Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

Comics Time: July Diary 2014

Monday, September 15th, 2014

At first glance, Gabrielle Bell’s six-panel daily diary comics don’t have a lot in common with the Mines of Moria sequence in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings . Or at any number of subsequent glances, I suppose. But the more Bell I read, the more I think they share a primary strength: a sense of space, of environment. Autobio slice-of-life comics, by the nature of what most of us tend to do with our lives every day, often consist in large part of conversations, either with a small number of other parties or within the head of the diarist as they go about their day. Unless those conversations reference a specific landmark, cartooned depictions of them can, and often do, devolve into dialogues that could be taking place anywhere, or nowhere. They have all the spatial context of action figures or dolls or sock puppets held aloft by the cartoonist, one in each hand, and made to speak with the voices of the participants.

Not so with Bell, and not so in the most recent iteration of her annual July Diary project. Hers is a world where rooms, furniture, streets, buildings, and human bodies are arrayed in a three-quarter cheat to the audience, enabling us to see into corners, grasp the depth and dimensionality of each space. Her inimitable spotted blacks — little jagged-edged rectangular smudges — set off the surfaces of the objects with which she is surrounded, and pool in the wrinkles of her characters’ clothes like ink. It’s impossible to look at a Gabrielle Bell diary-comic page and reduce it to stick figures against a blank backdrop, any more than you could do so with the fellowship of the Ring dodging orc arrows as they flee down those crumbling steps. Her apartment, her garden, the streets of her neighborhood, the wilderness surrounding the trailer where her mother lives following the house fire that understandably dominates the diary — Bell makes them distinct, inhabitable, navigable spaces. That her rigid, six-panel grid closes those spaces off is a feature, not a bug. Each panel feels like a tiny, beautifully constructed diorama, where Bell and her acquaintances will act out the same moment forever.

I reviewed Gabrielle Bell’s July Diary 2014 for The Comics Journal.


“Boardwalk Empire” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Two: “The Good Listener”

Monday, September 15th, 2014

Elsewhere, Gretchen Mol demonstrates why she may be Boardwalk‘s MVP as Gillian Darmody. This has always been a show that’s had a hard time with its women, even more so than many of its macho peers. Margaret has often felt tangential to the action (remember that sex-ed subplot?). Angela Darmody’s entire story depended on her not being able to do anything she actually wanted to do. Nucky’s string of showgirl girlfriends (beginning with the delightfully batshit Paz De La Huerta) had little to do but be frivolous and naked. The two women around whom Chalky’s storyline centered last season, his daughter Maitland and singer Maybelle White, were both fascinating — and were each gone by the finale.

Gillian is different. As a character, she’s required to get naked on command as much as anyone — it used to be her job as a showgirl, and her route to continued influence over the Commodore; now, in an insane asylum following her unwitting confession to a murder last season, it’s a condition of her imprisonment. But her nudity has a terrible energy to it, informed by her rape when she was a girl, and her subsequent determination to turn that victimization to her advantage. Here, that energy is reflected in the freakish image of a room full of mental patients erupting out of strait-jacketed bathtubs like aliens from chest cavities. When Gillian herself finally emerges, slowly and deliberately instead of in a panicked fit, her naked body is both a come-hither and a middle finger all at once. That’s part of what made the shaggy-dog-joke nature of her caged-heat storyline in this episode so satisfying. No, her female warden isn’t the queer-predator cliché she seems; she’s just one woman bargaining for a taste of the good life with another woman who fought tooth and nail to taste it herself.

I reviewed last night’s Boardwalk Empire for Rolling Stone.


Spoiler Alert

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Here I am talking about The Leftovers, Boardwalk Empire, and Masters of Sex with Ricky Camilleri, Drew Grant, and Matthew Jacobs on the debut episode of Spoiler Alert, HuffPost Live’s new talk show about TV. Hooray!


STC on HuffPost Live

Monday, September 8th, 2014

I’ll be talking The LeftoversBoardwalk Empire, and so forth on HuffPost Live’s Spoiler Alert show, tonight at 5:30pm. This link will take you right to the show when it airs. Hope to be seen by you then!


“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “The Prodigal Son Returns”

Monday, September 8th, 2014

“I want to believe that I’m not surrounded by the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization,” Nora Durst writes as she prepares to leave everyone she’s ever known. “I want to believe that it’s still possible to get close to someone.” But even if it’s possible, she’s chosen not to try. The pain is too much to bear, as actor Carrie Coon’s almost unwatchable silent scream upon being confronted with grotesque simulations of her vanished family made clear. Here in the real world, with uncanny echoes of The Leftovers‘ breathtakingly paced season finale — “The Prodigal Son” — all around us, it’s easy to agree with her.

Look back, if you can stomach it, at the long horrendous summer we just suffered through. A berserk and benighted subset of the video game community targeted prominent women critics and creators with a campaign of trolling, harassment, and threats so severe that one victim had to flee her home. An apparent ring of hackers specializing in stealing female celebrities’ nude selfies began releasing them to the public en masse. Police in Ferguson, Missouri responded to citizen protests over the killing of unarmed teenager Mike Brown – his body exposed in the street for four hours – by essentially staging a days-long blue riot, aiming loaded weapons at civilians, arresting journalists, and firing teargas and rubber bullets seemingly indiscriminately.

Now look at The Leftovers. Trolling-as-religion is one of its central plot points, with two separate denominations – the Guilty Remnant, with their callous performance art, and Rev. Matt, with his muckraking flyers – deliberately being assholes to make a point. Stealing photographs in order to turn private moments into a public spectacle was a core component of the cult’s master plan involving replicas of Departure victims. And law-enforcement complicity, even participation, in violence against the civilian population has been a constant: the Heroes Day riot, the brutal assault on Holy Wayne’s compound, the Feds’ black-ops methodology in destroying cults and incinerating members’ bodies, Kevin’s assault and kidnapping of Patti, and, tonight, the Mapleton P.D.’s half-assed efforts to stop the townsfolk from retaliating against the G.R. The show’s sociopolitical prescience is almost freakish.

Here’s the beginning of my review of the season finale of The Leftovers for Rolling Stone, which ultimately makes the case that as impressive as the show’s resonance with current events may be, it actually goes even deeper, laying out the cost of living when life is fundamentally meaningless and the struggle by which can attempt to eke some kind of purpose out of it anyway. This was really, really good television and I’m glad I was paid to stick with it to the end or I’d have missed it.


“Boardwalk Empire” thoughts, Season Five, Episode One: “Golden Days for Boys and Girls”

Monday, September 8th, 2014

As its final eight-episode season begins, with tonight’s ironically titled premiere “Golden Days for Boys and Girls,” it’s time to be honest about Boardwalk Empire. Appropriately enough given the attention the show has paid to family traumas, HBO’s sprawling gangster epic has long suffered in the shadow of its siblings. It lacks the seismic influence of The Sopranos, where creator Terrence Winter previously worked; the acclaim and tonal versatility of Mad Men, helmed by fellow Sopranos alum Matthew Weiner; the relentless suspense and narrative arc of Breaking Bad, the era’s biggest crime show; and the epic-fantasy scope and pop-culture cachet of Game of Thrones, the network’s other big costume drama about bloody power struggles.

What it does better than 99% of its competitors, however, is mount pure sensual spectacle. No other show on television says so much about its world through sight and sound alone – via meticulously composed frames, thoughtfully arranged sequences, colors, voices, tics of performance, and, yes, gore, all designed to communicate the violent tragedy at the heart of Nucky Thompson’s story directly to the heart. Tonight’s season premiere offered ample evidence of this — as well as suggesting that Boardwalk Empire might very well be the New Golden Age of Television’s secret masterpiece.

I’m so excited to be covering the final season of Boardwalk Empire, a show I love and admire tremendously, for Rolling Stone. Here’s my review of the season premiere.


The 20 Best TV Shows About School

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014
8. ‘The Wonder Years’

Put aside the Boomer nostalgia that erupts the second Joe Cocker starts singing during the opening credits. Yes, The Wonder Years is a period piece — and a fun one at that. (Remember the make-out party soundtracked by “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida”?) But it’s also as good as it gets at depicting how your childhood relationships with best friends (Paul Pfeiffer) and crushes (Winnie Cooper, swoon) shape your experience of school with far more strength than almost anything in the curriculum or anyone on the faculty. The Sixties soundtrack, wardrobe, and pop-political references are cool and all, but all you need are your buddies.

Now that our long national nightmare of a summer is over, I wrote a list of the 20 best tv shows about school for Rolling Stone. It was fun!


Comics Time: Baby Bjornstrand

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

A thing comes into three lives, without warning or explanation. A thing leaves those lives in much the same way. The time between: Baby Bjornstrand, the new Renee French graphic novel completing and collecting the webcomic of the same name. In the past, I’ve written that the hazy, watery wasteland inhabited by Baby Bjornstrand‘s masked, hooded protagonists and monstrous fauna evokes a post-apocalypticism that is, if not belied, then at least transfigured by the comic tone of the proceedings. Now that the series is finished, that’s only true to a point. As the uniform proscenium staging of its panels suggests, Bjornstrand remains much closer to Samuel Beckett than Stephen King, despite French’s astonishing proficiency with painstakingly penciled menace. Yet its morose ending has a bite that doesn’t require the jaws of a monster.

I reviewed Baby Bjornstrand by Renee French for The Comics Journal.


“The Leftovers” Thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “The Garveys at Their Best”

Monday, August 25th, 2014

You never forget where you were when it happened. They say it’s true of all tragedies, and they may be right. The Leftovers, it turns out, is not going to take any chances. Tonight’s thoroughly harrowing episode — titled, with cruel irony, “The Garveys at Their Best” — is an hour-long flashback covering approximately one 24-hour period in October, three years ago: from the morning of the day before the Sudden Departure to the first moments after it happens. And as an act of storytelling, it’s tear-down-the-sky shit. We never actually watch anyone Depart – the camera is always pointed elsewhere – but that is the show’s sole nod to modesty. From the moment you hear Nora Durst’s children say “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” to our discovery of just how catastrophically the Departure hit Kevin and Laurie Garvey, every ounce of grief, fear and sadness will be left exposed.

I reviewed last night’s episode of The Leftovers, which was very sad and lowkey contained the scariest scene I’ve seen on TV all year, for Rolling Stone.


“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “Cairo”

Monday, August 18th, 2014

But it’s not just the actual life-or-death stakes of Patti’s plight that [director Michelle] MacLaren wrings for every ounce of tension and pathos. Jill Garvey grilling Nora Durst about her gun over dinner. Meg needling Laurie while breaking her vow of silence. Jill and her friend Aimee getting meaner and meaner to each other in a game of emotional chicken that Aimee eventually loses. The wordless sequences in which the Guilty Remnant prepare their big Memorial Day stunt. The climactic moment where Jill reunites with her mother in order to join her cult. “Cairo” was all about turning the screw until someone, anyone yelled “Jesus Christ, enough!”

Which is to say, yeah, it’s a pretty grim hour of television. A woman gives a lengthy monologue about how love has to be left behind, then slits her own throat – how could it not be dark? But it’s by no means a humorless, bleakness-über-alles episode. The twin bros played by Max and Charlie Carver remain 2014’s great casting coup; everything you need to know about them you could learn from the way the one dude finds a bulletproof vest and says “Jackpot!” Little moments of worldbuilding also break the tension, like the increasingly obvious fact that in the post-Departure universe, marijuana is legal enough to smoke in a public park full of frolicking kids. Even Patti gets in a few good one-liners, like the one where she responds to Dean’s pompous proclamation that he’s a “guardian angel” with “Well, shit, I think I just heard a bell ring.”

It’s also pretty profoundly insightful about how people process pain, or don’t. The after-dinner exchange Kevin and Nora have about Jill (“It’ll get better.” “How?” “I don’t know. But it will.”) is basically the mantra of anyone clear-eyed enough to acknowledge that things are shitty, but optimistic enough to believe they won’t stay that way forever. Later, Aimee takes this philosophy and weaponizes it, taunting her sad-sack, soon-to-be former friend by sarcastically saying “Just so you know, it is possible for some people to be okay.”

Elsewhere, if Meg’s berserk reaction to his flyers about her late mother wasn’t already indication enough, Reverend Matt clearly has her number. “Her grief was hijacked,” he says, and that’s a good way to understand the Guilty Remnant: If the Sudden Departure stole everyone’s ability to really focus their pain, they’re stealing it back. “I think about it every fucking waking moment,” Patti says of humanity’s greatest trauma. “I mean, come on. What else is there to think about.” The GR are forcing everyone to think about it, as directly and obnoxiously as possible. It’s trolling as religion.

The Leftovers has gotten consistent and creative, and last night’s episode was no exception. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.


Comics Time: Alien Invasion III

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

True, in a way, to its title, Lauren “Lala” Albert’s Alien Invasion III has two primary concerns: aliens and invasiveness. The former are presented in the fashion that has become Albert’s trademark as an artist working with science-fictional imagery in an underground context — otherworldly and elfin, their ubiquitous third eyes a collective locus of mystical enlightenment, erotic fascination, and viscous physicality all at once. The invasions are varied. Aliens visit Earth, humans visit other worlds, humans and aliens travel between worlds together. Alien biology is probed by a human performing an autopsy, explored by two aliens in a body-modification ritual with romantic undertones, inserted unexpectedly and forcibly into an unsuspecting human’s more familiar body. In all four cases the theme is intimacy, invited or not.

I reviewed Alien Invasion III by Lauren Albert (aka Lala Albert) for The Comics Journal.


“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “Solace for Tired Feet”

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Putting prurient interests aside, the now-physical relationship between Chief Kevin Garvey and local survivor-celebrity Nora Durst deserves top billing. After all, it’s the softest plot thread in the show’s narrative tapestry, a rare display of human connection and kindness that’s not undermined by grief and guilt, or corrupted by attempts to harness those emotions to some grand ideological purpose. You want these two crazy mixed-up kids to fall for each other, because after what they’ve been through, they deserve it.

The show fuels our attachment to their attachment several times. Nora’s given the episode’s most purely cathartic moment when she turns the garden hose on the Guilty Remnant, in particular Liv Tyler’s sanctimonious new convert Meg. (Meg is rejected a second time when she narcs on the tryst to Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie, who seems just as turned off by her nosing around as we are.) And after an episode spent hiding or denying his mental deterioration, Kevin reveals his fear that he’s following in his schizophrenic father’s footsteps as part of pillow talk. Their actual sex may have been edited in an arrhythmic fashion that suggested Kevin viewed it as some kind of out-of-body experience, but afterwards, he’s comfortable enough with Nora to share his darkest secret. Forget Kevin Sr.’s cryptic messages – that intimacy and ability to connect with someone once more is the sign Kevin Jr. should pay attention to.

I really like good sex scenes on TV dramas; watching beautiful people do convincingly hot things with each other is one of the medium’s great pleasures. I wrote about that and a lot of other little things that made last night’s episode of The Leftovers pretty good for Rolling Stone.


Comics Time: Danny Boy

Friday, August 8th, 2014

…the ending is otherwise the strongest section of the comic, the one place where Danny Boy takes on a life of its own. It does so in death. In the end, father and son are buried side by side, first their bones and then even their coffins breaking down as the dark earth reclaims them. In the end, the totemistic pipe and locket that Faret had used as shorthand for each member of the pair are all that remain, and they too are disintegrated and consumed before the final black panel. A realist might question the staying power of a corncob pipe in a grave, while a reader partial to extremes might miss a full-fledged depiction of dead bodies rotting away into nothingness (admittedly this is where my sympathies lie), but both critiques are superfluous to the sequence’s purpose, if not its power. In these final pages, Faret unearths an unspoken element of “Danny Boy” and puts it on display: The song’s final line is “And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me,” but of course at that point in the song the child has already returned, is in fact kneeling on the grave. It’s death the parent is looking forward to sharing with his child, because only then will their reunion be complete. Faret shows what that would look like, taking the original and adding a stanza of her own.

Those final pages present a potentially rewarding path for Faret to follow as an interpreter of existing stories. It reflects the same sensibility on display in, say, her luminous, horror-tinged scratchboardillustrations for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Though the whole point of Miller’s witch-hunt parable is that the thing was bunkum, Faret casts her cast of goodwives in a seemingly supernatural light, suggesting that terrible forces and tremendous powers were in play here — just not in the way the persecutors believed. Neither here nor in the end of Danny Boy is Faret indulging in the aforementioned glurge, lacing contemporary mores into past events in order to make readers feel good about their unearned ethical superiority (though she’s not entirely immune to this temptation); rather, she’s tapping into ideas and sentiments present in the characters and giving them freedom to manifest themselves in ways the characters could never do. Danny Boy may be a failed experiment, but in conducting it Faret has collected data that could well yield happier results a season or two down the line.

I reviewed Danny Boy by Kjersti Faret for The Comics Journal.


“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “1984″

Monday, August 4th, 2014

The final Halt and Catch Fire of Season One begins with the show’s single most likeable sequence: Things are tense in the Clark household, where Gordon and Donna have evidently not recovered from the COMDEX debacle. Dishes are washed, beers are drunk, TV is watched, all joylessly, silently. Finally, Gordon attempts to settle in on the couch where he’s been sleeping – but Donna has had enough. “Get in there!” she demands, directing Gordon to the bedroom she insists she’ll be sharing with him tonight. “I’m still very mad at you,” he replies, pointing at her, and surrendering. She giggles. They walk off to bed, Gordon stomping and swinging in faux-fury. The two of them have decided that their fight about Donna’s borderline infidelity and Gordon’s job-related neglect was about real issues – ones that pale in comparison to the even realer love and respect they share. As Donna puts it in code later in the episode, when Gordon presents her with the engagement-slash-decoder ring he promised her nine years back, “I darf you very gerp.”

The Gordon-Donna scenes in this late-blooming show’s season finale — ‘1984” — aren’t just the show’s most human moments to date. They echo the legendary Apple Super Bowl ad that gives the episode its title, and like the Cameron lookalike who smashes the oppressive IBM machine in that commercial, they represent the triumph of imagination, emotion, and empathy over cold hard calculation. Gone is the Halt that forced its characters into empty confrontations week in and week out to drum up drama on the cheap – the equivalent of the Cardiff Giant’s faster-cheaper computing model. In its place? A handsome, clean-shaven, confident, self-actualized Gordon, now head of the company where he was once just another face in the crowd. But more importantly, he’s a Gordon we actually give a shit about.

Much to my surprise, Halt and Catch Fire wound up being a pleasurable, emotionally sticky show — and it’s the rare prestige drama in which the women are happier and more fulfilled than the men. I reviewed its season finale for Rolling Stone.


“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “Guest”

Monday, August 4th, 2014

We also see Nora reject a number of possible paths to closure when she heads to Manhattan for a conference on Departure-related industries. This begins when a bro-tastic bereavement specialist — the one who works for the company that makes “Loved Ones” simulacra of departed family members for burials or cremations — comes on to her. She enjoys his hospitality suite and his attentions, admitting he’s not the soulless creep he might seem, and still chooses to make out with his real-doll doppelganger rather than the genuine douchebag article. Watching Nora writhe atop the mannequin is the series’ sexiest moment to date, and no wonder – here’s a person deriving an erotic charge from the very concept of closure, making a public show of pleasure out of something intended to be a private totem of grief.

Next, she blows up the spot of the activist/conspiracy theorist who impersonates her at the convention, and appears to blow off her warnings about the Department of Sudden Departures. That’s harder for the audience to do, of course; when she warns that the DSD’s “questionnaires are sent to incinerators outside of Tallahassee, Florida,” we know that the government’s burning much worse things than that. But she’s even harder on Patrick Johansen, the conference’s star attraction and author of What Comes Next, a self-help book for “legacies” of the Departed. Calling him a fraud who’s faking his grief, she drunkenly screams at him “What’s next? What’s fucking next? Nothing is next! Nothing!”

It’s this nihilism that attracts Holy Wayne’s acolyte to Nora. He knows she’s right about Johansen, because the writer didn’t work through his grief at all – he had it magically sucked out of him. And when Wayne meets Nora, the healer recognizes that she’s not rejecting happiness out of hopelessness, but because she does have hope — and she wants to get rid of it. “If [your pain] starts to slip away, you seek it out again, don’t you?” he asks her, knowing the answer is yes. “Hope. It’s your weakness. You want it gone because you don’t deserve it.” There’s a certain strain of depression that internalizes and personifies misfortune, that sees it as the natural state of things, that sees happiness as fraudulent in the face of the shortcomings the depressed person knows better than anyone. This is as accurate an encapsulation of that kind of depression as a TV show is likely to deliver.

Last night’s The Leftovers was smart about sex, depression, guilt, and grief — plus, tons of Carrie Coon as Nora Durst. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.


10 Biting Lessons We Learned from “Sharknado 2: The Second One”

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

4. Watching sharks attack annoying celebrities isn’t as much fun as you’d think.
When the first shark soars through the aisle of an airplane and bites off Kelly Osbourne’s head, it’s funny. When another one chows down on nerd-media icon Wil Wheaton, it’s amusing. By the time Perez Hilton shows up on a subway platform, you’re just counting down the seconds till an unconvincing splash of CGI bloodspray signals his departure from your TV screen. Hell, several of the most irritating d-listers who show up – Andy Dick, Billy Ray Cyrus, Subway’s Jared – don’t even give us the satisfaction of dying.

5. Watching sharks attack actually pretty cool celebrities isn’t that much fun either.
Shot on a shoestring and intended to be just another widget cranked out by the Syfy Originals schlock factory, the first Sharknado had a cast to match its ambition. When the dust settled and the sharks landed, it’s not like the careers of Ian Ziering and Tara Reid were gonna take a huge hit — only Sopranos and Home Alone veteran John Heard was gonna have to answer to his god for appearing in that thing. This time around? Comedians-slash-character-actors Richard Kind, Judd Hirsch, and Robert Klein all get fake shark blood on their hands, as do bona fide hip-hop legends Sandra “Pepa” Denton and Biz Markie. (Stick with Yo Gabba Gabba!, Biz.) If you’ve ever wanted to watch Robert Klein make stage chatter with WWE Superstar Kurt Angle while they play the Mayor of New York and the Chief of the FDNY respectively, or see Pepa get squashed by a whale shark while riding a Citibike, this is your big day, you weirdo.

6. The Today Show is awkward even when it’s being attacked by sharks.
Ukraine, Gaza, ebola, sharknado. In these troubled times, we turn to trusted news anchors like Matt Lauer, who has almost as much Sharknado 2 screentime as Tara Reid. At one point, he and genial weather guru Al Roker have a weirdly passive-aggressive back and forth about whether to call them “shark storms” or “sharknados,” arguably the most uncomfortable morning-TV moment since Lauer asked Anne Hathaway about her wardrobe malfunction. Later, the pair stab a shark to death live on camera, handling its exit just slightly better than Ann Curry’s.

As the world shakes off its collective Sharknado hangover, please allow me to help you make sense of it all over at Rolling Stone.


Comics Time: Configurations

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014
 I hesitate to use the formulation “more than just a comic” in describing “Configurations”, the recent webcomic series Aidan Koch published through TCJ contributor Frank Santoro’s Comics Workbook tumblr. Comics are whatever you put into them, and “Configurations,” certainly a comic, puts in plenty. But it feels less like a strip you read and more like a participatory event. It’s the rare experimental work that makes you feel as though you’re there in the lab with its creator, conducting that experiment yourself.  I reviewed “Configurations” by Aidan Koch, originally published in comicsworkbook, for The Comics Journal.

I hesitate to use the formulation “more than just a comic” in describing “Configurations”, the recent webcomic series Aidan Koch published through TCJ contributor Frank Santoro’s Comics Workbook tumblr. Comics are whatever you put into them, and “Configurations,” certainly a comic, puts in plenty. But it feels less like a strip you read and more like a participatory event. It’s the rare experimental work that makes you feel as though you’re there in the lab with its creator, conducting that experiment yourself.

I reviewed “Configurations” by Aidan Koch, originally published in comicsworkbook, for The Comics Journal.


“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Gladys”

Monday, July 28th, 2014

“I don’t understand your faith,” the Reverend tells the Guilty Remnant when he comes to their houses to pray for Gladys. “But I understand commitment, and I respect it.” His understanding and respect are undermined in the very next sentence, though: “But we are all of us, no matter how we’ve suffered, still alive.” As if they didn’t know! Rev. Jamison believes that by stripping away their friends, families, clothes, voices, even their health, they’ve cut themselves off from life itself. But to the GR, these acts of sacrifice are living. Whether they’ve chosen the slow-motion martyrdom of chainsmoking or had the fast track of stoning chosen for them like Gladys did, their sacrifices have made their individual lives literally the only thing they have to give anymore. What could be more valuable?

The episode itself implicitly sides against Rev. Jamison in this matter long before he even shows up. In its harrowing, unflinchingly gruesome stoning of Gladys, it forces us to witness every blow, every terrifying and disorienting moment of her abduction, every vulnerable and humiliating moment of her execution. Violence and gore on film are often held up as crass and dehumanizing — many examples of these things often are. But when done properly, their repulsive spectacle is as humanistic as filmmaking can get: This is how vulnerable we are as humans, and this is how incredibly wrong it is to exploit that vulnerability. In this sequence, The Leftovers sees Rev. Jamison’s claim that the GR are “already dead” and preemptively calls bullshit.

But it’s not just the value of life that martyrdom highlights – the martyr’s unique philosophy about life gets its shot at the spotlight as well. Such is the circular logic of martyrdom’s emotional appeal: If you are willing to die for something, you must have found something worth dying for, right? Whether it’s faith, family, country, or love, your devotion to that something is inarguable – and that’s the kind of connection, real and true and deep and meaningful, that everyone searches for in a world where such connections are so frequently shattered. That the GRs voluntarily did much of that shattering to themselves is immaterial. They found something that gave them meaning amid the meaninglessness, something so meaningful they’re willing to die for it as a demonstration.

That demonstration is the highest calling of the true believer, because it’s a way of demonstrating that there are, indeed, true things to believe in. Black-and-white thinking exerts a powerful attraction because it implies an order within the chaos: No matter what it looks like, there is a right thing and a wrong thing, there are ideas that are objectively correct and objectively false. The martyr makes the argument with her body that she has found the objectively correct position, and that it is now easier to die than knowingly embrace the false one. What a relief it must be to know you’re right about anything! We speak of the courage of our convictions, but the comfort of our convictions is just as important.

“Enjoy” is a weird word to use about tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, but it made me think hard about hard things, and I enjoyed it. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.


“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “Up Helly Aa”

Monday, July 28th, 2014

In a rare move for, well, pretty much any drama on television, Halt gave its characters a complex personal, professional, and perhaps even moral choice to make in which neither outcome was the clear-cut “right thing to do.” When Gordon guts Cameron’s forward-thinking, interactive OS to cut costs and increase speed, what should Joe do? Siding with Cameron would honor her genuine vision, preserve the one thing that made the Giant unique, keep the hope of an eventual reward for their cutting-edge tech alive, and maintain the romantic relationship that clearly matters a lot to both of them. But it would cost them the only competitive edges – speed and cost – that matter in the face of the Slingshot knockoff’s debut earlier that day, which in turn would cost them the entirety of Cardiff Electric. Fiction in general (and prestige TV dramas in particular) conditions us to root for the maverick, the underdog, and the visionary, so our initial inclination is to pull for Cameron. But Joe’s face as the elevator doors close on her speaks volumes. He knows that her computer would be better. But her better computer likely will never get the chance to exist unless they act now. And the sacrifice their love requires is too steep.

When we see the results of Joe’s decision play out on the convention floor, the issues remain just as complex. His speech about the reprogrammed Giant joylessly champions all-business values, at times echoing Alec Baldwin’s legendary Glengarry Glenn Ross monologue (“Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids”) in its cynicism and intensity. Finding Cameron’s ketchup stain on his notes would normally be a sign he’s about to have a change of heart; watching him power past his qualms, then quietly close the notes away in his briefcase undermines all the expectations a moment like that naturally raises.

Yet there’s genuine fervor in the speech – a chance for Joe’s skill as a salesman to shine, which is his art as much as coding is Cameron’s or engineering is Gordon’s and Donna’s. The presentation is a hit, scoring the Giant a big order with a major retailer. There are even personal victories to echo the loss of Cameron – a loss which, importantly, Joe and Gordon honor during their presentation. Joe’s decision may have cost him Cameron, but it made possible the rapprochement between Gordon and Donna, who at last is credited with her role in the computer’s creation. It also drove a stake through the heart of Hunt and Brian’s sleazy Slingshot project – which is a bit rich, given the similarly unscrupulous way Joe and the gang have gone about everything, but is no less satisfying for it.

In the end, Halt still sends signals that Joe made the wrong choice, if for the right reasons. He and the Clarks share the world’s saddest champagne toast, with the camera lingering on the popped bottle long after such shots normally cut away, transforming its celebratory effervescence into just a spill to be cleaned up. Gordon and Donna are back together, but the events of the day make their demeanor seem miles away from their sweetly sexed-up chemistry of the night before.

Tonight’s Halt and Catch Fire told a morally and emotionally sophisticated story with actual sophistication. I was really impressed. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.


Comics Time: This One Summer

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

At the beginning of This One Summer, its main character, Rose, splashes down into her bed, holding her nose and falling backwards as if leaping off a dock into the lake nearby. At the end she and a friend dig a hole in the beach big enough to contain her, and she lies in it, posing for her last picture of the summer — this is how she wants to remember it. In between, nature, as drawn with preposterous skill by Jillian Tamaki, proves capable of enveloping her without her help. Big summer-night skies, full of stars and moonlight. Bright summer sun, hanging overhead like it will never set again. Wet, heavy summer rain, seemingly just as endless, pouring into puddles drop after drop. Trees and vines and bushes and grass and undergrowth, verdant, overripe to the point of hysteria. The lake, which is alternately drawn dominating a spread vertically like a monolith, suspending the joyous bodies of tumbling teenagers in its inviting murk, and enveloping them like a sunlit shroud when they no longer wish to be found. Against this brush-stroke backdrop stand Rose and the other impeccably cartooned characters, whose stylized simplicity (relatively speaking; no sense that these are real people is lost) when juxtaposed with those wall-of-sound environments makes them feel like inner tubes bobbing in the water, or stones tossed in it. Immersion is This One Summer‘s strength, and it works alarmingly well for the story that cousin-collaborators Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki are telling. It’s a young-adult graphic novel, and young adults are constantly tossed into new circumstances by forces beyond their control, from puberty to parents. Out of their depth, do they sink or swim?

I reviewed This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki for The Comics Journal.