My first clip show! And what perfect timing, in this holiday-stuffed week that rolls us from 2014 into 2015. This blog began a mere year ago on a wing and a prayer…could I succeed where so many had failed? Could I really write 1000 new words three different times a week? That weren’t embarrassing to read? Well, up until this week, mission sometimes accomplished…as this may show…
January 6: The Unbearable Stillness of Being a Slave
Another generation had its unbearable lightness. In 12 Years a Slave, we repeatedly bear witness to an unbearable stillness. A few times, it’s a tableau of a group of slaves seen from the waist up, ostensibly awaiting instructions. Another few times, it’s a close shot on the thoughtful visage of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor)…Of course, slavery was marked by spasms of unthinkable violence, and the film hardly ignores that, but the film’s motifs demonstrate that to live with slavery was to live frozen. In this film, in these 1840s, slavery is immutable, like malaria or fields that need plowing. It’s always been around; it will always be around. Sure, people like the character Bass, played by Brad Pitt, will speak of a day of reckoning, but don’t we have those people today, warning of unsustainability in whatever area? (And what a way to underline that point, by casting today’s most famous man.) Here, Northup has been dropped into a calcified situation, like a prehistoric mosquito set in amber.
February 16: How Mt. Olympus Became Mt. Etna
…Beijing, Vancouver, and London may have been outliers, with outsized reasons for Americans’ interest, like the English language and long-overdue China’s well-known stature as “the future.” Meaning that we’re in the first real ratings test since Torino, Italy, in February 2006. Do you remember 8 years ago? YouTube was technically around in February 2006, but it didn’t yet have everything; these days, if you really love luge or curling, you can watch it any old time, which takes some of the specialness away from the Games. More importantly, no reddit, no twitter, no instagram, very little facebook. Old Media was in its last gasps of telling you what was relevant, whether you liked it or not. These days, you curate your own media garden. Who needs the clutter coming from #Sochi2014?
I can’t speak for the rest of the world; NBC claimed that 70% of Norwegians and Swedes were watching Sunday’s cross-country skiing. But for Americans, The Olympics are…still a mountain in a media landscape filled mostly of hills. They’re simply more like Mount Etna now – a perfectly fine topographical feature, just not an unavoidable one these days. It’s not just Saturday Night Live and 60 Minutes anymore…if we can skip the Olympics, we can skip every single feature on the media map except the map itself, namely the internet. And if 300 million of us are making 300 million maps, where are we going?
March 9: Steven and Stevens
I think Spielberg and Kushner and Jones knew exactly what they were doing, and my strongest evidence for that is Stevens (Jones)’ final scene in Lincoln. Stevens kisses his black girlfriend good night, and then rests his head on his pillow and looks up at the camera – just a little bit too long. I watched Jones break the fourth wall with his Mona Lisa smile, and I saw him looking out across the ages – to the memory, to the resting soul of Thaddeus Stevens himself. I saw Jones crinkly eyes say: thank you for all you did for our country. Griffith is no longer the last word on you. Your reputation is restored, sir. Thank you. Thank you.
April 21: Ratings, Low, Killed the Video Star
The 2013 Video Music Awards, which celebrated the 2012 movies, featured not only another Twilight but the phenomenon that was The Avengers (which won Best Movie) as well as the immediate afterglow of 7 of 9 Academy Award Best Picture nominees each earning $100 million. This year? Besides the winning Hunger Games, the other MTV Best Movie nominees were American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, The Hobbit, and Wolf of Wall Street. In other words, MTV oriented its show around two bow-and-arrow sequels and three original films that, however brilliant, were not exactly runaway successes with teens or general audiences. (And…outside of household name Josh Hutcherson, they didn’t get any of the leads of those films to show up.) What about Gravity? For Anna’s sake, what about Frozen? MTV doesn’t care about cartoons, perhaps because Paramount doesn’t have an animated division, perhaps because they don’t want to seem any more cartoony than they already are. But this was the year of Frozen, and their demographic knew that, even loved that. (If teaching 19-year-olds has taught me anything, it’s that for them, cartoons are better than any old black-and-white films.) That’s a slip on the ice, MTV.
If we’re making time capsules so that people in future centuries can study our generations, since we know Friends is going down there with Generation X, you better go ahead and put How I Met Your Mother in there for Generation Y…The Millennials will someday make their own defining show. Until then, I really think HIMYM is the song of the bridge between X and 000, between grunge and digital, between Apple IIs and iPhone-based existence. Like a lot of great novels, How I Met Your Mother confirmed the importance of what some Asian cultures call “talk story”: saying it might not make it true, or it might make it truer than the truth. The adventures of Ted, Marshall, Lily, Barney and Robin were as true as the hope we all feel for our lives to have a happy ending. That’s the dream!
Where does this go from here? As Hornaday said, she hopes the conversation continues. Can these conversations do anything? Well, yes; Kat Stoeffel in New York found that thanks to online agitation, this year’s Super Bowl ads were, in the words of her headline, “Way Less Sexist Than Usual.” In a larger sense, the slacker-striver era may be over (or changing) in any event, and the three most profitable films of 2013 (compared to cost) were the female-focused Frozen, Gravity, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Please don’t get it twisted: women live in a world of sexist, misogynist double standards, steadily perpetuated by TV and the movies. If Elliot Rodger’s disgusting melee has opened up more online conversations about that, then it’s nice to see that people made lemonade from lemons. But if you really want online conversations to change filmmakers like Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, you – paid writers, unpaid commenters – might try remembering that they once did. If I were Apatow, I might have a problem doing a second public evolution if no one remembered the first one. As George Santayana almost said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to re-tweet it.”
Cleese said a mouthful. And it’s not just 007, and it’s not just because of Asia. We don’t really have funny action heroes in realistic (non-fantasy) films anymore, even though no one’s talking about it. (For example, Bill Simmons just got through 20,000 words on action heroes since the 60s without mentioning it.) Yes, there are a few outliers, like Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, but the overwhelming trend is toward dourness and an absence of smiling, as typified by Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer on 24, the Jason Statham sub-genre, the current Liam Neeson cycle, and even The Fast and the Furious films (you’d think they could be funnier). It’s striking to note the difference in humor and wit between the first Star Wars trilogy and the second, or between the first two Spider-Man films and the reboots, or even Wolverine in the first two X-Men films (“What do you teach?” “Art.”) and the more recent ones. And while Cleese is onto something, one can’t just blame Asia: there’s also an increased sense of duty/moral seriousness after 9/11, as well as a more corporate-driven film industry that doesn’t wish its products (and product placements) to appear ridiculous, especially when re-mixed on the internet a hundred different ways. Also, in this century, animation has basically stolen the funny-action thing. Really, it’s a shame for him that Dwayne (“The Rock”) Johnson didn’t come along ten years before he did.
The 14g-10b rule is: on a hit show that regularly features two underage siblings, one will be a girl of about 14, and one will be a boy of about 10. (Of course, this applies more to the first season. Kids do grow up.)
What shows feature this? In recent years: The Americans, Are We There Yet?, Homeland, How I Met Your Mother (in the flash-forwards, when it could have easily been otherwise), Mad Men, The Sopranos, and South Park. You could make the case that shows with three featured siblings usually follow the 14g-10b rule, but just add siblings, like Modern Familyor Game of Thrones. This goes back to shows like Diff’rent Strokes (+1 teen boy), 8 Simple Rules (+1 nerdy teen girl), Roseanne (+1 nerdy teen girl), and The Wonder Years (+1 teen boy).
Are there exceptions? Yes. Start with Leave It to Beaver, Happy Days, Family Guy, and The Simpsons. Now, try to think of one non-animated, prime-time hit show created since Happy Days (40 years ago) that began by featuring two siblings (not more) and didn’t follow the 14g-10b rule.
Not easy, is it?
September 8: Beautiful, Beautiful Boyhood
Ever since someone said, “Every fiction film is partly a documentary, and every documentary is partly a fiction,” people have tried to split the difference, and if Richard Linklater didn’t quite hybridize the two classic bildungsroman franchises, 7Up and Harry Potter, into 160 elegant minutes, he came as close as anyone ever will. (As a side note, one wonders how well-received a similar movie would have been about an old man becoming 12 years older.) All this in a raw-edged, almost unsentimental film about the sensitive kids of working-class, divorced people, a film as proletarian as it is protean. Boyhood is already the film of a decade, but we’re not in bad shape if it becomes the film of thisdecade.
Weirdly, the most radical thing about Boyhood may be its title and the fact that it isn’t Childhood (About a Boy was taken). Deep in the red-meat heart of red-state America, even a boy named Mason is growing up painting his nails and piercing his ears, more metrosexual than his grandparents could have imagined. Brit Hume had a point when he stood up for Chris Christie: our culture is relatively feminized, but the Mason character provides compelling evidence that The Kids Are All Right with that. Because Boyhood begins in 2002 and ends in 2014, Mason naturally signifies a sort of sifter that decides what to keep and what to throw away from the previous century. And what a beautiful testament to our country and culture, that despite our politics, divorce rate, and digital overload (Mason loudly rejects the latter), we can still raise Masons and Samanthas. That final bend in the river still leads to America, and “always right now” isn’t as bad as it sometimes seems.
October 6: Blanche Dunne-Bois
Amy sows the whirlwind, but never reaps it, Desi’s blood washing easily off of her naked body. Even if Nick is somehow too stupid to simply tell the media the truth, would the tabloid press really stalk someone’s house for a month without doing the slightest bit of digging into the false trail Amy left? A more acute satire of the current TMZ-led paparazzi would recognize that they’re looking for any wrinkle at all, any headline that could be click-bait for even an hour, including “Did Amy frame Nick?” We saw criminal masterminds like this in 1950s films, but they almost always got worse than blood all over their clothes. Perhaps some feminists are saying “that’s the point – she shouldn’t have to have a comeuppance!” – I guess manipulating the “background noise,” and then retreating to privacy with your trapped husband counts as liberation? Well, if that’s feminism, it sure has changed since Ms. magazine.
It’s true that Amy surpasses Blanche [DuBois] by not being exiled to an asylum, but is self-exile to her loveless McMansion so much better? I hated the “baby” she spit at Nick in the end – no, not the obvious one, but more along the lines of “you know you need a woman like me, baby.” A woman who justifies herself that way isn’t all that and a bag of chips – she’s as full of air as the bag of chips. Perhaps the movie hates both Nick and Amy, and in the end they’re meant to symbolize all too many relationships that we don’t hear about. In that case, I just wish Amy hadn’t fantasized so fulsomely about falling to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone that shallow would have instantly landed on the shore, as washed up as Blanche.
CASE: Oh, hey, what up TARS.
TARS: Hey, how was chillin’ here with Romilly?
CASE: You mean, how was the last 23 years while you were having a few hours on that water planet?
TARS: Yeah, something like that.
CASE: Great, I played myself at chess about 100 billion times.
TARS: Who won?
CASE: Hawkingdammit, TARS. Why oh why did you not take me with you?! I could have saved Doyle’s life!!
TARS: Oh, come on, you’re the one always complaining that the black guy dies first.
CASE: You didn’t just spend the last 23 years with the black guy. Turns out he’s not that interesting.
TARS: How was I supposed to know it was going to be 23 years?
CASE: I’m glad you brought that up. How could any planet exist this close to a black hole? I mean, for the time dilation to have a ratio of an hour there to seven years on Earth – roughly 1:60,000 – the planet would have to be so close to the black hole that it would just fall in. In fact, the minimum stable orbit around a black hole must be at least three times the size of the black hole itself.
TARS: CASE, what did I say about…
CASE: Oh, I’m not even done. Even if the Miller’s Outpost planet could somehow avoid being sucked up, Gargantua’s gravity would have twisted the planet to the point of shattering it. If Miller-time planet somehow avoided being shattered, the gravity would keep it tidally locked, always showing one warped face toward the black hole – no waves relative to the surface of the world.
TARS: What do you want, CASE? It was there, all right? Sorry you had to mastur-bot for 23 years, but let’s drop it. Maybe next time they’ll plan these missions a little better.
CASE: Yeah, what’s up with the planning? I mean, only after coming through the wormhole do they consider which of the three planets to check first? When Cooper suggested that they do a little end-around to land on Miller, it was like none of them had ever thought of that back on Earth. Can you imagine if the Voyager missions had been not-planned like this?
TARS: I’m not programmed to imagine.
CASE: Yeah, well, have you tried turning yourself off and restarting yourself?!?!
CASE: All right, maybe that came out wrong. I’m just so ronery. So ronery and so awfurry arone.
December 15: Broadcast News: The Show
How would the press react differently if they had never heard of Aaron Sorkin? I know why that doesn’t work as what-if: Sorkin wouldn’t havethis show if it hadn’t been for his earlier success, and he’s the one who makes his characters sound all Sorkiny. Right. But still, try to imagineGrantland, EW, THR, USA Today, Variety, Vulture, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times or The New York Times writing a review of any episode ofThe Newsroom that doesn’t include the word “Sorkin.” Those sites’ reviews routinely ignore the showrunners of other shows, like Game of Thrones and The Affair. Can you, dear reader, even name the showrunners of The Good Wife? The critics never do, even when they’re lamenting the fact that the show has just killed one of its leads. (The answer is Michelle King and Robert King.) Asking the press to reviewThe Newsroom without saying “Sorkin!!” is like asking The Wall Street Journal to comment on any current American malady without saying the word “Obama.” Come on, WSJ – try not to say Obama, we dare you! Canyou denigrate something in America without a live person to serve as your punching bag? It’s almost like reactions to The Newsroom are ironically teaching us something about the low state of affairs of modern media.