At Oscilloscope’s Musings, I talk about Zero Effect, a sharp-edged mystery-dramedy from 1998 that deserves a wider audience.
My first piece for Oscilloscope’s Musings is about a standout scene in Clean and Sober, one of those great little dramas that can be too easily forgotten. (Good news: you can rent it for a couple bucks.)
Over at Movie Mezzanine, I worked through the life cycles of film criticism, the death of The Dissolve, and how TV might save movies. (True story.)
“If you’re going to reckon with the past,” I said, “you might as well reckon with all of it.”
I was talking to an old friend as we sat in the living room of a house that ten of us had rented for the weekend. It was a Friday night, and we were in Baird, Texas, population 1,500. The house was old and creaky, its style dating back decades, but it had room for several couples and their small children. I slept on one of the couches. Baird sits twenty miles outside of Abilene, population 117,000 and home to Abilene Christian University, from which my friends and I had graduated ten years earlier before stumbling out into the world. We were back for our class reunion, and as a group we’d rented the house as a way to spend as much time with each other as possible throughout the weekend. Maybe because it felt safer, too. Going back to a place you used to know, and that used to know you, is always unsettling: you can see your own ghost walking around. You find yourself making idle talk with people you used to see every day but to whom you haven’t spoken in a decade, and you realize at the start of every single one of these conversations that it will be impossible to convey to the other person the many ways in which you’ve changed since graduating. And you know that they’re having this realization, too, though that doesn’t make things any easier, and you feel that every detail about your job sounds ridiculously boring. There’s a reason people drink at these things.
I was talking with my friend because I’d been on the fence about getting up early the next morning to attend a breakfast for alumni from my social club, ACU’s version of fraternities and sororities.1 I was reluctant to go to the breakfast because I’m not as comfortable with the fraternity mentality as I was when I was in school, but I ultimately decided that there wasn’t much point in driving the 350 miles from Houston to Abilene if I wasn’t going to attend each of the handful of events that would involve people I knew, or had known. So like I told my friend: I might as well be honest about where we all came from, even when it’s hard to do.
I don’t tell most people that I went to ACU. Not that I feel I got a bad education: on the contrary, I had some fantastic professors and some wonderful classes, especially in my junior and senior years, when I was working through upper-level coursework that proved to be among the most challenging and rewarding of my time there. But whenever the subject comes up, I usually just say “I went to school in Abilene” and move on, adding that I moved to California upon graduation and then back to Texas a few years later. I turn the college into a point in a story, not a destination in its own right, and it’s because I know I’ll wind up shuffling my feet and wanting to apologize for the fact that I went there. I feel like doing this because I’m nervous and embarrassed by the way that people from my background traditionally have and currently often do treat members of marginalized communities — specifically gay men and women. There’s a rampant, pointed homophobia in evangelical Christianity and on my old campus, and though I have shed those cruel and cloistered ideologies in the years since, I was as much a part of it in my time as anyone. I entered college fearing and disliking gay people, and I let the word “fag” cross my lips as an insult on a regular basis. So many of us did. When talking with other young men in my social club about one of our rival groups, we’d dismiss them with “They’re fags” and not blink. I hang my head now thinking about those moments. I was well into my junior year before I started the slow process of changing my beliefs. I spent a semester in Los Angeles that proved crucial, and I came back restless and frantic. I suddenly felt uncomfortable with myself, and with what I’d been doing, and I wanted to destroy it all.2 I wrote a column in the school paper about the way homophobia was damaging people of faith inside and out, ending with a dramatic line in the sand that suggested I would refuse the label of “Christian” if it meant embodying a position of segregation and intolerance. I was angry and afraid, and though I believed the words, I was also borrowing some of them, including thoughts and phrases from an influential professor in California. It was the closest I could get to what I wanted to mean. I didn’t know what I felt, but I knew I didn’t like it.
Gay rights became an issue I returned to before graduation. During my senior year, I interviewed several gay students for a feature story that the paper’s editor wrote about their lives and what they had to deal with on campus. I still remember the details of the stories they told me, about shame and torment, verbal and physical abuse.3 I no longer believed that being gay was somehow wrong, and of course I still don’t — this seems like a silly and obvious sentence to write in 2015, but it goes against everything I was brought up to think and that, by college, I’d believed for so long, and accepting it at that time meant taking another step away from my old life. Those steps always look small after you’ve taken many more, but in the moment, they’re taken with trepidation. With each one, you shear away another layer of skin.
My club breakfast was scheduled for 6:00 that Saturday morning. The drive into Abilene was dark and wet — the storms from Friday night hadn’t finished blowing over — and the downtown neighborhood that housed the venue was deserted except for the men ambling two and three at a time into a meeting space that had been converted for the occasion with cheap folding tables and chairs. I saw a few men I hadn’t seen in years, many of them from my pledge class or from those just a year or two removed in either direction, and we sat together and ate bad eggs and thick biscuits. The atmosphere at these breakfasts is a little like that of a conference of sadistic zookeepers who have assembled to inflict mild distress on the animals. The boys of that fall’s pledge class were lined up in an adjoining room, standing in a silent row, eyes closed, each one pressing his nose to the back of the boy in front of him — in the spot below the nape of the neck, between the shoulder blades. “Nose to back!” would go the call during pledging, and we’d stand in a row, inhabiting an intimate space.
Homecoming weekend is a grueling one for students pledging a social club, and Friday night is usually a sleepless one: tradition holds that Friday night is when the pledges build a float for the following morning’s parade, and after the parade, the pledges attend a special weekend chapel service4 and, later, the Homecoming football game. So the boys standing there had been awake for at least 24 hours. They looked to be on another plane of existence.
At one point, we alumni went around the room introducing ourselves with name, hometown, and pledge class title. One of our boyish traditions has each pledge class come up with an acronymic name for their group with twin meanings: one clean, one crass. For instance, you might name your class “ROC Class,” with the three-letter designation standing both for “Rely on Christ” and “Respect our cocks.” This is the kind of asinine but community-forming thing that repressed 19-year-olds do. Several younger men said that their pledge group was called “NBD Class.” I didn’t know what they meant, but I didn’t think much of it, nor of the scattered laughs that came every time it was mentioned. I doubt I would’ve learned the meaning at all if I hadn’t happened to see the current club president that night at my own graduating class’s reunion dinner — he was a volunteer there in some capacity, handing out name tags. He explained that “NBD” meant, honorably, “No Big Deal,” while the alternate version was “Novas Bang Dudes.” A “nova” is what the pledges of our rival club are called, so the point here is that some of these young men, our “enemies,” are gay. That’s the entire joke, as it were.
Yet statistically, some of those boys are bound to be gay, and if not in this pledge class, then certainly in last year’s or the one before. And the same goes for my club. Several men I knew in college, from my club and others, have come out since graduating. When I was in school, rumors swirled about my club’s “reputation” in the late 1980s, when membership dwindled to just a few students before the club was “rechartered” with an altered name and broader appeal. I could’ve asked the young club president: Do you really think there aren’t young gay men among you right now, in your club, in your dorm, in your college? Men who are living in nine kinds of agony because of where they go to school and what they are told they should or shouldn’t feel? You think you didn’t pledge with gay men? Didn’t eat with them, sing with them, watch the game with them? Haven’t hugged them and wept with them? Do you have any idea how cold and hard and regressive it is to keep falling back on the same stereotypes, homophobia, and attitudes of fear, shame, ostracism? Do you know the torment to which you subject these men who have done nothing wrong? Do you know what they already deal with? Do you know how many men from our club and others have come out? Are you bound by grace and mercy?
But I didn’t say any of that to him. And I didn’t even think it, either. Not then, when he told me what “NBD” stood for, not when I was with my friends later that night, not on my drive home across the state. Not for days and weeks. It slid away.
If it’s easy to become offended and upset by someone’s behavior, it’s that much harder to be aware of your own complicity in unconsciously modeling that behavior. This kid didn’t need to be scolded or shamed, but he did need to have some direct, gentle questions asked of him. Like those asked of me when I was his age, and like I didn’t do when I had the chance to help him. It would be so simple and (seemingly) righteous to rage against this young guy and his ideas and his jokes, but the words would taste like filth in my mouth, because every condemnation would be a lie: a smug way to pretend the fault is all his for saying these things, and not mine for not telling him about the error of my own ways. That the problem is all with them, and never with me. That my silent beliefs are morally superior to someone else’s spoken ignorance. I could have shared so much with him from my own experience. To excoriate him without thinking about my place in that chain — without acknowledging that I’d stood in his place and made the same jokes just a few years earlier — would be dishonest and disrespectful to every man and woman I’d wronged. No one is the worst thing they’ve ever done, but only because we live with the opportunity to atone for those things. What are we if not made of such memories?
Six months later I sat in a hotel ballroom north of Houston and listened to stories about a dead friend.
He’d gone to ACU, and he was a member of my social club. He was two years behind me at school, and he was gay. I’d liked him quite a bit at school, and I even remember giving him the hard sell about pledging. He was musically talented, and I viewed his joining the club as a way to give us an asset in the musical-themed medley competition the clubs performed every spring.5 I got to know him a little when I was a junior and he was a freshman, and I spent more time with him when I was a senior and he was a sophomore, which was the year he pledged. He was kind and funny and sweet. I last saw him in 2006, two years after I graduated, when I returned to campus for my younger sister’s commencement. He and I exchanged a few Facebook messages and comments over the years, but that was it. I didn’t know he was sick until late last year, and I didn’t know the extent of his cancer until it was too late. Most of us didn’t. He was 30 when he passed. A few weeks later, a scattering of friends and family gathered to eat together, lift a cup in his honor, and share stories about their time with him.
I’ve been trying to remember if there was a time before I knew he was gay, or if I ever cared about it one way or the other, and I can’t recall. Because I met him in the fall of my junior year, so close to the beginning of my own change of heart, it’s likely it never entered my mind. Then again, while I was conducting research for that doomed newspaper story and interviewing gay students, it didn’t occur to me to talk to him. Was it because I forgot, or because I didn’t know? It’s lost to the past. I got to know him better my senior year, but even thinking of those days, I can’t summon up a memory of thinking of him in terms of his sexual orientation. Either I always knew, or I’ve forgotten learning. But what stuns is that I became friends with him only a couple of years after I casually tossed around homophobic slurs, and even though those two years can contain lifetimes when you’re that young, I still have trouble reconciling that version of myself.
I was one of the few people in attendance that night from my graduating class. Most of the other alumni there were two years younger than me: a gap that would mean nothing if we met now, but one that still somehow segregates us all in our minds when we talk about each other and our college experience. They had bonded to each other the way I had with my own friends. I sat and listened to them talk about their jobs and families, and then listened as they told stories about the departed: his quirks, his passions, his joy. I didn’t have a story to share, so I sat and tried to honor those who did. They wept and held each other, and I watched them as they took turns going up to the podium at the front of the room to talk about their short time with this young man. Sometimes I couldn’t look at them. Bearing witness almost felt like too much.
It was past 10:00 that night when I left. I made my way to the parking garage and fell into place at the elevator bank behind a figure in a black suit. I thought for a moment I recognized him, and I realized I had a memory of seeing him walk into the hotel as I drove past the front doors and headed for the garage. He was a priest. He waved goodbye at someone already moving further into the garage’s ground floor, then hopped into the open, empty car.
“There’s plenty of room!” he said to me, smiling. His voice took on a joking tone: “Unless you’re gonna hurt me!”
This is the kind of idle joke you sometimes hear when you’re big, like I am. I shook my head and said, “No, I’m incredibly weak, so it wouldn’t work out well for either of us.” This was close enough to humor that he laughed.
“I’m glad the rain stopped,” he said. “The good news is I don’t have far to go. Thank you, Jesus!”
I laughed a little at the idea of a priest giving thanks for easy weather. He seemed harmless. He was young — I wouldn’t put him past 40 — and he had brown hair, cut modestly and held in place with light product. His voice was an agreeable baritone, and he carried a notebook in his hand.
We stepped out of the elevator into a vestibule on the roof, which led to a set of double-doors to the lot outside. I made more small talk as we walked about also being thankful for a break in the rain, since I had 40 miles between me and home. We both turned to the right outside the doors to head to our cars. I was walking beside him instead of ahead or behind, walking the way you do when you’re with someone you know, not a stranger. I started talking before I was really sure I would.
“I was here for a memorial service,” I said. “A friend of mine from college. He was 30.”
We kept walking as the priest caught up, repeating pieces of what I’d said. “You said a memorial service?”
“Yeah. To remember him. He was 30. Anyway, just, if you could, say a prayer tonight for him.” There seemed no place to start, so I came at it from every direction.
I hadn’t been aware of it, but we’d stopped walking. We were halfway down the row of cars next to the vestibule. I repeated my petition for prayer. The priest asked me about my friend and his life, and I told him some of what I knew. A car three spaces down started up and drove away, but after that it was quiet. The priest was backlit by the giant security light: I kept seeing his face and losing it again, blinded.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Daniel,” I told him.
“I’m Darren,” he said, holding out a hand.
I told him about my friend, and how young he’d been, and I discussed in generalities some of the suffering he’d endured. I asked if he could pray for some kind of peace for him, and for me. And at some point I started to weep. I couldn’t speak any more, and I looked away, out over the dark trees, waiting to be able to talk again. Here. It had to happen here. This weight on me, this sadness, rolling off my shoulders. How young he was. What he’d been put through. What we do. “I’m sorry,” I said, sounding like I’d had the breath knocked from me. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I couldn’t have articulated what I was sorry for, but it seemed like the only thing to say.
“It’s OK,” he said. “It’s my job.” And he didn’t say this like a joke, or like he was rolling up his sleeves to go to work. He was kind. He said it to say, that’s why I’m here. This is what I do.
“I can see you all loved him,” Darren said. Then he told me that God loves me. I told him I knew that, and that I believed in that. I just needed peace. The tears slowed, and I wiped my eyes. We stood and didn’t say much. No one came, no cars drove by. The night was cool.
“Can I pray with you?” he asked me. I nodded, and Darren stepped closer. I think he put a hand on my arm while I stood there, but I don’t remember. He prayed for me, and for the friend I’d lost, and for all of us. I wanted to sit down, I wanted to walk away, I wanted to touch his face. Everything seemed too awful, and I felt so tired.
“What church are you with?” I asked him after. I didn’t know if this was a dumb question, but I couldn’t remember how many outfits were fitted with clerical collars. “I’m a Catholic priest,” Darren replied. I nodded.
“You know,” he said, “we just had Easter Sunday, but on the Sunday after that, we in the Catholic church celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. And on that day, we ask” — he counted on his fingers — ”we trust, and we show. Mercy.”
After a few minutes, clusters of people started showing up, heading for their cars: couples in formal wear, families in swimming gear. It was as if a breath had been released, and time, no longer stopped, had started moving again. I don’t remember everything we talked about. I thought during the prayer about getting his card or at least his contact information, but some part of me forgot. We said our goodbyes, and he wished me peace and rest as we parted. I got in my car and pulled out, passing him as he sat parked in his spot, his hand out over the wheel to wave farewell to me. That’s the clearest image I have of him, more than the fragments of his face: an open palm, fingers out, almost reaching. I drove home in the rain.
ACU does not participate in the national Greek system, instead offering “social clubs” for students that simulate the experience to a degree. It winds up being another way to make students feel different from their peers, and many of the activities social clubs perform, though accepted as tradition at ACU, make little to no sense elsewhere.↩
I was young and somewhat in love and exhilarated by a future I could just barely touch, and I seemed to experience every feeling at maximum intensity. In other words, I was 21.↩
The story was pulled by administration the night before it was set to run, in an act of cowardice and shame that still upsets me. But the university’s president is also the paper’s publisher, and as such, we had no recourse.↩
ACU holds chapel services five days a week at 11:00 a.m.; student attendance is mandatory. On Homecoming weekend, an additional service is held Saturday morning at 11:00 for alumni, and pledges also attend this, as they are required to cheer for homecoming queen nominees belonging to sister clubs.↩
Watching The Rundown recently, I was struck by how efficient and enjoyable the action scenes were. After a minute, I realized it was because each of the action scenes also functioned as a narrative one: that is, the story moved forward with the action, and it was different when the action stopped. This is a fundamental requirement for scenes like this, but so many modern action movies ignore it.
If you can pull any scene out of a movie and not change the narrative, or if you can drop a scene in a different part of a movie, that scene needs to go. Every scene is a miniature arc, and it moves the story forward. This is easy to grasp when thinking about regular old dramatic scenes of, say, two people talking, or going out to dinner, or driving somewhere, or negotiating for something, or really anything. But the rule1 holds for special genres like action or musicals, too. When the romantic lead bursts into song, he’s going to use those verses to come to a conclusion: he should pursue his lover, or quit his job, or do whatever the story is offering him. Before the song, he’s uncertain; when it’s done, he knows what to do. That’s progress.
Action movies, done right, work the same way. No matter how spectacular or extravagant the action, it has to push the story along. Die Hard is, as always, a good example. When John McClane squares off against his first terrorist, it’s not just a fight scene, but a move forward for the script. When the scene is over, McClane knows more about who he’s up against, he starts to plan counterattacks, he makes decisions about what to do next, etc. If you removed the fight, and went right from “terrorist stalks McClane” to “McClane, now inexplicably bloodied, walks through the building,” you’d have a gap. The action scene fits.
The Rundown knows this and acts accordingly. When Beck (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) fights a group of rebels in the Amazon rainforest, he’s not just filling screen time, but saving his life and forging a new alliance in the process. When he and his cohorts find an ancient treasure and cause a cave-in, they emerge from the accident with the treasure in hand. If they didn’t, there’d be no reason for the cave-in. Everything has a reason for being, which is part of what makes the film so enjoyable.2
A lot of modern action movies forget this, and they string together action scenes that are designed to smother the viewer but that don’t have much reason for being. There’s a car chase scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that doesn’t change the story but merely prolongs the inevitable. The 2009 Star Trek comes to mind, too: quite a few of its action scenes could be taken out with no change on the story. When Kirk and Scotty beam aboard the Enterprise late in the film, Scotty winds up in a tube filled with water, and Kirk has to race to free him. Take that out, and they still make it to the ship, and they still get apprehended by security. It doesn’t do anything but pad the run time. Related to this, a lot of modern action movies (especially Marvel’s) often operate in bad faith by assuming that, if you’re watching, then you inherently care about all these characters and know their backstories and are just excited to see them do stuff. But The Rundown is its own, self-contained world, so it has to do the work of introducing characters to the viewer and then keeping the viewer invested through drama. This, again, is 101-level stuff, but it gets overlooked so often in today’s tentpole market that it’s almost startling to see a movie that does it right.
Action is narrative. When an action movie bears this in mind, the action feels exciting and propulsive. When it doesn’t, the action feels cursory and forgettable. Story is above all.
All rules can be broken if they’re broken the right way. Malick communicates in tone poems, but they still cohere in their own way.↩
It’s also got a nice energy and a sense of genuine adventure, as well as a solid cast topped by The Rock (eminently charming) and Seann William Scott (perennially underrated).↩
Over at Movie Mezzanine, I take a look at the films of Cameron Crowe, and I talk (in part) about how his movies are also his mission statements.
(Thanks to The Dissolve for the link.)
Cinematically, we seem to be running past the point of recognizable superheroes, i.e., those characters with a large enough pop culture profile and a long enough media history to make them broadly marketable. Superman first appeared in 1938, and Batman followed in 1939; both of them soon expanded from comic books into radio, TV, and movies. Captain America and Wonder Woman came in 1941. But Spider-Man, Ant-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers — these are products of the 1960s, and they’ve seen varying degrees of success in their attempts to enter the cultural mainstream. Their stories and supporting characters are less well known, which makes them potentially much more confusing and alienating for what we’ll call the average moviegoer: someone with a passing acquaintance with these characters, but not someone who reads (or grew up reading) the various comic books that detailed all these characters’ cosmic adventures. When the Joker shows up in The Dark Knight, we’re able to call back to Jack Nicholson, Cesar Romero, even the voice of Mark Hamill; when an interdimensional being uses telekinesis to build Egypt’s pyramids in a post-credits stinger, we have no idea what is happening. I wonder if there’s a point past which the audience won’t be able to keep up with the studios. Maybe it makes sense, in a way, to keep “rebooting” the popular superhero franchises every 10-15 years. They’ve got the momentum.
David Foster Wallace gave what would become a legendary commencement speech at Kenyon College ten years ago, and I’ve thought about it probably once a week since then. It’s impossible now, of course, not to be struck with a sour horror at the speech’s references to the mind being a terrible master and the plight of suicide cases. Such are the reminders of the loss.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term. […]
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
I’m always fascinated when certain concepts from movies or television break free from their sources and become part of the pop culture lexicon. This is different from popular quotes or characters. What I’m talking about are those instances where things themselves become shorthand for ideas. Examples I’ve been able to come up with:
• Mr. Mom (n.): Now-dated slang for a father lending a hand in what were stereotypically motherly tasks.
• MacGyver (v.): To rig up a needlessly complicated device or mechanism.
• Daisy Dukes (n.): Short shorts existed long before The Dukes of Hazzard, but this became a catch-all phrase.
• Gaslight (v.): To cruelly destroy someone’s memory or perception.
What’s important is that these phrases hint at their origin but aren’t dependent upon it, becoming broader in application over time. For instance, gaslighting doesn’t mean to drive one’s wife insane as part of a complicated heist, but rather, to generally manipulate someone’s perception of reality. These phrases become larger than the works that inspired them. Seinfeld wound up popularizing some, too (like “close talker”), but just as often those were catch phrases that lived and died with the show.
There have to be more than these few I’ve listed. I just need to start remembering them.
If you were a supervillain, what would be your master plan?
What I would like to do is be Therapy Man. I would like to be able to fly over cities and sprinkle dust on people. And when the dust hit them, I would turn them into sensitive, emotionally involved humans who know how to listen and validate the feelings of their loved ones.
That would probably make a big difference.
It would make a huge fucking difference. I mean, think about it: Go deep into that for a second. In 24 hours, we’d have the best planet in the universe.
Some people would say, “Oh, that doesn’t make you a villain,” but you would be to a lot of people.
It would ruin a lot of things that are making money in this country for sure. — Mark Duplass
Television is not designed to be a reflection of the real world, but it’s nevertheless capable of being one. Usually this is done on an emotional level: while the average viewer has never broken bad and cooked crystal meth in an RV, they probably know what it’s like to feel overworked and underpaid. Some series, though, strive for narrative reality as well as an emotional one, eschewing as many moments of artifice as possible in the service of creating something that looks, feels, and acts almost exactly like the world we live in. Certain family dramedies have pulled this off pretty successfully, like Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, and The Wonder Years, and they’ve worked by placing their characters in emotionally catastrophic situations and letting them slowly, painfully figure out how to survive them. That’s what life is, after all: challenges that seem insurmountable, and whose solution is never as elegant or victorious as you’d want it to be. HBO’s Togetherness is a show in this mold, and it, too, is steeped in emotional catastrophe. It’s a coming-of-age series about people in their late 30s and early 40s, for whom the dominant question is not “What do I want to be?” but “Do I want keep being who I am?” It is, in other words, a show about therapy, and it’s one of the best dramas in years.
Togetherness is co-created by the Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay1, and their frequent collaborator, Steve Zissis, who appeared in the brothers’ earlier work and co-stars here with Mark, Melanie Lynskey, and Amanda Peet. The Duplass brothers make warm, shaggy movies about characters who respond to dramatic situations in low-key, minimal ways in large part because those reactions feel the most true to life. Their films rely heavily on improvisation, but that’s never an excuse for emotional or narrative dishonesty. Rather, in each scene or set-up, you can not only understand why a character would behave a certain way, but go a step further and reason that you, too, might do the same thing in that situation. The Duplasses tend to work through different aspects of familial strife that (very loosely) track with the linear progress of their own lives: the bickering couples of Baghead, the adult relationship comedy of Cyrus, the simmering fraternal tensions of The Do-Deca-Pentathlon2 and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Togetherness, then, is in many ways their most adult work yet because it’s about everything from the strife of modern parenting to the difficulty of maintaining long-term relationships to the very real likelihood that, sooner or later, we all break down and need to get help. It’s the next step in the emotional evolution of storytellers who are focused on journeys of self-discovery.
Togetherness starts out feeling deceptively straightforward. Its central gimmick is to create an awkward foursome by putting the main characters under one roof: Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Lynskey) live in L.A. with their two young children, and they soon enough find themselves housing Alex (Zissis), Brett’s longtime friend, and Tina (Peet), Michelle’s sister. Alex and Tina need a place to crash when their own lives bottom out: Alex, a struggling actor, is evicted from his apartment, while Tina, who runs her bounce-castle business out of Houston, opts to relocate after her latest bad break-up. But this is as close to high-concept as the show gets, and many times, it’s about what doesn’t happen. There are no nightly or weekly dinners where the new configuration of roommates share their stories or help each other out; there is no sense of them bonding to create a new kind of family; there are no high jinks. Brett and Michelle don’t go out to dinner and leave Alex and Tina to babysit with wacky results. This is, emphatically, not that kind of show. As the series’ first, eight-episode season unfolds, the characters actually find themselves living more and more apart from each other. An early group outing to the beach gives way to a night when three characters attend a movie premiere while one stays behind, and soon enough we’re down to duos, and eventually single-person stories that find each of the four main characters forced to confront their own beliefs, fears, and desires. What Togetherness is actually about, in its way, is aloneness. We choose who we want to try and spend our time and our lives with, and we choose how open we are with those people. But we cannot control their actions or emotions, and we’re in charge of no one’s happiness but our own. Even the aesthetics start to reinforce this as the series evolves: characters are less and less frequently photographed together, and if they’re talking to each other, we’ll often see one person alone in the frame while the other is on the edge of the frame or off screen completely.
The heart of the show is about breakdowns. Alex and Tina engage in a complicated series of flirtations and power struggles: she knows he likes her and flirts with him accordingly, but she also grows jealous when a friend of hers shows interest in Alex when the pair are visiting Houston, and she promptly sets about ruining his night. She encourages him to lose weight and go out for more interesting auditions, and he wants her to settle down and be with him. They’re each projecting something onto the other — Tina’s fear of being directionless, Alex’s fear of being single — and so they wind up hurting each other with unsurprising consistency. The show’s deftness at highlighting each character’s complicity in their own problems is one of the many things that makes it feel so true.
The other couple, Brett and Michelle, are also trapped in their own cycles. Their sex life is fading, their stress levels are barely in check, and they haven’t been honest with each other, or with themselves, about anything in a long time. (A trip to couples’ counseling in one episode ends in low-grade disaster, as they wind up carrying resentments from the session through the rest of their day.) The first season arc is about the way their marriage crumbles as Michelle grows closer to a local education activist, David (John Ortiz), while Brett grows increasingly disillusioned with his work as a sound editor for a crass filmmaker and finds himself drawn to Linda (Mary Steenburgen), a woman he meets while recording sounds in the park and who pleasantly, alluringly encourages him to rediscover his passions. Michelle’s first tentative steps into a different life come when she stays behind one night as the rest of the gang goes to a film premiere. She dresses in a more revealing outfit and wanders her neighborhood, idly looking for something to do but mostly enjoying the feeling of doing something different, and it’s on this night that she wanders into a meeting for a local charter school and becomes captivated by the man leading the charge. Brett, for his part, finds himself so unhappy with his job that he’s started to repress any feelings other than tooth-gritting fake cheer, and it’s Linda who encourages him to stop lying and start being honest. His sessions with her — that’s what they are, really — allow him to start thinking and speaking honestly about his life and his feelings. And here’s another instance of how Togetherness bucks convention. Brett comes home from a day hanging out with Linda and expanding his mind 3 to rejoin a party Michelle is hosting at their home to raise money for the local charter school. David is there, and Brett starts talking to him honestly, calmly, and almost peacefully about his fears. He doesn’t have a funny or angry confrontation scene with David; he doesn’t take a swing or embarrass himself; he and Michelle don’t grow closer because of it. Instead, he says exactly what’s on his mind. When he does it, you realize how rare it is, and not just in fiction, but in the real life this fiction is trying to mimic. The stunning honesty of the moment is almost too much for David to take.
Togetherness is also, ultimately, about risk. The risk of being honest enough about what you want, and about what makes you happy. It’s a show about people doing the real work of living, where you can’t do anything but take on small step at a time in what you pray is a good direction. “Togetherness,” as a concept, isn’t a safeguard from the world’s assaults, or a prison from which to escape, but simply the way we live: together, side by side, trying to figure ourselves out and not hurt the ones next to us. One of the season’s most affecting moments is when Brett’s out for a walk in the park late at night, hoping to meet up with Linda again, and he finds her. The first time they met, she was lying in a shallow trench she’d dug and simulating her own death as a way of engaging with the finite nature of life, and on this moonlit night, she’s dug another trench and asks Brett to do the same. He demurs, then rejects the idea, then mocks her for making the suggestion, then finally starts yelling at her, almost screaming, as he begins to vent everything inside him. She takes it, stoically, and waits for him to finish. Breathing heavier — looking scared, relieved, and scared of his own relief — Brett acquiesces and climbs into the hole. The metaphor here is obvious, but that’s part of the point. Brett has to figure out how to dig himself out of the situations he’s in. No one else can do it for him.
• It’s excessive and inappropriate to spend time in a review or essay gushing over the physical attributes of a movie star. That is, it’s one thing to acknowledge their appearance — or even their beauty — and another to make panting comments that edge against lasciviousness.
• Yet we go to the movies precisely because the people on the screen are so good-looking. Put characters actors aside for a minute and think about mainstream, meat-and-potatoes actors and actresses from Hollywood’s inception to today. These are attractive people, chosen because they’re attractive. We want them to be capable performers, yes, but we also want them to be beautiful because we want to look at them. We want to be able to spend two hours staring at something we find attractive, and movies let us do that free of judgment.
• Honest film criticism would, by necessity, need to reckon with this on a regular basis. And not just in the (rightly) expected ways that examine the methods by which fluctuating, hypocritical standards of beauty enforce rigid rules for young women, either. Rather, criticism would need to talk about bodies as forms, shapes, vessels, machines — as part of the artistic and aesthetic experience of the film. When someone moves across the frame with lithe grace; when two faces touch; when a hand strays to an ankle; when a man or woman is photographed to appear stunning. This is part of why we’re watching the movie, and to ignore it, or to pretend otherwise, would be dishonest.
• Perhaps we avoid such discussions in criticism not out of a sense of propriety (i.e., embarrassment at the topic itself) but out of uncertainty (i.e., we don’t know whether such observations would cheapen the film, or the act of writing about it). Additionally, the rise of television recaps and weekly attempts at reviews1 has popularized a critical emphasis on pure narrative and sociological reflections, sometimes at the expense of examining the filmmaking itself — the technique, the mechanics, and the bodies in motion.
• There must be, as in so many things, a middle path: a way to talk about physical beauty as artistic expression, not the target of juvenile lust. Further, it has to be possible to talk about attraction and desire — things that have powered the world since its creation, things that have started wars and brought life and art into being — with a frankness and candor that respects them for what they are. These forms on the screen are part of the picture.
No weekly TV reviews can ever be fully realized or effective, since the work itself is being broadcast and discussed episodically.↩
When did I stop listening to music? And why?
In 2008, I bought or acquired 78 albums 1, a number that stuns me now but at the time didn’t feel excessive in the least. Now months will go by — years, even — when I only get a handful of songs, and rarely an album. When did that change? What did that? I’m still trying to figure it out, and I only have partial solutions:
I stopped physically buying music. I used to regularly visit used CD stores and prowl the racks of my favorite genres, looking for new arrivals of old albums by artists I always kept tabs on. Most Fridays, I’d see a movie to review at the Arclight and pop in at Amoeba Music next door, and on weekends I’d often wander down to a local chain called Second Spin to see if they had anything worthwhile. Most of the albums I bought were between $5 and $9 — minor purchases — but it still added up to plenty of new-to-me music. I occasionally bought new releases 2, but for the most part I was just grabbing a few old discs when I could.
This has almost totally stopped. Going to a music store is no longer part of my routine, and I still don’t buy that many new releases. As a result, my purchases have dropped dramatically. This feels like a legitimate reason for much of my decline in new listening. But also:
I decided to spend money on other things. Buying music means using discretionary income, and I wound up channeling it into other things. Some of it still entertainment-related: games, movies, trips. But some of it on just regular life things, like clothes and bills. My living situation has changed a lot since then, and especially since 2008, my last full year to live in California before moving back to Texas. And I did that because:
I fell in love. A lot of music is about sadness. This isn’t a bad thing, either. We all experience pain and heartache and loss, and artists draw upon those things for the works they create. Most pop music is, in some way, tragic:
When we think of the pop charts, we tend to conceive of hit songs as bouncy and cheery puff. We imagine hits as having a self-defining airiness, a lightness of spirit which critics of pop sometimes project upon the music’s audience and conflate with dimness of mind. Hit songs, as we generally think of them, are resolutely, simplistically upbeat expressions of romantic bliss—and so a great many hits have been. Long before Paul McCartney and Wings, there were deeply silly love songs such as “You Are My Sunshine,” which was published the same year that “I’ll Never Smile Again” became a hit. Yet, the musical and lyrical sunniness of “You Are My Sunshine” has never been a requisite of success for a pop tune, and love songs have always been more likely to deal with the yearning for love, the complications of love, love’s betrayal, or the loss of love (or even, sometimes, the loss of life) than the fancied bliss of love fulfilled. As the songs on the first Billboard chart remind us, a strain of sadness has long been laced through the popular songbook. Music listeners’ likes have never been restricted to things that make them happy.
But when I fell in love with the woman I would eventually marry, a lot of the music I used to listen to stopped having the kind of meaning for me that it used to. I’d still listen to them for their beauty, or because they reminded me of who I used to be, but I was worlds away from feeling the kind of spiritual connection to songs about loneliness that I used to feel. And I have to think that being that happy made me less interested in a lot of music, or at least a lot of the music I used to listen to. I can still connect to a sad song, sure — the same way I can still connect to a sad movie, or TV series — but there’s something personal and intimate about music, something about the way listening to a song becomes a way to define yourself, if only in your own head, and my evolution into a generally happier person meant that most of the signals I used to send (externally and internally) didn’t make sense any more. I bought less music because I needed music less.
I still love music, of course. 3 And I’m always looking for something new-to-me that will get my gears turning. But I don’t experience music the way I used to, and not in the same quantities. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, either.
I recently rewatched The Hunt for Red October, which turns 25 this year. This is one of those action movies I can revisit again and again without diminishing returns, but only partly because it’s a relic from my childhood. 1 Rather, it remains such a compelling film because it maintains steady, calm focus on the human stakes at hand. International espionage and acts of war are discussed, but those are head-fakes. The real story here is about two men on separate but overlapping missions, and how they go about doing them. No cities are destroyed, no worlds are blown apart. There aren’t even that many deaths. The worry of a nuclear strike isn’t real, either: the U.S. officials consider it a possibility, but Ramius is a defector, not a madman. It is, compared with the blockbusters of today, a small film. And that’s the key to its appeal.
Modern blockbusters are usually about the world being in peril, at which point various superheroes or powers are allied to bring civilization back from annihilation. The Marvel movies are opening this up to the entire universe. But The Hunt for Red October is small-stakes action storytelling, which is to say it’s about the people, not the pyrotechnics. “Small” might be misleading here, since this is still an action movie fueled by memories of the Cold War that had just ended; I just mean “smaller than would come to be the norm.” When the world is constantly in danger on the big screen, then we as audiences grow numb to outsized narratives. But when the action is rooted in personal relationships and allowed to play out on a regional level, then we’re able to get our hands around it. It’s no accident that director John McTiernan helmed Die Hard in 1988 and Red October two years later, and that both action films not only stand the test of time 2, but that they’re also all about relationships. Die Hard means nothing if we don’t see John McClane struggling to reconnect with, and ultimately save, his wife. Similarly, Red October means nothing if we don’t have Ramius mourning his wife and reckoning with his life’s meaning, or Jack Ryan doing his best to keep the peace. By staying small, by sticking with these people and making the story matter to them, the filmmaker creates something that works for everyone.
When I was in India researching “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we went to this huge, ice cream picture palace to see a Bollywood movie. Here we were, with 2,000 Indians watching a film in Hindi, and there was the lowest possible comedy and then incredible drama and tragedy, and then (they) break out in songs. And it was three-and-a-half hours! We thought we had suddenly learnt Hindi, because we understood everything! We thought it was incredible. How involved the audience were. How uncool they were — how their coolness had been ripped aside, and how they were united in this singular sharing of the story. The thrill of thinking, “Could we ever do that in the West? Could we ever get past that cerebral cool and perceived cool?” — Baz Luhrmann
Musicals have been on my mind lately. I revisited Singin’ in the Rain several weeks ago, and in the past few days I’ve rewatched the 2007 edition of Hairspray and selected moments from Moulin Rouge!. What continues to stand out is the paradoxical tension in the way musicals do increasingly fantastical things as a means of removing emotional artifice from the narrative. Those moments that are the least realistic, that is, least representative of the world we live in — the moments when men and women actually slip into song, or dance, or rearrange reality entirely — are precisely those moments where the characters in question are being most honest with themselves, with each other, and with the viewer. The songs are what allow the characters to say how they really feel, and they almost always do this in exposed, even flowery language.
I wrote about some of this a few years ago, in a piece on Moulin Rouge!:
Against the wall and unable to think, [Christian] begins to recite Elton John’s “Your Song,” and the easy devotion of the lyrics fit his character perfectly. But it’s when he lets loose and begins to sing that the scene takes on new life and dimension. There are better songs out there than this one, but what matters in the moment is the honesty of the relationship that’s blooming. Luhrmann makes giant, candy-colored, often surreal-looking films, but he never fakes emotion. Ever. That genuineness comes shining through as Christian sings to Satine, sailing her out onto a cloud and capturing her heart. He returns to her later that night and unleashes a medley of pop songs covering everyone from The Beatles to Kiss to U2 to David Bowie. It’s an amalgam that would be almost laughable if there weren’t so much heart behind it; it’s like Luhrmann is having Christian assemble the ultimate mix tape. […]
Luhrmann manages to inhabit a space that allows for large-scale filmmaking that still relies on honest emotion, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The film lives for two hours in the tension between losing control and having the courage just to try, just as the narrative itself discovers that every love story is underpinned with loss. By turns comic and tragic, funny and sad, the movie is ultimately concerned with trying to capture as many disparate aspects of love and life as it can, leading to a finale that’s as uplifting and heartbreaking as any Luhrmann could have hoped to create, and he hasn’t topped the film since. “Moulin Rouge!” is a moving tribute to that notion of love constant beyond death, of forgiveness for wrongdoing, and of the belief that the cost of losing love is always worth the risk of searching for it.
In film, as in so many things, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. And Moulin Rouge! says its piece well. Luhrmann stuffs the frame with ideas, and as ostentatious as he is, he’s also willing to not call attention to certain images or details, content instead to let the viewer find them or to just let their existence color the experience on a subliminal level. (A nice touch: when Christian’s rendition of “Your Song” transitions to a fantasy, his jacket changes to one lined with sequins to catch the moonlight. He’s never still long enough for it to be really noticeable — it’s more of an atmospheric touch than anything.) Yet the statement works in a different way for the medium: musicals are often saying big, broad, poetic things, and they’re doing it through theatrical devices specifically designed to make the performer and viewer more vulnerable. There is no hiding here. It’s the opposite of almost every other film form, in which characters often struggle to remain independent or stoic as they experience life and love. This is a genre that practically bleeds through the projector. To watch someone sing and dance with all their heart is to witness something pure, and gentle, and honest in that we don’t often see on screen. Giving yourself over to a work of art that does this means allowing yourself to be as vulnerable as the characters, and that’s increasingly a difficult thing to do.
What mostly keeps us from engaging with works on this level is the fear of being seen as vulnerable, or being marked as soft. It’s not a requirement to like a musical just because it’s a musical, of course, just like there’s no guarantee a musical is automatically going to be good just by the merit of its genre. But honestly reckoning with something that requires such a high degree of vulnerability from the viewer is hard to do when most of us are used to dealing with things through at least several different layers of ironic posturing. As Christy Wampole wrote in the New York Times in 2012:
As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom? […]
What would it take to overcome the cultural pull of irony? Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.
If we find ourselves less willing in general to be honest, to risk being sad or happy in a genuine way — to risk being moved by a work of art, or risk being let down by one — how much harder will it be to give ourselves over to those works that are designed to be especially vulnerable and revealing? If there’s nothing more honest than someone singing their heart out, how do we keep ourselves from losing the strength to watch? Romance, musical, family drama: any genre that revolves around (or even touches on) the need for emotional frailty will come to seem foreign, difficult, frightening. Keeping ourselves at a distance from the work is a great way of protecting ourselves, but a lousy way of enjoying something, and of living. Closing that distance is necessary.
That’s the danger of the “cerebral cool” or “perceived cool” that Luhrmann fought when creating Moulin Rouge!, and which continues today. It wasn’t just a musical, but one about love, and one that used existing pop songs in awkward and endearing fashion to get its point across. Contrast it with something like the 2012 film version of the musical Les Miserables, which is somehow cooler and less resonant. The best I can figure is that that version of Les Miserables feels like it’s trying to impress me, whereas other musicals feel like they’re unafraid to tell a sweeping story and be a little corny. They put a little more on the line, and it comes through on some deep level I can’t explain. But I know that I don’t want to give it up, or become immune to it.
Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies are destined to be the least like his other works because corporate interests prevent him from killing any of the main characters. Every Whedon creation is high on the body count among the central cast: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly (along with its big-screen follow-up, Serenity) never shied away from making the kinds of changes that most other series would consider too drastic. Whedon’s work is, largely, about how people learn to cope with tragedy, and how they come to understand that the only thing they can control in a traumatic situation is their own reaction. However, he’s not able to make such sweeping changes within the Marvel universe, since the direction of the property is ultimately out of his hands. The first Avengers film wound up killing a supporting player only for that actor and character to be revived on the television spinoff Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a year later. Whedon’s Avengers films, then, are bound to be the least connected to his other works simply because they’re forbidden from exploring the emotional territory that Whedon’s come to value most. Financially, they’re his biggest marks on the entertainment world, but narratively, they’re his least personal.