That episode of Dr. Katz with Garry Shandling

RIP Garry Shandling

Screenshot 2016-03-24 at 6.33.46 PM

RIP Garry Shandling, 1949-2016

I grew up with Garry Shandling on TV—weird, enigmatic even—dry, sure—watching him when I was too young to get what he was doing. But he stuck out more than others to me when I’d watch Carson late at night with my grandmother. And then watching It’s Garry Shandling’s Show on Fox sometimes, with my parents: it was like Newhart (and Bob Newhart’s stuff in general)—I didn’t quite get it (yet), but I wanted to get it. It wasn’t dumb—and when it was dumb, it was dumb in a smart way.

And then came The Larry Sanders Show. I was, what, 13? 12? HBO wasn’t really HBO yet—sure, it had The Kids in the HallTales from the Crypt, *ahem* Real Sex, and the largely forgotten Dream On—but it’s hard to imagine contemporary laugh-trackless-meta shows without The Larry Sanders Show.

Saying The Larry Sanders Show was ahead of its time is an understatement. Sure, it had its progenitors (Albert Brooks’s Real Life comes to mind—hell, The Muppet Show too)—but The Larry Sanders Show somehow synthesized its parts as both a show about a show, but also, like, a show. The late-night show on The Larry Sanders Show (uh, The Larry Sanders Show) was very very funny.

The writers’ room segments (and all the showbiz backstage stuff) were/are hilarious too; The Larry Sanders Show is the obvious progenitor of not just 30 Rock, but any number of dry, deadpan shows that purport to look behind the scenes (Veep comes quickly to mind, as do Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development).

The Larry Sanders Show was so overloaded with talent that I’m not going to bother listing all the names. Suffice to say that the show was basically a starting point, or at least an early stomping ground, for a large number of Gen X comedians and actors. Shandling was great at letting other people be funny, even as his character Sanders expressed deep anxieties over being replaced by the younger, hipper Jon Stewart. In a sense, Shandling was a Boomer bridge between a style of comedy he had grown up with and been influenced by, like Johnny Carson’s reserved irony, and the new (but not new) irony of Generation X.

And while Shandling let the Gen Xers have their time on his show, perhaps the funniest stuff on the show came from its more senior cast members. God bless, Artie; God bless Hank.

Garry Shandling was fucking funny and I’ll miss the guy. I follow(ed?) him on Twitter and he was tweeting just a few days ago. I think his legacy and influence on contemporary television can’t be underappreciated.

A riff on True Detective Season 2’s neon noir satire

maxresdefault

  1. The final episode of the second season of True Detective airs on HBO tomorrow tonight [9 Aug 2015]. Popular and critical consensus seems to decree that this finale can only redeem Nic Pizzolatto’s supposed sophomore slump. I’m very much looking forward to the episode, as I’ve looked forward to each episode this season.
  2. Season 2 of True Detective is a much, much better show than its many noisy naysayers might maintain. It’s a neon noir satire, a potboiler bubbling over with lurid, sticky flux. It’s hilarious and anxious and abject. I riff more on it in point 10 if you want to jump down there now. (Or indulge my anxieties, if that’s your deal).
  3. A friend of mine pointed out over drinks a few weeks back that this season of the show will be reevaluated in a few years, after the True Detective serials have run their course. We agreed that the season will likely be reconsidered in a far more positive light. (Think season 2 of The Wire, if you will).
  4. Re: point 3—I’ve talked about the show all season long with friends—texted about it, etc. There’s something still vital there, no matter how much it may seem to curdle compared to season one. Maybe you’ve talked about it with your friends too, no?
  5. And re: point 4: I’ve had more people email or tweet me asking me to write about True Detective than anything ever. So, like, I’m trying, here.
  6. And re: point 5: I’m guessing folks wanted me to write about this season maybe because I wrote about it so damn much last year: About its agon with consciousness, its dreams and nightmares, its literary touches, its weakest episode, and its werewolves. And then I kind of failed to write, at least immediately, about the finale, and when I did write about it, I buried it in a riff on things I wish I’d written about, writing:

    …I could not bring myself to write about the ending, in part because of the (perceived) negative backlash the conclusion received. I felt the need to address haters and doubters, when what I really wanted to comment on was the sheer beauty of the episode—its aesthetics, its greenness. Critics emphasized the bromantic ending, or the moment where Cohle seems to retreat (uncharacteristically) to metaphysics, but for me the signal moment was achieved when Hart is asked by his ex-wife and children, who attend him in his hospital bed, if he is alright. This question links back to a domestic lull in the middle of episode four. We see Hart and Cohle as roommates, as Lucinda Williams’s gentle song “Are You Alright?” plays. This is the middle of the series, and also the central question of the series: Are you alright? At the end of the series, Hart attempts to affirm that he is alright, but it is clear to everyone—audience, family, and Hart himself—that he isn’t.

  7. In that big fat quote above, I wrote that “I felt the need to address haters and doubters” about the end of season one; similarly, part of the anxiety of writing about season 2 is that one falls into the position of having to address the “discussion” — almost all negative chatter — about season 2 — instead of, you know, discussing the mood, aesthetics, and tone.
  8. And of course season 2 was born into a kind of Oedipal anxiety over its progenitor. Season 1 seemed to come from nowhere, black, electric, crackling with the charisma of its two leads.
  9. (I’m such a nerd that I had a dream a few weeks before the début of the second season where I dreamed I saw the second season and it wasn’t nearly as good as the first. Inside the dream, I knew that this was my subconscious helping to deflate anxieties. And over a fucking TV show! What’s wrong with me?) Well let’s get to whatever point I might have:
  10. The second season of True Detective can be read as a satire—on noir, on L.A. stories, on hardboiled pulp, on masculine anxieties. Yes: But it also plays as a satire on television itself, on viewer expectations even. Sincere satire never fully announces itself as such. This second season of True Detective is sincere satire.
  11. true-detective-western-book-deadOne satirical reading rule for True Detective Season 2 is introduced in the first episode, “The Western Book of the Dead.” In one of its more memorable sequences, Ray Velcoro dons a mask before beating up an Los Angeles Times reporter who was working on an “eight-part series” to expose corruption in Vinci. The scene reads as a metatextual prick at viewers hoping to have this eight-part series laid out neatly for them.
  12. The lurid violence here succeeds by connecting to a kernel of pathos for its perpetrator, Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell). Velcoro is surely the reason to watch this season. He anchors the satire in sincerity.
  13. We can find similar sincere satire in True Detective season 2’s superior cousin, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Inherent Vice. There are plenty of plot convergences between these two, but the tonal overlap is more interesting to me.
  14. Well, plot of course—
  15. —but wait a moment with plot: Mood. Ambiance. Tone. —Of course they are linked, plot and feeling—but this season has done a marvelous job evoking the dreadnights of David Lynch (and if the directors seem to borrow a bit heavily from Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway, so much the better). And The Long Goodbye. And Chinatown (talk about Oedipal anxieties!). But also Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (why not?). Or even The Big Lebowski.
  16. 09-true-detective.w529.h352.2xAnd the plot? What? Another reading rule, indulge me, indulge me, comes in the series’ overuse of aerial shots of L.A. freeways—big converging loops, sometimes black white gray, but often glowing lurid neon at night. The plot is easy to write off as a shaggy dog mess (see also Inherent Vice, Twin PeaksThe Big Lebowski), but it’s not. It does fit together (just like the plots of those examples I proffered parenthetically). You can even have someone explain the plot to you if you like. Ascending from the confusing and abject trenches, the looping freeways’ tangled violence resolves into a beautiful, complete, pulsing picture.
  17. And there are other reading rules that guide a viewer toward TD2’s satire—the bizarre cliffhanger “death” of Velcoro at the end of only the second episode, for example. The scene was thoroughly convincing in its morbidity and illogic, an illogic predicated on its audience’s intimate relationship with hoary TV tropes of yore.
  18. Or the insane gunfight at the end of the fourth episode (an answer, we know—and not a full answer, just a different one—to the famous thrilling single-take shot at the end of the fourth episode of the first season). The scene begins with nonchalant swagger and escalates into Michael-Bay-on-the-cheap territory. The hyperbole untethers from reality—it really gets out of hand fast—delivering an overabundance of violent spectation. The satire punctures any veneer of reality—but only momentarily. The end of the scene finds our detectives realizing how awful things went.
  19. Or? Or the body of our (ostensible) murder victim, Ben Caspere, chauffeured about a la Weekend at Bernies? Or the scene at the Chessani estate? Or Woodrugh’s cheeks flapping in the wind? Or the saloon that Velcoro frequents, with a witch guitarist on retainer? Or the Elvis impersonator? Or the Good People commune? (Reminds me that I forgot to namedrop The Source Family in points 15 or 16). Or the garbage apocalypse movie? Rick fucking Springfield? The masks? The dildos? The knives? The teeth? The eyes? Or the fucking orgy scene, with its wonderful syrup soundtrack?
  20. The satire overwhelms, I mean, re: point 19. The satire normalizes, elides its own satirical contours. L.A. and Environs of TD2 is absurd, abject, and surreal. It’s fun stuff.
  21. And this, re: point 20, is what maybe fails to connect with so many viewers who’ve been so critical of the season—It takes itself too seriously! is a common accusation. But no, I don’t think it does, not a bit.
  22. This isn’t to say that the actors aren’t acting so seriously—sometimes to the point that they appear to be in entirely different series from each other. Vince Vaughn is an easy example here. He’s not just playing against type as Frank Semyon, he’s playing against strength. And common sense. And maybe even good taste. (Although I don’t think good taste has anything to do with TD2). Vaughn’s Semyon occasionally comes to life when he’s back in his rough-and-tumble element, but for the most part, his character seems to be one long deadpan (emphasis on dead) satire of audience expectations.
  23. Let me anticipate: Look, pal, are you saying that Vince Vaughn is bad on purpose in True Detective? No. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that he was a bad but interesting bet for the role, and I think he was cast as a satirical jab at audience expectations.
  24. And but still, re: point 22, re VV’s Semyon: When, on his revenge kick in ep 5, he delivers the simile “It’s like blue balls in your heart,” what other option is there but to laugh hysterically? I mean, spit out your precious bourbon even, if it’s in your mouth! Blue balls in your heart is a satirical metaphor, the punchline to the series’ set-ups of masculine anxieties. It’s an especially excellent example of one of many, many lines in TD2 that oozes pulp. The audience is to chew that pulp and like it. (Or do a spit-take).
  25. 25 points seem like too many points in a riff, as these things go, and too much has been written about True Detective Season 2 anyway—which attests maybe to its zeitgeistiness, if not its greatness. I’ve enjoyed the season very much, and I do not care at all if its loops cohere into some greater picture in the finale. I’ll happily settle for some ridiculous hardboiled neon noir satire.

On Mad Men’s cynical finale

In an early scene in “Person to Person,” the series finale of Mad Men, Joan Holloway tries cocaine for the first time. “I feel like someone just gave me very good news,” she beams, offering an advertising tag. The coke-sniffing detail seemed odd to me at first—perhaps it was another way for the series to signal the end of the sixties, to introduce the next drug, the next product to fuel future decades.

The final moments of “Person to Person,” however, show that the cocaine scene is an early reading rule. Joan’s testimony of the “Good News” comes from artificial inducement. Impermanent, intoxicating, and addictive, the coke here prefigures the Coke at the show’s end. Fittingly, Mad Men ends with a television commercial, the 1971 “I’d Like to Buy a the World a Coke” Coca-Cola ad.

The ad itself is a genius piece of propaganda: Buy a Coke, become a better person. Not feeling so good? Buy some more Coke. This ad strikes me as a prototypical example of what Slavoj Žižek would critique a few decades later as “the ultimate form of consumerism,” products that allow us “to be a consumerist, without any bad conscience, because the price for the countermeasure, for fighting consumerism, is already included into the price of a commodity.”

What’s the countermeasure, the counterforce then? All those supposed-values of the 1960s, which Don plunders for his career-restoring campaign. He cribs this vision of peace, love, and understanding from the New Age hucksters who are only too happy to take what’s left of our ad man’s money.

Don’s insight comes through a (purposefully facile?) moment of catharsis. In group therapy, a man takes the empty chair that Don’s counselor would have liked Don to fill himself. Don is spared testifying; the stranger will perform in his stead. He tells a story about feeling like a product on a shelf in a fridge, isolated, alienated. The core of his little monologue is about not understanding love, not knowing how to love or be loved. In a rare moment of empathy, Don has his big important cathartic release, and hugs the man, who has reminded Don of what Don already knew, but had been ignoring: People want to feel loved.

Earlier in the season, Don shot down an ad idea that had to do with love — “Love again? We always use that,” he says (or something close to that). But here, disconnected (almost all meaningful conversations in the episode are mediated through telephones), he’s reminded that what people want is touch, the sensation or feeling of love. And he can sell them that: The feeling of the feeling of love. 

Here’s the show’s last moments:

The pat montage ties an unusually neat bow on the series’ major storylines. I’d argue that it’s best read ironically, something of a send-up of our desires, our wish for the characters we “love” to experience “love.”

This ironic reading bears out in light of the notes that punctuate the conclusion. The meditation-leader promises “new lives…a new you,” words that might be used to sell almost anything, from soap to hope. A chime then initiates om meditation, and the series ends with three notes: The chime, a smile on Don’s face, and the opening bars of “I’d Like to Buy a the World a Coke.” The chime recalls a ringing cash register, and Don’s smile is an epiphany of how to sell love. Matthew Weiner ends his seven season project with an ad, a cynical joke on the audience. I loved it.

Or maybe my ironic reading is wrong. Maybe there isn’t a cynical joke on the audience here. Maybe the simple resolutions were the best Weiner et al could do. Maybe the show is just a really good-looking glossy prime-time soap opera (it is), and like all soap operas it was designed to sell soap.

“You and he were buddies, weren’t you?”

A bunch of clips of Jean-Luc Godard being ornery

Television — Robert Crumb

robert-crumb-1977_baja2

David Lynch To Bring Back Twin Peaks

 

After hinting a few days ago that he might be reviving his cult classic Twin Peaks—

—David Lynch dropped this:

David Lynch and Mark Frost will return to writing, producing, and directing new episodes of Twin Peaks, which will run on Showtime. The new season of Twin Peaks will take place 25 years after the end of season 2. So maybe we’ll finally get to see what happened with Agent Cooper and BOB and the Black Lodge…

tp

The Simpsons Parodies Mad Men’s Cryptic Teasers

The Major’s Vision (Twin Peaks)

True Detective, Bolaño’s 2666, Werewolves, Etc.

03-true-detective-1

1. A couple of years ago I wrote a pretty long essay about rereading Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, a dark, compelling, violent, mysterious book that I’ve reread in full three times now, a book that I frequently return to, a book that seems to leer from the shelf too often, Hey, you’re not done with me, you know that, right? 

2. Anyway, this long essay about rereading 2666 was also about another book: Sabine Baring-Gould’s 1865 folklore-horror hybrid, The Book of Were-Wolves (download it here). I argued that

What Bolaño and Baring-Gould do in these books is explore madness and violence and the ways that our world tries to (or fails to) contain madness and violence.

—and suggested that

Bolaño’s werewolves are, in line with Baring-Gould’s, people fated to madness and violence, but also relatively normal people. These werewolves contain within them a dreadful capacity for violence.

3. (What I want to say is that any speculation I might offer about the forthcoming conclusion of season one of True Detective I have already offered, at some length, in an essay (about two other texts) which I composed a few years before True Detective aired).

4. Well so and anyway: “After You’ve Gone,” the penultimate episode of True Detective.

In some ways the most straightforward episode to date, even disappointingly so, a bit of a police procedural, serving mostly to realign Cohle and Hart, demonstrating that despite their fight and their differences, they are also very similar. But you already know that, you know what happened in the episode, right? The obsession then is for an answer: Where does this all go? Who did the crimes? Who is The King in Yellow? How does it end?

5. I now lazily link to an article that rounds up some of the conjecture — the “theories” — about how the show will end. You’ve read some of these, right?

6. This kind of conjecture is fun, or maybe “fun” isn’t the right word—maybe what I want to say instead is:

True Detective compels many of its viewers to obsessively hunt down clues in each frame. There’s a thickness to the show’s repetition of key images and phrases—spirals, stars, sets of five figures, antlers, crowns, crosses that dissolve into targets, etc.—a seeming preciseness that invites us to impose our own order, our own narrative.

(This is the kind of conjecture that Hart repeatedly warns Cohle not to indulge in).

7. I’m reminded here of Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas’s prologue to Roberto Bolaño’s unfinished novel Woes of the True Policeman:

What matters is the active participation of the reader, concurrent with the act of writing. Bolaño makes this very clear in his explanation of the title: “The policeman is the reader, who tries in vain to decipher this wretched novel.” And in the body of the book itself there is an insistence on this conception of the novel as a life: we exist—we write, we read—so long as we’re alive, and the only conclusion is death.

True Detective, like True Policeman—and, like Bolaño’s masterpiece 2666—all invite the active participation of the reader. But also the woe.

8. There is no supernatural solution to the mysteries of True Detective. From the outset, True Detective has posited (the illusion of) human consciousness as a part of nature that seeks to define itself against naturethe real.

In True Detective, the supernatural is the product of terror and fantasy. It is imaginary. (And of course therefore no less real than the natural, the real, thanks to human consciousness).

audrey

9. From the beginning of Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves:

It will then be seen that under the veil of mythology lies a solid reality, that a floating superstition holds in solution a positive truth.

This I shall show to be an innate craving for blood implanted in certain natures, restrained under ordinary circumstances, but breaking forth occasionally, accompanied with hallucination, leading in most cases to cannibalism. I shall then give instances of persons thus afflicted, who were believed by others, and who believed themselves, to be transformed into beasts, and who, in the paroxysms of their madness, committed numerous murders, and devoured their victims.

The emphasis is mine.

10. In the sixth episode of True Detective, Cohle says to Hart: “You, these people, this place … you’ll eat your fucking young as long as you have something to salute.” The indictment is broad, dark, and perhaps paranoid, but it serves to highlight the series’s keen attenuation to infanticide, to the infinite loss and dramatic mourning that underpins begetting.

11. Cohle has lost his daughter, and her death at such a young age, he says, spared him “the sin of fatherhood.”

Hart has essentially lost his daughters, ruined his life, ruined his (illusion of the) status as a family man. The thing that mattered—his family—was “right under his nose” the whole time.

On the job, both Cohle and Hart—separately—witness the awful deaths of infants; in both cases, the men snap, disconnect, quit.

12. (At this time, the reader is invited to sift through his or her own recollections of True Detective (if he or she so desires) and set aside examples of infanticidal violence).

13. Many fans of the show have speculated that Martin Hart is the King in Yellow, a notion fueled by the show’s stores of symbolic images, as well as Hart’s own actions.

The theory is intriguing, but I seriously doubt that Hart will be revealed as a perpetrator in the crimes of the Tuttle case. However, he is capable of slipping into werewolf mode: Threatening his lover Lisa’s new beau with horrific violence and then declaring, “I’m not a psycho–I wouldn’t have done those things” (the past perfect tense there is so strange); slipping on gloves to assault the boys who had consensual sex with his daughter Audrey; etc. etc. etc.

Hart’s actions are the strange double bind of the patriarchal lawman who sets to rule with sanctioned order—and, specifically, to rule and control the sexualized female body, which is oh-so-important to begettingDoes he serve and protect? Does he terrorize and menace? Both and at the same time.

But I’d argue that Hart is illusioned, that his identity is constituted in maintaining an illusion, an illusion that Cohle is too keenly aware of (“…you’ll eat your fucking young as long as you have something to salute”).

14. There’s a heap of corpses at the core of Bolaño’s 2666—women who are raped, murdered, discarded. Bolaño sends various detectives—many of them good detectives, true policeman—to find the killers, but there’s no satisfying answer: Just plenty of killers, plenty of werewolves. As the novel reaches its (non)end, we await the promise of a Giant (The Tall Man), a Big Answer. But the answer is inadequate, incomplete.

15. The capacity to transform into a killer, a werewolf is always there. Just put on some gloves. Just slip on a mask.

Or maybe take your mask off.

jpJvNrI

“Haunted Houses” | Another True Detective Riff

marty_old

I had an intuition that “Haunted Houses” would likely be the weakest episode of True Detective. Structurally, the episode has a lot of work to do to set up the two final episodes (which I expect to be very strong—although episode four, “Who Goes There,” has set the bar really high). Metaphors like tying loose ends or connecting the dots don’t apply well to True Detective—which is, I’d argue, a show about the insanity of looking for satisfactory answers to, y’know, life and death—but “Haunted Houses” nevertheless underlines some of the plot points that will coalesce (or shatter) in the finale episodes.

We finally get to see why Hart and Cohle split up in 2002, and the moment is deeply dissatisfying in its obviousness and predictability, although there is a teleological neatness to seeing Hart fall apart, disappointing both of his partners—Maggie and Cohle—both of whom seem to have seen this coming. Indeed, in this episode, Hart fulfills a prophecy from the second episode, when Cohle wryly suggests that he’s putting a “down payment” on the child prostitute he feebly tries to “rescue” from the woodland brothel.

“Haunted Houses” focuses heavily on Marty Hart, which might be why I found it less engaging than what’s come before. There’s no aggravating Cohle monologue in this episode, and his actions are confined entirely to 2002, where he’s raking through the slime of old cases — “dead women and children” — causing headaches and pissing people off. Cohle, who has lost his own daughter, is keenly attuned to the infanticidal cost of existence. In the episode’s standout scene, he slowly, patiently extracts a confession out of a swampland Medea who has killed all of her children. Cohle has earlier revealed that the simple core of his interrogation technique is rooted in the idea that everyone has sinned and that everyone wants to confess—and he gently guides the mother to confession. Then, in a strange but somehow caring tone, he ends the interrogation: “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.”

Cohle’s detective work begins to knit together the major threads of what we now might as well call the Tuttle case: The big people who are involved in sick shit. The series isn’t at its best when it’s doing the police procedural thing, and even soaked in Southern Gothic noir, some of these scenes play out in broad strokes—but those broad strokes will likely build a foundation for the rest of the drama to unfold on.

The Cohle sequences that don’t involve his detective work seem to frame him from Hart’s point of view—his lines are never quite wholly contextualized as they are in earlier episodes, seasoned and weighted by 2012 Cohle’s dark ramblings. When Hart calls Cohle’s observations on the Tuttle (non)case “pure gibberish,” there’s clearly an invitation here for the audience to agree—or not.

Not that Hart has done anything meaningful lately—let alone “anything heroic,” in his own words. Most of “Haunted Houses” conjures him in wholly abject terms. In the opening scene, he mercilessly beats the two boys his daughter has had (consensual) sex with. The scene is violent and cruel, quickly telegraphing the fact that Hart is a bully. (When asked what types of detectives exist in the opening scenes of the first episode, “bully” is the first descriptor on Hart’s list). He leaves, gets in his car, shuts the door, then opens it again to vomit: Abjection: His guts spilling out, his borders unrestrained. He’s sick. That abjection is underscored later when Hart feels shame at carrying a shopping bag brimming with tampons, and then heavily underscored when his commanding officer refers to him as a “walking tampon.”

Hart attempts to reassert his manhood—his kinghood?—throughout the episode, first by violating the civil rights of the boys in the cell and then by having an affair with a woman young enough to be one of his daughters. When he finds out that Maggie has fucked Cohle in revenge (in brutal and confusing scene), Hart begins to choke her, threatens her, before redirecting his rage into a physical attack on Cohle. None of this behavior helps him to reassert his sense of identity; the 2005 segment closes out with Hart cuckolded, shamed, bloody, abject.

Of course that’s not the end of the episode. In episode four, Cohle left the interrogation room, having got a read on detectives Papania and Gilbough, and also severing (or at least displacing) one of the show’s formal conventions, the interrogation scenes. In episode five, Hart does the same. The interrogation scenes have been a simple but effective way for True Detective to reveal the ways that truth—and implicitly identity—is a construction, a narration: A performance. 

Leaving behind the interrogation sequences opens the last two episodes up to something new, which begins in the most interesting part of “Haunted Houses” — the last few minutes, when 2012 Hart meets 2012 Cohle (his first appearance in the episode). Cohle has clearly been tailing Hart, and he hails him from behind (ex-cop pulling over ex-cop), a kind of anti-interpellation, or an interpellation into some other, darker (dis)order. While “Haunted Houses” doesn’t evoke the strange thrills and weird questions that made the first half of the season so compelling, it nevertheless sets the stage for something dark and ugly—some kind of monster at the end of the dream.

marty_current

2084 — Chris Marker

New From Indie Press Sunnyoutside: Reckoning and Pilot Season (Books Acquired, 12.11.2013)

20131219-100353.jpg

Two new handsome fellas from indie press Sunnyoutside:

James Brubaker’s Pilot Season, which I read over the past few days, is a fun little volume that is better than its thin premise suggests (blurb from the back):

Pilot Season opens with a television executive attempting to save his floundering network’s fall roster. As his own anxieties, disappointments, and alienation from his own family play out through a steady stream of absurd television pilots, we are treated to sardonic parodies of the contemporary reality show-obsessed media culture. While critiquing the cruelty and exploration of the medium, Pilot Season also manages to laud the human spirit’s ability to trump our flaws.

Pilot Season shares a strong overlap with Matthew Winston’s This Coming Fall; the central conceit of that story is a voice that blithely announces a schedule of dystopian TV shows. (I read the books more or less at the same time—both are slim enough to fit in a pocket and can be discreetly absorbed during meetings, for example).

Rusty Barnes’s Reckoning is Appalachian noir propelled by dialogue, sex, and violence. Blurb from the back:

Richard Logan begins his summer day as any fourteen-year-old might: working at a farm job bringing in hay, avoiding his hard-headed father, and hanging out with his friends. When he stumbles onto an unconscious woman in the woods, he has no idea that the process of helping her will lead him into the darkness o fa the deeply held deceits of his rural Appalachian town. Both brutal and beautiful, Reckoning shows the seams and limits of family love and community tolerance while Richard discovers where manhood truly lies.

Reckoning and Pilot Season will be released in Spring of 2014.

 

“Twas the Night Before Christmas” — The Simpsons

The Ring Game — Agency and Chance in Season Four of The Wire

I. In his essay “All in the Game” at The Oxonian Review of Books, Clif Marks points out that

Before the opening credits of the first episode, The Wire introduces its main themes of capitalism, violence, and decay, as well as the trope of the game. The murder of Snot Boogie over an alleyway dice game is the problem of urban America writ small, and The Wire spends the next five seasons elaborating the theme on a progressively broader canvas.

II. As Marks suggests, the scene explicating Snot Boogie’s robbing the dice game—the opening of The Wire—somehow encapsulates the entire series. Here’s the scene:

III. Later in “All in the Game,” Marks analyzes the way The Wire uses “the game” as a dominant formalizing conceit. I’ll quote at length:

The first institutions so portrayed are the police department and the drug trade, which is aptly called “the game” by all of its participants and those in the world surrounding it. At every level the game provides certain goals to its players who are governed by strictly enforced rules of conduct. The drug trade is organised in the form of a bureaucratic hierarchy, and even spawns its own particular ideology through which participants justify their own actions, and interpret and evaluate the acts of others.

The “game” operates as a metaphor for all institutions. In addition to its role as adversary in the drug game, the police department is also the setting for a second game of career advancement, which is entirely controlled by appearances. Crime statistics must be shown to be dropping, whether or not there is any real effect, and anything which might embarrass the higher-ups must be concealed. Likewise, educators’ teaching strategies are largely controlled by the need to perform on standardised state testing on which their funding, and local control of the school, depends. Thus, the explicit aims of public institutions are subverted by internal games that they set up. Even well-intentioned cops and teachers are forced to play bureaucratic games in order to survive in their organisations.

IV. I’ve spent points I-III of this essay trying to contextualize what anyone who’s seen The Wire probably already knows—namely, The Wire can be understood as a series of games folded into one ultimate game—the game—where the rules, the players, and the stakes are repeatedly displaced. I think that Marks’s essay is a particularly salient analysis of the costs that institutions and individuals alike incur playing such a game, and the extractions above, along with the first clip of The Wire might entice anyone who hasn’t seen the show to check it out. It’s great. In fact, it’s as great as everyone says it is.

The following points of this essay will trace a game piece that slips through various players’ hands in season four of The Wire. My argument is that “the game” is not merely an operational metaphor for the institutions depicted in The Wire, but an inescapable ideology that permeates every aspect of The Wire’s universe. Put another way, it’s not possible to not play “the game.” And while it is possible to affect change in “the game”—even to change its rules—individual agency is always susceptible to chance or chaos (or fate, if you prefer), which most likely comes in the form of some other player’s assertion of agency.

There are significant spoilers in the rest of this essay; I suggest not reading anymore if you haven’t yet seen The Wire but intend to see it at some point.

V. In season four, a large ring catches the eye of several players. This game piece changes hands through instances of both agency and chance. A compilation of all the ring exchanges exists as one YouTube clip, but I’m going to belabor the point by handling one exchange at a time (hat tip to Read Jack for having already organized these clips and making my work easier):

VI. Old Face Andre to Marlo:

The ring initially belongs to Old Face Andre (the verb “belongs” should be placed under suspicion, of course). “I’ve had it for a long time now; it’s got some sentimental values,” he reports to Marlo, who immediately and coldly dismisses sentiment, demanding instead, “What’s the real value?” Andre, already owing a debt to Marlo, tries to deflect the conversation by claiming he doesn’t know the ring’s appraised value. Marlo, a sinister bully, says “I’ll find out for you” before essentially forcing Andre to hand over the ring that had so much “sentimental value” to Andre.

Marlo’s promise is ironic beyond his (not-so) coded intention to steal the ring from Andre: He will, in some way, become an arbiter for the “real value” of the ring.

VII. Let’s step outside of the ring narrative for a moment to consider Marlo’s question again: “What’s the real value?”

The ring is a wholly appropriate game piece to illustrate the strange contours of the game in The Wire precisely because of its apparent superfluity. Let’s contrast the ring with another symbolic item from The Wire, the nailgun that Snoop buys in the opening scene of season four:

Besides delivering the horror/comedy axis that seems to mark all of Snoop’s scenes, the nailgun purchase also demonstrates some basics of capitalism. The nailgun, in contrast with the ring, is not superfluous. Furthermore, not only can the nailgun’s value be fixed, so too can the services of the home store employee (“You earned that bump like a motherfucker”). So even when Snoop appears to break the rules of the store’s game, she’s actually reifying the essential rules of the game by paying appropriately for goods and services.

In contrast, the ring’s value isn’t so much constituted by the game (like the nailgun’s value)—instead, the ring’s value constitutes the rules of the game itself. We can see this ideological operation more clearly in the ring’s transfer from Marlo to Omar.

VIII. Marlo to Omar:

Omar robs the card game (need I remark the meta-structure here?). Marlo says that the money being stolen is his money, to which the Robin Hood figure retorts, “Money ain’t got no owners, only spenders.” This is clearly one of the rules of the game, although by rules what I really mean to say is structuring properties, a structuring property that Omar demonstrates by robbing the card game. Tellingly, Omar repeats Marlo’s gesture in his attraction to the ring, which arrests his attention momentarily.

IX. Omar to Officer Walker:

Dirty Officer Walker (perhaps the most evil character in season four) arrests Omar for the convenience store murder Marlo’s outfit has staged. Omar insists there are “rules to this here game”; Walker repeats “Rules?” and throws Omar violently to the ground. By apparently breaking the rules of the game, Officer Walker of course demonstrates the existence of such rules. Omar is not the first to observe that Walker is in violation of the rules to the game. However, there is no authority for the players to appeal to—the game is the authority.  Hence, the game is self-regulatory (it cannot be otherwise), and Officer Walker’s rule-breakings will be punished.

X. Officer Walker to Michael:

The boys at the heart of season four (I wrote about them earlier) humiliate Walker by throwing paint on him. Michael repeats the same gesture of arrested (if brief) attention when his gaze falls on the ring. Significantly, he unmasks himself at the same moment he steals the ring—from a police!—suggesting the revelation of true/new identity at this moment.

Let’s backtrack:

When Marlo takes the ring from Andre, the act isn’t so much a theft as it is an assertion of agency, or, more to the point, an infringement on Andre’s capacity to assert agency in the game. When Omar takes the ring from Marlo he commits the robbery unmasked and unashamed, confident in his identity as a strong player. When Walker takes the ring from Omar he does so in the confident ease conferred upon him by his mask of authority (his uniform) and his false morality (his badge).

When Michael takes the ring from Walker he signals a decision to play the game fully (and not just through a surrogate like Chris). Brash and unmasked, his bold move echoes Omar’s bold card game robbery, foreshadowing his eventual ascendancy to independent agent.

XI. Marlo sees Michael possesses the ring:

So the ring moves through an ellipse of sort, orbiting past Marlo, who seems stunned (okay, as close as Marlo gets to stunned) that Michael possesses it. Maybe this is because he thinks Michael took it from Omar, although this seems unlikely—what he really perceives is the strength of Michael’s agency to hold on to something that he himself has lost. What perhaps signals Michael’s strongest power is his apparent willingness to give the ring up to Marlo. I intuit perhaps a bit too much here, but I imagine that Michael, who we know wishes to earn his way in the world, is likely eager to repay Marlo as quickly as possible for the various debts he owes him—his accommodations, a contract murder, etc. Unlike Andre who hems, haws, and equivocates, Michael asserts the right to give and in this way retains power (of a sort) in the scene. Put another way, Michael has realized the “real value” of the ring—namely, the “real value” is slippery, unfixed, and contingent upon the ring’s relationship to other players.

XII. The various transfers of the ring in season four of The Wire illustrate a convincing and realistic take on relationships of value and power. The game is ideology itself, always external, uncentered, and changing, ultimately offering no fixed meaning. Sure, common consensus might exist for a time, a lifespan even, but the rules of the game are always subject to change simply by the fact that they can be understood to be rules—and it’s the players themselves who change the rules (players don’t usually bother to tell other players that they’ve changed the rules, of course). The characters who most strongly assert agency in The Wire tend to be highly individualistic and thus in conflict with institutions. And this might be The Wire’s central insight into institutions—that institutions are, at their ideological core, monolithic teams of players bound to outdated or ineffective or even cannibalistic self-imposed rules. It’s the agents who attempt to impose upon or infringe or cheat or revise these rules who succeed in the game—but only for a time. Because it’s not possible to win the game.

XIII. Let’s end by taking up the notion of chance. Why shoot dice? Why play poker? These games impose both risks and rewards; they allow players to assert agency through skill. But such games are also subject to an apparent force operating outside of the game—chance. An apparently random or meaningless death might be the strongest signal of the role of chance in the game, and The Wire often used an apparently chance or circumstantial death as a means to open another level of game play. Examples of such deaths include the floater in season two, Pryzbylewski mistakenly shooting another officer in season three, and the state’s witness who dies from a ricochet in season four. And yet The Wire functions here as a sort of panopticon, a omnipresent viewing machine that allows the viewer an impossible view of how the game (which is to say the structuring principals of The Wire itself) supersedes chance; chance is not actually outside of the game, but another constituting element of the game. There is no outside of the gameOr, as Omar succinctly puts it, “It’s all in the game.”

Children Left Behind (I Riff on Season Four of The Wire)

1. I’ve been rewatching David Simon’s Baltimore epic The Wire, generally regarded as one of the best if not the best, TV series ever. I’ve been watching with my wife, who’s never seen the show before. I’m going to riff on a few of the themes of season four of The Wire here, and there will be spoilers.

If you’ve never seen The Wire and you think that some day you want to see it (it’s as good as everyone says it is, so you should want to see it) you shouldn’t read this post because of the spoilers.

2. Season four of The Wire takes education as its central subject. Specifically, it examines the different ways in which personal circumstance and chance (and maybe fate) intersect with institutions. The simplest example of one of these institutions might be Edward J. Tilghman Middle School, but there are other institutions too—the city’s political core, including the Mayor and his advisers, the police and their various detention centers, and even the criminal organizations that foster their own trainees.

3. Season four gives us four eighth graders to care about. The first episode of the season, “The Boys of Summer,” establishes these characters as they prepare to head from childhood into a more complex—and violent—world:

Childish joy and youthful agitation mixes with real territorial violence here; everything that follows in the season shades this scene with a bleak irony.

4. Season four presents a series of possible mentor relationships, wherein various principal characters contend to steward, foster, educate, or otherwise help these four kids turn into four men.

Roland Pryzbylewski, one-time detective-cum-fuck-up, becomes the teacher Mr. Presbo. He idealistically tries to help the four kids, who all take his class together. Parallel to Pryzbylewski’s efforts in the classroom are Dennis “Cutty” Wise’s efforts in the boxing gym; he hopes to take these kids off the corners as well. Initially, Presbo fosters Randy and Dukie while Cutty tries to make headway with Namond and Michael.

As the season develops, different mentors present themselves for each of the kids. Almost all fail.

Cutty loses whatever inroads he had on mentoring Michael, who comes under the tutelage of the dark assassin Chris. Tellingly, Michael enlists Chris in killing off his brother Bug’s father; the assassination is Oedipal.

Mr. Presbo helps Dukie in real and meaningful ways, making sure that the indigent child has clean clothes and a place to shower, but also showing him a kind of loving respect wholly absent in his relationship with “his people,” hopeless, horrible drug addicts. However, after Dukie is promoted to high school early, Mr. Presbo realizes that he will have to limit his involvement with the boy. He sees that there will always be another Dukie to come along, and that he can’t “keep” the boy—only steward him for a year or two.

After a series of institutional bungles, Carver tries to protect Randy, but loses him to a group home. The last time we see Randy he receives a savage beating at the hands of his roommates.

5. (I should now bring up Sherrod, a dim bulb of maybe 15 who seems to have dropped out of school years ago. Homeless, he’s “schooled” by Bubbles, who first tries to make him return to Tilghman, and then, seeing the boy won’t go, tries to teach him some basic survival skills. Sherrod ends up dead though, and Bubbles, feeling that the death is his fault (which it is in part), attempts suicide. Another failed mentor.

We can also bring up Bodie, whom McNulty attempts to help, albeit the relationship here is hardly on the mentor/avuncular (which is to say, displaced father/son) axis that the other five boys experience. Still, McNulty tries to steer Bodie to a path that would help absolve the young man’s conscience. The path leads to the young man’s murder).

6. And Namond?

Namond is perhaps the most fascinating figure in season four, at least for me. He’s a spoiled brat, hood rich, the son of infamous Barksdale enforcer Wee-Bey Brice who is doing life for multiple murders. Namond is petulant and mean and immature. He bullies Dukie, yet he doesn’t have the “heart” (in the series’s parlance) to manage selling drugs on his corner, a weakness that comes to harsh light when a child of no more than eight steals his package of drugs. Namond is a mama’s boy, but bullied by an overbearing mother, a woman who encourages him to drop out of school to sell drugs for her own material comfort. He is not made of the same stuff as his father.

Namond is also creative, funny, charismatic, individualistic, and intelligent. Bunny Colvin sees these qualities and sees an opportunity to help—to really help—one person. And here is the moment of consolation in season four. It’s a consolation for Colvin, who has experimented twice now with programs that bucked the institutional path (Hamsterdam in season three; the corner kids project in season four), and perhaps it’s a consolation for Cutty, who is instrumental in connecting Colvin with Wee-Bey. But it’s also a consolation for the audience, who perhaps will concede that one out of four ain’t bad. (Although clearly, three out of four children are left behind).

7. The Wire’s emphasis on Baltimore locations, specific regional dialects, and its use of local, semi-professional actors afforded the show a strong sense of realism. Straightforward shots and short scenes added to this realism. What I perhaps like most about The Wire’s realism is its near-complete lack of musical cues: other than the opening song and closing credits soundtrack, the only music that appears in any scene in The Wire is internal to the scene, i.e., we only hear music if the characters are hearing it (in their cars, on their stereos, etc. — a la rule two of Dogme 95).

The Wire breaks from these formal realistic conventions at the end of each season, using a montage—a device it almost always avoids—overlaid with a song. Here’s the montage from the end of season four:

8. I include the montage as a means to return to point 6, Namond. The images unfold, giving a sense of where our characters (those who survive season four) will go next (the universe of The Wire is never static; our characters are always in motion). The montage settles (about 4:40 in the video above) to rest on Namond, working on his homework, clearly more comfortable if not at ease in his new life with the Colvins. A family embraces on the porch of the house behind the Colvin house, signaling that Namond has finally arrived in an institution that can protect and foster and nourish him—a loving family. A reminder of his old life as a corner boy enters  the scene as the young car thief Donut pulls up, smiling; there’s an implicit offer to return to the corner life here. Then Donut blazes through a stop sign, almost causing a wreck. Namond’s troubled face signals that he’s learned something, but it also twists into a small grin. The shot lingers on the crossroads: open possibility, but also the burden of choice.

9. (Parenthetical personal anecdote that illustrates why season four is, for me, easily the most emotionally affecting entry in The Wire:

For seven years I taught at an inner city high school that was plagued by low test scores, low student interest, and violence. The school’s population was about 95% black, with most students receiving free or reduced lunch. I was still working at this school when I first saw The Wire’s Edward J. Tilghman Middle School, and although the depiction was hyperbolic in places, the general tone of chaos and apathy was not at all unfamiliar to me. There were fights at my school. Brawls. Gang violence. Murders even—student-on-student murders that still haunt me today (these didn’t happen on campus, but they were still our students). I recall one day leaving early—I had fourth period planning and my principal allowed me to leave once a week to attend a graduate school course—and being stunned to see two swat trucks pull up around the school and unload teams of militarized police.

Most of our students were good people trying to get a good education despite very difficult circumstances that were beyond their own control—poverty, unstable family environments, severe deficits in basic skills like reading and math. And most of our teachers were good people trying to help these students as best as they knew how in spite of a draconian, top-heavy management structure that emphasized the  Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) as the end-all be-all of education.

I’m tempted here to rant about tests like the FCAT and legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act, rant about how they drain schools of resources, rob children of a true education, and limit teachers’ and schools’ ability to differentiate instruction—but that’s not the point of this riff.

Probably more productive to let The Wire illustrate. I’ve sat in meetings like this one (I imagine many educators have):

The primary goal of the institution is always to maintain the institution, no matter what the mission statement might be.

What I’m trying to say here is that The Wire’s  Edward J. Tilghman Middle School strikes me as very, very real).

10. I’ll conclude by returning to Namond and Colvin and suggest that this is the closest thing to a happy ending that The Wire could possibly produce. The Wire perhaps boils down to the evils of institutionalism (of any kind); Colvin (and, to be fair, Cutty and Wee-Bey to a certain extent) must take an individualistic response to bypass institutional evils. (In season five, McNulty will carry out an individualistic response to institutional apathy—which is to say practical evil—on a whole new level).

The Wire plainly shows us that life costs, that all decisions cost, and that decisions cost in ways that we cannot calculate or measure or foresee. Namond’s future comes at the cost, perhaps, of Michael, Dukie, and Randy, the children who are left behind. And here is the real evil of a mantra like “no child left behind”—its sheer meaningless as a philosophy inheres in its essentially paradoxical nature, whereby if no single child can be left behind then all children can be left behind—the institution simply redefines or “jukes” what “behind” means. Colvin’s solution, on one hand, is to pragmatically assess the costs and payoffs of managing his interest in education, in being “a teacher of sorts” (as he calls it). (This pragmatic side echoes his Hamsterdam experiment in season three). Colvin’s pragmatism is successful though not only because he realizes his limitations—he cannot help just any child, and certainly not every child—it is also successful because it is tempered in love.