Sunday, 10 January 2016

the trap of "narrative necessity": when we might need to exhume the author

I originally began this post in response to the death of Beverly Katz in season 2 of NBC's Hannibal; however, it remains as relevant as it did in 2014, and before, and, I assume, will remain relevant in years to come-- mine is not a specific criticism but a general one.
We all know the line, whether we acknowledge it or not-- and some of us, me included, have touted it ourselves-- "there was no prejudice involved because in order for the story to work this character had to die" (or whatever horrible thing). While I am generally in favor of letting stories stand for themselves, ignoring the author's personal biases etc except where they directly come through in the story, here is an instance I think worth further consideration.
Yes, there are many cases where the only way the story could work is through the death (etc) of this or that character (often a woman, or a person of color, or both), and I will not deny that. For instance, with Beverly Katz the most (narratively) satisfying conclusion to her story was her murder-- she sought Hannibal, she met Hannibal, she lost to Hannibal (as we would expect).
This argument bears more weight in cases where more variety of characters are given more options for active involvement from the get-go. It has been a while since I watched season 2 of Hannibal (or, mind you, any of it-- see my previous post on my reasons for this), but, as I recall, the storyline Beverly had during season 2 was her first major involvement, narratively speaking-- while prior to that she was, of course, not a "nothing" character, she was not a major player.
It's a difficult topic and I make no claims to exhaust it. It mirrors other cases regarding queer or mentally ill characters as villains-- it would sting much less were there more queer characters and more mentally ill characters in general, making it less hurtful when these characters are villains (that is to say, if it didn't feel like the exclusive presentation of queer or mentally ill characters were as villains, reception in these groups [I belong to both, by the way] might be better).
My original point, when I started this post nearly two whole years ago, was that, while it was the most satisfactory conclusion of her current narrative arc, Beverly Katz should not have had to die.
My other point there, upon starting, was that when we encounter a situation like Ms. Katz's, it is not unuseful to consider biases which the author of the story may have-- after all, while we can often approach the story on its own, it is still written by a living and breathing (or, well, in most cases) human being.
We must remember that, for all the author is dead, he (to be assumptive but not necessarily inaccurate) is also very much alive-- he is after all the one writing the story and determining what does and does not qualify as "narrative necessity".
What I am asking for, more than any condemnation of a specific media creator (though the list of individual cases is quite long), is a further consideration of the story. To again deal directly with Hannibal, would it have sat better with viewers if Beverly Katz's first major involvement in the story had been far prior to the involvement that ended with her murder? Would it have stung less if it felt like there were more active female characters in the story to that point?
I ask as always a further consideration of the media we consume (and don't think I don't include myself in this request !), even when it's uncomfortable. While it is possible to consume media uncritically (and believe me, I have and do!), if we intend to consume media critically we must be consistent and not accept excuses where they arise (such as "narrative necessity", which, as stated, is so often used as an excuse and a guard against killing [etc] characters in marginalised groups).

I am hesitant to do so, but considering the depth and breadth of the topic, I am concluding this post asking for the contribution of further thoughts on the topics above in the comments. I am very interested in hearing your opinions-- not only because I'm sure they can spark further thoughts of my own, or strengthen them through challenge.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

i regret to inform you i must decline your dinner invitation, dr lecter: on hannibal season two

(this post, obviously, contains spoilers for season two of Hannibal, as well as discussion, albeit fairly brief, of topics covered in the show, mainly cannibalism, abuse, violence, and misogyny)

Last week, I deleted every episode of Hannibal from my computer. It's usually very difficult for me to cut ties with a television show, especially as quickly as this; for example, I watched nearly three more seasons of Supernatural than I enjoyed. I haven't regretted removing this show from my life for a single moment, and it's looking like I never will.
Season one of Hannibal of course had its problems, but overall it wasn't much worse than any other Crime Show on the air, and in some ways it was better-- much of the violence was off-screen, and the cinematography, coloring, backing music, and pacing worked together to create a tense, anxious, captivating, and ultimately gorgeous (though gory) environment. And season two was just. Off. Bad. Untasty.
One of the more effective things about the first season of Hannibal is similar to one of the more effective things about Lecter's cooking: the viewers (along with Hannibal's dinner guests) are being enticed into something unappetizing by an appetizing appearance. The food is people, but it also looks delicious; the show is gory and disgusting, but it looks wonderful.
Season two was more gory and more disgusting than season one and with none of the enticing elements of it. Most episodes were more like watching the details of hot dog manufacturing than watching Lecter prepare a gourmet meal, and the treatment of its characters felt like they (and we) were being served by slopping down ladlefuls into a trough.
To speak very quickly about slop and flinging and troughs and confused mixtures, why did season two take so many plot cues from Hannibal (the book)? From what I was given to understand the show was going to follow roughly the order of the books, starting pre-Red Dragon and continuing through Clarice, and yet here we are dealing with Mason and his pigs, already. Maybe I'm misremembering horribly, or maybe Fuller said this just to appease the people clamoring for Clarice, but it almost feels a bit like we're going too fast-- the gore ramps up, characters make baffling choices to account for a sped-up pace, Hannibal becomes a "louder faster brighter more more more" show instead of keeping its build-up slower (and better). I don't know. I had heard about a seven-season plan for those three books (I am pretty sure we don't really talk about Hannibal Rising) but we have also been told that season three would follow the plot of Hannibal. Basically the story structure is a mess, it's a month's worth of potato peels and mush sloshed around in a bucket. That wasn't as quick an aside as I intended; I probably should have taken more cues from Fuller's writing this season.
Apart from the absolutely baffling finale (like, what???), what most angered, annoyed, and upset me about this season, more than the weirdly unnecessary ramping up in degree and type of gore, was how violent and hateful it was toward its female characters. Zero of the eight major female characters made it through the season without experiencing violence, being manipulated, or being denied her autonomy. While it is not unusual for a show, especially a crime show, to insufficiently utilize the potential of its female characters and to mistreat them, this season of Hannibal was particularly bad. We have a character finally being written to her full potential, and then the next time we see her she has been gruesomely disassembled (don't worry, we got to see that process too). A character is physically and emotionally abused on screen, and then in a voyeuristic and unnecessary sex scene (only to be all for naught when she is operated on against her will the next episode). Multiple women are attacked, denied their autonomy, abused either implicitly or explicitly, killed-- if they are on screen much at all.
Season two of Hannibal was promoted in language of bigger, better, more. But misogyny and violence toward women aren't groundbreaking television. Especially in a genre filled with it, it's derivative and disappointing to see something like this, something not only offensive but unoriginal. I can't say I am genuinely surprised to see more and more misogyny in a show I used to enjoy; I have seen it far too often to ever be surprised by it again. I am disappointed, I am upset, I am hurt; but I am not even remotely surprised.
As well as that (far larger and more important!) laziness, we have the ''''intricacies'''' of this season's plot, by which I mean "what in the world did I spend thirteen hours of my life watching." I was confused about what was happening almost the entire season. And, talking with others, I know that my confusion was not based in poor viewing comprehension or an inability to follow the twists and turns of a complicated plot, but in poor writing that jumped around far more than it should have, leading to confusing character choices and unclear motives and pacing that was just wrong enough to not quite place your finger on. While some confusion on the part of the audience is often the mark of a good story, there is always the "a-ha" moment, where everything pays off, and without that pay off, the story is mediocre at best. Storytelling 101 over here. And nothing paid off in Hannibal-- we're left with questions unanswered and questions raised and answers we don't care about. And I have never cared less about having my questions answered than I do about Hannibal.

Friday, 23 May 2014

endings for beginners

As everyone who cares already knows, Community finally got the axe we've all been waiting for almost from the very start. In all honesty, I'm not too surprised; in terms of relative quality season five definitely lagged a bit behind the first three, and I started the show late enough that I never knew a version of Community that didn't have a background anxiety about cancellation. To be entirely honest with you as well as myself, I've been putting off writing this post. Because while its cancellation wasn't necessarily shocking, losing Community still hurts.
Part of my attachment to Community might just be a combination of timing and emotional state and associations-- I'm sure everyone has those things whose value lies somewhat more in the when than the what-- but the heart of it is what drew me back time and again. That heart, to summarize loosely and imprecisely, is a simple optimism-- life is hard and it sucks but sometimes it isn't and it doesn't, you aren't alone even when you feel like it. Dan Harmon called it a show for people who are "smart and nice" which is key to understanding it I think. Cleverness without (all) the cynicism. Some people have called it an heir to the tradition of Arrested Development, but that makes me wonder if they've really seen both shows. Technical tricks and some general structural work aside, they are different in theme and message and character types (considering this, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia seems like the better choice as descendant)
It suffered a lot of hits, both creatively and logistically, that I doubt any show could ever have recovered from, and it's almost miraculous it lasted to season five (especially given season four, which we don't talk about). But I at least let myself settle into it. Maybe this week's episode wouldn't be one you enjoyed, but it would still be there. It has not-a-few flaws, even before season four, but I'm not here to talk about those right now except perhaps to say "Greendale may be a toilet, but it's our toilet."
This was I guess just to say that I love Community and that I will miss it and that it changed me for the better and I am very grateful for it. I doubt I can whip up a Winger speech to bring us all home, but I can when the time comes wish you a happy October 19th.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

we can't both be kevin james: baby's first rave and growing up

Last night, I watched the movie The Neighbors. Overall, it was hit-or-miss; when it was funny, it was incredibly funny, but when it fell flat (which was often), it came closer to falling concave. I didn't go into this movie with very high expectations-- which felt justified even before the movie began as we were subjected to a preview of Seth McFarlane's latest 'creative' venture-- and at times The Neighbors failed to meet even those.* (This post will, obviously, contain spoilers for the movie.)

The premise of this movie is basic but fun-- a fraternity moves in next door to a young couple who are struggling with adjusting to their recent parenthood, and these two forces (of course) battle it out. The pranks and petty crimes they resort to in this fight are about as childish as you might expect from a modern comedy, especially a Seth Rogen vehicle, and the humor at times is 'fittingly' juvenile, inappropriate, and the wrong kind of offensive.**

But what is by far the most interesting part of this movie is its message about growing up. The age of Rogen and Byrne's characters is (as I recall) not directly established but at a guess I would place them in their late-twenties or early-thirties, born in the '80s nearer the very beginning of the Millenial Generation; while Efron and Franco's characters are college seniors, born in the early '90s. The age gap between them, less than 10 years, feels easily bridged-- on the one side, a youth reclaimed, on the other, a probable future. An intra-generational anxiety, more unavoidable as time goes on, and more impossible to resolve.
We are presented with people at two very important milestones toward Adulthood™ in many people's lives: starting a family and graduating college. And almost no one is dealing well with the recent or upcoming changes to their life. For instance, in an early scene, one of the couple's friends invites them out to a rave, and when confronted with the obstacle of obtaining a babysitter, plan instead to bring their very young child with them, saying that parenthood doesn't mean they have to "stop being who [they] are". Later on, when his very slightly more responsible friend (Franco) tells Efron that accomplishments within the fraternity don't matter beyond one's college years, he has an existential crisis, and vows to live on as a fraternity legend.*** Both have a goal of remaining forever the stereotype of a Millennial: self-centered, hedonistic, reckless, ambitionless. Even for a Manchild Protagonist™ movie, it's clear that this is impossible.
The line that most stood out to me, to the point that I feel it can summarize this entire train of thought quite neatly, is "We can't both be Kevin James." For context, at this point in the movie the war with the frat has gone dangerously far, and Byrne is angry at her husband for being incredibly irresponsible and letting this go on long enough that it is seriously endangering their daughter.**** Rogen counters by saying that he is "the dumb irresponsible guy" and she is "the smart woman who stops [him] from going too far", like in "any Kevin James movie". They can't both be Kevin James, they can't both be irresponsible, they can't continue on in the same way they were living before.
Efron grows up less noticeably which isn't unreasonable considering how much bigger a change having a baby is than leaving college. But he takes on all the responsibility for the damage and illegality of the year's final party, urging his friend (and less directly, all of the frat bros) to leave because some of them are actually going somewhere with their lives. This is, obviously, a large punishment to take on, and one which the Efron of an hour prior would not have taken, and more important, could not have.
At the end of the movie, we get two scenes demonstrating their relative growth. Rogen and Byrne lie in bed talking about how much they love "grown-up stuff"-- brunch, shell-shaped soaps, other small bourgeois pleasures. They take pictures of their daughter while their friends call them up from Burning Man, and feel no regret for not attending. Efron has gotten a job (not one that many would consider to be "grown-up", but a step forward for him nonetheless) and is working hard at night school to finish up his degree. He doesn't state his future plans, but it's clear that he does have them.

Ultimately the best I can really say of The Neighbors is that it was salvageable; hiding inside this movie, slightly obscured by dick jokes and cheap laughs, is a funny and quietly thoughtful movie about growing up and what it means to be an adult.*****

* Worst of these disappointments is that a movie presented to me as "Zac Efron's Shirtless Movie" had relatively little shirtlessness from him, but I digress.
**  Several jokes were homophobic, and a few were racist or misogynistic, including use of the n-word and the c-word.
*** There are too many early scenes filled with Efron and Franco's immaturity to choose just one for easy contrast.
**** Refreshingly, the movie does not treat Byrne's anger as that of a nagging buzzkill of a wife, doing all she can to get between her manchild husband and his fun. Rather, it acknowledges that (AS IS OBVIOUSLY TRUE) her concern for the safety of their child is entirely justified.
***** That is not to say, of course, that dick jokes et al. have no place in the second version of this movie. Dick jokes have for millennia had a place in quietly thoughtful creative works.