Passages

The Form of Funny

This bit by Chuck Klosterman, from an essay in Eating the Dinosaur, remains one of the sharpest and most valuable critiques of what’s become a dominant style of writing online. When he wrote the essay, it made sense to address the problem as one belonging to blogs, but it’s long since spread to mainstream publications, too:

“If you’ve spent any time trolling the blogosphere, you’ve probably noticed a peculiar literary trend: the pervasive habit of writers inexplicably placing exclamation points at the end of otherwise unremarkable sentences. Sort of like this! This is done to suggest an ironic detachment from the writing of an expository sentence! It’s supposed to signify that the writer is self-aware! And this is idiotic. It’s the saddest kind of failure. F. Scott Fitzgerald believed inserting exclamation points was the literary equivalent of an author laughing at his own jokes, but that’s not the case in the modern age; now, the exclamation point signifies creative confusion. All it illustrates is that even the writer can’t tell if what they’re creating is supposed to be meaningful, frivolous, or cruel. It’s an attempt to insert humor where none exists, on the off chance that a potential reader will only be pleased if they suspect they’re being entertained. Of course, the reader isn’t really sure, either. They just want to know when they’re supposed to pretend to be amused. All those extraneous exclamation points are like little splatters of canned laughter: They represent the ‘form of funny,’ which is more easily understood (and more easily constructed) than authentic funniness.”

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TV

Teaching a New Girl Old Tricks

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The third season of New Girl, which aired from fall 2013 to spring 2014, was a muddy and unpleasant experience in a lot of ways, not least because the union of Nick and Jess morphed from opposites-attract romantic-comedy to self-destructive loathing. Speaking to HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall, New Girl creator and showrunner Liz Meriwether offered this take on the season:

“It’s tricky having a couple on a show. It really limits what you can do with them as characters. It felt like we had to see them together in every episode, and that limited Nick from going off on his own and having stories. We put them together too much. They were in every story together, and there was fatigue of the two of them together.”

This is the biggest and most dangerous lie that some storytellers believe: that a couple’s story exists only in the way they came together, not what kept them together. Part of the mistake is probably logistical. Watching a couple meet, date, and fall in love provides a natural arc for writers and viewers, so it’s easy to keep going back to that well. The truth about life as a couple (married or not) is that there’s no more arc. It’s instead about commitment and exploration, about going through your life with someone and learning what that give and take means on a daily basis. It’s richer and deeper, but also harder to shoehorn into a sarcastic 22-minute weekly slot that also has to support several other characters.

This also starts to feel like a cheat for viewers, especially after it’s been made clear (through the individual text and the storytelling tradition) that Jess and Nick are going to wind up together at some point. Putting them together and pulling them apart just because you don’t know what to do with them as characters starts to make the show feel like a game, and one we’ll eventually get tired of playing. As Meriwether said later in that interview: “For me, the heart of the show has always been Nick and Jess, and it will always be Nick and Jess, and I don’t think this is the end for them.” We know.

I wrote several months ago about why it’s important for TV to keep telling stories about actual couples, so rather than rewrite it, I’ll just reprint it here:

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The end of How I Met Your Mother brings with it many things: no more flash-forwards or teases, no more narrative fake-outs, no more episodes designed to play out the string. But the biggest hole it leaves in primetime television comedy doesn’t have to do with any of the show’s official major stories about Ted Mosby and his long-suffering search for love. Rather, it’s the departure of Marshall and Lily we’ll come to feel most sharply in the coming months and years. Played by Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan, they were something most viewers never get to see in a TV comedy: a realistic, committed couple who were together for the long haul.

Most TV comedies relegate serious relationships to supporting characters. Friends, notably, had Monica and Chandler, who got together at the end of the fourth season, married at the end of the seventh, and finished the series by adopting kids. On How I Met Your Mother, Marshall and Lily followed a similar pattern: they began the series as longtime partners, got engaged, and briefly separated before getting married and starting a family. They worked through a number of issues — financial problems, job insecurities, deaths in the family — but were always together. The plot was created to test them and bring them closer together, not drive them apart. Yet this is something that the lead characters on sitcoms almost never experience. While Monica and Chandler worked to grow as a couple, season- and series-long stories dealt with Ross and Rachel’s tumultuous relationship and ultimate reconciliation (in the series finale, no less). How I Met Your Mother was, for all its colorful storytelling, primarily about Ted’s search for love and fulfillment and his desire to create his own version of what he saw in Marshall and Lily. Sitcoms might let the lead character stay in a relationship for a little while (Ted did, and even got close to marriage), but these relationships always end in favor of keeping the lead single a little longer. The arrival of the true love, the one person tailor made for the lead character, is put off until the end. It’s viewed as a series-ending button on a long story, a clear-cut “The End” as a show fades out. Ross and Rachel went back and forth a million times and knew everything about each other, but they weren’t allowed to actually be together until Friends was down to its last commercial break. This is understandable, but it’s also unnecessary.

It’s understandable because the search for love, or the “will-they-won’t-they” tension between two leads, is a clear story that’s easy for viewers to understand and even easier for studios and networks to sell to audiences. This is a story about a guy looking for love; over here’s a story about two coworkers who secretly like each other. There’s room for individual details in the story even as the writers lay down a definite template and don’t deviate from it that much. Two people meet and develop feelings for each other, they overcome a very specific obstacle (being apart), and then they get together. Sitcoms like to repeat this on small levels for throwaway relationships and big levels for the “real” ones, but the moment where the two leads come together, or where the guy finally gets the girl, is seen as the end of the line. That’s where the energy is focused. That’s the goal.

What makes that unnecessary is that there are hundreds and thousands of stories to be told about couples in love who fight and work and grow together, who sacrifice for each other, who try to figure out what it means to be in a good relationship, and who do everything they can to make their relationship work. It’s not as if these stories are unheard of in sitcoms, either; they’re just on the periphery. Marshall and Lily dealt with debt issues, fertility questions, career worries, and the dim unease that comes with getting just a little bit older and wondering if this is what you’re supposed to be doing with your life. Monica and Chandler grew together and informed each other’s characters: he learned how to grow up, she learned how to be more giving. Happy Endings had Brad and Jane as the married part of their ensemble. Parks and Recreation did a little song and dance with April and Andy, but to the show’s credit, it soon enough skipped the formalities and just let them get married. Yet most comedies are afraid or unwilling to make those stories the primary ones. The American version of The Office drew its energy from the repression Jim and Pam put themselves through for years; once they finally got together, the series didn’t quite know what to do next, so it faffed around for a few years and drove artificial wedges between Jim and Pam as a way to recapture some of the show’s former glory.

There was no reason for How I Met Your Mother to minimize and prolong the appearance of Ted’s future love and the mother of his children. Things aren’t over when you meet someone; that’s when they’re just starting. Yes, the lead-up is exciting and thrilling in its own ways, but there are so many stories and moments that come after that. Learning to be with each other. Discovering who you are with another person. Wondering what to do with your lives together. Making major decisions about where and how to live. Having the same discussion about dinner and your in-laws a million times. Meeting a new group of friends through your partner and figuring out how to blend them with yours. It would’ve been fascinating and rewarding to include more stories like this on a major network comedy simply because they tend to get overlooked for what we convince ourselves are more dramatic options: falling in love, getting married, or dealing with death.

This isn’t anything new, either. Most TV comedies have stayed away from the romantic dramedy of two committed lead characters, and when they do present a committed central couple, they usually pivot into family stories pretty quickly. Bewitched and I Love Lucy only went one season before giving children to the main characters. Two high-profile sitcoms managed to focus on the relationship between the leads in recent years — Mad About You and The King of Queens — and though they took wildly different approaches to storytelling, they share something rare: a core belief in the union of their main characters. The plots are about their lives together after getting married but before having kids, when they’re learning how to navigate adult life as a couple. It’s a narratively rich area that comedies tend to avoid, maybe because creators are under the impression that there’s less comedy (or just too much drama) in a story about a relationship. But they also likely avoid such stories because relationship comedies offer no clear resolution, no signposts to mark your progress, the way a story about one person trying to get with another lays out a beginning, middle, and end. There’s no clear next step when you’re together. You just work at it and keep going. I can understand why that might make some creators nervous — “these two people love each other and do stuff” is probably harder to pitch than a gimmick-laden rom-com in reverse like How I Met Your Mother — but I’d love to see a writer or network take a chance on something built on a young relationship. There are so many stories to tell there. It’d be a shame to let them go untold.

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Film, TV

Film Is Not Just a Delivery Device for Plot

When FXX broadcast a marathon of the entire run of The Simpsons to date, they cropped the remastered images, slicing off the top and bottom of the original image to fit into wider HDTV sets. The Simpsons, like many shows of its era, was originally broadcast in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This is what TV images looked like for decades. HDTV sets display a ratio of 1.78:1 (often referred to as 16:9, or 16×9), which is obviously wider. To show an older TV image on an HDTV set, you have two options:

1.) Center the image and put black bars on the sides (a practice known as pillarboxing), or
2.) Crop or stretch the image to fit the wider display.

The first option is always preferable. The goal isn’t to fill up your display with an image, but to view the image as it was originally intended using the best of our abilities. Before HDTVs, this meant opting for widescreen editions of VHS tapes or DVDs, which used letterboxing to insert black bars above and below the image to preserve a wide picture on a more narrow display. Many movies today will still be letterboxed on an HDTV, but because the display is already a good deal wider than old 1.33 TV sets, the bars are smaller and less noticeable.

That’s just for modern features, though. For older features and TV series, which were often created and distributed in a 1.33 ratio (or 1.37, aka Academy ratio), watching them on an HDTV and seeing a true representation of the work means having black boxes on the sides of the image. It’s the same principle as letterboxing; the bars are just in a different place.

Filmmakers and TV creators weren’t oblivious to the shape of the screens that would show their work. They composed and photographed images specifically in a 1.33 ratio. And this is where it gets important: a filmed image isn’t just a delivery device for plot, but a visual representation of the emotions of the characters and viewers interacting in the film space. Close-ups, tight shots, the interplay of camera positions. These aren’t haphazard, randomly chosen things. They’re all done with a purpose. And when you chop or distort the image, you twist and damage the intended emotions of the scene.

When Buffy the Vampire Slayer was released on DVD, some fans wondered why it wasn’t being presented in widescreen, especially as HDTVs began to gain footing in the market. Series creator Joss Whedon had this to say about it:

The fabulous episodes of BUFFY (and that one crappy one, sorry about that, seemed really cool when we wrote it…) were not shot in a widescreen format. They were shot in the TV 4 by 3 ratio. Now I’m a letterbox fanatic…. I want to see the whole screen, as framed by the director. The BUFFY’s I (and others) shot were framed for traditional TVs. Adding space to the sides simply for the sake of trying to look more cinematic would betray the very exact mise-en-scene I was trying to create. I am a purist, and this is the purest way to watch BUFFY. I have resisted the effort to letterbox BUFFY from the start and always will, because that is not the show we shot. This is.

The latest show to receive the HD remastering treatment is HBO’s The Wire, and it looks like it will unfortunately be cropped to fit HDTV sets, too. This is, of course, an affront to the creators of the original image, who knew what they were doing when they photographed one of the greatest TV series ever made. From a 2007 piece about the show:

The Wire for each of its five seasons has been produced in good old fashioned 4 x 3 standard definition. DP Dave Insley recalled, “The reason the show has stayed 4×3 is because David Simon thinks that 4×3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie. The show’s never been HD, even 4×3 HD and that (SD) is how it is on the DVDs. There is no 16×9 version anywhere.” As a viewer with an HD set I will point out that like much of SD television that makes its way to HD channels, it appears that HBO utilizes state-of-the-art line doubling technology. It may still be standard definition, but line doubled it looks considerably better on a high definition set than it would on a standard definition set.

Insley explained, “When the show started 2001 / 2002 they framed it for 16 x 9 as a way of future-proofing. Then a couple of seasons ago, right before Season 4 began shooting, there was a big discussion about it and after much discussion — David, Nina, Joe Chappelle, the Producers, the DPs — and we discussed what should be the style of the show. David made the decision that we would stay with 4×3. The DPs pretty much defined the look to be what it is now. And it’s been consistent for the past two seasons.”

Watching a TV show or a movie isn’t just downloading the plot into your brain. If it were, you could get the same emotional and aesthetic experience by reading episode summaries on Wikipedia. The visuals, including the framing, are crucial to an understanding of the work. All the pieces matter.

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Comedy

Robin Williams at the Roxy

The first Robin Williams standup special I saw was the one he performed in 1978 for HBO. It contained material that would be put on vinyl with 1979’s Reality … What a Concept, but this special was the first place I encountered these jokes. I grew up referring to it as Live at the Roxy, but I’m now seeing it listed online as Off the Wall. I think I saw it sometime during my middle school years, so somewhere between 1993 and 1995. My family didn’t have HBO growing up, either, so I would’ve seen a version that was edited for TV (likely Comedy Central). If I sound hazy here, it’s because the special itself was so influential and magnetic that the material has stayed with me for years even as the details of when I first encountered it have faded. His Shakespearean riff as he wanders through the crowd; the references that were already a little dated when I first saw the special; the frenetic, flagellating look at what he sees in his mind when he bombs on stage; the pleasant poignancy of the closing bit of the main set, where he plays an old version of himself giving advice to young people. As that character, he says, in part:

“From me to you, you’ve got to be crazy. You know what I’m talking about? Full-goose bozo. Because what is reality? … You’ve got to be crazy. You’ve got to. Because madness is the only way I’ve stayed alive. Used to be a comedian. Used to, a long time ago. It’s true. … You’ve got to be crazy. It’s too late to be sane. Too late. You’ve got to go full-tilt bozo. Because you’re only given a little spark of madness, and if you lose that, you’re nothing. Don’t. From me to you, don’t ever lose that, because it keeps you alive. … There’s no way any government in the world can handle madness. You’ve got to fly above it all. Remember: angels, they have wings because they take themselves lightly. … I don’t wanna preach to you, because preaching is like my grandfather used to say: you can fool some of the people some of the time and jerk the rest off. That sucks. But from me to you, keep bozo. You got to. And like Lord Buckley said, he said, people are kind of like flowers. It has been a privilege kind of pollinating here in your garden. Come back; I’ll be here.”

He was only 27 the year this special came out: impossibly young, lithe, energetic, raw. The bits here sank into me like only something you see as a child can. Rewatching the video now, I still know the words and beats even though I haven’t actually watched this performance in 15-20 years. Sometimes jokes from this special will pop into my head for no reason. It made such an impression that it took me years to realize just how big that impression was.

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Film

Loving Movies

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Critics are misunderstood. The knock against us is usually that we hate all movies, or that we only like “art house” or “fussy” movies, or foreign films. The truth, as usual, is more complicated and less interesting. Because we love movies, we wind up seeing a lot of them, and we also find ourselves working through issues of philosophy and worldview with every one. We find ourselves almost unconsciously building moral and aesthetic values that we bring to each successive viewing.

Most people engage in the same kind of basic opinion-building that critics do: I like this movie, that guy’s hilarious, this is a great action movie, etc. And if pressed, most people could probably give a more nuanced and reasoned defense of their opinions than they might imagine possible. The thing about being a critic is you push yourself to play devil’s advocate in your head after every movie. This (for me, anyway, though probably for others) tends to take the form of a series of questions.

For instance, say I see an action movie but find myself having a visceral negative reaction to the violence. The questions start to bubble up: Why am I having this reaction? What about the violence did I find off-putting? What did the images actually depict, versus what they suggested through editing and music? Do I always feel this way about screen violence? Why or why not? What about this other movie I love that’s full of violence; why are my reactions different? Is the violence portrayed differently between the two films? If so, what’s different, and how does it affect me? If not, why do I have different reactions to similar images? What purpose does the violence serve in the film in question? Who perpetrates it? Why is it in the story? Is it rooted in suspense or punishment, and what would either of those answers mean? Is it restrained or excessive, and what would either of those answers mean? This is just the iceberg’s tip, too, for just one aspect of the movie. And these questions don’t come fully formed in the mind. Rather, they take the form of emotions and urges that send you coursing through thought and belief as you wrestle with something.

As a result, you find yourself thinking a lot about all kinds of movies, every day, and applying to them the kind of standards or metrics that seek to ask “Why?” and not just “What’s happening?” You look at things as parts as well as a whole. In other words, you try to think critically about it. To a lot of people, this looks like relentless negativity. It’s not, but it’s understandable why it might feel like that.

I always find myself returning to something Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in the introduction to How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, a collection of his criticism. It’s a phrase borrowed from Tennessee Williams, and Mendelsohn explains his application:

But to my mind Williams’s haunting phrase illuminates not only the nature of certain works that have preoccupied me, but also something about the nature of the critics who judge these works. For (strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even) critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken. What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and, then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.

To that end, then, I thought it might be worthwhile to compile a list of movies I’ve loved, or liked quite a bit, or liked a little, or even just enjoyed in some way. My personal viewing list skews American and modern, and is woefully short of where I’d like it to be — I have yet to find a job that will let me make a living studying movies, having been born decades too late to b.s. my way into publishing or academia that way — but I’ve still seen a lot of things I’ve taken to heart in one way or another. Below, a list (culled from the master list of every movie I’ve seen). May it do whatever it can to dispel any rumors of despair.

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