Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Your Daily Dose of Rape Culture

I think that I need to take out a subscription to the London Review of Books.  I had a year's free subscription up until a few months ago, courtesy of Dan Hartland, but I neglected to renew it.  At the time it didn't feel as if the fact that 95% of the magazine's content is smart, erudite, and well written was quite enough to justify spending the money, especially when there's so much else to read for free, but today I'm reminded of the, perversely enough, more appealing fact that the other 5% of LRB articles are just as smart, just as erudite, and just as well-written, but also batshit insane.  Previous standouts include pieces like Judith Butler's "Who Owns Kafka?" (March 3rd, 2011), in which Butler piles one unconvincing, flawed argument over another for why Israel shouldn't take possession of the papers of Franz Kafka, instead of just coming out and saying that it's because of the occupation of the Palestinian territories, and Jenny Turner's "As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes" (December 15th, 2011), in which Turner claims to be dismantling modern British feminism and yet gives barely any concrete examples of the movement past the 1970s.  Andrew O'Hagan adds to that list today with "Light Entertainment," from the November 8th issue, in which he discusses the Jimmy Savile scandal.

Savile, in case you haven't heard of him, was a beloved and famously kooky children and teen's show presenter at the BBC for more than fifty years who died a year ago.  Last month an ITV exposé revealed to the public what many in the British entertainment world had known for decades--that Savile had used his fame and access to children to sleep with hundreds of teenage girls, and that the BBC was active in both enabling this behavior and quashing rumors of Savile's activities, including, in 2011, killing a Newsnight story about them.  O'Hagan's piece about this scandal is by no means without its merits.  He puts Savile, and the BBC culture that enabled him, in their historical context by discussing other, less well-known sexual predators who like Savile used their role as presenters of children's entertainment to prowl for victims, and gives a fascinating glimpse into the less savory aspects of the history of an institution that has had such a profound worldwide effect.  He also takes a somewhat jaundiced view of the hysteria that has followed in the wake of the Savile revelations, making what is to my mind the most important argument in his article when he points out that the same tabloid culture eager to excoriate Savile for exploiting children, and whose fanning of the public outcry over him is motivated for the most part by the desire to sell papers, is not above such exploitation itself--he gives the self-evident example of Milly Dowler, the murdered teen whose phone was hacked by News of the World journalists--fetishizing both innocence and its loss.

For all these well taken points, however, the further I read into "Light Entertainment," the creepier I found it, for reasons that it's taken me a while to articulate.  The best analogy I can make is the conversation you inevitably end up having with your male colleague about sexual harassment.  He objects to laws protecting against it because, he says, how will men ever be able to make a pass at women?  You stand there trying to swallow your bile while struggling to wrap your brain around a mindset that sees these two acts as existing on the same spectrum, much less being easily confused for one another.  There's a similarly perverse mindset at the core of "Light Entertainment," and it comes to infect the entire essay.  O'Hagan tries to make the point that it was not just the BBC brass, but British culture as a whole, that was complicit in enabling Savile's behavior and suppressing the news of it for so long.  Savile was loved, he argues, because he was weird and transgressive, and now that that weirdness has been revealed in all its true horror the public is turning on Savile rather than examining its own role in elevating him.
But it is our belief system. And now it is part of the same system to blame Savile. He's dead, anyway. Let's blame him for all the things he obviously was, and blame him for a host of other things we don't understand, such as how we love freaks and how we select and protect people who are 'eccentric' in order to feed our need for disorder. We'll blame him for that too and say we never knew there would be any victims, when, in fact, we depend on there being victims. Savile just wouldn't have been worth so much to us without his capacity to hurt. He was loved for being so rich and so generous and for loving his mother, the Duchess. And no one said, not out loud: 'What's wrong with that man? Why is he going on like that? What is he up to?' He was an entertainer and that's thought to be special. A more honest society brings its victims to the Colosseum and cheers. We agreed to find it OK when our most famous comedians were clearly not OK.
To me, this seems like a shaky argument that O'Hagan doesn't do nearly enough to support, but it's likely that I'm missing a lot of cultural context here, having grown up in the wrong place and the wrong time for Jimmy Savile's name to mean anything to me but the sexual predator he was revealed as a month ago.  O'Hagan's "we" doesn't include me, so it's possible that he's describing a national mood that is as self-evident to him as it will be to his British readers.  It's the conflation of weirdness and sexual predation, however, that is giving me pause.  It's one thing to say that a public figure--particularly one who was at the height of his popularity thirty or forty years ago--can more or less flaunt his fondness for having sex with young girls and have everyone around him dismiss it as "just Jimmy being Jimmy," until one day a critical mass builds up and suddenly everyone realizes that this is not, and has never been, OK.  It's quite another thing to suggest that because someone is weird and off the wall, we shouldn't be surprised when they turn out to have been raping kids.  And yet throughout "Light Entertainment," O'Hagan repeatedly suggests that the transgressive and the abusive are correlated, maybe even interchangeable.

O'Hagan's argument is that the BBC of the 50s, 60s, and 70s attracted and fostered people who deviated from the norm, and that the public loved these figures for that deviation--which could take forms that would today be considered either innocuous or criminal.  He makes much of the fact that in the culture surrounding the BBC, especially in the 60s and 70s, having sex with children as young as 14 was considered "perfectly natural," part and parcel of the cutlure of sexual permissiveness that emerged in these decades, and quotes Joan Bakewell, a BBC journalist and presenter, who says that "You just can't get into the culture of what it was like, transfer our sensibilities backwards from today.  It would be like asking Victorian factory owners to explain why they sent children up chimneys."  The implication, obviously, is that especially during the turbulent days of the sexual revolution, drawing the line between good transgression and bad transgression was difficult, maybe impossible, and, by inference, that our own standards of where that line runs are as arbitrary and socially constructed as they were then--"nowadays," O'Hagan writes, "there is an unmistakable lack of proportion in the way we talk about the threat posed to children by adults."  What's sad is that one can almost sense O'Hagan straining against the terms that he himself has chosen.  When he writes that the BBC's light entertainment department was "of interest to brilliant deviants," and then explains that by "deviant" he means "anybody who wasn't in a monogamous heterosexual marriage that produced children," he lumps together the promiscuous, the adulterous, the childless-by-choice, homosexuals, and pedophiles, and then hastens to draw distinctions between them that, under his own chosen scheme, can't exist.  His frame of reference leaves him in a bind.  He doesn't want to seem like he's minimizing sexual abuse--mainly, I truly believe, because he genuinely doesn't think it ought to be minimized--so near the end of the review he comes out with the almost pious statement that "People can like children in the wrong way. And there no doubt is a wrong way."  What he's eliding over is the fact that his own choice of terms has made distinguishing between the right and wrong way all but impossible.

What's missing from O'Hagan's scheme is, of course, consent.  Without it, his entire conception of how sexual power and politics work is completely fucked up.  Or, to put it another way, his entire conception of how sexual power and politics work is so completely rooted in rape culture that he can't even see the ocean he's swimming in.  Without consent, it's perfectly possible to do as O'Hagan has done, and treat rape and abuse as extreme cases of sex.  His notion of sex is hierarchical, something that one person does to another.  Even his definitions of good and bad sex are bound up in hierarchies--the sexual revolution, as he describes it, was "the strange dance of the permissive with the banned."  Permitted by who?  Banned by who?  Surely the germane question is what people have chosen to do, and how free and meaningful their choice was?  Once you add consent to the equation, once you stop treating sex as something that can be done to someone (and it should come as no surprise that the people doing the doing are male and powerful), and start treating it as something that people--people who are capable of giving meaningful consent--do together, all of the category errors that O'Hagan struggles with in "Light Entertainment" disappear.  The difference between liking children in the wrong and right way is the difference between treating them as receptacles for your lust, and treating them like human beings with their own rights and desires.  The monstrous sensibilities that Joan Bakewell insists we can neither understand nor judge are revealed for what they always were--the patriarchal assumption that there is a class of men, of which the BBC elite was definitely a part, who are permitted to have their way with women, children, and low status men.  That these latter groups exist, in fact, for the former's gratification.  What's changed between now and then isn't some ineffable shift in sexual mores.  It's our growing--though by no means complete--unwillingness to participate in this fucked up, exploitative, rape-friendly system.

But of course, O'Hagan can't bring consent into his discussion, because in order to do so, he would have to take his eyes off the perpetrators who are his main subjects, and talk about the victims--a word that he sneers at as a favorite of pedophile-happy tabloid culture.  The voices of the victims are almost entirely absent in "Light Entertainment," and this too is entirely in keeping with how rape culture frames the discussion of rape and abuse, making it about the rapists, and failing even to consider that the victims might have some light to shed on the issue.  And yet, on those rare occasions when O'Hagan lets the victims' voices come through, they not only become the most magnetic aspect of his essay, but put the lie to some of the assumptions he's made about the culture surrounding Savile's abuses.  Quoting from Dan Davies's unpublished biography of Savile about the complaints lodged against Savile by girls from an "approved school" (the British term for reform school), O'Hagan reveals that "Among the former Duncroft girls to have come forward, one has said she was put in the isolation unit for 'two or three days' after loudly protesting when Savile groped her in a caravan on the school grounds. 'For years we tried to report him,' another confided to me. 'We even had a mass breakout to Staines police station.'"  It's a heartbreaking passage, but surely it also suggests that the tolerance and complicity that O'Hagan identifies in a public charmed by Savile's transgressiveness were not without their limits.  People did see what he was doing for what it was.  They did scream bloody murder.  The problem--as it often is in a patriarchy--was that the people complaining were the powerless, and that no one in power was listening.

There is one point on which O'Hagan and I are in complete agreement, though unsurprisingly for very different reasons--we both think that pedophile hysteria, as expressed in British tabloids or in shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, is out of proportion and dangerous.  For all his disdain for tabloids, O'Hagan mirrors their view on pedophiles, as sick individuals whose perverted desires are innate and uncontrollable, though for him this condition also elicits pity--"when you see Gilbert Harding crying about his impossible self, you may feel very sorry. You may feel, as many people who liked Lionel Gamlin felt, that these were talented people whose paedophilia constituted a difficulty for them as well as for others."  I'm wiling to believe that there are some individuals like this, who genuinely feel an unstoppable compulsion to rape children.  But I also live in a world in which it seems that every week another teacher is arrested for interfering with their students, or another parent or guardian is revealed to have been using the child in their care as a sex toy.  If all of these people are sick in the way that O'Hagan and British tabloids seem to believe, then their sickness is the new normal, and the word "deviant" loses all meaning.  It seems far more likely to me that in most cases, pedophilia isn't an individual disorder, but a social one, the product of a culture that teaches men to desire power and control, to fear women's ownership of their sexuality, and to fetishize innocence and weakness.  Most of all, it's the product of a culture that teaches men that they are entitled to other people's bodies.  Most pedophiles, I believe, rape children because children are easier to rape than adults.  The tabloid hysteria over pedophiles, which turns them into boogeymen, does nothing to combat this second, more pernicious form of pedophilia--in fact, it may reinforce it, since tabloids also perpetuate the victim-blaming, slut-shaming mentality in which so many pedophiles are steeped.  But neither do articles like O'Hagan's, which pretend to offer an even-tempered, rational alternative to this hysteria while echoing the same perception of sex as something divorced from consent, do anything to bring about a solution.  Both are products of rape culture, and both are part of the problem.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Strange Horizons Fund Drive

For the last month, Strange Horizons has been running its annual fund drive, during which we raise money to keep the magazine running and its contributors paid.  Strange Horizons is run by a volunteer staff (including yours truly), and pays professional rates to its contributors.  With one week to go, the drive is now at just over $5,000 out of an $8,000 goal, though there are also "stretch goals" all the way to $11,000, which will allow us to increase the pay rates for poetry and reviews, and to add weekly podcasts of the magazine's fiction.  The fund drive page--with information about prizes being raffled off to donors, and Kickstarter-style rewards for various donation levels (including, for $100, the option to select a book to be reviewed by the reviews department)--can be found here, and at the Strange Horizons blog editor-in-chief Niall Harrison has been keeping a tally of testimonials about the magazine from authors and reviewers (including Genevieve Valentine's fantastic offer to review ten minutes out of any movie or TV show in exchange for a donation).

When the fund drive month comes along, the fiction department gets a lot of attention, and with good reason--online venues for free short fiction are common nowadays, but when Strange Horizons started out twelve years ago it was one of the first, and is, I think, the only one still standing after all that time.  But I came to Strange Horizons through the reviews department, first as a contributor and reader, and now as its editor--this month also marks two years since I've taken over the job from Niall.  There are a lot of things I enjoy about being reviews editor--getting to work with smart, incisive, talented reviewers, putting forward an editorial stance that prioritizes rigor, close reading, and political awareness in reviews, the occasional slapfight--but one of my favorites is the opportunity, every once in a while, to draw readers' awareness to a worthwhile work they might otherwise have overlooked.  Today's review does, I hope, just that.  It's also a review of a cartoon.  Lila Garrott looks at the Disney Channel's new animated series Gravity Falls, and does a great job of echoing my reasons for feeling that this is the best genre show of 2012 (it also highlights some themes and problematic areas in the series that I hadn't noticed, and is definitely worth a read even if you're already a fan of the show).  You should watch the show, but you should also read Lila's review (and the week's other two reviews--of The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton, reviewed by Liz Bourke, and of Jonathan Carroll's collection The Woman Who Married a Cloud, reviewed by Nina Allan--coming, respectively, on Wednesday and Friday), and if you're able to, please consider donating to Strange Horizons in order to help us keep publishing reviews (and fiction, poetry, columns and articles) for another year.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2012 Edition, Part 3

We're coming near to the end of what has been a singularly unimpressive pilot season.  Progress report on the shows I've stuck with: Revolution has so far failed to ignite and if it doesn't within the next few weeks I'll probably ditch it.  Vegas's second episode bored me, so it's been dropped.  Elementary, on the other hand, had a strong second episode that deepened the two main characters, but the show still doesn't feel much like Holmes.  Last Resort is maintaining the intensity of its pilot but still not giving the impression that it has an idea of where to take its premise.  There are still a few stragglers left, and they'll be trickling on screen over the next month, but right now I'm willing to pronounce the 2012 fall pilot season a bust.  Better luck next year.
  • The Paradise - The BBC's prospective answer to Downton Abbey draws loosely from the novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies' Paradise) by Émile Zola, moving its action from post-Napoleonic Paris to an unspecified English city some time in the 19th century, but maintaining its focus on the titular establishment, a department store specializing in ladieswear and accessories.  Our heroes are Moray (Emun Elliott), the store's owner, a consummate flatterer who is eager to expand and make his store the hub for fashionable women in the city, Kathrine (Elaine Cassidy), his not-quite fiancée who is both repulsed and intrigued by Moray's ambition and relentless striving, but who he may be taking advantage of in order to get at her father's money, and Denise (Joanna Vanderham), whose uncle's smaller store is being crowded out by The Paradise, and who takes a job there as a shop girl.  Despite being based on a novel, The Paradise's approach seems to be more open-ended--the better, presumably, to compete with a soap like Downton Abbey--with individual episodes centering around some self-contained plot while overarching plotlines proceed in the background.  Unfortunately, these overarching plotlines veer decidedly towards the soapy--the mystery surrounding the death of Moray's first wife, the mean girl-style disputes between Denise and her colleagues, the burgeoning love triangle between Moray, Katherine, and Denise.  And going by the second episode, in which a rich, unhappily married customer kisses a shop boy and then accuses him of assaulting her to protect her reputation, which gives everyone in the cast the excuse to trot out all the rape apology standbys--but why did she invite him to her house, he's such a nice guy, think of how this will destroy his life--and have them be entirely true, the self-contained plots aren't much to look forward to either.  Which is a shame, because at its core (and, from what I've read about it, in the original book) The Paradise has an interesting concept that I don't think period dramas have done much to address so far--the growth of capitalism, and the social changes that it spurred among both entrepreneurs and consumers.  The fact that the business in question here isn't something male-associated like industry or trains but women's retail, and that Denise discovers in herself a talent for salesmanship and a thirst for success that only Moray truly understands, might have made for an interesting angle on this topic, if only the show were more interested in it than in its more soapy elements.

  • Hunted - A British-American co-production written by X-Files stalwart Frank Spotnitz, Hunted is a spy thriller about Sam (Melissa George), an operative for a private intelligence company who is betrayed and nearly killed by someone close to her, and who returns to her employers in order to discover who betrayed her and why.  The premise and setting are reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, as is the show's style--lots of atmospheric locations shots, overbearing camera filters (orange for the Middle East, almost colorless in London), offbeat soundtrack (though often low-key and environmental, which sharply contrasts with Haywire), very little dialogue, mainly because the distrustful Sam spends a lot of time on her own, her silent actions or flashbacks, rather than her words, working to fill in the plot (this might also be the show playing to its strengths--when characters do speak it's usually to utter trite clichés such as "Ask yourself this: why won't you trust me?  Is it because you don't love me anymore, or because you're afraid you still do?").  While it's nice to see a show about a woman that doesn't feel compelled to surround her with allies and helpmeets, Hunted doesn't really avoid many of the other clichés that dominate shows about vengeful female spies.  George isn't exactly Gina Carano as far as her body type or believability as an imposing fighter are concerned, and where most shows of this type motivate their heroine through the kind of emotional connections that women are supposed to care exclusively about--a failed relationship, a dead parent, a lost child--Sam is motivated by all three, and even finds herself, at the end of the first episode, embedded as a tutor in the home of a widower with a young son, which is no doubt intended to play on her emotions.  So far what Hunted has going for it is Sam's calculating, emotionless presence at its core, but though George is game the writing isn't quite there to make Sam a three-dimensional figure, or to overcome the clichés that permeate the show.

  • Arrow - Pretty much everything I read about this show before watching the pilot compared to Smallville, which is perhaps understandable given that it's on the CW, that the main character was a recurring figure on the earlier show (though Arrow offers a new spin), and that Smallville was the last show based on a major comic book superhero to hit it big.  But Arrow lacks Smallville's central conceit--the fact that it was a prequel to the familiar Superman mythos.  It kicks off where the Green Arrow's traditional origin story does--having been shipwrecked on an island for years, billionaire Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) trains himself as a super-fighter and, for some reason, archer, and upon his rescue returns to his home town of Starling City to fight evildoers.  Far more than Smallville, Arrow reminds me of last year's disastrous attempt at crafting an original superhero show, The Cape--like that show, it suffers from a toxic combination of po-faced seriousness and cartoonish plot points and dialogue--and even more than that, of Batman Begins.  Some the similarities between Batman and the Green Arrow stem from the comics--both are billionaires who have secretly trained themselves into unbeatable fighters, augmented by gadgetry and unlimited financial reserves--but the Arrow pilot seems almost to be cribbing from Batman Begins's script--a former wastrel, Oliver is motivated by the death of his father, who believed that it was his responsibility to "save" Starling City, to do the same, choosing to do so as a vigilante, and he continues to wear the mask of a playboy while wishing that he could reveal the truth to his ex-girlfriend (Katie Cassidy), a crusading lawyer.  There are some interesting original notes here and there--Oliver's ex hates him not because of his playboy lifestyle but because he was on the fateful cruise with her sister, who died in the wreck, and unlike the Batman films the pilot doesn't shy away from the emotional toll that his years on the island have taken on him (though on the other hand it is entirely blasé about Oliver's willingness to kill, which he does quite often in the pilot).  The problem is that Amell is more Tom Welling than Christian Bale, and the best he can muster in scenes where he should be conveying intensity, grief, or shame, is a uniform woodenness (the show tries to compensate for this with voiceovers that tell us what Oliver is feeling, but these are not only overwrought but read by Amell, who fails to imbue them with emotion in the same way he fails to convey that emotion in his performance), which neither the writing nor the acting around him do anything to compensate for.  Arrow is clearly building up to a tangled mythology.  The pilot features Lost-like flashbacks to Oliver's time on the island, where he clearly wasn't alone, since he learned martial arts, languages, Eastern philosophy, and of course archery (thus completing the Batman Begins parallel), and he returns to Starling City with a very deliberate plan, and a list of enemies to get rid of.  What it doesn't give us is a reason to care about this mission--for all the crap it (rightfully) takes, Smallville had a freshness and levity to it, at least when it started out, that made it intriguing.  Arrow is too self-serious, but not nearly accomplished enough to justify that seriousness.

  • Nashville -  So, should I be happy that the show touted as the great white hope of this miserable pilot season centers around two women, or sad that they spend its pilot--and look set to spend the rest of the series--fighting over fame, money, and men?  That's maybe being a little glib: the two women around which Nashville circles, middle aged country music diva Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) and up-and-coming crossover sensation Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) are complex and well drawn, and their dispute--Rayna's latest album is struggling, and her label is trying to force her to tour with, and open for, Juliette in order to expose her to a younger audience, while Juliette is eager to gain respectability by poaching Rayna's professional crew, and particularly her band manager and former lover Deacon (Charlie Esten)--isn't a catfight so much as it is the struggle between two players in a system with only limited spots at the top, both of whom happen to be women and to suffer from the pitfalls of being a woman in the entertainment industry.  But the pilot also veers frequently into the realm of too-obvious soap, and most of the its subplots--a love triangle between Deacon's niece Scarlett (Clare Bowen) and two aspiring songwriters, a mayoral campaign thrown into disarray by Rayna's oily father (Powers Boothe in a performance so over the top that it will either become the show's greatest asset or its greatest weakness, it's too soon to tell which) backing her failed businessman husband (Eric Close) as a surprise candidate, whatever tangled history there is between Rayna and Deacon--are uninspiring, which makes it difficult to hope that its main plot strand will develop in intelligent ways.  Also, I'm saying this as someone who has been spoiled by Treme, but as a show about the world of music Nashville leaves much to be desired.  The glimpses we get of the process and craft of music-making lack the spontaneity, the messiness, and the obvious sense of effort that Treme captures so well--Scarlett, for example, is an obvious Jewel stand-in who writes "poems" to which she sometimes hears music in her head, and when one of her potential love interests finds her notebook he convinces her to work on them together; at the end of the episode, they perform, on the fly and with no preparation or rehearsals, a flawless, implausibly professional version of this song.  Even worse, the music itself is rather dull.  Rayna complains that Juliette's music is mindless, incomprehensible country-pop, but her songs aren't much better, and there's very little sense in the pilot of the richness of country music and its history (only Scarlett's song at the episode's end, and an earlier one performed by Deacon, are truly attention-grabbing).

    Still, comparing every new music-based show that comes along to Treme isn't fair--we should be grateful, I suppose, that Nashville isn't trying to be Glee, since that's clearly where the impetus for it comes from--and even without a genuinely revelatory look at Nashville's music industry, there are things to watch for here.  More precisely, two things, the two leads.  Britton brings warmth and intelligence to a role that could easily have devolved into a trite diva-ish stereotype.  She makes Rayna seem more human than her well-worn storyline has any right being, and convinces us that there's a real person under a plot borrowed from recent Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Country Strong and a million other country music sob stories.  Panettiere, amazingly, has to contend with an even bigger bag of clichés--the young sexpot with a tragic past and well-concealed vulnerabilities--and whether as a deliberate choice or simply as a result of a limited range, she defuses them by playing Juliette as inhumanly cold and calculating, creating the impression of a smart, ruthless young woman who knows that all the performances she's putting on--of innocence, of sexiness, of respect towards her country music forerunners--are but a means to an end.  It's a performance that could become wearying very quickly, but for now it's just brazen enough to be interesting.  By concentrating on Rayna and Juliette--and hopefully by putting them together more than the pilot does--Nashville could find a core of genuine drama amidst its soapy subplots that could make it worth watching.  After all, even if they're fighting each, shows about smart, ambitious women should be celebrated.

  • Beauty and the Beast - This show has been taking a pummeling at the hands of reviewers, and though they're not wrong that it is terrible, I can't help but feel that the opprobrium is a little extreme, and motivated more by the obviously bone-headed decisions that drive this remake of the cheesy-but-romantic 80s original--retooling the show into an obvious Twilight ripoff in which Vincent is a soldier experimented on by the government who periodically turns into a rage monster, and calling him a "beast" because he has a small facial scar (because as we all know, a scar running down a man's cheek makes him look horrifying, not sexy and dangerous)--rather than their execution.  Which is, again, quite bad, but not significantly worse than, say, Arrow, which has been getting more favorable reviews, sometimes from the same sources that have panned Beauty and the Beast.  The two shows have similar flaws--wooden leads (though Kristin Kreuk tries so much harder than Arrow's Stpehen Amell to inhabit her character, here a tough police detective), lazy plots (the pilot centers around a murder investigation that not even Kreuk's Katherine seems very interested in--certainly not once Jay Ryan's Vincent turns up), trite character motivations (Vincent is oh-so-tortured by what's been done to him; Katherine, in a plot ripped straight from Castle, is trying to find out who killed her mother), and very little chemistry between the two leads (though this is less down to the actors and more the fault of a script that gives them little to do in their shared scenes but gaze longingly at each other).  There are, on the other hand, points about the show that I like--Katherine has a female, Hispanic partner, which might make them the only all-female cop duo on TV right now, and Katherine's mother is played by an Asian woman, which is more than Smallville ever did for Kreuk, as far as I can recall.  They're obviously not enough to make Beauty and the Beast watchable--especially since the mother, as I've mentioned, is quickly killed off, and the partner will no doubt be ditched for Vincent soon enough--but they are enough to make me a little upset at the disparity between the reactions to Beauty and the Beast and Arrow, which may very well be linked to the former's girly subject matter.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2012 Edition, Part 2

Well, that was a long week and a half of new TV, and with not much to show for it in the end.  These write-ups represent a small minority of the new shows to premiere this fall--I haven't said anything about the season's new comedies, which run the gamut from terrible (Partners), to underwhelming (Ben and Kate, The Mindy Project), to competent but uninspiring (Go On, Animal Practice), to bizarre Alf retreads (The Neighbors).  There are some more new shows premiering later this month, but so far I'm not very enthusiastic about this new crop of shows.
  • Vegas - The premise of this show, which follows the (presumably fictionalized) exploits of legendary Las Vegas Sheriff Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid) in the early 60s, marks it as yet another attempt, after the failure of last year's Pan Am and The Playboy Club, to crack the Mad Men code for a network audience (only this time without pesky women running around all over the place--there is only one woman in the cast, a district attorney played by Carrie-Anne Moss who is clearly intended as a love interest for Lamb and, so far, not much else).  But the pilot doesn't recall Mad Men nearly as much as it does Hawaii Five-0--as in that show, you have an outsider, maverick cop (this time a literal cowboy) in an exotic (and beautifully shot) location, who is tasked by the powers that be to put together a posse (including, of course, a Native American tracker) to clean up town without all that guff of due process and civil rights (the 60s setting means that Lamb has a little more justification than Hawaii Five-0's Steve McGarrett for ignoring the rights of suspects, and yet somehow there is significantly less violence towards suspects in the Vegas pilot than in any of the Hawaii Five-0 episodes I watched).  The Vegas pilot is less thrilling than Hawaii Five-0's (still one of the best pilots I've ever seen), and the investigation at its core is predictable and not very engaging even to the characters (the show also loses a lot of points for making its inaugural case the murder of a young woman--I suppose because that's what women in big cities are for), but it is nevertheless an entertaining hour.  Quaid is good, and clearly having a lot of fun playing a cowboy cop, and though the rest of the cast is comparatively underserved no one seems noticeably bad in their role.  What's lacking is a sense of 60s Vegas as a unique place with its own personality and rules, and for long stretches it's easy to forget that the show is set in the past or in a city that has such a hold on the American imagination.  That is presumably about to change, as a major subplot in the pilot involves the arrival of New York mobster Vinnie Savino (Michael Chiklis, so far wasted) who has been brought in to clean house at one of the casinos and seems set on a collision course with Lamb--especially when he has Lamb's predecessor killed--but there's so little indication in the pilot of how that plot will shake out that it's hard to know whether it will be Vegas's saving grace or yet another by the numbers cliché-fest.  Several reviews I've read have expressed great hopes for Vegas's future, but so far I'm finding it hard to see anything in the show that might grow into excellent television.

  • Elementary - Writing about the new American Sherlock Holmes series proved a bit of a challenge--I had to watch the pilot twice before I could work out how to approach the show with just the right amount of reference to Sherlock.  The problem isn't simply that Elementary was originally conceived as a reboot of Sherlock, and that when that deal fell through the show's creators found themselves scrambling to find a minimum, safe-from-lawsuits distance from the British show (thus leading to the recasting of Watson as a woman).  No, the main problem is that we already have a modernized Sherlock Holmes that is perfect in almost every respect and yet somehow manages to be terrible a sizable portion of the time, so it's almost impossible to approach Elementary--which after all lacks a lot of the problem points of Sherlock, most notably the unwieldy 90 minute timeslot and Steven Moffat's rampant misogyny--without expecting it to be just like Sherlock, except consistently good.  And the fact is, Elementary does avoid many of the problems that make Sherlock so frustrating.  Johnny Lee Miller may be the most hilariously unimaginative choice of casting for Holmes ever, having alternated the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and the monster with Benedict Cumberbatch in the National Theater's recent, blockbuster production of Frankenstein, but he is good at conveying Holmes's mingled brilliance and cluelessness, and his portrayal of Holmes as being deeply affronted by the crimes he investigates is not only more in line with Conan Doyle's original vision of the character but also a welcome reprieve from Moffat's sociopath Holmes, and from his fetishization, in both Sherlock and Doctor Who, of insensitive, self-absorbed men who are forgiven their bad behavior because of their brilliance.  Lucy Liu, meanwhile, while significantly less successful than Martin Freeman's Watson (Sherlock's greatest and most undervalued asset) defuses, just by her existence, the prevailing contempt for women that permeates Sherlock's every scene (which leaves just the background radiation misogyny of American network television--other than Watson, the only women in the pilot are a nameless prostitute with no lines, and the case of the week, yet another murdered woman).

    The problem is that while the show works as the anti-Sherlock, it isn't very convincing as Holmes.  It's not just that the show's world doesn't achieve the heady fusion between modernity and Victorian London that was one of Sherlock's chief accomplishments in its first season (though less prominent in its second), or that without Steven Moffat in the writing room there are less moments of awe-inspiring cleverness in the script (those moments are anyway a double-edged sword, as both Sherlock and Doctor Who tend to use them to obscure the sloppiness of their larger plots), but that the investigation at the pilot's core in no way feels like a Sherlock Holmes investigation.  Though there are Holmes-ian observations and deductions in the script, they take a back seat to the kind of police-work familiar from most TV procedurals, and Holmes even relies on police files, resources, and forensics.  He comes off as a clever detective, but one very much in line with the other damaged, cerebral sorts who have populated police procedurals for decades, cops who have a bit of Holmes in their DNA but have watered that influence down with constant repetition.  The whole show, in fact, feels like yet another iteration of a certain type of American procedural about a quirky, brilliant man and his long-suffering, damaged female partner--a more sombre Castle, or a less quirky Life--and especially when one considers that Watson, arguably the most crucial ingredient for a successful Holmes retelling, comes away from the pilot underexplored and looking rather generic--as if the show had taken the "shocking" approach of changing the character's gender solely in order to slot it into a familiar, caretaking type--it's hard to see how Elementary plans to stake its claim as a meaningful entry in the Holmes cannon.  I'm willing to give the show a few more episodes, mainly because I still hope for a modern Holmes that doesn't leave me as furious and frustrated as Sherlock does, but at the moment I'm not very hopeful.

  • Last Resort - Hands down the best-made pilot of the fall season so far, but also the one whose competence and narrative sweep feel the least indicative of how the show itself will turn out.  The show has a silly premise--when the captain of a nuclear sub (Andre Braugher) questions dodgy orders to nuke Pakistan, he is fired upon by his own people, and retreats to a Pacific island while in DC, a shadowy coup appear to be taking place that also engulfs the families of the sub's crew, navy brass, NATO personnel, and a military contractor who has hardware on the rogue sub--and while the pilot moves fast enough and features enough thrilling events to distract from this fact that still leaves a show whose purpose is to untangle and work through the implications of that premise, which may not be possible in any satisfying way.  The pilot's approach is to constantly bombard the characters with crises that keep them from processing the bigger picture or articulating a response to it, which means that the show is spared, at least so far, from having to express meaningful ideas about global politics or the relationship between government and the military, but also results in an overstuffed pilot that hardly lets the characters breathe--aside from Braugher, we're introduced to Scott Speedman, an admiring XO with a cute wife at home, and Daisy Betts, the second officer who struggles with being a woman in the military and the daughter of an admiral, but though the actors are game the characters never emerge as anything beyond these familiar types, and the rest of the crew divides itself along the too-familiar law-and-order vs. independent morality, casual violence vs. alert pacifism lines so quickly that we might as well be watching an episode of Stargate: Universe.  This might change in later episodes, but what little handling there is of Last Resort's bigger questions in the pilot doesn't paint an encouraging picture of what's to come: though Betts's character is well-done and used to address the problems of women in the military, another scene in which Speedman mechanically questions female crewmembers about sexual harassment on the ship while they giggle at the implausibility of such a situation feels unjustifiably glib--given the terrifying prevalence of rape and sexual assault in the US military, I'm not sure attempts to curtail sexual harassment should the butt of jokes.  Similarly, though it's heartening that Braugher's sanity and choices are questioned throughout the pilot, including by Speedman and Betts, the fact that the pilot so casually justifies his takeover of a populated island--and does so mainly by painting the island's de facto leader as a small-time hustler who is more than capable of violence--while completely ignoring the fact that, de facto leader or no, the people on the island are the citizens of some sovereign nation, is worrying.  It's hard to know, judging by its pilot, where Last Resort will fall on these issues and how it plans to develop its story, but in this post-24, post-Battlestar Galactica TV landscape, it's hard to hope that this will be in particularly intelligent directions.

  • 666 Park Avenue - To bring us back to the network vs. cable debate with which I opened this fall's pilot reviews, one of the traits that does seem ubiquitous to networks is a tendency to produce watered-down imitations of last year's big cable success--as in the case of Vegas above.  666 Park Avenue is an even more blatant--and significantly less successful--effort, clearly trying to coast off the success of the zany American Horror Story, but without all the potentially offputting zaniness.  The premise--which also borrows heavily from the 1997 film The Devil's Advocate--sees a young couple trying to make it in New York land in a seemingly too good to be true situation when they get a job as resident managers of a swanky Upper East Side apartment building, only to discover that it harbors dark secrets.  Terry O'Quinn plays the building's owner--and, presumably, the devil himself--with a woodenness that make me regret his Lost-driven elevation from ubiquitous character actor--at which he excelled--to star.  Slightly more interesting is Vanessa Williams as his wife, though this is mainly because the template that 666 Park Avenue is so blatantly drawing from doesn't have room for it for the antagonist's wife, and it's not clear yet whether Williams's character is a willing ally of O'Quinn's or a dupe, or even whether she's human.  But the character herself suffers from the same flaws as O'Quinn's, our leads, and all the other neighbors encountered in the pilot--she is a walking cliché, whose every line and facial expression feels predictable from a thousand previous stories.  It seems to have been lost on the show's creators that the reason for American Horror Story's success--despite the fact that by most objective yardsticks it is a terrible, shlocky, melodramatic show--is its outrageousness, the fact that there is no boundary of good taste, good manners, or decent behavior that the show will not cross in its attempts to get a rise out of its audience.  666 Park Avenue, on the other hand, is painfully bland.  O'Quinn's character traps his tenants' souls by offering them a wish, but these are predictably milquetoast--a widower asks for his wife back, but of course she Comes Back Wrong; a struggling playwright lusts after a neighbor he spies from his window, only for her to turn up in his life as his wife's new assistant; a mediocre violinist sells his soul for ten years of artistic perfection.  None of this is new, and the show doesn't even try to shade in these stories in a way that will set them apart from the crowd.  The pilot centers on the heroine's (Rachael Taylor) investigations of the building, which will no doubt lead to a tangled mythology down the line, but so far the building at the show's heart lack the character and the sense of bloody, tragic history that surrounded the house in which the first season of American Horror Story takes place--it feels as bland as the characters and their stories.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Looper

I watched Looper two nights ago, and since coming out of the movie theater I've been trying to work out just why this film left me feeling so unimpressed.  It's not that there's anything wrong with Looper, which in fact wears the crown of intelligent, thought-provoking SF filmmaking better than almost any other claimant to that title in the last few years.  It's well-made, intelligent, and handles its time travel premise in brave and interesting ways.  But it's also an almost airless work, one whose pieces never managed to engage me enough to make me care about its whole.

A lot of this comes down to the kind of filmmaker Rian Johnson is.  Johnson's breakout film Brick was a pastiche that drew its power from a gimmick--that its high school age characters spoke like characters out of classic noir--but it elevated itself above a mere mash-up through its dedication to its style, and with the help of a magnetic, soulful central performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  In his follow-up to Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Johnson seemed to be struggling with the questions of artifice and gimmickry raised by his previous effort.  The heroes of that movie were con men whose method was to impose a narrative on their marks' lives.  They were men steeped in artifice but desperate for something real, and yet the events of the film were as artificial as anything they might have concocted.  Though a flawed film, The Brothers Bloom at least showed that Johnson was aware of the problems inherent to his storytelling approach and looking for a way to defuse them.  In that respect, Looper feels like a step backwards.  It lacks the raw emotional core of Brick, or the prevailing sense of self-awareness that permeated The Brothers Bloom, and yet it is as much a pastiche as either of these movies, this time of multiple genres.  The premise may be SFnal--in 2044, Joe (Gordon-Levitt again, this time buried under distracting facial prostheses) is a looper, an assassin who kills people transported from thirty years in the future--but the setting, with its seedy clubs, hopeless partying and drug use, and kind-hearted but defeated prostitutes, is pure noir, and when Joe's "loop," his older self (Bruce Willis, the reason for those distracting prostheses), shows up from the future and announces his intention to track down and kill the future crime boss known only as the Rainmaker, who will send all the loopers back in time to be killed and in the process kill old Joe's wife, young Joe--whose own survival depends on killing his future self--plants himself at a farm belonging to Sara (Emily Blunt), the mother of one of the possible Rainmakers, and the film becomes a Western.  There are even references to specific SF works--when Sara's young son Cid turns out to possess dangerous telekinetic powers that can erupt into murder when he's frightened or angry, the isolated farm with its seemingly endless surrounding fields of rustling cane recalls nothing so much as the classic Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life."

When Joe's boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), himself a traveler from the future, needles him for his old-fashioned (which is to say, contemporary to us) dress sense, he points out that Joe is merely mimicking movies that were, themselves, mimicking other movies, so it can't be said that Johnson isn't aware that he has, once again, created a work that is primarily occupied with referencing other works.  And yet that self-awareness doesn't run very deeply through Looper, which for the most part takes itself and its story quite seriously.  This is perhaps because Johnson has taken Abe's advice to Joe and tried to "do something original" with his SFnal premise, but unsurprisingly, this bit of invention is where Looper is weakest and least persuasive.  That the mechanics of time travel and its implications for the timeline don't hold together was perhaps to be expected--when do they ever?--and it might have been possible to handwave this, as well as the use of time travel as a means of assassination, which just barely hangs together if you don't think about it too much.  But Johnson tries to justify such an elaborate method of corpse disposal by having Joe tell us that in the future it's impossible to disappear a body, which hardly tracks with the lawless, poverty-stricken world of 2044, in which most of the non-criminals Joe encounters live on the streets or roam the countryside in vagrant gangs, and law and government appear to be nonexistent; perhaps we're meant to understand that there's going to be a movement towards law and order and greater government oversight in the next thirty years, but this clashes with the film's noir tone in a way that Johnson doesn't acknowledge, so that his attempt to create a coherent future world that includes time travel only calls attention to that world's thinness.

Even if you accept Looper's premise, however, Johnson's attempts to shade in this premise with invented SFnal idiom are awkward and unconvincing.  Terms like "gatmen" (the mob's enforcers, named after their gat guns), blunderbuss (the gun loopers use to kill their victims, which, even with an entire scene devoted to justifying the name, doesn't feel like the sort of thing that a 21st century person would call their gun, and is anyway an unattractive mouthful that makes the characters look ridiculous when they say it), and even looper itself are cumbersome.  When Joe's friend Seth (Paul Dano) loses his future self, Joe's ponderous voice-over tells us that "this is called 'letting your loop run'" as if this were a turn of phrase rather than a literal description of what has happened.  At no point does any of this language feel like an organic slang that might have emerged from this technology and the criminal lifestyle it had created (I actually found myself wishing for Andrew Niccol's relentless time-based puns from In Time, which were at least a little witty) and the fact that the characters use it dehumanizes them in a way that the noirish language in Brick didn't--it's not believable that people would talk this way, but it's also not artfully unbelievable either, just awkward and distracting.

All that said, once the scenario of an escaped future self roaming free in his past, and the challenges facing both him and his younger self, are established, Looper does some very interesting things with the concept of time travel and the questions it raises that, even if they don't quite elevate the film to a complete and satisfying work, certainly justify its existence and make it worth discussing.  There is, for example, a horrifying but extremely inventive scene in which old Seth is forced to report back to be executed by lopping off limbs and appendages from young Seth, keeping him alive to prevent a paradox even as old Seth's body parts disappear (that this represents as much of a paradox as killing young Seth would have--if his legs were chopped off, for example, how could old Seth have arrived in the past whole?--is yet another one of the points on which Looper's construction of time travel doesn't hold together).  More high-minded, and more interesting, is Looper's handing of predestination.  Time travel inevitably raises the question of free will vs. predestination--if the future is a place that exists and that we can travel to, doesn't that mean that our choices are set in stone in order to lead us to that future?  Hollywood filmmaking, with its emphasis on the individual as not just a hero but the prime mover and shaker of their story, can't quite accommodate this notion, so films dealing with time travel, like Back to the Future 3 or Terminator 2, will often plump for the crowdpleasing but intellectually bankrupt conclusion that yes, time travel exists, yes, we've seen the future, but no, our characters are not bound to that future for reasons that can't be articulated.

Looper rejects not only this simplistic take on time travel, but also the stark division between free will and having your entire life laid out for you.  The question, the film seems to be saying, isn't whether we have free choice or no choice at all, but how much free choice we have, how limited the options before us are, and how few of the choices available to us are good ones.  Joe, we learn, was abandoned by his drug-addicted mother and taken in by Abe as a child.  Technically, he has free will, but in reality, his becoming an assassin was inevitable, and the choice to get out of that life all but impossible--emotionally and practically--to make.  When they discover Cid's powers, both old Joe and young Joe insist that his becoming the Rainmaker is inevitable, but Sara believes that with her influence he can grow up a good person.  But as young Joe realizes (and mirroring Abe's description of looking at Joe as a child and seeing the path of criminality he was set on if he weren't saved--by which Abe means, turned into a looper), it's old Joe's murder of Sara that will set Cid on the path that makes him the Rainmaker.  So the inevitability of time travel is folded into the cycle of violence and of victims becoming victimizers, both a metaphor for it and a literal extension of it.

This is a very clever and original use of time travel, but it has darker implications that I'm not sure Johnson has fully appreciated.  By paralleling the limited options of people born into poverty and crime with the predestination implied by time travel, Looper essentially denies the very possibility that a person might choose to change their life.  Change, in this film, is only ever something that happens to us at someone else's instigation, and as a result of their choices.  Joe is who he is because of his mother's abandonment and because Abe took him in.  Old Joe changed because his wife, as he puts it, saved him.  Cid will either become a crime lord or a good person, depending on whether Sara is in his life.  People are changed, they do not change themselves--even old Joe, who insists that he is a more evolved person than his younger self, proves otherwise with his actions; though Joe tells him that the best way to save his wife is to give her up, he is so insistent that he can save her and still have her that he is willing to kill children who might become the Rainmaker, but who might also be completely innocent.  The only examples of adults choosing to change their lives take the form of self-abnegation--realizing that he can't stop old Joe from killing Sara, young Joe kills himself in order to cancel out his future self's existence, and former party girl Sara, who initially left Cid with her sister, has only managed to change her life by making it entirely about another person.  Looper depicts a world in which our path in life is determined by our parents or the people who act as our parents, and in which people are either children--and thus molded by the choices of their parents--or parents--and thus fully occupied by molding their children--but never individuals who might make their own choices and live to deal with the consequences.  Changing your own life and then living that change is hard and, for most of us, impossible, so I wouldn't have objected to this moral if Looper had chosen to face the bleakness of its conclusion head on.  But the film, preoccupied as it is with the neatness of Joe's having closed both his loop and Cid's (and with the Western style ending of Lonely Widow Sara riding off into the sunset with her son and Joe's ill-gotten fortune), doesn't entirely acknowledge its own implications, which is part of why, despite being impressed with Johnson's twist on the time travel premise, I found Looper underwhelming.

That a film that is all about limited choices feels, as I said in this review's opening sentences, airless is perhaps to be expected, but Looper's sense of inevitability is never as affecting or as tragic as it needs to be to turn that airlessness into claustrophobia.  A lot of this is down to the characters and the fact that they are, as I've said, either children or parents.  Young Joe is the former, and he spends large portions of the film in a fug of moral and emotional incomprehension.  But his transformation occurs along such familiar lines, straight out of the Western story about the anti-hero turned around by a tough widow and her cute young son, that not even an actor of Gordon-Levitt's caliber can bring it to life.  Sara, who actually becomes the film's central character in its second half, is the closest that Looper comes to a compelling, complicated figure, but she's hobbled by the fact of being a female character in a Rian Johnson film, and thus anchored to the axis between savior and seductress.  She never quite escapes being a mommy.  Old Joe should have been the film's saving grace, since he's the only character who complicates the divide between parents and children.  He thinks of himself as an adult, but his unwillingness to make the sacrifice that young Joe finally does at the end of the film belies that claim and shows him to be, fundamentally, as immature and self-absorbed as he accuses his younger self of being.  But apart from one scene in which the two Joes meet at a diner (one of the film's highlights) there is hardly any direct interaction between them, and old Joe is seen mostly at a distance.  He doesn't have a Sara or a Cid who can bring him out of his shell, so we don't get to know him as well as we do young Joe, and by the end of the film his role is more to move the plot--to kill Abe's goons, and draw closer to Sara's farm--than to shed more light on the questions at Looper's core.

"I remember it after it happens," old Joe tells young Joe, explaining how their shared memory works.  Before young Joe makes a choice, old Joe sees his options as if they were in flux, but after it's been made, old Joe sees it as inevitable.  That feels like a very accurate description of the experience of watching Looper.  It's not a predictable film--there are two many genres at play here, too many references to specific works, and even a twist or two--but once every step of the plot occurs, it feels inevitable and unsurprising.  The reference coalesces, our realization of the genre we're in at this moment crystallizes, and the film once again fails to emerge from these as its own entity.  While watching Looper, I found myself comparing it to Twelve Monkeys, another film that bravely owns up to the inevitability implied by time travel, but in a way that is even more hopeless--not only does free will not exist, but as a consequence of that, the human race is annihilated.  And yet Twelve Monkeys is more lively and more affecting than Looper, and not just because of its humor (a trait that the po-faced Looper lacks entirely--even the seemingly inescapable joke about young Joe realizing that he will one day go bald is absent).  Unlike Looper, Twelve Monkeys lets its characters breathe, lets them be people rather than delivery systems for its ideas about inevitability and the cycle of violence.  It's a film with a heart, albeit a bleakly cynical one.  Well made as it is, and for all its interesting ideas, Looper lacks that heart, which is why it never rises above its component pieces.