Daniel Carlson

About movies, mostly.

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It’s Not Too Late for You to Become a Person of Substance

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.

Birth of the Uncool: The Mind and Movies of Cameron Crowe

(Thanks to The Dissolve for the link.)

Stray Thought on Superhero Recognizability

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.

Capital-T Truth


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.

Pop Culture Vocabulary

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.

Safety Not Guaranteed: Togetherness and Modern Life

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.

  1. The Duplasses also wrote and directed every episode, with the exception of the sixth, “Ghost in Chains,” which was directed by Nicole Holofcener.

  2. The Do-Deca-Pentathlon was shot in 2008 but not released until 2012.

  3. He drinks some hallucinogenic tea that wreaks some serious havoc with his reality.

Scattered Thoughts About Bodies on Film

• 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.

  1. No weekly TV reviews can ever be fully realized or effective, since the work itself is being broadcast and discussed episodically.

Shuffled and Paused

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.

  1. I say “acquired” because some of them were ripped from CDs loaned to me.

  2. A favorite from 2008: Blame It On Gravity, by Old 97’s.

  3. This is the broadest and blandest possible thing anyone can say about themselves, but you get the idea.

Small Stakes

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.

  1. The film hit theaters a few months before I turned 8; I probably saw it for the first time around age 12.

  2. Die Hard is maybe the best American action film of the modern era. More than 25 years later, no one has topped it.

Closing the Distance

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.

Stray Thought on Joss Whedon’s Avengers Films

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.

I never feel that movies need people who are sympathetic, but they need characters who are fascinating and charismatic, or you’ll have people feeling shut out of a movie.
David Cronenberg

Jim O’Heir: The Unsung Hero of Parks and Recreation

Ensemble television comedies can never serve every member of the ensemble equally. There’s always going to be a central character, and a few vital supporting characters, and then those members of the group whose presence is important to the narrative but whose purpose is mostly to redirect attention to the stars. They’re there to set up jokes and situations, but they’re almost never the direct focus of any story lines. And even when they do come into play, they’re usually pushed aside fairly soon so the action can once again focus on the core characters. What this means, though, is that those tertiary members of the ensemble have to be completely dependable. They don’t get catch phrases or become breakout hits; they don’t get to save the day, or win in the end, or change the course of the story. They have to fully inhabit their character and role, as committed to one line as the star is to every scene. They have to be engaging enough to warrant your attention and generous enough to cede the floor to bigger stories. And they have to be funny, too. This is incredibly hard to pull off, and the best supporting player in modern sitcom history is Jim O’Heir, the beleaguered Jerry from Parks and Recreation.

Jerry is the butt of a thousand jokes. He’s a hard worker who’s consistently underutilized and overlooked by his colleagues; he’s a nervous public speaker; he’s prone to making mistakes on even menial tasks; he’s simple, shy, well-meaning, and wildly codependent. He’s so deferential that it turns out his name isn’t even Jerry, but Garry — the misnomer came about when his old boss accidentally called him “Jerry” on his first day, and Jerry didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings by correcting him, so he just allowed himself to be called Jerry for decades. Jerry’s an amateur painter, a loving husband and father, and generally pleasant even when he’s being mocked at the office. He’s comic relief on a sitcom, someone just there to add jokes. Only a few stories have involved Jerry directly, and they’re usually about how his colleagues are going to accomplish their own goals while he just putters along. In “Jerry’s Painting,” he paints an image of a centaur to hang in City Hall that’s subconsciously modeled on his boss, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), but the episode’s plot is primarily about Leslie’s desire to use the painting as a way to make herself feel more confident and assertive in her own life. She gets embroiled in a minor scandal over the painting’s nudity and promptly makes the battle all about her; when Jerry protests, “It’s my painting,” she cuts him off. Or there’s “Park Safety,” in which Jerry reports being mugged in the park before copping to the fact that he actually fell and hurt himself while reaching for a burrito he’d dropped in a creek. The episode is mostly about his coworkers attempting to be kinder to him and then, in the end, returning to the habit of ribbing him so they can restore balance to the office.

This is a thankless comic role. It needs someone to show up, be pathetic but likable, and remain engaging no matter what’s going on around him. And actor Jim O’Heir knocks it out of the park every time. The show is built around Poehler’s character, and other performers have enjoyed breakout success as their characters become pop culture heroes: Nick Offerman’s bearded landsman Ron Swanson, Aziz Ansari’s swaggering Tom Haverford, Chris Pratt’s lovable goofball Andy Dwyer, Ben Schwartz’s cartoonish Jean-Ralphio, Aubrey Plaza’s dour but generous April Ludgate. They’re all designed to pop in some way, so it’s no surprise they have. And those performers are all wonderful. But O’Heir is doing fantastic, hilarious, detailed supporting work in a way that’s always funny but never flashy, and that’s often harder, and certainly less acknowledged.

O’Heir has to walk a fine line: he has to act simple but not moronic, kind but not ignorant, self-possessed but not proud, cooperative but not dynamic, dedicated but not robotic. In other words, he has to present himself as the possible subject for mockery but still walk and talk and act like a real person. One of the show’s many strengths has been its ability to create a world that feels populated by real characters, and O’Heir’s work as Jerry is no different. You never doubt that he’s really a lifelong civil servant, unironically excited about notarizing things and willing to do whatever the team needs done. Jerry isn’t even smug or entitled about being married to a beautiful woman (played by Christie Brinkley), even in the series finale, as his life becomes increasingly wonderful. Rather, he’s genuinely loving and happy.

That’s what it really is: the idea of being genuine. Parks is shot as a mockumentary that lets its characters make jokes directly to the viewer in the form of talking-head interviews or sly glances right at the camera. But Jerry never does this. When he does talk to the camera, it’s simply and honestly, like the time he talked about how he’s looking forward to relaxing with “a stack of mystery novels” after retirement, or his discourse about how his annual hunting trip is his one opportunity for guy time, or his poignant defense of his pointillism after his coworkers made fun of it. Jerry is never, ever too cool for the room, and that’s thanks to O’Heir’s total commitment and comic skill. He is the game day player, the long-ball hitter, the constant presence, the consummate pro; the one who has the guts to look foolish. He might not have been the star of the show, but it’s impossible to imagine the show without him.

Why Do We Still Believe Trailers?

A few years back, faux trailers were a fad; specifically, faux trailers that were edited to make the movies in question appear radically different than they actually were. One of the more popular ones was “Scary Mary,” which was a recut ad designed to make Mary Poppins look like a horror movie:

There was also one that made The Shining look like a coming-of-age dramedy:

Around the same time, people were making joke versions of the trailer for Brokeback Mountain, including this one that retooled Back to the Future as a story of forbidden love:

The gag here is, of course, just how easy it is to make a trailer diverge wildly from the movie it’s advertising, with nothing more than the right song selections and some choice edits. These recut trailers pull the curtain down and show us the men and women pulling the switches: look how it easy is to make Doc and Marty fall in love, or Jack Torrance care for his family. Trailers can lie so easily. Why, then do we still believe them?

Trailers are as popular as ever among viewers and marketers. (Blockbuster films are built around campaigns involving nested series of trailers, sneak peeks, and even teases for trailers.) Even when they all start to run together, and even when they’re clearly selling a different product than the actual film, they remain big business. Yet the existence of the jokey recut trailers would seem to suggest that people know trailers are misleading, or at least, that they know trailers have the potential to be misleading. How can we laugh at their disingenuousness in one moment and breathlessly watch them, eyes wide, in the next?

• Maybe we like being targeted by marketing. Marketers know what we like, too. Trailers are designed to be alluring, tasty, and filling in an empty way, like fatty snacks that hit our tastebuds just so. There’s a reason we can’t stop eating junk food, and there’s a reason we can’t stop watching trailers.

• I also think we like suspending disbelief. A movie is long, and complicated, and potentially disappointing. It ebbs and flows, and it takes more effort on our part to get and stay engaged. A trailer, though, is a two-and-a-half-minute ride that’s almost guaranteed to trigger reactions within us, and it allows us to believe that the movie experience will be as exciting and fulfilling as the ad we’re consuming.

• And I think it’s that we’re used to them, and that we’re also used to holding contradictory beliefs that sometimes influence each other in ways we’re not fully aware of at the time. We know trailers are deceptive and misleading, but we also know they’re crafted to be entertaining, and we want to be entertained. We want so much to transform the feeling of “that was a good trailer” into “that movie looks good” that we do it without thinking. We can know, deep down, that trailers are lies, and we’ll still eagerly watch them in hopes of copping a buzz of excitement for something new. We know we’re being sold a bill of goods, but we’re still happy to buy. We’re weird.

Scattered Thoughts on Bad Marketing

• A movie is never its marketing, but it’s often worth looking at how movies are sold and what makes some of them successful while others struggle to find an audience.

• Edge of Tomorrow is a crisp, fun, entertaining action-spectacle that’s essentially Aliens crossed with Groundhog Day: a soldier named Cage (Tom Cruise) is tossed in with the front lines to fend off an alien invasion, and he dies in combat only to wake up at the beginning of the day to do it all over again. Every death “resets” the day, so Cage’s mission is to figure out how to beat the aliens, save the world, and stop the cycle. In addition to all that sci-fi action, there’s a decent amount of humor, or at least comic relief: little jokes and asides allow for breathing room, and they let the audience laugh and release a little of the tension that’s been building during the more action-driven scenes. In other words, it’s got good pacing, and a brain.

• Almost none of that is evident from the film’s first full trailer:

The follow-up trailer isn’t much better:

They deal in their way with the story’s central gimmick, but they’re almost incomprehensible. They don’t do anything to distinguish the movie from other blockbusters, nor do they give the first clue to the film’s verve or voice. Place it next to something like the ad for Guardians of the Galaxy, which used its own pop soundtrack for atmosphere, and you see how forgettable it is.

• Standard caveat here that all trailers are lies designed by marketers.

• Audiences are bought more often than they’re earned, and there’s a clear disconnect here between the movie and the way it’s being presented to potential audiences. Even the title was a point of contention. Star Emily Blunt said that she was a fan of All You Need Is Kill, the title of the comic that inspired the film, but even more curiously, Warner Bros. seemed to attempt to retitle the film for home video. The film’s tagline of “Live. Die. Repeat.” — which is used prominently in the trailers — takes center stage on the Blu-ray/DVD cover, while iTunes and Amazon both list its title as Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow:



• The movie’s name didn’t change, though. When the title finally displays (at the end of the movie), it’s still just Edge of Tomorrow.

• This is an amazingly insecure and weird move on the part of the studio. It assumes that audiences stayed away because the found the title generic (which it is), and not, more accurately, because they didn’t know what kind of movie they’d be getting. There’s nothing in the ads to stylistically or tonally distinguish Edge of Tomorrow from the overwrought, almost hilariously serious promotions for the films that were released just before it, like Godzilla or X-Men: Days of Future Past, or shortly afterward, like Transformers: Age of Extinction or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It’s pitched and sold as one more in a line of summer shoot-em-ups, when it’s actually much more more fun and interesting than that. The trailer makes it feel like a somber march up Omaha Beach, when the film itself is robust, interesting, funny, exciting, and genuinely engaging. Getting scared and changing the movie’s title isn’t going to suddenly cause people to rediscover it. Rather, it causes confusion and makes the movie feel that much more like an uncertain proposition. How good can it really be, we’ll wonder, if even the studio is trying to hide it from us?

Scattered Thoughts About Bro-Country


• If you want to understand America, you have to understand the South. And if you want to understand the South, you have to understand country music.

• Country — I’m talking here about mainstream country music, not offshoots like alt-country — is so rooted in geography and ideology that it’s impossible to separate the art from its roots. Other genres and performers have had ties to different places, sure: musical sounds vary by region and history, and lyricists have romanticized specific places in ways that make those places feel universal, eternal. (E.g., Springsteen’s mythical Jersey Americana.) But most pop and rock is about feeling, not place. Love, heartache, excitement, partying, story, dance, whatever: the songs aren’t designed with a specific city or home town in mind. Country, though, is descended from Southern communities and tied inextricably to Southern states. By extension, that means it’s tied to ideologies that are traditionally popular in the South, like religion or social dynamics.

• An example of the religious specificity of country and its relation to region: Dotted throughout the South are Churches of Christ — autonomous churches of varying size (some downright tiny) that are typically conservative and trace their roots to the Restoration Movement. These churches don’t answer to any kind of diocese or broad leader, and they tend to be off the radar in ways that, say, the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t. The denomination doesn’t really have much of a pop culture presence, or an awareness among the general public, but it has still been mentioned in hit country songs like this one and this one. That is the closeness of the bond between country and the South. Many of the genre’s songs are acts of in-group identification.

• Country music is often reactive; that is, as much as it relies on certain sounds and styles, it just as often seeks to define itself in opposition to pop, rock, and mainstream genres and ideologies. This goes back to the South’s notion of representing itself as set apart, special, and differently formed than the rest of the country. It is not even remotely accidental that a region of the country that once seceded to form its own nation still champions a musical genre that is stylistically and narratively based in opposition and separation.

• Country’s reactiveness tends to make itself known most sharply when mainstream culture is undergoing progressive shifts. In 1969, with the youth movement and civil rights battles in full swing, Merle Haggard released “Okie From Muskogee,” an anti-protest song that railed against pot, draft-dodging, long hair, and just about every possible hippie stereotype you could name. This is country music: a down-home sound that resists social change.

• Similarly, periods of conservatism tend to bring out more peaceful, nostalgic country music. The Reagan presidency saw a rise in pop-oriented country that yearned for a return to the good old days. Songs like The Judds’ “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Ol’ Days)” literally spelled out these requests, and the mega-success of the band Alabama (who had 21 consecutive No. 1 hits on the country charts from 1980-1986) relied on it, as well, with songs like “Song of the South,” “High Cotton,” “Mountain Music,” and the blue-collar ode “40 Hour Week (For a Livin’).” Ronnie Milsap’s “Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night)” is another ode to Boomer wish-fulfillment.

• As the 1990s arrived, though, bringing with them Bill Clinton and renewed mainstream discussions of social progression, country music veered into neotraditionalism, which placed an emphasis on classic sounds. This was more of an aesthetic rebellion than a lyrical one, more interested in drawing a line in the musical sand, and many of the artists who emerged here put out some strong music.

• Country’s opposition isn’t solely about who’s in the White House, though, but about the social discussions we’re having as a nation at large. It was the first George W. Bush administration’s launch of the war on terror, after all, that gave us Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” — though interestingly, Keith had started his career with blander tunes in the neotraditional era. It wasn’t until he caricatured himself that he went to a new level of fame (or infamy).

• This is the context of bro-country, a recent subgenre that assembles song lyrics from a list composed of dirt roads, short skirts, and fishing trips. Critic Grady Smith made this in 2013 to examine the phenomenon:

• Bro-country’s reductive, almost hilariously one-dimensional understanding of women and relationships was skewered in 2014’s “Girl in a Country Song,” by Maddie & Tae. The song is its own call for a return to the past, one in which women were at least allowed to do something more than wear cutoffs and ride shotgun in pickups:

• Bro-country is the genre’s latest retaliation against broader cultural trends, this time those dealing with evolving ideas of marriage, relationships, and sexuality, as well as the openness with which such ideas are addressed. Gay marriage is now legal in 37 states; award-winning TV shows revolve around transgender stories; pop culture storytelling now has gay characters whose sexuality is not a joke, nor their defining characteristic. Bro-country is a cliche-ridden attempt to push back at this. Its subtextual call for a return to the good ol’ days is similar to the one country music is always, in some way, sounding out, but this time it’s specifically about the nation’s changing attitudes toward its gay citizens and country music’s reticence to follow along.

• Country can be a tough place for gay artists to find acceptance. Performers like Chely Wright and Ty Herndon have come out, but given the genre’s historical connection to the South — and to Southern religions — country is still years (or decades) behind pop and rock. When Ricky Skaggs was ambushed by TMZ and asked his opinion about country singers coming out, he expressed his approval not that they be themselves, but that they should be accepted because “we’re all sinners.” This is the backdrop of country music. The importance of the connections between the music, the region, and the religion cannot be overstated.

• Bro-country, then, isn’t just the latest disposable fad within the genre, or a way to mark this particular era, but a reflection of the genre’s and the region’s discomfort with progressive attitudes toward and discussions of adult human sexuality outside the traditional “two straight white people in love” model. It’s a defense mechanism, born of a desire to avoid change and conflict and get back to the way things used to be. But things weren’t better in the great Back Then; they were just hidden. The best thing for country to do here is the thing it has the hardest time doing: embracing the future.