Jessica Jones

Jessica Jones

This show is a superhero version of Sleeping with the Enemy. It’s gut-wrenching, relentless and left me anxious enough that I had to watch episodes one by one, slowly over a span of weeks. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that I hated my way through most of the season.

And yet, I kept going back to the show because unlike Arrow, nearly every character in the series — and there are a lot of them — is authentic and compelling. (The notable exception is Simpson, a troubled white guy super-soldier cliché.) Unlike Daredevil, in which ethical posturing mostly reduces to a decidedly non-ethical preoccupation with self-definition and identity, Jessica Jones explores both the nature and the extent of the mutual obligations created when people share trauma. These constitute genuinely complex ethical stakes, and the story, despite remaining a superhero series, doesn’t pull away from them or dodge their implications.

By the end of the final episode, I’d come around: this is the best cinematic/televisual story Marvel has ever done, and I’m all in for the next season.


AMy PosterI came to this movie knowing nothing about Amy Winehouse or her music. So it introduced me to a new character and then chronicled her steady decline under the influences of a father and a lover she had no defences against. What struck me about the story was (paparazzi aside) how unexceptional it was. It’s the fact that all kinds of people all the time find themselves in relationships they can’t cope with or escape and are broken or destroyed in just this way that made it so heartbreaking and ugly for me. Which is a way of saying, I’m not sure that this is a movie about celebrity.

The one positive moment that sticks with me involves Tony Bennet. Commenting on Winehouse’s early death and his confidence that with time she would have pulled things together, he says, roughly, “Over time life teaches you how to live it.” That seems right.

The Doom Generation

Doom GenerationGregg Araki’s early films — The Living End, Totally Fucked Up — were rough affairs, shot, cut and released on a budget of zero; but they twisted formal elements with real style, using them to explore the difficult issues young people living invisibly at the ostensible center of the world regularly face. Araki’s more recent films carry familiar themes forward but in more polished vehicles. Some of them are great, but aging Gen X-er that I am, I prefer the aggression and mess of the earlier, New Queer Cinema work.

The Doom Generation is very much a part of the early films even if it is one of the last. It’s absurd, ridiculously violent, and run through with posturing and mimicry. Yet, taken as a whole and given credit for being more than shock and exploitation, its pieces offer a convincing portrait of the uncertainties straight teens struggle with as they try to understand an adult sexual world that has become inexplicably violent. The pieces also present a frightening glimpse of the mediascape that serves as their home.

Short and unpolished, the film’s address is unsettling and haunting. Perhaps most interestingly, it relentlessly solicits the attention of teens and young adults on terms completely alien to the norms I typically associate with young adult fiction.

San Andreas

San Andreas

Two things occurred to me as I was watching this movie.

First, disaster movies give me the same pleasure that I used to get from horror films as a kid. My poor fingers are chewed to pieces when they’re done. And it doesn’t matter that I know that the whole affair is ridiculous.

Second, Dwayne Johnson has the charming combination of stable presence and dancing lightness that I associate with old-style movie stars. It makes me think his body and history have pushed him into the wrong corner of the movie business. I’d like to see him reduced (physically) to human proportions and trying to play second lead in a dialogue heavy, screwball-type comedy.


Wide sense8 spread

Sense8 is a difficult series to get started. The focus shifts constantly between characters and locations without any shared story (or any hope of a shared story). Plus, it takes time for the ten characters — 8 principals, and two marginal — to accumulate enough screen time to gather substance and come to life. All of this added up to an urge to move on to other things, but I remained “invested despite,” and I stuck with the series. I suspect some of it has to do with loving Speed Racer and some of it with my head-over-heels admiration of Lana Wachowski (for reasons).

Whatever the reasons, I kept watching, and things began falling into place. Step one: the Karaoke number shared across continents at the end of episode four, “What’s Going On?” Step Two: the genuinely moving conversation between the African man and the Korean woman and the specter of the terrible wedding in episode five, “Art is Like Religion.” By the endlessly screencapped episode five, “Demons,” the full-on crazy, pot-head on acid concept of what the show was doing began to sink in. Plus it was clear that Lana and the fraternal unit were committed to keeping things both relentlessly sexy (Max Remelt!) and jaw-droopingly beautiful (South Korea! India!). I was hooked.

But cross-cultural, cross-continental (mental not physical?) sexy time aside, what is going on here?

My sense is that the Wachoski’s are making classical cinema but that they are carefully breaking two fundamental rules of the form and exploring the consequences. The first broken rule relates to scope. A classical Hollywood feature is 90 to 120 minutes long. In special cases, especially auteur or prestige films, a runtime might stretch to 180 minutes. Sense8 constructs a story that is reportedly complete and that spans sixty episodes or five seasons (lets call them acts). This amounts to roughly 2900 minutes of story. Managing something of this length, I now realize, poses specific challenges. For example, I’ve watched 12 episodes, and by the end I recognized familiar signals that indicate the conclusion of “Act One.” In other words, after 10 hours of television, the initial presentation of the conflict was complete and the drama was about to begin. This is — judged by any ordinary standard — insane. How do you develop a coherent story of such length that is barely (and perhaps non-) episodic? Sense8 is attempting it and appears to be operating within the traditional structure of the five-act play. That’s interesting.

The second rule of classical cinema that the series breaks relates to the construction of space across the cut. Méliès made magic by moving objects in front of a fixed, static camera. Hollywood constructed stable, coherent spaces by cutting from one camera view to another in a rational, cumulative sequence organized by visual matches between shots. Sense8 uses the matching of traditional Hollywood editing in the service of an impossible, magical space. Scenes within the series occur — almost by default — in multiple locations. Conversations, for example, regularly take place between people separated by thousands of miles. The editing, however, takes no account of these physical realities and cuts shots together by the same logic that governs the representation of a conversation at a single table in a restaurant in the most banal of romantic comedies. By the end of the first season, scene after scene plays out in two or three (or more) locations, characters bounce back and forth between locations, and all of these shifts — organized and enabled by the techniques of classical editing — cohere without confusion. The result is a representation of a purely fictional mental space that I feel I have seen and that is integral to the plot but that makes no sense at all when I try to describe it to people who have not watched the show because it is entirely fantastic and completely experiential.

This is all fascinating — and portentous and overblown (yes, I admit it) — but also very entertaining.

I ended the season eager to find out if Netflix would spring for another season. It turns out they have. So I’m excited, but, because I am greedy, I would like to hear that they have green-lighted the full five seasons: I want to see the entire arc and how it works.


1$_V?_Job NameWatching this movie and remembering what has attracted my attention in the others I’ve seen, I think it’s clear I’m not a Bond fan. I like the obligatory gadget-centric early scene with Q (especially now that Ben Whishaw has taken on the role). I like the obligatory first moment when Bond walks into a chic bar or casino or hotel lobby wearing a perfect suit or tux. I like the establishing shots of exotic (not the same as remote) locations. But the rest? It’s fine, I definitely don’t dislike it, but I’m also very “whatever.”

Two things stood out for me in this installment.

The first is that this Bond is successful because he’s been doing this for a long time and knows the right people. I get the sense that anybody with his training who’d rubbed shoulders with the people he has could do the job. The ensemble-cast victory at the conclusion of the film drives this point home.

Second, the casualness of the film’s treatment of torture caught me off guard and says nothing positive about our cultural moment. Threatening to drill holes in someone’s head is gruesome and very different from the cartoon danger of shark tanks or a slow-moving laser. Yet the film treats them as equivalent threats, each a valid response to the generic demand for a moment of Bond, trapped and in danger.

Worse though, the gruesomeness of actually drilling holes in someone’s head — and the consequences that must inevitably follow — go unacknowledged. Apparently our sense of torture’s toll is so terribly skewed — I mean waterboarding is just like rush week, right? — that we are ready to accept that with two new holes in his skull, Bond can hop up and take out a paramilitary force no problem, if only he could free his bound limbs.

I know realism is not a strong standard for judging action cinema, and I’m not trying to apply it here. I’m just saying that, if he’d been punched over and over, Bond would have spent the last scenes of the movie with a split lip. But torture leaves no mark at all. It is overtly and plainly inconsequential. That is a scary notion.

Billy Budd

iurI have a personal interest in Melville that is not academic or systematic. In my early years at university, as a history major angling to write about writers, I went bonkers over Typee, Mardi and Omoo. Moby Dick was (and is) a favorite novel, and I’ve read it regularly for years. I’ve read other tales and novels randomly here and there. I just like these stories of the sea, all of them twisted into metaphysical knots.

So I’m surprised I hadn’t read Billy Budd before because it’s short and comes up regularly in criticism. But I hadn’t, and when I was putting together my “gay canon” list, I decided to use Eve Sedgwick’s early work in queer theory, as an excuse to add it.

As I read, I saw where Sedgwick is coming from in her discussions of the tale. There are long descriptions of Billy’s beauty and of the place that the “beautiful sailor” held among a ship’s crew. The captain’s affection for Billy reminded me of Fassbender’s adaptation of Genet’s Querelle. There is even a scene were a crewman offers to pay Billy for sexual services. Yet despite all of this, once I was past the opening chapter or two, I didn’t experience the book as particularly queer. I was just too distracted by the ship’s villainous master-at-arms.

According to the narrator, this character is the principle problem the narration attempts to address. He is diabolical, is driven by a malice that has no discernible source or rationale, and as a result, the depth of his cruelty is easily misunderstood. The narrator hopes to capture the motives and sensibilities of the character if he is able.

The story is short enough to read in a sitting, and I did, and as I did, I couldn’t tear my mind away from the descriptions of this character. Not even when my eyes were reading about other things. By the end, I was shaking.

Melville’s prose is tortured whenever this character appears and you can feel it trying to hit its mark, to avoid the poorly chosen word or the weak sentence that would allow the character to appear as a lesser or a less awful type. Melville makes no mistakes though. He succeeds. He captures the devil, and it’s terrible.

Worse, I put down the book convinced this type is still with us.

Arrow Season One

Arrow_promo_-_Destiny_leaves_its_mark_-_city_backgroundMy brother finally decided to watch this show and once he got going, tore through all three seasons one after the other. He conceded it had a rough start but insisted it was much better than I had allowed. Based on his reaction, I decided to at least watch to the end of the first season.

And what do I think now that I have?

The show does get better and seems to be trying to cut loose its original framing and replace it with something new. This is most obvious in the move away from the idiotic book-as-motivation that drove the plot early on. There is also a move toward a longer-term and more complex cross-episode narrative arc. As part of this the sister and the mother have receded a bit into storylines that make more sense than those they started with. The ex-girlfriend plot line can’t disappear but seems to be shifting toward less annoying ground. (The death of the best friend in the final episode helps with that.) Most importantly, with Felicity, the show has found its first genuinely likable (even if stereotyped) character. At last.

There are still things to dislike. The show is written in large part for a tween/teen audience and this results in painfully stilted posturing in the relentlessly central romantic relationships. When characters talk to each other romantically, they say what I imagine a teenager might imagine an adult saying or doing at that moment, and it kinda makes me nuts.

I’m also not a huge fan of the through-the-roof machismo. I take it as an attempt to disavow the way shirtless male bodies are subject to an eroticized gaze in every single episode. (Exhibit A: the chiaroscuro pecs and abs in the series poster.) Still, it’s pretty off-putting.

So what now? Well, I suppose that, despite my reservations, I’d be willing to watch the beginning of the next season just to see how the reinvention that is clearly under way proceeds.