Culture and the arts in America, sliced and diced.
Kevin Bacon in The Following. (Copyright Fox.)
The February cultural slump has set in, a lull between the new show premieres and the Oscars and book awards at the end of the month. To pass the time I’ve been catching up Fox’s new ultraviolent attempt at a hit, The Following. It stars Kevin Bacon as an FBI investigator hunting a serial killer played by James Purefoy. Purefoy’s killer is a former Poe scholar, if one given to rather simple readings of Poe’s work. (There’s a lot of blather framed in blood metaphors, i.e., “it will bleed into your work.”) And through some kind of virtuoso hackery he has become a kind of cult leader on the Internet, with minions now carrying out his violent plan with self-conscious artfulness.
Perhaps for some that does not announce itself as an irresistible premise. I myself began watching out of what is either pity or schadenfreude for Kevin Bacon, I haven’t decided. (He’s a cautionary tale for would-be weekend venture capitalists. Invest it all in Madoff, and in your 50s you’ll find yourself doing crappy network procedurals to keep the lights on!) But it’s also because I have, and share with what I suspect is a large proportion of Americans, an embarrassing fascination with serial killer stories.
But only three episodes in with The Following, already it’s work to keep going. The scripting is inept, the acting barely competent. The cult-by-social-media concept, which in more intelligent hands could have been a nice metaphor for the way that violence creeps into the smaller corners of American life, is too literal to be interesting.
Yet this kind-of-crappy show does, unintentionally, raise the interesting questions about what kinds of violence American culture is willing to confront, and which it isn’t. As the critic Maggie Nelson recently remarked in her The Art of Cruelty, it feels “Tipper-Gore-esque” to even complain about the seriousness of violence in popular culture these days. Wall-to-wall coverage of ultimately-fictional satanic panics and trenchcoat mafias has made us cynics. It’s just that instead of being a matter of television glorifying violence in any real way, it feels like we’re being spoonfed ersatz catharsis these days. You might feel that you’re confronting the horror, but instead you’re just glossing over the real problems at the heart of it.
For example, The Following derives most of its claim to creepiness from buckets of blood and guts. Critics, on reviewing the first few episodes, dutifully remarked on the gratuitousness of it all. Willa Paskin, at Salon, described her experience of watching the first four episodes as “nauseous.” Fair enough; viscera can be gross. But curious thing sometimes happens when we take gore as a stand-in for atmosphere, like Alessandra Stanley at The New York Times seemed to. She argued that because the show was “bleak and relentlessly scary,” it was taking its violence seriously. But is the chief problem with violence that it is gross, or “scary?” Is the “scariness” of violence the way to get people to turn in their guns? Or does it make them cling to them?
The claim to “bleakness” begins to fall apart too, once you see how directly The Following embodies our cultural fetish for a particular kind of “innocent-looking” young white woman victim. The choice of Poe as reference point reflects that. He, too, was fascinated by dead, idealized women, memorializing his lost Lenores and Annabel Lees in beautiful poetry that bore the marks of fetish. So far, nearly every victim the show has depicted is a rote sort of co-ed, blonde as often as not. Damsels in distress provide the proper “dramatic” contrast, between pure good and pure evil. They have done so since the days of the Romantics, who invented this whole idea of murder as an art, an expression of something.
Well, one might say, there ought to be drama in a television show, oughtn’t there? Sure, but our preferences on that score have leaked into fact, the more the news feels some vague impulse to “entertain.” This has concrete effects. Missing White Woman Syndrome is now a widely used term; we are aware of the (real) news media’s obsession with damsels in distress. Their single-mindedness has a habit of eclipsing coverage of the other kinds of violence plaguing America.
Consider, after all, that real-life serial killers do not generally work on a casting director’s schematic. Their victims tend to be, systematically, people who live on the fringes of power. The most obvious category of those are sex workers, the victims both of Jack the Ripper and Robert Pickton. Many of John Wayne Gacy’s male victims fell in that category, too. Even Ted Bundy, who had more of an attraction to the media-friendly co-ed, often picked up runaways.
And it isn’t just the victims who bear no resemblance to real violence. In a funny way, the serial killer narrative feels a bit dated. It has been a long time since the heartland, as one might put it, was terrorized by one. Jeffrey Dahmer died in prison nearly twenty years ago. There are perhaps others operative, I’m not up on the latest investigations. But the terror that plagues Americans today is something more akin what happened last December 14. That is the specter of violence that’s truly haunting us. Yet somehow there is something more unspeakable in James Holmes or Jared Loughner or Adam Lanza than in a crazy guy who rants about Poe and orders beautiful young people around. It’s just not the story America wants to tell itself about itself.
Read Michelle Dean's take on the legacy of Liz Lemon.
Liz Lemon, and her alter ego, Tina Fey, do not have spotless records, not even on the level of comedic genius. Later seasons of 30 Rock have dragged. The knowing cynicism of the show is starting to feel rote, and I have yet to meet anyone who finds her marriage to her weird boyfriend particularly plausible even within the show’s own absurdist tone. I have the feeling the ratings she sees tonight for her curtain call will be her highest in years—from a height of about 8 million viewers, only about 3 million now watch her show religiously. That’s still three times the ratings of certain cable shows, but low for a network series. 30 Rock has always been a different kind of hit.
The popular read on this is that 30 Rock helped women storm the barricades of pop culture. There’s a lot of chatter now about the proliferation of women on television, as well as the numbers that don’t really back that up. But it’s not just a matter of numbers. It’s a matter of talk, of recognition and of respect. In the era of Dan Quayle, that talk wasn’t always welcome, because it was endless idiotic appeals for women to be proper “role models” for the presumed automatons in their audiences. But mercifully, we seem to be getting away from that in favour of a new, more interesting cultural cycle, one which 30 Rock was the first to handle with aplomb.
The cycle has three distinct phases.
Phase One is the Embrace. Early on we began hearing that Liz, and Tina Fey by association, represented a model career woman. And yes, a subsection of the cubicle-dwelling women of America, raised on Sassy and weaned on Jezebel, couldn’t help but relate. Their work might have been less fulfilling than the running of a sketch comedy show in New York. But Liz’s affection for fake cheese snacks, dating losers and dressing indifferently were recognizable.
At that, she wasn’t revolutionary, not exactly. Liz owed a ton to Maude and Rhoda and Mary Tyler Moore, just for starters. But she opened up the possibilities for some of us. Not only were we now free to sacrifice a lot for our jobs, we were free to do so in comfortable footwear and air-dried hair. A thousand op-eds launched in approval.
Phase Two is the Backlash. Some noticed early on that Liz’s vision of liberation was narrowly tailored. Sady Doyle wrote a long and much circulated essay, which pointed out that Liz “doesn’t do posts about sex workers’ rights, but she does do complaining about ‘raunch culture’; she doesn’t do anti-racism, disability activism, or trans ally work to any huge extent, but she does do ‘body image’ (and oh, does she ever do body image, without taking much note of the fact that as a white, abled, cis person she conforms to the “beauty standard,” and benefits from conforming to it, in more ways than she will ever let on).”
Indeed, Liz was not a radical. Her alter ego, Tina Fey, never really was either. Just check out the time that Fey picked on the tattooed mistress of Sandra Bullock’s husband, effectively calling her a “whore” on Saturday Night Live. (As people pointed out at the time, she should have been reminded of her Mean Girls edict to “stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.") The subtext was briefly text. After all, in her own bumbling, loser way Liz Lemon was every bit as judgmental as a glamazon Queen Bee. Her eyerolls at her blond co-workers, Jenna and Cerie, were marks of her belief in her superior intelligence. And yes, she was more intelligent, in her way. But she could have been less lordly about it.
And then we hit Phase Three…well, I don’t know what quite to call it. One word might be Self-Criticism, except less like Maoism than like a particularly raucous comments section. As all the women-friendly cultural critics began to mount defenses, Fey herself chose to be less direct about it. Over the years, Fey—and Liz herself—winked at the audience, quite a bit. The subtle self-consciousness of it came across as the response of someone who didn’t know quite what she felt, and wasn’t willing to come out in full-throated defense.
Even where she addressed the debate quite directly, she was subtle about it. In one episode she pointed to Jezebel’s occasional (and sometimes legitimate) attacks on television shows for sexism. Some saw that episode as an outright dismissal of the criticism. The smarter reads saw it as something else again. Throughout the episode Liz tried to prove that she did not “hate women,” and found this a steeper prospect than she expected. It turned out she did have real conflicts with other women on these issues; it turned out her show did employ a lot of period jokes. It turned out that conflicts among women were real things that no amount of “You Go, Girl!” could overcome.
And somehow, the honesty about that was kind of refreshing, particularly because we live in an era when feminist institutions—such as they still exist—fret over their irrelevancy. They blame a lack of internal solidarity. And yet it turns out that much as in Mean Girls, the depiction of low-level intrafeminine warfare has a feminist value in and of itself. Feminists often presume solidarity rather than recognize it as a process, and one riddled with a lot of mistakes. Funny that, of all people, Tina Fey, who works in an industry where women are not just not allies, but often actively competitive with each other, would understand that best. Or, perhaps, not.
Lena Dunham's feminism: also complicated. Read Michelle Dean's take on Girls.
Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath in HBO’s Girls.
I’ve written about Lena Dunham in this space before, and I’m not looking to repeat myself, but the gist of my take on Girls is: it’s fine. Just that. Not the Second Coming of twentysomethings (which one shudders to contemplate anyway), nor some brave new art form. Girls has some good jokes embedded in unremarkable-to-sloppy plotlines and acting, but otherwise I generally prefer control and artfulness to Apatowian craft-of-no-craft.
That said, I watch it faithfully for the occasional flashes of talent it contains. So there was no reason for the queasy feeling I got when I heard that the show had been renewed for a third season. I mean to say that I actually felt a pit of dread begin to open in my stomach. I interrogated this overreaction, and concluded: my objection is not so much to the show as it is to the endless amounts of thinkpieces—as I once saw someone put it, Very Important Essays—Girls inspires. There are thinkpieces about thinkpieces and now I suppose you could call this a thinkpiece about the general phenomenon of Internet thinkpieces about television shows, so yes, on some level, I’m a hypocrite to point that all that out.
But: it’s undeniable that a lot of the reason Girls has the cachet it does is that the chattering classes (again: mea culpa) can’t stop writing about the damn thing. Perhaps Lena Dunham’s singular talent has been to figure this out, and recently, at least, to explicitly milk it. Last night’s episode featured her character meeting with the editor of a website who could offer $200 a post for confessional essays. It was obviously an attempt to patch over the problem, so prominent in the first season, of Hannah’s having no income. But it was also, unwitting or not, a reference back to the mechanism that has supported much of the show: “naked” confessionalism, like the kind the show fictionally depicts, is currently “marketable.”
To be fair, it is usually less profitable for the individual who does the confessing than it has been for Dunham. As usual, Dunham’s view of the economic situation of her characters is seen through the rose-colored glasses of someone who entered the market well-connected. Two hundred dollars is actually pretty high for a confessional essay. xoJane, which the show seemed to have used as a model for its fictional website, reportedly pays about $50. But she is showing that the formula can work if you are simply deft at manipulating it. As of this writing, Girls ratings continue to hover around 1.6 million watchers. And in fact, though few seemed willing to write about it, ratings were slightly down for the second season premiere, and that’s even as New York magazine celebrity profiles refer to Dunham as “leading the culture.” Which I suppose she is, if by “culture” you mean “web commentary."
To point out that media hype does not quality make is practically commonplace. But to an extent, we always presumed that was because media hype existed in some kind of elitist bubble, the people with the typewriters in the mainstream press wielding extraordinary power and having consequently blinkered views. But even as it has inarguably widened the circle of people who can speak and be heard, the Internet has not much changed that dynamic. Like some kind of crowdsourced tabloid, online culture alternates between rage and adulation, with no room in between. Sure, Girls pushes some cultural buttons that are tangled up with ideas about what women are and should be. But its engagement with those issues reflects a very particular kind of relationship that exists between artists and the people—journalists, bloggers and, yes, comments sections—they spend way too much time reading and thinking about on the Internet.
My friend Maura Johnston, a music critic late of The Village Voice, has a word for that dynamic: trollgaze. She describes trollgaze items as “those pieces of pop culture as designed for maximum Internet attention as they are pieces of art that can stand (or at least wobble) on their own.” Principally the mechanism trollgaze uses is annoyance, which sets off a boom-and-bust critical cycle. Dunham seems to know this. When quizzed about objections to her apparently transgressive body (transgressive by Hollywood standards, that is) that come largely from the kind of troglodyte who lives in YouTube comments sections, she said: “Get used to it. I’m going to live until 105 and I’m going to show my thighs every day.” That, for better or for worse, is the definition of trolling: doing what you know will annoy people, even if your cause is a just one.
And yet if you don’t watch it, the commentary can ultimately overwhelm the product. Which, in my personal opinion, is already what’s happened to Girls. Dunham recently gave her character a black Republican boyfriend. There are quibbles about whether she cast him before last spring’s avalanche of criticism about the show’s frankly lily-white worldview. But ignore the meta-commentary and watch the show, and his insertion seems purposeless. He is given few lines, no character development to speak of and comes off as a non sequitur. He’s there to get off a few jokes about how Hannah is clueless about race. Then just two episodes later he’s gone, because the Internet’s recappers and bloggers have launched their thousand ships about how his existence in the show is or isn’t racist and need her to give them some new material. Which, whatever else you might think of the show, Girls has a near-unparalleled success rate on.
For more on Girls’s cachet, read Nona Willis Aronowitz’s take on Girls and Shameless.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive to dance together at an Inaugural Ball, Monday, January 21, 2013, at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, during the fifty-seventh Presidential Inauguration. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Like a lot of people, I found myself curious to see what Michelle Obama would wear to the inaugural ceremonies yesterday. The breathless and frankly idiotic tone of most fashion journalism aside—The New York Times described her recent choices as having “enough of a story,” a meaningless phrase always employed without much elaboration—her manipulation of its hyperbolic lunacy often puts me in a state of awe. This is a woman who always manages to own the picture. And she does so without either looking “like a model” (another of those meaningless phrases) or succumbing wholesale to the lily-white cluelessness of the fashion establishment, often choosing designers of color, like Jason Wu or Isabel Toledo.
I feel wary writing of this. It’s an old trope of the left to complain that fashion is “unimportant.” (See Kevin Drum’s latest salvo at Mother Jones, for example.) Of course, I know and have all the standard leftist objections to focusing on her outfits. I worry that to place too many fashion burdens (or plaudits) on women is to put them at a structural disadvantage, because keeping up with fashion is definitionally about buying new things, and so: rather expensive. I also think too much of the discourse on fashion is too removed from the material realities of how clothes and textiles are produced in this world—which is to say often in terrible labor conditions. This is what made that speech Meryl Streep gave in The Devil Wears Prada about the “importance” of the fashion industry so risible—because in her description of the large-scale capitalist enterprise that is the fashion industry, she acted like capitalism is a good in itself, no matter the inequalities it produces, which is: gross.
Yet the first lady’s distinctive outfits, just as an example, have a way of undermining certain strictures on women even as they focus our gaze on the clothes. For one thing, Michelle Obama’s style, put bluntly, might be said to be that of caring very much to look exactly like herself, not like the “first lady.” (Mea culpa for that first mention in this paragraph.) There’s something both defiant and self-knowing about it, in that it’s not the plain pantsuits of yore, and yet the aura it projects is “control.” And that isn’t even to get into how looking exactly like yourself is still a novelty for an African-American woman in the pallid, debased and retrograde culture of high fashion in America, and also pretty much everywhere else. The fashion industry’s total lack of apology for its racism, and its embrace of body-policing, are legendary, facts so much already in evidence I don’t even need to argue them to you.
Like it or not, that industry and its images have shaped the self-perception, self-esteem and, consequently, yes, the liberation of women in ways that are crucial to their having a role in public life. You don’t grow up in a culture that still retains a belief that women are aesthetic objects, and emerge unmarked by it. African-American women who have never seen themselves reflected in prominent images of beauty happen to have the bluntest claim here, but I’d say even white women often get it: if we are going to be judged on the way we look (and we are), it’s at least preferable that we feel some measure of control over it. None of us think that control is total, but degrees count, in matters of self-esteem. And forbidding anyone even small succor on grounds of alleged “triviality” isn’t just wrong—it’s actually reactionary. Knock off the attempts to drive people out of the public sphere for your abstract ideas about importance, please.
And if self-esteem isn’t the same as structural change, well: the two do have some connection. Of course, I can only speculate about whether Michelle Obama’s undermining of the fashion industry itself is conscious and deliberate. But it’s inarguable that the enormous commercial power Michelle Obama wields—people just want to buy what she’s wearing—is shaking up some of its comfortable assumptions about what counts as “beauty” or “class.” Those are words that have always been wielded to keep people out. But increasingly, in the Obama era, their definition is becoming more democratic, not totally so, but open to more bodies and skin tones and hell, just people than they have been in the past. And manipulation is not capitulation, even if we’d love to do away with the whole beauty business altogether. But activists don’t get to choose the world they change; they’re stuck with the clothes in the closet, imperfect though they are. Except Michelle Obama’s wardrobe, of course, which is near-perfect.
For more on the weekend's festivities, read John Nichols's analysis of President Obama's inauguration speech.
Aaron Swartz (center) and Lawrence Lessig (right) pose at a Creative Commons event in December 2002. (Flickr/Gohsuke Takama)
Everyone is looking for a solution to the Aaron Swartz case, some kind of quickly enacted, cathartic maneuver that would make us feel better. In the middle of the week, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D.-Calif.) announced that she would introduce a bill to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). She calls it “Aaron’s Law.” Lofgren’s move would do what Internet law experts have been asking for some time and keep the CFAA from giving the terms of service agreements—yes, those contracts you don’t read—the effective force of law. As written right now, the CFAA allows a prosecutor to characterize your violation of terms of service as a fraud on the service provider, making your access of their system “unauthorized.” Lofgren’s amendment would limit the law to actions where someone deliberately circumvents the programming of a system to access it, more like what we picture when we think of hackers.
This is an excellent development. But lost in the praise is the fact that such an amendment wouldn’t necessarily, as Jennifer Granick of the Center for Internet Law and Society observed days ago, have kept Aaron Swartz from being prosecuted. The case against Swartz hinged precisely on his having circumvented MIT and JSTOR’s “code-based” attempts to kick his laptop off the system. They had detected his downloads and blocked his IP address, and then his MAC address, a signifier that every computer has. He simply masked both of those to keep his downloads going. His masking would be exactly the sort of programming workaround that would still violate the statute.
The imperfectness of the “Aaron’s Law” solution, however well-meant and even welcome, shows how a lot of us are missing the point. The wrongness of Swartz’s prosecution went beyond whether or not he was a “hacker.” It was wrong because it reflected a completely bizarre set of priorities in law enforcement, one which fetishizes the technicalities of the issues over the real justice of them. There is a broader, and deeper problem to address here.
That’s particularly important because there are already insidious arguments being made in Aaron Swartz’s name. On Wednesday, for example, the Daily Beast published a piece by Michael Moynihan that analogized Swartz’s struggles with the DoJ to those of—wait for it—Conrad Black. The basis for the comparison is this: Black has, since his brief stint in a Florida jail, become a sudden crusader for prisoners’ rights, because like many an accused white-collar criminal, he styles himself the victim of overzealous prosecutors. Never mind that the SEC recently fined Black $6.1 million for various accounting violations; never mind that Black, like many businessmen accused of wrongdoing, met his overzealous prosecution with what one imagines was a pretty well-funded defense. And certainly never mind that much of prosecutorial zeal in this country is actually directed at young black men, and is therefore much more likely to be the product of racism than free-floating harshness. As it turns out, there is no critique of the American criminal justice system that people will treat more credulously than one articulated by a rich white businessman, and one which just so happens to absolve himself of wrongdoing.
That sort of reasoning is dangerous because it make Swartz’s cause sound like one of the frequent refrains of right-wingers: that the problem is too much regulation, too much law, too much government interference. When, in fact, the problem is not the existence of regulation, but what it is directed at, when the Department of Justice chooses to enforce it, and what that says about the kind of political values the country is increasingly pursuing. As Lessig put it in his grieving post on Saturday on learning of Aaron’s death, the problem here is of priorities. To “live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House—and where even those brought to ‘justice’ never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled ‘felons,’” as Lessig remarked, isn’t to live in a world of either too little or too much law. It’s to live in one that has the wrong kind.
The most charitable characterization of these charges is that the DoJ sought to enforce the copyright JSTOR had in its database by way of prosecuting Swartz for his “unauthorized” use of MIT’s network to download it. That description leaves out that JSTOR’s copyright was the result of merely scanning articles that are widely available to every university student in the country, whose genesis and publication were (mostly) taxpayer-funded activities in the first place, and whose authors, largely academics, tend to be sanguine about their being copied far and wide. This weak philosophical claim to “own” these papers may be what led JSTOR to reportedly back off quite early in the case. But isn’t it worth considering why there is such a gap between the present position of the copyright laws and that philosophical claim? In a better world we’d be thinking about those questions. In this one, we’re dickering over the tactics Swartz used to highlight the issue.
Lawyers will say it isn’t their role to weigh priorities, but that’s disingenuous. In the defensive statement that U.S. attorney Carmen Ortiz issued on Wednesday, she argued that “the career prosecutors handling this matter took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold.” Just the use of the phrase “difficult task” betrays that the dubious justice of the case was on their minds. Ortiz further admitted that her office had no evidence that Swartz acted for financial gain, and so wanted only to impose a weak minimum sentence of six months. Which just goes to show: it’s actually the prosecutor’s job to consider the seriousness of the crime, if for no other reason than setting plea bargain terms.
There is evidence to suggest that Ortiz’s office was unusually unreasonable. Reporters have already dug up another hacker who claimed he had been harassed by the efforts of one of the attorneys in this case. Lessig himself titled his post “Prosecutor as bully,” and he was privy to more internal details than most. But just as Lessig called for the suicide not to be “pathologized” as a mere artifact of mental illness, it would also be wrong to see Swartz’s prosecution as an anomaly, a blip. The mere fact, as revealed in court documents, that the Secret Service was at least tangentially involved in the investigation, suggests that there is a broader skew of priorities here, one which reaches beyond one attorney and deserves attention.
The problems with “hacktivism,” after all, will not finish with this case. There may be good, privacy-based concerns to be raised about hacking; no one thinks it’s a good idea for Social Security numbers and credit cards to be subject to unfettered use by crime syndicates or, you know, even Facebook. But the focus on tactics keeps our eye off the ball. Cory Doctorow, in his remembrance of Swartz, hinted that perhaps the DoJ’s pursuit had to do with some suspected association with Bradley Manning. And Swartz wasn’t the first supporter of radical politics to be dogged thereafter by law enforcement. Something much larger, and more rotten, is happening with these cases. Specifically: someone is looking to frighten anyone who wants to challenge the public to think more deeply and carefully about what justice demands.
Read Rick Perlstein's tribute to Aaron Swartz.
Girls is going to dominate the discussion of television tomorrow, Golden Globes be damned, but a small but loyal band of people like myself are not looking forward so much to the return of Girls as we are to the same of Enlightened. HBO is trying to boost Enlightened’s anemic ratings by pairing it with Girls (whose ratings are better, if not as stratospheric as one might expect given the breathless coverage), and please God let us hope it works. Enlightened is one of the few strokes of real, original storytelling left in prestige television right now, which is clogged with high-minded but philosophically empty, spectacle-bloat vanity projects like Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and, yes, even Mad Men’s later seasons. Also, for the leftists in us, it has a nice anti-corporate bent as a bonus prize.
Enlightened, for the uninitiated, stars Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, a woman who, in short, cracked up at the beginning of the first season over a workplace affair. She sent herself off to Hawaii to recover, returning with a new, Buddhist-inflected attitude about life, and a $25,000 treatment bill. So she has little choice but to return to the scene of the crime, and through a well-timed threat of a harassment suit, manages to force the company to give her a position. But she’s relegated to a new department, a basement in which the company is developing a kind of productivity software that will allow bosses to hound employees over every dilatory second of the day. In the first season, Amy became a sort of frog willing to jump out of this pot of hot water. Her motives are both self-serving (she would like a better job) and not (she has become convinced that the company’s business model). Season two is to trace her life as a corporate whistleblower.
The show is the creation of Mike White, a writer who isn’t yet a household name but whose style—as both a writer and an actor—is impossible to confuse with anyone else’s. Watch his movies Chuck & Buck or Year of the Dog and you will see, instantly, what I mean. The comedy of it, to the extent it even is a comedy, exists in moments of discomfort. That makes White sound like a British comedian, but he’s more full-hearted than someone like, say, Ricky Gervais. White’s style suggests a cynic who is not sure he should be a cynic, but also an idealist who doesn’t know he’s an idealist. In other words, there’s always this tension in the heart of what he’s doing, something that is not so much self-doubt as it is self-questioning. Even the title is meant to convey that: Is Amy enlightened? It’s mostly hard to tell.
This can make the show something of an acquired taste. A couple of friends I’ve recommended it to come back confused. Are they supposed to “like” Amy? Sometimes she has tantrums; sometimes her social skills are off. She doesn’t really obey the conventions of melodrama, in seeming neither tragic nor heroic in her crusades. And in that she is actually more like a real human being, really trying to Do The Right Thing by her family, by her friends, and by the world, and finding that in fact the path to doing just that is not as clear as it seems.
Oddly, that suddenly makes the show much like Girls, doesn’t it? But Hannah Horvath and Amy are very different people. “The Right Thing” is not of any concern to Girls. The world outside Hannah and her friends barely exists for them, and while Girls does poke fun at that, it also doesn’t present any alternative viewpoint. Enlightened’s Amy was once, it seems, more like this, more wrapped up in her own life, and less prone to consider people outside her immediate vicinity. The show is about her process of opening herself up, one which runs in a less-than-ruler-straight line.
It’s a tiresome trope to hold a television character up as a “role model”—Amy’s fictional, after all. But watching White dramatize this process, which he has occasionally suggested is related to his own (he has told interviewers he had a similar breakdown in 2004), does inspire, at least a little. All those movies about the corporate whistleblowers and activists and their heroics, they seem so righteous, so convinced from the start that what they are doing is right and good. I mean, what they are doing is right and good. But the path to doing something that matters to a world wider than your own, well, it should involve a lot of self-questioning. Particularly if, like Amy, your day job ends up being more sinister than the banal, sunny corporate-speak that you’d been brought up your whole life to believe in.
The premiere is tonight, on HBO, following Girls, wherever you are.
For more on blockbuster progressivism, read Michelle Dean's take on the origins of Les Mis.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh, cast members Amanda Seyfried, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and director Tom Hooper pose at a promotional event for the movie Les Miserables in Tokyo November 28, 2012. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Here is a thing it is difficult to remember in the midst of its box office tidal wave: Les Misérables owes its birth to a debate over public arts funding. We think of blockbusters as antithetical to the high arts that public funding might typically support, but in Les Mis’s case, at least, the relationship was symbiotic. Some might say parasitic, of course, but the story reveals that we don’t quite know who was leeching off of who.
Les Misérables was originally staged in 1985 under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a large portion of whose budget was provided by the English Arts Council. It wasn’t the RSC’s idea to develop it, mind you. Cameron Mackintosh, a private producer coming off a wave of success with 1981’s Cats, had been looking to put on an English version of the musical, which was developed and staged in Paris in French. Mackintosh wanted a good director for it, and found himself knocking on the door of Trevor Nunn, then the RSC’s co-artistic director. Nunn and his co-director, John Caird (then an RSC associate director), substantially overhauled the plot and the script. They also gave the production what was, until the emaciated cheekbones of Anne Hathaway entered our collective consciousness, the musical’s signature image: the revolving stage. In other words, the look and content of the show were developed not just with public money, but by people who had made their careers in a publicly supported arts environment.
Blockbusters, onstage and onscreen, are typically seen as ego projects. Production notes present a narrative of the great director who wants to implement his vision. Nunn, however, clearly had his eye on another prize altogether. As a condition of agreeing to direct the show, Nunn insisted first that it be an RSC production, then that the casting be at least partially drawn from the company and, third, that Caird be his co-director. Those demands, small though they might seem, were crucial: the fortunes of the company with the immense, huge fortune generated by the musical itself. By late 2012 the company’s then–artistic director, Michael Boyd, reported that the RSC had taken in about £19 million in royalties. It’s a small sum, of course, when compared to the overall intake of a musical whose ticket sales alone have garnered something like $1 billion. And one imagines Mackintosh’s cut, let alone Nunn’s personal royalty, rather larger. Still: the point is that the RSC made its money back, and then some. And that’s not even to cover the income stream something like the original cast recording made for those RSC actors who got to participate.
At the time, the public was not particularly grateful for the gesture. Bad reviews led to a dislike for Nunn that began to feel personal. Until he hooked up with Mackintosh (Nunn also directed Cats), Nunn had been less of a populist director, more prone to staging minimalist productions of Macbeth in warehouses than big showstoppers. Now, they said, he was a sellout. They alleged that he was “using” the public’s money for self-aggrandizing purposes. The grumblers noted that the production budget—the equivalent of about £1 million today—was far larger than those of other RSC productions. So loud was the clamor that the Sunday Times actually began to investigate Nunn’s personal finances, and found he was earning a great deal of money outside the company. This, they thought, was a bad thing. (Nunn sued for libel, but it resulted mostly in a correction of certain reported sums.)
What is remarkable about the skepticism, in retrospect, is that Nunn’s response—to find the RSC a source of revenue in this kind of public-private partnership in the arts—did not come out of nowhere. Nineteen eighty-five, the year Les Misérables was produced, was smack in the middle of the Thatcher era. Cuts to arts spending were immense. And perhaps more importantly, as detailed by a British theatre scholar, Baz Kershaw, Thatcherites rhetorically positioned as a “democratic” obligation the idea that public-sponsored culture should serve, well, the public. Those theatres that did not see their budgets cut altogether by Thatcher had to realign their priorities.
In that light you can see Nunn’s decisions two ways. Either he is indeed a terrible sellout who used his position with the RSC to “incubate” a blockbuster—after all, Les Mis could have failed, too, and the RSC never made the money back—or he rescued the RSC from its death at the hands of the government. In either event, the point remains that neither the RSC nor Les Mis would be what they are today without the other.
Some don’t think this equation has much to recommend it. For better or for worse, Les Mis is seen as low-brow. When it opened at London’s Barbican theatre, critics famously hated the thing. It was a “load of sentimental old tosh,” complained one. Film reviews have not been that much kinder. At The New Yorker online, David Denby echoed their pronouncements last week, calling the filmed musical “overbearing, pretentious, madly repetitive.” He complained that the musical left the original Victor Hugo novel “stripped of its social detail and reduced to its melodramatic elements.”
Though in part I agreed with him—I am just not a person who loves musicals, and I also find Les Mis’s pageantry of poverty curiously bare of any real sense of class—I bristled a little bit at the dismissal. In the theater where I watched it there were people actually crying during Hathaway’s big solo, people who had clearly grown up on and loved the stage production. As someone with affections of my own for certain items of “low” culture—Star Wars leaps to mind—I do not find the similar attachments of others particularly worrisome. In a culture where the low end falls somewhere below Keeping Up With the Kardashians, it’s hard to get that worked up about the sentimentalities of Les Mis.
And yet sanguinity would be a bit easier if it were not the case that the money the public is still willing to spend on these big piles of Oscar bait didn’t basically disappear down a drain. Public arts funding has been out of style in this country since at least the Clinton era—most grants these days come from private philanthropy—but a slightly more hybrid funding environment might at least get us some alternatives to the blow-’em-up du jour. There are no guarantees in art, of course. A publicly funded entity will not necessarily make better, riskier art with the profits from a crowd-pleaser. But even a passing thought of Hollywood investing its profits that way borders on absurd. Those so very concerned about the decline of “American taste” ought to at least consider that.
Courtesy: Columbia Pictures
Come on, let’s admit it: Zero Dark Thirty was destined to stir up trouble no matter what. It’s about bin Laden and the War on Terror and both of those subjects still induce nausea. Film critics have spent the last week frustrated with Glenn Greenwald for what amounts to a mere week’s jump of the gun on a debate Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the film’s director and screenwriter, say they were looking to raise anyway. Greenwald, who hadn’t seen the film, insisted nonetheless that all arrows pointed to an endorsement of torture. This is a film, came the indignant cry back. It’s supposed, to use the phrase the counterterrorism journalist Dexter Filkins used in The New Yorker, to “stray from reality”! Except that the appeal of the film would not be half what it is if it were about the hunt for some guy we’d never heard of and hadn’t spent the past decade on a mission to destroy.
Oh well. Nothing about America in the Bush years lent itself to easy distinctions between fact and fiction. You’d think you couldn’t make up stuff like that “Mission Accomplished” banner, and yet staged it was. Perhaps it makes sense that a movie about its legacy balances uncomfortably on that knife’s edge. Perhaps what makes more sense is that we got a movie. From the minute the Towers collapsed you and I both heard people say it: it was just like a movie. The trope appears throughout Peter Bergen’s book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden—from 9/11 to Abbottabad, currently the best reporting we have on the subject: the “Dead or Alive” posters now best known to us from sepia Westerns, Hillary Clinton saying that watching the mission on the monitors in that tiny, crammed room was “like any episode of 24 or any movie you could ever imagine.” Except in all the ways it undoubtedly wasn’t, and all the ways that the formula of making a film—the clear plotline, character development, the need to fulfill audience expectations—will necessarily falsify some of the chaos out here in reality.
Perhaps in response to that, Zero Dark Thirty is largely a pageant of reserved judgment, trying for pure objectivity, like journalists of old. This goes for torture as much as anything else. Much ink is already being spilled on the depiction of waterboarding and confinement boxes that mark the film’s first hour. I’ll spare you the lawyerly parsing of screen time and dialogue and facial expression; the key point is that it is filmed with neither clear endorsement nor disparagement of the practice of torture. These filmmakers leave it to you to determine the issue, which sounds more artful in theory than it feels to watch. Bigelow and Boal conceal what they think, even are afraid to show any opinions on whether it’s their role to think.
Within this “just the facts” framework, the filmmakers aren’t that careful. Judgments sneak in under cover of accuracy. Anyone will find a torture scene more memorable than the break that comes from a staffer delivering a file folder. But Zero Dark Thirty’s script doesn’t worry about making the more mundane aspects of the search exciting. The straightforward drama of a torture scene—soaked towel over face, muffled screaming—is just more memorable. This is the criticism Bergen, the expert, offers himself. In fact, he recently wrote at CNN, in the capacity of adviser he actually asked the filmmakers to soften the scenes from an earlier, and bloodier, cut.
But it goes beyond those scenes. The hunt for bin Laden looked more like a figure eight than a straight line, or perhaps more aptly, as Mark Bowden put it in his book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, a web drawn from “bloody threads.” And Bergen’s book more or less concurs, quoting officials who say that intelligence coming from detainees did fill in and deepen the CIA’s understanding of Al Qaeda’s structure. The clearer picture allowed them to concentrate their efforts on direct leads.
That is the theory of the utility of torture that Bigelow’s film really buys, that in the aggregate it worked. Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent, Maya, builds her initial theory of the identity of the key bin Laden courier by watching countless tapes of other interrogations, some using “extraordinary” measures though some do not. Their collective reluctance to speak about this one particular person fuels Maya’s suspicion that he is the one who will lead her to bin Laden. Her obsessive conviction is the film’s dramatic engine, its only claim to be a story rather than a dry and disconnected litany of facts. This is what results cost, the story tells us, blood on the web and all.
This entire debate’s focus on results is a little off the mark—there are higher moral and legal imperatives here—and yet the film only echoes the confusion of politicians. A Senate committee is debating a report it has been preparing on the utility of torture. Senator Dianne Feinstein says it proves that torture doesn’t work. I say it’s 6,000 pages, and not all of them will be made public. So inverse is the relationship of politics to truth that the report won’t settle a thing, let alone the issues actually bothering us in this tempest over the fictional version of these events.
What’s really bothering us isn’t whether torture works; it’s that Americans are torturers. Eleven years on, it’s hard to believe that it still bears repeating: On some level the threat of bin Laden was always outmatched by that posed by the shift of political values and self-image that Americans underwent in fear of him. In Manhunt Bergen tries to distinguish the Al Qaeda threat from that of the Nazis by calling only the latter “existential.” Differences of scale certainly exist as to casualties, but emotions aren’t governed or measured by numbers. America learned something about its capabilities in this era that it wishes it hadn’t, and that knowledge sits, still, like a devil on the shoulder of the American conscience.
You can only have an exorcism if you actually call the priest, and vis-à-vis the darker aspects of Bush II—extraordinary rendition, torture, Abu Ghraib, do I really need to go on?—America never has. There have been no trials, no inquiries, not even a hint of truth and reconciliation, all because of fears that it would make Americans feel terribly awkward about who they are. So we resort to debates like this. They leave us cold because even the best-made films—and there is ample reason to believe, particularly in its final, forty-minute re-enactment of that raid in Abottabad, that Zero Dark Thirty is indeed one of them—offer only a terribly ersatz catharsis. In the film’s final minutes, we are given an image that suggests Maya may not be sure she got hers, either. It would cut a lot closer to the bone if the whole film hadn’t been telling us she was right, she was right, all along she was right.
For more on the subject of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, check out Greg Mitchell's assessment.
It might seem a small, if strange, footnote to the Sandy aftermath that Michael Bloomberg is unwilling to cancel the New York marathon scheduled for this weekend. The strangeness might lift for some members of this audience when I note that the thing is ING-sponsored. And it might get a little worse for you when I note that the marathon is to begin in Staten Island. As of late Thursday night, Staten Island officially accounted for nineteen of the forty confirmed Sandy casualties in the five boroughs of New York City. There were dark rumors, in New York, of more. And the generators alone that the marathon will require use of could power 400 Staten Island homes.
The holding of the marathon, for all the columns it’s inspiring, certainly isn’t the most pressing issue in a post-storm city that is only starting to reveal its wounds. It’s the heaviness of the symbolism that’s killing us. The optics of the thing are literally these: people who were spared by the storm will run, in a show of personal strength, past streets on which rescue workers have, in recent days, pulled bodies from marshes, and served ready-to-eat meals to the New Yorkers who have not been able to afford to flee. Whether or not the city uses up resources they might have spent otherwise on survivors, whether or not it is a show of “morale” and “strength” on the part of those New Yorkers who have reserves to share, it is exactly what it looks like.
A historian at the sports site The Classical offers the view that is no doubt lulling the sponsors to sleep at night: “for a city already at work on the business of becoming itself again, the marathon—a phenomenon that inspires us all to keep moving—seems an apt symbol indeed.” His defense is shared by other commentators who make vague stabs in the dark about showing strength in the face of tragedy. This is the go-to rhetoric of sports commentary, and there’s no real surprise in finding it here. But perhaps we all should take a moment to finish filling food and blood banks, pick up trash, check on trapped elderly and otherwise satisfy a few other of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. To make sure that there is, literally, nothing else we can do. Then we can let the self-esteem boosterism kick in for real.
Talk of displaying resilience feels like exactly that: talk, and rather cheaply bought at that. No surprise here. It is a commonplace thing in this political culture to substitute avowals of pride for the work of actually earning it. That is the general “patriotic” conservative strategy: if you shout, long enough and hard enough, that America Is Great, then she is so. The harder questions—like how an America where people can be bankrupted by illness qualifies as “great”—are shunted to the side in favor of feel-good flag-waving. And in the thirty years since Reagan played the country with the Platonic ideal of that sort of thing, it’s leeched into the political color generally. Rhetoric is more important to most political commentators than the stark reality in front of their eyes.
President Obama, I think, understands this enough to have pointed at it when he spoke in the first debate of “economic patriotism,” meaning that Americans ought to rally around the actual work of helping each other out of the economic sinkhole we’ve been in for going on four years now. But he swiftly dropped that term again. It isn’t considered good politics to place a modifier on patriotism, and we live in a time where “good politics” is paramount to any other concern. Keep moving, we tell him, you’ve only to get to the 6th and be elected and everything will be just fine.
But as The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch bravely pointed out on Twitter last night, everything on, say, Staten Island will not be fine, no matter who wins the election. This is not a problem limited to this particular tragedy alone. Everything that’s happening in New York and New Jersey pales (so far, anyway) in comparison to the sufferings of Haiti, or of post-Katrina New Orleans, but the solutions are all of a piece.
We’re never going to get past the disasters the scientists tell us are to come unless something fundamental begins to change. Unless we get an engine for salvation that is more than the self-serving, scare-quotes-included “hope.” Unless we start living in a country where the act of caring matters as much as the appearance. Spectacular indifference to suffering may have been around a long time—just ask Auden about that old painting of Icarus: “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/ Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” But we need to move to a place where we recognize what an abomination it is.
The most depressing fallout from this election, surely, will be that it isn’t a panacea in that regard. Bloomberg himself may want movement on climate change, as he said in that post-Sandy Obama endorsement. But we already know how hard that is to get through Congress, even when you’ve sailed into office on a mandate of change, let alone one of “hope.” The indifference of the wealthy and the powerful, who can insulate themselves from the effects of catastrophe, can be hard to displace. No one thinks that will come with someone other than Obama, of course. But one person, one president, isn’t and will never be enough. The fault is in ourselves, as some old white guy once said. Or at least in the people who think their personal athletic achievements provide nourishing “inspiration” to everyone else who’d prefer a hot meal.
UPDATE: The marathon has now been cancelled. But Bloomberg is holding a grudge, though: "We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event — even one as meaningful as this — to distract attention away from all the critically important work that is being done to recover from the storm and get our city back on track.” "controversy." The lack of empathy that elevates the "meaningful athletic event" over the actual suffering of hurricane victims still manages to astonish even when he's doing the right thing. Amazing.
Read Dave Zirin’s plea to postpone the marathon.
I interrupt my regularly scheduled cultural blogging to offer this: I, for one, am not at all shocked to hear Republicans saying extraordinarily moronic things about disaster management even as the ravages of Sandy are still upon us here in New York. The early favorite for gold, I think, is Congressman Steve King, of Iowa, with his statement, in an Iowa debate, that he wants a clear inventory of what disaster money will be spent on, because Katrina victims “spent it on Gucci bags and massage parlors and everything you can think of—in addition to what was necessary.” Where he got that spectacular impression from, no one is quite saying. Did some reporter somewhere mark a $20 and follow it down the Gucci-black-market rabbit hole? Every second that ticks by whatever ill-sourced, ideologically motivated piece of “journalism” that fact may have come from—if it came from one at all—gets shoved down into Google’s seventh hell, where I am happy for it to remain.
Contextualize that remark into Mitt Romney’s well-circulated avowal that FEMA should be consigned to oblivion and it gets no better. It doesn’t matter that Romney has now flip-flopped. And it doesn’t matter if, as in all matters Romneyan, the original position was probably just a part of his “conservative phase,” as Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum dryly put it on Monday. One doubts, in any event, that his attitude is really as cavalier as his smiles and false equivocations belie, though it would be good for him to give some hint of the contrary that doesn’t involve the vaguest sort of charity work, collecting cans of food as though New York were America’s Christmas Family. The problem is a lot deeper than that, because the idea that people are out there making a mint off of federal relief every time one of these little storms roll in has long been a deep concern for the right.
It has not, for example, garnered a ton of press outside of Louisiana, but since 2011, FEMA has been trying to recoup funds it “overpaid” to Katrina victims in its housing allotments. The debt-collection process, which has been hindered by confusion and bad record-keeping, was supposed to recoup $385 million, chump change for a government whose annual deficit is in the trillions, by nickel-and-diming people for amounts averaging about $4,622. There are some universes—and I suspect they may be the universes of many people in Congress—where just under $5,000 is an attainable sum to get together quickly. I’m going to suggest to you that people who lived through Katrina, and took those grants, are not living there.
If only we could get them to pay as much attention to the “disaster capitalists” badly in need of auditing.
That might sound like a complaint about Obama but as with so many complaints about Obama, it’s really a complaint about the limits of what he can do with this Congress. This is my Canadian talking, but I really think that American politicians have a highly idiosyncratic interpretation of “fiscal conservatism.” In their beautifully illogical conception of the term, it means “never spending any money, ever ever ever, except when and where we want to spend it.” The left and the center do their part in reinforcing this. The New York Times, in their popular op-ed from Monday, declared that “A Big Storm Requires Big Government.” They meant a government that has a disaster management agency, which, sure. But I don’t know that what America needs is a bigger government staffed by more of these people who rifle through disaster victims’ pockets looking for change or a stowaway Birkin bag. Employ more debt-collectors, after all, and you’ll get a bigger government too.
You’d think the choice between Romney and Obama would make this clear enough, but to reiterate: the problem in America right now is not so much that we need just any old government. We need a new way of thinking about government. Right before he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Tony Judt, the great historian of Europe, published an essay The New York Review of Books about the status of social democracy in the West. The fear of government, he said, was linked to issues of trust, in that Americans don’t feel that for each other. You might think it childish to predicate everything on trust, but in the end it is the only real reason to have a government at all, to suggest that there is a collective interest somewhere.
“Live together, die alone,” as those castaways on Lost used to say. And the rhetoric of togetherness is popular, but manipulable, in times of trouble. Everyone backpedals their way into that game by claiming that the help of “neighbors” will be enough. The funny thing is that actions like the FEMA recoupments just prove that, yes indeed, if you are poor, you can’t trust the federal government. If they give you money, they may someday show up at the door, wanting it back. Even in the developing context of Sandy, the fact is that there are neighbors who consider themselves in a whole other world. As David Rohde puts it at The Atlantic, “There were residents like me who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not.” Most of those are the cashiers and bodega owners and takeout deliverymen who are the ones who will certainly need a FEMA grant to fix a smashed car window or replace a bicycle or even just pay a medical bill. It’s a sad thing that they live in a country that is going to scrutinize their receipts.