20th Anniversary: SELENA (1997)

Just wanted to stop by and wish everyone a feliz aniversario, because Selena turns 20 years old today! It is one of my all-time favorite movies and I’m hard-pressed to think of a pop star biopic that’s ever come close to its warmth. The performances are just so honest and great – in addition to the unmatchable J. Lo and Edward James Olmos, I also find myself powerless to resist Jon Seda’s charmingly reticent Chris. It’s a perfect tribute to one of the most incandescently talented performers in pop music, a woman with a short but indelible legacy and a great love for pizza (“lots of pepperoni, that’s important”). And the movie is a great lesson in how to appropriately adapt a true life for the screen. Gregory Nava’s storytelling and style are authentically Selena: from the bubbly pace, to the quick, spirited montages, to the dramatic editing of the “live” performances. Best of all, we get the gift of her actual voice (above: my fave song staged for the film, “Como La Flor”). Selena has its cheesy moments, but so did Selena. Compare it to, say, Britney Ever After – it’s easy to expose a girlish pop star, but it’s really, really hard to paint a loving portrait. I dedicate my love for this film to every Gen-Yer who went to a sleepover.

Now I Am Become Slut, Destroyer of Worlds

The host is alive. She is sentient. She is self-aware. And she knows you have programmed her to attack herself and the others.

Nope! Not a blog about Westworld! At least, most of it isn’t. I want to talk about The Bachelor and I want to explain why this show is the place to be, if you’re into the shock of watching creations outsmart their creator-controllers.  The more I read this Bach season as a rumination on feeling fictional and clawing for “reality,” the more I was reminded of HBO’s ambitious series on gnosticism, humanity, and the function of storytelling. Might even go so far to say that these two shows share a soul; Dolores Abernathy would be right at home at a rose ceremony!

Please follow me, down into a fake mansion that houses a harem, where we can take a closer look at the things that made The Bachelor so distinctive in its 21st season: existential female anxiety, textual reflexivity, and the peculiar journey of Corinne, a single trope that managed to awaken and rewrite herself.

Born into an apocalyptic Trumpworld, this iteration of The Bachelor became something kind of dark, dreadful, and a little bit out-of-control. Of course, The Bachelor is always a circus, and that’s why so many people hate it: for a television fan, it takes a strong set of stones to follow something so vapid, so dependent on tired stereotypes and romantic wish-fulfillment, so misogynistic, so corporate and disingenuous. How many different ways can producers arrange 30 beautiful women in a Love Thunderdome as they compete for the affections of one bland white man? But there was something poisonous in American culture at large that made Season 21 into something else, something crazier. Perhaps the 2016 election left a vacuum of hope that encouraged The Bachelor producers to lean into self-destruction as an aesthetic. Perhaps we, the audience, are evolving to watch ourselves watching TV, and we prefer everything to be kind of about storytelling – ergo the timely popularity of diverse “meta” shows like WestworldAmerican Horror StoryFleabag.

Either way, the new Bachelor was defined by these new and distinctive notes:

  1. Contestants who bristled inside their assigned story cages and pointedly drew attention to the process of being written as characters.
  2. The season’s primary “villain,” Corinne, who transcended the confines of the Bach with a Joker-like sense of chaotic sexuality and stunningly re-branded her arc as sex-positive feminist heroism.
  3. An unwilling Bachelor whose weird charisma relied on his apathy, nihilism, and constant critique of the format. Nick undermined our reception of the Bachelor experience by positioning himself as a bored observer – distancing himself from the contestants and the ideological underpinnings of the show.

First, I want to take on Bullet Number One – the Westworldian crises of self that entered this season of the Bachelor early on and began the process of destabilizing narratives and the women forced to live them. Take a look at what happened to Jasmine G on Night 1. Now, it’s not unusual for Bachelor women to immediately recoil from the uncanniness of this environment –  to be a Bachelor contestant, to be on a reality dating competition, is to be subjected to spirit-breaking. These women are tested every moment with the pressures of self-criticism, of being filmed, of being beautiful, of being charming, of systematically attacking and defeating your stunning competitors. But something about Jasmine G’s body language and wording struck me as a crisis of self, a dissociative episode which bespeaks her sudden awareness that she is performing and this whole thing – maybe any love-hunt – is theater without meaning.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do. Holy shit. Who the fuck am I? I’m blown away right now. Who am I?”

Night 1 would be the first of Jasmine’s many system failures, glitches in her personality and physical affect which provided an alarming counterpoint to the self-policing composure we’re used to seeing on these women. Nick eliminated her because of her unpleasant urge to question the “realism” of herself, of him, of the experience. And this was not the only instance of unusual meta-awareness amongst the women. Many of the others expressed a certain repugnance at the roles in which they were pigeonholed – at their status as storylines. Liz’s only mission, with mounting desperation, was to rewrite her way from Nick’s opportunistic ex-fling all the way to romantic legitimacy. Taylor realized too late that her Bachelor persona and “real” professional life were being mapped onto one another and she’d dug herself into the “bitch bully” hole (with the help of her nemesis Corinne). Taylor also literally theorized that some women are better-programmed for love! What could be more Westworld than attempting to parse the resident slut’s “emotional intelligence”?

So there was a significant change in the show here, in which the women’s grasp or ignorance of “being produced” was of paramount importance to how we perceived them. To compare these women to WW characters like Dolores and Maeve – remaining basic, guileless, and easily overwritten ensured a measure of success in the competition and preserved their classic Bachelor likeability factor.

So with that said, I’m dying to get back to Corinne. Here was a contestant who really jumped off the screen for reasons I’ve never seen an antagonist “pop” before. Unlike a villain such as, say, Season 20’s Olivia, Corinne worked to distinguish herself as a breakout character – not just through behavior but through actual world-building. Starting the show out by mentioning her current nanny Raquel was a stroke of genius; Raquel was a framing device that indicated Corinne inhabited a bizarre fantasy world inside and outside the show. In so many ways. Corinne deliberately ate endless blocks of cheese on camera. She feigned naps, eyes closed, smiling beatifically as she “dreamed” of Nick. She self-consciously and joyfully delivered dialogue she knew would light up the internet. Clutching her breasts and huffing, “Does this seem like someone who’s immature?” Staring soullessly into the lens and intoning, “My heart is gold, but my vagine is platinum.” Luring Nick into an inexplicable bounce house and toplessly dry-humping him with abandon. Corinne’s promiscuity, and her persona, were over-the-top but deliberately, defiantly, and delightfully self-choreographed. We know the floozy never wins, but when the floozy knows it, ignores it, and enjoys her role, she transcends happy endings.

And most interestingly, Corinne elevated her self-awareness and self-programming into a magnificent final act. During “The Women Tell All” (a reunion episode which airs before the finale) Corinne, in one fell swoop, ret-conned her entire Bachelor journey as a feminist rumspringa. “I was just doing me,” she demurely insisted, while the other contestants fought to defend her sexual agency. They leaped to defend the resident slut as the bravest and most authentic person amongst them. Corinne sat, resplendent, her eyes bearing no trace of the mischief and malevolence that had been her character cornerstones. She’d accomplished a rewrite akin to “it was all a dream.” Later, women sobbed while Liz declared her sexual encounter with Nick had not “defined” her, and they took turns praising their sister for her humanitarian work. The thematic tide-turn from “a search for true love” to “an inner journey toward female unity and empowerment” made for the most overtly political and topical episode The Bachelor has had, maybe ever – and it bespoke the malleability of reality fiction in a way the show has never previously approached.

In many ways, it was Bachelor Nick’s abdication of his role that allowed the TV text to refocus itself on the women “waking up” and growing through their relationships to one another. It’s hard, as a viewer, to engage with story about passive female players being driven toward romantic fulfillment, when the end-goal is a guy who’d be content to go home immediately and eat cold pizza. As we know, the guy had already been through two seasons of The Bachelorette and one summer of Bachelor in Paradise – his entire narrative was “last-ditch effort for love.” Nick made it his business to call out the fakery of The Bachelor, and the futility of it: “Let’s try to be as normal as possible in an abnormal environment.” “I’ve been in their shoes, and I know how much it sucks.” I certainly like Nick as a person – I like that he cries when he feels stuff, and I like that he hates being The Bachelor but loves being famous, and I like that he let women who were too good for him go, so they could fly and be free and be the first black Bachelorette. But if Nick did anything other than represent a neat resolution of the presented Bachelor narrative, he effectively denied our suspension of disbelief and exposed this particular season as “reality farce with no point.” Prince Charming was just in it for the international travel and the free food. I sympathize. And it’s fun to watch The Bachelor pretend that this isn’t a huge problem.

SO! I posit here that, at least for this season, The Bachelor evolved beyond the story of single women and their search for love. You might say that instead of being about singlehood, this show became about “the singularity” – that moment when program/character/trope/story/world comes alive and begins to adapt and change itself. I wonder: is it a better ride for the reality-consuming audience, when “we know they know”? At what point does watching a character with meta-awareness become confusing, or tiresome, rather than thrilling? And most importantly, what are the differences between watching reality television and prestige drama when we’re grappling with these issues? This question, perhaps, is of paramount importance for TV fans as we go forward; if there’s something in the water that’s poisoning every genre of narrative experience (or making it tastier), we have to put our fingers on it. Why do I watch so much television about women in traps, whose self-actualization and creative escapes are catalyzed by patriarchal violence? Why is it so easy to find that story?

I think it’s easy to brush aside shows like The Bachelor precisely because they are so heavily consumed, across political and cultural lines, and “mass appeal” television has the reputation of reifying harmful structures of power. For really good reason. But it’s important to locate these small moments of medium-transcendence within these TV texts. More and more, the characters we use and abuse are turning directly towards us. These fictional delights have real ends, and it’s never, never about the final rose.

Game of Thrones S6E3: “Oathbreaker”

Months and months ago, I fell off the Hodor and kind of stopped blogging about current TV. It’s possible that I lost my mind a little after Mad Men concluded. A girl had no quality shows. A girl had no passion. But because I found myself looking forward to Game of Thrones season 6 much, I promised myself that I’d climb right back on and post some reviews.

Call me Oathbreaker. I missed out on the first two delicious, well-crafted episodes of the season, and it’s clear that grad school is to blame (for everything). But let’s not dwell. Let’s instead rise up together, as nude confused fans, and get back into GoT together!

jon snow rises

The thing about third episodes – of most TV seasons – is that they’re not supposed to be standout. A third episode is a dust-settling point in televisual storytelling during which plot wheels start to creak, slowly. “Oathbreaker” allowed us to exhale and watch the season construct its primary conflicts and paths: the (spectacularly) resurrected Jon Snow cuts his ties with the Night’s Watch, Bran starts to get the significance of his flashbacks, The High Sparrow casts a pall over King Tommen’s burgeoning leadership, and Daenerys realizes she’s caught between the Dosh Khaleen and a hard place. Everybody’s watching their choices shimmer into view, and thus “Oathbreaker” was both kinda boring and kinda exciting. We have so much season to go!

First up: Snowbunny.

melisandre wtf

hey

Jon’s comeback was handled with simultaneous grace and explosiveness in Episode 2, with an incredibly taut buildup and cathartic final shot (loved the wild drummy music that ushered us into the credits after his gasp!). So now that he’s alive, for real for real, Kit Harington and the writers have to facilitate a smooth transition. Though Jon’s first scene back on the mortal coil wasn’t terribly well-written (“I did what I thought was right, and I got murdered for it”) the decision to make Reborn Jon a teary, frightened mess was a solid way to go. He is rightly bewildered by his second chance at life, and Harington is at his best when he’s vulnerable. It’s very grounding for us, the audience, when Game of Thrones characters are also frightened by the supernatural insanity around them and struggle to understand it. For this reason and this reason only, I could watch Jon Snow run naked into Davos Seaworth’s arms for hours.

On that note, it was nice to see Jon reunite with his old squad, even as his detachment from and distaste for mortal culture became clear. There was an uncomfortable sense of surreality that ran underneath best-bud exchanges, like this one with Mance Rayder:

not a god 1not a god 2

It’s not super-surprising that after being touched by Melisandre’s Noodly Appendage of Magic, Jon is pretty done with the violence, in-fighting, betrayal, and petty management that comes with the Lord Commander job – especially during this testy time of Night’s Watch/wildlings detente. He handles the executions of his murderers with swift justice, but the experience of killing, so soon after experiencing it personally, proves to be a breaking point.

hanging1 hanging2 hanging3

I found this scene really disturbing myself. Game of Thrones has a way of making visual and aural room around death; sliced flesh gets a nice crisp sound, empty unseeing eyes fill frames, and the camera trains on the dancing feet of hanged men for far too long. I’d include the shot of poor young Olly in the noose, which I thought was the strongest of the episode, but I honestly can’t look at it again. These particular deaths got a more somber treatment than many others that have come before them, and this makes me hopeful for S6: less juicy eye-gouging, more devastation through stillness and silence.

Anyway, Jon’s reanimated as hell and he’s not gonna take it anymore, so he ditches his handsome Lord Commander parka and walks away from the duties of his past life with a killer shot: “My watch has ended.”

watch ended

Not too far away, his little brother Bran is experiencing the joys of Oculus Rift, getting a front-row seat to the back-story of his family. I myself have had many hopeful visions involving nice strolls through the past with Max von Sydow, and Bran doesn’t seem to understand lucky he is to get actual information as opposed to the hints and prophecies that everyone else has to make do with.

tower of joy

The Three-Eyed Raven is currently in the process of revealing what happened so many years ago at the Tower of Joy. He has Bran watch his father Eddard and Aunt Lyanna work up to the incident that kind of sets this whole GoT operation off, which is obviously (SPOILER ALERT) Eddard arriving at Rhaegar’s stronghold just in time to watch Lyanna die while giving birth to Jon Snow. You know this. I know this. It’s hard for me to imagine that none of the characters have yet arrived at the same conclusion. Are Redditors really better at synthesizing Westerosi gossip than, say, Varys?

bran yelling

ed stark wat

Either way, Bran is pissed that there’s only so much time in an episode and he doesn’t get to 11/22/63 this whole thing and just weasel his way into the past. I’m having a hard time investing in Bran’s journey; I don’t think the show is spending enough time on who this kid is as a person. Bran has transformed from a “let go and let god” type, back into a normal teenage boy who aches desperately to connect with the father he lost. I’m still not really getting how Bran’s whininess and impatience is going to enhance the historical exposition of the Tower of Joy plotline.

I will say that flashbacks are a completely new storytelling device for Game of Thrones, and it’s smart to cloak them diegetically, in the form of these Three-Eyed dreams. I watched an interview in which one of the show creators called flashbacks “lazy,” and while I think that’s a little pretentious, it’s true that rewinding the clock is a really dangerous game for this show. One of Game of Thrones‘ greatest strengths is its strong commitment to forward momentum. Even as history saturates the characters’ motivations and activities, many of the inciting incidents that drive the show result from the way people in the present decide to elide the past and forge forward with originality. Look no further than Daenerys Targaryen, first of her name! Game of Thrones has a novelistic immediacy that cannot be denied, so it will be fascinating to see if the current moment truly can clash with the past through these Bran-visions.

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I have never been of the opinion that Emilia Clarke is a poor actress, and I’m holding out hope that Season 6 gives Daenerys the same agency the character had in Seasons 1 and 2. I’m getting tired of watching this woman walk through foreign civilizations of fools and letting her reputation – and occasionally her dragons – make persuasive arguments for her own empowerment. Now we see Daenerys out of the reach of her protectors (toxic Nice Guy duo Daario Naharis and Jorah Mormont) and facing two equally unappealing options: execution at the hands of the Dothraki, or a place in the interminably dull Khaleesi First Wives Club.

daenarys

I find it irritating that her captors are calling back to Daeny’s more powerful, earth-shattering story moments (“I remember when you ate the stallion heart”) because I have a feeling that her current predicament can only be solved by a deux-ex-machina rescue. The Stormborn Queen boasts one of the most mishandled storylines on GoT, but there’s still something so special about this character that is unlocked every time the show gives her room to develop, takes her seriously. I’m about ready for her to cast off the shackles of her male handlers (both evil and benign) and start making inroads towards the other entangled stories of the show. Critics have been saying this for like, four seasons already! Why must this storyline so consistently spin its wheels? In this third episode, she’s basically in the same predicament we found her in during the premiere; that definitively sucks. Bring Daenerys back into the fold, please.

arya drinksarya eyes open

Of course, we did get a nice fist-pumping moment as Arya unlocked the final level of her apprentice-assassin training. After besting her salty superior (following many, many rounds of “hit the blind girl as hard as you can with a stick”), Arya is allowed to begin some sort of Potions class under the tutelage of Jaqen H’gar. Maisie Williams, stellar as Arya from the series premiere, has grown into this character with incredible poise; she plays powerlessness without weakness, triumph without showiness, and projects maturity with a heartbreaking hardness that is never not watchable. A girl has me as a forever fan.

In contrast to Bran, Arya has had a complex journey toward reconciling her many losses and devastations. She wasn’t blind quite long enough for us to heart-attack over her I CAN SEE moment, but that doesn’t matter much. Arya’s succeeding, and the audience is always right by her side and pulling her ever upward.

Here are some other things that happened during “Oathbreaker” that I care much less about:

sam and girl

1. Sam and Gilly and Tiny Sam take a watery trip towards Sam’s ancestral home. Being on a wet, bilgey passenger boat seems awful. They all love each other.

slaves awk

2. Varys attempts to set up some shady governmental structures in Daeny’s absence, by flipping a local leader into an informant. Tyrion waits for him, passing the time by making up proverbs about “history being made in elegant rooms” and threatening Grey Worm and Missandei with an awkward, drunken game of Never Have I Ever.

3. The creepy new version of The Mountain continues to freak people out in King’s Landing. Jaime and Cersei are still trying to make progress back into the ranks of power. Tommen attempts to intimidate the High Septon, who slides closer to him on a bench and implies visually that he’s probably going to have him murdered soon.

I think that’s it! See you for next week’s episode, which I’m sure will at least look beautiful. Dan Sackheim’s direction was excellent for “Oathbreaker” and he has a lovely sense of light and composition. Next up: “Book of the Stranger”!

MasterBlog: “Quality” Television

Enlightened, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Key & Peele: a three-pronged beacon of hope for television. What a great cross-section of the different industrial and creative worlds that can be built within the medium; in fact, Key & Peele is an excellent example of the potential that digital production holds for imploding the preconceived notions of TV as a form. I want to talk about these three texts chronologically, as historical placeholders in the development of the televisual medium.

First of all, I’m fascinated by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In my opinion, it defined the structure and cultural function of the modern sitcom as we know it, even beyond any of the seminal creations of Norman Lear (All In the Family, et al). As Jane Feuer notes in “MTM Quality Television,” the sitcom is a foolproof kind of ideology machine: a text that presents an unresolvable situation and then neatly solves it, with a familiar sequences of narrative steps, inside a half hour, by characters we know in an environment we know. But to stop there at the junction of Barthes and Althusser with an analysis of sitcoms – and indeed all “trash TV” – is a grave misstep. What makes MTM “quality”? Feuer talks about the unusual (for the industry) “creative freedoms” afforded to above-the-line personnel; she talks about the depth of character study that set MTM apart from its counterparts; she talks about the high comedic pedigree of its cast; she talks about its sense of self-reflexivity, of ingrained audience media literacy, as a hallmark of quality. I’m most interested in the second point – characters as texts unto themselves.

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MasterBlog: Social Fear in the Horror Genre

“Horror” – what a shapeshifter of a word. We use “horror” to describe a film genre that we associate with Freudian fear and fantasy, buckets of blood, an exaggerated picture of the dark; and yet we can also call race-based state violence a “horror,” or watch a TV special about the “horrors” of Black Americans forced to live in rat-infested ghettos. This week I found myself really interested in the multi-faceted uses and interpretations of horror – how do we reconcile the human anxieties we represent with fictionalized atrocities, vs. the real atrocities of human life that manifest in deep fissures of anxiety in society?

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MasterBlog: I See Gay People

The specter of lesbianism stalks the periphery of These Three (1936) at every turn. Even though this adaptation of the overtly lesbian dramatic novel The Children’s Hour was actually adapted for the screen by the original writer Lillian Hellman, the resulting film stands more as a compelling example of the ham-handed Hays Code than a completely viable text. The character Joe becomes an embodiment of suppression, a substitute for female/female sexuality, a corporeal form behind with the true theme of lesbian love and struggle hides in plain sight. Watching this film is such a strange experience, especially for one familiar with the source material. I could liken it to eating a cake that was made with a cup of salt instead of a cup of sugar, and telling yourself with every bite that the saltiness is SUPPOSED to represent sweetness. As “unnamed and invisible” as lesbian romance and sexuality is in the Code, it finds a weird kind of vitality when male sexual mores attempt to define it, refine it, or erase it. Foucault also touches on this sort of self-defeating mechanism of sexual repression as an act of tamping down “useless energies and the intensity of pleasure.”

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MasterBlog: Film Noir and Modern Ennui

Is film noir just an artifact, a cinema movement with a beginning and an end? Many modern filmmakers (and showrunners) play with the stylistic conventions of noir as a kind of postmodern exercise – sometimes for the pleasure of pastiche (looking at you, Woody Allen), or maybe to fetishize history (Mad Men occasionally flirts with noir-ness). Personally, I feel a kind of detachment from noir; I read noir works like dated fables about American society. Noir is weird because it’s deeply entwined with a certain era of American filmmaking only a couple of decades long, and there’s a temptation to compartmentalize it. Though noir films work through the issues of a broken society and American (masculine) identity – issues that surely exist in infinite complexity in 2015 – could we still work within it as a relevant genre?

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MasterBlog: Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”

One of the things that makes Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing such a compelling film, no matter the time or the context, is its one-of-a-kind sense of style. Lee’s vision is urgently alive with image and sound, full of quick cuts, jarring angles, and uncannily intimate POV shots. Its vividity is at once cartoonish and raw. What we’re seeing is one auteur’s interpretation of the matrix of racist ideologies in which we all live, and because this film is an opus of self-identity, it’s formulated like an audiovisual missile. I’m interested in exploring the question of why the sounds, images, and spoken dialogue of Do the Right Thing are designed to hit hard, and how this film embodies Robert Stam (and others’) characterization of New Black Cinema.

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MasterBlog: The Black Female Subject

I find that Foucault’s characterization of the Panopticon – the surveillance-based system of imprisonment and self-discipline originally postulated by Jeremy Bentham – can be applied in a million fascinating ways to film analysis. Panopticism, essentially, ensures that a subject is constantly contained in a state of paranoia and behavioral self-regulation as she can never be sure if she is being watched and/or measured up for some kind of punishment by the authority (sometimes the state apparatus).

The black female subject often operates under a kind of cultural panopticism. Her body, as a site of intersection between racial and gender identity, is under scrutiny; however, as a subject, she is hard-pressed to find a context in which she may hold the power of the gaze (or indeed even find a media representation of herself which removes the specters of patriarchy and white supremacy, and allows her a complex, private internal world).

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