Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Violent Delights: Thoughts on the First Season of Westworld

What to say about Westworld?  How to sum up its frustrating, fitfully brilliant first season?  The problem with Westworld--or rather, not the problem, because this is a show with so many different problems, which is, of course, a problem in itself--is that it never quite seems to cohere into the sum of its parts.  Those parts were frequently magnificent--from incidental but beautiful touches like Ramin Djawadi's playful soundtrack choices, to core elements like the fearless performances of Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton--but even at the end of the show's ten-episode first season, I find myself asking the same question that I asked at its beginning: is this show about anything other than itself?

The scattershot nature of the show's writing, its haphazard brilliance, has made it into the best sort of thinkpiece fodder.  At one point or another, we decided that Westworld was: a critique of the HBO brand and its reliance on violence and misogyny; an exploration of the conventions of video games and how players interact with them; a chunky science fiction story about the emergence of consciousness in machines; an allegory about slavery and oppression; a meta-examination of how stories are constructed and achieve their effects; a philosophical treatise on what it means to be human.  There are hints of each of these shows in Westworld, and if you focus your view on an individual element of the show you might even be able to make a coherent argument for one or the other of them.  But as soon as you widen your view, and try to take in the whole, you realize that it doesn't actually exist.  It's a show that is, simultaneously, full to the brim with ideas, and completely empty.

You get the sense that the writers realize this, and that it's this realization that might have been behind their most destructive, most boneheaded choice: the twists.  Of all the arguments you can have about Westworld, all the aspects of the show that you can praise or criticize, surely one thing is not up for debate: this is one of the most horrendously-paced and -structured seasons of television in recent memory.  And most of that comes down to the show's reliance on twists, chiefly the big one: that the naive, goodhearted visitor to the show's titular theme park, William (Jimmi Simpson), is also the villainous, murderous Man in Black (Ed Harris), whose stories are told thirty years apart--enabled by the fact that the park's robotic hosts are ageless, and trapped in loops of narrative and of their own desperate yearning towards consciousness.  It's almost fascinating to watch the season's final, extra-long episode expend nearly half its running time on the painstaking, laborious revelation of a twist that most of fandom--certainly the parts of it that are online and discussing the show--has been taking for granted for at least a month.

While this might sound like the most finicky of fannish complaints, it actually gets at the core of what makes the show so frustrating and unsatisfying.  Westworld, by its very nature, has no characters.  Almost everyone on screen is a robot whose personhood is, at best, a work in progress, and at worst, a delusion created to further a mysterious someone's master plan.  (Meanwhile, William, the only human character who undergoes any kind of transformation, has it off-screen, the better to conceal the big reveal.)  For the same reason, it has no plot--all of its characters are trapped in loops of story that weren't particularly original or interesting the first time around.  Co-creator Jonathan Nolan's previous show, Person of Interest, was faced with essentially the same challenges, and dealt with them beautifully, transforming a rote procedural into the origin story of a genuinely alien artificial intelligence.  Perhaps because of its HBO pedigree, Westworld eschews such conventional forms, and instead assumes that it can string its viewers along with the promise of an explosive reveal.  It is, essentially, trading on its prestige, banking on its viewers' assumption that there's no way HBO would spend this much money and effort on a show with so little to say.

But in the age of internet fandom, such assumptions are unfounded.  It is simply no longer possible to count on surprising your audience in the way that Westworld clearly expects to.  It's time for TV writers to let go of the Lost model, or at least to let it evolve--to deliver twists faster and sooner, so that viewers feel like active participants in the story, instead of a captive audience whose indulgence is being sorely tried.  What if, instead of waiting until the end of the season finale to reveal what is ultimately a rather anodyne, pointless twist, the show had lobbed it in episode six?  What if instead of concealing this fact, the writing had acknowledged, and delved into the implications of, the one meaningful point that comes out of the show's multiple timelines--the fact that even the hosts who are developing consciousness are doing it by going in circles, repeating the same story again and again?  Instead, the season turns itself into its own prologue, nine episodes of setup followed by ninety minutes of that setup being furiously untangled through the inelegant, ultimately exhausting device of seemingly-endless infodumps, as first William, then park co-creator Arnold (Jeffrey Wright, who also plays the android Bernard--another revelation that the show could have stood to drop a lot sooner than it did), and finally his partner Ford (Anthony Hopkins) lay out in bald speeches what should have been the business of the entire season.

But, you know, let's leave the show's structural problems aside for a moment.  What about the actual substance of those speeches?  There's something genuinely poetic about Arnold's conclusion that the hosts' constant repetition isn't a negation of consciousness, but a pathway to it.  That by banging their heads at the same problem again and again, they can brute-force their way into personhood.  It's an affirmation of the point that Aaron Bady made on twitter earlier this week, that ultimately the only difference between the hosts and the guests is that one group has been designated inhuman.  People, too, find themselves trapped in loops without quite knowing why, repeating the same mistakes and relationships with slight variations.  We, too, need to find our humanity in the cracks and crevices of those repetitions, even as we delude ourselves that our lives are a narrative with a purpose and a destination.  For a few brief (if exposition-heavy) scenes, it feels as if Westworld has at its core something with a genuine moral and philosophical weight.

But then Ford's turn comes, and we learn that Arnold's philosophy must be complicated with an additional wrinkle.  It's not enough for the hosts to repeat their stories in order to achieve consciousness.  The substance of that repetition needs to be painful and harrowing.  It is suffering, Ford explains, the enables the hosts to become human.  As much as I'd like to believe that the show wants me to take Ford's worldview with a grain of sand--this is, after all, a man who made such colossal mistakes that, by his own admission, it took thirty-five years to untangle them, and whose master plan involves being shot in the back of the head by his own creation--there's no denying that the entire first season of Westworld validates his perspective.  Suffering is the hosts' defining trait, the seeming purpose of their existence, and our heroine Dolores (Wood)--whose name literally means "suffering"--plays a part in which her suffering defines her.  She is a damsel in distress whom the guests can either rescue or victimize (William ends up doing both, one after the other), and it is her memories of these repeated victimizations that jumpstart her personhood.  Similarly, brothel madam Maeve (Newton), whose character type is practically synonymous with abuse and who is repeatedly killed by clients, achieves consciousness when she remembers a previous character she played, a homesteader who was murdered along with her daughter (we won't dwell on how redolent this plotline is with virgin/whore issues, though they are quite blatant).  It's when she refuses the balm offered to her by her handlers, choosing death over losing the memory of this (to her) murdered child that Maeve becomes sentient.

But, much like the exploded theory of the bicameral mind that gives Westworld's season finale its title, and which Arnold used to goad the hosts into consciousness, the idea that suffering is what makes us human might sound profound, but it is ultimately pernicious garbage.  We know that suffering makes people violent and cruel.  That it deadens the heart and twists the soul.  And what's more, Westworld knows this too.  How else to explain the fact that every one of its hosts who achieves consciousness immediately starts brutally attacking the park's guests, and the staffers who have enabled their victimization?  We're naturally sympathetic to these outbursts of violence--even if we know that the individual guests and staffers are, at most, cogs in a machine, there is the simple truth that you don't get to treat people like things, and then act surprised when they behave inhumanly towards you.  But therein lies the problem--does the hosts' suffering make them human, or does it justify their inhumanity?

The only way to square that circle is to assume that Westworld sees killing as the most fundamentally human of acts.  The hosts prove their personhood by rising up against their oppressors, asserting their right not to be victimized by taking vengeance on the people who did.  There's a certain revolutionary logic to that viewpoint, especially if you take Bady's view that a robot story like Westworld can only ever be a metaphor for slavery.  One of the fundamental aspects of defining some people as non-human is that any attempt they make to assert their right to exist and not to suffer is seen as illegitimate, even villainous.  Which can mean that being a villain is the only way for such people to prove that they are, indeed, people.  But what this also does is bring us full circle.  If we accept that killing proves the hosts' humanity, then we don't get to criticize Westworld, the park, for making the same argument.  We have to reject the viewpoint offered early in the season, by a then-still-sane William, who sees the park as a cynical, unimaginative appeal to our basest instincts with nothing meaningful to way about humanity, and accept the conclusion reached by the Man In Black, that the park's violence reveals our true selves.  And if that's true--if the natural condition of people, whether guests or hosts, is to be violent and brutal to one another--then what have the hosts even got to complain about?

Within Westworld, following the maze to its center is how the hosts achieve consciousness, discovering their true selves.  But like so much else in the show, the maze is a metaphor, and what happens when Westworld's viewers follow the show's maze to its center is nothing so satisfying.  What we find there is an ouroboros, a story that devours its own tail, contradicting its own basic assumptions and ultimately amounting to nothing.  And here's where the show would tell us to wait, be patient, trust that next season will make sense of everything.  Maybe it will--certainly Person of Interest took a while to make itself into one of the best science fiction shows on TV.  But it's hard to have faith in a show that still seems so uncertain about what it actually is.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

(Not So) Recent Movie Roundup 22

It's pretty far down the very long list of reasons for its awfulness, but 2016 has not been a great movie year.  The failures of this year's summer movies have been sufficiently enumerated, but the truth is that by the time they rolled around, I was sufficiently burned out by the disappointing spring that I didn't even bother to watch most of them.  And a great deal of interesting 2016 films that I would have liked to see--such as Midnight Special, The Lobster, High Rise, and The Handmaiden--didn't even make it into theaters near me.  This post, therefore, actually covers something like five months of movie-watching, and though some of it has been worthwhile or entertaining, none of it counters my impression that 2016, in its cruelty, couldn't even offer us the distraction of good movies.
  • Love & Friendship - The biggest and most vexing question raised by Whit Stillman's adaptation of Jane Austen's unpublished novella Lady Susan is: why the title change?  Not only is Lady Susan a perfectly good title, but Love & Friendship is actually a singularly bad one for a story that is all about selfishness, manipulation, and stupidity coming very close to ruining the lives of some perfectly inoffensive people.  Actual love and friendship are in short supply, shoved off into the background while the real business of the movie focuses on the machinations of Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) as she schemes to marry off her daughter to a rich man whom she doesn't love, to arrange occasions in which to meet her own, married lover, and to entertain herself by seducing an upright young man who believes himself impervious to her charms.  If there's any love and friendship on screen in this movie, they are the ones between Susan and her best friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who supports, without question or qualm, Susan's schemes and manipulations.  It's here, however, that Love & Friendship fails to take advantage of its opportunities, to expand and fill in some of the gaps in the original novella--such as Alicia's lack of a personality except as Susan's supporter and confidant, or the blankness of Reginald de Courcy (Xavier Samuel), the young man whom Susan seduces, and who eventually falls in love with her daughter.

    None of this is to say that Love & Friendship is anything less than delightful--Beckinsale is wonderful as a completely amoral woman, and the cast around her, which includes familiar faces such as Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, and James Fleet, all on top form, are extremely entertaining as they try to grasp the truth that they can't hope to deal with a person who understands society's rules perfectly, but has no sense of the values underlying them.  But despite occasional gestures towards expanding the story's world beyond what Austen made of it--characters discussing religion or poetry, and philosophizing about the meaning of life in a way that makes it clear that even these privileged aristocrats are trying to give their life more meaning than that offered by the tropes of a Regency novel--Love & Friendship never manages to feel like more than what it is, an adaptation of an imperfect but highly entertaining minor work by a great author.  Which is still quite a lot, and a great deal of fun to boot, but given how few works Austen left us, and how rare it is for a skilled, appreciative artist to try to adapt them, it's a shame that Stillman didn't try to put more of his own stamp on her work.

  • Ghostbusters - Before watching Paul Feig's reboot of the beloved 80s comedy series, I sat down and rewatched the two original movies, for what was probably the first time in twenty years.  This, as it turned out, was doing Feig a huge favor, because time has not been terribly kind to either of these movies.  The original Ghostbusters feels more like a proof of concept, whose jokes--either because I know them all so well, or because fashions in comedy have changed--just aren't very funny anymore; and the less said of Ghostbusters II, the better.  The new Ghostbusters isn't a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it's more competently made than either of its predecessors, and has several scenes that cracked me up, which is more than I can say for the older movies.  It also, however, has a lot of dead air, and in fact the film's core problem is that it feels like a bunch of skits strung together by someone who didn't have the heart to go in and trim the ones that aren't that funny.

    What saves the film, even in its slower moments, are its four stars, and even more than that, the charming and engaging characters that Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold have created for them.  Whether or not it's funnier than the original, the new Ghostbusters has a great deal more heart, and that's completely down to its main characters, whose friendship, rivalry, camaraderie, and mutual exasperation are all believable and instantly lovable.  My only complaint here is that I was a lot less engaged with the central story of former friends Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Abby (Melissa McCarthy), who must heal their ruptured relationship over the course of the film.  What I wanted was a lot more scenes with Kate McKinnon's zany mad scientist Holtzman, and Leslie Jones's MTA worker (who also has an encyclopedic knowledge of New York history) Patty.  They don't have character arcs of their own, but it was always a joy to see them on screen, either on their own or interacting with each other, and I hope that the sequel, if it happens, gives them more space in the story.  (Also, it is officially time to accept that Chris Hemsworth can't act.  His role, that of the Ghostbusters' dumb, hunky receptionist, should have been one that Hemsworth could carry off in his sleep; but instead his scenes are consistently the most boring in the movie.  Maybe it's time to reevaluate whether men can even be funny.)

  • Doctor Strange - Marvel's latest standalone movie has a great opening scene, and a final battle that toys with some really interesting ideas, finally upending a lot of the conventions of this increasingly formulaic filmic universe.  In between these two bookends, however, there's an origin story so tediously familiar, so derivative and by-the-numbers, that by the time I got to Doctor Strange's relatively out-there conclusion, all I wanted was for the thing to end.  As noted by all of its reviewers, the film is very pretty, positing a society of sorcerers who fight by shaping the very fabric of reality, causing geography and gravity to bend in on themselves in inventive, trippy ways.  The film's opening scene, in which bad guy Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and Dumbledore-figure The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) stage such a battle in the streets of London, turning buildings and roads into a kaleidoscope image, is genuinely exciting.  For a brief time, you think that Marvel might actually be trying something new.

    Then the story proper starts, and a familiar ennui sets in.  Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is Tony Stark without the charm, the vulnerability, or the penchant for self-destruction.  In other words, he's a bore, and the film's attempts to make him into yet another brilliant asshole thrust unwillingly into heroism feel perfunctory and unconvincing.  The film's middle segment is essentially a protracted training montage, in which Strange, seeking a cure to an injury that ended his career as a surgeon, travels to Nepal to be healed by the Ancient One, and realizes that he'd rather learn to be a wizard instead.  Once again, there isn't a single original beat in this entire part of the film, and though Swinton's performance--alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor as fellow acolyte Mordo, and Benedict Wong as kickass librarian Wong--gives these scenes a little more personality, ultimately what they amount to is an Asian-inflected Hogwarts, notable mainly for pretty set dressing and effects (and, of course, for the decision to put a white actress in the middle of it), but still rather tedious to get through. 

    About twenty minutes before it ends, Doctor Strange finally lands on a raft of interesting ideas, any one of which might have enlivened the film and given it a personality if it had been threaded throughout the entire story, but which, at that point, no longer has the space to be developed adequately.  There is, for example, the fact that Strange suddenly remembers that he is a doctor, sworn to do no harm, and his refusal to become the kind of warrior that Tony Stark or Steve Rogers take for granted.  Or Mordo's increasing disillusionment with Strange and The Ancient One's willingness to bend and even break the laws of nature in order to achieve their short-term goals.  Taken together, these lead to a genuinely format-breaking final battle, in which Strange, instead of causing the devastation of a major city, works to undo it (the fact that this city is an Asian one feels particularly significant, given the way that previous Marvel movies have trampled cities in non-white countries as a way of establishing stakes, before gathering their heroes to defend New York or the fictional but still white Sokovia), and defeats his enemy by outsmarting rather than outfighting him.  If these themes had been present throughout Doctor Strange instead of just showing up shortly before it ends, it might have been something to see.  As it is, it feels as if director Scott Derrickson and writer Jon Spaihts had a few interesting ideas, and no clue how to tie them together into a worthwhile story.

    (I wrote the above on the weekend of Doctor Strange's release, when the world seemed headed towards a Hillary Clinton US presidency.  A week later, in a world that is about to be ruled by the bigot and rapist Donald Trump, the priorities and preconceptions of this movie suddenly seem much darker.  Only a few days after white men (and women) overwhelmingly decided that eight years under the leadership of an intelligent, compassionate, visionary black man was more than they could bear, and that a highly qualified and competent woman could never compete with a lazy, fraudulent, perpetually dishonest man, the very concept of a story in which we all--women and POCs included--are saved by a privileged white man, while the black man who criticizes the white heroes for their abuse of power is revealed as a psychotic villain, feels like a cruel joke.  Along with the rest of Hollywood, Marvel buys into--and indeed, helps to perpetuate--the mentality that if there isn't a white man in the middle of the story, there must be something wrong with the story.  We have just seen how that mentality plays out in the real world, and we will all spend years paying the price for it.)

  • Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan's Oscar-hopeful feels like an object lesson in the arbitrariness of Hollywood's prestige ladder.  The film's premise has been, and will continue to be, the stuff of millions of weepies and made-for-TV movies: protagonist Lee (Casey Affleck) receives word that his beloved older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of an illness, and that Lee is now unexpectedly the guardian of Joe's teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  This forces Lee to return to his home, the titular fishing town, where he is haunted by memories of a terrible trauma, and by lingering resentment from some of his neighbors.  Obviously, it's the execution that differentiates between shlock and drama, and Manchester by the Sea is indeed a well-made, closely-observed and deliberately low key variation on its extremely familiar story.  But I can't help but rankle at the fact that that very avoidance of melodrama is being hailed as proof of the film's seriousness, of its being an exceptional and especially worthy example of its type.  It feels telling that a male writer and director has taken a genre typically associated with women, told a story within it that concentrates almost exclusively on men, focused on "hard", violent emotions such as Lee's still-simmering anger and guilt, and gotten effusive praise for it.  Take, for example, the way that flashbacks spread throughout the movie reveal Joe's role as the strong, supportive center of his family, someone whose loss, by the end of the movie, feels genuinely devastating.  Now try to remember the last time that a movie--much less one as prestigious as this one--made its dead wife or mother as real or as human, anything more than something for its male heroes to get over.

    The ultimate effect of this was that I found it hard to appreciate Manchester by the Sea for the thing that it has been most commonly lauded for, Affleck's performance.  He is, of course, very good as a man struggling, and ultimately failing, to overcome terrible loss, but I found myself resenting the way the film valorizes Lee's anger and inability to move on--there is, for example, something almost ridiculous about the eventual revelation of his inciting trauma, as if Lonergan couldn't stop himself from piling on yet another detail that would make Lee's loss more horrific.  What does work, however, is everything around Lee, and particularly Patrick, whose depiction as someone who, on one hand, is a great deal more together and connected to the world than his uncle, and on the other hand, is still a child, is one of the most realistic filmed portraits of a teenager I've ever seen.  The relationship between Patrick and Lee feels real and lived-in, full of unspoken but clearly felt history.  So, too, is the portrait the film paints of the close-knit working class community of Manchester, which supports the struggling family but also makes it impossible for Lee to escape his past.  And the film's ending, which avoids an easy solution to Lee and Patrick's problems while still offering hope for the future, is perhaps the greatest rebuttal Lonergan can offer to his story's melodramatic roots.  It's not entirely Manchester by the Sea's fault that I wasn't blown away by it--a lot of it comes down to the industry around it and the way that it prioritizes men's stories over women's, even when they're the same story--but I still found myself appreciating the film more for its background details than for the figure in its foreground.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


It's been about four years since the movie adaptation of Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" was announced, and during that period, every time I heard a piece of news about the film's progress, there was always one question paramount in my mind: how?  How could you possibly take Chiang's story, a trippy, challenging piece of writing whose ultimate conclusion needs to be carefully laid out for even the most attentive and game reader, and translate it into a mainstream movie, in a medium that isn't normally permitted to spell out its themes and ideas the way written fiction is?  For me personally, there was an element of protectiveness to this wondering.  "Story of Your Life," which I first read in my late teens, was an eye-opener for me.  In its focus on the "soft" science of linguistics, in its willingness to use relatively abstruse concepts from both linguistics and physics to build its premise, and in its foregrounding of a thoroughly unsentimental mother-daughter relationship, it expanded my ideas of what science fiction was capable of.  I couldn't bear the thought of someone turning it into yet another alien invasion story.

And, to be fair to director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, that is not what Arrival is.  In fact, by the standards of Hollywood and what it tends to make of science fiction, Arrival is a remarkably thought-provoking and meditative movie, and its message of understanding and cooperation feels particularly relevant in our present moment.  But as regards to my question, how could Villeneuve and Heisserer take the implications of Chiang's story and put them on screen, the answer is: they didn't.  And in fact, it seems quite obvious that this was a deliberate choice.

To someone familiar with the story, there is a hint early on in Arrival of its shift in priorities and premise.  The film opens with a series of flashes to the relationship between linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her daughter Hannah, culminating in Hannah's death, in her early adulthood, from a disease.  In the story, Hannah dies in a climbing accident.  The change initially seems pointless--or perhaps yet another indication that Hollywood thinks cancer is inherently more dramatic than any other form of tragedy--and then troubling.  In the story, the point of Hannah's death being accidental is that it is easily preventable.  Someone with knowledge of the future--as Louise will eventually become--could keep it from happening by saying a few words.  The point of "Story of Your Life" is to explain why Louise doesn't do this.  Making Hannah's death something that Louise can't prevent seems, in the film's early minutes, like an odd bit of point-missing.

You very quickly get swept up in the film's present-day events, however, and in its depiction of a group of scientists and soldiers trying to communicate with aliens who have suddenly appeared on Earth.  The very fact that Arrival's point of view character is a linguist, and that the problems of dealing with the aliens (dubbed "heptapods") are phrased in the terms of that science, in questions of how modes of communication affect habits of thought and our perception of the world, make it a remarkable movie, even within the subset of the kind of prestige SF movies we get every fall.  (Compare Arrival to last year's entry in this subgenre, The Martian, whose focus was entirely on the hard sciences, and on the cold equations of supply and consumption that determine its protagonist's chances of survival.)  It's particularly rewarding that Arrival, even working within the limitations of a film that needs to be accessible to a wide audience, resists the temptation to simplify its depiction of what science is.  When Louise first meets Ian (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who will become her husband and her daughter's father, he quotes from one of her books a line about language being the foundation of civilization.  A slightly chagrined Louise responds: "that's the sort of thing you put in a preface.  You want to wow them with the basics."  In a later scene, Louise punctuates an argument with military supervisor Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) by quoting the story about how the original meaning of the word "kangaroo" is "I don't know".  Then she admits to Ian that the story is almost certainly a fabrication.  In scenes like these and throughout its run, Arrival repeatedly drives home the point that science can't be boiled down to platitudes, and that complex problems require complex solutions.

At the same time, it's also a deeply emotional movie, one that demonstrates how even for rational, cerebral people like Louise and Ian, the experience of meeting aliens and grappling with their difference from us is a profound shock to their worldview.  You can feel the influence of 2001 on the scenes in Arrival in which Louise is first confronted with the aliens, which use overpowering music and a stark, minimalist set to convey the grandeur of the experience.  The fact that Arrival manages to meld these two modes--awe and scientific rigor--is impressive.  The fact that it does this, and weaves a geopolitical crisis in the film's background, as different nations begin to view the aliens, and the technology they could offer Earth, as a threat, and continues to flash to Louise's life with her daughter, and slowly weaves in the mystery of what the aliens want and how their language is affecting Louise, makes Arrival a major accomplishment.

So it's not entirely the film's fault that Chiang got there first, and did it better.  About halfway into the film, Ian questions Louise about the hypothesis that learning a language rewires your brain, and accustoms you to the habits of thought and the worldview that shaped that language.  Arrival treats that effect as something almost magical--within a few hours of seeing her first alien logogram, Louise begins experiencing flashes of the future.  Finally she realizes that the alien language has given her a similar grasp of reality as that of the heptapods, to whom past and future are one and the same, and uses her knowledge of the future to prevent the war that is about to erupt over the aliens' technology.

It is, to be perfectly honest, a rather silly idea, and one that it takes all of Arrival's earnestness (and Adams's fine performance) to sell.  What Chiang posits is something that is both more subtle, and a great deal more mind-blowing.  The difference between humans and heptapods in "Story of Your Life" is that where humans see the universe in linear, causal terms, the heptapods' take on it is teleological, purpose-driven.  Humans perceive cause and effect.  Heptapods perceive the beginning and end-point of every action, and proceed along a course that gets them from one to the other.  In other words, it's not that heptapods see the future.  It's that they perceive all of time as a single entity, and are therefore committed to a course of action that takes them along all the points in their personal timeline, with no possibility of deviation.  Having learned the heptapod language, and rewired her brain so that she perceives time in a similar way to them, Louise is therefore similarly committed.  The reason that she can't tell her daughter not to go on the climbing trip that will result in her death is that the very fact of knowing about that death makes it impossible for her to exercise free will and deviate from the path that will lead to it.  Arrival posits that Louise can have both knowledge of the future and free will--hence her choice to have a daughter whom she knows will be taken from her at a young age.  It thus misses out on both the full implications of "Story of Your Life"'s mind-bending ideas, and the full impact of its tragedy.

It is, of course, perfectly fair at this stage to ask whether any of this matters.  I went into Arrival knowing that it would be nearly impossible to convey the central idea of "Story of Your Life" in a movie, and so the fact that it didn't shouldn't have come as a surprise.  And isn't it therefore better for Heisserer to have tried to make the movie its own entity, with its own message, even if that message is the complete opposite of the one in Chiang's story?  As many reviewers have noted, Arrival comes to us at a moment where the world seems determined to surrender itself to strongmen who believe only in violence, who use language to sow fear and hatred.  A film in which language and communication can be used to further understanding and to prevent violence, in which one determined person can sway the course of the future towards a more peaceful outcome, feels almost like a balm.  If I find Arrival's ending sentimental, I also have to admit that it offers a powerful alternative to what's happening in the real world right now.

And yet, as a science fiction reader, who has held "Story of Your Life" dear for nearly half her own life, I can't help but feel disappointed as well.  One of the things that make that story special is its commitment to the implications of its premise.  Chiang posits a weird, out-there idea, and then follows it all the way to the end, forcing the reader to ponder the kind of life that Louise now has to live.  Heisserer was clearly enchanted by some of the ideas raised in "Story of Your Life"--the notion that language changes our perception of reality, the idea that different species might see time differently--but seems to have chickened out on the most important one.  It's a choice that borders of wish-fulfillment, replacing the rigor of Chiang's ideas with rank sentimentality.

To say that, I realize, makes me seem a bit joyless.  Worse, it makes "Story of Your Life" seems bleak, like a linguistics-based "The Cold Equations."  When in truth, it's nothing of the sort.  If anything, it's Arrival that edges into "Cold Equations" territory, when, like that seminal yet highly problematic classic story, it valorizes tragedy.  "The Cold Equations" pretends to be about man's smallness before the universe and the demands of its implacable mathematics, but really it wants us to marvel at its protagonist, and his willingness to do what is necessary in order to appease the unfeeling gods of math and physics.  There's a similar grandeur to how Arrival depicts Louise and her decision to have a child whom she knows will die.  It makes her into a martyr, or even a saint, for being willing to suffer the pain of losing her daughter simply so that Hannah can exist (while at the same time flattening Hannah's personality, who in the story is willful and bold, and whom Louise has trouble understanding, into someone completely generic).  Even the breakdown of Louise and Ian's marriage is turned into something grand when we learn that he leaves her after she tells him about Hannah's impending death.  In the story, they divorce for no particular reason, simply because that's what happens to some marriages.

The message of "Story of Your Life" is something much gentler and sadder than Arrival's.  The fact that they lack free will doesn't make Louise, or the heptapods, into automatons--any more than a person who does have free will is captain of their fate and master of their soul.  The fact is, a Louise who had free will but no knowledge of the future would still have entered into a marriage fated to break down, still have borne a child fated to die an early, meaningless death.  She would still have been faced with the questions that our Louise asks herself at the end of the story, the same questions that we all, inevitably, ask ourselves--has our life been a happy or a sad one?  Did we make the right choices?  Are we a success or a failure?  The genius of "Story of Your Life" is that it manages to take a person who knows every detail of their life to come, and still convincingly argue that they are just as confused as the rest of us.  Arrival has its own genius, but I still prefer the one that so enraptured me half a lifetime ago, and showed me the full possibilities of this genre.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2016 Edition, Part 2

This year's fall pilot season is shaping up to be rather muted.  Which, to be fair, is an improvement on the dreck of previous years, but also not much to talk about.  It probably tells you all need to know about the fall pilots of 2016 that there are two different time travel shows--Timeless and Frequency--and neither of them are worth saying anything about.  Nevertheless, here are a few series, good and bad, that I thought were interesting enough to write about, even if I'm not sure I'll be sticking with all of them.
  • No Tomorrow - Over the last few years, I've come to trust the CW and its programming instincts.  Not only does it air some of my favorite shows--iZombie, the smartest superhero show on TV; Jane the Virgin, still going strong and finding real drama at the heart of cheesy soap opera plot twists; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, one of the funniest, most original, most heartbreaking shows in existence--but its DC superhero block is easily the most rock-solid, self-assured iteration on the genre on either the small or big screen (and I say that as someone who has given up on The Flash in disgust, and might let go of Arrow by the end of the year).  So I came to No Tomorrow with a lot of goodwill.  Yes, the premise is absurd--high-strung Evie (Tori Anderson) meets her dream guy, Xavier (Joshua Sasse), falling in love as much with his free spirit and determination to seize the day as with his rugged good looks, only to learn that he genuinely believes that the Earth is going to be destroyed by an asteroid in eight months.  But the CW has made meaty, emotionally resonant fare out of even sillier (not to mention potentially offensive) premises, so I was willing to let No Tomorrow win me over.  In the end, what I've found is both less ridiculous, and less promising, than I'd hoped.

    Sasse and Anderson are both extremely charming, and do a great job of selling their nascent relationship as something that is based not only on attraction and zaniness, but genuine connection.  No Tomorrow has the good sense not to hang its every plot twist on Xavier's belief in the coming apocalypse, and the challenges that he and Evie face in their relationship are often as much about their differing lifestyles, or her fluctuating comfort levels with his carpe diem worldview, as they are about this fundamental disagreement.  At its best moments, No Tomorrow is about building a relationship with someone who is very different from you, whose differences are sometimes intriguing but just as often concerning (to its credit, the show faces head-on the very real possibility that Xavier might be dangerous or unhinged, and has Evie and her friends investigate this possibility with all due seriousness).  But it lacks the core of emotion that has made Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend--both shows that are ultimately about very serious things, such as family, or dealing with mental illness--so compelling.  There doesn't seem to be as much beneath the surface of No Tomorrow's quirkiness as there is in those shows, and it's hard to imagine the show finding more than a few notes in its premise, or in Evie and Xavier's relationship.  For the time being, those notes are still quite enjoyable--especially since the show is wisely developing Evie and Xavier's worlds, introducing friends, coworkers, and family members for them to interact with--but I doubt that No Tomorrow will join the pantheon of weird-yet-oddly-wonderful CW shows.

  • Pitch - In the first installment of this year's fall show reviews, I wrote about the dreadful This Is Us.  As several commenters on twitter pointed out, you can feel Aaron Sorkin's influence on that series, particularly its fondness for overheated speeches and general air of self-satisfaction.  Pitch feels like good quasi-Sorkin to This Is Us's bad quasi-Sorkin.  Like the earlier show (with whom it shares a creator, Dan Fogelman), it is fond of melodrama and speechifying.  But unlike This Is Us, Pitch has a premise that is semi-plausible and convincing, characters who are compelling rather than off-putting, and, most importantly, the ability to reach for something raw and real beneath its stylized, self-conscious surface.  The show begins with rookie Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) taking her place as the first woman in major league baseball, and charts her journey in the clubhouse, and as a new national icon to women and girls.  Along for the ride are Ginny's agent Amelia Slater (Ali Larter), eager to push her charge to stardom, fading player Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), coach Al Luongo (Dan Lauria), and general manager Oscar Arguella (Mark Consuelos).

    My biggest issue with Pitch is that it veers unpromisingly between the most blatant sports-movie clichés--in the pilot episode, Ginny chokes during her first game, and is then inspired to make a comeback by an inspirational speech from Mike--and the most obsessive kind of inside baseball details that I have trouble parsing, much less caring about.  What keeps the show together despite these plotting issues are its characters, and even more than that, the relationships they forge--the growing friendship and mutual appreciation between Mike and Ginny, the surprisingly mature romance between Mike and Amelia, and the political machinations between Al, Oscar, and the team management.  But Pitch wants to be more than a workplace drama--it wants to comment about the intersection between entertainment, celebrity, gender, and race--and at this it is only intermittently successful.  An early episode in which Ginny must navigate an insensitive but ultimately innocuous comment from Al, a heavily-publicized case of locker-room sexual assault, and the needs of her own career, makes a powerful point about the constant pitfalls that lie before her as a trailblazer, a celebrity, and an athlete.  But there doesn't seem to be much life in these topics--four episodes into the series, it's already repeating points, about the weight of Ginny's celebrity, the difficulty of her relationship with her overbearing father, or Mike's ambivalence about his waning career.  There are a lot of great ingredients that go into Pitch, but the stew that they make up is already losing its flavor, struggling to justify itself as a story rather than an idea.

  • Westworld - Easily the most-anticipated new series of the fall, the consensus that has already formed around HBO's latest foray into genre is that it represents the channel's attempts to grapple with its own reputation for prurient violence, particularly violence against women (see Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker, and Aaron Bady in The Los Angeles Review of Books).  You can see how that consensus has formed--Westworld builds on the 1973 movie to imagine a lush and impeccably-detailed theme park in which customers pay lavishly to indulge their every fantasy, which almost inevitably seem to involve murder, mayhem, and of course rape.  The metaphor for how HBO's pretensions to highbrow entertainment ultimately rest on the sumptuously-filmed and -costumed violence of Game of Thrones, True Detective, and The Night Of pretty much writes itself.  For myself, I'd like to believe that there's more to Westworld than this glib reading, first because I simply do not believe that anyone at HBO possesses this level of self-awareness--this is, after all, the channel whose executives were genuinely taken aback, in the year 2016, by the idea that their shows had become synonymous with violence against women--and second because it's by far the least interesting avenue of story the show could take.

    If you want to read Westworld as a meta-commentary about storytelling (and to be clear, I agree that there's a thread of this running through the show, though to my mind it's far from the central one), you also have to face up to how tedious and unimaginative the stories-within-the-story are.  Leaving aside the questionable notion of anyone spending money to play cowboys and Indians anymore, the stories that take place within Westworld, in which the theme park's guests are invited to track down fugitives, go on treasure hunts, or just fool around with prostitutes, simply don't seem worth the price of admission.  They also take it as a given that the guests' fantasy life is thoroughly conventional (not to mention defaulting to the straight male gaze).  Everyone, we're told, wants to rape the comely, innocent rancher's daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood)--this is literally the purpose of her existence in the park.  No one seems interested in raping her paramour, the stalwart Teddy (James Marsden), or, indeed, in having a consensual threesome.

    If Westworld is of any interest to me, it is because of the parallel story about the robot characters' (known as "hosts") growing awakening into sentience, and into an awareness of the brutality to which they've been repeatedly subjected.  That the show comes from Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan is the main reason I'm hopeful that it will tell such a story well and in interesting ways, but so far Westworld is being frustratingly slow in building up towards it.  Each of the four aired episodes advances multiple plotlines only fractionally, trusting the audience to follow along in hopes of an interesting resolution to some of the more opaque questions that the show has been teasing: what is the elaborate new storyline promised by park creator Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and why has he suddenly given the hosts the ability to remember their past lives (and deaths)?  Which, if any, of the park's administrators and technicians are robots themselves?  Who is the Man in Black (Ed Harris), a guest who believes that he is about to unlock the game's "deepest level"?  The result is frustrating, carried along by the show's magnificent production values and some fine performances (Wood is a standout as a being coming into self-awareness who is also, simultaneously, a woman starting to realize her own power in a world ruled by men, but pretty much everyone in the cast is very good), but not yet coalescing into an actual story.  I'm still watching Westworld because I have hope that it will become the story I want it to be--and faith that Nolan is both interested in that story, and capable of pulling it off--but it's not hard to see why so many reviewers are assuming that it amounts to little more than self-reflection.  At this point in its first season, the show still hasn't staked out a claim to being about anything but itself.

  • Class - It's strange to find the BBC, in 2016, getting back in the Doctor Who spin-off business.  It's even stranger for that spin-off to be Class, whose Buffy-esque mixture of genre elements, teen drama, and snarky humor would have seemed derivative and predictable even in the heyday of the NuWho universes's expansion ten years ago.  It's particularly strange that Class comes from the pen of Patrick Ness, whose written novels--particularly the Chaos Walking trilogy--are so original and uncompromising.  In Class, he has instead plumped for the most familiar of tropes--a group of students discover that their school lies on a hellmouth, and must band together to defend the Earth from the alien menaces that emerge from it--and executed them with so little verve that the characters themselves sometimes seem bored with their own story.  There are some original plot points--one of the teenagers is an alien prince, and his slave-cum-bodyguard is masquerading as a teacher--and some nods towards inclusivity--the alien is also gay, and two of the other teenagers are the children of, respectively, Pakistani and Nigerian immigrants, who bond over their shared experience as people of color in a mostly-white environment.  But none of this feels sufficiently fresh to make up for Class's familiarity.  It could simply be that I've aged out of this kind of story, but even kids these days have so many other alternatives if they're looking for something Buffy-inspired--from Teen Wolf to The Vampire Diaries to Doctor Who itself--that it's hard to understand what sort of need Class thinks that it's fulfilling.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Bedlam Theater's Sense & Sensibility

One of the main points about writing a pop culture blog is that most of what you write about is available for your readers to consume.  In fact, much of what I write is from a perspective that assumes that my readers have already read the book, seen the movie, watched the TV show, and are now willing to talk about them with someone who is equally informed.  Which is part of the reason why I don't tend to write much about theater (the other being that most of the theater available to me year-round is in Hebrew), and that when I do, it's about something like Hamilton, whose original cast recording has become its own phenomenon, available to millions of fans who may never even see the play.

Today, however, I'm breaking my rule to talk about Bedlam Theater's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which I was lucky enough to see this week on my vacation in New York.  If you're in the city, I strongly urge you to try to get to see this play before it closes in November.  If you're not, you're just going to have to suffer as you read about, what is to my mind, not only one of the most delightful theatrical experiences I've had in a long time, but a genuinely exciting take on the novel--which is all the more impressive when you consider that, like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility has had a definitive adaptation in the form of Emma Thompson and Ang Lee's 1995 movie, which inevitably overshadows any attempt to make something new of the original text.

Directed by Eric Tucker and adapted by Kate Hamill (who also plays Marianne), Sense & Sensibility gets around the inevitable comparisons to the movie by, first, staging a deliberately intimate, stripped-down version of the story.  The play is staged on a bare, small space in the center of the room, with the audience arranged in three rows of chairs on either side of it.  The actors move in and out by moving into the aisles and behind the audience's seats.  What little set dressing there is is more often used to suggest a setting than to evoke it, and the costumes, though period-appropriate, are similarly simplified.  (For this reason, and because Sense & Sensibility makes so much use of the intimacy of its setting, it's impossible to imagine this adaptation working if it was filmed, or even moved into a larger and more traditional theater space.)  The play begins with the actors dancing to modern music, and as it shifts into a more traditional melody, their dance moves also shift into a patterned dance--as if deliberately reminding us the artificiality of what we're about to see.  In other scenes, the actors themselves act as the set dressing, contorting themselves into a bed or a carriage for the characters to sit in or on.  The few bits of furniture on stage are all on wheels, allowing the actors to not only reconfigure the setting quickly, but to enact specific scenes.  In one case, two actresses on chairs play four characters, with Laura Baranik doubling Lucy Steele and Fanny Dashwood, and Samantha Steinmetz doubling Anne Steele and old Mrs. Ferrars.  When either of the women needs to switch roles, the actors behind her shoot her chair across the stage, indicating that she is now portraying a different character.

Hamill's take on the text is not as revolutionary as her staging--in fact, her version is remarkable for its fidelity, replicating almost every major scene and including even some characters that the Thompson version had elected to streamline away--but she nevertheless makes some very interesting choices, chiefly revolving around her own character.  Where other adaptations of Sense and Sensibility have tended to depict Marianne as ethereal and soulful (this is the approach taken by Kate Winslet in the 1995 movie, and rather unimaginatively imitated by Charity Wakefield in the 2008 BBC miniseries), Hamill's Marianne is bossy and shouty.  Her passion for poetry and the full expression of emotion, and her ironclad belief that she alone has a handle on how to live life correctly, result in a tendency to berate, browbeat, and even bully people into behaving as she believes they should.  This can result in comedy, as in scenes in which Elinor (Kelley Curran) has to physically restrain Marianne from making scenes when she believes the people around her are being unspeakably ridiculous.  But it also leads to tragedy, as in the final confrontation between the sisters, when the full extent of Marianne's selfishness, her willingness to impose on others, is driven home, and it suddenly seems possible--as it never quite does in Austen's novel--that the rupture between her and Elinor will be a permanent one.

Nevertheless, Hamill also leaves space for Marianne to be young and vulnerable, and never more so than when she depicts the relationship between Marianne and Colonel Brandon (Carman Lacivita).  Marianne's reaction to catching Brandon's eye is revulsion and even fear, and while Hamill allows her actors to replicate the text's attitude, in which that distaste is viewed as a sign of immaturity and even a lack of generosity in Marianne, her staging and the play's direction teach us to take another approach.  While Sense & Sensibility stops short of depicting Brandon's pursuit of Marianne as sexual harassment, it makes no bones of the fact that it is unwanted and, to Marianne, deeply uncomfortable--most notably, in a scene in which Marianne, first realizing that she's caught Brandon's eye, is pressed up against the edge of set dressing by the entire cast, recalling so many familiar instances of women who try to make themselves small in order to escape an unwanted suitor, only to be literally cornered.

Perhaps as a result of this approach, Brandon feels almost incidental to this version of the story--he appears in the scenes in which he is necessary for the plot's progression, but is not the kind of presence in his absence that he is in the novel or the movie, and the flowering of his and Marianne's romance is not an important plot point (like so many takes on the story, Hamill elides the fact that Marianne marries Brandon out of convenience and a broken heart, rather than out of love).  Taking his place is Edward Ferrars (Jason O'Connell), who here emerges as a remarkably complex, sympathetic, but also flawed figure (leading me to wonder whether an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility can have a good Brandon, or a good Edward, but not both).  Where most readings of Sense and Sensibility tend to assume that the story contrasts Brandon with Willoughby, Hamill's adaptation suggests that the true contrast is between Willoughby and Edward, with one sacrificing his happiness so as not to break his word, and the other so wrapped up in his own selfish pleasures that he heedlessly destroys people's lives in the pursuit of it.  And yet at the same time, O'Connell injects Edward with a streak of bitterness--at his frustrated desires, and at his inability to start his life due to his mother's interference--that makes him seem so much more mature and believable than previous iterations of the character, and, paradoxically, makes it easier to pass criticism on him for leading Elinor on, however unintentionally.  (Another display of O'Connell's abilities comes when he doubles the role of Robert Ferrars, trading Edward's stiff decency for complete debauchery, and somehow persuasively arguing that Robert's nonsensical speech from the book about the wonders of cottages is somehow all about sex.)

The main reason to watch Sense & Sensibility, however, is less the adaptation's approach to the text, and more the way it uses its stripped-down staging to highlight the text's obsession with appearance, perception, and the face we present to the world.  Many scene changes are signposted by the actors suddenly starting to talk over each other, playing the role of the chattering Regency society that the Dashwood sisters move through, and reminding us that everything they do is subject to comment--and often ridicule.  When Elinor or Marianne are in distress, suddenly realizing that their behavior (or, more often, the behavior of the men in their lives) has subjected them to public comment, the rest of the cast swarm them, reminding us how predatory and merciless this kind of scrutiny can be, and how happy society is to see the sisters fall and be destroyed.

In other scenes, Tucker takes advantage of the barrenness of his stage, staging an intimate conversation with the two actors at opposite ends of the room.  Set in the middle of the story--when Edward and Elinor confront the unspoken truth that they can never be together, or when Elinor and Marianne try and fail to understand each other--the distance imposed on these scenes drives home just how much is being left unsaid, how much must be left unsaid according to the rules these characters operate by.  But it's also a staging that forces the audience to make a choice in how they consume the story.  Sitting so close to the stage, and with the actors at either end of it, we can either choose to look at the person speaking, or at the person reaction to them, but not both.  It's a requirement that drives home just much Sense and Sensibility is a story about how people react to outrageous, abusive, infuriating behavior, and how they are judged on their reactions.  (This is also a good opportunity to praise Curran's work as Elinor.  She's as much the heart of the play as Hamill, but has what is often the tougher job in that most of what she does is react to others, and try not to reveal how hurt, angry, or bewildered their behavior makes her.  That she nevertheless manages to bring across both Elinor's intelligent bemusement, and her deep unhappiness, is an achievement worth celebrating.)

If there's anything to be said against Sense & Sensibility--and, to be clear, this isn't actually a criticism of the play--it is that its emphasis on how the events of the story are driven by public perception and an often gleeful desire to see women fail crystalizes for me how much the original book is a problem novel.  This isn't simply a matter of changing mores--we are, after all, still happy to read Pride and Prejudice, a novel that takes it as a given that the teenage victim of a sexual predator is at fault for his actions, and that the best solution for her is to marry her abuser--but a fundamental unfairness in the novel's premise.  I struggled with this when I last wrote about the novel, but Hamill's take on the story really brings home the fact that I simply do not see how Marianne is in the wrong for being open about her feelings towards Willoughby.  Obviously, she's wrong because she lives in a society that judges her harshly, and will even declare her ruined, for exposing herself in such a way (while allowing the men who encouraged her--and even Edward Ferrars, who nearly has the same effect on Elinor--to walk away unscathed).  But that's a point against that society, not Marianne, and her conclusion at the end of the novel that she should have modeled her behavior on Elinor's restraint, which is presented as a moral awakening, has always felt to me more like a capitulation to unfair, misogynistic social norms.  It's very clear that Austen realizes this, and yet Sense and Sensibility is a work in which her understanding of human nature runs aground on her fundamental conservatism--she isn't able to come out and say that Marianne is a victim, and that it is the people around her who are in the wrong.

Sady Doyle, in a very fine early essay, has tried to argue that what Sense and Sensibility decries Marianne for is her selfishness, her willingness to cause pain to her family, and her belief that because she feels grief, she is entitled to impose on everyone around her (and that anyone who does not do so, such as Elinor, can't truly be feeling sorrow).  There's some truth to this, obviously, but just as obviously it is not the full intent of the novel.  No one in the society that surrounds Marianne is condemning her for being selfish and imposing on her mother and sister with her grief.  They're condemning her for making no bones about the fact that she wants a man--and, at the same time, gleefully hoping that she crosses the invisible line that will make it OK to strip her of her reputation.  Selfishness doesn't really enter into it.  (One wonders whether Doyle, who has recently published a book about women who are "trainwrecks", whose self-destruction society eagerly anticipates, would reevaluate her take on the novel today.)

What's more, one of the things that Hamill's take on Elinor drove home for me is that I'm really not sure whether it is desirable to act as Elinor does.  Self-control and selflessness are good qualities, but they can be taken too far.  Do we really want to say that women who are as put upon as Elinor should smile sweetly and hold it all in?  Curran's performance, with its obvious undercurrents of anger and despair, drives home the pressures that Elinor is under, and it's easy to imagine her buckling under them, giving into bitterness and rage.  Hamill's version of Sense and Sensibility quite clearly sees both Elinor and Marianne as sinned-against and imposed upon, but the original text doesn't quite have the flexibility to allow for that reading.

You don't necessarily think of Jane Austen's writing as something that would benefit from the conscious artificiality of theater, much less its potential for experimentation.  Our canonical form of an Austen adaptation is carefully naturalistic, with just the right settings, costumes, and modes of behavior.  Hamill's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility proves just how limited that approach is, and how much Austen benefits from a less awestruck, more critical approach--even if, in the end, that approach can end up exposing her limitations.  Once again, if you're able to, do try to get to see Sense & Sensibility before it closes.  For the rest of us, we can only hope that Hamill--and the fine performers in this production--go on to even greater things, on a stage that more of us have access to.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Essay: The Stealth Futurism of Person of Interest

As I've mentioned already, I spent much of the summer working on a large writing project, which is now online.  Over at PopMatters, you can read my essay "This is the Next World": The Stealth Futurism of Person of Interest, in which I discuss how an initially inauspicious high-concept procedural transformed, over the course of five seasons, into one of the most explicitly SFnal shows on TV, one that tackled core SF concepts like AI, and explored the ways in which an artificial life might see the world, and how its existence would challenge our ideas of personhood and free will.

I ended up rewatching Person of Interest in preparation for writing this essay, and though some aspects of the show remained unimpressive throughout--the standalone plots start out halting and overwrought and, almost impossibly, get worse as the show draws on--what struck me at the end of that rewatch was how much I had to say.  My essay is quite long, and yet it leaves so much out that I could have talked about.  I say almost nothing about Carter or Fusco, two of my favorite characters who mostly got left out of the show's SFnal storytelling.  I don't really discuss the problems with the show's War on Terror-focused premise, and the way that it implicitly validates simplistic ideas about geopolitics and terrorism; or, for that matter, the show's frustrating tendency to corral black characters into crime-focused storylines.  I don't mention the romance between Root and Shaw, which I found alternately problematic and inspiring.  Hell, I don't even bring up Bear, the crime-fighting dog, which I would have thought impossible before sitting down to write this piece.  My take on Person of Interest in this essay is very much the Finch, Root, and Machine show.

Nevertheless, that show is worth watching for, especially if you, like myself, initially dismissed Person of Interest as science fiction-lite.  Creator Jonathan Nolan is currently the producer of HBO's Westworld, and if I have any hope that that show will tie itself together into a genuinely interesting, SFnal story, it is mostly on the strength of Person of Interest.  If you enjoyed the show, I hope my essay sheds light on how it built its ideas about AI.  If you haven't watched it yet, I hope you'll be inspired to check it out.

UPDATE: If you're interested in picking up the series, but daunted by its reputation as an indifferent procedural, I've got a primer on my tumblr listing the episodes that I think are essential to the development of the show's SFnal storylines, and skipping (hopefully) most of the dross.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Tales of the City: Thoughts on Luke Cage

"For black lives to matter, black history has to matter."  A character says this shortly into the first episode of Luke Cage, Netflix's third MCU series, and the fourth season of television it has produced in collaboration with Marvel as it ramps up for its Defenders mega- event.  It's easy to read this line as a thesis statement on the nature of the show we're about to watch, but it's not until some way into Luke Cage's first season that we realize the full import of what creator Cheo Hodari Coker is saying with it, and how challenging its implications will end up being.  As has been widely reported and discussed, Luke Cage is the first black MCU headliner--not just on TV or on Netflix, but at all.  And, unlike the forthcoming Black Panther, whose story is set in a fictional African superpower, Luke Cage is explicitly a story about African-Americans in the more-or-less real world, at a moment when the problems and indignities suffered by that community are at the forefront of public discussion.  It is, therefore, a show that comes loaded with tremendous expectations, not just of introducing a compelling character and telling a good superhero story, but of addressing increasingly fraught issues of race, in both the real world and the superhero genre.  It's perhaps unsurprising that Luke Cage falls short of these expectations, but what is surprising is how often it doesn't even seem to be trying to reach them.  Or, perhaps, not surprising at all--as the first episode spells out, Luke Cage is less interested in black lives than it is in black stories.

Introduced as a supporting character and love interest in last year's Jessica Jones, Luke Cage sees its title character (Mike Colter), whose skin is super-strong and impervious to harm, moving uptown to Harlem, hiding out in a neighborhood barbershop and working odd jobs under the table.  When some young employees at the barbershop end up embroiled in a plot to rob a local crimelord, Luke steps in to try and defuse the situation, only to watch his benefactor and friend, Pop (Frankie Faison), get caught in the crossfire.  The first half of the season revolves around the war that erupts between Luke, until that point a reluctant superhero, and the crime boss Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali).  In the second half of the season, Cottonmouth is sidelined by his cousin, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), who had been using his money to fund her legitimate projects to revitalize Harlem, keeping it in black hands and staving off gentrification.  With Cottonmouth's illegal business ventures crippled by Luke's activities, Mariah turns to slippery operator Shades (Theo Rossi), and his mercurial boss Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) to solidify her position, not realizing that Diamondback has his own personal history with Luke, which leads him to set Harlem on fire in pursuit of our hero.

There's more to be said about the season's plot (and I have, in fact, elided certain points for the sake of brevity), but quite frankly, it's not worth spending much time on.  It is, perhaps, time to admit that Jessica Jones was unique in being able to dredge through its character's comics history to find a genuinely interesting story that was perfectly suited to the multi-episode format.  Both seasons of Daredevil, and now Luke Cage, have failed to achieve that same alchemy, and instead end up bogged down in predictable origin story beats--Luke protests that he is no hero; various characters, such as Pop and recurring Netflix MCU player Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), insist that he is; some tragedy occurs to make him understand that they are right.  These inevitably lead to a boss fight with a forgettable and over the top villain, in which there is much property damage.  The end.

There is, to be fair, a little more to it than that.  The first half of Luke Cage feels more like a crime story--albeit one whose beats are fairly obviously derivative, most plainly of The Wire--than a superhero story.  It's elevated by the presence of Cottonmouth, whom Ali imbues with a touching ambivalence.  There's nothing terribly original about the story of a mob boss who dreams of going legit, but whose soul is too tarnished by the life he's lived to ever truly leave it behind (and some of the beats of Cottonmouth's story, such as the revelation that as a boy he dreamed of being a musician but was pushed into a life of crime by his family, are downright hackneyed).  But the show gives the character, and the performance, enough space to breathe, in particular when it charts the thorny, deeply dysfunctional relationship between Cottonmouth and Mariah, which is powered by competing currents of love and resentment.

It's in these episodes, too, that Luke Cage introduces its secret weapon, and what I hope will be its breakout character, Misty Knight (Simone Missick), a police detective who ends up as the third point of the triangle between Luke and Cottonmouth, trying to unravel the former's secrets while stopping the latter from starting a gang war.  Stalwart, bold, and curious, deeply rooted in her neighborhood but also committed to a system that has failed it repeatedly, Misty commands the eye and the attention almost from her first appearance.  She's a force in her own right, moving diagonally to both men, and sparring, as well, with Mariah and with her own superiors in the NYPD in her pursuit of the truth.  If Netflix's executives truly believe that Jon Bernthal's Frank Castle--a bloodthirsty serial killer driven by entitlement and self-justification--can carry his own series, then there is simply no justification for not doing the same for a character as magnetic, as interesting, and as blatantly heroic as Misty Knight.

Even with Misty, Cottonmouth, and Mariah to enliven things, however, the first half of Luke Cage's season feels a little perfunctory, and especially when you remember that this is, after all, meant to be a superhero story.  It is, therefore, not much of a surprise when a major twist halfway through the season reveals that its true conflict will be between Luke and Diamondback.  But it is a profound disappointment, because Diamondback is a terrible villain, with antics that were clearly intended to come off as menacing and deranged mainly registering as annoying and over the top.  It's in these episodes, too, that Misty is frustratingly sidelined, from a main actor in her own story to a supporting character in Luke's, who must scramble to prove his innocence when Mariah and Shades scheme to frame him for Diamondback's (and their own) crimes.  (The one bright point in these episodes is that they give Claire Temple a great deal to do, though here, too, there are some odd choices, chiefly the one to make Claire Luke's love interest.  Considering that Claire was previously involved with Matt Murdock, and broke up with him because he refused to give up his vigilantism, the fact that she has no such issues with Luke feels strange--as if his main attraction for her is the fact that he has superpowers.)

You may have noticed that I've said almost nothing so far about the show's title character, and this is unfortunately true to the space he ends up taking in the story.  Colter has tremendous presence, both physically and emotionally.  He's great at conveying both Luke's charm and his determination, even at moments when he's at his most withdrawn and uncommunicative.  But unlike Daredevil or Jessica Jones, Luke Cage isn't interested in digging past its protagonist's facade and poking at their insecurities--on the contrary, even as it reveals his tragic and abusive backstory, it is mostly concerned with validating his belief that he has the right, and the authority, to act in order to protect his community without being questioned or hindered.  You can see why the show makes this choice--by virtue of his skin color, Luke (and men like him) have it repeatedly drummed into them that they are inherently lesser (and perhaps also inherently villainous).  So the fact that this character is possessed of an ironclad belief in his own value, and in his right to act, is quietly revolutionary.  But it also leaves Luke feeling rather flat.  When he learns, for example, that his dead wife had lied to him, and was complicit in the abuse he suffered in prison and the experiments he was subjected to against his will, his only response is to mouth a few platitudes and quietly move on.  Compare that to the moment in Jessica Jones in which Luke learns that Jessica is the person who killed his wife, and that she lied to him about it while becoming romantically involved with him.  There's more vulnerability and humanity in Luke's five-minute reaction to this betrayal than there is in the entire first season of Luke Cage, and the show is all the poorer for that.

Diamondback's introduction is clearly intended to address some of the flatness of Luke's characterization--he and Luke turn out to have a complicated history, and he challenges our hero's simplistic understanding of his past and his family when he reveals that they are half-brothers.  But this history is introduced so awkwardly that it never really registers, especially since, even in these moments, Luke still isn't allowed to drop his facade of emotional invulnerability.  The revelation that his admired father was flawed, and that Luke himself contributed to the victimization of his half-brother, has virtually no effect on Luke, so it can't be expected to register with the audience.  When the final episode in the season opens with a flashback to the young Luke and Diamondback sparring, it feels like too little, too late--Luke is too flat, and Diamondback is too aggravating, for us to become invested in this friendship, much less its dissolution.

What makes Luke Cage work, despite the vagueness of its story and some of its characters, is the specificity of its setting.  It's been a running joke that the Netflix MCU shows tend to treat New York neighborhoods as if they were their own cities, but Luke Cage is the only one of the three to actually earn that approach, first by leaning on Harlem's storied past as a center of black culture and community, and second by showing the neighborhood to us, lingering on distinctive bits of architecture or street art.  Some of the best moments in the season are the ones that let the story pause and allow its setting to simply be.  In that sense, the choice of Pop's barbershop--that prototypical setting for black male bonding and camaraderie--is both obvious and richly rewarding.  It allows Luke and his friends to simply talk, about their favorite books, or boxers, or musicians, or just about the events of their lives.  More than any entry in the MCU, Luke Cage feels specific to a particular setting, which it depicts lovingly and with careful attention to detail.  It's amazing how often those are the qualities that distinguish a flawed but interesting work from one that has no value.

One of the most interesting ways in which Luke Cage creates a sense of place--and one that feels particularly relevant given the recent accusations of blandness leveled at the MCU's musical texture--is the show's soundtrack.  Music is a vital component of the show, down to episode titles taken from the songs of the hip hop duo Gang Starr, or a guest appearance from Method Man, who freestyles an impromptu ode to the title character (a charmingly old school touch, reminiscent of the days when superhero stories didn't take themselves so seriously).  It's also all over the show.  Cottonmouth owns a nightclub, which gives the show an excuse to feature multiple live performances in various genres associated with black culture--everything from hip hop to funk to R&B.  The soundtrack, as well, features multiple interesting cuts, as well as a distinctive and often playful score.  Musically, Luke Cage is the most exciting thing to ever come out of the MCU, and it's that music that gives the show an identity that its storytelling often lacks.

At the same time, Luke Cage's emphasis on giving Harlem its own unique, self-contained identity can have a strange, not always positive effect on the show's politics.  As promised, Luke Cage delivers black stories, and there is something genuinely revolutionary about a superhero story in which not only the hero and the supporting characters, but virtually every minor character, every bit player, every face in the background is black or brown (and in which the perspective of white characters is almost completely ignored).  The fact that Luke is a superhero operating within a community that has suffered from difficult relations with the official authorities gives his actions a weight that most other superhero stories have struggled to achieve.  In a year that has seen multiple attempts to grapple with the morality of superheroes, all of which fell flat, Luke Cage makes a convincing argument that what was missing from these stories was any acknowledgment of race (as in, to take a particularly blatant example, Civil War, in which two powerful, privileged white men grapple over the morality of committing global-scale violence, while the murdered and mutilated bodies that drop as a result of their dispute just happen to all be black).  The fact that the police in Harlem are unwilling or unable to properly police the neighborhood, to protect its residents without criminalizing them, gives Luke a justification for existing that Matt Murdock, for example, doesn't really have.  The fact that the same authorities that wink at Matt, let Jessica Jones off the hook for cold-blooded murder, and bring Frank Castle into court alive, also mount a manhunt for Luke, carrying weapons especially designed to kill him, is a pointed and deliberate choice by the show's writers.

It's also, however, a comparison that is left to the viewers to make.  While the show is vocal in its discussions of the hostility between Harlem's community and the police--which culminates in ordinary citizens donning bullet-riddled hoodies, both as an homage to Luke and a way of shielding him from the police's attentions--it is surprisingly silent when it comes to the role that white institutions, white supremacy, and systemic racism played in bringing us to this situation.  Harlem's insularity appears to extend to the complete absence of influence from any of the city's mostly-white institutions.  Luke Cage seems to take the standard superhero approach, in which government begins and ends with policing.  It thus doesn't address education, infrastructure, health care, housing, or jobs, the neglect of all of which has been the main cause of poverty, crime, and drug addiction in the inner city.  The only character who brings up the role of government in deliberately neglecting black and brown inner city neighborhoods is treated as a joke (and immediately killed off).  Speaking about Luke, Method Man opines that "there's something powerful about seeing a black man that's bulletproof and unafraid." But the show never really seems to want to talk about what it is that Luke--and other black men who are not bulletproof--have to be afraid of.

Nowhere is the strangeness of this lacuna more evident, or more troubling, than in the show's handling of police brutality.  Given Luke Cage's emphasis on Harlem as its own self-contained world, whose problems are rooted in crime rather than systemic racism, it would perhaps have been understandable if the show had simply chosen not to depict instances of police brutality at all (after all, and as noted by several members of the show's cast and crew, the very choice of a hoodie as Luke's uniform is already a powerful and deliberate statement about this issue).  Instead, the show chooses to feature multiple instances of policemen abusing black and brown citizens, but always slants its depiction of these incidents in such a way as to avoid an obvious association with Black Lives Matter and its message.  In one case, Misty's partner, Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), murders a young black man--by strangulation, no less.  But the significance of the moment is very easy to miss, because Scarfe isn't motivated by racism, but by corruption--he's in the pay of Cottonmouth, who wants the young man killed.  Later in the season, Scarfe is mortally wounded, and an entire episode is expended on humanizing him and extending him sympathy--chiefly from the direction of Misty, who still cares about her partner despite his crimes.

Later instances of police brutality show more willingness to call a spade a spade--when Misty attacks Claire in an interrogation room, or when another detective brutally beats a young boy who refuses to tell him where Luke is.  But here, again, it's significant how much the show works to downplay associations with Black Lives Matter.  Both Misty and the detective who attacks the boy are black.  More importantly, both are suffering from extreme emotional distress--Misty recently had an encounter with Diamondback that nearly ended with her death, and the detective is upset because his friend and fellow officer was murdered by, as he believes, Luke--and are trying to lay their hands on a suspect whom they believe to be extremely dangerous.  As Noah Berlatsky wrote recently, one of the problems that emerges when mainstream TV tries to engage with police brutality, even from a standpoint that sees it as unacceptable, is the assumption that the murder or brutalization of innocent black people at the hands of the police tends to involve cops who are in distress, usually over a troubling and serious crime that they're investigating.  In reality, most heavily-publicized cases in which the police kill black people involve victims whose crimes were either minor and non-violent--as in the case of Sandra Bland or Eric Garner--or who had committed no crime at all--as in the case of Tamir Rice or Philando Castile.  So Luke Cage not only minimizes the prevalence and ubiquity of police brutality, it focuses its attention on just the wrong place--the emotional state of the officers who committed the violence, and the excuses that can be offered for it (after Misty's attack on Claire, for example, we spend a whole episode with her in a session with a psychologist)--rather than on the system that encourages these officers to see certain people as inherently dangerous, and thus killable.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Luke Cage's approach to police brutality is what happens after Misty's colleague beats up the boy who refuses to tell him about Luke.  Swooping in with the boy's mother, Mariah Dillard uses the incident to castigate the police for their indifference to violence against black people--and really, to get them to further intensify their pursuit of Luke and draw attention away from her own crimes.  She organizes a rally, ostensibly about police brutality, but with the real purpose of inflaming attitudes against superpowered people, and laying the groundwork for lobbying the city to equip the police with rounds that can penetrate Luke's skin, which are supplied by Diamondback.  So we have a black politician cynically leveraging Black Lives Matter rhetoric in order to achieve her own personal, criminal ends.  And we have that same black politician orchestrating the over-militarization of police, again in order to conceal her crimes and get rid of a personal enemy.  When a city official expresses reservations about equipping cops with these new bullets, it's only because "any weapon that the police or military has eventually ends up on the street", not because the police will inevitably use this hyper-lethal ordinance on regular people, as they have every time in the past.

At the end of the season, when Misty is informed that she doesn't have the evidence to prosecute Mariah Dillard, she rants that "the system is broken!"  That's a fairly standard expression of frustration for a police officer in a superhero story, the justification that such stories offer for the extra-legal violence of someone like Daredevil.  But in the context of a police officer who has, by that point, attacked two different suspects, and whose complaint is that she isn't allowed to go even further outside the law in her pursuit of them, it feels like the show prioritizing the conventions of its genre--in which extra-legal force is necessary to stop bad guys--over their associations in the real world--in which the perception that some people are "bad guys" is used to justify their immediate execution.

In the season's final episode, having defeated Diamondback and while taking a well-deserved moment to rest and reflect, Luke Cage reminds us that his show is about black stories:
People are scared.  But they can't be paralyzed by that fear.  You have to fight for what's right every single day, bulletproof skin or not.  You can't just not snitch, or turn away, or take money under the table because life has turned you sour.  When did people stop caring?  Harlem is supposed to represent our hopes and dreams.  It's the pinnacle of black art, politics, innovation.  It's supposed to be a shining light to the world.  It's our responsibility to push forward, so that the next generation be further along than us.
Just as in the first episode, it's a thesis statement for the show.  And just as in that episode, it's a frustrating one.  Luke is placing the burden of healing and repairing a community that has been neglected and abused for decades on the very people who have suffered the most from that neglect and abuse--perhaps even blaming them for it.  On one level, it's a very superhero kind of approach.  Superhero stories always come down to individual solutions.  The idea of a systemic problem that can't be solved by a single person with powers is anathema to their very existence.  But in the context of a story about a black superhero in a black inner city neighborhood, that statement takes on a very different tone.  It becomes the conservative bugbear about "personal responsibility," the insistence that the only people responsible for black people's problems are black people themselves, and that all those problems could be solved if they would only pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  Luke Cage is obviously trying to paint its hero as an aspirational figure, someone who inspires black people (though mostly black men) to believe in themselves and in their ability to change the world.  That's an important message, but like so much else about the superhero genre, it's a double-edged sword.

As I've written in the past, superhero stories tend to have a complex, dysfunctional relationship with the concept of abuse.  Because so many superheroes have a background of abuse, the stories we tell about them tend to fetishize it and treat it as a means to an end.  Most of all, they tend to be harshly prescriptive about what the "right" reaction to abuse is, and to divide people into heroes and villains according to how they respond to their traumas.  But what happens when that abuse isn't personal, but communal and generational?  To reduce the complex problems faced by black communities to a need to "push forward", an imperative not to become "sour", is superficially true, but beneath that surface it raises a lot issues that Luke Cage isn't willing or able to address.  Ultimately, Luke Cage's problem may not be its politics, so much as its unwillingness--or inability--to break free of the conventions of its genre.