Month: February 2014

Tough Questions: What’s the Dumbest Thing You’ve Done to Yourself Lately?

question-mark

Every Monday we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the Dumbest Thing You’ve Done to Yourself Lately?

Rules are simple: everyone does stupid things and everyone does things that aren’t in their own best interest, but when have you last combined the two mistakes to form a delicious fusion mistake? You do it to yourself, you do, and that’s what really hurts.

Alex Russell

I went to Dallas last weekend on a last-minute trip. I booked the tickets just a few days before leaving because I originally wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to go or not. In my haste to do so I apparently booked a trip that left Chicago on February 20th and returned from Dallas on March 24th. I discovered this when the helpful woman at the Spirit Airlines desk alerted me to what month it is. Turns out that I don’t know what month it is, and Delta Airlines was happy to take $200 from me to fix my stupid mistake. I briefly considered lying when retelling this to make myself look better, but no, I sincerely just booked the stupidest plane ticket of all time. No need to sugarcoat it. I can’t believe I can dress myself (most days, kinda, debatable).

Scott Phillips

I’ve done some stupid stuff in my life. Most of it as a result of drinking. But since I’ve slowed that down and started to become an adult, my dumbest thing I did was probably go through this ridiculous Chicago winter without a hat and gloves. I got a new winter coat courtesy of my girlfriend and I never decided it would be necessary to cover my hands and head for the rest of winter. Which was really smart, because it’s February 26th and we STILL had subzero temperatures when I left the house this morning. Definitely not the brightest move in my book, but now it’s nearly March and I’m too stubborn to get them at this point.

Austin Duck

Recently, shit got real, and I started smoking again. Worst. Mistake. Ever.

Alex Marino

Thrillist put out a list of the best pizza places in Chicago by neighborhood and I was dumb enough to read all the idiot fucking Yelp reviews about them. Yelp reviews are the smallest step above right-wing blog comments sections except I rely on Yelp for restaurant ideas while comments sections are mostly avoidable. I read this one particular review that gave a place two stars because it wasn’t as good as the pizza they grew up with in NYC and what they had when they traveled to Italy. The person that wrote it should have their Yelp posting privileges revoked by court order, their computer thrown off the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the pieces of the computer baked into a thin crust pizza they can shove up their ass.

Brent Hopkins

I think if there was a way to win the tough question I actually may win this one. The dumbest thing I did to myself happened right before I came home from Korea and I was going to my new job to maybe meet my new employers. I was cleanly shaven and honestly fresh to death, as they say, but I had one problem… My nose. Specifically, my nose hairs had grown to unruly lengths as my trimmer had broken and I hadn’t picked up another one. I was alone in my apartment and — I have no idea why I thought this was a good idea — I decided that the best way to to handle the problem was to channel my inner military tactician and “burn the fields,” so to speak. I grabbed a lighter and proceeded to burn the nose hairs in one nostril and then, as the smell of seared hair filled my nasal passage, I dropped the lighter and said “What the hell is wrong with you? Are you an idiot?” Luckily, I managed to hit only the nostril and didn’t sear off my eyebrows, but I had the smell of cooked nose hairs for a few hours to remind me that spending that much time alone can be dangerous to your health.

Jonathan May

Of the myriad dumb things I’ve done to myself recently, I’d have to say pissing off the checkout lady at my regular Walgreens takes the cake. I simply asked if they had more iced tea, but after ten minutes of searching, she said she could look in the back. As I was on my way to school, I blurted out, “No thanks, I’m in a hurry.” I realized as I said it that I had officially pissed her off. A blizzard passed between us in those ten seconds following. Fuck, I thought. So now I have to go to Walgreens the night before, when all the weirdos are out.

Andrew Findlay

I recently went to a movie downtown. Finding parking in DC is usually mildly time-consuming, not terrible. I found a likely spot, left my car, and walked away as I pulled up the parking meter phone app. When I clicked “pay,” the program said “parking not available in this location at this time.” I have no idea why this information simply made me shrug my shoulders and keep walking to the movies, but it did. Come time to go home, my car is gone. My wife calls the number on the parking meter, and the dispatch lady tells us it was deposited at 10th and G, a block away from where we are standing. We walk down a ways, find it, and there’s a 100 dollar ticket for parking in a rush hour lane, a 100 dollar charge for the tow, and a pink sheet itemizing the damage the tow truck did to my car. You know the amazing scene in Forrest Gump where he tells Jenny that he’s not a smart man, but he knows what love is? The first part of that, only the first part, was playing on repeat in my head for a while after that night.

Mike Hannemann

The dumbest thing I’ve done to myself lately was to take what I like to refer to as an “unfamiliar bus.” The bus is terrifying to me, but I figured what the hell, I can do this. I decided that I would take a bus route home from work, rather than the train, so I could stop off at a Best Buy to get a new video game. I had the entire thing planned out hours beforehand (I Googled several routes) and knew what I was going to do. Then I ended up on the wrong bus. So I got off after one stop and got on another one. It was also the wrong bus. Five minutes later I realized this and got on another bus. Spoiler alert: It was not the right bus. After a total of five buses I got where I was going. The best part of the story is that, at 30, I got this lost trying to buy a Donkey Kong game. At the very least, I earned the adult equivalent of a participation ribbon.

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Worst Best Picture: Is Gentleman’s Agreement Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1947 winner Gentleman’s Agreement. Is it better than Crash?

The year was 1948. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” won an Oscar for Best Original Song. Doris Day performed at the ceremony. It was only four years after Casablanca‘s win. It was the year that Gentleman’s Agreement, a movie about Gregory Peck pretending to be Jewish for a magazine article, won Best Motion Picture.

It was another time, to be sure. That’s the entire point: Gentleman’s Agreement is about Philip Green (Gregory Peck) becoming “Phil Greenberg” to experience what it’s like to be a Jew in the 40s. He’s new in town, his wife is dead, and he wants to make a big impression at work by taking on a tough assignment. He’s had success in the past by “becoming” the subject of his work, and he figures that writing about being Jewish can only be achieved by, well, “being” Jewish.

After the game is on, his Jewish secretary (who thinks he’s also Jewish) starts a conversation with him about how much she doesn’t like “the wrong type” of Jews. Peck takes her to task for what she expects to be an easy conversation full of slurs and stereotypes. He straight up lectures her on how he can’t stand even internalized racism (she says she even says those things about herself!) or racism against other members of the same group. Gregory Peck being Gregory Peck, this scene works even though it’s pretty broad when he starts listing the slurs he can’t tolerate.

Crash does the same thing, but Crash doesn’t have Gregory Peck. It’s too simple to say that one of the greatest actors in American history is the only difference, but he absolutely is one of them. The rest of it is the proving ground for this whole damn argument: Crash is already a travesty of a Best Picture winner because it already feels like it handled a sensitive subject poorly and it hasn’t even been a decade yet.

Gentleman’s Agreement is nearly 70 years old. The film centers on the idea that it’s difficult to be an “other,” even if you’re just perceived as one. Crash is about nothing but others, but much in the way that a little salt makes beef taste more like beef and a lot of salt makes beef taste like salty garbage, Crash is about ten tons too much.

Gentleman’s Agreement was a controversial film in the 40s. America was still in the business of yelling at people for standing up for minorities of all types (well, we still are, but now we’re at least a little more guarded about it, since there’s no specific government-sanctioned committee for it anymore) and there was a lot of fear of a movie willing to put a spotlight on that.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film takes place when Gregory Peck tries to secure a reservation at a hotel rumored to be “restricted.” He causes a scene in the lobby (insofar as Gregory Peck can “cause a scene” – you really have to see it) and ends up leaving angry with the tacit bigotry of the world.

The movie’s greatest success is that it doesn’t have a lot of people screaming about Nazis or throwing rocks at people in the street. It deals with the quiet racism in people, even supposedly good people. It exists to show that it’s easy to label people in white hoods racists, but it’s hard to face up to smaller, more insidious racism. Peck takes issue with his fiance’s “smaller” bigoted moments, and delivers the should-be Oscar-winning speech:

“But I’ve come to see lots of nice people who hate it and deplore it and protest their own innocence, then help it along and wonder why it grows. People who would never beat up a Jew. People who think anti-Semitism is far away in some dark place with low-class morons. That’s the biggest discovery I’ve made. The good people. The nice people.”

Crash is worried that if someone doesn’t very literally try to murder someone of another race, the audience won’t understand the racial tensions between them. Sandra Bullock’s poor character yells slurs constantly, to the point where she is essentially a See ‘N Say of racial epithets. Crash is like trying to do surgery with a sledgehammer. It doesn’t work, but it certainly does make a mess.

Gentleman’s Agreement isn’t exactly using modern tools for that same surgery, but it isn’t trying to deliberately kill the patient. There are scenes that are a little obvious – a man in an extremely classy restaurant at one point starts a fight with Gregory Peck’s friend just because he’s Jewish – but for the most part, it’s a surprisingly reasonable critique of a difficult topic.

It must have been that much more difficult seven decades ago (just a few years after Hitler’s death) and the fact that Gentleman’s Agreement is still a solid look at de facto segregation as opposed to de jure segregation all these years later is astounding. Crash doesn’t understand the basic difference between the two in the first place, so the idea that it could have any nuance is a bridge too far, entirely.

The Best Part: In looking up how people remember Gentleman’s Agreement I’ve found that people take issue with the fact that it came out just after World War II but never really addresses Hitler. It makes the film timeless, because outside of a few of the slurs being completely out of fashion now, this could happen 10 or 20 or 30 years later and be mostly unchanged. It handles tacit racism well.

The Worst Part: That said, it doesn’t go very far beyond that. Blackness comes up twice in the movie (in the form of unacceptable slurs to use) but only in reference. No one ever discusses race beyond Jewishness as present or absent. When Gregory Peck comes out as “not really Jewish” he’s immediately Christian. When his son asks him about different religions he names… three. Baby steps, 1947, but it doesn’t hold up as well as the rest of it.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashBoth movies supposedly aim to do the same thing. Crash is a failure as a movie, but it only comes across as a failure as a lesson about racism when compared to something that does it well. The ultimate lesson of Crash is that race defines all interactions, at all times, and must always be considered as divisive. The lesson of Gentleman’s Agreement is the most important thing to remember about evil in general: You need to be equally afraid of the person who does nothing to stop it as the person that perpetrates it.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men |

 Image credit: The Telegraph

This Looks Terrible: the Preview for “Barefoot”

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Alex Marino

In “This Looks Terrible” we look at previews for upcoming movies. We… probably look too closely.

This might be the first trailer I’ve written about where I’m actually sad to be linking it to you. It’s a movie called Barefoot and it’s a steaming pile of shit. It stars Evan Rachel Wood and Scott Speedman and if you didn’t know who either of them are I wouldn’t hold it against you. This is going to be like every other romantic comedy where you have polar opposites that attract. The guy has a gambling problem and his life is going nowhere. The trailer implies that the girl has literally never been outside of her house before. Because of this, she never wears shoes. Haha, quirky! For some reason, he asks her to be his date to his brother’s wedding. For baffling reasons she says yes. Don’t question this, you assholes.

Speedman is going to confront his troubles and Wood is going to learn that there’s a whole world out there worth exploring! And while you may think “Oh I bet Speedman doesn’t learn any life lessons from this sheltered girl and he just mansplains things to her for an hour and half,” you’re wrong! They’re both going to learn from each other! Then they’ll fall in love after knowing each other for about a month, because that is reasonable. The best part about this movie is that it’s exactly 90 minutes long. They’re just going through the motions and meeting the minimum requirements of this assignment because someone in the cast or crew decided to sign an X-picture deal and they’re trying to get it over with. Women will love this movie because lol Wood is so awk just like me haha! They’re not even trying to market this to men. I already feel guilty for having you watch the trailer. I’d never be able to forgive myself if you actually see the movie.

Image source: New York Times

The World After Project Runway: Squirming Under the Gunn

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Jonathan May

Lifetime’s Under the Gunn, starring Tim Gunn of Project Runway fame, is many things: the brainchild of Gunn and Heidi Klum, the logical highpoint of a career borne of the academy and blooming on national television, a show about design and fashion, set in LA. But God, is it confusing. What I loved about Project Runway was its reliability in terms of production; almost every week, someone was the winner, and one unlucky designer was auf-d by Heidi. Tim mentored, Heidi hosted, the designers designed,

God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world. But now we have Under the Gunn: a much anticipated sister show where, indeed, one designer is the winner and one designer (usually) is out. So why do I seem to like it so much less? It’s not so much that Heidi Klum is missing (although for me, she is dearly missed); it’s that an additional aspect has been added to the show: mentoring.

The thrust of Under the Gunn is not just that one fashion designer wins at the end, but that he or she wins through with his or her mentor. These mentors are Project Runway-alum: season two designer Nick Verreos, season eight contender and PR All-Stars winner Mondo Guerra, and season-nine winner Anya Ayoung-Chee. Each of these three starts the show by building groups of four designers to mentor. Tim Gunn, in turn, mentors each of the mentors. You start to see where my appreciation flags. What I loved about Project Runway was its pure American attitude: from nothing and by virtue of talent and hard work, one can rise above the competition and win a life-changing prize. That, unfortunately, seems to be filtered through this additional lens of mentoring. We spend half the episodes hearing the mentors talk about their process rather than seeing the designers (on whom the mentors’ ambitions succeed or fail as well) work on making beautiful clothing.

Avid Project Runway fans have complained for some time that the show’s focus has moved from the fashion produced per challenge to the inner dramatic structure of the 16 designers competing. While I appreciate a little drama as much as anyone, I felt betrayed that what was missing was an attenuation to fashion, its beauty, its transformative qualities. With this new show, Under the Gunn, we move further away, focusing our attention on these three mentors and how they successfully (or not) mentor the design process of others, often with that designer’s point of view falling casualty.

Everything is yet again filtered, and we move further away from fashion design toward a contemporary “cult of personality”-type show. This may be blasphemy, but as much as I enjoy a whole show about Tim Gunn, I miss Project Runway’s deep look into each designer as a hopeful competitor, straining against personal and creative forces to emerge as the victor, having sown solely a 10-12 look fashion collection.

With the addition of another winner (one designer and his or her mentor), we water down the stakes further. We reward, inherently, someone for coaching another person along, something that was Tim Gunn’s sole purpose in Project Runway. It just feels like another instance of piggy-backing, of creating and sustaining tangential importance, of lessening the creative accomplishment of one by acknowledging the “help” of another. The main problem I have with this is that the mentor’s role is one of background subservience, of leading by not leading, of questioning. When we vault this role into one worthy of prizes and fame, we lessen the value of the vatic in society.

Image source: Comedy Central

A “Conversation” with James Franco: Celebrity Poetry

James Franco

Austin Duck

To tell you the truth, I don’t know why I get so irritated by James Franco. I just do. Anyone who knows me will tell you that, in general, I’m not a very nice person, and it’s no surprise that I (oh yes even I) have found a celebrity that I use to channel all of my frustrations with personal failures onto. I mean, c’mon, look at this stupid face.

But that’s not what I want to write about. I want to use this space below to try, in some way, to figure out why Franco is doing what he’s doing, to try and get inside his head. Recently, amid all the Facebook and Twitter fire he’s been getting from his newest poem in DIAGRAM and his “book review” that showed up in Vice, a friend of mine, someone whose ideas I take very seriously, asked us (the hungry pack of MFAs who love to trash Franco at every turn) to take a step back, to consider what he’s doing from a different angle. For her:

Uncomfortable as it makes me to admit it, I am interested in [Franco’s] perspective. He’s an actor, and I think he’s a good one. Acting is a delicate and demanding kind of translation. I can grant that he has an aptitude for art, although not so much for the medium he has fifty degrees in. He has the rare (among poets/ardent fans of poetry/scholars) distinction of having a great deal of influence in Hollywood — he’s at liberty to try things most poets/fans of poetry/scholars are not. That has some value to the world… and I’d rather it exist than not, even if he doesn’t please other poets/fans of poetry/scholars with his output. In other words, I think he’s in a position to do some great things, and unfair as that may seem (esp. given the shit-tons of good poetry by non-names that goes uncelebrated, unpublished) I’d rather him try those things and disappoint us than not try.

This got me thinking about what, really, his project could be, what he could be getting at, what sort of aesthetic he’s actually after. Sure, we all know him as the Frank-Bidart-imitating, couldn’t-write-his-way-out-of-undergrad-without-his-name poet who keeps producing less-than-satisfactory work (by poetry culture’s [hahaha like that’s a real thing] standards anyway) to sell to a massive (for poetry) audience, but why? Does he maybe have a grand idea that his writing chops just can’t approach?

I figured the best way to clarify this was by having a conversation with him. Of course, I don’t know him (though we almost went to the same graduate program for a minute), and I doubt he’d talk with me, but he has such a body of work (poems, interviews, book reviews) about writing, that I think his opinions on the matter are pretty much available.

Here we go:

All of Franco’s words come from interviews and poems published in the following places: CurbedViceThe Daily BeastYahoo NewsHuffington PostChicago TribuneDIAGRAM

Austin Duck: At what point did you get interested in poetry? How do you see it relating to your experience in acting? Your vision of making art in general?

James Franco: I was in my first year at NYU, and our assignment was to make a short film that was an adaptation of a short story. They gave us a list of stories to choose from, but at Warren Wilson this teacher I had brought in Frank’s (dark, disturbing, serial-killer driven) poem “Herbert White,” and it was amazing. That was the first time I read him. And I think I have since learned to be awake to those kind of moments, when you get impulses of connection. These impulses are visceral. It wasn’t only because it was about a killer. The killer had been fused with something else. Frank [Bidart] was playing with both sides of the coin. There are moments in the poem when the killer takes down his mask, and the poet shows through.

AD: So you feel like art is a kind of simultaneous masking and de-masking? Both a mirage come up and a human come through? Would you care to say more about that?

JF: Sometimes, I would like to live in a tight space and be a spy on the world. When I was younger, when I had no friends, my mom drove me to school because I lost my license drunk-driving, and we wouldn’t talk, we would listen to Blonde on Blonde every morning, and life was like moving through something thick and gray that had no purpose. And now I see that everything has had as much purpose as I give it, [it carries] less and less of [its] original pain, And become(s) emptier, just [a] marker really, building blocks, to be turned into constructions and fucked with.

AD: So memory for you, then, is what? A marker? A mask? Is the past a kind of costume you slip into when you think you can remake it? I know you’ve done some work in performance poetry as well. Would you say that this idea, the idea of performing a past self, a self othered, is key to the art that you make? I mean, there’s no doubt in my mind that the othering is absolutely necessary in acting; even in This is the End, when you play yourself, you’re not really playing yourself. You’re taking a construction and “fucking with it,” right?

JF: I write confessions and characters, and that sort of thing. [Once] I called my class at UCLA, and told them to watch Apocalypse Now, and that it used Heart of Darkness as a model, and that we’d watch Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness, the making-of, the following week, I told them Hollywood and its high and low priests and priestesses become icons that [we] can manipulate to find poetic truth rather than journalistic proof. I guess you can read it as fetishizing, but it’s more of an ironic form of fetishizing. Once I choose a subject, I’m not going to shy away from portraying that.

If you go back to something like General Hospital, it’s because I like that it allows for people to look at something with fresh eyes, or to rethink a situation. If it’s my involvement that does it, and I’m going against tacit beliefs of entertainment hierarchy, if I’m messing with that, that’s interesting to me.

AD: So while you have interests in characters, in the cracks that appear in their personas, you’re more interested in pushing formal boundaries, messing with people’s perceptions of who you are? Can I ask you something blatantly? Are you more interested in the work or in how the work makes the public perceive you?

JF: I’m going to try to not let anyone put me in a box, and that certainly applies to the things I do outside of acting. There’s a tacit belief that actors shouldn’t write books, they’re sort of allowed to direct movies but there will be a lot of skepticism, and they shouldn’t do artwork, or music. There are these invisible roadblocks to gain entrée to these areas for actors, and you kind of have to crash through those invisible barriers. I know why those barriers are there. People are skeptical of anyone who has any bit of celebrity going and doing anything else because they might be wary that they’re cashing in on their celebrity, or that they’re doing these other pursuits not because they’re genuinely into them, but because of their celebrity in other areas. I understand that skepticism, and think it’s valid. But I told myself that if I was going to go back to school and study these other things, I knew I was going to get some shit, and that people were going to be prejudiced without even knowing what I’m doing, and that’s the price I have to pay for doing what I want to do. I think a lot more people that “care” and pay attention to what I’m doing have turned and understand that I take all these other disciplines seriously. I think it’s better now. I’m sure I still have a lot of haters, but I don’t really interact with them.

AD: It seems to me, then, that you’re interested in something a little more “pure” than many people give you credit for. “Poetic truth” I think you called it. How would you characterize that “truth?” Is it the same “truth” that you’re after when acting?

JF: If I were to act in the film about Obama, all I would need to get down, aside from the outer stuff—and I know that’s important—is his essential kindness. Poetry’s just like that, like hearing a performance going on. It is a portrait in some ways of someone trying to make sense of his world. I was taught to grab a reader, not push them away, and, I guess, that’s what I know of how to be a poet. The way I view it, poetry is like the movies, this monster at the center of the room, articulate, and behind it, a poet figure peeks out, a torque that acts as a through-line to ideas. And his ideas came out of a cheap, dime-store, medical case study that came out of Lowell and Bishop and Ginsburg. It goes on and on. Remember that the bricks of LA were mortared with thick Indian blood.

AD: Oh I see, so it’s about history. You seem to see the poet as inhabiting a kind of history that she makes, again, human, that we’re all imitating one piece or another and, in finding what’s human in the work, we find it with ourselves. Your work, particularly, engages in the history of Hollywood, the history of film, just as your films seem to be engaged in the history and the moment of literature. I think I get it: You engage in Hollywood because acting and film, like poetry, are obsessed with moments—of masks dropping, of traditions shattering and becoming alive. The history of literature and film are all about reinvention, about bringing back the dead, and, as I think you know, the only way to do that is with the human, the real. Is that about right?

JF: Hollywood is an idea. I want to get into the thick of it. Movies won’t be around forever.

AD: Do you think you’ve achieved this in your work?

JF: …

——————————–

While I still think that Franco’s written work, ultimately, isn’t very successful, I think that he has a vision and is pursuing a worthwhile project.

Fuck. I have a lot of tweets to delete.

Image source: The Guardian

You Should Probably Read This: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

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Andrew Findlay

In Read This or Kill Yourself, we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it. In You Should Probably Read This we do the same thing, but we’re a little nicer.

Cormac McCarthy has been established for years, but his shadow has grown in the past decade or so due to a couple of wildly popular films: The Road and No Country for Old Men. A lot of you should be familiar with those films, and their style pretty much shows what McCarthy is all about: bleak travelers across bleaker landscapes wrestling with nonexistent or extremely peculiar moral systems. In a lot of McCarthy’s fiction, a man has to have a code, no matter how terrifyingly brutal. He is a writer’s writer, which means reading his books is not something you do to unwind with booze over a long weekend. Reading him is work. I am biased against books like this, as relatability and ease of access is important to me in a field where basic human-to-human communication is paramount. I avoid stuff like this if it is mediocre and unappealing, and if achieving some hyper-literary cachet is the entire focus and fabric of the book (I’m still looking at you, The Corrections). However, pristine works of pure, uncompromising art, those I can’t resist. Blood Meridian is the latter.

They didn’t give me a genius grant for nothing.

It has all the limbs and outward flourishes of a turgid, joyless literary tomb. The narrator never takes us into the minds of the characters. The protagonist has no name, and the narrator refers to him only as “the kid.” There are no quotation marks for dialogue and there are few commas. The vocabulary is obscure enough to have sent me to the dictionary multiple times (word like manciple, esker, sprent, and surbated, to name a few) Plotwise, nothing really builds – it’s just a book about a group of men in the Texas-Mexico borderlands in the 1800s hunting Apache scalps. Stuff happens, sure, but there’s not a build to and change of conflict, it’s pretty much just death, blood, and destruction all the way through. To give you an idea of just how much death and blood, in the first two pages the main character runs away from home at 14, hangs around in a bunch of bars, and gets shot right below the heart. On the second page. After this, violence just builds on violence, but it is done with mastery and purpose.

Before discussing what makes Blood Meridian so good, it’s important to give a little bit more information on the bones of the novel. The main body of the novel is a fictionalization of the exploits of the Glanton Gang, a group of mercenaries hired by Mexican authorities to track and eliminate dangerous Apache warriors. They get paid a set amount per scalp. This leads to them massacring not only Apaches, but peaceful agrarian Native American communities and Mexican villages. A scalp is a scalp, and life is cheap. The plot of the novel makes for a lot of battle, a lot of grit, and a lot of wandering over desolate landscapes. This gives McCarthy ample space to showcase his verbal pyrotechnics.

Yes, he uses an egregiously obscure vocabulary, but he uses it so well. In terms of sheer word-stacking, there is no living writer better than McCarthy:

They rode on and the sun in the east flushed pale streaks of light and

then a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise

and where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation the top of the sun

rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim

and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them. The shadows of the smallest

stones lay like pencil lines across the sand and the shapes of the men and their mounts

advanced elongate before them like strands of the night from which they’d ridden,

like tentacles to bind them to the darkness yet to come.

Yeah, sure, ok, he uses “elongate” as an adjective and not a verb. But read that paragraph. Just read it. Read it again. Another author could have just said “The company rode west, the sun at their backs.” That’s all that’s happening here. The sun came up. McCarthy takes that, expands upon it, makes the sun a harbinger of death and destruction, and makes the diurnal cycle emblematic of man’s inability to escape his destiny – “[bound] to the darkness yet to come.” If you don’t love that paragraph, if it doesn’t make you tremble, then you will probably hate this book, and that is really unfortunate for you.

Try to describe a sunrise better than he did. I dare you.

The subject matter of the book makes violence its defining feature. There is death and destruction everywhere. Bartender disrespect you? Jam a broken whiskey bottle through his eye socket to his brain. Fellow traveler around the fire insult you? Decapitate him and watch his arterial blood shoot and sizzle into the flames. Those aren’t even the worst examples of what happens in this book. It is so violent that even literary critic Harold Bloom, who says it’s the best book written since As I Lay Dying, had to put it down multiple times before he could successfully complete it. Violence penetrates every aspect of the book, and its matter-of-fact presentation (no one feels glory or guilt, it just is what it is) underlines how natural a state it is for man. I thought for a while that morality was just not a concern for McCarthy in this book, but the sheer weight of the atrocities committed begins building a case against them. In addition, almost no one escapes from the life of violence. There’s a very “live by the sword, die by the sword” mentality here. There is a moral point here, but it isn’t razor sharp, it isn’t outright stated, and it’s hard to put into words. The events of the book permeate you so fully by the end, that you more feel the theme of the book than intellectually appreciate it.

This novel qualifies as an anti-western story. The anti-western or revisionist western popped up in the sixties and seventies as a response to the 40s and 50s westerns in which the good guy shot the bad guys and was good for doing it, in which the absolute violence and lawlessness of border towns were minimized, and in which the writers set up good/bad dichotomies around the heroes and villains. The anti-western is about looking at what American frontier culture actually was, in all its darkness and seaminess. Americans have a tendency to whitewash their history and ignore the staggering levels of violence that form the foundation of these United States. Blood Meridian, with its beautiful language describing horrific actions, directly attacks the narrative of manifest destiny and glorious American expansion. It does not pass judgment, it does not say this action is good or this action is bad, it just explores what happens in nauseating detail and lets the reader draw his own conclusions about mankind, which by the end of the book are not too uplifting and are summed up pretty well by the book’s epigraph:

Your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of

pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were

irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time.

   ~Paul Valéry

Image source: Amazon and Time

The Walking Dead Has Become a Show About Nothing

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Alex Russell

The Walking Dead is pulling in 12-15 million viewers a week consistently. For perspective, that’s roughly seven times more than most episodes in the last season of Breaking Bad. The last 21 in a row all had more viewers than the finale of Breaking Bad. I use that show because it’s on the same network and because the difference should be shocking. Breaking Bad was certainly a niche experience that blew up into the one thing everyone you knew talked about, but the finale was appointment television. It is very likely going to be remembered as “the show” of this generation of television.

I say again: more people are watching The Walking Dead, on the same channel, in the slow season than the most-anticipated episode of the most exciting show of this generation.

The Walking Dead isn’t a bad show. It’s a pretty exciting show, for starters. If you’re not one of the tens of millions tuning it, it’s a show about zombies attacking people who survived the end of the world. Scattered groups of survivors interact with zombies and learn the eternal lesson that even after a more obvious threat emerges, the ultimate villain is always man.

It’s tough to label it innovative, because that paragraph both A. made your eyes glaze over and B. describes the entire world of The Walking Dead. If you want zombie television, you’ve found it. It looks like all the other zombie stuff you’ve ever seen: dark, brooding, lonely, and violent. Sometimes the groups meet other dangerous groups. Sometimes they make tentative friends. Sometimes they attempt to live a normal life. It’s all of the challenges of the end of days mixed in with the challenges of every day. Cool. Check. Got it.

But the most common complaint lobbed at a drama that’s nearly 50 episodes deep holds especially true for The Walking Dead: nothing happens.

It feels ridiculous to say that about a show that features people losing limbs and family members by the month, but the show has a habit of bogging down. A new group will show up, we’ll meet everyone, some people will get character (and some won’t), some people will die for a reason (and some won’t), and we’ll rinse and repeat with a new batch. The setting changes a little bit and poor Andrew Lincoln has to teach a whole new group of people the true meaning of friendship.

The show was loosely following the plot and characters from the graphic novels of the same name, but now it’s on its own. Sure, people want to see people with big swords and big guns blow up clearly-evil zombies, but you need a hook. You need to care, or you’re just making pulp. Is there any reason to care?

Seinfeld has famously been called a show about “nothing.” The point was that it was to show how people really interacted when they were at their worst, because Larry David thought everyone was most honest at their worst. The Walking Dead would buy that line of thought, but it also seems to buy the idea behind the classic comedy, as well.

The most recent episodes of the show have seen the cast divided up after a terminal event at the mid-season point. Everyone is split, which is fine, but everyone is also battling their own hopelessness in a dead world. If it sounds like that’s an easy way to slip into darkness, well, yeah. This show’s closet is always full of a lot of blacks and grays, but right now we’re in an even darker place than normal.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It helps to reset the expectations: Civilization, as we know it, is over. It’s been enough time since the zombie outbreak that everyone knows help is never coming. Everyone’s seen death and loss in droves. It’s definitely time for a glass-half-full outlook. The darkness isn’t what stagnates The Walking Dead, though. It’s literal non-movement.

For two solid hours two characters hole up in a house and wander around the enclosed space. There are elements of people that are revealed and we, as an audience, see our humanity through their choices… kinda. For the most part people just wander around the same dirty, dead spaces and don’t do anything. It’s supposed to remind us that there’s nowhere to go and there’s no hope, but at a certain point that starts to feel like, well, nothing.

Seinfeld was funny because the cast was a reflection of our true selves. The Walking Dead succeeds when it shows us that we are all at a loss in a tough situation. I’d never tell you that Seinfeld missed a step, but the whole idea was to go out on top. The Walking Dead seems to have made every point about humanity that it has to make. It’ll keep demolishing in the ratings because it is entertaining and well-made visually, but the story is about nothing now, and that’s certainly not intentional.

 

 

Image source; NY Daily News

How is The Walking Dead like Dave Matthews Band?

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Scott Phillips

I like to think of The Walking Dead as the modern television version of the Dave Matthews Band. Remember how in the late 90s and early 2000s seemingly everyone liked Dave Matthews Band because it was safe to do so?

You could get asked by any adult, co-worker, or kid if you liked the Dave Matthews Band and if you said, “yes,” 95 percent of society would accept that answer while only five percent would call you out on your bullshit.

Most people “sorta” liked Dave Matthews Band, but just wanted to fit in and give the answer easiest in doing so, so I feel like they became a bigger thing than they should have been. I can’t tell you how many kids I went to high school with who were so pumped to see “Dave” in concert yet NEVER speak about that band anymore. Not ever.

I feel the same way with The Walking Dead.

(Writer’s Note: This article — and subsequent thoughts — are strictly about The Walking Dead television show and not the graphic novels, or correlations to the novels or any other weird shit like that. I watch television, so that is what I’m strictly writing about here.)

It’s the most watched basic cable television show in history and I don’t know anyone that truly enjoys the show. Everyone sorta likes The Walking Dead; just like DMB. It can be amusing sometimes. The action-driven scenes involving zombies are decent enough.

But Rick is the same mindless character the last three seasons and his son Carl needs to die. Or maybe the producers saw that Carl couldn’t even play dead as a zombie and believed they would be best served keeping him alive and alternating episodes where he isn’t in the plotline. The kid that plays Carl is so bad that he makes the kid that played A.J. Soprano look like Tom Hanks. Michonne is finally getting a back story now of all times? And the new characters: Why should anyone care about them and their fate?

Do you ever go into each week begging for the next episode of TWD? The next episode is just always sort of there. I don’t know anyone that would list The Walking Dead as their favorite show on television. If they do, they’ve probably taken every Buzzfeed quiz about which television character they are or which deli meat they would be.

I just don’t understand how this show about zombies — with minimal character development and really mediocre acting — is the top-rated cable television show of all time. This show regularly has five-to-six times the audience of Breaking Bad and Mad Men (!!!!!!!!!!!!, !!!!!!!!!!!!!) yet, I couldn’t name a soul that would say The Walking Dead is better than those shows.

Is America really filled with this many people that are iffy on entertainment options? Talking Dead, a show ABOUT a show, gets ratings this season that are nearly even with Breaking Bad‘s final season. That’s fucking insane… Do these people not know True Detective exists? Do this many people not get HBO?

Not to insult DMB or The Walking Dead as the worst thing ever; that’s not my intent with that comparison. Both are perfectly good forms of their respective entertainment with things they do well (Dave: live shows, Carter Beauford and percussion implementation with the band; TWD: good at cliffhangers and battle scenes, it’s diverse?), I’m just at a loss to see how both became so universally popular other than having mass appeal.

The Walking Dead: Working Despite Itself

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Mike Hannemann

WARNING – Full spoilers for the entire series so far for The Walking Dead are in the article below. Read at your own risk (or lack thereof, if you don’t give a damn). Oh, there’s also a pretty easy joke about Lost that may or may not ruin that so… use caution if you haven’t seen a show that ended in 2010, I guess.

The Walking Dead is back and has a few episodes under its belt for the final half of its fourth season. This is a peculiar show for someone who follows around a lot of pop culture for two reasons. The people I know who love quality television (and will debate it endlessly) watch every episode… and hate it. On the other side of the coin, the people I know who watch things like Duck Dynasty or Pawn Stars watch every episode… and love it. This is a very odd thing in 2014.

What is it about this show that has both sides of the spectrum coming back? What is drawing in people who lambaste it yet discuss it in length the next day and simultaneously those who will just post “OMG, Walking Dead!! So great!!” on Facebook every Sunday night? As someone well-versed in this particular undead universe, I’d like to try to figure this out.

Before the show aired its very first episode, I read the first 70 or so comics. The show is based on a graphic novel by Robert Kirkman, and he is involved in the show, so I figured I’d give the source material a whirl. When the first episode aired, I knew many of the characters already since they came from the books. I had my favorites and my least favorites. Ones I reviled and was looking forward to their on-screen demises. But… a lot of it just didn’t happen the same way. I can’t blame the creators, they needed to differentiate themselves from the source material so they could tell their own stories. “Ok,” I thought, “more time with these characters, I guess.” But then I realized something.

I don’t actually like any of these people. Why the hell don’t I like any of these people?

It’s because the show can’t recover from the shadow of its greatest and biggest character. Its break-out star. What made the show a ratings smash. I’m referring to the actual, physical, nightmarish world the characters live in. The world is a more important character than any person you ever see on screen. A show’s world is always a big part of the storytelling. Pawnee, Indiana is its own background character on Parks and Recreation. The Simpsons have a reliable backup every week: the town of Springfield. Hell, even a show with such brilliant characters as Breaking Bad gains a little bit of charm from the fact that it’s set in Albuquerque, NM. The Walking Dead turned this television trope on its head by making the setting the star attraction. Everyone else is just there as backup. The closest comparison is Lost, but that show had the narrative framework that included 20 minutes of flashbacks per episode and the possibility that “everything is magic all the time.”

This criticism applies to every instance the show slows down. When it stops for smaller character beats or long pointless monologues so you can learn how one survivor feels about religion, on the back of everyone’s mind is when we’re going to get back to the world falling apart. It’s not as much fun to watch people farming when you know just on the horizon is something horrifying. And because of this, when horrible things DO happen, (first major spoiler: things only sometimes happen) while it’s viscerally enjoyable, there’s no real emotional stake to it.

No one knew this was going to be a smash hit. It’s why the opening episode starts the same way the comics do. There’s an introduction to the sheriff for a few pages. Sheriff gets shot. Sheriff wakes up from a coma months later to find that the world has gone to hell and there’s no one really left. Why would you care, though? This is just some dude who it looks like woke up in a horror movie halfway through the second act. The show tries, desperately, to make you feel for these people on a deep level but it’s nearly impossible to because there’s no room for solid foundation. In a show about the world in ruins and only a handful of survivors, people actually can make the criticism “Well, nothing happened in THAT episode.”

I can only imagine how amazing this show could have built itself into if it had started with a slow burn. A first season of 12 episodes where we meet these characters, spread throughout Georgia, with occasional scenes of the world starting to go to shit. Give these characters something that’s worth caring about before pulling back the curtain to reveal the star of the show. Care about two characters’ marriage for a different reason than “Hey! They’re married! And marriage is supposed to be great, right?” Or, hell, care about a kid’s actions outside of other than “LOOK AT THE BOY ON THE SCREEN!”

It’s harsh criticism, but it’s true. The show’s writers do their best with the materials they have. Occasionally, there are times when you do care about the people on screen. But it’s not often enough to really drive the show anywhere. And, to be fair, most of the people who are watching this show aren’t asking for much more. They want to see a screwdriver to a zombie’s head and call it a day. They can get by with a character nicknaming a newborn “Lil’ Asskicker” because that isn’t important to them. And, maybe, a show like this doesn’t need to have compelling character arcs. But if you try to shoehorn them into the REAL reason everyone is watching, you’re just going come across as hacky. You’re working from a disadvantage, but at least acknowledge this and try to tell a fun story.

I’m fine, The Walking Dead, with you occasionally taking a breather from incessant mayhem to give characters room to grow. But you are a show about gross-out scares and the end of the world. It’s OK to not be better than that.

Image source: AMC

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

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Andrew Findlay

Neil Gaiman has been a darling of fantasy fiction for years. His profile is huge and unassailable – multiple awards, multiple movie adaptations – this is a writer who goes on late night talk shows and people watch those shows specifically to see him. Any two or three of his works are enough to qualify him as a game-changing writer. If you have not read Sandman, go do that right now. It is the best thing he’s ever written, and one of the best 15 things written in the last 50 years. I can’t get into it right now because the story is massively complex and free-roaming, but do yourself a favor and check it out. Today’s book, American Gods, won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. To give an idea of how big a deal that is, only 10 books have ever done that, and two of them were written by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, respectively.

American Gods is fantasy, which is a really important genre as it’s the first there ever was. Think about it: In Gilgamesh the main character is the son of a goddess, befriends a wild man, slays an ogre, rejects the advances of the goddess of sex, and slays the skybull she sends to destroy him in revenge. In The Odyssey, the main character blinds an ogre, pisses off a sea god, and is assisted by and given gear by a war goddess. Any number of old stories contain fantastic elements: humans made of clay, humans made of thrown rocks, world-wrapping floods, and so on. These early stories are special, as they all attempt to explain humanity, its place in the world, and how they both came about. There is no whiny asshole running around with daddy issues (I’m looking at you, The Corrections). At the dawn of human cultural life, all of the stories were concerned with how we got here and what we should do about it. Of course, people back then had no fucking clue and just made shit up. The results were amazing. Modern fantasy stems from either that initial efflorescence or from all the stuff J.R.R. Tolkien single-handedly standardized. American Gods is the former. It goes old and deep for its mythology.

I am the oldest character in all of literature, and my beard rings are amazing.

Some people hate American Gods, and those people are wrong. There is plenty to hate, but a lot more to love. The first big hit is that the main character’s name is Shadow, which is usually not a good sign quality-wise. In general, the characters are there to advance the plot and to do cool things. There’s depth there, but not a lot. Shadow is a pretty simple guy who is set up a little maladroitly as a big strong silent type, but with hidden feelings. At the start of the novel, he finishes a three-year bid in prison. Later in the novel, he remembers being a kid and crying while reading Gravity’s Rainbow in a hospital while his mother died of cancer. Jarring mismatches like that rub you wrong and don’t deserve to be forgiven, but there is just so much good to go with the bad. Most of the good comes from the premise in the title itself.

What exactly are American gods? The premise that makes the book is that gods are generated by human thought and belief. For example, Odin (who is a main character), first popped up in America when Vikings visited the Americas, got into conflict, and slew a native in a ritualistic way. The power of their belief created him. Then they left, and Odin spent the next few centuries kicking around the continental US as “Mr. Wednesday” (Wednesday = Wōdnesdæg or Odin’s Day). This method of god creation is upliftingly anthropocentric – our belief is not just their payment or due, but the key to their existence. Unfortunately for the gods, lack of faith leads to lack of food. Without constant, strong belief, they weaken and, if they can find no substitute, they die. The substitutes available normally consist of some type of human interaction tangentially related to their godhead. For example, the half-djinn Queen of Sheba, Bilquis, achieved fame and drew belief as a great seducer. In American Gods, she is working as a prostitute and drawing her power and sustenance from that. An American incarnation of Anubis, the Egyptian death god, runs a funeral home and draws his power and sustenance from that. The hardscrabble landscape of American belief has transmogrified Mr. Wednesday, an incarnation of the Norse god of war, wisdom, and poetry, into a confidence man. There is definitely a precedent for Odin as a type of trickster god, and his godhood being shaped and reflected by American culture emphasizes and feeds this aspect of him. He gains strength and survives through bamboozlement. For example, he needs money, so he finds an ATM, dresses up like a security guard, handcuffs a briefcase to his hand, and marks the ATM as out of order. When anyone comes up to make a deposit, he apologizes, takes their money, and painstakingly writes them a receipt. He then walks away with a ton of money. He not only gets cash this way, but also acquires the “worship” necessary for his continued existence. The problems associated with lack of spiritual nourishment create the central conflict of the book.

I’m going to need a little bit more than that to survive, Ron.

Old gods are scattered across all of America. All of the immigrants who ever came here, and all of their beliefs, created sub-pantheons filled with strangely reduced gods. Old cultures come over with their old beliefs, then slowly buy in to the new ones. Up to the time of the book, these gods have only had to deal with their transformation and weakening due to the acculturation of their worshipers, but problems arise when they enter into direct competition with the new gods, avatars of tech, finance, and the like. As Americans worship these things with more fervor, so do their respective avatars gain power, to the direct detriment and weakening of the old gods. Once created, gods have staying power, but if they are completely cut off, they will simply fade into nothing. This is an undesirable outcome, so the main plot of the book deals with the old gods’ actions to preserve themselves in the face of the onslaught of the modern world.

Yes, the plot is linear and simple. Yes, the characters could have a little more depth. Yes, the protagonist’s name is Shadow Moon. Do any of those things make this a bad book? I mean, yes, they would, if there wasn’t more to it. American Gods is an exploration of American belief, American places, and the American psyche. Neil Gaiman is an Englishman who settled in Minnesota, and this is his love letter to his adopted country. The whole presents a mythic America, one where the salt of the Earth is the center of the nation and where roadside attractions are the most sacred and powerful locations in the country. The climax of the novel takes place in the holiest spot in the United States – Rock City, just outside Chattanooga, TN. The swindler habits of a major character – Mr. Wednesday – dovetail with the venerable American tradition of getting one over on people not as clever as yourself, from Tom Sawyer getting people to paint a fence all the way down to a more modern Sawyer.

Son of a bitch.

Ultimately, this novel’s passion for Americana and its in-depth commentary on the nature and power of human belief far outweigh any niggling concerns with naming or plot pacing. Much like taking a road trip (which occupies most of the plot), you might go to some less-than-ideal places, but you will still have an amazing time there because of the idea of the road trip. The idea of this novel transcends any flaws that mar its execution. I believe it is a great novel, and as Neil Gaiman himself writes in the novel:

People believe…[i]t’s what people do. They believe.

And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things,

and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts,

with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and

it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.

It is not a perfect novel, but any book containing the above quote has my vote. It is not flawless, but much like the nation it enshrines, the monumental good overwhelms the (admittedly) searing bad.

Image sources: IMDB, Wiki