Friday, April 30, 2010

I Thought You Were Dead

Today at Attic Salt: in addition to the end of Round Two of The Jane Austen Challenge (which I am failing), you can read my review of Pete Nelson's novel I Thought You Were Dead, about an alcoholic and his talking dog. The book is fiction of the "thinly veiled" variety and takes place almost entirely in my hometown, so I might have a few things to say about it.

I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson

Attic Salt: A Literary Blog

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Office: "Secretary's Day"

In "Secretary's Day", The Office offers up what is easily the best episode of its beleaguered sixth season so far. Here, not one but two recent additions to the ensemble come into their own in big ways. That Ellie Kemper's moppet receptionist Erin could hold an arc all her own is no shocker; what's surprising here is the emergence of Zach Woods' Sabre suit Gabe as a formidable antagonist and lightning bolt for mockery. For a show that's felt wayward for so long now, it's nice to see the new characters developing in ways interesting and funny but also thematically important. The catch is that, if this season has taught us anything, that lesson is to doubt that the creators have anything decent or lasting in mind for their new tricks.

It's easy to confuse the fact that Gabe is a zero with the fact of his role on the show in the first place being worth not much more. The entire Sabre arc is an unbearable misfire, the worst result of which has been the seeming departure of Dunder Mifflin CFO David Foster Wallace, replaced by a mugging Kathy Bates and a terrible cameo from Christian Slater.

But now, left behind to hold court in Scranton while his more-famous boss cavorts down in Tallahassee, Gabe's powerlessness is beginning to reveal itself as interesting.

The Office has always walked a fine line between shit-talking and misanthropy; for an ensemble as closely knit as this, the characters sure do all seem to hate each other. The show is at its worst when, for example, Michael veers away from sympathetic into the realm of the asshole (see this season's "Date Mike" incident). In general, what with all the tearing down of every co-worker in the office (Kelly is an idiot, Toby is pathetic, Kevin is fat, Oscar is gay, Meredith is ugly, Creed is crazy, Ryan is a narcissist, Dwight is a megalomaniac, Angela is a prude), the show succeeds when we believe in these sorry people's ability to co-exist despite their differences.

Dwight, more often than not, is too much of a buffoon to pose any real threat to the show's major protagonists1 (Jim, Michael, and to a lesser extent, Andy2). The show is relentlessly beholden to the status quo: one of the running gags of the series is that these characters are all so mired in their positions (professional, social) that any real threats will be nullified before too long. The Michael Scott Paper Company got bought out by Dunder Mifflin, Dunder Mifflin got bought out by Sabre, Ryan got arrested for defrauding the DM stockholders and somehow regained his low-man position at the Scranton branch.

Gabe is the newest antagonist, the personification of a completely lame corporation that swooped in to buy Dunder Mifflin solely to manipulate the already-in-place sales infrastructure. In "Secretary's Day", he ends up with his tail between his legs having suspended Jim and Pam only to learn he's not allowed to do that and inadvertently gave them an extra couple of vacation days. This results in Kevin using to him to regain the dignity he lost in the cold open by making a cruel impersonation of Gabe's stuttering managementspeak.

What this reveals is that Sabre will likely prove yet another false governor, and if Gabe is the person that the corporation has marooned to watch over the branch, it will likely result in the Scranton operation going completely off course. The scenario of the Dunder Mifflin Scranton wheels coming off at the impotence and apathy of their new owners would, one might hope, result in sublimely zany antics. And if Gabe is the dweeb frantically running around trying in vain to quell the uprising, I'll be happy to watch.

Already, with less concrete responsibility than they've had in a while, the Scranton workers are primed for some good drama (another thing that's been sorely lacking this season3).

At a business lunch enforced by Andy in his crusade to make this the best Secretary's Day ever, Michael lets it slip that Andy was previously engaged to Angela. This is a source for conflict I hadn't seen coming, and yet it makes perfect sense that Erin would lose her shit over this. She's a pillar of naive innocence; her line that "in the foster house, my hair was my room" might be the best single character moment of the season. Living with her 'brother' and coming off an undercooked will-they-won't-they arc, Erin is a perfect match for Andrew Bernard because of their equal immaturity. I don't think this has been explicitly stated, but it's easy to imagine that hers with Andy was Erin's very first kiss, period. This relationship is uncharted territory and for Andy to have been previously engaged suddenly makes him seem dangerously deceptive.

A criticism of The Office originated by my brother-in-arms A.A. Dowd4 is that it plays season-worthy stories to their completion in a matter of episodes if we're lucky and in a single episode if we're not, as in the role reversal earlier this year in "Manager and Salesman". If the show has any series-long arc at all, it's in Jim's slow transformation into Michael, which has been touched upon more than once but never so directly as it was there. But, by the end of the episode, they'd switched places again and restored an infuriating status quo that we'd managed to avoid through most of the season with Jim acting as co-manager. Continuing at this rate, it's likely that Erin's forgiveness of Andy is right around the corner, though at the very least "Secretary's Day" managed to end before this, making it the first episode in a while that's had me looking forward to what happens next.

Will we be allowed to watch this play out over a longer period of time? The only fresh element left in the show right now, Erin has fast become a favorite among steadfast Office fans. It's already been more than apparent that the writing team is willing to play into this, but "Secretary's Day" is her first true spotlight. And it's actually pretty daring of that same team to risk shifting audience sympathies onto her in this way, as Andy has been the series underdog ever since he got out of anger management.

And what of that stint in mandatory anger management? Until recently, I would never have thought The Office would be the kind of show to allow inconsistencies in its characters, and now I have to hold out hope that this will come back to haunt him. He has so often appeared to be a ticking time bomb; even as I root for Andy, I think that at some point he just has to blow. If there's no tragedy left for the boringly perfect Jim and Pam, perhaps we can mine some from Andy and Erin.

It occurs to me that in talking about the show I want The Office to be, I end up sounding like I'm rooting against the ensemble of characters I've grown to love over the past five years. But this is because that's the show it is. Pam's artistic ambitions have been left by the wayside, as have Jim's intimations of rock stardom or, more realistically, moving to Philadelphia to work for the Inquirer5. There was a time that the real 'win' for Jim and Pam was not each other so much as it was getting out of Scranton, and at this point, they've both issued abortive attempts at doing just that. Now with a house and a baby to their name, the only honest, satisfying ending to the series has to be a tragic one, at least for them - the tragedy, at least, will be working at Dunder Mifflin for the rest of their lives and raising a family. The Office owes it to us to reveal the muddy water running beneath their domestic bliss. If the life of Jim and Pam together is perfect, then that's boring, and I'm still watching because I maintain that they aren't perfectly happy. If, however, NBC runs the show into the ground with endless machinations to keep these oblivious jokesters recycled in their jobs, that would be the true tragedy for a show that was once so unflinchingly honest a portrait of the American workplace and the American condition.

1.) See the early third season classic "The Coup", in which Dwight goes behind Michael's back to Jan and makes a not-illegitimate claim that he could run the office better, only to have Jan immediately phone Michael and tell him to gain some control over his employees. The episode ends, as they so often do, with Dwight being put to shame and humiliation in front of a giddy audience of co-workers. [back]

2.) Of course, Dwight did play a more-or-less villainous role in his love triangle with Andy and Angela - but the boys' ultimate reconciliation in response to Angela's treachery only reaffirmed how soft of heart they each are. To be fair, Dwight should really be included on the Protagonist List - this is why his war with Jim is so interesting. [back]

3.) I don't want to knock on Jim and Pam - to this day, the novelty of seeing them happy together has not quite worn off. But we can do better than an accidental baby swap, right? Right? [back]

4.) Dowd's perfect series wrap-up, hypothesized during Pam's pregnancy: "Pam has a miscarriage, Jim and Pam get divorced, Pam goes back to Roy, Michael retires and Jim takes his job." If the writers were at all interested in being true to their show they would come up with something like this. [back]

5.) A beautiful irony that Jim's job security has always been so low because he works for a company that pledges "Endless Paper for a Paperless World" and yet his quiet dream was to be a newspaper man. Jim is old school. [back]

Friday, April 23, 2010


Prior to the feature, as the restless Chicago multiplex audience settled into their seats for Kick-Ass, we were treated to a preview for Edgar Wright’s forthcoming Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The very first shot in the trailer shows Michael Cera glancing awkwardly and lovingly across a crowded room at an impossibly beautiful girl. The world, according to my Kick-Ass audience, has turned on Michael Cera: the groan emitted at the sight of his face was one of boredom and fatigue. “Not another one!”

I found this a fascinating prologue to the experience of Kick-Ass, which (not just because of its explicit reference to the comic book series from which Scott Pilgrim has been adapted), might have been a slog for an audience sick-to-death of the Ceratype. I don’t know if anybody else made the connection; it was the kind of boisterous crowd that had me fearing a sea of cell phones during the movie, but we all ended up engrossed. I’ll be damned if there isn’t an awful lot going on in this thing.


Our hero, Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Johnson, presumably because Cera was unavailable due the Pilgrim production) is cut from the same troubled cloth as Nick Twisp, Paulie Bleeker and the imitable George Michael Bluth. In want of either a raison d’etre or his own impossible hottie (ideally both – perhaps they might overlap?), Dave dons a superhero costume bought off the internet and sets out to make the world a better place in the assumed persona of “Kick-Ass”, the real live superhero.

Dave’s journey is only one of several intertwining storylines: there are four other principal leads. Christopher Mintz-Plasse makes a mediocre return as Chris D’Amico, who will become a faux-superhero all his own in the guise of "Red Mist". His father, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong, making a far better impression here than he did in Sherlock Holmes), is the big boss coke-lord who rules the city.

At first related only indirectly to Dave/Kick-Ass are "Big Daddy" and "Hit Girl", a father-daughter superhero team bent on avenging wrongs done to them in the past by D’Amico. Hit Girl is only seven years old but she curses and kills with the best of them – her father has been raising her with only superheroism in mind. As a novelty, I find her somewhat tiresome. I’ve heard the word “cunt” before and I’ve heard precocious kids swear before; if I’ve never heard a seven-year-old girl say “cunt”, it almost feels like I have.

However, as with much of the film, the novelty isn’t the point, despite what the desperate trailers might've lead us to believe. Barely a comedy and only sporadically an action film, the premise of Kick-Ass is a double-edged sword: the superhero mythos has been dissected and poked to death in the mainstream all to often in the recent past, as have vulgar children, horny male adolescence and daddy issues. The movie lives and dies not by the trenchancy of its ideas but by how gleefully and earnestly it executes them.


Remember how in The Dark Knight all those Batman impersonators keep trying to do their part and end up with their asses handed to them? For much of Kick-Ass’ running time, the film feels like that same story told from the wannabe’s perspective. In the twist on a familiar genre trope, this recalls something like The Baxter or one of Gregory Maguire’s gimmicks. Immediately upon his conception, Kick-Ass becomes embroiled in the actual superhero vs. supervillain plot between Big Daddy and Frank D’Amico.

Unfortunately, this seems to destabilize the film’s founding notion that a skinny adolescent twerp with glasses can alone change the world if he just puts his mind to it. Right up to the end we are being told that Dave has inspired a world full of superheroes, but he wasn't the first and he wasn't even the best. He was just the first to be so clumsy as to end up on YouTube.

In one of several examples of the film negating its own premises, after a first-act discussion of the implausibility of superhumanity due to [one] superpowers being fictional and [two] Bruce Wayne, the mortal exception to the rule, having a lot of expensive gadgets that don’t exist, the characters proceed to equip themselves with [one] ‘plausible’ superpowers and [two] ridiculous gadgetry. And for all the talk of changing the world and inspiring heroism in the everyman, the story of Kick-Ass sure is contained to the small-potatoes drama of one drug lord and one framed cop bent on revenge.

The real pathos of the story belongs to Big Daddy and his daughter, who he has raised to be a fighting machine. He lives to avenge the death of Hit Girl's mother, for which he holds D'Amico responsible (see, it doesn't even really have anything to do with the drugs). That Nicolas Cage’s masked vigilante is a clone of Tim Burton’s Batman must be read as a subliminal 'fuck you' to the producers that failed to let him play Superman for Burton himself all those years ago. When Big Daddy kicks ass for vengeance, it’s a searing testament to what could’ve been, and one of the great thrills of the film is watching Nicolas Cage chew it up in this role. And impressively, Chloë Grace Moretz, as Hit Girl, is more likely to stumble over a naughty word than she is to let Nic Cage upstage her.

That both Kick-Ass and Hit Girl have lost their mothers is never something that comes up between the two of them; this pain is reserved for Hit Girl and Big Daddy. Their family is broken, and living in a cold steel apartment wallpapered with weaponry, waging war is all they know. Their story doesn't have anything to with Kick-Ass until he stumbles into it, and in fact their plans would likely have gone off a lot smoother without our hero's interference.


...which is why Dave/Kick-Ass is such a weird choice for main protagonist given the story that this is. I'm not sure it's the story director Matthew Vaughn quite intended to tell. Vaughn is a great populist filmmaker - his Stardust is one of the underrated, underseen gems of the aughts. But you can feel this story slipping out of his grasp.

It comes down to the stakes: in order to successfully follow the wannabe superhero riding the coattails of the real deal into battle, we must establish specifically why it is that the wannabe is acting so foolish. And returning to the cliché of the double-edged sword, Dave/Kick-Ass becomes too realistically drawn a character with too much going on for me to buy the crazy shit that happens to him in the third act. This is a kid who, in his opening monologue, informs us that his mother recently died and then denies that the film will be about that (which means it has to be, right?). He establishes a connection with a sexy girl (more on this later) and gets a huge self-confidence boost, rendering his heroic alter-ego moot.

But most of all, this is a kid so determined to ignore his own life (and maybe that's the key, right there) that, after coming this close to being dead the first time he tries the superhero act, he decides he's stronger than ever and heads out for more. Dave's initial criminal encounter as Kick-Ass is a hugely successful scene that sets up the danger he's putting himself in, but the film forgets this for the sake of cartoon theatrics and antic set pieces.

But despite its inconsistencies, one theme the film consistently nails is Dave's (or every character's) desire to improve himself through hard-work and determination and actually make himself the person he always wanted to be. Johnson does admirable, nuanced work – when, in his first outing as Kick-Ass that doesn't put him in the hospital, he spits at a gang of thugs that yes, he’d rather die than live in a world where three guys beat up one perfect stranger, he very nearly had me – but his struggle for validation almost seems to mirror the film's. Is dressing up as a superhero any less desperate an act than cuing up Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" to score the scene where the seven-year-old kills thirty henchmen?


One facet of the film that we can't ignore is the relationship between Dave and the object of his affections, Katie. Katie is played by the suddenly-ubiquitous Lyndsy Fonseca, who holds her own in a one-note role both here and in Hot Tub Time Machine; a month ago she was just the daughter on the couch in the beginning of every other episode of How I Met Your Mother. Katie is cute but she’s kind of dumb – an easy love interest, but with a guy like Dave I have to wonder what he continues to see in her after their consummation.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: obviously, Katie is too hot to pay attention to Dave at the beginning of the film. What eventually gets him in the door is Katie’s mistaken supposition that Dave is gay, a role he happily plays if it means he gets to rub tanning lotion on a topless, braless, pantsless Katie.

It's not even the shock and nervous laughter that I have a problem with here (though I could easily call homophobia on my audience if I had the energy); the problem is that Dave putting his hands on Katie under the knowing guise of this fallacy – even if it’s her own dumb fault – is invasive and even a little rapey. Again, the film purports to take place in the real world; what would the real-world reaction be to a teenage male lying and deceiving his way into the bedroom of an unsuspecting, almost-naked girl? And to make matters worse, when Dave finally reveals to Katie both of his secrets (having snuck in her window and scared the bejesus out of her, no less), her shock at his deceit immediately ebbs and she allows Dave into her arms and, explicitly, into her something else.

Which is all well and good for Kick-Ass, whose alter-ego now has something to live for (fucking: it’s always the answer!). Later on, in the midst of a violent situation from which he could easily get killed, Dave muses that he doesn’t want to die because he wants to see what happens on Lost: this got a good laugh out of me, but there we go again. If Lost is all you need to live for, why should I care about your dead mother, your hot girlfriend, your lonesome father or any of your other existential crises with which this film builds it nest? Either Dave is too snarky for Kick-Ass’ ultimate good or the other way around: it’s a lot of really meaty character development stuck between wonder bread.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Aliens (1986) & Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

This post covers the theatrical cut of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the "Special Edition" of Aliens, as those are the respective versions I find most worthy of discussion. If you want to know more about that, there will soon be an essay on the phenomenon of the "Director's Cut" as marketing ploy.

Severe spoiler warning, by the way; I'm also assuming a passing familiarity with both films. If that doesn't apply, I'd like to suggest you go watch them, as they are both undisputed classics of the genre.

One of the central conflicts in applying the auteurist theory to Cameron's work is the fact that he's devolved into a pretty terrible writer. His structure and plotting are arguably better than ever (how many directors can sell two consecutive three-hour films to such massive audiences?), but the bare bones of character development now leave a lot to be desired. It's difficult to defend a lot of the dialogue in both Titanic and Avatar (though I think there are some diamonds in both roughs). How is it that the man who came up with "I see you" as a catchphrase is also responsible for two of cinema's most indelible mothers?

Almost any cinephile will tell you Cameron's two best films are his two sequels. Though Cameron was (partially) responsible for the genesis of Terminator's plot, both Terminator 2 and Aliens represent great leaps and bounds simply in the way they treat their predecessors as stepping stones en route to wild, unforeseen adventure and philosophy. From Ripley's condemnation of humanity in the midst of an alien attack ("I don't know which race is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.") to the Vietnam-era fallibility of the military machine and from the bonding of a fatherless child with an evil machine to the temporal loopholes through which humanity is given a second chance by the consequence of its own failure, both of these films take our assumptions from their horror gimmick routes and blow them out of the sky.

At the center of all this is a pair of moms.

Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor are as realistically layered as action heroes get. A large part of what makes Aliens and Terminator 2 work as well as they do is the duality of their heroines' motivation. Both women are juggling two sets of high stakes: the future of humanity and the maternal instinct.

For the first half of T2, Sarah Connor is more concerned with protecting her son John than with the forthcoming rise of the machines (and given the quality of that sequel, who can blame her?). The film then takes a mid-point shift along the lines of Full Metal Jacket and WALL•E, wherein the central family unit (Sarah, John and the T-800) has effectively reached safety and might as well call it a day. If we borrow any logic from the first film (and we really shouldn't, but here I go anyway), as long as the T-1000's target doesn't do something stupid like call his grandmother in Big Bear and give her his exact address, they really don't have to worry about getting found and terminated.

But Sarah stumbles upon a secondary (or rather, successive) goal. She's saved her son from the T-1000 and now takes on a duty to save humanity by killing Miles Dyson. Not only does Sarah's frying-pan-into-fire quest to destroy Cyberdyne mirror John's selfless and risky obligation to save his mother from the Pescadero Mental Hospital, it mirrors SkyNet's retroactive abortion plot for world domination. She plays her enemy at its own game, going after its unknowing and innocent creator1.

When she gets there, John and the T-800 are right behind, but they don't arrive in time to stop her. What saves Miles Dyson's life is his young son standing over his wounded, prone figure shouting "Don't hurt my daddy!". The child's plea for his father's life causes Sarah to collapse in tears, ashamed of her intentions, whereupon her son and his cyborg run in to explain everything and convince Dyson to join them in their third act scheme (this works out pretty well, considering that merely killing Dyson would have done little to slow Cyberdyne's development of the SkyNet technology).

These reversals all hinge around a basic righteousness and this is crucial to the T-800's arc. Mother to son, mother to surrogate father and son to the same, Terminator 2 is all about the lessons we (might choose to) learn from those closest to us. This machine actually serves as an important predecessor to WALL•E; his role as surrogate father is based on his ability to "understand" humanity. It's John who takes it upon himself to teach the T-800 basic human gestures and colloquialisms, triggering the machine's "curiosity" in doing so. John asks the T-800 if he can feel pain; the T-800 asks a tearful John what's wrong with eyes. The T-800 describes his internal damage readout as something that might be analogous to what we call 'pain'; ultimately he sacrifices himself to save human civilization. His final line is the endpoint of this relationship: "I know now why you cry. But it is something I can never do." Damn. I know why I'm crying, too, Lugnuts.

WALL•E and the T-800 also have something in common with Aliens' Bishop. It's a trope familiar in a lot of stories about sentient machines: the drive to become more human and (like humans) more like the 'creator'. Bishop's role in the plot of the sequel operates in great measure as a response to the technophobia-inducing Ash from Alien, who in service to his programming facilitated the murders of everyone on board the Nostromo (except Ripley and Jones, of course). Ash essentially uses the alien in exactly the way the company wants: as a weapon. Alien and The Terminator both introduce us to fearsome machines that in their sequels we must learn to trust.

Forming this trust in Aliens is obviously not going to be easy for Ripley, and Cameron manages to mine suspense from this long after we've built a tenuous trust for the machine, who sympathetically prefers "artificial human" to "synthetic". In the finale, Ripley emerges from the freight elevator with Newt in tow and believes Bishop to have taken off without them, leaving the newly minted mother-daughter unit to die in the reactor explosion. It's only after this last misunderstanding (Bishop picks them up in midair, having lifted off to stay the collapsing deck) that Ripley finally shakes Bishop's hand and tells him he did good. "Really?" he replies, childlike in his need for validation (too bad he's about to get torn in half).

Cameron's choice to bond Bishop to Ripley, that most maternal of ass-kickers (second only to the alien queen, maybe) is a clever detail in the story. It's Ripley's maternity that fuels the pathos of the film; she's got a vengeful streak that blows Sarah Connor's duty to humanity out of the water. What I love about the finale in Aliens is that, after finding surrogate daughter Newt and saving her from the catacomb, Ripley continues deeper into the aliens' hive to firebomb all the eggs - minutes before the whole factory is going up in smoke anyway.

You could choose to think of this as a lapse in logic, but I think it underscores a base desire of Ripley's that will be echoed in Sarah Connor's second-act reversal. Ripley's idea of winning isn't merely staying alive - she could've done that by staying at home and working the loading docks. Ripley has to kill the aliens herself. She wants to destroy the Queen's eggs and tear apart the Queen's womb, and she wants to make the bitch watch while it happens. This is about vengeance, because it was this alien infestation that directly deprived Ripley of a life with her own daughter.

It goes beyond human versus alien. It's mother versus mother.

Of course, for two films that are so easily enduring, so rich in mythology and pathos, T2 and Aliens are also Cameron's two films that were built directly upon a popular established source2. Standing as they do on the shoulders of Ridley Scott, Dan O'Bannon and Harlan Ellison3, I wonder if maybe Cameron's later problems can be boiled down to a foolish reliance on his own mind to conjure a layered character. Does Cameron the screenwriter perform his job best when filling in the gaps of a borrowed framework? It's worth considering if you want to plot the evolution of the action movie: not only are Aliens and Terminator 2 two movies that owe direct, specific debts to prequels and predecessors (and succeed partially in feeding off our expectations from the same), they are also in turn two of the most influential, iconic pictures in the genre. What will time do for Avatar?

1.) Interestingly, this also recalls the NTIs' tidal wave gambit in the extended edition of The Abyss: an ostensibly "good" entity defeats its "evil" enemy by sinking to that enemy's level. [back]

2.) There are exceptions here: Piranha II, which doesn't count (more on that later), and True Lies, which is based on a French film called La totale!. If anybody anywhere can get me a copy of that movie, I'll give you twenty dollars cash. [back]

3.) The Terminator was so clearly ripped off from two works by Harlan Ellison that a lawsuit led to every copy of the film ending with a title card acknowledgment. [back]

Friday, April 2, 2010

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Today at Attic Salt: A Literary Blog, you can read my thoughts on the new Young Adult novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson, co-authored by YA juggernauts John Green and David Levithan. If you're at all interested in how people still manage to make connections despite the blogs, tweets, iPods and earbuds that stand between us, the book is essential. Read on!

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Attic Salt: A Literary Blog