Criticism

Thoughts on Ed Champion and his Detractors

So Salon.com, one of the three heads--along with tumblr and jezebel.com-- of the cerberus guarding the left wing of the outrage porn industrial complex, has published a hit piece on Ed Champion over some nonsense flame war crap between him and some people who dont like him. Im not going to link to it, because linking to outrage pornographers only encourages them, but you can probably find it if you want to read it. I suggest you pass, you wont be missing anything.

I honestly dont know whats going on with Ed or what the whole mess is really all about. I dont really much care about any of that. Near as i can gather, the current mess is a rolling boil that got started when Ed pointed out in a detailed essay this summer (of 2014) that author and editor Emily Gould sucks. That this was news to anybody, or that any one would be shocked to discover someone holds such an opinion of Emily Gould, is moderately surprising. I was previously under the impression that the conclusion that "Gould sucks" was the inevitable result encounter with her media output. See, for example, this video of Gould being insipid across the table from Jimmy Kimmel doing a Larry King impression on CNN 7 years ago: http://youtu.be/2-avakrRUaU I also understand shes engaged to the guy from n+1. And i mean, what more do you need.

ETA 8:12 PM PDT: iI mention this because I see an element of hypocrisy in a group of insiders rallying to the defense of a person who has grown her own career through the exploitation and criticism of celebrities. Why is it okay for Gawker to post whatever it hears about celebrities and post libelous pictures of them but it isnt okay to excoriate the author of a book who works hard building her own celebrity based on such yellow journalism? I would suggest, strongly, that it isn't; the people engaged in it, particularly the ones at significant publications, should be ashamed of themselves

On "Robot of Sherwood" or What It Means to Be from the Land of Fiction

(spoilers ahead)

In the new Doctor Who episode, the Doctor meets Robin Hood, and it's very clearly Robin Hood as he is known in modern media, specifically an Errol Flynn/Douglas Fairbanks-style Robin Hood. (Errol Flynn even gets name-checked, and there's a fun part where the Doctor is reviewing stories about Robin Hood and we see the actor who played the second Doctor, Patrick Traughton, from the 1950's TV show "The Adventures of Robin Hood".) Which is exactly why the Doctor doesn't believe he's really Robin Hood for most of the episode and thinks he must be an impostor.

When it turns out he IS Robin Hood, it's not actually the show saying that this is who the historical Robin Hood was, because that's clearly malarky. The Robin Hood of the original ballads was not this person, and even those were from long after Robin was supposed to have lived and grew out of a very particular folk hero tradition. No, what Doctor Who is saying is that the television show Doctor Who doesn't actually travel to the past at all, but travels to popular impressions of the past, the past as it is imagined. The past as a genre, as a narrative trope that Doctor Who can then crash into, interrogate and subvert. Which is why Robin Hood tells the Doctor "Remember, I'm just as real as you are."

Which is essentially a call-back to a second Doctor adventure called the "The Mind Robber" (1968), where the Doctor and his companions get lost in the Land of Fiction, a world populated by fictional characters. And one of the storybook characters tells the Doctor that he's a "traitor" to the Land of Fiction. As if he was a part of it that rebelled. (See also Philip Sandifer's brilliant analysis of "The Mind Robber".) At the end, it's not even clear that they ever really escaped the Land of Fiction.

Thus Doctor Who becomes a show aware of it's status as a work of fiction. Doctor Who always gave us the Doctor crashing into one or more other genres, but "The Mind Robber" gave that fact context. And so, much as Tarantino makes a WWII movie that's less about WWII and more about how WWII has been portrayed in popular culture, Doctor Who makes an episode about Robin Hood that doesn't pretend to be about the historical Robin Hood but instead is about interrogating what Robin Hood means to us and about rescuing us from our cynicism towards heroes. Because for someone from the Land of Fiction, believing in Robin Hood has nothing to do with history and everything to do with what Robin Hood means to us.

This isn't to say this is the greatest episode of Doctor Who, but it's one I enjoyed a lot. And anyone complaining that this isn't historically accurate doesn't understand this show.

PS. Yes, the shooting the golden arrow into the literal bulls-eye on the ship is silly. It's a silly show. The Doctor fights Robin Hood with a spoon. Get over it.

Star Trek is Not Progressive

Star Trek (the Original Series) has been mythologized as being about a hopeful, positive, Utopian future in which class differences have evaporated, war between peoples of the Federation is unknown, racism and sexism extinguished and money is a curiosity of the past, thus showing a way forward for humanity. However, actually looking at the content of the Original Series quickly belies these ideas.

Sexism is rampant on the show, perhaps nowhere worse than in “The Enemy Within” when it’s suggested that Yeoman Rand enjoyed nearly being sexually assaulted by evil Captain Kirk. (Grace Lee Whitney, the actress who played Rand, specifically called this out in her memoir as being truly horrible, so let’s be clear that any claim that this is “of its time” is actually saying “of the sexist men running Star Trek of its time”.) As for racism, yes, Uhura is on the bridge (albeit as a glorified switchboard operator) and Sulu is at the helm, but as almost every story revolves around the 3 white men of Kirk, Spock and Bones, and as these other characters tend to get less than a handful of lines between them, it seems less progressive than tokenism. (And one version of the creation of Star Trek indicates that it was DesiLu Studios that dictated the multiracial crew, not Gene Roddenberry, who would have been happy with the far whiter crew from the original pilot “The Cage”.)

But most importantly, far from showing a path to a better future, again and again Star Trek ridicules and skewers progressive ideals or the idea that people could reach a place of material social progress without it becoming a dystopian nightmare or autocratic dictatorship. The numerous examples include “The Return of the Archons”, “This Side of Paradise” and “Space Seed”.

Nowhere is this point clearer, though, than in the episode most often lauded as the “best” episode in all of the the original series, “The City on the Edge of Forever”. The climax revolves around the idea that Kirk must let Edith Keeler die because if she doesn’t she’ll start a pacifism movement that will lead to America not entering World War II and Hitler conquering the world.

Let’s think for a second about this. This episode aired in 1967, while protesters were out on the White House lawn chanting “Hey Hey LBJ how many kids you kill today”. In other words, the subtext here is expressly against the anti-war movements of the 1960s and in favor of those who felt that we had to fight in Vietnam to contain the Soviet Union. Pacifism, Star Trek is telling us in the midst of Vietnam, is an idea whose time has not come and is in fact dangerous in the present. Far from being a show in touch with the youth and representing the unbridled optimism of the 60s, this is a show that’s actively telling the youth to shut up and let the old hawks run things.

And yes, by the time we get to the movies and the Next Generation the mythologized version of Star Trek’s ethos was in ingrained in the fabric of the Star Trek Universe, to the point where we get Star Trek IV where the crew are basically idealistic hippies wandering around Reagan’s America and pointing out how horrible all the crass commercialism and commodification is and how they’re destroying the environment. This doesn’t change the fact that Star Trek: The Original Series is a fundamentally reactionary mess.

The Texas Chainsaw Legacy: An American Love Affair with "True" Crime

This article was originally published on Donner, Party of One and is reprinted with permission

In 1974, Tobe Hooper terrified audiences with an all-too-real work of fiction. Almost 30 years later, audiences still want to believe it really happened.

It is an unfortunate fact of modern movie marketing that "based on a true story" has become the brightest badge a film can wear. It is as if, in an ironic twist, Godard's rebellious dictum "cinema is truth 24 times a second" has been taken so literally by mainstream audiences that they are now desperate to believe that anything on the silver screen could represent reality. Even the success of high-octane escapism can spike dramatically if it claims to be "based on true events", regardless of whether the alleged events are known to the public in any specific terms. The history of this seduction is too vast to encapsulate here, but examples are so plentiful that one can seemingly always be found within temporal spitting distance. Bryan Bertino advertised his 2008 home invasion horror The Strangers as “inspired by true events”, but rather than referring to a specific situation it seems to simply refer to the fact that people really do invade one another's homes; 2012's The Possession, a jewish iteration of The Exorcist, claims to base it self on a true story, though it is actually based on a museum curator's account of his spooky professional experience rather than a supernatural assault on an innocent family; the 2009 sci-fi thriller The Fourth Kind insists on its veracity with an opening oath sworn by lead actress Milla Jovovich that the film is a mix of Unsolved Mysteries-style reenactments and REAL FOOTAGE of the REAL ALIEN ABDUCTEES. Why anyone would choose to construct a movie in this way is anybody's guess, and The Fourth Kind is hardly a portrait of success, but the fact remains: filmmakers have some reason to believe that basing a film on a "true story" will put butts in seats. Why is it that we might value verite more than pure fantasy? Is it conditional? That is: not all audiences might reject an almost 100% synthetic entertainment juggernaut like AVATAR in favor of a difficult and compelling Henry Lee Lucas biopic, but that said, are there particular cinematic situations in which we prefer to believe that we are being presented with the truth? If so, why?

A lot has been made of the real-life inspiration for Tobe Hooper's trailblazing 1974 horror classic THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. To be totally fair, several powerful movies claim as their muse the murderous rural grave robber Ed Gein's untoppably outrageous ten year crime spree in the perfectly-named small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. Though he committed his last murder in 1957, Gein's fabulously perverse criminal career continued to seduce cinematic luminaries from the debut of Psycho to the release of Silence of the Lambs (to say nothing of the endless catalog of great and terrible exploitative biopics and Nth generation ripoffs thereof). The effete momma-worshipping bumpkin was himself an artist, creating furniture and corpse couture from the fruits of his boneyard harvests and his plus-sized female murder victims, selected for Gein's most famous project: a skin suit resembling his late mother. Ed Gein's body count did not rise above three, but the depravity of his crimes remains unequaled by more prolific serial murderers, and moreover, the almost fantastical nature of his activities remains irresistible to filmmakers of all stripes. Witness in particular: the seven movies (so far) that make up the undying franchise of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Django Unchained and the Importance of Irreverence

Tarantino's latest film Django Unchained has proven controversial though, not I think for the reasons people are citing. Yes, there's copious use of the 'n-word'. Yes, there's lots of graphic violence. But a serious film can get away with both of these things without anyone batting an eye. Consider the n-word in The Color Purple or the violence of the Normandy Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan. Indeed, Spielburg can even get away with gratuitous nudity as long as its done in a serious, non-sexual way, as in Schindler's List or Amistad, and no one raises a fuss.

No, what really bothers people about Django is that it deals with these things in a film that isn't reverent in its treatment of them, a film that is, in short, fun. It's an extreme form of my father's objection to the (much more reverent) film Life is Beautiful— "I just don't want to see a comedy about the Holocost."

However, I think it's precisely Django's irreverence that makes it so important. Because the audience that goes to see Lincoln or The Color Purple or Beloved or Amistad or pick-your-"serious"-film-about-blacks-in-American-history, is often quite different from the one that goes to see a Tarantino splatter-fest. Indeed, it's easy to argue that people who go see these sorts of films are those most already aware of the injustices being depicted (with, perhaps, the exception of people forced to watch them in school). People who don't like to think about the horrors of slavery, who don't want to think about it, don't go by a ticket to see that kind of movie.

Whither the MTV Generation?

Permit me a moment of self indulgent self reflection please:

It occurred to me the other day that the characters on How I Met Your Mother, Community, and The Big Bang Theory are roughly either the age I and most of my oldest friends are, or they're roughly the age of the leading edge Gen Y/Millenials who, now that they're mostly out of college, are now old enough and jaded enough to hang out with us in bars. And there's a recurring theme in all of these shows that seems to me more and more striking the more I think about it. That theme is of a group of ostensible adults who despite spending a fair amount of time in and around the trappings of adulthood, more or less are still living the crazed frenetic existences of our much younger days. This despite the fact that, as the HIMYM episode Murtaugh brilliantly pointed out, the characters in these shows are clearly "too old for this shit."

The Eggshell Skull Problem

So I'm not going to go into the whole detail of the Daniel Tosh Rape Joke Crisis on the internet because I think Lindy West has already said everything worth saying about that particular topic at Jezebel. But the whole dust up has made me revisit an issue in American discourse in general that I've come to think of as the Eggshell Skull Problem. It's named after an old principle in common law torts that basically says you take your victim as you find him when you do wrong. The paradigm case is hitting someone on the head in a way that would be harmless for most people, but which for a person with an eggshell thin skull would be life threatening. If that's the case and you do more harm than you thought you would in battering the guy with the eggshell skull, more tough luck to you because you're still on the hook for all the damages.

Where it comes to a physical harm, I think that makes sense. Physical harms of the sort tort law deals with can be expensive and the whole point of the rule is to make sure that the person who is in the wrong bears the cost rather than the injured party. So far so good. The Eggshell Skull Problem, however, is analogous but occurs in a place where we specifically don't hold people legally accountable for their harms, and that's in the realm of speech-acts. For those unfamiliar with the term, a speech-act is any activity whereby one accomplishes some end merely by speaking. The particular speech act in question in this latest controversy is the rape joke speech act. The rape joke is a difficult problem for an open society, and frankly I think our society deals with it particularly badly. That it does so is a result of The Eggshell Skull problem, and my aim here is to explain why I think that is.

The Game of Thrones and Andy Rooney Criticism

There's a lot that can be said about the intensely stupid review of The Game of Thrones TV show that recently appeared in the New York Times. The three closing paragraphs highlight the problem pretty succinctly:

The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness [meaning the hot sex -- ER] has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

Since the arrival of “The Sopranos” more than a decade ago, HBO has distinguished itself as a corporate auteur committed, when it is as its most intelligent and dazzling, to examining the way that institutions are made and how they are upheld or fall apart: the Mafia, municipal government (“The Wire”), the Roman empire (“Rome”), the American West (“Deadwood”), religious fundamentalism (“Big Love”).

When the network ventures away from its instincts for real-world sociology, as it has with the vampire saga “True Blood,” things start to feel cheap, and we feel as though we have been placed in the hands of cheaters. “Game of Thrones” serves up a lot of confusion in the name of no larger or really relevant idea beyond sketchily fleshed-out notions that war is ugly, families are insidious and power is hot. If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.

There's a lot to unpack there; the sexism in the notion that girls don't like Tolkein and epic fantasy (I've met lots of girls who love that stuff, but I guess they're not in this author's book clubs), the weirdness in suggesting that boys don't like sex in their fiction so it must have been "tossed in" for the ladies (what?), and, of course, the epic genre snobbery in the notion that anything that isn't set in the "real" world is cheap. Because fantasy can't be, you know, good.

The important thing to note here, and the thing that a lot of people are, I think, missing, is that this is a perfect example of what I was talking about when I said mainstream reviewers had "long since abrogated their role as arbiters of taste by hewing to anachronistic and snobbish notions of literary worth that have relatively little relationship to what people actually look for and value in their fiction." The only difference is that here it's in television rather than prose. What we have here is an Andy Rooney style of criticism, a criticism that says "I don't get what these kids are into these days, I don't understand all this stuff and it obviously has no value." It's out-of-touch, snobbish and condescending, and reads like it's geared primarily to people past retirement age, clinging oh-so-desperately to their last-century, upper-middle-class bourgeois values.

And this is why it doesn't bother me one lick that the NYT put up a paywall recently. Why would I want to read that crap anyway? (For news, I'd rather go to BBC news and NPR.)

James Wood Has a Superficial Understanding of Fiction

James Wood is perhaps the most celebrated literary critic around, and his offer of employment at the New Yorker a few years ago was practically an inevitability. Long time readers of this blog will know I have mixed feelings about the man, on the one hand praising his analysis and critical acumen, and on the other despairing his hopelessly conservative tastes and high modernist sensibility. However, I never quite grasped the true depths of what is deeply wrong in his critical understanding until I read his most recent book, How Fiction Works.

Understand: this is a book that spends three chapters talking about the importance of detail (before Wood concludes that he is "ambivalent" about details in fiction), but has not one single chapter about plot. Indeed, plot is twice dismissed as juvenile, and Wood turns to the example of Flaubert again and again, the man who, Wood says, wanted to write a book about "nothing", that got by on style alone.

Lazy Writing Part 1

I am not often one who gets my feminist hackles up, since i think mostly that sort of thing reduces mostly to class differences. One thing I am starting to find truly annoying, though, is the Dumb Bitch Who Doesn't Know What's Good For Her archetype. You know what I'm talking about: something is clipping along in a story things are progressing from Point A to Point C via Point B, when out of the blue because the plot is running too fast the writer figures that he needs to complicate things a bit and add a subplot of some kind and he introduces this character. And god is she annoying. Even though it's mindnumbingly clear to the reader, the writer, and every clued in character in the story what it is that this character should do in the situation they are thrust into, she instead does the exact opposite. Because this activity is in fact insane and is only there to complexify an otherwise extremely linear and predictable story, the writer needs to create a reason for her to do this thing. There are a few stock reasons, all of which generally work in service of some sort of neanderthal view of human nature, but by far the most irritating is the general appeal to hysterical femininity. The audience is in effect being asked to accept that this character is behaving in a completely stupid way contrary to what the protagonist needs her to do because he emotions have short-circuited her ability to think clearly and act sanely.