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April 14, 2014

Yet Another White Guy Talking About #CancelColbert

Stephen Colbert is one of my favorite comedians of the last 25 years. "Exit 57", "Strangers With Candy", "The Daily Show", and "Colbert Report" come together to form a massive and brilliant comic resume by Colbert. He can act, he can dance, he can sing, he can deadpan, he can satirize, he can be serious, he can be silly, he can parody, he can improvise, he can make sketches work. He can deliver monologues, he can work in tandem, and he can do it all with a smart, humane personality. Stephen Colbert is, quite simply, a comedic genius - a once-in-a-generation comic talent that only comes along once in... a great while.

But this isn't about what he can do. It's about what he can't do: Step outside his own perspective. Unless Stephen Colbert has good representation of Asian-Americans on his writing staff, he is missing out on the nuances (and possibly even the broad strokes) of the Asian-American perspective. There's no way around that. The perspective of the joke he made (that caused Suey Park's #CancelColbert hashtag to strike Twitter) was emphatically that of the white-liberal comedian and his audience. It's hard to argue that Colbert had a nuanced Asian-American perspective that he was folding into his joke's perspective. He didn't, and maybe the joke suffered for it, and maybe Suey Park has a point.

But can I now dissect this joke by its substance, and not just whether it's funny, proper, satirical, or offensive? While all that stuff matters, their importance is secondary - a joke can be nonsensical and carry no message, but this joke did pretty clearly carry a message. So let's talk about this message, if only to try and lay the cards on the table properly.

So the whole premise was that Dan Snyder's newly-formed "Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation" is an absurd cop-out from the problem of making gigantic amounts of money off an apparent ethnic slur (Redskins). Snyder's solution uses the slur perversely in the name of the foundation created ostensibly to "help" the afflicted group. The joke's premise is that -instead of actually solving the problem and changing his football team's name - Snyder has chosen to placate critics with a cheap, obviously PR-oriented half-measure. Snyder has chosen the path of most chicanery, like some such shitheelectricity through a current. Colbert is satirically responding to this premise and using his in-character anti-Asian comments from several years ago as a framework to launch into his own half-measure.

This might sound like I'm stating the obvious, but here's the wrinkle: Colbert's joke is not at all about the Asians (or Native Americans). Superficially, both of these groups are being attacked, whether by Snyder's foundation or by Colbert's mock foundation. But the true subject of the joke is Dan Snyder. This might sound like an exaggeration, but the joke is genuinely all and only in the greedy Dan Snyder solving his Problem of the Other by pouring money into a token measure that serves to divide under the guise of unity. The joke is about a white man solving his problems with divisive token politics that might win him a referendum or two; meanwhile his Other is thrown under the bus. The goal of his "Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation" is clear: Snyder's opposition are left to fight among themselves over a divisive measure (over 1. whether it's adequate and 2. the public perception of fighting against a "Native American Foundation"), and his supporters are allowed to rally behind the "see, he cares" measure. All at (to him) trivial cost. At an added satirical bonus, it's a measure that's only as successful as it's perceived to be genuine. If people see Snyder's actions as fundamentally insincere, it won't gain him any favor.

Whatever the case, if politics is the art of polarization, then Snyder was executing a clearly political PR job by creating the Foundation. The fog of bad faith in Snyder is almost impossible to see through. And Colbert - in his dismissive "Orientals or Whatever" rant - was mocking not only the absurdity of the slur but the callousness and cynicism by which his character deploys it, all to betray the utter political calculation of Snyder's actions. Snyder is - from a perspective of naked greed - allowing prejudices inherent in his organization's name and logo to persist. In other words, it's not the tone or the slurs that create the impetus for a joke. It's the actionable racism that lives in Snyder's actions and the absurd abomination of humanity that must ensue. That's the humor. The underlying racism is the set-up; Snyder is the punchline.

I think that's an important distinction, because - though I don't share too much politically with her - I do actually agree with Suey Park when she constantly deploys the notion of privilege. I think that - as a white guy - I genuinely can't escape my perspective to understand how certain things feel to historically discriminated groups. And I shouldn't try to (or, in a cultural sense, be allowed to) "explain away" the feelings of others. Privilege - as far as I can tell - is real and endlessly frustrating. When I do have occasion to genuinely personally empathize with a political struggle, I realize that genuine empathy is usually limited to directly-afflicted groups. If I happen to be in the 1% that is thrown under the bus by divisive politics (granted: rarely), I suddenly understand all this talk of privilege, and understand that I don't, in a larger sense. I mean, even where you might naively expect there to be empathy (ex: blacks for the gay rights movement, Jews for the rights of blacks in the Civil Rights movement, etc.), the reality tends to be far more complex, because people are complex and guided by many motives, economic incentives, and cultural ideas. And yes, sometimes by these sorts of divisive political maneuvers, while we're talking about them.

 I happen to know that politicians in America since time immemorial - but especially, like, in the South - have used tactics like Snyder's to slow and stifle social progress. Gradualism always needs to be graded on a curve, and when the gradual solution is found wanting, its motives are typically wanting as well. Creating a foundation like that is probably 10% of what Snyder could have done and probably cost him 10% of what it would cost to change the name. When rational debate takes place between 20 and 180% of changing the name, what he has done is almost less than nothing. Snyder has done less than the absolute minimum that a reasonable person could expect of him, and has put a happy face on all of this, well, evil.

And Colbert likely understands all of this more deeply than I. Colbert has grown up and grown old in a American society filled with divisive rhetoric and maneuvering. He has watched Fox News turn news into entertainment and shrill propaganda, watched anti-war protestors systemically denounced as traitors, and seen any number of dog-whistle talking points and token political efforts. Colbert is eminently qualified to have an opinion on the empty rhetoric of a billionaire manipulating the public in the services of societal prejudices.

And therefore, I submit that Colbert's joke is something Colbert ought to be able to make in a civilized society, without fear of condescending to or offending his neighbors. Colbert's perspective may not be perfect for this problem, but he has plenty of relevant experiences informing him that can't be dismissed as casual white-liberal racism, just as much as anyone else in a position to influence the national debate. If the satire was lame or rang hollow (as Colbert's satire sometimes does), then we can dutifully chalk that up to the imperfection of his experience. But if Colbert can't make a joke like that, then no one can, and the whole tradition of satire is dead. And if you can't point out the absurd, then you've guaranteed that absurdity will triumph. If I sound melodramatic about this, it's because I look at the NSA and see a society that has gradually ceded an effectively unlimited amount of power to a shady agency, and so much of the debate gets reduced to "let's talk about Snowden". I think casual nods to ideological censorship by #CancelColbert must be taken overly seriously. If it's a joke, then it's not funny. If it's a hook to click, then it's not worth it. #CancelColbert may have been - in intent - little more than an inflammatory headline to start real debate, but the ugly implication of that "cancel" is a censorship that has long been used in our country to stifle subtlety, reasoning, and irony in favor of doughy-eyed, fearful, unsophisticated deference to the dominant ideology and useless arguments about tone and decorum. I think that "cancel" shouldn't just be ignored as an overreach by a group seeking a discussion - because it's in the language of anti-discussion. It's seeking our democratic sympathies by acting in an anti-democratic way. It's challenging the ethnocentric, ironic perspective of white liberals that believe they've transcended ideology... by bringing an unironic, dangerous perspective from a small group of radicals that refuse to acknowledge the existence of fair debate. Colbert has brought forth a long chain of reasoning to tear down a billionaire's actionable racism; the reformers responded with a personal attack on Colbert as party to racism. And I don't think any of that is right, and, if it is, it certainly isn't made right by the existence of privilege.

So let's talk about privilege, lest I reduce Suey Park and her supporters to caricatures. Our subjective experiences may indeed be filled with totally different triggers and thoughts and meanings depending on our perspectives. I totally buy that. But, in our shared objective reality - an objective reality we must share if we're to make any progress in that reality - we don't have to understand the personal effects of racism to fight against racism. We don't have to understand what words trigger what reactions to know that it's wrong to use a genocidal slur. We don't have to know how it feels to be hit to protest against violence. We don't have to know how much it sucks to have divisive rhetoric deployed against our political movement to know that it's wrong. We just have to have a baseline of understanding, a smidgen of empathy, and a conscience. Direct, firsthand experience of racism would certainly help, but in its absence? Secondhand principles and an open mind are perfectly valid substitutes as far as politics is concerned.

And sure, please! point out the shallowness and utter inauthenticity of white liberal comedians making casual jokes and conflations between your experience and other experiences as generic Others. Please! Point out how you feel put-on and condescended to by Colbert's maybe-not-so-innocuous choice of target. Seriously, there is a huge place in the world for pointing that stuff out, and at least bringing it to the surface for discussion can only help. And maybe Colbert himself would do well to acknowledge the validity of Suey Park's accusations of privilege instead of ignoring the offense taken as a misunderstanding of satire. After all, there are plenty of perspectives Colbert - like all of us - can't empathize with. But if we're to have an American democracy at all where problems can be talked through and worked out as a society, at least to an extent? Then I fail to see how it's helpful or productive to use the notion of privilege to crowd out and trivialize the issues of substance about which Colbert - and Park, and all citizens whose goal is a better, more tolerant society - can occasionally speak with authority.

April 11, 2014

Quotes that aren't from "The Wire"

These are not quotes from HBO's critically acclaimed Dickensian epic "The Wire". These quotes are not accurate for the most part -- nor, if they are accurate, are they accurate reproductions of that show.

"Let's be startin', then."

"It's all in the game."
"You know it."

"The game is on!"
"Always."

"As real be, as real do."

Prop. Joe: "Meeting adjourned, Proposition Joe."
Young Dealer: "Yo, these minutes be like hours."
Joe: "We runnin' a criminal fuckin' enterprise here. These minutes be like years. You just ain't see it, young'un."

"If you in the thick of it, they lookin' to skim some off ya."

"Our true colors deep down, McNulty, and we ain't white and black."
"What are we then, Omar?"
"We red and green. And if you ain't makin' green, you're runnin' red. I'm just the motherfucker with a color wheel. Chaos, ya feel me?"

"We got enough dope to feed the world, haha."
"Burn it all, yo."
"What'chu say?"
"World ain't enough to get the cops off our corners."

"I'm going legit, Avon. The city of Baltimore will be ours and the fucking cops will be off our backs forever. I got a hundred million invested in every dime store, slush fund, and 7-11 in the goddamn city. We kings now, Avon, and nothing can stop us."
"Stringer, I always knew you ain't know shit about shit."
"What? I have all the papers. We have political favors from every single establishment in the city, and regionally. Everyone depends on our supply of dope. If we stopped dealing, the whole city would dry up. Our mayor would get impeached, the governor wouldn't get re-elected, and all our schools and 1000 businesses would go belly-up. We have them by the balls, Avon, and they don't even know it yet. We could literally become aristocrats, travelling around the world and shit, and no one could say shit. Because we'd be powerful, man. We would have the power. Our right-hands could get paid and up a high-rise theyself. We could sip champagne for the rest of our lives with this monster dough and we wouldn't have to sling another ounce our whole lives."
"Stringer, I'll wet you up."
"Why? We livin the dream, Avon. The dream! And we're as ruthless as the streets ever were! You want some blood to end? Just name a name."
"If it ain't bleed from the corner, it ain't even blood."
"What?"
"I'm out. Have fun slingin' on the corners without me."
"Okay?"

April 1, 2014

President Obama Addresses the Nation

For months President Obama had been convincing Americans of all walks of life to register and enroll in a health-care plan by March 31. For months he stumped for enrollments and advertised the website where registration was to take place. Despite some well-publicized and politically disastrous hiccups with the website's design and reliability, everything had gone more or less to plan. The enrollment numbers were more or less in line with optimistic projections.

Then, the day after the deadline, following this massive campaign, President Obama naturally sought to address the nation about his plan. This would serve both as a gentle reminder to some of the stragglers as well as a more serious marking of a political milestone by which the president marked his days - and by which smart observers marked the soon-retiring president's remaining power.

Clearing his throat audibly and addressing the nation from the U.S. Capitol, President Obama closed his eyes, put his head down, and waited for the rapt attention of the American People to descend upon his eyes and the mysteries their opening would produce.

Opening his eyes slowly to reveal a fierce, unblinking stare, the president stared at the cameras.

"Poof," said President Obama with perfect clarity, gesturing with his hands that something had either expanded rapidly or disappeared.

"Poof," said President Obama again, even more clearly, repeating the hand gesture, without breaking eye contact with the camera. The object of his repetition was patently to ensure his first syllable was no accident.

"No one in the United States has health insurance," President Obama said, repeating the hand gesture yet again. "Poof. Waved away. Not to be. Disbanded. No one in the United States," and he put his hands together, as if showing the pre-gestural constitution of established things, "has health insurance, anymore," and he repeated the gesture.

President Obama smiled evilly, "No one. In the United States of America. Has health insurance. No one. In the United States. Has health insurance. No one..." and he stopped short while staring at the camera.

The camera did a slow, clockwise 360-degree pan from the front of the Congressional chamber and back again, revealing that the entire chamber (which could seat 1000 comfortably) was totally empty, save for him and a few guards (to be expected, naturally).

As the camera finally came back around and the president returned to center stage. "...in the United States of America."

One of his handling guards suddenly acted shocked and asked (and it now became apparent that the guards were mic'd up), "But, Mr. President, where will I go if I need health care?" with the timing of a comic straight man.

President Obama answered calmly. "Oh, you'll pay for it. Or the government will. We're cutting out the middle-man. I'm basically one foot out the door, and so I'm going to swing for the fences on this one. I mean, really, why not? It's a stupid - or, at least, not overtly smart - idea but the alternative is stupid too. And we all know it. So screw the political system, screw the doctors and insurers and pharmaceutical companies propping up our administrations - I just want it all gone. They're all real people, but they'll have jobs after we reorganize. No more compromises, no more complexity, no more machinations. This is a good thing that everyone will enjoy, or it will be just as bad as what we have now. You'll learn to like it, just like Europe, which, by the way, I am a socialist, and have been all along. Suck on that, Rethugs. Haha, just kidding. You're part of the country too. This is just a thing I'm doing on the side."

"But you're going back on everything you-"

"What? The political positions I clearly took to try to solidify my power, with mixed results?"

"No, I mean, you NEVER advoc-"

"But why not? Who honestly is gonna stop me. I'm throwing my whole wad of political capital at this one single piece of shit problem, and giving up on everything else. Enjoy the election, Jon Huntsman? Yeah, I'm not endorsing him, it's just that I can see into the future, just like all presidents, including future-President-elect Huntsman. I was surprised too."

"So do you know this will pass?"

"Actually, that crystal ball only tells you who's gonna be the next 5 presidents. It's kind of useless, honestly. Like, otherwise it would be really easy to govern, you know? Or at least it would be easy to relax, haha!"

"But, Mr. President, what about the website and the enrollments? You spent months, years-"

"April Fool's. Come on, that website was fucking hilarious. Give me a little credit, Tom."

"Well, who's gonna be the president 20 years down the line, then?"

"Ooh, that's classified. Sorry, America. You'll have to actually vote, because no one's gonna tell you. Huntsman's sure as shit not gonna risk a second term telling you, and the guy after that isn't, either. So it won't seem predetermined, even though, if you really think about what I've said, it must be, you know? One of them paradoxes for you. Don't think too hard about it, America!"

"Alright. Look, one more question."

"Go for it, Tom! You know I'm the president that listens to your problems, America."

"Mr. President, I just have to know: What kind of political capital could you possibly have left that would allow you to pass massive reform of this type and scope?"

"Uh... you ever been naked near any phone, ever, Tom? You ever tell someone a secret you wouldn't want to be public? You ever eat food like a pig while your phone was right there? You ever make a Google search you wouldn't want the entire world to know about?"

"I mean, yeah, Mr.-."

President Obama stopped Tom with a wave and pointed to himself. "Yo."

"What does that mea-"

"That, but everyone in the country. Check and mate. I don't want to but I will if I have to. Look at me. I'm crazy. You know I will."

"Fuck."

President Obama smirked once more and said, "Don't use profanity. You're on national TV."

Addressing the camera, with a suddenly standard gravitas, President Obama said, "Please, for those of you that haven't signed up, it's very important that you go to healthcare dot gov and choose a plan. We've been retooling the site, and I'm sure you'll find it much more usable than ever before. Thank you, and God bless America." He appeared to lose all control of his laughter at the podium, smacking it a few times and wiping a few tears away, before regaining his composure and returning to his established pose of gravitas.

The camera zoomed slowly out from him. President Obama winked and shook his head and made the disappearing motion with his hands as he mouthed the word, "Poof." as he and Tom instantaneously disappeared from the now-empty Chamber of Commerce for the feed's final frame of footage.

February 24, 2014

True Detective: A Diagnosis

Warning: Spoilers for True Detective ahead (through Season 1, Episode 6).

Before we know "whodunit," it's hard to pass full judgment on HBO's True Detective, a bleak, stylish mystery-drama whose eight-hour run is (as of Sunday) six hours in. That said, we can start to make some judgments and to parse which criticisms of the show still have validity. And, as I sit here on Monday morning, I'm finding that --while the show is great in many ways-- it's quite flawed from my perspective, and these flaws are too central to the show for me to ignore.

First of all, I'm well-aware that mystery is quite a hard genre to write. Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales established the work-a-day formula, but note that executing the formula well can't fundamentally be any easier than the act of writing itself*.

*NOTE: Mystery is an inherently complex genre whose complexities mirror (and usually exceed) those of general storytelling. Any story that has a beginning, middle, and end typically must reveal information strategically to set up the audience for the ending. Generalization? To be sure, but mysteries and traditional narratives require most of the same talents to structure and execute.

And, with that in mind, True Detective has done pretty damn well with a difficult genre. TD introduces so many narrative constructions, philosophical ideas, and conflicting accounts. And it packs its episodes full of clever details and clues. For all its complexity, TD manages to keep it all together, primarily with great cinematography and the excellent acting of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who ground both the central mystery and the detectives' dramatic arcs. It's impressive.

The complexity of both the mystery and narrative has meant in practice that the show's final two hours could resolve the show in dozens of ways that would all feel satisfactory. And I don't feel like it's cheating to get to that sweet spot by presenting too much stuff (like, say, S2 of Twin Peaks). All this sophistication (as well as the textually-rich hour-long episodes) contributes to an enthusiastic audience. Frankly, while I'm far more critical than the vast majority of viewers, I still want to know how it ends, too.


All that said, what are these supposed flaws that make me so uneasy? Well, most existing critiques of the show have focused on its treatment of women. I'm not really sure that's it. Emily Nussbaum wrote this New Yorker piece critiquing the show on this count. Unfortunately, Nussbaum is not honestly engaging with the work fully. Whether this is her or the show's fault is anyone's guess, but Nussbaum's claim that Hart and Cohle are the "male detectives" who spend their time "bro-bonding over 'crazy pussy'" is quite a misleading oversimplification.

I think a more troubling claim (and, as I'll try to argue, a flaw that spirals out to the rest of the show) comes from Nussbaum's calling-out of the gratuitous sexualization of the women. The presentation of sex in True Detective feels excessive and titillating (such a literal word. Heh.). And it sometimes feels like it's the only thing the women do, outside of talking to and about men. Most of the women are sex workers, sex objects, sex victims, or s.o.-defined Bechedel-flunkies. The sex scenes feel pretty perfunctory and their rate, frankly, quota-driven*. In such a work, with apparent prestige and seriousness, this alone would at least qualify as a minor flaw.

*If I had to play word association, I'd say the apparent one-or-two-per-episode-goin-to-town quota reminds me of none other than the "classy" after-hours soft-core on Cinemax from when I was, like, 12. Do they still have that? In any case, I recognized it was very silly, even then, despite being inordinately hottt.


Anyway, the female characters' paper-thinness constitutes a minor flaw only if you also grant the standard response:
It's a story of two detectives, Alex. The show only has 8 hours to make a convincing mystery and tell an engaging story about the relationship between the two detectives, who, you'll grant, are pretty damn good characters. Focusing on more of the characters would distract from the main story.
The "only two detectives and eight hours" thing is convincing to me at first, but starts to fall apart on investigation. First of all, most of the central dramatic baggage for Harrelson's Hart (and even some of Cohle's) revolves around Hart's wife Maggie. Maggie - though well acted - is not given a lot of lines to establish herself as a rich inner person, even though she participates in all of the following crucial drama:

  1. Demands that Cohle go to dinner at Hart's house, then draws out Cohle's tragic personal history.
  2. Repeatedly is shown to have deep knowledge of and insight into the tendencies of both Cohle and Hart.
  3. Tries to get through to Hart repeatedly about how destructively he's acting and how far he's fallen.
  4. Has revenge sex with Cohle, drawing first Cohle's rage at being used and then Hart's rage at being cheated on.
  5. Repeatedly commiserates about Hart's flaws with Cohle.
  6. Ultimately forgives Hart after he's caught cheating in 1995.
So in six hours of screen time for the series so far, Maggie has done at least six hugely-important things pertaining to this "story of two detectives". And so, let me get this straight: If Maggie's not important enough to give that third dimension of a rich inner life to, then why is she important enough to be a central part of Hart and Cohle's narrative, characters, and perspective? You can't have it both ways. She can't just be a paper-thin character who is completely defined by her feelings toward Hart on the one hand, and then on the other hand be the conductor of so much of the work's dramatic tension.

Now, you could just as easily read what I've written and conclude that Hart's wife is more than a convenient image or obstacle. She's doing things, influencing the male detectives, fighting back! And that's true, but only because Maggie is written to be smart. But it's always the same sort of tired, conveniently-expository intelligence. She's the kind of smart that drives the male characters' plot, not the kind of smart that suggests a full range of emotions or an interesting schema for her actions. She's not Maggie. She's - as far as the show is concerned thus far - Hart's disappointed, insightful wife. Her insights are on Hart and Cohle. Her disappointments are with Hart. And that's who she is. She doesn't like to be cheated on. Neither would anyone else. There's, like, one scene she's had outside of Hart or Cohle, and it was the time she flirted with a random bar patron to get back at Hart.

My point is that when you've spent that much time on a character that does so many different things, you can't turn around and claim you didn't have enough time to develop her. If the show doesn't have enough time to flesh out its third-most-important character as more than an elaborate, purely-reactive counterpart? Then that is a major flaw that's hard to ignore. The show should have been given more time or told its story with less momentum riding on her.

But for all of this, I don't really care if Maggie is fleshed out. That's not the central problem. No, Maggie is just the cheat code to the central problem of the series. Maggie is the key to Hart's bullshit because he spends seemingly half his screen time ruining their marriage, acting hypocritically and self-destructively, cheating on her, and ignoring her. It's sort of like a sitcom character in season 7 that never goes to their job if it's a family show or never goes to their family if it's an office show. Hart just never does anything except ruin his marriage. He never acts like a good cop or detective, and has no apparent principles that he actually sticks to, other than vague regurgitations of arbitrary, jealous masculinity. It's not readily apparent whether he's even competent. 
Cohle is doing everything important that actually amounts to purposeful action or perspective in both the mystery and the drama
Not at all a reflection on either actor (McConaughey and Harrelson both have wonderful, understated performances), but in the writing, you can't help but notice a glaring asymmetry. Cohle is essentially doing all the detective work himself; Hart is mostly just along for the ride. Cohle spends extra nights looking up casework; Hart "needs people" and is constantly hitting on potential mistresses and one-night stands. Cohle has integrity and wisdom and a well-developed perspective on human nature; Hart grouses for him to shut the hell up. Cohle keeps silent because he correctly judges that Hart wouldn't understand him anyway; Hart mindlessly repeats his backwards status quo while violating it constantly. Cohle is provokable and, by default, an aloof jerk; Hart is sadistic and vengeful to anyone that hurts him.

Now, all of this stuff reflects on good written characterization for both Hart and Cohle (and, certainly, great acting to flesh it out). The problem is, if you'll notice: 
Hart sucks as a foil
Hart's main skill is his charm with people, making him, yes, a natural foil to the cold, aloof, sometimes-sadistically-frank Cohle. The problem with this dynamic is that it's too lopsided: Cohle is inevitably always mostly right, except to be slightly more cynical - and infinitely more heartless - than is strictly necessary. Meanwhile, Hart is never more than superficially right, always pointing out the tiny flaws in Cohle's methods, but mostly just mad that Cohle made him think things about himself.

The main difference between Hart and Cohle - and the show is adamant and multiply explicit about this - is that Hart is fundamentally incapable of self-awareness and the attendant self-control and consistency that comes with self-awareness. Cohle is extremely self-aware, even of this very dichotomy, and this gives him immense power over most situations and intense insight, despite having less of the natural charm and understanding of conventions of Hart.

In short, Cohle is a philosophical pessimist that considers self-awareness a mistake in evolution, that would commit suicide if he had the constitution. Cohle is hard-working, has integrity, and is full of brilliant insights that just aren't appreciated by his corrupt and backward society (at least as the show presents both). Meanwhile, Hart just does nothing except defend his own ass and make witty rejoinders. If I might venture a single speculation, I'm guessing that Hart shot that bound meth dealer in 1995 because of he realized that they would eventually lead back to him from some past misdeed or corruption. And pure self-preservation without principle, rarely makes for good, cerebral drama (though Taken was pretty good, kind of).

Everything about Hart, all his complexity, all the rage and charm and activity, all of it adds up to excellent characterization in the hands of Harrelson. But it also shows how Hart apparently adds little to anything that's happening in the plot at large, and -the more serious charge- adds little to temper or play off of Cohle's extremes.


The foils of brilliant detectives in literature tend to work because they bring out something in the detective's character. Hart is basically making standard interpersonal messes for Cohle (or any other competent person in the same situation) to clean up, and Hart dismisses and refuses to engage Cohle's philosophy, except by gritty equivocating. Face it: Hart's a crappy foil. It'd be like building an entire season of House M.D. around House vs. Cameron, or an entire volume of Sherlock Holmes vs. Random Opium Den Addict. It just doesn't hold up. Hart's sarcastic to Cohle, and has the basic presence of mind to recognize Cohle's abilities and use them to his advantage. There's more to it than that, but surprisingly, not that much more.

Orson Scott Card, in the foreword to Ender's Shadow, called it a "parallax novel" to Ender's Game. That is, Shadow presents the events of Game from the perspective of a totally different character. The implication here being that Ender and Bean - by having two perspectives on roughly the same events - would bring a deeper understanding to one another's characters and to the story as a whole. The concept of "parallax" applies more broadly than to this special case: I'd argue it applies to virtually any situation with foils asked to respond to the same events in their own particular way. 

When Hart and Cohle collide as the two fully-developed characters, we get a parallax view of the world they inhabit, and it's probably the single weakest part of the show.

After all, since we're seeing the world primarily through the eyes of Hart and Cohle (and thanks for noting this, "only 2 detectives, only 8 hours" folks), surely the difference in their perspectives should color the world. In practice, there's really no difference. 

Oh, sure, they act quite differently. If they have a suspect in custody, Hart would politely try to get a confession, but would probably be stopped by charm and a desire to please superiors (and to not look like a freaking psycho). By contrast, Cohle looks into the suspect's soul, deconstructs their sins, and tells them, e.g., that they should kill themselves, you know, just looking at the situation rationally.

They act in different ways, but, practically speaking, Hart doesn't actually have a more positive view of human nature - he's just more willing to equivocate with self-preserving bullshit. So what we get is one character preaching and pronouncing a complex judgment and another one that doesn't really disagree, or can't really articulate a disagreemeent. It's a parallax calculation between an observatory telescope and a dude squinting at the Big Dipper a couple rooms over. And the view that predominates in a work is almost necessarily the best-articulated.* We end up accepting Cohle's gritty worldview because that's what the show rhetorically leads us to believe, by not presenting alternatives or even just a fresh perspective. And, if we're to accept this show as saying something in a literary sense, taking the only other 3-d character's perspective wholly off the table is very limiting.

*ex: Jensen's speech in "Network" is the high-flying trapeze everyone remembers, dwarfing the more-ubiquitous "Mad as Hell" speech in enormity.


I'll repeat the caveats: True Detective does a lot of stuff right, it's an interesting show, and plenty of people smarter than I like it very much. Emily Nussbaum's New Yorker article is mostly stultifying and superficial, and if True Detective produces a legendary ending, I'll be the first to applaud it. Plus, given that this blog's first life was as a Lovecraftian basketblog, I'm curious to see what they'll do. But the show's flaws provoke a lot of skepticism in me, and if the ending disappoints and the show is forgotten in six months, I'll not be surprised in the least. After all, the apparent "problem with women" in True Detective is less a problem with its women and more a whole host of problems at the show's core, including bad writerly choices about characters, focus, and perspective. And those choices are informing the rest of the series.

February 21, 2014

Space Jam 2: The Rejazzebration (Act III, Scene 5)

Introduction
There was a rumor of Space Jam 2, starring LeBron, being in some nebulous stage of Hollywood planning. The truth is that the project had already recruited Pau Gasol, LeBron James, Kevin Hart, and Anthony Davis, as well as your favorite Looney Tunes, and... uh, Krell, a real-life Monstar.
The actors all got together last October -except Bugs and Lola Bunny, whose contract negotiations were stalling for separate reasons- and filmed a screen test of the final scene to convince the studios to fund the project. Through one of my Holmes-slash-Moriarty-esque network of hundreds of NBA contacts throughout Los Angeles, I obtained this transcription of the event. It is not known if this project has been funded.


ACT III, SCENE 5

The game is tied at 97 with just seconds remaining on the clock. First to 100 wins. The Monstars have the ball and are bringing up the court.

KRELL, KING OF MONSTARS (and primary ballhandler), shoves KEVIN HART'S CHARACTER into the ground face-first in front of him.

Krell (maniacally laughing)
Aw, hah-haw, hah-haw, haw haw!
Now, to finish what I should have done earlier! LeBron, block this shot, if you can! Don't choke!

LeBron (to himself):
I don't have a choice. If he makes that half-court shot they'll get to 100 first. With Steph Curry's talent, he just might! The Monstars would take over the Earth!

In slow motion, KRELL rises high into the air and takes the shot. LEBRON leaps with him as the shot sails above him. LEBRON dramatically reaches his arm out with cartoonishly absurd stretch-arm CGI. LEBRON barely deflects the shot at its apex and watches it sail out of bounds at the buzzer. It's the start of overtime, and it's anyone's game. LEBRON turns to gloat...

LeBron (close-up on his face as he turns):
LILLLLL KEVVVVVINNNNNNN!!!!!! NOOOOOOOO!

Krell (landing on KEVIN HART'S CHARACTER'S spine with a crunch):
There, it's done. Now this party's really getting started!

LeBron:
You won't get away with this, Krell!

Krell: 
See you in overtime, "Chosen One"! More like CHOKING ONE! Haw haw!

Exit KRELL

Pau Gasol:
Stand back, I was a med. student! I'll help you, Kevin Hart's Character!

Kevin Hart's Character: 
Oh, lord, my back is killin' me! I feel like I been sleepin' under a house! No, heh, even worse! I been sleepin' under Shaq's house! Haha.

KEVIN HART'S CHARACTER coughs BLOOD

Kevin Hart's Character:
What's up, doc? Am I gonna live?

Pau: 
You'll live... But at what cost?

Kevin Hart's Character:
That's what I'm askin', ya ol' Scraggly-Ass Beard mofo!

Pau: 
Kevin, I'm afraid you'll never walk again....

Kevin Hart's Character (a bit sadly): 
That's alright! I got family. I got friends. That's what matters.

Pau:
I wasn't finished. You'll never walk again, because you're not gonna live more than 5 minutes. There's just too much nerve damage. Your heart's failing.

LeBron: 
I know this can't be easy, Kevin. Let's... let's try to enjoy what time we have left.

Kevin Hart's Character:
LeBron, nah, if I'mma die here it's no skin off my back. That Monstar-ass bitch aighty took most of that skin out the game with that landing, anyway, haha! LeBron, right now this isn't about my elf-ass persona. Truth is, there's goods, there's bads, and there's greats. You a great. I'm just a good, and I'm fine dyin' as such. And Krell and the Monstars... 

LeBron (shaking fist):
I'LL KILL THEM!

Kevin Hart's Character (coughing):
LeBron... Krell and the Monsters are bads, of course, but you know what they really are? Deep down? They ain't really really bad so much as they tiny. Deep inside they tiny inside. Look at Tweety. Tweety is a tiny-ass mofo even by my tiny-ass standards. But Tweety is brave as shit, ain't afraid o' no cat or shit. He ain't tiny deep down. That brutal mofo, beat me at pick-up, never forgive that bird... 

KEVIN HART'S CHARACTER smiles and makes LEBRON smile, and after a few seconds winces in pain and coughs.

LeBron: 
Don't talk, Kevin. Just hold on.

Kevin Hart's Character:
Take the big outta them, LeBron. Take their powers back and show them what it's like not to be able to stand up for yourself. They bullies, and bullies are always tiny. Remember that. Bullies make me look like Roy Hibbert. I tower over them and I squash 'em. But you a great, LeBron. You ain't a killer. You ain't-

LeBron:
Kevin, you're gonna be alright.

Kevin Hart's Character:
LeBron, you a good man, but you a terrible liar. And an even worse Decider. You ain't a liar, you ain't a killer. You... you the chosen one, Bron, you the chosen one.

LeBron:
No, no. I'm not. That's always gonna be Jordan. It can't be helped...

Kevin Hart's Character:
LeBron, listen to me. This is your time. And until Krell is down to size and off of Earth, I know you'll keep fighting. Don't you see, LeBron?

LeBron:
See what?

Kevin Hart's Character (fading, looking into the sky):
That having all that fight MAKES you the chosen one. That's all you ever needed. Do it, Bron. Do it for Drake. (Camera pans to DRAKE, who looks entirely indifferent watching the game). Do it for you. Do it for Lola. Do it for me. Use the song...

LeBron: 
Hang in there...

Kevin Hart's Character (smiling serenely and turning his head to look right to LeBron):
Hey, Bron, tell that tweety mofo I'll go double-or-nothin' if he makes his ass through the Pearly Gates. I'm out.

KEVIN dies.

The camera pans (this entire scene is a gigantic tracking shot, by the way, like in "Children of Men") overhead to the luxury boxes, where a close up shows  Tweety pushing a button for the PA. The Space Jam theme song immediately begins to play. 

Krell:
You ready to lose a planet, LeBron? You ready to WITNESS that?

LeBron (with perfect composure, and the hints of fresh tears):
I'm gonna show you what it's like to be great, Krell. You'd better start scouting other planets now.

Everybody get up; it's time to slam now.
We got a real jam goin' down --
Welcome to the Space Jam.

LeBron:
Kevin said to "Use the song". I wonder what he meant...

Krell: 
Well, LeBron. Are you gonna LeChoke Shame this again?

LeBron (in sync with the song):
Hey you, watcha gonna do.
Hey you, watcha gonna do.
Hey you, watcha gonna do.
Hey you, watcha gonna do.

SPACE JAM LEBRON grows to massive proportions. Over the course of the song (an extended, 28-minute prog remix of the title song with Neil Peart and Ian Anderson providing extended solos), LEBRON dominates KRELL AND THE MONSTERS in overtime.

Krell (as the talent deflates from his body, as per the Space Jam agreement, leaving him just an inch tall):
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

LeBron (calmly shrinking back to normal size):
Get outta town.

LEBRON flicks KRELL into space. 

Krell (reaching the outer atmosphere):
I told them we could survive in space. If only LeBron knew we need oxygen, perhaps he would've spared us... But no; we don't deserve the gift of life proffered us by our gods. We have wasted it all; may we die sooner anonymous than infamous. No matter: I got the game I was looking for. The game of the century.

(the sun appears to meet them on the horizon as they start to escape the Earth's velocity)

....Lord, just let me die easy. I ain't been a good man.

KRELL AND THE MONSTARS explode in the vacuum of space.

LeBron (oblivious to their fates):
That oughta do it! Hope they like Pluto! Hope they brought their winter jackets!

Kevin Hart's Character (jumping up, fit as a fiddle):
Tiny folks ain't need jackets, we just need cracks in the sidewalk! Haha!

LeBron:
Kevin, you're alive! But how?

Kevin:
KRELL wanted the match of the century. He told me, with the telepathy. We orchestrated all of that so we'd get your best match. That's all he really wanted, Bron!

LeBron:
So you mean you were faking it?

LEBRON is furious at KEVIN. There ensues a comical chase scene with KEVIN AND LEBRON.

LeBron (smiling):
I'm just kidding, little man. Just glad to have you back.

Kevin:
Haha, I was worried for a second! LeBron, how's about we get your favorite sneakers (he holds a Special Edition Space Jam II Sneaker up to the camera, showing the logo and purchasing information), go to Mickey D's, and forget this sorry-ass shit even happened?

LeBron (winking at the sky)
I'll never forget you, Krell.

Kevin: 
What'cha say, Bron Bron?

LeBron (starting to run back to space-car)
I said I'll never forget droppin a triple-double on your ass. First one to the car is Stern's lackey, haha!

Kevin (clearly outmatched):
Man, I ain't keep up with you. You a professional athlete! I ain't even as tall as the median human being! You know that's my whole reason to exist, Bron. Bron? Wait UPP!

In the distance, KEVIN HART'S CHARACTER and LEBRON get into a space-car and "drive" back to the human realm of the Space Jam-NBA-"real world"-human meta-verse. They escape through a portal of concentric circles, which, as they drive through, becomes the familiar outro to Looney Tunes cartoons. The tracking shot continues from about seventy-five meters behind the ship. Porky Pig, in full jersey, appears in the portal once the space-car is through.

Porky Pig (to tracking camera):
That's all, folks!

Anthony Davis (appearing in the portal next to Porky, obviously having rushed to the set):
Wait, do I get to be in the movie?

Porky Pig:
No, you're about t-t-t-two min-t-t-two... Your appearance is belated, I'm afraid. Sorry. That's all, folks!

Fade to black. The soothing sounds of a gospel choir begin as a drum solo from the Space Jam theme music (still playing faintly) slows down artfully to match the choir's tempo.

"I Believe I Can Fly" plays as the credits roll.
~ ~~~ FIN ~~~ ~

January 18, 2014

Chris Jones observes a falling apple


This is stupidity that must be addressed. I don't mean the "lol fail" of chain e-mails and memes or the oddities of language exposed by a hilarious Steven Wright one-liner, but the actual, categorical, creative stupidity of a staggeringly original and staggeringly indefensible variety, the pernicious and seemingly willful misunderstanding of a situation's gravity.

Let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). The Caleb Hannan of the first tweet wrote a much-read Grantland piece, ostensibly about an innovative golf putter, but that veers off into Hannan's research into the putter's inventor. Hannan discovers discrepancies between the inventor's claimed background in academia and what Hannan is able to find in public records. Hannan's research even uncovers that the inventor is a transgender individual ("...born a boy," as Hannan puts it).

The putter's inventor, known as "Dr. V," resists Hannan's research into her past. Hannan digs deep into Dr. V's public records and family life, even telling one of Dr. V's investors that she is a transgender individual, outing V. And, finally, after several inquiries by Hannan and several attempts by Dr. V to quell the publication of Hannan's piece (even warning Hannan that he's "about to commit a hate crime"), Dr. V kills herself.

A closer reading of the piece (I was largely informed by this fine piece) finds a disturbing contrast to my initial reading of "intrepid, curious reporter hunts the truth, and a troubled individual, plagued by her own demons and lies, kills herself". On re-reading, Hannan appears to be the aggressor: A sociopathic, remorseless chaser of the story that almost deliberately (or thoughtlessly) puts Dr. V at risk. If you read closely, Hannan arguably never once expresses a personal emotion towards a person in the entire story. For someone aping Talese, Hannan sure lacks any kind of human insight or empathy towards anyone in the story at all, even himself. Believing in the magic of a putter and seeing some holes in a story hardly count as emotion or insight. A mass of descriptive sentences don't prove anything but a beat writer's background, perhaps, but in the context of the story, Hannan comes off unimaginably abstracted from the human condition on a re-read. He sees the lies, and thinks "The Story". He sees a suicide and thinks "The Story". Like an automaton crossed with an algorithm for Slate.

But and so anyway, Hannan discovers that Dr. V has made a suicide attempt before. And still Hannan presses on. Hannan discovers that she is an immensely unwilling participant in this journalistic endeavor the moment he starts digging. And still Hannan presses on. Hannan discovers that the few people apparently hurt by her lies about her academic background (the investors in Dr. V's company) are still incredibly enthusiastic about her invention. And still Hannan presses on.

Everything that Hannan discovers about Dr. V should give someone pause - a transgender individual that Hannan would be outing, a history of a suicide attempt, and either paranoia or justifiable fear at Hannan himself and his work. Everything that Hannan discovers is filled with all sorts of red flags, not just for suicide, but for retaliatory violence against her person, for mental illness, and for - in the long train of events - ruining Dr. V's life. And still Hannan presses on, because the story is apparently more important than any of that, is more important than the tangible and emotional harm that Hannan at least appears unable to comprehend on more than a superficial level.

All this to say that there is a very strong argument to be made that Caleb Hannan caused in whole or in part the suicide of Dr. V. Threatening to publicly out a transgender person is - depending on the situation - pulling the lever that cuts a troubled person's remaining thread to life. Dr. V's suicide attempt and her desperate resistance to Hannan gives at least a strong indication that Hannan controlled such a lever. And yet he pulled it anyway. And then, when it was strongly plausible that Hannan had indeed cut someone's final will to live, he had the audacity to worry first about his precious story being completed. After all, the climax is finished, we must have a resolution! Just like Ozymandias had those snowy episodes!

Anyway, as feminist and transgender groups caught wind of this whole sad story, some predictable (and understandable) outrage forced some re-evaluations from those of us (myself included) that missed the depths of Hannan's piece. and the arc of discussion has now generally pointed away from "ooh, longform" and more towards "wow that guy is a prick and that piece probably shouldn't have been published in a million years."

So enter Chris Jones, a sportswriter of some talent. Jones used his immense gift for language to come up with the above tweets, sarcastically learning that "You can cause the suicide of a subject by writing about their suicide after they've committed suicide."

What delightful smarm! What specious slime. This is Hume-level billiard-ball abstract deconstruction that all adds up to a pool table filled with bullshit in the basement of privilege. Causality and power for Jones work in such a masterfully stupid way if we take this tweet at face value. Lord!

Now that I've contextualized Jones's comments, you can please understand that I can't actually respond to something so stupid. What I can do is apply the stupidity to the world around me and see what results I get back. My results are bound to be limited, as the stupidity exceeds my capacity to articulate.

Examples of Chris Jones logic:

  1. Person A points a gun at Person B and demands B's money. A receives B's money. When pressed for comment, onlooker Chris Jones reported, "I don't know how you can say A made B do anything. He didn't even fire the gun!"
  2. According to classical physics on the level that a modern, decently-educated individual understands it, gravity is a universal force of attraction between all matter and obeys the inverse square law. A sportswriter is standing on the ground and reports that "I don't think gravity is really affecting me. How can it be, if I'm not falling down at this exact moment?"
  3. In "The Godfather", there are several violent mob hits, and, more generally, a culture of violence that are established in the film, specifically associated with the Corleone family and its rivals. Several people in the mafias shown are sent to die or are surprised when they are intercepted and killed. A sportswriter watches the film for the seventh time in his life and wonders why everyone in the film is so darn nervous all the time. The sportswriter sarcastically tweets about the characters' nervous affects, wondering if someone put expresso in their coffees.
From my vantage point, this kind of stupidity doesn't happen by cause of stupidity but by incredible precision. I choose to take a fairly innocuous interpretation: I think Jones is deliberately talking about how we talk, because if we talk about how we talk enough, we don't have to talk about less pleasant things like how an individual's life is not worth another insight-less, affect-less long-form whose only larger capital-T "Truth" (its only possible defense) is in the tragic arc the piece itself begat.

I see the debate about privacy kicked off by Edward Snowden, and I personally have a huge fear of the chilling effect privacy restrictions have in stifling out our creativity and our remotely-unorthodox political action. I get it; if we start talking about journalists having social responsibility, the next step could be censorship, if we are not careful about how we frame the discourse on what that "responsibility" really constitutes.

But Jones is doing little more than irresponsible shilling right now with his idiotic 'logic', and in doing so is exacerbating two private tyrannies: The use of media as a mindless weapon against vulnerable individuals, and the dehumanization of the struggles of transgender individuals.

Speaking of which, special note: I'm not terribly familiar with the issues of transgender people, and so if the terminology or something about how I'm saying something offends you, please tell me and I'll fix it to the best of my understanding. Thank you.

December 1, 2013

Open Mic Night at Applebee's, in 2018 CE

DISCLAIMER: All characters, eating establishments, and ideas appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead (or to eating establishments), is purely coincidental.

Applebee's
Bridgenspirit, NY
2018 CE

A jig is playing on the speakers. It's someone's birthday. A child's. You can see where they're sitting in the crowd and the attention their friends and family subtly give to the birthday child. "For he's a jolly good fellow" has been bowdlerized, removed of gender, and made into a jig, which the employees perform specifically for that child, who smiles at the employees. The whole crowd gives the child a decent cheer. The stand-up comedian stands up from his seat on the stage at the conclusion of this final cheer.

"Hello, folks. I'm a stand-up, but you could probably have already told me that, given that you're all sitting down, and I'm..."

The comedian puts the brakes on this last word with perfect timing. Perfect timing to let the audient void process and respond to the joke. And they do; they seem to like the joke. The quiet laughs are sincere, and more than polite. The comedian sits down on the provided stool, both as a quick topper and to rest his haunches.

"Anyway, I'm probably the first stand-up you've ever seen in an Applebee's."

The comedian is playing on the fact that Applebee's is insensibly and universally popular in the town of Bridgenspirit in the year 2018, and the fact that Applebee's hosts stand-ups (or at least an open mic) virtually every night. The crowd delights in the recognition with an immediate roar of laughs.

"So, isn't it weird that - of all places - Applebee's is the home for the most subversive comedians of this whole damn period after the War? Of everywhere comedians could come together? But it's Applebee's, a chain restaurant for families. Who'd'a thunk it! Seriously - it's the most branded, commodified experience on the face of the earth. You know what I'm saying? I mean, those employees back there can't even breathe unless it's to the rhythm of a non-copyrighted birthday song!" 

Some scattered laughs. Meanwhile, the employees in the back of the audience nervously avert their eyes from the comedian and look at one another with a bit of rage. Silently and imperceptibly, they time their sighs to the jig, still playing quietly on the loudspeaker.