Last month a Michigan appeals court considered the case of a man convicted of methamphetamine possession. Although the man received an unusually harsh sentence (30 to 120 months in prison, based in part on his prior record), the decision of the three appellate judges addresses not only the length of the sentence but also, and at greater length, the way it was delivered: via videoconferencing. The defendant was in the county jail when he was sentenced; he never shared a courtroom with the judge who determined his fate.
On a basic legal level, the court noted that Michigan law specifies when you can sentence via videoconferencing, and it’s not an option in felony cases. But the appeals court’s decision raises deeper philosophical issues. The three appellate judges provide a stirring defense of the antimodern belief that human dignity inheres not solely in the mind or the will, but in the body.
A defendant already has the right to be present at sentencing. As the judges note, “Our court rules and common law invest sentencing with profound significance, for this grave moment in the criminal process often seals a defendant’s fate or dictates the contours of his future. … A defendant’s right to allocute before sentence is passed—to look a judge in the eye in a public courtroom while making his plea—stems from our legal tradition’s centuries-old recognition of a defendant’s personhood, even at the moment he is condemned to prison.”
The Michigan decision, though short, frequently returns to the language of human dignity. The appeals-court judges intuit that acknowledging the personhood of the defendant and his intrinsic dignity requires his physical presence. But why would the body be the necessary locus of human dignity? Why isn’t the man’s voice and image, far away and mediated by a screen, enough to remind a judge of his humanity?
Our bodies can humiliate us, especially when we confront power. Most of us have had the experience of trying to plead our case and realizing that we’d be more persuasive if we could just have a quick shower and a change of clothes. When we confront other human beings in our bodies we risk provoking not empathy but disgust.
Our bodies represent weakness—but this weakness is what allows them to signify our equality. At the very least, the body reminds us of the universal weakness of mortality. Recognition of weakness plus recognition of commonality provokes mercy.
A defendant has the right to address his judge at sentencing, but speech is as likely to display his inequality with his judge as his human equality. A defendant who is more educated, more intelligent, more articulate, or just less of a jackass is more likely to paint a compelling picture of himself in speech—but uneducated, unintelligent, inarticulate jackasses have exactly as much human dignity as the best among us, simply because they are human individuals.
All men are not created equal in intellect, in temperament, or in freedom of choice. But all of us share the body’s fevers and its final silence. This recognition that human equality is found in the brute fact that we are individual, embodied human beings drives the pro-life movement: before we’re even capable of thought, our mute bodies speak our dignity and our infinite worth.
Liberalism tends to treat the body as an instrument of the will; the Michigan case makes little sense unless you acknowledge that the body is an icon. Plenty of commentators, from Jonathan Haidt to Paul W. Kahn, have noted the difficulty liberalism has in grappling with the sacred. The sacred is not defensible in terms of utility, efficiency, rationality, safety, or choice. Videoconferencing wins on all of these grounds except—and this one exception applies only if you are willing to take the prisoner’s perspective and not the judge’s—choice. (Even a prisoner’s safety may not be best served by in-person sentencing, for reasons that are shameful.) In the gaze of the defendant the judge encounters a human dignity and equality that go beyond what rationalistic discourse can prove; they must be experienced. Like all sacred things they must be submitted to rather than comprehended.
“The right to look your judge in the eye” is an attempt to put into words something of that irreducible encounter. The judge has a “duty to acknowledge the humanity of even a convicted felon,” the court says: to recognize him- or herself in the eyes of the defendant.
A screen has its own symbolism, as the appellate-court decision notes. Screens do not only allow physical separation. (The Michigan defendant was sentenced without ever leaving jail or breathing the same air as his judge.) They also place a frame around the face. They suggest that the person being viewed has become a character: a type, even a concept in the mind of the one viewing him. Videoconferencing can turn a man into a kind of moving mug shot. Harold Garfinkel argues that “successful degradation ceremonies”—such as trials—reduce the individual to a type, and define him by his membership in an out-group.
And so defendants stand in court, and judges must meet their gaze—it’s intensely difficult to meet the eyes of someone you’re being asked to judge—in order to unsettle the judges, in order to remind them that their judgment is merely temporal and provisional.
The Michigan case, and the reasoning behind it, should also affect how we view the increasing use of videoconferencing in other criminal-justice settings, especially prison visits. Videoconferencing is increasingly used as an alternative to in-person prison visits—some prisons have banned in-person visits entirely. The inflated costs of the new technology, as always, are borne by the loved ones of the prisoner. Videoconferencing is better than nothing, and having it as an option makes sense; but as the Michigan decision notes, quoting an earlier case, “virtual reality is rarely a substitute for actual presence.”
This decision helps explain why we should make real, in-person visits easier and resist the attempt to restrict prisoners’ contact with their loved ones to a screen. All humans need, on the very lowest level of need where we choose between despair and hope, to be physically in the presence of someone who loves us. Who treats us with tenderness and not contempt, for whom we are an individual and not a numbered case.
The willingness to share physical space with someone, to confront them in person and meet their gaze, can be profoundly humbling. The unwillingness to do this–the use of power to prevent it—is always dehumanizing. This is part of what it means to be human: to keep body and soul together.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.
The third season of BoJack Horseman arrived the same day the long-awaited Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie opened here in D.C. So audiences who want to watch appetitive people careening through aimless lives have two starkly opposed portrayals of antiheroes who gobble drugs and guzzle booze, corrupt minors, and abase themselves for fame and maybe kill people.
AbFab is the simpler pleasure. The movie plays like an extended episode of the TV show, in which lifelong best friends—neurotic Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and ferocious Patsy (Joanna Lumley)—stumble and scramble their way through the worlds of puff-piece media and pop fashion. AbFab lets catastrophic excess be fun. (Arguably you can’t have fun without it. If it were less catastrophic we’d just call it “joy.”)
AbFab, which debuted as a comedy sketch in 1990, is amoral in that ’80s/’90s way. Patsy and Eddie are constantly thwarted and never punished, and the terrible things they do somehow always turn out harmless. For the show to be fun they’ve got to be underdogs whom nobody takes seriously: Eddie, in desperate need of a car, yowls, “I need wheels!” but her assistant Bubble drawls, “Ohhhhh, yet you have only been given feet.” They’ve got to be callous toward everybody else, but constant to one another: When Eddie is moaning about the fat old lady she sees in the mirror, Patsy growls, “You don’t need that! I’m your mirror!” Patsy inspects Eddie’s lipstick-smeared face and pronounces her, with the conviction of blind loyalty, “fabulous.”
The initial setup of the show revolved around generational conflict: the drug-fueled, sex-crazed middle-aged best friends vs. Eddie’s straitlaced, purist, and miserable daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha). Eddie and Patsy torment Saffron—Patsy would frequently insinuate that she was a problem that should’ve been solved in the womb, with a knitting needle—and part of the show’s genius was letting her be silently heroic but never quite likable.
In the movie we get a new angle on the child issue. Saffron has a daughter of her own now, a mixed-race 13-year-old named Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness). Donaldson-Holness is brilliant in her first movie role, all gleeful teenage impulsivity. The child desperate to get herself corrupted is a great character type, and the movie’s only real flaw is how little Lola is given to do.
Patsy and Eddie are at their most transgressive in their refusal to have epiphanies. They barrel along from crisis to catastrophe, deploying sincerity only when it might get them what they want. Sometimes they get speeches shaped like epiphanies, but with absurdly venal content: On the TV show Eddie closes one peroration with, “I don’t want more choices! I just want better things!”
BoJack Horseman, now that’s a show where the epiphanies swarm like mosquitoes. One of the show’s bleakest and most insightful sources of humor is the way all the characters have moments of clarity, where they figure out exactly what’s wrong with themselves or those around them and express these insights in unambiguous terms—and then nothing changes.
In season three the insights, especially in the front half of the season, seem more pat and normal than before. We’re told to stop checking obsessively on whether or not we’re happy, and to settle for good-enough love. We’re told that BoJack does bad things so that when people reject him he can tell himself they’re rejecting his actions and not him as a person. Any show since 2001 will tell you these things.
The first two seasons insisted on the characters’ need to feel like they are good, in spite of all their awful actions. In the third season they talk more about whether they’re happy; this is boring. Fortunately the back half of the season begins to make fun of moral ambitions again, with disastrous Hollywood icons BoJack and Sarah Lynn going on a kind of Ninth Step road trip.
The satire of amends here is ferocious—and very similar to 2014’s Maps of the Stars. Making amends is intelligible to Americans, because we want to believe we can fix things; it’s DIY redemption, a moral approach to life that ignores or even rejects a spiritual approach. Also, amends are always hilarious because they’re inherently inadequate.
BoJack is a contemporary show, not throwbacky like AbFab. It takes place in a moral universe. People really get hurt; contrast Lola’s outcome with that of the fawn girl BoJack almost slept with. (I would prefer, I think, a show that didn’t pretend doing the wrong thing always causes visible psychological damage. That makes the goodness:happiness equation much too easy.) This season gets a bit preachy, most noticeably in the abortion episode, where we’re preached at not only about abortion rights but also about the moral value of jokes about abortion.
I guess that’s the price the writers paid to make a season so focused on children as icons of hope and responsibility: childrearing as escape route from the hedonism hamster wheel. The brilliant, nearly-wordless underwater episode is only the strongest hint of how central children will become to this season. The underwater episode is psychedelic and poignant, BoJack at its weird and heartfelt best. This is a terrifically-paced season, with the show’s characteristically wild range of types of humor: the sly feminist commentary of the Cabracadabra debacle, the shock humor of the abortion music video, the ridiculousness of the spaghetti-strainer payoff.
The third season raises the stakes for our half-horse unhero. An early episode is called “BoJack Kills,” and those interlocking themes of parenting or killing—the two ways out—recur with increasing urgency as the season barrels toward its close.
Where can BoJack go from here? Part of the point is how stuck BoJack is; if you’re frustrated by that, well, life is frustrating. But the amends road trip suggests the show could wring a lot more humor out of extended attempts at self-improvement than it tries to. I’d love to see something about how ridiculous people are even after they’ve been rescued. I don’t know that BoJack Horseman wants to be that show. But it’s pushing its central character toward a crisis.
If they’re really cruel the writers will let him escape, like Patsy and Edina, unchanged—eternally unscathed.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.
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My poolside reading this July has been Mary C. Mansfield’s 1995 work The Humiliation of Sinners: Public Penance in Thirteenth-Century France. The book illuminates human questions we still have not resolved with stories from civilizational past. You don’t have to care as much about the Rogation dragon as I do to see echoes of Mansfield’s medieval world in our own rituals of public abasement, from reality TV to political apologies to Alcoholics Anonymous’s Fifth Step.
Mansfield died before she was able to polish the manuscript, and it shows in a few repetitive or clunky phrases. She’s also got some odd preferences: The drama of scapegoating, in which the sins of an entire community are washed clean by the public expulsion and humiliation of a few, is always described in positive terms. Any time Mansfield says “dramatic” or “organic” (!) she means scapegoating; any time she laments a new “drier” form of public religion, she means they’ve taken the scapegoats away. Nonetheless the book is studded with insights: “The celebration of community … inevitably meant a remembrance of the dead,” for example.
Mansfield makes vivid the jury-rigged, experimental, even madcap religious world of the 1200s, which brought me comfort here in 2016. She draws out some of the aspects of medieval French religion we have lost: the intense focus on the sins of the rich and middle-class, for example. Confessors quizzed their better-off parishioners closely about usury or abuse of power; one man had to do public penance because the money he gave to the poor on his wedding day was counterfeit, which is three separate things that wouldn’t happen today.
Mansfield depicts many tensions we still struggle to resolve: the sinner’s hunger for anonymity, for example, which conflicts with his longing for reconciliation with the community. Nobody wants to be exposed—but we long to be known, forgiven, accepted as the sinners we are rather than the facades we display in public. There’s a great relief in no longer having to hide.
This longing for exposure and even for humiliation isn’t on Mansfield’s radar. One of the few disappointments of her book is how thoroughly she frames public penance in terms of the longing of others—the righteous, the self-righteous—to see sinners humiliated. She notes that the practices she describes coexisted with entirely voluntary public penances, things you’d do only because you wanted to do them, but she has chosen not to focus on those.
I don’t want to defend exposing and humiliating people; I don’t believe in printing mug shots. Nor do I think you’ve got to tell everybody every awful thing you’ve done. Nobody wants to hear that mess. But there is often a covert spiritual longing for exposure and humiliation: a longing for greater harmony between the public image and the person one knows oneself to be. And without that painful harmony we feel out of harmony with our community. Mansfield is very good on the “utopian dream” of public penance, “the hope that God’s justice can be visible on earth,” and I realize this longing for justice for one’s own sins is equally utopian. But it is real; and one new contribution of groups like AA, at least in theory, is the creation of a community of lay penitents.
AA, like medieval penance, blurs the line between religious and secular—and between voluntary spiritual practices and coerced punishment. My own position (for a lot of reasons) is that nobody should be court-ordered or otherwise required to attend AA, but my purpose here is more to point out that these are questions few societies have cleanly and consistently resolved. The language of addiction–and the 12-step spirituality which pop culture wrongly offers as universal addiction treatment–is how contemporary Americans work through the anxieties Mansfield’s subjects address with processions and prostrations. When it comes to making amends, we still live with the same ambivalence that Mansfield highlights, where “free absolution” must lead to “costly restitution.”
The Humiliation of Sinners helped me understand the conflict between two visions of forgiveness, both of which are accepted by large swathes of our society. In the first (and, I think, more traditional) understanding, asking for forgiveness is a way for the offender to abase himself, accepting the pain of humiliation and giving power to his victim. In the second understanding, however, asking for forgiveness is a kind of power play: a narcissistic act of cruelty in which the offender purchases his own peace of mind by imposing yet another burden—the burden of somehow forgiving him—on his victim.
If you’re seeking to make amends you’ll often get advice based on the first understanding of forgiveness—but the person whose forgiveness you beg may be coming from the second position. Especially since most human acts do have some admixture of narcissism, even a sincere attempt at amends can easily be read as self-absorbed.
Where forgiveness is a virtue, asking for it will always have a certain coercive element: If you were a good person you’d say it’s okay. But the forgiveness backlash is also the result of geographic mobility. The classic example for the anti-forgiveness camp is the email or Facebook message: Hey, you may not remember this, but I’m the guy who [did some horrible thing to you over a decade ago] …
Sometimes that works out okay. But I’ve done something like this, and I’m still not sure if it was right or not—because many of these belated amends reopen wounds that had been healing on their own.
Where people have no choice but to live together, reconciliation is inevitably the goal of both victim and offender. When people can fully separate, an asymmetry emerges: Reconciliation may still be the offender’s goal, but the victim might prefer simply never to see the guy again. And so seeking reconciliation with the victim may favor the offender’s perspective over the victim’s.
Humiliation is in some ways startlingly familiar. But there are two elements of the 13th-century French world that we lack. One is a model of honored penitence similar to monks. Monks bore many of the same ascetic and humiliating marks as coerced penitents: “Solemn penitents were criminals, but they acted the part of saints.” Imagine if teachers and ministers wore orange prison jumpsuits and you’ll see how powerful this symbolic parallel could be. Penitents’ public humiliation was adorned with frequent blessings (the blessed ashes of Ash Wednesday began here) and promises of future restoration to the community.
This ritual of restoration is the other thing we lack. How do we welcome public penitents back into our community? In one Maundy Thursday ritual, public penitents who had completed their penance were passed from the hands of their priests to the archdeacon to the hands of the bishop who welcomed them back into the church. Bishops might call, “Venite, venite, venite!” (Come in!) to signal reconciliation. Rituals with candles and the Kiss of Peace led up to the final, beautiful restoration of the penitent to full communion at the altar.
Perhaps our public apologies and reality-TV self-exposures are ways of seeking reassurance, in a world which no longer promises us reconciliation.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.
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Sometimes it seems like the nation’s capital is really two cities: dateline Washington and hometown DC. The current show at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, “Twelve Years that Shook and Shaped Washington: 1963 – 1975,” is an attempt to bridge the gap–or at least to give official Washington’s view of unofficial DC.
The show is one of those “social history” grab-bags: a display about public colleges here, a selection of dashikis there. We get morsels of a lot of things but few full dishes. Why isn’t there any video in the section on black dance and theater? Why not let us hear some go-go, the native form of funk born toward the tail end of the show’s timeline? Why are all the photos printed onto deeply-colored backgrounds, making them blurry and inartistic?
But as you move through the meandering exhibit, a few arguments do emerge.
The timeline is itself an argument. Why twelve years, and why these twelve? 1963 is an especially odd starting year, which is one reason the show doesn’t really start there–it opens with JFK’s inauguration, Marian Anderson singing the national anthem on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But the timeline basically covers the early years of the District’s limited home rule: In 1961 the 23rd Amendment gave DC residents the right to vote for President, and by 1975 we were allowed the privilege of electing our own personal mayor.
I grew up hearing a different timeline for the city: 1968 through roughly 1994. In this story, the city I knew was born the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots broke out in the District and large swathes of the city’s black middle-class neighborhoods burned for days. Tanks rolled through the streets and the National Guard patrolled; an exodus to the suburbs left large portions of the riot zone burnt out for the next 25 years.
By contrast, this show downplays the riots. There are a couple photos of burnt-out storefronts and National Guardsmen, but you don’t get any sense of the scope of the destruction in either space or time. A more powerful–and more honest–exhibit would include a map showing everywhere the fires burned. Even more powerful would be photos of the same street corners in late April 1968 and late April 1995: Many of them would look almost the same except for the hemlines.
But the Anacostia Museum makes a strong case for not allowing the spectacle of the riots to control the narrative. “Twelve Years” gets a lot of mileage out of starting earlier. Its most powerful sections, unexpectedly, concern urban renewal, aka displacement of the poor. These early section depicts the razing of Southwest amid promises that the displaced black residents would be given better, modern housing elsewhere, and the “fight against the freeways.” A poster proclaims, “White Man’s Road… Thru Black Man’s Home!”
A 1948 chart–the “1963” starting point is ephemeral–argues that urban renewal is “How Negroes became displaced persons.” Black neighborhoods were uprooted and recreated in Northeast and Anacostia–without the institutions and relationships which had sustained people during the bad old days. A wistful photograph by Garnet Wolesley Jex shows a lone black girl in the middle distance with her back to the camera, her dress blown sideways in the wind, amid the storefronts of a vanished DC. A phenomenal short film called “No Time for Ugliness” gives the argument against “urban sprawl, the careless misuse of land, unregulated and unrestrained,” in scolding white voice-over. Once, there was ugliness. Now there are white children!
“Will we have disorder or design? Ugliness or beauty?” “Twelve Years” gives a subtle and compelling argument that attempts to impose order provoke multiple forms of disorder–and that terms like “disorder” and “disruption” should be applied to the actions of lawmakers at least as often as they’re applied to lawbreakers.
This Smithsonian-vetted history sometimes reveals more than it intends–either about the historical events it records, or about the perspectives and blind spots of the curators. In the first camp is the section on feminism. What leaps out at a conservative viewer is the centrality of abortion in the photos chosen to depict the ’70s women’s movement.
The most notable lacuna to me was the near-absence of religion. Churches appear only in their role as seedbeds of political organization. Judaism appears in a photo of the Adas Israel Synagogue being moved in its entirety out of the path of construction. The specifically religious stories of the ’60s and ’70s are absent.
There are other absences: criminal DC, the world of speakeasies and sex work and our enduring drug economy; Southern-transplant DC, both black and white. Basically what you won’t find here is the District you’ll encounter on your local city bus: where one rider tries to lead a kind of rolling tent revival, another reminisces about the good old days when you could run into Marvin Gaye at the after-hours club, and another says kids don’t respect their elders now that they’ve banned paddling in the schools.
“Twelve Years” presents a nuanced view of an era in which it seemed like nuance was being rationed for the war effort. It’s well-meaning, like so many governmental and philanthropical interventions in the District. If it fails to take seriously the less-liberal and less-secular longings of hometown DC, well, that is informative in its own way.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
The summary for Zach Clark’s new indie flick Little Sister walks a razor’s edge of “could be great, could be awful.” Addison Timlin stars as ex-goth, now aspiring nun C0lleen, who receives an urgent email from her estranged mother (Ally Sheedy). Her brother (Keith Poulson), disfiguringly wounded in Iraq, has come out of the hospital, but he won’t talk to anyone. Will Colleen come home, reconcile with her family, help her brother reenter normal life, and figure out if she’s really ready to take her final vows?
The movie’s opening isn’t promising. Colleen (white, obviously) proves her goodness of spirit by buying food for a (black, obviously) homeless woman, who exists to be black and homeless and grateful. But this is a rare off-key note in an otherwise beautifully balanced, charming, weird and gentle film.
Little Sister is set in 2008, in Asheville, NC. The setting and storyline could easily have overbalanced in one direction or another: too much preachy politics, too much religion or too much self-consciously edgy unreligion, too much goth shtik or too much actual family tragedy. Instead Clark as writer and director knows just when to pull back or switch gears. He lets every moment rest lightly and then settle in the audience’s mind.
Colleen’s family is genuinely a mess; it’s also genuinely kooky. And there are moments which are simultaneously harsh and tender, the kind of wrongheaded and disturbing thing we all accept in our families: Mom hates that we can lock our doors, which is a bad sign, by the way, but we’ll all just grin and bear it; you really shouldn’t drug your family, but if you’re the kind of mom who might, your kids might learn to roll with it.
The acting is fine (Taylor Jones as little Colleen, seen only in home movies, is an unexpected standout), the fall colors in the misty autumn woods of Asheville are stunning, there’s a bit too much shaky camerawork but the direction is otherwise inoffensive. What really makes Little Sister work—what makes it such a refreshing joy—is the script. This is a forgiving film. Everything is treated seriously but not lugubriously. Colleen really prays. Her prayers are often scored to Marilyn Manson-type goth rock—not only for comic effect but, I think, to suggest a soul sometimes in adolescent turmoil and sometimes in ecstasy. Everybody is damaged and damaging; people genuinely betray each other in this movie, and they are genuinely forgiven. People do things they think will help, and those things are almost always really bad ideas, but they sort of do help anyway.
Also, this may be a personal issue, but Little Sister does not do the thing so many movies do now, of setting up a choice and then cutting to black right before the choice is made. Several characters have actual decisions to make here, and we get to learn what they chose. This movie, in other words, has a real ending.
At the film’s end we finally see flamboyantly miserable Colleen give a huge, sunlit smile. I couldn’t help but join her.
The xkcd cartoon “Logic Boat” shows the familiar problem of the man who has to carry a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage across a river. The problem: “The boat only holds two, and you can’t leave the goat with the cabbage or the wolf with the goat.”
There’s a logic-puzzle solution here. There’s also the xkcd solution: “Leave the wolf. Why do you have a wolf?”
High-Rise is a dystopian science-fiction flick about an experimental skyscraper in an alternate-history ’70s Britain. Eccentric architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) designed the place so that every floor represented a rung on the socioeconomic ladder, like a vertical Snowpiercer train: rich folk in the penthouse, with a rooftop garden where Royal’s caricature wife rides horseback dressed as a shepherdess; maids and whatnot probably in the basement, not that we get to know any; everybody else precisely placed on the appropriate level in the middle.
We’re told, “Most people don’t care about what happens two floors above or one floor below them.” You can tell that that’s true, because in real life, when the cities started to go Charles Bronson, rich people left. Why don’t they leave the high-rise once the class war starts? Why do you have a wolf?
High-Rise is based on a J.G. Ballard novel, and its most striking characteristic is how much of a throwback it is. The ’70s aren’t just setting and costume. The whole emotional tenor of the movie is redolent of the disco era–and of Britain’s “winter of discontent.” The casual sexism, ecstatic violence, and casual ecstatic sexual violence are filmed pretty much exactly as they would have been in-period; you can bring your own critique if you want to.
These days we talk about globalization and the flight of manufacturing jobs. High-Rise recalls an earlier narrative, where social breakdown is linked with moral decadence. The ’70s are one long party that got out of hand. All the usual signs of decadence eventually emerge: wife-swapping, adults eating cereal, blood-spattered clothing, fires.
This isn’t a good enough movie; its plot is tangled, and it’s both overstuffed and thinly-sketched. It’s disingenuous to make a movie about society-wide class conflict where the lowest class we get to know is the educated professionals. (See Jamie’s comments here on the rhetoric of the “1%.”) Tom Hiddleston, whom I enjoyed in Crimson Peak, is wasted in a role where he mostly wanders around looking tormented. The final stages of societal breakdown happen in a muddled montage. By the movie’s final stretch the audience was so frustrated and confused that even very good lines (“This is my party… and I decide who gets lobotomized”) got zero laughs.
That said, there are some great images–the dentist’s Terry Gilliamesque flak jacket covered in dentures, the overbalanced cake plate–and some unexpected insights.
When the movie starts we know things will go horribly awry. Dr. Laing (Hiddleston) roasts his dog on a spit in the burnt-out, powerless building and muses that in some ways he likes it here in the post-apocalypse. Then we flash back to when the high-rise was new, a huge gleaming angular monster surrounded by parking lots, far from any city.
Royal says he “conceived this building as a crucible for change,” and the tenants were apparently carefully curated. (In one of the best lines of a movie with unnecessarily good dialogue, one of the inhabitants notes that Laing’s “tenancy application was very Byronic.”) Royal’s idea of literal and explicit class hierarchy + forced proximity seems so crazy that maybe he always intended the plan to fail. Yet he seems surprised when power outages prompt the building’s descent into anarchy.
Violent anarchy starts as a party, in fact a clash of two parties: a raid by middle-class children on a private pool party. Nobody is pursuing anything other than fun. I sincerely loved the way partying is used in this movie, as a kind of synonym for oppression and resistance: “We’ve got to show the lower floors that we can throw a better party than them!” It implies an ironic, amoral vision of politics which in our relentlessly moralistic age we find hard even to remember. And it makes sense when you notice that none of the adults have parents. The closest thing we get is Royal, who begat the building; they are all the building’s adolescent children, raised by the society Margaret Thatcher (more or less) said didn’t exist.
Lucien Steil’s presentation “Architecture Which Hurts, Architecture Which Heals,” underscores the ways Royal’s choices shaped his building’s eventual collapse. There is a parking lot wasteland instead of a courtyard, for example, and a lack of truly public spaces. (“I recognize you,” a higher-floor man says to a lower, “from the foyer.”) There’s a supermarket for consumption and a pool for leisure–that pool party encapsulates a lot of the movie’s themes. Parents organize as an interest group because children aren’t wanted: “The women round here would help the planet more by keeping their legs crossed.” (And yet there’s a kindergarten built in. Why do you have a wolf?)
The high-rise has no library, no place of worship. (Royal’s private penthouse includes art taken from museums.) It has no history–preserving a place’s history would open up imaginations, allowing the possibility of a life unshaped by the engineers; and it might lead to mixing income levels.
It has rules (you can’t put diapers down the garbage chute) but no responsibilities. There are no institutions to allow the practice of citizenship. For 10 years I lived in a block-long big box apartment hellscape and we at least had a tenants’ association, although I suspect the largest voting bloc was cockroaches. In Royal’s high-rise, parties are the only thing anybody organizes: the sole native form of leadership. So it shouldn’t be surprising when the final words of the movie are a radio broadcast from Lady Thatcher herself, as the voice of Judgment Day: “Where there is state capitalism, there will never be political freedom.” I suspect this is meant to be ironic, but it works without irony: Royal as capitalist head of state offered no options for political freedom; his tenant-subjects didn’t want it, so why include it in the lease?
The rich folk in the high-rise fled the city to live anonymously. The movie, which is shot entirely from within the upper middle-class POV, will never tell you why on earth they don’t flee the high-rise to live in a place with toilet paper. But if you’re willing to take it as fairy tale, its message is simple: You may no longer share a city with the wolf, but as long as you share a polis with him he is in your home. And one day he will open his jaws and vote you right up.
So maybe it’s not so retro after all.
High-Rise is a weird movie that hides its insights under a wrack of violent incident. It’s dumb in a lot of the ways that matter for audience interest, and unexpectedly smart in a lot of the ways that don’t. If you want a tower-as-microcosm movie with Reagan-era anxieties, though, you’re probably still better off watching Candyman.
“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
The novels of dark fantasist Tim Powers often flow out of weird, grim moments in real history: the strange encounter of a fox and an English spy; the long lit matches burning in a bloodthirsty pirate’s beard. Powers’s latest book, Medusa’s Web, got its start when Powers encountered one of these disturbing little bits of trivia: Rudolph Valentino received Last Rites twice. Why? To answer that question, Powers spins a tale of family secrets and Hollywood ghosts–and an otherworldly, addictive substance, a kind of weaponized nostalgia.
Powers starts with the classic horror image of the crumbling old house. Caveat, the estate inhabited by cousins Claimayne and Ariel, is a rambling warren. The garages are filled with boxes of cast-off film props and possessions; a hallway is paneled with doors taken from other buildings–most notably the Garden of Allah, the apartment complex made out of silent star and producer Alla Nazimova’s home. The house seems to damage the characters’ psyches, keeping them strangely childish. Claimayne and Ariel are trapped in childish narcissism or adolescent pique. Madeleine, who escaped the house but now returns with her brother Scott to fulfill the terms of their Aunt Amity’s will, is capable of sudden bursts of childlike bravery and even the occasional act of adult acceptance. But she’s stuck in a kind of puppy love–for a man who died decades before she was even born.
Scott is the exception, a guilt-ridden grown-up. He’s the standard Powers hero, and if you liked the variations of him in at least eight of Powers’s other novels you’ll like him here: traumatized and slightly numbed, miserably prepared for self-sacrifice, semi-alcoholic, unshaved. Not civic-minded. Feeling mostly regret and protectiveness.
These four people have all, at some point in the past, used “spiders”: eight-legged designs on paper, which through an eldritch physics hook into your brain and drag you into a dimension inhabited by 2D beings. Through contact with these creatures you lose your own identity–only for a moment, but what a sweet moment!–and you can travel in time, according to rules I eventually gave up trying to fully understand. Imagine Flatland as a horror story; imagine time travel as alcohol. In their childhood Madeleine and Scott saw a “big spider,” the mother of all spiders, and the novel’s plot involves the conflict between factions that want to use the big spider to disappear into an endlessly-fragmenting past, and those who want to destroy it and close the pathway through time.
I’m an intensely nostalgic person (and, full disclosure, Tim Powers has done me several personal kindnesses) so everything in this novel about the dark downward pull of the past resonated deeply with me.
I live in my hometown, but it’s unrecognizable. The D.C. I grew up in, the Chocolate City abandoned to crack and the crime wave, is almost completely gone now. Replaced by vape bars and asana yoga. Outside the churches on Sunday mornings the cars with Maryland plates line up along the curb to take the grandmas who got priced out of their parishes back to the suburbs.
So too in Medusa’s Web characters are always trying to find the locations they visited in their visions of the past–only to find that the house was torn down to build the freeway. Or they think they’re looking for a hillside home, but Bunker Hill was flattened long ago. You can only see it now in the movies.
Medusa’s Web plays with Hollywood’s own sweet tooth for its past, for the Golden Age. The “spiders” are another kind of dream factory: They offer movie-like experiences, chances to live and relive a thousand lives. To live as a thousand somebody elses, and lose yourself.
These characters hate the clock, the hands that move “intolerabl[y] forward.” They long to go back to the world where parents were trustworthy, where every day was much like the day before, where everyone was still alive.
That longing for the vanished world is a longing for childhood, but also for death; and for an escape from responsibility. As a child you’re thrown into the world. You navigate it as a given. It isn’t something you bear responsibility for, something you created. Over time your own responses to the world shape more and more of your life. You begin to dwell in the consequences of your own choices. And so you have to accept guilt.
Medusa’s Web gleams with references to older horror tales: Salome, both the Wilde play and the Nazimova film; “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But it’s unmistakably Powers’s work. It has all those weird, knobby details he throws in–he never forgets that humans don’t just take otherworldly experiences on their own terms. We repurpose them and find their loopholes. We turn even aliens or magic into technology. So here we get the use of cell phone cameras in extradimensional travel; grenades, glasses with rippled lenses, computer keyboards that write on their own like a player piano.
The prose is in some ways clunky. Actions and driving directions are described in unnecessary detail. The mechanics of the spiders are sufficiently complex that characters have to re-explain them several times to one another, but even these repetitions didn’t get me all the way there in terms of understanding what these things do. Powers goes heavy on the italics for my taste. Most of this stuff I got used to by the halfway point of the book.
A deeper problem is that most of the climax can be seen from far off. Sometimes that’s satisfying–when you know what’s going to happen but you can’t imagine how–but in this case too much of the “how” involved especially abstruse descriptions of extradimensional space. New rules were introduced at the last minute in order to engineer the right ending. The characters make real sacrifices (though not enough for my taste! Powers is usually more brutal than this) but the biggest loss is left as an open question, which did not really work for me.
But Powers is always so terrifying when he’s depicting all the things we can long for, ache for, hunger for. His new book is a poignant look at the immorality of rejecting time, choice, and responsibility in favor of the amber glow of the past.
Behavior, the 2014 movie from Cuban writer and director Ernesto Daranas that is still playing festival circuits in the U.S., is not one-of-a-kind. It is not unprecedented; it does not break (much) new ground. What it is, is an exceptionally heartfelt, moving, and artistically accomplished example of its genre. As Brooklyn is what an Irish-American romance should aspire to be, so Behavior is the “coming of age in the underclass” story at its most luminous.
Behavior tells two intertwined stories: 12-year-old Chala (Armando Valdés Freire) woos brassy classmate Yeni (Amaly Junco) and keeps getting into trouble at school; his increasingly-embattled, aging teacher Carmela (Alina Rodriguez) struggles to keep him out of a “re-education school.” Chala starts his schooldays cleaning up after his addicted mother (Yuliet Cruz), catching pigeons to sell, and then feeding the fighting dogs owned by the man who might be his father (Armando Miguel Gómez), all before he grabs his bookbag and heads to class.
The camera lingers on the rubble and the rust. You can smell the blood in the air at the dog ring. You can smell the sweat, as the air shimmers with heat. The colors are golden, battered off-white, deep brown and black tones, with splashes of red: the flowers in girls’ hair, the pioneer scarves on the schoolchildren, the blood.
This is a perfectly-paced movie. Intense emotional scenes cut to meditative or casual ones in unexpected ways—the most striking example is when Chala spies on his mother having sex, and then immediately we see Yeni and her friends practicing flamenco steps in an abandoned train car.
Daranas has rounded up a stellar cast. Freire as Chala is cheeky, tough, an S.E. Hinton character in an even harder time and place. Junco is exactly as cheeky, exactly as tough, with her underbite and her long, wavy pigtails and her grit. Rodriguez shows us in her face and her tired body a woman carved by decades of hard, loving effort—half the adults in the film were once her students. Both Chala and Yeni have little packs of friends who follow them around, terrific comedy choruses. Cruz as Chala’s mom is hunchy and zombified, which, in this movie, didn’t read as cliched. It’s how she is. Even Gómez sells his character as a hard man who isn’t quite as ruthless as he wants to appear. You can hear in these descriptions how easy it would be for the characters to become sentimentalized. It’s to Daranas’s credit that instead they come across as the real things sentiment feeds on.
This is a hard, sad movie about children whose every halting step forward requires heroic effort. The romance between Chala and Yeni is threatened by Chala’s work at the dog ring (the way Yeni handles this shows the children’s ages so perfectly) and by the police who want to force Yeni and her father out of Havana, back to their home province.
Behavior is a heroic-teacher movie, and like most heroic-teacher movies it is a depiction of governmental institutions which promise to serve the poorest citizens and instead abandon or oppress them. The film’s most obvious contrast between the ideal Cuba and the reality—and its most unusual plot element—comes when Yeni places a holy card of Our Lady of Charity on the classroom bulletin board.
This holy card becomes a key piece of evidence in the push to get Carmela booted from her job. It’s a complex symbol—the script goes out of its way to show lapsed and non-Catholics fighting for the card to stay, and religious faith per se is barely touched on. This is a movie about complicity: Carmela will draw on every possible friend she has, whether that’s a dogfighter or a saint she doesn’t quite believe in. But in this film Christian faith is a force sustaining the poorest. This is the faith of grandmothers and hungry children. Carmela is on their side—God can pick whatever side He likes. And the film, by putting us in Carmela’s perspective, avoids any hint of easy answers or propaganda.
It turns out that even in a Communist country religion is still the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world.
Constellations, playing through March 27 on Studio Theatre’s 4th Stage in Washington, is a slender play that uses its increasingly-familiar structure to illuminate less-familiar questions.
This is one of those Rashomon-like plays where we see the same scene played out in several different ways. Somebody gives a two-sentence explanation of physics (is it physics? I don’t science) and says we live in a “multiverse,” where every outcome that could occur does occur somewhere, and the play gives us windows into several of these divergent timelines. In the 70 minutes of Nick Payne’s play we see Mary and Roland meet at a barbecue, and a few of the many possible consequences of that meeting: maybe they date, maybe they kiss, maybe he gets creepy and she flees, maybe he proposes, maybe she says yes. Maybe she has strange symptoms, and the diagnosis is a tumor in her brain; maybe it’s benign. Maybe it isn’t.
The play flashes forward to show us scraps of scenes we’ll later see in full, as Mary (Lily Balatincz, who comes into her own when Marianne’s situation becomes grim) loses the ability to speak and begins to plan her suicide. Roland (the excellent Tom Patterson, able to radiate menace and goofiness and heartbreak within moments) wants her to choose life. Sometimes his attempts at persuasion strike a chord with her. Sometimes they make things worse.
At first it seems like the purpose of the multiple versions of events is to draw our attention to what remains constant. Attraction is a constant in Mary and Roland’s relationship; so is awkwardness; so is, maybe, adultery.
But as the play progressed a different theme emerged. Constellations explores the human drive for control. We try to control how others see us, what happens to us; we try so hard. And these attempts backfire, sometimes ridiculously and sometimes tragically, but we can’t stop wanting to have some part of our life that is our own: to perform some positive action other than acceptance.
Mary and Roland are both “try-hards.” They are just achingly awkward at first. They have the air of people who are used to being off-putting at first: too nerdy, too gawky, wanting too much to connect. And often their strenuous attempts at human connection make the other one retreat. The very strength of their desire to make themselves endearing is what makes them hard to take. The brief moments where Roland shows hints of violent or stalker tendencies (Mary, suddenly frightened: “Did you know I was going to be here?”) show the paradox most clearly: His attempts to control her only expose his own weakness, his own failure to control both the situation and himself.
By contrast the moments when one of them does give the other a chance—makes the choice to find the awkwardness endearing—can’t be worked for. The smile, the laugh, the decision to continue the conversation: These are the things our couple aches for, strives for, and must receive as gifts rather than earning as achievements.
You can see, then, how Mary’s diagnosis works here. There are a lot of possible responses to facing an early death while losing the ability to speak and read–one of the most hopeful and vivacious late scenes shows Mary and Roland having a recurring conversation in (untranslated) sign language—but in every universe it’s a profound loss of control.
And so Mary wants to claw back some control over the circumstances of her death. I think the audience is mostly going to side with Roland, and hope that he succeeds in persuading her to reconsider: His powerlessness and his love for her are so palpable, and although I’m not sure how much this matters to people, her arguments for her own position aren’t very strong.
But there are several moments in which Mary’s turning away from Roland in suicide is paralleled with her (some earlier version of “her”) simply choosing not to date him. When he wouldn’t accept her choice there, he became frightening and malevolent. So too here I think the structure of the play encourages you to see his willingness to let her choose—without manipulating or guilt-tripping her—as the form of acceptance he’s called to in this situation. Suicide falls on the “control” side of the play’s central control/acceptance dichotomy; and the play itself is deeply sympathetic to the longing for control, even as it exposes the absurdities and cruelties we commit in service to that longing.
There are a couple of flaws in the production–the music is intrusively treacly, the accents wobble—but if there’s one flaw in the play text it’s that I wish it were longer. I found myself wishing for some of the scenes we don’t see: We see the couple break up several times, for example, but we don’t see the way Mary’s diagnosis plays out in those universes, where she would have to face it alone. David Muse as director uses the tiny space well, letting the actors make it seem bigger than it is. The evening’s success can be marked by two things: the moment when, after a particularly intense scene, I thought to myself, Oh, it’ll be brutal to see the next version of this one; and the poignant hush with which the final line fell.
“What went we out into this wilderness to find?”
With that resounding, iconic opening line, The Witch announces that it may not be what you were expecting. Writer/director Robert Eggers’s “New-England folktale” may have been marketed as a horror movie, but horror is only one of its genres–and not the most prominent. The Witch is a family tragedy and a religious drama, and these elements are even more successful than the horror-show aspect.
That may be why the small daytime audience with whom I saw the movie were vocally disappointed with it. “I want my money back!” one groused. Imagine buying a ticket for A Nightmare on Elm Street, only to end up watching Beyond the Hills. For me The Witch was stunning, a brilliant tale that deserves to be a genre classic–but you should probably know what you’re getting into.
The Witch begins with a heresy trial, in which New England Puritans exile a dissident whose vision of God is even more uncompromising, even more hellfire-and-brimstone, than their own. William (Ralph Ineson, growly of voice and harrowed of face) takes his wife and children and leaves the settlement. The family sings hymns as their small cart rattles out into the unknown.
They settle on the edge of a vast, threatening wood. The family holds fast to its fairly terrifying faith (“I love thee marvelous well,” the father tells his son, who wants to know if the baby will go to Hell, “but it is only God who knows who is a son of Abraham and who is not”) but they simply can’t make the farm produce. The corn fails. The father begins to venture into the woods to set traps. He begins to keep secrets from his wife (the unforgettable Kate Dickie). And then, while daughter Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy) is playing peek-a-boo with the baby, something comes from the woods and snatches the infant away.
What follows from this awful event is supernatural—we’re shown early on that the witch is real and horrifying, a baby-killer who revels in slaughter. But it’s also the utterly natural story of a family torn apart by isolation and economic pressures. I watched most of this movie with an expression not of fear, but of horrified pity, as the family tears itself apart with little need for a witch’s help.
The Witch is pervaded by the fear of God. There are occasional references to His mercy but only as something to beg for, not something to trust in; this is the God of Hosts, not the Prince of Peace. The movie treats its characters’ religion without a hint of condescension or even disbelief: This is a movie about what it’s like to do your best to love and serve a God of wrath. It’s about the view from within that faith. The mother’s speech about the way her baby’s disappearance has brought her from blissful faith and “ravished” union with God to torturing doubt is one of the best, most nuanced expressions of religious anguish I’ve seen in cinema. And the scene in which a possibly-possessed child begins to pray and quote the Bible is flat-out shocking, totally unexpected and yet drawn from the wellsprings of Christian faith. The end credits say that the dialogue is taken from actual colonial-era documents, which may be hard on the audience, but it gives The Witch the ring of authenticity.
Almost every aesthetic choice is right. The semi-archaic dialogue, the foreboding violins and high eerie hymns; the faces of the family, made for Rembrandt. There are little touches like the fact that Thomasin has just reached menarche, or the way William’s own guilt makes him less susceptible to wild accusation. The horror imagery–a broken egg, a rearing black goat–is deployed rarely but punchily. The first quarter or so of the movie is that overcast steel-gray color we always see in movies nowadays, a depressing grimth that strikes me as a bit cliched, but after that we begin to get gorgeous, painterly scenes set in candlelight, blending domestic cares and sacred beauty. The actors are without exception convincing. The final scene is a bit standard-issue, but by that time I had been brought into the world of The Witch and didn’t need more than a few hints and allusions.
In many guides to Catholic confession you’ll find a list of possible sins, organized according to the Ten Commandments, and somewhere (I think right at the top under the First Commandment) it will offer, “I have despaired of the mercy of God.” The Witch is a story not so much about the sin of witchcraft—although its view of witchery is, let’s say, not revisionist!—but about this other, sadder sin.
There’s a cheap rhetorical move you see a lot in religious debate, where the God-pusher retorts, “But don’t you ever doubt your doubt?” The hero of Revival, Stephen King’s 2014 novel of loss and obsession, could reply in tones of trembling horror: “All the time. God help me, I doubt my doubt all the time.”
King has always loved to wring horror from Americana: the bad hot dog, the classic car, the prom. In Revival he takes on the Methodist Youth Fellowship, where, back in the mid-’60s, little Jamie Morton first meets the Rev. Charles Jacobs. Jacobs is a young pastor, already a little mistrustful and untrustworthy—a little bit given to gimcrack, turning miracles into magic tricks. But he forges a deep and lasting bond with Jamie, his secret favorite. That bond will cast a shadow over the rest of Jamie’s life, through heroin addiction and miracle cures, carnival shows and guitar-heroics, and bring them both, at last, to the threshold between this world and the next.
Revival has hints of Pet Sematary. (How many King novels could be prevented if his widowers were willing to remarry?) A grieving man will pay any price to see his dead loved ones again—and the price is the same as always. The prose still has those trademark King one-liners ending each section on a plangent or worldly-wise note, and everyone speaks in his habitual semi-noir cadence. I love the enigmatic chapter headings, suspenseful and punchy. I do not love the frequency with which King here encourages us to view the suffering human body with revulsion. Obesity, stroke, the ravages of cancer: Some people can kiss people who suffer from these conditions, but Revival‘s characters recoil, and this seems to me to be a place where the conventions of horror writing (and the desire to portray honestly the real misery of grief and loss) serve the culture of death.
The most obvious outside influences are Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft, both of whom get name-checked. They make a strange couple, and that weird collision is part of what makes the book work—it does work, taking its place among respectable midlevel nightmare factories, not stunning like Pet Sematary but not disappointing. I have much more sympathy for the Bradbury school of chills: the high whine of the calliope, the lightning-rod salesman, the small-towners who sell their souls. (The price is the same as always.) Once you start making with the squamous indescribables and the crawling colors I start feeling like I’m just reading words on a page. But it turns out that the way to make me take Lovecraftianism seriously is to ease me in slowly, starting in a very different horror subgenre and requiring minimal contact with the insane gods behind the stars and all that. What is really scary in Revival is not the depiction of the Lovecraftian horrors but their effects on the humans who must confront their own helplessness.
It helps that the humans in question are so nuanced and memorable. King often creates terrible circumstances and then drops relatively-blank characters into them: Who is Jack Torrance when he’s not being a deranged alcoholic? Who is Carrie White, other than her torments? They are operatic, defined by their role and actions; the self they had before their barreling descent into hell isn’t that important. Charles Jacobs, by contrast, is most memorable in the early-to-middle stages of his catastrophe. His relationship with Jamie tilts between tenderness and opportunism, and for me the most touching sequence in the book involves Jacobs’s rescue of the adult Jamie from addiction. There’s already a lot of opportunism by then, but the tenderness is still at the forefront: Rest here, I’ll bring you something to eat. You’ll feel better soon. This will pass.
Revival is a book about theodicy and its inadequacy; and also a book about contempt. Rev. Jacobs leaves his first pastoral assignment after a “Terrible Sermon” which is a sort of store-brand version of the “Rebellion” chapter from The Brothers Karamazov; Jamie’s parents continue to believe, off on the margins of the book, but you won’t find anything here as powerful on the other side of the balance as Alyosha’s silent kiss. Revival is an atheist novel, but also a critique of that well-known variety of atheism that expresses itself as contempt for the faithful. When Charles Jacobs shows up with the amazingly American moniker “Pastor C. Danny Jacobs” he has become corroded by his pain. He sputters with contempt for his new flock; he views them the way Harry Lime viewed the people from atop a Viennese Ferris wheel, little mindless moving dots. (He’s getting that contempt from a higher power, as we’ll learn.) Jamie himself struggles with contempt. He’s a son of the ironic age more than the atomic one. He’s defensive at tent revivals and in any gathering of those he perceives as naive. He, too, is tempted by the vision from the top of the Ferris wheel, where all the people are rubes.
There are small, layered moments here, moments of renunciation, as when Jamie in late middle-age watches a rock band and nostalgically remembers the days when he, too, could play a mean rhythm guitar. “How much do you miss it, Jamie?”, a friend asks.
“‘Not as much as I respect it,’ I said, ‘which is why I’m sitting here.'”
The prose makes no attempt to remind you that this is surrender—the willingness to receive what you love as a gift offered only for a time, and to let it go when the time comes rather than clutching it or trying to drag it back. One of the many unbelievable elements of the Christian faith is its doctrine that God is both ultimate love and ultimate power. The ruler of the universe is made of self-gift, acceptance, surrender. How do so many of us shape our lives around this proposition, in the teeth of all the evidence that surrounds us?
Stephen King is breathtakingly good at depicting all the little gods that let us down. Way back in Cujo he gave us the Sharp Cereal Professor: the miniature of every embezzling priest and child-molesting teacher, every employer who winks at safety regulations and every parent who lies about what happened to our piggy bank, all the authority figures we gradually learn we cannot trust.
King doesn’t do faith nearly as often. Here, too, he has written a horror tale for Jennifer M. Silva’s America of shattered civic trust.
What saves Jamie in the end—to the extent that he is saved, in a novel that ends with two beautifully-timed gut punches—is his doubt, his well-honed ability to mistrust. What he clings to is the possibility that, once again, a powerful figure lied.
I spent last weekend at the Gay Christian Network (GCN) Conference in Houston, and I needed something to read on the plane. Something short, punchy, an in-flight entertainment that could keep my attention after an event that is equal parts spiritually uplifting and emotionally harrowing. I threw Sarah Schulman’s Rat Bohemia into my bag and grinned as I set my alarm for 1995. More fool me.
Rat Bohemia is in some ways the scathing nostalgia trip I was hoping for. It’s sometimes a satire of gay life in ’90s New York City: a world of gunfire and AIDS protest funerals. Hothead Paisan, Assotto Saint, Derek Jarman, Alison Bechdel when we were the only ones who watched out for her. Schulman has a terrific ear for that unmistakable ’90s argot, from the slang in her unsexy sex scenes to the politically-incorrect S&M. Her characters have spent the past decade and a half losing their families, their homes, their friends, their health, all their money if they had any, and most of their illusions. Their anguish makes them silly and unfair, catty and self-righteous—and often ferociously funny.
It was so refreshing to step back into that pre-moral world. We live in a moralistic age. That ’90s world of violent fantasy (and violent reality) seems like a fever dream. Schulman’s characters allow themselves to feel rage instead of just solidarity; they lust and they don’t try to justify it. Their damage glitters across their hardened carapaces; they are gleaming deviants, not “virtually normal.”
The two points of view on this willful deviance are a) people only react this way because they have been shut out of the normal bourgeois institutions of marriage and family, and b) you see more from the margins, where the air is thin but bracingly clear. Rat Bohemia gives evidence for both positions.
The novel is really four intertwined stories: The first and last, “Rat Bohemia” and “Rats, Lice and History,” are narrated by Rita Mae Weems, a half-Jewish Jackson Heights escapee who kills vermin for the City of New York. “1984” is narrated by her friend David, a Jewish writer with an HIV diagnosis and a downward-spiraling T-cell count. And “Killer in Love” is told by their knockabout hemidemisemiemployed friend, the eponymous Killer, who loves a poet and isn’t quite loved back.
Rita can be off-putting in her sophomoric need to prove her street smarts: This is how Puerto Rican girls sit, this is how Cubans go to the movies. She’s gotta be so in the know all the time. And Killer’s section has a lot of parody of unintelligible poetry—maybe more than necessary.
But almost every time I found myself thinking, “Well, this section isn’t so good,” Schulman yanked me back with an unforgettable scene. Some are comic, like the Walker Percy-esque self-help parody (“The answer lies in the Eight Leaps of Faith. Just memorize them and you will have accomplished at least one thing”). Most are searing. Schulman is not subtle about her theme: the utter abandonment of gay people by their parents. The best parents in this book show wincing discomfort with their children’s sexual orientation. The worst simply put their kids out on the streets. The two most memorable scenes in the novel, for me, were David’s childhood memory of walking away from his parents after they ordered him out of their car, and Rita’s description of being homeless and almost being taken in by her girlfriend’s mother.
At the GCN conference it sometimes feels like I’m walking on a half-frozen lake. You’re trotting along talking about Jesus or tacos or Have you read the new Marilynne Robinson? and then suddenly your foot will crunch down and you will be in ice water up to your head, and some pixie-faced girl or painfully hopeful guy is telling you about their years of terror and anguish. Exorcisms and disciplinary hearings and physical abuse, and then, with that embarrassed grin, “Well, my parents and I don’t really speak these days.” And then probably tell you about their unpronounceable pronouns, because we do live in a silly world as well as a hard one.
Anguish isn’t the universal story, thank God. There were lots of parents at GCN and while that whole “my identity is the fact that my kid is gay!” thing can get kind of wearying to actual gay people, it is far from the worst thing in the world. I don’t know why your kid coming out should be more life-defining than e.g. your kid becoming a Buddhist, or whatever kind of Christian you’re not, but I’ll gladly spend my conference time dodging women with buttons that say FREE MOM HUGS as long as we live in a world where people’s real mothers wouldn’t hug them if they paid cash money.
Schulman wants us to see not only how so many gay people got used to this abandonment, but why we shouldn’t. She wants to make it shocking to us again. This is the core of her story.
It is the only story she wants to tell. There’s a slowly-growing sub-theme in the novel: Straight, married people don’t suffer like we do, they are not alone like we were alone when we were young and we needed help. Like Jack Boughton snapping at his sister, “You can’t commiserate!”
The last several chapters are the weakest by far, largely because they try to defend this sub-theme. We even get a tacky, plastic little dialogue:
“Don’t be too dramatic,” Lourdes said, puffing out the window. “You’ll never know what [Rita’s high-school sweetheart] Claudia would have been if she didn’t have a reason to get married. Besides, straight people have problems too, you know. If my mother ever caught me in bed with a boy she would have thrown me out on my ass.”
“Yeah, but,” I said, getting really furious, really fast and absolutely hating her. “You would still have had something. You would have had an idea. You would have had an image of young love, an image of romance, of just the two of you against the world. You would have had a friend or a romantic adult who looked at you and saw Romeo and Juliet, instead of just the two of you totally alone looking at each other and seeing nothing.”
Rita’s speech is actually powerful, raw and real. She’s describing a real thing that gay people faced, and in our churches still usually do face: the absence of a future, and the self-loathing that absence brings. But Lourdes’s words are fake (“straight people have problems too, you know,” really?); she’s a strawman.
Here are some things I’ve heard, volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center:
“Is it legal in the District of Columbia for a parent to make you get an abortion? Because my mom says she’s going to take me there and make me kill my baby—can she do that?”
“Do you know of any homeless shelters that can take me tonight? I’m about eight months along.”
“That church helped me out a lot when I was escaping my husband but I just can’t go back there like this. If they see me pregnant out of wedlock they’ll be like, ‘Why can’t you get yourself together?'”
“He isn’t in the picture. He’s [incarcerated/deceased/out running the streets/not somebody I could trust/not in the U.S. yet/violent with my children/smoking pot all day].”
This, too, is close to the knives.
Our clients feel utterly alone, because of, in some sense, their heterosexuality. Straight women are abandoned and shamed for it (“I have to get the abortion before my mom finds out or she’ll put me out on the streets”) and straight men, whom we see more rarely, are isolated and despairing. Class is a big part of this but there’s a lot more to it than that. It isn’t the same as what Schulman’s characters go through, or even parallel—it’s about behavior, for example, not solely desire. But then again, imagine being sixteen and homeless, washing your hair in the high-school bathroom sink and eating your classmates’ leftover lunches, and pregnant. That might give you a reason to live or it might only make you feel much more alone.
Schulman lampshades her characters’ (or her own) lack of empathetic imagination: They get stuck in a rental car with no gas. They can’t get out of Chinatown to go visit Rita’s heterosuburban ex-girlfriend. They are trapped with only their own perspective, their outsiders’ pride, their humiliating sorrows.
I’ve finally heard “Hamilton,” the Broadway hip-hop musical about the first Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, and I can say: It’s a brilliant, empathetic example of a genre I don’t believe in.
First the brilliance. I’m going only off the soundtrack here, since I do not have the ready cash to see the thing in person. Even in that silhouette form it’s obvious that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer, librettist and star, is ridiculously talented. In a little over two hours he gives you a sheaf of personalities, each with their own characteristic diction and each with their own angle. There’s Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) as a defensive, cocksure partisan, insecure and headlong, brilliant but occasionally showing the personal judgment God gave peanut butter. (But he’s reliable with the ladies!) There’s Thomas Jefferson, perfectly endowed by Daveed Diggs with chop-licking, insinuating, slightly camp villainry. There’s George Washington, the founding father in search of a foundling son; Aaron Burr, haunted and noncommittal. I can’t remember the last time I saw a romantic triangle as poignant as the unfought battle between the Schuyler sisters for Hamilton’s heart.
Better people than I can discern the countless references to musical theater and hip-hop history. (And here’s Ivan Plis on the accuracy of the show’s portrayal of insurgent warfare.) For my part I’ve just been sitting here running my fingers over the quotable lines: “Burr, you disgust me.”/”Oh, so you’ve discussed me!” “‘Should we honor our treaty, King Louis’s head?’/’Uh… do whatever you want, I’m super dead.'” “Daddy’s calling.” There are all the perfectly-placed comedy “Whaaaaaaat?”s and the rare but punchy cursing. There are the motifs, some of which are overdone–more on that in a moment–but others, like “not throwing away my shot,” which capture the musical’s themes of ambition and surrender. There are the little monosyllabic heartbreaks: “I couldn’t seem to die.”
There’s the seamless blending of hip-hop and Broadway, the upbeat choruses and back-and-forth battles. The grabby tunes (I’ve had the jazzy “Room Where It Happens” stuck in my head most of the day) and rippling internal rhymes. The stiletto jabs (“I hope you saved some money for your daughter and sons”) and clowning (“It’s hard to have intercourse over four sets of corsets”). And then those lines that are perfect, one side hilarity and one side pure night: “You’re an orphan. Of course! I’m an orphan. God, I wish there was a war!”
Miranda makes the outcome of the American Revolution seem uncertain again–not a history-book inevitability. He writes chaos and an unsettled narrative: This is a musical without a happy ending, because it doesn’t quite end at all. There’s tragedy for some, there’s the American experiment surviving, and, as in real life, the characters draw different lessons from their experiences. Miranda’s empathy shines in his decisions to give such a big role to Aaron Burr (“I’m the damn fool who shot him,” as he introduces himself) and to tell the climactic duel from Burr’s perspective. “Cabinet Battle #2″ is also surprisingly evenhanded given how compressed it is: three perspectives in under three minutes. I loved the small, subtle touch that Washington sides with the other Virginians on the subject of home: Where they scheme for Virginia he longs for it. Whereas Hamilton, understandably, doesn’t get why people even care where the capital is.
I wish I could see the thing. I’ve tried to read a bit about the staging, but I know I’m missing some nuances of character and relationship: who jostles whom, who glances at whom in the thick of the action. I’m guessing the full experience is even more exuberant; I’ve heard that the stage production emphasizes the slavery/Jefferson connection even more, which seems like a cheap way of making heroes—more on this below.
There are a few small things here I don’t love, largely because they’re too beholden to contemporary styles of pop music and pop writing. “Farmer Refuted” is smug and dumb; hard to care when it’s followed by the brilliant “You’ll Be Back,” a creepy stalker ballad in which King George makes the case for rebellion better than these rebels could. Philip’s death scene starts out heartbreaking but dissolves into musical cliches: the quotidian childhood memory (“I taught you piano… You changed the melody every time”), the rote call-back (“Un, deux, trois”). A little fall of rain can hardly hurt him now!
There’s a deeper problem inherent in the musical, though. It’s not a problem about race exactly, although it becomes easiest to see if you approach it through race.
The racial cross-casting is one of the weirdest and greatest elements of “Hamilton.” There’s such exuberance in Miranda’s approach here, so much love of American history, such a winsome insistence that the American founding belongs to black and brown people as much as or more than it belongs to the rest of us. There are all these lines that show exactly why Hamilton’s life was made for hip-hop: “See, I never thought I’d live past twenty./Where I come from some get half as many.” You could hear that line from, to pick an especially resonant example, the Fugees.
But making Alexander Hamilton the representative from the socioeconomic margins requires certain elisions. Certain things must get hidden from the audience or deployed opportunistically. Slavery is a great cudgel to beat Jefferson with and God knows he deserved it, but if you’re looking for a reckoning with the fact of George Washington, slaveholder, you’ll get just that one hint at Yorktown: “Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom” / “Not yet.” This is a musical in which the heroes end up in power, they make mostly the right choices and bequeath to future generations “a republic, if you can keep it,” and that is the victory underneath all the wrack of personal chaos, squabble, and grief.
This is the romance of government. And like all genre romance it relies on half-truths and evasions. It requires a belief that the right men in the right structures will make from power something worthy of our love—which sounds plausible until you realize nobody ever can come up with an honest example. For “Hamilton” to feel as vivacious and politically hopeful as it does, slavery has to be a to-be-sure, an aberration. You won’t see American Indians here, or actually-historically-black people other than Jefferson’s lovely cudgel Sally Hemings, because it’s hard to swoon for complicity. The show calls attention to the limits of historiography, the silences where nothing was written down or preserved–but the experiences of slaves become “the unimaginable” even more than the grief of bereaved parents.
You can argue, “You’re just saying Miranda should’ve made a totally different musical instead of the one he was actually inspired to make” and yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. America is the shadow hero of this show—there’s that explicit analogy, “I’m just like my country/Young, scrappy, and hungry”—and while falling in love with a place is poignant and humbling, nobody should ever fall in love with a government.
In its own way I think my perspective is also hopeful, for what that’s worth. If George Washington and Alexander Hamilton were inextricably embedded in the structural sins of their own time and place then they are more like us, not less, and more available to us as a model.
If the American founding was mostly a romance then we have simply and colossally betrayed our chaste beloved. “The world turned upside down” and Donald Trump landed on top. If the American founding was one in a long series of rescue operations from which we turn out to need rescue, solutions made of problems, discoveries that hide things—then our problems are the eternal problems of power.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is smarter than me, and subtler, and in the end I think he proves me wrong about the ideals of his show by hiding an anti-politics beneath his politics. Maybe the most unexpected theme in “Hamilton” is that slowly-growing insistence on the need for surrender. It starts in “Helpless,” a gorgeous song where helplessness is a child’s terror but also a lover’s rapture. It builds through Washington’s counsel (“You have no control”) and farewell. Then Alexander’s advice to his son before the duel; and then Alexander’s own choice, to throw away his shot. The fake ideal America gives way to the inescapable individual choice for self or other. The hymn to power conceals a hymn to defeat.
There are authors whose work so permeates our intellectual atmosphere that by the time we get around to reading them (instead of just gesturing at them), they’re simultaneously familiar and revelatory. This Advent I’m finally reading Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, and Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence. They’re unexpectedly in harmony; and their harmony, it turns out, is a carol.
Discipline and Punish weaves a network of several central concepts: surveillance, habit, norm, discipline, delinquency, science. The modern concept of the self, Foucault argues, is born from these concepts. Discipline is the program by which we develop habits, by which we become predictable, and therefore the means by which it becomes possible to judge not merely our behavior but our character against a unitary human norm. The social sciences are based on the ideal of discipline. Through surveillance a body of knowledge is created about human habits, an anthropology emerges to categorize humans according to how closely they hew to a societal norm, and those who fall farthest from the norm are categorized as delinquents. Behavior has become character. We can know a man. And we know him by observing his habits. The prison (and its fraternal twin, prison reform) exists to change men’s habits through especially intense applications of discipline.
The counternarrative is a narrative of rupture. Rupture is the breaking in of some outside force that can crack the shell of habit and overthrow the laws—the penal laws as well as the “laws of nature” discerned by the social sciences. Torture, in Foucault, is a spectacle of rupture; but so is the king’s pardon. On an individual level rupture is what makes human souls unknowable. A Christian reader will immediately see in “rupture” the hidden terms of repentance, forgiveness, and above all grace.
De Caussade is maybe less consistent than Foucault, or maybe just less resonant with my own spiritual needs. But this 18th-century French priest (who worked well within the historical period of Foucault’s study) has written an extended paean to the counternarrative. De Caussade is a poet of rupture.
Instead of a behavioral norm, he gives us a man, Jesus: “Jesus Christ did not restrict himself, for he did not follow all his own precepts literally. His most holy soul was always inspired by the Holy Spirit and always responsive to its slightest breath.” Against a typology of humankind—against the social sciences—he gives us a bestiary of saints. De Caussade emphasizes the wild diversity of the saints, their weirdness, and their conformity not to a rule or principle but to Jesus alone: “The life of each saint is the life of Jesus Christ.” De Caussade calls us to the “duty of the present moment” and even “the sacrament of the present moment.” Our dossier means nothing in the face of our present choice, each moment, to cling to self-image or to abandon ourselves to God’s will.
Because of my own bad character I have been thinking a lot about habit vs. rupture, and specifically about the anguished question: What do you do when rupture itself has become a habit? Every repentance, no matter how sincere you try to make it, starts to ring hollow when you’ve said those words before. (Toller Cranston on Christopher Bowman: “What can he say, ‘I’m like a changed person’?“) Can rupture be emptied out through repetition?
Sebastian Marchmain of Brideshead Revisited might offer a figure of this habitual or repeated rupture, this endless lather-rinse-repent. He’s a comforting figure for a lot of Waugh’s readers (including me). Nobody really wants to be carried in the lion’s mouth the way Sebastian is by the end, but if that’s your best option, well—it’s better than hanging around hoping for a chance at martyrdom. Giving yourself up every time you can is better than believing that your habits are the most accurate report on your soul: that you are your background check, your progress report, your scanty and halfhearted evidence for the defense.
I’m writing this on my way home from what was supposed to be a communal penance service, one of those “Come Home for Christmas” things. But you can’t make Catholics follow simple directions (the reason we have traditions is so that nobody ever has to remember what to do!), so we all showed up at the wrong time and then got restive. The parish secretary came and stared at us in disbelief, then rolled her eyes and went to fetch us some priests. I made the same confession I’ve been making for months now, only worse. The priest gave me a very simple, gentle penance.
All the evidence is against us; the social sciences seem to work. They seem to provide an accurate account of the possibilities open to us, the ways our past will become our future. In a list of socioeconomic and psychological factors we can predict your risk of reoffending and craft a probationary program for the reform of your character.
This is not what the priest did. Instead he offered the same strange inbreaking of mercy that Christmas itself celebrates. Instead of reform he offered relief. The coming of the messiah in the most unexpected guise is our reminder of the rupture at the heart of the Christian story.
With 2007’s “Trick ‘r Treat,” horror fans hailed director Michael Dougherty for reviving both the horror anthology and the Halloween flick. Now he hopes to do the same for Christmas horror with “Krampus.” I liked but didn’t love “Trick ‘r Treat” and I wish I didn’t have to say the same thing about this new movie, since its ideas are fresh–but the execution, so to speak, leaves a few things to be desired.
The story of “Krampus” is beautifully simple. A band of disliked relatives descends on a wealthy family, exposing the wealthy parents’ own flaws and failures. Their son Max (the excellent Emjay Anthony), who has kept the Christmas flame a-burning in his heart and even written a letter to Santa Claus, finally gives up on joy and peace after some torment from his awful cousins. He rips up the letter and flings the pieces out the window–and by doing this, he summons Krampus.
“The shadow of St. Nicholas,” Krampus wanders the earth punishing those who give up hope. Max’s grandmother (Krista Stadler, reminiscent of the great Mai Zetterling in “The Witches”) offers the not-quite-comforting advice that Krampus can only be conquered by the true Christmas spirit–of sacrifice. Max and his family band together, overcoming their differences to battle Krampus and his minions, but their best efforts aren’t enough, and Max must make the final, dreadful choice alone.
This is just a great premise. Krampus himself is terrific, all hoofprints and shadow horns. The twist that our individual cruelties and failures don’t matter as long as we don’t give up hope is an intriguing antidote to the checklist moralism of so many Santa tales. There are plenty of sly references, like stocking stuffers: the scary snowmen of “Calvin & Hobbes,” some household injuries from “Home Alone.” The movie’s first and last fifteen minutes (counting the credits—you should stay through the end) are nearly perfect, starting with a Black Friday rampage scored to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and ending with a “Krampus Karol of the Bells.”
And the class antagonism gives the film an unexpected sociological dimension. The families’ sins are clearly class-coded: the rich dad uses work as an excuse to flee his family, the rich mom is a high-strung and judgmental perfectionist who looks down on her poorer sister; the sister had a shotgun marriage and now has four children (this is treated like she practically had a litter—four!), her kids are undisciplined and violent, and her husband is a gun nut who says things like, “So much for global warming.” Even the families’ virtues are class-linked: The poorer sister is the only one who can be bothered to care for a less-pleasant member of the extended family. These aren’t the class cliches of “Gremlins,” where rich people are simply bad whereas everybody else is salt of the earth. The rich parents must renounce judgment and take up guns—but this is a movie that identifies with the rich, even while criticizing them. The movie takes place on their turf, from their point of view. It’s especially noticeable that the (middle-class!) poorer kids are awful whereas the rich son and daughter are just about flawless.
This creepy identification with the wealthiest happens in part because these characters aren’t fleshed out. Dougherty doesn’t seem to know how to handle so many people: the rich daughter disappears early on, the aunt just sort of drops out of the story, the two tomboys are interchangeable, etc. There’s nothing like the breathtaking “why I hate Christmas” speech from “Gremlins,” but fine, not everybody can be Joe Dante. We should at least get some nuance and depth to the children’s characters. Everybody in this film has a maximum of two dimensions. Their actions are often poignant—I choked up when the rich father (Adam Scott; all four of the parents’ actors do a lot with a little) hugs his son, and as he reassures the boy we see him close his eyes in fear as he starts to acknowledge that maybe things won’t turn out okay. But it’s hard to make an iconic film with such bare characters. (The script also relies heavily on foul language for humor. Censorship is the mother of creativity, people.)
“Krampus” is a fun romp. We can always use more of these stories where the jingling comes from chains, not sleigh bells. Christmas is often a hard time and there’s camaraderie in this movie, as well as an insistence that mere good deeds won’t replace personal sacrifice. I enjoyed this movie but it is sort of like the slightly burnt, slightly hardened gingerbread men you munch on happily because they remind you of other, better Christmas treats.
“Winners and Losers,” created by Marcus Youssef and James Long and playing at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through November 22, is a tense and springy 100 minutes of aggression hidden under friendship–and vice versa. Youssef and Long act out their own longstanding, competitive friendship, getting rawer and more accusatory as the night wears on. I’m going to use “Marcus” for the guy I saw onstage, “Youssef” for the off-stage creator, but the two men’s comments on the emotional difficulties of doing this piece suggest that the stage personae are intentionally blurred with real life. Their often-hilarious attacks touch on race, class, besetting sins, fears, and paternal legacies; they wrestle and play Ping-Pong and bounce off the audience’s suggestions, mixing improv and rehearsed material in a kind of intersectionality decathlon.
They start out with a game in which they judge various people, places, and things to be “winners” or “losers.” Ticks, Occupy Wall Street, penguins, marijuana: thumbs up or thumbs down? Whoever comes up with a judgment first states it and makes his case, and then the other guy has to argue against him. That meant that on the night I saw the show Marcus had to scramble to argue, in response to an audience suggestion, that the University of Missouri was somehow a “winner.” He spluttered and floundered for a moment before throwing out a perfectly-timed, “They’ve got a hell of a football team! Winner.”
This opening segment establishes the friends’ characters and social positions. Marcus is a cautious type with an endearing, disarming smile. Jamie is a tense, ticking kind of guy, leaning forward intently, one foot sometimes tapping a little too loudly on the floor. Both of them are aware of the fault lines in their friendship, but for most of the evening they quickly swerve away from any subject that gets too heated. (Youssef and Long have impeccable timing.)
Marcus is the rich one, an Egyptian-Canadian who stands to inherit his distant father’s fortune. In the Mobius strip logic of anti-oppression politics, Marcus’s race gives him an advantage. Jamie is white, and from a much harsher background. I wondered if he was going to do that thing where white people who pride ourselves on being “street-smart” eventually sway into actual racism, and not only did he do that, he did it in a shaggy-dog story about that particular racial dynamic. This show doesn’t stray from acceptable theater-community progressivism, but it’s also very hard on its characters. Jamie’s attack on the concept of the 99 percent vs the 1 percent—it’s “very convenient solidarity” because it classes together actual poor people with wealthy but not that wealthy people, so the latter can run a movement ostensibly on behalf of the former—is one of the sharpest political critiques I’ve heard in a DC theater lately. And delivered in a compressed, triumphant tone that’s about Jamie as a person, thrilled to have found a wedge to use against Marcus.
The show is aware not only of the weaknesses in its leads’ shared worldview, but the human absurdities. Those absurdities often have to do with the post-Christian flavor of the Left. Religion itself is almost entirely absent here, showing up only in the rosaries Jamie kept finding in the dirty sheets at the industrial laundry where he used to work. (The show is full of startling little moments like that.) What remains of Christianity is a suspicion of power, a belief that the losers are morally purer, a belief that the humble will be exalted and the exalted humbled—if not in the eschaton, at least in this one night of improv comedy.
Sincerity, generosity, even humility itself all become competitive sports. Acknowledging that you don’t live up to your own standards can be a way to control the conversation, which Marcus uses a few times: If I admit this, will that make you stop talking about it? Morality is always a trump card (we live in a bizarrely moralistic age) and so if you want to win, you have to find a way for your position to be the more morally-pure one.
This came out most clearly in the segment on masturbation. Jamie (of course) proclaims himself the master of this art. He is the winner when judged on frequency but he also has the moral advantage that he will only use porn where the woman looks just like his wife. Marcus gets over his embarrassment enough to suggest that he should win, since his practices are more creative and he does not use any technological or pornographic enhancement. His self-abuse is artisanal and organic.
Honestly I feel bad for stepping on the joke here, but this is such a beautiful parody of our constant need to fill the moral vacuum. Where cultural or religious norms are no longer respected, other (often contradictory) moral norms will emerge, because we need some way to compare our moral prowess.
I’m making this sound like a self-serious event, when it’s really a cutting, suspenseful romp. By the end the tone has darkened significantly, as each friend says a lot of things he can’t unsay. The pace did slacken a bit, on my night, once the friends started battling openly rather than trying to conceal their real resentments. It wandered a bit in that final stretch. But overall—we’ve got to have a take-home judgment, right?—“Winners and Losers“ is a painfully funny show, the kind of comedy that provokes self-reflection as well as cathartic laughter. Don’t lose out—get your tickets now!
Twenty minutes into “Crimson Peak” I was thinking, “Okay, I’ll just turn my brain off and look at the pretty dresses, this’ll be fun if I let it.” That was right before it turned from a kind of dumb, semi-political ghost tale into a terrifically compelling horror-romance swoonfest. Once the movie makes its swerve into full Gothic it is phenomenal, the kind of thing you’ll rewatch if you like your comfort food red and dripping.
Director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”, “The Devil’s Backbone“) wears his influences on his giant mutton-chop sleeve. “The Changeling”, “La Chute de la Maison d’Usher”, “The Shining”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Bluebeard,” “Rebecca”, “Flowers in the Attic” (!)–if you like this stuff, get your fangs right on into this movie.
Our story starts in Buffalo, NY in the late 19th century, as self-righteous aspiring authoress Edith (Mia Wasikowska; she’s fine, very dewy) lectures inventor and broke baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) about American enterprise. “In America we bank on effort, not privilege,” a white man says, and del Toro seems politically aware so this has got to be ironic, right? At this point I expected the “meritocratic white Americans vs English who fatten on the labor of the proletariat” stuff to be either vindicated or (better) subverted, but instead it just gets forgotten, which is probably for the best. Anyway Thomas and Edith fall in love, because of course they do, and Hiddleston is fantastic as the swept-away lover whose bruised emotional exterior hides a glint of steel.
And then the newlyweds move in to the glorious Sharpe family estate, where autumn leaves drift down through the broken roof and crimson clay oozes up through the floorboards. The estate is ruled by Thomas’s grim sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), and haunted by the memories of the siblings’ horrific upbringing. The snow begins to fall, and Edith is trapped in a foreign land, with her husband and his walled-up secrets….
This is a lush film, besotted and feverish. Even the end credits are a paean to the beauty of moths—and there’s a nice little plot twist there, so don’t leave when the lights come up. The costumes are dreamy, the mansion is a masterpiece—one of the great horror locations—and the romance between Edith and Thomas is scorching. There’s what I would consider a fair amount of gore, but it’s closer to the giallo nightmare style than the Saw-style delectation of suffering. You may have heard that the CGI ghosts leave a lot to be desired and yes, they do look a bit video-game, but they’re also very creepy [edited to add: Startlingly, these were mostly not CGI at all! But still very video-game.]. There are some cheap jump scares. The fighting at the end takes a bit too long. But overall it’s hard to find fault with this film, especially once it leaves the States.
Are there themes? Sure, maybe. There’s some “Who is really trapped?”, are people trapped by circumstances or by their own responses to those circumstances? There are hints that the wages of sin is death. You won’t remember these things, though. You’ll remember Edith and Tom’s first kiss, somehow both hesitant and hungry; the excavator biting deep into the blood-red earth; a swarm of ants, eating a butterfly’s eye; Tom carrying Edith over the threshold of their marital home, and Edith, in the ironwork elevator, rattling down into the lowest depth of the mansion, where the walls are streaked with red.
An Austrian television personality comes home to her remote, eerie house to recuperate from extensive plastic surgery. Swathed in bandages, she confronts her twin sons—and they don’t recognize her. She can’t persuade the boys that she’s their real mother, and her inability to remember basic information about her own life doesn’t help. She seems to scapegoat one of the boys as the troublemaker; she sometimes refuses to talk to him or even set a place for him at the table. The boys decide that this false mother is trying to tear them apart. They begin to resist her. She begins to get angry.
This is the basic setup for “Goodnight Mommy,” a chilling little thing that starts with a lullaby and ends with a conflagration. It would probably be fairly easy to guess the movie’s secret if it ever gave you a chance to breathe, but the suspense and dread ratchet up so relentlessly that there’s no time to think. This is a very effective psychological horror film, with supernatural hints.
The images are haunting: The huge photos that decorate the house, showing models with contorted limbs and faces turned away from the camera. The mother, whip-thin, standing before her mirror looking at her blank bandaged face. A cat sprawled on a heap of skulls; giant cockroaches crawling into a mouth, or out of a wound. The boys ramble through the different landscapes surrounding the house: the woods, the burning field, the cave, the lakes. All filled with dangers.
There are some heartbreaking images. The boys play a tape recording of their mother singing them to sleep, promising she’ll come home to them—but she’s already home, the woman who says she’s their mother. One of the boys crossing himself with holy water at the church, while the other one hurries up the aisle.
But for me the most striking element of the film was the way it made clear how little we know about what goes on inside a house. The boys don’t seem to have any friends, but the house does get several visitors. None of them understand what’s going on. There’s a sequence in which the boys run away, seeking refuge in a church. The priest doesn’t react the way I hoped-against-hope that he would; but it turns out that the audience is in the same position as these interlopers. We enter the family’s story in the middle and try to piece together its fragments. We don’t know it from the inside, and so we don’t know what to believe.
The mother’s bandaged face hides her features. The specific kind of surgery she had hides its meaning: Is she a fame-besotted celebrity seeking physical perfection? A trauma victim? Was the plastic surgery even real, or just an excuse to hide her true identity? And the house hides the truth of the family’s tragedy as well. The shutters can ring down, the doors can lock, and the house can look like a haven, a place of peace.
John Darnielle, the man behind the indie band the Mountain Goats, writes a lot of songs about houses that hide misery. The house is the family: the alcoholic couple whose “cellar door/is an open throat“; the abusive home in which Darnielle grew up, where “indications that there’s something wrong with our new house/trip down the wire twice daily“. And the house is surrounded by “friends who don’t have a clue“, as there seems to be no way to “tell the neighbors what’s been going on“.
At first “Goodnight Mommy” seems like a movie about the terrifying possibility that your own parents might turn on you. Your mother might abandon you and leave you in the hands of a stranger. As the movie’s plot twists and the audience—who came in too late, like the priest, like the Red Cross door-to-door volunteers, like the deliveryman–struggles to figure it out, the source of the movie’s terror shifts. Now it’s about the times when we have been the interlopers, when we have come into somebody else’s tragedy in the middle and failed to figure it out before it was too late. All the violence and heartache we could have prevented, if we had recognized what we were looking at.
We’ve suffered a rash of cynical, sarcastic, hyper-competent white manchildren on our TV screens: “House” was one of the purest versions of this creepy fantasy, where self- and other-loathing make you cool and insightful. Recently there has been a bit of a backlash. Leading men (Walter White, Don Draper) now display the gross and pathetic nature of entitled narcissism, no matter how well the narcissist does his job. We’ve even reached the second stage of backlash, where former Houses try to learn to be human beings; my favorite of these is Johnny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes on “Elementary,” all gritted-teeth emotional honesty and terrible decisions, although I guess you could count Draper here as well.
These reactions were probably inevitable. What was definitely more evitable was that one of the most enjoyable recovering manchildren on television would be a depressed celebrity horse.
BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) is a manfoal of the lowest order. He’s a sort of reverse centaur, with a human body and a horse’s head, in a cartoon world where many of the people are similarly half-owls or half-cats. BoJack was the star of a ’90s sitcom in the vein of “Full House,” but he hasn’t worked in decades. He’s all washed up, drowning his sorrows in enough vodka to kill a horse. Then into his life wanders Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), who’s been assigned to ghostwrite his memoir. So begins a show filled with introspection, articulate despair, romance, adventure, and roller-skating owl women.
My second-favorite thing about “BoJack Horseman” (created and mostly written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg) is the sheer wiggy variety of its jokes. The show has great sight gags, often playing off the “animals are people too” conceit. There are dumb puns and reference jokes: “Andrew Garfield loves lasagna? Andrew Garfield hates Mondays?” But there’s also absurdity, as when BoJack’s agent falls in love with “Vincent Adultman,” who is literally three small children stacked on top of each other under a trenchcoat. There are hilarious little throwaways (an amused Richard Nixon growls, “Owooo!–or whatever a laugh sounds like”) and sharp, funny/sad exchanges where BoJack and his friends try to sort through the wreckage of their lives.
I loved this exchange between BoJack and his closest friend and personal chew toy, Todd (Aaron Paul), about Christmas traditions:
Todd, syrupy: Things don’t become traditions because they’re good, BoJack. They become good because they’re traditions.
BoJack, half-drunk: You know you can’t just make yourself sound smart by saying things backwards?
So right there you’ve got an actual true statement about how tradition shapes our identity, phrased in perfect Chestertonian couplets—and immediately followed by an equally-true deflation of that Chestertonian (or #slatepitch) style.
But my favorite thing about “BoJack Horseman” is how badly BoJack wants to think of himself as—and even, if he’s desperate enough, wants to be—a good person. Just tell me I’m good is the constant undertow of his motivation. He doesn’t want to be cool or happy. He wants to be a good person, in spite of all the genuinely awful things he’s done. He’s ashamed of himself, sure. But he tries to disguise his failures as successes, as cocktail-party anecdotes and, if necessary, as lessons learned.
He has this exchange with Diane, which runs exactly parallel to the character vs. actions bit from “Mistress America” (BoJack knows the zeitgeist!):
BoJack: But do you think I’m a good person, deep down?
Diane: …I don’t know if I believe in ‘deep down.’
“BoJack” is a pretty scathing portrayal of the insufficiency of self-awareness. BoJack knows what his problems are and states them frequently and with often-hilarious bluntness, and it doesn’t help. As a different family entertainment once taught us, knowing is half the battle—but it turns out not to be the half where the battle is won.
There’s a surprisingly low amount of pure shock humor—for example, we’re carefully not encouraged to consider just how humans and horse-people mate, or horsemen and owlwomen, etc. The glaring exception is one episode centering on autoerotic asphyxiation, so just know going in that that happens. I can see why the show went there, though. Seeking release from the self in degrading solitary activity, which transforms something that should connect you to other people into just another empty mansion, something shaped like pleasure but creating greater need instead of satisfaction: that’s basically the show’s archvillain. (Unless BoJack is the villain, which is also a strong possibility.)
That episode is also the only one in which Christianity comes up. A dude who used to be into autoerotic etc. is now heavily into Jesus. Jesus is his replacement drug, another thing that promises escape from the self but never actually brings you into contact with other people; you stay trapped inside your religion, wherever you go there you are, gasping, waiting to lose consciousness.
Which is sort of heartbreaking since it means the only thing anybody can tell BoJack, in his despair, is, Try harder! Just do the right thing, day after day, jog up that hill again, and eventually you’ll die.
The end of the second season finds BoJack trying really hard this time. He is, like American culture generally, bent on self-improvement. He is not a moral relativist. He really means it.
One of the reasons I love this show is that I don’t think they’ll let him get away with it.
One of the weirder trends in today’s art is the rise of a certain kind of comedy: cynical and even scathing on the surface, but in the end, staunchly moral. These comedies push forgiveness, humility, and love as self-gift; the great enemies are personal ambition, unwillingness to embrace adult responsibility, and concern for one’s own self-image. (The lesser enemy is positive self-talk, which all these comedies go out of their way to satirize.) It’s a sort of comedic burned marshmallow, with an acrid outside and sweet gooey inside.
This week I’ve watched an indie Noah Baumbach/Greta Gerwig flick about women’s friendship and ambition, and a coarse cartoon about an alcoholic has-been Hollywood horse-person, and both of these otherwise utterly different comedies fit into the acrid/gooey genre. Which I’m not knocking–I mean, I wrote one of these things, apparently I’m on trend. You’ll get more on “BoJack Horseman” soon in another piece, but for now, let me tell you about “Mistress America.”
Lola Kirke plays Tracy, a college freshman in that crucial pre-Thanksgiving moment when you have no idea what your adult identity will be. In the cafeteria she picks up a cupcake: Am I a cupcake person? She puts it down. Picks up a cruller.
Tracy calls her mom to lament that she hasn’t made any friends, and her mom urges her to call Brooke, Tracy’s soon-to-be stepsister. Tracy’s mom will marry Brooke’s dad over Thanksgiving (this holiday slowly grows in significance throughout the movie, in a way I found pretty touching) but Tracy and Brooke have never met. In desperation, Tracy makes the call–and Greta Gerwig careens into her life.
Gerwig’s Brooke starts out insufferable, enraptured by her own melodrama. She’s a jack of no trades and master of fewer; she claims she will soon be a restaurateur. She says things like, “That’s cool about the frozen-yogurt machine. Everyone I love dies,” and, “I’m good at that, curating my own employment,” and, “My beau, Stavros….” She makes unfunny jokes (there are a lot of lines in this movie that are joke-shaped more than they’re actual jokes) and hands out terrible life advice, and Tracy is in love.
There are echoes of some of Baumbach’s earlier movies. Like “Kicking and Screaming,” this movie is about the undergraduate hunger for guidance, for a role model, a persona–and the way undergraduates’ lack of wisdom means they can’t even choose the right guides. And “Mistress America” shares with “Frances Ha” not only the glorious Gerwig but the focus on women’s friendship. Friendship is life-defining, the stage on which the great dramas of adoration, betrayal, and (maybe) amends are played out.
There are a lot of great lines and moments here. The speech about want (“You can’t really know what it’s like to want things until you’re at least 30″); the white-knuckled fury of the line, “I’m committed to being a happier person.” Occasionally the film’s moral seriousness comes too far out into the open: “I would [do a sordid deed] too,” Brooke says, “but it wouldn’t be my character, it would just be something I did,” to which Tracy of course responds, “When do those become the same thing?” But I loved Kirke and Gerwig’s megadramatic line readings. Everything they do is underlined.
“Mistress America” lacks “Frances Ha”‘s luminous consistency, its exhilaration. But its themes are more complex and its characters rawer. “Mistress America”‘s first 15 hminutes or so are a tough watch, until you realize that the movie knows just how self-obsessed and Potemkin both these women are, and you settle in to watch the skies for the incoming comeuppance.
And then you start to love these awful women, too. They have one of those relationships I’ll never tire of watching, where both people are thinking, The best thing about me is you. Brooke aggressively hooking her arm into Tracy’s arm; Brooke telling Tracy, “You make me feel really smart”; Tracy gazing at Brooke in open adoration. Tracy pilfering a souvenir from Brooke’s apartment.
Tracy steals a lot of knickknacks. The movie’s two odd recurring themes are home and theft. Home is evoked by the Thanksgiving setting, of course, and in Brooke’s pitch for her restaurant: She says, with ferocious intensity, “I keep the hearth.” (And then, with her autodidact’s uncertainty: “…Is that a word?”) The movie is haunted by these women’s longing for a place where they feel at home. Coming home to find the locks changed is the great unspoken fear–the promise of home and family dangled and then snatched away.
And although we get to revisit a lot of old sins here–the second half of the film is just a welter of comeuppances–many of the old hurts revolve around theft and assertions of a moral right of ownership. Brooke’s still furious about an ex-friend who stole her idea for t-shirts with edgy flower logos. Tracy “steals” Brooke’s life for the short story she’s working on, in which Brooke appears as a charismatic failure. There’s a lot of litigation here, trying to sort out who owned what and who owes what to whom.
Until suddenly there isn’t. Toward the end Tracy says, about Brooke’s purloined pets, “The cats went from stolen to given because you changed your mind.” Brooke immediately snaps back, “Don’t put that in a story,” but it is not false. If you are trapped in the wreckage of your self-image, one way out is to waive your rights. Maybe it doesn’t matter what you’re owed.