Archive for April, 2010
Big spoilers for “Chuck vs. the Honeymooners” (3.14) (Monday, April 27, 2010) and general spoilers for season 6 of The Office
Last night’s Chuck (which is the first of six episodes added after the initial run of 13 episodes in season 3) brought a lot of satisfaction to those who had been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for Chuck and Sarah to get together. Finally, an end to all that UST (Unresolved Sexual Tension, to use Mo Ryan’s acronym). Most critics have focused on the myth that a show takes a nose-dive in quality after the leads finally get together (the Moonlighting myth). “Look at Jim and Pam on The Office,” these critics say. “There are still interesting stories to tell about being in a relationship, not just about leading up to a relationship.” And these critics are right (except that The Office example is ill-timed, since the best part of season six has been the budding romance of Andy-Erin and not the established relationship of Jim-Pam). There is no part in dragging out a relationship of two characters who seem like they should be together simply to avoid dealing with the new problem of writing them as a couple.
Unfortunately, though, critics have been forced to deal with a rift among the devoted viewers of Chuck. Some fans’ major interest in the show is in seeing Chuck and Sarah get together. Known as ‘shippers among critics (as in “relationshippers”), these fans primarily care about casting aside any obstacles to Chuck and Sarah and getting them together as quickly and as happily as possible. Critics are then in the position of needing to distance themselves from these fans while also reaffirming that there is no point in keeping the leads apart for arbitrary reasons or because of the Moonlighting myth. I’ve written before about how this season of Chuck is an example of how shows (often in their third season) push the lead character away from their allies/friends to add new levels of drama. This was partly accomplished by the introduction of Agent Shaw (Brandon Routh) and Hannah (Kristin Kreuk) as romantic possibilities for Sarah and Chuck, respectively.
What I want to focus on is Sarah. But to do that, alas, I must write about Chuck. A lot has been written about Chuck, which is appropriate on a show that bears his name. But Sarah’s story is in many ways the more interesting one. To an underappreciated extent, Chuck is a show by, for, and about fanboys. It’s the now-classic tale of geek-gets-girl. From Sam Raimi’s Spiderman to Josh Schwartz’s The O.C. to beer commercials, the last ten years have seen a new popular narrative established in which the Geek (brown, tousled hair, glasses, shirt untucked, comic book obsession) wins the Girl (blonde, svelte, a little tomboy-ish). This is derivative of some of the college nerd comedies of the 1980s, but one important twist is that the Girl must recognize that what makes the Geek geeky is also what makes him lovable. Also, the Geek may have a Rival, but this is more often the cause of undermining the Geek’s self-confidence than forcing the Rival out of the Girl’s gaze. Because deep down, this narrative says, the Girl really does like the Geek better, and they would be perfect together if only the Geek could gather the courage to be with the Girl.
One of the dangers with this narrative is that it reinforces the focus on the man (the Geek, in this case) even as it redefines manliness. If the story of the Geek getting the Girl is about the Geek overcoming his lack of confidence, then the story will have to follow him getting that confidence. It’s still all about the guy.
We’ve seen that problem pushed to the forefront in this season of Chuck. Sarah was shoved aside this season while the Geeek (Chuck) tried to earn her love (by becoming a spy) while fending off the Rival (Agent Shaw, who, like all Rivals, represents what the Geek is not but thinks that he must be to deserve the Girl). This left the viewer with one episode in which the Girl makes her move, followed by twelve episodes in which she sits idly by watching the Geek become unrecognizable. Since in the Geek Gets Girl narrative, it is the Geek’s geekiness that makes him suitable to the Girl, when he loses that geekiness he becomes too much like the Rival. And then the Girl may as well be with the Rival. Watching this unfold, however, it reinforces an underlying problem with the Geek Gets Girl narrative: the Girl is completely passive. She simply reacts. This is less noticeable in films (such as Spiderman) where one small goal (e.g., breaking into acting) is enough to distract away from the Girl’s passivity. But over the course of 50 episodes of a television show, it is difficult to find a way to make the Girl an agent with a life and decisions that are her own. This season of Chuck‘s greatest failing has not been avoiding a Chuck-Sarah romance, or introducing Agent Shaw, or putting the Intersect in Chuck’s head, it has been giving Sarah nothing to do. This is a problem embedded in the Geek Gets Girl narrative, but it came to the forefront this season.
Remember when we got backstory on how Sarah became a spy (2.10)? Remember when Sarah shot a Fulcrum agent to protect Chuck’s identity (2.11)? These provided ways to make Sarah a person, someone who makes decisions with consequences and has a story of her own, within the loose confines of the Geek Gets Girl narrative. This season Sarah has been reduced to a prop, whose job is to watch with Sad Eyes while the Geek tries to become like a Rival. She is a passive spectator, rather than a worthy partner to the eponymous hero.
What I liked about last night’s episode of Chuck was not that Chuck and Sarah finally got together, but that Chuck and Sarah were treated as equals. Both were trying to be good partners to each other, considering the other’s desires as at least as important as their own. That Sarah is once again Chuck’s equal is nicely captured in the smartly choreographed fight scene from the episode.
There is still a fundamental inequality to the show that I don’t think it will ever overcome. As we saw in the pre-credits sequence of “Chuck vs. The Honeymooners,” Sarah is in an expensive, barely-there neglige while Chuck is in a plain t-shirt and lounge pants. Sarah, no matter how realized the character becomes, will always exist also as eye candy in a way that Chuck does not. (Captain Awesome, who was yet again shirtless, is supposed to roughly even things out I suspect, but it doesn’t approach the level to which Scrubs took the equity, requiring that every episode of a woman in underwear also have a man in underwear).
Sarah may begin to be treated, finally, as an equal to Chuck, but she will still be the Girl.
The first round of the 2010 NFL draft is going on as I write. I have three different windows open in Google Chrome as I watch the NFL Network playing live on NFL.com, the ESPN NFL DraftCast, and (for my home team) the Packers.com camera that is an audio-less feed of the Packers’ war room. (Yes, they really do call the draft room the war room.) I just now switched off ESPN on TV because the Tivo is going to be full of NBC comedies and a really great season of Survivor.
And I’m only a moderately rabid fan. I don’t watch college games just to see who the best prospects are. I don’t do my own mock draft. But I do get awfully excited.
I’m presenting at a conference in a few months where I will discuss the concept of team loyalty, so stay tuned for my thoughts on that. But I thought I would take a couple moments tonight to explain to people who don’t follow sports (or follow other sports) why NFL fans care so much about the NFL draft, one of the biggest sporting events of the year.
- The Wait It’s been nearly four months since most teams have played a game, and for many teams the last meaningful game was a month or two before that. Football has a shorter season (17 weeks) than other leagues (baseball: ~24, hockey: ~24, basketball: ~32). (None include playoffs.) So there is already less football, and considerably fewer games (16 per team, plus chance at playoffs). That makes the off-season for the biggest sport in the country the longest wait of big four sports.
- Drama You don’t have to spend time around WWE wrestling fans to see guys who love melodrama. Watching a highly touted player drop through the first round as they squirm on national television or staring at shock at whatever stupid thing the Oakland Raiders do this year makes for really great reality television.
- Shared Experience Sports fans are used to watching live sporting events. They talk about it immediately. We may live in a Tivo nation, but sports fans love their live shows.
- Hope With the possible except of opening day, there is no day when a sports fan is filled with more hope than on draft day. No matter how bad your team is, your team will get better on draft day. In fact, the worse your team is, the better your draft picks, so (you hope) the more your team can improve on draft day. Sports fans love to see the interests of their team advanced, and they don’t get more advanced (usually) than on draft day.
Very big spoilers for The Box, A Serious Man, and Days of Heaven
Biblical allusions were once standard fare in literature, and film has seen its fair share of epic tales of biblical heroes. But (with one notable exception) it has been at least forty years since Bible stories were winners at the box office. More than this, references to the Bible have never been as important to classical cinema as they have been to classical literature. References happen, but they’re not as central to understanding cinema as references to other films, popular music, or Shakespeare. Cinema (with the exception of the one mostly forgotten genre) is much less interested in the stories of the Bible than it is in many, many other things. So I was a bit surprised to view three films in the past month that draw on the Bible in three different reasons.
Richard Kelly’s The Box takes a sci-fi story that had been worked over a couple times before and adds in Kelly’s unique blend of half-baked ideas to make his most successful film yet (successful artistically, not commercially). Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) get a button in a box from a mysterious stranger (Frank Langella) who tells them they have 24 hours to push the button; if they push it, the get $1 million dollars but someone they don’t know dies; if they don’t, life goes on as normal. Kelly’s tale is surprisingly suspenseful, even after it incorporates bizarre elements of the supernatural. The Box, like Southland Tales, overstuffed with references, but to no discernible purpose. What are we supposed to make of the Jean-Paul Sartre references, for instance? More immediate to our purpose, what is the point in connecting Arthur and Norma (and the other button-pushers) to Adam and Eve? In each case, a woman pushes the button. Is there some misogyny lurking in this decision? The mysterious stranger is a Serpent figure (from out of this world), and their consequence has Tree of Knowledge-like implications, but what exactly are these implications? Kelly seems content to make the reference, even if it clouds what’s really going on. But the sneaking suspicion in all three of Kelly’s films is that there is nothing deeper going on. There’s just a story crammed full of references. There are a lot of ideas, but none that are fully pursued, none that make the film stronger, none that are important because none matter to the story. No one needs to know the story of Adam and Eve to understand what is happening in The Box, and the references to that story only muck things up.
On the other hand, A Serious Man from Ethan and Joel Coen can only be understood if one is familiar with the biblical story of Job. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg) watches his life fall apart, and his journey of anguish parallels that of Job’s. Gopnik even visits three rabbis who mirror the advice offered by Job’s three friends. A Serious Man is less effective than other Coen Brothers films at presenting a world in which we sympathize with a protagonist cut adrift in a cold, heartless, amoral world. But it nicely summarizes some of those themes. When the film ends with a tornado, it is hard to make sense of what is happening unless one is familiar with the story of Job. When God finally appears to Job (chapter 38 of the eponymous book), it is after a devastating wind. When the film leaves off this deus ex tornado, we see that the Coens are reinforcing what the film hammers all the way through: either the world is random and nothing matters, or there is a God out there who is just screwing with us. God isn’t going to save the day, because our lives show us that if there is a God, then the universe isn’t just disinterested, it’s a cruel joke. Knowing how Job ends is essential to understanding why A Serious Man ends where it does.
Finally, Days of Heaven, the wonderful 1973 film from Terrence Malick, takes a more traditionally literary approach to biblical allusion. The story of Days of Heaven (which hardly matters in a Malick film, where you just want to soak in the gorgeous images and fascinating edits) centers on a trio of early twentieth-century drifters. When Bill (Richard Gere) meets new people he says that his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) is really his sister. (Why? For Malick, it doesn’t matter. He just does.) This story recalls three different accounts in Genesis where Abraham and Sarah (twice) and Isaac and Rebekah are travelling in a foreign land and the husband introduces the wife as his sister. This ends badly for the local leader, who takes the wife/sister as his own (either wife or harem) and then suffers for it, before the truth is revealed and all is restored. In the film, this suffering happens in the form of a locust plague, which is a smart way of connecting to another Pharaoh story. Malick’s allusion deepens the appreciation of his film without depending on it. It doesn’t matter in Days of Heaven as it does in A Serious Man when and how the film diverges from the story to which it alludes. You don’t have to “catch” the reference to appreciate what he is doing, but your appreciation is deepened when you do. By treating the wife-sister narrative as an archetypal story, there is no need drop clues about what the writer-director is thinking, as Kelly too often does. The story speaks for itself, and if you are familiar with the Bible, history, literature, film, you’ll further appreciate what is happening, but you can enjoy it plenty even if you don’t.
I just happened to watch these films in near succession, but I like how they represent three different approaches to allusion. There’s postmodern name-dropping (Kelly), required background reading (the Coens), and archetype (Malick). Malick’s is simultaneously the most subtle and the most successful, but I’m not convinced that this is essential to the approach; it’s at least as likely that Malick is the most talented of the filmmakers (all of whom I admire a great deal).
I made my first venture to The Space in Hamden, CT, a small venue that was specifically designed to be an all-ages venue in an state with very few places for the kiddos to hang out. Somehow I had always had a conflict on the nights when previous bands I wanted to see had come through, but I made sure I wasn’t going to miss Thao. While I was well above the median age of the audience, there was a group of six folks older than me that showed up just for Thao’s set. They were absolutely astonished that someone of Thao’s reputation was playing a club that looks like your friend’s basement. (If your friend had really, really great connections.)
Opening for Thao were All the Friends and Magic Man. All the Friends are an experimental indie rock trio from Waterbury, CT. I think these three young guys are still finding their sound. Each song sounded like an ode to a (worthy) influence. There’s the Beirut song, the Radiohead song, the Dirty Projectors song. But what really stands out about them is their very refined musicianship. They have not only the band nerd vibe, they’ve got some serious music chops, and as they continue to grow and explore who they want to become as a band, that underlying talent will give them a chance to make some truly great music. Download All the Friends’ two-song demo.
Magic Man played a boisterous set in the middle position. I always enjoy an indie band that isn’t afraid of dance music, and Magic Man embrace the joy of bodily movement like few bands I’ve seen. The most obvious comparison is to The Killers, but there are elements of Vampire Weekend in the vocals and the drastic tempo swings recall pioneering emo bands like Modest Mouse. Technically a duo, Magic Man played with a four-piece band, but the real hero was the little white Macbook producing a surprisingly smart and full sound, never just bleeps for bleeps sake or drum loops because there isn’t a drummer, but really filling out the sound. I am looking forward to listening to their debut album, which is available for free.
Thao is in the middle of a Northeast mini-tour following a month-long tour of Europe this winter. There is a rush that comes from standing about seven feet from the band with the 2008 best-selling album by a Kill Rock Stars band (Decemberists, Elliot Smith, Deerhoof). And when she said the good folks at Manic Productions had sent them to Miya’s Sushi, well, my worlds collided just a wee bit. (Wouldn’t Thao and Bun Lai have the cutest, most creative little babies ever?)
Thao’s set ran through all the highlights of We Brave Bee Stings and All and Know Better Learn Faster (except “Easy,” which may have been intended for an encore, but the venue was set up in such a way that the band leaving the stage before the encore left the audience confused and prevented us from showing the love to bring them back out). Thao’s music focuses on melodies and rhythms, the melodies nesting in as catchy little earworms and the the rhythms providing foot-tapping, hand-clapping happiness that warms your whole body over. I was happy to see that the Thao and the fellas had provided some different arrangements for the live versions of the songs. I now much prefer the live version of “Violet” to the album version. The songs (unsurprisingly) were immensely fun to sing along with, and the band provided some high-end claps that clearly challenged the audience. (I saw more than a few people shrug and give up. Clapping is hard for white high school kids from the ‘burbs.)
All in all, a pretty great show.
Spoilers for Precious, but none that go beyond a general knowledge of the story
I finally got around to watching Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. (Yes, that really is the title of the film. They couldn’t keep the title Push because people might have thought it starred Cherie Currie and Captain America.) I had hesitated watching Precious for a long time, in part because reviewers I trust had hated it. But one of my general rules of film viewing is that you should see any film that divides critics sharply. Did some love it and some hate it? Go see it. Was everyone sort of blah toward it? Skip it. So Precious, like Rachel Getting Married or The Box, was something I was going to get around to eventually. (By the way The Box was completely underrated. Tense, loving, thoughtful. Give it a chance.)
Precious is not an easy film to watch. In part, this is because of the subject matter (abuse, incest, poverty, hatred). In part, this is because of worries about how this film might be received (is this reaffirming people’s ideas of welfare moms or urban black experience?). In part, this is because it’s just not a very well made film. And ultimately, it was the last concern that turned me against it.
I admired some of the performances in Precious, and I was won over to the need to tell a story like this, which is under-represented in American filmmaking. But the material is so poorly served by the director, Lee Daniels, that it distracts from any social value that Oprah and Tyler Perry apparently think it has. For example, in one particularly difficult scene, Precious’ mother chases after Precious, screaming abuse and throwing things at her. But Daniels cuts away from this to show a Polaroid of Precious as a baby being held lovingly by her mother. He does this twice. But why? To tell the audience that a mother should love her daughter and not throw things at her? We already knew that. To tell the audience that the mother once loved her daughter? We could assume that, AND it undermines the emotional impact of the scene. Cutting away to the Polaroid ruins the emotional impact of the scene, and Daniels seems not to realize that these sorts of choices can ruin a scene. We don’t need this juxtaposition, because we already understand that things have gone poorly in this mother’s life and she shouldn’t be verbally and physically abusing her daughter. This is just one example of how, throughout the film, themes are underlined, italicized, and highlighted in unnecessary and counter-productive ways. Setting aside the banalities of the story-telling (yes, there’s a teacher who just cares so much, and, yes, Precious steals food because she is so hungry), the film trades in nuance for thematic bludgeoning. But even this trade would be acceptably if there were any new insights being offered. Instead, we have an unhappy mixture of social melodrama and experimental filmmaking, and neither is successful.
This strangely apolitical film, which tries to focus narrowly on one (fictional) girl’s experience, never ventures into truly bold territory, like suggesting what went wrong instead of telling us repeatedly that this is wrong. You know going into the film that incest is awful and devastating, and you know it leaving it. You know going into the film that the world is a mixture of people trying to make it better and people trying to skate by, and you know it leaving it. You know going into the film that some kids are born into a life that’s unfair, and you know leaving it. And for a film whose marketing suggests you’ll leave this movie changed, the film does very little to actually encourage a change in the viewer. This is not a film that can be appreciated on pure filmic grounds, and it can’t be appreciated for its psycho-social insights. And that means there’s not much left to appreciate.