Mar 052016

The Congress

The Congress offers an honest portrait of the weirdness of modern life. It is metafictional, hyper-referential and combines both photographic and animated images. The resulting story has a nostalgic, cyberpunk vibe but takes seriously the problems of identity and of anonymity that emerge in a digital world where no one can hide but, paradoxically, no one can be found either.

I expected the film to be broadly critical of digital spaces, but it isn’t. To take only one example, the virtual world discovered by the protagonist, an actor eponymously named Robin, juxtaposes exposure and invisibility in a frenetic, overwhelming space. But her situation is not unrelated to the perpetual exposure and riskiness of the private home she seeks to build for her family by the runway of the airport in the early scenes of the film. Privacy and anonymity are not synonymous, and so there are differences between these two situations, yet the resonance between them suggests that a history of the distinction between personal and social identities in digital spaces can be devised, and that, if it were, it might allow us to make some sense of virtual spaces. The alternative captured by the film would be to mistake isolation for integrity.

The film’s story is at root about the difficulty of aging and the inevitability of growing old. Viewed against this narrative, the social difficulties of the constantly changing digital world emerge as a problem of subjective temporalities. Robin confronts digital change, what we might call “the new,” heavy with memory, and she has difficulty, I think, imagining herself as both old and alive in a world that is not the past. (In this Robin is emblematic of our culture: we have great difficulty representing age as something other than the time of the not-yet-dead, of the past-but-not-gone. It’s not incidental that this impossibility of aging is figured in Robin’s capture while young by an indexical sign, the photograph.) The alienation Robin feels casts the digital as a generational concern and suggests our discourse around the digital is, perhaps fundamentally, the stage we currently use to perform “youth” and “age” as part of our ongoing struggle to live in time.

The film is far from perfect and I disliked the position the autistic child seemed to hold in the story. I’m also abstracting quite a bit from the details in the story. But I think that the film is interesting and provocative enough to support the reading. A happy find.

Jun 232015

The first season of House of Cards was extraordinary television. Frank’s and Claire’s ambition, their intelligence and their controlled advance toward their goal launched the entire show beyond ordinary concerns and into a realm that recalled Shakespeare.

After sitting through the first few episodes of season three, that description sounds exaggerated to me: how could the show I’m watching now have been that good in that first season? It’s hard to believe because the subsequent seasons have shrunk down to mere roman à clef cleverness and posturing.

In that first season, Frank was a post-Nietzschean MacBeth unencumbered by conscience. Now he’s just mean, desperate, and listless. I’m so uninterested that I don’t expect I’ll even finish the season.

Oct 142014

House of Cards began as a study of amorality that took power and marriage as its subjects. [note]These may look like unequally specified terms but “marriage,” despite appearances, is as abstract as “power.”[/note] Season one offered up a political story in which primary passions were channeled through a patient and passionless rationality. This story was completely unfettered by the moral prejudices that generally keep us from seeing clearly what people do while doing very little to keep people from actually doing what they want. Perhaps even more radically (given the way “family”—another abstraction—acts as a moral touchstone today), the show portrayed a successful, intimate, adult marriage that is not at all about kids.

Season 2 changes all that, offering up a story of an immoral couple willing to do anything to take control of the Presidency. Perhaps this is intentional, a suggestion that amorality always falls into immorality in the way that excess falls into decadence. Maybe, but I don’t think so. Watching it and seeing how, specifically, they changed Claire’s character, I think that the writers had a failure of imagination or lost their nerve.

So Claire. In the first season, she was in every way Francis’s equal. So much so in fact that you had to wonder sometimes if she wasn’t pulling all the strings. She was powerful, intelligent, creative, and self-aware. She understood how others reacted to her beauty, her position, and had the self-possession to choose—always to choose—how she would act. Two pinnacle moments expressing these qualities: when she turns the violent sexism of the dying man’s fantasies back on him and when she creates the origami sculpture out of her lover’s photographs.

In season two, she leaves her job to become something like Francis’s legislative assistant, and worse, her former career is redefined as the obstacle that kept her from fulfilling her role as a mother. The shift toward morality here is subtle and consists in assuming that her basic and proper role, a role which she must have consciously rejected, is motherhood. Is this perspective reflective of contemporary cultural assumptions? Probably. Almost certainly. But it’s not the assumption underpinning the marriage developed in the first season. In that marriage, motherhood is an option that Claire chooses not to take, which is something very different.

Claire’s representation is potentially contentious because she is so central, but the shift toward morality is visible even in incidental details. Take for example Claire and Francis’s shared, late-night cigarettes. In the first season, these cigarettes were deliciously transgressive and expressive: they were a sign of the intimacy and aptness of a couple that make choices for themselves. In season two, they share an e-cigarette and exchange lifeless banter about cigarettes not being good for you. Then they go jogging. Where’s the iconoclasm in that?

Ultimately, my dislike of the second season has helped me see more clearly what it is that makes television viewing difficult for me. I tend to engage quite heavily in what I read and watch. Yes, I have a strong commitment to seeing what is there in a text and accounting for it honestly (these logs are intended to help with that), but I also keep a close eye out for what is not there. These places are the field of my imagination. They are where I read in a writerly way.

In a show like House of Cards or Damages, first seasons, which are powerfully suggestive but also necessarily fragmentary, are like traps. When later seasons make choices about what was not said previously, the contradictions between them and what I loved–which is necessarily an amalgam of textual detail and the products of my imagination–make later seasons a real disappointment. In pre-internet days, water cooler talk might have regulated my fancy, but in the world of Netflix, I watch seasons quickly and alone and love what I love on my own terms without check. And that makes later seasons hard to swallow.


Sep 162013

This show received a lot of attention when it was released simply because it marked Netflix’s entry into production. When the show led the Emmy nominations, there was additional talk about how it signalled a shift toward online distribution away from cable. All of these stories are interesting but they also strike beside the main point: the show is very very good. The plotting is generally tight, the photography is often beautiful, and the acting is simply great.

Favourite aspects:

  • the relationship between Claire and Francis. This is a marriage as something more than love and sex. And the “more” makes it better. I came away thinking that we have traded in a strong imagining of the marriage feast for a thin Romantic (and romantic) gruel.
  • I love the cigarettes by the window. A perfectly pitched image.
  • Claire’s character is mysterious and powerful. Her confrontation with the dying bodyguard captures a large part of what I’m fascinated by. I side with her completely in that moment. He sends his wife out of the room and confesses his desire for Claire as if his desire were something special. She points out that it isn’t special, it’s cliché and an imposition, a claim to power that she’s dealt with over and over her entire life. She then points out how blind he is to the reality of her marriage: she wants and has something more than desire with Francis. And she does this while turning his desire against him. A pinnacle moment in the series.
  • the tracking time-lapse photography in the opening sequence is very beautiful and the music grew on me. I appreciated it by the end.

More generally, I realize I like political drama. One of the best things about the second season of Deadwood is that it’s so explicitly about the struggle to see and gain power. Movies like Ides of March and All the President’s Men are also great. House of Cards can stand neck and neck with them.