headed in the oposite direction. In fact, the better the show in its first season, the more likely it is not to last it seems. Most people will concede Modern Family -- a show I have always felt is overrated -- has fallen off a bit in its third season. Homeland's second season, like Downton and Glee, was not as well received as its first (but still good enough to beat everyone else most of the time). It will be interesting to see how it performs in its third.
In any event, it is a shame really ... because as much as we might wish otherwise, the inability of a popular series to go out on top is a chronic problem in the medium and I for one do not see it abating anytime soon.
It is not just a pithy Shakespearean quote (As You Like It) any longer. The world, the whole world, is a stage … or in this case, a film.
That most ubiquitous of all mottoes about globalization, “to think globally and act locally,” has been turned on its head – at least as far as the American film industry goes. The international winds of change have hit Hollywood big time.
I am not speaking of Hollywood being more internationalist than ever before -- that trend has been percolating for awhile. Nor am I merely speaking of the larger world providing inspiration; Hollywood's borrowing and adapting, again, is nothing new. But rather, Hollywood now seeks -- not just admires or recognizes -- other cultures, traditions, practices, values (the more exotic and “other,” the better) as source material for its own products. That is, these outside elements are absorbed into what are essentially Hollywood, not foreign, films. Some might say that Hollywood is no longer just an exporter of popular culture, an influencer or even a cultural imperialist; it is now in the business of co-optation.
For the past week, after Lincoln lost to Argo and Life of Pi, respectively, for Best Picture and Best Director (Ang Lee), I have been mulling over this line of thought. When I saw Lincoln shortly after it opened in November, I was confident it would take home the award season’s biggest prize. And even as I saw more and more award contenders – all good films – my initial assessment did not change. Lincoln is the type of film the Academy, historically, loves to honor: it is a historical, period piece of grand themes and fine detail; it has a brilliant ensemble; the screenplay is sparkling – witty, authentically colloquial and at times poetic (there are virtually no throwaway lines; every word, big and small, counts in this film). Most importantly, it is about a moment of great import in our polity. It draws a portrait of an American hero in the most American of American tales and explores what the phrase “American values” really means given the boundaries of our political system and form of government. In other words, it had “Oscar” written all over it.
So what happened? I thought back to the last time in recent memory an early shoe-in lost to an upstart which gained momentum throughout award season: The Social Network’s loss to The King’s Speech in 2011. At first glance, I found the comparison puzzling because Lincoln seems to have more in common with The King’s Speech than it does The Social Network. The essentials are remarkably similar -- period drama, talented cast … both are very much “establishment” films, while Argo and The Social Network have pace and energy and I suppose what I would call the “hip” factor going for them. Yet, like Lincoln, The Social Network is very much a film about the American experience, albeit with global ramifications. (Though, naturally, in our global age, both Lincoln and The Social Network relied on the talents of those from other shores; in the case of the former, the eponymous sixteenth President of the United States was played by none other than Daniel Day-Lewis and in the latter, Andrew Garfield played Mark Zuckerberg’s erstwhile partner and confidante, Eduardo Saverin.)
Of course, it is not written down anywhere that the Oscars must award films about some aspect of the American ethos or psyche, but in the award’s 85-year history it has done so many, many, many times. And it certainly seemed that a film about one of the nation’s giants would have fared better. In the end, only Day-Lewis walked away with a major award in the Best Actor category, making history in the process (no other lead actor has ever accumulated three Oscar wins).
Of course, there was another film about the American experience that pleasantly surprised during award season. Django Unchained was Quentin Tarantino’s contribution to 2012 and won Oscars in the Best Supporting Actor (Christoph Waltz) and Best Original Screenplay (Tarantino) categories. The film is signature Tarantino – violent, irreverent, funny, dark and, of course, highly stylized. This time, it is the spaghetti western to which he pays homage against the backdrop of the antebellum South. But if it is a distinctly American film, it is also, clearly, a revisionist one. … What if it is not the American experience per se the Academy has lost interest in, but rather, the telling of it in a certain way? (Even so, it is perhaps worth mentioning that a German immigrant and a man and woman who are “American” only by way of brute force are the most sympathetic of the notable characters.)
Still, Argo and Life of Pi were the undisputed darlings of the night. Yet both – and this gets back to my original point – are Hollywood and, thus, American films, even if their subjects and settings are not (at least not exclusively). Argo follows the (real-life) rescue of six American diplomats/embassy employees caught up in the anomie of the Iranian hostage crisis of more than thirty years ago. Most of the film, however, is set in Iran and features Iranian and Canadian figures as well as Americans. Life of Pi is a beautiful adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel -- a tale, even a parable if you like, very much in the genre of magical realism – which features an Indian-Canadian, Hindu-Catholic-Muslim protagonist. It is a truly ecumenical film, in concept and in execution. (This was reflected even in Lee’s acceptance speech -- he thanked everyone in his native Mandarin and ended with “Namaste.” ) But this is no foreign, indie sleeper hit – it was made and backed by a major (US) studio.
This trend in filmmaking – of thinking locally and acting globally – is one I see continuing. In fact, I think it is the ultimate sign that Hollywood – in worldview and in demographics – has changed. Slumdog Millionaire was the blueprint for how to do a “foreign” film with international scope (and appeal). And Hollywood ate it up; awarding Slumdog Millionaire Best Picture in 2009, it has spent the intervening years tweaking and perfecting the formula (from its British origins). I expect to see more films that are essentially Made in Hollywood (writing, greenlighting, financing, directing, marketing), but which tackle "indigenous" subjects that facilitate the picture being set, cast and filmed abroad. Such films would be American in the ways that really count, yet have that veneer of being “from” somewhere else … the perfect combination it seems in this epoch.
Well, we know the answer to that do we not? (:points to meme title:) ... We are saying goodbye to the month of February, and I thought I would let the Bard of Avon play us out with today's quote. (Besides, I could not let my mirror shipper buddy, eolivet, down, could I?)
Speaking of eolivet, many thanks to her for starting this meme ... it truly has been cathartic for both of us, though I do not think I am at the same place of acceptance as she is (and given our "mirror" tendencies, I may never be). But writing about the end of Mary/Matthew (almost) everyday for the last four weeks has helped put it all in perspective. I can watch them as they were and contemplate them in a less involved fashion, and every bit of minutiae leaked about S4 storylines does not send me into a mini-meltdown now. (Though I will admit I had a minor setback today when I saw Matthew's gravestone because it made his departure real in a way that it had not been before; since the end of the CS 2012, he has been dead but without anyone knowing he is dead ... for awhile it was almost like that koan, "if a tree falls in the forest but no one is there to hear it. ...")
At any rate, shit happens in life (and in art) ... c'est la vie. There is one positive thing I can take from this and that is ... it pushed (or motivated) me to finally post on a regular basis about television, film, culture (well, for now ... Downton). I write a ton in my professional life (sometimes for publication), but it is typically far afield from what most interests me at present. So I will continue to blog regularly, even though Mary/Matthew are what drew me in initially and they are now at an end.
And speaking of endings ...
Day 28 - If you were Dan Stevens' PR team, how would you have handled his exit differently?
How much time do you have? Perhaps it would be easier to write about what I would not have done differently, since that list is extremely short (well, actually, it is blank).
We all know about the few-and-far-between (voluntary) television departures which were handled badly: Katherine Heigl, David Caruso. ... Dan Stevens need not have followed their example when there were far better ones at hand.
George Clooney's departure from ER is probably the one I have thought about the most. Here is a man who (the difference between talent contracts in the States and Britain notwithstanding) stayed with the show which made him a household name for five full seasons. When he did decide to leave, he was a bona fide star, having already done several feature films. And everyone was prepared for his departure. He gave plenty of notice for the show to write him out properly and then came back for the occasional guest spot (including one in the very last season just about four years ago). That is how an exit is supposed to be done.
Or Stevens could have looked closer to home for an example: Jessica Brown Findlay. First, Findlay ostensibly notified Julian Fellowes et al. of her decision to leave well in advance so that he could write a decent exit for her. (And he did -- despite how you feel about Sybil as a character, her death was well written and was one of the better moments dramatically speaking in S3.) And then she did what you are supposed to do: she distanced herself from the show, she had only nice things to say about Downton in the press, she was circumspect with fans and with the media and just generally kept a low profile about the whole thing. When fans watched her onscreen demise, those who were angry did not blame her for taunting them on social media or for trashing Downton or her character on her way out -- not to mention that she seemed focused in her S3 scenes, like she actually gave a damn about what she was doing. (I do not consider her a great talent, but I did not get a sense that she had a Kindle in her back pocket while she was filming, if you catch my drift.) And, like Clooney, her departure was understandable -- she actually has a Hollywood career which would have made it difficult to stay with Downton. Filming a movie with Russell Crowe and Colin Farrell is a lot different than filming one with Benedict Cumberbatch (especially given that her role is significant in Winter's Tale while Stevens' in The Fifth Estate is minor).
In the end, Stevens followed Findlay's example in only one respect: upgrading to William Morris Endeavor (WME) in early 2012. (And knowing what we know now about the January Theory and the timeline of his departure ... and other things ... I suspect he signed right after he gave his notice that he was leaving -- as a first step in his job-hunting efforts -- not before, as we once thought. That is, I do not think WME was the cause of his saying "no" to S4; they may have encouraged him not to return but I believe his wi -- er ... he made that decision before he switched agents.) Why WME and his management team allowed him to bungle as many interviews as he did, I will never know unless, in the end, they banked on that old Hollywood maxim that "any publicity is good publicity." [Insert old 50 Cent joke from way back.]
I do not know what will become of Stevens five, ten, twenty years down the road (though I have my predictions), but if history judges his exit from Downton fairly, it should go down as one of the worst managed departures ever in television.