Getting ahead of policy

I’m not a wonk at all. The other night I had dinner at a friend’s house and we discussed the proposed domestic spending freeze. I opposed it on ideological grounds. To me, government spending is a (nebulous) key to ending the recession and protecting citizens from the whims of the powerful. My friend feels similarly, but she had concrete reasons, like that government domestic spending only increases by 1.7% every year and is therefore not a significant source of our climbing debt. Now, she’s a former Hill staffer, so it makes sense that she’d have a more sophisticated critique, one that lawmakers might be more inclined to discuss.

But I’m still a citizen, and my opinion counts no matter how familiar I am with the details. This makes me more than a little uncomfortable, since if I’m responsible for my fellow citizens, I’m also charged with keeping myself informed.

Beyond voting, it seems like the public only really sways policy by making a big fuss. Unless you’re the kind of person who can manufacture a big fuss on the fly, you need to make your case at a critical moment. Say, before a bill has been written at all, before ground has been broken on the specifics of any deals.*

* Of course, people with my political orientation can make as a big a fuss as we’d like and lawmakers still wouldn’t listen.

But we’re usually not in a good position to do so. Thanks to the inadequacies of mainstream media, the public usually stumbles into a policy discussion way too late. Now you could turn yourself into a wonk, read all the journals and blogs, and prep yourself that way, but there’s only so many hours in the day, and after another shift at my menial job, my eyes glaze over a bit.

A lot of people devote themselves to a single issue or narrow slice of policy, and manage that way. What should the rest of us do?

The Doctor as Dabbler

Lately I’ve been gobbling up Doctor Who episodes like nobody’s business. A few weeks ago, BBC America aired a marathon of the revived series, leading up to The two-part “End of Time” special. I got a job offer that day, returned home, put on pajamas and ate Cheez-its on the couch, taking it all in.

Doctor Who was always my father’s show, and since I have an unfortunate amount of dad-baggage, it’s been a blind-spot in my nerd-dom. I’m over that now, because the Doctor belongs in my pantheon of fictional role models.

For the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a long-running science fiction series from the BBC. Its protagonist is a humanoid who travels in time and space, adventuring and righting wrongs. He’s called the Doctor.* There’s extensive mythology around the character, his home planet, and his many adversaries. He usually travels around the universe with one or more assistants/companions, often from Earth, the Doctor’s favorite planet.

*The long-running joke behind the series title goes as follows: The Doctor introduces himself to someone, they respond “Doctor who?”

In both of its incarnations (1963-1989; 2005-present) it’s been delightfully, humorously low-budget. The threadbare monsters remain effective, though, because the plots and dialogue really sell their evil as a form of ideology. Standing in the way of their plans is the mentally flexible Doctor.

Despite being an entirely fictional character, the Doctor is a good role model for how I’d like to traverse the world. He’s innately curious, and readily acknowledges that he doesn’t know everything. He’s confident in his own intellect and abilities, but he’s not afraid to be wrong and make mistakes. When he does make mistakes (usually while trying to divine yet another convoluted plot), he doesn’t waste much time ruing them.  No garment-rending here, scarves excepted.*

* The Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, wore a ridiculously long scarf as part of his signature apparel. The scarf  often gets in the way. He had to constantly adjust it while sword-fighting, running, ducking under sliding doors, etc.

He’s also courageous and open. He reserves fear for a worthy few (the Daleks, the Master). He has a solid grounding in science, but is open to to the supernatural. He’s usually the smartest guy in the room, but he can learn from anyone.

All of these qualities, combined with his distrust of authority and his manic charisma, make him an effective, temporary leader in nearly every situation. It’s the most normal thing in the world to see the Doctor direct a group to action about thirty seconds after meeting them. Even when he doesn’t have all the facts, he doesn’t wait to act. He hews sharply to his own moral compass, but rarely gets preachy.*

* Now the contents of that moral compass are debatable, especially in the new series (2005-present), which has often hinted at a darker, more vengeful Doctor.

As I queue up more episodes on Netflix, I study and dissect the Doctor’s performance. I know the show’s fake, but his resolve and ingenuity always seem real. What can he teach me? How can I live more like him?

Retroactive Sabbatical

The blog is taking a retroactive sabbatical, extending backwards through January. It returns today.

My (Predictable) Favorite Music of 2009


Bat for Lashes, “Daniel”

It’s about Daniel-san , but I prefer to think it’s about Daniel Radcliffe. Every instrument (including vox) bleeds into the atmosphere, gently increasing in volume, inexorably pulling you into the pillow-soft chorus.

Boredoms, “Ant 10”

there’s no line at the amusement park, so you can ride the same rollercoaster over and over again.

Camera Obscura, “French Navy”

Spare girl-group parts are shined up, placed in a sparkling new chassis. The Neoclassical Stravinsky to Spector’s Mozart.

Destroyer, “Bay of Pigs”

The logical extension of Dan Bejar’s feathery, we’re-in-heaven vibe is a 13-minute, rambling, spacey, occasionally disco journey.

Dinosaur Jr., “Over It”

It’s gotten to the point that I actually prefer this version of the band to its earlier incarnation. A winning, joyous exhortation to grow up and settle differences that actually makes it sound like fun.

Dirty Projectors and David Byrne, “Knotty Pine”

A breezy distillation of the artistic impulse into pop song: see something, feel something, make something.

El Perro Del Mar, “Change of Heart”

An uncomfortably tender song about what it’s like to lose feeling and soldier on.

Handsome Furs, “I’m Confused”

A hard-boiled, red-eyed rock animal gets close to the end of its tether.

Japandroids, “Young Hearts Spark Fire”

Passion on the highway, two combustible gents going all out.

Mountains, “Choral”

As far as I’m concerned, the “Autobahn” of ambient.

Shakira, “Loba”

Still translating her songs via babelfish, now with a spine made of mutant disco, and an atonal chorus smeared across the sky.

Vampire Weekend, “Cousins”

The vaguely ethnic sound of childlike anticipation.

Yonlu, “I Know What It’s Like”

Elliott Smith comes back from the dead in Brazil, discovers people are the same, commits suicide again.


The Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca

9 tracks of synecdoche, refashioning the visual into the aural through chiming guitarwork and a panoply of skyward melisma.

Fever Ray, Fever Ray

The frontwoman for The Knife gives us a meditative album, with domestic settings, which still manages to frighten. The videos are great too.

Extra Golden, Thank You Very Quickly

Kenyan-American polyrhythmnists who honor both sides of the Afro-Pop coin.

Micachu & the Shapes, Jewellery

A rumpus-room, Mario-Kart album that doesn’t waste a melody or a sound effect.

Bibio, Ambivalence Avenue

The ultimate in Adult Swim bumper music. Reminds me of Dilla, reminds mom of The Moody Blues.

Gay Witch Abortion, Maverick

Half-speed Lightning Bolt with my favorite brand of adolescent humor: a damn-the-man bitter streak.

The Juan MacLean, The Future Will Come

DFA’s victory lap for the decade is a skilled mimic of  early-80s dance sounds AKA THE GREATEST MUSIC EVER RECORDED. Also contains my favorite song of 08, “Happy House”

The Mountain Goats, The Life of the World to Come

Relive the bible in your everyday experiences, just like people in medieval times.

The Thermals, Now We Can See

Perfecting the mid-tempo rock song with truly elemental concerns: death, earth, maturity.

Sleigh Bells, Sleigh Bells

Snotty nursery rhymes recorded in a trash can.

Super Furry Animals, Dark Days/Light Years

SFA complete their transformation into ELO.

tUnE-yArDs, BiRdBrAiNs

Ward off evil spirits by howling songs of strength while banging on a guitar, pots and pans. The most self-affirming record since The Milk-Eyed Mender.

Dan Deacon, Bromst

The most taxing, annoying music imaginable goes on meds, clears a path to the sublime.

Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion

Tone poems from a lush world–just pretend the lyrics are in a language you don’t understand.

Vitalic, Flashmob

Also-ran french touch singles find a prosperous life together, conspire to sell Cadillacs in the future.

Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II

An undead army rises from hip-hop’s freshly dug grave.

The Week in Consumption, 12/8

Looks like this is becoming a Tuesday thing.

Each week, Luke takes a look back at the items he’s seen, heard, and eaten. The Week in Consumption preserves his first impressions like the valuable fruits they are.

Jersey Shore (MTV, 10 pm) This show has been receiving a lot of hype as “The Real World, only more outrageous and even less self-aware.” That’s about half-true. MTV has found 8 guidos and guidettes to live together in a summer share at the Jersey Shore. Together, they’ll live, love, pump fists, and dance to oounce-oounce music. The two-hour premiere was a little too much filler, and the show is more liquid than its cousins. Besides the comedy, there’s two main draws. First is noodling out how this apparently self-contained subculture sustains itself and enforces its rules–it’s no Chronicle of a Summer, but there’s a serious anthropological vibe. The second, related point of interest is actually waiting for these characters to hook up. For all the talk of sex, all of them seem relatively chaste compared with their MTV brethren. You can usually expect at least two of the Real World housemates to get together on their first evening. On Jersey Shore, we’ve only seen dancing, hand-holding, and light kissing. Ok, there’s a pierced penis too, but it promptly returns to the guy’s pants.

Election No, not the one with Reese Witherspoon. I’m talking about the Johnnie To film. We follow a group of gangsters as they hold the biannual election for triad leadership. When one of the candidates contests the result, the winner is forced to turn to an older source of authority, the dragon head baton (I know, this sounds ridiculous). Will he get to it in time? While it plainly falls in the lineage of Hong Kong cinema, Election is also the best mimic of the Godfather films I’ve ever seen. Most American mobster movies try to capture the attitude of the Corleone family through dialogue, and ape the “American dream” theme. Johnnie To has pilfered a bunch of other terrific stuff from Coppola instead. The odor of unease wafts through almost every scene. There’s set pieces galore, but each section seems to slide suddenly into the next. And Lok, the election winner, is a Michael Corleone type not just because he’s smart, quiet, and ruthless, but also because he’s already a little world-weary and is prone to long, silent, contemplative moments.

Unfaithfully Yours This is another fine Preston Sturges comedy that’s as serious as cancer. And really, it’s the serious moments that you remember. Rex Harrison plays an orchestra conductor who begins to suspect his wife is having an affair with his secretary. That night, while conducting three melodramatic pieces, he entertains three fantasies about his future with his wife. Each fantasy begins with an extreme zoom to Harrison’s left eyeball, which makes his face seem like a foreign country. I’m really spoiling things for you if I reveal what those fantasies are, and what happens afterward. I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that there’s a happy ending, but what happens before then creates a significantly disturbing undertow.

Brief note: from everything I’ve read, Rex Harrison basically became the guy he plays in this movie.

Man is Not a Bird Dusan Makavejev’s first film, still produced under Soviet-era curbs on content. His film belies its content: while Man is Not a Bird uncovers ideological ruts, its filmmaking, full of weird juxtapositions and interestingly framed shots, makes you feel like anything is possible. Makavejev throws a bunch of possible connections against a wall and it’s up to us what sticks. The sounds of Beethoven commemorate both a sexual encounter and the opening of a new turbine engine. We follow a traveling engineer, who’s scheduled to complete a massive industrial project in a rural Czech town. While there, he begins an affair with a much younger hairdresser. Meanwhile, we also get a glimpse into the life of a two-timing miner. Makavejev would get more brazenly critical and weird in his later features, but Man is Not a Bird is still fresh.

Quality time with my secret lover: eight seasons of “intensive viewing” in the 2000s

Creative television has flourished in the past ten years. No wait, that’s not quite true. Let’s tell the story a different way. In the past decade, many surprisingly inventive shows actually made it all the way on the air. Of course, many of them struggled to stay there. For a brief while, though, you had the chance to turn on the set and become transfixed by weirdness.

Faster internet connections and dvd box sets made it possible to catch up on shows that we’ve missed. Now we can all be like that guy watching M.A.S.H. in Infinite Jest, but instead of analyzing a syndicated smash hit, our obsession could be just about anything.

I have no idea what my top ten shows of the decade would look like. Serious lists might include The Sopranos, Deadwood, Lost, Chapelle’s Show, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, and versions of The Office from around the world.  Instead, I’d like to highlight eight television seasons that I watched compulsively, seasons where the experience of viewing and re-viewing is forever wedded to my estimation of the shows.

Again, the internet & DVDs, plus early syndication and constant reruns, have made it easy to do “intensive” viewing even in today’s attention-deficit, media-saturated environment. Some of this intensive viewing was necessary; there’s still stuff I’m picking up from The Wire my fourth time around (hidden relationships between characters,  hauntingly unresolved plot points). Some of it was based on a need for fun, or for virtual company. Sometimes it opened up new horizons of speculation: Lost is a classic example not on my list. Every week viewers debated both the direction of the show and the direction of the show’s production, entering theoretical labyrinths.

Here are eight seasons that did it right, and why they matter to me.

The Wire–Season 4

Screened on my computer, the day after each episode aired. repeat later in the week.

Season 4 aired during my first semester of graduate school, when my loneliness was most acute. I remember seeing an ad for the season in the newspaper that read, “No Corner Left Behind.” A colleague came upon the ad and asked how HBO could possibly get away with something that sounded so racist and nonsensical. I said something along the lines of, “It’s not what you think. They’re pointing out how standardized test prep in public schools leads to institutional neglect of children. In that situation, the corner seems more seductive than it would otherwise.” A mouthful. But that’s actually one of the things that the show was about! When you start at that level of ambition–that is, representing the concrete effects of policy in narrative fiction–you’re committing yourself to an ever-expanding cast of dozens, risking preachiness, unnecessary exposition, obtuseness, and other sins. The Wire cleared these hurdles easily. They made their complicated storylines captivating. I still don’t know how they did it.

Arrested Development–Season 1

I caught one stray episode, “My Mother, the Car,” while home from college for the holidays. As I watched I marveled at the structure. The episode, building upon its foundations, kept getting funnier and funnier. The last minute was approx. 10x funnier than the first. And it managed to tie together disparate storylines with sterling precision, something that’s marked the hallmark episodes of great comedies from the past.

Later, when I got the DVDs for season 1, I discovered that every single episode was built like this. What’s more, each episode built upon the previous one. Arrested Development‘s use of “callbacks”, jokes from earlier episodes placed in fresh contexts, was one of many qualities that torpedoed any hope of  success. But it’s also the backbone of the show, since the show’s main theme is that our mistakes, bad habits, and lesser urges will follow us for the rest of our lives. Imagine a tv series where every episode was as good as, to choose one example, Seinfeld’s “The Contest”. That’s what we had in Arrested Development.

Why the first season? It has the most episodes. Plus, it’s probably my most-watched tv season of all time, thanks to multiple re-viewings with friends. I’ve never created so much pier peer pressure. “C’mon, let’s try Arrested Development. You know you want to . . .”

Veronica Mars–Season 1

I watched this first on my computer, days before the Season 2 premiere, desperately rushing to make that deadline. Before then, Veronica Mars was just an online rumor. It sounded exactly like something I would hate: a series about a teen private eye, solving each mystery-of-the-week as she slowly pieces together the solution to a much larger crime. As it turned out, the big mystery was gripping and nasty, and our heroine would not be denied. Veronica Mars performed double duty as a character I could identify with, and as a potential role model. I know what’s it’s like to fall out with an entire group of friends, have a parent check out: you cop a new attitude to protect yourself, get a new haircut, and quietly seethe. But I can’t match Ms. Mars’ grit.

Creator Rob Thomas held up his end of the bargain. Veronica got in over her head, but she didn’t “break just like a little girl,” even when everything seemed set up to go that way. I still turn to the first season to tap into hidden reservoirs of strength. That might strike you as silly, unless you’ve actually seen the first season.

Project Runway–Season 2

I watched this piecemeal while working in a bagel shop full time. It was always on at my old home in Price Avenue.This season will always remind me of living with David, Phil, and Lauren. Me and the housemates were probably drawn in by the entertaining Santino Rice, but stayed for the acid judges and the thrill of the editing. This show was edited as if it was written in italics. Always leaning forward. It seemed utterly unique at the time, as it was a reality show in which people actually created something. It wasn’t enough to be somebody interesting. You had to produce to survive. All of which made Santino even more fascinating, as we wondered what would win out: designer or “tv personality”?

When Chloe Dao won I wrote a 1500 word screed on LiveJournal about how the victory was poorly sold by the show’s editorial decisions throughout the season. At no point was Chloe presented as a credible focus of our attention. By not handing it over to Daniel Vosovic or Santino, the show had denied me closure. I was angry. Television makes you do strange things.

The Venture Bros.–Season 3

I once read somewhere–It was probably in Todd Alcott’s blog–that the Venture Bros. is primarily a show about failure. It’s a comedy about a boy adventurer who’s grown up, with two boys of his own, and is running around in circles trying to live up to his father’s achievements. In the third season, each episode is densely layered with allusions to a patchy past. Somehow, everything gets all serious. Arch-villain The Monarch finds himself unable to settle down and be a normal, Guild-sanctioned bad guy. He’s got punk attitude but nowhere to stick it. Dr. Venture comes tantalizingly close to re-imagining himself as a villain, to fighting his father’s legacy instead of trying to outgrow it. Bodyguard Brock Samson is forced to choose between his ersatz-family and his job. And we worry about how all this will warp young Hank and Dean, or whether they’ll ever reach adulthood in the first place. It’s a fantasy opera that betters the shows it parodies.

24–Season 2

I watched this during college spring break, the year after it aired, over three days. I did it while sitting in a dorm lounge, in pajamas, eating out of a 5-pound box of Goldfish. I am not ashamed.

24 upped the threat level in its second season. We’re no longer talking about killing off a would-be President; how about loose nukes? We also got to see a little more of Jack Bauer’s cohorts at CTU, and their legend grew. At this early stage, 24 was still able to be a little unpredictable, and go places we hadn’t dared it would. Consider how Jack infiltrates the gang at the end of the first episode. Remember the surprise reappearance of someone from season 1. It rode the zeitgeist hard and put it away wet.

Sure, the show is implausible, in terms of its 24-hour setup. But that implausibility provides lift to some amazing flights of fancy for the viewer. When does Jack use the restroom? How does he avoid all the L.A. traffic? These are not just complaints; they’re windows into the viewer’s own task of worldbuilding. Just as interesting, to me, is how 24 produced the modern TV marathon. Watching 18 hours of tv, with a bunch of friends and a well-stocked fridge, is my idea of heaven, and apparently I’m not alone. This may be my memory playing tricks on me, but I’ll always associate the rise of that practice with 24.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer–Season 5

My first semester of college, when I didn’t have any friends, FX would air Buffy repeats at 6 and 7 PM. On tuesdays, the new episode aired at 8. So for a while I averaged 11 Buffy episodes a week. I think a lot of my ideals regarding friendship and responsibility took root thanks to, yes, a TV show about a young woman who is destined to kill vampires.

So season 5 is one hard lesson after another. How do you protect someone from the evils of the world? How do you avoid stifling that person’s freedom? How much are you willing to give up? And what do you do when you lose someone anyway? How do we know when a friend is pulling away? When do we step in when a friend is making a mistake? What do you do when you’re up against something you can’t kill? These questions run throughout the show, but Season 5 sets them up at a new level of sophistication. Sure, there’s the same combination of goofy character comedy and dread, but the dark stuff seems to stick with me long after the monster of the week has been eradicated.

The Daily Show–2004 Election Year

In 2004, I was taking a course on peace movements, writing for an alt-weekly, and reading political blogs obsessively. It was a bad year to do those things. The Daily Show was a balm, even as it reminded me of how frustrating and unethical the big wide world actually was. Sometimes people dismiss art as “mere” consolation, but consolation is a pretty huge accomplishment. Jon Stewart demonstrated that it was possible to stay sane during Bush’s re-election.

The Week in Consumption, 11.30

missed last week due to thanksgiving shenanigans!

Each week, Luke takes a look back at all he’s seen and heard. The Week in Consumption is a record of his thoughts, worries, and reflections about these objects, caught in amber. Perhaps in some future time, scientists will be able to clone Luke based on the material.

Chronic City Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. Fuller thoughts here. Lethem’s writing about the connection between pop culture obsession and engagement with the world. See also his most acclaimed novel The Fortress of Solitude, and The Disappointment Artist, a slim collection of essays. For me, this was his most moving articulation of the idea that popular culture can unmask reality better than anything else. Michiko Kakutani fans should note that the the plot is slippery, the characters thin, and so on.

Fantastic Mr. Fox Yesterday I fleshed out how this new film treads on familiar ground for Wes Anderson films and family movies. Yet it trumps them both with a sober, somewhat harrowing assessment of how individuals can best contribute to communities. In the months leading up to its release, the animators complained about Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic work methods and inflexible decision-making. My first impression is that WA was right to be so stubborn. The real fur, to name one example, looks marvelous. The plot does lose its momentum in the final third; readers might end up in an aesthetic coma.

Blindsided: Why the Left Tackle is Overrated and Other Contrarian Football Thoughts This thin little volume, by KC Joyner, applies Bill James-ian statistical analysis to the NFL’s big questions. How likely is it that another team will go undefeated? How important is a star running back to team success? I’m unconvinced by his findings, because he approaches football as if it actually were baseball, making no real effort to account for all the extra variables the gridiron provides. The title essay is especially unconvincing. Joyner feels the left tackle is overrated because its numbers are no better than any other line position when you compare sacks allowed and running yards gained. He doesn’t account for 1) scarcity of great left tackles, 2) the fact the a left tackle is more likely to face the best defensive lineman, or 3) the ways that having superior players elsewhere in the lineup creates vulnerabilities elsewhere on the field. I really would have appreciated a chapter outlining and justifying his statistical methodology.

By contrast, I found his chapter on coaching style compelling. There, Joyner borrows from Dungeons and Dragons instead of Bill James, developing coaching alignments along two axes: personnel/scheme and athletic/hitter. This was totally useful on thanksgiving day, as it was easy to apply to the coaches of the six teams, and yielded insight about why they operate the way they do.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read Pierre Bayard’s supremely witty book about dealing with deficits in cultural capital. Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman. Bayard sits at the crossroads between sociology and psychoanalysis in order to lay out the different situations in which your knowledge of a book is called into question, and the different ways one might be ignorant of a book’s real content. Although Bayard feels that shame is inevitable, people must learn to be more comfortable with inadequate knowledge. When we’re busy trying to be faithful to a text and glean a deep understanding of it, we’re stifling our own creative impulses. For example, I finished this book three days ago, and I’m not certain that I’m summarizing it correctly. It’s already a Forgotten Book. But I’m exercising my creativity by manufacturing a new book in my mind, bearing the same name as Bayard’s, and by telling you about it.

So it’s a strange kind of self-help book, with lots of entertaining content. And it’s very easy to read! Bayard is like a cat with a ball of yarn, but he never gets tangled. I’ve got some questions about how its lessons may translate outside of literary situations. Bayard conjures up a litany of different social situations in which we’re asked to display our literary knowledge. These are almost all casual. What if we raised the stakes a little bit? Do Bayard’s insights apply outside of literature? What if we forget what we learned from, say, statistics? What if we forget crucial organizational rules? What if we follow philosophical dictates without recalling the chain of logic that led us to them?

Alice Bear with me; I feel like I only have banal things to say about Jan Svankmajer’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. The film itself is anything but banal. It recreates the story with unusual faithfulness. Stop-motion is a wonderful tool as it seems to recreate my sense of toys as a child. I love the conceit of using the same room over and over again, decorated differently, to represent different parts of the story. That also rings true to my experience. Svankmajer’s puppets are constantly losing their insides, getting their heads chopped off, and losing power. This world is fragile.

Nanook of the North Robert Flaherty’s documentary is one of the most revered of all time, and a great “teachable text’ about Western representations of racial Others. But our present-day knowledge of Flaherty’s many fictional touches doesn’t hurt the film much at all, entertainment-wise. If it were labeled a fiction film, it would still be a classic. The nature photography captured something utterly foreign. In one scene, Nanook quickly builds an igloo and adds a window made of ice. It’s jawdropping. Later on, Nanook & Co. hunt Walruses! I can safely say I’ve never seen that before.

In the Realm of the Senses Oshima Nagisa’s most famous look at how sex, death, politics, and isolation intertwine. Wikipedia tells me that the film is still banned in Japan, which I find really surprising. Hideo Ito’s lush photography elevates this version of the Sada Abe affair to another plane–everything seems so warm and florid. In 1930s Japan, a servant woman (and former prostitute) begins an affair with her boss after he molests her. Their compulsive, affectionate lovemaking leads them to spurn any semblance of normal life, stirs incredible possessiveness, and culminates in experiments with asphyxiation. Frankly, all their lovemaking gets a little repetitive, but Nagisa sets up some powerful tableaux and inventively renders the human form on screen.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

I just saw Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’m a big Wes Anderson fan, so of course I loved it. There’s so much to discuss: the clothing, the strangely touching closeups, the impeccable voice work, the skill with which the makers direct your attention in the first minutes. It’s also not a perfect film by any means. The last third drags. (I wouldn’t say I was bored. I was impatient.) But for now I’d like to concentrate on how the movie executes a theme common to Anderson’s work and family films, and in my opinion trumps them both.

Like every Dahl book, the story pits rebellious individualism against a stifling social code. Like many recent children’s films, Fantastic Mr Fox attempts to forge a middle path between the extremes of selfish individualism and soulless conformity. But it suggests that the path is less stable, less certain, than we’d hope.

Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney–it’s the role of his career) was once a successful chicken thief. But he’s settled down and become a family man. His old urges kick in, however, and he concocts a grand heist of three local farmers. Their retaliation endangers his family and the entire community, and Mr. Fox has to apply his talents to save his friends.

It’s a plot point familiar to Wes Anderson fans. His focal characters misplace their emotions and pursue selfish goals until realizing how their unique skills can serve others. Rushmore is a story of artistic transformation. Teenaged Max Fischer produces plays that mainly call attention to his immense talent. But when the world refuses to conform to his wishes, Max finds himself in danger of losing his friends. Max returns to the stage in order to right wrongs and honor the people he’s met, using art to reconcile differences, rekindle friendships, and provide emotional closure. It’s my favorite movie of the ’90s.

Anderson’s other features employ similar turnarounds. Royal (of The Royal Tenenbaums) first schemes for self-benefit, then for the benefit of his children. Documentarian Steve Zissou (from The Life Aquatic) has lost sight of the sublime nature of the ocean thanks to the pleasures of fame, the expectations that come from his financial backers and audiences, and the tragic death of his dear friend at the hands of a rare and elusive shark. Finding that shark reconstitutes his being. Each of these characters find purpose only after suffering losses, although Anderson and his characters often project the full emotional wallop of these losses in finicky styles, juvenile attitudes, and reckless behavior. The opulence of his films is density in disguise.

Contrast these efforts with the most enjoyable family films covering similar terrain. Pixar’s ten films concentrate heavily on resolving the tensions between individual and community spirit. This is most evident in Brad Bird’s films, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, in which extraordinary individuals are first encouraged to hide their genius, turn to using it surreptitiously, then direct it outward, saving worlds and stirring memories. This theme also appears in the Toy Story franchise, Wall-E, A Bug’s Life, and even Cars. Pixar is not alone here, either; consider the Shrek films, in which various weirdos from fantasy literature quit their isolated lives and find love and purpose in a shared life. Our heroes (such as Buzz Lightyear) struggle mightily trying to figure out how to serve others while remaining themselves. When they figure things out, it’s usually in the form of an epiphany that overwhelms the narrative trajectory. They suggest finding that balance is inevitable, and the resolution is tidy. Of course they do; they’re movies for kids.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is different. It’s still, mainly, a kid’s movie. I saw it in a theater packed with children, who laughed along with every sight gag. What I mean to say is that we’re brought in sight of striking that balance, finding a suitable public role for individual talents, and then it’s pulled away. By the end, we’re not even sure what those talents are.

Mr. Fox and his family, along with other wild animals, live in imitation of human beings throughout the film. They buy homes they can’t afford, wear suits, and hold human-like jobs. Mr. Fox wants to catch chickens, but the introduction of humans to his world has domesticated him. We never get to see the animals in the movie in a pre-human state of grace. But we’re to infer that humanity has colonized the animal world so successfully that animals are completely out of touch with their “true” nature. Mr. Fox admits, first guiltily, then proudly, that he’s a wild animal, and he attempts to rouse his fellow animals into combat by using their latin names, invoking their DNA, and utilizing their “animal” skills in an attack on the farmers.

Mr. Fox and his friends find success with this strategy (although, in keeping with Dahl and Anderson, that success comes at a price). But are they really turning to their animal natures? Mr. Fox thinks he’s being a wild animal by stealing. But his particular gift is in manipulating human security systems, marshaling his fellow animals, and buoying them with promises of the future–all gifts we more readily associate with humans. Badger presents himself as a demolitions expert, which comes in handy for providing a counterattack. Mrs. Fox uses her skill as a painter to assist in battle strategy. Ash fulfills his dream of being an “athlete” not by applying pure physical talent, but for reading a human environment as if it were a sports field. Kylie, the opossum, asks Mr. Fox what his natural talent is, and receives no real answer, which dissatisfies both him and me.

Nor is it at all certain that the characters are learning how to successfully channel their natures into assisting the community. Mr. Fox’s return to thievery produces blowback on an intense level. First he loses his tail, making him more human than ever. Later, his home is destroyed by the farmers. Eventually, the entire community is displaced. Fair enough, he hasn’t had his epiphany yet. When he realizes the consequences of his actions, and orchestrates his neighbors into a new home, they set up in a sewer system. Once they lived on the margins of the human world. Now they live beneath it, becoming even more dependent on a world that looks in their direction with hostility. The final scene of the film, in which Mr. Fox finds the path to a new food source, a grocery store, is not the tidy solution it first appears. The store is owned by the same farmers who drove Mr. Fox and company out in the first place. When they find out that the animals are ransacking their store, they’ll respond in the same manner as they did to the original thefts.

I don’t really know if Mr. Fox and his friends would be better off some other way, though. And that gives me pause. The film demands that we find some way to make our individual pursuits worthwhile to others, but it argues that the path is fraught with peril, that costs and sacrifices will be made, and we’ll never feel quite as confident about our position as we wish. Those are some hard truths. Toward the end of the film, Mr. Fox, Kylie, Ash, and cousin Kristofferson spy a wolf in the distance. Throughout the story, wolves had been discussed with fear and reverence by Fox and Kylie. The wolf they meet walks on all fours and does not speak. He’s still wild. He’s also alone. Mr. Fox raises a fist in a gesture of solidarity, which the wolf returns. Everything stops for this exchange, each side privately wondering if the other is better or worse off for the choices he’s made.

My current TV viewing habits

Here’s a brief description of my current TV viewing habits. When I was in graduate school, I had HBO, a DVR, and a broadband internet connection. In those days, I was on top of my TV game. Since then I’ve moved back home, and had to adjust. My movie mission has necessitated a drastic cutback in the amount of TV I watch.


The Venture Bros. (Midnight, Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim) I’m not feeling this season as much as I did S3, but I’ve also been missing out on, I’m guessing, about half of the jokes because I’m not recording and re-viewing. Hank and Dean Venture, the sons of former boy adventurer Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, are going through typical growing pains: rebellion, body hair, adjusting to their father’s new bodyguard. Their old bodyguard, Brock Samson, has left them for mysterious reasons. Their archnemesis, The Monarch, has become listless in his pursuit. But it’s the Monarch’s henchman No. 21 who’s undergone the most shocking transformation and become the most interesting character. After his friend No. 24 perished last season, 21 has remade his body, packing pounds of muscle onto his stout frame. He’s also upped his ambition by taking over the henchmen training, selling his old comics, and taking pains to appear violent and cruel. Recently, he’s begun talking to 24’s skull . . .


How I Met Your Mother (CBS, 8 PM) This show finds its groove whenever it forgets about the main premise (how Ted Mosby met the mother of his children) and focuses on the interaction between Ted and his friends. It’s an extremely fast-paced show, constantly jumping back and forth in time. Unlike other shows that make a heavy use of crosscutting (30 Rock and Family Guy spring to mind), this show does everything in service of character, which makes the experience enjoyable even when it isn’t very funny. Most of this fall’s episodes have centered on a budding relationship between Robin (Ted’s ex) and Barney, a habitual womanizer. The result was a series of plotlines revolving around pretty banal relationship issues, given a light charge thanks to Barney’s cartoony understanding of the world. Luckily, the show seems to have axed this approach, so it’s free to focus on smaller, more amusing character quirks.

House (FOX, 8 PM) I only watch the second half of House, which has its advantages. Nothing important ever happens in the first half hour; Gregory House’s diagnostic team just chooses the wrong solution over and over again. If you start watching at the half hour mark, they’re usually just one or two diagnoses away from the final solution, you’ll have to do some energizing mental legwork to figure out what you’ve already missed, and you’ll get one or two short scenes in which House does something disturbing or hilarious.

Gossip Girl (CW, 9 PM) Manhattan’s social elite go to college, sort of. The college subplot hasn’t lived up to my expectations. The show has become simultaneously more boring and more poignant, as that rake Chuck Bass now resembles a good man, and Serena and Blair struggle to redefine themselves in new environments. Their efforts to find a purpose illuminate New York’s elite social world, revealing it to be more of a refuge than anything else.

The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 930 PM) I flip back and forth between this and Gossip Girl. GG repeats so much information from scene to scene that it’s pretty easy to guess what I missed, and I’m only interested in about half of the BBT’s episodes anyway. That half is whichever part involves Sheldon, the breakout star of this comedy about socially maladjusted scientists. Sheldon’s exploits had always been the focus of attention–one persistent point of fan discussion is how closely his behavoir resembles that of people with Asperger’s. But this season he’s been the beneficiary of added dimensions. At least three episodes have highlighted his difficult upbringing, while he’s also become more aware of his social limitations and endeavored to read interactions better.


I’m skipping critical darling Sons of Anarchy because I missed the first episodes, and I think the impact of what happens next would be dulled without them.

30 for 30 (ESPN, 8 PM) I missed the Jimmy the Greek episode, which was supposedly the best yet, but I’ve been underwhelmed by this series of documentaries on minor subjects in recent sports history. Maybe they’ve been overhyped by television critics. I still eagerly await the Bill James doc on Allen Iverson.

V (ABC, 8 PM) There’s not a whole lot to this remake of the 80s miniseries. I like the general sense of unease that Monica Baccarin, as the lead alien, creates whenever she appears. I’m a fan of byzantine plots that really don’t obey any kind of logic. But I’m pretty ok with just hearing what happens, instead of actually taking the time to view them. And at least in November, V is moving at a pace I’d welcome more in a regular series.


Glee (FOX, 9 PM) I find this musical about a high school glee club more enjoyable than I thought I would. They’ve even managed to turn a secret pregnancy plot into something worth being emotionally invested in. The songs are auto-tuned to death, which sounds like how microwaved food tastes. But I’m scratching my head trying to think of the last longform musical comedy. I want to see what it would take to work over the course of a season or longer. The opportunities for character development on a musical tv show are intriguing.

Modern Family (ABC, 9 PM) I sometimes catch this online the next day. I don’t think it’s the next great comedy or anything but its structurally sound. It’s a family comedy though, and you have to fight pretty hard to keep those from sucking outright. Families are just not funny.

The Ruins (MTV, 10 PM) It’s the Real World/Road Rules Challenge, yet again. This show is comfort food for me. Remember all those attractive douchebags from high school? This is your chance to catch their faded (or ruined) beauty on display as they prove they really are even dumber than you suspected. When they turn their knives on each other (breaking inept alliances, getting in fights, conducting merciless teasing) you can rest easy knowing that every single one of them deserves it.


It breaks my heart to give up Fringe, but I think I’ll enjoy it better as a DVD marathon anyway. My Thursday viewing habits are predicated on keeping mom happy right now, which currently means EXHAUSTING COMEDY SCHEDULE.

NBC block 8-10 pm

Community Every week, the plot is exactly the same. Disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger, who is getting a real degree to make up for the one he forged, must learn to use his talents for good by helping out his classmates. Why is it worth watching? The dialogue is superb, featuring rapid-fire bursts of banter that you can’t really find anywhere else. Plus, the characters are repetitive in a comforting way. They’re reliable.

Parks and Recreation Just like its brother The Office, the key to finding comedy gold was fleshing out the supporting cast. In particular it slays me whenever someone puts down Jerry. What’s more, the show has gotten very skilled at presenting the perils of politics in a nonjudgmental way.

The Office I think the show’s on its last legs, creatively. Last year’s Michael Scott Paper Company was a breath of fresh air, but it may have been a last gasp. I can already see a killer final episode though: identical story as the first episode, with Jim in Michael’s role, Erin in Pam’s role, and Andy in Jim’s role.

30 Rock Zany as ever, but too predictable. I don’t know if there was a single plot point you couldn’t see coming a mile away. My feeling is this blunts the humor.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Every episode only gains in hilarity in retrospect, and I think season 4 has episodes that match the quality of anything they’ve done before. My favorite so far was the World Series episode, in which the gang tries to sneak their way, by hook or by crook, to see the Phillies play. After a slow start, Charlie has really picked up speed. He’s already racked up several classic moments (milksteak, impersonating a lawyer, kitten mittons, being followed by cats). I do wish they’d try do to something with the bar more often.

Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City

I had to return this book to the library, so I’m flying without a net, but here’s what I thought.

Jonathan Lethem’s newest novel takes us back to familiar territory: the mysteries of Manhattan and the transcendent power of popular culture. Sure, it doesn’t really have any plot or characters, but I’m one of those readers who doesn’t mind as long as the author gives you something else to think about.

This is ostensibly the story of Chase Insteadman, a former child star all grown up. He’s dating an astronaut trapped on a space station. Her love letters home have become a news sensation, and have made him a star all over again. Chase falls in with a coterie of oddballs: Perkus Tooth, a film critic and creature of peculiar obsessions; Oona Lazlo, a cold, prolific ghostwriter; and Richard Abneg, a former squatter’s rights advocate who now fights for the opposing team in the mayor’s office. The majority of the book consists of this group hanging out, smoking pot, listening to music and eating deluxe cheeseburgers. That’s what critics mean when they say it doesn’t have a plot. But if you’re the kind of person who stays up all night talking about nothing, or is nostalgic for those days, these sections emanate light and heat. Meanwhile, the city around them grows stranger. A pea soup fog descends over the financial district. A giant tiger escapes from the zoo and wreaks havoc. An environmental artist produces an urban fjord. In other words, this is the kind of book that predictably warrants the wrath of Kakutani.

Admittedly, none of these characters are all that fleshed out. Chase, who narrates most of the novel, seems deliberately, infuriatingly empty (those who have read the book might characterize him as chaldronic–see below). But the four characters work well as a refraction of the contemporary psyche. Chase is an actor in more ways than one. He privately questions his affections for his astronaut girlfriend, but finds himself impersonating a grieving lover at dinner parties. How can you be sincere when you don’t know your own feelings? Perkus, pontificator of curiosities, stands in for everyone who wonders about the true utility of their hobbies and obsessions. Oona is a hardworking hack, which has a familiar barb to knowledge workers everywhere. And Richard performs the difficult navigation between idealism and realpolitik.

Eventually the smoke clears and something like a main story comes into view. Perkus becomes obsessed with a vase-like object called a chaldron. When gazes upon a chaldron (or even a picture of a chaldron) it reveals the falsity of the real world. Chaldrons are the latest in a line of objects that, for Perkus, serve as reliquaries. These sections are Lethem’s best-yet articulation of what it means to escape into popular culture. We seize onto objects, for our own idiosyncratic reasons, because they seem to reveal something about the world that’s been buried and hidden. And yet, these objects are common currency, out in the open for just about anyone to see. People know who Marlon Brando is, have a sense of his importance as an actor, and have at least watched The Godfather. But when Brando comes face to face with reality, reality flinches, briefly. People spend the rest of their lives searching for those moments of upheaval, hoping that next time, it’s permanent. But pop culture is kind of like Penelope; it unravels its work at night, simulating and exposing at different turns.

A minor caveat. The book does lapse into some 9/11ish NYarcissism, lamenting that no one else can understand the special pain of what it’s like to live in a city under attack, when nothing can be further than the truth. But I can forgive it, because otherwise the book looks outward to ours. The strange things happening in the New York of Chronic City don’t see so strange when they’re applied to our world. Our newspapers print “war-free” editions in everything but name, Wall St. has lost contact with the rest of the world, and fantasies forcibly assert themselves in reality.


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August 2020