thoughts on “lost”

May 24, 2010

these will be brief.
on the internet, that magical, mysterious vortex, someone paraphrased this stephen king quote quite skillfully:
“if being a kid is about learning how to live, then being a grown-up is about learning how to die.”

theriverjordan.tumblr.com repurposed it thusly:
“If reading Harry Potter was about learning how to live, then watching LOST was about learning how to die.”

now, i am not going to gush, nor will i enter into a spoiler-filled rant (though if you do not want to be spoiled, you should not even be on the internet, honestly).
all i want to say is this:

learning how to die was the entire point of the show. fuck all the science fiction. fuck all the mythology.
the theme of the show was about learning how to die.
sometimes it’s random. sometimes it’s heroic. it’s always final. whatever happens happens.
dying alone is something no one should endure. live together, die alone is now re-understood.

i think this theme was the entire reason so many characters had the names of enlightenment philosophers, to nudge us towards the righteous theme of de montaigne’s essay, “to philosophize is to learn how to die.”

in that regard, the finale was unspeakably on the mark, unspeakably touching.

while it is true that threads remain unraveled, and certain questions tug at the corners of my brain, i appreciate the experience overall, as well as the courage to confront and welcome death.

die together.

Whither the TV Critic?

March 25, 2010

As you’ve no doubt heard, At the Movies has been canceled. That means that Yesterday’s Salad favorite A. O. Scott is out of a (second) job. Good Tony Scott: there’s always room for you at the Salad!

I’m really sad to see the show go. I grew up watching Siskel and Ebert and their approaches to film no doubt shaped my own. I always liked Siskel more, but the last few years of reading Roger Ebert have shown me how great a critic he really is. Amazingly, for someone whose fame derives from TV, Roger Ebert was a terrific writer, capable of writing long, penetrating essays and perfectly crafted reviews. It’s rare to find someone as adept at writing both short and long. Yet beyond style or a set approach to film, the most important lesson the show taught me was that films were something to talk about, something we could participate in long after.

But the reason I’m sad to see At the Movies go has nothing to do with the past and everything to do with the present. A. O. Scott and Michael Phillips were doing great work. They were smart and funny and had a good rapport with each other. Sometimes they had to review too many movies in a week to make the show really compelling, while other times they got to focus on one or two films, taking the time to situate the movie within the context of an actor or filmmaker’s career.

It was incredibly smart–though it might not have been TV enough. I liked watching the show because I like to hear intelligent people discuss modern culture. Then again, this is also why I like the PBS Newshour. Both feature conversations between talking heads instead of conflicts between screaming interrupting heads. I hope A. O. and Michael can find a way to continue their dialogue. I hear people do great things on the internet these days and that someday someone will figure out a way to make it pay.

Price of Beatuy

I’ve now seen two episodes of the Jessica Simpson “Price of Beauty” show, and I have to say that I don’t quite know what to make of it. (Make what you will of my watching it.) It’s generally lighthearted, though every episode features a segment with a woman permanently scarred by pursuing beauty at all costs. These bits come comfortably in the middle of each episode, before and after various revelry. I also don’t know what to make of her friend “Cacee” (pronounced Casey, she seems to be testing the bounds of signifiers), while Jessica herself comes across as likable if bland. This is better than likable and stupid, although traces of idiocracy abound.

But mostly I like the show as an experiment in accidental anthropology. Jessica sets out to see how the rest of the world views beauty, documenting her experiences. She’s refreshingly unburdened by the critique of Western definitions set out in Said’s Orientalism: Jessica documents her others without worrying about her own complicity in the enterprise of representation. Nor does she worry about the Spivakian critique that her representation obscures cultural diversity. Instead, she happily recognizes that beauty is culturally constructed–and that even she isn’t beautiful in all parts of the world (She’s too short and curvy to make it as a full-time Parisian fashion model!)–and sets out to document difference. It’s not a grand statement in the cause of cultural determinism, though it is a return to an earlier type of ethnography, and a great start for Cable TV.

I can’t help but thinking, though, that the best part of the show is that success could lead to other celebrities accidentally taking on the roll of academicians. Maybe a show with David Cross as an accidental sociologist, deliberately sending out comical surveys to document responses; or Larry David as an accidental deconstructor, challenging the clear meanings of literary texts? Hey it could happen!

I don’t know whether or not Susan Sontag ever saw “The Wire.” She died in 2004, so it’s possible that she saw an early season or two, but I would guess that she did not. She largely stopped writing about popular culture after the 1960s, and–no matter the magnitude of its scope at the end–the first season superficially doesn’t rise above the level of procedural. Viewers know, of course, that it transcends the procedural, but casual TV guide flippers would not.

Unfortunately, after examining the evidence, I can’t come to a definitive position.

Argument in favor of her loving “The Wire”: length. In Notes on Sontag, Lopate remarks that Sontag gradually starts to acclaim only really long movies in her reviews. Says he,

She seemed to rater artwork in direct proportion to the number of hours it took to experience it. She was demonstrating …a “taste for spiritual and physical effort—for art as an ordeal” (USS, 33) She had become the queen of sitzfleish. * A Yiddish word meaning to apply one’s ppsterior to the seat for as long as it takes.

If she loved the paltry 15 hours that is Berlin Alexanderplatz, then she no doubt would have found The Wire orgasmic.

Inherently contradictory evidence: her attitude toward realism. She hates it. Until she loves it. Her early work is all about proving how great avant garde fiction is and how awful realist fictions are (read–or rather don’t–The Benefactor). Later, she comes to write realist romances in a way that enthralls Cynthia Ozick, sells books, and alienates lovers of consistency. She was against realism before she was for it! What’s to stop her from being so capricious again?

(Special thanks to the Republican National Committee for helping with this ad)

Evidence against loving The Wire: she dismissed the format completely. This is a theme of one of her later essays, “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning.” She might have liked the show, but you would have first had to get her to watch it.

The Ciceronian’s last post makes me actually want to see “The Blind Side.” Yes, I still think that its best picture selection owes more to populism than anything else, but the Ciceronian’s review points to a rather unexpected attribute as the reason for its success: “The Blind Side” explains the New South to America in a complex and responsible way.

As Gordon Hutner explains in What America Read, the dominant genre of American literature from the 1920s through 1950s was realism (despite the advent of modernism) and one of the primary goals of realist fiction was to describe the changing social and economic conditions of the United States. The growing bourgeoisie wanted the Talking Heads’ age-old question answered: “Well, how did I get here?” I’ll go so far as to say that the success of “The Blind Side” is due to accepting this aspect of realist fiction.

After all, that’s why last Monday’s episode of “House” worked.

Yes, “House,” the doctor-cum-detective show whose love of formulas knows no bounds, and whose general message seems to be: be patient; doctors will mess up repeatedly before they actually solve your problem.

Monday’s episode, ‘5 to 9’ (an homage to Agnes Varda’s “Cleo 5 to 7”?), focused on the hospital administrator and her quest to have it all: family, love, and the career. It allowed her to stretch a little–even if that stretching meant channeling Tilda Swinton in “Michael Clayton,” practicing her big meeting while dressing in front of the mirror.

Yet it also focused on the health care industry as industry, showing some complexity: the challenges facing hospitals trying to ensure that their doctors get paid reasonably while also dealing with insurance companies trying to grow through cost-cutting. There were also subplots about patients suing for malpractice since the insurance company considers the procedure (reattaching a severed thumb) inessential, and another patient trying to get a prescription for breast milk so the insurance company would pay. It’s almost as if someone on the “House” writing staff listened to the “Planet Money” episodes about health care economics and used it as the basis for a drama.

In other words, it’s proof of the continued vitality of middlebrow realism, even if contemporary literature has abandoned that thread.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I recently watched the Lifetime “Pregnancy Pact” movie. I’m not going to try to pin the blame on anyone else (though I should probably blame our commenter Kerry, who covered the real story extensively at bostonist); I watched the movie because I wanted to see what happened to Thora Birch.

If you asked me years ago, I would have bet that Thora Birch would have become a major actress. There’s nothing delicate about her performance in “American Beauty,” a role that doesn’t require her to leave the archetype of sallow, disaffected teen, but her performance in “Ghost World,” showed an actress of real complexity. She easily could have fallen into the trap of reiterating her character from “American Beauty,” but instead she added nuance and charm to Enid. You can see it in her mannerisms; she carries Enid with what can only be described as an awkward strength. It’s a very physical performance, even as it’s mostly static; Enid is often still or stilted, turning the frame into a comic book panel.

But then she disappeared into a glut of Lifetime and low-rent horror movies (these are arguably the same thing). And when Ellen Page burst on the scene, Thora Birch became the former Ellen Page.

So too, it seems, did Claire Danes. In a profile this weekend, the New York Times referred to Danes as “the Ellen Page of the 90s” given her clear on-screen intelligence. This intelligence became blunted by a series of roles that saw her as nothing more than love interest.

“For quite a while I was bemoaning the fact that I kept playing people who fell in love,” Ms. Danes said. “That was their primary job and experience, to become gaga over a man. It was just starting to feel routine.”

The Times goes on to mention “Shopgirl,” where it’s more correct to say that she is the object of affection rather than the emotional one. Still, the point is taken: in “Shopgirl,” our proto-Ellen Page hardly had to stretch herself.

Are there only two emotions for women on screen: to be scared, and to be in love? Read the rest of this entry »

By a reasonably objective metric (academy award nominations), William Hurt ranks as one of the greatest film actors of all-time (he has four) and yet he makes no appearance on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars. On its own, this would be a triviality; many great actors fail to achieve mass consciousness. Perhaps I’m betraying my age, but has anyone ever gone to a movie just to experience the raw animal magnetism of Albert Finney? But, as we’ve mentioned many times, William Hurt owned the 1980s, starring in several of the decade’s biggest commercial and creative successes.

I thought about this the other day while watching Damages season 2 on DVD. There’s a scene where William Hurt’s character takes a polygraph. Hurt’s character is exactly the type of role for which he’s remembered: handsome without being charming, and cold without appearing calculating; uncertainty surrounds him. And Hurt is an expert at maximizing uncertainty. Watching him take the polygraph, you’re sure that he’s managed to pass the test while lying. When it comes back inconclusive, you’re almost surprised. Is he not as devious as I thought, or could he be telling the truth? There may only be a 5% chance that he’s telling the truth, but Hurt makes you consider it. In this way, he’s a great foil to Glenn Close whose skill is smiling as she stabs a knife in your back. She’s good at convincing other characters that she’s being honest, but not so good at staying a step ahead of viewers. Only the show’s jumbling of chronology allows those possibilities to slip in.

But again, the mystery that is William Hurt and his ownership (or: pwnage) of the 1980s. Read the rest of this entry »