“You have to watch this show; the first few episodes are the most reactionary critique of sexually liberated Brooklyn possible; it’s a dystopia.”
Paraphrased, that’s what one wise friend told me last year about “Girls,” the HBO series that captured best Comedy Series at the Golden Globes last night, along with a Best Actress nod for its creator, producer, and star Lena Dunham. The show also premiered its second season last night.
The series has become something of a fixation for the overclass. It is our financial crisis era-hipster version of “Sex and the City,” but written by a woman! The boys at Slate are learning to love it. The new editor of Gawker hates it. Good grief, even Esquire has episode recaps now.
The show has been hailed as “revolutionary” but from the opening scenes it has always felt fairly inevitable to me. As it exposes a certain privileged slice of new white transplant life in Brooklyn, I feel like I’ve been observing these characters for a decade. The Girls (now, really, young women) went to Oberlin, I went to Bard. A significant portion of my friends are also new white transplants in Brooklyn with similar ambitions, though they lack access to parental reserves of cash and social capital to construct their lives. But my friends can occasionally overlap with those people in Girls. In some ways, it is a life I might have lived or at least lived around, if I hadn’t self-consciously rejected certain features of it.
There is a self-awareness about the show and its creator that is endearing. Characters utter precious modern truisms in hilariously self-interested and defensive ways. Dunham’s character is portrayed as sexually depraved and worse–kind of creepy–when she visits her hometown in Michigan in one early episode. Dunham was also hammered in some corners of the press for not having more racial diversity in her show. This season her character is dating a black Republican played by Donald Glover. It is a bit of the diversity people asked for mixed with a diversity they didn’t. The world and characters that “Girls” portrays will surely spit him out soon.
“Girls” may be impossible to watch for some people. Dunham is nude in it, frequently. Her on-off boyfriend will utterly repulse anyone with a hint of bourgeois sensibility. It isn’t delicate. It is so obviously partly based on true events, and partly fictionalized. It is difficult to refer to the characters by their fictional names rather than their identities: Dunham, Brian Williams’s daughter, David Mamet’s daughter.
Girls portrays an oddly telescoped kind of life. There are no children. The parents are far away and exist only intermittently. In the latest episode, one character’s mother shows up and talks frankly about sex, disgusting her adult daughter–ground well trod by Noah Baumbach in “Kicking and Screaming.” By comparison I see my in-laws no less than once a week, usually more times than that.
Instead the show is about 20-somethings who live in a world that seems parenthetical to one with personal inter-generational obligations. The drama consists of the characters making demands of the world and demands of themselves, and failing to be satisfied. As with many of my friends (and myself) they invent and announce codes of ethics and conduct for themselves on the spot. “I’m doing this a different way, I’m not just going to show up on your door in the middle of the night… I’m going to make logical responsible decisions when it comes to you,” one character says.
The oddest thing about the show is that these girls are fascinated–that really is the right word here–by men who have so few qualities. And the fate of these girls is to continue these confusing sexual relationships with badly damaged men, where pantomimed rape fantasies are a feature and a bug, for perhaps a decade. Only then it may become permissible for their social set to start thinking of marriage.
Perhaps I underestimate the trials of my more suburban, married existence in comparison to those of my Brooklyn friends and their stand-ins on this drama. But for a show with the tone of wild celebration in self-discovery, enabled by so much social capital, the ambitions and possibilities for these Girls seem so small and sad, and their 20s seem tragic.
Of course, they’re all famous and will be pretty wealthy soon. So, maybe it is worth it?
On Saturday I saw “Red Hook Summer,” the latest in Spike Lee’s “Chronicles of Brooklyn” series (of which 1989′s terrific “Do the Right Thing” is the most famous member). The plot is straightforward–a rebellious boy’s mom sends him to her father, a preacher in Brooklyn, and he spends a summer falling in love and learning painful truths about the world and his own family. That’s pretty much the only straightforward thing about this meandering, confused movie, which throws a lot of rich and provocative material onto the table but seems to wander away without delving deeply into any of it. The movie doesn’t end so much as it gives up.
Early into “Summer’s” two hours, the D.C. audience was really into it: We laughed with recognition when Brooklyn girl Chazz caught our hero Flik stealing potato chips from the church and busted out a perfect tattletale’s “Oooooohhhhhhh!” (I swear I heard that exact noise every other day of my childhood.) We were thrilled when Spike Lee himself turned up onscreen reprising his “Do the Right Thing” role as Mookie–still delivering pizzas decades later. When Bishop Enoch preached that there are “too many baby mamas,” several women in the audience “mm-hmm’d” their approval. After a while, though, it started to feel like we were really not getting anything new and a couple people sneaked out.
Those people missed the shocking twist, the dark secret at the heart of Little Peace of Heaven Church. But that twist just sort of lies there, like the dead rat Flik finds in the church basement at the beginning of the movie. The other characters have oddly suppressed reactions. Nobody talks in any serious way about repentance, even though a church has just been confronted with evidence of serious sin. (Nobody talks about sin at all, actually.) The church has already been exposed as fake on many levels–all its Jesuses are blond, and Bishop Enoch’s preaching always returns to the central theme of raising money. But even after the climactic revelation there’s no sense of how the events of the movie have changed any of the characters.
That’s partly because there are no alternatives. There are literally no other churches in the movie, for example. There’s one Jehovah’s Witness lady who is sweet but pathetic; and Flik is a vegan atheist with an iPad, which is not exactly a worldview. If you show the collapse of the only source of hope and authority in a community, I would expect the movie to end on a despairing note–but instead Lee closes with a bizarrely cute montage of cheerful Brooklyn life, which seems to shiver queasily from ice-cold satire to warm nostalgia. Seriously, people, a rainbow appears behind the girl Flik loves, and I don’t think that’s especially ironic. You just can’t end this movie this way.
In the earlier part of the movie I was powerfully reminded of Stew’s musical “Passing Strange,” which Spike Lee himself made into a movie in 2009. “Passing Strange” offers much gentler satire of the black church. But its satire also feels fresher (even though it’s older!) and more lived-in, more real. It also offers actual alternative worldviews and communities. You should watch it; it’s available streaming on Netflix if you have it. It’s not a substitute for “Red Hook Summer” by any means. Lee’s new movie tries to be a much more ferocious assault on money- and power-hungry, self-satisfied black preachers. But Stew’s imagination is larger than Lee’s.
Clarke Peters, as Bishop Enoch, does probably the best acting here. Jonathan Batiste, as coded-gay organist T.K. Hazelton, has a surprising amount of charm and poignancy in a tiny role. (The moment when he underlines one of Bishop Enoch’s polemics against absent fathers by caroling, “They ain’t men!” is played for laughs in a way which struck me as more than a little mean-spirited.) The two children, Jules Brown and Toni Lysaith, have fantastically expressive faces but when they speak they tend to sound like they’re reciting lines. The film’s infrequent anti-naturalistic touches always make it preachier, giving it a shrill but startlingly empty moral voice.
There will be better movies about shame, cruelty, and doubt in the black church. Those movies will owe Spike Lee a debt, even as they surpass him.
I understand that _____ _____ has been in the news recently, and if there is one person in the world that I am sick of hearing about it is _____ _____. I know in the past that I have comment on the doings of _____ _____, but no more. (S)he and his/her family are the most over-exposed people in the world, and I for one and sick of them.
So in case anybody is wondering, I have nothing to add to the most recent controversy involving _____ _____.
The confluence of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and the first full day of the 2011 National Football League season is sure to be a treat. NFL Commissioner Roger “Don’t Touch Me I Bruise Easily” Goodell has promised to “unfurl patriotic themes” at each stadium. Huge American flags that cover the entire playing field being waggled by platoons of soldiers in combat fatigues are becoming passé, as are the by now yawn inducing flyovers by F-16s, so I would propose that the cash rich and morally challenged NFL work with the Department of Defense to do something really spectacular. Surely an American flag that covers the entire stadium can and should be considered to remind everyone that the Federal government is there like an enormous security blanket to protect honest folk who like to go out and get drunk and swear a lot between the increasingly rare plays on the field. Dick Cheney can supervise the coin toss at the start of the game and will hand out free copies of his book to the team captains.
And to hell with the singing of the National Anthem, all that complicated rockets’ red glare stuff. Fans can be given cards with a new loyalty oath which they will be required to recite or face expulsion from the stadium. The oath will include a pledge to provide one’s first born for the next war wherever that might be and whenever the White House considers it appropriate. Government in action might be highlighted by a Transportation Security Agency live simulation up on the food tier in which fans can vote on what kind of security screening they would prefer. After the game is over, everyone present will be either groped or irradiated, depending on which option comes out on top. It would be like reality TV and sports combined.
And then the piece de resistance. At the end of a game a line of Taliban prisoners can be paraded along the top wall of the stadium. A prisoner will be tossed into the parking lot for each touchdown that was scored in the game while the crowd chants “We have always been at war with Eurasia!” If no touchdowns are scored, one prisoner will be tossed anyway to show the Afghans that we mean business. America has never lost a war.
Bill Kristol been taking liberties with Andrew Marvell yet again.
From time to time, I too must cross Harvard Yard, where last night a fleeting figure too bright to be his lady thrust into my hands this odious marvel:
Has Rupert world enough, and time,
To suffer young Bill’s latest rhyme?
Though he has authored, reprobate,
Conservatism’s parlous state.
While some teahouses on The Hill
Still deign to serve The Standard’s swill.
Others down by Watergate
Await Murdoch’s dictated slate.
Any other they’ll refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
But at his back, inspiring fear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurries near
As Newsweek in the dust doth lie
We hear The Weekly Standard cry
Subscribers no more can be found,
The economy’s run hard aground,
The markets plunge, jobs disappear,
As Kristol leads us from the rear.
Iran lacks nukes, yet still his Standard scores
Our nation’s policy by its count of wars.
Fought in middle eastern dust,
While Yankee credit turns to rust.
The Fed’s a fine and private place,
But none I think our bonds embrace. Read More…
Wry Dan McCarthy asks below:
Won’t it be a wonderful victory for civil liberties when the problem of intimate searches is solved and we can all go back to being X-rayed whenever we fly?
Alas, long before we manage to un-encumber ourselves of such as the TSA, x-ray technology will have become our grand-children’s steampunk. From Danger Room, a developing nanotechnology combines bee venom with nano-fiber to sniff bombs at the molecular level. Nanotechnology has inspired its own “runaway replicator” theory and is carbon-based, like us. But then some worried the first atomic explosion, if hot enough, would ignite the atmosphere and flambe Earth (now we know it isn’t possible); fortunately sterner souls prevailed and we now have nuclear weaponry.
The technology could do away with invasive searches (“beats having your junk touched” says Danger Room; “not necessarily”, says my creepy Uncle Del). I don’t know; all I see is Quantum Realm (where nanotech operates) + Bees (the Wermacht of the insect world) + State Surveillance. This is how it ends. Someday we’ll smile, if we’re still capable in our new status, recalling our childhood fears of mechanical robots gaining autonomy and making us their slaves…
Fed Chairman Bernanke is giving his first press conference. Watching it via the Wall Street Journal live feed, the viewer is presented with this most appropriate advertisement:
Some press handler should advise Bernanke to use the singular pronoun more often. The Fed chairman awkwardly refers to the Fed making policy in the plural “we,” even though to the public, he is seen as a single figure — making him sound as if he’s using the royal “we.”