Thursday, August 29, 2013

800 Words: Assimilation - Part 1 - Jews Among Jews

I never feel like a Jew unless I’m around goyim. Jewish values have done me little but ill in my life. They are the values of a scared old man who is convinced that all things new will lead him to the grave. Jewish values are the ultimate values of conservatism, conservation, and conventionality. It is a binding set of laws so profuse, so extraordinarily constricting, that there is almost no chance for a Jew who grows up Jewish to live a life undefined by his view of it. Ultimately, a Jew either accepts Jewish law, or he rebels, and Judaism’s greatest revenge upon Jews who rebel against their upbringing is that there is no freedom from such a choice. “Recovering Christians” can’t help living a life with a gnawing fear that their rebellion will lead them to eternal fire - but, of course, there is probably no such fire waiting for them, so they can ultimately absolve themselves of regret. But “recovering Jews” live life merely with the gnawing fear that they’ve lived their life completely wrongly, but since there’s well-nigh indisputable proof that life as we perceive it exists, ‘recovering Jews’ can never absolve themselves of regret, and only fear that their lives have been wasted. In this way as so many others, Judaism makes more modest claims to its adherents than other religions, and those modest claims bind the religion to those born into it so much more effectively than any adherent is bound to more popular religions.

If you’re naturally a rule-bender living within such a hidebound community, you’re shit out of luck. So long as you live within a community of Jews, you are destined to be nothing more than a Jew among Jews - watching from a dungeon shut as firmly as Joseph’s while the well-behaved among your sect are anointed to ascend like the angels of Jacob’s Ladder to levels of glory beyond anything to which you could ever aspire. But should you ‘leave the nest’, are the circumstances any better? You are a speck in a wider world, adrift among a people you don’t understand, with uncommon frames of reference, values, culture, and worldview. So many times, one looks at this world of ‘them’, full of debased corruption on one hand and deranged fanaticism on the other, and one sees precisely why Judaism was so adamant about doing everything to shield its practitioners from the wider world. Is the wider world any better?

Judaism is the religion of displacement. It is a religion designed to build a home for people in countries where home does not exist. 65 years after Israel’s founding and 46 years Jerusalem’s reunification, Israel and Jerusalem are still immaterial concepts - perfect places of the mind and spirit, whose physical reality cannot help but pale next to the perfect kingdom of our imaginings. Unlike Christianity and Islam, home is an imagined concept for Jews. All homes are temporary ones until the coming of the Moshiach (Messiah), who has tarried for more than two thousand years. Home for Christianity and Islam is firstly the next world, and secondly in any place where a person’s particular brand of Christendom or Islam rules unchallenged. But home for Jews is the Torah, we have and shall always be a people of The Book, and therefore, home can only exist in our state of mind - a state of mind which is trained more acutely more often than in any other religion because we are the only religion to which a book is more important than any physical space.

Perhaps the ‘secret’ to ‘Jewish success’ is found within that state of mind. Because the ‘Torah’ is our chiefest ‘joy’ and ‘consolation’ and ‘glory’, we are a ‘defeated’ people. Between Vespasian and Ben-Gurion, we inhabited no physical space to call our own. And therefore, we had to settle for a temporary home whose circumstances inevitably disappointed us. Because whenever we ‘settle’ for a home to which we do not aspire, it is no longer our home. And whenever Jews settle for a home we don’t want, they escaped into the ‘glorious’ world of teaching, doctrine, instruction, custom, theory, guidance, and system which Judaism entails. So long as the home of Judaism only exists within the mind, it can never be corrupted or blemished - and this spiritual home without physical form has lasted virtually unchanged for two-thousand years as material civilizations Islamic and Christian, Pagan and Secular, died their material deaths. The home of Judaism is immortal, and is therefore that much more disappointing a home for millions and millions of Jews throughout the eons.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

800 Words: What Would Pauline Kael Have Made of Modern TV?

The measure of any critic is not if they were right, the measure of a critic is if they were interesting. Criticism is an artform like any other art, even if a secondary, perhaps parasitical one.

Pauline Kael is the greatest film critic there has ever been - perhaps the greatest critic America has ever seen in any artform - because she was usually wrong, and utterly unafraid to be wrong. She hated Hitchcock for his blatant manipulation, Bergman and Fellini for their insistence on autobiography, Ozu for his slowness, thought Mel Brooks was trash, thought Woody Allen’s turn to the serious was disastrous, and panned Peter Bogdonavich’s The Last Picture Show by claiming that it was a movie Richard Nixon could love (incidentally, Nixon did). She admitted the genius of Orson Welles only grudgingly, and claimed that Welles had nearly nothing to do with the brilliance of Citizen Kane. I do have some tastes in common: I share her hatred of Kubrick and Antonioni, her love of Hawks and Renoir, and her mixed feelings about John Ford and Fritz Lang, and I find myself coming around to her Chaplin hatred - but there was something more obvious which troubles me about Kael. She was a complete hedonist, moved by pleasure and nothing else. Her tastes were oddly soulless - she loved movies, but she was never moved by them. She loved Renoir for the pleasure he gave, but his humanity never struck her as important. The warmth of Ozu meant nothing to her, and she basically thought Mel Brooks wasn’t funny. One screenwriter was quoted as saying “Pauline Kael was a great critic who had shitty taste in movies.” So how could such an idiot be such a great critic?

Pretty easily, actually. What Kael loved was immediacy of communication. She hated movies that had a fake ‘this is good for you’ intellectual formality as much as she hated poorly made trash (and there was some poorly made trash she loved). She loved movies stimulated the primal imagination and generated emotion above any thought. She loved Last Tango in Paris because she thought it was the only example of true ‘fucking’ on screen, called Nashville an ‘orgy for movie lovers’ (I disagree strenuously with her opinion of Last Tango, and minorly with hers of Nashville).  She loved Godard for his cool, and De Palma for his heat, and I don’t particularly care for either director. But when she was good, her insights scorched from the page, illuminating light more brightly on a great film as though you’ve never seen it before.

And she was hired by the New Yorker just in time to welcome a whole new generation of American filmmakers for the Golden Age of American Film (which is different than the Golden Age of American Movies…). Before she arrived, she was a despairing freelancer who believed that American movies had grown so timid, so utterly generic that the entire magic of the movies was virtually lost. But by 1967, a generation of filmmakers were raised not only on classic Hollywood but also on the great European filmmakers - filmmakers like Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Jonathan Demme, David Lynch, she even loved Steven Spielberg for his early pictures.

Pauline Kael wanted to see movies which unapologetically asserted their dominance over the viewer, and unfortunately she had little patience with the idea that movies should do anything but constantly demand our attention. Any movie which took its time or put chaos on the screen was almost automatically written off.

She’d have hated most movies today. She retired in 1991, but she made it clear in later inverviews that she hated cows as sacred as Schindler’s List and American Beauty. But it’s difficult to believe she wouldn’t have loved living in this current television paradise of ours. She even said in a 1999 interview that she thought television was in much better shape and had very kind words for The Sopranos, The West Wing, and Sex and the City. So I wonder if I could play a little game and imagine her as a TV critic and muse on what she’d have thought of today’s TV shows. There seems to be no Pauline Kael equivalent in today’s television atmosphere (Nathan Rabin? Matt Zoller Seitz?). My guess is, she’d have been crying foul again and again when her favorite TV shows were on for too long. She’d have also bemoaned the immaturity of most comedies, saying that these were shows for perpetual adolescents (which, let’s face it, a lot of us Americans are). But I have to believe that TV dramas, their visceral impact, their commitment, their limitlessness, would have thrilled her.  


Arrested Development: She’d have loved everything about the first run from beginning to end. She’d have compared its unbelievably intricate anarchy to The Marx Brothers. But I think she’d have minded the unmistakable streak of cruelty that goes through it and finally compared it unfavorably to her favorite comedy team. Furthermore, I think the second run is one of a number of revivals about which she’d have cried bloody murder.

South Park: I doubt she’d have understood it or liked it much. I think she’d have appreciated the raunchiness, but I don’t know how she’d have taken the infantility of it. She may well have gushed about the early years when it was nothing but dick-and-fart jokes, even if she’d have found them puerile, but even if she did, she’d have hated the satire with the libertarian point of view and soured on South Park fairly quickly.

30 Rock: I think she’d have ultimately not liked it. She’d have appreciated the banter between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy (easily the best thing in the show anyway) but I think she’d have found the rest of the characters exactly as tiresome as they were. She’d have no regard for the autobiographical element to Tina Fey’s character, and she’d have found the feminist angle of it self-pitying.

Louie: I think she might have loved Louis CK’s standup. But I doubt she’d have had anything but contempt the show, which she’d find incredibly self-indulgent and masturbatory (not literally). She’d have said that nobody cares about the life of a comedian, and certainly nobody cares about the life of a comedian who insists on being so glum.

The Simpsons: Like the rest of the world, she’d have easily realized the brilliance of its early years. She might have compared its melancholy humor (rightly) to Mozart and Renoir. But if any critic could have gotten The Simpsons off the air for its own good, it was Pauline Kael. The diminishing returns of the second decade would have enraged her, and she’d have gotten ever more scathing toward the show as it sucked up more airtime. I don't doubt she'd have followed a similar trajectory toward Family Guy.

Community: She would have hated it like anything. The constant ironic parodies, the insistence on cleverness at the expense of humor, the shallow takes on deep philosophy, she would have blasted it from episode 1 and bemoaned the fact that its fans managed to keep it on the air.

Sex and the City: She loved romance and sexual honesty, she loved banter and subtle humor. I thin she’d have loved it from beginning to end. But then again, I’ve seen maybe three episodes. Maybe I’m wrong about it. One day I’ll force myself to sit down and see what the big deal is, but I’m still not sure I’ll understand it.

Seinfeld: I’m of two minds about what she’d have thought. On the one hand, I think she’d have loved the absurdity, the elegance, and the vitality. I think she’d have even been able to take the autobiographical element because it was worn so lightly. But I think she’d have bemoaned the insistence in so many comedies on immature attitudes, and I can’t imagine she wouldn’t have dated the embryo of that immaturity to Seinfeld - probably by way of Mel Brooks.

The Office: Who knows? She might have found Ricky Gervais a creep, but she might have also recognized the vitality in his work. I’m pretty sure she would have hated the British version, and found it both mean-spirited and boring. Though I can’t imagine she’d couldn’t have seen the hilarity in Extras and all those celebrity parodies. I do wonder if she’d have liked the American version better. I think she’d have appreciated the sweetness and dignity of these characters, not to mention the idiocy. I think she’d have marveled at the improvisation of all these performers and how such a diverse cast could could be so good so consistently. I also think she’d have found it all a little glum. Kael, for all her iconoclasm, was a voice of her generation, and would not have been fond of the ironic fatalism of modern America, which to her would get in the way of everything pleasurable (and it probably does…).


Note: I have never seen enough Deadwood, True Blood, Friday Night Lights, Dexter, or The Shield to make an opinion on them.

The Sopranos: Kael was on record loving The Sopranos’s first season and panning the second and third. But I think had she lived to its conclusion, I’m sure she’d have fallen back in love with it, perhaps to the point that she’d have seen a worthy successor to the gangster movies of the ‘70s which she so loved. I think she would have sympathized with those who made James Gandolfini into a sex symbol, and she would have thrilled to the show’s black humor, she’d have loved the heated exchanges between Tony and Carmela. Perhaps a critic like Kael is impossible today because it’s impossible to sustain the same visceral impact from TV episode to episode. But if it’s possible, then I guess she might have found in TV drama the next logical step from her favorite movies, and it would begin with The Sopranos.

Breaking Bad: I’m nearly as sure that she’d have loved Breaking Bad - the humor, the violence, the dream-like beauty of the landscape, the “chemistry” between Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn, the hallucinatory drug-like intensity of the show was perfect for her.

Game of Thrones: If there is any show I’m positive Kael would have loved, it’s Game of Thrones. Granted, Kael usually hated Costume Dramas, and who knows if this would be an exception. But I got the very idea of this post when the thought occurred to me: this is a Costume Drama even Pauline Kael could love. It has all the Kael ingredients: sex and violence, coolness and heat, dark comedy and light tragedy. She’d have adored Peter Dinklage and Diana Rigg, and I’d venture a guess that she’d have even loved the hammy-booby sex.  And while I’ve never seen a full episode of True Blood, I’m sure she’d feel much the same about it.

Mad Men: It pains me to say that I think Kael would have hated Mad Men. I think she’d have seen its slowness and meaningfulness as anaesthatized self-importance. She would have accused the show of recreating the details of the era with none of its frission. She’d have found Don Draper generic and boring, Betty Draper nauseating, and while she might have reserved a soft spot for Roger Sterling, I think she would have seen the archetypes of the show as constricting the characters utterly. She might have liked Mad Men’s understated humor, but I think she’d have found the space between the jokes as long-winded as the space between the action.

The Wire: I think Kael would have had mixed feelings. She’d have absolutely loathed the self-importance, the earnestness, the preachiness, the absence of women, etc... But I can’t imagine she wouldn’t have warmed to the macho humor, the bizarreness of the characters, and the general nightmare state of its Baltimore vision.

Lost: Oh god she would have hated Lost. The superficiality, the incomprehensibility, the emotional manipulativeness, the spiritual malaise of the characters… case closed.

The West Wing: I was stunned when I read an interview at the end of Kael’s life and she said that in her opinion, the best show on TV was The West Wing. I suppose I sort of understand it - Aaron Sorkin’s perhaps the only writer working today who can recall the barbed wit of Golden Age Hollywood, and his lines are spoken by a cast whose ability can rival any TV show’s in history. But how on earth could she deal with the treacle, the liberal pieties, the utter sense of emotional manipulation? It’s a judgement which seems so unlike her… God knows what she’d have made of Studio 60 or The Newsroom.

Downton Abbey: She’d have loved Maggie Smith. The rest of the show would have irritated her beyond belief - I can hear her in my mind calling it a soap opera for educated old ladies who got their Mrs degrees at Radcliffe and Barnard and retired into premature dowagerdom.

Great Lines from Kael:

“Regrettably, one of the surest signs of the Philistine is his reverence for the superior tastes of those who put him down.”

“The words "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," which I saw on an Italian movie poster, are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this.”

“Audiences who have been forced to wade through the thick middle-class padding of more expensively made movies to get to the action enjoy the nose-thumbing at "good taste" of cheap movies that stick to the raw materials. At some basic level they like the pictures to be cheaply done, they enjoy the crudeness; it’s a breather, a vacation from proper behavior and good taste and required responses. Patrons of burlesque applaud politely for the graceful erotic dancer but go wild for the lewd lummox who bangs her big hips around. That’s what they go to burlesque for.”

“Movies make hash of the schoolmarm’s approach of how well the artist fulfilled his intentions. Whatever the original intention of the writers and director, it is usually supplanted, as the production gets under way, by the intention to make money — and the industry judges the film by how well it fulfills that intention. But if you could see the "artist’s intentions" you’d probably wish you couldn’t anyway. Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose. This is, indeed, almost a defining characteristic of the hack director, as distinguished from an artist.”

“Men are now beginning their careers as directors by working on commercials — which, if one cares to speculate on it, may be almost a one-sentence résumé of the future of American motion pictures.”

“And for the greatest movie artists where there is a unity of technique and subject, one doesn’t need to talk about technique much because it has been subsumed in the art. One doesn’t want to talk about how Tolstoi got his effects but about the work itself. One doesn’t want to talk about how Jean Renoir does it; one wants to talk about what he has done. One can try to separate it all out, of course, distinguish form and content for purposes of analysis. But that is a secondary, analytic function, a scholarly function, and hardly needs to be done explicitly in criticism. Taking it apart is far less important than trying to see it whole. The critic shouldn’t need to tear a work apart to demonstrate that he knows how it was put together. The important thing is to convey what is new and beautiful in the work, not how it was made — which is more or less implicit.”

“Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.”

“Kicked in the ribs, the press says "art" when "ouch" would be more appropriate.”

“Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.”

“When you clean them up, when you make movies respectable, you kill them. The wellspring of their art, their greatness, is in not being respectable.”

“The critical task is necessarily comparative, and younger people do not truly know what is new.”

“If we make any kind of decent, useful life for ourselves we have less need to run from it to those diminishing pleasures of the movies. When we go to the movies we want something good, something sustained, we don’t want to settle for just a bit of something, because we have other things to do. If life at home is more interesting, why go to the movies? And the theatres frequented by true moviegoers — those perennial displaced persons in each city, the loners and the losers — depress us. Listening to them — and they are often more audible than the sound track — as they cheer the cons and jeer the cops, we may still share their disaffection, but it’s not enough to keep us interested in cops and robbers. A little nose-thumbing isn’t enough. If we’ve grown up at the movies we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, but we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery. Trash has given us an appetite for art.”

“At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don't have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact desensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. There seems to be an assumption that if you're offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don't believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there's anything conceivably damaging in these films — the freedom to analyze their implications. If we don't use this critical freedom, we are implicitly saying that no brutality is too much for us — that only squares and people who believe in censorship are concerned with brutality. Actually, those who believe in censorship are primarily concerned with sex, and they generally worry about violence only when it's eroticized. This means that practically no one raises the issue of the possible cumulative effects of movie brutality. Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it's worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what's in it. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?”

“TV executives think that the programs with the highest ratings are what TV viewers want, rather than what they settle for.”

“The conglomerate heads may be business geniuses, but as far as movies are concerned they have virgin instincts; ideas that are new to them and take them by storm may have failed grotesquely dozens of times. But they feel that they are creative people — how else could they have made so much money and be in a position to advise artists what to do? Who is to tell them no?”

“In movies, the balance between art and business has always been precarious, with business outweighing art, but the business was, at least, in the hands of businessmen who loved movies. As popular entertainment, movies need something of what the vulgarian moguls had — zest, a belief in their own instincts, a sentimental dedication to producing pictures that would make their country proud of their contribution, a respect for quality, and the biggest thing: a willingness to take chances. The cool managerial sharks don’t have that; neither do the academics. But the vulgarians also did more than their share of damage, and they’re gone forever anyway. They were part of a different America. They were, more often than not, men who paid only lip service to high ideals, while gouging everyone for profits. The big change in the country is reflected in the fact that people in the movie business no longer feel it necessary to talk about principles at all.”

“It would be very convincing to say that there’s no hope for movies — that audiences have been so corrupted by television and have become so jaded that all they want are noisy thrills and dumb jokes and images that move along in an undemanding way, so they can sit and react at the simplest motor level. And there’s plenty of evidence, such as the success of Alien. This was a haunted-house-with-gorilla picture set in outer space. It reached out, grabbed you, and squeezed your stomach; it was more gripping than entertaining, but a lot of people didn’t mind. They thought it was terrific, because at least they’d felt something: they’d been brutalized. It was like an entertainment contrived in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World by the Professor of Feelies in the College of Emotional Engineering.”

“Moviegoers like to believe that those they have made stars are great actors. People used to say that Gary Cooper was a fine actor — probably because when they looked in his face they were ready to give him their power of attorney.”

“If you can't make fun of bad movies on serious subjects, what's the point?”

“Moviemaking is so male-dominated now that they think they’re being pro-feminine when they have women punching each other out.”

“For some strange reason we don't go to charming, light movies anymore. People expect a movie to be heavy and turgid, like "American Beauty." We've become a heavy-handed society.”

“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and of civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”

“It seems likely that many of the young who don't wait for others to call them artists, but simply announce that they are, don't have the patience to make art.”

“This movie is a toupee made up to look like honest baldness.”

(about Dances with Wolves) “Kevin Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head. The Indians should have called him 'Plays with Camera.'”

“A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense. Sitting there alone or painfully alone because those with you do not react as you do, you know there must be others perhaps in this very theatre or in this city, surely in other theatres in other cities, now, in the past or future, who react as you do. And because movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have, these reactions can seem the most personal and, maybe the most important, imaginable. The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.”

“The problem with a popular art form is that those who want something more are in a hopeless minority compared with the millions who are always seeing it for the first time, or for the reassurance and gratification of seeing the conventions fulfilled again.”

“Watching old movies is like spending an evening with those people next door. They bore us, and we wouldn't go out of our way to see them; we drop in on them because they're so close. If it took some effort to see old movies, we might try to find out which were the good ones, and if people saw only the good ones maybe they would still respect old movies. As it is, people sit and watch movies that audiences walked out on thirty years ago. Like Lot's wife, we are tempted to take another look, attracted not by evil but by something that seems much more shameful — our own innocence.”

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

800 Words: A Rare Word in Praise of Ignorance

Homeless guy sees rich man on the street. He asks for some change.

The rich man says “Neither a borrower nor a lender be. - William Shakespeare”

The homeless man replies “Fuck you. - David Mamet”

William Shakespeare’s plays were written by William Shakespeare. Edmund DeVere didn’t write them, neither did Christopher Marlowe, neither did Francis Bacon, neither did Queen Elizabeth, neither did Elvis.

People like to allege that William Shakespeare, a middle class tradesman with barely a grammar school education, could not have written the Shakespeare plays, but the truth is that only a middle class tradesman with barely a grammar school education could have written them. No member of the ruling class would ever be let within any offstage proximity to a troop of tradesmen/players like those in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, nor would any nobleman but a rapscallion as great as Prince Hal have any cause to come within any distance of the vagabond posse of Sir John Falstaff's in Henry IV. Furthermore, an aristocrat would have been well-traveled enough to have better knowledge of geography than Shakespeare, in The Winter’s Tale a character states that Bohemia has a ‘coast-line’, and in two plays separated by twenty years he has characters sail from Milan.

But most importantly, Shakespeare’s frame of literary reference, while reasonably impressive, was clearly a bit limited by the standards of his day. Shakespeare, the world class plagiarizer who pilfered from so many earlier sources, would surely telegraph any scrap of material he read which left any impression on him. And clearly there are eminent writers of former generations who influenced certain works: Chaucer in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Trolius & Cressida, Montaigne in The Tempest, Plutarch in the plays about Classical Rome (Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar), Boccaccio in All’s Well that Ends Well, Plautus in The Comedy of Errors. Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus show that he might have read some Seneca and Cicero, and clearly there is no way he’d have written the sonnets without reading Petrarch. But where does Homer show up? Or Aeschylus? Or Sophocles? Or Herodotus? Or Plato and Aristotle? Or Livy? Or Virgil? Or Tacitus? Or Dante? Or Ariosto? Or Erasmus? Or Tasso? Or any other number of eminent writers which any educated aristocrat would be expected to read and quote liberally in Shakespeare’s time. Had Shakespeare read Homer, or Dante, or Sophocles, then surely there be a lot more evidence of his reading in the text. Wouldn’t there?

In any event, Shakespeare showed precisely what he thought of such extensive learning with Polonius, who demonstrates extremely well what an idiot a well-educated man can be. Meanwhile, Shakespeare is at great pains to show that his ‘fool’ characters are often the most sensible people in the show: the Fool in King Lear, Feste in Twelfth Night, the First Gravedigger in Hamlet. If such characters were main characters, there would be no play because they would lead lives too sensible to be remarkable. There are plenty of lower-class characters (far too many frankly) on which Shakespeare heaps contempt. But Shakespeare clearly has as much contempt for over-education as ignorance.

Perhaps if Shakespeare knew better the work of writers like Homer and Dante, they would have overpowered his imagination. No writer too familiar with truly extraordinary imaginations would ever be able to equal their imaginative flights unless he were conscious of trying to do outdo them. In the way that Wagner tried to outdo Beethoven, or Milton tried to outdo Shakespeare, or Caravaggio tried to outdo Michelangelo (or Dante tried to outdo Virgil), we see imaginative works which are almost fried by overstimulation. In order to surpass the genius whose shadow treads so heavily on them, every moment, every emotion, every expression of these ‘later geniuses’ has to be outsized to the point that its epic scale obliterates the influence of what came before. But there is little evidence of such gigantism in Shakespeare - the stakes are rarely ever apocalyptic. Even Macbeth and Iago never killed more than a handful. A sense of momentous tragedy is present in many Shakespearean plays, but rarely if ever does such tragedy obscure the human expression, and in no play does an impersonal sense of ‘world events’ obscure the human tragedy. Shakespeare created a language of human expression, a language upon which human beings chewed for half a millenium. But now that the world has moved past written language, perhaps the world has moved past Shakespeare as well.

For at least two centuries, Shakespeare has been the very center of humanist education. Contrary to popular belief, the list of books which must be read grew ever longer until quite recently. In former centuries, the ‘polymath’ or ‘universal man’ who seemingly achieves all the knowledge of the world was also expected to be a man of action. Aristotle counseled Alexander the Great, Leonardo was a military advisor to Cesare Borgia, Franklin and Jefferson were instrumental in forming the United States.  But by the early 1900’s, the list of ‘Great Books’ was so long that an ‘educated man’ could only be a man who devoted his entire life to his education. How could the world possibly add to the store of great learning in a world where no one who achieved universal knowledge could add to it? It is simply not feasible to make education the highest priority in a world with so much knowledge that no one can possibly accumulate it in one lifetime.

We all live in ignorance of a large majority of what the world has to offer, and as such, the world is a smaller place for us all than it is. In a world where a basic level of knowledge is a given, the world begins anew in deciding what to learn is worthwhile. The twentieth century began a process which we might as well call ‘The Great Relearning” (Tom Wolfe’s term), in which everything began with basics.

If any century before ours took so much pride in exhibiting the same level of ignorance in so many areas of endeavor, in the basics of math and science, of literacy, of the humanities and the arts, civilization itself would have collapsed and we’d still be travelling during the day by horse and wagon so we could huddle around the fire at night. But whether or not we want to ignore them, the achievements of past centuries are here to stay - we are so beset by history, so imprisoned by it, so utterly calcified by maintaining it, that we can’t possibly view it as anything but a burden. We live in a society so sophisticated that we dream of little but a primitive resurgence. None of us consider ourselves whole unless we find a way to go back into nature. We listen to simple primitive music with symmetrical beats and a thousand-word vocabulary on technology which goes from our computer to us via space and its the music we call ‘genius,’ we watch stories of the most basic outline on film that produces twenty-four photographs per second and it’s the films we call ‘brilliant,‘ we go camping and bring with us lights which generate their own energy and we think we’re returning to the primitive. The more sophisticated technology grows, the more we yearn for it to express something more primal. Does technology accomplish that primal emotion for us? Can it?

I don’t think we yet know, or can know, the answer to that question. Life’s rules have been completely rewritten. In the computer, mankind leaped arithmetically, and experienced the most revolutionary invention since the printing press. But in the Internet, mankind leaped exponentially, experiencing the most revolutionary invention since books themselves. Or perhaps the internet may prove still more influential, being the most important invention since the invention of writing. Or perhaps the internet is the most historic innovation in history since the invention of history itself. If human nature changes, it changes so gradually that we can’t possibly be aware of change in the span of a lifetime. But there is an enormous probability that life after the invention of the internet is so exponentially different that life after it will be as different as life was for agrarian societies after the invention of recorded information - with exponential improvements in quality of life simultaneous to exponential improvements in the capacity of destruction. Mankind has entered into a new era with undreamt of rewards and risks. No endeavor without risk is worth undertaking, but a risk is a risk because the endeavor runs the risk of failure.

In this brave new world, we are yet again children - adrift in a world we are only beginning to understand. It is in childhood that the learning curve is fastest, and the rules are rewritten which hopefully carry us into adulthood with a mature understanding of the world. In the meantime, there is still potential for disaster unseen. Steven Pinker may argue that the world is safer than ever before, but he doesn’t account for geological and ecological disaster, multi-drug resistant bacteria, loose nuclear and biological weapons, and finite natural resources. The world always seems to be safest right before undreamt of disaster, but it is unfortunately from such undreamt of disasters that the world learns its new lessons which make it safe again. The relative stability and prosperity of today’s world was forged from two world wars, a great depression, and a half-century cold war-by-proxy. The lessons of the Great Depression have staved off a depression which could have dwarfed it, the lessons of two world wars have thus far prevented a single nuclear weapon from being dropped on civilians ever since, and the lessons of the Cold War by proxy has thus far prevented more than half-a-dozen cold regional conflicts from turning hot. These lessons were learned at a terrible price, but the lessons learned have thus far prevented the worst mistakes from repeating themselves. Whether in the cultural lessons of Shakespeare, or the political lessons of Roosevelt, or the scientific lessons of Galileo, or the internet lessons of Al Gore, or a baby hitting his head on the floor after his first attempt to stand up, it is only by blindly groping around in ignorance that we gain any chance of doing better.  

...This was originally supposed to be a post about Breaking Bad….

Note: I of course forgot the Player King's speeches about Priam and Hecuba, which are taken liberally from Virgil's Aeneid. Even so, if Shakespeare were better acquainted with a work as monumental as The Aeneid, wouldn't we get a play about some stories from it? Or given his opinion of the Players in the 'Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I' speech, maybe he read Virgil and simply didn't like it. I don't blame him...

Friday, August 16, 2013

800 Words: The End of TV?

Breaking Bad: Season 4, Episode 11.

Just as so unforgettably happened to Christopher Moltisanti five years before, Walter White is faced with the end of his life and everything he loves. And like Christopher, he howls as his life-companion looks on with equal amounts of remorse, despair, dread, and bewilderment. But unlike Christopher, Walter White’s howl turns to insuppressible laughter, maniacal enough to be worthy of the Devil Himself. As Walt slithers around the crawl space underneath his house, he turns from man to demon. This change highlights the difference from The Sopranos, even if such a change cheapens the pathos of the scene, it cheapens at a very high level, and highlights exactly what makes Breaking Bad different from The Sopranos; individualizing the show at the same time that it cheapens. It may not be the most tragic possible effect, but it’s damn close. In this moment, we're not asked to see Walter as sympathetic, we're asked to see him as evil. This is the definitive moment when he crosses over from a good man who slouches toward evil to an evil man who occasionally rises to good. It is a laugh with so many different motives, so many ambiguous reasons, that it touches that level of sublime which gives lie to anyone who says that Breaking Bad is a mere thriller, or that TV is a mere idiot box. One could imagine a similarly maniacal laughter coming from the mouths of Don Giovanni, or Ivan Karamazov, or Edmund from King Lear. Hell, you could hear it from the mouth of Idi Amin.

I don’t think there’s a literary equivalent to The Sopranos. Maybe Tony and Carmela are equivalent to the Macbeths, but if they are, then Tony is the Scottish General if he couldn’t string two words together without sounding stupid. Perhaps it’s so hard to find a literary equivalent to The Sopranos because the show is completely without precedent. The Sopranos IS Dramatic Television and virtually all its possibilities incarnate: it virtually created the literature of the age, and it’s impossible, for me at least, not to judge every TV drama before and after it by the standard it set without the other shows found wanting. But Breaking Bad, like Mad Men, stands almost right beneath it, supporting everything which The Sopranos taught us about what’s possible in Great Art on television. I still think Mad Men is a better show than Breaking Bad, but that’s like saying that Tolstoy’s a better writer than Dostoevsky. I think there’s ample evidence to bear out such a claim, but it’s virtually impossible not to recognize the greatness in Dostoevsky, even if it’s surrounded by a profusion of inexplicable weaknesses. Mad Men bears an uncanny resemblance to War and Peace. The TV show presents, on an epic scale, the hollowness of an alleged Golden Age, and all the privileged people who live high off of it. Like War and Peace, Mad Men presents an epic panorama of a society, an era, a privileged class, and presents it all in the most intimate possible detail. But if Mad Men is War and Peace, then Breaking Bad is The Brothers Karamazov - possessing all the same fascination with crime and those who perpetrate it, all the same fascination with family dysfunction, and all the same fascination with unconscious and contradictory motives. Fyodor Karamazov returns to profane the sanctity of Father Zosima’s dwelling when he remembers how much he hated an acquaintance for who allowed Fyodor to play a trick on him, a motive not unlike the old cliche that the Germans never forgave the Jews for the Holocaust. In a similar manner, Walter White cannot cry at the potential annihilation of his family even as he desperately wants to save them, he can only laugh at it, as a psychopath would at the enjoyment of others' suffering.

I think a lot of people, Chuck Klosterman among them, would agree that in the last fifteen years, we have four shows in which define TV drama: Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire. Between them, perhaps we have the four Shakespearean tragedies for our time. Mad Men is our Hamlet, in which a prince surveys the rot around him of a kingdom decayed and decadent, and is paralyzed to change anything about his world by his own sense of malaise and futility. The Sopranos is our Macbeth, in which a war leader is stunned by the ease with which he can commit evil acts from which he knows there is no redemption. The Wire is our King Lear, in which a once great kingdom is populated by the effects of ruin. Breaking Bad is our Othello, with Walter White playing both the title character and Iago, in which a good man rationalizes committing the most evil acts and finds that in evil he has the capacity to impact the world beyond his wildest dreams. You could go even further into these Shakespearean comparisons with comic characters, what is Homer Simpson but the modern Falstaff? Is there much ground covered in the journey from Beatrice and Benedict to Sam and Diane? Is Kramer our Nick Bottom? Larry David our Malvolio? Tobias Funke our Viola?

It seems dumb, and incredibly pretentious, to compare TV to Shakespeare - a bit like comparing apples to helicopters. But consider, what else is there besides TV that unites my generation. Every cultural subgroup (or scene) of people has their own music, their own movies, and their own books (if they have books). It’s only through television that every subgroup of intelligent people find something about which they can always talk. Here’s a list of almost sixty shows which you can shout in a crowded room and be guaranteed to start a long debate:

Arrested Development
South Park
Malcolm in the Middle
30 Rock
The Simpsons
Sex and the City
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Family Guy
Modern Family
Married with Children
Parks and Recreation
How I Met Your Mother
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
The Office
The Office
New Girl
The Gilmore Girls
Big Bang Theory
The Daily Show
The Colbert Report
Late Night with Conan O’Brien
Late Show with David Letterman
Mr. Show
The Soup
The State
The League
Rescue Me
Twin Peaks
Buffy, the Vampire Slayer
True Blood
Mad Men
Six Feet Under
The Walking Dead
My So-Called Life
House of Cards
Doctor Who
Battlestar Galactica
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
Breaking Bad
The West Wing
Friday Night Lights
The X-Files
Star Trek: TNG/DS9
The West Wing
The Wire
Friday Night Lights
The Sopranos
The Shield
American Horror Story

And this list doesn’t even count non-fiction, documentary, news, or reality shows. You may not like many of these shows, but you’re guaranteed to get into arguments with someone who does. You may not have seen many of these shows, but you’re guaranteed to find someone around you who won’t stop pestering you about them until you watch. Try to name an equivalent number of movies or albums which can set conversations alight, and don’t even try with books. There is simply more to care about with television than there is with any other artform in America.

The reasons for this are all too simple: it’s easier to make great TV today than to make anything else. Each of the hundreds of channels on cable television needs to generate its own content, and when there’s such a surplus of production, there’s also a surfeit of quality control. When there are so many available options, there is no option for people who simply want to use television to maximize profits. Every station is competing for a better share of the world’s TV audience, and because they’re competing, they have to make shows that not only appeal to smart people, but appeal to smart people broadly. Most good bands, even the big ones, are lucky to ever get 100,000 people to buy an album. But television requires a larger fan base in order to stay financially viable for the company which produces it. Therefore, many many shows are being made with a single requirement, that they appeal to intelligence of all stripes. It’s not enough that TV appeal to people who like a specific genre, they have to appeal to lovers of many genres, or not be viable at all. Contemporary TV depends on a mid-size production of lots of quality shows, each of which has a decent bit of money (though not outsize) put on it so each might appeal to a different part of the demographic. Save the Super Bowl and The Oscars, there is no single television show in today’s world with enough viewers which can fund any number of other failures. Therefore, they must all be good.

But that is about to change. Netflix television is the most decisive development in the history of TV since cable TV itself. It was cable which moved TV into the immensely fertile ground of mid-size production - lots of good TV shows with a bit of money that draw in a few million people. But Netflix puts every piece of television in one place, so that your every television desire can be gratified instantly. On-Demand and DVR were steps in that direction, but of nowhere near the same impact. Netflix can not only let you watch anything you want when you want it, but it can also generate its own content. It would not surprise me if Cable TV had less than half as many channels in twenty-five years. Why watch a television station when Netflix lets you practically create your own? The end result is that more and more TV will be created to cater to the tastes of smaller and smaller groups. The result will be duller. You can’t make shows as great as The Simpsons or The Sopranos if you do not have your finger on the pulse of the whole country. If you’re completely divorced from the rest of the country, how can you make good shows about it?

But that’s not the worst of it. The worst is that when TV shows of such limited appeal stop making money, network television will become yet again a focus-tested moneymaking machine in which bottom-line profits are maximized. The end result will make Two-and-a-Half Men and Jersey Shore look like Citizen Kane (or Last Exit to Springfield … look it up...).

There can be no better harbinger of TV to come than the Arrested Development reunion. The show was always a little overrated - extremely clever, but by the time the show ended, the style of the jokes became rather predictable. When Arrested Development returned, the humor was still more predictable than before, like a caricature of a show that was already about caricatures. Even in its reunion form, Arrested Development is still decent show, but now the hype surrounding the show is even less justifiable. The new episodes were nothing more than a focus grouped version of the old episodes, in which Mitch Hurwitz basically made a season that gave fans exactly what they wanted rather than follow the personal vision which made his fans fall in love with the show. But listen to how the die-hard AD fans talk about their admiration for the new season. There was barely even a mention of whether or not it was funny. All they seemed to admire about it was the cleverness. Critics couched their praise in terms reserved for high art, and whether the work is high or low, if the work provokes admiration in you rather than love, it’s not that great to begin with. This is the kind of rot which sets in in all artistic climates which tells you that the best days are over. When people talk about what their brains admire rather than what sets their hearts aflutter, they’re not as excited as they claim. This is why some artforms die out while others are reborn. If you can’t get truly passionate about something, you’ll do what you can to avoid it. People may give lip-service to how much they like certain things (atonal classical music, postmodern art, fusion cuisine...) but in 99 cases out of 100, the priorities of their hearts thunder too loudly to convince others that they really love what they say they love.

It’s hard not to believe that the TV era is wrapping up. Just as TV got smarter when movies got dumber, something else will come along that replaces TV for people who want a challenge. We don’t yet know what it is or what form it will take, but I’m looking forward to finding out. Aren’t you?